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Tuesday morning, first order of business was finishing the laundry that I’d begun Monday night.

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Our hotel had a laundry, which was great news, and the instruction panel on the machine was even decipherable, which was good, too, and it automatically dispensed detergent, which was fantastic.

But it was also a combined washer-dryer which, in my experience is never good news.

I was right. The first cycle was two hours. At the end of that, the load was still pretty damp, which didn’t surprise me – so I added another half hour of drying. By this time, it was midnight, I dozed off (in the room!) waiting, got back down to to the laundry at 12:45, found negligible progress, gave up for the night, took the load back to the room, draped the clothes around where I could, and went back to sleep. When I returned to the laundry in the morning to give it one more 30 minute run (which finished it off, at last) I encountered the same heavily tatooed Australian woman I’d shared the space with the night before. “Twelve hours later….” I commented.

Next order of business, pack up and figure out this train business.

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There are any number of ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, including buses, regular trains and budget flights, but of course we wanted to do the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Round trips tickets are not cheap, but I saved a bit of money by purchased a “tour” through a site called JapanICan – details here. Cheaper, but of course, there’s a cost to everything, and the cost here is another layer of complication. So the steps were:

  • Check out of hotel, go to Oshiage Station, and from there go to Tokyo Station.
  • At Tokyo Station, find the tour office, present passports, printed e-voucher and “tour application” – after a few minutes, received both sets of tickets, plus a voucher for a day of free public transportation use in Kyoto.
  • Go find a train!
  • These trains run many times during the hour. These vouchers are for unreserved seats, so you basically just find a train that’s about to leave, find one of the cars with unreserved seats (one of the first three cars), line up,  wait for the super-charged train cleaners to finish their work and get on board.
  • Apart from the confusion of finding the tour office, it was a very simple process. The seats are comfortable, the train is very clean. Snacks are offered for sale, but we didn’t buy anything. No wi-fi on this particular train.
  • The advantage of using this voucher is that you could use it on any of the three bullet train lines, including the fastest, the Nazomi  – which is not possible if you use the JR Rail Pass, a popular choice with international travelers. So Nazomi it was, on a clean, on-time train, getting us to Kyoto in a little more than two hours.

You can see some landscape on the way, but a great deal of the journey is between barriers and some even underground, so it’s not incredible scenic. What sticks out to me from the space between the cities? Rice paddies and batting cages. Everywhere.

We got to Kyoto around two and couldn’t get into the apartment until 3, so we parked our luggage in storage lockers, grabbed some McDonalds and set out to see some of the area around the station.

First, on the McDonald’s:  No shame! I mean – I don’t eat it, just because I don’t have any interest, but it’s quick, reliable fuel for others who hadn’t eaten much all day. Secondly – it’s fascinating to eat at American fast food chains overseas. One son reported that the chicken nuggets are actual chicken parts, not the American reconstituted chicken sludge. Other son got a ginger-pork burger, which had a good ginger bite to it.

We had a brief conversation with an older couple from Florida – drawn to us because of son’s Gator gear on his body – who’d been in the country for their son’s wedding on one of the smaller, scenic islands. They’d been in the country for ten days. I asked if they had any tips. The woman shrugged, studied her french fry and said, “The island was pretty.”

I guess someone was ready to go home….

The Kyoto station is very impressive, with a rooftop observation deck.

 

There’s a large department store that’s part of the station. Here is a thousand dollar school bag for you. J flipped the tag and discovered why – Kate Spade.

 

Then out – we looked at the Kyoto Tower from the outside (can’t avoid it! It’s retro and funky, but you have to pay to ascend and we’d just taken in the views for free) then headed to a couple of the thousand temples that are in this area.

There are two Honganji temple complexes, about six blocks apart, not far from the station. They are temples for sects of Pure Land Buddhism..

(If you were in Kyoto yesterday and saw two teenaged boys nursing cokes with a middle-aged woman trudging behind them droning about the Four Noble Truths and bodhisattva and such – why didn’t you say hello?)

 

It was a far more peaceful scene than the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, but it was also late in the day. These are enormous, gorgeous wooden structures, and yes, you must take off your shoes to enter – they provide plastic bags to carry about your shoes if you wish. Don’t forget to check out the rope made of hair:

 

Before we reached the station, we had an ice cream break – rolled ice cream, which is not, of course, unique to Japan – we have a couple in Birmingham now, and the newest one has a Japanese theme, though – so is it a trend that started here? I don’t know.

 

All I know is that sitting there in front of Starbucks watching them eat their ice cream, I didn’t feel as if I were in a foreign country at all. There, in Kyoto, which is, they say, the most Japanese of all the major Japanese cities, I felt as if I could have been anywhere, img_20180626_171649including Birmingham, Alabama. I think it is not only because, well, I was sitting in front of Starbucks, but because the ratio of tourists to locals here is higher – or lower? Not a math person, but what I’m trying to say is that there are fewer inhabitants than Tokyo and a lot of tourists, so looking out at a crowd around the station, the demographics don’t seem much different – except for the miniscule number of black faces – than they’d be in New York or Chicago. What makes it even more so is the commonality of culture now – everyone has a phone, everyone dresses the same and I swear, even Japanese teens walk with the same exact gait as American teens.

Then back to the station, get luggage, get taxi and then make the trek to the apartment – which is not in the center of Kyoto, took about twenty minutes by car to reach, but is also a block from a train station, so I think (hope) getting around should be efficient.

I’ll do a post on the house later, once I get more photos. Just know that it’s utterly charming – a traditional Japanese house with tatami mats, sliding doors, and sleeping mats. No daily housekeeping, but more space – everything’s a tradeoff, I tell you.

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Dinner was great. As they were resting, I did my usual reconnaissance walk, and within seconds found our dinner spot – a yakitori place right around the corner. Yakitori is grilled meat on skewers – bar food, basically. But it was enough for us, and a great experience – the place was tiny, smokey (grilling smoke) and full of locals.

 

The staff was very friendly and in a sweet gesture, after I paid the bill, the waiter said, “A present” – and handed me this teeny-tiny lucky cat.

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Tokyo, from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – a free alternative to seeing the city from above. It’s 45 floors up on a floor that has an almost 360 degree view, a gift shop and cafe.

As we were walking around taking in the views, I could sense a much older gentleman in a volunteer vest watching us. For several minutes, he didn’t take his eyes off us while we talked and took photos. At last he ventured forward and asked if we had any questions. No, not really. Even so, did we have a few minutes for him to point out some features? Ten – twenty – thirty? Well, if you insist – ten. Sure, we have ten minutes. I don’t know if the volunteers are observed in their work and have an interaction quota – but he did seem (politely) insistent.

And it turns out – as these things always do – to be fruitful. I learned that a great deal of the land I was looking at had held nothing but a water filtration system until 1971, when the area began being developed. He showed us photos from his notebook, and it certainly was different. He pointed out the construction for the 2020 Olympics stadium and other sites. (In case you are wondering, it wasn’t rainy on Monday, but it was still far too hazy to see Mount Fuji)

And then he had a question for us.

He pointed to a building constructed of three towers in a row, staggered in height. He said that one housed the Tokyo Hyatt, and then flipped to a page in his book with photos of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson – it was the locus of a lot of the filming of Lost in Translation of course. Then he said, “I have a question. Some people say that each of the towers represent either the past, present, or future. Which do you think is the future?” My oldest son answered, “The tallest.” I honestly didn’t care or have an opinion, but just said, “Sure. The tallest.” As did my younger son.

“Ah, just like Americans – always thinking the future is great in size. The right answer is – no one knows which tower represents the future, because no one knows the future!”

Well, that’s very Zen of you, Old Volunteer Guide Fellow. And also…true.

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Monday:

Another kind of weird, unfocused day, because Tokyo is doing that to me. I do think that if we were, indeed going to be in Tokyo for the whole trip (as originally planned), I’d have more focus. But as it is, with Monday being our last full day in a vast city of 30 million people…it’s hard to figure out what to do except, “Experience more Tokyo in general and without a plan and hope for the best.”

When we travel and are not in a place with free breakfast and are within walking distance of shops, my usual practice is to wake up earlier than everyone else (which happens anyway) and then walk out, see morning city life and grab milk and pastries somewhere.

View from our hotel – the Richmond Premiere right next to the Oshiage Station. It was a fantastic location. A little far from popular areas like Shinjuku, but honestly – that’s fine. It wasn’t crazy, and there was plenty to do, see and eat nearby. 

