Friday, September 18, 2015

Back home!

We're back home in Seattle, living on the houseboat again. The 11-hour non-stop flight on Condor was pretty good. To our surprise, they even served two meals to everybody; it's been ages since we've had free meals on a flight. The rigmarole surrounding the flight was as bad as ever: an hour to get through the various security and passport control lines at the beginning, and an hour to wait for our luggage (forced to check because of Condor's 6 kg limit for carry-on bags) and get through customs and immigration at SeaTac.

During the flight it was continually about noon as we chased the sun across nine time zones. Our entertainment was a cute two-year-old near us. I'm sure her parents expected her to sleep on the flight, since they probably woke up about 6 am, as we did, and it was 9:30 pm Frankfurt time when we landed. But this cute youngster kept going like the Energizer bunny, chattering happily the entire time. We were also treated to some great scenery over Greenland and northern Canada.

Glaciers producing icebergs on the east coast of Greenland

In Seattle, we took light rail and a bus to the boat, where we were glad to see that everything was in order, hardly even any spider webs. The following day we retrieved our car, happy that it started up as soon as Les reconnected the battery. We did several loads of wash at the laundromat: all the clothes we've been using for the trip, plus jackets and small backpacks. I started stocking up on kitchen essentials, since I'd completely emptied out the fridge and freezer before setting off. Les signed up again for Pandora, the thing he missed the most during the trip. Today we retrieved the 19 weeks of mail that our son had been collecting for us; it was pretty easy to sort through and save the few important items.

I feel I should add more about Angelika, our Frankfurt host. She often travels to China for her job, and we were grateful that she agreed to host us even though she knew she'd be returning the previous day from China. At age 31, she was the youngest person we stayed with. Being of the modern generation, she learned Esperanto through, rather than from a "teach yourself" book or class, as was the way 30 years ago. (And lernu must have good instructors, because Les thought that she had as pure an Esperanto accent as you could wish for.) She's been to the "youth" conferences (defined as being up to age 29), which have lots more rock music, dancing, sports, and outdoor activities. I'm glad that we got a taste of it at SES (Somera Esperanto-Studado) in Slovakia, where the very young and very old co-mingle, even if people my age aren't as likely to be at the 10 pm concerts, or the midnight gab sessions.

For those who like statistics, here's Nomada Vivo by the numbers:
  • Length of trip: 133 days (19 weeks)
  • Miles traveled: 18,333
  • Train rides: 55
  • Intercity buses: 13
  • Plane flights: 6
  • Ferry crossings: 1
  • Car rentals: 3 (Minneapolis, Windsor, Leeds)
  • Beds slept in: 51
  • Esperanto official events: 6
  • Esperanto speakers visited: 12
  • Hotels: 29 (plus some that were part of Esperanto events)
  • Countries: 12 (USA, Canada, UK, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, France, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark)
  • Currencies: 9 (US dollars, Canadian dollars, GB pounds sterling, euros, Czech koruny, Hungarian forints, Swiss francs, Danish kroner, plus Icelandic krónur during a layover)
  • Weight carried while traveling: 23 kg (50 lbs)
  • Photos taken: 1,754
  • Photos kept: 646 (all edited for composition and color correction)
  • Items lost: 1 (an umbrella cover during a sudden deluge in Switzerland)
  • Number of blog posts: 38 including this one (starting last August with the preparations)
  • Cost of trip: $17,124 (excluding food, which was about the same as when at home)—by comparison, my 10-week trip to Europe exactly 50 years ago cost $560!
  • Words learned for "hazelnut": 6 (Dutch, German, Esperanto, French, Italian, Danish—so Les could order his favorite flavor of gelato)

Les' choice for the most essential travel item: our Nexus 7 tablet. It was a huge help in navigating around strange cities (even without an internet connection, thanks to the wonderful CityMaps2Go app) and having complete train schedules at our fingertips in all European countries (the RailPlanner app). We used a laptop computer for all our "heavy duty" computing (email, spreadsheets, blogging, etc.), and we brought along two(!) Kindles to satisfy our reading needs for the long plane flights. In all, our electronic devices and associated chargers and adapters added up to 3 kg—taking up a significant chunk of our total weight budget.

My vote goes to the set of eating tools shown below. Because we had plastic dishes, bowls, sporks, cutting boards, knife and scissors, we could easily buy raw ingredients at the grocery store and prepare meals to eat in our hotel room or as a picnic. For example, in Frankfurt I bought bread, hummus, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and a bag of grated carrots. The total cost was $9, and from that I made eight sandwiches. We often had cereal and milk for breakfast. Our food costs were low, and we had nutritious meals.

My food preparation essentials

So this brings to a close our trip and this blog. It's been a fantastic adventure, exceeding even our high expectations. We're already thinking about what we might do next year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


After our 4-hour train trip to Denmark that turned into an 8-hour trip, we were happy to see our host Betty at the Copenhagen train station. We knew Betty through Esperanto, but in an unusual way. For the past few years we've been donating money to a microloan organization called Kiva. Within Kiva are special interest groups, and one of ours is the Esperanto group. When Les wrote a message to the group last spring asking if anyone was going to be at the Universala Kongreso in Lille, Betty responded that she'd be there, and also invited us to stay with her for a few days.

Nyhavn in Copenhagen

We spent two days exploring downtown Copenhagen, by light rail, metro, foot, and kayak. Betty was another super host, and spoiled us with delicious vegan soups and stews. The day we left, Betty was to join a demonstration in support of migrant refugees. Betty has also been working hard to raise money for a water project in Africa. Feel free to contribute if you'd like to.

Les liked watching all the photographers at the Little Mermaid statue

We kayaked in the canals of Copenhagen

Donation center for refugees at the Copenhagen train station

Betty arranged for us to stay with another Esperanto speaker in Odense on our way back to Germany. We learned that it's pronounced Oo'enseh (no "d" at all). Lisa was another fine cook, plying us with food. By a happy coincidence, a young Esperanto speaker had recently arrived from Hungary to study at the university, and joined us for dinner.

New students at the university in Odense were roaming the streets doing spirit-building exercises; this is "The Simpsons" group

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, and we spent a few hours in the museum. We had not realized what a difficult life he led. Born into abject poverty, he had to struggle to get an education. Rejected in love several times, he longed for a wife, and was constantly plagued by bad dreams. His real efforts went into plays, which faced a lot of criticism, and it was only at the end of his life that he got some acclaim. He was a nomad like us most of his life, with no real home, traveling all over Europe and beyond in an age when traveling was quite difficult. He always carried a long thick rope in case he needed to escape a fire in a hotel from an upper floor.

Princess and the Pea setup in the museum

Lisa told us how she saved her father's life. He was in the Danish underground during World War II. One evening baby Lisa developed whooping cough, and her parents rushed with her to the hospital. Her father was supposed to meet with his group that evening, but didn't. The group was captured by the Nazis, tortured for information, and killed.

I learned that university education and health care is free not only for Danish citizens, but also for foreigners—seems incredible.

We took a train to Flensburg, just across the border in Germany. Again, there were swarms of refugees camping out in the station, and refugee help centers.

The next day we took a train to Frankfurt. I haven't mentioned here one of my favorite features of the first class passage we get with the railcard: we can choose to sit in the "quiet" car, where cell phones can't be used. I've found that Europeans can be just as inconsiderate as Americans, making one loud phone call after another during a tram or train ride. On the negative side of the railcard, the German stations don't allow railcard users to take advantage of the first-class lounge; so it's a first-class ticket, but without all the first-class perks.

A few weeks ago we were very worried about Frankfurt, because we couldn't find any hotel rooms at a reasonable price. We had thought mid-September would be easy, but it turned out that there's an autumn festival going on, and all the prices more than doubled. I even contemplated camping out at the airport. But then I thought of Pasporta Servo. We've used it 6 or 7 times, but those stays were planned months ahead. Would it work on such short notice? There were six listings in Frankfurt, and we contacted two of them. Angelika saved the day by saying that we could stay with her.

The phrase that comes to mind is "blessing in disguise". I shudder to think that we might have been in a sterile Ibis (the hotel we use most commonly) in downtown Frankfurt. Instead, we're at Angelika's cozy apartment in the wonderful Höchst section of the city. It's very historical, dating from 790, at a meeting of two rivers. There's a large Turkish population, which means lots of döner kebab restaurants, and Angelika took us to her favorite one. (We've come to love this type of restaurant in Europe; I hope we can find some in Seattle.)

Angelika took us on a walking tour of the castle (built in the 13th century) and environs last night, and today we went back to see it again. We had a scary experience, though. We went through an open gate next to a church, to see a garden Angelika had told us about. After wandering around for ten minutes, we went back, but...the gate was locked! The walls were high stone ones, the area kind of isolated, so all we could think of was that we'd have to climb the tall metal gate. (I had visions of bruises and sprains.) Fortunately a man came by, we explained our predicament, he knocked on the church door, and soon somebody came with a key to let us out. Whew!

Part of the castle in Höchst

Lovely houses in Höchst

It seems so fitting that we ended our trip, whose theme always was Esperanto, by finding yet another kind-hearted Esperanto speaker through Pasporta Servo.

Now we're packing for the trip home tomorrow. It's more difficult than usual. Until now we've managed to never check any luggage on a plane. But Condor Airlines, which flies non-stop from Frankfurt to Seattle, has a strict limit of one 6kg suitcase each in the cabin, so we have to check one bag. We're trying to decide what items we won't mind getting lost.

It will be 19 weeks, or 133 days, since we left in early May. To tell the truth, we're neither of us looking forward to getting home. It will be lovely to see family and friends, but we've gotten hooked on the nomadic lifestyle (kind of the epitome of "simplified living"), and the prospect of new adventures each day. Next week I'll write a final entry, which will include statistics for the mathematically-minded.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


Even though we haven't paid much attention to U.S. or international news in the past four months, we've been aware of the refugee crisis in Europe. First we saw refugee camps near the entrance to the Eurostar tunnel, and heard the woes of Fabrice in Trélon that they might close the tunnel and he wouldn't be able to get home to Brighton. When we stayed with our Esperanto friend in Bern, his housemate was a refugee from Libya, and told us how difficult it had been for him to find asylum in Europe. Then, both times we've been in Leipzig, we've seen the protests against immigration (and the counterprotests). But Wednesday we got to see the situation close-up and personal.

We had reserved a train from Lübeck to Copenhagen, which was supposed to take four hours. The first hint that something was unusual was that train was 20 minutes late. Considering that it had originated in Hamburg, only 45 minutes away, and knowing how punctual German trains are, this seemed unusual. Les remarked that there were more police officers at the train platform than passengers.

When we got on the train, we were surprised that it was overloaded, with people in the aisles. Two people were in our assigned seats, but moved when we asked them. We noticed the car smelled of people who hadn't bathed in a while. As we looked around, it became apparent that most of the passengers were foreigners. The father of a family with several children looked exhausted. When Les asked, he said that they had come from Afghanistan, and were on their way to Sweden. In the seat across the aisle, three men were crammed into the two spaces. The one who spoke the best English said that he'd started in Syria a month ago, been through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Germany, and was on his way through Denmark and Sweden to Finland. The fellow next to him said that he had swum 13 kilometers to reach Turkey. They told us the police in Budapest demanded 1,000 euros or they'd be arrested.

Exhausted travelers

Only the children had energy

We had wondered ahead of time how the train would cross the long stretch of water from Germany to Denmark. Was there a tunnel under the sea? A bridge? Would the passengers switch to a boat, then onto another train? The answer turned out to be that the train drove right onto the boat! They told us that we had to leave the train during the 30-minute crossing. It was a very comfortable boat, with lots of shopping opportunities.

The train is parked on the boat

Seemed like all the men took a smoke on the deck

Upon nearing Denmark, we went back down to the train and got on. We sat there for about 15 minutes, before an announcement came that the train wasn't able to leave the ship. After another 15 minutes, they told us that again we should all get off the train and there would be an indefinite delay. As we sat upstairs on the boat, a ship official handed out bottles of cold water to everyone. Again, they said we could get on the train.

Free bottles of cold water

We sat for another hour, then noticed police surrounding the train. They boarded, and went down the aisles asking to see passports. Very few people could produce one. One man was hysterically shrieking, but we couldn't understand the words. The police told those of us with passports to take our luggage and leave the train and proceed by foot off the boat. We felt badly to leave all the refugees behind. Our group (only about a tenth of the total from the train) waited for half an hour, until a train came that was heading to Copenhagen. Our four-hour trip from Lübeck turned out to take eight hours.

The lucky few who got to leave the boat and wait for another train

We found out that our train was the last one to get through from Germany, before the Danish authorities suspended all rail service to and from Germany. We heard that the refugees were taken to a camp someplace. We don't fully understand the situation, but we think that the issue is that refugees have to register in the first country in the EU that they land in. Instead, they travel together in large groups and try to get to Sweden, where, if they register, they have a better chance of gaining asylum. The Danish government appears to be strict about enforcing immigration policies, but the police seem very humane. This was definitely the most memorable of our many train rides in Europe.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015


We've just spent five days at our "home away from home": Leipzig. We had another fine visit with Anita and Samy, and Anita's parents Annelore and Werner. Annelore was Les' first Esperanto penpal 29 years ago, and the whole family are dear friends.

We walked a lot in downtown Leipzig, went to an organ concert, saw an exhibition where Samy's talented 16-year-old daughter had been invited to display several paintings, and went to Annelore's house in Wölkau to eat four(!) different cakes she'd just baked.

View from Anita's home

With Anita at an exhibit on the history of printing, at the German National Library

With Anita, Samy, Annelore, and Werner, we spent a day in lovely Halle and in Eisleben, where we listened to nuns chanting in a cloister and went to the birthplace and deathplace of Martin Luther, both turned into museums, plus the church where he was baptized.

As we were thinking that Eisleben was a pretty serious town, with all its Martin Luther locations, we spotted these whimsical knitted chickens on fenceposts.

Just like when we were in Leipzig in July, we happened to hit the monthly meeting of Annelore's local Esperanto group. And just like last time, because it was a Monday evening, the streets were teeming with police cars to prevent trouble during the weekly immigration protests. One group objects to Germany letting in so many refugees, while the counter group objects to the Nazi-type sentiments of the first group. Fortunately, the counter-demonstrators outnumbered the antiforeigners by a large margin (20:1). I'm glad that Anita's son and his friends sometimes join the counter group.

Today we took the train to Lübeck in the north. We chose it as a well-located overnight place on the way to Denmark, and hadn't realized that it's actually a charming town worth visiting in its own right.

The Holsten Gate in Lübeck

We heard that Lübeck is famous for its marzipan, so we picked up a few kinds to test out how good it is.

Lübeck's old town is an island

People have been asking us all summer what we plan to do about housing when we get back to Seattle. Will you get an apartment? Stay on the boat? Keep traveling? The answer has always been that we haven't really thought about it, are just enjoying each day as it comes without thinking of the future. But in the past few days we've come up with some ideas.

The first idea is to spend two or three months in Leipzig next fall. We would probably use Airbnb for housing. We didn't use it at all on this trip, but it seems reasonable to try, and that leads to a second idea; try out Airbnb in the U.S. and Canada this winter and spring. The plan I currently like is to alternate a month on the boat and a month in some other city, then back to Europe in the fall. We'll pursue these ideas after settling in at home. At the start of the year we had thought that we might spend this November and December in New Zealand, but Les feels he needs time to digest what we've already done, so probably that idea is out.

Tomorrow it's on to our last new country: Denmark.

Europe really is on the metric system—10 eggs instead of a dozen!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Switzerland - part 2

We had intentionally not made any plans for the last two and a half weeks of our trip. We wanted to stay flexible in case we heard about new opportunities. This plan worked out well, as we had a couple of invitations from people we didn't even know at the start of our trip. They helped determine our itinerary: Zurich, Leipzig (again) and Denmark.

After the Itala Kongreso we spent a night in Milan. There's currently an Expo there, but we don't like crowds, and it was quite hot, so we just spent our evening walking around town a bit.

The next day we went to Zurich, where we stayed two nights. We walked a lot, and we took advantage of an all-day transportation pass by going on a lot of trams and a boat and a funicular. Zurich is a nice, modern city, but we found it a bit sterile compared to Geneva and Bern.

Then we went a short distance to the village of Niederlenz, to stay with Udo, an Esperanto speaker we met at SES in Slovakia. This was out in the country, a different experience from the large cities and suburbs we'd visited so far in Switzerland. There were loads of trails through forests and rural areas. We got caught in a torrential downpour during one walk, as the hot weather pattern finally broke. The nearby town of Lenzburg was a tiny, perfect village, fitting well with Les' criteria for a good city: nice architecture, no graffiti, no honking, minimal smoking, people look happy.

Castle in Lenzburg

Udo teaches middle school (at least that would be the U.S. equivalent), and he gave me a tour of his school. When I expressed surprise at the school's bunker, Udo explained that every house and building must, by law, have a bunker where you can live for 24 hours. They're inspected periodically by the government. The idea is to protect from both enemy attack and accidents from the atomic energy plants. The bunker in Udo's basement looked very substantial. An alternative is to buy space in a nearby community bunker.

One feature of the school I liked was the hallway where each graduating student gets to paint a concrete block on the wall.

Bricks painted by graduating students

This reference to Esperanto was a surprise

The students get Wednesday afternoons off, which seems like a nice mid-week break for both students and teachers. And I love the annual school schedule in Switzerland. Instead of a long summer vacation, there are three-week vacations spread throughout the year. The kids have a total of 14 weeks off, but must choose one of those weeks to do a "project". The projects are offered by various instructors, and sound wonderful: photography, skiing, bicycling, etc. Udo has always taught amateur radio, but this year he's going to try a week of "Esperanto as a secret language".

When we mentioned how much outdoor smoking we found in Europe, Udo told us about a national contest that encourages students to abstain from smoking by offering monetary incentives to class units. Wow, what a great idea to use peer pressure to discourage smoking instead of the opposite.

As we left, Udo's wife Lena plied us with produce from her garden: apples, pears, tomatoes, grapes, tiny gherkins (so adorable, each one the size of a large blueberry). We greatly enjoyed our stay with Udo and Lena, and were glad to hear that Udo has added his name to Pasporta Servo so that other Esperanto speakers can enjoy a stay there.

The three trains to Leipzig took 12 hours, partly because we've changed our algorithm for choosing trains. For the first month or so of the trip, we chose routes where there might be seven minutes or so to make a connection. But I found it too nerve-wracking if the first train was running late, to think that we might miss the train on which we'd paid for a reserved seat, and perhaps not get any seat at all on a later train. So now we give ourselves at least 45 minutes between any trains, often longer. The extra wait can actually be quite pleasant when we're able to take advantage of the first class lounge.

Speaking of trains, I realize that even after taking so many trains, I'm still often baffled when I use the WC in them. It seems like every train, and every public bathroom, not to mention many private bathrooms, have various ways to flush, to get water, to get soap, to dry hands, etc. For example, the flushing mechanism might be on some part of the toilet, or some button on a wall, or a chain overhead to pull, or something even more mysterious. Even locking and unlocking the door is sometimes a puzzle; on two or three occasions I've wondered whether it might get down to shouting "Help!" in order to get out.

We're back in Leipzig now, our "second home" with Anita's family. Taking a breath before the final adventure in Denmark.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


We enjoyed our one-night stay in Bologna, but had a nightmarish experience trying to leave the city. We got to the train station at 9:20 for our 9:58 train. The reader board in the waiting area showed our train, but without a platform number. We checked the train roster posted in the waiting area and it said it normally leaves from Platform 4, but when we got to that platform the reader board there showed a different train, one that would leave at 10:10. We waited ten minutes to see whether it would change to our train. We asked a police officer, who called somebody on his radio and told us Platform 10. We went over there, and found others waiting for our train; I never figured out how they knew about Platform 10—maybe they had an app that gave up-to-date details, or maybe all of them had asked police or other officials. It got to be 9:57, still no platform indicated on the board. Then finally something happened—it showed that it would be 15 minutes late, still no platform. After 15 minutes, it showed 30 minutes late, still no platform. We'd been standing for over an hour, as there were no benches on the platforms, and we had to keep moving as people lit up cigarettes. As the new time approached (10:25), suddenly a platform appeared on the board: Platform 3!

