Posts Tagged food

The Long Haul

We celebrate those who persevere for the long haul. We admire marathon runners and Ironman triathletes for their athletic perseverance. We respect PhDs and medical doctors for their academic perseverance. But sometimes staying in it for the long haul isn’t so commendable.

Television

For example, I still watch Grey’s Anatomy. I used to love this show. The characters took me on a roller coaster of emotions and left me craving the next episode. But after 1o seasons, it’s just not that compelling. As I was watching the two-hour season premiere, it felt like forever.

So why am I still watching? For some reason, I’m in it for the long haul. I feel like I’m invested in the characters and want to see how it ends.

Read

Since my husband is the poster boy for reading, I guess it’s good that I finish books!

Books

I do the same thing with books.  I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally not finished a book. (Although, I left one in the seat pocket on an airplane once, which made finishing it difficult.)

Even though I’m supposed to be reading for pleasure, I keep reading despite a lack of pleasure. I suffer through until the end.

Maybe it will get better. Maybe the end pulls everything together. Generally, it doesn’t. But I still feel compelled to finish.

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The Benefits of Marriage

Mr. HalfFull and Ms. HalfEmpty enjoy the sunset on their first day of marriage

Mr. HalfFull and Ms. HalfEmpty enjoy the sunset on their first day of marriage

As you’ve been watching various tax forms appear in your mailbox, perhaps the marriage penalty has come to mind. But even this half empty thinker knows there are some benefits to marriage!

One of those benefits is sharing food. (Of course it’s not the only or best benefit, but stick with me…)

I don’t cook. Of course, I could cook. But I don’t enjoy it. Perhaps it has to do with my affinity for order and cleanliness. Cooking seems awfully messy for my taste!

gourmet foods paper

It looks like I learned something about cooking at some point in the 90s.

That isn’t to say that I never cooked. In high school, I got an A in Gourmet Foods. (I got A’s in everything, but that’s not the point!) We cooked and baked all sorts of things that I would never dream of making now. We made pumpkin pies from real pumpkins with crusts from scratch…ridiculous!

We even separated whole chickens. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a whole chicken in my life. I realize it’s cheaper, but it seems impractical for a single person, especially one who doesn’t like dark meat.

Recipe binder title

Mr. HalfFull’s mockery of my high school Gourmet Foods binder

I’m lucky to have found a partner who enjoys cooking and grocery shopping. Knowing my dislike for the kitchen, he finds it terribly amusing that I still have my Gourmet Foods recipe binder from high school. He even made a label for the binder reading, “Ms. HalfEmpty’s A+ Recipe Binder, Circa 1995” and constantly ribs me for my scores over 100% inside.

binder tab

The first tab of my “A+ Recipe Binder” for Quick Breads showcases my more than perfect score. Ha!

Last weekend, Mr. HalfFull commented that I’m becoming quite the “microwave chef.” You may think that’s an oxymoron, but my usual microwave cooking involves a bag or a box that goes in the microwave, followed by me pushing a few buttons. Sometimes I even have to uncover and stir in the middle of cooking. What a process!

But when I was lauded as a microwave chef, it was far more complex and a creation of my own. Mr. HalfFull bought a plastic egg cooking container for the microwave. Some of you (like my mother) may be freaking out about plastic leaching chemicals in the microwave. But most of my self-prepared meals are in far less sturdy plastic containers, so it doesn’t phase me.

Microwave Egg Cooker

Don’t worry, I cracked the egg before I cooked it!

The egg container allows me to cook a fresh egg without additional oil or butter and without creating splatter on the stove! After cooking the egg with spices, I added it to bread and various cheeses, and stuck the concoction in the panini machine. Thus, earning the title microwave chef (even though I used two kitchen appliances)! Yes, it was delicious.

Since my cooking skills and desire are in the low to non-existent range, Mr. HalfFull and I enjoy eating out. This gives us the opportunity experience a benefit of marriage — being cute and sharing meals. It also affords us the chance to take more risks when ordering because we know we’ll have a fallback. When done correctly, it can also help us save money and eat appropriately sized portions (instead of restaurant-size portions) with variety.

But sometimes, we go all out. Like on New Year’s Eve, we went to one of our favorite local restaurants and each ordered the prix fixe tasting menu with a small plate, main plate, and sweet plate for each of us. So instead of a 3-course meal, we each got a 6-mini-course meal!

If you’re thinking about eating healthier and have a partner (married or not) to split with, check out the ideas in my meal sharing post for Northern Virginia Magazine.

  • Do you enjoy cooking? Did you always or did you grow into or out of it?
  • Does cooking an egg in the microwave make one a chef? =)
  • Do you share meals?

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Airline Rankings Around the World

We ended up flying on 8 different airlines during our 30/40 World Tour, since we booked our flights individually.  Below is our ranking of airlines from best to worst.  This is not meant to be a comprehensive study; it’s merely our impressions from the economy flights we experienced during the summer of 2011.

View over New Zealand

View from our flight over New Zealand

  1. Air Emirates (Mauritius to Dubai; Dubai to Munich)
  2. Air New Zealand (Auckland to Nouméa)
  3. American Airlines (DC to LA)
  4. United Airlines (Madrid to DC)
  5. Qantas Airways (Nouméa to Sydney)
  6. Air Mauritius (Melbourne to Mauritius)
  7. Air Pacific (LA to Fiji; Fiji to Auckland)
  8. Air Berlin (Munich to Barcelona)

To learn the price of each of these flights (ranging from $137 to $946 per person), see the previous post on the cost of our trip.  But price did not directly correlate with a positive experience on an airline.

