It’s time to start thinking summer 2017…but first, a look back at summer 2016. I should have posted this long ago… better late than never. After eight summers of renting our guest apartment to tourists, we officially closed last August – no more paying guests, but time and room for friends and relatives.
It was a rewarding experience. We met interesting folks from many countries. Some have become friends. We learned about their lands.
Austrians Klaus and Eva were our first renters of the season, as they have been every summer for the past six years. We have become friends and are delighted they will come back this year, not as renters, but house sitters when we travel to Germany.
They always arrive with bounteous gifts of Austrian delicacies. A roof rack on their car holds Klaus’ ample supplies for their stay, including Austrian beer and wine. Of course they appreciate Provence wine too, especially summer rose.
Isabelle, who works in a bank, and Jean Christophe, who is in the insurance business, arrived from the Paris region in a spiffy Mercedes convertible. They had been to our region many times and were happy to be back. After a day’s outing, they often played boule in our driveway, although it is definitely not the best terrain for this Provence favorite.
We enjoyed Belgians Jeroen and Anika, both teachers, and daughter Stans. They came loaded down with two bicycles, plus baby supplies: baby stroller, baby bed, a plastic pool, pool toys. They had fun introducing Stans to the big pool. They biked, too.
Jeroen is one of those super cyclists who have conquered Mt. Ventoux many times. “Any serious Belgian cyclist must climb Mt. Ventoux,” he said. He did, as well as the Mountain of Lure which he says is beautiful. “It’s only 100 meters less than Ventoux, but no one knows about it.”
Anika’s passion is markets. They visited six in the region. Her favorite: Apt.
Friends and family also visited in summer 2016. With my brother Steve and sister-in-law Yoshie we enjoyed a mini-trip to visit the fascinating Chauvet- Pont d’Arc Cavern with replicas of prehistoric cave art dating back 36,000 years. The original art was discovered in a nearby cave, but it is closed to visitors to protect the treasures. The replica cave and art are mind boggling.
Step-children Kellie and Rob with grandsons Lang and Sam joined us in June. Good times in the pool were enjoyed by all. Bob even joined in – a mini miracle. He is not a water person, and almost never goes in the pool. I make up for him.
Summer ended with a visit from Colorado friends Kathy and Bob, whom we know from our days n Germany long ago.
Now that I have finally put summer 2016 to bed, time to move on to new adventure and travel. Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – here we come! Watch this blog.
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Huanggang was not like the China we had seen with sleek skyscrapers, luxurious hotels, Starbucks, 711s – and crowds everywhere. This tiny rural village of simple wooden houses where farmers live and toil as they have for ages was the China I had been eager to see and photograph. Unfortunately it was my downfall, literally.
Our guide had given us free time to wander around, take photos, explore. Voila — a wooden footbridge over a canal of raging water with a pagoda downstream. The perfect shot awaited from the middle of the bridge, or so I thought. In eager anticipation of getting that super shot, camera ready, I stepped on the first plank. Crack! It split, broke in two. Into the canal I went. I seized the canal wall, hoping someone would extricate me before I plunged into the nasty, brown, turbulent water. No such luck. The pain in my arms became unbearable. I could hang on no longer, let go and dropped into the churning canal. Fortunately the water was only about waist deep and I was not swept downstream over the Yellow Fruit Tree Waterfall. But, my precious Canon was history.
Husband Bob and a few others rushed to the scene. The rescue effort was challenging. My arms were shot. I could not use them to hoist myself, even with their help. They pulled me by the arms. Ouch!
Once safe on the ground, I was in disbelief. How could this have happened? It was so unreal, like a scene from a slapstick comedy. Except — it was really me and it was not funny. I had been so excited and thrilled with this trip – finally a chance to visit China, a destination that had beckoned me for years. Now what?
Guide Xiaoxaio rapidly arranged for a driver to take us to a hospital. He insisted on accompanying us, leaving the group behind. The hour long ride over twisty, primitive roads was scenic, but hard for me to appreciate. The lower half of my body was soaked. I was in denial, depressed, devastated. My arms, my shoulder, hurt.
