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Last page on Charleston

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I will miss the carriage tours clopping down our street, the convenience of being able to walk to coffee shops, pastry heaven, and excellent restaurants. What I will miss most about Charleston are the people we’ve met here. Some are from here, some not. Most everyone in Charleston has been friendly, tourists and locals alike. Even the people who work in coffee shops and restaurants have been good-natured.

Our most interesting new friends are from birding. Lest you think that birders are all staid white-hairs wearing many-pocketed jackets, they are not. We’ve found local birding groups to be welcoming, the members interesting, and we’ve gone well beyond the birds, meeting up to go on other outings, have a meal, and enjoy conversation. We even went to a play at the local Theater 34 West. It was a terrific venue, about 30 seats around small tables, and a bar! About 20 minutes into the very animated musical, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the actress (cast of four) fainted and it wasn’t part of the script. We figured it out as the cast started to clear a path for the EMTs to get to the stage. I’d go back on another visit to see an entire show.

Our birding days let us see bald eagles, ospreys, herons and egrets, and some of the smaller, harder to see peepers. It’s been a lot of fun (a multi-pocket vest can be very handy…). We ran into a bit of difficulty birding on our own. Twice, at the end of a generous drive, we arrived at places with well known trails to find the site closed for deer hunting (season Sept. 16-Dec. 1 this year). I’d checked the web site in advance for each location and found no notices. There was a sign at the entrance to Botany Bay by the locked entrance gate. At Dungannon Plantation, the trail was open but a notice pointed out that it was open for bow hunting and anyone out on the trail should wear international orange (also known as Blaze Orange). We don’t carry that kind of gear with us so turned back.

In addition to the activities I’ve mentioned, we enjoyed farmers markets, sweet grass basket sellers, the Charleston Aquarium, McLeod Plantation, and the Gibbs Art Museum, our favorite cultural stop. Our bird walks at Caw Caw state park and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens were excellent. Santee National Wildlife Refuge let us see a painted bunting. We even stopped to look at the gigantic Angel Oak. We made a field trip to Georgetown, an interesting spot on the way to Myrtle Beach. On one of our final days in Charleston, we discovered there is beach glass along the battery at low tide. We chatted with people walking along the sidewalk who were curious about what we were doing, and heard about where they look for beach glass.

Whether you’re from here or not, Charleston is a friendly place with a lot to do.

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Charleston’s Great Outdoors

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A car comes in handy once you decide to get out of town, as Charleston is surrounded by water, and though the beaches are beautiful, they are not close by. We’ve tried as many beaches as we could. Every one is an endless strip of white sandy beach unfurling as far as the eye can see in either direction. Much of this is illusion, as the beaches end at inlets that reach deep inland. Visiting two adjacent beaches can involve an hour’s drive or even longer. If we get tired of the view at one end of a beach, we make our way to the other end, a mile or two or three down the road.

Folly Beach is the closest beach south of Charleston. More than five miles separates Folly Beach County Park on the south from the far end of the road at the north end of the island. Halfway along is Folly Pier, a long fishing pier with a few shops and restaurants.

Folly Pier

On the beach, we were fascinated by the evidence of nesting sea turtles. Most have hatched and wriggled their way into the water by now, but turtles nest all along the coast here. Nests are marked and monitored by the state and dedicated volunteers. This year some nests were damaged by hurricane Dorian, and the few that haven’t hatched yet may be storm casualties. We spoke to a volunteer who said there was a big uptick in the number of eggs and turtle hatchlings this year, just about 30 years after the protection program started. It takes about 30 years for a sea turtle to mature and begin to lay eggs on the beach where it was born. It looks like the efforts to protect sea turtles are just beginning to pay off. We can use some good news on the nature front.

Edisto Beach

To the south of Folly Beach is Kiawah Island, best known for its very large resort. Beyond that is Seabrook Island, then Edisto Beach.

