Day 48

April 27


Every now and then I will pause to convey impressions gleaned from this journey.

In this blog post, I am putting on my city planning hat.

It is virtually impossible to set foot in Europe without noticing the difference between how human settlements have evolved in the US and Europe. In the two countries we have visited so far, Spain and France, the difference is remarkable. Part of the difference is due to timing. Most of our cities came into their own after the automobile became king. European development patterns were set a century or more earlier. Part has to do with culture and values, part with how countries treat property rights and part with the political system. Whatever the reason, cities are different in Europe and the US:


  1. Suburban sprawl is mostly non existent in Spain and France. The city stops and farmland starts. There are boundaries and edges. In Valencia and Madrid we saw no single family dwellings at all. Apartment houses extend for miles and then they stop and farmland begins. While some outlining communities in Paris have single family housing, yards are generally small and compact; and there is nothing equivalent to the sprawling suburbs we have in the US where houses with large yards are predominant.
  2. In part because of land use development patterns, public transportation is more available, less costly to consumers (and is more heavily subsidized), and more reliable. Every train we have taken has been on time. The bullet trains go twice the speed of our fastest trains. Because they are fast, reliable, efficient, and pleasant to ride, they are used heavily. Europe could not function without its trains. The same is true for local transportation. We have one of the best local public transportation systems in the nation in Washington; yet despite being much newer, Metro is no better than the systems in Madrid or Paris. And most US cities are not even close.
  3. Housing in cities is very different in Europe and the US. In the Spanish and French big cities the vast majority of people live in apartments where the typical unit is much smaller than in the US. One result of the higher density/ smaller unit development pattern is the need for more outdoor community space—parks, plazas, and community open space—and the cities we have visited so far all have it. A bi product of high density development is that the European cities are more vibrant and dynamic than American cities.
  4. Neighborhoods are different. There are sections of Paris, Madrid and Valencia that are better than others. Some are less expensive and cater more to a working class population. But on the whole there is nothing that we have seen that corresponds to our sharp division between rich and poor neighborhoods, and the presence of slums and ghettoes that have defined American cities for over a century.

 At the same time there is a graffiti problem in France and Spain that exceeds   anything I have seen in the US. I have asked a number of people about this and have gotten the same general response, which is that it used to be even worse and people don’t like it, but you can only do so much. I am still trying to figure this one out.

  1. There is virtually no advertising or billboards once you get out of cities, towns and villages. The pastoral beauty of the countryside is preserved—no junk to speak of, though graffiti is still present along the railroad tracks and on some shuttered storefronts. When I think of the difference between the landscapes on the country roads in Europe and the US, I shake my head in dismay.
  2. There is a fundamental cultural and philosophical divide as to how we tackle problems and challenges related to housing and urban development. It basically boils down to this: do you consider the issues of housing and urban development to be more in the public realm and considered a public good to be regulated and subsidized accordingly? Or do you believe that housing and land use are private goods, not to be meddled with by bureaucrats and generally left for the Invisible Hand of capitalism to address? Of course, there is a continuum. Europe tends to favor the public role, the US the private role. The results of the two approaches seem pretty apparent as we travel via train from one European town to the next.


So our travel so far underscores what I suppose most Americans realize as they travel through Europe: that there are very big differences between how and where people people live in Europe versus the US. We have much to learn from European countries. There are also significant environmental implications since higher density developments with better public transportation systems means less reliance on the car, less gasoline use and lower emissions. There are also public health implications. People walk a lot more and they are not as fat as in the US.

On the whole, in my view in the US we have done a pretty poor job of it. The movements of New Urban Urbanism and Smart Growth in the US are a response to our failures related to sprawl, affordable housing, and inefficient and wasteful land use. We should have paid more attention to Europe.

More on this topic will follow as we tour Germany, Poland, Russia, Mongolia and the big boy of them all: China.

Day 47 (Embry)

April 26

En route from Brittany to Paris

We are returning from our wonderful visit to Brittany visiting our French sister-in-law, Martine. Joe thought you might be interested in my observations about French life and how it might have changed over the years.

I believe you have read that I have a rather unique perspective. I counted up and I have been to France on 10 separate occasions, spanning over 50 years; and since three of the visits were quite long, I have spent about a year in France. While this is only 1/70 of my entire lifetime, the effect of this country on who I am and how I view the world is much, much greater. While it is impossible to say, I would guess that the proportion of its effect on “who I am” is at least 1/7. So I guess this proves that time is a very relative thing, and I believe Einstein has proven that!

I think the effect of France on me is so great because about half my time here was spent when I was an adolescent. Is it perhaps true that our experiences in this period of our lives have the most profound effect on our sense of ourselves, and particularly our sense of independence and self-worth? I’m sure a study has been done on that.

The first time I came I was only 12 years old. I came on May 1 and went home on August 31, missing one month of school. I was invited by Mireille Dardel (now de Mun) to stay with her family in Montmorency (just outside Paris) and attend the lycee of which her father was the Director (Lycee Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous writer who had lived nearby). At that point I had never left the South, and rarely my little Southern town of 2,000 people. The whole town thought my mother was crazy to send me, and looking back on it I think she was a bit crazy too! But I was asked whether I would like to go to Paris, and I said “yes”, not knowing what I was getting into!

