airlines, Europe, Germany, military hops, Space A

Repost of my 2012 Space A trip report… Part four

Our very first military hop to Europe! Part 4… the ride home!

May 29, 2012 (Updated Jun 1, 2012)

The Bottom Line Space a is a nice military perk!

For part 3, click here.

Planes, trains, and automobiles…

Early Sunday morning, Bill and I made our way back to Ramstein Air Force Base via two trains. We went to the Trier station to catch the 6:20 train. Bill decided to buy some coffee and croissants and orange juice for me. The cashier couldn’t break Bill’s 50 euro note, so he went digging for change. He place a five euro note and a two euro coin on the counter and dug for more change. Unfortunately, he neglected to notice the bum standing too close to him who swiped the two euro coin. Bill was understandably upset. Thankfully, the cashier was cool about it. I told Bill he needed to perfect his “get the f away from me” look.

The first train took us to Saarbrucken and the second took us to Landshtul. From Landshtul, we got a cab to Ramstein, where the airport was packed with people hoping to get home on a space a flight. Bill had signed up for our return week immediately upon our arrival in Germany, which turned out to be a good thing. As it turned out, there were three flights going to the States that day, but only two of them offered any space A seats. The first flight, to Andrews Air Force Base, only had ten seats. The second, to Charleston Air Force Base, only had fifty seats. And there were a hell of a lot more than fifty people in the terminal that day!

I could see that a lot of the folks waiting around were either retirees or dependents. Again, the fact that Bill was a category three traveler worked in our favor. We didn’t make our preferred Andrews Air Force Base flight, but we did get on the Charleston flight, along with forty-eight others.

Military transport!

Unlike our first flight, the flight home was on a C-17, which is a military cargo flight. Adding to the excitement was the fact that the flight was carrying hazardous cargo. We paid $9.10 to get on this flight… for two boxed lunches. It turned out seven of the boxed lunches didn’t make the flight, so Bill gave up his and shared mine with me.

The plane had very few windows and there were two rows on either side of the aircraft with seats in them. The cargo was strapped down in the middle of the aircraft. Our luggage was wrapped up on a pallet in the back of the plane. An adorable young airman gave us a very laid back safety briefing and handed out ear plugs, since there’s no insulation on the C-17. While the seats weren’t especially luxurious, they were pretty comfortable with generous space between them. I laughed when the airman asked parents not to let their kids climb all over the explosives in the back of the plane.

There was one toilet and it didn’t have running water. The airmen had left us handiwipes instead. Next to my seat was an outlet. Bill plugged in my iPad so it could charge. There was free bottled water and cereal bars, too.

Once the plane was airborne, the more experienced folks spread out air mattresses, sleeping bags, and blankets. Quite a few people took naps fully reclined on the floor. Try doing that on a commercial flight! I watched a couple of movies on the way to Gander, Newfoundland in Canada. I had never been to Canada before and it was cold outside when we landed at the tiny airport. The staff opened up the restaurant and duty free shop just for us during our 30 minute pit stop. Once we had refueled, we were all called back to the plane for the rest of the ride to South Carolina. Once there, we’d have to figure out how to get to BWI to get my car.

We arrived in Charleston at about 7:00pm. I realized at that point that we were not going to be able to get out of Charleston that night. Bill and I were both exhausted and Bill was also suffering from a nasty bug he picked up. We decided to go to a local hotel to rest up for the next day, which we knew would be just as long. It turned out there weren’t many cabbies in Charleston that could get on the Air Force base, so we had to wait awhile to go the few miles to the hotel. Once we were there, Bill and I both collapsed after I booked an expensive one way flight to Reagan Airport in Washington, DC. I would have booked a flight to BWI, but it would have been more expensive and required a layover in Atlanta. Bill assured me there was ample public transportation to BWI from DC. In retrospect, I should have just booked the BWI flight. I won’t make that mistake next time.

Another flight…

The hotel shuttle got us to the airport in Charleston. We checked in at U.S. Airways; I paid to upgrade us to first class. The flight was expensive to start with, so I figured an extra hundred bucks for nicer seats was no big deal. It turned out the flight was full, so Bill and I didn’t get to sit together. I sat next to a guy who was dressed for business, but had neglected to zip up his fly. After seeing him blatantly picking his nose, I decided to focus my attention on the view and took some photos of the sky.

Trains and buses…

We landed in DC at about 9:00am, picked up our bags, and caught the yellow line metro to the hub where we could switch to the green line, which was supposed to take us to Greenbelt metro stop. As it turned out, there’s track work being done, so we had to get a free shuttle to the metro stop. I couldn’t help noticing that the German trains were way nicer.

Once we got to the Greenbelt station, Bill went looking for someone who could break his $20 bill. The bus to BWI only takes exact change. Luckily, one of the metro workers had small bills and helped Bill out. Then we were on our way to BWI at last. We got there at noon… the same time we would have gotten there had we just bitten the bullet and accepted the layover in Atlanta. Moreover, we only saved about $50, though in fairness, we would have saved more if I hadn’t upgraded us to first class. On the other hand, that first class flight was pretty awesome, except for my seatmate.

Automobile

We loaded up my Mini and headed back to North Carolina at a little after noon, stopping for lunch at Austin Grill in Springfield, Virginia, not too far from where we once lived. After lunch, we hit Whole Foods and picked up some Georgian wine. Then we started driving south. Our trip was mostly uneventful, except for Bill’s continual hacking and almost being proselytized by Baptists at a Virginia rest stop.

We got home at about 8:00pm and now I’m catching up on everything… It’s hard to believe just two days ago, we were in Europe!

Things I learned…

Being in Germany again after almost three years made me realize several things. For one thing, I still feel very comfortable in Europe, especially Germany. I totally wouldn’t mind moving back there.

For another thing, I understand a lot more German than I thought I did. Bill and I actually turned down an offer of a menu in English on our last night. I picked up a lot of words, though I still don’t speak the language.

When Bill and I went to Luxembourg in 2009, I assumed I would never have a need to go back. I did, and I’m glad I went. We had a great time there.

Every time Bill and I go on a trip, something weird happens and it’s usually funny.

Don’t let any creepy people get too close to you, especially early in the morning.

Military hops are worth the effort, as long as you have flexible plans. And military transport is more comfortable than commercial transport is. You get a larger luggage allowance and if you’re on a military cargo plane, you have a lot more room to move. I’m not sure I’d want to bother bringing a sleeping bag or an air mattress, but it’s good to know it’s an option.

Young Air Force airmen are adorable. And the ones on our flight seemed to be having a good time.

Now that I’m not a space a virgin anymore, you can bet we’ll be back for another trip! Maybe next time, we’ll get to Spain.

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Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, military hops, Space A

Repost of my 2012 Space A trip report… Part three

Our very first military hop to Europe! Part 3… places we saw part 2

May 29, 2012 (Updated May 30, 2012)

The Bottom Line Luxembourg is more interesting than it seems…

Thursday

Early Thursday morning, Bill and I had a flight back to Cologne. At that point, we were still trying to figure out where we wanted to go next. I was thinking we’d like to go to the Rhine region. In 1997, I had spent a couple of nights in Bacharach, Germany, which I remembered as an adorable little town right on the river. But I also remembered there wasn’t a whole lot to the town. We finally decided we’d go to Trier, a town very close to the Luxembourg border. Luxembourg is very close to France and Belgium; Bill and I went there for my birthday in 2009. Trier also boasts the Porta Nigra (Black Gate), an ancient Roman gate that was built between 186 and 200 A.D.

I checked us into the Mercure, a chain hotel located directly across the street from the Porta Nigra. I was immediately happy about the price, which was much cheaper than the Kempinski. We took a train from the Cologne-Bonn airport to the main train station in Cologne. On the way there, a group of teenagers got on the train together. Just before they boarded, a couple of undercover ticket inspectors checked everyone’s tickets. Upon realizing that Bill and I are Americans, one of the inspectors exclaimed “Thank you! Americans!” Just what we needed. When he commented that other Americans had also been onboard, I dryly said “I don’t doubt it”, which made him laugh for some reason.

The inspectors were still in our car when the group of teens came onboard. One of the teens, a tall, dark-haired girl with bangs and a brazen attitude, seemed to be in charge of everything. She was the one who spoke first when the undercover ticket inspector busted them. The loudmouth inspector pounced on them, saying “Hallo! Fahrkarten bitte!”

Bill and I looked around and though neither of us is anywhere near fluent in German, we got the gist of what was going on. I chuckled as I noticed that all the folks were smelling the same BS we were smelling as the tall teen and her friends tried to talk their way out of trouble and failed miserably. We got off at the main station, along with the teens and the inspectors who had busted them. We had to wait about forty minutes for our train to Trier and those kids were still on the platform waiting when we left.

While we were waiting for our train, I noticed a handsome, well-built, dark haired guy standing nearby. He had a lot of gear, including a hat. I happened to peek when he opened his wallet and saw that he was a cop. The cop was wearing shorts and it looked like he had shaved his legs. He smiled broadly at me as I fussed with Bill, whose eyebrows had become unkempt.

The train to Trier was hot and crowded. We opened the windows and settled in for a long ride to the old city. Some of the places we passed looked very appealing. I almost wished we didn’t have a hotel reservation so we could get off! I was especially impressed by Gerolstein, a town that boasts some fabulous fizzy mineral water.

When we got to the hotel, Bill and I changed clothes. It had suddenly gotten very hot. We walked around Trier, enjoying the sight of the massive Roman gate. I imagine you can climb it if you want to, but I didn’t have the desire to. It was sad to see that some folks felt the gate was a good place to stash their trash.

Friday

On Friday, we got a train to Luxembourg. We had been there before and I didn’t remember thinking it was fabulous. Luxembourg is a beautiful country, but we made the mistake of staying in a hotel in the business and government district. Since we were coming for a day trip, we wandered around the center and ended up getting lunch at a nice restaurant by the center square.

A group of high school students from a town fifty kilometers from Munich had set up to play music in a gazebo. Bill and I happened to be there just in time for a three course meal which included wine, coffee, and a champagne apertif. We enjoyed the music, which was pretty good considering it mostly came from high school students. There was also a large, very drunk man careening around the area with a big can of beer in his hand. He had misbuttoned his shirt and looked like he’d been drinking for hours. Nevertheless, he seemed to be enjoying himself, talking to people in the crowd, dancing and conducting to the music, and generally just being a fool. He was as entertaining as the musicians were.

We went back to Trier for dinner at a Greek restaurant. I had been pining away for Greek food since we left Germany. I had dorada and Bill had gyros. Of course there was beer and ouzo, too.

Saturday morning

I was really hoping we’d get to go to Belgium or France on our last full day in Germany. We flipped a coin to see where to go and France won. Bill went to buy a ticket to France and somehow ended up with a ticket to a Luxembourg border town instead. I was disappointed when we got to our destination, Rodange, which appeared to be a very sleepy border town. Nevertheless, it was lunch time, so we went looking for food. After about fifteen minutes of walking, we spotted a church at the top of a hill. We figured that was where we might find good eats, so we walked up the hill and sure enough, there was a little bistro across the street.

A sign on the door read that there was a set menu- soup, cordon bleu, bread, and vanilla pudding for dessert. It looked good, so we went in and sat down. Elvis Presley played over the sound system. After a few minutes of waiting, a pleasant looking man came in and set placemats depicting Portugal in front of us. He told us he was from Portugal, a country that remains on my bucket list. Then he explained what they had to eat… a three course meal including soup, a main dish, and dessert.

Bill was worried he might not have enough euros on him to pay for the meal, which turned out to be very tasty. He visibly winced when I acquiesced to the host’s suggestion of coffee to go with our sweets. Imagine Bill’s delight when the bill came and it was just 28 euros for both of us! Bill was expecting it to be almost three times that much! The host explained that we were in the country, where prices are cheaper! The same place had a six course meal being offered that night for 33 euros a person. I bet it was amazing.

We left the restaurant feeling good and not so sad about being in a sleepy Luxembourg suburb. Just as we arrived at the train station to figure out where to go next, we ran into a group of people. It was mostly young women, though there were a couple guys as well. It looked like one of the women was older. Several of the people were wearing devil’s horns and/or wigs. One guy was dressed in drag, complete with a blond wig, lipstick, and a note written in French on his back that said “I love penises”. But he wasn’t even the most outrageous one. There was a lady wearing a housecoat and a rubber penis on her nose. If that wasn’t weird enough, at one point, she lifted her housecoat and revealed the diaper she was wearing underneath. Then she scratched herself for all to see.

We got on the train back to Luxembourg and the crew of dressed up Luxembourgers got in the same car. I immediately dubbed our ride the “crazy train”. These folks were gamely posing for pictures. In retrospect, I should have gotten some myself! I don’t know what they were celebrating… a marriage or birthday? Who knows!

We spent the rest of the day in Luxembourg, eventually encountering a group of fraternity guys who were all wearing t-shirts that showed a naked guy wearing shaving cream over his privates. After all that excitement, we needed to have some beer. We hit a local spot that served Diekirch Reserve, which we followed with glasses of champagne. Then we made our way back to Trier, where we had one last German meal consisting of asparagus, Hollandaise sauce, and pig… schnitzel for me, ham for Bill.

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Europe, Germany, military hops, Space A

Repost of my 2012 Space A trip report… Part two

Our very first military hop to Europe! Part 2… places we saw– part one

May 29, 2012 (Updated May 30, 2012)

The Bottom Line Our travels in Europe.

For part one, click here.

Our blind booking…

After enjoying a tasty German Sunday evening repast and Kolsch beers at a Kolsch brewery, Bill and I went to the lobby in the Ibis and completed our blind booking flight. I was hoping we’d end up somewhere exotic or interesting, but it turned out we got a flight to Munich.

I wasn’t that disappointed about going to Munich. Munich is a fun town and I hadn’t been there with Bill, except to stay overnight before an early flight to Oslo. As soon as I started looking for Munich hotels online, I realized that our cheap flight would lead to high hotel prices! But thanks to that trip in 2009, we knew of a good hotel. It happened to be at the Munich airport. At first I was reluctant to book a stay at the Hotel Kempinski because I wanted to be in Munich. But then it occurred to Bill that we had an early flight back to Cologne on Thursday and being in an airport hotel would be convenient. Plus, we also knew that the Munich airport is awesomely populated with conveniences. So we booked our expensive Munich room, confident we’d be happy with our choice.

Monday morning

We enjoyed a typical German breakfast at the Ibis, included in our rate. All in all, I was pretty happy with the Ibis. The room was tiny, but had a nice hot shower, a flatscreen TV, and free Internet in the lobby. The bed wasn’t the best, but I was so tired, it didn’t matter.

Since our flight to Munich wasn’t until the afternoon, Bill and I strolled around Cologne’s old town. Right next to the train station stands the city’s very impressive cathedral. We walked inside and I was awestruck by its vastness. Bill was overtaken by how beautiful everything was. I always get a kick at the ease he gets moved by beautiful places and Cologne’s cathedral is definitely beautiful.

We walked around Cologne and I took pictures of graffiti. For some reason, I have a knack for finding stuff. On the other hand, Germans post a lot of goofy stuff on signposts and walls. That afternoon, we took a train to the Cologne airport. Bill was upset because Germanwings never sent me a confirmation for our flight. We went to the counter and the ticket agent found my reservation with no trouble. We dropped off our bags and had lunch at a German Argentinian chain restaurant called Mareda. Its speciality is beef, but I’m not usually impressed by German beef, so I ordered Wienerschnitzel. Bill had goulash. We both enjoyed the free wifi in the airport. Free wifi is apparently a rarity in Germany!

Our flight to Munich was quick, painless, and peaceful. It lasted about 40 minutes. The most memorable thing about it was the sight of a young guy walking around with a t-shirt depicting a naked picture of Claudia Schiffer.

We landed in Munich and checked into the Kempinski, where a very elegant man gave us the full tour of our expensive five star room. The Kempinski was even more lux than I remembered it. The huge flatscreen television had British channels; the bathroom was huge; and the Internet was not free. The Kempinski is a business hotel, though, so that’s not surprising.

That first night, I didn’t feel like going into Munich, so we headed to the Airbrau restaurant/brewery and drank some very tasty wheat beers. I was pretty fascinated by the people watching. I saw a vast array of interesting fashion choices, including one swarthy looking man wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m what Willis was talking about.” I had to wonder if the man even knew what famous television program his shirt was referring to… Those of us who grew up in the 80s certainly know!

Tuesday

The next morning, we went to McDonalds for breakfast because we didn’t feel like paying 30 euros for a hotel breakfast. I was amazed by the fact that the McDonalds had kiosks where people could order their food from a computer. It was sort of like a self checkout for fast food. I don’t tend to enjoy McDonalds that much anymore, but I had to admit the quality of the breakfast was pretty good and at seven euros for both of us, cheap.

After breakfast, we took the train into Munich and visited my favorite German gourmet store, Dallmayr, before touring the Residenz museum. Bill had never been there and I wanted to show it off to him. Imagine my surprise when I saw jars of Bone Sucking Sauce on sale for about $10. Bone Sucking Sauce is made right here in North Carolina.

Next, we went to the Residenz. I had been before, but had only seen the crown jewels/treasury. We purchased combo tickets and toured the whole museum. By the time we were done, it was time for lunch. We made our way to the Hofbrauhaus. Bill was sure it would be touristy and crowded, but it really wasn’t. We had mas krugs of fine German brew and enjoyed some very yummy German cuisine. One of Bill’s favorite German meals is roasted chicken. That’s what he had, along with potato salad. I had a wurst with sauerkraut. I let Bill eat the cabbage, though.

We wandered around Munich until evening and checked out the Farmer’s Market, which had a very handy public pay bathroom. I made use of that, needing to get rid of some of the two liters of beer I drank at the Hofbrauhaus. Then we climbed a very tall church tower, which helped burn off more beer and offered a gorgeous view of the city. We got to the top in time to see the glockenspiel show, then climbed down and visited a couple of churches, one of which had an atheist message stenciled/graffitied on the side of it. We went into one church that was having high mass and stood in the back, trying to be inconspicuous. Sweet Bill was overcome with emotion again, so we left quietly and went looking for dinner.

I was getting pretty tired of German food, so we stopped at an Italian trattoria I had visited on one of my day trips to Munich. Bill and I enjoyed pasta, wine, coffee, tiramisu, and people watching. We were the only Americans in there. I recognized one of the waiters, who I think actually might have owned the place. Last time I was there, he laughed when I tried to say “schtimpt”… meaning he could keep the change. I probably still haven’t gotten it right.

Wednesday

We started Wednesday with breakfast at an Italian cafe and deep conversation. We had plans to visit Salzburg, which was included as a stop on our three day German railpass, even though it’s in Austria. I had never been to Salzburg. Bill had been once in the late 80s. But I have seen The Sound of Music many times, so I knew I was in for a treat!

We took the train from the Munich airport to the main train station, then switched trains to go to Salzburg. It took a couple of hours traveling through beautiful countryside to get to our destination. When we arrived, it was about 1:30 pm. We walked toward the centrum and stopped for lunch at a charming family owned restaurant where we enjoyed Austrian beer and some local specialties. I had green and white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce, ham, and potatoes. Bill had roasted pork, I think. I remember two big dumplings.

After lunch, we wandered to the centrum and I was awestruck by how beautiful Salzburg is. We passed the building where the composer of “Silent Night” was born, then crossed the river into the old town. We toured the cathedral and saw some beautiful horse drawn carriages. We were about to move on when a female driver approached with a couple of gorgeous black stallions. If I had to guess, I’d say maybe they were Friesians (I was a horse geek as a kid). I stood there captivated for several minutes by these beautiful steeds, wishing I still had horses in my life.

I was drawn away from the horses by the sound of music. A quartet of four Russian Cossack soldiers were singing folk songs, accompanied by accordion. Now it was my turn to be moved to tears. After listening for a few minutes, I had to buy one of their CDs. Then we walked up the hill toward the Stiegl Brewery. I wish we had been there earlier; maybe we could have taken a tour! I was suddenly wishing we had booked a room in Salzburg instead of Munich.

As it was, we had to leave quickly because a storm was rolling in. We managed to get to the same restaurant where we had lunch before the sky opened. The man who owned the restaurant was delighted to welcome us back for beer and schnapps! He said the schnapps would make the hair on my arms stand on end, but it was actually not bad at all. Just tasted a little like minty gin.

On the way to the train station, I needed to make a pit stop. Fortunately, there was a shopping mall where peeing was free. We also ran into a group of ladies engaged in a “hen party”. I think it was in honor of someone’s 50th birthday… We will have to go back to Salzburg for a closer look sometime soon!

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Europe, Germany, military hops, Space A

Repost of my 2012 Space A trip report… Part one

I originally posted about my 2012 Space A trip on Epinions.com.  Since Epinions is now defunct and I want to preserve those stories, I am going to repost them here on my travel blog.  Keep in mind, these reports were written in May 2012.

Our very first military hop to Europe! Part I… flights

May 29, 2012 (Updated Aug 14, 2012)

The Bottom Line Our first military hop…

This is going to be a long story, so I will post it in parts…

Those of you who regularly read my Epinions reviews may have noticed that I haven’t posted in almost two weeks. That’s unusual for me, because I usually have plenty to write about and lots of time to do it in. As it turns out, my husband Bill and I just returned from a somewhat “seat of your pants” trip to Europe via military “hop”. I had been wanting to do this for some time and Bill surprised me with an email a few weeks ago, letting me know that he had arranged for time off so we could do it. I just got back yesterday and now have plenty to write about and lots of time to do it in. So here goes…

The adventure begins…

What is a military hop?

I originally posted about my 2012 Space A trip on Epinions.com.  Since Epinions is now defunct and I want to preserve those stories, I am going to repost them here on my travel blog.  Keep in mind, these reports were written in May 2012.

If you’re not affiliated with the U.S. military, you might not have heard of space available travel. The U.S. sends planes all over the world to carry out military missions. Some of the planes are chartered aircraft from Delta Airlines or Atlas Air. Some are military planes operated by the Air Force. When they have extra room on these planes, the space is made available to members of the military, retirees, and their dependents.

These flights cost next to nothing. People who want to take space a flights are ranked into categories based on their duty status and relevance to the U.S. military’s missions. A person who is going somewhere on military duty, for instance, gets top priority. Someone going home on emergency leave gets second priority. Bill, as an active duty soldier on leave, was marked “category three”. The ranking continues to category six, which includes retirees. It can be tricky to get a flight, especially if you’re a lowly category six. That’s why it makes sense to be prepared to purchase a commercial ticket or have some other “plan B”.

Before I was an Army wife, I was an Air Force brat. My parents traveled “space a” many times when I was growing up, but they never took me on any of their travels. So I was curious about what they had experienced. Since we live in North Carolina, we are within driving distance to several Air Force bases and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which has a terminal for U.S. military operations.

Passing the Washington Monument on the way to BWI…
Finding a flight

Bill joined a couple of messageboards dedicated to military space a travel. The one he checked most often was, by far, Dirk Pepperd’s board (www.pepperd.com). Every day, he would watch the trends in flights going into or out of the air bases closest to us. The flight schedules are typically released 72 hours beforehand. We were looking for a flight going out May 19th, so we started watching the messageboards for the air bases closest to us.

For about a week prior to our trip, we thought we’d end up leaving out of Charleston Air Force Base because it was closest to us and seemed to have the most seats available for flights to Europe, especially to Rota, Spain. I was researching things to do in Spain and thinking we’d finally get to see Seville together. But on May 16th, it was clear that Charleston wasn’t going to have any flights going anywhere we wanted to go. After checking all the other bases closeby, we turned our attention to BWI. On May 19th, it was offering 195 seats to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. We surmised that was our best bet to get a flight and decided to drive all day to get there.

We had to be in Baltimore by 8:00 that evening… that was when “show time” would be. In reality, people were showing up much earlier than that. We arrived in Baltimore at about 6:00pm, signed up for a flight, and were immediately approved. We then got in line behind what seemed like hundreds of servicepeople in uniform, most of them with weapons locked in cases. They were headed to Afghanistan. We also saw lots of families with pets. They were moving to Germany for an assignment. There were also plenty of retirees. It looked like most of them were successful in getting on the flight.

We stood in line for about an hour to drop off our luggage. The USO was there to give us care packages… yes, even the civilians! A man asked me how much I weigh and I lied, of course. Then we were at the ticket counter, where we dropped off our bags and paid the $16 per person head fee. Yes, Bill and I paid just $32 to fly to Germany!

Flight to Germany

The flight was conducted by Atlas Air, an airline contracted by the government. It was like just about any other flight, except many of the people onboard were on their way to war. The guy sitting next to Bill and me was in uniform and looked pretty petrified. It was his first deployment. He didn’t move the whole flight and didn’t speak until toward the end, when he confessed that it was his first time.

The aircraft looked like it had once been operated by a Japanese airline. The signage was all in Japanese and the seatbacks all had video monitors on them with poorly translated English instructions. The programming was all in English, but some of it had Japanese subtitles. I watched the Christmas episode of Glee, then switched to the channel that showed our progress toward Europe.

Back in Germany!

We arrived in Germany in the afternoon, picked up our luggage, and made our way through customs. A nice German lady helped us get a cab, which showed up minutes after we called. The guy driving it was an American veteran who moved to Germany 33 years ago and had raised his family there. We were telling him about our two years in Germany and how we had hated to leave. I swear, if we ever had the chance to live there again, I’d take it in a heartbeat!

The cab driver dropped us off at Kaiserslautern railway station and wished us a good time. We purchased a three day Germany pass and hopped on an ICE train (inner city express) to get to Cologne, Germany. I wanted to go there because of the cathedral… and the fact that the airport is a hub for Germanwings, a discount airline that offers cheap “blind booking” flights. Bill and I had flown with them twice when we lived in Germany. I was eager to take another blind booking flight and see where we ended up.

Cologne, Germany

On our way to Cologne, we looked at the beautiful Rhine region flying by and I remembered how much I love Europe. Bill and I had never been to Cologne before, except once in 2008 when we had to change trains there on a trip from Germany to Brussels, Belgium. The connections were so quick we had no chance to see anything there.

When we got off the train, we were both exhausted. We checked into the first hotel we saw… an Ibis that was literally in the station. We checked in, dropped our bags, took showers, and immediately headed out for some dinner.

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Europe, France, Germany, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 12

On the night before our flight out of Savannah, I fell asleep at about 8:00pm.  By 1:00, I was awake again, trying to adjust to the Eastern time zone.  I had to take an Advil PM to drift off to sleep, which I managed to do… only to be awakened by Bill at about 3:30am.  We had a 5:30am flight to Atlanta and he was getting everything straight.  I got up and dressed and we took the hotel shuttle to the airport along with an adorable older couple.  They had “bad knees” that they’d had replaced, so Bill helped them in and out of the van. They said, “Maybe we should tip you!”  Too funny.

Bill on the plane…

When we got to Savannah’s tiny airport, we found it surprisingly busy.  The Delta agent who took our bag warned us that we needed to hurry to security.  There were crowds of people checking in and TSA, in its infinite wisdom, had only one security lane open.  They eventually opened a second one for those who were “pre-checked”, but there were still many people rushing to get screened in time to catch their flights.  It took a good thirty minutes just to get through security and we worried about missing our flight to Atlanta.  As it turned out, the flight was delayed.  We were among the last to board, but we still waited about fifteen minutes to get out of Savannah.

One good thing that came out of such an early flight…

When we landed in Atlanta, our flight to Houston was also boarding, so we had to rush to make that.  Once we got in the air, things settled down a bit.  We landed in Houston at about 9:30am or so.  It was my first time in Houston’s airport.  In fact, I’ve never even really visited Houston– just drove through it to get to San Antonio last year.  I liked the fact that there are trees there.  Bill graduated high school in Houston, so he knows the city.  Of course, it’s a lot bigger now than it was when he was a kid.  The flight to Houston from Savannah was $218 per person.  Had we flown to San Antonio, it would have been at least double that.

We rented a car to drive to San Antonio.  It wasn’t a bad drive at all… took about 3 hours and there wasn’t much traffic, perhaps because it was Sunday.  On the way to San Antonio, we called Bill’s mom, who had kindly let us park our car at her house, to let her know to meet us at the airport where we would be dropping off the rental car.  She said we should stop at Buc-ee’s, which is a gas station/convenience store chain in Texas.  It’s kind of a cross between Cracker Barrel and Wawa.  They sell candy and cookies and other stuff and they have funny signs that are vaguely off color because they refer to beavers.

Funny signs at Buc-ees to remind people to pick up after their dogs…

Well, we stopped at the one on the way to San Antonio and I have to say, it was a mad house!  Making matters worse were all the people trying every which way to get to a gas pump, which made the parking lot pretty dangerous.  There were swarms of people in the store, too.  It took awhile to get to a pump and I noticed the crowding didn’t have a very good effect on peoples’ affects, if you know what I mean.  Nevertheless, my mother-in-law had been talking about that place for ages.  Now I can say I’ve been.


Major traffic at Buc-ees…

 

We got the car dropped off and Mother-in-law picked us up.  We couldn’t get the dogs from Camp Bow Wow until 4:00, so we hung out at her house.  I was becoming really irritable and bitchy because I was tired and hungry.  Bill was also pretty tired.  By 4:00, we were pretty much dead on our feet.  We went to the kennel, got our dogs, and were told we weren’t allowed to bring Arran back there because they claimed he’d been “aggressive”.

Now, I don’t doubt Arran got bitchy during his two week stay at the kennel…  He’s not a bad dog at all.  He likes other dogs and people.  We got him from a beagle rescue where he was fostered with other dogs and he got along with them fine.  He does like his space, though.  We didn’t take the dogs to the airport location as we did in January because that location was fully booked.  I have a feeling the second location was also pretty well booked.  As we waited in the lobby for the dogs, we could hear the raucous din from the back where the dogs were kept.  Obviously, Arran needs a calmer environment than what is offered at Camp Bow Wow.  Our other dog, Zane, had no issues at all, but Zane is a super friendly dog who loves everybody.

I was pretty perturbed about how this situation was handled.  In their emails to us, the staff kept harping on how “sweet” our dogs are.  But then the assistant manager who spoke to us about our “aggressive” dog made it sound like Arran’s issues were all his fault and he’d put others at risk, though he didn’t hurt anyone.  We have a local contact in Texas who could have picked the dogs up if Arran’s behavior was that much of a problem.  We could have called Camp Bow Wow and given them payment information, too.  Obviously, they were more interested in the $945 I paid for the dogs’ care than actual safety.

When we got home and I checked the phone messages on our land line, there was one from Camp Bow Wow to let us know that Zane threw up once.  I know some dog owners want to know about such things, but as it was apparently a one time issue and we were in France (and therefore could do nothing for Zane), I don’t know why we needed to know that he puked one time.  If it were a repeated incident that required treatment, that would be another thing altogether.  I would have hoped they would have emailed us, though, since it’s easier to communicate that way when you’re abroad.

And then, I did some checking online and came across this article which, based on the author’s description, I’m quite sure is about the Camp Bow Wow chain…  I understand that the locations are franchises and they aren’t all created equally, but I have a feeling that this woman’s post rings pretty true for the locations in our area.  She writes of very crowded conditions and dogs being grouped by size and age rather than play style.  She also writes of dogs being squirted with water, and employees being told not to pet or play with the dogs.  I chose Camp Bow Wow because it got really good reviews on Angie’s List and Yelp!  However, it’s pretty clear that it’s not the best environment for all dogs.

After reading that article, I felt pretty ashamed that we’d left our dogs there on our two trips this year.  When we lived in North Carolina, we used Sandhills Pet Resort and never had any problems with Arran being “aggressive”.  What’s more, when our dearly departed dog, MacGregor, stayed there and suddenly got very sick (he had a spinal tumor that took an MRI at NC State to find), the ladies at Sandhills cared for him and loved him as if he was their very own dog.  They were also less expensive.

The bottom line is, should we stay in San Antonio, we will either find a locally owned boarding facility for our dogs that offers more personalized care or we will find a pet sitter.  No more corporate doggy day care chains for us.  Arran can’t handle environments where there are a ton of dogs in a small space.  It’s too stressful for him.  In retrospect, I’m glad Arran “told” us how he felt.  Given that Bill is still job hunting, I doubt we’ll need to board our dogs anytime soon anyway.

Zane and Arran get cuddle time…

“Aggressive” Arran…

I’m amazed by how quickly this week has flown by.  It’s hard to believe that a week ago, we were in Europe.  We had an amazing time and, once again, I am ever so grateful to the Air Force for getting us to and from Europe safely.  And I am grateful to our government for extending Space A privileges to us.  I hope we can do it again sometime in the future.

Thanks for reading about our trip!

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Europe, Germany, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 11

After two nights at Hotel Goldinger, Bill and I decided to get a room at Ramstein.  We had actually been thinking we’d try to leave Germany on Friday, the 30th of May, but there weren’t any flights going out.  The Air Force lodge at Ramstein is within walking distance of the passenger terminal, which makes it really convenient.  We booked for two nights, hoping that we wouldn’t need both nights.  This was my first time staying at the Air Force lodging at Ramstein and, I must say, I was impressed by how nice it was, especially considering that it only cost $55 a night.  I did think it was funny that there was a check list for bomb threats by the phone.


We were given a room that reminded me of something I might see in a Hilton.  There are American plugs in the rooms, which makes it easy to charge iPads, iPhones, and whatever else have you.  There are laundry facilities that people can use free of charge.  All you need is soap.  The inn is also connected to the largest BX/PX I have ever seen.  In fact, the BX/PX complex is like a big mall.

I was glad to be able to wash clothes and Bill went to Chili’s to get us some lunch.  Later, after the clothes were washed and dried, we walked around the big AAFES complex and I was reminded of when we lived in Germany.  There are a lot of local vendors/artisans there that make knick knacks and gifts.

It looked like there were going to be a couple of flights leaving Ramstein on Saturday, though neither of them were offering many seats for Space A travelers.  I had a feeling we could be staying at Ramstein for two nights.  We passed time at Chili’s and talked to a soldier who was living in Germany under sad circumstances.  I posted about that on my main blog, so I won’t rehash it here.

The next morning, Bill picked up some pastries and coffee at a bakery and then we made our way to the pax terminal.  There were lots of people there, many of whom had apparently been trying to get out of Germany for days.  An airman announced that roll call for a flight to Hunter Airfield in Savannah, Georgia would be in 20 minutes.  The flight to Georgia was a surprise.  It wasn’t noted on Ramstein’s Facebook page; so it was a lucky thing that we were there at the right time.

We had been planning to go for a flight to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, but when Bill heard the call for Georgia, he wanted to sign up.  The flight had six seats available and, as Bill was a cat 3 who’d signed up for Space A when we first arrived in Germany two weeks earlier, he was at the top of the list.  We easily made the flight and were soon on our way back to the States in a C-17 with four others.

One of the few places dogs aren’t allowed in Germany…

I much prefer military flights to chartered flights.  Although you have to wear ear plugs to block out the noise and the flights are usually longer because the planes move slower, I enjoy seeing the Air Force at work.  I also like not having someone reclining in my lap, kicking the back of my seat, or otherwise harshing my mellow.  On a military flight, you can actually lie down on the floor and sleep if you want to.  The airmen gave us blankets, which really came in handy because it was chilly on the plane.

Bill and I bought box lunches, mainly because it’s been my experience that the food served on military flights is actually edible.  This was no exception…  We had chicken, fruit salad, chips, a Rice Krispies Treat, water, and apple juice.  I was glad we bought the lunch, too, because I eventually got hungry even after having eaten it.

I enjoyed meeting the others on our flight.  One guy was once in the Honor Guard in Arlington and now works in Europe in counter intelligence.  He was on his way to Oklahoma to see his new baby.  Two were doctors, married to each other  and getting ready to begin three year residencies in Washington, DC.  The other guy sounded like he might have been from the West Indies.  He was going to New York.

We landed in Savannah in the early afternoon and then spent some time trying to get taxis.  It was very warm in Savannah, which was a shock given how chilly it was in Europe and on the plane.  A lady with a mini van took Bill, me, the guy going to Oklahoma and the guy going to New York to the airport area.  The doctors decided they would get a hotel downtown.  The lady who drove us to the hotel was funny.  She had a sign in her cab that read “No eating or drinking.  Throw up fee $250”.  One of the guys mentioned it and I immediately understood.  I’m sure the puke fee mostly applies to drunks during festivals.

Bill happened to have enough HiltonHonors points to score us a free room at the Doubletree Inn near Savannah’s airport.  We checked in and I got cleaned up.  I was really craving a steak for dinner, but there weren’t many restaurants near the hotel and the Doubletree’s room service menu didn’t offer steak.  Bill went out to get us fast food at Wendy’s, but then he spotted a restaurant that did offer steak.  He went there and bought us dinner… and then when he brought it back, I opened the cartons and realized to my horror that the steaks were covered in mushrooms!