The hospital – not the Mayo clinic, but thanks to Xiaoxiao there was no emergency room wait. I was quickly sent to X-ray. The equipment seemed on the antique side. Each X-ray, and they took many, seemed to take ages. I feared a Chernobyl dose of radiation. While waiting for the results, I asked Xiaixiao if he could find a shop and make a purchase for me. My clothes were slowly drying out, but my shoes were like overloaded sponges. I have very large feet, bigger than most Chinese feet I feared. Not to worry. Within record time, our trusty guide reappeared with a very comfortable pair of shoes, perfect fit.
None of the doctors spoke English. Xiaoxiao, who speaks perfect English, relayed the diagnosis: broken collar bone. The doctor said surgery might be required. Continuing the trip with our group was out of the question. Our compassionate guide arranged for us to return to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, where we had started our tour.
Chinese efficiency in action. We were whisked to a larger town, met by a guide and interpreter who accompanied us in first class splendor on the bullet train. The train was spiffy – roomy and comfortable with a stewardess who served meals. We were too shattered to eat, but were impressed with the smooth, quiet ride. It was impossible to believe we were traveling at up to 246 mph.
The arrival station was so futuristic it was almost scary: minimalistic, spacious, spotless, quiet. Passengers paraded swiftly, silently down long, wide corridors (no shops or advertising signs en route) to exits. Here our train guide turned us over to Miss Koo, the local rep of Spring Travel, the travel agency which had arranged the trip, and Tingting, a bubbly young translator. Both were delightful and showered us with TLC, treating us like dignitaries. They felt I should see another doctor at the big city hospital. They had purchased fast-food burgers for nourishment en route. “Since you are Americans, we figured you would like burgers,” Tingting said. We did indeed.
This hospital was more up to date, but still no English speakers. Waiting rooms were packed, but we were ushered in ahead of all. Here the emergency room doctor confirmed the break, but said no surgery would be required. Maybe we could continue the trip after all?
Since there had been collar bone confusion – surgery or no surgery, I asked if I could see an orthopedic specialist the next day with hopes that he might reconfirm the no-surgery assessment and we could salvage our trip. Thanks to Spring Travel, we spent the night at the five-star Kempinski hotel. Our guardian angels arrived the next morning to escort us to the orthopedic specialist. No English, but lots of back forth conversation and phone calls. I had told Tingting to tell the doctor that even though I am an old lady, I am still active and wanted to continue to enjoy some sports. She said in that case he advised I return to France and see a doctor there.
That did it. End of trip. More whirlwind action and mind boggling efficiency. We could take a flight that night back to France. No time to think. No time for tears. Just pack and get moving.
Before departing for the airport, Tingting and Miss Koo arranged a mini b’day celebration. In all the stress, we had forgotten — it was Bob’s birthday. We sat in the elegant lobby and enjoyed a delicious birthday cake.
Once home, the reality sunk in. The 18-day trip to China had been slashed to 3 ½ days. We saw very little of this intriguing country. We never made it to the Society of American Travel Writers Convention, which had been the main purpose of the trip. And, I had a very painful shoulder.
A broken collar bone is much like broken ribs –not much to do except suffer and reduce movement when possible. After six weeks, I thought the
worst was over, but the black Chinese cloud resurfaced with more bad luck. Somehow nerves had become compressed. My left hand is only partially functional. I cannot type with two hands – which is driving me crazy. I have shoulder pain when I walk. Doctors tell me it is not “grave” (French for serious) and the nerves will come back. When? No one knows, but it could take a long, long time, up to a year, I am told.
My lust for travel has not been squashed. I still crave adventure. It could have been far worse. Spring Travel, Xiaoxiao, Miss Koo and Tingting are to be commended. Thanks to their care, consideration and kindness, we even managed to smile during these traumatic times. Chinese hospitals and the bullet train count as interesting experiences. Spring tried to get a refund for me – faulty bridge. But, they learned the government had not built the bridge. Nonetheless they provided a small sum.
Please feel free to comment – just scroll down and add your thoughts. We are not down yet. Soon we will be off to Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka and the Maldives — where I will avoid wooden bridges. Don’t miss future posts. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared
Friday, Jan. 20: doom and gloom from President Trump in what one writer called “the darkest inaugural address Americans have ever heard.” Ugly rhetoric. Misleading exaggerations. Lies.…Afterwards he even lied about the weather.
