Chevy Chase’s Vacation Ain’t Got Nothing on Mine

Almost all of my people are away this week…husband and stepsons and stepson’s best girl – are fishing it up in Ocracoke, an island off the Outer Banks of North Carolina, It is one of said husband’s favorite places on the planet (mine being you-know-where), and I do have to say that for a beach vacation, there are few places more lovely when the weather is good and the fish are biting.  Jim took his boys there every year from the time they was babies, and when I came into the picture I was invited along, and it was where I fell in love with said boys, all 3, especially after Tom chased me with a sand crab for the first time.

Here is a picture of said best girl fishing at sunset:

peaceful, non?

peaceful, non?

But alas, Ocracoke is also the place where we had the vacation from hell. An award-winning comedy of nasty vacation badness. And as I was regaling the sad tale to my friend the other day she said “You should write this down”, and I said “yes, I should!” And since she encouraged me to do so, here is my story in all its vacation hellish glory:

The year was 2004. It was the first time that Jordan was able to accompany us on our summer vacation. (FYI: She was 11 about to be 12 and the boys were 12 and 15). Everyone was excited.  Two weeks at the beach! Lots of preparation, and since there were 5 of us we decided to take 2 cars: Jim’s jeep, which pulled his newish boat, and my 4 year old Toyota, which I was ALMOST finished paying for, yea!!  We packed everything we thought we’d need for 2 full weeks of FUN in the SUN!

Aside: Right before we left Jim informed me that he was going to quit smoking (for the 100th time). We were closet sneaky smokers at the time, heading off behind the chicken coop when we thought the kids wouldn’t notice (Which in retrospect I’m sure they did). OK,  I figured I’d give quitting a shot as well, as I rightly assumed that it would be more difficult to sneak off at the beach. This is a very important background fact to the story, as it adds a big ole layered slice of stress to the tale.

Back to the story: As I recall the vacation started off well…everyone was happy and we had one or 2 good days in spite of the nicotine withdrawal. We were happy that our dear friend Doug and his son had decided to take a well-deserved break and spend a few days with us. They arrived and all was well, until, the day after Doug arrived, we awoke to a pouring rain. There had been predictions of a storm but man, this was really quite a doozy!! The winds were whipping and the rain was coming down in sheets, and it soon dawned on us that this was no mere storm but something tropical…could it be a hurricane? Why, yes it could! We later learned that we were not evacuated, as they usually do when there is a hurricane on Ocracoke, because the storm had intensified so quickly that it wasn’t safe for the ferry between Ocracoke and the mainland to operate. But I’m ahead of myself…

We lost electricity but thankfully Doug was there and among his million and one gadgets there was a generator. So we hunkered down feeling smug and lucky that we were among the few power-full. We watched the raging weather as conditions continued to deteriorate.

“Oh, cool! Look at the water, it’s rushing down the street!” ” What a fierce wind”!! “Hey there’s a lake in the yard…Sweet!”

“Umm, why are all those cars parked up on that bridge?” “Uh oh, maybe we’d better check on OUR cars”


Yes, that’s right, by the time we figured out that this was indeed a hurricane, my car and Jim’s jeep had filled up with rain and sea water. Both. Vehicles. Totaled. And we were stuck on the island, as the ferries were not running. Doug thankfully did not lose his truck in the storm, so we did manage to have a few somewhat entertaining moments driving through the water-full streets in Doug’s two passenger tiny truck to go to the store and to survey the damage. But for the most part, the day following the storm was a nightmare of nicotine-withdrawal-fueled angst and calls to insurance agents and trying to figure out how we were going to get back to civilization with 5 people worth of stuff not to mention a boat.

We bid a fond farewell to Doug, who had to get back to work and who left as soon as the ferry to Hatteras opened, and we made plans to take the other ferry, the two-hour passenger one to the Swan Quarter part of the NC mainland, where we had scheduled a car rental. We booked a reservation at the only time slot available, an ungodly 7AM, and since were were car-less we had to walk  a few miles to the dock, meaning that halfway there Jordan started having leg pain (see this post  to understand why), so the boys had to take turns carrying her and we barely made it on the ferry. Wheeeeee

The next part of the trip was a blur, I guess we made it to the car rental somehow and we rented a car to make the 10 hour trip back home. When we arrived back in Oella we were greeted by our next door neighbors, who, before we could begin to tell of our ordeal, had informed us that the teenager who lived in the house on the other side of our house had decided to throw a party a few days before…in our house. Thankfully nothing was broken and miraculously the house hadn’t burned to the ground, so after a nicotine withdrawled  fitful sleepless night, the next day we drove the rental car to Carmax where Jim bought a truck and drove it out of the showroom that very day, teeth gritted and vowing “I have one more week left of vacation and I am going to have it, damn it!” So we dropped off the rental car and we all piled in the truck to make the 10 hour trip BACK to Ocracoke, where we were greeted with unbelievably beautiful weather. The calm after the storm?

Not really, because Jordan started feeling bad on the way back down, and by the next day she was burning up with a fever. So I took her to the clinic on the island, where upon learning of her metabolic condition, ( the kindly doctor suggested that I take her to the hospital, in Nags Head…80 miles and a ferry ride away. So I strapped her in the new truck and drove the 2 hours in a state of complete and utter breakdown exhaustion (stopping at the 7-11 to  surreptitiously buy a pack of Benson and Hedges Menthol 100’s, one of which I lit with my trembling hands as soon as I was able to sneak off alone), Anyway, we made it to the hospital and Jordan was diagnosed with some mysterious viral infection (we never did learn what it was) and she had thrush. They gave her an IV and some antibiotics and sent us on our way several hours later.

I can’t remember the next day, or was it several days? Jordan’s illness had sent me over the edge and I was a bundle of stressed-out nerves. Jim was still gritting his teeth determined to have a vacation if it killed him. Everyone tried to laugh and have FUN, I, however, was beyond fun. I was SO ready to be done with this “vacation”.

And what do you know? I got my wish! The day before the official end of the vacation we learned that there was another big storm on the horizon, and they were evacuating the island. We managed to get everything in the truck before it started to pour, of course everything was getting wet because it was piled in the bed of the truck, our jiffy-rigged plastic cover laughing at us as it flapped in the wind. There we were, the 5 of us, Jordan in the middle of the back seat with her thrushy mouth, the boys on either side…Jim still gritting his teeth, trying to drive through a hurricane at 1AM.  Me, a stressed out high strung big ole bundle of nerves shaking in the passenger seat. And hungry, we were all hungry because we hadn’t had a chance to eat. The only thing open was a Wendy’s, so my last fast food meal ever was a Wendy’s fish fillet. Everyone else had a burger, and the last tale from the vacation from hell is actually the most junior high school funny one, as the Wendy’s feast caused everyone to have the worst gas ever, and we couldn’t roll the windows down because of the rain. A fitting end to a foul day indeed.

I went back to work the next day, wild-eyed but nicotine-soothed after having sneaked off for a morning cigarette. My colleagues all asked how I enjoyed my vacation…oh were they in for an earful! 🙂

Le Béarn et Le Pays Basque…Better Late than Never (J’Espère!)

I am very late in writing this post. Computer issues (blank screen on my new laptop = 4 weeks working from a borrowed laptop, argh!). Work, lots of work…whew, I hope that all this work pays off in donations to CEPR. Family visits, summer, anyway, no time til now to write and reflect on our June vacation to the Basque country. Which is maybe a good thing, as things have settled down and shifted and the most important moments, the stand out highlights, have had time to float to the top of my memory.

So here they are, my random reflections in no particular order…it’s long (lots of pictures though!) I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have had reliving it:

We flew into Bilbao, Spain and spent the first night in San Sebastian. San Sebastian was a nice surprise. A revelation, I like some place that is NOT in France :).  We found San Sebastian to be a lovely town, big enough to be interesting and full of good restaurants and bars and beautiful, and small enough to take it all in.

san sebastian street




evening in San Se

old town street

The only downside was the language, I am spoiled by Jim’s fluent and my not-so-fluent-yet-somewhat-passing French.  We know the polite Spanish basics but found our lack of fluency frustrating when trying to navigate the tapas scene…because what a scene it is. We finally figured out how to belly up to the Tapas bars. So delicious, and cheap compared to pricier France. 

jambon !!!

We loved the tapas so much that we came back to spend another (nicer weather-wise) day.

La Cepa, yum

the best anchovies ever

beautiful tapas


We also went to Hondaribbia, a smaller town across the bay from Hendaye, France. (This is Hendaye):

market in Hendaye

We took the ferry, which took about 10-15 minutes, max.


And then we were in Spain again:


Spain/France/Spain/France…or as they say around these parts, Basque Country…

"Tourist Remember: You are neither in Spain nor in France.  You

Gora Euskadi Askatuta !

