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Calabria & Sicily:  November 4 - December 1, 2007   

First Impressions
    Within an hour of leaving lovely Maratea in Basilicata, we were in Calabria and the change was as abrupt as when we travel for hours on a bus, boat, or train, even though we were only pedaling farther south on the same coastal road. Flat land more often filled the expanse between the ocean and the hills, whereas in Basilicata the rugged mountains frequently terminated as dramatic cliffs at the sea . This change in geography did create tourist-friendly beaches but also had prompted the building of endless miles of regrettable strip-cities of summer hotels.
    Being lodging-strapped for weeks, the sight of hotels would normally have been welcome, but it was a repelling scene compared to the more tranquil sprinkling of hotels a few miles north.  And of course, almost all were closed for the season. We wondered why  these seaside villages couldn't manage to deliver some eye appeal when their slightly northern coastal neighbors could.

A Calabrian beach way from the strip-city scene.

    I remembered the northern Italian Dolomites where, in the high season (winter), visitors vastly outnumber permanent residents and yet the hospitality folks know about curb appeal. There, practically every lodging establishment was a candidate for a postcard with their fresh paint and bulging flower boxes.
    In contrast, these beach resort hotels in northern Calabria all looked like they'd been built 20 years ago and no one had thought to spruce them up since. Even power-washing the exteriors would have done wonders for many, and most any attempt at exterior maintenance would have made one stand out from the others. The collective affect of the less pleasing landscape, the excessively high building density, and the low level of TLC of both made us want to keep pedaling.
    But even the riding was unpleasant on the west coast of Calabria. Biking suddenly
became more dangerous and tiring as the too narrow highway was often slightly elevated above soggy land, leaving no wiggle room for us or the motorists on roadways built for the earlier era of smaller trucks. There were hours on end of white-knuckle riding, conditions that had us pulling off the road into the deep parking lot of a closed business to relax our tense muscles and quiet our sensory-overloaded heads.
    We reminded ourselves however that we were lucky to be able to ride this coast at all as we'd had to bail-out on riding south along Calabria's eastern coast because of the total lack of lodging. On the eastern side, the hotels were all in very seasonal, package-tour compounds, leaving us without sufficient lodging and services to make the journey south along the instep of the boot.

Scilla: a moment of wonderful weather & pleasing images.

On Down the Road
    The scenery improved as we traveled farther south along Calabria's coast, in the area around Tropea and Scilla. (Scilla is the fabled site of the liar of  Scylla, the 6-headed monster who drowned sailors in the Straits of Messina.) There we had some more pleasing panoramas in more historical villages and better riding conditions.  At last we could relax a bit and appreciate the generally better weather associated with being farther south in November. Any day that the thermometer tipped 70° felt like a gift and the generally warmer temperatures made it easy to forgive the occasionally rainy day.
    In Calabria our daily melons gave way to daily persimmons, which are usually harder to come by. Those crimson fruits that are best when on the verge of bursting, despite the occasional black scars, were irresistible. So fragile, we could only buy them at the end of our riding day and even then they didn't always make it to the sink for washing without splitting. But a quick wash, and they were gulped down. Known as "kaki's" or "cachi's," they were second only to dark chocolate on our daily list of pleasures.
    Reggio di Calabria, a city of just under 200,000, was our last stop in Calabria before taking the ferry to Sicily. Reggio's claim to fame is a pair of what they consider some of world's finest Greek bronzes. Found underwater in 1972, the Bronzi di Riace are from about 450 bce. Bronze was the favorite material of the Greeks for statues, but they and others frequently melted them down, so few remain. Most of what is know about Greek figures is instead from the marble copies made by the Romans.

We thought twice before bathing in this.

    No photos were allowed of the prized, larger than life bronzes, so instead we'll share a glimpse of our Reggio hotel's tap water. Mind you, this was before we bathed. And from the undrinkable taste, we can attest it was minerals, not rust, imparting the repelling color.
    It took courage to dip my body into the water, but I decided that it only looked worse in the tub than it would be in a shower. And with no curtain, we'd be left with mopping the nasty looking shower water off of the floor. I kept reminding myself that one usually must pay extra for a high-mineral content soak like this at a spa.

Slight of Hand & Other Tricks
    We'd expected the southern reaches of Italy to be scarred by scarcity, both the land and the people. We presumed a paucity of rain would make the land dry and parched like parts of Greece and southern Spain and were sure we'd see the legacy of poverty in the people, but we saw neither.
    The land was surprisingly green, both with agriculture and wild plants, and the standard of living of the people seemed similar to much of Italy. The centuries of being an backwater didn't shout at us as we had expected, though the region did give us the sense of moving back in time a few decades.
    What we did experience that may be a remnant  their economically disadvantaged history was a greater than average propensity to boldly cheating us on the the small change. We hadn't been in southern Italy long before I became aware that I was being taken advantage of at the green markets. Pricing is more subjective at the fruit stand than at the supermarkets and my Italian isn't up to arguing even when I know the price of a melon doubled over what I paid the day before. That experience at the open air markets isn't unique to southern Italy, but it did rear its head there.

At least they knew their dealer's tricks.

    But unlike other places, we experienced even more blatant cheating. At one bakery I happened to notice the posted price for the bread I was buying was 1.40€/kg. I ordered my 4 rolls and the clerk charged me 1.40€ without weighing the goods, which was the essentially universal practice in the region.  I knew from this daily ritual that my order was a half kilo or less and asked the clerk (in clumsy Italian) to weigh it as I paid her. The look on her face confirmed my suspicions--I'd been ripped off. Indeed, the bread came in at just over 0.4 kg. I wasn't going to hassle her over the 80 cents, but hoped the young woman would think twice before taking advantage of the next visitor that rolled through her shop.
    A few days later, Bill had a similar "nickel & dime" experience. The green grocer deftly withheld a 1€ coin in his hand when giving Bill change for his purchase from a 5€ bill. Only when Bill protested was the missing 1€ coin dropped onto the counter with the other change. Bill was stunned at the brazen maneuver and we were both disappointed to see the frequency increase of retail folks who were methodically shorting us. There are enough honest mistakes made that none of us welcomes the hyper-vigilance it takes to watch for the habitual shysters. But hey, the dollar had reached an all-time low of 1 € /$1.45, so the cash was more dear to us than it had been even a month ago.

Stepping into the Unknown
   Infrequently when we travel, the sense of "other" fills my mental screen and distracts me with a general fretfulness. It pops up when we are in places more off to the side, less traveled, less understood, or somehow more notorious. With that sense of "other" comes some jitters, some fear of the unknown.
    I felt that very strongly when we first crossed the east-west divide and entered the Czech Republic years ago, our first eastern block country. Dark images that I grew up with had blurred and only left ill-defined discomfort. "Communists, secret police, Russian spies, people disappearing" all contributed to my "best not to go there" instinct that was heightened by entering on a dark, dreary, rainy day.
    Other visits have activated that deep, vague fearfulness, like visiting Turkey for the first time, riding through an area populated by Romas (gypsies) in Slovenia, and going into the very conservative Siwi Oasis in Egypt. Surprisingly, anticipating being in Sicily triggered a similar response in me. But this time it wasn't historical, cultural, or religious differences that fueled the fretting, it was the Mafia.
    Sicily was the heartland of the Mafia, the only source of organized crime that I heard of in my formative years. I feared that we would have a heightened risk of being victims of crime and that it would come in more hidden, less familiar ways. And the subtle fear then fueled more bizarre concerns, like "our boat will sink." The discomfort that came up with entering Sicily was like the others felt before: it was mild enough that I could watch it as it progressed and see it for what it was and yet strong enough that I couldn't just dispatch it. It was an anxiety that demanded being reckoned with though it didn't immobilize me. 
    Like with most vague fears, the fear of the Mafia became a handy explanation for all that we saw that seemed odd or amiss. The appearance of a single older man milling in the doorways of shops, the freeway shown on the map that Map Man described as "going to nowhere," and decreased presence of non-Italian stores all had the too easy explanation of being a product of organized crime.
    As I had read and was confirmed by an Italian university student fluent in English: ordinary people and tourists don't have any run-in's with the Mafia. They indirectly affect everyone with their damage to the environment and the infrastructure, but they don't bother with the passer's by. And that was certainly our experience--we were left only to guess if we were seeing their handy work about town or not. Predictably, as the days went by and I accumulated my own experience of Sicily, the fears passed by.  

