My Year Away. And Back.

Three Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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It was the Best of Times. It was the Worst of Times. Life Aboard a Cruise Ship.

The beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily describe a cruise vacation.  While I’m a bit late to the cruising party, after five cruises in four years, I’m becoming a bit of an expert. This cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam, December 31-January 14, delivered just what I expected it to.

When I’m on vacation, I often don’t want to “do” all that much. Typically, I just want to relax, soak up the local culture, eat local food, and hang out. I like to go to a place, park myself there, and just see what happens.

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Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a sunrise like this?

But “seeing what happens” is the good-and not-so-good—of the cruising “culture.”  First the good.

The food. I can’t emphasize this enough. And not because there is a lot of it waiting to be gobbled up (although there is). What I love about food on a cruise is that there is always something available that I not only want to eat, but something that I can eat. One of the on-going challenges of living with achalasia is that I always have to pay attention to what I’m eating. Always. I have to analyze how my esophagus feels, make a judgment call whether the food in front of me is too hard, too leafy, or too complicated to give it a go.

Living with achalasia means that when I walk into a restaurant, I often have limited choices on what I can eat successfully. I always find something, but I might only have a couple of options on the whole menu.  However, on a cruise, the choices gloriously abound.

For breakfast on a cruise, I always start with oatmeal. (I know. I’m a little boring.) Steaming hot, hearty, and served with a smile.  (Seriously, the server who was always at the oatmeal station seemed pretty happy to see me each morning.) If I’m still feeling okay after that, I might add a croissant or some other soft bread item. Or maybe some strawberries and cheese.

For lunch, I start with soup.  During our two weeks at sea, I had roasted parsnip soup, asparagus soup, ginger carrot soup, hot and sour soup, garden tomato soup, potato leek soup—and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Then there was the spread of cheeses, fruits, pastas, stir fry, veggies, you name it. All sorts of things that were in my “achalasia-eating wheelhouse.” And, of course, a wee bit of chocolate ice cream to finish things off.

While more formal than lunch, dinner still had choices. And if there wasn’t something on the menu I wanted, I could always order salmon, which I often did. And, of course, the plethora of yummy desserts just waiting for me!

It’s not that I wanted to eat non-stop.  But feeling confident at every meal that I would be able to eat without repercussions made me feel like I was on a real vacation.

The people. While we met a couple of interesting passengers here and there over our two-week cruise, what I liked best about the people were the staff members.  In particular, Rony, Yuri, and Isman.

Rony was our room steward. He kept our room immaculate, cleaning it twice a day. As we headed to breakfast, Rony would pop in and get our cabin cleaned before we returned. The same thing would happen when we left for dinner. If we needed anything, we only had to call and he would magically show up at our door right away. He was always in a good mood, always wanted to make sure we were happy, and always tried to figure out if there was something he could do to make our cruise more enjoyable.

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Sure, on every cruise, you get towel animals. But I thought Rony’s were especially cute.

Yuri took care of us in the “Lido,” the buffet area on every cruise ship where passengers typically eat breakfast and lunch. Yuri learned our names on the first day, figured out what we liked to drink, chatted with us each morning, and was just all-around pleasant to get to know. One morning, breakfast was a bit crowded because everyone was interested in going ashore at the same time. When we showed up, Yuri found us and took us to the table she had saved for us because  she wanted to make sure we had our “regular” table.

Isman was our head waiter for our dinner table (table #115). After our first meal, Isman knew that I drank black tea after dinner, but Gary preferred herbal “sleepy time” tea. He knew that we didn’t like ice in our water. He knew that if I ordered salmon, I didn’t want Swiss chard with it. He knew that Gary didn’t like chocolate, but I did. He took care of us at every dinner like we were the most important people in the world. It was lovely.

But, then, there was “the worst of times.”

The food. While I reveled in the delicious, fresh and healthy food options, there were also plenty of other foods that I don’t even like to look at. Like mountains of bacon, piles of powdered donuts, grilled hot dogs (I really have an aversion to shaped meat), you name it.

It was bad enough to look at the unhealthy food before it was served. But it really turned my stomach to see piles of half-eaten food left on people’s plates. Sure, I could have just looked away, but I was both horrified and fascinated with the kinds of food that people had no shame about eating publicly.

The people. I hate to say it, but as lovely as the staff members were, some of our fellow passengers were, shall we say, a bit self-absorbed? I know the feeling of “hey, I’m on vacation so I can do what I want,” but there should be limits. Here’s just a glimpse of some of the things we saw.

