Tag: Paris

TSOJ: Vienna Has Excellent Drinking Water, or Does It?

About 20 minutes into my walking tour of Vienna, I began to think that my tour guide was making stuff up. Not the big stuff about the Hapsburg Dynasty and their 800 years of rule, but the little stuff that only someone a PhD in Austrian History would know. The first “white” lie happened when we stepped into a courtyard in the Jewish section of town. (I have  a much better understanding of European Jewish history than when I left the USA and have learned why older cities have “Jewish Quarters” and how long the Jewish people have been mistreated, but this information will be held back for a later post.) Anyway, back to the “fibbing” tour guide. We were standing in Judenplatz looking that the Jewish Memorial to the 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews. Our guide was doing her best to walk the very narrow tightrope of acknowledging that Hitler was Austrian, that Austria did not do much resisting Germany when it came to WWII, and that “some people did bad things.” These “bad things” included systematically murdering people. I can understand not wanting to be a buzz kill and ruin people’s’ vacations with information like this, but it seemed to me that the guide was glossing over the horror of the Holocaust so I walked away from her mini-lecture to take some pictures of the memorial. She had mentioned that the builders had discovered the original footprint of the Jewish Synagogue in Vienna when building the memorial.  I noticed what appeared to be some long lines carved into the cobblestones of the plaza. To me they looked like the outline of an old building, like what you can see left of the Bastille in Paris if you know to look down instead of up at the little golden boy on the spire.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by "the weather."

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by “the weather.”

I waited for the guide to finish her luke-warm acknowledgement of Austria having been involved in WWII and then I asked, “I noticed these lines carved into the cobblestones. Why are they here?”

“Oh, the weather does that.”

This was not the answer I expected. Actually, I believed it was what I will call a prevarication. The weather in Austria must behave differently than weather in my area because apparently the weather in Vienna includes cobblestone cutting lasers. I decided to let it go, but as you can tell since I am now writing about it, I really didn’t let it go. Everything the guide said from that point on (two and a half more hours) I viewed through the prism of what I still consider a lie.

List of “facts” I didn’t believe during the next 2.5 hours:

1. “Vienna has been ranked #1 since 2009 as the world’s most livable city.” Really? Four years in a row? Nope, not according to my Google search. In 2012, Melbourne, Australia (the place with kangaroos not the land-locked country in Central Europe) was ranked #1. Vienna was #2 and has consistently been ranked near the top, but the San Antonio Spurs would be the NBA champs if we allowed the second place team to claim the #1 status.  I will be the first to admit that some of rankings do have Vienna at #1 and that no American cities appear in the top ten, but that isn’t important. What is important is that I didn’t believe my tour guide.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. The car in the foreground did not hold still for my panoramic picture.

2. “Vienna has the world’s best drinking water.” According to my Google research Vienna is ranked number five in this category. Greenwood, BC has better water than Vienna, but I will admit the drinking water in Vienna is abundant, and good. Vienna does what it can to perpetuate the myth of being the best by encouraging people to drink out of the tap as opposed to buying bottled water. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t make you number 1.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna's 5th best water in the world.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna’s 5th best water in the world.

3. “Vienna was once the world’s largest city.” Now I may have misheard this one, she may have claimed that Vienna was once Europe’s largest city, but either way, I don’t believe it. According to my research it might have been the 5th largest city at one point, but never #1. If my guide said, “Vienna was the world’s most important city in 1900,” I would have believed it. The Austrian Empire was big and important, but when it comes to population I don’t believe it was ever the largest city in the world.

4. “Freud drank coffee and invented psychotherapy in that café.” Okay, this one may be true, but I think he probably just drank coffee in the café and did his work at an office like everyone but Hemingway.

5. “Beethoven lived in 80 different apartments during his time in Vienna because he never paid his bills and was a bad tenant.” There is a good deal of truth to this one, but 80 is too high. Most experts on Beethoven’s living quarters (as if there are these people in the world) believe he lived in at least 27 documented locations with some estimates as high as 65. He was a terrible tenant and a bit of a jerk, so he did move a lot.

