Week Ten - Searching for Julia and George 08/30/2010
“Right! What’s a cubit?” - Bill Cosby, from Noah in three skits
Day Sixty-Four – August 21st
Sleeping in the valley has its advantages. The mornings are warm and inviting. For the first time in weeks I can make coffee without wearing my down jacket. Plus the skies have cleared and we have sunshine!
The morning is spent sitting outside the HOW on lawn chairs filling in our journals and playing with our rock collections. Eventually we motivate and arrive at the cheese factory in the House of Gruyere just in time to wait an hour and fifteen minutes until “something very big will happen in the cheese place.” At first I think the lady behind the desk is kidding me. “Is it a big something?” I ask. “Oh yes, very much activity, it is the best time to see the cheese. You wait.” She says with a big broad smile. I swear I saw her on a billboard ad for Switzerland.
So we wait. They have a nice playground outside and plenty of HOW parking. Vince and Adele play in the park while we have a picnic at one of the tables on the lawn. As we sit and relax a group of bikers from the States ride in and belly up to a prepared lunch set out by their tour leaders. It looks like such a nice way to see a country: a little morning ride to a great lunch stop followed by an afternoon ride to a nice hotel then a great meal and warm shower.
An hour has passed and we can stand it no longer. We must see the cheese! If you follow cheese as we do then you know that Gruyere is on the life long top ten list of places to go and sample. It sits somewhere between Gouda and Provolone just behind Parmesan.
The tour is actually very entertaining. We learn that what the cows eat is reflected in the final product and that traces of wild spices can influence the “taste and nose” of the cheese. The audio tour is done from the cow’s perspective, a unique way to tell the story, and is done by a chirpy Swiss woman that sounds like Heidi. She assures us that machine based milking is “much preferred” than the old “by hand” method as it allows for better hygiene during the process. I am not buying it by the looks of the milking apparatus connected to Bessie the pictures.
By 1:15 we can hardly stand the wait any longer. We have been staring at a big vat filled with milk for 15 minutes in anticipation. We even nudged out an old guy or two that was trying to angle in for a better view. Women and children first for the “something very big”. We stand cameras ready.
In the sealed room below we see movement by the vat of milk. A man emerges, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing a facemask, to record the time on a white board. Then he stands and looks at the vat for five minutes or so. Nothing happens. He checks his watch again then reacts as if he has heard an alarm that we cannot hear. He throws a switch on the large vat and picks up a plastic thing to stir the milk. We are almost jumping up and down. The turning machine starts to move. Oh, thank God we waited…
That’s it. The turning machine moves the milk around, and around, and around, and around, for something like forty minutes. That is the “something very big.” I am not sure, but if we had stayed until the end I think the guy stops the machine, records the time and then goes back to where ever it is he came from. It’s a tough day in the office for these cheese makers. The kids love it.
Snacking on samples we drive over to Chateau de Chillon just outside of Montreux. Its one of the best castles we have seen on the trip so far: big and sprawling on the inside yet tight and compact on the outside. The woodwork is pretty much in tact unlike the others we have toured and it is really old going back almost a thousand years in some parts. We have a wonderful time exploring.
To cool off from all the wandering around we stop by a local beach just past the moat and swim for few hours. Adele jumps and dives off rocks while Vince splashes around and makes castles of his own. It is a great afternoon that runs into early fringe.
By the time we climb back up into the Alps and arrive at our campsite in Tasch, the last stop before the train up to Zermatt, all of the sites are taken and we end up in the parking lot again. This time we are parked literally right in front of the main information sign, blocking it really, and in the middle of the main area across from the building for showers and dishwashing. The place is jammed with hikers and climbers.
This is our third parking lot so far and one of the nicer ones. At least we are surrounded by mountains and in the company of like-minded travelers. We dine and sleep under every blanket, towel and jacket we have. Welcome back to the cold.
Day Sixty-Five – August 22nd
This is an early campsite. People are long gone when we wake up at 9a. The trains start around 7a and the early hikers can be heard milling about as early as 6a.
We cannot get over how hardy these folks are. People of all ages are geared out with climbing protection, ropes, ice axes, crampons and hiking poles. And the equipment is worn from years of use. Their boots and packs speak to the many miles they have seen. You want to be like them: heading out in big groups, laughing and joking in the cold morning air and returning tired and content in the early evening. Life and nature are embraced and lived out to the fullest up here.
The train tickets to Zermatt are a reasonable $41 round trip for the family. Something must be up. It is a ten-minute ride up the mountain that ends at a main square down valley. The first thing you notice are the merchants: all high end selling very expensive stuff. Then you realize the place is jammed with tourists.
It is hard to rationalize the contrast to the hikers and climbers at the campsite. They are here as well but only to pass though en route to another lift or trailhead. Walking across town to get to the gondola that takes you up to the Matterhorn you notice that the people actually staying here in town are cut from a different cloth. They are tourists with gobs of money.
I knew the $41 was too good to be true. The gondola to the top adds another $180 to the tab. I knew the Swiss would not let me down. $221 bucks to ride to the top of a mountain. Something is out of whack.
Vincent is not having a good day. He has been whining since we left camp and it only gets worse the higher we climb. By our lunch stop up top he is down right unmanageable. It is draining on all of us so we decide to head back down and split up for the afternoon. Adele and I draw the “stay in town and have some father daughter fun” card. Always a winner.
They have this place at the very top of town called the Forest Fun Park. If you ever come here, go there. When we check in the guy asks us if we want to go for one hour or for two plus hours. I thought he was joking.
We take the one-hour intro package (it actually takes us a little over an hour to get through) and we harness up. Oh, did I mention this is a zip line park? And zip we do. We start about half way up the huge pines and work our way almost to the top by the end of the line. There are obstacles to navigate, meadows and rivers to fly over and more adrenalin rushes than we can count. I am sure it will register in the top five experiences for Adele on the TATW.
It is such a pleasure to share the time with Adele. We laugh and scream on the zip line high fiving each other with each crossing. Then walking through town we joke around and talk about nothing in particular. She is eight going on “can I please have the car keys?” Tomorrow she’ll be all grown up.
But this summer she still sets out snacks at the foot of her bed for the fairies and leaves them messages on post it notes. And she asks if ghost are real and castles haunted. I can’t capture it all. Using big words out of context. Memorizing lyrics for the first time and then singing along to her favorite songs. Being so eager to help and be useful. Setting up the table and chairs, doing the dishes up at the washhouse riding her bike to the campsite store to buy an ice cream for her brother. It almost hurts it is all so pure and honest.
Sometimes I get the sense she knows this is a special time. This was one of those afternoons.
We train back down around 6:30p or so and try to get food for dinner but everything is shut down. All we can muster up is coffee and milk for the morning to make mom (and dad) happy. So, like many other nights, it is pasta and a bit of salad.
Vince has calmed down a bit but still tells us all we are “added” (meaning “out of “) control when we tell him it is time to go to bed. At least he is not threatening to “take away your computer.” How scary it is when it comes back at you...
Day Sixty-Six August 23rd
We are leaving a trail of Swiss Francs everywhere we go and we really need to see some sunshine, so we are going to the homeland to see what we can see.
I love Italy. First off, it is full of Italians. It is not just their look but also their attitude. They all walk around like they own the place and therefore they can do whatever they please. This is their house remember: your welcome to pull up a chair and visit but don’t expect you can become one overnight. The attitude has been nuanced over generations. They are confident, self-assured and filled with the drama of the day to day. Life is exposed on the streets and lived to the fullest in the public eye. Not because they want the attention but because they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them. When they move you can feel their thoughts. Life here is a warm smile, a quick flaring temper or a shrug of the shoulders. At least you know where you stand.
My nose feels right at home.
With or without a border patrol we know immediately when we have entered into Italy. The roads are rougher, the houses more run down and buildings and factories are wedged in where ever they can be. Clearly they ran out of room at some point and now everything new must sit atop something old. Ruins and modern co-mingle. In other countries this would look completely out of place but here it all looks natural.
Lago Maggiore is beautiful with a narrow road ringing the lakeside and towns spilling down mountainsides. The drive takes much longer than we expected with heavy traffic and the crazy Italian drivers mixing it up with the tourists. There’s not much to see for the kids so we just drive up one side and then try to camp on the northern tip.
The first two campsites we try are both nightmares, one is fenced in with barbed wire, the other is part of a camping compound on a peninsula sticking out into the lake with literally thousands of tents and campers. We keep driving.
Eventually we end up back in Switzerland on the Italian border. The guy that checks us in is an old bare-chested Italian (the men don’t wear shirts here) and keeps pointing at things, rambling on for a few minutes then ending with “oh, si va bene, va bene” He seems very happy to have guests.
We are the only ones in the place and we have an entire field to ourselves. All of the other people staying here are permanent residents. In our travels thus far we are finding that staying with a larger number of regulars usually means great bathrooms and solid infrastructure. This place is no different and is a pleasure to stay in.
Even for another night of rain.
Day Sixty-Seven August 24
The Carcano family hails from Varese, a small city tucked in between Lago Maggiore and Lago Como not far from the Swiss border. As a New Yorker growing up in a suburban ethnic melting pot on the north shore of Long Island, everyone’s family was from somewhere in Europe, so the question was often asked, “Where is your family from?”
It wasn’t enough to say “Italy and Germany” since almost everyone I knew was from one of the two. As kids we all knew our grandparents or great grandparents birth towns to add some context. For me it was always, “Varese, its up north and Oldenburg, outside of Bremen.” This is my father’s side of the family. My mom’s mom’s family came in “illegally from Ireland” we are told (much drama on that side of the family) and my mom’s dad’s side may be Swiss-German we are not sure.
Today we are going to Varese to search for a street named Via Carlo Carcano. Charles was chosen as Vinny’s middle name after both my father and his father and a long line of Carlo Carcanos. Apparently Carlo was a patriot and noteworthy enough to warrant his own street. Since Carcano is also the name of an opera house in Milan and even more famous for the guns they produce here in Italy, Teri rightfully so, wants to know where all the money is. So do I…
Varese is a working class city with working class people. All the old people look like my grandparents and my father’s uncles, aunts and cousins. Like the experience in Oldenburg, I feel right at home.
The street is surprising easy to find and after a few times around we manage to get parking. Vince seems total confused that we are on “his street.” Standing on the corner, rolling video to record the moment, cars flying by and people looking at us like we are nuts as we point to the street sign and then to Vinny yelling, “this is a Carlos Carcano!” is a great family moment and one that will come up at family dinner parties for years to come.
As the excitement on reaching a goal winds down, a goal we have talked about for months when folks ask us where we plan to go on the TWAT, we get back into the HOW and set our sights back on the day to day. It is time to find George and Julia.
I pictured Lago Como as a small lake with a few villages gently rolling down to the waters edge and a couple of people milling about looking fabulous, wearing sunglasses and sipping wine. Instead it is a really big place with lots of towns and half of Europe on August holiday.
