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Mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map

August 9th, 2009 Comments off

Our GPS, as we’ve mentioned, had moments of great mischief during our jaunt through Europe. At several points, driving through both the Czech Republic and Poland, the highway icons on her display disappeared and we were, according to her, in the middle of huge fields with no roads in sight.

“Recalculating,” she said. “Take first dirt road on left.”  Fact was, we were traveling down a four-lane  highway at 75 mph.

In downtown Geneva, looking for a gas station, she sent us down a narrow road that ended at a farmer’s market.

Her most upsetting techno-glitch came when we were in Slovakia and had typed in the address for our campground in Trencin, a small town north of the capital city of Bratislava. The camping books didn’t say much about the place, except that it was on a small island in the middle of a river.  And we didn’t flinch when GPS sent us down increasingly less-maintained streets in a sketchy industrial neighborhood. It wasn’t passing the smell test, but we thought we would come upon a bridge that would take us onto the island with the campground.

Instead, we found ourselves inside what appeared to be an abandoned or little-used industrial yard in the midst of train tracks.  We conjured images of gypsies ready to pounce.  “This isn’t right,” Jeanne said. “Uh, let’s back out of here.”

We did and, as we approached the road, a man came running out toward us. Great. He’s going to stall us, distract us, as his cohorts in crime gather for their ambush. He smiled. Nice try, buster.

I told him we were lost. (Duh.) We didn’t understand his response but it was clear he did not speak English. And we knew something was up. He kept smiling.

Jeanne reached across me and handed him the book with the name of the campground. His eyes lit up. “Ah!” works in any language.  He started talking to us. I looked at him and shrugged. “I don’t understand,” I said. I pretended to look pitiful to gain sympathy.  Actually, I didn’t need to pretend at all.

He held up a finger as if to say “Wait,” and walked quickly back to what looked like a guard shed. He returned with a yellowed piece of paper, the kind that would have come out of a Big Chief tablet when I was in second grade back in 1958.

He drew me a map, and walked me through it.  He drew the road with several curves, bends and hard turns. He drew railroad tracks. (I went “ding-ding-ding-ding-ding” to imitate the sound of a crossing-guard gate. He looked at me, lost his smile, then found it again, and said “ding ding ding!”) Then he drew signal lights and a traffic circle and the name of a store, and an island in the middle of a river, and the name of the campground. Bingo!

I thanked him. Jeanne really thanked him and took his picture. We smiled and he smiled and we made it to the campground without a problem, four miles away. We camped alongside a river, below an old castle that was illuminated with colored lights.

GPS never apologized but she had sent us to a very nice map maker with a great smile.

A final map

August 6th, 2009 Comments off

Here’s about as good a map as we can come up with on where we traveled during our frolicking RV trip across Europe.

For better or worse, we are unable to recall the specific highways we traveled on because we followed GPS and, unlike the days when I traveled with my parents, I didn’t follow along on a map and hilight it in yellow or blue.  Ah, technology.

Waking up in Vegas

August 4th, 2009 Comments off

It’s almost impossible to travel to Europe and leave behind the trappings of the United States.

We’ve already remarked about how McDonald’s, KFC and Subway are very common – especially, for whatever reasons, in the Eastern European countries.

We ate at a Hooter’s in Switzerland (and I’ve got the T-shirt to prove it), and there was a Hard Rock at the plaza in Krakow, 50 feet from St. Mary’s Cathedral where the bishop of Krakow celebrated mass before he became better known worldwide as Pope John Paul II. (We didn’t buy a Hard Rock T-shirt but if St. Mary’s had one, you bet.)

There was this billboard for a Holiday Inn in the Czech Republic. 

Las Vegas was big everywhere, too We ran into bars called “Las Vegas” and in Switzerland, scratch-off lottery tickets played on the Vegas name.

But I think what really drove home the pervasiveness of American culture in Europe was when we were eating lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Bratislava, Slovakia, and we heard a distinctly American song playing in the restaurant”s kitchen — Katy Perry singing  “Waking up in Vegas.”

Eating our way through Europe

August 3rd, 2009 Comments off

We are not food critics so this little story won’t be passing judgment about local tastes and customs.

Well, we do have to mention that that most menus offered pig knuckles, which I resisted at every opportunity, and that in Poland they serve pork lard with the bread.

We ate at McDonald’s twice – but once was legitimate because it offered an international menu with its Greek burger (feta cheese and three, maybe four, black olives). (See, we didn’t have a quarter-pounder.) This was, as I recall, at a highway stop in the Czech Republic.

Jeanne’s favorite meal was the crispy-yet-moist duck in Prague. I remember the cheese-dumpling soup in Strasburg that was awesome. Daughter remembers  the beers, everywhere.

We all raved about the lasagna in Luxembourg, the Chicken House’s rotisserie chicken with all sorts of different sauces in Antwerp and the German potato salad served at the beer garden in Munich. (Well, of course German potato salad has to be good when you eat it at a German beer garden in Germany!)

Desserts were mostly conventional but in France we were delightfully surprised by the bowl of meringue drizzled with a kind of caramel-vanilla sauce.

If you eat with your eyes, take a look at the four pages of food photos in our gallery.

Petal pushing

August 2nd, 2009 Comments off

In the course of trying to organize several thousand vacation photos of our RV trip through Europe, I’ve set up a flowers folder. For all I know, these flowers are common and can be seen in your own back yard (though I did not see a single cactus in Europe).  A couple of flowers were clearly at home in the Alps.

These photos were taken by Jeanne, Daughter, Fiance’ and me.  The most amazing one so far is this bee photograph that Jeanne took with the little Canon sure-shot that she loves so much. (You can see the various attributes of the image and the camera when you click on it and view the photo data.)

On the left, the photo in the original size, and on the right, an enlargement of it.

When a tour guide’s day goes bad

August 1st, 2009 Comments off

I enjoy driving friends down the Las Vegas Strip as their personal tour guide.  The Strip has such rich history, you know. Goes back years.

Ah, the Mirage, which brought Vegas into a new era of luxury hotels when it opened in 1989. Steve Wynn ordered models of the waterfalls to determine which was the best angle of the falls to generate the most white water. And if you smell pina colada, that means there’s a natural gas leak in the burners that feed the volcano.

Ah, the Luxor – which, when it opened in 1993, was the tallest hotel in Southern  Nevada. And it looks so small today compared to all the new high-rises! When designers built the model of the pyramid to determine how best to support it, the structure collapsed onto itself, so the architects decided to throw in huge support cables, anchored at the four corner bases. Must have done the trick. On opening day, we saw the talking camels and took a ride down the interior canal  that was pitched as a ride down the Nile. Man, that was cool.

Ah, the Flamingo, the place that mobster Bugsy Siegel opened way, way back in 1946. See that floral-themed entrance? In a reconstruction of the hotel, an architect – who also designed floats for Pasadena’s Rose Parade — thought it would be sharp to bring a sense of sweeping flowers to the Strip.

What great insights a good tour guide can offer, and what a command of history he must have. I can even talk to you about Las Vegas’ early history, going back nearly to the turn of the century.

Imagine, then, how smart our tour guide was in Prague, which was founded around the year 880 with the construction of a castle that, today, is the largest castle complex in the world. The castle’s centerpiece is the spectacular, Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, which dates to 1344.

So let’s see. Vegas is 100 years old, Prague is more than 1,200 years old. Man, I bet that city’s got some stories!

Our tour guide, Vlastmil, was soft spoken, reminding us of actor David Morse, with a sweet, quiet sense of humor. And he certainly looked young, considering he must have been in his 50s. He told us he’s been a Prague tour guide for 35 years.

I asked Vlastmil, who speaks Czech, English and French, what constitutes a bad day at the office?

“It’s when the tour operator says he has set you up with a bus of English speakers and, when you get on the bus, it turns out they speak Turkish, Chinese and Portuguese.”