Tag Archives: Provence

Couchsurfing on a Feather Duvet

When we told our senior friends we were going Couchsurfing in Provence, many of them had never even heard of Couchsurfing.  Most of the rest expressed strong reservations about crashing on someone’s uncomfortable couch.  By the time we headed for the airport, we were confident we’d find more comfortable sleeping arrangements.

Couchsurfing.org is one of the more popular “hospitality exchanges”.  These sites and organizations offer travelers around the world short-stay accommodation with local hosts, with no expectation other than the pleasure of each other’s company…  and maybe some help with dinner.  The fundamental premise is that the cultural exchange is a two-way street, and the hosts should enjoy the experience as much as the travelers.

There are a number of hospitality exchanges, and some might be more suitable for the older traveler.  If you “surf” with a 20-something host, there’s a good chance you will be sleeping on a couch.  The average age of a Couchsurfer is 28, and only about 3% of users are over 50.  Still with about 5 million members, that’s 150,000 “golden age” surfers and hosts.

The view from our balcony in Provence

The view from our balcony in Provence

We decided to search hosts who were couples over 50, something fairly easy to do on the site.  We also restricted our searches to “verified” profiles with pictures, and read all the references carefully.  The listings generally indicated that their offer of accommodation was at least a private bedroom.  Still, to be on the safe side, we decided to try it out nearby before heading to France.  (We’d done the same thing with AirBnB.)  Our first Couchsurfing experience was in the seaside town of Sequim, Washington.  Our host, Teresa, was both interesting and gracious, and the accommodation offered us by our new friend was as good as any an old friend might provide.  After one more local test run, we were ready to try Europe.

Our chosen hosts in Avignon included facility with English on their profile, so we figured we could revert to our native tongue if our fractured French was found wanting.  In our message exchange before our arrival, we were careful always to include a Google Translate French translation of every message we sent.  It turned out to be unnecessary as our hosts were fluent in English.

Roussillon, the "Colorado of Provence", was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

Roussillon, the “Colorado of Provence”, was one of the many local sites we visited with our hosts in Avignon

We were pleasantly surprised with the responses we got from our query.  Another host who couldn’t accommodate us went out of her way to recommend nearby B&Bs and restaurants:  “Tell them Pauline sent you.”  We received an unsolicited offer of accommodation from a retired judge who’d spent six months in our hometown years earlier.  By then we were already “booked” with the couple we’d selected.

Our hosts, Monique and Jean-Paul, had offered to meet us at the boat docks – later switched to the train station due to flooding on the Rhône.  We easily spotted each other, and much to our delight, they proceeded to drive us – with a few sightseeing stops en route – to a 400-year old Provençal six-bedroom farmhouse, hidden away on a quiet country lane, and surrounded by vinyards and fruit trees.  Our “couch” turned out to be a very comfortable bed in a second-story bedroom with ensuite, balcony overlooking the gardens, and kitchen facilities.  The kitchen was

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

This farmhouse in Tuscany was a wonderful oasis

hardly needed as our hosts fed us delicious healthy home-cooked French cuisine three meals a day for our entire stay.  In addition, they drove us to many area attractions – including some we’d never heard of, and certainly would never have visited but for their hospitality.  What’s more, given their patience with our halting efforts, our French improved dramatically over just two days – although it never got anywhere near as good as their English.

Our visit to Avignon was a perfect example of the objectives of hospitality exchanges.  We talked about many subjects over our two days, comparing French ways of doing things to those back home – not to mention all the other countries that each of us had visited.  Like many Couchsurfers, our hosts were globetrotters, so we had the chance to live their adventures vicariously – as did they with ours..  And pick up some tips for the road.  It was the most memorable two days of our entire trip.  Couchsurfing will be high on our list for our next trip.  We’d recommend it for yours.

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

Maddalena shows Paul around the cheese operation

If you still feel uncomfortable and are looking for ways to start gradually, there are some alternatives you might try.  One is a much older hospitality exchange called Servas.

Servas has been around since just after World War II.  In many ways, it’s similar to Couchsurfing, but “older”.  Servas chapters operate independently in each country, and maintain paper lists of hosts.  Only gradually and tentatively are they experimenting with Internet directories.  Travelers must supply two letters of reference and be interviewed by a local Servas volunteer before receiving their official “letter of introduction” and the directory of hosts for their target countries.  In our experience, the average age of Servas hosts is older, perhaps even in the 50+ range.  The Servas accommodation we’ve seen has generally been at least a spare bedroom, if not more.

We were Servas members before we joined Couchsurfing, our second membership because the latter offered more convenient access via the Internet.  We still love Servas and have had great adventures with them as well, including a stay in a remote organic sheep-cheese farm in Tuscany, and a cozy family apartment on the Italian Riviera.  In both these stays, we had lots of

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

Barbara showed us the local shopping on the Riviera

time for local sightseeing.  (One memorable experience at the last place was witnessing a typical argument between the mother and her teenaged daughter.  Out of deference to their guests, they switched from Italian to making points in English, leaving the father scratching his head … since he only spoke Italian and Genoese!)

