Sunday, September 17, 2017

Happy 74th Birthday, Mom.....Mom in the "Motherland that is Poland" Part I of II

Mom and I in front of Wawel Castle

First photo of ETC in Krakow
Smoked cheese ...artistically created

Florian Gate - one of the entrances to Old Town Krakow

Mom and Ziggy....Our guide, our friend and our guardian angel here in Krakow

ETC at the Tyriec Monastery...with cake :)

The Santa Marta cake only found at the Benedictine Tyriec Monastery
The soup is always yummy in Krakow...and the lattes, divine :)
The truth of the matter is Mom and I have planned to visit Poland many times over the past few years.  Even up until 10 days prior to our planned vacation LAST year, we thought we were going to Poland.  But somehow, something else always distracts us, being a great deal on a not-to-be-missed cruise or autumn foliage adventures or having to do loads of laundry (guess which comment is not true :) ).

The other factor that is the most honest but hardest to describe reason for not visiting Poland before is that we did not have THE feeling.  THE feeling is something very difficult to explain if your name is not Estelle.  We just know when it is time for us to visit a given location above all other places.  It speaks to us.  It is fair to say that for many years, we spoke to Poland but Poland did not speak back…until now.

Mom is 100% Polish so there is that element of wanting to visit a country that somewhere in its fabric has a piece of family history hiding here.  We won’t find it during this trip but we have seen evidence of it in little ways….be it a “Does anyone speak English?” moment in a supermarket (because I was sent on a mission to find chicken broth which is not easy when one does not speak the native language.  Did I cluck and mimic a chicken in the midst of the supermarket aisle?  I sure did because after the day that Mom had today, when she says she wants chicken broth, I will accept no limitations to acquiring said broth.”  People responded….and yes, of course, they laughed but it truly felt as if they were laughing with me (or I am kidding myself in a big way).  The moral of the story is that we have encountered warm and friendly people at every turn.  It is nice to know that from whence we come is from a land of genuinely good natured, fun loving, proud to be Polish, people.

As we sit on the precipice of Mom’s 74th birthday, I think to myself, “We all come from away.”  Many years ago I promised my Mom that we would always be in a foreign country for her birthday.  There is something very poignant and sweet and very emblematic of THE feeling in being able to give Mom the gift of a visit to her Motherland for this birthday. 

Krakow is a town where the first impression one has can not be anything other than….fantastic!  There is so much history. You can read about it in the latest Lonely Planet guide or do your research accordingly.  Our introduction to Krakow was on a uncharacteristically hot day (for September) a few days ago.  Krakow is definitely a walking town but as the sun beat down upon us it became very clear we weren’t walking anywhere except maybe back to grab a taxi back to the hotel .  Because we do have a lovely suite at the Hotel Kosciusko (yes, we may have chose this hotel because we like Kosciusko mustard but do not judge us!! :) ) and it makes for a perfect place to just relax at day’s end.  Peeking around a corner, I could see something in the distance that looked like the tail end of a golf cart…and a canopy that definitely had the word “Tour” on it.  Wherever God calls home in the 135 churches and 7 synagogues (and yes, there are some Orthodox places of worship as well but I do not remember how many or of which orthodoxy) of Krakow, I would like to say "Praise Jesus" :) right now because what to our wondering eyes should appear but an electric car with a driver named “Ziggy.” 

After much dialogue whilst standing in the shade on a corner in Old Town discussing everything from the documentary film Ziggy produced about Holocaust survivors to what brought us to Krakow on this particular day…and a deep discussion about the 10 words Mom remembers in Polish including words which loosely translate to, “Shut your mouth” (which comes in real handy in polite conversation), we decide that Ziggy is our guy.  He is the one that is meant to introduce us to the wonders of Krakow.  So we kidnap him for the day.  We zoom away (okay, that is an exaggeration as the electric car does not zoom. It does not go more than 10-15 miles per hour).

We see all the sites that Krakow is famous for from Wawel Castle to the National Museum to other museums to St. Ann’s Church and well, pick a church, any church to the Cloth Hall and Market Square.  One site is simply more beautiful than the next.  We stop at a public market where the combination of an elderly woman selling intricately carved smoked cheese whilst knitting woolen mittens just fascinates me.  We stumble upon a mass being offered at St. Ann’s.  We take in the Baroque and Rococo influences and the murals that surround as by the great Old Masters. We simply take a moment to just…be.

We taste pierogies (think potato dumplings which can be fried and stuffed with potato, cheese, meat or fruit); we try some goat cheese….and then we get kidnapped by Ziggy.  Turn about is fair play, I guess.

He asked us, “Would you like to see a monastery run by Benedictine Monks?”  Of course, we would. Off we go in our no-zoom, slower than molasses electric car, holding up traffic in some points and watching all sorts of cars whiz by us at other points.  We finally arrive at the Tyniec Monastery, a little slice of Heaven here on Earth (no pun intended).

Not only do the monks have a beautiful spot to do their monk-thing overlooking the river but they bake cakes!!  Yes, a Santa Marta cake that makes the best Devil’s Food Cake you have ever had taste like Play-Doh!! :)  They should call this cake Satan’s Cake because it defines temptation.  My diet went right out the window.  Combine it with a “divine” (get it?) cherry sauce and know that let there be no doubt, it is Heavenly Delicious :) 

Someone mentioned that the monks sing their Gregorian chants on occasion.  We inquired as to when.  The answer : “Now.”

As we walked into the church to listen to their comforting and relaxing chants, I thought to myself, “The time to be in Poland could never have been any other time than now.”

THE feeling is always correct and truly Heaven sent :)

Happy 74th Birthday, my Mama.  The real surprise comes the day after your birthday....stay tuned.  It promises to be "Great!" ....our new friend Ziggy's favorite expression :) 

Monday, July 24, 2017

"Do you want to go for a sleigh ride?"

....amongst elk herds in Wyoming?

Most of our mother/daughter travel adventures start off that simply.  I wish I could tell you that there was some sort of grand planning strategy but it usually just starts with a question. Mom says, "Yes" and off we go.

Here's the thing.  I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming a few weeks ago.  I could have taken the sleigh ride.  It's a one hour ride.  But I knew (because I just KNOW) if I came home and said to my Mom, "Look at these terrific pictures I took during my cool (literally, as the temperatures are hovering around 20 degrees in Jackson Hole this time of year) sleigh ride" that perhaps that would be the last time Mom would cook a meal for me or she would disown me at my tender age of 55 (56 years of age now as I wrote this back in March and have seen a birthday come and go since).

The National Elk Refuge is yet another spectacular national treasure.  It is part of the migratory path for about 9,000+ elk.  They are not at all fazed by the existence of the horse-drawn sleighs.  Or the tourists that oooohhhh and aaaahhhh at their collective majesty.

Now about attire for the sleigh ride - no joke - at a balmy 18 degrees with a bit of snow and a fair amount of wind - it's lovely that wool blankets are provided but out at the refuge, those blankets feel merely decorative.  Note:  Mom wore 2 pairs of socks, long silk underwear, 4 layers of shirts/sweaters, lined overcoat, gloves, a balaclava (not to be confused with baklava which is a honey-drenched dessert) and a hat.  I wore earmuffs, a heavy jacket with hood, a scarf, two pairs of gloves, two sweaters, tights, socks and boots.  We were both still feeling the chill in the air.  It's cold on the wide open range amidst the Grand Tetons but worth every shiver to see the elk sparring and posing and being elk-fabulous.

Do not let Wyoming fool you as there is so much more than elk to see!

We thought it was wonderful of a moose to be our informal welcoming committee of one to Jackson.  Shortly after we exited the Jackson Hole Airport (which is the only public airport, by the way, that sits in the midst of a National Park - who knew?!), our friend says, "There's a moose."  Being the New Yorker that I am (skepticism runs high), I thought maybe it was a fake moose placed strategically for effect.  But I am here to humbly say, this was an honest-to-goodness moose enjoying an afternoon meal of shrubbery.  Yum!!!

