Saturday, August 3, 2013

some final thoughts

It is not possible to sum up in one post our experience of the last eight weeks, and I will not attempt to do so here. As those of you have been kind enough to read this blog know, we had a wonderful time. Lauren and Owen exceeded our expectations in almost every way. The places we went, people we met, food we ate and stories we heard will stay with us for a very long time. We are so lucky to have had this experience, and we are so appreciative to all of those who helped us along the way.

I'll finish here with some thoughts and observations on some of the things we encountered. I doubt there is much insight in any of these, but Keri and I thought it important to share nonetheless.

Air conditioning. We had problems with the air conditioning units in every single hotel/flat that had one. This cannot be mere coincidence. Rather, I am certain it reflects the total lack of regard most Europeans have for artificially cooled air. I don't care what they say. When it comes down to it, most Europeans don't believe in air conditioning. I heard from one person that her German co-workers think it causes illness/injury (actual example: "I have a stiff neck because I used the air conditioning unit in my car yesterday"). As a result, many office buildings and other semi-public spaces have no air conditioning, even though those the cities where they are built can go weeks on end with temperatures approaching 90. Europe has many fine qualities, but it can get hot in the summer, and if you plan to vacation there between June and September, prepare to sweat.

Washing Machines. We do a lot of laundry in my family. I think Keri washes more loads in one week than I did in four years of college. Knowing that, we tried to rent flats with washing machines. We figured those machines would be slightly smaller than ours at home, and would have a dryer function, as well. Wrong and wrong. I still have no idea how a family of four washes their clothes in the places we visited. I tend to think they don't do so very often, as it is really impractical to do so with a machine the size of an Easy Bake oven and a rack-drying system that leaves all of your clothes with that lovely starched feeling. (Pictured here is the washing machine from the kitchen in our London flat. It only looks large because it is next to a European-sized refrigerator.)

Laundry Services. Because of our laundry issues, we ended up sampling bulk clothes washing services in London, Edinburgh, Rome and Pontresina. They ranged in price and quality. Bottom line is you get what you pay for. London was among the cheaper services, but I had a shirt ruined and we did get our laundry back fresh out of the dryer -- as in, someone literally dumped the clothes into a bag right from the dryer and handed back to us our bag filled with clean, wrinkled clothes. Pontresina had, far and away, the best quality, but we had to spend a portion of the kids' college fund to use it. I'm sure they'll understand when we explain it to them years down the road.

Bathrooms. Every place we went had some version of public bathrooms. They call them toilets or water closets and, like the bulk laundry services, there is a real difference in quality in the places we visited. Most of the bathrooms in the United Kingdom were good -- clean and functional. Those in Italy, on the other hand, were pretty dicey. Keri reports several times where she had to do her business into a small porcelain receptacle that stood about a foot over ground level. Good for building up quad strength, I suppose, but not for comfort. Switzerland, although is shares a border with Italy, does not share the Italian preference for toilets that make you never want to drink any water. To the contrary, I'd be shocked if Swiss bathrooms were not the finest in the world. George Costanza, American sitcom legend and a true connoisseur of public bathrooms, would appreciate the Swiss attention to the quality of their toilets. (Pictured here is my mother-in-law seated on a toilet in the tower within the Tower of London. Fittingly, I missed seeing this toilet as I was with Owen searching out an actual bathroom.)

Showers. This is one area where I am glad to report substantial progress on the part of our European allies. Years ago, one actually had to bathe -- literally -- to get clean in the Old World. Stewing in your own filth, as I like to call it. Every place we stayed had a shower, and not just the kind of afterthought, I'll attach a hand-held shower head to this tub faucet and let you try to use it without the benefit of any kind of shower curtain situation, as many of you have probably experienced in the past. With the air conditioning and laundry issues, it was really, really important the the Europeans at least employ an effective self-cleaning system, which they now have. Kudos.

