Friday, April 26, 2019

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico, Part 5. Hacidenda Carmen

Hacienda El Carmen is the Mexican version of a Venetian villa or English country house that has been converted into a luxury hotel and spa. It’s an oasis of manicured lawns, blooming bougainvillea, and gurgling fountains. It’s separated from the dusty village of El Carmen by a high stone wall.
I am not bowled over very often, but wow, I was bowled over.  The place is fantastic.  It’s a far cry from my usual Courtyard by Marriott.  It was as if we were in the home of a Mexican aesthete from the 1940s where they hardly changed a thing to convert it into a small hotel.

I expected to see Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks, Guy Williams, George Hamilton…take your pick) each time I turned a corner. Instead, I saw shadows.

The place was all brightly colored thick masonry walls, Catholic memorabilia out the ying yang, more Spanish Colonial decorative arts than I’d seen in my entire life, with a with a touch of crazy thrown in to keep it interesting.

It’s definitely the other F word: fabulous.

It was a Monday night, there were just a few other guests about. We could tell fart jokes all we wanted without bothering anyone. Except for numerous statues of Catholic worthies, I mean.

The fart jokes would have to wait since we had spa appointments. Did I mention that Hacienda el Carmen is a spa too?

Robyn made it very clear to us that we needed to bring swim suits so that we could go to the spa. So there I was, in my more vintage than it used to be swimsuit, from Lands End’s Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection. A bunch of little holes in its left leg are testament to many years of wearing Stone Harbor beach tags.

The spa was in its own building, a short walk from the big house.  In its former life, the building was a granary, but today it’s a chic spa staffed by technicians in crisp white uniforms.  We’d already discussed the available “spa treatments” so I knew which boxes to check when they handed me the English language version of the spa menu.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I opted for the "Fruit Exfoliation", I figured if anyone could offer a unique perspective on "Fruit Exfoliation", it would be me, especially since Jesús the male stripper from Puerto Vallarta was nowhere to be found. Interestingly enough, there was no discount for bringing your own fruit.

After the requisite paperwork was done, I met my spa Fairy Godmother, a woman of a certain age named Martha. This Martha didn’t speak English. At all. My Spanish won't get me through the Taco Bell menu. As you might guess, communicating was a challenge.
But when Martha handed me the pair of paper boxer shorts, I understood that my Lands End swim trunks, even though they were from the Paunchy Aging Wahoo Collection, were not up to her standards. But the paper shorts....they were hideous. They had to have been made in East Germany.   I put them on and joined the party in the hot tub for a soak.

When I was sufficiently soaked, Martha led me by the elbow (did she think I was going to get lost?) to our treatment room. Apparently this is a thing they do...leading you around by the elbow. Who knew?! I was feeling broadened already.

Martha—I’m not exactly what her job title is—masseuse, exfoliator, worker-over-er—was a short woman, with a grandmotherly figure, big smile, and the hands of Rosa Klebb. While she was all smiles and warmth, I had no doubt that in the blink of an eye, she could, based on ancient Aztec techniques of hand-to-hand combat, break several parts of me that I consider important, if not downright crucial.

My first challenge was to change from the baby blue East German paper boxer shorts into a new garment (and I use the term loosely) that Martha gave me.  It guarded a lot less of my modesty than the paper boxers.  This thing was as a strip of blue paper connected to a couple of loops of narrow elastic.  It was completely confounding to me, especially since it came with no instructions, at least instructions in English.

I figured that it was to cover up my nether regions but I couldn’t quite figure it out to work it. And that was how I ended up putting it on sideways.  After struggling into it, I decided that even if I had the figure of an underwear model, wearing it would have been illegal in several states.

As someone who aspires to move from geekbod to dadbod, this bit of baby blue Handy-Wipe was just not cutting the mustard as a way to protect myself from Martha’s clutches….or the other way ‘round.  I was grateful I hadn’t had a tequila or two at lunch since I might very well have decided to go with it just the way it was.

Fortunately, I had a Eureka moment and it hit me that it was an East German g string and that the strip of blue fabric went from front to back instead of from side to side. Even the right way 'round the thing's probably still illegal in Texas and Tennessee. Then again, governments in both of those states  look askance at fruit exfoliation.

When I was all situated, Martha came back in the room, put on some soothing music and proceeded to rub my skin with a wet mixture that was a cross between kosher salt and crushed Life Savers.  Then she covered me up, whispered something in Spanish in my year, and turned on the shower in stall at the end of the treatment room. When I heard her leave the room, I guessed it I was to get up and wash off my exfoliated fruitiness.

After my shower I saw that Martha had put out a new East German G-string for me.  So I put that on—the right way ‘round on the first try. When I was situated on the massage table, she came back in and slathered me with what I guessed to be strawberry Chobani yogurt.  After the slathering--and she laid it on thick--she wrapped me up in a plastic drycleaning bag and left the room. I would like to say that it was relaxing and I fell asleep as my skin was gently rejuvenated by a fruity emulsion. However, a dab of Chobani started to drip into my left ear. Argh! I was stuck. I couldn’t wipe it out since I was mummified in a drycleaning bag.

Eventually Martha returned, turned on the shower, put out a new East German G-string and then whispered something into my ear that I think meant "Get up and wash this stuff off" or “In all my years of fruit exfoliation, you’re the fruitiest.”  I just don’t know.

After I washed off the Chobani and put on my clean east German g string, it was back onto the table for a post-exfoliation massage. I'm especially grateful that Martha didn’t resort to any Aztec jiu-jitsu as she readjusted my chi.

Readjusted and exfoliated, yet still fruity enough to harbor visions of strippers from Puerto Vallarta named Jesús, I was ready for a relaxing evening of cocktails, conversation, and delicious fare on the rear terrace of the big house. It was a lot of broadening for one day: I slept like a log that night.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 4, Tequila!

The day after our trip to Chacala, we left bright and early for an overnight to trip to Tequila. (Upper case Tequila is a place. Lower case tequila is a drink.) Paul is a tequila guy the way that some of my UVa friends are bourbon guys, or plutocrats are are single malt scotch guys. Paul appreciates nuances in tequila that are lost on my low end tastebuds.

We drove north along the coastal road for a ways—some of it looked familiar since it was the road we took to my cousin Jake’s wedding two years ago. Paul and Robyn were thoughtful tour guides, giving us the low down on places we passed.
Near San Blas, I think it was, we got on a new toll road. There wasn’t much traffic, the road was in fantastic shape, especially when compared to Pennsylvania highways.

We stopped at a rest stop to use the facilities.

I loved the signage for the men's room.

After a couple of hours, we were in a landscape of agave fields—the juice extracted from the blue agae plant is distilled to make tequila.  In my pre-broadened state, thought I’d seen agave fields between PV and P and R’s house, but those fields were pineapple, not agave.

Until I went there, I had no clue that the region around Tequila, filled with fields of blue agave, was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tequila has been distilled there since the 16th century and UNESCO recognizes that the region is a key part of the Mexican national identity.

The city of Tequila reminded me of medieval Italian city: built for walking, not driving, ancient buildings in various states of disrepair, narrow cobblestone streets, and thriving tourist economy.  Paul found a place to park near the city center.

After a quick look at the swanky Jose Cuervo showroom, we headed for the main square. Paul stopped to talk to two boys who holding an iguana tied to a bit of nylon rope. After some haggling, he (or she, I don’t know how the iguana self-identified) was Paul’s for 100 pesos, about $5 American. After untying him, which took some doing, Paul and Billy walked up the street and released it at a vacant patch of land.  I don’t know if the iguana scampered away to safety or just waited to be caught again by those two boys to be sold again at the town square.

We walked around the square, looking like tourists.

 We watched people taking photos in front of the large Tequila sign and took some of our own.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception was at one end of the square. Its exterior is quite primitive with the exception of some carved stone elements on the entrance front. (And of course, a neon cross at the very top!) 

The interior is a handsome classical space with a polychrome vaulted ceiling. I was expecting bells and smells, but there were no small chapels illuminated by flickering candles.

Instead, there was a memorial to a Father Toribio Romo Gonzalez, who was killed by government troops in 1928 during the Cristero War. Until that moment, I'd never heard of the Cristero War, it was a broadening moment. 

There's an even larger statue of him in the plaza in front of the church.

He was canonized by the church in 2000 and is now seen as the patron of migrants. My guess is that The Donald wants his friends the two Corinthians to beat the crap out of him.

We had lunch at an outdoor café on the square. In addition to some government function taking place under a big tent in the square, there was a performance in the square too.

The performers were seven indigenous people, aka locals, decked out in red trousers, white smocks with floral sashes and lots of fringe, and hats that looked as if they were made from repurposed maracas.  They danced around what looked like a May pole, while one of their number played the drums and another the pan flute. Of course, I’ve never seen a real maypole in real life. I’ve seen plenty of poles, some of them in the month of May. But none were anything like this.

The dance around the maypole lasted long enough to make you think that you’d never, ever, get their indigenous ear worm out of your head.

At the end of the dance number, five of them climbed up the wobbly pole, which was perhaps 40 feet tall. At the top of the pole, four sat on a rickety looking frame, while the fifth stood atop the pole played the drums and pan flute simultaneously. Clearly this was not a job for President Gerald R. Ford, who, according to Lyndon Johnson, could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Four of the men wrapped ropes around their legs and stepped off the rickety frame and twirled around the pole till they reached the ground. It was a circus act without a net. I was glad I’d picked different parents than those guys.

According to Wiki, it's called the Danza de los Voladores.

You could take a tasting tour of the area in buses shaped like a red pepper or a tequila cask, but I'll have to wait for the next visit. Hacienda Carmen was the next stop on our itinerary.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 2, Zacuaplan

After Billy and Alicia arrived, we took a cab to the bus station, a trip of just a couple of miles.

We got to there just in time to buy tickets and catch our bus.  We were headed to the town of Las Varas—a two hour bus ride—where Paul and Robyn were going to meet us. We were the only Anglos on the bus, which eventually became standing room only.

The bus seats were roomy--the ride was more comfortable than any bus I've been on in the U.S. And, interestingly enough, there were no young women wearing sweatpants and carrying a pillow, something I've seen on every Megabus ride I've taken. At one stop, a food vendor walked through the bus selling cellophane bags of what looked like potato chips and a bunch of different sauces with which to customize them. As snack foods go, they looked....interesting.

We disembarked in Las Varas right on time.

I barely had time to photograph the blinking shrine at the store that serves as the bus stop when Paul and Robyn arrived as promised.  In short order, we were on the way to their house. It’s about 30 minutes from Las Varas.

Since we were all peckish, we stopped for dinner at a little place in Zacuaplan.

Zacuaplan is a farming community, with shops, car repair places, and a cheese shop that Paul and Robyn swear never has any cheese.

In the center of town, there’s a large church that looks as if it were designed by a committee. It faces a small park in place of the traditional town square.

The town doesn’t have a lot of curb appeal, but it’s but brimming with authenticity. If there was any sort of chain store or franchise outpost there, I didn't see it.

Paul pulled over at the Loncheria El Sazon de Silvia, one of the few places open at that time of night. It wasn’t a place people go to for the atmosphere; if it were a food truck, it would have been missing a fender. In fact, the State College Board of Health might have sent in a SWAT team to close the place for a hairnet violation.

But even without a hairnet, the woman at the grill made us a delicious dinner. Perhaps I was just ravenous, or perhaps it was the super tasty salsa on the table, but my tacos were spectacular. Plus, since I ate them with a knife and fork they gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my lack of travel-related broadening. I didn’t need to worry about drinking the water, Billy walked down the street and brought back cold beer.

As I sat there at a table on the sidewalk, still wearing my blue blazer, eating my tacos with a knife and fork, drinking a cold beer, I wondered if I had been transported into a W. Somerset Maugham story.  Or would that have been a Graham Greene story?

My friend Martha would have known who I meant. Unlike me, she's probably knows all about those  English authors who wrote about fish-out-of-water Brits in distant corners of the crumbling Empire.  I’m as thick as a plank when it comes to anything literary.

