Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Normandy Express

NOTE: This blog is going back to last August as we were nearing the finish of Senior Nomads Round II. Many things have happened since then - some I have written about, but I didn't want this important part of our journey to go undocumented!

After our family gathering in Brittany last August, Michael and I had an additional week to spend with our 35 year old daughter Kelly. We had nostalgic visions of a pleasant family road trip along the coast of France to visit the World War II sites.  Memory has a way of blurring the bad bits, and if we all admit it, there were really very few pleasant family road trips.  Oh, there might have been moments where everyone was playing "Slug Bug" or telling fart jokes, or sleeping (not the driver of course), but road trips with our young children were taken well ahead of minivans with movies or the current device-for-every-child trend. Let's just say we went back in time 25 years and Michael snapped more than once "Listen you two" (that would be Kelly and I) "If I have to pull over you won't like the consequences!"

The team! Kelly Chief Navigator,  me Snack Mom, and Dad the Driver.
Our plans included a drive along the coast to the medieval city of Dinan with a three night stay in a converted barn in the nearby village of Pleudihen sur Rance. That would be base camp for day trips to St. Malo and and St. Michele before making our way to Caen for two nights. From there we would explore the World War II memorials and D-Day beaches.

Finding our way on the small back roads proved challenging - but rewarding.
With Kelly and I both glued to our iPhones using separate GPS map programs  set to navigate the French countryside we hit the road.  Of course we had conflicting ideas on the perfect route, and that led to some "my way is better than your way" moments - but our trusty driver reached back to early parenting skills and got the job done despite our squabbling. For all future travel after day one we designated Kelly as the official navigator. My job was to provide snacks, enjoy the scenery and do my best to stay out of any negotiations around how to find a small farmhouse in the dark in the dense Normandy countryside. Ommmm. Here's a link to our farmhouse airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com.mt/users/show/10580871

My mistake was not stocking up on snacks and basics for our first night before leaving Quiberon Sunday morning. I knew better - I guess I just got flustered around three families heading in four directions and did they have snacks? A rookie mistake for  this Senior Nomad. In France, especially outside of big cities, large grocery stores are only open until 1:00 if at all, and restaurants and other shops are definitely closed. We had a hard time finding lunch on the road, but finally diverted into a very small village and thankfully found a bar serving sandwiches. And an an amazing 16th century cathederal. 
Our airbnb farmhouse was warm and comfortable.
Our rural retreat was cozy and it came with a friendly goat  pegged to a tether just outside our door. Our host kindly provided a bottle of local cider and breakfast fixings, and we dined on crepes for dinner at the only restaurant that was open in the tiny village. The place was packed of course, so that made for great atmosphere, and luckily the food was outstanding. All in all, a good day.

The lovely Kelly Anne taking a break from her navigating assignments.
Early the next morning I walked a mile into the village and bought proper travel snacks for the day's journey. We were headed to Dinan, but because our host suggested a side trip we discovered the picture-perfect village of Saint-Suliac. We would have missed this harbor-side village otherwise, and it was very special. It is rated as a Beau Village of France (a top honor for the most beautiful villages in the country) and the designation was well deserved.

It was a beautiful day in the popular village of Saint-Suliac.
After a full compliment of pastries (over and above car snacks) we were on to Dinan where we explored the castle and the winding narrow streets of the old town. The waddle and daub houses leaned precariously over the lanes and you could truly picture life here three hundred years ago. Luckily you didn't have to smell life 300 years ago since waste of every kind was tossed to the street with a shout of something like "incoming".  Instead you can buy expensive souvenirs and in our case, have ice cream for lunch.

Dinan showed off  beautiful buildings and ancient stone walls around every corner.
We taught Kelly our rules around Gelato. It can be breakfast, lunch or dinner!
The next day we headed to St. Malo. If you've read the popular book All the Light we Cannot See
you'll know a majority of the book takes place there. With every twist and turn within the city I could experience that amazing narrative. After a "back to reality" pizza lunch we headed to St. Michele - the iconic monastery that sits off shore and is it's own majestic city on a rock.

Leaving the shuttle for the civilized walk to the top of the monastery on St. Michele.
A peek at the sea from the ramparts around the monastery.
We witnessed pilgrims wading knee deep in the slurping sand to reach the island from shore (we chose the brand new bridge). Inside the gates we pushed through the gauntlet of tourist traps and souvenir shops. Once we broke free and wound up the many, many stairs to the monastery at the top we were rewarded with an amazing vista across miles of sand and sea. Unfortunately we had arrived too late to tour the monastery itself, but we'd had such a rewarding day with a minimum of car wars that we treated ourselves to another lovely crepe dinner.

 A Rye flour crepe with a perfect farm fresh egg framed in the in the middle.
In anticipation of our visit to Omaha Beach, we re-watched the movie Saving Private Ryan. It had been many years since we'd seen it, and Kelly had never seen it. It was difficult to sits through the horrific opening scenes of the D-Day landings, but it set us up for the next two days.

Watching Saving Private Ryan was difficult - but a good set up for our D-Day excursions.
We arrived in Caen and found our Airbnb. It was nice, but nothing special, and Caen itself isn't really a destination city other than being home to the acclaimed World War II Memorial Museum. Our plan was to be sightseeing most of the time anyway, so we were set. We were fortunate to have great weather as well.

A 25 foot statue called "Unconditional Surrender" based on the famous kiss in Time Square on V-Day stands outside the World War II Memorial Museum in Caen.
Our first day was spent at the museum. This is not a place to see artifacts - it is dedicated to the history of the most violent and intensive conflict of the 20th Century and particularly World War II. The museum was officially opened on 6 June 1988 (the 44th anniversary of D day) by the French President Francois Mitterrand. The original building deals primarily with World War II, looking at the causes and course of the conflict. Well said Wikipedia. This was a perfect start to our journey.

Michael surrounded by some of the headstones overlooking Omaha Beach.
Standing on the actual soil and sand of the D-Day beaches and learning first hand of the events of those weeks during WWII is almost indescribable. I am so glad our travels brought us, and our daughter, to this hallowed ground.
The most fascinating story we heard detailed the allied ingenuity that built a man-made harbor in a matter of weeks on the shore at Arromanches out of derelict tankers and huge concrete slabs. This was one of the war's most strategic accomplishments in that men and materials could flow continuously onto French soil. Here's a link to a great article in Scientific American that explains it in detail:  http://tinyurl/qetzmft

Kelly and Michael outside the museum at Arromanches.
We were humbled by the sea of 9,387 white crosses punctuated with Stars of David at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach. We had seen a lot that day, but Michael and I were compelled to bookmark our experience with a visit to the German Cemetery at La Cambre, about ten miles inland from the American burial grounds. It was a sharp contrast, but no less powerful. More than 21,000 soldiers are buried here - and while over 1 million visitors pay tribute to our soldiers - a small fraction of that visit this somber site. It was no less powerful and we left with heavy hearts for all the young men who's final resting place we visited that day.
The German Cemetery and Memorial was a good reminder that war is in fact, Hell.
It was time to head back to Paris - could we survive the car trip? We could, but our car could not.
For two days the check engine light had been glowing. On this last day it added the message, loosely translated, "get to a garage or risk implosion".

In the two and half years we have been on the move as Senior Nomads, we rarely move around behind the wheel. Our itineraries are built around staying in the center of each city and relying on public transportation to get us where we need to go. This road trip would be the only the third time we'd rented a car.  We rest our case.

We definitely didn't like the looks of this message!
We found the nearest Avis rental agency in Caen and they said we could probably make it to Paris. "Probably?" No thank you. So we switched to a new car - but not before the agency said we'd either need to find a gas station and fill our tank or pay double to have them fill it before we turned it in.  Wait. You want us to put gas in a car we are returning early because it is a potential death trap? Ah, the French.
Kelly saying goodbye to new friends in Paris.
We made it to Paris and Kelly did a great job of navigating the city streets and getting us to the rental return site. Not easy since it was down a narrow street with a sharp right down into the depths of a parking garage. There was not a soul in sight, just a few spaces marked Avis. We left the car and once above ground found the tiny office. We were happy and relieved to hand over the keys and get back on the trusty Parisian Metro!

We put Kelly on a plane back to Seattle the next day. It suddenly seemed very quiet without a constant stream of advice from our daughter as well as way too loud bouts of laughter; some tender moments; some scratchy moments and some very, very good times. Bless you Kelly.

Thanks for following along.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Saturday, November 14, 2015

We are Safe in Paris

A black ribbon on the door of our nearest boulangerie.

Thank you to our readers who have been concerned about us. We are safe and so is our daughter and her family. This is such a sad day in Paris.

