Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Russia, Ireland, a Proposal in Paris, More Murders, Childhood Homes … and Friends Along the Way – Our 2014

Like Facebook, the annual holiday letter presents the best possible fa├žade to the world, almost always positive, occasionally a serious negative such as an illness or passing of a loved one. FB and the holiday letter represent how we would prefer our friends and family think of us and what we’ve been doing.

Herewith, then, is how we spent the past year, not necessarily in chronological order.

We celebrated the first anniversary of our commitment ceremony in August, actually just a few weeks after we finally got around to the first phase of our honeymoon in idyllic Andorra. And Rick finally proposed to D-L at the Eiffel Tower.

  Professionally, Donna-Lane published three books:
  1. Murder on Insel Poel, her 9th novel and 5th in the Third Culture Kid series
  2. The Cockeyed Nipple, a book version of the blog she wrote during her breast cancer experience
  3. Lost and Found in Camden, a collaboration with 10 other women, each of whom contributed a short story, all of which thread together into a novel.
    D-L’s Murder in Ely has been accepted by Five Star publishing, and will be out in April 2015. She has just put the final polish on Murder in Schwyz (for which she visited a cookie factory in Sete as part of the research), and is well into Murder in Edinburgh (further research and cover photo trip soon required).
    There’s plenty more information about the novels at: http://donnalanenelson.com/.
She’ll have more time for writing novels and other creative endeavours, as she published the last issue of CU Newswire, a weekly newsletter plus website and twitter focused on credit unions and cooperatives, primarily in Canada but also other places around the world such as Ireland. She’d produced the newsletter for seven years, part of that with a partner, but now she’d prefer to spend more time on other things.

By the way, D-L’s blog (http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/) now averages more than 1,500 readers daily. Rick writes an occasional blog as well (http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.ch/).

Rick was asked in the spring to become editor of ICAO Journal; ICAO is the UN’s aviation agency. He was also named a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (FRAeS), the highest possible rank in one of the aviation community’s most respected organizations.

Oh, yes, we traveled some. First time for both of us to visit Russia, Saint Petersburg, and see the incredible palace / museums and cathedrals. As well as the ballet and Russian folk dancing.

At the end of the year, the rugged west coast of Ireland, dog-sitting for the lovable Rooby.

After the dog-sit, we were met in Dublin by D-L’s daughter, Llara, for a couple of days. Then we flew together to Barcelona, intending to spend the holidays together in Argeles.
To our shock and dismay, immigration authorities in Spain would not allow Llara into the country, based on an erroneous interpretation of a previous Swiss immigration action because she had stayed in Europe too long after earning her Master’s degree in HR in Scotland. Huge snafu, and extremely frustrating, but bottom line is Llara was sent back to Boston and we spent Christmas apart – though we all recovered, spending the holidays with respective friends. We intend to get the visa issue sorted out for the future. At least D-L and Llara got to spend a couple days together in Dublin.
In between Russia/Andorra/Paris and Ireland, our “nostalgia” tour of New York and New England, where D-L met Rick’s mother and brothers, and got to see where he grew up, then Long Island and Boston to visit friends of D-L and her daughter, Llara, and so Rick could see Donna-Lane’s childhood area; finally up to Montreal – through the spectacular fall colors of the New Hampshire mountains – for a major ICAO conference.

Rick also visited Texas a couple of times to see his daughter Alicia, hubby Bryan, and grandkiddos. Sawyer and Georgia Rose are both professional actors, and have been involved in multiple film, theatre, and TV commercial projects through the year. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sawyer-Bell/438742856181469; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Georgia-Rose-Bell/371196039694101)

While Rick was in the States in the spring, Donna-Lane and her Geneva housemate, J, went on an adventure to Malta for a few days.

In October, it was Germany (an Il Divo concert in Stuttgart), then Cologne, and finally Amsterdam, where D-L and Rick spent a week on a houseboat moored on a canal. Great fun!

