Thursday, July 31, 2008

Strasbourg: Why are you doing this to me?

We got on our first train quite easily. There was an open reserved coach with numerous seats in a circle around a table, and we commandeered it as our own for a good while.Our train had a brief delay in one of the towns, so we started to get a little worried about making our connection. We waited in the doorway of the train with our stuff. Shortly before we stopped, we grabbed all of our gear. It was extremely heavy.

When the train doors opened, we got off the train and hustled down a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and back up a flight of stairs.

We got to the platform where the train should be. There was no train. It was supposed to leave at 34 past the hour. I looked at the station clock: 35 past the hour.

I collapsed in a heap. "Why are you doing this to me?" I shouted in Rowan's general direction. My limbs were physically shaking from exertion.

Later, I felt bad about my exasperated outburst.

We caught a train about half an hour later. It was a local train, and people got on and off the train frequently with their bikes and their dogs.

When we arrived in Strasbourg, we lugged our bags off the train and I waited while Rowan went to find a map or ask for directions to the hotel. While I was waiting, I noticed a luggage cart sitting right behind me.

Rowan returned, and we loaded the cart. As we wheeled our way toward the exit I said, "We're taking this thing right out the door and down the street to the hotel." I didn't want to carry the bags anymore. No one stopped us.

We pushed our cart full of baggage down the sidewalk. This may seem easy, but the sidewalks were not flat. Either the sidewalks tilted sideways over time, the engineers were really dumb, or the French are really concerned about proper water drainage.

We also had to maneuver around road construction.

At one point, I was crossing the street and noticed that there was a several-inch difference between the street and the slanted transition up to the sidewalk. In my sleep addled state, I thought that if I got a running start, I could jump the cart up onto the sidewalk.

Instead, the cart whacked the curb, twisted sideways, and dumped our stuff into the street. We gathered our gear quickly before it got ran over by cars.

Rowan then had to ask the women in the tattoo shop for directions to the hotel.

We checked in, hauled our bags upstairs, leaving the cart in the lobby, and then showered. When we came back downstairs, the cart was gone. We did not ask about it.

One of the main attractions in the town is an immaculate old cathedral. While both the outside and inside of the church are immaculate, the inside is marred by much tacky commercialization. For example, to see the baptismal fountain, you have to put money in a little coin deposit, and then the fountain lights up. These little money-takers were all over the place.

The other main attraction in the town is a section of town, not a particular building, called Petite France and known for the distinctive architecture of its buildings. During the one evening we spent in town, we purchased a bottle of wine for one euro (about $1.64, the last I checked) and drank part of it in a plaza. However, we were running on no sleep, so we only got part of the way through the bottle before we decided that we were in desperate need of sleep.

We slept for a full twelve hours, then got up and drank the rest of the wine for breakfast. We spent the day wandering around Strasbourg. Rowan wants me to point out several things: she really liked the houses in Petite France, flowers are nice, we saw many Tara-dogs (for the uninformed, Tara is the family dog and is a white and gray English sheepdog), and we drank beer out of big steins right next to the cathedral.Our other big discovery was Turkish food, specifically what they call kebab, which is this giant chunk of meat that they shave with something pretty similar to an electric hair clipper. They then take the shaved meat and shove it into some good bread with tomatoes, onion, and yogurt sauce. The first place where we tried it was fantastic, which led us to eat at other kebab places, but none of them were as good. But the places were very cheap, which is why we kept eating at them.

My last note is that we passed a park where they had metal ping-pong tables cemented into the ground. People brought their own paddles and balls and played in the park. For some reason, I think this is one of the greatest ideas ever.We left Strasbourg on an overnight train. It was unpleasant. Next, I will tell you why.

Der flug

Several hours before the flight, we went to the airport and checked in approximately 60 kilos, about 130 pounds, of luggage.

Here is everything when we later piled it onto a train:
Rowan kept freaking out about whether the flight attendants would allow her to bring her giant backpack on the plane as a carry-on. They did, so her freakout was for nothing. She also had another bag as her small carry-on, so I got to carry her purple yoga mat as one of my carry-ons.

The seats on the plane were the most cramped, narrowest seats that I have ever seen on a plane. And it's not because the Germans are a tiny people; they are not.

Condor is a German airline, and we were some of the few passengers who were not German. A lot of German tourists come to Alaska in the summer; it seems that not so many Alaskan tourists return the favor.

The flight attendants spoke German by default, and switched to English if a passenger answered back in that language. But they were dressed like normal flight attendants, no liederhosen or any such costumes.

