Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer sailing in the Pacific Northwest

Seattle is a tease. 

This summer, while other parts of the country are roasting in three-digit temperatures, La Seattle, like a beautiful woman capitalizing on her looks, has been playing hard to get. Locals expect lousy springs. This year, there was no spring at all. Still, La Seattle kept egging us on, a few hours of sunshine here, some gorgeous blooms there. 

One thing we can [usually] count on here, is decent summer weather after July 4. Not this year. Nope. Non. No siree! While we were in Europe, my friends had to deal with more teasing (a few hours of sunshine, a gorgeous 4th of July,) followed by clouds, and cooler weather. Last week, when I stopped by Madison Park, a favorite neighborhood on the shore of Lake Washington, this is what I saw...

Lonely lifeguard watching over a lonely swimmer

Another lonely lifeguard watching over three pale-looking Popsicles...

Lonely sailboat

Last week, as soon as we returned from the warm and sunny Mediterranean, Junior and a good friend headed for the Seattle Yacht Club. Even though he started attending sailing camp in 2nd grade, this was Junior's first racing camp! It was offered only once this summer, and reserved for more experienced sailors. It turns out Junior and his buddy were the youngest ones there. My son paled under his impeccable (Spanish) tan when he realized that for the next few days, he was going to compete with teams who were at least two or three years older. I bet Junior really felt like... a junior at that point. He need not have worried. In spite of mediocre weather (it rained all day on Thursday,) cold water, and strong opponents, the young boys won one of the races and scored a very honorable 3rd place during the big regatta at the end of the week. Le Husband was very proud and took a few [fancy] pictures to celebrate.

Team work...

Proud of their 3rd place!

Young sailors...

All we heard about over the weekend is how Junior now wants to open a bank account in his name, and start saving to buy "his own V15 (sailboat)" by the time he enters high-school. It is going to be a while before he achieves his goal, but the child is driven. Who knows? I may have a future Eric Tabarly or a Michel Desjoyeaux at home. They can't all be soccer or baseball players after all! 

Meanwhile, locals were considering pulling their fleece jackets and warm fall clothing out of their closets. The weather was Le-topic-du-jour on Facebook. Unbeknownst to most, La Seattle was waiting patiently, ready to strike again. On Saturday morning, the big tease was back in rare form: Gorgeous sunny sky, no clouds, summer temperatures. Perfect timing since this family had decided to go on a much-needed sailing adventure. You may remember our boat, Mistral, a beautiful 22-year old Catalina, lovingly restored and maintained by Le Husband

We had not seen Mistral since the end of June. In a good year, we have already taken several overnight cruises by mid-July. This year, as you may have gathered, things are a bit different. Everyone was looking forward to seeing the old girl again, and to settle in for a weekend voyage in the Puget Sound area. 

Bonjour Mistral!

Our favorite beach house... because it travels!

Ah, Mistral. Together, we have had most excellent adventures! No long cruise for us this summer alas (Europe was too hard to resist.) Short weekends will have to do. 

Have I mentioned that we all love boats? We have owned boats for 10 out of our 15 years in the Pacific Northwest. Ski boats. Cruisers. A sailboat. Like a lot of locals, we started with lake boating. It was fun while it lasted, but as soon as friends took us out cruising around the Puget Sound with them, we were hooked. A few months later, we bought our first cruiser. We never looked back. While Junior was young, we did not own a boat. We live inland and were miserable in the summer. What is the point of living in Seattle, and putting up with nine months of grey/rainy skies if you can't be on the water when the sun finally starts shining? So we chartered boats, and took them around the gorgeous San Juan islands, north of Seattle. Finally, we came back to boating, thanks to Mistral. Le Husband learned how to sail when he was a young boy in France. He was itching to get his own sailboat. The rest is family history. 

Islands, inlets, secret coves, peaceful anchorages, state of the art marinas... all within hours of Seattle, our home base, make this area attractive to boaters from all over the United States. If you do not own a boat, WA state ferries can still take you to some of our favorite destinations, but not all. We have been lucky to be able to explore the Pacific Northwest on our own boat, and this is a privilege we do not take for granted.

What do we do on a typical boating weekend? You know, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. We eat, we drink, we explore. Most importantly, we relax. There is something magical about being on the water. Le Husband, who works hard during the week, is a different man as soon as he dons his skipper hat. 

Picnic on board: Simple food, but everything tastes better on a boat
Hailey the Yellow Dog, relaxing...

