George Pieper

George Pieper

An Old Fashioned Letter Christmas, 2020

Dear Friends and Family, 


My goodness, my year-in-review could not have come fast enough!  2020 will definitely go down as an epic  I mean, apocalyptic year!  Our holiday tradition always begins with Chris playing Christmas music on our Alexa devices, decorating the inside of the house with his collection of Christmas Snoopy, and me hanging I mean, hiring people to hang Christmas lights on the outside of the house.  (I have retired from climbing ladders in adverse weather!)  Amidst all the cooking, table setting, and washing up, we take time at Thanksgiving to really reflect on each other and the things we are grateful for the most.  Then, I sit down to write this, our annual Christmas letter.  Really, I think this whole year has been about many moments of deep reflection.  A pandemic can really shift your whole point of view and disrupt your outlook and sense of security in a second.  It has been a test of endurance to stay safe and sane through it all. 


I am always surprised by the unexpected differences a year can make.  Last December, we traveled for the holidays to Belgium with our dear friend Michel and met up with his pal Francis from their auto racing days for a culinary tour of Brussels before we headed to our place in Spain for Christmas and ringing in the New Year.  It was an absolutely amazing trip!  We sipped on hot Glühwein as we strolled the Grand Place enjoying the Winter Wonder light show cast on the beautiful façades of the Old Town Hall with its clock tower, bell spires, and the other impressive buildings that surrounded the square.  We enjoyed Belgian chocolates and waffle sampling in addition to the decadent restaurants we visited and the delicious food we devoured on our epicurean tour.  Michel took us on a sightseeing drive into the countryside to have a lovely lunch with his daughter Caroline and then to visit his ex-wife Véronique.  She had a house full of dogs that she was caring for while their owners were traveling for the holidays.  There was a pair that Chris and I would have adopted if we had the chance.  It certainly made us miss our beagles, Fiona and Schroeder, at home, but our own holiday travels had just begun.  The fait accompli of our gastronomic Belgian expedition was a delightful home-cooked pheasant meal with all the trimmings at Francis’s condominium.  It was superb! 


Michel, Chris, and I then caught a plane to Barcelona to head home to L’Ampolla.  We love our precious village all dressed up in lights for Christmas.  Each of the main roads decorated with lights strung overhead between buildings and repeated the length of the street, lighted garland shimmering on the bows of boats in the marina, and the enormous blue conical Christmas tree in the center of Plaça Gonzalez Isla.  Every display reminds us of the festive time and our immense gratitude for this place and our friends there. 


This trip marked our 3rd December in L’Ampolla since we bought our apartment there in 2016.  Year-round there is always a lovely viewing of different birds in the pine trees in front of our building, but winter brings the hordes of starlings who roost for the night and take flight with the sun at dawn. With my first sighting of a murmuration, I was hooked!  Every morning I would wake up early, just as the faint sound of chugging boat engines would cross the bay on the fisherman’s journey out to sea to hoist in their daily catch.  I would make a pot of coffee, grab a cup, and take the throw blanket from the couch to sit silently and wait with anticipation bundled up on our balcony, while Chris still snoozed in bed.  The winter sunrises over the Gulf of Sant Jordi are something incredible to behold.  Beautiful and dramatic cloud formations float ablaze and are mirror reflected on the serene Mediterranean water with brilliant changing colors on the horizon as the first rays of sunlight peek over the waterline.  It is spectacular! 


At that very moment each day piercing the silent calm of the morning, I would hear a distant rumble that gathered intensity as it drew closer.  My heart would begin to race and the birds in our trees would begin their chatter of chirping calls as the whoosh of their kindred in the thousands would swoop over our building taking my breath away.  In unison, they would dive and swirl in the air.  The roosting birds in a marvelous flurry would take flight at once to join their flock.  They would twist and turn in a huge undulating mass compressing and elongating in a connected movement as if it were a single organism.  Over the village, they would go with the backdrop of mountains framing their stirring motion, toward the bay they would fly, then onto the delta over the rice paddies.  In a syncopated burst, they would be gone until tomorrow, too faint in the distance for my eyes to continue to see.  This fabulous diurnal exposé would leave me full of exhilaration for the day ahead and ground me to the rhythms of this place we have come to love.



