Day 25: This is the end…

I didn’t want to tempt the travel gods, so I didn’t plan on writing about day 25, the day we go home. So I won’t.

Not that it was eventful – we woke up early, around 6:45 Munich time, and took trains and planes until we fell asleep in Austin at bedtime, around 4:30 Munich time.

I got a stuffed bear hat, so that helped pass the time.

But I will use this post to summarize the trip. As a whole, the trip was, as my brother would say, “pretty rad” (as in “radical”, or he would call it “lit”, as in “that’s lit”). I would call the trip “rad potatoes” (as in, “the trip to Europe was rad potatoes”).

T-shirts are being made, of course.

The trip was fast-paced, sleeping in 4 countries in as many weeks. This was as interesting as it was exhausting. We got to compare the different countries, and we got to see the highlights of each country.

Being a fast survey trip, every country deserves more time. Even a trip of their own. My Grandparents (mother’s side) did a thing where every year they traveled to a different European country.

As they got older the countries got more obscure, of course.

Maybe I could do that.

Regardless, we got to scratch the surface of a lot of different countries. This was the goal.

The goal was accomplished. Fun was had by all. I rate the trip 5 out of 5 stars, would go again.

A quick note on the pictures: Most of the pictures were taken with a Canon Rebel DSLR. By the end of the trip that camera had taken just over 3,800 pictures. Also, every was equipped with a smart phone that had a camera, and collectively around 2,000 pictures were taken with those, for a total of about 6,000 pictures (about 240 per day, taking up 160GB of storage).

Of these, there are about 218 pictures in these blog posts.

Generally, the blog posts were written in several stages, not always in real-time-order. First, at the end of the day I would create the post, with the title and a short note about what happened that day (it became surprisingly hard to remember what happened the day before, let alone several days before). Then, every few days I would sit down and write all of the blog posts up to that day. After I’d written all the words for all the posts, we would download the photos from the camera, and I would add them to the blog post, adding more words to make the pictures make sense.

In general, Ellen, Jason, and I would separate from Dad, Kayla, and Ryan, and only one group would have the camera (usually they had it in museums, and we had it the rest of the time). Thus sometimes the pictures don’t quite match my experience (for example, in the Deuches Museum, they didn’t visit the astronomy section so there are no pictures of it).

Anyway, here’s a table-of-contents of all the posts, with a short summary for each. Also note that these posts were published in-order, with nothing in-between them, so you can click the previous/next links on each page to read the next day’s entry.

Day 1: Austin to London. The Kolbly family boards a plane for the adventure of their lifetimes.

Day 2: Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, and London. The crew awakens several hundred miles from London, and has to find their way.

Day 3: Sex and the City. After arriving in London, the family goes to a candy store to find chocolate. But the candy store is not as it seems.

Day 4: Modern Art, and the Confluence of Round. Trapped in a modern art museum for hours, the younger boys find a way to keep themselves entertained.

Day 5: Friends Seen Long Ago, Artifacts From Long Before. The game is on for the family as they visit the exterior filming location for the Sherlock series.

Day 6: Paris, but like with an accent. The family takes a train to Paris. But when they arrive, will they be able to find food?

Day 7: Triomphing over the Eiffel Tower. After a night of hard rock, the family decides to visit the iconic Paris landmarks.

Day 8: Don’t you Louvre my baby. Time is running out as the family races through the largest art museum in the world.

Day 9: Rest, and Relaxation. Will the family be able to figure out how to use the washer in time?

Day 10: The Thinker, The Kiss, and All the Arts. The family is ready for more art, and the youngest boys reveal a hidden talent.

Day 11: Notre Dame and The Oranges. On their last day in Paris, the family tries to cram in as many iconic locations as they can.

Day 12: Montreux. The family rents a car to drive through the alps, and find out that European streets are not the same as American streets.

Day 13: Montreux, Part Deux. The family meets up with a local girl and visits the Callier factory and the Giger cafe.

Day 14: European Council for Nuclear Research. After visiting Mecca, Jason wants to swim, but can he take the cold?

Day 15: Up. The Italian driving stereotype turns out not to be a stereotype.

