Sunday, August 19, 2007

Blues, Blogs, and Budget Pains

An Update, in which we arrive home – and leave again. In which we hear the Blues and commune with family. In which we learn some basic financial lessons in a painful fashion. In which we have CT-scans and chemo. In which we think of returning to school and yet prepare to leave home once more before the official end of summer. In which we finally get rain.

It has been a while – obviously – since I last put something up. Mostly, this is because we have been traveling, recovering, traveling some more, receiving out of town guests, recovering, getting treatments, and recovering yet again.

For those of you who tagged along, you know that our trip to Europe was a great experience for all of us. We had a great time, saw beautiful places, spent time with family, met new friends, celebrated the beginning of a new family, and lived in each other’s pockets for three weeks. As good as it was, we were all ready to come home at the end.

We were there for all of two days, which were spent unpacking, laundering, and sorting mail. We tried to do the important things (catch the bills that needed paying for example) before we left again to go north for our annual, informal family reunion that loosely centers around a blues festival that occurs in my home town down on the harbor.

This year, we got six out of the seven siblings back with attendant children and spouses (though there were some that had to stay behind and keep the home fires burning and we missed their presence). As usual, we were spread out in various locations throughout the city, outgrowing the capability of any one home long ago. Those of us who traveled to be there shared the residences of those who live there and got together on a somewhat haphazard and informal basis. Sometimes we gathered at the music festival, sometimes at a specific home for a specific reason (like another graduation party), and sometimes in small groups around a dinner or a drink.

The weather this year was exceptionally nice, perhaps too much so, because one can only take so much sun when stretched out listening to the blues all day. The concert takes place in a natural amphitheater that is very beautiful, but without any form of natural shade. Thousands of people sat exposed to a brilliant sun for much of three days with results that could be anticipated. Beer sales were brisk and the predominant color was lobster.

Those of us who had four-day passes found ourselves taking a break when we felt too baked, returning after the sun had passed behind the western hills and the heat lessened.

This festival draws a lot of people to this little city on America’s largest inland sea and everyone dips from the trough. The festival concerts end early enough so that all the local venues can mount their own stage shows and draw upon the seemingly insatiable appetite for blues music exhibited by those who flock to the city every year round this time. Some of those venues are a bit unusual.

This year, I went for the first time on the “Blues Train” which is a musical version of a regular run up the shoreline of our “great lake” by a train operated out of the train museum housed in the old depot in downtown. It is a collection of old (and in some cases, antique) cars that travels slowly up the coast and back again. On this occasion, the six car train housed two bars and four musical acts playing under conditions that would normally seem unsuited to live music. The acts (a trio, two duo’s, and a solo) were all set up at the ends of various cars. Two of the cars were open and were once baggage or mail cars, and two of the acts were situated in cars with seats, which proved to be even more of a challenge in crowd dynamics.

Regardless of this, we had a very enjoyable time and actually found ourselves entranced by one performer who transcended the difficult playing conditions and treated the enthusiastic crowd to some truly exceptional music.

We wrapped our “up north” time up with a photo shoot for my daughter’s senior pictures. Now, the girl has to sort through all of the proofs for the select few that will go into the “official” portfolio.

It was upon returning home that we found ourselves in the middle of a “finance 101” crisis. I suppose we all go through a learning experience with how to handle our money and these days, that would not be complete without learning about the ups and downs of “plastic.”

A couple of years ago, we got our daughter a debit card that draws upon a checking account. The idea was that this would be an entry point into the world of “magic money” that seems to come out of machines at the touch of a finger, and the potential pitfalls that go with such an easy system. That she made it this far without experiencing the painful hit of overdraft charges is somewhat surprising.

I suppose it was the trip to Europe and the need for cash there that lead to it, but what ever the reason, my girl experienced a painful lesson. She rang up a sizable number of overdraft charges that will take her a long time to recover from.

As traumatic as it has been for her, I am glad that she gone through this now and in this form rather than later with a credit card. I hope that it has made a distinct and indelible impression on her and taught her a lesson about how the world of credit works. We will see.

As mentioned earlier, I have gone through another round of medical procedures upon returning from our travels. We have been juggling the scheduling of such things to accommodate our travels over the second half of the summer and I was just able to arrange the timing so that we could do the Europe and Blues trips in between treatments.

I am still feeling the effects of the most recent one, which occurred Friday. I am still pretty fatigued and not inspired to deal with the daily chores that lie in front of me. Still, all things considered, I look at this process as tolerable as long as the results are positive and so far, that seems to be the case. So, we’ll continue along this route with treatments every four weeks or so.

Finally, the weather. It is raining. After a long drought period, we are finally getting some much-needed moisture. All day yesterday and much of today has seen steady, soaking rain that is helping to revive the green that normally surrounds us. The forecasters are suggesting that this pattern might stick around for the next few days, which would be a very good thing for us.

We have about a week of time before we take our last break of the summer. We will be driving north once again to spend a week on one of the most beautiful rivers I know. This is a famous trout stream that meanders through northern Wisconsin before emptying into Lake Superior along the south shore. In my youth, I spent many a happy day at this cabin that belonged to the family of my best boyhood chum. Since then, my life has gone through many changes, but I have never forgotten the magic that I found there as a boy, and as fortune would have it, I have been able to arrange a week’s time there for my family and myself as a close to a notable summer.

Our plan is to spend a lot of time reading, playing croquet, canoeing, swimming, eating, hiking, and generally just relaxing. I can’t imagine a better place to do this.

So, to all you who have been wondering what we have been up to – there you have it. I hope to be more diligent in the future, but I always seem to say that. We shall see. Till next time, TTFN.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Not Dead

I'm not dead. I have actually tried to start a post several times, but always have been interrupted.

We made it back from Europe in one piece with all our luggage. Then spent two days doing non-stop laundry and mail sorting and bill paying, before leaving (again) for a week up north to visit with family and friends, and to listen to some tasty blues under a burning sun down by the harbor as the big ships went in and out. All in all, a great time.

Today, we head back to our home with a passel of relatives and friends. Some fly out today, some tomorrow.

As for me, I have medical appointments and a chemo session coming up. I hope to put together a longer, more coherent post soon.

Till then, TTFN.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Home (almost)

We are on US soil again, but not home. We are sitting in Boston's Logan airport for one more layover (unexpected). Our departure out of Amsterdam was delayed for reasons mostly unknown. We sat at the gate after boarding for two hours - most of which was un-air conditioned.

The natives were about to riot as the interior temperature of the cabin was beginning to resemble the inside of an oven when they finally got the ground air conditioning working. Unfortunately, there were then more delays. It wasn't the best of flights.

The delay meant that we missed not only our scheduled flight, but the one after that as well. So, now we sit, waiting for a 6 PM departure time instead of an 11:30 AM flight.

Still, we are here and enjoyed (a relative term) some airport food partially on the ticket of the airline, but the vouchers they handed out only covered 2/3rds of the bill. I pressed for a pass to the "special" club that the airline operates but apparently the injury we suffered did not qualify for that kind of dispensation.

The kids have burned up a fair portion our cell phone batteries after three weeks of inactivity. And naturally they both planned on going out tonight when (and if) we finally get home. I had to be an ogre and squash that plan causing howls of outrage about how illogical and arbitrary this judgment was. Never mind that we are all basket cases who have not slept in an enormous time. It was nice not having to do this for three weeks.

I for one will relish doing little other than perhaps grabbing a shower and hitting the sheets.

So, here I sit, watching out the window for the plane to pull up to the gate. We are lucky that someone will be picking us up so that I will not be required to drive. Unlike that time in Italy where we hit Rome after a long period of travel and sleeplessness only to pick up a rental car (after a long search for the rental agency at the train station) and make a two hour drive up the autostrada in search of the villa rented by my brother. I am still amazed that we survived that one.

Anyway, thanks for sticking with me on this journey. We had a great time and made those memories I was hoping for.

I'll check back in when I am a little more coherent.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Homeward Bound

Dear Readers,

We are off. We are on the ferry as I write this. It is another beautiful, cloudless day here on the French coast. I have all kinds of bittersweet feelings as we leave. The people who have taken us in and given us shelter have been so nice. The weather and scenery have been right out of a photography magazine. We have spent the last week as extended members of a large family and enjoyed all the benefits of such. There were the extended meals that stretched on over conversation and wine, or mead, or Breton beer. There were the beach sessions where the whole family lazed about, some talking, some swimming, some hunting mussels, some body surfing.

My pictures give some idea of what we have been doing, but the heart of it cannot be captured by a camera. We have been brought into a family, embraced by all and given the love that family’s share amongst their own. There were the good morning kisses on both cheeks from the children and the good night kisses from the same. There were the welcome kisses and the farewell kisses. There were the hugs and the parting gifts, shyly given and the stumbling attempts at bridging the language gaps that separated us. A very special time.

Now, we begin our journey towards home. We have a full day of rail travel that will deposit us at our airport hotel sometime this evening if all goes well. There are several places where this could get exciting. The first comes as we disembark from the ferry and head for Aurey. We have approximately an hour to make the drive and catch the train. The potential problems are found in the geography of the country. The ferry landing is in Quiberon, a tiny seaside village at the end of a long isthmus. There is only one road leading in and out and any traffic jam will delay us.

We are here and I must pack up and get ready for the drive.


We made it without any trouble. We arrived at the station with 30 minutes to spare and met JF’s brother with the tickets for the Paris/Brussels leg. Right now, we are somewhere between Rennes and Paris.

The kids are sitting across the aisle from me and reading or watching movies on their ipods as we move through the French countryside.

The only occurrence of note so far took place at Rennes where the train stopped to take on passengers. The seat in front of me was taken there by a middle aged woman, a young girl, and a child who sat between them. A fourth woman came on board to see them off and help stow luggage. As she was going through the farewell kissing routine, the train set off, trapping her on board and headed for an unplanned vacation wherever the train stops next. While some may have been upset at this state of affairs, she seemed to maintain her good humor and rolled with the flow.

More later.


We could get used to this. By “this” I mean moving along at two hundred miles an hour in first class. We zip by the cars traveling on the adjacent freeway like they are standing still an the wait staff brings us little towlettes and free beer. Gotta love it.

We cheaped out in Paris and took the metro from Montparnasse station to Gare du Nord instead of a taxi, which made the girl peevish because it meant walking a fair distance through the underground tunnels and it was hot. But we saved a bunch (1.50 euros as opposed to 20) so we sat at a café in Gare du Nord while we waited for our train to arrive at the platform.

Now we are speeding toward Brussels where we hope to meet one of JF’s son’s who has our tickets for the next leg (back to 2nd class – alas) as well as my suitcase and my son’s extraneous items.

We will have a bit of time in the Brussels station as well, so maybe another café. I wonder where JF is right now. He is making the long drive back with his daughter, Elsa. We had a late night and an early rise so I hope that he stays awake and has an uneventful drive. We will arrive at our hotel at the Amsterdam airport approximately three hours earlier than if we drove with him, plus the kids are not crammed in the back of a small car for nine hours. All in all, this is worth every euro.

OK, signing off now. More during the Brussels to Amsterdam leg.


Well, this is actually coming to you from the Sheraton hotel connected to the Schiphol airport. We made the last leg just fine after a brief cold turkey readjustment to second class status.

Fortunately, there were three other Americans traveling in the seats across the isle, two of which were close in age to my kids so there was lots of talk and chatter that ate up the miles.

The hotel we have is very nice and is right at the airport so we can sleep as late as possible (in theory seeing as how I am sitting here doing this at 4 AM instead of theoretically sleeping). To much on the mind I guess.

So I uploaded all of my photos and even go comments on most of them.

Our flights still appear to be on time which is good.

I’m signing off of this now and uploading it. Next post comes from home.

Snark City Secrets

Woops, how'd that get up there?


Beth, over there, dear - you go over there.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Our Last Day on the Island

Dear Readers,

Today is our last day on Belle Ilse. This morning, we saw JF’s brother, Olivier and his partner Marc, and their two children, 4 and 7, off on the ferry. Already, the activity and noise level back at the cottage has dropped.

We are sitting around the dining room table planning the day. I have been uploading even more photos from the camera to the laptop for later transfer to the web.

All of the kids are going to go horseback riding this afternoon, which will provide either a little free time for the adults, or a period of time standing around in a dusty parking lot. I am not sure which.

Yesterday was spend mostly at the beach. We went to the same beach as where we harvested the mussels a couple of days ago. The whole family was there and we brought a picnic lunch – ham and cheese sandwiches, pate sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, some kind of rolled up swordfish sausage, chips, and bottles of water.

There was lots of laying around both in, and out of the sun. There was swimming and body surfing in the fairly cool ocean. The waves made the “getting in” a little easier because there was no “easing” into it. Once you were knee deep, the next large wave got you the rest of the way. It was kind of fun watching people try to jump higher than the wave to keep “sensitive” parts out of the cold water.

I climbed the path up one of the bluffs alongside the beach and took a couple of photos from on high. It would be fun sometime to come back and hike the perimeter of the island, an activity that would take about four days according to the published guides.

I am signing off for the moment. JF would like to go for a drive along the east coast of the island, a part that we have not yet seen much of. So, it’s off with the camera.


Back again (after a nap while the kids ponied).

There is another beach trip scheduled, but I think I will pass on that and try to get a little internet connection time to upload this and the more recent photos. Then it is time to get organized for the long journey home.

Tomorrow, we will rise early and take the first ferry off the island. Then it will be a short drive to Aurey where we will meet JF’s brother, Olivier (I hope) who will have picked up one of our three sets of train tickets. This journey tomorrow will involve three legs and three sets of train tickets – only one of which did I purchase directly and have in my hand.

JF and I were able to buy tickets from Aurey to Paris while at the ferry station here on the island, but we did not buy the Paris to Brussels leg because the ticket agent could not see the special promotional fare that JF and his brother saw while on-line. So we went back to the cottage and JF’s brother bought the Paris to Brussels tickets on-line, I reimbursed him with cash, and he was to pick the tickets up in Aurey today (we saw them off at the ferry this morning).

So, tomorrow, we will hook up with them as they are staying on with some friends in a nearby town, and receive the tickets before boarding the train.

For the final leg – Brussels to Amsterdam airport – JF called his son, Ben, and had him purchase tickets at the Brussels train station (I will reimburse with cash), and he will meet us at the station when we disembark from the Paris train. He will have our tickets and the suitcase I left in Brussels as an attempt to reduce our luggage volume so we could all fit in JF’s car for this very same journey.

Oh well, travel is nothing if not changes to plans. It is true that I get a little nervous about plans that require other people to perform functions and make rendezvous with a traveling party at each stage of the game, but I will enjoy the relaxed travel of the train over a nine-hour, nine hundred kilometer drive with no margin for error in order to make the last train out of Brussels to Amsterdam.

I will just have to trust that everyone will do their part and that we will arrive at our hotel at the Amsterdam airport a few hours earlier than if we had driven and we will be in better shape for it. We can perhaps check in for our flight yet that evening and simply queue up for security and customs the next morning for the flight home.

If all goes well, we will be arriving at MSP around 1:30 PM on Monday the 6th.

So, once again, adieu.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Belle Ilse

Dear Readers,

I am writing this while sitting on a bed as a four year old boy runs around and around a loop that includes a passage through one door in the bedroom and out the other. There are eight “children” under the age of eighteen and seven adults housed in what started as a small cottage on the island of Belle Ilse off the coast of Brittany in France. This simple cottage has undergone several expansions and is currently bursting at the seams with people.

We (myself, my two children, the young woman who has been traveling with us, Elsa, and her father, the groom written about in previous posts) arrived on Belle Ilse this afternoon after a short beautiful ferry ride the seven miles or so across the channel. Our small traveling party dropped the rental car at the train station in Aurey and met JF, the groom, there about noon. Having made that rendezvous, the five of us threw all our luggage in the back of his car and made our way down the narrow isthmus of land that held the ferry depot and our departure point for Belle Ilse.

(break for sleep)

It is now morning (early). Only one other person is up. I am sitting on the stone “deck” behind the house waiting for enough folks to rise to make it “OK” to run the clothes washing machine (a very tiny unit that sits in the kitchen). We are all out of clean clothes.

JF and might go and buy croissants for the large crew here and check out a “cyber garage” to see what its hours might be. There are not a lot of places where one can get a WIFI or broadband connection here on the island.

Where I sit, I look out on a small orchard and garden. Birds are feeding on the fruit fallen to the ground. I understand that a family of pheasants lives back there and the two families – pheasants and humans – have grown used to each other over the generations. So, perhaps I will be graced by a view of some pheasants before breakfast.

The rays of the sun have not yet reached this flag stoned court, though I can see the sun’s effect upon the tops of the nearby trees and on the chimney top of an adjacent house so it will not be long. In the meantime, it is quite cool where I sit, wrapped in my one clean pair of pants and a pile pullover currently be used as a shirt.

I can hear the sounds of gulls from the nearby harbor, but I cannot see it from here. Last night, we walked into down into town to see what was happening and to look for internet connections. We found one bar that was selling connections for 1 euro for ten minutes, which I thought was piracy. Even were I to use that location, they do not open until 6 PM and it is, of course, smokey.

JF thinks that there may be internet availability at city hall, so we will check that out when it opens.

The main event of the day however, is another family excursion to one of the several beaches that dot the island’s coast. This is apparently the traditional way one spends time here in the summer. The beach we go to today may allow us to pick mussels fresh from the sea for our lunch. We shall see.

Yesterday, after much discussion by family consigliore’s, a beach was selected and we all trooped off to a small beach at the head of a fjord-like finger of the sea that poked inland between two tall heather covered bluffs on either side. The water was a bit cool, but very clear and the ocean floor was of very fine sand. Those who were not swimming spent the time talking (mostly adults) or playing in the sand (mostly children). My daughter allowed herself to be buried by a group of enthusiastic youngsters who then proceeded to give her various body profiles, some of which I was able to record on camera.

(ah ha – I found a broadband connection in the ferry office down on the harbor so I must quickly finish this post and upload it while I can)

We arrived here on Belle Ilse after spending the night in a B&B a relatively short distance away. This was a little place in a little village in the heart of Brittany. We knew of it through two separate sources that illustrate the small world and “degree of connectivity” potential that surround us.

A few months ago, I attended the 50th Anniversary celebration for a college FM station where I was a volunteer disc jockey oh so many years ago. A couple of momentous events occurred at that time – one of which was the meeting of a person who first directed me in a play at the Duluth Playhouse – an event that led to many further acting opportunities and in a large degree, shaped me as the person I am today. She was there with her husband, who was also a volunteer DJ at the same time I was.

We were seated at the same table during a Saturday night banquet and got to talking. We discovered that we were both planning visits to Europe and after I explained our itinerary, she said, “Oh, you must stop and stay with my old friends, C and C, who now run a B&B in Brittany.” After a bit more discussion, I ascertained that the male C of the couple was the very same man my brother Peter worked for in a French restaurant on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, not more than six blocks from my old home on Dayton Avenue. Small world.

At first, we did not think we would be able to make it as the B&B was booked, but then through a series of events, we got a phone call from France saying that they had room and to count on staying.

So, we did. Unfortunately, Christian, the man my brother worked for, had to travel to Paris on family business and we did not see him, but his wife, Christiana welcomed us and we spent a very nice evening in their old stone house in a small village in the heart of Brittany.

A short drive of about an hour and a half, brought us to the place where we were to leave the rental car and meet Elsa’s dad, Jean-Francios for the remaining voyage to Belle Ilse.

So, here we are. I will upload pictures as soon as I can. In the meanwhile, this must suffice.