Shopping for Luggage

One of the fun things about moving to Greece is that we are desperately in need of new luggage. Most of our current motley assortment of luggage has traveled many thousands of miles, been sat on, spilled on, overstuffed, and bumped down countless flights of stairs and cobblestone streets.

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When we first moved to Italy in 2008, we had a total of fourteen bags of all sizes and descriptions. I vividly remember being at the airport, and dragging suitcase after suitcase over to be loaded on the conveyor belt. Miraculously, they didn’t charge us extra. Remember the good old days when it was actually kind of hard to pack enough stuff into even a large suitcase to go over the weight limit? Sure, it was hard on everybody’s backs, but you could take pretty much whatever you wanted on vacation.

My, how times have changed. Nowadays, with airline baggage regulations getting tighter all the time, every bag had better have the perfect dimensions down to the centimeter and the perfect weight, down to the gram.

Which led us on Saturday to drive down to the outlets on International Drive in Orlando armed with a tape measure and luggage dimensions for the two airlines we’ll be flying to Greece next March (Norwegian and Easyjet). I threw in the measurements for Ryanair as well, since I figured if our bags were kosher for Ryanair, they’d be kosher for any airline. Yes, the measurements for each airline are slightly different.

I reproduce the measurements here, on the off-chance that someone else might benefit from having them collected in one place. Measurements are in centimeters, since we are talking about flying European carriers.

EasyJet Cabin Luggage

Option 1: ONE piece of cabin baggage no bigger than 50 x 40 x 20cm including handles and wheels. Guaranteed to always travel with you in the cabin.

Option 2: ONE piece of cabin baggage within our maximum allowed size limitations, 56 x 45 x 25cm including handles and wheels. On some busy flights your bag may have to go into the hold, at no extra cost.

EasyJet Hold Luggage

Each individual item of hold luggage should not exceed total dimensions of 275cm (length + width + height), except for sporting and medical equipment.

Standard hold baggage allowance is 20kg per bag. Minimum of 1 hold bag per passenger is required to trigger the baggage allowance of 20kg.

Ryanair Cabin Luggage

One cabin bag weighing up to 10 kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, plus 1 small bag up to 35 x 20 x 20 cms may be carried per passenger*.

Ryanair Hold Luggage

15kg or 20 kg (different prices)

For health and safety reasons Ryanair does not accept for carriage any individual item exceeding 32 kilos or with combined dimensions of more than 81cms (height), 119cms (width) and 119cms (depth).

Norwegian Cabin Luggage

One item of hand baggage (max 10kg – 55x40x23cm) in addition to one small personal item onboard the aircraft. Your personal item (e.g. small handbag or laptop case) must fit comfortably under the seat in front of you.

NOTE: When travelling to/from Dubai, your hand baggage must not exceed 8kg in total weight.

Norwegian Hold Luggage

We accept individual items up to: length 250cm, height 79cm, width 112cm. The total circumference (L+H+W) must not exceed 300 cm. 20 kg weight limit.

To Spin or Not to Spin

Conveniently located in one parking lot were Ross, TJ Maxx, DD’s, and two luggage shops with very insistent salespeople and a distinctly Central American vibe. We started out with Ross, and were immediately confronted with our first choice: spinner wheels or not. If you have bought luggage during the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that spinner wheels are all the rage.

I don’t know who came up with the term “spinner wheels” (it gives at least me a mental picture of someone spinning madly around the airport with a suitcase as counter-balance–probably due to the fact that I have children to whom that activity would occur). All wheels spin, of course, but these wheels spin horizontally as well as vertically. They distribute the weight of the bag evenly even when you’re moving with them, and you can easily move the bags along in any direction without tipping them. I can see how this would definitely be useful when turning corners or inching along in a passport line.

However, there are also some equally obvious disadvantages. First many of the wheels we looked at were pitifully small and flimsy-looking. The idea of them bumping along on cobblestone streets or unpaved roads (both, unfortunately, places I have taken rolling bags) did not inspire confidence. Sturdiness is a serious criterion for me when it comes to luggage, and we generally opt for large, solid-looking wheels.

Second, and possibly more important, spinner wheels have the distinct disadvantage of making your bag taller without increasing the space inside it. Here, for example, are two bags that both fit within all the above airlines’ measurements for carry-on bags.

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You can see right off that the bag on the left would give you at least 25% more space.

A Note about Dimensions and Weight

Extra space is especially important for carry-on luggage, since most airlines (Ryanair excluded) won’t actually weigh your carry-on bag, even if they do have a posted weight limit. In fact, one of Easyjet’s major marketing ploys is that they have no weight limit for carry-on bags. This is both an obvious jab at Ryanair and a practical advantage for the majority of their customers, who travel without checked-in baggage. You’ll notice that Easyjet also gives another nod to baggage planning by having a smaller dimension that is guaranteed to always travel in the cabin, and a larger carry-on dimension that will be checked without charge if space doesn’t permit.

For checked-in luggage, unless your packed belongings are made entirely of styrofoam, you don’t need to worry about the dimensions at all, as the maximums are typically gigantic. Here, weight is the limiting factor. So large check-in bags are not really worth buying if you plan to travel by air. I’ve sadly had to retire a gorgeous, high-quality bag I snagged years ago for $10 at a thrift store because it’s so huge that #1 I could only pack it halfway full and meet the weight limit and #2 It weighs like fifteen pounds empty. Still, we refrained from buying the “World’s Lightest Luggage,” which weighed only five pounds and looked like it might fall apart after one trip.

There were some other, weirder luggage innovations, including this one, a handle thoughtfully adapted for people with three hands.