It was beautiful in St. Maarten, but devastation from the recent hurricane was everywhere.  As we walked into town, we were amazed at the overturned sailboats, the shipping containers piled up on the shore line, the missing roofs from shops. But we were equally amazed at the resilience of the town’s residents, how happy they were to see the tourists return, and how diligently they were working to repair their beautiful seaside town. It was an inspiration.

While resting on a bench along the beach-side main street, a woman joined me and quickly started chatting. She was clearly upset.  “What’s the matter?” I said, expecting her to say something about the sadness of the devastation.  Instead, she said, “I didn’t come here to see this mess. I already saw all this on television.” All I could mumble was something like “Well, what did you expect?”

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We were so glad to visit St. Maarten on our cruise. It is breathtaking!

Seeing piles of uneaten food was bad enough, but watching some people eat was like a bad horror movie in slow motion. I saw a guy eating a pile (I’m talking about a heaping pile) of bacon.  Standing up while wandering around the buffet.  Mouth to bacon.  I mean, why use a fork if you don’t have to? Eww.

I saw people walking through the Lido deck in their bathrobes.  I saw spouses berating each other. I saw parents talking to their kids in such a way that if I were their kid, I’d start looking for scholarships to boarding schools.

But, here’s the thing about life on a cruise ship. If you know what to expect, I still say it’s a great vacation. It is definitely not for everyone. I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk the hubster into going on another one. But, I’m ready. I’m ready to sit on my balcony and watch the sun rise as it dances across the glittering ocean. I’m ready to curl up in the really comfy bed and watch movies on the large HD TV screen. I’m ready to walk laps on the Promenade Deck, listening to my Italian lessons. I’m ready to soak in the Hydrotherapy pool, letting the minerals and pulsating water take my aches and pains away. And I’m definitely ready to have someone serve me oatmeal for breakfast every morning.


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So, You Might Not Think Baking Pies Has Anything to do With Travel. Let Alone Boats. But in My Mind They Are Inexorably Connected.

As some of you know, last year, I was alone on Thanksgiving Day.  The day turned out to be peaceful.  Full of quiet reflection.  So, I’ve been reflecting on that day as November started peeking around the corner.

And it occurred to me that we don’t actually have to have the big traditional eat-til-you-explode meal extravaganza any more if we don’t want to.  The trouble is that I love to cook Thanksgiving food.  And the hubster loves to eat it.  (Except neither one of us eats much meat anymore and could do without the turkey.)  Plus, not to boast or anything, but my Thanksgiving Feast is, well, okay, I’ll just say it.  Epic.

The most important part of the meal are the pies, of course.  In case you haven’t heard about the Roving Pie, have a seat.  Grab a fork.

I’ve been baking Thanksgiving pies for well over 30 years.  Without question, whether the table is full of guests or we are alone, three pies always make an appearance.  The Apple Pie.  The Pumpkin Pie.  And the Pecan Pie.  (These pies are so important, each warrant a separate sentence.)  The Apple Pie is made with Granny Smith apples only, at least eight cups worth, with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of this and that.  The Pumpkin Pie is a version from Southern Living that is so smooth, it just doesn’t warrant any messing with.  And the Pecan Pie is devoid of corn syrup, but chock full of whole pecans (about three times more than any recipe would have the nerve to suggest) and a hearty helping of brown sugar.  All are paired with an all-butter crust.  I know you have been told that you need to add shortening to get the right crust flakiness.  Or vodka.  Or some other nonsense.  You don’t.  Period.  King Arthur all-purpose flour, unsalted butter, a swig of salt, and 4 tablespoons of iced water.  That’s it.  And, just try to say my crusts are not flaky.

But those are only three pies.  I always make at least four.  The fourth pie is the Roving Pie.  The Roving Pie emerged decades ago when I decided to “try something new.”  For whatever reason, I chose to make a pie I had never made before.  And to make it even more interesting, I decided that I would never make it again.  No matter what.  This quickly became a Pardun Tradition that has now been passed on to my daughter Grace.  I am pleased to report that she takes her role as Keeper of the Roving Pie Tradition very seriously.  As she should.

Most of these Thanksgiving pies have turned out rather stellar. But a couple have been bloopers.  I seem to remember the pear/cranberry/walnut concoction not going over well.  But, the coconut cream macadamia nut was a huge hit one year, as was the chocolate-lined crusted cream pie.  The pineapple grits pie was, um, interesting.

