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Alpe d'Huez

Apr. 12th, 2017 01:37 pm
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I just realized that I've been home from France for a month, so it's probably time to finish writing about the trip, before I completely forget all the details. I'm going to try to summarize a week in this single post, mostly because I doubt there's much value in a day-by-day account of our skiing. Instead, I'll try to cover the highlights.
  • Weather - While we did have several beautiful, sunny days, the temperatures on those days were well above freezing, which led to less than ideal snow conditions. It also meant that we were overdressed and soaking in sweat by the end of the day.  However, the early part of the week featured a full-blown blizzard, with very limited visibility, lots of fresh snow, and ugly winds.  At one point, my wife and I were stranded on a chair lift for about 15-20 minutes when the high winds forced them to shut it down.  My best guess is that the winds were gusting above 50 mph as we bounced around on that chair like a piñata at a toddler's birthday party. That was, no question, the scariest chair lift ride of my life.

  •  Food - One of the reasons I enjoy ski trips to Europe is the food. Our package included dinner each night in the hotel restaurant each evening, and we sat as a group, sharing stories over five courses of simply amazing French food, accompanied by plentiful local wine (Côtes du Rhône), both red and white. If I hadn't been getting such a workout each day on the mountain, I'm sure I would have gained several pounds!

  • Scenery - The other big reason to ski in Europe is the scenery. While you can argue pretty persuasively that the snow conditions in Colorado or Utah are normally far superior to those anywhere else in the world, the Alps possess a dramatic beauty that the mountains here simply cannot match. On the days when the sun was out, it was impossible not to stop frequently just to soak in the views. I took a lot of photos, only a few of which actually do justice to the beauty that surrounded us.
 




  • The location - The town of Alpe d'Huez is remarkably small, considering the size of the ski area that it serves. it is also pretty remote, at the top of a long, steep road that includes 21 hairpin switchbacks (famous in bicycle racing circles for the leg of the Tour de France that climbs it). We really didn't explore the town while we were there, focusing instead on skiing during the day, and socializing at our hotel in the evenings.  The ski area is actually a number of small ski areas that interconnect and operate on a single ski pass system that tracks the usage of the various lifts in some form of revenue sharing. Unlike the corporate environment that dominates ski areas in the US, where everything on the mountain is owned by the corporation that runs the resort, here the various restaurants and bars on the mountain were independently owned. The resulting competition meant that the prices for food and drinks on the mountain were surprisingly affordable by comparison to what we've become accustomed to seeing in the US.

  • Final thoughts - It had been more than a decade since we last visited Europe, and this trip was a reminder of how very much we enjoyed our earlier visits there. I have heard people argue that there is too much to see and do in the US, so that the cost and effort of travelling to Europe doesn't make sense. While I agree that there are plenty of great places to travel to in the US, I strongly disagree that this should be an excuse not to visit Europe. I love the experience of visiting countries with much deeper histories, as well as different languages and cultures, from what I can experience here. This trip has reminded me of the value of foreign travel, and I fully intend to do as much travelling as I can, both foreign and domestic.
When most people think of the Popes, the city that comes to mind in Rome. But for much of the fourteenth century, Avignon was the city that the Popes called home. Beginning with Clement V, a series of seven French Popes established Avignon as the center of Church administration and the capital of the Papal States. Avignon would remain part of the Papal States until the French Revolution.

When we booked this trip, it was this history that excited me about our stay in Avignon. I was anxious to tour the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and to wander this city that was the center of the Church for two-thirds of a century, just before the Renaissance.



And so that was the first place we headed on our full day in Avignon. Soon after we began our self-guided tour, we fell behind the rest of our group...I was simply to interested in absorbing the experience of the building. The architecture is stunning, even with all the damage done in the intervening centuries (much of it by soldiers when it was used as a barracks). Unfortunately, almost all of the original frescos are gone, and most of what remains is badly damaged. But they provide glimpses of how beautiful it must have been when they were intact.

The tour includes two circuits through the building, each beginning and ending in the main courtyard, just inside the main entrance. Along the way, we explored most of the important spaces in the building and even got up on the ramparts to enjoy the views out over the city and the countryside beyond.

