Monday, January 30, 2012

Airports, Angels Wings and Garmin....

Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris France

"If God had really intended men to fly, he'd make it easier to get to the airport."  ~George Winters

Those overnight flights are killers.  There is nothing comfortable about sleeping upright in a cramped airplane seat with strangers all around you, babies crying, men snoring and folks strolling up and down the aisle at all times, bumping into you as they pass your row.  And how about that person behind you who insists on using your seat back as a brace when they get up or sit down?  Or the person who wants to take off their shoes and stretch their legs out on the seat armrests, practically tucking their stocking feet into your armpits?  Really???  Why do people do this?  This is not your living room, I want to say.  But, of course, I do not.  I politely try to refrain from doing those same things myself and be the best seatmate possible to those around me.  I'm not always successful, but I try.

The flight from Dallas to Paris was long and uncomfortable but we finally arrived at about 9:00 am Paris time.  We landed in a rainstorm and due to construction at the terminal, we had to deplane on the tarmac, walk to the outdoor stairs leading to a temporary elevated walkway that took us to the terminal, climb the stairs with all of our carry on luggage (that's right, no elevators), and traverse the walkway across the top of the tarmac and into the customs building.  All this while jetlagged, stiff, sore, wet and confused.  Needless to say, my mind was screaming for coffee but from the looks of the line in customs, that was not going to happen any time soon.  I sighed and began to look around me, taking in the strange surroundings. 

Everyone was crowded together into a tight mass, moving and winding slowly through the customs lines.  The signs were in French and the announcements on the loudspeakers were heralded by a soft sweet melodic sound that we later dubbed "angels wings".  We quickly learned that each time we heard the "angels wings", a feminine French voice would come through the speaker system, instructing and guiding us through the maze of customs and connecting flight information.  Of course we understood none of it but I must admit, the angels wings and the corresponding woman's voice was a soothing sound in such a busy and confusing airport.  It was almost mesmerizing and when I visited Charles De Gaulle a few years later on another connecting flight, I was instantly elated to hear the familiar sound of "angels wings".  

It took forever to navigate through that customs line and then to find our baggage claim, but eventually we did and thankfully all of our bags were there waiting when we arrived.  It took an equally long amount of time to find the rental car counter, as we were planning to drive ourselves from Paris to Ducey, a small town in Normandy and our stop for the night, before we traveled on to pick up "the boat."  Finding the counter was only half the battle - the second half was actually finding the car.  But eventually we did and we struggled to fit all of our bags into the tiny French automobile.  Tom and Jim are no strangers to packing cars, though, and they quickly figured out how to squeeze every last drop of luggage into that tiny hatchback.  Now for the next adventure - getting out of Paris and into the countryside!  But this would be easy, we reasoned, for we had borrowed a Garmin from a friend and surely we could plug it right in and we would be on our way.  Or so the instructions would have you believe. 

Apparently we had rented the only car in Paris that did not have a cigarette lighter adaptor to supply power to the Garmin.  That's right - there was not one single 120 Volt adaptor anywhere in that car and the Garmin battery was as dead as a doornail.  We looked at each other in disbelief and Tom said to me, the trip planner, "Sandy, you did a MapQuest on this place for backup, right?"  My expression said it all.  No - MapQuest had been the last thing on my mind.  After all - Garmin was supposed to replace MapQuest, making the program obsolete in our new world of modern technology!  After a few long moments of silence, Tom slowly got out of the car and began to unpack the bags in the hatchback.  We had the stand by maps of France but as luck would have it, they were tucked in the bottom suitcase.  This day was getting longer by the moment!

Hours later, we were still circling Paris with no idea of how to get away from that city.  It was as though we were reliving Rome all over again, driving in circles around this massive city and fighting traffic, going around and around in a giant toilet-bowl like manner.  Tom was trying valiantly to read the maps and the street signs, Jan was doing her best to interpret the French and Jim was driving us through the chaos, operating on no sleep in the last 24 hours.  I resolved to stay quiet, realizing that I had little to offer to this effort.  When it seemed that we could no longer function, I saw a Comfort Inn hotel and suggested that we pull in and ask directions.  Jim pulled up to the curb, Tom risked his life by opening his door into oncoming traffic and jumping out, then ran to the hotel lobby in search of someone that could speak English and help us find our way.  He came back with written instructions and thankfully, the English speaking concierge was helpful and we were soon on our way out of Paris.  We breathed a sigh of relief as the traffic thinned and the passing scenery became pastoral instead of Parisian.

We hadn't eaten since the airplane breakfast and when we saw the familiar McDonald's sign in a small country village, we quickly pulled in for a meal.  I am not a McDonald's fan but I must tell you, I had the freshest salad at this tiny restaurant that I have ever eaten at a McDonalds.  None of us could believe the quality of our meal and we were all wishing that the US McDonalds could come here to take a lesson.  Or maybe we were just famished.  Either way, it was wonderful and our moods instantly elevated as we nourished our tired bodies and soon we were even chuckling a bit at our escapade.

Our itinerary for this day called for an overnight stop at a Best Western in Ducey and a visit to Mont St. Michel.   I was excited to see the French monastery, built on a rock off the coast and inhabited by Monks since the 15th century.  The pictures I had seen were breathtaking and I understood that it was only a few miles from Ducey.  As we drove towards the coast the countryside was becoming more hilly and as we came up over a rise in the road I gasped -- there, miles away, I could see the hazy image of Mont St Michel rising from the ocean.  Jim paused the car on the top of the hill and we all looked, straining to see this amazing sight.  Our excitement increased and we were suddenly energetic again, anxious to get to the hotel, check in, and then go out to explore this vision.

Travel Tip:  Even with a GPS device, things can go wrong.  Before leaving print a MapQuest of your first leg of the trip as a backup.  It will come in handy when you're jet lagged and tired in a strange city!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Crusing through France

Paris, Mont St Michel, Honfleur, Normandy, D-Day Beaches, Brittany countryside and Le Boat.

 The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. ~St. Augustine

Tom and I had never been to France and while it was on my radar, I had not necessarily determined exactly what I wanted to see or visit there.  It was in the back of my mind to visit, but that was all.  Until one day when our friend Jan brought out a flyer for Le Boat. 

 "Look at this!" she said excitedly, as she spread the pamphlet out on the counter.  "We can rent our own little houseboat and navigate ourselves through the countryside of France, all at our own pace."  Tom and I looked over her shoulder with interest - the idea of our own little houseboat in the French countryside was appealing and sounded very much like our kind of adventure!

 As we looked at the brochure and began our planning, I became more and more excited but also, confused.  We discovered that we could rent the houseboat (and there were SO many styles and sizes to choose from) and then select an itinerary for a self-cruise through France.  The prices would vary depending on the size and style of the boat as well as the selected itinerary and time of year for travel.  Being the off-shoulder travelers that we are, we quickly determined that we would pick the first two weeks of September for our excursion, which was right at the end of the boating season.  It would still be warm, but the summer crowds would be gone and the waterways would be less crowded.

But now for the boat and itinerary!  We had to select our boat with care - this would be our home for a full week and it could get a bit cramped for four adults and luggage.  It was going to be alot like camping - sort of an RV on the river.  And like any RV, there were multiple models to choose from, each with varying degrees of luxury.  We reviewed the brochure details over and over, studying the tiny floor plan maps as best we could, trying to determine which boat was the right size but within the budget we had determined to spend.  Tom, Jan, Jim and I spent evenings with the LeBoat brochures and maps of France spread out on our kitchen table, sipping French wine, eating brie cheese and excitedly poring over the details until we settled on just the right boat and itinerary for our adventure.
We would cruise through the canals and rivers of Brittany on a boat that listed three bedroom cabins each with a bath and shower, kitchen and dining/living space and an upper deck with picnic table, chairs and umbrella for outdoor living.  Bikes could be rented for an additional fee and we quickly added them to our order.  They would be tied onto the back of the boat and we could use them for our transportation when we stopped at the villages along the canals.  This was getting so exciting!  It was going to be a very relaxing and fun filled week with no television, no distractions and no traffic. 

We began our planning a year before we actually took off and during the next several months we held the image of Le Boat and the French waterways in our minds as we went about our daily lives and responsibilities.  That image kept us going and our families joined in the fun of helping us make the dream a reality.  We planned French dinner nights to meet and discuss our plans and sipped French wines to prepare out palettes for the flavors of the country.  I pored over French tour books, identifying the best stops along the way and the sights that we would see.  And Jan brushed up on her college French, determined that she would be able to speak with the locals wherever we went.

Finally, September 1 arrived and we boarded the American flight that would take us to France.  Bon Voyage!!!

Travel Tip:  Travel books such as Fodors, Frommers and Rick Steve's are often helpful for planning vacations, but can be expensive when purchased new.  Shop on Amazon.Com and select a slightly used, year old version of the travel book you want.  You'll save money and seldom does much of the information change from last year to this.

Monday, January 9, 2012

What did you see today?

What did you see today?

  “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”  Jonathan Swift

Seeing the historical sights of ancient Rome, studying the intricate paintings on the Vatican ceiling, admiring the colorful reef fish in Hawaii, watching an active volcano erupt in the night.....  Some might say you require vision to see these things.  And I would say, that is true.  But do you need eyesight to see the soul?  Do you need eyesight to experience love and the touch of a friend?  How do we see these things?   The intangible things.  The gifts of life.

My husband Tom is my rock.  He has always had the perfect vision in our family - the 20/20 vision and the proverbial "eyes like a hawk".  Nothing escaped his sight.  He could see the eagle nesting in a far away tree, the sea turtle bobbing among the waves, the tiny shellfish hiding in a coral reef and the far away castle set on a hill.  He can frame pictures in his minds eye and shoot them quickly with his canon camera, resulting in images beyond my perception or vision.  His pictures tell stories of people, places and nature.

The gift of sight is precious and dear.  We never realize how much that is true until a day comes and we lose some of what we had.  I never thought such a day would come in my life. 

The day started like any other and progressed so normally.  It ended like most of our days do -- at the health club working off the stress of the day before we head home to relax and recharge for tomorrow.  I was startled when I walked out of the gym and realized that Tom had tried calling me repeatedly while I was inside.  The sight of so many missed calls within a quick timeframe made my heart skip a quick beat and I hit "redial" as quickly as I could.

"Are you still at the gym?"  Tom asked.  When I affirmed that I was he said, "can you bring me home?  I can't see out of my left eye and I don't think I should drive.".  "What?" I exclaimed.  "Are you sure??  What happened?"  But that's just it - nothing "happened".    There was nothing tangible that Tom could point to, he simply lost sight in his left eye while riding the exercise bike.  That's it.  No pain, no flash of light, no discomfort, no other symptoms.  Nothing.  How does this happen?

As we met with the eye specialist the next day we both felt confident that his sight would return soon.  Surely this was a misunderstanding of some sort - there had to be a miracle drop that would bring back his vision.  After all - we sent a man to the moon and we can transplant hearts and perform other medical miracles.  This should  be simple!

But as the meeting progressed and the doctor's face became grim, I felt my confidence beginning to fade.  This was taking too long and he was running too many tests.  I'll never forget what happened next.  Dr. K showed us the pictures of the inside of Tom's eye - pictures he'd captured on his high tech computer system.  He grimly explained the blood clot that had burst causing damage to the optic nerves and showed us the outline on the computer image.  He sat back and looked at us, his face stoic and unmoving.  We hesitated to ask the question - yet it begged to be asked and sat larger then an elephant in the small examining room.  "Is the vision loss permanent?"  I heard Tom ask softly.  I saw the doctor nod once, then say "Yes, I am afraid that it is."  My mind began screaming inside as I struggled to remain calm on the outside.  My husband and I were in shock as the doctor began to explain the situation and what had happened.  He then sent us on to the hospital to check in and begin a series of tests to attempt to uncover the cause of this blood clot.  We numbly left his office and headed to the emergency room, not sure what to say or where to begin.
It was a long weekend, full of tests and MRI's, scans and ultrasounds.  In the end, nothing was uncovered and no cause was determined.  But the verdict remained the same - the vision loss was permanent. 

The loss of sight to someone as active as Tom will be difficult.  Immediately we wondered if he could still SCUBA dive, play golf, drive a car and of course, take pictures?  As we pondered the situation and began to come to grips with it, God began to reveal marvelous and wonderful things to us.  Friends began to pour out their love and sympathy as word spread.  Our children were there non-stop, demonstrating their love and commitment to their father and friend.  Our granddaughter climbed into Papa's hospital bed and snuggled with him to watch cartoons and share his lunch.  Life and love poured out to us in more ways then we could imagine.  And none of it needed to be seen - all of it was felt.  Genuinely and truly, felt.

Tom is a people person.  He has the gift of seeing beyond the exterior of others.  He can discern their spirit and he makes people laugh with his quick and friendly nature.  He knows no strangers, no matter where we go.  Everyone likes Tom and everyone gravitates toward him and his natural and radiant personality.  He sees people beyond their physical presence - he sees their hearts and he seeks to know them beyond what is obvious to others.

I have realized something so precious through all of this.  Losing eye sight in one eye is difficult and disappointing - but it's truly not the loss of vision.  Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others - the heart, the soul and the inner beauty of mankind.   Tom has always done that anyway - this sight loss merely allows him the opportunity to use his true vision more completely, in travels and at home.

Our extraordinary travels will continue - for we are an ordinary couple but we seek the extraordinary adventures in life and this does not require 20/20 vision in both eyes.  It requires eyes for the soul and a longing to see past the exterior, allowing for God's vision to overtake our own, creating a new sight for our own tired eyes.  Each day we are given a new vision but we must choose to see it.  What did you see today?