Monday, December 3, 2012

European Wrap up

I know, I know...bad blogger! And that's true, if a blogger is someone who writes daily or at least more often than I do. But I'm inclined to write only when I think I have something worthwhile to put out. And even that is sketchy when I look back at previous posts. I jotted down a few notes months ago, things to incorporate into a wrap-up of our 4-year period of living in Amsterdam and a shift to getting back into the groove of living back in the US. My delay in posting anything new stems mostly from that last part of the previous sentence. Working in the arts is a struggle even during times when the health of the economy is robust. It's simply a joy (read a heaping cup of sarcasm into that, please) trying to establish yourself during a snail's pace uphill climb from where this economy was in 2007! There were several who seemed simply frightened by the prospect of moving to and living in another country back in 2007. Seriously...there were! We were excited! Some anxiety? Sure. But overall, I don't think it's whacky to say we were probably along the lines of settlers of the old west, looking forward to the adventure and unknown experiences that were in store. Sure, there were no natives irritated that we were on their land, and we had no fear of being scalped (unless you count the time or two I found way too many black curls on the floor after sweet but chatty girl cut my hair at Tip Top on Roelof Hartstraat). There were no dangers to speak of - at least no more than we would find in America. More than a few expressed an inability to ever do "anything like that". There was no desire to ever pass over the American border. To each, their own...but I just can't reconcile that perspective. Just 100 years ago we had considerable limitations to see other parts of the world that we could only read about. Now, I whine at the thought of an 18-hour flight to India when a century ago it would've been weeks. Modern technology has gifted us with the ability to have breakfast at home and dinner in Paris! I envy those that come later, who someday get to gaze at the distant blue dot that is Earth from a colony within our solar system. I have been moved to considerable depths by my first view of the Grand and Bryce Canyons, the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, animals on the African plains, and so many others. I imagine I would be overwhelmed to see Earth from a distant vantage point or even low-Earth orbit. Perhaps...someday. Back to leaving the US for several years. Doing so, you have to expect differences and changes from the ways once experienced. I suppose that can be said from moving to another city, even. Change as we all know, is inevitable. I am sure I have covered some of the differences already in past posts. Some that were once acute to me are now forgotten or the impact lessened, like the 3-cheek air kiss greeting. I was hesitant at first with that, and then embraced it after a little while, and then the last year or so of living there I pulled back again. It's a lot more effort than "What's up?” a fist bump, hand shake, or even hug. For quite some time I made effort to get lip to cheek contact, because I didn't see the point of this "air kiss" convention. It seemed "phony" to me - Hollywood phony. But most of Europe does it. Two or Three air kisses as the cheeks touch - left, right, left, or, right, left, right, or leave one of those off for the French or others who stop the insanity at two. If I was a woman I don't think I would want some whiskered dude all up on my smooth, flawless complexion of a cheek. But that's the "American" in me. On beaches we observed topless women greet other women and men with full body hugs. We exchanged these "How could they?!" looks with one another! Incredulous! Was not unusual for an attractive young woman to come into the sauna or steam room without a stitch on while I was in there...and then START TALKING TO ME! The human body is definitely NOT a hang-up on the European continent. Attitudes about such things are much less uptight there. During a basketball game, I was kissed on the cheek by a defender jokingly trying to throw me off my game. After I took him to school (you know I had to represent!), it was laughed off by everyone. Do that over here and the teeth behind those lips you just used will be finding a new home on the ground. I recall Radhika warning me on our first trip to India that guys hold hands there, as a sign of friendship, so don't apply my American definition to that practice. In Japan, a woman told me to hold a guys hand there connotates a sexual relationship! Going back further I remember Mr. Williams, my high school band director telling the females not to use the hand sign for "OK" while on a trip to the Bahamas, as that indicates you are open for business. It seems I could sit here all day at this point and type my fingers to nubs as these differences come flooding back to the front of my brain. Poor service at restaurants, and the inability to be served water at many restaurants. The "honor system" being prevalent in many applications throughout Europe. One and two cent pieces phased out practically overnight and becoming worthless. Opening doors and picking up dropped items for women and the women being surprised by my behavior. Hell, one time it was an older women who fell as she exited a movie theater, and folks were looking down at her as if to figure out what to do next, only helping her to her feet after I got her halfway up. But I'm seeing poor social skills cropping up over here more and more, so I don't think we're doing that well on these matters either. And the honor system here I think would be a complete failure, as many would try to get free train, tram, and subway rides along with the other applications where people were expected to behave as they should over there and it seemed most did. Many have asked if I miss it - living in Amsterdam. I do. I don't. You can't beat a Florida winter and Florida sunshine - especially after experiencing the extreme lack of both in Amsterdam. The occasional language difficulty has been removed. The job market is not so restricted being a citizen of the country where I am now living. But living in Amsterdam could be and was at times pure joy. A beautiful city where in this country only perhaps San Francisco could rival. No strip malls, ugly billboards, traffic jams, or cookie-cutter housing. In there place beautiful 400 year old buildings, canals, bicyclists, and cobblestones. Restaurants of incredible variety with few "chains". Friends from every corner of the globe sharing their thoughts, histories, ideas, cultures, and being open to yours. Brussels and Brugge less than 3 hours away, as well as cities in Germany. Paris four hours away and even Venice under nine. Great cheese and a chilled bottle of bubbly on a slow boat on the canal in July - there's simply nothing like it. If I were to live outside the US again, I would prefer to experience another location. But if Amsterdam was offered and the conditions were right, I wouldn't hesitate to return. I'll try to kick myself into gear and work on our return to the US. There are a few ideas to write about floating around in my nogging. Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Helen and John's European Adventure - Conclusion

So we left off arriving at our Paris hotel. It was actually on the outskirts of Paris. We arrived late and first discovered there was no parking available even though I reserved a spot. Luckily there was a spot on the street near the hotel where I had pulled in upon arrival, and we could keep the car there until the morning when a spot would open up in the hotel's underground garage down the street. Then we were given a room on the 5th floor but the elevator was not functioning! So we packed-muled our luggage up the stairs. Wanted to go for a swim in the hotel's indoor heated pool...but no. It was being serviced. I later read online that a guest complained about the pool being out of service 6 months ago! Factor in the long wait at the front desk as two members of staff were helping one customer. Actually one was helping and the other standing there posing. I finally had to interject to get the "model" to start check in procedures. Nothing was open in the area for dinner, so we just relaxed as to be fresh the next morning. I went down to move the car into the garage down the street. Of course the remote control they gave me to open the door didn't work, and there was no place to park the car temporarily as I walked back to the front desk to give them what for. So, the car remained on the sidewalk with the emergency blinkers on and out of the way of the exit from the garage. I was finally able to park the car and we were free to go into the city. The weather was cloudy - even foggy. We took the subway in and the first stop was the Eiffel Tower. There were long lines, so we decided we would go up another day in hopes of the weather being better too. We did a lot of walking and used the subway when logical. We spent quite a bit of time in The Louvre, with the highlight for Helen was seeing the Mona Lisa. I of course got reprimanded by the security guards because I was making pictures of the hordes of suddenly ruder-than-normal people jockeying for position at the rope barrier to get their pictures of the famous work behind security glass and to pose so their mugs are in the picture as well to prove to Aunt Gladys or Uncle Pedro back home that they were there with the smiling beauty. The last time I was there everyone was flashing away, despite the signs saying no photography or flash was allowed. I asked the security person on duty at the time about people ignoring the rules, and she replied "There are so many, what are we to do"? Just like the French to fold like an accordion. But I turn my camera away from the priceless work of art and onto the pack of crazed tourists and I become an enemy of the state! Of course I ask her "Are you serious?! I can't take a picture of the crowd, but they can flash away at the priceless and arguable most famous painting in the world"?! She flashed her best sour-puss look at me and I returned in kind with my "You're an A #1 idiot" expression. Helen directed me away from Broom Hilda and we enjoyed the rest of the museum...or as much as we could manage. It's so huge, I never fail to get "museumed out"! We hit all the major spots during our 3 days in Paris. Bought tickets online for the Eiffel Tower, and almost lost our tickets because you have to be there at the time you reserved. We lucked out because we were late and not entirely sure where to go. Our timing was such that we were up at the top for the last light of the day and then the lights of the evening came on. On the way out of Paris I was able to drive us around the Arc de Triomphe and even stop so Helen could take some pictures. Usually it's bedlam circling that thing, but it was very quiet on our way out of the city. We headed northwest towards Mont Saint Michel, arriving in the early afternoon due to it's close proximity to Paris. Mont Saint Michel is an imposing sight from a distance, and Helen's reaction was more of what I expected in Venice or when seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. We spent a day the rest of that day at the monastery because our hotel was right up the street within a 20 minute walk. We spent about 4 hours there and then drove around the countryside a little the next morning as I showed her different views of it. We then made the hour drive to the American Cemetery at Normandy and spent about 3 to 4 hours there in the visitors center and then walked around the cemetery itself. We were on the road heading back to Amsterdam by 4pm, arriving late in the evening and me nursing the beginnings of a cold. After 16 days on the road, maybe 24 hours behind the wheel and over 5000 kilometers driven, it would be good to remain in the same place for a couple of days. It was a fun experience with my sister, with most things going as planned and a few surprises breaking the pattern. We disagreed here and there, but no blood was shed. We worked well as a team as I drove, and she showed mercy when I made some silly blunders. All-in-all, a very fun experience and one I would recommend to all. It ended too soon! Maybe we'll get a chance to do it again someday somewhere else. The link for the album is at:

Friday, January 27, 2012

Helen and John's European Adventure - Part 3

We are now in Venice. It's quite enjoyable watching people's expressions and reactions as they soak in places for the first time. From my standpoint I thought Helen's was more subdued than what I expected it to be. Especially being female, I equate Venice with women. It's a women's favorite destination more so than a man's. I think they react differently when they imagine the city in their minds. I recall my giddiness as Radhika and I got off the bus and walked over to the big, modern bridge crossing the Grand Canal. Seeing the water traffic and the buildings disappearing into the distance on that sunny, pleasant day was something to just soak in, which we did. And I immediately set up my tripod and started making pictures. I am not a shopper when I travel. Never was much of one, but I did concern myself with something material to bring back other than memories and exposed rolls of film or later CF cards full of images. We haven't been so concerned with buying something tangible to bring home I would say over the past decade. Even with that cutback, there is so much stuff, so many knick-knacks and chachki's at home in Orlando from past trips. And t-shirts? We went through a t-shirt period for quite a while. They had to be black and oversized. A t-shirt or several from each place. And then it became Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts if either of those were in our destination. Of course I wanted to wear these t-shirts...but not too much for fear of fading them or otherwise ruining them. There are some I have yet to put on, while others, after I said to myself "this is ridiculous" and started wearing them are already gone. But man I am glad we put a halt to that! I can't imagine the size of the clutter if reason had not found us. If we see something that really strikes us or we believe someone close to us would really appreciate something, we may still take the plunge and squeeze something into our suitcases to take home. But other than that it is more about the experience and memories, with an occasional memento to strike that memory to burn again. So, Helen of course, after the last paragraph, is doing a healthy amount of shopping. Not only is she in these stores for herself, she's got so-and-so to shop for back home. Some even requested specific items but gave her no money to make the purchase. Really? Uncool. No way I would be dipping into my spending money for someone too thoughtless (or cheap?) to offer enough clams to cover what I'm asking you to take time to get for me. Clueless bastard. So Helen shops and I roam in the area with my gear so we don't get separated. This worked out well. We never had to spend time looking for each other. We did wander away from the umbrella once until one asked the other "Where's the umbrella?" and then hot-footed it back along the path we came until we saw it leaning near a sculpture we stopped to admire. Nervous turned into funny! Helen had the expectation that the gondoliers were manned by the most Italian of Italian men. Uber-Italians. Tall, dark, smooth, handsome men with asses that could deflect