The weeks of Christmas and New Year’s were filled with so many wonderful moments.  We took an overnight trip to Barcelona to see La Fira de Santa Llucia the oldest and largest Christmas Market just in front of the Cathedral at Plaça Nova.  We ate an amazing steak dinner at a historic restaurant recommended to us by Michel and then went out dancing until morning with our new friend Felipe.  Christmas Eve, I made dinner at Michel and Mila’s followed by a stunning meal Christmas day at Peter and Andy’s with Sonia and Chris joining the fun.  We enjoyed beautiful sunny days, our daily walks along the waterfront, and a long hike with Mila and the dogs on the beach trail beside the sand dunes to the lighthouse on the Punta del Fangar.  We had the whole place to ourselves to take in its majesty.  We took several drives along the river and through the hills to see beautiful vistas, explore charming hilltop villages, and enjoyed a few tastings at the wineries along the way.  We imbibed a bit at our corner bar meeting friends on a few occasions, while Miha the owner would ply us with pleasing tapas to go with our beverages.  It was a lovely time that we deeply miss so much this season.   


One morning at 10:30 am we found ourselves meeting up with Michel at the Restaurant Can Piñana, which is always bustling as the main gathering place in our village.  Even though it was cool, the sun was out, and the patio was packed full.  We were invited to join Michel already seated, chatting with a group of locals.  We were all there for the hair of the dog, as beer, wine, and a few small plates of crisps and marinated sardines were ordered to share all around.  I sat next to this charming older lady named Ingefrid wearing a fur coat, bright red lipstick, smoking a cigarette, and sipping on a glass of red wine.  She was an expat from Norway who married a Spaniard from Madrid.  He was at the table too and they have been living in our village for many years.  She recounted her recent trip to visit her father in Norway for Christmas and how he had to pick her up and drop her back at the airport as she no longer drives in the snow.  I think Chris and I must have both looked surprised that her father was still alive, let alone driving.  My bet was that she must have been about 80 or so herself.  She laughed and said that he was 98 and still very robust with no plans of slowing down.  She told us the secret to longevity is drinking wine and eating lots of vegetables.  With that, a toast was made to wine, vegetables, and new friends!  I love unexpected moments like that!    


Peter and Andy’s friends Brian and Daniel from Northumberland came down to celebrate the New Year and the 6 of us painted the town together with great revelry.  While the guys headed down to a party in Valencia, we stayed within walking distance of our apartment and joined Michel and Mila for a beautiful prix fixe extravaganza at the Hotel Flamingo, the 4-star establishment in our village, to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  We all got dressed up for the frivolity ahead.  Mila who is always fashionable looked especially gorgeous.  I think we ate a parade of 12 courses of food including the tradition of eating 12 grapes as the 12 seconds to midnight count down for good luck.  The ballroom was full of merrymakers, balloons, and tossed streamers.  We popped many bottles of luscious Cava and danced the night away.  It was such a fabulous beginning!    


We rang in the New Year with so many hopes for 2020 to begin a stellar year.  No one could have imagined what we would have to brace ourselves for.  Little did we know that would be our last trip to our home in L’Ampolla for some time or be the last time I would get to see the birds roost in the trees in front of our Apartment Vista Alegre.  At the end of January, a massive storm “Gloria” hit our village dumping water on the hills, turning streets into rivers, flooding the town square, the restaurants, and shops around the harbor.  Luckily, when the floodwaters receded all our friends in our village of L’Ampolla appeared to be safe, but a lot of havoc and damage was reaped.  Our village is known as a prime destination for bluefin tuna fishing, but I never imagined the storm surges would wash ashore so many fish in its aftermath.  Great huge 200 to 300-pound fish were scattered above the shoreline from the photos our friends posted.  It was an unbelievable sight.  Mila checked to make sure our apartment was OK.  It was fine, but the ferocity of the wind and waves pummeled our little cove, the marina breakwater, and knocked over the trees in the park below our apartment.  I cried for the loss of the trees and what they meant to me, but it also brought clarity to know how precious and fleeting the moments we have truly are, the wonder of it, my thirst for taking it in and making it the best experience possible.  On the bright side, since then, we now have a newly rebuilt seawall, a refreshed Vista Alegre park, and a completely unobstructed view of the water.  I suppose that we should always look for the silver lining in the things that affect us in order to move forward, appreciating what we have, versus remaining stuck for what we have lost.       