Air Emirates

Air Emirates flight attendants

The signature red hat and sweeping scarf of the Air Emirates flight attendants

We were so impressed with our Air Emirates flights.  The uniform of the flight attendants with the red hat and sweeping white scarf is quite striking and exotic.  When we first boarded, I wondered about the practicality of such an outfit.  But after we were airborne, the hats came off.

The Air Emirates food was delicious.  I’m sure you’re laughing about delicious airplane food, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Perhaps it’s because I haven’t eaten hot food on an airplane in years!

The personalized entertainment screens for each seat were the best of all of our flights.  The screens were the biggest of any airline and provided on-demand entertainment options including movies and games.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand was another of our favorite airlines.  Their economy seats were beautifully passenger centric.  The back of each seat had a drink pouch that fit my water bottle perfectly.  It’s so easy and obvious, but I’ve never seen it on another airline.  I usually have to stuff my bottle into the magazine compartment, which forces the whole pocket wide open and takes up far more space in already cramped quarters.

We also loved the personal entertainment screens for each seat, and both watched Cedar Rapids at our own pace.  I started my movie slightly earlier than Mr. HalfFull, so I was pre-laughing at all the funny parts.  Finally, he asked me to pause so that he could catch up and we could laugh together!

I think it’s wonderful when airlines let you play and pause your own movie.  You can sleep when you like, use the restroom whenever, and still catch the full movie.  It’s so nice to be in control!

American, United & Qantas

I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about American Airlines, United Airlines, or Qantas Airways.  I’m also not married to that specific order.  All the flights were fine; nothing stood out to me positively or negatively, so they are all nestled in the middle of my list.

Air Mauritius

Air Mauritius only issues paper tickets.  Enough said!

Air Pacific

Air Pacific

Our Air Pacific flight landed early in the morning in Nadi, Fiji

Air Pacific ranks toward the bottom of the list because of their carry-on policy.  We specifically purchased our bags to be compliant with carry-on size restrictions.  But we had no idea that Air Pacific also has a weight restriction for carry-on bags.

I’ve never had my carry-on bag put on a scale.  But our bags turned out to be too heavy, and we were forced to check them.  I think this may have been because it was a double-decker plane which required more attention to avoid being top-heavy.

I don’t particularly mind checking my bags if I don’t get charged an extra fee.  But the problem was that we had packed with the intention of carrying our bags, meaning that we had our rain jackets rolled on the outside and other items clipped to the outside of the bags.  It’s stressful to repack a bag at the ticket counter with a line of people staring me down for being ill-prepared, especially when I thought I was perfectly prepared!

The other problem with Air Pacific is that they don’t have a regular counter in the LAX airport, so we couldn’t check in when we arrived from Washington, DC.  We we returned to the airport hours later, the line was frustratingly long and we didn’t get the seats we wanted.

Air Berlin

AirBerlin plane

Air Berlin was our least favorite airline of the 30/40 World Tour

Our original plan was to travel via train through Europe on a Eurail pass.  But for our specific plans, it wasn’t cost-effective or a good use of our time.  So we decided to book a budget flight from Germany to Spain.  It was our worst flight of the trip.

It included our only airport layover and our only flight delay.  Double whammy!  Plus, the children on the flight were unbearable and my sandwich was inedible.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t as bad as it seemed at the time.  Perhaps our recent awesome flights on Air Emirates skewed our judgement.

 

  • What’s your favorite airline?
  • Have you had a delicious airplane meal?
  • Do you know of another airline that still only uses paper tickets?
  • Have you had a carry-on bag weighed?

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What Does World Travel Cost?

People often wonder how much it costs to travel around the world.  The answer is whatever you want!

There are people who enjoy camping, while others will only stay at 5-star resorts.  I fall somewhere in between.  I enjoy my creature comforts, but I’m not over the top (unless you want to bankroll my next trip and then I’ll go all out).

On our 30/40 World Tour, we didn’t camp or stay in dorm-style hostels.  We always stayed in private rooms and almost always had private bathrooms, except when it wasn’t an option on group tours like our “sailing” safari in Fiji and bus tour through Australia.  We stayed in a range of hotels from the $13 internet special to a 4.5 star resort with more staff than guests.  We even stayed for free with familybrand new friends, and while volunteering.

For the most part, we didn’t rough it and our final price tag shows it.  Our 10 week around-the-world tour of 8 countries ran us $25K.  To top it off, we were still maintaining mortgages, car payments, and utilities at home.  Although we did cancel phone, cable, and internet service during our time away.  While taking on all these expenses, I was on a 3-month Leave of Absence from work and had no income.  So the trip was not an inexpensive proposition.

Flights

The biggest chunk of money was spent on flights — $4K/person.  It may sound like a lot of money for flights, but when I priced out a couple of different RTW (Round the World) airline tickets, they were $6K/person.  Plus, those RTW tickets did not allow some of the exotic locales we visited due to number of hops or milage constraints.  I was quite pleased with our individually booked flights because we almost always flew direct, and were able to use a week-long layover (included in the price of our ticket) to visit New Caledonia.  Our flights ranged from $137 to $946 per person.

Flight Costs

The cost of each flight purchased for the 30/40 World Tour

Expense Categories

I was curious to see how we allotted our money across various categories while traveling.  As mentioned above, our biggest expense by far was transportation including flights, car rentals, trains, airport shuttles, ferries, and subway rides.  I separated out the transportation (sailing and bus tour) where accommodations and meals were also included.

