Friday, April 30, 2004

Once again, I'm woefully out of date on my blogging. There are several reasons for this. First, it can be really hard to score time on the good computer, which is the one I use for uploading my photos but which is also--it turns out--the better machine for tending one's neopets. Second, I've been busy but in a boring, not-blogworthy sort of way: I had the April coffee for the Mannheim-area JAGs here at the house Wednesday night, so the days leading up to it were hectic, and yesterday was my day for recovery. The biggie though is this: I'm not even sure how to go about blogging a lot of what's happening in our lives these days as we get closer to the day of Fred's departure.

When the deployment to Iraq first became a possibility way back in the fall, one of my first coherent thoughts was this: "But I want to do a light-hearted blog detailing the adventures and misadventures of one quirky, homeschooling, army family as they discover Europe together. I don't WANT to do a keeping-the-homefires-burning-while-my-man-is-off-at-war blog!" Shallow, perhaps, but as my invisible friend Deana says, for a writer it's all material. And so far I've been blessed with a lot of really good material for that first blog, the one I wanted to make in the first place.

We're getting to the point though where more and more material is suitable for the second blog, the one I'd rather nobody have to make. And if I'm going to blog this stuff, you're going to have to know where I'm coming from.

Some of you already know the story of how Fred wound up deploying in the first place. Unlike most of the soldiers over there, he had a choice and didn't have to go. In October, he was offered the chance to do the same job there ("there" being Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan) that he does here (managing a region of army defense attorneys). He didn't have to take the job; in fact, there was apparently quite a line of JAGs eager to fill the position. But Fred felt that he had to go, since he has personally deployed several of his soldiers over this past year. They couldn't say no, so in Fred's mind (which is all about honor and duty and which I usually love but which sometimes makes me want to smack him with a two-by-four), neither could he.

I support my husband. I support our troops in general. BUT I DO NOT SUPPORT THIS WAR!

Every morning we have the Stars and Stripes delivered to our home. It's a small paper--about the size of the National Enquirer or any other supermarket tabloid. Given its small size, there's not a lot on the front page beyond 3 teasers for articles inside the paper, one main headline, and one big, honkin' photo.

Today's photo is a 6-by-10-inch gut-wrenching image of a soldier checking a young Iraqi boy killed in yesterday's mortar attack. That's a lot of front-page real estate for a newspaper that measures 11-by-15 inches. Inside, we've got shots of soldiers trying to help a wounded child, a closeup of a soldier with a wounded boy, and a shot of an Iraqi man leading one child away from the corpses of two others. This is what I consume along with my Cap'n Crunch.

I hate this war. I hate that we were lead into it either through outright deceit or unpardonable ignorance. I hate that it is framed for so many people as a response to September 11, when even our own president admits there is no link. I hate that 8 men from 1st AD were blown up yesterday when they should have been coming home after already serving year-long tours.

Next November, to me, will be all about a firing. I want Bush and his henchmen out. Meanwhile, I find it offensive that a man who may or may not have been AWOL from his National Guard duty but who freely admits taking an early out to get an MBA is raising questions about whether a man who volunteered to fight was REALLY injured enough to deserve those purple hearts.

While Fred is away, Mike, Annabelle, and I are going to keep on keeping on as best we can, and we're already making plans. We've got annual passes to Legoland and want to use them to visit the Legoland parks in England and Denmark as well as the one here in Germany. We're going to Scotland for a week this summer with my dad, and the kids can't wait to get a glimpse of Nessie. I've already got our reservations for next Christmas to visit family and friends in North Carolina and Florida.

But in the meantime, I can't sit here and do nothing but my best Rick Steves travel-guide impersonation. Not when my husband is ordering two holsters (one for the office and one for traveling) and celebrating the fact that he managed to get issued the "good" body armor. Not when he comes home with the news that his smallpox vaccination "didn't take" and now he has to go get it again. I never wanted that crap in my house in the first place, and I'm madder than hell that it's going to be coming in again. And certainly not as we count down to the big goodbye on May 19th.

I have really tried to this point to keep my blog as apolitical as possible. The political has become deeply, deeply personal to me though, and that's going to be coming through in my writing. Hang with me, folks. This could be a long year.

