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Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I went to Dubai for 2 days, just for business. I knew I would barely have the time to do any tourist activities but if there is the possibility of mixing business and pleasure, I’d find a way. And I did.

First of all, let me say that the politeness and level of service of almost everyone in Dubai was incredible. How incredible? Even Americans, who are usually amongst the best at customer service, can learn from the people in Dubai.

Second, I was there at a time when antisemitic attacks were happening worldwide in numbers that had not been seen in decades and here I was going to a Muslim country whose normalization agreements were still fairly fresh. I had heard that there was nothing to worry about but the truth is that any Jew will tell you it’s never far from your thoughts. And wow. I was pleasantly surprised. At no point did I feel uncomfortable. 

I took a boat ride around Dubai and took loads of pictures with a camera that had no SD card in it so that means I now have to work extra hard to keep the memories of that trip in my mind. Since I was the only one on the boat, the crew were being extra attentive. Of course, it was heavily influenced by their desire to receive a tip but even so, they were very friendly. We were able to have a conversation about Dubai, their life, their goals and many interesting things.

There are many other things I wish I had had the time to do but let me say this already now, I am sure that one day I will be back.

Pauses for rest and pauses for strength

Sometimes we need a pause to rest and sometimes we need a pause to build. The lockdowns forced me along with everyone else to take a pause. Since it was completely unexpected (to me), I had many constraints without the time to be able to work on finding optimal solutions for them. But true to my nature, after a brief moment of stress, I found the best solutions I could and used it to my advantage to build new connections, meet new people and better develop the ultimate nest.

After some time to pause and rest, I took the time to build. During the weeks of confinement I focused my energy on building something new in business so that I would come out of the lockdown better than before. During the weeks of confinement I started a regular physical routine to work on improving myself and to come out of lockdown better than before. And during the weeks of confinement I took the time to really ask myself some tough questions about myself and my life which are easy to put aside in the day to day.

Unfortunately, towards the end of the confinement we lost Piggy to a virus. I know I did the best I could in real time to save her but in hindsight I see all of the mistakes. And though I know I did the best I could with the information I had, I still deal with some guilt. Especially, I deal with the pain of missing her.

So what now?

The lockdowns are over and various restrictions are easing. I had initially thought this would be the time I jump at the opportunity to travel again.

However, I still need some time to process some things. I still need some time to give my all to the new business and I still need some time to chill without the stress that comes from epic adventures – even when the stress is ultimately the good kind and the rewards are absolutely worth it.

I rented a beautiful place in the suburbs of Paris. I am almost in nature, there are windows all around (reminds me of the penthouse I had in my 20’s except that then my view was the sea and now my view is a forest). I will rest myself here, do more work than I could if I were on the road, take care of Lucy who is still a bit sick and… find and build our new land nest. No details on that yet. You’ll have to wait till next time.

Levis Saint Nom

Sometimes you arrive at a little town, that is so small and yet with such a big personality that it marks you. Not only because of its past, but rather because of its current population. This is exactly the case with a little village about 30 km outside of Paris known as Levis Saint Nom.

I arrived there and stayed near the cemetery since that gives me access to drinking water, it’s quiet at night and usually does not disturb people. This cemetery was right on the edge of an incredible forest that looked enchanted. I got our camping site set up and we went to sleep.

The next morning, as I was preparing things for us, I hear Lucy make a noise that says “I’m seeing something interesting”. However since she often makes that noise when looking out at nature, I didn’t pay too much attention. But then, I notice that Piggy also makes that noise and that is something she almost never does. So I immediately look up and what do I see? 

A pheasant!!

A pheasant running right by us going from one side to the other. The gorgeous colors on that pheasant, might god. If only I’d been quick enough to get a picture of him. Alas, I only have a picture of his behind and even that is from far away.

Later that day, I met some officials who were incredibly nice and generous with their time and information. They asked me if I didn’t mind sleeping near a cemetery. I joked that it’s actually incredible since no one comes at night so it is very quiet and peaceful. Great for a night’s rest.

We stayed there for a few days and met some people who continued to give us a great impression of the village. There is a little church there that rings three times a day. Once in the mornings, at noon and in the evening. I admit that that is my favorite part of being out in the country in France. Being able to tell time by the ringing of the church bells. I’m Jewish and yet let me tell you there is something magical about it.

Claude Monet’s Old Stomping Ground

It’s not often you can look at a place and feel like you’re in a painting. And yet, that’s exactly what I felt when I went to Vetheuil. You see, this is where Claude Monet lived before he became famous and a good number of his paintings are of there. But what’s most amazing is that the place almost hasn’t changed at all. As you sit on at the coffee shop on the other side of the Seine and look at Vetheuil or just stroll along the Seine (on the other side) you can look at the landscapes and recognize the Monet paintings!

