Searching for the Ubiquitous Ah-Tay-Em

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We live in an electronic world. That is obvious—even to old dinosaurs like us. And that’s great until it isn’t. While traveling the Muppet Brothers have made a few concessions to the electronic world but have completely eschewed others. For instance we dumpster-ized our phones in early 2012.

When we retired to trek the world full-time we decided to cut the ball & chain of cellphone ownership. It was the best decision we ever made. Working in corporate America they were de rigueur and necessary. No longer, today we are: Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last – MLK.

However, two electronic umbilical cords still remain: our computers and our bank ATM cards. Though they both offer convenience and connectivity they also bring with them certain frustrations. Like I said in the first paragraph: That’s great until it isn’t. For instance getting a computer serviced or replaced abroad can be problematic depending on where you are in the world—I recently experienced this in Varna, Bulgaria with a positive outcome but had major difficulties in Latin America in 2015.

Yesterday and today it was our bank ATM cards—not the cards themselves per se but their ability to get access to our USA bank accounts. Long gone are the days of needing stashes of traveler’s checks for world travel and thank God for that—what a pain-in-the-ass that was. Now we just find an ATM, insert our card, enter our PIN and voila we have local cash—all currency conversion rates and fees are automatically calculated by the bank and applied to our accounts. Joel and I live a cash & carry life today so this is great—until it’s not. For two days in a row we couldn’t get to our money in the USA with our bank ATM cards.

I still had a few days of reserve cash in my wallet but Joel’s tank was empty and needed refilling (no—we’re not driving I’m talking about his wallet—it’s a metaphor). Neither of our cards would work so we suspected a system glitch or possibly our bank putting cautions on our accounts—that’s happened to us before while traveling and we’ve had to call the bank’s 800 Customer Service number to get it straightened out which can be hard without a cellphone (it’s always a Catch-22). This morning we spent the better part of an hour tracking down various ATMs and we finally had success with ATM number four—a big sigh of relief.

ATMs are now ubiquitous and found almost everywhere around the world but not always in plain sight—and not always working. Yesterday and today is a case in point—and when networks are down they can mess you up. When traveling few things are as scary as not being able to get to your cash and not knowing the reason. Traveling as a team the Muppet Brothers have some built-in redundancy: we each have our own bank accounts with separate bank ATM cards, we each carry cash and Joel has an additional backup credit card. If one brother is having a problem getting cash the other brother can usually cover.

Field Notes: The obscure title of this post Ah-Tay-Em refers to an old bank TV commercial. In it a boy is leading a tourist through the convoluted alleyways of an Arab market saying over and over Ah-Tay-Em. After some Indiana Jones’ moments they reach the end of a dusty alley—and there on a mud brick wall is an ATM (Ah-Tay-Em). That always stuck with me for some reason. When traveling abroad redundancy is important (especially when traveling solo): multiple bank or credit cards to access your cash and multiple currencies in your wallet (local, U.S. dollars and maybe Euros). Plan ahead. SFD


Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Growing up in San Diego, California the Muppet Brothers rarely saw it snowing. We visited the local mountains a time or two as kids but the snow had already fallen. Later in life I enjoyed skiing at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain ski resorts in Big Bear, California and Brian Head ski resort in Utah—there it snowed.

Later when I bought my country home in the small town of Ramona (San Diego East County) I gained some altitude: 436 meters or 1,430 feet. I lived there for about fifteen years enjoying the country life and it snowed a few times—maybe four times in fifteen years. But it always melted soon after hitting the ground.

It was always a delight and my dogs loved it—two German Shepherds and two Labrador Retrievers frolicking in the soft white flakes slowly drifting to the ground. They were both enchanted and mesmerized by it. My friends on the East Coast and in the Midwest can’t imagine the joy Southern Californians can find in falling snow. I’ve often likened it to being inside of a snow globe—magical. Since leaving the USA in early 2012 Joel and I have experienced snowfall quite a few times. And it’s still a joy.

Historic City Centre – Brasov, Romania

But that’s due in large part to the fact that we don’t have to go to work in it. We’re both retired now and have no schedules or commitments to keep—no driving, no shopping and no need to be outside and miserable. Yep—retirement is GREAT. Right now we’re in the small Bulgarian city of Shumen for two weeks. Shumen is not a tourist destination, it’s just an authentic Bulgarian town with authentic Bulgarian people getting on with their authentic Bulgarian daily lives. It’s cold today with a high daytime temperature of -2°C/29°F and a low nighttime temperature of -8°C/18°F—and SNOW. The Muppet Brothers are loving it.

Field Notes: There are no real tourist sites in Shumen so we don’t feel guilty about spending most of our time in our warm, cozy and inexpensive hotel room. We have large windows looking out over an equally large balcony and we can watch the snow coming down to our heart’s content. We venture outside twice a day for breakfast and dinner watching our steps carefully on the icy sidewalks—this would not be the time to break a bone. Thursday’s forecast calls for a high/low temperature of 1°C/34°F and -2°C/28°F with snow all day and all night. Shake the globe and—let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. SFD

Have You Ever Been Goosed by a Goose

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Have you ever been goosed by a goose? Geese can be aggressive, mean and FAST. And they’re big—especially when they’re in your face. Humans often misread critters both wild and domestic and in fact can often misread other humans too.

I’ve been a dog person for a longtime and get really anxious when I see a non dog person doing stupid things around a dog. It’s a great way to get hurt—really hurt. Pissed off or scared cats can also do some bodily damage if pushed.

I had a dog named Major-san. He was a German Shepherd and my best friend. One day we were at a local dog park (he was off leash) and a stranger (without a dog) started taunting him and then took off running. Major-san took him down in a nanosecond. Major-san was not attack trained, he was just exhibiting instinctive German Shepherd protective behavior. He didn’t bite the guy (only his clothing) but he did scare the shit out of him. I explained to the guy (in an angry way) what he had done wrong and he was very apologetic and said he had learned a valuable lesson. Thankfully—he didn’t call the authorities or try to sue me.

Facebook Meme

Major-san was not an aggressive dog towards people or other dogs but he would stand his ground. This guy didn’t know anything about dogs and he certainly didn’t know anything about German Shepherds. That in itself wasn’t a crime but his ignorance of dog behavior put him at some risk of getting injured. As humans we tend to anthropomorphise animals—increasingly, science is now suggesting that we might indeed share some commonalities with animals but bottom line there are some very distinct differences too. Humans put themselves in peril when out of ignorance or stupidity they dismiss those differences.

A Goose Displaying Tomia

The impetus for this post came from a Facebook meme I saw recently about being chased by farm animals as a kid (see above). It brought to mind the time I got chased by a BIG pissed off goose—as I passed by it I was talking to it like it understood me and it took exception and came after me. Did you know that geese have teeth like little shark’s teeth? Well they do. Technically, these are called “tomia” not teeth because birds can’t produce enamel. Tomia aren’t as hard as our teeth but they’re [hard] enough to cut grass and provide traction for eating slippery things like snails. Also, they can give you one helluva a bite.

Wild Upland Geese (Male & Female) – El Calafate (Southern Patagonia) Argentina

The goose in question never caught me but not for lack of trying. My mom grew up during the Great Depression and her family raised their own food—in addition to fresh vegetables my grandfather raised chickens, rabbits and turkeys for family dinners. My mom hated the turkeys because they were territorial, aggressive and chased her all the time—she was a little girl in her preteens. That experience stuck with her throughout her life and she told the story often—I think she took extra delight in cooking our Thanksgiving Day turkeys. Pay back time. Even rather benign critters can cause injury if you’re not careful.

Major-san The Wonder Dog – RIP my Friend

I love the outdoors and its critters—but I’ve learned to be careful. Once a domestic bull chased me (or I thought it did) in a pasture when I was a kid and I hopped a fence before it got too close. In Alaska a very big moose disliked me taking its photo and made its displeasure known. In Belize a large male howler monkey whacked me in the head with a tree branch when I tried to photograph his harem (he was the jealous type). Rattlesnakes bit me as a kid (ages 8 & 10) while I was exploring our local canyons (not a good experience) and brother Joel was false charged by a large grizzly bear in Alaska while out solo hiking.

Wild Male Howler Monkey – Bermudian Landing Village, Belize

Field Notes: As a longtime photographer (almost 65 years now—I started when I was 7) I’ve learned to be careful around critters—both animal and human. An ounce of caution can save pounds of hurt. Learning and understanding natural behaviors can literally save your life—reading the signs before events start to unfold is paramount. Most critters, even human critters, will give warning signs if you’re open to them: heed body language, eye position as well as verbal warnings. Whether you’re in the Amazon jungle or a city’s urban jungle the warning signs are usually there. In the Marines we called it situational awareness. SFD 

“I Know You” She Said to Us This Morning

Stephen F. Dennstedt

“I know you” she said to us. Seriously? We arrived in the small Bulgarian city of Shumen on Thursday (today is Saturday) so how could she possibly know us. Are the Muppet Brothers really getting that famous—doubtful. Infamous maybe.

We were having breakfast in the small cafe across the street this morning and asked our server if she spoke English—that’s when she blurted out: “I know you.” She was cute but we were pretty sure we had never seen or met her before.

Operative phrase: pretty sure. Because our memories and ability to recognize faces beyond a few minutes have deteriorated mightily in the last few years. She spoke excellent English by the way which immediately put us at ease. In answer to our deer-in-the-headlights look of surprise she explained her colleague (who had served us breakfast the day before) had mentioned two Americans (presumably two old Americans) who had come in and had a hard time explaining what they wanted. I wrote about our breakfast experience yesterday and it all worked out fine (after a fashion)—however, this morning was so much easier with English.

Bulgarian Sausage & Cheese Breakfast Sandwich (Internet File Photo)

Taking advantage of her excellent English I asked if there was a cash machine (Bancomat in Europe) nearby and she said: Do you mean an ATM? We haven’t heard the term ATM since leaving the States in November 2017—when asking for one we always get confused looks. Obviously this young lady’s English lessons (probably from American movies & TV) included American vernacular. Turns out there is one just around the corner from our hotel next to the large market we passed on the way to dinner last night. Breakfast this morning: sausage & melted cheese sandwiches, coffee and orange juice (7.50 BGN or $4.37 USD pp).

Fresh Ground & Brewed Coffee with Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice (Internet File Photo)

Field Notes: The traditional breakfast sandwich served in Bulgaria is a Princess (don’t ask me why) and it sort of reminds me of a slice of pizza without the sauce. Not to fear—our sandwiches arrived with a small cup of mayonnaise and a small cup ketchup, a sliced tomato and a few slices of cucumber. The coffee was fresh ground & brewed (robust) and flavorful and the orange juice was fresh squeezed. Everything was tasty and very inexpensive ($4.37 USD pp): we’ve spent that much on coffee alone in other places around the world. Breakfast seems to be a different kind of animal in Bulgaria but everything is fresh & inexpensive. SFD 

Muppet Brothers Lost in Eastern Europe

Stephen F. Dennstedt

We’re always looking for authentic travel experiences. As we continue our travels (and the world gets smaller and smaller) they can be harder to find. But Eastern Europe provides some real opportunities to get off the tourist trail (what we called the Gringo Trail in Latin America). And by God that’s what we’ve done in Shumen, Bulgaria.

Shumen is a small city with a population of only 76,000 residents as of 2017. It is not a tourist destination. As such I can almost guarantee you we’re the only Americans within hundreds of miles—maybe even thousands of miles. The last Americans we saw were in Budapest, Hungry months ago—and they were few and far between.

Shumen promises the Muppet Brothers authenticity: real people doing real things and getting on with their real lives—we will be here for two weeks. Traveling the way we do often involves some line of sight travel—picking out a faraway destination and then heading towards it with stops along the way. Now we are heading west towards Greece where before our overall direction had been easterly. We were going to Turkey but changed our minds: Rethinking Turkey—the Country Not the Bird.

Shumen, Bulgaria (Internet File Photo)

Both Turkey and Greece share borders with Bulgaria so the change of plans wasn’t too hard. As you might remember we arrived in Varna, Bulgaria (a tourist city on the Black Sea) from Romania before the holidays. Traveling during the holidays can be difficult so we just hunkered down in Varna for Christmas and New Year’s (a total of three weeks). Varna gets its share of foreign travelers so many of the shops, restaurants and cafes have English speakers on staff (mostly young) and bilingual signage and menus—not so much here in Shumen. But we always manage to get by somehow and it just adds to the adventure.

Hotel Avenue – Shumen, Bulgaria (Internet File Photo)

Lucy was our hostess in Varna and we called her burly (huge) husband Mister Lucy—not to his face however. Mister Lucy drove us over to the bus terminal yesterday morning at 10 a.m. (along the way he showed us where he usually works as a heavy equipment operator—he had time off during the holidays). We had to wait for about an hour for our 11 a.m. bus to Shumen (7.56 BGN or $4.41 USD)—the drive from Varna to Shumen is only one hour (piece of cake). The equally large (like Mister Lucy) bus driver asked me (in Bulgarian) if my locked Pelican photography case was a bomb. I didn’t understand so he said: Bin Laden—BOOM.

Our Bedroom – Hotel Avenue (Internet File Photo)

I assured him with my best smile that it was not a bomb just photography equipment: Camera, photo I said (sign language of me snapping a shutter—smile, smile, smile). He looked dubious but allowed me to stow my case and rucksack. I was left wondering how many Bulgarian buses actually get blown up with bombs. It could have just been his (lame) Bulgarian attempt at humor but Bulgarians often come across very stern and brusque—not rude necessarily just no-nonsense. About what you would expect in a formerly Soviet occupied Eastern Bloc country—but I’ve learned not to kid around with serious subjects.

Our Bathroom – Hotel Avenue (Internet File Photo)

The subtle nuances of American humor and sarcasm aren’t always appreciated in foreign countries and can easily be misconstrued or lost in translation (it is always better not to take a chance—very hard for a wise-ass like me). We arrived in Shumen on time and quickly found a taxi (not always easy in Eastern Europe)—it was a short ride to Hotel Avenue and only cost 4 BGN or $2.33 USD (I gave the driver 5 BGN and told him to keep the change—that was a large tip and he was happy). Hotel Avenue is a beautiful local hotel with a private room, private bath, minibar and free in-room wifi (25.73 BGN or $15 USD pp per night).

Field Notes: We had an early dinner at the Classic Cafe yesterday which is only about 100 meters from our hotel. Cute little family place and after we got over the language hurdle because there were no menus (a couple of young patrons helped us out) we each ordered a big bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese and a large 500 ml (pint) local beer and split a third large beer—for a total cost of 19 BGN or $11.08 USD ($5.50 USD pp). This morning we had breakfast right across the street for 14 BGN or $8.16 USD ($4.08 USD pp): large (huge) ham and melted cheese sandwich, fresh squeezed orange juice and fresh ground coffee. SFD

With a New Year Comes New Opportunities

Stephen F. Dennstedt

With a new year comes new opportunities. You are never too old to change. New Year’s resolutions have become cliché and rarely held to but that doesn’t mean you should simply give up on them—opportunity is just another word for change.

Change in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Life is ever-changing—it is the nature of the beast. Embracing change (holding it close) instead of resisting it (pushing it away) causes change to morph into opportunity—a chance for growth.

Change is often met with fear (fear of the unknown) but fear is ephemeral and can go up in a puff of smoke when faced head-on. Nelson Mandela said: I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid but he who conquers that fear. I saw that philosophy in action firsthand in Vietnam—young men conquering their fear and doing what needed to be done. A new year is a great time to reflect on the past and to act on the future—this is what I’ve done and this is what I’m going to do. As the Muppet Brothers take a moment to look back they also look forward into 2019.

As I did last year in 2017 I am browsing through my 2018 posts—remembering events and experiences and picking some of my favorite photos to share with you again. They might not always be my best photos but they all hold significance for one reason or another: people, places and things. Joel and I covered a lot of territory in 2018 (actually hitting the road again November 28, 2017): Iceland, Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and now Bulgaria. And so much more to see in this world we call Mother Earth. Enjoy.

Saint Peter’s Church – Dublin, Ireland

The ruins of the Ross Errilly Friary near the town of Headford – Connemara (County Galway) Ireland.

The River Tay with Saint Mathew’s Church of Scotland – Perth, Scotland

Aberdeen Maritime Museum – Aberdeen, Scotland

Historic City Centre Edinburgh (Photographed From Edinburgh Castle) – Edinburgh, Scotland

County Arcade, Victoria Quarter – Leeds, England

Conwy Castle (Circa 1283) – Conwy, North Wales

Sina Zamany – Birmingham, England

Calais Town Hall – Calais, France

Hungarian Parliament Building (Background) – Budapest, Hungary

Ingrid Uszkai – Oradea, Romania

Sighișoara, Romania

Field Notes: It’s impossible to pick only 12 photos so I invite you visit my archives for 2018 if you’re interested in seeing more (right hand margin tool bar > Archives > Month-Year). We’ve been in Varna, Bulgaria for three weeks (through the holidays) and tomorrow we leave for Shumen, Bulgaria. We will be spending a total of three months in Bulgaria like we did in Romania and then heading to Greece (which actually borders Bulgaria). Varna has been pleasant and has allowed us to shake our head colds—finally. It’s always good to be on the move again and we look forward to seeing more of Bulgaria in the weeks ahead. SFD

I Am a Very Big Fan of Introspection

Stephen F. Dennstedt

I’ve always been an introspective man. Looking within myself to find answers to even unasked questions—it used to drive my ex-wife crazy (we were polar opposites every way imaginable). The old adage opposites attract is sometimes true.

I follow a young lad (half my age) on YouTube—his name is Thomas Heaton. We share a love of photography and the great outdoors. I think we also share a tendency towards introspection. His latest video struck a cord with me—

—so I thought I would share it with you. It’s not so much about taking pictures, photography gear or even getting out into nature—it’s about a young man’s self-doubt and what he’s doing about it. We’ve all been there: What is our life about, what is its purpose? Introverts and introspective beings like me (and Thomas) ponder questions like that all the time. If you’re an extrovert or don’t spend much time in your head you’re probably feeling a great deal of sympathy for my long-suffering ex-wife about now. If you are an introvert or are introspective I know you will probably relate. I hope you find Thomas’s video interesting.