Running Hard Just To Get Away. Gone.

Most professionals say they work hardest just before and just after vacation. This is my story of the before part.

Vacation Day One. More like Day 1.5. As of this writing I have been awake for 34 hours except for a few cat naps on the planes and a short one by the pool (I will explain that last one in a moment).

The goal of day one is to get from Chicago to Italy. Florence specifically, though it is but a one night way stand on this trip. Some part of my future has this beautiful city as the destination.

As I wake up on Day One there are multiple potential roadblocks in the way of vacation. First, the morning of Day One I wake up in Boston, not Chicago. If all goes well I make a great presentation and book it to the airport to catch a plane that will land 3 hours before we check in for our international flights and first I need to get home.

The other thing I know is that my computer crashed yesterday as I headed to Boston and only after a late afternoon call was I generally assured that a new one (sans my hard drive with most of my key files) would be waiting in my office by the time I landed. What was not yet certain was how the computer would make the 21 mile trip from my office to my home within my 3 hour window. This may be vacation but I will need access to email and files during the next 10 days. Having a working computer was vital. There were emails to write, documents to edit and instructions to leave that I could not do the night before Day One. Now all of this needs to happen in the 1 hour and 23 minutes I hope to have at home. Stress levels were off the charts.

So many things had to go right. I needed the weather gods and plane canceled for maintenance gods to be on my side and allow my flight from Boston to land on time. I needed the computer gods to stop f ‘ing with me (since they chose to crash my first computer only after I could not get help from our IT staff) and get a computer working. Finally I needed the administrative staff gods to find a solution that did not involve my wife, who had plenty of her own work to do that morning, driving 42 miles round trip to deliver my computer.

Needless to say I was skeptical that all the gods would do my bidding. In my most optimistic moment that morning I could be described as pensive. (I do not think that the story needs that line but I felt an uncontrollable desire to use the word “pensive”.)

My lucky day! Prayers answered. The client presentation was a hit. Despite being in the slowest airport security line ever, I made my plane to Chicago and it landed on time. The computer arrived by messenger at my home shortly after I did. It worked. Our son drove us to the airport, the security line was short, we got moved to economy plus seating for the 9 hour flight, and I had time to send email. This is truly one time that the overused word “amazing”applies.

The next twelve hours consisted of two planes, a couple of bad movies, a few pages of the NY Times read and little sleep. All worth it. We arrived in Florence and were picked up by a driver and taken to The Villa Cora, a 5 star hotel just outside the city center.

I highly recommend the Villa Cora. The common areas combine old world charm with a few modern touches. Our room was beautiful with a view of the city center, the basket of fruit and bottle of Champagne a nice surprise and yet being tired and hot we were drawn to the pool. One would never know they were on the edge of a city. The landscaping around the pool area and the gardens that surrounded us made it seem as if we were in the country. The pool was exquisitely tiled and the lounges comfy. Within moments we were offered a welcome drink. I desired nothing more.

I know I read for a while and lazily swam a few laps. I am told I also snored as the 34 hours of non-stop movement punctuated by the early stress of getting out-of-town caught up to me.

With renewed energy I headed solo to the city center to hit a few of Florence’s top sites and to snap a few digital pics. I had less than two hours. Not enough time but time used well. I saw and snapped picture of the Duomo (cathedral) the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore, Piazza della Signoria,  the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, and the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge).  I walked by the Pitti Palace but it was too late to go in or to see any portion of the Boboli Gardens. So much to do, so little time.

I did not have time to sit in a cafe drinking cafe or wine and just enjoy a piazza or three. That was the real disappointment. I now enjoy spending time being part of the landscape as much as running around to say I “experienced” the sights.

I did manage to take picture of some interesting looking people as well as the historic sites. After I make time to write regularly again my next project is to put together a book of the people shots I have taken in different countries. (Maybe that is a vacation in itself. With a laptop I could work and publish from anywhere.)

One hell of a first day. Now on to the sea.

Bad Service In Three Languages

We wanted desperately to get out-of-town for the Thanksgiving weekend. Warm weather preferred but we ended up in Montreal. That was OK. Billed as the most European city in North America. Neither of us had been there in ages and we were open to the magic of the city.

More on the total trip later. For now let us focus one experience that could have been just what we wanted but instead left a bad taste in our mouths.

On our first day we arrived late afternoon which left us just enough time to explore Old Montreal for a while and then have dinner. Our spirits were high going to dinner. We were together away from the stresses of normal life. The Notre-Dame Basilica was magnificent and other part s of old Montreal held promise.

Being people who enjoy joints as well as fine dining we headed off to nearby Chinatown to a restaurant that had good on-line reviews. A full place with a modest wait further raised expectation. Choosing from the usual too long Chinese menu took time but our selections were made. The waiter spoke broken English but had been polite and helpful in the selection. All good.

