Archive for July, 2009

Le Tour de Gorman

July 21st, 2009 Comments off

Today, two major road events converged at Martigny (pronounced "martini" with a little action thrown in for a soft g), a Swiss town at the intersection of France, Italy and Switzerland and a gateway to the western entrance to the Alps.

The major roads entering the city were closed to accommodate today’s run of Le Tour de France, that superhuman exposition of lungs and legs.

Le Tour de Gorman — that superhuman exposition of human relationship and RV daring-do as the Gormans careen through Europe in a  Mobi, accompanied by Daughter and her now-Fiancé — entered Martigny later on Tuesday, as biking enthusiasts were walking back to their cars and streaming out of town.

We were unimpressed. In fact, I have come to detest bicyclists and their fancy Spandex pants and colorful helmets and weird shoes as they share my Alpine roads.

Narrow winding roads were not meant to be shared.  Either close off the damned highway, as they do for Lance & Co., or ban bicyclists from the roads.  Based on my experience, they cannot be shared.

At best, on a flat, straight portion of the road, you can see them as you approach from behind, time your braking and/or acceleration, and pass them quickly at the first chance. But roads in the Alps are generally not flat and straight.

If the road is curving, you have to constantly wait for an opportunity to pass them. And if your Mobi is as wide as ours, almost filling the pavement from the shoulder line to the center line, to give them even two feet forces you into oncoming traffic.  We did this and I drank a lot of Scotch last night to recover.

If you are going uphill when you encounter your bicycling buddies, you normally have to downshift, and even though I’ve  been driving the stick-shift Mobi for more than two weeks, there is nothing easy about downshifting and re-engaging your gears when you are driving a 50-ton vehicle uphill. Fifty ton, give or take but I know it’s gotten heavier because Jeanne has been buying a lot of refrigerator magnets.

You might think driving downhill is the better scenario for coming up on bicyclists. But these pedaling pals of mine love going downhill. They live to fly downhill. In fact, when we are going downhill, they pass me and probably curse as they do it.

The worse scenario is to come upon a bunch of Bozo bicyclists on a 170-degree hairpin turn and, at the very moment you encounter them, a propane truck suddenly enters the hairpin from the other direction. Ohmygod, grip the wheel and close your eyes – wait, don’t close your eyes – and scream – wait, don’t scream, you’ll scare your passengers. You downshift, you brake, you measure the space from your front right bumper to the bicyclists, you anticipate your turning radius, and that of the propane truck’s, and you briefly become very spiritual and give serious thought to whether Heaven is in the clouds or just a state of mind and if it is in a cloud whether Peter at the gate is wearing Spandex.

Lucerne, and going deeper into the Alps

July 20th, 2009 Comments off

There comes a point where I find myself at a loss for words. The beauty of the Swiss Alps is stunning. This is, I think, the most beautiful place I have visited, partly because of its overwhelming scale.

The forests go on forever and, with the meadows, offer every conceivable shade of green. The mountains are majestic and even in the summer, covered with snow at the higher elevations. The lakes are a strange hue of blue-green, perhaps reflecting their icy origins.

Even the towns and villages are postcard perfect — the swans, the covered bridges, the pastel-colored buildings, the stone churches.

So, at least for now, I will leave this post, and invite you to click onto the photo galleries to enjoy the enlargements. I guess I’m speechless.

The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat

July 19th, 2009 Comments off

Because we love the Olympic Winter Games, it was a thrill for us to wake up Sunday morning in Innsbruck, Austria, where  our first destination was the ski-jumping stadium that was used for both the 1964 and 1976 games. “I can hear Jim McKay’s voice,” Jeanne said. “I can see him, I can hear him.”

The stadium was surprisingly close, and low, to the city, and maybe its location a bit unsettling for jumpers. If they look up during their jump, instead of focusing on the tips of their skis and their landing target, they’ll see a cemetery filled with tombstones just beyond the stadium. Lovely.

The stadium is used year-round and in the summer, jumpers fly down onto a kind of a plastic, grassy material. If you click onto the photo below to the left in order to see the enlargement, you’ll spot the cemetery in front of him.

At the top of the ski-jump tower is an observation terrace and restaurant. It’s a tad pricey but we rationalized we won’t be back for a few weeks so we’d live it up. You can imagine the view.

