Posts Tagged wine

Wading our Way to the Winery

Travel can often lead to unforseen obstacles and unexpected delights. Toward the end of our stay in Uruguay, we experienced both.

Narbona Wine Lodge vineyard

vines @ Narbona Wine Lodge

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Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Loss of Stories

Everyone has a story. Do you ever look at a person and wonder about his personal history? What experiences shaped this individual?

I am endlessly fascinated with personal stories, those based in reality. I’ve never been interested in fantasy or science-fiction genres. I’m quite narrow in my genre selection and prefer things that are true to life. Perhaps that’s an effect of my unimaginative ruler tendencies.

It may also be why I love StoryCorps on NPR. The audio broadcasts of just a few minutes tell stories of ordinary people interviewing each other. The tales always seem to evoke an emotional response in me from tears to awe. I realize that the broadcasts are edited versions of longer conversations, but it’s some amazing storytelling!

Ms. HalfEmpty with relative

Ms. HalfEmpty at her wedding reception in 2009 with Ms. WhiteHouse (1918-2013)

Lately, we’ve had a few deaths in the family. One was a local relative who had some hilarious stories about her professional life in the White House. I’ve heard a few at family gatherings over the years, but I wanted to learn more. My plan was to interview Ms. WhiteHouse and write an article, but she preferred to remain private and declined.

Now Ms. WhiteHouse is gone along with her stories. The loss of stories is sad, but it’s also important to respect people’s wishes for their lives and stories.

Mr. HalfFull is a great storyteller and gregarious human who puts others at ease to tell their stories. Before his mom died, they discussed her life over wine. In vino veritas! (Perhaps I’ll have to use that interview technique someday, Mr. HalfFull.) Mr. HalfFull was able to learn about how she met her husband in her own words.

But he knows less about his dad’s perspective from those early years. In fact, he just learned that his dad’s football career at Dartmouth ended due to injury after listening to his sister’s podcast. It’s interesting how different siblings have various pieces of the story.

Perhaps you’ve grown tired of that one relative retelling the same life story each time you meet. But that repetition may help the story live on with you. Not everyone is a great storyteller; sometimes it can be tiresome to sit through the extraneous details and tangents. If only we all had StoryCorps editors to weave it into a concise, moving tale!

As people pass away, stories are lost forever. Perhaps we need to spend some time asking questions and listening while we can.

  • Are you interested in personal stories?
  • What’s your preferred genre for pleasure reading?
  • Do you listen to StoryCorps? Do you have a favorite episode?
  • How much do you know about your parents as young adults?
  • Is there someone you know whose story should be preserved?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Exposing Ourselves to Spaniards!

Mr. HalfFull and I participated in VaughanTown (an English immersion program for Spanish business people) as English-speaking volunteers.  And boy did we speak!  It was a heck of a lot of talking for an introvert like myself, but even Mr. HalfFull’s extroverted social battery was happily drained by the end of our week.

When we applied for VaughanTown as we were planning our 30/40 World Tour, we were excited at the prospect of cultural exchange with Spaniards.  After traveling for an extended period of time, all the churches, monuments, and town squares start to blend together.  What you really want is the human story and the insider’s perspective.

As a tourist, it’s hard to meet natives; you don’t travel in the same circles.  But even if you did happen to meet each other, how would you start a deep and meaningful conversation?  It’s unlikely to happen, so VaughanTown is a great way to capture real Spaniards and make them talk to us!

Meals

VaughanTown final dinner

Our final dinner at VaughanTown was served on a long banquet table instead of the 4-6 person tables for normal meals

Each day at VaughanTown, we were required to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in groups of 4 or 6 with even numbers of Spaniards and Anglos to keep the conversation going.  Lunch and dinner were always full service meals at the 4-star hotel with an abundance of wine.

One-On-One Sessions

One-on-One Session

Mr. HalfFull in a One-on-One Session on the hotel steps

But the majority of our time was spent in One-On-One Sessions with one Anglo and one Spaniard.  Anglos were given an idiom to explain to the Spaniard, but aside from that we were just supposed to talk about anything for 50 minutes.  As you can imagine from normal life, this can be easy or excruciating depending on the person.

