Week Five - clink, clink, clink 07/26/2010
“It’s the unpredictability of the predictable that keeps life interesting.”
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard
“Or is it the other way around?”
- Internal babble while driving, clink-clink-clink, Steve Carcano
Day Twenty-Nine – July 17th
It is with great sadness that we must return the Fiat 500. We like it so much we discuss getting one back home. Seriously. I believe it is small enough to qualify as a moped in the States but it does have two doors, a roof and a back seat (sort of, it kind of fits two small children). It will certainly keep those wacky golf carts that people are driving on PCH in their place.
Teri does a quick provision trip to the grocery and I stay back with the kids to pack up and get ready to motor. With a full kitchen and much needed rest and recuperation we are finally off to see the Zuiderzeemuseusm.
This is another walk around open-air museum about Dutch life but this one has a twist. It is on an island and we need to take our first ferryboat to get there. The wind is blowing, it’s sunny but there is still a nip to the air, big three mast sailboats line the harbor, a dyke is busy raising and lowering boats onto a canal, pretty much everything is in it’s place, right where it has always been and right where it belongs.
We spend the rest of the morning exploring the houses and store fronts of the village: there is a sail maker, a carpenter working on wooden shoes, a fisherman looking after smoked herring (we get one and eat it bones and all!), milking a pretend cow at the dairy, much touring of rooms of the folks that lived there. The structures have been relocated to this site from all over Holland - most are from the 1600-1700s – though life appears to remain much the same here regardless of the century.
After lunch we decide to head North again, this time crossing a big dyke (no snickering please) that separates the salt and fresh water. It is 30km long, 100m wide and straight as an arrow. The winds are gusty and howling and the camper jumps around a bit fighting just to get across.
We enter Friesland on the other side. This neck of the woods has remained independent of the rest of Nederland in mind and spirit for centuries. This is God’s country. Incredible coastlines, miles of wheat blowing in a steady wind, tree lined drives, a lot of sheep and very few people. It makes you want to get out of the camper and just stand there and breath.
Unfortunately there is not much to do with two kids in Friesland (they fail to see the joy in standing around breathing in good clean air and looking at the scenery) so we drive straight into Germany and head to a campsite outside the town of Oldenburg, the town my father’s grandfather is from. The campsite is a bit sketchy, mostly long timers with fishing gear and guns but the bathrooms are clean, the owner is nice enough and we need to get off the road.
Day Thirty – July 18th
This is another exciting day! We get out early and drive into the town of Oldenberg. My great grandfather is from here and I have all of his original paperwork tracing his journey from Oldenberg via Bremenhaven to Ellis Island in 1885.
It is a strange experience to see where your family hails from. I keep looking at people to see if they look like me or for the name Nordbrock to see if any of the family still remains. You want so much to have some kind of destination: a definitive point of reference to shape the experience. But in the end, it’s impossible. All you have is a sense and a feeling from being there, and for me, that turns out to be enough.
As we drive onwards I notice that we are surrounded by farmland growing acres of green vegetables yet none of it seems to find it’s way to the Germany dinner tables. I can’t imagine what they do with it all. They should eat more greens: it would improve their lifestyle considerably.
The new GPS takes us down all kinds of small and out of the way roads to get to places. At first I was worried we would be taking direct routes and bypassing much of the small towns and villages but it seems we find ourselves more and more on the small single lane roads (one lane for both directions). It could be that we are simply well off the beaten path but it sure is a nice way to see the countryside. Once you trust the GPS technology the confidence allows you to relax and you can use the drive time to open up and exercise the mind.
The main port of Bremenhaven is not what I expected. I pictured a cluttered town with narrow streets spilling into a harbor and dirt and old worn clothes and big old wooden docks and factories and smokestacks and seagulls and wind and waves and people and traffic and….
Instead it is open and big and broad, with wide streets and great old buildings and a towering church spire and sunshine and wind and seagulls and hardly any people…
It is a working port with a clear sense of self. It is proud and experienced but not arrogant. It stands testament to the 7 million people that sailed from there: both my and Teri’s great grandparents among them.
If you are interested in your family history and they sailed out of Germany please come and check this place out. The experience is worth the trip. They take you on a journey, giving you a real passengers identity and allowing you to follow along with them from check-in on the German side to landing on Ellis Island in New York. Plus, at the end of the tour you can look up your family members in a massive database and see when they sailed. The place rocks.
Eventually we head out and find a campsite in a small town on the way to Hamburg. An old lady manages it and she does not speak English. Instead she yells everything at you as loud as she can to help you understand better. It’s comical. She is yelling and we are nodding and carrying on completely different conversations. For some reason she is convinced I understand her and she goes on and on, laughing, telling jokes (I think), giving detailed instructions on doing laundry, pointing at her watch. It is a great treat to be so involved and have absolutely no idea what is going on. It’s a good metaphor for this life on the road.
For dinner we walk across the street to a Greek restaurant and order up a platter for two. A mound of meat arrives. There are all kinds of meats, likely from all over the body, in a big pile covering a few vegetables hidden on the bottom of the dish. My first bite is some kind of soft buttery liver thing. The second may be chicken or pork or possibly goat. By the third I am resigned to giving in to the situation and experiencing a true German Greek meal. Maybe we should become vegetarians.
Honestly the meal is delicious and the people very kind. Soon, after a huge bowl of ice cream for Adele, we are home and in bed to a good nights sleep.
Day Thirty-One – July 19th
This is a logistics day. We are headed to Hamburg for much needed supplies. Our route takes us on small country roads winding through the German countryside. It is warm and sunny and more beautiful around every turn.
We spend time driving 15Km per hour behind tractors pulling bales of hay or wagons full of grain. We must slow down in each town, which makes any kind of rhythm impossible. Or maybe it has a rhythm unto itself as each town is spaced roughly a days walking distance apart.
The homes are all made of brick. I read that post WWII they rebuilt everything in brick because all of the timber homes were pretty much destroyed by bombs. The world wars still linger in this part of the world. And their impact is subtle at times and almost confrontational at others.
Here, describing something as pre-war has a whole different meaning than when used to describe a full service doorman building on the upper West Side.
When I camped here as a kid with my family in the mid-1970’s WWII was still very new and fresh, less than thirty years had passed by. The 20 year olds in 1945 were in their mid 50s then. Forty some odd years later another generation is at the helm but you still get the sense that the memories linger and cut close to the bone. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it is so hard to imagine how not one, but two world wars started here in these small towns and villages of Germany. What were these people thinking?
Hamburg, the largest port city in Germany, is easy to get around and filled with big open streets all merging into the heart of the city. We drive the HOW right into the city center, park illegally for an hour or two, and achieve our main objective: finding the English language travel bookstore to stockpile our Denmark/Norway/Sweden books. We are in and out. I regret to say we did not eat hamburgers in Hamburg.
Tonight we are camped in Wikinger Campingplatz Haithagu on a harbor overlooking Schleswig, a small town in the far corner of Germany.
Day Thirty-Two – July 20th our one month on the road anniversary
The reason we are in Schleswig is for the Viking museum that just happens to be across the street from the campground. We walk over in the morning and get our first look at the Vikings.
The museum is a great introduction. The inside section covers the broad strokes of Viking rule and the history of the town we are in, once a center for all Viking trade in the region. The other section is a working village with several small thatched roof huts and a few larger ceremonial buildings. The kids eat it up. We all get Viking beads in the village to make bracelets that will carry the Viking spirit with us at all times. From now on I have asked the family to address me a Thor.
For lunch we head to the small town of Gluckspel on the German/Dane border. Parking is a bit of a challenge at first but it all eventually works itself out. Once we are on foot we find the “floating castle”. The guidebook claims it appears to float in a lake. Actually it is a really big moat built along with the castle by one of the powerful families in the 1500s.
We have fun wandering around the inside, complete with a dungeon. Outside something is lurking in the moat. As we watch the gentle ripples near the edge of shore a huge animal, maybe fish, maybe not, slithers and splashes right in front of us. It is big, maybe ten feet long or so and makes splashes far enough apart that it appears to be big enough to eat us. We all freak. The bets are some kind of eel, snake, dragon, catfish and/or a Backyardigan sea monster. We will never know for sure.
After lunch we cross into our seventh country and arrive in Denmark. Where are all the people? The road is empty save for a few cars and a random truck or two. The surrounds remind me of driving the Jones beach causeway on Long Island. It is flat, surrounded by fields of grass and you can sense the ocean is right around each bend (even when you can’t see it you can feel it).