It is such a surreal moment. I almost felt like in the Mary Poppins scene when they step into the chalk drawings.

And it is so beautiful. So, so beautiful.

What I liked most about Vetheuil itself is that the city has kept its old buildings and old charm. Even the things that are new and have been renovated have been kept in the old world beauty of what it was like then and it is filled with plants and flowers everywhere. It was a pleasure to just walk around.

I stayed at a friend’s house nearby for a days and the serenity of the area along with the beauty really allow you to relax and be transported to a calm internal place. 

Saint Lambert, France

The week started off with a new van. I thought about the travel I’d been doing, my likes and dislikes and realised that I needed a different type of van. So, I sold off the old one and bought a “new” one. What’s the new van? A Volkswagen Transporter LT28 from 2001. It has a good, strong motor and windows all around. The front is a bit more square, making it easier to clean which is important considering my travel mates. I do know that windows all around will mean that I will have a harder time with insulation. Which brought me to my first camping trip with it to test it out.

Before I left for the trip, I did some laundry. And why is this important? Because of something that happened that will easily explain the type of human interactions I have when traveling. There I am sitting in the laundromat listening to music. A guy walks in, puts everything in the machine, pays and… the machine won’t start. From here to there, I solve the issue and we are both very happy so we do a hand slap and I turn back with him standing there looking bewildered as I don’t continue into a fist bump. In that half second we understood who was the cool guy (him) and who was the nerd (me). We started talking and since he’s a mechanician I asked him a few questions. From there we discussed the travels I do and who I do them with. He stares at me wide eyed (something I’m used to) and says “Do you know what a mongoose is?” I knew this would lead to a great story so I happily reply “Yes, I do!” Him: “Let me tell you the story of a mongoose I raised back in Cote d’Ivoire.”

He proceeds to tell me the funniest story I could hope to hear involving a mongoose who was extremely smart. This mongoose used to sneak into the kitchen (side note: kitchens in Cote d’Ivoire are separate from the main house, which I found to be very interesting), climb into the rice pot, close the cover on itself and proceed to eat the rice. For months they had been wondering where the rice was going and why the rice left had a lot of sand/ earth mixed in it.

My new friend was a great storyteller and I was laughing hysterically.

Having started the day off so well, I then proceed to go back to the new van, start it up and off we go.

We stopped in Saint Lambert which is a beautiful little community, so green with lots of forest around and clean air. Every morning at 8:00 the Church bells would ring the hour and the half hours until the last ringing of the bells for the day at 20:00.

The reception was horrible which let me focus on hiking around, reading and just chilling in nature without the ability to do too much work. Something I badly needed after a few weeks of non stop connection as we solved some issues so we could move forward with some projects at work. It was pure bliss. It did get very cold at night (-3 C), but I have become a wiz at insulation so I was able to build something temporary. There were no sounds at night and even during the day, barely anything.

On the last day there, I left as I had some things to do back in the city, but you can be sure I will be going back there again. Sooner rather than later.

Education Through Travel – A Story In 4 Acts

I know that in my travel blog you expect to read about my travels. However, learning about the world is a big part of what’s so amazing while traveling. Sometimes you learn things on the spot. Sometimes, a lesson takes a long time to fully educate you. This is one of those. 

Act 1 – First Steps On The Path

When I was 7 years old, we moved to the US. Before we moved my mom had various talks with me to prepare me for what would be an incredible culture shock. One of the big differences I would have to adjust to was the difference in people – in size and color. Being from Cannes, France most people were not fat. And if they were fat by local standards it was nowhere near the definition of fat by American standards. It was incredibly rare for someone to be obese. And, more than 30 years ago, most people there were light skinned. So, a few days before we left, my mom reiterated “Honey, remember, Americans are big and there are many blacks.” This was not being said in a judgmental way at all. But you know how kids can say the most cringeworthy things at the worst moment? She didn’t want that to happen. Hence the preparation. 

We get to the US airport and the first thing we need to cross is the immigration desk. I can still see it. My mom standing there, holding my right hand as I stare up, eyes wide, mouth hanging open despite my mom’s best gentle efforts to snap me out of it. Can you guess what was going on? The immigration agent was a really big black woman. As Morpheus would tell you, there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. 7 year old me can attest to that. 

