Sunday, December 30, 2007

One Final Ode to Germany...and Friends We Left Behind

I've been waiting some time to make this post, and since we finally have internet, I can now do it.

My final weeks in Germany were a whirlwind of sights, sounds, smells, tastes...and enjoying the company of the few good friends that I made there. Now, some final pictures...

This is Ruth, the owner of Cafe Madrid (best! tapas! ever!), and me. I miss our lunches at this place. The food was always superb. Ruth is coming here to Seattle in a couple of weeks, and I'm ridiculously excited about it. Seattle is home and she has family here, so I know our parting isn't permanent.

International Women's Club - Canadian Night. Teri, Andrea, and me. Teri and her husband had us over for Thanksgiving this year, and I'm so very grateful to them for that...they have both proven to be warm and wonderful friends during our last year in Germany. And Andrea - my best, best friend there...what more can I say? I just miss her so much.

Me with Patty from the Bookmark. We've been close for about as long as I lived in Germany. I worked for her for a few months at the Bookmark in 2004, and we remained close friends ever since. She and her husband are just the type of people who would give you the shirts off their backs, and they both helped Lance and I on numerous occasions. They have family near here in Puyallup, so we expect to see them again.

Other Photos:
I went to the Christmas Market in Aachen with Christine and Ruth just 10 days or so before we left Germany for good. I've been to many of Germany's Christmas markets, but Aachen is probably my favorite. It's not the biggest by any means, but that is exactly why I like it. It's small, it's cozy, and it has everything that the larger markets have.


A few days before we left, I grabbed my camera and walked around Geilenkirchen, just photographing whatever caught my eye. Here are the results of that afternoon:

(that's mistletoe in the trees, in case you didn't know.)

And this concludes my picture post. Now it's time to explore Washington and the entire Pacific Northwest, and I look forward to sharing that with you. I just haven't had time yet, what with all the wallpaper stripping and painting and trying to dig our way out of boxes and mounds of packing paper. It's been chaos.

But I will tell you that I've learned a lot about Seattle residents in our short time here. A coffee cup is a standard accessory (not that that should surprise anyone) much so that there are coffee cup holders in the grocery carts at some of the local grocery stores. I don't believe I have yet walked into a grocery store that did not contain a Starbucks. It seems you never have to travel more than 50 feet without having access to coffee.

Lance now is partial to Java Chip Frappuccinos (like a frozen coffee shake with chocolate chips)...I am partial to either Chai Lattes (which are, of course, tea and not coffee) or Mochas. I think we'll fit in well here. ;)

And it's a surprising mixture of European and American culture here. I saw brotchen at the grocery store! I actually see a lot of the same treats that I got in Germany. I can get cheeses here that are every bit as good as European cheeses (Tillamook = AWESOME!). I found a radio station here that plays a lot of the big European dance tracks that I heard over and over again there.

People keep asking if I have culture shock. Other than being astounded and appalled at some of the crap that passes for television these days, I can honestly say that I have not. So far, I feel quite comfortable here.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Valkenburg Article

I had this big goodbye to Europe post planned, with the pictures I took during my final days in Germany. Alas, it cannot happen anytime soon. We are in a world of chaos right now and sans internet for the time being, so I'm posting this from Panera Bread.

My final freelance article for the foreseeable future was published in Geotimes a couple of days ago. Check it out, especially if you live in the GK area and haven't been there yet. It really is worth the trip.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Misc. Things to Keep in Mind

I keep forgetting to post about this...chalk it up to my preoccupation with our move.

I'm sure most of you here in Germany know about the Happy Weekend tickets offered on the Deutsche Bahn. If you don't, I'll just briefly summarize: a Happy Weekend ticket allows 5 people to travel for one low price (I think about 32 euros) all over one German state between Friday and Sunday. So since we live in North Rhine-Westphalia, you can get a ticket at the GK train station that is good anywhere in North Rhine-Westphalia for the weekend. If you're vacationing at Garmisch, you can get a Happy Weekend ticket for Bavaria, so you can take the train to some of the other wonderful places there. (I can't say for sure, however, if it works for unlimited travel throughout the weekend, so you better ask a DB agent when you purchase your ticket.)

The Netherlands rail also has a similar plan. Three people can travel FIRST CLASS on the weekend to anywhere in the Netherlands for 35 euros. Lance and I didn't know about this until we took the train from Sittard to Amsterdam Schiphol on a Saturday. Normally, tickets between Sittard and Amsterdam Schiphol are about 25 euros each way on a weekday.

So...there's some information, if you didn't already know this.

Also, if you are flying into the United Kingdom, you should be aware that you are now only allowed ONE cannot take a purse and a carry-on. You cannot take a briefcase and a laptop bag. EVERY ITEM YOU HAVE ON YOUR PERSON NEEDS TO FIT IN ONE BAG ONLY. I don't recall ever coming across this policy on all my previous and many trips to England, but we were made aware of it when we had a layover at Gatwick on the way back from Seattle. Luckily, I could squeeze my purse into my carry-on bag. So please be aware of that, and plan accordingly when you travel through the UK.

Now, if you'll excuse me, Tiffany, of Living in GK fame, is coming to pick me up shortly so we can try out a new coffee shop in Gangelt. I'm sure she'll be posting about this shortly afterwards.

ETA: Well, the new coffee shop in Gangelt is apparently closed on Mondays (although it's open every other day of the week until 10 pm). So we went with the old standby in GK - Cafe Schluypen. Good macchiatos and tasty cheese brotchen (as well as beautiful handmade chocolates, pastries and marzipan). What more could you want?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Brussels Photo Post

These are three photos that Andrea sent me from our Brussels trip, which I described in my last post. I'm just posting them here for posterity, more than anything.

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Andrea (who was supposed to be napping), snaps me looking at home decor magazines. This was shortly after we left Schinnen in the morning.

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Exploring all the various and colorful choices at La Cure Gourmande. Eventually, both of us settled on buying decorative tins and boxes, and no sweets. (My vintage-looking French biscuit tin will look very cool in our new kitchen.)

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Bar none, my favorite photo (I'm getting this one framed). Andrea and I in the Grand Place.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Da Vinci and Brussels

Today, Andrea and I took an MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) trip to Brussels for Expo Leonardo Da Vinci: The European Genius at the Basilica Koekelberg, which is supposedly the 5th largest church in the world (none of the research I've done supports this claim). However, the Basilica's website says this, so who am I to argue?

Anyway, if you have the chance, I would highly recommend a visit to this exhibition, which ends in March. It doesn't just explore Da Vinci as an artist, but it also goes in depth regarding other facets of Da Vinci's genius, which include his manuscripts and inventions. Despite the poor layout of the exhibit (the rooms were narrow and small, and it was difficult to get through the crowds), it was well worth the time we spent there. As much as I love Da Vinci's art, his manuscripts blew me away. He had such tidy handwriting. ;) Oh, and the sketches were cool too.

By the way, if you go, pay the 2,50 euros for an audio guide. The descriptions in the exhibit are only in French and Flemish, and you'll appreciate it more if you have the audio guide.

We had about 3.5 hours to get through the exhibit, but it didn't take that long. Everyone on the MWR trip was all done and back on the bus by 12:45, about 45 minutes earlier than our scheduled return time. The plan was to go into the center of Brussels to spend the day shopping and sightseeing, so we got almost an extra hour to do that.

Andrea and I have already been to Brussels, so neither of us wanted to do any touristy things (although now that I think about it, the current Rubens exhibit would've been nice to see). Mostly we just wanted to wander around and poke into shops. First, we stopped for lunch. Andrea remembered this restaurant on the Grand Place where she had eaten once before. Generally, the restaurants on the Grand Place are more expensive, but I trusted her judgment, and I'm glad I did. I didn't write down the name of this place, unfortunately…I thought I would be able to Google it, but I haven't turned up anything.

ETA: The name of the restaurant is L'Estaminet du Kelderke. Thanks, Andrea!

Anyway, I ordered stoemp, which is a traditional Belgian dish...potatoes and other root vegetables mashed together, which you could order with various toppings. I ordered fried eggs on mine. So I got a great pile of mashed potatoes mixed with spinach and other things (and I believe there was some bacon or sausage in there as well) and 3 fried eggs on top…it was altogether lovely and hearty, perfect for the November chill, and it kept me full all day. Andrea had a scrumptious looking french onion soup.

After that, we wandered around, looked in some shops, stopped by Manneken Pis to see if he was dressed in one of his many costumes (he wasn't, as usual). On the way back, we stopped for a protest that came down the street. I think it had something to do with all the recent discussions of dividing Brussels. At some point, I had a fresh, hot Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce, and we stopped at a café for tea.

And that was pretty much our day. Most of the pictures are of random things we saw walking around, and not the typical touristy stuff you see in Brussels, since I've already posted such photos twice before. There are very few pictures from the Da Vinci Expo, because pictures are not allowed in the exhibition itself…you can take photos inside other areas of the basilica, though.

Andrea promised me some of her photos, and there's a particularly cute one of the two of us that she took that I want to post on here and get a copy to frame.

This is it for my travels in Europe, folks!

Click for pics!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Picture Post

Here are a few misc. pics from my sister-in-law's visit back in September. She sent us a photo CD, which we got just before we left for Washington, so I didn't have time to really look at it until now. Many of her photos were similar to mine, but here are a few that I especially liked. The first two are right by our house. The last two are during our travels.

I've posted photos of the Selfkantbahn before, but those were in black and white. Here is a color photo for comparison.

This is my first (and only) attempt at feeding a carrot to the baby horse behind our house (and that's his Mama, eyeing me nervously). Lance and I have watched him grow up since early spring. Anyway, he took a couple bites of carrot, and then spit it out. Not a fan, I guess.

Here I am in Innsbruck, in front of the shop that is famous for Sacher Torte. If the man and his torte had actually been real, I would've considered running off with him. A girl's gotta have her chocolate, you know. ;)

Here's a nice photo of Lance and I in Piazza San Marco, Venice. This was taken from the loggia of St. Mark's.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Mountains and the Sea

Saturday, October 27, 2007

It doesn't really matter where you are in the Seattle area, on a good weather day, you can see Mt. Rainier looming over everything. At over 14,000 feet, it's rather formidable, and certainly the highest mountain I've ever seen. But let's also not forget that it's an active volcano.

We admired Mt. Rainier from afar on a few occasions during our whirlwind week of house hunting. We had some downtime on Saturday, so we decided to give it a closer look. Lance plugged Mt. Rainier National Park into his tomtom GPS, and off we went in our rented Subaru Forester. From McChord AFB, it was less than 2 hours.

It's a nice drive, which takes you past scenic overlooks (none of which we stopped at, unfortunately), a petrified forest, and adorable little backwoods towns. One of these towns is Elbe, where we stopped for a couple of photo ops.

As much as I don't relish spending time in cars, I actually very much enjoyed this drive. There is a lot to see. But we finally arrived at Mt. Rainier National Park. It's $15 per car to get in, or you can buy a yearly pass for $30 (which we will probably do next time we go.) The $15 pass gets you admittance for a week. (We asked, but they don't offer military discounts.)

The park ranger gave us a map, which revealed to me that the park is much more massive than I imagined. He told us that we could only go as far as Paradise, which is maybe 1/4 of the way through the park. But that was okay, because we hadn't planned on making an entire day of it. We just wanted to spend a couple of hours. And it took about that long to make it out to Paradise and back, stopping at a few other points along the way. Since we hadn't planned on doing any sightseeing at all during this trip, we didn't exactly pack hiking boots and appropriate outdoors gear.

I can tell you that if you're just there for a picnic, it's a great place to do it. We didn't picnic there (although we did eat at the grill restaurant at the visitors' center), but there are plenty of scenic areas to enjoy al fresco eating. And it should go without saying that there are numerous hiking trails of various lengths and difficulty levels. You can camp, if you like roughing it...but there are also several inns within the park's borders, if you prefer more civilized accommodation.

It actually took us about an hour or so to drive to Paradise (stopping at a waterfall and a couple of scenic overlooks on the way). The visitors' center there is one of the two main ones in the park, and it was packed. It took us ages to find a parking spot, and we almost gave up. But persistence pays off. One finally came available, and we parked and went inside.

There, you will find a bookstore/gift shop, an expensive grill/snack bar with surprisingly good cheeseburgers, and a museum. We spent roughly an hour there. I bought a postcard at the bookstore, and was surprised to see the woman behind the counter wearing an Ohio State shirt. So I asked her where she was from, and she said she relocated to Washington from Worthington, OH!! That's very close to where I'm from (it's all the Columbus area, anyway). So we chatted about what a small world it was and talked about the Ohio State Buckeyes for a bit. It was really a thrill to meet someone from my hometown there in Washington.

But I digress...

After we got a thorough look around Paradise, we decided to call it a day. It still took some time yet for us to get out of the park, so our total time there was about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

And we got back to McChord just in time to stop at the commissary for items to make dinner (our lodgings while we were there were basically like a 1 bedroom apartment) and watch Ohio State pound Penn State...woohoo!! :)


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Again, we had most of the day free, so we decided to explore some sights along Puget Sound. Lance talked to our real estate agent that day, who recommended some specific areas. So from Tacoma, we made our way out to Dash Point State Park, a park that really isn't that far from where we will be living. But we took the scenic route to get there, which was nice, and got to look at some of the real estate along the Sound...yowza! I can't even imagine how much those homes cost, even the ones that are in really poor shape. The view is incredible!

We got to Dash Point, which doesn't seem to have much to it except for picnic areas and a small, but rather nice beach that has an amazing view. There is a little stream flowing through the park that runs over the beach and into the ocean. This was, believe it or not, my first up close look at the Pacific.

We didn't stay there long. We hopped back in the car and drove up to the town of Des Moines (where we had some houses picked out, but never made it there to look at them). Des Moines is a nice little town, but most of the houses there are under the flight path of SeaTac Airport (guess we dodged that bullet, didn't we?). By the way, locals pronounced Des Moines with an S at the end, not like the Des Moines in Iowa. Des Moines has a public marina with a long fishing pier. So we stopped there to take in the views.

At that was it for our tour of Puget Sound. We were fortunate in that the weather was so nice during our entire stay in Washington, except for one day when the weather was very typical of the area. We had especially nice weather on the weekend for our two sightseeing excursions.

Anyway, we both really like what we see so far of Washington state, and we expect to live there quite contentedly. Everyone is so friendly, the scenery is beautiful, and I love both the mountains and the ocean, so I'm getting the best of both worlds.

For pictures,
click here!

Getting Acquainted with Kent (Washington, That Is)

This is the first of what is to be several Pacific Northwest posts. We just returned from a house hunting trip to the Seattle area, where we managed to find and buy a house in the span of about 3 days. Our house is located in Kent, a southeast suburb of Seattle. And we spent most of our time in the city of Kent. So first, a few tidbits about this city, before I post about some more touristy things in Washington state...

Kent is undergoing a renaissance. The downtown area is being revitalized, although you still see a fair number of older, more run-down buildings along with the new. So far, some of my favorite places:

* Kent Station: this is where one catches the commuter rail into Seattle. But it's not just a rail station, it's also a large, upscale shopping and dining center. Our realtor (Coldwell Banker Bain) has an office here, which is why we spent so much time here. But we got well-acquainted with a lot of Kent Station's offerings, including Panera Bread (our "office," since we made frequent use of their free WiFi), Pizzeria Fondi (the most awesome pizza I have ever tasted, hand-tossed crust and baked in a brick oven…they even make their own mozzarella cheese!), and See's Candies (free samples!). We also ate at the Johnny Rockets here. There is an AMC Theater as well, although sadly, we had no time for the movies. The main thing missing from Kent Station (and from Kent in general) is a large bookstore. But since there is still a lot of unoccupied space in Kent Station, I will bet every euro in my wallet that a Borders or Barnes & Noble will be occupying one of those spaces within the next few years. It would be a crying shame if Kent Station didn't have a bookstore (Kent has small, independently owned ones, but I refer to a huge, well-known bookstore). (Incidently, it also lacks a Starbucks, but there is one right down the street...and who needs it when you can get the same drinks at Panera?)

Kent Station -
Pizzeria Fondi -
See's Candies -

And I want to thank the awesome people at Panera Bread who saw us pretty much every day while we were there. One employee was sweet enough to give me extra chai because she made too much and another employee gave me 3 stamps on my espresso club card, because I got the card on our last visit there and hadn't gotten credit for all the previous chai I ordered.

* Paolo's Italian Restaurant: Kent has a VAST number of Mexican and Asian restaurants and pizza joints, but we were hard pressed to find an Italian place amongst them. While getting acquainted with our new neighborhood on East Hill, we happened upon this place right around lunch time. And boy, are we glad we did! The food is really fresh and tasty. Lance had lasagna and I had the "Fettuccine Paolo," which is fettuccine noodles tossed with chicken, artichoke hearts, bell pepper and sundried tomatoes, coated in a sauce of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and herbs. And don't get me started on their desserts. My lemon cheesecake was insanely good and Lance had the chocolate mousse pie, which was amazing. And the service was exceptional. Paolo's will become one of our favorite places to eat out. The atmosphere is laidback, but the food just knocks you out! I was impressed in every way.

* Chair & Trellis (or what should be called "Look at the Pretty!"): This store right across from Kent Station caught my eye, but we couldn't go in for the first several days we were there because it was closed while they decorated the store for Christmas. But last Friday, it reopened, and we went inside. So much gorgeous in one place! It's like a Pier 1 or a World Market, although quite a bit more upscale. They have furniture, decor, candles, bath stuff, linens...just a huge potpourri of pretty for you and your home. Granted, it's not cheap stuff. But it's a fun place to browse, and it smells nice.

