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.