It is very difficult to find parking much less George and/or Julia. I just assumed we would run into Julia sitting dockside waiting to meet me and that George would be out walking his dog and wandering around looking for Teri. (I understand from an inside source that Julia may be back in Malibu but I am looking for her none the less and Teri is definitely looking for George). When you can’t park the HOW you improvise. I take a hard right and head towards the water.
At the end of a dead end street we find a beautiful water front park for lunch. Vince and I take off our shirts like the rest of the Italian men and sit on an ancient rock wall and throw stones. Teri and Adele set up lunch and then wander around to snap a few photos. The setting really is worth all of the hype. After an hour or so you begin to realize just how impressive everything is. If you can do it in high style I would come back and stay a while.
Have you ever dealt with the police in a foreign country? Ones that pretend to speak limited English and seem to prey on tourists in rented camper vans? Ones that say, “I hope you have your checkbook” when they hear you are from the United States? Ones that shatter the image you have of Switzerland and remind you that there are bad people everywhere? Ones that pull you over not for speeding or reckless driving or anything else you can think of but instead because your camper van is over 2m wide and apparently at some very limited times you cannot drive in one of the lanes with a 2m+ camper? Ones that have to make sure we are over 2m by checking our specs on the registration, which as it turns out it is, is over 2M but by only a few centimeters? Ones that write you up for $350 to be paid on the spot, credit cards accepted, no questions asked?
To be honest this experience felt so wrong to us that all I really want to do is leave the country and spend our money elsewhere. Switzerland has enough coin, and they start fleecing you as soon as you get out of bed for everything in this country, they don’t need their police to hassle tourists. If anyone knows the Chief of Police in Switzerland let her know that the rank and file’s behavior is bad for business.
Late in the afternoon, after a long day of driving, we find a nice campsite in the town of Chur. We do laundry, have dinner at the restaurant (a big deal eating out), play at the playground and call it a night.
Day Sixty-Eight August 25th
It’s the blood that freaks you out the most: that and the look of fear on Teri’s face when she carries Vinny into the camper. The gash turns out to be deep but just shy of needing stitches. It’s a bleeder nonetheless. Head wounds are that way. Vince handles things remarkably well for a four year old, much better than the rest of us. He is Vincent the Brave after all.
Everything runs through your mind at warp speed when faced with a true crisis. Are the vitals all OK? Is he in shock? What is up with all that blood? Does the travel insurance cover stitches? Do we care if it does or not? Are there doctors in town? What day is it anyway and are any of the offices even open? Can the HOW drive fast enough to the emergency room? Can we find it? All of this happens with your heart thumping in the back of your head.
Turns out he is tougher than we imagine and takes it all pretty much in stride. There is much drama around the “incident”, still not sure what happened exactly, something about “pushing” and “falling” and “bumping” but it all sorts itself out eventually and we are on our way.
The town of Val is on the agenda today. It is a small mountain town up a harrowing, narrow, hairpin filled, carved into the side of a mountain, way up in the air with no guardrails road. What looked to be a forty-five minute side trip turned into and hour and a half of pure driving agony.
You see the town of Val is famous for two things: (1) a really high-end spa and (2) a water company. The water company bottles on site and trucks the water down the same road we are heading up using very big trucks. Did I mention blind hairpin turns without guardrails?
Lucky for Val if you arrive on one piece it is likely that you will refuse to drive back down and therefore you’ll need a place to stay. Unlucky for us they don’t have a campsite, the hay houses on the hillsides are not for rent and the spa hotel rooms start at $500 per night. This is a tough day.
Teri and Adele head to the spa, Vals Therme, to check out the pool while Vince and I try to rest in the camper. Apparently the Therme is one of the architectural wonders of the spa world. From the outside it looks like a refurbished 1960s Holiday Inn.
Soon they return and after the rave reviews I head off with Adele to check the place out and go for a swim. The hotel is circa 1960 but the pool house is something completely new and different. It is impressive. They built the entire structure out of layered stone. Each pool is set at a different temperature so you can plunge into hot or cold or just float around at room temp.
Adele loves it and is so excited to show me around. The place is full of rich old people, couples and a few European metrosexuals. It’s not really the right crowd for a four and eight year old. Somehow the floaties don’t seem to work. It is though, one of the best $30 swims I have ever had.
They only way to get down the mountain is to listen to Green Day under head phones cranked up very loud. That, and also to follow one of the water trucks down the mountain so they clear a path for the HOW. It is a long drive back to the same campsite as last night only this time we have an even better place under the trees by a river.
Tonight we fall sleep to the sound of rushing water.
And more rain.
Day Sixty-Nine August 26th
We wake to a surprise respite from the rain and a few sunbeams breaking through the cloud cover. It doesn’t last long but it’s enough to sit outside and catch up on our “journaling” as Adele and I like to call it.
With Vince’s head still on the mend and another rainy day ahead we decide to drive over to the Ludwig castles in Southern Germany. It is time for us to leave Switzerland, the cost is killing us and the rain is driving us all a bit mad.
This is a confusing part of Europe with Switzerland, Austria and Germany all converging and co-mingling. We never really know which one we are in and therefore get a bit confused about paying tolls. Someone should let the foreigners know how they work if they want us to pay them.
They have these big signs posted and places for cars and trucks to pull over and stop to get some kind of tag thing-a-maggigy but it all comes at you so fast that we can’t react and then the next thing you know you pass right on by. I have this vague notion that we may be receiving toll letters with some kind of penalty fee tacked on for months to come. The same thing happens with all of these auto cameras everywhere. Apparently, if your speeding and they catch you on film, you get a ticket in the mail months later. The problem is the speed limits are kind of vague. If we start this doing in the States I am moving to Canada.
Bavaria is by far our favorite part of Germany. Driving the small winding roads here is a pleasure after the mountain passes. The countryside and farmland looks more like Switzerland than up north and everything is wider and more manageable. It all has a distinctly German feel to it that we have grown accustom to now: it is almost like we are home, having spent so much time here this trip.
When we get to our campsite it is pouring again. So much so that I hesitate to even get out of the HOW for fear of getting washed away. Luckily I do because we get the last site in the place. It is a great site sitting on a lake with views of both of Ludwig’s castles.
During a brief break in the rain we all swim in the lake, skip a few stones and chase some ducks around trying to catch them. When the sun does come out you realize just how beautiful the place can be. But then it goes away again and you are stuck in the 2m by 7m HOW with little food, and fading hopes of being able to tour the castles we drove all this way to see (part of the tours are outside and there is no way we are going to be able to stand the torrential downpours).
Serious, I am not kidding, it has to stop raining.
Day Seventy August 27th
The wind was blowing so hard that Teri and I (and the rest of the campsite) had to get up in the middle of the night to take down our tarp and put anything that was outside, back in or under the HOW. That’s when I first noticed the drip. The rain was coming down so hard that it pooled on the roof and then cascaded down onto the back bumper with a tremendous crashing sound. It is easy to piece it all together here in the light of day: at 3am it was maddening.
We are running out of patience. The castle tours are out - the kids won’t last in all the rain – nor will the parents. Outside is completely unpredictable, pouring one minute, then the rain pausing the next. The activities here at the campsite are limited to (1) swimming (2) an outdoor playground and (3) hiking around the lake.
It feels like ground hog day. We wake up with great expectations and high hope only to be brought back down by the rain. It has been raining since we left Paris.
This situation is deteriorating rapidly. We are wet through and through. Even a hot shower, once a cure for all ails, is no longer doing the trick. We are miserable and we need to warm up and dry out.
So we head out to lunch at the only dry place the campsite has to offer, a little restaurant serving German food (read that as plate of meat with some other meat and a little meat on the side, oh, and lots of bread).
The high point of today is when we get a break for about an hour and half in the weather and we attempt the hike around the lake, have some playground time and manage a quick swim. It is ludicrous. The hike is super windy with a hard rain blowing off the water. The playground is crowded, very wet and slippery making the slide and monkey bars almost life threatening and the lake is freezing. Sure we all stand around shivering in our bathing suits trying to make the best of it, and the kids seems to actually enjoy it for the most part, but it is not what we signed up for. A few days of rain sure, but a few months?
Deciding we should work with the elements Vince starts washing the HOW with a spray bottle and paper napkins and I take a scrub brush to the scrape along the side. To our surprise the scrape washes off! It turns out to be paint and dirt that we can wash off with a bit of effort. This is great news and hopefully we will be able to get our damage deposit back to help cover the cost of the traffic ticket (s?).
We have leftovers for dinner. The temperature is dropping steadily to the point now that we are all in bed and under covers just trying to stay warm. As of now the insane dripping noise is back and louder than ever. I would get up to try and stop it but it’s raining way to hard to attempt to venture out. Besides, I need every piece of clothing I have to stay dry so I can sleep in it to fend off the cold. Oh, the glamour of life on the road.
Voice: “An ark, get some wood, build it 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 40 cubits.”
Noah: “Right! What’s a cubit?”
Voice: “A cubit? Let’s see I used to know what a cubit was… well, don’t worry about that Noah.”
“Oh Lord, wont you buy me a Mercedes-Benz, My friends all drive Porsches I must make amends.” – Janis Joplin
Day Fifty-Seven – August 14th
It poured rain last night, not just raining, but pouring, loud and relentless. I still take comfort in the warmth of the HOW and lying there listening just a foot or two from the rain drops hitting the roof, but it is starting to wear a bit thin. It has to stop raining sometime.
We pack up and head out. Check out is almost comical. Last night the owner of the place, a Greek, was throwing his “once a year” party to celebrate something or another. Before we turned in for the night the place was jammed with people huddled under big umbrellas trying to make the best of the rain. This morning the umbrellas are all blown over, the bar looks half-submerged, used glasses and ashtrays are strewn about and in the middle of it all stands our Greek host looking a little worse for wear but smiling none the less.
“Sorry about your party,” I volunteer trying to console him.
“Sorry? No sorry, we just try again this evening!” He says with a big smile as if he has said that every morning for the past half decade. And to think we fell for the sorry if it is loud tonight, it is a once a year party. “Say hello to California!” he shouts, standing amongst the ruins, smoking and waving madly. “Afganisto!” we yell back. Got to love the Greeks!
We promised the kids a night in a castle so we are heading to Hirschhorn in the Neckar Valley, a pleasant alternative to the Romantic road says Frommer’s. We need to toss the Frommer’s Germany book.
The drive is an all day affair. Most of it is on the Autobahn so we make good time but the last hour or so tests the reserves as we twist and turn on small narrow lanes over mountains and through valleys. It is beautiful but trying to drive.
To be honest we did not thoroughly research the Schlosshotel-Hirschhorn. The book said something about ruins and a hilltop setting and views of the valley below. By the time we find the main drive expectations in the back seat are running way over the top and I have a growing concern that it might not be all its cracked up to be. However, by the time we cross the main gate and head up to the entranceway all concerns fly out the window.