Another way to ease in to the hospitality exchange concept is to arrange for a “day host” as it’s known in Servas.  (Couchsurfing has a similar concept.)  A day host meets a traveler during the day for a few hours to show them around, or engage in some joint activity.  For instance, while in Florence, we arranged to meet for capuccinos with a Servas day host who turned out to be a professional tour guide.  Surprisingly, we didn’t end up picking his brains for tips on the Uffizi Gallery, but instead learned of his excitement about the family’s impending trip to Colombia to adopt a young girl.

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Cinque Terre was a day-trip from their place

Is there an obligation to host in return for being hosted?  Not in Couchsurfing nor in Servas.  It’s more of a “karma” thing;  I’m sure there’s a special hell reserved for travelers who never host.  Perhaps it’s an endless stay in a characterless chain hotel.  But most travelers enjoy hosting as much as visiting.  After all, most of us can’t travel all the time, and hosting is inexpensive way to experience the world from the comfort of your own home.  In the year and a half we’ve belonged to Couchsurfing, and the longer time we’ve been Servas members, we’ve hosted more often than we’ve traveled.  And enjoyed every one.  We’ll share a few recent hosting adventures in a future post.

Maybe the next one will be you?

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Travel Technology for Late Adopters

In our last post, “Trip Technology Meltdown”, we left Paul cooling his fevered brow in the barge cabin, wondering how he might rescue his relationship with the wireless age … not to mention with Cheryl.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, home of the world-famous Côtes du Rhône wine - and a pleasant bike ride from Avignon

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, home of world-famous Côtes du Rhône wine – and a pleasant cycle from Avignon

Evening drinks in an open-air bar in the old Roman Forum at Arles took care of the more important concern.  How to make wireless technology serve us without becoming slaves to its incessant demands is an ongoing exercise.  We hate it when interruptions from cyberspace keep us – or those we’re with – from being fully present to the joys and adventures of travel.  Every device we take with us adds to luggage weight – as well as increasing potential worry over loss or theft.  Traveling light and cheap has considerable advantages.

We’ve been using the Internet extensively to plan and research our travel for the past 15 years.  However, only recently have we counted on mobile devices on our travels.  In the past five years, we’ve rarely had a problem finding free WiFi during our time in Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean.  Payphones are another matter.

Here’s our current “Travel Technology for Late Adopters”.

  • Email: even before we had any mobile devices, we found it worthwhile to maintain a special email account for holiday travel only.  That way we can stay in touch with those we need to, and not be distracted by all the noise from our non-traveling lives.  With tiny mobile devices, we find this helps us spot what’s important.  We give out our travel email address sparingly – not even the spammers have it!
  • Tablet:  Cheryl bought herself at 10” ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime Android tablet about 18 months ago.  It’s adequate for on-the-road Internet research.  She also has a docking keyboard – in future, we may take it with us when we travel: the lack of a real keyboard was one of my meltdown triggers while in Arles.  As 80 wpm touch typists, we both have low tolerance for hunt-and-peck.  Before the tablet, we had an Apple iPod Touch, received as a gift.  While it was okay for occasional email, we quickly found the small screen to be too cumbersome for on-the-road researching.  (We’ll write about our essential travel apps and web sites in a future post.)

    Ruins of the Pope's "new castle" at Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

    Ruins of the Pope’s “new castle” at Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

  • Folding reading glasses:  I’ve had a pair like this for several years – one of the most useful pieces of technology I own for travel – makes the tablet or iPod or French menus usable!  Is this technology, you ask?  Yup, “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”  (Another piece of indispensable travel technology is a key-chain battery holder for hearing aid batteries!  I finally stopped running out of batteries on the road.  Of course, Paul’s modern hearing aids are lead-edge technology, worth more than the rest of this list put together.  Bluetooth-enabled, I think they anticipate what’s going to be said.  Real-time language translation can’t be far behind.  Even now, they make it possible to understand a wide variety of voices and accents.)
  • Skype:  we’ve had good success with skype on the tablet and the iPod, just using a basic microphone.  We’ve used more skype-to-phone time than the free skype-to-skype while on the road, so keeping some phone credits in the account with “auto-recharge” is important.  That way we can easily phone home, or even make cheap local calls when we have to.
  • Digital camera: while most tablets and cellphones have built in cameras these days, we still like the feel of a real focusing camera with F-stops, wide-angle lens, and good optical zoom.  We currently use a Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3 that’s a few years old.  Taking the tablet’s docking keyboard will also make it possible to upload photos directly from the camera’s SD card – something we currently struggle with.