Expense Categories

All expenses by category on the 30/40 World Tour

Our next biggest expenditure categories were accommodations and food.  Some of our accommodations in Fiji and Mauritius included meals, and are categorized in the Lodging with meals category.  Food and shelter seem like reasonable expenses.  We had to meet our basic needs!

After transportation, lodging, and food, our next largest category was cash.  Oh what a black hole of undocumented expenditures!  Cash was withdrawn from ATMs in country and probably spent on food, taxis, and other cash-only vendors.  We never converted cash to a new currency, so I always tried to withdraw a small amount and spend it all before leaving the country.  It may sound a bit gauche, but in New Caledonia I used my leftover cash and coins to pay our hotel bill and charged the remainder.  The clerk was super nice about it, even though I was being a hobo.

We only spent 2% on entertainment, which included all the theater performances and a museum.  Gas was for our rental cars in New Zealand.  Goods consisted of toiletries that we purchased as we ran out (since we could only carry 3 oz. of each), a few gadgets (universal travel adapter and auxiliary cable for the rental car), sunglasses (after I left my mine in a hotel room), and a cute hat.  Our other expenditures were for internet, laundry, and spa services.

Expenses by Country

So where in the world did we spend $25K?  As you can see in the chart below, we spent most of it on flights.  But the country where we spent the most money was New Zealand.  That’s not surprising since we spent the most time there — 3 weeks.  We were only in the US for half a day and in the UAE for less than 2 days, so those bars look pretty small in comparison.

We also had almost no expenses in UAE and Germany since we stayed with Sir Expat and my cousins.  They were super generous and treated us to everything! So those countries skew low.  Spain is also lower than normal since our lodging and meals were covered for a week during VaughanTown.

Country Expenses by Category

Total expenses in each country in various categories

To try to normalize the data a bit, the chart below shows the cost per night in each country.  Again, this is skewed by staying with relatives, so don’t think UAE and Germany are inexpensive places to visit.  They certainly are not …unless you know people!

Remember that we also stayed in a range of lodging styles, so the chart below isn’t meant to compare similar living expenses in each country.  It’s merely a representation of what we spent while experiencing life on islands without electricity to splurge hotels like Sofitel when we needed to recover.  Our food also ran the gamut from quick sandwiches to extravagant sit down meals throughout the trip.

When splurging, one of Mr. HalfFull’s favorite phrases is, “How can we afford NOT to do it?”  Often when you’re far from home, it’s wise to take advantage of the chance to experience things that may seem pricey because the opportunity is fleeting.

Another factor is the strength of the US Dollar versus local currency.  All amounts in this post are in US Dollars.  While we were traveling, the US Dollar was stronger than the New Zealand Dollar.  But our American currency was weaker than the Australian Dollar and Euro, which made things seem more expensive for us.

Average Country Cost

Average cost per night in each country

Credit Card Fees

Before we left home, I called my credit card companies to uncover their foreign transaction fees.  Visa and MasterCard always charge 1%, but your card issuer (Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, Citi, USAA, etc.) can charge an additional percentage.  So my USAA card was only 1% because USAA does not charge an additional fee, but one of my other credit cards ended up being 3%.  While my credit card foreign transaction fees ranged from 1% to 3%, I discovered that my bank debit card did not charge a fee.

It makes me a bit nervous to use a debit card, especially while traveling, since it taps into my actual bank account and doesn’t give me time to review or dispute charges.  But no transaction fee sealed the deal.  We used my debit card throughout the trip for ATM withdrawals and purchases.  But we still used credit cards on sites like hotels.com that process in US Dollars so foreign transaction fees were not an issue.

Tracking Expenses

Before our trip, I had always used an old-fashioned paper checkbook register.  This matched nicely with my old-fashioned paper planner.  Although I’m far from being on the bleeding edge, I have always embraced technology.  But I was still attached to these paper relics.

My work environment necessitated a paper planner.  I also occasionally write paper checks to businesses that don’t accept credit cards.  Since I no longer have duplicate checks, it made sense to record those checks in the checkbook register at the time of the check writing.  It also forced me to practice simple math, which we rarely do anymore.  Hopefully, this will save me from embarrassment the next time a 6-year-old tries to stump me with a rapid-fire addition or subtraction problem!

But the paper method drove me crazy on the 30/40 World Tour.  It just wasn’t practical.

As I mentioned earlier, I was very worried about using a debit card linked to my bank account.  What if there wasn’t enough money to cover an automatic mortgage payment?  Questions like that made me nervous and drove me to spend a lot of time tracking receipts in my paper register.  The problem was that currencies fluctuate.  All my receipts were in local currency, but my bank account was in US Dollars.  So I had to estimate the USD amount to track in my register.

But I never knew when the transaction would clear, meaning that the USD amount could change from day-to-day.  Granted, we didn’t visit any places with highly volatile currencies, but I’m a perfectionist who balances her checkbook to the penny.  Pretty close just doesn’t cut it for me.

Trying to keep track of all that on paper with a running balance was a mess.  So I moved to an electronic register — a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet allowed me to track currency fluctuations easily and was much easier to maintain since I could move pending rows and know the true balance at any time.

I still use the spreadsheet today, so I no longer practice simple math.  Keep your 6-year-olds away from me! =)

Verdict

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on our trip and experienced a range of living styles from staying on an island where toilets only flushed at high tide to a boutique hotel with flower petals on our bed.  You can always spend less, but life is about choices.  We were constantly reminded that you get what you pay for.

