A Really Different Kind of Cruise

It all began about a year ago around this time. My music of choice is Smooth Jazz. Over the last so many years, I would receive emails about Dave Koz (a saxophone player) cruises.  But, every time I would click on the link to find out more about it, it would be sold out.  For the next year!

So, I happened to get one of those emails while Jim was sitting there playing on his iPad. Once again — sold out!  I mentioned to Jim that every time I got notice of one of these cruises it would be too late.  And that it was so frustrating.

Fast forward a few months to my birthday.  As I sat there opening my gifts, I was knocked back on my butt by my gift from Jim.  We were going to go on the Dave Koz Smooth Jazz Baltic cruise. Are you kidding me?  It was sold out.  How did you get this booked?  It turned out after my comment, he called the agency coordinating things and they had a cancellation and there was one cabin available.  SOLD!

So in early May, we flew off to Copenhagen to begin our cruise. Having never sailed on one before, we didn’t know what to expect and hoped we’d get our money’s worth. I’m not much of a fan of cruises, but this one was in a class by itself as far as I was concerned.

Once again, I can’t be effusive enough about transportation systems in Europe. After retrieving our luggage, we made our way to the machines to buy our 3 day city passes. We hopped on the bus that would take us to our hotel and wow! … the bus stop was right across the street from our hotel. Talk about convenient! We arrived three days early to allow for some sightseeing and we were sure glad we did.  We loved Copenhagen.  Well, not the prices so much. I’ve since learned that Copenhagen is one of the most expensive cities in Europe. For about $32 each, we had unlimited use of the buses, trains and metro for 3 days which we decided was a real bargain.

Waiting to check into the hotel, we struck up a conversation with a couple who were going on the cruise too … their 6th. We could tell this because they had the Dave Koz luggage tags.  And a mountain of luggage. The cruise had several themes going each day … all white night, 50’s night, prom night.  We like to travel light and chose not to add the additional clothes to our luggage, not to mention additional bags. These new friends assured us we would love it even more than we expected. We took their word for it.

Off we went to explore. Can you believe bike paths along the streets that were wide enough for a compact car? Lots of bike riders. And church steeples … lots of them and very artistic. And old. Very old. And water.  Everywhere. And great beer! The one I especially liked was (Something)Master Blonde. I haven’t been able to find it listed anywhere on the Internet.

 

Tivoli Gardens and people out enjoying a nice sunny day.  Jim got flashed by a girl pulling her straps back up.  And there was a young girl who was topless, but she kept her arms crossed over her chest. I suspect she wasn’t quite ready for this adventure.

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  And yes,  the trampolines were built into the sidewalk along another canal. Cool! Notice the bike in the background with its basket.  Sometimes children would be in it and sometimes an adult!

 

Some of those steeples I mentioned.

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Our favorite neighborhood, Nyhaven, where we had an enjoyable lunch while people watching. We especially enjoyed the group of guys who imbibed a little too much and were having a great time.

Finally, cruise day arrived.  Excited! We had to wait to check-in until all the musicians were checked in … wow! There were sure a lot of them. Hmmm … this should be good. As we boarded we all got a baseball cap.

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At sailing, we all gathered pool-side for free champagne or whatever elsethey were passing out. We took them all.  While we were imbibing, all the musicians were introduced, like we weren’t already fans and didn’t know most of them on sight.

In our room, we found a memory book with bios of the musicians, pages for autographs and vinyl pages for photos. A line up of all our choices of venues and musicians were all listed in bold black so as to make it easy to decide who we wanted to see. Sometimes we have a hard time deciding as we needed to be in two places at once.monday lineupmonday lineup2

Our first port of call was Stockholm, Sweden. We liked it, but not as much as Copenhagen. We did manage to happen upon the changing of the guard as we were walking down the street. And we found a cute street to shop and people watch, not to mention catch a beer.

 

Back to the ship for more entertainment and on to our next port, Tallinn, Estonia. I had read that Tallinn was a favorite city of a lot of people and it didn’t disappoint.  I loved it.

 

I would go back there in a minute. It took us awhile to get our bearings once we got off the Hop-on/Hop-off bus.  We didn’t know which stop we got off and ended up walking through a huge park, but finally managed to find our way into the Old Town section. While we were there, we kept hearing music and wondered where the bar was.  Rounding a corner, there the music was!  Saxophonist, Vincent Ingala and percussionist, Arthur Thompson were riding in a pedicab playing as they rode through town.

We probably shouldn’t have had that one last beer because we just made it back to the ship in time. Luckily there was a group of women who were even later than us — well, truth be told — we walked faster down the wharf. Whew! Are you getting the idea that there was an abundance of beer drinking going on with us? How else to people watch?

More musical entertainment on the ship while we sailed on to St. Petersburg, Russia. If you went on an excursion with a group, you didn’t need a visa. And without a visa, you couldn’t wander around by yourself.  Since the issues between the U.S. and Russia, what with expelled diplomats and such, and with Russia closing the U.S. Embassy in St. Petersburg, you definitely didn’t want to chance getting separated from your tour group! I kept a watchful eye on Jim as he has a history with getting lost.

While there would be a lot of historical stuff to see, I think we all found our guide to be interesting.  We woman were most interested in how she managed to walk in those shoes all day. I know my feet hurt in my sneakers by the end of the day.  I think the men just liked looking at her.

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We signed up for an excursion that lasted 10 hours. We were most interested in seeing Catherine’s Palace and the Amber Room. The place was huge!

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It seems when Peter the Great married Catherine, he constructed a more modest palace for her. He had been married before, but when he saw Catherine, he thought she was the most beautiful woman.  Based on her portrait, I didn’t share that view.  So, he put his first wife in a convent, (convenient) so he could marry Catherine. Ladies, if you husband ever develops an interest in convents — get out of Dodge.  Quickly. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was the one who enlarged it to this size. You can never have too many rooms, I say.

Elizabeth used 100 kg (about 220 pounds) of gold on the exterior. Real gold, folks!  Boy those were the days. The inside was no less extravagant. The Amber Room was so impressive.  I thought amber was a gem or mineral, but it is actually fossilized tree resin formed over a long time.  Who knew? Well, my friend, Paul, probably knew.  We weren’t able to take photos in this room, so I had to use one from online on the St. Petersburg tourist website.  I couldn’t find any way to give credit for this photo, so I hope I don’t get arrested and put in a gulag.

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Another interesting place we stopped to see, but couldn’t get very close to, was the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. It was built to memorialize Alexander II following his assassination in 1881. While riding out in public, a bomb was thrown at his carriage, but didn’t kill him.  With the carriage in ruins, the rebels took that opportunity to place another bomb under the carriage, which then killed Alexander. This church was very colorful.  The Germans, while bombing St. Petersburg, did not have luck bombing this church since the domes had all been painted black.  But, by some luck, an undetonated  bomb did fall on one of the domes which was not discovered until renovation began on the structure.  Imagine the worker’s surprise when they looked up and saw a live unexploded bomb above their heads. Run! Luckily, it was diffused successfully.

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Our last stop was Peter and Paul Cathedral where the tsars and their families are buried. The altar was beautiful. And big.0517180907W

We dragged ourselves back on the ship, ready to sit and be entertained with the best music.  And we were! Those musicians who weren’t playing were usually in the audience enjoying.  Usually, they couldn’t handle just observing and would borrow an extra instrument and join whoever was on stage. What fun!

Next stop, Helsinki, Finland.  I didn’t take any pictures there.  We were only in port for 5 hours. We took the shuttle into town, but found we were there too early for shops, etc to be open.  We needed to be back on ship at 1:00 p.m. and since we were in the downtown area, it was like any other downtown in the world.  😦

As we left port, we knew the next day would be an at sea day and our last day before departing in Copenhagen. And what an at sea day it was! One of my favorite guitarists, Peter White, had his own pub named for him on this ship.  Not in real life, but for this cruise.  It was a little small and always filled to capacity if it seemed he might be playing unscheduled. I did manage to worm my way in on this Helsinki night as I was determined I would not leave this ship without seeing him.

Our last night, for the big concert, whoa — Peter White!  What an ending! So many other musicians joined him on stage and they were enjoying themselves so much that it made us feel a part of it all.

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Left to right:  Vincent Ingala, Jay Gore, Peter White and Dwayne Smith

That week I fell in love with Vincent Ingala, Jonathan Fritzen, the Peet Project aka The Bad Boys of Budapest, and Jay Gore.  Jim fell in love with Mindi Abair.  When she played Summertime, she won him over — big time.

The Dave Koz Smooth Jazz Cruise for 2019 will sail around Australia.  Jim and I decided we were not interested in going to Australia for that one.  But, once home and realizing how much fun we had, I put us on the waitlist. Both weeks had sold out while on the ship. We’ve done so many cruises and they have all been the same.  Silly games to occupy the time.  Or cooking demos.  Ship entertainment is usually crew members … and only at night.  This one was truly special.  Music went on all day. These were the real deal.  The Grammy award winners.  Keeping my fingers crossed we get to go to Australia.  And hopefully managing to save for it so I don’t end up in debtor’s prison.

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No, I don’t want to go to Turkey!

Since I’ve known Jim, he has bugged me about wanting to go to Turkey.  He was stationed there during his military service and loved it.  My response was always, “No.” But … that was before I saw the Rick Steves travelogue on Turkey. Cappadocia, in particular. Those weird rock formations and the caves within them that people actually lived in until the mid-80s, made me change my mind.   I wanted to see it for myself.

I could have knocked him over with a feather when I called him to tell him I would go. Then in mid December, I got an email from Gate 1 Travel about an escorted 10 day trip including airfare, hotels, guide, meals and flights between cities for just slightly over $1000, so we jumped on it. And am I ever glad we did.  It really is great being retired and not having to request time off. What a trip!

We were met at Ataturk airport in Istanbul by our guide, Ikut. I think we all liked him immediately. He had a great personality, which is important if you are going to be with someone for 10 days. On the ride to our hotel, he pointed out some of the sights we’d be seeing and best of all, he thanked us for coming to his country. It seems Americans are afraid to travel to Turkey and it has affected their tourism business.  But people from the Far East have been picking up the slack.

We had the rest of the day free, so Jim and I went to lunch.  We couldn’t figure out their system, didn’t know what we were pointing at to eat and then didn’t know how to go about paying.  But we persevered. Eventually, I just took the bull by the horns and gestured that we needed to pay. And managed to get someone to let us!

After that, we held up the line trying to figure out how to buy our transit ticket. We seem to always have this issue. Some kind man … or maybe he was frustrated and in a hurry … did it for us. We boarded the tram and made our way to Dolmabahce Palace.  This was built for Sultan Abdulmecid I, between 1843 -1856 during the Ottoman Empire. In today’s dollars, it would cost $1.5 billion. It was really impressive.

As we were almost finished with the tour, I noticed every one had blue booties over their shoes.  But not Jim and I. After that, I was worried we were going to get arrested or something for messing up the palace. We managed to get out without incident.  Jim and I really need a keeper. I still don’t know where those booties were when we entered.  No one else didn’t seem to have a problem finding them. tsk. tsk.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in a place for dinner.  What a great time we had with the waiters!  The scotch helped, I supposed.  They seemed to want to talk to us Americans. The head waiter was a Trump fan!  Believe it or not.  It didn’t matter to him when we told him we were not.  He liked Trump’s stand on immigration.  I’m guessing it had something to do with Syria.  Good thing he can’t vote for Trump in 2020. He was not supportive of their President (or Dictator since he has been consolidating his power) and his stance of taking society backwards, most notable with regards to women.

The next day bright and early and I do mean bright and early, we began our day of touring the Blue Mosque (it was closed for renovations), Hagia Sofia (just some renovations), the Basilica Cistern (where they stored water), Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome (where the chariots raced), and ending at the Grand Bazaar. I think we walked just under 1000 miles. Hello … Istanbul!

The Grand Bazaar has 61 covered streets and 4000 shops.  Yikes! Jim and I made our way quickly on the main street from Gate 1 to Gate 7 and went on a quest to find a place to have lunch.  We found a place to have beers. I should have gone to the bathroom before leaving the place because when we got to the meeting point outside the bazaar, I knew I needed to go. And I didn’t have that much time.  Oye!  Back into that maze of a bazaar. Desperately trying to find a bathroom and trying to remember all the twists and turns I was taking, I finally saw a WC sign.  But, then it didn’t guide me much past that point.  Mindful of time ticking by, I walked up to two men and asked for the restroom.  Restaurant?  No restroom.  Restaurant?  Bathroom?  Heads shaking.  WC?  More heads shaking.  Finally, I did what any language deficient person would do … I squatted. “Ah, pss, pss.” Laughing at me, as well. Who cares? I got my point across.  I headed off where they sent me, but where the heck was the bathroom? Stopping by a woman sitting on a step, she directed me one door down. Luckily she spoke English. Then I needed a 1 Lira coin.  Found it.  Waiting in line, a woman attempted to get in front of me.  Didn’t happen! Exiting the bathroom, I used every bit of brain power and navigational skills to get myself back to the main street and on my way out. Don’t panic, Irene.  Stay calm.  Finally, I saw Gate 7. Rushing out, there was the entire group waiting for me.  I was late. Sorry. I never asked him, but I would guess that Ikut thought I was lost for good in the maze.

Early the next morning, we made our way back to the airport for a flight to Ismir. Here we toured Ephesus, Hierapolis, and Pamukkale. What history in this country!

Ephesus was built in the 10th century B.C.  The Temple of Artemis, built around 550 B.C. was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Ephesus was one of the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Book of Revelation.  It’s believed that the Gospel of John may have been written here. We visited what is assumed to be the house of the Virgin Mary, where she lived out her last years.

To top off our visit there, Jim and I each rode a camel.  Now, camels aren’t indigenous to Turkey.  But, this was obviously a tourist attraction and we succumbed.

Hieropolis was an ancient city next to the hot springs in what is now called Pamukkale.  These hot springs have been used since the second century B.C. Can you believe the history of Turkey?  Wow!

These hot springs flow out and form calcium pools down the side of the hill.  At one time, hotels were located at the top, but interfered with the flow of the water and created issues with the calcium, so the hotels were forced to move down into the town. It’s now a protected area with just a portion where the public is able to walk and dip toes into the water. Step onto an area you shouldn’t and you’re likely to get whistles blowing at you.

Our next big adventure and the whole reason I said I would go to Turkey … Cappadocia! We elected to take the balloon ride, so we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. Yeah, I surprised myself with this.  We rode the shuttle to the offices of the balloon company, ate a very nice breakfast, and waited for the go ahead.  It was all dependent on the wind.  The previous three days, they were not able to go up.  As our guide, Ikut, said, “If the wind is too strong, we will end up in Syria!”  Yay!  The wind cooperated and off we went to board the baskets of the balloons. Being afraid of heights, I wasn’t sure how I would do. What I discovered was that the scariest part was climbing the ladder to get in and out of the basket.  I hate ladders. What a wonderful experience. I video taped a good bit of it, but when I went back and reviewed, I found I didn’t understand recording and pausing.  As a result, I have a lot of my underarm, where I had tucked my iPad, and the inside of the basket.  Duh! Electronics!

We got to attend a ceremony of Whirling Dervishes.  I was not aware that this was an actual way of worship for those who follow the Sufi order, a mystical branch of Islam which was founded by Rumi in the 13th century. They dress in white and whirl with one hand raised up reaching for the divine and the other down to the earth. As they whirl, they get into a trance where they aim to give up their ego and try to reach the source of perfection. It was beautiful to watch.  We were instructed that this was a worship service and we were not to clap, talk or take pictures.  It was not to be viewed as a performance. Once they were done, we were told we could take a few pictures, so we did.

The next day, we flew back to Istanbul for our last remaining days. We took a boat tour of the Bosphorous River where we viewed both the Europe side of Istanbul and the Asian side.  Istanbul is the only city in two continents. After a visit to the Spice market, Jim and I wandered around the streets and found ourselves in very crowded shopping areas.  Were they part of the Grand Bazaar?  We didn’t know but it was most interesting.

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That night we had our final dinner where Jim was presented a cake to celebrate his birthday, complete with song.

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It was with regret the next morning to leave this great country. We had a wonderful time. I encourage everyone to put Turkey on their bucket list. You won’t regret it.  No, we never felt unsafe. We weren’t concerned about terrorists. They genuinely gave us the impression that they were glad we came.

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Ikut, our guide, paying homage to his new American friend, Jim. Those two got along too well. Birds of a feather, I think.

I’ve been dwelling on this …s

This is not my usual post about enjoying life.  But, I need to get it out so I can stop dwelling.  As many of you know, I listen to NPR … National Public Radio. Despite the fact that some of my relatives think it’s a left-wing Trump bashing network, it’s not.  Yes, they do have some political topics on, but that usually isn’t the main programming. They might have a program about dressers that aren’t stable and fall over on children. It all varies, but most of the programming is topical.

This morning on 1A, it was about the upcoming March for Life on Saturday with a few guests discussing different aspects of the whole gun violence issue.  And it’s not like watching cable news where they all talk over one another or have shouting matches.  The guests are civilized and understand you can disagree without being nasty.

This followed on the heels of my watching Megan Kelly Today this morning.  She had guests on discussing their experience with mental health. Here’s the link: https://www.today.com/parents/what-conduct-disorder-kids-t125279.

The program dealt with conduct disorder which is a form of mental health.  Which brings me to the gun violence issue.  One of the excuses we keep hearing is “it’s not a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue”.  People with mental health issues or their families don’t have such an easy time getting help.  There is no pill you give someone like an antibiotic. Or like putting a cast on a broken arm or leg. Maybe you can find help and maybe you can get on the right balance of meds, but this isn’t always the case. Insurance often doesn’t cover mental health or if it does, there is a limit to the number of times you can see a doctor.  And they don’t come cheap, as the guests explained.  They weren’t able to get help. Can you imagine having to padlock your interior doors to protect your other children or family members?  I can’t either.

When I first moved to North Carolina from California in 2002, one of the big mental health hospitals closed down and all the people were released … to their families. Or to the streets. Around that time, a man did something.  I can’t remember … a murder?  A rape? Child molestation? It really isn’t important what he did.  What is important was his parents were unable to get help for him.  They would call the police.  Call Social Services. No one would or could help them.  Eventually, he committed a crime and went to jail, but not before there was a victim. These parents knew something was going to happen, but were helpless.

Well, nothing has changed since then. Yeah, let’s make America great again. We still aren’t doing anything about mental health. And I doubt in my remaining lifetime that we will.  We don’t have our priorities straight. It’s all about me, not us. I’m not giving up my right to own all the guns I want, you can give up your child. I know it sounds harsh, but it is the reality today.

So on 1A, after having watched Megan’s show, they were discussing all the various issues pertaining to the March and the gun violence issue. And then a young woman called in. She lived in one of those states in the South that started with an A, I believe.  She stated that all the people she knew had guns.  She was a mother of a 3 year old.  The problem was a mental health issue because the parents didn’t do a good job. She intimated that was the reason people have mental health issues!  Their parents! She, on the other hand, makes time for her child.  A three year old. Are you f’ing kidding me?  The top of my head blew off!

She’s had three years of experience being a parent and she felt she could judge.  My personal feeling … those years were the easiest.  As a parent, you had control.  There were no outside influences.  Sure it takes physical energy, but you don’t have the issues you do when they become teenagers or adults. Give yourself another pat on the back, young mother.

My experience with mental health?  My husband was bi-polar and suffered with it for 25 years until he took his own life. He was a good guy. His parents were good parents.  They did their best. Their other son doesn’t appear to have any issues.  My sister was bi-polar, as well.  I like to think my brother and I turned out okay. So, I guess my parents did an okay job too. A good friend is married to a paranoid- schizophrenic.  He had lovely parents.

I don’t think placing the blame on parents for the heinous acts of their children is right.  Granted, some parents mistreat and are hateful to their children. The jails seem to be full of their offspring. But what about those who have done a decent job.  No, none of us have done a perfect job. But, good enough.

My heart goes out to the families when you hear of their child doing the kinds of things they’re doing now. Maybe there is a lot of hate being discussed in the house. Maybe there is just an imbalance in their bodies.  A disconnect of the electrical impulses. One thing I know, mental health issues are not easy to control.   And to assume that they are is wrong. Just wrong. And uninformed. Maybe we need to stop blaming and start solving. Solving mental health issues is going to cost dollars.  Are you ready to suggest your taxes be raised to cover these costs?

Who Let the Old Folks Out — part 3

Boy, we felt very accomplished since we figured out the train system in Italy.  Hey, we were able to buy our tickets at the machine.  So this time, we decided to venture down to Firenze … Florence to most of us.

We grabbed our coats and umbrellas and off we went.   Once out of the station in Florence, where to go?  After arguing over who was able to read the map better, we started walking.  No, neither of us conceded to the other.  But we made it to the Accademia Gallery and after waiting in line for awhile, which enabled me to view the fashions of those walking by, we made our way to the statue of David.  OMG!  It was amazing.  And … it was huge!

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Michelangelo made this from a piece of marble in 1501 to 1504 and stands at 17 feet high … and there we have David!  It was hard to top this, that’s for sure.  So we wandered around town a little more and decided as crowded as it was on a rainy February day, we couldn’t imagine what it could possibly be like in the height of tourist season. Lo and behold, look what we came upon!

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The Duomo!

 … and look at that line of people.  We decided not to join them.  And this was just a small segment of them. The tour buses had definitely arrived.

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After another pizza lunch, we made our way back to the train station and away from the Madding Crowd. And to the other crowd at the station.  By then, we were in the throng of people heading home after work. We had dinner that night at a restaurant across the plaza from the hotel.  There was some sort of function there with a man who played Smooth Jazz on a saxophone.  He was great!  What an ending to a busy day.

We set out the next day for Florence once again.  This time for a walking tour with views of Florence from across the Arno River.  I had read about walking to the top of the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo where the bronze replica of David is located.  Let me tell you … that was a climb!  First up a steep street, then the stairs.  Oh my, the stairs.  We’re talking heart attacks waiting to happen.  We stopped at each landing and rested. Luckily the individual steps were not real high, but still.

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The view from the top was fantastic! Worth the climb. And there was the bronze David.

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Back on the train to Montecatini Terme and one last anchovies and capers pizza for dinner and time to pack up for our trip the next day to Milan to catch our flight back to the U.S.

We wheeled our suitcases down to the station and decided this time we’d upgrade to 2nd class plus at 10 additional euros each.  We didn’t know what it would mean, but hey … let’s go out in style.  And it was!  Besides being a high speed train, 197 miles per hour, the steward came with a cart of snacks and drinks.  This was living, I tell you.

We were feeling very smug when we got of the train at the Milan airport.  Now to get to the hotel for the night. It does not pay to be smug. We couldn’t find any place to call for the hotel shuttle or anyone who could tell us where to get it.  I even asked the soldier with the big gun. Eventually, someone told us to walk through the hotel that was connected to the airport and wait outside for the shuttle.  Well … that turned out to be wrong.  Before getting on the bus, we asked the driver if he went to the Holiday Inn Express and it did and we were to get off at the second stop. Which we did.  And we could see the hotel off in the distance. What??

So off we went walking along the berm, in the dark, heading toward the road to take us up toward the hotel.  The gravel road, that is. As we were wheeling our bags over that gravel, the language escaping our lips would have made our mothers wash our mouths out with soap. There was a short cut through the parking lot which turned out not to be because it was fenced in with chain link. Back out of the parking lot, graveled as well, to the road up to the intersection.  Finally, paved street!  We made our way down the long drive and entered the hotel.  We thought we’d never get there.

Turned out they did have a shuttle that we could have picked up at another location at the airport. The poor girl at the check-in desk had to deal with two ticked off people.  When she asked for our voucher, I kind of lost it.  Voucher?  Voucher? Are you kidding me? Call Gate 1.  Do you have a printer? I’ll print it off. 

She decided not to pursue it any further.  Voucher not needed. {smile} After depositing our bags in the room, we made our way to the little bar and ordered a bottle of wine.  The bartender told us there was a restaurant nearby.  Go out of the hotel, turn left, take the next right and then another left and it would be right there.  Mind you, it was dark. Off we went in pursuit of a good meal.  Never found it.  Back to the hotel bar where we ordered microwaved lasagna, which turned out to be surprisingly good.  Who would have thought?

The next day we made our way back to the airport on the hotel shuttle. After going through security and passport control, we picked a place for lunch.  Wow!

Calamari and a side salad.  Can you believe this airport food?

What a send off Italy gave us.  Once back in New York, we once again needed to navigate the ticket machine.  With a little more help, we managed to get our tickets. I had already studied the subway map and knew where we needed to change trains so we were good. Except I asked this one lady two or three times if we were taking the right train.  And she was American!  I think I had lost some of my confidence in my navigating skill. Good thing we looked our ages.  People give allowances for Senior Citizen confusion.

We had a great trip!  We plan to do this one again.  We enjoyed the heck out of it.  For anyone reading our misadventures as reasons not to travel to places you’ve never been to countries where you don’t speak the language, I only have one thing to say … “Go!”

Who Let the Old Folks Out–part 2

After a decent night of sleep, we decided to explore Montecatini Terme. We needed to get some euros because we had decided not to get them before we left. I never charge cash to my credit card, but knew I had the pin number that was needed to do this. So before we left home, I began my search for the pin.  But, where in the world would I have recorded it?  I was not very successful in my search and then remembered that it had been sent to me in the mail when my bank was acquired by Wells Fargo.  I spent about an hour searching every piece of paper in my file cabinet.  Voila!  Found it.  I wrote it down and put the paper in a hidden place in my purse. Jim had his written down in his wallet. Oops … he didn’t bring his wallet.  It was back in the good ol’ U.S.of A. He was pretty sure he remembered his number, so not a problem.

While on our exploration, we happened upon an ATM.  I whipped out my card and … what?  My pin wasn’t valid?  Are you kidding me? I tried again.  No dice. Of course, because of my advanced age, I figured I must have transposed a number. Or maybe it was the machine.  Next up?  Jim.  He tried a couple of variations of his pin, but didn’t have any luck either. Who left the old folks out? Now our exploration became a mission.  Find a machine that would give us some euros.

We saw a place called a Banco. I decided to go in and try to get money in person. Well, you couldn’t just walk in.  You need to be buzzed in.  Then there was a small revolving door you had to go through where you needed to be buzzed through again. Once in, I was told that they had no money there. Don’t ask. It was easier to get back out.

After trying a few more machines we came across without any success, we decided to see if we could get money at the hotel. Nope, but we were told we could get money from the post office with our cash. Luckily, Jim had put a couple of hundred dollar bills in his money belt. FYI, $400 = 326 euros. Lucky, Irene. Jim was now bankrolling this trip.  It’s not like we needed euros, I had some left from our Ireland trip last fall.  But each time you charge on your credit card, you not only have a conversion from dollars to euros (which is not in favor of the dollar), but you pay a transaction fee.  If you get a bunch of euros, you save on transaction fees.

The next day we decided to take the train to Lucca. On TripAdvisor, many people wrote about the difficulty buying the tickets from the machine at the station.  Not a problem!  Those people must have never tried buying them from the NY or Boston subway system! Bada boom! Tickets!

Luckily we brought our umbrellas with us because it rained the entire time we walked around Lucca. It was a pretty town and we could have enjoyed it more on a sunnier day.

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This was a walk along a 2.5 mile wall around the city.

That night, back in Montecatini, we headed back out in the rain to a restaurant that got good reviews on TripAdvisor.  But all the tables were reserved, so on the way back we happened upon a place, Ristorante Da Lorenzo on Corso Roma and with some hesitation, we went in.  Hunger does that to you. What a great meal we had! Pricey, but good.

I had black spaghetti with some kind of fish pieces. It is hard to see it hanging off my fork against my black sweater. Trust me, it was tasty.  I’d love to have some now.

Next installment … Firenze (Florence).

Who Let The Old Folks Out?

It started one dark and stormy night. No, it didn’t. It started with an email. I don’t know what kind of night it was.  Maybe it was daytime. Jim was sitting in the chair and I was reading my email. And there it all began! The email from Gate 1 travel.  An eight day trip to Tuscany, including flight, hotel, car and breakfasts for $799. As I read it to Jim, I knew his answer would be, “Let’s go.” So we did.

The flight was out of JFK, where all the deals seem to start for us.  So we flew up early in the morning to allow us time to spend in Manhattan. We both wanted to go to Ground Zero and since our flight wasn’t until 10:30 p.m., we had plenty of time.

We put our luggage into storage and boarded the Air Train to get the subway into Manhattan. That was the easy part. Shoot … how do you work this dang machine to buy the ticket? We got someone to help us, but she did it so fast we weren’t able to follow what she did. Shades of the subway in Boston.  I think I discovered a pattern.  That being … we aren’t capable of buying tickets out of a machine. Buying tickets outside of the U.S. was much easier as we discovered later. We even needed help putting the card in the slot to get through the turnstile. Good Lord, if we can’t even navigate in the U.S., how were we going to navigate Italy? Who let the old folks out?

We got the E Train and followed the signs to the World Trade Center Memorial. Or we thought we did.  We found ourselves in the Oculus, which is a combination huge shopping center and train station. How do we get out of here and on the street? As one person told us, “I’ll just tell you some of the turns because you won’t remember them all.” And we didn’t. Finally, having had enough, I just walked through a door that looked like it led outside.  I didn’t care where it led, I just wanted out. Whoa! We were right across the street from the Memorial.

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I’m not sure how I feel about the physical memorial. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the day those buildings were brought down and all the innocent people we lost. I’m just not sure about the design.

Eventually, we walked to a different subway station (not wanting to encounter the Oculus again) and got ourselves back to JFK where we retrieved our bags and got ready to board our plane to Milan, Italy.

On the advice of people who had done this trip previously, and the fact that the rental car company wouldn’t let Jim be a driver because of his advanced age, we elected not to use the car but to use the train system. ( Sorry Jim.) Having had a bad experience in the Milan train station a number of years before, I was uptight about using the train station there once again. And since we were so inept about using the trains in the U.S., I was worried when I closed my eyes to sleep. Were we going to spend our whole trip trying to get out of the Milan Malpensa station? Heck, were we even going to find our way from the airport to the train station?  Someone did let the old folks out!

Upon landing, having retrieved our bags and gone through immigration, we found a very helpful ticket agent at the airport who issued tickets to Milan Centrale station, Firenze (Florence) and then on to Montecatini Terme. The train from Milan to Florence was high speed.  What would have been a 4 hour drive was less than 2 hours.  The train from Florence to Montecatini Terme was 50 minutes.  What a great way to travel! Since we were going to Montecatini Terme, when it was announced, we got off.   The way people had described where the hotel was in relationship to the station didn’t make any sense. Where was the hotel? Through sign language and small words, we managed to learn from a passerby that we were to get off at the next station … Montecatini Centro. So we got onto the next train and got off at the next stop.  Here we come! And there was the hotel, right where it was supposed to be.

0219181600b0219181600a (2)This was the plaza outside of the hotel, the Grand Hotel Plaza & Locanda Maggiore. It was a very nice hotel and we enjoyed staying there.  Once checked in, we went to a small pizza place right on the plaza where I had a delicious anchovy and caper pizza.  Yum! After more than my share of wine, and Jim’s more than ample scotch, we headed back to the hotel and bed.

More on the next post about our great time!

Where Have You Been?

That’s what you’ve been asking, right?  Come on — confess.  I know you’ve missed me.  I could feel it. And I’ve missed you.

I don’t know — I hate to admit this or even really think this but, is my advanced age causing me to be too easily distracted?  Where does my day go?  I need to put my laptop back up on my third floor, that’s for sure.  I’ll think of something I need to Google and two hours of playing games later, I walk away. Sound familiar?  I know I have company out there!

So what have I been up to you ask? Well aside from the hectic pace of the holidays, I had two cataract surgeries in December.  My distance vision is great now, but dealing with  reading glasses has been driving me crazy. I’ve worn glasses for 62 years.  They were the first thing on my head in the morning and the last thing off my body at night.  How do people manage readers?  Besides reading and looking at my computer screen, there’s like a million things I need to see.  Like chopping vegetables instead of my fingers, for instance.  I look like Chuck Schumer with his glasses hanging off his nose.  Hate! Hate! Hate! I decided to spend $400 on new glasses with a mild distance prescription and bifocals so I wouldn’t have to deal with this annoyance. Sometimes, I’ll wear them and sometimes not. I actually see better without them.  When I go back to my doctor in March, I’ll have him check them. I’m obsessed with my vision right now.

Then, Christmas Eve I got the flu.  That lasted two whole weeks.  Is there a theme going on here?  Whine, whine, whine.

The last three weeks my grandson has been tracked out of school, so he’s been hanging with Grandma.  This is a good thing.  Well, as long as I’m not making him do something he doesn’t want to do, that is. Just prior to his tracking out, I was paying my credit card bill and my balance was higher than I expected. Turned out he had been charging robux on this game he plays, Roblox, to the tune of $257.62.  Whoa!

He had my old iPad and so I immediately contacted my son to take it away from him until I could get my card info off of it.  It turned out not to be as easy as I expected, but “Nevertheless, she persisted.” My teenage granddaughter could have done it in 5 minutes, but it took me most of the day. Luckily, Apple refunded all the charges.  Woo.

Thursday was our last day together. He goes back to school on Monday. I’ll miss him.

Now that I’m unencumbered, I can concentrate on my stuff seeing as how I can sorta see and I’m not blowing my nose every thirty seconds. Jim and I leave for Tuscany on Wednesday.  How’s that for a way to celebrate Valentine’s Day? So I’m finalizing the last bit of detail.  Most of you would probably be making a list of the museums, etc. you want to see.  We’ll head down to Florence, of course, and to Lucca and on to Viareggio for their Carnivale. But me?  I’ve been researching the Milan train station!

What?? We’re doing what? We opted not to take the rental car that was included because Jim was too old for them to let him be a driver. Really.  Talk about feeling old! How’d you like to hear that? I didn’t want to be the sole driver, lest I “lose my shit” and park the car somewhere and walk away. And so much of what I’ve read on TripAdvisor indicated that it’s less stressful to just take trains.  Not enough parking in places and we won’t even discuss the narrow winding roads and crazy drivers. Hence the Milan train station.

The last time I was using trains in Milan, it was a nightmare. I didn’t want to be in that situation again. Heck, the last time, two in our group broke into tears and I had a hissy fit on the train. So, I’m prepared. A kind soul on TripAdvisor told me exactly what train to get from Milan to Montecatini Ferme.  And there is a station at the airport into Milan, so I printed out the airport map and her directions and know exactly what we need to do.  Problem solved, I think. Hey, I have my priorities.  And it’s to not have a hissy fit again! Getting from point A to point B to point C is a biggie.  And if I happen to run across the Statue of David, that will be a plus. Mostly, I’m wanting to eat some great food and drink some great wine and meet some nice Italians. And we’ll be staying in a spa town, so some mineral baths are on the horizon.

Catch you when we get back!