What I've Been Up to Lately (in the South of France)

Last year I followed my heart to Spain to check out a piece of property. Though I wanted the house more than the 47 years I’ve wished for silky hair, I couldn’t deny the not so small whisper after the visit saying “not here, not now.”

As is often the case with decisions led by intuition, there was no residual regret.  Not the next time I went out for tapas, or it rained sideways in London, or even when I heard the house sold a couple of weeks later.  In fact, it took no concerted effort to prune web surfing of holiday homes from my regular online activity.

In the time since, a couple of notable things happened.  That first summer after the Spain expedition we sold our house in Seattle.  Goodbye mortgage! Then this summer, Brett’s work contract in London got extended by two years. Cheers to July 2020!

With no owned property (we rent in London) and the prospect of being in Europe for another couple of years, the door to the possibility of a holiday house nudged open again. It didn’t take the shape of an active pursuit. More like a thought bubble that lingered long enough for Brett and I to have a general conversation about it.

One day this past May I was casually browsing a property website when I stumbled on a listing for a “Magnificent Stone Farmhouse.” The photos and prose literally shimmered from the screen.

The description began like this:

Our first glimpse of the property is from the top of a long private driveway, down a leafy country lane, far from neighbouring properties.  
 
The alleyway to the property is so long, there is just a hint of house, barn and rooftop; a promise of tranquility and countryside bliss against the backdrop of a stunning view.  
 
The old stone farmhouse has privileged views over the valley in what is the heart of Gascony’s most beautiful countryside, in an area renowned for its undulating fields of sunflower and corn so reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.  
 
Here we are close to the popular market towns of Condom and Lectoure, with Toulouse international airport and regular flights to the Uk and Europe just over an hour away.

The views are uninterrupted by telegraph poles, or other modern blights to the landscape, enhancing our sense of rural beauty and that feeling of stepping back in time.  
 
The estate comprises the main farm house, and a non-adjacent barn, with another small outbuilding in stone.  
 
The acquisition of additional plots of land around the property by the current owner has ensured that the private park (5 hectares) is pesticide free, creating a protective barrier around the house.  
 
From a distance nothing appears to have changed since its construction in 1700. Only an internal inspection can reveal the extent of the work that has been carried out to ensure every modern comfort, from: solar heating, underfloor heating, thick insulation, a new roof, a perfectly functioning state of the art boiler, etc.

The house was reminiscent of the Hilltop Farmhouse, one of the first houses we rented in France and one of the few places we’ve returned to. The house was also in a part of France we had spent enough time in to know we liked it.

I sent the link to Brett at work with the subject line: “A better version of the Hilltop Farmhouse.” My only added comments were: “Wow. Check out the video too.” No exclamation point. No typical female flourish. This was the first photo.

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In our relationship, I am the excitable one.  My husband is the measured one.  So when he called - not emailed - 10 minutes after I sent the link, I naturally assumed it was for another reason.  When I picked up the phone, his first words were: “You HAVE to go see this!!!” 

With my husband’s exclamation point endorsement, I sent a blind email query to the realtor marketing the property.  I was fortunate the realtor I reached out to (turns out there were 3 realtors working on the property) was a British woman who had been living in France for the last 20 years.  Without any language barrier, I was able to get a lot of our questions answered over email.  I soon learned she is also a published writer which explained why I connected to her description of the house as much as I did the photos.

We arranged for me to visit “Le Couloume” (it has it’s own name!) two weeks later.  That was in early June. My son Quinn, who had accompanied me on the Spain expedition, happened to be back in London for the summer and agreed to go with me.

It seemed highly probable I was going to like the house.  The looming question not easily answerable by a visit was still whether a house so far from the USA made any long term sense for us.  Quinn was highly doubtful, rewinding many of the same conversations we had already had in Spain.

This time my on-site visit felt very different.  It was rainy and ugly outside so the views were obstructed.  The house was amazing.  Better than the photos. But it wasn’t just the wood beams and stone walls that drew me in, it was a feeling I had being at the property.  The “yes now” whisper.  I felt it in my bones.  Like Le Couloume was somehow meant to fit into our story.  The more striking thing was Quinn felt it too.

After a couple of hours at the house, connecting with both Karen the realtor/writer and Annie the French/American owner whose background as an interior designer and chef shown through the meticulous renovation, we all seemed to have a sense that this turn of the page might be the start of a new chapter.  The reality however was that someone else had seen the house the day before with another realtor and an offer was very likely the next morning. 

We talked to Brett by phone that night.  Quinn sent him videos he painstakingly took of every room.  I told him about the whisper.  Karen laid out the facts.  Highly unusual for a holiday house in a rural part of France, she said that if we wanted this house we had to make an offer the next morning. We decided to sleep on it.

In our relationship, neither of us are risk takers.  Buying a house in a country you don’t live in would certainly qualify as a risk.  But after 26 years of marriage, my husband has learned to listen through my excitability knowing that sometimes I’m on to something before he has done his due diligence.  He was willing - even with a big price tag attached - to forgo his normal approach to big decisions and trust me.

So when he called the next morning, I was not entirely surprised when he said: “Let’s do it.” We made an offer that morning. It was the first offer.  It was accepted.  Brett saw the house the following week (after we had committed to it) and came away with all the feelings.

“Yes nows” may come with nudges that get amplified and then confirmed by another person but they are not immune to roadblocks.  In fact “now” is a complete misnomer for the protracted and herculean process that is buying a holiday house as a non-resident foreigner.  Friends: whatever Google tells you, if you are getting a loan in a country that is not your own and in a country that takes the month of August off, it’s harder and way more paperwork than that. 

There have been roadblocks, headaches and sleepless nights but every gut check has come back with the same refrain.  For both of us.  There have been other things that have amazingly fallen into place.  Like finding the right bank contact through my running group friend Meredith.  Or finding the perfect car from my friend Jannine who recently moved from Luxembourg to London and was looking to sell theirs. Or having our families get behind us without hesitation. 

We are on the home stretch now.  We finalised the sale and I am here in France today, October 5, to pick up the keys to Le Couloume. (Brett would have been here too except he is heading to Switzerland to run a full marathon this weekend.  He hasn’t run one for over 12 years and he’s been training months for it.  Timing isn’t always perfect.) If I’m honest, anxiety had its way with me in the last 48 hours due to some important details that only finalised at the 11th hour.  It took Brett and prayer to crawl out of the hole and remember again.

The bottom line of this whole process is that we don’t consider this simply buying a holiday house.  It feels like we are making an investment in a project.  

This project isn’t about restoring an old farmhouse in France.  That was Annie’s story.  We get to pick up the story after that.  Our project is about finding a way to share a lovingly restored farmhouse in France with people who never thought about France as an option.  It’s about paying forward the gift that travel has been to our family.  And it’s about passing on our favourite kind of travel — a destination that won’t make the Top 10 Travel List or most popular Instagram feeds. 

The house is out in the country in a region called Gascony sandwiched between Bordeaux (2 hours north) and Toulouse (1.5 hours south.)  There is a high speed train from Paris to Agen that takes just over 3 hours and the house is then a 45 minute drive from there.  It’s far enough South that the Pyrenees are only 100 kms away, San Sebastian a 3 hour drive and Barcelona 5 hours.  You won’t find many user reviews of Gascony but you are sure to find rest and inspiration. 

In a 2017 New York Times article “Is Gascony the Most Delicious Corner of France?”, the writer describes the region: “Gascony is not merely distinct from Provence and the Côte d’Azur. It is, in my estimation, better. Gascony is more open, more soulful, more deeply French, and, in its un-self-conscious devotion to tradition, more pleasurably frozen in time.”

The project will only be a success if it’s used.  We will go as much as we can while we are still living in London.  But there will be a lot of dates in the calendar to fill.  We don’t have any plans to rent it out.

We simply want to give back in some small way the unmerited generosity we’ve received.  So ATTENTION writers, teachers, retirees, families, artists, people on sabbatical, digital nomads.  This is not an invitation to the world wide web.  This is an invitation to people who know us.  Come and use it.  Please.

It’s a place that has lots of room.  It sits on 12 acres and has 5 bedrooms with 5 in suite bathrooms making it ideal for large families or groups.  The kitchen is the hub of the house.  It has a pool.  The cycling in the area is amazing.

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What is doesn’t have just yet is furniture (it’s being sold unfurnished) so there’s a lot for us to do before people show up.  That will be my project.  Beds and a ping pong table are high on the priority list.  I hope my gut and willingness to learn French is up to the next task.

Nothing gets us more excited than imagining the creativity and connection that a place like Le Couloume might make room for.  What words might be written, art that might be created, relationships that might be nourished.

We have no idea how this project will play out but there is one thing we are confident of: this is a place we whole-heartedly want to share. 

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All In

“All In” may have long ago crossed over from a general expression to an overused one but it’s the only way I can explain this spreadsheet.

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This is my 15 year old’s spreadsheet. It is NOT for anything to do with school. It has to do with football. It’s a 4 page spreadsheet with all the teams in the top 4 English football leagues (with annotations to the left of teams promoted and relegated) and games he has attended in the 2017/2018 season in green and games he has attended in the 2018/2019 season in blue with tick marks for teams he has seen home or away.

The boy does not have other tracking spreadsheets related to schoolwork. I know this because I not so subtly asked.

He’s seen 22 teams play in 8 different stadiums. He checks games he wants to see with our shared family Google calendar and then buys all his tickets online in advance (for usually a student discounted price of £2), adding them to the calendar. He then finds his way there and back on public transportation. Sometimes he goes with a friend or his brother but a lot of time he goes on his own. It’s one of his London hobbies. He has 4 more stadiums to hit in the London area.

When our friend Nate Frank was recently in town, he appreciated the spreadsheet at first glance. (It took a lot of patient explaining for me to simply understand the names of the 4 divisions.) Nate told Colin he had to read Nick Hornby’s memoir “Fever Pitch” about the author’s similar childhood obsession with football. We bought the book the next day. One however can’t be fully committed to every aspect of an obsession -- so his energy reserve after game attendance is moderate enthusiasm for finishing the book before the end of the 2018/19 season.

Recently Colin showed us his growing collection of game tickets and programs. Noticing that one of the programs was a little roughed up, Brettasked: “What happened here?”

Colin: “Oh yeah. That one accidentally fell in the urinal. But don’t worry. I washed it off in the sink with some soap and then dried it in the hand dryer.”

ALL IN. ALL BOY.

Tell Me More

Tomorrow the kids go back to school. I knew we were coming to the end of our summer parental energy when we twisted our 11 year old’s arm into watching the new Amazon series “Jack Ryan” for Monday night family movie night.  He said: “It’s going to be scary.”  We said: “Nah, it’s sweet-faced John Krasinski from The Office!”  Spoiler alert and alert to any other veteran parents thinking of bypassing their kid’s internal violence-o-meter:  a weapon gets extracted from a cadaver in Episode 1.   Ewwwwww.

I had to take him to bed and promise to stay with him until he feel asleep.  My presence in the dark was enough for him to fell safe and rewind the gore of what he witnessed on screen.  As we hugged, he nuzzled into me and said: “Mom, don’t you love it when you close your eyes and you see all those red and blue lights?”  When I told him I only saw black/darkness when I closed my eyes he was genuinely perplexed: “Really?  You don’t see all those coloured lights?!  Wow.  I thought everyone did.”  I asked him about the purple lights and then to tell me more but soon he was fast asleep.  

On the eve of Back to School, like all parents I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my kids have a great year.   Asking them regularly: “Tell Me More” is one thing I keep coming back to.  Kids are still in the process of making up their minds about what is possible and what is not and discovering - sometimes gently and sometimes not — that not everyone experiences all the same things.  “Tell Me More” gives them space to keep exploring at a time when they are perfectly wired for it.

The next morning my same son said he had a bad dream.  When I asked him to “Tell Me More”, he said I had signed him up for swim team and told all the instructors he was an excellent swimmer.   (This premise was not an initial cause for reflection as every member of my family is an unskilled swimmer who would lose to a camel in the water.) Anyway, because of what I said, the teachers kept moving him up into the more advanced groups and into deeper water.  No one cared that he didn’t really know how to swim.  (Oh. Scanning now for terrestrial applications…)  When it came time for the first meet, not only was he last but he couldn’t finish the race.  He was humiliated.  I, he said, was surprised and disappointed. (Ouch.)

I’m glad he told me.  It’s another thing I and all us parents can do for our kids to help them have a great year: be realistic with our expectations.   “Tell Me More” might actually be a great tool for recalibrating what those expectations might be.

Tomorrow I am expecting my boys to set the alarm, put on a clean school uniform that fits, and pose for a photo.  I know it’s not realistic for me to hope that the youngest will make his own lunch because I missed the window on that lesson — but I am expecting to be surprised by them in new ways this school year. 

