Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Springtime Biking Trip in Europe

Follow  this link to the story

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Remembering Kleinhau

It came to pass one day (circa 1954) while serving at Prum Radar Station in Germany that my OIC asked his men if anyone would like to volunteer to be the Supply representative for a small new outpost being constructed to serve as a radar and radio relay station. Now I should mention that there was a saying popular in this period that rolled freely off the lips of the older and wiser WW-2 retreads, as we called the guys that served in that period. The saying was simply “Never, never volunteer for Nuthin'.” As our Captain looked around there was a definite stillness and no one uttered a reply. I guess they thought a bird in the hand, like the Prum Site assignment, was better than something unknown. I noted a certain knowing glint in the eye of old timer SSgt Gibson that hinted at the well-worn slogan about not volunteering.

So it came to pass that no one showed any interest in being transferred into the unknown. So when a few days later Capt Begley asked me to consider the posting, it was a surprise and I asked a lot of questions about it. I was mainly interested in the local housing situation as by this time I was married and living in decent rental quarters in Prum. One efficiency room with a bath across the hall shared by only one other tenant couple. I thought we were pretty lucky to have found that. There was a grocery store just next door and we were right in the middle of the town. The commute to the Prum Station was about 15 minutes. Since the Capt had not visited the new site he couldn't really tell me what to expect but said I should check out a jeep and go spend a couple of days to check it out. The site would be ready for an advanced detachment to begin the movement in short order and resupply would come from Prum and also from Bitburg Air Base. Stockage and resupply would be the job of the Supply rep.

I liked the new site. It was much smaller than the Prum site. Barracks were basically completed, a small dining facility was being outfitted and the operations, maintenance and supply buildings were ready. Theo, an old grizzly former German Army sergeant, who lived just outside the site at the edge of the village was serving as overseer and watchman. And I must say he didn't miss anything that moved past his house and onward to the entrance gate of the station. I believe he gained this status by virtue of his military experience. He definitely required from me an explanation of who I was and what was I doing poking around because it was still officially in the hands of the civilian contractor with whom he had some kind of connection. After we took possession of the site he pressed his status on us and it took some time to dissuade him from messing with site activities. But I digress.

The next weekend my wife and I drove to Kleinhau to try to find a new place to live. We asked around. There were two little Lebensmittle stores and everyone was nice and helpful but nothing was apparently available. Kleinhau was a town of perhaps 45 dwellings, tops. We finally went door to door asking if they had any living space to rent. We were about to give up when we noticed a house under construction. The windows in the lower story had curtains but in the upper story, the windows were bare. We looked at each other and said, “This has got to be the one.” So it came to pass that we became the first occupants and also the first tenants of the August Jorres family's new upstairs apartment. Three lovely new rooms and a bath. We were ecstatic. Now an opportunity to buy our first furniture and furnish the house as we liked. The rent? Half of what we were paying in Prum for one room. Trying with all my might to hide any excitement, I told capt Begley I'd take the assignment.

It was a great two years. I was my own boss as sole Supply rep. I made the weekly trucking runs to Prum and Bitburg for resupply, returning with everything from spare parts, calibrated equipment, bed linen and such coveted things as pierced steel planking to tame muddy parking areas.

I learned a lot from Herr Jorres. I helped him and his brother finish the bricklaying of the home's veneer. They taught me to tuckpoint and it has served me well in numerous instances. And did I mention we had a lovely bathroom but it was not usable because the septic tank had yet to be constructed? Both families used a “one-holer” outhouse. This was not really a problem in theory, but the Jorres' has two small boys so plus the two of us made six using the facility. I soon learned that the Sears catalog we thought would be fun to put in there delayed the exit of Mr. Jorres by a lot. But what could we say? The poor guy had been a truck driver in the war and was a POW in Siberia working in a salt mine and not repatriated until 1948. The palms of his hands were like shoe leather. A sweeter, nicer person you could not meet. His wife was his childhood sweetheart and they had been working toward getting this house built for a number of years while starting their little family. The boys, Dieter (5) and Friedel (4) were tow-head blondes and we named them the Katzenjammer Kids because they both had enough energy and mischief in them to keep mother Johanna racing after them with a wooden spoon that she would apply sparingly to keep them in line.

I offered any help I could to make the septic tank project a reality. Basically, we had to dig it with pick & shovel. Finally, the project got underway and I was ready to help. I grabbed a shovel to work with August and after about 5 minutes of not getting much done, he looked at me and said. “I see I am going to haver to teach you how to dig.” And teach he did. Two weekends and we had that hole carved out of the rocky ground and ready for concrete.

It was nice to give the outhouse it's last rites. In my memory will always remain the day that Dieter took the gas cap off of my Mercedes and as I chased after him to give it back he ran and threw in in the outhouse sump. His Mom introduced his little butt to the wooden spoon over that one. But it was all in good fun. We had many happy times with this family. Unfortunately, I've never been back to Kleinhau after we returned stateside to FE Warren AFB in 1956.

An interesting aside. Kleinhau was about two miles from Hurtgen. As you probably know the Hurtgen Forest was the site of one of the largest and deadliest battles of the war. My oldest brother, Lucien, was severely wounded there. Luckily he recovered after he first regained consciousness weeks after being evacuated to the UK. With this knowledge, I definitely wanted to visit the forest where the battle had taken place. It was very hilly and the air bursts from artillery had decimated the trees. One result of this was that one of the leading enterprises post-war was the making of charcoal from all the blasted timber. The forest trails were full of placards reading “Achtung Mine Gefahr” (Mine Danger) In other words, "Do Not Venture Off The Trail." Nevertheless, as my wife and I walked into the forest one weekend I noticed a silvery glint in the sunlight, just a few meters down a very steep hill. I couldn't resist investigating further. Bottom line, we discovered two sets of dog tags and chains and scattered further down the hill we found traces of skeletons. We marked the location on the trail and I called Graves Registration in Frankfurt to tell them about the find. Next day they came and reclaimed the tags and the remains. I'm sure in the meantime more extensive searches have been undertaken. I know too that numerous people have died in the process of searching due to land mines and unexploded shells. I will always feel I helped a couple of families close an open chapter in their lives.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Regarding The Minimum Wage Question

Regarding The Minimum Wage Question

When I hear of young people complaining about the minimum wage, I have to laugh. The minimum wage is a starting wage for beginning workers, not a wage that will dog them for the rest of their days. What beginners fail to recognize is that they must take a positive attitude and apply themselves in a meaningful way that will develop their true worth. In today's society, too many young people fail to acquire a positive attitude towards work. They tend to overvalue their contribution. The economy is based on a large complex of interconnected parts, but one of them (the minimum wage) cannot be inflated without an ancillary effect. The higher the minimum the less likely it will be for beginners to find work. The system will adjust by less hiring, actual jobs will become more scarce because of more automation, and/or prices will rise to negate the higher wage. Minimum wages must reflect job supply and demand.

A sign of the times? Many parents today fawn over their offspring in such a way, that youngsters are made to believe that they are so special that they can be considered outstanding just by showing up. Others lack the basic minimal training that is absent in dysfunctional households. In both cases, nothing is asked of them. They are not taught that they need to help out in the household. They fail to ever have the opportunity to gain satisfaction that comes from being a small but important contributor to the family's efforts.. They are not taught that they are needed and appreciated; on the affluent side they are pampered and sheltered from early life's lessons about what it takes to be a contributing part of the well functioning family. Self-esteem is favored over self discipline. On the other extreme they are often neglected and grow up in poverty situations that reflect hopelessness. In both extremes they are disadvantaged,

This is such a change from the way things were in my early years. From my earliest beginnings I knew we had very little compared to others. My mother raised me alone, as my father abandoned us soon after I was born and he died a few years later. She worked as secretary at our church. As you can imagine, it was not a well paying job. Government aide was not available then. So from early on, she would assign me chores and I realized she desperately needed me to help out. It came early to me that there was a reward called pride in being part of the household effort. I was expected to do my part. starting dinner, doing dishes, cleaning house, taking out the trash were my jobs from early on. At twelve years of ages I managed to take over a newspaper delivery route from an older boy who was moving up the job chain. I was thrilled at the thought of making $5.00 a week for this job. It took about an hour and a half of each day, six days a week. And on Saturdays, I spent the better part of the day, collecting for the service, door to door. I remember clearly how many folks would not be home (or would not open the door because they didn't have the money that week). It was the first important management challenge I encountered, because if I could not manage to collect, I had to take the loss. My weekly earnings were closer to $4.00 due to non-collections. I quickly learned to stop deliveries in short order for non-payment. And my customers learned to leave the payment under the door mat, with a neighbor or pay in advance if they wanted their subscriptions to continue.

I really wanted to earn more but route sizes were limited to the amount of weight I could manage to carry. So I started offering a greeting card service. While collecting for the newspaper each week I offered subscribers via a printed hand-out, an opportunity to buy a selection of distinctive greeting card collections and magazine subscriptions. I carried samples to show the quality and diversity of the selections. This worked out to an additional revenue stream, and now I was a budding businessman, keeping records at home, not only paying the newspaper company for the bulk papers each week, but managing the card and magazine orders.

As we were in the midst of the great war, there was a standing need for scrap paper and metals of all sorts. So part of my spiel while collecting for the newspapers was to ask for donations of scrap paper, magazines and metal. Soon I had our shed filled with scrap that I sold periodically to the local scrap dealer. My little red wagon was known on my route and when folks saw me coming, oftentimes they would call out for me to come get some scrap that they wanted to donate.

Using the proceeds of these endeavors, I was able to purchase a new power lawn mower and started offering my services to my customers. I would push the mower all over the neighborhood as I could not drive at this point in my young life. But I was on my way! During the Missouri winters, I earned additional money with my snow shovel, clearing walks. I do remember on occasion complaining to my mother about the scant amount of money some wanted to pay for yard mowing. She would always say “Just do your very best and don't worry too much about the pay. Your customers will notice this and the rewards will come in due course.”

Subsequent years brought new challenges and opportunities. The one thing that stuck with me was to not complain about what I was getting for my efforts. It seemed to me that it all depended on what I was able to figure out for myself. Life was always interesting and a challenge that I welcomed. Before I was 15 years old I worked in a bowling alley setting pins, worked in a hotel as a bell hop and elevator operator, caddied at the local golf course and took odd jobs helping a building contractor. Attitude, I now realize, is what made the difference. Fortunately, attitude has made a great difference in my life as I have gone on, without a college education, to an exciting life that included military service, commissioning as an officer, and later a career in real estate. I have always managed to find challenge and reward in doing the best that I could at whatever task was at hand. This is an attitude that employers crave. I can assuredly say from experience that those that learn to embrace this attitude will not long be employed at minimum wage. Those that lack this attitude will cry foul at their lack of rewards, and rail against the system as being unfair and favoring the wealthy.

As to the benefits of a college degree, of course it can help. But not without a proper well developed attitude of service and the willingness to work diligently without regard to reward in the beginning. There are many well educated derelicts in our society. It should never be forgotten that a college degree is not a necessity for everyone. Blue collar jobs can be very rewarding and many are going unfilled. Think of what it costs to hire a plumber, carpenter, electrician or bricklayer? For anyone so inclined with interest in the manual trades, it is open season on opportunities for apprenticeships and technical training. But without the proper attitude, success will be elusive.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Germany by Ship and Bike, 4-27 to 5/26, 2010

Repositioning cruises are known to be unique. They are singular events that occur at the end of a season when the cruise lines move their ships to another region to avail themselves of better customer participation. I was attracted to the MSC Poesia that upon conclusion of the winter cruising season in Florida would reposition to Hamburg, Germany. Prices for these types of cruises are very low and it occurred to me that it might be a unique way to take along a bicycle. A quick check with the cruise line confirmed that it was OK, so long as I kept the bike in my cabin. With six months to plan, I had the luxury of time to do an immense amount of dreaming as to how I could avail myself of this forthcoming opportunity,and meld it into an interesting ocean crossing and bicycling adventure that would eventually get me back home. Getting to Germany via ship and taking the bike would not be such a big deal. Planning a bike trip across Germany also is relatively easy. Getting a one way flight back home is another story.

To continue reading this post, click HERE

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dixie's Land (A River Runs Through It)

It’s easy to take it for granted when you live beside it. It’s there to view every morning upon arising and at night as the sun is setting. And yet, the view is ever changing. From fog drenched mornings to sunny bright dawnings, to cloudy days when thunder and lightning threaten, to days when it appears as a mirrored sea to other times when it is a wind tossed boil.

Continue reading by clicking here.

My Thailand Trek

Approaching the Suvarnabhumi airport after a 23-hour flight, my restricted feet were decidedly itching to get moving. Looking down at the lights of Bangkok in the distance provided a sight that removed any doubt about the size of this sprawling metropolis of 13 million souls.

Continue by clicking here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

An Old Acquaintance

I have vivid memories of Richard. He was a likeable enough chap; slender but muscular, with graying hair and a beard to match, a pointed forehead, and bright eyes that spoke of his many experiences and adventures. The graying could have been premature; it was hard to judge his age. I met him quite by accident while visiting old friends who lived on a farm in Mascoutah, a neighboring town to Belleville, Illinois where we had just purchased a home. Richard was introduced to us, my family and me, as one of the farm helpers. It was easy to see that Richard was a trusted hand who put in long hours for modest reward. He had just come in from grooming a neighboring field and showed his enthusiasm for the gathering, making an effort to amuse the guests and doing his best to show he was a vital part of the family farming efforts. His droll mannerism and his cut ups were entertaining if not somewhat overbearing, the most annoying one was his penchant for butting in to conversations at inopportune moments. He had a penchant for making a curious sound. not at all unlike that of a goat, a sort of naaaa, injected into conversations at inappropriate moments. One had to wonder what his motivating factor was.

But I digress. We had been invited to come out and enjoy the fruits of the early summer harvest and had just settled in at an outdoor picnic table adorned with platters of bratwurst and barbecued chicken, potato salad, sliced tomatoes, baked beans, and cole slaw. This was an especially enjoyable time for me as I had just graduated the week before from a year’s residency at the Air Force Command & Staff College in Alabama. I had been given seventeen days of leave before reporting to Travis Air Force Base in California for further reassignment to Vietnam. I was using the time to relocate my family to Belleville where we had been stationed previously and to where I was informed I would be reassigned following my year in the Nam.

So it was with great joy to reunite with old friends from nearby Scott Air Base and see how they had developed their small acreage and, with the help of a few hands like Richard, had been able to start a lively little part time hobby farm while still serving on active duty. However, as things go in the military, one has no guarantee of how long they will be able to remain in a given location. Our friends were sadly announcing that day they would soon be leaving their home for an overseas assignment and would necessarily have to suspend their farming operations – either selling or renting the property. A good purchase offer had been received but one that stipulated that none of the help would be acceptable and they would have to let them go prior to closing.

During our conversation I mentioned my plans for our new home in Belleville and how I needed to find someone to take care of the yard during my year’s absence. As I described the large back yard, the garden and small pond my friend J.D. seemed to light up. He said, “Richard might be the answer to your problems. We have to let him go and I think he would like taking care of your yard.” Realizing that I would have to hire someone to do this, the idea had appeal. The only problem in my mind was that Richard had four legs and did I mention that I had no idea about the care and feeding of a goat? Yes, Richard was their prized goat and he grazed the large pasture and kept it totally groomed….no need for mowing. Richard could not have hired a better public relations firm than J.D. and Joyce. Yes we could stake Richard out on a chain and move him periodically so that he wouldn’t overgraze and with judicious movement… perhaps once every day or so, we could keep our acre in good shape. By the time they finished touting the merits of Richard we were all clamoring for the chance to put Richard to work on our yard. So when they allowed that Richard could be ours at no cost, it was impossible to say no. My son Earl and daughter Debbie were obviously overjoyed to have this new addition to our family and one that would relieve them of lawn mowing chores. My wife was a bit more reserved about the deal but usually trusted my judgement in matters beyond the interior walls of our household. So with no dissenting votes it was agreed that Richard would be delivered at such time as their sale closed which was just days before I was due to leave for Travis. All the way home that evening I congratulated myself on making such a shrewd bargain and overjoyed that I wouldn’t have to pay someone to come in and cut our grass.

That night I formulated the plan that would relieve us of having to stake poor Richard to a chain. I would fence in the back yard and pond. I wanted to do this anyway because of the hazard of the pond to neighboring children. The next morning found me at the local hardware store, getting briefed on how to install chain link fencing. It arrived the next day, all 750 feet of it. To the left is a picture of Richard's realm.

Needless to say I was gainfully employed for the remainder of my leave, digging holes, putting in posts and rails and stretching fencing. I finished with a few days to spare and just in time to welcome Richard to his new home in our fully fenced in yard.

Richard seemed to take well to the new surroundings. He showed little concern that we had recently acquired some other livestock – a small family of Mallard ducks that had wandered in and made themselves at home on and around our pond. I believe the kids had a big hand in inducing them to relocate from wherever they had come. They wandered in, the mom, pop and three little ducklings all in a row, just as I was putting up the final gate. My dear wife had also had a hand in inducing their arrival, supplying Earl and Debbie with bread to drop as the ducks came waddling down the street, single-file, one after the other, from parts unknown, nibbling at the crumbs that had been dropped to lead them right through the gate. It was indeed a happy occasion as we surveyed our newly acquired menagerie. At a family council that evening, the names Hansel and Gretel were selected and agreed to for pop & mom mallard. Although we had no idea at the time that they would remain on the site, they seemed to like dog food and Freya, our Collie, didn’t seem to mind sharing her abundant vittles with the new arrivals. Freya was too intent on seeing to it that Richard didn’t come too close. Old inborn instincts of sheep herding seemed to be reawakened, as the dog was really intent on making sure Richard kept his distance. Misty, our cat, seemed un-amused, but ever nonchalant about the whole thing of having first a goat and now ducks as close neighbors. She continued her usual activities of unearthing a mole almost every night and depositing it on the back doorstep for our morning pleasure and amazement. On the day before I departed I managed to cobble together a large A-frame shelter for Freya. Little did I know that in short order it would become a gathering point for the entire menagerie.

I remember the morning I left to catch my flight to Travis, I felt pretty good about having gotten the family relocated and generally settled into a home in an area where we already had lived before and with which they were familiar. Though rural in character, it was very near schools, shopping, and other town activities. I should mention that it was my wife who found and bought the property in advance of my graduation in Alabama, making the transition and move much easier and smoother. So now, enroute to Vietnam, I could concentrate on what lay ahead, with little worry about the family being well provided for.

It was weeks before the first mail found me. I remember getting a stack of letters (fourteen I think) telling of, among other things, the many and varied experiences with the back yard menagerie. My wife, Lilo, to whom I was married for thirty-three years until her death in 1987, could better relate these tales.. much better than I can at this late date. Lacking her first person input however, I have been reviewing letters and together with recent conversations with my kids I’ve been able to cobble together much of the excitement of those days.

One thing stands out. Richard was no shrinking violet and the numerous flowerbeds in our yard were easy picking for his ravenous appetite. Staking him out did little good it seems, as he would always find a way to get loose and head for more tasty pickings. He didn’t seem to care whether it was a shoe left out to dry or a bowl of dog food…he always seemed to find interesting and varied snacks until several weeks into his arrival it became apparent by the incoming letters that his days on Alexander Drive were numbered. The untidy droppings did little to enamour him to Lilo, and it seemed they found their way into the carpeting on the bottoms of little shoes forgotten to be removed at the door. To make a long story short, but not short enough for her, I wrote that it would be best to get rid of Richard as expeditiously as possible.

Maybe because Lilo was German born she seemed to have a knack for practicality. She immediately contacted everyone we knew to see if anyone could use a goat. Apparently everyone had enough goats, as no takers were forthcoming. JD and Joyce had departed the area and the new owner of their property was not inclined to take him on. A quickly placed add in the paper produced negative results. Save for one call from a retired farmer who suggested that if the goat was such a problem he should simply be butchered….he added that goat meat was quite tasty and even suggested a local meat market that did small scale butchering. So a call was made to Wolf’s Meat Market to inquire if they could come pick-up and butcher our goat.
“No Mam,” came the reply. “We don’t pick-up live stock but if you deliver him we will handle it from there.”

The next letter to arrive related all this. I knew as I was reading it that Lilo would surely find a way to get Richard to Wolf’s Meat Market. She was a very capable gal but I had no idea that her capability would extend to imagining that she could make the delivery herself, especially as our sole mode of transport at the time was a Volkswagen Beetle. It used to have a nice interior too, which I would learn in the fullness of time had been sacrificed in the cause of expediency.

At any rate, my little family held a pow-wow on how to get Richard corralled and into the Beetle. Earl got a rope around poor Richard’s neck and with much coaxing they got him through the gate to the front driveway where the transportation was waiting. Debbie opened the drivers door and pulled the front seat back forward and Lilo said “Come on, Richard, get in the back. We are going for a little ride.” OHHHHH, YEAHHHHH!

