ART IS LIFE AT LA FORGE

The Old Port in Honfleur

On the Northern Coast of France, in the Calvados Region, you will find the historic city of Honfleur.   One certainly doesn’t visit this town for its weather, which is chilly, rainy and dreary more often than not.  But if you can get past the somewhat depressing atmospheric conditions, you will find a quaint town with fine examples of 12th-16th century architecture and one of the most beautiful and picturesque ports I have ever seen.  We spent 2 1/2 days in Honfleur on our recent trip to France, wandering the narrow streets, catching views of the Pont de Normandy, visiting the Eric Satie (musical composer) Museum, exploring Saint-Catherine’s Church (the largest wooden church in France dating back to the 1400’s) and eating their delicious mussels.  But, by far, the most unique and “interesting” place we visited in town was the home of artist Florence Marie, know as La Forge.

Magical Mosaic Friends

It is hard to tell if when visiting La Forge you are visiting a home which is like a museum or if you are visiting a museum where someone lives.  The reality is, it’s both.  Florence Marie purchased the building in 1994.  Since then, over the course of 20 years she has turned almost every inch of her home into a piece of art.  Her front and back yards are places where magical spirits live in the form of sculptures made out of wood, metal, mosaic or whatever materials Florence Marie can find.  She doesn’t seem to limit herself based on artistic medium; all options are open.  It’s an imaginary world come to life that feels whimsical and care free but take heed, there might be a beast right behind you.

Backyard Whimsy

But the artistry doesn’t end with her sculptured yard.  Walk into her home/museum, and every wall is a painting, every light fixture a sculpture, every piece of furniture an art piece.  Her kitchen table is designed with mosaic tiles but note, this is not just for arts sake, she eats at this table.  While everything in the house is art, everything in the house is also functional.  Florence Marie’s bed is a mattress between bookcases and a privacy screen a painting.  Even her bathroom is a work of art!

Entering the Interior of La Forge

LaForge located at 25 Rue de la Foulerie in Honfleur has visits at 3:00 PM and 4:30 PM on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  If you want to visit, you should contact Florence Marie by phone, 02 31 89 49 39 or email florencemarielaforge@orange.fr to be sure the tour is available.  We were in Honfleur during the week but Florence Marie was more than accommodating when contacted to provide us with a private tour based on mutual availability.  It is not inexpensive to visit LaForge, 10 Euros per person at the time of our visit, but you would expect to pay at least that at any museum, and this is, after all, a museum.  You may find your visit fascinating or you may find your visit bizarre, but I guarantee you, it will be a visit you will never forget.

Florence Marie's Bedroom
Backyard Folley

TULUM, MEXICO

The Ruins of Tulum

Almost 13 years ago, with 2 teenagers and 2 toddlers in tow, my husband and I day tripped from Playa del Carmen to Tulum to see the Mayan Ruins.  Back then Tulum was not much more than a sleepy little town;  a place for locals with very little tourist infrastructure.  But that was then.

Accommodations with beautiful gardens and Mayan Architecture

The Tulum of today is a destination city; a place for fun and sun without the crowds of the typical Mayan Riviera locations of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.  Backpackers have been coming here for years, but now, Tulum is for everyone!  People may still come for the Ruins, but now they stay for the week; or two.

For a number of people, the pristine beaches are a draw, and many never leave their little “seaside haven.”  How sad for them;  Tulum has so much more to offer.  Without going very far at all, you can visit the only Mayan Ruin located on the coast, the Ruins of Tulum.  And venturing just a little bit further, you can visit the Ruins of Coba as well.  You can swim with sea tortoises in the bay at Akumal or explore the many cenotes (water caves) of the area.  Wildlife your thing?  Take a trip to Sian Ka’an, a 650,000 hector protected area where you can experience the multitude of flora and fauna species, many rarely found elsewhere.

Then there’s the town of Tulum, filled with restaurants, hotels, bars, cybercafes and shops.  You can have your fill of great Mexican food and beer and when you’ve had your fill of that, check out other spots for Italian,  French and Japanese. Town has the typical selection of  “tourist shops” for “cheap” souvenirs , but if you’re in the market for some higher end artisan gifts, fear not, Tulum has its options for that as well.

The Pristine Beaches of Tulum

If you’ve visited Cancun and Playa del Carmen in the past, try Tulum for a kinder and gentler Mayan Riviera experience.  If you’ve not yet visited this area of Mexico at all,  what are you waiting for?

FOREIGN CURRENCY FOR FOREIGN LANDS

When I was young and single, the time between Christmas and New Year’s always meant vacation planning time.  It was a period where I had more disposable time on my hands and it gave me something exciting to look forward to in the year ahead.  These days, more often than not, my vacation planning starts on the plane ride home from my last vacation; I want something to look forward to before my last travels end!  Also, more people travel these days so one has to get going sooner than later or opportunities will pass you by.

This year, my family is heading to France!  France was one of those countries we passed on when traveling the world.  We told our kids that France is just across the pond and easy to get to, so we’ll catch it another time.  Well, this year they reminded us that this summer is as good a time as any to “catch it another time” so there you go.  But deciding to travel outside your own country raises some different issues to consider with the number issue being money:  exchange rates, payment options and how and when to get the cash you need.

Travel to Ecuador, Panama or East Timor (just to name a few) is somewhat easier, they use the US dollar.  There’s no exchange rate to deal with, but unless you’re going to travel with enough cash for your entire trip, you still need to figure out how to obtain your currency.  And just because they use the US dollar, don’t think you can avoid foreign transaction fees – you are still in a foreign country and the banks will get you anytime they can.

Prior to my very first trip abroad, I loaded up on travelers’ checks; that was a very long time ago.  Now, nobody wants travelers checks so don’t bother.  Often you will have to wait in long bank lines to cash them and no one wants to have to do that.  Credit cards are easy to use but I have found that unless you’re staying in the finest of places or eating in the nicer restaurants, outside the US, nobody really wants those either.  Here in the US, merchants are much more willing to eat the fee associated with credit cards.  Outside the US, they are not eating those fees as readily.  Sometimes there are merchants that will accept credit cards but charge you 2% more than their cash price; others just don’t take the plastic.  Carry a card with you but don’t count on it being your primary source of purchasing power.  Before you leave, find a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.  Yes, you will still have to deal with the exchange rate (that will be there no matter what) but you can save a lot of money if you don’t have to pay foreign transaction fees on top of everything else.

I have found the number one way to obtain cash while traveling abroad is to use your ATM card.  You withdraw cash in the local currency and usually get a very fair exchange rate.  You can obtain cash as you go so you don’t have to carry huge sums of cash at any given point.  And, if you find the right banking account, you won’t even have to pay any ATM fees along the way.  Prior to our year long trip, we switched our regular checking account to the premium account at our bank.  By doing so, all ATM transactions worldwide became free of charge.  No only does our bank not charge any fees, but if the local bank charges fees, our bank will reimburse us for those charges.

I have never encountered an airport that did not have an ATM machine.  I have however, been in situations where the ATM at the airport is not working, dispensing only a limited amount of money or I didn’t have time to stop at the ATM because I had a time restriction (like the need to catch a local bus).  If you are insecure about arriving to a country without at least some foreign currency, you can typically obtain some from your bank at home (plan ahead, it may take them a little while to obtain it for you) or exchange money at the airport at a foreign currency exchange.  Please note that typically you receive a terrible exchange rate at these exchanges so don’t plan on getting a lot of money there – just get what you might need until a better option presents itself.  While the advertised rate may look good, fees and or service charges tacked onto these rates quickly turn your transaction into a WIN for the exchange and a major LOOSE for you.

If you are traveling to a smaller country, take the time to research your currency exchange options.  We were heading to Easter Island and discovered there was only one ATM machine on the island and that one machine only worked off of ATM cards linked to MasterCard.  Our bank ATM cards were linked to VISA.  We needed to obtain large amounts of cash in Tahiti (our stop prior to Easter Island) and then exchange them to US dollars before arriving to Easter Island where we could take our US dollars and convert them to the local currency.  We got screwed on the exchange rate twice but at least we had money to pay for stay!

KIDS FLYING ALONE: WAYS TO HELP ENSURE PARENTS’ PEACE OF MIND

Guest blogger Paige Desroches shares her insights on keeping kids safe when flying on their own.

As parents consider whether to send a child to visit family, go to a camp or travel for any other reason without adult supervision, a wide range of worries can come to mind. Parents might worry about a child remaining hungry, feeling bored, getting sick or missing a connecting flight. Sending Junior and Sissy off into the great wide world alone can be more stressful on the parents than the children. While it is hard not to worry about the little travelers, parents can maintain peace of mind with a few tips that avoid the concerns.

