TRAVEL with pat and lew

Archive for the ‘… 2006’ Category

* our wonderful apartment in Collioure is for sale … after I put these photos together I’m not sure we want to leave

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 29, 2012

Our intent was a 2 year adventure in Europe …

it’s been 6 summers (this will be the 7th) and it’s time for a change.

The apartment has been everything we could have wanted. It’s very comfortable for 2 people. The terrace provides spectacular outdoor space for living, dining and entertaining.  

And, since many people want to come to Collioure, we have done over 20 great home exchanges, to Paris (many times) and Provence, elsewhere in Europe (Dublin, Vilnius), and to Hawaii, Australia, and Mexico. Great destinations provided by our apartment.

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the view from our terrace

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Our apartment is small inside, but it provides very comfortable living for 2 people. With the terrace adding to the living space, the apartment actually becomes quite large.

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Our apartment is 5 minutes from the beach, with a great parking space, and immediately adjacent to the train station with access to Paris, Barcelona, and all of Europe.

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Welcome to our home … dinner for 8 … cocktails for 14. Our apartment is perfect for entertaining.

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Collioure is a former fishing village located on the Mediterranean 25 miles north of the Spanish border … with highways, train service and airports leading everywhere in France and Europe 

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Collioure is an ancient and still largely authentic French village. It is a place where the French come on their vacations, with their children. All summer there is activity every day and night – street fairs, bands, Catalan dancing. A fresh market comes on Sundays and Wednesdays. There are 5 beaches, a 14th century chateau, and a 15th century church. Did I mention the weather – it’s perfect, in the low 80s by day, down to 70 or so at night. And the location is perfect for access to all of France and all of Europe.

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and then … this is the view you wake up to the next morning

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Posted in ... 2006, ... 2012, ... France - COLLIOURE | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

* food shopping in Collioure

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 1, 2007

Our main source of food is SHOPI, a small supermarket in the center of town, which has a very nice selection of fresh and packaged foods.

Of course there are delicious cheeses, and we’re experimenting our way through them all. There are canned goods, including Geant Vertz (Green Giant) corn, cookies, bread for toast, soda (Coke and ginger ale), and beer. We’ve learned to interpret what is printed on the cans and boxes, and are only sometimes surprised when we open them.

An aside … our French toaster makes toast perfectly, unlike every toaster we have ever purchased in America, and … when done, the toast pops right out of the toaster, sometimes onto the plate … it’s utterly remarkable what the French can do when it comes to food.

Shoppi also has real food … small packages of fish, shrimp, hamburger, and steaks. A few days ago, I saw a package of salmon steaks, which they don’t always have. Cooked on our tiny electric grill, they were excellent.

We will not go hungry, although we do wish we could find just one can of Campbell’s tomato soup.

For the best bread we’ve ever tasted, there is the small boulangerie next to Shoppi. It took many visits and many bonjour Madame’s, but now we receive a genuine smile in return. We practice our French for this simple task … Je voudrais une baguette et un pain d’raisins.

In France, you buy a baguette every day, since they harden quickly, but Pat has learned that warming the rock hard bread in the oven both softens it and produces a delicious crisp crust. The only problem is that bread is my downfall, and I’ve gained 5 pounds. Maybe the cheese has something to do with it. 

The farmer’s market on Sunday and Wednesday mornings is our main source of fresh vegetables – pepper, onions, lettuce, and olives.

Carrefours in neighboring Argeles-sur-mer is a major supermarket with a wide variety of packaged foods, cosmetics, paper goods, etc. We get there by train from Collioure (4 minutes) and taxi (5 minutes). Then we have the lady at the customer service desk call the taxi for the return trip to the gare dans Argeles.

We can only carry two shopping bags each, so this is a limited voyage, and we schedule large shopping runs to Carrefours whenever we have a rental car for some other reason.

Pizza and ice cream are staples in Collioure. There are several pizza restaurants, as well as one terrific take-out place. Ice cream in dozens of flavors is sold from freezer bins along many streets in town. I still prefer vanilla, and you get “French Vanilla” without even asking for it.

I should mention shopping bags. They don’t give you any in the stores, so you have to bring your own or buy one. We have forgotten enough times so we have quite a collection, but lately we seem to remember.

Posted in ... 2006, ... France - COLLIOURE, food, shopping | Leave a Comment »

new friends in Perth – Annemarie and Mark

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

In Fremantle, a couple walking by is attracted by our American accents.

Mark is from Ohio, a teacher who was recruited to Australia in a program which offered a two year position. That was 30 years ago. Mark met Annemarie, fell in love, and never left. They have three sons and a daughter and a wonderful life down under.

Mark gives us their number, and several days later, we call. They invite us to join them for lunch, pick us up, and take us to a small town between Hillarys and Perth. The stir fry noodles, veggies, and chicken are excellent, as is the conversation.

We learn a lot about living in Perth. Mining income in the region is way up, driving prices sky high. Housing has appreciated dramatically in the past three years. Mark and Annemarie’s five bedroom home has doubled in value, but the cost of living has also accelerated, and traveling anywhere from Perth is ferociously expensive – $1000 roundtrip to Sydney, $2000 to Europe, much more to the U.S.

A week or so later, we again have dinner with Mark and Annemarie, at the Fratelli Restaurant on the West Coast Highway with a wonderful view of the sunset over the Indian Ocean.

After our trip to the outback, Annemarie reports she has told all her friends and we have become an “urban legend.” No Americans have ever been known to be in Fitzroy Crossing, let alone stay the night.

Annemarie reminds us in every email that they’re still talking about us in Perth.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia, home exchange | Leave a Comment »

new friends in Perth – home exchange family and friends

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

New friends are one of the great benefits of travel, especially home exchange travel where you live in a community rather than a hotel.

We arrive at the international Perth airport after midnight on a Sunday night/Monday morning, and move easily through passport, customs, and baggage. We use our cell phone, which we haven’t used in months, to call John, Fran and Claude’s son-in-law who is to meet us at their house. The taxi takes 30 minutes and costs $60 (Australian, about $45 USD).

John, a police officer used to odd hours, meets us at the magnificent Hillarys Harbor property at 2:00 am and shows us around, inside and out. An American from Chicago, he seems excited to talk with Americans. We look forward to meeting again.

The next morning, we’re sitting on the terrace and hear a voice from below. It’s Barry, from next door. Each month, the twelve Hillarys Harbor town house owners get together for breakfast.

“You’re invited,” says Barry. “You can be Fran and Claude.”

We meet eight of our temporary neighbors, all of whom become familiar faces to wave and speak to as our month in Perth goes on.

John drives us around Perth, a police officer’s tour, and we see aspects of the city not usually part of the tourist experience … the homeless he has arrested in the park … the hospital … beautiful town houses in West Perth, with totally different architectural styles abutting one against the other. It sounds like it couldn’t possibly work, but it actually does, creating an unusual but pleasing effect. John also takes us through the lively shopping area of Subiaco, to which we will return.

John and his wife Rebecca invite us to their home for an Aussie barbeque. The driving directions are simple and we arrive around 6:00 o’clock. Rebecca’s two sisters are there, plus 4 kids and a dog. John cooks steaks, hot dogs, Italian sausage. The food is great, and the conversation better.

Fran calls from Collioure while we’re there. She’s amazed by our trip to Broome and Fitzroy Crossing.

The interactions we’re having in Perth are being replicated in Collioure. A few nights later, we get another call from Fran. Our friends Valerie and Lorcan are with them in our apartment.

Valerie gets on the phone.

“Too bad you’re not here,” Valerie says. “We’re having a grand time, sitting on your terrace, drinking your wine. Fran and Claude are great.”

Someday, we hope to meet Fran and Claude. Meanwhile, we exchange emails.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia, new friends | Leave a Comment »

why did we do a home exchange in Perth?

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

Geographically confused as we may sometimes seem to be, we do know that Australia is not in Europe.

So when Fran and Claude wrote to us seeking an exchange, we said no, even though their two story town house on a marina near Perth looked absolutely fantastic. Fran emails to ask us to reconsider, and of course we did, to our great eventual pleasure.

We get to work by email on several typical home exchange issues … car (we don’t have one to exchange, but we get useful information about where to rent one in Perth), internet in Perth and Collioure (we will each leave computers for the use of the other), telephone (we will both use Skype), arrival details and how to get in (we will be met at the home in Perth and have mailed the Collioure keys), and tourist stuff.

Looking at the pictures of Fran and Claude’s magnificent home, we ask several times if they fully comprehend just how small our 300 square foot apartment is.

They are undeterred. After they have arrived in Collioure, we ask if they are all right. Claude says, “You have a comfortable bed, a good shower, Collioure is great, and the view from your terrace is spectacular. What else do we need?”

We have also made a connection for Fran and Claude with our Collioure friends Valerie and Lorcan, and they hit it off, getting together many times.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia, home exchange | Leave a Comment »

Rottnest Island

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

Rottnest Island lies in the Indian Ocean, 18 km off the western coast of Australia. It derives its name from the (incorrect) assumption by early explorers that the small furry Quokkas who inhabit the island were some form of rat (rott). Actually they’re small wallabies, who hop about on their hind legs dragging their long tails behind them.

We make boat reservations, choosing to rent bikes on the island rather than taking them over on the boat. There are discounts both for seniors and Hillarys residents. We spend a pleasant half hour on the sunny Indian Ocean.

It’s the first time for us on bikes since leaving Key West over four months before. The terrain is relatively flat, and we handle the gentle hills without difficulty.

We have lunch looking at the beautiful ocean and the Perth skyscrapers off in the distance. A quokka visits us under the table.

We ride to Bathurst Point lighthouse where the views of the beach are spectacular. A little further along the coast is an even more beautiful beach. I take off my shoes and walk into the ocean … perfectly clear … cool but not cold … smooth bottom. A natural pool formed in the rocks, about 2 feet deep, is filled with bathers.

A sign on the Rottnest general store proclaims it to be the first stone building in Western Australia, built by Aboriginal convicts in the mid 1800s.

An inquisitive peacock comes up to us while we’re sitting on a bench. From a distance of less than a foot, it looks me straight in the eye, struts and stretches. It has an incredibly deep blue neck and head. 

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

exploring the city of Perth

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

          

On our second day in Australia, we start out for Perth. Our plan is to drive to the train station a mile or so away, but the weather suddenly blows up enough to discourage us and we return to the apartment. Good decision. It’s quite a storm.

The next day, we make it to the train station and find the last parking spot in the lot. The ticket machine in the station is broken. I walk up and over to the machine on the other  side of the tracks, then realize it only takes change and I only have bills.

Up and over again. There’s a call button. I call and explain. He puts me on hold. Before he comes back, a little kid wanders by, playfully pushes the button, and disconnects us.

The train is coming. There’s no time for another call, so we get on without tickets. Nobody asks, and we have a free ride. Later, we learn there’s a $50 fine for riding without a ticket. “It’s all part of the adventure.”

Across from the train station in Perth is the major shopping area. We stop first at the Tourist Office, load up on info. There are two pedestrian shopping streets. David Jones, a large department store, provides our first experience with very high prices, even by New York, Key West, and Paris standards. Australia is so far from anywhere, the cost of bringing goods here must be significant.

We eat lunch at a nice pub called Bobby Dazzler’s. For the return trip, we get change at the train station, buy our return tickets with a senior discount (they call it “Concession.”), ride the  train to the Greenwood station, and drive home.

A good first outing.

We take several other trips to Perth. One time we explore King’s Park, which is quite beautiful, but not very utilized. We’re used to Central Park in New York, which is always teeming with people. There’s a great view of the Perth harbor from the heights of the park. We take a bus tour of the park, expecting flowers, but we get bushes.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

a trip to the “guts” of the mall

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

Although we brought 95 books to Collioure in June, and have purchased at least 25 more since we arrived, we’re running short, and we have some long days of travel ahead of us. This is cause for panic, so we head out to see if there’s a book store in the Wickford Mall.

We had been there a couple of Sundays ago, but it was closed. We drive around the outside of the mall. No stores are visible, and what can be seen doesn’t look promising. We stop a man walking near us and ask if there are any book stores inside.

“Yes, there are two.”

“Where are they?”

“Deep in the guts,” he says. There’s guts in there?

We park and enter the “guts.” Surprise! It’s actually a terrific mall, with many high quality shops, well lit, attractive. However, it’s all spread out, with wings off of wings, and no directory in sight.

We find a book store and make several purchases. Then we find a used book store called Pulp Fiction, which has an wonderful selection. They also purchase used books. Very conscious of the Qantas weight restrictions, we decide to return another day with the books we’ve finished.

We see signs for a cinema, and there are two movies playing we’d like to see. We are seriously movie-deprived, having seen only one movie in Dublin since June. We’re not jammed, so we decide to stay in the mall and go to the 1:00 showing of The Devil Wears Prada.

As we’re in the process of buying our tickets, senior citizen discount thank you, another woman, perhaps the manager, joins the ticket seller.

“Would you like to buy a senior card?”

“We’re leaving in a few days, I don’t think so.”

“But if you buy the card, you get into today’s movie free.”

“How much is the card?”

“$10.00.”

“How much is the movie?”

“$11.00.”

Even old seniors like us can make that decision. As we’re buying the cards, she asks if there’s another movie we want to see before we leave Australia. Yes, there is. Well, if you come before noon, with your new cards, it only costs $1.00 each. So, we see two movies for $22.00 instead of $44.00.

Meryl Streep is fantastic. As is The Departed, which we see two days later. 

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

stunning Cottesloe Beach

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

                 

Cottesloe is a small town further down the west coast of Australia, below
Perth. We drive right past it to the outskirts of Fremantle. We didn’t realize Fremantle was so close (20 minutes) since we went there by river boat and it took 1 ½ hours. Turning back, we find Cottesloe.

It’s one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world … elegant … grass terraces … people picnicking on the terraces. A gracious old inn, the Indiana, overlooks the scene. There’s a nude beach somewhere, but we don’t find it. Didn’t actually look very hard.

Pat has been looking for a cycle apparel shop, for a gift for her daughter Kerry. There was a sign on the road somewhere that such a shop exists on Stirling Boulevard (Stirling being the first governor of the Perth colony in 1829). We find the street, drive past the shop (sound familiar) and find it on our way back. Great shirt for our cycling gal.

The proprietor in the cycling shop is British, 10 years in Australia.  When she discovers we’re Americans, she asks us what we thought of President Bush.

Without waiting for our answer, she says, “He’s stupid,” reflecting the 100% opinion of every foreigner in every country we’ve met in all our travels for the entire summer.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

* Broome and the outback

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 22, 2007

“You can’t go to Australia for a month and not see the outback.”

We started asking on our first day in Perth, clerks in stores and at the Tourist Office. Kalgoorlie was recommended by some and disparaged by others. Everyone agreed on Broome.

We read the brochures and decided on a two day outback excursion. The guy at the Tourist Office, and others, said two days was not nearly enough. We should devote ten days, at least a week. But we know what we like, and for how long. Two days, we thought, would be quite enough. We weren’t wrong.

We book flights to Broome and a two day trip into the outback, one overnight to be spent in a place called Fitzroy Crossing. It’s an expensive two-day trip, with airfare, motel, and excursion amounting to $2500 AUD ($1800 USD).

To prepare, Pat buys an Aussie cowboy hat from our Hillarys Harbor neighbors Barry and Brian, who run a hat store in the adjoining shops.

“The balmy air of historic Broome is filled with the scent of frangipani. Vibrant colours of bougainvillea nestle amid unique buildings amongst the Coconut palms. A romantic vision come true.” So says the official Broome web site. We never found what they were describing.

sunset at Cable Beach in Broome

There is one sight in Broome, however, that is spectacular, the sunset over pure white sands at Cable Beach, with the green Indian Ocean beyond. We cut it as close as possible. Our Qantas flight arrives at 5:25 and the sunset is promised for 5:52. We make it with 8 minutes to spare, and it’s just spectacular. I take too many photos, which is always the case for me and sunsets, but several capture the breathtaking reality.

With the sunset come the camels. These are remnants of an estimated 12,000 camels imported into Australia and used as draft and riding animals by people pioneering the dry interior. Camels played a significant role in construction of the south to north transcontinental telegraph line, after the undersea cable arrived in Broome from Singapore in 1889. We flew from Singapore to Australia, and that’s a whole lot of ocean in which to lay cable. Some day I’ll look for a book that describes what must have been a very difficult and dangerous process.

Linda, our new friend (and book reader) from Fremantle, was once a cameleer at Cable Beach. I never thought I would know a cameleer.

We cab from the resort at Cable Beach, which is outstanding, to our motel, which is underwhelming. In our first room, we flip the light switch and blow the electricity. The desk clerk sends maintenance, but electrical uncertainties make us uncomfortable.

We ask for another room.

There are no other rooms.

“Then find us another motel and refund our money.”

“Well, there’s one guest who hasn’t checked in yet. We’ll swap rooms.”

The second room features lamps over the bed with only one working bulb out of four. The maintenance guy returns and fresh bulbs are installed. By now he’s our buddy, so we ask about living in Broome. Housing is expensive and limited, no surprise. Nobody stays long, also no surprise.

We dine outdoors, along Roebuck Bay, which we can’t see in the dark, but it’s nice anyway. We’re not hungry, having stuffed ourselves with junk at the airport and on the plane. Excellent bruschetta and wine, plus a great dessert (a good surprise), sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream. The buffet breakfast is not exceptional and too expensive ($19.00 AUD).

Kimberly Wild Expeditions picks us up at 7:15 am. Andy introduces himself as driver, tour guide, and cook. There are seven couples on tour, on a bus that can hold 20, a young couple from England/Ireland, another from Italy/Scotland, two sisters from England, and three couples from Australia. We’re the only Americans.

One of the Australian couples is 5 ½ months into a caravan tour of Australia. He used to work for Telstar. Later, we hear stories about clearing a path for poles that were never used, and something about hush-hush capped oil wells in Central Australia. Have we learned a national security secret?

We drive for two hours and see nothing. I mean nothing. We reach the Willare Bridge Roadhouse, a general store with a few very minimal motel rooms, with the feeling of a movie western bunkhouse.

Andy unpacks our “morning tea,” which is chocolate chip cookies, a nice raisin cake, instant coffee, and, actually, tea. A cowboy comes by, perhaps from the bunkhouse, with photos showing the roundup and branding of cattle. Pat calls him a rustler. Maybe he is.

There aren’t many cows out there. The land is seasonal. For months it rains and floods, then it’s incredibly dry and hot. Not much can live in that, except crocodiles and termites (see below).

We’re just now, in October, at the end of the dry season, with torrential rains expected in the near future. When the storms come, much of the ground we have seen and will see, including the roads we’re driving on, will be under water.

Protruding like weird monuments from the desert floor are thousands of large mounds. They look like droppings from pre-historic dinosaurs, which Andy says was the explanation given by several only ‘somewhat intoxicated’ Aboriginal people. Actually, they’re termite (white ant) homes, formed over the ages by the mucous and excrement of billions of insects. Ugh!

Two hours further along the endless dusty road, we boab trees, found only in Western Australia. Some are over 1500 years old. Aboriginals used the giant trees for shelter, food and medicine. For the white settlers, they served as easily recognizable landmarks and meeting points.

Several of the huge trees, dead and hollow, have an unexpected history as impromptu prison cells. We stop on the road to see one such prison tree, with even less creature comforts than the cells at Fremantle Gaol.

Our first major destination is Geikie Gorge National Park, 390 km from Broome.

While Andy sets out a lunch of cold cuts, potato salad, and cheese, we take a short walk. The sky is stunning, rich blue, with powdery clouds, high cliffs, rugged trees, and a bright sun.

There’s a sand bar where we’ll go to swim. Change? Some (me) use the bathrooms, some go behind a tree. Pat opts out completely, and later, one of the other ladies asks, “You couldn’t find a tree wide enough to change behind?” Embarrassed immediately when she realizes what she has said, she quickly apologizes.

This was the first time we understood that our travel agent had failed to give us important information. Others had some sort of brochure which listed things to bring, such as a towel, since we’re going to swim this afternoon before we go to our motel.

The water is very warm, shallow, and contains no crocodiles. The flies are infuriating, and the insect repellent I bought at the Willare station seems to be an insect attractor. Later, someone asks if I went in the water. I answer “yes, but if you blinked, you missed it.”

That night, I see the mimeo sheet for the Geikie Gorge National Park, which says “Fresh water crocodiles do live in the Gorge although they are not usually a threat to people. Swimming is at your own risk. Beware of submerged logs.” Needless to say, had I read that first, there would not have been even a blink’s worth of me in the shallow river.

After the swim comes a river cruise. In the hut before the trip, we notice marks on the walls showing how high the floods rose, some 20 feet above our heads. The water comes quickly and stay for weeks or months.

“Make sure to take bottled water with you in the boat,” we’re told.

“Can we buy water here?”

“No.”

Thank you again, travel agency, for the brilliant way you prepared us for this trip. Another couple (the Italian and the Scot) gives us a bottle of water. We get into a flat craft, filling all the seats.

The gorge is white limestone, carved out by the raging river over millions of years. The formations are stunning. We see a few birds, one wallaby along the bank, no crocs. The sky framed by the high orange cliffs is astonishing. The color looks like it’s been painted on.

Aboriginal families are camped along the banks, cooking over open fires.

On our way to the night’s accommodations, we pass the almost dry Fitzroy River just at sunset. Andy stops on the bridge for photos. The motel at Fitzroy Crossing exceeds expectations.

I have to elaborate on this, because everyone – Mark and Annemarie, Fran and Claude, all the many others they told – burst out laughing uproariously when they heard that Americans actually spent a night in Fitzroy Crossing.

But it wasn’t bad, certainly better than Broome. There were three choices of accommodations – tent, cabin, and motel. We had wanted a cabin, but there were none available when we made our reservations, so we got the motel. Lucky choice.

Our room is fine, although it takes hours to get the a/c down to where we want it. There’s an excellent pool. We take a cooling dip in the dark, followed by quick showers, and feel human again. We pass up Andy’s barbeque in favor of the motel restaurant.

Walking toward the restaurant, we’re disturbed to see a huge fire, right where we’re heading. We begin to re-think the advisability of Andy’s barbeque, but nobody else seems upset, and the soaring flames turn out to be a controlled brush fire.

We have a cold beer on the restaurant porch with the England/Ireland couple, and are joined by an Aboriginal man from the next table, who wants to know if we’ve been fishing. He and his family have the darkest skin we’ve ever seen, with a distinctive facial look and hair. The man talking with us is quite pleasant and inquisitive.

Influenced by the fire, still smoldering, we decide to eat inside. The menu was amazingly good, and the meal likewise. Nobody in civilization believes us when we say that, but it’s true. I had pan fried barramundi.

Barramundi, native to Northern Australia, is considered to be among the premier freshwater angling species in the world. A little known fact: The barramundi becomes a male at 3 years. When it reaches the age of 5, it changes into a female. I have no information on the sex of the fish I ate, but it was delicious.

Pat asks the waitress where people live in Fitzroy Crossing, since she hasn’t seen any housing. The waitress points to a group of people at a nearby table.

“They work in the hospital here and the hospital has built housing for them. They would have to provide housing or nobody would come.”

“And once they come, they stay for awhile?”

“Oh no. Nobody stays. Maybe a year at most.”

We go to bed at 8:30 – the room has cooled appreciably – and we’re up at 5:30 am. We walk to the campsite to join the rest of the group for breakfast. Andy’s got a fire going in the brick barbeque, a sheet of aluminum foil for making toast, and a large pot of water to boil for coffee and tea.

We’re told that the cabins and tents were comfortable, with a cool breeze through the open, netted windows. We don’t believe it.

Our first stop on the second day is Tunnel Creek Park, a large bat cave where we will walk through pools of cold water. Those who had the brochure have two pairs of shoes. So does Pat, who always takes two pair of shoes. Not me.

We drive two hours on the bus, the last 45 minutes on a bumpy dirt road. We exit the bus to an extreme midday heat, which Giorgio (Italy/Scot) later informs us is 39.5 degrees Celsius (103 degrees Fahrenheit).

Her running friends from New York will never believe that Pat, habitually lost even in the familiar turf of Central Park, leads the way into the dark caves, pointing her flashlight and climbing over rocks. The tunnel is 750 meters long, some of it pitch dark, with two natural cuts high above providing minimal light.

One of these openings is adjacent to the screeching bats (actually flying foxes). Some of them fly above us. Some swoop in from the outside, wings fluttering much louder than expected.

We walk through the pools, the deepest of which comes to mid-thigh. Some of the passages over the rocks are difficult. One person (an Australian) slips and cuts his leg. There are no crocs. We see a rock in the water, and Andy pretends it’s a crocodile, but soon tells us it’s a “rockodile.”

The return trip through the cave goes faster. Pat and I are brave enough to go ahead of the group for much of the way. After the cool cave, it feels even hotter outside.

Another hour or so of bumpy roads (and for me, wet shoes) brings us to the Windjana Gorge National Park. Lunch outside, on camp stools in whatever sparse shade we can find, followed by a walk through the gorge.

The river is almost dry. Hundreds of white cockatoos fill the trees and screech as we pass. And there are crocodiles, dozens of them, wallowing in the shallow pools of water near the banks along which we’re walking. We let them alone and they do likewise. We lounge in the shade along the river, look up at the spectacular gorge and sky above it, all the while keeping a careful eye on the crocs nearby.

An hour later, we’re back at the Willare Bridge Roadhouse. Who could ever believe that such a place would be a familiar sight! An ice cream, a coke and a cup of ice for the road.

It’s about 5:00 pm. I remind Andy that he’s supposed to drop us off at the airport for our 8:00 pm flight, and he says that’s fine with him, but he never heard it until I told him. Our complaint list for the travel agency is growing.

It darkens, and the return trip is uneventful. We reach Broome precisely on schedule at 6:45 pm, are dropped at the airport at 7:10, and are through security by 7:15 pm. Virgin Air to Perth.

Two days. Some spectacular sights. Long enough.

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

Swan River wineries

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 19, 2007

The Swan River Valley is the oldest wine region in Western Australia, blessed with a Mediterranean climate tempered by Indian Ocean breezes, connected to Perth by the blue meandering Swan River. The wine varieties include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.

We choose to drive, and it takes us 30 minutes on the excellent highways, with not much traffic.

Our first stop is Sandalford, founded in 1840, one of Western Australia’s oldest and largest privately owned wineries. We enter a long gravel drive through white iron swinging gates. The grounds are magnificent. Grape vines stretch in the distance in every direction, vistas broken here and there with colorful trees and shrubs, including small bottle-brush trees, unique to Australia, with bright red spiky flowers. Spectacular.

We purchase several bottles of wine and a ceramic wine cooler. We’ll drink the wine before we go, of course, but will the wine cooler fit within our weight limit on Qantas? We’ll find out.

Giulford is advertised as historic town, but we don’t find much of interest. We go to another winery, which is also beautiful, then return to Sandalford for lunch, as they say on their web site, to dine “amongst the rustic ambience of limestone, wood and a grand open fire.”

There’s no fire on this warm day, but we have our best meal in Australia, including Tasmanian salmon, scrumptious bread pudding with vanilla ice cream, and of course, several Sandalford wines. Not too much wine for the designated driver; Pat is the designated taster.

We head to Caversham Wildlife park to walk off our lunch. This is a fun experience … big birds and small animals … kangaroos in a large open space … we walk among them., pet them, Pat even feeds them … kangaroo babies sleep in their pouches as we stroll by.

Leaving Caversham, we pass a large sunken area and stand spellbound as a brilliantly-blue peacock spreads his lustrous blue-green tail feathers in a spectacular example of avian courtship.

Our day ends as darkness settles on the harbor … blinking boat lights come alive … wine and cheese … reading our books … a great finish to a great day.

Glad we came to Australia. 

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

internet difficulties in Perth

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 19, 2007

We actually have two computers in Perth, the desk top which was left for us in our home exchange house, and the laptop we brought. The Ethernet cable works fine with our laptop. Skype works fine, but MLB and Slingbox reception is not great, which we think is related to a slower broadband connection than we are used to in KW or Collioure.

Computers and telephones are among the very difficult aspects of living in someone else’s home, or even in living abroad generally. People everywhere use their own phone by second nature, so they never think of telling you all the subtle differences, like when to use an extra digit or not, and it can be frustrating. We’re probably just as deficient, but we’ll try to be more precise, and to ask better questions. Better to use Skype.

One morning, we turn on the computer and there’s no internet connection. With three weeks left in Perth, this is a major problem. All of our communications, travel arrangements, and financial transactions depend on the internet.

Fran, our home exchange partner, has left a number to call for iprimus tech support in case of problems, and she also communicates with Iprimus to give permission for them to talk with me.

Iprimus advises there are no system difficulties, so the problem must be at the home. They lead me through a process that confirms the internet connection from iprimus to this location was functioning properly, and conclude that the problem is in the router connection. They give me a phone number for Netgear tech support.

I call Netgear, who agree that the problem was probably in the router. They lead me through an exercise which resets the router. Now all I have to do is log on correctly through the router setup program. The only problem is that the account name and passwords I have do not work. I call Iprimus again.

After confirming that my birthday is June 5, 1942 (thank you Fran for making me two years younger when you made up my birthday) Iprimus gives me the correct login name and password. I open Windows Internet Explorer, which opens even though it does not connect, type in the information given to me by iprimus, and the Netgear setup screen appears.

I enter the information provided by Netgear, select setup wizard and follow the steps indicated. When asked for account name and password, I enter the information provided by Iprimus. Voila. Internet access restored.

This is surely not a straightforward easy process, but if you keep calm and carefully follow instructions you can get there. Both Iprimus and Netgear were wonderfully helpful and patient. I cannot imagine doing this with France Telecom and Wanadoo in French, but I’m sure if I spoke French, they would be just as helpful. 

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia, travel technology | Leave a Comment »

a day trip to Fremantle

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 19, 2007

Fremantle is described in our guide book as a vibrant port city, with history, heritage, art, culture, and fun.

We train to Perth, walk past shopping streets to the jetty at Swan River, and purchase one way boat tickets to Fremantle – $18 each. The 1 ½ hour boat ride down the broad river on a sunny morning is quite pleasant, with good views of King’s Park as we leave Perth, and beautiful homes along the broad, slow-moving river.

Our first impression of Fremantle is that it looks like a movie set. The buildings are old, maybe 100 years, with odd looking monochromatic flat fronts which look fake but aren’t. There are no people on the street.

A couple wanders by and stops, attracted by our American accents.  We find much to talk about, become friends, and get together 4-5 times before we leave. See * new friends in Perth .

We continue walking and find life in Fremantle. Boardwalk type shops line Cappuccino Strip, the main street. Fremantle Markets, a major attraction, were built in 1897 and reborn in 1975. The shipwreck museum is interesting.

Fremantle Gaol (Prison) is the highlight of the day. Closed for perhaps twenty years, the facilities are depressing and stark, with no toilets in the cells (buckets!) and no running water. The only attractive space is the church. The exercise yards are tiny for the number of inmates the prison once held.

Our tour guide is full of information and humor. Pat tells her about my prison book, she provides her email address, and Linda becomes an enthusiastic serial reader of A Good Conviction.

There’s an ominous hanging room, with gallows and a trap door. A dog, sensing death, will not come into the room.

An exhibit about imprisoned Irish Fenians who escaped in late 1800s tells an incredible story. One prisoner escaped to America. In Boston, he raised money, bought a ship, and hired a captain, then sailed back to Australia, where he rescued seven other prisoners.

For our return trip, we take the train instead of the boat. It costs $1.80 each, and takes less than 15 minutes. Nice day. 

Posted in ... 2006, ... Australia | Leave a Comment »

shopping near Collioure

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 23, 2007

The neighboring village of Port Vendres, less than a mile south of Collioure, has a large well stocked supermarket, but is accessible only by car.In the other direction, accessible by car, bus or train, is the town of Argeles-sur-mer.

Our experience there includes Carrefour, a major department store on the outskirts of town, and the tiny English used book store in the town center.

Further to the north is Perpignan, on the outskirts of which is Auchan, an even larger department store, and Leroy Merlin, the Home Depot of France.

In the city of Perpignan is a wide variety of shopping. There’s a set of modern stores, including electronics, DVDs, and a home decorating boutique, in a marvelous old building 10 minutes walk from the train station.

Also in Perpignan is a Galeries Lafayette department store, not quite the equal of the flagship store in Paris, but that’s a very high bar. In Perpignan, Galeries serves Pat’s passion for gracious table and glassware.

Barcelona is two hours away by train or car. There’s an excellent department store, El Corte Ingles on Playa Cataluna, that we only discovered as we were leaving Europe last year. Of course, Barcelona is a shopping mecca, with many great stores, including one of the largest sporting goods stores in the world.

And then, of course, there’s Paris.

Posted in ... 2006, ... France - COLLIOURE, shopping | Leave a Comment »

narrow streets and tiny shops

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 23, 2007

There are no large stores in Collioure, but the village is full of boutique shops selling art, ceramics, espadrilles, jewelry, and women’s clothing.

One of our favorites is Majolique, which has three small shops selling their own handmade ceramics: colorful bowls, jugs, and dishes in primary blues, yellows and greens. We have purchased an olive oil cruet, several small serving bowls, and dishes, some of which we have brought back to Key West. This is also our first stop for presents. Check out their web site at …

www.roussillon-pyrenees.com/artisanat/artisanat-collioure-majolique.html.

