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My latest book, The Dala Horse, is set in post-Civil War Texas. As I was researching that era, I came across an amusing compilation of recipes for coffee substitutes. The Union/Yankees/Northerners included the port of Galveston as part of their naval blockade to cut off supplies to the South. Many items, not just coffee, were unavailable for years.

The blockade was called the 'Anaconda Plan' because it was supposed to squeeze the life out of the South. The 'Scott' referenced on the map was General Winfield Scott, U.S. Army. At 6'-5" and 300 pounds, when people say he was the inspiration for the term 'Great Scott!', I believe it.

Newspapers went kaput because newsprint was no longer available. Although many folks were used to making their own clothing at that time, they had the additional fun of having to make their own fabric during the war as well, since bolts of woven fabrics were scarce. But of all the things on hiatus in the South during and for a time after the Civil War, coffee was the most missed and most celebrated upon its return.

When contemplating this post I was sorely tempted to try out some of these substitutions and report on how they tasted compared to the real thing. There's just one problem: I don't drink coffee, mainly because I don't like coffee. I don't think I could have rendered a fair opinion. Roasted lug nuts would have probably tasted as good or better than actual coffee to me.

Then, as now, coffee was grown mostly in tropical hemispheres and imported for our consumption. So getting a crate of coffee beans delivered from Sao Paolo to San Antonio wasn't gonna happen with Great Scott's Anaconda snappishly guarding the door. But lots of other things grew wild and rampantly in the warm American South and were quickly pressed into service. Anything that could be roasted, ground, and brewed with hot water, was. Everything from corn meal to beets, rye, asparagus (seeds, not spears - mercy, no!), acorns, chicory, turnips, barley, parsnips, wheat, field peas, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, popcorn, cotton seeds, and tree bark was put forth. I kid you not. Tree. Bark. I will quote the actual 'receipt', as they were wont to say for 'recipe' back then, lest you not believe me:

"Take tan bark, three parts; three old cigar stumps and a quart of water, mix well, and boil fifteen minutes in a dirty coffee pot."
Arkansas True Democrat, October 17, 1861

And you thought Starbucks had exhausted all possible coffee iterations. If this really was a thing, it goes a long way toward explaining coffee drinker halitosis.

Every substitute suggested was strongly backed by the person suggesting it, claiming it was as good or better than the real thing. This is utter nonsense, of course (except maybe for the chicory, which I understand is still popular as a coffee ingredient in certain parts of the south). People couldn't wait to get their coffee beans back in the pot after the war. I wish the acorn recipe had panned out. I would be sitting on an acorn coffee goldmine thanks to the massive and prolific jack oak tree in my front yard. Instead, I'm forced to rely on the local squirrel population to remove them from underfoot, bless their hearts. If they can learn to operate a wheelbarrow, they can use mine, no charge.

There have been many other instances food shortages since the 'unpleasantness' between the North and the South. Many items, including sugar and dairy products, were rationed during World War II. But this was before my time. More recent supply chain interruptions have not been war-related, thank goodness. We had the 2015 Blue Bell listeria scare. And the Cheesepocalypse (the 2014 rumors of a Velveeta shortage). And the temporary Twinkie extinction of 2013. All three products are restored or soon will be, and their consumers are ecstatic - even though their waistlines won't be. (Is anyone else worried that the most recent shortages have occurred not in an effort to conserve resources for a nobler effort, but because of faulty business or manufacturing models of over-processed, unhealthy junk food we shouldn't be eating anyway?)

That's not to say current generations haven't experienced sacrifice. They've come up with a way to inflict one upon themselves. It's called a 'diet'. Just talk to anyone who has voluntarily given up meat or pasta or sugar. Their behavior is eerily similar to the pioneers who longed for their coffee beans. Here's the modern version of the Five Stages Of Deprivation:

1) Reminiscing - stories of how things used to be 'before', when their metabolism was fully functioning or before they learned more than they wanted to know about the processed food industry.
2) Self-pity - The sad little tear quickly wiped away after fruitlessly perusing a menu at a chic new bistro for something they are willing to eat, and having to settle for a side salad.
3) Ingenuity - The bizarre formulations concocted in a desperate attempt at approximating the missing item. Google 'gluten-free brownie recipe'.
4) False Confidence - The insistence that their substitute food of choice is just as tasty as the original. For the best example of this, sit next to your vegan cousin next Thanksgiving.
5) Ecstasy - The rapturous expression at the inevitable slip when they allow themselves a nibble of the forbidden item.