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We spent most of our time with the tape measure out, measuring carry-ons. Eventually it turned into a sort of existentialist version of Goldilocks and the 500 bags: “This bag is too high at the head. And this bag is too high at the foot.” Most of the bags were either too tall (some by ten centimeters or more) or too fat, especially at the bottom, where the wheels tended to widen out the bag. All the airline websites specifically stipulate that wheels and handles are included in the maximum measurements. Strangely, we found only one bag that took advantage of the full 40 cm of width. Most bags were 36 cm at the most. We would discover why later.

Hard-Sided vs. Soft-Sided

I confess that I did zero research on this question, and went with my gut. We only even considered soft-sided luggage. I had several reasons, among which:

  • Soft-sided luggage is both expandable–which gives you a bigger space inside if you need it, and contractible–meaning it has some “give” to it and can be squished into small or slightly irregular-shaped spaces (such as the little box you have to stuff it in to prove that it is indeed regulation size for the airline).
  • Most of the hard-sided suitcases were rounded on the front, which would make it pretty difficult to stack anything on top of them on a luggage cart or in a car, or anywhere else. If you did stack something on top of them, the weight wouldn’t be evenly distributed, leading to a higher chance of breakage.
  • The hard-sided luggage we were looking at (and granted, we were not looking at high-end luggage) seemed pretty thin and flimsy. One of the big upsides of hard-sided luggage is that it tends to be very light, but there’s such a thing as too light. We tend to end up sitting on our bags at some time during most long journeys, and at any rate they’ll be stacked in precarious towers and thrown about by the airline. The ones we looked at seemed very accident-prone.
  • We are pretty good packers, and tend to use clothes and other soft items to cushion breakables. Also, we don’t typically transport expensive breakables, or messy stuff like wine and olive oil. When we do, we use multiple layers of ziploc bags to prevent spillage. So the extra protection afforded by hard-sided luggage wasn’t as important to us, and besides, if the bag breaks (see above), it won’t protect your stuff anyway.
  • We’re used to fabric luggage, and we like it.

If you have hard-sided luggage, I’d be interested to know how well it has performed, and whether you like it.

What We Picked in the End

We did end up choosing luggage, after at least two visits to every single store. Unfortunately, I was the only one in the family fantasizing about sophisticated-looking matching luggage. The children’s primary consideration was color (the brighter the better), and Tony was becoming obsessive about what was looking like the latest incarnation of his personal luggage. We eventually determined that we’d compromise by getting four identical check-in bags and letting each person pick his or her own carry-on luggage. Axa and Raj chose the same bag, but in hot pink and neon green respectively. Tony found a really posh bag that was by far the biggest carry-on that approximated the stipulated dimensions (mainly because it was a full 40 cm wide). Since I wanted matching bags more than I wanted any specific bag, I chose one identical to his.

For our large bags, we were especially wary of small, puny wheels, which unfortunately were abundant in both the two-wheeled and four-wheeled spinner varieties. We did, however, find some with large, wheels and sturdy construction. They weigh 3.5 kilos apiece, and they’re bright orange, which Tony loves because it makes them easy to spot on the luggage claim carousel. Here are the receptacles for what will soon be all our worldly possessions (yes, you can see that Axa and Raj matched their bags to their Halloween candy pumpkins).

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It was only on the way home that we thought to look up the luggage dimensions for United, the airline we’re flying next month when we go visit our parents in California for Christmas. The verdict? 55 x 35 x 22 cm. So now we know why it’s so difficult to find bags that are 40 cm wide. And now we have carry-on bags that won’t work for U.S. travel. Oh well. Complete perfection is hard to attain.

Drawing on Glass

I think it’s time for an update on my drawing career. When last we met, I was turning off my left brain (aka the Monkey Mind) by drawing things upside down to let my gloriously creative and visual right brain take over the drawing. Here’s upside down Spiderman (although upside down is probably right side up for Spiderman). Raj and Axa were very impressed with this drawing.

Spiderman

And then here’s this drawing of a sixteenth century horse and rider, also drawn upside down, although it got a little blurry in the photograph.

Horse and Rider

Next we were supposed to draw a remembered childhood landscape. As in, you know how kids always draw that cute drawing with the house and the sun? I was supposed to recreate that, as I used to draw it as a child. The thing is, I’ve seen so many of my children’s childhood landscapes in the meantime that I can’t remember what mine used to look like, except that they always featured rainbows in the clouds. After I put in the rainbow and the cloud, though, I realized I had no more room for the sun, so it ended up under the rainbow. Here’s my attempt, which I drew with a charcoal pencil because I’d never tried one before.

Recalled Childhood Landscape

And this is an example of one of Axa’s early landscapes. She was probably about four at the time. You can see why I would forget mine. Do you LOVE the hair on her and Raj? I remember that her houses were always levitating off the ground. Probably a psychological manifestation of how many times she had moved in her young life. Also, I think the house is meant to be me, and the tree is Tony. Do you notice how we’re all holding hands? And do you love the architecturally fantastic corner windows?

The next exercise in the book was called “Pure Contour Drawing.” That is, drawing without looking at the paper. The assignment was to draw the lines in your hand while staring continuously at your hand, and strictly avoiding even a glance at the paper. Fortunately, the author said not to worry if the drawing looked nothing like a hand. Mine certainly didn’t. It did, however, look very similar to the examples in the book, so I guess that’s something. Apparently this is a crucial exercise to help complete the transition to right-brained drawing. I hope it worked, because the drawing is none too impressive as a work of art.

Pure Contour Drawing

 

Next the author promised we would do our first “real” drawing. To accomplish it, we were supposed to draw on a piece of glass with a viewfinder (rectangular “frame” made out of cardboard) clipped to it. I stole a piece of glass out of one of the pictures on our wall, and taped a plastic overhead transparency onto it, because I was afraid the marker wouldn’t come off. Here’s a picture of the setup:

viewfinder

 

I clipped my viewfinder (cut from a wheat thins box) onto the glass, balanced the glass on my hand, looked at my hand through the viewfinder and drew, or really traced, the image of my hand onto the glass. The book said it was a good idea to hold something, and I thought a string of pearls might be good, although it ended up being kind of complicated to draw.

