Thursday, February 28, 2013

France...

When we first got married, my husband, Bill, used to make a lot of jokes about France.  Since he's a soldier, he used to talk a lot about how the French were wimps during wartime.  I don't know about that.  I was awfully impressed a few years ago, when a couple of French snipers killed a couple of Somali pirates who were holding several people hostage.  But anyway, like a lot of guys in the military, my husband used to join in the good natured ribbing about the French running from battle...

And then we went there...

My husband promptly fell in love with France.  It started with our first venture into France while we were on a trip to Italy in 2008.  We were staying at Bella Baita, a B&B about 30 miles from Torino and not far from the French border.  The B&B was high in the Alps and on a clear day, you can see the French border.  I was sick of Italian food because we'd been in Italy all week.  So I proposed we go to France for a little while.

Bill was hesitant.  At the time, I think he wasn't used to being able to pass over borders with ease.  But we headed west, driving through majestic mountain passes and around multiple switchbacks.  We finally crossed over the border and watched as the signs went from Italian to French.  We stopped in the first city of any significance, Briancon.  There was a handy parking lot there.  We had lunch outdoors at a charming little cafe, where I had a delicious salad and mustard marinaded chicken and wine.  And then we walked around the charming downtown area for awhile... until I needed to pee.

As it turned out, the public pay toilet was broken, so we went back to the cafe, where we had spent about 80 euros.  The bartender was kind of an asshole and told me I had to buy a drink before I could go pee.  Fortunately, the waitress who had served Bill and me overheard and gave him a ration of shit.


The parking lot where we parked for our day trip to France.

 The gate to the old town
 Another shot
 A view of the scenery from the parking lot
 Waterfall coming out of the Alps
The inside of the neighborhood cathedral

After the impromptu trip to Briancon, we had a chance to go back into France on the way home.  We took a shortcut through eastern France and had lunch in Strasbourg, where I proceeded to drink too much red wine...

View from downtown Strasbourg...

In May 2009, we enjoyed a magical weekend in Paris.  We stayed at Hotel Le Six, and just wandered the streets, eating good food, looking at the crowds.  At one point, we spotted two hapless Mormon missionaries who looked harried as they passed us enjoying a wonderful lunch at a little bistro.  

A month later, we stayed in Luxembourg for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday and took a day trip to Nancy, France; a beautiful city in Northeastern France, not far from Belgium.  We ate lunch at a South American restaurant and scored points because our terrible Spanish was better than our non-existant French!

And a month after that, we dipped back into France to take my mother-in-law out to lunch on our way home from an epic tour of five countries in one day... and if I haven't blogged about that yet, I definitely will.  We stopped in Marckolsheim, France and had yet another nice lunch, again with people who barely spoke English.  It was refreshing.

In Europe, a lot of people speak English.  That's convenient, of course, but it's also sad.  Because it makes the place seem less European and more American.  And it makes it harder to learn a new language.  There are pockets of Europe, though, where a person can go and feel like they are truly away from home.

Bill loves France now.  At some point, we are going to have to go there on vacation so he can enjoy the wonders of France for longer than a day trip or a long weekend.  I'm thinking about one day booking a trip with French Country Waterways, a barge cruising outfit.  We'll have to save for it because it's expensive...  But wow, what a week we'd have, huh?

We also want to visit the Champagne region for obvious reasons.  Actually, I could live on champagne, given the opportunity...

Taittinger... probably my favorite champagne.  I like it even better than Dom Perignon...

I think we need to move back to Europe.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Costa Rica...

I'm giving some serious thought to booking another cruise in November or December.  SeaDream Yacht Club is offering some great deals on cruises there at that time.

I had an acquaintance/co-worker who served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica.  Knowing that it's become quite the tourist destination lately, I can only guess that he was a lucky guy to get to serve there.

I also have a friend who had dental work done there at a fraction of the cost it would have been in the United States.  She had serious problems that required multiple dental implants that would have been prohibitively expensive to have done in the United States.  Knowing that I have two baby teeth with no permanent teeth under them, it's good to know I could get implants relatively cheaply in a country not too far away.

When we lived in Germany, we visited Poland and the Czech Republic.  Both of those countries are also known for medical tourism.  In Poland, you can get dental work done cheaply.  In the Czech Republic, you can get pregnant via cut rate IVF.  But something tells me that Costa Rica's beautiful beaches and tropical wildlife might be more enticing... at least to me.

If I do decide to book the trip, I'll do it when we're onboard so I can get 15% off the fare.  When you're paying four figures a person, that discount is very helpful in making the cruise more affordable.

Next year, my husband retires and will be searching for a new job.  We may be poor.  I don't know if it's better to take the trips now, or save up the money.  Of course, if he gets a job quickly, he won't have the generous vacation he gets today.  So maybe it's best to sneak these trips in while we can...  And if we're poor, we're poor.  He will get a retirement, so that's a good thing.  Unfortunately, his retirement will be cut for the first couple of years because he has to repay money that he got when he temporarily left the Army in the 1990s.

Blame the skank for that decision...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

People who recline on planes...


Oddly enough, today I've run across two articles about people who recline on airplanes.  This happens to be one of my pet peeves.  I'm short and I have short legs, but it still annoys me when the person in front of me on a plane reclines.  I know it's their "right", since the seats are capable of reclining.  But everybody is packed in the plane like sardines and reclining takes away some of that space.  Plus, it makes it hard to get out of the seat to go to the bathroom.  Then when you have to hang onto the seat to stand up, the recliner gives you a dirty look.

