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.  

“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?”
Teri: “Where?”
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…

“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…
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 – 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…


“It’s the unpredictability of the predictable that keeps life interesting.”  
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard
“Or is it the other way around?” 
- Internal babble while driving, clink-clink-clink, Steve Carcano

Day Twenty-Nine – July 17th

It is with great sadness that we must return the Fiat 500.  We like it so much we discuss getting one back home.  Seriously.  I believe it is small enough to qualify as a moped in the States but it does have two doors, a roof and a back seat (sort of, it kind of fits two small children).  It will certainly keep those wacky golf carts that people are driving on PCH in their place.

Teri does a quick provision trip to the grocery and I stay back with the kids to pack up and get ready to motor.  With a full kitchen and much needed rest and recuperation we are finally off to see the Zuiderzeemuseusm.

This is another walk around open-air museum about Dutch life but this one has a twist.  It is on an island and we need to take our first ferryboat to get there.  The wind is blowing, it’s sunny but there is still a nip to the air, big three mast sailboats line the harbor, a dyke is busy raising and lowering boats onto a canal, pretty much everything is in it’s place, right where it has always been and right where it belongs.

We spend the rest of the morning exploring the houses and store fronts of the village: there is a sail maker, a carpenter working on wooden shoes, a fisherman looking after smoked herring (we get one and eat it bones and all!), milking a pretend cow at the dairy, much touring of rooms of the folks that lived there.  The structures have been relocated to this site from all over Holland - most are from the 1600-1700s – though life appears to remain much the same here regardless of the century.

After lunch we decide to head North again, this time crossing a big dyke (no snickering please) that separates the salt and fresh water.  It is 30km long, 100m wide and straight as an arrow.  The winds are gusty and howling and the camper jumps around a bit fighting just to get across.

We enter Friesland on the other side.  This neck of the woods has remained independent of the rest of Nederland in mind and spirit for centuries.  This is God’s country.  Incredible coastlines, miles of wheat blowing in a steady wind, tree lined drives, a lot of sheep and very few people.  It makes you want to get out of the camper and just stand there and breath.

Unfortunately there is not much to do with two kids in Friesland (they fail to see the joy in standing around breathing in good clean air and looking at the scenery) so we drive straight into Germany and head to a campsite outside the town of Oldenburg, the town my father’s grandfather is from.  The campsite is a bit sketchy, mostly long timers with fishing gear and guns but the bathrooms are clean, the owner is nice enough and we need to get off the road.  

Day Thirty – July 18th

This is another exciting day!  We get out early and drive into the town of Oldenberg.   My great grandfather is from here and I have all of his original paperwork tracing his journey from Oldenberg via Bremenhaven to Ellis Island in 1885.  

It is a strange experience to see where your family hails from.  I keep looking at people to see if they look like me or for the name Nordbrock to see if any of the family still remains.  You want so much to have some kind of destination: a definitive point of reference to shape the experience. But in the end, it’s impossible.  All you have is a sense and a feeling from being there, and for me, that turns out to be enough.   

As we drive onwards I notice that we are surrounded by farmland growing acres of green vegetables yet none of it seems to find it’s way to the Germany dinner tables.  I can’t imagine what they do with it all.  They should eat more greens: it would improve their lifestyle considerably.

The new GPS takes us down all kinds of small and out of the way roads to get to places.  At first I was worried we would be taking direct routes and bypassing much of the small towns and villages but it seems we find ourselves more and more on the small single lane roads (one lane for both directions).  It could be that we are simply well off the beaten path but it sure is a nice way to see the countryside.  Once you trust the GPS technology the confidence allows you to relax and you can use the drive time to open up and exercise the mind.

The main port of Bremenhaven is not what I expected.  I pictured a cluttered town with narrow streets spilling into a harbor and dirt and old worn clothes and big old wooden docks and factories and smokestacks and seagulls and wind and waves and people and traffic and….

Instead it is open and big and broad, with wide streets and great old buildings and a towering church spire and sunshine and wind and seagulls and hardly any people…

It is a working port with a clear sense of self.  It is proud and experienced but not arrogant.  It stands testament to the 7 million people that sailed from there: both my and Teri’s great grandparents among them.

If you are interested in your family history and they sailed out of Germany please come and check this place out.  The experience is worth the trip.  They take you on a journey, giving you a real passengers identity and allowing you to follow along with them from check-in on the German side to landing on Ellis Island in New York.  Plus, at the end of the tour you can look up your family members in a massive database and see when they sailed.  The place rocks.

Eventually we head out and find a campsite in a small town on the way to Hamburg.  An old lady manages it and she does not speak English.  Instead she yells everything at you as loud as she can to help you understand better.  It’s comical.  She is yelling and we are nodding and carrying on completely different conversations.  For some reason she is convinced I understand her and she goes on and on, laughing, telling jokes (I think), giving detailed instructions on doing laundry, pointing at her watch.  It is a great treat to be so involved and have absolutely no idea what is going on.  It’s a good metaphor for this life on the road.

For dinner we walk across the street to a Greek restaurant and order up a platter for two.  A mound of meat arrives.  There are all kinds of meats, likely from all over the body, in a big pile covering a few vegetables hidden on the bottom of the dish.  My first bite is some kind of soft buttery liver thing.  The second may be chicken or pork or possibly goat.  By the third I am resigned to giving in to the situation and experiencing a true German Greek meal.  Maybe we should become vegetarians.  

Honestly the meal is delicious and the people very kind.  Soon, after a huge bowl of ice cream for Adele, we are home and in bed to a good nights sleep.

Day Thirty-One – July 19th

This is a logistics day.  We are headed to Hamburg for much needed supplies.  Our route takes us on small country roads winding through the German countryside.  It is warm and sunny and more beautiful around every turn.

We spend time driving 15Km per hour behind tractors pulling bales of hay or wagons full of grain.  We must slow down in each town, which makes any kind of rhythm impossible.  Or maybe it has a rhythm unto itself as each town is spaced roughly a days walking distance apart.

The homes are all made of brick.  I read that post WWII they rebuilt everything in brick because all of the timber homes were pretty much destroyed by bombs.  The world wars still linger in this part of the world.  And their impact is subtle at times and almost confrontational at others.

Here, describing something as pre-war has a whole different meaning than when used to describe a full service doorman building on the upper West Side.

When I camped here as a kid with my family in the mid-1970’s WWII was still very new and fresh, less than thirty years had passed by. The 20 year olds in 1945 were in their mid 50s then.  Forty some odd years later another generation is at the helm but you still get the sense that the memories linger and cut close to the bone.  I can’t quite put my finger on it but it is so hard to imagine how not one, but two world wars started here in these small towns and villages of Germany.  What were these people thinking?

Hamburg, the largest port city in Germany, is easy to get around and filled with big open streets all merging into the heart of the city.  We drive the HOW right into the city center, park illegally for an hour or two, and achieve our main objective: finding the English language travel bookstore to stockpile our Denmark/Norway/Sweden books.  We are in and out.  I regret to say we did not eat hamburgers in Hamburg.

Tonight we are camped in Wikinger Campingplatz Haithagu on a harbor overlooking Schleswig, a small town in the far corner of Germany.  

Day Thirty-Two – July 20th our one month on the road anniversary

The reason we are in Schleswig is for the Viking museum that just happens to be across the street from the campground.  We walk over in the morning and get our first look at the Vikings.  

The museum is a great introduction.  The inside section covers the broad strokes of Viking rule and the history of the town we are in, once a center for all Viking trade in the region.  The other section is a working village with several small thatched roof huts and a few larger ceremonial buildings.  The kids eat it up.  We all get Viking beads in the village to make bracelets that will carry the Viking spirit with us at all times.   From now on I have asked the family to address me a Thor.

For lunch we head to the small town of Gluckspel on the German/Dane border.  Parking is a bit of a challenge at first but it all eventually works itself out.  Once we are on foot we find the “floating castle”.  The guidebook claims it appears to float in a lake.  Actually it is a really big moat built along with the castle by one of the powerful families in the 1500s.  

We have fun wandering around the inside, complete with a dungeon.  Outside something is lurking in the moat.  As we watch the gentle ripples near the edge of shore a huge animal, maybe fish, maybe not, slithers and splashes right in front of us.  It is big, maybe ten feet long or so and makes splashes far enough apart that it appears to be big enough to eat us.  We all freak.  The bets are some kind of eel, snake, dragon, catfish and/or a Backyardigan sea monster.  We will never know for sure.

After lunch we cross into our seventh country and arrive in Denmark.  Where are all the people?  The road is empty save for a few cars and a random truck or two. The surrounds remind me of driving the Jones beach causeway on Long Island.  It is flat, surrounded by fields of grass and you can sense the ocean is right around each bend (even when you can’t see it you can feel it).   

Being typical Americans we drive straight away to Billund and expect to camp in Legoland for the night.  It has been on our agenda since day one and is a focal point of the first part of the trip.  We are quick to discover that this is where all the people are.  Legoland is sold out.  I believe all of Europe has decided to take a “stay-cation” this year and come here to spend their Euro dollars.

Flights are flying in from Ryan air, the campsite is over booked, all of the hotels are sold out and people are everywhere.  This Legoland is more like Disney World in Florida.  It is big and sprawling, swimming in a mass of humanity.  It is a bit overwhelming so we leave and head to another campground in the town of Gist .

We need Kroners.  It cost of hundreds of them to register and get a campsite.  Since we don’t know the exchange rate we have no idea what things cost and money seems to be flying out the door.  I think is cost 360K.  Sounds like a lot.  Can’t we all just get along and put the Scandinavians on the Euro?

By 10p everyone is settled into bed and I am up at the campsite office on a weak Wi-Fi signal paying bills and catching up on the travel log.  The camper is making a strange clicking sound that is cause of some concern.  It is a 2010 model so everything should be fine but we decide to get it checked tomorrow just in case - before the trip way up North.

With that in mind we are all set for an early start and a great day at Legoland!

Day Thirty-Three – July 21st
click-click-click-click-click-is that the engine-click-click-maybe it’s a rock in the tire-click-click-no it’s coming from under the hood-click-click-should we stop-click-click-I will call over when we park-click-click-click-click-click

We arrive in Parking Lot 2 around 10:30a and wait twenty minutes on line to pay for parking.  Oh, no. Then we get on a line to by tickets so we can stand on another line to get in.  So does the rest of Europe.

Once we get inside we have a wonderful time.  Being park veterans we know to start in the back and work your way forward, going against the grain.  We walk right onto the castle ride, Adele and Teri catch the big roller coaster and Vince and I ride the spinning water boats.  Then we wait a bit, but not too long, to ride a new laser ride.  By 1p we have tackled three of the big rides and scouted out much of the park.  

We spend the day playing in the fountains and the water park, wandering around the Lego mini-land (much better than San Diego), eating ice cream, getting a hair weave and shopping.  At one point we snap a photo by the driving track I can remember riding when I was a little kid.  It is fun to be back in the same place with my kids.  Even though it is way overcrowded, Legoland is still a magical place for all.

click-click-click-is this the place-click-that it says in the Fiat book-click-to go to for the noise-click-yes-click-but the guy says they closed 10 minutes ago-click-he says to come back at 8a-click-click-click

We move on to our campsite in Horsen.  It is beautiful.  We have a site on a big field with a great playground and in easy walking distance to every thing.  The Campsite is on the beach, out on a point and it has a constant gentle breeze.  What more can we ask for? 

Vinny makes friends at the playground while Adele and I make our Viking bracelets and Teri tackles the laundry.  Eventually we eat and do dishes and get to bed.  By 11p the gentle breeze has turned to a light rain and the cool air rolls in off the sea.
Now this is Denmark.

At one point during the day Teri asks me, “What did we do yesterday?”  We both look at each other and realize neither of us can answer.  We have no idea what day it is (date or day of the week), only a vague recollection of the time of day (the number of hours of daylight distorts everything) and now we have short-term memory loss on recent activities. This is either really good or really bad, I am not sure which.

Day Thirty-Four – July 22nd

Here we sit at Fiat repair with notice of a 6-day layover to replace a ball bearing that is wandering around aimlessly in the “clutch compartment”.  Apparently they need to replace the entire “gsbootenbearing” in the “vedansiasian” or else the “cluchenossen vill becaputon” Uh huh, and you can tell all that from just listening to it? Not even peeking under the hood?  “Yah, yah, vee oderismaten clushenossen” So, we can’t drive it?  “Nine, no, no, no (hand motions for steering wheel), capouten”.  Ahhh, perhaps we can drive around until the part comes in? “Yeah, yah, yah, 10km oodly” So, no overnights to Kopenhaven?  “Ha, ha, ha!”  But we live in it: this is our home! He looks at me like I am nuts.  “Gosputen Hotel en Hoousoon!” For SIX DAYS? 

Communications are extremely difficult and everyone is passing off responsibility.  We sit in a parking lot with no support from the outside, no way to contact anyone because the cell is not working, no home, no car and no idea what comes next. That about sums it up in a nutshell.

Crisis management is one of the great opportunities in life.  If it goes well, catastrophe is narrowly averted.  If it does not, you slip into the abyss.  

We decide to take responsibility.  We go to indoor play park, Teri takes the kids for three hours of running and jumping while I attempt to sort of logistics, we finally get a rental car, pack and move our stuff over, drive to Odense only to find the hotel in town is un-acceptable, we drive on to Nyborg and end up in a classic Scandinavian hotel that sits in the woods, on the ocean, with a pool, hot tub, and tennis court, and it feels like we are the only ones here, there are huge winds turbines seemingly floating on water on the horizon, and the biggest bridge we have ever seen going so far off it fades in the distance, we swim and sauna, get dinner at an Italian place, listen to music in the town square, find a very rare Fairy catching rock on the beach (one with a hole in it), go to bed in down comforters and pressed sheets, and I end the day doing one of my favorite thing in life – writing, in the nooks and crannies of great hotels.

You tell me – narrowly averted or slipping into the abyss?

Day Thirty-Five –July 23rd.

After a good nights sleep in the feather beds (well, for some of us, Adele took over my bed before I even got there and I ended up hanging off the side of the couch with Vince kicking all night long), we have a fancy buffet breakfast in the formal dining room.  Maybe it’s not the best place for noisy kids as we notice the other guest huddling quietly in the corners. “Wake up! The Americans are here!”

We swim and play another set of tennis before driving over to our latest castle de hour, Oversigtskort.  Apparently this is on the Top 1,000 Places to see before you die “bucket list” and with very good reason.  It is spectacular.  Not great, but spectacular!

There’s the castle, still used by the owners mind you, a tree top sky walk, the enormous hedge maze (like in the Shining), the largest doll house in the world, lots of armor and swords, a motorcycle collection, planes, trucks and cars, a doll collection, a fantastic play ground, stables, cannons, moats, fancy gardens and acres upon acres of perfectly manicured lawns.

We spend five hours here and could have spent another five.  It is one of the highlight family stops of the trip to date.  So different and distant from our experience two days ago in Legoland.

At lunch Vince continues his unwillingness to eat anything with the rest of us and acts out so much I need to remove him again from the table.  He is way off kilter and it is driving the rest of us nuts.  The behavior has deteriorated to the point that we now resist eating out if possible.  This was fine with the camper but it’s not working with the car/hotel combo.

For dinner we do the only sensible thing and take the kids to a bar.  We should have thought of this earlier.  No one cares what anyone does in a bar.  Plus, the trough urinals are fascinating to an almost four year.  He can even lie around under the table on the dirty floor and tell his “fart’ jokes with the rest of the kids.  Bars are family affairs over here and it works out great.  Adele learns to play cards, Teri puts a few back and I get my first Diet Coke with ice in over a month.  

All in all it is a nice way to wrap a very busy day.


“No, no, no, it’s P-O-T-A-T-O-E, potato, it has an e on the end, thank you.” – Vice President Dan Quayle, Trenton, New Jersey June 15, 1992 

For those of you looking for a grammatically correct, spell checked version of life on the road, please be forewarned that you will not find it here.  I ranked in the 13th percentile nationally in spelling after second grade and have probably fallen into the high single digits over the years.  That means over 90% of the people can out spell me.  Throw in the use of commas, and something called dangling participles and 1st/3rd person, past/present tense, and whatever else the Elements of Style can hurl your way and it all adds up to a lower than expected verbal score on the SATs.  Since my math scores were not that stellar either I ended up at a state school with the rest of you.  Man, what a downward spiral from the 13th percentile after second grade, so much for national testing to build a child’s confidence.   

Sure, 90% may be able to out spell me, but when I look at the “verbally aware” spelling bee geeks I have to ask can they knit the words together in a patchwork that provides meaning?  Maybe, then again, maybe not…

Day Twenty-Two – July 10th (happy b-day Rich)

It’s hot.  So hot I had to sleep on the floor of the camper because two people in the bed over the cab was just too much.  The kids look like they wake up sweating.  Even the breakfast is hot.  

Teri tries to do laundry at the campsite but it’s a disaster.  To avoid any further damage we drive into Trier and try again.  It is hot across the river as well, even hotter in the Laundromat, and practically boiling in the parked camper sitting in the mid-day sun.   The vague plan to see some Roman ruins goes out the window. It is amazing we survived.  

Thinking maybe it would be cooler down river we start to drive.  I swear to you it gets hotter.  Yes, the grapes are beautiful and the castles crowning the cliffs are dramatic but in the end the heat and the thought of another night sweltering in the HOW does us all in.

We abort the Rhine/Mosel mission and head towards Liege in Belgium figuring the further north we get the cooler it will be.  This is a tough day.  Germany is much different than what we expected: it’s not so friendly, it’s not unfriendly mind you, just so different than Paris.  And the food is all heavy and thick and brown and yellow. There are no greens to be seen, just sausages and potatoes and beer and wine.  It works for some, but not for us.  You can take the people out of So Cal but we all have out limits.  

By 8p we are in a mega-site in the Belgian countryside filled with families and kids running in all directions.  It starts to rain, at first it is just distant thunder and lightening then it becomes a torrential downpour in a matter of minutes.  We ride out the hard rain in the camper listening to the raindrops pound the ceiling.  I love being so close to the rain yet still being inside the camper, safe and sound, warm and dry.  

Thinking that the worst of the storm is over I decide to make a break for the washroom.  When I return lightning strikes so close to me that I am thrown back a step and things stand still for a moment in a white flash of light.  Thunder booms and crashes. Then it happens again, this time closer and I actually lean backwards as if in a high wind.  In the intense flash that covers everything I notice the power surge and then shut down across the campsite.  The people around me all go into slow motion and it takes a few seconds for all of us to come back into reality.  I shudder and fight off a chill.  Knowing it will freak out the kids I decide to keep the experience to myself.  It was too close for comfort.

Back in the camper with the rain off in the distance and the cool night air filtering into the HOW things are finally looking up again. 

Day Twenty-Three  - July 11th

Then they are looking down.  Upon closer examination in daylight it appears that we are camping in the middle of the equivalent of the LA County Fair in Pomona, or for you East coasters, think Giant Stadium pre-game meets one of the major Avenue street fairs in the city.

It is insane.  People are everywhere, so are the tattoos and 9a beer drinkers and the steamers.  There are Belgians, Germans, Poles, Russians, and a bunch of people from all of those various “cranes”.  It looks kind of like organized crime goes camping.  The men are big and burley, the women are as well and the kids are simply running wild.  All of them are in Speedos - men, women and children.  Bellies and breast are hanging every which way.  They look at us like we are malnourished rag dolls.

By 10a, the official “opening hour” for the pool, the place is already partying.  Teri sums it up best by explaining to Adele and Vince, “do NOT drink the water, it is one big, giant cesspool of germs!” and to me, “This is either a high point or a low point in life, I have no idea which.” 

Badda Bing - we are “outta there!” 

We decide to try Holland.  With our new GPS the drive is a breeze.  If you go to a foreign country invest in one of these it is worth whatever you have to pay for it.  It’s a long haul though; three plus hours in the heat but the kids are great on the drive.  Up in the cab you only get part of their conversations that tend to go something like this:
Vince: “Adele, I fart you!”  He then laughs hysterically.
Vince: “Adele, I fart you again!” He laughs so hard he almost cries.
Adele: “MOM!”
Mom” “Vincent, do not say fart”
Vince: “Mom, I did not say fart I said fort! I fort you, Adele”
And on and on….

Anyway, our campsite, de Hertshoorn, about an hour outside of Amsterdam, is really amazing.  It was recommended by Cookie Magazine back home and we have been carrying around the torn out page with the write up for months hoping we may get the chance to stay here.  It does not disappoint.  The sites are spacious and the grounds perfect for families.  There are playgrounds, bouncy things, bike paths, an activities center and plenty of room to run and play.  Needless to say the kids are in heaven.

The Netherlands is playing Spain in the final of the World Cup.  I say the Netherlands, which I think is also called Holland, and it may also be known as Nederland.  They should just pick it one of the three and call it a day.  It just confuses the rest of us.  

 We get invited to our neighbor’s tent to watch the game. We rummage through our clothes and manage to find orange shirts (the color of the Netherlands) for each of us wear to show support.  The Dutch are very excited we are pulling for Holland and showing up geared out like the rest of them.  I do my best to teach then the wave.

I’ll comment more on the Dutch people later on.  However, as an example of the type of folks they are, when the Nederland team rings up six or seven yellow cards (warnings for players) they do not question the calls by the referee or criticize the other team for being too aggressive but instead bow there heads and are embarrassed that their national team is not playing a clean game.  Unbelievable.  If the Dodgers were playing in the 7th game of the World Series I can assure you every call going against them would be the Yankees fault and any sense of embarrassment would be confronted straight up with indignation.  We are in a much different land.

The Dutch lose the game and we mourn the loss with our fellow campers, there is nothing that an ice cold Heineken can’t cure.

Days Twenty-four/five - July 12/13 – Much needed rest days, happy b-day Charlie (my dad)!

According the Vince the “wind clouds” are blowing the rain clouds around again and thus water is falling down.  It is actually nice to have a few overcast days for a change.  

After the torrid schedule we have been keeping we decide to take advantage of the campsite and give ourselves our first rest week.  We all need it.  Much of the time is spent doing household chores: bill paying, catching up on journal writing, playing, resting, running, bike riding (we rent them at the campsite) and generally lounging around.  We only stray as far as the bikes will take us.

Adele loves the independence the bike brings.  She rides everywhere and is always volunteering to go get things.  Ice creams for Vince, Coke Lights for dad.  She is even brave enough to go to the store and pay for things on her own.  She is growing up fast in this foreign land!   

A few words on the Dutch - They are truly wonderful people: very caring towards each other and their children, the environment and the space circling around them.  The campsite is spotless, not cleaned by an army of workers but instead all self-policed.  They stop and pick up other peoples trash if they happen to mistakenly leave it behind.  

They are educated and speak Dutch, German and English fluently.  All of our conversations are in English and they easily float between all three languages as the need arises.  The banter is insightful and they are truly interested in our lives back home and what brought us forth to be with them.

They opened their doors to us; offered us food and drink, gave attention to Adele and Vince and made us all feel welcome.  We will miss them and feel lucky to have had the pleasure to stay among them for a few days.

By the end of the last day we are ready to travel again.  We return the bikes, do a last load of laundry, scout out Amsterdam and try and get to sleep early.  Tomorrow we are off again on another adventure.  

Bring on the hookah; we are going to the big A.

Day Twenty-Six – July 14th

Adele has trouble getting up.  Our sleep patterns are still off kilter and she is not going to sleep until way past 11p.  Vince looks glossy from the get go and he is unusually quiet for such a big guy.

The vomiting starts as we hit the ring road outside of Amsterdam.  First Vince goes all over himself and his bed and then as soon as he subsides Adele projectile vomits all over Teri and the bathroom floor.  This is all happening while we are driving at high speeds in heavy traffic.  All I can do is lob in the occasional, “how’s it going back there?” or the ever helpful, “it will all come out in the wash.” Sometimes it is best to shut up and drive. 

Amsterdam is on hold.  Fearing the worst, two sick kids and no aide in sight, we decide it best to head for a campsite outside of the city where we can crash for a few days.  Edam wins the coin toss and we head to Strandbad-Edam.  

It turns out to be a beautiful site on the water complete with a playground, swimming beach and WiFi  (pronounced wee fee in Dutch).  The kids want to feel better but are still under the weather for most of the afternoon and evening.  Vince and I do manage to go for a quick swim in the lake and take a walk around to look at the sail boats tied up to the main canal.

The boats range from 30 feet to over 90 feet long, all full sail, some with two and three main masts.  It demonstrates how dominant the Dutch sailors are/were.  These boats are massive and impressive.  They look like pirate ships lined up and waiting for Black Beard to return with sunken treasure.  Vince loves them and remains on the look out for pirates at all times.

In the early evening I realize my passport is missing.  Not to panic it must be here somewhere.  That somewhere turns out to be the nightmare campsite we left in such a hurry back in Belgium four days ago.  Badda-boom…

Confirming it is there is a nightmare unto itself.  The woman that picks up the phone at 10p is the old lady that checked me into the campsite five nights ago.  She is bitter, old and pure Belgian, speaking German and French but no English what so ever.  I am yelling in broken French that my “passport est la!  Oui, c’est la! Mon passport?  American? Carcano?”  She keeps putting down the phone to scream at people coming in and going out of the office. She sounds sort of like Ralph Cramden.   “Halloow, C-A-R-C-A-N-O, Herren, A-L-B-E-R-T, USA” she is almost taunting me, “Yes, Yah, Yah, C’est moi!  Hold it please, Si vous plait, je come there au domain!”  She hangs up.  I take that as a good sign.  

