Sunday, March 31, 2019

Winter´s Last Gasp?

Even though the calendar says that it is spring, even though the daffodils have sprouted, and even though we have had numerous mild days in which the temperature has risen into the 50s F, here in Ohio you can usually count on a last snow in late March or even April.

Yesterday was a mild but overcast day.  In the early evening the drizzle turned to heavy rain, and my back yard was flooded.  Then the temperature dropped, and by 10 P.M. it was snowing heavily.  This morning I had this wintry view from my window.  I guess Mother Nature played an April Fool's Day joke on us one day early.

The one good thing about these late season snows is that they do not last long.  By Tuesday the temperature is forecast to be back in the 50s.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Thanks to my Travel Agent

Most of the time I book my flights online.  However, I decided to use a travel agent at the AAA office to book my flights on Icelandair for this summer's trip to Europe.  My AAA card provides me with free travel agent service, and besides, one of the agents is a very personable young lady with whom I enjoy chatting.  I am quite glad now that I did!  Her assistance turned out to be invaluable.

I wrote a few days ago that Icelandair had suddenly canceled their direct flights from Cleveland.  The direct flight was the main reason that I had decided to include Iceland on my European itinerary.  According to media reports, those with reservations would be rescheduled by way of Boston, or they could receive a refund.  I decided that I would cancel my flight reservations, skip Iceland, and fly to Switzerland.  

As of yesterday the Icelandair website had still not been updated, and I had still not received any notification of my cancelled flight from the airline.  I decided to go back to AAA and have my agent deal with the situation.  She called Icelandair and was put on hold.  While waiting, we looked at flights on other airlines to Switzerland.  Someone finally answered, and he said flatly that the booking was nonrefundable!  My agent asked what the new schedule would be.  Not only would I have to fly through Boston, but my direct flight from Iceland to Zurich had been cancelled also!  She could tell that I was not very happy, and she insisted that since the airline had been the one to cancel the originally booked flights, a refund should be offered.  The guy said that he would talk to his manager... and after a considerable amount of time, he came back and said that, yes, I could cancel and receive a refund.  Hurray!  I guess the fellow on the phone had not received the memo that Cleveland passengers could be reimbursed.

We than made new airline reservations.  I will fly to Chicago on United, and from there take an overnight flight to Zurich on Swiss International Airlines.  After spending time with my Swiss cousins, I shall travel by train to Vienna and Munich. (The train tickets cannot be purchased this far ahead of time).  Coming home, I will fly on Lufthansa from Munich to Chicago, and United from Chicago to Cleveland.  

I already have my hotel reservations booked for Vienna and Munich.  Fortunately, the Airbnb apartment that I reserved for Reykjavik had free cancelation.  I cancelled that as soon as I got home from the travel agent.  

So, after much ado, my plans for Europe are pretty much set.  Knock on wood, there will be no more monkey wrenches!

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Ethiopian Connection

In Mexico City there is a busy traffic circle named Plaza de Etiopía where four avenues... Xola, Cuauhtémoc, Diagonal San Antonio and Cumbres de Maltrata... all converge.  It is also the location of a Metrobus stop and a subway station.  It might not seem that odd that there is a traffic circle named after an African nation.  After all there are streets in Mexico City named after everything from European cities to foreign rivers to states in the U.S.  However there is an interesting story behind the name of Plaza de Etiopía.  

In 1935 the Italian dictator Mussolini sent his troops to invade the independent country of Ethiopia.  The League of Nations met to deliberate, and Mexico was one of only five members that voted to condemn the act of aggression.  After World War II, Mexico and Ethiopia established diplomatic relations.  In 1954, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was the first African head of state to visit Mexico.  In honor of his visit, the traffic circle was given its name.  The Emperor visited the plaza and saw this plaque.

Plaza de Etiopía
His Imperial Majesty
Haile Selassie I
Emperor of Ethiopia
discovered this commemorative plaque on his
visit to Mexico the 22nd of June of 1954

Today the plaque is in the subway station beneath the plaza along with information about the relationship between the two nations.

Ethiopia reciprocated by renaming a square in its capital of Addis Ababa as Plaza Mexico.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Forget Iceland

More than a week ago I wrote an entry which detailed my misgivings about my planned stopover in Iceland this summer... a couple of days which, due to the flight schedule, would surely be exhausting.  Well, it looks as if a frantic, jet-lagged, sleepless stay in Iceland is not in my future.