Well…life here in Tokyo doesn’t get rolling until later in the morning, I discovered. Oh, things are open, but not many. We are right across from the Tokyo SkyTree which has a great mall with a fantastic food court – including a bakery. I headed over there first, a bit before nine, and found the shops all blocked off, not to open until ten. Okay – there’s a large grocery store next to the hotel  with two levels – the top being a Whole Foods-type place with lots of prepared foods, organic goods and a bakery, and then a large regular grocery store in the basement. Head to the bakery! Well, it didn’t open until nine – so I waited for a few minutes, went in  – and saw all the bakers working hard, yes…but not a thing put out in the cases yet. Nothing. I stood around for a few minutes, and they didn’t seem to be at an “almost there” point – so I gave up, went downstairs, got a bunch of prepackaged donuts and such, found some milk and went back up to the room.

After everyone was “nourished” we went to the train and traveled way across town (at least a 30 minute ride) to the Shinjuku area, the first destination being the Tokyo Municipal Government Building observatory – described in this post.

That done, it was time to wander – I had a couple of destinations, one of which we found, the other of which eluded us. Shinjuku is certainly busy and crowded, but it was nothing like Shibuyu, and so not as much of a hassle to walk around in – although the difference being today is that it was very, very hot. The hottest it been – which doesn’t bother me, but does some others in our party.

My takeaway from that hour or so in Shinjuku was this:

There are, it seems to me, two cities in Tokyo – one above ground and other below. What’s above ground is what you’d expect – crowded, jostling, with rather mysterious doorways leading off into the unknown. Just a little gritty, but not American-city gritty, because this is Japan. Underground there’s another country, extending for (it seems) kilometers around every major train station are dozens and dozens of shops and eateries – you find similar things in many major cities, but it’s more striking here in Tokyo because of the contrast. Underground, the shops are well-lit, spacious and it’s very clear what’s what and how to get in and out and get around. You might have this idea, going to Tokyo, that you’re going to eat in some little satori or ramen place in a cute neighborhood, but what I’m finding here is that to find a place where I feel comfortable, since I don’t speak but three words of Japanese and don’t really understand the cuisine very well at all – is a challenge above ground, and okay – this place in the underground mall looks good, so we’ll go here. It’s the same stuff, the same style (most Japanese restaurants specialize in one kind of dish – ramen, satori, udon, etc) and perhaps more expensive, but darn it – guess what – all the customers are Japanese down here, too – so why not?

Selling out? Probably. But People Get Hungry, so here we are!

In our wanderings we did see the exterior of the famed Robot Restaurant/Cafe, which is insane – I didn’t take photos, but it’s a gaudy, ridiculous-looking place on a side street, where it costs 80 bucks just to get in and see the “show” with food being extra. Oh – and Godzilla!

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Our food was tonkatsu, a traditional way of preparing pork cutlets. It was very good, although I have now discovered something…

I don’t like matcha tea. The first tea we had here, I took a sip and was put off by what I would describe as a smokey taste. Weird, I thought. Then I had it again at this restaurant (it’s just served automatically) and figured out that’s what it was – matcha – and well, I don’t think I like it!

The meals are provoking interesting conversations about the differences in cuisine and what that reveals about culture: for example, a cuisine that emphasizes presenting the diner with elements of the meal – either cooked or uncooked – and leaving up to her how to season and finish it.

After that, we ended up at Sunshine City, yet one more large shopping and entertainment area which features an anime-themed amusement park, some other amusement park (didn’t go), a Pokemon store (waited outside) and then an aquarium on the rooftop, which turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

It’s not huge, but it’s substantial, with two sections – a larger one indoors and a few outdoor exhibits. Most of the exhibits focus on creatures you’d find around Japan. At 4:00 on a Monday afternoon, the place was crowded – with hardly any children. A few toddlers, perhaps, but everyone else was an adult…although….

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We judge an aquarium (or zoo) in part on the question, “Did I see something I’d never seen before?” The answer here was yes. 

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It’s called a sunfish, it’s huge and weird looking, and my zoologist son is pretty sure it’s illegal to keep them in captivity in the US. Also – mudskippers. That got him psyched.

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We were there for the sea lion (seal?) show and while of course it was in Japanese, it was pretty evident to me that the content was more substantial than it’s been in similar shows I’ve seen in the US. With the added bonus of these little pads that were distributed to the audience to prevent direct contact with the ground, and perhaps a quarter-centimeter of padding. So thanks!

There were also some gorgeous pink pelicans – but the photos didn’t turn out for some reason and I don’t have time to try to fix them, so just know – there were giant pink pelicans.

We trekked back to our part of town – as we approached the station, we were a little afraid because it was rush hour, the crowds were heavy, and have you seen the videos of subway attendants pushing, shoving and packing people in the train cars? Sure, it would be interesting to experience, but still a little weird. No worries, though – maybe not many people actually live in the direction of our hotel, because the ride back was relaxed and uncrowded.

