Wednesday 28 April 2010

In which we fulfill an obligation

We took another small step forwards in our preparations for our RTW, which we hope to start in the US in May 2011. We applied for Antonia's American passport, since that's what you needs to get into the country for six months if your father is a US citizen. We already spent a good bit of last week on the phone, figuring out how to do this without going to London or Paris, then trying to get the various papers together. Mike had to prove his presence in the US using his high school report cards, which is comical, but who keeps their payslips for 20 years? And he couldn't find his college transcript, and I had to translate our wedding certificate into English, and so on.

The day of our passport quest started off pretty rough, because we slept very badly last night with lots of interruptions due to different bedtimes, hayfever discomfort, computers and telephones. Uuugh! Finally I made Mike a coffee so strong that I couldn't drink it myself, then drove the hour and a half to Lyon in our tiny blue beetle of a Peugeot 107. We used our GPS to find the APP (American Presence Post) which is hidden very discreetly in an apartment building facing the river. A discreet, but not dingy, apartment building, rather large and smart in fact, in an older French urban style with wood floors and white panelled walls and plaster decorations. It's kind of strange to see such a French place dressed up with Americana inside, but as it turns out, they do the same with the staff as well. We were greeted by a French security guard who told us in excellent American that he needed to take a long list of objects off us and keep them at the door. He had been trained to say 'Sir' and 'Ma'am' to people at the end of every sentence. I had been bemoaning to Mike the fact that I was going to have to get used to being called 'Ma'am', and here I was, getting my chance to practice. More uuugh! The lady who explains to people that they're going to have to fill their forms out again because of a minor crossing out or trivial error also speaks excellent American with a slightly French accent.

Now for the waiting room: it contained a bunch of sofas and chairs and other furniture in that peculiar American style that seems to be associated over there with 'tone' and over here with 'something your granny would have had'. All over-soft leather upholstery with big brass studs everywhere. Then there were the American lampstands that you just can't get here plugged in via adaptors. They were almost identical to the ones Mike hauled over and they had the actual identical lampshades that we have. These ones were not quite as dirty as ours, but they were heading that way. The problem is that you can only clean them so much, and you can't replace them over here because European lampshades don't fit American lampfittings. I wonder why they bother importing lights? They must be standard issue or something, like the little arrangement of the US flag, the consular flag and the photos in the middle of Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton. A consular flag, by the way, looks a tiny bit like a European flag from a distance, except that it has 13 silver stars and the letter C in the middle. I looked on the Internet this evening and discovered there's actually a rule about putting it in the waiting room of a consulate where we can see it, so it's a bit odd that the consul seemed so phased when we asked him what it was.

The lighter touch to the room was provided by a lifesize cardboard pop-up of an American footballer and some cheaply framed posters of places like Maine and Seattle. As you can probably guess, they went with the old-fashioned furniture like marshmallows with lobster bisque. Then, in case you happened to be an American looking for something to do in Lyon, there were a very small number of leaflets, two of which were of a disturbingly religious character. Disturbing to a European, that is. Probably just what you expect if you're American.

There's probably another procedural rule that says the consul has to watch you sign things as a formality, because he seemed not quite with us in spirit when he came in. Probably we were distracting him from preparing his next speech on 'The American Way Carefully Explained to Europeans'. Really, truly, I looked him up on the Internet also, making speeches along those lines seems to be how he spends his time! Anyway, Mike tried to come over all American with him and ask him questions about flags and becoming a consul. This usually works on his compatriots, but not with this fellow. The only sign of life he gave was to ask us why it had taken us so long to register our daughter's birth and apply for her passport. We neglected to tell him that we had spent some eight years trying to figure out whether it was a privilege or an obligation, and had only now come to realise that it was an obligation which we are supposed to act privileged to perform. Personally, I am just hoping that it will a) be worth it, and b) not something we come to regret, because the cost of all these 'privileges' starts to add up. By my calculations, the cost of maintaining passports in 3 nationalities for Antonia will be well over 100 dollars a year, averaged out. And my visa will cost as much as her passport, but I'm saving that adventure for sometime after July.