I wish it weren't so, but I've learned these things from sad experience. Our coffee supply is fine. But the ice cream - well, that's another story. Here at my house, we're somewhere between Self-Pity and Ecstasy. At long last, the first Blue Bell delivery in months finally arrived at our local grocery store. But it's so dang expensive, we wait for it to go on sale. They better hurry. We're starting to run out of tree bark and cigar stumps.

The original version of this post was published in December 2015.

As Lent is upon us, I have been interested to learn what people are giving up in this season of abstinence. It is no surprise to me that the item most often abandoned is some sort of food. There are a few iconoclasts who do without tobacco, or alcohol, or shopping. I never got beyond the idea of renouncing something edible (I gave up chocolate). To many of us, foregoing food is the ultimate sacrifice. There is only one person to blame for my epicureal preoccupation: my mother.

Mom is the last of her line in a fine tradition of southern cooks. She grew up in a large family. Her own mother, my grandmother Winona, had to satisfy nine healthy appetites for the better part of two decades. Winona had no microwave or dishwasher as helping hands in the kitchen. It is no wonder, then, that as the oldest of six children, my mother soon found herself the number one kitchen assistant, and thus learned to cook at the apron strings of the master.

It is difficult to recreate the multi-dimensional majesty of my mother’s cooking

Mom at age 80 still frying cube steak like a boss

via the printed word. Thanks to Mom, if I ever find myself on death row and they ask me what I want for my last meal, I am ready with an answer: my mother’s chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, green beans, and her homemade yeast rolls. Her home-brewed iced tea is the perfect accompaniment. As is the case with most meals, the meat is clearly the star.

Chicken-fried steak is a southern specialty, often confusing the uninitiated. Is it steak? Is it chicken? Deep-fried or pan fried? Some are surprised to learn it is only the humble cube steak, pounded into tender submission before being dunked in milk to allow the flour coating to stick. Then the palm-sized portions hit the hot grease of my mother’s black cast iron skillet with the initial hissssss to rival any McDonald’s French fry operation. Once they have turned a toasty brown and filled the house with the intoxicating aroma of fried meat (my apologies to vegetarians), they are ready to eat. When that first batch hit the paper towel-lined serving dish to make room in the skillet for the next, my father could always be found skulking about in the kitchen, stalking stray nibbles of steak that had become separated from the Pangaea of the bigger portions. Done properly, as my mother always did, chicken-fried steak requires nothing sharper than the side of your fork to divide it into bite-size pieces.

The side dishes pale in comparison to this pan-fried glory. They are there for the sake of upholding tradition; and in the case of the potatoes, upholding my mother’s cream gravy.

Never in all my classroom hours of chemistry or math did I ever approach the level of timing, precise measurement, and pure artistry required to duplicate Mom’s cream gravy. Making gravy from scratch is my culinary Holy Grail. I have tried and failed more times than the Jamaican bobsled team. There are just too many things that can go wrong. The grease must be of the correct temperature (hot) and quantity (equal to the flour). The flour must be stirred into the hot grease vigorously, so that the dreaded lumps cannot form. Then, and only then, the correct quantity of milk is added. If you do not own the little pink crockery bowl my mother uses for the milk, you will never be able to get the milk quantity right. I do not own one of these bowls, as they have not been made since 1960.

This is why, when Lent rolls around each year, giving up some sort of food is the worst suffering I can imagine. When I am feeling contemplative, I wonder how something so harmless as a good meal in good company should be something I should try to control; avoid, even. Then I look at my last cholesterol test results. I suppose setting aside one of my favorite edibles is the least I can do for Lent this year. If I had any guts, I would have given up chicken-fried steak.

I scored this sweet Fred dauber. Way cooler than beans.

Once upon a time not long ago, my daughter and son-in-law were visiting. One evening we went to a brew pub for dinner. In addition to great food and beer, it happened to be Bingo Night.

