European Vacation 2010, Day 5: Arrival in Florence

For most of our time in Venice, I felt trapped. I felt like a caged animal. For the previous couple of months, I’d become accustomed to an intense workout at 6:30 every morning, and remaining active through most of the day. Despite claims to the contrary, I felt like our tour wasn’t very active. It was a lot of standing around looking at stuff. So, I felt trapped. I had all this excess energy, and I needed to burn it off.

So, on our last morning in Venice, I woke at 5:22 for an early morning run through the streets. I ran across the Rialto bridge to the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, then found my way to St. Mark’s, and then the Accademia. From there, I ran northwest along the waterfront, then picked my way through the alleys to the tranchetto (car park). I made my way across the Ponte della Costituzione (Venice’s newest bridge) to the train station, before running down the wide avenue to the Rialto. I did about six miles in around an hour. It felt great.

Autogrill!At 8:15, we made our way to the vaporetto (water bus), which carried us to our motorcoach for Florence.

Our bus ride took us through beautiful hill country that reminded me (and others) of Colorado west of Denver. For lunch, we stopped at an Autogrill outside Bologna. An Autogrill is a glorified rest stop alongside the freeway. I don’t mean this in a bad way. In the U.S., we have scuzzy minimarts in our roadside gas stations. An Autogrill is like that, but with higher-quality goods (including books and produce) and, often, a cafeteria.

This particular Autogrill had a cafeteria with pasta, meats, fruits, and (of course) wine. It also had a gourmet food store in the lower level. It’s not a great place to eat, but it’s a fun glimpse at something other countries have that we in the U.S. do not.

Our hotel in Florence
This was the most expensive place we stayed on our trip. Fancy hotels are lost on me and Kris.

Our group arrived in Florence at 2 p.m. and settled into the Hotel Silla, just north of the River Arno. After a short rest, we met our tour guide Sarah for a walking tour of the city. She showed us the “fake David” and other sculptures, the Duomo, and more.

The Duomo in Florence
The Duomo in Florence, which sprawls through the city’s center. It’s huge.

Perseus hoists the Medusa's head
Perseus hoists the Medusa’s head

Neptune guards Piazza della Signoria
Neptune guarding Piazza della Signoria

Wes, photographing Neptune. Sarah our tour guide stands behind him.
Wes, photographing Neptune. Sarah, our tour guide, stands behind him.

We then walked to Florence’s Accademia art gallery, where we saw the real David by Michelangelo. This marble statue may be the most famous sculpture in the world — and it’s really quite impressive.

To end the evening, we walked to dinner at Giglio Rosso. This was my favorite meal of the entire trip. The food was fantastic (three kinds of pasta, three meats, several glasses of wine, and two profiteroles for dessert) and the service smooth. Delicious!

We walked home on a warm Thursday evening, enjoying the boisterous street activity, including many street artists like these:

Typical street artists in Florence, Italy

I started the day feeling like a caged tiger, but ended it purring like a cat. Despite my complaints in these journals, I enjoyed Italy a great deal. It was a wonderful place, and in many ways felt like home. The food was great, the people were friendly, and the culture fit my personality. In retrospect, it was the structured nature of the tour that did me in. (And, as you’ll see, I have more complaints tomorrow!) The tour was great, as far as tours go. But I had much more fun in those moments I was allowed to break free from the script and improvise: running through Venice, walking alone across Rome, getting lost in Paris. I like discovery, not being told what to see.

There was plenty of discovery on our trip, so I was essentially happy. But the scripted moments — even when the script was good — often made me feel confined. (This is the reason I don’t like being on a cruise ship, either. I just don’t like pre-packaged tourism. It may be a fun vacation, but it’s missing an element of realism that I find vital in visiting new places.)

European Vacation 2010, Day 4: Last Day in Venice

Pensione Guerrato was a fine place, and we'd stay there again.Because I’m a geek, I track lots of stats about my physical state. I track the number of calories I consume, the number of calories I burn, the amount of exercise I do, and, yes, the amount of sleep I get. During the first few days of our vacation, I had nights of five hours, four hours, and zero hours of sleep. For a man who averages about 7-1/2 hours of sleep per night, that was not enough. Not even close.

Fortunately, I woke better rested than on previous mornings, but I found myself in a bit of a funk. I was grouchy and out of sorts. I had a boil on my arm (which was gross and painful), I hadn’t been getting the exercise I was used to (yes, we were walking a lot, but at a slow pace), and I was just generally out of sorts.