a bullet. Man was she disappointed!!! That's all I heard - one day in particular. She would see one in the distance. Get her hopes up and then come crashing down, usually with some colorful language to define the moment. There was one man who had possibilities. I didn't see it, but I think her desperation to find someone to hang her hopes on lowered her standards and qualifications for what was drool worthy. She's trying to be all sneaky in taking pictures of the guy. If you looked up the definition of "guilty expression" her face at that moment would've told you all you needed to know. Of course I'm laughing and she's trying to suppress a smile, thinking she's got a Harry Potter invisibility cloak and Mr. Close Enough can't detect her. We spend 3 nights in Venice, wandering through the neighborhoods, eating at quaint restaurants, getting my fill of gelato, taking the vaporetto to Murano and Burano (which provides more shopping possibilities) and taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. We did a nice nighttime cruise from St. Marks back to the parking area on the last evening, which wrapped up the visit nicely. Fond memories... A short drive for quick visits to Florence and Sienna before we reached Rome for another 3 nighter in a city that demands more. There was so much I wanted to show and share, but with 2 1/2 weeks allotted for this road trip leaving a few days for Amsterdam making up her 3 weeks here, it's just not possible. So she's able to take some pictures in Florence and Sienna, get a slight feel for the places, but that is all we had time for. We got to our hotel which was located on the outskirts of Rome with sunlight getting scarce. We chilled out and made plans for the next day, which involved getting a shuttle bus to a subway stop that would take us into the city. The next morning, we met an older couple from the UK at the buffet. Actually, they met us. Friendly and open, they started telling me all about their daughter's wedding on a Greek Isle and how they spent the past few months at their home on some Greek island. I was quickly overwhelmed by all the details I was overloaded with. Helen seemed to have less of a problem with all the banter, which makes sense if you knew our personalities. When they asked where we were going for the day, the red alert and battle stations went off in my head! I was non-committal, because we were playing it a little loose. And I can really drag a group down when I come upon something visually interesting and want to work it from all angles. So, they went their way and we went ours...which was straight to the shuttle bus that takes you to a subway stop that goes into the heart of Rome. They were not on it, so we were free and clear. We get into the city and are making our way to the Spanish Steps, when who does Helen see coming our way? You guessed it!! More blabbing ensued and I just dug deeper into my hole and buried by eyeball into me viewfinder. They walked with us to Trevi Fountain, talking all the way. They even said to let them know if we wanted them to go away at any point. I told them to have no fear, I would. Luckily, they got tired of waiting on me to finish making photos at the fountain so they booked out on their own. I think we saw them one more time at breakfast, where Helen happily shared Facebook information with them, and then they were gone. I swear I knew more about them in the 1st 10 minutes than I know about most people after months of exposure to them! Rome demands time. The Coliseum and the Roman Forum chewed up a full day. We enjoyed Rome before we were on the road again, this time heading north to Switzerland with a side visit in Pisa, a place I hadn't visited yet. That was great and convenient. Parking near the tower couldn't have been easier for us that day which optimized our time arriving and departing. It was a warm and sunny October day while we were there for several hours. I didn't want to arrive at our next destination too late and after dark, but we did stay a little longer because it was so nice. We did get on the road and had no delays as we headed to our overnight near the Italian, Swiss, and French borders. Of course it was night, and the navigation device was not providing street numbers for the place we were looking for. It was a smaller secondary road we turned off onto, but then it was like the device said "I got you this far, now you finish the last 2 minutes". We could either continue in the direction we started - up a dark, narrow paved road, or turn around and get our bearings. Helen liked the turning around option. She had little excitement for that dark, curvy road going up the mountain. So after turning the car around, sitting off to the side and getting out to walk around to see if I could get a clue as to where to go, I decided we should go the way we started as it seemed the direction that held the most promise. Within 30 seconds we came upon the lodge. We parked, checked in, had dinner, and called it a night. I did stay up a little late, as the owner said deer have been coming up on the property around midnight, and I want to try to see if not photograph them. It was sprinkling a mix of rain and snow outside, so staking out was not an option. Two did eventually come by, but a good image of them was impossible to be made under the conditions. I was satisfied to just watch them briefly before they moved we did the next morning. It had snowed overnight a little and there was a thick fog that lifted slowly, providing some good picture making. We did that for a little while in the area and as we drove to Montreux and Lausanne on Lake Geneva. After spending several hours in each city we continued on to Paris, arriving in the evening. Problems with the hotel, but that will be in the next post. The slideshow for this post can be found at:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Helen and John's European Adventure - Part 2

We managed to navigate out of Prague without any major setbacks and then the TomTom device kicked in at the Austrian border. Our departure was early enough that we arrived in Salzburg with daylight to spare. We stayed at the actual house, not the "Sound Of Music" version, of the von Trapp family. Our room for the night would be Liesl's room. Christopher immediately told us the name was not correct, that Hollywood changed the child’s name from Marie and that in fact a son was the oldest child in the family. One of the many changes made to ump up the story telling. We were informed of a local restaurant and how to get to the city center, so we started the 15 to 20 walk we were told it would be to the restaurant and then from there a bus would take us to the city. But, we only made it 3 minutes when we were crossing the train stop, when a young girl of 16 asked us for help. She was lost, and needed to get to a particular stop to catch a train back home, in Slovenia! We momentarily looked at the map and information board, but when her eyes got a little watery I suggested she walk back with us to where we were staying. Our hosts would know for sure how to direct her. And in one sentence, Christopher gave her all she needed to know, drying up her eyes and forming a smile on her face! We walked back to the train stop together where she remained, as Helen and I continued on our walk to the restaurant, which was probably more like 30 minutes away than 20. It was dusk by the time we reached the restaurant, with rush hour traffic filling the road beside us. We had some good Austrian food along with the usual European spotty service. Our female server seemed to get reassigned to or became responsible for another section of the restaurant, because when it was time to pay the bill she was never in our section. But we managed that and also received bus information to get to the city, which turned out to be only 4 stops away from the stop near the restaurant. Probably a shorter walk to the city from the restaurant than the walk to it from where we were staying! Salzburg was pretty quiet when we got there, but we walked around and checked out what we could and made some pictures. We returned to the train stop via bus and turned in for the night. The next morning we had breakfast, packed the car in a steady drizzle and drove to the city, parking in an underground garage. We walked around on a chilly, wet morning. Luckily as the morning gave way to the afternoon the rain subsided and the day became mild. After we strolled through the older part of the city we went up to the castle, purchasing 2 tickets to enter. We spent the rest of our time in Salzburg here, as there was much to see. We left around 4pm on the slightly over 3-hour drive to Venice, where we would be spending 2 nights. Helen was a "snapping fool", alternating between camera and phone taking pictures of the Italian Alps as we crossed into Italy. I have now crossed the Alps from Salzburg, Zurich, and Munich, and I must say it is a gorgeous experience every time. It was night when we pulled into Mestre, which is the closest city before going out to Venice. I had a little trouble, with road construction causing some tension, but we made it close to our hotel until there seemed to be an issue with a one-way route that we couldn't take. I parked the car on a side street and walking just a few minutes found the hotel. We parked around the back and checked in. Wasn't entirely impressed with the property, but I've seen and stayed in worse places. English was completely foreign to the man at the front desk, so we stumbled through the process and went to the room. Uninspiring but clean, we unpacked and crashed for the night intent on getting an early start. The slideshow for Salzburg is at

Friday, November 11, 2011

Helen and John's European Adventure - Part 1

My sister Helen came from Tallahassee, Florida, arriving in Amsterdam a little after 9am on the 9th of October. Her stay was to be 3 weeks, with a little more than 2 of those weeks spent on a road trip circuit through Europe. Not wanting to waste any time, we headed directly to Rothenburg, Germany right from Schiphol airport. She was remarkably fresh from her overnight flight, having gotten plenty of sleep after taking a melatonin tablet. The first adventure I provided to her was to run out of gas on a German highway! Yea!! What fun!!! Let me set the table for this unique opportunity I was gracious enough to provide for my dear sister. Our lease car has a dashboard readout, and "kilometers left in the tank" is just one of the displays you can see above your speedometer. We're driving along, and I observe the readout indicates 100 kilometers are left in the tank. Now, the lowest I have ever taken it was to 50 kilometers on one of my solo trips. So, I figure we're doing pretty good but should start considering a stop. The readout also details outside conditions, and I noticed the temperature readout was 7c below zero with icy conditions! Well, it was actually closer to 20c degrees and partly sunny! I look again at the readout and see the information change from 100 kilometers to 40! Helen sees this too. So, a road sign indicates a rest stop is up ahead and I decide that's where we will fill up. So Helen and I are engaged in a conversation and before I know it I'm passing the rest stop! Now I'm as concerned as Helen has been, because the low fuel light is on steady. And then the 40 kilometers left in the tank sign disappears, and it's replaced with dashes!!! We come up on an exit from the highway and it seems there's a gas station right off the highway. But, there's a huge backup of vehicles waiting to take the exit. I'm trying to figure how hard it will be to get back on the highway if I take this exit as we're passing this extremely long line of stopped cars waiting to take the exit. Right when we get to where the exit peels off the highway, there is a slight space that I could hit the brake, dash over to and squeeze in - - but I don't due to it being a jackass move. Of course Helen is telling me to take it, but I drive on, hoping for another exit. Well, you obviously know the outcome. We're driving, both of us tense as hell, and eventually the car starts hesitating. Done. Game over. I can't apologize enough for the bone-headed start to this trip! I coast the car as long as I can, but don't you know through all the kilometers of driving with a wide shoulder next to us, now there's no place to pull off to the side. We pass an exit, and Helen suggests taking it. But I say I would rather stay on the highway as we have a better chance of getting assistance that way. So, no shoulder to pull off onto and now we are going up a slight hill! Emergency blinkers on and I'm pushing the car on the highway to get to an area ahead with a shoulder. Fun, right? Not 3 minutes later a police car comes up from behind, as cars are making their way around us. An officer gets out and I tell him what happened. He actually asks, "Why did you run out of gas?" I gave him the only answer I could: "Because it's my turn to be an idiot." They towed us to a gas station less than 5 kilometers away, where we filled up and were on our way after several thank yous and hand shakes. We lost less than 30 minutes from that stupidity, and so lucky to have them show up when they did. I was thinking it was going to take a while to get us back on the road as the engine cut off, but we lucked out. First adventure in the books, but I managed to keep that adventure an isolated one! Our first stop (other than the unscheduled one just detailed) was in the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. It is one of the finest preserved walled medieval towns in Europe dating back to 1170. This was my 3rd visit, and I always enjoy walking the streets and now the familiarity I feel as I turn corners and recognize where I am. We checked in, and Walter assured us it was a romantic room. As my full-body cringe wore off I explained that we were brother and sister so any concerns with romance were wasted on us. I needed to ask a question of Walter, so I walked back to the reception area in the other building where we had checked in, but Walter was located in yet a 3rd building and walked over to us when we summoned him on the intercom. This was a slightly inconvenient set up as we needed to have some answers to questions but reception wasn't staffed after a certain time. But we managed best we could and made use of the daylight left to us. It was enjoyable for me to see Helen observe her first European setting, and it being Rothenburg, which looks centuries old and like no other place she had ever visited, made the experience even more rich. We decided to join the night watchman walking tour, which I had not done on either of my previous visits. It was informative and entertaining, as the man who played the night watchman had a great delivery and sense of humor. We walked and listened for over an hour, and if you ever find yourself in Rothenburg I highly suggest joining this tour. We walked along much of the wall the next morning and into the afternoon coming upon places I don't recall ever seeing. We visited shops and had a bite to eat before reluctantly starting our 3 1/2 hour drive to Prague around 3pm. Leaving was a little tough, as it was already closing a chapter on this story too soon. The drive to Prague was tricky; especially once we got into the city because the navigation device had maps for Western Europe only, so now entering Eastern Europe we were working with written directions from Google Maps. The darkness made it more difficult, as street signs were harder to see, especially when they