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.

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

Planning an International Move

Stock MonkeysYou’d think planning for an international move would be old hat for me since we’ve done it so many times. Unfortunately, we actually haven’t done it that much. The planning, that is, not the moving. We’ve moved plenty, but it’s mostly been on the spur of the moment, and after a mad few weeks of planning. The last time we really took a long time to plan was nine years ago, before we went to the Philippines for the summer. If you’ve read my book, you’ll remember that despite the exhaustive planning, we were such rookie travelers we ended up in the airport with no money and no place to stay, after having spent all 13.5 of the 14 hours on the plane with tomato juice all over my white pantsuit.

I’m pretty much an expert at winging it and improvising, but it’s always been my dream to have at least four months to plan and execute an international move. And this time I do. Now that I actually have the time, though, it doesn’t seem that exciting. Still, now that I’m here, I might as well do it. So here goes: my exhaustive list of

Things To Do Before My International Move:

  • Buy Plane Tickets (I have been obsessively checking Kayak to make sure that the flight we’re planning to take doesn’t disappear or go up radically in price–not that I could do anything about it if it did–but we want to iron out housing before we get our tickets to make sure that the dates work)
  • Arrange travel for sugar gliders (This involves researching how the airline feels about pets, going through airport security with them, which carrier to buy, etc.)
  • Check with airport veterinarian in Athens re: sugar glider importation requirements
  • Get certificate from U.S. vet + letter stating that sugar gliders don’t get rabies
  • Sell stuff on craigslist (lawnmower, old sugar glider cage/aquarium, washer/dryer, computers, Curtis’ desk, other desks, chest of drawers, couch, futon, etc.)
  • Buy International Health Insurance
  • Pack (One little word, but easily the most work-intensive activity on this list)
  • Put stuff in storage (We’re not shipping a container to Greece just yet, so we’re leaving furniture, books, and stuff in storage here)
  • Sell car
  • Stop auto insurance
  • Check passports, American/Italian (I am pretty sure at least some of these are expired, since we haven’t been out of the U.S. in three years. Both our U.S. and Italian passports need to be up-to-date, because we need to present the U.S. passports to leave the U.S. and the Italian ones to enter Greece. Who said dual citizenship made your life less complicated?)
  • Unlock phones/research phone service in Greece
  • Housing (We are considering several different furnished rentals. Renting sight unseen is risky, and we’ve had some rather interesting experiences with it in the past, but it’s the reality of our life)
  • Internet (This will probably end up being via an internet key)
  • Buy laptop
  • Buy luggage (We have an assortment of luggage that we’ve dragged all over the world, but most of it is in tatters and unlikely to survive another transatlantic flight/bus/ferry. Our favorite large suitcase just broke a wheel after having been pressed into service for the past two years as weekly transportation for our library books)
  • Buy homeschool supplies, etc. (You know. All that stuff we don’t want to pay insane international shipping for sometime next year)
  • Plan packing list (Yeah, this should go up before “Pack”)
  • Notify banks/credit cards of foreign travel

And this is just my off-the-top-of-my-head list, so I’m sure I am forgetting some things. If you’ve done a move like this, did you have a list? Care to share, so I can make mine even more unmanageable?

photo credit

Expatting Again

Well, while we’re on the subject of announcing major life changes, I should probably let you in on where we’ll be moving next. Hint: our destination is neither U.S. nor subtropical. Because let’s face it–we have now lived in Florida for 2 1/2 years, which in Familia time is about two decades. By the time we leave, we will have lived in Florida for over three times as long as we’ve ever lived anywhere else. Oh, the ironies of life. The weird thing is, I think my internal clock is set according to moves rather than time in any specific location. So I don’t feel like more time has passed while we were living in Florida than Tunisia (8 months) or Ireland (3 months). I’m not sure what that says about my existential state.

But anyway, here’s the announcement: next year we will be moving to Greece!

