Saturday, May 10, 2014

I'm 42 and I Just Passed My Drivers Test.


When last we left our hero, he was concerned about moving back to the US after so many years without a valid US drivers license. How would he get around? Would he be able to rent a car with his Italy license? Does anyone care? For answers to these and other burning questions, stay tuned...

...And we're back. I had last taken a drivers test as a high school junior, 26 years ago. My New Hampshire license had expired in 1999 while I was deployed to Kosovo as a soldier in the US Army. NH has (or had, at least) a three year statute of limitations on renewing you license after it expires but I didn't make it back in time so for the next 15 years I drove on my US Army Europe or US Armed Forces Italy drivers license without issue. 

Now I have friends who have been in similar circumstances as me and who have told me that the state that they moved to simply swapped out their USAREUR or AFI license for a state license so I was hopeful that South Carolina - being a state loaded with military bases - would do the same for me. I went to the local DMV with my license, my military ID card and my orders and hoped for the best...but it was not to be. The nice woman actually started to give me the documents needed to do a direct swap and I was thinking I was going to get lucky when she took my AFI license, looked at it with a funny look, and then took it into her supervisor who apparently informed her that it was not one of the licenses that they accepted for a direct swap. My heart sank as she informed me that I would have to take all the tests all over again, the eye test, the written test and the road test. She actually asked the woman next to her if, because I was such an experienced driver, they might possibly waive the road test but the woman (best described as an old curmudgeon who was seemingly not happy with her station in life) shook her head and said no, absolutely not. So the woman helping me gave me the website for the drivers manual to study and instructions to just come back and see her with all my documents when I was ready to test. 

Now, at this point I was worried because one of the needed documents was my social security card and I was sure that it was packed in my household goods. She said I could substitute my DD214 (military discharge papers) since they also have my SSN but those too were in my household goods. I was getting stressed out by this point because my car is slated to arrive any day now and I can't register it without a US drivers license so I had to wait for my HHG, I could have trouble. So imagine my elation when I got back back to the hotel and looked in my suitcase and found that I'd had the foresight to pack both my social security card and my DD214 in my checked bags. Things were starting to look up for a change.

I got to work the next morning determined to spend the day memorizing the SC driving manual because I had to make sure that I passed my test on the first try. My new coworkers all got quite a laugh at my predicament and the parallel parking jokes were flying. I opened the manual and pored over the various speed limits, traffic signs, parking distances to different obstacles such as railroad crossings, fire hydrants and intersections - things I had not thought about since I last took my drivers test 26 years ago. They have a practice test on the website and I figured I'd take it to see how I was progressing. It was surprisingly easy, almost embarrassingly so. I ended up taking it five times to chart my progress and I got a 93, 100, 100, 87 and 100. I felt ready. 

I girded up my loins and departed the office to the sounds of good natured heckling from my new coworkers reminding me to keep my hands at 2 and 10. I returned to the DMV with all of my documents and a confident air that belied the nervous feeling I had in my stomach. The woman remembered me right away. We had spent so much time together at her window that I found out more about her life than I ever wanted to know. I heard all about her father who she was estranged from: (You have to imagine the following part in the voice of an angry black woman...) "He lives in Connecticut but I don't see him anymore because he just can't seem to make the effort to come see me or his grandbabies and if he don't wanna try then I ain't got no time for him. He done nothing but turn his back on us his whole life and I don't care what he do no more." For a minute, I actually started wondering if I was getting Punk'd. Her personal issues notwithstanding, she was really nice and certainly helpful compared to her coworker, the curmudgeon. I passed the written test with flying colors and was passed over to the curmudgeon to process my stuff for the road test. The curmudgeon told me she needed my vehicle registration, I told her I had a rental, she said fine, then she needed my rental agreement ("to prove that you are the driver of the vehicle"). Of course, for some reason, I did not have my rental agreement in the car and I could not locate it in my folder that I put all of my important documents in. I had to go back to the hotel to get it but it was not there either so I had to call the rental car office to ask if they could make me another copy. They asked what I needed it for and I tried to explain it to the guy but he ended up laughing loudly at me having to take my driving test at 42 years old. It was a bit emasculating actually. He apologized for laughing then said come down and he'll make me a copy. I got back to the DMV and sat in front of the curmudgeon's window and waited patiently. They informed me that she was out on a road test and I was instantly terrified at the thought of having her as my road test instructor. She returned and stood at her window, glancing at me occasionally but not acknowledging my presence. Eventually the woman with the estranged father said "He's back with his rental agreement..." and the curmudgeon replied that she wasn't processing my documents, someone else was. I wondered to myself how long she was going to let me sit there waiting for her before she said anything. After a bit, she just told me to go wait outside in the waiting area for my road test.