I never recline, even on long haul flights.  I find that it doesn't make me any more comfortable than I would otherwise be.  Plus, I know it annoys me when people recline, so I don't do it to other people.  That being said, what is even more distressing to me are the comments people leave when they read these articles.  They get incredibly rude and show a disturbing trend toward uncivil behavior toward other people.  Case in point, this article from Slate.com...  And this one from the Smarter Travel blog...   The comments and passion generated over this issue leads me to think that most people are selfish assholes.

I did find it interesting, though, that some enterprising person came up with a device to stop people from reclining and smashing his knees.  Knee Defender hooks onto the tray table and makes it impossible to lean back.  I have to admit, I'm tempted to get them, except I don't like to fly with my table down anyway.

We have a couple of long haul flights coming up in May.  Makes me wish I had a medical connection to give me some Ambien and knock my ass out so I don't care if people lay back in my lap.

What I think is funny is that the people who made Knee Defender also made little printable notes you can pass to the person in front of you, letting them know that you've taken away their ability to recline.  I don't know how I'd react if I got one of those things. Since I never recline, I guess no one would ever have to use them with me.

Probably the rudest experience I ever had on a plane was in April 2010.  We were on a very delayed flight and people were pissed off because we were stuck in St. Thomas at the airport all day.  The flight was kind of rough and the seat belt sign was on for most of it.  The lady who was sharing our row had a tight connection, so when we landed, I stepped out in the aisle to help her get her stuff down from the overhead bin.

Suddenly, I heard a voice from behind me say, "Excuse me, Ma'am.  We need to get through."

Before I had a chance to move, this woman and her two overgrown teenaged sons literally pushed me into the row of seats.  I was absolutely fuming.  I actually glared at the woman and said, "Do you think you're the only person on this flight who has a tight connection?  What the hell is wrong with you?"

It took Delta about ten minutes to open the door, so she probably missed her flight.  It would serve her right.

I hate flying.  I love traveling, though... so what can I do?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

February doldrums...

I really could use a change of scenery.  Last year, we went to Hilton Head, South Carolina for a long weekend and had a nice time.  I'd like to visit Charleston before we go to Texas.  I'd also like to go to Barkwells, which is a very cool dog friendly resort near Asheville, North Carolina.  My husband and I went to Asheville for our 8th wedding anniversary and had a great time.  It's beautiful there and it's a great beer and art town.  In fact, I'd love to settle there when we're done with all the Army bullshit.  If we went to Barkwells, we could avoid having to board our pooches.

But since we have this big trip to Europe coming up in May, our income is not so liquid right now.  We also have to do the taxes and may owe this year, since I made some money with my writing.  Not a lot of money, mind you... but enough that the IRS will know about it.

I'd also like to take another trip to Myrtle Beach, off season.  The beach is great when the crowds are low and Myrtle Beach is not far from where we live.

I think it's time to start planning something.  I know we will have to go to San Antonio at some point to find a place to live, then we will have the big road trip down there.  But I need something else and SOON.

Something tells me I'm going to miss the southeast a bit.  It really is home.  But Texas is fun too, I guess... as long as you don't murder anyone and end up on death row.




What'll it be?  The mountains or the beach?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Booked our hotels...

Over the weekend, I decided it was time to nail down our hotel stays for our upcoming trip to Italy and Greece.  We plan one night in Venice, two nights in Florence, two nights in Rome, a week on SeaDream I, and three nights in Athens.  Though I had been looking at a lot of properties, I finally made my decision by going on Jetsetter.com and finding several hotels.

Our first night will be spent at the Hilton in Venice, which is a five star hotel.  Ordinarily, I'd prefer a family owned hotel, but hotels in Venice are expensive and we had enough Hilton points to book a free night.  So that's what we're going to do...  It should suit our purposes fine.

The next hotel is Marignolle Relais & Charme, which is a small hotel about six miles outside of Florence.  I looked for a hotel closer to town, but this one won me over because it's in a quiet area and has beautiful countryside views.  We will be using taxis a lot, no doubt.  Hotels in Florence are expensive too, though...

In Rome, we will stay in Relais Orso, which was on sale on Jetsetter.com.  We got a junior suite at a reasonable price and it's close to The Vatican.  Supposedly, the place is in a great location.  Rome is a huge city, though... I almost wish we could stay on the outskirts and come in for the day.

May 11th, we will take either the train or a cab to Civitavechhia and get on SeaDream I, which will take us to Sicily, Capri, Positano, Amalfi, Delphi, Kefalonia, Corinth Canal, and Santorini.  We end in Athens on the 18th, where we'll unwind at the Hera Hotel until the 21st.

I managed to book all these hotels for just under $1800-- about $220 a night.  Not bad, considering we'll be in tourist hot spots. It helps to get a free night.

I'm really looking forward to this trip.  Hopefully, I'll make some headway in chipping away at the debt!




Friday, February 15, 2013

Carnival... a cruiseline you couldn't pay me to patronize...

In the years since my month on a train in Europe, my tastes in travel have gone decidedly upscale.  Nowadays, I tend to stay in comfortable hotels and book all inclusive cruises.  It's not that I wouldn't consider staying in a less expensive hotel, especially if the hotel is in Europe.  It's just that the older I get, the less charming "roughing it" is to me.  If I can be more comfortable, I'm willing to pay for the privilege... as long as I can afford it, that is.

That being said, I have never had any desire to cruise on a Carnival ship, even before the disasters with its two big ships, Splendor and Triumph.  Both ships were adrift after engine fires and the masses of people stranded aboard were left fucked up, fucked over, and hungry, as my good friend Weird Wilbur sings it...


I like my creature comforts.  That's why I sail on small ships like SeaDream I and Hebridean Princess... as least as long as we can afford to.

Hebridean Princess

SeaDream I

Maybe I'm a snob for knocking Carnival.  After all, I have never set foot on a Carnival ship.  And they do offer cheap cruises... but for your cruise fare, you get lots of nickel and diming, long lines, hordes of kids, chair hogs, and masses of people.  To me, that's not very relaxing and defeats the whole purpose of taking a vacation.

Carnival Victory in Puerto Rico

I do always get a kick out of boarding SeaDream I when the biggest ships are in port...


SeaDream I parked next to the massive P&O Ventura...

They can keep their big ships with the fast food restaurants.  Give me a small ship any day, as long as you throw in a box of Bonine...

And hopefully, if there ever is an engine fire on one of the small ships, it won't involve being stuck adrift for days on end...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Old friends...

One very cool thing about today is that we have Facebook.  Granted, Facebook can lead to a lot of problems for a lot of people, particularly those who don't use their privacy settings.  It can also lead to hurt feelings.  I resisted joining Facebook for a long time, until an old friend talked me into it.  Oddly enough, she seems to have dropped off Facebook.

Anyway, the other day, I looked up a guy I knew in Armenia who had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Russia, back when Russia still needed some help.  He later got a job in Armenia while I was there and we ended up becoming friends.  I taught business English at his place of business and he also rented an apartment from an Armenian friend of mine whom I met while singing in a choir.

His former landlady is probably one of the best piano players I've ever had the pleasure of hearing live.  We used to get together on Saturdays.  She'd practice her English and we'd practice music.  She was a neat lady, though a bit on the eccentric side.  My friend who rented her apartment told me horror stories of cleaning it up.

I sent this guy a friend request and he remembered me!  I always worry that someone either won't remember me or will think I'm too annoying to be friends with.  But anyway, he's a good guy... still lives abroad and has had some very interesting assignments as an expat.  Twenty years ago, I wanted to be back in the States, but now I realize that I envy people who can live abroad.

One of the reasons I like living abroad is that you often end up meeting people you would never meet otherwise.  When you are a minority, you end up running into people who are like you... perhaps people you would not meet if you both lived in your homeland.  Sometimes that's a bad thing, of course.  You can run into assholes you might wish you'd never laid eyes on.  But sometimes you end up meeting folks who are very intelligent, talented, and interesting.  Of course, you might also meet other expats from other countries, too.  I bumped into folks from all over the world when I lived abroad.

Once you've done that and survived it, you kind of crave it again... or at least I do.  I miss being out of the country, even though it can be a pain in the butt to live somewhere else.  I remember being sad when my husband told me we were moving to Germany because I realized it would be a logistical pain.  But once we got there and got settled, I really loved being abroad and didn't look forward to leaving.  Living abroad is a challenge... and it can lead to great bonding experiences with other people.

I hope we get to do it again someday...


I met this gentleman in Armenia in 1995.  We were near Lake Sevan and he was kind enough to let me photograph him.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

One last "month on a train" post...

I wish I'd been blogging when I took my train trip to Europe.  It really was a great experience and I feel like fifteen years later, it's hard to do it justice.  I also didn't have a digital camera back then-- no one did, really.  So all my photos are printed and my scanner is all jacked up.  My iPhone is full of photos of the dogs, so I can't really take pictures of the pictures..  I also have a tendency not to be frugal with taking pictures and often end up taking the same photo several times, then not deleting them.  In the course of fifteen years, some of my photos got misplaced.

Still, when I think back on that trip, it was kind of remarkable.  I was so fortunate to be able to do the trip... to take a month out of my life and just go where the wind took me.  Everyone should be able to take a month to just wander and if you're able to do it in Europe, so much the better.  I have a feeling that trip was a once in a lifetime thing, but I think it would be great fun to do it again sometime... especially if I can take my husband with me.

The year prior to my train trip, a Peace Corps friend and I spent three weeks traveling through Turkey and Bulgaria.  We went by bus from Armenia, which involved a long stop at the hellish border with Turkey and Georgia.  That trip was far less comfortable than my trip through Europe was... It involved a lot of riding on rickety buses, sleeping on floors, and eating street food.  Maybe that should be my next topic.

I wish Americans had more chances to travel.  I wish they had more inclination to go places, try new things, and get out of their comfort zones every once in awhile.  Granted, I pretty much live as a shut in, owing to my status as an Overeducated Housewife.  But I always have a desire to go places and see new things-- not so much in the United States, though there are places in this country I'd like to see.  What I'd really like to do is travel around the world... as long as I can do it with someone I love and with whom I am very compatible.  I would imagine that would be my husband, Bill.

Not that there isn't something to be said for traveling alone...  When you travel alone, you can end up meeting interesting people.  But when you travel with someone you love, you end up with more courage to do incredible things... Like hike up to the top of a castle and see the view below...

