An American newbie in Europe

I feel like I’ve swallowed something huge, and it’s not just the great German food. It’s going to take me a while to digest this experience of being with the European Airstreamers. So much is happening, and I’m learning so much that I can’t fathom it all at the end of each day.

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Today was again tremendously fun. We rolled out of bed at 8:30 rather sluggishly (at least me) since we went to bed far too late last night. Armin popped by with a tray of warm rolls and excellent coffee for Eleanor, which we added to the Muesli that I was eating, and some strawberries, and some cream cheese.

After breakfast I found Armin outside preparing his quadracopter for another aerial flight over the campground. The light wasn’t ideal, but he got some video anyway and no doubt he will try again. These videos will probably make it to YouTube in a few weeks.

There was no program for the morning, which was ideal for casual conversation. The Europeans seem to enjoy taking breakfast outside, so just by walking down the row of Airstreams I was able to find several people to talk to. I dropped in on Ben and Denise, who were camping with their friend Marcus, and picked Ben’s brain about Switzerland. I left with a full page of suggestions and helpful advice, which I think will make that part of our trip very easy.

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Michael Hold dropped by for a chat, and then he grabbed my camera and got a rare shot of Eleanor and me together, which I think will become a cherished momento of this trip.

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Then we hopped in the Citroen for a quick drive over to Airstream Germany’s showroom in nearby Merenburg. It’s out on an industrial estate off the main road, really in a fairly rural location that you wouldn’t expect to find an Airstream dealer, but they have a beautiful showroom and seem to do a good business in both Airstreams and custom mobile catering trailers.

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Eleanor took to one of the custom catering Airstreams that Airstream Germany (Roka-Werk AG) makes and began explaining exactly how it worked to Pete and Tracey. I think she’d like one for Christmas, but I can’t figure out how to get it in my checked baggage allowance at Lufthansa.

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The workshop was equally impressive. I particularly liked the fact that they can lift an Airstream up in the air like a car and work on the underside. Since EU Airstreams don’t have full belly pans filled with insulation like the US ones, there’s easy access to the wires, gas plumbing, and chassis. (They aren’t cold at the floor though, because the floor itself is multi-layered with insulation.)

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We met up with our friends Koos and Stefan, from Holland, and went up to the Weilburg altenstadt (old town) to have lunch and tour the Schloss (castle). We had a remarkable private tour since nobody else was there at 3 p.m., and then got back to the encampment to find the total number of Airstreams had swelled just a little bit more. That’s when I wandered around to take these two photos of Buicks that towed in Airstreams for the event. These are posted on the blog in response to a request from a blog reader.

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At 6 p.m. the mayor of Weilburg came by to offer a little speech, but it was entirely in German, alas, so we didn’t understand it. Everything else at this event has been conducted in English, thanks to the bi-linguality of most Europeans, for which I am grateful. We are trying to use a little German here and there but we’ve been indebted to our friends who have helped out in translating things.

After the barbecue I was supposed to speak at 9 p.m., but we’re quite a bit further north than I’m used to and we are getting close to Summer Solstice. So it was far too bright for the projector to be seen. We postponed my talk until about 9:40 (and it was still light out). When I finished talking about America’s National Parks at 10:15, the sun had finally set but it was still light enough to see clearly.

I think the most invigorating aspect of the day has been all that I have learned about European camping, EU Airstreams, and the people. I feel like a newbie here. All of my preconceptions rooted in American experience are being challenged and expanded. It’s fun. They have a lot of good ideas here and I plan to bring a few back with me, along with the contact information of the new friends we have made.

It’s a bit chilly out again tonight so the hydronic heat is on, and I have to say I love it. I’d seriously consider retrofitting this to the next Airstream I’m working on, but it does require a “clean slate” of flooring and room for the radiators in order to fit. Still, it’s just wonderful: silent, even, efficient.

Well, that was all we could do for one day. We called Emma to say goodnight and now are back in our comfy Airstream looking forward to hitting the sack. Tomorrow we have a long scenic drive planned, so we’ll try to get an early start. I can only hope that tomorrow is as wonderful as today has been.

EU Airstream rally, Weilburg Germany

It’s already a great trip to Europe. We started off the day right with a breakfast of chocolate chip cookies with nuts and some more of the fresh strawberries, in our hotel room while the fresh air wafted in from the open doors on the balcony. Right there you’ve got the makings of a good day.

We walked back into the shopping district of Weilburg to get a top-up card for the cell phone, and with a little finagling and punching lots of numbers on the phone, I now have the miracle of Internet on my phone. EU9.90 bought me 500 megabytes of data, which should be more than I need for the days we are in Germany. We detoured a bit, stopping in at the Hopfbahnstrasse (train station) for a coffee for Eleanor and then returned to the hotel to pack up our gear.

The car rental people have assigned us a Citroen C3, which turns out to be a rather boxy compact car with not much of the get-up-and-go you’d want for Autobahn driving. Where we were driving the Autobahn was far from being a vast open highway where you can mash the pedal and zoom to your heart’s content. It’s a fairly crowded two or three- lane road filled with trucks and plenty of sudden traffic to cause rapid deceleration with little warning. We managed to reach 140 kph at one point but the rest of the time we were driving at typical American Interstate speeds and often far slower. This has tainted one of my long-time driving fantasies, but to be fair I never fantasized about driving the Autobahn in a Citroen.

50 miles later we were in the charming town of Weilburg. The encampment is just below the old city, which perches atop a hill surrounded by the Lahn river. At the very top is exactly what you’d expect, a castle. Down below is exactly what most people would not expect: 54 Airstreams.

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I love the odd (by American standards) collection of tow vehicles that arrived with the Airstreams today. There’s everything from a 1950s Buick to a late-model Mercedes G-wagen. Two Ford F-250s are here, which thrills some of the Europeans because they are so American and weird. My favorite is the BMW X6, which I’ve never seen before and looks drastically cool in black. Other tow vehicles include a VW Westfalia camper van, a Buick Roadmaster station wagon, various Mercedes, and many Land Rovers.

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Armin Heun, our host, handed us a chocolate and then introduced us to a new (European) Airstream model 684, which is somewhat similar to an American 23-footer but with many clever enhancements. We knew it would be different from the US models but were frankly staggered by the improvements the Brits (who build all the EU spec trailers) had worked into it.

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There are almost too many things of note to list, but among our favorite features are the hydronic heat, electric entry step, the functional kitchen counter, the foot-level blue LED lights, the great roof vent/skylights with double shades (which are also found in the Airstream Westfalias), the clear bi-fold door in the shower, and the awesome electronic control panels that run virtually every system. This trailer also comes with electric power movers to help push it around the tight European campsites, satellite TV, hidden stabilizer jacks, a parking brake … the list goes on. Some of this stuff needs to come to America.

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We spent the afternoon wandering the old town and getting lunch at a restaurant across from the castle (Schloss). Lunch turned out to be a two-hour affair but worth every minute. I usually rate cooking in terms of how well it compares to what Eleanor could have done at home, and the restaurant scored an unusual rating of “This is as good as yours!”

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Part of the cultural experience of being in a foreign country, for us, is to shop with the locals. We pointed the GPS at a local REVE (grocery story chain) and picked up a few necessities for the Airstream, plus some light food for us. After returning from this errand with plenty of breakfast food, Armin dropped by to leave a full grocery bag of breakfast foods for us. So we have at least double what we need. I may have breakfast twice tomorrow.

I got a quick tour of the Airstream systems, partly from Armin and partly from Michael Hold of Airstream Europe. These trailers have very little onboard holding tank capacity, so gray water goes into an external tank much like the “blue boys” we use in America. Fresh water comes from an external tank called an Aqua-Roll. You roll it over the fresh water spigot, fill it, and then roll it back to the Airstream. The toilet is a cassette style, so later I’ll get the experience of dealing with that, but it should be no big deal.

We also met up with Pete and Tracey Bull, UK full-timers who have organized many Airstream rallies there. Pete is the UK distributor of Airstream Life, but until today we have never met or even spoken on the phone, so it was a distinct pleasure to chat with them in our 684 for a while.

After dinner with Armin, his wife Sandra and his daughter Emma (12 years old), Michael, and a few other guests, we met up with Ben and his party, from Switzerland. Upon hearing that we intended to drive through Switzerland, Ben immediately offered to suggest routes for us. We’ll meet up tomorrow to go over the maps together. Everyone has been like that, offering help, food, and tours. (And nearly everyone speaks English excellently.)

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The agenda for this rally is typically light. Tonight’s only official activity was a huge campfire and music until 11 a.m. I have a feeling it would have gone much later if the local ordinances allowed it. Airstream Germany brought over a “bar” Airstream and offered open bar to all (courtesy of Airstream Europe). We headed back to our Airstream after 10 p.m. to call Emma and finish setting up inside, but even now at 11:30 p.m. I can hear people talking and laughing outside by the fire.

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Tomorrow looks like it will be another full day. Can’t wait.

Why Airstreaming beats air travel

I forget sometimes how nice we have it, traveling by Airstream all over North America. This week I have a trip designed to remind me, traveling to Europe by jet and staying in hotels like the 97.5% of Americans who don’t own some sort of recreational vehicle.

Eleanor and I finally got off the ground last night at 11:30 PM, launching in to the dark air above the Atlantic with a few hundred other souls in a vast Lufthansa 747, an hour late and already feeling a bit lagged by travel.

We had driven 300 miles from northern Vermont to get this direct flight to Frankfurt, and the last 50 miles were a nerve-jangling stress test of New Jersey and New York traffic. Then there was the drop-off of the car into the unfamiliar hands of a nearby hotel valet, the rattling shuttle ride to JFK, and the giant ongoing strip show orchestrated by the TSA. We had an unsatisfactory bite of airport food and then milled into a final processing line before struggling to fit our small carry-on bags aboard. So by the time we got flying we were already feeling the traditional stress of air travel. We took a picture of ourselves sitting in row 42 and hoped we’d survive until morning.

Lufthansa made sure that sleeping was difficult, with lots of announcements, dinner at midnight, and a sketchy breakfast at 4 a.m. We didn’t get much sleep, perhaps an hour total in the seven hours of flight time, but I had anticipated this and was mentally prepared for the next steps: Passport Control, Baggage Claim, Rental Car pickup, and finally navigating off the airport property and onward via the rather exciting Autobahn to nearby Mainz.

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The fun wasn’t over yet. The hotel I chose is in the downtown area. Naturally, parking was another huge challenge, involving multiple trips around the block on narrow one-way streets, reading signs in German, and finally squeezing into an underground garage. Then we hauled our bags up two flights of stairs and two blocks to the hotel, where we finally, gratefully, stopped moving for a while.

It is a testament to both Eleanor’s and my self-control that we managed all this with virtually no sleep and did not at any point lose our cool. We changed clothes, took showers, had a snack of strawberries and pastries that we had picked up along the drive from Frankfurt, and then I slept for an hour. After all this, I felt groggy but functional, and Eleanor seemed to be in her very best “duck” mode, letting all of the stresses of the previous 24 hours slide off as if they never happened. I call that success.

I find it ironic that people who do this sort of traveling routinely will claim that towing a trailer, learning to back it into a campsite, and dumping the holding tanks is somehow too much work. If my Airstream could cross the Atlantic at 600 MPH I’d never step on a jet again.

Having whined all of that, I will now say that we are already having a good time. Sleep will be nice tonight, but even without much of that we had a pleasant walk across the historic district of Mainz, past the impressive cathedrals and the Gutenburg Museum, through the shopping district, and finally to a little restaurant for dinner outside and some people-watching. And the strawberries that Eleanor picked up at a roadside farm stand were spectacular.

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I have been mildly zapped by technology issues. I bought two SIM cards for the iPhone 5, one for cheap voice calls to the USA, and the other for cheap Internet. The Internet card is defective and I can’t get a replacement quickly from the shmucks who sold it to me, so I am relying entirely on hotel wifi to post the blog and check in with the rest of the Airstream Life/R&B Events staff.

This is going to become a problem for the next three days, since we will be staying in a borrowed Airstream (hence no hotel wifi). I’m working on a solution for that, but the blog might get quiet for a day or two if I’m not successful tomorrow. But in any case I’ll write the entries and post them (backdated) when I can.

No drama

I know I keep harping on about Alumapalooza even though it is over for this year, but the event gives me a lot to think about.  Although we now run three events per year (and four are planned for 2014 so far), Alumapalooza has always been “the big one.”  I meet a lot of people there who give new perspectives on what Airstreaming is all about, and also a lot of people who say they read this blog.

This year, I was particularly thrilled to hear from a couple of people who separately told me that they went full-time in their Airstream partly as a result of inspiration from this blog, or the previous “Tour of America”.  Lots of others commented on Emma, saying that they’ve watched her grow from a little five-year-old tyke to a teenager.  These friendly folks are like an extended family to us, even though we often don’t know they’re watching until years later when we meet at an event!

I kept hearing from people that one of the best parts about Alumapalooza was that there was “no drama,” meaning that there were no internal battles, no public embarrassments, no arguments, and no politics.  Everyone just laid back and had a good time.  It might seem that this should be the norm for rallies, but too often events (not ours) have been marred in the past by such things, and a lot of people are frustrated by that.  The best rallies and events are the ones where everyone sets aside their politics and prejudices, and shares the good values that bring us together.  We work hard at making sure that happens, by thoughtful programming of the activities, and selecting the volunteer staff very carefully. So I was glad to get the feedback that we’d succeeded.

We are now in Vermont, with the Airstream parked in its usual summer resting place in the shadow of a row of cedar trees near Lake Champlain.  It won’t move again until late August or September, but despite that we have many travels ahead.  Eleanor and I are focused on getting out the door next week for a long-anticipated trip to Europe.  By Friday we expect to be attending a big (for Europe) Airstream rally in Weilburg, Germany.  This is going to be a major experience for us, since we’ve never camped in Europe and we haven’t yet had the chance to meet many of our correspondents in Europe.

Our Airstream during the rally will be a brand-new Airstream 684, which is the largest Euro-spec model available.  It is being provided courtesy of Airstream Germany.  (Because it is new and unsold, we can’t use the bathroom or the galley, so it will be sort of an “aluminum tent” for us, but that should not be a problem since the campground is in town—see upper edge of photo.)  Euro13-WeilburgCORRECTION:  It turns out this is a PR and rental trailer for Airstream Germany and we will be able to use all the facilities —bonus!

We’ll be parked in a lot with about fifty other Airstreams for three nights.  Quite a few of them will be caravanning down from the UK, as well as Belgium, The Netherlands, and other countries.

weilburgaltstadtOn Saturday night I’ll be giving a little talk at 9:00 pm, about Airstreaming in America’s National Parks.  (While researching this presentation I did a quick count and found we’ve visited over 100 of them so far, which is only about one quarter of the entire NPS system.)  Otherwise, there’s not much on the program other than a barbecue, so there should be plenty of time to explore the town of Weilburg and meet the European Airstreamers.  I expect no drama.

This weekend Eleanor and I will be busy prepping for this trip. With about 10 days to play with, we are likely to visit Switzerland and a little of northern Italy in addition to Germany.  I’m bringing only an iPad and an iPhone 5 (with a German SIM card) for technology, trying to keep it light.  Also in keeping with our usual travel style, we are going mostly reservation-free.  We don’t want the pressure of a fixed itinerary.  We’ll have a car and some maps, and see what looks interesting along the way.

The trip starts on Wednesday.  I’ll blog as much as I can.