Beethoven slept here...and there, and there.

Beethoven slept here…and there, and there.

6. “St. Stephan’s cathedral had the tallest church spire in Europe.” Nope, never according to my Wikipedia research. It is the tallest in Austria, might have been the second tallest in Europe at one point, but never the tallest. These are the types of facts I would have swallowed if not for the “Austrian weather includes cobblestone cutting lasers” lie.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

I suppose I should disclose at this point that Vienna was my favorite city to visit on this trip. It really is a wonderful place, it is organized, clean, full of history, and has excellent drinking water, but there are no lasers in the clouds.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Copenhagen

Disposable forks, knives, and spoons made from wood instead of plastic. That's a good idea.

Disposable forks, knives, and spoons made from wood instead of plastic. That’s a good idea.

1. People vomit a great deal in Copenhagen. I did not witness any of this vomiting, but I did see the aftermath on the mornings I was there. Most often this mess took place near a trashcan. I have read a little about what is now a problem plaguing most European cities: Drunk tourism. With cheap flights all over Europe there are people dropping into a different cities, pulling weekend benders, and then flying home. If I lived in Copenhagen it would be something I would complain about frequently, but the Danes seem content to let idiots be idiots.

Bag of water used to slowly water a tree. Easy to fill up, easy to use, and smart.

Bag of water used to slowly water a tree. Easy to fill up, easy to use, and smart.

2. Innovation is a Danish thing. I like the Danish way of thinking: The little bike locks, the recycling machines in stores, the sanitizer for toilets instead of paper seat covers, the variety of cargo bikes, and the integration of the old and new with their public buildings.

Recycling machine: put your empties in the hole, the machine reads the bar code and prints out a receipt that can be used in the store.

Recycling machine: put your empties in the hole, the machine reads the barcode and prints out a receipt that can be used in the store.

3. There are no ugly Danes. I don’t know if it is just a genetic thing or if ugly people are not allowed to live in Copenhagen, but everyone is tall, elegant, and stylish. Young people, middle-aged people, old people all appeared to be models out of some hip fashion magazine. It isn’t just the clothing, there is something about the Danish way that makes them look like the coolest people on the planet.

Soren K, father of Danish "meh?"

Soren K, father of Danish “meh?”

4. Danes (be ready for a wild generalization) don’t judge people. There is a true live and let live attitude. In Denmark this lack of judgement is a two way street. You can grow your dreadlocks out and wear a purple tunic, but don’t get an attitude about my pointy-shiny shoes and business suit. I relate this attitude back the the writer/philosopher Soren Kierkegaard but I could be wrong. The attitude could predate Kierkegaard and he could be a product of the existentialist Danish way of thinking.

Old mileage marker.

Old milage marker.

5. Copenhagen is still my favorite European city. I didn’t think I could ever love a city more than Paris, but Copenhagen has something indefinably great about it. Paris has its museums, iconic buildings, and famous boulevards, but Copenhagen has swag. Copenhagen doesn’t care if you like it or not. It doesn’t try too hard. It just does its thing.

When the Planning’s Done

The epic travel adventure story never includes a section titled: Over Planning. Why? Because all epic travel stories are about what went wrong, nobody cares about a perfectly executed travel story (unless it is a travel story where Navy Seals are involved.) What most people like to read about are trips where a multitude of things go wrong. Shackleton’s trips to cold places, the Donner Party, Cheryl Strayed’s novel Wild and almost every story written about mountain climbing are examples of how we like to read about other people’s misfortunate mistakes. Some of this fascination probably revolves around the fact that we like to avoid painful situations, but we also enjoy reading about other people’s pain, especially if they are bragging about their great trip to Europe and things went a bit wrong.

I am not immune to these mistakes, almost ever trip I have ever been on has had something go wrong. As I have aged (some people get older, I age like cheese or wine) my expectations for a perfect trip have disappeared and I have begun to embrace the things that will inevitably go wrong.