Limiting Worries With Information

Beyond setting up a service to help children reach their connection and finding ways to protect personal data that a child might carry, parents can obtain peace of mind by giving children enough information to reduce the risk of complications. As posted on TravelWithYourKids.com, parents should have children memorize details like their flight itinerary, the name and phone number of the individual meeting them at the airport, emergency contact numbers and a home phone number in case delays or other problems occur.

Since a child is traveling alone and will need to carry some identifying information, parents should take measures to protect that data. A simple solution is using the services of a company like Lifelock to monitor a child’s credit information before the trip. Identity theft protection services will alert parents to any activity on the account, which provides the ability to act quickly if a child has lost papers with personal information or has faced problems during the trip.

Children who are armed with phone numbers, a calling card and the details of their trip, are less likely to face problems on the flight. By giving children emergency numbers and a calling card or cell phone to make phone calls in emergency situations, parents can feel confident that children are safe on their flight.

Missed Connection Mishaps

Missed connections are a risk for any traveler, but airlines often have escorts that assist children traveling alone to help ensure they reach their final destination. Fox News reports that parents need to trust their children to reach their connecting flight, even if a service is hired as a chaperon. Parents can reduce the risk of a child missing a connection by ensuring he or she understands the flight itinerary before reaching the airport.

Offer Advice to Reduce the Risk of Thefts or Problems

Before leaving a child at the airport, parents should give some advice to reduce potential problems related to strangers. According to Gadling.com, travelers who are alone should carry their bags in front of them and should never tell strangers that they are alone. The risks are reduced if children understand that they need to be wary of strangers and only ask help from an individual in a uniform. Children traveling alone will be safe if they are cautious of strangers at the airport.

While parents will always worry about their children, taking measures to ensure child safety on a flight can reduce the concerns. Children who are old enough to travel without a parent are also old enough to remember phone numbers and limit the risks of flying alone. Adding to the stress is never a good thing for anyone. Keeping your children informed of these tips will not only keep them safe and calm, from personal information to luggage safety, but will take away layers and layers of worry for you.

MACAW MOUNTAIN – PARQUE DE AVES

Scarlet Macaw - National Bird of Honduras

The Maya Ruins of Copan is typically what brings tourists to this remote area of Western Honduras.  But as long as you have gone to the trouble to get there, you might just as well unpack and stay a while as the city of Copan Ruinas is a lovely town.  And as long as you’re staying for more than the night, you should take the time to venture out to Macaw Mountain.

Only 3 km, or 6 minutes via mototaxi (tuk-tuk) from the central square, nestled in a small canyon on ten heavily forested acres, is this multi-faceted eco-tourism project.  The park provides visitors an opportunity to see the exotic tropical birds of Honduras and a natural botanical garden of native plants and towering hardwood trees.  While the temperatures may be hot on the day of your visit, in this little oasis, it’s cool, comfortable and refreshing.

The park has a collection of Honduran and Central American macaws, toucans and parrots that have been recovered from captivity.  All the birds are carefully maintained and can fly freely in large naturally planted aviaries.  I would never claim to be the biggest bird watcher in the world but these birds are just stunning and we couldn’t stop marveling at their colorful presence.  The birds’ beauty, however, is rivaled by the array of tropical plants that line the walkways.  The entire park is truly magnificent.

With a strong eco-educational component, trails are dotted with information boards that are in both Spanish and English.  There is also an extensive exhibit that considers the relationship between the ancient Maya of Copan and the birds, particularly the magnificent Scarlet Macaw.  This exhibit is in an interactive area where uncaged birds are available to photograph and interact with park guests.

The facilities at Macaw Mountain are first class.  There is a restaurant, beautifully situated stream side, which offers full lunches.  In addition to the restaurant, there is a coffee house with a perfect setting to relax and enjoy some freshly brewed Mirmundo Coffee, coffee that has been grown, harvested and roasted on the park’s coffee plantation.  And, of course, there is a gift shop.  While we did not partake of lunch on either of our two visits, we did enjoy a coffee granita (frozen coffee drink) at the coffee house.

Macaw Mountain is open everyday from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  This beauty does not come cheap, however, with a price tag of $10.00 per person.  To help defray the cost they do allow you to use your ticket again within three days, however, realistically speaking, how many travelers are actually going to come back.  But even with the high price, I think a trip to Macaw Mountain is well worth your time.

