Week Three - Le Tour et al. 07/13/2010
Day Fourteen – July 2
“I left Rome and landed in Brussels on a train ride so bumpy that I almost cried.” -Dylan via Garcia
Today is a travel day. We get up in the heat and sweat for a while. IT IS STILL HOT, There is time to shuffle our stuff around once more to try and fit it all in. Teri heads off to the post office to mail home a box of gifts and some extras. Our new Malibu friends stop by one last time to exchange kids clothes. It all moves along in quarter-time in the mid-morning heat.
Vincent, the name of our driver (to which Vinny whispered with eyes wide, “no way”) drives us to the station in a big fancy AIR CONDITIONED car over to Euro-star for the train to Brussels. And we leave. Just like that. On the platform one minute, train the next. I already miss Paris.
The trip is painless taking about an hour and small change. The countryside is beautiful. More small towns and church spires. There are a few cows, sheep and a horse or two. The kids watch various “i” gadgets (iPads, iPods, iTouch) and time passes.
When we pull in to the central Brussels station I actually think we may have jumped off at the wrong stop. There is no one in Brussels. I mean no one. It is sort of freaky.
Eventually we find a cab and get to our hotel on one of the main squares, right in the heart of tourist county. We go over to a nearby park but it is nothing like the big city parks we are used to. Where are the people? It looks like they built this beautiful city and forgot to tell anyone about it. Maybe it’s fatigue. After a quick dinner and a few hours of World Cup in the hotel lobby, we all crash and try to sleep.
Did someone say that the Netherlands beat Brazil? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the noise from the celebration in the streets!
Day Fifteen – July 3, 2010
I cannot express how much better everyone feels after a good nights sleep in air conditioning. Sure we have four people in a room the size of a small closet but at least it’s cool! And they have a buffet breakfast were kids eat free! Does it get any better?
Today we take a short one-hour train ride to Bruges. This is listed as the classic medieval city in a far corner of Belgium and one of the only ones to be left unscathed from the air attacks of WWII. You know it’s funny how an hour train ride can get you to the far corner of anywhere. I can barely get to downtown LA in an hour back home.
Vinny is a bit concerned about the evil city and says a number of times he does not want to go. When I put it all together (medieval vs. evil) I am reminded about the Steven Covey story of the “corner” where the dad tells his little boy to stop going around the corner and the kid keeps going around again and again so the Dad tells him not to go around the corner again and again. The misunderstanding escalates until finally the kid looks up at the dad in total frustration and asks, “Daddy, what’s a corner?” Sometimes it is hard to remember Vinny is only almost four without the context of other almost four year olds to pull you back into his world and perspective. It’s is medieval Vince, not evil.
A few train lessons we have picked up thus far. Everyone, and I mean everyone, travels “class 2” so by the time we get two kids onto the platform and on the right train all the seats are long gone. When traveling with kids, assume you should sit together and take empty seats in the “class 1” car and look like you belong there. Best to do this when you are not really sure if you are actually doing anything sneaky (i.e. when you think you are just lucky to find the only empty car with air conditioning). Then smile, smile, smile, and keep nodding when anyone asks you for anything. It works like a charm.
Bruges is no longer a secret. In fact, all the people that are supposed to be in Brussels are hiding out in Bruges. And with good reason. The town is beautiful. It is cool and overcast so the leaves are that ‘heavy’ green you get sometimes, kind of forest like. The streets are narrow with houses built eons ago standing tall against the lapping waters of the canals. Whole packs of swans swim by, “seriously, for real” says Adele.
Pretending to be good tourists we immediately take the thirty-minute canal boat ride in the rain. Vince and Adele have a blast riding in the back, dipping their hands over the sides and hovering under the umbrellas. It is now cold and wet and there is only one thing to do in a downpour in a foreign town. Without hesitation we decide to look for lunch.
A few comments on the merits of a man purse: first off let me be very clear, I do not have a man purse. Nor do I intend to get one. That said they do look pretty practical. Not “pretty” practical in a good-looking sort of way but instead in a really useful sort of way. They have a lot of pockets to put stuff in, they hold all sorts of things and some of them are pretty “sporty” in a Metro-euro kind of way. Again, for clarity, I do not have one nor do I intend to get one. But if one happens to make it’s way into the HOW, then when in Rome as they say…
We pick out a Frommer’s recommendation and head over to the main square. Along the way we pass many nice little comfortable healthy places to eat and end up in what is to us a complete nightmare of a restaurant. This is happening too often with Frommer’s recommendations on this trip so we decide, with much disappointment, that Frommer’s needs to go.
We are no longer Frommer’s people. Ironically, I think we have actually evolved into Lonely Planet people. Many would say this is a regression but I disagree. We’re not quite a Rough Guide family yet but we are definitely leaning towards the more refined side of Lonely Planet. Plus, they have stepped it up a notch of two.
I will miss Frommer’s and the comfort it held for us for so many years of travel. Just holding the books with there distinctive red cover in hand evokes memories of far off places. But they keep missing the mark this time around so with too many disappointments against so few opportunities they need to go. The stakes are high on the TAWT, no room for the mediocre.
After a terrible meal we catch the bus to the train and head back to the Novotel hotel where we watch Germany beat Argentina and confirm that Lance rode well in the time trial and is sitting in 4th overall. Finally it is off to dream about tomorrow.
Day Sixteen – July 4th
Happy 4th of July! It is good to be an American, especially in a foreign county. Congratulations, today is my day! I have been dreaming about seeing the Tour first hand for years. Every July I spend countless hours watching race coverage to experience both the excitement of the race and also the territory and terrain they race in.
We are up at 9a and down to a buffet breakfast at the hotel. All of us were “sleep talking” last night (Vinny’s explanation) about various things, some good and some bad. The underlying anxiety of travel will find a way out in some form or another. Probably best left to dreamland.
The Tour finish is two metro stops away and is at the base of something called the Automium. It is a massive structure that kind of looks like an artistic interpretation of a DNA strand. Per the literature, it is supposed to represent the interconnectedness we all share and patterns we make when we migrate. Or something like that. Anyway, it is way cool in the eyes of an almost four and eight year old.
We take a super fast elevator through the tube like structure to the top and have lunch of all things. The food is excellent. And it proves to be a great spot to watch the team buses and the rest of the pre-tour extravaganza roll into town.
Post lunch we head back down and find ourselves between the 300-200 meter mark. En route we find free hats, big fingers like our Dodger finger back home, flags from multiple nations, some candies tossed mardi gras style from sponsors speeding by and various other forms of swag. The kids are psyched. Adele is having a blast. So is dad.
We have two an a half hours to the race comes in. Luckily we get a spot and settle in by one of three very small trees giving us just a bit of shade. Then Vince decides it is time to melt down. I mean really melt down for the entire time two an a half hours.
I can’t blame him. It’s the hottest day yet, there is little shade, no bathrooms, no water, no food, thousands upon thousands of people, many of them steaming, everything is very LOUD, the sponsors drive by too fast and the race TV is too far away to see. On the whole, through the eyes of an almost four year old, this is as good an opportunity as any it gets for a melt down.
Through the eyes of a forty seven year old it is an excuse to jump up and down for joy. It is a glorious day! Flags are flying, the TV is broadcasting the race, people are piling in from every direction, the pre-race festivities are in full swing, we are on the 250M mark right where the sprint will start to build. It cannot be any better!
So we wait. And wait. And wait some more.
Then on the big screen, there is crash! Bike and riders are everywhere. It must be one of the biggest crashes in the final race moments I have seen. For those of you that do not spend every July glued to the TV, this is not a good sign for a sprint finish. Somehow a handful of riders manage to get through but they are strewn all along the course. Where’s Lance?
ZOOOOOOOOM! Did you see something? ZOOOOOOOM! Was that them? ZOOOOOOM! Did someone go by? ZOOOOOM! I can’t see anything! ZOOOOM! ZOOOOM! Put Adele on my shoulders! ZOOOM! ZOOOM! Quick I think they are here! ZOOM! ZOOM! ZOOM! Was that Lance? ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! I can’t see anything! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Did you?
OK, time to go.
We join the herd and head over to a Tour sponsored playground for a much needed bathroom stop and some time off-leash for the kids. After a hot and crowded train ride back to the Novotel we have a picnic on the hotel room floor, make s few Skype calls back home, watch a great car show on BBC and then fall into much needed sleep.
Allez Lance! Allez!