I was consoled by the fact that Mr. Bass Pro Shops probably didn’t know the difference between W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene…though by this point he might have known something about strippers named Jesús. I just had a feeling.

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico. Part 3, Chacala

On my first full day in Mexico,  Paul took us on an four-wheeler excursion, through the jungle and onto the beach. A. and I stood up on the bed, behind the cab as we held on for dear life, going down and up paths that, at times, I thought were impassable. We checked out giant termite nests, marveled at the flora, and saw where a lava flow met the ocean zillions of years ago.

My favorite part might have been buzzing along a deserted beach; it was a blast.

Near the end of the trip, we stopped so I could check out a trailside shrine. Someone had dropped dead at that very spot in November 2001. I think these shrines are fascinating, and in this part of Mexico, they're practically ubiquitous. I can't imagine how long a trip I'd need if I stopped to photograph each one.

Someone had placed a small sculpture of the Holy Family at the base of the cross atop the shrine. Joseph was missing his head. Do you think it was from the scratch and dent rack at the religious ephemera store?

We stopped by another, larger shrine, on the main road, closer to the house. Paul pointed out to me that roadside shrines were often near a curve at the end of a long straight stretch of highway. Drivers tend to get a little aggressive on the straight stretches and then lose control when they have to make the corner. Death doesn’t take a holiday: hence shrines.

In addition to a little hut filled with a low rent funeral home's worth of plastic flowers, this shrine was decorated with plastic flags in the image of the Pope. I am not entirely sure which Pope it’s supposed to be, but don't think it was any Pope Urban VII. Has anyone ever taken the idea of Pontifical Flashcards to the venture capitalists on Shark Tank...?

The next day we drove to the small town of Chacala to have brunch and hang out at the beach with two of Robyn and Paul’s expat friends.

According to the tourist bureau’s website:

Everybody forgets about Chacala!  This small little fishing village (reminiscent of an older Sayulita) sits 9 miles off the main highway, just a little north of La Peñita.  Perhaps the short drive is what keeps people from discovering this gem of a town.  This community sits at the north end of a gorgeous, expansive, half moon bay.  

I don’t think that anyone who’d been to Chacala could forget about it. The town seemed like a microcosm of everything I’d seen in Mexico. The town was a mix of old and new, with rich and poor right next to each other. There were families, musicians, food vendors, tchotchke sellers, and even some commercial fishermen at the beach.

We ate at a beachfront restaurant. After a super brunch, we had time for the beach and exploring. There was a dock for the fishing fleet at the north end of the bay and a swanky resort hotel at the other. It was so swanky that the sandwich board on the beach advertising the daily specials was in English. There were a couple of bands playing on the beach too. Those guys should keep their day jobs.

Sure, Chacala is off the beaten path. But to me, at least, that was part of its charm. What it's lacking in male strippers named Jesús it has in a beautiful beach, fishing, fun places to eat and drink. Oh, and a bunch of really cool people.

Chacala is fantastic. How could anyone forget it?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Spring 2019 Trip to Mexico, Part 1.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Mexico on the Nayarit Riviera earlier this month. I had a fantastic time.

If you have a chance to go there, take it!

If my cousin Paul and his lovely wife Robyn invite you, run, do not walk to the airport and get on the first plane. They’re great hosts and make a beautiful part of Mexico even more alluring.

Speaking of planes, as anyone who flies commercially knows, getting there is not half the fun. I had to be at the State College airport in time for a 5:30am flight….which meant getting up at 3:45am. Ugh.

However, the guy at the United Airlines counter gave me two thumbs up for wearing a Hawaiian shirt in my passport photo. My view of the photo is that it's ready for its moment on the Post Office wall.

Then there was a guy with the sparkly-est shoes ever on my plane. He said they were inspired by blood diamonds. As they say, travel is very broadening.

While the flight to Chicago was on time, my next flight—from Chicago to Puerto Vallarta—had some issues.

After we boarded, it turned out that there was some sort of mechanical problem. The cigarette lighter in the cockpit—or perhaps it was the co-pilot’s airbag—was on the blink and that meant a procession of technicians to the front of the plane to try to fix it. Apparently unplugging everything, waiting 30 seconds before plugging it in again and restarting it didn’t do the trick, since there was more waiting and head scratching. The folks in the back of the plane, in boarding group 7, got a little restless.

The delay was long enough that we were allowed to get off the plane as long as we took our carry ons with us.

The delay wasn’t entirely a bad thing, since it gave me the opportunity to buy a $10 dry turkey on stale bread with the poorest-excuse-for-a-piece-of-lettuce ever sandwich for lunch instead of going with the $15 something-even-more-dismal on the plane.

Quality time in the airport also gave me time to go to concourse’s bookseller and to buy a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d decided that I was fifty years late in reading it.

The other person in my row—we were separated by an empty middle seat—was a cute guy wearing a Bass Pro Shops hat….in the airplane. Born in a barn, I guessed. The only word he spoke to me on the entire flight was when he said “Thanks” after I offered him my pen to fill out his customs and immigration forms.

Instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, he was reading The Bible.

If you're not super keen on flying it's not exactly confidence inspiring when the person sitting next to you is reading The Bible. I suppose I should be thankful that he wasn't reading How to Survive a Plane Crash

I didn't get a good look at his Bible, but I hope it he was using it to hide a guide to the gay nightspots of Puerto Vallarta. P.V. is Mexico's gay hot spot and tourists need to know which clubs have strippers named Jesús who perform miracles involving Jell-O shots nightly. After all, religious experiences come in all shapes and sizes, even if you're wearing a Bass Pro Shops an airplane.

Upon arrival in Puerto Vallarta, I was to wait for my cool cousin Billy and his equally cool gf Alicia at the airport. They were flying in from Seattle a couple of hours after me. Since we’re old, we made a plan to meet and stuck to it without texting each other seventy-five times.

That gave me more time for To Kill a Mockingbird, searching the Internet for those sparkly shoes, and wondering if I had time to go into town for some Jell-O shots before Billy and Alicia's arrival.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

I Believe in Santa Claus. And Santa Trains, too!

Until a few years ago, I didn’t know that Santa Trains were a thing. But they are; there are tons of them. Every scenic railroad and some not so scenic railroads have one.

They're simple really: add Santa Claus to a train ride, you’ve got a Santa Train.

Unlike flying, train travel is still fun; there's no TSA, no tray tables in the upright and locked position, and no possibility of sitting next to someone toting an emotional support peacock.

And who doesn’t like Santa Claus?

A couple of years ago when my brother Jim invited me along with the rest of the family to take a ride on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad with Santa and maybe an elf or two, I had my Santa Train baptism.

That particular train—an old locomotive--chugs from Cumberland to Frostburg, Maryland. There the engine is put on a turntable and turned around to take the train back to Cumberland.

Santa, with a comely elf in tow, walks through the train ho ho ho-ing, and gladhanding, having the time of his life as he takes a day off from supervising the toy-making elves at the North Pole.

It was fun and the scenery was beautiful, but doing it once seemed like enough. Trust me, I do believe in Santa and I like trains. It just wasn’t a one plus one equals three sort of experience.

A few weeks ago Jim offered me a spot on the 2018 family Santa train trip. This version was fancier than the earlier trip. The trip was from Ashland, Virginia to Williamsburg via a private train car. Visions of Cornelius Vanderbilt danced in my head. We were moving from the minors to the bigs!

So there we were, almost the entire east-of-the-Mississippi edition of the Bryant family on a Saturday morning on a train platform in Ashland, Virginia. We were on the platform plenty early, as Bryants tend to be, though neither Amtrak nor Santa Claus ever arrive early.

The platform was crowded with lots of Moms and Dads with little kids, some in strollers.

I think we were the only family with coolers of hors d’oeuvres and champagne, and a case of beer glasses my brother purchased at the last minute in case the train didn't have enough glasses.