Act 2 – Experiencing The Path

Nine years later, I was part of a group that went to see the concentration camps in Poland. Some of my family were murdered at Auschwitz, so for me this was personal. A few days before I left my grandmother told my mom and I the story of how she had escaped the Gestapo. My mom was 36 and this was the first time she had heard the story. My grandmother had kept it a secret for more than 50 years. My grandmother and I talked a lot in the days before I left and the days after I came back. She told me she wanted to hear what I had seen but didn’t want to see pictures. It helped her to have me as the buffer. I knew the pain she had experienced but again… there’s a difference between knowing in your brain and really getting it.  For many many years I knew the story of how she had escaped but I was not able to emotionally understand. My grandmother came from a very, very wealthy Parisian family. When I saw the incredible movie “Woman in Gold” there were a few things that resonated but the scene where they escape through the train station was when it hit a chord. For the first time, I was able to really get what my grandmother had been through. Of course, I know there is a big difference between actually living through it and understanding it, but it’s as close as I can come to it. For that, I will always be thankful to the actors of the movie who were able to help me understand my grandmother, a very closed woman, a little better. 

Act 3 – Walking The Personal Path

In my life I have experienced a lot of pain, mental, emotional and physical. For many years, not only did I feel the pain but I suffered from it. This continued until I finally understood that suffering only makes me feel the pain twice as much as if I just let it run its course and move on. So, with time, I learned to let pain run its course through me and to let it go so it can move on. You would think that because I knew what pain was, I would be more tolerant and understanding of other people’s pain. But here’s a harsh truth – when there is so much pain and suffering, the ability to see beyond that can be dampened. I explained it once as though I had no skin to act as a layer of protection between me and the world therefore feeling the world raw. Even what would normally feel good when you do have a layer of protection is uncomfortable and even painful when you don’t. And so, at the time, I was far from being pleasant, nice and understanding. As I learned to deal with my pain better and not to suffer from it, the space it left in my life made room for understanding others. Being more tolerant to them and accepting of them. Who I am today is very different to who I was before. And the reason is simply because I learned to experience the pain without the suffering. 

Act 4 – The Conclusion: Walking The Group’s Path

I think that generational trauma is the same. My grandmother has lived her entire life with a pain I do not wish on anybody (except the worst of people). That has influenced how my mother was raised. And of course that has influenced how I was raised. Since traveling full time I have come to learn about the paths and journeys of other people and nations and it is enlightening. One such group of people is actually closer to me than others since they are my brothers and sisters – fellow Jews. But unlike me, their ancestors did not move West to Europe when we as a nation were exiled, rather their ancestors moved East to the Arabic countries. I did know about the painful events they regularly experienced at the hands of the people in the countries they had made their homes in and I also knew they had almost all been kicked out when the State of Israel was created. Or so I thought. It turns out there is a huge gap between the knowledge I had and the truth of what happened. As I have opened myself to learning about other journeys and paths, I cannot overlook the ones of my brothers and sisters from the East. However, I do not feel that I would be doing it justice by trying to tell you myself. Instead, I suggest you read this article on the subject.

Parisian Suburbia

The great Paris. It’s a city I have come to love and hate at the same time. I have enjoyed my time here and will also be happy to move on. There are two things I love about Paris and the Parisian suburbia.

In Paris itself, I could be driving around the small winding streets, cursing the suicidal pedestrians and drivers when all of a sudden I round a corner and come upon an incredible view – a monument, a statue. Sitting all by itself in all its incredible glory in the middle of a roundabout as it sits and watches life going on as the cars go around it.

I have been spending a lot of time reading classical French literature and the incredible thing about it is that you can recognise the neighbourhoods based on the names and imagine the lives they led living in the same streets and its corners with the same names. There is something deeply mesmerising about knowing you are walking around the same streets.

Parisian suburbia also has its place in history as the neighbourhoods have become cities. They tend to be a little less bustling thereby giving some peace. I’ve learned to see them as a gateway between Paris and the rest of France.

Saint Gobain, France

After my WWOOFing experience, I took some time off to be alone with my little flock and enjoy the van that was starting to take shape.

So off I went. No need to go far since I was already in the countryside.

I drove a few kilometers out and found an entry path to a forest. I placed myself a little bit inside the forest but not too far from the road. The road itself didn’t have too many people driving there.

The first day, I believe my presence disturbed a potential illicit deal. If ever in a movie about gangsters they talk about a guy in a van in the forest limiting their ability to meet, tell me. I’ll ask for my share of the money!

The next two days I had no visitors at all.

And then… officers from three different government offices came by. My habit whenever I see there’s any interest from a government representative is to preemptively introduce myself with a big smile and ask what I can do for them. The first were from the National Office of Forests. Essentially, I was on their territory so I made sure they were ok with my truck’s location.