I arrived in my little cotton dresses to a Paris that was “tout frois” (very cold). The family (mother and daughters) quickly knitted me a heavy grey sweater, which I wore over my cotton dresses for two months until it warmed up. I attended the lycee (although I could not understand a word that was spoken except in English class, in which I excelled). Eventually I learned how to ride the bus to school and go on the train into Paris; go to the boulangerie and bring home the family’s bread; grind the coffee each day for the after-dinner-coffee; and in general make my way as a young French girl.

In 1958, France was still recovering from the war, with shortages of certain things (such as bed sheets) and no refrigeration in the typical house. This was strange to me, along with the little cars. They seemed very, very small. I had never played soccer; I had never heard of soccer. If you would like an image of what it was like then, see the movie (or read the book), “The Red Balloon.” Little boys of my age still wore short pants most of the time (except to church). It was a big deal to be able to wear long pants once you got to a certain age.

This I did without speaking a word of French when I arrived (other than a few words from the lessons of Mireille, which had taught me only how to request pieces of candy of a particular color, which was not very useful in making my way around). The first month I was essentially a deaf-mute. (Most of the family could speak some English, but refused to speak with me in English, only French 100%.) I could not understand a word and I could not say a word. The second month I began to understand things. The third month I understood almost everything, and could say a few things. By the end of August, I was essentially fluent in French with a good accent. This experience is what has convinced me that the immersion method is the only way to go in terms of language instruction. I am proud to say that our two children had the same experience (although a bit later in their teenage years) and are fluent in French (plus some other languages they picked up later, having had the experience of learning French early on).

How has France changed (my perceptions)? In some ways a lot, and in some ways not at all.

I think the ways it has changed are perhaps more superficial than the ways it has not changed. There are more tourists in Paris, and they take up more space. I suppose I should not resent this, because I am here as a tourist this time. But there is something inside me that is screaming (a silent scream): “Get out of here; this Paris belongs to me!” There are also all these chain stores, mostly American. My inner voice screams, “Get out; I want those cute boutiques back!” The way people dress is not so different from Americans anymore; we all wear things from Gap, etc. Finally, there is much more diversity. When I was here 50 years ago, France was “all white.” Today, all the colors of the “human rainbow” are evident, especially in Paris.

However, the heart of France has not changed at all. The French people are so proud of their country (but still resentful of American power and influence, perhaps more so); so in love with literature, art and beauty in all its forms (including good food and wine!); so warm to those they know and love (but—to Americans—often seem standoffish to strangers); and so proud of their basic values, especially the right of each individual to freely express an opinion (a value which, of course, we share). Vive la France!

Day 45

April 25

Quimper, Brittany

There is big news today: it is raining. Can you believe that we are now in Day 45 and we have not experienced a drop of rain until now? The plants love it. And after a long stretch of sunny skies, so do I. Water means life, and life means green. And green is everywhere in Brittany, all shades of it, but especially the deep, rich green that comes after a spring rain. You can almost hear the grass, trees, shrubs and flowers saying, “Thank you, thank you.”

We arrived in Brittany three days ago where we were met at the train station in Quimper by our French sister-in-law, Martine and her partner, Bernard. Martine and Bernard have been a couple for about twelve years, and she has lived in this charming house for about eight years.

The train ride through the French countryside was spectacular—rolling hills and farms, white farm cottages and an occasional chateaux. The short drive to their house, located about a mile from the picturesque town center of Quimper, took us through more farmland and then along narrow winding streets to Martine’s three-story house, overlooking in the distance the tidal river, Odet. When Martine moved from the Paris area eight years ago, I thought she might be making a mistake by leaving the world’s most enchanting city. But now I know it was the right decision. This is the area where she grew up, and it is beautiful.


Martine has become a master gardener, and her small back yard and garden are something out of House and Home. Her rhododendron is just beginning to blossom with red flowers, and the redbud behind her yard is in full bloom. The house has four bedrooms/two baths and is probably five or six times the size of her condo in Vincennes. And there is a huge “family room,” added by the previous owner, which serves as a dining room, living room, artist studio and anything else you want it to be. She is very happy here and describes the decision to move here as one of the best she has ever made.

But as has been the case with Embry’s French brothers and sisters, only three (of seven) of whom have survived, Martine is in the middle of serious health issues. She was diagnosed with intestinal cancer about a year ago and has just gone through two very complex operations, which thankfully seem to have been successful; but other problems have recently developed—severe back pain and pain in the bones for which there is no immediate diagnosis. Life is not easy.