We left Innsbruck for Zurich in the early afternoon, knowing we were behind schedule in getting to our planned camping site in Lucerne, Switzerland. But hey, no worry, we would not let ourselves be rushed! The scenery was remarkable and now I know why ice-skating and gymnastics judges are reluctant to give 6.0’s or 10.0’s to the first competitors to perform: there is nothing better to give if better performances are turned in by later competitors.  So true with scenery, too: we were baffled by the forests, the mountains, the lakes, the Alpine villages and as we drove, we exhausted our adjectives. We didn’t grow numb, mind you, but we just had nothing more to say.

Zurich was our dinner stop. Daughter had visited it before and wanted us to have dinner at a restaurant she discovered.  The tables are shared among parties and next to us was an elderly couple from Japan. The most I could figure out from talking to them was that they were on a 19-day tour of Europe and had just spent 4 days in France. I liked them, though, because as I told a few jokes, they laughed loudly. I guess the understood English better than I had realized.

After dinner we drove for Lucerne, targeting a camp site that had good reviews.  We pulled up at 10:20. It was closed.  And it was, we think, the only campsite in town. The agony of defeat. So we did what the camping books advise: “free camp” — find a place to park where nobody will object, close the curtains and call it a night.

We found a public parking lot just down the street, where a tour bus was parked. We pulled in  behind him, hoping he would provide cover for us if police drove by.  But we wouldn’t be secret for long. By the time we were asleep, no less than nine other campers had pulled in alongside of us, all having found themselves with no where else to park.

Lucerne’s lake was just 200 yards away, with members of the Lucerne Yacht Club having access to their private docks. Us, we parked next to a weedy lot where little dinghies are stored.  Maybe I can do some Photoshopping.

The 60 degrees of Austria

July 18th, 2009 Comments off

We left sweltering Vienna Saturday morning, having learned that the temperature in the city as we walked around had topped 100 degrees, with a fair amount of humidity and at times not even a whisper of a breeze.

It is now Sunday morning, and at our campground in Innsbruck, below a snowy mountain top, it dipped into the 40s. It is wonderfully refreshing.

The trip here on Saturday was mostly through a steady rain. The skies were grey (so photos will suffer) but the scenery was nonetheless stunning as we drove up into the Alps.

I think the line in that movie soundtrack — the hills are alive with the sound of music — is a bit inaccurate, frankly, but maybe the word “hills” was necessary for the cadence.  These are not hills. These are majestic mountains in every  wonderful sense of the word, with steep sides and unmistakable peaks. And more amazing: the pastures and forests that frame the mountains are every color of rich, vibrant green.  This is quite a sight for a couple from Las Vegas whose measure of green is the fake grass in the back yard.

We spent three or four hours Saturday in Salzburg’s historic (yeah yeah, everything in Europe is historic) old town. We were almost sucked in to buying a beautiful chess board with characters representing medieval Europe, but thought better when we realized we already have two chess boards at home and we don’t play chess.

In Salzburg we lingered around a church cemetery unlike any I’ve seen: the burial plots were  individually covered with all types of flowers, versus just grass or stone work. And the headstones were not stones at all,  but custom-crafted metal works and other materials. Each burial plot was distinctive. No CC&Rs here.

Our search for authentic Austrian food took us to a hidden dinner house where, between the four of us, we had ham, sausages, pork, schnitzel, steak, mushrooms, potatoes, sauerkraut, dumplings, soups (mine had a marvelous fried-cheese dumpling floating in a clear broth with tiny pieces of carrot and chives), and dessert of warm apple strudel with vanilla sauce and whipped cream.

My health coach, Monica, is going to kill me.

The final leg of the day was to get to our campsite in Innsbruck before dark.  As we pulled up at 9 p.m. Saturday, our stomachs tightened, and I don’t think it was because of the pork, ham, sausages, sauerkraut and vanilla sauce. The campsite was under reconstruction. Three different camping and tour books had mentioned this as the only campground in Innsbruck, and it didn’t exist.

We stopped at a nice hotel 50 yards away for advice, and the desk clerk said we had two options: stay there (a double room with breakfast, 80 Euros) or she could refer us to a campsite three miles away that had not been mentioned in any of our books. I asked Daughter and Fiancé if they wanted to stay at the hotel to get away from us for a night. They asked us if we wanted to stay at the hotel and get away from them for a night. We all agreed that we were getting along grandly so we would stick together and go to the other camp site.

Well, that might have been a misnomer, calling it a camp site.  The place was a pizza house with a large swatch of grass behind it, large enough to hold maybe 50 campers and tents, and the proprietor put in electrical power outlets and a dinky small bathroom facility (one man’s shower, one woman’s shower, you get the idea).  He did have a great pizza menu, though.

So we spent the night and this morning we woke up to the sight of snow above us.

We’re not in Vienna any more.

Vienna: Musical toilets, a mob museum, and shopping for diamonds and fridge magnets

July 17th, 2009 Comments off

In our planning, Jeanne read somewhere that Vienna would be a disappointment, that it had gotten old and tired.

Well, old is fine, but tired it is not, and we can now see why it is one of the five most-visited cities on the planet. We heard that on our jump-on-and-off tour bus that we sat on for several hours Friday as the temperature pushed toward 100 degrees.

On the way to the bus tour, the girls needed to visit the WC (my new code for a potty stop). In the underground station we found the “Vienna Opera Toilet” and it played such lovely waltzes to attract customers (at 60 cents a visit) that everyone who walked by, even if they didn’t have to pee, still broke into a stuttering dance as if they had to.

Beyond the fancy pay toilets, Vienna is a very very very impressive city, for its palaces and parks (half the city is green space, one of the bus-tour recordings noted) and plazas and public buildings (among the many museums is the Museum of Crime and Law Enforcement, a name not nearly as endearing as Las Vegas’ Mob Museum). 

It’s a great place to shop, too.  Jeanne is on a march across Europe looking for the most fitting refrigerator magnets to mark our journey.  And  don’t know why, but it is very stressing for me.  Yes we are spending thousands of dollars on this trip but I can’t let go of the fact that a magnet that condenses all of a city’s scenes into a three-inch-by-two-inch magnet might cost 4.50 euro at one shop when we could have bought it two blocks earlier, at another cart, for 4.25.  Twenty-five cents, wasted!

It was with that sense of stingy spending, then, that Daughter discovered we were walking by a Tiffany jewelry store. This was suddenly relevant since the night before, Boyfriend had proposed to her at our campground in Vienna and her idea of a good time shifted from S’mores to solitaires.

We indulged Daughter, and I promised to talk Boyfriend-turned-Fiancé off the ledge with a few beers later in the day.

This was a nice Tiffany’s and the lovely staff made us feel welcomed. They must have profiled us as Class A prospects, what with our water bottles, cameras and Vegas sun visors. Real world travelers, the Gormans.

We were directed to the diamond collection upstairs and Daughter darted to the Legacy collection of engagement rings. The sales clerk looked quite pleased by Daughter’s homework. “Ah, this one has a 1.19-karat center stone. Nineteen thousand Euros, she said.

Boyfriend looked up to me. I saw him swallow hard. I waved him off, the kind of man-to-man signal: Don’t worry man, we’ll get out of here soon. Wal-mart has a fine collection of rings. And Kay’s at the mall. Every kiss begins with Kay.

I asked the sales clerk, Tanja, how she calms the nerves of boyfriends when their fiancés check out the merchandise and their eyes fall out of their sockets like they’re attached by Slinkys. “If we think we are close to a sale, that the young lady is serious, we bring out champagne,” she told me.  Huh.  That’s how they close deals in Vienna.

I made friends with Tanja, to buy time for Daughter to look at the rings, because she may never get this close to the Tiffany Legacy again. Tanja told me to say high to the Tiffany’s associates who, she assumes, have extended me fine service at the company store at the Bellagio, back home in Vegas.  Oh yeah, I said. Good friends, all.

We decided to move on. Boyfriend needed a beer.  But Daughter lagged behind, unwilling to leave the counter.

I told Fiancé that in 30 years, the wife will pore over kitchen magnets.

The joy, and the anger

July 17th, 2009 Comments off

Daughter’s boyfriend joined us on Thursday in Bratislava for the final week of our vacation. He flew into Vienna from Brussels and took the train to the capital of Slovakia,where we met him. His joining us brought back a flood of wonderful memories of how Jeanne and I had camped with her parents when we were dating.  In fact, it was on a camping trip that I proposed to Jeanne, in 1971.

Last night, at our campsite in Vienna, Boyfriend proposed to Daughter.  We realized what was going on when we looked out the window and saw them.  Daughter’s eyes gave it away. They were bright, big, filled with wonder, and wet. They kissed, talked, hugged, kissed again. I grabbed Boyfriend’s camera, better than mine, and took many photographs through the front window of the Mobi, in the evening’s twilight.  If I get their permission, I will post them.

So now it is Fiancé and Daughter, and we are so very excited and pleased for them.  He is a good man and shares with Daughter an unquenchable thirst for adventure, and laughter, and puppies, and wine and beer. Not just Belgian beer, but all kinds of beer.

So we were on such a high when Fiancé reached for his laptop computer in the upper cupboard last night.  It was not there. We searched everywhere, and couldn’t find it.  It had been stolen. Jeanne checked our belongings and found things were not as we had left them on Thursday when we parked Mobi at a dirt parking lot near the historic center of Bratislava, Slovakia.

Parking in downtown Bratislava was impossible with the Mobi, and this dirt lot — with another motor home and other vehicles — seemed the only choice. I took my cameras and laptop with me, in my backpack, as we set off for our 3-hour walk. Fiancée left his laptop behind, however. It was a big one, not easily carried.

Hours later, after we found our campsite in Vienna and after the proposal, we discovered the loss. There had been no outward signs of a break-in. We are 99 percent sure that the burglar used a shimmy to unlock the front passenger door. We think this because there were no signs of forced entry, and because when we entered Austria from Slovakia, Jeanne opened her window and it made a squeal/squeak that we had not heard before.

Also taken was Daughter’s small purse of jewelry. Nothing terribly expensive, but sentimental, including an amber ring we had bought her while visiting the 600-year-old salt mines outside of Krakow.  But other things were not stolen — our MP3 players, for instance, even some loose money. Mobi’s satellite TV equipment was untouched, too.

The loss of Fiancé’s computer is traumatic for him because it contained virtually all of the information he needs for the commercial scuba outfitting business he operates in Antwerp. He hopes he will be able to reconstruct it. If I were him I would be beside myself with anger and tears. Fiancée has a way of moving beyond trauma.

This morning is a new day. Fiancé and daughter are kissing.

Authentic Poland: Pass the lard, please

July 15th, 2009 Comments off

Folks, you may not hear from me for a day or two. We spent Tuesday night in the downtown Krakow parking lot where we had parked Mobi to spend the evening walking around the historic (everything is historic, of course) Krakow Town Square, the largest Medieval square in Europe.

We had dinner at an authentic Polish dinner house, 2 blocks off the beaten path. We’ve come to discover a few things, including that unlike America, if you want a beer, you just order a beer. There is no choice as to the kind of beer, except small and large. There is only one kind, though. It is called “beer.”   There were no sodas on the menu, nor tea, so Jeanne ordered “water preserves.”  It was, well, a glass of spring water with a big dollop of dark (courant?) preserves to sweeten it. It was cold and refreshing and she rather liked it. Our meals were various meats, all accompanied by potato dumplings.

With our bread, we got a cheese spread and something I thought was butter. But it was sort of tasteless. I asked what it was.  “Pork lard,” the man said.  Oh.  I would have died for some crispy bacon, but I had little use for pork lard.

When we returned to Mobi at the parking lot we decided, what the heck, let’s just spend the night right there. We paid the attendant some more money, and after we cooled off (no electricity so no chance to run our fan), we went to bed.

All of this is to say that my batteries are low and it was hard to find an internet cafe this morning.  Later today we will drive into Slovakia, toward Bratislava, the capital, and on Thursday will head into Vienna (or, as the maps say, Wien).

So, until we meet again in a day or two, be safe, and so will we!

Excuse me, do you speak English? I’m lost

July 15th, 2009 Comments off

Somewhere en route to Krakow, Miss GPS sent us down a gloriously smooth road that took us directly into a barricade. We could go no further. When we turned around, she insisted we try again. From up in space, Miss GPS didn’t see what we saw. 

So we pulled into a small market for directions to Krakow.  I walked up to one of the clerks. “Hello, do you speak English? I am lost.”  She shook her head no. The woman she was helping started talking to me, though, and boy did she have a lot to say. It was Polish, and I did not understand a word.

When I expressed to her that I did not understand her, she slowed down but still spoke in Polish, using every muscle in her face to emote, like some Jim Carrey, thinking that would help me better understand her. She was furious, it seemed, at something.  When she paused, I used mime to show that I was driving down the street and bam! there was a barricade and I had to screech to a stop. She nodded yes and went into her Polish tirade again. I think she was sympathetic toward me and angry at the Polish Department of Highways.

About then, a man came forward and asked if he could help. He spoke broken English. I need to get to Krakow, I said. Could he help?   He backed away from me and spoke to the grocery clerk, and by now there were 8 people in line trying to buy groceries who were not being helped. And they were all yelping in Polish — either in anger at me for slowing their day or in giving my new friend their suggestions on how I should get to Krakow. Or at least how I should get out of their store.

The line grew longer. A second grocery line was opened and it filled, but even people in that line were motioning all sorts of ways at my friend, arms flailing about in different directions as if they were all giving him their best suggestions on how I could get to Krakow.  My helper looked flustered.

Finally, he said to me, “Just follow me.”  We walked into the parking lot, he got into his car, he waved for us to follow, and we did, and after about 4 miles, at a roundabout, he waved at the turnoff with the sign for Krakow. I tooted my horn and he waved and I waved and I bet we will never meet again. 


July 15th, 2009 Comments off

I was struck by the looks in their eyes, captured in the photographs of the men and women who were kidnapped and taken to the SS’s concentration camps to die or be worked to death.

Much can be written about Auschwitz and its sister — and larger — concentration camp at Birkenau, a couple of miles away. But it was the photos of the victims, taken just as they were being processed in, that may be the most haunting.

The tour of the two camps seemed surreal, because it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the murders even after having been there. Maybe even harder, now that we have been there. The thousands of pairs of baby shoes. The rooms of women’s hair, sheared to make soldiers for blankets. The suitcases that bore the victims’ names so, if luggage and its owner was separated on their train ride to a new future, as they thought, they could be reunited. Now they read like tombstones without the interred bodies. A name, a birthdate, no death date.  

There is much to reflect but the photos were what I studied the longest. Some were the eyes of despair. Resignation. Some looked stunned, bewildered. Some looked defiant and angry. 

We were not allowed to take photos of these exhibits. I don’t know that I would have wanted to. The images will stay with me.

A day of transition

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

We began our Monday returning to one of the old districts of Prague, called “lesser town” because it is below “Castle Town.” We walked across the historic, 650-year-old St. Charles Bridge to reach this part of Prague, which now is very commercial.

Caricature artists, musicians, photographers and a few jewelry makers hawk their wares along the bridge, and the town is filled with little retail outlets — chief among them, jewelers selling all things garnet, plus the requisite crystal stores.

Daughter heard from travel writer Samantha Brown about a wonderful rooftop restaurant at the Aria Hotel that affords a beautiful view of parts of Prague. We found the hotel and went upstairs to the roof, and the view was quite special — not a sweeping vista of the entire city, but a stunning one of the neighborhood.

We were on the road for Poland, and for a campground outside the gates of Auschwitz, by 2 p.m. It took us about 6 hours, along major highways and through small towns where we had to slow for hay wagons and farmers returning home in their huge combines.

From the highway, it looked like several towns had clusters of huge apartment buildings, strung along in a line, and we’re not sure what to make of them.  Their equivalent to publich housing projects?

At one point, Miss GPS must have had a hangover from too much pilsner because she didn’t know where we were, and was directing us across open fields.

When we entered Poland, I assumed we would need to stop at some sort of border control so I pulled over at the first opportunity, into a parking lot filled with trucks.  Turns out there is no border crossing protocol and I was lost in a sea of trucks. We got some strange looks as we wormed our way out and back onto the highway.  Luckily our license plates say Belgium, not U.S., so I wasn’t the stupid American.

By dusk we were pulling up to our campground, one that we had chosen purposely for its proximity to Auschwitz. But we didn’t know the story behind the place, and are ever the more thankful that we came here.

The facility is a combination hotel/campground retreat center, operated by a Catholic organization dedicated to dialogue and prayer, focusing on what lessons can and should be learned from the genocide that played out here.

I am typing this story in the lobby of the hotel, where I met the night clerk, Gosia.  She’s 29, learned English while attending community college outside Washington, and started here, at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, two months ago. She grew up in Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is, but has only visited Auschwitz three times. After each visit, she said, it takes her a month to recover.

“People need to come here, to see Auschwitz,” she said. “It cannot be explained, the same way you cannot explain a color or a taste. You need to touch it, to sense it. That is one reason I want to work here, to meet people and for the spirit of this place where we can talk about our feelings toward Auschwitz. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.”

My last photo today was sunset over Auschwitz, from our campsite. We are at its threshold, and I look forward to tomorrow with dread, and with hope that in time, peace among men will prevail.