    Our 1/2 hour ferry ride from the mainland port of Reggio di Calabria landed us in the Sicilian port of Messina (the boat didn't sink) and we promptly headed for the train station. We had 2 weeks before boarding a budget flight that would take us from Trąpani on Sicily's northwest corner to Germany and we needed a place to stash our bikes and some gear for the better part of 3 months. After we'd solved this end-of-the-season logistical problem, we'd then return our attention to touring.

A 1600's tower on the tip of Trąpani. 

    Bill had suggested we call ahead for reservations in Trąpani, an idea I quickly dispatched as being unnecessary. Besides, we wanted to scout-out the hotels as prospects for keeping our bikes while we were at home.
    We'd struggled with low-season closures making lodging scarce on Sicily so we were dumbfounded to find that all the hotels in Trąpani were full when we arrived. It was about 9 pm, which is dinner time in Italy, but it was panic-time for us. We were both worried and I felt incredibly foolish as we circled through the empty streets looking for yet another hotel.
    After rejections at several reception desks, Bill learned that Trąpani was hosting a several-day series of national or regional exams for state positions. The hotels that were normally deserted this time of the year were bulging with hopeful young men. We finally found a hotel as the drizzle set in--a hotel that was technically full but had a room available--an odd circumstance we most often encounter in Italy. Our need for showers and getting to bed overcame our curiosity about the occupancy details and we settled for taking the room key without really understanding what we were being told in English.
    The next morning the tourist info man found us a place to stash our bikes for 3 months and we made reservations to stay in town an extra night to check out a cheaper and more pleasant hotel before hitting the road. After a very rough start in Trąpani the night before, we couldn't believe that our problems were quickly melting away.
    We felt a little uncertain if the bike storage option would really work when we returned in 2 weeks, but decided to do it the European way and trust the process. After our only Plan B failed, we limited our back-up plan to returning a day early in case the informal arrangement fell through.

    Trąpani was a business stop but we headed southeast along Sicily's coast for the sightseeing venues. Marsala, famous for its sweet dessert wine, drew us because of their display of the remnants of a Phoenician war ship that sank about 250 bce during the first Punic War with Rome. Again, no photos were allowed, but it was interesting to learn that this ship was a "pre-fab" model. Markings on the boards indicated that the ship had been assembled from pre-built panels and had assembly instructions like a modern piece of knocked-down furniture.
    And so straightforward and standardized were these Phoenician war ships, that the Romans, who weren't great mariners, learned how to build better war ships from capturing one of these "kit" models. Apparently the Romans had one team reproducing a version of the captured Phoenician ship on the beach and nearby another crew of Romans were learning how to row.

Unmistakably Grecian, but not in Greece.

    Selinunte was next on the southwestern Sicily itinerary and it took us back a little farther in time, back to the Magna Graecia era. As on the mainland of Italy, Greek colonists settled the southern part of the Sicilian coast at the end of the 7th century bce. Selinunte, which was loaded with temples, became one of the richest and most powerful cities of its time. It rebuilt after being sacked in the early 400's bce by Carthage, but never recovered from being clobbered by the Romans in the 200's bce. We spent a full day walking the grounds of the old city and admiring several partial reassemblies of the enormous temples.

   Dogs were a bit of a problem in southern Italy and I continued to carry a stash of throwing rocks in my handle bar bag after making myself hoarse from growling and shouting at aggressive dogs early in our visit. Interestingly, it wasn't usually the strays that were the problem but the off-leash, owned dogs. It was the unrestrained dogs in the yard of a rural home that would chase us down the road, threatening our flesh.

Most of Selinunte's temples are still in ruins.

    We had a unique dog encounter in Sicily, which is  where we were escorted by a stray I named "Siesta" while we toured the Greek ruins at Selinunte.
    Siesta was curled in the sun inside the large ticket office/gift shop at the archeological site's entrance. When we opened the backdoor to the ruins grounds, Siesta popped out with us, like a too-friendly, self-appointed Egyptian guide hustling for a tip.
    Each time we crossed paths with the few other tourists, we thought Siesta would latch on to them, but he never did. We appeared to be the only visitors who had brought lunch on the site and we assumed Siesta had noted that important scent when we entered the office. (Dogs sense of smell is 10,000 times greater than ours when they actively sniff.)
    Time for lunch arrived and we weren't sure how to manage it, fearing that Siesta might turn aggressive or at least become pesky. I broke the good-owner rules and decided to give Siesta a snack before we ate as the logistics would be easier. I tore off 4 small pieces from our lunch rolls and soaked each in the olive oil our tuna was packed in--excess oil we'd normally pour off.