A boat, a boy, a boom, and a bag of chips: Isn't life grand?

Boat + sun = Happy, relaxed Hubby

Thanks to Mistral and her predecessors, we have discovered some incredible places. There are favorite ones, and we go back often. They usually involve a small town, and a comfortable marina, with friendly tenants. When we arrive, we feel right at home. There are favorite boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops...

Scallops taste better when enjoyed on the shore

There are hidden trails full of surprises...

There is admiration (always)... There is envy (sometimes)... There are plans being made (often)... One day, one day...

Mostly, there are moments shared by our family. Not all perfect, not all grand, but who could help smiling when the sun shines like it did during these two long, wonderful days? La Big Tease be darned. She may be moody again tomorrow morning, or the day after, but we will go back out. Mistral is waiting.

Mount Rainier

A bientôt.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A European summer: Ten Favorite moments. (Europe '11 - #7)

We came back a few days ago. It was a relief to find the house in perfect shape, happy pets, and a yard weeds had not taken over. We have our wonderful house-sitter to thank for that. This has been a long trip, even for us (four weeks.) 

I was getting tired of packing and unpacking three large bags every few days, but it was wonderful to be able to spend our last week in the same place, kick back and play in the sand. It is a good thing we did, because when we landed in Seattle, cooler temperatures and rain greeted us. This is mid-July, but one never, ever takes the weather for granted in the Pacific Northwest. Rain? 63 F? Definitely a case of déjà vu. Think I am exaggerating? A guy reported yesterday on a local news channel (Komo News) that according to the University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Department, Seattle has enjoyed exactly 78 minutes of weather at 80 degrees or warmer so far this year. He broke it down into: 12 minutes on July 2 and 66 minutes on July 6. Since we were in Europe both days, it seems this family has missed all of Seattle's glorious summer. Dommage! Meanwhile, the rest of the country is experiencing a heatwave. If you want to read the article, (it is really funny, unlike the weather,) you can find it here.

I have finally finished putting clothes and travel guides away. Junior is at sailing camp (a summer tradition,) and Le Husband is out of town on a business trip (hopefully in a sunnier place.) The house is quiet; Le dog and Le cat are sleeping next to me. Enfin! Finally! I get to sit down at my desk and reflect on our most excellent European adventures. 

What is it that was so special about this long, eventful trip? What were my favorite moments? Before I start my list, let me say that landing in Europe in June was a smart move. It seemed that we were always ahead of crowds and we only felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists once, in the medieval city of Carcassonne. Back to the list. Favorite moments.

1. Enjoying time spent with old friends and relatives.

This year, we were lucky to have Le Brother around both in Paris and in Spain. The trip would not have been the same without him. Junior and his cousins, Théo and Jules, all had a great time thanks to him and Le Husband. We also enjoyed Mutti, La Mother-in-Law, and my parents. Along the way, we reconnected with old friends and colleagues.  If some of them are surprised we are still living away from home [and in Seattle] after 15 years, they were kind enough not to ask "pourquoi"? (why.) 

Mutti and Junior
Junior and Jules
Dad and I
2. Showing Junior that France is so much more than Paris.

What a treat it was for me to take him out of the French capital [where we tend to spend most of our vacation time]; zoom along beautiful French roads; drive through small towns and villages;  visit medieval castles; chat with locals in stores and restaurants. While I speak French to Junior on a daily basis in the United States, he answers in English. For years, I found this frustrating. Then I realized he was born here, has always attended American schools and feels more comfortable expressing himself in English. The little guy had a surprise for me this time. After we spent a few days in London, the Eurostar train took us to Paris. As soon as the door opened, he switched to French. Just like that. Then he never stopped until we left Europe. Even though he has a tinge of American accent, all our relatives complimented him on his communication skills. Junior was beaming. It was not all. Was he determined to impress me or did he realize that this trip meant a lot to his mother? After a few days, he started reading signs, menus and displays in French, learning about French history and culture along the way. I know he will be fine, whenever he stays in France, even if I am not around to help him. Well done, Junior.

Learning about France...