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To be more specific, our destination is an island in the Cyclades group called Kea. Bonus points if you can find it on this map:

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Did you find it? If not, you’re not alone. It took me quite some time to find a map that actually named Kea. With so many islands, I guess it’s hard to keep track. So let me give you some help. The Cyclades are the darker pink islands southeast of the mainland, and Kea is the Cyclades island closest to Attica, the part of mainland Greece where you’ll find Athens. With it being so close to Athens, you’d think it would be heavily touristed, but it’s not on the main ferry line, so it’s escaped the hordes of foreigners, and mostly serves as a weekend getaway for Athenians, many of whom have second homes on the island. Here’s a google maps screenshot of Kea:

Kea

Isn’t it so cute? I am in love. As you can see, there are not a lot of major urban centers on Kea. The population is around 2500, with most of those centered around Korissia, the port, and Ioulis, the capitol.

It’s mostly an island renowned for its natural beauty, both on land and under the sea, where some of Greece’s best scuba diving can be had, including the dramatic wreck of the HRHS Brittanica, sister ship to the similarly unlucky Titanic.  The reason we’re moving there is that our friend Stathis, whom we met while we were living in Florence, is from Greece. His family owns several hundred acres on Kea, and he’s working on developing it for eco-tourism.

That sounded good to us, so I screwed my courage to the sticking place and asked my boss if he would be OK with me working remotely from Greece. And he said yes! So sometime early next year we will be packing it all up and moving to a picturesque little Greek island. I still can’t quite believe it myself.

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Now we can turn our minds to the details, small and large. Tony and the children have Italian citizenship, which greatly simplifies our setting up residency in any European country, including Greece. I can come in on his coattails, so in the six years since Tony became an Italian citizen, I have not gotten around to applying for Italian citizenship by marriage, even though I always mean to do it. Fired up by our decision to move to Greece, Tony called up the Italian Consulate in Miami to find out when I could submit my documentation and have my interview.

You know an organization is truly dedicated to customer service when you have to call a 900 number just to set up an appointment with them. Three dollars and fifty cents later, Tony had been informed that the next available appointment to apply for citizenship is not for two years! So much for that idea. I guess my next chance to apply will be from the Italian embassy in Athens. Italian efficiency + Greek efficiency. I can only imagine.

We also need to jump into the Russian roulette of buying plane tickets. Will they be cheaper now? Or in a month? Or in six months? And speaking of Russian, by far the cheapest flights from Orlando to Athens connect in Moscow, and are on Aeroflot, an airline owned by the Russian government. It will still be safe and sane to stop over in Russia next year–right? I mean, yesterday when President Obama coordinated expanded sanctions against Russia with the E.U. and accused the Russian government of “setting back decades in genuine progress,” how many decades did he mean exactly? I’m sure it will be fine, but Russia is kind of wigging me out lately. In the end, though, it doesn’t much matter how we get there, just as long as we end up here:

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Map credit

California, Here I Come

This week I find myself unexpectedly in California, which is all kinds of wonderful. We have a family reunion next week, so I was planning on coming out for that, but Tony and the children were going to come out and spend a whole month here while I stayed at home in Florida starting my new job.

I was perfectly happy with the arrangement, and even looking forward to starting work with zero at-home distractions (as well as getting some welcome “me” time). But I was even happier when my boss called at 4 p.m. last Wednesday and suggested that instead of starting the week before my vacation, I could start the week after, since he’d have people out for the long 4th of July holiday anyway.

Tony and the children were scheduled to leave at 9:25 a.m. on the 4th of July. It was the afternoon before when I got the call from my boss, and they were just putting the finishing touches on their packing.

It was pretty late notice, but Tony decided to call the airline and see if I could get my flight changed and leave with them the next morning. I’ve had too much experience with airline customer service to be more than slightly optimistic, but I figured we had nothing to lose.

At least this time we were dealing with Southwest, and not the infamous Ryanair. The first phone call, though, went as expected. Yes, we could change the flight, but it would cost us 40,000 points. Since Tony’s parents only had 20-something thousand in their account, it would use up all their points and then cost an extra $400 to change my flight. Not promising. However, Tony obtained another phone number for a more important customer service person, and called that too.

We had found a flight online that left later that day and cost the same number of points as the original ticket, so theoretically it is possible that we could have changed it online ourselves (although I’m not sure what the rules are for flights that are leaving in less than 24 hours). It was an online only fare, so it wasn’t really the province of customer service at all. But Tony’s mom, who had purchased the tickets to begin with, was at church girl’s camp on a week-long internet and cell-phone sabbatical. And Tony’s dad was on his monthly work rotation halfway around the world in China. So there was really no way to get into their account and change the tickets, short of charity from some sympathetic Southwest customer service representative.

Which fortunately Tony found. After repeating the entire story to the representative at the second phone number, he asked if I could possibly get my flight changed to the one leaving later that day, so I could at least arrive the same day as everyone else, rather than a week later as originally scheduled. The representative said he would put me on the same flight if there was room (there was) and do it all for free with nary a transfer fee or anything, since he didn’t want to take any points out of the account without asking the actual account holders. He even checked me in to the flight.

So I’m thinking that Southwest wins the airline customer service award of the year. Although I left out a few crucial items in my harried last-minute packing, we had uneventful flights. And they served us peanuts, cookies, crackers AND pretzels. AND they let us check two bags each for free (or would have, if we had wanted to lug along that many bags). What domestic airline even does that kind of stuff anymore? Hurrah for Southwest.

We’re having a great time out here in California. I’ve already eaten countless cherry tomatoes out of my parents’ overflowing garden. The kids have been to the Jelly Belly Factory with Grammy, and we’ve spent an evening in Uncle John’s legendary movie room with Megamind. And although strawberry season was over a month or two ago in Florida, in California it is still in full swing.

Lest we be well on our way to having more fun than anyone should rightfully have on a summer vacation, Tony and I did come down with strep throat the day we got here, and Raj was diagnosed with pinkeye a few days later. There are times when Grandpa being a doctor is an an incredibly convenient thing. A few rounds of antibiotics later, and we are all feeling better.

So until further notice, we’ll just be California dreamin’.

photo credit

A Peek into the Elves’ Sweatshop

So, will the airline count an over-sized shopping bag stuffed with tiny Christmas presents as a “personal item”? I’m going to say yes, because this stuff is not going to fit in our carry-on bags, at least if we want to bring clothes too.

Yes, I know that wrapped gifts are on the soft list of “Things to Not Bring on an Airplane.” As in, they are technically allowed but likely to cause delays, headaches, and tearing-of-hair in the security line. But what can I say? The children have been busily working away at them since Thanksgiving.

Every day I could count on having a few mysterious hours of silence, as they emerged from their rooms only in search of more scotch tape, construction paper, pipe cleaners, and other sundries. I haven’t recycled a cardboard box in weeks, because any box that comes in the mail or is emptied of pasta is immediately requisitioned for reuse in one of the ever-multiplying packages. We’ve gone through who knows how many rolls of wrapping paper and tiny bows this Christmas.

More than once in the weeks leading up to Christmas I gently suggested mailing the dozens of presents to the various parties, but since we are flying out to Utah to meet up with my side of the family tomorrow, Axa and Raj had their hearts set on hand delivering everything. Tony’s side of the family is coming out for Axa’s baptism in a month, so they’ll be presented with their gifts then.

Quite a few of the presents, though, were intended for internal Familia family distribution. It was so fun to see what they had been working so hard on for all these days. I, for example, received this lovely collage from Axa:

Tony got this snazzy construction paper spider and web, conceived and created by Raj:

In case you can’t tell, the spider is cleverly “waterproofed” in several layers of scotch tape.

And for Raj, Axa created this classic duo out of pipe cleaners:

I’m thinking it’s pretty obvious who they are, but if you’re having trouble, those are light sabers they’re holding. Do you love the cape? It just melts my heart to actually see the stuff they spent so much time making over the past several weeks.

I’m sure there are some equally delightful treasures in all those presents we’re taking on the plane to Utah. So even if worst comes to worst and TSA makes me painstakingly unwrap all forty-seven of them to prove that they don’t contain meat cleavers, lacrosse sticks, BB guns, saws, nunchucks, fireworks, bleach, or (gasp!) unidentified gels and liquids, it will be worth it to do it for my sweet little elves. Merry Christmas!

We’re Famous . . . Again!

When I was dating Tony, one of the interesting things that he told me about himself was that he had lived with his family in Indonesia as a teenager. While living there, they spent a summer visiting family in a little town in Idaho, where their exotic expatriate exploit made them instant celebrities. An article even appeared in the local newspaper about the American family who were living in Southeast Asia, and had now brought their international selves home to grace tiny Aberdeen Idaho.

It became an even better story after the same thing happened to us. In 2008, we moved our little family to Chiusa di Pesio, Italy so that we could reconnect with our Italian roots and claim our long-lost Italian citizenship. It was the first time such a thing had ever occurred in Chiusa, and our very existence there  caused something of a sensation. It seemed that everyone had already told everyone else our story. Still, in due time, we were visited in our home by a local reporter, who wanted to publish an account of us in the weekly paper, just in case someone had missed it.

We were flattered, but a little embarrassed, especially after we read the article, and she gushed so liberally about us. Still, it was quite a novelty to read a story about ourselves in the newspaper in the first place. I mean, how often does it happen that you end up in the paper just for being you?

Well, not as infrequently as I thought, apparently. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal. He had stumbled upon my blog, and remarked that he thought we didn’t really fit in here in Deltona. In fact, he went on to speculate that we probably weren’t going to be around long. I guess reporters can say anything.

Mark turned out to be very nice, though, and we spent a lovely morning chatting. It’s not every day that a captive audience spends an hour and a half listening to your life story, acting really interested and even taking notes. I found I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yesterday, we bought a paper so we could clip it out for our scrap book. And since our family scrapbook only exists in the form of this blog and our family website, here it is:

If you can’t read the small print, the full article is here. Mark took some liberties with the quotes, and bit more with the facts, so if you know us well you can amuse yourself by spotting errors. But at least when he quoted my mom he got it perfect.

Paris, His Dark Materials, Phineas Finn, and Food

Paris in Love: A MemoirParis in Love: A Memoir by Eloisa James

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I am a sucker for expat memoirs. So I picked up this one as a matter of course, without even glancing inside the cover. Maybe I should have looked a little closer.

As an author, Eloisa James’ normal genre is romance novels. But I don’t think even that explains the bizarre format of this book. It is, I kid you not, a compilation of her Facebook status updates for the year she spent in Paris. This means that the entire book consists of disjointed 5-10 line paragraphs. There are a few longer sections (of 2-5 pages each), which I paged through and read. But the rest of this book is virtually unreadable.

If you have a hankering for Paris, instead check out Adam Gopnik’s delightful memoir, Paris to the Moon.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tony and I watched the movie that is based on this book, and he asked me to check it out for him. So of course I ended up reading it myself too. This did turn out to be one of those cases where the book was better than the movie, mostly because the plots were very similar, and the movie was visually stunning. Nicole Kidman was lusciously villainous, and Pullman’s alternate-reality-London was gorgeous.

My favorite part of the book/movie was the premise of people’s souls (called “dæmons” in the book) walking around outside their bodies in the shape of animals. Sort of like a cross between a best friend, a smart pet, and just a really good justification for talking to yourself. All in all, this was a fun book, but nowhere near as profound as it was trying to be.

The Subtle Knife (His Dark Materials, #2)The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one was OK, but not nearly as interesting as the first one. I personally think that authors who are working with multiple universes should just stick to one or two, because there’s not really time to develop the differences in more universes, and they end up being boring caricatures. Also, the plot in this one kind of meandered. In fact, I can’t even really remember it a week and a half after finishing the book.

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This trilogy was already mediocre by book 2, so the only reason I read this one was that I was sick in bed, and it was the closest thing at hand. Unfortunately, even just compared to books 1 and 2, The Amber Spyglass is exceptionally bad. Not only does the narrative fall apart, but Pullman’s already thin allegory crosses over into pages and pages of downright preachiness.

Evidently, some Christians have objected to the series (and the delightful movie based on The Golden Compass) on philosophical grounds, but I object to it on purely artistic grounds. Still, if your teenager is reading this and your family is not atheist, you might want to have some discussions about the author’s rancorous portrayal of both religion and God.

Phineas FinnPhineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am, of course, still reading this series. One of the things I love about it is that I am still looking up new words (with the touch of a button–I love my Kindle!). I highly recommend reading Trollope to anyone preparing to take the SAT or GRE.

I’ve also unbent my feminist ire a little. In Phineas Finn, bad husbands are given no quarter, and the woman are portrayed as well-rounded, complex characters. Trollope is still not exactly progressive, but he might not be as bad as I thought. Plus, I’m even getting interested in 19th century British politics. Who’d have thought?

The Deluxe Food Lover's CompanionThe Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This replaces A History of the World in 100 Objects as my bathroom book. What a wonderful, informative, fascinating book. Whether you need to know what picadillo is or how to pick a good kohlrabi, if it has to do with food, it is in here.

Today I perused the cheese glossary, and found that I’ve tried 47 different kinds of cheese. There are also glossaries of sausage, shellfish, sauces, pastas, and herbs, among others. And then there are the many tips scattered throughout the book for ripening persimmons, creating a quick brown roux, and six steps to the perfect hamburger.

With gilt edges, a ribbon bookmark, and profound culinary quotes beginning each chapter (“Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.” — Judith B. Jones), this is a book to be treasured, read, and referred to often.

View all my reviews

photo credit

How I Made Friends With Facebook

I have not always been a friend to Facebook. I am way too old to have grown up using it in high school. Actually, I’ll admit it, I’m even too old to have used it in college. I found out about Facebook from my kid brother long after all the cool people were already on it. I finally broke down and joined on 12 November 2008. According to Facebook, that important date (which appears prominently in my snazzy new Timeline) ranks right up there with being born and graduating from college.

Like most users, I experienced the initial infatuation with Facebook, as it put me back in touch with various long lost friends. And although I never took photos of myself kissing Zuckerberg’s photo, I do have warm fuzzies over Facebook’s important role in the Arab Spring. Since then, however, my feelings about Facebook have deteriorated from sarcastic ambivalence to downright hostility.

However, Facebook has recently undergone a rehabilitation in my affections. Here’s why:

I never experienced small town life until we moved to Italy, and lived in a beautiful little village on a mountainside, with a river running through it. If that sounds just unbelievably romantic, it was.

There was a church bell tower that chimed the hour, a tiny, cobblestone village square, and a picturesque castle up on the hill, within whose ruined walls we once held a very memorable family home evening.

But what was really a change for us Southern Californians was the fact that everybody seemed to know each other. And not only did they know each other, but they seemed to actually have time to talk. They would have lengthy conversations with anyone they met while out and about in the narrow, cobblestone streets. Which generally happened several times a day.

The result of all this, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows, was that everyone also knew everything about everyone else. Especially about the bizarre Americans who had dropped in from nowhere claiming that their great-great grandfather was Italian. We even got written up with embarrassingly complimentary exaggeration by the local newspaper.

At first, it was startling to realize that my everyday doings were common knowledge, and I should consider pretty much the whole town friends (or at least acquaintances). But after a while, I got to kind of like it. It was something feeling like you belonged somewhere and would leave a real hole if you went away. And sure enough, eventually, we did go away. In fact, we’ve moved several times since then.

From my peripatetic perspective, it’s near impossible to picture living my whole life in the village where I was born. But I have to admit that the idea fascinates me. What if all my favorite people did live in the same little village? What if I had the chance of bumping into them every day on my way to buy bread before dinner? What if I casually knew what was going on in their lives, whether I’d talked to them lately or not, because word just gets around in our little town? What if?

Here’s the problem: my favorite people are scattered all over the world. Everywhere we go, I meet new people  that I’d love to have as friends forever. By now it’s far too late for all, a majority, or even a reasonable plurality of my friends to live in the same geographical area.

And here’s where Facebook comes in. In a kind of a virtual sense, Facebook allows me to have that sense of community I crave with people who, in Goethe’s words, “though distant, are close to [me] in spirit.” Because I want to know more than just the “important” things that turn up in a yearly Christmas letter. I want to hear the little, mundane things that make up the majority of our lives. I want to know the funny thing your kid said, what your new hairdo looks like, and that mortifying mix-up that happened at work today. You know, the instagrams of life.

Really, what I’ve noticed lately is that a few minutes spent on Facebook is a bit like that walk to the bread shop in Italy. I can climb a volcano in the Philippines with Jerry. I can peek in on Erin’s lovely picnic in England. I know what Shelly got in her CSA basket in Washington this week and what Kelly in Utah thought about Spiderman. Jo Ann keeps me posted on how much garbage has been thrown lately on our beloved Tunisian beach. If I’m lucky, sometimes Carla even gives me a glimpse into the life of that lovely little Italian village.

So while I may never transplant my life permanently to a tiny village where everyone knows my name, maybe I don’t need to. Facebook is my global village.

Best Places I’ve Never Lived

I realized the other day that there’s not enough time in a lifetime to live all the places I’d like to live. In fact, it’s a good thing inter-planetary space travel has not yet been invented, or I would be completely overwhelmed by possibilities. My blogger friend Amira (who presently lives in Kyrgystan) is doing a series on all the cities where she’d like to live. Some of them are so obscure I have to look up what country they’re in. Of course, I had to look up Kyrgystan when I first “met” her too.

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who can’t help viewing every international vacation (and every National Geographic article, for that matter) as a house-hunting trip. My travel dreams might not be quite as exotic as Amira’s, but in the course of the last several years since we decided we were an international family, Tony and I have researched mundane things like housing, raw milk availability, and homeschooling laws in quite a variety of different possible destinations. Besides the ones where we’ve actually ended up living.

Here’s my shortlist of places I’ve never been but know I would love to live.

Norway.


I hope this doesn’t sound morbid, but I first became obsessed with Norway last year, following the horrific shootings on Utøya Island in July. Although I’m not really a party person, the Norwegian Labour Party might possibly come closest to a political ideology I could feel comfortable espousing. Norway is full of natural beauty, both in the countryside and wild places and in the many urban green spaces. Norway also has a high standard of living, a Scandinavian sense of organization, and a cool climate. What’s not to love?

Costa Rica.

I watched this little video and was sold on Costa Rica. Besides the fact that I already speak Spanish, and it’s pretty cheap to live there, 99% of their energy comes from renewable resources. If that’s not the wave of the future, I don’t know what is. Costa Rica is the go-to destination for retirees and other sun-seeking expats looking for a quaint paradise with good infrastructure. I really love tropical fruit and tropical beaches, but there aren’t that many tropical countries I’d like to live in long term. Costa Rica might be an exception.

France.

Well, technically I have been to France. Nice is the preferred airport for international flights out of our little corner of Italy. So I’ve glimpsed the fabled pebbled beaches of the French Riviera out of the window of a bus various times. My most vivid memory of Nice is sitting on a huge cardboard box (filled with my belongings) in the train station, with seventeen pieces of luggage piled around me, deathly ill in the middle of a move from Ireland to Italy. So no, I don’t consider myself to have really visited France.

But who hasn’t dreamed of living in Paris? Ever since I read Paris to the Moon, I’ve pictured us there. I’ve even found my perfect apartment, in the 8th Arrondissement, right next to Parc Monceau. Now all I need is my perfect income to support a Parisian lifestyle.

Turkmenistan.

Why Turkmenistan? I’m not quite sure. It just really fascinates me. We want to adopt internationally someday, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time researching different countries, during which research Turkmenistan appeared on my radar. Unfortunately, it’s well-nigh impossible to adopt from Turkmenistan. In fact, it’s hard to even get a visa to visit Turkmenistan. Maybe that’s why it attracts me: the lure of the forbidden. And the interesting tidbits I’ve read about the country. Bizarrely, the former President-For-Life (who died in 2007) authored his own book on Islam. Just like Qaddafi! The book forms the basis for the educational system of the country, and knowledge of it is required to even get a driver’s license. The Akhal-Teke, a beautiful breed of horse with a metallic-sheen coat, also originates there. Turkmenistan is one of those countries that feels like a “black box,” tantalizing in its mystery and oddity. I’d love to see what it’s really like there.

Will I ever live any of these places? Who knows? But this is my favorite kind of daydream.

What’s your dream destination?

photo credits: Norway, Costa Rica, France, Turkmenistan