Riding the Rails – Adventures in American Train Travel

Someday the hubs and I will buy a Eurail Pass and travel wherever the trains take us.  Someday, we’ll enjoy the comfortable, efficient, reliable train service that travelers in many countries take foregranted.   Someday can’t come soon enough.   My train travel experience has been limited to riding Amtrak on both the east and west coasts and I have to admit that it’s been a mixed bag on service and efficiency and it’s always a lesson in the fine art of patience.  Obviously this is a lesson I still need to learn as it keeps repeating itself – I’m writing this post on the train as we sit in the station…waiting, waiting, waiting to depart.  Breathe.  Relax.  Ha!   So, since I’ve got about three hours to kill, I thought it might be fun to share a few of my Amtrak experiences and apply my own very unscientific rating system.

Portland Union Station - photo from the Amtrak Website

Portland Union Station – photo from the Amtrak Website

Way back in the day, I lived in Los Angeles and we took the train for fun – a day at the San Diego zoo or brunch in Santa Barbara.  In those days riding the train usually included a group of friends and copious amounts of alcohol.  We were not worried about arrival times because it meant more time to party en-route.   Rating ~ I’ll give it a B with a twist. (lemon of course)

In 1987 I moved my family from Los Angeles to Portland.  We loaded our car into the moving van with all our other worldly goods and the kids and I headed toward our new life on the Coast Starlight.  I envisioned an overnight adventure.   Reality?  We slept in a postage stamp size room with pull down bunks and spent many hours eating bad food in the club car while I pointed out passing forests, fields and cows to my less-than-thrilled children.  They were more interested in hanging out in that space between cars trying to freak mom out.   Where are your drinking buddies when you really need them?  Rating ~ Only a C+.   Two adults traveling alone and it might have gotten an A.  Sorry kids!

I’ve also taken the Amtrak commuter between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. – on time and no frills, molded plastic seats and a snack bar, but it got us where we needed to go with no delays with no fuss.  This was definitely a B.  Boring, but it worked.  The station in D.C. is stunning and worth a visit if you have a chance.

My experience on the Empire Builder was another story entirely.   This route is supposed to be one of the “crown jewels” in the Amtrak system.  You can board in Seattle or Portland and travel all the way to Chicago.  Our plan was to get on in Portland and get off in Whitefish, Montana for a five-day mini-vacation fishing on the Flathead River and sightseeing in Glacier National Park.  Ever thrifty, I convinced myself and the hubs that we didn’t need to spend the additional money for a sleeping compartment.  It was summer, we could board at 5:30pm, enjoy a leisurely dinner, drink a little wine and watch the world go by until it got so dark we could no longer see out the window.  A short sleep in the comfy recliner seats and we’d wake up in Montana.Empire Builder - Spectacular Scenery Oh yes, I had a very romantic vision of how it would  play out.  Amtrak wanted no part of my romantic dreaming.  We arrived at Union Station in downtown Portland to find a paper sign at the check-in counter – No Train Today.  No train.   No warning.  Nothing anyone could do about it.  And, frankly, no one at Amtrak who seemed to care.  “Would we like to cancel or would we like to return the next day at Noon, take the train to Seattle and pick up the Empire Builder there?”  Pick one or get out of the line.  Out of options, we chose the latter and showed up at Noon ready to try again on Day 2.  We lined up with the herd to get our seat assignments and board the train.  Off at last!   Not so fast, Nancy.   We sat on that train for almost an hour, knees to knees with two strangers, in seats that faced each other.  Nothing moved, including the air in our compartment.  I don’t sit well so I decided to explore the train and find the club car.   After what seemed like an endless wait, we were advised there were mechanical problems with our train.  We all gathered our belongings and moved like lemmings to train number two.  We finally pulled out of the Portland station about 90 minutes late, but at least we were moving.  I wasn’t into all the knee touching and since I now knew where we could relax with a frosty beverage, I grabbed the hubs and we claimed a table in the dining car for the duration of our trip.  A bag of chips and a Bloody Mary and we were MUCH happier.  Which was a very good thing because there was trouble on the tracks.  A derailment the previous day caused serious stoppage and delays along the way and our 3 hour trip turned into over 5 hours on the train.   We pulled into IMG_0981Seattle after 6pm.  The Empire Builder had been waiting for us for over two hours.  We scrambled aboard, found our seats, and had a  moment of silent gratitude that these seats had leg room and reclined.  A blanket and a pillow and we’d be set for sleeping.  But wait, we’re on Amtrak, so of course “there’s more”.  The conductor (a young woman) and the steward (a rather rotund gentleman who shall remain in my brain forever as Mr. Crankypants) stood conversing across the aisle.  I thought that perhaps like the airlines, they might have a blanket and pillow so I asked “Excuse me, I was wondering if you had blankets?”  Apparently I was interrupting a very important conversation as Ms. Conductor turned, glared at me, hand on hip and replied:  “We’re a little busy here.” and turned back to her conversation with Crankypants.  You cannot make this kind of bad customer service up folks.  She silenced me…not usually an easy feat.

