The e-mail from Africa arrived just in time.
For two weeks we had been drifting in the domestic doldrums. And forces beyond our control were seriously threatening our long-standing routines. Not to mention our sanity.
First, one of the Black Labs took sick. And our long suffering vet had to ride in to the rescue. Then it was our turn. First one, then the other. Colds. Coughs. Colds. Coughs. And a house festooned in abandoned tissues, like something from a teenager's prank book.
The weather of the past few weeks hasn't helped much either, of course. Snow. Ice. Wind. Deep freeze. And no end in sight.
In the midst of all this, we're trying to firm up our travel plans for the year ahead.
A late February trip to Venice kicks it all off. Carnevale (the Italian version of Mardi Gras) will be in full swing when we arrive, bringing in revelers from all over in their masks and masquerades for the parades and balls and concerts - based this year on a Silk Road theme. Should be fun.
In May, it's back to Ireland, where we'll pick up where we left off in 1997, tarrying longer in the places we really enjoyed. Like Nire Valley in the Comeragh Mountains, and accommodations at a remote hideaway known as Hanora's Cottage, home of Mary and Seamus Wall and family.
We first met Mary at a British travel fair in London back in 1996 and were captivated by her bright-eyed honesty, her enthusiasm for all things Irish, her encyclopedic local knowledge and the gorgeous photos of her romantic homestead. And we hadn't even tasted her porridge!
From there we'll go on to Kinsale, Ireland's gourmet capital. No throwaway moniker this, in a country currently overflowing with brilliant and creative chefs capitalizing on equally brilliant local ingredients.
The dramatic Dingle Peninsula, the raw beauty of Connemara country, and a few days in Dublin will round out this grand tour.
If all the moving parts are still holding together at this point, it'll be time for a 200-mile, cross-country trek from St. Bees in the Lake District to Robin Hood's Bay on the Yorkshire coast.
This classic long-distance path, called the Wainwright Trail, crosses three beautiful National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, and the North Yorkshire Moors. But with several clambers over 2,000 feet and lots of tough walking, it's also one of Britain's toughest long-distance pathways, so an experienced Appalachian Trail veteran has been co-opted to help with this challenge. (Stay tuned for the tears!)
We get through that, and there's one more carnival ahead - the Munich Oktoberfest, combined with visits to Vienna and Salzburg, and another stay with an old friend, Frau Illmer, who runs our favorite, elegant hostelry, the Struber, in the shadows of the Hohensalzburg Fortress.
Three overseas trips and a long distant walk. Enough already.
And then came that surprise e-mail. From the opposite end of the Earth.
It was from a friend in Cape Town, South Africa, a roommate 40 years ago in Stuttgart, when we were both working for the same German car company.
Andre and I had barely stayed in touch over the years. But it's the kind of friendship, tempered by mutual hardship and expatriate living, that can be picked up in an instant. As if it were still 1963 or '64
What we were actually doing, was celebrating Andre's return to South Africa, and my imminent visit to the U.S. to study at BGSU, so we were planning to vacate the apartment anyway.
This will all come up again, no doubt, when we take up Andre's invitation to visit him this year!
November will be great, he says, because it will be springtime in Cape Town. Tourists will be light on the ground. And we'll be able to see why his exotic city on Africa's southern tip has now become one of the world's top travel destinations.
Looks like 2004 might be quite a year after all!