The place is a mid-sized, partial ruin, clinging to the top of a hill. It looks spooky and old and is just what the doctor ordered. We check in and wander around for an hour or two climbing the watchtower (about 100 steps), hiking around the outside grounds for beautiful views of the river and valley below, searching for knights, hobbits and trolls, and relaxing on the feather beds in our room. Everyone is happy.
Dinner here is another matter. The service is by far the worst we have experienced to date. It is so bad I actually pull the waiter aside and ask if we have offended him in some way. He just shrugs and says a curt, “sorry.” Oddly, the locals are treated with the utmost respect and with the greatest of care. We had to set our own table, wait for an hour for our food and felt compelled to leave before we finished our meals since we were clearly not welcome. It’s a shame that the service strikes this place off the recommendation list. Don’t go to the Schlosshotel-Hirschhorn. And stop listening to Frommer’s.
Luckily the kids never notice and enjoy themselves beyond their expectations. Vincent The Brave got to see a real suit of armor and search down overgrown footpaths for knights and Adele The Scared got to sleep (or maybe more aptly put, lie awake for hours on end) in a real castle listening for the sounds of ghosts...
Day Fifty-Eight – August 15th
We wake up early, probably because we miss the sound of rain on the roof, but not to worry, the open curtains reveal another rainy morning.
When we do get the chance to stay at hotels we prove to be very good at buffet breakfasts. They should send word ahead that the TATW people are living it up and living large so they are prepared for the onslaught. Eggs, bacon, real black forest ham, prosciutto, sausages, yogurts, cereals, breads, rolls, muffins, fruit, honey, coffee, tea, it is endless and all of it locally produced and fresh as can be. We indulge.
As we roll ourselves out to the HOW I stop by the front desk to check out and voice our concerns about the service. The women at the front desk, the one we thought was in charge, just shrugs and says, “sorry.” They clearly don’t care. It is frustrating.
Our push towards the border is harder than ever now. Luckily we have the good sense to stop by the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart. Hailing from Malibu where the typical stop light has a Lamborghini and Ferrari on one side facing a Porsche and Prius on the other, a Mercedes doesn’t really even register as a car worthy of a second look much less a museum. But here, in Stuttgart, the Detroit of Germany, they warrant their own house of worship.
The roads are full of Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches driving very fast and looking like blurry streaks of pure speed and power. You can’t describe the feeling you get when you see one. Cars are like animals here: big, fast ones with killer instinct, displaying utter efficiency. They almost seem insulted by lesser cars. Its dog eat dog on the autobahn.
The Mercedes-Benz museum should not be missed if you’re in this neck of the woods. It is designed with the same precision as their cars inviting you into a world where every detail is considered, debated, fine-tuned and perfected over time. The company is over 120 years old and the museum curators give visitors a time line of world events that coincide with milestones in automotive history and the evolution of the Mercedes brand. It is fascinating. Throw in dozens of classic cars, every day cars, trucks, even campers and racecars and you have real party. Gentle cars start your engines!
The kids loved it. Teri wants to get one when we get back home and I now dread the Porsche museum. If the house of Mercedes can drum up such untapped desire for beauty and speed then I don’t think we can afford to go to see the Porsches.
Back in the slow lane on the Autobahn driving in the pouring rain, we leave Germany and finally enter Switzerland. I somehow expected the skies to clear and a hallelujah chorus to start ringing in our arrival. Instead we get hassled by the customs agent, probably due to our German license plates, US passports, whining children and five day old beards (mine of course). In the end, they let us come in.
We bypass Zurich and head straight for Lucerne, arriving cold and wet in late afternoon traffic and pouring rain. The campsite is jammed. Luckily we clear the list for a site on gravel (best place to be in the rain) that appears to be part of the parking area but may not be since it has a number and others are jammed in all around us. Teri points out that we expect more from the Swiss.
Adele and I walk to the lake and check out the skyline. This is a great city. It is made up of dark greens, really dark blues, and deep browns contrasted with the white of swans swimming everywhere. I can’t wait to explore tomorrow. For now, it is home to have pasta do the dishes and head off early to bed after a long day in the saddle.
Typical post dinner, pre-bedtime, HOW conversation:
Vince: Wailing, semi out of control, screaming at full volume
Dad: “Vincent, keep quiet, you must keep your voice down, people are trying to sleep, please stop, we are in a parking lot!”
This is what life has become: this is our life on holiday!
Day Fifty-Nine – August 16th
Rain. More and more rain. We try and motivate but it is difficult as the weather is starting to effect us all. Everything is wet and soggy. Our shoes are cold and damp, our clothes are cold and damp, even the How is cold and damp. It’s the combination of the two that get you. Cold alone we can handle and damp but warm is tolerable but here in Lucerne, with the addition of altitude, the cold and damp combine to numb the senses.
We forge on. Lucerne is incredible. We can walk to downtown from our campsite on a tree-lined path along the lakefront passing majestic (seriously, they are majestic) old hotels and beautiful gardens. Despite the rain the air is clear and crisp allowing you to breath deeply. It is both refreshing and relaxing as we meander along the way.
The main center is at the head of the harbor where the river, a number of large streets, the rail and bus stations and the old town all intersect. It is full of hustle and bustle with people, cars, boats, trains and buses all converging. And yet, it is completely manageable, orderly and civilized.
Our first stop is Starbucks for a $6.10 latte. I firmly believe you can tell a lot about a place by the price of a Grande drip and my hand instinctively covers the man purse, I mean money bag, around my neck. This is one expensive country. I will say though that a $25 for two coffees, one muffin and a plain donut was worth the price of admission to sit in a warm dry chair.
Determined to see the “sights” we walk around the main area in the pouring rain. The buildings have a certain stature, with big broad shoulders and thick, block sized bodies. The details are perfectly executed, the grounds manicured with style and care. It all invites you in and makes you want to be a part of it.
We cross an old wooden bridge spanning the river. It’s very crowded since it is a covered bridge and one of the few dry places in the downpour. I accidentally roll over an Italian women’s foot with the stroller. Probably not the best move with Vito the boyfriend bearing the brunt of the drama. I cannot tell if she is yelling about her foot or, heaven forbid, her shoe. Fearing the worst I turn to the boyfriend to try and make amends. He gives me the once over, glances at his girlfriend to see if she is looking at us, she is not, so he breaks into a quick smile, laughs, winks, points to her feet, rolls his eyes, shrugs his shoulders, and then as soon as she turns to see how he is handling me and the “situation”, he goes right back to the tough guy look, whacks his head with the palm of his hand and yells something with great passion. I love Italians.
For two seconds I take my eyes off the money (or in this case the cost of desire) and sure enough we find ourselves in the House of Fondue. This is a tourist Mecca in the old part of town, not really our style, but when in Lucerne…
Fondue is great fun. If your bread falls off you have to kiss the person on your right. The kids love it. We dip bread, meat, chicken, potatoes (with and “e”), cauliflower, drink wine, coke lights and l’eau with gas. Always good for a chuckle. For an hour and a half of dry, warm family fun the tab comes in at $200. That’s right, for a pot of cheese. What is up with the Swiss? Now I understand the need for all these Swiss bank accounts. There must be endless pots of money.
To work off the brick of cheese in our bellies we hike up out of old town and along the old fortress wall for views of the city, lake and beyond. It must be hard to get anything done here: the temptation to stand and just stare at the beauty of it all is so strong. It is the kind of city that you could set up a folding chair pretty much anywhere and be content to sit for days watching the world go by.
The locals reflect all of this. They are dressed elegantly, understated yet noticeable and perfectly bundled for the weather. From under umbrellas, behind collars and rain scarves their eyes gleam and twinkle. They appear comfortable, content with their place in the world. It makes you want to be Swiss when you get old.
The final stop of the day is a doozy. We go to a small museum, tucked away on a side street, called the Museum Sammlung Rosengart, to see a collection of Picasso’s. Now I admit I have never really understood this fascination with Picasso, lots of naked women with parts in the wrong places as far as I can see, but this collection speaks to even the naïve and inexperienced. The sheer number of works combined with a perfect setting on big walls with great lighting blows you away. The whole family stood in awe just shuffling around room by room.
Then when the senses are so overwhelmed and the mind is spinning they bring you downstairs for a Paul Klee exhibit that rivals the one we saw in Paris. Throw in a few by Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Cezanne and Chagall and you have an amazing collection that is a privilege to be able to experience. Seriously, this place is reason enough to come to Lucerne.
We are finding that train stations hold all kinds of treats. This one has a great grocery store. It seems to be the main commuting station so it makes sense that people can shop before head back home for the evening. We stock up on supplies then wind our way back home stopping at a playground to burn off whatever energy the kids may have left. Then it’s a quick dinner, movies on the iPads and some much needed sleep.
All of this and the rain keeps falling…
Day Sixty – August 17th
This is a day of logistics for me and a visit to a truly incredible museum for Teri and the kids. I need to deal with some issues back in the real world so I take advantage of the Wi-Fi access and spend a few hours on the computer.
Meanwhile, the rest of the crew walk over to the Transit Museum, an indoor and outdoor experience that is hard to beat. It is a fully interactive museum complete with real airplanes, tractors, trains, and boats, really anything that moves. When we meet up for lunch the kids are totally excited and having an incredible time. They got to see and Imax movie as well so their day is pretty much complete.
I on the other hand manage to scrap the side of the camper trying to park. It is one of those moments that you replay over and over because you know that the space was too small and the HOW too big. Parking is a nightmare in cities and other campers got through the narrow poles and parked on the other side so it was a calculated risk. But it was a risk none the less. At this point I am now writing off the security deposit. It’s hard to get a break with these HOW rentals.
We say goodbye to Lucerne, so happy we visited, vowing to return someday. Maybe next time we will come in our summer linens and stay at one of the grand hotels on the lake and hob knob with the rich and famous.
The rest of the day passes by on a beautiful drive to Interlaken and then on to Grindelwald. This is the epicenter of alpine climbing and the highest point in Europe. We are very excited.
The campsite is tucked down in a small valley sitting on the side of a roaring river in a deep green mountain pasture. It is cold and raining and we feel very small and insignificant in our little HOW. The mountains rise all around us in vast vertical walls of rock. In the darkness we can see lights way up high on the mountain from climbers working towards the summit. The warming huts glow like little lighthouses guiding those still moving through the darkness sort of like moths before a flame. Watching the lights I wish that I am with them. Then again, it is the North face of the Eiger so it is probably best that I am sitting under the canopy outside the HOW, bundled up in my puffy coat and watching from afar.
Day Sixty-One August 18th
They call them the big three: Jungfaujoch, Eiger and Monch. We are in a UNESCO World Heritage Area, one of only four worldwide declared to protect the natural beauty of the landscape. It is so stunning that I simply cannot describe it. The only way to understand it is to come here and stay for a while.
Color explodes all around you. Mountains box you in. Rivers are violent. Nature is raw. Time doesn’t matter since the process is never ending. For you to be here means nothing to nature and everything to you. You watch things happen knowing that you have no way to impact them whatsoever. Nature is unbridled here. It keeps on coming. Best to stay out of the way and tread lightly or you may get hurt.
