Sunday, October 22, 2006

Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland

The following is an account of a four-day trip I took to southern Germany (Bavaria), Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland with my daughter and my son, and two of my wife’s friends – Mike and JoLynn Rudick. My wife had the flu and stayed home.

On Top of the Zugspitze

Day 1, Thursday, March 23, 2000 – We left home at 7:30 a.m. We tried to talk my wife into coming, but she said she would be better off at home resting. I asked Mike to drive the first leg, so I could sit in the back with the kids and keep them entertained. After starting a movie and feeding them breakfast, we had an uneventful couple of hours. At lunch, we could not find a place to stop and eat. That is so often the case on the Autobahn. You may see a restaurant, but you often have a tough time getting to it. We exited three times trying to get to a restaurant before we were successful.

After lunch, I drove. When we got to Bavaria, in southern Germany, the weather was still very nice. It was sunny and about 60 degrees. I didn’t think we were going to see any snow, but then I came around a curve and the snow-covered Alps appeared out of nowhere. It was an amazing sight to see. We drove up into the mountains to the town of Fussen, Germany, where the Neuschwanstein Castle is located. This castle was the home of “Mad” King Ludwig, and is one of the most recognizable attractions in Germany. The castle was also the model for Walt Disney’s castle, and looks very similar. The castle is up on a mountain, and the only ways to get there are by bus, horse-drawn carriage, or by walking. Since it wasn’t high tourist season yet, the buses were not yet operating. The line for the horse-drawn carriage was very long, so we decided to hike up the mountain. My son immediately said he was tired and wanted to ride my back. He is big enough now that it wears me out to carry him too far. The climb up was steep and exhausting, especially in the thin air. We took pictures outside, and then paid to tour the castle. The tour only took about twenty minutes. It was O.K., but I would not recommend it in the summer when the lines to get in are supposed to be hours long.

After the tour, we went outside and took more pictures. I heard a man say he was from Oklahoma, and I asked where. He told me Atoka, and I told him I was from Hugo. He asked if I knew Cecil Cowlings, who was my shop teacher in the 8th grade. Unbelievable! He also knew some acquaintances of JoLynn’s (she is from Valliant, OK). We talked to him a few minutes, and then hiked up to the Marienbrücke (a bridge over a gorge) which is an excellent spot to take pictures of the castle. The view was stunning. On the way back down, we veered off the road and took a path through the woods. Since there was snow on the path, my son was able to walk down (he wanted to play in the snow).

After we came back down, we drove to our hotel in Fussen. We saw a McDonald’s, so I stopped and got some food for the kids. We checked into the hotel and I got the kids ready for bed. We only had two beds, so someone was going to have to sleep on the floor. We had brought sleeping bags just in case this happened, and I asked who wanted to sleep on the floor. Neither of them did. I told my daughter that when I was little, I loved to sleep on the floor. She said, “Then the answer is simple. YOU sleep on the floor.” Anyway, after I stopped laughing, my daughter slept on the floor. They woke up throughout the night calling for me. I did not sleep well.

Day 2, Friday, March 24, 2000 – We had breakfast in the hotel. The place was packed with Americans, probably because it was recommended by Frommer’s Guide to Germany. When I was loading the van, there were two older American men looking at the van. They asked to look at it, because they were impressed with the interior space. We ended up talking about what I was doing in Germany and what they were doing. One was from South Dakota and one was from Wisconsin. They were traveling with their wives all over Germany.

We left Fussen and headed to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. To get there, we had to cross the Alps and drive into Austria. The first Austrians I met were the police. I had not been speeding, but they had set up a speed trap at the bottom of a long hill. I caught a little speed going down the hill, and I was going 12 miles over the 60 KPH (36 MPH) speed limit. They just stepped out into the road with a stop sign and flagged me down. He asked for license and registration in German. I pretended not to understand. This is a trick that my business director, who is German, has told me that he uses when in the U.S. If you have extreme difficulty with the language, they will be more likely to be lenient. I handed him my passport, but again he repeated himself. I handed him my Texas driver’s license, and he told me that I had to have an international driver’s license to drive in Austria. At that point, I got worried, because I was afraid he was not going to let us drive away. He then said, “That is not the problem though. The problem is that you were driving 20 kilometers over the speed limit.” Finally, he gave up on communicating with me, and said “Just pay me 45 marks and you can go.” That is only $22, so I was happy to pay it and go. When we got home, a friend told a similar story. They were also pulled over as soon as they drove into Austria, but she said she was sure she was not speeding.

The Austrian scenery was beautiful. There was snow everywhere, and the little houses and villages were all pristine. The whole country looked like a Christmas postcard. We will definitely need to go back and spend some time there.

We got into Garmisch about 10. The Winter Olympics were held there in early 1900’s, and we could see why. There were ski slopes everywhere, and the view was really remarkable. I got lots of pictures and video. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The snow-covered mountains went straight to the sky. The town itself was lovely. All of the buildings had beautiful paintings on them, and the shutters all had scenes painted around them. The streets were cobblestone, and very narrow. The town appeared to be very old.

Our main objective for the day was to take a train and then a cable car to the top of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain (about 10,000 feet). We got our tickets, and rode halfway up the mountain on a cog rail. I can’t even describe the scenery. There were lakes down below, and snow all around. The kids were very excited. We got up to a plateau high on the mountain, and stopped for lunch. The kids played in the snow a while. There were skiers everywhere. After lunch, we took a cable car up to the top of the mountain. It was very cold, but we messed around outside for a while and took lots more pictures. You could probably see for hundreds of miles over the Alps. The air was very thin there, and my son started to get tired. I picked him up and he fell asleep pretty quickly in my arms.

After an hour or so, we caught a different cable car to the bottom. This descended very quickly, and hurt mine and my son’s ears. It was much like the pressure changes in an airplane. When we got to the bottom, he complained a lot about his ears hurting.

After we had descended, we went back into town to search for our hotel. We found another Frommer’s recommended hotel, the Gasthof Fraundorfer, and booked rooms. The rooms were all guesthouses in separate buildings. I could not find our room, so I approached a couple sitting outside. I asked them in German if they could help me. I told them my room number and told them that the woman at the reception had said the room was out there somewhere. I spoke for about 2 solid minutes in German before I stopped. The man looked at me puzzled and said “No sprechen German.” I asked, “Oh, you’re American?” He and his wife both laughed, and he said “Wow! Where did you learn to speak like that? That was incredible.” He then asked if I could help them. His wife had some cold medicine, but the directions were in German. I told him what it said, and he told me that my room was right next to theirs.

We dumped our stuff off in the room, and then walked out back. There was a huge hill behind our room, so we decided to climb it. It was probably 300 feet to the top, and pretty steep. I walked behind the kids in case they lost their balance and started to roll. When we got to the top, I could see the entire town below, and snow covered mountains in every direction. There was a beautiful old church, with a very tall steeple not far away. I grabbed the kids and just made them look at the view for a few minutes. I hope they never forget that view. I know I won’t.

We played for a while at the top of the hill before coming back down. My son started to lose his balance a couple of times and I had to stop him. My daughter went up and down as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Once down, we went to the hotel restaurant and ate. There was a very old German man sitting with some Americans next to our table. He told me that my kids were very well-behaved. Actually, they had been really good so far. I never could quite figure out what the relationship was between him and the people sitting with him, but it appeared that he had moved to the U.S., married an American, and had some kids. One of the “kids” had a U.S. Marine Corps tattoo. I assumed that he had just brought them back to see his homeland.

Back in the room, I got the kids settled down and dressed for bed. My son was acting pretty lethargic. During the night, I felt his forehead and found that he was running a fever. He tossed and turned all night, and he wanted me to hold him several times during the night. By morning he was pretty sick. For the second night, I slept poorly as well.

Day 3, Saturday March 25, 2000 – I woke up early with my son. My watch had quit working during the night, so I had no idea of what time it was. We were supposed to meet Mike and JoLynn for breakfast at 9 before leaving Germany. My son was really burning up, but he wouldn’t take medicine. I had some grape flavored children’s cold medicine, but what I really needed was children’s Motrin. I finally got some medicine down him, and he immediately threw up. I called Mike and told him that we would not be at breakfast. I thought it was about 8:00, but it was only 6:45. I sent my daughter to breakfast with them, and I stayed and tried to make my son feel better. Mike and JoLynn brought us some breakfast back to the hotel, and my son ate a little. He said he felt good enough to go, so we checked out and left.

Before the day was over, we planned to pass through four countries – Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. We drove back through Austria, but I was busy with my son and didn’t get to enjoy the scenery much. I tried to comfort him as much possible to make him feel better. He was still running a fever, and it was pretty warm in the van. My daughter acted a bit jealous that he was getting all of the attention. We drove the length of Austria, which is almost entirely mountainous and very beautiful. At one point, we passed very near the Italian border, but there was a mountain separating the countries. The Sound of Music was filmed in Austria, but I have never seen the movie. I will have to watch it and see how well the scenery matches up. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Adolph Hitler were both from Austria. But, I digress.