Often a fifth pie would make an appearance.  The Decoy Pie.  This tradition started when the hubster felt sorry for our new next-door neighbors one year and invited them to Thanksgiving Dinner (which is always at 2:00, no exceptions, by the way. Did I mention I have traditions?).  They were happy to come and they also let us know that they would be bringing all their relatives who were flying in to visit.  I didn’t know these people, but one thing I did know was that I sure didn’t want them hogging the apple, pumpkin or pecan pies.  So, I made a raspberry cream pie that was extremely showy.  A piled-high mound of yumminess.  And then I talked it up while we were eating.  Sure enough!  They took the bait, loved the pie and kept their pie-crusty mitts off our beloved traditional pies.  Everyone walked away sated–and happy.  From that year on, if someone new was at the table, the Decoy Pie would make a showing—and all the “regulars” knew it was their job to convince the “newbies” that the Decoy Pie was the best.

Outside of the pies, the Thanksgiving meal is a typical New England dinner.  Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, herbed stuffing, balsamic pearl onions, etc., etc., etc.,

Who wouldn’t look forward to a meal like that?

Except, neither of us can eat all that at one sitting any more.  Nor do we care to.  What to do? What to do?

Introducing Thanksgiving Month. With a renewed sense of “hey, we’re getting older and it is perfectly fine to do things differently if we want to,” we are going to try ignoring Turkey Day this year.  But, we’ll still eat all the foods we love.  We’ll just take a month to do it.

It’s early November so we have just started this, but so far, it’s been a success.  I baked the pecan pie (with maple syrup infused whipped cream) this past weekend.  We invited friends over to share it with us.  I also made mashed potatoes (spiffed up with crème fraiche) and peas along with baked honey-marinated salmon.  Next up, I think we’ll hit the stuffing and the pumpkin pie.

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Here’s the Pecan Pie I made last week.

 

Since having my mid-life crisis (okay, my two-thirds life crisis), I have a new lease on life.  There are all sorts of things in life that I love—and no one loves tradition more than me—but I’m discovering that I’m ready to let go of traditions and do things a little bit differently.  Which leads me to two other “You Did What?!” things that have happened recently.

First, I sold my boat.  It was a tough decision, but the right one.  I’m still rowing, but now, I row with one club rather than two, and never alone as I often did in my single.  I’ve got to say that I’ve relished the rows I have had since letting go of my boat because I know how fortunate I am to still have a group of people to row with.  And, especially a group that still wants to row with me.

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Boat loaded and ready to drive to its new owner.

Second, I’ve taken the proceeds from my boat sale and booked another cruise for the hubster and me.  We’ll be tooling around the Caribbean for two weeks over the university holiday for no reason other than to relax, read, and hang out.  Yes, I know we could do that at home, but for whatever reason I felt compelled to trade one boat (albeit one that only weighed 34 pounds) for another boating experience. The hubs asked many, many times “Uh, really?  Do you really, really want to do this?  Why? Why?”  But, in the end, he agreed, trusting me that getting away will be good for us.  (And, yes, I do remember that we “got away” for a whole month this past summer.)

I began this blog three years ago in preparation for my sabbatical.  I called it My Year Away.  I expected the year to be life-changing.  And it was.  I learned so much that I decided to continue writing the blog, renaming it My Year Away.  And Back.  I thought I would be done by now.  But, once I got Achalasia, I had a whole additional experience about being “away” from normal—and working my way back. Since then, I’ve decided that “Being Away” is a state of mind that I should relish as I try to navigate life in my 60s.  That involves doing things differently (like Thanksgiving Month, for example).  And, I think it also means spending part of all my remaining years “Away.”

St. Augustine wrote “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I might not make it through the whole book, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  Eating Thanksgiving over 30 days.  Meandering the Caribbean on a Cruise Ship. Rowing at Sunrise.   Now, if I can just finish the semester…


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A Sabbatical and a Cruise. Who Would Have Thought?

As I have written about in other posts, part of the goal of My Year Away is to try new things. One of the things on my list is to take a cruise. While this might seem like a strange item to put on a sabbatical list, I added it for two reasons: 1. I would go with my best friend, Kathy, who loves cruises. I have long been curious about why Kathy enjoys cruising so much. Personally, I didn’t see the appeal, but I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. 2. It’s good to try new things. I don’t know why, but it is.

So, off to a cruise. I drove 10 hours straight south until I hit Miami, met up with Kathy and hopped on our 1,000 foot vessel, the Norwegian Getaway. Considering most of my boating experience has involved sailboats or my rowing shell, it was difficult to get my mind wrapped around what a 1,000 foot-long boat would be like. The most common phrase I had heard was “floating hotel.” Let me just say that the Getaway was not like any hotel (floating or otherwise) I have ever visited.

It was fairly incomprehensible from bow to stern. Getaway

First, the ship reaches port at 8 every Saturday morning. It offloads 4,000 people; someone cleans all the staterooms and then 4,000 different people get back on at noon. (I’m not making this up.) And this is all done with a “hey, it’s no big deal” confidence.  This might be hard to believe, but we parked the car (and spent a few minutes memorizing where we had parked it), went through security, filled out health forms, went through another kind of security, and walked on to the ship in under an hour. The whole week was like that. Organized, non-frenetic, easy peasy.