  • What country was most expensive in your travels?
  • What do you splurge on while traveling?
  • Do you subscribe to Mr. HalfFull’s philosophy on splurging?
  • Do you use any antiquated tracking systems in our world of technology?

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The Unending Lunch

El Asador de Arnada oven

Mr. HalfFull gets a closer look at the clay oven @ El Asador de Arnada

We’ve been telling you about our 3-course meals in Spain, but this one takes the cake! Mr. HalfFull read about a restaurant called El Asador de Aranda, which brings traditional Castilian gastronomy to several locations throughout Spain. The photos featuring clay ovens and legs of meat on the wall enticed Mr. HalfFull to experience this manly palace of meat for himself.

lamb & pork at El Asador de Arnada

Mr. HalfFull salivates over our lamb and pork lunch entrées

Of course, this restaurant also had a 3-course lunch with wine. Since our language skills are limited, a predefined menu is a deliciously easy way out! This was advertised as a 3-course meal, but 3 courses it was not. The food and alcohol just kept coming and we were continually surprised.

grappa & cookies

The surprise licorice grappa and cookie course

We ordered lamb and pork to split (because we’re cute like that). It was so much food already, but then they brought grappa with cookies. Oh wow, MORE alcohol? Wasn’t a bottle of wine for 2 people at lunch enough? Of course not!

We ended up finishing the whole bottle of licorice grappa. Do you see the size of that bottle?

cava

Ms. HalfEmpty with the glass of cava she declined, but received

Then they offered us cava. I declined and they proceeded to bring us glasses of the bubbly white wine. How could anyone refuse Castilian hospitality? I guess it’s just not possible.

empty grappa bottle

With an inebriated smile, Mr. HalfFull holds up the empty victory bottle!

By the time we left, we were stuffed and drunk. I could barely move and definitely couldn’t walk straight. I think I was rather giggly as well. But Mr. HalfFull had a day of sightseeing planned. So he dragged his wife along the streets of Barcelona.

siesta shades

Ms. HalfEmpty stared longingly at the siesta shades as we departed El Asador de Arnada

I really needed a siesta after that lunch and enviously spied the yellow siesta shades hanging from a nearby building.  But we had a lazy morning and lunch was our first departure from the hotel that day.  So perhaps I hadn’t really earned a siesta.

Due to my inebriation, the rest of the afternoon is a little fuzzy; I was walking around in a haze. I’m sure Mr. HalfFull imparted various cultural and historical facts to me, but I can’t regurgitate any of them. I was just concentrating on standing upright.

Of course, he picked this day to show me Gaudí buildings. Ordinarily, Gaudí buildings look strange and dreamlike with their roots and treelike limbs protruding this way and that. But these buildings seemed to blend quite well with my stupor.

Casa Batlló by Gaudí

Casa Batlló by Gaudí looks like the type of fantastical building you would see in a drunken stupor

pedestrian deaths

In Barcelona, 1 in 3 deaths in traffic accidents are on foot

I was lazily walking along, dragging behind Mr. HalfFull until I read a sign painted on the crosswalk in the street. After staring for several seconds and working through my pretend human Catalan translation engine, I realized it said that 1 in 3 traffic accident deaths in Barcelona are pedestrians. I sobered up quickly.

 

 

  • Do you and your significant other split meals?
  • Would you drink the whole bottle of grappa?
  • Have you been served an unending meal?
  • Would you be able to sight-see after such a lunch?
  • Do you think the sign on the crosswalk causes more pedestrian accidents than it prevents while people stop in the road to read it?
Gaudí building

Gaudí buildings are surreal

tower @ Passeig de Gràcia

beaufitul tower @ Passeig de Gràcia

Gran Via Corts Catalanes

Gorgeous architecture at Gran Via Corts Catalanes

giraffe statue

Just another seductive giraffe statue laying in the street. Perfectly normal.

bull statue @ Gran Via Corts Catalanes

What self-respecting city doesn’t have a statue of an anthropomorphized bull?

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Worst Flight Ever

Thankfully for our livers, all things must come to an end.  After a weekend of partying in Germany, it was time to depart for Spain — the 8th and final country on our 30/40 World Tour.

Everyone has heard of “German efficiency,” but there was none to be found in the airport security line.  The line wasn’t very long, but was so slow!  They were basically taking apart each person’s carry-on bag despite having a perfectly serviceable x-ray machine.  They even examined my empty water bottle and told me I was not allowed to take more than 3 ounces of liquid.  My water bottle was clear plastic and attached on the outside of my bag.  This extra scrutiny seemed ridiculous.  But I assured them that my visibly empty bottle was indeed empty by shaking it for them.

Our flight to Spain was not direct.  It was also one of the only flights we did not book through STA, since they didn’t have any deals.  We couldn’t find any reasonably priced direct flights from Munich to Barcelona, so we used a discount carrier with a one hour layover in Düsseldorf.

Of course, nothing could be that easy.  Remember how we always say you get what you pay for?  This was another case in point.

The flight from Düsseldorf to Barcelona was delayed.  We had done a great job of booking direct flights with week-long layovers in exotic locales.  Our only true airport layover of the 30/40 World Tour was at LAX, but even then we planned a beach outing in Santa Monica.  This time, all we were able to do was hang out in a terminal filled to capacity with people from various delayed flights.  There weren’t any seats; even the nuns were sitting on the floor.  So we headed to the bar to wait.