Condor did make up for its cramped quarters by providing excellent service. We were barely in the air for half an hour before they pulled out the cart with free alcohol. It was only one drink, but I've never had a free drink on a plane before. They fed us dinner and breakfast, as well.

They had TVs hanging from the ceiling playing a random mishmash of entertainment. The programming ranged from old episodes of The Nanny to a Nickelback music video to several movies, including P.S. I Love You. On several occasions back home, Rowan tried to get me to rent this movie, but they were all rented out. On the plane, I tried to tune in for a moment, but it was dubbed in German. I could tell from random glances at the screen, though, that it sucked. It was only later that I realized that the English sound was probably just on a different radio channel. Fortunately, this was well after the movie was over, so I was saved again from watching it.

Rowan mostly slept the entire trip, except when I woke her up to eat. Nyquil is some good stuff, I suppose.

After almost nine hours in the air, we landed in Frankfurt. We were exhausted, but we still had to get on a train to Strasbourg.

We loaded our bags onto a luggage cart and headed to the train station, which is connected to the airport. We had to take a lot of escalators, but the luggage carts are ingeniously designed to be able to ride up escalators. I love the Germans. Except when they're trying to take over the world. But that was a while ago.

Unplugged: adapting and adapters

We made it through France and are now comfortably nestled into our eighth-floor apartment in Barcelona. We just got done drinking some local beer and eating some sandwiches on the apartment's rooftop terrace.

We haven't posted anything until now because of some mix-ups with electrical adapters. Apparently, I did not research things enough before trying to plug my computer into the wall.

Everything is working now, and I am typing from our apartment.

Numerous blog entries will follow soon: one for each city we visited in France and one for our general impression of France and the French. Here's a brief teaser: they actually do love french fries, but they just call them fries, or frites. Also, they serve things called americain [sic] sandwiches, which are basically any sandwich with fries on the sandwich. Stupid French.

Sorry about the gap in the writing, but we are safe. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Packing update: 2:51 am

I finished packing awhile ago. Rowan is still working furiously.

She has purchased a year's supply of, ahem, feminine products, due to questions of availability in Indonesia. She just informed me that I would be carrying a large portion of the items in my bag.

She has done a good job pruning down her wardrobe; I think she has discarded an amount equal to what I'm taking. However, she still has a lot more stuff than I do. My prize for packing so lightly and efficiently is that I get to carry the pile of hardcover textbooks we purchased for the course.

Here is a picture of all the clothes I am taking with me for a year, ready to be packed:Here is everything I am bringing, packed and ready:
And here is Rowan, packing away:
You will notice the boxes of the aforementioned feminine products next to her. You will also notice that she has everything spread out on the bed, which is where I really want to go lie down right now.

In her defense, she did spend most of her day partaking in mother-daughter time while I puttered around the house. She was having fun while I worked, so now she must work while I stare at the cluttered bed, daydreaming of real dreaming.

We leave in 12 hours and 34 minutes.

A place for everything, everything in its place

We have been packing our bags the last two days. I organized my things in about 45 minutes; Rowan is taking considerably longer.

When I piled my stuff on the bed to see how I wanted to arrange my bags, I was a little shocked by how few things I am bringing. But I like to live light and travel light, I suppose.

After packing her bags, Rowan informed me that they were too heavy for her to carry, so I would need to carry half of her stuff in addition to all of my stuff. However, I think she will be unpacking the bags and repacking them less heavily this evening.

My back thanks her.


We've had our going-away party and I've said my goodbyes at work this week. Everyone has been amazingly kind and full of nice wishes. We would like to thank everyone for their support.

I think even the animals can tell that we will be leaving soon, and I don't think I am projecting my own emotions onto the dogs and cat.

The other night, Dither, who we rarely see, spent almost the entire evening with us as we packed. At one point, he shoved my hands out of the way and climbed into my duffel bag. He then stared at me in defiance, daring me to move him so that I could continue my work.
We leave in one day.

AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! Everything's going to be so expensive! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! Barcelona is in the midst of a drought! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! What if we get robbed?! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! What if we get malaria in Indonesia?! AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

Actually, I jest. I still am not freaking out. We'll be okay. (Really, Mom, we will.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Tourists in a land of bad tourists

Soon we will be traveling through France, where, I have joked, we will be greeted by lots of snooty, petulant, upturned noses.

The idea of the “ugly American” tourist still persists: a loud, culturally autistic and careless individual with no respect for the places he, or she, is visiting.

From what I've heard, the French, in particular, have issues with American tourists.

According to a recent study, though, the French are floating near the top, like foam on a cappuccino, of the rankings of bad tourists.

The French are ranked as the worst European tourists; globally they rank behind only the Chinese and Indians. The French even “finished second to last among nations ranking the popularity of their own tourists who vacation at home.”

Out of 21 nations surveyed, Americans finished in 11th place as most-likable tourists. Right in the middle. I'm okay with being mediocre.

The Canadians finished fourth, so maybe our plan to pass ourselves off as Canadians will have some clout.

We leave to disrespect the French culture in 7 days. À la prochaine, au revoir.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Time-traveling interviewers

We are trying to set up an interview with the Indonesian folks, and they are apparently going to be interviewing us from the future.

They wanted to set up the interview for Monday, July 14, 10 am Jakarta time.

This translates to Sunday, July 13, 7 pm Alaska time.

If they are in the future, will they already know how we did? Do they even need to do the interview? If a butterfly flaps its wings during the interview, does that mean that all things onward will be altered?

Unfortunately, their proposed time doesn't work for us, since we will be gathering up the leftovers from the rummage/moving/yard/garage sale in which we tried to sell away the signifiers of our lives.

So they will have to interview us from the future further into the future.

We leave in 14 days. We have reached the two week threshold. The trip is starting to feel real, in a sort of unreal way, if that makes sense.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The preparation

Over the weekend, we did some hardcore shopping. Since goods in Europe are ridiculously expensive and we may be in a part of Indonesia where we can't even get some of the things we use on a daily basis, we thought we would stock up.

For example, Rowan bought, I think, 24 heads for her razor. I informed her that we don't even know if the women in Indonesia shave their legs, but she did it anyway.

We also purchased what should be close to a year's supply of sunscreen. And soon I will purchase a year's supply of contact solution, to go with the year's worth of contacts I've already purchased. When we were down in the Dominican Republic over Christmas, I noticed that a bottle of solution that costs $8 here costs $23 there, so I want to be prepared for a similar situation.

This weekend, we will try to get rid of a bunch of the stuff that we are not bringing with us. That's right, it's garage/yard/rummage/moving sale time! Hopefully we can make enough money to help make our trip more comfortable.

We leave in 16 days. Surprisingly, I am not yet freaking out.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The plan

We leave Fairbanks on the afternoon of July 24. We are flying Condor over the arctic to Frankfurt, Germany, which is a direct flight from Fairbanks. The tickets were dirt cheap, relatively, though right now dirt is probably worth about as much as the US dollar (more on this later). From Frankfurt, we have five days to travel through France to get to Barcelona.

The other day, we booked our hotels and some of the trains.

We are taking trains because buses make Rowan nauseous, and I've never been on a train before.

We're staying in hotels because I'm getting on the high side of the hostel age, and it's about the same price since there are two of us. Also, I like the idea of not having to sleep in a room with other people. I've never seen the movie Hostel, so that had nothing to do with the decision.

I've been freaking out about the weak dollar. We went to Barnes & Noble the other day to look at travel guides, and one of them listed the price range for what it called an "inexpensive" restaurant at $21-35.

I have a feeling we'll be living on bread. At least baguettes in France are cheap, and they are also good since they are governed by food laws.

Apparently "bread" in France can only contain water, yeast, flour, and salt. Any other ingredients and it has to be called something else. These laws led to some irony recently when a British baker won a contract to provide baguettes for the French rail system; since the Brits can add fat to the bread, it lasts longer.

So on the trains, we'll be eating Brit bread, and French bread elsewhere.

But enough about food. (I just went and ate a snack, so now I can focus.)

Here is our current itinerary for the trip through France:

Our first night, we will be in Strasbourg, staying at the Victoria Garden Apart'Hotel. Strasbourg is the capital of the European Union and has a cultural mix that is part German and part French. It is also the head of the "Wine Road." We may also check out one of the local beer breweries.

From there, we will head to Arles, home of much Roman architecture. It is also where Vincent VanGogh completed most of his paintings.

We won't be spending the night there, but will be taking a short train ride to Nimes, where we will be staying at the Hotel de Provence. The town is also noted for its Roman architecture.

Our last stop before Barcelona is Montpellier, where we will be staying at the Abasun Hotel. It is a one-star hotel. I have no idea what this means or what to expect.

I also have no idea what we will do in Montpellier. I'm sure that Rowan has mentioned something, but I've already forgotten, probably because I wasn't listening that closely. Nostradamus did spend part of his life there, so maybe we can check out some of his haunts, and use the powers of his spirit to predict our futures.

From Montpellier we head to Barcelona, where we will dive headfirst into comprehensive study of our own language while I talk to the locals in horribly broken Spanish.

Our adventure starts in 23 days.