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 :)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

It's going to be so much more than okay - The Adirondacks road trip - Part I

"Okay, I think I have our itinerary all figured out.  We can fly to Frankfurt then to Warsaw, spend a few days there and then take a train to Prague.  Yes, that will work," I say to my Mom with about 10 days to go until vacation.

"Okay," she says.

"Okay," I say.

And that's when I know, despite all the plans and research, something is definitely not okay.  It is difficult to explain to people how Mom and I decide on a particular vacation destination.  We do not have what one would call a very traditional (read as "normal") methodology for selecting a travel destination.  Sometimes we detour to see the World's Largest Potato when other people would just stay on the interstate.  Sometimes we detour because we see a sign that reads "Fussimanya" and we simply have to find out what a "Fussimanya" is (turns out it is both a beautiful town and an excellent restaurant in Spain).  Sometimes we just get a feeling; something that speaks to both of us.  We just hear a voice that lets us know to get excited because we are on the right track.

This time with the planned Eastern Europe trip, although we know we want to see this part of the world, the inner voices are ......silent.

This is many things but this is not "okay."

"Maybe we should head back to Micronesia.  We loved Yap.  We could explore some of the other islands out that way," I say sitting at the kitchen table waiting for that excited feeling.  I start researching and planning for travel to that part of the world.

"How does this all sound, Mom?  Maybe we can check out Palau and revisit Yap?"

"Okay.  Sounds good,"  Mom says.

For some inexplicable reason, it's not okay.  It's not good this time.

7 days and counting until vacation starts.

Maybe it is because we had such a perfect time from start to finish in May when we visited the United Kingdom, Scotland and the puffins of the Farne Islands.  Maybe it is because just a few weeks prior, we took the car and headed north from New York City, ended up kayaking in the Hudson River off the shore of Beacon, New York.  Maybe what we want is not to be found so far from home....

"Mom, how about a road trip?"

I think at last count I have been to 62 different countries. As for my Mom, I would have to recount the pins she has of the countries she has visited in her Map of the World.  I know her total is just a little less than mine.  Ask her and she can tell you the exact number.  Yet we can not say we have truly explored the small towns, 2,000 lakes and majestic mountains of the Adirondack region of New York State.

When I was younger (yes, a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the planet), Mom and I had visited Lake George.  We took one of the scenic boat tours.  Off in the distance was a building that seemed larger than life to me.  A beautiful, stately Victorian building which is the Sagamore Hotel at Bolton Landing.  The hotel actually sits on its own island in Lake George.Wow, when I grow up, I want to stay there.

Well, despite having a well-developed inner child personality, it is fair to say, I am about as grown up as I am going to ever be.

"Mom, how about a road trip....and lets stay at the Sagamore."

"Great!! Really? That sounds great," Mom says.

Great is so much better than okay.

We are excited.  Suddenly we can not pack fast enough.  The drive is fun.  It is an Indian Summer kind of day.  We arrive at Bolton Landing crossing the bridge over the Lake George waters which are sparkling just  to welcome us.  We drive up the long driveway and The Sagamore is still as regally impressive now as it was back in the day.  Heck, my classic Mercedes looks good in front of this hotel.  Everything about this feels way better than "okay."

Checking in was seamless.  Mom starts walking toward the rear portico (because a place like the Sagamore has porticos not porches :) off the lobby because there is an absolutely stunning sunset view of Lake George through  the glass multi-paned French doors.

"Mom, I need you to come here.  Please come sign this.  Right now."

"But I want to take pictures (when does my Mom not want to take photos?).  I'm going to miss the sunset!! Can't I sign whatever later??!!" she says as she starts making her way toward....


"Happy Birthday!!!" says our friend Chip who drove all the way from Long Island to Lake George (a 6 hour drive easily) to surprise my Mom.

Now that's love and the perfect start to a vacation that is so much more than "okay."      