After a break, we headed over to the Skytree, where Someone had noticed conveyer-belt sushi – a definite goal of this trip. We had to wait for a while – but waiting for restaurants in Japan is so orderly, it’s almost entertaining. You don’t mill about with buzzers, glaring at parties who seem to be unfairly favored – no, there are seats. You sit on the seats outside the restaurant, and as parties are called up – you move your own seat up.

There was an English menu, but no one spoke English, which was fine. What you miss out on in these situations, though, is understanding what people are saying in random moments – so in this sushi restaurant (perhaps in all? I don’t know) new diners are greeted with shouts from the staff (it reminded me of “Welcome to Moe’s!”) and then when customers leave, there’s more shouting. At one point, a chef brought out a tray of freshly prepared plates from the same fish, at which point, a staff member made a speech of some sort and everyone applauded.

So – the sushi? Here’s the thing – I’ve never eaten sushi before in my life – no desire to – but I was determined I would do it here. That means I have no basis on which to judge it – I will say that it tasted absolutely fresh and clean. I suppose that is the goal? My take on sushi (I think I had tuna, salmon and a couple of kinds of white fish): eh. I suppose I sort of understand why people like it, and it does have a certain appeal – I am guessing the appeal lies precisely in that simplicity of flavor – but to me, the experience was basically of a big chunk of flesh. Sorry I can be more sophisticated than that! We all like what we like – I appreciate simplicity and straightforward taste when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but otherwise, I tend to go for layers of flavor that are the result of the cooking process – why I’m such a soup fan, for example.

But – been there, done that! We will probably do it again here. I want to go to one of those places – there are ramen restaurants like this too – where you punch in what you want on a machine in the front and then hand over the printout.

So then…back to the room, to prepare for…Kyoto!

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By far the dumbest thing in my life this past year – in a life full of fairly dumb things – has been my aggravation about  stupid Trini Salgado and her stupid camiseta. 

(Waits for readers to do a search….and return, scratching heads.)

As you might remember, I have a 13-year old who homeschools off and on, and if we were going to pin him down to a grade, we’d say he’s in 7th grade. He’s very interested in Central and South American history and culture, so this year, we’ve gotten more intentional about Spanish.

I spent some time last summer searching for a curriculum. I knew he would probably be going back to brick and mortar school for 8th grade, and I knew that the school he’d be going to teaches high school Spanish 1 over the course of 7th and 8th grade – so if we got through half of a Spanish I curriculum, we’d be good.

But what to pick? I do not, for the life of me, know why I didn’t just wait for the Spanish avencemos4teacher to tell me what she would be doing for the year (I knew they were changing) and then track with that. But I didn’t. I went ahead and splurged for a curriculum that is school-oriented, but used by homeschoolers as well. It’s called Avencamos! (Let’s keep going!) and it’s published by Holt.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting  about the curriculum itself and thoughts prompted by it as well as some other recent curriculum adventures, but even without that, this post will make some sense.

One of the many, many many elements of this curriculum are videos. Each unit is centered on a particular Spanish-speaking area – it begins with Miami, then moves to Puerto Rico, Mexico (Puebla! – where we just were!), Spain (Madrid! Where we’ve been!) , Ecuador, etc.

Each video features a different teenaged boy and girl, going about their community, using the unit’s vocabulary and grammar lessons. They are what you expect – mostly wooden acting and a little weirdness that can be, at times, highly entertaining. Mi mochila! And ¿DONDE ESTA MI CUADERNO? have already become standard elements of household conversation.  Oh, as well as a harsh, “No. Gracias,” uttered through gritted teeth which the very rude girl in the Madrid saga says repeatedly to a shopkeeper who’s only trying to show her las ropas, for pete’s sake! That’s my favorite. Maribel = me.

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Some verge on the surreal. Come to think of it, wouldn’t that be a good idea? To produce totally surreal, bizarre language instructional videos?

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Okay. So here’s the dumb, ingenious thread that runs through all of these videos that has obsessed me these past months – for some reason, all of these kids in these different countries around the globe are trying to see or get an autograph from a female soccer player named Trini Salgado. Some of them are connected – I think they’re trying to get Trini’s autograph for Alicia, who lives in Miami. I think. But they’re always thwarted in the quest – they get the wrong time that Trini’s appearing, they lose the jersey they want autographed, they get the autograph and Papa throws it in the laundry and it washes off.