The Airbnb Open experience was so uplifting and our presentations went well - we even got a standing ovation from the big stage, so today's post was meant to be so different.

As the evening was wrapping up the 5,000 attendees were encouraged to go out and experience the real Paris. Explore a new neighborhood - meet up with new friends at a bar or over dinner. Who knew two hours later mayhem would be unleashed.

Please pray for the citizens of Paris and around the world who are suffering from violence and terror.

Thank you.

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

60 Daze of Airbnb Open Prep!

Two months ago we were with our oldest daughter Kelly surrounded by a sea of white crosses punctuated with Stars of David at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. Later that same day we stood amongst row after row of dark granite headstones memorializing the German soldiers who also lost their lives in France during WWII. We were nearing the end of almost a year of Senior Nomad travel and touring the memorial sites and museums in Normandy before returning to Seattle for a few weeks. I'll write more about our visit in the coming weeks.

Our new mentor and friend Chip Conely
For now I need to catch you up on a whirlwind of activity that has, amazingly brought us back to France! About six months ago we started a conversation with Chip Conely, Head of Global Hospitality & Strategy at Airbnb about the possibility of us speaking about our experiences at an event in Paris in November. The event is the Airbnb Open and it starts tomorrow when thousands of hosts from 110 countries will descend on Parc de le Villette for a big group hug. This morning we got up early in our 82nd Airbnb in Montmartre in the shadow of the famous  Sacre-Coeur Basilica to put the finishing touches on our presentations.

The big stage - our Keynote slides and our giant selves will be on the pink screen!
Not only will we step out on a stage blazing with lights, giant screens, teleprompters and cameras from all angles in front of 5,000 hosts, we will also be giving a half hour break-out sessions each day in front of 250 attendees about how great hosts made a difference in our journey.

My life for the last 6 weeks!

The system is the solution.

We've been scratching out scripts and trying to find the best way to co-present for about two months now. It was much easier spending 24 hours together for 850 days of travel than spending any single day trying to blend our two very different approaches and personalities into a cohesive presentation. Some days we were as synchronized as gold medal figure skaters, other times we were completely unraveled and wondered if we had been on the same journey. Often times we just had to walk away from it. We are nearly there, but barely married!

Michael remains calm in the face of public appearances, while I vacillate between confidence and terror on a minute to minute basis. Today we are going to practice on stage and will get a first look at what tomorrow and the next day will look like - and in the end, we both know it will be fine. And fun. We are surrounded by dozens of great people from Airbnb that truly love us and want us to succeed. Besides we are the only speakers talking about the guest experience so as they say, "We own the category". 

I would like this to be my future office at Airbnb headquarters in SF.

Presenting to the Portland Airbnb office staff.
We had a chance to present a variation on our break-out session at the Airbnb offices in Portland and in San Francisco while we were back in the States. We had great response at both places, mostly from audiences who, on average, were the same age as our adult children so it wasn't hard to getting standing ovations. We also presented our story to Seattle DowntownRotary - one of the largest in the world. Again we were surrounded by a room full of friendly faces. Michael has been a member of the club for 25 years and I had many friends in the audience. But we definitely saw some challenges in our hand-offs to each other and some fumbling with the slide flow. Arrgh. Can we do this?Yes we can!

We have been in Paris since November 4th and have had some very special time with our grandchildren. The balcony of our charming Airbnb looks directly down the street at Coco and Marcel's school, and we have picked them up most everyday for two hours of fun. Meanwhile, baby Jacques gets quality alone time with mom and dad after his day at creche then we all gather for a hectic dinner.

After school rendezvous and kid hand off in Paris
Yesterday we went shopping for a confidence building outfit for me to wear on stage. I was instructed to stay away from solid black or white, small prints or patterns, and anything reflective. Did you know that just about every garment in Paris is either, black, white, black and white or patterned? We finally found just the right look - another checked box on my list.

It's always fun to spend time at our home-away-from home with Carla and Tom.
Before I close I want to thank Carla and Tom Robinson for once again hosting us in the guest house while we were in Seattle for a few weeks. And also thanks to Billy Meyer a long time friend and speaking coach who was an enormous help in getting us prepared for this unexpected part of our journey as Senior Nomads.

Ready as we'll ever be! Wish us luck.
The only thing left to do before we head into the bright lights is decide who controls the PowerPoint clicker!

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads