Saturday, July 30, 2011

Some notes about our trip.

Credit cards with chips...Sometimes in Europe a magnetic strip is not enough.  European cards have chips and if you don't have one, you are simply out of luck!  While they may take Visa everywhere in Europe, they may not take your Visa.

Cigarette machines are everywhere.  It almost made me wish I was a smoker!

Coffee in a thimble?  Seriously?  Even "Americano" (which apparently means extra large) does not cut the mustard for an American coffee drinker.

Bathrooms  Watch out for the south of France!  A small rest stop there affirmed for Jim, the horror stories I had told of my visit there 25 years ago. (a hole in the floor/ground hopefully with a hose nearby)  He had to experience it for himself to discover the full impact of the grossness.  There was an awkward moment or two of looking for the toilet before the AHA moment (That IS the toilet!).  He decided he could wait for the next rest stop.

With six of us traveling together there were many trips to the bathroom.  Sometimes it was hard to find one...

It was annoying to have to frequently pay for bathrooms.  More annoying still. was finding, after you had gone to the bathroom, that the toilet paper was not in the stall with you, but outside on the bathroom wall.  After a few mishaps we started carefully assessing the TP situation before entering a stall.  We also threw a roll in Jim's backpack for back up.

Food - We ate breakfast at the camper every day.  For the most part, though, lunch and dinner were eaten off site.  Restaurants were exceedingly expensive in the big cities, so much of our food was from street vendors...  A panini at the Vatican, a ham and cheese sandwich at the Eiffel Tower, a pasty from the train station in London... If we did go into a restaurant we tried to stick to pizza.  This was not always what everyone wanted, but... c'est la vie!  Essentially, we were not eating healthy, well rounded meals for a month, and somehow we all survived.

Strange moment....I actually saw something at our campground in Salzburg (Nord Sam) that was part of a recurring dream I have had for years.  How weird is that?  It made me prickly to say  the least.

Togetherness  We had a wonderful time together for a month with no TV.  It was so nice to gather 'round the plastic tables at the end of each day and unwind together. There were, however, a few tense moments. I think one member of the family(it could be anyone),  would occasionally repress the desire to strap another family member to... the other thing in Salzburg that made me prickle.

A chair from the torture chamber at the fortress
I promise we followed the rules and did not use our flash!

Service areas on the highways in Europe are friendly to campers (many have a "gray-water" drain)- Without kids you could probably do this several times and save a little money.  We did it three times out of necessity.

American's - After awhile it was nice to sometimes talk to another American.  We are usually not hard to spot (of course I don't know how many I missed. One couple admitted they were telling people they were from Canada to stay safe).  While we could easily pick out the Americans, one man in Rome thought we were Australian...  Right Mate!  He probably assumed, because of our appearance and temperament that we were descendants of criminals... but of course that doesn't make us Australian. There are criminals I don't know what it was.

Tragedy -After getting home I heard that "jumpers" on the rails in England are not as uncommon as you would hope.  This happened at the station in Abbeywood while we were there.  The station was closed when we went to the nearby bakery to buy something for the kids to eat (a helicopter was just leaving), but was open again by the time they were ready to head into London.

Nice campgrounds - Really.... I'm not making this up.  Most of the places we stayed were very accommodating, and the bathrooms weren't the least bit alarming (It was a little iffy in Nimes, but besides that, pretty good) Several campgrounds had nice pools.  A few had trampolines for the kids and ping-pong tables became a pre-requisite for Jimmy!  There was usually a restaurant associated with the campground, and if not there was something very close by.  Many Europeans travel this way, and campgrounds are everywhere often very close to the big cities.

Finding a campground in a German book was sometimes difficult...

our luck was pretty good.  Got to get there early, though... and it was best to be near a rail system or bus route to get into town.  I never quite figured out how to get that info from the book, but we did pretty well.

The old part of Barcelona (and why we didn't go there).  I had been looking forward to Barcelona.  My niece was there, and my brother had once told me it was one of the prettier cities he had ever seen, so I was excited to go.  Apparently shortly before we arrived there had been some civil unrest (of the violent type) in the old part of town.  Chances were, we would be fine if we went, but why risk it with the kids?

Heading north from Barcelona (Actually St. Pol) we did see an unusual sight, though.  A strip of highway lined with ...prostitutes (?)... a new sight about every minute for ten minutes or more.

Unexpected - One expense that caught us by surprise was the tolls in France.  They were so damaging to our dwindling cash reserves...since, as I referenced earlier, we could not use our Visa everywhere (including the tool booths in France).  We latched onto an ATM at a service area and were dismayed that  machine  apparently wanted my card as badly as we wanted our money.  Jim looked up at me saying, "Great! It just took your card....What are we going to do now?"  I blurted out the only thing that I could think of..."I don't know, but don't put your card in there!" Shortly after that we realized the good luck of having AMEX with us.  Jim had been kicking himself earlier for forgetting to leave it with his assistant at work, but suddenly we were praising the brilliance of bringing it along.

Ausfahrt! (We just like that word...and we saw it everywhere in Germany and Austria...AND even the McElwains were able to figure out what it meant pretty quickly!)

Criminal activity - In something like an episode of Hogan's Hero's, we witnessed a policeman (who could have been Sgt. Schultz) attempt to catch an apparently unlicensed hat vendor at the Vatican.  The vendor was much slimmer and younger.  He had time to turn and retrieve a fallen hat before taking off again... smiling ear to ear.  Sgt. Schultz gave up the chase, stopping right after barreling past us (huffing and puffing all the way).

Skipped Florence...Geneva....The amount of hours on the road, and the number of days remaining helped us make this decision rather early on in the trip.  While we may have missed a thing or two that we had planned to see, I think that overall this as a good decision, and I'm glad we had the time to see the things we saw.

Laundry - Six people lots of laundry.  Campers in Munich, Salzburg, Rome, Nimes, Paris, London, and Augsberg all saw us carting dirty laundry around.

Tons of driving - I declared during the planning stage, when it looked like our trip was taking a turn toward camping, that I would not drive.  I got my international drivers license "just in case", but stayed true to my word as far as the RV was concerned.  I only drove the small and nimble rental car that we got on our last day in Germany before flying back to the states.

Right side driving - Driving in Europe was something new. While there is some extraordinarily fast driving going on on the highways, for the most part, everyone drives in the right lane unless they are passing (although Italy is an every man for himself type of experience).  Ohio driving would make these folks crazy!  

Left side driving....Like driving in a mirror.  Jim did well in England, but it was sometimes hard to keep things straight.

The RV We quickly discovered that it would have been nice to have a smaller set of wheels on the trip.
We actually passed up a thing or two because we knew that our stress level would be too high if we tried it in the RV.  There were several tense moments that led to this, but getting out of Paris was ridiculous, and probably the last straw... and the most likely reason we immediately abandoned our attempt to go into Luxembourg for a few hours.    

Crunch time - A few unfortunate backing up incidents made returning the RV a worrisome experience... We definitely were on somebodies hit list when we screeched out of there...  We turned it in a few hours late, with a ding on the back, and to top it off it was not spotless....  They are sure to get us for that.  I'm sure our Visa bill will be high this month!

Exercise?  Who needs to workout when you are walking seventy two miles a day...and on driving days, you are so tense that every muscle in your body is flexed for hours at a time.

Frustrating moment...Almost not being allowed in the Vatican after waiting in line forever, because Caroline was wearing spaghetti straps (Mary's shorts were long enough, though).  Luckily Jim had a shirt in his backpack that Caroline could throw over her shoulders.  Also, because we went to the Basilica first, it was too late to see the Vatican Museum (wherein you will find the Sistine Chapel and other awesome works of art).  We should have done the Museum and then the Basilica. That's the way the cookie crumbles though. We still got to hear the Pope's benediction, which was good.

Trouble with WIFI - a common theme of our trip.  This was extremely frustrating.  We kept buying WIFI at the campgrounds and half the time we were unable to get in.  When we were in town, we tried Starbucks a few times, but who wants to sit in Starbucks for hours when there are sights to see?  One of our visits to Starbuck for WIFI was a bust anyway since after spending a bunch of money on drinks for the kids we were told that the WIFI wasn't working...  I was afraid that Jim was going to spontaneously combust at that moment, leaving us with nothing but a column of smoke and some fond memories, but he pulled through.

When we did have WIFI, we made good use of it, but with the limited time we were often found wanting more access!

Trouble with phones.  We rented global phones for the trip.  When my credit card was swiped by the ATM machine, it was necessary to make a international call.  I got that done and then my phone ceased to work.  Jim's phone worked on occasion, but the whole point of two phones was having the ability to call each other if we had to separate... and by the end of the trip neither phone worked.  Not a good return on the phone rental since I am sure we will be charged out the yin yang for the international call.

...And finally

Call it luck if you will, but we took this trip without any real planning.  We had a general outline of places we would like to go.  We were winging it.. traveling by the seat of our pants with four kids. Of course we had bought the plane tickets and rented the RV in advance, but we did not have a reservation for our first night abroad and we had not camped in an RV before.  We woke up each day and decided what we would do.  If it was a travel day, the important thing was trying to determine where we would camp that night.  If we were sight seeing, we would pick our spots that morning or the night before and try to make it work.  I know we missed some things doing it this way, but it was a tremendous learning experience.  It was fun and exciting at times, frustrating and tiring at times, and we would not trade it for the world!

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