This pretty much sums up how I felt on this day.
I waited. And waited. And waited. Suddenly a woman - who was not the curmudgeon - came through the door and called my name. She did not look very happy either but at least she was not the curmudgeon, I reasoned. I had kind of though that when the tester found out my circumstances, that I as only taking the test as a formality and that I've been driving all over the world for the past 26 years, they would just be lenient and not really have me do anything crazy. Unfortunately my worst fears were realized as the first thing she did was a thorough check of the rental car - lights, blinkers, horn, brake, everything - and then told me there would be NO conversation in he vehicle as I would need to concentrate on the road 100%. This woman did everything completely by the book, as if I were a high school kid fresh out of drivers ed. It's funny how difficult it is to drive in a situation like that. Something I've done with no problems for 26 years suddenly becomes laborious. I was taking no chances with this woman because she meant business. I kept my hands at 2 and 10 the whole time, I constantly glanced at my speedometer to make sure I wasn't going one mile over the speed limit and I kept my mouth shut and did everything she told me to. At one point she asked me to identify the sign we had just passed; luckily I had looked at it and knew it was a speed limit sign. Later she asked the same question but I was not so lucky this time as I was looking at my speedometer and missed it. She said "ok..." and scribbled in her clipboard. I was tense, nervous. She had me do a three point turn on a small rural road. Then she had me drive backwards on the same road for about a quarter of a mile which is more difficult than it seems. More scribbling. We got back to the DMV and she pointed to a set of big wooden barriers and it was time for my old nemesis: parallel parking. I have never been very good at parallel parking but the good Lord must have been my copilot that day because I completely nailed it on my first try. More scribbling. I sat still for what seemed like an eternity and then I heard the magical words I'd longed to hear for the past several years: "You passed." I paid my 25 bucks, smiled for my picture and walked out of the DMV holding a brand new drivers license.  

And for a brief moment, I was 16 again. 


Monday, May 5, 2014

Let's Talk About Racism...

How could anybody have a problem with this beautiful group?

I know this is a sensitive subject here in the US but let's talk about it anyway. When I found out I would have to relocate to the US, the entire US was open to me even if I knew there were only a handful of places that we had a decent chance of ending up. However, I immediately started receiving warnings from friends from different parts of the US that I would inevitably encounter racism because I am married to an Asian woman and my kids are "Amerasian".

Well, this completely floored me. Now admittedly, there are not a lot of black people where I am from. But, in my experience, I can never remember any incidents or problems of a racial nature. As far as I can recall, people were people regardless of what color they were. I had black friends growing up and never thought twice about about it. When I went to college, I met a black guy from the inner city my freshman year and we got along so well that we chose to live together for three and a half years. The point is, I know there have always been racial problems in the US but I've never witnessed them firsthand. The one and only time I actually came face to face with it was back in 1991 during AIT (job school with the Army) in Augusta, Georgia. We had a guy from rural Mississippi who took me aside and told me "Man, there sure are a lot of niggers around here...". I was 19 years old at the time and scared to make a scene or get in a fight so I just sort of moved away from him and shunned him the rest of the summer. Truth be told,  I was a bit freaked out because I'd never met anyone like him before and I didn't know how to react.

