Sunday, May 31, 2015

Welcome to Malta Part II

The harbor side promenade along the waterfront in Senglea, Malta
In our continued quest for warmer weather we decided to experience springtime Malta. It seemed like a place that might be warmer than more northern European destinations so we booked the trip for early March. Michael needed to get some dental work done and we'd heard about the Medical Tourism trend in Malta so he got on the Internet to look for a qualified dentist who could follow up the implant procedure for a tooth he'd lost last summer. Before long he found a Maltese dentist who is Board Certified in the UK. When we arrived in Malta he made an appointment with Dr. Xuereb and after his consultation decided to go ahead with the procedure. We saved several thousands of dollars compared to having it done at home. The only hiccup was the actual replacement tooth could not be fitted until the implant setting had healed and that would take  at least 8 weeks. But hey, who doesn't want to come back to Malta? Read my post "Life on Planet Gozo" if you want the answer.

So, off we went to Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and Amsterdam before we returned to this island nation at the end of April. It was nice to give Malta a second chance - especially when the weather was a much improved sunny and 70°.

Dr. X, as Michael calls him, showing the successful tooth implant.
Our first visit to Malta was a mixed experience. We did not find a warm respite from the cold and in fact arrived for the tail end of what the locals deemed to be the worst winter in decades. Ours was a wet, chilly, and secluded first week on the island of Gozo and then a second, slightly improved week in the more civilized city of St. Julian on Malta. Actually, that Airbnb is still in our top five. Here's the link

Add a few cars from the 1950's and our street corner could be a stand-in for Cuba
Welcome to our home in Malta.
This time we decided to stay in a different part of the island in an area called Senglea. It seemed within easy reach of the most attractive destinations, but a little outside the touristic center - maybe was just a titchy bit too far outside.

As the crow flies, the location made sense, but as the bus crawled it didn't. We were able to take a short ferry ride to the lovely city of Valetta, but to get to several other destinations including the dentist it was at least an hour of multiple, core-building (as in trying to keep your balance while standing) hair-raising rides on infrequent buses.

My first reaction was to compare our neighborhood to what Cuba might be like today. It certainly had elegant but crumbling architecture and faded storefronts that hinted of more glamorous times.

There were few shops and most were closed in the afternoon and definitely shut tight on Sundays. The "grocery" stores were not much bigger than a cheap hotel room filled with quirky offerings (a lot of which was alcohol). This was not going to be an enjoyable cooking experience, that was clear. Nor were dining options beyond pizza, kebabs, burgers and fried fish readily available. 

The main street of Senglea - lots of eye candy. Just no candy.
This time our Airbnb would made our bottom ten. It was an agency managed unit so we had little interaction with the actual owner after we booked it and the agent who let us in wasn't particularly familiar with the area nor very interested in answering our questions. While the apartment was comfortable - and the view was terrific, it just felt sort of cold and impersonal. We have come to really appreciate attentive hosts that have a personal interest in making the experience a memorable one. Here is the link

To top if off - we lost the second set of keys in the last ten minutes of our stay and had to pay to have the locks replaced! We found them two weeks later tangled up in a load of clothes at the "Green 'n' Clean" laundromat in Salzburg. Bother.

Now that I've had my vent, there were also plenty of good times to be had! First, even though the town was low on retail options it was rich in architecture and hidden viewpoints that looked out over the water at every turn. We had great walks and basked in the sun along the waterfront while watching the boat traffic and observing the locals.

Water views seemed to be around every corner.
Cruise ships arrived in Valetta early in the morning in for a long day of tourist frenzy.
Our apartment looked directly at a harbor brimming with super yachts! It was enjoyable to stroll along the dock watching crew members earning their keep by furiously scrubbing and polishing in case the boat's Oligarch owner was en-route via helicopter. Or perhaps they were getting things all shipshape for a charter - an average of $25,000. per day gets you and six close friends on board one of these babies.
Your own personal cruise ship with a full crew is just a fat checkbook away.
It was mind-boggling to think that this is a privately owned pleasure craft!
Several times a day tour boats and Hop-on-Hop off buses would drift past our window to share the views of the castle walls, the yachts, the traditional "gondola" style water taxis and the quaint houses along the quay.
The view from our balcony was the best feature of our apartment.
It also happened that Malta was hosting an International Fireworks Competition while we were there and it took place just outside our door! We could oooooooh and ahhhhhh to our hearts content from ringside seats. It was one of my favorite experiences of the journey.

Front row seats for a long night of fireworks just outside our door!
 Our day trips to Valetta offered the bustle of a cruise ship port-of-call coupled with the ancient fortifications and and antiquities of a walled city. Malta was put on the map by the Knights of St. John in the 14th century - so lots of Medieval history was on display. And yes, they really did clank around in all that armor! Of course influences from British colonization are also very apparent with plenty of nods to Victoria Regina and pubs on most every corner.

The view back to our harbor from the ramparts in Valetta.
We took our usual walking tour while there - and another in nearby Mdina. Mdina is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with history dating back 4,000 years. They have done a great job of keeping touristic offerings outside the walls, and those that are inside conform to a master plan that respects the city's history. You truly did feel like you'd stepped back in time, way back!

The ancient hill town of Mdina offered a glimpse of life in medieval times.
Michael now has a shiny new tooth and found the dentist and his staff qualified, professional, kind and accommodating. The phenomenon of Medical Tourism is definitely on the rise here and could be a good excuse to come to Malta (be sure and book our favorite Airbnb). Not only is dentistry affordable, there is a full range of other services on offer including cosmetic surgery and joint replacement at a fraction of what you'd pay in the states. And it's not a bad place to recover either.

Lick your wounds on the Maltese beach of your choice.
Our next adventure takes us to the Cinque Terra in Italy where we continue our nautical theme with a stay on a Airbnb sailboat!

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Friday, May 22, 2015

Family Time in Amsterdam: A Dutch Treat!

With our Jerusalem experience still swirling in our heads we headed back to Europe to one of our favorite destinations - Amsterdam. We don't often revisit cities since we feel we stay long enough in each to get an appreciation for the culture and lifestyle, but in this case, not one, but two opportunities to spend time with family made the difference so we booked a two week stay. And besides we love everything about this eccentric, historic and just plain beautiful city. It has a great sense of self and it's citizens are tall and proud and very capable, especially on bicycles. The vibe is one of laid back tolerance of humanity, but no tolerance for systems that don't work, garbage that is uncollected, and flower beds left bare. Everything here just seems to click.

We arrived in Amsterdam at the peak of tulip season.
Enjoying the city with nephew David on the right and Noah.
My nephew David and his partner Noah were finishing up a week in Paris visiting our daughter Mary and her family and then planned to spend a few days in Noah's favorite city, Amsterdam. The week following their visit, the French contingent would be on a school break so we found an family-friendly Airbnb house just outside Amsterdam in Haarlem and invited Mary to join us there, But that's jumping ahead.

Our apartment in Amsterdam was one of the best we've had. Spacious, well decorated, lots of nice touches and amenities left by our host - and a great location. We were in the stylish hoofddorppleinbuurt (18 letters!) neighborhood just off of Vondelpark, Amsterdam's version of Central Park. It was a short tram ride into the center of the city but we didn't mind being slightly out of the fray. Here's a look:

It was so nice to host real live guests for dinner - a rare treat.
I had a kitchen that was well equipped and a big dining room table so we hosted friends Jan and Desiree that live in nearby Leiden over for dinner. We met them in Seattle when they were slip mates of ours at Elliott Bay Marina. He is Danish and she is Dutch. We also had a great dinner with David and Noah where we caught up on news from Seattle. Both evenings felt like having dinner gatherings at home in Seattle - just in a different setting, and it made me very happy to back in that element.

Spent an afternoon enjoying Matisse and more with the boys.
David and Noah and I spent a fine afternoon at the impressive Oasis of Matisse exhibit at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art. All four of us spent time in the Foodhallen market and then wandered street after street filled with unique shops. We had a great Indian meal at Purna in "The Nines" neighborhood as a grand finale to their visit. You don't realize how much you miss family and friends until you have them in a big hug at your doorstep.

After a full week in Amsterdam we moved house to Haarlem where we rented a large family home in anticipation of a week with Mary, Gregoire, Colette, Marcel and baby Jacques! The house was perfect for all seven of us: four adults and three children.

Haarlem turned out to be so charming it seemed more like a movie set than a real city. There were canals with baby ducks, tulips everywhere, towering church spires, farmer's markets, flower stands, beer halls, bakeries, playgrounds and pot stores. What's not to love?

Mary and I enjoyed the farmer's markets and cooking together.
A lot of words to say no parking!
The best part was the mix of old and new - we loved walking down cobbled streets lined with houses that were hundreds of years old but very much lived in today. The Dutch are very comfortable with passersby peering into their street level windows, because historically puritans had nothing to hide! So it was easy to see large flat screen TV's hanging on timbered walls and very urbane kitchens with ancient floor tiles and the odd brick oven, and of course nothing untoward. 

1670 is the year the house was built, not the street address! Note the large window.
My favorite house in our neighborhood - especially well decorated inside as seen through the windows!
How most folks get around including kids and babies.
This was a favorite of the many forms of human powered transportation.
The owners of the house have two little girls so there were lots of toys - especially of the princess and pony variety so Colette was in heaven. But there were plenty of things for all the kids to enjoy and Jacques could chew his way through any number of things. There were parks and canals everywhere and we could walk or bike the entire city.

Princess Colette was a very happy girl.
Who needs toys when you can climb on Grandpa!
The week flew by! With a 4 year old, a 2 year old and an almost 1 year old it seemed like it was always nap time, feeding time, bathing time, story time, play time, bed time and (for the grown-ups) collapse time. There were games and puzzles and snuggles with the kids and wonderful adult time with Mary and Gregoire.

Snack time for Marcel, Jacques and Mary.
It was Coco's turn to learn backgammon from Grandpa. He's taught all of our kids to play and now the third grandchild!
Marcel helping make Pain au Chocolat for breakfast.
A highlight of the week was celebrating King's Day! This national holiday was declared in 1885 to commemorate the Monarch's birthday - be they King or Queen. Since then it has turned into one wild party for all ages - and a day to proudly wear orange, the national color.  It starts early in the morning with city wide yard sales. The kids are out selling their toys and the grown-ups clear out the attic. Almost every house has a table or blankets out in front. There are also bake sales, beer stands, street music and entertainment. The atmosphere is like one giant neighborhood street party. After about 4:00 most of the family friendly part of the day is done and adults take over the streets to drink and sing and carry on into the night.

King's Day in Amsterdam - we were happy to celebrate with less frenzy in Haarlem.
The night time Flower Parade through the streets of Haarlem.
There were Kings Day entrepreneurs who charged 50p to pee!
Thanks for indulging me in some Grandparent sharing. Having family here in Europe has been a special part of this journey. And certainly meeting up with friends and family from the States is always a treat.

Happy First Birthday Jacques! May 20th, 2014 this little man joined the family.
We are currently in Salzburg heading to the Czech Republic tomorrow for stays in Brno and Prague. I am a blog or two behind since we left Amsterdam so stay tuned for a Malta redux and time in the Cinque Terra in Italy.

Thanks for following along.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Part II - Michael Answer Questions from Readers

After the article ran in the New York Times and other publications at the end of February we received lots of emails from readers who were encouraged by our journey. The emails also included questions that might be categorized as "how to" do what we're doing. On March 22nd, I wrote a blog post that addressed the issue of budget.Today, I set aside some time to answer a few more questions.

We are currently staying in our 58th Airbnb since we started in the summer of 2013, but this time it's not a house, not a flat, not an apartment but a sailboat. Who knew that you could find "boats" on Airbnb? We didn't until our son-in-law Gregoire showed us how.

Our family started sailing  20+ years ago so being on the water is part of our DNA. When we decided to become Senior Nomads, we made the difficult decision to sell our sailboat, Butterscotch. When we learned that Airbnb included boats we quickly started searching for sailboats and voila, about 6 weeks ago we found one in Italy in the Cinque Terre Region. In the meantime, we visited Cyprus, Israel, Amsterdam and Malta before getting aboard Serena IV last Friday here in Le Grazie, Italy.