However, I don’t sleep very well…

Day Twenty-Seven – July15th

My rented Fiat 500 goes 140km easy.  And that is in the slow lane.  Plus, it is much more fun to drive the Autobahn at high speeds in small cars. 

We decide to split up today to save everyone the drama of the passport fiasco, so I rent a car and head out on a seven-hour tour of Belgium on my own.  The seven hours includes an hour spent lost in downtown Amsterdam in peak traffic on narrow streets filled with bands of people partying in the mid-afternoon.  By the time I get out of the city I know I have seen enough of Amsterdam.

Teri and the kids go and explore NEMO the science museum and grab Chinese food for dinner in town.  The reviews are positive upon return.  They do have a long walk back from the bus stop to the camper though so everyone is pretty worn out by days end.

After watching the sunset with Vince we wander back to our HOW and Adele decides to hold a family meeting to discuss our “feelings.”  How is that for an eight year old?  She sets up some fairly elaborate rules that take forever to explain but the gist of it is that each person should discuss what they are feeling so the others in the family are on the same page.

Vince insists on going first and lets us all know he is afraid of spiders.  He then rambles on about Lighting McQueen and Matter and throws in a few lines from Nemo for effect.  After that the meeting generally breaks down and we all agree that this meeting was just a meeting about the meeting and that the real meeting will be tomorrow and then once a week on Fridays going forward.  Except for Vince who insists that his meeting is tomorrow and then he thanks Adele for her great meeting today, “Great job Adele.”  Whew.  How much drama can there be in one day?

Day Twenty-Eight - July 16th

Finally a day of sight seeing! After days of logistics and travel I can’t wait to see something!  We have flexibility with the Fiat 500 and we take full advantage of it by loading up, piling in and heading off to fully embrace Holland!

First stop is the town museum in Edam.  We wanted to go to Gouda but it was off track so we decided to hit Edam (pronounced Ahh dem) instead.  We are glad we did.  The town is beautiful.  Canals lined with old stone houses from the 1600 and 1700s.  The museum is set in a 400+-year-old house that is leaning heavily to one side with a basement storage area that floats on the water running underneath the foundation.  It is great fun with the kids.  

From there we go to the Edam cheese export house.  Another 400+-year-old building filled with wheels of cheese destined for all points around the world.  Here the cheese is sorted by age: “new” one month, “young” maybe two or three months and “aged” five months or more.  The older the cheese the stronger and sharper the taste.  They also have flavor cheeses with herbs, smoked and even a pesto version.  Those crazy Dutch! 

Clogging is big here, as in wooden shoes, so we zip over to Zaanse Schans to visit a real working village.  It is sort of like our Colonial Williamsburg.  By days end we are all wearing new wooden shoes, eating chocolate from the local factory and discussing the pros and cons of wind power after touring a lumberyard powered by a giant wind mill.  How cool is that?

For lunch we have “pancakes” with ham and cheese.  It sounds disgusting but tastes great. Then it is back home with some down time, I go food shopping (always great fun) and we end the night with another attempt at Adele’s family meeting.

This one goes a bit better.  Vince is still afraid of spiders and babbling about The Backyardagins, Adele is mixing up feelings of pride and sadness (not sure exactly what that means and it takes so long to get it out that we must evoke a new 4 minute per person rule to stay on track), Dad is frustrated that people are not listening and Mom is feeling cramped in the camper and wants time to herself.  I must admit Adele is on to something with the family meetings.  Everyone feels better afterwards.

Tomorrow we travel on…

Day Fourteen – July 2

“I left Rome and landed in Brussels on a train ride so bumpy that I almost cried.”  -Dylan via Garcia 

Today is a travel day.  We get up in the heat and sweat for a while. IT IS STILL HOT, There is time to shuffle our stuff around once more to try and fit it all in. Teri heads off to the post office to mail home a box of gifts and some extras.  Our new Malibu friends stop by one last time to exchange kids clothes.  It all moves along in quarter-time in the mid-morning heat.

Vincent, the name of our driver (to which Vinny whispered with eyes wide, “no way”) drives us to the station in a big fancy AIR CONDITIONED car over to Euro-star for the train to Brussels.  And we leave.  Just like that.  On the platform one minute, train the next.  I already miss Paris.

The trip is painless taking about an hour and small change.  The countryside is beautiful. More small towns and church spires.  There are a few cows, sheep and a horse or two.  The kids watch various “i” gadgets (iPads, iPods, iTouch) and time passes.  

When we pull in to the central Brussels station I actually think we may have jumped off at the wrong stop.  There is no one in Brussels.  I mean no one.  It is sort of freaky.

Eventually we find a cab and get to our hotel on one of the main squares, right in the heart of tourist county. We go over to a nearby park but it is nothing like the big city parks we are used to.  Where are the people?  It looks like they built this beautiful city and forgot to tell anyone about it.  Maybe it’s fatigue.  After a quick dinner and a few hours of World Cup in the hotel lobby, we all crash and try to sleep. 

Did someone say that the Netherlands beat Brazil?  Sorry, I can’t hear you over the noise from the celebration in the streets!

Day Fifteen – July 3, 2010

I cannot express how much better everyone feels after a good nights sleep in air conditioning. Sure we have four people in a room the size of a small closet but at least it’s cool!  And they have a buffet breakfast were kids eat free! Does it get any better?

Today we take a short one-hour train ride to Bruges.   This is listed as the classic medieval city in a far corner of Belgium and one of the only ones to be left unscathed from the air attacks of WWII.  You know it’s funny how an hour train ride can get you to the far corner of anywhere.  I can barely get to downtown LA in an hour back home.  

Vinny is a bit concerned about the evil city and says a number of times he does not want to go.  When I put it all together (medieval vs. evil) I am reminded about the Steven Covey story of the “corner” where the dad tells his little boy to stop going around the corner and the kid keeps going around again and again so the Dad tells him not to go around the corner again and again.   The misunderstanding escalates until finally the kid looks up at the dad in total frustration and asks, “Daddy, what’s a corner?”  Sometimes it is hard to remember Vinny is only almost four without the context of other almost four year olds to pull you back into his world and perspective.  It’s is medieval Vince, not evil. 

A few train lessons we have picked up thus far.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, travels “class 2” so by the time we get two kids onto the platform and on the right train all the seats are long gone.  When traveling with kids, assume you should sit together and take empty seats in the “class 1” car and look like you belong there.  Best to do this when you are not really sure if you are actually doing anything sneaky (i.e. when you think you are just lucky to find the only empty car with air conditioning).  Then smile, smile, smile, and keep nodding when anyone asks you for anything.  It works like a charm.

Bruges is no longer a secret.  In fact, all the people that are supposed to be in Brussels are hiding out in Bruges.  And with good reason.  The town is beautiful.   It is cool and overcast so the leaves are that ‘heavy’ green you get sometimes, kind of forest like.  The streets are narrow with houses built eons ago standing tall against the lapping waters of the canals.  Whole packs of swans swim by, “seriously, for real” says Adele.

Pretending to be good tourists we immediately take the thirty-minute canal boat ride in the rain.  Vince and Adele have a blast riding in the back, dipping their hands over the sides and hovering under the umbrellas.  It is now cold and wet and there is only one thing to do in a downpour in a foreign town.  Without hesitation we decide to look for lunch.

A few comments on the merits of a man purse:  first off let me be very clear, I do not have a man purse.  Nor do I intend to get one.  That said they do look pretty practical.  Not “pretty” practical in a good-looking sort of way but instead in a really useful sort of way.  They have a lot of pockets to put stuff in, they hold all sorts of things and some of them are pretty “sporty” in a Metro-euro kind of way.  Again, for clarity, I do not have one nor do I intend to get one.  But if one happens to make it’s way into the HOW, then when in Rome as they say…

We pick out a Frommer’s recommendation and head over to the main square.  Along the way we pass many nice little comfortable healthy places to eat and end up in what is to us a complete nightmare of a restaurant.  This is happening too often with Frommer’s recommendations on this trip so we decide, with much disappointment, that Frommer’s needs to go. 

We are no longer Frommer’s people.  Ironically, I think we have actually evolved into Lonely Planet people.  Many would say this is a regression but I disagree.  We’re not quite a Rough Guide family yet but we are definitely leaning towards the more refined side of Lonely Planet.  Plus, they have stepped it up a notch of two.  

I will miss Frommer’s and the comfort it held for us for so many years of travel.  Just holding the books with there distinctive red cover in hand evokes memories of far off places. But they keep missing the mark this time around so with too many disappointments against so few opportunities they need to go. The stakes are high on the TAWT, no room for the mediocre. 

After a terrible meal we catch the bus to the train and head back to the Novotel hotel where we watch Germany beat Argentina and confirm that Lance rode well in the time trial and is sitting in 4th overall.  Finally it is off to dream about tomorrow.  
Day Sixteen – July 4th

Happy 4th of July!  It is good to be an American, especially in a foreign county.  Congratulations, today is my day! I have been dreaming about seeing the Tour first hand for years.  Every July I spend countless hours watching race coverage to experience both the excitement of the race and also the territory and terrain they race in.  

We are up at 9a and down to a buffet breakfast at the hotel.  All of us were “sleep talking” last night (Vinny’s explanation) about various things, some good and some bad.  The underlying anxiety of travel will find a way out in some form or another. Probably best left to dreamland.

The Tour finish is two metro stops away and is at the base of something called the Automium.   It is a massive structure that kind of looks like an artistic interpretation of a DNA strand.  Per the literature, it is supposed to represent the interconnectedness we all share and patterns we make when we migrate.  Or something like that.  Anyway, it is way cool in the eyes of an almost four and eight year old.

We take a super fast elevator through the tube like structure to the top and have lunch of all things.  The food is excellent.  And it proves to be a great spot to watch the team buses and the rest of the pre-tour extravaganza roll into town.   
Post lunch we head back down and find ourselves between the 300-200 meter mark.  En route we find free hats, big fingers like our Dodger finger back home, flags from multiple nations, some candies tossed mardi gras style from sponsors speeding by and various other forms of swag.  The kids are psyched.  Adele is having a blast. So is dad.

We have two an a half hours to the race comes in.  Luckily we get a spot and settle in by one of three very small trees giving us just a bit of shade.  Then Vince decides it is time to melt down.  I mean really melt down for the entire time two an a half hours.

I can’t blame him.  It’s the hottest day yet, there is little shade, no bathrooms, no water, no food, thousands upon thousands of people, many of them steaming, everything is very LOUD, the sponsors drive by too fast and the race TV is too far away to see.  On the whole, through the eyes of an almost four year old, this is as good an opportunity as any it gets for a melt down.

Through the eyes of a forty seven year old it is an excuse to jump up and down for joy.  It is a glorious day!  Flags are flying, the TV is broadcasting the race, people are piling in from every direction, the pre-race festivities are in full swing, we are on the 250M mark right where the sprint will start to build.  It cannot be any better!

So we wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.  

Then on the big screen, there is crash!  Bike and riders are everywhere.  It must be one of the biggest crashes in the final race moments I have seen.  For those of you that do not spend every July glued to the TV, this is not a good sign for a sprint finish.  Somehow a handful of riders manage to get through but they are strewn all along the course.  Where’s Lance?

ZOOOOOOOOM!   Did you see something?  ZOOOOOOOM! Was that them?  ZOOOOOOM! Did someone go by?   ZOOOOOM! I can’t see anything!  ZOOOOM!  ZOOOOM!  Put Adele on my shoulders! ZOOOM! ZOOOM!  Quick I think they are here! ZOOM! ZOOM! ZOOM! Was that Lance? ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! ZOM! I can’t see anything! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Z! Did you?

OK, time to go. 

We join the herd and head over to a Tour sponsored playground for a much needed bathroom stop and some time off-leash for the kids.  After a hot and crowded train ride back to the Novotel we have a picnic on the hotel room floor, make s few Skype calls back home, watch a great car show on BBC and then fall into much needed sleep.

Allez Lance! Allez! 

Day Seventeen – July 5th

Another late start today.  We are still off schedule and need to get back in a groove as soon as possible.  Teri and Adele are off to get their nails done while Vince and I tackle breakfast on our own.  It’s great fun eating bread and honey and talking about “bikeling”.  

It occurs to me that we are leaving tomorrow morning for Frankfurt and that, as of yet, we have no hotel and more importantly we have not found a campsite book in English to aide us in finding places to stay for the next two months.  The idea of wandering aimlessly in a 22 ft House On Wheels down little tiny European roads randomly looking for campsite markers begins to makes me twitch.  The stress level is rising.  

To ease the tension, Teri returns to announce that they have decided we have had enough of Brussels and its time to leave.  That means leave as in we need to make check out in two hours!  Suddenly tomorrow nightmare is today’s reality.  

Not ready to face the situation we wander a few blocks from the hotel to watch the start of the second stage of the Tour.  This is an incredible experience.  We are right next to the race buses watching the riders come out and gear up for the stage.   While it is fairly chaotic, the crowds are nowhere near as bad as yesterday.  Plus, we are right there, in the mix with all the others, just an arms length from the royalty of cycling.  

Teri and Vince head back to arrange for the trip to Frankfurt while Adele and I go over and watch the riders push off for the start.  We manage to get standing room behind one of the barriers just in time to see the peloton pass by.  Allez, Lance! Allez!  

If you want a true test of character try getting to a train station in a foreign country 10 minutes before your train leaves with way to many bags, a hungry wife and kids, no idea where the ticket windows are, no idea if there are seats available on the train, a vague notion that there is a connection in Koln that needs to be met or there may be consequences beyond your control, and then add people in uniforms telling you in a foreign language to get on a line that wraps out the door and around the corner so you to get a number to stand in another line to get some information.  

Oh sure, you would like to think that you will be a solid and stoic leader when faced with such adversity, that everything will be “fine” and “work out for the best” or “whatever.”  But when your almost four year old decides to melt down in the middle of the station and your eight and half year old claims she is starving and can not go on and your 43 year old keeps saying nervously, “we will make, just set your intentions” I swear to you that all thoughts of anything rational just fly out the window.  And this is Brussels for Gods sake, I dread Istanbul.

We go into to survival mode and do only what is absolutely necessary to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible.  And in this case it was absolutely necessary to go first class.  Magically all problems seem to disappear.  It’s the best extra $50 we have ever spent.

Goodbye Belgium, hello Germany!  As soon as we board the train you can feel the difference.  We are traveling with German businessmen. These are very serious people: all dressed in suits and ties, corporate with a sense of entitlement.  It is the way in which they carry themselves that is striking.  Not quite condescending but with an attitude that speaks volumes.   They look at us like we are from another planet.  Not with interest but more with amusement and maybe even a trace of distain.  

We ignore them.  As the fields, church spires, tree lined country roads and forests pass by we head into the belly of Germany and roll on towards Frankfurt.  
With our plan in place we head for the Westin where we order Chinese food to go for a picnic on the hotel room floor and then go for a swim in the hotel pool.  Ahhh, what a few creature comforts will do to improve moral.  

Day Eighteen – July 6th

Life after a good night’s sleep in a “heavenly bed” always seems brighter.  It also helps to have breakfast in the fancy Executive Level Suite due to a last minute upgrade because the original room only had one queen bed.  Our little family of four was spilling out into the hall. 

Frankfurt is a happening place.  There is a lot of hustle and bustle going on around us and all of it is in German.  No romantic French lingo in this town.  Luckily for us we are staying right next to a big shopping street, kind of like the Third Street Promenade back home.  And this one has an Apple store, which we need to get the iPads Euro ready with SIM cards.

We spend the day wandering around town shopping for last minute things prior to the HOW pick up tomorrow.  It is a day of logistics: (1) We continue our search for an English language European camping guide to no avail (2) Discover that they do not have SIM cards for iPads available yet in Europe (3) Eat real frankfurters in Frankfurt and take our pictures like goofy tourists (4) Try and fail to buy shoes for Teri and Adele (5) Try and succeed in buying Swatch watches (there’s a flashback for you) for Teri and Adele in lieu of shoes (6) Get Vinny new underpants with action heroes (7) Have Chinese food for dinner AGAIN (this time in the restaurant) (8) Swim (9) Get online for, get this, $30USD in the hotel (not in our budget) (10) Watch the Netherlands beat Uruguay! 

All in all another great travel day.

One other observation to close out the day - each time we leave a country I erase the time setting on the world clock list I keep on my iTouch.  It is a strange feeling as it marks the end of one segment of the trip and the beginning of another.  I am not sure how I feel about it yet.  It’s sort of like the post race feeling your get after you cross the finish line of something that you have worked towards for a very long time.  No matter how the race goes, the immediate post race response is always raw and vulnerable. The sense of accomplishment tends to grow with time and distance and it lingers long after you delete the race splits from your watch.  I trust this will be the same.

So far I have deleted London, Paris and Brussels.

Day Nineteen – July 7th

Welcome the dawn of a new day!  Today is our HOW day!  A day that we have been talking and dreaming about for months is finally upon us!  We are off to great places; we are off on our way!

But first we must have breakfast.  David our breakfast “concierge” is from Amsterdam and he is still reeling from the win last night.  He is so excited that he is planning to go back home for the final game just to be with his people.  This is for a soccer game; sorry, I mean “football”.   And you think NFL fans are hardcore.

As we wander around town we come across a small square with what appears to be scaffolding for bike racks.  Looking a bit closer at the trash I notice energy gel wrappers, banana peels and empty water bottles.  Sure enough, it turns out this was the finish line for Ironman Frankfurt a few days ago!  For those of you thinking about doing this race it looks like a big city affair.  The finishers I accost whenever I see one all agree it was a good race, no rave reviews though, but I think the heat got to everyone. I need to start running on this trip to gear up for something in NZ.

The next few hours we accomplish more tasks: (1) Eat at more frankfurters and real German potato salad (2) Find maps for most of the trip (3) Buy a few English language books for the kids (4) Shop for shoes again (5) Pack up one more time (6) Check out and (7) Find a cab to the HOW depot.

I realize almost immediately that we have a language barrier with our cab driver. He may speak German: then again, he may not.  I proudly show him my MapQuest directions all neatly organized and detailed with distance in kilometers and everything.  He ignores them.

I keep pointing to the piece of paper and shouting the name of the road we are looking for.  “It’s ShouzhenRoadaVindaCamperStruasenHouseEnWheelsEnStraza”, sort of.  It takes about 5 minutes or so before I realize he cannot read or speckenzie English. He is also fairly stressed and starts talking louder and driving faster every time I say something.  Best to keep quiet in these situations.

Suddenly in our darkest hour, he starts smiling big time and giggling and pointing at street signs.  Then miraculously we pull into the parking lot of McRent the rental place.  Try to always lend a helping hand and it will come back to you when you least expect it.

Our 2010 Dethleffs 20.5M long Super Camper is ready to roll!  It is the unit we hoped for complete with bunk beds for the kids, a “gourmet center”, full bath (sort of) and plenty of room for the four of us and our many bags. WE ARE SO EXCITED!

The people at McRent are top notch.  I found them on the web via a company, IdeaMerge, based in Portland that does this kind of thing.  They work with the in market rental companies that they recommend and coordinate all the details for you.  I highly recommend their services.

Check in is painless and easy: Susan, the manager on site, checks us in and gets us on our way.  Our trail HOW experience during the Grand Canyon trip proves to be critical in terms of providing context for the logistics of operating the HOW and also confidence in driving it.  This one is 2/3rds the size of the last one and much easier to handle.  The front cab is low like the Euro trucks you see in pictures and very comfortable.  The six on the floor stick shift takes some getting used to but you get the hang of it after a few downshifts into reverse in the middle of the traffic circles.

IKEA is a godsend.  They have everything we need to outfit the HOW.  You would be amazed at the number of little things that make such a big difference in HOW travel.  Containers to hold things, your own towels, sheets and blankets, a good cutting knife, a garlic press, a candle or two.  The things you turn to again and again in everyday life.  It also helps to have a Toys R Us right next door so we can stock up on Hot Wheels and Lightning McQueens.

Once underway we immediately get lost looking for our first campsite.  Helplessly lost, in a “small” city of about 100K people, with narrow roads and highways that all point in the wrong direction.  After much heated debate we decide to move down river to a smaller town and search for another place.  Luckily we find one or we may still be circling the town of Mainz.

The site is nice, quiet and clean.  Since the kitchen is closing we scramble to order more potato salad, hamburgers (sort of, not sure what kind of meat they use here) and some other random items that fall into the “this must be a German thing” category.  

I once had the privilege of attending a “firework” (singular) display in a tiny town in Vermont for one of our 4th of July celebrations.  I sat with a few friends and the entire population of the tiny town to watch the single firework.  It rocked beyond words.  

Tonight I have the privilege of attending a town party of about 300 people in a small field on the banks of the Rhine to watch Germany play Spain in the World Cup. Everyone is there watching a make shift big screen and celebrating every move on the football field.  They eat and drink and smoke and cheer and laugh and in the end cry.  I watch the first half in the field with Vince on my shoulders and the second half in the campsite beer garden under a weeping willow tree with Adele.  It was one of those moments when you find yourself in the right place at the right time.  Oom-pah!

Day Twenty – July 8th
Did anyone bother to mention that it gets light here at 4:30a?  We would not know since we have been sleeping with curtains closed in air-conditioned hotel rooms until 10a up until now.  Raise and shine.  It is a great time to get a few good hours of journal writing in, sitting riverside watching the boats go by.

The family gets up at 8:30a and we wander over to have breakfast in the beer garden house: scrambled eggs with chunks of ham, thick dark bread, coffee, a non-English speaking host and two or three dogs wandering around for good measure.  Now this is Germany.

We are off on another shopping excursion to fill in around the edges.  The Real Super market has everything.  We get more stuff for the camper and build our staple foods for the road.  I draw the card for food shopping and have no idea what is going on.  It’s great fun figuring things out but it all takes time.  Do hotdogs really come in jars?  How can anyone eat that many pickles? Three hours later both kids are cranky (understandable so) so we drive down the Rhine to St.  Goar and find a great campsite just off the river.  It sits at the base of a castle that we can dream about tonight and actually see tomorrow morning.   

There is enough time to play football, take showers, do a load of laundry and eat a pasta dinner.  I talk to the owner’s son for a while.  His English is excellent.  The people at the campsite (the ones looking at us like we are from Mars because we have the only kids in the place) have been coming there since he was a boy.  All they do is sit around day in and day out watching the campsite coming and goings on.  And they do this all summer long.  By the looks of things they also gain weight whenever possible.  They are nice enough but nowhere near as warm as the French.  Plus they watch every move you make!  Freaky…

Day Twenty-One – July 9th

We are up around 9a – it would have been earlier but we had to sleep with Vinny in the little bunk bed to get him to go down so we were all up past 11p.  His sleeping patterns are way out of whack.  After a quick breakfast and dish wash we are off to our first castle – Burg Rheinfels - a ruin from 1245 built atop a mountain flanking the Rhine.  It is storybook and epic.

Parking is confusing of coarse (nothing is easy here) until we realize the signs we think are “no camper parking” signs are really “no campers 10p-6a parking” signs.  When we get that down the rest falls into place.  

For effect they make us take a little train up the steep roads to get to the entrance gate.  It is so much fun to wander and explore dark creepy passage ways, stunning views of the river, dungeons, grave stones, a scale model of what it looked like in the day, and all sort of other sights.  Vinny earns the Knight title Vincent the Brave, Adele opts for Adele Rose the Scared.  When you are almost four there is no need to be afraid.  When you are eight with a vivid imagination and a flare for the dramatic there is danger at every turn!  

I make a mental note to check the 1200s here verse something like Mesa Verde back in  the States to see how evenly world cultures progressed.  Ruins here verses ruins there or in South America or Asia for that matter.  The sheer sense of power that you get from the castles here and in France is stunning.

By mid-afternoon we are back down to lunch in our HOW and then a beautiful drive up the river to Koblenz where we manage to get lost (this is becoming a daily event) before hitting the Autobahn (our first experience on it) up the Mosel to Trier.  The HOW tops out at about 130K: well maybe not, but it does starts to beep and make strange noises around there so we throttle back hold steady at 120K. I wish I had a Porsche.

In desperate need of Wi-Fi we take the “Ausfhart,” I kid you not it is German for exit, and hit an Autobahn truck stop to search for a signal.  It turns out tmobile has wired the truck stops all across Germany.  We get emails, Skype back to the states and play in the kinder-garten.  These things put the rest stops on I-95 to shame.  As a side note, leave it to German engineering to figure out a way to put advertising on urinals! 

Our site this evening just outside of Treir is “city” camping.  We are very close to our neighbors.  The cliental has a gritty feel to it.  And there is not a kid to be found.  What has happened to all the families?

Week Two - Paris



Day Seven - 6.25 – Paris

“He went to Paris, looking for answers to questions that bothered him so.” - Jimmy Buffett

Are we in France?
Up early (8a) and struggle to pack up the rest of our belongings. When we picked up the second roller it was supposed to replace two or three carry bags, it did not, and now we have one more than before – can it get worse?

Take off is very easy – cab to station – walk right on to the train – leave on time.  It is very efficient, much more so than expected. I am glad to be moving on.  

The sights in London were great but the people through me off a bit.  To me, they seem to see themselves as struggling all the time.  Maybe its deeper and they are trying to regain what they once had, a place in the world they no longer hold (whatever that means).  Opposing that impression, I sort of feel we are on the upside, we may be fiddling while we burn but we learned from the Romans and are also putting out the fires.  Maybe.  Anyway, we do have a sense purpose and a forward orientation.  Besides, we are generally a confident, happy and cheerful people: there are hardly any smiles in London.  We enjoyed our stay but it is time to move on…

On the Paris side we pull into the station and our “driver” is waiting. We grab a few Euros and off we go.  Best thing we did was pre-book a pickup, finding the apartment people to get our apartment key would have been near impossible in the afternoon traffic, heat and congestion.

Je suis en amour avec Paris!  All of Paris - Everything about it.  It is sunny and warm and crowded and loud, all in an inviting way.  The place is buzzing, almost vibrating.   It feels like we are getting ready to lift off.  And it is full of Parisians: London was full of tourists.

Vincent notes again that everyone steams, he is very disappointed, as if it was just going to be a London thing, interestingly he has gone from concern so strong that he asks people to stop all the way to resignation that “everybody” steams. And he looks resigned to it all, it’s a hard lesson for a little guy.

Our “compartment” is perfect.  We have a small one bedroom on a side street right around the corner from Notre Dame.  It is in the Marais district, I believe it is in district number 4.  We drop the bags and go shopping at the super market before our sitter arrives.  

Bette, pronounced “Bet–tee”, arrives.  She immediately settles in and the kids seem very comfortable, they start a game of Old Maid and the laughter begins.  We have sitters for four of our nights here to give Teri and me some time to enjoy the sights and sounds on our own.  After this week its two months in a camper so we splurged a bit! 

We head out to the Ile St. Louis for dinner at, as you would expect, a nice little place on a side street.  Afterwards we wander over a bridge to a spectacular view of Notre Dame backlit by the night sky.  The sides of the La Seine are packed with people, all just sitting around and enjoying conversation, I can not think of a single place back home where people do that, then again I cant thing of a single place back home like this one.  Now this is Paris!  J’taime Paris! 

Day Eight – 6.26 “ALRIGHT PARIS, RAISE THOSE FISTS UP IN THE AIR!” - Billy Joe Armstrong

Mistake number one, head to Le Tour Eiffel on Saturday morning, typical Americans, assuming the crowds will part for us and we will have the place to ourselves.  This is the first time we are really knee deep in tourists and the hair on the back of the neck raises the closer we get to the entrance.  The place is packed. Not crowded but packed.  

People are everywhere.  I don’t really have any comments on the tower except to say it’s HUGE and CROWDED and HOT!  This is the first time this trip I made a very conscious effort to keep a close watch on Teri, the kids and the money.  We leave immediately.  

I do manage to “bargain” with one of the vendors for two small statues of the tower.  I get him down from E5 for one to E5 for two.  As I say emphatically over and over, “no, no, no c’est tout cher” (translation:  no, no, no, that is all expensive instead of too expensive) Vince complains the entire time that he really wants a BIG one.  In the end, the street guy, feeling guilty for taking me for E5, actually comes back and gives me another one.  Clearly I overpaid.  However, the kids are almost happy and that is a small victory in the raising heat.  Time to get out of Dodge…

Did I mention we got up and out at 11:30?  This sleep thing is tough.  With the sun setting around 10p the kids clocks are adjusting to an 11p to10a sleep window.  So, we are all a bit tired and hungry as we wander around trying to find what our guidebook calls “the biggest toy store in Paris.”  First off it moved, second it is two rooms with a few wooden toys.  Something was lost in translation, though not lost on the kids who are looking for the giant T-Rex like the one in Toys Are Us in Times Square.  It’s time to go back the to the compartment.  Everyone mopes home through the festivities spilling over into the streets from the gay pride parade.  How great is Paris?

Then the moment arrives.   I bought the Green Day tickets months ago and decided to keep it a secret until the day of the concert.  So all though out the day I have been giving Adele clues to her night out with the parents and she finally puts it all together on the packed subway ride to the show.  She looks move excited than I am (if that is possible).

All I can say to try and express how unbelievable this was is to pay the band and my daughter one of the highest compliments in rock and roll jargon – IT ROCKED!

What?  I cant’ hear anything, bon nuit…

Day Nine – 6.27

Today is our first rest day.  We are dedicating one or two days each week for resting.  What a great life.  This one happens to coincide with a weekly market held at Bastille in the Marais district.  

It is a sprawling affair and it appears to go on for miles and miles.  It is three lanes wide with two stalls on each side. There are piles of olives, big animal legs, pigs feet/noses/tongues, chickens galore, every fruit/vegetable imaginable, fresh eggs in huge baskets, bread, crepes, wine, sausages and more cheese than I have ever seen in one place.  We indulge…

Then it is off to rest.  We sit around the compartment and make phone calls, catch up on our journals and do some forward planning.  Adele and I head out to the laundry right around the corner.  I must admit this is my first time in a Laundromat in years. Not a lot of Laundromats in Malibu.   Some things never change; you still need lots of “quarters”, the machines still make lots of noise and shake you when you sit on them and the dryers’ only work on the highest temperature.  There is something relaxing about sitting there watching the water and suds slosh around while glancing at our books that makes both of us very much at ease.  It’s a peaceful process doing laundry in the Laundromat with an eight year-old reader.  Adele sits on the floor propped up against a machine and reads.  Just like the big people.  She later claims it is the one of her favorite parts of her day. Mine as well.

We head home to fold clothes and have a lunch of salad and cheese.  The afternoon blends into early evening so we also have a dinner of fresh olive and veggie ravioli in a homemade sauce and then end the day with a walk by the river to take in the evening air and amazing ice cream.

We manage to record our first video report (posted somewhere on the blog), watching the sunset over Paris.  It’s the perfect end to the day.

Day Ten – 6.28

I get up around 8a for the first time in a while: the family sleeps in to 10:30a.  It is nice to have some quiet time in the mornings.  Looks like the routine is starting to take shape.

It is a beautiful day here in Paris.  Around 11:30a or so we decide to head to Notre Dame.  So does everyone else on a tourist visa.  The line to climb the tower is over and hour and a half and it stretches way out into the midday sun. The place is just too crowded.  We do manage to get inside to walk the perimeter to check out the stain glass windows (very intense colors and detail).  I feel like cattle on parade.

Instead of waiting in line we take a rain check and walk over to Garden Luxembourg.  It is much smaller than the London parks and more urban.  People are huddled under the canopy of leaves and tucked into every nook and corner.   They provide chairs and benches and folks just kind of sit around, chat and eat.  We did manage to pick up some lunch along the way only to have Vince immediately drop all his pineapple in the dirt.  The kid can’t get a break. 

The highlight of the garden is the sailboats in the main reflecting pool.  We rent two for half an hour and the kids sail them around using long sticks to push them into the wind.   No motors, they sail on the wind, how cool for an almost four year old?  It’s great fun and the running and chasing expends much energy. Both kids are breaking a sweat at the end.  

The pond sits in front of a beautiful chateau that we think may house the French parliament.  Like everything in Paris it is an old, stately building that looks too perfect to be real.  I feel like we are standing in a postcard! 

When the boats sail back into port we load up and head to the pay for play playground.  This is a great concept we should adopt in the States.  For a small fee you enter a closed in, safe and fully supported play area.  The kids are in heaven.  

It only gets better when we bump into another Malibu family! And they have kids that go to Adele’s school.   Adele lights up with the familiar connection and the girls have a blast! There is much running, climbing, splashing and laughing. In late afternoon all the kids ride a classic old merry-go-round, one where the driver holds out keys you need to catch on a stick.  Vince watches his sister and yells “good job Adele” each time she catches one.  He focuses each time around only to miss but he finally gets a ring on the last time.  He looks like he is going to explode with pride.  

We part ways and head back to the boats for one more sail.  We pass the legal limit about five minutes in and both kids start melt down.  Within twenty minutes Vince is wailing in the stroller.  It’s clearly time to head back to the compartment.

Everyone is exhausted.  So much so that Adele mistakenly flushes Vincent’s underpants down the toilet.  The one that has a big sign on it saying, “PAPER ONLY.  NOTHING ELSE.  700 EURO FOR PLUMBER TO FIX!”  Are you kidding me?  Pray to the plumbing gods for us.

With another sitter lined up for the evening, Teri and I are off to wander Le Marais district.  It is full of beautiful artwork and shops, and has large center square with a nice little park.  We end up in Chez Janou for dinner next to a wonderful English couple.  Later on we chat with a great couple from NYC.  The conversation and food are both lively and interesting.  Home around 11:30p.

Day Eleven – 6.29

Today is supposed to be an early start buy we miss the wake up call.  At around noon we manage to get in gear and walk to Le Gare D’Lyon and grab a train to Melun.  From there we take a quick taxi ride over to Chateau de Vaux-Le-Vicomte.   
The place is huge.  The guys that designed Versailles designed the Chateau, only it is on a slightly smaller scale (standing in the gardens it is hard to imagine this being considered small).  Apparently King Louise XIV liked the place so much he took it over, threw out the guy that built it and forced the designers to build something “grander”.  Those were some crazy times!  