Food. The food is just better in Europe. I don't know whether it the preservatives American companies put in everything we eat, but our food is just nowhere near as good. Fresh baked bread. Incredible fruits. Delicious cheeses. Tasty meats. Desserts so good that our desserts should be ashamed of themselves. (Note from Keri: Given that I pride myself on my baking, I'll try not be offended by that last statement. And, consider your Sunday night dessert buffet -- American style -- over before it started.) Really, I cannot think of a single item we ate in Europe that was worse than the same item in the States. (Pictured here is the Hotel Walther dessert buffet. Judge for yourself. I regret nothing.)

Hamburgers. Scratch that. The Europeans still have not a clue what a hamburger is supposed to taste like. In the early 90's Whit Stillman film, Barcelona, the local Spaniards think Americans are idiots, in part, because our national love affair with the hamburger. The only hamburgers the Barcelonans have tasted are, of course, total dreck; ergo, Americans cannot be trusted. At the end of the film, three of the Spanish women are introduced, lakeside in Wisconsin, to real American hamburgers, which tastes nothing like they have eaten before. Maybe these Americans aren't so stupid, after all. Sadly, this situation has seen little improvement. I have no idea why some enterprising American restauranteur has not opened up a serious burger joint in Europe, as it would change everything, raising the bar for all hamburgers across the continent -- and improving American foreign relations. A win-win. Maybe on my next sabbatical.

Exercise. Europeans exercise differently. There are some gyms, but nothing on the order of what we have here. (Nor did I see a single Lulu Lemon. I have no idea how these people call themselves civilized.) We saw some people running in London, but not really anywhere else. We saw lots of cyclists in rural Italy and, of course, lots of cyclists and hikers and mountaineers in Switzerland. Despite the apparent absence of daily, systematic exercise factories, Europeans appear to be in pretty good shape -- at least better than we Americans. I think most of this can be attributed to the benefits of having to walk everywhere. The food may have something to do with it, too. Really, I don't know, but there is something to be said for the European lifestyle.

Beds. I wrote about this a little before. European beds are about 4000% harder than their American counterparts. At just about every place we stayed, Keri had to place blankets/comforters under her side of the bed. I have no idea why there would be this different approach to bed firmness. Perhaps, the Europeans think softer mattresses are akin to air conditioning. More likely they simply don't know beds come in firmness levels other than Fred & Wilma Flintstone.

Bra fitting. [This is Keri's contribution.] What do Italian women have against under-wire bras? Everywhere we went in Italy, we were confronted by Italian boobies. And, not perky, young boobies. More like the old woman from Something About Mary with a thin, see-through tee shirt added to the image. Similar to Tim's nascent hamburger business idea, all we need here is one enterprising American brassiere mogul, a measuring tape, and some time. This will work. And the women of Europe -- and their breasts -- will thank me.

Television. American television is ascendant. It is our most innovative and important form of storytelling and satire. There are too many good shows to watch. European television, based on our very small sampling, is very much the "vast wasteland" Newton Minnow railed against when he was FCC chair. Take CBeebies (please) -- the BBC children's network. Start with the worst shows on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, remove anything funny or non-annoying and you are about halfway there. These are the people who brought you the Teletubbies. Now, they feature such shows as Grandpa in My Pocket, Magic Hands, and Andy's Wild Adventure. They are clearly up to no good. Owen was fascinated with this channel during our two weeks in London, so we saw a fair amount of it. I don't know that I'll ever recover.

In Switzerland, I watched the opening credits to a German language medical drama. No fewer than forty people were featured -- name and picture -- in those credits. Curiosity compelled me to watch the first five minutes. I speak not more than a few words of German, but I can sure as hell recognize abysmal acting in any language, and I saw an epic amount it in the first two scenes. And, yes, the Europeans do borrow some American programming, which they dub into their local language. Although this would seem to offer some potential for importing quality American programming, the results are opposite, as most of the shows are bad shows from the 80's and 90's. I think this may be part of a broader conspiracy -- along with the hamburger -- to make the people think that Americans are total dullards. There is no other explanation.