After finishing our explorations of the Palace, we tracked down the rest of our group at Marché les Halles (the Market), where they were buying cheese, bread, and wine for lunch. Since we weren't hungry at this point, we left them to their picnic and continued our explorations of the city. We worked our way back to the Palace grounds, where we visited the Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms d'Avignon and the palace gardens. We also walked the perimeter of the city walls (Avignon has some of the best preserved city walls in France), and just randomly wandered through the streets of the city. By the end of the day, my wife's FitBit had recorded over 32,000 steps and estimated that we had walked more than 13 miles!
After returning to the hotel after our day of exploring the region, we agreed on a restaurant for dinner, based on recommendations from our tour guide and from the hotel staff. We had a little time before the restaurant opened, so we went up to our room to relax for a bit, and met everyone in the lobby when it was time to walk to dinner.

The restaurant we had chosen had both a prix fixe menu and a la carte pricing. I opted for an a la carte pasta dish that was absolutely delicious. The restaurant was mostly empty when we arrived, since we were there almost as soon as they opened, but by the time we finished our meal, it was crowded, and the bar area had gotten quite noisy. After a leisurely dinner, accompanied by a couple of bottles of wine, we headed back out into the streets.

One of the sights I wanted to see in Avignon was the famous Pont d'Avignon, the remains of a medieval bridge that once spanned the Rhone. I had seen photos of it at night and knew that it was spectacularly lit, so my wife and I set out around the city wall and along the river to the bridge. And we weren't disappointed. Not only was the bridge absolutely stunning in the lights, but the river was mirror smooth and we were, quite literally, the only people out there. I spent twenty minutes or so taking photos of the bridge from various angles, trying to get a perfect photo. But the best of the bunch turned out to be the last one, taken almost as an afterthought as we were about to walk away. I simply turned back to the bridge, framed the view, and snapped the shot.



We then strolled back along the river and around the city wall, back to our hotel for the night.
After walking along the banks of the Rhone river to our bus, we left Arles behind and drove north through the countryside of southern France. The endless vineyards were still in their winter dormancy, with the vines all pruned back and little green to be seen. Our guide continued to entertain us with her ongoing dialog about the region as we drank in the scenery around us.

Our next destination was the city of Orange, north of Avignon. It is because of this city that the Dutch sports fans all were orange when cheering for their national teams. The Dutch royal family belong to the House of Orange, which has its roots here in southern France. And so it is a connection between a city in southern France and the reigning royalty of the Netherlands that results in the color choice for patriotic Dutch.

Orange, like Arles, dates to the Roman period, and boasts of a Roman triumphal arch. The plan was for our bus to park so we could get out to take pictures, but when we arrived, the traffic circle around the arch was under construction and there was no where for the bus to stop. We had to settle for our driver going around the circle a couple of times, while we tried to snap photos through the windows.

After we were all satisfied with our views of the arch, we headed back through the city to our next stop, the Roman theater. As with the arena in Arles, the theater in Orange has been restored and is currently used for music and theatrical performances. In fact, upon our arrival, we couldn't miss the posters advertising the upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" that was soon to take the stage.
Once we were inside the theater, our guide spoke at length about the history of the theater and its restoration. We then were given a little time to explore the grounds before we headed back to the bus.



By now it was past mid-afternoon, but we had one more destination before we returned to our hotel. Between Orange and Avignon is a famous wine appellation, Chateauneuf-du-pape. The name comes from the castle that was built here as a vacation residence for the Popes when they lived in Avignon in the fourteenth century. Little remains of the castle itself, which was heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II. However, we did stop briefly to explore the ruins that remain, before we headed into the village. Our tour guide had arranged for us to have a wine tasting at the Musee du vin Brotte, where we sampled three very nice Chateauneuf-du-pape wines, and learned a little bit about how the wines of that region are produced.