Tour de Ballbach: A Family Cycling Holiday through Piedmont, Italy

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There were two things we knew when we decided to take a week long family cycling trip through Italy in late May/early June 2018.  First, we knew it would require more planning and preparation than any of our four-wheeled trips.  In a car, it’s an inconvenience when you pick the wrong route or an off the beaten track hotel.  On a bike, you risk family mutiny.  Not to mention saddle sores.  We also had a hunch that because two of the four of us lacked any measurable time spent on a bike on actual roads we *might* be biting off slightly more than we could chew.

We were right on both counts.

Yet, it was exactly those things that made the Tour de Ballbach (with a nod to Lynette Martin for coining the phrase) a smashing success.  The intensity of preparation (travel anticipation is a subject I wrote about here) combined with a plan that was certain to get us out of our comfort zones — all in different ways — made for a family trip that will linger longer and sweeter in our collective memories.  It’s the kind of trip I would whole-heartedly recommend and do again. 

With that in mind, my hope is this blog might offer specific suggestions if cycling Piedmont’s is on your bucket list but perhaps more importantly, offer a few tips and lessons learned for planning a family cycling holiday that could be anywhere. Just don’t expect as many excellent options for carbo loading outside of Italy. 

T-Minus 10 Months:  Planning

The more sensible route for a first time cycling holiday would be to work through a touring company who provide the bicycles, the routes and shuttle your luggage from point A to B.  While it was an easy google search to find some of those companies, we quickly decided to take the full plunge by going it ourselves so that we could have more autonomy with the routes and places to stay.  I did however use this touring company’s website for some general guidance on good areas for cycling.

Once we made that decision the next order of business was insuring that all of us had road bikes.  That mountain bike your 13 year old has or that 3 speed cruiser bike you love to ride around town is not going to get the job done.  In our case, that meant buying two new bikes — my first ever road bike and a bigger framed road bike for our sprouting teenager.   While we thought about potentially bringing two bikes and renting the other two bikes, the logistics of that plan — and insuring that the quality of the rented bikes would be comparable to the owned bikes -- quickly became untenable when details like airline travel and bike store hours came into play.  So Tip #1: Do not go hybrid with your sourcing.   Either choose to rent all your bikes or bring all your bikes.

(After exhaustive research I did not actively participate in until sizing specs and a color choice needed to be made, Brett bought both of our new road bikes from the German company Canyon.  If truth be told, it was a much better bike than I needed but it also made me feel like a real roadie.  Tip #2: Get Mom the best bike.

The second order of business was figuring out how to transport our bikes from London to Turin, the nearest airport in Piedmont.  There were two ways to do this: ship our bikes ahead or take our bikes with us as checked bags.  We decided to go the checked bags route which then influenced which airline we choice.  British Airways (in comparison to the lower cost airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet)  had the most generous bags allowance as they consider a bike bag the same as any other regular sized checked bag.  We booked way in advance which made the fares reasonable (£150 round trip per person.)  Tip #3:  Skip the low cost airline and book early.

(We also had an option for renting or buying bike boxes/bags for airline travel.  After another research project on benefits of hard sided boxes versus soft sided bags and factoring in plans for future trips like these, Brett decided to buy these EVOC bike travel bags and was able to get them off Amazon UK.  They were shockingly easy to wheel around and did their advertised job in protecting all the bike components.  Tip #4:  Please borrow our bike travel bags.)

The third decision was figuring out how we would transport our stuff.  Bike panniers for all of us or one bike trailer for Brett to pull?  As if this was really a decision.  Here's the Aevon bike trailer Brett found.  Aside from some back and forth on getting the right hitch,  Brett was wowed by quality of the French/German company's excellent product.  Tip #5:  Please borrow our bike trailer too.  Your use will help to amortize the cost faster and make us feel better.

Once our biking gear was in place, we moved to planning the route and places to stay.  We had everything booked by the end of September 2017.  Finding places to stay is my research jam and because I was booking everything 10 months in advance, we didn't have any issues in not getting our first choice.  

Day 1: Bon Courage

You know your teenager is living in an alternate universe when the day before departure he says, “Wait, we’re taking the bike bags on the plane?”  Apparently some important details were missed when communicating how we’d be traveling to Italy for our cycling holiday.  I only wished for a log of the 87 tasks completed including biking attire, spare inner tubes, bike tools, etc before Day 1 to wave in his face.

Bike bags packed, we hailed two cabs from our house in London to Victoria Station.   Brett called me from the other cab saying his driver suggested we be dropped off at the "Back of Palace Road" for step free access at Victoria Station to the Gatwick Express. He called back 30 seconds later to say that his driver was actually saying "Buckingham Palace Road."  Heavy British accents are not always easy to understand.  Miscommunication averted. 

Four big green bags on rollers in a crowded train station is its own kind of celebrity.   People stare and point and ask questions.   And while we managed dodging people through the train station, on to the Gatwick Express, and through Gatwick Airport, it was a relief to say goodbye to the big green bags at the airline check in counter.   Tip #6:  Have a good made up story for what's in the bag.  It's surprising how many people don't guess bikes.

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After the 1 hour 45 minute flight to Turin, we arranged to have a van transfer to the hotel.  Watching four people and four bike bags squeeze into a van is what I imagine making Italian sausage is like.  I did however send bike bag measurements in advance and our driver was imbued with confidence that is was "ok!"   And it was.

In Turin, we stayed at TownHouse 70, a centrally located hotel that was easily accessible to the train station where we would be departing from the next morning.  In our planning it became clear that we needed a solution for storing our bike bags while we were cycling around Italy. The easiest solution we could come up with was to chose a hotel for our first and last nights that would be willing to store our bags for the week.  TownHouse 70 was happy to do that for us along with arrange our airport transfer both directions.  And while we didn't know to ask, the hotel rooms had plenty of non carpeted floor space so it was no problem to assemble and break down the bikes in our rooms.  Tip #7:  Pick one customer friendly hotel to bookend your trip and then tip them well because you will be a presence.

We arrived to the hotel early in the afternoon which gave Brett time to get two of the bikes and the trailer assembled before dinner.   Colin stayed in the hotel to do homework revisions and Lawton and I went out for gelato plus spontaneous outlet store shoe shopping.   Because why not buy some new Italian wedges on a cycling trip when a) we have no room for extra stuff and b) I have a foot injury and shouldn't be wearing wedges.   

We had dinner at Pastificio Defilippis, a pasta restaurant that started in 1872.  We carbo loaded on traditional ravioli with meat and sage,  gnocchi with sausage and rosemary ragu, ovali with chicken, olive and oregano, tajarin with bacon and smoked burratina and our first Piedmont red - a Barbera d'Alba.  Fortified for the journey until ...

