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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 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.