This is our first sort of up close experience with the sheer wealth and power of the ruling class back in then.  It is staggering to think how vastly different the wealthy were from the poor.  I guess to some extent it’s the same today with the truly rich in our world.  We had a taste of that in London with the Middle Easterners in Harrods. 

Today it feels like wealth is held by a broader swath of people – that it has tricked down across many.  But here, imaging back to the day, it is just overwhelming.  It seems that all the wealth was concentrated in the hands of so very few.  And those few, ruled with iron fists to keep it.  This may sound crazy but it actually feels cleaner in a way.  You certainly knew your lot in life.  And there was little reason to try and climb the corporate ladder.  Maybe here in lay the origins of “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”  This is what happens when you sit under trees at Chateaus for too long.

By the way, there is no one here! We eat lunch in a pretty courtyard, tour the castle, discuss adding a moot to our place back home, get a case of the willies in our first dungeon, wander around the grounds, rest/play on a hillside for awhile, take a “secret passage” way back to the main house and retrace our steps back home.

Everyone is tired at the end of a great sight seeing day.  After a quick stop to pick up dinner we head home to cook, eat and sleep.  Except for Vince who decides to stay up to midnight again...

Day Twelve – 6.30

People are grouchy, present company included.  It is one of those mornings.  I mean it is not just me; everyone is grouchy, at least from my perspective.  Anyway, with that context for the day, here we go.  

Notre Dame part deux.  Adele and I head over early to try and beat the crowds.  We are on line (is it on or in?) at 9:30a ready to climb.  To our surprise the Malibu family from the Jardin Luxembourg is standing right next to us.  What a small world.  After some delay, unexplained of course, we do manage to start climbing, and climbing and climbing.   There are 400 stairs all in, exactly 400 per the girls. 

It is great fun this stair climbing thing.  You get to count each one as you go and add in any side trips to see big bells and things.  You also have to focus and remember what step you are one while your Dad points out all the things you can see from the top of Notre Dame, how the stairs get narrower the high we go, asks how thick the walls are and keeps making noises like some guy named Quasimodo or something.  398, 399, 400!

Wow! Le Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, Louvre, Pompidou, the Sorbonne, and on and on.  It is like a who’s who of the France’s most recognized structures.  And to top it all off, we are surrounded by gargoyles!  Tres cool.  What goes up must come down, for a total stair day of 800.  Not quite St. Paul’s but a close second.

We wander back to the compartment for a quick lunch and then all head off to Jardin des Tuileries.  The metro is hot.  In fact it feels like someone turned up the heat in Paris.  The temp is rising buy the hour.  Not good mix with grouchy folks.

The Tuileries have an amusement park type thing going.  The Ferris wheel is gigantic and gives us a great view of all of Paris.  I am not sure it is worth going around twice for $25 but then again when in Paris.  Adele and Vinny drive racecars, probably the highlight of Vinny’s trip to date, jump on trampolines and whine a bit in the heat.  We try and find a playground but it is closed.  Did I mention that it’s hot? It’s a tense walk through the garden.

You know the weird thing about Paris?  Here the absolutely stunning and remarkable becomes and/or mixes with the ordinary.  When your faced with a perfectly square park surrounded by 16th century buildings and tree lined streets dotted with cafes and you catch glimpses of arches and doorways that look like they have been there forever, it all sort of numbs you.  The senses are so overwhelmed, in the best way possible, on ever front, that you need to resign yourself to taking it all in and sorting it all out later.  No wonder the city stays with people for so long.  It may take a lifetime just to sort through the images, memories and passing thoughts.  

To avoid the heat we step into the L’Orangie (sp?) for the water lilies and another who’s who of impressionists.  By chance there is a Paul Klee exhibit.  He was late 1800s to mid-1940s and was all over the map in terms of style.  It’s very interesting.

Pretty much stretched to the limit, we all return home to Bet-tee.  I think the kids are happy to let us go.  I feel for her as we walk out the door but she seems handle things pretty well.

Teri and I head over to the Louvre, for an hour or two.  Did you catch that?  The Louvre for an hour or two - probably a bad call in retrospect.  We storm by the Mono Lisa, with everyone else, run around the second floor like we are doing laps and finally give up when we see one too many paintings by a bunch of artists neither one of us has every heard of.  Did I mention we are all grouchy and it’s over a thousand degrees at 9p?

When you are collapsing far from home there is only one thing to do, find a diet coke at the golden arches.  God bless Ray Kroc.  Now, if the French would only start using ice.  We’re back home at 10:30 and off to bed shortly there after. 

Day Thirteen – July 1

Now it’s really HOT. I’m not kidding around.  We all sort of lull ourselves out of sleep and stagger through breakfast.  It’s HOT.  I mean really HOT.

Adele and I pull a repeat performance and head out as a dynamic duo for a trip to the hallowed ground of the Tour de France finish, the Arc de Triumph.  En route we meet our first “typical” Parisian at the Metro station.  I cannot buy two tickets from the machine for the life of me so with the line building behind me and people mumbling loudly at us in multiple languages I decide to ask the nice “information” booth lady for help.  And I ask in French.  And she takes one look at me and says, “non”.  Pardon?  She looks at me again, “non.” And then she shuts the window.  I start to weep openly.  Not really, but I do way over pay for two tickets just to get out of line.  Note: never buy train tickets in a foreign country on the first day of the month when the locals really want to buy new monthly tickets.

Adele and I are having fun.  We jump on the Metro and by chance meet the family from Malibu again.   That is three days in a row.  Perhaps the gods say not by chance?  We have already planned to meet them later in the day so we part for a bit and head on to the Arc.  

Climbing only 285 steps feels easy after the last couple of marathon stair climbs.  The views however are equally stunning.  The green leaves lining the streets below all merge at the Arc and look like the veins of the city.  Think of them as the lifeblood of the Avenues flowing in every direction.   It reminds me of the Gates in Central Park only green.  

For me seeing the cobblestones up close was a highlight.  After watching Lance and crew race the Tour for so many years it is surreal to be here in person. 

Wandering down the Champs d’Lyce with Adele is a treat:  we chat, she tells jokes, hold hands when we cross side streets, buy Vincent a toy car at the Disney store, have diet cokes at McDonalds, (where, by the way, they really do serve a Royal Cheese for those of you Pulp Fiction fans), find our way around sans map, have lunch in a small sandwich shop, have a star sighting (Owen Wilson bumps into us) and finally meet the crew at the Rodin museum. It’s a great few hours with my daughter.

The Rodin is impressive.  It is laid out in a Mansion and the surrounding grounds making it small and intimate.  We see the Thinker and The Gates of Hell, a few Van Gogh’s, a Monet, two Lauren’s and lots of Rodin’s work.  The kids all play in the leaves in the shaded garden while the adults rest a bit.   Then we take a long walk for ice cream, head home to the compartment, do another laundry run, fold, have a nice chicken dinner, pack, and fall into bed around 11p.

It is our last night in Paris.  Je t'aime Paris!!!

Day Fourteen – July 2

“I left Rome and landed in Brussels on a train ride so bumpy that I almost cried.”  -Dylan via Garcia 

Today is a travel day.  We get up in the heat and sweat for a while. IT IS STILL HOT, There is time to shuffle our stuff around once more to try and fit it all in. Teri heads off to the post office to mail home a box of gifts and extras.  Our new Malibu friends stop by one last time to exchange kids clothes.  It all moves along in quarter-time in the heat.

Vincent, the name of our driver (to which Vinny whispered with eyes wide, “no way”) drives us to the station in a big fancy AIR CONDITIONED car over to Euro-star for the train to Brussels.  And we leave.  Just like that.  I already miss Paris.

The trip is painless taking about an hour and small change.  The countryside is beautiful. More small towns and church spires.  There are a few cows, sheep and a horse or two.  The kids watch various “i” gadgets (iPads, iPods) and time passes.  

When we pull in to the station I actually think we may have jumped off at the wrong stop.  There is no one in Brussels.  I mean no one.  It is sort of freaky.

Eventually we do find the cab and get to our hotel on square, in the heart of tourist county.  There is a park nearby but nothing like the big city parks we are used to.  Where are the people?  It looks like they build this beautiful city and forgot to tell anyone about it.  Maybe it’s fatigue.  After a quick dinner and a few hours of World Cup in the hotel lobby, we all crash and try to sleep. 

Did someone say that the Netherlands beat Brazil?  Sorry, I can’t  hear over the noise from the celebration!