Glass Drawing

Using the two viewfinder lines (vertical and horizontal), as a guide,  I eyeballed transferring the outline onto my paper. Then I kept my hand in the same position and drew it again, this time on the paper.

Here’s the result:

Modified Contour Drawing 2

It wasn’t dramatically amazing, but I can definitely see an improvement in perspective and realism from my first drawing of a hand. For this next one, I was supposed to do a “toned” ground by lightly rubbing a graphite stick over the entire paper before starting the drawing. I don’t think my drawing set has a graphite stick, but it does have a charcoal stick, so I used that. And then I rubbed it all over with a paper towel, which did actually create a nice silvery background. I drew this hand using the same method as described above, making sure to cross my fingers that the drawing would come out well.

Modified Contour Drawing 1

I think I made the fingers unrealistically long and slender. While I am actually a pianist, I don’t have the sort of hands that people automatically assume are meant to play the piano; my fingers are rather diminutive, just like the rest of me. But I like the way the drawing turned out, even if it looks like somebody else’s hand.

In fact, I continue to be very impressed by my drawing bible, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I am almost halfway through it, and my drawing skills are measurably improving. I notice it not only when I’m drawing, but also in the way I look at things. I find myself looking for negative space, and noticing the way the highway and sky converge on themselves in perfect inverted triangles at the horizon on my commute to work. Part of me has forgotten that I am just learning how to draw so that I can learn to paint, and enjoying the drawing all for itself. It’s an absorbing way to relax and take a break from life, and I’m increasingly more satisfied with the results of my efforts. Maybe I have a real artist inside myself after all.

Mormon Polygamy and Joseph Smith

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During the past week, the Bloggernacle (a loose term for the Mormon blogosphere, and by extension, the online Mormon community in general) has been all abuzz about several new articles on the Church’s official website dealing with the topic of polygamy. Most Mormons have had the unpleasant experience of hastily explaining to intrigued or confrontational outsiders that polygamy happened a long time ago, and we don’t do it anymore, possibly followed by the assurance that the purpose of polygamy back then was to care for destitute widows and orphans.

As with most aspects of Mormon history (well, really most aspects of history in general), the truth is something more complicated. Here’s the Cliff Notes version, in case you’re not familiar with the Mormon church, or grew up like me, in a family and church community where these sorts of things were hushed up:

Joseph Smith married over thirty women. Most of these marriages were contracted without the knowledge and/or consent of his first wife, Emma. Several of the marriages were to teenage girls; the youngest was fourteen. Some of the women were married to other men at the time. The women were typically promised salvation and exaltation for themselves and their families if they married him. The whole thing happened in secret, as Joseph was simultaneously denying the practice publicly , and even preaching sermons against it.

Releasing these essays is certainly a step in the right direction. Sticky historical points ought to be acknowledged and talked about. The justificatory tone of the essays, as well as their glossing over of the worst bits, is somewhat disappointing. While there is plenty of discussion of the alleged nobility of Joseph Smith’s motives, there is relatively little about the women involved, many of whom entered into polygamy with him at great personal and social cost to themselves. In fact, most of their names are not even mentioned, which seems to me to be the ultimate insult–they made an incredible sacrifice for polygamy, and we honor their sacrifice by forgetting their names. On the bright side, at least now we are acknowledging their existence, which is a positive step. Church manuals focused on the early Mormon prophets up till now have often erased their polygamous wives from their biographies, sometimes choosing to include only the first wife, and mentioning successive wives only if they were married after the first wife had died. Perhaps this can be the beginning of remembering these women as well.

Bizarrely, the lds.org’s general section on Joseph Smith actually also includes a few paragraphs on his family life, but there is mention of only one unnamed wife (presumably Emma), and no discussion of the heartbreak and humiliation she experienced as he secretly married dozens of other women, many of them her friends, employees, and tenants. The article simply states rosily,

 

One of the later Prophets of the Church told the members, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This statement came more than a century after Joseph Smith died, but Joseph exemplified this idea all his life.

. . .

Joseph lived the doctrine he preached—that strengthening our families should be an important focus of our lives.”

Hagiography at its finest. A more complete, balanced, and factual approach to Joseph Smith’s polygamy and its devastating effects on Emma and their marriage (as well as a great many other fascinating insights into his life and character) can be found in Richard Bushman’s excellent biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. If you would like to know more about the extraordinary and courageous women who married Joseph Smith, the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog recently did a beautiful, well-researched series called Remembering the Forgotten Women of Joseph Smith. And while I can’t necessarily endorse the scholarship or impartiality of the new LDS.org articles, they can be found at the following links: Main article on Polygamy; Kirtland Period; Utah Period; The End of Polygamy.

I honor my many pioneer ancestors who accepted and lived polygamy out of the goodness and faith of their hearts. I am deeply sympathetic to the women who lived in loneliness because of it. I’m happy for those relative few who because of polygamy were able to break out of traditional 19th century norms for women and become doctors and other professionals while their sister wives were home minding the children (and only hope that the sister wives were also happy with the arrangement). All their stories should be told, and I’m glad we’re no longer hiding them away as if they were a shameful secret.

I’m not in a position to judge or even know about what all of the early women of Mormonism felt about polygamy. It is clear from the historical record that many of them were devoted to the principle of it, and some even found happiness in its practice, although others reported lives of loneliness, neglect, and conflict. Where polygamy really gets sticky for me is in its modern application, and with that I have some experience and firsthand knowledge. Mormons are quick to say that we no longer practice polygamy. However, when Mormons are sealed (married) in the Temple, it is intended to be for this life and for eternity. We tend to take “happily ever after” quite literally, at least for men. If a man gets a divorce or is widowed and decides to remarry, he remains “sealed” to the first wife, as well as being sealed to the second. The expectation, both implied and frequently stated in Mormon conversations, is that he will have multiple wives in heaven. “Eternal polygamy” is also invoked as a “solution” for women who never marry in this life. In a church that presently adulates “traditional” monogamous marriage, every unmarried Mormon woman I know has been told not to worry, because she will be added to the wives of a righteous man after she dies. Not surprisingly, not one of them has ever said that this assurance assuages any of their worries; on the contrary, it’s an additional source of pain.