It has been ages since I played Bingo. I don't remember exactly when, but it was long before disposable Bingo sheets and fancy daubers. We used more substantial cardboard Bingo cards and little cardboard dots and squares to cover any numbers called. And yes, sometimes we went old school and used dried beans. At the end of each round, we dumped off the dots/squares/beans and started over again with the same card. Recycle!

Bingo originated in Italy 500 years ago as a lottery game. It has been popular in America for nearly 100 years. In the 1920s, toy entrepreneur Edwin Lowe noticed Bingo at a rural Georgia traveling carnival and brought the idea back home with him to New York. It was a huge hit. It's still a lottery or gambling game. But it has been put to work as a fundraiser so often, even churchgoing grannies don't mind 'gambling' if they can tell themselves it's for a good cause.

One of the ironies of Bingo is that it is seen as a social activity. But you should have seen our table of six once the Bingo commenced. All banter ceased. Even cell phone interaction came to a screeching halt. All ears and eyes were on the caller and the card. Our meals were delivered, but they did not interrupt our game. Either you learned to multitask the dauber and the fork, or your meal went cold. Stopping Bingo to eat was not an option.

Bingo essentials

Next time we go out for Bingo, I want to show up prepared. I want my own personal dauber, preferably Lord of the Rings (Aragorn) or Wile E. Coyote. I am looking for a cell phone app that interprets the called Bingo numbers into a text, sort of like a cross between Shazam and closed captioning. Finally, I am bringing a feeding tube so I won't be distracted by silly things like chatting with my dinner companions, eating, and drinking beer. That's why I love Bingo - it's so social!

This being February, and myself having more than a passing interest in history, I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one post to Black History Month.

Now I could ramble on as I am wont to do. There are topics a-plenty, all of them fun, interesting, entertaining, enlightening, informative. But I'm not gonna ramble today, because I want to keep the focus tight.

Dr. Woodson was a handsome fellow. This picture does not do him justice. But I chose it because of the sentiment expressed. From via a post on

During February, we hear a lot about slavery and the civil rights movement (as well we should). But I don't recall ever seeing much on the founder of the celebration itself. His name was Dr. Carter G. Woodson.

Dr. Woodson has an impressive background. The son of former slaves, he was the oldest of nine. Young Carter had it tough. Growing up on a farm in modest circumstances, he was no stranger to hard work. He did not let his humble beginnings stop him. In fact, he put that work ethic to good use and graduated early from high school. In 1912 Woodson become only the second black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. He traveled the world. When he returned home, his lifelong goal was to promote the study of black history. Exceptionally intelligent, Woodson wrote several scholarly works with historical or educational themes, including The Mis-Education of the Negro. He encouraged the study and interpretation of black history by founding Black History Week in 1926. It was a hit, could not be confined to only seven days, and since 1976 we have been celebrating the entire month.

Dr. Woodson was heard to express the wish that someday there would be no need for a special month devoted to black history; that recognition of societal contributions to history would be colorblind. I support that sentiment. But I also like celebrating history! So let's do both - recognize contributions by all, celebrate contributions by all. And give props to Dr. Woodson, without whom February might just be that annoying short month when we have to buy cards, flowers, and chocolates, or else.

As we browse the headlines this time of year, it is not unusual to find biblical phrases such as 'immaculate' and 'miraculous'. And indeed there are those occasional events that defy logic, defy science, defy everything we know about human possibility. Yes, I am talking about the 40th anniversary of Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception. The controversial play is considered one of the most famous in NFL history. Harris' delicate fingertip catch and subsequent bolt to the end zone gave his Pittsburgh Steelers the win over the hated Oakland Raiders. Although the Steelers lost the AFC championship game to the Dolphins the following week, The Steelers went on to dominate the game for years afterward.

Roger 'The Dodger' Staubach, hero of my youth

The Immaculate Reception is just one of many athletic events compared with the miraculous. The Hail Mary pass has long been a staple of football, only used in the most desperate situations, risking everything in hopes that the right receiver is fast enough and tall enough to make it down field in time to catch a ball that is floated up there, well, on a wing and a prayer (since we have come this far with the religious metaphors). Originated in the 1930s, the term 'Hail Mary' cemented its place in NFL history when Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach used it to describe his game winning pass to Drew Pearson in a 1975 playoff game against the Vikings. Apparently Aaron Rodgers is a fan of this strategy. His recent Hail Mary to close out the first half of their wildcard playoff against the Giants took my breath away.