And with that, I bid you all adieu. Thanks so much for reading, and stay tuned, as you never know when vacation and inspiration will conspire to force me back to my blogging ways.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

auf wiedersehen, switzerland!

Our two week jaunt through the Alps was over. Our nearly-eight week marathon was coming to an end. We still had one night and one long (nearly twenty-four hours when all was said and done) day of travel to get through, though.

Our last night in Switzerland provided some examples of the good and bad of European travel. We stayed at the Mövenpick Hotel Zurich-Airport. As the name suggests, the hotel is a few minutes from the airport. In the final assessment, that, and the ice cream, are its two most redeeming qualities. Our room was adequate. It had two double beds, a bathroom and a television. That was about it. The bathroom was quite spartan. ("I guess no frills means no frills," announced Keri in response to the lack of an actual trash can (just a small plastic bag hung over a metal circle so precariously that the actual placement of trash in said bag caused it to dislodge and fall to the ground), lotion, or face soap.)

When we checked in, we were able to hop on the hotel wi-fi without difficulty. I was a little surprised it was so simple, and without any kind of fee, registration or password required. Regardless, we all had a couple hours of good internet access, blogging for me and critical application updates for Lauren and Owen's seemingly endless supply of games. Recent purchases include such gems as Get The Nut (Owen: "Lauren got a chickmunk game!"), Backyard Pilot (slightly disconcerting to watch your children crashing all manner of airplanes from their mobile devices in the middle of a ten-hour flight) and Cupcake Crazy Chef (is cupcake design so difficult and interesting that it merits its own game?).

Not wanting to brave Zurich's public transportation system, we opted for dinner at the hotel. We got to the restaurant, Dim Sum (at which there was no dim sum or Chinese food of any kind), at six sharp, and were the beneficiaries of Europeans' later-dining habits. Peace, quiet (even our kids were relatively subdued) and pretty good food made for a nice last meal. For dessert, we all opted for two small cones of Mövenpick ice cream. Strange, I know, that the Mövenpick company has both hotel and ice cream divisions. In any event, the ice cream was quite good, and we all appreciated finishing on a good note our eight-week dessert binge.

On our way back to the room, I overheard hotel staff telling another guest that there was no free internet access. Strange, I thought. Why would the hotel lie about this? Was this part of a thought-experiment to see if people, when told there is a cost for a valuable service that is sometimes provided free of charge, will simply not even try to see if the service can be had for free (in this case, not attempting to access the hotel's wi-fi)? Turns out, this was no test, as the wi-fi now could not be accessed without paying a fee (five francs per hour per device). I had no idea how we had accessed it for free before, and was just grateful that I had finished a blog entry.

Far and away the biggest problem with the hotel was the air conditioning -- or lack of it. I had cranked the unit in our room to max cool and fan speed. The fan was working fine, but the air coming from the vent was, to my feel, about half-a-degree colder than the somewhat warm air in the room. The combination of warmish air, three hot-blooded Ecksteins, and two double beds made for tough sleeping conditions. Owen and Lauren, apparently unaware of the causal connection between their discomfort and the covers, argued over their perceived unequal distribution of the same. None of us slept well. I woke up several times during the several hours I did sleep, usually finding one of my children awake.

When the clerk asked at checkout if everything was adequate, I said it was but that they may want to look into the unit for that room. She responded that the hotel has central air (thanks, ma'am, I'm from Phoenix -- I know a little something about that concept) and that Swiss law prevents the hotel from using the system to produce air that is more than five degrees lower than the outside temperature. Huh? We were going to catch a flight so I did not want to argue, but come on! It happened to be in the mid-70's during our time there, but Zurich can get pretty warm. Today, for example, the high was in the low-90's. Are you telling me that, as a matter of federal/cantonese/municipal law, no business may run a system that produces air cooled below the mid 80's? I know our European cousins have a general aversion to conditioned air, but that just can't be.