There were a lot of shells on the beach at Edisto, and a lot of people beachcombing. We chatted with people who hunted for whelk shells after Hurricane Dorian passed through, a woman holding what looked like a wok spoon on a stick who was hunting for shark teeth, and people looking for shells, driftwood, or just looking. We were looking for beach glass, but didn’t find any. Jonathan turned up one piece this entire month. We occasionally found broken glass, but that’s a lot less interesting than nicely rounded glass pebbles. This may be a testament to the clean beaches of the region, but it gave us less to hunt for as we strolled. We decided that Edisto would be as far as we’d go from Charleston, as it took almost an hour and a half to get there. The next beaches to the south are beyond Beaufort.

At Edisto Beach, I was so focused on taking a picture of the shore bird (willet) that I didn’t notice my sandals were escaping into the waves until I looked at my photo.

On other days we drove north out of the city. Just over the bridge is the Mt. Pleasant Pier and Memorial Waterfront Park, tucked in under the dramatic harp-like spans of the Ravenel bridge. It’s a gorgeous setting with a view over Charleston. There’s fishing for those interested and a cafe and gift shop for everyone else. Paths wind through the gardens.

Shem Creek boardwalk

Beyond the park complex is Patriot’s Point, where you can visit a retired aircraft carrier. Nearby is Shem Creek park. We discovered the park accidentally, on our way somewhere else. There is a long boardwalk over fields of spartina grass, with egrets and herons. Boats are moored nearby and navigate the channel out to the ocean.

We continued on to Sullivan’s Island, another beach that extends about halfway down the length of the island, Sullivan’s Island in turn becomes Isle of Palms, with it’s own county park.

One difference we noticed between South Carolina and other places we’ve visited is that there is a lot of private beachfront. I don’t know what the law is, but gated resorts block access to large stretches of beach. You may be able to access these beaches on foot, but the walk would be a mile or more each way. Between mid-May and mid-September, the temperature can be over 80 (F.) and the humidity is often high. A long walk on the beach is not on my to-do list under those circumstances. We stuck to walks that started and ended in the county or local parks and never ran out of beach.

The next stop up the coast was Bull Island, part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. It takes a bit more effort to visit because you take a 30 minute ferry ride to get to the island. The boat captains are also naturalists and spend the trip out describing the island habitats and species. They have a collection of materials from the island, alligator skulls, dolphin bones, shells, even pottery from long-abandoned settlements.

Since the site is a federal property, the refuge status is taken seriously and there are no amenities after you pass restrooms not far from the ferry landing. It takes nearly an hour to walk across to the beach. It was a very hot day when we were out there, 90+, and humid, while the shady path to the beach was swarming with mosquitos. By the time you get to the beach, you have only a half hour until it is time to hike back to the ferry landing, or another four hours until the later ferry. If visitors want to walk to Boneyard Beach, it’s five miles each way. On the beach there are no picnic tables, trash cans, shade, and no rest rooms. Though we brought lots of food and water, we didn’t realize there wouldn’t be places to sit and no shade at all. It would have been a better visit on a cloudier or cooler day.

There is another way to visit Bull Island that we didn’t try. Go with a group. Once or twice a month, there are events specifically designed to get people out to the area of drowned trees called Boneyard Beach at sunrise. It’s a photographer’s delight, and a chance to see the beach early in the day. The ferry leaves the landing about and hour and a half before sunrise (five am these days). At the island, a truck with bench seats takes visitors the six miles or so to Boneyard Beach, arriving in time for sunrise. Since no trip is ever perfect, visitors are back on the mainland by 8 am, having little time to enjoy the beach beyond Boneyard once the sun is up, but there’s a lot less walking than the regular visit. The dawn photo here is by a new friend, Linda Miller, photographer and fellow birder. She liked the early visit a lot and got some wonderful photos.

The beaches of South Carolina take some time to get to, and require some preparation if you plan to stay more than an hour. Sunshade or umbrella, chairs, sunscreen, bug spray, swimming gear, picnic, and lots of water. Some beaches have changing rooms and outdoor showers, but others do not. The water is not clear, but it is as warm as the Caribbean. I loved being able to walk right into the ocean and stay in as long as I wanted. Since our visit was after Labor Day and the start of the school year, none of the beaches were crowded, but there were always people out enjoying the sun, sand, and waves.

Visiting the beach in South Carolina:

Take Sunscreen, Water, and Mosquito Repellent. If you forget, you will suffer.

Leave time to get to the beach and back. Roads are single lane, there is little opportunity to pass. Relax, what’s the rush?

