Monday, January 08, 2007

Europe with the In-Laws Part I

The following summarizes a trip that my wife and I took with the kids and my wife's parents. We had planned the trip for a while, but shortly before the start of the trip I learned that I would be taking a new position back in the U.S. We would have to cut the vacation short so that I could be back for training on April 16.

Day 1, Thursday, April 5, 2001 – We got off to an early start, and we left almost at the time I had planned to leave. Since it was a weekday, I expected very heavy traffic, but we only encountered one major traffic jam. While we were driving, my daughter figured out that nobody else in the vehicle understood her when she spoke to me in German. So, we talked off and on in our “secret” language the rest of the trip.

Our plan was to visit Rothenburg, and then drive on to Munich. We made it to Rothenburg before noon. I dropped everyone off a short distance from the medieval center, and I went and parked the van. I had to park it several blocks away, and I asked my wife to meet me right at the entrance to the old town. I parked the van, and jogged down to where I was to meet my wife. There was nobody there. I walked down the block, and then circled the block. I looked for them for about 15 minutes, before I decided that they might have walked on into the city. I started in that direction, and then saw them standing outside a grocery store.

We walked into the medieval center, and it was really well preserved. There was an old town wall that circled the city. We climbed to the top and walked halfway around the city on the wall. There were open crosses at regular intervals in the wall, where the defenders of the city could shoot at anyone trying to breech the walls. We had a fantastic view from the wall. We could see a really big church on the other side of the town, and everywhere we looked there were very colorful wood frame houses.

After a while, we climbed down from the wall and walked through the medieval streets. There were quaint little tourist shops everywhere, so we didn't make very good time. We stopped in a little Italian place and had some pizza and pasta for lunch. After lunch, we continued down toward the market square, stopping in lots of shops along the way. Once, my wife and my mother-in-law went into a shop, and my father-in-law and I took the kids into a candy store. Since it was almost Easter, they had loads of Easter candy. They also had an animated Easter bunny sitting in a rocking chair. This fascinated the kids. They were petting the bunny, and a woman working in the shop came over and gave them both some candy. We thanked her, and left the shop. My son asked if he could eat his candy, "so he wouldn't lose it."

We continued toward the square, stopping for ice cream along the way. We reached the square, which was surrounded by ancient buildings. The most prominent was the Gothic town hall, which had a 200 ft. tower. Parts of the town hall dated to the 1200's. The front part was completed in the 1578. There was a large fountain in the square, and I put the kids up on it and took some pictures. We were searching for the world famous "Christmas Village", but we could see no sign of it. Finally, I saw a German couple carrying a sack with the store name on it, so I asked them for directions. It was just half a block away, and we all walked over to it.

We went into the shop, and it was fantastic. It was just like Christmas year round in there. They had every possible Christmas decoration you could imagine. In addition, there was a large collection of cuckoo clocks. My son told me that he wanted to live in the shop. The shop was like an enormous maze spread out over multiple floors. We probably spent an hour in there before buying a few things and leaving.

We were starting to run a little short on time, so we started back toward the entrance to the city gates. On the way, we walked by St. Jacob's Church, which was built beginning in the 1300's. It was one of the most prominent buildings in the city, and very beautiful. But, we didn't have much time to explore it, so we continued toward the city gate.

Once we got there, it was still a long walk back to the van. So, I left everyone there, jogged back to the van, and drove back and picked everyone up. We decided then on a slight change of plans. We were going to head straight to Munich from there, but we decided to drive down the Romantic Road. This would add at least a couple of hours to our trip, but we decided that it would be worthwhile.

So, we left the autobahn and headed cross-country. We all enjoyed the countryside much more than what we had seen from the autobahn. My father-in-law commented on the tiny villages that we kept seeing. We would see a cluster of a few dozen houses, and then half a mile away would be a similar cluster. Pasture or farmland usually separated them. My father-in-law was curious as to how these little villages came to be, and how they sustained themselves.

The major attraction on the Romantic Road is the large number of walled cities. These cities have the medieval charm of Rothenburg, but fewer tourists. The first one we encountered was Dinkelsbühl. It looked a lot like Rothenburg, but was smaller. There were almost no tourists. A number of well-preserved towers surrounded the city walls. We drove through the city gates, and drove around the town before continuing on our way. We discussed spending the night in one of those little towns, but we were afraid it would put us too far behind schedule.

The next town we encountered was Nördlingen, which was larger than Dinkelsbühl. A circular wall surrounded it, and I read that the town is located at the center of a 30-mile wide meteor crater. We once again drove through the city gate, but this time we decided to get out and explore a little bit. My wife wasn't feeling well, so she stayed in the van with my son while the rest of us walked around a little. The town was very charming. There were colorful, half-timbered houses everywhere. These houses had probably existed in this fashion for hundreds of years. We walked down to an impressive Gothic church that supposedly stands at the very center of the meteor crater. We took some pictures, and then walked back to the van.

It was really starting to get late, so we decided not to stop at any other towns. However, outside Nördlingen there was a bridge under construction and we were forced to take another route. I couldn't see another route on my map that wasn't extremely out of the way, so we stopped at a gas station and I asked about alternative routes. The woman in the gas station greeted with a very friendly "Gruss Gott", which is the common greeting in southern Germany. She told us about an alternative route, which had appeared to be nothing more than a trail on the map. We ended up taking very small farm roads for about 20 miles until got around the construction.

A short time later, we got back on the autobahn, and continued toward Munich. We would occasionally catch a glimpse of the snow-covered Alps to our right. We planned to visit the concentration camp at Dachau the next morning, so we decided to get a hotel near there. We drove into Dachau, which is just slightly north of Munich. We found a hotel, and I went in to inquire about rates. The man behind the counter said that there was a convention in Munich, and all hotels were booked within 50 miles of Munich. I felt sick to my stomach. This could really be a problem, because we needed 2 rooms. I got on the cell phone and called several places in and around Munich. They were all booked up. I even called a hotel at a town 30 miles away, and they said they were all booked up.

It was about 6:30, so we dropped into a McDonald's to eat and develop a plan. Due to the fears from Mad Cow Disease, McDonald's had changed up their menu. I had calamari and shrimp while I considered our options. I knew the risk of not booking in advance, but I hate to give up the spontaneity of being able to just stop in a nice town and spend the night. During all our European travels, we had only encountered this situation once before. But I felt really bad that it happened while my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were traveling with us.

There appeared to be only one option – head out of Munich and stop at small towns to try and find a little guesthouse. We were only about 10 miles outside of Munich when I had to stop and get gas. I asked the man working there if he knew of any hotels. He told me that down the road, in a tiny little village, there were 2 guesthouses. I was certain that they would be booked up, but I decided to give it a try. It was almost 9:00, and I was really getting worried.

I went into the guesthouse, which was located over a restaurant. They had plenty of rooms available, including some with 3 beds. So, I took 2 rooms for 2 nights. I was ecstatic. It was definitely not on the normal tourist trail, which is why it had been overlooked by others searching for a room. There were a couple of disadvantages, though. They didn’t take credit cards, and I didn’t have enough cash. But, they told me that there was a bank down the street. Also, it was a little noisy being right over the restaurant. Another slight disadvantage was that since they obviously didn't get many tourists, we were stared at like we were Martians when we walked through the restaurant. My wife and I took a room with my son, and we let my daughter stay with my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. I sketched out a plan for the following day, and then we all went to bed.

Day 2, Friday, April 6, 2001 – We all ate breakfast together, which was pretty sparse by German standards. All they had was a few varieties of bread and some cold cuts. We discussed our plans for the day over breakfast. We would visit the concentration camp in the morning, and then go into Munich in the afternoon.

We took a short drive through the country to reach Dachau. It wasn't hard to find. Dachau was the first concentration camp in Germany, built in 1933. A reported 31,591 people died at Dachau between 1933 and the camp's liberation by the Americans in 1945. One of the prisoners, a pastor, wrote the following while imprisoned at Dachau:

When the Nazis arrested the Communists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Communist.
When they locked up the Social Democrats, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Social Democrat.
When they arrested the trade unionists, I said nothing; after all, I was not a trade unionist.
When they arrested the Jews, I said nothing; after all, I was not a Jew.
When they arrested me, there was no longer anyone who could protest.

We parked in the visitor's parking area, and walked into the camp. The camp was surrounded by a trench, a wall, and frequent guard towers. There was a gate at the entrance that said "Arbeit Macht Frei", which means work makes you free. I guess this was supposed to inspire the prisoners to work hard. Our first stop was at the visitor's center. We spoke with a woman there, who advised us of the best sequence in which to tour the camp. We first went through the museum, which traced the rise of Hitler and Nazism, as well as the history of Dachau. There were numerous photos and propaganda posters. One of the photos was of Hitler addressing a group of industrialists in Düsseldorf. In addition to being a concentration camp, Dachau was the site of gruesome medical experiments by the Nazis. They had photos of a prisoner being frozen to death in ice water. There was another series of photos showing a high altitude experiment. The prisoner was placed in a room that gradually had all the air sucked out of it. I will never forget the expressions on his face as he was dying.