We wake up in the rain and walk up to town to catch the First Gondola for a day of high altitude hiking and playing. The gondola climbs up and out of the valley over several ridges and ends up just over 10,000 feet or so. To our surprise the Alps are not all that high, maxing out around 11.4ish, close to the top of Mammoth back home. However, the vertical drop is probably twice ours making the peak to troth so impressive.
At the top we have lunch in one of the restaurants that serve skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. For those used to a cliff bar at the mid-station these places are whole other worlds. The cooks are serious chefs whipping up high quality meals. I have a “four napkin” burger that may be the best mountain top meal I have ever had. Add in the incredible scenery, cows with big clanking bells, a cold mist and glaciers and you start to get the picture.
There is a playground at the mid-station that keep the kids busy while we have coffee lounging on the deck. Even with the rain the experience is wonderful. So great in fact we get the wild idea to hike down to town. Must be the mountain air. After all, down hill is easy right?
As soon as we get about a quarter of the way down, just too far to go back up, the heavens open and it starts to pour. Excellent. Then, just for good measure, Vince decides he is tired and wants to sit down every 25 yards of so. Such fun. Adele, not all that comfortable with ants these days, notices a mound of them in the forest and is convinced they are everywhere. Oh, the joy.
We stand in the middle of nowhere, in the pouring rain, with wet shoes on a muddy trail, and realize that we are not in Kansas anymore. This is beyond any kind of comfort zone. We are off the grid.
And this is why we are here: to do these kinds of things, as a family. To help each other walk twenty-five yards, then another, and another. To navigate the giant anthill that lurks around each bend. To build bonds and share experiences. It takes a while but eventually we all make it back down the mountain so much better from the experience.
We walked around town for a while and end up in another playground until just passed 8p. Then as the light fades we head home to our little HOW.
Day Sixty-Two – August 19th – Two months on the road!
It poured all night long.
When I stick my head out of the HOW this morning something is different. It is bright and warm and SUNNY! Sort of sunny, but its enough for us! Today is our Jungfraujoch day!
We are up and at it early to take full advantage of the weather. There is a little one-lane road that starts right next to our campsite and stops at the mail train station. It is a beautiful walk across a FLAT valley floor and a great way to kick off our adventure.
The “cog rail way”, a fancy name they give the train so you feel justified when they charge you $354 for two adults (kids are free) to ride up to the top. Technically, the cost is only half that but that’s for a one-way ticket. They actually sell one-way tickets in case you feel up for a hike down. When you stand at the station looking a zillion feet up at a windblown, jagged peak you realize just how ridiculous that is. No wonder the Swiss are all loaded, $354 for the train…
I cannot do the train ride justice. It is too much of everything. Even the photos fail to capture the beauty. We sit in silence (most of us, Vince is still talking a mile a minute) and surrender to the splendor! We pass glaciers, mountains, valleys, stone houses, huts with slate roofs, insanely narrow trails, ski lifts to nowhere, climbers, hikers, small towns down valley, it is one of the most memorable rides of the trip.
When we finally arrive at the top, the entrance is via a tunnel carved into the mountain. We get out in a long tunnel deep underground and need to walk a bit to resurface. When we do it is at the plateau for our first look outside. The snow, sun and sky are blinding. Everything is white.
We stand on the deck dreaming about summiting and looking for a climber rumored to be dangling from a rope somewhere on the North face of Eiger. Adele swears she’s found him. After lunch we head to the other section of the station via the ice caves and go up to the very top of the Sphinx Observation deck for another perfect view of the alps.
When you are standing outside in the blinding sunlight and a biting cold wind you realize just how hard true mountaineering really is. From here you can see crevasses and ice caves cut deep across the glaciers. The snowfields toward the summits are so vast that climbers look like mere specks. The expanse of space is just so immense you feel lost. Finding and holding a route must be near impossible.
By the time we are ready to descend we are all tired and feeling overwhelmed by the experience. It is a quiet ride back down as our thoughts try and filter through what is all around us.
As we retrace our steps back home we play the rhyming song game to keep everyone motivated and moving: much fun in alpine meadows. After dinner we Skype back home, take showers, deal with some logistics and call it a wonderful day.
Day Sixty-Three – August 20th
This day starts as off as the others until we take the cable car up Pfingstegg and discover a luge track. How crazy is this. They have a luge track spilling over the side of the mountain that runs down far enough to make you think twice before take off. At the top sits an old lady selling tickets. She just smiles, takes your Swiss Francs and wishes you luck in German. There are no helmets, no instructions or rules, no safety bars or side rails, just a metal track, sleds and speed.
Adele can go solo since she is eight. This is a great thing in her mind and sets off near panic in ours. It’s like the scene in Nemo when the dad turtle lets his kid go outside of the EAC. Radical dude.
Vincent rides with me. He describes the ride as, “super, doper, ally, ooper, all four of them at once!” and follows that with, “again, again, again, again!” It does not get any better.
Until we break for lunch and end up at a table hanging on to a wooden deck perched out over the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley below. And the sun comes out!
Phew! Since we have peaked it is time to leave.
Our next objective is Gruyere to see how they make cheese. It looks like a short hop over the hill on the map. The GPS thinks otherwise. I should have known better when the road goes from narrow to nearly impassable on a 10% grade. The HOW has trouble holding gears and we are forced to crawl along in second praying we don’t start to slip backwards.
At 3km in we entertain turning around. The issue is that the road is so narrow and the hairpins so steep we can’t. At 5k we have a sliver of space and try a three (OK, maybe seven) point turn. When it is done and we start rolling back down my legs are shaking. Then we meet the car. Does uphill or downhill have the right of way? I pull rank with the seven-meter HOW and correctly assume downhill. Here on the hillside size does matter. And with that in mind we roll on looking for trucks around every turn.
The town of Gruyere is a walled city and castle sitting on top of a hill surrounded by farmland filled with cows. These are big cows with loud bells and plenty of milk. It has a pretty main square with restaurants and shops all selling fondue in some form or another. We cannot resist.
After dinner we settle into a game of bad mitten at our campsite in town and go to sleep with a gently warm breeze for the first time in ages.
Until it starts raining again…
“There is a fat man in the bathroom with the blues” – Lowell George, Little Feat
“Look at the warheads! Those are definitely warheads!” – Teri landing in Rostock, East Germany (in a crowd of very unhappy East Germans)
Day Fifty – August 7th
After another rainy, noisy night (don’t park where the tree branches brush the top of the camper and the pigeons sound like mice) we are up to sunshine. The kids and Teri hike while I post to the blog. We have lunch and start driving around 2p.
We cross the roof of Norway again and it remains cold, stark and carved. There is an occasional house, usually made of stone, sitting about randomly as if someone built it then sort of forgot about it. No signs of life up here. The lakes serve to flatten out the rugged, rocky expanse. However, in the sunshine they reflect back the mountains surrounding them and seem to add to the drama of it all. It really does feel like we are driving on top of the world.
When we finally start to descend we pick up A7 and ride the edge of a fjord all the way down into Oslo. We go through many 3k plus tunnels, the final one actually in Oslo with the exit to the campsite underground! En route the towns get bigger, the traffic heavier and the surrounds grow more crowded. I already miss the solitude of the Fjords: I guess the grass is always greener. The drive is about 4 hours, probably pushed one hour too far, but in the end it is good to be back in civilization.
The campsite is beautiful and fairly clean for a city sight. We are on top of a hill over looking the lights of downtown. They twinkle at night making the hills look alive with “fairies fires”. Apparently our timing is really good as a large Norwegian football tournament just ended and everyone left camp this morning. We have our pick of the place and settle into one of the few level spots, under a tree and close to the facilities.
There is an international feel here with license plates from all over Europe. It’s much different than the quiet solitude we have had for the last few days. The languages around camp are from all parts: German, Dutch, Danish, Polish, Czech, Italian, Austrian, and French. Not an American to be heard. From what I can tell the campers here seem to fall into three categories: young couples in tents, older folks in RVs and families in HOWs. All of them are good-natured but a bit guarded with their interactions. Just a pleasant smile and nod of the head for the most part.
Since we are low on food we have an assortment of random leftovers for dinner and go to bed early. Before bed Adele and I start the “Ollowbit” which is so much more fun than I remember. Pick up a copy if you have it lying around and start to read it out loud with an eight year old in earshot, it will not disappoint.
Day Fifty-One August 8th
Up around 8a, very early for us these days, to sunny skies and warm temps. All the makings of a great day! This is the first major city with easy public transport from our campsite. The buses to “sentalstation” run every half hour or so and we have a stop right at the entrance to the campsite. Plus, it turns out to be Sunday and kids ride free all day.
From the get-go Oslo is easy to manage and filled with friendly people. The main station is right in the thick of it all and the walk to our first ferry is quite pleasant. We stroll down one of the main pedestrian walk ways to the pier and hop on a boat to Bygdoy a small island about ten minutes across the bay.
First stop is the Viking Museum. Here they have three boats uncovered and restored by the Norwegians back in the olden days (translated, sometime before the turn of the century I think). These are some of the best-preserved Viking vessels in the world with intensely detailed carvings. The massive structures are housed in a space that allows them to stand alone so you can get a sense of just how big and powerful this Viking navy must have been. Just call me Thor! I wish I had a hat with horns!
We then wander through the island down to our second stop by the harbor. The walk reminds me of either the Cape or Newport with big, beautiful houses set on large plots of land always in striking distance of the sea. Must be where the money lives here in Oslo.
The next stop is the Kon-Tiki museum. I still remember visiting here when I was a kid and reading the book while traveling that summer. It leaves a similar impression today. In fact, if you are in the “what am I going to do with the rest of my life” stage I recommend you skip this one as it may be damaging over the long haul. And maybe the next stop as well.
Radical exploration of anything, filled with life threatening conditions and for reasons known and understood only by you and a relative few, has a certain ring to it if you’re in a certain frame of mind. After all, why not tackle something that matters and means something? I leave the definition of “matters” and “means something” to the adventurous…
These whackos, a loose collection of six or seven guys each from a different country, sailed from Peru to the South Pacific Islands in a reed boat to see if it could be done. Why? Just to see if it was possible that at some point in history someone else did it before them! And they did it in 1947, just after the end of WW2 to, which created one of the first mass media events of our time. I am so excited I might explode! This is right up my alley.
Following on the original theme of the Kon-Tiki is an exhibit on the Plas-Tiki, a ship made of plastic bottles sailing from San Francisco to The Cook Islands (and then maybe Australia) to raise awareness for the Great Sea of Plastic forming in the Pacific. Solving the issues surrounding this great sea of plastic is one of the central reasons I am launching my new company, VinniVooms.
My concept is to take plastic from the sea, re-purpose it into board shorts for fathers and sons, and return the recycled plastic to the sea in a more eco-friendly form. It cannot be coincidence that all of these random pieces of my life are converging in a small museum in Oslo, Norway. Only time will tell why.
The guys in the museum next door sailed a boat named the Fram to the North Pole in a race to be the first to complete the voyage. Upon learning someone beat them just days prior, they turned the Fram around and sailed to the South Pole to be first one down there. Captains Friditjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen I salute you! This is the very essence of determination and perseverance. Years trapped in polar ice, unimaginable hardship, not knowing if you will ever get out alive. It makes you want to run out the front door and keep on going until you get somewhere!
By the way this museum is really something. They built the place around the boat and give you full access to the ship. Standing on the deck knowing the hardships they experienced is magical in its own right.
We lunch on seafood dockside before taking the ferry back to town. The next stop is the Vigeland Park and the experience catches us off guard as it comes completely out of the blue. Apparently there is a sculptor here in Norway named Vigeland that works in stone and bronze and he decided to make 211 figures of people in all kinds of different interactions with each other and put them in this park. It is truly amazing and beautiful.
They line walk ways, are standing atop columns, rise up in a towering column stretching into the sky. They are etched into gate doors, standing solo in fields and sitting on benches. Everywhere you look you see one. And I swear to you each one catches you and takes you breath away.
For me, the most interesting are the fathers and their children. He has captured them in all kinds of situations: playing, caring, teaching. It leaves you with a desire to go and pick your kids up and just toss them high over head only to catch them last minute as they fallback down, laughing and giggling, saying, “again, again, again.”
Adele and I lie on the grass and read while Vince and Teri relax at the playground. We lounge the better part of the afternoon and eventually wander over to a pizza dinner at the bus station. By the time we arrive back at the site it is past 9p. The campsite is getting busy again with probably twice the people as last night. The Austrians have moved in front of and next to us.
By 10p, with journals done and Bilbo Baggins gearing up for and adventure with Gandalf and the Dwarfs, we are all off to sleep after a wonderful day. Turns out Oslo is about the size of Portland with roughly 500K people and the two cities feel very much akin to each other. Now if Portland would only move to the coast…
Day Fifty-Two August 9th
This is a slow moving morning. Unfortunately it is not as bright and sunny as yesterday but at least is it not raining. This is our day to relax and have some fun so we all decide to go swimming at the huge public swimming plaza we found in the park yesterday. Our fingers are crossed that the experience is a step up from Belgium.
While waiting for the bus, one of the other kids in line pushes Vince off of the bench: maybe by accident, maybe not. Your instinct as a parent is to hope that the other parents will handle the situation and remind their child not to push others. In this case a big, burly father threatens his son and demands he apologize, in English no less, and half jokingly whacks him upside the head while the mother stands behind both of them shouting something in what may be either Italian or Spanish. It’s a nightmare: no wonder the kid is pushing others around. It seems to be an accepted form of communication in his neck of the woods.
By the time we bus and subway to the pool the skies have cleared a bit and it is reasonably warm (for Norway). The pool rules say you must shower before swimming so Vince and I head into the men’s locker room to shower off. As I stand putting our stuff into a locker Vince comes running out of the showers yelling at the top of his lungs, “Dad! Dad! There is a man in there that ate too much food! I am not kidding! I think he will explode!” At times like these it is good to speak in a foreign tongue.
The place is great. There are two 50m pools, one for laps and the other for kids, a deep pool with platforms and diving boards and a gigantic slide that makes multiple loops and turns. We spend the better part of the day here: Adele on the slide and Vince in the 50m kids pool.
By later afternoon we are in need of a snack so we move on and find a place by the subway station for coffee and brownies. Teri and Adele do some shopping while Vince and I watch the people go by.
There is a wide assortment of folks in this part of town and all of them have an urban feel about them. They are confident, open and friendly. Since the buildings are low, maybe three of four stories high max in most places, and the streets are broad and wide compared to other towns, it feels open here. The people seem to reflect the openness back to others. Vince and I decide we fit right in.
We head back to the main train station for an Indian dinner and free Wi-Fi. Then Teri starts on her quest to get in touch with her doctor back home while the kids and I Skype the States.
One of the things about letting go of health insurance is that you are never really sure how things are going to work out when necessary. In the past we have always had coverage in the States and we just went to our doctors under our insurance plans and everything worked, no questions asked. Now Teri needs an asthma medicine refill and we all need malaria pills before we hit Africa and apparently none of it is covered by our travel insurance plan. So, we are off the insurance grid for the first time. Apparently Norway’s health system is as good a place as any to fulfill prescriptions and the cost here is better than Sweden. However, getting a prescription written by a local doctor is a whole other ball of wax.
We need to go to an ER type clinic to meet a doctor Teri found online who will write up the prescriptions for us to take around the block to the 24-hour pharmacy where they will fill it. Kind of like Dr. Cush in Venice Beach for a “medical” marijuana prescription, at least that’s what I am told by those in the know. And all of this need to happen by 8p before the ER shuts down for the night. It’s 7:40p. Sounds easy right?
It is! We can’t believer how smoothly it all works. By 8:30p we are back in our campsite with a year’s supply of Singular and malaria pills for all and we accomplished it at a cost of about half of what it would be back home! Something is wrong with our healthcare system.
Tonight the campsite feels crowded. There are many new neighbors and lots of people out and about. There are lines to wash dishes and the showers are jammed. For us, this means it is time to move on.
Day Fifty-Three August 10th
Adele: “Are we going to Ondome today?”
Adele: “The ABBA place.”
We decide not to go to “Ondome”, loosely translated as Stockholm, because the ABBA place (museum) is not open yet. We really wanted to see the ABBA museum. Just think of it, an entire museum dedicated to ABBA. Can it get anymore outrageous? Take a chance on me, dancing queen!
To protest the ABBA museum’s delayed opening (and to make up for some time lost wandering around the fjords) we decide to start heading back down towards the equator. This means we are taking the other coastal route down past Goteborg to Trelleborg to catch the boat back to Germany.
The Swedish coast proves to be beautiful. The land pushes right up to the ocean and then just sort of stops. There is very little transition from what we can tell. Perhaps the country is so small there really isn’t time for all that. They need to get right to farming and logging. Cows wander around beachfront pastures. Forests go right up to waters edge. The landscape is more reminiscent of “lake” that “ocean”. I expected sand dunes and wind swept flat lands. Not the case at all from our vantage point.
By lunch we are in an area known for ancient rock carvings so we decide to hit the visitors center and catch the stones. It is very cool. Apparently the Vikings were compelled to draw stories and record their history on these rock walls. The guide claims there are over forty thousand of these carvings along the coast spanning hundreds of years of Viking rule.
On the way home from the Grand Canyon we stopped by Valley of the Fire outside of Vegas (in August mind you) to see a different set of carvings that are eerily similar to these. There are basic figures, talk of sun and moons, and a kind of god like symbol, animals and ships. It is fascinating to see, compare and contract the two places. Luckily, it sparks a conversation on timing and a call for Googling from Adele.
We continue our long driving day and end up mid-coast in a small town on the water. The campsite has a big playground and a nice sandy beach. The kids want a break from travel and sightseeing so if the rain stops we may stay and rest for a day or two.
Day Fifty -Four August 11th
We wake up to ANOTHER rainy day and we are out of here. The online logistics are tough but we mange to work through the details and book a 3p ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock. It’s a six-hour sail across the Baltic. Party on.
Vince: “Hey dad, vampires are at Dodger games right? To watch the ball?”
Dad: “Yes Vince the umpires watch the ball and make sure everyone follows the rules.”
An hour or so later I catch bits and pieces of conversation from the back of the HOW about vampires and blood and baseball with Adele trying to be scary and Vince valiantly defending his position by explaining to Adele how the vampires make sure people follow rules. Priceless.
The sketchy online access here in Sweden is difficult, actually the sketchy online access is difficult in general. Teri is having timing issues with the house rentals and I am having trouble trying to orchestrate getting the board short fabric in hand. Running the day to day on these emerging businesses is proving to be more of a challenge that we initially thought and it adds a wrinkle of stress to the day-to-day. Someone needs to release a universal data SIM card or allow some kind of universal wireless access across Europe. The country-by-country access thing does not work.
We pretty much blew though Sweden, sad but true. I am sure it’s a nice country but it came at the wrong time for us. Had we gone into Sweden first perhaps we would have shown more interest, but honestly, post fjords, the rest of Scandinavia pales in comparison. You need a radical change to re-set and manage expectations.
Trelleborg is a working port. Not a lot of cruise ships here. They seem to cater to a serious, working class, travel only out of necessity, crowd. There may be a few other tourists but none that I recognize. The guidebook says that 97% of the people going to Rostock and the Baltic coast are German, leaving only 3% from outside the country. I don’t know where the 3% are from but I do know they are not on our boat. It is a long, lonely crossing.
Fortunately we have a tiny cabin with two small beds, a desk, our own bathroom and a porthole. Very exciting stuff if you don’t dig too deep. If you look underneath the surface you notice the wear and tear. The desk is old and scratched, the sheets well worn. The bathroom was hosed down but is still dirty; an old bar of soap sits on the shelf in the shower. The rickety TV has a few channel of no interest. The air is stale.
It is then that I realize where we are going.
We are going into East Germany and both the people and surroundings reflect the hard times of the recent past. After all it has only been 20 years or so. The boat is filled with gritty, tough people. All of the good-looking blond folks stayed back in Sweden. These are big, burly people eating “goulash” (seriously, this was how they described the soup type stuff at the dinner buffet) and drinking beer. They sit and stare blankly off in the distance. You can tell they are unfocused and just passing time. It takes some getting used to if you or your kids are they ones their eyes latch on to. We must look like something from another planet.
By the time we get into port, in the shadow of a giant nuclear reactor spitting smoke and steam into the air, memories of hiding under our desks at Norwood Elementary to prep for a potential nuclear attack from the Eastern Block are flooding in from all sides. I feel nervous and agitated.
“Look at the warheads! Those are warheads!” yells Teri across a crowded room full of disgruntled East Germans. I try not to notice. “Look, look, over there,” now pointing out the window and starting to jump up and down, “Those are warheads! Quick take a picture as proof!” Proof? Proof of what? What are we spies? I cannot believe this is happening. I try to defuse the situation, “Oh no, those are just fishing buoys that’s all.” I give her the “for the sake of the children please stop talking or the East Germans may kill us all” look. “What’s a warhead?” asks Adele. Things are going from bad to worse. The East Germans do not look amused. Just how far is the Russian front anyway?
The port is another working shipyard filled with trucks and containers. We dock to bright lights and an endless line of trucks and cars waiting to take our places for the return trip. Those waiting look as miserable as the ones arriving. The place looks like it is right out of a GDR handbook: cement block circa 1950. There is graffiti on the walls; big ads on the sides of buildings for beer and cigarettes, factories light up like Christmas trees and very few people. The place gives you the creeps.
An hour after we land we are in a campsite listening to the sound of waves from the Baltic Sea. The guy who let us in afterhours spoke no English. He just smiled and nodded, took my passport, led us to a site, helped with the electric hook up and vanished. In the darkness, sleep is elusive and I have no idea what to expect in the morning.