There is another famous play involving the Cowboys, but since it doesn't have a snappy catch phrase and since it caused the Cowboys to lose and therefore is disqualified from miracle status, no sense mentioning it here, amirite?

Football also brings us

  • the Miracle Bowl (1980 Holiday Bowl Brigham Young vs SMU which also included a Hail Mary by BYU to win the game)
  • the Music City Miracle (2000 AFC playoff game Titans vs Bills), featuring the Titans winning in the remaining seconds using a trick lateral play on a kick-off return
  • additional Miracles at
    • Michigan (1994 - Colorado Buffaloes defeat Michigan Wolverines at home in the final seconds with - you guessed it - a 70 yard, intentionally deflected Hail Mary)
    • Mississippi (2007 game between two no-name D3 schools, ending the final two seconds with a 60-yard run made possible by the use of 15 different lateral passes)
    • The Meadowlands (Philadelphia Eagles defeat New York Giants at home in 1978 due to boneheaded play calling and a fumble recovery resulting in a touchdown)
Basketball God

Religious hyperbole is not limited to professional football. In a 1986 FIFA World Cup soccer match between Argentina and England, Argentina's Diego Maradona scored a goal known as the Hand of God goal. He named it thusly when explaining how it happened, saying it was due to a little of his work and a little help from above. Most observers agree it was more Maradona's hand, but he branded it well, and Hand of God it remains.

The NBA brings us not just one supernatural limb, but the whole enchilada. After a
1986 Celtics-Bulls playoff game, none other than Celtic Larry Bird said of his opponent's 63 point performance, "He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."

And what about the 2001 Miracle Flip by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter? The Yankees needed a win against Oakland to keep their playoff hopes alive. They got it when Jeter dashed across the field to the first base line to retrieve a relayed ball from the outfield, then neatly flipped it to the catcher to prevent Jason Giambi from scoring.

Hockey provides us with the Miracle on Ice, underdog USA's now-famous defeat of hockey world powerhouse Russia during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The win sent the USA to the finals, where they defeated Finland for the gold medal.

All this talk of higher powers has me pumped up for some more supernatural displays. Too little, too late for my Cowboys against the miraculous Aaron Rodgers and his Packers (which he won in the final seconds with another near-miracle pass, bless his heart).  Here's to my Rangers making a miracle happen for me in October instead.

One of my favorite things about traveling is discovering how other people go about their everyday lives. How are we the same? How are we different? We had barely been in Germany 24 hours and my travel journal entry for one of the first days there was dominated by a list of things the Germans do differently (and, one might argue, BETTER).

  • Carbonated water is a thing. Often when purchasing bottled water you will be asked if you want flat or non-flat (especially if they've sussed out that you're not from around those parts).
  • Many of the windows open in a V shape rather than the double-hung or winding handle types we have here. For example, when you open a traditionally shaped vertical rectangular-shaped window, the top of the window angles into the room, forming a semi-V shape in its frame. I don't know the logic behind this. Just thought it was cool.
  • Speaking of windows, I didn't see any screens on windows anywhere. Not saying there aren't any. I just didn't see any.
  • The plumbing fixtures (handles, faucets) were uber cool. Our hotel was very
    We stayed at the Miniloft in Mitte near the Natural History museum. Highly recommend if you're into the contemporary style.

    contemporary, so this was no big surprise. But most other places we went that had public restrooms like bars, restaurants, train stations, airports, etc., had interesting, cool fixtures as well. Yes, some of them took me a minute to figure out how to turn them on and off. One place in Munich had Harley Davidson hardware.

  • Speaking of plumbing: just about every public restroom also had modern toilets with buttons on the tank or even on the wall to activate the flush feature - no handles.  Many have two buttons, depending on how much water volume you feel is necessary for an effective flush.
  • I mentioned in a previous post but since it is one of my favorites, will mention again: you can walk around town with an adult beverage. Open. Openly drinking it. People, this is what a civilized country looks like. I've lived all over the U.S., and the only two places I've been where this is allowed (outside of street festivals, of course) is the French Quarter in New Orleans and a few blocks in Savannah where the tourists tend to congregate.
  • Just about everyone in the tourist biz (restaurants, hotels) speaks English.
  • Just about everyone is very friendly.

    Vintage Benz - not buttercream, not a taxi, but still a sweet ride
  • In Berlin , many of the taxis are late model Mercedes Benz; usually a buttercream color.
  • Many of the Mercedes Benz, taxis and otherwise, have no model number on the trunk like they do here. Why do you suppose this is? Are they just so familiar with the models, this would be superfluous? Or they just don't care what model, as long as it's a Benz?
  • As mentioned in a previous post, our cab driver in Berlin drove like a maniac. I totally was not expecting this. In Rome, maybe, but not Berlin. But since this is the land of the Autobahn, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
  • The trains are amazing - clean, efficient, on time, affordable. Why don't we have more of them here???
  • The train stations are amazing. We were in several during our trip. The station in Munich was our favorite place to go for snacks and coffee/tea. There was only one (Gare du Nord in Paris) that was a little down-at-the-heels. More on that in a future post.
  • Recycling glass and plastic bottles is a big thing. You will see neat piles of empties along the sidewalks. It's their version of giving a few coins to panhandlers - they are left for folks who turn them in for deposit money. In fact, once we were approached by someone who noticed we had just finished a bottle of water. It was weird at first, but once we realized what they wanted, it was okay.
  • Bicycles are ubiquitous. Many families bike together to school, parks, shops. Most wear helmets.
  • Generously sized sidewalks accommodate not only pedestrians but also bikes, and sometimes, parked cars.
The Berlin Tower with some of its less space-age neighbors
  • Modern architecture is often cheek by jowl with historical. In theory, you might find this jarring. But it was actually delightful - the modern buildings were almost like a cherry on top, nestled among their vintage neighbors.
  • The bedclothes in the two hotels we stayed at were interesting. My son was delighted to learn they dispense with a traditional top sheet (he's been a top sheet hater since childhood). Our queen size bed had two matching twin size comforters rather than a single queen. This is actually genius and eliminates wrestling matches over the covers - you each have your own! And the comforters are sheet fabric on the outside, and comforter on the inside. So you still have a sheet-type item on you. It's just part of the comforter, and therefore saves an extra step when making the bed.
  • It was amusing seeing 'American' restaurants branded as ethnic food. Burgers were the main offering. There were a few that touted themselves as Texas style barbecue. We didn't sample any (it seemed a little silly to seek out American food while traveling in Europe), but I am very curious what the Germans offer as Texas-style 'cue. One restaurant offered southern/soul food. Another had a rock-n-roll theme.
  • American fast food chains were commonplace. I was prepared for the McDonald's and Burger King; less so for the Subway chain, which was as ubiquitous there as it is here. Fried chicken was also quite popular. Oh, and in case you're wondering what native German fast food consists of: currywurst. It's wurst-style sausage links, cut into bite-size pieces and served in a curry sauce (like a really flavorful ketchup); usually with a side of fries like you would get at any American fast food joint.

That's all I can think of for now. Would love to hear some of your observations on the little details that make a big difference to your travel experience. Next post I'll get back on track with more scoop on our tourist trek through Berlin.

I know I promised a series of travel posts about our 2016 trip to Europe as newbie tourists. But after spending the first week of 2017 in bitterly cold South Dakota during Winter Storm Helena, I thought I would re-share this post instead. Enjoy and stay warm!

Bald Eagle Lake is under all that snow and ice

January 2001 was our third winter in the Great White North that is Minnesota. By then we had adjusted somewhat to the infamous Minnesota winters, mainly due to two things: an excellent road-clearing infrastructure, and the extreme weather clothing industry.

We lived in Minnesota for eight years, and I kid you not - we had TWO snow days. In eight years. Think about that for a minute. We had two snow days the first six months after we moved to South Carolina. That doesn't mean it didn't snow all those years in MN. Oh no. It snowed. Not inches. FEET. All those pretty little white flakes contributing to the PSC - the Permanent Snow Cover - from about December to March.  But the snowplows were out there like banshees. Roads plowed pretty as you please in plenty of time for the school buses to come chugging along. Man, my kids were ticked off.