So anyway, we found out we were going to South Carolina and people really started warning me about it. "South Carolina is the south, you're going to have trouble...they are still fighting the war down there!" But I've gotta be honest - at least here in Sumter - I have not found a single hint of racism. Now, I'll preface this statement by reminding you that I grew up in New England; that being said, I've never lived anywhere where there are so many African Americans (I'm sorry, I don't know what the proper PC term is these days, I'm sorry if I offend anyone).  It honestly seems like there are more black people than white people here and yet I've really not noticed any difference in people I've met than anywhere else I've lived. People are people, it seems, no matter the skin color.

See, when I hear the stories of friends who are in "mixed" marriages and encounter problems, it honestly shocks me. I just can't believe that in 2014 there is anyone who has a problem with a black person married to a white person or, in our case, a white guy married to an Asian woman. And thankfully I have not personally witnessed it yet. But the fact remains that several friends have warned me about it and swear that we will be subjected to it at some point. Some have even warned that my kids will have trouble in some of the schools here because they are "mixed". This is something that I honestly never considered when moving back to my home country and I hope to God that I am right in my naiveté. I just can't imagine that after 25 years of service to my country, that ANYONE would have a problem with who I married or what my children look like.

I mean, seriously, in this really a problem?!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Adjusting to Life in Sumter

It’s really hard to describe to people who have never lived outside of the US for any lengthy period of time what being back here is like; to them it just seems like I’m complaining about every little thing or that I hate America.  Nothing could be further from the truth, I love the USA. Truth be told, although I miss Italy tremendously I am actually really happy to be back here in my own country. I remember when I left back in 1998, all I could think about were all of the things I would miss living in Europe but I quickly learned that even though you miss certain things, they get replaced by other things that you didn’t have in the place you left. That’s sort of what I’m experiencing now – rediscovering things about the US that I love but had forgotten about or otherwise learned to live without. Sometimes it’s the little things, like turning on a TV and having every single channel in English. And sometimes it’s bigger, something you can’t quite quantify like just the general feeling you get when you suddenly realize you’re actually back in the US - I’ve spent the past 16 years of my life feeling like a guest in someone else’s country but suddenly that feeling has been replaced by the feeling that I’m finally home (such as it is anyway). 

There are still adjustments though and I am occasionally experiencing bouts of culture shock here in Sumter. I think the biggest shocker for me so far has been this one: you cannot buy alcohol here in Sumter on Sundays. At all. Not in a grocery store, not in a bar, not even in a restaurant. That one was quite a shock to my system. Everybody I talk to seems embarrassed by the law and several tell me that it is coming up for a vote in November and will probably get overturned but it floors me that in this modern day, I can’t go to a restaurant on a Sunday and get a glass of wine with my meal. Or go to a bar to watch a game and have a beer. Apparently it is only Sumter County as I’m told most people just go to Columbia on Sundays. I can’t even imagine what it must be like during NFL season here. Just shocking.

Speaking of alcohol, I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I am not going to find decent wine anywhere close to Sumter and so far that has pretty much held true. In many of the restaurants we’ve eaten at so far, I’ve sampled some of the wines on offer and haven’t found anything remotely resembling what I would consider decent vino. Now, coming to Sumter, South Carolina and complaining about the wine selection would be a tremendous exercise in futility so I just grit my teeth and keep my mouth shut because a wine snob in Sumter probably has a very short life expectancy. That being said, I have discovered a small oasis in my vino-less desert. There is a wine and spirits specialty store very close to the house we will be living in that features a halfway decent selection of wines from various countries around the world (decent for Sumter at least). The prices are high which is to be expected but there are some decent options at decent prices so at least I know that life will not be completely barren in the wine department.

Not on Sundays...

Food is quickly becoming one of the biggest disappointments for us. We had thought that being in the south and in a somewhat rural area would mean that we would have a plethora of fresh produce and such. Sadly it seems we were mistaken, at least so far. We haven’t found a single farmer’s market, Whole Foods or anything else along those lines here in Sumter. Even the grocery stores’ selections are lacking. It seems like everything here is deep fried or otherwise prepared in the least healthy way possible. Virginia plans to start her little vegetable garden when we move into the house, hopefully that will help. I worry about my kids’ diets living here, quite frankly. 

