How we caught the travel bug

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By the summer of 1993, we were ready.  I’d saved up enough frequent flier miles for two round trip tickets to Paris, and we had spent years saving spare change to fund the rest of our trip.  I had finally overcome Phil’s objections to traveling abroad (generally) to France (specifically).  While he was still intimidated by language barriers and the rumors about the French being unfriendly to Americans, he was willing to give it a shot.  Having studied French in high school and college, I’d been a Francophile for years and was eager to have this adventure.

We would fly into Paris and spend a few days there, staying at Hotel Aviatic, a budget-friendly hotel originally serving pilots, then take the TGV high-speed train south to Dijon, where we’d booked a room in a 16th century castle complete with countess and moat!  From there we would drive our rental car to Avignon and stay in a 200-year-old farmhouse for a few nights, then back on the train to take in Bordeaux before returning to Paris for a final night.

Sandy pretending to be sophisticated on the high-speed train from Paris

For two unsophisticated travelers’ first trip abroad, it was perfect.  Sure, we got lost, had language barriers, and halfway through a late-night taxi ride to our Bordeaux hotel realized neither of us had enough francs to pay—but we were enraptured by the entire trip.  Walking the streets of Paris, seeing works my artist husband had only seen in books (I found him silently weeping in the Louvre, gazing at a Velasquez painting), having the meal of our lives at a family restaurant in a tiny Burgundy town, and making lifelong British friends at a dining table in Provence, had us hooked.

 

The Velasquez painting that induced tears

Here are three things we learned on that first trip:

  1. People are universally gracious if you approach them with respect and kindness. Best examples: we were sitting in our rental car in the Dijon train station parking lot, looking at a map and trying to figure out how to get to our B&B, when a beautiful Parisian couple I’d noticed on the train rapped on our window.  They could see we were struggling and spent the next 20 minutes explaining the route—using only my horrible French and her very limited English to communicate.  That taxi driver we stiffed in Bordeaux?  She came into the hotel with us, negotiated (bullied the desk clerk) for the hotel to loan us enough to pay her, and thanked us profusely!
  2. Traveling truly makes us better. We learn about other people, hone our EQ, become better problem solvers, and practice mindfulness (which wasn’t a thing in 1993) when we get out of our comfort zone and bring our open minds on the road.
  3. It’s all about the people. We met Diana and John at that Provencal dinner table.  The conversation was mostly in French, which left Phil out a bit, but they made sure to include him by translating and asking him questions in English.  John, a WWII hero and child psychoanalyst in his early 80s, and Diana, a Scottish mum of three grown sons who had qualified as a psychotherapist at age 60, were fascinating, especially John’s stories of being captured and sent to a German POW camp, making friends with a guard, and escaping to make his way through France back to London.  Years later, after John’s death, we took our 14-year-old daughter to London, where we stayed with Diana in her 4-story St. John’s Wood house.  It’s one of our most treasured memories.

Our friend Diana preparing a wonderful lamb dinner in her kitchen

 

Oh, and one other thing we learned that year:  travel requires courage, NOT fearlessness.

 

what’s keeping us sane. . .sort of


The news. Binge watching TV shows. Drinking. Overeating.

Just kidding (a little).

After six weeks of self-islolation, we’ve had to get creative, or at least be more thoughtful, about how to spend our socially distanced time. We acknowledge our privilege and good fortune every day, especially when we see news stories about people who are truly affected, often tragically so, by the corona virus and COVID-19. We have a safe home, Phil has a studio in our backyard where he can get away from me, I have my job when so many have lost theirs, and we have so far been able to stay comfortable and safe.

We really miss being able to get out. As aspiring Roamers, we love the adventure of travel, whether it’s a big trip to France (planned for July but almost certainly to be cancelled) or a day trip in the Texas Hill Country. Today I was struck by the fact that many of our diversions are things we won’t be able to do when we’re full-time Roamers. Phil won’t have a studio with all the latest equipment, and we won’t have a house or yard. The notion that in two years we won’t get to do things we can do even under quarantine heightens enjoyment and reminds me how precious every day is.

Baking

I love to cook and fully intend to make most of our meals when we’re roaming.  But I’m not a baker (probably because in baking you have to follow instructions, and I don’t like to do that!), and when we’re roaming, it’s unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to do much baking. So during our isolation I’ve taken up sourdough bread baking.  On the fourth try I actually got a beautiful and delicious result! This will do nicely until the day we walk to a local European bakery for the day’s bread.

My first successful whole grain sourdough bread!

Walking

We both go for lots of walks in our neighborhood. But on Saturday I really, really needed to get out of the neighborhood, so we drove to a nearby nature trail. We got to TALK to PEOPLE (only to say hi as we passed them on the trail, leaving six feet between us), look at some beautiful wildflowers, and exercise our (frankly overfed) bodies. Of course, we’ll walk all the time when we’re Roamers, but for now we get to appreciate our familiar “Little Bit of Heaven” here in the Hill Country.

The path we walked this weekend.

Gardening

I’m not a skilled or experienced gardener, but I love nothing more than serving food I grew (arugula and tomato salad, anyone?). And gardening is something I won’t be able to do when we’re roamers, so I plan to enjoy the heck out of it for the next two years. Just today I learned how to kill snails (so gross!) and started drying herbs (crafty,  fun, and frugal!). And I LOVE bringing flowers into the house and arranging them, or just smelling my favorite flowers, gardenias.

Freshly picked herbs drying in the sun!

Here’s hoping this new-found appreciation will last for the next week of confinement! What’s saving your sanity?

     INSPIRATION

Nicole and her kiddos

During this extended self-isolation experience I’ve especially enjoyed one of my favorites, Househunters International.  A fan for years, I even watch repeats of episodes filmed in places I either love or really, really want to visit.  Because the episodes are short, I often watch them during lunch, to get a true break during the workday.

So this week I was watching an episode in Scotland, a place that holds special interest because my paternal great grandfather was born in Glasgow.  The house hunter, American Nicole Ratliff, was an engaging single mom who, with her twin 9-year-olds, was moving there from Mexico to attend the University of St. Andrews.  Interesting, but I was admittedly focused on my yummy avocado toast lunch (topped with leftover grilled sweet potatoes and asparagus, and a fried egg!)—until something grabbed my attention.  I rewound to make sure I’d heard correctly. Yes, Nicole mentioned that at age seven she was diagnosed with spina bifida.  My niece has spina bifida. Hers is a more severe case that was diagnosed prenatally, and she uses a wheelchair.  Nicole walks with a cane, and the stairs in the homes she viewed were a visible challenge for her, but on her limited budget the best she could hope for was a bedroom/bathroom on the ground floor.

I was curious about this woman’s story.  Turns out she became an expat to give her children the experience of living in different places, learning different cultures, and becoming, like her, lifelong learners.  She was pursuing a second master’s degree in social anthropology. But wait, there’s more—her twins also have disabilities (autism and ADD/oppositional defiance disorder).  Nicole left her government job to travel with her kids “to show that because you have a disability, does not mean you should not be able to travel and see the world.” They have a Facebook blog, and as I read it I discovered that they are Roamers!  Currently self-isolating in St. Andrews after having lived in Columbia and Mexico, they are living roaming lives, worldschooling, exploring, and inspiring many people, especially single parents and people with disabilities.  

Phil and I don’t have disabilities.  We don’t have money problems. We’re healthy, we’re white Americans, we’re privileged. And we’re self-isolating here in central Texas, longing for the day when we can resume travel and plan in earnest for our roaming days. But in the meantime, I plan to devote some time every day to gratitude, and to celebrate people like Nicole and her kids, who inspire us all.

The new normal

Well.  It’s March 28, 2020, and today roaming seems to be a very, very distant dream.  The current unreal reality has settled in like an unwelcome guest whose plans to leave are not being mentioned.  Our county, like so many places across the planet, has issued a mandatory shelter at home order with exceptions only for necessary errands like getting food and medicine.  We are, however, allowed to exercise outdoors, as long as we maintain social distancing. 

Phil and I are so very lucky.  We have a comfortable home with a fenced-in backyard that houses Phil’s art studio.  I still have my well paid work-from-home job and have enjoyed the break from constant travel.  Our family and most of our friends are so far safe and healthy.  And we live in a sparsely populated area where we can easily go out for walks without coming close to anyone.  We’re worried, but not fearful.  I fully acknowledge my privilege and am grateful for our situation.

So while our dreams of roaming are on hold, because neither of us has an appetite for travel planning right now, we are trying to embrace this new normal.  A reluctant adopter, I’ve learned to enjoy video meetings.  On most days Phil goes for long walks with our neighbor, on opposite sides of the street.  I’ve been taking Michelle Obama on my walks this week, listening to Becoming.  The bluebonnets are in full, glorious bloom, and recent rains have made everything gloriously green.  Yesterday I rescued a tortoise from the middle of the road; today I rescued the same tortoise from a driveway about a quarter of a mile away.  On our walk together, Phil and I watched a dung beetle roll its globe of poop along, and when we got home, curious about its behavior, I googled it to learn that dung beetles were considered deities by the ancient Egyptians.  We ordered sourdough starter and have begun making artisan bread, and this morning Phil delivered a loaf to our neighbors’ porch.  And I’ve continued with my Babbel French lessons, even though our July trip to France is almost certain to be cancelled. 

Like everyone else, we’re doing our best to maintain a sense of normalcy, and so far we’re succeeding. I can’t fathom the ways this pandemic will change the world, but my hope is that people will feel more connected to one another, that kindness and compassion will overrule division and judgement, and that containment and bending the curve will prevail.  And that sometime soon, roaming will once again be possible.

 

“I just needed to hear your voice,” said our ex-pat daughter in Europe. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italy sings!

How the Pandemic has influenced our thinking

Wow, what a week!  We spent way too much time watching the news (even watching news sources we usually eschew, in order to see how  outlets vary in their reporting), we stocked up on groceries a little without going nuts (no toilet paper shelves were emptied by us), and at the last minute we decided to skip our community’s monthly wine share event.

My company started the week by leaving meeting and travel decisions to our discretion, only to later ban all non-essential travel and in-person meetings.  So far I’ve cancelled three trips and had some conferences postponed.  The silver lining for me is getting more time at home, but I’m quite frankly gobsmacked at the changes this pandemic is making in everyone’s lives.

When the Europe-to-USA travel ban was announced, my daughter in Europe called because “I just needed to hear your voice.” And I needed to hear the voice of my constantly-traveling son, who at the time was in Kansas City on business, and to check in with friends in Seattle, Westchester County, and Detroit.  

Like so many others, we have overseas vacation plans that may be impacted.  That led us to ponder how we’ll handle situations like this now, in our small Texas town, and especially later, if they occur when we’re roamers.

We are fortunate to have the means to get home if we need to, and we do generally purchase travel insurance for airfare and sometimes lodging.  But the more personal impacts, such as having to self-quarantine in a foreign country where we don’t have a network of friends and family, or not being familiar with medical resources, transportation options, and other necessities, gave us pause. 

One scenario we discussed was similar to the current situation in Italy.  “What if we were in Italy now, stuck in a short-term rental apartment, with everything closed and nowhere to go?” If we couldn’t fly home, we’d have to stay indefinitely.  How would we handle it?

And then I saw videos of Italians joining in song from their balconies. I read about NBA players pledging financial support for arena workers. And I was reminded that the best part of the human spirit can come forward in times of crisis.

In the end, we agreed that neither of us feared being stuck together in a small apartment.  As long as we’re together, we are confident that we can weather the storms. And if by roaming, and sharing our experience by writing about it, we can help make the world just a little smaller, for just a few people, it will all be worth it.

The Planning Begins

Our conversations get interesting!

By early February 2020, Phil was almost fully on board; his only stipulation was that we not immediately sell the house.  We love our little house in the Texas Hill Country, with its art studio in the backyard and my beautiful garden.  And being only a half hour away from our Texas kids, we were well settled.  I had to agree with Phil that renting our house for the first year would give us a soft landing if we found that the roaming life didn’t suit us.  That decision tentatively made, we began seriously exploring options and planning for real.

I was still reading Lynne Martin’sbook aloud, and Phil was enthusiastic.  Our reading led to many interesting conversations, such as:

 

  • I’m the planner in the family, arranging most of our trips, social engagements, budget, etc.  Phil is the one who forces me to slow down and consider more options, really think things through, and be more thorough.  He also is passionate about art and history, and he has dragged enticed me to museums and galleries I wouldn’t have seen on my own.  We agreed that we’d rely on each other’s strengths to make this work.
  • We agreed to start with places where we’re comfortable, then gradually become more adventurous.  So perhaps we’ll start with France, Italy, and the UK (our daughter and son-in-law live in Europe), and as we sharpen our roaming skills we’ll travel to places where less English is spoken and the cultures are more diverse.
  • Phil is an artist, primarily focused on landscapes.  We’ll have to figure out how he can adapt his painting style to life on the road, without the sophisticated equipment he relies on to transform photos into ready-to-paint sketches on canvas.  For me, aside from this blog, my “career” will be organizing our adventures as the family travel agent.

 

Phil’s painting of a creek near where we live

 

  • We have moved 16 times in our 38 years of marriage, including going from 3600 square feet down to 1600, so we know how to downsize.  We have given our kids (ok, persuaded them to take) furniture, dishes, décor, art, and memorabilia, and I’m frankly surprised the IRS hasn’t investigated us because we’ve donated so many things to charity over the years.  But still we have a LOT of stuff.  I’m ruthless about getting rid of stuff that we no longer need or love, especially after being inspired by Marie Kondo.  But this is different.  We’re looking at getting rid of everything we can and moving all the rest into a storage unit.  Over the past couple of weeks one of us will say, “I could never part with our dining table,” or “Could you live without your Wustoff knives?” or “What would I do with all the stuff in my studio?”  And let’s not even talk about the books.  I have over 300 cookbooks and even more fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
  • How will we know whether we have enough money?  We had already decided to spend 2020 living at or below the amount we expect to have in retirement, as a test.  In January we spent about half what we spent in December, and we’re on a similar track for February, so it’s looking good so far.  And now we have even more motivation to save.  One recent Saturday after seeing a movie complete with adult beverages and snacks, we nixed our dining out plans to eat at home, and every time I think of buying something I think, “We’d just have to get rid of it in two years, so why buy it?” 

 

Regardless whether we end up as roaming retirees, this exercise is changing us, making our conversations more impactful and weightier—and more fun.  When I worked at a community mental health center many years ago, one of our consultants told us “Every couple needs a baby.  Not necessarily a human child, but some creative project they can share.”  Have we found our next baby?

 

 

 

Yikes!

 

That word expresses how I felt as I contemplated retirement.  By age 65 I’d decided not to retire until 70, so I had time.  But every time I thought about life after retirement, all I saw was a hazy gray fog.  I loved my artist husband and our life together.  I loved cooking, reading, and traveling.  And we had wonderful friends and family, especially our adult children and their partners.  But after a long healthcare executive career filled with travel, brilliant colleagues and clients, and constant stimulation (ok, you can call it stress), how on earth was I going to fill my time in a meaningful way?

I had started my career as a psychologist in a community mental health center after teaching in public schools for four years during grad school, so after those years of public service, volunteer work didn’t hold much appeal.  That was confirmed after only one day volunteering at the local thrift shop—nice idea, but not for me!  I had joined my college sorority alumnae organization, thinking it might provide opportunity for engagement, but although the members were lovely, I found little common ground.  I had taken up gardening, which I love, but that wasn’t enough to fill up retirement.  My lifelong reading addiction could consume many hours, but I needed more.  And you can only host so many dinner parties. 

In our family, each year we choose a word to guide our intentions for the coming year.  After hearing me say for the 10,000th time “When I retire. . .” my wise daughter suggested the word NOW.  Do it now, don’t postpone living your life every moment.  And after my husband experienced a couple of health scares, her words resounded powerfully.  But at the age of 67, with retirement looming in less than three years, I was focused on NOW but still anxious about LATER.

As it so often happens, that’s when the universe intervened.  Having kids in Europe and having fallen in love with France and Italy, we’d been thinking about living abroad for all or part of our retirement.  But we also had kids in Texas, where we lived, as well as wonderful friends and extended family in the U.S. How could we handle being so far away from them?  As I was compulsively searching for other’s experiences living abroad, I happened upon a blogpost by Lynn Martin, who with her husband Tim had sold their home, stored their most precious belongings, and become “nomadic retirees,” living several months in various locations.  Eureka!

That evening, as I prepared dinner while my husband made cocktails, I couldn’t wait to share my new idea.  “Honey, I just discovered a new concept.  What would you think about becoming permanent travelers in retirement?”  Now, my husband is not what you’d call impulsive.  He ruminates over every decision, taking (in my admittedly impatient view) inordinate time and procrastinating on decisions.  As I shared what I’d learned from Lynn’s “Home Away” blogpost and we started our initial discussion, I knew I’d need to go slowly so that Phil could warm to the idea gradually.  So of course I immediately bought Lynn’s book and insisted on reading it aloud over coffee in the mornings and wine in the evenings.  To my delighted surprise, Phil was tentatively on board almost immediately!  Now, to begin thinking through this new idea.

Within a week I’d developed a draft budget for our nomadic life, evaluated our finances and the pros and cons of selling our house, and compulsively digested everything I could find online about this exciting way of life.  The only hitch so far was figuring out what we would do with the head of our household, our cat Baxter.  We couldn’t imagine being without him, but we knew he was not cut out for the rambling life.  But as of today, we have over two years before I retire, so that should be plenty of time to solve all the problems associated with this notion.  I had recently read Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, which had taught me that life is a series of problems, and the lucky ones are those who get the best problems to solve.  We now had a top-notch set of great problems.

“Every time I thought about life after retirement, all I saw was a hazy gray fog.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting the Berlin Wall in the rain

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a family trip to Sweden this was our favorite dinner–featuring reindeer tongue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baxter leading a meeting