Oh yes, I forgot, there are also lots of signs in the APP waiting room reminding Americans abroad to vote. I shouldn't forget this because it's something Mike has a bee in his bonnet about as well. And voting is a very good plan of course.

Saturday 17 April 2010

RTW update

This last week we worked on an important aspect of our RTW planning: getting our French house finished, so that it can be let out and make its contribution to the budget. We sent Antonia off to Easter Holiday camp. She loved it but came back completely exhausted. I painted the basement, while a guy came in to plaster and paint the kitchen. All the kitchen things were moved into the living room so we could sort of use them, but there wasn't much space left. Plaster dust got everywhere anyway and Mike got sick, perhaps partly as a result. But the kitchen looks great and the guy is coming back while we are away in June to finish the upstairs. Mike and I went for a nice romantic lunch together, then we went to look for furniture for the basement. Mike knew what he wanted: solid wood bookcase units for a very large area for about 1000 Euros. Yeah, right! I'm waiting to see in what direction his ideas get adjusted.

In the meantime, I'm feeling so positive about everything that I started to seriously thrash out the itinerary for the US portion of our trip. I have changed my mind so much on this one. First we were going to drive across the US. Then we were going to get a camper van and drive around most of the western US. I'm sure there will be more changes, but I love itineraries so this is what we're doing now:
  1. Visit English family
  2. Transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York
  3. Visit East Coast family and see a few sights
  4. Drive across the US to New Mexico
  5. 3 weeks in the deserts of New Mexico
  6. 1 week in Santa Fe
  7. Drive north to South Dakota
  8. 3 weeks in the Rapid City/Black Hills area
  9. 1 week in Yellowstone
  10. Drive to Olympic National Park area
  11. 3 weeks to 1 month in Olympic National Park
  12. Drive down Pacific Coast slowly taking in sights and visiting West Coast family
  13. 1 month in the Joshua Tree/Palm Springs area with excursions into Arizona, Nevada and other parts of California
  14. Take train back across the US, stopping in Chicago for a day or two
  15. Visit East Coast family, then fly out of US (my visa will expire)
  16. It's unclear where we'll go but the idea is that Mike and Antonia can spend Thanksgiving in the US, and I get to spend Christmas with my folks - though wouldn't I love it if I could persuade them to go somewhere warm!
  17. On to New Zealand and Australia, with no option at this late stage, but to fly out.
That's about 7 months, from April to October. So far, not much budget control has happened, but I can start thinking about it now that there exists a sort of plan.

Friday 2 April 2010

More about campervan camping

One of our concerns about long term camping in the US is how we're going to manage to eat healthily. I'm not sure if Spain is a good test for this, but things went OK so far. I only cooked dinner on two nights, but it was an easy matter to buy a ready-made tortilla and a bag of mixed vegetables in the supermarket. We had fruit and pastries for breakfast. We could easily have had all our meals in the camper, but actually we ate out quite a lot, and Spain is also good for us because of the whole tapas phenomenon. It's nice to be able to just order two or three really small plates of things. There again, I'm not sure how this will map to the US. We were having a long conversation about US portions last night, because our airport hotel thinks that half a chicken (literally) and a plate-load of chips qualifies as a 'snack'. We shared it!

Antonia waiting for dinner!

We were out for a week and we were very careful about keeping ourselves and the van clean and tidy. But after seven days, it was definitely time to get the van hosed down on the outside and vaccuumed and dusted inside. Also to do the laundry! We skipped this on the basis that we had just enough clean clothes to get home.

I really wanted to keep accounts, but added to all my other chores, it was just too much. I would not have had a spare second. Maybe I can teach Antonia to do it? Maybe it will be easier with Mike to do some of the work? Anyway, although we have been looking for inexpensive campervan rental in Europe for some time, and Wicked Campers seems to fit the bill, I'm not sure if it's entirely as cheap as could be desired. The cost of camper + campsite off-season is about 45 Euros a night, but to that must be added the extra cost of gas for such a large car: at least 20 Euros per fill-up over a regular car. I have to say, I would have liked to drive less though. Anyway, in the high season the cost of camper/campsite leaps up to more like 80 Euros a night. It becomes quite viable to drive a small car and find an inexpensive hotel at that rate!