We left the museum and walked outside. There was a memorial; a metal sculpture that appeared to be twisted bodies, right outside the visitor's center. We looked at that and then walked over to the roll call area. It was surreal to think that we were standing in the exact spot that the prisoners stood every single morning. We went over to where they had recreated one of the barracks as it was during the war. The conditions that the prisoners endured were really primitive. They were crammed together in extremely tight quarters. Their bathroom facilities appeared to be original. The toilets, washbasins, etc. looked very old.

Behind the barracks there was a long, tree-lined path. The trees had been planted by the prisoners to liven the place up. To the left and right of the path, we could see row after row of foundations where other prisoner's barracks had stood. These barracks had been leveled after the camp was liberated. We continued to the outer edge of the camp, where we came across the crematorium. This was where they burned the bodies of those who died in the camp. There were actually meat hooks in there where they hung the bodies. There were a number of ovens in there, and they still had ash residue in them. It was a very disturbing site. Outside of the crematorium there was a nicely gardened area. We walked over to read a plaque, which said "Pistol Range for Execution."

At this point, it was almost 11:00. There was a documentary film in the visitor's center at 11:00 and 11:30. The film at 11 was in German, and the one at 11:30 was in English. We all wanted to see the film, but we weren't sure it would be appropriate for the kids. So, we decided that I would go watch it in German at 11, and if the film was OK for the kids then we would all watch it at 11:30. I left the crematorium and jogged back up to the visitor's center. The film was similar to the museum layout; it covered the history of Hitler, Nazism, and Dachau. About halfway through the film, I decided that it would be OK for the kids. But, the second half was really gruesome. There was lots of footage of emaciated people, and they showed several scenes of piled up bodies. One scene showed a wagon overflowing with bodies. So, after the film, I entertained the kids while the others watched the English version.

While the others watched the film, I asked one of the museum workers if he could give me directions to the train station. We planned to eat another bite at McDonald's, and then take the train into Munich. After the film, we drove over to McDonald’s to eat and discuss our afternoon plans. Just to make sure, I asked one of the McDonald’s workers how to get to the train station. She gave me directions, and after lunch we were off.

Despite having directions from two people, after a few blocks we apparently made a wrong turn. We were in the general vicinity of the train station, but we couldn’t find it. So, we saw some railroad tracks and followed them until we found a small station. We parked and I got out and checked the schedule. We had missed the train by 5 minutes, and the next one wouldn’t be there for an hour. I tried to figure out the pricing, and I bought a day ticket for all of us. It would give us unlimited rides in and around Munich.

After I got the tickets, we sat and waited. My son decided he needed to go the bathroom. We were next to a feed store, but that didn’t look like a good option to me. I wanted to find a public bathroom to take him to. So, my son and I wandered around for a couple of blocks looking for a bathroom. We never found one, and when we got back to the van my wife said she would just take him into the feed store. I didn’t think it was a good idea, because I did not expect her to get a warm reception. But, she said that there was a woman behind a desk who was extremely friendly, and she let them use the restroom.

At 2:00, we got on the train and rode into Munich. On the way in, my father-in-law observed a boy about 10 years old furiously writing in a notebook. My father-in-law tried to ask him what he was writing, but the boy didn’t respond. I told my father-in-law that he wasn’t old enough to have learned English yet. Also on the train there appeared to be a couple of pickpockets. I watched them as they checked out all the purses on board.

We had decided to book a bus tour of Munich since we were limited on time. When we arrived at the train station, we walked around until we found the bus stop. We booked a 2-hour bus tour that would take us past all of the significant sights. We boarded a double-decker bus, and went upstairs. Because it was still cool weather, the top was covered. The tour guide spoke very poor English. Sometimes, she would switch from English to German in mid-sentence. Once, when she did that my son said, “That’s not good English.” We drove past all of the major attractions, but her commentary was useless. I pulled out my guidebook and started reading on my own about the places we were passing.

Munich had lots of impressive churches. We saw the Frauenkirche (women’s church), which was topped by huge copper onion domes, and the Gothic St Peterskirche. We passed the Hofbräuhaus, where Hitler's Nazis first met in 1920. We passed lots of museums, as well as the extensive English Garden. But we were all so tired, that we were all falling asleep as we drove around.

At the end of the trip, we jumped on the subway and rode down to the town square. We wanted to catch the Glockenspiel at 5:00. We arrived at the square (Marienplatz) about 4:30, and started looking around. The Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) sits on the square's northern border, and the bombed remains of the original town hall, the Altes Rathaus (built in 1474), sits at its eastern end. We were going to go up into the tower, but the door leading to the tower was locked. My mother-in-law met an American woman who was in Germany on a business trip, and they talked a little bit.

We walked around for a few minutes, and looked up to see a camera crew filming. I heard my wife say, “They must be filming a commercial”, and we all looked up just in time to see a topless woman walking across the square as the crew filmed her. We were standing beside the camera, and she walked straight for the camera. My father-in-law grabbed his camera and started taking pictures. He said that his buddies at the coffee shop wouldn’t believe him otherwise. So, I grabbed the video camera and shot a little bit myself. The woman appeared to be a model, and all she had on was a see through outfit, and something like a g-string. She repeated the scene for a second time before they packed it up. I don’t know what my father-in-law and my mother-in-law must have been thinking, but here they had only been in Europe for three days and we had already encountered a topless woman.

At 5:00, the Glockenspiel sprang into action. For several minutes, high above the square, we watched as the figures performed a medieval joust. It was funny to look around the square and see absolutely everyone looking skyward. I thought that would be a perfect opportunity for a pickpocket to make a move. We watched for about 5 minutes, and then walked on down to the Frauenkirche and stepped inside. It was impressive, but we were all really tired. We didn’t stay for long before hopping on the train to go back. We planned to ride down to the main station and then switch trains for the ride back to Dachau. However, I realized that the train we were on went all the way to Dachau, so we didn’t have to switch.

On the way back to Dachau, I studied the train schedule. It appeared that there were 2 stations at Dachau, and the train we were on was going to the wrong one. We got off the train several miles from our minivan. I checked a bus schedule, and there was a bus that ran between the stations. However, it was going to be a while before the next bus left, and it would take a while to get there. So, we piled into a couple of taxis for the ride back to the van.

We got back to the hotel, and decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. We all sat down, and I tried to translate the menu for everyone. The options did not look too appealing, but we all finally settled on something. There was fish on the menu, so I advised my wife to get that. I figured that it was a safe bet. Well, when she got it, it was cold, pickled, and covered with a mayonnaise sauce. She took one bite and couldn’t eat any more. I told her it couldn’t be that bad, so I took a bite. It caused me to shiver in disgust. I don’t know how anyone could eat something like that.

After we finished, my son and I played foosball on a table down the hall from the restaurant. We didn’t have a ball, so we played with wadded up paper. We did that for a few minutes before I took him upstairs and we put him to bed. I had to get back out, though, and walk down to the bank and get some cash.

The walk through the town was really nice. There was a really neat looking church in the town. I walked down past the church to the bank. After withdrawing money from the ATM, I walked the rest of the way through the town. It reminded me of a little farming community in the U.S. It was very quiet, and there was lots of farm equipment about. I could have spent a few days there relaxing. But, we had a tight schedule to keep, so I walked back to the hotel to map out plans for the next day.

Day 3, Saturday, April 7, 2001 – We had an ambitious schedule today. We were going to drive across southern Germany, into Austria, then Liechtenstein, and then end up in either Switzerland or Italy. I checked out, and made small talk with the owner. I had never seen the guy come close to smiling, but I found out later that my father-in-law had taken a picture of him and the girls that were working in there, and he smiled for the photo.

I wanted to take a winding shortcut on some country roads, so my wife drove while I navigated. We drove through farmland for a while before connecting again with the Autobahn. We then drove west across southern Bavaria with the Alps off to our left. It was rainy, though, and we didn’t get many good views of the mountains.

We got to Austria about 10 a.m. and immediately encountered a traffic jam. When we finally got to the wreck, it appeared that someone had wiped out in the rain. The car was really a mess. We drove a little deeper into Austria and then stopped at a gas station to fuel up. We were only cutting across a corner of Austria, so I suggested that we go ahead and buy souvenirs. The store was more than just a gas station, actually. They had a restaurant inside, and a good selection of souvenirs. We made a lot of jokes about buying our souvenirs in a gas station, but we didn’t have time to go into a town and shop.

We crossed the border into Liechtenstein right before lunch. I was shocked that they didn’t check our passports, because they appeared to be checking all the other cars. Right on the other side of the border was a souvenir shop, so we stopped there and my mother-in-law and my wife bought some souvenirs.

It was still rainy, but you could see some of the beauty of Liechtenstein. Although it is smaller than some counties in the U.S., the valleys are deep green, and there are high mountains to the left and right of the highway. Snow covered the mountains at the higher elevations. We pulled into the capital, Vaduz, at about lunchtime. We stopped and I withdrew some Swiss money, which is the official currency of Liechtenstein. We decided that we really didn’t have time to eat at a restaurant, so it was McDonald’s again for lunch.