Today a friend emailed me with some news that I had not heard.  Icelandair is cancelling their direct flights from Cleveland.  First I went to the airline's website, and it still showed that I was on the direct flight, but apparently the website has not yet been updated.  I did some Googling and found several articles from Cleveland news sources saying that, yes, indeed, Icelandair was no longer flying out of Cleveland.  The reason given was that a portion of their fleet, including the planes used on the Cleveland run, consists of the grounded Boeing 737 Max 8 planes.  It may have been, however, an excuse to cut an underperforming route.  

People who already have reservations will be rescheduled to connect with flights leaving from Boston... OR... refunds will be offered.   If that is the case, I am going to opt for the refund.  The main reason I included Iceland in my itinerary is because of the direct flight.  So, once I have official word, I will cancel my reservation and instead head straight (with a layover) to Switzerland on United or Swiss Airline.

Iceland is supposed to be beautiful, but that chilly, rainy, expensive country with hordes of tourists is sounding less and less appealing.  

Monday, March 25, 2019

Stuck in Traffic

I love Mexico City, but the one thing I truly hate about it is the traffic.  It seems to be a city of perpetual rush hour.  Once I was driving with Alejandro from his office to his house.  The traffic was especially bad that evening, and we were closing in on two hours on the road.  I pointed out to him that back in Ohio in that amount of time I could have driven from my home in suburban Cleveland to Columbus... a trip of about 130 miles down the interstate. 

This morning on the internet I saw one of those lists that constantly appear.  This one was "The World's Worst Driving Cities".  I figured that Mexico City had to be on the list, and I clicked on it to see where it ranked.  The list contained 25 cities, and the ranking was based on the number of hours a driver wasted in 2018 sitting in stalled traffic.

Mexico City was number nine.  It is the most congested city in North America.  In the center of the city, the average speed of traffic is 9 miles per hour.  The typical Mexico City driver loses  218 hours of his / her life each year stuck in traffic.

The cities that are worse than Mexico City included some surprises.  Bordeaux, France was one place above at number 8, and Dublin, Ireland was number 3.   I wasn't surprised by Paris at number 5, or Rome at number 2.  (I've never been to Rome, but I've heard that traffic is a nightmare.)  According to the list, the most congested city in the world is Bogotá, Colombia, where a driver spends 272 hours in snarled traffic.



Sunday, March 24, 2019

Street Music

Avenida 16 de Septiembre (named after Mexico's Independence Day) is a street in downtown Mexico City which heads west from the Zócalo, the city's main plaza.  Every time that I walk down that street I encounter a number of street musicians.  One day toward the end of my most recent trip there were two classical violinists and a rock guitarist performing.

Monday, March 18, 2019

More Jacarandas

Alejandro sent me some more photos of the jacarandas in Mexico City.

I can't wait to return in just three weeks!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Pretty in Purple

It is that time of year when Mexico City is decked out in the purple blossoms of the thousands of jacaranda trees.  Alejandro sent me this photo which looks down upon the Alameda park in the center of the city.

The jacaranda season is much too short, but, crossing my fingers, they will still be in bloom when I arrive on my next trip on April 9th.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Will Iceland Exhaust Me?

(image taken from the web)

My airline reservations on Icelandair have been made for my trip to Europe in August.  I will spend two nights in Reykjavik, Iceland, before continuing on to Switzerland, and I have reserved an Airbnb apartment.  Besides taking advantage of the new direct flights from Cleveland to Iceland, and having the opportunity to see a bit of a new country, I thought that one of the benefits of this itinerary would be to cut down on jet lag by dividing up the journey across the Atlantic.  Now, I am starting to think that I will arrive in Switzerland even more exhausted.

The flight from Cleveland leaves in the evening and arrives in Iceland's Keflavik Airport at 6:30 A.M. (2:30 A.M. Cleveland time).   I am one of those people who simply cannot sleep on an airplane.  I can fall asleep on a bus or a train or in a car, but never on a plane.  So I will arrive at my destination after a short, sleepless night.  The journey from the airport to the capital city of Reykjavik is a fifty minute bus ride (perhaps a chance for a nap, although I will more likely be too eager to observe the passing landscape to nod off).  I suppose that it will be about 8:00 A.M. when I arrive at Reykjavik's main bus station.  Check-in for my Airbnb apartment is not until 2:00 P.M.  I sent a message to the owner of the apartment, and she said that I could drop off my luggage at her place.  It is about a 20 minute walk from the bus station to the apartment.  Looking at Google Maps is appears to be a pleasant walk passing through one of the city's public parks.  I can handle that... IF it's not raining.  I could splurge and take an ultra-expensive taxi, but, according to my guide book, you have call to and reserve a taxi.  They are not lined up outside the bus station.  