All this means that we are far from museums, food markets and football matches so this was a perfect opportunity to spend some time on the laptop. Hopefully this information will be helpful to those who are planning an adventure similar to ours.

Gelato has no calories when eaten before noon

Q. How do you stay in Europe for more than 90 days at a time?
A. This has been the most common question we've received. We're certainly not experts, but we can tell you how we did it.

If you are not familiar with the Schengen Zone, here is a link to a site that is a good place to start - As you will read, the 26 countries of the Schengen Zone have agreed on certain rules for immigration. My knowledge is limited but I do know that citizens of the USA are welcome as tourists within the Schengen Zone for a total of 90 days within any 180 day period. Since we were planning on staying longer we obviously needed to see how to get through that hurdle.

Early on we learned that France, and maybe some other countries (Spain and Sweden?) offer long term visas up to a year if a person meets certain requirements. We researched the requirements with the help of our daughter Mary (the one who is married to Gregoire, the Frenchman, living in Paris.) We found the details online at the French Consulate in San Francisco which is the one closest to our home in Seattle. Here is a link to the details - you scroll down to #6 you will find the list of requirements.

One of the requirements is an in-person meeting with a French Consulate and that seemed like a good excuse to go to San Francisco, so in April 2013 flew to San Francisco loaded with paperwork and  our checkbook for the appointment we'd booked online. To make a long story very short, I'm happy to report that two weeks later, we received confirmation of our visas.

When we got to France in July we reported to the nearest immigration office (OFFI), completed more paperwork, paid some additional fees and passed a  physical exam which completed the process. (See stickers in our passports below.)

Then last summer we repeated all the process and received another one-year visa which runs through November of this year. The whole process was not without its challenges but we are happy we jumped through the hoops because we've been able to travel easily in and out of the Schengen Zone Countries for almost two years without counting days. As the Master Card slogan goes, the peace of mind has been "priceless".

Our current Long Term French Tourist Visas honored throughout the Schengen Zone
Q. What do you do about mobile phone service outside the USA?
A. Before we left Seattle, we cancelled our monthly cell phone plans and bought pay-as-you-go plans from AT&T. This allowed us to keep our American phone numbers for something like $10/month. Since we are not in the states, we don't get charged for making calls. We recorded a  message that said we were traveling and the only way to reach us was by email. We also had AT&T unlock our phones so we could put in SIM cards that work in the country we are in at the time. 

In Europe we purchase a new prepaid SIM card in each country. This means we have a new phone number every time we arrive in a new country but it has worked really well for us. We spend less on phones that we did in the states. The amount we spend each month depends on how often we move from one to country to another but on average, we spend about $50/month for each phone which gives us a set amount of local (in country) minutes for phone calls and text messages as well as data (access to the Internet). Every country has lots of cell phone providers to choose from. Some of the most common are Vodafone, Wind, T-Mobile, Tele2 and Orange.

Every time we move to a new country we send an email to our family with our new phone numbers just in case they need to reach us in an emergency. For our regular communication with family and close friends we use FaceTime and Google Hangout.

Purchasing SIM card in Turkey. So far we've had 30 + phone numbers since leaving home
Q. How do you travel within Europe and estimate expenses?
A. It may come as a surprise but travel within Europe has not been as expensive as you might think. We started out staying two weeks in each city which meant moving camp twice a month. Over time, we have shorted the stays which means we travel 3-4 times a month has increased travel between cities but we work hard and use the Internet to minimize expenses. Our two favorite apps are: and

Our top four travel games: Scrabble, backgammon, dominoes and cribbage. I win occasionally.
We fly when it makes sense. Otherwise, we use public transportation: trains, buses and ferry boats. Flying on high-traffic (and thus super competitive routes is affordable thanks to Ryanair and Easy Jet). For example: Last fall we flew from Paris to Bilbao, Spain for $90 each. Recently we flew from Malta to Milan for $63 each and last month we flew from Tel Aviv to Amsterdam for $179 each.