Espadrilles are the favored footwear in Collioure, reflecting the area’s Catalan history, and they’re available all over town. Pat swears by them.

Artists have flourished in Collioure since the early 20th century visits of Matisse, Derain and Picasso. Sidewalk artists abound, some of considerable quality, and there are numerous art shops.

Posted in ... 2006, ... France - COLLIOURE, shopping | Leave a Comment »

internet research: expedia and google

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

The internet is our constant travel companion. We could not do what we do without it. Many of our friends, particularly seniors, tell us they are not as facile on the web as we are.

So learn. It’s trial and error, and repetition. Ask your grandchildren. It will be a bonding experience.

Here’s just a few of the things you’ll want to do …

weather  We regularly check the weather forecasts where we are and where we’re going. If you use a designable home page (we use My Yahoo), you can include the weather for all of your currently important locations, changing locations as your upcoming destinations change.

reservations  We make almost all air, hotel, and car rental reservations via the internet. We use the individual company sites and we also use discount travel sites, usually Expedia. If you pick one discount travel site, you’ll get used to it and be able to make reservations easily. Even then, it takes time. We frequently cross check before finalizing a booking.

TIP: It is very important to check cancellation policies before you book.

There is usually a penalty, sometimes a steep penalty, if you change air reservations. There is no penalty for canceling car rentals. Most hotels have a cancellation policy that changes by date. If you cancel, say, five days before, there is no penalty, but within five days, you may have to pay the first night’s charge. Ask, and pay attention.

destination research  We still buy guidebooks, but less than we did before the internet. You can learn almost anything about anyplace on the internet. We use Google. Enter the destination as specifically as you can. You’ll get more references than you want.

The first several listings pay Google to be up front. Sometimes they’re the ones you want, but often not. If you’re looking for a hotel, try to find the hotel’s own site, not the booking agent. The real site has much more information.

TIP: Always check the customer reviews, which can be very illuminating, either positive or negative; you never get the negative from the hotel itself or a booking agent.

look up events   When we wanted to see the Tour de France, it didn’t take long to get the route map and pick the closest location to Collioure, which was Carcassonne. We learned the route through town and the race schedule. Switching to the rail schedule site, we picked our train.

Posted in ... 2006, travel technology | Leave a Comment »

computer backup

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

We’ve all heard horror stories of a computer crash leaving someone without crucial files, or the ability to manage payments and receipts. If you travel, you also have the potential of dropping your laptop or having it stolen.

YOU MUST BACK UP YOUR FILES REGULARLY (AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK) AND KEEP THE BACKUP COPIES IN A SAFE SEPARATE PLACE.

Flash drive (USB stick)

The best way to backup new files on a daily basis is onto a USB stick. Also known as a flash drive, a USB stick is a small device that plugs into your computer, after which it appears under My Computer as a separate storage device.

You can drag and copy new files to the USB stick. When you’re done, remove the USB stick and keep it someplace apart from your laptop.

USB sticks with substantial amounts of storage space are now available at very low prices.

Get two.

Have a backup for your backup.

I don’t wear a belt and suspenders, but we’re talking computers here, and the cost of losing your work can be dreadful.

more permanent backup

Beyond the USB stick, you should also make a more permanent backup, to another computer or to a CD or DVD. I do all of those things, periodically copying all of my files to Pat’s laptop, and also creating permanent CD or DVD backup disks, carefully labeled and stored someplace safe.

If you do all these things, and disaster strikes, you can be back in business quickly. If you don’t, it can be an unholy mess and can spoil your trip, or worse.

Posted in ... 2006, travel technology | Leave a Comment »

arranging our first home exchanges

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

In Key West in early 2006, our home in Collioure taking shape, we put together other elements of our plan, beginning with the highest priority – travel. We explore the rapidly expanding world of home exchange.

Home exchange was started some years ago, by teachers and others, but it has really taken off since the internet facilitated the process. The basic idea is a house swap between two consenting adults. The matchmaker is the internet site, but once you find each other, you’re basically on your own.

There are many home exchange sites. We choose http://www.homeexchange.com, pay the $49.00 annual fee, and employ the site’s user-friendly procedures to describe our apartment and neighborhood, indicate where we want to exchange, and upload the pictures we took during our recent January trip for exactly this purpose.

Once our site is established, other members can access it by location or property number (we’re #52059). If they’re interested in a swap, they send us an email and we can check out their listing to see if we like their place. We, in turn, search the site for homes of interest to us.

Our apartment is small, so we look for exchanges where the exchange party is one or two persons. We also eliminate smokers and pets.

As the spring of 2006 progresses, our first summer of travel comes into focus.

Dublin is the most straightforward. Pat finds a suitable apartment, initiates a correspondence, and we’re soon set for two weeks at the end of July.

My ancestors come from Eastern Europe, and many were murdered there by the Nazis. The transition from Hitler to Stalin, and the eventual emergence of free countries from the dissolving Soviet Union, are events of great interest to me.

Pat looks for home exchanges in Budapest and Prague. She finds a listing in Budapest, but it’s not available on a convenient date. The same listing also mentions an apartment for rent. The dates work, the rent is reasonable (much less than a hotel), and now we have two weeks in Budapest scheduled for late June.

As recent converts to home exchange, we tell everybody about it. Debbie, a runner friend of Pat’s in Key West, turns out to have a brother Evan living in Paris. Debbie sends an introductory email to Evan, and we soon agree to swap apartments for one week at the end of August.

A couple from Perth writes to us. They’re already scheduled to be in France for much of the summer, and want to extend their trip for the month of October.

We’re impressed with their home, a two story town house on a resort marina, but decide that Perth is too far. Our travel objectives are in Europe. We say no.

A return email asks us please to reconsider. We say something about 300 square feet compared to their opulent residence, and they say that’s ok. So we agree to spend October in Australia.

All this is arranged before we return to Collioure in June.

Posted in ... 2006, home exchange | 3 Comments »

packing for 5 months abroad

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

What can possibly be interesting about packing?

Well, consider that we’re going to be away for five months, and need to think through everything we’ll need, while balancing our needs against ever-changing airline luggage restrictions.

We’ve received many different answers from American Airlines to the same questions about luggage. We finally decide who and what to believe and write down the particulars in case someone else decides differently when we actually check in.

We have scales, in pounds in Key West and kilos in Collioure. Put something in, take something out. Will the airline’s scale give the same result as ours?

We’re trying to anticipate the weather in all of the places we’ll be, including Australia in what will be spring for them in October. Our plan is to leave much of what we take this year in Collioure so we won’t have to take it again next year.

LEW

Posted in ... 2006, planes, trains & automobiles | Leave a Comment »

Derek Jeter is alive and well in France!

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

I have been a New York Yankee fan since I was 8 years old and my Italian neighbor in Camden, NJ told me that Joe DiMaggio was the best player in baseball. This was about a week before my other neighbor told me Ted Williams was the best, but it was too late for the Red Sox.