So after I drop off my luggage with the owner, I then have about five hours to wander around Reykjavik until check-in, and hopefully it won't be RAINING.  After I have checked into my apartment, the temptation will be to take a nap.  However, my strategy for combatting jet-lag is to never give in to the desire to nap, but to force myself to get used to the new time zone.  I could do some more exploration of the city, or, if it is raining I could just stay inside and work on my blog.  By 9:00 P.M. (when it is still very much daylight outside) I will allow myself to succumb to the arms of Morpheus. 

My next day in Iceland I will book one of the popular "Golden Circle" tours which take in some of the sights of natural beauty on the island.  Those last between six and eight hours, so it will be a full day. (Fingers crossed that it is not raining.  If I seem obsessed with rain, it is because I suspect that the climate will be similar to the northern, maritime climate of Bergen, Norway.  On my visit to that city, sunshine was a very rare commodity.) 

In spite of the long hours of daylight, I will once again have to turn in early.  The next day, my flight to Zurich leaves at 7:30 A.M.  That means that I need to be at the airport at 5:30 A.M. … which means that I will have to take the 4:30 A.M. bus... which means that I will have to get up by 3:30 A.M.!

I will probably be a very weary traveler by the time I reach Zurich at I:00 in that afternoon!   

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Europe is On

As I wrote in my last post, my plans for a trip to Europe this summer were up in the air.  My cousin Gail and her husband Wes had booked a tour of Switzerland, and I was supposed to meet them there at the end of their tour.  They were going to stay on for a few days so that I could introduce them to our Swiss relatives and show them our ancestral village.  Then they were notified that their tour had been cancelled.  However, they found a tour with another company which ends in Zurich at about the same time.  Yesterday they booked it, and it is confirmed that it will not be cancelled.  So our trip is back on!

Right away I emailed my Swiss cousin Brigitta who lives outside of Zurich in the town of Uster.  I told her that we would be coming to Switzerland after all.  She is looking forward to seeing me again, and happy to meet another American cousin.  I will be staying at her house, but Gail and Wes have reserved a hotel room even though Brigitta said that they are welcome to stay at her place.  I also emailed my cousin Werner (Brigitta's brother) who lives in Madrid, Spain.  I told him that we would be in Switzerland, and he said that he would plan to be there too.  Brigitta is going to organize a family get-together at her house, so Gail will most likely meet a whole bunch of distant relatives.  I am sure that our cousins will be taking us under their wings.  They have always made me feel so welcome and truly a member of the family.  Werner has already said that he wants to take us to our ancestral town of Othmarsingen where we can see the house were Gail's and my great grandparents grew up, and the 17th century church where our ancestors were baptized, married and buried.

Fortunately for Gail, Wes and me, most of the Swiss cousins speak fluent English.  However, I should go back to Duolingo and study my German.  I was doing pretty well, but then I got away from it.

Last night I started planning an itinerary for myself.  Even though Brigitta told me that I could stay at her place for as long as I want, I don't want to be an imposition.  Besides, she is a teacher, and the new school year starts on August 19th.  I will stay there for about one week, but obviously I am not going to fly all the way to Europe for such a short trip.  This is going to be a chance to visit some new countries.  My readers will have something other than Mexico to read about!

Last year, Icelandair began non-stop service from Cleveland to Iceland. They offer airfares to Europe that include a stayover in Iceland at no additional cost.  So, I am going to take advantage of our new flight from Cleveland.  I will fly to Iceland several days before I am supposed to meet Gail and Wes in Switzerland.  I will spend two nights in Reykjavik, and I will get to see a bit of Iceland.  From there I will get an Icelandair flight to Zurich. 

Hotel prices in Reykjavik are outrageous.  The one hotel that is relatively reasonable is already fully booked for those dates.  However, I found several Airbnb apartments that are available and which are under $100 per night.  This would be my first time using Airbnb outside of Mexico.