We get most of our news online but finding a paper copy of the International NYT is a travel day treat
Local trains can be very affordable. We use buses whenever it makes sense. Usually we find that buses cost about 1/2  the cost of train tickets. The buses have all been very "first class" in that they are comfortable, roomy and often have a WC aboard even in Morocco and Turkey. Here are a couple of examples: Naples to Bari, Italy $14 each. Tallin, Estonia to Riga, Latvia $30 each. Madrid to Seville, Spain $25. The scenery is often spectacular and you almost always end up in the center of your destination.

Aboard one of the many ferry boats we took in the Greek Islands
Q. What do you do for Medical Insurance in Europe and back home?
A. We purchased Medical Insurance that covers us while we are outside the United States through an online company we found called I am sure there are others to choose from. I was not sure how much coverage to purchase or how large a deductible made sense so I just used my best judgment and went for it. I liked the fact that the policy included "evacuation coverage" in case either of us got really sick and needed to be flown home. Quite frankly, that seemed like the most important benefit.

So far, we have not had to make a claim for any medical expenses outside the USA. For the small aches and pains we've had, we've just paid cash at local pharmacies with two short and affordable doctor visits in Paris.

At home, we kept our medical coverage...just in case we got really sick and needed to go home in a rush. I am on Social Security so get my coverage through Medicare plus a supplemental policy. Debbie has an individual policy through Regence. We did raise the deductible on Debbie's to lower the monthly premiums since we not in the states. There is no way to know if our approach was the right one but it just felt right for us.

A big shop. This one for a week's supplies on the Euro debit card in Malta
Q. How do you pay your day-to-day expenses in Europe and keep up with mail?
A. We have visited all 19 countries that use the Euro. That leaves 12 countries we've visited who use their own national currency. Two months before we left Seattle in 2013 we opened a bank account in Seattle with HSBC, an international bank with locations around the world (including Seattle). If you meet their minimum balance requirements, then you can open an account in another country. We chose France. There is no charge for opening the account. Without this work-around or some other, you can not open an account in without establishing residency. (Or, so I believe). In any case, this has worked very well for us.

Each month we transfer funds online from our American HSBC to our French HSBC account which has a debit card with a European chip and PIN. So, we can use the card without any bank fees or currency transaction fees for each transaction drawing down our Euro account. In particular our HSBC debit card also allows us to use any ATM worldwide without incurring bank charges which is how we get cash for our daily spending.

Our Euro debit card with PIN. As you can see it's a little worn around the edges from regular use.
If we are in a non-Euro country then we still use our HSBC card to withdraw cash in the local currency, however, we avoid using the card for daily expenses to avoid transaction fees and currency conversion fees. This means we pay for more things in cash in non-Euro countries.

Restaurant receipt from Lithuania before they converted to the Euro earlier this year.
As far as mail is concerned, we  rented a P.O. box in Seattle which was very affordable. Our son lives right around the corner from the facility so once a month he goes to the mail box and scans any mail he thinks we need to see and sends us a PDF with all the correspondence. Over time, the amount of correspondence has become less and less. Now, we probably get a 10 page PDF from Chris each month. We have some U.S. checks with us so if needed, we can mail a check to pay a bill, or more likely just go online and pay for it using a USA debit card or bill-pay online.

I hope these answers were helpful and inspiring! There are still a handful of questions we have received which I'll answer soon. Debbie is looking forward to writing about packing,  provisioning and cooking on the road.

We leave Italy tomorrow on the train heading north to Verona where we're thinking we'll find a bus that will take us through the Alps to Salzburg and then on to Brno and Prague in the Czech Republic for 10 days. After that, we'll see which way the wind is blowing.

Safe Travels!


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Jerusalem: A Reading by Debbie

Michael has wanted to go to Israel for years. I'm not sure why, maybe fear of the unknown or concerns about safety or just because it seemed overwhelmingly complicated, I was not as enthusiastic. Now that we have almost two years of intrepid Senior Nomad travel under our belts, I was finally ready and perhaps it would prepare me for an upcoming visit to Belarus and a potential dip into the Ukraine. Regardless, I am so happy we spent ten days in this amazing part of the world. Israel will be a Senior Nomad highlight no matter where else we travel. And I am a better traveler for it.

