Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Merry Christmas to all!

Annette and I printed some Christmas cards with the above photo (fourth from top) at Costco, and in my never-very-humble opinion, they came out too dark. Nonetheless, it's the thought that counts, though I will apologize for not writing (or insisting that my wife writes) a 2009 X-mas letter. Yes, long, self-indulgent Christmas letters are irritating, but there's nothing wrong with a short-and-sweet family update with a bunch of pics. We just didn't do one. Sorry.
To make up for that, here are a few family photos, all involving travel from 2009. My apologies for not blogging more frequently lately. That's mostly been due to me waffling on Eurotour 2010. Still not ruling it out, and in fact, the past couple of days, inner momentum has been building. Will try to get motivated again over the holidays.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Great video link: Rick Steves on Martin Luther

Opening the Door to Luther - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

A religious pilgrimage of sorts

This trip will be part religious pilgrimage for this lifelong Lutheran. I intend to visit the Vatican and all the Roman Catholic holy sites in Italy, as well as some of the major cathedrals around Europe. But I definitely intend to pay my respects at the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, where my guy Martin Luther is buried. Not only did Luther spark Protestantism (ever notice that you can't say Protestant without saying "Protest") but he also ultimately changed the Roman Catholic Church, for the better. Some Catholics might argue that with me, but they're simply wrong. Read up on your own church's history and you'll thank Marty Luther for no longer having to pay indulgences for shorter sidetrips to Purgatory.

Luther would be cool today. He was quick with a quip, loved music, and liked beer – perhaps the latter helped generate his many clever quotes on the human condition. Making the case for allowing priests, or pastors, to marry, he wrote: "Marriage is a better school for the character than any monastery for it's here that your corners are rubbed off." Whoa, has anyone better characterized marriage in the 500 years since? I've always wondered how priests can give advice on marriage when they can't marry themselves. Yeah, yeah, I know: Priests are married to God. Well, I would propose that living with God is easier than living with a spouse. And I say that fully realizing that no spouse is more difficult to live with than yours truly.

Despite my respect and dedication to Luther and Lutheranism, my boys attend a Catholic grade school for a number of reasons. They're getting a good education with the children of other great families. Most of all, I know the Catholic Church of today is not the one that Luther challenged, and these two branches of Christianity teach the same core beliefs about the life of Jesus Christ and the religion his disciples have carried around the world. I love the history of Christianity, and that's inexorably linked to the pageantry and theology of Catholicism. I just wish Christians spent less time worrying about our differences and more time unifying to make the world a better place. Perhaps exposing my family to the Catholic Church, while attending our ELCA Lutheran Church every Sunday (in 11 hours, in fact) is my way of trying to live that belief a bit.

America's travel buddy Rick Steves produced this excellent video for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America on the life of Luther. It provides a great description of the world where Luther grew up and eventually changed the history of Christianity forever. I'd highly recommend it for Lutherans, Catholics, and all people of faith.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hedging vs. Mr. Mojo Risin'

Booking the ticket hasn’t stopped me from hedging about this trip. Just feel irresponsible even considering being away this long. My wife has her hands full with three boys when I am around to help, and I worry they’ll turn her into a shivering shell of a human while I'm away. (That's me if she's away a few hours.) The lawn will be three feet high, and a revolution will have occurred at my office. Who do I think I am just taking off? Leaning heavily toward pulling the plug and eating the frequent flyer miles.

Caught a few minutes of a PBS funding drive last night that included classic rock-and-roll footage from the old Ed Sullivan show. It reminded me of a reason I want to visit Europe and in particular, Paris. Annette and I visited Paris for four days back in 1997, but we didn’t visit Jim Morrison’s grave at at Père-Lachaise Cemetery. I’ve always regretted that. Why do Americans, or frankly, young people from around the world feel the need to see the Lizard King’s finally resting place?

