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Travels With My Neighbors

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page P01

At least once a year, about a dozen of my neighbors and I pack our bags and go off on vacation -- together.

We never intended to create a neighborhood travel club. It just sort of evolved in the early 1990s, as we all moved to a cul de sac in a new development in Northwest Washington. Whenever new residents arrived, one of us threw a little party to welcome them to our enclave.

The author's D.C. neighbors gather at their Tuscan villa in Montespertoli. (Robin Wright -- The Washington Post)

The tradition continued after all the new houses were filled, deepening the bonds. Now we hold impromptu stoop parties, as dusk turns to dark, when we bring folding chairs and dessert or a bottle of wine to the front of someone's home to sit and tell stories. We don't have porches, so two of us have pushed back tiny lawns and put in slate so there's more room for more people to "stoop it," as we say. The invitations are no more than a knock on the door to say, "It's stoop time." Anyone who walks by from farther up the street is welcome to join in, too.

We're an eclectic combination, spanning at least two decades and vastly disparate interests -- from space to Middle East politics to birding. Not everyone goes on every trip, but among the regulars, Maureen Murphy is an interior decorator for U.S. ambassadors' residences around the world. Joe Allen is a former physicist, Bonnie Allen a musician and doting grandmother. Ron Walker is a former magazine publisher, LouAnn Walker a nurse-psychologist. Isabel Goldenberg is a doctor at George Washington University's student health service. Evie Hirsch, whom we've dubbed our Team Leader, is a summer camp specialist. Alan Parker headed a telecommunications company, Maryellen Parker was program director for an education organization. Jerry and Sharon Goldsmith, the birders, both work with professional associations.

Over time, we began bumping into each other when we were away from home. One family visiting Cape Cod bicycled past a couple that lived five doors away in Washington. In Italy, the decorator was on assignment when she met a family from across the street at a Florence flea market. In stunning odds for 16 households, a couple on a barge trip in France, with fewer than 30 passengers, discovered another set of neighbors on board. I was in Algeria in 1992 when Maureen was working on the ambassador's residence in Tunisia, and we tried to hook up -- until the border closed because of a military coup d'etat in Algeria.

So by 2000, it seemed quite logical when Evie suggested we go to France together to celebrate a landmark moment in her life. "I thought it'd be a wonderful idea to get everyone together to celebrate a big birthday," she said. "We used to meet during trips overseas. This time we'd do it on purpose."

That provided the most important parts to any travel: the organizing principle and the organizer.

For years an adviser on summer camps, Evie scoured magazines on foreign rental properties and consulted travel agents to find a villa that would hold us all -- and have enough bathrooms, a key requirement for folks who are close but aren't family. We ended up in a small villa with a half-dozen bedrooms in Cap d'Antibes.

It was a large, elegant home done in the warm yellows and blues of Provence, with a small pool more for sunning than swimming. But it was just a couple of blocks from the water, and we often walked into the lively Riviera city after dinner, either to look in on the nightclubs or once to sit at a cafe on the beach, where we smelled the sea air and took off our shoes to rub our toes in the sand.We learned a lot from that first trip, despite all our planning. We're equal partners in our adventures, but our financial circumstances vary widely: Some use frequent-flier miles or cheap consolidator tickets on circuitous routes, others fly business class. So, unlike a tour group, just hooking up sometimes has made for funny-after-the-fact mishaps, especially making connections in airports.

Our interests vary widely. Joe likes science museums, while Maureen and Bonnie like cooking classes or antiquing. Alan and Maryellen lead us through old villages, while Ron is the wine connoisseur who often brings back bottles for dinner. Isabel, Evie and I like art museums. One divisive issue that can spark tensions among us is shopping. Jerry is a grumbling good sport about taking Sharon and Maureen many miles away to a fashion outlet -- but only once each trip.

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