COPAN RUINAS, HONDURAS

Central Square - Copan Ruinas

In the western highlands of Honduras, closer to Guatemala than any large city in Honduras, is the city of Copan Ruinas.  At least three hours from any large city, the town of Copan Ruinas is not a town you stumble upon.  If you are here, it’s by intention, not by accident.  And what brings most people to town are the Maya Ruins of Copan just 1 km outside of town. 

Fruit Vendor in Central Square - Copan Ruinas

People come from all over the world to see these ancient ruins but typically stay in the town of Copan Ruinas for only a day or two.  For us, the town is home for 17 days.

The urban population of Copan Ruinas is around 6000 people.  If you add in the rural areas, the population increases to 30,000.  Because of its tourism, the town of Copan Ruinas experiences less poverty than the rest of the country of Honduras but of course, that’s not saying much since Honduras is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – second only to Haiti.

Sometimes the Cows are in the Pasture - Sometimes in the Street

The town has a small handful of things to do for the tourists:  The Maya Ruins of  Copan and its museum, Macaw Mountain bird sanctuary, coffee plantation tours, hot springs, horseback riding and nature hikes.  This could keep a person busy for 3-4 days.  The only reason to stay in Copan Ruinas for any longer is to study Spanish in one of the two immersion language schools or to just experience the tranquil life of a small Honduran town; we opted for the later two. 

Copan Ruinas has a Stunning Array of Tropical Flowers

They say it is always spring in Copan Ruinas.  I guess “their” definition of spring is a little different than mine.  We’ve been here for a week now and we haven’t seen a high below 88° F.  Add to that the intense sun of a country close to the equator and you have a climate that’s plain old hot; not my definition of eternal spring!  On the other hand, our hometown of Cincinnati, OH has had highs of 95-105° F for weeks now, so I guess it’s all relative.  88° looks a lot more like spring than 100° F.

Scarlet Macaws - National Bird of Honduras

WORLD CHOIR GAMES – 2012

Fountain Square, Cincinnati

For 12 years I lived in Washington, DC.  It’s a US city, but it’s an international city.  Walk down the street and you will see people of every nationality.  Sit down in any restaurant, theater or park bench and you will hear the person next to you speaking a different language.  And when you’re going out to eat, it’s not, “Where do you want to eat,” it’s “What national cuisine do you want to eat.”

Kids arrive for the World Choir Games

Then I moved to Cincinnati, the place where my husband lived.  After living here for a week, my husband asked, “What do you think?”  I said, “Everyone is white and speaks English and where am I going to get a good Pad Thai or Saag Paneer?”  That was over 19 years ago.  A lot has changed in 19 years, for the better I might add, but it hasn’t been till this week that I have felt Cincinnati to be an international city.  And that’s because this week, it really is!

For the first time in its 12 year history, the World Choir Games are being held in North America and they picked little ole Cincinnati to be the host.  Now, if you’re like most people, you have no idea what the World Choir Games are.

The Countdown is Over

Think Olympics of choral music.  Nations from all over the world come together to “compete” using their voices.  I say “compete” because while you are trying to shine and be the best, the reality is, you are competing only against yourself.  If you’re great, you win a gold “medal.”  And if another team is great, they too win a gold “medal.”  So while your numbers may outrank another choir, multiple choirs can win golds, or silvers or bronzes.

Why did Cincinnati win the bid for the 2012 World Choir Games.  Well, we don’t know all the details that went into the decision making process, but the city’s commitment to the arts is exceptional.  The artistic opportunities in this city far exceed those of any other city this size.  And there are plenty of arts patrons to support these artistic opportunities.

Brazil All Reved Up for the Games

And then there’s the venues; a size able number of theaters all within close proximity to each other.  Cincinnati’s May Festival Choir is the oldest continuous choir in the Western Hemisphere and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is the 5th oldest symphony in the United States.  It probably didn’t hurt that we have the only K-12 public arts school, The School for the Creative and Performing Arts, in the world.

So this year, from July 4th through July 14th, Cincinnati has become an international city.  64 nations have sent more than 350 choirs to the city to participate in this year’s games.  For the first time since I’ve moved to Cincinnati, I can see people of all different nationalities walking down the streets and hear languages from half way around the world.  It’s an exciting time to be in this city.  If you live close by, be sure to participate in one of the many events to occur during the last four days.

Celebration of Nations Parade - Nigeria

As for that Pad Thai and Saag Paneer, well I now have a Thai restaurant and four Indian restaurants within walking distance of my home, so all is well.

Celebration of Nations Parade - China
Celebration of Nations Parade - Columbia