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is it a puffin? Is it a puppet? - The Farne Islands/United Kingdom

You've Got Mail” seems like an innocent phrase. Checking my in-box, I see I have an article from Mom about the puffins that like to call the Farne Islands home for a few months out of the year from late April to sometime in June.

Where are these Farne Islands, Mom?,” I ask her across the kitchen table because for some reason a lot of our Where Are We Traveling to Next conversations just happen to take place at said table.

Turns out the Farne Islands sit off the eastern coast of the United Kingdom kind of close to the Scottish border but officially in the U.K. The islands belong to the National Trust. Other than a lighthouse that houses some park rangers, the islands are least by humans.

And so it begins. The Quest to See the Puffins of the Farne Islands.

Mom loves puffins. I love puffins.  I even like cereal called Puffins (not made out of puffins. mind you.  They have a picture of a puffin on the box.  If one collects the bar codes from Barbara's Puffins cereal one can adopt a puffin.  Check it out.) Puffins are  undeniably adorable.   Because they are adorable, we plan a vacation around seeing them. There does not need to be another reason.   I thought that when we traveled to another uninhabited island a few years ago off the coast of Ireland called Skellig Michael to see puffins, that would be the end of the puffin-quest.  After all, we saw puffins there.   But there was a problem and that problem has been brewing for almost 3 years now.   I made the very tactical error of taking a photo of a puffin that has been referred to as “The Quintessential Puffin Photo.”  This puffin appeared out of the craggy rocks before me and then proceeded to pose so I could get some terrific close-up photos. The puffin turned a little to the left, a little to the right, stood patiently whilst I clicked away.   It was a photo shoot extraordinaire. I knew when I finished taking the photos that somehow this would come back to haunt me. Mom had already started to make her way back down to the boat ( you would have to read the story in the Ireland blog about the rest of that adventure) so she was not nearby. The fact that I, not she, took that photo has been an issue.   Oh, yes, believe it.   She wants the opportunity to take her own “Quintessential Puffin Photo.” Perhaps the Farne Islands will be an opportunity to correct this injustice. :)

Puffins seem to choose rather elusive places to court and mate. We do our research which results in the following. We fly to Edinburgh, Scotland, rent a car, drive across the Scotland/U.K. Border, drive through the region of Northumberland and arrive in a town called Seahouses where we will be staying for a few nights. It is from Seahouses that we will take a boat to the puffins of the Farne Islands. Not sure exactly which day we will be taking the boat because it depends on weather and tides but we will leave that up to our local advisers to decide.

(We are also very excited at the prospect of donning our "The Puffies" pins.  Special ordered...they have our names and yes, Mom, Linda and I for this trip are lovingly known and pinned as The Puffies.)  

Let me back up a bit more at this point in our story. We are in Seahouses in the month of May. Seahouses is a quaint, backwater town. It has a few shops selling puffin related souvenirs, an ice cream shop that has been there forever and an assortment of restaurants most with a nautical theme but one Italian place called Elan which had a yummy pizza made with Peking duck.   I know.   A Peking Duck pizza in an Italian restaurant in a little sleepy town in the U.K. Who would have imagined that?  It also has the place that we called home for a few days, St. Cuthbert's House.

St. Cuthbert's House used to be a church. The current owners, Jeff and Jill transformed it into a rather posh place to stay. I wrote a review on TripAdviser which goes into great detail.  I mention this here because back in January, Mom and I were having another one of the our kitchen table conversations ….

Mom: “ Don't you think you should contact..what's the name of that place? St. Something Church and make reservations?” (Remember it is January; we are traveling in May)

Me: “Mom, come on. Really? Who is going to be traveling to the back of beyond to stay in some renovated church to then go see some puffins? I do not think the whole world is going to be flocking (get it?) to Seahouses. I am sure we have time to make our reservations. Geez....”

I eat crow (yet another bird reference. Are you with me here with the bird humor?). To my credit, because I have to retain some sense of dignity, I do contact St. Cuthbert's House in January shortly after my conversation with Mom because although I protest a lot, I usually follow her advice.

Yes, we can certainly accommodate your request to stay at St. Cuthbert's,”  Jeff tells me, “with the exception of the last 2 days that you would like to stay here as we are already fully booked .”

Okay: sidebar time. Fully booked? How? Who else could possibly know about this place? I had never even heard of the Farne Islands or the town of Seahouses for my 52+ years on the planet so how could anyone else know of their existences?!   Well, evidently lots of people from birdwatchers, wildlife lovers, researchers, people who simply love the seaside, people who love this part of the world so much they return to visit on a yearly basis. They all know about this area of the world. I seem to be the last to know. Thankfully, we can stay at St. Cuthbert's for four days of our requested six. So I only had to eat crow partially.

Upon our arrival at St. Cuthbert's after settling in to our lovely accommodations (our room has a chandelier and girlie pillows and brocade patterned bedding...happiness), we have to ask Jeff and Jill the all-important question...the reason for the journey...

Have the puffins arrived on the Farne Islands?'

Cue the music. Long suspenseful moment....

Yes, there are thousands of them by all reports. They have arrived,” Jeff tells us. “As a matter of fact, I have taken the liberty of arranging tickets for you on Captain Mike's boat tomorrow at noontime if that will be okay with you”.

Oh, it's more than okay. We (we being Mom, myself and our friend from Linda who has joined us from where she resides outside of London for Puffin-Quest 2014) are so excited to know that we did it. We made it this far and will actually see the puffins.

It sounds so cliché to say it was a beautiful, sunny day but here I go. It was a beautiful, sunny, perfect day to sail to the Farne Islands. Picture perfect weather is not always easy to come by in the U.K. but we were blessed.

As we sail by the island of Inner Farne or maybe it was Outer Farne...I get the Farnes confused, we see all kinds of wildlife from guillemots to shags to grey seals and their pups. I shout out, “Look Mom, a puffin.” She just shakes her head because the puffin I am pointing out is at the end of my hand in the form of a puffin puppet. (I had to have a Plan B in case this trip did not go as anticipated and yes, the puppet is my pathetic Plan B).

We arrive at our destination. We disembark. The cacophony of bird sounds leaves no doubt that we have arrived. The sounds are mostly coming from arctic terns who are also nesting and mating and they are everywhere. They are beautiful birds too but I'm sorry...we are here to see puffins. We see lots...thousands truly...of all kinds of birds as we walk along....and yes, they are lovely but....

Oooohhhh, what's that I see? Over there...Mom, Mom, Mom....look...”

But I am too late. She is already in the midst of taking photos of the first of hundreds (dare I say thousands?) of puffins we see. They are everywhere. Amongst the crags of the grassy land where they like to make their burrows to nest, along the cliff sides, on the rooftop of the lighthouse, bobbing in the waters, flying here there and everywhere, preening, posing, playing.

We have arrived.

The puffins have arrived.

The camera is getting quite a workout as Mom clicks away.

Mom, you may not want to get that close to those eggs,” I say as Mom is taking some photos of the eggs belonging to the arctic terns.

It's okay. I'm being careful. I'm not.....” As she is talking, a protective arctic tern, probably Daddy Tern, dive bombs ME (maybe because I am taller than Mom so he got to me first) and pecks my head as if to say, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”   It is like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds here.   I say out loud, “Hey, bird, that is not fair. I am not the one taking the photos and getting too close to the eggs!!”

Mom gets her photos. I get bird-pecked. The perfect vacation. 

It is fair to say the Mom does get more than one “Quintessential Puffin Photo” that day.

I sigh with relief.
I smile.  I quietly and with confidence think I can put away the puffin puppet for now.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Road Traveled Over...And Over...And Over Again in Spain

I think this series of stories needs a disclaimer of sorts.  Here it is:  Mom and I had a plan once we left Barcelona and managed to navigate our way out of the city limits of Barcelona.  Even getting the car out of the parking garage was an event.  Who knew that there was a huge parking garage underneath the Plaza de Cathedral which, mind you, was right outside of the Hotel Colon where we stayed. Never knew that until the car rental representative was kind enough to park it there, conveniently, one would think. But there is the paying for the parking at the automated machine, having the correct amount of euros, and then trying to figure out which exit will point us in the right direction...oh, heck, any sign that translates to Exit will do us just fine.  We will figure it out when we surface to street level which opens right into the far end of the Plaza de Cathedral with more pedestrians that I care to interact with during my first foray driving a stick-shift car in Spain.  I want to shout out, "Watch out pedestrians.  Driver here that is a little rusty when it comes to driving stick-shift and directionally-challenged right now. Cross in front of our car at your own risk". 

Yes, we had an itinerary of places to see and things to do.  We knew that Andorra (a country Mom has not visited so it would give her an opportunity to put yet another stick pin in her World Map poster of Countries-She-Has-Visited) beckoned to the North.  We knew that we could explore the coastal towns of Cadeques and Figueres with its Gaudi-inspired influences. We could visit inland hill towns with their medieval ambiance such as Tarragona and Zaragona; basically any town that ended in gona.  After all, have car, will travel.

How many of those planned locales did we see?




...and yet we saw more than we planned.

"I give up.  It's time to stop and ask someone for directions.  We're lost", I say with a fair amount of impatience combined with exasperation in my voice as I swerve our rental car into a parking space that I know is illegal.  I am frustrated at no one in particular but before we get ourselves into an accident the best thing to do is just...stop.

It is 95 degrees in the shade today on this uncharacteristically hot September day in Spain.  We are in the town of Vic located about 75 miles northwest of Barcelona.  This much we do know.  We have no GPS.  Purposely.  I wouldn't exactly say we like getting lost but here's what relying on a map and a prayer gets us.  We meet people.  Getting to a location becomes an adventure.  We also rely on instinct.  Sometimes that instinct works; other times we end up on an alternate route where we can at least stop the car and see Andorra in the distance or pass through quaint hillside towns dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries such as l'Estany and St. Eulalia.   Never mind the fact that neither Mom or I know how to use the GPS.  We would spend more time arguing and trying to figure out how to use it, night would fall and we would end up having to sleep in our car having gone nowhere.

"Mom, you stay with the car." I tell her simultaneously hoping she does not realize I have parked us in an illegal spot.  She is no dummy; she knows.  She also knows we have been circling down and around the same streets for about 30 minutes so she knows I'm done.  These formally medieval towns in Spain have some common characteristics.  They are designed to be confusing.  They were designed to keep invaders out and keep the residents safe.  Fast forward to 2013?  I am not an invader.  I promise.  But these medieval walls that still exist in these towns make it not only hard to drive into town but once inside the walls, makes it hard to find a way out.  Ugh!!  Double ugh!!

I start walking with the intention of finding someone whose cell phone I can use.  I always offer to pay for the call.  I simply want to call the parador where we are meant to be staying and get directions.  This will be a little challenging because yes, I know we are in the town of Vic but I can not find any street signs to explain where in Vic we are.  Oops, I forgot to mention.  We had directions to get to the parador but those directions were based on us staying on the main highway.  Our decision to take the more through-the-little-towns route has rendered our original directions useless. 

Did I mention how hot it is?

Why is everything closed?  Stores.  Cafes.  The streets are so empty it has that ghost town feeling.  It is 1:30 in the afternoon...siesta time but usually even during the break time of 1:00p.m-4p.m. there are eateries and cafes open.  But today? Nothing....and I just keep walking.  I later find out that it is a regional holiday so everyone has the day off.

Finally, an open coffee shop.  I tell the servers my tale of woe.

