Day 18: Wine Country

And not that chintzy California wine country, either. Italian wine country, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Or something.

The drive was uneventful. In the morning Dad and I got up early (parking got expensive at 9, so we left at 8:15) to fetch the van and drive it to the street in front of the flat so it would be easier to load the bags. Navigating the narrow streets was, as before, difficult but not technically impossible. It just required lots of skill on Dad’s part, I just sat there for the ride.

He’s doing pretty well, surprisingly – he’s driving an unfamiliar car, the first manual he’s driven in many years, in unfamiliar terrain with unfamiliar (and in Italy non-existent) road markings, while being exhausted from several weeks of travel. And he hasn’t slipped once yet.

It’s like when you see tired Yoda in the original trilogy, and he moves slowly and tiredly, and then in the prequel trilogy you see him jumping around. Dad’s still jumping around, we’ll wear him down yet.

Once we got everything loaded up and got out of the city, the drive was nice. It was surprisingly long, for a drive in Europe, coming in at about 6 hours. We stopped for breakfast at a stop along the road and bought assorted types of pringles to keep us fed.

Along the way we saw a traffic jam that was so bad, people had gotten out of their cars to chat. This went on for kilometers, fortunately (for us) on the other side of the road.

We stopped for lunch in a small town just South of Verona, Mantua. Judging from the massive wall and high number of ancient buildings, Mantua seems to have quite a history behind it. We ran across the Rotunda di San Lorenzo, which according to Wikipedia was built in the 1000s, probably on the site of an older Roman temple to Venus.

The place we were staying was out in the boonies, 20 minutes from downtown. As a result, it was beautiful. We were nestled in between some hills with some terraced vineyards going up them. Down the street a bell tower was visible, which rang the time every hour. It was quiet. There was no construction. No traffic noise. No pedestrians going to and fro. Just us, eating good steak, looking at stars, and explaining special relativity.

We were all pretty tired when we rolled in around 3 or so, so we just lounged around while Dad went out to get some steak and cooked it on the electric stove. We ate it in the back yard as the sun threw brilliant colors over the hills around us. We decided on a plan for the next day, which would be our first full day in a city since Montreux, four days ago. A long and tiring four days, not just any four days. The plan for the next day was to sleep in, and go to Venice around 2 or 3, and sample as many gelato shops as we could, and then come back and wander around Verona if we still felt up to it.

A good plan, discussed over good steak and Leonardo DaVinci’s brand of potato chips (he also made baked potato chips, apparently), in a beautiful countryside lawn. It turns out that you can, in fact, grill steak on an electric stove. After eating, the sun had set so we stargazed for a while, despite the strong light pollution from Verona.


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Day 17: My Own Room

Today was supposed to be a full day in Florence, but that was scrapped because we didn’t make it to Florence, only as far Pisa. Today we finished the journey and settle with an afternoon in Florence.

We started off the day with Ellen and Dad going to get the replacement car. It wasn’t really a replacement car so much as a replacement van. It seated nine, in a three-by-three configuration, and was outfitted like a professional van (as opposed to our previous luxury car).

Being a van, it was big. At least we had plenty of room – all of our bags fit in the cargo space, and Ryan got an entire bench seat to himself.

It was also a manual, so Dad had to remember how to drive a manual. He has yet to stall it (as of writing, several days later), so maybe driving a manual is like riding a bike. You never forget.

And yes, this car is so big that three can sit in the front row.

The morning started with continental breakfast, then getting into the van for the hour-long trip to Florence. The trip was uneventful, driving through beautiful countryside, until we got to Florence.

Italian roads are, like French roads, smaller than the nice American roads we’re used to. Our new replacement car is bigger. It didn’t fit in any parking spots we saw near our apartment, not that we saw many, and once we found a parking garage we scraped the top of the van against the height limit bar.

Not a problem, except that the parking garage was behind an open-air market that had been setup in the piazza. Backing out meant backing up a long ramp through several sharp corners that we had barely been able to navigate going forward. I jumped out and tried in vain to direct the van backwards, but we couldn’t even navigate the first corner. Eventually someone came up behind us and convinced Dad that just because the van hit the height bar didn’t mean it wouldn’t fit in the garage. So Dad inched the van to a spot while I walked around it making sure it didn’t rub anything. (I also climbed on top to remove the antenna)

The van fit, if only barely.

We didn’t want to drag all of our bags the kilometer to the flat, at least not yet, so we walked there without bags. We checked in, got settled, and eventually went out to meet a friend of Kayla’s for lunch. She gave us some tips on places to walk by on our whirlwind survey tour of Florence.

Florence was, long ago, the center of art in the Western world. This may have changed, or may still be true, but I think they’re definitely the center of clever street sign vandalism. All over we saw clever modifications to street signs, here’s a sampling.

There were quite a few of these around town.

There were a couple of these as well, but not as many.

On some of them, it was hard to tell which parts had been added by the vandal.

Another thing we saw throughout the city were leather shops branded with famous people of sculptures, such as this David Leather Factory.

Or this DaVinci Leather Factory

Anyway, after a late lunch we started the run through the city with some gelato, because you can’t go wrong with that, especially on a hot day. Looking at a map, we decided to walk to the Ponte Vecchio first, by walking down to the river and then walking up the river.

The way the streets are built, narrow with tall apartments on either side, it’s easy to walk around a corner straight into a giant domed cathedral without any warning that it’s coming.

Along the way we walked into a procession of people dressed in Renaissance-style clothing, playing various drums and instruments. We ran into the procession in front of a church with a statue of Dante, and out of curiosity followed them to the Piazza Uffizi, where we found the award ceremony for a field archery competition. The square was filled to the edges with groups of people waving their flags and sporting their country’s shirts.

Apparently somebody was worried that their Mom was doting on them.

We pushed our way into the throng of people in the square so we could look at the statues surrounding the square, including a copy of David.

As well as Medusa’s last moments:

We ducked into the clocktower on one side of the square to see what was inside, before heading toward the Ponte Vecchio.