Finally, it was time to call it a day. We piled back into the bus for the final time and headed back to our hotel. As we approached Avignon, we found ourselves trapped in the late afternoon traffic, as we crawled past the city walls towards the hotel, but soon enough we were back and it was time to make plans for dinner.
When I began our trip to France, I had every intention of posting regularly during the trip, to record my thoughts and impressions while they were fresh. That fell by the wayside on the very first day, and while I did manage to post regularly on Facebook, I wasn't able to find (or make) the time to write any more detailed descriptions. Nevertheless, I do want to share more about the trip, so in the category of "better late than never", I'm going to do my best to remember what I wanted to share from the trip.

After arriving late in Frankfurt, we found that we had, indeed, missed our connecting flight onward to Marseilles, as expected. United and Lufthansa rebooked us on a later flight without any issues, but that left us with a long layover. We were all pretty tired from our long, overnight flight from Washington, and so, after getting some food (using the vouchers provided by Lufthansa), we eventually just camped out at our departure gate, with many of us taking naps.

When we were re-booked, the six people in our group were seated in the same row on our Airbus 319 aircraft, three on either side of the aisle. There was some discussion as to who wanted window seats vs. who wanted aisle seats, and somehow I got the impression that I wasn't going to have a window seat, so I packed my camera into my bag for storage in the overhead bin.

When it finally came time to board our flight, we learned that our gate didn't board directly to the aircraft. Instead, we were loaded onto a shuttle bus that seemed to drive us all the way around the terminal before pulling alongside the plane on the tarmac. We climbed the stairs onto the plane, and somehow, I found myself in a window seat. After boarding was complete, we taxied out to the furthest runway for takeoff. Seriously, it almost felt like we were going to drive from Frankfurt to Marseilles!

After takeoff, we climbed back through the clouds, so I didn't get to see any of the mountains as we flew over them. Only as we began our descent into Marseilles did I finally get to see some of the countryside. By now it was late afternoon, and the low angle sunlight was casting a beautiful glow over the landscape below me. And then, suddenly, I saw the Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct over the Gardon River, glowing in the afternoon light in the valley below. Now I was mentally kicking myself for not keeping my camera out, because I could have captured some really beautiful aerial shots of the bridge. It wasn't until after it was far behind us that it occurred to me that I could have used my phone.

Soon afterwards, we passed over the city of Marseilles and flew out over the Mediterranean. The plane banked to the left as we circled over the bay, lining up with the runway, and those of us on the left side of the aircraft were treated to a beautiful view of the city. This time, I used the phone to snap a shot:



After landing, we made our way through immigration and claimed our luggage and set out to find our transportation to Avignon. By the time we found the bus and got our luggage loaded, it was dark, and so we didn't get to see any of the French countryside as we drove to our hotel, just outside the city walls in Avignon. Arriving about eight hours later than we planned, we checked in, grabbed a light supper in the hotel restaurant, and called it a night. Sightseeing would have to wait until morning.
We'd been flying through the darkness as we crossed the North Atlantic, and I'd struggled to get at least a couple hours of sleep along the way. Shortly after I'd given up the effort as a lost cause, the cabin lights came on, and the flight attendants began to serve breakfast. I pulled up the map display on the seatback entertainment module in front of me, and saw that we were flying over southern England.

I reflected on how different my experience of this flight over England and on to Germany was from those my great-uncle endured more than 70 years ago. Really, about the only thing in common was the company that designed our planes...He flew in the Boeing designed B-17 and I was riding in a Boeing 777. My discomfort paled in comparison to what he experienced in his aircraft, which was not pressurized or climate controlled, let alone a entertainment system built into every seat back, and a flight crew to serve meals. Not to mention the enemies shooting at him and the fact that his mission was to deliver a cargo of bombs to some enemy target.

The sun came up as we crossed the coast over the European continent. Below us the clouds stretched, unbroken, as far as I could see. I watched as we overtook a slower plane flying in the same general direction, far below us. I checked our altitude on the display in front of me. We were significantly higher than the B-17 flew, and we were traveling far faster as well. He would likely have been flying in those clouds below us.

Eventually, we descended through the clouds, and the German landscape came into view. As we circled over Frankfurt, I pressed my face to the window, trying to imagine what it might have been like to fly over this city, looking for the designated target to drop our bombs on. Unfortunately, I really could quite conjure up the experience, but as I watched, the sun began to break through the clouds, providing some really dramatic lighting effects on the ground. I pulled out my camera and took some photos.