Fish and seafood - if food in general has been a big disappointment so far, then fish and seafood are right at the top of the list. Sumter is roughly two hours from the coast but we’d been told by a few people that the fish and seafood here was really good. That may be true but unfortunately we have not been able to find any of it. I’d done my research online before we got here and found a place called Liberty Seafood downtown that got rave reviews from people about their fresh fish and seafood so we were very anxious to check it out. We found it on our second or third day – it is a tiny little run down shack of a place that is actually an eatery in a predominantly black neighborhood serving all manner of fried fish but they also sell “fresh” fish. However, by “fresh fish”, we’re talking fish that they must have pulled out of the local creek (or is it called a crick?) - a whole bunch of dirty looking carp-like trash fish. I walked in and immediately felt like I didn’t belong there. I asked the 400 lb guy covered in fish guts if they carried any saltwater fish, seafood or shellfish. He gave me an angry look, cocked his lip and said “naw man, just what you see here, bro.” I beat a hasty retreat filled with bitter disappointment. Even the grocery stores feature terrible selection. Most of what passes for fresh seafood here seems to be farm raised catfish, farm raised salmon and more farm raised catfish. A couple places do have lobster tanks but they charge almost 20 bucks a pound for them. For those who don’t know us, Virginia and I are HUGE fish and seafood eaters. I would give up red meat before I ever gave up fish and seafood. Things have gotten so bad that we actually went to…*shudder*…the Red Lobster the other day.  It was “meh” at best and extremely overpriced but I needed fish so bad we had no choice. It was not my proudest moment. I felt like I needed a shower after we left. It looks like we’ll be relying on frozen fish as long as we’re here. Big disappointment. How big? Huge.  

Oh how we miss you...

Shopping, while not disastrous, is certainly not what I’d hoped or expected. One of the things you miss most about the US when you live overseas is the shopping. You have a small department store on base called a PX that has a limited selection of American stuff and you learn to live with it but you dream of the day you get to go back to the US and have an unlimited selection of American goodies at cheap prices. One of the things I’d sold the X Man on to get him excited about moving here was the huge selection of toys he would have to choose from rather than the one tiny aisle of toys he had at the PX which was always missing the stuff he liked. Unfortunately for us, Sumter is far from a shopping mecca. There’s a super Walmart but their toy section is not much bigger the PX and I’ll never forget the look of utter disappointment on poor Xavier’s face when he saw it. There is the Sumter Mall but it’s so small that you can almost throw a rock from one end to the other. I’ve quickly learned that you want decent shopping you have to drive 45 minutes to either Columbia or Florence. There’s a Toys R Us in Florence so we’ll be taking the kids there to pacify their youthful cravings. There’s also a Target and – my personal favorite – a Barnes and Noble. To put it in a way that the folks back home will understand, there are more shopping options in the Pheasant Lane Mall than in the entire city of Sumter put together. And don’t get me started on the sales tax…

Anyway, those are a few examples of some of the bigger adjustments we’ve had to make so far. There are plenty of other things both good and bad we are finding here and I’ll try to cover some more in the future. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

As Seen on TV...

So the time change is getting the best of us thus far. Everyday around early to mid afternoon I start hitting a wall and it's a real struggle to stay awake past 8pm each night. Worse, every morning I'm up and wide awake around 3am and can't get back to sleep, then I start getting that eye burn thing somewhere around 6 or 7 from lack of sleep. The wife and kids are struggling too - the other night Luca fell asleep in his chair while we were having dinner at Chili's and I had to carry him home.

Each morning this week, all of us have been awake by around 5 am which is unheard of in our family. With nothing else to do at that hour, we usually turn the TV on which has led to Virginia and the kids being introduced to a stalwart of American culture; The Infomercial.

How much would you pay now?!
Virginia, being the culinary addict that she is, loves the ones with the "knives that cut through anything!" and the pressure cooker that "cooks food in minutes!". The kids love pretty much all of them. Xavier thinks it's funny to see how all the people are so completely amazed at every little thing (Ohhh! Ahhh!). There was, however, a nervous moment the other morning when we stumbled upon one hawking some kind of product that guaranteed to "increase your stamina and sex drive!", I changed the channel as quick as I could but not before Xavier started asking all kinds of questions about it that, well, I'm just not ready to answer yet. Then again, what better place for a kid to learn about the birds and the bees than an infomercial? The words "As seen on TV!" would certainly take on a whole different meaning, that's for sure.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Transition Begins...

Our home for the next month or two...God help me.

We are finally on American soil. And, as you would imagine, the last 36 hours or so has been wild and crazy. It started when our friend Ellie showed up at the hotel to pick us up and take us to the airport, our flight time was 0630 and I figured we'd better get going early since we had 3 kids and about 3,567 pieces of a car seat for the baby. We had way too much stuff - Virginia's friend was supposed to come and pick up a bunch of it the night before but never showed up so we found ourselves scrambling at 0330 trying to figure out what to do with everything. Eventually we got everything taken care of (let's just say that the cleaning crew that cleaned our room found themselves quite a bounty that day) and headed to the airport.

Traveling with a baby can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing part comes when getting through lines because most airlines and airports allow families with babies priority and believe me, that's no small thing. The curse comes pretty much the rest of the time. The best part of flying is usually when you get all your bags checked in but we had so many carry on bags, plus the baby, that moving around was a chore. The flights weren't too bad - hour and a half to Amsterdam, 10 hours to Atlanta and then one hour to Columbia. When we arrived in Atlanta, the terminal was completely packed with restaurants and I told Xavier "Welcome to the US" as he gazed around in wonder. I popped into a news shop and bought a Sporting News NFL Draft preview which costs $4.95. I pulled out a fiver but was aghast when it rung up at $5.35 and I was given my first reminder that I am now in the land of sales tax. Back home in New Hampshire, we do not have sales tax so this was quite a shock to my system. It would be nice if they would just put the price - INCLUDING the sales tax - on the item so you don't have to be scrambling at the register to find enough spare change. Someday when I rule the world...

We arrived in Columbia around 1730 and I was pleasantly surprised to see how nicely they've fixed up the airport. Finishing our journey in Columbia was sort of like coming full circle for me because when I left for Europe in 1998, I had to all my in-processing at Ft. Jackson which is right outside the city which means that I started and finished my European experience at the Columbia Airport. I ran into a lady from the USO at the airport who turned out to be very helpful. The USO was a trip because Ft Jackson is the main basic training post in the US Army so there was a drill sergeant there who had a bunch of new recruits standing at parade rest there. Oh, the memories.

Anyway, I had decided against renting a car at the airport since I would need to rent an SUV to get us and all of our bags to the hotel and then trade it in for a smaller car. I figured we'd just bite the bullet and take a taxi to the hotel since we'd be exhausted from traveling all day and my instincts turned out to be right...sort of. One of our bags got left behind in Atlanta for some reason which delayed me even more and then getting a taxi was inexplicably a tremendous chore. The USO gave me the numbers for three different taxi services that they use; the first one wanted to charge me $150 and actually tried to talk me out of it saying that nobody in the area had a van big enough to take all of us and our bags. I was not deterred however and found one that would do it for $125. We were so exhausted and worn out by that time that I said fine but they had all kinds of problems trying to figure out where to meet us.

Now, let me explain a few things here; first, the Columbia Airport is really small. REALLY small. It is also the home to Ft. Jackson and I'd bet that at least half of the traffic they receive have something to do with the military so you cannot tell me that the taxi companies aren't COMPLETELY familiar with the airport and the USO. They said they needed a phone number to call me at but of course I don't have one yet so I gave them the USO number. They called the USO about 15 minutes later just to "confirm" that we were still there and still needed the taxi. Apparently they sometimes show up only to find that the person found a cheaper taxi and had already left. Anyway, they call and say the guy is waiting downstairs outside the baggage claim so the USO lady loans us a huge luggage dolly for our 3,657 bags and then walked us downstairs only to find that the taxi they sent was a regular taxi car. We called the taxi place and reminded the woman that I had specifically told her that I had two adults, 3 kids including a baby in a car seat, and 3,567 bags (ok, it was only 7 but it felt like 3,567) and so we would need a large van. She says "Oh, my apologies sir, I didn't hear you say two adults, I only heard 3 kids and a lot of bags..."

Now think about that for a moment. Has it come to you yet? If not, it will.

She says she is going to send a van as soon as she can. Meanwhile I'm standing there considering just telling them not to bother and going back in to rent an SUV. After a few minutes, the guy comes over and says he's almost sure he can fit all of us and the 3,567 bags in his taxi. I agreed to let him try because we were so worn out by that time that we REALLY just wanted to get checked into the hotel and get something to eat, then crash. To my surprise, he managed to fit everything - it was probably fortunate that one of our bags got left behind in Atlanta because I don't think that 3,568th bag would have fit. We thanked the USO lady who had been extremely helpful but she apparently was not happy with the taxi driver's effort as she went back inside and called the taxi company to complain that the guy had talked us into cramming everything into his taxi when there wasn't enough room. She was white and the taxi driver was black so he made no effort to hide the fact that he felt her complaint was 100% racially motivated, then gave us a solemn warning not to trust anyone in the area and to keep a small circle of friends while we are here because "people around here are two faced". Things were starting to get just a little surreal. The rest of the ride was enjoyable but it struck me that this area is a lot more rural than I expected. We got checked into the hotel and the wife was so hungry that we decided to go get some food even though it was almost 9pm by that time.

The Outback Steakhouse is right next to the hotel so we just went there and had a less than enjoyable meal. Virginia asked for her steak medium-well done with a little bit of pink in the middle but what arrived was something akin to shoe leather. We complained and the waitress apologized and said she'd have them fire up another medium rare for us to take away. There was another moment of trepidation when the bill came and I suddenly realized that I now have to tip everywhere I go (something is not done in Europe). We finished up, came back and all passed out within 5 minutes, exhausted from such a long day of traveling.

I was woken up this morning at 0600 by the phone. I started cursing whoever would call at such an early hour and it turned out to be Delta Airlines in Atlanta saying they found our lost bag. How nice of her to call so early in the morning and let me know! The hotel features the typical southern hotel breakfast - powdered eggs, sausage, ham and biscuits with sausage gravy. I packed my Mokka so I could enjoy my espresso in the morning but there is no kitchenette here so it looks like I will have to suffer with regular brewed coffee during my stay at the hotel. We have a recovery day today so Im headed out to get a rental car and then we'll explore Sumter a bit. Everybody we've met so far has warned us to stay away from the Walmart but the kids are so excited to see this mythical place they've heard so much about. There is an Ihop across the street from us, a place I haven't eaten at since I was a small child. I'm curious to check it out but I'm afraid of ending up in a World Star of Hip Hop video (some of you might get that).

Should be an interesting an fun week. Stay tuned for more adventures!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My Personal Best & Worst of Europe, 1998-2014.

With a mere five days left in my European adventure, I thought it might be fun to take a look back and relive some of the highs, lows and other things during my years here. Remembering that all travel is subjective and tastes are all different, here we go...

1. Favorite City:  Admittedly I have vacillated between Rome and Venice over the years here but in the end, La Serennissima wins out. Rome is great but Venice is unique, there's nothing like it in the world.

2. Most Disappointing City: Brugge, Belgium. I have heard countless people over the years extoll the virtues of Brugge as the "true hidden gem of Europe", "The Venice of the North", etc. but I was completely unimpressed by it. Given the choice I would take Brussels over Brugge any day.

Brugge: Overrated.

3. My Choice for Hidden Gem of Europe: I'm going to surprise some people here and say Wurzburg, Germany. The only people who know it seem to be Americans who were stationed there but Wurzburg more than holds its own as a tourist destination. The Residenz and the Marienburg Fortress are up there with anything I've seen in Europe and the city itself is beautiful and perfectly laid out to wander, take pictures, sample the famous Frankenweins and just generally enjoy yourself. The views of the fortress from the city are impressive. Likewise, the views of the city from the fortress are phenomenal.

4. Favorite Country: Not surprisingly, Italy wins out for me here but it's a lot closer than you think. Germany and Austria are up there as two of my favorites as well but in the end, nothing compares to Italy.

5. Least Favorite Country: I actually never found one that I didn't like. I will say however that Liechtenstein was very disappointing for me personally.

6. Most Underrated City: Bologna, Italy. My love of Bologna is well documented. Best food in all of Italy. Best gelato in all of Italy. Surprising amount of interesting things to see and do for any tourist. Interesting and quirky history. Fantastic nightlife. I've never understood why Bologna isn't more famous as a tourist destination but I'm kind of glad it isn't. I like it just the way it is.

Bologna: Underrated.

7. Favorite Tourist Attraction: Tie: Vatican Museum and Checkpoint Charlie Museum.  The Vatican Museum is epic. There's no other way to describe it. You could go several times over several days and still not see it all. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum for me is more personal. Since I grew up smack dab in the middle of it and was old enough to witness the end of it, Cold War history has always interested me and Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much Ground Zero in the Cold War. I get lost reading about all of the escape attempts and some of today's dictators would do well to read about the lengths people will go to be free.

8. Worst Tourist Attraction: Tie: Oktoberfest in Munich and Gondola rides in Venice. I know,  I know, it's Oktoberfest, blah blah blah. I went once and hated it. To say it's overcrowded doesn't even begin to describe it and unless you have a reservation for a seat in a beer tent, you ain't getting a beer. I've had much more fun at the smaller fests around Germany. As far as the gondola rides in Venice, I think I've complained about them enough over the years. We'll leave it at that.

Gondolas: Just say no.

9. Best Food: Bologna. They don't call it Bologna La Grassa (Bologna The Fat) for nothing.

10. Favorite Wine: If you know me, you know that my favorite wine in the world is Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany. I have honestly never pulled a bad - or even subpar - bottle.

The hallowed hills of Montalcino, from whence will come the nectar of the gods knowns as Brunello...

11. Favorite Activity: Without a doubt, it has to be driving through the Alps. I've spent a lot of time over the years going between Italy and Germany for work and since my unit is too cheap to fly me, I usually have to get a rental car and drive the 8-9 hours but I can honestly say I've enjoyed every single trip immensely. There's just something about the Alps, driving through them has always given me a sense of freedom and adventure. My preferred route takes me through the Brenner Pass in Austria, around Innsbruck, and then up through the Fernpass.

12. Favorite Castle: I know it's cliche but I still have to go with the Neuschwanstein Castle. It really is just breathtaking to see from the outside (the inside, not so much).

Neuschwanstein Castle: worth the trip.

13. Best Airport: For me, it's probably Venice. It's not terribly large which means it's very, very easy to get in and out of quickly.

14. Most Bizarre Experience: Without a doubt, New Year's Eve, Amsterdam, 2000 (the Millenium). I was trying to sleep outside the train station at 3 am when a black junkie with dreadlocks crawled under my legs and lit up his crackpipe.

15. Most Expensive City: Overall, probably Monte Carlo. I wanted to sit in the Cafe de Paris and do some celebrity watching but the prices were prohibitively expensive for a single soldier. I've never felt so unimportant.

Monte Carlo: not for us common folk.

16. Cheapest Country: Portugal. Spent a couple weeks there back in 2004 and really enjoyed it because we ate good and did plenty and it was all so cheap compared to most other European countries.

17. Gayest City: Probably a tie between Amsterdam and Berlin.

18. Most Scenic City: It really is impossible to pick just one so I'll name my favorites: Venice, Zurich, Naples, Heidelberg. People are surprised when I name Naples as one of the most scenic cities but when viewed from a distance with the bay and Mt. Vesuvious framing it, Napoli is a sight to behold. Heidelberg is well known but sadly most tourists miss the best views, which can only be seen from up on the Philosophenweg across the river. If you haven't seen Heidelberg from up there then you haven't really seen Heidelberg.

19. Best Country for Beer: Belgium. Germany is good but Belgium has the best beer and it's not even close for me. And no, Stella Artois does not count as a good Belgian beer.

Sorry Germany, Belgium does it better. 

20. Best Beer I Ever Drank in Europe: Allsop's Stout, John Bull Pub, Rome. Found it by accident but loved it so much that we rearranged our schedule for the night to stay and drink more and then went back in the morning before catching our train to drink as much as we could since I doubted that I'd find it again, it was that good. Sadly, the John Bull Pub changed hands soon after and I never found Allsop's Stout anywhere else.

21. Best Pizza: Napoli of course. The pizza there is on a whole different level than anywhere else in the world.

22.  Biggest Surprise: Believe it or not, I found the people in Paris to be extremely friendly. It was the first of many European stereotypes to be shattered.

23. Scariest Moment: Overall, I've always felt pretty safe in Europe even though most of the time I was traveling around by myself. However, there were two moments in particular where I feared for my safety. The first was in Amsterdam on Queen's Day, 1999. I was crossing through an empty street and was passed by a group of British skinheads complete with the shaved heads, black boots and white t-shirts. I tried to ignore them as I passed but they started taunting me loudly. I quickly surveyed the situation and figured I could probably outrun them at least to the main street but it was quite nerve-wracking. The other moment came in Frankfurt. I was heading back to the train station and had no desire to walk through the red light district so I walked along what I thought was a parallel street. The street was deserted with most of the buildings boarded up and halfway down I spooked a junkie in a doorway who was in the process of shooting up. He was probably more scared than I was but I kept looking over my shoulder as I walked just to make sure he wasn't coming after me with a syringe.

24. Favorite Tourist Trap: Has to be the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. I met a college student there one time and she told me that Muncheners have a saying about the Hofbrauhaus: "the only people who go there are tourists and assholes". That notwithstanding, I absolutely love the place, it's just plain fun.

25. Most Sobering Experience: Dachau Concentration Camp. It was difficult to see and imagine what happened there and even more difficult to fathom that mankind could be capable of such evil.

The ovens at Dachau: Sobering. 

26. Favorite Traveling Companion: STEVE-O!

Steve-O and the X Man at the Heidelberger Herbstfest, 2008.

27. Favorite View: Probably the view of Vernazza in the Cinque Terra as you're approaching on the hiking train from Monterosso al Mare. Just plain breathtaking.

Vernazza: worth the hike

28. Favorite Restaurant (Italian): So many great ones to choose from but I would say Il Castello in Vernazza, Cinque Terra. Great fish and seafood accompanied by good wine and the most spectacular views of any restaurant I've ever seen.

29. Favorite Restaurant (Non-Italian): The Schnitzelhaus, Heidelberg, Germany. 103 different kinds of schnitzel to choose from. That's ONE HUNDRED AND THREE different kinds of schnitzel. Try to wrap your mind around that.

30. Favorite Pub: The Dubliner, Heidelberg, Germany. Probably not a surprise to people who know me. This place was my second home during our time in Heidelberg. I've never found such a great pub anywhere and I'll always feel like part of the family there, at least as long as Niall owns it...

The Dubliner and good friends...always a winning combination!

31. Most Famous Person Met: Roberto Baggio.

32. Favorite Cheese: I love Asiago and Gruyer. Parmeggiano Reggiano and Grana Padano are also up there. But there's one made locally in Vicenza called Colina that's probably my favorite.

33. Best Piazza or Town Square: Some might say the Piazza San Marco in Venice but for me, nothing comes close to the Grand Place in Brussels, one of the absolute highlights of Europe for me.

La Grand Place, Brussels: Grand, indeed.

34. Place I Most Regret Not Seeing: Sicily.

35. Fastest Speed Reached on the Autobahn: 230kph (142 mph). Scared the hell outta me too.

Gut Fahrt!

That's about all I can think of right now...


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Our Timeline

Without getting to specific (OPSEC and all that), here's our timeline, subject to change:

Household goods pickup: 7-9 April.

Check into hotel on base: 8 April.

Ship car: 16 April.

Leave Italy and arrive in South Carolina: 21 April.

And there it is.