A page from Antonia's field book

I know Mike is always quite concerned about this! We didn't have any problems. The only things I was systematic about taking from the van were the camera, my netbook (but not the battery for the netbook, unless I thought I might use it) and my purse of course. Most of what got left in the car was wires and chargers (and clothes, etc...) I did notice that it's easy to keep everything in the camper out of sight!

This is more my concern! I think things went rather well, perhaps partly because we had some driving time every day, and Antonia used that time for work. She did some maths and some reading every day (alternating a French and English book). I set a quota for writing in both languages which seemed to work quite well. I feel as though, given the advantages of travelling, a minimum of reading, writing and 'rithmetic is OK. She is drawing and writing in her field book when we visit places, and is writing a book about dragons, which is currently at the end of its 6th chapter. That's a very homeschooly thing to do! I'm not sure how things would go without the driving time. And there hasn't been much checking of work by me. It's great that Antonia's working independently, but I know for a fact that there are a lot of spelling mistakes! This is where Internet access would be good, because there are a lot of interactive things that make sure the child is actually getting things right!

A page from the Dragon book!

Intermittent and unreliable, but getting better all the time I think. In some places we had to pay for Internet, in others it was free, in others, unavailable. I would prefer to have mobile Internet available all the time, anywhere, even if I have to pay (a reasonable sum), and preferably a reasonable connection speed. I think things will improve slowly. It says something for progress that I was more or less able to maintain a blog on the road, without setting foot in an Internet cafe.

Campervan versus other options:
I can tell that a campervan, whilst perfect for two people is going to be very cosy for three. We will need a tent! But in terms of driveability, it has a huge number of advantages, because it's basically the size of a large car that's been modified. I didn't have any trouble driving it beyond the automatic/right hand drive thing. And although I whined about that a bit, Crocodile was actually a better drive that the sorry excuse for a coal barge we rented in New Zealand. One very major issue with a campervan is that you can park it in a regular carpark or on the side of a street, which you can't with a caravan. I also noted that a large car to campervan conversion is quite a feasible thing to do, if you have a large car you don't mind taking apart. I really think a final assessment on whether this is going to be a good option or not for us in the US is going to depend on the cost of hiring a regular car versus the cost of a campervan, because I think it wouldn't be nice to feel obliged to camp all the time, having paid for a campervan!

A page from my field book

Return to the Malva Rosa

Our trip ends as it began, on the beach at the Malva Rosa!

It was really amazing how we just flew from Jaen to Vaclencia and I actually enjoyed the drive. It could have something to do with the long, straight, empty autovia de Extremadura. It could have been giggling at Gamine the GPS squeaking with horror as I crossed apparently empty fields at 120km/h. This motorway has just been finished, and she did not know about a whole stretch of it. It could be that I am finally getting used to driving Crocodile, who, after all, gave me a lot to get used to: steering wheel on the wrong side, automatic, large, ... Anyhow, we reached the Malva Rosa with a whole afternoon in front of us. Finally, I was able to relax and draw plants! It has to be said that by the evening, Antonia was somehow so tired that she was literally falling over things! Hmmm, ...

Here are the swallows nesting in the Malva Rosa reception area:

I have to give the Malva Rosa campsite a special plug. It might not be quite true, as the lady at reception seems to believe, that everywere else has terrible weather and is simply not worth going to. But her belief that this is the best campsite in Spain may well be justified. Other campsites we went to were basically parking lots for caravans, and were only pleasant because they were empty, or nearly. The Malva Rosa is a sort of botanical paradise right on the beach. This, for example, is taken from the kids' play area:

It has a pretty nice bar/restaurant, and I think a number of facilities we didn't try. I would love to go back there. P.S. Although we just turned up, you probably need to book in high season.