Now that I am almost done with the planning stage for the Summer of Jon, I have begun wondering what will go wrong this summer. The internet has made planning for a big trip much, much easier. You can read reviews of hotels, you can look at pictures, and you can even use Google Earth to see if the hotel actually exists. In the olden days, the days before electricity and such, I would do extensive planning by looking at a map and deciding where to go. Then I would go. Sometimes it worked out just dandy and other times I ended up sleeping on a pool table, or drinking water from a large cistern with a dead animal in it.  Internet planning is not idiot-proof though, I still am able to make dumb mistakes, just ask anyone in my family they can regale you for hours about all the mistakes I have made.

As I wait for July 1st, my temptation is to over plan. I have the basics down (flights, hotels, and a few attractions) but I have to fight with myself to avoid planning each day like I am invading the continent of Europe and not just merely visiting it. Should I find out what traveling exhibits will be at the museums I want to go to? Should I decide today what type of food I will want to eat for lunch on the fifth day of my trip (answer: something cheap)? Should I learn a few phrases of German to help me when I inevitably end up in a bakery getting yelled at? Or should I just arrive and let fate take over? Right now I am comfortable with fate.

Looking back on all my travel, the days that are most vivid are the ones where everything went wrong. There was the British Airways strike that grounded my family in London for two extra days, there was the wind storm that cancelled my train ride to Bacharach and took my family on an epic sojourn that only Ulysses could truly understand, there was the day we went to a water-park in Paris only to be turned away because I refused to wear a Speedo, and there was the day I took a bike ride to Versailles in a Biblical, Noah and the Ark rainstorm. I hated those days, but as I look back on those days I am reminded why those days are so valuable. Those bad days make the great ones that much better.



My Favorite Places: Musée de l’Orangerie

The Musee de l’Orangerie might be my favorite art museum in the world. Instead of trying to explain why you should go, I will do the lazy thing and drop a couple of pictures into my blog now.

Like Monet? Here's some Monet for you.

Here's some more.

Feeling lightheaded? Grab a seat and enjoy the view.

The museum is spectacular on multiple layers.  The two upstairs rooms have eight Monet paintings surrounding you like covered wagons in a movie starring John Wayne and those rooms are totally awesome.  I don’t mean totally awesome in a 1980’s Jeff Spicoli way, but in a “I can’t believe someone did this” way. I like Monet just like most people, but I am not crazy about Monet. Monet is a lot like Barry Manilow to me: I like his songs, I know his songs, I won’t admit in public that I like his songs but put on Mandy and I’m singing along with Mr. Manilow in a few seconds. But, if given the choice between Mr. Manilow and something edgier, I go with the edgier, and the edgier is downstairs in l’Orangerie.

The personal collection of  Paul Guillaume is hiding in the basement of the museum and I must say that dude had some pretty good taste in paintings. It’s easy to look at his collection today and think that you could have selected the same paintings if given the chance, but come on, let’s all be honest here, he took some chances.

What I like best about Guillaume’s collection is the weirdness of it. Many of these artists were really stretching the idea of beauty. Do I know that from some art class I took or a book I read? No, I am no Art major, I am just a guy who knows what I like, and I like weird paintings.

Exhibit A

Not strange enough for you? Here is my favorite painting in the museum:

The town is melting...

If you don’t like Chaim Soutine you can still find a nice collection of Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir. I love Soutine and l’Orangerie has the largest collection of his work that I am aware of. I could spend a couple of hours looking at these paintings, but not everyone in my family likes his stuff, my son asked me if Soutine had a physical disability, not the greatest compliment for a painter unless you are Chuck Close.

The museum is just the right size for a leisurely two-hour visit without having to feel rushed. The line to get into the museum can get a bit long so I suggest showing up just before it opens so you can maximize your time. So, if you are visiting Paris, live in Paris, passing through Paris, visit the l’Orangerie it is one of my favorite places.