Returning to the States, Chris started a new job at Pac Med as their Director of Operations for Primary Care South Region and Medical Specialty Clinics Systemwide.  He hated leaving his team at County Doctor, but this opportunity came at the right time for him to move on.  The lack of support and undue pressure there was not healthy for Chris during his recovery from the stroke he suffered the previous spring, which was in part work stress-induced.  The move we had hoped would be less stressful since he went from managing 12 direct reports to just 4 department managers, but we have come to accept at Chris’s level that the healthcare environment under normal circumstances is just a very stressful place to be.  We are still battling the effects of Chris’s stroke and health challenges for which he was hospitalized twice again this year.  In stride, Chris has built up a new team of leaders for the region he runs and has become an asset to his new organization even as the Coronavirus crisis erupted.  We have done as best as we can to reduce his stress taking each day as it comes.  It has been very scary for us with Chris on the front lines managing drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites and clinics when his own preexisting conditions put him at great personal risk from the pandemic.  We have taken all the precautions seriously to minimize exposure.


For me, our return stateside was strange.  I felt revitalized, full of energy, and yet perhaps empathically, I held a looming sense of angst.  Not that I could know what was coming.  I was suffering a personally set pinch to accomplish things before time ran out.  I have always held lofty goals for myself, but somehow turning 50 years old this year brought a sense of urgency and a procrastinator’s anxiety.  I think I was experiencing a full blow middle-aged crisis.  I know it is an arbitrary number, but I was restless to get things done.  I had just begun a foray into writing a book.  Before our Christmas vacation, I had completed a 14-week author’s training course.  I began writing a memoir about my remarkable friend Esther and our unique and special relationship over a 34-year period, which meant the storyline was set.  I just needed to tap my memory and put pen to paper.  Every spare moment I had in between working full-time and managing our household, I was writing.  By March I was feeling really good about my efforts.  The words were flowing, I had a working title, a complete outline, and the first few chapters were written.  It was an emotional journey up to that point, reliving the details.  Then I felt totally derailed by the coronavirus.  I had to accept that I set my timeline too short and I needed to lengthen my schedule as the added pressure was unnecessary.  I had to adjust to what was happening around us and urgently turn my focus to work or lack thereof when the first stay-at-home orders were issued.


Looking back through my journal of this year, I wrote to myself, “today I needed a news-free day; no mass shootings, impeachment trials, or destructive winter storms”.  I wrote that at the end of January, so clearly there was already a lot consuming our collective psyche this year before the coronavirus even hit.  I feel so fortunate that Chris and I were able to squeeze in one last hurrah before learning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  At the end of February, I had helped organize a wonderful gathering of friends from high school in Southern California to spend the weekend catching up and reminiscing the days of our youth.  The main event was dinner and then see the play “Noises Off” that we performed together in Drama class 32 years earlier.  Over the course of the weekend, 20 of us managed to get together (plus husbands, wives, partners, and 2 kids) and see each other at the various events arranged.  It was really so much fun to get together.  Many of us had not seen each other in years.  It was so wonderful to hug and laugh with longtime friends before having to isolate ourselves.  Who could have known?  But it really did the heart good to have that time and enjoy the connection we shared.     