But despite health problems, Martine maintains her upbeat optimism and sense of humor, and her energy level is high. She probably overdid it by leading us on a three mile stroll from her house to the tow path along the Odet river but insisted. (Bernard, who is now 78 is also in poor health, due to a spine injury, walks occasionally with a cane, and was not able to join us.) In fact she had carefully mapped out the entire three day visit before we got here—various day trips to see the countryside and the port cities, a couple of gourmet dinners at home (In addition to becoming a master gardener, she is a gourmet cook.), two evenings eating out at very nice restaurants, and a tour of the historic village center, most of which came off as planned. Bernard was the chauffeur and Martine the tour guide as we have made our way from village to village, stopping once for crepes at a country creperie for lunch and visiting three port villages.



Communication is half in French and half English since Bernard speaks even less English than I speak French.

The three port villages (Port La Foret, Concarneau, and Pont Aven ) are different in many ways. La Foret is a yachting and sailing capital with a huge marina, which included among other things two high tech, racing yachts about 60 feet long, having just returned from what could have been a trans-Atlantic crossing. The second, Concarneau, is a working port with fishing boats mixing with yachts and an historic old town enclosed by a Medieval wall; and the third, Pont Aven, is a tiny village situated on a tidal estuary on the fall line about 8 miles from the sea. But they have two things in common: they are all beautiful and they all experience pronounced tidal variations of 15-20 feet.


The second feature, the tidal variation, I find perplexing. When we visited these communities, the tide was low, and the boats that were moored were all high and dry on the mud, most propped up by supports but some keeled over on their sides. Four hours later they would all be floating again. But for the life of me, I can’t see how people sail in these conditions where at maximum ebb and flood tides, the current has got to be close to 10 knots. In the case of Pont Aven—and also Quimper—you have over 8 miles to go before you reach the sea. The only way that I can see this working is to cast off at high tide and to ride the ebb tide out until it is about to turn from an ebb to a flood and then to ride the flood back upstream to the port. That gives you 8-12 hours to sail, which is plenty for a day sail, but one mistake or an uncooperative wind or motor failure could spell big time trouble. This may explain in part why the French are considered by many to be the best sailors in the world. If you can sail in these conditions, you can sail anywhere.

So the stay here in Brittany with Martine and Bernard has been special. We have enjoyed long walks and long talks, wonderful meals both at home and at restaurants, and visually feasted on some of the best scenery in the world. I used to think the Brits had claim on the finest pastoral and maritime beauty in the world. It is now a toss up with Brittany.







Day 42

April 22

En route to Quimper, Brittany

As the bullet train flies out of Paris at 180 mph and I am situated in a cabin with a bearded man, probably around 30 and two small kids (one, a toddler, screaming bloody murder), I will summarize what we actually did in Paris for the four days we were there. (Embry is in another cabin on this car, also with a family, where hopefully she is having better luck than I am.)

Well, we walked.

And what is a better way to see this extraordinary city than walking along its narrow streets, its grand avenues, its parks and plazas, and, highest on the list, along the cay beside the river Seine? The first day we started off around nine in the morning, about the same time as the French Marathon was getting underway and turned right just over the bridge as the runners—and there were many thousands as you can imagine– were turning left. We walked a couple of miles along the quai watching all the tourist boats and barges motor by and all the families spreading out picnics on this drop-dead-gorgeous day. It was Sunday, and the entire city seemed to be empting out of apartment buildings into the parks and along the river. We eventually crossed back over to the Left Bank where we strolled through the Jardin de Plantes (botanical gardens), stopping for a salad and a sandwich and then made our way along the narrow streets of the Left Bank, pausing at small parks every now and then to watch kids playing and adults watching kids and, of course, a stop for an afternoon coffee at a sidewalk café. (For some unknown reason coffee here does not seem to bother me where in the US I levitate with one cup of real coffee.)


We arrived back at the flat around five and at seven strolled with Mireille a mile or so to one of the best French bistros in Paris, which it turned out was actually a Mexican Restaurant, which seemed a bit unusual at first until I realized that in the US we would never take a guest to an American restaurant in our neighborhood but rather to one of our favorite ethnic restaurants, which could well be Mexican. Or French! In any event, we had a great time and returned home around nine, exhausted after walking about seven miles (how did I ever manage without an iPhone walking app?) and seeing a lot of Paris. It was a terrific day!

I have gone into to some detail about day one in Paris because this is pretty much what we did every day. The key variables were when to start, whether to go east or west along the Seine and whether to explore the Right Bank or the Left Bank. One day we walked to the Eiffel Tower (and, yes, went to the top despite the long lines and waiting, probably not worth it), and another to the Champs Elysees. We spent the four days outside in this perfect weather, saving the museums for when we return.


There were three highlights. The first was spending time with Mireille, who has to be one of the world’s most remarkable women, who at age 80 looks like a fifty-year old, powerwalks like a forty-year old and has a zest for living and a sense of humor unmatched at any age. The second was the evening we spent reuniting with Beatrice, one of Embry’s French colleagues in the health research and policy field. Well known in international health care research circles, Beatrice mentored Embry when Embry spent six weeks in France in the 1980s working on her dissertation, comparing the US and French health care systems focusing on maternity and child health. (Frankly, I was convinced from the outset that the topic was chosen as a way to legitimize another long stay in France; and it worked, resulting in a PhD and a long term friendship with Beatrice, among other things.) Beatrice proudly showed Embry, Mireille and me around the hospital where she works and her office along with the historic buildings associated with it (Port Royal and its cloister, along with the historic Observatoire).   Afterwards we went out for drinks at a very upscale neighborhood restaurant followed by a delightful dinner at an intimate, quiet café.

