Home Exchange ~ not this time

Last week I was merrily picturing myself wintering in a beautiful townhouse in sunny Southern California after a surprise and quite intriguing offer came in through Home Exchange.   Several of you offered to meet up with us in Century City.  A few asked if there was room for visitors.  And then there were one or two who felt this was not the right offer and we might do well to wait for something better.  Well this time the Nays have it.  Apparently, there was a slight problem with a major allergy to cats.  Doomed on both sides by our handsome boy.   Oh well, on to the next adventure. Here’s Mr. Ricky.  He moonlights as a pizza guard cat.

Sisters ~

I come from a very small family so I’ve always envied friends who have a big extended circle of brothers, sisters, aunties, crazy uncles and cousins, lots and lots of cousins.  The idea of a family reunion so big that you actually have tee shirts made and you get to circle the wagons at the lake or the family compound in the woods and tell stories, and play games, and eat and drink and laugh and eat and talk, talk, talk sounds like a really big juicy slice of Heaven to me.  For me, this year’s reunion arrived in the form of my one beautiful sister who came all the way from Saipan and stayed with us for three weeks.  We’re a small but mighty family of two and our bond is tight.  We don’t have the tee shirts. (That’s a great idea for next time.)  But, just like the Big Ole Family Reunions I’ve dreamed about – here’s how our own little get-togethers go:  We eat (a lot because we try out every new place since her last visit).  We laugh.  We drink tea  (twice daily trips to my Starbucks where now everybody knows her name too).   And, mostly, we talk, talk, talk and then talk some more.  Hubs, keeps asking “What is there possibly left for you two to talk about?”  Answer – A LOT!  Every now and then, we widen the circle and let the Old Guy join us, or a friend or two, and the kids of course, but mostly these reunions are “all about us” and they’re pretty close to perfect.

We’re very different, my sister and I.  The paths we chose.  The places we’ve been.  The way we see the world.   She lives on the other side of the globe and I’m just starting to dream about being a world traveler.  My sister has a heart as big as Saipan, where she currently lives.  I’m the cranky one with the cockeyed sense of humor.  But, when we’re together, all that slips away and we’re the “Devitt Sisters” again.  We’re each others sounding board, cheerleader, mirror and spark of inspiration.  There’s a nourishment that comes every time – we’re the only ones who remember when (well, mostly I’ve forgotten and she reminds me) and we both know where the skeletons are buried – but nobody’s telling.

So here’s to families in whatever form they come and to reunions large and small, but mostly here’s to the bond that some sisters are so fortunate to have created and here’s to my own special sister.  I’m so glad we had this time together.

Same time next year?  Maybe we’ll even get Devitt Sister tee shirts made.

Jonesing for a little chocolate? ~ great destinations for indulging your chocoholic fantasy

T’will make old women young and fresh,
Create new motions of the flesh,
And cause them long for you know what,
If they but taste of chocolate.
James Wadsworth, London. 1665

I have to admit I have a soft spot for chocolate.  Good, dark chocolate   filled with a deep rich caramel and sprinkled with a little fleur de sel.  Makes me swoon just thinking about it.  For some people chocolate and travel might not seem like they belong in the same sentence, but since I’m looking for interesting places to drag the rollie anyway, I figured why not just poke around and see what comes up when you google travel + chocolate.  Turns out – quite a lot.  Everybody knows about Hershey, Pennsylvania and the huge amusement park, tours and hotel built around that iconic American chocolate.  Not my favorite candy and to be honest, riding the trolley with hundreds of families through the Great American Chocolate Tour, (a simulated factory tour) holds little appeal.   So, moving right along then to the real chocolate and some really unique and interesting venues that cater to sharing history, art, and hands-on, finger-licking knowledge about this amazing treat.  Here are a few I think might be worth a stop if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

Musee Les Secrets du Chocolat in Geispolsheim, France.  This magical space comes complete with a theater, tea room and gift shop that sells chocolate pasta, chocolate vinegar, and antique chocolate molds.  It is also part of the Chocolate Road of Alsace (Road Trip!)  a group of 50 chocolate shops and artisans who love to share their expertise and unique regional specialties when you stop in for a visit.

Choco-Story Chocolate Museum in Bruges, Belgium.  Learn all about the health benefits of chocolate and don’t miss their quirky collection of chocolate tins that pay tribute to the royal family.

The Cologne Chocolate Museum; Cologne, Germany.   This futuristic ode to chocolate is located right on the Rhine River.  With three full floors to wander you’d do well to follow the guided tour.  Their famous chocolate fountain is the main attraction.

Panny’s Amazing World of Chocolate, Phillip Island Chocolate Factory; Newhaven, Australia.   This over the top chocolate themed attraction is geared for a little tongue in cheek fun with your chocolate – check out the statue of David replicas made entirely of chocolate, the entire chocolate town and the chocolate waterfall.

Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona, Spain.  Gaudi in chocolate! This small museum opened in 2000 on the ground floor of an old barracks.  Tucked away in the back is a delightful chocolate cooking school.  You’ll see everything from serious religious works to whimsical cartoon characters.  The sculptures are so impressive you’ll forget they are chocolate.

Nestle Chocolate Museum in Mexico City, Mexcio.  This futuristic building was reportedly built in 75 days and is an exhibit in itself.  Mexican chocolate is unique.  Sometimes a little earthy, almost gritty, and not always my favorite.

Chocolate Museum; Jeju-Do Island, South Korea.  Honestly, the first place that comes to mind when I think of chocolate is not South Korea, so this museum caught my eye initially because of its location.  They have a “Bean to Bar” showroom, chocolate workshops and an art gallery, but one of the biggest attractions is the working San Francisco-style trolley.

And finally, because I grew up on their strangely addicting sugar filled Easter eggs, there’s Cadbury World in Birmingham, England – Where chocolate comes to life.  Need I say more?  I think not.

Portland has its own annual Festival of Chocolate.  Hubs and I have gone a couple of times.  Our favorite is the booth that makes the Godiva Chocolate Martinis.  Oh baby!

Have a favorite chocolate shoppe or museum to add to the list?  I’m all ears.

Home Exchange ~ An intriguing offer

Don’t you love it when you go in to shut down your laptop for the night and you take one last peek at your email and there, glowing in your inbox, is a message that you just have to open – and read – and read again.  And now your mind is buzzing with possibilities and excitement and fear and what ifs?   Sleepy?  No, not now.  That was so five minutes ago.

Well, here’s the short story on my enticing email from Heidi.  When I signed up for Home Exchange three weeks ago, I had no specific goals other than to test the waters on some short stays closer to home and otherwise figure out how it all worked.   A shakedown cruise of sorts.   Plus I would get to peruse all the offerings and dream.  Well, my friends, Heidi came a-calling with a pretty interesting offer… Heidi, her husband and five year old daughter live in Century City, a very nice suburb in LA between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.  I worked there back in the days when I lived in LA so I know it pretty well.  (I’m sure a lot has changed since 1987, but still.)  Turns out they are thinking about moving to Portland and are looking for a home exchange from August 2012 through June 2013.   Nowhere in any of my thinking was the idea of a long term stay like this a possibility right now.  That was for way off in the future.   And frankly, I’ve lived in LA and while I do like to visit from time to time, it is definitely not on my list of places to live permanently.  Too busy, too crowded, to expensive, too L.A.  But, for a few months…say January or February through June…when it’s cold, gray and gloomy to the max in Portland, well I have to say I perked right up at the idea.  Hubby, Mr. “let’s become Citizens of the World”, was seriously not enthused.  In fact, he was kind of a wet blanket on my initial enthusiasm.   Big Bummer!   And it raised a few very interesting points for future discussion.  Apparently the move from talking to doing is not going to be as easy as my Pollyanna mindset had led me to believe.

Obviously, there are logistical questions to be considered and worked out in any kind of long term swap, but, it would be so much easier to do between Portland and LA than say Portland and Prague.   First, (again) what the hell do we do with Mr. Ricky?  He and hubs are a team – the dynamic duo, and I fear that Ricky might fare slightly better than his human half if they were separated.  Second – August?  Leave Portland during the one or two months of really lovely summer weather?   After I waited a whole year for summer to come back?  And third, we would have to actually pull the trigger and do something so far out of the comfortable box we currently live in.  Whew.  Not so quick or easy as it turns out.

Actually, if it were just me, it would be an easy decision.  But it’s not, we’re a team.  So I’m going to move us through this slowly to see where it might lead.  Here’s my tentative plan:

1.  We have to take the cat.  Will they be amenable to a handsome well mannered fur boy moving into their “gorgeous, art-filled, 3-level contemporary town-home with a grand piano in Century City”?  If no, end of road for now.  If yes, take one step forward.

2.  Heidi indicated she was flexible in her dates and might consider multiple swaps to get the full year.  Ok!  How about Les and Nancy from February through mid-June?

3.  If 1 and 2 fly, then it’s time to start working on my armchair based and very comfortable there world traveler.    Baby steps.  Stick and Carrot.  Sexy lingerie.  Time to bring out the full bag of tricks!

4.  If 3 flies and the hubs climbs on board, then it’s time to negotiate with the LA swappers to see if we can work out a lovely FREE winter vacation in sunny Southern California.  If so,  here’s where you’ll find us on the weekends…

And here’s where you might find Heidi and her family…

Yep, this is definitely worth pursuing.   Words of wisdom from the Old Grey Haired Guy I live with ~ “Keep saying Yes until you have a reason to say No”.  Words I now need to remind him of.   I’ll keep you posted.

Reflections on Water

I love being by the water.   It soothes my soul.  My bio-rhythms seem to slow to keep time with the rhythm of the waves.   My favorite childhood memories are of summers spent at our summer cottage on Balsam Lake.  In the lake, on the lake or lying on the dock by the lake.  I spent so much time in the water I’m surprised I didn’t grow gills.  My skin did turn prune-like on a regular basis however.   So it’s not a surprise that I see many water-related destinations in our future adventures.

A few years ago, my hubby and I went on a midnight canoe trip on Mt. Bachelor.   We slid across the lake guided by the light of the moon.  The only sounds were our paddles pushing through the water and the night song of the forest around us.  It was truly an awe-and-then-some experience.  Living in the Pacific Northwest we are truly blessed – ocean beaches and bays, rivers, lakes, streams, ponds – all right in our own backyard.  Before we set sail for parts unknown on the other side of the globe, and I even now, as I’m lusting after rivers in Egypt or Bulgari, we’ll keep on exploring and enjoying the natural bounty we have so close to home.

Floating and fly fishing on the south fork of the Flathead River in Glacier Park.

Fifteen minutes from our house and we’re canoeing on the Tualatin River.

Early morning sun salutation on the inlet – Wheeler, OR

Off  the beaten path near Steamboat Inn in Southern Oregon.

What’s your favorite water destination?  I’d love to check it out and maybe add it to our travel adventures bucket list.

Party On Dude! ~

The hubs celebrated his 66th birthday a couple of days ago.  It was a real mile marker for him and just a wee bit harder to celebrate than some of the others.  Sixty + Six.  Official retirement age according to the United States government.  The good news, you start receiving checks every month for the rest of your days (or so we hope).  The bad news, your days are numbered – literally.  Yikes!  You can almost see the end of the tunnel, but you feel like you just boarded the train.  You feel YOUNG – or at least not much older than 45 – which by your new age standard, is young.  We Baby Boomers do not get old!  That was never in the plan and we never saw it coming.  We’re hip, we’re cool, we’re still relevant for goodness sake.  We changed the world and we are not finished yet.  Which is why my hubby and I chose to celebrate this milestone birthday by  1) Going out to buy a new pair of Keene sandals for our upcoming hiking adventures 2)  Eating fresh Pacific NW oysters on the half shell, frog legs, and cajun catfish washed down with a Sazerac cocktail at EAT: An Oyster Bar and  3) laughing ourselves silly at Bingo & Bourbon with a room full of  rowdy thirty-somethings.

We were a little crazy and it was so much fun that we completely forgot to worry about be old.  We just enjoyed the moment.  Of course, it was dark in there… so we needed our reading glasses to see the numbers on the bingo cards.

I’m hoping we’ve all got a lot more crazy celebrations in our future.  Party On!

Mi Casa es Su Casa ~ exploring home exchange

Exploring another of the many options available for traveling on a budget, I decided to sign us up for home exchange.  I’m pretty darned excited about the possibilities.  Oh yes, I am more than ready to spend a little time in the charming garden in the photo below…

18th Century Bastide in Aix en Provence

I was first intrigued by this idea in 1996 when I discovered an organization called Intervac.   It was started back in 1953 by two teachers who were looking for an economical way to travel and it’s still a great option for people with limited funds.  You can exchange homes, flats, boats, cabins…pretty much any living accommodation you can think of in towns, cities, resorts and out of the way places all over the world.

So, way back when, I signed up to exchange my condo in Lake Oswego hoping to work out an inexpensive European vacation for my son and myself.  This was during the stone age before everything was online.  I wrote a short description of our home and the great things to do in the area, took a couple of photos and sent it all off with a check to be published in a very large book printed on newsprint – nothing fancy here.  It took a while (they only published once a year) but I finally received my copy in the mail.  The photos were black and white, small and often a little blurry, but I was hooked.  I poured over the available exchanges every evening for weeks.  Then, truth be told, I chickened out and didn’t follow up on the few opportunities that came my way.  I’m pretty sure Portland, Oregon was not on a whole lot of international vacationers’ top ten destination lists back then.  I’m hoping things have changed.  I know Portland has.  And I know I’ve changed too.  These days getting signed up is SIMPLE.   Here’s how it went when I registered a couple of weeks ago – I paid online using my Pay Pal account, uploaded several photos of our townhouse, wrote my description and voila! here’s our listing with homeexchange.com.  It still needs some tweaking, but I’ll keep updating and improving it as I get a better feel for how everything works and what attracts potential exchangers.   Within a couple of days we had two offers for exchanges.   So easy!

Why home exchange?  Well, to me it seems like the perfect way to travel just a little bit off the tourist path.  You literally have all of the comforts of home if you understand that the home you are vacationing in may be very different from the one you currently live in.  Having had several successful vacation rentals with VRBO – Vacation Rental By Owner – I’m ready to take the next step – swap vs. cash payment.  For those of us who count their travel pennies, it is a great option.  I’ve talked to several veteran house swappers and have yet to hear one horror story (although I’m sure there are some and it would be good to hear those as well).

Right now because I’m still chained to my office desk most of the year, we’re looking for a few short, easy exchanges closer to home.  The two offers that came in right away were from St. Paul, MN from a couple that were coming to Portland in September for a conference and another from some folks in Redondo Beach, CA who were looking to exchange in July.  Neither fit in our plans, so I just hit the “No Thanks, Not This Time” button.   So, you know where to find me for the next several weeks, I’ll be cruising through the thousands of listings and tossing out a few offers of my own to see if we can connect on some west coast shares, maybe something in Mexcio and (fingers crossed) a house for next summer in France, Italy or Spain to tie in with my walking vacation that is also in the plans.

I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime.  Here are a few options to consider for your own travels.

A lovely flat in London

2 Bedroom Apartment in the center of Madrid

Sit on this patio in San Miguel de Allende Mexico.

Have you tried home exchange?  What was your experience?  I’d love to hear!