I had resolved that I would do without the Yankees in Key West, and surely in Collioure.

But then I learned about mlb.com.

For $79.95, I bought internet access to all major league games for the entire 2006 season. The reception on my laptop is excellent, and I can watch ‘live’ or later via archive.

Derek Jeter is alive and well in France!

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homeless at IKEA

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

While we still had the rental car, we had driven to a store called Auchan near Perpignan. Auchan is the French equivalent of a Walmart super store, with appliances, computers, furniture, bedding and linens, plus a food supermarket. We bought several small bookcases, sheets, and other stuff.

Next to Auchan is a store called Leroy Merlin, the closest thing to Home Depot in France, where we bought two table lamps to fit on the tiny side tables from Auchan. Now we can read in bed, which is very important to us.

The apartment is beginning to take shape. But major purchases, including a new sofa, are yet to be made.

IKEA has stores in Montpellier and Toulouse in France, and Barcelona in Spain, each about 2-3 hours away from Collioure, by train or car. The previous fall, we had shopped at the IKEA nearest to New York City, and had ordered furniture to be delivered from the Montpellier store in January.

“No problem,” we were told. However, when we called to confirm just before leaving Key West for Collioure, we were told that IKEA, despite their promise to do so, couldn’t guarantee delivery during our three week visit.

So we cancelled the order.

This turns out to be a good thing. After several days in the apartment, we have changed our minds and now want none of the furniture which would have been delivered pursuant to the original IKEA order. Sometimes you get lucky.

On the train from Collioure to Montpellier, we share a compartment with three ladies from Perpignan who are off for a day of shopping and theatre. They speak almost no English, we speak almost no French, but we have a delightful conversation using our little translator and the dictionary on my laptop. When we arrive in Montpellier, the ladies insist on helping us find our hotel.

IKEA’s business model is premised on the idea of customers arriving by car, making their purchases, and taking (almost) everything with them. We definitely do not fit the mode. For one thing, we don’t have a car.

We’re directed by our hotel clerk to take the tram from downtown Montpellier to the IKEA stop. Unexpectedly, we then have to walk about a mile from the tram stop to the store.

After several hours shopping, we have two carts brimming with kitchen stuff, linens, and whatnot, plus vouchers for the sofa and ottoman we have selected. We approach the checkout line where we’re assured IKEA will deliver all of the merchandise to Collioure in June.

We pay for our purchases and trundle over to the delivery booth.

“Deliver all of this to Collioure? C’est impossible!

“But they said …”

C’est impossible.

I negotiate, and eventually it is agreed that some of our goods, plus of course the sofa and ottoman, can be delivered to Collioure in June, but we’ll have to take the rest with us.

IKEA, like all French stores, does not provide shopping bags. They will sell you a flimsy plastic bag that doesn’t close, and they do offer unlimited amounts of heavy wrapping paper and tape. I construct a duffel bag from the plastic bag, and several large packages from the wrapping paper and tape.

But we’re a mile from the tram station! Taxi? Not a chance.

“Keep pushing,” I say.

“We can’t do this!” Pat says.

What we did still has our friends roaring with laughter. We roll our shopping carts down the highway, looking for all the world like two homeless people pushing their earthly belongings to an unknown destination.

We glance repeatedly over our shoulders for the IKEA police.

At the tram station, we lock the two carts together, retrieving one of the two euros that had been inserted to get them, and carry our bags to the train.

Fortunately, our hotel is not far from the tram stop, nor from the train station the next morning, and our apartment in Collioure is but 100 yards from the train station there.

There is more, much more, to the IKEA adventure, but that part doesn’t happen until the summer (see problems).

Posted in ... 2006, shopping | Leave a Comment »

* getting connected: telephone & internet

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Before leaving Key West, I had arranged with France Telecom and Wanadoo – I’m still not sure if this is one company or two – to have the telephone line activated in our apartment, and a telephone and broadband router sent to us in Collioure.  

Everything arrives as planned, and I spread out the instructions and try to get connected. Of course, all the instructions are in French, but there were pictures, and I had a French-English dictionary (no Google translate without the internet), so I set out optimistically.

The phone seems to work right away, but after several hours, there is no internet connection. Has the connection been activated at the Wanadoo end? Have I connected the wires correctly? Is the router functioning properly?

I spend 12 frustrating hours on the telephone with people at France Telecom and Wanadoo, all of whom try to be helpful. I have done this kind of analysis many times, on the phone with tech support people, but always, of course, in English. Trying to do this in French is impossible, and finding an English-speaking Wanadoo technician is next to impossible. It’s a nightmare.

There are also issues of coordination. Apparently, people from France Telecom do not, in the normal course, talk to people from Wanadoo. Nor do people from different divisions within those companies speak with each other. Some do speak English, but it often takes forever to get connected to an English speaker, and when I call back, there’s no way to find that person again.

I remind myself that I am in France, where people talk French. Pat urges me to repeat our mantra. “It’s an adventure.”

Finally, on the second day, I call Sam, and he agrees to come over on his way home that evening. He arrives at seven o’clock. We go through the installation together, and everything seems correct. Until we get to the password.

In the U.S., my experience is that you pick your own password, so that’s what I had done. Wrong.

I had been assigned a password, which had been mailed to me – somewhere – but I didn’t have it. Sam explains the situation to Wanadoo and they tell him the password.

A few minutes later, the internet and email appear on my laptop. We are connected to the world.

That night, we watch internet clips from Hardball with Chris Mathews, and the reception is astonishingly good.

Posted in ... 2006, customer service, problems | Leave a Comment »

* our inability to speak French

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Of course not everything goes as planned.

Two of the most frustrating experiences in our first summer abroad concerned our telephone/internet connections (France Telecom and Wanadoo) and our new sofa (IKEA).

A big part of the problems, in both cases, was our inability to speak French. If we had been able to communicate fully, I think we would have overcome what appears to be an underlying French aversion to customer service.

Posted in ... 2006, problems, speaking French | 2 Comments »

broadband and internet cafes

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Most of what we do on the internet (when we travel as well as at home) requires a broadband connection rather than dial-up. We have installed broadband in Key West and Collioure, and sometimes when we travel, it is available where we are.

But if not, we use internet cafes. We just learned about internet cafes last summer, and it took some trial and error. We are almost always the oldest people in any internet café we are in.Basically, an internet café is a place with a lot of computers where you can connect to the internet for a modest charge. The minimum time is usually 10 minutes, but you’ll probably need more. You can make the internet café computer look exactly like your own laptop by bringing up the same home page, in our case My Yahoo. Make sure you know the password. On your own computer, My Yahoo recognizes you but this is not the case on a different computer in an internet café.