Day 16: Our Lot. After stopping in Pisa, events seem to go south for the family.

Day 17: My Own Room. Relieved at getting room to sleep in, the family tours Florence in an afternoon.

Day 18: Wine Country. Arriving in Verona the family finds beauty in the rolling hills.

Day 19: Venice. Resting in the hill country, the family decides to find as much gelato as possible in Venice.

Day 20: Goodbye, Italy. The family marvels at the differences between Italy and Germany.

Day 21: Beers, Boobs, and Pretzels. The Kolbly family gets drunk on beer and coca-cola.

Day 22: All The Crazies. The family is slowly going crazy from exhaustion, when they visit the castle of a reclusive king.

Day 23: Into The Fountain…. A day full of shopping and water fountains.

Day 24: She Blinded Me! With Science! On their last day in Europe, the family tours a local science museum.

Day 25: This is the end…. The season finale finds the family safe in Austin.


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Day 24: She Blinded Me! With Science!

Today, our last full day in Munich (and our last full day in Europe), we visited the Deutches Museum. That’s the museum that sits on the island in the river through town. It’s essentially a science and tech museum. Our AirBnB host, David Tennant, said it was a long museum. He was right. We got through only a fraction of it.

I would recommend spending at least a full 8 hours there. We only spent 4 hours, and it was not enough for all of the science.

Ellen, Jason, and I split off from the others, since we usually do. That’s our mojo.

There were exhibits of all sorts. There was a boat exhibit, where they had cut an actual sailing ship in half to show what it looked like inside.

There was a steam engine exhibit, which showed off those giant old-timey cast-iron steam engines which filled a room, created a never-before-heard amount of noise, and were as powerful as a modern lawnmower.

There was an astronomy exhibit, which I think was Ellen’s favorite. It might have been my favorite as well, I have a small past in astronomy.

I’ve mentioned this before, but the museums here in Europe seem better (and more hands-on). I noticed in the astronomy section at Deutches, they had a bunch of exhibits on things like how light splits into colors and how stars have different temperatures and brightness and on Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams. But they order the exhibits so that it’s natural to walk through them in that order – where you learn about the concepts in the same order that humanity did (H-R diagrams make no sense if you don’t know much about star color or size. They sort the stars into classes based on their color and size). Maybe I just don’t visit enough museums in the U.S., or just haven’t noticed it until now.

The exhibits are arranged in a way to actually effectively teach you a rough outline of astronomy, and they aren’t arranged randomly with one of the exhibits being “history of astronomy.” Granted, just because they’re ordered in a smart way doesn’t mean that we didn’t walk through them backwards. It was slightly confusing.

After the astronomy section, we wandered down to the power line section.

Yes, there was a whole section on power lines.

To be fair, it was under the guise of electricity in general, but it was mostly filled with undersea cables and high voltage transformers.

There they also had an electricity demonstration every few hours, where they charged up some tesla coils and zapped some things. I don’t know what they were demonstrating, since they spoke in German, but it certainly seemed cool.

I also don’t know German for “cover your ears,” but I just covered my ears whenever everyone else did.

At the end of the day, the science museum was a pretty neat way to end the trip.


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Day 23: Into The Fountain…

We had no distinct plan for today, other than rest and take it easy. We slept in, played cards, played video games, and so forth until around one or so when we all left to go shopping.

Generally when I travel I like to do a electronic-detox strategy, since I spend so much time connected in the rest of my life (being a programmer). This is why I’m highly unresponsive to e-mail (or however it is people try to contact me). But I’m writing this on the Internet with a laptop, so I’m doing it a little less hardcore this trip. Hence the occasional video game.

Anyway, Dad and Kayla left to return the car this morning, which I hear was an adventure. Remember, the car we had picked up from Avis in Lyon broke down in Pisa and ended up at a local garage, so we got another car. When they showed up at the Avis drop off (which was not trivial – it was hidden, and the garage entrance was too short for the full-sized van), the Avis reps weren’t expecting a van. Apparently the key wasn’t even a Avis key. Eventually Dad and Kayla managed to convince them that it was their van, and they wrote us a receipt.

Hopefully that’s the last we hear of that, and Avis doesn’t come knocking in a few weeks asking “so… where’s that Renault we lent you?”

After they got back, they wanted to go shopping, and I didn’t want to sit around all day, so we all set off to the train station, which is apparently tourist central. We found a place to eat while Kayla went off shopping for things for her classroom (she teaches German at a college, so she’s been collecting tidbits for her classroom along the way. She’s also been our German translator – where in the other countries we communicated by grunting, here we can actually communicate with people).

On the way we came across a statue of Juliet, from Romeo and Juliet. Apparently there’s a tradition where you grab her right breast, whether for luck I don’t know. We know it’s a thing, because other people did it and while she is entirely green, from the rust, her breast has been polished by hundreds of years of groping.

It gets creepier once you realize that in the play, Juliet is thirteen years old.

Anyway, we had lunch at a film cafe, which is essentially a restaurant that’s movie-themed. They had a James Bond-themed salad menu, with such salads as the “Goldfinger” salad or the “Octopussy” salad (I don’t know why they thought salads were quintessentially Bond).

In keeping with the movie theme, I did my Princess Leia impression.

For dessert us three boys all had Emma Stone.

(Emma Stone is what they call three scoops of ice cream with whipped cream on top)

We were to meet Kayla by a fountain, so we spent a few minutes there. We saw a dog playing in the fountain, and then we had an idea…

First, we had to don some sunglasses, to exude coolness.

Then we emerged from the mist like action heroes.

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Day 22: All The Crazies

I think either 21 days is the perfect length for a vacation, or I need to take a break at some point. Even Jason says I seem tired, and that’s the pot calling the kettle black.

So while we’re all slowly going crazy, and having a great time doing it, a long time ago there was a king, King Ludwig, who through various political twists and turns in the mid-to-late-1800s had and lost political power. When he lost it, he too went crazy and claimed a mountain has his own and built a castle on it, modeling it after the castles of the medieval times and exerting absolute power over the region.

Today, millions of people visit Neuschwanstein every year. Disney used it as an inspiration for the Cinderella castle (and Chillon was apparently the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, so that’s two we’ve visited).

They don’t permit photographs inside the Neuschwanstein, so there’s a dearth of photos today.

It was interesting to visit someone’s copy of a medieval castle after visiting an actual medieval castle. Some things got lost in translation. The general architecture, the exterior lines and the vaulted ceilings, were largely retained. However, the practicality found in the castle Chillon was lost in translation. While the doors and stairways did become larger, sometimes the spiral staircases spiraled the wrong way (spiral staircases spiral one particular way, to hinder attackers coming up while swinging a sword). The windows had beveled interior edges, as if they were archery posts, but the windows were wide so the bevels didn’t give archers any extra elbow room.

This is fine, though, because the castle was never functional as a castle. It was only barely functional as a palace, Ludwig only stayed there a handful of days before he died. Much of the castle was never completed, he died in debt and construction was largely abandoned.

We can only access the inside the castle via guided tours with no photographs allowed, so my descriptions will have to suffice.

The castle can be described in two terms: it’s inspired by the knights of the round table, and Ludwig liked swans. Throughout the castle are murals of the exploits of the round table, with random swans added in. One depicted a knight crossing a river in a boat to meet some people. The boat was being pulled by a swan.

One room had over 170 paintings and engravings of swans.

Another room had a life-sized porcelain swan, which was hollowed out to serve as a flower vase.

After the tour, we went out on a balcony that overlooked the valley, and admired the beauty of the scenery. The mountain range stretched into the haze, fading into silhouettes before smoothly fading into the gray horizon in the distance. Below several lakes were nestled in between the mountains, their waters reflecting the setting sun.

Worth going, if only for the view.

The castle sits on a foothill that’s immediately before the mountains, with a dramatic gorge going up into them. Where there’s a gorge, there’s a waterfall.

Here there were several, threading their way through the hills.