"Could I use your phone to make a call to Parador Vic?"  The gentleman says yes.  He also does not leave my side whilst I have the cell phone in my hand.  Maybe he thinks I made this whole story up to steal his phone.  But all the people in Spain throughout our trip have been so kind to us, I would prefer to think he stayed close to offer further help if need be.

He would accept no money so I thank him and with new directions in hand, I head back out into the hot, blazing sun-baked streets of Vic.  "Back to the car I I go," I think to myself as I realize, "Wow, I walked far".  I didn't pay much attention to where I turned right and when I decided to turn left.  The old-world charm of Vic suddenly feels like a rather complicated labyrinth of alleyways and narrow-cobblestoned streets.

I look up and whisper to no one in particular, "Where did I leave my Mommy?"  As I turn the next corner, I see the car.  I also see two police officers walking ahead of me. I rush to catch up with them.

"Excuse me, gentlemen.  Could I ask you a question?" Time to clarify that all these conversations that I have mentioned have been taking place in Spanish.  Yes, I speak Spanish.  Castilian Spanish.  The region where we are traveling? The Spanish being spoken is Catalan.  Distinctly different. To me, it is unrecognizable in comparison to the version of Spanish I know.  What I am very grateful for is that not only have the people of Spain been very kind and friendly to Mom and I but every person I interacted with, without exception, as soon as they realized I did not understand Catalan Spanish immediately switched to Castilian Spanish so I could understand them....including the police officers.

"Certainly. How can we help?", they ask as all three of us are walking toward the rental car.

"I would just like to make sure I have the correct directions to Parador Vic," I explain, adding that my Mom has been waiting for probably an hour in the car.

"Do you know Parador Vic", I ask them.  They then speak the only English words I heard from them during our entire conversation.

"It is fantastic".

I think to myself, "Thank God.  Now if we can just find it".

I make my way back into the driver's seat, introduce Mom to the police officers, make a show of fastening my seat belt (never mind the fact that I am illegally parked), lean over and tell Mom, "They know Parador Vic.  They say it is fantastic".  I roll down the driver's side window so the police officers can give me their directions.

"From here you go up the street, take your 1st right, then go to the traffic light then..."  Did I mention - a handsome - very handsome police officer tells me all this?

Maybe my eyes started to glaze over.  Maybe it was when I said to him, "I think I am about to cry.  Really.  I live in New York City with 8 million other people.  I manage to get around just fine yet I can not manage to find my way around this small town.  I know it should not be this complicated.  And I feel bad that I have had my Mom waiting all this time".

The other - did I mention both police officers were handsome - officer says, "No, we can not let you cry.  How about if you follow us.  We will take you to the road that will lead to the parador".

That's sounds like the best idea ever.  They climb onto their motorcycles.  We are now being police escorted out of town. 

"No one is going to believe this," Mom says.  "Only you would manage to get us a police escort", she says as we both giggle because remember, we do have a rather good-looking police escort too. :) :)

One would think the story would end here.  Oh no, they being municipal police officers could only ride as far as the town line.  We know we are meant to follow a sign we will see that we are told will read Parador Vic.  What we are not told is that the full name of the parador is Parador de Turismo de Vic-Sau.  Here's the problem...for example, in NYC there is the RFK Bridge...all the road signs refer to it as the RFK Bridge but we New Yorkers? We call it the Triborough Bridge.  Always have; always will.  Now apply that phenomena to Parador Vic.

Please do not ask how many times we passed the sign where we were meant to turn toward the parador (8 times??!!)  I knew we had gone too far when we saw a black and white town sign for La Roca de Ter.  I knew we had truly gone way too far when I saw another sign for La Roca de Ter with a big red line diagonally across it which meant we were now leaving this town.  Oops, we need to turn around and go back toward Vic.

We see the Parador de Turismo de Vic-Sau - 10km sign.....again .

"Mom, I am not exactly sure but I think that's OUR sign.  What the hell...we've tried every other road so..." Up we drive past the hillside towns of Tavernoles and another town that starts with the letter F which we called Frijoles and a sign for Fussimanya which we called Fussy Manana or Fujiyama depending on the day.

"We have to check out these towns", Mom said. "but we have to find the parador first".

"You think this is it?", we said together as we see a large stone building surrounded by flowers, terraces sitting across from a gorgeous canyon with a beautiful body of water which we later found out was a reservoir.  To me, it looked like a mini-Grand Canyon...truly.

"This better be it because this is the end of the road." I laughed.

Yes, we could have taken the more direct highway route with the instructions we were originally given.  No one forced us to veer off the highway because we saw a sign indicating there was a church...up there, that way.  We knew we would be going off the beaten path.  We do this more often that not . It is all my Mom's fault :).  Sometimes it is the road less traveled that is most rewarding.  Sometimes it is the road that is traveled over and over and over again that reaps the best reward.

We check-in, get our room keys and make our way to our room...and directly to our terrace.  We collapse into the chairs on the terrace.  There is a collective sigh as we gaze upon our reward...a brilliant, unobstructed, gorgeous view of the mini-Grand Canyon with the sun glistening on the water.....nice.....

"How about some café lattes from room service, Mom?"

"Sounds good, kid".

"Wait I have snacks - biscotti and cookies from Montserrat", I add.

"....and I have fruit, ham, cheese and bread from Manresa", Mom says.

The treasures from our prior travels to Vic...the fruits of our labor...the spoils of our victory!!

"Oh, and we have the pastries from our favorite pastry shop too  so we are good".  There will be time later to drive back down into town and stock up on necessities. We will certainly know how to find town.  Maybe.

But for now, in this moment, we are exactly where we are meant to be ...and we ain't moving :)

I think it was only 30 miles from Manresa, where we started this day, to Vic.  It should take at the most 30-40 minutes.  How long did it take us?  3 1/2 hours?  Easier roads we could have traveled.  We could have let technology lead the way.  But then it would have been just another Monday to just another destination.

This way?  Well, let me start from the beginning again....We had a plan....we always have a plan.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Great Connecticut Chicken Coop Caper

“Just remember to close the door to the chicken coop behind you so the chickens don’t get out when you do not want them to do so”, our friend Matthew instructs us as he gives Mom and I our tending-to-the-chickens-and-rooster tutorial.

I silently think to myself, “Come on, of course, I would close the door behind me. Don’t be silly, Matthew. I know I am a city gal but even I can figure that out.”

More sage and fortuitous words have never been spoken but I did not know this at the time.

Heavy sigh.

Our story starts out innocently enough. Mom and I (okay, actually Mom…I just wormed my way into an invitation) are invited to house-sit for our friends John and Matthew for one week in Connecticut. Their house is a quintessential New England white house with lovely dark green shutters. The gardens are a bloom with flowers from azaleas to zinnias…and grapevines and lilies and phlox. There are birdbaths with birds actually bathing. Gold finch, cardinals, woodpeckers and blue jays make daily repeated appearances at the bird feeder adjacent to the kitchen window. Hummingbirds flit around the trumpet flowers and butterflies and bumblebees are prolific. Their home and gardens look as if they were torn out of a magazine spread from Better Homes and Gardens. Who wouldn’t want to housesit?

The day of reckoning...the scene of the crime started off innocently enough. A gorgeous sunny day - not a cloud in the sky. Mother Nature showing off all her splendor. “Would you like eggs for breakfast…a mushroom omelette?,” Mom asks. Considering after Day 1 of house and chicken coop responsibilities, we have collected 3 eggs, that sounds great.

Collecting the eggs? Very easy. Things I learned that I did not know before? Hens can lay an egg about once every 25 hours.

Roosters can be selfish and nasty and surly.

Chickens, with brains the size of a pea, are not the brightest creatures on the planet and tend to be forgetful - more about that later.

“Sure, a mushroom omelette sounds good,” I say “Should we eat out on the back porch?”

“Oh, I forgot we can eat outside”, Mom says as we start carrying out our breakfast plates and coffee to the back porch table that overlooks those beautiful gardens.

“This is great, isn’t it?, Mom tells me between bites of multi-grain toast with lots of butter.

“Well, it certainly is a bit different from our view at home of fire escapes across the way strewn with old air conditioners, garbage bags and a tattered, weather-worn Puerto Rican flag’”.

“Living the dream, Mom. We are living the dream,” I laugh as we finish breakfast. There is something to be said for starting one’s day wondering whether one should dine on the back porch complete with garden views and bunny rabbit sightings or front porch where one can watch joggers run by or side porch where the hummingbird show often takes place.

The rest of the day passes uneventfully. We run a few errands and little do I know my life is going to be inextricably altered by nightfall.

“I’m going to let the chickens out now”, Mom tells me. Next thing I know 13 chickens and 1 rooster are running around the garden. They run, chase after each other under and around the bushes and create playful mayhem. As dusk starts to settle in, being helpful like I sometimes can be, the following fateful statement comes out of my mouth….

“Mom, I’m going to go to the chicken coop to bring the chickens in for the night”. Cue the ominous music, please.

“Okay,” she responds, “Just make sure you have all 14 of them”.

“Don’t worry - I’ll just have them line up and count off - military style”, I say as I make my way to the coop.

The chicken coop structure, if it was done up to accommodate people, would easily pass for a luxury studio apartment in N.Y.C. It is a beautiful wooden structure with a fan so the chickens are cool and comfortable during the warmer days of summer and has indoor lighting and a swimming pool (okay, I am kidding about the swimming pool), is surrounded by beautiful flowers..right now, multi-colored zinnias in abundance and a vegetable garden with tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, radicchio and more - It’s the crème de la crème of chicken coops - and all the food, treats and water a chicken could dream of ….that is, if chickens dream.

“Okay, everyone - time to come inside”. I say this out loud, truly believing that the chickens must understand. 10 of them come running in through the chicken entrance/exit to the coop and start to settle in…..Excellent progress, I think. This could not be easier. One of the hens, Gertrude, never even left the coop because she is in Mommy mode. Granted she is not sitting on an egg but two of the smaller hens let Gertrude sit on them for hours on end, letting her pretend that she is the Mom and that they, these fully-grown chickens are her children. I am not sure if this is unconditional love or extraordinary delusion but there you have it.

As the chickens enter through their chicken door, I enter through the, lets call it the people door at the front entrance. I leave the “people” door wide open as I count the chickens 10.…11.…12...13.…
Oh, &$#@, as oh yes, I have 14 chickens present and accounted for except that one has now entered through the “people door” and flown up to the top of the chicken coop out of the reach of...well, me.

More things I did not know about chickens that I know now?

They can fly - high enough to be out of reach. But surely if “she” flew up - and if it is true that what goes up must come down then this is just a temporary dilemma, right?

“She” has now found a happy place between the top of the wire mesh roofing of the chicken coop and the wooden rafters of the chicken coop enclosure. It is a no-man’s land where no mere human can reach. I find a broom and think, “I’ll just swat her back down to ground level” or she can climb onto the broom and I will lower her back down. “She” flew up there so just fly back down!

Another thing I now know about chickens that I did not know before…Chickens forget. It is fair to say that although “She” flew 20 minutes ago, she has now forgotten that she knows how to fly.

It becomes a game of tag as all “She” does is run from one side of the roof to the other and back again. I get up on a chair. Yes, I suppose I could just reach out and grab her but I am too chicken to do so. I now understand how that phrase came to be.

Now Mom comes out to the chicken coop. Without her saying a word, I can read her mind.... “Matthew did tell you to close the door behind you so this very thing wouldn’t happen”. Mom puts some food and water where “She” can get to it and calls it a night. “She” will come down when she’s hungry.

The next morning, “She” is frolicking on the floor of the structure…eating, drinking water, clucking with her friends but as soon as Mom comes close to the coop, up “She” flies to the rafters again. “She” has also been kind enough to leave evidence of her lofty night’s stay as “She” has laid an egg - literally - that is now sitting on the top of the chicken coop mesh roof. I am not sure any human being can reach the egg but there it is for all to see - mocking me in a way. I have been outfoxed by a chicken. I will never live this down.

Mom does try motivating her to move by poking a closed umbrella through the chicken wire. All that accomplishes is that we now owe John and Matthew a new umbrella.

It is fair to say that there is a certain tension in the air on what is now Day 2 of the Great Connecticut Chicken Caper. Here we are in this bucolic setting but oooohhh, things are not feeling very idyllic. Our friends have entrusted us with certain responsibilities. I have screwed up. I know it. Mom does not want John and Matthew to come home to a chicken that, although “She” has not flown the coop, she has certainly flown “up” it. I need to correct this…now.

Mom, exercising incredible restraint, finally says what I already know, “Well, if you hadn’t left the door open…..”

Up to now, I have tried asking any of our Connecticut friends to come over, grab the chicken and put her back in her proper place. I figure it must be in every rural/country person’s DNA to be able to grab a chicken. Really, I believe this to be true J . They all agree it would be easy but do not think it is that big a deal; after all, “She” is eating and drinking and safe. But I was taught that if one is a guest in someone’s home, one is meant to leave things as they were found or even better. To simply leave “She” there until Matthew and John return home is not an option. Mom taught me well.

What to do?

Dropping off Mom to visit with her brother around lunchtime, I tell her, “I am not coming back to pick you up until “She” is back in her proper place.” I can’t handle the chicken stress longer.

First stop? An animal hospital. Closed on Sundays.

Second stop? Applegate Farms. Closed.

Third stop? Come on, I am in rural Connecticut. There has to be a farm somewhere. I wish I could say I have a more definitive plan but I don’t. I just start driving. I do not have a plan other than divine intervention. I assume a big neon sign will magically appear that says, “Chicken-Catchers-R-Us”.

Driving down yet another country road, I see a barn. A beautiful, red painted, weather-worn, haystack-laden, bona fide barn. There are two men standing outside of the barn. Whether true or not, I have decided that they have to be chicken farmers and they love catching wayward chickens. Stopping my car, I bring the window down…

“Excuse me, I know this is going to sound strange but….” and I tell them my tale of chicken woe. How I am house-sitting, I have a Mom who is going through chicken coop stress because of me. I am a city person who is too chicken to touch a live chicken and can you help me?

Bill of Hickory Ledges Farm turns out to be my chicken coop guardian angel as he says, “Is that the house with the beautiful garden that was part of the Garden Conservancy tour a few weeks ago?”

“Oh, yes - one and the same”.

“I’ll be down in a few minutes”, he tells me. Those words are music to my ears. I drive back to the house. Bill is there mere moments afterwards.

“I didn’t know there’s a chicken coop here. Where is it?” he says as we walk toward the chicken condominium.

“Right here”.

“Nice coop,” he mentions as he enters the coop. “She” is playing on the floor. No time to fly back into the rafters this time. Bill grabs her and pops her back into her proper place in the coop in about 30 seconds flat.

“Oh wow. Thank you so much. Can I pay you? You have no idea ….”

“No, don’t worry about it. No problem. You’d be surprised how often stuff like this happens”.

I think to myself - maybe in these parts - but not in Brooklyn.

“Do you need some eggs, Bill?”, I say laughing because I certainly know where to find at least one as I point out the one that “She” laid on the roof.

“No, I have enough of those”, he laughs as he waves good bye.

I call my Mom and with joy announce, “Mom, the chicken has been re-cooped”.

“Thank goodness but how did you manage that?”

…and I tell her, “Well, I started driving down this country road and a farm found me and….”