Before the train was even out of the station, I went to inquire about dinner.  Naturally, we ended up eating very late.  The dining car looked quite elegant – white linen and all.  The food left everything to be desired and when your half-bottle of wine comes dressed in its own little satin tuxedo, you can be pretty sure it’s Swill’s Second Cousin.  Our table companions were part of a large group of Japanese tourists.  We nodded and smiled, but witty dinner conversation was not on the agenda that evening.   Our server, quite possibly a Denny’s retiree, wore her tuxedo vest over a white shirt and sported a large band of jangling keys around her left bicep.  That this woman was over-worked and over-whelmed was obvious.  But worse, this woman was rude to the Japanese group who had an obvious challenge with our language – to the point of making faces behind their back.   If there were a three strikes law on travel, Amtrak was already over the limit on this trip.

Let’s just say it was very, very long and sleepless night for Nancy who sat freezing in her Artic air-conditioned recliner seat, because it turned out there were no blankets, noisy passengers walked the train all night long and Mr. Crankypants patrolled the aisles yelling at people who were not sitting in their assigned seats.  Of course, hubby slept like a baby.  When the train finally pulled into the tiny Whitefish station and I stumbled, blurry-eyed and exhausted onto the platform, I felt like I had survived some sort of horror movie.  And, because we were now officially more than 24 hours behind our scheduled arrival time, we had less than one hour to find our rental car, drive to our B&B, splash a little cold water on our faces, meet our fishing guide and spend the next 5 hours on the Flathead River in an inflatable raft in 100 degree heat. Hubby (well rested from his long nap on the train) was perched high up in the front, fly rod in hand, master of all he surveyed, while I bounced around in the back nodding off and trying to keep from falling asleep and falling overboard.   Amtrak, I have waited a long time to share this story publicly.  You almost ruined my vacation and you killed my romantic fantasy of train travel.  For this, I’m giving you a D- Amtrak.  Consider yourself lucky.

IMG_0947My most recent excursions have been simple jaunts from Portland to Tacoma or Portland to Seattle.  Mostly pleasant, often inexpensive (last weekend I paid $58 round trip) and usually on time.   The scenery is beautiful and the conversation in the Bistro Car is always lively and interesting.  When you get bored, you can just plug in and tune out. On a trip this summer, the train was packed with hundreds of riders (mostly men) and their bicycles who were heading from Portland for the STP (Seattle to Portland) bike ride.  The celebrating began before we left the station.  That was a very fun trip!  Just like the old days in L.A.  Rating ~  Not too bad Amtrak. I’ll give you a B. I love the fact that you have wi-fi and I can bring my laptop and work.  I always get a Bloody Mary and a bag of chips.  It’s a tradition now.

So – Amtrak.  It’s definitely a love/hate relationship with most folks and a long way from the trains that criss-cross Europe, the bullet trains in Japan or the glory trains like the Orient Express or the Royal Scotsman.  I’m holding on to my romantic train fantasy a while longer – just not with Amtrak.

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Lost Our Virginity ~

Yup, as of this past weekend, the hubs and I are no longer home exchange virgins!  Finally… we found a match… and it was so good.  And so easy.  We are completely hooked.  Mr. Just-a-Backpack is already asking me to do it again.  In fact, he wants to do it any time, any place.  Oh, Baby!

I always get a buzz of excitement when an Inquiry from Home Exchange pops up in my email.   My first thought – Wow, somebody chose us!  What can I say, I have a strong need for people to like me.   That’s quickly followed by the thrill of opening the email to discover what new adventure awaits. And finally, there’s the reality of can we make this one work.  Or in some cases, do we even want to.  Sorry, but the week in Minneapolis didn’t seem worth the cost of two plane tickets.

Anyhow, back to this particular exchange.  A few weeks ago we received an inquiry from Dawn and Ram, a lovely couple who live in Toledo, Oregon (a few miles inland from the Port of Newport).  They were interested in snuggling Mr. Ricky in exchange for our feeding “the girls” – their 12 chickens, and gathering eggs.  Could we work out an exchange weekend?  We could and YES we would!  So, a match was hatched.  We emailed back and forth, exchanged information, made a plan and Voila! at 9:30 on Saturday morning we were off on an adventure.  We left flowers on the table, snacks in the refrigerator, wine on the counter and Mr. Ricky waiting to meet some new friends.  We found a beautiful custom-built, art-filled home on seven acres owned by an artist and a wildlife ranger.

A notebook on the counter gave us detailed instructions for everything we needed to know about their home, right down to the names and descriptions of the chickens “Ginny – Big and brown with white speckles”.  We settled in to enjoy one of the most relaxing and peaceful mini-getaways in a very long time.   That first evening, as we were sipping wine on the big, comfy couches overlooking the pond, hubs looks over and says “Do you hear that?”  I said, “Yes.  Nothing!  What a lovely sound.”

The next day (after feeding the girls and gathering the eggs) we explored the tiny mill town of Toledo, strolled the streets of Newport, barked back at the noisy sea lions, walked out to the fishing docks, ducked into shops, crossed the big bridge to escape the rain for a few hours in the Oregon Coast Aquarium and stuffed ourselves at one of the best seafood restaurants on the Oregon coast – Local Ocean Seafood.

By early evening we were completely tuckered out and headed back to our Toledo retreat to enjoy all the comforts of “home”.  So much nicer than watching TV sitting on the bed in a hotel room.  We put our feet up, pulled out a blanket, turned on the fireplace and snuggled on the couch with a glass of Pinot and a wee bit of chocolate.  We also discovered Netflix and the guilty pleasure of watching How I Met Your Mother.  All-in-all, it was a perfectly wonderful experience and we cannot wait to do it again.

Parked my rollie in this lovely bedroom.

Thank you Ram and Dawn for making our first home exchange such a wonderful experience.  We hope you enjoyed your stay in our home as much as we loved staying in yours.  Mr. Ricky says “hi” and please come back to visit any time.

If you’ve been considering home exchange for future travels, I suggest you go for it.

Now, I’m off to find home exchange number two…

If you come to a fork in the road, take it

Yep, that brilliant piece of travel advice came from none other than Yogi Berra.  I’m kind of a quote fan so I thought I’d share a few words of wit and wisdom about travel that I’ve stumbled over in my recent armchair travels.   Enjoy!

1.  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”   unknown

2.  “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” –  Martin Buber

3.  “When preparing to travel, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money”  Susan Heller

4.  “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”  Susan Sontage

5.  “If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.”  Roland Gau

6.  “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Helen Keller

7.  “I travel light.  I think the most important thing is to be in a good mood and enjoy life, wherever you are.”  Diane von Furstenberg

8.  “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”   Lawrence Block

9.  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.”

10.  “Don’t be a tourist.  Plan less.  Go slowly.  I traveled in the most inefficient way possible and it took me exactly where I wanted to go.”  National Geographic’s Andrew Evans on his 40 day, 40 bus journey from Washington D.C. to Antartica

11.  “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert

12.  “Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.”  Fitzhugh Mullan

13.  “The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.”  Amelia E. Barr

14.  “Just shut up and get in the car.”  Nancy M. Thompson to Leslie H. Sims

15.  “If you look like your passport photo, you are too ill to travel.  Will Kommen

What’s your favorite travel quote?  I’ll add it to my list.

Five Fun Things to do before I Die ~

Or twenty or one hundred …whatever.  What I’m really talking about and what I have been thinking about for quite a while is creating a bucket list.  Maybe part of the reason I haven’t taken any action on what I believe is a really good idea is because I don’t like the name.  Bucket List just doesn’t do it for me.  Nor does the the expression “kick the bucket”. I’ve tried thinking of other names – Life List, To Do List, Before I Die, It’s Now or Never.  Ok, I’m not doing any better.  So I realized I need to just get past the name and get on with the pondering, dreaming, and creating of my very own list of things I’ve always wants to do while I still can.

For some people (me), that’s not as easy as it sounds.  It’s easier to say, “Oh, I don’t know.”  or pull out a few standard issue ideas like “I want to travel.”   So, how do you get started on something like this.?  How about with a quiet place, a comfy chair, a glass of wine, a notepad and a nice pen.  And then?  Well, according to the wikihow-Make Your Bucket List, you just start asking questions and see what comes up.  If you keep asking long enough, I’m sure lots of interesting and long buried “I’ve always wanted to” ideas will begin to pop into your mind.  Write them down.  No judgement allowed here.  It’s not too big, too expensive, too crazy or even too small.  It’s just an idea that tickles your fancy.  A glimmer.  But that’s often how things start.  Then they have to bubble.  It’s amazing, but you start to see these places or things everywhere you look.  Then one day, you think. OK.  I’m going to make this happen.  And you do.  That’s how so many things have happened for me.   So far it’s always been random.  One day an idea pops into my head – I want to start an organization for women, or wouldn’t it be fun to live in San Miguel this winter, or most recently, I want to challenge myself and walk the Camino de Santiago.  Once the idea has lodged, look out because something’s gonna happen!  But, I’ve never had a plan or made a list and had the visual satisfaction of taking a big marker and crossing things OFF the list.  Been there!  Done that!  Now that I have more free time, I also know time is running out.  I want to make sure I have all the adventures and experiences my mind can conjure up and I think the Bucket List is one way to make that happen.

Walking the Great Wall of China – on the List

Geocache? On the list!

Fortunately, when I turned to the internet for insight and a little guidance, I found no less than six bucket-list websites where you can compile your own bucket list and share it with all your friends, family and the rest of the world.  Bucketlist.org users have posted nearly 16,000 lists containing over 300,000 items, ranging from climbing a volcano to learning to play the oboe.  For more inspiration you might check out Lifed.com’s list of 225 Things.  The other fun thing to do on these sites is make a mental list of ALL the amazing things that others hope to do that you have already done.    Watch out.  It can be addicting.

So, what are my Five Things?  They will probably change as I keep honing my Bucket List but so far ~  1.  Live in small town in France (or Italy) for six months.  2.  Learn to play golf well enough to play for fun with my hubby and join a ladies team (hit and giggle golf is ok).  3.  Attend a TED talk.  4.  Visit every National Park in the United States.  5.  Win the Lottery and start the Nancy M Thompson Charitable Foundation.

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming… “WOW – What a Ride!”  (anonymous)

What’s on your Bucket List?

On Foot and Close to Home ~

In all my travels, I have one no fail rule.  When the rest of the country is taking to the highways for a three day holiday – that’s the perfect time for me to stay at home.  I’m not a lover of crowds, or traffic for that matter, so joining millions of people fighting for a camping space or a hotel room at the beach, or sitting bumper to bumper on the interstate…not my cup of tea.   I’m probably missing out on something, but so be it.

What I really wanted to do this weekend was take advantage of these last few gorgeous late summer days.   I know that any week now, it will start raining in Portland and it won’t stop until sometime in 2013 – say around June.  So, when Saturday morning brought us a beautiful sunny day, cloudless blue skies, and the masses out of town, we had the perfect opportunity for an in town adventure.  Hubs and I headed over the bridge and across the river into Washington State to explore the City of Vancouver (The ‘Couve) on foot.   Urban walking is my new thing since I bought the book “Walk There! 50 treks in and around Portland and Vancouver”.  My goal is to do all 50 at least once.  I’m up to four, but I only bought the book a few weeks ago so I’m feeling pretty good.

Today’s route had lots of historical points of interest.  Our walk was a 6+ mile loop that started  at Fort Vancouver.  We walked by the beautifully restored homes on Officer’s Row where Hubs stopped to read every one of the historical markers.  I bounced around trying to keep my heart rate up. 

Following the map, we wound our way over the Interstate and on into downtown Vancouver to Esther Short Park where the Saturday Farmers’ Market was in full swing.  We’d worked up an appetite and homemade tamales were calling us, so we stopped for lunch.   That’s when we stumbled into the middle of a Kumoricon convention.   Thousands of young people in the streets and the park, each dressed as the character they have created for online fantasy role-playing games.  (the simplified explanation that someone gave me).  We had stumbled into the world of Animé and Mange, and  it was absolutely one of those fabulous serendipitous moments that I love!   We reluctantly left the revels in the park and headed down to the shores of the mighty Columbia River where our path followed the shoreline for a couple more miles before turning inland and back up the hill towards the barracks of Ft. Vancouver.   We stopped to watch several small planes take off and land on a tiny air strip.  That’s when we discovered the best surprise of the day.  The Pearson Air Museum – two airplane hangers filled to the rafters (literally) with vintage planes, flight simulators, amazing old photographs, assorted gear… and Gordon, aviation buff extraordinaire.   Gordon knew everything about these beauties and had stories to share.  I chatted him up a bit and then went in with the big question (and a big smile to match).  “Uh, Gordon, do you think my husband and I could sit up in that plane and you could take a quick picture of us?”   “Sure, not a problem,”  said my new best friend.  He showed us how to climb into the plane and explained that this baby was a WWII era training plane.   I put on the headphones and learned how to move the rudder and the flaps and all kinds of cool stuff. Thank you Gordon! 

We spent an hour at the museum, and a return visit is definitely in order so hubs can play on those flight simulators.  Next, a short hike up the hill from the original Fort Vancouver.  It was a Hudson Bay Trading Post in the early 1800’s.  It’s now a National Monument filled with living history.   We crossed the expansive parade grounds, stopping to look at each of the old wooden barrack buildings – home to thousands of troops until the 1950’s.   If you stood still and closed your eyes, you could almost hear the footsteps of all those young men as they marched across the grass so many years ago.

Sometimes you don’t have to travel to the other side of the globe or even the country for adventure.  We had the backpack, but no rollies were required on our close to home sightseeing trek.  Four hours on foot + $15.00 for lunch and a donation to the museum + warm sun on my face + time spent outdoors with my walking buddy and partner in crime = a perfect Labor Day Weekend getaway.  And, we managed to get home in time for hubs to watch his favorite Saturday afternoon show, Trout TV.

Life IS Good.

Somtimes it really is about the destination ~

“Life is a journey, not a destination.

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson.   I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, but I’m pretty sure Ralph never spent the night in one of these truly unique destination hotels or he just might have changed his tune.  Sometimes the destination is worth the journey…especially when you are sleeping with the birds 40 feet above the ground or under a star-filled sky in the Utah desert in a trailer that could have been used by Harrison Ford while on location for Indiana Jones.

What’s not to love about the Shooting Star Drive-In & Airstream Park.  This place is a baby boomer paradise!  Owner Mark Gudenas, married his three passions – Drive-ins, shooting movies and Airstream trailers to create this unique vacation spot near Escalante, Utah.  Mark’s mission is “to provide our guests with a fun, unique and luxuriously comfortable vacation experience in one of the most scenic places in the world”.   The campground boasts eight custom designed and luxuriously equipped airstream trailers that pose as Hollywood star’s dressing trailers.   With names like “Ann’s Cabana” The Kid’s Hideout, Cary’s Cabin and The Duke, you’ve got some very interesting options for a fun night or two.   At dusk you can just slip into a 1964 red Cadillac convertible, one of the many great convertibles provided for your movie-viewing pleasure at the Shooting Star Drive-in.  Pass the popcorn!

Next stop?  How about a night in a tree house?  No kidding.  And there several right here in my own Pacific NW backyard, but the Treehouse Treesort caught my attention a while back.   If you’re looking for back to nature at it’s most quirky, here it is.  This place is loaded with very rustic charm and comes with a great story of one man’s ingenuity, perseverance and love of trees.  It’s definitely a backpack only place.  One of the cabins circles a Douglas Fir 47 feet off the ground.  You have to walk a swing bridge to get to your room and use a pulley system to deliver your luggage.  It’s not for the feint of heart or those with a fear of heights, but it would be a great adventure next summer when my granddaughter comes to visit again. (hint!).

First of all, who wouldn’t want to visit a town called Nice?  Add to that, the opportunity to sleep in a lovingly restored antique railroad caboose and I’m pretty sure we will have to add the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast Resort to our travel bucket list.  Located on Clear Lake in (yes) Nice, CA, each of the nine cabooses has a different theme.  You can spend the night in La Loose Caboose, Orient Express, Lover’s Caboose or perhaps the Easy Rider which boasts motorcycle handlebars on the headboard and a fringed-leather easy chair.  The grounds are lovely, there is a dock and lake access, feather beds, and a gathering spot in the historic Main Station that’s “a comfortable place to sit and watch nothing happen”.

And last on this list, but certainly not least – here’s your chance to sleep in an  airplane – comfortably.   In 2009, some wild and crazy folks opened Hotel Arlanda, a hotel/hostel in a 747 jumbo jet that is parked at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden.   There are 27 rooms, flat screen TV, internet, bathroom/showers down the hall (let’s hope they’re bigger than the standard airplane bathrooms) and a lounge.  For the real enthusiast, they offer you the chance to “sleep like a pilot”.  The cockpit has been converted into a deluxe suite where you can lie in bed and watch the air traffic over the Arlanda airport.  You might need noise cancelling headphones if you actually wanted to sleep, but it would be fun.

Ok, now I’m worried.  Do the pilots really sleep up there?  Is that why they lock the door?  So they can turn down the beds and turn in for the night?  Makes you wonder doesn’t it?

Air BnB ~ Another Interesting Option

Here’s another lovely benefit of writing this blog – I hear from so many people who know WAY more about travel than I do and they offer great new ideas for me to check into.  How cool is that?  Very actually!   And that’s how I came to learn about Airbnb from Suzie, a lovely woman with a lot more travel miles on her rollie than the hubs and I have right now.

How about an art filled room in Giacomo’s stone house in Vinci, Italy?

I’d heard of this new player in travel accommodation but, frankly I thought it was sort of a step up from couch surfing and I’ve decided that’s probably not for us (at least right now).  Boy, was I wrong.  According to the founders (three young men in their late 20’s) it all started several years ago when these guys decided to buy some blow up mattresses and offer them (along with a tasty breakfast and local hospitality) to a few of young creative types who were attending a creative design conference in San Francisco where they lived.
Hence the original name Air Bed and Breakfast.  I am always tickled by creative ideas and love it when creativity + passion + vision + hard work = major success.

According to their website, it turns out that a whole lotta people were looking for places to stay where the “hospitality was genuine and the M&Ms didn’t cost $6.  The guests got insight into the city from a fresh, local perspective and an interesting place to stay at a very reasonable price.”  Bingo!   Airbnb took off and now offers diverse accommodations in over 26,000 cities and 192 countries around the world.

So, of course I took myself for a little cruise on the airbnb site and found every imaginable kind of place to stay.   For $71 a night you can rent a lovely domed cave house in Cataluna, Spain from Eve.  Or, for $85 a night you can stay in this yurt in the trees near Ashland OR with Becky and Sidney as your hosts.  We could do this for a long weekend! Or maybe, a small apartment on an agriturismo farm owned by Francesco and his family.  They make sheep’s milk cheese.  You name it, someone is offering you the opportunity to stay in it – cabins, rustic retreats, repurposed buildings, yurts, castles, boats, lofts, apartments – the list is endless.  And, of course, you can always rent a bedroom in someone’s home, often with meals and lots of social interaction.   Brilliant idea!  Let’s get packing.