The seas in my veins, my tradition remains, I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer – Jimmy Buffett, Son of a Son of A Sailor

Day Seventy-One August 28th

It is pouring today like it does every day.  The HOW is very cold and damp making it difficult to get out of bed. We think about touring the Ludwig castles for a brief second and then pass when the skies open and it starts to rain horizontally.   

We pack up in a downpour and hit the road.  It is a long days drive to Berchtesgarten.  Not much really happens along the way.  We can’t see anything beyond the Autobahn due to the weather.  The entire drive is in a hard rain and the roads are crowded and wet with weary travelers.  The rivers are swollen and breaching their banks in places (just like the us if you think about it) and water is pouring off the mountains from all sides.  I would not want to be downstream.

When we finally get to town everything is closed.  Our GPS is broken so finding the campsites is a challenge.  We pull into Tourist Info to find it locked up tight, so we turn to the map posted outside the office but it is nearly impossible to get our bearings.  Eventually the cleaning lady comes out from the TI place, probably sensing our desperation, and points us in the right direction. 

We pull into a site up the road but decide to pass.  The place does not feel right.  It is full of water and mud and there are very few campers.  It’s kind of creepy in the dark, rainy cold.  

The next one is even worse so we go back to the first one for the lesser of two evils.  This may mark a low point thus far as our spirits are at an all time low.  Nothing here is any fun, in fact its down right uncomfortable.  It pushes us all towards the edge.

Day Seventy-Two August 29th

We wake up in the rain and try to muster some enthusiasm.  Everything is wet and cold.  No change from yesterday, except that this morning we have fresh snow on the mountains. 

If you have heard of Berchtesgarten it is most likely as the famous summer place for the Third Reich.  No wonder the place feels creepy.  They built a tunnel in the mountain and then some kind of retreat way up on top as a gift to Hitler for his fiftieth birthday.  Apparently four thousand people we forced into labor to build the thing.  We want nothing to do with it.  

Actually, we have no interest in the WW2 stuff whatsoever.  In fact, I find it all kind of unsettling to be camping in the middle of such troubled history.  It is hard not to think about the war here: it forces you to face the questions of how and why and what ever for.   I leave the dark side of humanity to others.  All I want to do is pack up and leave. 

The reason we came here is to see the Salt Mines.  They are down valley a short drive, just outside of town and have been in operation in one form or another for almost seven or eight hundred years.  How incredibly cool is that?

Now this is great fun.  The first thing they do is dress you in coveralls with the mine emblem on them and make you feel like a “real” miner.  Then they put you on a small train and drive you 800m straight into the mountain.  The kids can hardly believe it.

It is dark and cold (really no different than outside), with dim lighting along the tunnel walls and a conductor/guide babbling away in German. They did give us audio guides in English but it’s hard to follow along and the experience of being there is more than enough.  

They take us into dark caverns, have us slide down really long wooden slides in almost total darkness, float us across an underground lake in a wooden ferry and let us taste real salt straight from the rock deposits.  In one room they have a scale map that shows were the active mining is taking place complete with live cameras of the mining in action.  This will certain go down as one of the highlights in the kids eyes.  Both are very, very excited.

After the tour we grab a nice lunch at the mines before heading back to Germany.  The drive towards Stuttgart is long and rainy.  We fall short and end up in a nice campsite just off the Autobahn.  The kids play with scooters and bikes in the rain while we do laundry and catch up on the home front via Skype.

We are making the best of it.

Day Seventy-Three August 30th

Last night was probably the hardest rain yet.  No one slept.  Teri gets up early and shops at a market across the way while the rest of us try to fight off the cold.  Even Vince does not want to get out of bed and keeps trying to get back under the covers.  We should have read the signs.

As Adele eats breakfast and Teri does email, Vince leans over the top bunk and projectile vomits down on them from above.  Teri screams and launches her iPad high enough so that it comes down with enough force to put a big dent in the tabletop.  Adele, not knowing what to do, starts to laugh uncontrollably.  I stand watching it all in slow motion.  

Then Vince continues to get sick all over the pillows, down comforter and sheets before hitting a plastic bag I keep moving around trying to catch him.  When he figures out what is going on he freaks out and starts breaking down.  

All at once the world crashes around us.

In that moment we all decide to call this part of the journey over.  The rain is too much for us.  Even with nine days left with the HOW we decide to turn it in and cut the loss.  We are done with the wet and the cold and the rain.

Believe it or not, from that moment on, things start looking up again.

By lunchtime we have cleaned everything up, done a few loads of laundry, played around on the scooters and bikes a bit and put a plan in place for the next few days.  

By early evening we are in the city of Aalen at a Ramada Inn swimming in the local baths.  Despite the ongoing downpour outside our mood has lifted and at long last we are sleeping in a warm, dry place.