After lunch, we backtracked to the town of Schaan, because my father-in-law had seen a photo opportunity there. We drove there, and my father-in-law took a picture of a church steeple with tall, rocky mountains behind it. We then left Liechtenstein and crossed the border into Switzerland. That made a total of 4 countries in about 4 hours. Since there is no toll system in Switzerland, the Swiss make you buy a sticker at the border that allows you to drive on the Swiss Autobahn. But, there was no checkpoint where we drove across, so we drove through Switzerland without having to buy the sticker.

We headed south, and the weather continued to be bad. We eventually started climbing into the mountains as we turned toward the west. The rain turned to snow as we climbed up into the mountains, so we stopped at a little rest stop and my father-in-law and I got out. It was really pleasant, standing underneath some huge trees as the snow fell hard around us. But, it was really cold, so we didn’t stay out long.

We planned to drive through a mountain pass, and then I was planning on dipping down into Italy. As we continued to climb, the traffic started to thin out. I saw a sign that I did not completely understand, but it appeared to say something to the effect that the road ended in 15 kilometers. I didn’t say anything to the others, and I continued to drive. Well, 15 kilometers (and no traffic) later we came to a gate in the road that indicated the mountain pass was closed. On the other side of the gate, the road was covered with snow.

I wasn’t sure what we were going to do, but I knew that this development was going to throw us way off schedule. I looked at the map and could find no other way to our destination. We pulled over and I asked a couple of older men standing outside a garage. We pulled in, and I asked them how a person could get to the other side of the mountain pass. They told me to backtrack for a few miles, and there was a train that took people across.

So, we drove back and found the train station. I bought a ticket to take us to the other side. The guy at the counter told me that there was no way to drive into Italy from there, because that pass was closed as well. He also told me that we could have to take another train once we got to the other side of the pass.

We waited around for almost an hour, and then I drove the van up on the train. We all unloaded and went into a passenger car. The heat was turned up too high, so I found the handle to turn it back down. It didn’t work, though, so we suffered through a very warm ride. There was a young German guy sitting there, and we all talked to him. He worked for a hotel chain, and was on his way to inspect one of their hotels on the other side of the mountains. We climbed really high into the mountains. I had left my sunglasses in the van, and we climbed above the clouds and the sun was blinding coming off the snow. Looking outside the car, everything was white. Occasionally, we could see a rocky area where the snow had slid off, but mostly the entire world was blindingly white.

We found out from the guy on the train that there would be another train to take us on the rest of the way about 6 miles from where we would get off the train. The second train ran through the mountain. We thought about just stopping for the night at a town between the train lines. When we departed, I pulled into a little town and walked into a hotel restaurant to inquire about a room. Inside, there were about 6 people sitting at a table, and they just ignored me. I stood there for several minutes before one of them stood up and asked if they could help me. I told them we were looking for a room, and they told me that they had several available and quoted me a price. I thought the price was pretty high, considering little scenery was visible from the hotel. I checked my watch, and felt like we still had time to make the other train if we hurried. So, we left there and drove to the next train station. This time, we sat in our vehicle as the train carried us through the mountain.

On the other side of the mountain, we decided that we would stop at the first promising town and spend the night. It was already getting late, but it was still daylight. I wanted to have a room well before dark. We drove just a few miles, and came across a tiny little town that was not even listed on our map. The sign outside the town said Obergesteln. I found out later that the population was 200, and the elevation of the town was around 4,000 ft. The scenery was breathtaking, so we decided to pull off and check it out. All of the other cars that had driven off the train continued on down the road, but we pulled off and explored the town.

We could see a couple of hotels (which would more properly be described as lodges) some distance off the main highway. We drove down a tiny winding street to the hotels. I checked the first one, and there was a sign that said that it was closed until summer. The second one was open, but completely empty. I inquired about a room, and a woman working there told me that they had a couple of rooms that would sleep 3 people. The rate was also pretty low. She also told me that we were lucky that it wasn’t a week later, because they were about to close for the season. Ski season was over, and the tourists apparently were nonexistent until summer.

We unloaded our luggage and checked out our rooms. They were really nice. They had high, cathedral ceilings with large wooden beams bracing the ceiling. The place was very rustic, and really was more like a lodge than a hotel. To top it off, we were the only guests there. I looked out at the parking lot, and our van was the only vehicle there. We had a spectacular view out the window. There were snow-covered peaks all around us. I felt like we had really lucked out with this place.

We settled into our room (my wife, my son, and me) and then we all went downstairs to eat dinner. There was an older man sitting down alone at a table. We sat down several tables away from him and ordered. There was a little room off to the side where my daughter and my son played with Lego’s. I saw a deer outside, and went outside to capture it on video. It was about 8:00 by then, but it still wasn’t dark.

I walked outside and got some pretty good video of the deer. When I walked back in, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were beside the other man’s table trying to talk to him. (My father-in-law later told me that he walked over because the guy kept grinning at him. I had noticed that, too). It was funny to watch the two of them try to talk. My father-in-law would ask him a question in English, and the man would respond, in a really prominent Swiss German. I listened to them talk for a couple of minutes, and it was comical. My father-in-law would say something like, “Do you live around here?” and then the guy would respond in German. Neither understood what the other was saying. So, I attempted to talk to the guy in German. It was really hard to understand him. I told him that my father-in-law was from Oklahoma, and the guy would say “California.” I kept correcting him, but he kept saying it. My father-in-law finally walked away and left me stranded with the guy. He was really drunk, and I finally decided that he was insane as well. He told me that I spoke very proper German, or hoch Deutsch. He told me that he lived in that little town, and always had. He said that his great grandfather had traveled to Texas in 1866, and that he had an uncle that lived in California. I finally tore myself away from him and went over and ate.

The meal was really good. I had escargots as an appetizer. The kids thought it was cool, but my father-in-law and my wife thought it was disgusting. We finished up and walked upstairs to our rooms. I thought about our schedule for a little while before I went to bed, and concluded that there was no way we would be able to drive into Italy the next day. It was really close, but on the other side of the mountain. We were too far behind schedule, and the nearest pass was far out of the way.

Day 4, Sunday, April 8, 2001 – We woke to a beautiful morning. As a joke, I opened the shutters and started singing “The Sound of Music”. Our van, still alone in the parking lot, was covered with a light layer of snow. When I carried the luggage down, the doors were frozen shut. We had a quick breakfast, and left early. We planned to drive across the rest of Switzerland, turn north into France, and end up in Paris.

The scenery was really great as we drove across Switzerland. We were in the heart of the Alps. We stopped occasionally to take some pictures. Once, we passed a sign for Bitsch, Switzerland. Naturally we had to stop and take a picture of that. We saw a couple of very small Swiss children crossing a road in a little country town, and my father-in-law took a picture of them. Later, we could see the Matterhorn in the distance to our left, so we pulled over in a little town and took a picture of that, too.

Eventually, we turned toward the north. We were headed toward France, but my wife and my mother-in-law wanted some souvenirs in Switzerland. However, all the stores in the little towns were closed because it was Sunday. We stopped once at a gas station, but they didn’t have any souvenirs. Everyone inside was speaking Italian, too. Certain regions of Switzerland speak Italian, others German, and others speak French. Eventually, we came up alongside Lake Geneva. We drove to Lausanne, and pulled off at a McDonald’s to eat lunch. They advertised Swiss beef, and several of us had a hamburger since Switzerland had never been implicated in Mad Cow Disease.

After we ate, we drove into Lausanne to try and find a souvenir shop. We drove around for quite a while downtown, but absolutely everything was closed. I knew that my wife was not going to be happy about it, but I was afraid that they just were not going to be able to get any souvenirs. We left Lausanne and headed toward the border with France. Luckily, there was a rest stop right before we got to the border. We pulled off and my mother-in-law and my wife were able to buy some souvenirs. It also had a spectacular viewpoint, so we took some pictures. When we were back in the van waiting for my wife, I heard the kids sitting in the back of the van playing. My son said to my daughter, “I’ve got to go to work, Baby, because that gives us money to buy toys and stuff.” I cracked up.

The surroundings got flatter and flatter as we neared France. When we crossed the border, the landscape had changed from mountains to hills. It was rainy again, and everyone was dozing off. We worked our way through the hills and finally reached the French autobahn. We were way behind schedule, but I knew that I would be able to make up time. The French highway system is very good, and police are rare. So, I drove really fast after we got on the Autobahn. I pushed the van pretty often up to 180 kph, which is about 110 miles per hour. My father-in-law kept asking me if I had checked the tires lately. He said “You know what’s going to happen if we have a blowout at this speed. There won’t be anything left of any of us.” I knew that he was only half joking, but if I drove normal speeds it would be after dark when we got into Paris.

My father-in-law started to feel sick, so we pulled off at a gas station about 2 hours from Paris. I felt better about our prospects for reaching Paris before dark at that point. We stayed at the gas station for a little while and had a little snack before continuing into Paris. About 30 miles outside of Paris the traffic started to back up, and when we were about 20 miles from the downtown area the traffic was stop and go. We had several maps that we were going to try to use to get us to our destination. My father-in-law navigated while I drove. But, the problem in Paris, as it is all over France, is that the roads are very poorly marked. It wasn’t long before we had no idea of where we were. We would occasionally see a street that was listed on the map, but we had to give up attempting to navigate with the map.

We spotted the Eiffel Tower, and we knew that the place we were staying was near that. We had booked 5 days in an apartment near the Arc de Triomphe. So, we headed that way, but the other drivers were crazy. Once, I was waiting for a light to turn green. I was in a lane that could either turn left or go straight ahead. The lane to the right of me was supposed to go straight ahead. But, when the light changed, the guy to the right of me came around me and turned left, almost causing us to hit him. This was only a prelude of things to come.

We drove directly in front of the Eiffel Tower, and found the Arc de Triomphe on the map. The Arc de Triomphe is a huge roundabout, with traffic several layers deep. I had seen it in person and on television, and it is a traffic nightmare. So, I wanted to avoid it, even though our apartment was only about 3 blocks away from it. We thought we found an alternate route, so we tried that out.

I could see the Arc down one street, but we continued on our alternate route. The traffic was incredibly heavy. There were no lines indicating which lane to drive in, so the traffic was really staggered out. There were cars weaving in and out, and once we saw a guy on roller blades riding behind a car while holding on to it. My father-in-law said that he had never seen anything like it. I just knew we were going to get hit, and we were getting lost. We could no longer find any familiar streets on the map. Finally, we decided to work our way back toward the Eiffel Tower and just drive around the Arc.

We made it to the Arc, and I drove around it. But, I stayed in the outside lane and never really entered the traffic. From there we found the place pretty easily. We keyed in the code at the door, and entered the building. We rode the elevator up to the apartment. The elevator was one of the ancient types with the cage that you have to shut before you operate it. The key was supposed to be under the mat, but it wasn’t there. We had been instructed that if there was a problem, we needed to go see the building supervisor. I rode the elevator down and rang her doorbell. She wasn’t there. We had our cell phone, so I decided to call the people that we had rented the place from. When got back on the elevator, a young guy stepped out and started saying something to me in French. I asked him (in French) if he spoke English. He shook his head “No”, and then we just shrugged at one another.

I made the call back to the apartment owners in Düsseldorf. At this point, the situation was becoming urgent, as several of us really needed a restroom. We had been driving for quite some time since the last stop. I reached the owner, but he said he wasn’t sure what to do and that his wife was traveling. (I had booked the place with her). He said that he would try to call the building supervisor and get a key to us. I rode back down and rang her bell again, and this time she was home. She didn’t speak any English, and she didn’t understand what I was asking for. I kept saying “Madame Riegger”, which was the name of the woman we had rented the place from. She would nod her head, and repeat “Madame Riegger”, but she obviously had no idea what I was talking about. She finally said, “Le Cley”, and that sounded enough like key that I nodded yes. Luckily, that did mean “The Key”, and not “Are you trying to rob me?” so I finally got the key from her.

We got into the apartment and unloaded our things. The apartment building was really old, but the inside of the apartment was nice. Some of the furniture was antique. We didn’t have much of a view, but for this price ($125 a night) at this location in Paris, it was unbeatable. We hadn’t had a chance to eat, though, so we walked down to try and find a grocery store. There was one across the street, but it was closed. There were no fast food places around, so we went back to the apartment and scrounged around and found some odds and ends that other guests had left. My wife had some disgusting noodles, and I just ate some chips. We rested and prepared to spend the next few days in Paris.

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Europe with the In-Laws Part II

This is the 2nd installment of the account of an extended European vacation with my kids, my wife, and her parents. At this stage of the trip, we are in Paris.

Day 5, Monday, April 9, 2001 – The first thing we had to do was take care of breakfast. We walked back over to the store and loaded up on groceries. We got breakfast and lunch supplies, as well as some ice cream. My father-in-law and my mother-in-law wanted us to pick up some coffee filters, but there were many different kinds. We decided not to risk it and just let them pick them up when they went to the store.

My wife and I were going to spend some time in Paris with the kids and let my father-in-law and my mother-in-law rest. We walked up to the subway stop at the Arc de Triomphe. We bought a book of subway tickets, a couple of 3 day passes for all of the Paris museums, and tickets to Disneyland Paris. Disneyland is right outside Paris, and we planned on visiting it the next day.

We checked in our Paris guide to see which attractions were open. The Louvre and the Orsay, the two famous art museums were closed on Mondays. We decided to hit these on Wednesday. Notre Dame Cathedral was open, so we decided to visit it first. We rode the subway over to a stop near the cathedral, and walked in the rain about 3 blocks. We had been building it up by telling the kids that Notre Dame is where the Hunchback of Notre Dame had lived. But, when they saw it, they weren’t impressed. I think they were expecting something out of the Disney cartoon. The building is very impressive, but I guess for the kids it looked just like all of the other buildings.

We went inside and looked around. It is a very impressive sight, but we have been in so many cathedrals (and I had been in Notre Dame once before) that we didn’t stay long. Our museum pass allowed us to climb up in the tower, which boasts a very good view of Paris (and the gargoyles). But, when we walked outside, there was a huge line of people waiting in the rain to climb the tower. We didn’t want to see it that badly, so we decided to go to our next stop.

We grabbed a bite to eat, and then go back on the subway. Our next stop was the Paris sewer tour, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris. The tour originated from the book Les Misérables, which took place partially in the Paris sewer system.

The sewer tour was pretty far off the beaten path. We had to change trains twice, and each time we had to walk quite a distance to get to our connecting train. My son got really tired, and I ended up carrying him on my back through the subway.

We bought our tickets and descended underneath Paris. We had to wait for some other Americans to show up before they would give a tour in English. We also had the option of walking through the sewer by ourselves, making use of English captions. We met an older American couple that had just finished the tour, and they said it would be worthwhile to wait for a guide.

Several other Americans arrived, and we started walking through the sewer system. The kids thought it was pretty cool, but several people (including my wife) were surprised that it smelled bad. I had to laugh at this, because it was the sewer, after all. One of the exhibits that I enjoyed the most was the history of the sewer system, which dated back to Roman times. At one point in the tour, we crossed a bridge over a river of flowing sewage. I stopped with the kids and watched for a few minutes, but I think my wife was pretty grossed out.

After the tour, we rode the subway back to the Arc de Triomphe. My father-in-law and my mother-in-law had only been to the store that day, and they were ready to explore a little. We ate a bite and then rode the subway over to the Eiffel Tower. We planned to ride the elevator up into the tower. But, when we got there, it was raining and there was a long line to get in. We took several pictures, and I let the kids play in the gravel underneath the tower. My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and my wife went into a souvenir shop and looked around. The tower blocked most of the rain off of us, but I really wanted an umbrella. There were Arabs selling umbrellas all over the place, so I haggled with one of them. They started off at a ridiculously high price, but I ended up buying a couple for about three U.S. dollars each. My father-in-law had started haggling with one of them as well, and the guy just wouldn’t give up. We finally had to walk away from him.

We decided to come back in a couple of days to ride up the tower. On the way back to the subway station, my wife stopped in a little tourist place to look around. She wanted a replica of the Eiffel Tower, but I thought everything in that place was way overpriced. So, we passed on that and rode back over to the apartment. We had to rest up for Disney the next day.

Day 6, Tuesday, April 10, 2001 – My son really cracked me up when we woke up. We were sleeping together on a sleeper sofa, and he is always the first one awake. We had been playing a computer game called Starcraft before we left Germany. In this game, which is set in outer space, humans battle two alien races, the Zerg and the Protoss. My son hadn’t mentioned the game since we left home, but as soon as he woke up he said, “Dad, why are the Protoss so strong?” I told him that I didn’t know. Then, a few seconds later he asked “Are the Zerg the toughest?” I figured he must have had a dream about the game.

We got ready and hopped on the train that would take us to Disney. We weren’t sure that we were on the train that went all the way out there, so I asked an older man on the train if he spoke English. He smiled and told me he did, and that the train we were on stopped before it got to Disney. He told us to hop off at the next stop, wait one minute, and then the next train would take us the rest of the way. We thanked him, changed trains, and finished our ride.

It was raining when we entered the park. We took cover for a minute and planned our day. There was a Mulan show at 11:00, so we decided to attend it. It was at the back of the park, so we rode the train around to the other side. We passed several different sections of the park. One was made up to look like the old west, complete with scenery that looked like it came straight from the Grand Canyon.

It was a little early for the show, so we checked on one of the rides. We found out the kids weren’t old enough to ride that one, so we went inside to wait for the show. They had big screens set up where they were showing Disney cartoons, so the kids wanted to stay in and watch. I went and got us all something to eat, and we sat down and ate while we waited on the show to start. Before long the place was packed and the show started. I was afraid the kids wouldn’t pay attention, but it really fascinated them. It was a very impressive show.

After the show, we went to the Time Machine. We stood in a big room while we took a virtual tour through time and across the planet. It was really loud, and I don’t think the kids liked it much. It was still raining a little, so the park wasn’t extremely packed. We decided to try one of the most popular rides, Pirates of the Caribbean. On our way in, we saw a sign that said “30 Minute Wait from Here”. Since there was no line at that point, we assumed the wait would be short. We were still walking when a large group of Spanish people pushed their way passed us. They were very rude, and almost knocked the kids down. We finally got to the line, but we quickly found out we were still a long way from the front. More of the Spanish group came up and started trying to push their way past us. We all linked hands and wouldn’t let them pass. There was a British couple with children in front of us, and they were also upset with the people who kept trying to cut in line. Together, we held them back. Finally, after about 30 minutes, we got to the front. The ride was worth the wait. It was a boat ride, and took us on a trip through a Caribbean night. There were island scenes being acted out all around us, complete with a battle scene. The kids really liked it a lot. (They liked it so much that we came back later and rode it again).

The lines were getting longer as the day wore on. We checked out the Peter Pan ride, but the wait was up to an hour. We passed on that and went into the Alice in Wonderland maze. We were in there a long time, because we couldn’t find our way out. At 3:00, we watched the Disney parade. A lot of the characters from the parade marched by. The parade was delayed for a few minutes, though, because a rain shower moved through. We were pretty wet when the parade came through.

Next, we made our way over to the Buzz Lightyear Café. Buzz and Jesse, from Disney’s Toy Story, were to make appearances at 4:30, so we went in, got some pizza, and waited on them. We got their picture taken with Buzz, and then let them play in the play area. As we were sitting there, a German woman came up to me and started speaking German. She asked if we had seen her jacket, and I answered her in German and told her that we hadn’t. A few minutes later, Jesse came walking by. My son just froze in his tracks. He eventually got a hug from her, which we were able to capture on video.

After we left, we decided to go on the Star Wars ride. We waited in line for 45 minutes for a lame, 2 minute ride. From there, we attempted to walk back to the front part of the park. We were blocked by a show on Main Street. The crowds were thick, and it took us a long time to work our way through. We got to the front, and went through a haunted house. The kids enjoyed that one a lot. We looked into one other ride, but the line was too long. So we went into the shops, bought a few souvenirs, and headed back into Paris. Even though it was late, we let the kids eat some of the candy that we bought in the candy shop at Disney.

We had also bought a pair light sabers, and we decided to try them out when we got to the apartment. I battled with the kids for a long time before we got tired. It was really late when we finally got in bed.

Day 7, Wednesday, April 11, 2001– I got my fill of Paris today. It was really cold and rainy, as it had been on our entire trip. This was not my image of Paris in the spring. We decided to see the art museums. My wife and I left the kids with my father-in-law and my mother-in-law and rode over to the Louvre. On the ride over, a teenage girl got on the subway and started shoving people as she pushed her way through the car. She stepped on the feet of a well-dressed French woman, and the woman turned around and kicked her in the back!

Since we had passes, we didn’t have to wait in line at the Louvre. We decided to spend only a couple of hours in there, because we also wanted see the Orsay, which has lots of Van Goghs, Renoirs, Monets, etc. I actually like it better than the Louvre. We saw all the major attractions in the Louvre – the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa. We had to wait in line for a long time before we got to the Mona Lisa. I had seen it before, and I hadn’t been that impressed the first time. I really don’t understand why it is the most famous painting in the world, but my wife said she was impressed with it.

We saw a few more of the better known paintings, but we really wanted to spend more time in the Orsay. So, we crossed the Seine River and walked toward the Orsay. There was a guy selling paintings, so we stopped to look. I was really freezing to death, because I was not dressed for the weather. It was really cold and windy. My wife bought a painting, and we also got a couple of miniature Eiffel Towers for the kids.

We walked on down to the Orsay, and saw a crowd of people gathered around. I walked up to the door, and it said that the employees were on strike and the museum was closed. I was so mad. It seems like the French go on strike more than any other nationality. They always seem to have some segment of their population that is on strike.

We decided to ride the subway back down to the Arc de Triomphe. Our passes allowed us to ascend the steps to the top. This would give us a fantastic view down the Champs-Élysées. While we were waiting for the subway, 2 older British couples walked up. One of them had three grandchildren with them. We heard the two men discussing the Scottish people. One of them said, “The bloody Scottish, they like to pretend that they are not even British." I laughed, because that’s exactly what the Scots had told us when we were in Scotland. One of the grandchildren heard us speaking English and started talking to us. Then one of the men came over and started talking to me. We talked about the French. He told me that they are always on strike and in his opinion some of the laziest people in Europe. We talked about how funny it was that they glorified Napoleon, who in my opinion was not much better than Hitler. He said, “Well, he got his at Waterloo. The British took care of him.” We discussed Disney, and he said they had been there two days ago. He said that Disney in the U.S. was better. We talked politics, and he said that the Americans are the only country that consistently stands with the British. He said Britain is more aligned with America than with the rest of Europe. We finally discussed the American plane that had made the emergency landing in China. He asked how I felt about it. (At that time, the Chinese were still holding the Americans captive). I told him that I thought the Chinese had caused the crash, and they certainly had some nerve to detain the crew. He agreed with me.

We continued to talk as we got on the subway. I noticed a guy sitting near the door. He was looking down, and looked to me like he was homeless. I saw another guy get on, then he got back off, back on, and then just as the train was about to depart he hopped back off. About 10 seconds later, one of the older women said, “That blokes pinched me purse.” Translation: The guy who had been on the train had picked her pocket. She said that it was all the money she had. Her granddaughter said, “Oh Nanny, what shall we do?” She asked what I thought, and I told her I would get back down there and look around for the wallet. They don’t want to get caught with any identification, so they usually just grab the cash and ditch the wallet. This had happened to my wife in Germany, and this is exactly what they had done. So, we wished them luck and they hopped off at the next stop.

We got to the Arc, and found out that it was also closed due to striking employees. I was really irritated. We walked back down to the apartment. My father-in-law wanted to go and see some things, so I went back out with him. We went over to Les Invalides, which is a very good war museum. As we were walking from the subway stop, we saw a limo with darkened windows drive by. It was followed by a few other cars and had police escorts front and rear. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting Paris that day, and the French Parliament building was close by. We wondered if he was in the limo, and we found out later that evening that he had been at the parliament building.

We went into the museum and looked around. We saw Napoleon’s tomb, which was pretty extravagant. It is really hard for me to believe how much the French revere him. We walked through the museum, and saw some really old cannons and some ancient armor from medieval times. We walked pretty quickly through the WWI exhibit, because we wanted to spend more time in the WWII exhibit. I thought it was really good, especially the D-Day footage. The last exhibit was a film covering the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. I stood there with a group of about 10 Japanese tourists and watched the film. I wondered what they were thinking.

After that, my father-in-law and I rode back over to the Arc. On the way, a young woman saw my father-in-law’s cap, which had the state of Oregon on it. She asked if he was from there. He told her no, that his son lived there. She said that she lived in Paris, but her parents lived in San Francisco.

We got back to the apartment, and decided to order pizza. My wife called the Pizza Hut, and the girl was extremely rude to her. They had some unusual types of pizza, so my wife spent some time trying to figure out what we wanted. She said the girl kept muttering under her breath, and my wife finally her that she thought she was very rude. I told my wife that she should never do that to people who are in charge of preparing your food. When we got the pizza, it wasn’t very good, and it was way overpriced. I was ready to get out of Paris.

Day 8, Thursday, April 12, 2001 – Today we would head to Normandy. I was really dreading the drive out of Paris. We got all of our things together, and I went to pull the van in front of the building. There was a parking place there, but by the time I got to the front of the apartment it was gone. I had to circle the block several times before another spot opened up.

We loaded up and headed to the Arc. I had to circle the Arc and come out the other side. I had been told that there are certain rules that applied when one drove around the Arc. When I got to the Arc, all rules went out the window. We were just trying to survive. It was pretty scary. Apparently we did something wrong, because a guy pulled up alongside us in a motorcycle and started glaring at us. My father-in-law looked over at the guy and started smiling, and this made the guy crack a smile. We continued in the general direction we wanted to go in, and we finally saw some signs pointing us toward Normandy. I made up my mind as we left Paris that I would never attempt to drive there again.

We drove for a couple of hours through the Norman countryside. The kids slept most of the way. My father-in-law asked again if I had checked the tires lately, because I was driving pretty fast. We got there about lunchtime, and had lunch at a McDonald’s in Bayeux. We let the kids play for a while before we headed to the American Military Cemetery.

The cemetery is set on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. As we walked in, we talked about the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”, which was filmed there. We first stopped at the visitor’s center, and read about the cemetery. There are three Medal of Honor winners buried there, including Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. We noted their location and walked into the cemetery. On the way in, a black family walked past on their way out of the cemetery. They were speaking French, and there were tears streaming down the father’s face.