Mine wasn't this shaggy

I had so many different types of coats when I lived there. Along with all the windbreakers and hoodies and sweaters and parkas, I had two super heavy, beastly thick coats. We're talkin' Jeremiah Johnson here. One was a sheepskin-type coat, buff color suede on the outside and the woolly business on the inside. But as a brunette (a 'Winter' for you gals who know your season colors) that buff color never looked particularly good on me (dead giveaway - people always asking me if I felt okay when I wore it), so when I found a similar style coat in a gorgeous dark chocolate brown for a sweet deal at a consignment store in St. Paul, I snagged it. You look at this coat and your first thought is 'buffalo hide'. A really stylish, well-tailored buffalo hide. Talk about warm! It was like walking around in a toaster oven. They were some of the first things I gave away when we got word we were transferred to South Carolina. Absolute rock-solid guaranteed lock I was never, ever going to need those coats south of the Mason-Dixon line.*

And then there was the temperature-rated footwear. I was not aware such things existed until I moved to Minnesota, and boy was I glad they did. Let's not forget the special socks, underwear, hats, gloves for wind, snow, ice, sleet, fog, and all the various combinations. Minnesota is a very clothing-intensive place. If you go there in any month other than July, you will need to pack lots and lots of extra items. Layer!! If you move there, buy a house with lots of closets and storage space - you will need it.

But I digress.

Snowplows and cold weather gear notwithstanding, I was born and raised and lived most of my first 30+ years in a warm weather climate, and not just any warm weather climate. I am a Native Texan, and when I say warm, I mean HOT, and not just your garden variety hot. We're talking preheat the (electric) oven, open it up and take a deep breath, singe your nasal hairs hot. People say if you live in a warm climate, your blood is thinner. I don't know if that is true or not but I think it is true in spirit - you just never get used to cold weather. In addition, based on my informal survey aka Common Sense, there are way more people moving south or traveling south to escape cold weather than there are those going in the other direction. Just ask Ohio and Long Island how many of their former residents now have a South Carolina zip code, and for good reason.

It was a struggle for me, getting through some of those long, cold winters. I remember the time I got an ice cream headache walking into a headwind from the parking lot into the grocery store. I think it was 4°F before wind chill calculation. Hey, at least it was above zero! Here's how crazy my thinking got after a few years up there: it wasn't cold as long as the temp was in double digits (above zero, of course). So as long as it was 10° or warmer, I could usually trick myself into bearing one more day of winter. It didn't take me long to get my thinking straight after we moved to South Carolina, where everyone knows anything below 50°F is cold. That reminds me of the time my folks (also Native Texans) were visiting and my mom kept asking me why the children we passed playing happily outside weren't wearing coats. It was probably about 50 outside, and to a Minnesotan, that's downright balmy!

Minnesota is a gorgeous place and I love my Minnesota friends. But after eight years there, I am convinced hell is not a place of fire and flame. Nope. It is icy and cold, dreary and overcast. The wind is always in your face, you are always one layer short, you've lost your only hat, and you are out of lip balm.

* Extra points if you actually know where the Mason-Dixon line is. Google if you must.

The tips studied, the bags packed, and the potential disruptions successfully avoided, at last we departed for Berlin. We left late afternoon from the East Coast. After a stop in Atlanta, natch (when you live in the southeast, you always stop in ATL), we got down to business. Our next stop was Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, then, finally, Berlin mid-afternoon the following day.

What a contrast between the 40-minute puddle-jumper from Columbia to Atlanta and the massive Air France winged beast taking us to Paris! This was my first time on Air France. The flight attendants were impeccably dressed, hair and makeup to perfection in the European style - barely there but perfect (the makeup, not the uniforms!). They all appeared to be multilingual. It was delightful listening to them chatter among themselves in French, then assist passengers in a variety of other languages.  Air France even had a charming short film communicating our safety instructions via the small video screens embedded in the back of each head rest.

I must admit I slept very little during the seven or so hours of trans-Atlantic flight time. Some things that surprised me:

  • How uncomfortable the seats were. It was like trying to sleep on a cheap sleeper sofa, the kind with the metal bar right across your back placed strategically to be as uncomfortable as possible. It was plenty dark, and relatively quiet. But those seats!
  • Our route was projected on the video screen, so we could track our progress if we chose. If one assumes it was accurate, we basically hugged the coastline of North America until it was just a short hop over to the British Isles, then over to Paris. We weren't that far from land relatively speaking until that little bit between northeastern Canada and England.  I guess I thought we would fly a straight shot from Atlanta to Paris, not up to New York, Newfoundland, and so
    International terminal, Charles de Gaulle airport

    forth. People tell me due to the curvature of the earth the route we took is more efficient. I couldn't help but think of the ancient mariners who kept the shoreline in sight as long as possible.