weren't present! There is a difference in efficiency between GPS devices and using directions, which impacts the length of time the trip takes, as we made stops to ask for clarity in our directions and wrong turns (of which there were quite a few). I pulled over into a spot on the street at one point because neither of us was sure of our next direction. I called the hotel, and was informed, "You are right around the corner." I walked up the street 30 seconds and at the intersection I saw the hotel right across the street! Problem was, the streets were one-way. After trying the "legal" route, which did not get us there, I came back and shot down the 30 meters in the wrong direction to the hotel. I had to confirm no trams were coming, as they traveled in the same direction as the one-way traffic. Helen was really good at reading the directions. We got hung up sometimes due to missing signs, a road not where we expected it to be, and things like that. Otherwise, we managed quite well. And once we left Prague in 2 days, we would put GPS back in charge. We parked the car and there it stayed for 2 days as we took the public transportation into the city. Prague is a beautiful city with many settings to immerse oneself in. One of my favorite cities in Europe, its well-aged atmosphere sparkles with history. Comfortable walking shoes are a necessity in most European cities, and Prague sets a good example of that rule. There’s so much to enjoy just walking around from one side of the river to the other. Prague Castle and Golden Lane, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square with St. Nichola´s and Tyn churches, the Astronomical Clock and the Old Town Hall, and St. Vitus Cathedral are some of the sights to enjoy when visiting this great city, and we hit these places on a day with fantastic weather. We bought tickets for a string concert the first evening, which was a great treat and reminded us both of the symphonic concerts we would go to as children back in Florida and fight off the urge to fall asleep, as the music was so soothing. The next morning after breakfast we drove on to our next destination 6 hours away: Salzburg, Austria. The slideshow for this post is at

Friday, November 4, 2011

Poland - Land of My Mother - Part 2

I'm driving to Warsaw, wanting to get there before nightfall to make it easier to find the hotel. It was about 6pm when I was 30 kilometers away from the hotel in Warsaw, roughly 20-45 minutes depending on traffic. I was driving on a divided highway moderately populated with vehicles traveling around 100kph, as was I. Along a slightly wooded area with a few buildings and side streets, a man stepped out off the side of the road with what appeared to be a ping pong/table tennis paddle. He was moderately gesturing with it in a motion that meant, "slow down" to me, and brake lights came on all around me. Several kilometers down the road a motorcycle cop rolls up beside and with his lights on. So, I pull over and he stops in front of me. Walking over to me, he speaks in Polish, obviously, and of course I tell him I don't speak the language. He asks for my license, which I give to him and he drives off, but stops about 50 meters in front of me and looks back at me. So, I take that as "follow me, you dumb ass" and drive up to where he is. We make a u-turn and head back to where the guy with the paddle was standing, but now I see there are about a half dozen police there, 2 or 3 motorcycles and a couple of cars. I can recognize what this is no matter what country I'm in - Speed Trap. Out of all the cars in the group I was traveling in that were going the same speed, I'm the one the hunted down and brought back. I honestly didn't know what the problem was, because as I just wrote we were all traveling at the same rate, I had made no lane changes, nothing obviously wrong with the car. So, a lot of Polish being directed in my direction and the old guy with the paddle was especially agitated with me (join the club). I simply said I have no idea what you are saying. Eventually a cop came over who spoke limited English, and through trial and error he told me the speed limit where they are standing is 50kph and there's a fine for going over that, and a fine for not stopping when I was waved at with the paddle (which explained grandpa's anger at me because obviously he takes his paddle work quite seriously). I told the semi-English speaking cop I didn't see any change in the speed limit as I was traveling along with everyone else, and I had no idea that the paddle gestures meant for me alone to stop. I didn't even recognize the guy holding the paddle to be wearing a uniform, as he popped out at the last moment as the group of cars traveled by. No matter according to the cop. I am to pay something like a 1000 Zloty fine (€230/$320), 500 for speeding and 500 for not stopping. When I told them I did not have that they said no problem they would take me to an ATM. I requested a ticket be written and they dragged their heels on that. As I began to shift from ignorance of what happened, to apologetic for the misunderstanding, and then anger at the attempt at extortion, the mood changed. I called the hotel to inform them I would be late, and explained what was happening. The man at the hotel said what the sops were doing was not right and I should contact my embassy. He provided the number and I started placing calls, first getting London and finally making contact with the American Consul in Poland. While all of this was going on my new police friends were looking at their watches and saying time was going by. I said I was in no hurry, which was true because I didn't have to pick Radhika up at the airport until 10pm. An hour went by as I walked around, leaned on the trunk of my car, and kept the cell phone to my ear. Another cop who could speak good English was called out, and he spoke good English. He covered the same ground that the other cop did, and I responded with what I had already expressed. He told me I should know all the traffic laws of the countries I visit. I told him I seriously doubt he would know ALL of the traffic rules and regulations of the USA if he were to visit there. I also informed him that I have driven all over Europe and have had no difficulties (other than my flinger-flipping incident in Belgium which conveniently slipped my mind). In Poland, they have a sign rectangular in shape, which shows the silhouette of the skyline of a city. I understood that to be an entering a "city limit" sign, because there was another almost exactly like it however it had a slash through it, and it was always located when it looked like you were leaving a city. But in fact, that sign means the speed limit is 50kph. The cop asked me if Amsterdam or the US had the same sign. I said "No! They are silly that way. For some reason the just post the numerical digit of what the speed limit is. I have not seen this sign anywhere outside of Poland." He was surprised. So much went back and forth between these two cops and me. I became more obstinate as the minutes ticked away, and at one point said how unfair and underhanded their tactics were. When I finally made contact with the American Consul and brought her up to speed, the cop said he didn't want to talk to her. By now, it was getting dark, and as much as I hate mosquitoes I was loving the fact that these guys were constantly fighting off these especially aggressive pests. By now, they had pretty much wrapped up their little enterprise, and most of the cops were huddled in my area or ducked into cars to avoid the pesky little blood suckers. I made a strong effort to slowly and nonchalantly wave away any mosquitoes in my area to project they weren't too much of a concern to me. Anyway, I asked the cop why he was afraid to talk to her. He said he wasn't afraid, but it was due to her inability to speak Polish. I asked her, and she said of course she speaks fluent Polish. I informed the cop, and he had no recourse but to take the phone from me. They spoke for a brief time, he handed the phone back to me, and she said I could leave. I asked her what she said to him, and it was the exact same things I had said to him. I paused my conversation with her, thanked them and apologized for the misunderstanding, and they all smiled and asked me to drive with care, and then resumed my conversation with her for a few minutes more. The cops, cars, and motorcycles were gone within 30 seconds. The realization that there was no money coming from me, their impatience, the mosquitoes, or a combination of all 3 caused a hasty retreat. I thanked her for her help and called the hotel to say I was on my way. Confirming my concerns, finding the hotel under darkness was difficult. Calling the hotel and getting step-by-step directions was not efficient, so I told the guy I would just keep him on the line until I was on site. Closed roads and construction which did not appear on the map made it extremely difficult on my own, and one of the last directions I received by the hotel was to ignore the sign that indicates you cannot drive down this road, because it is the only way to get to our hotel!! So, I parked the car, checked in and put my luggage in the room, and then took a cab to the airport to pick-up Radhika, as I was done driving for the day! David, the guy at the hotel who provided such excellent support received a well-deserved gratuity from me!! The next day we did a full day of sightseeing in Warsaw, and really enjoyed the city. We received several "advisories" of even "warnings" about Poland (the roads are in bad shape) and Warsaw (quite boring and mostly new because more than 80% was destroyed by the Germans in WWII). Outside of the first 40 to 60 kilometers after crossing into Poland from Germany in the south, which were completely terrible and allowed for a max speed of about 40kph, the rest of the roads weren't much different than roads in Amsterdam. And we really enjoyed Warsaw and would recommend a visit to anyone considering it. The next day we drove to Lublin to visit that small city farther east and it's Majdanek Concentration Camp. We enjoyed that city too, and the camp was an interesting experience. Our hotel was a bit of a disappointment, as any information they seemed to provide to us was wrong. But we stuffed ourselves with many varieties of pierogies, potato pancakes, and Polish beer and had a good time. We went back to Warsaw the next morning, arriving in the afternoon and sightseeing that evening and part of the next day until mid-afternoon, when I drove Radhika to the airport for her flight to Amsterdam. I immediately hit the road, expecting to stop somewhere near the Polish-German border east of Berlin, which is what came to be. However, not before encountering the worst rainstorm I remember from recent memory. Florida can dish out some heavy water in the summer, and I recall one way back in '84-'85 in Indiana with a girlfriend, but this one was at night, visibility seemed to be feet if not inches. The sound of the pounding rain and wind was deafening. I could see by the illumination of the headlights that the wind was blowing the rain horizontally at times! Vehicles were off to the side, emergency blinkers on, under bridges, and this was no flash rainstorm. It lasted for a very long time. You would drive for a while after it let up for a moment, and then start pounding the car in the blink of an eye. I made it to the first hotel, one that was on my list to consider when I came upon it probably somewhere around 9:30pm. Not the ideal place, but not so bad either. Logistically it was just what I wanted, only a few minutes from Germany where the navigation would take over and direct me back to Amsterdam when I left in the morning. And that's exactly what happened. I slid through Germany on their great highway system without too many delays (roads are always being repaired in Germany and if you're not caught in a backup you are very lucky) and made it to Amsterdam in the late afternoon. Another adventure came to a close.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Poland - Land Of My Mother - Part 1

We had visited Portugal back in April, and what a terrific place that was! I'm half Portuguese from my Father's side of the family, as my grandfather came to the United States around the turn of the 20th Century. My Mom's father came from Poland at about that same time. I drove to Portugal, and I drove to Poland. I left Amsterdam early in the morning at the end of August. I drove straight towards Krakow, as my first stop would be Auschwitz and Birkenau. My Navigation device did not have maps for Eastern Europe, so I used Google Maps to get around, and that worked pretty well. I also bought a map on my first refueling once inside Poland. I got an early start on my first full day, and as suggested by what I read online I went to Birkenau first, getting there by 10am. The size of the place is the first thing that impacted me, and many of the buildings have long crumbled away. The stories and information provided add to the experience and your understanding. I was there most of the day and for the first hours I didn't see many other visitors. Not until after noon did visitors in significant numbers come into the camp. All of my pictures are void of people, which I feel add a feeling of emptiness to them. I don't feel the need to go into detail, because I thought many things as I walked around, absorbed the place as it is today, imagining it full of people 70 years ago, and making images along the way. I have my thoughts and feelings about these types of places, and instead of trying to convey those here, I believe it's best for people to go to these places themselves, if they can, and cultivate their own thoughts and feelings. I got to Auschwitz at 4pm, having spent almost 6 hours at Birkenau, and I'm glad I saw these 2 places in this particular order. Auschwitz is small and compact...mostly a collection of brick buildings. The information, media presentations, and displays are much more numerous here, and reading all of this material can take more time than it takes to walk the entire grounds and see everything at Birkenau. I had limited time at Auschwitz and admit to being wiped out from my 6 hours at Birkenau, and could not read everything at Auschwitz. But there are interesting exhibits and displays, from daily life depictions, how new arrivals were processed, an entire building devoted to Dutch prisoners, etc. I left Auschwitz at 6pm a very tired man, and still had to drive to my next destination. By the time I got there, it was dark and the hotel didn't seem to be where the map said it should be. I stopped at a house near where I thought the hotel should be, and this nice, older Polish woman who spoke no English tried her best to gesture where I needed to go when I showed her the name of the hotel. I thanked her and backed out and onto the short stretch of road, making a left onto the main road I was on originally and after 50 meters saw lights on my right past some trees and then a big, nicely lit sign. I just turned in thinking I would ask for more directions, but then noticed the sign on the building and smiled, as it was my home for the night. I was in Zakopane, the southwestern part of Poland which is very mountainous and a big winter ski area. It was a matter of convenience concerning the geographical areas I would visit on this trip. Convenience concerning driving distances and most importantly I wanted to visit the area where it's thought my Mom's father had lived before coming to the United States. That area is around two very small towns named Bobowa and Jankowa, and they were due north between Zakopane and Warsaw where I would meet up with Radhika in two days. Zakopane is a really nice region and the people seemed friendly, although little English is spoken. There were many other tourists around, by my estimation mostly Poles, shopping and enjoying the atmosphere in the town. I had potato pancakes and Poland! For me, that was cool. And they were tasty!! From Zakopane, I wanted to find a location that was convenient for driving through the area where it's thought my grandfather came from, which I would drive through the next day. Looking at the map I chose a place to stay in a small town called Krynica-Zdrój. It was a brand new place, just opened, so it was a pleasant surprise and stay, as I didn't know it had just been built and opened. The town was small and charming, with hills and forests around it which made for great walks and some good photography. There wasn't a restaurant nearby the evening I arrived, so the man on duty asked if I like potato soup. I said I did, and he prepared a delicious bowl of it, along with a tasty dessert and ice-cold bottle of Polish beer! I ate in the dining area with 80's American music playing on the sound system (Europe loves the 80's!). The next morning I began my daylong drive north to Warsaw, stopping at the small towns Bobowa and Jankowa, which were less than an hour away. There was not much there to see - farmland, railroad tracks, a very small general store (they had Pepsi Twist though!), and what looked like a plumbing supply store. I brought considerable interest with my Dutch plates, dark complexion, and cameras slung off my shoulders. The kids on bicycles brought a smile, following me and being intensely curious about this outsider. It was nice to walk around, say hello to the people, breathe the air, see everything with my own eyes, but beyond that I can't say I accomplished much by going there, not that I had any real expectations in the first place. I drove on after a while, following the crude map I had drawn and using the purchased map. It wasn't long before I came upon a road construction site. I had seen road signs, indicating the towns that were up ahead, but there were X's of black tape crossing out the names, so I thought to myself there might be an issue waiting for me. And there surely was. The road upon which I was traveling was dug up and construction crews and heavy equipment were busily working. A man came out of a construction trailer and waved at me. I stopped as he came over and I rolled down my window. He said something in Polish and it was quickly determined the road was closed. It was looking like this could be a serious delay for me. I showed him my map and asked how I could get to the spot I was pointing at. He exchanged a few words with the guys near the site, and then they moved barricades and I understood them to tell me to keep going straight. After several thank you's for letting me go through, I saw where I was on the map and was good to go. I don't know how long it would've taken me to find alternate routes, but I can't imagine that I would've enjoyed the same outcome back in the states. But perhaps being delayed could've been a good thing, because another mess waited for me 30 kilometers south of Warsaw. I'll get to that in part 2. The album for Poland can be found at:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Another place on our list, Athens. The only destination that we arrived and departed from together as time and schedule did not allow me to stay longer. We stayed in a friend’s apartment, someone we met in Amsterdam but currently lives and works in Zurich. The Athens airport seemed nice, and it wasn't crazy far away from the city, as so many airports in Europe seem to be (remember Istanbul's Sabiha?). Radhika and I were to meet up with a friend of his that would provide the key to his apartment. On the train into the city we were immediately overcome by intense body odor of those around us. It's mid-September, but it's still very warm in Greece. The main culprit was a guy who got on at the same stop as we did, and he decided to stand behind and over me, as Radhika and I were able to get seats facing each other. For stability he grabbed the bar above his head raising his right arm up, which almost sent our breakfasts in the same direction. Radhika was making rather loud pronouncements of her impending unconscious state when I discovered that my cologne had leaked a little onto my Fla. State baseball cap while in the suitcase during the flight. I gave her this, which she used as a pseudo-gas mask for the reminder of the ride. We made our metro connections and got to the stop we needed to meet the young lady who had the key. After a few text exchanges, we met and then walked over together to the apartment. A few warnings about safety and the area, and then we were on our own. Just about the first thing we did was something that bit us on the ass. We bought 48-hour hop on - hop off bus tickets. Given our limited amount of time in Athens, we thought we were making a logical decision. Not so quick, Mr. Spock! It took no time to figure out we were boobs, and that Athens is not a city where a bus tour is any benefit to travelers like us. That is we like to be on our own, we can get around with no physical limitations, and hold up in heat and cold. Besides, to get your money's worth you need to be on the bus. Get off at the Acropolis and you are pretty much done for several hours if not for the day (unless you're the "shuffle up, raise your point and shoot, shuffle off" type of tourist). So, we buy these tickets from the woman selling them near the bus stop after hearing her repeat the same safety warnings heard earlier. We ride for a while, maybe 20 minutes. The bumpy road, heat, exhaust, or combination of everything tossed a little case of nausea on me. When we came to the Acropolis, we decided to get off, as the break would help alleviate my condition. After a cold Sprite we decided to stay and visit the site. Getting in was tricky, as you get to the gate to go in but you have to buy a ticket first located elsewhere. With sincere deference to my Greek friends, I began to see why perhaps there are problems in the country. Anyway, we managed to get our tickets and entered. I was back to feeling fine in no time, and we walked around the ruins and really enjoyed the site. By then it was slightly after noon, not the ideal time I want to be making photographs outdoors, but that's when we happened to be there. And fortunately due to the time of year, the sun was not directly overhead. It was cloudless and the sun was relentless. My formed-in-Florida molecules were loving it!! We were at the Acropolis, and then had lunch at The New Acropolis Museum finishing around 5pm. From there we walked to Hadrian's Gate and Zeus's Temple, finishing there around 6pm. We waited for our Hop On- Hop Off bus at the stop right outside Zeus's Temple, but it didn't seem to be running. Seems they go to a reduced schedule after their summer season ends, and that was just a few days ago. So we decided to go to dinner at a place right across the street with a great view, an almost equal quality meal, and good service at Athens Gate. One view offered the Acropolis and the other side afforded a great view of Zeus's Temple! We walked through the tourist-laden streets on our way back to the square where we bought those now infamous bus tickets and caught a €3 cab back to the apartment. The next day we were using the 2nd day of our bus ticket to go to the port where the ferry to Ihdra/Hydra departs. So in the morning we're packed, check the apartment, lock it up, and take our luggage with us. We walk all the way back to the square where we are to catch the bus that goes to the port which is about 20 minutes away. We wait, and then are told by the woman who had sold us the tickets that we should take a bus that just pulled up. It's not going to the port, but is going to the next stop where a bus will leave from to go to the port. She tells us that the bus that goes to the port doesn't always stop at our current location - even though it's supposed to. Okay! So we drag ourselves and our luggage onto this bus for one stop, which plops us back at the stop for Zeus's Temple. A bus eventually arrives and we board, finally going to Piraeus, the port where the ferry will take us to Ihdra. All this time we are flogging ourselves, as we wasted time and money buying those stupid bus tickets! We get to Piraeus, and there's nothing there to see. It doesn't even take us to the port! To get there we need to walk or take a taxi. So we start walking, not knowing the exact distance we have to travel. A taxi pulls up, inquires about us, we tell him where we're going and ask him how much the fare is, we hop in. Three minutes later we're there! One last kick in the ass from those bus tickets! We're early, but there's no place to eat on the dock side, and a group of American's in the waiting area are really annoying us, so we go across the road where there's a small outdoor cafe and we eat a light lunch. Keeping an eye on the time, we finish our meal, pay the check and walk back over. Seems like the ship should be in. They're numbered, and we don't see our number along the dock. I ask the woman at the ticket counter and she said it will be 10 minutes late. That, of course, turned out to be at least 30 minutes before we actually left. The boarding process (I laugh at my use of the term "process") was FUBAR. Our seats were in the front, where the ship's sides taper in, so we're in very closed space and the air circulation is zero. The Neanderthal taking people's bags must be getting paid by Samsonite to test luggage integrity, because he's tossing bags in every direction. Some people don't help the matter, because they behave in a bizarro-world Emily Post way, themselves. People start moving from the front area before we leave the dock, as veal calves have more comfort than we do. I am deciding in my mind whether I want to bother the people next to me and crawl over them to get out. I was tired of eyeballing that barf bag, thinking it was going to be my close friend very soon, so finally I utter an excuse me and move past them, going to the area behind us where there's more room and plenty of seats. In no time I told Radhika I was fine and back to normal. The trip was less than 90 minutes, and pulling into Ihdra was a great sight…small Island, no vehicles, charming buildings, and lush terrain. Yes...this was going to be nice. We asked someone who pointed us in the right direction to find where we were staying the first night. Following the signs the hotel had placed along the way, it wasn't too difficult to find. It was a really nice place in a location not too far from the waterfront. We put our stuff in the room around 3:30pm and went back down the short route and walked along the dock area and up to a place right on the water where we could have an small late lunch while the sun was still out. We found out later that the restaurant was voted the 2nd best view in the world ( We walked around some more, along a dirt path on the far side of the island, and then turned around as it started to get dark. We found a nice restaurant set in an outside garden to have dinner and then went back to our room for the night. Before going in, we sat outside in the small garden area and had a drink by ourselves. It was so quiet and peaceful. In the morning after breakfast we would be moving to another place higher up in the hills that has a great view over the town to the water. We met a woman down at the port who would walk with us to our new hotel. She picked up some passengers off a ferry and together we walked up the 300+ steps to the hotel. Two mules carried our luggage. The route involved several turns and different alleys, so recognizing landmarks was really important! We checked in, got our room, which was fantastic, put our stuff away, and got to the beach are by 1:30pm. I went walking with my cameras after a while as I can only sit there so long and swim so many times - the swimming was nice, however! Came across a friendly mule who came running up to the fence from across the field, but I didn't have anything in my camera bag for him (no way I'm feeding a Snickers bar to a mule!). Came across another beach that looked nice. The island actually has several beaches, accessible by walking or you can pay for a boat to take you. Made it back to the beach we were at and did some more swimming. The water was great and appeared very clear. The little fish would nip at my feet every now and then. Didn't tell Radhika that. She did pretty good swimming in the water. She's not a big fan of the stuff, and marvels at me when I swim under for a long time and just love it so. But she did quite well. I get a kick out of the sour expressions she makes when the salty water gets on her lips! I could post some funny pictures of her swimming, but would never hear the end of it! We left the beach around 6pm, one of the last people to do so. We walked back slowly, making pictures along the way. We got a recommendation of where to eat some good Greek food from the owner of our hotel, and we eventually made dinner at a place called Christina's at 9pm. We were checking out again in the morning, taking a ferry back to Athens and then on to the airport. Breakfast was not as good as the first place we stayed at, but it was served outside too, which made it nice. We were packed and ready to go. I had gone off early to get a few more shots made, and somewhere along the way my eye extender slide off my camera. I went back down to the area I had visited earlier, tracing my steps, but didn't find it. I consider myself lucky in that regard. I've had a lens cap blown off the deck of a ship in Alaska, a polarizer slipped from my hand, bounced off the deck of a ship once and then went "plunk" into the Li River in China, and now this. I actually glued the piece on just a month or so prior, because it came off my camera in France, but I backtracked and found it. Apparently the glue wasn't strong enough. Already sent an email to Canon complaining and asking for a fix. Anyway, our ferry was late, very late, and people were getting itchy. Some UK vacationers said they would pretty much miss their flight because of the delay. Luckily we had padding and had no such issues this time. But the Greek ferries are notorious for poor service and never being on time! We can vouch for that. Two ferry trips - two delays. Another trip, another great place. We were so down on Athens the first day there. The crumbling streets and buildings, horrible graffiti covering everything, people sleeping on the streets, the traffic congestion, the train experience, and the people...some seemed to be just beaten down while others I sensed were boiling over inside. Our feelings softened on the 2nd day, and we enjoyed it and appreciated it more. It is a place that is unsteady right now, and that's a shame. Athens, the cradle of civilization, should be a shining, prosperous city. Paris and Rome have their areas that the tourist board and chamber of commerce would like to keep hidden, but they have their "shiny" areas that they highlight, tout, and almost stand beside and go "Ta-Da!” Nowhere in Athens did I see an area to really "Ta-Da" about. I hope things turn around soon for Athens and for all of Greece. It's beauty and history needs to be restored. The album for Greece can be found at: or click on the albums button when on the blogs homepage.