Gredos Lobby

Ms. HalfEmpty waits in the hotel lobby for her One-On-One partner

I learned a lot about the lives of these Spaniards from the personal to the cultural.  I even got to ask my burning questions about Spanish life.  I was supremely disappointed to find out that most working Spaniards do not take a siesta in modern life.

My favorite part of Spanish life was just shattered!  But the Spaniards explained that it’s not really practical to drive home for lunch and siesta if you have a long commute.  It just extends the day, and they would rather finish their workday earlier.  Makes sense, but still disappointing.

Walking Back to Gredos

Ms. HalfEmpty walking back to the hotel

Remember when I said we did a lot of talking?  There was also a lot of walking.  The grounds around the hotel were beautiful, so we would often walk and chat for our session.

The closest town, El Barco de Ávila, was cleverly located a 25-minute walk away from the hotel.  So just as you approached the edge of town (with all the Spanish speakers), it was time to return to the English enclave at the hotel.

Sleeping

Ms. HalfEmpty in her room during a free session

After a 10 minute break, it was time to move to your next One-On-One Session.  Sometimes, there were more Anglos than Spaniards and we would get a session of free time.  My introverted self loved these breaks.  I often used them for another siesta, in addition to the one after lunch.

El Barco de Ávila

Mr. HalfFull was able to game his way into town.  Some of the Spaniards requested permission to buy fruit during their One-On-One Sessions.  So 2 Spaniard and 2 Anglos (including Mr. HalfFull) spent their session driving to town.

Beers in Town

Mr. HalfFull and the fruit buyers enjoy a surreptitious beer in town

They were supposed to buy fruit and come back to our English oasis.  But instead, they stopped for some beers.  When the program organizer found out, she wasn’t pleased.  But it actually turned out to be a serendipitous occasion.

One Anglo traveled to VaughanTown from India.  His trip ended up taking 3 days, so he missed the group bus from Madrid.  He had to find his own transportation to the nearby town, but never made it to the hotel.  Apparently, the program sent a taxi to town to pick him up, but they missed each other.

Hides

Animal hides hanging from a balcony in town

So what is a weary traveler to do?  Grab a beer, of course!

Church

Look Mom, I tried to go to church, but they wouldn’t let me in!

Somehow Mr. HalfFull heard the Indian man speaking English in the bar and had a feeling it was the missing Anglo from VaughanTown.  Mr. HalfFull introduced himself and bear hugs ensued!  The Indian traveler was so relieved to be rescued by VaughanTown comrades.

Aqueduct

Aqueduct in El Barco de Ávila

The rest of us got to town later in the week on a group outing.  We all walked to town on perhaps the hottest day during at the sun’s peak!

El Barco de Ávila is a quaint village with Roman and Arab influences.  It contains a small aqueduct, a castle, chapels, and even an old prison.  It was fun to finally enter the town we had been walking toward and peering at from afar all week.

Entertainment

Mr. HalfFull Plays a Bull

Mr. HalfFull in his role as El Torro!

Sometimes, instead of One-On-One Sessions, you would be pulled into a group to prepare entertainment — a skit, dance, etc.  Mr. HalfFull often got roped into these.

Skit

The bull fighter, Carrie, and Lady Gaga dance as Darth Vader watches. This is high art, people!

In his first performance, he was a bull.  He really took this role to heart.  He tore through the space running into chairs.  He even knocked over a floor lamp, that I was able to catch from my seat.  The other characters from his skit were Carrie from Sex & the City, Lady Gaga, Darth Vader, the famous Spanish bull fighter Enrique Ponce, and Big Bird.  Hilarity ensued.

Bollywood Dance

Mr. HalfFull and his fellow Bollywood dancers perform “Jai Ho”

Mr. HalfFull also started his training as a Bollywood dancer at VaughanTown.  If you know Mr. HalfFull, you know that he believes that nothing good can come from a man dancing past age 25 (unless it’s his wedding).  So you can imagine my surprise when he danced to “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire.