Though ready for a snooze, Siesta stayed close after lunch.

    Siesta wouldn't eat the pieces laid on the ground but expected to be hand fed--perhaps the all important signal that it was indeed for him. He had impeccable manners and carefully took each piece in turn, never once threatening me. When we made it clear that his feeding was over by eating our sandwiches, he curled up about 8' away from us.  Being a good southern Italian dog, he expected that it was now siesta time (hence his name for the day). 
    Siesta wasn't pleased when we packed up lunch and continued sightseeing, choosing now to lag or walk between us instead of lead far ahead. But like all good dogs, he had a job to do and stuck with us all the way back to the gift shop, where he trotted in the front door with us.
    Seemingly after being convinced that we were through with the ruins, he signaled one of the shop staff that it was time for him to go back out onto the ruins grounds and out the door he went. We couldn't believe what a carefully choreographed day we'd had with Siesta and yet it didn't create any "going home with you" expectations. We'd love to know if he truly was a stray or if this was his daytime activity while his owners were away.

Changing Direction
    The forecast of several days of 30 mile an hour headwinds followed by several days of rain had us again changing plans. Instead of continuing southwest along the coast and into the wind, we turned due north for the first town with a train going to Palermo. High winds and rain made city sightseeing on foot sound like a better choice. Our preliminary tour of western Sicily was getting chopped to bits, but at least we were seeing the sights, one way or another.
    Relentlessly noisy, congested, chaotic, and dingy were our first impressions of Palermo but we loved it. Perhaps it was too much time in the hinterland too isolated from the internet and readily available groceries; perhaps it was escaping the 30 mph winds so that the 70° temperatures felt as lovely as the should have felt in late November; or perhaps it was the liveliness of the ancient city of almost 700,000 people--whatever it was, what Palermo had was just right for us in that moment. I can imagine that coming from another context, like the folks stepping off the cruise ships in the harbor, would have made Palermo look repugnant.

One of Palermo's back street markets

    Bill trudged around looking for a hotel in the heart of the old town and was met by hotels that were already booked at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon whereas elsewhere in Sicily we were challenged by a sea of off-season closures. But Bill, who hasn't in the past been enchanted by these coarser, old European cities, was all smiles as he stopped by where I was parked with the bikes to report on his latest round of rejections. It didn't matter, he was loving the welcoming warm air and city bustle.
Big-Time Buzz
    We both were in raptures after depositing our belongings at a hotel being remodeled when we stumbled upon a huge open air market early in our search for a supermarket. I was ecstatic at the sight of blocks and blocks of vendors tables stacked with fresh oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, greens, and other lovely produce. We'd been limited to "take what you can get" since arriving in Sicily and its small towns, so this was paradise. I didn't realize what a burden the challenging shopping had been until it was lifted and I was positively buoyed up by the abundance.

Diversity: the Greek Orthodox church in Palermo was a surprise.

    Not only was the produce cheap, beautiful, and plentiful but the lights under the umbrellas gave the market a festive glow. The crowded and cramped commotion added to the party atmosphere created by the bright lights shimmering on the food.
    Stone pavers polished by wear and wetted by water dripping from the fish and produce tables made the walking treacherous, as did the occasional 'moto' blasting through spaces a stroller previously couldn't penetrate. It all conspired to heighten the carnival atmosphere and we relished it.
    The sudden wild mix of cultures in Palermo also fascinated us. Our hotel host informed us that we were in a Pakistani neighborhood, which we immediately understood from the marketing on the phone center stops on the street. Asian, African, as well as sub-continent folks were quite evident as both local customers and shopkeepers. Palermo looked like a city that was a collection of many small neighborhoods rather than a city with a sky-scraper commercial center and radiating business districts. Most of Palermo was built of 4 storey buildings--low for most cities though dramatically different from the 2-storey villages and towns we'd been visiting.
Ancient City
    It was in Palermo that we had our first sense of the complex history of Sicily. We saw ruins of the ancient in Marsala and Selinunte, but they were limited to Greek or Phoenician cultures. We knew Sicily was trampled and owned by a long list of empires and despots over the millennia, though it wasn't apparent where we had been on the far west coast. There, only the last few hundred years was evident beyond the few fenced-in Greek ruins. In towns like Marsala and Trąpani we'd read our guide book's references to the Arabian influence on the town plan as evidenced by the winding streets and go "Huh?". The town plans looked like any other old town in Italy to us. But it was different in Palermo.

North African influence on Palermo's cathedral.

    In Palermo, even a quick look at the backside of the grand cathedral told you something else had been going on here. In this case, it was the Moorish influence.  The colorful carts and a vehicle outside a restaurant clearly referenced more recent traditions, as did the stunning gold mosaic work inside a tiny Greek Orthodox church. And the grand and often fading architecture, fountains and facades spoke to the glory days of the city. Traces of Palermo's complicated history could be discovered outside its museums and on many of its streets.

The Mafia
Is It or Isn't It?
  My fretting about crossing paths with the Mafia had melted away but being in Palermo heightened my curiosity about it. We wondered how many of the undesirable aspects of Sicily and southern Italy were due to the mob and what was instead the consequence of overly powerful unions or longstanding traditions. And the more we pondered those causes, the more we wondered how blurred the lines were between them. Several situations in particular fueled  our curiosity.
    The first change that caught our eye was the ancient, withered men standing alone inside shop doorways. They were ordinary-looking enough that we expected them to be customers on the way in or out, but they just lingered around the doors. They didn't do anything and didn't appear particularly watchful, they were like an extra appendage--attached but with no apparent function. Was it papa that couldn't let go of the store after passing it on to the next generation or were these men stationed there at the insistence of an external authority?
    In Palermo we lingered on church grounds perched above a small parking area in an attempt to understand the function of a man in a chair. He would scowl and gesture towards his chest with a pointed finger at people parking in a public parking zone who didn't first clear it with him. He had no pad of tickets, no coin pouch, no official jacket but it was clearly his turf and he expected compliance. We saw 2 motorists depart that gave him what appeared to be tips rather than parking fees as there was no looking at watches or exchange of papers with the delivery of the money. 

Palermo's stark  memorial to slain anti-Mafia figures.

    Our best attempt at an explanation was that he was paying someone else for the privilege of providing 'service' to the folks parking in this public area and that he in turn expected compensation for his presence. That's a lot of guessing, but little else fit what we were seeing. A number of police passed by the area while we watched and they didn't bat an eye. Clearly there was a chain of understanding that went from the motorists to the man with the chair and on to the police--a chain that we were not a part of however.
    Palermo's archeological museum was so terrible that we hoped that its condition was some how related to organized crime, that it hadn't evolved so terribly without a good excuse. Unfortunately, it is the museum for the island, so we knew that we'd repeatedly be reading little signs at exhibits elsewhere stating that the historic site's finds were at this pitiful museum and that we'd likely been unable to see them. 
    Many of the exhibited items were themselves ancient displays with the inventory numbers being prominent but the dates for the finds being absent. More annoying were the room closures. Bill's pressing to locate the hall with the Neolithic ceramics resulted in being told it was closed. The kind attendant did open the unlocked door and allowed us to look, but we had to be quick. It was the room where we would have lingered the longest and yet we were limited to an unilluminated walk-through. 
    On another floor, the halls with the Etruscan finds from the island were lit but roped off. There was an undated letter from the management stating that while a 1 room special exhibit was in the building, the 5 Etruscan rooms were closed.  We assumed that the pretense was a staffing issue--that the staff was spread too thin to cover both exhibits. But when we got to the special exhibit, there were no staff attending it, none. There were no less than 8 men sitting and smoking or in various stages of wakefulness in the adjacent outdoor courtyard, but not one in any of the exhibition areas on that level.
    The staff outnumbered the visitors in the entire museum, which left us to wonder why these and other exhibit areas noted on the plan weren't available to the public. Close to half of the finds featured in their brochure were unavailable to be seen. Some large museums open and close halls throughout the day or the week to solve staffing problems and others have areas closed for renovation, but none of those explanations fit what we were seeing. I can't imagine how organized crime would benefit from the silliness at the museum, but it was the kindest explanation we could generate.

Protesting the lack of action by police in a Mafia killing.