Besides my one bout with seasickness (I know, it’s hard to believe that I could get sick on a ship that size.), I had a blast. And I learned some things over the week. Here are my top four.

  1. Being disconnected is a good—albeit, rare–experience. When I go on vacation, I try to stay away from digital things. But “staying away” and being totally disconnected are two different things. Even while I was a gazillion miles away in Tbilisi last June, I was able to email people, check in on Facebook, and talk to my husband via Skype. You can’t do any of that on a cruise ship unless you want to pay for it. On principle, I was not willing to shell out 75 cents a minute to connect with the world so I was completely offline for an entire week. It was lovely.
  1. A cruise ship might be mammoth, but compared to the ocean, it’s actually just a tiny bobbing blip. So the prevalent image you see while cruising is water. Every inch of the ship (except the casinos, the stores, and the auditoriums, in which I spent next to no time) is geared toward a water view. Windows are everywhere. And, there are multiple outdoor areas—many more than I expected. Besides our balcony where I could read in private, or hang over the railing and look at the miles of ocean with no one to bother me, there were pools (I have no idea if we discovered all of them, but we saw at least five), a basketball court (where we attempted Salsa and Zumba exercise classes), an outdoor giant chess board, a ¼ mile jogging track, an outdoor promenade with restaurants and bars and plenty of quiet seating areas (it took us four days to discover this deck!), and that is just a partial list. I looked at the water all day long. This is a good thing, which I’ll write about in my next post when I review Blue Mind (which I read on the cruise), a book about the science behind the benefits of water.sunset

I felt like I was on a boat. I was glad, because I was worried that it really would feel like a hotel and if that was the case, why not just stay at a Hilton?

  1. People sort themselves into communities wherever they are. On a cruise ship, there are an unlimited number of activities. While they are all supposed to be fun, some to me sounded dreadful. Uh, Bingo? No thanks! Fun with balloon animals? Are you kidding me? Bidding on Thomas Kinkade art? You can’t make these things up. But, amidst all the goofy things on a cruise ship, there are plenty of things to do that I did find appealing. One of the favorite evening activities we discovered early in the week was listening to Brazilian pianist and vocalist Paulo del Souza. No matter what bar he was playing in, we found him—and so did lots of other people. Kathy and I started to notice his groupies. “Hey, wasn’t that couple here last night?” By the end of the week, we noticed each other, talked to each other, even shared a few bottles of bubbly together. In between Paulo’s sets, we would talk about all sorts of things and found we had lots in common. We even joked about some of the other activities on board that we agreed were sub-optimal.  It didn’t take long, but we had, indeed, found “our people” on this cruise.

Yes, I was on a vacation, completely out of my comfort zone, but I still found comfort by discovering a community of like-minded people. I also started being more observant around the ship and noticed other groupies: the group gathered around the Backgammon sets. Or the Trivia Challenge group. (I’m guessing there was a community of Thomas Kinkade art collectors, too, but I definitely didn’t see them!)

  1. Developing a routine helps us sort out our lives. Given how new cruising was to me, I didn’t expect to develop a routine so quickly, but I did. Without saying “Hey, Kathy, let’s develop a routine to make the most of our trip,” it just happened. By the first full day, here is basically how our days shaped up.
    1. Wake up.
    2. Grab workout clothes and hit the jogging track for a mile wake up stretch.
    3. Leisurely breakfast, chatting about anything and everything.
    4. Work out, either in a class or on the machines.
    5. Hit the therapy pool, the sauna, and the salt room.
    6. Leisurely lunch, chatting about anything and everything.
    7. We’d go our separate ways for a couple of hours in the afternoon. I would typically sit outside in the shade and read.
    8. Reconvene early evening where we would get ready for dinner.
    9. Leisurely dinner, chatting about anything and everything.
    10. Go find Paulo and listen to his set while drinking Prosecco.

There were variations, of course. While there are no pictures to prove this, we did, indeed, dance the night away at the Disco party under the stars. And we did watch a fairly bizarre musical rendition of Legally Blonde. But, we basically found a rhythm and a routine that was comforting, helpful, restorative, and productive. (We each got a good amount of writing accomplished during the week as well.)

It’s taken me about a half a century to realize how much I like a routine.

And, so here I am on my sabbatical where, theoretically, I can do anything I want for an entire year. I’m finding that what I want is to lead a productive life. And I’m realizing more and more that routine helps me do that. So does having a community to rely on. And so does disconnecting sometimes.

And so does going on a cruise.