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Walking in Prague

July 31st, 2009 Comments off

Tom has been poring over the still photographs of our vacation in Europe, and today I started looking through my movie collection.

I had to stop at this one and share a snippet with you. The scenery isn’t so great. In fact all you can see is feet walking. My feet are walking across cobblestones and pavement, and other people’s feet are walking. I have a great pedicure, thank God, but others do not. Sometimes you can also see our daughter’s feet walking beside mine. And sometimes the feet are walking sideways as if on the walls of buildings. It is an interesting but unexpected study of feet walking on a castle tour in Prague.

I have other interesting studies: Movies of trees standing alongside the road. Movies taken of my denim jeans inside a moving bus. Strange bouncing images of people moving along beside me on streets have revealed themselves to me as I watched my movies.

I wish I could say that I am an avant-garde film maker. I am not. I am an inept movie maker. I wonder what pictures I missed that I thought I was taking when the camera was not on. Yes, you have guessed my secret — I confused the “on” beep for the “off” beep.

Don’t get me wrong, I really love this little camcorder that is 4 inches by 31/2 inches with great sound. You can hear the footsteps on the pavement. So many in fact that I can supply a soundman with great sounds of walking feet. And most of my movies turned out surprisingly well considering they were being taken by an idiot.

Yes, I have memories that were a surprise and kind of nice actually. Because we did do a lot of walking on cobblestone streets with each other and other people. And those are good memories. I’m glad I’m not so swift with technology or I would have missed capturing these moments.

Every moment of this wonderful trip was worth recording. If only I had left the camera on more times accidentally or on purpose.

Ah, the smells of fresh bread in neighborhood bakeries

July 30th, 2009 Comments off

Every city we visited had its own wonderful smells of freshly baked goods, and I remember the ones that tantalized me the morning  Daughter and I were finishing up at an Internet cafe in Krakow, Poland.

We walked out the door, smelled the overpowering aroma of fresh baked bread, and wondered what would be in store for us as we rounded the corner.

And we wouldn’t be disappointed. There it was, in all its familiar glory.

Subway, the American sandwich shop, has franchises all over the place!

Why you better not run a red light in Europe

July 29th, 2009 Comments off

My high school years were spent in Laguna Beach, Calif., where, after school, I worked for the local newspaper as editor of its “Teenpage.” It was a great job. Interviewed Timothy Leary, Grace Slick and a whole bunch of other 60s icons who visited Laguna.

Back in those days, unlike today, we could accept freebies, and they included free passes to Orange County International Raceway, a fancy drag strip about 10 miles away, alongside the El Toro Marine Corps air base. (The base was closed years ago and is being turned into a regional park and the raceway site is filled with office buildings, nice apartments and the Spectrum shopping center with a Nordstrom’s, a huge Target, boutique retailers, some nice restaurants and a thousand-plex movie theater.)

On occasion, back in the late 1960s, I would take a date to the Saturday night drag races and sit in the VIP viewing tower (free sodas!), but usually I went alone, and with my press pass stood down at the starting line, taking pictures of the growling dragsters’ fire-spittin’, tire-smokin’ duels. At the starting line, the drivers focused all their attention on the “Christmas tree” starting lights. There were white lights on top that would glow when the dragster’s front tires had found the starting line, and then a vertical three-pack of yellow lights, with a green light on the bottom.  When both dragsters were set, the starter would begin the light sequence that, altogether, lasted maybe a second: yellow yellow yellow GREEN! (Below it was the red light, which would shine if a driver jumped the gun.)

That’s almost how it works in Europe. If you’ve already got the green light, it will turn to a flashing green, then yellow, then red.  If it’s flashing green, you’ve got a few more seconds to make it across the  intersection. If it’s yellow, you slow down so when it turns red, you are stopped. And you’d better stop, because the cross-traffic motorists will be raring to go. And here’s why: The red light will be joined by a yellow light before going green. Yellow tells the driver to engage the clutch because it’s almost show time. No one wants to sit at a green light while the fellow in front of you is trying to shift into first.

The moment the European traffic signal turns green, motorists fly into the intersection, confident that the cross traffic will already have stopped.  Nobody in Europe, as far as I can tell, runs a red light.

Las Vegans would not last long in Europe. They’d run red lights and get T-boned by some guy in a Smart car.

Recovering

July 28th, 2009 Comments off

When we got home, we realized we were essentially one day behind in our sleep: From the time we woke up in Antwerp, Belgium on Saturday morning (Belgian time) to the time we went to bed back in Las Vegas Saturday night (Pacific Daylight time), we had been up 24 hours without sleeping except for some lousy cat naps during 13 hours in the air. 

We got through Sunday OK but the sleep deficit hit us Monday.  I got home from work Monday about 7 p.m. and found Jeanne napping in bed. Without taking my shoes or tie off, I laid down beside her and promptly fell asleep. I woke up 90 minutes later. Guess I was tired.  We didn’t have dinner until around 9.

A high school friend of mine – we’ve reconnected 40 years later on Facebook – remarked that it takes a day to recover for each time zone we traveled.   Vegas to Antwerp: Nine time zones.  So, nine days.

There is so much I want and need to do, not the least of which is to edit the thousands of photos, create an accurate map of our route, start writing the travel story I promised a favorite newspaper of mine, and figure out the costs of the trip.  And Son tells me that I need to keep the GormanStories.com blog active.

But all that I really want to do is sleep for a few more days.

I think companies should let you slip back to work more slowly. You know, just work a couple of hours the first day, maybe a half-day the next, that kind of thing. Maybe I just need a vacation.

Back home

July 26th, 2009 Comments off

We returned home about 10:30 p.m. Saturday from Belgium, 24 hours after we woke up in Antwerp, and following two flights totaling 13 hours in the air.

The goodbyes were as difficult as I anticipated. They always are. 

On our way to the gate I bought some duty-free alcohol, which was allowed as a carry-on onto the airplane.  And it was a good thing that we had an unused suitcase (we had consolidated our stuff and so we nested two suitcases into one).  Even though the bottles were allowed, in their sealed packages, as liquid carry-on for the first flight across the Atlantic, we had to pack them in a suitcase at Dulles in  order to get past security for our second leg home. That nested suitcase came in mighty handy at the last moment.  (I don’t know what happens to travelers who don’t allow space for liquid  purchases if they have to change planes after Customs.)

At home, our loquacious Bichon, Willy, spent 30 minutes telling us about how two big strangers and a real tiny one, and their two dogs, had coincidentally invaded our home hours after we left for our RV trip through Europe, and that they had fled the house just hours before our return because they were headed off to their own vacation. Willy wasn’t complaining, I don’t think, but just confused as hell.

Home looked good. The house sitters went through a lot of Diet Cokes with lime, red wine and diet Snapple, based on the contents of our overflowing recycling bins.  There was also a gallon-size jar of mostly consumed Vlasic pickles still in the fridge. Dill.

The sitters probably don’t fully realize how much we appreciate their taking care of the place and the two dogs.

Sleeping in our own bed was a bit weird last night. I woke up once and was disoriented, thinking I was still in the Mobi. I headed for the toilet and collided with my night stand.

I woke up early and my mind started spinning with images. I was at the computer by 7:30, poring over pictures and wondering how I will edit them down to a manageable few thousand.

And after Jeanne woke up, we were on Skype, talking to Daughter and Fiance about the grand time we had.  Would we do it again? Yes.

We’ve still got more stories to tell, about the people we met, the sights we saw and our impressions of Europe. They are mostly very good but why don’t they like ice in their drinks?

Tomorrow, back to work at the newspaper.  Which reminds me to tell you later about the salt mines in Poland…

Hard facts and warm feelings, if you’ll indulge me

July 24th, 2009 Comments off

We washed and cleaned out the inside of the Mobi this morning and returned it to the dealership that sells and rents them, about an hour away from Antwerp. It poured rain, a hard, drenching rain, most of the way back. This is typical of Belgium, said Daughter’s Fiancé.

The young man who checked us out on the Mobi back on July 6 also was assigned to make sure the Mobi was intact when we returned it. It was. His boss was a bit upset that we didn’t return it until 1:30 p.m. because we had promised to return it by 10 a.m., and Mobi was going to head out later in the day with another party. I should talk to them about the propane tank’s sticky valve, and the hot-water problem. The broken door lock got the mechanics’ immediate attention.

Remember how I complained that the water-intake cap was frozen shut? It was a locking cap, the young man showed me, and if I had unlocked it, a quarter-turn would have released it.  Oh. I hadn’t noticed the key slot in the cap. That was embarrassing. I am why Americans have a bad reputation in Europe.

The young man also said that the waste-water draining problem was a common complaint, that the valves stuck open or closed, so I shouldn’t feel bad about that. And he and two mechanics discussed how it was possible that someone was able to cleanly break into the Mobi and steal Fiancé’s laptop computer when we had it parked at Bratislava, Slovakia. The crooks might have been nearby (and there was a motor home right next to where we parked), using a device that would have recorded the frequency code of our locking fob, and used it to gain entry through the front door with no problem. Hmm.  Or maybe I failed to lock one of the doors. This will forever haunt me.

Back at the front counter, the young man went through the paperwork and gave me a copy of our invoice. Some security deposit refunds were due us, and would come later in a bank transfer. He said we drove 4,800 kilometers.  I did the math: 2,982 miles.  Over 17 days, it averaged to 175 miles a day. And just one traffic ticket, thanks to those young German police officers who accepted payment with American Express (which, by the way, is not very widely accepted in Europe).

Back at Daughter’s and Fiancé’s apartment, I hit the “properties” tab on “My Photos.” Between the four of us, we took 8,766 photos.  Thank God digits are free and storage space is dirt cheap. Eight-thousand, seven hundred and sixty-six photographs, all crammed inside my little Acer netbook (and backed up every other day onto a separate hard drive).

All those miles, all those photographs, and one wonders: what was our favorite place? We loved each of them for different reasons. The frolicking beer gardens of Munich, the overwhelming history of Prague, the public spaces and monuments of Vienna, the grace of Lucerne, the dramatic setting of Luxembourg, the majestic Alps.

I decided today that my favorite place is Antwerp. We leave tomorrow at noon, and it will be so very hard because we are leaving our Daughter and her Fiancé, and won’t see them again until Christmas. Conversations on Skype are nice but you can’t hug on Skype.

We had so much fun over these three weeks but without a doubt, the most fun, the most treasured moments, the highlights of our time in Europe, are those spent with them. There was laughter, of course, and silliness (we’ve been humming the chicken dance song ever since the proposal occurred in Vienna), and there has been tears, How I wish that they, and our Son and his wonderful wife back in Las Vegas, and Jeanne and I could all live near one another. It’s every parent’s dream, I suppose, but parents also want their children to pursue their own dreams and sometimes they come true on the other side of an ocean.

I took a few photos today of Antwerp as we walked around this afternoon — a bit of window-shopping by Daughter and Fiancé for an engagement ring. (No, they did not order the one from Tiffany’s in Vienna.) The photos aren’t necessarily of the most attractive or oldest or most historically important parts of Antwerp. We’ve visited those neighborhoods on previous visits. But these photos represent the neighborhood where Daughter and Fiancé live — near the train station, not far from the diamond district and not a far walk, down from where the Moroccans claim their neighborhood, to a wonderful Chinese buffet. (We have concluded, by the way, that there are four truly international foods: Hungarian goulash, pizza, kebobs and anything served at an Irish pub.)

So it’s over, this crazy vacation of ours. Nearly three thousand miles down narrow, old-city streets, meandering country lanes and along steep mountain sides shared with bicyclists. But the hardest miles are yet to come, the drive on Saturday to the airport for our flight home.

