Saturday, October 31, 2009

I'm in Paris

Leaving Alaska


I'm writing this in Paris. But my journey had quite a rocky start. Rewinding to last Tuesday evening: Three hours before my flight out of Homer to Anchorage I got a phone call from US Airways telling me that my flight out of Anchorage would be delayed by an hour and a half ! That meant I wasn't going to be able to catch my flight from NYC to Paris. I nearly flipped out! I was just doing the last minute chores around the cabin. I'd said good-bye to all and sundry, packed up my desk at Alaska Boats & Permits, had my farewell lunch with the boys, dinner at Lora's, and was practically out the door. And now at virtually the 11th hour, I find myself with no way to get to Paris except by purchasing a new ticket out of NYC for $3,000. I won't bore you with the sordid details of the desperate and sweaty 2 hours spent on the phone with Air France, Cheaptickets.com, and the insurance company. (Yep, I had purchased flight insurance. But never again. Useless, totally useless.)

Finally I got back to US Airways and somehow reached a sympathetic booking agent, Rhonda, who agreed it was US Airways' fault that I was getting screwed and that she would make it right. She went ahead and promptly, as if by magic, booked me on a Delta flight that was actually better than the one I had originally. For a long moment I sat there simply stunned at how easily she had solved my problem. After thanking her profusely she replied, "don't worry, we'll get you there in plenty of time." I'm saying it again now, Thank you, thank you, Rhonda whomever and wherever you are. I owe you a big one.

I missed my flight out of Heathrow because I thought my suitcase was lost. I spent an hour or so trying to locate it. Eventually the Delta baggage clerk in London told me he was pretty sure my bag had been sent on to Paris. Oh sure, I thought. But by that time it was too late to make my scheduled flight. And what with all the foul-ups already tossed my way I wasn't really in a trusting mood. The Air France desk clerk, after hearing my story, issued me a ticket on the next flight gratis. Another big thank you goes out to Bernadette in London. By the time I arrived at Chas de Gaulle airport in Paris I was sure my bag was hung up somewhere, New York probably, London possibly, but I certainly didn't expect it to be in Paris. After going through immigration I made my way to the baggage carousel of the flight I had been on. I spotted an Air France guy standing nearby and asked him where the claims office was located. Now get this: he asked for my name and when I replied he told me, Oh yes Mr Swarthout, (he mangled the name but ask me if I was offended), your bag will be here in 10 minutes on Carosel 40. And by god if it didn't appear there a few minutes later. It had come on a different flight but it was there! I quickly grabbed it. Waves of relief flooded through me. My luggage and I had miraculously arrived in Paris at practically the same moment.

With my trusty GPS and dragging my roller suitcase I navigated through the crowded streets from Gare de Lyon to Tea and Arnaud's apartment  on the Rue Trousseau, arriving about 6 pm Paris time. They had gone to the airport to meet me (another foul-up but this one was mine), so it took a bit of time to connect. I arranged to meet them at a little bar down the street from their place. I sat at an outdoor table afraid to go inside for fear I'd miss them when they showed up. All the while I sat there I was bathed in a continuous thick cloud of cigarette smoke. I'm suddenly convinced that nobody in Paris has read the Surgeon General's report. Don't they know how bad smoking cigarettes is? The joke was on me -- as it happens it's now illegal to smoke inside of public places in Paris, just like Anchorage, so all smokers sit outside. DOH! Eventually Tea and Arnaud arrived to rescue me. My long, arduous journey had come to a very welcome conclusion.

Stay tuned....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Nervous excitement

Okay, I'm finally confident that it's gonna happen. I'm going to fly out of Homer next Tuesday night, and I won't return until mid April. I'll have some great adventures in the coming weeks. I am getting so damn excited. And it's about time. I have the unfortunate habit of letting my nerves, my anxieties, get the better of me so it's nice to feel all positive before the trip.

There's much I want to say. For starters, my daughter-in-law Shannon had to have brain surgery a few days ago. She's okay for the moment. But what happened to her is of a very serious nature: she had to have a goddamn brain tumor removed! A biopsy is in process. If the results are negative, that will be totally awesome. If not, then even with a great prognosis from her docs and even if she is able to defeat some sort of as yet uncharacterized brain cancer, a long, cancer free life will no longer be something she can take for granted. Plus, Tuli and Shannon have a lovely 10 month old baby, Harper. Shannon's complete recovery is constantly on my mind as my departure nears.