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I wish I had come to some deeply profound new insight this morning, but all I really came away with was an appreciation for the morning light on the city. Perhaps it is just enough that I was able to spend a little time thinking about the tremendous sacrifices that young men made in those skies in the middle of the last century. The legacy of their efforts lives on in the peace that continues between our nations, the peace that allows me to travel in relative comfort and safety in those same skies.
I'm sitting at Gate C3 at Dulles Airport, waiting to board our flight, which was originally scheduled to depart about an hour ago. Apparently, there's an ongoing maintenance issue with our aircraft, so I really can't complain...I want a fully functional aircraft before we leave. But we only had a 90 minute connection, so we're going to miss our second leg. C'est la vie.

It has taken far longer than it probably should have for me to learn to not to stress out in these situations. And really, it isn't the delay that annoys me, so much as the dearth of meaningful information from the airline. The gate agent is trying to be helpful, but she doesn't know any more than we do, and she's trying to give us an estimate for our departure time, but she's just guessing, really.

Oh well. There is nothing I can about it, so I'm trying to just chill. We're currently hoping to begin boarding in about 30 minutes. It will happen when it happens.
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I love to travel (hmm...to be more precise, I enjoy visiting places; the travel in between isn't always my favorite part), and it has long been my plan to travel more extensively after retiring. It is the biggest reason I plan to retire as soon as I am eligito collect my retirement benefits. I enjoy my work well enough, ble but my life is more than my work, and I want to experience more of the world.

Over the last year we've come to realize that we really don't need to wait for retirement to begin to travel more. Our retirement savings are on track to provide a more than adequate lifestyle after work, and a careful analysis of our current financial situation suggested that we had more than enough money left to begin travelling now. And, with our daughter off in college, we really only have to worry about managing our vacation time from work.

And so, we've actively been trying to plan significantly more travel. We began last fall, right after our daughter went off to school. We took a week and drove to Florida, visiting one of my wife's friends and doing some sightseeing that didn't involve theme parks. Then in November, we flew out to LA, in part to some sightseeing but also to visit one of my friends. And, of course, we took our daughter with us for our annual ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

And that's just the beginning. We have a number of additional trips either booked or in the planning stages. Over the last few years, I've done a poor job of documenting my travels, but I'm hoping to do a better job going forward. Watch this space to see where we go next...I'm looking forward to seeing some interesting things in the months ahead.
Sarasota, Florida is, almost literally, a town built by the circus. This was the town where John Ringling (of Ringling Brothers fame) and his wife, Mabel, decided to build their dream home, a palatial mansion in a baroque Venetian design.  John and Mabel were also avid art collectors, and after John's death, his mansion and art collection were bequeathed to the state of Florida.  Today, Ringling Museum is a world-class art museum on the grounds of Ca' d'Zan, their gorgeous mansion.  The grounds also include Mabel's rose garden, and a Circus museum.

We started our vision with a guided tour of the mansion.  Not only did our guide describe much of this beautiful home, but she also helped us get to know the couple who built it.  They were interesting people, who had fascinating lives.  Walking through the building, it was easy to imagine the parties that were hosted here in the 1920s.  The mansion also is sufficiently authentic to its Venetian inspiration to remind us of our own visit to that amazing city.

We then visited the circus museum, where we had the opportunity to see the customized pullman railcar John and Mable used when travelling on circus business.  We also learned a lot about the history of the circus in America as well as the intricate logistics involved in bringing the circus from town-to-town during the heyday of the big top.

Finally, after we finished with the circus museum, we took a stroll through the Ringling Art Museum.  The size and quality of the collection is incredible.  From the giant Rubens in the very first room, to the sculptures in the courtyard, everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to look at.  We didn't have nearly enough time to truly appreciate the entirety of this collection.