No, we cannot call this disgusting, ignorant egomaniac our president. Yesterday we took to the streets, women’s marches against Trump in 370 cities around the globe. The statistics are staggering: half a million in D.C.; 750,000 in L.A.; 150,000 in Chicago; 100, 000 in London. Men joined the women. Pink pussy hats were popular.
Friend Lynne, Bob and I joined thousands in Paris. The mood was upbeat . The vibes positive. Energetic, enthusiastic crowds sang, cheered and chanted: “Ho Ho, Donald Trump has got t go.” “Nazis, KKK, Facists… Not in the USA.” “When they go low, we go high.”
It was thrilling to be part of this world wide movement to preserve democracy. But we cannot let this be a one-time good deal. A New York Times article quoted Marian B. Mollin, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies the history of social movements.
To be effective, she said, a march must energize participants long after they’ve gone home, sustaining them through the less exciting aspects of change.
“Are they continuing to be fired up when they get back? Because there is a lot of unfun, unglamorous work to do,” she said.
Let’s get to work. Trump is not our president.
Following are photos from Paris, many courtesy of fabulous Lynne Crytser.
Please feel free to comment. See below. Back to China in next post with a report on my fall into a canal from a bridge that broke. Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
Finally, a new recipe, endives, a French favorite and especially for my brother David who will teach a course, The Edible French Garden. Must have endives. See recipe at top right.
Ni chi le ma, a Chinese greeting for hello, translates as “have you eaten?” Xiao Xiao told us. According to Wikipedia and other sources, as many as 30 million perished during Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) which led to the Great Famine. Another 1.5 million died during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Starvation was the cause of many of those deaths too, hence the greeting.
Xiao Xiao, 32, was our guide on a trip in China’s Guizhou province in October. “My generation realizes that Chairman Mao was just a man who made mistakes. The Cultural Revolution was a big mistake,’’ he said. During our bus rides, our enthusiastic leader filled us in on many more fascinating facts about this country of 1.38 billion. In teaming cities of towering skyscrapers, multi-lane roads, shiny cars, neon lights, Starbucks, 7-11s and McDonalds, it is hard to imagine those dreadful years. China is speeding into the future with gusto.
Our trip to China came to an abrupt and tragic end on day three of an 18-day visit. I stepped on a wooden footbridge, which appeared new, with the intent of taking a photo from the middle. The first plank broke in two. I plunged into a canal of raging water. Broken collar bone. Drowned camera. End of trip. Details in next post.
In Guiyang, the province capital, we stayed in the luxurious five-star, 300 room Renaissance hotel located at a bustling intersection which had been nothing but a field a few years ago. Guiyang’s population has surged rapidly, from 1.8 million to 4.8 million today. We traveled on a 300-kilometer long super highway with 50 plus tunnels that had been built in just four years. We stopped at clean, gleaming rest stops with upscale shops. We rode the state of the art bullet train, which tops France’s TGV.
Guizhou, in southwest China, is the poorest of China’s 23 provinces. It is mountainous, with few international tourists, but home to 49 different nationalities. There are 56 different nationalities in China, we learned.
While life in China’s cities with modern conveniences seems good, out in the countryside it may not be so rosy. Some 40 percent of the Chinese live in rural areas and earn their living from agriculture. More and more are moving to the cities which offer greater opportunity. Many leave their children behind with their parents. Because the country is so vast, they may only see their children once or twice per year.
It was in a tiny rural village where I had my accident. Huanggang is charming, quaint, primitive, and full of photo opps (my downfall). The previous day we had visited two popular tourist sites. Huanggoshu Waterfall (Yellow Fruit Tree Waterfall) is located in a
lush, green park. It is a beauty, but the best part is the footpath through a cave just behind the falling water. You walk along, often bent over, following the narrow passage with the curtain of water on your right. It is awesome, as is the Dragon Palace, a limestone water cave visited by boat. The cave is illuminated by bright spotlights in bold colors making for a surrealistic experience.