Then I met the hunting and gaming representatives who asked to look in my truck after they saw Miss Piggy (a pigeon) through the window. They wanted to make sure I was collecting wild animals. The third were police officers who were very friendly.

I stayed another two days and then moved on. I went to Saint Gobain and parked near the church there. On my first day there, two friends came to visit. As we sat on the bench a guy came up, shook each of our hands in turn and said hello. Then his friend did that and then the next and so on. After this initial hello, they told us in unison that we’re about to watch the champions of Saint Gobain in petanque. Indeed they were good players. I requested permission to take some pictures of them and they agreed.

A day later, a guy walked up to the van and asked me if I was an undercover cop or something similar.

A day later, the family who lived in the house nearest me was admiring Lucy (pigeon) and decided she needed to be saved. I was in the back of the van when they simply opened the door (I now keep all doors locked always). I shouted at them to close the door and then walked out and explained why there was no need for saving. They then invited me to stay there as long as I wanted and to come back for a music festival in August.

All in all, it was an awesome week.

WWOOF in Picardie

When I first signed up for WWOOFing I had no idea what to expect. I’d always loved nature but farming was out of my league. Even basic gardening skills and taking care of house plants were beyond my abilities.

So why did I sign up? For the adventure. To experience something new, to learn a few things.

What Is WWOOF

WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In their own words here is the idea behind it:

WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.

wwoof.net

The idea is a great one and I had heard many people who had tried it and loved the experience. As with everything some people do not have a good experience but again, the potential is there. 

Choosing A Place

When you search for a place there are many different filters you can use to help you find the best fit. For example, in regards to the sleeping arrangements, food preferences, whether or not kids and/ or pets are welcome and more. I looked briefly at the profiles of each place and left a short message. One of the hosts got back to me within a day. A few others got back to me within a week or two. I looked in more detail at the profile of the host who got back to me fast and after a few more back and forth messages, I was on my way. Barely 3 days after making the decision to go on this adventure.

Arrival

When I entered the village, it hit me that I was in the countryside. I knew I would be there from the beginning, but this was really the countryside, not play acting. A tractor was driving down a road, the houses were small brick houses and I could see the kids walking (or from) school. Also, the phone reception was practically non-existent. I pulled up to the house and out came the farmer.

I parked, went into the house and we sat and talked for a bit. We then walked over to the farm and he took me over their domain and explained everything they were building. Current and future projects.

The one thing I knew but hadn’t really internalized was the culture shock I’d feel. I was entering someone else’s world. They have different habits and different priorities. During my life, I have traveled extensively but it’s very different when you enter someone’s home for more than just a short visit. You are not only entering their home, you are entering their life.

The Work

Farm work is different than any other work and I’ve had a physical job before in a factory. But this is different because it’s non-stop physical sometimes low effort and sometimes high effort work. The first few days were not easy but I gave it my best. Little by little my body got used to it. If you think being strong at the gym will help you with this, you are in for a surprise. Granted it might make it easier, but you still won’t be prepared. There’s a reason it’s called farm-boy strength. To put it simply, I learned a lot about myself, my body and my limits.

One of the great things was that my host loved explaining anything I did not understand or didn’t know. So any questions I had, I could ask them and he would happily explain.

During this time, I worked with him in the greenhouse – mostly working with the tomatoes, the outside plots – mostly potatoes, the woods – mostly chopping and stacking wood and transporting, breaking and placing bricks and stones. Tons (literally) of bricks and stones that we’d pick up, bring them back to the farm, break them with a hammer and place them in the driveway that was being built. We would then level it to make it ready for the next step of the process of the driveway being built to go from the street down to the farm and the house they are building on it.

I have always had a large appetite. With this work, I was eating all of the time, yet managed to lose fat and build some muscle. 

By the time I left a few weeks later, the difference in the way the farm looked was pretty big and I was proud for having been a part of it.

One Thing To Be Careful Of

The WWOOF charter states that you do not have to work more than 25 hours per week unless previously agreed to. This means an average of 5 hours per day, 5 days per week. My hosts had mentioned that normally the work is 30-60 minutes more per day than the 5 hours and that on holidays they work more (no kids’ schedule to deal with and to limit them). I did not ask them to specify how much more, which was my mistake. Especially since it was a lot more. On average it was an additional 2 hours per day.

The WWOOF charter states that you are expected to partake in their family life. What that means exactly is left up to interpretation by each person. My hosts’ interpretation of it meant that a lot of additional time every day was added. Between helping prepare the meals, eating them together as a family (lots of kids) and helping clean up, I lost an additional 3-4 hours per day.

