“No hotels?” I said. “You’re saying Fremont, California — a city of 240,000 people — doesn’t have a single hotel?”
“Yep.” Rich was struggling to find us lodgings in the metropolis rated "the happiest city in America" by a recent poll. “The closest hotels are outside the city limits in nearby Newark.”
Eventually we found one place listed in Fremont: the All-Suites Islander Motel. A glance at their Yelp page was an eye-opener. “Worst place I ever stayed rather sleep in my car than here ever again. The carpet was dirty dog pee stains every where smelled like a boys locker room mixed with dog. Cockroaches everywhere beds old out dated, super uncomfortable bedding and linen dirty. Worst place ever. Trap house! Stay away, unless u want to bring home roaches and bed bugs.” One guest wrote, “Helpful hint #1 carry some sort of weapon if you decide to venture out for a late night ice run.” Good to know!
We stayed at a cookie-cutter corporate hotel in Newark.
Bright and early on our first Fremont morning, we stopped at the Country Way diner and found bottomless cups of coffee and a hostess who called Rich “hon." Our waitress, Cindy, hadn’t heard about the poll but didn’t seem surprised at Fremont’s happiness rating. “We have good neighborhoods, good weather, it’s clean, good for kids, and it’s safe.” What’s not to like?
To walk off the eggs and home fries, we strolled down Fremont Boulevard, a broad thoroughfare lined with diners and store fronts — about the closest thing this centerless city has to a downtown. Passing the old railway station, Uncle Joe’s Liquors, an Afghan market, and an Indian wedding photographer, we fetched up at the Holy Spirit Catholic church.
On a Sunday morning we were surprised to find the 1886 landmark church locked. Wandering around to the back we discovered 200 people attending an open air mass.
“Do you smell that?” Rich whispered.
My nose stuffy with allergies, I didn’t at first. “What, incense?”
We slipped away from the service and followed our sniffers around the parish hall to find The Holy Spirit Filipino Society making pancit bihon (stir-fried rice noodles), lumpia (spring rolls), and sweet-salty grilled chicken (recipes below). It was too soon after the hash browns to think of lunch, but we chatted with the cooks, who laughingly agreed Fremont was a happy place to live and invited us to return later. We did and it was the best food of the entire trip — and quite a bargain at $5 for a shared meal.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on our next stop, The Museum of Local History, but I soon discovered it was a sweet treasure trove, lovingly assembled and carefully labeled by countless volunteers over the past 60+ years. I marveled at the bones of a mastodon discovered by the Boy Paleontologists in the 1940s. An old movie camera paid tribute to the days when Charlie Chaplin made 14 films there, including The Tramp. It was a bit disconcerting to discover many objects — dial telephones, adding machines, floppy-disc computers — I’d once owned myself. I felt like a relic!
Our guide, Stuart, "really knew his onions," as they said back in the 1920s. I asked him about the Harvey Ranch, which my friend Bill wrote about in a comment on my last post. “In 1970 I met Margo Harvey, a lovely lady and big time farmer whose vegetable crops were planted on 100s of acres in Fremont. She told me about how Fremont also had the best vegetable stand run by a sweet old fellow right at the edge of her property. After buying from him, every day, for over 20 years, one morning, at 4am, she discovered him picking all his produce from her fields. When confronted by her, he acknowledged he had been doing this all his life and had no inventory cost. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry.”
Stuart knew all about the Harvey house, which is still standing in what's now Harvey Community Park. Rich and I arrived there to find young Asian men playing cricket in the field where the sweet old fellow used to steal Margo’s produce. The rest of Harvey Farm is suburban housing.
Wherever we went in the city, we asked everybody we encountered whether they agreed Fremont was a particularly happy city. Every single one of them said yes — until we stopped for frozen custard at Rita’s.
“I hate this place,” a woman in the parking lot snarled. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
Stunned at her vehemence, Rich naturally wondered if she was staying at the All-Suites Islander Motel. “Are you from out of town?” he asked.
“I’m from Monterey. I’ve never been here before; I’m just passing through. I’ve been here ten minutes and I’m ready to leave.”
Rich did not stand in her way.
Our last stop was the 450-acre Fremont Central Park, built around the lovely Lake Elizabeth. “Online someone called it ‘Lake Liz.’ Is that a common nickname?” I asked my sister-in-law Deb, who once worked in Fremont. “I’ve only been there a few times,” she said. “I wouldn’t presume to call her that on such a brief acquaintance.”
Of course, it's not all sweetness and light, even here in the happiest city's prettiest park. A display about earthquakes reminds us just how unstable life can be, a point that's underscored by the homeless encampments nearby and the parched earth of California's long drought.
I sat at a picnic table looking out over the tranquil water of Lake Elizabeth, surrounded by local families who, at a guess, could trace their ancestry back to just about every corner of Asia, Central and South America, Europe, the Caribbean, and beyond. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, handing around Tupperware containers of food, tossing balls for dogs, bouncing babies on their knees. And I began to see why this place was considered so happy.
Fremont, stitched together out of several older towns, seemed devoted to one modest goal: being a family-friendly community for people far from home. It doesn’t strive for glamour or hipster chic, attempt to lure tourists away from San Francisco, or harbor dreams of becoming the next Silicon Valley. I’ve read that modest expectations are one reason for the high happiness ratings of Nordic countries. Where Americans are constantly exhorted to strive for exceptional achievements and be dissatisfied with anything less, the Scandinavians’ goal is a comfortable work-life balance. They just want to come home at the end of the day feeling satisfied with what they have. Perhaps that’s what Fremont offers its citizens. No wonder they’re happy.
So what was the ghastly All-Suites Islander doing in the midst of so much contentment? Re-checking Yelp, I discovered the Islander isn’t technically in Fremont but in neighboring Hayward. Whew! Fremont can hold up its head again.
Clearly there’s no perfect way to quantify happiness; no doubt other cities deserve the crown as much or more. But all in all, I’d say Fremont is doing OK. And in these troubled times, meeting even that modest expectation makes the city truly exceptional.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
Or why it's America's 5th happiest city?
Just a half-hour drive south from Fremont but a world apart in character, San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, rates high in happiness and off-the-charts in terms of wealth. But we all know money doesn't buy happiness, right? What's San Jose doing with all its newfound riches? Surprising things. Learn San Jose's secrets in my next post.
Wondering how 182 US cities were chosen and rated for happiness? See the methodology here.
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AND HERE ARE THOSE MOUTHWATERING FILIPINO RECIPES I MENTIONED
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“You’re not going to believe this,” Rich said. “I just googled the Museum of Local History in Fremont and this is the first photo.” Peering over his shoulder at the screen, I saw an old wooden board studded with small holes.
“Hey,” I said, “isn’t that the same board the exterminator photographed under our house to show the beetle infestation?
We were researching next week’s road trip to Fremont and San Jose, which ranked first and fifth respectively on the list of America’s happiest cities while being two of the least popular tourist destinations in California, possibly on the planet. As a travel writer, I’m an old hand at digging up fascinating facts about obscure places — want to hear about my six favorite towns in Albania? — but even so, I was floundering.
People often ask me how I learn about the weird places we visit. I explain that once potential destinations come to my attention — in this case, by their high ranking on the happiness index and close proximity — I first consult Wikipedia for general background. I soon learned Fremont was formed in the 1950s by five old small towns fearful of being swallowed up by their fast-growing neighbor Hayward. Fremont’s planners preserved landmarks such as Mission San José and silent-era movie lots where Charlie Chaplin got his start, but nobody bothered to create a central downtown. “How do you go there,” Rich complained, “when there’s no there there?”
San Jose, as I knew from my childhood, was the hub of a large farming community for centuries. Then by sheer geographic accident — being the only city nearby when the tech explosion hit — it became the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley. Wikipedia informed me the San Jose Metropolitan Area has, per capita, the most millionaires and billionaires in the US and the world’s third highest GDP, not to mention the nation’s most expensive housing market.
After that little flurry of discovery, the trail went cold. Even Triposo, the travel app that had guided us through such lesser-known spots as Cagliari, Sardinia and Šiauliai , Lithuania, made no mention of Fremont or San Jose. Amazon listed no guide books. EatWith offered no in-home dining experiences. We were on our own.
Luckily, a few stalwart travel writers have visited and published articles such as 12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Fremont, featuring lots of nature walks and a few historic buildings, most of which are closed due to Covid. I knew we were in trouble when one of Fremont’s 12 Top-Rated Attractions turned out to be viewing the Dumbarton Bridge. Despite what you see in this heavily photo-shopped image, the bridge is graceless, drab, and as people point out on Trip Advisor, often jammed with traffic and smelling like a sewer. “It’s just a bridge,” commented Bart C. “For goodness sake, I don't know why some of these mundane things are listed as ‘attractions.’” Me neither, Bart!
“The Dumbarton Bridge? Seriously?” said Rich. “What’ll we do after that? Tour a Walmart? We don’t have to stay more than one day in Fremont, do we?”
“See if there’s any kind of history museum,” I suggested. “People have been in the area since the Ohlone hunted there in 4000 BC; somebody must have collected some old stuff and old stories.” And that’s when we found the Local History Museum in Fremont. At first glance, it looked slightly less glamorous than the Dumbarton Bridge.
But then I got to thinking: could artifacts and photos covering the last three centuries of everyday life provide clues about how Fremont became the happiest city in America? The museum is only open a few days a month, and to my astonishment one of them coincides with our visit. What are the odds?
That was about it for museums and attractions, so next I googled “diners,” and here Fremont came up aces. Some are family-run slices of Americana that look like the kind of places where the waitress would call you “hon” and freely dispense her views on why Fremont was or wasn’t the happiest town in the US. Many eateries are owned by Asians, who make up 57% of city’s population, and the online photos of mu shu chicken and tikka masala are drool-inducing. Clearly we’ll have to eat at least five meals a day while we’re there.
Meanwhile, the San Jose research was proving considerably easier. As I mentioned, there’s no comprehensive guidebook, but if you want to locate the oddball stuff (and I do), there’s the delightful Secret San Jose: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure. It showed where to find Beethoven’s hair (strands were cut off at his death as a memento), a haunted Chuck E. Cheese (the franchise started in San Jose), and a plant converting sewage into perfectly safe drinking water (nope, I’m not going to sample it).
I consulted another trusty resource, Meetup, which connects individuals who share an interest, but of course, most were inactive due to Covid. For instance, no upcoming events were listed for the Bay Area Ghost Hunters meetup, “a networking group for the free flow of paranormal information … Skepticism is appreciated, but close-mindedness is not.” When I googled walking tours I found even slimmer pickings, and Rich is flatly refusing to consider the Zombie Scavenger Hunt.
In European cities, the cathedral is the center point of any community, so I looked up San Jose’s. Originally a smaller church built in 1803, St. Joseph’s was damaged by earthquakes in 1818 and 1822, was entirely rebuilt, then collapsed during the 1868 earthquake, was entirely rebuilt again, then burned down in 1875. Do you feel God is trying to send a message here? Yes, it’s been rebuilt once more and I may visit, but at the first hint of smoke or trembling underfoot, I’m out of there.
The fact is, I don’t have any clear plan for the trip. And that’s a good thing. My research is helpful in pointing me in the direction of interesting stuff, but I’ve learned I get the most fun out of travel by simply showing up, wandering around soaking up atmosphere, chatting with a few random people, and letting events unfold in their own good time. Not having a set schedule, I can linger over sights that interest me — Beethoven’s hair, perhaps, and almost certainly that board in the Local Museum of History (who’d miss a chance to see that?). And I know I’ll spend time perched on diner stools, savoring bottomless cups of coffee and possibly Burmese pan fried dumplings. But no matter how relaxed the pace, I can absolutely guarantee I will not be making time to stand around gazing admiringly at the Dumbarton Bridge. I have my standards!
On The Road Again!
I won't be writing a post next week as Rich and I will be traveling around trying to figure out why Fremont and San Jose rate so high on the happiness index. I expect to have plenty to say the following week!
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this article with family, friends, and anyone who is curious about America's happiest cities.
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these stories about other places nobody ever visits
The great Spar Varnish Debacle started out simply (as these disasters so often do) with an offhand remark over breakfast.
“Between the birds and those ghastly berries on the trees,” I said, “our porch railings always look like they have leprosy. Isn't there something we can do?”
Paint store experts advised glossier paint; Rich applied two coats, which bloomed with fresh stains before the last brushstroke dried. The hardware store staff suggested spar varnish, a maritime shellac tough enough to repel barnacles. As Rich brushed on the spar varnish, I noticed with alarm that it was going on in great, blotchy, yellow streaks, giving the impression we’d drizzled the railing with maple syrup. After days trying to convince ourselves it didn’t look that bad, we agreed it had to be painted over.
Unfortunately, spar varnish doesn’t like to be painted over. Unable to repel the enamel paint outright, it craftily began infiltrating it. Soon our railings were sticky as fly paper; if you touched one, you instantly became adhered to it, and delicate negotiations were required to remove your fingers without leaving behind a layer of skin. Naturally the glue-like surface became a magnet for every bit of dirt, dust, berry, and bird muck around.
Normally we’d have ranted endlessly about this to family, friends, and the hardware store guys; we didn’t attend that Grumpiness Seminar for nothing! But the areas of our brains devoted to domestic disasters were, by this time, totally preoccupied with something more urgent.
The Beetles-Eating-Our-House Crisis began when a routine inspection revealed this shocking sight.
OK, maybe it’s not that shocking at first glance, but look closely at the middle board; can you make out teeny tiny holes in the wood? Kind of like nail holes? Apparently those may or may not be the warning signs of wood-boring beetles at work, either now or at some time in the recent, possibly distant past. “I’m not really sure,” said the inspector. “What do you think?”
“I think we need a second opinion,” Rich said.
Two sets of exterminators eventually agreed that we had a wood-boring beetle problem that could only be eliminated with considerable effort and staggering expense. Personally, I always feel that asking a guy who’s going to profit from a job to determine whether it’s really necessary is like hiring a lion to decide whether it’s time to cull the antelope herd.
Rich, thinking along the same lines, said grimly, “I’m going down there myself.”
This may not sound like a big deal, but you have to understand we never, ever go into the dark, cramped underworld that lies beneath the cottage. You can’t call it a crawl space because much of it can’t be navigated on hands and knees; thanks to the labyrinth of pipes, ducts, and tangles of wiring left by various owners over the last 121 years, you have to slither through the dirt on your belly like a reptile, or inch along on your back like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Rich prepped for the ordeal by reading about the telltale signs of wood-boring beetles. Apparently they like to burrow in new wood, something that hadn’t been seen beneath our house since it was built in 1900, and they usually produce a frothy white mix of sawdust and excrement known in the bug industry as “frass ” — a term which instantly became a cuss word around our house.
Rich spent half an hour inching around the underbelly of the cottage, then crawled out covered with dirt and shaking his head. “I can’t find anything that looks like the exterminator’s picture or that frass stuff we saw online.” Worried he might have missed the single board studded with holes, he descended again and then a third time into the nether regions. Each time, his grim determination was like that of Charles Bronson playing the claustrophobic Danny digging the tunnel out of the Nazi POW camp in The Great Escape.
Meanwhile, the exterminators were sending us quotes that made our heads spin and describing our part of the process as “really quite simple” when it was obviously anything but. First, we’d have to remove all edibles (including the contents of the refrigerator, the Apocalypse Chow food locker, and the medicine cabinet) to a safe location off the property. Then we’d need to drag all the potted plants to the far end of the garden; anything planted in the ground around the cottage would have to take its chances, which would clearly be slim to none. Then we'd have to leave for five days so the exterminators could tent our home and pump it full of poison.
“Well, frass,” said Rich.
In an effort to turn his thoughts to a more cheerful direction, I zeroed in on the upside. “Looks like we’re going on a road trip!”
I had the perfect itinerary in mind. As my regular readers will recall, Rich’s Science of Happiness course made us want to visit the world’s happiest countries, starting with the Nordic nations. Now I’m thinking the journey could begin closer to home. The Bay Area includes several top ranking spots in this year’s list of America’s happiest cities, including numero uno, the absolute dark horse in this contest, Fremont.
Never heard of it? That’s because, as everyone has been telling us, “Nobody ever goes to Fremont." Is it really Dullsville or are we overlooking something? I'm asking the same question about its near neighbor, the fifth happiest city, San Jose. For culture and glamor it can’t compete with San Francisco (what could?) and most Bay Area residents avoid it as if it were Fremont. I probably shouldn't have been so astonished to learn San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, is now one of the richest and most powerful cities on the planet. Seems like I ought to take a closer look at both cities.
Meanwhile, Rich has been in deep consultation with the exterminators, explaining we aren’t convinced we even have beetles, let alone enough of them to require tenting and filling the house with toxins. The exterminator’s attitude is, “Well, if you don’t value your home enough to maintain it properly, don’t blame us if beetles eat the sub-flooring and the whole place collapses into the ground.” I’ll let you know how that conversation turns out.
As for the Spar Varnish Debacle, by now the stickiness has subsided considerably, and while the railing will probably never regain its former sleekness, it no longer attaches itself to the unwary. As it happens, while this drama was playing out, we discovered that the berry-dropping, bird-attracting trees were dying and had to be removed, which neatly solved the staining problem.
Despite the gloomy predictions of the exterminators, I’m maintaining a positive attitude about the Beetles-Eating-My-House Crisis, too. Because as the saying goes, “A positive attitude may not solve your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” Or as the 8th century Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva, said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”
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DOING ANY HOME IMPROVEMENTS THIS SUMMER?
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“Look at this one,” Rich said, handing me his phone. “A cabin offering an off-the-grid experience. It’s disconnected from all public utilities, so no phones, Internet, TV — none of the distractions of modern life.” I was hesitant at first but gradually warmed to the idea: an oasis of rustic tranquility in the chaos of our annual family reunion in the mountains of northern California. As the date drew nearer, our friends began asking, with increasing incredulity, what we were thinking. “Yes, it says there’s indoor plumbing,” I kept reassuring them. “Probably a bucket,” replied one. “An outhouse,” said another. “The woods!” suggested someone else.
Far more worrying than the bathroom arrangements was the fact our hosts had written urging us to bring insect repellant, which I'd never bothered with in previous years. This time we'd be deeper in the woods, so I ran out and bought three kinds of protection (skin-friendly herbal, high-powered Deet, some clip on thing) and two post-bite soothers. I also bought a new kind of M&M calling itself “Emotional Support Candy.” I thought it might come in handy — and not just for the outhouse and the bugs.
For decades, my large, boisterous family has gathered for a week every summer in a small mountain town in the Sierras. We spend lazy days “getting back to nature” on an artificial beach by a man-made lake and take turns cooking huge meals every evening. But mostly what we do is talk.
There’s always an abundance of news to exchange, and to save time, my family speaks subtext. For instance, some years ago when asked about a distant relative’s new romantic partner, the response was a shrug, an eye-roll, and “a nice enough guy, kind of quiet.” Which we all understood to mean he was dull as dishwater and unlikely to be around long, so we shouldn’t get attached. If there are three of us in a room there will be five opinions about everything from religion to politics to whether the moon landing ever really took place, not to mention the pandemic, climate change, and the future of bitcoin. So far nobody has tried to convince me reptilian aliens are taking over the government, but every year I wonder when it will come up.
“If things get too intense, we may need a way to deflect the conversation into safer channels,” I told Rich. A few minutes later, I remarked, “By the way, did you hear they’re moving Area 51?”
“They are?” he exclaimed.
“No, I just made that up. But it’s an attention grabber, isn’t it? Maybe I can use the question to deflect any discussion that seems headed toward a conversational landmine. I think we should keep Area 51 in our back pocket. Along with the Emotional Support Candy.”
Area 51 is a remote, highly classified US Air Force installation in the Nevada desert. Some say it's where the government is hiding a crashed alien spacecraft, alien artifacts from Roswell, New Mexico, secret meetings with extraterrestrials, time travel experiments, teleportation technology, and weather control experiments.
As it happened, our reunion fell on the hottest days of the year, and as the three-hour drive took us across the flat Central Valley, the car’s thermometer registered 108 degrees. Even in the Sierras, surrounded by towering redwoods, temperatures were in the low 90s. I wondered if this was the best time to be renting a cabin with no air conditioning. But then we pulled up at Love Creek Cabin.
Built in 1934 and recently renovated by our hosts, Desiree and Jim, the cabin had the original wood shingles and a long porch with a row of comfy rockers and gliders that were perfect for gazing out over the forest and creek. A local woodworker had fashioned thick, wide planks for the floor, and there was slate underfoot in the kitchen and bathroom, which (my naysaying friends will be amazed to hear) featured a flush toilet and a shower with plenty of hot water. There was a big comfy Murphy bed (the kind that folds into the wall), a wood-burning stove, faded rugs, and a red sofa that whispered alluringly, from the depths of its many pillows, “Join me for a siesta?”
“This is my kind of roughing it,” said Rich.
I realized going off-grid wasn’t so different from how we’d lived for twenty years in Ohio: using well water, a septic system, and natural gas (only here, it was propane tanks). Behind Love Creek Cabin was a shed with a generator that ran for a short time each day to power up big batteries providing a steady supply of electricity, which ran lights, a small fridge, and a fan to keep the air cool. It was all highly efficient and offered a surprising array of creature comforts.
Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the entire reunion was arriving at the beach late that afternoon and standing among 17 members of my family and dozens of other beachgoers with not a single mask in sight. The governor had lifted the mask mandate two days earlier, and seeing all those bare faces was surreal, like stepping back in time.
Twenty minutes later, after I’d hugged everyone and been handed a glass of wine, someone at the far end of the picnic table called out, “Hey Karen, we’re talking about spiritual beliefs. What are yours?” So much for small talk! During the days that followed, I was drawn into discussions on topics such as “If you could change one thing about how you were raised, what would it be?” and “What’s one thing you can say about yourself that nobody knows?” and “What does it take to have a meaningful life?”
Naturally, the conversations occasionally got heated, and once Rich leaned over and whispered to me, “Time to go to Area 51?” Instead, I rose saying brightly, “You’re so right! I promised to help with dessert,” and slipped out of the room, leaving the others to sort themselves out.
On the last night some of my relatives stopped by to see the cabin, and after all the kidding we’d taken about roughing it off the grid, it was gratifying to see everyone instantly smitten. “I love it,” said the sister whose rental “cabin” this year included cathedral ceilings, a library, and a billiard table. “I could write here for a year,” said my poet-filmmaker nephew.
On our last morning, Rich and I spent a long time in the comfy porch gliders, eating homemade granola and drinking French-press coffee, talking about how lucky we were to grow up in the pre-digital age. We had lived happily for decades without personal electronic devices and found it refreshing now to stop being at the constant beck and call of the entire world, if only for a short while. Packing up, I realized I’d scarcely used the bug spray and never opened the Emotional Support Candy. Like Area 51, they'll be kept on hand for the next time I may have to finesse a delicate situation. I didn’t need them on this occasion, but there's no telling how long can I go on being that lucky.
Are you attending any family reunions this summer? Have they changed due to the pandemic? Let me know in the comments section below.
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Every once in a while someone comes up with an idea so brilliant yet so obvious (once I hear it) that I am amazed and chagrined I didn’t think of it myself. Dreaming of retirement and struggling to decide where to go, New York lawyers Gilen Chan and Gene Preudhomme were just getting serious about their research when the pandemic hit. “Gene thought ‘If we can’t visit places, why not let the places visit us?’” recalled Gil. “And the idea of a podcast about retirement cities was born.”
“I have always thought Gil had a voice and presence for radio,” says Gene. “Beginning several years ago, we started considering where we might retire. Once Covid hit, I had the idea of Gil hosting a podcast about places to retire. Although I have the face but not the voice for radio, Gil insisted that she would not do it alone. So here we are.”
They spent the summer of 2020 developing plans for their weekly podcast, Retire There with Gil and Gene. When it launched in November 2020 it focused on domestic locations, but gradually they began adding international guests, and this week's interview is with (drumroll please!) Karen and Rich McCann.
When they approached me about the interview, I thought, “Spend time talking about how great it was to move to Seville? I can do that for hours. Just ask any of my friends, relatives, or bartenders!” Rich thought it sounded like fun, and soon we found ourselves in a long Zoom call with Gil and Gene, chatting like old friends.
Click here to listen to the podcast, Retiring in Seville, Spain with Karen and Rich McCann.
Afterwards, I asked if doing dozens of interviews has helped them narrow down their own list. Gil admitted they are no clearer about their dream destination than when they started. In fact, “This information overload has made our relocation decision more difficult.”
“We have conducted over thirty-five interviews and many of the locations sound great,” added Gene. “However, I am hoping that once we hear about the place for us, it will be obvious and beyond exciting. Like the first time I met Gil, I knew she was the one.”
I asked what helps people find the right spot. “First, do your research, carefully,” said Gil. “Second, test-drive the location for at least a month, if possible. Third, do not feel trapped! You can always move again if this place did not turn out to be what you envisioned.”
What are the biggest worries about retirement? “Finance is, by far, the number one concern,” Gene said. For those trying to figure out how far your money will go, “Some helpful sources include Market Watch, US News & World Report, International Living, blogs, social media blogs, such as Facebook’s group titled “Where to Retire,” etc.”
Future retirees, said Gil, have to ask themselves plenty of practical questions. “Do they have enough to live on? Have they saved enough? Can they afford to retire before becoming eligible for Social Security? If they retire before becoming Medicare-eligible, and their former employers do not provide healthcare insurance for the gap years, do they have enough funds to remain in their current location? Some of our guests lived in areas they could afford while they were employed but not after. This last issue is what prompts many people to move abroad. The options of living in foreign countries are endless! And attractive!”
(I should mention that Medicare doesn’t cover you when you’re abroad; you’ll need some other insurance. Luckily international policies tend to be far less expensive than American equivalents.)
“Beyond money,” said Gene, “the concerns run the gamut. Some people are greatly concerned about healthcare, while others say they are in great physical condition and healthcare played no part in deciding where to retire. Politics have been of great concern for many of our guests. Some will only live in a blue state, while others will only live in a red state. Some want a variety of outdoor activities and arts, others will only live in any area where it will be convenient for them to play golf every day.”
Selecting the venue is the toughest thing to get right, notes Gil. “There are an overwhelming number of places with which to choose and if you factor in other criteria, such as the importance of being near family, it changes your options. One may find their fantasy location to be Portugal, but if that hinders your ability to see family more than once or twice a year, you may need to re-order your wish list. Expect to make compromises.”
When asked how couples can navigate disagreements, Gene said, “Surprisingly, most did not seem to have major disagreements. For many of our guests, retirement calmed them. After retirement, they were less likely to start arguments and a number of guests lost significant amounts of weight.”
“Retirement is a significant event in and of itself,” Gil pointed out, “and retiring elsewhere is another enormous act. The best advice we’ve heard on the issue is this: couples need to recognize that their lives may markedly change at this point, i.e., a spouse who always worked outside the home may develop new habits post retirement that may surprise or annoy the other person. Recognize and acclimate yourselves to this new life. Make sure both parties find things they like in the new venue.”
Gil and Gene don’t seem too worried about disagreements arising over their own retirement. “In general, we are similarly minded, in that we share the same values,” said Gil. “We respect and enjoy each other’s company. The podcast has solidified our decision to relocate after retirement. It would be foolish to stay in NYC when the dollar will go sooooo much further elsewhere, allowing us to live the way we’ve dreamed.”
“We want a less congested place where we can enjoy nature,” added Gene. “We love New York City and its people, some of them, but the world is large and we seek to enjoy more of it.”
Just thinking about retirement opened up whole new worlds to Gil and Gene. “The podcast has been a godsend, an absolute brilliant surprise, thanks to Gene,” said Gil. “We have been in our professional legal careers for over 25 years and it has created new excitement and unexpected, intellectually satisfying achievements. We are producing a show! Who knew?”
By the end of our conversation, Rich and I were inviting Gil and Gene to come see us in Seville before they make any final decisions about their own retirement. They would be a welcome addition to the city’s expat community and fit right into the vibrant social life that’s such an integral part of Spanish culture. But whatever their final destination may be, we can all be grateful that for now they are providing future retirees with practical ideas about hitting the reset button on their lives and having a grand time doing it.
OFF WE GO
This week Rich and I are heading to a family reunion in the mountains and will be staying in a cabin that's off the grid — meaning no electricity, phone service, TV, or wifi, although there is a generator and indoor plumbing. The owners keep reminding us to bring insect repellant. You'll hear more about all this in my next post. Just wanted you to know why we'll be off email and social media for a bit.
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Rich never bursts through the door when I’m taking my sister’s online yoga class, so I knew something was up even before he said, “I thought you should know I’ve just gotten an emergency alert. Town officials are telling us to lock our doors and windows and shelter in place. Something’s going down.”
Instantly my mind flooded with hideous possibilities: terrorist attack, chemical spill, kidnapping, sniper, some vicious new Covid variant soon to be known as the San Anselmo Plague… “OK,” I said, continuing my cat-cow backbends and trying not to hyperventilate. “Let me know if you hear more.”
Half an hour later, all was revealed: A 250-pound black bear was up a tree in our neighbor’s yard.
As you can imagine, every game warden, cop, firefighter, and public official within twenty miles rushed to the scene; nobody wanted to miss out on the hottest happening around here since the Great Flood of 2005. The bear soon gave up all hope of a quiet siesta, climbed down the tree, ambled back through the neighborhood, and disappeared into the woods. Town officials texted residents to say it was safe to emerge from our shelters, then immediately addressed everyone’s most pressing concern: “The bear is fine.”
The next morning officials sent out an advisory about bear-proofing our homes. “It says we should keep our trash bins in the garage and our pets indoors at night,” I told Rich at breakfast. Not having a garage, or any pets, we agreed to ignore this advice. “It also says that if the bear gets into our house, we should not engage with it. What do they think we’re going to do, ask it what it’s watching on Netflix these days? They also suggest leaving immediately. Good to have a professional opinion on that! Hmmm, do you think we should distribute jars of honey around the house, in case we have to distract the bear while we make our escape?”
In an ordinary year, I’d scoff at the idea that the bear, now named Archie, would return to our neighborhood, let alone invade our kitchen. But these days it’s hard to predict what wildlife will do. Their habits and habitats are so thoroughly disrupted by climate change, drought, wildfires, and human routines upended by the pandemic that you might wake up any morning to find coyotes, bobcats, wild turkeys, even peacocks foraging in your backyard. Last month in Tehachapi, Carol Mickols returned from a weekend getaway to find more than a dozen giant condors, an endangered species with nearly 10-foot wingspans, living on her porch — and willing to fight for their right to remain.
The condors eventually took off, but encounters between humans and wildlife continue to make headlines. On Memorial Day, Bradbury teenager Hailey Morinico saw a bear threatening her dogs and instinctively ran forward to shove the bear over a wall. The only reason she survived the encounter is because her actions were so insanely foolhardy the bear was too flabbergasted to respond.
Strange wildlife visitations lend post-apocalyptic drama to the landscape, but they're the least of my householder worries right now. Two weeks ago, after the driest winter in 140 years, county supervisors declared a drought emergency and asked residents to reduce water consumption by 40%.
Rich sprang into action researching how to use greywater — the relatively clean runoff from sinks, showers, and washing machines — to protect his beloved garden and our trees, some of which are already dropping leaves at an alarming rate. He spent weeks calculating usage (shower: 17 gallons; washing machine: 19 gallons; dishwasher: 3 gallons) and working out how to collect the runoff using a network of pipes and a large rain barrel. Meanwhile we have a bucket in the shower to capture the water while it heats (2.5 gallons) and another bucket in the sink for non-soapy rinse water.
Our first setback was realizing the plants receiving kitchen water looked increasingly morose. We naturally blamed soap contamination but eventually discovered it was stray cooking oil; apparently greasy water is more detrimental to plants than a little mild detergent. Who knew?
But the big blow? Turns out it’s illegal to collect greywater in barrels due to smells and worrying bacteria. You have to release greywater directly into the soil via a vast network of underground perforated PVC pipes, which would require tearing out our entire garden, our little brick patio, and who knows what else. Ballpark cost: $3000. Loss of Rich’s sanity watching 15 years gardening effort destroyed: incalculable. So we’re sticking with the buckets for now.
Officials are also encouraging us to conserve electricity in hopes of keeping those pesky blackouts to a minimum this summer. “Maybe this is the year we install solar panels on the roof to power the house — and that electric car we keep talking about,” said Rich.
After weeks of research, he reported, “Looks like installing solar will mean replacing the electrical panel. That requires tearing out all the knob-and-tube wiring, so we’d have to pull off sections of the bead-board walls throughout the house, and then replace and repaint. We’d also have to buy new electrical appliances: furnace, stove, oven, and hot-water-on-demand system. Given how little energy we use now, we probably wouldn’t save anything on utility bills. But we would have enough energy to recharge an electric car if we decide to go ahead and get one.”
“How much would all that cost?”
“I’m not sure I can count that high without getting a nosebleed.”
“What happens if we just use the township’s electric vehicle recharging station?” I asked. “It can’t be more than 150 feet from the house. If we ever had to, we could push the car over there.”
“Then we don't have to do any of this.” So that’s where that stands.
These days I feel like I’m living on the edge, always preparing for the next catastrophe, and the next, and the one after that. I’ve got a constant, low-grade case of the collywobbles — an old-fashioned expression for anxiety, often accompanied by queasiness. Perhaps that's our natural state. Back in the 1950s they told us America had made the world safe, and I somehow expected the feeling to last. But looking back over human history, it’s clear the only time we haven’t been on the edge of a catastrophe is when we’ve been in the middle of one.
And that goes double for our animal cousins. Most bears are solitary animals, always struggling to find their next meal, hunted since prehistoric times for their meat and fur. When winter hibernation is over, the safest they’re likely to feel is resting in the arms of a sheltering tree. I can imagine Archie’s sentiments when he woke from his siesta to discover he was surrounded by first responders, many with tasers, guns, animal tranquilizers, and itchy trigger fingers. I picture him afterwards, texting that teenager’s bear: “You’re right, humans are nuts! But hey, any one you can walk away from.”
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What do you think of California? Frank Lloyd Wright embraced the continental tilt theory that everything loose rolls to California. (True enough.) Truman Capote sneered, “It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.” (False, I hope.) Author Edward Abbey said, “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”
But as a fourth generation Californian whose family arrived by covered wagon back in the day, I feel the best description comes from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. “It was a splendid population — for all the slow, sleepy, sluggish-brained sloths stayed at home — you never find that sort of people among pioneers — you cannot build pioneers out of that sort of material. It was that population that gave to California a name for getting up astounding enterprises and rushing them through with a magnificent dash and daring and a recklessness of cost or consequences, which she bears unto this day — and when she projects a new surprise the grave world smiles as usual and says, ‘Well, that is California all over.’”
To this day my home state remains a dizzying mix of can-do and anything-goes, a living embodiment of the saying “If you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.” Last Friday I was gobsmacked to discover this was true of The California Museum as well. It was my first visit, and knowing the museum was partly sponsored by state funds, I assumed I'd find a pious whitewash of our checkered past. Instead it showed the good, the bad, the ugly, and the outlandish boldness for which the state is famous.
But before I get into that, I would like to pause and point out that the really astounding part of the story was finding myself actually standing there, in our state capital Sacramento, on my first road trip in over a year. Ever since Rich and I made the harrowing journey from Seville to California on May 18, 2020, we’d hunkered down in our San Anselmo cottage feeling lucky to be alive and determined to do whatever we could to stay that way. I actually slept in my own bed for 373 consecutive days — a lifetime record!
But with 51% of the state fully vaxxed, and our governor declaring June 15 the end of mask mandates and the reopening of just about everything, even my paranoia is crumbling fast. When four friends suggested a two-night excursion to Sacramento — aka The Big Tomato, The City of Trees, and Farm-to-Fork Capital — Rich and I decided it was finally time to drag our suitcases out of the attic and venture further afield than our backyard and the local supermarket.
We headed northeast on a train so sparsely occupied that we found ourselves in sole possession of the California Zephyr’s roomy observation car. Arriving in Sacramento was like walking into one of those sci-fi movies where everyone’s been vaporized by aliens, leaving just a pitiful remnant of humanity wandering the Earth. We hardly saw a soul as we ambled along the broad, tree-lined streets, admired the handsome Capitol grounds, and meandered past sweet old bungalows and stately Victorians. Restaurants, shops, and museums were mostly open; often we were their only customers. Their proprietors and staff could hardly have greeted us with more enthusiasm if we actually had been the last humans on the planet.
Sadly, the Dive Bar featuring professional mermaids (yes, I mean women dressed as mermaids) that Rich and I visited in 2016 was closed due to Covid. And the once-famous Zombie Walks died out somewhere around 2017. When I broke the bad news to our group a few days before departure, Pete replied, “No mermaids? No zombies? Why bother?”
Even without those attractions, we managed to find plenty to occupy us, including the Railroad Museum, dinner on the deck of the Delta King riverboat (now a haunted hotel), and a Local Roots Food Tour culminating in what was possibly the best gelato I’ve ever had (yes, even compared to Italy’s). We had drinks in the Citizen Hotel’s Scandal Lounge, it’s dark corners and old-school furnishings artfully arranged to make us feel like corrupt politicians making shady deals with nefarious characters. Full disclosure: we stayed at the Citizen and didn’t see anyone who appeared the slightest bit nefarious. Very disappointing, obviously.
Our last stop was The California Museum, where we were greeted by a large wooden bear wearing a mask (which will presumably be ceremoniously removed on June 15). I became immersed in exhibits about the contributions and hardships of Asian Americans in my state, and that’s when things got very real. I grew up hearing stories about the abuses heaped on Chinese railway workers and later upon Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II, but standing in front of those displays, I grew increasingly sad and ashamed. I read the first-person stories, saw a recreation of the pitiful cramped barracks in the internment camps (where a good friend of mine spent her teenage years), and absorbed the full details of the xenophobic laws defining Asian Americans as second class citizens. Employers exploiting foreign workers encouraged racism in the community, laying the groundwork for generations of prejudice and today’s Asian hate crimes.
On one wall was a video of George Takei, known to Star Trek fans as Mr. Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise. “I am the grandson of immigrants from Japan who went to America, boldly going to a strange new world, seeking new opportunities. My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. They met and married in Los Angeles, and I was born there,” he says. “I spent my boyhood behind the barbed wire fences of American internment camps.”
Still reeling from those images, I found myself in an exhibit inviting me to become a “unity activist.” What’s that, you ask? It’s about celebrating diversity, organizing the community to protect human rights, and defending the value all people. Amen to that! There were photos of Native Americans occupying Alcatraz fifty years ago, the protest that led to the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and people who, like the grumpmaster I wrote about last week, refuse to be defined by their gender, ethnicity, or physical appearance. Fairly radical stuff for a museum that’s partly funded by taxpayer dollars! I had my photo taken holding a poster about equality, proud to take my place as a permanent part of the unity activist exhibition.
All in all, we had a grand time in Sacramento, even if we didn’t see the Delta King’s ghost, hobnob with nefarious politicians, or encounter large numbers of fellow humans. After June 15, I expect things will get livelier. In the meantime Rich and I are busy planning other road trips to visit family in various parts of the state. Up to now I hadn’t considered a detour to Lake Tahoe, but I might have to revise that. “Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe,” wrote Mark Twain, “would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator.” I can’t think of a better way than that to jump start post-pandemic life, can you?
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“Democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
“If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
“The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”
Charles de Gaulle
Who doesn’t love a zingy wisecrack from a seasoned curmudgeon? In fact, grumpsters — or even ordinary folks experiencing a cranky moment — have a way of breaking through social constraints to voice sentiments we normally don’t dare express. My husband (and I say this lovingly and gratefully) does not have a natural gift for grumpiness. In fact, he’s usually a pretty cheerful, even-tempered guy. But this week he studied at the feet of grumpmaster Rabih Alameddine in the online seminar Five Things I've Learned About Being Grumpy. Rich picked up some useful pointers, and in an exclusive interview at our breakfast table shared some of his newfound insights.
“What do you mean by ‘grumpy’?” I asked.
“Contrarian,” he replied. “I think one of the benefits of being grumpy is the ability to honestly express yourself rather than complying with the norms of society. As I learned in the happiness course, it’s impossible to be happy all the time. But we Americans are always told to put on a happy face. If I find somebody who is grumpy, I try to cheer them up or solve the problem. But sometimes people need to wallow in their grumpiness.”
“Can grumpiness go too far?”
“Sure. It can turn mean. Look at Archie Bunker.” (For younger readers, Archie was the bigoted dad in the 70s sitcom All in the Family. We all chuckled over his malapropisms such as “We’re just sweeping dirty dishes under the rug,” and “Don’t draw me no diaphragms.” But his more abusive remarks, such as constantly telling his wife, “Stifle yourself!” made us cringe.)
“Grumpiness can cut off communication," Rich said. "For example, if you bring up climate change with a grumpy person, they might say, ‘We’re all screwed anyway, so who cares?’ Or ‘What a bunch of baloney!’ It can be just another way of saying ‘Leave me alone’ because they’re afraid of verbalizing the existence of a very difficult subject.” He reflected a moment. “On the other hand, grumpiness can open up conversations. People have a tendency to give an answer they think the other person will like — or at least not be offended by. If you’re a grumpy person, you’re an outsider who gives yourself permission to tell people what you think without caring what the reaction is going to be.”
An honest outsider’s perspective is, according to Alameddine, vital for our own survival and society’s wellbeing. That's why they had court jesters back in the day. “I was lucky enough to be born weird; I never fit in,” he says. “Being a bit off center allowed me to see the center a bit more clearly.” He explains every society has a dominant culture that defines what’s OK and what’s not, creating expectations about the roles we play and how we interact with one another. This is useful for creating a stable society but has serious downsides, too.
“Why limit myself?” Alameddine asks. “Why is being gay what defines me? Why is being five feet four what defines me? Why is being Lebanese what defines me?” While identities can give us a comfortable sense of belonging, they can also be restrictive, making it impossible to be our whole selves. To fit in with society’s preconceived notions, we often, in Archie Bunker’s words, “stifle ourselves.” We might, for instance, be keeping a leash on our inner wild woman, the part of us that secretly longs to quit our job, hitchhike a thousand miles, dance naked in the rain with strangers, and speak the truth when it matters.
It’s human nature to fit people into pigeonholes, then think that gives us insight into their psyches. As a gay novelist writing about characters with diverse proclivities, Alameddine was amazed how some critics leapt to outrageous false assumptions about his personal life. “My idea of rough sex,” he says, “is sleeping on sheets with less than 600 thread count.”
Identifying with any group immediately separates the world into us and them. “Every identity is also a horror,” says Italian scholar Claudio Magris, “because it owes its existence to tracing a border and rebuffing whatever is on the other side.”
Fortunately, borders are permeable; we can cross them, although it isn't easy. “When you leave the comfort of boundaries,” Alameddine advises, “go gently. Try to discover rather than laying claim.” This is a lesson learned by every expat. When we leave the comfort of home to live in a foreign land, we become aliens. It takes patience, luck, an open heart, a delicate touch, and plenty of bellyflops and pratfalls to make even a tenuous place for ourselves abroad, especially when living among those who have known each other since baptism.
The bottom line, says Rich, is “Be fearless.” Embracing your inner grump is one way of claiming your birthright as a complex person living on your own terms.
The Buddhists put it this way: “Show up. Be present to the moment. Tell the truth as you know it. Have no attachment to outcome.”
This doesn’t mean we have to turn into caustic Archie Bunkers, or start slinging zingers like Dorothy Parker, or develop the kind of barbed wit that led comedian Oscar Levant, when asked about his morning routine, to say, “First I brush my teeth, then I sharpen my tongue.” How we find our freedom and nurture our souls is up to us. “If you don’t want to be grumpy,” says Alameddine, “be Happy, be Sleepy, be Dopey, be any of the Seven Dwarves. Just be more than one identity. Be greater than these limited identities.” And if that doesn’t work for you, he adds, then “blow it out your ear, get off my lawn, and bah humbug!”
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There are few things that make me feel more at home than chaos in the kitchen. Having grown up in a large, boisterous family and hosted countless pot-luck dinners, I love the hubbub, companionship, and delicious meals that somehow miraculously result from the combined efforts of an excessive number of cooks working feverishly in a confined space. It’s one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic and was overjoyed to experience again on Friday.
My friend Kathryn organized the whole thing, and emails flew back and forth for weeks. My last to her said, “Rich is sharpening the knives!” It was only after hitting “send” that it struck me as sounding a bit ominous — the sort of sentence traditionally followed by, “We’re going to the mattresses!”
Luckily we were prepping for a very different kind of occasion: a Zoom course in making Pad Thai, the stir-fry noodle dish that’s a beloved staple of Thai cuisine. Kathryn, her husband Pete, Rich, and I were cooking at our house, while six other friends plus a handful of strangers around the country were joining in via Zoom, letting us all chat with each other as well as the chef.
Although there were only four of us physically present in my kitchen, we managed to make as much fuss and noise as a small army. I kept glancing down, vaguely surprised no dogs or small children had materialized underfoot. The chatter from our online classmates created a nice background buzz as we chopped and stirred and called out, “Where’s the fish sauce?” and “Who has my pandan leaves?”
The truly brilliant part of the Cuiline cooking courses is that they mail you all the hard-to find components, such as proper rice noodles, dried shrimp, and palm sugar, which are all pre-measured and shipped from a supplier here in the US. You then go to your local market for the ordinary ingredients, like fresh shrimp and bananas, and follow detailed written instructions with onscreen guidance from a professional chef in whatever country the dish hails from. (See link to Chef Rachel's recipes below.)
As I decanted the fish sauce into a mixing bowl, I wrinkled my nose at the fermented anchovy smell (the subject of many revolting comparisons such as wet dog, stinky feet, and zombies). Yes, truly a smell only its mother could love, but a dash does add a piquant depth to the dish, as do the crunchy, salty dried shrimp. I carefully refrained from describing to Kathryn and Pete how I’d once seen villagers drying that kind of shrimp in Vietnam. It was shortly after the rainy season, and dry land was in short supply, so each family threw down a tarp on the main street and spread out the catch of the day. You could just about maneuver a small car down the middle, but if you met an oncoming vehicle, somebody would have to swerve over and drive on the shrimp; I watched it happen, with something akin to horror. To this day, I can’t help feeling the crunchy chewiness of dried shrimp owes something to road grit and rubber tires.
This was not, I felt, a memory to share with Kathryn and Pete just before we all sat down to a dish laced with dried shrimp. Nor was it the moment for Rich’s “that time I ate bad shrimp in rural Mexico” story, which I felt sure he was working up to as Pete trimmed the tails off a pile of glistening raw crustaceans. I shot Rich that “don’t you dare” look all married couples perfect over the years.
Actually the story does have a happy ending. I’ll pass over the four days of active torment in the tiny rural hotel, during which Rich subsisted on Coca-Cola and crackers, and I reread the same paperback three times. Finally a concerned neighbor gave me the name of the doctor serving this remote, rural district and suggested it was time for Rich to get professional help. When I broached the subject, Rich sat bolt upright in bed, saying, with more animation than he’d shown in days, “NO! Absolutely not. I’m feeling lots better.” In minutes he was dressed, within hours he was walking around, and the next day we resumed our journey. Sometimes, a good scare is the best miracle cure.
Even without the bad-shrimp story, we had plenty to talk about. Rich and I had visited Thailand several times, most notably in 1992 when we took a long trek into the hinterlands. We began the trip at a modest Bangkok hotel full of cheap wood paneling and scruffy backpackers sprawled on sofas, then headed north. There we hiked through hill tribe villages, sleeping rough, if at all. One memorable night we laid out our sleeping bags on a bamboo porch, unaware that the village pigs and dogs would spend the next five hours waging an epic battle just underneath, vying for the privilege of bedding down a few inches below our bodies in what was apparently a particularly choice patch of dust.
Pretty soon our state of scruffiness made the hotel backpackers look as if they were spiffed up for the Ascot opening race. We spent long, hot, days hiking and only marginally cooler evenings in villages where, this being the dry season, water was scarce and little of it could be wasted on washing.
Eventually we wound up on a river in a rice barge, where we were invited to make use of the onboard shower.
When the propeller fell off our boat, we limped into a tiny, riverside village. As repairs proceeded at a leisurely pace, I treated myself to the luxury of having my hair washed and combed dry at the local salon.
Eventually we returned to Bangkok, entering our lodgings by a back door. “Wow, will you look at how fancy this place is?” I said to Rich, admiring the glossy paneling and roomy sofas. Then my perspective shifted, and I realized with a shock that it was the same downscale hotel we’d stayed in a week earlier. Only now it no longer seemed frumpy but luxurious, with clean sheets, hot showers, and no squabbling livestock within earshot.
It’s been some years since I traveled that rough, and I certainly don't miss the discomfort. But I do look forward, one day, to getting back on the road and discovering more of the world. Last Friday was a wonderful reminder that even if I can’t journey far and wide right now, I can join convivial companions in smaller, more domestic adventures. One of my favorite sayings is that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful. Or, as the Thai people put it, อย่ายึดวันเพียงแค่จี้ท้อง meaning “Don’t seize the day, just tickle its belly.” I’m still pondering the profound significance of that saying, which is no doubt wise advice, especially when dealing with village dogs and pigs.
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It happened at the Punjab burrito place in a nearby village. I was so delighted to see it had finally reopened that I didn’t stop to consider whether, after a year of homecooked food, I was ready for the onslaught of their trademark Indian-Mexican spices. Yowser! Zowie! Boing! When I could speak again, I groaned to Rich, “Yogurt, must have…” I staggered inside and begged for dairy to cool the pain, and it was only as the cook placed two small containers of plain yogurt in my palms that I realized I had failed to put my face mask back on.
If I had stepped out of an airlock into deep space without my helmet, I could hardly have been more horrified.
I stammered an apology and fled. But then a curious thing happened. I realized it probably didn’t matter. For 14 months I’d assumed the slightest slip up — scratching my nose with unsanitized hands, leaning in to chat with a neighbor, letting my mask slide downwards — could result in hideous illness and gruesome death. But the stakes have changed. Here in Marin County, CA, 68% of us over the age of 15 are fully vaxxed, and 85% have received the first dose. The odds of surviving a 20-second exchange with a cook in an otherwise deserted restaurant? Pretty damn good. But I still felt terrible about forgetting my mask.
Navigating the shifting social taboos is more complicated than I ever expected. When all this started, I vaguely anticipated that someday there would be a joyful moment when we were declared officially safe and could emerge from isolation into rip-roaring celebration. This week, a friend sent me this ad, which captures the zany thrill of my fantasy.
That fantasy seems as far off now as it did a year ago. Even those of us who are lucky enough to be in areas stumbling toward herd immunity find ourselves in as much chaos and confusion as ever. Every friend, neighbor, and health official seems to hold strong yet differing opinions on safety protocols. For instance, around here, most people are still wearing masks outside, even though the CDC says we no longer have to in most circumstances, whether or not we're vaccinated.
A few days ago, seeing a masked woman approaching on the sidewalk in front of my house, I put on my mask as a courtesy. She said “Thank you,” in a clipped tone that suggested it was the very least I could do, and why wasn’t I wearing it as I walked out my door? There wasn’t time to pull up the CDC guidelines on my phone as she zipped past, or to show her the NY Times report that said, "There is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table."
Misunderstandings abound whenever society shifts gears, leading to endless muddle and mayhem. According to author William Bridges, transitions occur in three phases: ending, the neutral zone, and beginning. “We cannot move forward until we have let go of who we have been, and what has been, in the past,” wrote Danya Ruttenburg in the Washington Post. “Only after we spend some time in the neutral zone does the beginning of our new selves, our new way of being in the world, emerge in earnest. The neutral zone is a time of unknowns. A time when you’ve left one thing and don’t know what will happen next. A time of terror, of possibility, of creativity, of openness, of uncertainty … That’s terrifying. But it can also be so potent, so powerful. Ripe. No doors have been closed. We are not quite at the end of this pandemic. But we’re starting to see what the neutral zone might look like.”
It seems to me something called the neutral zone really ought to be a little less terrifying, but OK, I’ll try to embrace it. “Stories are emerging, as the world begins to reopen,” wrote the AP’s Kelli Kennedy, “people secretly dreading each milestone toward normalcy, envisioning instead anxiety-inducing crowds and awkward catch-up conversations. Even small tasks outside the home — a trip to the grocery store, or returning to the office — can feel overwhelming. Psychologists call it re-entry fear, and they're finding it more common as headlines herald the imminent return to post-pandemic life.”
In a pandemic that's already exceeded our most paranoid fantasies, how are we supposed to cope with yet another period of uncertainty?
One woman suggests “voodoo effect” cooking. “Sometimes, busting through your stress is as simple as reasserting your dominance at the top of the food chain,” wrote Tucker Cummings in Lifehack. “Maybe it’s a little dark, but chopping veggies and butchering chickens can really take the edge off of even the most stressful days. Have a big fight with your boss? Pretend that carrot is his car and go to town on it. By using your ingredients like voodoo dolls, you’ll find that cutting through a couple of pounds of food has really calmed you down.” Yikes! That does sound a little dark. But potentially very therapeutic. Just don’t get carried away when you’re handling sharp knives. If you find yourself enjoying it too much, put down your weapons and step away from the cutting board.
Give yourself time to transition, advises Miami psychiatrist Dr. Arthur Bregman, who calls fear of emerging from lockdown “cave syndrome.” After the 1918 influenza, he notes, 40% of the population had what we’d now call PTSD. “It took 10 years for the people to get out of this.”
Ten years? I’m hoping for a slightly quicker fix than that. And Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has one. They recently surveyed 6000 people and learned daily gardening improves wellbeing scores by 6.6% and reduces stress levels by 4.2%. Those with health issues reported gardening eased episodes of depression (13%), boosted their energy (12%), and reduced stressed-out feelings (16%). As the Good News Network put it, “It certainly sounds like it’s time to get your Vitamin ‘G’ on.” Since Rich refers to gin by that nickname, I immediately pictured him with a trowel in one hand and a G&T in the other, and yes, he did look pretty zippity-do-dah!
Whatever therapies you find most helpful, the first step is accepting that emerging from the pandemic — whenever it finally happens — isn’t going to be as easy or quick as we’d hoped. In fact, it’s going to be another tricky, messy, tumultuous time, and there will be days when the only thing that makes sense is hacking up defenseless tomatoes until your kitchen looks like the lair of a serial killer in a particularly noir thriller. But if we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that we can survive disruption, uncertainty, and extraordinary challenges. Yes, we can. We already have.
I recently had coffee with friends Ang and Ryan, who run a location-independent t-shirt business and are now creating stickers, posters, and murals. They're giving away lots for free, partly as a marketing strategy and partly, Ang explained, because they're about things that need to be said — and heard — right now.
“Like what?” I asked. Ang handed me this one.
I look at it every day and feel grateful, because I know it's true.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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