Day Seventeen – July 5th
Another late start today. We are still off schedule and need to get back in a groove as soon as possible. Teri and Adele are off to get their nails done while Vince and I tackle breakfast on our own. It’s great fun eating bread and honey and talking about “bikeling”.
It occurs to me that we are leaving tomorrow morning for Frankfurt and that, as of yet, we have no hotel and more importantly we have not found a campsite book in English to aide us in finding places to stay for the next two months. The idea of wandering aimlessly in a 22 ft House On Wheels down little tiny European roads randomly looking for campsite markers begins to makes me twitch. The stress level is rising.
To ease the tension, Teri returns to announce that they have decided we have had enough of Brussels and its time to leave. That means leave as in we need to make check out in two hours! Suddenly tomorrow nightmare is today’s reality.
Not ready to face the situation we wander a few blocks from the hotel to watch the start of the second stage of the Tour. This is an incredible experience. We are right next to the race buses watching the riders come out and gear up for the stage. While it is fairly chaotic, the crowds are nowhere near as bad as yesterday. Plus, we are right there, in the mix with all the others, just an arms length from the royalty of cycling.
Teri and Vince head back to arrange for the trip to Frankfurt while Adele and I go over and watch the riders push off for the start. We manage to get standing room behind one of the barriers just in time to see the peloton pass by. Allez, Lance! Allez!
If you want a true test of character try getting to a train station in a foreign country 10 minutes before your train leaves with way to many bags, a hungry wife and kids, no idea where the ticket windows are, no idea if there are seats available on the train, a vague notion that there is a connection in Koln that needs to be met or there may be consequences beyond your control, and then add people in uniforms telling you in a foreign language to get on a line that wraps out the door and around the corner so you to get a number to stand in another line to get some information.
Oh sure, you would like to think that you will be a solid and stoic leader when faced with such adversity, that everything will be “fine” and “work out for the best” or “whatever.” But when your almost four year old decides to melt down in the middle of the station and your eight and half year old claims she is starving and can not go on and your 43 year old keeps saying nervously, “we will make, just set your intentions” I swear to you that all thoughts of anything rational just fly out the window. And this is Brussels for Gods sake, I dread Istanbul.
We go into to survival mode and do only what is absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. And in this case it was absolutely necessary to go first class. Magically all problems seem to disappear. It’s the best extra $50 we have ever spent.
Goodbye Belgium, hello Germany! As soon as we board the train you can feel the difference. We are traveling with German businessmen. These are very serious people: all dressed in suits and ties, corporate with a sense of entitlement. It is the way in which they carry themselves that is striking. Not quite condescending but with an attitude that speaks volumes. They look at us like we are from another planet. Not with interest but more with amusement and maybe even a trace of distain.
We ignore them. As the fields, church spires, tree lined country roads and forests pass by we head into the belly of Germany and roll on towards Frankfurt.
With our plan in place we head for the Westin where we order Chinese food to go for a picnic on the hotel room floor and then go for a swim in the hotel pool. Ahhh, what a few creature comforts will do to improve moral.
Day Eighteen – July 6th
Life after a good night’s sleep in a “heavenly bed” always seems brighter. It also helps to have breakfast in the fancy Executive Level Suite due to a last minute upgrade because the original room only had one queen bed. Our little family of four was spilling out into the hall.
Frankfurt is a happening place. There is a lot of hustle and bustle going on around us and all of it is in German. No romantic French lingo in this town. Luckily for us we are staying right next to a big shopping street, kind of like the Third Street Promenade back home. And this one has an Apple store, which we need to get the iPads Euro ready with SIM cards.
We spend the day wandering around town shopping for last minute things prior to the HOW pick up tomorrow. It is a day of logistics: (1) We continue our search for an English language European camping guide to no avail (2) Discover that they do not have SIM cards for iPads available yet in Europe (3) Eat real frankfurters in Frankfurt and take our pictures like goofy tourists (4) Try and fail to buy shoes for Teri and Adele (5) Try and succeed in buying Swatch watches (there’s a flashback for you) for Teri and Adele in lieu of shoes (6) Get Vinny new underpants with action heroes (7) Have Chinese food for dinner AGAIN (this time in the restaurant) (8) Swim (9) Get online for, get this, $30USD in the hotel (not in our budget) (10) Watch the Netherlands beat Uruguay!