As someone who likes and needs a lot of personal time this was very hard for me as it did not leave me much time for myself.

Fun Times

There are fun times to be had. With your hosts, with new experiences and learning what does and doesn’t work. The important thing is to laugh at whatever comes your way. I have had ants bite me in places I did not think they could reach. I have almost knocked myself out by throwing a large piece of wood on myself. I found myself balancing myself on my ass, holding my feet in the air after walking on a red ant hill and waiting for someone who had said he was going to get me a plant that soothes and he got lost in conversation with someone.

Social

I was lucky. The farmer and I became friends so I spent a lot of my time feeling like I was helping a friend. However there were also some bad experiences. Not out of malice. At times I was treated like a little kid and I noticed that my hosts did not like WWOOFers to group together, even if only to have a beer, without them. I won’t go into more detail since I prefer to focus on the positive.

Summary

Do it. It’s an adventure and can be a great experience. Though there are some questions I would have asked had I thought about asking them, I do not regret doing it. My recommendation though is to give yourself a way to leave on your own terms if things go sideways.

Who knows, maybe you’ll be lucky like me and make a new friend.

Dans Le Port D’Amsterdam

This was my first time in Amsterdam and let me tell you I was really surprised in a good way! I bought my train ticket from Paris to Amsterdam at the last minute and already I was in for a surprise. Due to the late timing, the price of the regular tickets were very high, so high that in fact it was the same price as the first class tickets. Can you guess what I bought? A first class ticket. The seat was a lot more comfortable, the service… mama mia, I was wined and dined non-stop all the way to the end. Hilariously enough, Lola (the cockatiel) sang and whistled the entire way. At first the people in the cabin with me were sure it was my computer and so kindly requested that I turn it down. When I explained it was a very happy little parrot, they smiled, laughed and wanted to know more. So I was lucky.

Once I arrived, I asked one of the people in the cabin how to get to my friend’s house and I showed him the address. He was able to tell me which train/ metro to take and explained how to find it. Of course, the minute I walked out I forgot, so I stood there looking around and all of a sudden I hear a voice behind me telling me where to go. It was someone else from the cabin. I thanked the man and went where he told me. I then looked for the signs to continue my way and again was lost. I turned around on the off chance that the friendly commuter was right behind me and there he was. Immediately he explained the rest of the way I had to take. Off I go to buy my ticket.

At the automatic ticket machine, I saw they had so many options I didn’t know what to choose. I turned around and asked the couple behind me. They gladly helped me along to choose which ticket would be the best and to purchase it.

Next step is the train/ metro itself. I get on, put the travel cages between my legs, my bag next to me and stand by the door. Since I’m in the habit of answering with kisses whenever one of my birds makes a kissy noise, I am always careful to make sure I am looking at the cage as I do it so girls around me don’t think I am sending them kisses… An older couple standing next to me took out some gum. The guy gave some to his wife, took one and then looks at me and asks me if I want. Surprised, I say yes. Surprised because it was as though he was reading my thoughts. I had just been thinking that if I was in Israel I’d be able to ask for one without it seeming too weird. Whereas in France, where I’d been staying for about 2 months that would be an absolute no. All of a sudden, I liked Amsterdam even more. They taught me the names of the birds in Dutch.

I got to the last station and asked someone how to get to where I needed. He showed me on a map how to get there. Turns out, he showed me a roundabout way and it was just starting to rain… I saw someone whom I recognized to probably be Muslim (beard, no mustache) and thought I’d give it a go. I ask him how to get to where I need. He looks at me and says, put your baggage in the trunk and get in the car. I gladly do. He looks it up and says he’ll take me. He tells me that he used to have birds when he was a kid. We talk about ourselves a bit and he says “we’re cousins then” (what Arabs and Jews call each other). So I say out loud “You see my lovely birds! We chose the right person to ask. He’s our cousin AND he loves birds!” He started laughing. Two minutes later we were at my friend’s house.

When walking around town a few days later, I noticed everyone was so friendly. Which greatly reinforced my feelings about the city. I could strike up a conversation with anyone there. It was absolutely incredible.

Turns out that a lot of Amsterdam slang is closely related to Hebrew. It was so funny!

Now… Amsterdam is known amongst many things for its Red District. So when I saw on all of their flags an “XXX” I assumed it was related. Turns out it is not. Each X represents something they stand for. And by not using the words themselves, rather using the X’s it is flexible. After WWII they actually changed it to reflect their new values.

All in all, Amsterdam was a great experience and I look forward to going back there again.