I had a great time chatting with Tea on Skype the other tonight. Tea, pronounced TEE-ah, is short for Teahana. She's a diminutive and beautiful Fijian woman, and she's my Paris connection. We met at the Manta Ray Resort in Fiji last spring and after spending a few evenings with Tea and husband Arnaud we became friends. The reason for traveling to Europe in the first place is that I want to see where my grandmother was born. Tea and Arnaud's invitation to stay with them in Paris allowed me to start thinking about an extended tour in Europe, an otherwise expensive travel destination. Then through some Homer friends, Rebecca Reinhart and Sally Oberstein, I got hooked up with Couchsurfing.org and have for the past few months been exchanging emails with Couchsurfers who have offered to host me, in Berlin, in other parts of France, and in Poland. My grandmother left East Prussia in 1907. After two world wars her hometown is now in Poland and that's why I'm going there. I want to head up there fairly soon, before winter becomes all snowy and cold, and then get back south by way of Berlin and Amsterdam. Eventually I'll head to Turkey, or maybe Spain or Portugal, but someplace warmer for sure.

Such travel plans are, especially for me, very ambitious. I'm a homebody. I love nothing better than hanging around the house on the weekends playing tennis, reading, goofing around with my camera and computer. Being away from home and living out of a suitcase in foreign countries for a five month stretch will be challenging at times I know. I spent a month in Fiji last spring. It turned out just great in the end but there were times when I was forced to ask myself as I sat sweating profusely on my veranda, what the hell am I doing here? My well-traveled friend Jambo says those sorts of thoughts are common and that most long distance travelers have them.

I guess it's getting to be time to head to the office. I'm finishing up odds and ends and turning my "deals in progress" over to my partners. I'm going to stay connected to Alaska Boats & Permits for a while yet because it's a great business and my partners are totally awesome. I'll possibly work with them next spring for a while after I get back but I'm pretty sure I'm really retiring this time. We'll see.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"getting short"

The time is nearing for me to leave Homer and my excitement is increasing daily. I just got back from playing tennis and now, after a shower and the drive back to my chilly cabin, I'm wondering just how long it will take my hands to warm up. I've just turned the heater to high and eventually it'll get cozy in here. It's been another beautiful day, a gift really considering the lateness of the date, and I enjoyed it fully. And it appears that my goal of getting out of here without putting the studs on my car will be realized. As long as it doesn't snow next week I'll make it. Stay tuned...

Doug and I have been walking to lunch almost every day now that my time at Alaska Boats & Permits is getting short. I got a nasty surprise from my tax man a few days ago. I had to shell out an additional $3500 to cover my income taxes for last year. This after I'd already sent the IRS a check for $3000 this spring after realizing that last year had been a very good year, income-wise at least. I made more money in 2008, working part-time, than in any other year of my life. Nice. But because of that there are some nasty tax consequences to deal with. Anyway, because of the hit to my little travel nest egg I decided to work right up until the time I leave Homer. So it appears that I'll be walking to lunch with Doug all next week as well. We'll hit Maura's and Fat Olive's, The Mermaid, Latitude 59, and the Cosmic Kitchen, all great places to eat in a town chock full of cooking talent. We know the people who own the restaurants and wait the tables: Maura, and Jelena & Angie, Sean, and Wendell, Andy & Sally and Mike. And I'll soon be missing the best coffee in the world out at Michael's K-Bay Caffee. But mostly I'll miss the people who make the lattes and dopios at K-Bay, and the "cups of love" -- Andrea and Remy, Michael and Jared, Caressa and Andrea.

Okay, let's see now. I've got all this stuff laying around the cabin: my various power adapters and chargers, the wires and cables no geek can be without, chargers, batteries, extra memory chips for my camera and GPS, a supply of contact lenses, my GPS and the Europe Street Maps, my music collection loaded on the netbook, my Canon G10 camera, my headlamps, my clothing, books to read. I've decided to take my tennis racquet so I've got to somehow wedge that into my new "convertible" wheeler suitcase, a suitcase that can easily be turned into a backpack, my auto insurance is suspended, my satellite TV on hold, etc. Oh yeah, and I've got to get a package of summer stuff in the mail to Tuli in Oregon so that I don't have to carry summer AND winter clothes from the outset. When I head to Thailand I won't need all those layers of wool and polyester, or jackets, or long underwear.

And I guess today I'll have to admit to feeling a little bit blue as well. I have many friends in Homer. Good friends. Due to the length of time I'll be gone I know I'm going to miss people. While 2008 was a good year for Alaska Boats & Permits it was a bad year in other respects. Lora and I split up last fall after 10 years of marriage. It was a hard winter and a difficult Christmas season for both of us. I'm happy to say we're talking again and now that the separation is behind us, we seem to be working on rebuilding the friendship that began almost 30 years ago. She's been laid up with a knee injury and so I've been bringing her coffee every morning for the past week or so. We've been enjoying chatting and gossiping about our friends and life in Homer, sort of like we did in the old days. And it's been feeling really good. I'm thankful we can be friends again.

One of the questions facing me as I turn over in my mind the decision about whether to commit to writing this blog, and I'm sure it's a question faced by other bloggers, is exactly how truthful I want to be in the telling of what is, on the surface at least, only a travel story. I mean, should I reveal my fantasies, or for that matter, my insecurities and worries? I seem to have a need to talk to my friends about my life -- I typically reveal everything, almost. So, is this the way my blog should be? Maybe I should I try to keep it less personal but full of interesting snippets about Paris and Berlin? Or should it be more like a "slice-o-life" narrative, in particular, a slice of my own life? How real should I make it? Good question that.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Tennis

We had a couple of days of beautiful weather last week and I took advantage of them to play tennis. Anyone who knows me also knows that tennis is my passion. Family members who have seen me embrace other pursuits passionately were suspicious that this too would fade as the others did.
But it hasn't.
I continue to work on my tennis game and have improved each year. I work on my serve. I work on hitting ground strokes. Hell, I bought a ball machine a couple of years ago. It throws tennis balls at me with topspin or backspin so I can practice ground strokes in a more or less controlled environment. I want to be able to volley better than I do now. I want to be a better player than I am. At age 66, please understand I feel a sense of urgency around this. Hell, people are dropping dead all around me every day, many younger than me. My friend Doug says, "It's a good day when you wake up and realize that you're still pumpin' air."
Yep.

The other day I couldn't find anyone to play singles so I took a basketfull of balls up to the high school courts and hit serves for an hour or so on a beautiful, sunny October afternoon. The words of coach Jim Gorman echoed in my head as I practiced: words that describe how to hold the racquet, how to prepare for the striking of the ball, how to toss the ball. Every move is carefully scripted for these practice sessions but the goal is to eventually be able to hit my serves without thinking. The serve is comprised of a complicated set of smaller movements that are strung seamlessly together by a good player. And it's the only shot over which one has total control. These points replay in my mind over and over as I hit serve after serve. Now after weeks of practice those movements are beginning to feel normal, comfortable almost, and that's starting to result in an ability to hit some fairly good serves. Possessing a good serve encourages confidence in the rest of my game. And in tennis confidence is the name of the game.

As this note winds its way to conclusion I see that it's 8 o'clock in the evening. I'm in my little rented cabin up on Diamond Ridge Road writing in this blog, listening to Internet radio, and contemplating what's ahead. I look out at the darkening sky and wonder what it will feel like to be in Paris with 2 months of travel in Europe ahead. Mornings are gradually getting colder and what a skier might label "the promise of winter" is, to me, more like a threat as the days shorten. But I'm content. I won't have to endure the inactivity winter usually forces upon me. Not this year. It won't be summer in Europe when I'm there but regardless of the weather I'll soon be walking the streets of Paris, the streets of Berlin and Amsterdam, maybe the streets of Istanbul. I opened a fortune cookie in a strip-mall Chinese restaurant in Eugene last spring. It contained a fortune with these words: You will step on the soil of many countries in your lifetime. I liked hearing that then and I like it now. I liked it so much I stuck in in my wallet and have kept it with me. I want to make those words come true.