Since Washington State was first to have recorded cases and subsequent deaths for COVID-19 our Governor was quick to issue the first shelter-in-place orders.  Not being an essential worker, I prepared to hunker down for the long haul.  I did not need to be told twice about the potential gravity of what we were about to go through.  My paternal great grandmother Martha Gertrude Innes-Ker died on Christmas day in 1918 of the Spanish Flu when she was just 30 years old.  I did not want to take any chances.  Especially with Chris now on the frontlines managing healthcare workers.  I had to step up at home and safeguard us physically, financially, and emotionally.  I jumped on refinancing everything to pad our cushion, stocked up on essentials, and planted a vegetable garden to brace for the unknown turmoil ahead. 


So began the great toilet paper kerfuffle of 2020!  Not to make light of the situation, but never was I prouder of the fact that I had a fancy Japanese toilet installed in our house after our trip to Japan in 2019.  It simply does everything for you!  It was certainly a godsend when the grocery store shelves were emptied, folks were rationing, and panic ensued.  I feel grateful for Costco sized packaging and that somehow, I was intuitive enough to add flour and yeast to my shopping list before people went crazy and started hoarding.  Being a good homesteader, I made sure that our freezer and pantry were full.  The bar was stocked with vodka for Chris and I had plenty of wine at the ready for myself.  Ever the boy scout, in the early days of the pandemic I also tapped into my crafty side.  I needed to do something constructive with my time, so I pulled out my sewing machine and made face masks for us, our neighbors, and several others who knew needed them.  I even cut my own hair out of necessity without incident.  Through this experience, I feel extremely fortunate for our house and that we could be safe, secure, and comforted when so many have faced different challenges this year. 


It only took less than one month of stay-at-home safety measures for business to completely dry up, with every anticipated project canceled.  My company with no prospects in sight quickly pivoted from designing offices and purveying furniture to selling sneeze guards, divider panels, hand sanitizer dispensers, and floor navigation decals.  This has been an exceedingly difficult and lean year for small business owners with our very survival hinging on our ability to remain agile under intense stress.  Out of sheer persistence and good fortune, my business partner Dawn was able to secure a small Band-Aid of a PPP loan before all the large corporations gobbled them up.  The disastrous and incompetent rollout was a horribly bad joke for those of us trying to make an honest living.  It was like we had all been dropped into the middle of a lake flailing to stay afloat and told we would get help if we could swim to shore as fast as possible.  Only, our competition to get to shore was already revving their speedboat engines while we didn’t even have a raft.  The loan only helped us get through June.  With total failure from government leaders to provide help beyond that, we were lucky our pivot and a few solid projects this fall saved us from closing our doors for good.  Sadly, I know so many business owners who had to give up the dream and let go through this pandemic and consequential economic slowdown.  After 2 decades as business owners, we survived the Dot-Bomb Bust, the Housing Crash of 2008, and here we are now in the middle of a pandemic.  We have been careful business owners, so things could certainly be worse.  We are resilient and we will survive this too.  It still makes me angry, for many that this is no fault of their own.  In addition to small businesses closing, I know too many people unemployed or underemployed.  I see the economic fallout from this lasting much longer than the pandemic itself.  Only when this pandemic is truly over will we know who is still left standing.     


This summer brought rage to our streets when the tipping point of justice failed, again and again, wildfires blazed seemingly everywhere, and signals blaring the end of days felt near and seemed deafening.  Where I was once ready to lead the charge to help, I had no reserve but to pass the flag for preservation and join the choir.  With our world disrupted at so many levels, our livelihood confused, and health in the balance, Chris and I began planning our escape.  We contemplated jumping off the moneymaking hamster wheel to leave the stress behind and move to Spain early.  This has been our plan for retirement anyway, so we thought why not just go now?  We did the math to see if it made sense.  We assessed the value of our assets against our debts and calculated the reserve needed to live comfortably until social security kicks in 15 + years from now.  We investigated listing our house and began necessary repairs to make sure everything was ready and in tip-top shape to sell when we pull the plug to do so.  We researched the residency requirements, visas, moving costs, traveling with pets, and side gigs once in Spain for extra travel money.  We even began taking Spanish lessons via zoom with our friend Aaron in Peru to become proficient speakers when we get to live full-time in our beautiful village of L’Ampolla.  There was just one hiccup, Spain was and still is closed to Americans since our government has failed so wretchedly to control COVID-19.  Even though we already own a home there, we are not allowed to enter until US cases drop below or are equal to Spain’s under current European Union rules.  Since that seems doubtful, we are now on hold until the pandemic is over through widespread vaccination.  So, we endure. 


