Pretty Pictures

I’m trying hard to stop taking pictures of pretty things (Thanks Karen for ruining that for me).  On my last day of European vacation I am almost prettied out, anyway.  There was so much to take in and I did and I also photographed most of it. I’m full and happy and ready to go home and live simply and work hard again.  That’s the point of a vacation right?  To make you crave the routine you were previously fatigued with living.  I love that we live in close proximity to Europe, but that we go home to the pared down existence of Tunis.  It feels like a good life balance.

            Allan and I are driving our final bit of French countryside as we approach Paris for our flight out tomorrow.  We are going over things that we thought were a success from the trip or cautions we would have for another time.  Here is our list of what we learned.
            Pack lightly!  For a three-week winter trip you can get by with the following:
·      3 pairs of jeans
·      3-5 long sleeved cotton shirts (some of mine were turtlenecks)
·      One black turtleneck sweater
·      One zippered, hooded fleece sweatshirt
·      1 pair of sweatpants
·      Slippers
·      Underwear (no more than 5 pairs)
·      Socks (no more than 5 pairs, one wool)
·      Down jacket that can layer over other items
·      Hat and gloves
·      One pair of sturdy, comfortable boots
·      Don’t bring a hair dryer
·      Buy toiletries as you need them at a grocery store or pharmacy
·      Ski gear, optional
            This is a nightmare.  Compounding the complication that most places don’t have clothes dryers is the fact that the wash cycle alone takes a minimum of 1.5 hours.  I advise that you look for every possibility to run a load and then try to dry them wherever you can.  Radiators are your best ally.  When you run out of washing machine options you can hand wash everything (even jeans) and they will eventually get dry.
            Everything to drink is expensive.  An espresso can be as much as 8 Euros, a bottle of wine starts at 25, and even water is around 3 Euros.  Bring a French press coffee maker and ground coffee to make coffee in your room, buy wine and beer in grocery stores, and refill your own water bottle with perfectly drinkable tap water.

            Try everything, especially the regional specialties.  You don’t have to eat a sit down meal at a restaurant to eat well.  Some of the best foods are perfect for take-away like breads, charcuterie, and cheeses.  There are also easily available traiteurs who sell food designed to take home and put in the oven or microwave.  


            We were super lucky to stay at our friends’ apartment for several days of our trip, but for our time in Munich, we pitched a vacation exchange proposition and got a bite.  We don’t have to completely turn over our home to do this.  We’ve got guest rooms and will be happy to give our host a return few nights in our home.  These two apartments really helped us get off the Euros ticker for a few nights.
I use the website TripAdvisor a lot.  I try to find rooms for around 80 Euros in a good location with free WiFi.  I have found that spending more money than this doesn’t necessarily get us a better room.  I much prefer a spare but clean room with simple supplies to a faux-fancy hotel with gross carpet and one of those slick, floral, germ catching bedspreads.  We also took another look at B & Bs after many years of eschewing that option (I don’t know why, now).  Paris can be notoriously expensive and the rooms tiny.  Since we had a car, we stayed in a village near Versailles for a couple of nights and another in a village near Charles de Gualle airport.  For the same or less money than a cheap hotel, these B & Bs were just as convenient, but multiple times more enjoyable than the expensive airport hotels.
            Here is something that I honestly experienced.  At the end of the day, I got a similar amount of satisfaction from looking at the pictures I had taken that day and thinking about what I might do with them as I would get from laying out a bagful of purchases.  There were some things I knew I wanted, like a few pieces of Polish pottery, but I didn’t need a lifetime supply, just a couple.  I do treat myself to some useful items, generally for the kitchen.  I bought some molds, a bain marie, and a ceramic baking dish and when I use them, I will remember Versailles, the Alps,  and the Bourgogne region where I purchased them.   We also buy food souvenirs that we go right ahead and eat and share with our friends as soon as we return.  We buy that stuff at a local grocery store, not specialty stores.  We both have a lot of fun discovering products available in various cities and leave with treasures like dehydrated shallots, marzipan, and of course some local wines that we transport in wine diapers to hopefully prevent one of them from breaking in a bag and ruining every thing in it.
            We were back and forth about riding the train versus renting a car.  Once we priced out the train for five adults and thought about the additional inconvenience of packing around our bags and getting from train stations to hotels, it didn’t weigh out.
The first car we were issued couldn’t even hold 5 people with a bag each so they brought us a Citroen minivan.  It was comfortable enough for us and we thought that was all we had to be concerned about.  On our drive from Prague to Krakow we had to cross mountain passes with icy roads and we realized that this wasn’t a winter-ready vehicle.  We had it inspected by the Citroen dealer in Krakow and he told us we had bald summer tires.  The rental agency wouldn’t do anything to improve the safety of that car because they said we weren’t authorized to go to Poland.  We had no choice but to creep all the way back to Paris, where they did exchange the car for a four-wheel drive that could safely take us to the Alps.
We learned a lesson from this to check about areas that are excluded from service when we make the reservation and to check the tires when we pick up the car.  We were protected with dry, clear roads all the way back, but it could have been a bad situation.
One more consideration about driving is that there are frequent tolls throughout Europe.  They seem to be worth it as the roads are excellent with frequent rest stops, but I would estimate that we spent around 150 Euros on tolls in three weeks.
Our final and perhaps most emphatic recommendation is get a car with GPS.  We are sure we saved ourselves a full day of getting lost and wandering around aimlessly.   There were places we drove right to (B and Bs in dark villages, city apartments) that would have been difficult to ever find.  GPS can save a lot of wear and tear on your relationships and you need all of that you can preserve on an extensive car trip.
Now, it’s back to Tunis and our routines, there.  What I’m most looking forward to?  My bed with 600 thread count sheets, our own washing machine, getting back to some organizing and simplifying both at home and at work, and finally, learning.  I’ve got a lot I want to learn this year and I will try to write it up and share it along the way.  Thanks for reading.


Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

           We have had some gracious hospitality on this trip from friends (Thank you again and again Greens and also Rops.).  It has been really fun to see how they are living their European lives and so nice to stay at the Green home and eat at the Rops table.  What we didn’t at all anticipate, however, is the unreserved help from people we don’t even know.  It began soon after we crossed the border into Germany.  At about the only restaurant open in Freidrichsberg on Boxing Day, the uncomfortable proprietors went and fetched their young adult son when they realized we spoke mostly English.  Their son was so cute, much like ours,  and gave us a charades walk through the menu so we could order something, sometimes flapping his hands to help him think of a word or making very literal translations like “The pig meat is covered with wheat”.  We took his suggestion for his favorite menu item and it was excellent:  their house schnitzel.  So sweet.  Lots of warm goodbyes from his family when we left.
            We are trying to travel through Europe as economically as we can and so we asked a friend who teaches at an international school in Germany if anyone on his staff would be interested in a vacation home exchange.  This would involve a place in Germany for a few days in exchange for a vacation in mild Tunis.  A single woman immediately responded to the request even before she knew there was an exchange offer on the table.  She was happy to have five people she doesn’t know stay in her beautiful apartment in Munich while she is away on Christmas vacation.  Absolutely unbelievable.  I hope so much that she takes us up on our end of the offer, brings along a friend, and gives us a chance to say thanks in person and return this whole-hearted gesture.
            When our study of the train schedule and ticketing options went from 5 minutes to 10 to 15, an engaging woman wearing big white sunglasses came to our assistance.  She had worked in Florida for six years and recognized our type.  With her help, we successfully purchased our tickets from the vending machine and then she went ahead and walked us to the station so we could visit for a few more minutes.  She gave us several gut busting laughs enroute and then she said goodbye, shaking each of our hands, and left us to our day.
            Finally, we have only kind things to say about the staff at the Pasing Klinikum where we took our Jordan (Steelquists, he’s our Jordan for the time being) to finally deal with the possible parasite he has been carrying around for about 12 days.  Shy receptionists rushed off to get coworkers who spoke some English to help us.  A bilingual doctor got accurate information and some tests to diagnose the problem and get some antibiotics started.  Everyone on duty pitched in to serve the Americans and we got the treatment we needed.
            This all reminds me of the quote from the Bible about being kind to strangers.  In that quote, the strangers are made out to be the angels, but in our case, it’s the other way around.

Menton, Monte-Carlo, Monaco

Here’s what’s different about the Mediterranean from the French side.  First of all, the coastline is long and uninterrupted.  When you’re out all day, you don’t just catch glimpses of it, the shoreline is protected from development and you can view it with the expanse of a wide-angle lens most of the time.  Second, it looks like the ocean right after God made it.  It is baby blue, and effervescent, and perfectly clean.  I was trying to capture that essence and I think the heading photo got some of it.

            We figured out the local train line today, which always makes us feel like self-sufficient travelers.
We went to the last town on the line that is still in France: Menton.
Here, we had a picnic at the beach and watched retirees taking morning swims, riding bicycles, playing tennis, running and then meeting each other at seaside cafes for an express.
Clay courts
It’s November and this is Europe.  The water is not actually warm.
            This would be a fabulous place to spend retirement days, living a healthy life between sea and ski.  I could certainly embrace it as long as my own dear friends came along to share it with me.   I’m saving those days for them and my family.
           Almost exactly two years ago, our friend Bryan had a James Bond themed 50th birthday party in Kathmandu.  Allan and I weren’t the most cleverly dressed, but we did win the “Most Likely to Actually go to Monte-Carlo” award.   These friends already knew that we were moving to the Mediterranean so it was a hedged bet.  Now,  two years later, we have fulfilled the prediction.  It was a little hard to get the whole sense of Monaco/Monte-Carlo.  These twin cities in the Monaco principality are practically chiseled into the steep, rocky hillside.  You have to go up one hillside and around a small mountain to get to the other one and you can’t really see it all at once.  You end up taking elevators and escalators through the inside of a mountain and then you emerge … somewhere, look around and try to determine where you would try to go next if you reentered the mountain transit system.  Here are little peeks into hillside lives.
It was clear, however, where the marina was.  It was down.  This picture does not do any justice to the yachts we saw.
          Allan estimated that we were looking at probably 50 yachts in the Monte-Carlo marina of 150 feet or more in length.  It was actually a little weird.  I don’t mean that to sound particularly judgmental, but to just see that much wealth in one place is like seeing a Martian landing.  It’s unfamiliar and otherworldly.  We for sure saw the 1% of the world today.

Thanksgiving on the French Riviera

Can you imagine writing those five words?  I never could either.  I did not grow up thinking I would travel anywhere in my life, didn’t really even think about it.  Funny reality now is that the French Riviera is a whole lot closer than going to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, though not necessarily sweeter.

            Thursday morning, we caught a 9:00 AM flight and were in Nice for lunch.
I really did not have any preconceived expectation of what Nice would be.  As I trolled the Internet for an affordable boutique hotel, I became more and more concerned that Nice was a typical beachfront resort town, completely overused by northern Europeans.  The hotel rooms looked a little sweaty, faded, and expensive.
            What I’ve encountered in Nice so far is a crisp, clean, underpopulated city.  The city clearly values its natural beauty, preserving miles and miles of beachfront promenade, framed by the snow-capped French Alps in the background.  The air is chilly enough to wear leather coats and boots, but when you sit in the sun at a café for lunch, you can shed your coat and sit comfortably in your sleeveless dress.  And there are many, many fit, suntanned retirees (almost all walking French Bulldogs) who generally keep the prices down in a town.  I really like it here; I can feel myself already falling in love.  By the way, after hours and hours of Internet searching, it turns out I chose a wonderful boutique hotel:  It is La Villa Nice Promenade (11 Rue Saint Philippe).   Perfectly located near the Promenade, but quietly tucked away off the busy street, it is clean and simple, but has a decorative flair.  Best yet, it is under $100. 00 US per night.
            This is the only turkey we saw today.
            The best gelato in Nice, according to Kaye Syrah.  I’ll have to go back when it’s not siesta time.
            An old carousel in the central park.
            A couple having lunch under a laden, rectangular orange tree.  I know it’s anal, but I love French gardening.