A drive out to Granite Creek found us indulging in the very cutting edge sport that is "non-mobile, stationary snowmobiling" :) where we blaze a trail to... nowhere!!  What?!  You've never heard of this sport?  Well, someone has to start a trend, right?  Just call us trendsetters.  We see quite a few deer - and they do have a specific name which eludes me right now at 6a.m. as I write this whilst working a red-eye flight home.  Being a city gal, I was just proud I recognized the four-legged creatures as deer.

There's lots of other wildlife; depending on your definition of wildlife from the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill at the historic Wort Hotel or the Cowboy Bar on the Square across from the iconic antler arches.  The elk naturally shed their beautiful antlers and the local Boy Scouts are the only ones allowed to collect them from the National Elk Refuge.

Bald eagle sightings? Check.

Deer sightings? Check.

Moose sightings? Check.

Elk sightings? Check.

Sheep sightings? Check.

So much more than a sleigh ride through the elk herds? Checkmate.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Part II - Yes, we know where the puffins are...but we have to do what to see them? - Adventures in Wales

"So how does this work exactly?  Do we buy boat tickets via an internet site or in person?  Where do we buy the boat tickets and how much are they?  And is the weather forecast predicted to cooperate?"

We have a lot of questions.  They are centered around the elusive puffins of Skomer Island, Wales.

"We have to be where at what time?!," I do a double-take at our hostess at the Allenbrook B&B as she tells us the facts of life as it relates to seeing the puffins.

"You may want to do a dry run tonight to see where you will have to line up to get tickets tomorrow.  This way you can just go there directly in the morning then come back for breakfast and then be on your way to Skomer," she suggests.

That sounds easy enough, doesn't it?

"What time does the hut open?,"  I ask, dreading the inevitable answer because anything before noon is just not my favorite part of the day.

"It opens at 8a.m. but people start lining up at 6a.m. because it is first come, first serve. " Limited amounts of tickets are sold per day.  Although three boats are scheduled to go back and forth to Skomer on a given day that can change at a moment's notice depending on the whims of Mother Nature.

I find it very hard to believe that people are going to line up in the middle of nowhere, outside a closed hut at the crack of dawn just to get boat tickets to see a bunch of birds.

Note to self:  I should not have found this hard to believe.

Mom and I do the dry run the night before.  It takes about 20 minutes to drive from our B&B to the hut.  Quite frankly, you know you drove too far if you end up in the ocean.  No joke.  Seriously.

Morning comes a little too soon but we are excited and wake up around 5a.m.-ish.  We are ready to go by 6:20a.m.  Most assuredly, we are guaranteed to be amongst the first in line.

Most assuredly - not.

I drop Mom off to secure our place in line.  Imagine this!!    There is a line already for the hut that does not open until 8a.m.  If you think we are the only puffin enthusiasts around, you would be sadly mistaken.

The hut is located on a rocky outcrop.  No protection from the elements.  It is a tad chilly, a tad windy and the sun is not fully up yet.  No one should ever have to be up before the sun is fully up!! I find myself thinking as I park the car, "This Skomer Island better have so many puffins that we lose count trying to count them all."

The hut personnel (sorry, but what does one call people who work inside a hut?) arrive early - yea!!  We buy our boat tickets.  We are numbers 7 and 8.  It turns out the boat is going to leave early due to impending inclement weather later.  So no going back for breakfast at the B&B (but to see puffins, I will gladly starve and catch up on sustenance later).  Oh, did I forget to mention that Skomer Island has no vending facilities, no cafes, no coffee shops but it does have Port-A-Potties.  Once again, Mom saves the day as she has a few Atkins shakes, some peanuts and some cheese in her knapsack. We will be fine.

It is a fine day for a boat ride.  75 passengers on the first boat over to Skomer.  I am still in shock that people are inclined to get up this early for a chance - no guarantees - of a visit to Skomer.  That is true dedication to a cause.

Approaching the island, we see lots of birds.  People who know their birds are shouting out, "Look, there's a kittiwake and linnet and guillemot" as they click away on their very professional looking cameras.  Mom and I are not taking many photos at this point because even with our 15 and 18 megapixel cameras, all the photos will look like is a whole lot of ocean, a whole lot of sky and some black dots.  I am delighted that everyone is seeing all these birds but I do not hear them shouting out, "Ooooh, look, there are 5,000 puffins."  I am mildly concerned because let it be said right now, we did not travel 6,000+ miles to see....whatever those other birds are that are not puffins. :)

As we get closer to Skomer, those black dots do become much more defined.

"Mom, look.....that's a puffin....and that's a ....puffin...and over there are a whole bunch of puffins and up on those rocks are more puffins."

Note to self:  Thank God the puffins are here.  I can not even imagine the alternative.  There is a moment of truth to every travel adventure.  Each of our trips always has a planned intention.  Seeing puffins was the planned intention for this trip.

We have arrived at the mother lode of all things puffin.  The rangers tell us about the wildlife to see on the island but we want them to stop talking so we can then be free to wander about the island for the next.... 5 hours.

"Five hours??!!  How are we going to manage to kill 5 hours on an uninhabited island?"

We managed....and wish we had more time.  It was simply not enough time to be amongst such beauty and all things puffin.

There is a sense of satisfaction when the planned intention of a trip becomes reality.  "We did it. Mom!!  We are here, seeing puffins."  The idea started with an article my Mom read a year prior but we turned that article into our reality.  How cool is that?  So cool.

Exploring the islands as we walk around and through fields of bluebells as far as the eye can see and red campion and flowers that I never found out the names of, I thought, "It is no wonder puffins mate here.  It is stunningly beautiful.  Can not blame the puffins for picking Skomer as their playground."

The "Wick" with its abundance of craggy, rocky outcrops and cliffs seems to be a particularly preferred spot for the puffins to congregate.  It also has one of the only benches to sit on around the whole island (one can not just sit on the ground because puffins like to burrow so one could end up crushing a burrow).

Mom breaks out the Atkins shakes - oh, and some coffee in a thermos and those snack packs of cheese and pepperoni (thank you forever Mom for being a Mom and having the foresight to bring provisions).  We picnic on the sole bench in the blustery wind with puffins running here and there, puffins flying above, swimming and diving below.  It is in this moment that Mom and I picnic ever!!

To think it started with, "Did you know they have puffins at this place called Skomer Island off the coast of Wales?"

"No, Mom.  I did not know that."

....but I am so happy and blessed to say we sure do know it now.     

Skomer Island? Where? And Why? To see Puffins, of course :)

Although my laptop chose today to breathe its last internet sigh....Mom saves the day with letting me access her photo files.  Enjoy the photos which can be found at the end of this story ....and as we are off on another travel adventure in the morning, I better get busy posting Part II of our Skomer Island/ puffin adventure....

I knew I was in trouble when Mom sent me an e-mail about an island called Skomer Island off the coast of Wales.

"Did you see the information I sent you about Skomer Island?,"  Mom asks me.  "They have puffins there."  Please allow me to translate this statement for you.  This is Mom-speak for, "We need to go see these puffins.  You need to figure out how to get us there."

And so it begins....

It is a little difficult to get a lot of detailed information about Skomer Island...or more to the point, how to get there.  It is not like the Staten Island Ferry where ferries run on a set schedule - rain or shine - and one just walks up, gets on the boat and goes.  No, this is very different.

Before we get to Skomer Island, we have a few other challenges to overcome.  We have spent a good portion of our vacation circling around in traffic roundabouts one too many times and trying to read directional signs that are either non-existent or hidden behind tree branches...but it is okay because we are traveling to a small town called Dale for a very specific reason.....

More specifically than trying to find the town of Dale, we ultimately need to reach an even smaller town called Martin Haven.  A little town where the road does end literally at the water's edge and at the launching area for boats to Skomer Island.  A little town that has nothing more than a parking lot, a boat launch and a hut run by the National Trust.  This hut is a pivotal part of the puffin story.

