Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Herr Brusque

He's the hotel concierge, so you would expect cheerful and helpful. He was definitely not the former and only marginally the latter.

I got more relevant information from the young man trainee at the reception desk, and with a smile.

If someone had asked me the question, I would have grabbed a map of the city, explained the directions to the landmark, and written them out for the traveller in a strange city. HB did at least pull a map (only because the one I first showed him did not cover a large enough area) and he rattled off some quick directions, easily forgettable with names in a foreign language.

The trainee explained which number metro to take to connect with another metro to get me right to my destination. He circled each connection location on the map.

HB's manner, by contrast, was I'd-rather-not-be-bothered curt.

And he didn't even know the composter machines (ticket validators) were red, not yellow as in France.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halfway Around the World in 60 Days

Flying at 37,000 feet with several hours to go before landing, there are three or four choices. My favorite is sleep. Or read. Maybe a movie (watched the classic Dr. Zhivago on the flight east). Or write. Don’t feel too tired; it’s only 9 pm by my body clock, and I’ve flipped through The Economist, so blogging is winning out over Guardians of the Galaxy (maybe later). 

This is my fourth crossing of the Atlantic in the past five weeks. (My body clock sprung a sprocket days ago.) And my sixth of seven weeks on the road. By the time we reach home in Argeles-sur-mer, D-L will have been gone a full two months exactly. 

I will have been on nine airplanes, seven trains, too many buses and trams to bother counting, the metro in Paris, several taxis, two rental cars which I drove about 1500-2000 miles, and a ferry boat. 

I will have slept in nearly 20 different beds. (Perhaps you’ve noticed the photos with the numbers on my FB posts.) One airbnb host suggested I produce a poster, which I might. 

We have attended conferences, toured museums and historic sites, eaten just about every kind of food imaginable … 

The whirlwind trip kind of grew like topsy. The first scheduled event, around which some other events revolved, was an Il Divo concert with J in Stuttgart, Germany the 2nd week in October. This created an opportunity for me to see where Donna-Lane lived the first time she was in Europe, and appreciate why she loves it on the Continent so much. 

Then I got word of my high school reunion, none of which I had previously attended before, but it established a timeframe for D-L to meet my 91-year-old mother and show her where I grew up. We also decided to route through Montreal, which gave me an opportunity to meet several of the people I work with at ICAO. Of course, since we were in the “neighborhood,” we also swung through Long Island, Cape Cod, and Boston to see some of D-L’s friends and her daughter, and she could show me where she grew up. 

We didn’t complain that it was fall tree color season, and the views for two weeks were spectacular. 

Crossing the border from Canada to the US was an adventure in itself. 

In between our New England “Nostalgia Tour,” I managed some work on J’s driveway in Geneva. 

An editor thought it was a good idea for me to attend Helitech in Amsterdam to promote a helicopter training conference I am developing for 2015, and D-L loves Amsterdam (and will eventually write Murder in Amsterdam), so that became our destination after Stuttgart, with a stopover in Cologne, just because. 

As I had not seen my daughter and grandkiddos since April, I squeezed in a trip to Dallas. And up popped a request to attend a media day in New Mexico since I was close by. 

Now it’s back to Europe, but not yet back to D-L. One more conference, this one in Berlin. 

I’ll catch up with my wife in Geneva on Thursday, inshalla, do some more work on the driveway, weather permitting, then we’ll finally head for home next Monday. 

I wouldn’t have missed the trip and especially the people we met, some old friends, some new. It was exhilarating and exhausting, logistically frenetic scheduling the BNBs and hotels, flights, taxis, getting to the ferry just in time, five different currencies, electrical adapter plugs, losing my phone, having my Swiss Army Knife confiscated by TSA because I packed it in the wrong bag, getting work done in odd moments, taking photos (including Scooby Two, who finally met his dad – blog to come) … 

Will we do such a series of back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips again? Unlikely. 

Will we sleep late for the next several days? Oh, yeah. 

The Ireland house-sit is only a month away.

D-L has several blogs about the trip: http://theexpatwriter.blogspot.ch 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The AirBNB Experience

In the past four months, we have stayed in seven places via the AirBNB online service. For those not familiar, airbnb.com is a database of private homes and apartments where you can arrange to stay as an alternative to traditional hotels. 

The most unusual place we’ve stayed is on a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam. In the evening, we wave through the window at people on the canal cruise ships as we sit in our “stateroom” (which is also our bedroom and kitchen – the whole place is about 10 feet x 12 feet, plus ensuite bathroom).  

We’ve also stayed several nights in a very modernly decorated condo in downtown Montreal – walking distance to ICAO HQ where I was attending a conference, at about half the cost of the nearby hotels; a garage apartment, painted lavender and next to a babbling brook, in a semi-rural town outside Boston; a spartan one-room flat but adjacent to the very lively Alter Markt in Cologne, Germany; another garage apartment outside Geneva, Switzerland, almost at lake’s edge – and we were their first guest! 

The most idyllic place was the converted farmhouse in a tiny village in Andorra, the independent principality high in the Pyrenees Mountains where we spent the first stage of our honeymoon (and where we plan to go back for a writing retreat next spring). Mountains, mountain springs, hiking trails, a couple of local restaurants, (even a little golf course!), and all within a short drive of the bustling central city of the small country. http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.ch/2014/07/honeymoon-sweet.html 

The one place that wasn’t entirely great, and it was my fault for not reading the description more carefully, was the loft in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Instead of having the whole carriage house to ourselves, which I thought would be the case, we ended up in a couple’s private home using their loft. Did not realize the loft had no privacy from the floor below – the staircase was an open spiral and there was no door we could close. Also, we did not realize there was Zero parking, not only on the property but anywhere nearby – ended up parking in an expensive garage that was a metro ride and a good walk away. At any rate, the host couple was very pleasant and non-intrusive. 

Not only did we save a good bit of money by staying in BNBs, we avoided the sterility of chain hotels, and met some interesting people along the way. The Andorra farmhouse is owned by a young man whose family settled the first farm in the area. The Cologne studio is looked after by a young woman from Hungary who recently went to the Kurdish area of Iraq to teach physical fitness and physiotherapy. The gentleman outside Boston has been quite involved in community theatre. 

We would encourage you to consider airbnb for your future travels … with these caveats. If you want total privacy, check the “filter” that designates “entire home/apt.” Some people rent rooms or even shared rooms in their own homes or apartments, and you could end up sharing bathroom and other facilities. We also prefer that a place have WiFi access. If you are on extended travel, look for places that have washer and dryer. When checking “Amenities,” make sure you mouse-over the header, such as “Essentials,” which sometimes provides a pop up box showing more detail. Also, pay attention to the security deposit - some hosts ask a rather steep amount, and it could tie up your credit card funds.

Connect with your future host frequently so you can get to know them, and they you, and so you are on the same page about arranging for the key etc. (We won’t mention that I got the apartment number wrong in Boston, and we walked in on a med student whose door was open: http://lovinglifeineurope.blogspot.ch/2014/09/whos-that-woman-in-our-bed.html). 

Of course, location is often the most important factor. In Boston, we wanted to be close to D-L’s daughter. In Stuttgart and Cologne, we wanted to be close to the train station. In Amsterdam, we were near both my conference site and some key museums for D-L’s writing research. 

Are you taking a chance on a bad experience? Of course. But how many bad experiences have you had at supposedly reputable hotels which are unresponsive to your frustration? And paid twice as much for your angst? 

AirBNB is something between staying with a friend and staying in a small non-chain hotel. Sometimes the hosts may even become friends. 

We did stay in one small hotel in Stuttgart. The airBNB location we would have preferred was not available those nights, and the other locations were inconvenient. So I found a family-run hotel (http://www.zur-weinsteige.de/) within a reasonable metro ride of the main train station, and the hotel was absolutely delightful.

After a month on the road, and two more weeks to go, we’re more than ready to get home to Argeles-sur-mer. 

Then we’re going to try another travel experience – housesitting and dogsitting – again, staying in the home of a stranger, also arranged through a website (trustedhousesitters.com). This one’s in Ireland, where I’ve never been before, and for the three weeks we’re there it’ll probably be more workdays than playdays. But it costs nothing for the accommodations; all we need to do is get there – so a small airfare and train fare, and we have another memorable holiday experience. And meet some new friends who we hope to stay connected with for years to come. 

D-L has posted multiple blogs about our BNB stays: