Where in the World Is … Thomas Cook?

“LONDON (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers were stranded on Monday by the collapse of the world’s oldest travel firm Thomas Cook TCG.L, sparking the largest peacetime repatriation effort in British history.”

So began a flurry of stories on 22 September. The 178-year old British travel company Thomas Cook shut down, literally overnight, with some 600K of its customers vacationing around the world. The New York Times told us, “Thomas Cook was no ordinary travel company. Founded in 1841, it changed the face of British travel. Its ubiquitous storefronts specialized in low-cost package holidays that put beach vacations in exotic locales within the budgets of middle-income Britons.”

And not only that. “Around 21,000 Thomas Cook staff globally lost their jobs, including 9,000 in the UK,” the Independent reported.

It’s a sad story on so many levels. But what happened? This sub-headline in the New York Times covers it in a nutshell: “Its package tour business model was successful for 178 years, but as consumer demand changed and moved online, the company did not.” You’ve seen me post about packaged tours; I’ve never been particularly interested. And the market for these types of vacations has grown older, while younger vacationers are very DIY, looking for the bargains here, there, and everywhere. This isn’t all of it—the company had too much debt and had become overextended; additionally, many vacationers were putting off travel due to Brexit—but it’s the most of it. Hate to see it happen.

Travel Tips & Passport, Er, Myths

First I read this article from Reuters: “The European Parliament called on the EU executive on Thursday to force Americans to apply for visas before visiting Europe this summer, stepping up pressure to resolve a long-running transatlantic dispute on the issue.” And then I found this one dated 2 March 2017 from Travel Agent Central, which declared the vote was already a done deal and we’d need visas “by summer.” I read both those articles very carefully and apparently still didn’t understand everything I read.

Oh goodness, I thought. Now we’ll have a tourism slump on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rick Steves set me straight, saying (on 9 March 2017):

A branch of the European Union recently held a symbolic and show-of-hands vote in favor of requiring American visitors to apply for entry visas. This has caused some confusion—especially among those who read headlines instead of details. Let me offer an explanation. And to cut to the chase, there is zero chance that Americans will need visas to travel to EU countries in 2017.

He goes on to point out that the dollar is strong against the euro right now (great for travelers; not great for folks like us trying to move income from Ireland to America), so it’s not likely the EU will rush to keep American travelers out.

So there’s a couple tips for you:

  • You don’t currently need a visa.
  • The dollar–euro exchange rate currently favors American travelers to the EU.

But wait, there’s more. Here’s an article from the New York Times with “Eight Ways to Save on Travel in 2017.” These are all good tips, but note that the Times also mentions the exchange rate—with Britain:

I don’t always feel good about exploiting the weakness of a nation’s currency—but with the United Kingdom (and London in particular), you’ll forgive me for having no such qualms. After Britons voted to leave the European Union, the pound sterling, which was exchanging at over $1.60 just a couple of years ago, plunged to around $1.17 in October, making Britain one of the best travel values in the world right now. Suddenly, that £5 cappuccino on Oxford Street is no longer cause for outright alarm. A quick look at the travel aggregator Trivago shows hundreds of hotel rooms available for under £100 a night for a weekend in mid-April. While London will never truly be a bargain, if you have always wanted to go, this may be as cheap as it’s going to get. As for feeling guilty—an argument can be made that American tourist dollars are exactly what an ailing economy needs.

So there you have it: at least nine tips for traveling in 2017. Just be sure, Yanks, that you can get back in. (We don’t plan to leave the country this year—though we’d certainly love to.)

Where Did You Go in 2015?

Some of you may still have a little bit of holiday vacation left … You may well be taking the tree down or getting ready to start work or school on Monday. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a little time to curl up with a good #longread and your travel dreams.

If so, I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss the New York Times’s recap of “The Most Popular Travel Destination Stories of 2015.” Here they are:

• Paris: A $1,000 Day in Paris for $100
A Paris concierge’s idea of the perfect day on the town—but our reporter organizes a similar day at a tenth of the price. And you know how I feel about Paris. Let’s go!

• Lake Michigan: A Tour of Lake Michigan, My Inland Sea
Striking topography, time-worn communities and the reassuring permanence of an unchanging lake. My mother grew up in Chicago and regularly swam the lake; I’ve had this trip in mind for a long time!

• Tucson, Arizona: In Tucson, an Unsung Architectural Oasis
One of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often you can find significant examples of mid-twentieth-century architecture. I’ve been to south Arizon a few times in recent years, but never Tucson—and I have friends there! Need to put this on my list.

• Rome, Italy: When in Rome, Learn to Cook Italian
If you go to Rome to dine, you’re getting only a taste of Italian culture. For a 
full immersion, you’ve got to make some pasta and traditional sauces yourself. A good friend of mine lives in Rome, and I often read Facebook posts (and see photos) about the cooking! OK, I’m game!

• Montana, Wyoming and Idaho: A Rookie’s Road Trip
A car-averse traveler finds freedom in the driver’s seat, covering 700 miles and three states over three days. I think Ann Patchett did this in a Winnebago and made it sound fun. This article does too.

• Yorkshire, England: Where Dracula Was Born, and It’s Not Transylvania
Bram Stoker found inspiration for his famous Gothic villain in an unlikely place—a sunny seaside Yorkshire village. It’s been more than a decade since I was anywhere in England; I’d love to go again!

• Puerto Rico: The Many Faces of Puerto Rico
Gallery openings, vibrant restaurants, hotel development, and preserved examples of the old way of life play well together in Puerto Rico. From my side of the States, this would be a relatively inexpensive “exotic” vacation. Hmmm …

• Tuscany and Puglia, Italy: Italy’s Treasured Olive Oil, at the Source
In Tuscany and Puglia, making olive oil is a lifestyle, one threatened by bad weather and a killer bacteria. Food is my favorite souvenir!

• LA to Mexico: On a Gay Cruise, Just One of the Guys
A cruise that conjures up the thumpa-thumpa club scene does more than you’d think: it creates a worry-free space where being gay is the norm. This isn’t my demographic, but it might be yours. 🙂

• 6 Places in Africa: Into Africa—Vacation Ideas
The Times asked current and former NYT international news correspondents, who have collectively spent 25 years reporting in Africa, to tell what to do in the regions they’ve covered.

• Italy, Yet Again: A Honeymoon Through Italy
The reporter says: “We danced at midnight in Venice, motored through Tuscany and made memories. Just as newlyweds should.” I had a three-week honeymoon myself this year … but who says you have to be on a honeymoon to take this trip?

So there you have it—eleven fabulous stories to whet your appetite for travel! Where did you go in 2015? Where will you go in 2016?

A Jane Austen / Georgian Christmas

I stumbled upon this article in the New York Times back in August, which was probably about as late as you could wait and still get a spot on this travel experience (“heritage tourism,” they say in the trade) … but it’s something to put in your tickler file for next year, yes?

I think it sounds like a lot of fun, if you like a tour. (We’re not generally the sort who goes in for tours, but this seems pretty upscale, with plenty of time on your own worked into the schedule.)

I snagged this photo of Bath Abbey from the NYTimes article © 2014.

I snagged this photo of Bath Abbey from the NYTimes article © 2014.

Day 1: Arrive at London’s Heathrow Airport. Meet your expert guide, Rosalind Hutchinson, and depart for a visit to the Jane Austen House and Museum in Chawton, including a talk by the curator and the opportunity to view a first edition.
Have lunch as a group at a historic local pub before continuing to the hotel in Winchester. This evening, before dinner, enjoy “A Jane Austen Evening” by the Madding Crowd. Carols, songs, hymns and anthems are included in a mummers play celebrating Christmas as in the time of Jane Austen.

Day 2: Tour the historic city of Winchester. Visit Jane Austen-related locations, including 8 College Street, where she spent the final weeks of her life, and Winchester Cathedral, where she was buried following her death in 1817 at the age of 41. The afternoon will be at leisure to attend services at the Cathedral, shop or enjoy the ambience of Winchester at Christmas. Have a Christmas Eve dinner with mince pies and mulled wine at the hotel tonight. Guests also have the option to attend midnight Eucharist at Winchester Cathedral.

Day 3: For Christmas, you are free to relax, explore or attend services at Winchester Cathedral. There will be a Christmas Day luncheon, complete with Christmas crackers. In the evening, you may decide to dine at the hotel’s evening buffet.

Day 4: Depart for Steventon Village, the village in Hampshire where Jane Austen was born in 1775. Visit the rectory where she spent most of her first 25 years.
Travel along Popham Lane, a route she often walked, to the Wheatsheaf Inn, where the Austens posted letters and collected their mail. These and many other locations in the area provided inspiration for Jane’s incisive novels about English town and country society. “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” were all written at Steventon.
Visit The Vyne, a National Trust property once owned by the Chute family, who hosted many parties attended by Jane Austen and her family. Enjoy a light lunch followed by a curator-led tour. Later this afternoon, meet with a member of the Jane Austen Society.

Day 5: Visit the quaint village of Lacock, which is sought after by filmmakers for its picturesque streets and historic cottages. Have lunch in a historic pub and continue to Bath. Jane Austen lived in Bath from 1801 to 1805, after her father retired from his ministry at Steventon.
Relax and enjoy the rest of the day, perhaps taking a sumptuous English tea at the hotel.

Day 6: Head out for a tour of Bath, known for centuries for its healing waters. Highlights include the Palladian-style Pulteney Bridge over the River Avon and the houses where Jane and her family lived at Sydney Place and Gay Street.
Visit the Assembly Rooms, a fashionable meeting place for 18th-century society, featured in Austen’s novels. Visit the Jane Austen Centre and the impressive costume collection at the Bath Fashion Museum. Later, continue to the Roman baths and the soaring Bath Abbey, which has undergone many transformations during its more than 1,000 years of history.
Today’s grand structure was one of the last great medieval cathedrals built in England. Tonight, toast your trip with a farewell dinner at the hotel.

Day 7: After breakfast, transfer to London’s Heathrow Airport for your flights back to the U.S.

If you’re a Jane Austen fan, do bookmark the website of the Jane Austen Centre, and the Jane Austen Society (England and North America). Here’s an interesting blog that’s All-Jane-All-the-Time, from the Vermont wing of the Jane Austen Society. Here’s another one, Austenonly.

Now start saving your nickels and dimes for that tour next year!

Sheep May Safely Graze and Pasture* (The Kissing Gate)

I’ve learned a lot of (ahem) interesting words and concepts hanging out, as I do, with Irish folk, and one of the most delightful of these is the kissing gate. (I just report these things, kids.)

I should hasten to point out this is not a uniquely Irish concept; there are kissing gates all over the British Isles. As it happens, many of the interesting things to see in this part of the world are out in the middle of nowhere, sitting on private farmland. The public has a right to access these historic sites, though, so there’s a little dichotomy between tourists and farmers, who want to keep their livestock in while allowing free access to people who’ve come to see the [stone circle, crumbling castle, altar tomb, you name it]. Farmers also prefer to keep hikers from either climbing (and potentially damaging) the fence or opening the gate (and possibly not shutting it properly).

Kissing gate photo borrowed from This fencing company's website.

Kissing gate photo borrowed from this fencing company’s website. See how it swings back and forth?

Enter the aforementioned kissing gate. Essentially a hinged gate with the swinging edge enclosed by a curved fence that it cannot be free of, it only allows one person at a time to pass through. The first kissing gate I saw was at Glendalough, with a line of tourists on either side, waiting. (It’s gone now, though.)

In theory, a kissing gate is too complicated for livestock. But there is a very large sheep in County Donegal that might well have learned to negotiate one.

This is a true story. We were driving back from the Inishowen Peninsula and took a wrong turn. (That’s how it always starts, no?) Getting back to the main road we stumbled across one of those brown markers—OMG, it’s a stone circle, just two kilometers!—and followed the twists and turns until finally the road just ended.

We parked and got out and wandered around a bit until a nearby farmer hollered across the field, “Looking for the stones?” He directed us up a tree-shaded lane, and off we went, experienced hikers we … ha. That little lane, however, was steeper than it looked, and pretty soon we were huffing and puffing with no end in sight; ten minutes later we glimpsed the stones on the other side of the fencerow we’d been walking along.

The lane ended at a farm-gate, and next to it, on the outside, stood a large sheep, bleating its frustration at finding itself on the wrong side of the fence from its fellows, who hovered, concerned, near the gate on the other side. (Yes, I have photographs.) The Outside Sheep looked at us warily as we approached, then skittered away as we got closer. Beside the larger farm gate was a kissing gate. Aha.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

We passed through, one at a time, and the minute we did, our buddy the Outside Sheep moved right back to the gate and continued to cry to be let in. Once we were in the field, the herd moved off, and we proceeded to do our Sound of Music reenaction. The view from the top of that hill was incredible, and the stone circle was huge. I took several photographs, and we just enjoyed the view for awhile, before we picked our way back across the field (very carefully) to the kissing gate and the Outside Sheep.

We did try to open the farmer’s gate—precisely what he wouldn’t want us to do—but failed to budge it, so we left the sheep, still audibly distraught, at the top of the hill and started the (blessedly downhill) hike back to the car. About halfway down—we were deciding that we’d about had enough of climbing hills—we were startled to hear an indignant—and very loud—BAAAaaa! That sheep was tiptoeing down the hill right behind us, so close I could have touched it. The Irishman and I both jumped a foot straight up and, in the process, lost ten years off our lifetimes. Then we laughed until we were hysterical. Oh, good times, good times. (You had to be there, I think.)

But how, my friends, did that stinkin’ sheep get out? It puzzles me to this day.

As does the origin of the name for a kissing gate. There are two schools of thought. Romantics claim that in simpler times, a gentleman would pass through the gate to hold it for his lady—but would demand a kiss from her before he’d let her pass. The unromantic point out that when closed together, the pair of gates touch, or kiss; it’s an engineering term, they say. Neither explanation makes perfect sense to me, but if I must err, let it be on the side of romance.

* One of J. S. Bach’s rare secular pieces, “Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd,” BWV 208 (The Hunting Cantata), contains this beautiful aria, the fourth: “Sheep May Safely Graze.”

Stereotypes No More

I was at the farmers market yesterday morning and had an interesting conversation with the gentleman from whom I occasionally buy pork. Most of these small farmers are selling “small ticket” items—a couple bucks for bell peppers, three dollars’ worth of Mr. Stripey tomatoes—and I always come with cash. I’d stopped at the bank on my way into town. But when you’re talking about a roast to throw on the grill for a few hours, the tally is likely to be more than a few dollars (and I had more shopping to do), so I asked if he could take my debit card.

Big grin. “Sure!” He pulled out an iPhone. “I only got a smart phone last year,” he said, while he settled a small plastic square—to swipe a card—into the jack on one end of the phone. “I never thought it would be so useful. My wife did the research and got us set up.” (This was Jamie Weaver of Weaver Farms, it turns out.) We had a chat about the beauty of technology.

Farming has long adapted to technology, of course: breeding, milking, high-tech tractors (and so much more that I, being a city girl, cannot speak about with any semblance of intelligence) long ago revolutionized the way farmers live their lives. But old stereotypes die hard, I think.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California—the heart of California’s agricultural industry—and when I was in high school (we won’t discuss how long ago that was) our social cliques divided along lines that seemed to indicate (to us kids, anyway) where our lives were leading: among others, the jocks, the stoners, kids headed to college, and … the aggies. The latter grew up on farms and were likely headed to a life of farming. At the time, that sort of life was the farthest thing from my mind.

Fast-forward a few decades. My brother earns his living as a farmer (mostly flowers and herbs), I love to garden (for a decade maintained a backyard vegetable garden, but a move to a new house with a shady yard put paid to that), consider myself a fair cook, and am an appreciator/supporter of the slow-food/locavore movement. I’ve read Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan.

Tennessee backyard, mid-summer.

Tennessee backyard, mid-summer.

I’ve blogged about the farmers market phenomenon more than once … the last one of the season; one I wandered through in Kilkenny, Ireland, with a raging case of pneumonia; another we found in Mountshannon (Co. Clare), Ireland; and one about a farm dinner. I have at least one other post planned but not written yet (so many ideas, so little time). This is a topic I love.

A Saturday Market on the Square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

A Saturday Market on the Square in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

And certainly I love eating what comes home with me from the farmers market.

And certainly I love eating what comes home with me from the farmers market.

But this post is really about farmers and stereotypes. And social media (in this case, Twitter), which sometimes busts those stereotypes and sometimes is just plain fun. A couple afternoons ago I stumbled—via an editor in Co. Clare, Ireland, I follow—into a hilarious conversation with a bunch of farmers in Britain. Young guys, probably early thirties, clearly tech savvy, great photos of sheep (don’t laugh) and countryside. Look:

• “Keen young farmer working hard to produce your food sustainably alongside some diversification enterprises. #‎BuyBritish.” (@FarmerBeary) Located Staffordshire, UK.

• “Livestock farmer and free range egg producer. Amazing wife and 3 boys under 6. Trying to breed Texel sheep and Saler cattle. Loves: family, beer and triers.” (Will Case @will_case) Located Ulverston, Cumbria.

• “Husband. Father of 3 little Girls. Arable, Beef & Free Range Egg Farmer. Harper Adams Grad. Welsh Rugby, Test Cricket & LFC fan. History geek & Music lover.” (Will Evans @willpenrievans) Located Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham, Wales, UK.

• “450 pedigree lleyn sheep. Producing purebred and commercial cross lambs. Fencing, hedge planting, firewood and a bit of arable keep us out of trouble.” (Hawcroft Lleyn @PVickerton) Located East Yorkshire.

• “Husband to the beautiful and talented @scarassem. Mid Wales sheep and beef farmer. Graduate of Aberystwyth Uni. Interested in learning more every day.” (Andrew Meredith @Merry_Meredith) Located Wales.

Seriously, great stuff. (Of course, Gerry noted drily the next morning that I have always had a soft spot for sheep.) Me, I know sheep-with-white-faces and sheep-with-black-faces. That’s pretty much the extent of it. But these guys know their sheep. (And cows.)

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

Our Stealth Sheep, in front of the kissing gate.

And there is a lot of, you know, farm-talk (ahem, farming industry) in their tweets:

• Tweet: Asst. manager position available on a progressive and expanding dairy farm, would suit an ambitious and driven person. All RT’s appreciated

• Tweet: Don’t forget it’s #BuyBritishDay on 3rd October pls make that extra effort to buy something produced here in UK #buybritishbrands

• Tweet: We are looking for an assistant shepherd for large sheep flock. Check out http://{etc.} livestock followers please retweet!!

• Tweet: Dear Tesco. Not very nice having your expected profits completely evaporate is it? Yours. UK Farming.

• Tweet: #pretupping continues today. Finishing fluke drenching after positive muck sample and two rams to fertility test #rathemthemthanme #sheep

• Tweet: Lamb freezer packs ready for collection as of Sunday afternoon from #GlenBeary Staffordshires finest lamb also available @EssingtonFarm

… but also a lot of current events—the Scotland referendum, Ryder Cup play, local politics about which I know nothing, ISIS, Emma Watson’s UN #heforshe speech—as well as, well, drinking, football (soccer to some of us), kids, and much more.

So if I still harbored stereotypes—I like to think I didn’t—they were well and truly busted this week. The farmers I met—in person and in Twitter feeds—are educated, smart, outward-looking and forward-thinking … and working the land. Makes me feel like maybe there’s hope for this planet after all.

Black Chronicles II — Through 29 November 2014

I came across this article (“The black Victorians: astonishing portraits unseen for 120 years”) in the Guardian, about a photographic exhibit at Rivington Place* in London, and I wanted to bring it to your attention while there’s still time for you to see it if you find yourself in London.

The newspaper comments the photos “show colonialism in all its contradictions”—but notes also that these photos (they’re beautiful) “challenge the received narrative of the history of black people in Britain.”

“Black Chronicles II is part of a wider ongoing project called The Missing Chapter,” says Mussai, “which uses the history of photography to illuminate the missing chapters in British history and culture, especially black history and culture. There is a widespread misconception that black experience in Britain begins with the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the first Jamaican immigrants in 1948, but, as this exhibition shows, there is an incredible archive of images of black people in Britain that goes right back to the invention of photography in the 1830s.”

All of the images featured in the article are copyrighted and reproduced with permission, which I don’t have, so you’ll just have to visit the links (here’s another) to have a look at these gorgeous antique photos.

And if you’re anywhere near London, this is just one more good excuse to make a trip into town.

* With a tagline that reads “Art, debate & diversity,” Rivington Place deserves a post all on its own. It’s a free public gallery and the home of Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Art) and Autograph ABP. It also houses the Stuart Hall Library, meeting rooms, and education facilities.