Charleston has extremely heavy traffic at rush hour both morning and evening. It helps if you are going against traffic. You may need an extra half hour to get anywhere if you are going the same direction as commuters.

Kiowah Island fashion

Indoors in Charleston

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We wanted to avoid the heat of a late summer day and find something interesting to do in an indoor, air-conditioned place that was not a shopping mall. The Charleston Museum seemed to fill the bill. We could have walked, but with high humidity and the temperature hovering around 90 (F.) we decided to save our energy for visiting the museum, and took The Dash, Charleston’s free bus. There are three overlapping routes around the downtown area, and in September it still runs four times each hour from early morning until about 8 pm.

The Charleston Museum has a little of everything. Fossils, animals, history and culture. I saw some of my favorite extinct birds, carefully mounted and displayed together.

There were artifacts from everyday life long ago recovered during local excavations. Every time construction begins in Charleston, material used to fill in the coast or level building lots reveals what people threw away, lost, or that blew away in past hurricanes.

In front of the museum is a full size replica of the H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine used in the Civil War. The sub disappeared after it sank one of the Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor in 1864. A search for the Hunley was spearheaded by author Clive Cussler, who used the sub in one of his novels. His group was successful in finding the Hunley in 1995, over 100 years after it disappeared.

The museum collection of this and that made an interesting visit on a day that was too hot outdoors for most humans.

Charleston’s Historic District

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We’re starting to get to know Charleston. Our house is very traditional and located in the historic district. We hear the horse drawn tours clip-clop past the front door a few times a day. Passengers wave if we’re out on the porch. It’s like living in a diorama. We walked to Broad St., and down a few blocks to the Four Corners of Law, where the courthouse, Post Office, and City Hall face one another. The Post Office looks like a Victorian men’s club, full of dark colors and polished brass.

Continuing down Broad St. beyond the historic corner is Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery, where there are excellent croissants and other pastries. When we got to East Bay St. we turned south toward the waterfront, passing Rainbow Row, a series of houses dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries that are each painted a different pastel color. The area is so large that it’s difficult to capture in a photo, though many local artists have painted the scene. I like this aerial view (internet photo).

Beyond Rainbow Row you can look out over the water to Ft. Sumter, and walk along the Battery, a long wall around the toe of the city. Elegant houses line much of this southernmost part of the city, and visitors stroll along admiring the views, taking a break in White Point Garden at the southern end of the city. Walking west along the Battery we turn right on Lenwood Blvd. In a few blocks it becomes Logan Street and shortly after that we are home again.

Our walk would have taken even longer if we had stopped to read all the historic markers along the route. About every third house has a plaque from the historical society. Others have information about the distinguished builders or owners. Yet others mention the role of the occupants during the Civil War. Charleston is an historian’s delight.

Even if historical details aren’t your thing, the architecture is quirky and charming. Many houses were first built in the late 1700s, which is very old for the US. Some have since burned down and been rebuilt, but in our neighborhood most houses look old even if they are not. There are interesting doorways, boot scrapers, door knobs and knockers.

The intensely humid weather combined with summer heat, winter rain, and occasional flooding is all very tough on frame houses. Contractors have projects underway on every block, from hurricane repairs to wholesale rebuilding of an entire three story house. One house nearby is being elevated, lifted on jacks while construction of a new lower level is carried out. Construction and maintenance of these lovely structures seems to require lots of very loud devices that sometimes spoil the charm. I don’t mind the hammering, but the trimming and blowing fill part of every day. This is not hurricane repair. It’s daily routine here.

Without constant maintenance, the houses of Charleston slip into disrepair. Even in the center of the historic district, I notice a few places that need work. Fortunately for these old houses, in Charleston they are more likely to be rebuilt than demolished and replaced by a parking garage.

This is just a corner of Charleston but took us three hours to make the circuit. We did make a detour to the Oyster House on S. Market St. for a refueling stop of raw oysters and shrimp & grits. (Delicious.)

Carriage tours pass by our house every day.