Public Evidence
     Whether we were actually identifying organized crime related mischief or not in these instances, there were concrete examples of the Mafia presence provided by the good-guys. In Sicily and on the mainland in Brindsi, we happened upon anti-Mafia offices and memorials to officials killed in the fight against the Mafia   
    In Palermo, we also saw homemade banners at what appeared to be a family or neighborhood attempt to shame the police for inaction against the Mafia in the killing of a policeman and perhaps his pregnant wife. And on a back road out of Palermo, Bill spotted a sign indicating that the adjacent house had been confiscated from the Mafia.
    We noticed some books in shops had titles with the Mafia in them and usually photos of ring-leaders from the past decades. And for the curious tourists, Mafia related T-shirts were occasionally for sale at souvenir stands.
    Three days after leaving Sicily, we saw a news ticker stating that 46 alleged mobsters were rounded up in Sicily.

Mafia property confiscated by the government. 

A Few Facts
    I hope to read more about the effect of the Mafia on Italy's economy and society while at home this winter, as I was stunned by the little bits I read while traveling. I was horrified to read that the Allies struggled with the administration of Sicily after WWII so turned to the services of a Mafia chief jailed by Mussolini. We also read that the Allies sought help from the Mafia in the US in preparing for the reinvasion of Italy during the war. Apparently the death grip that the mob has held on Sicily since the war is in part due to the endorsements of the Allies. Bill shared his hopes that a similar failed, problem-solving strategy wasn't currently being used by the US in Iraq. 
    It sounds like the Mafia and related groups are concentrated in Sicily and southern Italy, with the co-existence of 5 loosely related organizations. Each has its geographical territory, and each has its own specialties. The areas of expertise range from the old stand-bys like bank robberies, rigged gambling, and prostitution to the newer enterprises of dumping toxic industrial waste on farmland as a high-profit way to run a garbage company. Some estimate that organized crime does about $150 billion in business a year, or the equivalent of about 10% of Italy's GDP. They may have control over as much as 20% of the businesses in Italy.
    The university student we spoke with said that ordinary people only come into contact with the Mafia if they do something special, like start a business. It was a chilling enough thought to consider how ruinous organized crime is to the lives of many people but even worse to consider it as a deterrent to creativity and entrepreneurism.  What a drain on an economy, on a people, to be compelled to stick with the status quo professionally so as to protect their physical safety. We assumed it was this same kind of threat from the Mafia that was inhibiting the more northern-based companies from having a presence in southern Italy.  

Fishing, 1 of many port activities in Trąpani.

Back To Trąpani 
    The heavy weather forecasted for southwestern Sicily didn't develop in Palermo so we were doubled pleased--we'd found both good sightseeing and good weather. After a 4 night stay, it was time for the 3 day westward biking journey back to Trąpani. Our wish was granted as our final riding day delivered both interesting scenery and delightfully warm temperatures.
    Once in Trąpani, we'd sort our belongings into "stay" and "go" piles, buy a cheap suitcase for the trip home, stash our bikes and some gear, and shift into 'normal travelers mode' on a budget flight to Germany. A few days later, we'd fly from Frankfurt to Portland.

Home Coming Hassles
    We feel like we live 3 different lives now as we have our traveling life; our 'at home' phase; and our 'transition to being at home' interval that occurs while we are still on the road. This year, the 'transition to being at home' issues crept in earlier, about 4 months before our return, which meant it intruded upon more than half of our 7 month touring season in Europe.
    An email arrived from the property management company stating that our former home that had been rental property for 7 years needed major work after the second set of renters moved out. Harsh realties of home ownership came crashing in on us as we were dealing with our laptop battery mini-crisis in the Alps. That homeowner's headache and mounting repair costs that began in August accompanied us as we flew home in December.
    Going home always triggers an electronics buyer's crisis for Bill as he sorts through which items, like the laptop, camera, PDA's, and now cell phones should be replaced. There were the many questions to be answered: "Do we dare use the laptop when it is out of warranty or should it be replaced? Will those increasingly malfunctioning PDA's hang in there for another year? Has the function/price ratio on cameras shifted sufficiently to warrant the hassles of upgrading? Will a new European cell phone really give us a fast and inexpensive link to the internet?" Bill can do little face-to-face shopping for these items while in Europe, so doing the essential research for buying online while overseas increases the pressure to find fast internet connections for surfing and spending endless hours on-line.
    August was the kick-off for the home-owners issues; September saw the addition of the anticipated electronics research; and  October brought an unexpected blow when Bill's sister announced that she had sold her car. Suddenly, we were without wheels when in Portland and our excess liability or umbrella policy that was tied to her car went "poof." Worse yet, we realized that our alternative to paying her the IRS tax rate for the use of her car, which was renting Flexcars, also disappeared. It was the lack of the umbrella policy that left us with too little liability insurance to feel comfortable driving the rentals.
    Hours and hours of our traveling life were now being diverted into problem solving and soul searching. The house issue of course rekindled old discussions about selling or retaining it as a rental and our tireless accountant surely tired of Bill's string of "what if questions" as he delved deeper yet into both the financial and emotional aspects of an old dilemma.
    The online electronics research had Bill looking like a druggie in search of his next high: new information would elate him; the next round of details would cause his recently elevated spirits to plummet. And the insurance woes left us feeling like we were being squeezed out of our country's driving culture in a more extreme way than we welcomed.
    A new image emerged to describe what we were feeling, which was that each of these familiar issues were like a Jack-in-the-Box. Almost all of the time each issue sat neatly tucked away in its box and occasionally, one popped open and we would have to deal with it. Partly by chance and partly because of heading home, it seemed like all of our Jack-in-the-Boxes were springing up at the same time. And to add to the chaos, the branching possible solutions to some of these Jack-in-the-Box problems were cumbersome and created their own grinning gremlins.