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Day 21: Beers, Boobs, and Pretzels

I saw a postcard today that was of a buxom lady, framed on her chest, holding a beer in one hand and a pretzel in the other. I felt like it decently well summarized the day.

The beer comes from when we went to the beer garden for lunch and the haufbierhouse for dinner/afternoon snack. They served pretzels at both of these locations.

The boobs, of course, come from the unusually high number of erotic shops we walked by.

Welcome to Germany, I guess.

We didn’t have any distinct plans for the day, other than wander around the nearby city. Around 11 we set out to forage for lunch, walking across the brook by our house to the courtyard of the Deutches Museum to the other side of the river. There was a beach on the river, complete with sand and waves. After the cold water of Lake Geneva, Jason seemed a little less excited to go to this beach, perhaps afraid it would be cold as well.

One thing I’ve seen throughout Munich (and a few places in Florence as well) is padlocks with peoples names on them padlocked to bridges. A strange declaration of love, I’ve always thought, but one that we’ve come across from time to time. And here in Munich the padlocks are spread out geographically – they aren’t all put in a single bridge, but there’s generally a half dozen on every bridge we walk across.

Halfway across the river, on a river-island, is a technology museum called the Deutches Museum. We didn’t go in, but based on the things they had in the courtyard, we decided that we simply had to go at some point. Admission is cheapest on Sundays, we’re planning to go then.

Finding food that was acceptable to everyone was no easy task. We discussed at least four different places, but with Kayla vetoing pizza, the younger three only eating pizza and American steak, me only willing to try European foods, and Dad wanting a traditional German breakfast, finding a place became difficult.

We did walk by a Pizza Hut. The word “hut” in German translates to “hat” in English, and Pizza Hut’s logo is a hat. So Germans read it as “Pizza Hat.”

We did eventually find a beer garden everyone agreed on (well, the older three. The younger three didn’t have a choice). I had a currywurst, which is essentially a giant hot dog covered in a slightly spicy ketchup (technically it’s a sausage, but the texture was more hot dog than sausage).

I thought it would be the wurst, but it actually ended up being my favorite food of the trip so far. (Just kidding, I actually thought it would be pretty good)

Yes, it even surpassed the many Italian pizzas we’ve had so far. And I’m quite the pizza aficionado.

Afterward, we wandered down to an old cathedral, built in a characteristic super ornate gothic style. It had a clock on it, which at noon and five some marionettes came out and did a performance detailing the marriage of a royal family as well as the end of the Black Plague.

A strange juxtaposition, to be sure, although technically both are things to celebrate.

We arrived shortly after the noon performance, so we decided to come back for the 5:00 show. We headed through a market, looking at some of the wares they had, and then split into two groups: Kayla, Ellen, and I stayed in a bookstore and looked at postcards while the other three went back to the apartment for water and rest.

It turns out they have the same respect for Donald Trump as we do back in the states.

Along the way we saw a street performer playing with cups of water. As in, a table full of water cups filled to varying levels were his instrument. Ryan was quite impressed by the feat – in school a few semesters ago he had built a similar instrument, albeit with fewer water cups.

Here in Germany there’s a lot more public water fountains. Not the ones in America where you push the button and get a tiny stream of almost-boiling water. These are a continuous stream of cold, refreshing, drinkable water. On the hot day that it was, it was nice just to splash some cold water on your face. We also tried to drink from it, since we were pretty thirsty, but ultimately mostly failed in catching the water in our hands and bringing it to our mouths.

Despite the failure, we still had fun trying.

There’s also a lot more children in the streets, it seems, and groups of people in general (up to about college-aged). In Italy there were a lot of couples, but here children seem to be the rule. I suppose they’re less lazy here than in other places, like the U.S.

The marionette show was nifty – some marionettes went in a circle, and some knight marionettes jousted and (spoiler alert) the red one lost.

The other three joined us immediately after the show, as they had arrived from the apartment just as the show ended. We decided we’d have to come back another day.

After they joined us we decided to go to the haufbeerhouse (I’m largely unfamiliar with German, so I have trouble remembering the names of things, unlike with the romantic languages we’ve been immersed in so far).