 
The view from Hohenzollern Castle in Germany

About four years ago, my husband drove that point home to me when we were sitting in a beer spa in the Czech Republic.  We had been soaking in pewter tubs full of beer while sipping beer from a glass.  My husband looked at me with love in his eyes and said, "You know, I would never be able to do this if I hadn't met you."

I count that moment as one of the best bonding moments of our ten year marriage.  I hope we can have many more.
 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... coming home

I had a quick flight from Paris to Amsterdam, then got a flight to Dulles on Northwest Airlines.  I sat next to a quiet Dutch woman and watched reruns of Friends as the plane carried me back to the United States after over two years away.  When we landed and I got through customs, I saw my dad standing there.  I was surprised to see him and was actually kind of upset that he was there, since I had told my parents that I needed to go to Becky's apartment to get the stuff I shipped and give her back her key.

Also waiting for me was my friend Chris, whom I met in college when we were both 18.  He had come just to welcome me back and I had been planning to get a bus to my sister's place.  I told my dad I wasn't expecting him and he said, "Well, I'm here and you can either come with me now or get a bus."  He was being kind of mean, especially for not having seen me for two years.  And it was pretty embarrassing, since Chris was there, but Chris knew about my dad...

So anyway, we got in the car.  I was pretty annoyed.  He drove me to Becky's place and I got my stuff. Then my dad gave her key to her neighbor, who had just moved in.  I felt dread, since I had a feeling Becky would go nuts because we'd had this sudden change of plans.

Dad started driving and it was actually pretty scary, since he was speeding and being kind of reckless.  But then he told me that the next day, he planned to go into inpatient rehab for his alcoholism.  That was a huge load off my mind, actually, because I knew I would have to live with my parents for awhile and my dad and I don't get along very well.  The drive home was awkward and I was feeling like I had just been plunged into a big crisis.

My mom had fixed a nice meal for me... comfort food, really.  There was chicken, mashed potatoes, and vegetables.  She poured some wine, hesitating before giving any to my dad.  My dad said, "How would you feel if you knew that after tomorrow, you couldn't have another drink for the rest of your life?"

Mom gave him the wine.  Of course, it turned out that rehab was not a barrier to his future drinking.  He still drinks today.  The difference is, now he has dementia and my mom doles it out to him in very small amounts.  She gives him non-alcoholic beer and he doesn't seem to know the difference.

Anyway, Mom later told me what had led up to this crisis that kind of ruined my homecoming.  A few weeks before I came home, my dad had gotten very drunk on vodka.  He then decided he wanted to take a bath.  My parents had a jacuzzi tub installed when they renovated their house.  Dad was filling it and had sat down on the toilet.  He was naked, save for his glasses, which were knocked askew when he passed out.

My mom noticed the water was running when she went to bed, but apparently thought nothing of it.  When she woke up later and still heard it running, she went to investigate and discovered my dad, passed out naked, wearing his glasses askew, sitting on the toilet.  The tub was overflowing and the water had seeped through the floor and into the ceiling over the laundry room.  The water caused the ceiling to bow a bit.

Mom then told my dad that he had to go to rehab or else he had to leave.  So he arranged to go to rehab through the Veteran's Administration in Portsmouth, Virginia.  He was supposed to be there for four weeks, but ended up staying for six.  I want to say it was because they were backed up with cases.  I was happy he wasn't home.

Mom later told me that my dad had been doing things like mistaking the small wooden chest by the toilet for the commode.  He'd pee in the chest and my mom would have to clean it up.  She said it would be one thing if he had cancer or something, but his issues were caused by drinking himself into mental oblivion.

While I was overseas, my dad had gone through my very extensive  CD collection and got them all out of order and lost a couple of my classical discs.  Then when I mentioned it, he got all pissed at me and accused me of being selfish.

Apparently, rehab was like a fun camp for him.  He was a white, middle class guy amid a lot of young fellows who had hit skid row or were using street drugs.  I think he thought he was above them.  But the rehab didn't stick and he ended up going through it again on an outpatient basis.  That one didn't work, either.  My mom obviously loves my dad.  She's been married to him for 55 years and has put up with a lot.  God bless her.  I don't think I could do it myself.  It was bad enough being his daughter sometimes.

Under the circumstances, I probably shouldn't drink.  But when I drink, I don't turn into a flaming asshole like my dad does... at least not most of the time.  I do love my dad, but I often don't like him very much.  Yesterday was his 80th birthday.  He seems to have inherited his mother's iron constitution.  She died in 2007 at six weeks shy of 101.  I don't think my dad will last that long, but he's obviously got a very strong body, even if his mind is pickled.

I had a good time in Europe and for the next ten years, I pined to go back there.  It was amazing to go back again in 2007 to live...  Perhaps my next post will be about that, rather than my depressing family of origin.  


Saturday, February 9, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Tours, Amboise, and Paris

The last part of my month in Europe was in France.  Becky had her heart set on visiting the Loire Valley, which is where there is a beautiful chateau and wines aplenty.  Though I had been to Nice at that point, there's a big difference between the South of France and the Loire Valley.  We stopped in Tours, exhausted from all the travel, and got a room at a chain hotel.  I want to say it was a Holiday Inn or something similar.  Becky was horrified and disgusted because chain hotels don't have charm.  She wanted to look for a place further in town that might be more French. But I was fucking exhausted from two days of intense travel and needed to sleep before I tore her head off.

I didn't actually get to see much of Tours, but I do remember going into a music store there and seeing a wall of CDs with no cassettes available.  James Taylor had come out with his album, Hourglass, which I had heard a couple of songs on while listening to VOA Europe in Armenia.  I bought the CD, but couldn't listen to it until I got home.  I remember being really bummed out about that because I love JT's music and needed something to soothe me.


Tours, France Courtesy of Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Loire_Indre_Tours1_tango7174.jpg) 

After one night in Tours, we moved on to Amboise, which turned out to be a really beautiful place that looked kind of like it came from a fairytale.  We found a pleasant three star hotel and checked in, then visited the local chateau, which looked like it was the biggest show in town.  It was actually pretty nice-- and there was good shopping, though I don't remember having much money for shopping.  I did buy a couple of bottles of L'Occitane perfume.  That was pretty dumb, since that's an international brand, but what did I know?

I also remember the food.  One place we went to gave us terrible service.  The woman who waited on us seemed hostile.  Becky drew a frowny face on our check and wrote "Tres mal" on the receipt.  Childish, I know, but it was kind of funny.  The waitress was a sourpuss and that was before I'd had the experience of waiting tables myself.  I wouldn't do that today.

We went to another place that had the most delightful croissants...  It was amazing.  Other than that, I remember drinking a lot of wine and doing a lot of walking... and taking some really lame photos.

Amboise was pretty, but it was time to move on to Paris.  I remember pulling into the main train station and seeing the vast city from the tracks.  This was to be my last stop before I boarded a jet to Amsterdam and then one that would take me to depressing Dulles airport.


Chateau in Amboise Courtesy of Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ambuaz_IMG_1760.JPG)

Paris in September 1997 was lovely, even though just weeks before, Princess Diana had died there.  Becky and I checked into a cute little hotel near Rue Cler and wandered along the Parisian streets.  I remember going to the Eiffel Tower, which was teeming with people.  We opted not to go to the top.  Incidentally, I went back to Paris in May 2009 with my husband and we made the same decision when we encountered the crowds.  Maybe if we ever get back to Paris, we'll finally do it.  
Eiffel Tower taken in May 2009

We never did make it to the Louvre, which kind of surprises me, given Becky's love of art.  And when I went back in May 2009, we skipped it again.

I do remember Becky trying to talk some American woman and her daughter into sharing a cab with us... she wanted to save money and we were having trouble navigating the Paris metro.  I was kind of embarrassed by her boldness.  Then later, we went out to dinner and ended up sitting next to a Canadian woman who was very loudly and obnoxiously talking about her accomplishments.  I remember Becky saying in a very annoyed voice, "That was disgusting!" about the Canadian woman's very public preening.

I, of course, was getting really tired of traveling with Becky.  I started making plans as to how I'd be getting home.  Becky had picked up a suitcase for me that I had shipped from Armenia.  It was in her apartment near Washington, DC.  We were going back to the US on different flights, so Becky said she'd give me her key and I could wait for her.  I figured that was the safest thing to do.

I called my parents to advise them of my plans.  My mom was in a foul mood when I told her I needed to stay in DC one extra night so I could give Becky her key.  Mom told me that was too much trouble for her and my dad.  I had no idea what was going on at home... or that I would be landing in the middle of a crisis.  I just knew my mom was being really bitchy to me, even though she hadn't seen me in two years and I was coming home having triumphantly finished a two year Peace Corps assignment.

I ended up helping to pay for the last night at the hotel in Paris, but was nervous about the early flight and eager to get away from Becky.  So I took the bus to the airport and planned to sit up at Charles De Gaulle airport's very uncomfortable benches.  I sat there for about twenty minutes, then remembered that at that time, CDG had a "Cocoon".  Basically, it was a soundproof motel that wasn't actually considered a motel... as guests were only allowed to book the room for sixteen hours or less.  The Cocoon had a bed, a clock radio, a TV, and a tiny bathroom with a shower.  It was very plain, but it was heavenly, because it was my room.  I slept like a dead person until about 5:00am and then got my early flight to Amsterdam.

The Cocoon is now closed, unfortunately.  I'm glad I had a chance to stay there, though... It was a blessing to have a safe, cheap place to spend the night before my early flight.  Charles De Gaulle airport is one of my least favorite airports and it was awesome to be able to get some rest before going home.  I was definitely going to need it.

Next... the flight home and family crisis.


Friday, February 8, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... The public meltdown and on to France...

Train travel in Spain is kind of exasperating.  Most trains go to Madrid.  It's hard to get from a major Spanish city without going through Madrid first.  Or at least that's how it was in 1997.  Anyway, Becky and I had a long journey ahead of us.  She wanted to go to the Loire Valley, which was quite a ways north from Cadiz.  And we didn't have access to a bullet train from Cadiz, so we ended up taking a slow train that left early in the morning.  We were both pretty tired, not having gotten a very good night's sleep during our night in Cadiz.  The sun was not yet up when we boarded the train, so we tried to relax a bit as our long day commenced.

We got to Madrid, which required a short stop in order to catch the next train to Hendaye, which is a Spanish city on the French border.  There, we would change trains again.  I remember it was a Sunday and a lot of businesses were closed.  Becky and I went to a park to kill time before we caught our train to the border.  I wanted to pick up a newspaper, so I left her in the park with my bag while I searched for one.  It took about twenty minutes.  When I got back, Becky was absolutely beside herself with rage.

"Where have you been?" she yelled.  "I have to go to the bathroom!"

I was completely non-plussed by her outburst.  We were in a beautiful park and it was a Sunday and Becky was very angry.  She went on about not knowing Spanish.  I reminded her that many people speak English in Spain.  Then I told her how to ask for a bathroom in Spanish.

Becky continued yelling at me, at one point calling me a motherfucker... which I thought was amusing, since I was a virgin at the time and had no physical ability or desire to fuck a woman.  Then she berated me for "bragging" about knowing Spanish, which I actually don't speak that well.  I just studied it for many years in school.  Besides, when I tried to speak Spanish on my trip, it invariably came out Armenian.

After I'd had enough verbal abuse, I looked at Becky and said, "You know, I don't have to put up with this.  I've been on vacation for three weeks now.  I'd be just fine with going home."

That comment made Becky go even more ballistic.  She started screaming about how much money she had spent to come to Europe and how I couldn't just leave her there.  I told her that the money she spent to come to Europe was immaterial to me.  She had chosen to come there and travel with me and she was a grown woman who could take care of herself.  I wasn't going to put up with her rages.  Actually, given the depressed and anxious mental state I was in at the time, I'm surprised I found the strength to say these things.  Becky is tiny, but she can be really scary when she's raging.

So she finally calmed down, but still tried to control things.  I was worn down by the drama, so I just gave in.  The trip was becoming less and less fun.  We got on a slow train that I think must have been overnight, because I remember getting off in Hendaye in the early morning.  I also remember getting on the train from Madrid in the late afternoon, after Becky's meltdown.

We eventually ended up in Bayonne, France, where we switched trains and went to Toulouse.  It was at that point that we realized we were going off course.  But we ate lunch in Toulouse and I went to a travel agency and purchased a one way ticket back to the United States.  I remember the travel agent warning me that the flights were more expensive when they were one way.  I didn't care.  I needed to know I'd have a ticket home.

We took another train to Bordeaux, but we didn't get out and see the famed wine city.  Instead, we changed trains again and got on one to Tours.  I remember it being a nice train and we talked to a beautiful blonde French woman who gave us travel tips.

Actually, I was pretty glad to leave Spain.  As much as I heard people talk about French people being rude, Spanish people seemed far ruder.  Since that trip in 1997, I have since found that's not necessarily the truth, but it happened to be my experience in Spain at that time.  Maybe that's because we spent so much time in train stations and cheap hotels.

Next installment: Tours, Amboise, and Paris

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Spain

Dawn, Chris, and I marveled as we watched the insanely beautiful Spanish countryside fly by.  We had stopped briefly in Port Bou, France, because the train tracks in Spain are different than they are in France and we had to change trains.  A gaggle of American sorority girls were on our train, making me feel both old and slightly irritated.

I remember sitting in my second class seat and looking at the stunning landscape.  A Spanish native said "Welcome to Espana" with a proud smile on his face.

It was bright and sunny as we passed Girona and its cathedral on our way south.  We finally landed in Barcelona in the early evening.  We had been traveling all day and we were tired... and somehow, we ended up at a dirt cheap hostel a few blocks from Barcelona's train station.  The room was dark, small, and had a window that literally opened into the elevator shaft.  But for three poverty stricken travelers, it would work.

Dawn, Chris and I walked around downtown Barcelona, strolling on Las Ramblas and meeting up with Chris's friend, Javier, who lived in Barcelona.  I remember getting into his tiny compact car and going on a tour of the city, which highlighted the Olympic stadium.  I also remember eating paella for the first time and discovering bocadillos at Pan and Company, a Barcelona area healthy fast food chain.  We visited the cathedral and stood outside La Sagrada Familia, because we were too poor to pay the admission to go inside.

In 2009, my husband and I went back to Barcelona and stayed in a very nice hotel in Montjuic, which is an area on hill that overlooks the city.  Our 2009 trip was sort of a dream come true, since I had shown my husband my picture of La Sagrada Familia several years prior and he didn't know what it was.  When I told him about it, he wanted to go there... and we managed to do that, courtesy of a "blind booking" on Germanwings, a discount airline in Germany that lets people book mystery flights (lots of fun-- we've done it three times so far).

  
Taken in April 2009.  My husband cried when we went inside because he was overwhelmed by how cool it is...

After a couple of days in Barcelona, Dawn, Chris, and I went to Madrid, where I would be meeting my older sister.  We booked a stay in a comfortable hotel suggested by Rick Steves.  I got a single room and Dawn and Chris stayed in a double.  I remember going to the airport to pick up my sister, Becky, and then after lunch, Dawn, Chris, and I parted ways.  They were headed to see another one of Chris's friends up north and then take Dawn to Salamanca.  My sister and I, on the other hand, planned to head south to Seville.

But first we spent a few nights in Madrid...  I remember on the first night, U2 was playing and I could hear their concert in my hotel room.  It was right around the time they had released Pop, an album I don't own but should probably buy because I heard their concert in my Madrid hotel room.

La Plaza Mayor in Madrid
Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Plaza_Mayor_de_Madrid_06.jpg)

In retrospect, it probably wasn't that smart to travel with Becky.  She's a high maintenance person and immediately objected to the cheap places I had gotten used to staying at.  But we got along okay at first... I was excited about going to Seville, which I had heard was amazing.  We went to the Prado, which Becky insisted on because she's an artist.  I don't think we got to see much of it, though, because we had a train to catch.  We had book a bullet train to Seville, cutting down the travel time to something manageable.

When we got to Seville, we managed to find a small bed and breakfast in the maze-like old town, Santa Cruz (Jewish Quarter).  We saw a flamenco show, saw Seville's massive cathedral, and took a carriage ride around the Plaza de Espana... and I remember it was about this time that Becky and I started to bicker.  She objected to the frantic pace I had been keeping and my cheapness.  And she also didn't seem to like Spain that much, because people eat later at night.  My sister was an ugly American to the extreme and said Spain was like a third world country.  Having just come from Armenia, where 24 hour power still wasn't guaranteed, I thought that was a pretty foolish remark.

Plaza de Espana
Courtesy of Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Plaza_de_España_-_Sevilla.jpeg)

Anyway, between stories about her love life and complaints about how dirty Spain was, I was quickly realizing I was better off traveling alone.

Becky and I went to Cadiz, Spain next.  Cadiz is in the extreme southern part of Spain, on the Mediterranean coast.  It was in Cadiz that we stayed in very poor accommodations.  I remember it being a simple room with crucifixes on the walls.  After a day strolling around the very hot city and taking a swim at the beach, we went to an Irish pub, where I proceeded to drink five Irish coffees.  I was up all night because there was a loud party going on in the building next to ours.


Cadiz Cathedral
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Though it was very cool to be so close to Morocco, we got up early the next day for a train heading to France...  Becky's patience with Spain was wearing dangerously thin...  and my patience with Becky was also becoming pretty short.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... South of France

The most beautiful part of my month in Europe was probably the trip we took through the South of France.  The Italian Riviera is gorgeous with the Alps looming over the sea and palm trees everywhere.    The beauty continues into France.  Chris, Dawn, and I decided we wanted to hit Nice.  Chris and Dawn also wanted to go to Monaco and that provided a nice side trip from France's lovely and nice city.

We got off the train and found a fleabag hotel.  It was very close to the train station and had shutters that closed.  We went into the dusty lobby and a very laid back lady showed us a large, dingy room with three beds.  We booked it because it had a bathroom and was dirt cheap.  It also had a TV.

I think by the time we got to Nice, I was really becoming a third wheel.  I remember wandering around Nice a lot by myself, heading down to the beach and checking out all the flamboyant people.  I also discovered a GREAT restaurant there.  They had a deal in which you could get a three course meal for 39 French francs.  I think at that time, the conversion rate was about three or four francs to a dollar, though I could be wrong.  Anyway, the restaurant had really good food and it was dirt cheap.  I remember later reading in a guide book about the place.  It was written up in a Let's Go book for being exactly as awesome as it was for people who are traveling cheap.

I also remember walking around a market and purchasing a double cassette of The Police: Live! and a t-shirt for my niece, who was about four years old back then.  To this day, I can't listen to that album, since replaced on CD, without being reminded of traveling through France.


Courtesy Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nice-night-view-with-blurred-cars_1200x900.jpg)

We spent a night or two in Nice, then decided to get on the train and head for Spain.  It turned out that was September 5th, the day of Princess Diana's funeral.  I tuned in to the radio and listened to her funeral, dubbed into French.  I could hear Charles Spencer's eulogy under the French dubbing, as we sped west through the mesmerizing southern French countryside.  I wish we'd stopped somewhere along the way for a quick rest.  I've been trying to get back to southern France ever since that trip 15 years ago and haven't quite made it yet.  Fortunately, my husband is now a confirmed Francophile.

If you ever have the opportunity to take the train from the Italian Riviera through, the French Riviera, to Barcelona, Spain, I highly recommend doing it.  Be sure to stop along the way, though, and soak up some rays at the beach, drink wine, and eat some wonderful French food...


Sunday, February 3, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Italy

I decided to follow Rick Steves' advice and save hotel costs by renting a couchette on the train to Italy.  Chris and Dawn were more frugal minded, so they sat up all night.  I went to the little room where my assigned couchette was, only to be joined by an Asian family-- a man, his wife, and their two kids.  The father didn't seem to think I belonged in there and asked to see my ticket.  I guess he was sad to see an American woman in there with them.  That guy snored like a chainsaw all night, so it turned out I didn't really get any sleep.

We got to Venice that morning, not knowing that Princess Diana had been in a car accident in Paris.  Our digs in Venice were at a hostel run at a convent.  We dropped off our bags and walked around, since the convent locked people out all day.  As we walked around Venice, taking in the beautiful canals, gondolas, and teeming hordes of tourists, we had no idea that the most photographed woman in the world was dead.  I remember a British guy at the hostel saying something to Chris about it, but somehow the message didn't reach Dawn or me.

I shared a large room with a young French woman who seemed very quiet and shy.  Chris and Dawn got their own room.  Later, Dawn told me that they got bedbugs.  Luckily, I didn't get them in my communal room.


Chris and Dawn in Venice!

Anyway, the next morning we were off to Florence.  I remember walking around the city and spotting a newspaper with a photo of Diana on it.  I don't speak Italian, but have taken enough Spanish to be able to understand a little Italian, which is kind of like French and Spanish with a twist.  I saw the headline that said she had died and I figured it had to be a tabloid.  I was absolutely SHOCKED.

We went to a newsstand where I bought a newspaper.  In 1997, the Internet wasn't everywhere and we didn't have access to television.  So in the days after Diana's death, I read whatever I could find in magazines and periodicals.

We spent a night in a really nice hostel with stylish rooms.  Chris, Dawn, and I stayed in the same room.  Later, we went out to dinner and I had a steak... probably the first one I'd had since I went to Armenia in 1995.  When the bill came, it turned out the waiter had forgotten to charge me.  Dawn and I said we needed to call the waiter over and straighten out the error.  Chris said we should just forget about it.  Dawn said, "That's not an honest thing to do."  And Chris retorted hilariously, "It's an Irish thing to do!"  The waiter came over when I waved the bill at him.  He seemed fully prepared to defend himself until I pointed out that he hadn't charged me for my dinner.  Then he seemed grateful.

Courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Il_Duomo_di_Firenze.JPG

We enjoyed Florence... I can't say I remember much about it, though, because it was 15 years ago and we didn't get to see too much because we were poor.  We got on the train and headed west and landed in Viareggio, which is a beach town not far from Pisa.  We checked into a charming and cheap pensione, which included a meal plan and was run by folks who didn't speak much English.  I remember at lunch time, they asked us what wine we preferred.  Chris and Dawn liked white, so they brought a big jug of it out to us, which we drank from at every meal.  We went to the beach and swam in the gentle water, too.  Although Viareggio isn't necessarily a big Italian tourist destination, I remember it being one of my favorite stops on our trip.  It was just a neat coastal town.

We got on another train and headed north, stopping in Savona, which is a port town where a lot of big cruise ships stop.  I don't remember thinking much of Savona, except that it was a really pretty place in the Italian Riviera.  We called the local hostel and they came and picked us up from the train station.  It was funny, because the hostel was not in the center of town.  I remember the ride to the hostel involved a drive up a mountainside.  The place was in a really pretty forested area with a gorgeous view.

I remember commenting to Chris and Dawn that the hostel reminded me of Paddy Run, which is the camp in unspoiled Star Tannery, VA where we met and worked together in 1994.  The oddest thing about the hostel was that we were the only ones there.  It was a huge facility, with a bar, video games, music, and a television.  Yet because it was early September, the place was empty.  We were given a room with several bunk beds in it, where we spent a single night before getting back on the train and heading for Nice.

Next post: The French Riviera and Diana's funeral on the radio...


  


Friday, February 1, 2013

A month on a train in Europe... Slovakia and Vienna, Austria

I distinctly recall the Bratislava train station circa 1997.  Although Bratislava, Slovakia is very close to Vienna, Austria, at that time, they were worlds apart in terms of efficiency.  I exchanged some cash and ended up with what I later learned was an ungodly amount of cash.  Like Armenia circa 1997, the Slovak Republic was still a very cheap place to visit.

I bought a train ticket to Zilina, where my Irish friend Chris had an internship that was ending.  His girlfriend, now wife, Dawn, had come from America to see him and start a semester studying in Spain. We were going to meet up in Zilina and travel through Europe together for a couple of weeks.

The trip to Zilina took awhile.  I remember sitting on the train, watching the countryside pass.  I distinctly remember passing Trencin, a charming looking city on the Van River, not too far from the Czech Republic.  Trencin Castle is visible from the train and I remember wanting to get off and explore the city.

Trencin Castle (courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:TrencinCastle.JPG)

When we landed in Zilina, I found the bus my friend told me to take to the university where he was staying.  I was struck by how similar everything was to the other formerly communist countries I had seen, lots of cookie cutter buildings and old, serviceable buses that belched smoke and fumes and still carried the masses along the dirty streets.  I spoke to the front desk person a the university and he told me where Chris's room was.  I waited there for a little while, until Chris and Dawn showed up.

Zilina turned out to be a cute town.  Chris and his friends, who came from all over Europe, went out that night to a bar.  I don't remember much about the outing, except that it was a nice looking place... until I went to the bathroom. Someone had puked all over the toilet seat and left it there.

I slept in Chris's bed with his cheerful French Asian roommate, Jeremy, while Chris and Dawn borrowed a friend's room so they could have some private time.  The next day, I met more of Chris's friends, including a guy from Switzerland, whose name escapes me, a Spanish guy named Xavier, and some blonde chick from Finland whom everyone seemed to think was annoying.  I didn't have an opinion of her.  I think I was just glad that for once, someone else besides me was thought of as irritating.  

Everybody played basketball in a very parochial looking gym.  I didn't play.  I took some pictures instead.


Zilina (courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zilina_city_90.jpg)

After two nights in Zilina, it was time for us to move on.  Chris, Dawn, and I, along with some of Chris's friends, boarded a train to Vienna.  There, we got rooms at a university dormitory that Dawn had found in a Let's Go Europe guide book.  I remember the dorm room looking a lot like they do in the United States.  And I remember the subway stop-- Taubstummengasse-- because the Vienna U-Bahn system had this horrible male voice that made that word sound just awful!


We walked around Vienna, which is a very grand city... and wandered around the palace gardens, and eventually visited a museum.  I remember seeing a lot of cool exhibits, but my eyes were bothering me, as if I had scratched them with my contact lenses.  Actually, I probably did, since in those days I wore the same pair of contacts for a year or more at a time!  The sun irritated my eyes and I was having trouble keeping them open.  I ended up going back to the university and renting a dorm room for a couple of hours so I could take a nap.


Vienna (courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vienna_Panorama_at_Night.jpg)

Vienna was pricey, though, despite the cheap digs.  By that night, we were on a train headed to Venice, Italy.  Little did I know, that would be Princess Diana's last night alive.


To be continued...