All in all another great travel day.
One other observation to close out the day - each time we leave a country I erase the time setting on the world clock list I keep on my iTouch. It is a strange feeling as it marks the end of one segment of the trip and the beginning of another. I am not sure how I feel about it yet. It’s sort of like the post race feeling your get after you cross the finish line of something that you have worked towards for a very long time. No matter how the race goes, the immediate post race response is always raw and vulnerable. The sense of accomplishment tends to grow with time and distance and it lingers long after you delete the race splits from your watch. I trust this will be the same.
So far I have deleted London, Paris and Brussels.
Day Nineteen – July 7th
Welcome the dawn of a new day! Today is our HOW day! A day that we have been talking and dreaming about for months is finally upon us! We are off to great places; we are off on our way!
But first we must have breakfast. David our breakfast “concierge” is from Amsterdam and he is still reeling from the win last night. He is so excited that he is planning to go back home for the final game just to be with his people. This is for a soccer game; sorry, I mean “football”. And you think NFL fans are hardcore.
As we wander around town we come across a small square with what appears to be scaffolding for bike racks. Looking a bit closer at the trash I notice energy gel wrappers, banana peels and empty water bottles. Sure enough, it turns out this was the finish line for Ironman Frankfurt a few days ago! For those of you thinking about doing this race it looks like a big city affair. The finishers I accost whenever I see one all agree it was a good race, no rave reviews though, but I think the heat got to everyone. I need to start running on this trip to gear up for something in NZ.
The next few hours we accomplish more tasks: (1) Eat at more frankfurters and real German potato salad (2) Find maps for most of the trip (3) Buy a few English language books for the kids (4) Shop for shoes again (5) Pack up one more time (6) Check out and (7) Find a cab to the HOW depot.
I realize almost immediately that we have a language barrier with our cab driver. He may speak German: then again, he may not. I proudly show him my MapQuest directions all neatly organized and detailed with distance in kilometers and everything. He ignores them.
I keep pointing to the piece of paper and shouting the name of the road we are looking for. “It’s ShouzhenRoadaVindaCamperStruasenHouseEnWheelsEnStraza”, sort of. It takes about 5 minutes or so before I realize he cannot read or speckenzie English. He is also fairly stressed and starts talking louder and driving faster every time I say something. Best to keep quiet in these situations.
Suddenly in our darkest hour, he starts smiling big time and giggling and pointing at street signs. Then miraculously we pull into the parking lot of McRent the rental place. Try to always lend a helping hand and it will come back to you when you least expect it.
Our 2010 Dethleffs 20.5M long Super Camper is ready to roll! It is the unit we hoped for complete with bunk beds for the kids, a “gourmet center”, full bath (sort of) and plenty of room for the four of us and our many bags. WE ARE SO EXCITED!
The people at McRent are top notch. I found them on the web via a company, IdeaMerge, based in Portland that does this kind of thing. They work with the in market rental companies that they recommend and coordinate all the details for you. I highly recommend their services.
Check in is painless and easy: Susan, the manager on site, checks us in and gets us on our way. Our trail HOW experience during the Grand Canyon trip proves to be critical in terms of providing context for the logistics of operating the HOW and also confidence in driving it. This one is 2/3rds the size of the last one and much easier to handle. The front cab is low like the Euro trucks you see in pictures and very comfortable. The six on the floor stick shift takes some getting used to but you get the hang of it after a few downshifts into reverse in the middle of the traffic circles.
IKEA is a godsend. They have everything we need to outfit the HOW. You would be amazed at the number of little things that make such a big difference in HOW travel. Containers to hold things, your own towels, sheets and blankets, a good cutting knife, a garlic press, a candle or two. The things you turn to again and again in everyday life. It also helps to have a Toys R Us right next door so we can stock up on Hot Wheels and Lightning McQueens.
Once underway we immediately get lost looking for our first campsite. Helplessly lost, in a “small” city of about 100K people, with narrow roads and highways that all point in the wrong direction. After much heated debate we decide to move down river to a smaller town and search for another place. Luckily we find one or we may still be circling the town of Mainz.
The site is nice, quiet and clean. Since the kitchen is closing we scramble to order more potato salad, hamburgers (sort of, not sure what kind of meat they use here) and some other random items that fall into the “this must be a German thing” category.