Near the Rialto Bridge - Venice
A group of kids near the Rialto bridge (the risers are sidewalks for high tides)

The Rick Steves group — which has a “no grumps” policy — met for a tour of the Accademia art gallery, where an Italian tour guide spent 90 minutes describing the collection of Catholic art. I hated it. Much of this art is beautiful, and I don’t have anything against Catholics, but it was all too much, too soon. After just a few days in Italy, I was beginning to believe the entire country was only about Catholicism. And wine.

Note: Throughout Europe, there are thousands of bored docents and museum attendants, ostensibly watching the crowds (“no photo!”), but actually engrossed in their smartphones.

After the Accademia, we toured Ca’ Rezzonico, a palazzo (or palace) that has been converted into a museum dedicated to 18th-century Venice. The building was grand, and I liked some of the art, but my feet were sore, the day was hot, the pace was slow, and I was cranky that this palazzo — which had been billed to us as “typical of the day” — was mostly unfurnished. (At the Louvre in Paris, I was pleased as punch that the Napoleon III rooms retained much of their original furnishings.) It didn’t take long until Kris was grumpy that I was grumpy.

Fortunately, my mood improved in the afternoon.

First, Joy and Phil — the only other couple our age in the tour group — invited us to join them for lunch. I was quiet and surly at first, but the food and conversation improved my mood. Plus, I shared a liter of wine with Joy and Phil. If you get to Venice, I recommend Avogaria Locanda, which is also apparently a hotel. The beef stew was great!

Typical menu board
Typical menu board in Italy. Note that “panini” just means “sandwiches”.

After lunch, Kris and I meandered back to the hotel. This was fun for me because it meant I got to pick my way through the twisting maze of Venetian streets. Throughout the trip, I kept saying that maps and directions are one of my super powers. It’s true. I love going to a new city and having to navigate my way around. Venice was probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing this.

We made a quick pit stop, and then headed out again. First we stopped so Kris could buy some Murano glass. Next, we walked over to the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo (or, the church of St. John and Paul).

A typical Venetian street sign
A typical Venetian street sign, painted on the wall

Chiesa Ss. Giovanni e Paolo - Venice
Chiesa di Ss. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

Interior of Santi Giovanni e Paolo
It’s tough to convey the scale of this place. It’s huge. Note the woman in lower left.

Another member of our group (Carrie) had stumbled upon this church by accident, and told us it was great. She was right. Though San Giovanni e Paolo doesn’t get promoted in the guidebooks, it’s actually fairly cool. It was one of Kris’ favorite spots on our entire trip. “I like the tombs,” she says. She likes the tombs in all of the churches. And this church had the tomes of 25 doges (or dukes), the rulers of Venice.

Alcove in Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Note the floor, which is in a state of “elegant decay”.

Poor little dead baby angel
Kris likes this “dead baby angel” bas relief. She likes all tombs.

After San Giovanni e Paolo, we decided to hoof it to St. Mark’s before it closed. I got side-tracked, however, by a bookstore billing itself (in self-conscious irony) as “the most beautiful bookshop in the world”, which is technically called Libreria Acqua Alta.

The most beautiful bookshop in the world - Venice
The most beautiful bookshop in the world

A fire exit in Venice -- straight into the canal
Kris thought the bookstore’s fire exit was hilarious

This bookstore is far from beautiful, but the owner is friendly, and happy to crack jokes in English (and other languages, too, I suspect). The store features stacks and stacks of used books, all tumbling over each other in wonderful disarray. I spent a happy half hour digging through old comics before buying some Italian translations of comics I loved as a kid.

The bookstore also had a cat — only the second we’d seen in Venice — but he didn’t want to have anything to do with us. Kris tried to take a photo, but this was all she could manage:

One of only two cats we saw in Venice
“I hate tourists,” this cat seems to be saying. He did not want his photo taken.

If you’re a book lover, this is a must-visit destination in Venice. Damn Rick Steve for not including this in his guidebook!

Despite the side-trip, we were able to see St. Mark’s — for five minutes. Because we had a museum pass from earlier in the day, we were able to get into the ground floor for free. We followed the masses around and snapped a couple of quick photos. If we’d had more time, we could have paid to see the famous four horses. Based on our cursory visit, though, we weren’t impressed. It’s neat, but it’s very touristy. The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was better, and maybe too were the other cathedrals we saw in Venice.

Kris, getting cozy with the Italian wildlife
Kris, getting cozy with the Italian wildlife

We returned to the hotel, where we spent some time unwinding. Then we headed out to dinner with new friends Joy and Phil. We ate at a place that had been recommended to them by friends: Osteria Antico Giardinetto. It’s a lovely, quiet little spot with good food and friendly staff.

Phil's meal was squid-ink pasta. This isn't a bad photo -- the stuff is just black!
Phil’s meal was squid-ink pasta. This isn’t a bad photo — the stuff is just black!

Back at the hotel, we packed for our morning departure to Florence.

European Vacation 2010, Day 3: Walking Tour of Venice

After another breakfast consisting of yogurt, a hard roll, and orange juice, the Rick Steves group met Elisabetta, a native Venetian and our guide for a tour through the heart of the city.

We headed south from our hotel (Pensione Guerrato), making our way slowly through the crowded streets to the Accademia Bridge (so named because it’s located next to the Accademia art gallery). Along the way, we stopped to tour the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, yet another church. (Sorry to be dismissive. We toured many churches in Venice, and a few more in France. They blur together after awhile. Kris liked this one. Ask her to tell you about it.)

We also stopped at a shop that makes Venetian masks, where Elisabetta told us their history.

Sorry, I didn’t write down the name of this mask shop…

As you can tell from the video, Elisabetta was a kick. Besides having a great sense of humor, she was the best source we found for information on what life is really like in Venice.

Trouble in Venice
Most people believe that the biggest problem Venice faces is flooding. They think the city is sinking. Elisabetta says that actually the city’s current crisis is depopulation. Venice had 250,000 inhabitants in the 18th century and 160,000 people after World War II. But today, Venice has only 60,000 people.

She says the top reasons for this rapid drop in population are the difficulty finding work along with rising expectations. (Or, as we say around Get Rich Slowly, lifestyle inflation.) Plus, everyday costs are greater in Venice. Elisabetta said, “Milk might cost €1.25 here in Venice, but only €0.60 in Mestre [just across the water on the mainland]. It costs more to live here because things cost more to transport.”

Though Elisabetta didn’t mention it, I wonder if the tourist trade also has caused the cost of living to increase. There were a ton of tourists in Venice, even in late September. In fact, it seemed like the city is mostly tourists — like a Disneyland for old, rich white people.

Elisabetta thinks people should visit Venice in the winter, when it isn’t mobbed by foreigners. “I always suggest that people come to Venice in the winter,” she said. “Why? Because that’s the only time you can feel Venice. There’s a different rhythm of life.”

Elisabetta also talked a bit about the wonderful Venetian practice called the ombra. This is like a coffee break, but with a glass of wine. In fact, one morning I watched as a construction worker took a break at 10 a.m. to go into a shop for a glass of white wine (perhaps prosecco, a local sparkling wine). According to Elisabetta, folks who start work early (like garbage collectors, whose days begin at 4 a.m.) might have a glass of wine at 6 a.m. — but she doesn’t recommend it.

Note: I was shocked at how much wine people drank in Italy. I mean, I knew wine was popular, but wow! As I’ll mention when we get to Florence, one day we say three men order two liters of wine — for lunch! Yet another reason I loved Italy…

Back to our tour…
When we reached Piazza San Marco (a.k.a. St. Mark’s Square), the group parted ways. Kris and I scouted out a place near the river for pizza and prosecco. After lunch, we returned to Piazza San Marco to tour the Doge’s Palace, the highlights of which were the very dungeon-like dungeon and the Ponte dei Sospiri (or Bridge of Sighs).

Kris, in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace
Kris, in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace

The Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Cathedral
The Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Cathedral (under restoration)

Doge's Palace - Venice
Detail from a cornice of the Doge’s Palace

History lesson:

Italy hasn’t always been a unified country. In fact, for most of its history, the region has been a collection of independent city-states, of which Venice was once one of the most powerful. Because of its isolation (it’s located two miles from the mainland), it was easy to defend. It became a great naval power and an important center of trade.

For over one thousand years, Venice was ruled by The Doge (or Duke), who was elected for life by the city-state’s ruling elite. The Doge’s Palace was built in 1324; it’s nearly 700 years old. Its walls ooze history. In the 16th century, the palace was linked to the prison by the Bridge of Sighs. (The bridge was so named by Lord Byron in the 19th century, and is meant to suggest that the prisoners being led across it are sighing as they pass from Venice into captivity.)

Construction on St. Mark’s Basilica next door began in 1071, but wasn’t completed for over 600 years. (As you can see from the photo above, they’re still working on it.) St. Mark’s is probably the top tourist site in Venice — and yet Kris and I barely saw it. (I’ll mention why tomorrow.) We regret that…but it simply gives us another reason to return.