Maybe 1 of these would qualify for our umbrella policy.

    We explored being motorcycle owners so as to have an underlying auto policy which is often (we thought always) required for an umbrella policy. Bill started researching the cost and features on 'motos' and checked out the prices on used models. Then he was researching online the various ways to get the needed endorsement on our driver's licenses in our short time at home.
    Taxi's were another option, so emails went out to my mother who uses them occasionally and to a taxi company for rates. It was quite a surprise to learn that roundtrip taxi fare to visit suburban friends would run $100. That then had us visualizing taking the bus part way and biking the rest of the way for social occasions. Giant headlights and tail lights were on the shopping list as we'd be riding at night, something we try never to do.
    All of these time consuming possible solutions had me in "list mode" as I was making a detailed plan so as to increase our productivity in our first few days home when we are snowed by jet lag--I would have us packing in the more mindless chores as a way to cram more output into our stay. The usual headaches of making medical, dental, and other appointments during our 'transition to being at home' phase looked like child's play compared to our bobbing Jack-in-the-Boxes this year.
    The greater chaos in our lives of all of these concurrent issues had to be met with more direct action to support our well being and our problem solving effectiveness. Anytime there was a threat of bad weather, we took a layover day to create more 'paperwork' time for problem solving and crunching numbers. If we had a good internet connection, which wasn't often enough, we laid over for more online research. Bill stressed his Italian and our electronics by setting us up with an internet connection over his cell phone. It was too slow and too expensive for surfing, but allowed us to check emails almost daily instead of every one to two weeks, which was essential to keep things moving with our accountant, prospective insurance agents, and others we were relying on for assistance. And, a time or 2 when faced with adequate but dreary accommodations, we bought-up to avoid diminishing our time and energy because of the lack of comfort. Unfortunately, despite these proactive measures, there were still too many late-night discussions cutting into our sleeping time over these 4 months.
    The good news was that by late November we felt like we'd lined up a bunch of our troublesome Jack-in-the-Boxes and blasted them to pieces. Greater clarity about priorities, more information, and new solutions should keep many of them from ever coming back. Except of course for the electronics realm, as any solution in that arena is temporary at best. We couldn't keep these various issues from shortchanging us on the simplicity of our traveling time this year but at least they would out of the problem solving phase before jet lag set in Stateside. We'd be on to the more straightforward, operationalizing stage when we touched down in Portland for our 'at home phase' of our year.

Where We Are Now, January 2, 2008
    We are at home, busy with our annual and exceptional chores. We had our best-ever jet lag recovery, so dove into the difficult tasks right away, with the more mindless chores like creating our photo album and working on our simpler sewing projects still waiting for our attention. Our endless hours of planning and problem solving before flying home paid-off, as we are primarily implementing plans rather than making decisions.
    As has been true for the last few years, the culture shock in being at home is minimal. The main challenge isn't adjusting so much as catching up: getting up to speed on the local news, tracking down businesses that have moved, and getting acquainted with new products that are available.


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