I once had the privilege of attending a “firework” (singular) display in a tiny town in Vermont for one of our 4th of July celebrations. I sat with a few friends and the entire population of the tiny town to watch the single firework. It rocked beyond words.
Tonight I have the privilege of attending a town party of about 300 people in a small field on the banks of the Rhine to watch Germany play Spain in the World Cup. Everyone is there watching a make shift big screen and celebrating every move on the football field. They eat and drink and smoke and cheer and laugh and in the end cry. I watch the first half in the field with Vince on my shoulders and the second half in the campsite beer garden under a weeping willow tree with Adele. It was one of those moments when you find yourself in the right place at the right time. Oom-pah!
Day Twenty – July 8th
Did anyone bother to mention that it gets light here at 4:30a? We would not know since we have been sleeping with curtains closed in air-conditioned hotel rooms until 10a up until now. Raise and shine. It is a great time to get a few good hours of journal writing in, sitting riverside watching the boats go by.
The family gets up at 8:30a and we wander over to have breakfast in the beer garden house: scrambled eggs with chunks of ham, thick dark bread, coffee, a non-English speaking host and two or three dogs wandering around for good measure. Now this is Germany.
We are off on another shopping excursion to fill in around the edges. The Real Super market has everything. We get more stuff for the camper and build our staple foods for the road. I draw the card for food shopping and have no idea what is going on. It’s great fun figuring things out but it all takes time. Do hotdogs really come in jars? How can anyone eat that many pickles? Three hours later both kids are cranky (understandable so) so we drive down the Rhine to St. Goar and find a great campsite just off the river. It sits at the base of a castle that we can dream about tonight and actually see tomorrow morning.
There is enough time to play football, take showers, do a load of laundry and eat a pasta dinner. I talk to the owner’s son for a while. His English is excellent. The people at the campsite (the ones looking at us like we are from Mars because we have the only kids in the place) have been coming there since he was a boy. All they do is sit around day in and day out watching the campsite coming and goings on. And they do this all summer long. By the looks of things they also gain weight whenever possible. They are nice enough but nowhere near as warm as the French. Plus they watch every move you make! Freaky…
Day Twenty-One – July 9th
We are up around 9a – it would have been earlier but we had to sleep with Vinny in the little bunk bed to get him to go down so we were all up past 11p. His sleeping patterns are way out of whack. After a quick breakfast and dish wash we are off to our first castle – Burg Rheinfels - a ruin from 1245 built atop a mountain flanking the Rhine. It is storybook and epic.
Parking is confusing of coarse (nothing is easy here) until we realize the signs we think are “no camper parking” signs are really “no campers 10p-6a parking” signs. When we get that down the rest falls into place.
For effect they make us take a little train up the steep roads to get to the entrance gate. It is so much fun to wander and explore dark creepy passage ways, stunning views of the river, dungeons, grave stones, a scale model of what it looked like in the day, and all sort of other sights. Vinny earns the Knight title Vincent the Brave, Adele opts for Adele Rose the Scared. When you are almost four there is no need to be afraid. When you are eight with a vivid imagination and a flare for the dramatic there is danger at every turn!
I make a mental note to check the 1200s here verse something like Mesa Verde back in the States to see how evenly world cultures progressed. Ruins here verses ruins there or in South America or Asia for that matter. The sheer sense of power that you get from the castles here and in France is stunning.
By mid-afternoon we are back down to lunch in our HOW and then a beautiful drive up the river to Koblenz where we manage to get lost (this is becoming a daily event) before hitting the Autobahn (our first experience on it) up the Mosel to Trier. The HOW tops out at about 130K: well maybe not, but it does starts to beep and make strange noises around there so we throttle back hold steady at 120K. I wish I had a Porsche.
In desperate need of Wi-Fi we take the “Ausfhart,” I kid you not it is German for exit, and hit an Autobahn truck stop to search for a signal. It turns out tmobile has wired the truck stops all across Germany. We get emails, Skype back to the states and play in the kinder-garten. These things put the rest stops on I-95 to shame. As a side note, leave it to German engineering to figure out a way to put advertising on urinals!
Our site this evening just outside of Treir is “city” camping. We are very close to our neighbors. The cliental has a gritty feel to it. And there is not a kid to be found. What has happened to all the families?