The idea of eternal polygamy is obviously painful for single Mormon women. However, I can report from personal experience that it’s extremely disturbing to a married Mormon women as well to picture my husband eventually taking other wives. It’s not exactly the “happily ever after” I had in mind when I fell in love and promised my husband I’d be faithful to him forever. I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere, so I’ll just say that it’s extremely important that the Mormon church has decided, however stumblingly and however late, to start being more open about polygamy. It is a painful topic that has been talked and prayed and wept over in female spaces within the Mormon Church during all the time that I have been a member.

In fact, my impetus for writing this blog post was a post on Feminist Mormon Housewives today, entitled A Personal History of Polygamy. “Somehow polygamy comes up,” says the author. “(Why does it always come up when we LDS women talk?)” It’s a great series of snapshots showing the uneasy place polygamy occupies in the collective psyche of Mormon women. Her experience mirrors my own. We cope as best we can, with uneasy laughter and secret dread. We don’t tend to talk about it in mixed company, because at best we’ll be met with incomprehension, and at worst we’ll be served up misogynist platitudes by male authority figures. And I become more and more convinced that this constant specter of polygamy, which permeates even our most intimate relationships and holiest ordinances, is a microcosm of what it means to be a woman in the Mormon Church.

Weirdly, as I write this, I find myself falling more and more into the first person present. I’ve removed myself for the moment, and maybe forever, from the Mormon Church, but this conversation is so familiar, and so central to spiritual questions with which I have wrestled all my life, that I can pick it up in a heartbeat. I eventually discarded my belief in the divine origin of polygamy, but it took me many years, and a lot of anguished questions.

Thankfully, my daughter won’t have to deal with this particular brand of institutionalized sexism, or the resultant cognitive dissonance; that’s one of the reasons I’ve left. Even if she decides to go back to the Mormon Church sometime–and I’ll support her in it if she does, as I will in any religious choice she makes–she won’t have grown up with her parents, seminary teachers, bishops, and everyone she knows and trusts unconditionally justifying the polygamy of the early Mormon prophets as divinely mandated, and telling her she will, or at least might, have to be a polygamous wife herself someday. For the sake of all the other little girls growing up Mormon (and grown-up women like me, who really could use some closure), I hope that these new essays are the beginning of an increasingly honest and open discussion about polygamy in the Mormon Church, both past and present.

photo credit

Finding Cheap Flights to Europe (aka Travel Agent Extraordinaire)

Cheap flights to Europe

I’m not a coupon clipper. I have no particular strategy for saving money, other than the strategy of walking into a store as seldom as possible. Which is actually not a bad strategy. When Tony and I got married a million years ago, we registered at Target. So we ended up with lots of exchanges and gift cards and stuff having to do with Target, and we went to Target at least two or three times a week. Every time we walked into that store, we spent a hundred dollars! At first it was gift cards, which are kind of like fun cash–it doesn’t really feel like you’re spending real money. After we started spending our own, we decided we just needed to stop going to Target. There’s nothing like not going to the store to make you not realize the bewildering amount of stuff you (don’t) need.

But I digress. I’m not a coupon clipper; however, I do excel at one money-saving skill: budget traveling. I can do international travel on a shoestring. It’s not always comfortable, and it’s not always convenient (although since when is anything involving 14-hour plane flights either one of those things?), but it is cheap. And really, you haven’t lived until you’ve debated whether it’s worth it to stay in a mosquito-infested nipa hut with no A/C or add two random legs and a weird layover to your flight itinerary to save fifty bucks. Or maybe that’s just my personal brand of masochism.

At any rate, I love getting good deals on airfare. My challenge this time was one-way tickets to Athens, Greece from Orlando, Florida the week of March 16, 2015. My baseline is usually Kayak.com, since I’ve found it to be the cheapest aggregator, especially for international flights, so I checked there first. Sure enough, they had a flight operated by the Russian carrier Aeroflot. I monitored it for several weeks, and the price fluctuated from $617 per person to $657 per person. There were two stops (New York and Moscow), and counting all the layovers, the total trip time was 39 hours and 35 minutes. So, really long. But cheap, right? In fact, a whole $200 per person cheaper than Expedia’s cheapest pick, a United flight for $817 per person.

Yes. But I was sure I could find cheaper. Because while it might be more convenient to let the airlines combine flight itineraries, it’s not always less expensive. Since this flight is Trans-Atlantic, I think of it in two parts: getting to Europe (anywhere in Europe), and getting to Greece. Theoretically, all I had to do was find a cheap flight across the ocean, and then another cheap flight from somewhere in Europe to Athens. The only constraint was that my flight across the ocean had to end in the same city from which the flight to Greece originated.

I figured I should start with the harder task, which was finding a cheap flight to Europe. So I googled that exact term (“cheap flight to Europe”), and one of the first results to come up was Norwegian. And indeed, when I visited their website, I saw that Norwegian does have very cheap flights from a few North American airports (mostly in Florida, lucky for us) to quite a few different European destinations.

On the getting-to-Greece-from-Europe side, there were even more options. Budget airlines are a big thing in Europe, and when they say budget, they mean budget. Southwest is a luxury airline when you compare it to the likes of Ryanair, our personal nemesis (although also the reason that we have visited beautiful Trieste). Travel on European budget airlines is not for the faint of heart. But it’s been a good six years since our Ryanair debacle, and we are ready to try our luck again. So I popped over to the invaluable Low Cost Airline Guide’s page on Athens. It lists every budget airline that flies into Athens, and from which country. Turns out pretty much everyone in Europe vacations in Greece. Key word “vacation.” A lot of my leads turned into dead ends, because a good percentage of budget airlines that fly to Greece do so only during the high season, between April or May and September or October.

Find Cheap Flights to Europe

In general, there are a few things to watch for when booking with budget airlines:

  • First, everything is an extra. Including checking your bags, meals, seat assignments, and anything else you can think of (I think there was even an infamous incident when a particularly enterprising airline started charging for using the restroom during a flight). If your airline prepares an itinerary with multiple legs, there’s only one baggage charge. But if you use multiple budget carriers to plan your own itinerary, you need to factor in the cost of multiple baggage charges. These typically amount to around $30-$50 each.Traveling with only carry-ons is a great solution, except if you’re moving to Greece with only what’s in your suitcases.
  • Second, many budget carriers only fly certain routes on certain days of the week, so if you’re planning your own itinerary, you might fly in on a Monday, but not be able to fly out until Wednesday. That’s what happened with my hypothetical Paris itinerary. Once I added in the costs of baggage and a couple of nights in a Paris hotel, the total was going to be at least as much as the Aeroflot flight.
  • Third, budget flights, especially to “vacation” destinations in southern Europe, tend to be very seasonal. Even if you initially find a flight on an aggregator, be sure to go straight to the airline’s website. All the budget airlines provide flight calendars so you can determine which days the airline flies to which destinations, during which parts of the year, and exactly what the prices are, and how they change through the week and through the year. The fares are far less volatile than other airlines'; in fact, they tend to be more or less fixed by time of the year and day of the week. It’s the difference between clipping coupons to shop at a regular grocery store, and shopping at Trader Joe’s, which never issues coupons, but does have consistently reasonable prices.
  • Fourth, which airport are you using? Many cities have more than one airport (London, for instance, has six international airports). The budget carriers often use smaller airports located outside the city, or in an adjacent smaller city. Here in Florida, for instance, one can get cheaper flights to Amsterdam flying from the tiny Stanford airport on Icelandair than from the larger Orlando airport. On the other hand, maybe you can drive a couple of hours to a major airport and get a direct flight. The flight we ended up finding is on Norwegian, and departs from Miami, which is a four hour drive from our house, three hours longer than the hour to the Orlando airport. It’s totally worth it, though, because Norwegian’s flight out of Orlando has two stops (and costs over $100 more per person). Our flight doesn’t leave until almost midnight, so we’ll leave for the airport around four in the afternoon, have dinner on the way, and be ready to check in by 9 p.m. or so.
  • Fifth, hub cities are where it’s at. Every budget airline (well, every airline in general) has at least one hub, and flights to and from that city tend to be quite inexpensive. So it’s a case of beginning your trip planning in the middle, rather than the beginning or end. London turned out to be the perfect hub for us. It was one of Norwegian’s cheapest trips (second only to actually flying in to Norway, I think), and there were quite a few budget carriers flying from London to Athens, even in the early spring. Our Norwegian flight is non-stop from Miami to London’s Gatwick Airport. So when I was looking for budget flights from London to Athens, I had to make sure they originated in Gatwick, and not Luton or Stansted, the other budget-friendly London airports. While airport transfer bus routes do exist, they typically have to go all the way through London, and take at least three or four hours, depending on the airports involved. Kayak.com does now include the budget carriers, and several London-Athens flights popped up for under $100 each, mostly on Ryanair and Easyjet. Easyjet was the only one flying from Gatwick, and to my great delight, they had a flight that left 2 1/2 hours after ours arrived. Which leads me to:
  • Sixth, you’ll have to go through passport control and customs between flights if you book your own itinerary, have crossed an international border, and have checked bags. This is kind of a pain. At least we have both EU and American passports, so we can use whichever line is shorter. Which I think is not actually kosher, but might be useful if we’re running late. We’re planning to split up, and have Tony go with one kid to retrieve and re-check the luggage, while I stay with the the other kid and carry-ons “airside” (inside of security and customs–as opposed to “landside,” on the outside of security and customs). The official minimum connection time (MCT) for Gatwick (yes, every airport and airline has these) is two hours, so we should be OK with 2 1/2. Fortunately, Gatwick airport also has a special desk to facilitate these types of non-official connections, so hopefully all will be well.

Anyway. Now that you know the long of it, the short of it is, the four of us will be flying from Florida to Greece for a grand total of $1558. Yes, that comes out to $389 per person. I am pretty impressed with myself.

Here’s the breakdown:

Expedia: Orlando – Washington, D.C. – Zurich – Athens

Total Trip Time: 17.35 hours

Total Cost: $3268 ($817 per person)

 

Kayak: Miami – Moscow – Athens (or Orlando – New York – Moscow – Athens)

Total Trip Time: 36. 15 hours (or 39.35 hours)

Total Cost: $2444 ($612 per person)

 

Me: Miami – London – Athens

Total Trip Time: 15.25 hours

Total Cost: $1558 ($398 per person)

Looks like I win!

photo credits: Miami Airport, Gatwick Luggage Carts

The Lives We Never Live

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I was watching the BBC miniseries Daniel Deronda the other day. Based on the George Eliot novel of the same name (which I’ll have to hunt down and read now), it follows the career of the titular character, who ends up having to choose between two love interests. It’s a beautifully done series, and it’s on Netflix, so if like me, you have a weakness for 19th century period dramas, it’s one of the better ones out there.

Hugh Bonneville is creepily magnificent as the aristocrat who enjoys his domination over others. Romola Garai is brilliant in the role of Gwendolyn Harleth, the young woman who must choose between love and her family’s financial security. She was arguably the most interesting character, and I rather think Eliot could have left out the part about Deronda’s other love interest, and named the book after Harleth. We all love the stories that follow Lizzie Bennet’s injunction, “Do anything rather than marry without affection.” However, the reality for most young women in financial straits in 19th century was that dreamy Mr. Darcy, the perfect gentleman AND in possession of £10,000 per year, did not often come along. Gwendolyn Harleth (whose name, by the way, I think is at least as mellifluous as Mabel Lane Fox) is a sympathetic and compelling character, and it’s hard to really fault her too much for her choices, even as one is horrified by both the choices and their consequences.

But what I wanted to talk about was Daniel Deronda. Hugh Dancy, of course, is handsome and brooding as the good-hearted but troubled Deronda. We meet him as he first catches a glimpse of the lovely Gwendolyn Harleth, losing at billiards, and secretly buys back a necklace she pawns. Later, he rescues the beautiful Jewish singer Mirah Lapidoth from drowning herself in a river, and the stage is set for a love triangle. Only this love triangle is about more than just love. It’s about Daniel Deronda’s quest to discover (and decide) who he really is. Eventually, the choice of whether to pursue Gwendolyn or Mirah becomes more about how Daniel sees himself, and what he wants to do with his life than his feelings for either woman.

In a weird way, Daniel’s dilemma over whom to marry (and by extension, who to be) reminded me of this series of photographs by Czech photographer Dita Pepe, in which she imagined what she would be like married to different men. It was striking to me how different she looked in the different photographs, and what different assumptions I made about her as a person.

Whom to choose as a life partner is certainly an important decision. But in these cases, it serves as a sort of metaphor for the roads we might have taken in our lives, and the people we might have been. I know that I have far more things I’d like to be than lives available to try them. I’d like to be an international human rights lawyer, an artist, a writer, a university professor in comparative literature, history, Middle Eastern Studies, European Studies, 19th century British literature, philosophy, and/or a dozen other subjects, a field biologist, an environmental activist, an editor at a publishing house or a magazine, and an investigative journalist. Those are all things I can picture myself being good at. But there are other things I’d like to try being, even though it’s not easy for me to picture myself being good at them–like a ballet dancer, or a theoretical physicist, or an astronaut.

This is probably also one of the motivating factors in my desire to travel and live in as many different places as possible. Because every new place is kind of a different life, and allows me to explore different facets of who I am.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

Well, I’ve become a believer. This Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain book is quite amazing. Yesterday I drew this:

My Picasso Upside Down

OK, I know that looks weird. It’s upside down. But that’s how I drew it, per the book’s instructions. It’s a copy of this sketch of the composer Stravinsky by Picasso.

Picasso

Here’s mine again, right side up this time.

My Picasso

Obviously, I’m no Picasso. But it’s the closest thing to an actual person that I’ve ever drawn in my life. Aside from the fact that I gave him a pinhead, he actually looks pretty good. And I’m reasonably certain I could never have drawn him this well right side up.

Why? Well, the whole premise of the book is that our left brain, which excels at language, mathematics, and thinking logically, falls rather short when put to the task of creativity and estimating spacial relationships–in a word, drawing.

Unfortunately, that pesky left brain, which is so used to being in charge of making sense of the world, sees a person and immediately begins to categorize it (him, in this case) into parts: eyes, hands, jacket buttons, etc. Making it hard to draw what we actually see, for which we instead substitute eyes as we think they look, along with hands, jacket buttons, and everything else. We have preconceived ideas of how things should look, which get in the way of seeing them as they actually look. And if you can’t see it, you can’t draw it.

Hence the idea of drawing Stravinsky upside down. I started at the top of my drawing (so, the bottom of Stravinsky), and for the first half of the drawing it was very easy for me to not know what I was drawing, and simply gauge the correct relationship of all the lines to one another. The hands were hard, because it was almost impossible for me to not see them as hands, and I could feel myself drawing them wrong when I started thinking about what hands should look like rather than trying to draw Stravinsky’s hands exactly as they were.

I realize that I’ve encountered this left brain/right brain battle before. I’ve been playing the piano ever since I was a little girl. My parents gave me a fairly thorough grounding in musical theory, and I can sight-read almost anything. But I am absolute rubbish at playing by ear. The only song I can do reasonably well without music is Happy Birthday, and that’s only because there’s such demand for it, and I’ve practiced a lot. Even so, I always have a moment of panic right before I start playing it, because I’ve got no music in front of me.

Similarly, when I’m playing a piece I’ve played a hundred times and virtually know by heart, if I get caught up in the music and lose my place, as soon as I realize I’m not following along on the page, I get completely befuddled. It’s like a cartoon, where Wile E. Coyote can walk on air right up until he realizes he’s walking on air, and dramatically plunges to the ground. My left brain, you see, is utterly convinced that it’s impossible to play music without having it all written out on the page in front of you.

Growing up, I had a friend who had learned to play the piano via the Suzuki method. She could play beautifully by ear, and it was like a sort of miracle to me. She couldn’t sight-read to save her life, though. It was obvious that she’d learned to play in a much more right-brained fashion.

The only other instrument I play is the folk harp, and I decided a few years ago that it was going to be my “right brain” instrument. I put my harp books away and concentrated on learning to play by ear. Amazingly, even though I’m a self-taught, rather amateur harpist, I’m ten times better at playing by ear on the harp than I am on the piano.

If I learned to do it on the harp, I think I can learn to do it with a pencil and paper. Three cheers for the right brain!

Missing General Conference

Barely a day goes by when I don’t consciously think about how glad I am that we don’t attend the Mormon church anymore. Still, there are some things I miss. You can’t grow up in a faith without absorbing parts of it into your soul, and certainly into your memories and routines. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t tuned in to General Conference, the twice-yearly weekend where Mormons get together all over the world to listen to the words of the leaders of the Church, as spoken from Salt Lake City.

Of course, nothing was stopping me from tuning in this weekend–the meetings live-stream over the internet (even the male-only Priesthood session, which leaders began streaming just last year as a sort of compromise after Kate Kelly and the Ordain Women movement asked unsuccessfully to be admitted). But for the past few years, listening to General Conference has been more of a painful reminder to me of the many things in my childhood religion that I find troubling than the peaceful, soul-renewing weekend it is for many of my Mormon friends.

So I was relieved to leave it all behind and have a weekend full of nice, positive family activities. On Saturday I took the children to the library in the morning, and then Tony and I spent the afternoon in our usual haunt at the Drunken Monkey Cafe while they had their Irish dance class. Sunday morning we went to church at the Unitarian Universalist congregation that has opened their hearts to us. Axa and Raj sang the opening musical prelude, and it was beautiful.

After lunch, we drove down to the Rollins College Fine Arts Museum for a family art activity.

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We talked about how art can sometimes make us think or see the world differently by juxtaposing multiple things that don’t intuitively fit together. They had all sorts of magazines out, and we were supposed to cut them up and make a surreal collage. So I made this:

Collage

It was a lovely weekend. But it was harder than I expected to see all the social media posts leading up to and during Conference. To try not to gauge from the memes and blog chatter whether Conference was much the same as it always had been, or if somehow while my back was turned it might miraculously have changed into a place where I would feel comfortable again.

I suppose it’s natural to wish sometimes that you could go back and take the blue pill instead of the red one. In my memory, Conference is breakfast at Grandma’s, beautiful music, and a renewing affirmation of my comfortable, secure, vibrant faith. It can’t be that for me right now, and if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that it will never again be what it was. How could it, when I’ve changed so much? When the shape of all the old, familiar things looks so different from where I stand now?

Perhaps someday Conference (and the Mormon Church) will be something else equally precious and valuable to me, but for now it’s something that can only exist for me in a memory of who I used to be. Like an old lover or an ended friendship, nothing will ever quite fill the hole.

And that’s OK. The hole doesn’t really need filling now, because the whole of who I am is bigger than what I had thought. Still, the hole is there, and sometimes I can feel it.

It’s like forgetting the words to your favorite song . . .

Drawing on the Wrong Side of the Brain

Earlier this week, this fun set of drawing pencils arrived at my house.

It was waiting for me when I got home from work, and after the kids were in bed and Tony had left for his weekly Euro-gaming night, I opened it up and looked at everything in it. It seemed like an awful lot of different pencils, all marked with cryptic number and letter combinations.  I tried out a few, noting how the softer lead of some of them slid onto the paper so effortlessly. The charcoal looked fun too, but I’ve always hated how chalk or pastels feel in my hands, and had no desire to get black all over myself, although that eventually happened anyway, since I just had to try smudging the pencil lines with my fingers to see how the different hardnesses of graphite reacted.

But the most fascinating item in the package was the kneaded eraser. I’ve never actually owned a kneaded eraser, and didn’t know what to do with it. I googled “how to use a kneaded eraser,” and then realizing that I hadn’t been specific enough about my absolute beginner status, “do I have to knead my eraser before I use it?” The answer was yes, so I reluctantly unwrapped the perfect grey rectangle and smooshed it around with my fingers. A couple of youtube videos later, I had discovered that not only could it be used to erase things, but you could also pinch it into various shapes and use it to “draw” on top of your pencil drawing. One artist also recommended kneading it with your left hand while drawing with your right, to reduce stress. This was sounding promising.

I spent some time drawing spheres and boxes with shadows using random pencils out of my new collection. Eventually, after I’d filled up a notebook page with my tiny, tentative drawings, I put it all away and went to bed.

A couple of days later, all my library holds came in. It was quite a stack. As is my wont when I’m excited about a new book, I took them all to the bath. I devoured a couple at random, including Drawing for Painters and Drawing Fairyland. Then I picked up the book everyone recommends, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I took a deep breath, opened it, and plunged in.

First there were several pages about the hemispheres of the brain, and how drawing can help people think more creatively in other areas. After a few pages, I began to skim. After all, thinking creatively has never been a problem for me–I’m very much of a right brainer. It’s the drawing that bites. However, I was completely arrested by a quote from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, who had suggested that he become a painter:

. . . at the time when you spoke of my becoming a painter, I thought it very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me stop doubting was reading a clear book on perspective, Cassange’s Guide to the ABC of Drawing, and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with stove, chair, table and window–in their places and on their legs–whereas before it had seemed to me that getting depth and the right perspective into a drawing was witchcraft or pure chance.”

“Witchcraft or pure chance.” It was as if the great Van Gogh had read my mind.

I decided that I could give the book and its exercises a chance, despite my misgivings. The first thing the author, Betty Edwards, instructs her students to do is to draw a series of three “pre-instruction” drawings. The idea is that you’ll have a before and after to look at, and realize how far you’ve come. I had a lot of feelings about doing this, but I ploughed ahead and completed all three within the space of an hour or so, which was how long Edwards had predicted they would take. So without further ado, here are my “before” drawings, in the spirit of authenticity, and with ardent hopes that the “afters” will look like they’ve been drawn by a different person entirely.

#1 A person, from memory. Is there a harder thing to draw? Obviously I have extremely vague ideas about things like noses and arms, as well as drawing a person who’s not looking straight ahead. Oh, well.

 

Person

 

#2 Self-portrait. This one was, if possible, even worse. I drew the line at actually staring at myself in the mirror as I drew, and just did it from a photo. The photo on my About Me page, if you must know, but it would be embarrassing for you to go and look at it and compare.

Self Portrait

#3 A drawing of your own hand. OK, every part of drawing people is hard, but drawing hands might be the hardest of all. And my poor left hand is looking pretty scary here:

Hand

So there you have it: my first baby steps on the road to learning to draw. I am hoping that this book lives up to the hype, and that, like Van Gogh, I will discover that drawing is something I can do. OK, maybe not so much like Van Gogh, who is kind of in a class by himself.

Speaking of Van Gogh, for inspiration and some serious feels, I’ll leave you with this video montage from one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, Vincent and The Doctor.

Taking up a New Hobby

I’m not sure if it’s the result of a midlife crisis, or just an expression of healthy personal growth, but I recently decided to take up painting. As you know, my inner artist has been mostly dormant since childhood, with only brief intervals of resuscitation. The latest of those happened thanks to my friend Ali, who invited me to go with him to a place called “Painting with a Twist.”

It’s kind of like those painting shows on T.V., except it’s live and they paint the painting right in front of you while you paint your own approximation of the painting along with the instructor. Here’s Ali, halfway through his painting:

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I went with a bit of trepidation, since I wasn’t at all sure that I could actually complete a decent looking painting, even with somebody telling me exactly what to do at every step. I had one moment of panic staring at the blank white canvas. But then I plunged in and started painting. In the end, to my surprise, my painting actually ended up looking pretty recognizable (if you can’t tell that it’s a romantic couple on a rainy street, just pretend that you can).

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The thing that surprised me even more, though, was how very much I enjoyed the physical act of painting. My brush felt like a magic wand, and I couldn’t believe how quickly three hours flew by. When I got home and showed him the result, Tony–ever the supportive husband–immediately hung my painting up on the wall. And I think that may have been the moment when I decided I would become a painter.

My head filled with visions of myself trekking all over our Greek island with my easel on my back, and then settling down on some rocky promontory to paint the impossibly blue Aegean melting into the sky. In my head, it was positively Byronic.

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While I like to think of myself as a sort of mad adventurer, my madness is often quite methodical. Since I had no idea how to become a painter, I turned to Google. Near the top of the search results was the website of Will Kemp, who not only looked to be a good authority on painting, but also shared my appreciation for the gelato of Florence.

I pored over his website, fascinated as a complete neophyte by articles on the difference between oils and acrylics, choosing brushes (turns out my “magic wand” idea wasn’t too far off), and balancing warm and cool colours (he’s British, as well as an Italophile).

Unfortunately, I was suddenly jerked out of my sun-drenched Greek island reverie by this statement:

“80% of a painting’s success comes from the drawing.

Maybe even 90%.”

I have a complete lack of confidence in my drawing abilities, and a sort of latent horror at the thought of inevitably getting something out of proportion. And I had imagined that painting would be a way around that, and that I could skim through happily with my brush, oblivious of such frightening concerns as perspective and proportion.

Apparently not.

Would my painting career be derailed before it began? It was touch and go for a matter of moments. Fortunately, I was deterred only temporarily by the thought that I would need to learn to draw in order to learn to paint. After all, there are Youtube videos! There is my library! (One good thing about living in Florida is that your library is full of books about things that retired people do, like traveling, and knitting, and drawing and painting, it turns out.) There are $6.92 sketch and drawing pencil sets on Amazon!

Armed with these tools, perhaps I will be able to conquer my fear of drawing and take the first step toward becoming a painter. Wish me luck.

Photo credit

 

My Favorite Walks Around the World

I found this post mostly completed in my drafts folder, and thought I’d share, since it’s been awhile since I did a nostalgia post. One of the beautiful things about moving often is that you experience the “little things” of life in so many different ways. Like the smell of the plants outside your window. Or the way different fruits taste when they’re in season. Or the cadence of stray overheard phrases in different languages.

Among the constant yet changeable things in my life is the evening walk that Tony and I have taken ever since we got married. Besides being a great time to reconnect as a couple, talk about what’s on our minds, and get some fresh air, our walk also helps to explore whatever neighborhood is ours at the moment. Since we so often view the outside world through a car window, walking lets us take a slower, more intimate look at the scenery and notice things we wouldn’t otherwise see.

We have lived in so many places and become acquainted with so many evening walks that I can’t list them all. These are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

Our walk in Tunisia began like this:

And ended like this:

Or on very special nights, like this:

Another favorite walk was in Ireland. We’d walk out to (I kid you not) the most idyllic cow pasture in the world. It’s funny to me how fondly we still speak of “our” cow pasture.

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Our route left town just a block or two from our apartment in Mullingar, where we took a path that paralleled the Royal Canal.

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At the time, we were reading Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and I thought about it every time the train went by. This walk and the picnic we usually had at the end of it always made me feel like we were re-living some lost Victorian country childhood. This photo makes me remember so many things about Ireland: the authentic Irish brown bread that I always made, the wellies my kids lived in, and how very little they were back then.

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And then there was our beautiful little Italian village. Here’s how our walk started out there:

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And then, you know those stock photos of the road between trees that converges on the horizon with a perfection that looks like it can’t possibly really exist? Ours did in fact exist, although this photo is less about the perfection of the road than the exuberance of a very pleased little Axa.

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After the tree-lined walk, it opened out into beautiful Alpine fields backed by mountains.

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We had similar beautiful walks in Vancouver, Washington, where the spring was a delicious parade of different flowers that seemed to go on for months, and in Carmel Valley (San Diego, California), where we lived in a neighborhood where all the houses followed a strict Spanish-style architectural code, the sidewalks were always perfectly swept, and there was nary a blade of lush green perfect lawn out of place.

In La Jolla, we walked by the Mormon temple every night, enjoying its dramatic beauty and our memories of getting married there. Even here in Florida our walks through our little suburban neighborhood are nice, although it’s sometimes so hot and muggy we only make it once around the block. We’re looking forward to beautiful walks on Kea, where the walking paths date back to the ancient Greeks, and the Mediterranean is visible from all over.