Back in Belgium, safe and mostly sound

July 23rd, 2009 Comments off

We arrived back in Antwerp Thursday evening, around 8 o’clock, our RV trip through Europe now completed. We are intact, healthy (physically at least) and now braced to having to clean up Mobi so we can return it today (Friday, in Belgium).

Mobi failed us one last time, and thankfully it happened on the last day of our travel: Somehow, the side-door lock is now permanently locked, and the door cannot be opened, either from the outside or from the inside.

This means that after parking Mobi in front of Daughter and Fiancé’s apartment in downtown Antwerp, we had to unload all of our stuff through  the front passenger door.  That sucked in a big way. We have added this to our list of other complaints for the dealership — how the wastewater tank valve doesn’t work, that the water-intake cap is frozen and we had to fill the water tank by dragging a hose inside the vehicle and accessing the tank below the dinette table seat, that we could never figure out how to turn on the radio speakers in the back part of the vehicle so passengers could listen to music, that the hot water boiler didn’t perform for more than a week…

But we are safe, and in awe of all that we saw and did, and wishing that we could spend more time here. Looking back, the trip seems to have gone way too quickly. On the other hand, in some respects, it seems we have been here for months. We lost track of what day of the week it was, which is a good thing when you are on vacation.

We will go through our notes and write a lot more about what we saw, what we learned, what we felt and what our advice will be to others. This will have to wait a few days, after we are refreshed and back home in Las Vegas.

But we are proud to say that we never used two of the more decadent features of our Mobi. We never used the shower.  We used the campgrounds’ showers. And except for the first night of our vacation when we turned it on to see if it would work, we never watched satellite TV in our Mobi.

When it comes to roughing it, the Gormans know how to camp. Watch TV? Hah! Yeah, right. Not us. That’s not camping.

But we do wish Mobi had a microwave and an icemaker. 

Why Europeans do so well in downhill skiing

July 23rd, 2009 Comments off

I’ve figured it out, why it is that Europeans do so well in downhill skiing events.

First of all, when you are outside of the city, Europe has two speeds. Very slow (tractors lazily pulling trailers of hay down country roads) or very fast (especially on the autobahns if you’re in a sedan, or down twisting mountain roads if you’re in Spandex or cloaked in leather atop a performance motorcycle).

Secondly, the traffic signals in most European countries have this neat feature: When the signal is red, it goes to yellow before going to green. This is warn you that it’s now time to engage the clutch so when the signal turns green, you are ready to go and not sitting there fumbling with the gear shift.  But developing the skill of getting out of the gate the very  moment the light turns green pays off on the competitive slopes as well. (And unlike in Las Vegas where you are more likely to be killed by someone running a red light, in Europe you are more likely to be T-boned by someone anticipating the green, so people really really really do slow down when the light goes from green to yellow.)

And here is the third reason why Europeans do so well in downhill skiing. This is not obvious but now I am convinced it is the most effective training tool: the traffic roundabout.  When you enter the roundabout, you lean to the right, and  then as you continue the turn you lean to the left, and as you take your exit you lean again to the right. The faster you drive through a roundabout, and learn the cadence of leaning right, left and right, the better you will do in the downhill slalom.

By the way, Europeans do very poorly in downhill skiing if they approach the slalom gate from the left and their first move is to lean left to go into the gate, versus to the right. They are fighting every instinct in their body when their first lean is to the left. This is a symptom of spending too much of their lives in roundabouts.

Running out of gas, times three

July 23rd, 2009 Comments off

Having left Geneva Wednesday for our sprint home to Antwerp, Belgium, we found ourselves searching for our final campsite of our madcap RV trip through Europe. We wanted it to be special.

But I was dragging. Driving through downtown Geneva had taken a lot out of me, in part because in the search for diesel, Miss GPS sent us down some harrowingly narrow streets. Everyone inside Mobi was assigned a window to look out of and declare how much clearance I had on one side and the other. We were measuring in terms of inches at one point, and the notion of knocking down a group of tightly parked motorcycles sounded more frightening than fun. Who knows why our computerized, satellite-driven tour guide chose to send us down such narrow streets — and, in the search for fuel, to deliver us not to a gas station but, instead, to a downtown farmer’s market.  GPS’s: You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em.

And so by Wednesday afternoon, with me growing weary driving down the two-lane highway, Daughter and Fiancé poured through the campground books, including one in only French, to see what was within striking distance. They selected a campground in a village we knew little  about, off a small, two-lane winding road far off the beaten path. We picked it because it was only an hour away and relatively cheap — 25 Euros, or about $37, compared to another campsite that was twice that expensive.

We found ourselves in the wonderful little town of Plombieres-les Bains, and at a quiet campsite up the hill where no one spoke English. (Fiancé speaks Flemish, French and German, so he comes in mighty handy.)

This was going to be a grand finale to our trip: discovering a little French town and a campsite among tall trees, alongside a cheerfully gurgling creek.  Daughter was preparing our last dinner — steak and salad — when she offered a plaintiff plea for help: Dad, there’s no gas! There’s no flame! What’s up with that?

We had run out of propane. Great.  The Mobi had two propane bottles and the dealership assured us that we had more than enough.  I checked. The second bottle was filled.  I had thought the two were somehow piped together like a daisy chain, and was doing a slow burn that it was malfunctioning. That’s when smarty-pants Fiancé pointed out that only one bottle was connected at a time. Duh. All I’d have to do is take the hose off of the empty propane bottle and attach it to the other.

But the second, full bottle had a frozen-closed valve handle, similar to our water-intake pipe cap. I couldn’t turn it for my life. Fiancé came to the rescue. He had a Leatherman, that same Super Tool that I had bought for the trip, and he turned his into a sort of pliers. That did the trick, and in a few minutes Daughter was cooking away.

The evening dissolved into a second bottle of wine and the logistics of Fiancé’s and Daughter’s wedding day (He had proposed to her just a few days earlier, in Vienna). Then to sleep, and being awakened in the morning by rolling thunder.

Before we left town, we walked around town — separating in four different directions and agreeing to meet at the  church an hour later. Somehow our cameras got switched among us — Daughter was using Fiancé’s camera, he was using mine and I was using Daughter’s. I’ve got some great photos on my camera — and I didn’t take them.

We were drawn to many of the same photo scenes, and I’ll post more later when I have time. But take a look and enjoy.

Next stop: Thursday night, back in Antwerp, in time to clean up Mobi and return it to the dealership by Friday’s deadline.

There’s a lot more to say, a lot to reflect on. Suffice for now to say that this has been a most amazing trip, with the theft of Fiancé’s laptop computer as the only casualty. By day’s end Thursday, we will have visited 10 countries in 17 days, and will have spent two days at the same campsite only two times — in Munich and in Vienna.

With Mobi due back at the dealership Friday afternoon, we are starting to run out of gas.

Rooting on Lance

July 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Later on Tuesday, as we climbed up the highway toward our quest to photograph Mont-Blanc, one of the largest mountains in Europe and just a few miles from the real Matterhorn, we stopped to photograph Martigny from above. Martigny is the city where the Tour de France began Tuesday.

For our view, we pulled out at an apricot stand, in part because it offered a huge parking lot which translates to easy-in easy-out. We were thousands of feet above the city.

It’s there we met our new friends from Cincinnati — Barb, who does PR and marketing for an insurance company, her husband, Jeff, who does I.T. work but wants to follow his heart and go into teaching, and their daughter, Julie, 15, who was wearing her Tour de France T-shirt, still freshly creased.

Bubbly Barb, being the P.R. person, did the talking. Yes, they were in Martigny earlier in the day to watch the Tour de France. “We saw Lance,” she said. “Well, we haven’t seen Lance yet but when we blow up the picture on the computer, we’re pretty sure we’ll see him in the crowd.”