3. Traveling with a [future] rock'n'roll star.

Junior is entering 6th grade in the fall. In France, that is a big deal. At that point, children leave elementary school and move up to le collège (junior high.) Mutti, his grandma, decided to reward him with a brand-new acoustic guitar. Junior is a beginner, but he has been taking weekly lessons for months and practices every day at home. One afternoon, Le Husband took us to his favorite Parisian music store... and we left with a beautiful guitar, and a gigantic case. As we were walking towards the car, it struck me that for the next three weeks, we were going to travel with a gazillion bags, an 11-year old, his fedora hat and now a guitar! I confess to a brief moment of panic. I should not have worried. The guitar entertained us all during the trip and made it back safely to Seattle.

Mutti, Le (proud) Husband and the young musician: 
Improvised street concert in Paris...

4. Visiting special places. Enjoying more special moments.

London : Lingering over a relaxing dinner in Covent Garden with a girlfriend, then riding back to the hotel in a black cab, taking in the London night life along the way. Taking a stroll in trendy Notting Hill while feeling like an insider thanks to La novel-du-jourNotting Hell, by Rachel Johnson. 

Paris: Savoring a delicious Italian dinner alfresco, in a peaceful alleyway tucked behind the Crillon hotel on a glorious summer night. Discovering a unique designer boutique and finding my new favorite fragrance. 

Le Brother and La Sister-in-Law

Périgord: Realizing how incredibly beautiful the Dordogne river valley looks, from the top of a medieval château or from a canoe. Visiting troglodyte homes built between 18,000 and 10,000 BC and marveling at the fact that the Magdalenians survived for 8000 years without central vacuum systems, powder rooms, bonus rooms and sprinkler systems!

A troglodyte town carved out of limestone:
La Roque St Christophe (medieval village, reproduction) 
One of the five levels of the troglodyte town, la Roque St. Christophe

Spain: Going on our first scuba diving adventure with Le Brother as a teacher. Perusing menus written in Spanish, Catalan, French, English, and German... to finally settle for grilled fish or paella e.v.e.r.y. s.i.n.g.l.e. t.i.m.e. 

Life is a beach on La Costa Brava, Spain
La Cala Montgo (Montgo cove), our Spanish homebase

5. Observing, chasing, petting, photographing dogs wherever we went.

Hôtel du Château, Carcassonne
Homeless man and his pack, Barcelona
The "Hotel Dog" - a cool dude - Can Miquel Hotel, L'Escala, Spain

So long, furry friends. Thank you for shaking my paw. Thank you, Le Husband and Junior, for patiently waiting while I was doing so.

6. Observing locals and tourists wherever we went.

I get a kick out of identifying and analyzing cultural differences. For a few weeks, we were in the right place. Our small hotel in Spain was a microcosm of Europe: I loved sipping my coffee by the pool in the morning, checking my emails, while listening to Spanish, Belgian, and Dutch families' interactions. While visiting the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris (where celebrities are buried,) I offered a copy of my star map to an exhausted American tourist who was looking for Jim Morrison's grave and pointed her to a water fountain. She may have gone home and told her friends that she survived the Paris heat wave and found "the Lizard King" thanks to a friendly "Parisian!" 

Jim Morrison (1943-1971)
The most visited grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery

The Lizard King's fans leave messages all over the grave
 and on a nearby tree

7. Trying to memorize the funny stuff Junior said during the trip.

While paddling on the Dordogne River: "Un château, encore un château!" (a castle, another castle!) We heard this every 15 minutes for over three hours. 

While inspecting our hotel bathroom in Barcelona and finding a bidet: "Mom, why did you leave a magazine in the foot washer?" (this one he actually said in English!)

8. Realizing that absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Falling in love with La Belle France all over again. Complicated, feisty, culture-proud, argumentative, curious, but never boring, the French greeted us with a friendly "bonjour" and helped us when we needed them. Les amis, you may very well be the most misunderstood people on the planet, but don't ever change. I get you, and I like you (that includes you, Parisians, even though you can be real pains-in-the-derrière.)

Montignac, Périgord: Someone has a sense of humor!
The French countryside  

9. Making the most of technology.

A special Merci to my faithful sidekicks for helping me record this trip and tell my stories: I am talking to you, MacBook Air, best laptop I have ever owned; I am talking to you, Le Lumix, best point-and-shoot camera. I am talking to you, Lola, best GPS we ever used. You took us around Europe painlessly; finding your way through tiny French villages and in and out of innumerable roundabouts.

Meet Lola, Le GPS

10. Hearing from my faithful readers.

Merci for stopping by, reading my stories and leaving enthusiastic [and often humorous] comments. You know who you are. 

Taking notes on one of many temporary desks in Castelnaud la Chapelle

A bientôt.