The Ponte Vecchio (Ponte being Italian for bridge, maybe?) was apparently where they used to slaughter animals. One of the Medicis had a palace on one side of the bridge, so she walked along it often. She wasn’t a fan of the animal slaughtering, so she made them stop – now it’s a bunch of shops.

Yes, that is a picture of a bridge.

The shops are mostly classy jewelery and fashion shops, as seems typical for touristy areas (you can tell which restaurants are frequented by tourists because they put ice in the soda. If you order a coke and don’t get ice, you know it’s the real deal).

It’s been interesting to see which places give ice by default and which don’t. In France, many places gave ice, to the point that I was surprised when we stopped getting it in Switzerland and Italy.

Regardless, the shops still retain a medieval feel, with heavy wood doors closed by unusual contraptions.

We crossed over the Ponte Vecchio to walk to the Piazza Michelangelo, which was supposed to be elevated and so have a beautiful view of sunset over the city. It also had the other copy of David, in bronze.

We stopped in a bar along the way to order water. We had left all of our things in the car, including my shoulder bag, which had my waterbottle. So I didn’t have to carry my water bottle, but I didn’t get water either.

The practice of bottled water here seems strange to me. I suppose it makes sense in a region where leaded pipes were quite common, but with Europe being so liberal I would’ve expected bottled water to be outlawed, especially in the thin plastic bottles. Even in Texas, restaurants are required to give you water for free if you ask, and Texas is infamous for our libertarian views.

Anyway, after we drank some water and with sunset fast approaching, we left for the Piazza and I ran up the several hundred steps. Jason got tired halfway through, so he stopped. I got tired too, but kept going.

It may look like a normal street, but that’s actually about thirty degrees uphill. Look at the rock wall on the left.

The view was worth it, but it was also worth it for thousands of other people who got here before us, so it was a little tricky to elbow our way to the railing. Once we got there the view was better.

We watched the sun set behind the mountains. We marveled at the skyline of Florence, which was a flat field of 5 story buildings as far as the eye could see (up to where mountains jutted up through the buildings), with a handful of churches and clocktowers jutting up through the buildings. Vastly different from the American or British (or even Paris, but closer to Paris) skylines, where there are clusters of supertall skyscrapers.

After the sun set, and we had looked at the night skyline for a while, we all posed by the bronze David and started wandering back to our car. As before, it seemed that around every corner was some building or statue of note – you’d be walking between apartment buildings and turn a corner and bam, there’s a statue of Dante.

It being night, it was hard to take pictures of many of the things we saw on the way back. But we did get to see the Piazza Uffizi, where the field archery celebration was,  when it was devoid of people.

After walking through the streets using my trusty tourist map, we made it to the car and grabbed our bags. The walk back to the flat was several blocks, so carrying our bags over the cobblestone roads and sidewalks got a little tiring. We did eventually make it, though, and divied up rooms, showered, and went to sleep.

This is the first time I’ve slept in a room alone since I left the US. After the traveling of the past few days, it was nice to have a little space for a few hours before we left the next morning for Verona.


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Day 16: Our Lot

I am, over and over, glad that we as a family can keep a cool head in the most stressful of situations. We don’t complain, we don’t whine, we just keep a level head and find the best possible path forward. Getting delayed in Frankfurt would have been terrible with small (or easily bored) children.

That said, if I could go back in time one day, I would tell past self to jump out of the car and shout “that’s the wrong hose!”

Let me start from the beginning. We’re driving across Italy. Yesterday we started in Montreux and got to Turin (after taking a wrong turn). This morning we started in Turin and drove toward Genua, Pisa, and finally to Florance.

In the morning, we stopped in a cute pastry shop down the road. This was fun because the shopkeeper put up with our mangling of Italian pronounciation, and even helped us out a bit.

The road to Genua was uneventful – we slowly left the alps into the foothills into the coast up to the mediterrenean, and drove down the coast to Genova. (Genova is generally translated as Genua – it’s very confusing). We managed to get through the 2 hour drive without even stopping.

Genua (Genova in Italian – it’s interesting to see how different our English spelling of their cities is from their cities, for example Florence/Firenze) is a major shipping port for the Mediterranean. It’s where a lot of cruise ships set out, as well as at least one sailing ship.

Arriving at Genua we stopped for lunch, as it was around 1:00. Genua is, for some reason, built in layers, in a somewhat Bladerunner-esque way. Entire roads and building exist underneath distinct roads and buildings built over them.

We stopped for pizza, of course. Dad and Kayla were disappointed because there were no pesto donuts (or whatever, I’m not really a pesto person). I was fine with my spicy salami pizza (actually, half the pizza had been smooshed into a ball of mush, but other than that it was okay).

We walked down to the bridge and took the elevator to the upper layer to retrieve our car. Fortunately we hadn’t been ticketed, even though we were almost 30 minutes late.

The ride to Pisa was uneventful, if beautiful. We were driving down the coast where the Appenine mountains hit the Mediterranean. Here the Appenines folded into alternating mountains and valleys, with tunnels through the mountains and a different town in each valley.

The plan had been to stop in Pisa and spend and hour or so looking at the tower, but our delay in Genova meant we only had time for a few pictures. I had expected Pisa to be a large city, but it was not at all. It seemed almost like a shanty town built up around the tower. That, and there were street peddlers peddling various “real goods,” like “authentic” purses and Ray-Bans.

I’m sure they authentically said “Ray-Ban” on them, other than that I don’t know. But with some brands, the only important thing is the name on them, so maybe that’s okay (speaking as a pilot, some sunglasses are definitely better than others, but I’m not sure that’s true of purses).

The scene was oddly racially divided. Every shopkeeper, wait staff, tour guide, door holder, concierge, was white (or, non-black-skinned: I’m terrible at determining race). On the other hand, every street vendor was black. Not even in Austin (one of the worst in the U.S., I’m told) do we have this kind of racial disparity.

I’m assuming it’s because all the migrants from North Africa come to Italy.

Either way, we waded through the sunglass salesmen to the leaning tower. It was oddly unimpressive. I had expected it to be tall, standing above the terrain and buildings around it. Perhaps postcard pictures are just cleverly framed to give that impression.