Once it was finally our boarding time, they packed us into busses en route to the plane.  Finally, we had made it to the plane.  Thank goodness!

Not so fast.  Our journey was not yet over.  It was not yet time to relax.  This flight involved screaming children from all directions.

AirBerlin plane

After escaping the worst flight ever and arriving in Spain, we paused in the terminal to capture photographic evidence of our tormentor

The irony is that we had been on plenty of other flights with children.  Long flights.  Hours and hours of being constricted to a little seat.  But this tiny little 2 hour flight was horrible.

Perhaps I have a special intolerance as a person without children, but it really didn’t seem like the parents were doing anything.  The little girl in front of us was traveling with her German mother and Spanish father.  She was perpetually backward in her seat so that she could stare at us during the flight.  She got increasingly bold and started sticking her arm through the gap between the seats.

This was a nuisance, but not a major problem…until her arm swatted my drink.  Of course, it spilled all over my legs.  So I got to spend the rest of the day with sticky legs and socks.  Just lovely.

To understand just how much I disdain messes and sticky things, I will take you back to kindergarten.  I hated using glue because it could get on my fingers.  Other kids would smear glue all over their hands and wait for it to dry.  I found this appalling.

Back to the flight.  In the US, they would never serve food on a 2 hours flight.  But this was Europe.  They gave us some sort of boxed meal, but all the “fresh” food was inedible.  I think the sandwich was just mayo — gobs and gobs of mayo.  Perhaps there was something else in the sandwich, but it was hidden by the mayo.

We eventually arrived in Barcelona where we had to hurry up and wait for the train.  Despite visiting Dubai, it seemed excruciatingly hot in the train terminal with little air flow.  I expected it to be cooler in the evening as the sun descended.  Perhaps I was just being my half empty self with additional annoyance and stickiness.

We ended up in a train car with a group of boys on vacation.  With a liquor bottle.  They ended up making quick friends with the two girls nearby, and the liquor went back and forth across the train.  Hilarious people watching!

Barcelo Sants elevator lobby

Can you spot Ms. HalfEmpty? She's sitting in the spacey egg chair in the Barcelo Sants hotel elevator lobby.

After an afternoon of travel that seemed like days, we checked into our hotel — conveniently located above the train station.  This hotel had a space theme.  All the hallways were dark until you walked by the sensor and then a group of vertical lights from floor to ceiling adjacent to each door would illuminate.  It was a neat effect and probably saved a good bit of electricity too.

Barcelo Sants room

Outer space portal above our glowing hotel room bed

Our room was elegantly modern with space touches including a captain’s swivel chair.  There were also round portals in the room with pictures of the moon.  Oddly, one of them was above the toilet.

Barcelona taxis

During our 4 days in Barcelona, I spent a lot of time watching the parade of taxis from my hotel room window while waiting for Mr. HalfFull to coif himself. He takes longer than me! It was great people watching to see the drivers smoke and chat. It was like I was spying from space!

We even had multiple sizes of pillows with varying degrees of firmness.  Plus, there was an amazing ergonomic backrest for sitting up in bed, and a perfect bed tray. Our room was so awesome and relaxing that we didn’t leave until 1 PM the next day in search of food.

Maybe the flight wasn’t actually that bad.  I mean it wasn’t great, but it could have been much worse.  Perhaps we had just been spoiled by awesome airlines with hot towels, edible food, and the gift of silence.

  • How do you select flights?  Price?  Schedule?  Number of stops?
  • Describe your worst flight.
  • Does a dislike of glue as a kindergartener make me an old soul?
  • Is it a sin to spend the whole morning of your first day in a new country asleep?  Or is sleep important to help you enjoy it?

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Delicious Food & Dirty Laundry

My mom is going to be very excited about this post.  For months she’s been asking me why I only post about New Zealand.  I tried to assure her that other countries would come; I explained that since I had spent 3 of 10 weeks in New Zealand (the most time of any country on the 30/40 World Tour), I would have more experiences to share about that segment of the trip.  But alas, it’s time to move on to our first country without English as an official language — New Caledonia.

Both Mr. HalfFull and I studied French in school, but neither of us are fluent.  I wasn’t particularly worried about my language skills, but perhaps I should have been.  The real problem is that I haven’t practiced in years, so it took me a bit of time to retune my ear.  By that time, our week in New Caledonia was over!

Also, I’m a perfectionist.  When I spoke in French and the other person would respond in English, my pride would shatter.  I would leave thinking about the interaction — analyzing my vocabulary, sentence structure, and conjugation.  Sometimes a fancy verb tense would come to me in my sleep and I’d be armed for the next day of ordering and eating.

Speaking of eating, the food in Nouméa was delicious!  I love French pastries, breads, and cuisine in general.  In fact, bread was the reason Nouméa made it into the elite eight countries on the 30/40 World Tour.

Noumea

Ms. HalfEmpty relaxing on the Nouméa beach while watching swimmers on the dock and Duck Island in the distance

Mr. HalfFull has dreamed of eating a baguette on the beach in Nouméa since he read about it as a young adult living in Hawaii.  How indulgent is it to be sitting on the beach in Hawaii dreaming about another Pacific island?  But he’s been telling me that we had to visit “the Paris of the South Pacific” for years, so we put it on the itinerary.

man with baguette

Old man walking down the street with baguette in hand

Perhaps it was no coincidence that one of the first things we observed was a man walking down the street with a fresh baguette in hand — no wrapper or bag!  Mr. HalfFull’s dream was playing out nicely.

Sandwicherie

Ms. HalfEmpty prepares to order from the sandwicherie in French

We enjoyed our fair share of baguettes as well.  We found a little sandwich shop across the street from the beach that we frequented daily.  It was basically just a counter run by a couple — she interacted with the customers and he cooked.  There was no seating, so we would often take our sandwiches across the street to sit on a public picnic bench on the beach.  The sandwicherie was one of the few inexpensive (but still delicious) food options, which also made it appealing to students on group trips and US military guys in port for R&R.  The sandwicherie had a very specific list of sandwiches, but by the end of the week I was using my rediscovered French skills to create my own ingredient lists.

pastry

Ms. HalfEmpty excited to try a fresh tart from the bakery

We also enjoyed walking to a nearby bakery for breakfasts.  The pastries were so flaky and delicious!  We had croissants, pain au chocolat, and various tarts.

money & breakfast

Mr. HalfFull shows off the huge bills and numerous coins weighing down his wallet while enjoying coffee and a pastry

Many places like the sandwicherie and boulangerie did not accept credit cards, so we got cash quickly.  But the bills were so wide that they didn’t fit in a normal wallet.  I wonder if they sell special wallets in New Caledonia or if people generally fold their bills lengthwise.  We also learned that cash can be quite a weight lifting exercise with so many coins, rather than bills.

With only three pairs of underwear, it was necessary to do laundry in New Caledonia.  Our hotel charged about $4 per pair of socks, so that seemed a bit steep.  Thus, we set out on a quest to find a laundromat.  It was not an easy task.  I’m sure most tourists pack enough clothes and don’t need laundry services while traveling, but we were in a different situation.  We asked around and most people had no idea.  Finally we found someone who said they thought there might be one in a certain area.  We finally found it in a shopping center at the docks.  I guess people with houseboats need laundry service too!

When we arrived the proprietor was speaking with a customer at length.  It seemed like the conversation would never end, so I started to look around at the signs hoping I would find some information about hours and prices, but no dice.  We didn’t even know if the sea of washing machines were self-service or if we needed to drop off our laundry.  I don’t have an extensive laundry vocabulary in French, but once I spoke to the employee (who spoke no English), I learned that it was full service laundry priced by 5 kg loads.  It all worked out nicely in the end; I practiced French and got clean clothes!

  • Have you ever visited a place you read about?  Did it live up to your expectations?
  • Have you tried your foreign language skills abroad?  Did you get frustrated or were you successful?
  • Do you think walking around with a baguette in hand is sanitary?
  • What foods were especially delicious abroad?
  • Have you had difficulties with laundry while traveling?

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Road Tripping N-Zed

Unfortunately, watching old episodes of Flight of the Conchords didn’t provide me with much useful cultural immersion training before venturing into land of the long white cloud.  But it didn’t take much research to determine that NZ (pronounced /ˈɛn/-/ˈzɛd/) did not have a transportation infrastructure comparable to the ones that make touring Europe so easy.

Rental Car

Rental Car

Ms. HalfEmpty inside our trusty little rental car

Surfing Google Images at home for luscious snapshots of the NZ countryside stoked the adventurous fire in my heart.  But looking at our travel agent’s simplified tourist map, it seemed obvious to me that we would either need to join a tour or rent a car to see the NZ terrain.  As you can imagine, touring for over a week in a confined bus would not help me keep Ms. HalfEmpty full, so I suggested the idea of renting a car.  She loved the idea of being chauffeured (since it was very expensive to add a second driver) and I love road tripping back home in the US; it seemed like a natural win-win.

By our second full week traveling the globe, I found myself behind the wheel of a tiny silver Hyundai Getz in the drizzling rain at a rental car lot just off the motorway in Auckland.  After nearly 30 years of driving experience, my brain was convinced that I was sitting on the wrong (passenger) side!  For several days, I would walk to what I thought was the driver’s side, only to realize that the steering wheel was on the other side.

Fortunately, I had enough foresight to splurge on the automatic because shifting gears with my left hand seemed like it could be a dangerous proposition.  Thankfully, the gas and brake pedals are on the same side as in America.  But we had to laugh every time the windshield wipers sprang to life when I meant to use the turn signal, telling Ms. HalfEmpty, “Yep, the wipers still work!”  But other than that, the mechanics of driving proved to be a rather mundane affair, much like at home.

Road Tunes

Jessie-J

My name is Mr. HalfFull, and I’m a Jessie-holic.

As with all great road trips, great music is a must.  NZ really only has about five radio stations broadcast across different frequencies as you move around the country.  But I can confirm that eighties music is alive and well all across the dial in NZ!  I got a kick out of it each time the announcers would say that they were playing music from the “eighties, nineties, and naughties.”  In the US, we really don’t have a term for music since 2000, so it piqued my interest when I heard Kiwis refer to the 00s as the naught years.  Constantly hearing the word naughty made me giggle every time.

My weakness for pop music (despite the fact that I’m clearly not the demographic) was absolutely fueled by NZ radio!  I admit that Katie Perry’s “Teenage Dream” lyrics continue to haunt me, though Jessie J’s addictive “Price Tag” finally bumped her as my favorite guilty pleasure.  My boy Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” finished a close second, with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” rounding out the field.  After hearing the same radio songs for days, Ms. HalfEmpty found an inexpensive iPod plug so we could satiate our inner nerds and listen to downloads of my favorite show, Car Talk, and her favorite, This American Life.

Rules of the Road

I can report that, on the whole, NZ is a country of conscientious drivers, much more so than at home in Northern Virginia.  As expected, things were a bit more tense in the cities, but nowhere near the level of aggressive road rage experienced daily while commuting in the greater Washington, DC area.  The speed limits are pretty cut and dry:  30 km/h in towns and around construction (there seemed to be cones everywhere, for road repairs during the low tourism season), 50 km/h as you approach and leave towns,  and 100 km/h out in the country and on most motorways.  The suggested speeds around fast curves all seemed to be reasonable (usually 80 km/h) and there were no billboards to muck up the views.

Rainbow

Sometimes rain from the long white cloud provides a beautiful rainbow afterward, as we discovered in Pukenui.

If you’re contemplating a NZ road trip, there are only two major differences beyond the obvious side of the road issue to learn.  First is how Kiwis give the right of way, which can be a matter of life and death entering any of their many traffic circle intersections.  Right of way is super easy, but counter-intuitive to the American driver:  always give way to any vehicle making a right turn or coming from your right in a traffic circle.

In practical matters, this is most difficult when you are waiting to take a right across traffic at an intersection and the oncoming car politely waits for you to make your turn before he makes a left turn.  This has the brilliant side-effect of reducing congestion at intersections, and I must admit, feels very civilized.  I am happy to report that none of the Kiwis honked at me while waiting for me to turn as I became accustomed to the right-of-way rules.  As a matter of fact, over the course of 10 days of driving, I was only honked at once while waiting to enter a busy traffic circle during morning rush hour while transiting an industrialized city just south of Huntly (but more on that later).

Give Way

One way bridge on the Twin Coast Discovery drive

The second major difference is the scheme for giving way on one lane bridges.  The entire coastline of the North Island seems to be connected via a series of quaint one lane bridges that appear to have been built a hundred years ago while NZ was just becoming a country.  As you approach one, you immediately notice a sign with a big arrow and a little arrow, just before the road funnels from two lanes to one.  If the arrow pointing in your direction is much larger, you have the right of way and local drivers seem to maintain speed as they enter the bridge.  If you are giving way, definitely make sure you stop at or before the white line or you will probably be blocking the oncoming car’s exit off of the bridge.  The system works well because NZ drivers are so conscientious, despite the fact that many of these bridges seem to have a blind curve immediately before, after, or both!

Double-Edged Sword

Pahia

Gorgeous Pahia

Eventually, I found road tripping NZ to be a double-edged sword.  On one hand, you have the freedom of the open road, and of making your own schedule.  On the other hand, when do you stop and actually enjoy your holiday outside the car?  A big challenge for me was the fact that the landscape is so utterly beautiful that my mind would tend to wander while driving; I earned a few half empty glances after crossing over rumble strips.

Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Cape Reinga where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea

After a few days, I had become comfortable with NZ driving habits, but in the back of my mind I was wondering if the car was becoming a barrier to us fully experiencing the half full side of Kiwi culture.  One day we would find a quaint beach town like Pahia (where, with hindsight, we should have spent a few more days) or the breathtaking magnitude of Cape Reinga’s coastal reserves and iconic light house.  The next day, we would be on the outskirts of a mountainous national forest, the twists and turns of which we quickly learned were zero fun to drive through after sunset…and in the rain!

Tāne Mahuta

Mr. HalfFull is tiny below Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s largest known living kauri tree

After visiting Cape Reinga and trying to find a place to stay for the night, we learned about the curse of the car.  We ended up in Kaikohe, which seemed to be the only place with accommodations.  However, it was quite an economically depressed town with abandoned stores and hotels on the main street.  We considered eating at Subway for dinner, but instead opted to find out what the locals were serving.  The only options besides McDonalds, KFC, and Subway were Chinese restaurants.  We picked one, soon realizing we made a grave error.  I’ve never seen a Chinese restaurant not serve rice with an entree, but apparently it happens.  The food was terrible and we left without eating much.  On the walk home, we stopped at Subway for cookies to try to wash the greasy taste from our mouths.

The next day, we were determined to stay in a nicer place with better food options.  But once again, the curse of the car struck!  We almost stayed in Helensville to avoid another super long driving day.  But it looked a bit industrial on the outskirts even though the town was quaint, so I opted to keep driving.  We then came upon the town of Kumeu, where I spotted a restaurant that I was dying to try.  Now all I had to do was find a place to sleep.

We went to the Kumeu Information Center, like we did in most towns.  But we were about an hour late for their early winter hours.  They all have 24/7 touch screens for tourists, but of course those were locked up inside.  We weren’t too worried; how hard could it be to find a hotel?

After driving up and down the main road and finding nothing, we ventured onto side roads and still didn’t find any accommodations.  Usually signage in New Zealand is quite good for tourists, but we weren’t seeing anything.  Finally, Ms. HalfEmpty remembered that she had spotted an accommodation sign on the way into town.  We went back and followed the signs for a home stay, which turned out to be a bed & breakfast with no vacancy.  So we got back on the road to find the next town…

We were hoping to find something before Auckland, but that didn’t happen.  We ended up right the middle of Auckland’s rush hour traffic.  By this time it was dark and we were tired after two long days of driving.  We stopped at a rest area cafe just south of Auckland to jump online and search for hotels.  After finding a few options in the next town, we got back on the road.  We stopped at each one, only to find they were all booked.  We went to the next town and they were booked too.

