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Following the push pins across Europe

June 30th, 2009 Comments off

We leave for our European RV vacation in just four days, and we thought we’d better sit down and figure out what our basic plan of attack is once we get there. Plan of attack. Sounds like we’re planning a military assault. I’m hoping I can just pull the mobi out of the dealer’s lot without causing a scene. It’s heavier and larger than anything I’ve ever driven before. Well, there was that semi when we moved our daughter to college.

Our goal for this three-week vacation is to see as much beautiful countryside as possible, so we will immediately drop southeast out of Antwerp, where our daughter and her boyfriend live, and head east for Germany’s Black Forest, rather than heading northeast toward Berlin. We’ll cross southern Germany, through Bavaria, then head northeasterly toward Prague in the Czech Republic, then into  Poland and brace ourselves for Auschwitz. The basic route then takes us southwest, across western Slovakia and into Austria (Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck) before heading into Switzerland (Zurich, Bern and Geneva as the main targets but surely being seduced onto highways leading higher into the Alps). Then, we head back to Antwerp via Dijon and Reims, France.

We will, of course, be taking country roads versus the major highways, and targeting campgrounds outside the cities. And once in country, we’ll refer to our specific guidebooks and maps and solicit the advice of locals. In other words, we don’t know where the heck we’ll be, any given night, but probably we’ll be in the shadow of a huge blue pushpin.

We created a very general Google map showing the very basic route. It’s about 2,100 miles as the crow flies (are there crows in Europe?) but we’re assuming we’ll put in 3,000 miles or more. We are hoping, too, that the GPS doesn’t crap out, or we may end up in Slovenia instead of Slovakia.

Jeanne has been doing most of the research, and has relied heavily on what has turned out to be her favorite reference guide, “Central Europe” by Lonely Planet. She also has a lot of tabs sticking out of “Europe by Van and Motorhome” by David Shore and Patty Campbell, and is poring over Fodor’s “Eastern & Central Europe” and “RV and Car Camping Vacations in Europe” by Mike and Terri Church.

We could buy more specific guides, of course, but there is a weight limit to our luggage.

My diet-demanding health coach will be tickled pink with this news: Our route should take us to Uttenweiler, Germany, where we will visit her family’s bakery and we can say hi! to her cousins Gertrude and Paul. And pick up some streudel while weíre there.

Mr. Moneybags

June 30th, 2009 Comments off

Jeanne said I needed to get a money belt of some sort to carry cash, credit cards and my passport, so to Target we went. It had a pretty good selection which only confused me, so I bought all five to try at home.

One went around the neck.  It reminded me of my Catholic childhood, wearing a Holy Scapular medal around my neck. I’m not into neckwear. Even living in Las Vegas, you won’t find me wearing any gold chains.

The other four went around my waist. For one of them, you slip your belt through its two loops. But a smart little street urchin could easily slip his hand into the big opening and snag some goodies.  Nope, no good. Another one had a flimsy hook thingy and the belt was very narrow. “Cut and run,” Jeanne warned me. Now I finally knew what that phrase meant.

The other two were more like conventional fanny packs. One said “hip pack” meaning, I guess, I’d have to wear it on my hip. Or I could break the law and position it on my belt buckle. It was pretty nice, with three zipper compartments — one for a passport, one for cash and/or credit cards, and a big center compartment for sunglasses, Chap stick, a couple of rolls of 36-exposure Kodachrome 64 — oh wait, Kodachrome has finally been retired and I’m shooting digital — and my walkie talkie and Leatherman took kit (see the earlier blog about shopping at Costco).

None of the money belts came pre-loaded with cash.

Building a blog: This is why we have children

June 28th, 2009 Comments off

A story in yesterday’s New York Times talks about how Acer, the computer company, has surpassed Dell in sales and is now No. 2 to Hewlett-Packard – an unprecedented achievement for a foreign-made computer.

It caused me to reflect on one of the goals of our RVing through Europe – not just to experience an incredible adventure with our daughter, but to share our stories and pictures with family and friends.

To do that, we bought a little “netbook” – smaller than a laptop – a few weeks ago. It was an Acer. Cute little thing. We wanted small so we could keep it in my backpack when we walked around, but it also had a ton of memory and other features.

So fine, we bought a netbook, but now what? What the heck do I do with it? Co-workers asked if I was going to blog our trip. Blogging? Do I buy a blog and download it? Are blogs at Costco next to PhotoShop and Quicken on the software table? I have not seen iBlogs anywhere.

This is one reason why we have children. In time, they become smarter than us, and each brings different gifts and skills to the table. Our son’s gift is a mind-blowing understanding of computers, both software and hardware. To be candid, he curses computers a lot and after having had computer-related jobs, now he makes his living doing something different: he is in charge of video operations at a big Las Vegas Strip resort.

But the son grew up on computers, starting with his first TI-99, when he discovered something called “programming languages.”  And I am convinced there is nothing, not a thing, that he doesn’t understand about computers or the Internet, or that he couldn’t find an answer to if allowed 10 minutes to study. He has his own Web sites, he hosts them for others, and they operate safely, securely and without breakdown. (He is hosting this Web site.)

Enter into the mix his wife, who may be in a generalist way perhaps the single smartest person I know. If I was on a game show called “Common Sense Survival/Think Fast/Your Life Depends On It,” and were allowed only one lifeline, it would be our daughter-in-law.

Together, then, our son and his wife are a powerhouse. They offered to help us create our blog, the one you’re reading now. I won’t go into details of what they did because if you understand the infrastructure behind a blog, you’ll already know what they did, and if you don’t, then there’s no use trying to explain it because you won’t get it and you don’t need to.

But for all the technical expertise they brought to our dining room table, spending hours sitting next to us with their laptops and my Acer, the most amazing thing is that they taught me how to type what you’re reading now, where to type it, how to publish it, how to download pictures and insert them in a gallery and then into the blog post, and to put in very very excitable links (“hyperlinks”) so people can see the larger photos, all so that, voila!, we have a blog.

And the gift wasn’t just their knowledge, and imparting it onto me, but their gift of time. They have very little time together. She works a conventional 8-to-5 work week, and he works swing-shift hours with a mid-week split weekend.  What kind of quality downtime to they have together? It’s probably measured in minutes, not hours. For the past couple of weeks, they have spent time with us, so we can share our stories. And once we started writing, they weighed in with advice, thoughts, suggestions.

They empowered us. The kids empowered the parents. And that is very cool.

So yes, this is a tip-of-the-hat to our son and his wife, who for all intents and purposes are the directors and producers of GormanStories.com.  We love ‘em more than they know.

More preparations

June 27th, 2009 Comments off

It is necessary to supply the house sitters with all the stuff they will need to sit well. Chlorinate the pool, then make sure there are chlorine tabs for them to use. Toilet paper, paper towels, dog treats, mailbox key, all that jazz. So an inventory is needed and then a shopping list of things to buy. Oh yeah and an instruction list of how much to feed the dogs and how many chorine tabs to use, etc. I usually leave this to tom cuz he loves to write funny stuff on the list to amuse our guests.

This list will include the name of our pool repairman just in case….but last weekend in an effort to maintain our pool equipment, tom put in new filter cartridges and cleaned the strainer baskets to improve water flow. Sadly he was not satisfied with the pressure and took apart the gate valve to see what was impeding the flow and then put it back together again. Handy guy! Except then the valve started leaking air and we couldn’t get any pressure at all. He then replaced all the o-rings and put it together again and voila we have major water flow and pressure!!!!

Then there is the issue of leaving them a clean house to live in. Tom wanted to clean and I wanted to hire someone. He graciously gave in to me. So we hired a service to come the day before we leave. They will clean bathrooms, kitchen, floors and even wash the sheet s and remake the beds!!! Also for an extra fee they will wipe all the blinds and clean out the fridge. I could get used to doing that once a month whether we leave or not.

Then this past Friday the freezer stopped freezing and the fridge stopping fridging. So I called the repair guy who came out on Saturday and fixed our problems. Overnight all the contents went into cooler chests with ice to save as much food as possible. We will be eating a lot of defrosted chicken this week . Now the fridge is working and it is squeaky clean. No need for the cleaning service to do it! Oh, and the can opener died too. What else will go wrong I wonder??? If bad things come in threes then I hope we’re all done!

“Be sure to stop at the Traub Bakery!”

June 27th, 2009 Comments off

My health insurance company at work assigns “health coaches” to some of us who have chronic problems. Mine include high cholesterol and weight. We talk by phone every few months to check on what kind of progress we’re making.

The other day my coach (let’s call her Monica because, well, that’s her name) was admonishing me to stay true to my diet. I mentioned that it will be difficult during our summer vacation because we’re going to Europe for three weeks.

And with that remark, the subject changed from food to food – from what not to eat to what to eat at her cousin’s bakery in Uttenweiler, Germany.

“You are going to Uttenweiler, aren’t you?” she asked. (I have no idea but, uh, sure.)

“You’ve got to go the the Traub Bakery in Uttenweiler! It’s the family bakery! My cousins Gertrude and Paul run it!” (She said everything with exclamation points.)

The bakery won’t do my diet any good, I said. “Diet? In Europe? Hey, enjoy yourself a little. Life happens!  It’s not like you’re going to sit down and eat an entire pie!”

There was a long pause.

“You wouldn’t, would you?”

She started describing all the healthy food we could at the family bakery in Uttenweiler, Germany. “Great whole-grain breads,” she said. “And apple streudel cakes. You’ll love apple streudel!”

“And please say hi to Gertrude and Paul for me!”

Our 30 minutes were up. Monica said we’d talk again in three months to see how my diet’s coming along.

The convergence of Costco and Europe

June 24th, 2009 Comments off

As we draw closer to our trip, we may have to stop shopping at Costco. Things we wouldn’t have looked twice at are now jumping out at us as we walk down the aisles, screaming, "Buy us! You need us!"

The most recent examples: the Motorola Talkabout 2-Way Radios, and the Leatherman Core & Crater c33Lx.

The little walkie talkies almost make sense. We don’t have European-friendly cell phones so how do we stay in contact with each other if we stray while shopping or walking around the campgrounds? This pair  has 22 channels, 121 privacy codes and 2,620 combinations. Combinations of what, I don’t know.  But it’s got a range of up to 35 miles! (There’s an asterisk next to that in the packaging: turns out that range is for ideal conditions.)

Most heartening is this line on the package: "An essential part of any survival kit." Is that the end-game of our vacation? Surviving?

As for the Leatherman Core & Crater: It’s basically a Boy Scout knife on steroids. "19 Tools in 1." Looks like it had a role in a Transformer movie. The diagram shows that it is a pair of pliers that turn into a fully-armed F-22. It features "all-locking blades." Goodness knows, you don’t want a blade slipping on you. And the Crater tool, I’m not even sure what it’s for. But how can you not buy something that has "Blade Launcher Technology"?

It also has, in addition to a very very sharp edge, a bottle opener. That, I get.

I’m guessing this baby won’t get past airport security so I’ll have to pack it in my suitcase, with the 2-way radios.

I got so distracted at Costco, I forgot to buy the milk.

Gotta pay the bills…

June 18th, 2009 Comments off

So I’ve sent off my fifth pitch letter to editors, each with a different angle. I’ve got two takers so far, and am waiting to hear from the three others.

The trick is coming up with different angles so we can legitimately plant stories in different publications. There’s the straight-forward vacation piece. There’s the take-the-temperature-of-Europeans-toward-Americans-post-Obama-election angle. There’s the mom-dad-and-daughter-cooped-up-for-three-weeks-in-an-RV angle. And we can always ask Europeans what they think of Vegas, baby.

Anything to make a buck. Momma needs a new pair of shoes.

Picking a mobi: our first calamity.

June 17th, 2009 Comments off

Belgian Boyfriend: “Tom, you better pick a mobi.  They’re going fast.  I found one you might like. I asked them to hold it until Thursday.”

This was in May, when we were hearing that most summer mobi rentals are lined up six months in advance. Yikes!

Boyfriend sent me the online links with photos and layout diagram of the mobi he had found.  It looked nice. A big van: the two captain’s chairs up front; a café table and bench seat (that convert into a bed for Daughter); an efficient galley with two-burner range, sink and a large refrigerator; a bathroom with a separate, small shower stall, and a bed in the back for us. The base price: 3,620 euro, plus a security deposit of 2,200 euro – a kind of deductable before insurance would kick in for any mishaps.  Not wanting to waste any time and risk losing what I assumed was the last available mobi in all of Europe, I wired 5,820 euro to the company’s bank. I held off, however, on signing the actual contract until Boyfriend could read the fine print in Dutch.

And good that he did. We wanted vacation-cancellation insurance but the RV company’s insurance carrier said it could not provide it to Americans.

We asked for our money back. Saleslady said sorry, she had the money.  We said we had not yet signed the contract because she couldn’t provide vacation-cancellation insurance. Saleslady then found a company that would provide us with vacation cancellation insurance. There goes that argument.

But in the meantime, Boyfriend found another RV dealer who had the exact same model mobi who would rent it to us for – gasp! — 2,790 euro. And, unlike Saleslady’s mobi, this one would come fully equipped with linen, towels and kitchen utensils. A much better deal!

We told Saleslady we would not sign the contract and without one, there was no deal, and we wanted our money back. She held her position, and why not? Boyfriend’s lawyer intervened on our behalf. But his conclusion was that sending the money, and our series of e-mails, showed clear intent to rent the vehicle. At best we could ask to cancel the deal, and pay the penalty.

We played out that request, knowing we could get the other mobi by June 15. Saleslady dragged her heals and, finally on June 15, told us we could pay a 750-euro penalty. Ouch.  And it was a moot issue: Boyfriend said the other mobi was rented that morning. We had no choice. We kept the original one and are paying more for it than we needed to. Sigh.

To view all of the dealer’s photos of the RV we are renting, go here.

Getting ready for the house sitters

June 2nd, 2009 Comments off

Preparing for our European RV trip means making the house habitable for the house sitters. You can hide things for a weekend but over the course of three weeks, they’ll come to know us intimately.

The lucky couple is Tom’s boss and his wife. They have a newborn and two dogs. Tom says I need to make some room in the closets for their things. Make room? Everything is so simple for a man who owns eight pairs of pants, a dozen shirts and five pairs of shoes.

Tom doesn’t take into account that I have 30 years of clothing stuffed in the closet, in five different sizes. You don’t just shove a few things out of the way. You’ve got to sort through what’s there — and factor in that you’re trying to lose weight so this is a good time to toss the big sizes.

It’s not that I can’t live with myself as I am. But visiting our daughter and her boyfriend in Belgium is like a week on the treadmill at a gym. You walk around Antwerp. You walk around Brugge. You walk around Brussels. You walk around Ghent. You walk to the grocery store, to the clothing store, to the Irish pub. Europeans walk. So we need to lose weight.

And that gets us back to the closet. I’m filling several large bags with clothes that are now too big and outdated and yet the remaining items seem to be reproducing like bunnies in there behind my back. I swear there’s more in there now!!!!  I’m ready for a vacation.