We located each Medal of Honor winner, and took some video of each grave. The kids would point to random graves and ask about this person or that person. Each time, I told them the name, and where he was from. I tried to get them to imagine a little bit about each man. I explained to them that he might have had kids at home that never got to see him again. I told them that each one of those men had a mother who never got to see them again. I wanted them to think about how tragic it was.

We left the cemetery and drove to Point du Hoc, which was just a few minutes down the coast. I played with the kids in the bomb craters while my wife walked around with my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. Once, we saw some German kids playing in a bunker. They were playing war, and I heard them shouting “Sie kommen, Sie kommen” (they are coming, they are coming). We spent quite a bit of time walking around, but part of the memorial was closed off. Apparently there had been some instability near the edge of the cliff, and they had it blocked off from access.

We left there and headed back toward Omaha Beach. On the way, we stopped at a little private museum. There was a Higgins landing craft on display outside, and we stopped and looked at it. I climbed up where I could actually look down inside it. I flashed back to the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” and thought about the fact that this very boat in front of me had carried soldiers to the beach that day. There were also lots of other artifacts on display, many of them showing signs of heavy damage from the battle.

We left and continued toward the beach. We had made reservations at the hotel we had stayed at the year before. They spoke no English, so my wife had a friend call and make the reservations. The hotel, Hotel du Casino, stands directly over the beach. It looked ancient, but we figured that it had to have been built after the landing in 1944. We told the kids where we were going, and my daughter said, “Oh yeah, that’s the place with the pink toilet paper.” I didn’t remember that, but my wife confirmed that my daughter was right about that.

We got to the hotel and checked in. When I saw the woman at the front desk, I remembered her. This was the daughter of the owners, and she actually spoke a little English. She asked us if we would be eating dinner there, and we told her we would.

We unloaded our things in the room before going out to the beach. There was no elevator, so it took a while to get unloaded. We got one room with four beds and second room for my father-in-law and my mother-in-law. Both rooms looked right out onto the beach. My daughter was pleased to find out that they still had pink toilet paper. My wife stayed in to rest while I took the kids down to the beach. We were completely alone out there. We brought the light sabers with us, and my son was anxious to fight with them. I tried to talk to them about the historical significance of where we were, but he couldn’t get his mind off of a duel. So, we had a sword fight on the beach. I took turns fighting him and my daughter. I drew a big circle and stood in the middle of it. I told them that to win they had to force me out of the circle. My son walked over to my circle and started kicking it and messing the lines up. Then, he looked up at me and said, “Aren’t you ashamed that I messed your circle up?” I just died laughing.

Before going back inside, I tried to imagine the landing. The hills were still dotted with bunkers, and there was a really big gun directly outside the hotel. It was really hard to imagine the tragedy that unfolded on this peaceful beach. Looking across the wide stretch of sand between the water and the hills, I could see why so many men had lost their lives. They had to cross several hundred yards of sand while machine guns rained bullets on them. If they were lucky enough to avoid that, they also had to avoid the mines that were scattered all over the beach.

At dinner that evening, we took a dictionary so we could translate the menu. From the restaurant, we had a perfect view of the beach and the ocean. The waitress came up and started speaking French, but I asked her if she knew German or English. She said that she spoke German, so we started conversing in German. We spoke for several minutes before she asked where we were from. When she found out we were all Americans, she switched to English. She knew some English, she just felt more comfortable speaking German.

While we were translating the menu, the owner came out. He was 75 years old, and had actually been there on D-Day. He spoke not a word of English, but with the help of the waitress he talked to us a little. He told us that his family had owned this hotel for many years prior to D-Day. He said he was 15 when the Germans invaded, and they took the hotel from his grandfather. He was forced to move into town then. He said that on D-Day, the hotel was completely destroyed. He was 18 years old at that point, and he saw the invasion take place. He also kept trying to tell us something about Belgium. We gathered that he had gone to Belgium to work, but we couldn’t understand when. He would say “ship”, then what I finally figured out was “Belgium”, and then he kept making a cutting motion and saying “snip, snip.” We couldn’t understand his exact meaning. He told us that after the war, he rebuilt the hotel. He said that he stayed off the beach until 1946, because the mines weren’t all cleared out until then. He had tears in his eyes as he walked away. We were all in complete awe at the living piece of history we had just encountered.
It took us a while, but we finally translated the menu. My father-in-law was concerned about what he might get, so he ordered an omelet. I had red mullet, which was really good. Between courses they brought me a scoop of ice cream in cognac, which they had also done last year. It was hard to eat, but I was finally able to get it down. There were two American women sitting near us, and I could hear them talking about the same thing. They weren’t too crazy about it either. I finished all my courses, and had an excellent chocolate mousse for dessert. We finished up and went up to our rooms, where the kids watched French cartoons and played with their Game Boys before going to bed.

Day 9, Friday, April 13, 2001 – We wanted to stay longer, but we were going to have to leave today. I walked out on the beach with the kids before breakfast. It was freezing. I saw some golf balls lying in some pools of water, and fished one out. I figured it would be a good souvenir for my father-in-law. I walked around on the beach for a while, and then met the others for breakfast. I gave my father-in-law the golf ball, and told him that there was another one, but the water was too deep. I told him I would try to fish it out after breakfast.

During breakfast, the owner came back out. He started trying to tell us more stories, and then pulled out a photo album. We were all amazed. He had lots of pictures of the invasion that I had never seen. He also had close up pictures of Dwight Eisenhower, and he had a signed letter from Eisenhower thanking him for his hospitality when he later came back and stayed in the rebuilt hotel. They had pictures of their daughter, then only about 4 years old, standing with Mamie Eisenhower. This was the same “little girl” who had checked us into the hotel. He told us that he had met Eisenhower on more than one occasion, and that he had stayed right there in that hotel. We were just floored by the things he was telling us. If he advertised these things, he would keep that hotel sold out year round. But he seemed to me to be the kind of guy that wouldn’t want that kind of attention. He also had a 1920’s postcard of the hotel, which showed what it had looked like prior to the war. It was very similar to the rebuilt hotel. My father-in-law asked if he could take pictures, and the man said yes. So, my father-in-law took pictures of most of the man’s pictures. My father-in-law asked if we were going to be behind schedule, and I told him maybe, but it didn’t matter. These were the kinds of memories vacations were for. This experience was priceless.

After a while, we had to go ahead and get ready to leave. I walked back down to the beach to get the other golf ball, as well as some sand from the beach. The ball was in about 2 feet of cold, clear water, but it was about 3 feet from the edge. So, I had to walk into the water on my hands and get it out. The water was barely above freezing, so by the time I finally got it out I was shivering. I scooped up some sand and then we were on our way.

We were behind schedule, so I once again had to drive fast. Of course my father-in-law had to ask again about the tires. We wanted to visit Patton’s grave at the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg. It closed at 5 p.m., and I thought there was a chance we would make it. We had to drive all the way across France to do it, and Paris was directly in our path. Confusion once again set in as we neared Paris. We were not sure about where we were. We tried to work our way around the city, and we finally saw a sign to Disneyland. That was good, because that meant we had worked our way to the opposite side of Paris. It was past lunchtime, so we actually took the exit at Disney and ate in Disney Village. There was a Rain Forest Café in there, so we decided to try it out. We ordered our food, and then my wife and I left the kids with my father-in-law and my mother-in-law and we stepped outside to buy some souvenirs at the Disney Store. We bought some t-shirts, a set of drinking glasses, and a few other things, and then got back to the café just as lunch was served. The kids really enjoyed the setting, and we all enjoyed being able to relax after rushing halfway across France.

After lunch we continued on our way. I was estimating that we would get to the cemetery right at 5, assuming we had no problems. As we neared the Luxembourg border, we began to see snow flurries. At first the others didn’t believe me, but then we saw a few more. Just a few miles from the border, we encountered a traffic jam. It was about 4:45, and I was afraid that this would cause us not to make it in time.

We pulled into the parking lot of the cemetery at 5:22. Everything was closed, so we were forced to just look through the fence. We could see the graves from where we were, but not up close. There was a German war cemetery a little further down the road, so we decided to check it out. It was open, so my father-in-law and I walked into it. It was pretty gloomy. There were also some children buried in there, but I wasn’t sure why. My father-in-law and I walked around a little while the others waited in the van.

When we got back to the van, we discussed what we should do. We were on the German border, so I suggested that we cross the border and stay at a Bed and Breakfast. However, we were only 2.5 hours from home and the others favored driving back home. It was not yet 6 p.m., and we would probably be home before it got dark. So, we set off.

My wife wanted some souvenirs, so we stopped off at a couple of places in Luxembourg City. She was looking for a couple of beer steins to complete our collection. We stopped at a number of places before reaching the border with Belgium, but we had no luck at all. We stopped at another place in Belgium, but couldn’t find anything there, either.

We drove through very beautiful country. The surroundings were very hilly with lots of trees on the hills. This was the area that the Battle of the Bulge had been fought in. We worked our way into Belgium, and it started to snow pretty hard. Once we passed a herd of deer standing in a meadow. My father-in-law commented on how neat and clean everything was. He said if this was in southeastern Oklahoma, then you would see lots of cars on blocks, junkyards, etc.

We pulled into St. Vith, which is famous for a massacre that took place during the Battle of the Bulge. A number of German soldiers had executed some American prisoners there. We located a memorial in the town, and pulled off to take pictures. As I started to drive off, everyone started yelling at me. I stopped, and realized that my father-in-law hadn’t gotten back in the van. He was running to the van, apparently afraid that I was about to leave him, freezing in Belgium.

The rest of the drive home was uneventful. We came home to a very cold house. We planned to spend the night at home, and then leave for a day trip to The Netherlands the next morning.

Day 10, Saturday, April 14, 2001 – It was the peak of tulip season in The Netherlands, so we were excited about experiencing some of the things that the country is famous for. We had originally planned to see Holland at the beginning of the trip, but I was advised that the middle of April is the best time.

I think my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were surprised that it only took us 40 minutes to get to the border. We crossed the border, and drove toward Kinderdijk. This is the location of a large concentration of windmills. We drove mostly cross-country to get there. Once, we did take a wrong turn that I only realized about 15 minutes later. So, we lost time backtracking. Regardless, we were in the vicinity of Kinderdijk only about 2 hours after we left home. We made another wrong turn, though, and had to stop and get directions. My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and I walked into a store, and I just walked up to a woman who was shopping and asked her if she spoke English. She looked at me with a very surprised look, but she spoke perfect English. She told us how to get to the windmills.

We first stopped at a little souvenir shop at Kinderdijk. Almost everyone had to use the restroom, which required Dutch coins. Since we didn’t have any, we waited by the door until others were coming out and caught the door before it closed. We bought a few souvenirs in the shop (they accepted dollars and Marks, and the exchange rate was pretty good), and inquired about the location of a nearby wooden shoe factory. We had heard that they gave free demonstrations, but we were told that they were not open on Saturdays. So, we bought some wooden shoes from the shop, and then went outside to take pictures of the windmills.

We left there, and headed toward the Keukenhof, which is the heart of Holland’s flower industry. There is a huge exhibition there in the spring, and we wanted to visit it. On the way, it started to snow pretty hard. This weather was really terrible. I had always pictured a warm, sunny day for viewing Holland’s tulips. Instead, we got snow. It was the day before Easter, for crying out loud! We passed several colorful fields of flowers, and pulled off and took some pictures and video of the flowers in the snow.

We got to Keukenhof, but nobody was interested in getting out and going through the exhibit in the snow. I got out and went and got some information on the exhibits. I was told that there were some things indoors, but most of it was outdoors. When I took this information back to the others, they weren’t interested in looking at the flowers in the snow. So, we decided to work our way back toward Germany. On our way out of the parking lot, though, we encountered a parking barrier. Apparently, we were supposed to pay for parking, and then put our ticket in the meter to be let out. Since we didn’t see the exhibit, and we didn’t go inside, I didn’t have a ticket to pay the meter. So, I drove up behind the car in from of me, and quickly drove through right behind them. It was a piece of cake.

Due to the epidemic of foot and mouth disease, the border crossing back into Germany was closely monitored. We were stopped at the border and asked if we had any beef or dairy products. The guard was a member of the German military, and waved us through when I told him no. We stopped in the snowstorm on the German side of the border and ate at McDonald’s, before driving on home in the snow. It looked like we would have a white Easter (we did).

We did have a good covering of snow when we arrived. I had to fly to the U.S. early the next morning, and my father-in-law and my mother-in-law were traveling to Berlin. It had been an enjoyable, but rushed 10-day trip.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Weekend in Berlin

The following summarizes a weekend trip that I took alone to Berlin.

Day 1, Saturday, March 31, 2001 – I had booked this trip on very late notice. When we found out that we were going to be relocating back to the U.S., my wife and I decided that I should try to make a quick trip to Berlin to see the sights. I had been too busy to go to the travel agent, so I had booked this ticket only 2 days previously. I planned to fly in early on a Saturday morning, and back home late Sunday evening. I had an ambitious plan, but I was going to do everything I could to pull it off.

I got to the airport about an hour early for my 7:30 flight. The flight was totally uneventful, and we were making our descent into Berlin at 8:15. One thing that I did notice was just how big Berlin is. It was really enormous; definitely the biggest German city that I had ever seen. The city just seemed to go on forever.

After landing, I bought a "Welcome Card" for Berlin. This gave me 3 days of free public transportation, plus discounts into all of the major attractions. I planned on either taking a guided bus tour or a walking tour of the city to get better acquainted. After studying both options in my guidebook, I decided to take a 4 hour walking tour - Discover Berlin from the tour company Berlin Walks. The meeting place was across the street from the zoo, so I rode a bus from the airport to the zoo.

I walked over at about 9:40 and found the tour leader standing around alone. We talked for a few minutes, and I asked her a few questions about the tour. By 10:00, there was a large group of Americans gathered around, and we embarked on the tour.

We first took the train over into the eastern section of Berlin. We got off the train, and gathered at the edge of the Spree River while our guide told us the history of Berlin. She said we would cover 700 years of Berlin’s history, starting in the medieval period. We walked along the edge of the river up to the Berlin cathedral. We walked through the museum district, and she pointed out a number of bullet holes from the 2nd World War. After walking through the museum district and seeing the Pergamon, we turned down one of Berlin's most famous streets, Unter den Linden. This street was very beautiful before Hitler came in and chopped down all the old Linden trees that lined the street. He then expanded the street so that his military parades would have more room to put on displays for the citizens. Hitler replanted the trees, but they are not yet near the size of the ones he cut down.

We walked into the Neue Wache (The New Guardhouse), which is a memorial to fallen soldiers. There was a sculpture of a mother holding her dead son and mourning. It was quite moving. We then passed Humbolt University, where Albert Einstein once taught. From there, we walked to The Bebelplatz, which was the scene of a book-burning by the Nazis. In 1933, they burned some 20,000 books in this square, including works by Heinrich Heine, who had written in 1821 "He who burns books, will burn people in the end." This phrase is engraved on the ground in the Bebelplatz as a reminder.

From there we headed to the Brandenburg Gate, which was formerly a city gate, but we first had to wait for a large anti-Nazi protest to pass by. From a distance, we could see the Brandenburg Gate, but we were looking at an illusion. They were doing renovations on it, and scaffolding that looked just like the gate normally looks was covering it. When we got close, we were able to look underneath and see the actual gate.

From there, our guide showed us the no-man's land between parallel portions of the Berlin Wall. This area was known as the "death strip", because it was mined and booby-trapped. (When I was there, this area was undergoing a tremendous construction boom; before the wall fell this strip of land was barren). Several East Germans were killed trying to escape into West Berlin, and freedom from Communist rule. The most famous case is probably that of Peter Fechter. He was shot by East German guards in the no man's land, and nobody came to his aid. He bled to death because both East and West were afraid to cross into the area to save him.

We saw portions of the wall that were still standing. Some of it will remain standing as a memorial (Berlin has a LOT of memorials). As we made our way to Checkpoint Charlie, our guide told us of many successful, and other unsuccessful escapes into West Berlin. Some of them were very creative. One guy measured the height of the barricade at Checkpoint Charlie, and just got a very small car and drove under the barrier (which the East Germans promptly lowered). Checkpoint Charlie was also the location of a famous tank standoff between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in 1961. So much that I had read about in history books was right here in front of me.

Shortly after, the tour ended and I made my way to the Europa-Platz. I grabbed a quick bit to eat, and then went in to check out the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. In 1943, the church was essentially destroyed in a bombing raid, but the ruins have been left there as a memorial. There are certainly a lot of reminders of the horror of war in Berlin.

From there, I rode the subway out to Olympic Stadium, home of the 1936 Summer Olympics. This was the one where Jessie Owens won 4 gold medals. I really wanted to go inside the stadium, but there was a soccer match going on. It was halftime, and it cost 60 marks (about $30) to get in. So, I just walked around and looked at it from the outside.

My legs were getting really stiff, but I wanted to see the Reichstag. From the subway stop, I had a very long walk (at least 2 miles). When I got there, I wanted to go inside and up to the dome, but there was a huge line outside. So, I found a closer subway stop and rode into the former East Berlin, which is where I had booked my hotel. Prices in the East were much lower than in the West.

After dropping off my things (just a couple of things I had been hauling around in my backpack), I went out to check out the nearby Alexanderplatz. This is a big, open square, and it is near a very tall TV tower and Berlin landmark, the Fernsehturm.

Alexanderplatz was crowded with people, and there were a number of carnival rides going on. Pretty soon, I saw a group of people who looked like skinheads or gang members of some kind arguing. It wasn't long before punches started getting thrown, and it turned into quite a brawl. At one point one guy had another pinned and he just punched him repeatedly in the face. The guy on the ground had blood just pouring out of his nose. The sound of the punches was sickening. Pretty soon, the police pulled up, and everyone scattered. I had been video-taping some of this, but I eased out of there as well so the police wouldn't confiscate my video tape. I headed back to the hotel, where I fell exhausted into bed.

Day 2, Sunday, April 1, 2001 – I got up at 5:30, extremely stiff from the day before. I had big plans today, as long as my legs would hold up. My flight out was at 5:30 p.m., so I was going to cram in everything I possibly could. It was the first Sunday of the month, which meant that a number of museums were free. But I also wanted to spend time at the Berlin Zoo, as well as at Charlottenburg Castle. The museums opened at 10, the zoo at 9, and I figured that the castle gardens were always open. So, I decided to get there early.

I finished breakfast and got to the subway by about 7:30. It took almost 40 minutes to get to the closest subway stop to the castle. I was already upset that I hadn’t left earlier. Then, when I got off the subway station, I still had to walk about a mile before I got to the castle. I called my wife on the cell phone and talked to her while I was walking. There is a huge flea market in Berlin every weekend, and she wanted me to be sure that I went and looked at what they had for sale.

As I suspected, the castle gardens were open. Also, I could look into the windows of the castle and see the interior. It was very nice on the inside and outside. The castle was yellow, and a fence with gold trim, ringed the perimeter. I walked around the castle so that I could better explore the gardens. Unfortunately, most of the trees and flowers had not yet bloomed. They were all very close to blossoming, and probably would have been in full bloom 2 weeks later. There was a huge forested area behind the garden at the back of the castle, and in the distance I could see a lake with swans swimming on it. If I had not been so pressed for time, I would have walked down there and explored a little more.

By this time, it was already after 9, so the zoo was open. I had intended to be there right at 9, and I was currently about 2 miles away. Since I wanted to conserve my legs, I decided to wait for a bus at a nearby stop. I looked at the schedule, and it looked like I had just missed the bus. The next one wasn’t scheduled for another 20 minutes. So I sat down and waited while trying to plan the rest of my day. After about 15 minutes, a German woman walked by and said that the buses were not running. At first I didn’t understand her, but then it suddenly hit me. Today a marathon was being run, and bus service had stopped until late afternoon. Another woman walked by and told me that there was another bus stop across the road, and she thought it might still be running. There was someone there who worked for the transportation department, and he said that there was in fact one more bus that would come by. After that, there would be no more until the afternoon. So, at 9:30 I caught the bus, which had a stop right outside the zoo.

I bought a combination ticket to the zoo and the aquarium. I planned to spend 2 hours at the zoo, and then ride the train to the Pergamon. After 2 hours there, I would ride over to the flea market, spend a couple of hours there, and then ride the bus to the airport.

I walked into the zoo to find it almost deserted. It was about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and people were just not out and about yet. But the weather was great, and I had the zoo to myself. I first walked into the elephant house, where I got to view 2 very large elephants up close. I was totally alone in there, so I talked to the elephants. They just ignored me. I worked my way a little further into the zoo, still encountering very few people. I found an outdoor exhibit of mandrills (a kind of baboon) and watched them for a while. It was almost like watching kids play. The grabbed each other’s tails, hung upside down from branches, and chased each other. There was a baby in there that must have been only days old. I looked at my watch, and knew that I was running behind schedule. I needed to move on, so I went to the monkey house.

When I entered, I noticed that the setup was really interesting. The apes were all enclosed in glass, but you could actually press your face right up against the glass. (They also had outdoor access). As soon as I walked in, I saw an enormous orangutan right up against the glass. He was eating seeds, and at first he ignored me. After a few minutes, he looked up and we made eye contact from less than 6 inches. He looked intently into my eyes, like he wanted to ask a question. He studied my eyes for a few minutes and then started eating again. I studied his hands and feet, and really looked him over thoroughly. I had never been so close to a great ape.

Reluctantly, I left him and worked my way to the next enclosure. There was one cage that was set up like a baby’s room. I didn’t see anything in there, but in the next cage there was a male and female mountain gorilla. The male was a big silverback, and he was less than a foot from me. He looked at me a couple of times, but mostly just continued eating. The female walked over and studied me for a few minutes, and then walked back over to her meal. This was so amazing. I was so close to these apes that I could study every detail.

Finally, I left the gorillas and moved to the next enclosure. There, I hit the jackpot. There were about 5 chimps in this enclosure. I videotaped them for a few minutes, but then I notice one near the glass. I walked over and looked at him. He looked into my eyes, but more intently than the orangutan had. He was more curious than the other apes had been. He made some faces at me, and I made some back at him. There were still very few people around, but those that were probably thought that I was crazy. I pulled change from my pocket and showed him. He tried to reach for it. My pulled out my keys and showed them to him. He studied them intently.

After 15 or 20 minutes, a number of people had gathered to watch our interaction. Then, I had an idea. I took the video camera, flipped out the video display, and turned it toward him. He could look into the camera and see himself on TV. Both of his eyebrows shot up when he saw this. He put a finger to his face, and saw it happen on the display. Then he put his finger to his lips, all the time intently watching the display. Next he opened his mouth and started touching his teeth. He opened his mouth really wide and looked inside. After that, he started sticking his tongue in and out of his mouth, and then flicked his tongue rapidly left and right. He was really enjoying himself, and I was capturing it all on video. We also had quite a crowd at that point, and they were really laughing at his antics.

Next, I turned the camera on myself and held the eyepiece up to the glass. He put his eye right down at the eyepiece and looked through it. Then he popped back up and looked at me, and then again looked at the eyepiece. He did that several times, as if he was trying to figure out how I could be inside and outside the camera at the same time.

By this point, I had spent almost an hour with him. My schedule was completely blown. But, while we were entertaining each other, I thought to myself, “Would you rather spend 2 hours in a world class museum, or spend a very private hour with a chimp?” That was a no-brainer. I have been to plenty of world class museums, but I had never been this close to great apes. I decided to blow off the museum and spend as much time as I wanted in the zoo.

I finally left my chimp friend and tried the video trick on an orangutan. He was at first interested, but quickly lost interest. When I put down the camera, he put a finger up to his eye. I did the same. Then, I switched eyes, and he followed suit. I have no idea what he was trying to communicate, but each time I put my finger to another eye he did the same. I finally put my finger to my lips, and he did that too. There was a crowd of people trying to see him, so I left and walked back to the gorillas. There was one close to the glass, and I did the video trick on her. She studied the display for a minute, and then put her arms up over her ears and looked away. When she looked back at the display and saw herself again, she ran away.

After spending quite a bit of time in the monkey house, I walked over to the aquarium. There, I saw fish that I had never seen before. They had many unusual animals, including several tanks of strange jellyfish. On the 2nd floor of the aquarium were reptiles and amphibians. They were all active and moving around, unlike what I have observed at zoos in Texas. The top floor contained more amphibians and a large exhibit of insects. In one glass enclosure, there were snails that were bigger than my fist. In another, there were thousands of stick insects. From a distance, it looked just like a pile of brush, but upon closer inspection it was actually many thousands of stick insects, many of them newly hatched.

I left the aquarium thoroughly impressed, but I had run out of video tape. I went to the predator exhibit. I could hear a roar from the outside. Inside, there was a very muscular male lion, pacing his cage and roaring loudly. That would be a chilling thing to hear out in the wild. What a roar he had! And once again, you could get very close to the animals. Then, I went to the tiger's cage, and he was also roaring. His roar sounded more like a very deep cat’s meow.

My legs were really aching at this point. I had to stop frequently to rest them. I walked out of the aquarium and headed to the panda bear display. They were lounging on their backs, eating what I think was bamboo. I had never seen a real panda before. I watched them for a while, then had a quick look at all of the other bear enclosures. Inside one, there were 2 different species of bear. There was an unusual looking group of black bears, and then a group that looked like American brown bears. And right there in the middle of all these bears was a black housecat. It was just walking around without a care in the world. I regretted not having more videotape.

It was almost 2 p.m. at that point, but I decided to go back to the monkey house. I hadn’t gotten enough on my first visit. I saw a crowd gathered up near the gorilla cage. I saw that they were standing in front of the baby’s room. And the baby was out playing. It was a baby gorilla, dressed in a little T-shirt and wearing a diaper. There was a handler in there with him playing. I watched him for a while. I once again wished that I had more videotape.

I left there completely satisfied with my zoo experience. The Berlin Zoo was without a doubt the best that I had ever seen. The animals were all moving around and active, and you could get really up close and personal with them. I was really glad that I had decided to spend a lot of time there.

I rode the subway down to the flea market. Actually, I got off one stop too soon and had to walk another half mile or so. My legs were killing me every step of the way, and now I was getting blisters on my feet. I couldn’t stand much more walking. By my calculations, I had walked about 20 miles in 2 days.

As soon as I reached the flea market, I called my wife on the cell phone. There were several things she wanted me to pick up, so I walked through as I described the things to her. They had just about everything imaginable there. I told my wife that I could probably find an elephant there if we wanted to buy one. She really regretted not being there, and she started telling me over the phone what she wanted. I spent quite a bit of time in there, looking over merchandise and haggling with the merchants. I finally bought a set of crystal wineglasses and an antique porcelain serving dish.

After finishing up there, I rode the subway back to the zoo station, and then caught the bus to the airport. I was extremely sore, but it had been worth it. I really could have used another day, though.

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