Category Archives: travel

Murphy’s law for travel plans

It’s as if my house knows I’m leaving the country for nearly two weeks. Why? Because things are going wrong. Very wrong.

Lucy and Ethel

Eeeeeek!

It started when my son Chris came over to help me clean out the basement a little over a week ago. I had seen mouse droppings and a tiny mouse carcass earlier this summer and without backup, I wasn’t about to shift the boxes and random stuff that took up residence down there when I moved in four years ago. I should toss it all, I suppose. If I haven’t used something, or even missed its existence, in more than four years, why keep it, right?

At any rate, I’m not an expert on mice, having had little experience with them over the years. I am, however, confident that I am not a fan. I’m pretty sure I’d shriek like Lucy or Ethel and charge up the stairs if I encountered a live one.

Happily, that didn’t happen. Chris and I made it through most of the basement detritus (keeping most of it – sigh). I innocently swept up the icky remnants of what I was sure must be long gone tiny tenants. Surely those creatures were simply trying to escape a harsh Ohio winter, right? But since fall is technically here – despite the warmer-than-normal temps – I thought I may as well put a gentle little trap baited with a dab of peanut butter in a corner of the basement. Just as a precautionary measure.

Maybe 48 hours later I awoke to the sound of a repetitive knocking in the middle of the night. In my befuddled state, the mouse trap never came to mind. The dogs were cuddled next to me on the bed and were briefly interested, but quickly settled back into sleep. Squirrels on the roof? A poltergeist? The noise stopped, and I went back to sleep, too.

It wasn’t until Saturday that I thought of the trap. Since it’s the kind that doesn’t kill mice, I thought I’d better go see if some little guy was trapped inside. This would mean putting the entire trap inside a garbage bag, inside a box, inside a larger garbage bag, and driving it to another county for release. But I was game. I think.

Beatrix Potter Mrs T and babies

Mrs. Tittlemouse and possibly her entire family want to move in with me and The Boys. Nooooooo.

As it turned out, I didn’t have the opportunity to test my courage. The top of the trap was pushed halfway off and the bottom was obviously empty. That’s when I saw a mouse standing on its hind legs no more than six feet away from me. It wasn’t moving. I gulped and quietly backed away to see what it would do. The mouse looked just like Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse, so I will call it “her.” We stared at each other cautiously. Suddenly, she tried to leap up the wall but couldn’t get purchase. When Mrs. T darted my way to hide behind a box and a dresser, I screamed like a little girl and ran upstairs. If she couldn’t jump up on the wall, I figured she’d be stuck in the basement until I found Chris or someone else brave enough to go down and set a less friendly trap.

October 2013

Good for nothing little rascals!

Fast forward to Sunday night. I’m happy in my recliner, boys snoozing on my lap, watching my buddies the “Property Brothers” dealing with asbestos embedded in some poor schmuck’s popcorn ceiling. That’s when I notice Mrs. Tittlemouse – or a friend or relative who looks exactly like her – casually saunter into the living room. She stopped near the doorway, took in the domestic scene, then nonchalantly turned around and strolled back into the kitchen. After I pushed my jaw back up into place, I dumped the dogs from my lap and sent them to the kitchen to investigate. Mick likes me to think he’s a brave hunter and Rich is a terrier, which is a breed that goes after rodents. Neither of them made a peep. I’m trading them in for a cat.

Trying to find an exterminator on a Sunday night is a losing proposition. However, I was lucky – I think – to get Randy from Terminix to come out this morning. $1,500+ later, when I get back from vacation this house will be sealed tighter than Grant’s Tomb to prevent further assaults from critters. Furthermore, the Terminix warriors will be on call for three years in case any varmint dares attempt to storm the bastions.

But wait. Am I really that bent out of shape about leaving town because of a little mouse or twelve? No. There’s more.

As I led Randy to the basement to scout for tiny revolving mouse doors flashing neon “welcome” signs, we encountered a leak of a different sort at the bottom of the stairs. It seems that my hot water heater has chosen NOW to begin leaking.

It’s not enough that I have to wash clothes and towels and bedding before I leave. It’s not enough that I would prefer to leave town freshly showered and shampooed. In the end, I don’t see how I can, in good conscience, walk away from a mouse-infested home with no hot water for my dog sitter and son to deal with while I’m sipping Bushnell’s and tapping my toes to a twinkly-eyed fiddler’s tune in a pub in Northern Ireland. I mean, it’s not like I won’t go, but . . . .

Darby

I’m pretty sure this is from an old movie called “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” which scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

So now I’m not-so-patiently waiting for a contractor to call me back about the water heater.

Normally, in the final days before I’m due to travel, I worry about coming down with a cold (I AM a bit sniffly, now that I think of it) or getting a UTI (the ultimate annoying traveling companion) or breaking a tooth (I had to have a crown repaired hours before I left for the airport for a trip to Italy one year). I’m not a hypochondriac. I’m not even superstitious. But things do have a way of getting complicated before I leave town.

I just turned the calendar page to October and there’s a black cat featured in one of the fun, seasonal photos. Man. Let’s hope bad things do not come in three’s, okay? When I get to JFK Wednesday evening I’m definitely turning off my phone and hiding out for the next ten days or so. Slainte, y’all.

Confessions of a picky palate

 

First, the good news:  I’m going to Ireland in October. Yay!

Northern Ireland map

I’ll be taking a bus from the Dublin airport to Belfast (in red). Pigeon Top is a bit west of Omagh (see right above “Northern”). Dublin is due south from Newry.

I will be spending most of the trip as a guest in the home of my dear friend Bernadette’s sister, Breda. Breda’s home is in tiny Pigeon Top near the city of Omagh, which is about 70 miles or so west of Belfast. Bernadette, who lives on the Isle of Man, will fly over to meet me in Belfast. We’ll rent a car to drive to Breda’s home. In addition to staying with Breda, I’ll meet more of Bernadette’s brothers and sisters and we’ll take day trips to visit places like the Giant’s Causeway and the Ulster Folk Museum.  Bernadette and I have talked about doing this for years and I’m so glad we’re finally going.

pigeon-top

A view from Pigeon Top in Northern Ireland

However, when I told my son Chris about our plans the other night he expressed grave concerns about me staying with Breda and Bernadette. Chris tends to be rather critical of me (in a loving manner), but it’s not without cause. Here’s why he’s worried:

Baby squash from Babies Ideas

This is how I still react to squash. Pic from Babies Ideas – thanks.

The bad news is that I’m an extremely picky eater. I have the palate of a cranky kindergartner. I wish I could tell you that I bravely suck it up and eat whatever is put before me whether I like it or not. But, no. No. I can’t do it. I think the years growing up when we had to sit at the kitchen table and finish a meal no matter what had an impact. I couldn’t quite understand the correlation between my dad having to eat ketchup sandwiches during the Depression and me gagging on liver and onions in 1958, but the logic was there somewhere, I guess. Wasting food, starving children in China, etc. Plus, Dad was a big and kind of scary guy when he was angry.

Usually I can hide my food phobias thanks to the variety of menu choices on offer when dining out. In the privacy of our homes, my close friends and family know which foods I won’t eat and, to be fair, my sister and brother are at least as picky as I am. Maybe worse. Planning a meal for a big family dinner is fraught with culinary land mines. Nothing made with milk for Bob. Nothing orange and mushy for Kate. Make sure Mom’s and Penny’s meat shows not one hint of pink. That’s just the beginning.

We like to think we’re normal, but my Chris is not afraid to laugh and point out that we’re not. After my own experience growing up, I decided not to force young Chris to eat things he didn’t like. As a result, he was never afraid to try new foods and now eats just about everything. I think it’s safe to say that his adventuresome palate is due in no small part to my enlightened parenting skills. (You’re welcome, Chris. Now stop making fun of me.)

