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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.

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.”

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.

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