NZed Dispatches: South by West

In the days following our fantastic day out near Takaka, on the south island, Carol and Sherry and I said a temporary goodbye to Graham and Jo, and we headed south along the west coast. We didn’t know it at the time, but just a few days later, a tropical cyclone would ravage the island, tearing up roads and infrastructure. Takaka would be pounded, Golden Bay would be cut off by road and have to be resupplied by sea, and the coasts would be lashed by six meters of storm surge. But by dumb luck we were mostly in the right places at the right times; the worst we had to deal with was fairly mild rains and a long detour on our next-to-last day on the south island.

But that was a week in the future. For now, the weather was still benevolent; and the route ahead of us hopscotched from one airbnb to another along the coast on an itinerary that would eventually bend inland toward Queenstown.

Before splitting from Jo and Graham, we all channeled our inner Gimli and explored Ngarua Cave, a pretty cavern beneath the hill range stretching between Takaka and Motueka. While the cave itself was not as splendid, perhaps, as some I’ve visited, it featured some interesting bones: the skeletons of Moa birds, a flightless species that went extinct some thousands of years ago. And the above-ground entrance shop enjoyed a spectacular view overlooking Tasman Bay.

In a hole in the ground there went five hobbits. »

The next day, after parting from our NZed relations in Lower Moutere, we turned south toward the coastal city of Greymouth. Along the way, my wife took the opportunity to put paid to an old regret, at the Buller Swingbridge and Zipline. Years before I met her, in this very part of the world Carol had chickened out on a chance to ride this selfsame zipline, which crosses a gorge over a roaring river; and ever since that day she wished she’d stepped up. Now she could set matters aright.

As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to do the same! I’m joking, of course; I generally regard ziplines, roller coasters, and other thrill rides with the same enthusiasm I reserve for head lice and Fox News contributors. But I could hardly stand in the way of Carol’s chance at personal redemption. In the end, Sherry, who was also somewhat skeptical of the enterprise, signed on to the suicide pact as well. So led by my wife, who eagerly bounced her way across the swing bridge en route, Sherry and I gingerly followed to the zipline terminus; and one by one we, er… zipped.

And it was pure, terrifying hell.

Ow, ow, ow, alright, all right! I admit it. It was kinda fun.

Watch Carol and Sherry brave the zipline in gripping non-IMAX video! »


Later that same day we reached the coast in earnest, and stopped to visit Pancake Rocks — a dramatic cluster of formations with their feet in the pounding surf and their tall heads crowned with emerald shrubs and coconut trees. Pathways and viewing points yield broad vistas over the ocean, and when the tide is in, seawater blasts through tunnels and blowholes carved from the stone. The name of the place comes from the characteristic appearance of the stone formations, which appear to be stacks of thin horizontal layers. It is not completely understood why the rocks here have weathered in this distinctive manner.

I should mention that for several days after this I craved pancakes.

Check out pictures of Pancake Rocks and other west coast scenery. »

Arriving in Greymouth that evening, we stayed in a gracious old house on a hill. I flirted with a hernia getting the luggage up the veritable stairway to heaven, but at the top we all had a nice view over the town. Our initial impression of Greymouth itself that evening was a bit underwhelming; it seemed kind of gritty and uninteresting. But next day, as morning fog burned off and the downtown streets came alive under blue skies, we began to appreciate the subtle beauty of the city.

That day, Valentine’s Day, was our last on the western coast. On a long drive southward that was distinguished by Sherry drying her laundry by flying it from the car windows, we stopped in the charming town of Hokitika to buy some souvenirs, and then pushed on to visit Franz Josef Glacier. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the latter, the morning’s sunshine had liquified into a persistent, chilly afternoon rain. Our soggy hike out to the viewpoint for the glacier was something of an anticlimax, as you can tell from the rather bleary-looking photos.

At least, given my drenching, I was finally baptized a True Kiwi. So there’s that, then.


NZed Dispatches: New Plans

And that’s when things went a bit sideways.

You may be familiar with the old military maxim that a war plan never survives first contact with the enemy. The same might be said of vacation plans.

Once Carol and Sherry and I got to the south island and hooked up with Carol’s brother Graham and his daughter Jo, the plan was to get all our trekking gear together and backpack the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s famous Great Tracks. It was to be a four day trip, and all the details were arranged: overnight accommodations in the huts along the track; water taxis to transport the group’s extra gear; buses to get us to and from the endpoints of the track. Graham had prepared several days of food in advance, and Jo had even packed individual pouches of trail mix.

The night before we flew down from Auckland to the south island, I got almost no sleep; so after we landed in Nelson, when I felt freakishly tired and sleepy, I put it down to a lack of shuteye. That evening, after Graham and Jo arrived and we packed our gear, I studiously ignored the building wave of head- and body aches and stomach cramps. I went to bed early and told myself I’d be right as rain with a good night’s sleep. It was only in the middle of the night, when a spike of chills and fever heralded the arrival of some unspeakable intestinal symptoms, that I knew it was no use.

It was the flu, of course. It was also a disaster: Not only would it derail the carefully-planned backpacking trek for all concerned (with the concomitant loss of sunk costs); absent the overnight lodgings and transportation arrangements we would have to forego, it would leave the five of us, at the apex of the tourist season, with no place to go and no way to get there. So at 4 AM — two hours before we were supposed to be leaving the house to catch our bus — I gingerly woke Carol and broke the awful news.

And then followed one of those occasional moments where my wife goes beyond being merely wonderful and becomes positively post-human.

Telling me to hunker down and get some more rest (which I was desperate to do at that juncture), Carol set about working her particular brand of magic: so that by the time we were scheduled to check out of our airbnb that morning, she had apprised everyone else of the situation and formulated an alternate plan; located and booked a perfect airbnb for a reasonable price in nearby Golden Bay; hunted up a suitable rental car when even Kayak said there weren’t any to be found; set the process in motion to get us a refund for our bus fares; and got us ready to head out the door.

No, you can’t have her. I saw her first.

Anyway, that was two days ago. Yesterday, while I slept off the worst of the flu, the others went out for a long tramp in an all-day, cats-and-dogs rainstorm, and returned soaked and laughing. Personally, I kind of feel like I got the sweet end of that deal, though I am told that I will need to brave a similar meteorological challenge in the coming weeks if I am to be considered a True Kiwi. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to muddle through as a dry Outworlder.

In the meantime, the grippe was sufficiently attenuated by this morning that I could once again venture out — and boy howdy, did I make up for lost time.

After breakfast, we drove out to a short walking trail to see Te Waikoropupu Springs — a crystal-clear spring sacred to the Maori people. It is forbidden to touch the waters; and indeed, the water is so pristine, and the submerged colors so otherworldly, that it would seem like defilement to touch. As it is, the sense of tranquility and beauty is enough to make you want to linger like Narcissus by the waterside forever.

Take a run through the photo highlights of the day »

After reluctantly taking leave of the spring, we drove about an hour west, past Puponga and Cape Farewell to Wharariki Beach. Walking from the car park over a ridge of emerald hills, we descended onto an enormous expanse of mostly deserted white sand stretching away to the ocean. A series of small rock islands stood out from the beach. On the nearest of the formations, moored partly on the strand, a group of seals loafed in the sun while a small audience of beachgoers vied like paparazzi to get photos.


We ranged far and wide along the beach as Phoebus’s chariot rolled through the stations of early afternoon, then we headed back to the car. The day’s highlight’s weren’t quite done, though. Once again passing by Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of New Zealand’s south island, we stopped to take the view from the cliffs.

And what a view!

Despite being mostly comatose as recently as yesterday, I was so energized by the green cliffs and the sun-washed sky that I was soon running from one overlook to the next like a hyperactive kid. (The others managed to keep their dignity somewhat more intact, like the proper descendents of British forbears they are.)

At length, we all piled back into the car and headed back to our unexpected lodging in Takaka. It wasn’t a day I would have anticipated when I boarded the plane from Auckland. But I’m definitely not giving it back.



Last night was Robbie Burns Night in Scotland. Burns is revered here as the national poet, and his life and work are celebrated annually on January 25th. To the Scots, Burns Night is kind of like Guy Fawkes Night to the English — except instead of lightheartedly burning an effigy to commemorate a 17th century terrorist, the Scots eat a large dinner in honor of a fellow whose only known acts of terrorism were against the English language.

The menu for Burns Night dinner is tightly prescribed by tradition: it must include neeps and tatties (mashed turnips, or “swedes”, and potatoes), a “wee dram” of scotch, and the centerpiece: haggis.

You may be wondering, “What is a haggis, exactly?” and well you might wonder, because I need a rhetorical question like that to introduce this section. One of the few dictionaries willing to discuss the subject defines haggis as “a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.” There may be a few words in that definition that are not revolting, but none of them are nouns. Essentially, a haggis is a sausage made of sadness. As I had never before been sufficiently reckless to try it, Burns Night would be my first tasting.

Our splendid host Susan worked through much of the day preparing the supper, while Carol polished her pronunciation for the address. An important feature of Robbie Burns night is “addressing the haggis,” which I at first assumed to mean that we would select an address at random from the phone book and send them our haggis — rather like a Secret Santa at the office, when you’ve pulled the name of someone from Internal Audit out of the hat. But as you will no doubt have surmised, addressing the haggis is instead the act of making a speech to the insensate lump, in the manner of addressing the troops or a joint session of Congress (more like the latter, I should think).

Fortunately, lest one have difficulty summoning appropriate words for an encomium to a tube of entrails, auld Robbie himself composed the official address to the haggis, which would be repeated down the ages over tables throughout Scotland. The only challenge for Carol would be to pronounce it.

At the appointed hour, Sue laid out the serving dishes atop the hob, and we loaded our plates. We trooped single-file into the living room and sat for Carol’s recitation. Rather than burden you with the entire text, which is full of admirable words like sonsie, thairm, kytes, and luggies, I’ll offer a very free prose translation of the most important passages:

In elder days, the wisest of our ancestors sailed from these shores to discover tropical lands with umbrella drinks and Reggae music. And they stayed there, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to muck around in the peat bogs and eat shite like this here. At least they didn’t take all the scotch. Hail, hail and l’chaim.

Solemnities done, it was time to turn the sound back up on the television, and eat.

I feel complete confidence in saying that nothing else in the world tastes quite like haggis. Upon first sampling it, one understands immediately why the traditional Burns Night menu specifies whiskey as a chaser. Short of refined petroleum, nothing less robust than a good belt of single malt is capable of scouring the flavor of haggis from the palate. Pairing haggis with wine or beer would be like trying to smother a dumpster fire with a moist towelette, or unclog a rest area toilet with an eye dropper.

At this point, you are no doubt wondering, ‘So, why do the Scots eat haggis?’ I will tell you the answer: God alone knows. Why do the Scots live in a place whose climate makes Seattle seem like Morocco? Why do they wear short wool skirts into battle against bladed weapons? Why did the inventor of the highland bagpipe not receive jail time?

It’s a mystery, my friend.

Public Notice: The author of this article has been sacked due to gross misrepresentation of Scotland’s cherished institutions. Against all reasonable surmise, haggis is in fact quite pleasant to eat, and as far as we know may even be good for you. And no one has a go at Robbie Burns except over our cold corpses. Accordingly, you should regard the entire content of the essay as complete rubbish. Except the part about wearing kilts into battle. Even we admit that’s just barking mad.

The Scotland Tourist Board

Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.


Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.


[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.

Flashback: The Crags of the Cathars

One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.

The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.

Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.

During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.

Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.

In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.

Wander the ruins of Montsegur with Carol and Pip »

When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.

Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.

Our friend Sherry joins us for an assault on Queribus »

Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.

Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.

Tamsyn helps us investigate Peyrepertuse »

Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.

France. It’s a small place, really.


This past Sunday, Carol and I went to Heidelberg for the day. Straddling the placid Neckar River in Baden-Württemberg, the city hosts one of the most impressive castle ruins in Europe. It has also been a college town since the 14th century, when the excellent Heidelberg University was founded in 1386.  We found the city to be beautiful and bustling, and even—despite the legions of visitors on a sunny weekend—quite gracious.

Have a look at our photos from the trip »

It was also my first real immersion in the German Autobahn experience, which was terrifying  sphincter-twisting  nerve-searing interesting.

The Autobahn comes in two flavors: the kind with speed limits (about half the total Autobahn mileage in Deutschland) and the kind without. Traveling on the latter, which I was for maybe half the trip, I posted a personal record by getting our trusty Skoda Yeti up to about 145. That’s kilometers per hour, mind you, but it was still pretty thrilling for me. Of course, at that speed, I had an unending parade of German and Italian performance cars passing me as if I had brought a golf cart to Daytona. But that’s exactly what those cars are made for. It’s actually kind of fun watching a Lamborghini Gallardo drop you like a bad habit on the Autobahn.

Know what else the Autobahn is good for? Bathrooms.

I’ll probably be talking a lot about bathrooms in this blog, because … well, never you mind why. Let’s just say I’m a 58 year old guy, and keep the HIPAA police happy. If you’re coming from a place like the US, where there’s a free public toilet about every half block, you may find Europe a little … cavalier. But on the Autobahn, blessedly, you’ll get treated to a rest stop about every 10 or 15 miles, just like back home.

Anyway, more on that important subject as time goes by.