Teaching Lindy Hop

Ms. HalfEmpty teaches Lindy Hop

My contribution to the entertainment was to teach Lindy Hop, the original swing dance from the late 1930s.  I taught Lindy-style Charleston to the group and ended with a mini-performance.

Queimada

Mr. MC brews queimada in an elaborate ceremony

On our final night, Mr. MC brewed queimada for the group in the Galician tradition.  The base of this concoction is aguardente, a spirit with high alcohol content, that burns to a fiery blue. While Mr. MC was preparing the punch, others read a spell to confer special powers to the queimada and those drinking it.  It was a rather spooky affair.

Queimada Taste

Ms. HalfEmpty is not a fan of queimada

When I saw that the queimada was flavored with coffee, I was quite excited to try it!  But it was terrible.  I couldn’t even finish my little cup.

The Experience

By the end of the week, I was worn out!  But I am glad that I had the chance to get to know all sorts of Spaniards from recent college graduates to medical doctors and government workers.  Plus, I also got a chance to get out of the city, see a bit of the idyllic country-side, make some personal connections, and even learn about my namesake for free.

 

  • How do you meet natives while traveling?  Do you enjoy making deeper connections?
  • Have you ever found your limit on interaction?
  • What ridiculous characters have you played?
  • If you went to a place like VaughanTown, what talent would you share?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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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?

Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Wandering Through Barcelona

You may be wondering if we did more than sleep and attempt to buy train tickets in Barcelona.  Yes, we did!  Eventually, we ventured out of our hotel to see the sights.

Barcelona side street

Many of the homes in Barcelona had shutters or fabric siesta shades to block out the afternoon sun. I love that the culture is so focused on naps!

When we first left our space-like sleep chamber, we ended up on a nearby side street with various fruit shops.  We would stop into one and buy something that looked deliciously ripe.  Then we would go outside to eat it just in time to visit the next shop.  I’m sure the store clerks were annoyed that we were only buying one piece of fruit at a time, but it saved us from carrying anything (and saved the environment from one more bag).

Ham Shop in Barcelona

I’ve never seen so many legs on display!

We did not enter the meat shop on the same street as the fruit stores.  But we did spy through the window.  Leg after leg of meat hanging by the hooves was quite a sight to behold.  Legs of meat aren’t as immediately edible as fruit, so it wasn’t so practical to pick one up on this outing.

Our initial process of sightseeing was basically to wander.  We had a map and general direction in mind, but stopped whenever we saw something of interest.

Perhaps our tanned skin made us look a bit like Spaniards or perhaps we carried ourselves with purpose.  But it was a bit comical when other tourists would ask us for directions as we wandered.  We didn’t even speak Spanish!  (Incidentally, this also happened to me on a trip to Mexico.  Natives would start speaking to me in rapid fire Spanish.)

CaixaForum

A neat line of mopeds and motorcycles in front of CaixaForum, a social and cultural center in Barcelona. Moped drivers were quite the daredevils, darting in and out of urban traffic!

I thoroughly enjoyed our somewhat aimless walk. We saw some beautiful architecture and panoramic views of Barcelona as the sun set.

near Place St. Jordi

Ms. HalfEmpty pauses amidst the beautiful scenery near Place St. Jordi

As we started walking back toward the hotel at 10:30 PM, I felt a rumbling in my tummy. That 1 PM lunch wasn’t going to keep me full forever!

We stopped into a restaurant and asked to be seated outside.  It was such a lovely summer night.  We had just been in winter in the southern hemisphere for much of our summer and then experienced the extreme heat of Dubai, so night in Barcelona was just the right temperature for dining al fresco.

But we were the only people outside and the servers looked at us funny when we asked.  Maybe they were annoyed that were creating more work for them.  Outside is a longer walk with more doors.