Now, this may not seem like a big deal, but I actually have a phobia of mushrooms.  I don’t eat them.  I don’t even like to look at them.  No mention of mushrooms was mentioned on the restaurant’s menu.  What was even weirder was that the steaks came with Caesar salads that were served with cheese and dressing on the side.  I don’t know why the mushrooms weren’t served the same way.  I mean, usually one who wants mushrooms has to request them and pay extra.  Unfortunately, the mushrooms kind of ruined my appetite.  I did eat a little after Bill scraped them off, but I was a bit traumatized by the fungus.  Yes, I know it’s ridiculous… it’s just one of my quirks.

I booked us on an early flight on Delta going from Savannah to Houston because flying to San Antonio was outrageously expensive…  more on that next.

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Germany, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 10

I felt like a new person after our first night in Landstuhl.  We got up and had breakfast in Hotel Goldinger’s pretty dining area.  Besides being a small hotel, this place is also a “konditorei”, which means they make pastries there.  I loved their dining room, which had the look of a garden or a solarium.  The breakfast spread they offer to guests is also very nice, with smoked salmon, smoked trout, breads, cheeses, vegetables, juices, cereals, and fruits.  They’ll even cook eggs and bacon if you want.  Bill and I had a nice breakfast, overhearing a couple of professors from the University of Maryland who were apparently concerned about keeping their jobs because virtual education is taking over so much.  Bill joined their conversation while I sat there thinking about what we’d do on our last real day of vacation.

I told Bill I wanted to visit Bacharach, which is an adorable town on the Rhein.  I went there in 1997.  In fact, it was the very first town I visited after my Peace Corps tour in Armenia, so it kind of holds a special place in my heart.  I had to figure out trains in order to get there and that’s been a skill that has served me well.

Charming sign at the Landstuhl train station.

We bought tickets to Bacharach.  Since it was a holiday, the tickets were pretty cheap, but it would take a long time to get there.  First, we had to get to Kaiserslautern.  Then, we had to take a train to Bingen.  Finally, from Bingen, we would take a train to Bacharach.  It would take about two hours.

Pretty castle in view of the Bingen train station…

The ride was pleasant, since there’s a lot of pretty scenery as you get close to Rhein country.  It was a bit cloudy, but there were no major rain storms.  It was a little chilly outside, but not so chilly that you’d need a jacket.

Bacharach is as adorable as I remembered it.  It’s a well-preserved town with lots of medieval looking buildings and cobblestoned streets.  There’s a beautiful castle on a hillside that now serves as a youth hostel.  It’s an uphill hike to get there, so we opted not to go.  Instead, we enjoyed the castle from afar.

Just off the train… you can see the youth hostel in the distance.

 

Adorable Bacharach…

We ate lunch at a cute little gasthaus.  Bill had sauerbraten and I had roasted chicken.  The lady who ran the restaurant was funny when she noticed Bill didn’t eat the beets in his salad.  She gave me a postcard of the restaurant and said, “Here’s a souvenir for you.”  Then she gave Bill the bill and said, “And here’s a souvenir for you…”

Lunch!

There’s not a whole lot to Bacharach, but it still managed to be a very special stop during our trip on account of the biergarten we visited.

Bacharach has a theater that also serves their own beer.  The garten is under a bright tent that looks like it was once part of a carousel.  Unbeknownst to us, on the day we visited, it was father’s day.  In Germany, a lot of fathers and sons go hiking and then drink for awhile.  A huge group of men were there and they had obviously been there awhile by the time we showed up.  The cheerful waitresses brought out round after round of beer and schnapps.  Occasionally, the men would toast or break into drunken singing.  I happened to get some clips of their performances.  Some of the guys singing were pretty good!

A video I made of our afternoon…

The beer was pretty good, too.  I made our server beam when I ordered a mas krug– one full liter of beer.  We spent several hours just hanging out and observing these guys who were obviously having a great time.  At one point, Bill went to the men’s room and one of the guys in the German group started speaking to Bill.  Bill told him in German that he doesn’t really speak the language very well.  The guy switched to English and struck up a conversation.  The guy was surprised we’d visit Bacharach and Bill told him that I had visited years ago and loved the town.  I wanted Bill to see it.

Bill explained that he was about to retire from the Army and this trip was sort of our last hurrah.  So then the man told Bill that he had been drafted to the German Army and ended up staying for about thirty years.  He said his family had come from the East and the Americans helped them relocated to the West.  Bill said the guy got choked up as he said he’d never forgotten what the Americans did for his family.  I have to say, in these days when so many people have negative things to say about Americans and the military, it was really nice to hear something positive.

Another man had heard we were Americans living in Texas and he came over to talk to Bill while I was in the ladies room.  It turned out the guy had spent a lot of time in Odessa and Midland, which is where the oil is/was.

Our trip to tiny Bacharach was yet another incidence in which we went to a small town that presumably  has little to it and ended up having sort of a special day.  The last time we took a hop to Germany– back in May 2012– we ended up visiting Rodange, Luxembourg, a seemingly boring suburb of Luxembourg City.  We were annoyed about being there because we’d actually meant to go to France.  But then it turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our trip because we had a great and cheap lunch at a little restaurant run by a Portuguese family.  Then we ran into a “hen party”, where we saw a group of people dressed in drag and a diaper wearing woman with a rubber penis on her nose…  I may have to repost my trip report from that hop, since I didn’t have my travel blog in 2012.

The trip back to Landstuhl was kind of long.  First, we took the train from Bacharach to Bingen and were joined by a number of guys who had been at the biergarten with us.  Then, when we got to Bingen, we were delayed for about 50 minutes because the train wasn’t scheduled to leave until 7:55 and we got there at about 7:00.  The trip to Kaiserslautern also included a 20 minute cigarette break in Bad Kreuznach.  By the time we got to Kaiserslautern, it was well after 9:00 and the next train to Landstuhl wasn’t for another 45 minutes.

I told Bill I wanted to take a cab back to the hotel.  He balked, because he knew it would be a pricey trip.  I finally won out, though, because it was kind of cold outside and getting late.  The cab ride to Landstuhl was interesting, because I got to see just how much the massive number of Americans has affected both Kaiserslautern and Landstuhl.  We even passed a placed that served American style fried chicken!

I kind of wish we’d stayed in Bacharach and explored the Rhein more.  Maybe if we get back to Germany, Bill and I will be able to do that.  I also still have yet to see the famous Medieval town of Rothenburg, so that may be reason to take another hop to visit Germany if we don’t end up moving back there someday.



This was in the foyer of the theater where the restrooms were located…  From a distance, they looked like real people!

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France, Germany, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 9

After two nights in Nice, Bill and I hopped a flight to Frankfurt.  We flew from Nice on Niki, an Austrian budget airline that collaborates with Air Berlin.  Bill and I flew on Air Berlin in 2009, when we took our Scandinavian cruise.  Let me just say, European carriers are a hell of a lot nicer than American carriers are.  You go on the plane and they offer you a newspaper.  You get a drink and a sandwich that is actually edible.  The seats are somewhat comfortable, too.  I would definitely “fly Niki” again if we ever get back to Europe and have the opportunity.

The flight attendants were kind of oddly dressed on Niki.  The top half of their uniforms were very formal and businesslike, with a blazer, blouse, and perfect makeup and hair.  The bottom half was jeans…  nice jeans, but still jeans.  It was like the fashion equivalent of a mullet– business up top and party on the bottom.

Flying over Vienna…

Our flight routed us through Vienna, another city that was on my 1997 European tour.  I have yet to visit Vienna with Bill.  I hope someday we’ll get there together.  As we were getting on the flights, I was all wound up about the term “dependapotamus”, a slang expression used by certain people in the military who bash family members… aka “dependents”.  There was a young guy sitting in front of us on the plane who must have overheard me and I think, told his two female companions about it.  They reminded me of a reincarnation of ABBA, minus Bjorn.

Upon entering Frankfurt, we approached a guy who appeared to work for the airport.  We were trying to find the train station in the massive airport.  The guy was obviously American and spoke German with a heavy accent.  He directed us to the right place and we arranged for a train to get us to Landstuhl, where I had booked us a room in a cute, family run hotel in town.

It was quite an ordeal to get to Landstuhl, though, because we had to change trains three times to get there and it happened to be rush hour.  We got on the first one, a high speed ICE train, for a twenty minute ride to Mannheim.  The train was packed and I was grumpy about it, as usual…

Waiting for train tickets at Frankfurt’s airport…

We stood near the bathroom between cars and Bill then very gallantly decided to get me a snack at the onboard bistro.  He came back with a beer and a container of curry wurst, which was basically a sausage with a curry sauce.  It smelled good and was piping hot, but I couldn’t eat it and balance at the same time.  I appreciated the gesture, but told Bill he should have gotten me something less labor intensive.

At one point, the train lurched and both Bill and I lost our balance.  I was holding the currywurst and it almost tipped on me.  Thankfully, a very kind German lady noticed and saved it before it spilled.  I said “Thanks”, but it probably came off sounding annoyed rather than grateful.  I’m sorry about that.

While we waited for the next train, Bill and I shared the curry wurst.  I started to feel less grouchy as my blood sugar came up a bit.  We got a seat on the train from Mannheim to Kaiserslautern, but it was also pretty crowded.  I remember one guy in our car was a cop and he seemed like a nice person.  When he got off the train, he said “Auf wiedersehen.”

On the third train, a local s-bahn from Kaiserslautern to Landstuhl, we were in a car with a large German family with several kids.  Then an American woman with her four kids and mother in tow got on the train.  She said, “Ramstein?”

Bill told her she had the right train, so she and her family took a seat and struck up a conversation.  They had just gotten back to Germany after a trip to Paris.  They’d gone on a military tour, then broke away to take the kids to Euro Disney.  The young mother’s husband was posted at Grafenwoehr, which is an Army post in Bavaria.  They had parked their car at Ramstein.  The trains were apparently a new experience for them.  Bill and I explained about how the trains worked, then told them how lucky they were to live in Germany.

Grandma asked us where we were from.  I told her I’m from Virginia and Bill is from Texas (more or less).  She looked surprised.  I told her that we met when I lived in South Carolina and he lived in Kansas.  I guess she has never heard of the Internet and how people can meet that way.  I said I’d love to move back to Germany and Grandma said, “Yeah, but how do you raise a family there?”

I said, “It’s just us and two dogs.”

Grandma looked utterly shocked that we don’t have kids.  I posted this story on my other blog as part of a rant.  Here, I will just say that it’s apparently unusual to run into military couples who don’t have kids.  Fortunately, our stop at Landstuhl came up before we had time to talk more.

Bill and I got off the train and walked to our hotel.  It was obvious that the proprietor had been waiting specifically for us, since the place was pretty much locked up when we arrived.  He quickly showed us to our room and beat it.  Our very full day of traveling left me ready to relax and wind down, which I proceeded to do.  Bill went to a Turkish place and got us a couple of Wiener schnitzels with fries and some beer.

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France, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 8

After a good breakfast at the Star Hotel, Bill and I set out to see Nice.  Although it had been almost 17 years since my last visit, I basically remembered where to go to get to the beach.  The aroma of salty air always excites me, but I had completely forgotten just how insanely blue the Mediterranean Sea is near Nice.

A sign in our hotel room…

 

Nice is much bigger than I remembered it.  I think the last time I went there, I didn’t get out and see much.  I was with two friends who are now a married couple and I think I felt a bit like a third wheel.  This time, I was with my beloved Bill.  We made our way downtown, passing a park where a Middle Eastern man appeared to be giving a very animated lecture to another man.  I have no idea what they were discussing, but it was obviously important business, given how the man was carrying on.

The park…

We crossed the park and I spotted some steps that seemed to lead down to some close knit alleys.  We went down and started walking…  I’m glad we went that way, since it took us through some charming plazas and past a beautiful cathedral that was being extensively restored.  We went inside, enjoyed the ornate decor and listened to the peaceful music that was piped in.  It was easy to ignore all the scaffolding in the middle of the cathedral.  The rest of the church was so pretty.

Charming Nice…

 

After we left the cathedral, I smelled rotisserie chicken roasting on a spit and heard some more modern sounds, probably Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good”, which I heard a few times during this trip.  We meandered through the maze of neighborhoods until we were spit out near a farmer’s market that was right next to Nice’s “boardwalk”.

Farmer’s market…

Near the beach!

I went down on the public beach, which has pebbles and rocks rather than sand.  A lot of people were sunbathing and there were a few bums that appeared to be sleeping on the rocks.  A couple of brave souls were swimming, though it wasn’t very hot outside and the water, while not freezing, was kind of cold.  I would have liked to have gone swimming, but I doubt Bill would have been up for it.

We decided to take a VERY long walk instead.  We walked along the beach, then up a hill that curled around to a World War II memorial.  We kept walking down to the harbor area, where luxurious and simple watercraft shared space.  We passed people walking their dogs and people repairing their boats…  we saw a cruise ship or two and the air, once again, was perfumed by brilliant flowers.  This time, they were bright purple.  I was kind of wistful as we passed the dock and I saw one of the Windstar ships there.  We’re due for another cruise at some point.

World War II memorial

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was lunchtime and we figured we walked about nine miles.  I got a lot of great pictures of the dramatic scenery near the shore.  We watched people fish and snorkel and listened to people talk… In all, we figured we walked about nine miles.

We enjoyed a late lunch at a fish place I happened to find a couple of blocks away from our hotel.  They were serving paella and tuna as specials.  I ordered us a carafe of sauvignon blanc and some water and we enjoyed a thoroughly delicious meal.  Afterwards, we went to a nearby mall for some ice cream because I had a terrible craving for it.  After lunch, we went back to the hotel, where I fell asleep.  I did a lot of napping on this trip!  Bill did school work while I snoozed and recovered from our nine mile hike, which totally wore me out.

Lunch and dessert…

Instead of going out to dinner, we stayed in the hotel room and ate cold cuts, bread, chocolate and guacamole from the local supermarket.  Of course, we washed it down with water and a nice red wine.  I would have liked to have spent another day in Nice.  We probably could have done it, but we were running out of cash for train tickets and needed to think about getting back to Germany so we could get a flight home.  I briefly considered trying to get something out of Aviano, which is a base in Italy not far from Venice.  It would have been closer to get there by train and we love Italy.  But Aviano’s schedules weren’t very predictable and we managed to find an inexpensive flight to Frankfurt, courtesy of Air Berlin’s subsidiary, the Austrian airline Niki.  More on that in the next post.

Ferry to Sardinia!

You can rent electric cars in Nice…

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France, military hops, Space A

France and Germany… a send off from the Army– Part 7

From Nimes, Bill and I decided we’d head to Nice.  I was last in Nice in 1997 and frankly I had forgotten how beautiful this city on the French Riviera is.  In 1997, I was decidedly broke and had been on vacation for awhile…  maybe I was jaded.  Truly, it is a great city and I’m glad Bill and I had the chance to visit.  Getting there, however, turned out to be quite the ordeal.