  • My goodness, they feed you on these long flights! And we were in economy! Meals and snacks were plentiful. By the time the last one was served not long before we landed, I seriously was thinking, 'enough, already!'.

We arrived on time in Paris, where we got our first-ever passport stamps - yay! No lines, very simple. If only all of our air travel interactions were so easy. . . Next (and final, thank goodness!) stop: Berlin.

We were greeted by a wonderful sight at Berlin airport: the smiling faces of my daughter and son-in-law. Somehow we had arranged to arrive within an hour of each other, even though they traveled separately from us as well as each other. So we piled into a cab together and headed to our hotel. I was not prepared for the insanity of a Berlin cab ride. Screeching brakes, rude gestures, loud exclamations - what an exciting welcome!

Much of Europe was experiencing a heatwave during our trip. Berlin was warm and sunny. We were too excited to sleep off the jet lag. So we hit the town on foot. Our daughter and son-in-law had been to Berlin the previous year on one of his gigs; in fact, they had stayed at the same hotel we were at this time. So they knew the area pretty well. We walked around the corner and hit the first cafe we found for a surprisingly cold stein of German pilsner. Another travel myth busted: the beer is not warm over there!

Mantee Cafe, Berlin

We continued our stroll and found a delightful restaurant in a park and had Swiss-style bratwurst, sauerkraut, and the German version of mac-n-cheese for dinner. Our best surprise was discovering one can stroll the town with an adult beverage in hand, purchased very reasonably from one of the many corner convenience stores. Berlin must believe in that adage about having only one chance to make a great first impression.

More on Berlin in the next post!

I want to tell you all about my recent experience as a first-time traveler to Europe. But before we get into the oohs and ahhs, I'm gonna share with you some travel planning tips and how they translated into real live travel during our trip (see what I did there??).

One of the first things I did once we decided we were going to Europe was to Google my booty off. I spent a lot of time on Rick Steves' website. I also found a ton of info on Pinterest, believe it or not. It started with searches on what to pack and blossomed from there. And, of course, friends and family who had travel experience were very generous with advice.

My top tips:

  • Backpack or roller? We went with backpack-style because we are in decent physical condition. Actually they were more of a soft-sided suitcase with backpack straps. Just be careful not to overpack.
  • Shoes are heavy. Make them the last thing to add and the first to toss when trying to lighten your load.
  • Sleeping comfortably on an international economy flight won't happen unless you self-medicate. Bring something to do in case you've seen all the in-flight movies. Hydrate. Plan that first day after you arrive as a recovery day.
  • I'm not in love with the concept of the money belt, but I would've been much more anxious without it. I rarely took mine off. The hubs, on the other hand, was not a fan, and usually left his in the hotel room safe. Having said that, we had absolutely no safety issues in almost three weeks away, two of those as my daughter and I traveling alone after the hubs went back stateside.
  • We had euros and pounds sent to us from our local bank in advance. Others may advise you to wait and exchange your currency when you arrive, usually because you'll get a lower exchange rate. But the exchange rates from our bank were comparable, and getting the currency by mail before we traveled eliminated the possibility of panhandlers or muggers loitering around the ATMs who target inexperienced travelers like ourselves. If you want to wait to exchange, do it at an airport at a booth that is beyond security. We had an unpleasant experience with a panhandler while exchanging pounds for euros at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris toward the end of our trip. Lesson learned. Oh and BTW their money is fun! Ours is boring!
Departing from our local airport, CAE

The most important nugget of info that I was not aware of and that almost cost us our trip was passport status. Both of us have had passports since 9/11; neither of us have had a chance to use them until this trip. I remember feeling very dispirited when mine expired, still in pristine condition, never stamped. But I had it renewed anyway, just in case. Folks, this is a good strategy. You never know when you will need it! My husband's passport had a different renewal date than mine - it wasn't expiring until December 2016, so I didn't give it a second thought since we would be over and back long before then.