* Stupid Prices: Honestly, I'm joking about this being one of my favorite places, but I'm not joking about it being real. There really is a chain of stores up there called Stupid Prices. It's hilarious, and we happened to drive by one on our first full day there…our real estate broker went past it as he was taking us around to show us houses. The banner hanging outside said something about no sales tax, but that's not really true…the sales tax is included in the price (just like here in Europe). So what you see on the price tag is exactly what you pay. It's like a Big Lots, but the prices didn't seem all that stupid…they were about on par with what you'd pay at other stores for similar items. We went there to look at appliances for the house, but Home Depot has a better selection, and they deliver and install. And the prices are about the same.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Day Trip to Delft

(Note: I originally wrote this short piece for the American Newsletter that's published by the Airman & Family Readiness Center on base. They have asked me several times to contribute articles to them, so when I have the time, I do a quick write-up. This one was never used, so I'm posting it here.)

A Day Trip to Delft

Those of you who have traveled around the Netherlands have surely seen copious quantities of blue and white Delftware in nearly every souvenir shop. While some of that stuff is decidedly not genuine Delft, there are still plenty of places where you can get the real thing. Obviously, the best place to do that is in the town of Delft itself. I feel that it's very much worth the trip, as it's one of the prettiest towns I have seen yet in Holland. It seemed like a quieter, more provincial version of Amsterdam.

I recently accompanied my aunt and cousins on a day trip to this town. My aunt, an artist, was much more interested in Johannes Vermeer - the famous Delft painter who rendered "Girl with a Pearl Earring" - than she was in blue and white porcelain. My cousins, having only seen Delftware in photos, thought it looked pretty staid and boring, and didn't know what treasures would unfold on this trip. We were all pleasantly surprised, not just at the variety of Delftware, but at the city of Delft itself.

The first thing that greeted us when we entered the town was pretty music from the carillon bells at the Nieuwe Kerk, which is located in the market square. While we didn't visit this church (we opted to visit the Oude Kerk in order to see Vermeer's grave), I know that William of Orange's crypt is in the Nieuwe Kerk, which is the main attraction. You can also climb the tower to get panoramic views of the city.

As I said, we skipped the Nieuwe Kerk in favor of seeing Vermeer's grave at the Oude Kerk. There are over six hundred people buried under the church floor, so you're likely to walk on graves (something I really hate doing, but could not be avoided), but the church is definitely worth exploring. Vermeer's grave seems unworthy of him, as it's only engraved with his name and year of birth and death. But as with most artists, his fame came long after he departed this Earth.

After our visit to the Oude Kerk, we continued our search for Vermeer. Unfortunately, none of his paintings are still in Delft (at least to my knowledge). You can go to nearby Den Haag to see two of his most famous paintings (including the aforementioned "Girl with a Pearl Earring"). But Delft just recently opened The Vermeer Center, an interactive museum located in the building that once housed his painters' guild, where you can learn what little is known about his life and work. This museum is so new that they were still working on it when we visited, but I'm sure it's probably completed by now. It gives you a good idea of what life in 17th century Delft was like, and you also learn about some of Vermeer's contemporaries. Facsimiles of his paintings are all lined up next to each other, and you can begin to see some interesting similarities between them.

Since we were in Delft, we also had to spend some time looking at Delftware. It's hard to know where to look, because there are just so many places to buy it. Here's a tip though: do not buy it at the two main factories! They have a special agreement with tour companies and they mark up their prices and give tour companies a commission for bringing people. If you still want to see how Delftware is made, by all means, visit those factories, but there are two smaller places in the center of town where you can also see how Delftware is made without any pressure to buy anything. These are De Candelaer and De Blauwe Tulp, which are right next to each other on Kerkstraat (close to the Markt). We talked to painters at both of these places, and they told us about how they got started painting Delft pottery, and also explained the differences in genuine Delftware and the cheap knock-offs.

I already own a few pieces of Delftware (both the real thing and the cheap stuff), but my aunt and cousins don't have any, and they were fascinated by the variety of products, designs, and colors (yes, colors - they don't just paint it all in blue). They got a bit carried away in the shops. As my cousins discovered, Delftware is hardly staid and boring! It can actually be very beautiful and intricate, and it's generally priced according to how difficult the piece is to paint. I bought a tiny hand-painted trinket box with "Girl With a Pearl Earring" on the lid. Vermeer and Delftware - the best of both worlds!

Further Suggestions for Your Trip to Delft:

- Eat lunch at Leonidas Lunch Tea-Room. This is the same Leonidas of Belgian chocolate fame (and they do have a chocolate shop right next door). You can get very hearty and tasty meals at very reasonable prices here. I got a bowl of soup and a huge sandwich (it was definitely enough food for 2 people) for less than 7 euros (FYI: they do have English menus, so be sure to ask for them). We ate inside since it was chilly that day, but they have sidewalk seating as well as a beautiful private garden in the back (which is where we would have eaten, if the weather had been better). The only complaint I have about this place is they had a poor selection of tea, which is disappointing, since it is a tea-room. But none of us had complaints about the food.
Address: Choorstraat 24 - in the vicinity of the town hall

- Visit the Prinsenhof Museum. If time would have permitted, we would've stopped here for a visit. It was originally built as a convent in the 14th century. William of Orange lived here from 1572 until 1584, when his life ended with an assassin's bullet (you can still see the bullet holes in the stairwell). The museum now houses objets d'art, as well as focusing on the history behind the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Stepping on my soapbox

This is my 100th post, and it's appropriate, I think, because this post is important. This post isn't about travel. This is about a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and a cause for which I get up on my soapbox many times.

And I dedicate this post to my late friend, Sherry, who died on this date at the age of 14.

When I was 14, my best friend was Sherry Payne. She desperately needed a heart and lung transplant, and was on the waiting list for a very long time. When I first met her, she was still relatively healthy and could live an almost normal life. Starting in 8th grade, she got increasingly ill. She could still go to school, but was not allowed to climb up or down stairs. So everyday, her father would carry her up the stairs at school to where the classes were. My friends and I would bring her a tray of food at lunch and we had special permission to sit upstairs with her in one of the classrooms and eat our lunches.

The summer before high school, she got worse.

She died before she ever got those healthy organs that she needed. She was fourteen.


No high school. No driver's license. No prom. Her last days were spent confined to her house, as she was too sick to go anywhere and do normal teenage things.

I remember the day I found out about her death - October 10, 1989. My friend Tracey came up to me while I was at my locker getting my books. When she told me the news, I didn't believe her. I told her that she was a rotten liar. And then she began to cry. I just remember that small group of us, those who were close to her, huddling around each other all day at school and crying.

Her funeral was one of the worst days of my life. How do you confront mortality when you're 14? How is it even possible to think about death when you haven't yet lived?

The first thing I did after I got my driver's license a couple of years later was sign up to be an organ donor.

If you aren't already an organ donor, please consider becoming one. Giving the gift of life is the most precious and selfless act you can do.

For more information, visit:
(Look at the number on the waiting list. It's very sobering to think about.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Venice Redux

Many of you know that I photographed and wrote about Venice to death back in March of last year, when I was there at Carnival and had an assignment to write about it for Connection magazine (yes, that monthly publication put out by US Army Germany). Therefore, I really don't feel like going into great detail here, and I don't even have that many photos this time.


Monday, Sept. 24

We arrived at Marco Polo airport around noon. Having traveled through Treviso previously, I was unfamiliar with the logistics of getting into Venice from this airport. We needed vaporetto tickets anyway, so we bought 72 hour passes, and then were told to take the #5 bus to Piazzale Roma. From there, we got on the vaporetto and went out to the island of Lido, where we were staying.

Once we arrived at Lido, we had a bit of difficulty finding our hotel. Seems the hotel wasn't as close to the vaporetto station as we were led to believe. It was a 5 minute walk...not bad without luggage, but not pleasant when you have it. But we eventually found it and had no trouble checking in. Luggage was schlepped to the 2nd floor, which is actually the 3rd floor by US standards. There was an elevator, but it was one of those old, scary looking ones.

We rested a bit, and then went out in search of provisions. Lance stayed in the room, but my SIL and I went to a shop down the street and got panini. I got Lance a salami and cheese. For myself, I got bacon and brie on olive bread (it wasn't conventional bacon...more like dried prosciutto). We took the food back to our room and ate.

The decision was made not to go to mainland Venice that day. We just wanted to relax a bit and explore Lido. So we walked around and checked out the beach and other parts of the island, and I seem to remember us ending up back in the room late in the afternoon, where I dozed off for a bit. We had been up very early, since we had a train from Garmisch to Munich, and then our flight.

After the nap, we went to a restaurant down the street that we had discovered earlier. Dinner was okay there...good, but not fantastic. I had an eggplant pizza. SIL and I shared a bit of wine and got pretty happy. We went to another place later on for gelato, and then ended up sitting out with some more wine (I found that I kind of like Pinot Grigio). It was a pretty nice evening. And the weather was just gorgeous.

Tuesday, Sept. 25

Lance and I went down to the breakfast room and found a nice spread. We had a fairly leisurely morning. I booked us on a walking tour of Venice, but it wasn't supposed to start until 11. We were on the vaporetto before 10 and at the royal gardens, where the tour started. We just relaxed in the gardens for a bit. We knew the day ahead would be busy, and we were in no hurry.

The tour started shortly after 11 and lasted about 2 hours. It wasn't good, for reasons I stated in an earlier post. The highlight was supposed to be the basilica, and we never even went inside. And the walk didn't seem to really take us anywhere else, except Rialto Bridge. And the crowds made it difficult to stay with the group.