The few minutes of the Sullivan footage I viewed last night included the classic The Doors performance of Sept. 17, 1967. The story is legend. Sullivan and his producers asked the band to change the lyric “Girl, we couldn't get much higher” from Light My Fire to “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.” Morrison, of course, sang the song with the lyrics intact, and you can see other bandmates, particularly guitarist Robbie Krieger chuckling in the background. Sullivan, who apparently could hold a grudge with the best of them, banned the band from future performances to which Morrison replied, “We just did The Ed Sullivan Show.”

The silly Sullivan censorship story aside, I remain incredibly struck by Morrison’s stage presence. He had a good voice, but by today’s musical standards, where American Idol churns out super-human falsettos on an annual basis, Morrison’s baritone doesn’t stand out. Yet has there been a more charismatic lead singer in the history of rock-and-roll? As a viewer 42 years after the Sullivan performance, you still can’t take your eyes off the man. Confident, cool, vulnerable, theatrical… a living, breathing Adonis. The Doors cranked out a lot of music before a bearded, bloated 27-year-old Morrison died in Paris in 1971, so the man didn’t exit at the peak of his career. Nonetheless, he was still too young, and his attitude and abilities as a poet and lyricist have helped generations of literary adolescents survive their teenage years.

Of course, sometimes we look too hard for heroes. While Morrison was strutting around the Sullivan stage and inspiring future generations of rebellious teenagers, my dad (who was born the same year as Morrison) was on an airplane to Vietnam. He and my mom, just recently married, would spend the first 13 months of their marriage apart while dad served his country in a brutal war. Four years later, when Morrison died, The Doors' lead singer reportedly had 20 paternity suits pending against him. (According to Wikipedia, none of the claims against his estate actually were successful.) Just wanted to add a little levity to this fawning review of a dead celebrity.

Nonetheless, I still want to see the grave of Mr. Mojo Risin (an anagram of Jim Morrison) And that’s one reason I haven’t completely nuked Eurotrek 2010.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First TripAdvisor review posted

Just to make my TripAdvisor page legit, I wrote a review last night of Walt Disney World's Polynesian Resort. Annette and I and the boys stayed there for a week in October. Had a fine time though not so sure we'd stay at that same resort if we ever visit WDW again. Anyway, you can read all about it here. Have not determined how to automate tweets or blog posts with new TripAdvisor reviews (which is very odd if you ask me), but the link is listed below, at right, or you can simply bookmark www.tripadvisor.com/members/IntenseTraveler. That takes you to my member profile, then click Contributions on left side for my reviews.

As time permits this winter, perhaps Annette and I will post other reviews of past destinations on the site.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The TripAdvisor factor

Traded a few Skype messages with a college buddy now living in Vienna, Austria. Annette and I visited that fine city a decade ago so it’s unlikely my 2010 trip will swing through “Wien,” but who knows, perhaps my Madison-era acquaintance and I will rendezvous somehow.

Anyway, “Gracy” introduced me to TripAdvisor, a website where I launched my own companion page to this blog tonight. It’s more review-oriented vs. the blog, which frankly is all about me. (And I’m OK with that.) Obviously, no Euro-reviews will exist until May, but when I craft one, a link will appear on this page, or via an IntenseTraveler tweet. I did write a quick review of the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World from our October trip, and the spontaneous lil' notes at TripAdvisor tell me that it should be posted within 48 hours. So you can read my stellar profile now, then be sure to check back for that must-read about WDW!

My old buddy – and I do mean “old” since he turned 40 this week – has traveled extensively. Though he doesn’t write massive “megamails” anymore about his journeys, you can see his TripAdvisor reviews here.

Historical aside. During our conversation, Gracy reminded me that this week marks the anniversary of the so-called Black Friday birthday party on the first floor of UW-Madison’s Sullivan Hall our sophomore year. The party ultimately deteriorated into cops busting the place up, writing dozens of drinking tickets (none for me), and my acquaintenance being booted from the dormitory – hence the moniker “Black Friday.” I understand that a few other survivors are commemorating the event's 20th anniversary this evening (probably as I type this) beginning at Der Rathskellar at UW's Memorial Union. Wow, 20 years since I mouthed off to a cop busting the place up (we nicknamed him Rambo) and got my head bashed into a wall. I may have even yelled, “I’m being repressed! I’m being repressed!”

