Dreams Are Nice but Reality Can Be Better

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Dreams are nice but reality can be better. So much better. Bottom line— regret (in any of its varied forms) sucks. Woulda, shoulda, coulda should never replace did: as in I did it—not I woulda, shoulda, coulda done that. Does that make sense?

Seven years ago I thought my life had come to an end: divorced, jobless, homeless and bankrupt. I was sixty-four years old. I’ve told my story many times on this blog—I rose out of the ashes like the mythical Phoenix bird.

I reinvented myself. As I write this post I am seventy-one years old and in Calais, France. I was sitting on the beach yesterday afternoon and I could see the White Cliffs of Dover a short distance away across the English Channel. I think of the experiences brother Joel and I have shared over the last seven years and I feel blessed—blessed that I was given a second chance at life. I’m not always ecstatically happy nor am I perpetually sad and morose. Usually I’m pretty dang content—and content is good enough. Emotions come and go like waves upon the beach but contentment has staying power.

Coastal Beach (Dover Ferry on Horizon) – Calais, France

Today is a milestone of sorts—I just collected my 1,000th blog subscriber. When I started this blog back in 2011 I never thought it would garner any particular interest—it was more a personal journal of introspection and soliloquy. Without over-romantising it: it was (and is) one man’s search for truth. God knows I don’t have all the answers, truth be told I’m not sure I have any answers at all, but something seems to have resonated out in the blogosphere. To live a deliberate life takes work and it’s not always easy but it’s worth the time and effort. So I extend to you this invitation.

Calais Defence Tower (AD 1224) – Calais, France

I invite you to live your life with deliberation and determination. Eliminate the woulda, shoulda, coulda and replace them with willdo and did: I will, I do, I did. Convert your dreams and passions to action—it’s simple but not easy. Simple does not mean, much less guarantee, easy. Anything worth achieving in life requires effort: work, time and courage. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort (and courage) I think you will end up with fewer regrets in life. To know yourself, truly know yourself, is the purpose of this confusing situation we call life. I invite you to accept the challenge.

Cafe de la Tour – Calais, France

Field Notes: The Muppet Brothers have nine more days in Calais, France before hoisting their rucksacks once again. We typically travel by the seat of our pants with very little planning but Europe is a different animal. It’s complicated. There are three components to European travel: 1. Schengen Countries (a total of 90 days within a 180 day period), 2. United Kingdom (6 months) and 3. Non-Schengen countries (varies by country). We will have to decide what countries we want to visit and then plan our time accordingly. It takes some of the spontaneity and serendipity out of the equation but we’ll mange. SFD


Facing the Grim Reaper and Your Mortality

I originally posted this over two years ago and I still agree with its basic premise. I think it’s one of my better articles though maybe a little on the morbid side. Anyway, I think it’s more positive than negative.

Expat Journal: Postcards from the Edge


Coming face-to-face with your mortality. Looking the Grim Reaper in the eye. Mano a mano. A friend of mine, from my days in banking, recently had his own close encounter with Mr. Reaper and emerged victorious. I’m not talking about your first experience with death, but rather your first experience with the possibility of your own death. If you’ve not experienced it yet you will. We all do.

I’ve known death from an early age. The loss of my grandfather when I was five, the death of my childhood sweetheart (from polio) at age six, the death of assorted aunts and uncles (and another grandfather) while growing up in the 1950s. And I had my own close calls with Mr. Reaper early on: a leukaemia scare at age four, rattlesnake bites at ages eight and ten that left me in critical condition for a while.

When you’re a kid death…

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Day 2,250 Asks What Country and What Language

Stephen F. Dennstedt

The Muppet Brothers have been on the road for about 2,250 days (75 months). We’re basically working on our seventh year abroad (though the number-nerds might compute it differently). The adventure began in August of 2011 but we didn’t actually leave the USA and hit the road until April of 2012.

Our longtime followers know we live and travel simply and that our motto (mantra) is to: live simple, live cheap and live free. You’ll notice I didn’t say easy and without confusion. We’re old dudes—I recently celebrated my 71st birthday in May and Joel will be 69 in November (we’re 2½-years apart).

We are Location-independent (technically homeless) and Slō-travellers (seeing less but experiencing more) and like crabs and turtles we carry our houses on our backs rucksack-style. I’m a photographer at Indochine Photography (and writer) and brother Joel is a published novelist (four books to date). We live the good life but again I didn’t say easy or without confusion. Why so confused you might ask? Well—

Antigua, Guatemala

For one thing we have not embraced technology (a personal choice) and we still do things the old fashion way (like buying bus tickets). We both trashed our cellphones before leaving the USA (we literally dumpster-ized them) and only communicate with family and friends by email or Facebook. We have limited working knowledge of our computers (a MacBook Pro for me and a PC for Joel) and no advanced computer skills at all (Joel is a little further along than me about computers). Compared to millennials we’re dinosaurs pure & simple. I have mastered the technical aspects of my digital cameras but that’s about it.

Panajachel, Guatemala

The younger folks think we’re unbelievable and not in a good way. Unbelievable as in incredibly dumb. What they don’t fully appreciate (yet) is someday they will be the dinosaurs. In our time both Joel and I were pretty tech-savvy but things in the tech arena are moving way too fast for us now and with our corporate jobs in the distant past there is no real imperative to stay current. So we don’t. Finally, in 2014, I had a cerebral event in Guatemala that dimmed my bulb a little—though I’m fully recovered I think I lost some cognitive skills along the way (Small Explosions in My Head). C’est la vie.

Lago Yojoa, Honduras

It’s strange to be back in a country (France) where English isn’t the primary (first) language. Cut to the chase Steve—where is the confusion in that? Well—the confusion is that I find myself speaking Spanish in France. And I know that Spanish isn’t French (I don’t speak French) but I find myself trying to communicate in Spanish (and my Spanish is rudimentary caveman Spanish at best). It’s as if my brain thinks if it’s not English then somehow Spanish will automatically work instead—because, after all, I’m speaking a foreign language (even though it’s not French). I know this is wrong but I can’t stop.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

They greet me with bonjour and I reply with hola or buenos dias (or buen dia). Idiot. Or when I try to say thank you I say gracias instead of merci. And don’t even get me started on numbers (as in quantity): one, two, three or four. My brain absolutely knows that Spanish is not French but my mouth never seems to get the message (it thinks one foreign language is as good as the next). I’m trying to stick to English but even that gets embarrassing when I say habla usted Ingles instead of parlez vous Anglais. It’s bad enough to be old but to be perceived as both old and stupid is totally unacceptable (but also seems to be unavoidable).

Playa Samara, Costa Rica

The only thing that gives me a modicum of solace is Joel. Joel studied French for six years in school and after six and half years of trekking in Latin America has some fluency of Spanish under his belt. His French has lain dormant for over fifty years but is coming back to him quickly (thank God). However, when he opens his mouth to talk to the locals neither one of us knows what’s going to come out of his mouth: French, Spanish, English or a hybrid language. It usually surprises both of us. The French in Calais definitely know the Muppet Brothers have arrived in France. Anyone else have this problem?  

Boquete, Panama








Out & About Today in Calais, France

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Today was our first long walkabout in Calais. Folks are still celebrating France’s win over Uruguay yesterday even after a full (sleepless) night of revelry. We didn’t get much sleep with all the car horns blaring, other noisemakers and of course throngs of intoxicated celebrants roaming the streets.

As I mentioned in my earlier post the World Cup is a big deal around the world even if not in the USA. France’s next semi-final game is on Tuesday, July 10th, so maybe we’ll have a brief respite from the crowds and noise—and then, again, maybe not. Calais is after all a beach tourist town.

The temperature was about ten degrees warmer today than yesterday with a forecast high of 27°C/81°F and a mild 4 mph wind with hazy skies. Back in Murrieta, CA I’m seeing Facebook posts from friends reporting highs of 43°C/110°F so Southern California is suffering another of its heatwaves par excellence. After seven months of snow, sleet, rain and overcast skies we are now getting some much-needed sun on our pale faces—we’re trying not to burn as we finally start to tan.

Coastal Beach (Sand) – Calais, France

Dover Port & Beach (All Rocks) – Dover, England

Most restaurants here don’t seem to open for dinner until 6 p.m. and of course the Muppet Brothers like to eat earlier than that for various reasons: less crowded and sometimes there are afternoon specials available. Our first afternoon meal, on arrival day, was at The Family Pub: ½-pound hamburgers, French Fries (yes they called them French Fries) and salad for €9 pp plus a couple of Heineken beers for each of us added another €7 bringing our total to €16 pp (not too bad for European prices). On Friday we had a Continental buffet breakfast at the hostel for €5.90 pp.

Calais Beach

Cafe de la Tour

Later in the afternoon we had a late lunch/early dinner at Cafe de la Tour one of the very few places open that early serving food. There are a lot of cafes and restaurants in town but so far only The Family Pub and Cafe de la Tour seem to be open at our preferred mealtime of 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. but we’ll keep looking. We had Spaghetti Bolognese for €9.50 pp and a couple of pints of draft beer which added another €4 pp. Again, not inexpensive but a comparatively good value in the UK and Europe. Returning to our hostel we bought pastries for our breakfast this morning.

Defence Tower (AD 1224)

Defence Wall

Trying to save money, while trekking Europe, we eat in our hostel room one day and the next day we go out: pastries & store-bought pre-made sandwiches on day 1 and then the hostel breakfast and a restaurant dinner & beer on day 2. It seems to work pretty well—we save some significant money and cut our calories (plus we only eat two meals a day—a small breakfast in the morning and then a modest main meal later in the day). It ain’t perfect but we do the best we can with what we have. Full-time trekking is different from a two-week holiday. Trekking is about saving and economising.

Joel Walking a Coastal Path

Old Stone Structures

We headed out this morning to find the beach. Unlike most of England, France actually has sand on its beaches (at least here in Calais). We walked through town and searched out more restaurants, cafes and grocery stores to give us more eating options but I think we’ve exhausted those places that conform to our daily timetable. If the same eateries get too boring we’ll just push our dinner hour out to 6 p.m. sometimes to get more variety. In the centre of town I photographed a tall stone tower that was possibly part of a defence system created by Philippe Hurepel in AD 1224 (so said the plaque).

Old Stone Structures

Hotel Premiere Classe (Our Hostel)

We saw more stone walls and small structures a long the way and finally made our way to the beach (about a twenty-minute walk from our hostel). The beaches are broad, have the aforementioned sand and aren’t too crowded (at least by Southern California standards). It was really nice to see sand on the beach again instead of just rocks. We hung out on a bench for about an hour (like a couple of old guys) and just enjoyed the day and sun—and watched the P&O Ferries sailing from Dover to Calais and back again. On the way back to the hostel we bought sandwiches, crisps (potato chips) and cookies.


Soccer to Us and Fútbol to Everyone Else

Stephen F. Dennstedt

FIFA World Cup Soccer is well underway in Europe. For weeks. It started while we were in Birmingham, England and has followed us to France. Contrary to most male stereotypes neither Joel nor I is a sports guy. Even though soccer has gained some popularity in the USA it’s just not our thing.

Want to stand out in a crowd? Just be unable to discuss (or get enthused about) soccer in virtually any other country in the world. Full-grown men prancing around on the field of play with their man-buns while hugging, kissing and slapping each other on the ass just doesn’t do it for us. Sorry to all you soccer fans.

And when a player gets touched (or is even close to being touched) he immediately drops to the ground and starts flopping around like a fish out of water moaning like he’s in agony. When the penalty is not awarded he then pops up in perfect health and runs towards his teammates. Seriously? Ridiculous—but I suppose our American football looks pretty silly to the uninitiated too. We’ve learned to just keep our mouths shut when travelling abroad during soccer season.

France won against Uruguay 2-0 in yesterday’s matches and Calais was on fire. It was impossible to find an eatery that wasn’t crammed to capacity with drunk and enthusiastic fútbol aficionados performing the very same antics off the field as those on the field—it’s like American football playoffs and the Super Bowl on steroids. The celebrations didn’t stop until the sun finally came up this morning: speeding cars and motorcycles, honking horns and roving bands of drunks singing and yelling for all they were worth. All night. I don’t think I got five minutes of sleep the whole time.

This morning our neighbours in the next room are puking their guts out and I think that Calais will be experiencing a collective (and painful) hangover this morning and throughout the rest of the day. The last time we experienced so much revelry was in La Serena, Chili when Chile beat its arch rival Argentina 4-2 in the Copa América final in June 2016. It was complete pandemonium then too. If you’re not an ardent soccer fan, or God forbid you’re swimming against the tide for another team, it’s best to keep a low profile and just disappear until the madness subsides.

The world at large takes its soccer seriously and you don’t want to get in the way of that. Violence and even death is not uncommon at soccer matches. Anytime there are large crowds of intoxicated fanatics there is risk—just look to the USA with its post World Series and Super Bowl debacles for a taste of what happens abroad with soccer. World Cup is a one month event (June 15th through July 15th) so we have eight more days of matches ahead of us. Thankfully, like the Olympics, it only comes around every four years. France plays its next game against Belgium in the semi-finals on Tuesday, July 10th. Hold on.

The Muppet Brothers Arrive in Calais, France

Stephen F. Dennstedt

The Muppet Brothers arrived in Calais, France yesterday afternoon. And I think I left my computer problems back in Dover, England. It would seem that it wasn’t my computer per se but some difficulty with the hostel’s router connecting with my MacBook Pro. At least that’s my diagnosis.