Palau Nacional de Montjuïc

Mr. HalfFull and Ms. HalfEmpty below Palau Nacional de Montjuïc. Fortunately, we captured Mr. HalfFull’s good side in this self-portrait! But both of my sides are good, so that’s why I’m centered. =)

After our 3-course lunch, of course we had to have a 3-course dinner.  Again, this one came with wine.  We had recovered enough by this point to partake.  But there was SO. MUCH. FOOD.  Just look at the appetizers they served us!  We still had 2 more courses after that.

appetizers in Barcelona

Ms. HalfEmpty starts another 3-course meal with appetizers. Yes, those are JUST the appetizers for TWO people!

After finishing our meal, we laid down on the sidewalk and rolled back to the hotel.  No wait, that’s just what I wished we had done.  We stumbled home full and happy, ready to sleep in preparation for another day of eating our way through Barcelona.

  • Do you make an effort to buy fresh fruit while traveling?
  • Do you prefer to see meat in small packages or full legs with hooves?  Do the hooves freak you out or is it a good natural reminder of the source?
  • Do you prefer to wander or have a plan while traveling?  What about in life?
  • As a tourist, do you ever get mistaken for a local?
  • Do you seize opportunities to eat outdoors?  Even when everyone else is inside?
Palau Nacional de Montjuïc

Palau Nacional de Montjuïc sits atop a hill with a beautiful view of the city below

view from Palau Nacional de Montjuïc

Panoramic view of Barcelona from Palau Nacional de Montjuïc

view from Palau Nacional de Montjuïc

View of gorgeous towers as seen from Palau Nacional de Montjuïc at sunset

Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Train Ticket Turmoil

Our first morning in Barcelona was spent in our space-themed hotel room at Barceló Sants.  When we finally emerged at 1 PM, we were famished and opted for the nearest food — the hotel restaurant.

Lunch @ Barcelo Sants

A contented Ms. HalfEmpty prepares to enjoy her 3rd lunch course — dessert and a latte

We were the only patrons and weren’t sure if we were early or late for the lunch hour.  After a few misunderstandings due to our limited non-existent Spanish, we were seated and enjoyed a delicious 3-course lunch.  I think wine was included in our meal (as we later learned is customary with 3-course meals in Spain), and our server was quite shocked when we declined the carafe.  She didn’t know that we were still recovering from Germany.

Since we had gotten up at 1 PM and just finished lunch, it was time for siesta.  When in Spain, do as the Spaniards.  You really can’t get enough sleep!

The main reason for including Spain on the 30/40 World Tour was to attend VaughanTown.  It’s an English immersion program for Spaniards in various locations throughout Spain.  The program (including 4-star-hotel accommodations and meals) is free for native English speakers, who are there to help increase the fluency of Spanish business people.

Before meeting up with the VaughanTown group in Madrid, we planned to spend 4 days in Barcelona.  We figured that it would be easiest and perhaps cheaper to get our train ticket from Barcelona to Madrid while in Spain.  So obtaining those train tickets was on our agenda.  We were staying above the train station, so how hard could it be?

It was so much harder than we ever imagined.  But we had an inflexible schedule at this point and needed those tickets.

Our first attempt was online.  Mr. HalfFull was able to see the various times and prices.  He decided that a slow overnight train was our best option because it was less expensive and would save us on a night at a hotel.  He tried several times to book it online, but our credit card never seemed to go through.

At this point, we weren’t too worried.  We just headed down to the train station to buy tickets at the counter.  We saw one area with about 10 windows where people took numbers and waited to be called.  It seemed rather crowded, so we went to the shorter line on the other side of the station.  After waiting for our turn, we were told that this line was only for same day tickets and we needed to wait in the other line.

Sleeping in Train Station

If you had to spend all day in the train station, you might take a nap too! Never miss a siesta…that’s my motto.

Too bad we just wasted time in line, but no big deal.  We went over to the other line and took a number.  Then we discovered that there were 150 numbers in front of us!  It was already 4 PM and unlikely that all those people would be served by closing time.  Plus, we had sites to see.  We decided to try again via the website from our hotel room in the evening.  Hopefully, the site would work better this time.