Mixed in were multiple trips to Geneva; the walled city of Carcassone; Spain’s pottery capital Bisbal; the stunning mountains and lakes near Lucerne, plus Neuchatel and Motiers, where D-L first worked and lived in Switzerland; Toulouse; the grotto near Villefranche (Rick); a conference in Berlin (Rick) and a day business train trip to Marseilles for Rick, not knowing the next day Donna-Lane had planned a surprise birthday party for him at La Noisette in Argeles-sur-mer.

We missed the late November flash floods in Argeles, and fortunately our place and car were on high ground, but we feel bad nonetheless for those who lost their cars or suffered water/mud damage to their homes.

Knock on wood, neither of us had any serious health issues this year. However, we still mourn the unexpected sudden passing of Barbara, who had been Donna-Lane’s dear friend for 40 years on two continents. We were able to celebrate her life in a most ‘Barbara way’ – singing, talking, and dining with more than 100 friends from the village, as well as some of her family from the States. We also lost an Argeles neighbor to cancer and a sweet, 103-year-old woman.

Along the way we’ve met some new friends from Sweden, from Italy, and from elsewhere, and re-connected with longtime friends we don’t get to see nearly often enough.

This coming year, we don’t expect to travel nearly as much. (Ha) Yet, there are many places we still want to see and experience: Monaco, Liechtenstein, and San Marino as phases of our honeymoon; Scotland (especially the St Andrews Old Course); certainly Andorra again, this time as a writing retreat; maybe Dublin again as well, if we can find a house-sit; probably London a time or two or RAeS events; Montreal and the States, to be sure … but our strong preference is for more time at home in Argeles-sur-mer and Geneva.

The year started with Rick joining about 100 other hardy souls (nutcases?) for the now-traditional January 1st dip into the cold waters of the Med. Not planning to repeat: been there, got the certificate, etc.

To cap off the year, we received our official documents naming us as Baron and Baroness of the Sovereign Principality of Sealand (http://www.sealandgov.org/). We’ll try to remember to be beneficent to all the ‘little people.’

Finally, could we possibly forget Scooby Two? He’s traveled with us for most of our adventures, much to Petite Cougar’s chagrin. Sometimes Hunny Bunny and Herr Hare have snuck into our luggage was well. They are rather nice 'pets' to have – they don’t need to be fed or 'watered, and they’re quite amenable to pose for any photos we wish to take. At last, SD2 got to meet his father, Scooby Doo, in Boston.

Yes, we are both adults. No, we don’t ever plan to grow up.

Hope you have good health, good friends, and a wonderful 2015.

Baroness D-L and Baron Rick

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nightmare Before Christmas

I had started to attempt a clever take-off on the Clement Moore "Night Before Christmas" poem but the computer was too slow and I was too furious, so I'll give you the straight story without the tortured rhymes.

It was supposed to be a festive holiday week in Argeles-sur-mer, joined by Donna-Lane's daughter, Llara. Llara had flown in to meet us in Dublin, after our three-week house- and dog-sit in Westport, Ireland. The plan was to spend a couple days sightseeing in Dublin, then fly down to Barcelona, and train up to our home in the south of France in time for Christmas Eve with friends. Llara was going to stay a week.

She never made it to France. Never actually made it to Spain, in fact.

When we de-planed in Barcelona and attempted to pass through the customs station in the airport, Llara was not allowed through. There was some problem with her passport. (D-L has a detailed explanation on her blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ie/2014/12/the-christmas-from-hell.html). As punishment for "overstaying" in Europe after earning her Master's degree in Scotland, the Swiss authorities had apparently banned Llara from re-entering the EU until sometime in 2016 - two 'fecking' years, pardon my Irish.

Except, the Swiss had never notified Llara she couldn't enter any European state! (Technically, any Schengen state, which includes most EU countries plus Switzerland, but not the UK, Ireland, Scotland).

We obviously weren't aware of the ban when we planned her trip and booked her ticket.

I'll keep this short but in essence they held Llara in a detention room (ie, cell) from mid-morning Tuesday until midday Wednesday - more than 24 hours - without providing her any food, and not even a blanket for warmth. They told her they would put her on a flight to Dublin Tuesday night, then screwed that up so she missed the flight. Which also made her miss her planned flight the Wednesday morning from Dublin to Boston - for which we had paid hundreds of dollars to change her original return flight with United Airlines. The Spanish police also illegally used my credit card to book a flight on Ryanair to Dublin for Friday - (apparently because the card had been used to book her original Ryanair flight from Dublin into Barcelona) - a flight which Llara ended up not taking because they subsequently found a Barcelona-London-Boston flight in the meantime (which we ended up paying for as well).

Bottom line, Llara made it safely back to Boston late Christmas Eve.

Spanish customs / police: callous for ignoring common sense and common courtesy. Llara is obviously not a terrorist or criminal, and she had a return ticket. They couldn't let her spend a few days with her mother for Christmas?
Swiss customs: heartless and vindictive; she had paid a stiff fine for not being aware of the time allowed in the EU. They needed to bar her from coming back for two years? And never bothered to tell her?
D-L: frustrated and angry over the treatment of her daughter, saddened by a holiday turned sour. Relieved Llara made it back to Boston.
Cost: Over 2,000 euros for flight bookings, some never used, and cost of shipping a suitcase they wouldn't allow her to take because it "had touched Spanish soil."

We had already considered not using the Barcelona airport any more because of 1) the hassle of getting to and from there via multiple trains, and 2) the city's deserved reputation as a thieves' capital - for example, motorcyclists punctured our friends' car tire at a red light, then stole a purse and tried to steal their luggage as they changed the tire. I can promise you now we will never again set foot or spend money in Barcelona or Barcelona Airport again.

As it turns out, they should have let Llara in because D-L is a Swiss citizen, and a parent is allowed to have a kid visit them in Schengen. None of the narrow-minded bureaucrats involved seemed to be aware of that clause.

We are all now trying to return to "normal." Llara will spend the holiday with a friend, and we will see various friends who either live or have second homes in Argeles. It will be a memorable Christmas - just not quite for the reasons we'd expected.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lost Balls

14th green in the shadow of Croagh Patrick
I've long heard how wonderful the golf courses are in Ireland.

They were right.

Granted, my experience is limited to one course, Westport Golf Club, but if other courses on the Emerald Isle are as good, I can't wait to play more places around here.

From the road leading to the course, it didn't look all that special. Nice parkland layout in the valley. But once you go over the rise between the 11th green and 12th tee, the scenery changes dramatically. Holes 12-13-14-15-16 overlook Clew Bay and are overlooked by the famous Croagh Patrick mountain.
15th tee with the fairway across Clew Bay
The 15th hole is spectacular. The tee shot must cross an inlet of the Bay, then the long par-5 winds around the bay to a crowned, wind-swept green.

How'd I play? Well, I improved steadily through the round. On the first hole, I lost two golf balls. On the second, only lost one. On the third and thereafter, did not lose anymore. I tried to lose one ball four times on the 13th hole but I kept finding it in the trees. The ball I lost on No. 15, I think was stolen by a seagull - it was a good shot and should have been in the fairway. At least, that's my story, and there were no witnesses.
From the 18th fairway toward Croagh Patrick
After I hit my tee shot on the par-3 14th, I was wishing I had witnesses - it was going right for the flag, and I thought if I got a hole in one, how could I prove it? (I didn't)
Wasn't sure I was going to get to play at all, even though we are here for 3 1/2 weeks. It's been cold (between -2 and +9 C, or 30-45 F), rain most days, and winds as high as 100 k (60 mph). But when I walked the dog this morning, there was no wind, and there were hints of blue sky, so I decided to go for it. Layered up to keep warm, wore gloves in between shots. Enjoyed a mix of bright sunshine, multi-gray clouds, and yes the daily rain. Highlights of the day - nailed perfect tee shots on 17 and 18, and got to see a rare double rainbow.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


A decoration in a pub window
Not everything is wonderful every minute of every day, even though that's how things seem from most people's posts on Facebook.

I love Donna-Lane's phrase: "under-wonderful." It conveys disappointment without being nasty.

However, even when something does not fully meet expectations, it's possible to make the best of it and have a positive experience.

We drove down to Galway a couple days ago - destination: Christmas market, which a stranger in the Westport tea shop had heartily encouraged. The weather was highly cooperative, one of the few days recently with more sunshine than rain. Had a bit of difficulty navigating the twisting streets of inner city Galway, but managed to stumble on Eyre Square where the market was being staged and even found (D-L spotted) a parking spot on a nearby street.