At time of adding pictures, I’ve learned that it’s actually spelled Hofbräuhaus. (these diaries are written in stages – the day of, I create the post and add a few random notes so I remember which day it was, which is surprisingly hard. Then a few days later, generally two or three, I write the post. Then I go back later and add pictures, usually adding more words to go with the pictures.)

The Hofbräuhaus was, essentially, a giant hall in which people drank beer and ate pretzels. The noise was deafening. I’m a loud person normally, especially when I get excited, but even I had to speak up to be heard. It was arranged a bit like Hogwarts, with long wooden tables laid out under the arching ceiling. People in blue dresses walked around holding pretzels high in the air, selling giant pretzels to any who wanted one.

We sat down, and the four of us children ordered cokes – I’m not really a fan of the taste of alcohol. We got coke in half-liter steins, though, so we still got the experience. Dad and Kayla got beer in even bigger steins.

The noise was deafening, but once the indoor tuba band started playing traditional German drinking songs I thought it would be impossible to maintain a normal conversation. A friend of Kayla’s met us, and the two of them yelled at each other over the table while we played cards.

Dad and Ryan left eventually, to renew the parking and get some rest, so the remaining four of us hung out for a bit.

Apparently it’s traditional to carve your name into the table. So we did. Apparently some of the tables are the original tables from several hundred years ago, so it was like carving our names into the Pantheon.

Drunk on a liter of coke (we eventually got seconds), we started taking some silly pictures of each other. I don’t know if that’s traditional, maybe it should become traditional.

On the way back to our house, we ran across a club called “Distorted People.” Its logo was a razor and a meat cleaver.

That pretty much filled up our creepiness quotient for the day.


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Day 20: Goodbye, Italy

Surprising nobody, when we got up at 10 in the morning we were all exhausted. I was so exhausted I slept in until 10. Checkout was at 11, so I had an hour to shower and pack. Everyone was groggy.

As we were walking out the door, Vittoria (our host) stopped by with her dog, Floyd, and all of our worries were washed away. Floyd truly was the most adorable little dog, and was so excited that we pet him and he even seemed to want to come with us. (He also has a sister named Pink, who we didn’t see)

If you are ever in need of a place to stay in Verona, I would recommend that place. Apparently it’s been in her family for six generations, or since the early 1800s (I estimate, assuming 30 year generations). The walls are covered with urban landscape drawings, which came from either someone who lived in the house or the IKEA “landscape drawings on napkins from many years ago” collection. The house has been recently remodeled, so it has things like electricity and running water.

We said our goodbyes and loaded into the car.

I will see you again, Italy, I promise.

We drove straight through to Innsbruck, a 2 hour drive. There we stopped for gelato. Verona was located in the foothills of the Austrian alps, so as we drove on the mountains grew up around us as we wound through the valleys between them. Oddly, the valleys were sharper but the mountains weren’t as tall as the Swiss alps. In Switzerland, the mountains truly towered above us, and the valley below us, but there was enough room at the bottom of the valleys for towns and lakes. Here, in the Austrian-Italian alps, the mountains are really only large hills. In the distance we can see really big mountains, but they stayed in the distance. But the valleys are narrower, only occasionally widening enough for a small town.

Innsbruck is a little different, terrain wise, because it’s in a flat area just beneath a massive wall of mountains in the North. Here, the hills are alive, with the sound of music…

Just kidding. The views are wonderful, though.

After Innsbruck, we drove straight to Munich, another 2 1/2 hour drive.

Our flat in Munich is rented out by a family who lives on the second floor. They rent out the first and third floors. It’s a bit of a strange arrangement, since we effectively sandwich them, but that’s fine. The layout is a bit weird, as well – my bedroom is literally the only way to access Dad and Kayla’s room. It’s like a hallway with a bed in it (the doors on each end of the hallway/bedroom close, so that’s good). Being gatekeeper is nice, since then I have power, but it’ll make a strange evening/morning ritual.

We went out for pizza at an Italian restaurant down the street. I got a mushroom pizza, I’ve grown quite fond of it as an alternative to marinara. Our flat is just across the street from a “small” brook that feeds into the main river. I say “small” with quotes because while the river is physically narrow, it is also relatively deep and fast-moving. A large amount of water is constantly moving through the canal.

No gondolas, though.

But there is a nice big church we can look at. So that’s something. For me, I was just glad we made it to Munich on time and without incident.


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Day 19: Venice

We’ve started to fray at the edges. Everyone’s been super troopers for the whole trip, but we’re tired. We’ve been going to sleep at midnight and waking up at 8 since Montreux, often for reasons outside our control (taking a wrong turn, getting the wrong fuel, having a long drive anyway).

So we tried to sleep in. We really did. Jason succeeded, and slept until 2 in the afternoon. I don’t sleep in, but that’s okay, I got some time to sit on a couch upstairs and catch up on blog posts (all the ones from when we got to Montreux to when we got to Verona were written that morning – hence the irregular schedule).

Dad and Kayla woke up around noon, but were pretty bleary eyed and ostensibly went back to bed for a few more hours. The four of us played assorted Italian games: Ellen and I read cards from Italian trivial pursuit, and taught ourselves a tiny bit of Italian by inferring words based on the answers. Then we played Scarabeo, which is essentially Scrabble but some tiles have a scarab beetle on them, and there’s an egg timer. We couldn’t read the rules, because they didn’t phrase things like a trivial pursuit game (“How many tiles are dealt to each player at the beginning of the game?” “Eight”). So we played normal English Scrabble instead, with the Italian letter frequencies.

It felt like Italian has fewer vowels than English, and more of their consonants are weird ones.

By the time the others had woken up enough to go, we were bouncing off the walls. We left in time to catch the 6:20 train to Venice. We had meant to catch the 5:20, but we left exactly when Google Maps said we had to leave to get there at 5:20, so we missed the train. We got to look at the place the station was named after, Porta Nuova, which was an old gate in the city wall, back when the city was made out of rocks and had a wall with a gate. There was a distinct lack of informational signs on the building – it wasn’t open for tours or even going inside, and trash was strewn about. It felt very much like someone owned it, and was just waiting for the permit to tear it down.

It’s a problematic situation – on the one hand, keeping old historical buildings is a cool thing to do, because then I can come and look at them. But on the other hand, it’s sitting on prime real estate right next to the train station. A restaurant would make much more money.

We don’t have that problem as much in America, where we have plenty of land and very few historical monuments. I hear (from someone who’s from Italy) that it’s a much bigger problem there, since new construction is constantly being stopped to do archeology.

We got on the 6:20 train to Venice on time. We got to Venice at 8:00, after a 10-minute delay and a hour and a half ride.

Arriving in Venice was breathtaking, even if we had so little time. Walking out of the station presented you with the Grand Canal, which is the main road of Venice. Being Venice, of course, it’s actually the main canal. Speedboats marked as taxis pulled into and out of docks along the river. Water buses chugged down the canal. An odd gondola pushed by occasionally.

While the view was nice, we had to catch the 9:12 train back because that was the last train back to Verona, and while Venice is cool we didn’t want to get stuck there overnight.

So we had an hour to do Venice and eat all the gelatos. There was one shop right by the station, where I got a tiramisu cone. Then we crossed the Grand Canal by bridge in search of a second place. We passed by assorted churches, which probably would have been cool if we’d stopped at them. We did find a second gelato place, I got strachiatella. The second place had a somewhat creamier gelato than most. Tip to gelato manufacturers: creamier is better.

Then we left Venice. We got in two gelato shops, so a travel tip: you can’t do Venice in an hour, no matter how hard you try.

Also it’s nice in the evening, once it’s cooled off a bit and the crowds are gone. Some say there’s a smell, but they must be referring to the smell of the ocean, which I find pleasant. Also the weather on the ocean is wonderful, or so I’ve always thought. It’s a nice stable temperature with a humid breeze off the ocean.

So we returned to Verona. We got back at 11, and decided to try to go to a restaurant that was a 40 minute drive past our house.

They were closed, surprising nobody. We got home around midnight, again, and had a late dinner of breakfast biscuits.


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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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