Richard had other plans, it seems. Not willing to climb into the back seat, Earl came up with the bright idea of going to the other side, opening the passenger door and attempted to pull ol’ Richard into the back seat. Even with Debbie and Lilo pushing him he balked and bayed. Finally he decided to do it but he bolted in so fast and out the other side that Earl was left floundering, bowled over by the wiley goat, and Richard was half way to the corner before anyone realized that he was no longer attached to Earls dangling rope. As it was now mid morning, curtains up and down the block were pulled back and heads were peering out at this unusual scene, at once new and interesting compared to what normally passes for excitement on Alexander Drive. Fortunately one able and agile man to whom we are ever grateful was able to catch poor Richard and hold him until Earl was able to gain the upper hand with rope reattached. At last Richard was reunited with the back seat of the VW and with Lilo driving and a child sitting on each side of Richard to hold him they made a not to be forgotten drive to Wolf’s Market, Richard Naaaing and complaining the whole way. It must have been a comic sight, that VW cruising down the road with a goat sticking his head out of the open sunroof.

Fate has a way of serving up ironic tricks to try folk’s souls. As this curious VW approached the loading ramp behind Wolf’s Meat Market, it was just past 12 O’clock noon and all the butchers were sitting out on the loading ramp eating their lunch. Lilo drove up and asked one of the men if they could help unload the goat. He replied, thankfully more in jest than seriousness, that their lunch hour would be over at 12:30. She could park and wait. Well this elicited some extreme and not gentle response from my sweet mate and all the guys on the platform were bent over howling at the verbal fireworks. At any rate it went something to the effect that if they had ever in their lives experienced such a day as she was having they would welcome with open arms a couple of pokes in the eyeballs and other similarly attached parts. Well it was all in good fun with the guys and after what seemed an eternity but probably only a small seemingly never ending minute, they took delivery of Richard, who was only too accommodating in exiting the Bug, leaving enough scratches and mars on the seat and upholstery to always remind us of “the morning the goat went to market.”

Earl of necessity replaced Richard as the new grounds keeper. Here he is pictured on the right doing his thing. A few days later, Lilo took delivery of Richard in neat little packages of white butcher paper. He resided in the freezer until I returned. No one wanted to eat him and in the end we gave him to a friend who made mulligan stew for a local homecoming celebration. I’m sure it was a wonderful stew and Richard’s finest hour, if not his last hurrah. No doubt, older long-time residents of Alexander Drive can still remember and tell of the day that Richard went to market in the VW

© 2008 David Agniel

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Katy Trail, A Missouri Treasure

I recently had the happy opportunity to visit Jefferson City to attend my JCHS Class of '51 Reunion. Having heard of the Katy Trail, I put my bike in the van before heading north from Florida. The plan was to arrive a few days early and try out this bicycle trail that follows the old MKT railroad bed across Missouri. Remembering only too well that summer temperatures in Jefferson City often exceed those of Florida, my main misgivings were about the July heat. However, this was an opportunity that might not come again so I decided to forge ahead and appeal to the law of averages to be gentile and accommodating.

I checked in to the Ramada Inn on the 10th of July in the midst of a statewide downpour and wondered if perhaps I should put my biking plans on hold. However the next morning dawned with the promise of only scattered showers so I decided to have a go at the trail. The good folks at Ramada were very accommodating, and in a few moments had deposited my bicycle and me at the trailhead via their courtesy van. As I watched the van depart it occurred to me that I had severed connections with most of the conveniences we take for granted. At the same time there was a release from the cares of daily life. The task that lay ahead came into clear focus and all else was forgotten, especially with the sounds of distant thunder and darkening western sky to remind me of my early days growing up in Jefferson City. Back then in the 40’s, Waverly Street was the last outpost of civilization before development gave way to open pastures. I well remember the thunderstorms approaching from the West as we played impromptu games of softball in the street.

So I headed West with the hopes of finding some shelter if the threatening weather decided to do a repeat of the day before. The trail follows the river and is mostly shaded by overhanging trees. The cool of the morning was welcoming and the level trail made pedaling easy. By the time I had made Hartsburg an hour had passed and the sky was brightening so I pushed on. The trail is one of the best I’ve encountered although I am admittedly not familiar with many. There are frequent scenic spots, benches to sit and rest, and periodically spaced brass plaques depicting the expedition of Lewis and Clark as they made their exploration up the Missouri River. The plaques tell an intriguing story of the trials and handicaps of the expedition and are well worth the time to read. As you pedal this beautiful trail you have time to reflect on what it must have been like to travel this wilderness area before there were any of the modern conveniences we take for granted. It’s especially gratifying to see how lovingly the Missouri Parks and Recreation folks maintain the trail.

I did not expect to see so much wildlife but it was definitely in abundance. Deer, a river otter, numerous rabbits and squirrels, and even a copperhead crossing the trail made for an interesting display of Missouri’s wildlife. Lots of birds, particularly small blue birds and cardinals abounded. Wild flowers of many varieties were blooming along the trailside and I found myself stopping again and again to photograph and record my findings. At one point a large doe with her two fawns stood in the trail ahead and I stopped to observe them. They seemed unafraid but before I could get out my camera they sauntered off into the underbrush and I missed a great photo opportunity. I was able to capture on film another deer a bit further along the trail.

By early afternoon I was approaching Rocheport, a charming little river town, and the weather was really closing in. Rocheport is on the National Register of Historic Towns, well worth a visit by bicycle or car, so I was happy to call it a day and seek out my reserved B&B, called the Bed and Bikefest. It turned out to be an immaculate small home of several bedrooms, a kitchen and dining room. Totally welcome, if completely unexpected, was the sumptuous gourmet breakfast prepared the next morning by our host Gregory Kirschoffer, a young man whose talent and passion for cooking could put him in line for a position in any leading restaurant in the country.

After breakfast, well fortified and with several over-the-shoulder glances at the darkening sky, I scooted on up the trail to Boonville and overnighted there, taking some time to explore this interesting town. The next day I headed back to Jeff City, completing my round trip without so much as encountering more than a few droplets of rain or temperature much above 90 degrees.

As you cycle along the trail you realize quickly why the Midwest is called the breadbasket of the nation. Here, corn and soybeans are king. The old farmer’s saying that corn should be "knee high by the 4th of July" sure doesn’t hold today. On the 11th of July, the corn in the Missouri River bottom was all of 8 feet high. Perhaps the modern farming practices and the rich soil have made this saying obsolete.

One thing that will never be obsolete is the gift to us all and to future generations that this wonderful trail provides. I hope to return soon to ride the entire length from Clinton to St. Charles, a distance of some 200 plus miles.

Trip photos may be viewed at:

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Joy of Lemon Pie

I've always liked lemon pie. I grew up with lemon pie. My mother made the best lemon pie I've ever tasted. Mother took no shortcuts, used no mixes, no simple buy and fold out crusts, no prepared fillings in a can, no meringue in a spray can or plastic box. She created the whole delightful desert from scratch.

We had what I would call a working kitchen. No fancy countertops, no electric mixer to ease the stirring efforts, no timers on a fancy range, just the basics. Simple bowls, canisters and measuring parapharnalia for allotting the ingredients, a rolling pin for forming the crust, tin pie pans to bake the crust, a hand juicer for the lemons and a grater for making zest from the rinds, and lots of mixing crockery and wooden spoons for stirring and mixing.

Mom could turn out a pie with seemingly little effort and she did so regularly. Not only lemon, but also apple, peach, custard and raisin pies were regulars in our home. Sometimes she would be critical of her efforts. "Oh, I wonder what I did to that crust. It's just not as flaky as I'd like. Maybe I added too much water." I could never discern any quality problems but she was always a perfectionist with her pies.

During the Depression when I was only a toddler, I remember mother getting up in the wee hours of the pre-dawn to make pies. This was a business for her at that time. She had devised a system of making a dozen pies each morning and having them ready to deliver to a local grocery store by 7 AM. My older brother Bud was assigned the duty of delivering the pies in a large wooden case. Mom had a transporter case especially constructed to carry them. Bud would do this each morning on his way to school, walking the several blocks, pie box in hand, to the little corner grocery store in Sedalia, Mo. The pies invariably would be sold out by the end of the day. I remember Mom saying that the owners and employees at the store usually set them aside to take home after work and many of the pies never got to the retail customers. Mom used the money from this kitchen operation to keep us afloat during those days when no work was to be had and unemployment was common.

Fast forward to the present. Our part time neighbors Keith and Ann were coming out to the river for the weekend and called asking us to come for dinner Saturday night. Keith was planning to grill salmon on cedar planks, a not-to-be-forgotten eating delight. Overjoyed, I asked what we could bring, and Ann said they wouldn't mind if we brought some desert. I boldly offered, "Why don't I make a lemon pie, that is, if you like lemon pie. A friend just sent over a whole bag full of ponderosa lemons and we don't know what to do with them all."

Ann said that would be great and so I was committed at that point. I gave it no more thought until the morning of the appointed Saturday dinner date. I won't bore you with the details of my many trials in creating two lemon pies. Let me just say that from 10 AM until going on 3 PM I labored mightily with something I had always taken for granted was a simple operation. I was reminded of something that my brother Bud used to say. I'm not sure he ever cooked a day in his life but he liked to say, "Anyone who can read can cook." I was proving him very wrong. Separating eggs should be relatively easy. That is unless you get the whites and yolks mixed, drop some shell into the mix and have to poke around with your fingers to extract them.

And grating lemon rind is relatively easy too unless you try to do it after the lemons have been squeezed and you intertwine your knuckles with the rind and end up with grated knuckles.

Well after seeing that each pie filling requires a cup and a half of sugar my love affair with lemon pie was coming to a quick end. Let's see, 6 slices of pie equals a cup and a half of sugar. Divide by 6 and each slice contains a quarter cup. Contemplate eating a quarter cup of sugar for desert. And we have not yet considered the meringue which requires another generous application of sugar. And even though I can read I failed to heed the warning to add the sugar after the egg whites were beaten and stiff. I can tell you confidentially that egg whites don't like to get beaten and stiff if you add the sugar first, as I did. After 45 minutes of beating with a rotary beater I finally achieved a semblance of semi-stiff meringue. I had no choice because we were at this point out of eggs and the nearest resupply was a 28-mile round trip to town.