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Saturday, April 24, 2004

We've had a busy day today! We drove over to Schwetzingen this afternoon so that I could have an IRL (In Real Life) meet with Jutta, one of my long-time internet friends. We couldn't have asked for better weather, although the breeze made it chilly at times. Still, it was wonderful to get to sit surrounded by the beauty of the gardens and actually chat for the first time with somebody I've "known" for over 4 years and to get to meet her kids and husband as well. I took this photo of us together in front of the Schloß:

Fred and the kids explored the gardens while Jutta and I visited. The grounds are huge and truly exquisite:

It's Spargel Zeit (asparagus time) here in Germany, and Schwetzingen is famous for its Spargel. Here's a statue that is right across the street from the Schloß:

We had to hurry home from Schwetzingen to get ready for the Brownie sock hop. Annabelle and I posed for my neighbor Gail on our way to the dance:

Didn't the skirt come out cute? You can't really tell from the photo, but the cat has a jingle-bell on its collar. So Annabelle jingled when she walked.

The dance itself was pretty much a sensory nightmare for Annabelle (and for the rest of us as well). It had some pleasant moments, but within an hour the yelling and the music and the constant chaos, combined with getting whacked in the chest by a hula hoop, had reduced her to tears. We headed for home by way of Burger King.

One of the best moments at the dance was when Annabelle showed off her hula-hooping prowess. She makes it look so easy and keeps it going for ages:

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Friday, April 23, 2004

I feel like my whole week has been all about poodle skirts. Because I have seen a lot of poodle skirts? No. Because I have been wearing a lot of poodle skirts? No. Because I have been sewing a lot of poodle skirts? No. Instead, it's because I have spent countless hours DREADING making one poodle skirt for tomorrow night's Brownie sock hop.

I finally tackled the skirt project today, and the whole thing couldn't have taken more than 2 hours from start to finish. I frequently invest much more time though in worrying about a project than I do in actually completing said project. (Oh, and for the record, Annabelle wound up having a black-cat skirt instead of a poodle skirt. I'll try to post a photo tomorrow night after the dance.)

The hardest part about my work today was clearing a path through the Playmobil "village" to unearth my sewing machine. I have got to reclaim my sewing room. When Fred leaves, he can put household goods into storage, so we are going to take that opportunity to store a ton of junk out of our basement. Then I'm going to take one of our 2 rooms down there and convert it into a rec room for the kids. The Playstation is going down there, and so is all the Playmobil. Maybe I'll even get a couple beanbag chairs.

And in other news . . .

I got a phone call from my friend Gail this afternoon, giving me the heads up that Self-Help (the agency in charge of providing us with everything we need for our government quarters, right down to lightbulbs) was giving away flats of flowers. My friend Amy and I drove over and managed to stuff 18 trays into my van.

And in still other news . . .

Fred got home from his TDS conference and shouldn't have to go away again until he deploys. It occured to me this morning in the commissary that I am going to be very upset the first time I buy milk with an expiration date that is after his scheduled departure date. You know: "Wow, by the time this milk goes bad, Fred will be in Iraq."

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

I had a disturbing thought today. When my husband leaves for Iraq on May 19th, he is taking my digital camera with him!

I got my little 2 megapixel Nikon Coolpix for some ridiculously low price like 85 euro, back when that was a hundred bucks. I didn't want to spend too much money on one because I didn't know if I was really ready to "go digital." Since that day I have put exactly 1 roll of film through my other camera. I adore the immediacy of the digital photos, especially given that this blog is turning out to be one giant diary and scrapbook of our European vacation, and I like being able to post my photos fairly quickly.

When we found out Fred was going to Iraq, we decided that it would make sense for him to take the Coolpix with him and for me to get something mas macho. I've had that in the back of my mind for some time now, but it just dawned on me that I have less than a month to find my new camera!

So, blog readers--here is yet another opportunity to help me shop. Please send me a little note telling me about your digital camera. What do you have, how many megapixels, what's the price range, what do you love/hate about it?

