Waking up in Vegas

August 4th, 2009

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.”

Categories: General

Eating our way through Europe

August 3rd, 2009

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.

Categories: European Vacation

Petal pushing

August 2nd, 2009

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.

Categories: European Vacation, General

When a tour guide’s day goes bad

August 1st, 2009

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.”

Categories: European Vacation

Walking in Prague

July 31st, 2009

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.

Categories: General

Ah, the smells of fresh bread in neighborhood bakeries

July 30th, 2009

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!

Categories: European Vacation, General

Why you better not run a red light in Europe

July 29th, 2009

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.

Categories: European Vacation, General

Recovering

July 28th, 2009

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.

Categories: General

Back home

July 26th, 2009

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…

Categories: General

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

July 24th, 2009

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.

Categories: European Vacation