No wonder I’m planning a middle-aged crisis walk-about.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It’s booked!

Less than 24 hours from the point of no return. Last night, my lovely bride booked a flight across the pond, and Delta Airlines gives me until tomorrow to drop the hold on the ticket. Timing will be early to mid-day, during decent spring weather but – in theory – before the massive legions of college students and tourists descend on The Continent. To eliminate a leg of train travel, I’ve decided to land in one city but depart from another. Beginning in Amsterdam on May 7, I will work my way clockwise through Germany, Czech Republic, south to Italy, then back north for a couple days in Switzerland. Two nights in Paris with a flight departing from Chuck de Gaulle airport on Sunday, May 23, rounds it out. Leaving from Paris was a wash from a frequent-flyer-mile perspective, and it eliminates several hours of rail back to Holland, plus the flight back to the States runs an hour shorter.

Even though the ticket only cost $82 (taxes and surcharges) thanks to my frequent-flyer-mile collection, owning a non-refundable ticket should squelch my personal inner conflict about whether to embark at all. It took several years to build those miles, and they’re not going to waste! Railpass will be my single-largest expense of this trip, and after consulting with a travel agent friend, that’s probably my next purchase.

Whoa, this is really going to happen.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Why would I need a daddy vacation?

I can't imagine why I need a mancation. Any one else have any theories? Am I failing as a parent? Do healthy children do such things? I was normal once...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Needing a netbook

Been checking out these netbooks at Costco the past couple of weeks. They look perfect for my style of traveling. Write on the fly (or on the tracks), then upload images, blog entries, or video at a Wi-Fi cafe or another establishment. Little keyboard still beats trying to type in blogs on iPhone, plus I can communicate back home very affordably via Skype video.
Not sure which one to purchase. Thinking at least a gig of RAM and 160 gig of memory. Battery life seems to be the driving factor with these devices – the longer the better. Won't buy one with less than 6 hours. Hoping to get by with a good one for $350. Seems reasonable given what I'm seeing at Costco. Want to buy there since that business automatically doubles any warranty, and I like spending my money with that company. Returns and customer service so much better than at Best Buy, plus they treat their employees well compared to most retailers. Best Buy of course has a larger selection, though they keep them hidden away from larger ticket machines, go figure.
Any advice on brands out there? Will be researching them further in coming weeks. I need some sort of laptop either way. Computer industry can't be happy that netbooks are becoming so popular. Must be significantly less profit in one of these babies than a large laptop or PC. Can't believe they can sell these things so cheap. Saw a couple at Costco in $275 range, and Annette's cousin, Lindsay, tells me Dell will be introducing one in the $250 range soon.
Any advice appreciated!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The RER? I can't resist

OK, even if we do learn the language, Annette and I can't resist the look on the face of French folks when we mispronounce the name of their beloved metro system - the RER, which they pronounce "Air-e-Air." The hard 'ar sound that Americans apply to the letter R is like fingernails on a chalkboard to a Frenchman. Watch them wince when you ask, "Excuse me, where is the "Arr-EEE-Arrr!?"

Annette and I have a friend from France, and we asked him if we mispronounced RER by blurting "Arr-EEE-Arr!" A very polite, dear man, he softly shook his head and replied through his pained face, "We would not say that way..."

Shall we learn a language?

Imagine a German visits America, then begins speaking in Deutsch to someone on the street in say, Duluth. This visitor then acts bewildered, upset, and even rude that the U.S. citizen doesn’t respond in the teutonic tongue. Most Americans probably would – rightfully so – bust the clueless tourist in the mouth.

Now let’s say large groups of loud, obnoxious Italians begin visiting Minneapolis every year. They’re decked out in soccer garb, drinking like fish, demanding directions (in their native Italia) to Target Field, Mall of America, or the Guthrie Theatre, and they return in droves year after year. We probably wouldn’t have much time for Italians anymore, would we?

OK, the French have their flaws. Charles de Gaulle was an unapreciative arse, their love of Jerry Lewis is baffling, and their arrogant attitude precedes them. I get all that. (Two can’t-pass-this-up asides: Did you hear why France agreed to the tunnel beneath the English Channel? To make it easier for the French government to flee to London. Also, I understand that for travelers, France is a safe country, even though it is occassionally invaded by Germans.)

All that aside, Annette and I traveled to Paris for a few days in the late 1990s and – other than one prick waiter – found most Parisians to be at least helpful and some even congenial. We wore dark clothes, spoke in relatively quiet, respectful tones, and generally attempted to ask questions in French. We said, “Merci beaucoup” a lot.
Parisians have been dealing with the scenario outlined in the first paragraph for 100 years. So when most Americans walk up expecting French citizens to speak in our language, not theirs, one might understand how irritating sentiments toward us could develop. Riding on the RER, we saw a few groups of baseball cap-sporting, “College”-sweatshirt wearing, loud groups of Americans, and yeah, they clearly irritated the French people around them. Guess what? They irritated me, too.

Onto the point of this blog. (It sometimes takes a while to wade through the editorial comments… sorry.) I’m thinking of taking a serious crack at learning French. Annette and I have kicked this Rosetta Stone thing around for her, so maybe we’ll both try it. Though I’m confident in my abilities to get around Europe with English, immersing myself in a language beforehand can’t hurt, and it probably will improve the overall experience. If it leaves a few Europeans with the impression of an American trying to pass quietly and respectfully through their culture, all the better.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Eur-o-rail… Eur-o-rail… Eur-o-rail…Euro…

Remember the classic monorail debacle on the Simpsons? Wikipedia says the episode first aired in January 1993 during the program’s fourth season. A smooth-talking swindler convinces the batty town of Springfield to build a monorail, and hilarous chaos ensues. At a town meeting, Marge tries to talk the citizens out of the idea, but the Springfield mob breaks into a low chant of “mon-o-rail…mon-o-rail…” followed by a Music Man-styled number that eventually drowns out the sensible Simpson.
(Aside: Wikipedia also notes that the episode contains one of Homer’s all-time great lines: “Doughnuts, is there anything they can’t do?”)

What’s this have to do with traveling The Continent? Well, coincidentally, that episode appeared almost exactly the time I should have been traveling the world instead of establishing myself as a working stiff. And this then 22-year-old certainly would have traveled by Eur-o-rail… Eur-o-rail… Eur-o-rail…Euro….

So onto the much delayed point of today’s blog: Which Eurail pass to purchase? Several options are available, but rather than scrimp to save a couple hundred dollars on a flex-pass or four-country Select pass, I’m going to go for the regular “global” Eurail pass for 15 days. That’s the minimum number of consecutive days available, and it’s the primary reason I’m extending the trip beyond a simple eight or nine days. Two weeks of steady travel justifies the expense of a transatlantic flight, and after 15-16 days, I’ll have had enough. There are many websites explaining the Eurail pass system. Can't go wrong with this one.

Monday, November 23, 2009

UK in '96 with my lovely bride

I’m waffling on Eurotour 2010, but nonetheless spent a few minutes with the boys looking at pictures from some past trips. Annette and I honeymooned in the UK in 1996, and these photos struck me as worth sharing. As for my bride: What a babe.

How about the sneakers in the bottom shot?! This could have been a marvelous image (not sure where it was taken…) had I not stuck out like a sore American thumb by wearing running shoes. For the record, those may have been the very pair I wore for my first marathon in 1995. In our later trips to Europe, I stuck to what I consider “formal” shoewear – those ever-so-posh Doc Martins. If I indeed travel across the pond next year, it will be with comfortable walking shoes, sans sneakers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Which Route? Which Guidebook? And Rick Steves Defends Weed

Relatively cheap flights are available from Minneapolis-St. Paul Int'l to Roissy (Charles de Gaulle) in Paris. My plan as of today is to begin in the City of Light, then Eurail my way to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Venice, Rome, Florence, Interlaken in Switzerland, then back to Paris. That’s a lot for a 15- to 16-day trip, so some cities may not survive to the final itinerary. Bottom line, the trip will focus on Western and Central Europe.

Every competent traveler needs a guidebook, right? A Lonely Planet tome, or maybe that Let's Go from those rich brats at Harvard. A quick search at Barnes and Noble deteriorated into a 40-minute grind when I realized the volume of guidebooks available today. There were at least a dozen for most individual cities, and hundreds covering all aspects and corners of Europe.

For starters, I immediately decided to skip the 1,500-page general EUROPE guidebooks from Frommers and other established publishers. I won’t be visiting the UK or Ireland (did that for 16 days in 1996) or Eastern Europe, so why purchase all that extra paper?

Rick Steve’s Europe Through the Backdoor struck me as a good general guide to traveling Europe with some destination highpoints. Yeah, I know he's that sensitive guy that aging boomers crush on. He’s frighteningly inoffensive, but I can’t dislike the man. His guidebooks are practical, even going so far to recommend other books for certain situations, and he talks practical sense.

Off the subject: Steves and Weed

You know what convinced me to spend money with Steves? He strikes me as another non-user of marijuana who thinks the war on this drugs is ridiculous. (For the record, this geek hasn’t even smelled marijuana in decades.) Our economy is in the tank yet our jail cells are full of users and sellers while formerly productive cities like Juarez, Mexico have become war zones over pot smuggling turf. Insane. Check out Steves' statement, which I stumbled into on his website, on the matter. Makes sense to me. (He really has spoken at NORML rallies. I haven’t watched any video snippets but you easily can find interviews with him on the weed topic on the web)

By the way, just because I believe marijuana should be decriminalized doesn’t mean I condone the illegal use of any drug, including dope, or for health issues, booze or cigarettes for that matter. When you blaze up, you’re providing financial incentives for marijuana smuggling and the violence it breeds. All you pot users:Think about this American child before blazing up next time.

Wow, where’d that soapbox moment come from?

Back to trip planning

Anyway, I like Steve’s guide and bought it for $24 minus 25 percent off at B&N thanks to a coupon my mom printed for me. Heads up: Some of the content in Steve’s guide also exists, for free, on his website.

I’m supplementing this general guide with books and information on specific destinations as well as a rail guide. Reading up on Steve’s website, he suggests buying the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable, which I’ll purchase when the Winter 2010 schedule becomes available. The first specific destination guide I purchased, along with the Backdoor book, focuses on Prague. If I visit no other city during this walkabout, I will spend time in Prague. During the early to mid-1990s, Gen-Xers from around the world descended on the Bohemian Capitol, but I was not among them. Czechs initially embraced the ex-pats era, then tired of it, but nonetheless, Xers left their mark there – sort of like Hemingway’s lost generation in Paris in the early 20th Century – and I intend to absorb the city’s vibe as much as possible.

The DK Eyewitness guide has loads of color shots, fits in a back pocket, and features top 10 destinations. I’m reading a little bit of both before bed every night.

Instead of buying piles of guidebooks, I’m looking forward to reading literature and history about my destinations during the next six months.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Epic Tale Begins to Unfold

Most writers today transition from columnizing to blogging to (retch)… micro-blogging. Yes, the ultimate insult for those of us who mock attention-span-challenged Americans: Twitter. For six-plus months, I too have been part of the problem and wasted a solid chunk of my life tweeting. Now stop, reach out and grab that breath of relieved air you just exhaled. I’m not going anywhere. ODN_Editor will continue to sound off on Rob Drieslein’s pet peeves – Bud Selig, free-ranging domestic cats, Nick Punto, public subsidies for sports stadiums, anti-hunters, insurance scams, and agricultural subsidies, among other teeth-grinding inequities of this modern world.

As 2009 progressed, you perhaps noticed my tweets becoming angrier. An unhealthy edge and bluntness has developed. Zero patience for lazy cat owners. Suggesting that Bud Selig is ordering MLB umpires to throw playoff games for the Yankees. Bashing poor Zigi Wolf for merely suggesting that Minnesota taxpayers build him a billion-dollar stadium for his NFL franchise. Demanding that a starting shortstop bat above .200. Insisting that more Americans pay attention to the splendid-little wars that a tiny percentage of citizens and their families shoulder on their behalf. Surely someone this callous and unforgiving must have issues!

My wife has a term for this Nasty Rob, this evil Skippy twin. She calls it being “intense.” Many of you might recognize that this is a common synonym for “asshole.”

In all seriousness, dear reader(s), my wife-in-a-million thinks she knows the cause of these burgeoning symptoms. This proud Gen-Xer faces the Big 4-0 in 2010, and he’s not happy about it. No need to waste oxygen by debating “What’s the alternative?” or suggesting, “It’s just a number.” Here’s the straight scoop folks: It sucks. Turning 40 sucks. My life is at least, half over, and I have no clue where it went. A Harley won’t help my attitude… though a 2011 Mustang (400hp engines in the GT) might. But those run $32K, and Annette wants a different house. What a terrible gut-wrenching dilemma of a life, eh?

OK, this is all coming from a guy who recognizes that he’s damn lucky. He’s spent those 40 years living in one of the most prosperous countries in the world, getting a mind-stimulating education, enjoying a respectable career, and – the past decade – raising a healthy family with a beautiful, loving woman. With Thanksgiving looming in a week, I have a lot to be thankful for, especially this: That gem of a woman also has a cure for said pathetic middle-aged crisis.

Go away.

No, not go away as in “Don’t come back, ever.” (I kill me!) Go away as in “Take a vacation.” Of course, the very suggestion brought to mind balding baby-booming New Yorkers on a cattle drive. (Thank god she didn’t say, “Go find your smile.”) My black-and-white, no-shades-of-gray logical initial response was: “Absolutely not. Respectable fathers don’t shirk familial responsibilities to relax.” But she kept pressing, got my mom on her side, too. Then, while sitting in a deer stand last weekend waiting for a monster whitetail to never arrive, a tiny urge from my youthful past ignited in the deepest recesses of my brain.

I always wanted to ride the rails in Europe. You know, Eurail pass with a The North Face backpack skipping from continental city to city, sacking out in hostels while living off old-world bread, hard cheese, and brutally red wine. Working my way through college 18 years ago, I never had the time or money to scratch that Eurailing itch. My wife and I have been to Europe for three short trips since we married and even rode the train between Dublin and Belfast for a few hours. But there’s a lot of Europe remaining for me to see, and thanks to a boatload of frequent-flyer miles and more vacation hours these days, I have the time and financial wherewithal to see them. But no way would Annette let this happen, right?

“Go!” she barked at the mere suggestion. “Go in the spring before the boys are out of school and while we're keeping busy with kid-baseball at night.”



A balding middle-aged editor tripping around Europe like a 23-year-old sounds every bit as pathetic as Daniel Stern on a faux cattle drive. But hey, it’s cheaper and safer than driving a Harley, and I’ll meet more interesting people in Prague than at Sturgis. This week, I decided. I’m going to do this. I’m going take advantage of my health, use a couple of weeks of vacation in May 2010, and explore across the pond.

This blog (and accompanying Twitter handle, IntenseTraveler) will explain the challenges in planning such a trip, and then share my experience on the tracks of The Continent. If anyone has any tips or ideas, I welcome them. God willing, I’ll come home a less-intense traveler. At the very least, it will keep my mind occupied while I eclipse a major milestone marker in my life. Thanks for reading: This might just be fun.