We met the tour group at 6 p.m. for a “pub crawl”. We went to three different cicchetti bars for wine and snacks. Cicchetti are basically appetizer plates, which I found similar to Spanish tapas. They might be olives or meats or small sandwiches or even just vegetables. It’s good stuff.

At the second cicchetti bar, I chatted with the server about soccer, which goes by the name calcio (or “kick”) in Italy. He gave me advice for seeing a match in Rome on Sunday between Lazio and an out-of-town rival. (Lazio is the region of Italy — like a state, I guess — in which Rome is located.) If the timing was fortuitous, the group might get to Rome in time for me to watch the match.

At 8 p.m., the group took an hour-long gondola ride on the Grand Canal. We were serenaded by a guitarist and vocalist, which I tried to capture on video.

Our night-time gondola ride in Venice

After the gondola ride, Kris and I stopped to buy sweets on the way back to the hotel. (In Venice, Kris developed a taste for meringues.)

European Vacation 2010, Day 2: Day Trip to Padua

After nearly twelve hours of much-needed sleep, Kris and I both woke at 4:30 a.m. We read and wrote in our journals. I was famished, so I ate some of my stash of airline snacks. (On the flight to Venice, I’d carefully avoided the peanuts and pretzels — I wanted to stick to my diet!)

At seven, we headed down to the breakfast room of the Pensione Guerrato. There we had the first of many continental breakfasts, all of which consisted of hard rolls, yogurt, cheese, granola, and coffee (for Kris) or orange juice (for me).

Note: I hated these breakfasts at first, but by the time we left Paris, I had become accustomed to them. In fact, I liked them. My breakfasts now that I’m home? A hard roll, a slice of cheese, some smoked salmon, and maybe a glass of grapefruit juice.

After breakfast, we took the train to Padua (or Padova, as it’s known in Italy), about thirty minutes inland. We were both very nervous. This was the first time we’d ever ventured out on our own in a land where we could not speak the language. (I had studied a little Italian before we arrived, but only a very little.) Plus, we were both anxious about pickpockets. Everything we read warned us about pickpockets in France and Italy. (And as many of you know, Kris had money stolen from her purse within 15 minutes of arriving in London in 2007, so we know pickpocketing occurs!)

But we didn’t have any trouble.

We walked to the Scrovegni Chapel, where it took us about twenty minutes to figure out how to enter. (I’m not kidding!) We were able to take the tour despite not having reservations. We spent fifteen minutes looking at the frescoes by Giotto. Alas, we were not allowed to take photos — and a docent stood by to enforce the rule.

Later, we walked down to the university district and looked at the produce market. Many Italian cities have these semi-permanent open-air markets where vendors sell flowers, fruit, fish, meat, vegetables, and more. They’re like our farmers’ markets, but they occur every day instead of once a week.

Shopping for produce in Venice
Shopping for produce at the Rialto market in Venice

Mushrooms at the market in Padua
Mushrooms at the market in Padua

Seafood for sale at the market in Venice
Seafood for sale at the Rialto market in Venice

Prosciutto in a typical Ventian store (not at the market)

We bought a couple of slices of pizza and sat outside at a table to eat. Apparently, however, the table belonged to the cafe next door because they told us we couldn’t eat there.

Waiter: Prego? [Note: Prego is a sort of all-purpose Italian word. In many instances, such as here, it means “please”. Other times it means “you’re welcome” — and sometimes other things, as well.]
Kris: No. [As in, we don’t want anything.]
…A few minutes pass…
Owner: Prego?
J.D.: No.
Owner (almost growling): NOT FOR PIZZA!

This was our introduction to the concept of coperto. If you want to sit at a table in Italy — especially in northern Italy — you have to pay for the privilege. You can eat at the counter (or get your food to go) for free, but if you eat at a table, you pay coperto, a cover charge of between €1 and €3 per person.

Embarrassed, we picked up our pizza and left.

A typical Italian pizza
A typical Italian pizza, exactly like the ones they serve at Mi Famiglia

On our walk back to the train station, Kris got a compliment. A woman stopped her and began to ask directions in Italian. Kris smiled and tried to mutter a reply. The woman realized she’d made a mistake, shook her head, and walked on to find a real Italian.

Back in Venice, we took a nap. At 1600, we went downstairs to the breakfast room to meet our Rick Steves tour group, which comprised Sarah (our tour guide) and 25 other tourists. We spent about 90 minutes introducing ourselves and going over ground rules. Then we headed out for a short walking tour of Venice.

