Escape from New York

The aftermath of a great trip is sometimes hard.  “Back to the real world,” people say, and for sure there’s been some of that. But overall, coming back to our summer camp in Vermont has been pretty easy. The memories of recent travel definitely soften what could have been a harsh transition.

Not that everything went smoothly.  Our arrival was certainly more complicated than expected.  We had booked a hotel near JFK Airport so we could spend one night recovering from time zone adjustment before driving 300 miles back to base.  The hotel shuttle was slow to respond and left us standing at the airport for nearly an hour in 91 degree heat, and then when we got to the hotel they told us nobody could check in because “the system is down.”  A growing group of tired travelers were collapsing all over the lobby, which (for some reason) had no air conditioning, so it quickly became a refugee camp with bodies sleeping in chairs, on the floor, sweating in the heat, and one woman coughing ominously.

We waited about 40 minutes to allow the hotel staff to straighten out their situation, and they made multiple promises to me that “soon” they would start checking people in manually.  But I discovered they were telling everyone who came in the door that “You’ll be the first person we check in as soon as the system comes back up,” and they really had no idea what to do in this situation (their mini version of a post-computer apocalypse).  They couldn’t figure out how to check in the guests, they couldn’t cancel reservations, and they seemed content to just wait a few hours for some higher power to restore the system, with a lobby full of disgruntled people.  It amazed me that they didn’t have a backup procedure for something as simple and predictable as a reservation system failure. After an hour I called the hotel chain’s national reservation number and after four tries to get through, I cancelled the booking.

Now our job was to attempt to flee New York at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, while being thoroughly exhausted (we had gotten up at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Time).  Rush hour traffic had begun already.  After two hours of battling heavy traffic we managed to travel just 30 miles.  After three hours we had gone only 60 miles, but things were getting better.  We finally escaped the traffic and spent the night at a hotel off I-87, getting to bed after 22 hours of rental car, airplane, shuttle, dysfunctional hotel, and NY traffic.

(We’ll never again drive to JFK for a flight.  It’s not worth it.  The tolls, traffic, parking, and hotels are all outrageous, easily wiping out any savings on airfare we might have achieved, without even getting into the hassle factor. Next time we’ll choose a more accessible airport.)

And after all this we still thought we had a Great Trip, so you know that the travel endorphins were pretty enduring.

Back at the office, I discovered that my health care provider had relocated the office of my primary care physician 15 minutes further from my house (“to serve you better”), and coincidentally my health care premiums are going up 25% starting July 1.  That took a bit of a shine off the day, but still I could have come home to worse news. All other things in our world seem to have hung together.


Rain is the theme for Vermont this week, so any thought of motorcycle trips has been quashed, as well as boating, fishing, or anything else recreational.  In the sunny gaps I’ve taken walks down the country lane just to get some exercise; otherwise it’s desk time.  The R&B Events team has been hard at work during my absence, and my major task this week has been to rejoin the crew and help summarize what we know so that we can finalize plans for all the upcoming events.

The frequent rains have given me a chance to check the Airstream’s waterproofness. So far I haven’t found any hints of leaks.  The poor trailer is covered in the usual Vermont-summer mess of decaying flowers, tree branches, spider webs, and pollen, which I hate to see, but otherwise seems OK.  Anything that can rust is busy rusting, so I can tell when I get it back to Arizona I’ll be doing some more scraping and painting. I think our Airstream ages a full year for every three months it spends here.  Fortunately, it hardly ages at all when it is parked under cover in Arizona, so perhaps it averages out.

Can you keep a secret?  I’ve got four days before I fly back to Tucson to assume my secret identity as Temporary Bachelor Man.  That’s just four days to get all fatherly-and husbandly duties in place as best I can before leaving my family for seven or eight weeks.  After that, you may not recognize me.

Technology for Europe

In the last blog I promised to give a few tech tips for those travelers in Europe. This is all circa June 2013, and with the fast pace of technology I can’t guarantee that any of this will be useful in six months.

During the 12 day trip I had to stay in daily contact with my co-workers while visiting three countries. Since I’m already regularly a “virtual worker”, I’ve already got all of the collaborative online tools that I need in place (shared calendars, documents, Dropbox, etc), so I’m not going to talk about those specifically.

Because we were going to be moving almost every day, and luggage would often be stored in a rental car, I didn’t want to risk my expensive laptop, so I brought an iPad with a Logitech keyboard. Not only is the iPad much cheaper to replace, it’s less fragile, smaller to pack and much lighter, and can be quickly recharged in the hotel room or car. The keyboard nests with it to create an aluminum shell, too, so I could just toss it in my luggage and not worry about breaking the screen. The iPad solution turned out to be a great move, so I recommend it to anyone who can do without their laptop for a while.

Before the trip I used the iPad on shorter domestic trips a few times to verify that it had all the apps I needed. For insurance, I installed a copy of LogMeIn and left my laptop on & connected to the Internet at home so I could access the laptop in an emergency.

I also brought two iPhones. The iPhone 5 model A-1429 from Verizon comes unlocked, works on CDMA and GSM networks, and can accept a European SIM card to give me an in-country phone number and avoid extravagant roaming charges. It’s a “world phone,” and I highly recommend it. I bought a German pre-paid SIM from Lebara because it offered ridiculously cheap calls to the USA at $0.01 per minute (plus $0.15 per call). With this we were able to make calls back home for as long as we wanted.

One day at the rally, I had an hour-long call with Brett about business stuff, and paced around the rally field while I was talking. I didn’t realize people were watching, but later some folks came up to Eleanor and asked if we had an emergency, since it had to be serious business for me to pay for an international call that long! In reality, that call cost me 75 cents. If you are paying $1-2 per minute to call home from major European countries, you’re getting ripped off.

The Lebara SIM can be bought in “dm” stores (which are sort of like a CVS) along with a ‘top-up’ card for extra airtime. I bought €20 and used €9.90 of the credit to activate a 500mb data plan on the prepaid SIM card. The remainder lasted me for the entire trip with plenty to spare.

Note the most European SIM cards will come with a PIN code that has to be entered to “unlock” the SIM each time the phone is switched on, so don’t throw away the card that comes with the SIM! The PIN # is printed on it. Be sure to bring along a paper clip so you can remove the tray to swap SIMs.

The iPhone 4 I brought was deactivated and can’t work on European GSM networks anyway, so it was only along as a backup to use when we had wifi, and as a GPS. (A deactivated iPhone is basically an iPod.) I pre-loaded it with a GPS app and local maps for Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. This would have been great but I picked the wrong GPS app (Skobbler) and it was abominable. My advice: just get the GPS from the rental car agency.

The iPhone 5, being the only device that could get online via cellular, was the “hotspot” for the other two devices as needed.

The iPad and iPhones were all loaded with:
— copies of all the electronic documents we had received (airline, trip insurance, hotel confirmations) and a few other things like our US Passports and local subway maps. Sensitive information was stored in an encrypted file using mSecure app.
— Genius Scan: I used this to ‘scan’ all the receipts so I could chuck them daily instead of accumulating paper. This amounted to over 40 receipts by the end of the trip.
— WordPress app: I wrote the blog from the iPad but occasionally made quick edits from the iPhone.
— Skype app: This is a great app but we had no luck using it when we needed it. In Italy the calls were very poor quality due to the hotel’s WiFi, and in Switzerland the hotel blocked Skype so the calls wouldn’t go through at all. When we got skunked we fell back on email and AOL Instant Messenger.
— all the booked hotels and flight information on a shared calendar so that all three devices would be synchronized whenever we got to a hotel and updated our itinerary. Since we were researching and booking hotels as we went, this was very useful later when we said “Now, where are we going today?” and needed to look up the hotel info. One day we forgot to update the calendar with the hotel’s address and couldn’t find the hotel for half an hour.
— various other useful apps: Dropbox, Pages, Numbers,, my bank’s app, Google Translate, Facebook, Twitter, and Weather Channel. Not so useful: Yelp. There just weren’t enough reviews in the local areas for it to be helpful and we found the database to be riddled with errors in Italy.

Part of my goal was to have the absolute minimum number of cords to untangle at the end of the day, so everything charged off the same USB cord with various adapters to connect to iPad, iPhone 4 & 5, Logitech keyboard, European plugs, and car 12-volt outlet. Only the Nikon and Eleanor’s camera required separate cords or chargers.

I also brought specialized connectors, including Apple’s 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter for the iPhone 5, a 30-pin-to-HDMI adapter so I could give a presentation from the iPad, and a micro-USB adapter so that the Logitech keyboard could be recharged. By the way, you can transfer photos from your iPhone to your iPad using the proper connectors and a USB cable.

Traveling to different countries in a short time span presented a particular problem. The Lebara SIM would allow roaming in Switzerland and Italy, but not data. Data was really what I needed most. Also, the cost of calls to the USA soared from a penny a minute to as much as EU1.49 per minute (about $2), so effectively my German SIM became useless once we crossed the border. I could have bought Swiss and Italian SIMs but in those countries I still couldn’t find a good deal on calls to the USA and it just wasn’t worth it to get new SIMs for only a day or two of use, so I fell back on hotel wifi instead.

If you do plan to buy SIMs in various countries, research them before you leave home but buy them when you arrive. You can buy them in advance from various companies at massively inflated prices, but there’s no reason to do that. You can easily pick them up at the cellular network’s own outlets (which are located in virtually every city and large town), as well as grocery stores, pharmacies, and tobacco stands just about anywhere.

Each country has several competing networks so it takes a bit of research to find the ones that offer the deal you need. You’re looking for a prepaid or “rechargeable” plan. Data and voice are often sold separately, and the tariffs can be confusing. Some countries require registration with a passport when you buy the SIM, but that’s no big deal as long as a local address isn’t required. A requirement for a local credit card can sometimes be bypassed simply by purchasing the SIMs with cash in a local store. Read the fine print when doing your research. Google Translate is a big help here.

If you have an iPhone 5 you’ve got a special challenge. This phone requires a ‘nano SIM’ which is smaller than what are typically offered. The easiest thing to do is buy a SIM cutter than will chop a standard micro-SIM down to nano size (if you do it correctly the SIM will still work), and bring the cutter with you to trim the SIMs you buy.

Hotel wifi is unpredictable. As I’ve noted, sometimes certain services will be blocked. Don’t count on Skype or any streaming service such as Netflix or Facetime. Some connections are tediously slow. More annoyingly, many hotels charge a daily (or even hourly) fee to use their Internet connection and this can really add up, often €9-20 per day. We looked for hotels with free wifi, free breakfast, and free parking since these three items will typically add €50-60 per day to the bill, but we usually only got two out of three. This information is usually listed in the details provided by major online booking services, and it’s worth checking the reviews by prior hotel guests to see if they thought the Internet service was usable.

Even “free” public wifi (such as at a coffee shop or in a city center) often requires you to register and receive a text message (SMS) on your phone with a passcode. All three places outside Germany where I found “free public wifi” required me to have an in-country phone number, which I couldn’t supply, so I couldn’t use the wifi.

The iPhones provided us with two pocket cameras but we most often used dedicated cameras, one Canon digicam and my Nikon D90. I brought three lenses for the Nikon but only used two of them: the utility Nikkor 18-200 zoom with a polarizer, and the Tamron 10-24mm ultra-wide for interior shots. The cameras both had 16gb memory cards so we would have huge photo storage capacity (over 2,000 JPG high-quality photos) and so wouldn’t have to worry about downloading the pictures and clearing the card during the trip. If I were going to be out longer I’d probably look into either a way to backup the card via Dropbox or I’d copy the photos to the iPad just in case the camera was lost.

Before going you may want to check with your bank to see if they offer a replacement VISA/Mastercard with a European SIM embedded in it. Supposedly some European establishments now have card machines that require this SIM, so I had one of my cards upgraded, but in practice we never found any store that required it. Everyone took American Express except those restaurants that only accepted cash.

Beware of machines that claim to accept credit cards, like automated train or bus ticket machines, parking garages, toll booths, etc. We found that many of them would refuse our cards (even the one with the SIM in it) without explanation.

Personally, I’d just be sure to have two working ATM cards so you can get local currency easily without exchange fees. By picking up cash only as we needed it, we ended the trip with about 3.80 in Swiss francs and ten Euros, so we lost very little to exchange fees when we turned in the cash at the airport on our last day.

Got questions or more info? Go ahead and put them in the comments. Hope this helps.

Eating around the blue laws

Being the last day of our trip, we had nothing on the agenda except to cover 250 miles or so back from St Gallen CH to Frankfurt DE. This is pretty easy because almost the entire route is A-road (the equivalent of an Interstate in the US) and so travel is quick along smooth and mostly straight pavement.

The trick was to somehow work our way around the blue laws that prohibit employment on Sunday in Switzerland (with a few exceptions), so we could buy some food for breakfast and lunch. Looking up the generalities of the law we discovered that train stations and other tourist areas are exempted, so after checking out of the hotel we drove to the hauptbahnhof (central train station) and found an open convenience store where we could get a few pastries and some yogurt.

We still had plenty of other small food items in our backpack to augment this, plus the last helpings of Dr Oetker. Breakfast was very glamorous; we tailgated in the parking garage. That’s the second parking garage meal and the fourth or fifth in the car. Can you tell we aren’t “glampers”?

From there it was an uneventful ride through Switzerland and back up to Frankfurt, partly following the route we came down earlier. Since it was uninteresting I can break away from the travel saga to comment on bathrooms.

In Europe, you often are expected to pay for the public bathrooms. This is well worth it because in exchange for half a Euro or Swiss franc you get a facility that is actually clean and stocked with supplies. Today we were out of francs and didn’t want to get more at an ATM because we were leaving the country, so we stopped at a highway rest area with free bathrooms and the difference was … enlightening.

We got to the Frankfurt area around 5:00 pm and didn’t want to go directly to the boring airport hotel, so we called Eleanor’s brother who lived in Weisbaden for several years, and he suggested we go back to Mainz to see a few things we didn’t catch the first time. We took this advice and found a huge Sunday crafts market going on by the river. Parking was a challenge (as it always seems to be in every European city, so nothing new there) and once we got settled we found the crowd at the market to be overwhelming, so we moved on.

We ran into a guy from Florida who was visiting his old friends in Mainz. Like a lot of Americans in this town, he used to be in the military at the nearby American military base. Apparently when we stopped to take pictures of a fragment of the old Berlin Wall (on display here and in many other places), we brought it to his attention. He’d driven past this spot for five years and never noticed it.

He introduced us to his local friend and we got directed to one of the very few restaurants open for dinner in Mainz on a Sunday night. You get a choice on Sunday nights: Greek, Mexican, pizza, or whatever the hotel restaurant serves. We chose Greek.

The last day of a good trip is hard to face. We didn’t want to let the trip go quite yet, so after dinner we wandered through Mainz again and found yet another beautiful church (St. Peter Mainz), the Natural History Museum with its giant hourglass, and some floral parks.


At this point Eleanor started talking about how we should have booked just two more days, and I felt the same way but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It’s the same reason we set out to travel full-time in our Airstream for six months and ended up traveling for three years. We could travel forever and I think we’d still want just a little more.

Today we fly back, and the next things will start to happen. It’s really not the end of anything, just another step along the long road.

I want to thank those of you who have written in during this trip to say that you enjoyed reading about it. I do occasionally get those notes but in the past ten days I’ve gotten more than usual. I’d probably write the blog even if only one person read it, but it’s nice to know so many people are interested and find the story entertaining.

In tomorrow’s blog I’ll write about the technology that I used to help smooth the trip and keep in contact with work as we traveled. Geeks will like it; others may wish to check in a few days from now!

Tunnels, bells, and cascades in Switzerland

After our late wake-up in Milan, we didn’t have much time to meander around. (Those black-out drapes in the hotel room really work too well!) Since the hotel was in an area with no local restaurants and few shops, we just took off in the car hoping to spot a grocery store before we got on the Autostrada.

As luck would have it, we were making an unscheduled detour from our route and that brought us to a panetteria. We were getting hungry and I was busy doing the usual Milan traffic thing, which means driving like I’m in a video game, when Eleanor shouted “PANETTERIA!” To raise this to a miracle required the availability of an open parking space nearby, and so we felt doubly blessed when we scored that too. To be accurate, it was on the sidewalk, but that’s where they park here.

When in Europe I tend to go for muesli and yogurt for breakfast, although I am easily tempted by a good pastry. I’ve been carrying around a half-empty box of Dr Oetker’s “Vitalis” FrüchtMüsli since we left Germany, and whenever I can get yogurt I mix the two together. So we came out of the panetteria with pineapple yogurt, two small pastries filled with nutella (for later), and an apricot tart, and made a quick breakfast while parked on the sidewalk.

Yogurt note: The best yogurt I’ve found in Europe is in Germany. I wish I could take a few dozen containers home on the airplane.

Traffic note: Driving in Milan is only slightly crazy, far better than Rome. The abolition of 2-stroke motors means that the urban streets are now breathable, too. Anyone who has lived in the Boston area can easily handle Milan.

From there it was straight to the Autostrada and rather quickly to the Swiss border. The border dips south there, so from Milan to the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland is not far at all. The route passes through the stunningly beautiful Lakes region of Italy, up past Lugano, and then into the Alps—almost every inch of which is scenic. We only wished there were more frequent pull-outs for the many places we wanted to stop and take pictures.

Right after the border on the Swiss side there’s this unusual piece of architecture. It’s a shopping mall. We tried to stop and take a look inside, but couldn’t find the entrance to the parking lot! This was a solid 20 minute detour, during which we found a sign telling us where to enter. Following the directions, we found only an exit.

Our route this time would take us over the San Bernadino Pass, toward Chur. The tunnels begin on the Italian side, and get longer as you head north. I didn’t keep track of the number of tunnels we passed through, but three or four of them were longer than 1 km, and the longest was 6.6 km. After that one, I noticed that the exit ramp signs had changed from ‘USCITA” to “AUSFAHRT”, indicating that we had passed from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland to the German-speaking part. The tunnels are the only times the road is not scenic. In a way they are a break from the almost overwhelming vistas, allowing time to digest what you’ve seen.

We saw a castle ruin high atop a hillside and stopped off to explore it. The ruin is unmarked from the road and there is no signage indicating its presence, but the narrow dirt road leading to it is easy to find. A short walk up the hill revealed an old and still active church, then the ruins, and then a surprise: the area of the ruins has been nicely refurbished with walking paths, modern bathrooms, and open grass for gatherings.

We had walked right into someone’s private gathering, perhaps a family reunion. They had elaborate tents set up with food and even a dance floor. Nobody seemed to mind our presence, so we wandered around for a few minutes and took some pictures.

I have been meaning to note the sounds of this country that we’ve enjoyed all week. Our favorite sound is the cow bells in Switzerland. Once in a while we’ll go past a field with cows or goats and hear the clanging of their bells, which sounds like an orchestra of bells tuning up for a performance. It’s a little like the sound of bells that you sometimes hear atop sailboat masts in the harbor.

The other sound that I love to hear is the church bells. They are different in every town. The first time I heard them on this trip was on Sunday in Weilburg (Germany) at the Airstream gathering, and they were fantastic. I’m pretty sure we could hear more than one church at a time, ringing those huge bells for all they were worth. It’s an old-fashioned sound that you rarely hear in the US anymore. They ring on Sundays but also in some towns they ring out significant hours, so you can be pleasantly surprised by a bell at unexpected times.

Along this route we also saw a lot more of the snowmelt cascades that I mentioned in an earlier post. It always seemed that they were located where we couldn’t exit the highway, so we have few pictures of them. We finally got a good opportunity to photograph this one. Multiply this by about 50 and you’ll have an idea of the scenery along the Furkapass.


Today the goal was St Gallen, Switzerland. We had no preconceptions or guide book references to steer us here—it just looked interesting and was along our route back. It turned out to be an excellent “find”, not touristy but filled with interesting things: great architecture, a huge pedestrian area in the downtown, students doing some sort of rituals (which involved singing and towing a little wagon filled with alcohol, often wearing costumes), and (my favorite) the Mühlweggbahn.

The Mühlweggbahn is just a little funicular that goes to the upper part of town, but it had a couple of the hallmarks of being worthy of exploration: (1) the rail car disappears into a tunnel; (2) we had no idea where it went and there was little explanatory signage. So we bought a pair of tickets from the machine and rode it up the tunnel. At the top we found ourselves in a quiet residential part of town with, yes, more gorgeous views and beautiful buildings. It’s a lovely place, Switzerland.


Today is our last drive, back to Frankfurt. The weather has turned gray and much cooler so we are finally getting a chance to wear the long sleeves we packed. The church bells have been ringing this morning, reminding me that it’s Sunday. In Switzerland that’s a bit of a problem because of very limiting Blue Laws in this country—we are going to have to be clever in order to find breakfast—but we have read up on the exemptions to the law and have a few ideas where we can get something to eat as we depart St Gallen. In any case, in a few hours we will be back in Germany and wrapping up our trip.

A day in Milan

Even though it put us out of our way a little, I think we made the right choice to come down to Milan. The drive was only 90 minutes from Verbania (on Lake Maggiore), across the lake on the same ferry we took the day before, through some pleasant countryside and down the Autostrada. The day started off cooler and quite a bit less humid than we’ve had lately, so the breeze on the ferry was the type that makes you just want to spread your arms and grab as much of it as you can.


In the photo above you can see our technique for self-portraits. I hold the iPhone with one hand, and Eleanor taps the ‘shutter’ button. This results in the classic iPhone self-portrait with arms extended as if we are about to grab and hug you. We haven’t done a lot of these, but we do a few as insurance because I’ve noticed when you give your camera to a stranger to take a picture of you, the result is often awful. We have photos from many beautiful places showing us as tiny dots or dark blobs in the foreground.

The Italian Autostradas used to have a fearsome reputation but I have always found them to be very convenient, despite the tolls. We emptied my pockets of Euro coins but soon were landed in Milan, so it seemed a fair trade.

It would be impossible to attempt to absorb in a single day even 10% of what Milan has to offer. This is a city of great art, culture, architecture, and design. Our goal was only to walk some of the city’s center and find a great plate of risotto. This turned out to be harder than we expected. While walking is easy, the restaurants of the center are mostly pizzerias. Risotto takes time and effort to make, so places that specialize in feeding tourists or providing quick food won’t bother with it.

We started at Milan’s “Duomo” station on the Metropolitan (subway). This is a tourist mecca, and there was a line to go inside the Duomo complete with inspectors. Since it was once again hot, and the line was long in the sun, we opted to keep walking.

You really can’t go here without walking through “the world’s oldest shopping mall” Galleria Vittoria Emanuele, right next door. It’s all high end brands in here, and Eleanor joked about doing some shopping but we kept on going. (At least, I think she was joking.)

We walked for miles, literally. I can’t begin to describe our route, since it was convoluted, but we pretty much checked out every street in a half-mile radius. The Castle of Milan was a highlight, where some Italian artist (musician?) was doing a dance routine for what will probably be a music video later.

Energy flagging … water supplies running low … no risotto in sight. What to do? Eleanor supplied the solution: a massive cone of gelato in two flavors, coffee and cinnamon. It’s amazing what gelato can do to revive the spirits. Refreshed, we continued our quest for risotto.

We finally found what we were seeking at a well-hidden restaurant down a narrow side street. You can’t rely on Yelp for restaurant recommendations here (there are few reviews to rely on). We found it the old-fashioned way, by poking our heads in every corner until we found a menu that worked. This was the Calafuria Unione, on Via Dell’Unione, 8, and it had a very nice risotto con funghi (Porchini mushrooms) for Eleanor, and a risotto osso bucco (saffron rice with a very tender veal shank) for me.

It’s even more satisfying to find a good meal when you’ve been on the quest for several hours. I had gone through a water bottle or two from my backpack on this long and hot walk, and killed a half-liter of sparkling mineral water at dinner too. Dinner was around 9 p.m., which has been typical for us this entire trip.

It was a good day in Milan, and a full one. We walked roughly 4-5 miles over a period of six hours, shot dozens of photos, saw many beautiful things, and ended up with a great meal. The train had us back to the hotel in 20 minutes. Everything was wonderful … except that we remembered we hadn’t bought anything for breakfast.

So we kept walking past the hotel to a grocery store that a certain online service told us was four blocks away. It wasn’t. It didn’t exist. Should have asked the hotel concierge instead. All we found were a lot of quiet dark streets and two hookers. (One of them gave us a distinct “hmph!” and turned away as we passed by—not sure what we did to offend her.)

Ah well, you can’t let a little thing like no breakfast or an irritated prostitute ruin your day. It’s the next morning now. We slept till 10 a.m. and will have to check out in a couple of hours. We’ll pick up breakfast along the road, as we head north now, back to Switzerland.