Side Trip: Sound of Music Territory

The view of the village of Seefeld, Austria from the mountain above.

The view of the village of Seefeld, Austria from the mountain above. I wanted to swirl around and sing the song from Sound of Music but Dave said I would embarrass him.

We were riding the cog trail up the mountain in Seefeld, Austria, where the Olympics were once held, with another member of our tour group whom we’d just met—a slight man wearing lavendar-tinted glasses.  When we mentioned that we’d lived in New Orleans for many years he perked up, and replied that he’d just been to Southern Decadence.

“But I brought all the wrong outfits,” he confided to us. “I brought all my twinky outfits and I should have brought more bearish stuff.”

As always happens in the first conversation we have with a new acquaintance, a set of filters and presumptions begin to fall in place. The conversation turned to travel.

“My little electric heater from the dollar store and I have been all over the world,” he noted. “I get chilly easily.”

Presumptions begin to firm up.

I asked what his favorite places have been during his travels.

“The border of Burma and Thailand,” was his instant reply. “I hiked for eight days there and barely saw another human being. Later I found out there were rebel clashes along the border.”

Stereotype shattered.

Shortly thereafter our travel mate continued on up into the mountains where he hiked for several hours from one peak to the next. We enjoyed the view and a latte seated comfortably under an umbrella at the mid-mountain restaurant.

I’m so grateful every time I have an experience like this.  Each is a reminder that although making a certain number of presumptions is necessary to carry on in life, they should always be questioned.

The mountainside café had an exhibit of vintage ski gear. These little skis reminded Dave of the pair he had as a child when his dad was stationed near here.

The mountainside café had an exhibit of vintage ski gear. These little skis reminded Dave of the pair he had as a child when his dad was stationed near here.

There must have been a thousand flower boxes in the fairytale village of Seefeld.

There must have been a thousand flower boxes in the fairytale village of Seefeld.

And at least some of those flower boxes have to be tended the old-fashioned way.

And at least some of those flower boxes have to be tended the old-fashioned way.

 

 

 

 

The Kudzumobile

KudzuI asked my friend and former boss, Country Roads Magazine publisher James Fox-Smith, for a bit of help making a whacky idea for The Fabulous Fifth Wheel come true. His valiant efforts on our behalf seem to have raised an eyebrow or two. http://www.countryroadsmag.com/featured/blogs/editorial-reflections/kudzu-appreciation-society

Ode to Cannon Beach

I’ve never considered myself a beach person. Lying on hot sand, no matter how crystalline white it may be, acquiring the golden glow of future melanoma, hasn’t been appealing since high school. (I still recall the summer in high school when I was briefly unemployed and acquired an actual tan.  That was also the year I put “Summer Blond” in my hair to lighten it. And it began falling out. Quite coincidentally I’m sure.)

But now I’ve fallen in love with Cannon Beach on Oregon’s pacific shore. Hard packed sand you can walk for miles in search of starfish. The sand is brown, not the brilliant white we know from the Florida panhandle, but has a surprising range of nuanced color as it interacts with the sun and the sea.

Huge rocks shrouded in mist. Cliff top views. Surfers. Children. Dogs.

Something to awaken every sense.

But the pictures tell the story better than I can.

Tsunami Creek TwoSurfers Thistle DaveCliff Dudes Surfboard DaveSurft Lighthouse

 

Side Trip: Turkish Delights Part I

So a couple of big ole gay guys decide that they’ll go on vacation to a country that’s 95% muslim. Sounds fun eh?

Turkey was so much more than fun.

It was thought-provoking, awe-inducing and mouth-watering. It was exotic, quirky, and sometimes warmly familiar.  It was history-laden, futuristic, and filled with reminders to live fully in the present moment.

It is a place that many more able writers than I haven’t begun to do justice. I won’t try. Instead I’ll fall back on the “a picture tells a thousand words” adage  to condense at least a fragment of this adventure into a blog-sized tale.