And then the food came. My Szechuan seafood came first and was tasty but then came my wife’s “sizzling” beef. It was not what she expected given the menu’s description, it looked bad and after one bite she knew it was not to her liking.  A different waiter had brought our food. We called him over and explained the situation. He looked as if he had never had a customer tell him a dish was bad. He he had a puzzled look and did not seem to know what to do. He finally said that he would go and speak to his manager.

At this point there were only two courses of action in my mind. The one I would have expected was that they would apologize and ask what else they could bring instead. Yet this was a small place and I was willing to accept that we would pay for a choice we made but order something else. We soon found out that there was a third alternative.

The waiter came back from peaking to his manager and whisked away the food saying nary a word. That was the last contact we had with him that evening. We had been transformed from happy tourists to unhappy invisible lepers. We waited several minutes while sharing my meal and the side dish we had ordered. We waited several minutes expecting the waiter to bring back a menu and let us select a second entree. Instead he entered and left the room several times without making eye contact. I can be overly patient. this was one of those times.

Finally I walked up to the manager and explained that we had been ignored and wanted to order. His first words were that there was nothing wrong with how the dish had been prepared. He then handed me a menu. Several more minutes went by with no waiter approaching our table or even willing to acknowledge our presence.

I became incensed but at that point my wife was resigned. We asked for the bill. They did not charge us for the meal — only fitting since they did not provide the option of keeping the food. The manager came by to ask us how our second entree was. I informed him that we had none and that we had never been approached by a waiter. He was nonplussed and unapologetic. 

This experience put a serious damper on the day even  though it was them and not us at fault.

Maybe if we had tried communicating in the French of Montreal or in Mandarin instead of English. Nah. The service at this place would have sucked in any language.

Green City Slickers Acres

Our first activity on a week long vacation Costa Rica reminded me of both the mid-1960s TV show and the 1991 Billy Crystal movie.

We are at a lovely resort in the cloud forest, the first of three stops. The day before was a typical travel day, long hours on planes and a long drive to the resort. But today the adventure begins. Up for breakfast and then some time before our guided tour through the cloud forest. So what was the morning activity sponsored by the resort? Cow milking lessons!

We watched as they made the cow safe for touristas. They tied her hind legs together and then stuck the tail in as well. The experienced hand demonstrated the technique. As we observed the hand to udder motion we noticed two things. First there was a young calf in the field nearby. The calf reminded me of Norman from City Slickers.

Second we kept hearing what seemed to be an animal sound. As true city slickers we at first thought the sad sounds were from the cow who may not be enjoying the experience. But the cow was too busy constantly eating to be the source. Being a natural detective I carefully walked past the cow. I found 6 hens in a pen eating and clucking away. I am guessing that anyone who had spent more that 24 hours on a farm would have recognized the difference between sound of hens and cows immediately. Hence the Green Acres reference.

To finalize our Green Acres experience, we milked the cow. Not as obvious as it seems. Or maybe it was just us. The topper came as I sat on the stool for a turn. Three good squeezes and I get whapped in the face by a tail that had escaped from its bondage.

I think I will keep my day job.

Hey Hey We’re The Monkeys

We got up close and personal with a bunch (gaggle, barrel?) of monkeys while on a kayak in Costa Rica.

To Do Or Not To Do. Now That Is A Question!

va·ca·tion

pronunciation   vey-key-shuhn

–noun. A period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday

The above taken from dictionary.com

I do not take enough vacation time — at least not enough for me. I work many hours and when not working there are many things to do for family, home, etc.

So when I do take vacation  I am conflicted. At the same time I want to do lots of fun things and do nothing in order to rest and unwind. (I also want to exercise, eat great meals and sleep a lot but lets stick to the two primary categories.)

To do or not to do.

In the workplace, the emphasis is on activity, on doing. The more that gets done (well) the better. There are limited workplace exceptions when contemplation leading to enhanced creativity can be both respected and viewed as necessary. The vast majority of the time we focus on doing.

Since work provides the money that sustains our lifestyle, though not our life, and we spend so much of our time working we tend to carry this propensity for doing into non-work time. Like vacation.

I just came back from eight days in Costa Rica. We knew that it was rainy season but given the complicated calendars of my wife, my son and myself, we had one window to go somewhere and Costa Rica has been on our list for quite a while.

We did do. We hiked in a cloud forest, white water rafted, rappelled down waterfalls, went zip lining above the treetops, kayaked on a river through mangroves, went on a guided tour of a national park and took two other hikes in the forests/jungles of Costa Rica.

And yet…

Only one of our activities was an all day event. Most days we left early in the morning and were done by noon or 1 pm. That potentially left a whole day to do more. And why not? Who knows when we will be back in this beautiful country.

There is an answer to why not. The answer is that both body and mind need some time of not doing to prepare it to do more later and more importantly to be able to fully appreciate the acts of doing.

Being in Costa Rica during rainy season can be a pain. One never knows when it will rain (though generally the mornings were sunny and the afternoons and evenings rainy)  But when in the afternoon? Some days as early as 1 pm and other days not until 4 or 5 pm. Sometimes it would rain intensely for an hour and stop and other times it would rain continuously.There are few indoor activities available since the outdoor ones are so plentiful and spectacular.