Before joining the Guizhou trip, Bob and I spent an afternoon in Shanghai, population 24.1 million with lots of impressive skyscrapers glowing in multi colored spotlights by night. The Chinese obviously love colored lights.
Our hotel, the Astor House, was just adjacent to the Bund, a broad riverfront promenade where folks stroll, hang out and take photos. This is the place where brides come with photographers, often a photo crew, to be photographed against the skyline. The sky was gray, but dozens of young lovelies in white posed for the perfect shot.
During our ambling we were approached by a friendly trio who spoke perfect English. They asked us to take their photo, bombarded us with all sorts of questions, were complimentary (“Bob looks so cool….You are so professional.”) The two young women, Fei Fei and Fan Fan, from a smaller city, were visiting their male cousin, Oscar, 31, who works in Shanghai—or so they told us. They were off to visit a traditional Chinese tea ceremony and insisted we join. We were hesitant, but had nothing special to do. A way to mingle with the locals, I figured.
The tea ceremony was in a tiny room in a nondescript building. There were no signs advertising this tourist special. “No photos in honor of Buddha,” the tea hostess explained. We were served different kinds of tea in minuscule cups, each having a special health benefit. “Drink slow. Relax,” we were told. Our bubbly trio kept talking, but it started to seem a bit strange, so we said we had to leave after sampling just two of six different types of tea. The bill: 400 renmimbi ($61.50) for a few sips of tea. We had obviously been sucked into a tourist scam. I paid rather than cause a scene. It could have been much worse, and it was an amusing adventure.
At the time we had not realized how amazing it was that they spoke such perfect English. As our travels continued, from five-star hotels to hospitals and doctor offices in the capital city, we encountered virtually no English speakers. When looking for a restroom, often I used the word “toilet” assuming surely that would be understood. No luck.
Guide Xiao Xiao, whose English is excellent, said he is one of few in the region who speaks English. Even though English is one of three major subjects in the education system, along with math and Chinese, few seem to have mastered the language.
Our China travels started in Hong Kong where everything is overwhelming: Size (vast). Buildings (tall, gorgeous, everywhere). People (masses). Traffic (crazy). Shops (designer, trendy, and expensive).
I am glad we went, but I found it all a bit OTT. Our favorites: Ferry ride to Lamma Island, hike across the island followed by a fabulous seafood lunch; scenic bus ride to Stanley Market; swim in the hotel’s rooftop pool surrounded by stunning views. I was disappointed in Stanley Market – better bargains at markets in France and Italy. The views from Victoria Peak, a major Hong Kong attraction, are nice, but getting there (final ascent by escalator) is a trip through commercialism gone wild. At every escalator landing, and there are too many, shops galore, most selling tourist trash.
Mainland China is intriguing. We were devastated, depressed and extremely disappointed to have had to leave after just three days. More about the tragic end of the trip coming soon.
Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
Unfortunately there has been a setback with collar bone recovery. I am one-handed again, but will get back to recipes soon — with two hands I hope. I do not like typing with one hand.
HAPPY HAPPY 2017 TO TALESANDTRAVEL READERS. Wishing you fun and enriching adventure in the year before us. Thanks for following the blog.
We were locked in. No way to get out. The stubborn lock would not budge. We were on floor 4 1/2 by US standards. Jumping out of the window was out of the question. Scream for help – would anyone hear? Despite many phone calls and promises, no one came to our assistance.
One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Frustration turned to panic. During our incarceration, Bob tried numerous times to unlock the door. He was angry. I was a nervous wreck…
I had booked an Airbnb apartment in Paris for two nights between our trips to the US and China. On the Airbnb site this “lovely flat in the Marais” looked gorgeous: bright, roomy, gleaming. At 319 euro for two nights, it was more than we usually spend. But, we would be tired after the all-night flight from the US. We wanted to see more of the Marais. And, although this was a new listing with only two reviews, they were basically positive.
When Angela, our greeter, met us at the door to the building and led us up a narrow, shabby, dirty staircase, I was crestfallen. Could that beautiful apartment be in this rundown building?
There was no elevator. We were loaded down with clothing for five weeks and different climates. Bob made several trips up and down the 4 ½ flights, struggling to get the suitcases up the narrow passages while Angela struggled with the lock. Perhaps I have the wrong apartment; she lamented, and then went up and down to try other doors. No luck. She made several phone calls – I assume to an agent who managed the apartment. Owner Franck had told me he would not be in Paris when we arrived.
This must be it, she said at the first door she had tried, and asked Bob to try. He wiggled the key back and forth many times. He pushed and pulled, but the lock would not give. More phone calls. More tries. Forty-five minutes had gone by, and we were still standing in this dismal hallway. We were exhausted and had longed to relax, take a short nap and then a fun walk. Bob tried the uncooperative lock one more time. Success. We were in.
Angela was elated. We were not. We surveyed the surroundings. Photoshop obviously works wonders. Instead of a bright and spacious apartment, the “lovely flat” was dark, crammed, depressing. The furniture was the same as in the photos, but not much else.
Before Angela left, Bob went outside to test the door. It opened. However, we insisted that someone, preferably a locksmith, come to verify that the lock was in working order. We needed to be sure that when we went out, we could get back in and not end up stranded on that dreadful staircase. She made a call and assured us that someone would show up in 20 minutes to check the lock.
We felt it best to wait before settling in and taking that nap. “We better make sure we can get out,” Bob announced at one point. OMG! Sacre Bleu! The door would not open. We were imprisoned. This can’t be true. But, it was. (Keep reading. It gets worse before better.)
I called Airbnb. There were many options: press 1,.2, 3. I tried all, but always got a recorded message and was put on hold. The relaxing Paris afternoon we had anticipated had become a frantic nightmare.
Since I had no luck with the regular channels, I tried the English language assistance option. Someone answered: A man in Ireland. Hope at last. I told the sorry story. He said he could help and asked various questions about our reservation: address, birth dates…and then the last four digits of the credit card used to make the booking. We have several credit cards. I gave him the numbers of the cards we had with us. No match. I must have used the French card to book. I explained that we did not have that card with us. He was adamant. Without those numbers, he could do nothing for us.
I was incredulous. This was too much. No more hope. Would we ever escape? I blew up. I cried. I used nasty language. He hung up.
Now what? Call the police? The fire department? I went to the window, hoping to find a fire escape, although I doubt I would have had the skill to navigate it. Nothing there. So, back to the French Airbnb number and alas, after a wait, I reached Emeline, a real person who was sympathetic, patient, understanding. She said she would arrange for someone to help us get out, that we did not have to stay in the apartment, that she would email me listings of other Airbnb apartments that had availability, and that we would be reimbursed for the sum we had paid for the apartment, as well as the taxi fare to our new accommodation.
We were making progress. Surely someone would come to break the lock and rescue us soon. I was getting claustrophobic. I needed to escape –soon.
While I looked over the listings, Bob continued trying to open the door. He is usually very patient (not like me), but he was losing it. He was infuriated. Our nerves were frazzled. I looked around, hoping to find a bottle of something potent and alcoholic left behind by a previous guest. We needed it desperately, but not even a tea bag to be found.
It was close to 5 p.m. We had arrived at the apartment at 1:15 pm, and we were still prisoners in this “lovely flat,” still waiting for a savior to come and free us.
Bob tried the door yet again. Eureka! He had the magic touch. It moved. It opened. We were free. We fled.
I had booked an apartment in Montmarte chez Sacha and Sydney which appeared beautiful, and cost just 233 euro for two nights, 86 euro less than Franck’s place. Although we had already given Airbnb 319 euro, we had to pay for the new booking. With too much luggage, we trekked to the corner café, got a taxi and set off to the new flat which was even better than the photos: huge, light, inviting. This time I had picked a winner.
A few days later I checked our credit card details online. We had been given a refund of 3 euro. I was furious, but by this time we were in Hong Kong. I sent an email to Airbnb and learned that to obtain a refund, I needed to proceed with the resolution process and was entitled to a maximum of 275 euro, not the 319 we had paid. Why the 3 euro? A mini reward for all our suffering and a lost afternoon? That remains a mystery
First step for a refund is to fill out an on-line form stating your grievance which is sent to the owner. I did, confident that he would surely grant the refund in these circumstances. Wrong. He refused.
’You insulted me and Angela instead of letting us one hour to manage this issue with the door – which is not a big issue…. It just happened to be a bit difficult to open and needed a bit of oil, nothing I could expect and nothing to be that aggressive… People are not your servants. A host is not your slave Leah, and I will refuse any refund as you were aggressive and made a scandal when there was no real reason to act as you did. You didn’t have to cancel this booking, especially not the way you did …”
One hour? We waited three hours. One should carry a can of oil if booking an Airbnb apartment? No real reason to be upset? It’s acceptable to be locked out — and then locked in– a rental apartment? Cancel the booking? Emeline had done that for us.
I sent Airbnb a response, stating that I did not accept Frank’s decision and explained that I would follow up upon our return, asking them not to close the case.
After returning from China, I filled out yet another form requesting that Airbnb review both sides of the story and make the final decision. I kept receiving computer generated responses which indicated no one had ever read my response. I was getting more than fed up with Airbnb. Back to the phone. (I want a decent hourly wage for all the time I spent on hold listening to Airbnb background music.)
I was patient, and fortunately, eventually, I reached Ellie, an Airbnb case manager. She was understanding, sympathetic – and did not demand the last four digits of the credit card. She checked into the case. Despite my instructions to wait for my rebuttal, Airbnb had closed the case. I had to go back to square one and begin the lengthy process all over.
The entire story would not fit in the space allotted on the Airbnb online form. Ellie said to send her an email with the details and she would forward it. But, it had to go back to Franck first. Again he refused and asked me to stop harassing him. What planet was he on? Did he realize how much harassment his defective lock had caused us?
When you speak to an Airbnb rep/case manager, the person is not permitted to give his or her last name, nor a direct number to reach him/her, not even a personal email address. You have to reply to the general Airbnb email address. I did, but added: “Attention Ellie” to the subject line. My messages did reach her. She responded, but said she could offer no further help and sent our case on to someone else.
That someone was Danny in Dublin. Like Ellie and Emeline, a decent human who was understanding — and extremely apologetic. He called our tragedy an episode of “miscommunication that had gotten out of hand.” Is there such a thing as Irish understatement? Whatever, he assured me that we would get a full refund, 319 euro, plus the taxi fare. Thank you, Danny. We did.
Meanwhile I had gone back to the Airbnb site and noted that the price for “the lovely flat in the Marais” had been slashed, from about 159 euro per night to 60 euro per night. I asked Danny about this. He explained that Airbnb does not inspect properties listed and hosts can set rental prices as they desire. Why did Franck drastically drop the price? Perhaps because he was not getting bookings, he surmised. Hmm..I suspect there is more to it.
Airbnb lesson learned: Be wary of booking a new listing. Look for listings with lots of positive reviews. Just in case, take a can of oil.
This was our second Airbnb experience. Two years ago we booked an apartment in Paris’ 16th district. It was exactly as described and ideal for us. Hostess Nathalie met us, greeted us, had a welcome gift for us, and provided all sorts of helpful information on the area – shops, restaurants, public transportation.
We expected much the same with the booking in the Marais. Franck, it appears, has more than one apartment listed with Airbnb. The same with Sacha and Sydney, hosts at the second apartment whom we never met.
According to an article in The Guardian, the number of Airbnb hosts “has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%.” Investors, perhaps like Franck and Sacha and Sydney, are buying up properties to rent through Airbnb. “ With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example,” states the article.
So, don’t always expect personal contact with the owner which was originally one of the drawing cards of Airbnb.
We have not given up on Airbnb. I just booked an apartment in Ventimiglia, Italy, which has numerous glowing reviews, plus lots of kudos for the owners who are on the scene. Nonetheless, Bob insists we not forget to take a can of oil.
China followed Paris, where, sadly more misadventure awaited. Yet another crash, but far worse than the one in India I wrote about in a previous post, “Adventure — and a CRASH –in Kashmir.”
Details on China in a coming post. Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.
I am on the mend, but slightly handicapped (broken collar bone). No new recipes until I can get back in the kitchen and cook with two hands —soon I hope.