Monday, January 4, 2010

Family Visit Journal + Famly Photo!

Well... our family has officially left the continent. It's a little sad, because we really enjoyed spending time with them and having them share in our living situation. I think my favorite memory of the entire trip was having everyone sit around our dining room table in Neuenrade. It was really special that Ray & I could have our family visit. We missed our brother and sister... but we'll soon reunite in the States!

Considering the amount I have to post, I figured I would post the journaling in one lump sum first. That way, if you're a reader, you'll know what is coming in succession. It will be a series of a bunch of posts to keep things more organized. I may only get around to 1-2 posts a day until complete... and again... please excuse any grammar or spelling errors. I never re-read/edit and in my defense, I write at night as I lay in bed likely overly exhausted from all the fun I've been having.

Here's a six-er photo (we took about 3-- one in front of the Wartburg Castle, one at the Alps in Salzburg, and one in Rothenburg ob der Tauber). Here's the one from Rothenburg:

Montag 21.12.2009 (day 98)
Ray spent the morning scooping snow away from our front door so we’d have access to the car. There was about a foot of snow when all was said and done after the weekend of winter weather we had. Once that was done, we headed off to work for a few hours before hopping in the car to Frankfurt—where my parents were arriving just after 7 p.m! We drove down to Frankfurt around 3 p.m. and it took us a few hours. We got there just before 6 p.m. because the weather conditions were so poor. Since we had time to kill, we drove through downtown Frankfurt since we had never been in that area of the city before. Lothar considers Frankfurt to be the most American city Germany has to offer. It definitely feels like the U.S. with all of the high rises and American food options. We drove near the Dom and the Christmas market. It looked packed! We were hoping to take my parents there for dinner when we picked them up. I wanted my dad to experience his first German sausage the right way—from a stand. We got to the airport, parked, and went inside. A ton of flights were canceled and delayed. But, British Airways flight 912 was on time. Then, it started. The first delay. We sat. The second delay. We asked the BA attendants if the flight had taken off from Heathrow. No. We sat. Finally around 9:20 p.m. (they were to arrive at 7:20) we read “canceled” on the board. Ugh. We called my parents who were still sitting on the plane at this point. Due to weather, de-icing, and the inability to fly into Frankfurt late at night (regulations), they canceled the flight and didn’t give notice to the passengers on what to do next. They gave them two phone numbers (both closed for the day) and told them to re-book themselves. Really? With lots of expensive phonecalls, we managed to re-book them on a flight on our way home in the car from a British Airways attendant in the U.S. Thank goodness for our Vodafone Internet stick we used to access information in the car. This time, we booked them on a flight to Prague the next day. We planned to pick them up from Frankfurt and drive to Prague the next morning (tomorrow). Since the delay, we still wanted to stick with our plan as much as we could—so we chose to head home and drive to Prague the next day ourselves and have my parents fly into Prague tomorrow night. The airline put them up in a hotel for the evening (though refused to pay for transport to the hotel) and my parents had a chance to explore a little London the next day before their 7:05 flight to Prague we’re praying takes off and isn’t delayed again. This was an emotionally draining day. I just really want to see my parents and I wanted their first European experience to be a great one. We were first worried about the strike and now weather. I guess we’re just thankful they’re safe. They’re really only less than 2 hours from Prague by plane if that plane would just take off!

Dienstag 22.12.2009 (day 99)
We woke up, sans parents. They were supposed to be with us, but sadly, they’re still in London. I hope they are able to see a few things to do while there at least. We will miss visiting a Christmas market with them because they’re beginning to close for the season, but at least we’ll see other things. We started our drive around 9:00 a.m. for Prague. Around 10:30, we hit a complete standstill. We were doing so well with rain, above freezing temperatures, and a relatively empty autobahn. Bummer on the traffic. It actually ended up taking us 12 hours to get there (No GPS is a real killer. We’re spoiled!) and we made a small detour. Of course the detour wasn’t chosen, but alas, we made it. We left at 9 a.m., took about 30 minutes total of a break, and drove the rest of the time until 10 p.m. When we drove into Prague, we immediately attempted to find our hotel… and after circling around, we realized the building without the sign on it was our hotel. We checked in quickly and left to find the airport. That was another learning experience. At this time, my mom called to tell us that after 2.5 hours on the plane, they still hadn’t taken off… again. Unfortunately, the longer the plane waited, the more the plane needed to be de-iced due to fog and cool temperatures. We waited at the airport until we got more word. It was so sad watching the board and seeing “delayed” for hours, and watching other flights show “expected time” or “arrived” when we just wanted that to be my parents! We were worried that they wouldn’t have seen much in London and that they would’ve wasted a whole day of their trip. And… we wanted to be with them. It’s been 5 months since we saw each other and we miss them! We hung up with my mom after she said that it would be another 1.5 hours until the plane would leave. Finally, we got word that they were taking off! We were thrilled, even if it was about 12:45 p.m. (their scheduled flight was to leave at 7:05 and arrive before 10:00). We watched and waited for the board to change from “delayed” to “expected time of 2:30” a.m. We didn’t care when they arrived, so long as it was not canceled again. It would’ve been a pain to call and book another flight that may also not take off. This weather is brutal! We paced the airport and were excited when 2:26 rolled around and the board changed to “arrived at 2:26”—4 minutes early… we’ll take it! They came through the gates about 15 after 3 a.m. and we were SO happy. Just happy to be together in Europe! It means the world to share this with my parents because we’ve been so blessed to have all of this. It’s also that much more special to share experiences with others. Since we know the ropes way better than we did when we arrived as total newbies in September, we’re more confident to take care of others here, too. It’s so nice to share. We finally arrived at the hotel around 4:00 and got to sleep around 5:00 a.m. Obviously I’m writing this the next day because my emotional state (bummed turned to excitement mixed with a little exhaustion) simply would not allow for me to write. Overall, I don’t care that they arrived late. It was actually a strange blessing, I think. My parents did get to see Windsor Castle in London after all. They dropped their bags at the airport lockers and left on a metro. While they didn’t take British Airways up on their offer for a free hotel room (for a taxi ride of over $100 each way!!!) and slept in the airport (well, we’ve all been there…), they were still able to see something nice while they were stuck on a super-extended layover. Shame on British Airways, but yippee for a wonderful trip with the family.