We pulled into Liechtenstein about 2 in the afternoon. Liechtenstein is a tiny country, only about 1/20th the size of Rhode Island. This was the first border check point we had to go through, but the guard only asked us if we had anything to declare and where we were going. We first tried to find a place to eat in the capital, Vaduz, but ended up driving around for over an hour before we had any luck. I ordered food for myself and the kids, but my son fell asleep in my lap and my daughter wasn’t hungry. After lunch, we tried to find a place for souvenirs, but everything was closed. At first I thought we had finally found a country that didn’t have a McDonald’s, but we did finally see a sign for one. Liechtenstein was just like Germany – nothing was open on Saturday afternoon except service stations and a few restaurants. So, we left and headed into Switzerland. We drove around for a while, before driving up to Lake Constance for the night. Before it got dark, we played around on the beach for a while. There were lots of swans and ducks there, and my daughter was getting a little too close to them. I was afraid she was going to get her head pecked. My son was still not feeling well, and I had to carry him everywhere.

The Kids and Me at Lake Constance

We found a hotel near the beach. The hotel was very nice, with hard wood floors. After getting settled in, my son started complaining that his ear was hurting. He was also running a very high fever, and I could not get him to take medicine. My daughter went to sleep fine, but I was up for a long time with my son. I had to press a hot wash cloth to his ear to keep the pain away. He would fall asleep, I would try to pull the cloth away, and we would wake up crying. His whole body was shaking. I finally got him to take some medicine around midnight, and he drifted off to sleep. For the third night in a row, I slept poorly.
Day 4, Sunday, March 26, 2000 – Today, we would head home. The drive would take us about 6 hours. We got up early and loaded the van. My son said his ear didn’t hurt much. Since it was Sunday, almost nothing was open. We stopped at a couple of gas stations and Mike and Jo bought some Swiss chocolates. Mike drove the morning shift. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant beside the Autobahn. The kids weren’t very hungry, and my son started to feel worse. I tried to take his mind off being sick by playing a game with him. I would hide a coin in my hand and have him guess which hand. He guessed right seven times in a row! I couldn’t believe it. The odds against that are 128 to 1. Mike said I should take him to Vegas. We looked out the window at the restaurant and saw a mouse playing outside. We watched him for about 5 minutes before we headed back to the car.

I drove after lunch. A couple of hours into the drive, the sun came out and was hitting my son in the face. I could tell by his face that he was running a fever again. He started to cry and I tried to talk to him. I was being really distracted while driving, so I finally pulled over. I almost could not get him settled down. But, we were only an hour from home and I told him he would see his Mom soon. I also climbed back into the back with him. I set up a sleeping bag in the window to keep the sun out of his face, and we finished the drive.

All in all, the trip was too brief. I plan to go down there again in the summer. We will have a few more days to drive around Switzerland, and will probably take the train into Venice, Italy for a day. When we got back home, I told the kids that they had now seen every country in Western Europe except Spain and Portugal. We will knock those out next month.

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Weekend Trip to Copenhagen

Day 1, Friday, January 7, 2000 – Keith Johnson, a friend of mine from the U.S. who worked at Oberhausen with me asked me if I would go with him to Copenhagen, Denmark for the weekend. He had to go up there to buy some special shoes for a dance class he is taking, and he wanted someone to go with him.

He had bought tickets on a train leaving Germany at 11:10 p.m. on Friday and arriving in Copenhagen at 10 a.m. Saturday. We were going to catch a local train from his apartment to the main train station, and then transfer to our overnight train. Keith said there was a 10 p.m. train that ran by his house, but when we went out to the train stop, we saw that it actually came by at 10:30, and didn’t arrive at the main station until 11:11, or 1 minute after our night train left. So, we had to run back to his apartment and drive his car to the main station. At the main station, there was no parking to be found anywhere. We ended up parking about 5 blocks from the station on a side street. The sign said no parking during work hours, but we were hoping that didn’t apply for Saturdays and Sundays.

We got to the station and found our train car. The conductor took our tickets and passports (I almost didn’t bring mine because I didn’t think I would need it) for the border crossing. The last three cars of the train were going to Copenhagen, but the rest of the train was going to Berlin. Somewhere during the night, the last three cars would be unhooked and transferred to another train. There were four beds in our compartment, but we were the only ones in there. The beds were very narrow and hard. I stayed up until about midnight, and then put a pair of earplugs in and went to sleep. Sleeping was difficult. I tossed and turned all night, and probably woke up 10-20 times. The train made lots of stops and starts, and it passed through lots of stations where the light would shine brightly into the car. I also had the sensation that we were moving backward at one point. The next morning we were still moving backward, and I realized that our new train had connected us from the opposite end.

Day 2, Saturday, January 8, 2000 – I woke up around 8:15. We were in a very wooded area of Denmark. The countryside looked exactly like southeastern Oklahoma or northeast Texas. At one point, the train got a little bit ahead of schedule. Whenever it would do this, it would just stop on the tracks for a while. Once, when we were stopped on the tracks, I looked out and saw that the land was very swampy and wooded. It looked exactly like lots of areas around Hugo Lake, near where I grew up.

There were some Russians and Germans in the car next to us. They were speaking in English, and they were headed for Moscow. I heard them say that they had at least another day and night of travel before they would arrive in Moscow. I couldn’t imagine two nights in a row on the train.

We pulled into the train station a little bit after 10 and headed straight for tourist information. It was very cold (we were as far north as northern Canada). We picked up some information on what the attractions were, and booked a hotel. After dropping our things off at the hotel (Hotel Savoy), the first item of business was to go get Keith’s shoes. I almost didn’t go with him, because I wanted to start exploring. But, I finally decided to go. It was a 30 minute train ride from the main train station. I saw a pizzeria as we were pulling into our stop, and we went and ate there. I had a huge pizza, and I finally had some caffeine (I was very tired). I have yet to go to an eating place, service station, or food store of any kind in Europe that didn’t have Coca-Cola. Most places don’t have Pepsi, but you can find a Coke anywhere.

After Keith bought his shoes, we headed back to the main train station. We talked about what we wanted to do. I wanted to see the National Museum. It was open until 5, so we would have almost three hours in there. So, we walked there and paid about $5 to enter. Keith and I split up so we could each see what we wanted to see. The museum covered Danish history for the last 10,000 years. The exhibits started at the end of the last ice age. There were exhibits on the kinds of houses people lived in, what they used to hunt and fish with, and some of their artwork. There were also a number of gravesites reproduced, with the actual bones that were uncovered on display. There were a number of young women with infants across their chests. I assumed they died during childbirth, but it didn’t say for sure. It just made me think about how many things we take for granted today with the improvements in medicine and science.

There were also a number of weapons on display. There are large deposits of flint all over Scandinavia, so most of their weapons were of flint. Along this same theme, they had on display the bones of people who had either been murdered or killed in battle. They showed a couple of skulls with holes in them, but the most disturbing was the skull of a young man that still had an arrow sticking in his face, right under where his nose was. He had another arrow stuck through his breastplate. The caption said that this was the fatal wound. Incidentally, all of the captions were in Danish and in English, but no other language.

From there, the displays continued through the dark ages up through the Viking times. There were a number of Viking artifacts on display, but there wasn’t a whole lot that I hadn’t seen in the Viking museum in Oslo, Norway. Most of the displays were of weapons, coins, and a few of those Viking hats with the long horns.

Upstairs were displays on the pre-Renaissance and the Renaissance periods. These displays focused on Danish royalty and the development and spread of the Church in Denmark. There were a number of religious artifacts on display. Also on this floor were exhibits on Greenland, which Denmark owns. On the third floor were Egyptian and Greek exhibits. There were a number of actual Egyptian mummies in their burial boxes. But, by this time I was a little worn out so I rushed through these.

After we left the museum I decided to explore a little. Keith was a little tired, so I gave him the hotel key and he went back to rest. I roamed around Copenhagen at night. The downtown area has several huge squares where people gather. Surrounding the squares were enormous displays of neon lights like you might see in Times Square or in some of the photos I have seen in Tokyo. There were signs for Sony, Fugi Film, Air China, Turkish Air, and hundreds of others. There were also jumbo television displays around the square just like in Times Square.

After walking around for about an hour, I started getting pretty tired and cold and headed back to the hotel. Keith was asleep, and after warming up a little, I decided to go back out and try to find us a place to eat. I roamed around a little more and found a place with a Chinese/Thai buffet. I went back and got Keith, and we had dinner there.

Dinner was excellent. I stuffed myself with calamari and shrimp, and then we decided to explore a little more. Keith wanted to see what I had seen earlier, so we went back to the square. I had walked many miles, and my legs were really getting stiff. There was a huge movie theater there, and we considered seeing a movie and resting a little. There were lots of American movies playing that we hadn’t seen, including The Sixth Sense, End of Days, Bowfinger, and American Pie. But, the lines were very long, so we decided that we would see a matinee the next day if we had time. Instead, we went into a mall for a little while and just hung out and warmed up. We found out that Smashing Pumpkins were playing in Copenhagen on Sunday night. If it had been Saturday night, we would have tried to get tickets. After that, we walked around a little longer and went back to the hotel for the night. It was about 11 p.m. I was asleep within 5 minutes.

Day 3, Sunday, January 9, 2000 – I woke up early and we went down and had breakfast. Our plan for the day was to find some bicycles, and see the rest of the city by bike. My legs were also extremely sore, and I didn’t think I was up to walking around all day. Copenhagen has a public bike system where you can get a bike for the day. There are bike racks around town that are supposed to have public bikes. You put 20 kroner (about $3) into a slot, and the bike is released from the lock. When you bring the bike back, you get your money back. Well, we walked all over the place looking for these public bikes. All the racks were empty. We decided that they had either been put up for the winter, or someone had stolen them all (we did see a few at the bottom of some of the canals). I guess for a bike thief, $3 is not a bad price to pay for a bike.

So, our next plan was to go to a place that rented bicycles for the day for $5. There were two locations: One at the train station and one in the Red Light district. We opted for the train station first, but it was closed. Our guidebook had said that it was open on Sundays. There was a Chinese guy there also wanting to rent a bike. So we headed for the Red Light district, with the Chinese guy following us. This location was also closed. So, despite the fact that our legs were very sore and that we had a long distance to cover, we started walking.

After covering about a half mile, we came upon an art museum (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek) that had free admission on Sunday. We went in there and spent a couple of hours. There were lots of sculptures (including some by Rodin) and Greek and Egyptian art. There were also a number of paintings, including some Van Goghs, Monets, and Renoirs. We spent a couple of hours in there before we continued walking around Copenhagen.

Me at the Little Mermaid Statue

We passed a number of very impressive, old buildings, including the palace where the royal family lives. There were old mansions and castles everywhere. Many of them were topped with copper domes. We came upon an outdoor ice skating rink, and watched the people skate for a while. We walked along the waterfront and passed the ferries headed for Norway and Sweden. Further along the waterfront, we came upon the most famous statue in Copenhagen, The Little Mermaid. We walked passed many canals, and then walked through an old fort that had some canons lying around. Once we stopped to look at our map, and a woman immediately asked us if we needed help. As I learned last summer in Norway, the Scandinavian people are very friendly, and very fluent in English.

By this time, we were getting tired and cold. We decided to check on a movie. On the way, we passed a KFC. We decided to check the movie times and then come back to KFC for lunch. Before we got to the theater, we saw a gathering of several thousand people outdoors in a square. We decided to investigate, so we joined the crowd. Someone said something on a loudspeaker, and the whole crowd started jumping up and down. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. I told Keith that I had to find out what was going on, so I turned to a woman behind me. She started laughing because I looked so bewildered and said, “You don’t understand, do you?” I told her no, that my friend and I were Americans. Several of her friends gathered around to explain it to us. It was some kind of outdoor comedy relief, where there were people telling jokes and putting on skits for the crowd. The crowd had just been asked to jump up and down to keep warm. So, having figured that out, we continued.

We wanted to see End of Days, but the only movie that would fit our schedule was The Sixth Sense. It started at 4:30 p.m. and ended around 6:20. Our train back to Germany was to leave at 6:48. We bought the movie tickets, and had about an hour in which to eat. There was a Hard Rock Cafe near the theater, so we ate there instead of going back to KFC. I wasn’t very impressed with the food or the prices, but I bought a couple of shirts there.

After buying a couple of souvenirs for my daughter (a little Danish doll) and my son (a Superman shirt; not very Danish, I know) we went to the theater. This was an interesting experience. There were around 18 different screens. There was a huge crowd that we had to wade through to get to our screen. When we entered the theater, we realized that we had assigned seating, just like at a sporting event or concert. They showed several Danish commercials that I didn’t understand, but I think one was for the Armed Forces. They showed previews for Stigmata, Joan of Arc, and Double Jeopardy. The previews were just like the movie. They were entirely in English, but there were Danish subtitles at the bottom. I guess none of the Scandinavian countries have a large enough population (population of Denmark is 5 million) to economically justify dubbing the movies in their native language. In Germany, for instance, all actors would have been dubbed over in German. I have seen this plenty of times, and it is hilarious to hear Eddie Murphy, Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts, or even Bart Simpson speaking German. But, this is a major reason the Scandinavians have such a high English fluency (even the panhandlers spoke English to us, and street musicians were singing in English). Almost all of their movies and music are in English.

The theater was packed. The subtitles didn’t bother me at all. I learned a few Danish words; many of the words are similar to German. I knew almost nothing about the movie; just that some kid saw ghosts. Keith and I both thought the first half of the movie was a little slow, but when the first scary scene happened a girl close to us let out a blood-curdling scream. The whole theater started laughing. Towards the end of the movie, I thought it had been a decent movie. Fifteen minutes before the end, I would have rated it three stars on a four star scale. But then the ending stunned me. I never saw it coming. It had the most shocking ending of any movie that I have ever seen. Keith and I both just went “Wow! That was incredible!” Final grade: Four stars, and one I definitely recommend. A little creepy and sad (especially the ending) but overall, very, very good. I doubt anyone who has seen it has guessed the ending if they didn’t already know something about it.

Well, after the movie, we headed to the train station. We had a 6:48 train scheduled to arrive in Germany at 5:58 a.m. This would give me just enough time to rush home and get ready for work. Keith gave the conductor the ticket, and was told “I am sorry, this ticket was for last night.” Keith told the guy that there must be a mistake, but the conductor said there was room for us. We finally figured out that Keith had given him the wrong ticket, and that we did indeed have reservations for that night.

After the train started out, I headed toward the front to see if there was a dining car. After walking through about 10 cars, I finally found it. But, it was pretty much a restaurant, and I was just looking for snacks. I worked my way back to our car (again we were the only two in the car) and read until I got tired. I was reading German Grammar Rules, which put me to sleep pretty quickly. I went to sleep about 9:30, but once again slept poorly. I think I woke up every time the train stopped all night long. Once, when I thought it must be time for us to be there, I looked at my watch. It was only 12:30. Needless to say, it was a very long night. I kept waking up and thinking about the movie. Finally, at about 5, I went ahead and got up. When we got back to Keith’s car, he had a parking ticket on his windshield. But, I did make it to work on time.

Overall, Copenhagen was pretty interesting with some very nice museums and lots of unusual buildings. But, it is so far from Düsseldorf that I will probably not go back while we are here. There is a large amusement park there, and we may take the kids next summer, but only if we are on our way to Norway or Sweden. There are too many other interesting cities, such as Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Prague that are much closer.

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Lapland Holiday

This essay describes a trip that we took to Lapland right before Christmas in 1999. The trip can still be booked in the U.K. at Lapland Santa Holidays. I don’t think this experience can be topped for generating lifetime Christmas memories.

Hanging Out in the Snow

Day 1, Tuesday, November 23, 1999 - I had a business dinner the night before, so I got home late. My wife had gotten the kids in bed at 7:30. We had to catch a train to the airport at 5:48 a.m. I woke up at 4:45, and checked the news on the Internet. I was mainly looking for updates to the Texas A&M bonfire disaster that had just been reported in the news. I messed around a little too long, and we barely got to the train station in time. I was still buying tickets from the machine when the train pulled up.

Our first flight was to London’s Heathrow airport, which is one of the worlds busiest. We all had a little sinus congestion, and the pressure changes in the cabin were very painful to our ears when we were descending. I felt like my head was going to explode. Once we arrived in London, the kids started to really act up. They had gotten up early, and were pretty tired. I got some foreign currency; both British Pounds and Finnish Marks. In two years most of Europe will have a single currency, which will make traveling much more convenient (and less expensive). Currently, I have small change from a dozen different countries.

We found a McDonalds in the airport and let the kids eat. There were half a dozen British girls at the next table, and my wife told me later that they made some snide remarks about the way my son was acting. This really irritated me, because in our travels it is possible that we are the only contact some of these people have had with Americans. I want to make a good impression, because some of these people have in their minds negative stereotypes of Americans. I want to represent the U.S. in a favorable manner, as I feel we did in Norway and Italy.

In the airport, we had to recheck our luggage, and found out that my son’s flight reservation was wrong. His ticket was correct, but they had him listed in the computer as a Ms. Louise Rapier. Once we got that straightened out, the woman at the desk asked, “So, you are going to Helsinki, Finland?” I told her that we were just connecting in Helsinki, and then she said she had only checked our bags to Helsinki, where I would have to pick them up and recheck them. She went on to say that I should have told her, so she could have checked them all the way. Well, it said right on the tickets where we were going, so it was her mistake. And, it was to delay us later on.

What hadn’t really sunk in was that we were in London, one of the world’s great cities. I let my wife rest, and I took the kids outside the airport. Since the traffic patterns in England are different that we were accustomed to, we had to really be careful when crossing the street. The first traffic you encounter will come from the right, which is the opposite of what you are used to.

When it was time for our flight, we went back inside and headed for the gate. My son started trying to fight with me, and at one point got mad and ran hard at me. I stood my ground, and he bounced off of me and landed on the floor. He was really mad, and started yelling at me. I was completely embarrassed, and upset with my son for acting up. So much for making a good impression with the people around us.

We flew British Air to Helsinki. I was very impressed. During the flight, all of the kids got to go into the cockpit and meet the pilots. We had never done that before. I took my daughter and my son in there, and we chatted with the pilots for a few minutes. I think I enjoyed it more than the kids did.

There were many other people on this flight that were headed to the same place we were going. Our final destination was Luosto, Finland, which is about 75 miles inside the Arctic Circle, and “home” of Santa Claus. It is also near the Russian border. At Helsinki, the entire group (all British) had to wait on us while we waited for our luggage to come off. I felt like, as the only Americans, we were really under a microscope. Causing the entire group to wait on us was not the kind of attention I was looking for.

We went into a restaurant, where I heard people speaking Finnish. This is a very unusual language; it reminded me of an alien language from Star Wars. We ate, and then transferred to a flight going to Rovaniemi, Finland. Rovaniemi lies directly on the border of the Arctic Circle. Sitting next to me on the plane was a man from Romania. He tried to say something to the stewardess, but she didn’t understand him. He switched to German, and I understood what he was saying, and translated. He was terrified of flying, and we were going through turbulence. I asked him if he was Russian, and he said no, Romanian. He said he could speak Russian, and asked me if I knew how to speak Russian. I told him “No, all I can do is count to 3, but I have a good friend from college that is Russian.” He apparently misunderstood me, because he then started speaking to me in Russian. I just smiled and nodded.

Because of the ice and snow, the plane stops out near the runway and you walk to the terminal. Since the weather was below freezing, I got everyone’s coat out. My daughter’s was soaking wet. I had put water bottles in with the coats, and they had leaked. I had to carry my son, so my wife wrapped my daughter up and carried her inside. There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and someone had built a 12 foot tall snowman right outside the entrance. People were taking pictures, and I had to let my son down so he could touch it.

Once we got our luggage, we transferred to a bus which took us to Luosto. It was about 9 p.m. Finnish time (10 p.m. German time). It was past bedtime for the kids, but we still had to take a 90 minute bus ride. I assumed the kids could rest, but they sang Christmas songs and watched Christmas videos on the bus. On the way, I could see quite a bit, and the scenery was beautiful. There were fir trees everywhere covered with snow. There were numerous log cabins on the way, also. When we got to Luosto, we were given a short orientation around the resort, and then outfitted with ski suits and boots. By this time, it was almost midnight, but we couldn’t resist playing in the snow. I pulled the kids around in a couple of sleds that were outside our cabin.

Finally, close to midnight, we went to our cabin. For future reference, the cabins were operated by Scandic Hotels. Our cabin was a nice, big log cabin with a fireplace. There was also a bathroom, sauna, and TV. The beds were built out of the wall and were very comfortable. The kids were asleep within 5 minutes of lying down.

Day 2, Wednesday - I woke up early and walked outside. It was snowing, but not like snow I had ever seen. This snow stung my face. I looked at it as it fell on my coat, and it looked like tiny needles. Today on our agenda, we were supposed to look for Santa. We had lots of winter activities scheduled during the day. But first, we walked up to the hotel restaurant and had breakfast. The restaurant was a huge building made of logs. The floors were also made of wood. We had an English breakfast, which was O.K. but not great. They had scrambled eggs available, which had absolutely no flavor. They also had sausage, bacon, assorted cold meats, fruits, breads, Danishes, and cereals.

Getting Ready to Ski

During the day, we went sledding, skiing, snowmobiling, and took sleigh rides behind huskies and then later, reindeer. I shot a little video, but in the cold my battery didn’t last long. We were so far north, that it started getting dark about 2 in the afternoon. Once, when everyone else was sledding, my son and I were playing in the snow. The bus was parked up the hill from us, and I had walked away from my son. I heard a noise, and looked up to see the bus rolling down the hill, in the direction of my son. I was about equally close to my son and the bus, and I made a run for my son. The bus driver saw the bus rolling and chased it down. The bus driver said his heart was beating a hundred beats a minute. I am sure mine was beating faster than that.

Later on, my wife and my daughter were going for a husky ride. The driver walked away after they had sat down, and the dogs took off. The driver and another man both jumped on the back of the sled, and the dogs dragged them for about twenty feet before they could stop it. I told my wife later that if they hadn’t gotten the dogs stopped, they were probably in for quite a long ride.

Taking a Sleigh Ride

During the day, we saw several of Santa’s “elves.” They would play with the kids, and give hints as to where Santa could be found. As we were getting ready for a reindeer sleigh ride, someone shouted “Look in the forest!” There was Santa on a sleigh being pulled by reindeer. He was a couple of hundred yards away, traveling away from us. The kids were yelling, but he waved and went on.

Before the ride, my son kept petting the reindeer and saying “Nice horse.” After the ride, we went into what looked like an Indian teepee and had a ceremony welcoming us to Lapland. (Lapland is the northern part of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.) We all gathered around a fire, and two Laps danced around the fire and then smudged black paint on our foreheads.

Next, one of the guides said that one of the elves knew where Santa was. So, we went on a wild sled ride in the woods looking for him. We ended up at one of Santa’s post offices deep in the woods. But, Santa was not there. My son was really ticked off. The guide said that one of the elves had played a trick on us. My son said “Stupid elf.”

That night, we ate back in the hotel restaurant. There were a lot of children’s programs going on at the front of the restaurant, and I sat alone in a separate part next to a window. Outside, I had a view of a frozen lake ringed with snow covered fir trees. The lights were turned down, and someone was playing “Silent Night” on the piano. The atmosphere, and the view I had outside were incredible. I will never forget the feeling I had as long as I live, even when I am old and senile. At this moment, I felt like the investment we had made on this trip had paid off. I sat there and reviewed the day’s events in my mind. Every scene during the day appeared to be perfect for a Christmas postcard. We had done all sorts of things during the day that until then we had only dreamed about. In reviewing the day’s events, it also occurred to me that we had not seen a single wild animal. Not even a bird. I found that odd, but I guess it is just too cold this time of year.

After the children’s program was winding down, my son came over and sat by me. We were looking out the window, and suddenly there was Santa again on his sleigh. All of the kids started yelling, and within 30 seconds there were around 20 people crowded around my table for a better view. My son and I had the best seats in the house. When Santa got to the end of the lake, he turned and came back toward us. This time, his sleigh actually flew in the air. While all the kids were yelling “Look, he’s flying”, my son said “I see a rope.” Fortunately, he didn’t say this again, and none of the other kids heard him. I explained to my son that Santa didn’t need a rope to fly. Unfortunately, my daughter was a little late getting back to the window and didn’t get to see Santa fly.

After all the excitement, I went to the information desk to ask some questions. There was a young Finnish woman and a British woman at the desk. After I started talking to them, the British woman asked “Are you from Texas?” I said yes; at this point, during short conversations I have given up explaining that I am from Oklahoma but have lived in Texas for 11 years. The British woman said “You have a beautiful voice. I just knew you had to be from Texas. I just love your accent.” I always feel a little awkward when someone pays me a compliment, but I just smiled and said “Thank you.” The Finnish woman wanted to know exactly where we were from, and how we liked living in Germany, and where all we had traveled. She went on to tell me that we were the first Americans to ever come on this tour. She asked how we found out about it, and I told her that we had seen it advertised on the Internet before we ever came to Germany. I joked with my wife that they were flirting with me, but she just rolled her eyes and laughed.

We walked back to the cabin, and played outside in the snow. We all made snow angels, and then my wife just laid down in the snow while I played with the kids. I showed them how to eat snow. I told them that it was O.K. to eat snow here, because the air was so clean. I also told them to make sure the snow was clean, and to never, ever, eat yellow snow, especially when there were dogs around. After going back in the cabin and getting settled down, the kids were soon asleep.

Day 3, Thursday - I got up about 6:30 and decided to build a fire. It had been cold the morning before, and I wanted to warm the place up before everyone woke up. The wood was a little damp, and I was trying to get the fire built without turning on the lights. I had stuffed newspaper in the fireplace, and I had some small pieces of wood in there to get it going. When I was trying to light the fire, I burned my finger. I went into the bathroom to run cold water on it, and while I was in there, the smoke alarm started going off. The person who had come by for housekeeping had closed the damper (I had opened it the day before when I was thinking about starting a fire). The whole place was full of smoke, so I ran into the room, hands soaking wet, opened the mantle, and started trying to dismantle the smoke alarm in the dark. The ceiling was 12 feet high, so I climbed up on the top bunk (which was my bed) and stretched out and jerked the battery out of the alarm. By this time, though, my wife and my son were awake. My daughter was so tired that she slept through the whole thing.

My son started asking for M&M’s as soon as he woke up. I said no, and he started screaming and throwing a fit. He was about to wake my daughter up, so I decided to just go ahead and give him some to shut him up. He immediately settled down, so I didn’t regret doing it, but I don’t like to do this because it may lead him to believe he can get his way by throwing a fit.

On the way to breakfast, it was again snowing hard. My wife said “Happy Thanksgiving“. I hadn’t even realized that it was Thanksgiving. I probably would not have realized all day if she hadn’t said something. I hadn’t thought about it one time the day before, so I probably would not have realized at all during our trip. It occurred to me that this would probably be my first Thanksgiving ever without turkey. I can’t remember a Thanksgiving without turkey and the Dallas Cowboys playing football in the afternoon. Texas and Texas A&M would also be playing football the next day. My wife and I talked about this game, and how emotional it would probably be. Because of the bonfire disaster, many, many people had gone back to College Station. I expected a huge crowd for the game, but I thought it would be a solemn event. We talked about the difficulty of the 12 families going about Thanksgiving preparations after having just lost a child the previous week.