It was high time to get these masterpieces in the oven. If they didn't turn out, I would still have to make that dash to town to pick up some substitutes. Wow, success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan. They say a watched pot never boils and I might add a watched pie never browns until the phone rings and then it browns in 20 seconds. By the time I had dispensed with the untimely call the pies were at the very least a bit overly well done. Perhaps the meringue could be useful as a Frisbee.

By now exhaustion had set in and the wine bottle I had used to roll the dough became uncorked to help quell my frustrations. Added to this, Robbie announced that she had located the rolling pin....only a day late and two funny crusts short.

At least the Salmon was excellent. Keith is an excellent Chef and a diplomat as well. He and Ann raved about the pie. Just goes to show the value in having great and gracious neighbors.

If there were a lesson in all this it would be to take with a grain of salt all that your big brother might tell you about the simplicity of cooking.

© 2006 David Agniel

Sunday, January 29, 2006


It wasn’t too awfully long ago, though longer than I wish, that Robbie and I stumbled upon some information about a castle for sale in Ireland. Having been brought up on (and never weaned) of stories of folks who do crazy things like buying and rehabbing castles in Spain, chateaux in France and islands in the Caribbean, we were especially attracted to this Internet offering. I came across it mainly by accident while searching out and planning a possible vacation to the UK. As my background includes doing some rehabs on seemingly impossible to improve structures in the US and the Caribbean I earmarked the site.

I found it impossible to put thoughts of it out of my mind. The picture was captivating and the price looked like a misprint. The description indicated that one of the features of this castle was that it appeared much larger from afar, that as you approached closer it really proved to be an optical illusion. This fascinating feature of this incredible shrinking illusion was reported to be the work of no less an illuminary than the renowned John Nash, a well known and highly respected English architect who had designed many castles and governmental buildings in his day. It was said that Nash had intentionally designed this structure to appear larger than it actually was. It was actually erected in the late 1800s as a sort of “gate house.” It’s purpose was to accommodate the “household cavalry” that protected the main castle and extensive grounds The main castle was sacked, burned and destroyed during the subsequent Irish Revolution, but somehow this small replica gatehouse dwelling was spared. It stood and indeed stands today adjacent to a lovely area in County Roscommon known as Deer Park Lough Key (an Irish National Park) and commands a hilltop pinnacle overlooking the Shannon River. Surprisingly, it was privately owned and being hung out “on-offer,” a term oftentimes used in Ireland to describe a property for sale. The price quoted is commonly regarded as a reference price and a suggested ball park figure from which to negotiate, both up and/or down, depending on the interest it generates. The property was on offer with three options regarding the amount of land to be conveyed; 8, 17 or 57 acres, and the reference price for the entire package was quoted in Irish Punts. It translated in 1997 to about $550,000; certainly not chump change but compared to your average castle, well…about as cheap as they come.

It wasn’t too difficult to gaze across the years and imagine riders and horse drawn coaches approaching the gates while the mounted cavalry stood watch, sentinel-like and ready to admit or deny entry to the approaching riders depending on their credentials. The turrets and ramparts appeared regal and threatening occupying as they did the high ground and well able to conceal defenders and their weapons behind their thick stone abutments. I pretty well convinced myself that this type of small castle was vastly superior to the average monstrosities of those days because it retained practical features that would translate into a sensible sized dwelling if it could be rehabilitated properly.

After corresponding with the owner by mail and telephone, we decided it was a must-see on our forthcoming trip to the UK. In typical fashion we studied offerings for lodgings and planned most of our itinerary before leaving home. Our plan was to see as much of the countryside as possible including England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, traveling by rental car and overnighting in B&B’s so plentiful in the area. The catalyst of the trip now had become seeing “The Castle” and it held a burning grip on our plans. We would see as much of the country as possible but reserve a couple of days enroute to view and mull over this vision which now had moved into our minds and evicted all but the most immediate and necessary thoughts. Could we actually acquire this jewel and make it livable? Was it even feasible to modernize the interior? Could we negotiate a price that included only the minimum of land? Could we actually live in it and enjoy the Irish summers? And what of the winters? Could we leave it unattended without worry or would we need a caretaker? What about ownership laws for foreigners? Would we be isolated or would we have neighbors? What about transportation, tools, available sub-contractors, supplies. We knew so little and so dreams displaced facts and we dined out on our imagination pending our arrival on the scene.

By now, Robbie was way ahead of me. While I was imagining shopping for 220-volt tools and boring holes through 18-inch granite walls to bring in plumbing and electrical service, she was mentally decorating and landscaping the grounds. Hardly a day went by that I wasn’t shown a picture of something she thought would be just right for the castle. We were both in a dream world. Someone once said, “to discover new lands you must lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” We were well on our way or so it seemed.

Our journey took place during the time that the flamboyant Freddy Laker’s airline was still plying the Atlantic and we had always wanted to try it out. This required that we depart from Ft. Lauderdale, a drive of some distance but worth the effort for being able to enjoy the large leather seats with lumbar control, personal TV’s, dining with real china and silverware, unlimited beverages and at half the price of Delta’s economy fare. It was a great bargain for us, but the road to ruin for Mr. Freddy. The airline folded soon after.

We arrived at Gatwick Airport south of London around nine in the morning refreshed and ready for all the excitement of our first day in England. Hold it right there, Pilgrim. Did you forget that these cockamamie folks drive on the left-hand side of the road? We had a fine set of wheels but the steering wheel was on the right hand side of the car. Whoa, Nelly! Is this crazy or what? I had opted for the stick shift in order to get the full thrill of driving on the curves and hills, not thinking that I’d have to shift with my left hand.
My other little driving habit has always been keeping one eye on the rear view mirror as I’ve been rear-ended one time too many to ever forget. Yup, you guessed it. Natural instinct being what it is you look up and to the right to see through that little mirror. Correct? Wrong again, you look up and to your left.

Did I mention that coming out of Gatwick’s car rental lots you are shunted almost immediately into a 5 lane super highway? I can only say this was white-knuckle time for old Dobby. Seems as though everyone was trying to see how fast their little buggies would go and Dobby is still trying to find the rear view mirror and the gear positions in this little Vauxhall Astra. Anyway, Lady Luck was over on the left seat and telling me about all the things to look at until I finally roared, “Be Quiet, I need to concentrate.” I wanted desperately to find a turn-off and try a secondary road but by the time I had regained a bit of composure we were approaching the south coast of England at Brighton. I was still struggling in vain to find a place to turn off for a rest and gain a bit of familiarity with this little four wheeled beast. However we could now see the ocean and Brighton was dead ahead so I picked a likely turn-off thinking I’d get to the ocean and park some where and sort this all out. Did I mention that finding a parking place is a national pass time and half the folks on the road are engaged in the sport at any one moment? Robbie seemed to enjoy seeing Brighton from the car windows as she was constantly chirping about the buildings and the scenery and I was concentrating on not getting distracted by her, or the crazy left handed roundabouts, common at intersections, where no one stops but there is a definite pecking order as to right of way.

Did I mention that it was mid-summer and folks in these climes especially enjoy taking to the seacoast? Today was blessed by totally clear skies and warm temperatures. Everywhere could be seen the very white skin of winter wearied folk in their recently donned bathing suits interspersed by those who had spent much too long in the sun and had turned as pink as fresh salmon. Some looked so burned they surely were candidates for emergency care. By the time I had finally found a parking spot we had left Brighton behind and were in the adjoining town of Worthing. I was not about to give up this spot and we decided to make this our first destination. Worthing turned out to be a very nice seaside town containing lots of seaside pavilions, small shops and the site of our first Pub experience. We booked one night at the Woodlands guesthouse; a family run B&B. We had a very well furnished and fairly large bedroom with a view out onto the main street. It was interesting to just sit and watch the passersby and reflect on our good fortune so far in navigating our way. So after a short rest we hit the streets for a more thorough investigation of the area sights and shops. Shopping decidedly creates thirst so it wasn’t too long before the thought of checking out a Pub came to mind. The thought was fostered by our passing by a very attractive and picturesque establishment named The Royal Oak. We opted to give it a try to inaugurate a fitting finale to our first day of travel. I wish I could remember the name of the dark draft beer. I have always had an aversion to Guinness Stout so I know it was not the Flagship of English Brew that we opted for. Usually Pubs feature a standard plus local favorites as well. At any rate the beer was excellent. We learned that you order at the bar and pay when you order. Then you bring your own drinks to your table. Food orders are brought to your table by the kitchen staff. This proved to be pretty standard all over. We learned that dining in Pubs is a worthwhile way to have good, usually well prepared and seasoned meals. During our three weeks enroute, we usually opted for Pub grub as we named it. Robbie tried the lamb chops, something we would repeat again and again because they were invariably so very good. As we were at seaside, I opted for the salmon, also a treat. Maybe it was new visitor dumb luck but if ever you are in the area, we both recommend you look up this place, The Royal Oak. Hopefully it is still there.

After a sound nights sleep at The Woodlands I awoke feeling much better about driving. Maybe the jet lag was detrimental that first day, but the brew, vittles and the good rest had erased all that. This morning I went out and thoroughly familiarized myself with the little Vauxhall. I was now convinced that I was master of this little four-wheeled marvel. It could certainly keep up with anything on the road and it only sipped petrol like a sated midget, a blessing when paying triple the amount for the equivalent in the USA

We departed reasonably early, but not before consuming a full English breakfast that came included with the night’s lodging. Breakfast in England we learned was a pretty standard affair. It included eggs cooked to order, Canadian style bacon, rolls, bread or toast with butter and jam, and invariably a hot boiled and peeled whole tomato. Cereal and yogurt and juice usually found their way to the breakfast table as well, sometimes as options. And always coffee and tea was available. It took a while but by the end of our trip we were really loving and looking forward to those hot tomatoes at breakfast.

As we drove through the small towns on the secondary roads we began to slow down and enjoy the sights, sounds and scenery. There is history at every turn in England. We especially like Tudor style buildings and there were so many to enjoy as we passed through small towns. The secondary roads are fairly narrow and the narrowness is amplified by the lack of what are called verges or as we say shoulders. Oftentimes the verges are overgrown with hedges that are trimmed flush with the sides of the road. This leaves no option of pulling off the road for emergency or other reasons. Meeting a tour bus on a curve with absolutely zero clearance to spare is enough to make one contemplate the nearness of eternal rest. How quickly one could be dispatched to the hereafter by failing to concentrate on their driving was brought to mind more than a few times those first few days in the UK.

