Is Your Passport Valid?

Once, my coaching buddy raced around Athens between basketball games to find an American Embassy when he realized his passport expired and he would be stuck in Greece. I would never let my passport lapse especially in our present political climate. I have feared my French husband will be denied entry into the United States, but I never dreamed that I wouldn’t be allowed out of the country.

On January 10, the ticket control attendant at the gate stopped me from boarding my flight to Amsterdam at the St.Paul/Minneapolis airport.[tagline_box backgroundcolor=”” shadow=”no” shadowopacity=”0.1″ border=”1px” bordercolor=”” highlightposition=”none” content_alignment=”left” link=”” linktarget=”_self” button_size=”small” button_shape=”square” button_type=”flat” buttoncolor=”” button=”” title=”” description=”« A problem? Me? I am American, » I said pointing to my husband. « He’s the foreigner. » « He can go, » the airline attendant barked. « You must stay. Your passport is expiring April 3. » « I know. I will go to the American consulate when I get back to Switzerland. » « M’am I’m sorry, you are not authorized to leave the country. » « But I don’t live here. » « You cannot fly internationally on an US passport if it is within 90 days of expiration. »” animation_type=”0″ animation_direction=”down” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][/tagline_box] The hostess called her supervisor, who called his manager, who called the next higher up in the chain of command. They reiterated the rule and stared at the computer screen.

«But I live in Switzerland,» I pleaded showing my residency permit. More mumbling, more phone calls, more computer gazing.

With a last warning, they finally let me board the plane.

I am a well-seasoned traveler, but rules can change quickly especially these days with heightened security. After having lived in 4 different countries, I fear losing my identity papers because I know the rigors involved in establishing legality as an alien. How could I be unaware of this 3-month stipulation?

To avoid making the same mistake, here are some tips concerning your passport. (For more information go to this page.)

International travel is denied if you passport is within 3 months before expiration. Other countries may deny entry if your passport expires within 6 months. Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area requires a minimum of 3 months

US passport photographs are very specific – expats would find it easier and cheaper to take passport photos while in the states at the local DMV or Walgreens than overseas.

Beware, you cannot wear glasses in the photo and you must not smile. Please don’t argue with the photographer (like the lady in front of me at Walgreens did) and demand a retake because you don’t like the way you look. This isn’t a Glamour cover shoot; it’s a passport. Forget vanity. Think safety. Face recognition software works better identifying non-smiling, glasses free photographs.

An adult US passport costs – $140 (or $110 for renewal) but it is valid for 10 years. It packs a lot of punch for your dollar. That little blue book allows Americans free access to over 100 different countries as compared to passports for many Middle Eastern and African countries whose citizens can only enter 30 some countries without visas.

Once back home safely, I filled in the paperwork online, then went to consulate in Geneva and filed for a new passport, which arrived by mail two weeks later. As I admired my new blue book, I marveled at my fortune being born in Illinois instead of Uzbekistan.

All in all it was surprisingly simple especially compared to renewing my American driver’s license, which entailed procuring my French marriage license, finding a valid translator, and five trips to the DMV, but that is another story. Stay tuned.

For more information on traveling, working, and living abroad check this official site.

Witnessing Wisconsin’s Breathtaking Autumn Foliage

dsc01272As an international teacher living in Europe, though I had spent summers Up North, I never had the opportunity to witness Wisconsin’s autumn foliage. Seeing the leaves turn colors was one of the first things on my “to do in retirement” bucket list.

From our cabin on a lake tucked in the woods of Central Wisconsin, nature offered an stunning show. Each day as leaves turned red, yellow, orange, amber, and gold I became more greatly enamored with the Northwoods.

“The trees are so beautiful!”

“Oh you haven’t seen anything yet,” my dad told me.

Then almost overnight, it was as if an artist spilled primary colors on a green canvas, creating a new panorama. Red sumac, orange maple, yellow birch, and fir, spruce and pine in every shade of green etched against a baby blue sky made me long to paint like my dad and grandma. No words could capture this radiant sight.

dsc01273Now I understand why people plan holidays around the peak foliage week. As I drove south on route 45 from my doctor’s office in Eagle River, I stopped the car to shoot photographs of lakes – Pelican, Otter, Townline – along my route. Then I finished my tour on foot hiking around the western shore of Summit Lake and to the end of the road towards Upper Clear Lake.

My favorite childhood haunts were transformed into a riot of color. The sun, peeking from behind the clouds, cast a spotlight as the leaves burst into flaming glory, fluttering to the ground in their final dance.

While the wind whistled through the pines, leaves like giant, colored snowflakes spilled out of the sky carpeting the dirt roads in calico.

I never dreamed that the event was such a drawing card. My neighbors had friends coming to see the colors, hoping they could time it just right. Every year, experts try to determine the dates of the peak foliage for tourists to map out; I followed the foolproof advice of the Wisconsinite next door.

“Never fails,” he said, “colors change around my birthday. End of September.”

As the days grew shorter and the weather turned cooler, I wanted to prolong the show by catching the leaves before they landed to magically hold them on the trees longer. But Mother Nature is a fickle friend with a mind of her own. Part of the nature’s majesty is her fleeting quality.dsc01277

As I walk in the woods, I gaze upward toward the treetops as the leaves snap, crackle and pop under foot. Or I sit on the dock watching the clouds swirl in the sky above while the trees reflection in the still, blue waters creates a multi-colored collage like an impressionist’s painting.

With the lighting and color changing every instant, I stare at an unfolding pageant, knowing that this beauty queen will strut her stuff, and then disappear in the blink of an eye.

But take my advice come next September; be sure to head north on Bob’s birthday.

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Annecy The Best Place to Live in France

DSCN3365“If I could live anywhere, I would pick Annecy, the best place in the world. Ahh Annecy,” My friend in Paris would say rolling her eyes and swooning about this city, as though she were talking about a lover. When I visited the Gallo Roman Village in Savoy region of France on beautiful Lake Annecy, I finally understood her infatuation.

Combine water, mountains and historical buildings, throw in a 12th century castle and you have the perfect making of a tourist trap. Yet, there are no lines in this open air museum. Footpaths and walkways absorb the crowds and excursions and sites fulfill every interest.

In the Old Annecy, narrow winding cobblestone streets beckon tourists to step into the past. Lake Annecy’s natural spillway flows through the heart of the city. Artists paint along the Thiou canal in what’s known as the “Savoyard Venise.”

Lake Annecy surrounded by gray cliffs and white peeked Alps is the cleanest lake in Europe, so clear you can see the bottom. The waterfront, lined with parks, benches and boardwalks, is ideal for strolling and lounging. Steamboats excursions offer birds eye views into ports of call on the lake.

DSCN3334Above the lake, the medieval city is wrapped around a cliff where the 15th century castle overlooks the red roofed village. But what I liked the best was wandering the streets lined with arcades. Entering the St. Claire gate with its worn hinges, machicolations and bell turret, was like stepping into another century. I followed the rue St. Claire, a sinuous winding cobblestone lane, which takes the shape of the rock base on which the castle stands, and dates to the origins of the town.

On the pedestrian streets lined with open air cafes, visitors can dine on lake perch and fondue. Even more tempting are the ice cream shops boasting of homemade ices. Each tiny scoop costs $3, but one bite of the fuchsia sorbet will send you to raspberry heaven.

Like the other tourists, I snapped a family picture in front of one of France’s most photographed spots, the Isle Palace, a well known French monument. The Isle Palace’s triangular form in the shape of a ship’s bow evokes a galley anchored in the river whose water it divides. The governor of Annecy lived here in the 12th century, then it became a seat of the justice, the mint, the prison and now it has retired to status of historical monument and houses exhibitions.

Dogs and cats doze in the sunlight. Colorful cafes filled with the clatter of plates and chatter of voices speaking different languages mingle with the sound of street musicians strumming guitars turning this lively street scene into a live film blending modern times with yesteryear.

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No wonder, Annecy rates number one in France for the quality of life. It expanded economically, yet despite the influence of industry, it retains its old world charm. Annecy –ever faithful to nature and her past — may hold the secret to the future, a way in which modern technology can exist harmoniously with an ancient village.

Farewell to Coaching Basketball

misc team pics-3Coaching basketball took me to Athens, Prague, London, Frankfurt, Venice, Munich, Brussels and all across Europe, you think I would remember those sites or the games, those nail biting, last second victories and losses in the Swiss, French, and European championships. But the games and places blur, what remain imprinted in my mind is the players.

My coaching gig began 33 years ago when I followed my physical therapist’s suggestion and called the father of French basketball, Henry Fields, at the American School of Paris.

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“Need a job,” he said, “Great we need a coach.”

For a decade ASP was my home. I still remember my first team – Kareen, Tami, Felicia – and the rest. I started my career as a Paris Rebel, trés à propos. I have always been a renegade at heart.

Then in Switzerland, I built a program from the ground floor, starting with my daughter and her friends in 6th grade coaching them until they left for university. They were so athletic, I hardly coached; they never lost a school league game. How many coaches have the privilege of shaping a team from grade school to graduation? What greater honor for a coach than to hear from former athletes who are using their talents to make this world better?

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How many people have had the opportunity to coach their daughter and their son?

Coaching boys added a new dimension to my repertoire. I found out coaching guys was just as fun with a lot less drama.

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When my health gave out, I bowed out of coaching, but returned five years later when students that I taught begged me to help rebuild the program.

How many bus rides, how many train trips, how many flights, how many games, how many pep talks, how many sleepless nights, how many lives?

Former assistant coach, Tina, claimed “I’ve seen you resurrect a team from the dead.”

Well, she was wrong. The team resurrected me. When an accident abroad ended my athletic career at age 25, I felt like I had one foot in the grave. Gradually, as I rebuilt my body cell by cell, I found a new calling. I overcame health setbacks and kept going in order to prepare my team for their next opponent.

My goal was to get them ready mentally and physically and in doing so I restored my own fighting spirit to endure decades of pain.

Thanks to a new generation of players, Geneva basketball is back on top. How many coaches bow out winning every tournament in their final season of their career?

The final scores, funky gymnasiums, and famous places fade in time; what remains engraved in my heart forever is each player’s face. Thanks to all the athletes who kept my love alive.

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When I could no longer play basketball, my heart shattered; my players put it together again piece by piece season after season.

Coaching the best out of them brought the best out of me.

And gave my life purpose.

Brussels Bombing – Freedom to Fly in the Terror Age

imagesWe knew it was only a matter of time until the next terrorist attack. Yet, when the suicide bombers struck the Brussels international airport and near the heart of the European Commission at Maelbeek subway station, the shock, horror and disbelief reverberated around the world.

Weeks earlier, during a long lay over in the Brussels airport on our way to a basketball tournament in Vienna, my team dispersed to wander in gift shops and buy snacks. Though a few armed guards patrolled, the ambiance remained peaceful. Even so, when my team regrouped at our departure gates, I breathed a sigh of relief as I counted heads. Under my watchful eye, the girls lounged in comfy seats passing time by telling stories, texting friends, taking pictures and giggling, enjoying the last vestiges of youth.

To comprehend the impact of terror attacks, one has to understand how closely we are interlinked in Europe. With low-cost airlines one can fly from one capital to another for less than the price of a tank of gas. We travel through national borders more often than most Americans cross state lines.

My home in Switzerland is a mile from France, so I border hop to shop, hike, and dine out. When I coached at the American School of Paris, Brussels teams were part of our international athletic conference. Presently during our school break in Geneva, some students returned home to the Belgian capital; others traveled through there on route to their homelands.

After I heard the news of another attack, my first impulse was to reach out. I contacted friends whose children live and work in Brussels. Yet even after loved one’s safety is assured, doom prevailed. How can we stop this fatal spiral of violence?

tnPAB3n05I0wkA2AiQM-FGruhag6LKcP3pn1bTkO65ynq_k56sPDvE9sTtq-L95z4GJrSw=s115My family and friends live cross culturally. Our only link to each other is by air travel, so fly we must, but never without trepidation, never without fear.                 .

Thankfully I have never been the victim of a terrorist attack, but I have deplaned on an Italian runway, while police dogs searched cargo after a bomb threat. I have been standing at an American Airlines ticket counter in Paris when security forces cleared the area to detonate an unclaimed bag. And I have taught students who lost loved ones in terrorist attacks. I will never forget the words of one former student who wrote,

«When I found out that my mom died in the Nairobi bombing, I was so shocked,  I ran straight through a glass door. »

In the future, we must continue to cross borders, reach out to others, exchange information and stay united. We must maintain open lines of communication to learn about other cultures, faiths and nationalities.

But today we must mourn. Our hearts ache for Brussels a beautiful capital city in a small, peace32771D1300000578-3505016-Tributes_People_hold_up_a_banner_as_a_mark_of_solidarity_at_Plac-a-21_1458678138603 loving country, resplendent with culture, tradition and charm.

Tomorrow we must spread our wings. Soon, my brother will fly to Brussels for business, my daughter will fly to Geneva for family and my son will fly to London for love.

Fear must never keep us grounded. We must continue to soar free like a bird. And then fight with every ounce of our strength to uphold that freedom.

Half Board and Silent Hotels A Good Combo

IMG_4443_copyIf you enjoy being away from the crowd and love fine dining, booking a night in the Hostellerie de L’Ardève is a win/win situation. Perched at 1350 meters, adjacent to Ovronnaz and Les Mayens de Chamoson, this hotel offers a stunning view overlooking the Rhone Valley and the Alps. The annex to the hotel, le Chalet de Kalbermatten, was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is IMG_4453_copyprotected as a historical landmark.

In 1968, several hoteliers, who believed noise is a social intrusion undermining our health and happiness, created the Relais de Silence. Hotels listed in this guide are often difficult to find, they are hidden in the countryside, by the sea, along the banks of a river, on an island, at the edge of a mountainside or along a side street in a busy city. They are known for their peace and quiet. Located in a natural environment, in comfortable buildings with unique character, Silent Hotels must offer a warm welcome stressing quality of life and gastronomy. Each is reflective of the unique style of the country where it is located.

It is usually a gamble, but to reserve a room with demi pension (half-board), a fixed rate that includes breakfast and the evening meal, is a better deal. Our hotel, a 3 star, also known for its gastronomy, was a good bet. We were not disappointed.

Friday we were served a Russian salad followed by sea bream in lemon sauce with mini potatoes and zucchini au gratin. Desert, an apricot cauflirori, an egg flan with a scoop of rhubard/honey ice cream was served on plates of ardoise, which looked like the old chalk slate we wrote on in grade school. On our walk the next day we found unfinished pieces of slate chipped off the mountain side.IMG_4433_copy

Saturday night, our starter was the traditional “assiette valaisane”, which is a plate of artistically arranged cold cuts – salami, dried beef, cured ham served with pinky sized pickles and baby white onions. The main course was chicken in cream sauce accompanied with risotto and scalped zucchini.

Dessert, a vanilla ice cream soufflé, was the house specialty. The Frenchman charmed the waitress into trading the menu fare for a wild blueberry tart. Why does your husband’s dessert always looks better than your own? Souffléd ice cream – not for me. It was tough and chewy, but Gerald’s tart was exquisite.

We were in the Leytron and Chamoson wine territory, so naturally a glass of Humagne Blanc or Johannisberg Grand Cru, local favorites, were recommended. Every spare inch of soil on the mountain ranges, southern flank was filled with vineyards.IMG_4480_copy

I am not sure what it is about that mountain air the wets your appetite, but, no matter how much you devoured the night before, the next morning you are hungry again.

IMG_4441_copyIn Europe breakfast is often included and in mountains it is usually copious. On a self-serve sideboard an enticing display of cereals, fresh fruits, paper thin slices of salami and ham, and thick chunks of cheese of local cheese as well as a choice of bakery fresh breads and croissants and homemade preserves awaited. All to be savored with piping hot coffee or tea.IMG_4442_copy

Over breakfast, from the brasserie we had a panoramic view of the mountains enticing us to go hiking, if only to work up our appetite for the next gourmet meal.