After what seemed like an eternity (i.e. at least 20 minutes), Santa arrived by fire truck. I’m not sure why Santa arrives just about everywhere in a fire truck, but that seems to be his thing. Surely he could come in a stretch limo, Megabus, Segway, or even a used Popemobile. (I don’t know why the Catholic church doesn’t raise a little money by selling a few…)

Once he stepped down from the firetruck, I saw that Santa’s helper wasn’t an elf, but a little boy dressed as a train conductor. He was cute, but when I see a little kid in a costume so well done nice that it makes him (or her) look like a miniature adult, I’m creeped out just a bit. I suppose this is a result of reading too many People magazine articles about Jon Benet Ramsey.

Unlike the standard-issue Santa, this one carried a staff, an accessory right out of The Ten Commandments starring Charleton Heston and Yul Brynner. Moses would have loved this particular model since it came with an attached GoPro camera. I can only imagine the viral sensation a YouTube video of parting the Red Sea would have been.

Santa's posse include an elf who made some interesting fashion choices, right down to the shoes...

...Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, complete with blinking nose....

 ...and a couple of large bears, the American version of Japanese kabuki figure.

Santa's main squeeze was a lounge singer named Christmas Carol, a woman who probably never said, "Does this crinoline make my ass look fat?"

Since the train was so late, there was plenty of time for a quick walk through the nearby campus of Randolph-Macon University, not to be confused with the former Randolph-Macon Woman's College, which is in Lynchburg. The student union was quite handsome and, even better, there was no line in its coffee shop.

Finally our train arrived and we could get on with our day.

According to the internet, our car, named the Salisbury Beach, was a Pullman sleeper with six roomettes, four bedrooms, and six sections. It was built in 1954 for Boston and Maine Railroad for service between Concord, New Hampshire and New York City on the "State of Maine Express".  The car subsequently was assigned to first class trains throughout the United States until it was sold to the Canadian National Railway in 1966. In 1982, the car was put out to pasture, but it’s now restored and for the right amount of money, you can charter it. Santa, of course, costs extra.

We were in the “open section” of the car. We sat in the rail car equivalent of a restaurant booth—benches facing each other with a table—covered in a jolly holiday plastic tablecloth—in between. Back in the day, these booths could be converted to bunk beds.

There were lots of switches and stainless steel fittings whose purpose is still a mystery to me. Our car was the epitome of railroad technology of the 1950s, but except for the bathroom, the technology was as unfamiliar as that of a clipper ship.

In the unlikely event that we got peckish during the ride, the steward had a tray of Christmas cookies for us.

Santa and his light up staff, complete with GoPro, came by to press the flesh. He carried a chest containing a reindeer antler that you could rub for good luck, or perhaps to improve your virility. Why he thought this was a good idea is beyond me.

The ride went quickly as we enjoyed the traditional view from a train of the back of everything. Greater Richmond covered more area than I expected, and as we neared Williamsburg we went through lots of swampy forests.

When the train stopped in Williamsburg, special buses were waiting at the train station to take all the Santa Train passengers to the historic district. The everyday Amtrak passengers stayed on the train as it continued on to Newport News.

We’d already decided that as far as the historic district was concerned, it was every family for itself, so once the bus stopped near the Capitol building, we were all free to explore. We were to meet the train at 5:45 for the return trip.

My first stop was Basset Hall, the home of Williamsburg’s founding benefactor, John D Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife Abby. The docent ushered me into the tiny theatre to watch a short video about the Rockefellers—it wasn’t too long before I realized that I’d seen it on YouTube.

At the end of the video, we went over to the house; there were just two of us, I was the only one on the tour. I should have taken a photo of the docent’s nametag, since she really was topnotch. She was informative, engaging, and even humorous. She took the time to figure out what I was interested in and customized the tour on the spot to accommodate my interests.

By today’s standards Basset Hall would be a middling McMansion at 7,000-ish square feet, but compared to the Rockefellers’ usual digs, this was camping. As you might expect, the place is decorated in a 1930s Colonial Revival style. The Rockefellers were hardly minimalists. At his wife's death, Mr. Rockefeller took an inventory of the contents at Bassett Hall: it was 50 pages long.