Guest Post: Visiting Chernobyl

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by Joyce Heard

I am delighted to introduce my good friend, Joyce Heard. A fellow Harvard grad, Joyce worked in journalism in the US, then moved to France after meeting her husband Jean-Marie while on a Rotary International fellowship. Now a long term European observer, Joyce and Jean-Marie divide their time between Aix-en-Provence and southern Morocco. When they travel farther afield, it is often to unusual destinations, this time Chernobyl. Joyce agreed to share her post with us.

Chernobyl

Sitting in our garden in Belgium in April 1986 worrying about whether the radiation cloud from  Chernobyl would head our way I never imagined that 33 years later we would be visiting the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster as a tourist attraction. But that’s what we did in September 2019. Today, radiation levels in much of the exclusion zone are just as low as elsewhere. We wore Geiger counters during our day tour and periodic checks showed levels well below legal levels in Ukraine and the rest of the world. There are of course hot spots where debris has been buried and near the number 4 reactor which exploded and caught fire releasing at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere.

Chernobyl reactor covered in concrete shell.

There are two exclusion zones surrounding the nuclear site where all of the reactors have now been shut down. No one is allowed to live within 10 kilometers of the reactor, which is now encased in a multi billion dollar shell designed and mostly funded by Western donors. A first concrete casing hurriedly installed quickly proved inadequate. In the 30 kilometer radius zone there are presently about between 4,000 and 8,000 people who live and work, the majority of them firefighters and people still working on decontamination in rotating shifts of days or a week. Complete clean-up of the area is expected take until 2065.

Our guide, Victoria, a young lady who learned her French at University in Kiev, explained that firefighters are extremely important in the zone since many trees have been planted. The trees have drawn up radioactive elements from the soil so if they burn the radioactivity will be released. Although the Ukrainian Communist government ordered all of the 163,000 inhabitants of the exclusion zone to move out taking barely anything with them, some of the peasants have quietly slipped back into the 30-kilometer area and have moved into their previous homes.

I read of one study that found that these hardy folks, who survive on small pensions, handouts and whatever food they can produce in their possibly irradiated gardens, have had better health outcomes than many of the residents who were uprooted and placed in shoddy housing blocks in the city away from their lifelong connections.

Joyce, a Chernobyl resident, & her guide Victoria.

Since just the two of us went with a driver/guide we were able to visit one of these peasants, whom our guide Victoria has befriended. The woman is 85 years old. Her  husband died just a few months ago. We bought a bag of groceries for her at one of the small shops in the exclusion zone catering to the few residents and tourists.

One of the saleswomen at the shop asked Victoria if Jean Marie was single. Apparently tourists are a temptation for get-away marriages for some of the few women working in the exclusion zone. At the babuschka’s we smiled and shook hands and gave her our gift in the cheerful courtyard of her dacha where much to my amazement her pet dog, a plump striped cat named Marquise, and a bevy of hens were all running around together in perfect harmony.

Touring the area is a window into a frozen era of the 60s and 70s when the Soviet Union believed its way of life could accomplish anything. The town of Pripiyat, nearest the reactor site, was custom built for the 50,000 engineers and other technical workers creating the reactor complex. Gradually falling apart it still boasts of modern luxuries in stark contrast to the simple homes of the local peasants. Modern apartment blocks are scattered in green spaces and workers could dine at a cafeteria with stained glass windows worthy of a cathedral. I couldn’t face going into the hospital but my husband, Jean Marie, said the operating rooms are still there.

The eeriest sight is that of the amusement park where the wind was moving the Ferris wheel chairs as if the wheel was about to swing into action.

About Visiting Chernobyl

The trip was instructive, and the pork we were served for lunch at the Chernobyl restaurant was some of the most tender we have ever tasted. However, I would say Chernobyl is only worth a visit if you already plan to be in Kiev. Local agencies offer day tours for both groups and individuals. It is not possible to access the site without signing up for a tour.

Chernobyl has already become over-touristed due to the HBO “Chernobyl” series and having been featured in the video game “Call of Duty.” The kindergarten, with white boards, a few toys, and its cast iron beds for napping gathering dust, feels staged when the next group of tourists comes in right as we leave. Approximately 10,000 tourists per month come to visit the site and take selfies. When we stopped at the best spot to take photos of the sarcophagus covering the reactor a van load of tourists was already there including two wearing fake white anti-radiation suits.

Chernobyl may be interesting for HBO fans, video gamers, and nuclear historians, but it’s not for everyone.

Out of the storm in Asheville

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We are the luckiest of storm refugees, able to spend our five days of exile with our friends Billie and Larry in Asheville. The spectacular view over the mountains from their deck was enough to keep us from going anywhere, but we managed to break away and see some of what this area has to offer. Asheville today has a well-deserved reputation as a center for crafts of all kinds, for live entertainment, and for having lots of good food options. We sampled all of these.

On two of our mornings in Asheville, Billie and I walked. One morning we circled Beaver Lake and took a brief loop through the bird sanctuary. I would happily go back for more focused birding. On our next walk, we looped through the campus of UNC-Asheville (UNCA) including their Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) center. This beautiful building has space for classes and meetings, a real draw for anyone living in the area.

I wanted to visit the Folk Art Center to get an overview of the crafts that the region is known for. There are displays from the permanent collection that goes back to the first Episcopal missionary who wanted to help local people generate income by reviving traditional craft work. Over time, the center expanded to include all kinds of craft work, and eventually moved to its current location. The Center is on the Blue Ridge parkway, a narrow ribbon of road through the thick forest that covers the mountains once you are out of town. Though it’s just beyond Asheville, you get a sense of being deep in the mountains from the leafy setting.

We tried a few of the local restaurants, starting with Bouchon, where French comfort food is on tap. Moules frites, steamed mussels with french fries, is a signature dish. They offer four different preparations from traditional garlic/white wine broth, to one with andouille sausage. The fries are thin and crispy, impossible to resist.

Another night we tried En la Calle, a small plates/bar combination that began as an overflow waiting area for Limones, the restaurant next door, but has flourished on its own terms. Of the plates we tried, the octopus tostada was the favorite.

We’ll have to make another trip to try the fine dining options, since we didn’t get to the Biltmore. Billie and I had a stroll around the Grove Park Inn, just to take in the outlines of this immense old-school lodge.

Isis Music Hall let us combine dinner and entertainment. We had dinner in the lounge venue and listened to A Different Thread, a folk duo of a British man and American woman. Melodic and mournful, they played and sang us through the evening.

When we were at home, we tracked the storm as it chewed through the northern Bahamas, an area we have visited and loved. We remember the clear water and gorgeous snorkeling. There is unimaginable damage around Marsh Harbor now, difficult to see how a country dependent on tourism will find the resources to rebuild. (We donated at redcross.com)

Hurricane Dorian finally crawled past. Once the eye was beyond Charleston, it dropped from the news cycle and attention moved north with the winds. Late Thursday we heard from our host that the power was back on and there was no flooding. That evening the curfew was lifted, and Friday morning the highway was reopened. We waited until Saturday to make our way back to Charleston and let the traffic subside. That strategy didn’t work and just as in our leaving town, it took six hours to return. The good news is that all was untouched in our Charleston home, and we settled back in, happy to be back.

Evacuation from Dorian!

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We settled into our Charleston house, went shopping, and stopped in at the Sunday markets. At the Sunday Night Market, we saw preparation for a TV appearance and wondered who it would be.

After we got home and put the news on, we found the mayor of Charleston standing right where we’d been, announcing mandatory evacuation of an extensive area including our house. (It is in the yellow area–B–in the center of the evacuation map.)

We are among the fortunate, as our friends Billie and Larry are happy to host us in Asheville, NC for a few days until the evacuation order is lifted. Instead of planning a picnic, we got up Labor Day morning, packed a few days worth of clothing, put the rest of our things upstairs, and hit the road. Traffic warnings were everywhere. A single main highway heads north from Charleston, and at noon on Labor Day, the highway lanes were all to be headed north out of the city. There would be no highway access into Charleston starting about 8 am to get the lanes cleared for the switch. Leaving the city around 9 am, traffic was moderate and we could see the empty southbound lanes blocked at each exit.

We hit heavy traffic before crossing I-95 and again just before Columbia, SC, where we sat still about a half hour as police cars streamed by opening four reversed lanes just across the median. It was frustrating, and so was the diversion off our route that required a ten mile loop to get back to where we were headed.

In all, it took about six hours to get to Asheville, two hours longer than normal. Under the circumstances, we were pretty lucky, as the weather was fine, the rest areas were not terribly full, and it was easy to get gas. By sunset, we were safely ensconced on our friends terrace watching the sun set over the Blue Ridge mountains.

Charleston, SC

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We just arrived in Charleston, swooping in over Labor Day weekend. Hurricane Dorian isn’t scheduled to land until Wednesday or so. It may veer another direction in the meantime, so we’ll hope for the best.

Our house here is completely charming, decorated to the teeth. We are very comfortable, right in the toe of the old city, a short walk from the water.

We’ve stayed in many places that have minimal cooking equipment, but not this time. We have blender, stand mixer, waffle maker, dishwasher, and bread boards, cutting boards, carving boards and serving boards. A big basket is filled with platters of various sizes. We could throw dinner for the entire city.

Walking around the neighborhood I notice most houses are several steps above the level of the sidewalk, keeping floods at bay, at least for a while. The oldest houses here were built just after 1700, and over the years a wide variety of styles have accumulated. I like the more elaborate 19th century buildings with cupolas and towers though I admire the durability of the more squat, solid 18th century survivors. It is amazing that any wooden structures still stand in the hot, humid climate of coastal South Carolina.

Plants flourish in every nook and cranny that can hold a few drops of water, and there are some unusual efforts to take advantage of their tenacity. I passed a brick building with a cross between ivy and a hedge, a dense layer only an inch thick trimmed neatly down the side of the house, like living wainscoting. Window boxes and tiny formal gardens are raised to fine art, mixing colors and leaf size to create fantastic displays. My initial impression of Charleston is a tranquil, long-settled community.

A brief detour to Syracuse

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Syracuse was just as warm as Chicago when I arrived, but I was scheduled to accompany my mom on a dinner cruise on Skaneateles Lake that evening. The weather was perfect, the water was smooth as glass, and the food was good. Even though we were guests, it seemed like a worthwhile activity even if I had had to buy tickets. Lake cruises are a popular summer activity for good reason.

Since mom is 94, we didn’t do a lot of trail-walks or swimming in the many Finger Lakes. We spent some time sitting on her tiny deck enjoying the good weather, ran a few errands, and shopped at the ever-amazing Wegman’s.

If you haven’t been there, you haven’t experienced the best in grocery shopping. Maybe Schwegmann’s in New Orleans, back when they allowed beer sales and you could see ladies in robe, slippers, and curlers sipping a beer and smoking as they shopped on Saturday morning, was as much of an experience, but for variety there is nothing like any Wegman’s in New York.

Sunday evening we met my cousin Gail, my brother Tim and my sister-in-law Margie for dinner. We tried the Inn Between, near Camillus, NY. It’s a restaurant in a big white house on the edge of town. It was a lovely evening with excellent company. The group’s comments on the food were mixed, but my dinner of scallops, crab, and shrimp was excellent.

After six days, I headed back to Chicago on a full but uneventful flight. When I looked out the window I saw the tops of high, white cumulus clouds as far as I could see. It reminded me of being a kid and wanting to fly among the clouds. It would look just like this.

It’s August. Why are we in the Midwest?

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I always tell people that Chicago is a great place to visit spring and fall, but is to be avoided in the summer, when it’s too hot and humid, and in the winter, when it’s way too cold. Why am I not following my own advice?

We spent the year until now visiting Australia–it was wonderful.

In past years, we traveled to Europe during the summer, stopped in the US in the fall to visit doctors and family, then went on to Peru for the winter. This year the schedule was upended by our time in Australia during their summer, putting us back in the US when winter hit the Southern Hemisphere, July and August here. We need to catch up with annual exams, eye doctors, and visits to family. Our doctors are all located in the Chicago area, too. Voila! We are in the midwest when it is hottest, right now, July/August.

Days have been sunny and warm, in the 80s (since the Heat Dome subsided). The sky may be completely blue, or covered with clouds. I discovered it’s difficult to photograph the sky in the suburbs–there are a lot of wires, towers, and light poles.

There are good reasons for us to be here, beyond the need for doctor visits, and despite the weather’s cooperation or lack of it. We have friends here, and are delighted to reconnect with them.