Gondola in Venice
You see this dozens of times a day in Venice (one reason I want to live there!)

The walking tour led us to Anonimo Veneziano — or The Anonymous Venetian — where we got to know other members of the group over a long dinner, which included:

  • Crostini with tomatoes (and cheese?)
  • White vegetarian lasagna
  • Seared steak served over arugula, zucchini, and eggplant
  • Tiramisu (I ate a fruit plate instead)

After dinner, some of us took a short stroll to Piazza San Marco (a.k.a. St. Mark’s Square), where we heard orchestras playing and watched other tourists crowding around — just like us!

I apologize for the focus problems — my camera has limitations

We fell asleep to the sounds of noisy chatter in the plaza below the Pensione Guerrato — and the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”.

European Vacation 2010, Day 1: Venice, Italy

Note: I apologize for the delay in posting the story of our trip to Europe. As in 2007, we found it was actually tricky to find internet access abroad. And though we’ve been home a week, now is the first time I’ve had to write about our adventures. I plan to post day-by-day updates for Italy, and then three updates total for France, so this travel journal will have about 13 parts! Starting with this one.

Kris and I woke at 3 a.m. on September 25th to shower and finish packing. Tiffany drove us to the airport, where I actually managed to make it through security without incidence for once. (I always get stopped at security for one thing or another; I was stopped on our flight home from this trip!)

For our flight to New York, we were seated near the rear of the plane where we were surrounded by a large group of Ukrainians who drank copiously and bantered boisterously. One of the two bathrooms behind us had a faulty locking mechanism, so a flight attendant place it out of order, which produced long lines for the loo during the entire flight.

At JFK, we disembarked through the exact same gate we flew home from the last time were here, coming back from England in 2007. After walking to the far end of the terminal to wait out our four-hour layover, I passed the time by doing body-weight exercises: sit-ups, squats, lunges, and so on. I was very worried about going “soft” on this trip.

The flight from JFK to Venice was uneventful. We watched TV shows and movies and played videogames on the iPad. We dominated in-flight trivia. (I always dominate in-flight trivia. I had the top score for the flight, as usual.) Kris napped a little; I did not.

Arrival in Venice
After our flight landed in Venice, we cleared customs quickly (it’s only in the U.S. that customs takes forever) and walked to the waterbus (or alilaguna) terminal. The waterbus follows a heavily-tracked aqua-highway marked by hundreds of wooden pilings. Boats ply their way along this dredged canal (outside the pilings, the water is very shallow), speeding from the mainland to the island city of Venice.

Kris, waiting for the alilaguna outside Venice
Kris, waiting for the alilaguna/waterbus to take us to Venice

The waterbus let us off at the Ponte di Rialto stop. The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges that span Venice’s grand canal; the first bridge here was built in 1255, and the current bridge was completed in 1591 — when Shakespeare was alive.

Note: Sad but true: I have no photo of the Rialto Bridge. In fact, I have no photos of many interesting things from our trip.

From the Rialto Bridge, we made our way through the heavy crowd to the nearby Pensione Guerrato, our hotel. Immediately it was clear that Venice was like nowhere else we’d ever been. The city is built atop more than 100 small islands, and most of the buildings are hundreds of years old. The cobble-stone streets are often very narrow, and you’re constantly crossing bridges as you move from one place to another. Because of Venice’s nature, wheeled vehicles make no sense. Not even bikes. (You’d ride your bike 50 feet and then have to stop to carry it across a canal!) All traffic is on foot — or by boat. It’s awesome!

Water traffic on the Grand Canal in Venice
Water traffic on the Grand Canal, just in front of the train station (low building on right)

By 1300 hours in Venice, I’d been awake for 25 hours straight. It took almost precisely 24 hours to reach our hotel room from the time we woke up in Portland the morning before. (Which was 3 a.m., as you’ll recall.) Our goal was to go until 1900 or 2000 and then crash, so we showered and headed out for a much-needed meal.

We ate outside in the sun (too hot for me, just right for Kris) at Trattoria da Bepi. We were surprised at how well the staff spoke English — well enough to joke around with us. (But, as we’d learn, this was par for the course in the touristy spots of Italy.) I had mussels and chicken kabobs and 375ml of prosecco, Italy’s sparkling wine. (Note: Unlike most of the reviewers at the site I linked to, we found Trattoria da Bepi to be just fine. Nothing great, but not bad either.)

A quick walk through the city
After lunch, we wandered the wide boulevard of Strada Nova (the “new” street) toward the train station, over the bridge, and then back to the Pensione Guerrato. Along the way, we learned how Venice’s streets twist and turn like a fantastic maze. They also change names constantly. For example, Strada Nova started as Sesiere Cannaregio and ended as Rio Terá de la Madalena and Rio Terá San Leonardo. Confusing!

J.D., walking down a narrow street
J.D., walking down a narrow street in Venice

The streets were crowded on this warm Sunday afternoon. We stopped for two scoops of gelato each, the first of many such scoops we ate in Italy. We also looked through a Venetian supermarket.

Our exhaustion and different travel styles — Kris wants everything spelled out, but I’d rather go with the flow and make things up as we go along — led to short tempers in Venice. Kris wanted answers to questions I couldn’t give her (“How will we know where and when to board the waterbus?” “Where does this street go?”). I’m perfectly content just muddling my way through, making mistakes as I go along. That means I’m willing to trust my gut in the tight and twisty unmarked streets, while Kris would rather verify that every street is either right or wrong before continuing. So we bickered.

Mostly, though, we were just tired and hungry.

Note: I know some people don’t like it when I write that Kris and I bicker, but come on! We bicker, just like all couples. And we often bicker while traveling (or doing home remodeling). To deny that is stupid, and to pretend we’re something we’re not. But we love each other even when we’re fighting.

After nearly 30 hours without sleep, I was ready to drop. So that’s what I did. After we finally made our way back to the hotel (it was a long walk), I crawled into bed and slept for twelve hours.

The view from our hotel room in Venice
The view from the Pensione Guerrato

A view of the Pensione Guerrato
The Pensione Guerrato from the plaza below (our room is on top floor with open shutters)

Perfectly Content

Photos, videos, and narrative of our trip to Europe are coming soon. We had a great time.

Today, though, I want to say that I can’t imagine anything better than a rainy afternoon spent upstairs with my cats, sorting comic books while sipping a scotch and soda, listening to classic country music, waiting for my sweetie to come home.

Stack of Comics

This is what life is all about. I’m not joking.

(The only way this could be better is if we were expecting to meet friends for dinner tonight…)

Your health is your most important asset

When Kris and I traveled to England and Ireland with her parents in 2007, I came home with a financial epiphany. Actually, the trip highlighted a concept that I’d only vaguely understood before: I was a slave to the tyranny of Stuff. I had accumulated way too many things in my life, and this was causing me a lot of mental and physical stress. In many ways, the things I owned actually owned me. Over the past three years, I’ve worked hard to say “so long” to the Stuff I don’t really need.

On this year’s trip to Europe, I had another epiphany. Our time in France and Italy drove home a concept to which I’ve only paid lip-service before: Your health is your most important asset. Despite what others might say, your most valuable asset is not your car or your home, and not even your career. (Though your career is, indeed, very important.) Our vacation taught me that without your health, you have nothing. And if you’re less fit than you could be, you’re sacrificing not just dollars, but days — or years — from your life.

Days of Future Past

Over the past month, Kris and I spent 24 days in Europe. One week was on our own in Paris, but we also spent ten days with an organized tour of Italy, and seven days on a river cruise through northern France. Both of these tours were filled with people who were older than us — often much older. For more than two weeks, we ate, walked, and talked with folks who were 60, 70, and even 80 years old.

These people reminded us over and over again that health is important. They told us how they wished they had traveled when they were younger and more mobile. They complained about lingering health problems brought on by aging. But they didn’t actually have to say anything — we could see how failing health affected their abilities every day.

Our older companions had trouble getting around. They struggled when climbing hills and steps. They found it difficult to walk more than a mile at a time, or to walk more than five miles in a day. Some of our companions were overweight, but most were not. They were just old and out of shape.

Now, I’ll admit that the average age of the tourists on our cruise was probably between 70 and 72. It can be tough for even a fit 70-year-old to keep up with a 40-year-old. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of our companions had prioritized fitness as they aged, and their focus on health was paying dividends.

  • On the river cruise, we met a man named Roger. Roger runs every day. He’s 65, but he looks like he’s in his forties. (I was shocked when I learned how old he was.) More than that, he’s active and agile, a sharp contrast to most of his peers. He bounds up stairs while others his age take unsteady steps.
  • On our Italy tour, we met Deno and Cindy, both of whom are around 65 and seem very fit. But that wasn’t always the case. Over the past couple of years, Deno lost sixty pounds and Cindy shed thirty. They told us how important exercise has become to them because it helps them stay healthy. Just a few years ago, this trip would have been tough for them, but because they’ve prioritized their fitness, they’re better able to fulfill their dreams.

I don’t mean to imply that Kris and I are models of fitness. Not even close.

Despite six months of intense training via Crossfit, I’m still not as fit as I should be. I’ve lost 35 pounds, yes, but I have ten or fifteen more to lose, and that slowed me on this trip. Plus, my bad knees hurt like hell whenever we had to climb stairs. (Climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican was excruciating — my left knee gave me fits. Notre Dame wasn’t much better.)

Joy and Phil
Our new friends Joy and Phil, climbing the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica

My extra weight and my bad knees are both reminders of the poor choices of my past.

Kris, too, showed signs of age. Her task-master husband — that would be me — had her walking all over the streets of Paris until finally, one night, she said, “Enough!” A younger Kris might have kept going, but this Kris is forty and not used to walking everywhere.

Important note: It’s never too late to turn things around. Even if you’ve neglected your health for decades, you can start making positive changes today, changes that will improve your quality (and quantity) of life, as well as saving you money.

Lessons Learned

What’s my point?

First, if you’re interested in travel, travel now. Don’t put it off. If travel is a priority, find ways to budget and save to make it happen. Over and over, Kris and I talked with older couples who wished they had started traveling earlier, when they were still more physically active. And when we met travelers our age, they all said the same thing: They consciously choose to sacrifice other luxuries and comforts so that they can travel while they’re young.

But most of all, I want to stress this point: Your health is your most important asset.

In January, I declared 2010 my personal “year of fitness”. I set a goal: lose 50 pounds by the end of December. So far, I’ve lost 35. I may not hit my target, but I’ll come close. But I’ve decided my health is even more important. I don’t want this to be a one-year thing. I want to increase the chances that when I reach the age of 65, I’ll look and act like Roger and Deno and Cindy, and less like everybody else.

To that end, I’ve come up with a short list of simple tasks that I believe can help me stay healthy for years to come. They’re all common sense. I want to:

  • Move my body. I want to get daily exercise, and in a variety of ways. I want to lift weights, run laps, jump rope, hike hills, and more. I want to develop both strength and stamina. I want to walk or bike whenever possible.
  • Eat wisely. I don’t care about fad diets. I like Michael Pollan’s philosophy from In Defense of Food. I’ll try to favor whole foods, and to limit sugar and saturated fat. Ditching the processed food may cost a bit more in the short term, but the long-term benefits should be huge.
  • Use drugs in moderation. No, I don’t mean illegal drugs (which I do not use at all); I mean mind-altering substances of all sorts. I currently use tobacco for fun just a few times per year, and that’s fine. But I want to reduce my consumption of hard alcohol, and I want to stop using over-the-counter drugs (particularly ibuprofen) as some sort of panacea.
  • Watch for warning signs. I have a history of avoiding doctors. I don’t want to do that anymore. In my family, it was a sign of strength to ignore pain — my mother once hobbled around on a broken ankle for months — but I want to start dealing with problems early instead of allowing them to explode into crises.

For a long time, I thought it was crazy to spend more on whole foods and organic produce. And if two years ago you would have told me that I’d now be spending $200 a month for a gym, I would have laughed. My perspective is different now. Yes, high-quality food can be expensive, and yes, Double-unders by the Eiffel TowerCrossfit is costing me a lot of money. But the end result is that I’m fitter and happier than I have been in years. To me, that’s worth the cost.

I’m not going to say that “cost is no object”. That’s silly. I think it’s just as important to be frugal with fitness as in other aspects of my life. But I also recognize that it’s foolish to sacrifice my health for the sake of a few bucks.

Earlier this year, I joined a gym that costs me $200 a month. Sometimes I worry about that cost. But you know what? That $200 is peanuts if it produces results, if it helps me become fit and strong. Which it has. (The two things I missed most on our trip? Our cats and the gym. I’ve been craving intense exercise. Thankfully, I’m back to pull-ups and double-unders at 6:30 this morning!)


Our vacation had a mopey conclusion. We ended the trip with three days in Paris, where we spent most of our time in bed — sick. I had a sinus infection, and Kris had bronchitis. We stumbled out of our hotel room on occasion to look at art (the Mona Lisa!) or to get food (olives and cheese from the grocery store) or to go to the pharmacy, but mostly we slept and watched every movie and television show we’d brought on the iPad. It was a miserable way to end our trip, and it was a final reminder of how important good health is.

By not being out and about on those last few days, we essentially wasted hundreds of dollars. (We could have been sick and tired in our own bed at home for free instead of paying for a hotel room.) But this expense is nothing compared to the costs of chronic poor health.

Your health is your most important asset. Do everything in your power to protect it — and to make it last.

Comic book ad from 1956: How I made a small fortune in spare ime!

Blackhawk 105Last month, I mentioned that I got my entrepreneurial start as a kid by selling stuff door to door. This “stuff” generally comprised products advertised on the back of of comic books: seeds, greeting cards, and so on.

For more than thirty years, companies recruited armies of salesboys and salesgirls through comics. I was one of them. But it wasn’t just kids they recruited.

I was reading an October 1956 issue of Blackhawk — a fanciful war comic (the Blackhawks didn’t just fight commies; they also fought space aliens) — when I came across this gem of an ad that touts how much a man can make selling Mason Shoes.

Mason Shoe ad

That’s a little small to see on the blog, so you can click through to see the entire ad on Flickr. Here are some of the best bits:

Mason Shoe ad

Bill’s friend Jim introduces him to the world of Mason Shoe:

Mason Shoe ad

Look how that shoe gleams in the second panel! Naturally, Bill started selling to his friends, relatives, and co-workers. Everybody wants comfortable shoes:

Mason Shoe ad

And here’s the end-of-the-page sales pitch:

Mason Shoe ad

“Bill! A new toaster!”

It’s probably obvious why I love this.

For one thing, it’s an ad in comic form from inside a comic book. For another, it’s promoting one of my favorite aspects of personal finance, personal entrepreneurship. True, it veers toward the “get rich quick” side of things (but then all sales schemes like this do), but that’s okay — in order to succeed, the Mason Shoe man will have to pour his soul into his work. Finally, I’ve done plenty of door-to-door sales in my day, so I have a soft spot for this sort of thing. (It’s never this easy!)

By the way, Mason Shoe still exists, though I can’t tell from their website if they still manufacture their own shoes. It may be that they just sell other brands.

A Story About Mason Shoes

A fellow named Drew Cook dropped me a line to tell me about his experience with Mason Shoes. Here’s what he had to say:

Back in the early 1970s, I lived on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and worked various construction sites for about five years, first as a laborer, then as an ironworker (connector). One day at lunch on the first job site I worked on, a guy came onto the site and showed us a small Mason Shoe Co. catalog, telling us he was a sales representative of the Mason Shoe Co., and we could order work boots from him that he would later deliver to us on the job. One of the veteran construction workers on the site told the rest of us how good the “Mason Shoes” were, and that the mail-order through the sales rep deal was legitimate.

We looked through the catalog, and several of us, including me, filled out a simple little form indicating what type of boots and what size we wanted. I ordered a pair of heavy, ankle-high, oiled brown leather steel-toed boots with hard rubber soles that laced to the toe, which I’ve since learned are traditionally called “roofer’s boots.” I seem to remember that they cost around $35 or so — a lot at the time. The sales rep took a few dollars from each man as a partial payment on their order, and told us he’d be back in a couple of weeks with our boots. He was as good as his word, and showed up on the site two weeks later with our boots. They fit perfectly, and we all paid the sales rep the balance on our orders.

I wore those boots on that job and several others for a couple of years until they were near-to-wearing-out from use, then ordered another pair of the same type from the Mason Shoes rep (can’t remember if it was the same guy or another fellow). I wore the second pair as an ironworker for another few years, and they served me quite well.

I never ran across another Mason Shoe Co. sales rep, because I stopped working construction when I moved back to the States in 1975, but as I said, those “Mason Shoes” were very high-quality, and lasted through a lot of rough usage. As you mentioned, the Mason Shoe Co. still exists, but they don’t sell any boots like the ones I ordered and wore back in the early 70s, and I doubt they have independent field sales reps any more. The closest match I’ve seen to the Mason Shoe Co. boots I wore years ago is the “Roofer’s Boots” currently offered by the Duluth Trading Co. (Item #86053) — at an astounding $174.50!

I love Drew’s story. It’s always fun to find a real-life connection to something that seems so abstract and distant — like an ad in a 1956 comic book.

One More Mason Shoe Ad!

I found another Mason Shoe ad. This one’s from the August 1961 issue of Amazing Adventures. Click on the image to view it full size at Flickr.

Amazing Adventures #3 Mason Shoes ad