Everybody on Platform 10 rushed downstairs into the corridor to get to Platform 3. But the corridor was so blocked with people shoving in both directions, that it was almost a standstill. I felt a bit nauseous and claustrophobic, being trapped in a crowd (that's the nightmare aspect), and wondering whether the train would take off before we got to it. A woman near Les had a panic attack, and a police officer edged his way through the crowd to help her. Because I had less luggage, I made more forward progress than Les, and finally got up to Platform 3. I was prepared to stand in the doorway to prevent the train from leaving until Les could catch up. But in the end, even after Les got on, the train stayed there 10 minutes more. So there'd been no need for panic, but we had no way to know that as we struggled to get to our reserved train.

We got to San Benedetto del Tronto, where we spent a week at the Itala Kongreso, Italy's annual Esperanto convention. There were about 250 people, half Italians and half from 31 other countries. The week included many options: excursions every day, classes at three levels and two seminars in the mornings, talks in the afternoons, and entertainment in the evenings. As usual, often two or three things happening simultaneously, so one had to make decisions.

Banner announcing the convention

This was a very intellectual, academic, type of conference. The talks were all by university professor types. For example, a talk by a linguist about the appearance (or not) of definite articles ("the") and indefinite articles ("a") in European languages; some languages use both (English), some use neither (Russian), some use one but not the other; the speaker showed how, from 2000 years ago, articles spread from certain languages to others. Another very interesting talk, by a professor of linguistics, was on "Why should one read literature"; one fact I learned is that 40% of university graduates in the U.S. read no literature at all after graduation; I'm actually surprised that as many as 60% do read literature.

One ongoing seminar discussed the idea that the whole world is becoming more and more like the U.S. (e.g. individualistic, materialistic, businesses having a lot of power even in governmental and university affairs, using sophisticated advertising techniques to manipulate people's desires): is it true, and—if so—what are the consequences of that? Is there an alternative model, and how can we encourage that one? The discussion on topics like this is interesting, where the participants bring a perspective from many countries.

Our favorite talks were a three-part lecture series on the evolution of language, numbers, and calendars. An interesting point: the fact that 80 in French is quatre-vingt (four 20's) shows that in the past the French used base 20 for numbers. Also, in French and some other languages, the word for nine and new are the same or similar (e.g., neuf), indicating that they once had 8 as their base. Interesting fact: the days of the week in Latin-derived countries relate to the order of the things seen in the sky: moon (Lundo), Mars (Mardo), Mercury (Merkredo), Saturn (Saturday), etc. Another one that I didn't know: from 1929 to 1940 the Russian calendar had, first, 5 days in a week (skipping Saturday and Sunday), then 6 (in order to have one rest day). I'd like to have had a whole semester to cover the same material in a less rushed manner.

The organizer arranged for us to stay at a small (6-room) hotel above a cafe/bar. We had our breakfast in the bar, and dinners and suppers at the conference hotel where most of the events were held. Our breakfasts were totally decadent: a piece of delicious cake baked by the owner's wife, an exquisite cornetto (like a croissant, but in many wonderful flavors like pistachio, and so warm they melt in your mouth), a cup of fresh organic juice, grapes or a plum, and cappuccino.

We did three half-day walking excursions in the town, and one full-day excursion by tour bus. The walking tours had an Italian professional guide, who needed to be translated into Esperanto, which doubled the amount of talking. We prefer tours like in the Toronto event, where a local person, not a professional guide, leads the tour and talks only in Esperanto. Also, the pace was too slow for us; although I can easily walk five miles at a fast clip, I find it difficult to walk even one mile slowly, and it's even harder for me to stand for long periods listening to a guide. Often during the tours, the Italian guide would boom out each sentence, then the Esperanto translator would give his version in a soft voice difficult to hear, especially as the Italians in the group had already understood it and felt like it was OK to talk during the translated version.

One walk centered on the many statues in town. We liked the fact that each statue has a miniature one next to it, with Braille explanations, for blind people. Also to help the blind, many streets had textured pathways on the sidewalks, including ones leading to the sculptures. We'd first noticed these in Bern. Since the Esperanto Society for the Blind was holding its annual convention in conjunction with the Italian convention, these were nice features for them. Another tour was to the Museo del Mare, with its three sections: amphora, the local fishing industry, and fish and other sea creatures.

Whimsical statue in San Benedetto; note the miniature version on the left for blind people

We did an all-day excursion to several cities up the coast. The first one, Loreto, was our favorite, and we'd have liked to spend more time there. Les heard his beloved Eurasian collared dove for the first time in Italy, and captured his best photo yet.


The next stop was Recanati, where we toured the library of Giacomo Leopardi; he's a well-loved Italian poet. (An Italian fellow was horrified to find out that we'd never heard of Leopardi, and immediately recited a long poem by heart.) Our last town was Ancona. We visited the very unusual Museo Tattile Statale Omero, a tactile art museum where touching is not only allowed but encouraged. It contains sculptures, both originals and also copies of famous ones such as Michaelangelo's David, all geared for blind people to be able to get a sense of.


One evening a good one-woman play was presented, and on other evenings, there were concerts at the outdoor concert venue. One concert was by Kim Henriksen, a well-loved Esperanto rock singer (see a video from an earlier performance). All these evening events started at 9:30, and we were always surprised on the way back, at 11pm or so, to see that children were still playing in the playgrounds—long after children in the U.S. would be in bed.

Rock concert at the outdoor pavilion

San Benedetto del Tronto is a beach town on the Adriatic Sea. There were lots of tourists, but they all seemed to be Italians. (The main clerk at the conference hotel, the biggest in the city, spoke no English; Les sometimes communicated with him in French, which the clerk knew a bit.) The beach, similar to all the beaches we passed in the train, had thousands of umbrellas, each beach area arranged in grids, with tables and lounge chairs. There'd be one grid of blue umbrellas followed by a grid of red-yellow umbrellas, etc. I think the idea is that you rent your umbrella and its furnishings for a period of time, and I'm guessing that you choose your favorite beach based on whether it has a good playground, or area for soccer or volleyball or bocce, or whatever is important to you. Neither Les nor I are beach people, so we didn't take advantage of this part of San Benedetto.

Beach area of San Benedetto, one of a hundred or more

The first weekend there, we hit San Benedetto's Antico e le Palme, one of the most important exhibitions of antiques in Italy with hundreds of booths lining the pedestrian malls, each selling furniture, paintings, sculptures, carpets, ceramics, jewelry, books and prints. and antiques; this happens four times a year. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, all year, there are also hundreds of booths, this time selling clothing, fruits, plants, pots, etc. Every evening until midnight and later there's music in the plazas, buskers, masses of people roaming around. The streets always felt completely safe, day or night.

Twice-weekly city fair in San Benedetto, from our hotel window

Quarterly antique fair still doing business at 11pm

We found this conference frustrating for several reasons. There was a lot of Italian spoken: at the meals, while lounging around, on excursions, even among the organizers, etc. And the groups chatting in front of the conference hotel always seemed to include at least one smoker at every table, making it completely uninviting to sit down and join in. Even though there were lots of good aspects to the organization (and, having organized conferences ourselves, we appreciate the huge amount of work that went into it), a lack of posted information caused several problems for us. Although Italy wasn't as blazing hot as Les feared, it still was hotter than we like, and meeting rooms without air-conditioning were often uncomfortable.

And it was annoying that the waiters at the hotel, where we had our 1:00 dinner and 8:00 supper, seemed to treat vegetarians with either indifference or contempt; it was never clear which, but the end result for us was that almost every meal consisted of just the antipasti. These were very nice, put out as a buffet, with lots of vegetables, but pretty much the same ones every day. While everybody else after that got soup or a pasta dish, followed by a meat or fish plate, the waiters sometimes gave us a substitution (pasta in tomato sauce instead of pasta with small clams), but usually told us to just eat more of the buffet food. After a few days we didn't even wait around; we just ate lots of appetizers, then got up and left, because it felt so dispiriting to watch everybody else getting a nice meal. This was quite surprising because, as I've noted before in this blog, most Esperanto events treat vegetarians very well.

Our hotel unfortunately did not have convenient WiFi. Les had to make a (free) phone call to activate the internet each time he wanted to use it, and sometimes the connection would drop out in the middle of a session. Considering that his motto is "Home is wherever WiFi connects automatically", this didn't feel like home to Les.

We ran into a couple of people we'd met at other events this summer, but for some reason we made only a few new friends here, including a lovely couple from Lyons. And two or three of the organizers were very helpful to us when we were feeling helpless with our lack of Italian.

The laundromat we used was closed for three hours every mid-day. It reminded me of my experience 50 years ago in Florence. I went to a laundromat far from my hotel, did the wash, put it into a dryer, and went away for half an hour. When I returned, I was surprised to see that the building was locked. On asking a passerby, I discovered that it wouldn't reopen for three hours!

When we tried to get train reservations from San Benedetto to Zurich, we ran into a problem. Even though it was still six days off, all the fast trains were already full. We had to settle for some slower trains, at less ideal times, and it all took a lot of effort, plus meant missing the closing ceremonies. We're really fed up now with the Eurail Pass, for forcing us to wait until we got to Italy to make the required reservation (it has to be done in person at a ticket office in the country of that particular rail company), which in turn meant that the train was already full. And now we have to worry that by the time we get back to Switzerland, the only place that we can make a reservation for our trip from there to Leipzig, that train will also be full. Without the rail pass, you can buy tickets online from anywhere in the world—often at greatly discounted prices—so the rail pass doesn't seem like such a good deal after all. Things were much simpler during the first half of our trip, before we started using our rail pass.

The prices of food seemed amazingly cheap in Italy, after being five days in Switzerland. We had gelato every day, and Les now can say "hazelnut" in six languages (to facilitate his gelato orders). Oh, I guess seven languages if you include Latin; that one is easy because it's the same as Esperanto, as are the names for many plants and animals.

One thing Les appreciated about the people in San Benedetto is they always looked happy. Even when they're arguing, they seem to be enjoying life. My theory is that it's all that gelato.

Friday, August 21, 2015


We spent this week in Switzerland, namely Geneva and Bern. We didn't know anybody in Geneva, but I remembered it as one of my favorite cities from my trip 50 years ago. We walked in the old town and along both sides of the lake, took the municipal ferry across the lake, saw the botanical garden and the outside of the UN. Usually Les and I are in agreement on our opinions, but not this time: I still found Geneva very appealing, while Les didn't feel at home there.

Place des Nations in Geneva

We got sticker shock on arriving at Geneva, which continued during our entire stay in Switzerland. Phone calls and SMS messages are six to twenty times what they cost in other European countries, food prices and transportation fares two or three times as much, etc.

Fruit market in the old town section of Geneva

Next we went to Bern, where we stayed with an Esperanto speaker through Pasporta Servo, but actually we already knew our host Ueli from the New Years gathering in Xanten, Germany, two and a half years ago. Ueli lives and has a medical practice in Zollikofen, a small town near Bern. He arranged a meeting of the local Esperanto group at a restaurant aptly named Esperanto, and we met some interesting people.

Location of our meeting with local Esperantists

We walked in the old town, and spent a couple of hours at the excellent Museum of Telecommunications, also some time at the Swiss Rifle Museum. Bern has kept live bears since 1440, so when I was there 50 years ago, I went to look at them. But I got depressed at the sight of them in their gloomy concrete pit, and this time had no desire to seek out the bears. I should have checked online, because I just discovered that in 2009 the pits were replaced by a spacious bear park—hooray!

Old town section of Bern

Les liked the chimneys.

Main entrance of the Münster in Bern

We passed the most marvelous public playground I've ever seen. It had about ten sections: one for playing in mud and water, one for jumping onto a large pad, one part a tiny soccer area with goals for practicing shots, etc. I had the feeling that you wouldn't see such a playground in the U.S. because of liability concerns.

Small section of the wonderful playground, with the soft jumping pad

We learned a lot about the Swiss form of government, the health care system, and compulsory military service. It's one of the benefits of being with a resident for a couple of days; in the cities where we use hotels, we don't really learn much about the city or country.

In Zollikofen Les finally got a good photo of the bird he's loved since Scotland. Its call mimics the Morse code letter "R" which means "OK, everything's fine". But the bird is quite elusive, so it's hard to even spot it, never mind get a picture. Les' three favorite things about Europe are: the trains, the buildings and bridges, and the Eurasian collared dove.

Les finally got this photo of a Eurasian collared dove.

We've been disappointed since we started using our Eurail Pass two weeks ago. You're required to reserve a seat on many trains, and it turns out to be quite costly at times and often impossible to do online when you're not also buying a ticket. The only advantage seems to be that it's first class, which didn't mean much to us, as we were happy traveling second class. But we discovered, completely by accident, that Geneva and Zurich have first class lounges, and we took advantage of this perk while changing trains in Zurich. The lounge had comfortable seats, free espresso drinks, beautiful bathrooms. Quite a switch from some station experiences where there haven't even been seats in the waiting areas.

Enjoying the first class lounge in the Zurich train station

The train ride from Bern to Bologna today was beautiful, especially in southern Switzerland. Another first class perk we discovered was free drinks and snacks, just like the airlines used to do many years ago. I feel a bit stupid that we missed our snacks on the first leg of the journey, because I didn't realize they were free and said "no thanks" when it was offered.

View from the train window in southern Switzerland

We passed this church three times as we corkscrewed our way through tunnels and bridges up the side of a mountain.

I misread a map when choosing our hotel in Bologna; I thought it was close to the train station, but it turned out to be one and a half miles away. No problem, the weather was beautiful and we got to see a lot of Bologna as we walked there. Later on, I spent another hour walking in the old section while Les got caught up on computer work. We do that fairly frequently, because I enjoy walking around each new city, while Les needs his share of screen time.

Bologna is a nice city which reminds me of Merida in Mexico, where I spent a week in January; the climate, the architecture, the large plazas, the relaxing pastel colors, and the flora seem quite similar to me. There don't seem to be many tourists, there's little traffic, and the people in the streets appear to be happy, tons of sidewalk dining—and not near as many smokers on the sidewalks as in Switzerland.

Tomorrow we start the final big Esperanto event of our trip: the weeklong Itala Kongreso in San Benedetto del Tronto.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


We've spent the past week in the Loire Valley, at the Château de Grésillon near Baugé-en-Anjou. This has been an Esperanto retreat since the 1950s; my penpal Ghislaine used to come here in the 1960s. In the summer they have weeklong events with different themes. Because of the timing and our liking for being with Esperanto children, we selected the week geared to families. Many of the families come back every year for this particular week.

We took a train from Paris to Le Mans, where we spent a night. We had a chance to see some of the old town, which dates from Roman times. The next day we took a bus to Baugé. We thought that there might be others on the bus headed to Grésillon, and—sure enough—a woman from China and her granddaughter joined us. She didn't speak any French, so we were able to help her purchase her ticket and get on the right bus. In turn she helped us out once we got to Baugé; we were prepared to walk the 3 kilometers to the chateau, but she had arranged for a friend, already there, to pick her up at the bus stop, and he luckily had enough room for us also.

Château de Grésillon

Grésillon reminded me a lot of the overnight camps I used to attend as a child. It's way out in the country, a half-hour walk from the nearest village, with lizards and ticks and tiny frogs and such. There were 43 of us, including about 15 children aged 2 to 16. We ate our (very good) meals together in the dining room, family style, and took turns helping to set and clear the tables. We had our own room in the chateau, with the bathroom down the hall and a sink and bidet in the room. (The first time I saw a bidet was in Paris 50 years ago, and I didn't know what the heck it was.) The grounds were large and diverse, with many parts converted to new uses.

Erstwhile pig stalls now used for toilets and showers for those camping in the fields

Like camp, there was some structure, but—unlike camp—we were free to do what we wanted at all times. In the mornings four Esperanto classes, at different levels, were held, but some people elected to not do any. I enjoyed my class very much, especially the many fun games we played, all designed to increase vocabulary and speaking ability.

In the afternoons some people went in cars to a nearby swimming lake, while others attended workshops (e.g. juggling), or did parachute games, or just had a nap. (Ha ha, Les and I did the naps a lot; the warm weather and country quiet seemed conducive.) I enjoyed two workshops about doing fast mental math; for instance I can say in seconds how much is 42 times 48, or what day of the week it was when you were born. Every day before supper we had 90 minutes of group singing. After supper were various forms of entertainment and talks. Twice I gave slide shows; it used to be one show, but now that we have over three months behind us, I've had to split it into two: "Living on a houseboat" and "Our long trip in Esperantujo".

I made bracelets out of little rubber bands

Les took advantage of a couple of the native French participants to improve his French. One of them is a teacher of French as a second language. It seemed fitting to be learning French in that region, because the Loire Valley is known as the cradle of the French language.

Speaking of French speakers, it was interesting to see the problems they face in learning Esperanto. I'm used to the challenges for English speakers, such as getting the "r" sound right, but I hadn't thought about the fact that other nationalities have their own difficulties. The French speakers who are relatively new to Esperanto, for instance, tend to accent the last syllable of each word (as is common in French), instead of the next-to-last syllable which is the rule for every single Esperanto word. And they tend to drop the "h" on the front of a word because that's what they do in French.

The children slept together in boys' and girls' dorms, and mostly kept to themselves, but I got to know Lucie very well. Rather than sitting at the children's table, she ate at the "vegetarian" table. She was attending with her grandmother (not at our table), who had taught her Esperanto, and she spoke very well. She sought me out because her mother had advised her to make friends with the non-French people in order to get the most out of the experience. She conducted herself so easily among the adults that I assumed she was at least 13, so was very surprised to find out that she was only ten! When I mentioned this to a French woman, she was surprised that I was surprised; apparently it's common in France for children to be comfortable speaking with adults, including initiating the conversation and showing interest in the adult. Lucie led some of the children each day in the cup game which was new to me; at Lucie's behest I tried it, but saw immediately that it was hopeless.

Lucie and friend

A few years ago I read a book called French Kids Eat Everything, and now I saw it in action. It was so refreshing to see all the children (even the three-year-olds) contentedly eating what the adults ate. Maybe they didn't eat everything, but I never heard whining or "but I don't like that" or "ugh".

I don't know whether I can generalize from a single experience, but it seemed like the European parents and grandparents (many children had come with grandparents instead of parents, and a 13-year-old boy was there completely by himself) had a much more laid-back attitude, espousing the "free range children" idea. For example, when I saw two 3-year-olds gleefully flinging sand and small rocks at each other, I thought "this is going to end in injury or at least a lot of crying". I looked around for caregivers to alert them, but there were no other adults in sight. The game, fortunately, ended without problems. Crying, actually, was very rare. The children were so infrequently with their guardians that even at the end of the week—when I knew many adults fairly well, and some of the children a bit—I still didn't know which children went with which parents or grandparents.

The children often gathered in this spot

The children played with a large parachute

Les finally had time to research the bird he's come to love ever since Scotland. Its call sounds like a Morse code "R", which signifies "OK" or "Roger". We've heard the bird in every country in Europe, but we never saw what bird made the sound. Les narrowed it down to a type of dove, and on a long solitary walk he finally got to see the bird making the call. It's a Eurasian collared dove.

The weather was generally very pleasant, warm but not hot. Twice there were torrential downpours, and one night thunder and lightning, very different from the drizzles we're used to in Seattle. But the rain was refreshing, and made us feel cozy in our chateau.

A cartoon hanging in one of the bathrooms at Grésillon

With the manageable number of people, and seven days together, it was easy to get to know well a lot of the others. As always, we met some very nice people, mostly from France, but also from Sweden, Germany, China, Serbia, Ukraine, and Brazil. I sometimes wish that I had an Esperanto name, because a lot of foreigners have trouble pronouncing Arlyn; even after several days the French people especially were tentative when addressing me. "Airlyeen?" I should have chosen some name like Masha, that's easy in any language, thirty years ago. It feels like it's too late now.

For me, this was the most relaxing week of our trip so far. And more than any other Esperanto event this summer, I'm already feeling like I miss a whole group of new friends, rather than just one or two individuals.

We had a couple of chances to explore the nearby town of Baugé during the week. It's very attractive, dating from 1000 years ago. We're back in Le Mans now, and tomorrow we'll leave France after 23 days, and head for Geneva.

Scene in downtown Baugé