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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Remember waaaaaaaay back in January when I was whining because our almost-new multisystem TV had developed technical difficulties? Rather than simply exchanging it for us, AAFES insisted on sending it in for repairs, which they estimated would take 6 to 8 weeks. I went in today (much more than 8 weeks later) to check on its status and found out that Panasonic still had the part on order. The nice Power Zone manager took pity on me and wound up authorizing an even exchange for this year's model of the same TV, which supposedly is a little bit nicer. I can't wait to get it hooked up so we can have German TV again.

Fred is home for a couple days in between Individual Readiness Training and his TDS conference in Willingen. He picks up General Black early tomorrow morning at the airport and takes him up to the conference. He'll be back again Friday evening.

Fred's big news is that he got his smallpox vaccination today (third one in his life). That really gives me the willies. I don't like having smallpox in my house.

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Plans are well underway for our next big adventure. My dad is coming for 4 weeks this summer, and I bought tickets yesterday for us to take the kids to Scotland for a week.

We're flying on Ryan Air, an Irish budget airline (our roundtrip tix between here and there are running about $120 each) that has a reputation for cheap flights into out-of-the-way airports. We're going into Glasgow Prestwick, which is quite a ways outside of Glasgow itself. That's OK with us though, as we have no real desire to visit any cities. Instead, we're renting a car and driving up through the northwestern highlands. I'm a little leery about driving (a standard shift!) on the left side of the road, but the kids are very excited about going to visit the Loch Ness monster.

Speaking of monsters, here's a poster Mike found online recently. I can't stop giggling over it, and I thought you might enjoy it too:

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Sunday, April 18, 2004

Weekend report:

Mike left Friday afternoon for a 2-night campout with the Boy Scouts. He was quite anxious about it, as this would be the first time he had been camping without Fred (at Klondike they slept in the chalet), and they weren't even taking tents!

Annabelle's Brownie troop had a sleepover Friday nigh. She planned on staying only for the pre-sleeping part of the evening, but she took her PJs and sleeping bag just in case. Good thing, too--she wound up calling us about 9:30 to tell us not to bother coming for her until the morning. Fred and I celebrated our temporary child-free state by going out to dinner and then watching Survivor.

The next morning Annabelle's reports on the sleepover were less than positive. Apparently she was offended that they would put in yet another DVD at MIDNIGHT. Breakfast at Cinnabon's perked her up though.

That afternoon Fred left for his Individual Readiness Training. He'll be back on Tuesday and then will leave again on Wednesday for the rest of the TDS seminar.

Last night I went out to dinner with people from Fred's office. We went to Die Kartoffel (literally: The Potato) in Ladenburg, where you cook your own steak on a sizzling hot stone right there at the table. And you have to poke around under the gobs of sour cream to locate your baked potato. Mmmmm . . . heavenly!

Today has been a very low-key day. Annabelle and I picked Mike up from the Scout hut a little after noon. I was happy to hear that he wound up having a good time on the campout. He reports that they slept under the stars the first night. He made a shelter out of a poncho the second night (part of the requirements for the Wilderness Survival badge), but the wind blew it down and he wound up scrunching under a tarp with 3 of his friends.

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

OK, now, how 'bout some Luzern photos and stories?!

We left Venice for Luzern on the morning of Monday, April 5. The train from Quarto d'Altino (our Venetian suburb) to Milan was uneventful, but when we got on the second train in Milan, there was an Italian lady sitting in one of our reserved seats who refused to remove. No matter how many times I showed her our reservation ticket, she stayed put and chattered at me in a stream of Italian that sounded something like this: "Rigatoni pasta primavera American lasagna pepperoni pizza not obligatory!" I think the gist of it was, "Ha ha, you stupid Americans! I am going to psyche you out and try to make your think your reservations are worthless!!"

When I failed to learn Italian despite this sudden immersion course, I decided that I needed to call in more firepower. So I left the rest of my band of weary travelers in the 7 unoccupied seats and went in search of a conductor, hoping all the while that Ethan could be counted on to produce an especially vile diaper that they might then wave in the squatter's direction. I returned with the conductor, who was finally able to convince her to move on to greener pastures, and Ethan promptly snuggled into her recently abandoned seat and took a nap:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we were surprised upon reaching Luzern to find that the reception desk at our hotel was temporarily closed due to a funeral. We wound up loitering in their darkened foyer while we waited for a clerk to return. Once we got checked in, we set out in search of supper and found the best fondue I have ever had in my entire life. Teresa and I shared a cheese fondue, while the guys opted for the beef. Here are Fred and Frank getting fondue lessons:

Ethan was unimpressed by the wonderful restaurant and promptly went to sleep. Years from now Ethan is going to think he once had a really long dream about Europe, 'cause I promise you all that little guy did was sleep. He took naps to get ready for his naps. Here he is snoozing peacefully at the fondue restaurant:

Meanwhile, Elliott enjoyed his schnitzel and posed for this picture with his mom:

Our hotel in Luzern was our big--if unconventional--splurge. The Hotel Löwengraben was a jail up until 1998. Even now it has maintained a prison-like ambience. In fact, for extra money they will dress you in prison garb, lock you in your room (um, I mean "cell"), and feed you bread and water. While we didn't indulge in this, it did cross my mind that it might be a good source of childcare so we could go out for a kids-free meal. Maybe next time.

Here we are in our cell:

Unfortunately, the photo I took of Frank's crew in their cell blurred, but this one of just Ethan and Elliott in their prison bunks came out OK:

The strangest thing about our very unconventional hotel had to be the bathrooms. When the rooms were jail cells, the toilet and sink was simply stuck in a corner of each room. To tranform the cells into high-priced hotel rooms, it was necessary to put up room dividers to create separate bathrooms. The divider, however, didn't reach to the ceiling, so when you turned on the bathroom light in the middle of the night, it was as good as turning on the light for the whole room.

Another strange thing about the bathroom was this rather large duct that snaked up the side of the toilet, thus preventing the lid from being put all the way up. In order to use the facilities, one had to pull down one's pants, lift the lid as high as possible, and slide in from the side, thus doing an amazing, if accidental, imitation of a turtle. I am told that those who stand to pee faced challenges of their own, but I'm not qualified to speak to that.

Tuesday morning we set off by bus for the Lion Monument, after having deposited our luggage in lockers at the train station. The monument is in memory of Swiss mercenaries who were killed serving in the French revolution. According to Mark Twain, the lion is "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." I think he might have been right:

Next door to the lion is the glacier garden. It was discovered in 1872 during excavation for a wine cellar. It's rather like a moonscape in the middle of Switzerland:

If you think the potholes in your local roads are bad, get a load of this one glacial pothole. According to my brochure from the garden:

These impressive potholes were formed at the bottom of the glacier by the sheer force of the water. As is still the case in alpine glaciers today, the melt water initially flowed on the surface of the ice before seeping into the glacier through fissures. At the bottom of the glacier the water was under tremendous pressure. As the flow of water gathered speed, vortices with speeds of up to 200 km/h [that's about 120 mph] began to form. Within a few years, potholes had been eroded out of the rock. Most of the erosion was done by sand and gravel trapped in the cloudy melt-water flow.

This particular glacial pothole is the largest one in the garden and measures 9.5 meters deep, with a diameter of 8 meters:

Inside the museum at the glacier garden, there was a room dedicated to miniature dollhouse-type scenes. Most of them were traditional--wee school scenes and cunning little tea parties and such. This one was my particular favorite. I am especially fond of the duct-taped Barbie being tormented by the scary green guy (is that the Hulk?) and ET while the red Teletubby looks on in wicked anticipation.

For the rest of the afternoon, we slowly made our way through town and the driving rain to get back to the train station to catch our train home that night. It was a great trip, but it felt so good to fall into my own bed! Even the cat seemed unreasonably happy to see us.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

And here's something odd: I enjoy checking the stats on the blog periodically and seeing where some of my traffic comes from. I just noticed 3 different referrals recently from Google searches. Apparently, if you search the terms "gracked" (the sound I mentioned my cat making but why on earth would someone be trying to find that?), "Europe hedgehog sweatshirt", or "Sullivan Barracks," you get a link to my blog. I feel strangely honored.