Instead, it was hidden behind a much more impressive cathederal-dome-like building.

Ten points if you can spot the leaning tower.

The cathederal and the tower are from, like, a thousand years ago, and they’re impeccably preserved. Even the lawn is an impeccable green, better than most putting greens I would suspect.

We got the canonical tourist photo, of course. It’s interesting to see how some people are taking pictures of themselves pushing it over and some are getting pictures of themselves holding it up.

After the tower, we all piled back into the car to head out of town. We stopped for gas, the first time I’ve gotten gas in another country (or, been in a car that stopped for gas in another country).

So, a big milestone. Saw the leaning tower of Pisa, put gasoline in a car. We should make patches.

The very astute may remember that in Europe, diesel engines are very common. Our rental car had one, for example.

Wait. Or did we put diesel in the gas tank?

If you guessed green was diesel, that would be the American in you. We guessed green as well. From the fact that I’ve spent several sentences and a picture on the topic of getting gas in Europe, you can guess what happened.

A station attendant ran up to us as we finished filling the tank, asking why did we just put benzene (gasoline) in a diesel tank?

The flurry of activity started. Avis needed to be called, a tow truck acquired and a new rental obtained. The car had to be pushed out from the pump to a parking spot, since cars were starting to line up behind us into traffic on the street. Could we siphon out the gasoline, and replace it with diesel? No, the attendants either didn’t have a hose or didn’t want to help us. They motioned for us to clear the pump.

Dad flipped through the rental paperwork for Avis’ number, and called them. Kayla, the kids, and I flipped through the manual, trying to figure out how to shift into neutral and disengage the parking brake without turning the engine on.

You see, the car was a newfangled push-button start, with an electronic shifter (and automatic transmission, also). Pushing the parking brake button didn’t disengage the brake. Even worse, the manual was in French. We couldn’t read it (middle school French apparently doesn’t cut it).

Dad called me over, he was having trouble telling the Avis rep our address. I called out the street name phonetically, which is perhaps the only time knowing the phonetic alphabet by heart has come in handy outside of aviation. He gave us an ETA of one hour for the tow truck.

Meanwhile, someone who spoke both French and English was able to partially translate the manual. Enough to tell us how to turn on the car without starting the engine (turns out, you push the start button without pushing the brake. This should have been more obvious. Then you wait a minute. Then you press the brake, and shift to neutral. If you drive a Renault Espace automatic, take note).

I jumped in the driver seat and everyone pushed the car over to the corner of the lot. Now it was time to wait for the tow truck, and for information on our replacement car.

And wait we did.

We stood around the car, laughing at our luck and watching the cars come and go. Thirty minutes passed.

We called the host of our next AirBnB. We were going to be late – if the tow truck came in 45 minutes, and then the rental car took another hour or so, we’d be there by 8:30 to 9:00 in the evening.

The tow truck was almost here, so we cleared the car and packed our bags to make moving into the new car quicker.

The sun started to hang lower in the sky.

Ryan got hungry, and had a granola bar. I thought of all the times I was hungry this trip and didn’t eat a granola bar – this is when that paid off.

Ellen sat in the front seat, and played hangman with Dad and Kayla. Jason and I sat on the back of car, counting cars passing us. I counted 138. It was hard, I almost fell asleep.The tow truck still wasn’t here. Dad called them, and got put on hold. With no place to charge our phones, battery life was becoming a concern.

There was a McDonalds visible just across the highway. Jason and I went to scout it out. The gas station was surrounded by high grass, which we did not want to walk through, but if we walked back along the street we might be able to make it. We came back and gathered the gang, I grabbed my shoulder bag and 70 euros cash, and set out.

We didn’t go more than a few hundred feet, down a fence and back, before the highway was blocked by high weeds up to the street. A girl behind the station wearing fishnets looked at us confused as we passed by her again.

The sun was setting. Once it set, the cars would no longer be able to see us along the street, and going to McDonalds would be impossible. Dad and I ran across to the roundabout to try to scout a path under the highway. A different girl, leaning on the roundabout’s guardrail, watched us from across the roundabout while she slowly slipped something off.

No path to the McDonalds. No tow truck. No new rental car. Sunset in an empty gas station parking lot. A third girl had appeared at the far end of the lot, and changed into something a little less comfortable (I assume if it were comfortable, she would’ve been wearing it already).

We got a call from Avis. There was another car available! It was at the airport, about a kilometer from where we were. All we had to do was get to it. We called the taxi company.

No response. We called again. And again.

They answered, we ordered a taxi.

None came. We were hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. Counting the cars had gotten boring, playing cards on a suitcase became difficult once the hordes of mosquitoes found us, and watching people trying to figure out the self-service gas pump while the hookers checked them out lost its luster.

Boredom began to set in. It was almost 9:00, we told our AirBnB host we wouldn’t make it tonight and we made a reservation at the local Hotel Gallelei.

The rental car place with our replacement car closed at 10. We couldn’t find a taxi, it closed without us. We called Avis again, asking about the tow truck, and they said it was on the way. We weren’t hopeful.

But at 11, it did come. We jumped with glee, and the bustle started again. Unloading the bags from the car, checking all the seat pockets, making sure it was ready for the tow truck operator to take the car.

He loaded it up and had Dad fill out some paperwork. Then he asked if we had a taxi, we said we were trying to call one. He asked where we were headed, we said the Hotel Gallelei. He said okay, just jump in the car and I’ll drive you there.

We paused in tired disbelief. Which car?

The one on the tow truck.

The operator got out and lowered the car bed. We loaded our bags into the back, which is tricky when the car is at an angle relative to the ground. Then Kayla, Jason, Ellen, and I got into the car and he raised the bed.

Driving on the back of a tow truck is every kind of strange. Every bump is amplified, every turn feels like you’re going to roll over. But we lived.

Finally, at around 1 in the morning, after 17 hours awake with 5 hours in a parking lot, we went to sleep in Pisa.


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Day 15: Up

Our last day in Montreux, the start of our time in Italy. The start this morning was somewhat lazier than others – we loaded the car and left for a bakery down the road, where I got a chocolate crossoint and a chocolate smiley face popsicle for the road. We sat outside the patisserie, admiring the swiss army knives in the shop next door.

After we ate, we stopped admiring them and each bought one. We mostly bought the off-brand knives, as the real ones were quite expensive.

Then it was pile in the car and drive to the Château de Chillon on our way out of town. The Château de Chillon was one of only a handful of places that the kids singled out before the trip as wanting to go to, and the only one that multiple recommended before the trip. So we had to go.

The castle was… Oddly laid out. It was built on an island, in the sense that the island was about 10 meters from the edge of the lake (the moat had a family of geese, complete with four goslings). According to Wikipedia, the castle has somewhat unknown recorded history, but was a Roman outpost before it became a medieval castle before 1005. By the 1200s it was owned by the Savoy family, who controlled the lake and several strategically important roads through the alps.

Ellen, Jason, and I split from the other three (as is typical) and started our tour in the wine cellar, and shortly thereafter the dungeon, as they were adjoining. Despite being a large (and dark) cavern made entirely of rock, the dungeon was anechoic – if you talked or clapped your hands, you would hear a deafening silence in return. All you hear is the lapping of waves on the shore.

Quite romantic, really. Most romantic of all the prisons I’ve been in.

The prison room didn’t lead anywhere, unsurprisingly, so we headed upstairs. The castle was built somewhat haphazardly, so the layout is complicated and hard to understand. In general terms, there were three main courtyards, and then walls surrounding those, with the walls containing rooms. The dungeon and wine cellar were built into the basement of the castle.

For some reason, all of the doors were only around 5’8″ tall. It could have something to do with the fact that it seems like the doorways were built as an afterthought after they built rooms.

Wandering through one of the walls, we saw a loot room full of chests (and also some different gear for the horses of the time), we saw the master bedroom, and we several ceremonial rooms of various sorts. The master bedroom had a very well-done hand-drawn map of the region, from the late 1200s. It mostly looked the same, but without urban centers. Also it was drawn upside-down: South was drawn as up (so Montreux was on the left of the lake, amd Geneva on the right). There was no compass rose, so we were debating whether or not they even had a notion of which way was North. We figured they did, since in a later room we saw that they had compasses.

While they did have compasses, the magnetic North pole has moved substantially far since the 1200s. Now it’s in the Arctic Circle, in Northern Canada, but back then it was roughly halfway between Iceland and England.

Imagine if North in England meant “toward Ireland.”

We eventually met up with Dad and Ryan (We often get separated from Kayla in museums – she falls behind us fast movers and then can be pretty reliably found in the gift shop for some reason). Once with the other two we explored the printing press, the latrines (the original ones, not the new one near the entrance), and the chapel.

The chapel was striking, because the clean lines stood out from the design of most of the other rooms in the castle.

After the castle, we all loaded up in the car for the drive through the Alps and into Turin. Did we mention it was beautiful in Montreux?

There was a cold water fountain on the way out of the castle, which we splashed on our faces to protect us from the heat.

As before, Ryan was packed in the back amid a pile of luggage.

The road into the Alps started out decently flat, but then slowly got steeper and steeper. They use a lot more tunnels here in Europe than in America. Someone suggested it might be a cultural memory from wartime – bridges are easier to shoot at than tunnels.

Regardless, the road into the alps dodged into and out of tunnels. Mountains grew around us, and we weaved through the valleys below, through many an assorted mountain village. For lunch we stopped in Martigny, a small town just before the St. Bernard pass.

The same St. Bernard as the dog breed. There were several statues of such dogs, with the cask of rum around their neck.

We ended up in what was ostensibly a sleepier part of town. The only pizzeria for some ways fortunately let us eat, even though they were about to close, it being almost 2:00. I’ve noticed, here in Europe, many restaurants close in the middle of the afternoon. In America a good number are open 24/7, or continuously from breakfast to midnight, or some combination. However, here they have stricter labor laws, which apparently mean that wait staff have to be paid actual wages (correspondingly, tipping is not expected). So, it costs a lot more for the restaurant to be open when there are no customers.

Thus, restaurants close when it isn’t mealtime. I like this, because then the wait staff gets treated fairly, but when you’re traveling it can be hard to plan your stops.

Anyway, at the restaurant I had my first marinara pizza of the trip, and Jason had the first of his life. He seemed to like it quite a bit (in fact, writing this four days later, he has ordered it every time we’ve gotten pizza).

After lunch we went to grab packaged ice cream from the co-op (the local grocery store chain, roughly equivalent to a H-E-B if you’re from Texas). The first one we stumbled into was actually a combination hardware store and pet supply store (so apparently they’re also equivalent to Petsmart and Lowe’s).

We did eventually find the store and get our ice cream, and then got back on the road after admiring the beautiful valley the town lived in.

According to Wikipedia, “Great St. Bernard Pass is the third highest road pass in Switzerland. It connects Martigny in the canton of Valais in Switzerland with Aosta in the region Aosta Valley in Italy.” (at 8,100 feet)

When they say it’s 8,100 feet, they forgot to mention that that’s 8,100 feet above the bottom of the valley right next to your car, not 8,100 feet above sea level.

It’d be a lot more comforting if they had a guardrail, also.

To be fair, we lived, if only because the weather was nice. While Dad white-knuckled it on the wheel, the rest of us got alternating views of beautiful mountains and the insides of tunnels.

In this area a lot of the roundabouts have a statue in the middle. One could make a tour of just seeing the different statues (the Sphinx one is actually from as we were entering Turin).

The Grand St. Bernard tunnel is so big, that we crossed into Italy while inside the tunnel.

After the tunnel, we stopped for a bit to stretch our legs.

In Italy, we got to see the Aosta valley twice, because we turned on the wrong highway, and because of the way the roads are setup we had to drive 45 minutes to the nearest offramp, turn around, and then drive 45 minutes back to the right road.

Along the way we saw a number of castles, though, so it was okay in the end.

Eventually, we did make it out of the mountains and into the foothills to Turin. I had pictured Turin as a sleepy country town with a church with a shroud, but it turned out to be quite a bustling city.

A recurring theme on this blog is Italian elevators. Did you know Italy has (or had, until very recently) more installed elevators than even the U.S., and is surpassed only by Spain? I’ve done a few projects based around this somewhat surprising fact.

As it turns out, many Italian apartment buildings (or, at least, the one we were in) have elevators. And they have more apartment buildings than the U.S. Not only do they have elevators, but apparently in some cases they’re a luxury that the apartment charges extra for, like car parking in the U.S. – you can lease an apartment with elevator, or without.

So that’s where all the extra elevators come from.

In this image you see the courtyard of our apartment, the elevators are the glass tubes on the far side (and the right side of the image).

The other thing different about Italy, from the other countries we’ve been in, is the driving. One assumes that the whole Italians-are-bad-drivers is a racist stereotype. It may be, but it’s also true (or, at least, they’re crazy drivers). Where in Switzerland cars have to stop for pedestrians waiting at a crosswalk (by law), in Italy pedestrians aren’t even safe on the sidewalk. Lane markings are apparently optional, and parking is sometimes on the sidewalk and sometimes double-parking, enclosing nearby cars.

Fortunately, despite our enormous car (bigger than a Fiat, anyway), we managed to find an actual parking spot just down the road from our flat.

Throughout the trip so far, for the AirBnBs we’ve stayed at, the host’s English has gotten progressively worse but the flat has gotten progressively better (no offense to any of our AirBnB hosts – you were all amazing, and stop apologizing for your English because your English is way, way better than my Italian/French/German/British English).

Regardless, this flat was very hip. There were slogans on the walls, a view over a park across the street, and a stack of Cosmopolitans and Golf Digests on the end tables.

It was very out of place.

For dinner, we ran into our AirBnB host at a creperie downstairs, and he guided Dad and Kayla through the menu there. I took the other three to a crowded pizza restaurant just down the road.

The pizza was good, so were the crepes, I’m told.

After food we stopped for gelato, which is always a good way to end the day.


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Day 14: European Council for Nuclear Research

Have I mentioned yet how beautiful Montreux is?

Anyway, today we went down to Meyrin (a small town outside Geneva) to see the nuclear laboratory there. We’re nerds, we can’t pass up an opportunity to visit our Mecca.

That’s Jason and I next to a portion of a particle accelerator tube.

A lot of nerds across the world apparently wanted to visit, as well, so we had to reserve tickets 15 days in advance and show up on time, at 11 in the morning. Geneva is, because of traffic, about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Montreux. We had enough time to pick up croissants. I had one with chocolate. Croissant and chocolate never really mix, in my mind, but they’re good individually and not too bad together.

We got to CERN almost exactly as the tour started, after some difficulties finding parking. The campus reminded Dad of the Lockheed Martin complex in Burbank, California where he used to work.

The tour guide seemed smart, and knew a decent amount of the physics and engineering that went into the accelerators. We guessed he was a physics Ph.D. who retired and decided to become a tour guide.

On the tour, we got to see the Synchro Cyclotron and the ATLAS control room. The Synchro Cyclotron was the first particle accelerator, and helped get CERN off the ground. It was big, in the sense that it filled a room with solid metal, but not big in the sense that it was smaller than the 27km circle of the LHC, which made the more recent discovery of the Higgs Boson that’s made headlines. The Synchro Cyclotron accelerates protons at only up to 80% the speed of light (600 MeV (Mega Electron-Volts)). Of course, in 1954 that was pretty good, and was still useful to make some discoveries.

For those who don’t know, particle accelerators do just that – they accelerate particles. Generally they do that with a setup of powerful RF fields that pull the particles faster and faster in a ring, confined by powerful magnets, closer and closer to the speed of light. Once they’re going fast enough, they send the particles off into another tube, which ejects the particles at a target.

In the case of the LHC, the target is more protons going the other way.

So, particle accelerators generally have three parts: The ring to hold the protons, the magnets to accelerate the protons, and a detector to see what happens when the particles crash into each other.

The Synchro Cyclotron fit all of this into a single room. Apparently over the decades it was active, the continuous exposure to the high energy particles inside irradiated the metal, so when they shut down the machine they encased it in concrete for a few decades before opening it up to visitors. Even now there are signs posted around it saying things like “Caution radiation, guided tours only.”

I didn’t feel any tingling, so I probably wasn’t affected too much.

After seeing the Synchro Cyclotron, the tour guide took us to see the ATLAS control room. ATLAS is one of the four detectors (sometimes referred to as “experiments”) on the biggest accelerator at CERN: The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is 27km in circumference.

It’s the largest such accelerator in the world. The U.S. started work on a larger one several years ago in Texas (near Waxahachie), but that got quite expensive so now we borrow the LHC.

We couldn’t visit the detector itself, because it’s 100m underground and was running at the time. It’s 6 stories tall, and weighs more than the Eiffel Tower.

The control room was awesome, even without the detector itself (though there was a LEGO model of the detector). The control room looked like a space mission control room from the movies (or from real life, really, but most people see them in the movies). It was a large room full of desks each with several computer monitors, all facing the front of the room which had a wall full of projected screens. The status of the detector was displayed there. So was the status of the beams – periodically (roughly once a day) – they inject new protons into the accelerator and accelerate them, and then leave them spinning for a while. While the protons are whipping around the 27km accelerator, 11,000 times per second, the physicists will occasionally pull a few billion protons out of the stream into a detector. So over the course of a day, the beams will both thin out and slow down, because of friction. They had graphs of these quantities on the walls.

When particles are colliding, they are recording 600 million events per second – this gets filtered down to around 100 events per second using powerful (and fast) computers. NI (where I worked last summer) makes hardware that does that sort of filtering.

Quite cool, to say the least.

On the way out of the tour, we stopped by a sculpture they installed after finding the Higgs boson and then went to the gift shop for our souvenirs. They had actual data tapes for sale. And yes, they do store data on tapes still – CERN stores petabytes of data, and hard drives are still too expensive. We ended up getting shirts, although they were out of the men’s t-shirts, so we all got women’s t-shorts. Later, when we got home, we discovered they didn’t fit at all.

After CERN was time to stop for lunch in Geneva and head home. Lunch/dinner (it was around 3) in Geneva was uneventful, save for driving by the largest artificial geyser in a lake I’ve ever seen.

Really just the largest geyser I’ve ever seen. Where we drove by it, the afternoon sun passed through it for a beautiful light display.

When we got home, we still had a few hours of daylight left, and Jason has been begging to go swimming for several days, so we all donned our swimsuits to walk down to the lake.

Did I mention we could walk across the street to get to the lake, and it was beautiful? Yeah.

It turns out that high hopes and warm air do not a warm lake make. Lake Geneva was quite cold as the sun was setting, nor was there a gently sloping beach to slowly wade in on. The shore was made out of boulders, like a pier. You had to stand on a boulder and build up the courage to step to the next boulder down, where you would quickly die of cold water shock (as we learned from an especially morbid restaurant menu in London).

Slowly, but surely, we all managed to go all the way in, even with the hair in. I was able to float on my back, so I didn’t have to tread freezing water.

It wasn’t all that cold, maybe 20 degrees C. We splashed around for a bit, dunking each other and trying to convince Jason there were sharks (freshwater sharks) in the lake.

I eventually got cold, so I got out and threw sticks for Jason to fetch.

Eventually we wandered over to meet a shorecat and his fisherman.

All told, a good last day in Montreux.


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Day 13: Montreux, Part Deux

Today’s plan was originally to visit the castle down the shore, but Nina (Kayla’s friend from last night) suggested we visit the chocolate factory. So we did. And we got the worst stomachache ever.

It all started at five in the morning, when a thunderstorm rolled in over our flat from the mountains. There was no discernible delay between the lightning and the accompanying thunder, and the deafening crack backed up the idea that it was just above us. Ellen and I woke up and watched the storm for a few minutes. Eventually we managed to get back to sleep.

Noisy during storms, perhaps, but still beautiful during the day.

The chocolate factory, a subsidiary of Nestle, had a tour that told us the history of chocolate, showed us their manufacturing floor, and let us taste-test the chocolates. That last part was the hardest.

The first part of the tour was hilariously melodramatic. They described the story of how the Aztecs used it as a bitter drink to prepare for battle, and than the Spaniards came and brought it back to Europe. The trip back from Central America was dangerous, “…and not just because of the scurvy,” according to the narrator.

He didn’t say what else was dangerous.

Then the tour took us to a room that had many of the ingredients for chocolates (cocoa, nuts, fats, vanilla, etc.) laid out, so we could touch and smell them (as well as taste raw cocoa beans, which are very bitter).

The next part of the tour was a machine which made small chocolate rolls, roughly 5cm (2 inches) in length and 1cm (1/2 inch) in diameter, with nuts throughout the outer layer of chocolate. The machine extruded long tubes of chocolate onto a conveyor, which then sliced them into slugs, covered the slugs with nutty chocolate. Then the hot chocolate bars went into a long refrigerator, that cooled down the chocolate enough for a pick-n-place machine to pull out the good chocolate bars for the wrapping machine.

After the wrapping machine, the bars went into a box, from which we could grab some and eat them to our heart’s delight. I had at least a half dozen.

After eating my fill from the chocolate machine the tour showed us the actual mixing floor. Dark chocolate looks so much less appetizing when it’s being pumped through tubes as a goop. The next section of the tour told us about the different ways to taste chocolate – we learned about how the different types (milk and dark) sound when they’re broken, how they feel in your hand, how they smell, and so on. It was mostly just things you intuitively know, but then they formalized them. Then there was a room with a wide variety of different chocolates offered by Callier, which we could (and did) sample. By the end of the room we were pretty sick to our stomach.

On exiting the Callier chocolate factory, Jason took the opportunity to model in front of a nearby mountain.

Kayla learned that the Giger museum was in Gruyeres, just down the road (Gruyeres is, oddly, a car-free town – only locals are allowed to drive there). Giger was the Swiss art designer for all things alien in the Alien movie series. So he’s known for his creepy art.

Which is funny, because Gruyeres is such a picturesque country town. It started to rain as we walked up the hill, though we didn’t find it ominous at the time.

Creepy it was. Outside the cafe (Giger designed and built two cafes in his life), things were relatively normal. Sitting in the back of the cafe was unsettling. Skeleton arches passed above us while rows of dead, diseased, screaming babies stared at us from the walls. A floating organ of some kind cast light over a table made of cyborg skeletons.

My ability to describe the scene in words is limited, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Despite the anticipated nightmares for the night, fun was still had by all.


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Day 12: Montreux

Our itinerary for this trip is essentially Britain, France, and Germany, with a week in each location. Between France and Germany we spend a week driving through Switzerland, Turin, Florence, Verona, and finally Munich by way of Innsbruck.

We leave Munich for America on the 26th. Today is the 13th, so marks halfway through the vacation.

It’s been fast, I can tell you that. But it’s also been long, in the sense that we do so much it’s hard to even remember what we did two or three days ago.

Anyway, today we departed Paris for Lyon, catching the 10:00 TGV, so it was wake up, check the beds, out the door (how travelling was meant to be).

The TGV is fast. Much like with the Chunnel train, it moved smoothly, as if it were floating on air. We got four seats around a table, so we played cards as the terrain blurred past. The houses rapidly changed from urban to suburban housing to the French hamlets we had seen on the way in.

We stopped in Lyon to rent a car. We’ll be keeping the car until Munich, using it to drive around Montreux and through Italy. Arriving at the train station, the Avis was difficult to find – we left the terminal, then walked around the block lugging our bags before we found the Avis hidden behind a construction site inside the terminal.

The car was exactly big enough for us. It seated seven, with room enough in the back for a rolling suitcase and several backpacks. We put down one of the seats in the back, and were able to stack four more suitcases on it, leaving exactly enough space for Ryan to squeeze onto the back seat amid the towering luggage.

While it was physically compact and tetris-like, we still had ample legroom. Luxury cars for the win.

Trying to drive out of Lyon was a difficult reminder of why European cars are smaller. As a rule, the streets are half as wide as an equivalent American road (for a given size on a map). For example, in America a medium-thickness white line would be a comfortable 3- or 4-lane road, with full-sized lanes. In Europe it’s a road with two lanes, one in each direction, crammed with parked cars along either side.

Europeans don’t drive Hummers not because of the environmental issues (though maybe that too), but because they won’t physically fit on the roads.

Fortunately the highways weren’t so bad.

As we drove toward Montreux, the terrain became less and less flat and the house roofs became steeper and steeper. The highway darted in and out of tunnels bored through the mountains that were rising above us.

We stopped for a fine French cuisine lunch. By “fine French cuisine” I mean McDonalds. But it’s in France, so that counts.

With as much fanfare as driving from Texas into New Mexico, we drove from France into Switzerland. There was a sign that said “Welcome to Switzerland!” (not in English, of course), and then we were in Switzerland.

There is a lake on the French-Swiss border, Lake Geneva. Geneva is on the side of the lake closer to France, and Montreux is on the side away from France, so we drove along the length of the lake.

It was beautiful, and so was Montreux. Wooded mountains descended into the water without stopping. Houses spotted the side of the mountain down to the water’s edge.

Our AirBnB was just across the street from the water. We can see the lake through the gate to our driveway. We were all pretty tired, so we walked down to a nearby dock for a look around and then went back to the flat to relax.

Jason very much wanted to go swimming off the rocks. We didn’t end up doing so, but he did test the water.

Did I mention it was beautiful?

As a side note, I’ve never stayed in an AirBnB before this trip, and it has always struck me as being kind of weird. Staying in someone else’s house? No thank you. The experience is actually (so far) much closer to that of a hotel, except nobody breaks into your room during the day, and you don’t feel super lame when you just lay about all day (because seriously, when you spend all day in a hotel room, that’s just no fun at all). So all in all, AirBnB seems quite nice.

In London, the public transit was an “underground,” which seemed to spend half the time above ground, especially in the suburbs near where we stayed. They also have the iconic double-decker buses. In Paris, there was mostly just the underground that actually stayed underground, as well as a few unremarkable buses.

In Montreux, all public transit is buses powered by electricity from wires suspended above the road.

Montreux is located on the East end of Lake Geneva (Geneva is on the West end), so the sun sets over the lake.

For dinner we went to meet a friend of Kayla’s who took us out for fondue. They even played a trumpet and gave us conductor hats when they delivered us fondue – I don’t know if this is a normal thing. It was a new experience for all of us, I think it was generally liked. I liked it, though the blank fondue was a little strong for me, so I stuck to the kind mixed with tomatoes. Jason liked it also. Ellen wasn’t such a big fan, and I don’t think Ryan tried it.

Two out of four isn’t bad.

Unlike Paris, where night is when the people come out of the woodwork, Montreux becomes a ghost town after sunset. The only people in the streets were the seven of us (the six of us, plus Kayla’s friend).

We went down to the lake to look at a giant fork. For reasons unknown to me, there is a 5-meter (roughly) fork stuck into Lake Geneva.

Near the fork we saw some swans floating on the lake. In the darkness of midnight, they looked as if they were floating – the lake was pitch black, reflecting only the darkness of the mountains beyond, while the swans were a bright white from the streetlights behind us.



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Day 11: Notre Dame and The Oranges

Today is our last full day in Paris, tomorrow we leave early for Lyon and then to Montreux for a few days before heading across Italy to Munich.

We decided to go to the Notre Dame, because you can’t go wrong with the tried-and-true tourist attractions, and at Ellen’s insistence to the Musee de l’Orangerie, because it has Water Lillies, by Claude Monet.

The Notre Dame was big, and crowded. Tourists everywhere. Also, police patrols and uniformed military everywhere. As an American, I found people in camouflage carrying automatic weapons in a civilian setting (not a parade, either) offensive. I’m only okay with militaries being in countries they aren’t supposed to be in. Or in military bases (more okay with the latter).

Either way, since it was late in the day and we wanted to go to l’Orangerie, we decided against going inside. So we walked around it, and admired the buttresses and the gargoyles.

This building has the fanciest buttresses I’ve ever seen (they’re around back). There were at least a dozen arches flying through the air supporting the walls at their ends. Channels for rainwater ran on top of the buttresses, carrying water down to the gargoyles below.

As usual, we all enjoyed the Notre Dame in our own ways. I took pictures. Jason made silly faces while jumping:

(yes, he is about 8 inches off the ground in this picture), even Ryan found his own way to appreciate the intricate architecture.

We stopped in a souvenir shop on the way off the island (Notre Dame is on an island on the Sienne). I bought Paris socks, for obvious reasons. Then we took the metro over to l’Orangerie.

To get there we had to walk through the garden that extends the Louvre (the Louvre is long and thin – the open end continues into this garden). The garden had large ponds we could sit and stare at for a while.

Despite the heat (over 30 degrees! Celsius, of course), it was wonderful just to sit with our feet resting on the edge of the pond.

Inside the l’Orangerie, we saw Water Lillies. I had expected it to be a standard-sized watercolor hanging on the wall somewhere.

It was not. It had its own room. It had its own two rooms. Large rooms, and it filled the walls. We walked around in awe of the size. Apparently Monet was pretty much blind, so this painting is a painting of his home as he saw it.

It was fascinating to see a different perspective.

The gallery had other arts, as well. Mostly from the same time period. There was a sculpture of Rodin. There was a wall full of Renior (pronounced ren-uahh) paintings.

Renior paints distinctive faces – they all look like that, regardless of the body they’re on.


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Day 10: The Thinker, The Kiss, and All the Arts

We started off today with the Musée Rodin (pronounced Ro-dahn), which is dedicated to the artist Auguste Rodin. The Musée Rodin also has a Anselm Kiefer exhibit. Kiefer is a currently practicing artist, and many of the pieces are from the past few years. Many of the pieces were appropriately weird. He works a lot in mixed-media, with a combination of acrylic, wood, molten metal, and found plants (and in one piece, a pallet of dirt).

He also had a collection called “Les Cathedrals de Paris,” which referenced pagan tradition from over a thousand years ago as the Christians tried to take over the local pagan religions. A rough transcription of the explanation I heard was that, since the pagans would traditionally worship underground, the (Christian) Church would place a nude woman statue over the doorway of the church in order to make it seem more welcoming. Think about it in terms of returning to the womb.

So, logically, he drew women superimposed on cathedrals.

At least, that’s one possible intent of the author.

Regardless of whether Kiefer was just trying to woo women by drawing them in compromising positions (or maybe he was just creepy), the end result is definitely not child-friendly. Or maybe it is child-friendly, since it depicts mothers in all their glory?

Moving on.

We left the Kiefer exhibit into a beautiful garden, which contained The Thinker, the famous sculpture by Rodin of a poet (Dante) hunched over in thought.

We got our picture of all of us under it, posing like the Thinker.

It turns out that the Thinker also appears in a larger sculpture by Rodin, the Gates of Hell (which depict the events of the Inferno). That was there as well. It was interesting to see so many bronze sculptures, after seeing so many of marble – the bronze makes the sculpture much darker, so the silhouette becomes much more important to the piece. With marble, finer details are much more visible, and shadows can be more easily seen on the surface. So e.g. it’s easier to make out facial features on marble than on bronze.

After seeing the statues in the garden, we went inside to the Rodin exhibit. It turns out Rodin also did paintings, and was good friends with Monet, so there were a few paintings by Monet on display as well. The museum also had many of the studies by Rodin (the practice pieces he did), so it was interesting to see how he would practice the different parts of a sculpture before finally putting it all together. For example, he might sculpt a few legs, and a few heads, and then a general composition of Aphrodite with a child, before making the complete detailed Aphrodite with child.

Inside there were also various versions of The Kiss, another famous sculpture by Rodin.

After looking at all of the Rodins, we stopped by a cafe to refresh ourselves, before heading off to the catacombs.

Unfortunately, the line for the catacombs was too long (we only left the apartment in the mid-afternoon – we’ve not been running a tight ship), so instead we stopped by an Australian bar and headed to the Pompidou.

On the way to the Pompidou, we came across what appeared to be a gas station in the middle of the road. I guess this is how people fill up their cars and motorcycles, I hadn’t noticed big corner-store stations like we have in America (or England).

In the plaza in front of the Pompidou, we came across a pair of women, one pushing the other against the wall and yelling, with the other crying and shaking her head (and saying something in return – I don’t know French)

As we approached, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Should I intervene? If the one punches the other, she could get quite hurt, and I don’t know the emergency number here. Or even the language. So I kept my eye on them as we walked closer.

When we got around 10 meters from them, the bigger one let go, the one up against the wall wiped her tears away and they both laughed and walked off.

Silly actors.

The Pompidou was more modern art. I appreciated these paintings a bit more than I did the Kiefers – it doesn’t feel like Picasso is trying to pull one over on me. While the pieces definitely have the abstract taste of modern art, they aren’t just quick sketches of nude women stapled to a leaf.

We got to see a good number of pieces from the modern art movement between about 1900 to 1945. The younger boys have become quite the art critics.

Though to tell the truth, they were being art critics facetiously, since neither of them understood modern art.

Some people do understand modern art, though. Dad managed to find his favorite, Mondrian.

I didn’t find any Rothkos, but I did find Picassos, which rhyme so are just as good.

A number of the paintings seemed almost like they were glowing. It turns out that the glowing paintings were shown in a darkened room, and there were projectors shining light on just the painting (and not the wall around it). This made the paints seem more vivid and neon. It also seemed almost like a cop-out. The Picasso above seems vivid without needing external light, he didn’t cheat and make a bland painting that needed a square projector to pop out.

Or maybe the artists intended for the painting to be shown under a light. That seems unlikely to me, though, since the technology in the 1920s wouldn’t have been advanced enough for such perfect matting.

The Pompidou also had a wonderful observation deck that looked out over the city. The camera we’re using to take pictures has a built-in HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode, which essentially means that it takes three different pictures (a bright one, a dark one, and a medium one) and merges them into one picture that doesn’t have any too-dark or too-bright parts.

For example, if you’re taking the picture of the stained glass in a Church from the inside while the sun’s shining through it, usually either the stained glass is too bright and washed out or the church’s interior is too dark and can’t be seen in the image.

However, it has the side effect that sometimes dark objects will have a halo around them, which can be either good or bad depending on the image.

We took some pictures on the observation deck. Jason was slightly confused.

After the Pompidou closed, we took the metro to the obelisk on the way home, as it was getting dark. Along the way we found out that apparently not everyone in France is as happy about the slightly more risque ads that show up.

Woman Kissing Handbag, as I like to call it (it’s a common ad here), may or may not be sexist, but we definitely find it hilarious (it just seems inconvenient to travel by balancing yourself on a rolling suitcase).

The obelisk was ostensibly one of the old Egyptian obelisks that were exported as trophies. Now it stands near the Sienne, in line of sight of the Eiffel tower and the Arc de Triomph.


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Day 9: Rest, and Relaxation

After the last two days, we needed a day to regroup. That was today.

We did laundry, played cards, and then went out to dinner. The laundry machine was a combination washer and drier. As with all machines here in Europe, we had no idea how to operate it. I’ve had the perpetual fear that someone will think they turned off the oven, when in reality they haven’t and the apartment burns down.

In this apartment, the fire escape is in the kitchen. I don’t know why.

After Dad did a load that didn’t dry, he figured out the magic incantation to make it both wash and dry. It ended up being too hot, so all of my synthetic socks shrunk to about half their size. When I took them out of the ovendrier I didn’t even recognize them as my own – only after asking everyone else if they were theirs did I finally accept them.

After that, we figured out how to do synthetics. Turns out you have to turn the knob to the “synthetics” mode.

For dinner, we went out to a fancy Italian place just down the road. They had a giant poster of Sophia Loren, who I later learned was an Italian actress who came up with the phrase “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.”

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