Mittwoch 23.12.2009 (day 100 and the day my parents arrived!)
Technically, the day started before we even went to bed, but since I like to count all things after rest is considered, I will do that. The lovely hotel room (really, it was nice other than this) had construction outside of our windows in the 8 o’clock hour. After only 3 hours of sleep, that’s not a welcomed sound. It was cheap and we needed to get up and brunt it anyway. When time is money, you press on! We all managed to make our way out of bed, showered and dressed to explore Prague. We ate the breakfast at the hotel (well accommodating from what we noticed in most Eastern European countries overall) and set out on the metro to the city center. We found some great sights: The Tyn Church, The Astronomical Clock, and other beautiful buildings and churches. We walked inside the Tyn Church and it was really nice. Buildings were built and attached all around it and you couldn’t get a good view of it either way. We were so excited to see that they had Christmas markets going on in Prague! Since my parents didn’t get to experience the one in Frankfurt because they never ended up flying into that airport, we were excited that tey had this chance to see a festive market. We tried some hot bread rolled over a spit and cooked on a fire called XXXXX. We walked to the Danube River and took a photo of the Prague Castle we didn’t tour or visit up close (time was of the essence). We walked a bit more around just checking out the main sites and some beautiful buildings before heading back to the market to grab corn, some Christmas ornaments, a portrait of the Danube, and corn on the cobs. We were hoping this would tie us over until lunch. Well, it was already 1 p.m., but since Dresden is only an hour more and we’d already been snacking and eating a late breakfast (not to mention my parents were still on funky eating time schedules), we figured it would be okay. Until we remembered that after we got into the car and drove out of town that we didn’t have a GPS to help us around. It took awhile to find any highway, let alone the wrong one. We took it anyway and had a detour that caused us to drive slower through towns we wouldn’t have seen otherwise (which was kind of cool, actually) and finally made it onto the Autobahn road we needed to take us into Dresden. But, we reached a point on the Autobahn in the Czech Republic (still) that hadn’t been created yet. That meant detours. And a car accident we had to wait in a long queue (Ray loves this British word for “line”) to get back on track. Finally, we crossed the border into Germany and miraculously the GPS reappeared and was there for us again. We were thrilled! We made our way to the “Zwinger” parking area we were familiar with from last time and headed out for lunch/dinner (linner?) since we deprived my parents of eating—feeling so bad for no lunch! We experienced the first German Christmas market ever here in Dresden. They had more regional foods just as they all do. There was more stollen cake (dry cake with raisins, marzipan, and powdered sugar to top it) and more Thuringer sausages. The guys quickly got sausages, bread, and spicy mustard. We walked around more and my mom and I split some potatoes and pasta. Carbs. Yum. These aren’t just any potatoes… they’re German delicious Kartoffeln. Ray and my dad came back to us with these enormous schnitzel sandwiches. They each took about 5 bites each and made the decision to throw them away. They just weren’t sitting right, it seemed. We walked around a few sites, saw the Dom from outside, bought some postcards, walked to the Danube River to check out the view, and walked through the Zwinger courtyard. We left Dresden and set off for Berlin at this point. We were definitely jet-setters today. While exhausted, we wanted to get a lot into these first few days because they’re places we all really wanted to see. We’re really enjoying having my parents with us! It’s been a lot of fun walking around and eating delicious foods! Our hotel is nice and we’re so happy to have a full-night’s rest, 9 hours of sleep, and a more relaxing (aka no driving… but lots of walking) day tomorrow. I think my parents like Germany. Dad’s already has his first sausage! I can’t believe it’s a Wednesday.

Donnerstag 24.12.2009 (day 101)
We left the hotel at about 9:45 this morning feeling well rested, thankfully. I think we all appreciated having that much sleep after our crazy night before. Since our hotel is located in East Berlin, we headed out to take a tram that would take us to the U-Bahn trains that run all around the city. We bought a family pass and left our car for this occasion. It was a chilly one. I’d say it teetered just over freezing all day and we were bundled. Luckily, there’s been no precipitation at all on our travels so far. That makes it pretty nice since we’re walking everywhere! Our tram ride was interesting. You can definitely still tell the difference between the east and west sides. There’s a lot of graffiti everywhere and some “ruined” buildings along with the communist humongous block apartment buildings all over the place (on the eastern side). On the western side, there’s a cleaner façade. The place we connected to take the train was called Alexander Platz. This was originally planned by the eastern German government to be an economic center. They erected a bunch of sterile, large buildings and it isn’t much to see. Even our Frommer’s guide pokes fun at the lame attempt. It was simply our crossover to get to the Brandenburg Gate by train. The gate itself is a large columned slab with a copper horse and carriage adorning the top. We saw many photos of it back during the war and it didn’t have the carriage on top. The gate itself has 6 columns and was inspired by the Pantheon in Athens. It was built in 1789 and Napolean liked the top carriage so much that he had it shipped to Paris, but it was returned in 1814. During the time when the wall was still erect (pre 1989), it stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate. No one was allowed to even enter through the gate to the other side. There are pictures showing the wall right in front of it that we saw. We also walked by the Reichstag (Parliament) building. We were walking on what felt like a tundra (my dad called it, and we all totally agreed). The Reichstag itself was bombed during the war and we saw where the wall originally stood adorning the streets with a double line of stones. At this point, we hadn’t seen any piece of the wall, yet. We then headed back on the U-Bahn (lots of trains today since everything is so far away) to Checkpoint Charlie. This was the main checkpoint to get through from east to west Germany. We visited the enormous museum and were able to read about and see all the different contraptions people used to attempt their escape from the east side. At this point, we saw small pieces and a real 5 foot long piece of the wall next to the checkpoint. It’s not very exciting though, considering it was moved to another area for photographs. We had lunch at a Turkish Kebab place where my mom says she had some of the best pasta. We attempted to visit a few grocery markets for water (we always buy cheap at grocery stores and carry a liter as we walk), but all of them closed early because it’s Christmas Eve. To Germans, Christmas Eve is more sacred than Christmas itself—to the Germans we speak to, anyway. Back on the U-Bahn and we traveled to the Schloss Charlottenburg—built in the early 1700’s— for some photos. There was a Christmas market in front, but it was closed. It started to get dark, so we headed back to the train towards a shopping district area. For some reason I pictured New York downtown Manhattan, considering it’s the capitol city. Nope. Just large malls and some shops. The mall that is located there, however, is the largest in all Europe, according to our Frommer’s guide. None of the shops were really open, so we somehow found a souvenir shop for some postcards and small souvenirs. We came across a church, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, that was gorgeous. It was really tall and obviously injured from the war during the closing months. The west Germans decided to leave it damaged as a tribute and built two stained-glass structures that serve as a small modern church. The bells that went off while we were there grew progressively louder. We thought the church was pretty gorgeous, despite the damage. After we walked a bit and realized we weren’t going to be finding a restaurant that was open for a nice Christmas Eve dinner, we headed back on the U-Bahn, then transferred to the tram back to our hotel. Luckily, in our hotel center, there are a few restaurants and one of them was open for dinner. While we all admit that the food at lunch was probably equal to better, it’s sometimes nice to sit at a nicer restaurant and enjoy a meal. It was a great day and we’re all very tired again! Now that we got back to the hotel and researched a bit more, there’s just one more thing we want to see on our way out of Berlin and into Potsdam tomorrow—a long (around 1 km) piece of the Berlin wall that is intensely graffitied. Tomorrow!

Freitag 25.12.2009 (day 102)
We woke up to Christmas in Berlin! It didn’t feel like Christmas just because we weren’t sitting near a tree inside a house all day, but it was really nice regardless. The custom here is to celebrate with gifts on Christmas Eve rather than the actual day, so Germany was somewhat running. We stopped by McDonald’s to grab some breakfast items and ordered 3 things. We received 5 things and only two were things we actually ordered. But, it all worked out because everyone was happy and fed. Nothing beats breakfast for 6 Euro. We entered the address for the East side Gallery which is a 1-mile (about) stretch of the in-tact Berlin wall. We’d already seen an actual life-sized piece yesterday near Checkpoint Charlie, but this one got great reviews online for being the most “real” feeling since it stands in tact exactly where it separated the two sides just 20 years prior. We had lots of difficulty finding it, but eventually, thanks to our Vodafone Internet stick, we were able to plug in the address to a nearby arena and found the wall piece that way. We took some photos and headed on our way through more of Berlin to a windmill I had been wanting to see. We got there and there wasn’t a single other person there other than us and some sheep. It wasn’t open to the public today (Christmas), but we were able to get within 100 feet of it and take some photos. We then headed off to Potsdam, a city just south of Berlin that is known for being “Berlin’s Versailles.” The buildings were indeed gorgeous. We enjoyed driving around the city (except the bumpy cobblestone streets that are only fun to walk on) and found the Schloss Sans Souci (Sans Souci stands for “free from care”). It was a huge park area with gorgeous buildings first put into place by Frederick the Great. There was a windmill right next to the palace also that had lots of controversy during the palace days. The king didn’t like the noise it made and ordered it down—the story goes. They eventually re-built it in the exact spot. I think that it’s just a new rendition of an old piece of architecture. The ground was almost impossible to walk on because the cobblestone was covered in a thin layer of hard ice and was so dangerous. We watched one guy go down and I went down (again) for the second time in two days. Ugg boots just don’t work on ice. Then, we drove to the Schloss Cecilienhof which was built as a palace for Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 1900’s. It was also the headquarters for the 1939 Potsdam conference that was attended by the heads of the Allied powers, including Churchill, Stalin, and Truman. It’s now used as a hotel. It’s pretty, but nothing over the top. It’s located a bit far into a grassland and it required driving down a narrow street to access it. After seeing those few places—we headed off towards home. We really could’ve spent all day there, but I just wanted a taste because there’s just no way to get everything in. That’s just how Europe is; so much to see and never enough time! On our way home, we stopped off at BK (yes, Burger King), because I’m obsessed with their veggie burger. It’s no U.S. burger. It’s actually only made in Germany and it consists of potatoes, peas, carrots, beans, and peppers. I love it. I’m also excited that I can eat something that’s considered “fast” food! So far, it’s been really hard on trips along the Autobahn because the options are limited. Since this discovery (aka hours on the Internet reading about it from other veggies like me), I have been thrilled. Since Berlin itself is 5 hours away, we had to get a head start by leaving early; which is also why we couldn’t stay and tour Potsdam longer. It wasn’t on our original list of “to do”, but since we were there, we figured we’d get a taste of what it had to offer. We took a route on the Autobahn we’d never taken before because we’d never traveled in Germany so far north until this point. We still love Bavaria better because it’s so gorgeous… but it was nice for a change of scenery. And, we’re really glad we got to see Prague and Berlin… finally! We got home around 6:30 and I started on dinner while Ray gave a grand tour of our house. It was dark out, so the tour of the cute streets will have to wait until daylight. I made enchilada casserole with rice and it was really good! The enchilada sauce cannot be found in Germany, but our friends Andy and Jen hooked us up when we visited them in their German town a few weeks prior. After dinner, we opened some presents my parents brought over and were so excited. They brought FOUR of my favorite Trader Joe’s Indian meals! I have totally been craving them. They also brought some of my favorite Mexican candy (the kind with the chili powder on a watermelon sucker), along with some other fun goodies. My mom also knitted me this really cute Euro-looking hat. We sat around and while the guys were talking manufacturing, hydraulics, and all things machine, Mom and I were organizing photos from our European trip so far! That scrapbook is going to be huge because of the amount of photos we took! We’re sharing, so we certainly have a ton. Off to bed because Ray’s parents arrive tomorrow for the second leg of our exciting family trip! I think the only thing that would make it better would be if Justin and Samantha were here with us.

Samstag 26.12.2009 (day 103)
This morning we woke up early to head to Frankfurt airport. Ray’s parents were coming in just before noon and we had to pick up a rental van before they arrived. After our two hour drive, we showed up at holiday parking which is very cheap. It’s about 45 Euro per week—which is unheard of (cheap) for parking at airports. But, it was full. The worker sent us back toward the airport about 6 km away and we ended up parking in the normal lot in one of the best spots for the same price. I love deals. The four of us walked in and grabbed Mom a Starbuck’s because it’s her BIRTHDAY! She deserves it anyway. Everyone’s entitled to what they love. She said it tasted a bit different—but I think it’s the milk. The milk in Europe is something different, for sure. We waited for their flight to come in, but it was also delayed. It was no big deal, and we knew it would come in. That’s just how holiday international travel is! They arrived and we picked up our Fiat, 9-passenger van. They called it a “bus” at the rental agency. It was definitely large. We appreciated that everyone will be able to fit their luggage and sit comfortably with space between them, but it was pretty loud on the Autobahn. It didn’t drive nearly as fast as our Audi, but we think it’s a perfect fit for our needs. We drove to one of the first rest stops on our way and grabbed some lunch because at this point, it was almost 2 p.m. and everyone was starving. Rest stops are expensive… but that’s sometimes the price of travel. We fueled up and headed off again to our area. We arrived at the Altena Burg just in time to take photos before the sun went down. It’s been a challenge to time it just right that we’ll see cool things during the daylight hours since it gets dark here at 4:20 p.m. But, we made it. We toured the castle and took some great photos before leaving in our monster vehicle home. My mom and I made dinner and dessert: chicken fried rice (my lovely friend Solange’s recipe) and Reese’s Cup dessert bars for dessert with the amazing ice cream I always write about. Everyone else thought it was just as amazing. Mom had a little birthday song and we had a really good time just talking and getting re-acquainted. We headed out for a walk around our little town and down our main street (about 5 long blocks worth) and through a park near the church that has the long obnoxious bells. Our parents think they’re charming. We might… except that they wake us up at awful hours during the week when we just want to sleep a little longer. Another fun day planned for tomorrow!

Sonntag 27.12.2009 (day 104)
Ray and I made breakfast for the family and after we headed in our bus toward Cologne. For the most part, the drive was fine, but there were a few sprinkles. We didn’t hit traffic, so the stress was off! When we arrived in Cologne, we parked in our favorite area and headed toward the cathedral. Our parents were just as much in awe of the gorgeous church as we were when we were first saw it. Well, we still are in awe. The church was actually in service when we arrived, so they were not allowing you to walk around. We left after some photos to climb the 533 steps to the top and it was really nice. It was pretty cold when we got to the top. It was near freezing point with a wind chill on top of that. During the summer, it was really hot, sticky, and smelly as we walked up there. There were still crowds, but they were miniscule compared to the summer ascent. We took some photos of the Rhine and headed back down to explore more. Ray went with his parents to a German art museum and I headed around with my parents to check out some shops. The museum had Monet, Van Gogh, and a bunch of famous German artists to see. My parents and I walked down the main shopping road and I was looking forward to showing them some of the German appliances and differences in their Best Buy equivalent, Media Mart. Unfortunately, Sunday is the day that everything is closed here in Germany. We headed down to the train station where some shops were actually open and walked around in there and bought a couple things. Ray and his parents met up with us in the Cathedral close to 3:00 p.m. and we all had a chance to walk around the inside this time since the church service was over. We got photos of the remains of the three magi, walked down into the crypt, and viewed the rest of the inside that they allow open for tourists. Surprisingly, they keep it quite open for people to view. It’s so gorgeous that we’re glad our parents had a chance to see it in its enormity and beauty. Pictures do it no justice. Actually, at one point from 1880-1884, it was the tallest structure in the world. Only in 1884 did the Washington Monument beat the cathedral. After, we headed back to the car to drive about a mile down the road to the Lindt chocolate factory and museum. Ray dropped us off, then went to find parking… in the exact same spot we just left! Ha! We toured the museum, ate some delicious chocolate, and headed home. It began to snow pretty well on our way home and we were pretty careful because the black ice was layering the streets. We made it home safely and had leftovers dinner—fried rice and enchilada casserole. Then, we finished it off with delicious ice cream and dessert. Ray opened his belated birthday present from Samantha and it was season 5 of The Office! Very exciting. We have to watch season 4 first, but this will be fun to watch at night since there’s very little German television we actually understand enough to carry on watching. Though, I am very excited for the German equivalent to American Idol that starts in January! It was a very good and full day. Now, on to the next leg of our trip and off to see Austria (again) and France!

Montag 28.12.2009 (day 105)
We had another great breakfast and headed out in the bus toward Eisenach—where the Martin Luther castle is located. The weather was quite clear, thankfully. We were worried that it might be icy since last night showed some ugly conditions. Luckily, we’ve had some great weather since our parents have arrived! Our drive was easy and we arrived around lunch time. Since Ray and I had already visited this castle, we knew the procedures and were able to execute them easily. The sausage stand at the bottom we planned to visit was closed because it’s a Monday during winter. We decided to head up the hill and see if there were other options at the top. Last time, Ray and I paid way too much for some mediocre food… so we were trying to avoid this and give our parents a better experience. The normal walkway was closed because of ice and snow, so we walked up the vehicle walkway instead. At the top, we shot some photos and headed into a cute German restaurant inside the castle walls. We wished we had gone there last time we visited! Not only was it a great deal (40 Euro for 6 hot meals and drinks and a dessert!), but we sat on the window with a view. We were excited to expose our parents to a real, nice German meal on a decent dime. On the table: 3 Thuringer (this is the one) sausage with sauerkraut and bread, 2 delicious tomato soups with bread, and 1 cured ham open-faced sandwich with pickled vegetables. Oh, and an “apfel kuchen”—apple cake. After lunch, we sent our parents in to the Martin Luther room where he translated the Bible from Latin to German while Ray and I walked around the gift shop. Unfortunately, our parents didn’t have a chance to tour the castle inside (though it’s fine since they saw a small portion) because there were no English tours on this Monday. We headed back to the bus and headed out towards Nürnberg. It was about 2.5 hours and we were there. We headed down to a small parking garage and noticed the first floor had no spaces. We tried to curve around to the second story, but the van was so large that it couldn’t clear the corner. I was working on helping with the navigation, but it did no good. We were stuck in the corner and it too my dad to get us out of the mess. He’s such a good navigator and we were clear. While a little embarrassing for us (though I swear I could do it—but with 3 men, I didn’t stand a chance), it was nice to give my dad credit since that’s his forte. Steve and Ray also helped, but my dad was driving the truck and I was really proud of him. When parked, we unpacked in the hotel (very nice, by the way!) and met in the lobby to head out for dinner. Since we had our traditional German lunch, we opted for an American dinner—that’s right… Pizza Hut. It never gets old. We almost never go there in the U.S. because there are so many more options, but we knew it would be a hit for everyone. It was and it was cheap! 30 Euro for dinner, including drinks! I love great meals at a great deal. Honestly though, we would’ve gone there with or without the deal. It just makes it even sweeter that way. We walked around the old town of Nürnberg within the city wall and walked past a mini red-light district. My parents are new to the blatant sexuality they have over here in Europe, so that certainly surprised them. This paired with the vending machines in bathrooms, the transgender next to us at dinner, the billboard, and the nude commercials on TV at night, I think they’re starting to get the picture that Europe is much more accepting of it. We walked by some gorgeous churches and buildings and the area that the famous Nürnberg Christmas market was held just days before. We were a bit sad we didn’t see the market itself in action because the pictures in our Germany books are just amazing. But, we did see the Dresden one, which is the oldest in Germany. The gorgeous structures here amaze us just as visiting other cities have. With daylight being so short, it’s allowed us to take less photos because the lighting isn’t in our favor, however, we’re still happy to have seen it all regardless! A trip to Starbucks and our night was complete. We headed back to the hotel and rested. Another full day tomorrow and lots more excitement.

