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Imagine a world with no limits...what would you eat? Where would you go to eat? Who would you share these Divine Delights with? ...Read More

Wine

From young root clippings in dry, arduous conditions to fruit bursting with the essence of the surrounding countryside, grapes are cultivated over a long period of time to bring you an explosion of sensory impact...Read More

Art

Where does inspiration come from? Travel has always been a vehicle to carry an artist off in a new direction. Travel, it has been said, purifies the mind, body and soul.Read More

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Buried Treasure of the Fortified Church at Heltau

Courtyard at Heltau

Courtyard of the fortified church at Heltau

As is often true in Romania, many of the sights have dramatic stories that are clothed in myth.  During our visit in Transylvania in September 2010 we were taken to the town of Cisnadie to see the fortified church, which may date back to the 12th century.  Cisnadie was also known as Heltau by the Saxons, and the town itself is now in effect a suburb of Sibiu and site for construction of beautiful second homes in the countryside.  (Apparently Prince Charles picked up a nice little estate somewhere in the area.)  The history includes destruction by the Ottomans, plagues, a major textile factory and guild, and deportations by the Nazis during World War II.  In this view (above) of the enclosed courtyard, you can see an exhibition of photos of the elderly — we were told that these were grandmas and grandpas left behind by recent immigrations of younger people to the west, mainly for jobs.  Many of the elderly are now alone and have no one to care for them.  The courtyard already has a haunted feeling, and it seemed fitting to remember these still living souls who are suffering from years of political upheavals in the region.

Church tower of Heltau with lightening rod

The guide paused by this church tower to tell us the story of its lightning rod.  It was introduced in the late 1700s and was first considered unnecessary and possibly sacrilegious until lightning actually struck in 1797, and then the church elders decided it was wise to keep it after all.

The most exotic story revolved around the buried treasure of Heltau, which was hidden for hundreds of years in a secret chamber under the church.  We were told that only one person in town ever knew where the treasure was buried, and that he or she would tell someone else before they died.  Our guide said this tradition was carried on successfully until the Nazis arrived, and then the treasure was removed for safekeeping at the Brukenthal museum in Sibiu, where it still can be viewed.  ( We had to wonder: was it really safer in a museum?)

This last image of an altar relic was probably taken at Heltau, and I include it because of its beauty, but also because of the Moses with horns (left).  The last one I saw was the Michelangelo statue in Rome, and they always make me chuckle.

Interpreting India’s Caste System

In Egypt, we were constantly approached by beggars asking for “baksheesh”.  The people would create a situation which would enable them to receive a tip.  For example, one removed Steve’s sunglasses from his daypack, dropped them to the ground, and then offered them back to Steve for money.  Men commented, because he was traveling with 2 sisters “You are a rich man, you have two wives!”  Islam demands that riches be given to the poor in some measure, and he was constantly told this.

We didn’t know how Hindus would behave.  In a greatly simplified synopsis given to us by one of our guides, a caste system has grown up over the centuries.  It was originated as a way to direct kids into the proper job category, and it has now ossified.  It used to be that any bright kid would be directed to the priesthood, etc.,   Now there are many sub-castes.  But there are 4 main ones:

1.  Brahmin – originally priests, teachers, intellectuals
2.  Warrior – military, strong physically, leaders
3.  Merchants
4.  Low caste – cremate dead, clean, serve

In America, all the Indians we have ever known have been of the economist/engineer/computer scientist/doctor caste.  We have been impressed with their high intelligence, warmth, integrity and technical competence.  So, we were interested in seeing if the people here (in India) resemble the Indians we know and love.

They do not.  That is because, for the most part, we are colliding against the merchant/lower beggar class.  It seems to us that 80% of India belongs to this caste!  And we’ve taken to calling this army of touts, beggars, snake charmers, tourist guides, bellhops, maids, musicians, vendors, toilet attendants, tuk-tuk drivers, auto rickshaw cyclists, massage therapists, henna artists, elephant drivers, jeep jockeys, game guides….”The Venal Caste”!

Although we have paid (through the nose) for this tour in advance, in this culture, that is not enough.  Each time that anyone does anything for you, they have their hands out.  These activities appear on our itinerary as included.  But that is just the beginning.

We’ve read about corruption in India.  All peoples suffer greed to one extent or the other; it’s human.  But the ways in which it’s expressed to us tourists is unpleasant.  Some are doing a sullen, half-assed job, and still have their hand out.  A majority are just aggressive, loud and obstinate, refusing to take no for an answer, even when stated clearly and many times over.

Our driver’s wheedling and cajoling gave up the secret of what’s behind this.  The day after we arrived, the guide and driver asked what we did on our free day.  When we told them we’d gone for a walk and bought rugs, they exchanged angry glances.  When I confronted them, they said, you were cheated.  You should have let us take you to a reputable place.  But it had more to do with their having lost a commission on what we bought.

Thereafter, we could see our guides and driver deviate from the schedule and take us to company shopping emporiums, while saying “You buy!”  Every historical commentary was somehow commandeered, instead, into a full-fledged sales campaign describing the merits of Indian products.  The driver was also trying to get us to buy things or services we didn’t want “Whisky, rum, you like drink?”  “No, too strong”.  “Not strong, good for health, I bring you”.  “No, thank you”.  “Yes!”  “What part of NO don’t you understand???”

We had the “A-ha!” moment when the driver told us that he had a poor friend in Jaipur that could apply henna designs.  Gail enthusiastically indicated she would like to have her left hand done.

I said, “no thank you”.  He said, “she’s poor, you do both hands.  Both of you”.  I said, “I already told you no”.  He said, “Why you not like henna?”  I said, “My skin is cracked and peeling, allergic”.  The lady didn’t answer her phone ‘til we were near the next city.  The driver proposed she make a 3 hour train ride to do Gail’s hand.  Now the pressure to give to the poor was really on.

In the end, she came to Ranthambore, did a beautiful job on Gail’s hand, and was given a large tip.

What’s behind this is how India functions.  Each individual behaves as if the only reason to have contact with another is if he can get money or favors out of the interaction.  Thus, there is no human interaction that is not tainted with venality.  You can understand and see desperation in the poorest and the beggars.  But we are not free here to shop on our own.  Our day is being carefully controlled so our guides and drivers get a commission on what we buy and we are being pressured to buy.

Which, paradoxically, is making us unwilling to buy!  We see them exchanging glances of disappointment and hovering and commenting.

Then the joy of looking at the skillful work and receiving a beautiful item is gone.  Everyone is out for himself, or out to force the guest into feeling guilty that they haven’t given away everything they have to the poor.  Our driver has been asking whom we are going to give our savings to after we die (implying that we should give it to India’s poor).  He has been telling us about the dhurrie rug merchants who really needs our money.

That’s how India works:  one person uses and exploits the other (while studiously making sure the tourists give to the poor and to them).  In this way, they fulfill the Hindu sense of obligation to the poor, and receive good karma.

While I can fully see what’s going on, I don’t have to like dealing with the Venal Caste.

Claudia and Gail

San Luis Reservoir at Sunrise, December 6, 2010

There was a torrential downpour in the Santa Clara Sunday night, but the next day the Central Valley was sunny and gloriously green and Highway 5 was dry. Can’t ask for more for a California trip south!

Christmas 2010: “Hotel Del Coronado”, Coronado Island, CA

This is a photo of Tina Benino sitting in a chair in the lobby of the Hotel Del Coronado. The hotel is decorated for Christmas and everything is merry and bright. Including the visitors!

The Incandescent Tina Benino Waiting for Santa

On a whim, my girlfriend Tina and I, who were hoping to see the December Nights in Balboa Park but got stuck in the worst traffic imaginable trying to get there, hung a u-turn and headed over to Coronado Island and were rewarded with a magical night of Christmas lights. From the dramatic and colorful display of living trees uniformly lit down the center divide on Orange Avenue to the roof line of the Hotel Del Coronado illuminated with miniature white lights, Coronado Island is worth a visit in December, after sunset.

As you draw near the Hotel Del Coronado, the pleasant sound of the ocean crashing onto the stretch of beach outside the hotel adds to the excitement. It’s almost winter here in San Diego, CA but the atmosphere is beach resort all the way. The mood is young, festive and lighthearted. Families split up and go their own ways; Children take to the ice rink while parents hang out at the bar within sight of the rink.

This is a photo of the famous Christmas tree in the lobby of the Hotel Del Coronado. It is at least twenty feet tall and heavily decorated with candy- and Christmas-themed ornaments and white lights.

Candy-themed Christmas tree in the Hotel Del Coronado lobby.

Rather than take photos without a tripod outside, I opted for using my Flip camcorder to take some brief clips of the sights and sounds as it is more forgiving without a tripod. The photos posted here are from my 2009 visit.

One of my favorite trees is the aqua colored tree in the passage way between the shops and restaurants. It has an underwater theme and I just love it!

This is a photo of a starfish Chrsitmas ornament in aqua blue and pearl colors.Behold! A star…fish…shining in a tree!
This is a photo of a fish Christmas ornament with glitter stripes.

A rare specimen of Glitter Fish

This is a photo of a gold sea horse Christmas ornament.

Giddy-up, horsey! Let's go to town!

This is a photo of a toddler reaching up to pull on Frosty the Snowman's big red pom-pom buttons. Frosty is a six foot tall stuffed toy.

Ooooooo! Belly button!

I hope you are enjoying the sights and sounds of the Holidays where ever you are in the world!

-Annie

Famous Sicilian Recipes You’ve Never Heard of…

Polpette al sugo (meatballs in sauce)

Polpette al sugo

… or maybe you have (if you’re Sicilian).  Polpette al sugo is a recipe from our friend Erminia, the great classic Sicilian cook we know who lives in Messina.  You can say that the English translation is “meatballs in tomato sauce,” but that’s like saying that crêpes are pancakes.  This recipe takes the simplest ingredients — ground beef, dinner rolls, tomatoes, onions — and turns them into light, fluffy wonders that melt into a delicately flavored sauce, and then into your mouth. 

The biggest thing that’s different about this recipe from traditional meatballs is that let you let the dish sit for two hours after it’s done cooking.  Simple, yes?  And in general, the recipe is quite simple, except for a few details — you must press all the water out of the soaked dinner rolls before you add them to the meatball mix, and you must handle the meatballs with great care when browning them and adding them to the sauce, or they will fall apart.

More about Messina and its food soon, although there is a sad caveat — since Messina is on, of course, the Strait of Messina, these lucky Sicilians have some of the best seafood in the world, they say because the waters run so deep.  So much of their cooking is based on their fabulous fish, such as the pesce spada (swordfish), and most places in America don’t have access to that quality of fish.  In other words, you’ve gotta go there and try it for yourself.

Note:  as is typical for Italian recipes, only some quantities are specified, so have fun and add ingredients such as the cheeses and parsley to your own taste.

Polpette al Sugo (Meatballs in Sauce)

6 servings

Olive oil as needed
1 sliced onion
a little red wine
Two 30 oz cans tomato sauce
6 Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 lb lean ground beef
8 oz. soft dinner rolls
2 cloves minced garlic
3/4 cup or more chopped Italian parsley
Grated pecorino romano and parmesan cheese
3 eggs

Cover the dinner rolls in water in a large bowl and leave to soak.

In a large pot, saute onion in 1/4 cup olive oil until soft, then add the tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, and wine.  Simmer lightly covered for 15 minutes over low heat.

Squeeze out all the water from the dinner rolls.  Place the ground beef in a large bowl and mix with parsley, garlic, the grated cheeses, and pepper and salt to taste.  Add the bread rolls and eggs and knead well.  Using wet hands, make oval meatballs (3 inches long).  Heat 1/2 inch of olive oil on medium high heat in a large saute pan.  Dip the meatballs in flour and saute the meatballs in olive oil until golden, turning very carefully to keep them intact. When finished, drain the meatballs and set aside.

Add the meatballs very gently to the tomato sauce, and simmer lightly covered for 20 to 30 minutes.  Check one meatball to see if they’re cooked through.  When finished, turn off the heat and leave the pot on the burner, lightly covered, for 2 hours.  Warm when ready to eat.

Claudia’s Introduction to India

This is an image of the Gate of India in Delhi.It took 30 hours to arrive in New Delhi from San Diego, California, on American Airlines. I met Gail’s incoming flight from Washington DC and we shared a meal at the Macaroni Grill before boarding the 777 for a flight which was to last 14 hours. To celebrate the 5th anniversary of flights from Chicago to New Delhi, AA was offering the passengers cake and souvenirs in the waiting lounge. When we landed at the gleaming new airport, we laughed when we saw the set-up after immigration: in order to retrieve our bags, we would first have to buy something at duty free shops! Such is the importance of commerce to India.

Smoky air greeted us, and a guide with a General Tours sign was smiling to welcome us. Flower necklaces made of tied marigolds were given to us. The traffic was dense, chaotic, noisy with horns, but it flowed. Security here is more intense than at El Al airlines in Israel! We pulled up to the Meridien Hotel, and our car was searched, trunk and under the hood. We had to pass through security to get into the hotel. Our bags were put through a scanner, we were patted down, and then handed back our stuff. So it is every time we come back to the hotel.

The Meridien Hotel, although constructed 25 years ago, has the feel of a 1960’s disco, with vast marble spaces, candles, mirrors, bizarre structural pillars, lots of retro chairs, and patterned rugs in burgundy and black. Our room is large and clean, with beige comforters, hardwood floors, modern lighting, and gorgeous gold and charcoal tiles in the beautiful bathroom.

After a short night’s sleep, we explored the excellent neighborhood around the “hub” of Delhi, the circle known as Connaught Place. As we had been told that the government emporium north on Janpath was closed down for celebration of the end of Ramadan, Eid, and that there were demonstrations in the area, instead, we walked to another recommended shopping center. Monkeys roamed the broken sidewalks, and traffic was, simply, incredible. We drove through the diplomatic quarter, by the governmental ministries, and were surprised at Delhi’s wide avenues and gorgeous trees.

At the emporium, we were lucky to be treated to real Indian hospitality and skilled salesmanship, including the drinking of cardamom tea, and carpet shopping. The young law student, Omar, explained that the complex brought in wares from 288 families from the Kashmir Valley, out of the 3,000 families working there. The quality and range of goods was excellent, and there was no pressure (!) We negotiated on one small, glowing red carpet made of soft yak wool, and another of a subtle blue. The deal was clinched at 50% off original price, plus their arranging taxi fare to the Meridien. Another low-key salesperson, Dinesh, showed us pashmina shawls, a sari for Gail, and assorted scarves at reasonable prices. We couldn’t have made it home without the tuk-tuk wildly (but safely) delivering us to the hotel. We met the owner of the complex, a medical doctor, and told him how happy we were with the experience.

Suddenly, our jet lag began to set in. We spent the afternoon snacking on peanut butter, with cool gel packs on our heads, trying to rest. Thursday we will tour the Red Fort, Delhi’s monuments and the Old City. It started to sprinkle outside. Down below our window, we could see what looked like a factory. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the hotel was using 11 giant open boilers to purify the hotel’s water supply.

But it was a good day, and we got a good measure of how it is to interact with the Indian people. Today, we made it successfully on our own. But we notice how unfriendly the city is for walking, and we are eager to have a driver and guide. Touts are everywhere, and we booked a tour so that we wouldn’t have to constantly fend them off. We’ll be the only ones on this tour!

Claudia and Gail

Treasures of Sibiu, and Other Oddities

in Art, Life, Romania, Travel     

Main Orthodox Church in Sibiu

The Holy Trinity Cathedral was completed in 1904 and is across the street from the residence of the Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of Sibiu (in other words, this is his church).  The interior is covered with painting in vibrant colors; the style reminded me of Byzantine icons, so I was very surprised to hear that this church was constructed relatively recently.  As you can see, this is a combination of western and eastern traditions, with some figurative art that is “filled in” with repetitive patterns, more like the eastern religions.  In addition to the usual iconography my daughter noticed symbolic eyes painted on some walls, looking in every direction, and we were told that these were the eyes of God always watching us.  There are churches of many different denominations in Sibiu, but the Romanian Orthodox Church is still dominant. We were told that the church now owns a lot of property in Sibiu, including residential apartments in the town center.

Church InteriorIconSnakes and Reptiles

For a complete change of pace, we took a look at a Museum of Pharmacy, part of the Brukenthal that is in a separate small building off the “Piata Mica,” the smaller square in the center of town.  This was like entering a laboratory right out of Harry Potter, with cabinets that had drawers labeled with Latin names of herbs and potions, and maybe not eyes of newt, but you’ll see the preserved snakes and reptiles in one of the photos.Tools

Near the town center our hosts pointed out a narrow building that was a hostel, and they explained that it was not for regular students, but instead that it had become a modern sort of guild.  When the town of Sibiu began to be renovated recently (in particular for its celebration in 2007 as a European Capital of Culture), volunteers came here from all over Europe to help with the repairs and also to learn the trades involved such as stonework, carpentry, and roofing.  The volunteers wear special black top hats and you can see them around town, for example we saw one of them whizzing by on a bicycle.

In the evening we took a break in an upstairs cafe and had Italian-style gelato.  There seemed to be a mirror in the room but at a second glance it was a full glass window separating the room into two sections, smoking and non.  This being Europe, the nonsmoking section was tiny and narrow, and the smoking section was large and crowded with noisy partiers.  (And we could watch each other through a glass wall!)

Home away from Home!

On the way south to Cestas Gazinet, gite owner Xavier debriefed us on all the gossip since we left last October. 

It always feels wonderful to walk into this house.  The new Bulgarian maid, Teodora, had done a good job cleaning.  Every year we notice new details.  Daniele has repainted the kitchen cabinets in a golden yellow.  We discovered a new kitchen tablecloth, new coffeemaker, microwave, and pots.  New lattice wooden enclosure out front for recycling bin/trashcan.   Desktop computer.  New shower-head, new shower enclosure in green bedroom. New bedspread upstairs in yellow bedroom.  New café chair burgundy covers.  New mini-sofa in hall. New yellow patio chairs.  And the biggest surprise:  a huge bush beside the garage had been pruned to be hollow inside, and a nice lounging deck built around a big fir tree trunk.  A secret hideaway for relaxing in the shade.

This place is no secret.  Many of you reading this have come and stayed here too.  So you can imagine what we are doing and seeing.  The first day, we set up the computer, and the satellite TV system.  Neighbors Jean-Paul and Rachel came over with the 42 bottles of wine they had stored for us over the winter.  We got the sheets and towels out of the attic, and brought the kitchen knives and pantry items downstairs.

Sunday, we went to Intermarche for groceries (we didn’t rent a car this year because the cost went up 33%).  We bought 6 oysters originating from the immense Arcachon bay, Steve grilled up some fresh duck breasts, accompanied by endive, watercress and carrot salads.  We looked out from under the patio umbrella at the tall old oaks, magnolia, pine and holly overlooking the garden lawns of Monsalut.  Six hours later we had the cheese course.

We cleaned, lubricated, and reconditioned the bicycles, as they are going to be one of our mainstays of transportation.  French literature courses skipped over the words for bolt (boulon), nut (rondelle) and chain guard (carter), but Xavier taught me as he gave us a 4mm bolt and nut set.  I am constantly learning more French.  But that first class at age 11 has given the whole French world to me.

We will also get lots of exercise walking to the bakery, butcher, vegetable stand, pharmacy, and deli in Gazinet.  We can hop on a train there to Arcachon , Spain, Nantes, or Toulouse .  We don’t foresee any problems because everything is so convenient here.

Saturday night there was a tremendous storm, with loud thunder right over my bed at the apex of the house.  Rain poured down and lightning illuminated the skylight.  It has cleared the air, and the temperatures plummeted.  In the annals of Bordeaux winemaking, such storms are noted.  Jean-Paul told us that in 2008, March was very mild, but there was a hard frost that killed most of the prematurely flowering buds on April 7.  The summer was rainy and not warm. Now the storm of August 30 will go into the books, especially if hail or wind reduced the yield further.  2008 will likely not be a good year for Bordeaux wine.

If it doesn’t rain today, we’ll visit Franck at the pharmacy and explore our old haunts on our bikes.  No doubt we’ll end up at “Les Sources”, the iron-rich spring in the forest.  Steve calls these fall months in Cestas the “spa treatment”.  For me, it just feels great to be alive here!

Claudia and Steve
September 1, 2008

An Oahu Review

in Life, Travel, USA      tags: , , ,
Portrait at the Polynesian Cultural Center

Captured or captivated by the natives?

Aloha!

I’ll be sharing some highlights from my recent trip to Oahu in middle October.

I thought I’d never need to return to Oahu so I was very pleasantly surprised at how I found it during my second visit.

Desiring to make a dream come true for my senior mom, I dove in to plan a whirlwind, week-long trip for her first ever visit. How does a young adult plan a trip for a senior citizen? It takes imagination and web skills.

I searched aplenty and did not find many resources for senior travel in Hawaii. I know millions of them visit but was let down to find lists suggesting they hike tough hills, snorkel, surf and do other extremely difficult physical day trips. Now honestly. Wanting some ‘get real’ from the web and not really finding much, I decided to find things that only required minimal walking with lots of air conditioned riding.

Some seniors swim, golf and do other healthy activities, but my charming travel partner did not. What to do?

I found a great site, Go Visit Hawaii and they had a list called “10 Best Free Activities and Sights on Oahu”. Free? Ten best? Now we were talking!

http://www.govisithawaii.com/2007/09/24/10-best-free-activities-and-sites-on-oahu/

I culled from this list and with the help of my kamaina (local) host, we did manage to do a lot with minimal or reasonable effort– and often at no cost. This suited my high blood pressure buddy just fine. Easy. Cheap or totally free. What’s not to like for young adult or senior?

This post is not intended to be solely about senior travel, however, since it figured in so strongly in our experience, and since it is so difficult to find good advice for the wealthiest segment of our society, I share for those who may also wonder what to do with mom and dad. These activities are great for most age groups that visit. Who wouldn’t want to see beautiful vistas and inspiring memorials? Sitting on a beach for seven days is too boring for us. We’re full of get up and go.

Since we arrived on a Friday morning I decided to take full advantage of the FREE FIREWORKS at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Fireworks on Waikiki beach, free?? How magical a first night is that? Good for the flush or the recession-minded.

For info on the fireworks go here: http://www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/resort_activities/entertainment_and_events.cfm

And no, this is not a plug for any particular business. I’m including links so you know how to get to these particular places. It makes me happy to think I can share some of the magic that filled our tropical visit.

One can watch the fireworks from many places in Honolulu for free or pay to go to their evening dinner and show that concludes with the pyrotechnic sky displays. My little buddy was too tired from the plane travel and excitement so we watched it from the second story veranda at our lodgings. Perfect. A fireworks show welcoming us with sparkle to Hawaii and no driving involved. Travel buddy was really pleased and went off to bed smiling and quite tickled at not having to “go anywhere”.

Note to self: driving, flying and “getting there” can be hard on those who do not travel well. Good to group things logically by geography and time so things flow efficiently.

It was during the veranda view of my dreamed-of fireworks-on-the-beach that I had to let go of an expectation and either be disappointed or happy. I chose to be happy with how well this worked out. I found satisfaction by accepting the facts in the best light. Drilling down and finding our expectations while travelling is mightily important as it can enlighten us as to why we are annoyed with this change in plan or that delay. Once we know the expectation we held, we can choose to let it go and find the good in the present gift of situation basics. Wanting harmony on our trip, a trip planned with my senior mom’s joy and happiness in mind, not mine, this brief self-inspection right at the outset of the trip was a fantastic gift to the both of us. I wanted this trip to build happy Hawaiian memories for her. Any residuals that overflowed to me, the travel guide, were a bonus and I’d happily take them.

Mindset is so important for travel. One must be aware of it or one can chafe at the slightest things and not really know why. I like to be a happy traveller. I did a lot of adjustments on this trip and it was a huge success. Constantly checking in with oneself and one’s travel partner is a must. Not sermonizing here, just sharing what worked for such a blessed and magical trip. When jetlag and fatigue play in, its best to stay on top of one’s attitude and outlook. Then the beauty of the landscape, seascapes and local color gets in past the filters into the heart of the grateful traveller.

More about the flower-scented trade winds, the five-star food loci and the lush tropics in my next long-winded post.

Thanks for joining me here in my first post. Nice to have you along.

The Grass in Greener in Bordeaux

We felt the weight of the additional inspections during the trip from San Diego, through Dallas and London Gatwick to Bordeaux.  The airline felt the weight of all the oat bran, psyllium, toilet paper, paper towels, coffee and bicycle helmets we had in our luggage.  By 10:30 a.m. we were in the pub at Gatwick ordering up half-pints of John Smith Yorkshire ale and Directors’ Courage.  The stress disappeared.  Soaring over the French countryside, we saw the offshore islands of Ile de Re and Ile d’Oleron.  It was brilliantly sunny over Aquitaine for miles, and we could see the muddy river Garonne widen to become the Gironde estuary.  Thousands of vineyards and a castle were visible down below.  Then the white limestone buildings of the city of Bordeaux came into view on the river’s west bank. 
 
For the first few days, we rest from jet lag in a hotel before driving a car.  We reserved a one bedroom apartment with kitchen at a new aparthotel, called Appart City, near the Merignac airport.  This cost 50 euros a night plus 10 euros for high speed internet.  We didn’t find out until later that, although messages were coming in, our messages weren’t getting out!  The dim bulb attendant at the desk didn’t tell us we needed to change the outgoing server name to smtp.wanadoo.fr. 
 
Each year we book our car through Renault Eurodrive.  You “buy” a car for $30,000, then sell it back to Renault at a pre-agreed price.  The difference between the buy and sell prices reflects your daily rental.  In this case, we paid about $33/day for a 1.9 liter Renault Megane 4-door diesel 6-speed manual car.  Fuel has really gone up since last year.  Regular gas is 1.29 euros per liter, and diesel is 1.06 euros per liter.  One euro is now worth $1.28.
 
On Friday we picked up the Megane and drove immediately to a gas station (because they only give you 10 liters in the tank).  We were warmly welcomed at the pharmacy in the little town of Cestas Gazinet where we are staying.  We bought a new chip for our GSM cell phone.  It was lunchtime, so we reserved at the Clos Tassigny, where we fortified ourselves with some pate, delicate salmon and beef .  Even if you only “reserve” a half hour in advance, you get the royal treatment when you come back in earnest!
 
Xavier Guibert, the owner of this gite, suggested we check in one day early (usually gite rentals run from Saturday to Saturday).  We have been coming here since 2001.  We like the combination of the spacious, elegant house, and the location.  It’s a long, low “longere”, rectangular 2 story house.  It has 4 bedrooms, and 3 bathrooms.  The living room is wallpapered in turquoise, and chairs in yellow print.  There is a black marble table in the center, and a grey marble fireplace.  The ceilings are 12 feet high.  It is about 190 square meters, or about 2,000 square feet.
 
There was a new oriental rug in the living room, new bedspreads, chair covers and tables.  Most important to us, Xavier hooked us up to his wireless high speed internet connection.
 
The house is located a short walk from the train station (14 minutes north to Bordeaux), bakeries, vegetable market and butcher.  Behind the gite are an immense span of grass and 100 year old trees.  On the white stone terrace are umbrellas, table and a barbecue.  All around is the magnificent oak and pine forest with bicycle and hiking paths.  In the garage are our bicycles, which we bought 4 years ago.  In the attic are 8 boxes of sheets, towels, knives, phone and satellite TV receiver, everything you need to be at home in France.
 
Our neighbors Jean-Paul and Rachel came over bearing the case and a half of wine they had stored in their garage since we left last November.  They invited us on a bike ride in the pine forest this Wednesday.  We spent Saturday setting up the gite.  On Sunday we greeted the vegetable lady and the cheese person at the outdoor market in Cestas Bourg, then returned to the gite to grill duck breasts, in a sauce of fresh peaches, Cointreau, butter and shallots, accompanied by fresh green beans and garlic basil potatoes.
 
We caught up on all the gossip from our friends.  Our friends Carole and Michel just split up (they live near Spain in the Pyrenees Orientales).  The secretary of our former gite owner Evelyne Allien just lost her husband to liver cancer at 51.  Our friend Nicolas just succeeded in getting his teaching credential and will begin as an instructor in LeMans on Monday.  Jennifer and Francois, whom we were tutoring in English last fall, have gotten jobs in teaching and forestry with a long-term contract.  These young people truly deserve it, for they were willing to move to another city and even work for free, just to achieve their dream.
 
Everyone told us how unbelievably hot July was, and how it rained almost every day in August.  How will this affect the famous Bordeaux grapes?  We shall soon find out.  The ferns and corn are green, greener than we have ever seen them at this time of year.  But, one thing in the forest is not right:  the iron-rich spring down by the stream has completely dried up.  We pray it returns.
 
It’s hot this afternoon, so we have closed the tall white shutters to the terrace.  It’s comfortable and cool in the stone house.  Tomorrow we will take the train into Bordeaux.  We will pay the gite rental for October, shop for olive oil and perfume, go to the House of Japan to try to find a Japanese language tutor so I can continue my studies, and have a nice lunch in town.  Friday is the book club meeting. I am reading the books in French as fast as I can.  Saturday we will drive south to the fantastic Bazas market for herbs and sausages and then see our favorite Sauternes winemaker, Evelyne.
 
All these things unfold in the same order, at the same rhythm, as they have every year.  We can’t call this adventure travel.  Rather, we are walking down a path we have followed for many years.  We just enjoy the everyday pleasure of living in France.
 
The grass is greener over here.  But not so green when the chill winds arrive in November.  We’ll be back home by the end of October. 
 
Cheers! 
Claudia and Steve
9/7/06

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