clip_image002.jpgIt was an overcast day in Hong Kong as my friend Mark and I boarded a double-decker bus with no destination in mind. We just wanted to see where it went – part of what became our theme of deviating from the group’s tour itinerary.

Both decks of the bus were so packed there was barely room to stand, as we rode away and ventured into the unknown.

With each stop, the crowd gradually thinned, and all of us standing now had a place to sit.

As we traveled on, we watched the Hong Kong skyline disappear beyond the horizon. The bus continued to empty out, until Mark and I were the last remaining passengers.

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wisandwichHave you ever tasted Limburger cheese?  So you think you're eating a pair of regular socks.  Then you realize you're eating your brother's socks. 

How did I come to enjoy this delight?  As it turns out, flights around the holidays to Costa Rican crunchy granola yoga ranches are unusually pricey when you attempt to book them a few weeks in advance.  Vacation #1 scrapped.  Vacation #2 born - depart home-base (Chicago) with my partner in crime and spend a few days enveloping ourselves in the beer and cheese of Wisconsin.

Day 1. Monroe, WI

In Monroe, I fell in love with an unattractive older swiss man, seduced by his cheese tour of the Roth Kase plant.  Did I know that parmesan sat in the salt brine for 2 weeks?  No, sir.  I didn't even know what a salt brine was before this tour.  I'd been consuming passionately but ignorantly for 30 years.  The tour group discussed and debated what gave cheese it's flavor -- the cultures!  the aging!  the milk!  the land!  whilst I peppered them with questions and succumbed to the brain tingles.

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wci_history_1.jpgYesterday I opened a “letter” from my mother; a perfect example of her eccentric idea of correspondence.  Bereft of card, signature, or, God forbid, “Dear Daughter”, the envelope contained 3 newspaper clippings – each annotated with her inimitable, looping script.  To the first clipping, a review cautioning that a new kid’s hardback called “The Graveyard Book” may be too dark for sensitive children, my mother had added “This sounds good!”  A study exploring the effects of the color red on both attention span and anxiety prompted this commentary: “You know I made all red things for your cradle and crib!  How to create an obsessive compulsive?”  And of course my personal favorite, an interview in which Nadya Suleman, the recent mother of octuplets, asserts that she wanted a family to help combat depression.  In this article the words “children” “cure” and “depression” have all been manically underlined.  Radiating a giant arrow, the newspaper’s indent points to my mother’s own thickly inked phrase: “What an idiot!”  She may not write much, but it sure reads loud and clear.

My mother’s attitude towards children and their rearing being what it is, she often chose the Wolf Creek Inn as the ultimate destination on the many and extensive road trips we took together.  Touted as “the oldest continuously operated hotel in the Pacific Northwest” by the State of Oregon’s recreation department, the Inn boasts perfectly articulated period décor, both a ball and dining room, and a magical, perfumed orchard.  It is also remote, haunted, and almost entirely unfit for children (read: no television).

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osloview.jpgMy mother phoned from Tjøme, the little island in the Oslo fjord that she calls home every June and July. She told me that the house was not too dusty, that the garden was overgrown but that a nice man was coming over to cut the lawn and trim the hedge so that she could see the ocean over it from her breakfast table. Of course, no-one had filled her fridge, so she had no milk, or tea, or bread, or jam. My aunt doesn't think of these things and I find it quite strange. I wonder if it is a cultural thing, or whether she doesn't think or whether she is just selfish. I wonder if my sister had made the long trip by boat and car all the way from England to spend six weeks with me on the island we grew up spending summers on since we were children, I could even imagine not greeting her with a full fridge and a vase of flowers on the table, a cup of tea, a glass of wine, a simple supper?

My mother can't walk very well but soldiers forth with her stick into the unknown and complains relatively little although I know she is often in pain. It is particularly cruel that someone so athletic would lose the proper use of her legs. She brings delicacies in her suitcases – food from Waitrose, eggs from the hens, wine, British tea bags – packed into her car for the long journey.

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london6.jpgIn our effort to downsize but continue to have fun, we scrambled together all our frequent flyer miles and managed to put together two return flights to London and Italy. Then, by making a small investment on a home exchange site, we found a young woman in Prato (twenty minutes from Florence), willing to do a non-simultaneous exchange with our desert house in Joshua Tree.

Our first stop was London, where a kind friend loaned us her house. Although I grew up in London I have not lived there in over 30 years. The minute I walked off the plane, I was surprised by the intense 80-degree heat, a byproduct of global warming, and something I had never encountered in my childhood, where you were lucky if it reached the mid 70’s in the summer.  After struggling with the new monetary denominations and a new subway system, I began to feel like a stranger in my hometown,

Yet, one area that has vastly improved since I lived in London is the food. But like everything else, it is very expensive. Fortunately, another ex-Brit friend had recently visited London and her sage advice was that bargains could be had at posh restaurants if you went at lunch, rather than dinner.  Following her recommendation, backed up by “Time out”– still the best magazine to tell you what is going on in London – I made reservations at Gauthier, a French restaurant in Soho.  

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