Monday, June 23, 2008

On vacations

No man needs a vacation so much as the person who has just had one. ~Elbert Hubbard

JAN: It's true, I just came home from a fabulous vacation in France, biking through vineyards, meeting up with old friends, and going to a great lecture on why the French are so obsessed with Sarkozy. But there's really nothing all that funny or interesting about someone else's fabulous vacation. Much more interesting is someone's really bad vacation.

The worst was a trip to Nova Scotia I took almost thirty years ago with my now husband, then boyfriend, Bill. We took a boat from Portland that had a casino on it, except we weren't allowed to go into the casino because I wasn't 21 years old yet. Unable to afford a berth, we tried to sleep outside on the deck, only the casino was really loud and went all night. But that wasn't the worst part. Or even that Bill got pickpocketed a few days later on the bus to Digby. The worst part was the bed and breakfast we stayed in while we waited for his father to wire us money.

It was a Victorian house, run by two old women, neither of which was very welcoming.(Maybe because I wasn't wearing a wedding band?) The disapproval we felt, combined with the creakiness of the old house and perhaps the trauma of having been pickpocketed, worked some pretty bad magic. I woke up at four o'clock in the morning by voices I was sure were in our room. I didn't actually see ghosts, but I was convinced I could feel them. I swear, it was the only time in my life I ever alleged a supernatural experience, and perhaps the only time in our entire relationship, Bill didn't make fun of me. He didn't even ask me if I was delirous. He got up and started packing. We wandered around the town until our Western Union wire came through and we returned to the bed and breakfast only to pay our bill. We'd been planning to go to Halifax, but instead, cut our vacation short and went straight home.
I still get the creeps thinking about it. So I want to know, what was your absolute worst vacation?

RO: I took that same ferry one year and it was the only time I ever got seasick - not fun. But the rest of the trip was wonderful so that doesn't count. I've had trips where things went wrong, but they've turned into some of my best memories so this is harder than it sounds. My husband and I went on a Habitat trip to Yunnan Province in China. We treated ourselves to a few days in Hong Kong before the rest of the team arrived, and because a good friend of ours is a travel writer we had a fabulous suite overlooking the harbor - the bathroom had a telescope in it, you get the picture. I kept referring to it as the Michael Douglas suite for some reason.

Then we left for a small village in Yunnan and a two story guest house with one pit toilet, and our own solar showers (plastic bags you fill with water and hope that the sun warms.) The first three days were fine, then there was a freak snowstorm and we had no power and no way out. We ate noodles for 4 days. People were so cold they duct-taped their (cracked) windows shut. I didn't take my Knicks stocking cap off the entire time - of course only one guy showered (showoff.)Camera batteries and Ipods died, and there was nothing to do except stroll up and down the strip that was the town. But it wasn't all bad, the street was lined with snowmen (apparently it wasn't such a freak occurence, just for the time of year that we were there.) And we dramatically altered the town's economy by buying pencils, erasers, matches, playing cards and pin cushions, the few items stocked in the village.

ROBERTA: I was newly married with two new stepchildren when my husband suggested we join his parents and other relatives on a fishing trip to Quebec. Somehow my father got roped in too. Jan, the only French involved was when we stopped for groceries and couldn't figure out what to do with the plastic bag of milk.

"Mais le lait, c'est dans un sac!" my husband exclaimed. But the milk, it's in a bag...The store owners must have thought it took very little to entertain us!

All told we drove 18 hours with a minivan full of squabbling children, then got in a motorboat to be taken out to our island and dropped off. There was nothing there except a couple of cabins and some boats for fishing. But the fishing was good only at dusk and dawn. The rest of the days stretched endlessly...endlessly. My stepdaughter famously told my husband how she hated me because she was in charge before I came along. My father woke up one morning and famously asked:

"What day is it?"'

"Wednesday," I replied glumly.

"I was afraid of that," he said.

All said and done, we've probably told those stories more often than any others. And my stepdaughter is a lovely young lady who no longer hates me (nor I her) and I adore my in-laws, so all's well!

HALLIE: I thought I didn’t have any awful vacations, but Roberta’s island getaway reminded me of the trip my husband and I and our then 1-year-old daughter Naomi and 6-year-old Molly took to Cuttyhunk Island.

Cuttyhunk is a tiny island between New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard that you can get to only by ferry (as in small boat, not car ferry). There was one little market where everything costs a fortune since it has to be boated out there. Which meant you had to bring EVERYTHING with you. For a week-long stay with two kids, that was a lot of stuff. When we packed up our yellow Ford Pinto wagon for the trip, we were astonished that everything fit. Between the boxes of Pampers, food for the week, beach toys, toilet paper, stroller, backpack baby carrier, and so on, we looked like a family of émigrés.

The crossing was rough. When Naomi wasn’t eating or throwing up, she cried. At Cuttyhunk, we got off the boat and paid a guy with a wheelbarrow to schlep our boxes and paraphernalia up the hill to the house. Finally we arrived, exhausted triumphant. Counted kids. All present. Counted boxes and equipment. All present. Counted suitcases. Zero.

All week we argued over whose fault it was. Had we left the suitcases in the car in the garage? On the ground outside the car in the garage? In the driveway? It never occurred to either of us that we’d (note my use of the term “we”) left the suitcase open on our bed at home. No wonder the car had packed so easily.

Turned out the only thing we really needed that we didn’t have were toothbrushes, and those we bought at the store. That week, we wore sheets and dish towels while the clothes we’d worn over were being washed or dried on the clothesline. The baby fared the best. After all, we’d brought diapers. But Molly still remembers how humiliated she felt swimming in the ocean in her underwear—fortunately they were Wonder Woman Under-OOs.

HANK: Wonder Woman underoos! I did a story about them once. (They used to be flammable. Stories like that,that's why I went to journalism school. Oh wait, I didn't go to journalism school. Anyway, I bought the biggest size possible, and kept them. I loved the camisole with the big star on it.)

Vacations.You know when you're dating someone you want to impress with how flexible and cool you are, you'll do stuff that you would never consider in real life? Well, one long-gone boyfriend (Jim D., you out there?) Convinced me to go CAMPING on the APPALACHIAN TRAIL.

Actually OUTSIDE where there would be NO ELECTRICITY. Sure, I said. La dee dah.

So the night before the camping started, we stayed in a motel called something like the Fishermans Lodge in someplace in North Carolina. Me, Jim, and Bear, Jim's yellow lab. (Jim was very very cute, and a writer. Is, I mean.) In the middle of the night we heard sirens. We leaped up, and went outside. There was the hugest forest fire in the mountains. Huge huge huge. People were gathered around, watching firefighters and etc. up in the hills. Just about where we were going camping the next morning.

"Wow," I said to one man. "What happened?"

He paused. "We guess, Baby did it.

"Baby did it?" I didn't like the sound of it.

"Yup," the man said. (Remember he's very very southern.) "He sets fires (like 'fars') everytime he gets out."

"He's still 'out'?" I asked.


The next morning, we headed for the um, hills. But, in the good news bad news dept, the fire danger got more and more remote, since it, TORRENTIALLY, RAINED THE ENTIRE TIME.
JAN: I forgot to mention that we'd be camping BEFORE the haunted bed and breakfast, and that by contrast -- and constrast only -- the camping seemed ideal! But while great vacations might be terrific rest and all that, let's face it, horrible ones make for much better storytelling!
Come on share yours!


  1. What is it about B&Bs? Somewhere near York, England--A B&B that was old & faded, but spotlessly clean. The only problem was that somebody (many somebodys) had smoked in that house for probably over 200 years. It was in the carpet, in the the WALLS. And the bedrooms were shut off from the rest of the house by one of those heavy, steel (?), air-blocking fire doors.

    At about 1:00 in the morning, my husband opened the bedroom window, desperate for fresh air, only to find out that, in the surrounding fields, somebody was burning something. Peat?

    We snuck down, left money on the phone table, drove until we came to a smokeless field and spent the rest of the night dozing in our tiny rental car.

    The rest of the vacation was, luckily, wonderful.

  2. Oh, ick! Becky's B&B reminds me of a hotel room we had in London that reeked of aerosol room deoderizer and the windows didn't open. There's nothing worse than a bad smell.

  3. Nighmare vacations? I have never had one that was totally without redeeming value. However, I will say I have had very interesting experiences on vacation.

    Back about 35 years ago, I was a real "zoomie". My word for a guy who likes hot cars. I had 1967 Mustang GT that I drove to south Jersey to visit my family and have some shore time. I had a very special wood/composite steering wheel. It had 3 very shinny spokes that held the rim and always felt flimsy to me. I was pulling out of a parking spot at the shore and heard something snap. Hmm... a spoke broke right off my steering wheel and jammed the horn on. Hmm... Well, I was able to get the horn to stop but the wheel was a very rare production steering wheel. How could I get one??? Sort version - couldn't! So, I happened to have a turn buckle of just the right length (doesn't everyone carry that in their tool kit :-) no definitely not!) I somehow was able to fix it enough to drive another 1000 miles and get home, with the horn sticking only occasionally in quiet PA towns!!!

    Then there was the time I was driving my 1973 Mustang Mach I - 351 Cleveland with Ram Air on Route 80 in PA going home for Christmas. It was Christmas Eve. Long story short, I blew an engine fan blade right through my radiator! Not knowing what happened, I refused to stop until my wife and I actually smelled the anti-freeze... Arghhh...

    The air temp was like 33. So, if we didn't do something quick we'd be standed up on Route 80.. no cell phones then! No one would stop to help so I literally jumped in front of a car that was trying to exit and refused to move until he told me what I wanted to know!!! We're talking life and death here anyway!!! Didn't have that much to loose, you know. Believe it or not we were able to get to a Ford dealer in Clearfield, PA 350 miles from home.
    I told him I was from the Ford Resarch & Eningeering center and we were on our way in 2 1/2 hrs.

    Assuming there is such a thing as luck - that was amazing!

    Then there was the time near Myrtle Beach when we came back from a day at the beach and our van was gone.....!


  4. My husband got a bargain package once for Jack Tar Village, in West End Bahamas--right in the middle of hurricane season.

    He was betting we'd be there when a storm wasn't; the Jack Tar folk, who sold the package at 3/4s off, weren't so sure.

    We got there; a tropical storm turned to a hurricane in less than 24 hours, and we spent the better part of four days in some dank basement-like storm shelter of the Jack Tar proper, drinking rum and watching absolutely awful talent shows starring guests who were more drunk each day until the staff wisely cut off the flow of alcohol -- leaving you to wonder just how that elderly couple could possibly manage to recite Gallagher stand-up routines while in the throes of delirium tremens.

    It was a long week. The sun and blue sky and white sands broke out the morning we boarded a bus for home. I swore if I heard the song "Yellow Bird" one more time, I would not be responsible for my actions.

    We came home sober, pale, and wiser about Caribbean bargain vacations, too.

    Sidebar: I'm off to Boston on Thursday! Woot! A sort of working vacation, but if you could all please hold the temps down (it's 100 here today) and post any tips for must-do events or restaurants while I'm there, I'd be your gold and gilded fan forever.

  5. Who needs a vacation when all we have to do is picture Hank in her starred Underoos?

  6. Hank, I just wondered if you remember the story that dad used to tell...when he was forced to camp when he was in the army, he and a buddy found the ambulance parked not too far off, hot-wired it, and turned on the heat? Weren't you listening??!!

  7. Susannah_C

    Wow, for me you and Jan are tied!


    I don't think anyone really understands this "reality". There is much that is always left "unexplained". I do have a sense of the matrix in which we live which is why I'm very careful about what I speak and where I place attention!

  8. Hey Liz! (My little sister! Everyone, meet the fabulous LIZ!) Yes, you're right, I should have listened. But our car was parked miles back though the sodden, soggy,arsonist-threatened woods. And if I left, who would have cooked the disgusting slimy fake chicken stuff over the pitiful campfire?

    Nancy, hey. I looked pretty silly in those underoos. No one saw me but me, luckily. And I can't believe I even told that story. It was in the 70's, what can I say.

    Susannah, what's your schedule?

    Mike--what on earth is a turn buckle? And why would anyone have one?

    And yeah, Becky and Hallie, the smell. We had a hotel room in the
    6th in Paris once. We walked in and it smelled like--bleach. No way I would stay there. Gotta wonder what they're trying to bleach away.

    Do our senses of small get more acute as we get older? The other day, Jonathan picked me up at work. I got into the car, and I said--hey, did you eat Doritos? He looked at me, astonished. "I had ONE," he said.

  9. Hey Hank --

    I arrive Thursday mid-afternoon and leave Wed. the 2nd.

    I've got morning meetings Fri and Monday, an away-from-Boston Golden Retriever Fest on Saturday (Nine Goldens!! Woot!!), and a dinner meet-up Tuesday evening.

    Otherwise, my schedule's my own. Hallie asked if I were staying through the city's amazing July 4th celebration, and you know -- when I booked all this, I didn't even *think* of that. I'm so used to being on-call on the 4th (and getting called out to search), that I never even think of taking the holiday away as an option.

    SFX: DINK!

    Please Boston, this week stay temperate for Cousin Susannah, who loves you so.

  10. Hank -

    I love your inquistive mind! Probably why you know so much.

    Yeah, exactly! A turn-buckle is a strange piece of hardware used to tension cables. Picture an oval thingy with screws going into each end and hooks instead of "screw heads". As you turn the center thing the hooks come together and "tighten" stuff, usually two ends of cables that have loops that are hooked into. Don't ask me how that got in my tool kit. It's pretty abstruse.

    Of course, what goes with that is the phrase - "My tool kit has everything I need all the time!" Back then I didn't realize that is what I was generating.

    Always true for me. That's how the "real matrix" works. Too simple?

    God uses the simple things to confound the wise!

  11. Forget turn buckles...what the heck are underoos? I'm getting a pretty scary image of something that looks like a Depends but has Lynda Carter's picture on it. Tell me I'm wrong.
    Another question...did the seniors doing the Gallagher routine have watermelons? Too funny...

    Also love the image of Hallie running around in a dishtowel bikini.

  12. Underoos are--were?--like kids pajamas/underwear. Very cute and superhero.
    Mine, if we must continue to discuss this, and I know it's my fault, was a pretty fun camisole--you'd have worn it ,too, Rosemary--with a wonder woman star on the front.

    Again. I WAS 25.

  13. Yeah, they were doing Gallagher's famous sledge-o-matic thing, using, as I recall, croquet mallets -- which disintegrated across days and any number of squashed things. Think Miss Marple and an elderly Dr. Watson on a bender and you've got this couple. They had a lot of rage. }:>

    How no one in the audience got hurt by mallet schrapnel is beyond me. Or were they hurt and just too drunk to care?

  14. Susannah and Mike,
    I agree, we are tied! And Becky, you are right, a B&B is always a risk, and probably its own blog topic. But sometimes one that pays off handily.

    Mike, we could have a long conversation on other realities, but I do think there's good and bad energies that we can pick up. (and emit!)

    On smells, in Beaunne, we came back to a hotel room that reeked, as if the entire clientele had gone to the bathroom in OUR bathroom. But we got a free upgrade out of the deal, so it wasn't so bad. (the hotel closed the room indefintely)

    And Hank, still can't picture the underoos.

  15. Hey! I may be about to buy a B&B! If you guys blog on it, I'm taking copious notes on what you didn't like. I've been staying in them for 25 years and have my own list of disaster stories and glorious moments, and I'm hoping the one I open will be more glory, less gross. }:-D

    It's also going to be pet-friendly, with a mind to polices that keep the glory high and the grossness relatively at bay.

    ::fingers crossed::

  16. Susannah,
    I just spent a lovely weekend in a pet-friendly B&B in New Hope, PA. It's called The Wedgewood Inn and it's wonderful...not too cutesy or precious - duck motifs have me looking for the next Best Western.

  17. Liz - Great to see you posting!

    Jan -

    That's two long conversations now -
    New Jersey and alternate realities!!

    BTW both my daughters lived in western France. The youngest is a French major who lived in western France for 6 mos. in HS and Paris for 3 mos. on a grant in her Senior year in college. The oldest lived in Giseny in the north west part for a summer.

    The people in Paris were not that tolerant of my French. My daughter speaks very fluent French. As long as she is along everything is good. Are they more tolerant of language efforts in the countryside?

    In fact even though my Chinese is poor, the Chinese were way more excited about my attempts at their language. I made a pact with a cab driver there - I'd teach him English if he would correct my Chinese! Ni hao ma! Wu bu dong? It was definitely fun.

  18. Ni hao and shie shie (sp?) were the two things I remember saying...
    and Yao Ming! Everyone knew Yao Ming and as long as we threw his name in the conversation they smiled.

  19. Mike,
    I speak sort of an okay-French. Not fluent, but decent. I found the French in Beaune, Aix, and even Paris both welcoming and tolerant. Strangers on the street went out of their way to be helpful, especially in Beaune. In Aix, our professors reminded us of a basic French rule. Storekeepers want you to acknowledge them with a bonjour when you arrive and an au revoir when you leave. If you offer this minimum politeness, everyone's happy.

  20. Ro -

    Ni sho Zhongguohua hen hao!

    You speak Chinese very well :-)!!!

    It must have been Yao Ming became like the new word for cool!

    Jan -

    I had to look up both Beaune and Aix. They are central and south central France. Aix looks like it might be a really neat area somewhat close to the ocean. I had heard that people were a little friendlier farther from Paris - at least in regard to speaking French. In Paris, it seemed like it was expected that you should speak good French, otherwise they would just speak English to you.

    My most embarrassing moment was at the airport check-in. I walk up to this Japanese airline guy and struggle to get out some French telling him how many we are etc. He looks up at me - smiles - and says "How about we speak English? Would that be easier?"

  21. Mike,
    I have to agree that I was dissappointed in how many people now speak English in France, and that does make them more likely to switch over if they sense some hesitation. Paris started to seem like Montreal... But I think when they switch over they are trying to be nice. I love going places where they speak NO English. Martinque was pretty good. Another trick I learned was to start off by simply telling them in French that I wanted to TRY speaking French. (J'aimerais essayer parler Francais,). It worked like a charm....

  22. Wow, Jan I like that! I must have just misunderstood their intent. It was just the energy associated with it - like a frustration. "Oh, you stupide Americaan. 'Er I will solve se problem!" They didn't say that, but that was the sense I got. However, I never thought of it as a frustration on their part. Of course some of them their English wasn't all that great either, but better than my French for sure.

    Donnez moi la quiche Lorraine, si vous plait. Avez vous une micron?

    That's the best I could do to get my quiche nuked at a street market. He did nuke it and gave me a fork and napkin!

  23. My perfect 40th birthday trip had a very rocky start. My husband's plan was to fly to Zurich, by way of London, then a train through the Alps followed by three days in Locarno, Switzerland and on to Venice.

    Our flight to London was "momentarily" delayed - for three hours - by mechanical issues. We missed our connection by 45 minutes which left us with four hours to kill.

    We arrived in Zurich - our luggage didn't. Several hours and many claim forms later we caught our train for the scenic trip through the Alps - unfortunately it was pitch black out by then and the only way we knew we were in the Alps was when our ears popped.

    We arrived in Locarno, taxied to our hotel which was strangely dark. After ringing the night buzzer, and startling a gaggle of teenagers, we found out the hotel wasn't yet open for the season. It was only open for training the kids who would start work there...NEXT WEEK. Fortunately the woman in charge took pity on us and put us up for the night. She then arranged a room for us at a sister hotel the next day.
    Our luggage finally showed up -three days later and one hour before we checked out of our hotel and headed to Italy.

    Thank God for Venice and wine, lots and lots of wine!

    Karen Duxbury
    ps My husband thinks our worst trip was the time we missed a flight and got put up in a motel in Dalls. The bed had "Magic Fingers" but since I had spent all our change on the vending machines we never got to use it. I'll never live that one down.

  24. Hey Karen,
    Sounds like you had the perfect antidote (Italy) to total airline frustration.

    We missed a connection once and were put up in a hotel in San Juan with bullet holes in the elevator door. The worst part was that despite their promise, Northwestern never reimbursed us, so we had to pay to stay in a hellhole!