After I have spent time with my Swiss family, and after Gail and Wes have returned home to Ohio, I will go to Zurich and take a train to Vienna, Austria.  I have scheduled seven days in Vienna.  There appears to be plenty to see there to fill up an entire week.  I will also want to take a day's excursion down the Danube, and it is an easy day trip by train to go to Bratislava, Slovakia.  (Another new country!)  From Vienna I will go by train to Munich, Germany.  I have scheduled five days there.  That should give me plenty of time to see the city, and take a side-trip to see the famous castle of Mad King Ludwig.

Happily, hotel prices in Vienna and Munich are not as sky-high as they are in Reykjavik (or Zurich).  I've found well-located hotels that have very good reviews that are under $100 per night.  The one in Vienna is right across the street from the train station.  I will be able to walk to the hotel when I arrive there.

Munich is served by Icelandair, so I can fly back to Iceland, and from there directly to Cleveland.  I am a bit nervous because the layover in Iceland is only 50 minutes.  However it will not be necessary to go through customs there.  If I miss my flight... it's the end of the trip.  If I get home a day later, it's no big deal.

Tomorrow I am going to start making airline, hotel and train reservations!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Changes in Plans

Each year, between my winter and my spring trips to Mexico, one major project which I have to complete is to paint a picture to donate to the spring auction held by one of my favorite charities, Los Amigos de las Américas.  (I have written about Los Amigos before on this blog.  It is an organization which sends U.S. high school and college students to Latin America to do volunteer work in poor villages.)

I had begun work on this year's painting.  As you can see, I had completed almost half of it.  It is a view of the lakeside town of Valle de Bravo, a place which I had visited on my latest trip to Mexico.

The auction is held in early April, and usually by this time someone from the organization has contacted me to ask if I am once again going to donate artwork.  A few days ago I emailed my contact person.  This morning I received a reply, and was told that for a number of reasons (which she did not detail) there would be no auction this year.  On the one hand I am concerned that things might not be going well for the Ohio chapter of Los Amigos.  But on the other hand, I don't have the pressure of completing the painting and delivering it before the end of this month.  I also have a bag of little Mexican handicrafts purchased on my various trips south of the border that I was going to donate to their silent auction.  

I will continue to work on the painting, but at my leisure.  And I will save the bag of handicrafts.  Hopefully next year Los Amigos will once again have an auction, and I will be ahead of the game.

In other news, my planned trip to Europe this summer is in the air.  I have written frequently about my third cousin Gail who shares Swiss ancestors with me.  She and her husband had signed up for a guided tour of Switzerland for this summer.  The plan was that they would stay on in Switzerland for a few days after the end of the tour, I would meet them there, and I would introduce them to our Swiss cousins.  My cousin Brigitta, who lives outside of Zurich, was going to organize a family reunion while we were there.  We were dealing with a very tight time frame because Brigitta, who is a teacher, was going to be traveling over much of her summer vacation.  There was just one week in August that would work for her.  Gail had found a tour that fit into that time frame. 

Gail had told me that the tour company had not yet confirmed those dates.  We assumed that not enough people had signed up for that particular tour yet, but it was still early.  Nevertheless I was holding off on making my travel reservations until they had a confirmation.  Yesterday, Gail told me that for some unexplained reason their tour had been cancelled.  She is looking into some other companies that might have tours of Switzerland that conclude in Zurich at the right time.  So that trip is a question mark. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Flamenco in Columbus

Last Friday I drove down to Columbus to spend the weekend with family.  My sister-in-law Phyllis had bought tickets for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.  The concert featured music by Spanish classical composers as well as a performance of flamenco.  I really am not an expert on flamenco, but I was rather disappointed in the dance segment of the concert.  The dancer was a lady from Cuba who has been a long-time resident of Columbus where she owned a dance studio.  It seemed to me that her motions, especially her arm movements, were very stiff and mechanical.  I didn't mention anything to Phyllis at first, but later she said that she wasn't impressed and that it was not as good as the flamenco show that we saw some years ago in Spain.

The second half of the program departed from the Spanish theme, and consisted of Dvorak's "New World Symphony", one of my favorites.  The orchestra did a very nice job, and I was happy that the program had ended on a good note.  But then, the flamenco dancer came out again for an encore and did some more robotic stomping around.  Oh well, they say that it is hard to find quality flamenco in Spain.  I guess I should not have expected great flamenco in Columbus!