After an hour or two of the US Open we are off to a much needed nights sleep.

Day Seventy-Four August 31st, Teri’s B-day

One of the great things about being four years old is that every birthday is the most important day ever.  Vince wakes up Teri with a big “It’s your birthday!” and he is more excited than the rest of us combined. 

We go to the camper and get a “party in the box” we have stashed away for just such an occasion.  He and Adele blow up balloons and set up the noisemakers and party hats.  Then we all open Teri’s gift that Adele and I picked up in Zermatt.  It’s a great party!

For the first time in two months we start the process of repacking our bags with an eye on carrying them across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  Things we have accumulated quickly get put to the test of weight, size, usage, cost to re-acquire down the road, truly need or luxury.  The must have pile sits on one side, the pass along pile on the other.  The must have is way to big.

We re-sort again and again and then one more time before packing up what we can into our bags.  Anything outside a bag is put into our big IKEA bag for later consideration.   Anything outside of that is left behind.  

We are due for lunch at friends of ours from back home that are living here in Germany in a very small town in striking distance from Stuttgart.  Jana (our age) and Mira  (Adele’s age) spent a year living three houses down from us in Malibu.  They came back home to Germany last year and are currently living in Jana’s hometown.

We drive the HOW down winding one-lane roads trusting the GPS knows where we are going.  Several times we lose the faith in technology only to be reassured by a road sign.  This is the land of rolling green pastures, fields of corn and wheat, cows, sheep, barns and farmhouses.  Small villages surrounding church steeples dot the horizon.  Every once in a while another car passes by.

After half an hour or so we arrive to find a beautiful house tucked deep into the German countryside in what I would then call the middle of nowhere.  However, upon knowing the people and the land, I would now call the center of somewhere.

There is much excitement!  Adele and Mira are like peas in a pod and both of them are beaming.  We have a big lunch and then walk right out the front door and off on a hike in the woods.  Teri and Jana push on leaving Vince and I to search for heffalumps.  

He is out of sorts and stands crying for half an hour looking for his mom.  It is clearly not a dad day.  My heart goes out to him: he must feel so alone without anyone his own age to play with.  He is trying to make the best of things but sometimes it just falls apart.   We worry about him some but hope that in the end it will all work out.  Some days I am not so sure.

The afternoon turns to evening, lunch to dinner and activity to rest.  We enjoy the company of others for the first time in weeks.  Friendship is such a pleasure…   

Day Seventy-Five September 1st

We are up to a breakfast of breads, ham, cheese, cereals and coffee.  

Today is our day to explore the town of Schwabisch-Hall and the farmers market in the main square.  It is a wonderful town square surrounded by houses from the mid-1500s and anchored by an enormous church as old as the hills.  When you stand at the top of the church stairs leading into the square below they seem to be flowing down like water.  They are steep and well worn in the center.

The market takes the whole square with booths set up selling everything edible you need for the week.  It is all local and fresh.  The milk and honey are unpasteurized.  Breads are still warm.  Meats and poultry are sold from specialty butchers.  By the looks of things everything here is “free range.”

It is nice to be with someone from here.  It gives us a whole new sense of perspective.  We have lunch in a small café while the girls (Mira And Adele) wander around and window shop.  The village is safe enough for us to let Vince play out in front of the café while we sit and chat.   It is the first time since we started the trip that we are not en-guard minding both kids.  They are off-leash and it takes some getting used to.

After town we head over to Jana’s parents house for coffee and cake.  It is an incredible farmhouse sitting on a five hundred year old foundation, standing three stories tall with over forty four hundred square meters of living space.  Her parents are wonderful.  They invite us in and make us feel right at home.

In no time the kids are running and playing in the yard while we sit and visit.  Here too it is nice to just sit and relax without worrying about constant oversight.  I am beginning to realize just how tiring it is to be on call 24/7.  When you can let your guard down all you want to do is sleep.

But we can’t because we need to vacuum and clean the HOW before we return it!  Jana’s parents hook us up and we go to town. In no time the HOW looks almost like new, at least the inside does, and two months of dirt and grim are erased in a mere hour or so.  Now that it looks so good the thought of staying in it for one more week is much more appealing but alas it is not to be.

Tomorrow we drive up to Frankfurt to return the HOW and pick up our rental car to begin the next stage of our journey.

Day Seventy-Six September 2nd

Actually we need to go north of Frankfurt by 40K to the town of Friedberg because the HOW place moved while we were out and about.  This makes our 300K drive that much longer and sort of shoots the entire day.  The round trip is close to 650k or around 400 miles.

When we arrive at McRent, Susan, the women that checked us in so long ago, is there to check us out. She sort of benchmarks the HOW experience.  We started out a mere 59 days ago so young, fresh and new to the HOW world.  Now we are seasoned rain weary veterans able to reverse with ease and parallel park in a pinch. 