The entire venue is a lasting tribute to the man who was raised on a mid-western farm, but dreamed of running a circus.  He found success, and left an incredible legacy for his adopted hometown.
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When I previously visited the Kennedy Space Center, it was the late 1980s and the Space Shuttle program was still active.  I've wanted to make a return visit for a while, so when we found ourselves with some extra time today, we stopped.  The visitor's center is completely different than I remember, and as is the bus tour.  I remember the Saturn V rocket as being on display outdoors, near the Vehicle Assembly building.  Now, the tour just drives past the VAB, but it gets *much* closer to launch pads 39A and 39B, which are now both under construction for future use.  Pad 39A is leased to SpaceX, and is being prepared to launch their new Falcon Heavy rocket here.  Pad 39B is being redesigned to launch NASA's next generation rocket, the SLS, which is intended to return manned spacecraft to the moon and then push further out, eventually to Mars.  It was quite exciting to see the future of the US manned space program in progress.  The Saturn V rocket is now impressively housed in a new facility that highlights the Apollo program.

When we returned to the visitor's center, we checked out the Atlantis exhibit, highlighting the space shuttle exhibit and organized around the shuttle Atlantis, which is displayed as if in orbit, suspended from the ceiling, with the cargo bay doors open, and tilted so that you can see inside the cargo hold on one side and inspect the bottom on the other. There is also a shuttle launch simulator, which provides a realistic approximation of what it feels like to ride the shuttle through a launch sequence into space...it is a real kick in the pants!

There was much more to do here...IMAX movies, a whole pavillion devoted to current and future missions to Mars, opportunities to meet astronauts, and more.  We didn't have time to see everything, but it is all well very well done, and for a space junkie like me, a completely satisfying place to visit.
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After driving up and down I-95 through Georgia many times without getting off and visiting Savannah, we decided to take a day to check out this city.  I had heard that it was a lovely city, and I wasn't disappointed.  We decided to do a trolley (i.e., bus) tour of the city that allowed us to get on and off as much as we wanted.  After a 90 minute tour of the city, we set off on foot to explore in more detail. I found the city utterly charming, with it numerous squares filled with huge oak trees covered with spanish moss. It was a really pleasant day, though it was just enough to convince me that we will need to come back and make this a destination by itself.

The highlight of the day was lunch.  I was looking forward to some good low country food. We ended up eating at a restaurant on the waterfront, where I decided to try their pine bark stew. The creamy stew of shrimp, crab, oysters, fish, and potatoes was fabulously yummy.  And, surprisingly, given where we were, it was even reasonably priced.

By the time we finished wandering around the city and made our way back to our car, it was too late to visit the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, which I've wanted to visit for some time now.  So, one more reason to come back.  I'm thinking we might try at to use our time share points to book a stay at Hilton Head island, which is close enough to use a base to explore Savannah and its surroundings.
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Any time we drive through North Carolina on I-95, it seems we are compelled to pull off the highway in Wilson.  My late mother-in-law is to blame for this mandatory detour.  When she was a teenager, she used to visit an aunt and uncle who lived in Wilson, and they would treat her to dinner out at a local barbecue restaurant.  She liked Parker's so much that for the rest of her life, she made a point of stopping there anytime she came down this way.  So naturally, my wife also developed a taste for the place, and I'll admit to also being hooked.

Parker's was founded in 1946, and it doesn't appear that the interior design hasn't changed in the intervening 70 years.  The waiters (and they are all men) wear khaki pants, white shirts, white aprons, and paper hats.  Walking in the door feels a bit like a trip back in time.  But what the establishment lacks in ambiance, it *more* than makes up for in the quality of the food.  Know for their minced pork barbecue and their fried chicken, I usually order their barbecue dinner, which includes a generous helping of their barbecue, their unique coleslaw (with its unique yellow dressing), cornbread sticks and hush puppies, along with your choice of Brunswick stew or green beans, and boiled potato or french fries.  All that for less than seven dollars.  I can't think of anywhere else that I've ever been that provided such a complete meal at such a bargain price.

Before we left, we ordered a pound of barbecue pork to go, to give to a friend of my wife's that we are visiting.  We'll have to stop again on the way home, to pick up some barbecue for our daughter (she specifically requested some).  I'm thinking I should try the fried chicken on the way home, just to see if it is as good as it is reported to be.