After the tour, we stayed in the Rialto Bridge area and decided to grab some lunch. We were just looking around for places to eat, and just got pulled into one without really wanting to. The menu prices were obscene, and we were actually just looking at the menu, but the waiter practically grabbed Lance and pulled him inside, and we followed. Once we were seated, I asked if we should stay. I had my reservations due to the high prices and the forceful ways of the waiter. But the decision was made to stay there. It was here that I had one of the most horrible meals of my life. No lie. And I felt very nauseous all day afterwards. Lance and his sister said their meals were okay. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, so I could tell you all to avoid it. It had signs all around it that said "Casa della pizza" and "Casa della lasagne" if you see those signs AVOID THE RESTAURANT (if the waiters don't see you and accost you first). And I won't even mention the absolutely disgusting restroom there. Oh wait, I just did.

The afternoon was spent in Piazza San Marco. By the time we finished lunch, getting into the basilica was much easier and faster than it had been in the morning (it was high tide in the morning, which closes off two of the entrances). So we visited that and spent an extra 3 euros to go up to the loggia. Well worth it for the views and to see some of the old artifacts associated with the basilica, including the original 4 horses that were once confiscated by Napoleon. Reproductions of the horses grace the outside of the basilica now.

I skipped the Doge's Palace (having been there before), so while Lance and SIL were there, I went across the piazza to the Correr Museum. It was disappointing, to say the least, and took half an hour to walk through. It's connected to the Archaeological Museum though, so if you're going to see that anyway (and I also found that disappointing), then you might as well just see both. Your ticket pays for both anyway (and also covers the Doge's Palace and the Library of St. Mark). We all planned to go to the Archaeological Museum together, so I skipped that and tried to get in to see the Library of St. Mark. It was closed.

I met up with Lance and his sis an hour after we parted ways, and we went to the Archaeological Museum. I was almost denied entrance, because they scanned my ticket when I went into the Correr Museum. So I had to explain to the woman that I was going there to see the other museum. She reluctantly let me in.

Anyway, let me recap: Correr Museum - not really worth your time. Archaeological Museum - ditto. Library - I wouldn't know. Doge's Palace - one of the major attractions in Venice, so you better go there. Same for St. Mark's.

We needed a break after all this museum hopping, so we grabbed gelato (what else?) and relaxed in the square for a bit.

The rest of the day is kind of a blur. I remember taking the vaporetto back to Lido because it was getting a bit chilly and I didn't have a jacket. We spent a short time at the hotel and then went back into Venice, but took the vaporetto that went all the way down the Grand Canal, and then got off at the train station. We had dinner in that area...a place next to where I had lunch my first time in Venice. I just had a cheese omelette since my stomach was still tentative. Afterwards, we got on the vaporetto to go back to Lido, but the route changed after we got on and we were practically out to Murano before we realized it. We had to backtrack and get on a different vaporetto. Good thing we didn't have any particular agenda.

Wednesday, Sept. 26

Overnight thunderstorms woke me up around 6, and they never really let up. We hung out in the hotel until it was almost checkout time. Our flight didn't even leave Venice until 9 PM. We checked out, left our luggage in the lobby, and ventured out in the wind and rain. Once we reached Venice, we just spent our time ducking into shops. We had lunch at a place near the train station. We basically stayed out until we couldn't stand it anymore, and then went back to Lido for dessert, went back to the hotel to pick up our stuff, paid for a ticket to ride the special boat out to the airport, walked about 7 minutes to get to the airport, and then spent the rest of our day there.

Marco Polo airport sucks until you get past the security checkpoints. There is nothing to do before that point. Everyone was at the cafeteria-style restaurant, and we ate there too. They had American-style pizza (??), sandwiches, desserts, salads, and a few other things. While we were eating, they announced that check-in began for our flight, so we took care of that, got through security, and then found a nice variety of shops and food. Oh well. And our flight was delayed too, so we spent half a day at the damn airport.

So yeah...this trip to Venice...not stellar.

Anyway, I promised a handful of photos. Here they are...not my best work, but my previous pictures of Venice were some of my best photos ever.

Bier Hier...Das ist Oktoberfest!

Sunday, September 23

Okay, I admit it. I hate beer. Always have and probably always will. So why did I go to Oktoberfest? Well, it's just one of those things you HAVE to do if you're here in Germany. It's a requirement, or something.

That being said, it is HIGHLY overrated.

Our original plan was to get a Happy Weekend ticket on the Deustche Bahn and take a train from Garmisch into Munich. But we weren't sure where Oktoberfest actually was, and Edelweiss was offering shuttle service to and from for $20 per person. So we figured that was a better option. We booked the last 3 spots on the Sunday bus. It was destiny, so it seemed.

I was the lone one out when it came to seating, and since I knew the bus was full, I was anticipating sitting next to a stranger. Without going into too much detail about my seatmate, I will say that he was quite friendly and talkative on the drive to Munich, and the time passed quickly and pleasantly enough.

That changed, however. More on that later.

The bus dropped us off in the Oktoberfest parking lot. The driver gave us a stern warning not to come back drunk enough to throw up. He threatened us with the expense of cleaning and sanitizing the bus if that happened.

Essentially, Oktoberfest is like a state fair with huge beer tents. It's very expensive though...each ride is about 4-5 euros. Wow. And I can't see the logic in riding rides after drinking copious amounts of brew.

Also, the Oktoberfest grounds are nowhere near anything, as far as I could tell. My hopes of going off on my own to sightsee around Munich were dashed. Besides, we really only had about 5 hours or so anyway...not much time to do anything else.

Since this was opening weekend (the 2nd day, in fact), there was supposed to be a parade. We quickly found the parade route, since we were there early, and had a good view. There was a problem. First of all, it was warm and sunny. Secondly, the parade wasn't supposed to begin for another hour yet.

So by the time the parade started, I was already sunburned (and so was Lance) and my feet were starting to go numb.

So the parade started. And it went on...and on...FOR TWO SOLID HOURS. It was the parade that never ended. I swear to God, they had marching bands for EVERY SINGLE Bavarian town, no matter how big or small, in addition to groups from Italy and Croatia. And as the parade continued, the grounds swelled with people.

The parade was still continuing when we decided we had had more than enough. Lance wanted to go into the Paulaner tent to have a beer, and even though it wasn't far, we had difficulty even getting through the crush of humanity. But since it was around 1 pm, we also wanted to get food. So we went to a food stand first, where I got fish and chips and a lemonade, and Lance ordered 2 huge pretzels for himself and his sister.

We fought through the crowds to get to the beer tent, went in, and started looking for a place to sit. No luck. It was packed. We walked around the beer gardens outside. No luck there either. Finally, Lance decided to go inside and check again, and that's when I was stopped by security. They saw my lemonade and told me that no outside drinks were allowed in the beer tent.

So what were we to do? I told Lance and his sister to go have some beer. I would just go off on my own and meet back up with them at the bus for our departure.

(Don't try to stick drinks in your purse either...they check your bags. They are very adamant about this and kind of mean if they find illegal beverages on your person.)

So my question is - why sell outside drinks at all if they aren't allowed in the beer tents? How ridiculous. Perhaps you don't like beer, but your friends do. Are you just supposed to die of thirst while they sit around knocking back liter after liter? Also, they do sell food in the beer tents, so don't bother to get it outside. You can get pretzels, sandwiches, and cheese plates. I didn't notice if they sold any non-alcoholic beverages inside, but I saw nobody drinking anything other than beer.

Anyway... so off they went and off I went. I tried to eat my fish and chips as quickly as possible, and then, having accomplished that, tried to find a trash can. They are few and far between there. I spent quite a bit of time just doing that, particularly since the crowd was such that I could only take tiny baby steps.

Then I had to use the restroom. But since I wasn't allowed in the beer tents with my drink (the only places I could see that had any restrooms), I had to drain my And it was a huge bottle. I thought I was going to be sick drinking it all that fast. But I finished it, and I returned the bottle and got back 1 euro, and then I went into the beer tent.

No sign of Lance or his sister. It was just insanely packed inside. Everyone looked fairly sloshed and happy, though. More power to 'em.

Back outside afterwards, I walked around the fairway for a bit. Not very interesting if you're not riding rides. I bought some soft serve ice cream, as the day was really warm. Before meeting the bus, I went into the wine tent (yes, there was wine there...all is not lost if you are a fan of the grape!) and checked that out. Didn't drink any wine though. Wasn't in the mood. It is significantly less crowded in the wine tent, though.

Went out to the bus, where Lance and his sister were already waiting. They never did find a place to sit, so they never had any beer. Disappointing, since that's really why one goes to Oktoberfest.

No sign of my seatmate yet.

Finally he arrived. Staggering drunk. Oh no.

He joked that he had enough beer for both of us, and then promptly dozed off. I breathed a sigh of relief. But no. He suddenly sat bolt upright, leapt out of his seat, and ran off the bus to vomit.

Hooray. Of all the people who had to get drunk enough to puke, it had to be the guy sitting next to me! Am I lucky or what?

He came back on the bus with a plastic bag that the driver gave him, and then assured me that he thought it was over. I was neither comforted nor convinced by this assessment. Lance tried to get me to move to another seat, but since I thought the bus was fully occupied, I had nowhere to go.

Finally, the bus started up and headed towards Garmisch. I secretly prayed for it to be a puke-free trip. My seatmate (whom Lance started calling Mr. Pukey) fell asleep again and slumped over on me. I was in misery. Lance was trying to make me laugh (he was sitting in front of me and kept looking back at me and trying to make jokes and faces), but I was actually very angry at the whole situation.

A few minutes into the trip, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked behind me, and the girl sitting behind me (who was probably in her early teens) told me that she had a free seat next to her, and asked me if I wanted to sit with her.

Hallelujah! Sweet rescue!

(To be fair, Lance was about to suggest that I switch seats with him, because he was only beginning to realize the extent of my horror and disgust right before the girl asked me to sit with her. Besides, I would not have wished that on anyone, which is why I figured I would just suck it up and deal with it myself.)

Anyway, I explained to the girl that as much as I wanted to sit with her, my seatmate was asleep, and I couldn't wake him up to ask him to move out of my way so I could change seats. I was trying not to be rude to him (even though I thought it was extremely rude of him to get that drunk), but he woke up just then and scooted out of my way enough so that I could crawl over him and go back and sit with her. Her grandparents were sitting across the aisle and they whispered to me that they felt so bad, they just had to do something. I didn't even know there was a spare seat on the bus!

So I sat with them, right by the drunk people in the very back row of the bus, who were drunk enough to be jolly, but not drunk enough to be sick. I can't say it was the most pleasant bus trip I ever had, but it was significantly better than spending the entire trip sitting next to Mr. Pukey. (And one of the guys in the back of the bus offered to buy me a beer at Irish Pub that evening...uhm, no thanks.)

So yeah...that was my Oktoberfest experience. At least I can laugh about it someday. Maybe.

Now, for pictures...there are about 40 or so. I noticed that a lot of them look smudged...there must have been something on the lens. This might have happened when I was at Partnach Gorge, since the camera got really wet.

Click here

Monday, October 1, 2007

Innsbruck and South Tyrol (Italy)

Friday, September 21

Our drive to Innsbruck was pretty short...about an hour from Garmisch. It was a bright, clear day that promised to be warm. The drive down was pleasant enough...a lot of pretty scenery. There was some construction as we got closer to Innsbruck, and signs warned us as we were getting near it (the signs in Austria have faces...frowny faces as you get closer to the construction zones, smiley faces as you drive out of them).

The bus parked next to the royal gardens, and our only agenda in Innsbruck as a group was to visit the palace. So that's the first thing we did (no pictures were allowed inside, but videotaping is allowed). It was a nice palace. Not the nicest one we've seen by far, but worth the time.

After that, we wandered into town as a group for a bit...our guide pointed out a few things of interest. Then we were cut loose.

The three of us didn't do much after that. We shopped mostly (Lance discovered this fantastic Christmas store in the main square where we were able to add to our ornament collection). We ate (of course, I had to have some Sacher Torte...when in Austria and all...). And we visited Dom St. Jakob.

Our time there was fleeting. Shame, really, because Innsbruck is a beautiful city. I was glad to go, because one of my long-time online friends is from Innsbruck (Hi Dani!), although she's since moved to the States. I was glad to finally see her hometown. (Hon, I hope my pictures don't make you too homesick!)

We got on the bus at our scheduled time, and drove up to the Olympic ski jump area, where we had fantastic views of the city. After about half an hour or so up there, we headed back toward Garmisch.

I would recommend the Innsbruck tour if you're staying at Edelweiss. Definitely a city worth checking out.

Saturday, September 22

This was the day I would finally return to Italy. Only, this area of Italy didn't look like the Italy I know. South Tyrol once belonged to Austria, so this area still has a mostly Austrian flavor. The main language is German. Restaurants serve schnitzel as well as lasagna. The buildings have a very Austrian/Bavarian look to them. But bits of Italian culture have crept in over time, so it's a nice blending of both cultures.

But before we got there, we had to drive through Austria. We took the same route that we had taken the day before to get to Innsbruck, but we passed Innsbruck and kept on going. We got to experience the Europa Bridge, which is the highest bridge in Europe, and probably the most scenic (also popular with bungee jumpers). We stopped at a rest stop on the way...a rest stop with a McDonald's that probably had the most beautiful view in the world (and this McD's had a pastry shop in it that sold the most amazing looking pastries). There was also an Austrian restaurant, convenience store and a chapel (because you can't go anywhere in Europe without having somewhere to stop every 5 minutes and pray). We had about half an hour to spend here, so I wandered around and got pictures of the scenery.

We arrived in Vipiteno (German name: Sterzing) about 2 hours after we left Garmisch. It was hard to tell we were in Italy at all, because nothing about the landscape or architecture changed. The first thing we did as a group was go to a shop called Mair Mair for a wine Italian is that? That was just a short diversion, but Mair Mair also has Italian leather goods and a gourmet food shop (dried pastas, seasonings, oils and sauces). So once we finished the wine tasting, we explored the shop a bit. And I was elated to find the most perfect travel purse in the world. Now that we're getting ready to leave... But I bought it anyway. It was only 15 euros. It had plenty of pockets, yet it wasn't big and bulky. It had a long enough strap to wear across my chest. And get this...THE PURSE HAS A ZIPPER GOING AROUND IT THAT YOU CAN UNZIP TO EXPAND THE MAIN COMPARTMENT! Like luggage. This was very useful to me later on.

Anyway, we had between 1-2 hours to explore Vipiteno on our own, which is actually more than enough time. So we exhausted everything there was to do there long before we had to be back on the bus. But all in all, it's a cute town, and I liked it there. If you go, visit the little church in the center of town...the Tourist Info Center is right next to it, so you might overlook it. But it's worth going in. It's tiny, but has really fascinating frescoes from floor to ceiling.

Once we got back on the bus, we drove a few minutes to Castle Reifenstein, from the 12th century. It's privately owned, but we were allowed to take a tour. Very neat. I didn't actually get a good photo of the entire was on the opposite side of the bus from where I was sitting, but I got pictures of parts of it as we went through it (except for the prettiest rooms, which were not photo-friendly).

Here's a photo of Reifenstein.

There was another castle nearby that I photographed, but it's closed to the public. The name of that one escapes me at the moment.

Anyway, we spent about an hour, maybe a bit longer, touring Reifenstein. Then we went down the road to a typical Alpine Gasthof for lunch (this is where the schnitzel and lasagna come into play). It was warm by now and we sat outside, enjoying the sunshine...but also a lot of bees that threatened to spoil our meal. We all had pasta, although I must say that my dish, though tasty, was kind of odd. I had macaroni with ham, meat sauce, mushrooms, and peas. The meat sauce and the peas were not mentioned on the menu. Too much meat in it. But it filled up my stomach, and that's what counts. Lance had their house speciality - lasagna - but said it was strange...not like the lasagna he has had before.

After lunch, we hopped back on the bus for the drive to Bressanone (German name: Brixen), which was about half an hour away. Brixen (as it's more commonly known) is famous for its Baroque cathedral, which is a pilgrimage site (this site has had a cathedral on it since the 9th century, but the current cathedral was built in the 18th century). The drive to Brixen was very pretty...passing vineyards and apple orchards everywhere along the way. We had a dramatic view of Brixen, which sits in a valley, from a road high up where we were stuck in traffic for a bit. But we made our way down into town, and to our surprise, there was a festival going on...added bonus!

I should say that normally, this tour out of Edelweiss stops in Brixen first, and more time is supposed to be spent there than in Vipiteno. But it being a Saturday, the itinerary was changed, because the shops in Brixen are normally closed on Saturdays, whereas Vipiteno has "Red Carpet Saturdays" (as you will see in my photos), where the shops are open all day, and a red carpet is rolled down the center of the street.

We had about an hour in Brixen. Not long enough. The town is much more beautiful than Vipiteno. And with the festival going on, there was certainly stuff to do. We visited the cathedral, which I liked a lot, but I was more impressed by the frescoes in its astonishing medieval courtyard. I had never seen anything like it.

All the while, we heard music coming from the stage set up in the town square.

The cathedral and courtyard were pretty much all we got to see there. We stopped for postcards and gelato, and to find a normal restroom (many of the restrooms there have squat toilets), and then we had to leave.

I would really recommend this tour. This area of Italy is often overlooked by tourists, which is a shame, because it's really beautiful. But perhaps being off the beaten path is what makes it so great, because the streets weren't clogged with people.

Pictures here...a little over 100 in this set. (Just some photo advice: all of the photos I took inside churches? Never once used flash. You don't need it unless it's very dark inside. Don't use it.) Also, a few of these pictures could use a bit more re-touching, but lack of time prevents me from doing that at the moment. I re-touched the ones that were really bad.

Sunday, September 30, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, Lance, his sister and I traveled down to Garmisch. Now of course, Lance and I were there last Christmas. I won't talk much about Garmisch itself. But we took some tours out of Edelweiss Lodge and Resort, which I will write about in a bit more detail.

Anyway, we arrived on Monday the 17th, really too late in the day to do much. We just settled into our hotel room, had dinner at Zuggy's Base Camp, and relaxed a bit.

Tuesday, Sept. 18
Our tours didn't start until Wednesday, so we decided to spend this day sightseeing in Garmisch. Unfortunately, this was not a good day for it. It was very cloudy and rainy, and we got tickets to go to the top of the Zugspitze (which are expensive), only to find the weather conditions too murky to see anything. A cloud was directly below us, obscuring our view, and it was snowing and sleeting on the mountain.

So that was a wash.

We were planning to follow that with a trip to Partnach Gorge, including lunch at Forsthaus Graseck, where Lance and I had eaten before, but the city busses were crammed full of people at lunch time. So we decided to wait awhile and opted instead to have lunch at El Greco and then walk around a bit. Lunch at El Greco was delicious. Lance and I had eaten there last Christmas Eve and liked it. I just had tomato soup and pita with tzatziki...something simple and light, but Lance shared some of his Greek cheese pie with me, which was also very good.

We followed up lunch with a walk through the main shopping district in Garmisch. It was raining buckets and very chilly, but it was really nothing compared to what we were about to experience at Partnach Gorge.

So once the lunch rush cleared, we took a bus out to the Olympic Ski Stadium, to walk to Partnach Gorge from there. On the way, we enjoyed the delightful chorus of the sheep's bells as they grazed in the pastures. Lance and I had been out to the gorge in winter, so everything was frozen over then. This time, there were waterfalls everywhere. We were all soaked by the time we left the gorge, and the trip through the gorge very nearly ruined my camera.

From there, we took the Graseck Bahn up to Forsthaus Graseck for an early dinner. Problem is, German restaurants don't serve dinner that early. They had a snack menu, and snacks are generally pretty ample. We had the restaurant all to ourselves. Lance and his sister shared a Bavarian cheese plate with a basket of bread. I got weissewurst (white sausages) that come with their own special mustard and a giant Bavarian pretzel. The wurst is kind of gross looking, but very tasty (if you ever have some, be sure to take off the casing...some servers neglect to tell people this if they order it!).

After warming up and drying off there a little, we made our way back into town and called it a night. Our clothes were still soaked, and I ran downstairs to the Starbucks in the basement of our hotel to get a hot chocolate to help warm me up.

Wednesday, Sept. 19

The first of our tours was this day - Berchtesgaden and the Eagle's Nest. We had this tiny, elfin German woman as our guide...she was absolutely hilarious. She kept calling us "Gaaaaaaawmish Gwoup"...a term we would end up repeating throughout the rest of our trip.

Anyway, the drive to Berchtesgaden took almost 3 hours (and this was the longest tour of all the ones we took because of the distance). It's near Salzburg, Austria. In fact, Hitler's Eagle's Nest overlooks Salzburg...not that it mattered. The weather up there was similar to what we had on the Zugspitze the day before. We had treacherous drives over curvy mountain roads, so it felt a bit daring and scary.

If the weather is bad at the Eagle's Nest, the tour goes instead to some nearby salt mines. But we were approved for the Eagle's Nest, so we had to get off our bus below the mountain and then take another bus up to a point high up the mountain. From there, we walk through a tunnel, get on an elevator, and go up directly into Hitler's residence.

I was surprised to find it so uninteresting. It's not preserved to look like it did when Hitler lived there. The largest room is now a restaurant and the other rooms sit empty. The fireplace was the only thing of interest, as it has some historical significance, which is explained on the tour. And, as I said before, the view from up there was obscured by clouds.

We didn't stay up there too long. We took the elevator back down and waited for the bus that would take us back down to our starting point. At that point, some of the clouds dissipated and we got a bit of a view of the valley below.

Eventually, we made our way into the town of Berchtesgaden, where we had a group lunch at The Golden Bear. I had a very delicious meal of meatloaf smothered in mushroom gravy with spaetzle on the side. Fantastic. The weather in Berchtesgaden was actually pretty nice, and we had some time to walk around the town a bit and poke into the shops. It's a cute little town.

Overall, unless you are guaranteed gorgeous weather, skip this tour. This was my least favorite of all of them. And Berchtesgaden, while adorable, wasn't as pretty as other Bavarian towns we saw on the other tours.

Thursday, Sept. 20

Our tour guide, Andrea, came to get us around 8:30 or so, I think. The drive to Neuschwanstein wasn't long...probably around an hour. It looked to be a gorgeous day.

On the way toward Neuschwanstein, we drove past the town of Fuessen, on which I had written a travel guide but had never seen. It looked like such a pretty town, but I wasn't able to photograph it, sadly. A few minutes later, we arrived in Schwangau, which sits below Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.

Neuschwanstein is probably the most famous castle in Germany. Built by mad King Ludwig II, it was never finished before his mysterious death. This castle is the inspiration for the castle at Disney World. His parents' castle, Hohenschwangau, is very nearby, and can be seen from Neuschwanstein.

Our tour of the castle was to start at 11:15, and we had 3 ways to get up there: by foot, by bus, or by horse and carriage. We opted to walk, which takes about half an hour. It's a pretty steep climb, but we were game for it. Once the castle tour started, it lasted about 30 minutes. There are only a handful of completed rooms in the castle, so it doesn't take long to see them. And the rooms are nice, but I've seen nicer. Photographs aren't allowed inside, so unfortunately, I don't have pictures.

After the castle tour, we walked to the nearby Marienbrucke - a rickety bridge over a ravine that gives you an amazing view of the castle. Since we were running short on time, we took the bus back down into town. We grabbed some fast food at a German snack stand and did some shopping.

On the way back from Neuschwanstein, we stopped in the town of Wies to visit the famous Wieskirche. This church was built to house a statue of Jesus Christ in chains, which was the subject of a miracle in the 18th century, since the statue was said to have shed real tears. The statue was originally housed in a small chapel (which is next to the church), but so many pilgrims came to see it that a church had to be constructed.

The church is unusual because it's pretty much out in the middle of nowhere...yet it's huge and magnificent.

After our detour there, we drove for a while longer before we stopped at a shop that sold wood handicrafts and carvings. It is a pretty large shop and has a wide variety of objects to buy, but it seemed to specialize in nativity pieces. Things there ran in price from very inexpensive to stuff that requires a lottery win in order to buy. Overall, an interesting little diversion, and I'm glad we went there. The items were crafted by various artisans, so we got to see many different examples of woodworking.

Because we had a little extra time, the bus driver suggested that we drive through Oberammergau, a town that is mostly famous for its Passion play, which is put on every 10 years and features local actors. We drove past the theatre where this play is performed and the bus stopped so Andrea could point out some interesting paintings on some of the local buildings - fairy tales depicted on the houses! There was Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel.

We also drove through Ettal on the way back to Garmisch, a town primarily known for its monastery. Edelweiss has a new tour that goes to the cheese-making shop there.

I would really recommend this Neuschwanstein tour. The little towns we drove through were just unbelievably beautiful.

Okay...more tomorrow (Innsbruck and South Tyrol). I also have Oktoberfest, but that almost deserves its own post.

Here are pictures. There are about 60 of them. I had to delete a lot because the weather made them turn out badly. But these things happen. The pictures that I thought were really important turned out well, which is good. There are also 3 photos of Fort St. Pieter from our Maastricht trip on the 16th.

Photos - Klicken Sie hier!

I Interrupt This Blog for a Very Important Announcement

In December, Lance and I will be moving to the Seattle area. We originally had orders for Tinker AFB (just outside Oklahoma City) and it wasn't the most ideal situation for him job-wise. But it was our great good fortune that a position opened up for an Air Force liaison for Boeing...he applied, and yesterday received word that the job is his. We are very excited. It's a tremendous opportunity for him, and will possibly set us up for life outside the military (when that glorious day finally comes).

This is great for me too. The travel and tourism industry is huge in Seattle, and I've already found a few great job prospects that would allow me to continue travel writing full-time and with excellent pay. Only I wouldn't be a freelancer. I would have gainful, steady employment with a company. I need that kind of security right now. There's one position in particular that I'm really excited's right up my alley. I just don't want to get my hopes up too much, but it's such a perfect job for me and so exactly what I've been looking for, that I can't help but get worked up about it.

(By the way, if you see anything in that area that you think might be of interest to me, please direct me to it. Or, if you are an employer who is looking for a travel writer...well, hi!) :)

This means too, of course, that I will be writing a lot of Pacific Northwest posts from now on. This is an area of the US that I have not explored, and I'm really looking forward to getting to know it. Everyone who is familiar with that area, and with Seattle in particular, proclaims it to be very I expect to fit right in and feel quite comfy there.

For now, we have a world of chaos to attend to, and I still have hundreds of photos from our travels in Bavaria and Venice. Look for these in the coming days. I will try to get those posted in the midst of all this resume tweaking and cover letter writing and house hunting.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Final Trip Report Series (for awhile)

We just completed our last major trip here in Europe. I doubt we'll even have time for any day trips now, although I am interested in the Da Vinci Expo in Brussels, and there's an MWR trip going there in November. And I would still love to go to Den Haag to see one of my favorite paintings, Vermeer's "The Girl With the Pearl Earring".

Trip reports and photos are forthcoming (I used up nearly 2 memory cards). I've been to a couple of these places before: Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Venice, but there were a few new-to-me places: Berchtesgaden, Schwangau (Neuschwanstein Castle), Innsbruck, Vipiteno (Sterzing) and Bressanone (Brixen) Italy, and Oktoberfest (sadly, no actual sightseeing in Munich, as I couldn't care less about beer and that whole Oktoberfest thing).

Some parts of this trip were fraught with disaster (if you also read my Live Journal, you have seen some posts about this). But it's the kind of stuff that I can look on someday and laugh's all part of what makes travel so interesting. Of course, you can't expect everything to go smoothly. And you learn from all the things that go wrong. It only helps you become more organized and makes you a better traveler.

Before I get into the trip reports, just a run-down of a few companies we dealt with:

Germanwings and TUIfly: I've talked about them before briefly. All of these low-cost airlines are more or less the same (although I hear more complaints about Ryanair than anything else), but I very much liked the service we got from both of these airlines. TUIfly was the best of the two though. Even though our flight was delayed out of Venice on TUIfly (they had to change a tire on our jet prior to its departure for Venice), they offered the best service, and gave us free chocolates and gum on the flight. And we got a good laugh from the air sick bags that had a smiley face on them (the TUIfly logo) and the words "Take it with a smile." My sister-in-law took one for a souvenir. Hehe. If TUIfly is unfamiliar to you, it's because it's relatively new. It used to operate under the Hapag-Lloyd name.

Edelweiss Lodge and Resort: Of course, most GK-area folks who have been out to Garmisch have stayed here. If you haven't, it will serve your purposes just fine while you're in Garmisch. We stayed there mainly to take the day trips that they offer through Alpine Adventures (you can only take these trips if you're staying at Edelweiss). I thought the bed was horribly uncomfortable though (especially the pillows) and we could not control the temperature in our room and the room was too hot. The muzak in the hallways and public areas grated on my nerves (and was loud enough to hear in our room)...I heard other people complain about it too, so it wasn't just me.

I loved that Edelweiss had a laundry room (very important, considering the length of our stay), but it's usually very busy, so be prepared to wait! Also, Alpine Adventures has a nice store. My sunglasses broke the day we were in Innsbruck, and instead of buying another pair at the shop there, I managed to find an eyeglass repair kit that they had in stock. Sunglasses fixed!

As far as eating at the Edelweiss, I'd advise against it. Zuggy's Base Camp is merely average. We ate at the buffet on Bavarian night (why is that even necessary when the town is filled with Bavarian restaurants?) and the food was okay, but not nearly as good as the authentic stuff. Breakfast is not included in your room rate, so bring some extra can eat at the buffet or at the snack bar (the Starbucks place), but the costs add up quickly.

As far as the tours...these were actually pretty good. The tour guides were great (especially Andrea; she was AWESOME and so much fun...we had her twice as our tour guide) - knowledgeable and organized - and they also offer a bit of flexibility (we drove through Oberammergau on one tour, for example, just because it was wasn't part of the itinerary).

Edelweiss runs a special Oktoberfest shuttle - no tour guide, just dropping you off there and picking you up - which I would only recommend if you REALLY REALLY must go to Oktoberfest. Just be prepared to spend the trip home dealing with very drunk and possibly sick people (a preview to my Oktoberfest trip report).

Hotel Cristallo - Lido de Venezia: Staying on the Venetian island of Lido was about half the price of what we would pay to stay on the mainland. We just got 72-hour vaporetto (water bus) tickets in order to get around. The hotel is a 2 star - pretty basic. Very clean (beds and pillows are kind of firm though), friendly staff, nice breakfast spread (included in the price). Two nights in a spacious triple room (double bed and one trundle bed) was 240 euros. Split 3 ways, it's not bad at all. When we checked out, they allowed us to keep our luggage in the lobby for several hours while we went sightseeing, and since it was raining, they allowed me to borrow one of their umbrellas (which was destroyed by wind, but we bought a new one to replace it).

Lido is pretty touristy, but it has a beach you can enjoy in hot weather. Plenty of restaurants and shopping there too. Visit the bakery in the same building as Hotel Cristallo. Best. Tiramisu. Ever. Just try to look past the fact that the staff there is kind of rude.

By the way, I found this hotel via, which is a nice hotel booking service. I thought the reviews of Cristallo on the site were pretty spot on.

Vaporetto (ACTV): the cheapest way to get public transportation around Venice, as cars are not allowed in the city. If you get seasick, don't bother. The boats are old and rusty, although they seem to work well. They are kind of slow, and the crew will sometimes change routes on you without warning, which is how we ended up on our way to Murano one night when we were trying to get back to Lido from the mainland. So we were taken out of our way quite a bit and wasted a bit of time. I wouldn't advise you to ONLY stay on the mainland though...Venice's islands have a lot of offer. The routes are pretty easy to figure out, and unless you like pounding a lot of pavement, the vaporetto is a good way to get around the Grand Canal (although I still prefer walking).

Venice Walks & Tours (Avventure Bellissime): picked up a brochure for this in the lobby at our hotel. Apparently recommended by Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, and a variety of other reputable people and companies. Well, we didn't like it. Our tour guide was difficult to hear and his microphone kept crapping out. The tour occurred during high tide, which limited public access to St. Mark's Basilica (the highlight of the tour), so we couldn't even go in, even though the brochure advertises that the tour takes you past all the queues waiting to get in (we were given the option of waiting in a very long queue and doing the tour in there, or skipping it altogether...we all agreed to skip it and go back later on our own). The rest of the tour didn't really take us anywhere, except the square where Marco Polo lived and the Rialto Bridge (which can be easily found without a tour guide). Big thumbs down from me. There is a variety of other tour companies operating in Venice.


I am so excited at the moment, I can barely contain myself.

Okay, some of you who know me know about the project that I've been working on over the past 6 months. The project is for, which had Frommer's travel guides on their site and decided that they wanted their own original travel guides. And thus, they hired a team of writers.

Including yours truly.

And now, after 6 months of work...some of my travel guides are finally on the site!!! Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!! I am so so freaking excited! This is by far the largest writing project I have worked on since becoming a professional writer, and the people at SideStep are absolutely fabulous to work with.

Anyway, here are a couple my guides. I'll add more as they appear on the site. These two were written in the early days of this project - Berlin was actually my first assignment for them. Hopefully you can use them for planning your trips and you find them helpful.



Sunday, September 16, 2007


My sister-in-law is visiting and today is her first full day here. We leave for Bavaria in the morning. She decided that she wanted to go to Maastricht today, since it wasn't far away.

Of course, I've been there at least half a dozen times, but I did a couple things today that were new even for me.

St. Pietersberg Caves Tour
If you don't mind a good walk, I would highly suggest walking to the St. Pietersberg caves, which are just outside of town. If you stop at the VVV first, they will show you a map so you can see where it is...or follow the signs for "Grotten Noord". It took us about half an hour to walk there.

If you don't want to walk, you can also take a boat there.

Anyway, English tours are offered at 2:00 PM. We got there a little early. So we went to the cafe at the midget golf place nearby. It was okay...your standard Dutch fare. I had kroketten with fries (I intended to share with my sister-in-law, but she took one bite of the kroketten and decided she didn't care for it)...Lance had pannekoeken.

St. Pietersberg also has a fort. I don't think we could explore that today. It looked like the fort was closed.

We purchased tickets for the cave tour, and I thought that was well worth it. It was about an hour. If you've been to the Valkenburg caves, you might like the ones in Valkenburg better. St. Pietersberg doesn't have as much art. But it's interesting all the same.

My least favorite part of the tour was when our tour guide left us alone in pitch blackness and told us to keep our right hands on the cave wall and just walk for 2 minutes until we found her again. I was trying to stay calm, but everything in me wanted to panic. Once we could see some light again, I realized that I had actually gotten way behind the person in front of me (and Kim and Lance were behind me and we linked ourselves together - Kim had her left hand on my shoulder, and Lance had his hand on her was literally the blind leading the blind).

Anyway, that particular part of the tour is optional. I would recommend the tour overall.

Maas River Cruise

You can opt to take a Maas River Cruise if you want, but be careful which one you take. We took the 50 minute round-trip Maas River cruise, and I was unimpressed. Once you actually leave Maastricht's city center, there isn't much to see. And in our case, there were several kids who were running amok and screaming at the tops of their lungs and being generally annoying, and their parents were choosing to ignore them. So that spoiled the entire experience for us.

If we had had the time, I would've done the cruise to Liege. There are several different cruises offered. If you have the time, do one of the longer ones. The 50 minute one just isn't worth it.

Anyway, we're leaving for Bavaria in the morning: Garmisch, Berchtesgaden, Neuschwanstein, Munich (Oktoberfest), Innsbruck (Austria) and Brixen/Vipiteno (Italy)...we'll follow this up with a 3 day trip to Venice.

Longer trip report to come. And photos too, of course.

Friday, September 7, 2007

A Small Confession

This should hardly come as a surprise to some of you, but I haven't been keeping this blog just for fun.

In some ways, it has performed a public service, since people have told me that they've used the advice that I've given here, and it's helped them. And that's good. And that's what keeps me motivated to make these posts, especially when I'm exhausted and just plain don't feel like it (all the posts about the cruise in particular were extremely time-consuming and tedious, so thanks to those of you who let me know that you actually read them).

But I digress. The main reason for this blog? Well, these are rough notes for the book I hope to write about my experiences here in Germany.

Surprised? Probably not, if you know me.

Now that we have only 3 more months to go, I've been reflecting a lot on my time here - particularly those first months when my world felt so confusing and out of sorts - and how these experiences have changed and shaped me over the past 4 years.

Those of you who have been following my Live Journal should by now have figured out the working title for this book. It was the title of my Live Journal until very recently, and it's been there right before your eyes all this time.

Losing America, Finding Myself: Adventures of an American Living Abroad

As for when I'm actually going to start compiling these notes into something resembling a book - well, that is yet to be determined. In order for me to write about a place, I generally have to be far removed from it. Once I feel distanced from Germany physically and emotionally, I think I can start putting everything together.

This blog has also allowed me to determine if there is an audience for my words. And yes, I guess there is (despite the few comments I actually get on Blogger itself, I get a fair amount on Live Journal and in emails). I've gotten so much encouragement to put my experiences together into a book, even though that was pretty much my plan all along.

Will it sell? Gee, I don't know. I'm not THAT confident, although I obviously think I have *some* writing talent, or I wouldn't have bothered to keep this blog and spend so much time on it.

There is a market out there for these types of books. I should know. I read them. I *AM* part of the market for these types of books. In fact, at this moment I am reading Extra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month is Enchanted, by Annie Hawes. It's research, I guess.

The difference is, a lot of these books tend to focus on one place. And while I have spent the majority of my time in Germany, obviously, the book won't just be about that. It will be about my travels in general, with an emphasis on Germany as home. some of you are probably wondering what ever happened to the novel that I started.

It still exists. And I have every intention of finishing it...someday. But this book, this memoir, just happens to be the book I want to write first. And hey, I've already been working on it for almost 4 years!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

TUIfly Update

I mentioned in my last post that we had a little issue with our airline bookings on Germanwings and TUIfly. Well, we resolved things just fine with Germanwings, but we were awaiting a response from TUIfly.

We waited long enough, methinks. So Lance just called them.

Well, it's all fixed. TUIfly resolved the issue for us this evening, and we only paid for the cost of the phone call.

Great customer service!!

However, let this be a cautionary tale - ALWAYS BOOK PLANE TICKETS IN A NAME THAT MATCHES WHAT IS ON THE PASSPORT!!! We were lucky, because we didn't have to pay for the mistake. Other airlines are not so nice.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Itinerant Writer's Seal of Approval

Not that my opinion counts for anything, but I have to give a shout out to Germanwings. They did Lance and I a tremendous favor this evening.

See, Lance's sister is coming to visit in 2 weeks. We're spending a week down at Garmisch, where we'll use that as a base for sightseeing in the Bavarian Alps, Austria, and Italy. Then we'll fly from Munich to Venice. Then from Venice back up here to NRW (Cologne-Bonn, to be specific). This involves a lot of airline bookings, train tickets, etc. etc.

(Apropos of nothing, but we'll finally be making our way to Munich just in time for Oktoberfest.)

Anyway, we have a Germanwings booking from Cologne to Munich. Then we fly TUIfly from Munich to Venice. Then TUIfly again from Venice to Cologne.

Lance made the bookings several weeks ago. Only now did he realize that he booked his sister's plane tickets under the shortened version of her name, rather than her full name.

Of course, this happens. It's a common mistake to make, and most airlines aren't very forgiving. If you call to change, they'll generally charge you a fee or penalty. Sometimes they'll even make you rebook the ticket and pay the full fare.

But we got lucky with Germanwings. They didn't charge us. Lance called them (at a UK phone number, so he could speak to an English-speaking operator), and not only did he immediately get a customer service rep., but he was done with the call in less than 5 minutes. It could not have been easier, and they could not have been more courteous.

TUIfly has been contacted (via email, as we're hoping to resolve this issue through that means). But we have yet to hear back from them. I'll let you know what happens with them.

For now, I only have good things to say about Germanwings.

Out of all the low-cost airlines I have flown, Germanwings, Air Berlin and Easy Jet have earned my enthusiastic endorsement.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Final Thoughts - Using Common Sense on Cruises

This is basically where I vent about things that really annoyed me on the cruise. I'm trying to be funny about this, and a bit snarky's the only way I can blow off steam. But some of this advice is good for travel in general, not just for cruises. What this boils down to is - have respect and consideration for your fellow passengers/travelers. It's not all about you. Respectful and considerate people seemed to be few and far between on this trip, and I'm just trying to be honest here. I don't want to give the impression that cruises are absolutely fabulous and relaxing and wonderful. They are also very stressful a lot of the time.

Some people really love cruising. I don't believe I'll ever be one of those people. I'm glad we had the experience, though...and I'm not at all sorry we did it. I would consider taking a cruise again under different circumstances.

So, without further ado:

* For the love of all that is holy, DO NOT WEAR A SPEEDO! The only exception to this is if you are an Olympic swimmer or diver. Our eyes do not need to be assailed by the site of your saggy, furry 70-year-old body stuffed in a plum smuggler (Lance's phraseology, not mine). And to the guy who had his t-shirt tucked into his Speedo…well, great hopping horny toads! You are NOT all that and a bag of chips. None of you are Adonis, so please wear something sensible to the pool. There is such a thing as swim trunks, and I imagine they are probably more comfortable.

* If flash photography is not allowed, PLEASE LEARN HOW TO TURN OFF YOUR CAMERA'S FLASH! If you do not know how to do this, you have no business owning a camera. If you have a camera where that isn't possible, don't take pictures. There is a reason why flash is not permitted, and there are no exceptions to this rule. Do you want to be partly responsible for ruining some of the world's great art? By the way, flash photography isn't even necessary in many cases (and ruins photos sometimes)…for most of the cruise, I didn't even have the flash turned on, and most of my pictures turned out just fine.

* If 300 people are trying to photograph the same thing at the same time, it is incredibly rude to jump up next to the famous landmark to have your picture taken with it (especially if you give the camera to a person who has no clue how to operate one, and spends 5 minutes trying to set up the shot). 299 people do not want a picture of you, and we don't really have time to wait, given the way we are rushed through the various sights. You don't have to be in EVERY picture to prove that you were there. (You will notice that I'm in very few of the cruise photos - and Lance in even fewer - and when I am actually posing with something, it's because nobody else was trying to photograph it at the time.)

* Don't criticize the tour guide because he/she doesn't "think in English" (whatever that means…I'm quoting directly here). He/She is not a native English speaker, so what do you expect? However, he/she speaks 2-3 other languages fluently, in addition to his/her native language. How many languages do you speak? Yeah, I thought so. And to the lady who complained that the road signs in Norway were not in English...learn Norwegian, then. Besides, you weren't even driving.

* Do not talk while the tour guide is talking. Some of us would actually like to hear what he/she is saying. Thank you.

* If you hate a certain religious/racial/ethnic group or someone of a different sexual orientation, it is wise to just keep your mouth shut about it, instead of broadcasting your prejudices to all and sundry, especially in the presence of the tour guide. (And really, you should avoid a cruise altogether, since people from all walks of life are on the ship with you.) It's bad enough that Americans don't have the best reputation in the world right now, but you are only making things worse (and your fellow Americans aren't liking you much either). Also, don't take the tour guide to task on the gaps or contradictions in her history…she grew up under a Communist government, so her version of history is different than ours. You don't have to be a jerk about it and try and make her feel only succeed in making yourself look stupid.

(Why do some people even step foot outside their homes, let alone go to foreign lands?)

* If you are kindly requested numerous times by the cruise line to dress conservatively (no shorts and sleeveless tops) and not make yourself stand out during the shore excursions, it is wise to follow that advice. If you decide to wear your American flag t-shirt in Russia, don't complain when you are swarmed by panhandlers and aggressive street vendors. You are essentially wearing a big bullseye on your shirt. This also makes you a prime target for pickpockets. This is pretty much the case for travel anywhere outside North America. Unfortunately, traveling in a group makes you stand out anyway, whether you're trying to or not (which is one of the things I hate about it). But don't make things worse for yourself. Have some common sense.

* There is a reason that antibacterial hand gel is located in all the dining areas. You can't miss it…there are about a dozen bottles of it situated at various points in the room. The rest of us would appreciate not sharing your germs and being possible victims of Novovirus. Thanks.

* The ship has rules. Follow them. This means not coming dripping wet from the pool into the buffet (swimwear is not allowed there for a reason). This means not drinking from glasses or bottles in the jacuzzis (which we saw constantly). This means not saving seats in the lounges or theater for your friends. Also, don't talk loudly to your friends during performances. If you want to chat, leave. We came to see a show, not to hear you gossip and laugh.

And finally, I'll end with something positive:

* Don't be afraid to sit with strangers while you're on the cruise. You never know if they could end up being friends. We didn't exactly make lifelong friends from this trip, but we ended up sitting with some really nice people and had some great conversations.