Being typical Americans we drive straight away to Billund and expect to camp in Legoland for the night. It has been on our agenda since day one and is a focal point of the first part of the trip. We are quick to discover that this is where all the people are. Legoland is sold out. I believe all of Europe has decided to take a “stay-cation” this year and come here to spend their Euro dollars.
Flights are flying in from Ryan air, the campsite is over booked, all of the hotels are sold out and people are everywhere. This Legoland is more like Disney World in Florida. It is big and sprawling, swimming in a mass of humanity. It is a bit overwhelming so we leave and head to another campground in the town of Gist .
We need Kroners. It cost of hundreds of them to register and get a campsite. Since we don’t know the exchange rate we have no idea what things cost and money seems to be flying out the door. I think is cost 360K. Sounds like a lot. Can’t we all just get along and put the Scandinavians on the Euro?
By 10p everyone is settled into bed and I am up at the campsite office on a weak Wi-Fi signal paying bills and catching up on the travel log. The camper is making a strange clicking sound that is cause of some concern. It is a 2010 model so everything should be fine but we decide to get it checked tomorrow just in case - before the trip way up North.
With that in mind we are all set for an early start and a great day at Legoland!
Day Thirty-Three – July 21st
click-click-click-click-click-is that the engine-click-click-maybe it’s a rock in the tire-click-click-no it’s coming from under the hood-click-click-should we stop-click-click-I will call over when we park-click-click-click-click-click
We arrive in Parking Lot 2 around 10:30a and wait twenty minutes on line to pay for parking. Oh, no. Then we get on a line to by tickets so we can stand on another line to get in. So does the rest of Europe.
Once we get inside we have a wonderful time. Being park veterans we know to start in the back and work your way forward, going against the grain. We walk right onto the castle ride, Adele and Teri catch the big roller coaster and Vince and I ride the spinning water boats. Then we wait a bit, but not too long, to ride a new laser ride. By 1p we have tackled three of the big rides and scouted out much of the park.
We spend the day playing in the fountains and the water park, wandering around the Lego mini-land (much better than San Diego), eating ice cream, getting a hair weave and shopping. At one point we snap a photo by the driving track I can remember riding when I was a little kid. It is fun to be back in the same place with my kids. Even though it is way overcrowded, Legoland is still a magical place for all.
click-click-click-is this the place-click-that it says in the Fiat book-click-to go to for the noise-click-yes-click-but the guy says they closed 10 minutes ago-click-he says to come back at 8a-click-click-click
We move on to our campsite in Horsen. It is beautiful. We have a site on a big field with a great playground and in easy walking distance to every thing. The Campsite is on the beach, out on a point and it has a constant gentle breeze. What more can we ask for?
Vinny makes friends at the playground while Adele and I make our Viking bracelets and Teri tackles the laundry. Eventually we eat and do dishes and get to bed. By 11p the gentle breeze has turned to a light rain and the cool air rolls in off the sea.
Now this is Denmark.
At one point during the day Teri asks me, “What did we do yesterday?” We both look at each other and realize neither of us can answer. We have no idea what day it is (date or day of the week), only a vague recollection of the time of day (the number of hours of daylight distorts everything) and now we have short-term memory loss on recent activities. This is either really good or really bad, I am not sure which.
Day Thirty-Four – July 22nd
Here we sit at Fiat repair with notice of a 6-day layover to replace a ball bearing that is wandering around aimlessly in the “clutch compartment”. Apparently they need to replace the entire “gsbootenbearing” in the “vedansiasian” or else the “cluchenossen vill becaputon” Uh huh, and you can tell all that from just listening to it? Not even peeking under the hood? “Yah, yah, vee oderismaten clushenossen” So, we can’t drive it? “Nine, no, no, no (hand motions for steering wheel), capouten”. Ahhh, perhaps we can drive around until the part comes in? “Yeah, yah, yah, 10km oodly” So, no overnights to Kopenhaven? “Ha, ha, ha!” But we live in it: this is our home! He looks at me like I am nuts. “Gosputen Hotel en Hoousoon!” For SIX DAYS?
Communications are extremely difficult and everyone is passing off responsibility. We sit in a parking lot with no support from the outside, no way to contact anyone because the cell is not working, no home, no car and no idea what comes next. That about sums it up in a nutshell.
Crisis management is one of the great opportunities in life. If it goes well, catastrophe is narrowly averted. If it does not, you slip into the abyss.
We decide to take responsibility. We go to indoor play park, Teri takes the kids for three hours of running and jumping while I attempt to sort of logistics, we finally get a rental car, pack and move our stuff over, drive to Odense only to find the hotel in town is un-acceptable, we drive on to Nyborg and end up in a classic Scandinavian hotel that sits in the woods, on the ocean, with a pool, hot tub, and tennis court, and it feels like we are the only ones here, there are huge winds turbines seemingly floating on water on the horizon, and the biggest bridge we have ever seen going so far off it fades in the distance, we swim and sauna, get dinner at an Italian place, listen to music in the town square, find a very rare Fairy catching rock on the beach (one with a hole in it), go to bed in down comforters and pressed sheets, and I end the day doing one of my favorite thing in life – writing, in the nooks and crannies of great hotels.
You tell me – narrowly averted or slipping into the abyss?
Day Thirty-Five –July 23rd.
After a good nights sleep in the feather beds (well, for some of us, Adele took over my bed before I even got there and I ended up hanging off the side of the couch with Vince kicking all night long), we have a fancy buffet breakfast in the formal dining room. Maybe it’s not the best place for noisy kids as we notice the other guest huddling quietly in the corners. “Wake up! The Americans are here!”
We swim and play another set of tennis before driving over to our latest castle de hour, Oversigtskort. Apparently this is on the Top 1,000 Places to see before you die “bucket list” and with very good reason. It is spectacular. Not great, but spectacular!
There’s the castle, still used by the owners mind you, a tree top sky walk, the enormous hedge maze (like in the Shining), the largest doll house in the world, lots of armor and swords, a motorcycle collection, planes, trucks and cars, a doll collection, a fantastic play ground, stables, cannons, moats, fancy gardens and acres upon acres of perfectly manicured lawns.
We spend five hours here and could have spent another five. It is one of the highlight family stops of the trip to date. So different and distant from our experience two days ago in Legoland.
At lunch Vince continues his unwillingness to eat anything with the rest of us and acts out so much I need to remove him again from the table. He is way off kilter and it is driving the rest of us nuts. The behavior has deteriorated to the point that we now resist eating out if possible. This was fine with the camper but it’s not working with the car/hotel combo.
For dinner we do the only sensible thing and take the kids to a bar. We should have thought of this earlier. No one cares what anyone does in a bar. Plus, the trough urinals are fascinating to an almost four year. He can even lie around under the table on the dirty floor and tell his “fart’ jokes with the rest of the kids. Bars are family affairs over here and it works out great. Adele learns to play cards, Teri puts a few back and I get my first Diet Coke with ice in over a month.
All in all it is a nice way to wrap a very busy day.
Week Four - a bit of rest now and again 07/20/2010
“No, no, no, it’s P-O-T-A-T-O-E, potato, it has an e on the end, thank you.” – Vice President Dan Quayle, Trenton, New Jersey June 15, 1992
For those of you looking for a grammatically correct, spell checked version of life on the road, please be forewarned that you will not find it here. I ranked in the 13th percentile nationally in spelling after second grade and have probably fallen into the high single digits over the years. That means over 90% of the people can out spell me. Throw in the use of commas, and something called dangling participles and 1st/3rd person, past/present tense, and whatever else the Elements of Style can hurl your way and it all adds up to a lower than expected verbal score on the SATs. Since my math scores were not that stellar either I ended up at a state school with the rest of you. Man, what a downward spiral from the 13th percentile after second grade, so much for national testing to build a child’s confidence.
Sure, 90% may be able to out spell me, but when I look at the “verbally aware” spelling bee geeks I have to ask can they knit the words together in a patchwork that provides meaning? Maybe, then again, maybe not…
Day Twenty-Two – July 10th (happy b-day Rich)
It’s hot. So hot I had to sleep on the floor of the camper because two people in the bed over the cab was just too much. The kids look like they wake up sweating. Even the breakfast is hot.
Teri tries to do laundry at the campsite but it’s a disaster. To avoid any further damage we drive into Trier and try again. It is hot across the river as well, even hotter in the Laundromat, and practically boiling in the parked camper sitting in the mid-day sun. The vague plan to see some Roman ruins goes out the window. It is amazing we survived.
Thinking maybe it would be cooler down river we start to drive. I swear to you it gets hotter. Yes, the grapes are beautiful and the castles crowning the cliffs are dramatic but in the end the heat and the thought of another night sweltering in the HOW does us all in.
We abort the Rhine/Mosel mission and head towards Liege in Belgium figuring the further north we get the cooler it will be. This is a tough day. Germany is much different than what we expected: it’s not so friendly, it’s not unfriendly mind you, just so different than Paris. And the food is all heavy and thick and brown and yellow. There are no greens to be seen, just sausages and potatoes and beer and wine. It works for some, but not for us. You can take the people out of So Cal but we all have out limits.
By 8p we are in a mega-site in the Belgian countryside filled with families and kids running in all directions. It starts to rain, at first it is just distant thunder and lightening then it becomes a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes. We ride out the hard rain in the camper listening to the raindrops pound the ceiling. I love being so close to the rain yet still being inside the camper, safe and sound, warm and dry.
Thinking that the worst of the storm is over I decide to make a break for the washroom. When I return lightning strikes so close to me that I am thrown back a step and things stand still for a moment in a white flash of light. Thunder booms and crashes. Then it happens again, this time closer and I actually lean backwards as if in a high wind. In the intense flash that covers everything I notice the power surge and then shut down across the campsite. The people around me all go into slow motion and it takes a few seconds for all of us to come back into reality. I shudder and fight off a chill. Knowing it will freak out the kids I decide to keep the experience to myself. It was too close for comfort.
Back in the camper with the rain off in the distance and the cool night air filtering into the HOW things are finally looking up again.
Day Twenty-Three - July 11th
Then they are looking down. Upon closer examination in daylight it appears that we are camping in the middle of the equivalent of the LA County Fair in Pomona, or for you East coasters, think Giant Stadium pre-game meets one of the major Avenue street fairs in the city.
It is insane. People are everywhere, so are the tattoos and 9a beer drinkers and the steamers. There are Belgians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and a bunch of people from all of those various “cranes”. It looks kind of like organized crime goes camping. The men are big and burley, the women are as well and the kids are simply running wild. All of them are in Speedos - men, women and children. Bellies and breast are hanging every which way. They look at us like we are malnourished rag dolls.
By 10a, the official “opening hour” for the pool, the place is already partying. Teri sums it up best by explaining to Adele and Vince, “do NOT drink the water, it is one big, giant cesspool of germs!” and to me, “This is either a high point or a low point in life, I have no idea which.”
Badda Bing - we are “outta there!”
We decide to try Holland. With our new GPS the drive is a breeze. If you go to a foreign country invest in one of these it is worth whatever you have to pay for it. It’s a long haul though; three plus hours in the heat but the kids are great on the drive. Up in the cab you only get part of their conversations that tend to go something like this:
Vince: “Adele, I fart you!” He then laughs hysterically.
Adele: “OH MY GOODNESS! VINNY! NO! YOU DO NOT FART ME!”
Vince: “Adele, I fart you again!” He laughs so hard he almost cries.
Mom” “Vincent, do not say fart”
Vince: “Mom, I did not say fart I said fort! I fort you, Adele”
And on and on….
Anyway, our campsite, de Hertshoorn, about an hour outside of Amsterdam, is really amazing. It was recommended by Cookie Magazine back home and we have been carrying around the torn out page with the write up for months hoping we may get the chance to stay here. It does not disappoint. The sites are spacious and the grounds perfect for families. There are playgrounds, bouncy things, bike paths, an activities center and plenty of room to run and play. Needless to say the kids are in heaven.
The Netherlands is playing Spain in the final of the World Cup. I say the Netherlands, which I think is also called Holland, and it may also be known as Nederland. They should just pick it one of the three and call it a day. It just confuses the rest of us.
We get invited to our neighbor’s tent to watch the game. We rummage through our clothes and manage to find orange shirts (the color of the Netherlands) for each of us wear to show support. The Dutch are very excited we are pulling for Holland and showing up geared out like the rest of them. I do my best to teach then the wave.
I’ll comment more on the Dutch people later on. However, as an example of the type of folks they are, when the Nederland team rings up six or seven yellow cards (warnings for players) they do not question the calls by the referee or criticize the other team for being too aggressive but instead bow there heads and are embarrassed that their national team is not playing a clean game. Unbelievable. If the Dodgers were playing in the 7th game of the World Series I can assure you every call going against them would be the Yankees fault and any sense of embarrassment would be confronted straight up with indignation. We are in a much different land.
The Dutch lose the game and we mourn the loss with our fellow campers, there is nothing that an ice cold Heineken can’t cure.
Days Twenty-four/five - July 12/13 – Much needed rest days, happy b-day Charlie (my dad)!
According the Vince the “wind clouds” are blowing the rain clouds around again and thus water is falling down. It is actually nice to have a few overcast days for a change.
After the torrid schedule we have been keeping we decide to take advantage of the campsite and give ourselves our first rest week. We all need it. Much of the time is spent doing household chores: bill paying, catching up on journal writing, playing, resting, running, bike riding (we rent them at the campsite) and generally lounging around. We only stray as far as the bikes will take us.
Adele loves the independence the bike brings. She rides everywhere and is always volunteering to go get things. Ice creams for Vince, Coke Lights for dad. She is even brave enough to go to the store and pay for things on her own. She is growing up fast in this foreign land!
A few words on the Dutch - They are truly wonderful people: very caring towards each other and their children, the environment and the space circling around them. The campsite is spotless, not cleaned by an army of workers but instead all self-policed. They stop and pick up other peoples trash if they happen to mistakenly leave it behind.
They are educated and speak Dutch, German and English fluently. All of our conversations are in English and they easily float between all three languages as the need arises. The banter is insightful and they are truly interested in our lives back home and what brought us forth to be with them.
They opened their doors to us; offered us food and drink, gave attention to Adele and Vince and made us all feel welcome. We will miss them and feel lucky to have had the pleasure to stay among them for a few days.
By the end of the last day we are ready to travel again. We return the bikes, do a last load of laundry, scout out Amsterdam and try and get to sleep early. Tomorrow we are off again on another adventure.
Bring on the hookah; we are going to the big A.
Day Twenty-Six – July 14th
Adele has trouble getting up. Our sleep patterns are still off kilter and she is not going to sleep until way past 11p. Vince looks glossy from the get go and he is unusually quiet for such a big guy.
The vomiting starts as we hit the ring road outside of Amsterdam. First Vince goes all over himself and his bed and then as soon as he subsides Adele projectile vomits all over Teri and the bathroom floor. This is all happening while we are driving at high speeds in heavy traffic. All I can do is lob in the occasional, “how’s it going back there?” or the ever helpful, “it will all come out in the wash.” Sometimes it is best to shut up and drive.
Amsterdam is on hold. Fearing the worst, two sick kids and no aide in sight, we decide it best to head for a campsite outside of the city where we can crash for a few days. Edam wins the coin toss and we head to Strandbad-Edam.
It turns out to be a beautiful site on the water complete with a playground, swimming beach and WiFi (pronounced wee fee in Dutch). The kids want to feel better but are still under the weather for most of the afternoon and evening. Vince and I do manage to go for a quick swim in the lake and take a walk around to look at the sail boats tied up to the main canal.
The boats range from 30 feet to over 90 feet long, all full sail, some with two and three main masts. It demonstrates how dominant the Dutch sailors are/were. These boats are massive and impressive. They look like pirate ships lined up and waiting for Black Beard to return with sunken treasure. Vince loves them and remains on the look out for pirates at all times.
In the early evening I realize my passport is missing. Not to panic it must be here somewhere. That somewhere turns out to be the nightmare campsite we left in such a hurry back in Belgium four days ago. Badda-boom…
Confirming it is there is a nightmare unto itself. The woman that picks up the phone at 10p is the old lady that checked me into the campsite five nights ago. She is bitter, old and pure Belgian, speaking German and French but no English what so ever. I am yelling in broken French that my “passport est la! Oui, c’est la! Mon passport? American? Carcano?” She keeps putting down the phone to scream at people coming in and going out of the office. She sounds sort of like Ralph Cramden. “Halloow, C-A-R-C-A-N-O, Herren, A-L-B-E-R-T, USA” she is almost taunting me, “Yes, Yah, Yah, C’est moi! Hold it please, Si vous plait, je come there au domain!” She hangs up. I take that as a good sign.
However, I don’t sleep very well…
Day Twenty-Seven – July15th
My rented Fiat 500 goes 140km easy. And that is in the slow lane. Plus, it is much more fun to drive the Autobahn at high speeds in small cars.
We decide to split up today to save everyone the drama of the passport fiasco, so I rent a car and head out on a seven-hour tour of Belgium on my own. The seven hours includes an hour spent lost in downtown Amsterdam in peak traffic on narrow streets filled with bands of people partying in the mid-afternoon. By the time I get out of the city I know I have seen enough of Amsterdam.
Teri and the kids go and explore NEMO the science museum and grab Chinese food for dinner in town. The reviews are positive upon return. They do have a long walk back from the bus stop to the camper though so everyone is pretty worn out by days end.
After watching the sunset with Vince we wander back to our HOW and Adele decides to hold a family meeting to discuss our “feelings.” How is that for an eight year old? She sets up some fairly elaborate rules that take forever to explain but the gist of it is that each person should discuss what they are feeling so the others in the family are on the same page.
Vince insists on going first and lets us all know he is afraid of spiders. He then rambles on about Lighting McQueen and Matter and throws in a few lines from Nemo for effect. After that the meeting generally breaks down and we all agree that this meeting was just a meeting about the meeting and that the real meeting will be tomorrow and then once a week on Fridays going forward. Except for Vince who insists that his meeting is tomorrow and then he thanks Adele for her great meeting today, “Great job Adele.” Whew. How much drama can there be in one day?
Day Twenty-Eight - July 16th
Finally a day of sight seeing! After days of logistics and travel I can’t wait to see something! We have flexibility with the Fiat 500 and we take full advantage of it by loading up, piling in and heading off to fully embrace Holland!
First stop is the town museum in Edam. We wanted to go to Gouda but it was off track so we decided to hit Edam (pronounced Ahh dem) instead. We are glad we did. The town is beautiful. Canals lined with old stone houses from the 1600 and 1700s. The museum is set in a 400+-year-old house that is leaning heavily to one side with a basement storage area that floats on the water running underneath the foundation. It is great fun with the kids.
From there we go to the Edam cheese export house. Another 400+-year-old building filled with wheels of cheese destined for all points around the world. Here the cheese is sorted by age: “new” one month, “young” maybe two or three months and “aged” five months or more. The older the cheese the stronger and sharper the taste. They also have flavor cheeses with herbs, smoked and even a pesto version. Those crazy Dutch!
Clogging is big here, as in wooden shoes, so we zip over to Zaanse Schans to visit a real working village. It is sort of like our Colonial Williamsburg. By days end we are all wearing new wooden shoes, eating chocolate from the local factory and discussing the pros and cons of wind power after touring a lumberyard powered by a giant wind mill. How cool is that?
For lunch we have “pancakes” with ham and cheese. It sounds disgusting but tastes great. Then it is back home with some down time, I go food shopping (always great fun) and we end the night with another attempt at Adele’s family meeting.
This one goes a bit better. Vince is still afraid of spiders and babbling about The Backyardagins, Adele is mixing up feelings of pride and sadness (not sure exactly what that means and it takes so long to get it out that we must evoke a new 4 minute per person rule to stay on track), Dad is frustrated that people are not listening and Mom is feeling cramped in the camper and wants time to herself. I must admit Adele is on to something with the family meetings. Everyone feels better afterwards.
Tomorrow we travel on…
Week Three - Le Tour et al. 07/13/2010
Day Fourteen – July 2
“I left Rome and landed in Brussels on a train ride so bumpy that I almost cried.” -Dylan via Garcia
Today is a travel day. We get up in the heat and sweat for a while. IT IS STILL HOT, There is time to shuffle our stuff around once more to try and fit it all in. Teri heads off to the post office to mail home a box of gifts and some extras. Our new Malibu friends stop by one last time to exchange kids clothes. It all moves along in quarter-time in the mid-morning heat.
Vincent, the name of our driver (to which Vinny whispered with eyes wide, “no way”) drives us to the station in a big fancy AIR CONDITIONED car over to Euro-star for the train to Brussels. And we leave. Just like that. On the platform one minute, train the next. I already miss Paris.
The trip is painless taking about an hour and small change. The countryside is beautiful. More small towns and church spires. There are a few cows, sheep and a horse or two. The kids watch various “i” gadgets (iPads, iPods, iTouch) and time passes.
When we pull in to the central Brussels station I actually think we may have jumped off at the wrong stop. There is no one in Brussels. I mean no one. It is sort of freaky.
Eventually we find a cab and get to our hotel on one of the main squares, right in the heart of tourist county. We go over to a nearby park but it is nothing like the big city parks we are used to. Where are the people? It looks like they built this beautiful city and forgot to tell anyone about it. Maybe it’s fatigue. After a quick dinner and a few hours of World Cup in the hotel lobby, we all crash and try to sleep.
Did someone say that the Netherlands beat Brazil? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the noise from the celebration in the streets!
Day Fifteen – July 3, 2010
I cannot express how much better everyone feels after a good nights sleep in air conditioning. Sure we have four people in a room the size of a small closet but at least it’s cool! And they have a buffet breakfast were kids eat free! Does it get any better?
Today we take a short one-hour train ride to Bruges. This is listed as the classic medieval city in a far corner of Belgium and one of the only ones to be left unscathed from the air attacks of WWII. You know it’s funny how an hour train ride can get you to the far corner of anywhere. I can barely get to downtown LA in an hour back home.
Vinny is a bit concerned about the evil city and says a number of times he does not want to go. When I put it all together (medieval vs. evil) I am reminded about the Steven Covey story of the “corner” where the dad tells his little boy to stop going around the corner and the kid keeps going around again and again so the Dad tells him not to go around the corner again and again. The misunderstanding escalates until finally the kid looks up at the dad in total frustration and asks, “Daddy, what’s a corner?” Sometimes it is hard to remember Vinny is only almost four without the context of other almost four year olds to pull you back into his world and perspective. It’s is medieval Vince, not evil.
A few train lessons we have picked up thus far. Everyone, and I mean everyone, travels “class 2” so by the time we get two kids onto the platform and on the right train all the seats are long gone. When traveling with kids, assume you should sit together and take empty seats in the “class 1” car and look like you belong there. Best to do this when you are not really sure if you are actually doing anything sneaky (i.e. when you think you are just lucky to find the only empty car with air conditioning). Then smile, smile, smile, and keep nodding when anyone asks you for anything. It works like a charm.
Bruges is no longer a secret. In fact, all the people that are supposed to be in Brussels are hiding out in Bruges. And with good reason. The town is beautiful. It is cool and overcast so the leaves are that ‘heavy’ green you get sometimes, kind of forest like. The streets are narrow with houses built eons ago standing tall against the lapping waters of the canals. Whole packs of swans swim by, “seriously, for real” says Adele.
Pretending to be good tourists we immediately take the thirty-minute canal boat ride in the rain. Vince and Adele have a blast riding in the back, dipping their hands over the sides and hovering under the umbrellas. It is now cold and wet and there is only one thing to do in a downpour in a foreign town. Without hesitation we decide to look for lunch.
A few comments on the merits of a man purse: first off let me be very clear, I do not have a man purse. Nor do I intend to get one. That said they do look pretty practical. Not “pretty” practical in a good-looking sort of way but instead in a really useful sort of way. They have a lot of pockets to put stuff in, they hold all sorts of things and some of them are pretty “sporty” in a Metro-euro kind of way. Again, for clarity, I do not have one nor do I intend to get one. But if one happens to make it’s way into the HOW, then when in Rome as they say…
We pick out a Frommer’s recommendation and head over to the main square. Along the way we pass many nice little comfortable healthy places to eat and end up in what is to us a complete nightmare of a restaurant. This is happening too often with Frommer’s recommendations on this trip so we decide, with much disappointment, that Frommer’s needs to go.
We are no longer Frommer’s people. Ironically, I think we have actually evolved into Lonely Planet people. Many would say this is a regression but I disagree. We’re not quite a Rough Guide family yet but we are definitely leaning towards the more refined side of Lonely Planet. Plus, they have stepped it up a notch of two.
I will miss Frommer’s and the comfort it held for us for so many years of travel. Just holding the books with there distinctive red cover in hand evokes memories of far off places. But they keep missing the mark this time around so with too many disappointments against so few opportunities they need to go. The stakes are high on the TAWT, no room for the mediocre.
After a terrible meal we catch the bus to the train and head back to the Novotel hotel where we watch Germany beat Argentina and confirm that Lance rode well in the time trial and is sitting in 4th overall. Finally it is off to dream about tomorrow.
Day Sixteen – July 4th
Happy 4th of July! It is good to be an American, especially in a foreign county. Congratulations, today is my day! I have been dreaming about seeing the Tour first hand for years. Every July I spend countless hours watching race coverage to experience both the excitement of the race and also the territory and terrain they race in.
We are up at 9a and down to a buffet breakfast at the hotel. All of us were “sleep talking” last night (Vinny’s explanation) about various things, some good and some bad. The underlying anxiety of travel will find a way out in some form or another. Probably best left to dreamland.
The Tour finish is two metro stops away and is at the base of something called the Automium. It is a massive structure that kind of looks like an artistic interpretation of a DNA strand. Per the literature, it is supposed to represent the interconnectedness we all share and patterns we make when we migrate. Or something like that. Anyway, it is way cool in the eyes of an almost four and eight year old.
We take a super fast elevator through the tube like structure to the top and have lunch of all things. The food is excellent. And it proves to be a great spot to watch the team buses and the rest of the pre-tour extravaganza roll into town.
Post lunch we head back down and find ourselves between the 300-200 meter mark. En route we find free hats, big fingers like our Dodger finger back home, flags from multiple nations, some candies tossed mardi gras style from sponsors speeding by and various other forms of swag. The kids are psyched. Adele is having a blast. So is dad.
We have two an a half hours to the race comes in. Luckily we get a spot and settle in by one of three very small trees giving us just a bit of shade. Then Vince decides it is time to melt down. I mean really melt down for the entire time two an a half hours.
I can’t blame him. It’s the hottest day yet, there is little shade, no bathrooms, no water, no food, thousands upon thousands of people, many of them steaming, everything is very LOUD, the sponsors drive by too fast and the race TV is too far away to see. On the whole, through the eyes of an almost four year old, this is as good an opportunity as any it gets for a melt down.
Through the eyes of a forty seven year old it is an excuse to jump up and down for joy. It is a glorious day! Flags are flying, the TV is broadcasting the race, people are piling in from every direction, the pre-race festivities are in full swing, we are on the 250M mark right where the sprint will start to build. It cannot be any better!
So we wait. And wait. And wait some more.
Then on the big screen, there is crash! Bike and riders are everywhere. It must be one of the biggest crashes in the final race moments I have seen. For those of you that do not spend every July glued to the TV, this is not a good sign for a sprint finish. Somehow a handful of riders manage to get through but they are strewn all along the course. Where’s Lance?
ZOOOOOOOOM! Did you see something? ZOOOOOOOM! Was that them? ZOOOOOOM! Did someone go by? ZOOOOOM! I can’t see anything! ZOOOOM! ZOOOOM! Put Adele on my shoulders! ZOOOM! ZOOOM! Quick I think they are here! ZOOM! ZOOM! ZOOM! Was that Lance? ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! I can’t see anything! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Did you?
OK, time to go.
We join the herd and head over to a Tour sponsored playground for a much needed bathroom stop and some time off-leash for the kids. After a hot and crowded train ride back to the Novotel we have a picnic on the hotel room floor, make s few Skype calls back home, watch a great car show on BBC and then fall into much needed sleep.
Allez Lance! Allez!
Day Seventeen – July 5th
Another late start today. We are still off schedule and need to get back in a groove as soon as possible. Teri and Adele are off to get their nails done while Vince and I tackle breakfast on our own. It’s great fun eating bread and honey and talking about “bikeling”.
It occurs to me that we are leaving tomorrow morning for Frankfurt and that, as of yet, we have no hotel and more importantly we have not found a campsite book in English to aide us in finding places to stay for the next two months. The idea of wandering aimlessly in a 22 ft House On Wheels down little tiny European roads randomly looking for campsite markers begins to makes me twitch. The stress level is rising.
To ease the tension, Teri returns to announce that they have decided we have had enough of Brussels and its time to leave. That means leave as in we need to make check out in two hours! Suddenly tomorrow nightmare is today’s reality.
Not ready to face the situation we wander a few blocks from the hotel to watch the start of the second stage of the Tour. This is an incredible experience. We are right next to the race buses watching the riders come out and gear up for the stage. While it is fairly chaotic, the crowds are nowhere near as bad as yesterday. Plus, we are right there, in the mix with all the others, just an arms length from the royalty of cycling.
Teri and Vince head back to arrange for the trip to Frankfurt while Adele and I go over and watch the riders push off for the start. We manage to get standing room behind one of the barriers just in time to see the peloton pass by. Allez, Lance! Allez!
If you want a true test of character try getting to a train station in a foreign country 10 minutes before your train leaves with way to many bags, a hungry wife and kids, no idea where the ticket windows are, no idea if there are seats available on the train, a vague notion that there is a connection in Koln that needs to be met or there may be consequences beyond your control, and then add people in uniforms telling you in a foreign language to get on a line that wraps out the door and around the corner so you to get a number to stand in another line to get some information.
Oh sure, you would like to think that you will be a solid and stoic leader when faced with such adversity, that everything will be “fine” and “work out for the best” or “whatever.” But when your almost four year old decides to melt down in the middle of the station and your eight and half year old claims she is starving and can not go on and your 43 year old keeps saying nervously, “we will make, just set your intentions” I swear to you that all thoughts of anything rational just fly out the window. And this is Brussels for Gods sake, I dread Istanbul.
We go into to survival mode and do only what is absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. And in this case it was absolutely necessary to go first class. Magically all problems seem to disappear. It’s the best extra $50 we have ever spent.
Goodbye Belgium, hello Germany! As soon as we board the train you can feel the difference. We are traveling with German businessmen. These are very serious people: all dressed in suits and ties, corporate with a sense of entitlement. It is the way in which they carry themselves that is striking. Not quite condescending but with an attitude that speaks volumes. They look at us like we are from another planet. Not with interest but more with amusement and maybe even a trace of distain.
We ignore them. As the fields, church spires, tree lined country roads and forests pass by we head into the belly of Germany and roll on towards Frankfurt.
With our plan in place we head for the Westin where we order Chinese food to go for a picnic on the hotel room floor and then go for a swim in the hotel pool. Ahhh, what a few creature comforts will do to improve moral.
Day Eighteen – July 6th
Life after a good night’s sleep in a “heavenly bed” always seems brighter. It also helps to have breakfast in the fancy Executive Level Suite due to a last minute upgrade because the original room only had one queen bed. Our little family of four was spilling out into the hall.
Frankfurt is a happening place. There is a lot of hustle and bustle going on around us and all of it is in German. No romantic French lingo in this town. Luckily for us we are staying right next to a big shopping street, kind of like the Third Street Promenade back home. And this one has an Apple store, which we need to get the iPads Euro ready with SIM cards.
We spend the day wandering around town shopping for last minute things prior to the HOW pick up tomorrow. It is a day of logistics: (1) We continue our search for an English language European camping guide to no avail (2) Discover that they do not have SIM cards for iPads available yet in Europe (3) Eat real frankfurters in Frankfurt and take our pictures like goofy tourists (4) Try and fail to buy shoes for Teri and Adele (5) Try and succeed in buying Swatch watches (there’s a flashback for you) for Teri and Adele in lieu of shoes (6) Get Vinny new underpants with action heroes (7) Have Chinese food for dinner AGAIN (this time in the restaurant) (8) Swim (9) Get online for, get this, $30USD in the hotel (not in our budget) (10) Watch the Netherlands beat Uruguay!
All in all another great travel day.
One other observation to close out the day - each time we leave a country I erase the time setting on the world clock list I keep on my iTouch. It is a strange feeling as it marks the end of one segment of the trip and the beginning of another. I am not sure how I feel about it yet. It’s sort of like the post race feeling your get after you cross the finish line of something that you have worked towards for a very long time. No matter how the race goes, the immediate post race response is always raw and vulnerable. The sense of accomplishment tends to grow with time and distance and it lingers long after you delete the race splits from your watch. I trust this will be the same.
So far I have deleted London, Paris and Brussels.
Day Nineteen – July 7th
Welcome the dawn of a new day! Today is our HOW day! A day that we have been talking and dreaming about for months is finally upon us! We are off to great places; we are off on our way!