The third highlight was running into Josie and Melissa, dear friends from All Souls Church (and also from sailing since Melissa has been a lynchpin on the “Carolina Blue” racing team for years). We had no idea they were in Paris but learned yesterday via Facebook (which we finally got access to when we discovered there was free WiFi available in the park behind Notre Dame) that not only had they just arrived the day before, they were staying in a hotel only a few blocks from Mireille’s flat. After some effort we finally connected and met them for a glass of rose, good conversation, and catching up at a café behind the cathedral before they rushed off for a dinner reservation, and we headed off to the Notre Dame Cathedral for an amazing concert of renaissance and Baroque music just at sunset when the windows are at their most beautiful.

Now we are on the way to Quimper on the Atlantic Coast to visit our sister-in-law, Martine and her partner, Bernard, where we will be for the next three days.

And, oh yes, the infant for the moment has stopped screaming. But the older one, a girl, is throwing up.

And, by the way, I lost my cell phone on the train, Incident Number 4!

(The two-year-old stole it, I am sure. When his sister was throwing up, he was under the table carefully removing the cell phone from my pocket with his tiny, trained hands as instructed by his dad, the guy with the beard and, I now remember, beady eyes.) Martine’s only comment was, “Joe, if these things keep happening to you, by the time you are ready to board the container ship in Shanghai, you won’t even have your clothes left.”

Day 38

April 21


I am sitting in a flat on the fourth floor of a mid Nineteenth Century apartment house overlooking the vast plaza in front of Notre Dame. Even though the time is approaching seven in the evening, the crowd of well over a thousand is still milling around, many awaiting entry into the church, others just hanging out. The bells of the cathedral are ringing loudly. The evening sun basks the white walls of Mireille’s tastefully decorated flat where we will be staying for the next several days. We are in Paris. The world is good.


To understand the French leg of the journey, you need some history. We will be staying at the homes of two people who are very dear to us. The first is Mireille, who is Embry’s de facto older French sister, who has rented the flat where we are now for the last fifty years. The second is Martine, the former French wife of Embry’s brother, Mike, who despite being an ex, has always been our bonafide sister-in-law. Martine lived in the US for around 25 years, raising their two children(to whom we are very close) in North Carolina but moved back to France following her retirement a number of years ago and now lives in a seaside town, in Brittany. We will take the train there in a couple of days.

A word on the Mireille connection. When Embry was twelve, her family shipped her off via Icelandic Airlines for a summer in France where she would live with a French family. The oldest son of the family of seven children had attended Davidson on a Fulbright Scholarship in the 1950s where he became close to Embry’s family. A second French summer followed a few years later. Merrille, the middle child, was about ten years older than Embry and took a special interest in her, helping her learn the language and adapt to the French culture. They have remained close ever since. And the relationship has continued into the next generation. Our kids have stayed with Mireille or her extended family; and her son, Bartheleme, stayed with us for a summer when worked as an intern at Howell Associates and crewed on Wednesday night sailboat races.


Mireille was at the train station to greet us last evening as we roared in on our bullet train. Though she will be 80 this year, she is fit and spry, and it was all we could do to keep up with her as we charged out of Gare Lyon and flagged down a cab. The evening was spent catching up and enjoying a delicious light meal of bread, cheese and a salad. Nobody does fresh bread and cheese better than the French. But the catching up part was bitter sweet. Four of the seven children have died, including the youngest, Henri, who also attended Davidson for a year and someone I knew, though not well. He was only 65. (Embry was aware of only two of the deaths.)

Bitter sweet, yes. But also the way life runs its course on the planet Earth. We are getting old. When people get old, they eventually die. It is a blessing that our health has permitted us to embark on this adventure, and we are probably in a fairly small minority of people our age who are physical able, have the time, money and the inclination to take a trip like this. When you are in your eighth decade and you hear a voice in your head, “Do it now, you never know how much time you have left,” you pay attention. When you catch up as we did this evening, it reminds you how short life is and how you only get one shot in trying to get it as right as you can. And no one is saying it is easy. Mireille lost her husband over 35 years ago to cancer and has had to manage as a single parent raising two sons and being a widow way before her time—which she has done with style and grace. But it has not been easy.

So here we are for a few days before we go to Brittany and then return for another short stay before heading to Germany. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous, lots of flowering trees, daffodils and tulips, blue skies and temperatures around seventy. It is April in Paris!