It was a great little fishing village with great little fish…


lunch in Hondirribia


The take away? Jim wants to come back to this part of the world, and he gonna start learnin some Español

After our first night in Spain we headed to Monein, a small town in the Béarn region of France, at the foothills of the Pyrenees.


We went there in search of Jurançon. What is a Jurançon, you ask? Well, just about some of the most delicious, unique white wine on the planet. And really hard to find here in the US.

me and the Jurancon

We spent our days driving through the vineyards,

vineyards and mountains


lost in the fields

visiting little touristed but charming villages like Abos


and Navarrenx


bridge to navarranx


and Orloron Sainte-Marie. It was chilly and damp, but it didn’t dampen our spirits one bit…


a river runs through it

We stayed in a wonderful bed and breakfast in Monein called Entre Vignobles et Vergers  (between vineyards and orchards). The proprietor had had an unfortunate accident and was in the hospital, so he left one of his tenants in charge, the intrepid Daniele, who didn’t speak a word of English and who took a liking to us, the “nice” Americans as we came to be known thanks to Daniele, who was born in Marseille and still had a wicked accent. Daniele took very good care of us, making us a wonderful breakfast with homemade jam every day and greeting us at cocktail hour with a bottle of  Jurançon in hand. She reminded me of my Aunt Val (except that Aunt Val would have been drinking a natty bo)

Daniele et moi

And thanks to Daniele we know everything about all of the casinos in France, including one in Pau, the largest town in the region and a very nice one at that.

Pau casino!

Beautiful and friendly…and good food. We ate at a wonderful restaurant called Les Papilles Insolites, where we had a fabulous lunch


and were introduced to another great wine of the neighboring region, Madiran.


Oh so much wine, so little time.

which way to the wine

So besides the wine…let me see, what else?  Oh yeah, we spent a memorable evening at the Fête de la Musique in the town of Jurançon, where we went looking for a village feast and found, well, bad food and a 6 euro (and not bad!) bottle of wine,


and a memorable evening listening to a quite good French rockabilly band…

good band

followed by a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band…


well, you had to have been there to fully appreciate it.  Special!

We bid a fond farewell to Daniele and Jurançon (with a case in the car) and drove back into the Basque country. We stayed in a village called Ciboure, on the Atlantic coast, next to a somewhat bigger town called Saint Jean de Luz. And wouldn’t you know it, they too were having a fête, the Fête De La St Jean. Oh don’t you hate when that happens?

We spent a fun time partying Basque style.fete IMG_0666

band in basque

After all that Fête-ing we took it easy. The weather finally turned and it was glorious. We walked and sat on the beach and walked along the coast into Ciboure and then to Saint Jean de Luz.


soccoa beach


St Jean de Luz

st jean de luz

We ate bounty from the sea.


soupe de poissons

We drove into the Basque countryside, looking for another impossible to find wine, Irouléguy, wonderful inexpensive reds and whites.

I think we found it

We drove into Les Aldudes, heaven on earth.

so beautiful

We bought a bottle and some of the most heavenly cheese, a sheep’s cheese called Ossau-Iraty…oh my, in this part of the world they eat it with cherry confiture…more heaven.


We feasted.


Merci les moutons !!! xo


One evening found ourselves in the middle of a small village called Hasparren, for the cours des vaches. Or, in English, a sort of crazy spectacle that involves drunk people being chased around a ring by cows with horns. An acquired taste, I think…


On the other hand, we also spent an evening in a little more glitzy Biarritz,


dining on yet more bounty from the sea. This whole trip made me mourn the lack of fresh fish here, in BALTIMORE.,,in caps because we live by the sea and I don’t understand why we can’t have THIS:



And, now, I’m left with memories of yummy food and wine and nice friendly people, including a group of singers at a neighboring table in a restaurant in Ciboure, who spontaneously broke out into a lovely Basque folk song. After, I told them “Je veux être Basque !” And, it’s true.

I remember the beautiful scenery

sea scene

1a (2)

and driving around and getting lost, and having a picnic with the wild horses

Jim and the wild horse

And driving through the mountains, listening to Manu Chao…

Merci, le Béarn et le pays Basque. Je t’aime, toujours.  On reviendra

Addendum: Forgot to mention that we got a bonus night in Brussels, courtesy of Brussels Air, who informed us when we arrived in Brussels from Bilboa that our scheduled flight to Dulles had already left…ok, when in Brussels you must drink beer, so we headed off to our favorite part of town

(an old picture from when we were there in 2010)

(an old picture from when we were there in 2010)

for some seafood and some Belgian brew…merci Brussels Air !