But first we must have breakfast. David our breakfast “concierge” is from Amsterdam and he is still reeling from the win last night. He is so excited that he is planning to go back home for the final game just to be with his people. This is for a soccer game; sorry, I mean “football”. And you think NFL fans are hardcore.
As we wander around town we come across a small square with what appears to be scaffolding for bike racks. Looking a bit closer at the trash I notice energy gel wrappers, banana peels and empty water bottles. Sure enough, it turns out this was the finish line for Ironman Frankfurt a few days ago! For those of you thinking about doing this race it looks like a big city affair. The finishers I accost whenever I see one all agree it was a good race, no rave reviews though, but I think the heat got to everyone. I need to start running on this trip to gear up for something in NZ.
The next few hours we accomplish more tasks: (1) Eat at more frankfurters and real German potato salad (2) Find maps for most of the trip (3) Buy a few English language books for the kids (4) Shop for shoes again (5) Pack up one more time (6) Check out and (7) Find a cab to the HOW depot.
I realize almost immediately that we have a language barrier with our cab driver. He may speak German: then again, he may not. I proudly show him my MapQuest directions all neatly organized and detailed with distance in kilometers and everything. He ignores them.
I keep pointing to the piece of paper and shouting the name of the road we are looking for. “It’s ShouzhenRoadaVindaCamperStruasenHouseEnWheelsEnStraza”, sort of. It takes about 5 minutes or so before I realize he cannot read or speckenzie English. He is also fairly stressed and starts talking louder and driving faster every time I say something. Best to keep quiet in these situations.
Suddenly in our darkest hour, he starts smiling big time and giggling and pointing at street signs. Then miraculously we pull into the parking lot of McRent the rental place. Try to always lend a helping hand and it will come back to you when you least expect it.
Our 2010 Dethleffs 20.5M long Super Camper is ready to roll! It is the unit we hoped for complete with bunk beds for the kids, a “gourmet center”, full bath (sort of) and plenty of room for the four of us and our many bags. WE ARE SO EXCITED!
The people at McRent are top notch. I found them on the web via a company, IdeaMerge, based in Portland that does this kind of thing. They work with the in market rental companies that they recommend and coordinate all the details for you. I highly recommend their services.
Check in is painless and easy: Susan, the manager on site, checks us in and gets us on our way. Our trail HOW experience during the Grand Canyon trip proves to be critical in terms of providing context for the logistics of operating the HOW and also confidence in driving it. This one is 2/3rds the size of the last one and much easier to handle. The front cab is low like the Euro trucks you see in pictures and very comfortable. The six on the floor stick shift takes some getting used to but you get the hang of it after a few downshifts into reverse in the middle of the traffic circles.
IKEA is a godsend. They have everything we need to outfit the HOW. You would be amazed at the number of little things that make such a big difference in HOW travel. Containers to hold things, your own towels, sheets and blankets, a good cutting knife, a garlic press, a candle or two. The things you turn to again and again in everyday life. It also helps to have a Toys R Us right next door so we can stock up on Hot Wheels and Lightning McQueens.
Once underway we immediately get lost looking for our first campsite. Helplessly lost, in a “small” city of about 100K people, with narrow roads and highways that all point in the wrong direction. After much heated debate we decide to move down river to a smaller town and search for another place. Luckily we find one or we may still be circling the town of Mainz.
The site is nice, quiet and clean. Since the kitchen is closing we scramble to order more potato salad, hamburgers (sort of, not sure what kind of meat they use here) and some other random items that fall into the “this must be a German thing” category.
I once had the privilege of attending a “firework” (singular) display in a tiny town in Vermont for one of our 4th of July celebrations. I sat with a few friends and the entire population of the tiny town to watch the single firework. It rocked beyond words.
Tonight I have the privilege of attending a town party of about 300 people in a small field on the banks of the Rhine to watch Germany play Spain in the World Cup. Everyone is there watching a make shift big screen and celebrating every move on the football field. They eat and drink and smoke and cheer and laugh and in the end cry. I watch the first half in the field with Vince on my shoulders and the second half in the campsite beer garden under a weeping willow tree with Adele. It was one of those moments when you find yourself in the right place at the right time. Oom-pah!
Day Twenty – July 8th
Did anyone bother to mention that it gets light here at 4:30a? We would not know since we have been sleeping with curtains closed in air-conditioned hotel rooms until 10a up until now. Raise and shine. It is a great time to get a few good hours of journal writing in, sitting riverside watching the boats go by.
The family gets up at 8:30a and we wander over to have breakfast in the beer garden house: scrambled eggs with chunks of ham, thick dark bread, coffee, a non-English speaking host and two or three dogs wandering around for good measure. Now this is Germany.
We are off on another shopping excursion to fill in around the edges. The Real Super market has everything. We get more stuff for the camper and build our staple foods for the road. I draw the card for food shopping and have no idea what is going on. It’s great fun figuring things out but it all takes time. Do hotdogs really come in jars? How can anyone eat that many pickles? Three hours later both kids are cranky (understandable so) so we drive down the Rhine to St. Goar and find a great campsite just off the river. It sits at the base of a castle that we can dream about tonight and actually see tomorrow morning.
There is enough time to play football, take showers, do a load of laundry and eat a pasta dinner. I talk to the owner’s son for a while. His English is excellent. The people at the campsite (the ones looking at us like we are from Mars because we have the only kids in the place) have been coming there since he was a boy. All they do is sit around day in and day out watching the campsite coming and goings on. And they do this all summer long. By the looks of things they also gain weight whenever possible. They are nice enough but nowhere near as warm as the French. Plus they watch every move you make! Freaky…
Day Twenty-One – July 9th
We are up around 9a – it would have been earlier but we had to sleep with Vinny in the little bunk bed to get him to go down so we were all up past 11p. His sleeping patterns are way out of whack. After a quick breakfast and dish wash we are off to our first castle – Burg Rheinfels - a ruin from 1245 built atop a mountain flanking the Rhine. It is storybook and epic.
Parking is confusing of coarse (nothing is easy here) until we realize the signs we think are “no camper parking” signs are really “no campers 10p-6a parking” signs. When we get that down the rest falls into place.
For effect they make us take a little train up the steep roads to get to the entrance gate. It is so much fun to wander and explore dark creepy passage ways, stunning views of the river, dungeons, grave stones, a scale model of what it looked like in the day, and all sort of other sights. Vinny earns the Knight title Vincent the Brave, Adele opts for Adele Rose the Scared. When you are almost four there is no need to be afraid. When you are eight with a vivid imagination and a flare for the dramatic there is danger at every turn!
I make a mental note to check the 1200s here verse something like Mesa Verde back in the States to see how evenly world cultures progressed. Ruins here verses ruins there or in South America or Asia for that matter. The sheer sense of power that you get from the castles here and in France is stunning.
By mid-afternoon we are back down to lunch in our HOW and then a beautiful drive up the river to Koblenz where we manage to get lost (this is becoming a daily event) before hitting the Autobahn (our first experience on it) up the Mosel to Trier. The HOW tops out at about 130K: well maybe not, but it does starts to beep and make strange noises around there so we throttle back hold steady at 120K. I wish I had a Porsche.
In desperate need of Wi-Fi we take the “Ausfhart,” I kid you not it is German for exit, and hit an Autobahn truck stop to search for a signal. It turns out tmobile has wired the truck stops all across Germany. We get emails, Skype back to the states and play in the kinder-garten. These things put the rest stops on I-95 to shame. As a side note, leave it to German engineering to figure out a way to put advertising on urinals!
Our site this evening just outside of Treir is “city” camping. We are very close to our neighbors. The cliental has a gritty feel to it. And there is not a kid to be found. What has happened to all the families?
Week Two - Paris 07/04/2010
Day Seven - 6.25 – Paris
“He went to Paris, looking for answers to questions that bothered him so.” - Jimmy Buffett
Are we in France?
Up early (8a) and struggle to pack up the rest of our belongings. When we picked up the second roller it was supposed to replace two or three carry bags, it did not, and now we have one more than before – can it get worse?
Take off is very easy – cab to station – walk right on to the train – leave on time. It is very efficient, much more so than expected. I am glad to be moving on.
The sights in London were great but the people through me off a bit. To me, they seem to see themselves as struggling all the time. Maybe its deeper and they are trying to regain what they once had, a place in the world they no longer hold (whatever that means). Opposing that impression, I sort of feel we are on the upside, we may be fiddling while we burn but we learned from the Romans and are also putting out the fires. Maybe. Anyway, we do have a sense purpose and a forward orientation. Besides, we are generally a confident, happy and cheerful people: there are hardly any smiles in London. We enjoyed our stay but it is time to move on…
On the Paris side we pull into the station and our “driver” is waiting. We grab a few Euros and off we go. Best thing we did was pre-book a pickup, finding the apartment people to get our apartment key would have been near impossible in the afternoon traffic, heat and congestion.
Je suis en amour avec Paris! All of Paris - Everything about it. It is sunny and warm and crowded and loud, all in an inviting way. The place is buzzing, almost vibrating. It feels like we are getting ready to lift off. And it is full of Parisians: London was full of tourists.
Vincent notes again that everyone steams, he is very disappointed, as if it was just going to be a London thing, interestingly he has gone from concern so strong that he asks people to stop all the way to resignation that “everybody” steams. And he looks resigned to it all, it’s a hard lesson for a little guy.
Our “compartment” is perfect. We have a small one bedroom on a side street right around the corner from Notre Dame. It is in the Marais district, I believe it is in district number 4. We drop the bags and go shopping at the super market before our sitter arrives.
Bette, pronounced “Bet–tee”, arrives. She immediately settles in and the kids seem very comfortable, they start a game of Old Maid and the laughter begins. We have sitters for four of our nights here to give Teri and me some time to enjoy the sights and sounds on our own. After this week its two months in a camper so we splurged a bit!
We head out to the Ile St. Louis for dinner at, as you would expect, a nice little place on a side street. Afterwards we wander over a bridge to a spectacular view of Notre Dame backlit by the night sky. The sides of the La Seine are packed with people, all just sitting around and enjoying conversation, I can not think of a single place back home where people do that, then again I cant thing of a single place back home like this one. Now this is Paris! J’taime Paris!
Day Eight – 6.26 “ALRIGHT PARIS, RAISE THOSE FISTS UP IN THE AIR!” - Billy Joe Armstrong
Mistake number one, head to Le Tour Eiffel on Saturday morning, typical Americans, assuming the crowds will part for us and we will have the place to ourselves. This is the first time we are really knee deep in tourists and the hair on the back of the neck raises the closer we get to the entrance. The place is packed. Not crowded but packed.
People are everywhere. I don’t really have any comments on the tower except to say it’s HUGE and CROWDED and HOT! This is the first time this trip I made a very conscious effort to keep a close watch on Teri, the kids and the money. We leave immediately.
I do manage to “bargain” with one of the vendors for two small statues of the tower. I get him down from E5 for one to E5 for two. As I say emphatically over and over, “no, no, no c’est tout cher” (translation: no, no, no, that is all expensive instead of too expensive) Vince complains the entire time that he really wants a BIG one. In the end, the street guy, feeling guilty for taking me for E5, actually comes back and gives me another one. Clearly I overpaid. However, the kids are almost happy and that is a small victory in the raising heat. Time to get out of Dodge…
Did I mention we got up and out at 11:30? This sleep thing is tough. With the sun setting around 10p the kids clocks are adjusting to an 11p to10a sleep window. So, we are all a bit tired and hungry as we wander around trying to find what our guidebook calls “the biggest toy store in Paris.” First off it moved, second it is two rooms with a few wooden toys. Something was lost in translation, though not lost on the kids who are looking for the giant T-Rex like the one in Toys Are Us in Times Square. It’s time to go back the to the compartment. Everyone mopes home through the festivities spilling over into the streets from the gay pride parade. How great is Paris?
Then the moment arrives. I bought the Green Day tickets months ago and decided to keep it a secret until the day of the concert. So all though out the day I have been giving Adele clues to her night out with the parents and she finally puts it all together on the packed subway ride to the show. She looks move excited than I am (if that is possible).
All I can say to try and express how unbelievable this was is to pay the band and my daughter one of the highest compliments in rock and roll jargon – IT ROCKED!
What? I cant’ hear anything, bon nuit…
Day Nine – 6.27
Today is our first rest day. We are dedicating one or two days each week for resting. What a great life. This one happens to coincide with a weekly market held at Bastille in the Marais district.
It is a sprawling affair and it appears to go on for miles and miles. It is three lanes wide with two stalls on each side. There are piles of olives, big animal legs, pigs feet/noses/tongues, chickens galore, every fruit/vegetable imaginable, fresh eggs in huge baskets, bread, crepes, wine, sausages and more cheese than I have ever seen in one place. We indulge…
Then it is off to rest. We sit around the compartment and make phone calls, catch up on our journals and do some forward planning. Adele and I head out to the laundry right around the corner. I must admit this is my first time in a Laundromat in years. Not a lot of Laundromats in Malibu. Some things never change; you still need lots of “quarters”, the machines still make lots of noise and shake you when you sit on them and the dryers’ only work on the highest temperature. There is something relaxing about sitting there watching the water and suds slosh around while glancing at our books that makes both of us very much at ease. It’s a peaceful process doing laundry in the Laundromat with an eight year-old reader. Adele sits on the floor propped up against a machine and reads. Just like the big people. She later claims it is the one of her favorite parts of her day. Mine as well.
We head home to fold clothes and have a lunch of salad and cheese. The afternoon blends into early evening so we also have a dinner of fresh olive and veggie ravioli in a homemade sauce and then end the day with a walk by the river to take in the evening air and amazing ice cream.
We manage to record our first video report (posted somewhere on the blog), watching the sunset over Paris. It’s the perfect end to the day.
Day Ten – 6.28
I get up around 8a for the first time in a while: the family sleeps in to 10:30a. It is nice to have some quiet time in the mornings. Looks like the routine is starting to take shape.
It is a beautiful day here in Paris. Around 11:30a or so we decide to head to Notre Dame. So does everyone else on a tourist visa. The line to climb the tower is over and hour and a half and it stretches way out into the midday sun. The place is just too crowded. We do manage to get inside to walk the perimeter to check out the stain glass windows (very intense colors and detail). I feel like cattle on parade.
Instead of waiting in line we take a rain check and walk over to Garden Luxembourg. It is much smaller than the London parks and more urban. People are huddled under the canopy of leaves and tucked into every nook and corner. They provide chairs and benches and folks just kind of sit around, chat and eat. We did manage to pick up some lunch along the way only to have Vince immediately drop all his pineapple in the dirt. The kid can’t get a break.
The highlight of the garden is the sailboats in the main reflecting pool. We rent two for half an hour and the kids sail them around using long sticks to push them into the wind. No motors, they sail on the wind, how cool for an almost four year old? It’s great fun and the running and chasing expends much energy. Both kids are breaking a sweat at the end.
The pond sits in front of a beautiful chateau that we think may house the French parliament. Like everything in Paris it is an old, stately building that looks too perfect to be real. I feel like we are standing in a postcard!
When the boats sail back into port we load up and head to the pay for play playground. This is a great concept we should adopt in the States. For a small fee you enter a closed in, safe and fully supported play area. The kids are in heaven.
It only gets better when we bump into another Malibu family! And they have kids that go to Adele’s school. Adele lights up with the familiar connection and the girls have a blast! There is much running, climbing, splashing and laughing. In late afternoon all the kids ride a classic old merry-go-round, one where the driver holds out keys you need to catch on a stick. Vince watches his sister and yells “good job Adele” each time she catches one. He focuses each time around only to miss but he finally gets a ring on the last time. He looks like he is going to explode with pride.
We part ways and head back to the boats for one more sail. We pass the legal limit about five minutes in and both kids start melt down. Within twenty minutes Vince is wailing in the stroller. It’s clearly time to head back to the compartment.
Everyone is exhausted. So much so that Adele mistakenly flushes Vincent’s underpants down the toilet. The one that has a big sign on it saying, “PAPER ONLY. NOTHING ELSE. 700 EURO FOR PLUMBER TO FIX!” Are you kidding me? Pray to the plumbing gods for us.
With another sitter lined up for the evening, Teri and I are off to wander Le Marais district. It is full of beautiful artwork and shops, and has large center square with a nice little park. We end up in Chez Janou for dinner next to a wonderful English couple. Later on we chat with a great couple from NYC. The conversation and food are both lively and interesting. Home around 11:30p.
Day Eleven – 6.29
Today is supposed to be an early start buy we miss the wake up call. At around noon we manage to get in gear and walk to Le Gare D’Lyon and grab a train to Melun. From there we take a quick taxi ride over to Chateau de Vaux-Le-Vicomte.