For anyone traveling through North Carolina on I-95, I highly recommend making a stop in Wilson.  While Parker's is a bit off the highway (about 6 miles), it is well worth the effort.  Just be sure to bring cash...they don't accept credit or debit cards, and only accept local checks.
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After our snowmobile adventure last night, no one seemed to be any particular hurry to hit the slopes this morning, so we got off to what was, for us, a late start.  By the time we got up the mountain, it was probably about 10am before we made our first run.  The upper portions of the resort were shrouded in clouds for much of the day, so we did a lot of skiing in the trees, where the visibility was better.  We also spent a lot of time working on our mogul skiing skills...my daughter has decided that she is a ski instructor and is determined to make a marked improvement in this, my worst ski skill.  I was getting frustrated because I would string together a set of nice looking turns and then would struggle to do anything right for the rest of the run.  I know I am getting better, but the progress is uneven and anything but steady, so I find myself getting impatient.

We ran into a several members of the Pentagon Ski Club here today.  It has been a while, but we used to travel with this club, and they have a group here for the week.  It was nice to see some friendly faces, and we found out that they are going out to dinner tomorrow night.  I sent an e-mail to the trip leader to check on the details, and it looks like we'll be joining them for dinner tomorrow.  It will be fun to catch up with those members we know from our earlier trips witht the club.
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Yesterday was a *long* day.  For reasons that made sense at the time, we decided to book the snowmobile tour that my brother-in-law gave us for Christmas the evening of our arrival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  Our flight was scheduled to arrive at about 1:30, so we figured we would have plenty of time to get checked into our condo before the shuttle picked us up for the tour.  Of course we failed to factor weather into those plans.  As the weekend approached, it began to look like the DC area was going to get hit by a snow storm Friday night and Saturday.  We had visions of delayed flights and late arrivals.  So we adjusted our plans to leave for the airport extra early, and made sure we had the phone numbers for the tour company, so we could notify them if we were going to be late.

As it turned out, the storm was mostly a rain event, at least prior to our departure, so our flight left National Airport on time and actually landed in Houston early.  The second leg of the trip went equally smoothly, and we reached our destination just a few minutes early.  We had arranged for a friend to pick us up at the airport, and he was kind enough to stop at the grocery store on the way to our condo.   We checked in and even had time to unpack before the shuttle arrived.

While we were waiting for our second flight, from Houston to Steamboat, I had a friendly encounter with an United Airlines pilot who approached me because of the Clarkson University sweatshirt I was wearing.  Turned out that he had graduated from Clarkson the year before I did.  We had a short, but pleasant chat.

Our snowmobile tour was two solid hours of riding in the national forest up on the Rabbit Ears Pass.  We rode through alpine meadows and on groomed trails, for the most part, but parts of the ride were on narrow paths through the trees.  It was a blast, and the tour finished with a *huge* dinner.

By the time we were dropped back at our condo and got ready for bed, we'd been up for almost 20 hours.  Which makes me wonder...why am I already awake this morning?
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I recently finished reading “Strangers Have the Best Candy”, written by a friend I’ve known for more than twenty years.  The book is a fun and thoughtful memoir of her encounters with strangers during her semi-nomadic life traveling the length and breadth of the US and Canada.  She make a powerful case for the value we can derive from such interactions, the unexpected worldviews we can discover, as well as the sheer fun that can arise from such random meetings.  At the end of the book, she invites the readers to share the stories of their encounters with strangers.

*Lots* more behind the cut! )

The day before we left on our trip, my wife took the car to our mechanic to get a slightly overdue oil change done. While he was doing that, he pointed out that we would probably want to replace the tires when we got home. That should've been a warning...or perhaps it jinxed us. The first day out, driving up through Pennsylvania, we hit some heavy rain, which slowed the pace of traffic down significantly. This was a good thing, because the car kept trying to float off the road surface, so I would've had to slow down anyway, and this way I wasn't an obstacle to traffic flow.

After spending a late evening celebrating the 25th anniversary of my high school graduation, we headed east. As we drove across the NY Thruway, we hit yet another strong storm that severly limited visiblity and forced us to slow down to stay in contact with the road. (We later heard that we had driven through a tornado warning, though it was apparently just a doppler indicated warning, without an actual tornado on the ground!)