Among the agony, surrealism, and the stories in the news that have made us wince over this year, there were bright spots too.  While pressures and misinformation had people behaving badly, we have also seen people showing gratitude for the blessings in their lives, reaching out to each other in new and creative ways, connecting via zoom meetings, and so on.  I thank goodness for the friends we joined in with to just touch base and offer sanity checks over a glass of wine or two for a virtual cheers.  We have been valuing simple pleasures more too.  Our hot tub has certainly been a blessing to Chris and me to relax from the extra stresses weighing on our minds.  I know that I spent more time in our garden to smell and behold the flowers I have been cultivating for years as well.  A few minutes in the garden I found was way better for my mental health than an hour of therapy.  I felt refreshed closing my eyes, standing still and silent, taking a deep breath, and feeling the sun’s warmth on my face.  It was also better for my nerves than the alternative of standing there screaming at the top of my lungs for all this madness to stop.      


I know that we are not alone in saying that food and drinking have helped too.  We were plump and jolly before this all started, but we can attest COVID-fat is real!  Both Chris and I love to cook.  It is actually a stress reducer for us.  With the extra time I had, every day was good enough for a special Sunday meal.  Since we missed travel so much, I took us on culinary tours through my dinner offerings visiting countries through taste.  This summer I even took to foraging for food from all the delights I have been growing in our yard.  I even made a delicious hard cider from the apples off our tree.  Chris’s heavy schedule precluded him from cooking dinner, but he certainly honed his baking skills on the weekends.  Each week he challenged himself to master a new style of bread he had not tried to bake before.  I have essentially stopped buying sandwich bread as he would bake a fresh buttery loaf weekly.  My waistline is a testament to his mastery of baguettes, croissants, challah, shortbread, scones, cinnamon rolls, a variety of cakes, and the flakiest pie crusts.  If all else fails, perhaps we can open a bakery when we eventually get to Spain.     


Travel being our touchstone made this year painful for Chris and me as planned trips came and went, having to be canceled.  We were going stir-crazy to go somewhere, so we considered taking a road trip to visit both our sets of parents who had been safely social distancing at their respective homes in Nevada for Labor Day.  Before we could pull it together my folks John and Nancy pulled up in our driveway with their truck and travel trailer hitched to the back.  Apparently, they had been just as antsy to hit the road too and came to our house via a 10-state tour of the western United States.  They masked up and socially distanced the whole journey, not taking chances with their own pre-existing conditions.  We were happy to breathe together with having quarantined from Chris’s regular COVID tests and my hibernation from the outside world.  We were grateful for the wonderful week we got to spend together and for their fortitude to venture out safely.   


July marked our 5th Wedding Anniversary, which was celebrated with a candlelit dinner at home, of course.  After that with work still slow, I needed to come up with a side hustle for myself.  With the uncertainty of our world in its current state, I figured I needed a little extra something in case the office furniture biz goes completely south.  I always say you should do what you love, and I love to write.  With quite a bit of research, I come up with the best fit for me.  I landed on the idea of creating a blog and vlog that I can monetize through advertising and affiliate links.  I decided to take a hiatus from book writing for a few months to concentrate on the creation of Gee Fab.  Since I can write from anywhere, I am hoping with enough support that Gee Fab can carry over with us so we can share our ongoing adventures blogging and vlogging when we eventually get to Spain.  From August to October even as work at OutSmart Office picked up, I dove into learning everything I could about building a website with e-commerce, built-in SEO, producing blog posts, and filming and editing videos.  Not having a technical bone in my body, I taught myself by watching videos on YouTube.  I officially launched on November 1st