Susan is busy checking in some “newbies” so we exercise our newly found freedom in our Skoda rental car and head to town for lunch.  When we return Susan has already given the HOW a once over.

She admires our cleanliness and compliments the cleaning job we did.  However, she also finds a “dent” in the side and the hole in the table. I am so relieved she does not comment on the residual from the paint scratch that we don’t really fight the “dent.” In retrospect we should have questioned it, as I do believe it was there when we started out.   The table speaks for itself.

In fact the table actually screams out, “that will be 400 Euro please” and joins a chorus for “and another 100E for the dent” to crescendo into a 500 Euro tab for “damages.”  I am shocked.  To which, Susan suggests we should just send the bill to insurance.

Now this is all very confusing as I thought we had insurance through IdeaMerge and McRent.  Apparently that was for the driving and accidents not necessarily wear and tear damage to the HOW.  She keeps telling us to file with our travelers insurance, which we have, only its medical coverage, not for damages to an HOW.  It almost feel like she has an unwritten rule to try and keep half the damage deposit per rental and that the whole thing is an insurance scam in some way.  No way to tell what is what as the innuendo is lost in translation.  The confusion remains as we drive off 500 Euro poorer and feeling somehow cheated out or the rest.  It seems you can’t win with these rentals.

Maybe because she is feeling sorry for us Susan does let us have Vince’s car seat for the trip down to Italy.  At least that part of his world remains the same.  He is enjoying the day solo with mom and dad but is weary from the driving.   I must say he is a trouper.

Much to her delight Adele stays behind with Mira.  They spend the day playing, riding bikes and visiting Mira’s grandparents.  The highlight is a rare sighting of wild pigs in the forest!  They were hiking right behind Mira’s house when they came across a family of wild pigs standing on the path. Luckily no one was hurt as these things can be aggressive at times.  Instead they all looked at each other and then ran in opposite directions. The girls are thrilled.

When we pull into the drive at 7p we immediately turn around and head over to a neighbors for a dinner of “heaven and earth” or apples and potatoes.  This is a German staple passed down for generations taking advantage of two foods always available in both good times and bad.  We all enjoy the meal and the conversation, exchanging travel tips and exploring the differences between our lifestyles.  Malibu is worlds away.

Day Seventy-Eight September 3rd

We have been struggling with one computer since the iPads have failed to live up to our needs and expectations.  We thought Teri would be able to handle basic email and word processing on her iPad but it is just not working out.  The iPad is really just a big iPod without a camera or word processing, don’t buy one, it will just frustrate you in the end.  So we had to order another laptop and a friend has gone to considerable lengths to get it and ship FedEx it to arrive today.  We are so excited.

The tracking system says it’s off the plane in Koln, Germany and now in transit for an on time arrival prior to 6p.  Excellent! With a FedEx shipping tab of $178 US it should be chauffer driven and hand delivered, after all its not that hard to get a package to LAX, fly it overseas and drive it to us a few hours south of the Koln airport.  That’s what these people do, when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

Our day is spent dealing with a few logistics, like picking up travel books in English on Italy and Jordan and shopping for a few remaining travel items, eating the local breads and “bretsels” (a personal favorite) and sending boxes back home to the States.  We also manage to stop by the local terme for a few hours of swim time.

These local swimming complexes are focal points of social activity in each town we visit.  They have pools at several different temperatures, whirlpools, several 50m lap pools, diving platforms, slides of all sizes, kinder pools, impeccably clean changing rooms with lockers and showers, restaurants, lounging areas and plenty of people enjoying themselves, socializing and relaxing.  We don’t have anything like them in the States. The closest we come are probably “the gym” but that’s an individual experience.  Here the baths are a family matter.  

We don’t get back until almost 5p.  Our package is still in transit.  Refusing to believe that FedEx would let us down everyone heads over to the local eatery while I stay behind and wait to great the happy FedEx driver.  6p comes and goes.  

When I finally get through to FedEx on the “International Shipping 800 number”, the conversation is a farce, I come to find out that the package has made it only as far as customs in the Koln airport and is not actually “in” transit but more “stuck in” transit.  They take no responsibility and even go as far as suggesting I send it back to the States for another $178 US and then resend it to another place in Europe for yet another $178 US (or more depending on where we ship it) since they can not re-route it beyond the German border.  So the laptop now costs about as much in shipping and insurance than the actually machine itself, and is sitting somewhere in customs, MIA and out of reach.  After a while you just get numb to the money spilling out of your pockets. 

It’s dark and cold here in the German countryside.  Adele and Mira are out hunting for wild pigs, Vince is reading The Places We Will Go and I sit piecing together thoughts and fragments for the journal.  It feels like it is time to move on.

Tomorrow we go to Italy.