Mr. HalfFull was so nervous about us not getting to Madrid on time that he stayed up all night trying to use our credit cards on the website.  He even set an alarm to try at various hours to see if that made a difference.  But the transaction always failed.  (We later learned from comments online that only cards issued in Spain will work.  It would have been nice if the website had that info!)

Worrying is usually reserved for me.  Mr. HalfFull is generally the one who tries to ease me out of my tizzy.  But the roles were reversed!

Barcelona-Sants train station

Efficiency was not the strong suit of the Barcelona-Sants train station, but at least Hotel Barceló Sants was right above it, so we could visit often during our ticket quest.

We finally decided that the only way to ensure that we get tickets and don’t spend all day waiting in the train station was to be in line before the ticket counter opened at 6 AM.  Apparently, a bunch of other people also had this idea.  Fortunately, it wasn’t another 150 people.

With tickets in hand, Mr. HalfFull was finally able to relax.  Travel within Spain is not as easy as you might think.  We’ll tell you the tale of the actual train ride from Barcelona to Madrid in an upcoming post.  For now, let’s just say it was certainly another adventure.

  • Do you make travel plans before leaving home?
  • Have you had difficulty with your home country credit card in a foreign country?
  • Have you experienced a painfully difficult time purchasing tickets abroad?
  • Are you surprised that Mr. HalfFull was losing sleep over our tickets?
Ms. HalfEmpty is a 30-something introverted realist, perhaps a pessimist. But she’s trying to see the world half full on halfempty4now.com, which she started in February 2011. Her worldview may not be all bad, as it probably helps keep her husband, Mr. HalfFull, grounded and out of trouble!

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Mr. HalfFull’s Beautiful Day

It’s almost been a year since Ms. HalfEmpty and I packed our tiny duffels and journeyed west around the world.  People still ask us, “What was your favorite thing?”  As we’ve learned through numerous attempts, it is simply impossible to tell our story of last summer in any reasonable amount of time. These blog posts capture the basics, but still seem to barely skim the surface.  That said, for me there was one day of the entire world tour that was probably my favorite.

Like any good story, this one requires a touch of background — in this case, the conclusion of our stay in Nouméa.  You see, New Caledonia’s Tontouta International Airport is located 51 km north of Anse Vata beach where we stayed, requiring shuttle transfer from our hotel/casino.  Our shuttle van was piloted by a crusty old French woman who drove sans concern for human safety.  We found ourselves stuffed into a rickety van, serendipitously sandwicheried behind a lovely Australian girl and her mum.  Perhaps to keep her mind off imminent death in a fiery crash, Ms. HalfFull uncharacteristically struck up a conversation with the Aussies squished in front of her.  By the time we all checked in for the same flight to Sydney, friends were made and e-mail addresses exchanged.  Hopefully we’d cross paths in a few weeks on the outskirts of Melbourne where they lived.

Heidelberg Train Station

Ms. HalfEmpty @ the Heidelberg train station

Fast forward through Sydney, a bus safari, and a few tears. We find ourselves stepping on to the platform of gorgeous Flinders Street Station with tickets outbound on the Hurstbridge railway line destined for the northeast suburbs of Melbourne.  As luck would have it, the train preparing for immediate departure was an express with a stop in Heidelberg, where Ms. HalfEmpty’s new Aussie friend planned meet us with her boyfriend. We ensued on a drive west into the Yarra Valley for a bit of sight-seeing and wine tasting!

Note to reader: at this point, feel free to quietly play Eels’ “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” in the background whilst reading the remainder of this post.

We hadn’t traveled by private car since New Zealand, so it felt almost luxurious to be chauffeured for the nearly one hour road trip from the ‘burbs into picturesque countryside that oddly reminded me of wine country here in Virginia. In this brief time, I was already smitten with the Aussie boyfriend who reminded me so much of my dear friend who’d married us a few years ago. As a couple, they were brilliant tour guides.