My Favorite Places: Being Lost

One of my favorite places in the world is being lost. I like being lost. There are of course different levels of lost and I will admit that being lost at night is not the best, or being lost with other people (for example, my family) is not a great deal of fun, and being lost in the woods is not something I would suggest doing unless you are filming one of those survival shows. Some might call the type of lost I am writing about wandering, but I like the term lost better.

I have been lost many, many times. There was a time when being lost made me anxious, but lost hasn’t killed me yet, although there was a time I nearly died while hiking around Mount Rainer, but that is less of a “lost” story than it is a “following the wrong trail” story.  The variety of lost I am talking about is the type where you drop yourself somewhere unfamiliar and you begin exploring. Leave the maps behind and just let the day unwind, this is best done on foot and don’t get crazy and plop yourself somewhere dangerous, find a spot off the beaten path and begin drifting.

Entering into the world of wandering is a wonderful thing, too often people plan their trip itinerary down to the minute, I have been guilty of doing it, but if you really want to relax plan to get lost. For the really gifted traveler getting lost isn’t something that even has to be scheduled, it just happens naturally. It might be on a trip to wash a backpack full of clothes that you find yourself lost, or maybe you hop on the wrong metro train and find that you are suddenly miles from you planned destination, take a deep breath and accept the unplanned day as a gift from the traveling gods.

A few years ago I became epically lost (not quite as epic as Ulysses) in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. My intention had been to zip into the cemetery, get a quick picture of Jim Morrison’s grave for my son, and then spend the rest of the day on Montmartre. My plan had two major flaws: 1. I was using a guidebook with a very small map, 2. I was under the impression that everyone would be looking for Jim Morrison’s grave.

I gave up on the map after about thirty minutes, but I could not give up on the idea that following groups of people would lead me Mr. Morrison’s decomposed body. So for four hours I followed groups of mostly young people like I was a very large, conspicuous spy. Believe it or not, this very excellent plan did not lead me to find Jim’s grave, but I did find many graves of other pretty famous people. I ended up having a very good day of walking and reminiscing about the good old days when I worked in a cemetery for two summers. If I had found Jim Morrison’s grave immediately here is what I would have missed:

Georges Rodenbach busting out of his tomb

Edith Piaf's grave site


Alice Toklas and right next door...

Gertrude Stein

Mr. Wilde

I eventually did find Mr. Morrison’s grave and I can honestly say that I liked Victor Noir’s much better.

This is what four hours of lost looks like. Mr. Morrison napping peacefully in the background.

Fertility charm and grave of Victor Noir.

Young Kids, Museums and Travel

When our kids were young we took them to London and Paris. There were people who asked, “Aren’t the kids too young to appreciate Europe?” Well, they may have been, but my goals were not to have them “appreciate” anything, I just wanted them to see the world from a different angle. I wanted them to have a mind altering experience early enough in life so they did not see the world as their enemy, which, in my opinion, is how many Americans view the world.

Now the trip did not always go smoothly, Emma might have been too young to care about the Elgin Marbles, but the trip did allow them to see the world is not a homogenized chunk of Home Depot, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, and Safeway strip malls crowding each American city. They came back to the USA with an understanding that things are different other places and that isn’t a bad thing. They tried new things and found out that “different” isn’t a threat to an American way of life that must be snuffed out. I believe that if more Americans traveled overseas, not just in military uniforms, the world would be a better place. Only 37% of Americans have passports. That statistic is probably skewed by economics (some people cannot afford to travel) but I believe there is a large group of Americans who never want to leave the country for any reason.

The trip also established two unintended consequences the first being that both of my children have the travel bug. I could not be happier. We went back to Europe with the kids in 2009. We visited Iceland, England, France, Germany and Denmark. Did the kids have a great time 100% of the time? No, but both of them are pleading for us to go back and see new places. You will not hear my kids say, “I hear the French don’t like us” or “What’s there to see in Iceland?” because they know that every place has its own magic. Now, maybe we could have established this idea here in the US, but if you travel much in the US you begin to see that corporations are doing a good job of making the American landscape all the same. Sure, Europe has some of the same problems, but the cultural differences between places is something that even the largest corporations cannot change.