Being in Costa Rica during the rainy season can be sweet. Though you can try to fight it the rain provides a convenient excuse just to not do. It relieves some of the guilt of not chasing more activities. One day we hung out at the pool and the hot tub during the rain storm — made even easier by the presence of a pool bar. One can swim or sit in a hot tub during a tropical rain. You can’t get more or less wet.

One of my favorite evenings consisted of the three of us hanging out in the room from mid afternoon on. We alternated reading, napping and eating snacks. Rarely were all three of us doing the same thing at the same time. The room was quiet. We enjoyed just being together. We did not even go to dinner that night. No one was hungry enough and we were sooo comfortable that leaving the room was no option. I loved the rhythm of that night and the do nothingness of it all.

Yes there were a couple of days we searched out extra activities.  Sometimes it was worth it and other times maybe not. These were balanced by the quiet times. That to me is a vacation.

I find that more often in the hectic and sometimes stressful life I lead that not doing has become essential. Yet with an inexhaustible list of things to do, the question “To Do or Not To Do?” is always being asked.

Happy New Year

I know that I am 8 days late but belated Happy New Year from Punta Cana.

 

The Swimmer

In 1968 “The Swimmer” was a movie starring Burt Lancaster  as a man who swam to his suburbia home from a party by swimming though all the swimming pools lined up one after the other in people’s backyards. This was all I had know about the movie last week before googling the movie and finding more.

A summary of the movie taken from the NY Times has this to say:

John Cheever’s “misery in suburbia” short stories, brief and to the point, have always proven excellent TV fodder. Director Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, adapted for the screen by Perry’s wife Eleanor, is a rare, and for the most part successful, attempt at offering a Cheever story in feature-length form. Dressed only in swimming trunks throughout the film, Burt Lancaster plays a wealthy, middle-aged advertising man, embarked on a long and revelatory journey through suburban Connecticut. Lancaster slowly makes his way to his split-level home by travelling from house to house, and from swimming pool to swimming pool. At each stop, Lancaster comes face to face with an incident in his past. Informing Kim Hunter that he once harbored a secret love for her, Lancaster is mildly upset by Hunter’s indifference. Elderly Cornelia Otis Skinner is incensed at Lancaster’s intrusion in her backyard and orders him to leave. At the next home, Lancaster tries to seduce the nubile Janet Landgard, who’d once baby-sat for his daughters, but she regards him as a silly old man. And so it goes: as each subsequent suburbanite peels off his self-protective veneer, Lancaster grows more and more disillusioned with what he thought was his ideal lifestyle. 

Excerpts from the the 1968 NY Times movie review written by Vincent Canby adds:

Neddy Merrill, an aging country club Lothario, decides one afternoon to swim home across the county. As he makes his way through one friend’s pool and then another, portaging across lawn, garden and highway, it becomes increasingly apparent that gung-ho Neddy is a failure, a man whose vision of life has always been slightly bent, as if refracted through water. Neddy is swimming through his past to the nameless horror of an unrefracted present….

It’s too bad that—because of factors over which he has no control—Lancaster is not better in the role. He does have the physique of the aging athlete who has kept his form, if not the youthful texture of his skin. However, try as he might; he simply can’t project Neddy Merrill’s vulnerability as a foolish, ridiculous WASP.

Why my fascination with a 40 year old movie I have never seen? Last week in Punta Cana in a very small way I emulated the physical aspect of the movie by swimming from near the lobby of the resort to the beach by swimming through the various pools. My trip had more to do with being able to say I did this than any concerns about the failure of my middle class suburban lifestyle. I would not mind, however, being referred to at least once as an aging Lothario or having the physique of an aging athlete.

I made my way top the furthest corner of the furthest pool and quietly slipped into the water. I began. I am not a swimmer by training but made it through the first pool with minimal stops to catch my breadth. After climbing out and diving into the second pool I was starting to breath heavily and my stops became more frequent. 

As I stood at the edge of the third and last pool I contemplated the gulf between the middle middle class and the upper middle class. This last pool was technically off limits to me because though part of the same resort I was illegally about to enter the Club section. I think the people in this section had a special lounge to go to,  additional amenities of various kinds, and certainly their private pools. (The only amenity I coveted was that they had beds lining the pool for lounging in the sun. These were tres cool.) The other thing about the people in this section is that they hardly moved. They used their expansive pool as a large wading area if they ever got out of their outdoor beds at all.

Anyways, nothing was going to stop me from completing my mission. Well, almost nothing except the resort employee who came over as I was 3/4 of the way through this pool to let me know that I was not welcome. I am guessing that the splashing noise made by my swimming disturbed the sensibilities of the Clubbies and they sent for security to remove the trespasser. The employee was actually quite nice and apologetic. I did not even look around to see the reactions of the suburbanites Clubbies. I was not going to give them the satisfaction. Let’s see them swim the resort end to end. Of course they wouldn’t. Then they would have to mix with the masses.