View of Melbourne

View of Melbourne from top of lookout tower

We pulled into a quaint, wooded parking lot that could maybe fit 10 cars or so. They were hoping the sky would clear so we could see Melbourne from one of the Yarra Ranges National Park lookout towers. We learned these towers play an important role in the early detection of fire. Anyhow, I’ll let the image we took up there speak for itself, but it was one of those moments when you feel lucky to be alive.

Wine Tasting at Chandon

Ms. HalfEmpty tasting a flight of white wines with our brilliant tour guides

Next stop, vineyards! We started out at Chandon, probably the most well-known winery in the region. To avoid the throng of tourists at the free tasting bar, I suggested we sample a range of white and sparkling wines at their Greenpoint Tasting Bar. Although the atmosphere was a tad corporate, we had a fun time with our Aussie friends and bartender. For you sparkling wine fans out there, grab a bottle of Chandon Z*D Blanc de Blancs if you stumble across it.

Punt Road Winery

Ms. HalfEmpty enjoying wine with our Aussie friends near Punt Road's pétanque court

The next stop was our amazing Aussie hosts’ favorite Yarra Valley vineyard: Punt Road Wines. I’m not sure where to start. Suffice it to say I felt like the cosmic tumblers of the universe had all fallen into place. Brilliant new friends. Delicious wines, especially their Pinot Noir. Friendly, yet knowledgeable bartenders. Tasty snacks that perfectly complemented their wines. A few other like-minded strangers up for a fun time filling out the tasting area, giving the room just enough energy. Even solid background music.

Samples turned into glasses. Glasses turned into bottles…leading to one of my most enjoyable conversations of 2011. I learned why you would never want to be nicknamed “FIGJAM” and why Aussies begin their answers to many questions with the words “Yeah, no.” By the time we were done out on Punt Road’s wine garden, our friends had become members of Punt Road Wines’ Punters Club!

Kangaroo Steaks

Mr. HalfFull finds kangaroo steaks in the grocery store (nestled between the ham and the chicken)

During our conversation an epiphany hit me that Ms. HalfEmpty’s personality was Kiwi, while mine was Aussie. Our hosts were interested in our trip and especially what we thought of Australia so far. I said my only regret during our time in Oz was that it didn’t seem likely we were going to be able to taste kangaroo steak. Our friends looked at me like I was crazy, noting that we could stop by the grocery store on the way home and pick up a few!

On top of being amazing hosts, it seems our friends were amateur chefs as well. I didn’t realize how much we missed the simplicity of a home-cooked meal. So my favorite day culminated with a scrumptious meal at our friend’s home back in Heidelberg: fresh steamed veggies, mashed potatoes, and seared kangaroo steak. It was delicious, and apparently benefited the Australian environment.

We settled in to the couch after dessert for a recorded episode of one of our friend’s favorite British television shows. I don’t remember much about it due to wine and kangaroo euphoria.

Katie's House

Ms. HalfEmpty bids farewell to our gracious host's Heidelberg house the next morning

She graciously offered her guest house. Apparently some people have to work, so we woke up to an empty house. The kitchen was a mess from the previous night, so we gave it a thorough cleaning before letting ourselves out.

I will never forget that beautiful day, and hopefully one day we’ll be able to repay the hospitality when our friends get the opportunity to visit us here in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

  • Do you have a hard time picking a favorite day/experience to share with friends after traveling?
  • Do you find yourself talking to strangers more easily when death could be imminent?
  • Do you enjoy wine tasting?
  • Have you learned interesting slang while traveling?
  • What exotic food did you try that was commonplace for locals?
  • Would you offer your house to people you met on a shuttle in a foreign country during your vacation?
  • What would you show foreigners who come to visit you?


Mr. HalfFull is a 40-something extroverted optimist who spends his days teaching and coaching teenagers. He occasionally authors posts on his wife’s blog halfempty4now.com in support of his life’s work to help her see life from his sunny point of view.

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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?
Mr. HalfFull is a 40-something extroverted optimist who spends his days teaching and coaching teenagers. He occasionally authors posts on his wife’s blog halfempty4now.com in support of his life’s work to help her see life from his sunny point of view.

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