Dienstag 29.12.2009 (day 106)
The morning began as we headed to the train station and picked up some bakery items for breakfast. We hopped on a train that took us to the Nazi party rally grounds. It was eerie, but very interesting. The door that Hitler walked through and down to and the platform he stood on exists and you’re able to walk on up and stand there. There was only one lone tourist among us looking around. It was located in a somewhat desolate area other than an arena across the street, a train (rally grounds visible by train) and the soccer field that is now located right on part of the “audience” area. After, we headed to the courthouse that held the Nürnberg trials. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter because of the heavy construction going on around and throughout the building itself. We walked behind the courthouse and noticed a prison just yard away. The actual courthouse used to try the Nazi party leaders after World War II is inside and used as a working courtroom still today. Supposedly you can ask a guard to show you room #600 and they will if the court is not in session. We wouldn’t know… but it was nice to see the building. I’m not sure if that’s even proper to say—nice to see a courthouse that evil Nazi leaders were put on trial. Either way, we headed on our way after to grab the car and navigate our way out of the parking garage. My dad is amazing under pressure. He handled the tight parking garage like a champ and we headed off Autobahn-style to Dachau. There we visited the most somber of places—the Dachau work concentration camp. Since Ray and I had already visited Buchenwald, we had a reasonable understanding of what to expect. I’ll say this one left less of a pit in my stomach, though it still hurt. We walked through the main building, took photos of the infamous “Work will set you free” (though the literal translation from German to English means—“Work makes free”) and we carried on to see a graphic movie. I’m not sure the amount of corpse photos one person can tolerate, but I certainly had my fill. We explored the only living quarters building left standing (all others just like at Buchenwald have been flattened) and walked toward the memorials and various churches that have been built around the area. We last visited the crematoriums and the gas chamber that was never actually used (thankfully). The entire time we were at Dachau, it poured down rain. It’s as if God placed a cloud over the place where evil once stood. Of course that’s just coincidental, but you can’t help wonder these things as you silently walk the very places people died and were tortured. We left the city and headed to Salzburg. Because we set off during the dark, we didn’t have a chance to see the Alps as we drove in, though we saw pockets of white on the tall peaks. We arrived in Salzburg, Austria around dinner time and dropped off our baggage before heading out on a short walk to our Chinese dinner. Our night was complete.

Mittwoch 30.12.2009 (day 107)
We woke up in another country once again. It’s a fun feeling. We set off on foot toward the center of Salzburg, the quintessential little Austrian town located on the edge of the Alps. Since we love old buildings and mountains, we knew this would be a place we’d fall in love with. Our hotel was located close enough to the city center that walking was no issue. Another bakery breakfast and we found ourselves exploring church after church followed by a cemetery, more beautiful buildings, and a castle located on a high peak with incredible views of the mountains. We took a train up a pretty steep mountain grade about 30-40% grade and reached the top where the castle laid. We had a 30-minute somewhat-guided-but-using-electronic-devices tour and visited various rooms and museums at the top. It was a great place for photos and we had a chance to visit our 3rd castle on our parent-visit European tour. While the castle itself was nice, I wouldn’t consider it any better than others aside from the views surrounding it. After we completed our tour and visiting other rooms, we headed back down on the steep train to the village we started our exploration at. We grabbed some lunch in a cute village area that looked similar to a farmer’s market. There were sausage stands and pretzel stands of all kinds (and we tried 4 types among our group alone: chocolate, donut, regular, and cheese), meat stands, and other stores. I was able to order olives and discuss in complete German for about 2 minutes with a woman behind the counter. She had no idea I wasn’t a native German speaker. Some of the other purchases were sausages (my dad had a spicy variation he considered his favorite of about 3 he’s had so far) and an egg salad open-faced sandwich. After lunch and a few more peeks inside churches, we headed back to the hotel on foot and drove through the Alps back into Germany. Our final destination for the evening was Munich. It was nice to drive during the daylight so we had scenery to look at as well. Once we arrived, we unpacked our luggage and walked toward the U-Bahn. We asked at various stores for help on finding the station and eventually found it about 8 blocks from our hotel. We hopped on a couple trains to take us to the city center and the Rathaus. The Rathaus in Munich is by far the most gorgeous thing in that city. It rained pretty steadily throughout the night and when we arrived by train to the center, it was still a downpour. That didn’t stop tons of people from walking through the streets enjoying the night. While we recognized that it was just one day prior to New Year’s Eve, it was still amazing to see so many people out and about on a Wednesday night. We visited a couple churches in the city center, one of which had explicit photos of the destruction that it took in war (though both may have been damaged). We had dinner at another Chinese food restaurant. Two nights in a row! I wasn’t sad… it was delicious and possibly better than the night before (at 2/3 the price). We hopped back on some trains and walked the 8 blocks back to our hotel before heading off to our rooms. This was the strangest hotel layout we’ve seen yet. The layout spanned two floors—the bottom layer consisting of the living room, mini kitchen, and bathroom. As you ascend the spiral staircase to the top, you reach the bedroom. While nice, it seemed a bit impractical for a hotel room—though we’re up for whatever hotel room adventure lays before us. Off to bed for another busy day and the last day of the year!

Dienstag 31.12.2009 (day 108 & New Year’s Eve!)
We began our day early. 6:30 early. We met down in the lobby at 7:00 and headed out for our drive to Ulm. The city boasts the tallest church steeple in the world and Steve really wanted to see it. He’s into churches and Ray and I enjoy them too. They’re just amazing inside and we’re always in awe of what the builders were capable of pre-technology. We grabbed some breakfast at the local bakery (one of about 10 on the same block!) and headed into the cathedral. My mom commented on how she never eats baked goods for breakfast… but when in Rome Europe, one must eat like a local. So, baked goods for breakfast. No one is complaining. Ha. The cathedral was yet another beautiful sight. Steve has fallen in love with the churches, so we’ve visited a lot of them. The truth is, we have nothing this incredible in the States and it’s just amazing to see their abilities and beauty in Europe. We drove out toward Rothenburg ob der Tauber about another 1.5 hours away. This is the absolutely quintessential, most beautiful city in all of Germany, we think. It is the Romantic Road city to visit. Even our Frommer’s describes this as the one city to visit on the road if you only have time for one. The city itself is a well-preserved medieval city completely surrounded by a city wall that you can actually walk on. In reading about the city, I learned that it was somewhat bombed (16 times) during World War II but was saved largely by the U.S. assistant secretary of war at the time because he knew the beauty of the city and wanted to preserve it. About 2,000 feet of the city wall was destroyed, 39 people killed, 306 houses ruined, nine watchtowers destroyed, and a variety of other buildings that were hurt, however. Luckily, the town was quickly repaired. We visited the same city in the late summer with Alison and Nic. With them, it was super crowded and hard to find parking. This time, it was less packed and there was plenty of parking in the main lot. We walked in and our family was so excited about the visit. It’s just such a gorgeous and quaint town. We walked inside a church and around the shops on the main street. We all purchased items at the Christmas store in town. The Christmas store and just about all of them on that stretch of land are named and owned by Kathe Wolfahrt. Whoever she is, I know she’s rich. The woman owns all of the stores in this town and made a killing off of us! Ray and I finally purchased our pickle ornament we’ve been wanting, and I bought Alison some really cute ornaments that I plan to send her when we get back to the States in February. We know they have U.S. stores and can get it all shipped, but it was so much more fun purchasing things in Germany. Of course we didn’t purchase all we wanted… and we plan to purchase our Christmas pyramid to us when we move into our house. The majority grabbed sausage from another small shop and we headed on out of town. Before entering the bus again, we walked on the city wall for a bit of credit. They keep the access entirely open and it’s really fun walking on it. We did the same with our friends a couple months ago. We headed off toward Heidelberg at this point. It’s an old college city with a university dating back to 1386. We immediately headed to the schloss which is located on the hill overlooking the city. It actually looks like a castle, but it’s really a palace. In our Frommer’s, it refers to it as a castle, but in the town, the signs call it a schloss = palace. We found a great spot we weren’t sure was legal and walked up a street and about 3 dozen stairs to approach the schloss. The schloss is mostly in ruins with some areas being renovated and the rest broken. It has a medieval feel and is really cool. It’s a definite must-visit and I’m really glad we caught it with at least an hour left of daylight. The castle overlooks the Neckar River and an old bridge that is incredibly picturesque. The buildings and houses surrounding the schloss area are just spectacular. Anyone who lives in one of those estates clearly has money. This city was also largely untouched by the war. We also learned by searching the web after our visit that U.S. General Patton actually died in a town close to Heidelburg and had his memorial and burial here. He died shortly after the war ended in a car accident of all things. We grabbed a few kissy photos in “the most romantic city in Germany” and headed to the car and off on our drive to Weinheim where we’re staying for the evening. Another nice hotel. We stayed in the same chain last night, the NH. They were having a U.S. Army banquet there for a New Year’s celebration and we certainly saw our share of the enlisted folks. I knew we were amongst Americans when the two men who walked by me said, “Excuse me, MAN, I smell some FOOD!” Yes, it is true that no European would be so vocal. The second giveaway were the uniforms some were wearing, and the third giveaway was the woman carrying Popeye’s chicken in a bag that she clearly bought and transported from the Army base located (obviously) nearby. It felt a little like America for just a few minutes. Oh, and the premature fireworks. Maybe the Germans like that sort of thing too… maybe? Doubtful. We all checked-in and headed back out in the car and pouring rain to find a restaurant for a nice sit-down New Year’s Eve dinner. We really splurged on this one. Since nothing was open, we had no other option but none other than Subway; as in sandwiches. We splurged again: footlongs and value meals. Man, we’re big spenders! Everyone was happy and we enjoyed our sandwiches before heading back to the hotel. The Wilson’s had a fun surprise for us all. They brought hollow chocolate dessert cups from a cute specialty market in Frederick, Maryland with them along with a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Crème and filled our cups. We took New Year’s shots from our chocolate cups (all 6 of us) at about 7:30 p.m. It was a very fun idea and quite festive and tasteful. We thought the surprise would be hats and horns. We were totally wrong and pleasantly surprised. Even if we happened to celebrate before most people sit down to dinner and when our friends in the U.S. are just eating breakfast or lunch. We headed back to our hotel rooms for some rest before another haul tomorrow! While the Wilson’s are flying back to the States, we’re off to trade in the bus for our Audi and visit Paris! Very exciting. Exhausting, but totally fun in every way.

Freitag 01.01.2010 (day 109)
Wow. That date looks so weird to type! We woke up early yet again. It worked out great yesterday despite the awful hour it was… because it allowed us to see three Bavarian cities during daylight hours. Since we had a long drive after dropping off the Wilsons at the airport, we wanted to get a head start. Considering we’re visiting a new country in just two days, it’s nice to have more time. We arrived at the airport to drop off the bus and the Wilson’s around 8:30 a.m., but didn’t actually leave the airport for another hour. We dropped off all of the parents and luggage in one terminal and had to drop off the rental car. They charged us too much, so we had to deal with that issue… but it will all be worked out. We had to visit the arrivals terminal to speak with the rental car people, then off to find my parents and take all of our luggage to our car in the other terminal. We got on the tram to the other terminal and were out quickly thereafter. Since we didn’t have to park in the holiday parking since it was full (we still paid that amount, just had much better parking!), we had a short distance to walk, thankfully. We drove off and ended up within the French borders just an hour after. It was pretty interesting driving through the Champagne region and areas that were occupied during the trench warfare of World War I. Off of the road were memorials that indicated important areas in the war. We also saw two different windmills and that was really great. I become more excited about them every time we see another. Our first experience was in Belgium, then Germany, and now France. A stretch of maybe 10 km of the French Autobahn (whatever they call it) had strange, colorful art pieces that adorned the highway. There were spheres, cubes, and flat pieces of concrete all dipped in psychedelic paint. Considering the 30+ Euro tolls (yeah, that’s like 50 U.S. dollars) to get from Frankfurt to Paris (all in France borders), we figured that we singlehandedly supported the ridiculous art movement. We entered the greater Paris area in the 2 o’clock hour just about 2 hours after we stopped off for Panini lunches. Rather than head to the center of Paris that we plan to do tomorrow, we headed to Versailles. Steve recommended it to us as being a 30 minute detour that was a “must see.” Since we had 2 hours of daylight left, we headed into Versailles. Initially, we weren’t impressed. But, a few blocks later and we became very impressed. We ran dead center into a palace. This palace had lots of glitz and gold suitable for a king. We immediately found a parking spot and headed out of the car to pay for parking. As Ray attempted to put change into the machine, we were yelled to by some French teenagers obviously trying to get across the point that we need not pay for parking—being a holiday, we’re assuming. Great! Fantastic parking spot we didn’t have to pay for in front of a gorgeous palace. We entered the palace area and took some great photos all around and behind it where the gardens are. It was pretty cold outside and the wind chill made things almost unbearable… but we survived. We drove around a bit more and saw a few more beautiful things before heading to find out hotel in the city of Nanterre. It was the most “cheap” of all our hotels and just about the most expensive (Salzburg was by a hair, but much better quality). Regardless, it’s cheap for Paris. Closing in on the end of our trip, we’re especially conscious of how much we’re spending. After we arrived, we checked in and got everything in order. The parking is free because we’re outside the city just a bit. We set out on foot to find something local for dinner. Unfortunately, it’s a holiday and the French take their holidays seriously, we noticed. Back to the hotel with no luck and decided to get back in the car (ugh) and punch in the really unique McDonald’s. Oh, reliability. Sure enough, there was one located less than 2 km away from our hotel and we drove there quickly. A familiar dinner and back to our hotel for a night’s rest before our last big travel day begins!

Samstag 02.01.2010 (day 110)
This morning we set out just after 8 a.m. with hopes to enter the Louvre early before the crowds. While it’s the off-season, we were still conscious of it being a Saturday just after the New Year. We hopped on the train (located an impressive ½ block from our hotel which makes it all worth the price savings in staying outside the city) to an exit we thought would be close to the Louvre. It wasn’t. We walked around for about an hour, heading in wrong directions and correcting our mistakes to eventually wind up at the Louvre an hour after we hoped to. Oh well. My parents met a girl from Japan as they were walking. She spoke English and was also headed in the same direction. When we finally arrived at the Louvre, we entered from the back. We got in line to go through security and headed down to buy tickets. The line to get into security was in a snake fashion and it was obviously already busy at just after 10 a.m. It took about 10 minutes to get in from the moment we got in line. We bought tickets from an automated machine and paid much less than we anticipated. Being one of the most famous museums in the world, we expected 25-50 Euro per person. Actually, it was only 9 Euro each! That was a pleasant surprise, of course. We headed to the famous paintings and worked our way through the sculptures, Egyptian, and Medieval art. We saw many of the things we expected to see and hoped to see. Of course we saw the Mona Lisa. She was a bit bigger than I anticipated. I often see photos from friends, but the scale never shows up quite right in photographs. We also saw some other famous works of art by Leonardo Da Vinci among others. Some of the art pieces include: The Wedding Feast, The Club-Footed Boy, some Michaelangelos sculptures, a Sarcophagus of a Married Couple, and an Egyptian statue of Ramses II. I actually enjoyed the sculptures more than the paintings. I thought they were really unique and I really enjoyed visiting that floor of the art. After we left the Louvre, we headed to the Notre Dame Cathedral and walked by the Seine River for the first time. That was really nice. We’ve seen some famous rivers in Europe and my parents can officially check 3 of them off their list, too! The Danube, Rhein, and Seine are all complete! We enjoyed the architecture (really pretty with rot iron balconies everywhere) and walking through café streets. We saw a pig roasting on a spit and it still had a tail. So disgusting! We waited in yet another line to get into it that took about 5 minutes. We walked into the Notre Dame and realized they were having a service. I always feel so guilty when that happens, but since we were already inside, I guess we had to just remain as respectful as possible. We were still permitted to walk completely around the church with almost no restrictions. The charged nothing to see the inside. While they rarely do in Europe (other than climbing the stairs higher for a view), I assumed that since it was France and a famous church, it would surely cost. We crossed the street and had Subway for lunch. I know… so authentic. Frankly, we were all hungry and knew we’d all agree on that one. After, we walked along the Seine back in the direction of the Avenue des Champs Elysees. That’s the main shopping street similar to the Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. I wasn’t all that impressed with it, but we saw it nonetheless. It was more a means to get somewhere else. We passed back through the Louvre area to get there and passed the large ferris wheel we briefly considered taking a ride on until we saw the prices = 10 Euro per person for one ride! That’s over 50 U.S. dollars! I know I shouldn’t count the coins too much… but that’s a lot of cash for a ferris wheel that was nothing more than ordinary. We walked on after Ray and Mom bought a crepe and waffle. We observed many people getting tickets by cops and nearly were ran over by the crazy drivers. This is not a city to drive in. It’s just plain scary and as my dad put it, “blinkers are extinct here.” Once we walked the length of the Avenue des Champs Elysees, we came to the crazy traffic circle area where they have a large arc in the center; the Arc de Triomphe Etoile. It looked every bit as crazy as it is. When we saw that and snapped some photos, we headed toward the Eiffel Tower. We were pretty tired and cold at this point, but we wanted to get it all in with daylight. We arrived around 4 p.m. and took some photos. We were approached by so many street vendors to purchase little Eiffel Tower key chains and trinkets. Whenever a police officer would come around, they’d run like the wind, though. It was a bit entertaining. My parents bought a few souvenirs and we hung out in the area sitting in the cold until it became dusk. Knowing we wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon (maybe never), I wanted a night photo of the Tower lit up. As soon as it darkened, Ray and I ran to take a few shots before our cameras (my parents and ours) ran out of batteries. We managed to get all the photos we wanted and it ended at just the right time. While waiting in the dark, we just wanted to be sitting at a café drinking hot drinks under the heat lamps. That was my vision anyway. I actually pictured there being cafés and cute shops all around the Eiffel Tower. There were none. None. I think they could make lots of money if they made that possible. After it became dark, we walked a few blocks back to the metro station to head back to the Avenue des Champs Elysees so we could find a Starbucks. We are attempting to purchase some coffee mugs for Ray’s sister when we go somewhere new. We hadn’t been doing this often because we simply don’t really go to Starbucks and they aren’t all that easy to find in Europe anyhow. They’re around… but not like in the U.S. For example, we headed all around Paris and only saw one. So, we headed back to that one. We bought a mug and headed out back to the Metro to find dinner. We ended up having pizza for dinner, then back on the metro to our hotel in Nanterre. It was a busy and full day, but we definitely get credit for Paris! It’s a beautiful (and yes, dirty) city that we liked. It’s not our favorite, but it definitely has lots of culture and is unique to their own. Tomorrow we head back home. Home in Germany. Ray and I are excited to be there because we feel so comfortable there now. As strange as that sounds, we miss the ability (that we have with our language abilities—even limited) to communicate and be respectful. We simply don’t know the French language and it frustrates us that we cannot communicate here. A great trip and we’re all thoroughly exhausted! We were honored to have my parents along (and Ray’s) for the ride through Prague, Germany, Austria, and France! We’ve enjoyed this time and we’re so happy to have shared our lives with them for the past couple weeks. These experiences and photos will be cherished forever. Just thinking of the blog I have yet to update from the many places we’ve visited together is daunting. But, we’re thankful and so glad for this time.

Sonntag 03.01.2010 (day 111)
We had another (the final one for awhile!) long drive ahead of us at the start of the day today. We met down in the lobby at 8:15 to pack up the car with all our stuff and head back to Deutschland. After packing up the car, we headed off back to Germany. We stopped off about an hour later to grab some French pastries from a road stop bakery and continued on our way. We wanted to cross into the German border before having lunch because we simply did not want to pay any more money to the French. We already paid 60€ worth of tolls just to drive from Germany to Paris and back. What a ripoff. And on top of that, the prices in France are higher than those in Germany for food and everything really. Frankly, we really like the Germans and we’d prefer to give them our money. And, Germans don’t charge ridiculous tolls on their roads. We had one issue at a toll booth as well. Most tolls have a flat charge of about 3-4 Euro, but this one had you pull a card from the machine that automatically spit one out for you. As you exited or reached the next toll booth, you must place that card in to determine the price you’ll pay. Of course since we drove the entire length, we had to pay full price of nearly 14 Euro. Anyhow, we drove in to grab the ticket and after being cut off by a French man who clearly didn’t realize he had a blinker, the machine ran out of tickets. The French worker came over and yelled at us for nothing and then proceeded to close our lane which obviously forced us to back up (on the Autobahn mind you) to enter another lane. While this was happening, his sole job (the French officer) was to check inside vehicles for seatbelt use. A car in the next lane was forced to pull over and was scolded and likely ticketed for the children being unbuckled. Man, you have to pay exorbitant tolls and they give you tickets! Sheesh. We wanted out as soon as possible. As we crossed into the German border, we were at ease and now searching for something to eat. We saw food on the opposite side of the road, but it wasn’t on our side. If you’ve ever driven through Europe, you’d know that the roads don’t have convenient under ways to pass and reach the other side. Exits are also few and far between. If you miss your exit, expect another 20-30 km detour to get you back in line. So those food options on the other side were not an option for us. We drove and drove… saw signs for food options we swear didn’t exist, and finally reached a Subway just about 20 miles outside of Frankfurt. While we hate eating lunch so late… sometimes it’s just what happens on a German Sunday Autobahn style. Happily fed, we drove on to find the hotel my parents were staying at for their last night in Europe. We couldn’t find it. The address didn’t exist according to our GPS. I was able to search for the name and one popped up downtown. We drove there… about 15 km outside of the airport knowing it was probably the wrong one. They told us when we arrived that since the hotel we needed (same chain) is located on an old U.S. Air base, the address doesn’t show up in GPS. He said though, “I’m prepared” and proceeded to hand me a photocopy telling us how to get to the proper hotel just ½ kilometer from the terminals. We arrived after taking a few wrong exits and finally settled my parents in for the night. It was so nice to have our parents here and it meant the world that they came out from the states and had to deal with long travel to visit us and explore with us. Since we have such amazing blessings, it is really nice to give back to parents who love us so much and who have done so much for us. After saying our goodbyes, we headed out for our 2+ hour drive back home. Home. It does feel like home. Strangely, as we have reached the new year, it feels somber too. We’re here until March 15th and our stay is almost 2/3 complete. It’s bittersweet, of course. We plan to enjoy our last couple months here and take it all in. Back to reality tomorrow and plenty of laundry today!

Pictures to come! Since there are so many from the last couple weeks with our family visit, I am creating separate posts. I am starting with the first one official family location... Prague. Stay tuned!


Chrissy said... [Reply to comment]

OMG, that's where I come from! From a small town near Rothenburg...Weikersheim!