A month on a train in Europe… Planning the trip

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August 1997 was a big month for me.  On August 21 of that year, I completed my Peace Corps service in the Republic of Armenia and was finally free to live a life in the first world again.  For so many reasons, I was really looking forward to being done with my service, even as I realized that it would mean I’d be unemployed and probably still stuck living with my parents (which sadly eventually came to pass).  But in the weeks leading up to leaving Armenia, I was also looking forward to a one month trip through Europe.

My mom actually told me to take this trip, even though it would eat up some precious funds and time spent looking for work.  She said I’d never again have such a golden opportunity to see the world.  She was right, of course.  Someone in the Peace Corps office had left a copy of Rick Steves’ newsletter,  Europe Through The Back Door.  Rick Steves puts out books of the same title, but back in the 90s, he sent out little news magazines that included the current Eurail pass fares.  I was 25 years old in 1997, which made me still young enough to purchase a second class youth pass.  That was a blessing, given the fact that first class rail passes are a lot more expensive!

Anyway, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  Europe loomed like a big playground just waiting to be explored.  I purchased a 30 day second class pass that was good for all 17 of the countries affiliated with Eurail back then.  I remember it cost about $600, which was a lot of money for me at the time (and still is now).  I had a Northern Irish friend who was doing an internship in Slovakia and would be finishing up around the time I planned my trip.  I met him and his girlfriend in 1994, when we both worked at a church camp.  Today, those two are married and have four kids.  They live in the UK.

I remember really sweating up until the last minute, trying to get my pass.  Although we had been allowed use of the diplomatic pouch for most of my service, we recently had to give up our privileges and depend on the local mail system.  Armenian mail was pretty messed up back then, so I used an alternative method.  Eurail passes can only be sent to US addresses, so my mom had to send it to France, where it would then be sent on to Yerevan on a charity plane.  It turned out there was a videocassette in the package Rick Steves sent, which held up my pass in Paris.  I waited weeks to get it and when it hadn’t shown up, I enlisted my sisters for help.  Thankfully, one of them is fluent in French and she called Paris and found out what the issue was.  She had them remove the offending videocassette and I got my Eurail pass with about a week to spare… whew!

I also remember purchasing travel insurance, since we had been told by Peace Corps authorities that if something happened to us after we left service, we would be on our own.  I wanted to make sure I could be airlifted if I ended up in an accident or deathly ill.

I had about a week to kill before I was to meet with my friends.  Flying Armenian Airlines was my only way out of Yerevan unless I wanted to use Aeroflot and deal with a layover in Moscow, Russia.  Having heard all the horror stories, I searched Armenian Airlines’ schedule for a suitable flight.  Unfortunately, a lot of Armenian Airlines’ flights took off and landed at obscene times of day.  I remember the most reasonable choices were Sofia, Bulgaria, Athens, Greece, and Frankfurt, Germany; all three left at around 11:00am.  They were all fairly new routes for the airline, which is now mercifully defunct.  Everything else– flights to Amsterdam or Paris, for instance– left at about 3:00am.

I had already gone to Sofia the year prior and knew it was still a bit rustic in Bulgaria.  I gave some thought to going to Athens, but that seemed too inconvenient.  I settled on Frankfurt and bought my one way ticket.  I remember paying about $18 extra for business class, mainly because I wanted the extra 10 kilos of luggage allowed for that class.  My flight to Armenia had been a nightmare because Armenian Airlines was using ancient Soviet era planes that were scary.  As it turned out, they’d leased a new airbus recently and the Frankfurt flight was on that aircraft.  I ended up enjoying a really nice flight out of Armenia at the very front of the plane.  I had my own row and even the food was good.  Had I wanted to, I could have even used the special business class airport lounge.

Rick Steves had talked up a town called Bacharach, which is on the Rhine.  I realized it wasn’t too far from Frankfurt, either.  So when we landed in Frankfurt, I went to the very helpful lady working the Deustche Bahn desk and asked her how to get to the Rhine.  Pretty soon, I was diving into train travel in Europe.  Come to think of it, it was a lucky thing that I started in relatively user friendly Germany, where a lot of people speak English and people are generally pretty sensible.  After a couple of false starts, I finally managed to board the right train to Bacharach, where I would spend my first couple of days out of the Peace Corps.

How I became a traveler…

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I think maybe the travel bug was instilled in me at an early age.  My very first lucid memories are of being a little girl living in England.  My dad was in the Air Force and his last duty station was at Mildenhall Air Force Base in Suffolk.  I was born in Virginia and lived briefly in Ohio before we moved to England when I was three years old.  But I don’t remember much of the time before England.  We lived there until I was six years old, so I have a lot of memories… even though that was a long time ago.  While we were living in England, I got to visit Tunisia with my parents.  I also visited Wales and Ireland, though I don’t remember them.

Me and my mom on a camel in Tunisia, New Year’s 1978…

We spent two more years living near Washington, DC, a very cosmopolitan place as American cities go.  I remember in first and second grades having kids in my classes who came from different countries.  I remember one girl was from Iran.  Her name was Gissou and this was during the height of the whole Iranian hostage crisis deal that was in the news.  She probably heard lots of variations of the old song “Barbara Ann” turned into “Bomb Iran”.

I also remember learning about different countries in those years.  In first grade, we learned about Japan and even had a day in which we tasted Japanese food and learned a few Japanese words.  In second grade, we learned about Thailand.  I distinctly remember learning about houses on stilts.  Incidentally, I also remember learning about Vincent Van Gogh that year.  I wonder if today’s teachers have the same freedom my teachers did back in the day.  My guess is that they don’t.

When I was eight, we moved to the Tidewater area of Virginia, where I was born.  My parents opened a business and I grew up in a much more rural and redneck school system…  I was still exposed to different cultures, though.  In Gloucester County, where I grew up, there is a section called Guinea, which is where Cornwallis’s defectors supposedly settled.  In the early 1980s, there was a time when you could hear their very distinctive guttural dialect and, if you weren’t from there, you wouldn’t understand a word they said.

My parents continued to travel, though they never took me with them on their trips.  My eldest sister joined the Peace Corps and lived in Morocco for two years.  She lived in several different countries, as a matter of fact, and learned to speak several languages.  She’d always bring me gifts from her travels to places like Egypt, India, and Jordan.

I remember going to college and having a roommate for ONE week.  This roommate, who turned out to be a complete bitch, told me she was passionate about traveling.  I remember feeling indifferent about travel.  In fact, at that time in my life, I just wanted to get a degree, get a job, and have a family.  I moved out of that dorm room after a week because my travel loving roommate had a penchant for bringing people into the room at 3:00am and turning on the overhead light.

Things didn’t turn out the way I planned them to after I graduated from college.  I had trouble finding a job.  I also had a burning desire to leave my parents’ home… and they wanted me gone.  So, following in my sister’s footsteps, I joined the Peace Corps and went off to Armenia for two years.  I still didn’t have the travel bug, though.  In fact, the love of travel wasn’t awakened in me until the summer of 1996, when a friend and I went on a trip to Turkey and Bulgaria via bus from Armenia.  We spent three days on a bus going to Istanbul by way of the Republic of Georgia.  Our trip took three weeks and was fraught with challenges…  but that’s when I learned to love travel.

A photo taken on April 24, 1997 at Armenia’s Genocide Memorial.  I used to live across the street from this, but when I lived there, the eternal flame was only turned on on April 24th.

In 1997, I took a month and traveled by train for a month around Europe on the way home from Armenia.  I saw Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Italy, France, and Spain, with a very brief stop in Amsterdam.  Ten years after that, my husband and I moved to Germany, where we visited all of the aforementioned countries except for Slovakia.  However, I added Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Hungary, Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, and Poland to the list of countries I’ve been to.  My husband also went on a few trips that didn’t include me and we also went to England for the first time since I was very young.

Since moving back to the United States, my husband and I have gone to the Caribbean twice, hitting the Virgin Islands (both British and US), Puerto Rico (yes, I know it’s in the US), St. Barts, Antigua, Barbados, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia.  I also went to Jamaica in 2002 to provide music for another sister’s wedding.  In 2012, we visited Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Scotland.  And in 2013, we will go to Italy and Greece… and I’m really toying with the idea of going to Costa Rica or Mexico.  We’ll see how things pan out.

I didn’t end up with a family or a career, unless you count writing as my career.  I did end up with a travel bug, though…  And now it’s time to write about it.

Welcome to my third blog!

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The year is new and I got a hankering to write another blog.  As the title suggests, this one is all about my travels.  I have been traveling my whole life and lived abroad three times, thanks to being an Air Force brat, Peace Corps Volunteer, and Army wife.

I decided to create a blog about my travels because I write about them anyway on other sites.  I wanted to have a place to write about my trips where I won’t be edited and can add pictures to my heart’s content.

To date, I have visited over two dozen countries on four continents.  I haven’t seen as many states in the United States as I have foreign countries.  But my husband and I are working on it, slowly but surely, trying to cram in as much fun as possible in this life. Today, we were discussing what we might do for our eleventh anniversary.  At this point, it’s between Costa Rica and Baja California.

With any luck, this blog will be mostly positive… with a bare minimum of carping.  But since I’m the one writing it, I can’t promise there won’t be occasional bitching, moaning, and snarkiness.  But I will do my best to stay perky!  Hope you enjoy!

Welcome!