The second unintended consequence of our travel is something more important and that is the shared memories of adventure. Some people have advised me to save money for the kids’ college years, but instead I have spent our money on travel. I have invested in memories instead of the future. Now this might be foolish but I don’t see the point in squirreling away nuts for the winter when those nuts have a pretty good chance of becoming rotten. Memories are investments also. They are the type of investment that always increases in value and my kids have memories they will be able to share with their families some day.

So, should you take your kids on a trip someplace far away before they are old enough to appreciate it? Yes, and then take them again, and again.


An Incident at Aquaboulevard

I’m not sure how many days of hot weather we had on our first trip to Paris, but what I do remember is that my daughter, Emma, had heat rash, our hotel had no air conditioning, and there were people dying from heat exhaustion all over Europe that summer. The heat was inescapable unless you stayed in one of the twelve buildings in Paris that had air conditioning. We spent one afternoon in an air-conditioned theater watching a cartoon version of Sinbad in French, no subtitles, no English, we understood none of it but it was two hours of cool air. We didn’t care about the movie; we just cared about air-conditioning. The movie ticket agent was suspicious, we spoke hardly any French, we wanted to buy tickets for a movie that was starting in an hour (“You cannot go in now”) and we were not in an area of Paris nearly free of tourists.

Our goal really was just to give the kids a little treat, they had been such good troopers with the heat and walking, we thought we would take them to a movie. The plan was to go to the theater, which was located in a large shopping mall, get our tickets early, eat lunch at the food court and then watch the movie. We would be inside during the heat of the day, the kids would be refreshed for the rest of the evening, and it was a good plan until we walked by Aquaboulevard. Auqaboulevard was a water park designed by Jacques Cousteau that sat alongside the mall. There were several places in the mall where you could look into the water park, and of course, one of the places just happened to next to the food court. If you are a parent you know how it went.

“Can we go in there?”

“We are going to the movie, we already have tickets.”

“But, I want to go in there.”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“I want to go now,” tears begin streaming down face.

“Maybe tomorrow, I will see how much it will cost. We could spend the whole day there.”

Did I want to spend a whole day in a water park in Paris? No, I really did not want to travel all the way to Paris to swim in a bunch of urine infested waters, but I made the mistake of saying, ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ which meant we were going to the water park tomorrow unless it cost a billion dollars. It didn’t.

The next day we trudged from our hotel to the water park. My kids were excited and I was actually looking forward to getting out of the heat and spending some time frolicking in the urine soaked waters of Aquaboulevard. (I am assuming the water is full of urine. I have no actual evidence of urine in the water other than the fact that kids pee in public pools all the time.)

We arrived at the water park and I began navigating the complex cost system of the water park. There was only one attendant who spoke a little English and so we did our best to figure out the prices. It turned out the least expensive route was getting a yearlong membership, which meant I had to fill out some paper work. I really had no clue what I was writing in any of the little boxes but I did my best and when it all looked done, we paid and began heading back to the changing rooms and here is where the day came apart. There was a red sign with a man wearing shorts with a large red X across it. Next to it was a green sign with a man wearing a Speedo, there was no red X on the Speedo, although, in my opinion there should always be an X on men wearing Speedos.

I stopped the girls from going into the changing rooms and went back to ask the English speaking attendant if our swim trunks were okay. They were not. We had to have Speedos. We did not have Speedos. We could not go into the park. Really? Really.

Cancel the yearlong membership, pull crying kids out of the entryway, walk back to the hotel through the heat, and feel like quitting.  Not a good start to the day.

We did manage to rally and find a great park nearby (see the video) and the kids had a great time there, but someday when I am 70 years old I will have revenge on Aquaboulevard: I will go there in a small white Speedo.