Midday brought us to Stonehenge; a not to be missed ancient wonder in Southwest England. The site attracts a large number of visitors. Parked busses and cars stretch for miles. The crowds are somewhat distracting but underscore the importance of this amazing and not fully understood formation. You can hear languages from around the globe and the tourists provide an interesting backdrop. One stands in total astonishment as to how it was possible to stack those gigantic slabs of stone on top of the high upright pillars many centuries ago with no trace left as to how it was accomplished. From where the stones originated, how they were transported and lifted all beg for answers. This is a sight worth seeing. We rented small earphones and walked all around the area listening to the descriptions as if we each had a personal guide. You could select your native language for the transmissions. A very unique way of handling such large groups of tourists coming from all around the world to view this curious marvel of early mankind.

After a couple of hours strolling around the area and viewing the structures from all angles, we moved on and overnighted in the little town of Horndean. I had booked an overnight here via the Internet so it was imperative that we get there on schedule. The Rosedean B&B seemed attractive and as it turned out, accurate in description as well as amenities. The owners, a retired couple, were exemplary hosts. It soon became apparent that they enjoyed their present endeavor very much. The facility was unique in that it featured only one double guestroom, a very comfortable and well-outfitted one. The other unique characteristic and the reason I booked early was due to the indoor pool, quite unique and interesting to see how they had added this feature to their lovely home. We felt like family with Mr. & Mrs. Batten. We enjoyed the evening conversing and exchanging information about our home areas and experiences. (For a description and view of the facility see and select Horndean from the pull down menu.) Fortified with a wonderfully prepared and presented breakfast, laid out on white lace table linen, they sent us on our way the next morning, waiving from their doorstep until we were out of sight. We felt like we were leaving Mom & Dad instead of two lovely people who were thoroughly enjoying opening their unique home to travelers.

Before getting very far we were approaching the grounds of Arundel Castle. This is a complete and well-maintained castle. We decided on the spot that it would be important for us to see what such regal digs should look like in their restored and properly maintained condition. So we visited and took the tour. Definitely impressive. See for yourself if you wish at The property was still inhabited by Royalty, the 17th Earl of Norfolk, name of Howard. We spent as much time as we thought we could and still make Wales by evening. Unfortunately, there is so much to see and do in the many small towns and hamlets, it is almost sinful to have to skip so much of importance. But we were on a rather detailed and tight schedule to cover the ground we had staked out for our three-week tour. So we moved on, driving North and West through the Cotswolds, a destination in and of itself for those interested in a week or so of walking between charming villages and hamlets and staying the nights in the various B&Bs situated along the way. Services abound that will transfer your luggage from Inn to Inn. You only need walking gear and a small daypack for snacks and necessities. The Cotswolds would be worth a trip to England if you saw nothing else. Another time perhaps.

By early evening we had passed into Wales and into the Brecon Beacons National Park to the town of Brecon. We didn’t have an advanced reservation and the first several interesting spots were already filled for the weekend. This seems to be an area frequented by hikers and it appeared that it was likewise a popular destination for those wishing to get away from the cities for a country weekend. We were fortunate to find a small garret room at an inn on the outskirts of town. It was cool due to the elevation and cold drizzle had begun in the afternoon. The blanket and quilt combination felt good and the rain on the tin roof just above our heads lulled us to sleep quite early after dinner downstairs at the dining room. The Inn was called the Tai’r Bull, popular with the locals and filled that evening with a hiking club from London. We had dined on lamb stew with peas and jacket potatoes; jacket meaning the skins left on, or what we refer to as baked. While sharing a table with a local couple, we inquired about the possibility of finding accommodations for the next night at our next planned destination near the car ferry to Ireland. They indicated we would be wise to keep our room for a second night (Saturday) as the weekends are very popular with travelers in these parts and we might not have good luck in the area of the Steena Ferry. They told us that many Irish come to Wales on the ferry for the weekend and load up on goods to take back. Evidently there is a price or tax difference that pays for the ferry ride and the weekend in Wales. Since our Ferry reservation was for Sunday we decided to stay an extra day in our little room under the tin roof.

The next morning was clear and cool and we tried what everyone else seemed to be doing. We put on our jeans and hiking shoes and headed up into the mountains on a little trail. Our destination was unclear but we thought we would just hike to the top of the low mountain and perhaps take a picture of the town in the valley below. Needless to say we never made it to the top. It seemed so near at the start but after a couple of hours we still seemed as far from it as when we started, so like the Englishman who marched up the hill and down again, we turned and retraced our steps, arriving back at the Tai’r Bull in time for a good lunch, a nap and another little tour around town. I couldn’t resist a visit to the Military Museum in Brecon. It housed the history and memorabilia of the Welch Borderers, and their participation in the Zulu War as well as WW’s 1 & 2. How anyone could survive under one of those large wool hats that extended a foot above one’s head is a wonderment.

You don’t have to wander far to find something of interest. We especially enjoyed watching the lambs at the stockyard being sorted out by the men dressed in tweed suits and smart looking hats. They were the epitome of what I would imagine a gentleman farmer would wear to church but apparently it was their normal workday garb. They would herd the lambs off of trucks, down ramps and into one pen or another with a small prod, evidently grading or sorting them out for a pending fate we didn’t wish to contemplate.

We departed the Tai’r Bull early Sunday morning in order to make our rendevoux with the Ferry to Ireland. We arrived at the terminal head in Fishguard with a bit of time to spare, so we had an early lunch and our first experience with fish & chips from a small restaurant a few blocks from the landing. No wonder they are popular. It seems vinegar is a choice condiment when dining on this local delicacy and we made as if we knew what we were doing and doused our fish liberally. I think I prefer the mayonnaise or ketchup however.

The Ferry trip was very interesting. We drove our little car along in line with hundreds of others directly into the mammoth hold of the ship and were directed to a parking spot so close to the next cars’ doors that we could hardly effect an exit. Passengers are not allowed to stay in their cars; the trip is 4 ½ hours across the Irish Sea. We set the emergency brake and went above to find the equivalent of a lush cruise ship, much smaller of course, but still quite a nice layout of activities and lounges, restaurants and the like. We settled in to enjoy the cruise. I made busy studying my road map of Ireland so I’d have an idea of how to get going once we landed at Rosslare Harbor. And a good thing I did. By the time we had disembarked it was late in the day and our destination was pre-booked in Waterford. However, by the time we arrived it was past the time for holding our unsecured reservation and it had been given to others. Unhappily we journeyed on as the sun sank lower and we were beginning to think we might have to sleep in the car. Several other no-vacancy signs had appeared but finally we found a vacancy and we were not in a position to quibble. We got their last available room and it wasn’t very fine compared to our pervious lodging experiences. However the host and hostess were more than gracious and hustled out some tea and scones to help compensate for the disappointed looks on our faces. We further compensated by drowning our sorrows in a local bar in Waterford and were out of there the next morning after a “Full Irish Breakfast.” The eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, tomatoes, and toast tended to leaven the spirits while expanding the waistline.

Before leaving town we toured the renowned Waterford Crystal Factory. Eamon Hartley, a relative of Robbie’s first husband, was a master engraver with the company. We inquired about him but unfortunately he was out of the country at the time. The receptionist was so nice when she learned of the connection that she issued us two free tour tickets. The factory was impressive and we watched the skilled craftsmen making crystal. The painful part was at the area where every object that didn’t turn out perfectly was smashed to bits to be melted down again. Some of the vases looked too good to break up but the policy was that everything that left the factory was to be perfect. No seconds of Waterford Crystal can be found in use anywhere.

Leaving the factory we drove on that day to Kilkenny - a medieval center - where we found a very nice B&B but the owner had little warmth or charm. Unusual in Ireland. We had a very good rest however and found Kilkenny to be a nice town.

Before leaving the next morning, we took a walking tour of Kilkenny with a guide. We visited a castle, church, dungeon, all the usual suspects. Then we headed out for Cahir and to Carrigeen Castle in County Tipperary. We came close to going through the town of Tipperary but we missed it by about 15 miles. It’s indeed a “Long Way to Tipperary,” a song made famous by both the Allied and Axis powers during the world wars. Curiously each side had its own version and words attached to the same tune. At Carrigeen Castle we were hosted by Peg Butler the owner who incidentally was an old family friend of Robbie’s. The Butlers had done a big re-do of the castle and they were enjoying a brisk lodging business. That night we had dinner at the Cahir House Hotel where visitors such as Walt Disney, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks and Jackie Kennedy had stayed. We felt we were in distinguished company.

Peg fed us well the next morning and after lots of travel advice and hugs all around we made our reluctant departure. Before leaving Cahir we drove out about two miles to visit the Swiss Cottage, a chalet type structure build by John Nash, the renowned architect I referred to earlier. John Nash was well known for building things that “were not what they seemed to be.” Close inspection of the cottage revealed every window was a different shape. Everything inside and outside was unique in some way. The floor resembled a spiderweb, the supports around the outside overhead were made of natural tree branches and limbs in peculiar shapes. A very whimsical cottage for the times and a place the Royalty from olden days went to play.

From Cahir it was on to Ardmore and Dungarven. We selected a working farmhouse B&B. Had dinner and breakfast there. Took a long walk out along an ocean path and around a peninsula. The area looked very similar to my Fort Jeudy home site in Grenada with the waves breaking below on the jagged rocks and sending spray up into the bluffs.

Moving right along, the next day we drove along small coastal roads – really SMALL – lots of scenery but scant time to take eyes off the road. Stopped at Yougall for tea & scones and a bit of shopping. Robbie is never averse to a small shopping excursion. We overnighted at Bantry in County Cork. Great view of the bay from our best room yet and a lovely host couple as well. We sat up with them till late talking about Ireland and how far it has come in their lifetimes.

The next day we had planned on driving the Ring of Kerry & Kilarney. I reneged on driving the ring. It was already late in the afternoon when we started and the traffic was terrifying on the small road. I was already hyper about scratching up the rental car. There’s absolutely no shoulder and the trees are trimmed just to the edge of the road and when one of those tour busses comes along it's “Katie bar the door and every man for himself.” I promise to do it next time but I’ll start early or take a tour. It’s 110 miles around the ring. We probably missed some beautiful scenery. Instead we drove on Northward and stayed at an old farmhouse at Knock with a 14th century Norman ruins in the back yard. Very pastoral setting with sheep and cattle grazing in the front meadow. We were getting close to our special attraction and I called Sean Simon, the owner of “The Castle” we were dreaming about to let him know we were on schedule and would see him the next day.

We pulled in to Carrick-on-Shannon early the next day and checked in at Attarory House. Sean met us that afternoon and we toured the castle. It certainly appeared large as we approached it from about a mile distant. It stood large and imposing on the hilltop and true to all reports as we approached the castle shrank in size until when we were there it was not a lot larger than a normal two story house. Go figure. We talked a lot about cutting off a large piece of the land from the 57 acres and just selling the castle with the water frontage on the Shannon. Sean seemed amenable. He permitted us to stay and poke around as long as we wanted and he went on about other business in town. No heating system other than the four small ancient peat fireplaces, the kitchen consisted of a small propane burner and a 4-legged table. There were two other smallish rooms on the main level and a staircase that led upstairs to a large hall off of which were four fairly large bedrooms. Rotting window frames, and a leaky slate roof, the turrets were unusable, filled with debris. Two rooms that could serve as bathrooms, one directly above the other were at the end of the halls, needing only the installation of all the plumbing and necessary fixtures. Excitement was slowly turning to doubt. By the next day and another visit to the site we were becoming less inspired by it all. We decided if we were going to get it at a price where we could afford the renovation, we would have to do some sharp bargaining, something that didn’t interest Mr. Simon in the least. So we sadly but hopefully bade him farewell and departed thinking we would get back to him when he had time to think a bit about our low, but we felt, very good offer. I think Sean was actually reluctant to split off the major part of the land from the structure, the one feature we felt made our lower offer good and valid. Perhaps he felt he could hold his price by including all the land in the deal. We had discovered that if we as foreigners purchased more than ten acres, there were many additional hoops we would have to jump through. (Note: It didn’t work out in the end. We even returned the following year. It was still unsold and although Simon had relented somewhat, we lost interest after seeing how much it had further worsened in condition due to no one tending to it. Simon had also allowed a neighboring farmer to graze his cattle on the grounds and they looked wretched and pockmarked. It was a good way to close out a dream, I suppose, but even today we talk about how great it would have been to have a Castle in Ireland. Just before deciding to write this story I checked with Richard Egan, a local real estate auctioneer in Boyle. He said the property has subsequently changed hands three times but the property is not presently for sale. I could not get a current value figure for it but if we ever return to Ireland, we will be inexorably drawn to this property and hopefully can see a beautiful and restored structure)

We were a little numb with disappointment but it’s hard to stay down when visiting this friendly and welcoming country. We drove on to Mullingar the next day and stayed at a really great farmhouse B&B on Loche Owel. A great family too. We played tennis on their court and occupied the luxury suite with four poster bed fit for royalty. “Not less than we deserve!” a consoling rationalization that tended to nurse us past our disappointment at not getting the castle. I was reminded of my Grandmother Agniel repeatedly saying, “We get what we deserve and if we don’t get it, it wasn’t meant to be,” to which she would add “All things work together for good, for those who love the Lord.” I thought about this and decided Grandma’s wisdom had merit. About the same time I decided a second night in these royal digs in Mullingar were appropriate. So we just chilled out, took walks, played tennis and had several good meals at a neat little Pub called The Covert.

The next day it was off to Dublin and the ferry back to Wales. We made a good, if accidental, connection with the ferry in Dun Laoghaire. We were back in Wales at Holyhead by 1 PM. This ferry was fast, 1-½ hours from shore to shore. We drove hard till 6 PM and were in Lockerbie, Scotland. Checked in to the Rosehill Guest House. Very nice indeed.

We drove through Glasgow and found it uninspiring and motored on to Edinburgh. Here the traffic was fierce and we were again faced with a severe lack of parking. Unfamiliarity with the traffic pattern and not having advanced reservations we headed out of town to find a B&B but alas we were far south before we found one in Galashiel. By then we were pretty exhausted and disappointed that we hadn’t done better advanced planning on our stay in Edinburgh. We’ll just have to catch it next trip. The B&B was just barely adequate. If I learned anything on this trip it was to book ahead as much as possible; especially near the larger cities.

Time to head South. We learned that in this part of the country B&Bs were not as prevalent as in the south. But we are determined. The countryside is beautiful. The fields are well tended and every little piece of land is put to productive use. One interesting aspect of driving through rural farmland is the different colors of the fields. We passed by unusual fields of bright yellow on frequent occasion and neither of us had a clue as to what was being grown. I finally asked and was told that it is rape seed. It is used in Europe mainly as animal feed although it is also the source of Canola oil.

As evening approached we started the daily ritual of seeking out a place to stay the night. Pulling into this little town, I was attracted to a sign that advertised a Pub called “Dog on the Roof.” I found it easily, parked in front, got out, looked up and to my astonishment, a live dog was barking at me from the flat roof above the second story of the old Pub. Ah, but Grasshopper, there was no room at the Inn. The friendly proprietor directed us to follow the road we were on another mile and a half and we would find a lovely Castle that took overnighters. And lovely it was. Walworth Castle, a fairy tale affair. We both fell in love with it. Super room, great rathskeller, excellent food and décor and a very nice waitress to look after us.

The next day found us heading south on the M-1, a major North-South artery. We are nearing the end of our journey and now looking forward to a final fling in London. This area is devoid of B&Bs and it’s pretty industrialized. We make good time and cover ground. Zoom, zoom, zoom, we roll down this busy highway sandwiched between every conceivable kind of motor vehicle, all hell-bent on beating the others to their destination. Like projectiles shot from a cannon we move onward miraculously smoothly without colliding until we pulled out of the traffic and wove our way through a half-dozen roundabouts and into the town of Copthorne, West Sussex, very close to Gatwick Airport, our departure point for return to Florida

We checked in at Kitsbridge House, a selection I’d fortunately made on the Internet to assure our lodgings in the busy London area. It was an adequate B&B run by a friendly Greek named Nick and his French wife, a lady of such proportions that she could barely pass through the doorways. Nick was a fount of knowledge and provided us with detailed instructions on how to get into London, what to do, see, etc. So armed with all this new found knowledge we drove to the local “park & ride,” an area adjacent the train station and bought tickets to London. Within 45 minutes we arrived at Victoria Station in the heart of London. From there we bought tour bus tickets and hopped a double-decker to tour the city using the earphones provided to hear the spiel from the tour guide. It’s a good way to see a lot of London because you can hop on and off whenever there is something you want to see. The busses run almost constantly so there’s never a long wait for the next one. You can use the one ticket to board and exit as many times as you wish within the period covered by the ticket. We hopped off and boarded a subway (the tube, as it is referred to). We rode past a few stations and transferred. Came out at Piccadilly and picked up another bus and that’s the way the day went. Westminster Abby, The Tower of Big Ben, on and on until we finally returned to Victoria Station and found a convenient Pub where we could relax and have some dinner. Then back to the train for the trip home to Copthorne, a fitting end to a unique and diversified three-week vacation.

The next morning we arrived at Gatwick Airport after a short 20 minute drive, dropped off the car and fell into the capable arms of Freddy Laker’s finest where we were wined, dined and entertained all the way back to Ft. Lauderdale. Our flight was only half full and we both stretched out on banks of seats and the trip seemed more like a dream than reality. Other than a dead battery in the car, the remainder of our journey was uneventful. I am sure glad I kept copious notes; otherwise many of the details of this trip would have been lost. Hope you gained something of interest from vicariously taking this journey with us.

© 2006 David Agniel

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Secret Dreams

I'm not sure when it started; her love affair that is. Little things that I began to notice in conversation. Hints that her mind was somewhere else. Then little tell-tale signs, insignificant at first, that grew more apparent with the passing days. I was beginning to pick up on some of the hints that all was not ideal in paradise. At first I brushed it off as a passing fancy and perhaps something I was just imagining. I would find her looking pensively out the window humming unusual and melodic, romantic tunes. She seemed preoccupied and remote at times as if her mind was somewhere else. Her normal routine was changing. She spent more time reading and thumbing through magazines as if she were imagining herself far removed from our normal realm. Then there were the telephone conversations. A pattern had clearly developed and one that seemed to be non-inclusive as far as I was concerned.

"So what's going on?" I blurted as she hung up from the latest in a long hushed telephone exchange punctuated by little giggles and laughter. "It's hard not to notice that there's something going on that you don't want me to know about."

"Oh, Honey," she said. "I just didn't want to bother you with my silly dreams."

"Hey, if they are dreams, they aren't silly. I think we need to talk. You have been acting strangely of late and it's time to get it out in the open."

"OK, I'll fess up. It's Frances Mayes."

"Who the hell is Francis Mayes? I blubbered. "Is he what this is all about?"

"He?" she said, a smile beginning to broaden across her face, lighting up the entire room. "It's Frances, with an e. You know e ,like in fe..male? She's a writer and she's written a wonderful book about Tuscany. It's called "Under the Tuscan Sun." I've read it twice and I'm just dying to read it again. Oh, she is such a wonderful writer and her book just makes me want to do something similar. Can't we go to Tuscany and find an old farmhouse and renovate it and live like she does? I know you don't particularly like Italy but I just picture it in my mind and it's like a dream. I'm attracted to everything about Italy and everything Italian. I was just talking to Kimberly about it and she promised to get the book and read it too so she will know better what I'm talking about."

"Well," I said as only an out of tune guy could muster, "that's a surprise. All these long talks with your daughter about Tuscany? I can't believe there's so much to talk about when it comes to Italy. All I remember about Italy is that it was full of a lot of people trying to rip me off. First in a train station when I was a kid, once when someone picked up my suitcase from the overhead rack on a train and departed with it before I was even aware he was doing it. He even put on my coat and took it too. Then he had the gall to wave at me as I peered at him out of the window as the train was departing."

"Oh, Dear, that was years ago. Times have changed. Where have you been? Don't you ever read about anything but the stock market? Here, take a little time off and read something entertaining. Frances Mayes is living out a dream and I think Tuscany is a place I have to visit at least once to see for myself, first hand."

"But we don't even speak Italian," I offered lamely. "I can't even say hello in Italian and frankly I'm not sure I want to learn at this late date. Now, how about England? They have wonderful countryside and delightful pubs. Germany is great and I can even sputter a few comprehensible words ala Deutsche. In fact, my German can get me by in Austria and Switzerland. But Italy, no way. All I remember is everyone trying to steal from me down there."

Long ago I learned that men only think they are in charge. Their women let them feel this way but only to the extent that it serves their purposes. When push comes to shove, a man would rather go with the flow than to constantly swim upstream against a determined woman. So I agreed to read Frances Mayes book. It was a first step in a campaign to win my heart and mind. A wise one at that.