It’s really hard for us to believe we’ve been back on the road for eight months (with the last seven months spent trekking through the United Kingdom: Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales). And now, once again, we’ll be travelling in countries where English isn’t the first language.

Before leaving Dover I finally packed my cold weather parka away in the bottom of my pack (and  good riddance) relying on the beautiful sunny weather to continue. The high temperature today in Calais is forecast at 22°C/72°F with bright sunny skies and a gentle 10 mph wind. Perfect. Along with its sandy beaches Calais reminds me a wee bit of San Diego. We also seem to have undergone a timezone change because we’re now one hour ahead of England.

Dover Castle – Dover, England

So, let’s mix things up a little and talk about cultural stereotypes. Although stereotypes are dangerous in their broad (and often biased) generalities they can also (upon close inspection) harbour kernels of truth. When travelling it’s hard not to compare different countries, languages, cultures and to draw from those comparisons certain personal conclusions. Thus stereotypes are born. As an example all Americans are: loud, fat, entitled and terribly naïve. As an American I might argue that not all Americans fit that description but looking at my fellow countryman I can find examples that support the stereotype.

Dover Castle – Dover, England

Joel and I are human (well close to human). Some may disagree. We are Americans for better or worse. We are not racists or bigots. We can be loud because we’re old and hard of hearing not because it necessarily denotes a national trait. We’re both carrying a few extra pounds these days but are a long way from being fat when compared to many of our fellow creatures waddling around on planet Earth. We’re anything but entitled—we live a simple life: live simple, live cheap, live free is our motto (and our mantra). We can be naïve at times—not in an intellectual sense (we’re both pretty bright) but in a rose-colored glasses sense.

Dover Castle – Dover, England

We try to practice API (Assume Positive Intent). We try not to take things personally. Sometimes we fail. Travellers often confuse cultural differences, social norms, language differences and nuance with rudeness and deceit. These observations are all too often inaccurate perceptions and not reality. Practising API and keeping an open mind (probably the same thing) can help the newbie international traveller smooth out cultural wrinkles and misunderstandings before they happen. A big smile, humble attitude, polite communication (please and thank you) in the local language and vernacular goes a long way.

The Parish Church of Saint Mary the Virgin – Dover, England

Travel often supports or debunks stereotypes. So—we finally come to France and the French. Our previous experience with the French has been as fellow travellers in far off lands and not on their home turf. Unfortunately our interactions with the French, as they related to Americans specifically, tended to support the French stereotype of: aloof, snobbish (arrogant) and even pushy and rude. Joel studied French in school for six years and when he tried to engage the French in their own language they treated him like a gibbering fool. Unfortunate. It put us off the French.

City Centre – Dover, England

So it was with some trepidation that we crossed the English Channel yesterday afternoon to visit our nemesis the French. But as we arrived on the shores of Calais we promised to practice API and to keep an open mind thus turning to a new (and blank) page in our ongoing travel journal. I’m glad we did—so far (granted only one day) our experience has been positive. As Joel broke out his very rusty schooldays’ French they did not treat him like a gibbering fool but actually appreciated and encouraged his effort. Of course many French speak fluent English and that helps with communication.

Dover Port & Beach (All Rocks) – Dover, England

I think as the days pass more of Joel’s French will emerge from the murky depths of his memory and come to the fore and that will be a real plus for us. He actually understands what they’re saying and they seem to understand him. So far we’ve received broad smiles, courteous and helpful treatment and a sense of welcome. We’re feeling good about France at this point and we’re looking forward to the days to come. Oh—and we’ve seen some really cute French girls (although we’re way beyond being dangerous ourselves) and their accents make them almost irresistible to our American male senses (oh to be young again).

White Cliffs of Dover – Dover, England

Field Notes: The passage from Dover, England to Calais, France (across the English Channel) was a piece-of-cake. It’s a short 1½-hours by ferry—we started from Dover in bright sunshine, quickly entered an offshore fog bank, and then found the sun again just before docking in France. Except for the forlorn foghorn blasting every few minutes it was a quiet and peaceful crossing. We’re now one hour ahead of England and back to the EUR () from the GBP (£). Once we docked in Calais changing our £ to  was easy, as was finding an ATM, and then it was a quick taxi ride to our hostel. SFD

The Muppet Brothers in Dover, England

White Cliffs of Dover – Dover, England

We left Birmingham at 9:15 a.m. on Thursday and arrived in Dover (via London) at 4:30 p.m. the same day. It’s a 7-hour bus trip (including a 1-hour layover at London’s Victoria Station) but took almost an hour longer because the A2 beyond Canterbury ended up being closed (we routed through the small town of Sandwich to get to Dover). As in the USA the bus system is pretty low on the food chain when it comes to intercity travel: Airlines, Rail and private auto are all preferred methods of transit before buses (called coaches in the UK). But it’s also the least expensive: Birmingham to Dover was £18.70 + £1 GBP (booking fee) pp.

Hostel Alma – Dover, England

We’ve used National Express for the most part and they seem to get us where we need to go. Since we don’t rent automobiles anymore (we’ve been on the road so long our California driver’s licenses have both expired) we stick to public transportation. Plus, our reflexes aren’t what they used to be and they drive on the wrong side of the road over here (but don’t tell them that). We would cause a major accident in short order. Petrol is another reason—it’s really expensive in the UK at: £1.28 GBP per litre or $5.82 USD per gallon (diesel runs slightly more at about £1.32 GBP per litre). Buses (coaches) are the way to go.

The Beano Cafe

Rail is probably a more comfortable way to travel but not necessarily any more convenient (more train changes to get to your destination) and it certainly costs more. For instance, the trip from Birmingham to Dover by rail is less than half the time (3hrs-11min by train versus 7 hrs by coach) but costs 4 to 5+ times as much (with two scheduled train changes): Standard fare £85.20 GBP pp and First Class fare £108 GBP pp. We will put up with more discomfort to save that kind of money. And Airlines just speak for themselves—unless you’re travelling long distances the costs are outrageous and they just suck. We’ll stick to buses (coaches).

World War II Casemates – Dover, England

Anyway, we pulled into Dover at 4:30 p.m. and grabbed a taxi to our hostel (Hostel Alma). It’s very basic but clean and serviceable (private twin room, private bath, free in-room internet and free Continental Breakfast). In an earlier post I said we were paying £27 GBP pp per night but it’s actually more like £23 GBP (or $30 USD pp per night). Still expensive by our travel budget standards but much less than what we’ve paid elsewhere in the UK—included is the free breakfast (a plus that saves us £5 to £7 GBP pp). We grabbed a quick dinner close to our hostel and settled in for the night.

White Cliffs of Dover – Dover, England

We were knackered (British-ism for exhausted) after a long travel day. We went on walkabout yesterday for a couple of hours to explore our new surroundings. Town Centre Dover is quaint and quirky with the emphasis on quirky. The weather is magnificent with the high today (Saturday) reaching 17°C/63°F with a slight 11 mph wind and bright and sunny blue skies. It’s hard to believe that Calais, France is just a short hop, skip & jump (or swim) across the channel from us. There’s a lot of WWII history here: Calais, Normandy and Dunkirk so close and visions of allied bombers & fighters flying over the White Cliffs of Dover.

The Chalk of the Town – Dover, England

America’s Eighth Air Force, who flew daylight precision bombing missions deep into Germany during WWII (resulting in extraordinary losses to both people and planes) flew from England. You can almost imagine the B-17 Flying Fortresses with their heavy payloads and P-51 Mustang fighter escorts filling the skies on their way to Germany to defeat the Nazis—perilous days indeed. It makes me ashamed to think of what our political systems and cultures have become since then—I don’t think that’s what our fathers and grandfathers were fighting for back then. The current crop of politicos in both countries make me sick.

The Chalk of the Town – Dover, England

Well, back to more positive thoughts. We found a great little cafe for dinner last night—Beano. I know what you’re thinking, with a name like Beano what could possibly go wrong. The Beano Cafe is a great bargain—excellent food at extremely reasonable prices. I’ve never met a value yet I haven’t appreciated. I had a HUGE traditional Roast Beef dinner (beef, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, Yorkshire Pudding) for £5.50 GBP and Joel had Fish & Chips for £6.00 GBP—adding two sodas the total came to £13.50 GBP (very reasonable by UK standards).

Dover Castle – Dover, England

Well, there’s certainly more to share about Dover but I’ve tried to get this finished and posted for a week. Our hostel is affordable and convenient but the internet connectivity has been problematic. So without further adieu I will bring this to a close and post it before I’m knocked offline yet once again. We will be leaving Dover, England sometime on Thursday and crossing the Channel by ferry to Calais, France (about a 1½-hour trip). We’ve booked a two-week stay in Calais before we travel farther north towards Belgium and beyond. Hard to believe we’ve been in the UK for seven months. Wow.

Stephen F. Dennstedt