Once connected, you can do the same things you do on your own computer, including bank transactions, if needed. I prefer not to do bank transactions on anything but my own computer, so I plan ahead and try to get everything done before leaving a home base. But if you need to do it, it can be done and it’s probably safe.

email at an internet cafe

Email is a little different at an internet café than it is on your own computer. Most email providers (we use Comcast) have a web-based email system. Maybe that’s what you use all the time, but we, on our own laptops, use an email program called Eudora. When we travel, however, we use the Comcast web mail system. Again, make sure you know your ID and password and have them with you.

email settings

You can set the options with your email provider to leave mail on the provider’s server (in our case Comcast) or have it deleted after you download your mail. If you’re at an internet café and want to later download your mail to your own computer, you have to set the option to leave the mail on the server. You may periodically want to delete that mail from the server if the volume gets large.

You may also want to keep a record of mail you send from a computer at an internet café. One way is to set your options to keep sent mail, so you can look it up later on your home computer. The other way is to send a copy to yourself, to be retrieved later on your own computer.

Posted in ... 2006, travel technology | Leave a Comment »

* IKEA’s idea of customer service

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Our IKEA delivery arrives on schedule in mid June. The miscellaneous items are all there, just as purchased in January.

The sofa and ottoman, however, are not correct.

The 3-seat sofa comes with 2-seat covers, and without feet, so we’re practically sitting on the floor, on uncovered pillows with lots of feather quills coming through.

I call IKEA, and after bouncing around from one person to another for 30 minutes, I finally get an English-speaking customer service representative. He promises a call back in 24-48 hours with a ‘prompt resolution’ of the problems.

IKEA doesn’t call back, beginning a long string of broken promises. I call them. They promise to deliver the corrected items within two weeks.

In three weeks, having had no delivery and no call from IKEA, I call them again. The replacement order has not even been placed. We are again promised delivery, this time in another week.

I wonder if anyone at IKEA is embarrassed by this performance. Nobody seems to care. Nobody apologizes.

There is again no delivery when promised. No one calls. And it’s impossible to call them. In a scenario that would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating, I repeatedly call the English-speaking service line.

A voice message, in English, instructs me to press ‘1’ to continue in English.

I press ‘1,’ and get a stream of rapid French.

The days stretch on and IKEA’s promises remain an unreachable illusion. We’re increasingly concerned about delivering a finished apartment for our
upcoming home exchange. Carmel is due to arrive on July 25th.

We ask our neighbor Brigitte for help, hoping that she can get some useful information in French that we are unable to get in English. Brigitte works through the voice messages and reaches a live person, and it sounds like she’s really giving a piece of her mind to that person. The net result, however, is no substantive information and another promise to call back within one hour. Once again, there’s no return call.

We wonder if this is an IKEA problem or a French problem. Am I being unreasonably impatient? There are many who have written about the bureaucratic mindset in France, and the absence of any real sense of customer service.

It seems to me there’s no system or institutional process designed to make customers happy. It’s simply not a priority.

We travel for two weeks and try to forget our strange sofa. When we return, I re-enter the fray with IKEA with another series of fruitless calls to the English-speaking line.

Same automated response, same flood of French. Does anyone at IKEA realize how idiotic that system is?

Suddenly, in the midst of one more frustrating call, an actual person comes on the line, speaking English. I’m so excited I almost drop the phone.

I try to concentrate on solving the problem instead of venting my frustrations. She listens and tells me her colleague will call back in a few minutes.

“Do not hang up this phone,” I order in my most authoritative voice. “No one at IKEA ever calls back.”

By some miracle, she does not hang up, but instead transfers me to another English-speaking person. I think it might have been her boss. He listens to my tale of woe and tells me someone from the Montpellier store will call back in ten minutes. I ask him to please stay on the line, but he explains he gets off work in ten minutes. He promises I’ll get a call and hangs up.

He must have been a higher level boss, because someone from Montpellier actually calls. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the order for the missing furniture has still not been placed.

“And nobody had the courtesy to contact me to tell me that? You don’t care at all, do you?”

The woman is patient with me. “I’m trying to solve your problem. I cannot comment on whatever my colleagues did or did not do.”

I must have finally gotten through to someone, because IKEA is now on a roll. They send an email that uses previously unspoken words – sorry, apologize, inconvenience – and promises a delivery the following week. Another unsolicited email says the delivery company will call us to set a day of delivery.

The delivery company doesn’t call, so I call them. They have no merchandise for me. How could IKEA have told me that the delivery company would call me, when they have nothing to deliver? Do they just make it up?

Are you tired of reading about IKEA? Imagine how I felt, living with it.

I’m calling IKEA again, but now, after entering ‘1’ for English, they disconnect the line. Seven times so far. Eight. They’re too busy to answer the customer service line. Too busy doing what? Surely not providing customer service. Call # 12 is answered. Same nonsense.

“I will call Montpellier and they will call you by 2:00 pm.”

“But they don’t ever call.”

“They will call.”

“Can I call the Montpellier store directly?”

“No. This is not possible.”

So, the only place you can call doesn’t have the information, and the only place that has the information you can’t call. Who’s on first?

This is not a pleasant way to spend your day. It’s time to go to the beach and read a good book. But first, I must wait until 2:00 pm. And then?

Stephanie from IKEA’s Montpellier store calls at 2:15 pm. She knows nothing about what has been going on, but she says she’ll find out and call me back. Something in the tone of her voice makes me believe her.

She calls back in 10 minutes, having just spoken to the delivery company. She actually called them, instead of telling me to call them. She says they do have the merchandise, and she’s done the very un-French thing of taking the initiative to schedule a delivery for the following Tuesday between noon and 4:00 pm. I don’t have to call anyone.

Even more remarkably, Stephanie adds that when this matter is all cleared up, IKEA will provide ‘compensation’ to us for our trouble. She gives me her email address so I can contact her directly if there is a further need.

I tell her she is the only sign of intelligent life I have found at IKEA customer service and I wish I had met her a month ago. She laughs, and again says she is sorry.

Au revoir. Bonne journee.

On Tuesday, everything arrives exactly as scheduled – the sofa, all the covers, the legs. We put everything together and it looks great! How comfortable to sit at a normal height without being poked by feathers. IKEA has beaten Carmel to Collioure by seven days.

Several months later, back in Key West, we receive a voucher for 75 euros to be spent at the Montpellier store.

So what did we learn?

It’s our experience that customer service in France is a mystical concept, even if, like Brigitte and Rose, you speak French. It’s not that the personnel are unfriendly, or even that they don’t want to be helpful. The system, however, is stacked against results. Stephanie is the only exception to this rule that we’ve found. Her action in initiating a call to the delivery service and scheduling the delivery, so normal in the U.S., stands out dramatically in France.

Maybe things will change, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We love living in France, and this incident with IKEA will certainly not change that. But I could never work in France. It would drive me nuts.

In a broader context, I wonder how, if this mind set continues, France will ever compete successfully within the European Community. 

Posted in ... 2006, customer service, problems | 7 Comments »