By the time I had finished the book, I was beginning to see what all the attraction was about. I had always liked the challenge of fixing up old houses. But these old Italian houses were ancient. Rock piles and not much more. You had to love the sizzle, and not the steak, to even envision putting one of these structures back together. Not to mention the vast amount of money those wily Italians were garnering from their sales of rubble to dream-swept Americans intent on a second Italian invasion in little over 50 years. This time the invasion was with checkbooks in hand. The unsuspecting were paying out enormous sums for wretched old remains of dwellings that had served their time in centuries past. All over Tuscany, Umbria and other lesser-known provinces, these venerable structures still litter the pastel mottled hillsides and villages. Maybe it’s the sense of time stood still, maybe it's the mystery of living in a foreign culture, Maybe it is truly magic that has captured the imagination of so many, maybe I had shut out the good things from my very limited exposure to things Italian.

Over and over, the sizzle was on the front burner. The ancient olive groves, the vineyards overloaded with grapes and the promise of the new wine to come, the undulating hills blushing in the late afternoon sun with that special Tuscan glow. The cobble-stoned byways leading to walled towns still fortified as if to defend against barbaric invaders. History at every turn and very little modernization in the small towns and villages. The special clunking of the fruit vendors cart as he pushes it into the village square for market day. The groups of men standing around the square talking about whatever Italian men talk about. Obviously their hand movements a vital part of their vocabulary. Their demonstrable admiration and concern for the children playing on the green. The wives off filling their nets and handbags with produce, bread, wine and cheese , going from shop to shop to pick only enough for a fresh meal. Perhaps it is the mystique of imagining the Mafioso moving in the background with an unseen hand in controlling the lives of people, or of the Catholic Church, omnipotent in the upbringing and education of the children for hundreds of years. The ingrained customs that continue unbroken through the centuries adding to the mystique and the atmosphere.

I was hooked,so we three then collaborated on planning a trip to Tuscany. Knowing how much Robbie was looking forward to this trip, Kimberly and I conspired to make it as interesting as possible for her. We thought that the crowning achievement of any such trip would be to visit Bramasole, Frances Mayes home that she had lovingly refurbished and for which much of her book describes in detail. The problem we encountered is that the book does not describe the location of the house. All we knew was that it was located somewhere around Cortona . The more we tried to determine it's location the more we realized that Frances had apparently hidden it's location from readers purposefully so that she wouldn't be inundated with curiosity seekers. However, Kimberly is a close reader and attentive to details and she was sure she would be able to find it - if not by questioning the locals by following clues in the descriptions throughout the book. Our goal would be to find the house and treat Robbie to actually seeing it in person. We didn't say much about this but it was to be a hip-pocket surprise.

Having been elected to plan the trip I sat up many nights surfing the web. I searched for reasonably priced flights, good lodgings, and a rental car. I wanted to create an itinerary that would encompass not only Tuscany but also a bit larger view of the European landscape - one that would include some of my more familiar turf which was centered in Germany. We had a three-week time frame allotted for the journey so I thought it would be best to frame it around a solid week for exploring in Tuscany and then build around that with other locales before or afterwards. I examined and ruled out the numerous guided tours as being too stereotyped to suit our goals. We wanted to experience life and living amongst the people and we wanted to see it on our own, unfettered by the constraints and monotony of traveling in a group of our own countrymen. I finally found a web site that offered a pleasing array of weekly rentals. I settled for one old farmhouse. Somewhat picturesque, the description reinforced in my mind what I thought Robbie would find pleasing. I'm not sure if I also picked it so that after a week in it she might have a more realistic view of what living in Tuscany might really be like. I also picked it because it was centrally located not far from Sienna and within a couple of hour's drive of Cortona, the site of Frances Mayes home.

So now it remained to fill in the other two weeks and I felt that a little before and after might be appropriate so I planned to fly into Dusseldorf, a city in Germany through which flows the river Rhine. My plan was to trace a route south through the fabled towns along the Rhine, stopping for sightseeing in small picturesque villages with overnights in small guesthouses and B&Bs. We would try to spend a day or two in Tyrol as well before driving on across the Alps and into northern Italy and our Tuscany destination. I'd save a few days after Tuscany for the trip back to Dusseldorf and our flight home. This all came together with the help of a road map and distance calculator so we would have convenient overnights coming and going.

Needless to say but the variations in our itinerary proved to be quite interesting. Our overnight direct flight from Orlando to Dusseldorf via LTU, an offshoot of Lufthansa, was as pleasant as it was economical. Our luck in getting a rental car with only two digits on the odometer was attributed by Robbie and Kim to my fabulous preplanning. I didn't do anything to dissuade them from believing that I had meticulously specified that we must have a brand new car. I figured I might need some goodwill before the trip was over,especially if my reservations for overnights, all made in advance directly with the establishments I'd picked on the internet, didn't pan out as advertised. I need not have worried. In every case we were quite pleased. Nothing ran afoul. Our reservations were pretty much as specified. Other than the first night in an old apartment building on the banks of the Rhine in a little town called St. Goar. It was a four-story walk up and the complaints are still ringing in my ears. "Wow, 72 steps up, 72 down. You must have worked extra hard to find this one." But the view below and the newness of the remodeled apartment almost made up for the panting and complaining at the top of the stairs. I was also pretty pleased at the price, which came out to be the equivalent of sixty bucks with breakfast for three. It wasn't the first time I would take a ribbing for having a nose for value. Especially from two gals whose main experience in Europe had been reading pricey magazine articles in Conde Nast.

But we are on a mission, the objective being Tuscany. So we are off the next day but I meander and they find the scenery exhilarating. We take a ferry across the Rhine and just in time for lunch in the interesting town of Rudesheim.

From there we meander on down the Rhine through Mainz and on into Edenkoben and a surprise overnight at the Hotel Ziegelhutte in rooms that looked more like something reserved for royalty than a trio of fun seeking tourists, all at the equivalent cost of a night at Motel 6.

The next day, refreshed and feeling like royalty after our royal slumber and a breakfast sufficient to last until evening, we depart for our next overnight destination…the unusual town of Ursburg in Bavaria. This quaint town has a huge nunnery and one of the best breweries in Bavaria. The brewery is run by the nuns. I had booked rooms at the Klosterbrauhaus Ursburg, which is also a part of the Kloister and is operated by the nuns. We hardly had appetite enough to do the great evening meal justice but we gave it our best shot and washed it all down with perhaps one too many Kloster Braus before turning in for the night with the vespers and church bells sounding out their enchanting tunes.

The next day we stop in Munich to visit with Reinhard and Hannelore. I had the good fortune of helping raise Hannelore for a couple of years back in the '60s. She lived in our home as a teenager and went to school when I was stationed in Germany. Her father had died quite suddenly and we helped her over a hard time until her Mom was able to get on her feet and manage for herself and the other two younger sisters. We have always stayed in touch. We had a delightful overnight visit with them. Hannelore, to my delight, served the very classic and typical Munich fare for our farewell lunch; weisswurstle & pretzlen. Translated that's white wurst and pretzels. The wursts are filled with a very mildly flavored veal and the pretzels are as large as Frisbees and served hot. To this you add lots of good German senf - mustard but a sweeter spicier sort than we are used to. After one bite of one of those giant pretzels, you never want any other kind. After numerous second helpings and holding our sides, we bid our farewells and then it was off to Tyrol in the Italian Alps. But not before Reinhard had given us reams of advice on how to find the best way out of Munich. He finally decided he would lead us in his car. He wove through the city with us right on his tail and we were on our way without a hitch.

The scenery changes dramatically as you leave the high plains of southern Germany and ascend into the alpine terrain. It's a land of striking beauty and cleanliness that sparkles with the fresh cool air. You can hear the tinkle of cowbells way up on the mountainsides even though you might not be able to see cows. When you look over the sides of the mountains at the various convenient turnouts you can easily imagine you hear bells because of the crispness of the air.

It’s a lovely habit of the locals and one we tried to copy as often as possible, a rest stop for a bite to eat at a roadside table. Fresh baked bread from a local bakery, a block of cheese, some fruit and wine were the entrees'. Yes, and I remembered to obtain a cheap knife and corkscrew as my first acquisition on the continent. I've surrendered enough pocketknives, and the accessory corkscrew, to the airline security folks to remember to leave mine at home this time. Pretty dumb, because you can carry such as long as you check them through in your checked luggage. Oh well, I can always use another knife.

We pull into Klausen in South Tyrol just in time for dinner at our hotel, the Sylvanerhof. We are in the general vicinity of the sites of the Olympic winter games. They have been held twice here in this area. The summer scenery is delightful and our itinerary allowed us to spend several days of exploring. There was time for a few side trips to take in the full glory of the mountains and the little hamlets stuck away between the peaks. The most fun turned out to be just taking off on an uncharted course, following the small back roads. There was something of interest in every little town we came to and by the end of the day, completely lost, we would consult our map to find our way home. As we were on the hotel's plan called Halbpension, our breakfast and dinner was included. This allowed us to go out for the entire day, have lunch wherever we wished and not worry about returning and having to ferret out a place for dinner. The hotel's fare was always satisfying and welcomed after a full day of touring.

Then it's finally time for our five hour drive to our planned destination of Tonni, the tiny Tuscan town where are farm house is located. Once in the vicinity, I had to ask directions twice. With only eleven houses and a church, not everyone even in the local area has heard of Tonni. We stopped to take a picture of the sign announcing our entrance to Tonni. We brushed away some vegetation to see it clearly. The adventure has clearly begun. Will there be someone here to greet us? If not, what do we do? We have no key. We're not even sure which house it is. All we know it's across from the church. We'll feel pretty silly with the printout of a confirmation in English trying to explain to someone what we are seeking. Ah, but worry is the interest you pay on trouble before it happens. And as it happens we didn't need to worry at all. The man with the key is sitting out in front and it's apparent who he is, and of course who we are. He speaks a few words of English and introduces himself as Mr. Petrini. He is the owner of the house. He has restored it. His mother lives in the upper level. The mother comes to the upstairs window to inspect the new arrivals and waves a warm greeting and words which are certainly akin to "Welcome to Tonni ." We all smile and wave and nod. Not much else we can do but feel pretty dumb about not speaking any Italian.

We are renting the ground level, which was originally the stalls for the animals. Now, of course, it is nicely remodeled into living quarters; a living room, two bedrooms & baths and a kitchen. Off the kitchen is a small fenced in yard with an umbrella table & chairs. There are clotheslines - but no dryer. There is likewise no washing machine. In the yard are a well pump and a stone trough which we assume is the clothes washer. It's too early to say the bloom of high anticipation is fading and Robbie manages to find words of delight to describe how we will have fun taking turns washing our clothes in the trough and hanging them on the line. She also allows that we won't have to take too many steps in the kitchen. I'm savoring all the complements I can gather about my house-picking prowess. The week is still young and I want to bank as many complements as possible, just in case. At any rate I make a mental note to start looking through the kitchen drawers for clothespins, if any, as we are into our second week and laundry will soon be on the agenda.

Once we have sized up the accommodations, we head back for the nearest town that has a food store to stock up on necessities. We are determined to make this as Italian as possible so olive oil, pasta, fruit, veggies, wine and the other necessary ingredients for a number of eat-in meals is assembled. We couldn't find any garlic so I decided to try to ask for it. Although several folks in the store understood a little English, none understood garlic. I used every means to communicate but couldn't manage to make anyone understand. We vowed to not venture out again without our little dictionary.

If you've ever heard of the term Pullman kitchen you'll visualize this one. It's long and very narrow. Two people pass without incident if they hold their breath and move sideways. It's very narrow. Certainly it was an afterthought.

The size of the living room makes up for the cramped kitchen. It's a great room concept with fireplace and dining area, a couch, TV, several miscellaneous pieces of furniture, bookcases with a variety of books, mostly in German, and windows, one of which looks out on the church across the street and the rear view which reveals on olive grove.

Life is good we concluded as we turned in early that first evening. Our first prepared meal of pasta and meat sauce, salad and a nice red wine had put us in the mood for an early slumber. The next day we would arise at a reasonable hour and make the most of our day. We planned to have an eat-in breakfast and a drive to visit the nearby town of Volterra.

We slept soundly, our bedroom being to the back of the house by the olive grove. It insulated us from the noise of an occasional passing car. Kimberly's room was to the front of the house just off the entrance foyer. I once awoke thinking I'd heard a peculiar noise but soon drifted back to sleep. So it wasn't until the next morning that Kimberly mentioned to me in private that she had heard someone tampering with the front door lock. It sounded like someone picking and trying to open the door. She was terrified and finally gathered enough courage to get up and flicker the porch light -after which the picking stopped. She heard a car drive away. Not wanting to alarm her Mother who had placed such great expectations on this trip, she went back to bed and dozed fitfully with one eye open until morning. We decided to be vigilant, say nothing to Mom, and be ready if it should happen again. I would, however, report the incident to the landlord who lived at the end of the street. So as I left I discovered on the outside of the door that someone had tried to disassemble the door lock from the outside. The screws and facing plate had been removed and left on the ground. This of course was insufficient to gain access - it seemed to be purely the work of amateurs. Nevertheless, it was unnerving and tended to put us in a wary state of mind. We didn't tell Robbie but for the rest of the week we each kept a fireplace tool under our respective beds - just in case. And to myself I said, "Yup, it's still Italy after all." I guess it could have just as easily have happened anywhere, but it didn't and it reinforced my old feelings about Italy. The landlord of course expressed disbelief, reassembled the lock and then said to me in his best English so far. "It could not have been Italians that did this. It's those guest workers from Romania that live in the next town." At any rate he was so apologetic that I was afraid he would have us spilling the beans to Robbie to explain his multiple apologies. So I told him not to worry, we would be ready if they came back and not to say anything to Robbie about it. It wasn't until we were on our way home that we told her about the incident.

Volterra was everything we had read. An interesting medieval town built at the top of very steep hills. Twisting and winding roads led up to it and it is honeycombed with little winding streets, some of which were pretty steep. The town is alive with shops, museums, churches restaurants and you guessed it, tourists. We made a day of it and decided that all things considered, we had done our day as tourists. The rest of the week would be devoted to exploring places less visited by tourists. This proved to be a larger task than anticipated.

Plainly Tuscany, and all it's little towns, has been discovered by the world. Large tour busses bring people to the little towns and they descend on the shops, churches and museums like a plague of locusts. We started stopping at little restaurants away from the towns where we thought we could feel more like locals. At one peaceful little spot way out in the middle of nowhere we spied a restaurant sign. It looked nice with few cars around so we stopped and asked if we could have dinner. The lady said yes we could have dinner and would we like it now? I said yes as it was going on 6 PM. She seated us in a garden setting. I mentioned that it was fortunate for us to have found this nice place and they should appreciate our dining there as they had set so many tables on the veranda and no one was eating there but us. Much to my surprise, by the time we had finished our desert, every table was occupied. Evidently the restaurant hours began at 6 PM for dinner. I can understand why this particular restaurant, so remote from the towns was frequented by the locals. It was excellent food.

After a few days of getting oriented to the way things worked in Tuscany and after enjoying our setting at the farmhouse and partaking of a few self prepared meals, it was time for our planned visit to Cortona to discover Bramasole, the house of Frances Mayes.

We are quickly learning that many of the old Italian towns were built on the top of hills. There are reasons for this. First off, it left the fields for cultivation and it afforded protection. Many of the towns were fortified with walls enclosing them. You still pass through the walls although the gates are non existent. So again, approaching Cortona, we drive up steep and winding hills and find a series of one-way streets. Even the one way streets are narrow and parking is almost impossible save for the city parking lots. We finally managed to find a vacant spot at …you guessed it… a city lot at he bottom of the hill where we would have to hoof it back up to the top to take in the city. No matter. We are determined to make a success of this venture and no little vertical hike is going to lessen our resolve. Three hours later, we descent from the heights, discouraged and doubtful that we will ever find Bramasole. No one seemed to know where it was or at least they weren't telling. The leads that Kimberly had so well recorded didn't work out when retracing directions in the crowded town. But as a last resort she told me to start driving and if she saw something familiar from the book she would instruct me where to turn. We drove back up into the town and after a few false starts found a road leading out around the town through a back road. Things started coming together and I could sense the excitement in her voice as she said, "Yes, turn here, there should be a hillside on the left and further on down the road should be Bramasole, provided that beyond it, there is a small park and tennis court. After confirming that there was indeed a park and tennis court, we turned around and as we were driving back up the road, there on the left it stood. There was no doubt. This was it. Up close the details as described in the book, from the shrine built into the wall to the terraces and multi-succession of stone retaining walls left no doubt. We had reached our goal. Unfortunately we were denied access to the property but we didn't really expect anything more. It was sufficient to say we had found it and documented it with photographs.

I think what really made our day was walking down the road from Bramasole to where Frances mentioned in her book that the Polish workers had dumped all the debris from the remodeling. There was the pile of rubble just as she had said and it took me less than a minute to find an old iron hinge which we extracted from the dusty pile and brought home as a souvenir of our sojourn. It requires so little to satisfy fanatics such as us. It represents victory over our small quest to discover and satisfy a dream.

As the week drew to a close and it was time again to load up the car, we had many memories of our week in Tuscany nicely packed away in our hearts and minds. We had found Bramasole, visited museums, churches and historical sites in a number of towns including Sienna, marveled at ancient arched bridges, walked through little out of the way hamlets, taken pictures of such mundane things as doors. Perhaps some of the most wonderful old doors are found throughout the area.

We saw ancient Roman ruins and gained an appreciation of things Italian, which move at a different beat and tempo than here is the USA. Last but not least we all had a turn at doing the hand laundry. Unfortunately, laundry day at Tonni turned out to be a rainy day and we had to set up a makeshift dryer in front of the fireplace and finish the drying indoors. We learned you can't always count on that Tuscan sun.

The time to leave came too soon. We could have spent longer and delved into more areas and seen more sights had time allowed. But we left with the hope that opportunity would allow us to return in the future. With the exception of the door lock tampering, we experienced genuinely good times, friendly people and interesting experiences. The whole Petrini family was out to bid us farewell as we loaded the car for the next leg of our journey, the return trip to Dusseldorf. Through all of our travels so far, Kimberly had kept a diary with daily notes on what we saw and did and her impressions. She wanted to present this to her Mother on our return as a memento of the trip. She was busy on her latest entries as we drove away, destination Switzerland.

The drive to Beckenried, Switzerland takes most of the day. We pull in after passing through some spectacular scenery along the way. Tunnels, waterfalls, swiftly flowing mountain streams, fields of wild flowers, it looks for all the world like a fairyland. Our Internet reservations at the Seehotel Sternen are nothing short of fantastic. The rooms adjoin and look out over the Vierwaldstattersee, a large lake and a favorite European destination for water sports and all types of boating from yachts to kayaks. Likewise a bicycle path encircles the lake and I would imagine it takes a full day of riding to complete. Across the late from Beckenried is Luzern, a drive of about 20 miles.

We saved a visit to Luzern for the next day. It's a beautiful city filled to the hilt with tourists and visitors from all over the world. We enjoyed sitting at an outdoor café and indulging in the age-old sport of people watching. The café made a good spot for me to sit and hold down the fort and catch up on writing the requisite post cards while the girls took in all the chic shops and souvenir stores. It was no accidental plan by any means and I maintained possession of the revered table by keeping the waiter busy bringing me refills of the local pilsner. I also figured the girls wouldn't tarry too long knowing all too well what I was up to.

With only two days to go we reluctantly check out and head for our next to last destination, Oberheimbach (near Bacharach) on the Rhine. We are booked into a Pension on the grounds of a Winery called the Sonnenhof. Our route takes us through the town of Bad Durkheim and it rekindles my memories of earlier times when I was stationed near there. I pull off to visit the town and try to locate the giant wine barrel, a building that looked like a wine barrel that used to be an oft- frequented watering hole of the military and local population as well. It didn't take long as indeed it was still there and doing a thriving business as well. When the girls saw it, they had to get out and go inside to see what it was all about. We had lunch in a booth made out of a real wine barrel.

By the time we reached our destination at the Sonnenhof winery, we were almost too tired to have more wine with dinner but the thought of leaving the next day made us forget about that and we celebrated one last time.

The next morning we completed our circuit back to Dusseldorf and to our waiting LTU flight to Orlando. The time had gone all too quickly but we were happy knowing that Kimberly had recorded it all in her diary and we could relive our experiences when she published her trip report. However, as fate would have it, as we were airborne over the Atlantic, Kimberly discovered she had lost her diary, probably left it laying on a seat in the waiting room at the airport. We never got it back, so I have tried to document the trip from memory and notes as best I can. It's been three years since we made the trip in the summer of 2002, so some details are foggy. But I can bet that each of us would be willing to retrace our route if ever the opportunity presented itself. We still enjoy reminiscing about the good times we had.

© 2005 David Agniel