Day Fifty-Five-August 12th
Welcome to the Baltic Seaside resort of Rostock! One of the nicest beaches in Germany! Which Teri rightly points out is not such a great claim to fame in a country famous for engineering. Beaches are not top of mind when thinking about the Germans.
The bathhouse has a Greco Roman theme going on. There is a big statue of Venus in the middle and all of the side doors to the various rooms have pictures of ancient gods. It is nuts. And there are people everywhere: washing, brushing their teeth, bathing, doing dishes, talking, eating, smoking, playing, running around, riding bikes. It is just crazy!
That said the place is very clean and orderly. All the license plates are German and we appear to be the only ones from out of state in a campsite the size of a small town back home. This is officially off the grid. Well almost, the good news is that we are back in tmobile country so we at least we have wireless access.
From the coast we drive small back roads to the town of Luden. It feels like a homecoming of sorts to be back on these small roads but here the towns feel much different than before. They do not seem to have the same spark. The bricks look old and worn and the houses are a bit rundown. The sidewalks need work and the cars are older. Perhaps East has not met West out this way.
Luden’s bathhouse however is rocking. Apparently this town is known for it’s salt and the thermal pools here take full advantage of the healing properties of the local minerals. They have multiple pools, a great slide, several hot tubs including one for floating on your back (the salt content is really high so you float easily). Hours pass by. Adele and I get caught in the wave pool, Vince slides headfirst down the slides, Teri and I both soak, and all is well with the world. The only reason we are still not floating in the salt baths is that we ran out of Euros.
The rain is coming down in sheets so we opt for a Greek dinner at a restaurant before heading to a really nice campsite in the woods just out of town. Teri ends the day with emails at the bar and the rest of us continue the adventures of Gandalf and Bilbo. It has to stop raining sometime...
Day Fifty-Six- August 13th
Adele: “Are we moving today?”
Teri: “Yes we are going down the Fairy Tale road! How exciting! ”
Adele: “I don’t want to move, we always move.”
We need to stop moving.
We do stop in town long enough to do laundry. But that is just a brief respite before we are back in the saddle.
Another day, another 400k. We are storming our way to Switzerland and letting little else stand in our way. Once Berlin and Prague went out the window due to a poor maneuverability score with a 7m HOW and campsites away from city centers as well as off the public transit lines, the rest was history. “Get me to the alps,” says Teri, “I don’t care how we get there.”
This is how we found ourselves driving the Fairy Tale Road through central Germany. Do not let the marketing fool you, stay on the Autobahns and drive south very fast. All of these little Grimm brother towns are a total waste of time. After a three-hour tour on small back roads we end up in Hameln famous for the Pied Piper and the rats. There is nothing to see here. There’s no Pied Piper. We camped on the river and still did not see a rat. Plus it’s been raining for days on end and after a while all of Germany starts to look the same: wet, green and old.
This campsite could be a low point for public washrooms to date, as the bathrooms are part of/underneath a bar. The ceilings are really low so that even I need to duck my head plus they are heavily used by patrons from upstairs. This would probably be OK if we were patrons as well but we are not so it isn’t. It’s pouring rain anyway so no one wants to venture outside the HOW.
Reflecting on the recent pace we have been keeping since Oslo leads me to believe we are headed back down. It sounds crazy but the fjords were about as far away from the equator that we will be and it is like our bodies know they must go back towards center to regain equilibrium. It feels like we are being pulled towards Rome, Istanbul and Cairo. It will be interesting if we feel the same after some time in Cape Town.
Onward, always onward…
Week Seven - Norge 08/07/2010
“It takes a village.” – African proverb or more recently a campaign slogan of Hillary.
This is true. There is no way to possibly express our gratitude for all of the loving care and support we are receiving out here on the edge. The Skype calls, emails and texts messages coming in from all of you serve to keep us grounded. Adele has been in contact with friends back home via video calls and even Vinny has managed to do a call or two and send a few postcards. All of the effort to get in touch means so much to us.
Many have asked how we manage to do all of this, putting our lives on pause so to speak, and heading out on this grand adventure. Now that we are in the thick of it all we can say with certainty that it takes all kinds of help from our people back home. Someone is opening our mail and helping with bills. Someone else is caring for Jessie our dog. Someone is watching over our home and helping out with our guests. The startups, both Vinnivooms and CallMeCuffs, are moving forward with the help of good friends. We have our legal team dealing with various issues that pop up from time to time in the modern world.
All of this is made possible by the friends and neighbors in our village and we thank each and every one of you countless times each day.
Day Forty-Three - July 31 Happy B-Day Vince!
At long last Vincent’s birthday is here. He wakes up with a big smile and announces, “TODAY is my birthday!” Followed shortly thereafter with, “I am in charge today, let’s open presents!” How great to be four years old with the world at your doorstep so full of anticipation and wonder. His first gifts are a box of Legos and a red wooden car, both received with an enthusiastic “THANK YOU!” He definitely has the birthday spirit.
Today is a sightseeing day. Our first stop is Arhus for a provisional shop and a quick sweep/clean of the camper. We open another gift and then move on to the northern most point of Denmark. Despite the rainy weather we are determined to go north to Sagen and checkout the meeting of two oceans.
For some reason Vince has been determined to climb a tall building on his birthday. We have been discussing the birthday for days and the tall building always makes its way into the conversation. No idea why. The fates are looking out for us when we stumble upon the Sagan lighthouse with 210 steps of climbing up a narrow circular staircase. Vinny is so excited he might explode!
I keep him busy climbing on the rock jetty and tossing rocks into the ocean while Adele (and Teri) set up his party in the camper. We have balloons, Spiderman plates and napkins, a cake (sort of, maybe more of a big brownie) candles and the rest of his gifts (a remote control car, a bug that vibrates, a shirt and of course more Legos). It’s perfect.
Post party we set out to climb the lighthouse. It is cold, raining and blowing very hard by the time we arrive at the top. Getting out the door up top is a challenge. The view however is well worth the effort.
Looking out on the spit of land below you begin to understand how vulnerable life here really is. There are a series of grass-covered sand dunes protecting the inlands and several coves and inlets along the coast. Beyond that it is completely flat save for a few buildings here and there. You get the sense that with one big storm it will all wash out to sea.
Standing with the cold rain blowing hard across your face you begin to understand why the Danes are such a serious crowd. Life in this neck of the woods is not easy. It is cold and brisk and overcast. It is not dark but instead just this dull grey that covers everything. The weather here, more so than other places, seems to reflect the people. I cannot imagine the place in the winter.
We descend the spiral steps and head back to the campsite for some playtime in the sand dunes and a walk on the beach. All the time in the cold, wind and rain.
Day Forty-four – August 1
We wake up to clearing skies and decide to head off to Hirtshals and try to go stand by on a ferry over to Norway. The lighthouse proved to be enough of Sagen for us though next time through we may opt for the long walk out to the tip where the sand stops and ocean begins.
I love ferries. Everything about them is thrilling to me: the smell of the ocean, the sounds of the gulls, the anticipation of a new destination, watching the horizon line for the inbound boats to break through, waiting with like minded travelers from all over the place, the goings and comings, everything, all of it.
The Color Line reservation is for tomorrow morning due to pricing issues. A trip today would have been 4x the price had we decided not to go stand by. The good news is that we don’t have to pay anymore to go stand by and the lady at the booth says things are looking good for the 3:30p departure. It’s noon when we get in line number 30 with the other stragglers.
There was some kind of junior football tournament going on in Hirtshals so the place is jammed with buses of teenagers standing in circles kicking soccer balls to each other. It’s fun to watch them bounce the ball back and forth, the skill level is so high for such young kids. We pass the time by touring the ferry terminal, looking at the harbor and sizing up the other ferryboats.
One of the issues with going stand by is that you are the last ones to board. This means seats are scarce. Actually seats are impossible. The best we can do is floor space in the corner of the bar. I have been in worse mind you. There are 1,900 people on board with life preserves for 2,000 so space is pretty much maxed out.
Technology these days is a wonder. Here we are doing 21 knots across the North Sea and we have wireless with a strong enough signal to Skype the States. It is so cool it’s almost hard to fathom. We listen to b-day wishes left for Vince, call the parents and Adele has a videoconference with friends.
When I can pull her away from the technology, Adele and I have a great father- daughter time sitting outside on the back deck, protected from the wind and enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. She is a great kid with a funny sense of humor and a genuine interest in just about everything. Like how fast is a knot? When/why do you stop seeing land on one side? Are there seals in the water? How long until you freeze to death in this ocean? What do cleats do and what happens if you forget to untie?
After making up answers to most of the questions, we arrive in Norway and are greeted at customs. “Yorba, youba, wodka, igrets?” “What?” “Wodoka, iiigretts?” “Oh, no, no vodka and we don’t smoke, only two small children, four and eight.” A big smile, “Inde camping? Hah! Hah! You should have oloto wodka and igrets! Ha! Ha! Ha!” With a wink and a nod we are in, I like Norway already.
Driving north on A9 we are confronted with a sudden change in topography that triggers and immediate change in perspective and orientation. There are rocks everywhere, most of them covered in lichen and moss. And the greens are deep and dark here, in fact it is all one big spectrum on greens and browns and earth tones. The mountains and lakes and weather are more akin to Mammoth or Portland or Canada or maybe all three rolled into one. I just want to get out of the car to be outside, or really inside, all of it.
We follow “moose crossing” signs down a small narrow road and end up at a campsite seemingly in the middle of nowhere. When I ask the man at the front desk if they have Internet he just smiles and says, “Not yet” I am still not sure if he was making some kind of Norwegian joke to himself or if he was serious. When I ask for a spot number he smiles again, “Anywhere is fine just keep some distance to the others.” I really like Norway.
Vince crashes at 6p and sleeps straight through to the morning. The rest of us end our day in a grassy, wooded knoll on the side of a lake listening to a gentle breeze and a light rain. Darkness doesn’t really fall up here but it gets dull around 10:30p or so. It’s good to be back in the woods.
Day Forty-five – August 2
We are up early to play at the beach on the lake. The water is crystal clear and almost warm. When I get there Vince is rolling in the sand naked as can be and Adele is knee deep in the lake looking for crystals. How great to be a kid.
This is a driving day. We need to cover some ground to get to the Fjords so we head north up into the lower third of Norway. A9 is much narrower than I expected so the going is slow. No way to cover great distances in a day here. The pace forces you to slow down.
We have lunch in a tourist info place in Husflid with a nice kids playground and free Wi-Fi! Doesn’t get much better. Our lunches these days are a loaf of fresh bread, some kind of local cheese, meat of some kind and maybe a salad. It is more like grazing verses an actual meal, which suits us fine.
A9 winds into E134 that winds into A7. The mountains get bigger and broader, the rivers stronger and faster. By days end we are in another campsite in the middle of nowhere surrounded by 1,000 foot walls of granite camped at the edge of a small stream.
It’s cold, very cold and so light that at 11p that I can still read sitting outside the camper.
Key thought while driving today: I have no intention of working summers ever again. In fact, I have every intention of traveling with the family on extended summer trips while the kids are in school with summer breaks. The summer rental market is solid in our neck of the woods so we can easily off set the cost of travel. Therefore, going forward, any “work” must comply with this new schedule.
Day Forty-Six August 3
When you wake up in a valley surrounded by sheer walls of rock the mind does wander far and wide. It is almost as though your thoughts want to slip away to bounce off the walls and echo back and forth colliding with each other just to see what happens.
I find myself on a narrow single lane dirt road following the river upstream. Decades of fly fishing develop instinct and my eyes dart from rock to stream searching for the familiar ripples of trout raising to a hatch. This river is cold and clear falling powerfully over rocks and moving fast through shallows. I wish I had my 9ft Orvis 6wt.
It’s the sound of the river that triggers the thoughts. It is the sound that never stops, yet is always changing. It gurgles and splashes into a cadence that beats under everything else. Winds, rain, sun and snow all come and go but the river always runs.
On the other side of the road is a forest. It is dark and dense. Beyond three of four trees is a wall of tree trunks and branches and leaves. The colors fade from green to browns to black the deeper you probe. It makes you a bit nervous if you let.
Vince is mumbling that the remote “very, very needs new batteries” and that the car “wants to drive in the river very badly”. He is so young, small and vulnerable walking along our little road more of less oblivious to the world around him. I told you the thoughts dance off the granite walls here and reverberate endlessly. What a morning.
We eventually pack up and start to drive again. This is another driving day only this time we must go up and over the top of Norway only to fall back down to the Fjords where we can drive the waterline and cut through the mountains. Above timber you start to get a sense of just how far off the grid we really are.
No one lives up here save for a few sheep and a goat or two. We do pass an occasional ski town or a hunting lodge but for the most part it’s deserted. Somehow, I have no idea when/why/how, they managed to build tunnels to make the crossing a bit easier. And these tunnels are exceptional.
If your point of reference is the Midtown or Eisenhower tunnel then think of these as Uber-tunnels. These own those. The longest one today was 7,150 meters, that’s a lot of feet. They are dark and cold with no lights and barely two lanes wide. They have none of the fancy tile to cover the rough cuts left by the blasting. They leave the rock as is, scarred and exposed.
I bet we pass through twenty of them by days end. It all sounds fun until a semi comes at you with high beams on doing 100k. I still wake up flinching now and then. I keep dreaming that the clearance signs keep going down, the length keeps going up, the road narrows and the trucks come faster and faster with each passing one.
We break for groceries and gas before arriving in Eidfjord. This is another town hanging on the edge of both mountains and water. Our site is in a field next to a playground with a trampoline so all is fine in our world.
We decided today while driving that we are Norway people. It has everything we are looking for in a country. In a few years, maybe in 2016, when the kids can handle a pack for an extended hike, we will return to climb and fish the high country. Hopefully you will come along for the ride.
Day Forty-Seven August 4
Typical breakfast conversation:
Vince: “Please I have some coco beans?”
Adele: “Puffs, coco puffs.”
Vince: “Pops? Coco pops? It’s pops Adele”
Adele: “Puffs Vinny! This is SO frustrating!”
We wake up to a cold, wet morning. Today is a big day of sight seeing after several days of transport. It is nice to have a destination. First up is the Eidfjord Nature Center.
If you have ever been to the Jackson Hole Visitors Center you know how great a visitors center can be. This one almost tops that. It starts with a movie taken such that you feel you are flying in a helicopter over the Fjords and glaciers. It is so real we all feel a little woozy and lean to one side now and again for balance. One of the best Visitor Center flicks to date. Then you spill out into three floors of interactive displays complete with real ice from a glacier, live trout and samples of every conceivable rock and flower. The day just started and it is already worth the crazy drive to get here.
Next stop is a place named Kjeasen. You may have seen it in guidebooks or in ads tempting you to visit Norway. It’s a farm, up on top of a mountain, looking down on the town of Eidfjord. The trick is you drive up this absolutely insane mountain road that is open for uphill traffic for one half hour and then for downhill traffic the next. This way no one meets head one during the drive because passing each other would be impossible. Oh, and 2.5k of the 4k drive in through a tunnel in total darkness except for your headlights with no margin on either side for error. It may be the best adventure we have attempted yet.
Outside the farmhouse we meet a nice Norway couple, the guy is seventy-four years young and was born just 10k away. They come back all the time for the views. They have a 94 year-old Aunt living in San Rafael back home who apparently is still looking for a husband having lost the last three. Characters one and all.
Only one of the sisters still lives on the farm. We get the full story that the other sister recently passed away leaving the last one on the mountain with a herd of sheep. Apparently she stays here through the winters as well though I find it hard to believe it is safe enough for any living thing. To think that she simply lives here, no real worries about anything else outside of this little farm, is almost mind numbing. I would call it a life lesson but it seems closer to insanity.
After a nail biting decent to the waterline and then a quick stop in Voss (looking for the water bottling plant which we can not find) we end up in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. The first campsite appears to be part of a slagheap so we pass. The second one is impossible to find and GPS takes us 30k off track due to a spelling error (way too many letters in these street names). On the third attempt we actually need to be rescued, by a really nice Norwegian guy, on the narrowest city block I have ever been on and then be escorted back to a main road suitable for HOWs.
Finally, two hours after we arrive in the city, with two starving children and limited resources, we find a beautiful campsite tucked into a small harbor just outside of the city. Unfortunately, all they have left is a spot in the parking lot but here beggars can’t be choosy.
Day Forty-Eight August 5th
Up to breakfast in the parking lot. Turns out we are not the only ones in the overflow area so at least we have some comrades in arms. Mostly Germans and Danes with a Fin or two thrown in for good measure.
Bergen is beautiful. The city is a collage of painted clapboard houses perched on the edge of a cliff and falling into the sea. It looks like a mix of Santorini or the Cinque a Terra meets Puget Sound, with narrow little streets all ending at a bustling seaport. They sell whale on a stick here. I cannot identify most the other things. Some have fins, others legs. They have pools filled with lobsters and tables with crushed ice layered in salmon.
After a quick lunch and a stop at the climbing store for warm clothes we buy tickets and climb the funicular to get a view from the top. It does not disappoint. The thing climbs an eighteen-degree pitch to get there!
They have trolls here in Norway and at the top of this mountain they appear to be everywhere: big ones, small ones, ones hiding in the woods, some standing out in the open. The kids wander around wide-eyed and ever alert. So do the parents.
Heading down in the funicular:
Dad: “Adele, what book did you get?”
Adele: “the Ollowbit”
Dad: “Which one?”
Adele: “The Ollowbit, the one from that movie, Lord of the Rings.”
Dad: “I read the Hobbit when I was kid.”
Adele: “Like before 1989?”
At the end of a long drive back to the fjords we are back in the middle of nowhere. Out campsite is incredible. We are perched on a small cliff overlooking an inlet. The cold weather is back as well as the rain so we hunker down for stormy night. We do laundry and catch up on the journals late into the evening. At 11p when I go up to get the last load of wash it is still light. The fishermen, back with the evening catch are out cleaning their fish and telling tales in German, French and Norwegian about the big ones that got away.
Day Forty-Nine – August 6th
It poured rain last night. It was so loud in the camper it was actually hard to sleep. When we roll over at 8a or so it is still coming down though not as fierce as earlier in the storm. I venture out for a breath of fresh air.
“Fuuuuoooosssss!” It sounds like blowing air. “Fuuuuooooooosssss!” Now water is spouting up in various places. The water breaks here then there. Something is breathing. Dolphins. So close we can actually hear them breathing. It’s an entire pod moving slowly along the shoreline, fins breaking the surface. Maybe Dolphin, then again are we sure Nessie is Scottish?
Suddenly the sun breaks through and we are at the end of a rainbow. It appears for a minute, no more, then vanishes as fast as it arrives. What a morning!
We lounge around not in any real hurry to move on. Today we start the drive back across Norway towards Oslo. We take three ferries, all of them in rainstorms. Go through our longest tunnel yet at 7,248 meters. See countless towns and villages, some mere clusters of houses. Pass Stave churches with dragons perched high on the steeples protecting them from danger. This is Norway.
Much like the terrain and weather, I have come to suspect that the real Norway is somewhere between what we see on the surface and what lies beneath. The nooks and crannies of the fjords seem hold on to thoughts, memories and expectations forever. You can’t shake them loose here as they seem to stay, like the rock and rain, for a very, very long time. Everything is full of twists and turns, ups and downs, warm sunshine and cold rains. It all comes at you in the dynamic contrast of two opposing points of view and all of it is laid bare and exposed by nature.
At the end of the day, we are once again camped by a the river with water that keeps on flowing…
Week Six - All fall down... 08/03/2010
We are strangers in a foreign land…
Day Thirty-Six – July 24th
We wake up to a swim in the pool and a short drive (about an hour) to Kobenhavn. We are staying at the Admiral Hotel, a couple of hundred-years-old building tricked out in a nautical theme to resemble an ocean liner. It’s pretty cool. The parking Gods take care of us and we are good to go for the weekend.
First stop is lunch. It is striking how empty the city is. The only areas with people in them are the main tourist stops. If you turn down any other street it is desolate. I can’t figure out if the European economy is so bad that people are just hunkered down or if it is always this empty, but most of the places we have been that are off the tourist routes are deserted.
Having said that, the tour boats are in port and the streets earmarked for out of towners are so crowded that it is hard to move. All of the restaurants on the main canal are full. People are wandering aimlessly and American accents are everywhere. If I hear one more lady from Queens yelling at her husband, “Bernie, where’s the mermaid? What? What? I can’t hear you! It’s on a rock?”
Vince is totally out of control. He refuses lunch again this time taking all of us down with him. We retreat to the hotel hoping some down time will cure all ills. No dice.
He somehow manages to pull out Adele’s new hair weave from Legoland. This goes from bad to worse as it sets her off into hysterics that turns into a fifteen minute sob session releasing a flood of tension. Most of it a cumulative build up from the day to day, a much lesser amount from the hair weave. The world is coming unglued rather quickly.
To change the pace we try to eat out again. They say a definition of insanity is making really poor choices over and over again. When we find a restaurant (recommended online by the NileProject.com – not good, don’t listen to them) for dinner Vince breaks down just long enough after we put in our order that it is too late to cancel. Again I spend the meal out walking him around waiting for Adele and Teri to finish. It is very, very frustrating.
To top off this crazy day, Adele loses her childhood nappy somewhere between dinner and home. Teri runs back to the restaurant to see if it’s there but they do not have it. When Teri gets back with the news that it has not been found and the news sinks in Adele simply crashes. This is beyond painful for her. It has been with her since birth.
It’s remarkable how fast disaster strikes. Honestly, things spiral down so fast it is impossible to stop them. I think that it is hard to see the nuance accumulating during the day to day because we are so distracted by the sensory overload and the newness of it all. After all we are strangers in a foreign land.
You can easily forget that we left our other lives behind for a good long time. Adele misses her friends and she is really flying solo somewhere between being a little kid with no responsibilities to being a young woman with them. Vince is slowly figuring out he is not going to the blue room next year. He is exploding with knowledge and aching for a friend to play cars with.
Our belongings are all in storage. Our houses have strange people in them. We sold our cars. We are now in constant motion. Always moving. Even when we hang out somewhere for a few days there are things to see and do and then things that must get done. There is always activity. Plus, we have not been out of each other sights for the entire trip.
It has been a radical transition and we are clearly at a breaking point. Something is going to have to give.
Day Thirty-Seven – July 25th
Kopenhavn is loud. Our window is broken and it flapped open and closed all night long in the cold wind and rain. I slept in the pull out with Vince again and he tosses and turns constantly. It’s hot and stuffy in the hotel room and the mood is somber and grim.
Teri manages to get breakfast, coffee and bread. We bundle up in what we have and head out to see some stuff. The first stop is the playground in the Kings Garden. It is rather small but Vince has fun playing in the sand. Not much for Adele though.
We cross over to the a castle with the crown jewels thinking Adele will like them but honestly the place is a bust. The castle is filled with really old paintings of Danish monarchs (we bail after the first floor) and the jewels are lame. The crowns are cool but not worth the price of admission.
We try an old fort. Actually this is one of the oldest fortifications in Denmark and is still being used today. The barracks are painted in orange hues and appear to be leaning to one side or another. The main fortification is a dirt wall that we can walk on top of that surrounds an inner courtyard. There are a few cannons standing guard from the olden days but that’s really about it plus it is very, very windy.
For the first time I consider bailing. I told you it happens in a heartbeat. One minute you want to go to Norway, the next Malibu sounds very appealing. We could go for a break and then head back out again. We can recharge the batteries; get reconnected to the outside world. It’s only a plane ride away. Unfortunately I let this thought get away and actually float the idea in earshot of others. Now we are all in a twist.
We sit over looking the main port where the cruise ships come and go. They are huge! I have no idea how many people are on these things but they appear to be floating cities. Just the thought of staying on one gives me the willies.
If we could see though the trees we would be looking at the stand for the famous Little Mermaid statue but it doesn’t matter anyway as it is on loan to Beijing for the 2010 world expo. We will catch it over there. I am told they have a fake one out there but we can’t see it from our vantage point. To try and salvage things we attempt lunch. It is so windy our menus blow away and the glasses on one of the tables next to us fall over and crash to the ground. All of this drama and still Vince refuses to sit down. We bail.
When we get back to our hotel to try lunch on the patio, Vince again refuses to (1) behave and (2) eat anything because he is “allergic” so I take him upstairs. The broken window is still broken and on top of everything else happening in our wacky world at the moment we need to change rooms.
The front desk actually pushes back. Can you believe it? In complete disbelief I explain that a broken window six flights up with a very active four year old is a potential liability for the Admiral and they should surely reconsider. They nod and smile politely and then completely blow me off. Unbelievable. Do not stay at the Admiral Hotel.
I take a nap and watch the Tour end in Paris. It’s hard to believe they have been racing all of this time. We sure have covered a lot of ground. Vince plays with his Legos. Teri and Adele search the streets again for the long lost nappy. By days end we decide to check out and move on in the morning. Kobenhavn is over priced, windy and cold. Maybe we missed something or maybe all big cities pale in comparison to Paris…
Day Thirty-Eight – July 26th
We are up to our first sunny morning in Kobenhavn. Vinny’s b-day is just a few days away so we do a morning shop for his presents. It’s hard to be so young. Everyday he wakes up and declares. “Today is my birthday. Today we will have a party with all my friends and a Star Wars bouncy house and a cake with Legos on it!” And we need to say “no, it is on the 31st and it will just be family this time” and he says, “NO!” again and repeats his earlier declaration.
To keep him occupied we wander around the corner and find ourselves on a main square with a huge statue that works as a launching pad for hot wheels cars. Again the place is empty. I keep checking the map and reconfirming we are in the center of everything just to make sure we are in the mainstream and it’s true we are in one of the main squares. Must be the weak Euro.
“You can’t go to Kobenhavn with seeing Tivoli Gardens!” At least that is what the guidebooks say. Personally, having spent the afternoon there, I would pass. It costs a small fortune to get in, everyone that is not at Legoland is here, the ride lines are ridicules and the rides themselves are nowhere near worth the effort. You need to be 140cm to ride them and our kids are not. Vinny and Adele finally get to the carousel only to sit on tiny, little horses way in back on the inside. I cannot even see them as they go around.
Vince gets in trouble on the boat line and loses some more “privileges”. This is our attempt to put some line of defense in place for the poor behavior. It does not seem to be working, as he does not seem to really care that he loses them. The two fun things we manage to do are (1) we have an overpriced lunch on a pirate ship and (2) the kids ride some airplanes. By 4:30 we are back at the car and heading back to pick up the camper.
We get as far as our new favorite hotel, the one we left two days ago, and we decide to return for a farewell stay. We’re in the pool by 6:30p: a good swim cures all ails.
Day Thirty-Nine – July 27th
Up to the wonderful buffet breakfast and another swim. We use the morning and the Internet connection to take care of some logistics. By noon we are in town getting cash and grabbing bagels for lunch.
The town of Odense is on our way back so we stop off to see Hans Christian Anderson's house and museum thinking it will be good for the kids. It is pretty random. For some reason they feel compelled to display the times in which he lived instead of his stories. It is very odd and the kids could care less. They came to see the Princess and the Pee not a timeline of world events spanning Han’s life. We bolt.
From the moment we arrive at the Fiat dealer you can tell something is up. No one really wants to talk to us and with good reason as the camper part was not the one they really needed and now they need another week get and install the right one. Fiat has decided they will no longer cover the cost of our tiny rental car and the rental company, Euro car, is freaking out that we have not returned it. Fiat Customer Service refuses to call me back. Mc Rent, the people we got the camper from in Germany, refuse to take any responsibility and IdeaMerge, the company we paid up in Portland to be the middleman, is dealing with bad information from all parties involved.
We check into the Scandic hotel in Horsens and try and have dinner but the stress levels are way too high. It ends poorly, far from home, all alone.
As I said earlier in the week, something needs to give.
Day Forty – July 28th
The Scandic is a great hotel chain here in Scandinavia. They are really family-friendly with huge buffet breakfasts included in the price of admission, playrooms for the kids and separate beds for each child in the rooms. The rooms are tight but well worth the cost plus they have free Wi-Fi for all. We actually signed up for the frequent guest program!
Another round of phone calls reconfirms that the camper will not be ready until very late Friday and probably Monday. It’s Wednesday and we need to move on from Denmark. The Danes are nice enough but they pale in comparison to the Dutch. Plus circumstance has clouded our impressions.
Not knowing what else to do we turn back to managing necessities and head out to do laundry. A very talkative Danish guy, probably in his mid-sixties, that is determined to help us with both the coin machines and our camper predicament, runs the Laundromat. He goes on and on about the inner workings of the coin operated washers, spinners and dryers. I have no idea what he is talking about most of the time but we do manage to get the clothes washed with much less hassle than usual.
About half way through the process I leave Teri and the kids to fend for themselves and go down to re-rent the tiny car for a few more days. The rental car guy is the first nice people I encounter in this crazy fiasco. He gives us a three-day rate on the car and is willing to help us get a station wagon up in Arhus if we end up needing one. At some point during our conversations he point out that Fiat is paying $78 US per day for our car. My head is about to explode. We are paying around $150 per day for the camper and the Fiat guys are only willing to pay half that for our replacement car? A car that does not even fit our luggage? And they are pocketing the balance?
This is unacceptable. It is time to go to work. Teri takes the kids back to the indoor play park we discovered last week and I head off on another round of phone calls to bring this debacle to resolution.
After much internally debate amongst the family, we decide begrudgingly that our best bet at this point is to get our money back on the camper and move on with a rental car and hotels. The sheer cost of it all is becoming an issue. Right now we are paying for a camper in the shop plus the tiny rental car (Fiat has stopped coverage after day five and refused to discuss any more financial support) and on top of that we have all of our hotel bills.
I start calling. After four hours of negotiating and countless rounds of calls to Mc Rent in Frankfurt and the corporate office I think in Berlin, IdeaMerge in Portland, Oregeon and a satellite office in Barcelona, Spain, the Fiat Camper Assistance people in Italy and back and forth the Teri we end up with the following: if the camper is not fixed by close of business Friday we walk away and our money is refunded. If it is fixed, Mc Rent pays for the car rentals and hotels for the time the camper is in the shop plus they will add on a free week at the end of the trip.
Under the circumstances it is the best we do. Teri and the kids come back for a quick dinner and then we are off to sleep after another hectic and stressful day.
The crazy thing is that I am not sure which way I want the outcome on Friday to fall. It is a tough call at the moment. The fates will play their hand in time…
Day Forty-One - July 29th
It is still raining. It has been raining for days. Rain, rain, rain.
The weather is appropriate for our outing today. It is “bog man” day! In certain parts of the world they have discovered really old bodies buried in bogs. The chemical make up of the peat somehow preserves the bodies almost as they were when they died. The skin, hair, teeth, even the fingernails are all recognizable and fully preserved. Lucky for us, one of best of these 2,000 year-old bog men is right up the road.
The museum is tucked away down a random tree-lined single lane road in the middle of nowhere. It is a great exhibit. They have all kinds of history and detail on bogs and the bog men (and women) and myths and stories and stuff on archeologists, all of it right up Adele’s alley. She eats it all up with wide eyes of wonder.
For lunch we head down the road to Arhus, the second largest city in Denmark behind Kobenhavn, for shopping and lunch. It is a very manageable city and we end up getting a picnic to eat on a park bench and Cold Stone Creamery ice cream for dessert. How weird to see Cold Stone so far from home.
By mid-afternoon we are back at the Scandic for a nap. At 5p or so it’s up for dinner and then we go back down again, this time for the night. Everyone is exhausted and the anticipation of tomorrow is weighting on us all.
Day Forty-Two - July 30th
We have another great buffet breakfast before I make the call.
At 9:30a I get Allen at the repair shop. “Your camper will be ready at 2p.”
Done. We have our answer. And the mood lifts immediately.
This may be the thing that we are looking for when I say something has to give. This experience has given us a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation for what we have in our HOW and for the camping experience in general.
What was becoming a challenge - the tight quarters, three-minute showers and endless prep and clean - is now considered a blessing. There is the freedom that the HOW provides and the general ease of our mobility. The HOW and camping sort of set a definition of a compact and efficient family unit. This may sound crazy but it provides all of us boundaries, limits and sets of responsibilities. In a very base way it helps manage our own expectations: of ourselves, each other and the daily ebb and flow of the TATW. It’s a tether in a sea of change.
We all need these things. No wonder the mood lifted so quickly. It is good to know and once again be reminded that what comes down also comes up.
So, with the sun shining we once again drive onward, due north towards Norway…