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I have some happy news to share: I bought tickets today for Fred and me to go see that famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Das Phantom der Oper in Stuttgart on May 2d! (Yes, that's Fred's birthday, but really this is more of an early anniversary celebration, as I'm sure Fred could think of at least 10 different ways he would rather celebrate his birthday.)

I'm so excited! I just printed out copies of as much of the libretto auf Deutsch as I could find. The better to enjoy die Musik der Dunkelheit!

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

I know, I know. I still need to blog Luzern. I just had to toss this out there first though.

Fred came home from work yesterday looking uncharacteristically khaki:

This whole thing with him deploying to Iraq has been going on for so long now (since just before Halloween) that it has almost taken on a not-quite-real quality. "Going to war, dear? Well, of course you are. Now, what to do about dinner tonight . . . " But then little things happen, like the holster (!) he special-ordered arrives in the day's mail, and it all becomes shockingly real. Reality sucks.

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Sunday, April 11, 2004

Saturday morning we hopped on the train and headed for Venice. The train from Munich was pretty crowded for much of the journey. A couple hours before we arrived though, lots of people got off, and the kids and I were thrilled to nab a compartment all to ourselves. I schooled them in the fine travel-art of strewing one's belongings about to make it seem there are many more people in your compartment than there actually are. We pulled the seats out to make a nice big bed and rode the rest of the way in luxury:

While it might seem rather weak and pathetic to travel to Italy and sleep in a Holiday Inn, the Holiday Inn Express in Quarto d'Altino offered us an amazing bargain: 81 euro a night per room, including breakfast. Staying out in the suburbs also put us in the neighborhood of the cheap eats. We visited the same pizza restaurant 2 nights in a row and never came away disappointed.

We spent Sunday afternoon in Venice and had a marvelous time. We used the vaporetti (water bus) to travel around town. Although we got on our first boat heading in the wrong direction, which took us outside of the Grand Canal, we still got to our destination--St. Mark's Square--even if the ride there was not quite as scenic as we had hoped. We took another boat ride later just to view the canal.

At St. Mark's Square, we bought a bag of dried corn, which the older kids enjoyed feeding to the multitude of pigeons:

Mike even had some success in convincing one bird to visit his hand:

We opted to skip a gondola ride on this trip, as it can be rather pricey. It was still fun though to see the gondolas gliding through the canals and seeing the gondoliers trying to hustle up business:

While the vaporetti are rather dumpy and utilitarian, there are also a lot of really beautiful boats on the canals. Many of them operate as water taxis. I inquired at one that was similar to the one pictured below, and the price to take all 8 of us from the Rialto bridge back down to St. Mark's would have been 50 euro. Not a bad price if you've got 8 different wallets ponying up for the fare, but kind of steep when it's coming out of only 2 pockets. So we simply took pictures and admired them from dry land:

Elliott bought a Venetian mask as a souvenir of the city. Here he is modeling it, as Fred helps him fasten it in back:

Towards the end of the day, we took turns taking family pictures. Here we are:

And here are Teresa, Ethan, Frank, and Elliott:

Aside from riding the vaporetti, we also did an awful lot of walking. Annabelle and Ethan, however, found a way to travel in style for part of the time:

Next stop, Luzern!

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Saturday, April 10, 2004

I finally have a few quiet moments to start blogging some of the details and photos of our adventures last week. Fred's brother Frank arrived on Thursday, April 1, with his family--wife (Teresa) and kids (Elliott and Ethan). As Fred was still in Kuwait until that evening on a last-minute trip, I went up to Frankfurt on my own to pick them up at the airport. I am pleased to report that I am getting quite handy at this driving-in-Europe thing.

We were blessed with amazingly nice weather for their first day in Europe, and we decided to take advantage of it by going over to Heidelberg. So we set off on streetcar number 5R for the circle tour to Heidelberg by way of Weinheim and home again over downtown Mannheim.

We walked through the pedestrian zone in Heidelberg, and I introduced them to the pleasures of Italian ice cream, which is quite the thing here in Germany. Mike and I favor a dish called Spaghetti Eiß--vanilla ice cream pushed through a pasta press so as to resemble noodles, served with strawberry sauce (which is the spaghetti sauce) and topped with either shaved white chocolate or slivers of coconut (for the parmesan cheese). Thursday's was topped with white chocolate and was especially tasty!

After we walked the pedestrian zone, we hiked to the castle high on the hill. Even little Ethan was able to climb all 300+ steps! Before we launched upwards to the castle, the kids were excited to play on a merry-go-round that we found in the square:

As we walked back up the Hauptstrasse, Frank and Teresa posed with the kids for a family picture in Europe:

Fred arrived home Thursday night shortly after supper, and we all got packed to set off on our whirlwind journey the following morning. We arrived at Legoland by train and bus in the midmorning Friday. Walking up to the front gate from the bus stop reminded me of the scene in National Lampoon's Vacation where they arrived at Wally World only to find it closed. I had figured that the place would be a mob scene, as it had just opened for the season the day before. But it was next to empty, which was perfect.

First we headed for the big rollercoaster, and Frank and I hung out with Ethan and Annabelle while braver soles ventured forth. Here they are playing on a Lego car as we waited for the rollercoaster riders:

After that, I took the 3 older kids on the spinning ride. As you can see from my triumphant expression, that is much more my speed than a rollercoaster. The kids seemed to enjoy it too, and as there was no line, we got to ride twice in a row without having to get off:

We mosied through the miniland on our way over to the Legoland Skyway. As always, the structures that they have created out of Lego are nothing short of amazing. As much as we had enjoyed them on our first visit (on our third day in-country last August), it was even more meaningful this time, because Mike and Annabelle were able to identify so many places that they have actually visited: "Look, there's the wooden bridge in Luzern! Look, there's the bombed out church in Berlin! Look at the Amsterdam canal houses!"

Here's a shot of Teresa and Frank with their kids on the Skyway:

After lunch, Mike got to have a 45-minute private lesson at the Mindstorms pavillion. Mindstorms are a branch of the Lego product line in which you build robots and program them to complete various tasks using the computer. If the park had been busier his private lesson would have been a group class, so this worked out much better for him. He had a blast and now knows what he wants for his birthday. Here he is with one of his robotic creation:

The only downside to our day at Legoland was the SNAFU with the bus and Teresa and Ethan feeling kind of rotten by the end of the day. Our hotel, however, was truly perfect: Hotel Gasthaus zur Post in Leipheim. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and were thrilled to tumble into our comfy beds.

Next post: Venice!

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Thursday, April 08, 2004

I'm getting ready to start posting our pictures from our odyssey through Germany, northern Italy, and central Switzerland. But first I must pause to issue this public service announcement: NEVER PUNCH A REFRIGERATOR! Never. Even if you have just made a most frustrating journey to the post shoppette and managed to walk away leaving half your purchases sitting on the counter. And the shoppette is closed for the night. And the refrigerator is just sitting there, gloating over your troubles.

No, never should you punch a refrigerator (or other major appliance) because you might break your hand. Just ask Fred.

Amusingly enough, the doc over in Heidelberg who set Fred's hand today said he had never had a lieutenant colonel with this type of injury. Apparently, most of his similarly situated patients are 20. And drunk.

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Sunday, April 04, 2004

Even though I won't be typing this until I'm back home in Mannheim, I'm blogging today on a hotel notepad at the Quarto d'Altino train station (and adjusting the date and time accordingly). I've got lots of time for blogging--we've got 2 hours to kill before the next train into Venice.

Think maybe we should have checked the schedule last night when we arrived? Lovely, if late, idea but we were exhausted and assumed trains to the city would be frequent. Apparently, they are--both before 10:30 a.m. and after 1:30 p.m. Between those times, there's exactly one train--at 12:35 p.m.--and we arrived 10 minutes too late for the 10:30 train.

This, in a nutshell, exemplifies the problems with changing towns frequently while traveling. There is a fairly steep learning curve that goes with getting settled in a new place. When you don't stay put any longer than a day, you don't get to take full advantage of all that hard-earned knowledge. While we are having a wonderful time on our adventures with Frank and Teresa and their 2 boys, the whole trip has been one learning experience after another.

It started Thursday night when I took a good hard look at our train reservations and discovered that we had gotten stuck in the smoking section for our 90-minute trip the next day to Ulm, on our way to Legoland. Fred (who had just returned from 4 days in Kuwait and really needed to be packing for the trip) and I jumped in the car and took off for the train station to try and get it fixed. Turns out that with large groups, they will stick you in smoking even if you specifically request nonsmoking if the nonsmoking section is full. And they won't tell you about it.

LESSONS LEARNED: (1) Book early, especially for the week before Easter. (2) Look at your reservations earlier than 12 hours before you plan to get on the train!

Friday morning we arrived at Günzburg, the jumping off point for Legoland, right on schedule. We assumed that we would be able to stash our bags in the train station lockers. We had quite a shock when we realized that Günzburg is a tiny station with only about a half-dozen lockers, most of which were already occupied. Fortunately, there were 2 free lockers--1 big, 1 medium--that would fit our bags.

LESSONS LEARNED: (1) Never assume. As the saying goes, when you assume, you make an ass out of "u" and "me." (2) It is better to be lucky than good.

Our second shock Friday morning was discovering that while our hotel was indeed "just across the street from the Bahnhof," it was just across from the Leipheim Bahnhof, not the one in Günzburg. The hotel was lovely, and I would gladly stay there again, but it did add an extra layer of inconvenience by requiring us to add a local train (and another the next morning on our way to Italy). It would have been nice to have been aware of this before the last minute.

LESSON LEARNED: Know where your hotel it. Find it on a map.

Our next learning experience was at the end of Friday, after a fantastic yet thoroughly exhausting day at Legoland. We sat on the bench at the shuttle stop for a half hour, waiting for the 6:30 p.m. bus. Six-thirty came and went, and no bus. Finally, a man walked over from a nearby building and said, "No bus!!" He showed us on the bus schedule where the German fine-print indicated that the 6:30 shuttle operated only on certain days, one of which was NOT Friday, April 2d.

We walked back up towards Legoland, which was by then closed up tight as a drum and found a Legoland Tours employee who was on her way out to her car. She opened up the office and called a taxi for us. (She had even offered to drive us there, before she realized there were 8 of us, 12 if you count the German family of 4 that was also foiled by the stupid schedule.) I plan on commending her in my letter to Legoland in which I rip them for having the last shuttle leave exactly at the same time as the park closes. And for not having a sign more clearly indicating the schedule. Too bad I never caught her name.

LESSON LEARNED (but obviously not well or I wouldn't be sitting on this damn bench working on my sixth handwritten page): Always know when your next train or bus is leaving.

Speaking of trains, I'm now sitting on the 12:35 train to Venice--hooray! (And, we just met a fellow on the platform who knows our old backyard neighbors from our second stint in Fayetteville. Small world.)

There are other elements of getting familiar with a new place that don't necessarily spring out of error or oversight. You have to find the good (and cheap) places to eat. You need to know where you can buy noncarbonated drinking water after the regular stores close. Once you've found these things, it would be nice to get a little longer to enjoy them.

Arriving Venice, Stazione Santa Lucia, so I'm signing off for now. I'm sure we'll have plenty more learning opportunities as we journey tomorrow from Venice to Luzern and then on to Mannheim Tuesday night. Oh, joy.

POSTSCRIPT TO THIS POST: We arrived in Luzern at 4 p.m. Monday night and made the hike out to our hotel. Mike was sick and the bags were heavy, so we were relieved to finally get there. We were greeted by a sign on the door of the darkened building that said: "Due to an unexpected death, our reception desk will be closed until 6 p.m. tonight." So we wound up hiking around with our bags for an hour before finally returning to the hotel with the plan that Mike and I would sit in the doorway with the bags while the others mosied around downtown. When we got there, Mike gave the door a push, and to our great surprise, it opened! So we all sat in the darkened foyer for the next hour eating treats I bought at the newstand 3 doors down.

LESSONS LEARNED: (1) You can't prepare for everything. (2) Pack light so that you can handle your bags for longer than you think you're going to need to. (3) Europeans toss around the phrase "within 1000 meters from the Bahnhof " like it means "just across the street." It doesn't. (4) And what the heck? Push on the door. It just might open, even if it looks locked.

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