Little did I know that expiration date is meaningless. After the second person told me a passport is no good if it is set to expire within six months of your travel date, I got a little nervous and made some calls. Sure enough, it was true: apparently you can leave the USA with a valid passport expiring within six months. It's getting back in that's the problem!

The party line on getting a passport renewed is a six week wait. But of course no one would commit to that. If you're in a jam, like we were, you can pay for expedited service, which shrinks the wait time from weeks to days. Yay, but ouch!

To add more fun to our passport dilemma, before we knew about this expiration wrinkle, we had applied for something called a GOES pass (Global Online Enrollment System) to expedite getting through customs and TSA security lines. This process requires a background check and in-person interview, which of course requires you to bring your passport. So we couldn't send his passport off for renewal until after our GOES interview, unless we wanted to forfeit the hundo we had paid for his GOES application. We didn't.

GOES interviews are held at various locations around the country; usually at major airports. Our local airport is not considered major, so we had a minimum two hour drive to the nearest location. Securing an interview time is a dicey proposition. You will find many of the interview sites booked months in advance. But here's what they don't tell you: people cancel all the time. So don't despair! This just means you have to constantly check the GOES site to see if a date has opened up at a location convenient to you.

Once we learned this little hack, we were able to get an interview in a matter of weeks rather than months, just in time for our trip. However, it meant we would need to rush from the interview to the nearest post office to drop the passport off for its expedited service. We had a two week window between the GOES interview and the departure date. A very kind woman at the local post office who often dealt with panicky travelers like myself said passport turnarounds were running 8 business days, but of course she couldn't guarantee anything.

Berlin Flughafen (airport)

So we spent the next several days tracking the passport's renewal progress and sweating bullets. I suppose you know the outcome since I'm blogging about our family trip to Europe: yes, it arrived in time, thank goodness! It came on a Friday before we were set to leave on a Tuesday. People, don't do this to yourselves! As soon as your passport is within six months of expiration, get it renewed. It's fairly painless this way, loads cheaper, and you won't lose sleep over it like we did.

As for the GOES, yes, I highly recommend. As I mentioned, it speeds up TSA on the domestic leg as well as customs when you're coming home. One thing it does NOT do, however, is expedite non-TSA security screenings outside of the USA. Remember, security is separate from customs. This was a painful lesson learned, but I'll save that story for the next blog post, in which I'll discuss our first week spent in Germany.


2016 has been a crazy year, hasn't it? I mean, CRAZY. And not in a fun, Girls Night Out harmless hijinks way. More like a Charles Manson crazy. Ugh. I don't think I know anyone who is not looking forward to a fresh start with 2017.

Of course there was the election. I guess the positive spin on that would be, 'thank goodness it's finally over'?? And so many beloved celebrities are no longer with us. Pretty sure Gene Wilder's first name was short for 'genius'.

On a more personal note, it was getting a little scary how many of my neighbors' loved ones passed away this year. There were a half-dozen family losses on my street alone, and my street is a very short street! No gang shootings or terrorist attacks were responsible; just the inevitable awakening from this dream we call life. My sweet mother-in-law passed away this summer after along battle with Parkinson's. And our beloved yellow lab died in January. No disrespect intended lumping the two together - we loved both of them very much and are still thinking of them often.

As life often does, we had some positives to help balance out the gloom. We had two different family occasions that provided the opportunity for our far-flung family to get together in person, which is always such a delight. No, seriously! But the big kahuna, the one thing that happened this year that absolutely keeps 2016 from being a total loss, was The Bucket List trip.

Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower

I've had travel on my bucket list for ages. We were able to do some travel within the U.S. while we were raising a family. But I had my sights set a little further afield. Now that we are empty-nesters and some of our financial obligations have been met, we are finally able to do it.

This first major international trip came about sort of out of the blue. It was a simple phone call that did it. My son-in-law is a musician and has traveled all over the world. One day my daughter called and as we were chatting, asked if we wanted to join them on his next trip. He was going to be performing in Germany for a couple of weeks and she thought she would tag along and wondered if we would like to join her. Um, YES!

So for the next couple of blog posts, I'd like to share my experiences as a first-time Baby Boomer-aged international traveler with you.  We had some ups and downs, but the ups definitely won!