The weirdest thing about it to me is that each little unit of videos ends in a absolutely unresolved way. In the Mexican set, the boy and girl go to his cousin’s house to retrieve the damn jersey and they’re scared off by a perro grande. They run off – and let’s go to Puerto Rico now!

What? Are you kidding me? You’re really going to leave me hanging like this?

You’d think – you’d think – that the whole situation would eventually get resolved. I thought they’d have some big global gathering feting Trini, everyone speaking Spanish in their various dialects and eating their varied foods.

But no.

Spoiler alert (I checked) – the last unit ends in just as unsatisfying a way as the others.

No one ever gets Trini’s autograph!

Those are some dark-hearted textbook writers there.

If you poke around, you find that kids have had some fun with this – there are a couple of Trini Salgado Twitter accounts, an Avencemos Memes account,  many mentions of are you kidding me, do they ever meet Trini – wait is Trini Salgado not a real person? and some class-made videos that play with eternally-frustrated yearning to get Trini’s autograph.

But here’s why I’m writing about this:

Once more, we run into the power of the story. Each set of videos runs about 6 minutes total, the acting is mostly terrible, and they’re mostly silly, but dang it if they didn’t leave me mad as heck that I wasn’t going to see what happened??

What is it? Isn’t it one of the most fascinating aspects of human life – that we can get so caught up in the the travails of imaginary characters, of situations that aren’t really happening in the real world? We can be wrecked by Lost, so content to settle into the world of Mad Men once a week, root for someone in the world of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad to follow the moral compass we know is buried deep inside there.

These aren’t real people. This is not really happening. I should not care. 

But I do.

It’s a promise of something good and true – and a warning. First the warning, which is about how easily it is for us to be caught up and manipulated simply by an engaging, compelling narrative. Authoritarians and abusers sense this and use it in varied ways: by constructing an epic narrative of identity, revolution, progress or restoration that flatters us, engages us and pulls us in or by simply weaving a tale that justifies and excuses and sounds good but is really just a lie. Marketers – whether they’re marketing products or themselves as personalities – know this and work hard to try to make us feel connected to their personal stories and daily adventures. Another self-serving lie.

Now the good part: The power of the story – even the insanely dumb story – tells us that our lives have a structure, meaning, purpose and direction. We’re pulled into the story because we know we are in the midst of a story ourselves. The challenge is to find and live in the true story – which, by the way – actually has an ending. And, I’m told, a pretty good one.

The only reason i took spanish 2 was to find out if they ever get the jersey signed by Trini Salgado

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Let’s go to Mexico City!

Regular readers know the story: when I realized that my older son’s spring break fell during Holy Week this year, the first thing I did was fume, make many speeches in my head, and then decide that No Spring Break For Us this year – we’ll stay in town, and you will Serve All the Liturgies, everywhere.

But then I recalled some thoughts I’d been having the past few years, thoughts centered on my desire to experience Holy Week in a place where they really do Holy Week, with seriousness and  lots of processions. Spain came to mind – Seville’s Semana Santa is renowned – but, well, two things: first, I didn’t want to do the go part way around the world and back in the space of a week. We did that last year when we spent Spring Break in London, and it was a great time, but I didn’t want to do it again. Secondly, well…big, huge, Christian centered-public events in Europe? Isn’t it strange that we live in a time when we might think, “Huh. I think it might be safer to do Holy Week in Guatemala than in Spain.” It all came down to: in Seville, I’d be constantly, nervously looking for trucks and people with backpacks, but in Antigua…I wouldn’t.

For that was my first idea. Last summer, my younger son and I spent a week in IMG_0311Guatemala doing mostly Maya-related sites, and I had originally thought I would try to work a day or so in Antigua, but it was really too far from where we were centered. So when I started the Semana Santa research, Antigua popped up again – alongside Seville as the site of big celebrations. What followed that was a look at the map and the decision that Copan, Honduras wasn’t really that far – Copan is the location of some very interesting Maya ruins that are my son’s bucket list. My original plan then developed: we’d  fly into Honduras, spend the first part of the week in Copan Ruinas, then go to Antigua for the Triduum, and then fly out of Guatemala City. I got so far as to reserve an AirBnB in Antigua and a hotel room in Copan Ruinas. But…

Oh, the airfare! It was pretty high and never budged from the heights. It wasn’t, surprisingly, the Honduras part – it was the Guatemala City leg that was out of sight. They must have very high airport taxes or fees in Guatemala or something (we flew in and out of Belize last summer). I just wasn’t willing to pay over $700 a ticket to go to Guatemala – this conviction was particularly acute because at the same time, I was starting to mull over a trip to Japan for next summer, and heck, we can fly to Tokyo from LAX for $700.

