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By George, I Think She’s Got It

27 Aug

Back when I wrote this post I knew that I’d have changes made to my itinerary… I guess I just thought that something else would make them.  Like Mother Nature, Delta airlines or a winning lottery ticket.  No, I’m the one who finds reasons here and there to tinker with what looks like a well-laid plan from the outside.  And now, with only a bit of certainty, I can say that I think I’m done.  Or rather, I freaking hope that I’m bloody well done.

At this point everything fits in place like a jigsaw puzzle that someone had all too much time designing.  If everything goes as planned we’ll be able to take in a whole bunch of sights and still have a vacation.  Meaning both the Mister and I will enjoy the trip which is important because I kind of like him. 

Here are some of my lessons learned.

  • Don’t rely on your memory for train schedules. 
  • Avoid scheduling visits to places just because someone said you should or because it fits the route best. 
  • Choose your splurges wisely and where they will give you the most bang for your buck. 
  • Remember that planning is supposed to be somewhat enjoyable and stop wigging out already.
  • Ask your travel partner questions and don’t be surprised when they have opinions too.
  • Soap containers really aren’t all that different.  Stop buying them.
  • It might be good to practice leaving the house as preparation for leaving the country.
  • It’s only a trip.  🙂

 

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Me and Seat Guru, We Got a Thing Going On

15 Aug

Any good travel guide or website worth its salt will tell you to head on over to SeatGuru.com.  There you can look at seating plans for your particular flight and pick the one you want and birds will magically appear and start doing your laundry.  I never bothered with the site because when I travel for business we’re usually booking last minute and seat assignments aren’t available.  There’s no fun in logging in to see what you cannot have, right?

Wrong.  I finally rambled over to Seat Guru today because apparently I’ve reached the End of the Internet.  And guess what?  There’s a whole bunch of stuff on there that’s useful… besides seats!  Cue the singing birds, it’s time for fluff and fold!

Go buy this owl doing laundry ceramic tile on Etsy! Click the link to get it. Amazing.

Seatmap for Your Flight

Okay, so this is pretty self-explanatory.  This is what Seat Guru’s bread and butter.  Pick your airline, type in your flight number and get the insider info.  Good seat, poor seat, seat from hell; they are all artfully detailed for you.  Now when you play Choose Your Destiny, you aren’t just blindly guessing.  Maybe you’ll actually get to sit in the seat, too.  Gadzooks!

Airlines

On the left navigation bar you can pick out which airline is lucky enough to serve you in-flight peanuts.  After selecting the carrier, you’ll get loads of information.  On the left, below the airline, the different planes they fly will be displayed.  You can click on a specific plane to get a seatmap, see the amenities and learn how many first class flyers will be avoiding your eye contact as you board.

The General Information for the airline has lots of information, in general.  Check-In, Baggage, Infants, Minors and Pets are the main categories.  So you can figure out how much your carry on can way or how big it can be.  Because I know that’s as exciting for all y’all as it is for me.  Jumping up and down yet?

Comparison Charts

Towards the bottom of the left navigation bar you’ll see links to Comparison Charts.  These suckers will give you a quick glance at what the airlines are offering, in general.  You can click through to the carriers or the specific planes you’re interested in.  I mean, China Airlines gives you a personal TV, don’t you want to learn more?

Travel Tips

There is such a wealth of information under this heading that I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight, I’m that excited.  But in all seriousness, this is really good stuff.  Researched, practical and updated advice from people who honestly travel.  You could do a lot worse than to browse through here and see if anything grabs your interest.  Examples include reviews of iPhone travel apps and guides to airports.

Le One Drink Minimum

14 Aug

During our first date, I told the Mister with not a little bit of surprise “you’re actually funny”.  I realize now that this might have sounded less than complimentary but at the time I was just saying what I felt.  Many a guy had told me that he was funny or I’d been set up with guys who were supposed to be hilarious only to watch the clock through and entire date.  Here was someone who was actually funny, as in real life, on the spot, belly chuckle funny.  And, well… me being me, I thought he ought to know.

Over four and a half years later (OMG!), he’s still funny.  Actually.  It doesn’t hurt that I’m in love with the guy and get happy just seeing him, I suppose.  Still, he did stand up at one point and was approached about going pro.  He still likes to see comics, pro or otherwise, at work.  As a result I thought it would be fun to see some when we’re on our trip.

In Paris, every Friday at Le Pranzo you can attend NY Comedy Nights.  You must make a reservation for the chucklefest but it’s free if you buy one drink.  And it’s in English so I won’t be like a dog waiting for the words I know.  “Ah, he said ‘fromage’.  I know that one!”  Free stand up in the City of Lights.  C’est magnifique!

Anything You Can Do… I Can Also Do

22 Jul

When I tell people that I have a theater major they are not all that shocked… or impressed.  It’s because almost everyone has some experience with acting, no matter how limited.  And some people also believe that they could do it if they weren’t busy doing whatever it is that they do.  It’s not like they are saying that I have a degree in karaoke or handclapping.  I just get the feeling that even after four years of study they aren’t sure that their monologue from the Goonies wouldn’t be better than mine.  (Oh, it so totally would!)

"Anyone know where there's good WiFi around here?"

Writing a travel blog is really similar.  Everyone has their own bank of knowledge on travel.  So even though I devote far too much time to reading about this topic others still have every right to think my take is wrong.  And why shouldn’t they?  If there is one thing that I’ve learned for sure while doing all this research is that being right is usually only temporary.  Or case-specific.  Or totally about your own personal preferences.  Or your destination.  Or your budget… or so many darn things that I could list here.

I can tell you that it’s best not to assume anything.  Airlines don’t have to pay for your hotel stay if your flight is cancelled or your bag if it’s lost.  In fact, it’s only recently that they’ve had to refund your checked bag fee let alone pay for the contents.  You also can’t count on saving money on package deals or by taking a train in Europe.  And just because the luggage is called carry on or some label says “TSA approved”, that’s not necessarily so.

What to do?  Take everything with a grain of salt and do some leg work.  Or at the very least, travel with someone who has.  I’ve traveled with next to no information and had a great time.  I’ve relied on others for the planning and been really pleased.  I’ve also gone on trips where I ended up spending twice the money for half the trip just because my travel partners couldn’t plan their way out of a 3-1-1 bag. 

There are guidebooks and websites for every kind of travel, I guarantee you.  You are also surrounded by experts.  Or at least people who think they are… including one theater major.

But for the Grace of Rick Steves

19 Jul

i·tin·er·ar·y: A detailed plan for a journey.

When building an itinerary for your trip you must keep in mind the definition of the word “itinerary” includes the word “plan”. There’s two popular sayings that come to mind when I think of “plan”. The first is that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I’m probably far more guilty of over-planning at this point so let’s skip on to the next saying. This one is from John Lennon or at least that’s what my brain tells me. Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. Go ahead and plan, kids. Just expect that it’s going to get changed, messed up, twisted and completely disregarded.

Perhaps just a tad more planning next time, cherie?

I personally like to know all my options and then just play the cards as they lie. At least if I choose to skip a certain museum I won’t kick myself for missing something because I never knew it was there. Each opportunity has a cost, I think. If you decide to forgo the fancy restaurant you’ll miss the exquisite creme brûlée but perhaps you’ll get to watch someone eat fire while you eat cheese. Who is to say what is better? Well, you are. That’s why trip planning can be both a thrill ride and a giant dose of blargh.

I’m on my fourth draft of our schedule and I’m sure it won’t be our last. Every inclusion means something’s else goes kiddywampus or falls off the truck altogether. That’s the beauty of it, I guess. That’s also why people hire travel agents (they still do, right?)

All I know is that I have my little system and it’s always worked for me. If you want to borrow it that’d be fine. Heck, if you just want to read about it that would be fab, too.

First, make a list of everywhere that you’d like to go. We are talking as if money, time and modern travel options are not at question here. Then figure out how many days you have and start cutting. Rearrange. Cut again. Then get out a map, some websites and a jolly attitude and try to make the logistics work. Forgot that that castle is only open on weekends? Start over. Forgot to budget in time for being lazy? Snake eyes. Keep rolling the dice and keep plugging away. The more time you have to bungle this the better your luck may be.

At the end of the day you can say “screw it” and spend the whole trip in your hotel eating strawberries but at least you’ll know some of what you are missing. There is something to be said for a happy dose of diving in and having a first aid kit. Have fun out there.

Weather with You

17 Jul

Oh, man.  I love Neil Finn.  When all my friends were frying their bangs and listening to New Kids on the Block, I was listening to Crowded House.  Of course, my sister is to thank for this because had she not been listening to them herself I’d probably have gone into the dark abyss of liking Nelson.  So I just involuntarily shuddered, who wants to know?

I found this picture online with the caption "Neil Finn - backup singer to the world's girlfriends". Obviously this person didn't know that in the US most ladies haven't succumb to his charms yet and are singing with Bon Jovi instead.

Anyway, Neil wrote a song called “Weather with You” with his brother Tim.  It’s on an album called Woodface which you should run out and buy right now.  I mean that, by the way.  Anyway, this song in particular has a couple of meanings in regards to today’s post.  The first is that during the family trip to Europe I had Woodface with me and I listened to it constantly, as one did with really good albums back in the day.  I let my Sony Walkman loop it and even now I know what song comes next.  This song in particular reminds me of being in Amsterdam on a boat with a giant Van Gogh sunflower on the roof.  And “Four Seasons in One Day” reminds me of North Dakota.  ‘Nuf said!

The other thing that this song reminds me of is the weather.  Wherever you go, there you are and there will always be weather.  Medieval travelers would go out in any kind of weather because that’s how they lived.  They had no idea if waiting would bring on more of the same or worse, so why wait?  Many a Britisher will tell you that there is no bad weather only bad clothing.

With that in mind, you may want help in picking out your clothing for whatever trip you might be taking.  No matter where you are headed I vote for layers.  It’s easier to remove a layer here and there then pack a collection of tops that will keep you – ahem – covered.  Having a selection of layers also gives you a few more options when deciding what to wear. 

Below I’ve listed weather sites that either I’ve used or I’ve found while doing my daily browsing of travel sites.  Everyone has their favorite but it’s good to use caution.  A weather man from a local TV station once told the Mister that any forecast is only dependably accurate about 3 days out, the rest is a very educated guess.  That being said, I’d highly suggest leaning on the historical averages, even if global warming likes to laugh at us when we expect any kind of predictability.  I don’t mind being laughed at, after all, I had flat bangs in the ’90s.

  • WorldClimate.com – This site is recommended by Rick Steve’s.  It’s pretty bare bones but if you type in the destination it will give you the data.  Remember that when you enter a foreign city you’ll need to use the local name.  Such as Roma for Rome.
  • Trip Planner: Weather Underground – This site is a favorite of the guys at 1 Bag, 1 World which is a complete treasure trove of information for the light packer.
  • MyForecast.com – Has good information but is a little less user-friendly than the two listed above.  The info is there and if you like digging there is plenty to find.
  • Weather Channel – When all else fails, the people at the weather channel still specialize in weather… especially if it’s gnarly and possibly life-threatening. 
  • Travel Planner – World Weather – This link actually brings you to a site to buy a book that I know some travel guides still depend on.  It gives you a bunch of information in one place.  If you like to have reference guides then this might be great for you.  Though I’m thinking that if you’re reading a blog you might have what it takes to get the info the cheap and easy way, like I do… asking the Mister.

Better Safe Than Really Bummed Out

12 Jul

If only it was this easy to indentify bad guys. *Sigh*

Today I’m hoping to offer a kind of public service to any potential travelers.  You see I read an awful lot of blogs, forums and websites dedicated to travel.  Perhaps I do this so that you won’t have to!  Or maybe this is just me rationalizing my reading habits.  Take it how you will.

I’ve also done many a lengthy business trip and have traveled thousand of miles as a roller derby announcer (don’t ask).  I’ve been over seas once and to Mexico and Canada multiple times.  By offering up my credentials I’m saying “trust me, I might possibly have some clue here”.  If not, stay tuned.  I promise to write about ponies tomorrow.

General Thoughts

Leaving electronics plugged in when you’re not around is a huge temptation for thiefs.  If someone does enter your room the first places they will look will be your bedside table and the outlets.  I’m a big fan of hiding things in the bathroom since very little of value is typically stored here.

Bad guys like dumb people.  Dumb people like being cell phone zombies.  Dumb people like having belongings but not keeping track of them.  Put the phone away unless you are calling for help because it’s a distraction.  Before getting down to other business make sure your things aren’t laughably unsecure.  Ladies can wrap their arm or leg through a purse strap.  Gentlemen can put a camera bag or laptop bag between their feet.  Anything that helps you avoid a big travel sad face, my friends.

Make some noise.  Bring an emergency whistle, have an app on your cell phone or learn how to yodel.  This will come in handy should you want to dissuade any troublemakers.  Of course, it’s easier to avoid trouble if you’re actively looking for it.

Never count money in public.  Never.  Go to a bathroom and have some quality time alone with it.  Do your best not to look like you have extra money.  Leave your nice watch and jewelry at home.  There are a lot of desperate people in the world these days. 

For the Ladies

When checking in to a hotel make sure that they don’t announce your room number in case any skeevy sorts are eavesdropping.  If they say it then just ask nicely for a different room.  One clerk gave me the same room but made sure to say “I’m sorry, here’s a new room” and then wrote down the same number on a new slip.

If you order breakfast and have to leave a slip by your door only use your first initial.  I do this with my luggage, too.  Better they don’t know I’m a lady.

When leaving the hotel room leave on the radio or TV.  I hate using this one because I feel like I’m a environment villain.  Then I think of how much more energy would be used to ship home my corpse and well… yeah.

If you’re out walking by yourself check reflections in windows just to make sure you don’t have any unwelcome admirers.  Someone there?  Cross the street and then look them in the eye.  This lets them know you see them and you’re not above letting them know it.  Don’t worry about being rude here.  Failing in the etiquette department isn’t your biggest concern and I’m sure that your non-buddy won’t worry about his manners when he’s mugging you.

For the Studs

If you are carrying a wallet (with all your really important stuff in a money belt, natch) keep it secure.  Try pants with deep pockets, zippered pockets or button closures.  Chains look too heavy to me but there are other ways to keep your wallet attached.  Many companies make wallets that loop around your belt, hook onto your belt loop or hang the darn thing inside your pants.  Add duct tape to the sides to make it stick in your pocket.  Buy one with material that is grippy and makes sliding it out tougher.

Empty your wallet.  Though it may be filled with receipts for Quizno’s and phone numbers you don’t call the potential new bad guy in your life doesn’t know that.  For them big wallet equals big money.  Keep just the basics here.

If you’re hanging in a really tough part of the world, I’m talking developing countries or south Bismarck here, take an extra precaution.  Think about getting a wallet that hugs your calf so if you are asked to drop your pants (yes, really) it will be covered.

Take a fake.  This primarily works in developing countries.  Put a few cards that look like credit cards and some bogus money in a real wallet.  This way if someone wants you to hand it over, you can.  Shopping club cards, old hotel key cards and the like will do the trick for the credit cards (ask a female friend if you’re out).  For the money I’ve heard of people using very low value real currency for the fake cash.  Others have used very good phoney money with the wrong picture on one side.

Body by Italy

25 Jun

Get on that traghetto and engage that core!

Italy is a beautiful country. There are so many amazing historical sights and natural wonders. It would be a shame to miss something. So I’m keeping Italy in mind when I head off to the gym. It’s a far better way to stay motivated than by just telling myself I need to spend time on an elliptical. Here’s what I’m training for:

FLORENCE
Some say that the Renaissance was born in Florence and that one of the main catalysts is its cathedral. Santa Maria del Fiore was such a unique feat of architecture for the time and its beauty continues to inspire visitors hundreds of years after its completion. This was also a special place for Mom. She loved visiting the Duomo (“cathedral” in Italian). So you add her enthusiasm and the fact that I loved Ross King’s book about the Duomo and this became a necessary stop.

Activity: Climbing the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore
The dome was constructed with an inner and outer shell. When climbing, the visitor is able to see some of the perspectives the original masons would have seen. You are also rewarded with an amazing view of Florence from the cupola. Not to be missed.

Workout potential: climb 463 steps, equivalent to over 46 flights on the Stairmaster but with better views and better artwork

PISA
Though Pisa is home to the Field of Miracles (Piazza dei Miracoli), the star of the show is the bell tower or as we know it, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As I mentioned before, this was closed during our visit in ’92. It is now stable and safe to climb. You can also reward yourself with a picnic in the Field of Miracles afterwards on the prettiest lawn in Italy.

Activity: Climbing the Leaning Tower and Walking to the Piazza dei Miracoli
You are only allowed 30 minutes to walk up the stairs, see the view from the top and then climb back down and retrieve your belongings from the lockers reserved for this purpose.

Workout potential: climb 294 steps, equivalent to over 29 flights on the Stairmaster. Walk 20-30 minutes from Pisa Centrale train station to the Piazza dei Miracoli while stopping for picnic ingredients on the way.

CINQUE TERRE
These five separate towns are perched on the edge of mountains. Each has its own character, dialect, traditions and hiking trails. There are ocean views, olive trees and white wine along the way.  We can’t wait to relax here and enjoy the local cuisine.

Activity: Hiking in the Cinque Terre
There are paths of differing difficulties available. All five towns are connected by hiking trails and train. Boats also make connections though they are dependent on sea conditions. One of the hikes is called Via dell’Amore or Walk of Love. It’s the quickest, averaging 30 minutes, and the shortest, only half a mile. It also has the ugliest cement walkways but they make for easy trekking.

Workout potential: 9.5 miles of hiking trails available, some with climbs, taking as long as five hours to complete

VENICE
The whole city is an island so you can walk without fear of getting lost because, hey!, you’re still on an island. You can dance at St Mark’s Square and you can climb the stairs at the Doge’s Palace. I’ve picked a much easier workout for us at the end of our Italian adventure.

Activity: Riding a traghetto across the Grand Canal
A traghetto (pronounced “trah-jet-toe”) is a gondola powered by a gondolier. The difference is that these gondola are available at key points along the Grand Canal so that commuters can cross easily. The rides are cheap and last only a few minutes.

Workout potential: Standing up on a traghetto as the locals do and engaging abdominal muscles throughout, then heading off to find some pasta to exercise your… flavor muscles

Enough is Enough

6 Jun

The same day we visit the champagne caves in Reims (rhymes with France), we will also be visiting what the French call Musée de la Reddition.  That roughly translates into the Museum of Surrender and that’s roughly what the building is.  For only €1.52 you can see the very room where World War II ended.  History on a dime, my friends.

It’s May 7th, 1945 and there are 13 chairs in which the British, French, American, Soviet and German heads of state sit.  They are in a former school room that has served as General Eisenhower’s headquarters since February of that year.  They have come to agree upon the terms of surrender.  General Alfred Jodl, German Chief-of-Staff, would sign the official documentation at 2:41 in the morning and end the war.

Today you can visit Reims and see the room as exactly as it was left that morning.  The maps are still on the wall where they were used for following troop movements.  The chairs are still there in the same places that they were in that day.  The flags, the ashtrays, all there to share this moment in history.

As I study up on European history I keep feeling that much of what I learn about Germany and Germans is negative.  This is because so much of what I’m reading is about the world wars and the Nazis.  I’m glad that the Allies won the war, I’m appalled by what was carried out by Hitler and his henchman but I still feel that painting the Germans with this one color – hate – is wrong.  It’s as wrong as many of the generalized negative impressions that are held about Americans.  For example, we’re all fat, ignorant and loud.  Okay, well… I’m loud, so that’s accurate but maybe you’re not.  Whatever happened or is happening in Germany doesn’t automatically explain Germans.

So when we visit Reims I will pause to appreciate the surrender.  I will celebrate the Allied victory and then I’ll also think about how horrible war is.  Because it’s a lesson that warrants revisiting.

Banking for First Graders

30 May

I’ve never been good with money. I’m not sure what the root cause of it is but I sure can tell you the results. Saving for trips in the past has either seen me emptying out my 401K (don’t ever do that!) or borrowing from friends (even worse!).

This time around I’m lucky enough to have some money that Mom left me. I’m using as little of that as possible but that means saving up… for a year. Yeesh. Long term saving is something I’m less than skilled at. Let’s just say that I’m not looking forward to retirement as much as praying I die in my sleep with all my bills paid.

About four years ago I set up an internet savings account with ING Direct. I make weekly contributions to it and throw a bit more at it when I get ahead. Apparently I’m not often ahead because I had less in there than I had hoped. Granted I had bought a car and… you know, shoes.

It’s time to step it up, party people. I’ve started socking money away like they did in the gold old days, with paper mâché and a chemistry beaker. You see one year I dressed as a mad scientist for Halloween. When shopping at the beloved Axman’s Surplus in St Paul, I found a giant beaker. When its use as a prop had come and gone the Mister wanted to recycle it. But I said I needed it. I knew it would come in handy, eventually. So after using its well-honed skills of dust gathering I turned it into a piggy bank. Now I throw all my change in it and I can measure how many mLs I have saved.

Then comes the paper mâché. In elementary school we made things out of paper mâché. Everyone else turned their newspaper and paste creations into animals and spaceships. I was more creative. I made a football. Years later I started making just the egg shape without the brown crepe paper. I cut a whole in the top and voila! Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I had a piggy bank.

This technology still comes in handy today now that I no longer wear braces. I’ve been trying to use cash more lately so that I can save all the $1s for the trip. This is a new-ish habit but so far, so good. Maybe I’ll be able to cover one hotel while we are there. Or at least cover my chocolate expenditures. Crossing my fingers now, friends!