Some of you are already in the know as you are reading this Christmas letter from my blog post.  For those of you with a hard copy of this letter, let me introduce Gee Fab.  It is a lifestyle blog based on my experiences as your host Gee Fabulous, with a fun focus encouraging people to live their best life through their leisure time activities.  As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death”!  Well, clearly not this guy!  I have always been the “glass-half-full” optimist, so I want to embrace the positive things in life and emphasize them.  This is the premise of Gee Fab.  So, I am sharing my knowledge on food, drinks, travel, and living it up with flair and style within a budget.  My commitment is one new blog post per week.  The more subscribers I can rally, the more advertising dollars I can generate.  With so many bleak things around us today, Gee Fab is a place for a brief respite and a spike of optimism.  Take a look, please share, and join us by subscribing. Your early support means the world to Chris and me getting Gee Fab started off on the best track!


Well, the inevitable happened and I turned 50 at the end of October.  We had planned a year ago to take Chris’s folks Gil and Virginia with us to Hawaii so we could celebrate together my birthday and their 50th Wedding Anniversary.  As this year has gone, we had to cancel to reschedule when COVID-19 is behind us.  At that point, my tolerance for sitting at home had shattered.  As close as we live, we could not even drive up to Canada for a getaway with the borders closed.  As I do, I researched the safest options for traveling somewhere.  Puerto Vallarta quickly came to the top of the list with a direct flight from Seattle.  Alaska Airlines mandated masks for all travelers and offered social distancing by blocking the middle seats.  We felt confident we could do this safely.  We chose a large resort with limited occupancy, strict requirements, and preemptive COVID-19 safeguards. 


We stayed at the stunning Vidante Grand Luxxe Resort in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico.  This place was impressive, sort of an adult Disney World crossed with Fantasy Island complete with tropical surroundings and sultry humidity.  We would not have been surprised if Mr. Roarke or his sidekick Tattoo jumped out of the bushes to greet us with cocktails at any moment during our stay.  Staff were super-diligent about cleaning, maintaining social distances, and wore masks, face shields, and gloves.  During our trip, we only had to avoid a few entitled Karens from the Flat Earth Society.  The property was so enormous that you travel from place to place on a system of roving limousine golf carts.  On entering our room, Chris had arranged for a gorgeous surprise display of 2 dozen roses for our arrival.  Our beautiful suite had a fully complemented kitchen with a bar, dining table for 6, a huge living room, a king-sized master bedroom, and ensuite bathroom with hot tub and walk-in shower.  We also had an extra bathroom for guests just in case.  The best part was the private plunge pool on our large balcony overlooking Banderas Bay, Puerto Vallarta and the mountains in the distance, and the Ameca River and its gorgeous nature preserve!  This is exactly what I ordered for my 50th Birthday vacation.  We could have stayed in the room all week.  When we did go out to dinner or to one of the many pools, we always found secluded spots to thoroughly enjoy the resort’s offerings.  We met a beautiful couple Melissa and Tommy on our final day at the pool.  We watched iguanas eating plants on an island they had to swim across the pool to land on.  We chatted, laughed, and enjoy multiple rounds of tropical libations while cooling ourselves in the water.  It was one of those trips that was exactly right for relaxing and recharging. 


I know it has been a very strange and difficult year.  While many of us may be alone or just with the people living in our houses to celebrate, this is just temporary.  We will get through this unique moment in time until we can be together and hug once again.  A new year with new hope is coming.  We wish you peace through the noise and a safe and socially distanced holiday season!  Last year we wished for health and we would like to renew that wish as well for the new meaning it holds.  Cheers to your health, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, a Joyous Kwanzaa, a Blessed Yuletide, and a Happy New Year!


Love, George, Chris, Fiona, & Schroeder

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2 thoughts on “An Old Fashioned Letter Christmas, 2020”

  1. Thank you for the lovely Christmas letter. I enjoyed the read. Merry Christmas to you both. Lots of Love. Cousin Linda and Leslie.

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