Our transition to the plane went relatively smoothly. We picked up at the airport train station the three large suitcases we had sent the day before, checked in and started looking for some breakfast. I realize living in the cocoon of the Hotel Walther left us a little inoculated from the crazy prices of goods in Switzerland. Our final morning provided a nice reminder of that. About five dollars each for a small bottle of water (about one-third of which was consumed before we had to throw it out in Heathrow) a small cappuccino, double espresso and hot chocolate. I suppose these prices are more affordable if you are saving so much on your electric bills.

We spent about three hours in Heathrow before catching our direct flight to Phoenix -- just enough time for Lauren and Owen to get one last item each, Lauren opting for a teddy bear to add to her impressive collection and Owen a metal British Airways plane. I don't know how or when, but I see bad things happening with that plane. (Pictured here is Owen, along with his faithful companion, Puppy. Although he appears to be a cute and benign animal, he is capable of great mischief. You have been warned.)

The flight to Phoenix was a little more than ten hours. We had upgraded to premium economy, which got us around eighteen extra inches of leg-room. That meant I could actually cross my legs, at least until the person seated in front of me went into a full recline.

I decided my best shot of staying awake -- and hopefully minimizing jet lag -- was going to be watching movies rather than reading. I opted for The Place Beyond the Pines, Django Unchained, and Les Miserables. Really strong performances in Pines, in particular from Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. The plot was interesting, too, although it fell apart slightly in the last third of the movie. Django was better than I had thought it would be. I appreciate the discomfort some have with the language, violence (it is a Tarantino film after all) and the blaxploitation treatment given to the horrors of slavery, all within a western narrative, but the movie just plain works. Les Mis was a nice pick-me-up to get me through the final hours of our marathon. I dozed off in portions (including the part where I take it was supposed to gain even the slightest caring for Marius -- seriously, was I supposed to be rooting for him to take a direct hit of musket shot?), but caught enough to get the gist. Slightly over-the-top, but hard to not like. Damnit if I am not still humming those infectious songs. That Victor Hugo sure knew a thing or two about musical theater.

Of course, our movie-watching was interrupted, on a fairly regular basis, by the two people sitting between Keri and me. Owen pestered Keri with various issues related to his socks, shoes, headphones, multiple beverages (including the apple juice that he spilled on her), and general fidgeting. My neighbor, Lauren, started pretty strong, watching a movie, playing on her iPad and generally leaving me alone for a couple hours. Somewhere above the North Atlantic, the wheels came off. There was nothing she wanted to watch, her iPad was running low on battery life, and she needed to show me every five minutes where we were on the in-flight map. She just wanted to be home, already. Sometime after that, she said she felt sick and was non-committal as to whether she might throw up. A vomit bag and a twenty minute trip to the bathroom with me holding Lauren's hair while she bent over the toilet followed. No vomit, though, and both kids managed to hold it together through wheels down. (This picture was taken hours earlier, on our flight from Switzerland. Darken the circles under my eyes, change the expression from slightly annoyed to nearly desperate and you get the idea.)

My father-in-law was kind enough to pick us up (with his surgically-healing shoulder) in Keri's car and I got one last shot to load and unload our bags. Can't say I am going to miss moving those things. We made it home, where our beloved Charlie and Sadie were waiting for us, tails a-wagging. As far as they knew, we had been gone for the afternoon.

Lauren was up a couple times, again complaining about prospect of throw-up that never materialized. Owen slept for fourteen hours -- a gift to all four of us.

For now, it is laundry, grocery shopping and re-integrating into our life in Phoenix. School does not start for a couple weeks and I don't return to work until September, so life will remain abnormal for a bit longer. For now, though, we are just happy to be home.