Monday, November 29, 2010

Up a Hazy River

They have a canoe. (near the Saco River in Maine)
In 1989, Jerry decided he wanted -- no, needed -- a canoe.  We were living in Southern Connecticut on the Long Island Sound at the time.  There were beautiful salt marshes, small and large rivers, idyllic lakes.  What this meant was that everywhere we went we saw cars with canoes strapped to their roofs.  And every time Jerry spotted one of those canoe-carrying cars, he would say, "They have a canoe."

In 1990, we bought a brand-new Isuzu Trooper... because it would look really good with a canoe on top.  One extremely foggy early morning in summer, we went with our good friend Judy -- an avid hiker and camper who was visiting from Seattle -- rented a beat-up aluminum canoe for about $25 for the day, and paddled into the Connecticut River to see how it felt.  The fact that the fog was so thick that we couldn't see more than two-feet in front of us was a bit off-putting.  But, we appeared to be the only ones on the river and it was quiet and serene.  We were able to paddle around some of the small islands and marshes.  We shared the water with birds we had only been able to see from a distance before.  Coming out of the fog, we were stunned to find ourselves face to face with a magnificent pair of mute swans.  When you're down at water-level with a pair of mute swans you're struck by how huge they actually are.  And how much damage they could actually do if they so chose.  Which is why we paddled as fast as we could when the male rose up off the water with his wings spread and his held high and back.  Huge.

We paddled for hours.  The fog had lifted and it was getting warm, so we decided to head back upriver to return the canoe and head home.  We paddled out of a peaceful cove to find that the serenity we had experienced earlier in the day was gone.  Powerboats and cabin cruisers flew by.  The trip was no longer bliss.  Each time a boat whizzed past us, we aimed for the shore to avoid being swamped.  I began to get a bit frantic.  At one point, we shot into a tiny beach, paddling so fast that the front of the canoe wedged into the muddy shore.  A snake sunning on the shore was taken completely by surprise by our sudden arrival.  It coiled and lifted it's head, ready to strike.  To avoid the snake, I leaned my upper body so far back that the back of my head was nearly in Judy's lap.  Jerry burst out laughing when he saw what I was cowering from.  It was nothing but a harmless rat snake, he told me.  Harmless?  Not to the rats.  It was a snake.  It was ready to strike.  And if it could eat a rat, I figured it could do me some damage.

But, except for the rat snake, the attack swan, and the powerboats, I had to admit I had a really good time.  The basic lesson learned was that the Connecticut River wasn't a great place for me to be canoeing. 

So, I finally caved and we bought a canoe.  But, not just any canoe.  We bought a 16-foot Mad River canoe in beige with taupe and wood trim to match our white Isuzu Trooper with its taupe trim and taupe leather interior.  It really looked great on top of the car.   

We had a canoe.

I suddenly became very frugal or, perhaps, penny-wise/pound foolish (well, that really wasn't anything new for me).   Our canoe, top-of-the-line paddles, life jackets, seat cushions, and additional canoeing paraphernalia, to my great consternation, cost us approximately $1,600.

The first time we took our own canoe into the water, we had a very relaxing paddle through some salt marshes.  I have to admit it was bliss.  When we were done, we strapped our canoe to the top of the matching Trooper and I told Jerry, "Well, that trip cost us $1,600."

The following weekend, we took our canoe out on Lake Quonnipaug in our little town of Guilford.  The lake was picturesque and charming.  And boats with motors were not allowed.  It was, again, bliss.  As we paddled at the far end of the lake, away from the few summer cottages and year-round homes, a snapping turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle appeared to our left and swam directly under the canoe.  The tail was still well to our left while the enormous head had already passed to our right.  I was fascinated. Jerry's comment: "Paddle fast!"  Odd.  He wasn't even the least bit concerned when I was nearly eaten by a snake.

The rest of our paddle was uneventful.  When we strapped the canoe back on top of the matching Trooper that day, I told Jerry, "Well, that trip cost us $800."

Over the next couple of years, there were some more blissful trips around Connecticut salt marshes and along the Saco River in Maine, as well as a rained-out camping trip in the Green Mountains of Vermont when the canoe spent the entire time strapped to the top of the matching Trooper.  In early 1993, Jerry was surprised to be offered a new position in San Diego.  A huge moving van arrived and our Mad River canoe, the matching Trooper, and everything else we owned, were loaded and taken on a week-long drive across the country.

When we arrived in San Diego, we were disappointed to discover that, even with all that ocean, we had very limited local options for the blissful canoeing we were used to.  To top it off, the canoe would not fit in the garage of our condo, so we had to pay for storage -- making it even more difficult to get use of the canoe.  We soon sold the canoe and all the paraphernalia for next to nothing.  We kept the matching Isuzu Trooper.

I told Jerry, "Well that cost us about $160 a trip."

About a year later, as we were driving by Mission Bay, Jerry had a revelation.  "They have a kayak," he announced.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Globe Spinning

Until I heard Jerry himself answer the oft-repeated question "Why Spain?" during our Thanksgiving visit with family in Eugene, Oregon, I had completely forgotten one important factor in the deeply researched and highly scientific process we used -- based on our initial criteria -- to determine our relocation options. 

After first agreeing that weather was of primary importance, we averaged the approximate latitude of San Diego and Palm Springs (our two favorite climates).  Jerry then spun a globe and marked a line through the areas corresponding to that latitude.  He then listed all the geographic areas encountered by his circle and we then, as you know, narrowed it down to Southern Spain.  A little more precise than just spinning a globe and pointing a finger.

This brilliant process was suggested by the intellectually organized and process-gifted Jerry (who can't keep his desk -- or any surface -- clean for more than 15 minutes).  His brain is a wonder.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Family Fishing

“Jerry,” I whispered, “I have to pee.”

“Here,” smiled his mother from behind him, as she offered me an empty Maxwell House can.

It was my first visit to the Midwest — and Jerry’s parents. We were fishing for walleyes and crappies, fish that don’t swim in the waters off Coney Island, where I had grown up.

We sat in the only boat, in the middle of the only lake in the town of Ihlen, Minnesota. Population 107.

Jerry and I had been together for almost a year. He had met my parents when they paid us a visit in Boston.  So, we decided it was time for me to meet his parents. We had left Boston five days earlier for a week of home-cooked meals, home movies, photo albums, and fishing. A chance for me to get to know Jerry’s parents. A chance for them to get to know me. It had been an exceptional week — up until that moment.

My middle-class, East Coast, Jewish upbringing had not prepared me for that moment. In my family, there was an unwritten law that men did not ‘go to the bathroom’ in front of women. Nor, for that matter, in front of other men.

In my family, toilets flushed and did not have “Good to the last drop” printed on the side.

But, this was not my family. And I was not in Brooklyn anymore.

We sat in Jerry’s father’s tiny fishing boat on a late-spring afternoon. A light breeze played with the leaves in the old oak trees before gently dancing across the lake, a breeze just cool enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We all four wore sweatshirts. To protect us — I had been told — from the damp air. But, after watching Alice as she cast for the first time that day, I learned that what the sweatshirts really protected us from were Alice’s wildly flying hooks.

Alice had vainly scanned the lake before her to see where her bait had touched down, while Jerry gingerly removed her hook, line, and sinker from the shoulder of my sweatshirt. A couple of hours had transpired since Alice’s hook had attached itself to the crotch of my, thankfully heavy, Calvin Klein jeans. Her casting skills had improved as the day wore on and, finally, we all sat tranquilly, having been calmed by the rhythm of the water gently lapping the boat and the call of the pheasants from the mist at the far end of the lake. I had just drained my third can of beer when it struck me that there was no place on this over-sized rowboat for a bathroom.

Jim — a huge, bear of a man with a huge, deep voice to match — sat in back holding his fishing rod, a devilish smile playing at the corners of his lips, a glint in his brown eyes as they peeked from under his John Deere cap.

Jerry held a worm between his fingers, about to bait his hook.

Alice, her green eyes catching the colors in the sky and water, her blond curls bursting forward from the snugly-fitting hood of her navy blue sweatshirt, still held the coffee can in her large Norwegian hand.

And I sat, mortified, desperately trying to hold my water.

“I can't go in that!”

“Why not?” asked Jerry — knowing full well why not.

“Well, not in front of your mother!”

“I'll turn my back,” she offered.

‘Oh, isn't she helpful,’ I thought.

“I can’t. You’ll still hear it,” I sputtered. I could feel the blood rushing to my head. My face must have been as red as the night crawler Jerry now gleefully impaled on his hook. 

“So, just go over the side into the lake,” Alice offered.
And Jerry, ever the loyal son, nodded his agreement. And, for the first time, I noticed they had the same sinister smile.

There was an interminable silence as I tried to regain control of my lungs. I must have looked a fool, sitting there with this family of evil Midwesterners, my face red with embarrassment, my legs clamped tightly together.

Then Jim, still smiling (but was it malevolently now?), gently set down his rod and reel and tugged on the outboard motor.

“Where are we going?” asked Jerry.

“To shore,” replied Jim. “There’s a biffy on the south side of the lake.”

“A biffy!” Jerry squawked. “You never motored us to shore when we had to go to the bathroom. We always used the coffee can.”

‘Oh, God,’ that couldn’t possibly be the same coffee can that Jerry and his sisters had used more than twenty years before. Could it?

“Well, Gerald. Mitchell here is a city kid. You can’t expect him to do everything our way the first time out. We’ve got to introduce him to this stuff gradually; we can’t take away all his luxuries at once. Let’s let him use the biffy this time,” Jim lectured, but I could hear the repressed laughter in his voice as he motored us to shore.

‘What’s a biffy?’ I wondered as I peered into the dark trees in the distance.

And then I saw it. ‘An outhouse!’ My heart sank and I thought, ‘Luxuries? He expects me to go in one of those vile, foul-smelling things? And for this I’m supposed to be grateful?’

But, then I remembered I didn’t have much choice. It was the outhouse or the coffee can.

When we reached shore, I leaped from the boat and quickly ran to the outdoor toilet — as quickly as a man can run with his knees held tightly together. I pulled the door closed behind me. Of course there was no lock. I hoped the 107 residents of the town of Ihlen had their own outhouses. I was in no mood to share.

I looked up.

‘At least there’s ventilation in this thing,’ I thought.

But, the tiny screen windows above my head did nothing to lessen the stench from the fetid mass in the hole below. I unzipped and then held my breath as I emptied my full-to-bursting bladder. Mosquitoes buzzed in my ears and hungrily fed wherever I could not reach with my free hand to swat them away.

The pheasants cried.

The three Lowells waited, planning my next humiliation as they sat in the only boat, on the shore of the only lake in the town of Ihlen, Minnesota. Population 107.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vis-à-Vis a Visa... Etc.

We think we've got all the steps mapped out--and understood--for obtaining a residency (retirement) visa for Spain.  The Spanish Consulate in Los Angeles has an amazingly helpful website that clearly lists everything needed for every kind of visa.  So, we're just going down the list and making sure we do everything we're instructed to do... translated into Spanish... in duplicate (or triplicate)... and within three months of our departure date.

The list is daunting but, as I said, the LA Consulate has done a tremendous job of indicating every bit of info required along with detailed instructions.  I was going to repeat all the requirements here, but I don't want to lose you!

I'll keep you posted as we go through our process.  Health insurance is required before we can apply, and traveler's & repatriation insurance are also required for the first year.  Jerry is already getting the costs and making arrangements for all that.  We've also started looking online at apartments (a leased or owned residence is needed to apply for the visa).

Apartment/house-hunting is one of my favorite things to do.  I especially love when they provide floorplans (which they don't do very often).  As a kid I used to love to get lost in the NY Times Sunday Magazine real estate floorplans.

For Spain, we've got our cheat sheets handy (mine in the form of an electronic "sticky note" on my desktop) translating all the rental terms from Spanish to English.

The most important rental term for Jerry: Calefacción...  Heat.  Jerry likes to be warm.

Surprisingly, calefacción is not all that common in what we've seen listed.  Jerry has been known to check out of hotels on business trips (and vacations) because the hotel didn't allow him to control the heat in the room.  He hates those centrally controlled thermostats.  He has left a trail of space heaters around the country--all purchased when he couldn't find a room with a guest-controlled heating system.  He even snuck out of his sister's house in South Dakota one night to check into a hotel because he was cold.  Being the polite Midwesterner, he didn't want her to know.  Of course, he got caught the next day.  She's an early riser and discovered our rental car missing from the driveway at 6:30 a.m.  And, boy was he in trouble.  When he got back, his second-grade-teacher sister dragged him--almost by the ear--to the thermostat explaining, "You see how this works?  All you have to do when you're cold is turn this little dial up and the... Oops...  I forgot to turn the thermostat back on last night.  Well, still, you could have just told me you were cold!"

He wasn't off the hook.  But, complements of Jerry, they now have a space heater available for other thin-blooded guests. (In all fairness to our wonderful hosts, I slept with the window open that night.)

So, yes, we'll definitely need calefacción.  And aire acondicionado, which I think you can translate on your own

And, speaking of calefacción, when I talked in an earlier post about the weather and how we settled on Southern Spain, I forgot until Jerry reminded me today that we started off in Barcelona.  We then discovered that winters, although not bad, are not as mild as we'd like.  We worked our way down to the spectacular city of Ronda, but it sits on top of a cliff at about 2,100 ft. and experiences a fairly cold winter.  THEN, we landed in Sevilla and, well, you now know the rest.

For our visa applications, we'll also need clearance from the FBI stating "absence of police records."  No worries there.  A clean bill of health for each of us.  Ditto.  Ditto.

So, that's it for today.  I can't say I'm heading off to Peet's, since we've already been there.  Hot chai latte this time.  And yet another walnut chocolate chunk scone.  Maybe a little exercise on the side tomorrow before this week's Thanksgiving binge begins.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What Do We Do With All Our Stuff?

Downsizing.  It's the catchphrase of the decade and we have not been immune to the idea, and the necessity, of it in recent years.

In 2000, Jerry and I both had solid careers and a 5-bedroom house in San Francisco, filled with furniture and furnishings.  By July of that year, we had sold the house and poured all our money into a bed & breakfast style hotel in Palm Springs, California.  What couldn't fit in the guest rooms was packed into a 10 x 20 storage unit where it sat for two years.

Our hotel was the first in the country created for gays & lesbians with children, their families and friends.  It was a great idea (we still think so) and, thankfully, we chose to do it because we thought it would feel good to do and not because we hoped to make a bundle.  We did, however, hope to make ends meet.

So, when the reality of the market turned out to be smaller than what we thought was its potential, we took a breath and plowed on.  But, when the events of September 11, 2001 soon followed causing, among so many other things, a 43 percent drop in tourism in Palm Springs, there was no hope of digging ourselves out of debt.

Thanks to Jerry, we found ourselves in Santa Barbara, California, where he had landed another good position.  Our stuff came out of storage and we moved into a large 3-bedroom rental, filling every square inch with our things.

About five years later, we moved to Vegas where we went back into five bedrooms and filled every square inch with our personal belongings.  But, once again, times grew tough.  So, after a year, we rented a 3-bedroom apartment, sold some furniture and stashed in the garage whatever we couldn't fit into the apartment.

Another year went by, times got better, and we moved back to Southern California into a 2-bedroom apartment (that cost a lot more than that 3-bedroom in Vegas), leaving behind a 10 x 15 storage unit full-to-bursting with our excess furniture.

So, here we are getting ready for a move to Spain and in possession of an over-furnished and overstocked 2-bedroom apartment, a garage stacked with boxes leaving no room for a car, and a storage unit in Vegas that could furnish a decent-sized house.

Some days what to do with all our stuff stresses me more than anything else we have to do in order to legally live in Spain.

First, we're donating the contents of the Vegas storage unit to Goodwill.  Big furniture.  No use for it.  Great donation.

You know all those collections you have because, as you were told at the time, "It's a great investment"?  Well, it's only a great investment if someone is willing to pay when you're ready to cash in.  Selling on ebay and receiving a mere pittance is not very satisfying or worthwhile.  The tax deduction (i.e., donating to a museum or a charity) may be the most practical way to go.  Does anyone collect art glass from the '80s?

Family heirlooms are going to family... early.  Now we just have to get them to the middle of the country without breaking the bank -- or our backs.

We'll take some things with us, whatever it doesn't cost too much to ship.  Like my mother's artwork and needlework; our family photos (ALL our family photos, more than 100 in frames and more than a dozen albums); Jerry's plaster sheriff from Wall Drug circa 1952; my plaster flower child from my sister circa 1971; our computer equipment since it's in good working order and more expensive to buy in Spain.

We've got to go through our clothes (yet again) and donate what we don't need.  The suggestion to "just donate everything to charity" sounds great, but pulling it off means we've got to go through everything first and then pack it all up.  Can you not tell how this is stressing me out?

I'm sure I'll have plenty more to say in future posts about down-sizing.  In the meantime, I've got to go pay for service on a leased car we'll be returning in the spring.

After this whine and that waste I'll deserve my cafe Americano at Peet's.

While enjoying my coffee (and walnut chocolate chunk scone), I'm going to get lost in my paperback "Don Quixote," although I worry that in my state of mind reading about a man who lost his may not be the best of ideas.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Move? Why Leave? Why Spain?

To the first and second "why" questions, there are so many answers.  But, the easiest responses are, because we can and because we want to (or vice versa).  We have talked for years about living in Europe.

I thought of moving to England in the late '70s.

Jerry and I considered the Netherlands in the '90s (those "Bush the First" years).  Coming from San Diego at the time, we decided we could if we had to, but the weather would be an adjustment.

Then in the "George Jr." years, we considered Ireland (a job prospect in Dublin for Jerry) but again decided the weather would be an adjustment, along with some social/political/religious issues.  Not to mention the fact that we weren't a legally recognized couple and I, therefore, would have no legal right to go/stay with him.

Our next thought during the George Jr. years was Norway.  Specifically Bergen.  We thought, well, we love Seattle.  And Bergen reminds us in so many ways of Seattle.  We figured, we can tolerate the weather in Seattle (well, no, we really can't), so how difficult could Bergen be?  Our family in Bergen loved the idea of having us as neighbors (no, really, they did).  But they thought we were nuts if we believed we could tolerate the weather.

We then did some research and learned that Seattle gets 37 inches of precipitation a year.  The total isn't significant except that it's continual drizzles.  (Seattle Rain Festival: January 1-December 31).  But, Bergen, hold onto your hats, gets EIGHTY-NINE INCHES OF PRECIPITATION a year.  And it's almost all rain.  And the rain falls sideways. There's no escaping it.

Southern Spain is a popular and easy-to-reach tourist destination for Norwegians.  So, we thought we could spend half the year in Bergen and half in Southern Spain.  But that still meant at least, unscientifically speaking, 45 inches of rain.  And, as I just mentioned, in Bergen it rains sideways.

So, we're still here.

Until we had our hotel in Palm Springs from 2000-2003 (that requires another post), we had talked a lot about retiring there.  And when we returned to Southern California from Vegas last year, that was back as the top possibility.

But the problem was that Palm Springs, although beautiful, just didn't excite us anymore.  There isn't anything new for us.  So, we bought "Retirement Places Rated" for the U.S. and studied.  And we still couldn't find that spark.

A few months passed and we started to talk about Europe again.  We decided to list out our requirements in order of priority and then narrow down to regions, countries, and cities based on those factors.

The top priority (I'll admit to being a bit shallow on this one):
We realized a pleasant climate -- a la San Diego -- was what we required.  That knocked off a whole bunch of countries.

The second priority was political/social climate:
Admittedly this went hand in hand with weather.  Cuba's sunshine and ocean breezes can be quite charming, but we're not rushing off to live there.

Other requirements (and no longer in order of priority) were:
An interesting culture and history; a population that welcomes outsiders; safe and secure living conditions; a language we could learn; national/nature parks; good healthcare; good public transportation--local, regional, and national; easy/cheap access to other parts of Europe; and I can't remember what else right now.

That led us to Southern Spain--Andalucia.  But we didn't want to end up in an expat community surrounded only by other non-Spaniards (and Andalucia has a number of beautiful communities filled with expats).  So, we did more research, talked to more people, and finally narrowed down to Sevilla.  After deciding on Sevilla, we re-opened the discussion (we re-open discussions a lot) and decided to look in the outlying area for smaller cities where we could more easily relax (and where our money would go further).  We decided to follow the train line down from Sevilla to Cadiz.  And there it was, Jerez de la Frontera.  Home to sherry, the horse, and the flamenco.  Also  home to the Motorcycle Grand Prix (not really on our list of interests).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Speaking the Language

I'm immersed in Rosetta Stone Spanish for Spain.  I studied Spanish for 7 years starting when I was 12.  You'd think I'd be passably fluent, but it's been a really long time since I've used it beyond a very superficial level.

I was in Spain on business about four years ago.  During that trip I spent an hour in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English.  We spent the hour in conversation... in Spanish.  At the end of the hour, the cab driver told me I did really well.  I said, like a 2-year-old.  He said, no, 5.  Trust me, he was being extremely kind.  After completing Level 1 (of 5) of Rosetta Stone, I feel like I now speak and comprehend Spanish like an at times slow and at times gifted 2-year-old.

I look forward to fluency.  I'm not very patient.  I'm no perfectionist.  I'm quite good at slapping something together and saying, "That'll do."  But I don't like not being able to do something perfectly immediately.  The big difference between me and a perfectionist--in those situations when I can't immediately do something perfectly--is that I might just throw in the towel.

But I love languages and I do pick them up quickly (I hear them as music in my head).  So, although I'll get frustrated with my lack of fluency I won't stop working at it.

Jerry speaks Russian.  We don't expect that to come in very handy in Spain.  So, he's counting on me to be translator (everything is relative) when we visit Andalucia in January.  Jerry's sister and her husband rented an apartment in Nerja on the Costa del Sol last summer.  One day when they were out for their regular morning stroll, they were greeted by the owner of the local grocery.  As they walked by, she waved and said, "Buenos dias!"  Our brother-in-law waved back and said, "Aloha!"  I don't think he's going to be of much help.

Once we move in May, we'll both immediately enroll in language immersion programs.

In the meantime, we are also trying to understand everything (well, a lot) about Spanish history and culture.  Jerry is the academic in this household.  He can get himself lost in any, dry, non-fiction tome.  And he can then quote information and statistics for years after.  I barely got through one academic hard-cover on Spain and I returned two others to Jerry after the first chapter.

I keep hoping to find a historical novel to give me all I need to know in a format like Michener's "Hawaii."  Michener did actually produce one book on Spain. Unfortunately, it was a work of NON-fiction.  In the meantime, I'm reading every travel guide and have just found a book "The New Spaniards" that holds my attention.  Surfing the web provides an endless source of info in as small or as large a bite as I'm interested in at any given time.

So, now it's off to Peet's for a newspaper and a cup of coffee.

Monday, November 15, 2010

First Things First

I move often.  It could be that I'm always running away from something or that I'm always running to something.  But, since I've been with my partner (now husband) Jerry for 29 years, and we have been running away from or to something together for all that time,  I suppose it doesn't really matter.  We move often and we like to move.

Of course, that's not to say we don't find moving stressful.  We just find staying in one place worse.

So, we're getting ready for another move.  A big one this time.  In the spring of 2011, we will leave Southern California and head to Southern Spain.

And, although we've done lots of homework, planning, and 16-page spreadsheets in preparation for the big move, this post is another first step for me on that trip.