How was I supposed to know that a professional rugby match combined with a lawn bowling tournament would result in every single accommodation along the motorway two hours south of Auckland being fully booked?  For the most part, road tripping in NZ winter was awesome because we could literally pull into towns where we wanted to stay, find Wi-Fi, and book a nice room (usually at a discount) within walking distance to sights and restaurants.  Not this time!

Huntly

Huntly’s claim to fame is this power plant

Nine hours of bleary-eyed driving later, we ended up in Huntly.  Ah, Huntly, the sad industrial power plant town that I was able to show Ms. HalfFull because “playing things by ear” had gone awry.  It was late and we had to eat so we headed downtown.  The options were as depressing as the previous night; we settled on fried take-away.  I ordered a steak burger.  Little did I know that it would actually be a hamburger topped with strips of steak!

New Plymouth

The art gallery across the street from our hotel was a delicious place to eat in New Plymouth

After that greasy cultural immersion, we implemented what turned out to be an excellent rule of thumb:  we would use Trip Advisor to find a nice room the night before, and limit our driving to approximately 4 hour legs.  The twisting mountainous roads of NZ make it difficult to guess driving times based on map distance, which led me to discover the priceless feature in the corner of all free Jason’s NZ travel maps –  a table of cities that you can cross-reference to learn reasonable driving times.  We became a well-oiled road tripping machine, which (despite a landslide-narrowed road) enabled us to “discover” my new favorite Kiwi city, New Plymouth, which had not been recommended in any of the tourist literature from our travel agent.  We enjoyed our first night so much we decided to stay a second (thankfully) despite the double-edged sword of seeing our car idle in the motel’s lot.

Getting Lost Can Be Good

Plume

Ms. HalfEmpty enjoying the spread @ Plume

In defense of “playing things by ear” (and despite Huntly), I will say that one of my favorite afternoons of our early road trip was the direct result of getting ourselves lost in Matakana wine country in search of lunch.  Because we were on vacation and love our sleep, we were having breakfast and getting on the road around 10 AM every day.  This resulted in the hunger for lunch not setting in until well past noon, which is fine if you’re in a big city, but we were meandering about the NZ countryside.  It was only our second day of driving, and we were happily lost in the gorgeous mountainous/beach landscape north of Auckland.  Every tiny restaurant we stumbled across had closed by 2 PM, and we were getting a little crotchety, resulting in a wrong turn down a secondary (perhaps tertiary) road.

Plume Winery

Plume Winery

Low and behold, we saw a gorgeous winery and vineyard with the word Plume in a nice cursive scrawl across a barn, and more importantly their open sign.  Poking our heads in, a lovely German girl notified us that the kitchen was closed but that if we tasted a glass of their scrumptious red wine, she could put together a platter of cheese, bread, fruit, and a small bowl of Manuka honey, which is now one of my culinary obsessions.  Let’s just say that the nice folks at Plume winery did a wonderful job keeping Ms. HalfEmpty full, and we give two big thumbs up to the Matakana wine country for a perfect combination of hospitality, scenery, and deliciousness!

The Glorious Dead

Picton, New Zealand

Mr. HalfFull at a monument to the Glorious Dead in Picton

US Marine Corps Flag in Wellington

Red US Marine Corps Flag prominently displayed in St. James Church

In the end, we discovered that every town and city we passed through had a war memorial prominently displayed as you passed through.  We later learned (in Australia, oddly enough) that these war memorials are so pervasive because soon after New Zealand became a country a majority of their boys and men were swept up into World Wars I and II, in some cases losing one generation in WWI and then the next generation in WWII.  So many men were lost so fast that the U.S. Marines were actually sent to defend NZ from the Japanese during WWII, which explains why you will find an oddly located US Marine Corps flag proudly flying inside the Old St. James Church in Wellington.  As a tourist, it felt weird at first to keep reading the words “To The Glorious Dead” upon entering every town and city, but once it was put into context, the sacrifices earned a place of deep respect in my heart.

Unraveling the Mystery of Cookie Time

Cookie Time

Mr. HalfFull lasciviously eyes his first Cookie Time cookie

On a final and lighter note, the other thing besides war memorials that we noticed in most towns was a big sign on each of the small roadside grocery stores advertising fresh NZ milk (of course) and something called “Cookie Time.”  Being a lover of ice cream, it took several days before the siren song of the Cookie Time sign lured us into a store.  Up until that moment, I would simply see the cheerful signs with the big red monster and scream “cookie time!” much to Ms. HalfEmpty’s chagrin, since I’m known to be quite loud.

On one of our last days with a car, I turned to her and said, “We have got to unravel the mystery of cookie time.”  The girl behind the counter seemed to give my wife a sympathetic glance as, grinning from ear to ear, I placed my container of NZ milk and giant Original Cookie Time chocolate chip cookie on the counter.  In an unscientific survey of two Americans in a rental car, it was discovered that 100% of the people who tasted an Original Cookie Time cookie thoroughly enjoyed it, so much so that Mr. HalfFull hereby declares it his official must-have road trip food of New Zealand.

  • Would you rather rent a car or join a tour group on a bus?
  • If you’ve driven on the other side of the road in a foreign country, how long did it take you to become comfortable?  Did you have any mishaps?
  • Which driving tunes are critical to your road trip enjoyment?
  • Have you found renting a car to be a double-edged sword on holiday?
  • What treasures have you found as a direct result of getting lost?
  • What were you surprised to find in almost every city/town while in a foreign country?

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