And is their anything more glorious than a warm, sunny, Sunday afternoon in Paris in April? I am convinced that everyone physically able—and even many who are not—is outside today enjoying the sunshine and the street activity that is so splendidly Paris. Families have spread out blankets and make-shift tablecloths along the Seine and in the parks. Husbands are opening bottles of wine as the kids skate board or kick around a soccer ball and wives pull bread and cheese out of picnic baskets. Old men with canes are sitting on park benches discussing affairs of the afternoon and watching all the action. The sidewalk cafes are jam packed for afternoon café or a glass of beer, and ubiquitous French couples are embracing and kissing even as they walk by fast as if they were afraid of missing the last train to someplace. Only here, I think, can you witness in one split instant the depth and breath of what I believe is the best life has to offer on this troubled planet. It is April and it is Paris. Life is good.





Day 36

April 19


We are in Paris, but that will be the subject of the next blog. This one is about Madrid and some final thoughts about Spain.

Madrid is magnificent. The metro area has a population of over six million (similar to Washington), but the city itself is four times the size of DC with over two and a half million people. And in both Valencia and in Madrid there is no such thing as single family housing and suburban neighborhoods. Except for some of the older neighborhoods, where there are some two or three story, ancient townhouses, everyone lives in apartments of seven to twelve stories, similar to the scale of the multifamily buildings in DC. Also in both Madrid and Valencia, there is an abrupt line between the high density apartment neighborhoods and farmland, a “hard edge” as it is called in planning circles. Public transportation is prolific and reliable. Graffiti persists in Madrid as it does in Valencia but seems somewhat more under control.


The big difference between Valencia and Madrid is the energy level. Madrid seems like New York City with its crowded streets and jammed sidewalks. While there are a handful of Medieval neighborhoods, most of modern day Madrid was built and rebuilt during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and it has a monumental feel to it. Several large plazas near the center of town are the scene of 24 hour activity with bands, clown acts, people in weird costumes, gypsies begging for money, old men with buckets and wands producing huge bubbles, women who look like prostitutes, smoking cigarettes, wearing short, short blue jean pants, spiked heals, lots of weird makeup and died hair, and thousands of people mulling about seemingly having a good time in a frantic but also paradoxically laid back atmosphere. Being in the middle of all this is like being in a huge carnival.

Our hotel was at the center of it all; but instead of being a tourist hotel as I had expected, it was a hundred room boutique, bed-and breakfast hotel with small rooms and the most beautiful lobby I have ever seen, with an extraordinary bar, fireplace and library, a true oasis and relief from the hustle of the street outside. If you ever go to Madrid, stay there: the Hotel de la Reina at Gran Via 22.


Our big mistake was not allowing for more time in Madrid. You really need at least a week; but we crammed about as much in as we could in two and a half days—a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, a walk through the royal gardens (a lot like Central Park), a guided “free” walking tour of the old city (tips accepted) and fashionable 3:00 pm lunches at two terrific spots—one, La Tasquita de Enfrente, world class. And we attended an evening dinner show of Flamenco music and dancing. Naturally we visited the Prado, which has a collection of Renaissance paintings that few other museums can match. But we did not see the dozen or so other important museums, the royal palace or some of the other spectacular parks and gardens. Madrid is on our list of places to return to.


I have talked about the friendliness of the Spanish people despite our language barrier. (In Madrid many more people speak English than in Valencia; and there are many American and British tourists, so language is not as much of an issue.) As an example of how nice most people are, our cab driver headed off in the wrong direction when taking us to the Flamenco show due to Embry’s giving him the wrong address. The street name ended in an “a” instead of an “o” as was written on the paper she handed him. The “o” address was ten miles away. By the time we realized there was a problem we had run up almost eight Euros on the meter. He slammed on the brakes, turned around, reset the meter to zero, and headed back in the right direction, writing off the eight Euros as a business loss—and without a single complaint. What are the odds of something like that happening in Washington? (A generous tip helped a bit, but still…)

So Spain ranks very high on our list. The history has been mixed: vast empires: Roman, Visigothic, Moorish, and then unification under the Christian monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, followed by a 100 year history of world dominance. But the empire came at the expense of the Moors and the Jews, and there was the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Civil war and Fascism under Franco that are blots on Spanish history that have still not been thoroughly reconciled and remain controversial up to today. Today there is a multi-party constitutional monarchy that retains some aspects of the “old right” (church, monarchy) and “old left” (socialism); these divisions that go back for centuries still exist, as played out in the parliamentary system.

There also seems to be a wisdom and maturity that comes from such a long history and knowing what it is like to be on top and then over time see it all slowly vanish like sand spilling between your fingers. They look at us and perhaps hope we make the best of the time allotted to us….

Day 35

April 17

En Route to Paris

Madrid is now history and we are on our way to Paris via another modern European bullet train. The train from Valencia was superior to Acela in “luxury” and cruised along at speeds close to 300km/h (185 mph), even faster than the bullet trains in the US. Bullet trains in the US? What do you mean we don’t have any bullet trains in the US?

So this was going to be the blog about how terrific Madrid is—a New York style, high energy city with monumental avenues, vast plazas and urban spaces, narrow Medieval streets, beautiful parks, world class museums, countless cafes and restaurants, and much, much more. I will touch on that at some point but not here.

This blog post is about yet another incident. If you have been following the blog, you know we have now had two “incidents.” The first incident occurred on Day 25 in Valencia and involved Embry falling on a rock on the beach, resulting in a deep wound requiring six stitches and producing a award winning black eye. Kudos to the Spanish health care system for patching her up. The second incident was described in blog post Day 27 and recounted our being stopped by the police for having our bright lights on at noon on a sunny day. Both ended on reasonably good notes.

Incident Number 3—and I am sure others will follow—occurred around 6:30 pm yesterday on our third and final evening in Madrid. Having awakened from a siesta following another nine course “tasting menu” feast from a world class chef (good friend, by the way, of the famous Washington chef of Jaleo and other restaurants, Jose Andres) in a tiny, upscale café only minutes from our hotel, we decided to go for a walk. The sidewalks were jammed with all kinds of people, and you had the feeling you could have been in Times Square or leaving the stadium after a Nats playoff game. We were no more than a hundred feet from our hotel when a bald headed guy in his forties, wearing a bright red shirt, turned to me and asked if I spoke English. In a heavy Spanish accent, he said “Need to check your wallet. Think you were just robbed.” I immediately checked my back pocket. No wallet.

“Think he went that way and into that store. Just happened. Need to act fast.”

Instincts take over at times like this. I immediately turned around and retraced our steps looking for a shady character with my wallet. Now you might ask what I would actually do if I found some shady character who looked suspicious.

“Excuse me, but did you happen to come across a wallet in the last minute that is not yours; and if so, could you kindly return it to its rightful owner?”

Alas, as I stared into the vast multitudes all around me, no one looked shady; then everyone did, and then everything seemed a blur. Then I heard Embry’s voice. Always the one to act quickly and decisively, she had charged directly into the store where the nice, baldheaded guy said the suspect probably was. It was a small ice cream shop with no seats and about a dozen people standing around, mainly twenty-somethings, either eating ice cream or standing in line to buy some.

“Someone in this store has my husband’s wallet and I want it back right now!” She was shouting, loudly enough for me to hear her about 20 feet away above the noise of the street and the endless chatter. All eyes were fixed on her, and none of the customers were saying a thing. I nudged my way in and scanned the crowd for a shady character. There were only a couple of likely suspects, young guys, but they seemed innocent enough; and I noticed one of them was searching through his pockets as if he were trying to find a set of lost keys, then looked up at Embry and shrugged with a look which said, “Sorry, can’t find it anywhere.”

Then several women took out their purses and rummaged through them trying to find the wallet. Two of the women opened their purses for Embry to inspect.

No wallet anywhere. Must not be in the store. Maybe look somewhere else.

Now five minutes had passed, and our window of opportunity was over, but does anyone actually think that the thief, had we found him, would willfully return the “lost” wallet. What were we thinking? Embry’s comment was that it never hurts to try.

We dejectedly followed our steps back to the hotel where we reported the incident to the people at the desk, to which the response was something like, “Oh, ho hum, sorry, not much you can do.” A guy not much younger than me who was standing in line behind me, commented in perfect English (a Canadian from Alberta), “Sorry to hear the news, but welcome to the club. Our traveling companion had his wallet stolen yesterday. Lost everything. Happens all the time in Madrid. Welcome to Spain!”

So what was supposed to be a leisurely evening stroll turned out to be a two hour ordeal on the phone trying to cancel credit cards and ATM cards. Have you ever tried to cancel an ATM card when you do not know the number of the card or the tax id or social security number which is on record for the card and can’t remember the name of your first pet or your mother’s birthday? But that is another story which does not merit time here. Like the fellow club member who lost everything yesterday, so did I, except thankfully I have my passport; and Embry still has some money in her bank account. How all this finally gets resolved will be the subject of a subsequent blog.

The most disappointing aspect of this incident is that it cast a pall on what otherwise was a wonderful experience and a wonderful city. The Madrid story will be next.

Day 32

April 15

En Route to Madrid

(Embry speaking.) We are now on the train to Madrid, having finished Leg 3 of our journey. The Home Exchange was a wonderful experience.   We spent the last two days with Juan and Vincen, who returned so that she could begin work yesterday. We have much in common with both of them. In particular, Vincen and I are in the same profession (public health research concerning women and children), and I was amazed to discover that we had worked for some time at the same French institute (INSERM). Our offices had been next door to each other, and we worked with the same people. How serendipity is that? Juan is retired as an environmental economist. He spent a day driving us into the countryside to the lovely seaside town of Denia, where we had a great meal and saw lots of boats, which of course appealed to “the Captain”.

Someone asked “What is it like to travel the world for four months with one person? Is that hard?” This made me reflect a bit on what makes a good traveling companion, and how we have worked out this aspect of the trip.   It can be challenging since there are many decisions and compromises to be made in both the planning ahead and the day-to-day decisions.


First, we have been married for almost 50 years (of which, partially, this trip is a celebration). So we have had plenty of time to work out how to relate to each other, and what buttons to push (or not push), and when. Our friend, J.Vic, is a certified Myers-Briggs tester; and when he tested us both he let us know that the difference in our personalities that could lead to “issues” has to do with Joe being an extreme extrovert and my being a moderate introvert. He needs to talk a lot to “charge his batteries” and I need “alone time” to charge mine. This let us know that we need to “talk time” and “alone time” each day.

One other thing that helps reduce stress is “specialization.” By this I mean that Joe (who has a MUCH better sense of direction than me) is the “map guy,” and I am the one who orders the food and asks for directions. I have this job because I am not shy about making mistakes, and he has that “guy trait” of never wanting to look bad. I am sure that if you had a traveling companion for this long a journey, you would do the same, regardless of gender or talents, since it is just easiest to divide up the stressful jobs, just like at home.

Also, we are not so young anymore and we both have an understanding that we need to plan for enough rest each day or most days. This has been easy so far, but we have actually finished the most relaxing legs of the trip, so we are both going to have to concentrate on this in the upcoming part of the trip. Otherwise we will get grumpy.

Some of you have heard Joe’s sermon at weddings about our metaphor for a “good marriage” It has the meat of potatoes of trust and respect. It is just not a real stew (marriage) without these two basic ingredients. However, the best stew also has both vegetables and spices for a good flavor, and it is good to mix these up for variety. The vegetables are the fun and humor of life. The spices are, well “you know what.” This trip is mostly been about the vegetables, and we are having lots of fun together and laughing a lot. We are really adding to the flavor of our already-good marriage with this trip. (For example, Joe will tell you in another blog about the belly laughs we have had over our Spanish-English phrase book.) I think having fun with your companion is what makes it possible to overcome the daily fatigue and inevitable annoyances that come along with any traveling adventure.

I am not going to go into the spices of the marriage. My editor has informed me that this is not an X-rated blog. For that topic I suggest you read the recent New York Times article about “Sex over Seventy.” That even has facts and figures in it. And that’s all I’m allowed to say about this topic! Off to Madrid.



Day 31

April 14


Day 31! One month. One quarter of the trip behind us. And so far not one day of rain and in Spain, sunny skies with temperatures 65-70 most of the time. Hard to complain about that.

So the question has come up from readers, “I sort of understand Home Exchange, but what did you and Embry actually do every day.”

Actually Home Exchange is a great idea and you should consider it. It will save you a lot of money but more important changing homes with somebody in another country gives you the opportunity to experience life there in a different way from what you experience as a typical tourist, which we will start being tomorrow when we go to Madrid and stay in a tourist hotel.

We are staying in a neighborhood where there are no tourists and no hotels of any type. We have not heard any English spoken the entire time we have been here except when someone is talking to us. So when we have a pastry in one of the coffee shops or tapas at a sidewalk café or even dinner at a local restaurant we are something of an anomaly. While our poor Spanish has been a detriment, people have made a heroic effort to be friendly and accommodating, and it is always remarkable how far sign language can take you. Embry’s idea of paying for a coffee and croissant is to go up to the person at the cash register and put all her coins in her palm, asking the person to take the correct amount. That often brings pleasant smiles.


Our daily schedule has been to take on one major activity a day and have one meal out and one at the apartment (usually dinner, which enables us to eat at something closer to a normal dinner time). Major activities include museums, parks, cathedrals and old buildings, hop-on, hop-off bus tours, and people watching while having an espresso at an outdoor cafe –the usual sort of thing. We have done a lot of walking (health app says our average is over five miles a day) including three or four walks from the apartment to the downtown historical area, which it turns out is about an hour away on foot, about the same distance as Metro Center is from our house in Washington. Yesterday we rented bikes allowing us to cover a lot more ground, hitting the port and the beach area (really crowded with families since it was a holiday) and a bunch of neighborhoods we had not been to before. And we have used buses more than a dozen times. After a while you sort of get into the swing of things and find yourself just hanging out. No time commitments, no forced marches, nothing you have to do. This, of course, is all going to change in a day or two, but for the last two weeks it has been just what the doctor ordered.


Does this kind of tourism provide more insight or “authenticity”? Is it more “real”? My conclusion is that it is simply different and that there is a room for a whole bunch of ways to visit and explore a country. I am reminded of the elderly Brit I met in India a dozen years ago, who had lived in the country for a number of years. “You know,” he said, “you can come to India for a long weekend, two or three days, and conclude that this is a pretty nice and interesting country and move on to the next country thinking you know India. Or you can stay two or three weeks and conclude that while you ‘know India,’ it is probably a little more complicated than you used to think. If you stay two or three years, then you have real doubts as to what is going on; and if you stay a decade as I have, you know damn well you do not have a clue.” While India is perhaps the most complicated country on the planet, the wisdom of the old man applies to all countries to a certain extent. You do get a feel for the country and its people and that is why we all travel in the first place. And a home exchange gives you a new and different perspective. But as to true understanding or authentic experiences, you do the best you can, realizing at the end of the day, you probably don’t have a clue.


Day 28

April 11


First and foremost, a word on the patient: Embry is doing fine. She has quite a shiner and the bandage remains; but we walked about five miles yesterday and attended a choral concert last evening. She in fact is holding up better than I am.

The last blog post dealt the Spanish health care delivery system. The topic today is criminal justice and law enforcement, an interest area where we have both past and now current experience.

Our first trip to Spain was in the fall of 1973 when we visited the southern coast on a cheap, one week vacation posted on the bulletin board of the DC YMCA. The trip got off to a shaky start when driving out of the rental car agency I turned right instead of left and stared into oncoming traffic in both lanes, cars honking loudly. Oops, one way street. I suppose you could say we were lucky because one of the cars had a blue light on top, turned on a siren and stopped traffic allowing us to back up and turn around before we had a head on collision. Then came our first encounter with the Spanish criminal justice system. All I remember is that a fuming cop stomped over to our car, armed to the hilt—an assault rifle on his back, pistol, helmet, the whole works. He was not happy and expressed his displeasure very effectively even though he did not speak a word of English. We ended up giving him all the cash we had. The entire incident was over in less than five minutes due in part to the fact that Andrew, who was barely three at the time, was throwing up on the back seat, not exactly the kind of atmosphere to encourage a cop to hang around.

“What is this place anyway,” I asked Embry, “a fascist police state?”

“Well, yes, actually it is.” she commented.

(It would be two more years before Franco died.)

Fast forward to April 2015. We are driving along on a super highway, the first time we have used the car that our host, Juan, has graciously made available to us. It has been only about 15 minutes since we departed. Suddenly, a white motorcycle pulls out in front of us, and a guy wearing a yellow jacket is motioning us to pull over. I glance in the rear view mirror, and behind us is another white motorcycle with a guy wearing a yellow jacket. Embry noted that she thought they must be police. Not again, I thought.

We pulled over. One cop remained on his motorcycle while the other approached us. He was not scowling like I remember the cop of 1973 and actually had a rather pleasant expression. And he did not appear to be armed. At least he was not carrying an assault weapon. I breathed a little easier.

We all know how the routine works and I was ready for him, handing over my drivers license, which he studied carefully. Then he asked for my “passaporte”. Passaporte? Passport? What passport, the one I left at the apartment?

Despite speaking very little English, he made the point that a US drivers license is invalid without a passport.

Okay, I thought, no passport, therefore no valid drivers license, some inexplicable moving violation on a super highway. What are we talking about here, six weeks in the slammer? All the money we have?

Embry fumbled around feverishly and handed him her passport, which he studied for a few seconds. I got up my courage and looked up at him, shrugging my shoulders, giving him my puzzled look, trying to communicate in sign language that I had no idea what we had done wrong. He gave me a serious look back and then turned away and joined his colleague for a short discussion. He returned and said, “lights, lights,” then pointed at the headlights.

Lights, lights? What about the lights? Oh. I realized that the headlights were on, remembering I had forgotten to turn them off when leaving the garage. But since when was it a crime to drive with your headlights on? Then I realized that he was not talking just about the headlights but the fact that they were on bright rather than dim. But for goodness sake, it was noon; and there was not a cloud in the sky. And we were on a divided highway where you couldn’t even see the cars on the other side. But what really puzzled me was how could these guys even see that I had my brights on in such sunny conditions.

Now there are two ways to handle situations like this. One is to take a combative approach—which, of course, never works—questioning the stupid law that makes it illegal to drive with bright lights on in the middle of the day in bright sun. The second is to throw yourself at the feet of your adversary and to beg for mercy. I followed the latter approach.

Out of my mouth mysteriously popped the phrase, “Lo siento mucho, senior, lo siento mucho.” Embry’s guardian angel must have had had something to do with this because it had been so long that I had used this phrase that I was not exactly sure what it meant; but it worked, and the tension eased immediately. A slight smile appeared on his face. (The phrase simply means “I am very sorry,” and I must have said it at least a half dozen times.) During next phase of the encounter the officer provided instruction (in Spanish and sign language) on how to dim and brighten the headlights. Before it was all over, he was smiling broadly and wishing us well on our journey—at least I think that is what he was doing since I really had no idea what he was actually saying. But in any event we were free to continue on our journey. No fines, no jail time. I did not count the number of muchas gracias I said, but there were a lot.

But except for this incident we have not seen a police officer—a far cry from 1973 when they were on every corner and fully armed and Spain was in fact a police state. We tend to forget how far the country has come in a relatively short period of time. And Valencia—though it is certainly not without its problems and challenges—is a delight. Even with the language difficulties, we find we are able to communicate (sort of) and feel welcomed and accepted. The city of Valencia is very livable and charming, and the life style of late meals and long siestas in the mid afternoon gives us obsessed Americans reason to pause and wonder if our frantic life style really gets us anywhere. Only a couple of days left here before we head off to Madrid. We are going to miss Valencia.