When You Lie to Your Kids

Here is the danger in telling your kids that carrying them in Europe is illegal: they might want to attack you. We had been on longer walks, but those walks were disguised by twists and turns (to be completely honest, many of the twist and turns were because we were lost.) This walk was supposed to be a nice stroll up the Champs-Elysees. Now you don’t have to stroll up the Champs-Elysees if you go to Paris, but be ready to explain your actions when you get home. For most Americans there are several places you must go when visiting Paris: Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame and Champs-Elysees/Arc de Triomphe. If you don’t see one of these places be prepared to explain why. You may not get accused of being a communist (although traveling to Paris these days has a way of coloring you pink anyway) but people will wonder why you didn’t go where they wanted you to.  I must admit I do the same thing when people I know travel: If you went to India, I will ask if you saw the Taj Mahal. If you go to China, I will ask if you saw the Great Wall. If you go to Australia, I will ask about Ayers Rock. Now I don’t really know where many of these famous sites are really located, but I will want you to see them so we have something to talk about.

A random friend will ask, “Did you go to that road where they finish the Tour of France?”

“Why, yes, we walked all the way from the fountains at Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe.”

“You kids are so lucky that your parents took you to Paris and you saw all those famous sites.”

So the family stroll up the Champs-Elysees was a walk intended to check off a couple more locations, it was not intended on becoming the Bataan death march. I figured we would walk a bit, sit a bit, go into a shop or two, look around and then continue on until we reached the Arc. Unfortunately we managed to arrive in Paris during one of the longest stretches of hot weather in recorded history. People from the Northwest do not do well in heat, when it gets above 80 degrees we all begin complaining. So by 9 am it was already too hot for our poor bodies and we darted from shady location to shady location like vampires. We did take breaks but as we got further up the street it became more and more crowded but before too long the stroll had become a miserable slog. We trudged up the sidewalk slowly. Most of the tourists around us did not seem to be affected by the heat, they were probably from places like Spain and Italy where it gets above 80 degrees occasionally.

By the time we reached the Arc everyone in my family was exhausted. I wanted to walk to the top of the Arc; it is times like this when my family decides that traveling with me is not fun. I managed to talk my son into taking the stairs up to the top of the Arc, but our stay on top of the Arc was brief because there was no shade and my pale skin was beginning to turn an uncomfortable shade of pink. So, we went back down to the base of the monument I and sat there amazed at my ability to turn a fun outing into something akin to punishment.

A Good Lie to Tell Your Kids

Traveling with young kids can be a challenge. They are grumpy little people with short attention spans and not much interest in history or art. So when my wife and I decided to take our kids to Europe for the first time there were many challenges we had to overcome: How do you keep your kids entertained without spending the whole day at places like Chuck E Cheese? How do you avoid eating at places like McDonalds? How do you introduce your children to a world that will be vastly different than the one they are accustomed to? And how do you get from location to location without carrying them everywhere?

I wasn’t sure how I would overcome all of these challenges but I did decide right up front that I was not going to lug a stroller around London and Paris and I was not going to spend my vacation time like a pack mule carrying my kids from location to location, so I did what parents have been doing for centuries, I lied to my kids. It was a simple lie, a beautiful lie, and a lie I would suggest for any American family traveling overseas.

“Did you know it is against the law to carry children in Europe?”

There it is. One day, probably after carrying my kids around Seattle, this little gem popped out of my mouth. At first I really didn’t know how valuable this gem was but if you are a parent you know that carrying a 40 pound kid around for 20 minutes can be tiring, so carrying two kids around Europe for two weeks is not anything any parent wants to do unless they are some kind of super-parent who wants to brag about how great they are. I am not that parent.

Now some of you out there might be skeptical about how well this would work, but let me assure you that once we arrived in London we saw very few children being carried. Most people who live there take their kids in strollers and on the couple occasions we did see children being carried my children actually believed that the parents were breaking the law.

My kids walked everywhere. They were little troopers. They walked to the Tube station, they walked through museums, they walked long distances (okay, we did have to buy a lot of ice cream), but I did not carry my children. Did I have any guilt over this lie? Nope, not a bit. Were there any problems? Well, my daughter did get angry once or twice, but that story is for tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: