Our mind is a glorious thing; tricky, complicated, and untapped. We are born thinking that everything and anything is possible, but as we grow older, the world and people around us teach us to limit our hopes and dreams to the just barely attainable. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to one another? Why do parents tell their children that their dreams are unrealistic and/or silly? Is it jealousy? Resentment? If I can’t have it you can’t have it? Can we who are highly motivated overcome it?
Human beings are extremely complex creatures, making answering these questions near impossible. However, that’s not a bad thing; mystery, questioning, wondering — it’s all good. And the short answer to the last question, is a resounding yes.
The desires for oneself that I’m talking about here can be dreams, but they might also be what you are expecting to accomplish in your life; normal everyday expectations or big longterm plans.
To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go, to right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star. This is my quest, to follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest that my heart will be peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest. Joe Darion
Stretching Your Imagination
I’ve been working on this for a long time. I don’t have all the answers, but I thought it might be helpful to share some of the tools from my toolbox with you; oversimplified psychobabble, but an effective metaphor.
Write down what you hope to accomplish. When you put it on paper, you’re one step closer to reality.
Picture what you hope for in your mind. Repeat, rinse, repeat.
Tell people about your wishes. Be careful not to be pretentious or lofty.
Be inspired by what others have to say about goals and objectives.
Set goals and objections with no limitations. Add specific details for “how” and “when” later.
If you are a parent, tell your children that they can achieve anything they work hard to achieve.
Climb to the highest peak you can find (be alone or with someone who won’t mind your behavior). When you’ve reached the top scream what you want out loud several times. Listen to your own words and follow your heart.
Ignore the noise all around you — the “I wouldn’t do that if I were you nonsense.”
Staying power is everything, don’t let go no matter the obstacles.
Celebrate every hurdle.
Success in achieving your goals is a healthy elixir. Let it become a welcome habit.
I refuse to use the word manifest. We sometimes latch onto a word or phrase and allow it to become cliché.
I am aware that nothing that I share is new or something you haven’t heard before; however, I am also aware that a reminder is never a bad thing. Also, sometimes the same thing said differently, sticks.
I will be returning to Manchester & Liverpool, England April 5. Following that, a brief return to Nantes and Pornic, France. Then Marseilles in June, and Glasgow/Oban, Scotland in July. Dubai and four countries in Asia this October/November. Land and sea tour of South Africa, February 2024.
People sometimes ask me why I visit the places I travel to:
I have never been and have always wanted to go.
I have been and I enjoyed it so much I want to return. It’s usually the food that draws me in.
I am visiting a friend or family member(s).
I Had a DreamLast Night
Last night I had a dream that Paco (my pooch) and I went on vacation. The place we visited was dog friendly and they were in every household; most ran loose in the streets. There were many dogs who looked just like Paco. Briefly after arriving wherever it was that I was visiting, Paco somehow got loose and wandered off. Another dog that looked like Paco ended up at my door. I was extremely upset, but people kept telling me that I shouldn’t be upset because I had a small blond dog and that’s all that mattered. I wouldn’t and couldn’t let it go. I walked the streets shouting his name (Ruffino in my dream). I spotted a large pack of dogs running in another direction; Paco’s red harness stood out. I called out: “Ruffino come to daddy (I think his name was Ruffino because I’d been longing for good pizza all week).” He stopped and looked at me and then kept going. I managed to nab him. It was a bittersweet ending, I’m afraid. I woke up feeling that I was keeping Paco locked up in our home, when what he really wants is to be free with other dogs. That guilt only lasted a few minutes. Oh how the mind works.
Thank you for reading my ramblings.
Let’s Get Started!
I took this photo on a hike in Colorado recently. There were too many people around for me to scream out my hopes and dreams for the future; I did the next best thing, I screamed it in my head and you know what, it worked just as well. Limitations are made-up roadblocks we tear down or ignore.
A wise friend wrote to me about fear after I published my blog yesterday. Fear is probably the number one reason that people abandon their goals/dreams. I write about fear in an earlier blog. I also omitted money as a consideration. I’ve had some time to think about both of these obstacles and I like where I have rested on this. Anyone who knows me can tell you that fear is not usually a concern for me. Right or wrong, I often charge into situations without much consideration for whether or not I will fail or be hurt in the process of pursuit. As for the other, I was born in poverty. My family didn’t have much money and we didn’t talk about money as an obstacle to fulfilling life goals. I guess in retrospect that is a testament to both my parents. They instilled the, “If you want it, you should go for it attitude.” I still feel that way. Why not try and see what happens.
Positive intentions and thoughts equals positive outcomes; yes please.
I consider myself quite the fortunate one in many ways, but I got especially lucky when my baby sister Debbie came into the world.
Debbie at a year old, I was two
If you currently do not have a baby sister, I suggest you go and find one.
Debs as I affectionately call her, was born one year and 10 days after me. I can’t say I remember the day she was brought home, but I know for certain I was happy. I had two older sisters who were taking good care of me, but I needed a playmate and Debs fit the bill. I know most brothers and sisters have a unique bond, however, what made ours different was the hostile environment we were raised in and how we supported one another . . . and still do. Having one another as an anchor has served us well throughout our lives.
As a toddler, I enjoyed dolls and cooktop toys more than baseballs and bats; Debs had no problem sharing. She was easy going and doughy eyed. I think the thumb sucking calmed her down. She was teased a lot for it, especially by our mom. That part still makes me angry.
Our elementary school classrooms were next to one another for several years. I witnessed her teacher verbally abusing her and I told my mom about it. My mother was a lot of things I did not appreciate, but she was fiercely protective of her children. She went down to the school and reported the teacher and had my sister’s classroom changed. I was proud of her for that.
We were so close growing up that people would mistake us for fraternal twins. As her older brother, it was my responsibility to keep the boys away. Debs never resented me for it; she knew I wanted the best for her. She was shy during her teenage years and sensitive about all things personal. I loved the way she looked up to me.
I was in a very bad car accident when I was 18 years old. When my mom brought me home from hospital, Debbie walked into the house, saw me and wept hysterically. I believe she was imagining what it might have been like if she’d lost me. I sometimes wake up in a bad state from nightmares where something terrible happens to her; I guess we have similar fears of loss. Allow me to stress the happy times.
When she met her husband Lynn, she struck gold. The guy (pictured with sunglasses below) is a gosh darned saint. Together they had two beautiful children: Nicole and James. They’ve been nurturing and loving parents and they have always included Uncle Chris in all of their kids’ milestones. Nicole now has twins, Stella and Ben, and it’s been a joy to watch them grow. As a gay single man, having a family that I consider my own, is a true gift. It’s been fun observing my sister with her grandchildren; she’s affectionate and sweet. And her best quality, she’s always laughing.
Debbie, Lynn and my nephew James are very close. James is a career officer in the Air Force. James is also a talented musician; I suspect this is where his passion lies. Being an uncle is a privileged position in a family. It allows you to experience all the good bits without the inner family drama. I love my sister and her family dearly; however, this is often drama. My guess is that all of the trials and tribulations and relationship dynamics, add up to a very deep bond. As an outsider, that’s the part I don’t get to be a part of. That reality has it’s upside.
One Beautiful Memory
Debbie had just given birth to Nicole. It was her first and the whole family was excited. I had returned home from University to meet my new niece. I walked into my mother’s house and Debbie handed Nicole to me without saying a word. She was only days old and wrapped in a snuggly blanket. I brought her into another room to privately marvel at her beauty. I thought, this magnificent child is a part of me and she will be until I die. I must have had some insight into the roles Nicole and James would play in my life; how family is the most important thing we have and how the intimacy of family is everything.
[Subscribing is free folks! And not all of my blogs are sappy.]
Debbie and her husband Lynn came to see me in Portugal a few months ago; we had a blast. Appropriate “spicy” sign to her left.
Fort Lauderdale (Deerfield Beach) next week, then Nantes and Pornic, France, Liverpool, England, and Marseilles — Nantes and Pornic are happening on the same trip, over a four day period. Other holidays planned later in the year. Biggest trip of 2023 will be Dubai, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Hong Kong — end of October to mid-November.
I want to be clear that I’m writing this to set the record straight; not for recognition or because I have nothing better to do. Dogs have historically contributed more to humankind than we are given credit for; we all have a story. My name is Paco and I belong to Chris. I don’t like the “belong” verb, but it’s better than “owned by” or “property of.”
More than three years ago I was abandoned and left for dead in a wooded area in Estoi, Portugal. There is not much I can say about my former owners, except that they are pond scum who had no business taking me into their home in the first place. I had a chip that was never registered. I suspect my mother was a stray who either lived on the derelict property or wandered close to it by mistake when she was pregnant with me and my siblings. Some of this is me filling in the gaps — it was a difficult introduction to the world and I’ve blocked the bad bits out.
I’m four years old (that’s a guess) and I’ve survived a lifetime of trauma already. After being left to fend for myself in a place where rats, wild dogs, poisonous insects, and who knows what else, thrive; I kept myself alive and I’m ready to tell you how it all went down. Please don’t feel sorry for me, I’m a dog, having a survival instinct is my secret weapon. It’s a world where humans rule and some of us pets get to help make their lives more livable — our sole purpose. Where, how and when this pairing-up situation plays out, is purely random. We know this at birth, even before we learn to speak.
There are things about me that made it somewhat easier to be paired with a human: I am blond, my hair is as soft as cotton, I am tiny, and my eyes are soulful. I only know these things about myself because others have told me. I’ve heard stories of ugly dogs being put down because nobody wanted them. I knew I was not of that variety very early on — this explains why I prance when I walk. I know who I am.
Still, I was literally thrown into a dire situation and before I could even try to find my person, I had to survive despicable humans and the wrath of nature. I awoke before the sun one morning not long after I was cast out into the wild. Small parasites discovered I was a host without protection. They attached themselves to my body and left me defenseless against their harmful pathogens. As a result, I became weak and unable to hunt for food. I feared my mother and siblings were far away and the wooded brush was my only blanket. Days and weeks passed and I became quite delirious — a state I was grateful for . . . for obvious reasons.
Weeks after the start of my affliction, I wandered onto a dirt road; a shipping container used as a house in the distance. Although it was a cold and rainy December day, I could smell a dog who may have been guarding the property. I approached the container hoping I would be seen or smelled. Hours passed as I shivered in the storm, breathing what I was fairly certain were my final breaths. Nearby voices woke me from my stupor and warm hands scooped me up from the side of the road. Two humans gently lifted me up and carried me to their home. The dog I’d smelled earlier kept trying to attack, although he did not know I was not a threat. I was weak, wet, and tired, and these humans thankfully kept this dog away from me. They tried to feed me, but eating was impossible. My instincts told me that this illness had made it certain that I would perish. All I wanted was to sleep.
A night passed and the humans took me to a place they thought might help. I was starving, thin, weak, and my breathing was labored. A gentle woman examined me and told the couple that there were tests she could do to determine why I was dying. The kind humans had no money, therefore, the best they could do was take me home and hope for the best. In the meantime, they spread the word that they had found me hoping to locate my owner — that would never happen. Some humans view us as expendable.
It must have been difficult to keep that other dog away from me because the humans seemed anxious all the time. They also mentioned taking me to the doctor, but they didn’t have the means. Someone who lived nearby told them that there was a local American man on Facebook looking for a dog in need of a home. This person said that he couldn’t come to meet me for two weeks, but she seemed to think that he would want me and that he’d be able to take me to the doctor. Knowing that I might soon have a forever home made me feel a little better. I started to eat a little and I know that I slept most of the time. The Scots, I believe they were Scots, had named me Whisper and I thought that sounded sort of lame. Still, I knew that I should be grateful.
Time passed slowly and I started to believe that I might die before this man came to meet me. One day one of the Scots answered the phone and it was Chris, the American they’d heard about. They told me that he’d be there to meet me later that day. At least I think that’s what they said.
Indeed, a car pulled into the driveway and two tall men and a woman got out. They seemed excited to see me and each of them held me in their arms. They were nice humans. I knew which one was Chris right away, because when he held me tears ran down his face and he kissed me about twenty times. I was pretty grungy from living in the woods, so I was a bit embarrassed. Before they left me, Chris said he would be back for me and I believed him. The Scots seemed relieved and happy, so was I.
I’m not 100% certain this part is true, but I seem to recall that my first owners (the scum) spoke Portuguese. When I was rescued by the Scots on the road by their house, they spoke funny; it might have been English. I was grateful that they’d found me, but I couldn’t understand anything they said. Then when Chris came to get me, I was pretty certain he spoke English. His words in the beginning made him sound angry, but I later learned that he was from Brooklyn and I’ve overheard his friends tease him about that; apparently Italian Brooklyn men sometimes come off as gruff. He’s a big guy so he can be intimidating. It doesn’t really matter, I understand everything now.
Chris took me to a doctor the day he brought me home. Maria (vet) told him I had a serious viral infection and that because I was so weak and my red blood count low, I might not make it. She said I was about 11 months old. Maria said she would do what she could to make me well. Chris’ friend Michele removed all the matted parts of my coat and gave me a bath. Being that I was matted everywhere, she had to remove most of it, but I didn’t mind. I already knew I was one of the fortunate ones.
My dad is a good human for the most part. I think he travels way too much and he often seems to get upset about how slow things move in Portugal. I know that no human or animal for that matter, is perfect, so I forgive him. The other thing he does that I wish he wouldn’t do, is fool with this little cellular thing. He’s constantly pushing on it and is talking to it and it mumbles back to him. I think he may be more in love with that thing than he is me, but again, nobody’s perfect.
It’s been three years now. Early on we had this government enforced stay at home restriction called a lockdown and it was just Chris and I, all day every day, for a long time — this happened twice. I liked that time with Chris. We would go outside and the streets would be empty. There is a dog park near our apartment and we would go there to run around. Everything was still and it was peaceful. I hoped it would last forever, but it didn’t.
I’ve been deathly ill several times. Aside from that killer virus I had when they found me, I’ve had an operable tumor on my paw, bronchitis I caught from a stray that came close to ending me, and one time we even had to go to a hospital in the middle of the night because I was having trouble breathing. Chris cries whenever I’m very sick. I wish that I could tell him that I’ll be okay and that I’m not going anywhere. I don’t think I could ever leave our home; it’s warm, quiet, and has a lot of soft surfaces. I have a bowl full of toys I play with everyday. I eat really well and apparently the doctor says that even though I could have died from that tick bite in the woods, I am now 100% healthy.
Things can get a bit crazy on our street. Two weeks ago a dog that I used to play with, Loki, was attacked by a big dog who got loose from his owner. The dog broke Loki’s spine in several places and he died; the owner was bitten as well. Some dog’s instincts tell them to attack, I was born to comfort. I’m sad about Loki because I know his owner would have prevented the attack if he could. I know Chris would be very sad if that had happened to me; we’re both extra careful now. All animals, including humans, are unpredictable.
I have a friend, Patricia, who stays with me whenever Chris leaves town. She has a dog named Petucha; she’s like a sister (see photo below). Petucha lives across the street, so I get to see her a lot. I’m glad she doesn’t live with us, I like things just the way they are.
I think I might be the happiest dog alive. There are only two things I truly need in my life: treats and Chris, in that order. My dad tells me he loves me a lot; even though I can’t say the words, I let him know, in my own way, that I love him too. Blond and tiny or not, I know that I’m a pretty lucky dog. Lastly, Chris renamed me Paco the day he brought me home; my new name suits me just fine.
Friendships are a true gift, but they aren’t always easy and they should never be taken for granted. As with all relationships, you have to nurture them. I have three male friends I have known for a combined total of close to 100 years. These men are different in many ways; they do not know one another; I love all three for different reasons. When I spend time with each of them, I have a totally different experience.
I spoke with them separately about spending some bro time together; in two cases without their female spouses. They all three agreed to see me for quality time we may not have shared otherwise. All three have agreed to my public blog. My goal is to illustrate in words and pictures, how each person in our lives provides us with something unique and necessary — as necessary as the air we breathe.
No Two Friendships are Alike
I learned early in life, that friendship cannot be easily explained. A person may appear one day as if placed down by a divine hand and the next thing you know, you are the best of friends. What makes this connection different? Everything. Trust, security, loyalty, companionship, confidant, active listener, great dining partner, a shoulder to cry on, understanding, a history, strength, support, and so on. My friendships with these three men consist of all of the above and more. I thank them for sticking with me and by me; I congratulate myself for doing the work necessary to cultivate good friendships. I have other men and women in my life that I love and adore, but I limited this piece to Adam, David, and Don because they are the three I planned various parts of this trip with.
All three are exceptional men. I have never had more than a friendship with any of them. They have seen me through the best of times and the worst of times; I hope they feel the same way about me, I’m fairly certain they do. What I think makes this situation somewhat unique is several things: first, only one of them is gay, but our sexual orientation is not what binds us; second, the three only know of one another through me, and lastly, they each provide support and love in very different ways. I know how fortunate I am; however, laying it out helps me to understand why the work we put into relationships is worth the effort. I’m a firm believer that most of us take way too much for granted (including me).
I believe that most people would agree that men are vastly different from women in many ways. I’m being cautious here as to not offend either sex. For the purpose of this piece, I’d like to note my observations (not absolutes):
Men leave a great deal unsaid.
Men are a bit uneasy when discussing how they feel.
Men are fairly competitive with one another.
Men believe they are physically stronger than women, but there are times I would have to disagree.
When men are into a sports event, very few things can/do distract them.
Straight men are stubborn about asking for directions when lost.
Gay men are particularly nostalgic.
Gay men and straight men usually enjoy very different types of music.
When a straight man is forced to be with someone or do something they’d rather not do, you will live to regret it in one way or another.
Gay men talk about being gay, straight men do not talk about being straight.
Men, gay or straight, prefer to be behind the wheel, as opposed to sitting in the passenger seat.
I have never heard a straight man utter the words, “thread count.”
Gay men tend to care more about fabric, wall color, and furniture.
Straight men do not moisturize.
Don’t beat me up over my impressions and experiences.
Any fool knows men and women think differently at times, but the biggest difference is this: men forget, but never forgive; women forgive, but never forget. —Robert Jordan
All over the world when you test men and women for facial cue recognition, women test…better. It’s a negotiation tool. —Michael Gurian
Adam and Toronto were my first stop. I didn’t really give Adam a city choice; I was trying out a new direct flight from Faro to Toronto. I had only been to Toronto once and I have always wanted to return. I proposed a few days with me in Toronto and Adam said yes. I wasn’t surprised, we’ve been close friends for a long time.
I met Adam at the James Beard House in New York City in the 90s. We sat next to one another at a table of foodies; Adam was by far the foodiest. When he talks about food and wine his eyes sparkle and he becomes charmingly animated. I knew I could learn a lot from him. I invited him to L’Ecole at the French Culinary Institute and we became fast friends. He eventually asked me to be his Best Man. His wife is one of my favorite people and his children are two of the finest humans I know. Adam considers me part of his family and I am thrilled to have that distinguished place in his life. He is smart, worldly, empathetic, and he accepts me for who I am.
Adam is a planner. Being like minded about researching a place before you travel there is something we delight in. He sent me a long list of possible eateries and told me that each of them was negotiable save one. There was a restaurant he decided was a must and getting in during our time in Toronto was going to be challenging. I must confess that I never doubted his abilities for even a nano of a second. He got us in. Knowing it was a bit more than I would usually spend on a meal, he offered to treat. Adam is one of my most generous friends.
Rather than name specific places we visited or talk about dishes we ate, I’d rather share the dynamics of my relationship with this very special man.
I feel fortunate because not all straight men can get close to gay men. We all know why these limitations and challenges exist; therefore, I will spare you the psychology of all that. I will also point out that I am not easy to be friends with. I am demanding; I can be selfish; I often run my mouth endlessly and expect you to listen to every word I say; I can be controlling, fussy, and I sometimes lack empathy. So when someone (Adam) decides despite all of those obstacles and challenges, they still desire my company, I’m game.
Adam is a practicing Jew. I have had the pleasure of Passover meals with him and his family. I also attended his daughters Bar mitzvah (Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah refer to the Jewish coming of age ritual. The plural is b’nei mitzvah for both boys and mixed gender groups, or b’not mitzvah for girls. Wikipedia). Sharing Adams faith with him is something he may not know is very special for me. Although, I am not Jewish, I love how strong his faith is and how happy it makes him. In some way it probably shapes my trust in him as a human.
We share a love of food, art, theatre, travel, making memories, and life itself. If I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t sure about my friendship with Adam at first. God knows he was persistent and laser focused on forming a friendship. I’m pleased that neither of us gave up. Adam is a mensch.
Adam’s advice is always thoughtful and sound. I picked his brain a lot this trip. Someone I have known and loved for many years passed while I was in Toronto with Adam. The support and love he showed me as I grieved was much appreciated and a tribute to the friend and man he is.
I might also add that his wife is very special to me. It is not always the case that you love a friend’s partner; both Adam’s wife and Don’s wife give their husbands the space to be with me.
David and I met while sharing a house in The Pines on Fire Island. We ended up with bedrooms on the same floor with a shared bedroom inbetween. There were something like 11 other men involved in the share. David wasn’t anything like any of them. David was easy to talk with and real. Early on in our friendship we went for long walks on Fire Island and shared some of what frustrated us about our boyfriends at the time.
We participated in the share for several summers and spend time together during the other three seasons. We shared a very close friendship with a third man from the house who eventually died of complications from AIDS. David helped take care of Roger at the end of his life (he’s a saint) and always kept me in the loop. He called me shortly before Roger died to let me know it was time to say goodbye to him.
In many ways, David has taught me how to a gay man. It was David who instructed me on how to party safely. He accompanied me to many club events; he always made sure I was enjoying myself and made it home safely.
In addition to the many things we love doing together, we have one thing that we are polar opposites about; David loves opera and I hate it. He always had very expensive seats to the Met and once, I’m still not sure why, I accompanied him to see an opera. Once was more than enough. I love how passionate he is about opera, music, theatre and art. I asked in if he ever dreamed about being someone else or doing something else and he told me that he would have loved to have been a famous opera singer. You think you know someone.
David is a magnificent and talented artist. Several of his pieces have been shown in prestigious galleries and institutes. He is humble and creates in order to move people in some way — not in order to get rich from the sale of his work. He is a weaver; not shocking that the loom in his studio was larger than the bed I slept in. He is also painting these days. He’s his worst critic, but no doubt, he is good at everything he does.
Everything David owns in his beautiful apartment has been carefully curated. His taste is impeccable. I cannot say this about everyone I love, but David is someone whose home I could live in comfortably. It is surrounded by beautiful things; however, it remains cozy and comfortable. Oh and he is a wonderful cook; especially his Swedish dishes which come from several years of living and studying weaving there. He speaks Swedish too. I’m so pleased to have stayed with him. Now I can picture him in his studio. Now I can say that I have been to the homes of all three of these friends; they are all magnificent in different ways.
My conversations with David are usually very intense. We share just about everything and we share without judgment. As with most friendships, being friends doesn’t mean we are the same people. We are passionate about different things. What I think is unique about us, compared to Adam and Don, is our own stories of fighting to be ourselves as gay men. Our stories are different and similar, but they are ours to share with one another. Our conversations on these trip were no different. However, this time we talked more about quality of life, future plans, and end of life.
David visited me in Portugal and trusted me to plan his time with me. Except for insisting we spend no more than three hours in a car at a time, I did the same with him. He took me to Hanging Lake, Glenwood Springs, Maroon Bells, Aspen, and several excellent restaurants. I won’t lie, one of the hikes was quick challenging, but I have no regrets and I will remember the experience forever. He also threw a party for me and allowed me to invites other friends who live in Denver. I was also able to meet people in his life I have not met in the past.
I’ve known Don longer than my other two friends; we were roommates at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (44 years ago). Don is a very successful architect. When we were roommates he promised to design an underground house for me. While in Detroit, I asked him if he is still committed to design that house for me and he said he is. That’s all I needed to hear.
We chose Detroit because of its rich architecture and outstanding restaurants. Neither Don nor the reason for meeting there were disappointments. The city has rebounded from despair to beauty and culture at every turn — we were impressed. Cranbrook House & Gardens were a real trip. We took a side trip to Ann Arbor which was also fruitful.
Don was my best man when I married 40 years ago. He arrived at the church missing a sock and someone else from my wedding party had to run to a store to buy him socks. This is probably one of the things I love about Don. He is about as easy going as a human can be. I checked this fact with him on this trip:
Don, have we ever had words?
No, I’m pretty sure we haven’t.
That’s pretty crazy considering how difficult I can be.
Don and I have long periods of silence when we are together, no matter where we might be. The silence is about respect and comfort. There is no concern about what might be unsaid. When Don says he wants to see a building, I want to see that building. When I say I want to eat Italian, Don is fine with Italian. The ease of our choices is delightful.
I learned something shocking about Don on this trip: he has never been to a nightclub. This blows me away on so many levels. He believes in God and doesn’t shove religion down my throat. He speaks fondly and respectfully of his incredible wife and two amazing daughters. I listen with awe and delight, having been in his life for all of the milestones and disappointments.
I cannot say that I got closer to these three men on this trip, because I’m not sure we can be any closer. I feel privileged and blessed to have had the time to be with them and I’m pleased that they made the time to be with me. True friendship is a gift that keeps on giving and these three friendships are more than I could ever hope for.
The three cities we spent time in matched our personalities in a way. Toronto is intelligent as is Adam. Denver is filled with natural beauty and light, not unlike David. Detroit offered a rich history; Don as my oldest friend knows a whole lot about that.
I realized on this trip that all three men love to walk, love to eat, love film, love to talk, love their friends and family, love to read, and truly love life. These are the things that bind us together.
An Old Friend I Haven’t Seen
I met Gina over 15 years ago at an accreditation conference. We hit it off instantly and we’ve never lost touch. I had breakfast with her and in Denver. It was as if no time at all had gone by.
My three times cancelled cruise (COVID) to northern Europe is coming up in just a week. I’m sad about just getting home to see and spend time with Paco and then having to leave him again. I know he loves his sitter, but I like to think he’d prefer to have me at home. When I return from the cruise I intend to stay put for a few weeks. The timing of the cruise is not ideal, however, there is nothing I can do to change NCL dates.
Lyon, France with friends in November and a few trips planned for 2023.
My Paco (right) and his best friend Petucha, while I was away
I apologize for spelling or grammar mistakes. I’m not in the mood to reread this blog.
Not to worry, not checking out anytime soon, just reminding myself how fragile life can be. The last thing I want to do is hurt anyone; therefore, I think it’s best for me to respond in the abstract and not name names.What if you knew that you were going to die and you had 24 hours or less left to live? Would you want to be surrounded by those you love? Would you run away and hide from everyone? Would you tell people you cared about? Would you share things you have been holding back? Would you look back at memories? Would you end your life sooner in order to control the situation?These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when considering just how finite life is. And by the way, the questions come up occasionally, not every day. There are statistics that guide us when we consider our lifespan. There are formulas based on how long your parents lived. Then there are calculations based on lifestyle. Genetics sometimes come into play. However, an accident may make all of those theories insignificant and irrelevant.I had a pretty bad accident a couple of years ago that made me question life, death, and how I feel about both. Up until the accident I was fairly certain that I would grow old and cranky. If I’m going to be honest, I have to say I’m well on my way.I attended a dinner party a few days ago and raised my blog topic for this week. It’s interesting to hear what people have to say in a relaxed social setting. I don’t usually share my own thoughts until after I’ve heard from others. As with any difficult subject, some people prefer to avoid the matter altogether and this time was no different. One of the things I love about people is how very unique we all are. It’s for this reason that I try my best not to judge. Our prospective can be polar opposite based on things like upbringing, religious beliefs, the truth we hold on to, and so forth. I would be untruthful if I didn’t admit to feeling strongly about my own beliefs; the power of personal conviction is essential for many reasons. Keeping that in mind, I don’t claim to be right, but I do think that what I am espousing is true for me; sometimes, that’s all that truly matters.I posed the question to a small group of people sitting at the table after lunch:If you knew you had 24 hours or less to live, what would you do? The answers I got were interesting and understandable:”I wouldn’t change anything; I’d want it to be a normal day.””I wouldn’t tell anyone because all they would do is cry and pity me.””I would be with a very small group of people I love very much.””I wouldn’t do very much because I would want time to slow down. When you do a lot of things, time speeds up.””I might consider ending my life sooner — when I decided it should end.””I would have a couple of conversations I have been avoiding.””Why, do you know something I don’t know?”The thing is, do we truly know how we would behave until we are actually in a particular life altering situation? I could easily say I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was going to die, but in truth, if I knew it was the end and I became extremely emotional or scared, I might need to tell or want to tell someone.What follows are some thoughts on why we live our lives as if there is no expiration date:I love this poignant comic included in Brian Lee’s piece on living life as if we’re never going to die at Lifehack. Check out www.zenpencils.com.
We are complex creatures with hopes, fears, frailties and misgivings. Our highly developed brains allow us to tuck away thoughts and focus on things that make us feel good; I should note that some of us are better at this than others. We often behave as if our daily actions do not have consequences for the future. Vices and health related toxins are often imbibed or eaten without concern for longevity. It’s a curious human occurrence considering that most of us would like to grow old. So what drives us to recklessness? It’s as if there is a little switch in our brains that we choose to turn off when desire overpowers restraint.It is no accident that the precise timing of our death is unknown. Imagine the chaos and emotional instability that would ensue. I think that animals have a better sense of death and what it means than we do and, therefore, have better dying coping skills. I’ve been with several dogs at the end of their lives and the sense of peace and acceptance I felt from these animals was both life affirming and beautiful. We live and we die and that is the true miracle of life.As I consider complicated mechanisms for denial and delusion, it once again brings me to how I might deal with knowing when my own demise is just around the corner. Here are some thoughts that come to mind (not necessarily in order of importance):
There is no doubt in my mind that I would want to truly enjoy the wonders of the earth. The sunrise and sunset continue to amaze me and I take both in as often as possible. The smell of flowers and the feel of earth between my fingers, gives me great pleasure. I can only imagine that knowing these wonders would no longer be accessible would heighten my desire to experience them.The people in my life who have shown me love and devotion would be on my mind at the end; I would hope that these cherished few would be nearby. I would want to let them know how much I love and appreciate them. I still do not know that I would share the inevitability of my passing. We all know that we should be showing our love and appreciation often, not waiting until we are sick or dying.I have loved food since I could smell my dad’s pizza in the oven when I was a wee toddler. My relationship with good food has never waivered and I hope I remain true to my passion until the day I die. I have been reading research about taste buds and how our sense of taste diminishes with age. I refuse to believe that this applies to me. My father and aunts and uncles on my father’s side, all enjoyed savory dishes well into their 80s. If I knew that my death was near, I would want to devour my favorite foods: shellfish, pasta and cake and a nice red of course. I know that knowing it was almost over would probably have an effect on my appetite; however, knowing how I sometimes eat and drink to feel better, I imagine I’d be hungry and thirsty. A very expensive armagnac would be a must have. Being present and cherishing every moment of what life I have left, would likely be my mode of thinking and feeling. I have never feared death, therefore, I’m fairly certain I would be at peace with it.I would want to be comfortable; the right temperature, the right place, and the right people around me. I would probably want to be on a good dose of xanax.
I have had many people in my life pass: my grandparents (three before I was even born), my parents, several siblings, close friends, teachers, co-workers and acquaintances. My mother’s brother died of a massive heart attack in his 50’s; how could I not consider the possibility of dying at anytime? Personally, I don’t find this morbid or sad.
Long ago I decided that if I had a fatal illness, I would travel (if I could) to a place where you could choose to die with dignity. If this were to happen, I would have an opportunity to decide how I would spend my final hours; all of this provides great comfort. I am not obsessed with dying, I am focused on living and making sure my quality of life is the best it can be.
The purpose of this blog is twofold. First, it is my hope that it will get you thinking about how you live your daily life; what are your priorities and do you consider and cherish the people and things that bring you the greatest happiness. Second, it is my belief that we as individuals have the power to change the course and direction of our lives. I felt stuck, misguided and unhappy in Maine. It wasn’t so much the place or the people, but an environment that was too comfortable and unchallenging. I moved to Europe in order to reboot, recharge, and start afresh. It’s not right for everyone, but it has taught me more about myself than I anticipated. Self-discovery and change can be as exciting as a new relationship; driving gleefully into the future with renewed hopes and dreams. Fear is what usually holds us back. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of death. Put all of your fears aside and go for it. The unknown can be a wonderful and rewarding future. Focus on the image of a door opening to a paradise you never imagined existed; more often than not, we have the ability to manifest our dreams. I choose to manifest those dreams while I am still alive.
Going to Nantes, France Wednesday. There is a heatwave in this part of the world and the Airbnb I booked way back is not air conditioned. The owner claims it stays cool in the apartment, but I’m not convinced. I have booked a hotel room just in case. Pornic will be cooler (second half of trip) by the time I arrive there, so I think I’ll be okay. Fact is I don’t sleep well in extreme temperatures.
More travel after this trip — my next blog will include an update.
I personally know a few people who have lived in the same house or apartment for over 40 years. I admire their staying power, but I cannot relate. I have moved no less than 15 times in the last 30 years. I’ve relocated so many times that my friends and family do not trust the address they have in their contacts.
I don’t know why I am this way. I can only guess based on my thoughts, however, messages come in and out of my brain quickly and most don’t stick around very long. I relocated to Faro 4.5 years ago and I haven’t budged (meaning I haven’t moved). In all fairness, we did have a two year pandemic and I am living in a foreign country where moving is complicated. I don’t consider myself impulsive, but recent frustration over a condominium issue has me wondering.
A brief disclaimer: I have a bit of reticence in regards to writing about my living situation. Because I know I have an awesome life, I fear people will think I’m boasting. I have two thoughts about this: first, anyone who believes that to be true doesn’t know me or my intentions, and second, if you believe that, I prefer you to leave now – – do not read any further. This is the way I work out some of my internal battles; many people have told me they find it a useful tool. Anything I have achieved in my life I did on my own; I hardly need validation.
Here’s what I have decided to do: I am going to note all the pros and cons and make a decision based on the weight of either side. I’m completing this exercise on my blog for those of you who struggle with a similar affliction, that of inner conflicts based on little or no facts.
Some Background and Generalizations About Faro
Faro is part of the Algarve and the Algarve is known for its incredible, unbeatable, beyond fantastic . . . weather. It’s sunny over 300 days a years, winter temperatures are moderate compared with many other parts of the world, summers are hot and dry, and fall and spring are glorious. Our trees bloom year round and I do not own a winter coat (not true, I just bought one for a fall cruise to northern Europe). There is a regular breeze off of the Ria Formosa and Atlantic Ocean. And if you’re already wondering why I would leave this slice of paradise, hang tight.
Faro is the capital of the Algarve. We have an international airport (10 minutes from my place), a train that takes you north to Lisbon, Porto, and many other cities, and a regional train that takes you to the border of Spain to the east and to Lagos, west. Faro is a working city — of course there are wealthy people living in Faro, but is is mostly middle class Portuguese people. Faro has a small population of expats and it is surprisingly diverse. Tourism is the number one source of income for most people working here. If I get any of this wrong, my Portuguese/Faro friends will set me straight.
There are restaurants throughout Faro, however, a majority of these eateries are traditional Portuguese restaurants — Portuguese people love Portuguese food; probably true for most cultural groups. In recent years, ethnic restaurants are popping up all over the city: Japanese, Indian, Chinese, Nepalese, Italian; the food scene seems to becoming more sophisticated and varied. You don’t have to go far to encounter other types of international food in nearby cities. For example, there is a Korean restaurant in Alvor that I am crazy about; Alvor is about an hour away by public transportation and Vilamoura to my west, has three Thai restaurants.
The Algarve is in the southernmost part of Portugal; therefore, miles and miles of spectacular beaches line the coast. Faro has a beautiful, long stretch of flat beach you can get to by ferry, bus or car — I prefer to go by ferry. There are many seafood restaurants at the beach and most of them are quite good. Other flat beaches or beaches with spectacular rock formations, are east and west of Faro and can be reached quickly and easily. Off-season is the best time to go: mid-September to mid-to-late June. The tourist season has been expanding in recent years; great for the economy and the locals working in tourism or hospitality.
It’s not the Algarve I am considering leaving, it’s Faro. I told you I’d outline the pros and cons, so you’ll have to wait.
There are some things about the Algarve and Portugal that are typical or pervasive. There is no point outlining those because I’m only considering a move away from Faro. When you do this kind of exercise you have to narrow down your objectives. If I were to move, it would be to another city/town within a 50 mile radius.
Pros to Living in Faro
Airport nearby (great if you travel a lot)
Excellent medical and dental care (great vet as well)
Restaurants are plentiful and open year-round
I have made some very nice friends in Faro; friends for life in fact
The Ria Formosa
Easy walking city
The capital of the Algarve where all the main government offices are located
My street is wide and full of beautiful foliage
One does not need a car (a decent city mini-bus system)
Great food stores and shopping
Close to several beautiful towns
The marina/downtown area has a lot to offer
A very small expat community (I cannot get a poker game together — the only downside). I prefer authenticity.
The city is growing and adding amenities
A large indoor produce/fish market and a Sunday outdoor market
Cons to Living in Faro
My condo neighbors do not want to spend money to beautify the building — some of these individuals can afford it (I’m making an assumption).
It’s a nice city, but it’s not a beautiful city
A very small expat community
The Ria Formosa is in front of the ocean; therefore, you do not have a direct view of the sea — true throughout Faro unless you live at the beach (not my scene).
Only one good Italian restaurant. This is a significant con.
Many of the friends I spend time with live in Tavira. Most of them do come to Faro to see me.
There is a growing number of teenagers who have removed the mufflers on their motorbikes. They ride up and down my street revving their engines and the police do nothing. I jump 10 feet in the air everytime it happens. I feel old typing this.
It is a city filled with cigarette smokers. They fill outdoor cafés making it impossible to enjoy outdoor dining (a European problem).
You might look at these lists and say, “Ah, first world problems,” and that would indeed be true. Keep in mind that we all have to keep our lives together and that searching for happiness is a human condition.
If I do move, it would only be where I have a direct sea view.
I have an idea that might help resolve the condo issue, however, I’m not hopeful that it will fly. One of the things that frustrates me about Portugal is that you often float an idea and get back this reply, “We don’t do that here.” or “That wouldn’t work here.” Sometimes you words are met with silence or a shrug; not easy for this problem solver/fixer.
I’m not expecting anyone to have the answers; however, if you’re so inclined, please let me know what you think.
Alvor, Portugal, end of July, Nantes and Pornic in mid-August, Toronto, Denver, and Detroit in mid-September, Northern Europe NCL cruise in early October, with some time in London for West End Theatre, Lyon in late November and I’ve decided to stay put in Portugal for Christmas.
Guns kill, children giggle and hide
Bullets wound, children inspire
Rounds of ammunition in their still growing ears
Laughter, hope and lives shattered
How dare we righteously protect the right to own a gun
Disregard souls alive with innocence
How dare we ignore the pain of the unimaginable
Powerful gun owners; sanctimonious and pious
Do you hear the children's voices
Do you hear their cries of pain
Are you so broken that you cannot hear them
Can your head rest so easily on their tiny coffins
Stop and listen to the silence
What you cannot hear is a life cut short
If numbness and the absence of empathy prevail
We will weep tears of blood forevermore
Gun laws, politics and righteous indignation:
Gun lobbyists, bought politicians and second amendment rights demonstrators; all evil forces at work as we mourn innocent lives lost. I am so angry at humankind; I wretch and squeeze my fists with rage. Tell me what to do and I will do it.
When you live in a place where they speak a different language and the customs are not what your accustomed to, you cannot help but ponder on how you fit in. The truth is that I have never fit in. Family, school, neighborhood, work, social gatherings — you name it, I was out-of-place; sometimes I still am. Mind you, it wasn’t always people who made me feel this way; it was mostly my own voice telling me I didn’t belong.
So when I decided to move to Portugal, for many who know me well, the first question was: how will you be able to live in a foreign country? Having rehearsed for this move my entire life, my answer was: oh that’s the easy part.
In the past, I have mostly written about logistics and concrete matters related to my move abroad; today I want to write about how it feels to be an American overseas. First allow me to describe the setting.
[Covering an area of 4,997 km (3,105 miles), Algarve is home to 438,406 permanent residents. According to statistics from Pordata, 10 percent of the population is expats.] It is my understanding that about 11 percent of the Portugal expat population is American. I would say that this figure is far smaller in the Algarve. If you break it down, the number of Americans living in Faro is actually quite small.
The Algarve (the region of Portugal where I reside), is the southernmost part of Portugal. It is a tourist destination for many Europeans seeking predictably good weather, an affordable holiday, outdoor activity, and a safe place to hang your hat. My earlier blogs will tell you why I chose Portugal and Faro; I’ll spare you those details here.
People who look and sound like me are difficult to find in Faro. I workout at a large gym and I am one of two Americans. The other, Al, is also from Brooklyn, but he has lived in Portugal for a long time. It took several years of walking by him at the gym before I learned that he was from Carroll Gardens, a neighborhood not far from my own. Al’s a big guy who is probably a teddy bear, but he looks like someone you wouldn’t want to make angry. I think I look that way when I’m not smiling.
My apartment building is entirely Portuguese and the restaurants I tend to eat in are patronized by a majority of Portuguese people. I’m simply stating fact, no judgment.
Having described feeling out-of-place my entire life, you would think I might feel that way in the Algarve, but I don’t. I feel welcomed, accepted, and like I belong. I’m sure most of these feelings reside in my head and are not based on reality, but does that really matter? I could get all philosophical about what is real and what is made up in our imagination, but I don’t want to scare you.
Thoughts that Swirl and Machinate
These days, I feel as if I’m living outside of myself. I’m like a voyeur watching this old guy navigate a life he cannot quite believe he is living. It’s fascinating for me to watch him fumble. I’m not concerned that you’ll think me mad, because I am certain most people feel this way from time-to-time. Who am I? Where do I belong? How do I fit in? If you’re human, you frequently consciously or unconsciously, ask yourself these questions.
So why do I feel so much at home in Portugal? I will refrain from creating a list and instead, try to describe my dominant feelings. But first . . .
An aside: I flew into Bordeaux because EasyJet cancelled my flight directly into Toulouse and I rebooked on RyanAir to Toulouse which is two hours away. I like the train system in most of Europe, so I figured I’d spend a couple of days in Bordeaux and five days in Toulouse; a city I have come to love. I literally just missed my train from Bordeaux to Toulouse because I booked the wrong time and didn’t notice it on the ticket until I was on the bus to the train station. I jumped off the bus to call an Uber. It was sort of like a scene in a film . . . me leaning into the front seat asking the driver to please try and get me to the station quickly, but unfortunately traffic and slow drivers made it impossible. I tried to book a ticket for the next train, but it’s full so I’m stuck in Bordeaux — not a bad place to be stuck — a 5 hour wait I’m afraid. When I booked this trip, I was unaware that it was Easter week. What do they say about breathing or that things happen the way they’re supposed to? I’ll blog and people watch and eat and answer emails and people watch and sulk. I get to sulk just a little. It was a stupid mistake. This too shall pass . . .
I saw this restaurant in Bordeaux on-line while I was waiting for my train. I took a shot at a reservation and they had one seat left (sometimes traveling alone has its advantages). I sort of thought they were lying until I sat down and people started flooding in. I ended up having one of the best sirloin steaks of my life. I almost went all out for a 50 Euro dry aged T-Bone, but I held back having had already incurred extra expenses from missing my 10:28. A nice Medoc and some potatoes au gratin . . . yada, yada, yada. All that for 25 Euros; now I understand why they were all booked-up.
BDX Café is attached to a stylish boutique hotel near the Gare St. Jean in Bordeaux. I’m killing time here while I wait several hours for my train to Toulouse. The homemade chocolate cake with fresh whip cream is divine and I’m sipping a Kressmann’s Blanc Grande Reserve while I type away on my fully charged laptop (multiple outlets at my feet).
I met a very nice young lady on the train who helped me pass the time and gave me a good restaurant recommendation. She was smart, very pretty, and delightful. I suppose I was meant to meet her. I hated saying goodbye at the station. People come and go so quickly here (movie reference; know which one?).
Back to the Main Reason for this Blog
Let’s return to why I feel so good about my life in Portugal. First and foremost, removing myself from a place where I wasn’t very happy, was a tremendous boost to my spirits and self-esteem. I took life by the balls so to speak. When you enter into a situation knowing that the change could and hopefully will improve your life, it gives you hope and the drive to push forward.
I found myself and Giorgio (my pooch at the time) in the position to reinvent myself. I wanted to relax more, care less about what others thought, embrace the European lifestyle, travel, and most importantly, take better care of myself — eat better, sleep more, have regular check-ups, and leave the world of answering to others behind.
It didn’t hurt that I found myself a place overlooking the Ria Formosa and Atlantic Ocean. When the high school is not holding classes, it’s peaceful and perfect and when the students are there it’s youthful and nerve-racking. I think it’s good to have the former to look forward to.
I am a man of many hobbies (e.g., cooking, reading, gardening, writing, film watching, home decorating, learning Portuguese, and keeping up with friends); therefore, I am never bored or at a loss for projects. You’ve heard retirees say, “How did I have time to work?” — that’s me.
I’m close to a large market for fresh fish and beautiful groceries (French owned with many French products), an open air farmers market on Sundays, two Lidl’s, an Aldi’s, many restaurants, numerous good coffee shops (latté one Euro everywhere — café com leite), several closed-to-traffic shopping streets with great stores for clothing, etc. a mall, a multi-screen cinema, a jazz club, great pet shops, good doctors, a wonderful vet, several rooftop bars with magnificent views, and parks everywhere. There is a big park next across from my apartment; it’s being totally renovated and I’m excited to see how it turns out — I liked how rustic it was before they started.
Now I’m certain you will read what I just wrote and think, “No wonder he loves Faro,” and you’d be right. But for some reason expats have stigmatized Faro as a town you only go to for the airport and train station. Whenever I have an expat friend over from another town, they make a comment about how they’d misjudged Faro. Some say, “I could live here.” I don’t really need the validation, but it’s nice to hear that others think I made a good choice. A friend from Manhattan recently purchased in Faro. She is a person of great taste and doesn’t decide anything lightly. This has been not only gratifying for me, but also validates my decision to settle here.
Odd as it may seem, I am happy to be one of a small minority of Americans. I navigate through Faro as a proud resident of a beautiful country and I think, I am an American in Faro.
Toulouse is quickly becoming my second city after Faro. I love everything about this French gem (I have blogged about Toulouse in the past). Ninety quick minutes on a budget airline and I am eating French classic dishes and drinking beautiful French wines. This city has everything I love about Paris, except that it’s less crowded, friendlier, and more affordable. I will only point out a couple of highlights since I am here to just be. Now pass the foie gras.
My airbnb is close to the center of Toulouse and has everything I could possibly need. My first night was quiet and comfortable and I slept nine hours. I think last time I slept-in was 1989. Nice hotels in Toulouse are close to 200 Euros a night and this Airbnb was just a little over 60 Euros a night. I don’t always choose an Airbnb, but for five nights I like a kitchenette and a quiet neighborhood (near everything).
I booked this very popular, modern French cuisine restaurant well over a year ago and then I had to cancel several times due to COVID-19 cancellations. They were extremely accommodating and it finally happened my second night in Toulouse. My one big splurge. The dishes were visually appealing and tasted magical. You have a choice between two tasting menus and nicely paired wines (optional). I spent about 65 Euros and for a meal of this caliber, that’s pretty good.
Went to Victor Hugo Market at lunchtime; it’s my favorite and a five minute walk from my Airbnb. After a sweet walkabout, I had lunch upstairs at L’Impériale. If you’re in the mood for authentic country French, it doesn’t get much better. Get there early because the place fills up quickly. They’ve got the charm and the service down pat. The cassoulet made me think about small country inns on the outskirts of Paris; a warm fire and hearty cuisine.
The dish pictured in the middle is an escargot crumble. It must have been cooked in reduced red wine; like many French country dishes. I never had anything like it. I lapped up the sauce with some good crunchy bread.
I sat across an elderly country at lunch. I assume it was a Good Friday fish day for them. It was one of those couples who have been together for 50 or 60 years; they say nothing out loud, but the words between them are sweet, filled with tortured and loving memories. Watching them through my invisible window was a privilege I do not take lightly.
Tonight I booked a Vietnamese meal to prepared in the home of a Vietnamese home cook. I found it on Airbnb. No doubt it will be memorable. I will add more tomorrow.
Vietnamese dinner at Vivi’s home: I love these “dine in someone’s home” experiences. Vivi moved to Toulouse after studying in Montreal. Born and raised in Vietnam where her family resides, Vivi was a delight to be with. She’s authentic, young, smart, a developer, a writer, and an excellent cook. There were two amazing things about this enchanting evening: first, it was just the two of us (not so good for Vivi) and second, Vivi’s warmth and willingness to share her story. Once again, I am grateful.
I have a few more days here in France. Vivi told me about a Korean restaurant I will try for lunch. I purchased some good eats at the market yesterday and I’m just back from buying a crisp baguette at the local boulangerie. After a few days in a particular place you get to know where to shop and who serves the best latté. My favorite thing about an Airbnb is the ability to buy local food and eat in in a comfortable apartment setting. I will post now rather than wait so that I can enjoy the rest of my trip. If anything amazing or out-of-the-ordinary happens (it probably will), I will include it in my next blog.
Upcoming Travel Plans
In a few weeks I travel to Berlin, then on to Amsterdam, followed by Geneva, Milan, and Nantes. There are some small local excursions in between and a Northern European cruise in October. I have COVID-19 doubts about the cruise, but we shall see.
Lately I’ve been thinking that I am travelling too much and it’s wearing me out. I miss Paco and my creature comforts (the familiar). I admit my desire to explore and experience new things is currently stronger than the wish to curl under a blanket on my sofa with a good book and a glass of Portuguese red, but I suspect the latter will become more attractive over time. Until that happens, I will fight the urge to hibernate.
I was feeling a bit down about my blog until my birthday came around. I received birthday wishes from quite a few friends and acquaintances and many of them encouraged me to keep blogging and posting photos. Honestly, I wasn’t sure anyone was listening or watching. Some of you have been following me since the beginning and I appreciate that. Since I am not one to disappoint . . . there’s no stopping me now (four years of consistent blogging). I’ve thought about self-publishing a book about living overseas, but isn’t that what I have right here on these pages? Perhaps a book containing chronicling highlights in the future. For now, this suits me just fine.
Au revoir pour le moment mes amis.
Please forgive spelling and grammatical errors; my proofreader is on vacation (ha!).
No doubt I will disappoint a lot of people with this post. I never thought of this trip as a pleasure trip. I had read about, saw things and heard about injustices going on in Cuba my entire life; seeing it for myself has been something I felt I had to do for a long, long time.
This blog will not provide a great deal of information on sites to see or restaurants to visit (I will include some of that). It will be more about what I saw with my own eyes and what I learned speaking to the people who live in Cuba. Jet lag will play a role as well — moving through time zones has always been an issue for me.
I studied Sociology and I have an endless appetite for observing and taking apart human behavior; especially group think. Cuba, as I expected it would be, is unique and special in so many ways. Many people fled the country after the 1959 revolution (click for history) and more have fled since. I don’t want to make this a white paper on Cuban politics and how the United States places in all of that. Still, I’d like to make a few observations and share some thoughts on current conditions. You may sense some strong emotions; it’s still very raw.
My travel agent gave me two options for my four nights in Havana. I decided to spoil myself for the housing part of the trip.
SO/Paseo del Prado, La Habana, was probably the most beautiful chain hotel (Sofitel) I have ever stayed in. Five star luxury with some kinks to work out. The property had been closed for a long while because of COVID. They were understaffed and the details were not attended to: no towels or water in the gym, one front desk receptionist, not ready at breakfast, etc. The view of the Atlantic from my room and the location of the hotel, made it a good choice. It is in the Malecón district in Havana.
First named Avenida del Golfo, is Cuba’s most famous sea-side avenue. The project was undertaken by Don Francisco de Albear, Cuba’s greatest engineer at the time. Albear came up with a complex but smart design for the seawall, which was to be a lot more than just a promenade.
SO/Paseo del Prado
Be warned: hotels in Cuba are owned by both private companies and the government. I believe the government has a 51% ownership, but I’m not 100% certain of that. You cannot use Cuban Pesos (CUPs) in hotels; you are have to use your credit card or ATM card and you are charged in U.S. dollars. This troubled me while I was there. I prefer not to get into the politics of the matter. I spoke to several hotel guests who disagree with the policy, but they shrug and say they have no control or say. I did, however, learn that individuals who work in these properties are State workers and they earn a bit more money than most people working in Cuba. Breakfast at the hotel was delicious; especially the made-to-order omelets. The pastries were just okay — probably better for me in the long run.
The other thing to mention was that I asked to remain in my room longer because I had a 11:30 p.m. (horrible time to fly) flight to Madrid. I was told it would be $50 for three hours or $250 till 7:00 p.m. Crazy to pay that kind of money; instead I used a “transit room” which had an ocean view and very comfortable furniture. It was secure and free of charge.
The hotel could exchange your dollars or euros, however, the rate is the government’s exchange rate (24 CUPs to the Euro) and I got 95 CPUs to the Euro on the street. People trade money on the street all over Havana. I don’t know how they get away with it or how it works, but it’s good for them and for you. I was told the government turns a blind eye to this practice. One of many oddities in Cuba.
A vast majority of the restaurants in Havana are traditional and very basic. You will not see chain restaurants (a good thing) or a variety of ethnic non-Cuban restaurants. I did pass a couple of Italian restaurants with limited menus and I saw a Chinese restaurant, however, I’m pretty sure it was closed. Many restaurants were permanently closed all over Havana.
La Macorina, @LaComidaCubana, has live music on weekends and the food is excellent and well-priced. Higher-end traditional Cuban fair.
Elizalde, Empedrado, e\ Avenida Belgica y Villegas, La Habana Vieja, is in the Old Town. They have a more extended menu than most and the food is very good — extensive and excellent cocktail menu.
I had several other meals in Havana, however, I would have to say that the cuisine was not remarkable. I had lobster tail in one restaurant and although I was told it was fresh (off-the-boat) and local, it was overcooked. It’s almost a sin to overcook lobster, but I think the dish was $8.
It’s also important to keep in mind that food is scarce these days; I would imagine that restaurants have to fight for product. I did see many corner produce stands with decent fruits & vegetables displayed.
I did not travel to Cuba for the cuisine. I’ve been told that the best meals are prepared in people’s homes. Perhaps because of COVID, only one of these opportunities was presented to me and I thought 30 Euros was a bit high for a home cooked meal in Havana.
Live music is everywhere; on the streets, in bars, in restaurants and coming from homes. Cubans love their Latin beats and so do I. I was extremely pleased to hear and see musicians throughout my trip. See Buena Vista Social Club later in this blog.
Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is located in the center of the city (near the Parque Central Hotel). Filled with Cuban art dating back to the 16th century, this is a must see. It’s a modern building where you can easily spend hours strolling many galleries.
Local artists were either featured in galleries or had their own galleries throughout the city. Most of what I saw was commercial art designed for tourists, but there were some galleries displaying expensive and magnificent art. I did buy a tile piece (see end of blog).
Two Excellent Tours
I booked an Airbnb walking tour for my first day in Havana. I had just come from a 2.5 ride from Varadero and I had many questions about what I had seen along the way. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about Cuba and Havana. Daniel was an excellent guide. A group of five Austrians had booked the tour, but they were no-shows. It was one of those tours where you pay a small amount and then tip accordingly. It basically means more money in the guide’s pocket as a result of a lower Airbnb service fee. Brilliant for Cubans who earn very little income.
Daniel sold this as a two tour. It was causal and informative. Daniel is a journalist who had recently graduated from university. He was candid and very much in love with his country. It was clear he had some strong thoughts regarding U.S. politics, but he was polite and checked-in before saying anything controversial. He got a large tip.
The second booking on my second day in Havana, was a Cigar and Rum Experience. Abel and his wife have just recently opened Café Virgo where the experience took place. I ended up being the only taker for this 1.5 hour tutorial. Good for me, not-so-good for Abel.
I had a slice of homemade buttercream frosted vanilla and chocolate cake at the café before the start of the experience. Abel was the perfect companion for my afternoon of learning how rum and cigars are made and why they pair so well — each compliments the other and both prime you for good conversation. It was relaxing and informative. Apparently, Romeo y Julieta are the primo cigars, made famous by Fidel Castro and other national treasures. I’m not much of a cigar smoker, but I now know how they are made and how to light them and smoke them. I also learned that a seven year old rum is a mixed blend of barrel aged rum, the minimum barrel having been aged seven years; some barrels can be older than seven years. We drank a Club Havana Rum aged at least seven years; smooth and smokey. It’s about 23 Euros a bottle ($25.50) and considered to be one of the best tasting rums in the world. We drank it straight; my way to drink fine alcohol and Abel told me that it was the correct way to drink it. Café Virgo is a sweet little café across the street from the American Embassy. Side note: I would never have imagined that the U.S. had an embassy in Cuba. I wish I’d known this prior to my visit, I would have felt safer going there.
Abel Carmenate: Facebook and Instagram, Cuba Tailor Made Tours with Abel, 53 52811152 (whatsapp), email@example.com. I highly recommend this experience.
And So This Happened
I started posting some of my photos while I was in Havana. But first, I wanted to share what I’d seen on the streets of Cuba that day. I wrote about seeing a theft and it disappeared before I could finish. Then I thought, well, perhaps I accidentally erased it? I tried posting it again and it was once again removed. I know it’s a conspiracy theory, but I think the government monitored internet, saw what I was posting and removed it before it could be seen by others. I imagine this sort of thing happens in places like Russia, China, and many Middle East countries. I take my freedoms for granted, because that is all I know.
I was walking on a crowded Old Town street and saw a man grab a woman’s neck and then run. It happened quickly and I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. The woman who was attacked was breathing heavily and holding her throat. Apparently, a man tried to steal her gold necklace. Since it didn’t come right off, he ran. She was fairly shaken by the incident and in truth, so was I. I was carrying a man bag with my phone, credit cards, and cash. I moved the phone and cash to my pocket and held my man bag close to my person. I was going to walk around for a few hours, but decided to go back to my hotel instead; I just didn’t feel safe. The rooftop pool and a novel, became my afternoon activity.
The following day I decided to go out with a small amount of cash (CUPs) and my phone. The weather was decent most of my trip; a bit humid, but not too hot.
The Buena Vista Social Club, was an option I chose to ignore. I had seen the documentary a few years ago and my interest was peaked, but when I looked at the menu, I decided it was not worth the money. I had a few people in Cuba tell me that people go there for the music, not the food. Admittedly, if I did go, the food would matter; therefore, I stayed away.
What I Learned From the Locals (I’ll be brief)
Looking for milk: My hotel room had an espresso machine (always good because of my wake-up time). I like milk in my coffee and I had a small refrigerator in my room where I could store it. I ventured out about 30 minutes after my arrival and before my walking tour. I went to a small grocery store near the hotel, however, they were closed for a private party. This was the first time I have ever encountered a grocery store closed for a party, but that’s Cuba for you. I asked the person who came to the door if it would be possible to purchase a small container of milk. Her English was poor and my Spanish is worse. She told me that I wouldn’t find leche anywhere in Havana. I laughed out loud and went back to the streets. This is when I discovered that people ran small businesses out of their homes. They will sell you just about anything they have, but no one had milk. They either shook their heads or said “no leche.”
I was out for about an hour looking for milk; during this time I was approached by no fewer than 20 people. They asked me where I was from and why I was there. While walking, I noticed all of the buildings were run down and the odor from many of them was foul. I engaged with some of these people and learned that milk might or might not be available the next day. I said, what about babies? How do babies get milk? I was told that they got milk when milk was available. This blew me away. Most of the individuals who approached me were looking for a handout. Honestly, I believe they truly need the money.
I went back to the hotel feeling sad and disappointed. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask the bartender in the lobby if he was selling milk. I was given a large glass of milk free of charge — he too received a large tip.
I was hounded by driver’s of the old iconic cars you see wherever you go. They all asked if I wanted a ride. I had no desire whatsoever to spend 30 Euros or more just to ride around Havana in an old car. I know that this is how these men made their living and that it is part of the tourist experience, but it’s not my sort of thing. I’m just an old cynic.
In the days that followed I spoke to several Cubans. I was surprised to learn that they, for the most part, are very happy people. Havana residents mostly live in once beautiful and opulent mansions with a large center courtyard. They are all now divided into many small living spaces. The buildings are mostly falling apart. My tour guide told me that the government (the State they call it) is responsible for repairs, but there are too many in need and no money available to get the job done. There were many unemployed people spending time on the street. I guess few people own cars, making for no traffic in most places. The Cuban government blames the American trade embargo. The United States is one of many countries who will not trade with Cuba. Yet still, Havana residents are happy and have great pride in their country.
Written the Morning of My Departure
I took this photo of the moon (see below) outside my window a few minutes ago. I am extremely emotional today. What I have seen over the last 10 days leaves me with with sobering and conflicting feelings. Although I was born in poverty and lived with little my entire childhood, what I experienced in Coney Island was nothing like what I have seen in Cuba. The poverty here is not so much about money; it has more to do with freedom; the freedom to find work that is fulfilling and feeds the family, the freedom to love freely (homophobia), the freedom to . . .
Yet, so many people I spoke to expressed happiness. Many told me that although they do not have much in the way of material things, they have life, they have loved ones, they have friends, a bed to sleep in, food to eat most of the time, and they have hope. Who am I to say they’re wrong or misguided. For most in Cuba, what they have is all they’ve ever known.
My tour guide told me that religion was forbidden after the revolution. I don’t know enough about this to address it. I did pass a couple of churches, but I do not believe they are currently used for worship.
I found this on the internet:
Is religion banned in Cuba?
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion; however, the Cuban Communist Party, through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the government’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continues to control most aspects of religious life, June 27, 2019.
I know that it is the combination of weary travel and the abject poverty I just experienced, but am so happy to be home in Portugal. I chose a home where social democracy allows for people to live knowing that they will have food, water, healthcare, housing and a government that supports their freedom. Portugal is not a wealthy country, but most people here are well cared for.
It amazes me that I have to leave home to appreciate just how beautiful home is.
What I Purchased (besides rum)
This is a ceramic tile I brought back, unfortunately, in four pieces. I told the gallery owner that I was afraid it might break and she assured me that she had packed tiles a thousand times and that it would not break. Someday I will listen to my own inner voice. Anyhow, here it is glued back together, a forever reminder of my journey to Cuba.
“Cuba may be the only place in the world where you can be yourself and more than yourself at the same time.“
Pedro Juan Gutierrez
I’m going to do something a bit different this trip; I’m going to write about it in two parts. Part One will be while I am in Varadero and Part Two will be after I leave Havana.
Not many things give me more satisfaction than to rant, therefore, I will begin with one that will placate my soul.
Impressions Thus Far
I don’t like to fly east when I’m headed west. There are over 25,000 commercial airplanes and more than 5,000 airlines in the world and they couldn’t create a more direct route to Cuba? These days when you have to vaccinate, no triple vaccinate, test, inform governments of your whereabouts, spend hours and hours at the airport while airlines drag you through the tedious process of checking-in; making sure that every ridiculously random requirement is met , mask up for the entire duration of a flight (but no worries, the virus doesn’t show itself when 400 people are eating their much anticipated airline food), deal with angry people who resent having to go through this tedious process so that they can finally hug grandma after two years of waving on Facetime. After two flights and 12 hours suffocating in a petri dish in the sky, I arrived in Cuba. “They’ll be someone outside the baggage area holding up a sign with your name on it;” at least that’s what the travel agent told me. So after taking an Uber to the train in Faro, and then another train to the Lisbon station, followed by yet another train to the airport, a three hour wait for a flight to Madrid — chaotic and way out-of-the-way mind you, another long wait for a flight to Havana, the last thing I wanted to do at midnight in a different time zone, is look for my name among hundreds of frustrated tourists and thick tropical humidity I haven’t experienced in several years. Nope no Christopher Papagni or Chris Papigmy or Mr. Pagannini, C. Papa, Papadopolous, none of the above. I was delirious and asking random strangers if they knew that I was coming to Cuba. It was another one of those “he must be American” moments. After dozens of fruitless inquiries, I came upon a very relaxed gentleman holding up a “Travelplan” sign. I approached anticipating rejection and and rigorous head shaking . He asked me my name and then said, “Yes, I’ve been waiting for you.” How the fuck was I to know to look for a sign that read Travelplan. I took and deep breath and followed him. We walked for quite a bit. When you’re that tired your mind starts to come up with all sorts of possible scenarios. If I’m murdered in Cuba will the American government try to find my body? I am still American after all. Come on, I thought, the Cuban MIssile Crisis was a long, long time ago and Fidel Castro is no longer a threat. We arrive at a large transport bus and I ask if that’s how I’m being taken to Varadero — no reply. I’m handed over to two Cuban gentleman who inform me that I am the first of 18 passengers going to various hotels in Varadero. I said, no, no, no, I’m going to take a taxi. I was informed that Varadero was 2.5 hours away and that a taxi would run me quite a few pesos. The bus driver said, “No te preocupes, la tuya es la segunda parada.” (Don’t worry, yours is the second stop). In my deranged and irrational mind, my travel agent was, at that very moment, being roughed up by a thug or two in a dark alley in Warsaw. The bus driver told me to have a seat in the bus while we wait for the remaining 17 passengers. I could see in the distance that the hundreds of people waiting outside of the terminal, were gone. Holy shit, I thought, these people we are waiting for could be on an early morning flight. I boarded the bus and prayed that an early death would come and put me out of my misery. I dozed off and was awakened by Russians chatting all around me. Yes, the other passengers were Russian and they seemed to have a lot to say. One of the two Cubans I had originally encountered approached me and and informed me that if I wanted Cuban pesos, I had better get them from him. He pulled up the government’s exchange rate on his phone and told me that my hotel’s rate would be even less to my advantage. He could give me a 35 pesos to one euro rate and that my friend is one hell-of-a-deal! At that point I was happy to have something good come my way and I handed him forty euros; in return I received 1400 pesos in small bills. I’m going to momentarily take a detour and share that my bellman at the hotel offered me a 70 to one exchange rate only hours later. It was a minor con job, but my lifetime belief that I am a savvy traveller has forever been shattered. I digress a bit, but you see, I am jet lagged and broken. The bus ride to Varadero took an eternity and all I could think was that I paid for this night at the hotel and wouldn’t be using it; this is not some flea bag spot in an obscure location, this is a five star, all inclusive resort we’re talking about. Was it a late check-in or an early check-in? A question that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I should tell you tell two things: 1) I normally do not do travel agencies; I love the process of doing research and finding bargains and gems, and, 2) I don’t do all inclusives.
But this trip was different. I couldn’t just book a trip to Cuba when I lived in the United States. The government made it difficult to go and my one solid opportunity fell through when I was volunteering with the James Beard Foundation. The owner of The French Culinary Institute informed me that she needed me more than I needed Cuba. So for years, this journey has been calling my name in the wee hours of the night. By being a Portuguese National, I could get a visa and finally go. I started searching on the internet; where to stay and how much it would cost me, however, I quickly learned that the information was convoluted and confusing; I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose. A travel agent who could navigate the confusion was the only way to go.
So yes, I finally made it to the resort close to sunrise. I entered my very beautiful room on the straits of Florida (the body of water outside my window). I was told that breakfast would be available in two hours, but I figured sleep was more important than food; I drew the curtains and closed my eyes for 45 minutes. Despite my comatose state, I was too excited to sleep.
I need to begin with a disclaimer:
As a result of my position at The French Culinary Institute in New York City, I have travelled extensively and wined and dined at some of the most famous restaurants in the world. This has made me a food snob and I make no apologies. I also had a father whom I still consider to be one of the finest cooks I’ve ever known. Hence, the reason I despise all-inclusives. I prefer dishes prepared for one person or a small group of people, to those prepared for the masses. I also live in Portugal where hospitality standards are high and the people who provide services are exceptionally nice. And the food in New York City where I was born, is hard to beat as well.
In addition to all of this snobbery, I also like what I like and I prefer to sleep on a good mattress and not have to worry about bed bugs. Judge me as you wish.
And . . . people always say take lots of pictures. Let it be known that I am practicing living in the moment; that usually does not include picture taking — I will try my best.
Keep in mind that I booked this trip over two years ago and it’s been postponed three times. Getting to Cuba has been more difficult than running in the New York City marathon and that was painful, emotionally trying, and mentally exhausting.
I’ll start with the negatives I have experienced thus far:
The coffee in the dining room (breakfast and lunch) at this resort is like subterranean mud served with watered down milk. I am seriously addicted to caffeine, therefore, I have no other option but to suffer in silence. Starbucks would be a good option and I hate Starbucks. The pastries taste like cardboard covered in way too sweet cream. Savory dishes have very little seasoning and the bread is . . . let’s just say, an imposter — looks can be deceiving.
There are small children everywhere. I was pretty certain I would be in Cuba while school was in session all over the work, on-line or in-person. Aren’t these people at all concerned about COVID and/or the attainment of knowledge?
The hotel does not take Cuban pesos. I know. I’m in Cuba and I was conned into a shady exchange, but nobody told me I couldn’t pay with the countries currency. I asked the receptionist who checked me in and her reply was: “This is Cuba.” I have since heard the same words uttered 63 times and it’s only my second day in the country. Fortunately, they prefer euros and I did bring some of those.
As promised, the resort does have “free” WiFi. It’s setup so that you can only be connected on one device at a time. The username is 18 characters and the password another ten. If you move 15 feet, you are disconnected and you have to sign in again. I’ve signed in so many times in 48 hours, I know all 28 characters by heart and my memory is not one of my strong suits. I can’t get into many of my accounts or go onto secure sites; I can only guess why that is. Life without Spotify is meaningless.
One more gripe and then I will share some good stuff. I have come to an all inclusive high-end resort. But . . . you know how it feels when you’re sitting in the first row after first class on a plane? You see things through the crack of the curtain, the curtain designed to protect you from the reality of your economic status. Lest not my hotel remind me that I am middle class and on a retiree budget; you see, they have this thing called “the level.” If your wealthy enough to afford it, you stay in an “adults only” section of the hotel, dine in separate spaces with elevated cuisine (I think the food is better), and enjoy other amenities I have chosen to block out. I have seen several guests go there; not to be seen or heard from again. To this I say, let them eat cake.
What I Love So Far
The Cuban people I have had the pleasure to meet, are gracious, proud, lovely and they appreciate that you have come to their country to enjoy yourself and spend money; money they badly need. They cannot do enough to make you happy. It’s genuine and sincere. This alone was reason enough to come.
My mattress is unbelievable. My bed is firm and cushiony at the same time and the linen on my bed is buttery soft. The pillows are equally as comfortable and numerous. My room is spacious; the ocean can be viewed from my bed or the large balcony. When I close the door to the room or balcony, I hear nothing; open and the waves soothe any thoughts of the outside world.
To my pleasant surprise all beverages were included in the price I paid. Gratuities are welcome, but that I am happy to oblige. The wine is Chilean and actually quite good. Cuban rum flows like water and you don’t have to wait long for anything. There are numerous beautiful and tasteful places to enjoy the sun, a cocktail, and a good book. The beach is directly in front of the resort; the sand is powdery soft, and the turquoise sea is warm and calm.
I was not told the following when I booked the resort or when I checked in, but I get to eat at two of the four restaurants onsite (an alternative to all-you-can-eat) for dinner. I have already talked my way into a third. They do this sort of thing on cruises; it’s designed to make you feel special and that you have an abundance of marvelous choices. I admit it’s nice to have options. There is also a 24 hour snack bar just in case you become peckish between. You know how much energy it takes to sit by a pool or walk to and from the dining hall. I would have preferred quality over quantity, but my opinion doesn’t matter, I am alone in this world.
The weather is close to perfection; you get an abundance of sun and then a fantastic downpour at the end of the day (the case so far). The Algarve doesn’t get much rain, therefore, when the sky opens here, I rejoice. The warmest part of the day goes up to about 85 degrees and the nights are pleasant. There is a bit of humidity, but I tell myself it’s better for my skin.
The resort has live music day and night. The gym is excellent. They fill your mini bar twice a day — also included in the price I paid.
I found a beautiful painted tile by Manuel Hernandez, a well-known Cuban artist (see photo in my next blog; it’s all wrapped up for travel). I will cherish it and it will always remind me of this journey.
No excursions until I get to Havana. This part of the trip is about resting my mind. Swimming with dolphins and party boats have their time and place, not now.
Prologue: I had dinner at Casa Nostra, the Italian option, last night. It may be considered Italian in Littlerock, but I expected better from a five star resort.
I am reading The Every by Dave Eggers. It takes place about twenty years into the future; it’s foreboding and way too realistic. Social media, government intervention, political correctness; it will scare the shit out of you and you will laugh your ass off, but only because we are headed in the direction Eggers writes about. I highly recommend this read.
Side note: Today I tried the snack bar as an alternative to the buffet lunch. Unless it were 3:00 a.m. and you couldn’t pick yourself out in a line-up, you’ll want to stay away.
Forgive any typos or unkind remarks, I have awful jet lag.