But back to trying to find the town of Dale because without Dale...we can not find Martin Haven...and without Martin Haven, we can not find the hut...and without the hut we can not buy the boat tickets to go see the puffins of Skomer Island.

The directions to Dale and our bed and breakfast accommodations went something like this..."Drive to Dale (only one road so we are good so far).  If you have gone past the hut where we usually start the dinghy races, you have gone too far."

Hhhhhmmm....Mom and I read the e-mail knowing before we even arrived close to Dale that we will get lost.  We know this because we have spent a good portion of our weeks in Wales getting lost.  Driving from Bristol, U.K. to Wales? Lost as we took the wrong bridge, crossing the wrong river in the wrong direction.  Trying to find our bed and breakfast accommodation in Bristol? Lost.  Trying to find our bed and breakfast accommodation in Parc le Breos on the Gower Peninsula ? Lost.  We have become so proficient at getting lost that if someone tells us it will only take one hour to get from point A to point B we allow three hours.

But back to gettting lost on our way to Dale.  We tried several times to explain to the proprietress of Allenbrook, the B&B where we would be staying in Dale if we can ever find it, that being that we are not locals and have never been to Dale, we would not have a clue as to where the dinghy races start.  We simply could not get better directions so off we went.  It's okay.  We have become rather joyfully accustomed to getting lost during this trip.

Now before you suggest GPS, know that we literally do not roll that way.  We like maps.  Yes, the old-fashioned ones that are made of paper and one actually folds.  I know, you have heard of them or seen them in museum exhibits.  I drive.  Mom navigates.  Our system works.  Usually.  To a point.

We do manage to get to Dale.  We stop at a terrific place (which ultimately became our dinner go-to place, our place called The Mooring Inn) to ask directions.  Whilst asking for directions, we inquire about dinner too.  I have to admit I am a little surprised when I am told that I need to make reservations for dinner.  My inner voice is thinking, "Why?  This is a very small town on the edge of the earth in the back of beyond.  Reservations, really?"  My outer voice says, "Okay, let me make a reservation" even though we still have not found our B&B nor have we figured out where the "dinghy hut" is so we still do not know if we have "gone too far" and granted we are running out of road options being at the water's edge here...but at least we have reservations for dinner.

The owner, Mike, gives us directions to the B&B but because the one road in town is a one-way road and yes, of course, we have passed the dinghy hut, we have to circle around the town again and re-enter it.  We do just that.  After about a 5 minute drive, we end up right back at the restaurant ! We try again one more time but this time I think, "No, not back at the restaurant a third time!"  I park the car on the side of the road, leave the car running and decide to explore the area on foot.  That's how I meet Tilly who is tending to her garden.

"I'm sorry to bother you but would you happen to know where the Allenbrook B&B is," I ask.

She says, "Oh wait let me ask my husband. Come on inside."

Okay: note to self.  Things that would never happen in NYC.  I will help a stranger with directions but you, stranger, are not coming into my house.

"Phil, do you know where Allenbrook is?  Isn't it down the road from the dinghy hut - down the road - but you can't go right but of you go about 50 yards or maybe it's 100 yards - the road where the Smith's live - you know where the garage used to be...."

Phil has no clue.

Tilly looks at me, starts to explain but it must be the look on my face as she says, "Where is your car?"

I tell her I parked at the end of her driveway.

"You know what?, Tilly says, "Come on.  I'll drive with you and get you there and walk back."

I am delighted by the kindness of strangers.

"Mom, this is Tilly.  Tilly, this is my Mom, Estelle," I say as we pile into the car.

Down the road - turn right at what we now know is the "dinghy hut", we arrive at our B&B.  That was a whole lot of lost.

But we arrived.  Thank you, Tilly.

In the midst of all that, we also worked  up quite an appetite.  Thank goodness we made reservations for dinner.  The Mooring Inn is packed upon our arrival - definitely a testimony to its excellent food (truly) but as we now know it is one of only two restaurants in town (I told you Dale is a small town).

It has so far taken two airplanes, two rental car moments, lots of "lost" time to arrive oh-so-close to the puffins of Skomer Island.  We are close but not quite there yet.

They better be home :)