The market was mostly food, a few crafts and winter hats/scarves, some stalls even peddling commercially packaged dolls, etc. The most interesting item had nothing to do with the holiday - the door to a former mansion from one of the town's founders (except the 2012 mayor's name was every bit as prominent on the plaque).
We saw another person taking stuffed animal "selfies"!

So we drifted down to the pedestrian shopping streets, where things improved: a couple of children's choirs, singing for charitable handouts, a donkey with two acrobatic dogs on his back, and plenty of guys holding advertising signs, one or two dressed in sorry-looking Santa costumes. (See D-L's blog for more - http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/12/a-few-hours-in-galway.html)

The pub grub was excellent, and I ordered a Hooker (a local craft beer), which Donna-Lane and I shared.
 On the drive to and fro, we saw plenty of sheep, which I'm sure outnumber people in these parts. Most of the sheep are "branded" with what looks like spray paint. We saw French sheep (red and blue on white), Swedish sheep (blue and yellow), and plenty of wet, dirty sheep who blithely munched grass as they got drenched. (Reminded me of voters in the US and UK who allow under-wonderful politicians and corporations to run things.)
View of Croagh Patrick from neigbour's driveway entrance
And yes, we saw another rainbow - we've seen one almost every day for the past week.

The next morning, there was even more snow on Croagh Patrick. What a mostly wonderful place to be staying for the month.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

We Found 'Wilson'!

Remember the Tom Hanks modern Robinson Crusoe movie, "Cast Away"? And his pet / companion volleyball, "Wilson"?


Hanks played a FedEx pilot who crashed in the South Pacific, and survived on the packages that washed ashore with him.

This morning, we discovered "Wilson" (or perhaps his cousin, O'Wilson), washed ashore on the west coast of Ireland. A long, long way from the South Pacific.

O'Wilson almost got away because the tide was starting to recede and when he was sitting on a vast expanse of smooth sand we didn't anticipate one of the huge breakwaters would reach out and sweep him back to sea. Fortunately, the next wave tossed O'Wilson into some rocks, and Donna-Lane was able to retrieve him.

Rooby took a liking to the ball, so we brought him home (the ball ... Rooby's a her).

D-L is also doing a dueling blog at: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/. 

Film at 6.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"That Was Fun," She Said

That's what SHE said.

"Fun" is not the F word that was coming to my mind.

Maybe Frozen. Or Frigid. Or Chilled to the Femur.

But walking against a 50-kmh wind as it's starting to sleet will never, in my dictionary, be described as "f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-un."

We were out for Rooby's evening walk, and did everything we could to minimize the effects of -6 C windchill, Tramantane-type winds (our Argeles friends will understand), and the imminent possibility of rain, sleet, hail, or flying sheep. Rather than walk down the hill (which would require walking back up again), we loaded Rooby into the boot and drove the short way down the hill to the "Park and Stride" lot. Instead of walking west, where there are plenty of open fields for the wind to blow, we walked east toward town where the old rail line "greenway" was pretty much carved out of rock, providing some protection.

Even at that, on the way back, walking against the wind, it was sometimes difficult to even make headway, especially with the "wind tunnel" effect of the ... er, tunnel that runs under the road near the skate park.

Hard to believe, but we actually saw a couple other people having "fun" out there - two women jogging.

Donna-Lane clearly likes cold weather more than I do. Which is not hard, since I don't like it except for photos of snow. She admits she wouldn't want "months and months" of near-freezing temperatures; I don't even like "minutes and minutes" of anything less than about 15 C (59 F).

I'm having "fun" now - inside the warm house with a space heater blowing on my feet and a cup of hot tea to drink (avec miel), which my fun-loving wife made for me as I was unloading the dog and toweling the "fun" off her fur.

In a little while, I'm going to have more fun, crawling under the bedcovers ... the warm, dry, non-windy bedcovers.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The World Needs More Tinkers and Tailors, Fewer Soldiers and Spies

Scooby Two met a tailor today. Or at least the life-size sculpture of a tailor. With real wire-rim glasses. We were at the Museum of Country Life in Turlough, not far from Castlebar, Ireland: http://www.museum.ie/en/list/turlough-park.aspx.

It was a gray, drizzly day, perfect for being indoors.

I've always found museums and history fascinating. I like to read the descriptions of the people depicted, the context of the times in which they lived, see the rather crude tools (at least by modern standards) they used to carve out their way of life. I'm always fascinated by the ingenuity with which they used the materials available in their surroundings for building homes, making clothing, feeding their families.

There was an especially interesting section on the uprisings that led to Irish independence from Great Britain in the early 20th century. The panels spoke of wealthy landowners accumulating all the land for themselves and suppressing the farmers, of the farmers forming organizations to fight for their rights and fairness, of the government trying to suppress the protesting people.

Sounded a lot like the United States and Great Britain today. In fact, when we entered, there was a TV with video of protests and police swinging billyclubs and throwing tear gas to quell the uprising. At first I thought it was live news of the protests in America over the killings of black men or boycotts of WalMart and fast-food joints for their paltry wages. But it was actually an historic Irish police-sponsored exhibit, and they seemed rather proud of the evolution of their suppression tools and tactics. We covered the entire permanent collection of the museum but opted to skip the temporary display which seemed to exult the police power.

Seems to me that my generation and the ones after in America and other western democracies have forgotten what it means to fight for freedom. We were born after WWII, when it looked like democratic societies might succumb to global dictatorship - indeed, some British leaders thought Hitler was a rather nice guy and hoped if they were nice to him he wouldn't invade them. The US tried to stay out of the war, but Pearl Harbor changed that (whether it was a Japanese idea or an FDR conspiracy, as some believe).

The American revolution - stimulated by government oppression - is only a section in the history books, and the brilliant Constitution crafted by the nation's founders is steadily eroded by the President, Congress, the NSA, the CIA, Wall Street, and others who manipulate the system for their own aggrandizement.

For the past 100+ years, America has been at near-constant war, whether boots on the ground or drones in the air. Have you ever asked whether it's as much about funding defense companies and less about spreading democracy? Now the "war" seems to be spilling into the "homeland" with militarized police states arming to squash any dissent, left or right, black or white or brown.

It's been often said that "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Whether it's suppression of Irish farmers or American workers, the government response seems to be the same regardless of century -- ignore them, make life difficult for them, cheat them, and if they dare speak up against injustice, smash their heads in so they know who's in control!

One interesting tactic of the Irish rebellion against the UK was to "burn the big houses" of the wealthy Brit landowners - not to harm the individuals but to drive them out of Ireland. Wonder if that's why the elite in the US are building the police forces? Perhaps they fear the protests will eventually turn against the wealthy puppet-masters who are pulling the strings?

I think Scooby Two would agree that the world needs more tailors, more people creating things to benefit other people, and fewer SWAT squads to intimidate the populace. As the Irish showed, the persistent people will prevail, no matter what brutal tactics the government may try. That's a lesson of history Americans should recognize!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bone on the Beach

Not the actual bone we found
"It looked like a femur."

Donna-Lane would be more likely to know than I would. After all, she's the one who writes murder mysteries.

We were walking along the beach when D-L picked up what she thought was a stick - intending to throw it for Rooby to fetch. It was about 2 feet long and definitely bony material rather than pulpy wood.

Was it animal? Or maybe human?

From where might it have washed up on the shore? Somewhere else in Ireland? Iceland, Canada, the United States? Or had it been buried on the beach and the tide had uncovered it? Maybe we should check the local missing persons report.

I thought it ironic that she should make such a discovery since her lead character and somewhat alter-ego, Annie, is the one who always stumbles across bodies in D-L's novels: Murder on Insel Poel, Murder in Caleb's Landing, Murder in Paris, etc.

Rooby chewed on the bone a bit, but as she does with sticks as well she soon grew tired of it and loped down the beach to climb on rocks and chase a bird.

More beach adventures in D-L's blog: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch/2014/12/rick-and-rooby-ruby-at-beach.html.

Info about D-L's murder mysteries at:  http://donnalanenelson.com/.