1: So Long

Packing is a science.

It was Vivian Moreau’s idea that I blog about our year in Switzerland. As a journalist with an entrepreneurial bend of mind, she suggested this would have the makings of a good travel book, which goes to show that I have hidden my aversion to travel from her quite well.

Everyone is a better traveller than me. Everyone. I like seeing new places, but I hate what it takes to get there.

This open-air cable car just opened in Lucerne. What a pity we don’t have time to ride it. ;)

With the endless stream of travel books and websites available now, I have no illusions of making this into anything other than a semi-personal journal of life as a corporate spouse tagging along after my hubby, which many see as glamorous, but only because they do not know the personal hell corporate couples endure at the hands of foreign bureaucracies.*

Maybe in short and infrequent bursts, corporate travel is a happy novelty, but our experience over 30 years is that it quickly acquires the enchantment of a long-haul bus tour, which is to say, the bathrooms and sleeping arrangements are never as good as those at home.

Still, it is an economical way to see the world, and we’ve done it repeatedly, so the good does outweigh the bad. If the beds, bathrooms and bureaucracies are the minuses on this crazy life; a front-row seat watching how foreign people live and how their countries work are the pluses.

This is the last Hobonotes post, unless something faintly amusing occurs on our trip home tomorrow. For our friends and family reading this, see you soon. For strangers we picked up along the way, thank you for joining us and for your engaging feedback.

* Also, I will not do truly adventurous things, like fling myself off a cliff, trusting my life to a thin sheet of fabric (parachuting, paragliding, parasailing,  you name it, I won’t do it). This is a travel blog for the timid.

Somewhat Amusing Anecdotes You May Not Know

  1. Soon after starting this blog, a former colleague demanded via email that I delete a humorous excerpt from an email he/she sent to me some years ago.  I thought about replacing the excerpt with another email he/she wrote wherein he/she used some hostile terms that if reported to our Human Resources Department, would have obliged them to pull him/her through a meat grinder. I never ratted out my former colleague, and he/she is doing well professionally now. I like to think I had a hand in that.
  2. The humorous excerpt is still somewhere on this blog.
  3. The most hits this blog got in a single day was 885. It surprised me, too. It must have streamed into a commercial travel website somewhere in the U.S. (the source of about 845 of those hits).
  4. The all-time top post was the innocuous Luscious Lucerne.  It surpassed the previous top post on Paris and kidneys, which led the pack until this month.
  5. Most hits came from the U.S., Canada and Switzerland. I had readers from every continent and almost every country, but not one hit came from Greenland. Don’t they ever travel? I didn’t do well with African readers either, although I did score a fringe of readers there.

60: Shoe Shucking

Farewell dear friends.


Yesterday was the dreaded shoe-shucking day when I bagged my little collection of footwear for a new life at the local Salvation Army bins. It pains me to dispose of shoes that I still love, but the consolation is that soon I will be back in Canada, the country of affordable Clarks.

All this decluttering raises the question of how much stuff do we need to get through the day. Here, my clothes fit into one suitcase (I said clothes, not shoes). Back home, my walk-in closet was jammed tight.

I blame my Canadian-ness for this. Canadians live in the land of severe storms or as my Wisconsin friends calls it “big weather,” and so one of our defining traits is that we tend to be siege-shoppers. While homestyle mavens urge us to declutter, our government’s Emergency Services tack in the opposite direction, issuing lists of all the goods we’ll need on hand should a tornado/snowstorm/blizzard/flash-flood/earthquake/tsunami/power-outage/infrastructure-collapse occur. Not only do they make it sound like these events are imminent, they repeatedly warn us that in the event of a disaster, it could take five days for any aid to appear.

A river runs through it, but you can only tell by the trees. Manitoba flood: Courtesy Winnipeg Free Press

In other words, when things are at their worst, you are on your own. Maybe this is why Canadians tend to be a cooperative bunch. We know that we have to count on each other because it is not a sure bet anyone else is going to help. I don’t want to be smarmy about this, but there is an efficiency in the population that is impressive. When our prairie city was ringed with floodwaters, long before the army showed up, high school students were allowed to skip classes to help sandbag. The sheer muscle power and impromptu organization that mustered every morning at the dykes was fast, furious and made homeowners cry with joy at the sight. There was no centralized authority, we just showed up, climbed into boats or the buckets of heavy machinery to get through the floodwaters and jumped off wherever we saw a pile of sandbags at the ready.

The army appeared later in the week. I don’t want to cast aspersions on the good soldiers, because they operated under a different paradigm than did we scalawag crews, but their first order of business was to sit down and wait for orders. It seemed to us the orders were obvious: Form a line, pass sandbags, build a wall against the water. To their credit, the soldiers seemed as frustrated as us at having to wait.

Is it any wonder our shopping carts are vast, our freezers are rectangular mammoths, and our need for storage space is without end?

Nevertheless, this probably is still not a good excuse for the amount of stuff I keep.

73: Pack-Attack plus Can Luggage Get You Arrested?

Pack-attack: A subset of a traveller’s obsessive-compulsive disorder that leads to repetitive packing-planning sessions.

The second pack-attack of the season struck this week, 73 days out from our trip, which means I got to this task just in the nick of time.

I don’t want to say that I am a packing expert, although I  moved through two hemispheres, five countries, three continents and three provinces. I lose count after that. I’ve packed with an 80-lb. dog in tow, assorted numbers of offspring, and in the range from transporting full households including the kitchen garbage (packed by the moving company without my noticing – they were paid by the pound), to all the way down to what Dave and I could drag while running to catch a train (two suitcases and two carry-ons).

A fraction of our collected goods.

After excavating all our Swiss-worldly goods from our closet, I discovered our possessions have multiplied, possibly while we slept, more likely while I shopped.  I have also made the miserable discovery that our 33 books weighing 15.2 pounds will cost $500 to ship back to Canada, so there will be some serious editing going on over the coming weeks that will enrich our hotel’s library, but cause us some mourning. We love our books, but when it is cheaper to replace them than to post them, well, the typeset is on the wall.

When all was accounted for, it was decided that we need to purchase another suitcase. As if on cue, during Dave’s daily lunch walk, he happened upon a posh black suitcase among a pile of items left at the curb for pick-up. He assures me he did not dumpster-dive. And so he picked it up. It was in fairly good condition and would definitely have weathered one more oceanic crossing, however, this morning it is back at the curb.

Luggage of undetermined origins carries unlimited hazards. My first fear was lice, fleas or other minor lifeforms, but then the larger problem presented itself: What if the thing had ever been used to transport any type of narcotic? A drug dog could easily pick up trace amounts and then where would we be, but in some jail, paying a German-speaking lawyer a huge bulk of money, and all of this through the summer, which, frankly, is the worst time to be incarcerated. Not that I know anything personally about this, but why take the chance?

Good things come to an end, Part One

These are not the high-end shopping carts. They are the "I'm thinking of going to the over $200 cart range, but I'm not there yet" selection. Prices in this batch are in the $150 neighborhood.

We are still more than three months away from our European exit, however, the disengagement process has already begun.

Yesterday, I took one of our two grocery pull-carts out to the canal, dropped it by the shrubs and said good-bye, I won’t be needing  you any more. We have not actually needed it for about nine months, since we replaced this $20 item with a $30 cart. But I drift: My point is that this marks the inauguration of the jettisoning of ballast.

In Canada and the U.S., personal shopping carts are looked upon as a sign of age, but here they can be a sign of status. True, the under-30 set stride out from the stores still carrying their goods in arms, but somewhere around 35 they realize that an easier life free of shoulder-strain is available to them in the form of a pull-cart. That’s when it starts.

But how do the suave make room for an appendage associated with arthritis and decline? They look to status pull-carts, the ones priced over $150. The under-$30 black wire carts clash with those Louboutin pumps. They will not do.

The pricey ones come with telescoping swivel handles, sleek brushed nickel and black finishes, large swiveling shock-absorbing wheels, light high-end metal tube framing, multiple pockets and privacy-protecting tops – you get the picture. Money.

The cart speaks for its owner, saying: I may be over 35, but my cart costs more than your grocery bill for the week. That’s the statement the well-heeled are looking to make in Europe this season.

Signs are popping up that the black and nickel Mercedes look may be on the way out. Yesterday, a silk-scarfed woman in a designer asymmetrical-hemmed  trench strode down our town’s retail corridor pulling an open-top green and cream polka-dot cart, a snappy convertible in the pull-cart world. She was making a statement: Yes, I am toting a shopping cart; don’t you wish you were, too?

It wasn’t too hard to imagine her giving the Audrey Hepburn flip of her scarf and squealing those wheels.

In the meantime, my abandoned cart wasn’t lonely for too long. By this morning, it was gone, perhaps adopted by one of the town’s elderly dog-walking ladies, a group particularly fond of pull-carts. Bet she wishes I had dropped off a Prada version on the pavement.

Packing day

It takes me two hours to  leave the house, ergo with a little application of mathematical principles (multiplication, the most complex math I know), it would appear it will take me three weeks to leave the country. We fly on Tuesday, so I’m already behind schedule.

Quasi-moving packing is not the same as three-week excursion packing, but with nowhere else to go, I turned to Rick Steves, American travel guru to Europe http://www.ricksteves.com/plan/tips/packlight.htm. Steves recommends packing no more than 20 lbs. in a carry-on bag and to prove it can be done, his website has a video tape of him unpacking his stuff.

It looks like a bit of a magic trick – he puts the suitcase on the bed, opens up the top and like a magician pulling rabbits out of hats, pulls out a stream of clothes and travel gear. I suspect there was a hole in the bottom of the suitcase  and all that stuff really had been hidden in the mattress below.

When we moved to Spain in 1999, we were each allowed two pieces of luggage weighing in at 75 lbs. each, if my memory is correct. We packed to maximum capacity, dragging our aggregate body weight overseas. Occasionally, we were upgraded to executive class, allowing us to pack three bags – or was it four?

Our luggage-weight ballooned to the point that when our younger son and I landed in Chicago we had to hire a porter. I felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the striking beauty and wealth.  Nevertheless, the porters’ expressions when they saw us coming down the ramp at O’Hare was a sight to behold. We may have had to hire two, but I can’t remember for sure, mostly because I couldn’t see above the luggage, which included a large crate with an 80 lb. dog.

On that round-the-world excursion, we landed in Australia with a baggage-load  so extreme, we had to mail several hockey-bags worth of stuff back to Canada at a cost exceeding $400 (in 2000 dollars – which would probably be about $408 now). That’s a lot of postage stamps.

I’m trying to avoid all that by sticking to the strict dietary-packing guidelines Air Canada is forcing on me now, but packing for four seasons and more than a year overseas is tricky business. I managed to get everything into one suitcase, except for my winter gear. I’ll still be able to do it, but it will take two trips (one suitcase apiece) instead of one.


And now for the serious middle-age traveler who is mildly curious about real luggage advice:

  1. Expensive versus cheap luggage: Go with cheap. We’ve hauled Wal-Mart-issue suitcases around the globe without any seam-ripping, zipper-splitting, contents-bursting effects.
  2. But what if the cheap stuff breaks anyway: It is more fun replacing a $40 suitcase than a $697 suitcase.
  3. What if I’m still nervous about my luggage’s durability? Luggage shops sell luggage straps for about $4 that you can secure around your bag just in case the zipper does give way. Airlines usually provide giant heavy-duty plastic bags with postage-standard tape at no cost so at check-in you can bag and seal your goods.
  4. Hard-case or softshell luggage: Go with soft-shell. In a non-scientific survey of two (my cheap luggage versus my friends’ high-end/status luggage, my soft (hockey bag or fabric suitcase with frame) luggage was able to take the squeeze of the luggage compartment.  Hers cracked, spraying blueberry jam over all their clothes.
  5. Who carries blueberry jam on a trip to the tropics? Despite what North America’s eastern Maple Syrup lobby tells you, it is blueberry jam, not maple syrup, that sets us apart from other countries, therefore, all North American cottagers carry wild blueberry jam on out-of-country trips. It is currency in foreign lands.
  6. Carry-on luggage: Wheeled suitcase or backpack: If possible, take a hybrid that does both. Touring calls for stair-climbing (think of all those beautiful hilltop villages in Spain) and pulling a wheeled case is like sightseeing with a stroller, ie. it’s work.
  7. What to pack: As little as possible. It’s better to pack light and buy whatever else you need at your destination, even if you have to discard it or give it away to strangers before boarding the flight home, or do what I do, which is
  8. Pack heavy: But engage in a year-long weight-training program to bulk up so you can sling 50 lb. suitcases with ease.