The house reminded me of a nicer version of my grandparents’ house.

One of the most remarkable things the docent told me was that the Rockefellers would arrive in Williamsburg with only their chauffeur. Their household help consisted of a Swedish couple who lived in Basset Hall year-round. That was it. No chief of staff, no security men, no hangers on, no nothing. Today Santa, Congressmen, and even the lesser Kardashians have larger entourages.

For people of their social stature and wealth, the Rockefellers were a good approximation of just plain folks. They went to a different church in Williamsburg each week and often invited folks from church over to dinner, followed by a movie in the theatre—air conditioned!—that Mr. R had built in downtown Williamsburg.

I especially liked the dining table and bowls of plastic cream of mushroom soup representing the first course at one of the Rockefellers' holiday dinners (Yes, they have written documentation of the menu.) The pineapple salad—which reminded me of something my grandmother would have served—was ready to go on the counter in the butler’s pantry.
The tour ended in the comfortable apartment of the Swedish live-in couple. The docent explained to me that at their retirement, Mr. Rockefeller matched the Swedish couple's savings in sort of a primitive 401-k plan.

After wandering around the garden at Basset Hall, I walked to the Capitol building to learn about Colonial government. The guide there, who I think would have made a kick-ass drag queen, was great, but perhaps not quite as good as the guide at Basset Hall. Then again, he didn’t have plastic cream of mushroom soup to work with.

There were five people on the tour. Perhaps the crowd was sparse since the fife and drum corps was mustering a few blocks away at the same time.

I’ve read I don’t know how many times that visitation at historic sites is declining. Here was the proof right before my very eyes. Williamsburg in its Christmas finery used to be a hot ticket. It wasn’t the day we were there. Living history doesn’t stand a chance when competing with the trifecta of over scheduled kids, the instant gratification offered by a device screen, and the idea that history and civic education isn’t important. Argh.

After doing the Capitol, I walked into a couple of shoppes, and took a selfie in front of R. Bryant, Ltd., the traditional clothing store. I walked in, browsed, and loitered, but no one waited on me.

Instead of a crowded restaurant, I ate in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum's café. The art museum was great, even though I lost my warm hat there. However, the lovely ladies of the museum shop let me charge my nearly dead phone behind the counter while I browsed the museum galleries. You don’t come by that customer service just anywhere.

After the museum, I went to the George Wythe House. In my memory docents showed you through the place, today you wander through on your own. It felt little forlorn without a woman in a long dress sharing the story of how Mr. Wythe was probably poisoned with arsenic by his wastrel great nephew.

I would have done the Governor’s Palace had I not lost my ticket someplace between the Wythe House and the Palace.  Apparently losing my hat at the art museum wasn’t enough! Oh well, I can go there on the next trip.

Unfortunately the axe range was closed. I could have lost some fingers to go with my lost hat and ticket. 

At the appointed hour I walked back to the train station, which had filled up with Santa train passengers tuckered out by their day in Williamsburg.

I waited outside, enjoying some peace and quiet, and attempting not to lose my gloves. 

Our Christmas elf and his co-worker in holiday merriment passed out Christmas eyeglasses to all the passengers. Lots of families wore them for photos; we’d already done our first family photo in a billion years, we weren’t going to try our luck with another.

The train was late, but that wasn’t so bad, everyone was too tired to be cranky, and on his or her best behavior.

On the ride home, we got out the champagne to celebrate my niece-in-law Marcy’s recent doctoral degree. With chilled champagne to hand out, it was easy to make friends with the family across the aisle. Yes, we appalled them just a bit, but they did their share of laughing, too.

Christmas Carol and came by to sing some carols. We couldn’t have been a less enthusiastic audience, but after some joking about which of the musical instruments she handed out could be used as sex toys (Correct answer: All of them), we were singing along enthusiastically. It was a Christmas miracle.

Soon enough, we were back in Ashland, filled with the Christmas spirit and at least a soupçon of American history.

There was still time for me to lose something else. I left my favorite fleece on the train.

But the guy who owned the railroad car mailed it back--the second miracle of the Christmas season.