The place is huge. The guys that designed Versailles designed the Chateau, only it is on a slightly smaller scale (standing in the gardens it is hard to imagine this being considered small). Apparently King Louise XIV liked the place so much he took it over, threw out the guy that built it and forced the designers to build something “grander”. Those were some crazy times!
This is our first sort of up close experience with the sheer wealth and power of the ruling class back in then. It is staggering to think how vastly different the wealthy were from the poor. I guess to some extent it’s the same today with the truly rich in our world. We had a taste of that in London with the Middle Easterners in Harrods.
Today it feels like wealth is held by a broader swath of people – that it has tricked down across many. But here, imaging back to the day, it is just overwhelming. It seems that all the wealth was concentrated in the hands of so very few. And those few, ruled with iron fists to keep it. This may sound crazy but it actually feels cleaner in a way. You certainly knew your lot in life. And there was little reason to try and climb the corporate ladder. Maybe here in lay the origins of “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” This is what happens when you sit under trees at Chateaus for too long.
By the way, there is no one here! We eat lunch in a pretty courtyard, tour the castle, discuss adding a moot to our place back home, get a case of the willies in our first dungeon, wander around the grounds, rest/play on a hillside for awhile, take a “secret passage” way back to the main house and retrace our steps back home.
Everyone is tired at the end of a great sight seeing day. After a quick stop to pick up dinner we head home to cook, eat and sleep. Except for Vince who decides to stay up to midnight again...
Day Twelve – 6.30
People are grouchy, present company included. It is one of those mornings. I mean it is not just me; everyone is grouchy, at least from my perspective. Anyway, with that context for the day, here we go.
Notre Dame part deux. Adele and I head over early to try and beat the crowds. We are on line (is it on or in?) at 9:30a ready to climb. To our surprise the Malibu family from the Jardin Luxembourg is standing right next to us. What a small world. After some delay, unexplained of course, we do manage to start climbing, and climbing and climbing. There are 400 stairs all in, exactly 400 per the girls.
It is great fun this stair climbing thing. You get to count each one as you go and add in any side trips to see big bells and things. You also have to focus and remember what step you are one while your Dad points out all the things you can see from the top of Notre Dame, how the stairs get narrower the high we go, asks how thick the walls are and keeps making noises like some guy named Quasimodo or something. 398, 399, 400!
Wow! Le Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, Louvre, Pompidou, the Sorbonne, and on and on. It is like a who’s who of the France’s most recognized structures. And to top it all off, we are surrounded by gargoyles! Tres cool. What goes up must come down, for a total stair day of 800. Not quite St. Paul’s but a close second.
We wander back to the compartment for a quick lunch and then all head off to Jardin des Tuileries. The metro is hot. In fact it feels like someone turned up the heat in Paris. The temp is rising buy the hour. Not good mix with grouchy folks.
The Tuileries have an amusement park type thing going. The Ferris wheel is gigantic and gives us a great view of all of Paris. I am not sure it is worth going around twice for $25 but then again when in Paris. Adele and Vinny drive racecars, probably the highlight of Vinny’s trip to date, jump on trampolines and whine a bit in the heat. We try and find a playground but it is closed. Did I mention that it’s hot? It’s a tense walk through the garden.
You know the weird thing about Paris? Here the absolutely stunning and remarkable becomes and/or mixes with the ordinary. When your faced with a perfectly square park surrounded by 16th century buildings and tree lined streets dotted with cafes and you catch glimpses of arches and doorways that look like they have been there forever, it all sort of numbs you. The senses are so overwhelmed, in the best way possible, on ever front, that you need to resign yourself to taking it all in and sorting it all out later. No wonder the city stays with people for so long. It may take a lifetime just to sort through the images, memories and passing thoughts.
To avoid the heat we step into the L’Orangie (sp?) for the water lilies and another who’s who of impressionists. By chance there is a Paul Klee exhibit. He was late 1800s to mid-1940s and was all over the map in terms of style. It’s very interesting.
Pretty much stretched to the limit, we all return home to Bet-tee. I think the kids are happy to let us go. I feel for her as we walk out the door but she seems handle things pretty well.
Teri and I head over to the Louvre, for an hour or two. Did you catch that? The Louvre for an hour or two - probably a bad call in retrospect. We storm by the Mono Lisa, with everyone else, run around the second floor like we are doing laps and finally give up when we see one too many paintings by a bunch of artists neither one of us has every heard of. Did I mention we are all grouchy and it’s over a thousand degrees at 9p?
When you are collapsing far from home there is only one thing to do, find a diet coke at the golden arches. God bless Ray Kroc. Now, if the French would only start using ice. We’re back home at 10:30 and off to bed shortly there after.
Day Thirteen – July 1
Now it’s really HOT. I’m not kidding around. We all sort of lull ourselves out of sleep and stagger through breakfast. It’s HOT. I mean really HOT.
Adele and I pull a repeat performance and head out as a dynamic duo for a trip to the hallowed ground of the Tour de France finish, the Arc de Triumph. En route we meet our first “typical” Parisian at the Metro station. I cannot buy two tickets from the machine for the life of me so with the line building behind me and people mumbling loudly at us in multiple languages I decide to ask the nice “information” booth lady for help. And I ask in French. And she takes one look at me and says, “non”. Pardon? She looks at me again, “non.” And then she shuts the window. I start to weep openly. Not really, but I do way over pay for two tickets just to get out of line. Note: never buy train tickets in a foreign country on the first day of the month when the locals really want to buy new monthly tickets.
Adele and I are having fun. We jump on the Metro and by chance meet the family from Malibu again. That is three days in a row. Perhaps the gods say not by chance? We have already planned to meet them later in the day so we part for a bit and head on to the Arc.
Climbing only 285 steps feels easy after the last couple of marathon stair climbs. The views however are equally stunning. The green leaves lining the streets below all merge at the Arc and look like the veins of the city. Think of them as the lifeblood of the Avenues flowing in every direction. It reminds me of the Gates in Central Park only green.
For me seeing the cobblestones up close was a highlight. After watching Lance and crew race the Tour for so many years it is surreal to be here in person.
Wandering down the Champs d’Lyce with Adele is a treat: we chat, she tells jokes, hold hands when we cross side streets, buy Vincent a toy car at the Disney store, have diet cokes at McDonalds, (where, by the way, they really do serve a Royal Cheese for those of you Pulp Fiction fans), find our way around sans map, have lunch in a small sandwich shop, have a star sighting (Owen Wilson bumps into us) and finally meet the crew at the Rodin museum. It’s a great few hours with my daughter.
The Rodin is impressive. It is laid out in a Mansion and the surrounding grounds making it small and intimate. We see the Thinker and The Gates of Hell, a few Van Gogh’s, a Monet, two Lauren’s and lots of Rodin’s work. The kids all play in the leaves in the shaded garden while the adults rest a bit. Then we take a long walk for ice cream, head home to the compartment, do another laundry run, fold, have a nice chicken dinner, pack, and fall into bed around 11p.
It is our last night in Paris. Je t'aime Paris!!!
Day Fourteen – July 2
“I left Rome and landed in Brussels on a train ride so bumpy that I almost cried.” -Dylan via Garcia
Today is a travel day. We get up in the heat and sweat for a while. IT IS STILL HOT, There is time to shuffle our stuff around once more to try and fit it all in. Teri heads off to the post office to mail home a box of gifts and extras. Our new Malibu friends stop by one last time to exchange kids clothes. It all moves along in quarter-time in the heat.
Vincent, the name of our driver (to which Vinny whispered with eyes wide, “no way”) drives us to the station in a big fancy AIR CONDITIONED car over to Euro-star for the train to Brussels. And we leave. Just like that. I already miss Paris.
The trip is painless taking about an hour and small change. The countryside is beautiful. More small towns and church spires. There are a few cows, sheep and a horse or two. The kids watch various “i” gadgets (iPads, iPods) and time passes.
When we pull in to the station I actually think we may have jumped off at the wrong stop. There is no one in Brussels. I mean no one. It is sort of freaky.
Eventually we do find the cab and get to our hotel on square, in the heart of tourist county. There is a park nearby but nothing like the big city parks we are used to. Where are the people? It looks like they build this beautiful city and forgot to tell anyone about it. Maybe it’s fatigue. After a quick dinner and a few hours of World Cup in the hotel lobby, we all crash and try to sleep.
Did someone say that the Netherlands beat Brazil? Sorry, I can’t hear over the noise from the celebration!