So…a couple of months ago, I started considering a plan B, and an obvious one popped into my head: Mexico City.  I immediately ran it past the boys. Archaeology-Mad 13-year IMG_20180310_144930.jpgold said, without hesitation, “Teotihuacan!” and was all in, while the almost 17-year old, amenable to just about anything, was his usual amenable self. I’m sure he did a calculation of how much money he would fail to make by not being here to work that week, but in the end, his interest in new places and adventures won out.

And did you know Southwest flies to Mexico City?

A lot cheaper than going to Honduras and Guatemala. A lot less travel stress than heading across the Atlantic.

And hopefully…processions and exploding Judases everywhere.

We have a few goals, but no set plans. I may be an obsessive travel researcher (it’s almost as enjoyable as the actual trip to me….), but I don’t plan much. So, I’m sitting here the night before we leave realizing just now that I’m not really sure how to get from the airport to our apartment. And we’ll be there in about 18 hours. I guess I better get on that.

The general goals for the trip are:

  • Teotihuacan
  • Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe
  • Museum of Archaeology
  • Various other art and history museum

As I said, we’re spending the Triduum in Puebla. Someone here had suggested Queretaro, and I thought about it very seriously but finally settled on Puebla – it’s a bit closer and just struck me as more interesting.  Or

So…stay  tuned! Check in on Instagram throughout the day and here in the evenings or mornings. And if you have any quick tips for either place, comment here or shoot me an email at amywelborn60 – AT – gmail DOT com.

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Greetings from…back in Birmingham.

It was an excellent weekend, although shorter than originally planned.

The last workshop of the symposium was scheduled to run from 3:30-5 on Sunday. That was also the only Sunday workshop my son was really very interested in – it was on LIDAR technology, which has revolutionized Maya studies.

(National Geographic ran a breathless, irritatingly hype-y special on this a few weeks ago.)

But after attending four talks on Saturday – three right in a row – and gotten the zoo visit done, I discerned that perhaps….this was enough. A day long workshop on Friday and IMG_20180310_144930.jpgfour academic presentations? For a thirteen-year old? I suggested that perhaps we could just…go home earlier on Sunday?

We talked it over. He was, indeed, interested in that workshop, but LIDAR had been discussed many times in the talks he’d attended, and considering how interested he is in the topic and how hot LIDAR is in the field…he’ll have a chance to engage with it again. The thought of getting home at 5 instead of 10 or later was certainly attractive to both of us.

Decision made…so that’s why I’m writing this from home Sunday night instead of..Monday morning.

But let’s backtrack.

First, our New Orleans hotel. Here’s Amy’s Travel Advice  Section:

I’ve stayed in New Orleans before, in various spots, and never paid what I consider an exorbitant amount. We’ve stayed in various chains in the city, and once at a Residence Inn near the airport. When I started looking for rooms this time, I got serious sticker shock. Nothing, nada even close to downtown for less than 350 a night. Even hotels in Metairie were more than I wanted to pay. Finally, I settled on a Holiday Inn and Suites across the river in Harvey, which was at least under $200.

(And why was this? I poked about and saw a couple of events – the Sun Belt Conference Championship tournament and a Bourbon Festival, but really? Would that be enough to drive prices up for the weekend? Spring breaks beginning? That certainly might be part of it. Well, then we were driving and walking around Sunday morning I saw, not one, but two big cruise ships in port – the Norwegian Pearl and Carnival Dream. That might just have been the tipping point – thousands of folks coming in early to get the party started before departing on Sunday. Maybe?)

Then about a week before the trip, I checked again – just to see. What I actually checked was the question, “Slidell as a base for New Orleans trip.”  Because hotels out there are of course much cheaper. The discussion I happened upon answered that initial question with a resounding NO DON’T DO IT, but buried in the various answers was the suggestion of a hotel – the Prytania Park Hotel – which, the person said, was reasonably priced and close in – just on the edge, between the Garden District and Downtown.

I checked the usual booking sites  – no vacancies listed for my dates. But then, just IMG_20180311_091502.jpgbecause I know that what is listed on the booking sites is their inventory that’s been released to them from a particular hotel – I went to the hotel’s website and checked. Vacancies! For a “junior suite” with two beds and on two levels.  For well under $200 a night. I emailed just to make sure, got a positive response, cancelled that Holiday Inn and booked this one directly with the hotel.

So there’s a lesson for you. Always check with the hotel (or airline, or whatever), even when it seems hopeless.

Isn’t it always the way, though. These innovative ways of doing life pop up – one place where you can check All The Prices! – but it never quite works out the way we think. In this particular case, the booking sites and hotels are vying for profits, with the hotels – especially independent hotels – in a real bind. They can’t survive if they’re not listed, but then those third party sites will take their cut. The hotels are helped by the review systems – to a point. They’re not helped if the third party sites don’t crack down on fraud and competitor sabotage and let unjustified poor reviews stand.

And so for us the consumer? How does it work out? There’s a certain level of convenience in these third party sites like Booking.com. It helps to get a broad survey of availability and an efficient way to look at room arrangements (particularly outside the US where there tends to be more variability), but be aware of two points:IMG_20180311_092001.jpg

First, what I’ve just described: the booking sites don’t have all of a hotel’s inventory available to them.

Secondly, if you end up having a problem after booking, resolution goes much more smoothly if you’ve booked with the hotel (or airline or car rental agency or tour agency) directly. Trying to get refunds and justice with the added layer of Orbitz or TripAdvisor or what have you is going to make things even more difficult than they already are.

Use them for research, sort of trust, and always verify.

Oh, and the Prytania Park Hotel? I liked it. It’s a bit shabby – it’s not a shiny chain hotel or a pristine boutique inn. But it was very clean and secure. Our room was, as advertised, a IMG_20180311_092047.jpg“junior suite” with two twin beds in a loft, and then a downstairs area with couch, chair, desk, desk chair, fridge, microwave, two sinks and bathroom area with tub and shower. And a balcony! The clientele seemed mixed, but mostly families and middle-aged to elderly folks. There was a breakfast, but it was clearly a step down from what you’d find in a Residence or Hampton Inn (i.e. frozen waffles instead of those you make yourself, no proteins, etc…).

There’s not a heap of street noise, although there was traffic outside – there must have a been a club nearby because Friday night, the bass was pretty consistent and loud until well after midnight – but strangely enough, it was much quieter on Saturday night.

Right across the street, there was an older fellow sitting outside on his front porch both mornings, reading. He resembled my father so strongly, it gave me a start: Same build, IMG_20180310_083457.jpgsitting exactly as my father would be reading in the morning if he were outside, legs crossed, with a hat like this on his head, holding and smoking his cigarette just so. I texted the photos to my older sons who both responded with many exclamation points and, in the case of one, the obvious conclusion that my father had faked his own death and escaped to live in seclusion in New Orleans….

And, here on a trip, with a longer one coming in a couple of weeks,  I thought of the conversation I had with him about this time nine years ago, when I told him, a little nervously, that I was going to take the crew to Sicily, of all places. Someplace completely different, somewhere just…away.  I couldn’t face the entire summer here. We had to leave town.  I braced myself, expecting an argument and an attempt to dissuade me. Sicily? But that’s not how it went, at all.

I think that’s great, he said without hesitating a second. It will do you all a lot of good. Go and have a wonderful time.

And so we went. And went. And went…and still go. We go, thanks, for a lot of different reasons – his encouragement, his financial legacy, his own regret at not traveling more earlier in life before it became physically challenging – to him.

 

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What a day!

Up at 6:30 am, over to 7 am Mass at one parish with my working-man-son, sent him off to work, dashed over to the Cathedral for a talk on sacred music from our wonderful Music Director, Bruce Ludwick, then back home to spend the entire rest of this rainy, chilly day..

BY MYSELF.

Yup. With one kid working and the other off to Atlanta on a friend’s birthday jaunt, I was..

BY MYSELF.

Did I mention that I was

BY MYSELF?

For an introvert homeschooling Mom, that’s about as good as it gets.

It can hardly get better.

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Even if you don’t think that is so terribly odd, what comes next might give you pause. You might indeed think it strange  that the cherry on this cake was not Netflix binging or watching movies or even reading a good book – it was…work.

I GOT TO WORK ALL DAY!

(With apologies to the Lord’s Day.)

And I didn’t mind a bit. My work is not hard at this point, but it does take chunks of time. I’ve been managing to get ‘er done in in the early mornings (really only by letting my homeschooler sleep until about 9:30 each day, which he does not mind) and in the evenings. This has worked find for one major project, but another has suffered a bit. The first project will be wrapping up in the next couple of weeks, but the second is ongoing to the beginning of 2019, and I was really feeling the need to gather my resources on that one and get myself organized so that I can work on it more efficiently, perhaps in 30-minute/day chunks. Freeing me up to work on the long-promised, freakin’ Guatemala e-book – which I am determined – determined – to finish and get to you before our next trip, which is coming at the end of March.

So that’s what I did. I banged out work for Project #1 that’s due this week and next – finished, edited, dusted off and invoiced – and got myself deeply organized for Project #2.

It was fantastic. 

And now, with a few more minutes before our very own Publix Employee returns for the evening, some random Sunday night thoughts:

  • My 13-year old and I attended one of the Alabama Symphony’s “Coffee Concerts” on Friday – this one featured Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I have to say, I am so impressed with this symphony and this conductor. Or, as they have branded themselves in typical friendly Southern fashion, “Your Alabama Symphony Orchestra!” The performance was vibrant, vivid and quite moving. Strong, delicate and urgent all at once, looking forward and backwards, east and west.
  • It didn’t hurt that this time, instead of seating us with all the other hordes of schoolkids in the balcony, they put is in the Orchestra seating with all the other old people (and other homeschoolers).
  • This is what we read in preparation, and we also watched a short video which I can’t locate at the moment – but know it was very helpful, especially in understanding the very last measures of the piece. Sorry.
  • Saturday was music – a piano festival competition thing – basketball – last game of the regular season, playoffs start Tuesday – and serving – Confirmation retreat Mass at Casa Maria Convent, led by Fr. Augustine Wetta, OSB, who is the author of this new book, which I am hoping to read soon. My son really appreciated what Fr. Wetta had to say during his homily – which is one of the reasons I have them serve over there at the convent. Every time they do, they are privileged to hear excellent homilies from either one of the local friars or the retreat master for the weekend. Religion Class: Check.
  • Over the past two weeks, homeschooling son has read Murder on the Orient Express as his “school” reading. (He’s reading the Dune trilogy as his leisure reading) It was his suggestion, and so we went with it, doing some background on the history of detective fiction and so on. After re-reading it, I’m thinking we could have done better – I probably should have had him read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None – but perhaps neither of those would have held up, either.
  • I haven’t read Christie in decades. As a teenager, mysteries were my gateways into adult fiction, my favorites being Christie, Ellery Queen and Rex Stout – the last being my absolute favorite. So I don’t think I’d read her in probably 40 years (so weird to think in that kind of time span when speaking of my own life), and no, I wasn’t impressed. She wasn’t a stylist, that’s for sure, and this book, in particular, plods along (Murder. Interview many people. Cogitate. Announce.) and the climax and denouement are, in my mind rather shocking (spoiler alert!) – as the murder is, we are led to infer, excusable since the murderers act as jury to do what institutional law enforcement did not.
  • We’re read a lot of books, stories and poems this year – this one will be last on the quality list. I’m not completely sorry we read it: we did some geography and history inspired by it and it’s good to read books of which you can be critical – so there’s that. Plus issues of justice and law, of course.
  • The 1974 film version was one of the last movies I remember seeing with my parents in the theater (along with Young Frankenstein and Being There – with, respectively, those super fun “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” and “I like to watch” scenes putting an end to that activity and any future potential awkwardness). We watched the trailer for that and last year’s version, both of which left my son saying, “Uh, I don’t think I want to watch either of those….”
  • What’s going on with school? We are indeed finishing up homeschooling 7th grade and finishing the 11th grade in a Catholic high school. Next year, everyone will be in school – 8th grade in a local Catholic school (because they do a very nice 8th grade year in this particular school and he has friends there…) and senior year in the same high school. And then….well who knows? Actually we do have a sense: the older one will go to college and the younger one and I will set out – God and good health and the stock market willing – on roadschooling/roamschooling/unschooling way of life for a while. We’ll keep the Birmingham homebase for a time, but will hopefully be able to see a good chunk of the world in between stints back here. But that’s more than a year away, and who knows what can happen between now and then? That “plan” is one more reason for him to return to school for a year – we can both have a breather, I can get some ducks in a row without having to think about teaching Algebra, and then…here we go….
  • Oh, I’m in Living Faith today – here’s the devotional. And if you missed it, I was also in another day last week – here it is.

 

 

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