Tulips

We arrived in late March to an early spring. There are more tulips in Turkey than in The Netherlands.  In fact The Netherlands buys their tulips from Turkey. The streets of Istanbul are lined with miles of elaborate floral displays.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street just off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay.  (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey's creepy current prime minister. He shut down twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recording implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him...for now. He's despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right.  A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

Our guesthouse was just down this tiny cobblestoned street, a few blocks off bustling Taksim Square. The flags crisscrossing overhead are actually promoting political parties for the election that was held during our stay. (So much more esthetically pleasing than yard signs.) These have a dark side though. They represent the party of Turkey’s creepy current prime minister. He shut down Twitter for a bit while we were there to slow the viral spread of recordings implicating him in a corruption scandal. Fortunately Turkey is a democracy and the courts overruled him…for now. He’s despised by the educated urbanites we met in Istanbul, but draws his support from the rural poor and religious right. A scenario all too familiar to those of us who live in the South.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We'd just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

The centuries-old streets that radiate from Taksim Square are lined with shops and outdoor cafés that remind me of Paris. We’d just had lunch at one along this particularly pretty street.

 

Today's istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient.  Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city's great interior design.

Today’s istanbul is as contemporary as it is ancient. Innovative high-rise architecture to rival Dubai fills the skyline, and this coffee shop where we hung out a lot illustrates some of the city’s superb modern interior design.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country’s signature sweet, Turkish Delight. This counter filled with dozens of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

Vasilis

And it wasn’t just Turkish Delight. Baklava originated with the Ottoman Empire, and a favorite evening activity for locals (one we instantly embraced) is hanging out in “dessert palaces” as I called them—beautifully decorated and often chandeliered restaurants focused on coffee, tea, and myriad combinations of phyllo dough, nuts and honey. Our Greek friend Vasileios shows off his selection.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, and we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by  the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Straight that divides Istanbul between two continents.  We were surprised in a country that we'd perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag.  It was a terrific afternoon.

Istanbul has a vibrant gay scene, despite the fact that 95% of Turks identify as Muslim.  Just like many folks who identify as Catholic here in the U.S., they heed the teachings that have meaning in contemporary life and ignore those that don’t. And we happened to arrive just in time for a weekend of festivities put on by the local gay bear community, One of those activities was an afternoon aboard a boat cruising up and down the Bosporus Strait which divides Istanbul between two continents. We were surprised, in a country that we’d perceived to be highly conservative, to see the boat pull up out and proud with a big rainbow flag. It was a terrific afternoon.

That weekend's activities also included a visit to a traditional Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles.  It's a very pleasant experience as you can tell from the look on Dave's face.

That weekend’s activities also included a visit to a Turkish hammam in business since 1445. The traditional experience includes stretching out on a hot marble slab to be scrubbed from head to foot with a loofa, then massaged under a cloud of tiny soap bubbles. It’s very pleasant, as you can tell from the look on Dave’s face.

In the next post—Turkish Delights beyond Istanbul.

 

 

I found myself wondering how many Turks are diabetic. I think every third shop featured the country's signature sweet, Turkish Delight.  This counter filled with hundreds of variations on the nutty, chewy stuff was at least thirty feet long.

You Never Know What You’ll Find Down a Country Road

ShrimpJust down the road from our current campground is the tiny Iowa farm town of Oxford—population 821. It hasn’t changed much since I was a kid growing up nearby and we’d come to the rodeo held outside town every year.

With one exception— a few years ago a new restaurant popped up in one of the pretty historic brick buildings along the couple of streets that comprise downtown. A restaurant run by a couple flooded out of New Orleans by Katrina.AugustaSign

And so last night we had a big family gathering at Augusta, ten of us in all, gathered around mismatched tables with pretty table clothes, surrounded by walls covered in a mixture of New Orleans mementos and the work of local artists. I had shrimp and a grit cake on the side as good as any I’ve ever had in New Orleans. Rosemary may not be one of the “holy trinity” of Creole spices, but after these shrimp I’m convinced a “holy quad” is in order. Great gumbo too, and red beans that also departed a bit from the way they’re traditionally spiced, but nonetheless delicious.

In a bit of cross-cultural irony, displayed on the wall was a newspaper article reporting that Augusta’s “tenderloin,” as the iconic Midwestern fried pork sandwich is known, had been voted the best in Iowa by the pork producer’s association.

Dr.-BobThere too, right next to beer taps where it belongs, was one of our old New Orleans neighbor Dr. Bob’s signature “Be Nice or Leave” signs.

Unexpected Ozarks

My story about the part of this last year’s journey we spent in the Ozarks is in  month’s Country Roads Magazine HERE. And here are some additional fave pix that aren’t in the online version:

Every Saturday night in Eureka Springs, the town traffic cop leads the community drum circle.

Every Saturday night in Eureka Springs, the town traffic cop leads the community drum circle.

 

Rosie was my most favorite of many fave pieces at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

Rosie was my most favorite of many fave pieces at the Crystal Bridges Museum.

The Walmart museum housed in what was Sam Walton's first store, has this interesting display of merchandise returned for unusual reasons.

The Walmart museum housed in what was Sam Walton’s first store, has this interesting display of merchandise returned for unusual reasons.

PorkMedallionsWEB

One of the best meals we’ve had on our journey was at a student run restaurant on a mountaintop college campus outside Branson. Everything on this plate was raised on campus.

A personal fave shot of Dave taken at one of Branson's many cheesy but delightful attractions.

A personal fave shot of Dave taken at one of Branson’s many cheesy but delightful attractions.

The Humble Schwa to the Rescue

Our bead throwing buddies Johnny and Robert were sporting some spectacular float finery.

Our bead throwing buddies Johnny and Robert were sporting some spectacular float finery.

This past weekend was all about parades here on our return visit to New Orleans.

I’m not sure why, but it was worth standing in the pouring rain Sunday waiting for the float to pass on which our friends were riding, so that we could be singled out to be thrown those REALLY NICE beads. (I’m special! I’m special!) We so need to feel special.

LeilaYes, I will always treasure my hand-embroidered Princess Leila ornament, caught during a Close Encounter with the Krewe of Chewbacchus Saturday night, one of several new parades to emerge in recent years from our old Marigny-Bywater neighborhood. What could be more fun than a rolling Star Wars convention? (It also brought back memories of an equally fun Star Trek parade earlier in our adventures.)

And then there was the ‘tit Rex parade. Well that’s not really the name anymore. Because now the “e” has been replaced with a schwa.

Thanks to the schwa, this tiny parade continues to roll.

Thanks to the schwa, this tiny parade continues to roll.

Just in case you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this symbol used to denote the vague multipurpose vowel sound found in words like “fudge,” “the,” and the last syllable of “sofa” —it looks like an upside-down “e.”   I Googled how to create the schwa symbol using my laptop and here’s what I found:

  • “If you go into system preferences ‘international’ select ‘input menu’ then check both ‘character palette’ and ‘show input menu in menu bar’. Now ( if your default language is English US), you will have an American Flag icon on your menu bar. Click on it and a pull down menu will display “Show Character Palette” highlight and choose this option and a character palette window will open allowing you to insert any of literally hundreds of character options. If you select ‘View-Roman’ you will have the choice of Math, Arrows, Parenthese, Currency Symbols, and Punctuation plus 9 more. ‘Punctuation’ will have what you need.”

Never mind. I’ll just spell it out.

So why you might ask, did they go to the extraordinary typesetting effort to make the substitution? Well who knew that a bunch of artsy hipsters walking through the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood pulling miniature floats behind them would be perceived as a threat by the landed gentry that comprise most of the old-school Krewe of Rex.

But yep, a couple years ago, their lawyers threatened legal action against the then newly formed parade.

To be fair, it was all very genteel. The old Rexters were afraid that if they let one entity use the name unchallenged, there’d be a flood of copycats and they’d lose control of their branding. Sort of like Kleenex I guess. And after a conversation about various options, a solution was chosen.

Schwa to the rescue.

One of my favorites. When I passed by the creator of this float had engaged a young admirer in a fascination discussion about homonyms.

One of my favorites. When I passed by the creator of this float had engaged a young admirer in a fascinating discussion about homonyms.

This parade may rival Krewe du Vieux when it comes to bawdy political satire.

This parade may rival Krewe du Vieux when it comes to bawdy political satire.

 

A favorite new addition to my vocabulary.

A favorite new addition to my vocabulary.

 

How SCOTUS Saved Me $10,000

BCCardWe’re working on our taxes for last year, and while it’s not deductible, I went ahead and totaled up my health insurance costs from 2013.  For about the last decade I’ve been one of the millions of Americans without company sponsored health insurance, so I’ve had an individual Blue Cross policy.

And for the last several years, my premiums have gone up $100 a month. Not a year. A month. With a $2800 deductible. Even my doctor was shocked, given my relatively minor health issues. Last year my premiums totaled $10,185.70. Just for me.

So among the things Dave and I were celebrating when we married back in July, was the fact that, thanks to the Supreme Court, I could then be added to his excellent health plan for retired federal workers. Under which BOTH of us would be covered, without a deductible, for $200 a month.

We filled out the forms, faxed in our marriage certificate and waited. For six months. While the feds tried to figure out just what to do with these newly recognized same-gender couples. (Six more premiums for me—do the math.)

But at long last the card has arrived.  And I handed it over to the pharmacy tech the other day to update my account.

“What’s your relationship to Mr. Johnson?” he asked, noting Dave’s name on the card. And for the first time with a stranger, I smiled and answered, “I’m his spouse.”

Farewell Florida

 

My thought exactly.

My thought exactly.

Tomorrow we suck in our slides, hitch up our wagon and end our visit to the heart of snowbird country. This part of central Florida has become such a Mecca for those escaping the cold that there are easily 50 other RV parks within a twenty-minute drive.  The small community of Zephyrhills just south of us doubles in size from 10,000 to over 20,000 in the winter.  Google’s satellite view of the community is a sea of RVs. It would seem that lots and lots of folks came to the realization long before us, that hauling your home behind you to whatever place offers the best weather at the moment—is a swell idea. That and owning an Arabian horse apparently. Now on to New Orleans, just in time for Mardi Gras.

Our snowbird CHristmas tree, populated with origami cranes and a starfish on top.

Our snowbird CHristmas tree, populated with origami cranes and a starfish on top.

 

Disneyworld vs. Weeki Wachee

WeekiWacheeSo much of how we enjoy an experience is predicated on our expectations. One of the first things we did when Dave and I arrived for our two-month stay in central Florida was head for Disneyworld.  The American Express card whimpered a little when we dumped nearly $200 each on it for two-day passes. I arched an eyebrow as the gate attendant ever so perkily asked me to place my index finger on a scanner so they could gather my fingerprint (To prevent me from sharing my access card.)

There’s still a lot of magic in the Magic Kingdom, and we loved the new “retro-future” look of Tomorrowland, as well as the newish Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor there, where you can text in a joke and if it’s good enough an animated monster will deliver it to the crowd. We stood in back with big grins on our faces at the Enchanted Tales with Belle attraction in Fantasyland, where an animated Lumiere and a lovely young lady portraying Belle, did indeed enchant every child in the room. The Hall of Presidents is still a rousing romp through American history made even more entertaining by an extraordinary a cappella group that performed before the show.

Epcot isn’t aging so well though. It’s tough to stay ahead of the future. The animatronics used in many of the rides are so last century. Many attractions feature nicely produced films, but the projection quality was often poor by today’s standards.  And several of the rides we were on broke down, albeit briefly.

“Was it worth it?” we wondered aloud at the end of our visit. Just barely, we concluded. There remains a lot to love about Disneyworld, but when you’re paying nearly a $100 a day you expect a flawless experience.

Mermaids train for up to a year for these performances, often accompanied by the original inhabitants of the springs.

Mermaids train for up to a year for these performances, often accompanied by the original inhabitants of the springs.

Flash forward to a warm and sunny Florida day last weekend, just down the road at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. In 2008 he state took over operation of the venerable Florida attraction, which staged its first underwater mermaid show in 1947.

I was expecting the equivalent of a dog-eared vintage postcard: A sweet but faded glimpse into a colorful past.

Merman

Dave agrees to yet another of my silly photo op requests.

What we found was a beautifully maintained state park, where we first boarded a pontoon boat for a float down the crystal clear Weeki Wachee River (fed by the 117 gallons the springs pump out every day). Our half-hour journey took us past a manatee mama and her calf, a gigantic eagle’s nest, a deer wading near the shore, an alligator and several kayakers.

On the other side of the park you can swim in the spring where the water is a constant 74 degrees. We waded in, wishing we’d brought our suits on that 80 degree afternoon.

But we were really here for the mermaid show.  And what a show it was. The underwater ballerinas that perform here, slender air hoses in hand,  train for up to a year. They can hold their breath for two and a half minutes. (Try it.) For half an hour they dived, and twirled, and blew bubbles—to the delight of young and old alike.

MoldmachineBut the fun was not quite over.  For $2 we watched our mermaid souvenir being injection molded before our very eyes, delivering the result into our hands still warm. A delightful afternoon indeed.  All for $13 each.