Baby eggs New Kids Center

Eggs for breakfast? Oh nooooooo! Pic from New Kids Center – thanks.

Anyway, now I’m worried, too. That’s why I’m writing today. I am outing myself, admitting to everything I won’t eat. I’ll share this post with Bernadette and ask her to pass it along to my unsuspecting host, Breda. Here’s the deal, dear ladies – I decided it may be wiser to embarrass myself up front rather than sit at your table in October trying to figure out how to explain why I can’t eat a lovely meal that any normal person would enjoy.

It’s not you. It’s me. Boy, is it me. So here we go with the foods I won’t/can’t eat:

  • Eggs – in any shape or form. That’s right – not fried, scrambled, poached, hard-boiled – nothing. Eeuw.
  • Paul and Mary

    Dear ones, do you watch Paul and Mary on the Great British Baking Show? I love them. They would be ashamed of me. So ashamed.

    Mushrooms

  • Anything orange and mushy, which includes cooked squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, yams, etc.
  • Bananas (that includes banana bread, or any other baked good with bananas)
  • Asparagus
  • Liver
  • I love mild white fish like cod and halibut, but no salmon, mackerel, herring, etc.
  • Oysters (do I get points for loving octopus, though?)

I think that covers it. Embarrassing, but there you go.  I’m too old to be coy about this, guys. When I was in Ireland about ten years ago I went with my friends to a pub to grab some lunch. I ordered a BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich) and it was served with a fried egg plopped on top of the usual ingredients. What the . . . ?! I was horrified. What kind of monster would sneak a fried egg onto an innocent BLT, I ask you?

(And on a side note, as you may have guessed, I refused to touch the blood pudding or sausage or whatever it was that accompanied a hotel’s fried breakfast, the price of which was included with a night’s stay. Most folks rub their hands with glee at the sight of a hearty Irish breakfast. I ate the toast.)

Irish breakfast

This traditional Irish breakfast would send me screaming into the woods. Are those mushrooms near that triangle thing? Aargh!

So there it is, my friends. I might add, as soon as poor Breda gets a look at me she’ll wonder that I don’t eat everything, including the kitchen sink. I am not a wispy little lass by any stretch of the imagination. This body is what happens when someone chooses the

ArnoldThumbsDown

Yes, darling Breda and Bernadette! Send me to Omagh if you must!

cheeseburger over the seasonal pumpkin soup. Pancakes instead of an omelet. A Kit Kat rather than a banana.

Other than that, I hope you’ll find me to be a pleasant enough person, dear Breda. If not, feel free to boot me toward the nearest hotel in Omagh. I promise not to throw a toddler tantrum.

It’s good to be in Gouda

On Thursday mornings in the warmer months, visitors can step back in time to observe the Gouda Cheese Market as it would have appeared at its inception in 1395. Ginny and I did just that on our visit to the Netherlands last month – along with a boatload of other people happily milling around Gouda’s historic town square on a sunny May morning.

Ginny and me in Gouda

Ginny and Kate with a big cheese.

I’m not going to call it a mob scene but suffice to say that there was a very healthy turnout of tourists that fine day.

The market starts early with horse-drawn carriages delivering big wheels of cheese to display in front of the Het Stadhuis van Gouda, or City Hall. Cheerful red shutters doll up this otherwise-staid Gothic structure that opened for business in 1450. It’s situated right in the center of a huge plaza ringed by old buildings hosting shops, restaurants, and other businesses, as well as the magnificent Sint Janskerk church and the Waag (weigh house), which is now a small cheese museum.

Gouda cheese

Other people enjoying big cheese.

People in costume perform an old hand clapping ritual that was once used to confirm a sale between a farmer and trader. Dutch girls and farmers in wooden shoes are friendly and selfies are welcome. Super cute, and I don’t mean that in a snarky way.

In addition to the reenactment of the cheese market, other folks in costume were demonstrating how cheese was made. Market stalls selling cheese (naturally), tchotchkes, souvenirs, etc., circled the outer edge of the plaza. A broad walkway between the market stalls and the permanent buildings allowed visitors to comfortably explore the entire area.

StroopwafelAfter loading up on cheese, we stopped in several shops and were especially glad that someone had recommended we try stroopwafels. Stroopwafels are a very thin, crispy, spicy waffle cookie sandwiched with caramel (our favorite) or a gooey syrup (also tasty). I think that if I found a recipe, I could make the waffles on the iron I use every Christmas to make my favorite Italian cookies, pizzelles. Maybe melt caramel squares to make the filling? We’ll see. Ginny brought some back to give as gifts and her friend Janeen loved them so much, she immediately ordered more on Amazon. My mother gave a thumbs up, too.

Eventually Ginny and I decided to take a break from a big morning of buying cheese and cookies and enjoy a coffee at one of the outdoor cafes before leaving Gouda for our next adventure (or a nap; I forget). A little oom-pa-pa band strolled past while we people-watched and enjoyed the sunshine and cappuccino.

Evil Kneivel

Don’t try this, or speak Dutch, at home.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you (my English-speaking friends) that we’ve all been saying “Gouda” wrong. It’s not GOO-dah. It’s more like HOW-dah. But try to work up some phlegm in the back of your throat so you can almost hawk up that “how” and you’ll be close to the Dutch pronunciation.

It’s interesting to me that any attempt on my part to reproduce the sound of a Dutch word is vaguely disgusting, and yet, the language is charming enough when spoken by the Dutch themselves. It’s like Evil Knievel having the ability to leap across twenty pickup trucks on his motorcycle but knowing you really shouldn’t try it yourself. If you are not Dutch, don’t try to speak Dutch. You’ll sound like a child molester or something.

Anyway. That’s my take on Gouda. Highly recommend a visit. Keep calling it GOO-dah, though.

 

It’s not all about the food – part one

Peach cobbler in Atlanta? Crab cakes in Baltimore? How about pizza in Naples, or sushi in Tokyo?

High-minded folks may tell you that travel is not about the food. I love to travel. And I agree. There is so much more to travel than the different kinds of foods you can find around the world.

But travel’s not not about the food, either.

If you’re not slathering French Camembert on a fragrant baguette in Lyon, or slurping fresh-cut Hawaiian pineapple at a beach resort on Maui, you’re missing a delightful piece of the travel pie:  Food. And it occurred to me that remembering our experiences relative to the food we ate might be a fun way to tell you about our trip to Belgium and The Netherlands with my buddy, Ginny.

Grand Place Brussels

The Grand Place, Brussels

It started in Brussels . . . .

I can’t sleep on an overnight flight. I just can’t. Turns out Ginny couldn’t, either. So by the time we landed in Brussels on Saturday morning (and after standing in line for forty minutes to go through immigration at the airport), we were beyond tired. Fortunately, our room at the Park Inn by Radisson near the Brussels airport was ready when we arrived (nice room, reasonable cost, great staff – definitely recommend). After collapsing for nearly a four-hour nap, we roused ourselves to walk to the local train station and, after deciphering how to actually buy tickets, rode to the center of Brussels to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Late afternoon in the center of Brussels is – magical. There were people everywhere, and honestly, they mostly looked like locals. Families strolled along eating ice cream cones, and friends enjoyed a beer and conversation sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at the many tables perched outside cafes in the city Centrum. Street musicians played upbeat tunes and shoppers clustered around little tented booths checking out handcrafted jewelry, jars of honey and jam, candles, etc.

We were starving and walked into the closest restaurant, the Brussels Grill. I later learned on line that this is kind of a small chain of steak houses in the area, but I’m pretty sure that the restaurant where we ate was on the rue marché aux Herbes near the city’s magnificent Grand Place.

dinner in BrusselsChain or not, that first dinner turned out to be the very best meal of our entire trip. Belgium is famous for its mussels (moules) and French fries (frites), and that’s what Ginny chose. Her order was perfectly cooked in white wine and Ginny said they were the best mussels she’d ever eaten.

I ordered the steak-frites (a ribeye with French fries) and it, too, was fabulous. The steak was juicy and tender, and the fries were an unlikely combination of being fluffy, but very crisp. I know we were really, really hungry, but seriously? If you find yourself looking for a place to eat in Brussels, the Brussels Grill won’t disappoint. Ginny also ordered a beer that she loved, but sadly, we were too jet-lagged to remember to take a picture of the bottle so she could find it again.

The second fabulous food moment in Belgium took place on the last day of our trip in the tiny village of Sint-Katelijne-Waver.

Our European adventure was nearly over and I’d yet to try a genuine Belgian waffle. I’d promised myself that I couldn’t leave without fulfilling that particular foodie dream.

You may be wondering how we ended up in Sint-Katelijne-Waver. I’m pretty sure the residents wondered the same thing, especially after Ginny entered a roundabout going the wrong direction and had to back out of the town square while traffic patiently waited for us to correct our path.

Allow me back up the story just a bit, too . . .

That morning we had packed the car and closed up the Airbnb house we’d rented in Dordrecht, Netherlands. We planned to stop in Antwerp to see the sites before dropping off the rental car and returning to the Park Inn for our last night in Belgium. By then we’d actually gotten pretty good at driving (Ginny – what a pro!) and navigating (me – interpreting the GPS as needed) in The Netherlands. But as we left Holland and approached Antwerp, the traffic became very heavy and progress slowed to a turtle’s pace. Prudence, our GPS, kept suggesting alternate routes and we finally agreed to follow her advice.

We exited the Antwerp ring road to find ourselves immersed in what I’m calling the Bagdad of Antwerp. In addition to pedestrians darting everywhere wearing burkas, head scarves, and assorted caps and turbans, there was construction, buses pulling in and out from the curb, a trolley and tracks running down the middle of the street, and oh, yeah, cars everywhere. There was nothing that felt threatening or uncomfortable about the location; it was just unexpected. At one point we waited for a woman wearing a hijab to park her tiny car in a space roughly the size of the love seat in my living room. I had to lean out the window and give her a thumbs up (I hope that’s understood universally) as we passed around her. I was impressed.

By this time Ginny had been battling this urban free-for-all for about twenty minutes. I turned to her and said, “So, do you still want to search for the center of Antwerp or would you like to explore the countryside?”

With Ginny’s relieved endorsement for Plan B, I quickly gave Prudence a new destination somewhere between Antwerp and the airport and we escaped from the city without incident. When we saw signs for Sint Katelijne, it kind of looked like my full name, Kathleen, so we decided to follow the signs to that sweet little village.

waffleThere we walked around the quiet square and randomly chose to stop for lunch at the Ice Cream Parlor De Joppe. The courtly French-speaking gentleman who directed us to our table outside in the sunshine turned out to be the owner of the restaurant. When I explained that I was soon to leave Belgium but had yet to sample a waffle, he convinced his wife to heat up the waffle iron (there was something I didn’t quite understand about the weather being too warm for waffles) and soon was served a gorgeous, crispy, golden waffle topped with fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream. It tasted even better than it looks in the photo.

Stay tuned for more stories about food and fun in the Netherlands. I’d try to say goodbye in Dutch, but after more than a week there, the language remained pretty much incomprehensible to us. Dutch makes German look easy and sound melodious. Think about that for a sec.

As my friend Sue would say, a tout a l’heure!

Dreaming of chocolate and cheese

And waffles. Big honking Belgian waffles topped with strawberries and whipped cream.

house-hunters-international-drinking-game

Okay, so I remember the show that this woman was on! This comes from Helene’s blog, www.heleneinbetween.com. (Helene added the drinking game element – which cracks me up.)

As you know, I am a House Hunters International junkie. I’m flying with my buddy Ginny to Brussels this weekend, so I was excited to find an episode in my cache of recorded shows about a young family searching for a home in Belgium’s capital city.

(I automatically record every episode of this program so I can vicariously experience looking for a place to live in Amsterdam or Puerto Vallarta or whatever exotic location appeals to me at the moment.)

My son says I’m delusional. I don’t care.

So, on this show the husband and wife took a little break from inspecting houses and apartments to stroll up to a waffle truck in Brussels. These plate-sized confections look too amazing to simply be called waffles. It looked like the husband may have ordered his with chocolate or Nutella drizzled under the fluffy mound of cream. Whatever the topping, you can bet that I will be gobbling down one of my very own on Saturday afternoon. I also plan to taste-test a few of the Belgian chocolates on display in shops of acclaimed local chocolatiers. Perhaps we’ll finish the day in a cafe sampling pommes frites and a light Belgian ale. It’s a good thing we’ll be doing lots of walking that day.

On Sunday Ginny and I will pick up our rental car and drive to the Airbnb apartment we’re renting in Dordrecht.  Located about halfway between Brussels and Amsterdam (roughly an hour’s drive in either direction), Dordrecht claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands and will be our home base while exploring a bit of both beautiful countries.

We have requested a GPS in the car to help us get around. I am hoping that it won’t yell at us in Dutch or German.

Holland and Belgium 229

This is how they treat an order for a cup of coffee in Middleburg, Netherlands. So pretty, right?

Next Thursday we’re going to drive to Gouda for the weekly cheese market. Look for photos of that when we get back, for sure. I hope at some point we’ll also find a place to enjoy poffertjes – puffy little Dutch pancakes sprinkled with powdered sugar and a choice of other toppings. Missed that the last time I was in Amsterdam with my friend, Sue.

Now that I’ve gotten the food porn out of my system, in truth, there are so many fascinating places to see in these lowland countries. My first river cruise years ago (try Viking’s Tulip Time cruise – fabulous!) took us to many of the places I want to visit again next week – Antwerp, Bruges, Holland’s Keukenhopf Gardens, Delft, charming Gouda, etc. A great thing about these compact countries is that the area is so small, it’s easy to jump in the car and explore many places without having to drive for hours.

Holland and Belgium 297

I didn’t know so many varieties of tulips even existed before visiting the amazing Keukenhopf Gardens in 2009.

When you go on vacation, do you like to experience a new destination each time? Or do you most enjoy returning to one treasured spot year after year? The argument for either choice is impossible to refute. It seems to me, in a perfect world with plenty of time and money, at least two vacations a year might fit the bill. Perhaps a week every summer at your favorite beach retreat, plus a spring or fall exploration of new territory. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I’m looking forward to enjoying a combination of old and new places in the days ahead. Best of all, I’ll be sharing this time laughing and creating memories with a dear friend.

On another note . . .

looking for Chris

My killer dogs, guarding the door.

I would not necessarily recommend announcing travel plans online before you go on vacation.  I feel safe doing so today because in my case, the house will be occupied with some big, burly people I’ve hired to dog-sit The Boys. Not only are the sitters armed and certified in numerous martial arts, but they will be training Mick and Rich to take down intruders and bite them until they cry for their mothers. Fair warning.

If you are still contemplating burgling my home, I’ll just tell you now that the reward will not match the risk. I don’t have nice jewelry or cash hidden anywhere. My TV is big-ish, but you can get the same one new in Walmart for less than $400 these days. The laptop needs to be replaced soon and isn’t even an apple. But if you take my dogs, I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands. Again – fair warning.

So, bye for now – see you when I get home.