It started with buying tickets in Nimes.  We got to the station about 45 minutes before the train to Marseille was due to leave.  That was where we’d be picking up another train that would take us to Toulon and then yet another that would go to Nice.  There was a train that went directly to Nice from Marseille, but it was full.  Bill knew this before he approached the ticket agent, a rather surly woman who wasn’t all that polite as she issued our tickets.  We waited about 20 minutes or so just to be able to speak to her, since there happened to be a shitload of people trying to buy tickets that morning.

As we were waiting, I kept hearing banging on a piano.  It turns out that a lot of train stations in France have a piano in the foyer.  Anyone is welcome to bang on it or play…  the vast majority who played that beleaguered instrument in Nimes did not possess any discernible musical talent.  Needless to say, the banging did little to boost my mood.

Piano playing in the Nimes train station…

We got on the train to Marseilles, fortunate enough to score a fold down seat facing backwards, since the train was packed.  The Marseille train station, much like the one in Lyon, was a bit of a madhouse. Actually, it wasn’t quite as bad as the Lyon station, but it was a very busy, noisy, crowded place… and yes, there was another piano.

This guy, playing the train station piano in Marseille, was actually pretty good.

The gare…

Bill and I rushed to get the train to Toulon, which turned out to be pretty full.  We managed to find two seats, but there was nowhere to store our bags.  Given that this was a two week trip, we had a few of them with us.  We watched in amazement as the train filled up with people until the aisles and spaces between cars were completely full.

We happened to be sitting across from a French woman and her father.  She spoke English and asked us where we were from and where we were headed.  She apologized for the fact that France’s trains aren’t “comfortable”.  For the record, I didn’t think the trains in France were that uncomfortable.  Just that particular one was very, very crowded… it reminded me of being in Armenia, where all forms of public transportation are liable to be completely stuffed to the gills with people, safety standards be damned!  And unfortunately, there were a couple of people standing in the aisle who really needed a shower.

At one point, there was an announcement asking anyone who could take a later train to get off, but of course, very few people chose to do that and it did nothing to alleviate the problem.  Then there was an announcement that they were going to add more cars, which would delay us and cause us to miss our connection in Toulon.  Then, the trip was cancelled altogether.  All of these developments were kindly translated for us by the English speaking French lady sitting near us.

Bill went to find out what we needed to do and we were advised that there was a train going directly to Nice at 2:30.  It was about noon, so that meant we had time for lunch at the train station.  We went to McDonald’s.  It was very packed, so we sat outside, where it was sunny, but actually very chilly because of a high wind.  McDonald’s offered free WiFi, which entertained me for a bit.  I took a couple of photos of the view into Marseille.  It actually looks like a very nice city, even if getting in and out of there was hellish.

The view of Marseille from the station…

Bill checks things out.

The Golden Arches!

After McDonalds, we went back into the train station and visited a little cafe.  It was a rather dirty, no frills kind of place, but the people who ran it were friendly and they had beer.  While we were sitting in the cafe, an older black woman and young black man came in and took a table near us.  Based on the way they were dressed, I guessed they were from somewhere in Africa.  They wore very colorful, exotic clothes that appeared to be the style of some place other than France.  They spoke French and the man drank rose wine, while his companion (maybe his mother?) drank coffee.  They were loud, but happy and frankly very entertaining to observe.  Before too long, they were joined by two other women, similarly dressed and similarly boisterous.

These folks unwittingly entertained us…

I enjoyed watching how people reacted to this group, who seemed to be having such a great time in this dingy little cafe.  Quite a few people seemed bemused, while others appeared to be annoyed.  I kind of liked it that they were there, because I love it when I’m near interesting or entertaining people.  I have no idea what they were talking about, but I appreciated the fun they were obviously having.

Our train to Nice was also very crowded, though not nearly as much as the train we’d tried to take to Toulon was.  Once again, we got seats that faced two going the other direction.  I got up to use the bathroom, but found the toilet hopelessly clogged with paper towels and cigarette butts that some asshole had left there.  I hate it when people do that, just because they need to satisfy their nic fit.  It really messes things up for other people.

An Australian woman with two small children quickly claimed the seats opposite from us.  Inwardly, I kind of sighed, since I figured the kids would make the trip more stressful.  One of the kids appeared to be about seven or eight, while the other, a toddler, was still breastfeeding.  I only know this because the kids’ mom boldly walked up and down the aisle with the girl under her shirt.  I don’t blame her for doing that, by the way.  I’m all for breastfeeding.  I guess it was just kind of different to see someone so totally unabashed about it.  You don’t see that very often in the United States.

Anyway, the mom sat with her kids for a little while and talked to us.  Bill was very solicitous, helping her with her bags, offering her Wet Naps, and chatting with her.  After awhile, mom got up and sat elsewhere with her toddler, leaving her older daughter with us.  The girl was actually pretty well behaved, even though she’d been on the train all day.  Her mom told us that they’d come from Bordeaux.  She played with an iPad most of the time.

The Australian lady had a French woman with her who had a little boy.  At first, we thought maybe the French woman was a nanny, since she seemed very solicitous toward the Australian woman’s kids.  But it later came out that they had met during the Aussie lady’s travels.  You could have fooled me.  They really seemed like they were traveling together.

Scenes from the train to Nice…

As the long train trip wore on, I was enchanted by the scenery out the window… lots of very blue water, charming towns, and palm trees, along with quite a few mountain tunnels.  I was also enchanted by Bill, who proved that he was born to be a dad.  When the girl unsuccessfully tried to open a packet of sunflower seeds, Bill took the packet for her and opened it.  He kept his eye on her the whole time.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe Aussie lady talked to us to make sure we weren’t weirdos and then totally hoped we’d babysit her kid for her.  She correctly assessed that Bill is good with kids and, while I’m not as gentle toward tykes, I’m relatively benign.  I suppose if you’re traveling for weeks alone with little kids, you have to take help whenever you can get it.

Toward the end of the trip, Mom came back to where we were sitting.  Her younger daughter, an adorable child who appeared to have a different father than her sister did, was jumping up and down on the seat and squealing in very shrill tones.  Aussie mom asked the toddler to stop jumping, since she “had a very full nappy”.  She pulled the tyke’s diaper away and peeked in to confirm her suspicions.  I was just hoping there wouldn’t be another big mess on the already messy train.  Older girl was getting restless, jumping up and down, and flipping over the seat behind her, which had been vacated.  I just tried to stay calm and quiet.  People were looking at Bill and me, as if these kids belonged to us.  Most of them looked a bit annoyed even though, truly, the older girl in particular had been very well behaved under the circumstances.

When we got to Nice, Bill helped the lady with her bags again.  I was in a hurry to get off the train and have some peace and quiet.  It had been a long, difficult day of travel and I was ready for a rest.  I also didn’t want to get drafted into more babysitting duties!

Nice was a lot bigger, busier, and more crowded than I remembered it.  It took a little time to find our lodging, a two star establishment called the Star Hotel.  Once we got there, we were warmly welcomed by a receptionist with a remarkable American accent.  It turned out she was American and had married a Frenchman while in France learning French.  I guess this was her hotel, since she told us (and we observed) that she was there most of the time.  She gave us a triple room on the top floor, with a nice little balcony that overlooked the street.  The hotel had some strange rules, like you weren’t supposed to eat or drink in your room.  Bill asked about that and the lady at the front desk explained that the hotel used have a different owner who was strict about such things.  She just asked us not to be messy and thanked us for being considerate enough to ask.

Nobody up here but us and some seagulls…

Since we were tired, we went across the street to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner.  I think we were the proprietor’s only guests.  The food was good, and we enjoyed some wine on the little balcony.  After a full night of comfortable sleep, we spent a great day in Nice.  More on that in the next post!

Lebanese food in Nice…

  

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