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.