After breakfast, we left to do more of the things we had been doing yesterday. We had heard that today would be the day we would find Santa. We started out riding snowmobiles, which the British called skidoos. In addition to their accents, they pronounce several words completely differently from us. Vitamin comes out “veetamin” and schedule comes out “schedule” (no “k” sound). Anyway, my wife really liked the snowmobiles, and kept riding over and over on the track. The track went up a hill into the woods, made a circle, and then came back. I rode with my son, and stopped once to take a picture. I again thought how the entire scene in every direction looked like a Christmas postcard.

Later, we rode through the forest in a one horse open sleigh. We had lunch in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. My son and I built our first snowman together in front of the house while my wife and my daughter were cross-country skiing. I think we did a really good job with the snowman, and when I went to help my daughter with her skis, my son stayed and worked on the snowman. He had eyes made of bark, a smile made up a short fir branch, and a nose made out of a sharp stick. With my son sitting there by himself, it looked like he had done the whole thing on his own. People were coming over to look in amazement that this little boy could make such a nice snowman. When I went back over there, there were several people complimenting him on his nice snowman.

After lunch, another elf told us that they knew where Santa was. So, we left in sleighs pulled by snowmobiles. We covered ourselves in reindeer rugs. The ride was nice, but the exhaust from the snowmobiles made it difficult to breath. We rode deep into the forest, where we came upon a log cabin in front of a mountain. I can’t even describe the scenery; it was just magnificent. There was a reindeer tied up outside. We walked up on the porch, and through a window we could see three elves making toys.

Santa in His Workshop

I walked around the side of the cabin, and saw Santa sitting in a chair by a fireplace. I told the kids that I thought Santa might be inside. All of the families were split up and taken inside. While we waited, we had snowball fights with the snowmobile drivers. My daughter and my son really liked this. When it was our turn to go in, we walked inside the room where Santa was. The kids were just awestruck. They had both written letters to Santa, and he had their letters. He told them that they had come further than anyone to see him, and that he was so happy to see them. He said that he had never seen them awake before, only when they were sleeping on Christmas Eve. He talked to them for a while, and gave them both a present. Both the kids just stood there with wide eyes. After we left Santa, we got to go into the room where the elves were working. They spoke “elf language” to the kids. After watching them for a few minutes, we once again boarded the snowmobile sleighs and headed back to the bus. I thought that the whole experience felt like being part of a Christmas movie.

We let the kids open their presents in the bus, because several other children had been allowed to open theirs. One of the things my daughter had asked for was a “Jane Barbie”, as in Jane from Disney’s Tarzan. This is what she received, and her eyes really lit up when she opened it. My son had been saying constantly that he hoped Santa got him a Power Ranger - the strawberry (red) one. So, my son got a red Power Ranger with a motorcycle. He was also very pleased. My daughter mentioned that she thought Santa would have a much bigger house and workshop. We had to explain to her that we had been told that was only one of Santa’s smaller workshops. His main house and workshop is at the North Pole, which was further North than we were.

My daughter had made a friend on the trip, so we let them sit together on the bus. The girl was 2 years older than my daughter, but not much bigger. From the back, her hair looked a lot like my daughter’s. Her parents were from London, and we spoke with them at length later in the trip.

After we got back to our cabin, I wrestled on the bed with the kids for about an hour. We had also done this the night before; I never seem to be able to wear them out. When the time came, my wife took my daughter to the restaurant early for more children’s programs. My son and I were going to wait until later to go. We stayed in the cabin and watched Finnish cartoons on the TV and wrestled on the bed. After supper, we all once again played in the snow for a little while, before getting the kids to bed early.

Day 4, Friday - I woke up wondering whether the Cowboys had won, and how the Texas A&M game would go. I would not know until Sunday. Today, we had many options. We could have gone skating, downhill skiing, cross country skiing, ice fishing, make an excursion to an amethyst mine, or visit Santa Park in Rovaniemi. We chose Santa Park. During the 90 minute bus ride back to Rovaniemi, I remained awestruck with the scenery. This place was a real wilderness. I would like to return in the summer and go hiking.

We arrived at Santa Park, which is a theme park built in an underground cavern. There were several rides for the kids with Christmas themes. There was a roller coaster, and then a train ride through a Christmas fantasyland. My son really liked the train ride, but my daughter was partial to the roller coaster. There was also a reindeer carousel, and a helicopter ride that you propelled with pedals. We pedaled around the park on an elevated track; my wife with my daughter and my son with me. This was quite a workout on the legs. We stayed there about 3 hours, before leaving and going to the Arctic Circle Shopping Center, which was a small mall.

While my wife shopped, I let the kids play in a little playground inside the mall. There were six kids there playing, but I was the only parent there watching their kids. I guess most of these parents are more trusting than I am. My daughter played with her friend from London. They could have probably played for hours. Once, while my son was climbing the ladder on the slide, a Finnish boy came along and pushed him off the slide. The boy was 2-3 years older than my son, and a full head taller. I ended up having to pull my son off of him, because I thought he was going to hurt him. My son thought I was going to be mad at him, but I told him that it is O.K. to take up for yourself.

From there, we went back to the Rovaniemi airport. We had a couple of hours until our flight, and we visited with the parents of my daughter’s new friend. The mother asked if we would meet them for dinner at the Rainbow Cafe in London the next evening, and we said O.K. She said she would call the place we were staying and set up a time. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers. She asked whether we had relatives in England, and I told her that on my Mother’s side our family tree went back to England. She asked the name and what part of England. I told her “Shirley”, but I didn’t know what part of England they had been from. She turned to her husband and said “Oh, of course. They were from the north. There is a wrestler, ‘Big Daddy Shirley’ that comes from there.” My wife told me later that this certainly had to be a relative of mine.

The flight back was a charter flight. The plane was only about 25% full, so there were plenty of seats. We let my daughter sit by her friend in front of us. This turned out to be a mistake. Her parents slept in the back of the plane. The little girl pestered the stewardesses every time they came down the aisle, and they were really getting irritated. I think they thought we were her parents and should control her. She also kept getting out of her seat and running up and down the aisle. My daughter tried to do this too, but we stopped her. During the flight, the movie was the new version of “Miracle on 34th Street.” The kids were also allowed to go back into the cockpit and visit the pilots.

Once at the airport (London’s Gatwick this time) we collected our luggage and caught a cab. Our luggage was wet, so we thought something had leaked inside. Instead, it turned out to be raining hard outside. It was only a five minute ride to the Bed and Breakfast where we were staying. It was in a London suburb called Horley. I sat in the front seat. Since it was a British car, I sat in the position that a driver in an American car normally occupies. I told the cab driver that this was the first time I had sat in this position in a car and not been driving. He made some small talk with us, but I had a really tough time understanding his accent. I think he was Indian, but his British accent was very strong. When we got there, we quickly got settled in and started planning the next day’s activities in London.

We had never stayed at a Bed and Breakfast before. It is basically a room in someone’s house. It gives you more of a chance to meet local people as well as other travelers. My son was acting up, so we told him that we thought a policeman lived there. Who knows, maybe one did. And my son has a healthy respect for policemen. Anyway, that really calmed him down. Every time he started acting up, all we had to do was say “Listen. Is that the policeman I hear?” He would calm down immediately.

Day 5, Saturday - During the night I had dreams of Finland, and then we awoke to a cloudless sky. I wondered if the Aggies had won their football game. We had a big English breakfast, which was very good. We loaded up the backpack, and walked about 10 minutes to the train station. My wife and I didn’t wear heavy coats, because it didn’t feel too cool and we assumed it would warm up. Gatwick airport is actually about 30 miles south of London, so we would have to ride the train into downtown London. When I was buying the tickets, the man at the window asked how old the kids were. When I told him my daughter was five, he told me that if she was under five she could ride for free and then he winked at me. I repeated to him that my daughter was five, so he charged me for her ticket.

On the way, I studied the English countryside. I don’t know about the rest of it, but I found the 30 mile ride into London a little boring compared to some of the places we have been. After we arrived at the station, we went upstairs to eat. We ate at KFC for the first time in probably 8 months. Halfway through lunch, my son told me he needed to go to the bathroom. I asked him if he could hold it, and he said no. So we found the bathroom, and it was filthy. I don’t understand why men’s bathrooms so often look like pigpens. My appetite for lunch was ruined.

We booked tickets right outside the station on a London bus tour. These tours are hop on, hop off, and good for 24 hours. They also have several different routes available. Once again, I was asked about my daughter’s age when I was buying the tickets. After I said she was 5, the man told me that my daughter would ride free if she was under 5. He then raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “I have got no problem if you tell me she is under 5.” I repeated that she was 5, and he charged for the ticket. I left thinking that these guys either thought Americans were either really honest or really stupid.

The kids insisted that we ride in the top of the double-decker bus. The top was open, and my wife and I were freezing. Instead of warming up as we had anticipated, it actually got cooler during the day. We had a number of sights to choose from on our tour. We were interested in the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, and the London Dungeon. My wife also wanted to go into Harrods if we had time. The British Museum is renowned as one of the world’s greatest museums. It contains the Rosetta Stone, as well as extensive Egyptian and Assyrian collections. The Natural History Museum has huge dinosaur and insect exhibits, which we thought the kids would like. We weren’t sure they would enjoy the wax museum, and besides there is another branch in Amsterdam that we are planning to visit soon.

The London Dungeon is supposed to be one of the most popular attractions in London. It is a medieval horror museum that has a show called “The Jack the Ripper Experience.” We had decided that we could not go with the kids, but when they heard us talking about it, they begged to go. It was the most convenient sight to see; we would not have to change buses. So, against my better judgment we got out and waited for a half hour in line. Here is an advertisement for the London Dungeon that I pulled off the Internet:

Peer through corroded railings in a dank, dark, musty-smelling maze of gloomy arches and eerie nooks, with the railway rumbling overhead. You'll see medieval torture scenes and hear the screams as the rack tightens. The location, artifacts, atmosphere and basic idea of presenting the grizzliest moments of British history are successful and most people enjoy their visit. A recent addition is the Jack the Ripper experience, which has provoked protests for its glorification of a murderer. Still, the coach parties pile through, and the shop does a roaring trade. The Dungeon is least busy Monday to Wednesday mornings.

There was a family from California behind us in line. When we got to the front of the line, we entered a narrow dark passage where scary music was being played. My son got scared and wanted me to pick him up. My daughter got scared and wanted to leave. I tried to tell her she could close her eyes, but she started crying and wanted to leave. So, after wasting half an hour standing in line, we left. The California couple said that they were afraid the kids were looking a little scared as we got closer to entering the place. My son kept telling my daughter that he was mad at her, but I reminded him that he got scared too. I told my daughter that it was O.K. to be scared, and I should have used better judgment in the first place. I should have never even considered taking them in there.

So, we hopped on another bus and continued to see the sights. We saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace (where Princess Diana had lived), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus, the Tower of London, London Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the Parliament Building, Notting Hill, and Harrods, the most famous department store in the world.

We got off the bus at the Natural History Museum, and spent a couple of hours in there. The kids spent a lot of time in the insect exhibit, which was really “hands-on” and aimed at children. There was also a rain forest exhibit which the kids liked. After the rain forest, we visited the extensive dinosaur exhibit. My daughter really liked this, but my son rushed us through it. He was ready to leave. Overall, we really rushed through London, but we will go back next summer. There is enough to do in London to keep a person busy for at least a week. Riding through on the bus really allowed us to see a lot, but sometimes I felt like I was just watching a movie of London instead of experiencing London.

So, we left and hailed a cab on the street. On the way to the train station, we passed Harrods again, and they were really lit up for Christmas. (Harrods is owned by the father of the man Princess Diana was engaged to when they were both killed). We took a 10 minute ride back to the train station, and rode back out to where we were staying. After leaving the train station, and on our way back to the Bed and Breakfast, we stopped in a restaurant and ate Chinese food. Then, we went into a supermarket and stocked up on goodies for the kids for the flight out the next day.

Day 6, Sunday - At breakfast, the owner told us that the couple from London had called yesterday after we left to try and set up a time to get together. Oh, well, they should have called early. My original plan for today was to either explore the suburb we were staying in, or ride back into London for the day and then leave on a 3:00 p.m. flight. But, the suburb didn’t look too interesting, and we didn’t have time to go back into London. I knew there was a flight leaving at 11:40, so we were going to try and make that one. We caught a cab at 10:00 and headed for the airport. The cab driver told me that we should visit Scotland in the summer. He said it isn’t very crowded, and the scenery is fantastic. That sounds like a good trip next summer.

When we got to the airport, I talked to the woman at the ticket counter and got us put on standby for the next flight. The airport had the moving walkways (like a flat escalator) that zip you along. While we were walking on one of these, a woman in front of us fell and got stuck in the belt. People with their luggage and luggage carts started piling into her. There was literally no place to go, so I turned around and yelled to the people behind me to walk backwards quickly. I grabbed my son and we attempted to back up. Fortunately, this gave someone enough time to hit the emergency stop and get the woman out.

We went through security, and my wife realized about 10 minutes later that she left her purse there. This almost gave me a heart attack, but they still had it when she went back. My wife went in some stores looking for some English language magazines, and the kids sat down and played. There were a number of computer terminals set up where you could browse the Internet for about $0.16 a minute. So, I browsed the Internet while my wife shopped. I found out that both the Cowboys and Aggies had won. The crowd at the A&M game had been well over 80,000, making it the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in the state of Texas. I also checked stock prices, and looked to see if anything newsworthy had happened in the last five days.

We found out at the gate that there was room on the early flight for us. My son slept almost all the way home. The only negative was that we realized my daughter had taken her coat off in the airport and left it there. But, this was a small price to pay.

In summary, this was the trip of a lifetime. I love to visit wild and exotic locations, and they don’t get much more wild and exotic than the Arctic. The scenery was really indescribable, and the kids had more fun than on any other vacation we have been on. Our London visit was too brief, but we will go back soon. Our next vacation will be two weeks in April. We are still trying to decide where to go, but some of the possibilities are: Turkey; Spain, Portugal, and Morocco; or Austria and Switzerland.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

All Over Italy

Day 1: Sunday, October 10, 1999 - We got the kids in bed by 7:20 the night before, because we had to catch a train to the airport at 5:48 a.m. My son was really excited, and got up at 1:30. He crawled in bed with me, and kept feeling of my face until about 3:00. He finally went to sleep, but when the alarm went off at 4:45, I was really tired.

We got ready, drove the three minutes to the train station, and took the train into the airport. Our plane was to fly first to Amsterdam, and then to Rome. When we were on the runway in Amsterdam ready to take off, the pilot announced that we had technical difficulties and had to return to the terminal. Fortunately, the problem was solved in less than an hour and we were off.

On the flight to Rome, I sat between the kids, and my wife sat on the other side of the aisle between two nuns from Belfast, Ireland. They were very curious about life in America and Germany, and they told my wife all about life in Ireland.

On the way, we flew directly over the Alps in Switzerland. We were flying low, and the scenery was spectacular. The Alps were covered with snow, and I could see all of the little villages in the valleys. I would like to take a trip down there ASAP. We could probably drive down there in six hours from Düsseldorf.

After arriving in Rome, there was a guy waiting to take us to the hotel (we had prearranged this with the hotel). You can tell right away that Italy is not quite as safe as most European countries. At the airport, there were cops standing around everywhere with machine guns. We drove about 25 minutes to the hotel. The hotel room was good, but it had only three beds instead of the four it was supposed to have. But, the people at the front desk spoke no English, so we let it go.

As soon as we settled in, I took off looking for a cash machine. No luck. We decided to eat at a pizzeria next door that took credit cards. After eating lunch, they said they couldn’t take the card because it was Sunday and all the banks were closed. However, they changed their minds when they found out I had no Italian money.

It was only early afternoon, so we decided to explore the Colosseum and the ruins surrounding it. To get to the Colosseum, we had to take a narrow stairway down from the street. On the way down, two girls who were about 12 years old got in my face and started kissing their fingers and then touching my son and me (he was holding my hand). They were also speaking very loudly in Italian. I didn’t know what to think until I saw their two mothers holding babies. They were Gypsies trying to pick my pocket. I walked quickly passed them and reached the bottom of the steps. my wife asked what was going on, and I told her. Unfortunately, it looked like we would need to take the same route coming back.

The Colosseum in Rome

We walked around the Colosseum. The crowds were very bad, and there were people (mostly Arabs and Africans) hawking everything under the sun. They would get right up in your face, which was really annoying. We walked around and found a shady spot on a hill overlooking the Colosseum and let the kids play while we relaxed on some Roman ruins. An Italian woman asked me to take her picture with the Colosseum in the background. Right after that, a black guy with a British accent walked up to me and asked “Señor, picture?” He wanted me to take a picture of him with his wife. I told him I was an American, and he laughed and said “Thank goodness. I can’t speak any Italian.” Anyway, I took their picture with the Colosseum in the background, and we got ready to go back to the hotel.

This time, I studied the Gypsies carefully before we went up the hill. I watched their mothers frantically looking at people’s wallets and handbags searching for an easy target. I waited until a large group of Italians was going up the stairs, and I followed them. I had my wife and my daughter walk behind me, and my son held my hand. When we got near the mothers, one stepped out and held out her hand for money. I guess this was a signal to the girls, because they immediately stepped in front of me and held newspapers in my face and started with the kissing and loud talking. I had read many times about this trick, so I knew they were about to try and pick my pocket. I yelled at the girl, and told her I wasn’t playing that game with her again. I shoved her away, and her hand got hung in my front pocket, where my wallet was. I yelled at them again, and so did the Italians who were walking with us. The girls ran back to their mothers, and we went back to the hotel.

My son kept saying “Those girls are stupid for doing that.” I agree, and I don’t understand why the police can’t do something about that situation. I had read many times about this, and then it almost happened to us. The thing that really bothered me about Italy is that I didn’t feel entirely safe there. It is very polluted, the traffic is absolute chaos, and we encountered several thieves. Also, fewer people speak English, which makes it tougher to function. On the other hand, they have art and history there that you can’t see anywhere else in Europe, and most of the people are very friendly.

Day 2, Monday - My son woke up at 5:30. We had a rough night, because my son slept with us. At first, I tried to sleep with the kids and let my wife have the single bed, but my daughter tossed and turned until I had to have her and my wife switch beds.

One of my top priorities today was to exchange some money. We were going to be with a tour group for much of the next 6 days. We decided to do it this way, because you can see much more in a short amount of time when someone else is taking care of transportation, tickets, etc. The first thing we visited this morning was the Trevi Fountain. It is Rome’s largest and most famous fountain, completed in 1762. They were cleaning it, so it was empty. We next saw the Pantheon, which was in incredible shape. This building dates back to 118 AD, but inside it looks like it was recently built. My son was hungry all morning, and I was feeding him a steady stream of gummy bears and M&M’s. After that, we went to the Vatican, where several people commented on how well-behaved the kids were. If they could only have heard my son saying “I’m hungry” over and over. We went into St. Peter’s Basilica, which supposedly holds the bones of St. Peter. The size of this church must be seen to be believed. We saw Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture, which is a masterpiece housed in St. Peters. I found myself wondering whether the Dallas Cowboys had won yesterday’s game, but my wife thought that was a heathen thing to be thinking about inside the largest and arguably the most beautiful church in the world.

After the Vatican, we ate lunch with a British couple who were currently living in Madrid. Before we ate, I walked around the block and found a cash machine. It would only give me half a million Lira (about $280). Since most of the hotels don’t take credit cards, this was not going to get us very far. Lunch was terrible. We ate something resembling meat, but I didn’t honestly know what it was.

In the afternoon, we went to the Roman Forum, where the bulk of the old Roman ruins are. We did not walk through the ruins, but we studied them from a hill directly above them. After that, we went to another old church. When we were crossing the street to the church, a motorcycle ran a red light and nearly ran over a woman. Inside the church, the ceilings were entirely covered with gold. My son was tired, and fell asleep on my back for about 40 minutes.

After this, we went back to the Colosseum, where we paid to go in and look around. The person at the ticket desk asked us where we were from. A friend who had been there recently had told us that all kids received free admission, except for Americans. So, I told her that we had arrived from Germany, which was the truth. She looked at me with a frown, but then said that the kids had free admission.

We went inside and walked around. I had seen it once before, but it still makes quite an impression to think that almost 2,000 years ago, 50,000 people were watching gladiators fight to the death inside here. The place is huge, and really lets you appreciate just what the Romans were capable of building.

In the evening, we ate at the Pizzeria again. While we were waiting for the pizza, I walked outside with the kids. There was a very old Italian woman who started talking to us. We had seen her walking the streets the day before. I have no idea if she was a beggar, or homeless, or just friendly. I kept telling her “No comprende”, but she kept talking to us. After a while, she gave up and walked off, but I was very curious about what she was trying to say.

Overall, we had a very busy and tiresome day. The kids held up very well. My daughter never had to be picked up despite lots of walking. However, I think we could have done better today without being with a tour group. The disadvantage would have been that we would have had to eliminate a few things from our agenda. But we could have taken a more leisurely pace, and not worn ourselves out.

Day 3, Tuesday - We were to see the Vatican museums in the morning. When we got there, the lines were probably ¼ mile long to get in. Once inside, the crowds were huge. It was not like that the first time I was there several years before. We overheard someone say that Tuesday was a tour day, which I guess meant discounts for tour groups. There was also a sign up that said the Sistine Chapel was closing at 12:30. On the way to the Sistine Chapel, we walked through the Hall of Tapestries and the Hall of Maps. I really liked the Hall of Maps. There are large paintings from the 1500’s depicting maps of various parts of the world. The Italian maps showed the locations of castles and small villages.

Once we got to the Sistine Chapel, the crowds were unbearable. We could barely walk, and couldn’t even see our feet. The kids were both miserable, and so were we. We went in and studied the ceiling. I must say that Michelangelo could really paint. The details in the ceiling are very impressive. We really needed an entire day for the museums, because there was a lot we didn’t see.

We left and went to lunch. Lunch today was great; pasta and chicken breast. The kids both ate well. After lunch, I went with another man to several cash machines to get out more money. All of the machines were out of order. I felt like I was in a third world country. I finally had to go into a place that changes money, and ended up paying a 5% commission to exchange German Marks for Italian Lira. This really made me sick, because I had already paid a commission once to exchange from U.S. dollars to Marks, and here I was doing it again. However, I had no choice at this point as we were checking out of our hotel early the next morning. And, on the bright side I was now a millionaire (at least in Italy). I was carrying 2 million Lira in my pocket.

In the afternoon, we visited two more churches. The traffic was horrible and chaotic, and the smog was thick. The churches were all fabulous, but at this point I was getting tired of seeing churches. When my son saw us going into the second, he acted like Damien from “The Omen” movie. He said “Please don’t make me go in another church.” My daughter and a beggar outside one of the churches had a stare down. I told my daughter it wasn’t polite to stare like that. In the square outside the second church, people were again aggressively trying to sell all kinds of useless gadgets. One guy handed my son a toy, and he took it before I could stop him. The guy wouldn’t take it back, and kept asking for money. I was so annoyed. I finally put it on the guy’s shoulder and said “No”.

Inside the second church, a priest came up to the kids and gave them candy. He blessed them both, and kept patting my daughter and saying “Oh, bella, bella”. I looked it up in my dictionary and it means beautiful. The friendliness of the Italians to the kids was really impressive. Everywhere we went, people were patting them on the head, giving them candy, and wanting to hold them.

After the churches, we went to the catacombs. This was the main reason we were on this tour, because I thought the kids would really like it. The catacombs are extensive underground chambers where the early Christians were buried before Christianity was legal. The kids really had fun. My son told me he was a Power Ranger looking for bad guys. He also started speaking German to me in there. He had been answering questions all week with “Ja”, but once I asked him something and he said “Ja, das stimmt” (Yes, that’s right).

Afterward, we went back to the hotel, had some ice cream, and prepared for tomorrow’s big day. We didn’t have any dinner, so I went to a tiny local grocery store and bought a few things. I got some freshly picked black olives, which were really good. I had to cross the road coming and going, and I felt like I was risking my life every time. There are few crosswalks, and the drivers don’t always obey the laws. I saw more cops standing around with machine guns. Back at the hotel, I told the kids all about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii, which is where we were going the next day.

Day 4, Wednesday - We boarded the tour bus for Naples. The drive down took about three hours. The terrain becomes more mountainous the further south from Rome you drive. On the way down, we drove past the Abbey of Montecassino, which was the site of a major battle during WWII. In Naples, the traffic and smog were even worse than Rome, which is what I remembered from the last time I was there. The crime rate in Naples is also very high. Normally, the view from the hills around Naples is very scenic. You can see the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the Bay of Naples. However, the smog was so thick we couldn’t see either. We got into a huge traffic jam for almost an hour in front of the mayor’s office because some protestors were blocking the road. Our tour guide told us that protestors have the right to stop traffic with their protests, which is another crazy thing about Italy. We were delayed for quite a while waiting for the protest to end.

We finally continued south towards Pompeii. We had to drive through a toll booth, where there were numerous guys selling junk. They would walk back and forth between moving cars selling cigarettes, Kleenexes, etc. I had read some accounts of guys at this toll booth stabbing tires with a screwdriver, and then when you drive through the toll booth and pull over to change your tire, they rob you.

Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius

We had a very good lunch outside of Pompeii, and then we went into the ruins. Pompeii was buried in the year 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The ruins here are of the complete town at the time of the destruction. The kids had a lot of fun playing in the ruins and walking in the streets, which are estimated to be over 2,500 years old. For the kids, it was a giant playground. Once, when we were looking at some of the plaster casts of people who were killed in the eruption, my son handed me a piece of marble. I looked down and saw that he had dug it up from a 2,000 year old marble floor. I quickly put it back before anyone saw. Later, tour guides from two different groups got into a fight over who was going to go through one of the buildings first. An older man hit a younger man in the head with an umbrella. The funny thing is that the first time I came to Pompeii, the same thing happened in the same place. Two guys were screaming at each other over who got to go inside first.

After we left Pompeii, we drove along a very high cliff on our way further south to Sorrento. In Sorrento, we had a 1st class hotel on a high cliff above the Mediterranean Sea. The view was unbelievable. There was the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius across the bay. I could throw a rock into the ocean from our hotel window. The room was large, the floors were marble, and there was a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. Outside, there was a courtyard with a swimming pool. There were olive, lemon, and grapefruit trees everywhere. This was the first place we had been in Italy that I thought would be a nice place to live. We sat down in lawn chairs by the pool, and as it began to get dark there were a lot of bats flying around.


We had CNN in our hotel room, so I got to see the news for the first time in four days. I saw that the government in Pakistan had been overthrown. I had a good friend whose daughter was in Pakistan doing geological studies at that time. I knew that he must be worried, because Pakistan is not the safest place in the world to begin with.

Dinner that night was excellent. We had fish, and there was a lemon on the side. My son kept sucking on his lemon, and making faces. There were two Japanese girls at the table next to us, and they were about to fall in the floor with laughter. My son told us he thought they were pretty.

Day 5, Thursday - This day we spent resting. We felt like the kids needed a day off, so we relaxed in Sorrento. In the morning, we went out by the swimming pool. There was a trail of ants, and the kids and I just watched ants for a half hour. We watched the ocean for a while, and then we walked around downtown Sorrento. My wife bought postcards with special stamps that had to be mailed from Sorrento. In the evening, when we were back at our hotel and after we had filled the cards out, I had to walk/run about 2 miles back downtown to mail them. The streets were very narrow with high walls on both sides, and there were no sidewalks. If someone lost control of their car, there would be absolutely nowhere to go to get away. The traffic was very heavy and fast, and I felt like I was walking down the center line on an interstate.

Day 6, Friday - First on the agenda today was a trip to the resort island of Capri. Capri lies just a few miles off the coast of Italy, and the scenery there is spectacular. It used to be a vacation resort for some of the Roman emperors. We took a boat to the island. On the way, we met a couple from Maryland, and then a woman from Columbia and a man from Lebanon traveling together. We got to the island and then transferred to a smaller boat. We went around the island to the Blue Grotto. This is an undersea cave that has a small opening which you take a rowboat into. The sand under the water is white, and there is a very strange effect of the light passing through the blue water and then reflecting off the sand.

The four of us transferred to a small rowboat. The man rowing the boat started asking for a tip right away. He rowed us into the cave and back out just as fast as he could. The only thing he ever said to us was to ask if we thought he had earned a good tip. Here the guy was doing the job that he was paid to do, and he didn’t even talk to us except to ask for a tip. This was a complete waste of time, and one of the worst tourist traps I have ever seen. Needless to say, I did not tip him. When we were getting out of the boat, the man from Maryland helped get my daughter back into the bigger boat. He asked, “Can I help with your precious cargo?”

We took the boat back around to the dock, and then transferred to a bus to ride up to the top of the mountain. There was a large group from South America with us, so the tour guide spoke quite a bit of Spanish. The bus was cramped, rickety, and reeked of diesel fumes. I thought to myself if we had a couple of chickens and a goat on board, it would have resembled some of the scenes I have seen of South America.

We toured Capri the rest of the day. The scenery was really amazing, but the island was packed with people, and the smell of car exhaust was everywhere. I can safely say that I will never go back to Capri again, because it is just too crowded with tourists.

On the way back to the mainland, the Columbian woman made paper boats for my daughter and my son. The Lebanese man asked lots of questions about the kids, and said he had never seen such well-behaved kids on a long trip. They were a very nice couple. After we arrived on the mainland, we had a three-hour bus ride back to Rome. Three other people who had been with us all day commented on how well the kids had behaved. Overall, this was a very long and difficult day, and I was probably as surprised as anyone that the kids did so well. Of course bribing them every day with ice cream helps.

Day 7, Saturday - We boarded the bus for Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance in the 15th century and one of my favorite cities in the world. On the way, we drove through Umbria and Tuscany, which are rural areas that are very hilly and wooded. On the way, I thought about how the population density in Europe is completely different from that of the U.S. In Europe, the population density in the cities is much higher than in the U.S. In Europe, there are few parking lots, lawns are very small, streets are narrow, and the houses are very close together and usually have multiple stories. Because of this, some of these countries, which are half the size of Texas, (yet have one third the population of the entire U.S.) have huge tracts of rural land. I would have never thought that small countries like Germany and Italy, with such large populations could have so much undeveloped land. If the population density in the U.S. followed the same pattern, you could move the entire populations of California, New York, Illinois, and Florida to Texas, and open up huge tracts of wilderness. Thus began my infatuation with how Europe developed their land, and how I wished we could model that in the U.S.

The first stop in Florence was to see Michelangelo’s David sculpture. This sculpture is widely regarded as the best ever made, and when you see it, you understand why. The details are perfect down to the veins in his arms and the look in his eyes. My daughter said that she didn’t like it because he was naked.

After that, we saw the Baptistery, the bell tower, and the Dome. These are some of the most beautiful buildings in world. We went inside the Dome, and there were a number of candles burning. The guide said that when someone has a special prayer, they light a candle. Well, my son saw all of these candles and ran up and started blowing them out. After we put a quick stop to that, he wanted to ride on my back. He immediately fell asleep, and I ended up walking around the church hunched over with him on my back.

We ate lunch, and then we visited the Basilica of Santa Croce. Inside the church, Michelangelo and Galileo, in my opinion two of the greatest men who ever lived, are buried. Outside the church is a big square where the kids chased pigeons and played while my wife and I relaxed.

At this point, we left our tour group to stay overnight in Florence. We took a cab to our hotel, Nuova Italia. On the way, the cabdriver ran stop signs and red lights, and went the wrong way down a one-way street. My wife and I talked about the irony of coming from a country (Germany) where there are rules for everything and everyone obeys them, to a country where there don’t seem to be any rules. After we got checked into the hotel, we walked around the Mercato San Lorenzo, which is a huge outdoor market in which everything imaginable is sold. We picked up some food and went to our hotel for the night.

Day 8, Sunday - The first thing we did when we got up was take the kids back to the Dome. There were some artists there selling their work, and also drawing portraits. We bought a watercolor, and had my daughter and my son’s portrait drawn. My daughter went first and sat very still. Her portrait was very good. My son was second and would not sit still. Every couple of minutes he asked if it was finished. He was also trying to pose and was making a funny face with his mouth. His portrait turned out O.K., but it wasn’t as close a resemblance as my daughter’s. We paid 120,000 Lira for the portrait, and left for the train station. We were on the way to Venice.

The portrait had taken so long that we were almost late for our train and had no time to eat. And then we almost got on the wrong train. They really have an unusual system of labeling their tracks, and it caused us confusion more than once. There were no seats left in the compartments, so we had to sit in chairs that pulled out of the walls. After the first stop at Bologna, my wife and my daughter were able to get into one compartment and my son and I got into another.

In our compartment sat an older Italian woman, a young Italian woman, and an older man. The older woman sat my son in her lap and they carried on a nonstop conversation for about half an hour. She spoke entirely in Italian and my son in English. It was very funny to watch. The younger woman smiled and told my son, in a very heavy accent, that they only spoke Italian. It didn’t matter. He was telling her about the cows out the window, a water tower in the distance, and some trucks beside the road. The women were really cracking up, and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did.

At the next stop, some people got off and we were able to get into the compartment with my wife and my daughter. They were in there with a younger Italian man who spoke no English. He had some bananas and grapes and shared them with us. We gave him some M&M’s. My son and my daughter kept showing off for him, but he seemed to have fun with them. We rode with him all the way to the Venice main train station, where we had to change to another train to get to the island.


When we got to Venice, we left the train station and immediately found our hotel, the Hotel Dolomiti. It was very nice, and a place that we will stay if we return to Venice. We checked in and then caught a water taxi to St. Mark’s Square. St. Mark’s cathedral allegedly holds the bones of Mark, from the Bible. But first, we hadn’t eaten much all day. We had been promising the kids a trip to McDonalds, and I knew where there was one right off the square. After eating there, we hung out in the square and fed the pigeons. We bought a bag of food, and we let the pigeons eat out of our hands. I caught a couple of pigeons and let the kids hold them. My son tried to catch one and kneeled down on its tail. It flew away minus all of its tail feathers. After we ran out of pigeon food, two teenaged girls kept giving my son more. When my daughter had only one piece of food left, she held out her hand for about ten minutes until a pigeon finally took it from her.

After we left St. Mark’s, we just walked around the streets of Venice. We had seen Americans throughout Italy, but Venice was covered with Americans. My wife and the kids really liked Venice a lot. My son was waving at all of the people in the gondolas, and once one of the gondola operators came over to the sidewalk and reached out and shook my son’s hand. I saw a woman who was riding in one poke her husband and say “Look at that cute little boy waving at us.” After our walk, we bought another water color and then caught the water taxi back to the hotel. The kids were very happy that this was their last night in a hotel.

Day 9, October 18, 1999 - We had a flight for 12:30, so we got up early to spend some additional time in Venice. At breakfast we met and talked to some people from California. After breakfast, we found a playground for the kids which overlooked the Grand Canal. It was a little cool, and for most of the morning we had the playground to ourselves. Once, an Italian man stopped and watched us for a while with a smile on his face. My wife was pretending to be a bear and chasing my son, and I was swinging my daughter and watching the boats on the canal.

After playing for an hour or so, we checked out of the hotel and caught the train, and then a bus to the airport. The flight was delayed until 1:30. I have yet to fly KLM and leave on time. Once we got to Amsterdam, we had a short layover. Two stewardesses (my wife said they looked like supermodels) came up to my son and asked where he was flying. When he said Germany, they said “Oh, too bad. We wish you were flying with us.”

Although the pressure changes in the airplane had bothered the kid’s ears on the way to Rome, neither one had any trouble with their ears coming back. After the short flight back, the kids were glad to be home. They are really looking forward to our next trip, which is mainly for them. We fly to London, and then on to the Arctic Circle in Finland to visit Santa in his home.

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