In this blog I will stay away from any deep political opinions - those of you who know me, know that I don't let facts get in the way of a good story - and in this case I don't want to offend or misrepresent the situation in this complex corner of the world. While we were there, I read a book called The Lemon Tree by Stacy Tolan and it really helped me understand the background of the conflict here - but it was meeting real people that live their daily lives under often intense circumstances that taught me the most. I admired their pride, their courage and their history as well as their faith and hope for peace. Michael stays current on Israeli politics and should be the one to write this - all I can do is share my journey. So here it is.

We were ready for whatever the week brought on!
We found cheap airfare from Cyprus and two lovely airbnb apartments; one for three nights in Tel Aviv and one for week in Jerusalem in April. Sometimes that's all it takes for us to choose a destination, so Israel moved to the top of the list.

Had we given the dates a closer look we would have have realized we would be arriving during Passover - the holiest week on the Jewish calendar! That's like spontaneously deciding to go out to dinner on Valentines Day. As it turns out, it was also the week Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter, so we got a double dose of religious fervor.

Once in Israel - it was a good thing we didn't have a burning desire for bread, because during Passover that was off the table as the saying goes, and there were other quirky thou shalt and shalt nots, closures, shut-downs and, of course, extra security. Tel Aviv was a soft landing as it was more laid back about strict observance of Passover than Jerusalem. Beach life continued, bread was discreetly available, and there were fewer Jewish citizens in full regalia. In fact, a lot of citizens wore very little clothing of any kind both on the beach and on the streets.

A long walk along the shore between new Tel Aviv and the Old City of Jaffa.
Tel Aviv is a young, vibrant city stuffed with skyscrapers and nightclubs that stretches out in the sun along the Mediterranean before bumping up against the ancient walls of the Old City of Jaffa.

Tel Aviv curls up next to the Old City of Jaffa like a child on Grandma's lap
Our apartment was a five minute walk to the beach, however it was in a neighborhood that you'd call "in transition". That means the location was great - and lots of trendy bars with indie retail were within walking distance, but our actual building and those in it's immediate surroundings were works-in-progress.

"What are you lookin' at?" The Guardians of our doorway in Tel Aviv.
I have mentioned before that with Airbnb, you often don't know what your front door looks like until you arrive. Maybe every host should be required to post a photo. Or not. If we had known we'd have to cross a gauntlet of feral cats along a sketchy side alley we might have made a different choice. But as veteran Airbnb guests, we knew there was a nice apartment just behind door #41 just as long as we got to it. Here's the link:

The highlights of our three day stay included a walking tour of the well preserved Old City of Jaffa where several centuries of history came visibly alive. A perfect lunch of fresh vegetables and lamb kufta hot off the grill in the famous Carmel de Hay Market where we jostled for seats at a tiny restaurant counter. We could feel the push of the next hungry customers pressing in behind us as we ate. Michael had an opportunity to experience an exceptional football match - his story, including his determined quest for a ticket is can be found on his blog post MC Sports Report: Never Give Up!

Early morning prep at the tiny restaurant where we fought for two of the four seats.
A delicious, hot off the grill lunch in the Ha' Carmel market. Three little salads and a pile of fresh pita not pictured.
Tel Aviv could be any of the larger beach resort cities we've visited. Our real Israeli experience would start in Jerusalem. Since our coverage in the New York Times we experienced an explosion of responses both to the article and our blog. Michael has answered every e-mail with enthusiasm. I try and run-along-side to keep up the blog and help him with answers to comments and questions.

During the initial deluge of e-mails we received after the article ran we flagged a note from a couple living in Jerusalem hoping we could spend a little time with them during our stay. They were very proud of Jerusalem and wanted to show us their city, and if there is one thing we have learned along the way - never turn down an invitation from a local! That is where the magic happens.

Our new found "forever" friends, Ruth and Stu. They kept us safe, fed and informed.
Ruth and Stu, two of the most generous and helpful people we've ever encountered, not only took us under their wings, they sat on the nest to make sure we were safe and well taken care of. They moved to Jerusalem from New Jersey 15 years ago to live the dream of settling in Israel. They knew there would be any number of challenges and even danger, but they were committed to their faith and their vision for the future. Their insight into life in Jerusalem was the perfect introduction for us. That and living for a week in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. More on that later.