If the teenager started the day being clueless, the 11 year old ended it after dinner with an air of blah when he announced: "I'm not really ready for a holiday." 

Bon courage would be needed for us all ...

Day 2: Grind it Out

Brett, who has a history of being intimidated by anything mechanical,  finished assembling the last two bikes before breakfast.  It was impressive how organized and thorough he was with all the equipment and tools.  Once the trailer was packed we realized we were running a little heavy and so we jettisoned a few more things to store with the bike bags.  Like my new wedges.   And maybe the second pair of sandals I bought outlet shopping.

By 11am we had checked out and were on our bikes in route to the Porta Nuova Train Station.  We stopped in this Turin square to capture the start of our journey.  This was a highlight moment for Brett.  After all the planning, the gear, the self-instruction, he had got everything to work. 

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At the train station we bought tickets to Carmagnola which was a 30 minute train ride to get outside the city.  By 12:30 we had started cycling.  We arrived at our hotel at 8:30pm.  It was 8 hours of cycling with one cafe stop and lots of "catch your breath" stops.   Tip #8: There's no better place for your 15 year old to order their first cappuccino. Cycling and cappuccinos are a thing.

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We rode 70 km and the last 20 km was virtually all uphill, much of it at 12% grade.  The larger point being: IT WAS AN AMBITIOUS FIRST DAY.  When planning, it's easy to think you're going to take the fastest route but once you are on the road, the best route for cycles is usually not the shortest route.  And I now know to notice elevation on a map when picking hotels.  Tip #9: Do not use Google Maps for cycling.  You need detailed paper maps. 

We got our detailed maps before we left from Stanfords.  They were well worn by the end of our trip.  The rocks on the map are our start and end points for the first day.  From Camagnola through Guarene and Neive to the pink highlighted X at Benevello was our route along the yellow highlighted top line.  The goal is to avoid red roads and find the white roads. 

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It was a day that required all of us to grind it out.  Colin learning to use his clips to avoid a clipastrophy.  Lawton understanding what it means to endure when you are physically spent.  And me learning to not freak out watching truck drivers going 90kph pass my babies who are no longer babies.  Honestly I hated the first 15 kms which were on busy, poorly paved service roads but when we turned onto our first "white road" and the rolling hills of Piedmont came into our first view, I had my highlight moment.  Colin had his highlight moment on his first long serpentine downhill where his need for speed for satisfied.  And Lawton had his when he pulled up to the hotel and realized he had done it.     

Day 3: Divide So Some Can Conquer

We stayed at Villa D'Amelia , a charming very Italian hotel with restaurant and pool, for our second and third nights.  We all walked into the small hilltown of Benevello that looks over the Langhe Valley - home to hazelnuts, beans, and lean beef -  in the morning.  Lawton and I lounged around the hotel pool which we had to ourselves in the afternoon while Brett and Colin rode a picturesque 55km loop to Monforte d'Alba.  They saw more cyclists on that stretch of road than anywhere else during our week.  Monforte d' Alba is also the town my good friend Jeannie stayed in and she recommended both Dimora I Manichei and Hotel Villa Beccaris as two places to stay.  

Tip 10: Spending two nights at the same hotel is a great way to plan a cycling trip.  It's nice to have the second day to have an out and back ride for those who want it and a rest day for those who don't.  

We then took a cab into the lovely, "moneyed' town of Alba in the early evening to wander (while the boys sat in the square and did revisions) and then have dinner.  We ate at La Piola, the modern restaurant on one of Alba's main squares with a simple chalkboard menu and Piedmont specialities.  

Day 4: The Day the Wheels Came Off

Day 4 had us leaving the Langhe region (home of Barbaresco & Barolo) heading into the Monferrato region. The first 35km was beautiful riding along a ridge line and up and down moderate hills.  The roads were quiet and we were outriding the rain clouds.  Everything was going splendidly until the last 3km steep descent into the town of Canelli. 

On the descent, Lawton lost control of his bike on a tight turn and crashed into a wall.  Thankfully he wasn't badly hurt, only banged up but he blew his front tire and was pretty shaken.  We didn't see it happen as Brett was ahead and I was behind but we heard his screams.  A young English guy who saw the crash stopped to help Lawton.  What was less helpful was him telling me: "That was horrid. Sickening to see."

Brett fixed Lawton's tire and we rode slowly into Canelli to find lunch.  Lawton was naturally timid to get back on his bike but he pushed through.  He pushed through finding a bike store to buy him a new helmet, through 2 more flat tires on his bike post crash, through a costly wrong turn. At 55km in, when we knew there was something more wrong with his tire, we called our destination hotel for help. A car came for Lawton and I just as a thunderstorm rolled in. Meanwhile, Brett and Colin carried on riding in search of a bike mechanic. 

Unfortunately the bike mechanic determined that there was something permanently wrong with the tire but they didn't have a replacement one in the right size and it was unlikely that any bike store in the area did.  Our only option was to order it from Amazon Italy and hope that priority delivery worked.

The route was from the rock on the left up along the yellow highlighted line to Canelli up to Nizza Monferrato and to the pink X at Casalotto.

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Adventures do have their highs and lows and Day 4 was a low day for all of us.  But it was also the kind of day that shows character.  Brett's calmness and ability to problem solve through any issue was on full display.  His judgment is always sound, his temperament always kind and stressful situations only magnify those qualities about him.  Colin, in growing maturity, stepped up to take a leadership role for the family like finding a lunch spot while Brett was busy fixing the bike.  Lawton had to ride on when the last thing he wanted to do was get back on the bike.  And I did not let fear take hold and make me spiral (something I am prone to.)  

It helped too that our landing place that night was at La Villa Hotel.  The hotel (which is mostly a romantic getaway for couples) is owned by an English family who bought it 13 years ago and beautifully restored it.  The outdoor space and gardens are particularly lovely.  It's a gem of a place with an outstanding set four course dinner at their restaurant La Vie for those who wish to eat in.  We most certainly did.  

Tip 11:  Book hotels that have excellent restaurants on site so you have flexibility on staying in or out depending on how tired you are.

Day 5: Chewing the Handlebars

With Lawton's bike out of commission, he and I were forced to take a second rest day.  After a morning at the pool, we took a nice hour long walk into the nearby hilltown of Mombaruzzo.  The plan was to meet up with Brett and Colin after their ride for lunch.

The guys had another incredible ride but rolled in to lunch an unacceptable 50 minutes late and chewing the handlebars in pain.  The second wrong turn of the trip meant several kms of unexpected uphills between them and the doghouse. Although with a turn success rate of something like 68 out of 70, it was hard to be annoyed for long.

After a sweaty lunch at a charming La Marlera we stopped by Moriondo Virgilio, a local cafe where they serve fresh amaretti cookies. (Mombaruzzo is actually the town where the amaretti cookie started.)  After the walk back and a late afternoon ping pong tournament, we dined in again at La Vie.  Us with all the couples.

Tip 12: If you do take a rest day, take a walk instead.  Something about walking and the fresh air is great for conversation.

Day 6: Amazon Delivers!

Back in the saddle! Checkout was at 11am and the Amazon package with Lawton’s new tire arrived at 10:58! No plan B or C needed. We had a smooth 60km ride to our next destination, not even a snake in the road made us flinch (for me, this is growth!) 

Day 6 was about heading North from Casalotto to Grazzano Badogli which is still in the Monferrato region. This area of Monferrato was particularly beautiful.

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We stayed at a gorgeous guesthouse on a vineyard called Tenuta Santa Caterina.  The guesthouse has only six rooms and only one of the other rooms was occupied when we were there.  

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The guesthouse doesn't have a restaurant on site but it's in a small village and so we walked to the local osteria for a late dinner.  The breakfast in the morning was excellent but we didn't have time to enjoy the guesthouse or tour the vineyard as this was the only place we stayed for one night.  (I did however order some of their wine to be shipped back to London.)  It's definitely a place to come back to for an adults only weekend.

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Day 7: Save the Best for Last

The last day of riding was perhaps the one I was looking forward to least.  We had to make our way back to Turin and it was too far to cycle the whole way back so we knew a train would be involved.  After much map huddling we decided to train back to Turin from Asti which meant that we could do a cycling loop near the area we we staying.

At these things often go, our last 60km ride before we hopped the train in Asti was the best ride of the trip.  Fewer cars, gorgeous scenery, just right lumpy terrain.  We had also found our riding grove.  With Colin leading and then lying in the grass like a lion in wait for all of us to catch up, Brett shredding the granny gears to pull the 60 pound trailer up the hills, Lawton finally relaxing on the downhills, and me no longer worrying that we sometimes had to share the road with cars.

Of all the maps I've shown here, this yellow loop is the one not to miss.  (Asti is the red area in the lower left corner where we caught the train.)

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We did have a snafu in Asti on the first intercity train we tried to take.  Apparently you can't bring bikes on the intercity train but no one told us and so we got kicked off.  A very angry woman literally pushed us and our children off the train.  It was actually bizarre how physical it was.  Lawton suggested the woman might have been part bull dog.  An hour later, we were on another (bike legal) train in route to Turin.  The conductor on the second train however was so friendly and restored our faith in Italian train travel. 

In Turin, we zigzagged through a busy city center to get back to our hotel.  We had a fabulous final dinner at Ristorante Consorzio.  After a week of traditional Piedmont food (which we loved more than any other region in Italy) it was nice to have a modern take on it.  We might have licked our plates.  Lawton especially enjoyed his starter which was anchovies four ways (not pictured.)

The next morning we got everything packed back up in their bike bags and flew back to London in the afternoon.  It was notably how much easier it seemed to all of us wheeling the green bags on the journey home.  After a week of much harder challenges, that part seemed like a piece of cake.  

Tip 13:  If you are half-wheeling the idea of a cycling trip, it's time to get out of the saddle!  Ping us with specific questions and remember - we have gear to borrow!

Exploring our own Treasure Island on Mauritius

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Happy GDPR Day!  Rather than opting in to stay in touch with those now desperate websites I did business with two years ago, I'm opting for finally getting around to blogging about our 10 day trip to Mauritius over Easter Break.

I totally feel you.  I had to google "Where is Mauritius?" too.

Mauritius is an island African country in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Getting there from London is not for the faint of heart, although if you have 18 hours of air travel ahead of you with a mid way stop in Dubai -- Emirates is the airline to do it with.   Best airline for a movie hangover.  Getting there from the USA is ... well, google it.  This may explain why of the 1.3M visitors to Mauritius in 2016, only 10k or less than 1% were from the USA.

We spent the first three days at a resort called the Zilwa Attitude Hotel.  It was nice as resorts go but truthfully we aren't good resort people.  That was confirmed at check in when they insisted we wait 20 minutes for the golf cart to take us to our rooms because it was "too far to walk" when what we really wanted after a 24 hour travel day was to make a run for the shower.  We did rent a car and so were able to leave the compound for a couple of local dinners to call attention to the fact that pasta bolognese isn't exactly a local speciality.   I completely appreciate that some people like and want the convenience of an all-inclusive resort and that it can be a lifesaver for weary parents who need a vacation from the little people they are vacationing with.  

The second place we stayed however, a partially serviced villa called Villa L'ilot with a Saturday to Saturday rental, was 100% our speed.  So much so that we chucked the list of things we wanted to see in Mauritius and decided to simply relax.  Mauritius, like so many island cultures, quietly insists (and then reinforces with only two motorways) that you put down your to-do list and kick back.  

A few thoughts from our week exploring our own treasure island on Mauritius where reef shoes (and my husband's occasional running shoes) were the only footwear. 

Note: In writing this blog, I discovered I lost all my photos (!!) from our trip save for the two above that I posted to Instagram while we were there.  While I'm incredibly frustrated by my own technical mistake, I need to let it go and hopefully try to paint a word picture of the trip that doesn't depend on photos.  Besides, 200 photos of a family relaxing is only so interesting.

Trading Fumes for Fresh Air

Escaping London or any other big urban area's air pollution isn't necessarily a reason to go to Mauritius (unless you're like my 15 year old son who has oversized anxiety about London pollution) but it certainly is a boast to your mood and immune system.  The average American is reported to spend 93% of their lives indoors where indoor air quality can be even worse.  A week on an island is sure to turn that metric on it's head when the outdoor space looks like this.  There's no better way to shed stress (something my husband needed) and improve your sleep (something I needed) when every window in in the house is inviting you to come out and mingle with the natural world.  

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The Many Places of Refuge

If you need a reminder about the nature of life's hurricanes, hang out on a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean that is constantly vulnerable to weather and the elements.  The sun is blazing hot, intense rain storms that don't last long regularly pass through and many mosquitoes (though not the malaria carrying kind) call Mauritius home.   The inherent caution with the beauty of the natural world is - like the journey of life - we are flimsy in it without places of protection.  At Villa L'ilot, we spent the week canvassing all the spots we could find shade from the sun, or a cool breeze from the mosquitoes, or a comfy dry place to sit and watch the rain roll through.  So plentiful were the carefully constructed places of refuge that no external element forced us to retreat back inside.  And our view never got obstructed. 

Where Stillness Meets With Noisy Exuberance

When you first arrive at Villa L'ilot, it's the stillness that strikes you. There's no road noise or human voices you don't recognise.  That is until your ears quickly acclimate to another frequency.  There's actually a lot of sound going on when you tune in to nature's applause.  There are the waves crashing on the rocks, the steady beat of the water gently lapping on the shore, the birds chirping in constant conversation and a 30 minute choral performance by more birds than you can count every evening before sunset.   So unchanging and joyful is nature's soundtrack that it makes you want to remember how to listen for the sounds of holiday in the day to day noise.

Catch of the Day

I'm not saying I want to go back to the days when people foraged for their own food but watching the local fisherman out on the rocks every morning and then having them wade through the water to sell you their catch of the day for dinner is kinda awesome.  The boys got to know one of the local fisherman named Paul and we bought a carangue (rainbow runner) two of the days to grill up for dinner.  Another day we got a moped delivery of some fresh langoustines that had been caught within the hour.   Ocean to table, baby.

The Hunt for Thyme

Villas in Mauritius often come with some staff.  Our villa was staffed part of the day (9am-3pm) with two wonderful woman - one woman Melini who cooked our lunches and another woman Latta who cleaned.  We weren't sure if we were going to like the concept of having help around but their quiet presence, along with easing any stress of responsibility, was so delightful.  They have worked at this particular villa for almost 10 years.  We got to know Melini especially who was a fabulous cook and introduced us to Mauritian cooking and street food.  One of the funny moments of the week was the afternoon Brett and I spent on what could only be called  "The Hunt for Thyme." 

Early in our week, Melini came with us to the local grocery store and markets to educate us and help us buy food for the week.  Towards the end of the week she had run out of fresh thyme (a common herb in Mauritian cuisine) and asked us to go get some for a dish she was preparing.  Having seen it in abundance on arrival, we were up for the task.  What we didn't know that getting thyme the day before a religious holiday weekend was going to take time (3 towns and 10th stop is a charm!) and would illuminate the kindness of the Mauritian people.  The thyme finally came -- at no charge - when one of the farmers at a market stand asked us how much we needed and then said "wait here."  Without further explanation, he sped off on his moped, returning 5 minutes later with a small bunch of thyme he had collected from his home garden.  Thyme never tasted as good as it did in Melini's prawn eggplant curry that afternoon.

Shifting Tides

Of all the many pleasures of staying at Villa L'ilot, it was observing the constant presence and action of the water that was so special.  The warm, clear ocean invited us to swim, to wade, to look for fish, to kayak, and to watch the tides come in and out.  It was like having you own private, giant swimming pool except one that drained on its own every night to reveal hundreds of treasures -- too many starfish to count! --  you didn't know had been underfoot all day.  What's hidden becomes clear ... on repeat.

The Band of Angels

Islands give you permission to gorge on reading.  The first book I finished in Mauritius was Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams and Jeannine Amber.  It seemed an odd choice to be reading the autobiography of a woman who grew up in the hood while I was comfortably reclining in paradise.  Except Ms. Pat's story was a tough, funny and beautiful reminder that hope and bands of angels operate all over the world: "I realize the answer [to how I turned my life around] is really pretty simple.  I wanted to turn my life around and what got me there was love."

So whether you make it to Mauritius or your own treasured island one day or not,  your Band of Angels will follow wherever you go.  And if the tide is too high for you to see it now, I can encourage you -- based on what I saw on repeat - that when the tide goes out -- you may discover more treasure and fortified rock than you knew was there.  It just may not include lost digital photos.

Women Running the World and A £30 Find

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I may have never won the lottery but I have found £20-£40 lying on the ground four different times since moving to London.  You’d think money was falling out of the sky.  One of the times was on the street, two of the times was on the Tube, and the last time, this past Friday, was on a dirt path in Hampstead Heath.

I found the £30 in Hampstead Heath while on a run with my running group.  Unable to find it’s rightful owner in the Heath (people are so honest!), I planned to give the money to someone I saw on the street or bring it to church.  But … then a better, more spontaneous, idea surfaced on the way home.

After the 8 mile Heath Route, I peeled off from the group and detoured to see my hairdresser Jonathan who had just cut my hair earlier that week.  I wanted to schedule a follow up appointment for what we coarse, thick-hair people know as “more texturing.”  Nothing like a sweaty run to make my big hair case.  Sweet Jonathan offered to solve my problem on the spot. 

As I was sitting in his chair for the five-minute fix, it dawned on me that it had been his chair where I first heard about the running group.  Almost exactly a year ago.  A woman named Stephanie was in his chair before me and she had been chatting enthusiastically about her great running group.  Desperate for friends in a new city, I asked Stephanie for the details.  She immediately followed up to connect me to Women Running the World (or WRW for short.) A weekly email was soon in my inbox with detailed running routes that look like this. 

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This is the 9 mile route we did from St John's Wood to Canary Wharf (!) last Monday.  Not a run I would have done on my own.  :)

Now I’ve been part of a few other running groups in the past but none quite like WRW.  First, there are close to 150 women in WRW which means no one is left stranded if you accidentally forgot to set your alarm.  The run will go on without you but you will have no less than two dozen WhatsApp messages letting you know how great the run was and how much you were missed.

The size of the group is in part because all abilities are welcome including and especially encouraging women who have never run before.  The group runs from September through June and women are welcomed to join any time of the year which is why I was able to turn up in February and be immediately embraced.  

The large group is broken up into pace groups who run 3x/week where we stagger start times for the sake of London pedestrians and a true beginner group who run the alternating 2x/week.   I’m part of the “Naughty-Nines” pace group which is as entertaining as our name suggests. Regardless of pace, we all have our eye on a shared goal (a destination 1/2 marathon set for the spring) and love for the post-run coffee.  115 women are traveling to Utrecht, The Netherlands in about 6 weeks for this year's spring race. 

The genius of WRW is that the group always meets in the same spot (the Barclays Bank in St Johns Wood) at the same time (8:15am.)   The vast public transportation system in London means that we can always start at the same place and Tube or bus home.  I have seen so much of this city by running destination routes with WRW.  Route maps are consistently emailed the week prior but the only thing you really need to know is to show up at 8:15.   There are at least two leaders for each pace group who know the routes and emergency loo spots which means your job is to simply run and not get run over. 

One of the Friday Hampstead Heath routes was also my very first run with WRW last February. An endorphin hit plus a payoff view like this is enough to make anyone want to run.  

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That memory in Jonathan’s chair made me smile back at my red, sweaty face in the mirror.  I did win a different kind of lottery that day.  In a city of 8 million people, given where I live and where my children go to school, I may not have found WRW otherwise.  It was through Jonathan’s unknowing connection that prepared the way for me to meet a group of ladies who have become treasured friends.  So on this day at least the £30 from the sky was left in Jonathan's tip jar as a way of closing the loop to pay it forward.    

Click Bait Headlines

Closet Check: 5 Must-Haves.

Not immune to the circus of consumerism we all live in, I took the bait and clicked the link.  I wondered if maybe I had one passable version of the 5 must-haves already in my closet.  When I got to the “5 Things You Need NOW” webpage, there were actually 84 items on the page. 84.  I didn’t have any of them.  Not even close.  See below.  Yellow Floral Pant Suit.

Now 0 out of 5 makes you feel like your missing out.  0 out of 84 makes you feel like you’re living on a different planet.  Either way, it’s designed to make you feel like you aren’t prepared for the next season until you click the BUY NOW link.  Of course I know that and yet when my guard is down, I’m susceptible to catchy subject lines. And then once I go down the rabbit hole, it makes me feel like there’s a hole in my closet.  See below.  Pink Power Blazer.  

The more destructive thing about the rabbit hole is that is stirs up dissatisfaction with things you can’t click a BUY NOW link to fix.  Like 20 years younger and a flat tummy.  Will your spring be better if you have this white top?  See below.  Because this one isn’t in the realm of possibilities for me.  

 

This Morning Drink Will Do Wonders for your Weight, Energy and Skin.

You’d click too, right?  So I had The Morning Drink this morning and weight = same, energy = negative, skin = still dry and tummy = very, very unsure.  Tumeric in a drink?  I want to believe.  I will try again tomorrow and for the next two weeks before I make a judgment.

We are all consumers and guidance can be helpful as we sort through the many choices available to us.  If not,  I would have never found my two most recent jean purchases from Jack Wills.  The best, softest, no butt cleavage jeans of all time.

But ….mostly the “Must Have”, “Must Do”, edicts leave me feeling disillusioned.  It falsely promises that the “perfect” answer is still out there.   It’s going to take a long time before the world is convinced that there’s a better morning drink than coffee.

Closet Check: 50 Must Purges.

It wouldn’t have the same click through rate. Also who besides a closet organiser or simplifying guru would write that?  But that’s probably the thing that would bring us closer to wardrobe harmony, and metaphorically, happiness. 

Deciding what to let go of is so much harder than adding something new into the mix. Cutting something loose requires a hard look at what we’ve outgrown, what we’ve made a mess of, and what we should have never bought in the first place. Likewise the path to happiness often involves pruning back the garden of your life to it’s barest essentials.

A tidying up of relationships that have passed their season allows you to focus on the important ones in front of you.  A ditching of bad habits that leaves us in threadbare knots brings new things to the forefront.  Weeding out the trivial things that we mindlessly gave space to is one of the best ways to foster growth.

To thrive, a garden really only needs the basics of sun, water, and the care of a gardener.  When something is missing, our natural inclination is to go out searching for something new.  But what if what you really need is already there, just buried under a whole bunch of stuff?

If that's true, and I think it is, we won't be needing the Pink Power Blazer this spring. 

The Joy of After School Activities, minus the Carpool

This week I was reminded by Facebook of this post I wrote one year ago.  It was about my dread of having my then 13 year old son travel to and from basketball practice on his own after school through a tough part of London.  A year later, he is still making that commute to his basketball family, now three times a week plus weekends.  Those three days a week father and son share a 12 hour workday, occasionally finding each other on the last leg of their journey home.  Independence intertwined with care and common sense (and a little extra cash for food) is like a plow that loosens fear and allows our children to grow. 

While grateful for his blooming independence, I’m also thankful that my 11 year old still needs an after school escort.  He has regular after school activities twice a week where my services are required.

It used to be that after school activities were a series of curb side pickups and drop offs in a car you always apologised for given that it doubled as a dressing room and mini-mart.  In London however, after school activities without a car means multiple backpacks and never leaving home without an Oyster card and umbrella.  You  have to learn to do “more” in public restrooms and if trainers were forgotten, then loafers it will be.   On the plus side, crumbs are no longer your concern.

Shuttling a child to and from activities without the convenience of a car has indeed been more inconvenient, but if truth be told, I’ve found a lot of pluses that extend well beyond crumb avoidance.  After a year, we have found a rhythm to these two days that has made them more joy than chore.   

First, the snack upgrade.  With 20 minutes to kill after school before the boys need to ferry off in different directions, the three of us meet up for a quick snack somewhere near Oxford Circus.  The food options are endless with places like Joe & The Juice, Kaffeine, and Gitane (Persian food and today’s stop.)  Gone are the days of groaning about a granola bar and apple slices,  Also gone are £s.   

Second, undivided attention.  When it matters most.  You often get the unedited version of the day’s events right after school ends, before it’s either forgotten or buried.  I’ve found that I’m a much better listener in those precious 20 minutes when I’m not responsible for making the avocado toast or focusing on road and traffic conditions.  The bizarrely spotty mobile phone coverage near the kids school has also been a boost to attention.

Third, touch.  An 11 year old may be outgrowing hugs and kisses but nothing gets them to nuzzle into you like a crowded Tube or bus after a long day.  On one of the days Lawton and I head west on the Bakerloo line from frenetic Oxford Circus to Maida Vale.  We typically start our journey standing face to face until the train empties at Paddington Station when he then takes his position either on my lap or with his head on my shoulder.  When there are no watchful eyes of friends or siblings around or room to escape to, Mom is your home base.  Even in public.

His head finds a similar resting position on the other day of the week when we take a crowded bus 17 stops heading east to Islington. Together we people watch as almost the entire bus ridership turns over as the neighbourhoods change.  The transit part may be less about conversation but the physical hip to hip connection has a way of quietly restoring energy for both parent and child.  It’s something that doesn’t happen with a front seat/back seat seating arrangement. 

Fourth, alignment.  Not having a car in a big city naturally forces you to be more selective.  And when a little more skin in the game is required, it becomes clearer to both you and your child on what activities they really want to invest in. That clarity of choice helps you muscle through on days when one of you isn't feeling it or you aren’t up for all the humanity. And since my 11 year old isn't likely to become a top college basketball player or rising thespian, it is a relief to take the proverbial pedal off the gas - even when you didn’t really know you were speeding.  

Fifth, park time.  On both days I can either take the bus to meet the boys near school which takes 15-20 minutes or I can walk through Regent's Park which takes 30 minutes.  Nine out of ten times I walk.  I'm not even competing with anyone for steps.  I walk because green space has a way of elevating your mood even in the rain.  Somehow even though that time is in service of my children, the distinction between giving and receiving blurs when I'm under a canopy of trees rather than behind the wheel of a car.   

Sixth, bonus me time.  On the day I drop Lawton off in Maida Vale for basketball, the lack of good transit options going west to east without heading back into Central London means that my best options for getting home are either Ubering or walking.  Nine out of ten times I choose to bundle up for the walk and listen to a podcast.  The walk, much of it dark at this time of year, takes me 50 minutes but it’s through beautiful residential neighbourhoods where the quiet leafy streets shush the noise of the bustling city.  And because Brett tubes from work to pick up Lawton after practice and they Uber home for their own one on one time, I magically have an hour and a half in a quiet kitchen to make dinner.  

Seventh, eating out.  Sometimes it's simply not practical to get home after an activity drop off.  Instead it's more practical to spend the 90 minutes in a cozy neighborhood pub reading.  On the second night our regular schedule involves me doing that at a place in Islington called The Albion where there is always a seat near the roaring fire.   After pick up, we then meet up with Brett and Colin somewhere new for a late dinner.  Beyond the Kindle time during what is usually cooking time, there is something pretty cool about coming from different parts of the city and seeing your rosy cheeked 14 year old holding the table for your 8:15 dinner reservation. 

After school activities can be slog but there are some small rewards that open up when you ditch the car and grab an umbrella. 

A Dream

Last night I had a dream that woke me up from a dead sleep at 2am. It was so vivid and felt so real that I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m in London in a neighborhood I don’t know. I have my camera and am doing some street photography. It’s dusk and cold. An older woman approaches me. She tells me that I should be careful as it is getting dark and the neighborhood is not safe at night, especially for someone like me. There are no other faces that look like mine in this neighborhood. She doesn’t look like me.

I tell her I’m not afraid, thank you, and that I feel safe. She insists I follow her to the nearest Tube station. She looks trustworthy. Since this is her neighborhood, I follow her even though I want to stay and take more pictures. As I follow her down a side street, a group of teens causes a distraction and one of them grabs my phone. The older woman, my escort, grabs my purse and camera and everyone scatters.

Suddenly, I’m alone and it’s quiet. Everything I had with me is gone. It’s a scam and I’ve been set up. I’m not frightened but I am furious. Furious that I’ve been set up. Furious that I was so trusting. Furious that I fell for it. Angry that maybe the warnings I had been given about people like this were right?

I shout and swear to the empty street: “Why?!” A voice of someone I can’t make out (not the woman) evenly, unemotionally answers: “Because you have everything and we have nothing and you think you see that, but you can’t really see.” My fury shrinks and turns to shame and I begin to weep. Uncontrollably and for a long time, because maybe actually, that voice is more right.

When I look up, the young man who took my phone is standing in front of me. He hands me my phone and when I ask why he is giving it back, he softly answers: “Because I saw HOW you cried.” I tell him that I could call the police. He is returning the phone to me at great personal risk. Softly again he answers: “I know.” I don’t call the police. He does not seem surprised.

Later at home, a knock on the door. My husband tells me there is a group of woman at the front door, for me. It’s the older woman. She has brought friends. She hands me my purse and camera and says sorry. The tenor of her voice tells me she means it. She tells me that she took some pictures on my camera she hoped I might like. I thank her and close the door.

Back inside, I check my purse. Everything is in it. I pull out the camera and scroll through the pictures. The photos aren’t carefully framed or the work of an artist but they take my breath away. They have captured the soul of their neighborhood -- the joys, sorrows, hardships, humor – all scenes I couldn’t see when I was trying to photograph their streets. I cry again this time a mix of tears and smiles. It’s not my stuff they wanted. It was compassion they were looking for.

I run back to the front door and open it again. The women are still standing there. They are ready with their “Yes” when I ask if they’d like to come in.

I can’t help but wonder how this dream relates to this quote I read less than 12 hours later in Beartown by Fredrik Backman:

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”

Thanksgiving Top 20

Here's my list of 20 things that make Thanksgiving Day special.

1. 2 weeks of planning boils down to 20 minutes of eating and 200 pieces of silverware that need to be hand washed.

2. The unexpected +1 invited by your sister-in-law's second cousin turns out to be vegan and not a football fan.

3. Marshmallows meet up with casseroles, cranberries come out of cans, and jello keep it weird. Use the pass wisely.

4. The fake drama between this year's new and improved version of the brined, stuffed, organic turkey versus a Butterball out of the deep fryer. The fried bird always, always wins.

5. Name cards, napkin rings, electric knives, turkey salt and pepper shakers, Grandma's china and that embarrassing family story live to see another year.

6. Someone has overly ambitious plans for gratitude sharing around the table.

7. There's never enough mashed potatoes so you can practice being thankful for the small helping you got.

8. Somebody under the age of 10 is unhappy about being at the Kid Table and threatening to only eat a roll.

9. Everyone else is wondering how we can move that one distant relative "over the age of should know better" to the Kid Table.

10. It's totally appropriate, highly encouraged even, to double time on dessert and add liquor to your coffee.

11. You still have 12 hours before your forced to think about Christmas but are seated next to the Black Friday strategist who has already finished their Christmas cards.

12. It's a rough day for white tablecloths and single people who'd prefer not to talk about how their love life is going.

13. The smartest person in the room is the one who can get the young and old, the shy and loud, the football inclined and football resistant, to stop what they are doing and play a classic parlor game.

14. The dumbest person in the room is the one who wore skinny jeans.

15. Clean up takes a small army and is long enough that everyone's ready for leftovers by the time active duty has finished.

16. Having the wrong footwear won't get you out of the post dinner walk.

17. If you nap with your mouth open, someone will capture and share the moment.

18. In late night programming, The Return of the Gout airs. (a family drama, rated R for strong language.)

19. An emergency plumbing or ER visit is always a possibility.

20. You realize that there are family traits given and chosen and each of them have the potential to be a blessing.