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 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.
Yet early on, we established a comfortable rhythm that has worked ever since. The first day or two, we usually all go to the most interesting town or village, in part to get our bearings and a sense of the area. We split up driving responsibilities -- the singles usually rent a car together, while couples team up in small vans or in their own cars. We meet up at lunchtime and again at an agreed departure time. In between, we break up to wander wherever we want.
For the rest of the week, people split up and chart their own itineraries. Each day, we reassemble around 6 p.m. to sample wines and cheeses we've purchased on our outings and share tales of our daily adventures.
Sharon, who recently finished reading a book on the Lewis and Clark expedition, thinks our trips work for the same reason that their early American exploration succeeded. "As a neighborhood, we'd already gone through learning group dynamics and what it meant to be a group. It's more than knowing and liking each other. It's knowing how to negotiate our differences, which is a big part of trusting and being comfortable with each other," she reflected.
Jerry says it's just a stoop party in a different location.
Our neighborhood travel club reflects our roots. Like much of Washington, we're imports, even though many of us have lived here for more than a decade or two. Most have ties to the Midwest -- Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Nebraska -- and we brought a Midwest sense of community with us. We give potluck snow parties in bad weather. Anyone who gets sick becomes a block project, with food supplies, pharmacy runs, escorts to the hospital, dog walking. As Isabel says, a big part of the travel club is the already established civility.
But neighborhood travel has also proven to be a more affordable way to see the world. On arrival, we all put about $60 per person in a kitty for breakfast foods, basic necessities, evening hors d'oeuvres and wine. We buy staples -- such as cereal, fruit, coffee and milk -- to keep in the house. The morning walkers among us wander into town to buy fresh croissants and the papers. Anyone who buys something later takes funds from the kitty, leaving a receipt behind.
To our amazement, the funds generally last the week. In the process, we get to taste life in the local community and aren't isolated in a hotel filled largely with other foreigners.
The few difficult moments on our trips have often happened getting to and from destinations -- and often involved Joe, our beloved but sometimes oblivious-to-trouble physicist-turned-businessman. On one trip to France, he was taking a picture on the edge of a winding mountain road when he was knocked over by a car and had to be hospitalized. On two trips to Italy, he forgot that European cars often take diesel and filled his car with regular gas. Both times the car died.
The neighborliness can crack during election years, when dinner-table debates get noisy. We're pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Evie, Joe and Bonnie often have to rescue the mood by steering us to other topics.
The birthday trip went so well that we decided to do it again in Italy the following summer. Alan and Maryellen organized this outing. They found a villa among the Tuscan vineyards in Montespertoli, a modest town 40 minutes by bus from Florence, with an uninterrupted view across voluptuous green hills. It had eight bedrooms and, more important, eight bathrooms, a pool, vast living spaces, a veranda and enough grounds and garden foliage to please even the bird-watchers.
In 2001, the cost was about $300 per bedroom for a full week. By this summer, when we visited again, it had gone up to $445 per bedroom -- still not bad given the soaring value of the euro against the dollar.
We have it down to a routine by now. The first day, we all drive to San Gimignano, the medieval city of more than 70 towers, many built by competing families to signal their greater wealth and power. Whatever our interests, we're all attracted to the old narrow streets with crafts and wine bars and art galleries. We save Florence to do together later in the week. And then we wander in separate smaller groups -- a mix-and-match on different days, depending on the destinations -- to the fine Etruscan museum and field of Roman ruins in Volterra or the friendly square full of flowers in Greve, the chief town of the Chianti Classico wine area, or Lucca, surrounded by walls that date back to the Roman era.
Each trip, we've learned new tricks to facilitate our travels.
For Tuscany, Alan bought walkie-talkies to communicate when we were separated in villages or on the way home so the end car wouldn't get lost. Maryellen laid out an array of maps and tour books for people to figure out the options as well as information on local buses so we wouldn't have to drive. They also worked out group rates for made-to-order tours -- through local vineyards and villas with the author of "Too Much Tuscan Sun," about $120 per person including transportation and a meal, or with our own guide through Florence's Uffizi Gallery for about $42 per person, including ticket. Six of us took a special cooking class in Florence. Jerry still talks about the tiramisu, almond torte and cheesecake that the class specializing in desserts next door offered our group when it was finished.
In a big cost-saver, Maryellen found local chefs to come in at night and cook, which allowed us to sample good wines without having to worry about driving afterward. In Tuscany, we could eat a sinful five-course meal -- an antipasto selection, prosciutto and melon, lamb cutlets, assorted vegetables, salad, a pastry and fruit or cheese -- for about $24 per person.
Alan and Maryellen, who are retired, have become so good at organizing the Tuscan villa trips that they now rent the place for three weeks each summer and plan trips for family and other friends. They've also become such great friends with the villa's owner that this year, when 14 of us went back to Montespertoli, the owner invited us to a party, complete with a little band. All 14 of us danced together.
"Did you notice that the other party-goers applauded when we left? We're still not sure if it was because they liked our dancing or if they were happy we were leaving," Maryellen e-mailed me later.
After four years, most of us now travel with the neighborhood for the company as much as the surroundings. We've also branched out to shorter domestic trips. During the long Presidents' Day weekend, Evie has twice organized many of the women and some of the husbands in the neighborhood to go to a spa. As a group, we get lower rates and a package of spa treatments thrown in free.
We've bonded so deeply that some who've moved away, such as Alan and Maryellen, are still part of the travel club. After our time together, several of us make other stops before coming home. But we all get together again soon after we get back, usually on the stoop, to share and swap pictures -- and think about next year.
Robin Wright covers diplomacy for The Post.