Ruth came to Tel Aviv on our last day to show us her favorite parts of that city - including a stop at Le Mamma del Gelato for the best ice cream and sherbet we've had on our entire trip.

To say this Gelato was better than any we tasted in Italy is a bold statement. But true.
Stu swooped in with his trusty white mini-van complete with a flapping Israeli flag to drive us all the way to Jerusalem. There were stops along the way for expansive views and some further commentary on the political situation - but also lots of laughs and discussion around just how we became "Senior Nomads".
Stu and Michael could have talked politics for hours. Oh wait - they did!
They even took us grocery shopping at their supermarket because most everything around us would be closed for the next few days. But wait, there's more. Once we realized the Old City of Jerusalem was just about impenetrable due to the Passover holiday they drove around tirelessly looking for a "local" way in. In desperation Stu made a swift maneuver past stalled traffic and a road block to shoot down a back alley into a parking lot where a shuttle bus was about to make it's last run of the night into the Old City. Our first miracle! With Ruth and Stu still in tow we jumped on board and found our new home.

The next morning they came to collect us to share their favorite stalls in the famous Mahane Yehuda Market - a sprawling inner-city food mecca. Bakeries closed, of course. A few days later we visited their son's home, and met his wife and four of his six children. He is a Rabbi, and has just recently returned to Jersualem with his family after living in Los Angeles for several years - of course Ruth and Stu are happy to have them close, but worry about their safety. They live in a settlement about a half an hour out of town very near a lookout point where we saw miles of rolling desert, Bedouin camps, and in the far distance, the Dead Sea and the red hills of Jordan. Our lively discussions around life in this ever challenging country continued, and again, having so much time with people who actually live here made all the difference in our understanding of the Jewish perspective.

A bird's eye view of the Mahane Yehude Market from a little known perch.
Our time in the Old City turned out to be another incredible piece of our Senior Nomad puzzle. Michael sometimes refers to our travels as a "Self-Directed Masters Program in 20th Century European History and World Affairs".  If this experience didn't fit that description, nothing does. We were in the absolute heart of the Jewish Quarter during the holiest days of the Jewish religion.

Our host Yishia at our front door in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City
Our Airbnb was a "mother-in-law" style apartment in the home of Yishai and Rivka. They were wonderful and very hospital hosts that made sure we had everything we needed. Here's the link:  I did have to ask for a few things in the kitchen because (and here's a first) there were two sets of dishes and cookware. One for Kosher cooking and the other for non-Jewish guests. I coveted a few things on the Kosher side (is that a sin?) so Yishai found a large pot, a colander and a frying pan for "my side". We were all set.

One of the reasons it feels good to "Just say No!" to souvenirs.
As for shopping - yes, everything in the Jewish Quarter and most of downtown Jerusalem was closed from Friday at dusk until Sunday. However, the Muslims in the next quarter were doing brisk business! I could find whatever I needed, including bread, just a few cobbled streets away. There is a certain reverence to shopping along streets that existed in biblical times. If you look past the bobble-head bible figures and smiley face yamakas you can still buy sandals and over-priced cold drinks just like the Apostles did.

It was fun to spend  these colorful "Shekels" - unless you did the conversation rate. It was very expensive here.

We were tucked in the Jewish Quarter near the Western Wall.
The Old City is a narrow maze of passages that weave drunkenly between four distinct populations. Today, 36,000 people actually live within the walls of this quarter mile enclave! So of course the streets are teeming with locals, and during this week in particular, thousands of tourists and pilgrims from around the world. It was truly a gauntlet to get from our apartment to the Jaffa Gate where we spilled out into relative calm outside the walls.

Just one of the many streets in the Muslim Quarter where you lose yourself in the sights and smells.
The largest of the four quarters is the Muslim Quarter. This labyrinth overflows with cubbyhole sized food and souvenir stalls and shops for daily needs. The Christian Quarter was more sedate. This is where pilgrims gather to follow Jesus' tortured walk through the city carrying the cross to his crucifixion. There are 14 stops along the way that conclude at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the world's holiest Christian site. Inside this elaborate church two monuments mark the sites of Jesus' death, and the nearby tomb where he was buried. Thousands of people visit the church each day - and of course, the week were were there, multiply that by 10. The Armenian quarter is quiet, but their presence in Jerusalem dates back to the fourth century A.D following Armenia's adoption of Christianity. It recently got a little buzz due to a visit from the most famous (or infamous for this conservative population) Armenian - Kim Kardashian. Kim and Husband Kayne West had their daughter North baptised into the Armenian Christian faith in the Old City. All televised, of course.