We were hoping that was the end of the heavy storms, but two days later, we drove through another blinding storm, this time at night, as we made our way to a hotel after spending the day at Six Flags Great Escape in Glens Falls, NY. And the very next day, outside Burlington, VT, we got hit by the heaviest rain yet, leaving us almost blind at 25mph, even with the wipers on high. We eventually pulled off the road and waited that one out.

I wasn't aware that there was a monsoon season in the Northeast, but apparently we've discovered one. I understand that many of these areas had not had any measurable rain in about a month. However, I don't know that anyone is happy with rain this heavy, as much of the water will simply run off, rather than soak in. As for us, it probably would have been easier if we had changed the tires before we left!
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Late last fall, we received a letter from People to People Ambassador Programs, inviting our older daughter to travel with the group to London and Paris as a student ambassador. We'd never heard of the organization, so we were initially a bit skeptical. However, our research revealed that this was a legitimate organization, founded by President Eisenhower (among others) to promote peace by allowing ordinary people from different countries to meet each other and learn about other cultures. We decided to investigate this opportunity further.

And so, early this year we attended an information session, and our daughter applied for the trip. After collecting letters of recommendation and being interviewed by the trip leader, she was selected to be one of the forty students on the trip in July. We paid for the trip with a credit card, but after considering the expense, we encouraged our daughter to try her hand at fundraising to cover some of the trip costs.

I believe it was her piano teacher who suggested the idea of selling cookies. Our daughter enjoys baking, and had a history of success with selling Girl Scout cookies, making it an idea with potential. We formed a tentative plan before we traveled to Colorado for a week of skiing, with the idea that we would figure out how to implement it when we returned.

The week we returned from the ski trip, winter arrived on the East Coast with a vengeance. A series of snow storms began to pummel the region, culminating in a record-breaking pair of blizzards in the middle of February. In the midst of this, old friends of mine arrived for a brief visit, and they embraced our cookie baking scheme with gusto, helping us turn our outlined plan into a reality, helping bake test batches of cookies and encouraging the initial efforts to publicize our cause.

Our initial target was Valentine's Day. We were making over-sized, heart-shaped cookies, hoping people might be interested in giving them out as Valentine's Day treats. We were almost overwhelmed with the response. Even though Valentine's Day came during the midst of some of the worst winter weather on record for this area, we managed to make and deliver about 100 cookies, raising nearly $800 in the process.

After that initial success, we followed up with shamrock-shaped cookies for St. Patrick's Day and Easter Egg cookies for Easter. While neither of these generated the huge response we had for Valentine's Day, each did generate cookie sales and increased the success of the fundraising effort. Along the way, people started making special requests: One neighbor was hosting a charity jewelry sale and asked if we could do a cookie for that party. The result was a cookie in the shape of a ring, complete with a gemstone. We've also had requests for dozens of more conventional sized cookies for various parties and meetings. We are now receiving orders for cookies for Father's Day, and it looks like this final push might bring in another sizable chunk of cash.

Our mechanic, in addition to buying several cookies, also offered our daughter an additional fundraising option: His service station sells a service coupon card that includes a number of discounts on common auto maintenance services. The cards sell for $49.95, and he offered to give her $25 for every card she sold for him. While she hasn't sold a large number of these, it has still contributed a couple of hundred dollars to the overall effort. To date, she has raised over $2,000!

We've now finished all the preparatory meetings for the trip, and the students have completed their community service project (they held a bake sale last Saturday to raise money for a animal rescue foundation). They will be heading to Dulles Airport in two groups over the next couple of weeks, for tours of the facilities, so they know what to expect at the security screenings and so forth. Then, at the end of the month, we will have a big "bon voyage" party for them, and they will be off for two weeks in England and France.

Our daughter is getting excited about the trip, and doesn't seem overly nervous about traveling without us. Her itinerary suggests that she's going to be pretty busy for two weeks, and includes some things that have me wishing I could join her on the trip (they'll be seeing a play in London's Theatre District, spending a day touring the beaches in Normandy, visiting Versailles and the Louvre, among other things). They will also be spending an afternoon with some Members of Parliament in London, learning about the UK's government and comparing it to our own.

It has been a busy spring, piling trip preparations and fundraising on top of our already busy schedule, but the experience of traveling to two of the great cities of Europe shortly after her twelfth birthday should be well worth the effort. I also think there have been valuable lessons learned along the way, about time management as we worked to fit everything into the schedule; about inter-personal skills as she dealt with people in her fundraising efforts; about organization in the record keeping required to track the progress of those fundraising efforts.

When we first opened that letter, a little more than half a year ago, I don't think we expected this to become such an all encompassing part of our lives, but the rewards seem to be paying off as our daughter has developed a great deal of additional self confidence and maturity. I can't wait to see what impact the actual trip will have on her.
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We dragged ourselves out of bed at half-past stupid this morning, to begin our trip across the country to Steamboat Springs, CO, for a week of skiing. We arrived at Dulles Airport by 7am, got the bags checked in and made it through security without incident. We timed our arrival well, and only had only a short wait before our flight began boarding. The flight to Chicago was uneventful, and we were ahead of schedule as we approached the airport. Unfortunately, we circled the airport for about 20 minutes, so we were late by the time we reached the gate. Luckily, our connecting flight to Hayden, CO was only two gates down the concourse, so we had no problems making our connection, which was already boarding as we reached the gate.

Again, our flight was uneventful, and we were ahead of schedule as we approached our destination. We were on final approach when the pilot throttled up the engines and we began to climb. A short time later, the flight crew announced that the visibility at Hayden Airport was very poor, and that we were going to circle and wait for it to clear. And so we did. We flew back and forth across the Colorado sky for an hour, until the visibility on the ground improved and we could land.

Of course, our fast connection in Chicago meant that only half of our luggage arrived in Hayden with us. The rest arrived about 6pm, after having traveled from Chicago to Denver and then on to Hayden. At least it is all here before we needed any of it for skiing.

We made a trip to the grocery store, made dinner and unpacked. We're all now feeling the effects of our early morning, and are getting ready for bed. Tomorrow we ski!
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Jan. 10th, 2010 09:45 pm
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I should be thinking about calling it a night, but I'm sitting here on my work laptop, remotely logged into my work computer, waiting for a software update to upload from the office. So, I'm tied to a computer for a while, with the TV making noise in the background.

We've been back in town for a full week now, and I've been a bit remiss in providing updates on the rest of the trip. After our final, chilly day of skiing, we spent the evening packing our things and generally relaxing. I set the alarm clock, and we got an early start the next morning. After a quick breakfast, and a quick cleaning of our condo, we hit the road. After a completely uneventful border crossing back to the US, we drove across the beautiful North Country of New York. These were my old stomping grounds in college, and it was a fun trip down memory lane.

We arrived at my parents' in time to have supper and stayed up with them to celbrate the New Year. We then spent two relaxing days with my parents before we returned home. I think we've settled back into our routines, though it feels a bit like we're in a holding pattern, since we're scheduled to head out to Colorado for more skiing later this month.
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We had a very pleasant Christmas yesterday. The kids were up pretty early, and they seemed pleased with the presents they got. My in-laws came over later in the morning, and there was more gift opening and we ate brunch. By mid-afternoon, everyone had left and we got serious about packing for our holiday trip. We had everything packed an loaded in the van by 5pm, so we headed out to get a head start on our trip north.

Unfortunately, we left just as the rain started. We made our way north through Maryland and Delaware to the NJ Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. By the time we reached New York, the temperatures were dropping, and snow was beginning to mix with the rain. By 11pm, the roadway was suddenly covered in a greasy layer of slushy snow, and I was tired, so we pulled off to get a hotel room for the night.

This morning, we got back on the road and finished our drive. We crossed from New York into Quebec about 3:30, and had a pleasant drive across the countryside to Sutton, Quebec, with a short grocery stop along the way. We're now settled into our condo, which is literally slopeside (we can see a chair lift out the window), and we're planning to retire early so we can get an early start on the slopes tomorrow. Hopefully, there will be pictures and maybe a video or two to post as the week progresses.
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