In our next post, we’ll mention a few mobile technologies we’re considering to make longer travel easier, and perhaps less expensive.  As always, we’ll be asking ourselves the “appropriate technology” questions:

  • An Olivetan friar in Europe: "Sorry!  Didn't recognize Your ringtone!"

    An Olivetan friar in Europe: “Sorry! Didn’t recognize Your ringtone!”

    Is this new gadget really going to enhance the quality of our experience?  Take a deep breath and a “time out” – now, do we still think so?  Ah, come on, really!?

  • What’s the cost?  In up-front money?  Ongoing payments?  Disposal costs?  Security concerns and risk?  Baggage weight?  In time?  In unwanted distractions and information clutter?
  • Are the costs really worth it?  Once the novelty has worn off?  After next year’s model comes out?
  • Can we replace another device rather than just adding one more – and a bigger bag to carry them all in?

What is your indispensable travel technology?  How do you keep information overload at bay and manage the balance between instant access and over-accessibility?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Trip Technology Meltdown

“And they all moved away from me on the bench…”  Alice’s Restaurant it was not, but rather the dining room on a Rhône river barge.  Through the haze of my technology-induced rage, I sensed our cycling shipmates looking sideways at me.  Cheryl urged me down into the cabin.  As Betsy Talbot of MarriedWithLuggage.com has advised, when traveling as a couple, only one partner at a time can have a meltdown.  This one was mine.

For the past half hour, I’d been fighting Cheryl’s tablet computer, trying to navigate the website of the French national railway SCNF to find a train stop closer to some suburb of Avignon that I’d never heard of.  The technology was winning.  Apart from my not knowing how to approach the route question, the web site kept timing out, and my fingers were struggling with the touch-screen keypad.

Two of our cycling group ponder the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard.

Two of our cycling group ponder the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard, a short distance from Arles.

The sun was now warming our cycling days, but the rains of earlier in the week had now swollen the Rhône to the point where authorities had halted all passenger boats.  Our accommodation and transport were stuck in Arles – a wonderful place to be stuck, but stuck nonetheless.  A day and a half later, our most generous Couchsurfing hosts from the Avignon area had promised to meet us at the pier near the Phillipe-le-Bel tower.  Now we had to do something involving trains instead of ships, and I was determined not to make it their problem to plan our route change or to drive even farther to pick us up.  Hence my doomed attempt to find a train station closer to their home.  I felt I had to do it quickly, since our only communication channel was the Couchsurfing website, and time was running out

Cheryl in her current role as the non-meltdown partner suggested I settle for telling our hosts we’d be at the Avignon main station and leave it to them to suggest any alternative.  Obviously, she was right.  In the end, that’s just what happened.  They met us at the station entrance, and we enjoyed two wonderful days of French food and conversation – relaxing and sightseeing in Provence with two wonderful people.

The Roman amphitheater in Arles is now used for Provence-style "bloodless" bullfights.

The Roman amphitheater in Arles is now used for Provence-style “bloodless” bullfights.

The episode with the tablet started us thinking it was time to update our relationship to technology.  If we were to be traveling longer and more often, we would need this kind of last minute planning to be easier.  There are better uses for travel meltdowns.

Having written my first computer program in the late 60s – and still coaxing computers for a living – I should be versed in all the latest gadgets.  However, with Cheryl and me both in long computer careers, we’d made a conscious decision to govern the rate at which electronics entered our family life.  We never had cable TV and we still don’t.  For years, the family had a “screen-free” day every weekend.  We resisted cellphones until we could no longer find a payphone, and even now, we often carry them switched off.  We don’t value being contactable 7×24.  We spent many summer holidays with our boys at an off-grid island cottage, and I left “Search and Rescue” as my contact info for the office.  It worked for us!  You might call us Technology Late Adopters – and only when we think the technology in question enhances our quality of life.

Meanwhile, technology for travel was undergoing a transformation.  In the 70s, the only technology I needed was how to find the metal fiches for the payphones in Europe or South America.  When our family traveled in Costa Rica for half a year in 2000, spending an hour a week in a crowded and sluggish Internet cafe was about it.  Asking directions used to be one way to interact with residents with traveling, and maybe practice some Spanish.  On recent trips, however, people just started telling us to Google it. “No lo sé. Búscalo en Google.”

Our Couchsurfing hosts explained that the dancing was under not on the Pont d'Avignon.

The famous Pont d’Avignon.  Our Couchsurfing hosts explained that the dancing was under not on the bridge.

We’ve been using the Internet extensively to plan and research our travel for the past 15 years, but it looked like it was time to consciously accelerate our entry into the wireless age.  Marital harmony required it.

(In our second half of this post, “Travel Technology for Late Adopters”, we’ll talk about the wireless technology that works for us, while we continue the good fight against the growing tendency to be “over-available”.)