The Kardashian clan visits the Old City with body guards and cameramen along side
The Jewish Quarter has it's own very distinct personality. It was filled to the hat brim with the families that live here, and because it was Passover it was even more crowded with worshipers from around the world visiting the Western Wall and sacred synagogues. Everyone was dressed in their finest including the children. I won't even try to go into all the variations on that theme, but suffice it to say Jews can wear whatever represents their particular sect, and their beliefs on a daily basis with pride, and without prejudice here. I like that.

A typical family in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter in the Old City
We took a moment to pray at the wall - it was a profound experience for any believer.
Just steps from our apartment was a small courtyard that looked over the Western Wall - sometimes called The Wailing Wall. It was fascinating to walk out there at any time of day and see hundreds of people praying - women separated from the men by a barrier. The Dome of the Rock was also in clear view from our apartment window. That golden egg of a building is the most contested piece of land on earth since it is coveted by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. Currently it is controlled by the Muslims and Jews are not allowed to go there.

Just a few steps from our apartment we had a panoramic view of the Western Wall.
The vast site of Dome of the Rock can only be appreciated in person. Security was tight.
In order to get a balanced experience while we were there we wanted to visit the Palestinian Territory known as the West Bank. We weren't sure exactly how we were going to do that, but we remembered when we watched Rick Steve's Holy Land special a few weeks earlier he credited the guides that he used. We watched it again while in Jerusalem - a good idea in itself, and then contacted one of the guides that presented the Palestinian perspective. His name was Kamal. Unfortunately, he was unable to accommodate us, but his mother, Faten was available. She is also a licensed guide. Three days later, we found the right bus that took us through the checkpoints into Bethlehem. We spent a full and very informative day with Faten (including a home-cooked lunch at her house). In an unusual twist her family is Orthodox Christian - a super minority in Palestine. She took us well beyond the tourist sites although we did have a brief visit to the birthplace of Christ as well as the site where the angels appeared unto the Shepherds. Speaking of Good News - that is exactly what happened when our bus driver called Faten to say that he'd found my wallet on the bus! I hadn't even noticed it was missing. We jumped in the car and met him on his route to collect it with everything safely inside. People have been so nice here on both sides of the walls.

Standing along a portion of the security wall that now runs through Faten's family property.
Almost every surface of the walls on the Palestinian side were covered in graffiti. This was a prominent image by the world famous artist Banksy.  
Other graffiti images were less peaceful and the difference in living conditions was eye-opening.
Back to our tour - we drove to a piece of farm land that had been in Faten's husband's family for generations. It was now split down the middle by the security wall that surrounds Israel. From there she drove us past the heavily graffiti-covered wall (including works by Banksy) and told some harrowing tales of life in Palestine. We returned to Jerusalem by walking through the long, heavily guarded security checkpoint that Palestinians must cross daily to go to work in Israel. It was daunting.

By the end of our day in the West Bank, our heads were spinning with all that we had learned from Faten, Stu and Ruth, Yishai and Rivka and many others. It would seem the problems here are intractable and all we can do is hope and pray for a peaceful solution for our new friends.

The full day at TEDx Jerusalem will go down as one of the best days of our trip.
On our last day we attended an all-day TEDx Jerusalem event! What an absolutely perfect way to end this journey. We heard 12 incredible speakers on a wide range of topics - several of which had to do with the current politics of Israel. I could write an entire blog about it. If you are ever in a city where you can attend a TED or TEDx event we strongly recommend you drop everything and go. Here's a link to the event we attended:

Without trying to gloss over the complexities and problems of this part of the world, I would end by saying that walking the streets of this holy place that has witnessed thousands of years of conflict and persecution, but also renewal and hope, was life changing for me personally and certainly sums up why Michael and I are on this journey.

Thank you for following along.

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads