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Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation – in Europe!

Author: Ben Shakman
Date of Trip: March 2006

This is a four part trip report that covers our drive from Illinois to Dover, some missteps with flights, our trip around Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland), and our return travel. Of note: I traveled both ways with our daughters (age 5 & 7) while my wife made her way to Germany from Iraq in order to join us for this adventure. There are more pictures from this trip on our website at smugmug.com.

March 17th (Day 0)
I finished off the very last of the packing for the trip in the morning and loaded all of our stuff into the back of our pickup truck in preparation for the 1000-mile trip out to the East Coast. I went to work with the intention of leaving a little early to do some last-minute personal business, but it was not to be. I am currently serving as a brigade adjutant and this happened to be the day of the Hail & Farewell in recognition of the pending change of command ceremony being held the next day. As a result, I barely managed to get out for lunch and spent that time at the bookstore loading up on maps and guidebooks for the trip. We had an F-2 tornado come through town the Sunday before and it knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses — some places (including the only decent bookstore in town) were still without electricity almost a week later. Fortunately, the bookstore reopened mid-morning and I was able to pick up my resources for the journey. The Hail & Farewell went very well and the local VFW (Post 755 in Springfield, Illinois) was simply fantastic. I even made it home in time to get a good night’s rest before setting out the next morning.

March 18th (Day 1)
I called Dover shortly after leaving home to get their projections on outbound flights for the trip across the Atlantic. They had a Sunday flight with a 1640 show time that I thought we could make as long as we didn’t lollygag too much en-route. Nothing too exciting happened this day with the exception of the fact that I was able to drive 760 miles with nary a comment from my 5 & 7 year old daughters. I credit this to two facts: first, I don’t let them watch TV at home; second, I installed a portable DVD player with twin 8′ LCD screens for them to watch movies. As we neared the DC area, I decided that we would contact my aunt who lives in Potomac and hopefully join her for a late dinner at one of our favorite sushi restaurants that just happens to be very near her house. Unfortunately, she was out of town and the restaurant would be closed before we arrive. I decided to let the kids pick a restaurant in Hagerstown, Maryland where we stopped for dinner. We wound up at Fazoli’s and then stayed at the Holiday Inn Express — once of their nicer properties.

March 19th (Day 2)
We woke up a little on the early side and proceeded to spend about 90-minutes in the swimming pool. After a quick breakfast (where I discovered that the kids like hard-boiled eggs — who knew?) we hit the road. I called Dover every hour for updates on flights learned that they had 1430 and 1750 flights to Ramstein. We made good time on our short drive. The kids were very well behaved in the back seat and we arrived at Dover in time for a late lunch. My persistent calls reveled that the 1430 show time had disappeared so that left us with the 1750. Based on my calculations, I figured that flight would put us into Ramstein around mid-morning on Monday.

We arrived at the PAX terminal and a very nice member of the Air Force Reserve on his Annual Training from Arkansas gave us a ride back from the long-term parking (wouldn’t it be great if there was a better way when one flies out of Dover?) so that we could drop off our vehicle. With the truck in long-term parking, our baggage in the terminal, and a minor sign-up glitch fixed — we were all set to fly. I had a little bit of time before our show time so I contacted Ramstein lodging to get a TLF room and also called Hertz to move up our pickup by two days. The space-a gods were certainly smiling on us!

I had everything locked in with only two exceptions: we were not yet manifest and I hadn’t heard from my wife since she left her base in Ad Diwiniyah. I was very nervous about the idea of getting on a plane and going to Germany with only a rudimentary plan for conducting our link-up. The basics of our plan were as follows:
— we would provide all known flight information to each other via email
— she expected that she would fly into Frankfurt while I was planning to arrive at Ramstein
— we would immediately check our email accounts for information on each other’s whereabouts
— we would buy cheap cell phones, email each other the numbers, and then wait for a call
— It looked like I would arrive first and drive to Frankfurt, find a hotel, and play it by ear
— I had lined up several friends in Germany who would serve as a clearinghouse for information in the event that nothing else worked .

It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was the best we could manage given the circumstances.

We had been planning this trip since before she deployed in August 2005 and I had managed to keep it a secret from the kids. I was unsure that I would be able to work things out so that we could meet up with her and I was simultaneously concerned about the likelihood of being able to drag them around Germany for a couple of days while surreptitiously trying to locate my wife.

I was at the PAX counter (they knew about the surprise) and the customer service personnel were trying to help me by looking in their system to see if my wife had been manifest anywhere. They certainly put forth a yeoman’s effort and it was during one of our conversations that the phone rang — “our” flight was pushed back 24-hours due to a maintenance delay and a subsequent crew rest issue. The Space-A gods may have been smiling on us, but the C-5 demons clearly had other plans. There was another flight with a 0030 show time and I decided that we would wait to see if that one might come true for us instead.

My cell phone rang shortly after I got the news on the cancellation. It was Charleen calling to tell me that she was in the PAX terminal in Baghdad and that her C-130 to Kuwait had been delayed. I told her that she had narrowly missed me. She let me know that she anticipated arriving in Kuwait the next day and was hoping that someone there would have some information for her at that point.

March 20th (Day 3)
The 0030 show time finally rolled around and we were manifest on the flight. All signs indicated that we were going to make it to Germany before Charleen. The ride out to the plane was eventful only for the fact that the young airman insisted that the heater on the bus was broken right up until the time that another passenger stood up and showed him how to switch it on. We waited for a while until they summoned us to board. We strapped in and were ready to go when the aircrew decided to screw around with the cabin lights. They said that there was a problem with the circuit breaker and that maintenance was going to come on board to try to fix it as we couldn’t fly without cabin lights that would remain lit. I doubt that it would have made a difference to any of us given the scarcity of passengers and our overall level of fatigue at 0200. Eventually, we were told that they needed to remove us and our baggage from the flight but that they would try to get it fixed for another hour before canceling the flight altogether. We loaded back onto the bus and they put our baggage onto a truck. We were hauling our bags back into the PAX terminal when the plane took off without us. I settled the kids into a crib in the family room and then called Ramstein billeting to push our reservations back 24 hours.

Our next possibility was the mission that had rolled over from the previous evening. I vowed not to leave the terminal so long as there was a possibility of us getting on the flight, but nothing popped up over the course of the day. Charleen managed to email me over the course of our wait and I learned that she had arrived in Kuwait and was booked on a Lufthansa commercial flight that would get her into Frankfurt at about 0600. Her plan was to take a train to Landsthul and look for me at the station at 1100. If she did not see me, she was going to take a cab to Building 305 and then find us in our room. This all sounded solid to me, but I regretted the fact that it would be virtually impossible to get through customs, into our room, pick up the rental car, and meet her when she got off the train.

At one point when her computer allocation in Kuwait had expired, I walked out to chat with the PAX folks. I asked them to please let the flight crew know in advance that there was “no room at the inn” and that if they had maintenance problems that kept them from flying that they would be billeted at the approach end of the runway in a GP Medium.

We got on the plane and had an uneventful (and very restful) flight to Ramstein.

March 21st (Day 4)
Our landing in Germany was smooth as silk. We were collecting our bags when I noticed Charleen standing outside the PAX terminal exit. She was dressed in civilian clothes and I instantly felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders! Customs was relatively quick and I put the backpacks on the kids before heaving on my own load for the short walk outside. I was carrying my big backpack (the one the kids named “grande” on our trip to Spain), another backpack on my chest, a laptop, and a full-size duffel bag in each hand. We walked outside and I spotted Charleen approaching out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, put the duffel bags on the ground, and told the kids that we should ask someone for directions to our lodging. I said “how about her?” while pointing at my wife. Lizzy (the 5-year old) said: “you look a lot like my mommy.” Charleen replied “that’s because I am your mommy!” All three of them hugged and cried for a few minutes and then she led us to the rental car and drove us back to our billeting, by way of Burger King. As it turns out, she went into the Frankfurt USO to ask about directions to the train and lucked into a free shuttle to Ramstein. The driver had dropped her off at the billeting office where she was able to do an early check-in before picking up the rental car. She managed to go to the room, take a shower, unpack a little and pick us up upon arrival. Talk about LUCK!!!

The kids and I took showers and then Charleen and I decided “what the hell — let’s go to France for dinner.” We jumped in our rental car (a Peugot 407 station wagon — 451 Euros for 2 weeks thanks to AnneMarie) and headed for Metz. We got on the Autobahn and I was immediately struck by how slow the car was on the highway. We were being passed by everything but the trucks!

The border station was unoccupied and we were unable to get our passports stamped on arrival. We decided to find a police station in town and discuss the issue with them. The police spoke just enough English and we spoke just enough French (mainly Charleen) that we were able to ascertain that the office that stamps passports was closed for the evening. We made it Metz and found a parking lot near the city center. There was a big mall nearby and Charleen wanted to shop.

In the parking lot on the way to the shopping center, Charleen spotted a little red Ferrari and we took several pictures with it. It was just sitting in a normal parking space like all of the other cars.

We spent a couple of hours looking at various clothes, but only the kids wound up with anything. Afterwards, we went to a place that the clerk in the department store recommended based on our criteria: quick service, casual, and appropriate for kids. It turned out to be a mixture between a cafeteria and a restaurant — perfect considering the days’ events thus far.

The kids ate poorly, but the place had a play-place similar to a McDonald’s and they found a few little French boys to play with. There was also a guy dressed up as some sort of mouse-like animal that made a big hit with the kids. We managed to close the place, and the kids took a few pictures and said goodbye to their new French friends.

We took an after-dinner walk around the center square and then loaded up for the trip back to Germany. Our rental car was still an abomination on the road and I decided to go exchange it for something else the next morning. As we passed the deserted border control station on the way back to Germany, I remarked to Charleen that it was no wonder the French have been invaded so many times in the past — they don’t even bother to keep someone at the border after normal working hours. Later in the trip, she asked me what the French flag looked like and I responded that it was white, solid white.

March 22nd (Day 5):
Our original plan had indicated that we would spend two nights at Ramstein, but we decided in the morning that we would rather head out for Bavaria. Thus, we ran through the PX to pick up the inevitable few missing items and a SIM card for an Iraqi cell phone that Charleen had borrowed from one of her Ukrainian friends. Hertz (on post) agreed that there was a problem with the car and offered to exchange it for the same model, but with a manual transmission. All we had to do was refuel it and bring it back to them. Little did I know at the time that diesel fuel was not available on post. We drove out to town and had lunch at a Mexican restaurant (the 5-year olds’ choice) and then refueled before heading back to collect up all of our stuff, check out of billeting, and trade in the rental car. One note on the car: a Peugot 407 station wagon can actually hold 3 full-size duffel bags, a huge backpack, one large backpack, one medium backpack, two small backpacks (all under the cargo cover) and four occupants, if loaded very carefully).

Charleen and I hooked up the portable DVD player for the kids and we were off! We called Edelweiss (in Garmisch) from the road and learned that it would not be a problem to add another two days to our reserved stay. Unfortunately, they told my wife that there were no connecting rooms on the entire property and that we would have two rooms right next door to each other — more on this later. Our estimate of the driving time indicated that we should arrive there in time for dinner in Garmisch. Unfortunately, the map reading did not work out so well and we found ourselves at the Swiss border just as the sun was going down. We opted for the trip through Switzerland and Austria instead of backtracking. The kids were quite content in the back seat, watching movies and being fed various snacks that we acquired (Charleen started to refer to the bag by her feet as the “cookie buffet”) so we pushed on until we hit the Austrian border. The 7-year old (Allison) spotted a Chinese restaurant at the boarder and insisted on stopping for a late dinner. I was glad to have a break from the constant driving, albeit discouraged because it seemed like a nice restaurant and that translated to an even later arrival at Edelweiss. As it turned out, we had the best meal that we have ever had in a Chinese restaurant (the place was named Phoenix) and even wound up with a spectacular dessert which was poorly described on the menu. We ordered a fried apple with caramel sauce thinking that it would arrive in a bowl. In reality, the waitress first brought out a pan of cold water, followed by a bowl of fried apple pieces, and then a pan of hot caramel — right off the fire. She proceeded to dip the apple pieces in the steaming hot caramel to coat them before dropping them into the cold water to cool them off. The end result was a hard caramel coating with a soft, warm piece of apple in the center. It was delicious beyond words and we left the waitress a huge tip.

We spent longer than we anticipated at the restaurant because the kids were “helping” another waitress fold the dinner napkins into origami fans, and they also had a big tropical fish tank and a goldfish pond that was quite a hit until we caught the kids spitting in the pond to provide snacks for the fish. It never ceases to amaze me some of the things that normally well-behaved children will do when subjected to the turmoil involved in traveling or when they think no one is watching.

Back on the road, we made good time through most of the Austria leg of our trip — right up until we started climbing the mountains. At that point, the fog settled in thickly. We were driving in a thick blanket of fog that brought visibility down to less than 50′ and precluded travelling more than about 35kph at best. We literally crawled our way through the mountains until we came to a tunnel entrance that was closed — the only way to Garmisch from where we were, and the tunnel was closed for some middle of the night work. I left the wife and kids in the car and spent close to an hour standing alongside one of the trucks waiting with us talking to a couple of Croatian fellows about travelling around Central Europe.

Two interesting notes here: Americans typically refer to the Balkan states, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, etc. as Eastern Europe while people from those countries prefer the term Central Europe. Second, people in Western Europe (France, Germany, and Switzerland at least) are quick to refer to Central European countries as the wild, wild East while people in those countries reserve that term for the Eastern European countries — Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, etc.

March 23rd (Day 6)
We finally arrived at Edelweiss at 0330. Upon arrival, I asked the clerk at the desk why I was told during my research and reservation phase that they had connecting rooms and was promised that they would do everything possible to put us into them, yet they did not even have such an arrangement available in their hotel. She looked at me quizzically and asked me why I thought that they did not have connecting rooms at their property. I explained the earlier phone call and she told me that the person we had spoken with was new and didn’t know better. I was furious! I had her wake up the manager on duty and I lit into him about broken promises and incompetence. He apologized and asked me what he could do to make things right for me. I requested their best suite for what was left of the night and to be assigned to connecting rooms in the morning for the remainder of our stay. He balked and tried to feed me a line about lost revenue and the difference between the cost of the loft suite and the regular rooms. I asked him if he seriously expected anyone else to be checking in since it was 0400 and reminded him that some revenue for a room was better than zero revenue. He acquiesced and we wound up with the big suite so that we could get a few hours of rest before moving into our connecting room. Apparently, their business practices include blocking one side of a connecting room set before they finish selling all of the non-connecting room accommodations — illogical!

It was about 0430 when we finally got the kids to bed. We decided to let them sleep as long as they wanted and begin our day much later than anticipated. We woke up close to noon and moved into our connecting rooms. With our accommodations set for the next few nights, we were finally ready to venture out and see some of Bavaria.

We decided that we would do best to see Neuschwanstein with the remaining half-day. We stopped at a small grocery store in Austria and picked up some sandwiches and a few snacks. We ate while driving and arrived at Neuschwanstein in sufficient time to look around a little before our appointed tour began. I had intended for us to take a horse cart up the hill and walk back down after the tour. Charleen decided to taunt the kids with a proposition that we should walk up instead. That was certainly my preference, however I knew better than to propose something to the kids that I was unwilling to have them accept — she’s out of practice after 7+ months away. Naturally, the kids opted for the hike and she was mortified. Up we went! Allison and Charleen complained most of the way up the hill, while Lizzy ran and I was busy trying to keep up with her. We promised Allison and Charleen that we would ride the horse cart down the hill.

The tour of Neuschwanstein was haltingly short, more so than I remember from our visit 10 years ago, but the kids enjoyed themselves. They were both amazed at the preponderance of swans throughout the castle and made something of a game out of finding them in each room that we visited. They were also very impressed with the beds in the servant quarters and asked if they could try them out. They were not so happy about having to remain calm and quiet and certainly wanted to run around in the ballroom. We finished the tour and managed to make it through the gift shop without accruing any additional Ludwig paraphernalia.

I was hoping to walk back down, but the kids had different plans: the little one wanted to walk and the big one insisted on the horse-drawn wagon. Lizzy insisted on having Charleen walk with her and I wound up on the cart with Allison. Lizzy ran most of the way down, stopping only to pet a couple of dogs and have a couple of snowball fights with some groups of teenagers that were walking down ahead of us. Lizzy and Charleen had time to stop for hot chocolate and still make it to the car way before Allison and I arrived, half-frozen.

We had a pleasant drive back along a different route and stopped at a grocery store on the way into Garmisch to search for our very favorite brand of Bavarian sweet mustard — Johann Conrad’s #1 Mustard. We initially discovered this stuff on our last leisure trip to Germany and it is a clear favorite — so much so that we regularly request that friends going to Germany check for it in the stores. Unfortunately, we have only managed to get resupplied on one of those occasions. We found the mustard aisle and there it was&an entire shelf of the stuff!!! I promptly loaded up the girls’ miniature shopping carts with five jars apiece and noted the price was about 1 Euro per jar. At one point, I had found a European online grocery store that carried it, but they wanted 30 Euros postage just to ship me two jars. Those ten would go into my backpack on the ride home.

We did not do too much else based on the hour when we got back to the hotel and our general state of exhaustion. We had a simple and mediocre dinner at Edelweiss’ buffet and then called it a night so that we would be well-rested for the next day’s events.

March 24th (Day 7)
Finally, time to go skiing! I woke the family up early so that we could eat a hot breakfast at the buffet in Edelweiss’ restaurant. Afterwards, we headed over to Hapsburg so that we could pick up our skis, boots, and poles before heading to the Zugspitze to link Charleen up with her instructor for a half-day private lesson. We arrived just as the equipment rental place (part of Edelweiss) opened and were their first customers. I learned that there was a problem with the lesson that I had reserved the day before and wound up agreeing to a full-day private lesson instead. Our instructor was named Dasha and was a native of Russia, by way of NJ. She was extremely friendly with the kids and great to learn from.

We followed her in our rental car for the short drive over to the cable car station. From there, we took a cable car up to the highest point in Germany, the Zugspitze. It was an amazing ride and the scenery was unbelievably beautiful. The only down-side: standing room only takes on a new meaning when you are toting kids and skis at the same time. Our next order of business after arriving at the peak was to take another cable car down the other side to the glacier, about 300m below. There are a few ski lifts and a bunch of wide-open runs there. We had a quick meeting and then I took the girls while Dasha and Charleen got to work on getting her on skis after a 10-year hiatius. I made a couple of runs with the kids before Lizzy started to whine about wanting to go warm up in the lodge.

Allison asked me if she could keep skiing and I told her that she could make a couple of more runs on the one lift and that she needed to come in to the restaurant and check in with me in a little while. Charleen and Dasha were practicing on the same run and I did not see any possible down-side to this since there was nowhere she could get lost — or so I thought. In reality, she missed the restaurant and wound up inside the operator’s booth at the 6-person chair lift instead. For some reason, the paging system is not connected to other runs or to the restaurant/lodge building at all. This lead to Dasha and me scouring the ski area for a couple of hours before Dasha finally located her. She was none the worse for wear and insisted on skiing more after lunch (great lunch and reasonably priced).

The end result: Allison had a great time and skied a lot; Lizzy forgot how to ski and did not make that many runs; Charleen was very tired and did not ski much; I had a great time, but did not ski as much as I would have liked. Still, we got to ski in the Alps!

We returned to the hotel and took a quick swim before heading to Gasthof Fraundorfer down on Ludwigstrasse in Partenkirchen. This is a place that we had stumbled upon 10 years ago and I was excited to take the girls there. When Charleen and I were there on our last big European Vacation we were the only Americans in the place — not so this time around. The place was full of people who I recognized from Edelweiss and I heard virtually nothing but English being spoken in the place. Still, the atmosphere was unchanged. The food was excellent, the entertainment (Bavarian folk dancing and music) captivated the children’s attention, and the service was impeccable. I would still recommend this place to anyone visiting Garmisch, but it has become something of a tourist attraction at this point.

The kids, of course, made friends with a little (4-years old, maybe) German boy named Phillipe and spent the evening dancing with him. He even joined us at our table for a little while before his parents decided that it was time to leave. As usual, we took some pictures with he and the girls and bid him adieu.

March 25th (Day 8)
I discovered on our skiing vacation (January 2006) that there is a real advantage to taking a day off after the first day of skiing. The fatigue level is better managed with the kids and especially with the grownups if there is a break after the first day — altitude only increases the value of the day off. As a result, we decided to spend a day seeing the sights in Munich.

The trip from Garmisch to Munich only takes about 45-minutes on a good day. Fortunately, this one was a good day and we arrived in plenty of time see the Glockenspeil before lunch. I thought that it was supposed to start on the hour, but it was about a quarter after when it finally began. The kids spent the extra time asking to pet every dog that happened by and managed to get their hands on quite a few. They are animal lovers and seemed amazed at all of the dog petting opportunities that they were able to take advantage of as we traveled around Europe.

We decided on lunch at the Ratskeller after watching the Glockenspeil. I discovered that they had something like a lunch sampler and ordered that for myself. It was delicious — miniature portions of a soup, two salads, an appetizer, an entrée, and dessert. The pretzels were fresh and hot and I decided to have a beer with my lunch. Allison took a liking to the beer and Charleen was mortified that I allowed her to try a sip.

We went walking around the pedestrian mall that also holds the Kristkindelmarket (that I visited in 2001) and other events over the course of the year. A new addition in preparation for the World Cup Games are about 150 decorated lions scattered around the city — an interesting contrast to the cows in Chicago and the crabs in Baltimore. The “Munchner Lowenparade” will eventually feature somewhere around 300 decorated lions and the story given is that they are being decorated by artists and groups of school children before being donated to the public and put on display. The net profits from the “lion parade” are being donated to help children in need.

The kids wanted pictures with every one of them that they saw and we wound up on the lion tour of Munich’s old town center. We spent several hours walking around, looking at shops, and taking pictures. At one point, we happened across a shoe store that was having some sort of sale such that they had a full-sized model of an elephant which appeared to be crashing through their window. Needless to say, the kids required some pictures of themselves standing under the elephant’s butt.

We stopped once for some fresh raspberries and another time for some cake at a bakery. We also found some mandel — hot roasted almonds with a caramelized sugar coating — to snack on and Charleen wound up eating almost all of them herself because they were so warm and tasty. They had an outdoor café area that was vacant (probably due to the weather) so we got our stuff “take-away” and occupied a table outside. A waitress came out once and told us that we would have to go back inside if we wanted anything. We agreed that there would be no table service and she left us alone. Much to her dismay, we started a small trend and the tables began filling up quickly. The Germans clearly expected to be served and she wound up having to open the patio. She flashed us a debilitating stare each time she walked past with stuff for someone so we made a quick exit.

Charleen and I are quite fond of BMWs and one of the things on our list for this trip was to try to take a tour of the factory. Our guidebook indicated that one needed to make reservations at the museum so we headed out to the Olympic Park area to see if we could line something up for another day. We drove around the entire BMW plant until we found a sign that indicated that the museum had temporarily relocated to Olympic Park.

We drove over to the area where they held the games years ago and our two girls (age 5&7) found two boys (age 5&7) playing soccer with their father. The four kids wound up playing together while Charleen and I chatted with their father. He told us all about the area and how wonderful it was to live in a city where the Olympic Park is somewhat of a center of activity for the local residents. I did not know this, but he said that most cities that host the games don’t do much with the area afterwards. It sounded to me like the Olympic Park was a perfect place to take the kids for a few hours.

We finished our conversation and stopped to take a picture of the girls together. At almost the same time, a group of Korean gentlemen came walking by and also took a picture of the girls. One of them asked (charades, as always) if he could have a picture with them and I agreed. He stood with them while a friend snapped a couple of photos. Lizzy (age 5) asked him to pick her up and I said that it was ok. That led to another few pictures and I decided to hoist Allison up and put her on his other arm. We wound up repeating this for about a half-dozen Koreans and also managed one or two pictures of the scene on our camera as well.

After the photo shoot, we wandered over to the BMW museum and learned that there was a six-week advance required for a factory tour. Curiously enough, this is the same amount of advance notice required to tour the White House. Suffice to say, we decided that we would have to wait until our next trip to Germany to see our cars’ birthplace. Another interesting fact: there are only 90 slots available each week for BMW factory tours, less on holiday weeks. The bottom line here is that I will have our dealer make our reservations several months ahead of time.

The BMW museum was interesting, albeit small, and the highlights for the kids were being allowed to take pictures with my new digital camera and playing in the only car that you were actually allowed to touch&a BMW 3/20 two seat open roadster built in pre-war Germany. The car was neat and the kids loved climbing in it. Of note: the location that we visited was a temporary home while the so-called “mushroom” building is being remodeled. Renovation is simply one of the things that you must consign yourself to when travelling in Europe.

We finished up at the museum and escaped yet another gift shop. We spoke with the young people working behind the counter for a few minutes and we were able to garner a recommendation for dinner: Kyoto Japanese Restaurant. It took some doing, but we actually managed to find the place. Something of a feat considering that it was in the portion of the map where they had thoughtfully chosen to print the legend. We managed a parking place right in front (probably illegal, but full of cars) and went inside to discover that no one spoke English at all. We also discovered something that was new to us called “running sushi.” This is an all-you-can-eat system with a twist. There is a two-level conveyor belt that winds its way from the kitchen, through the restaurant, and back to the kitchen again. There, the chefs place one or two pieces on small plates and cover them with transparent plastic bowls before loading them back onto the belt. The dishes on the top were hot dishes like egg rolls, fried dumplings, etc. On the bottom were the nigiri and maki sushi along with several varieties of desserts, salads, and other cold appetizers. Each table has a small window and you simply reach through and grab whatever strikes your fancy — weird, yet lots of fun! Charleen and I immediately went into a dim-sum-esque feeding frenzy and Charleen ate way too much as a result. We watched the other Europeans have leisurely dinners, taking plates on occasion, as we cleared plate after plate. They definitely lost money on us! The culminating event was dessert. Charleen got a candy coated fruit shish kebab earlier in the meal and absolutely insisted on having another one and having me try one. We asked a German woman that spoke English to describe to the waitress what we were looking for. A few minutes later, Charleen spotted one on the conveyor belt. Much to her dismay, the ladies at the table right before ours on the belt took it. She was mortified, until a pair of them showed up at our table via the waitress. I didn’t care for them, so Charleen ate them both and we left.

Following the “running sushi” experience, we headed back to Edelweiss. The kids were mad that they had missed the pool, but we promised them a dip after skiing the next day.

March 26th (Day 9)
Fortunately, we had retained the skiing equipment so we were able to skip the lines and get right to it. We opted for skiing at the Haupsberg area and then touring the gorge. As it turned out, the weather had been sufficiently warm for a number of days and the skiing was very sloppy. The upside to this is that Allison and I were able to ski comfortably with a minimum of extra layers. At one point, I was down to just my long underwear and bibs.

Allison skied her little butt off while Lizzy and I made a miniature snowman. Both kids really enjoyed themselves and Charleen was able to get away for a few hours and buy herself several things she wanted at the local PX. She reappeared just as we had loaded up to walk back to the hotel and we were off for the gorge.

We drove all the way up to where they collect the entrance fee because we were concerned that they might have closed for the day. As it turns out, the place was closed. I suppose that we will have to take the kids there on our next visit. This is something that I would certainly recommend for anyone visiting the Garmisch area. It is an area where the flow of water had cut through the rock face of the mountain such that it now flows through a really unique path that takes it through what had been solid rock. There is a small walkway next to where the water rushes down hill and it is quite a sight to see. Also, when you reach the top of the gorge area you find yourself in a small village that is clinging to the pastureland on the side of the mountain. The whole thing is breathtaking, although it takes a bit of effort to reach and enjoy.

We drove back down to the ski jump stadium and walked around there for a little while before returning to Edelweiss for a simple pizza dinner. As a native Chicagoan (displaced by choice) I would like to warn everyone against the pizza at Edelweiss — it sucks!

The kids and I closed the pool while Charleen did a little laundry (the first time since she deployed — I had zero inclination to offer to assist) and otherwise helped us get ready for the beginning of the second phase of our vacation — Central Europe.

March 27th (Day 10)
We ate our last breakfast at Edelweiss and then I went to check out and load up the car while Charleen finished up with the kids. It turned out to be a good thing that I scrutinized the bill because they had charged us double for our first night. The quickly adjusted the bill and we were on our way. The second phase of our vacation was significantly different than the first phase for several reasons: we would be visiting Central Europe, we would be moving around a lot more, and we would be seeing friends of mine from my time in Iraq with the Multinational Division Central-South.

Austria had a fair amount of road construction going on and that slowed us down measurably. On the upside, they have some of the more unique road construction signs that we have ever seen. They use the smiley face with different emotions expressed based on how much longer the work zone will last. As an example, the sign at the 6 km point looks about like I was feeling — PISSED — while the sign at the end of the work zone looks elated. There is a progression from mildly upset to indifference to slightly happy to a full grin. I’m sure that the local population does not even notice the signs at this point, but they were so entertaining that we slowed way down to snap pictures of them.

Charleen and I have both seen the movie “Eurotrip” so we decided that we would be travelling too close to Bratislava not to manage a short visit. The premise of the film is that a group of 20-somethings goes to Europe for the summer and they go through a series of adventures. One adventure has them hitchhiking because they were robbed and winding up in Bratislava by accident with only $1.67 between the four of them. As it turns out, they are treated like royalty on that amount of money. We did not find any such prices on our excursion, but things were certainly more reasonable than they were in Germany. It was also our first foray into a country that an American serviceman could never have visited 20 years ago. Our initial impression was that it was an Eastern European dump, but that turned out to be incorrect once we got away from the communist housing developments. Then it turned out to be a beautiful city with typical European architecture and atmosphere.

While in Bratislava, we also visited the “Aupark.” It is a mall very similar to those found in the west with several notable exceptions: smoking and café placement. Specifically, where western malls have wide corridors where one can walk and window shop, their version includes cafés placed throughout the mall such that you have to walk well around them. We stopped at one such café and had some delicious cake for dessert. Another interesting thing: the Indian food place in the food court offered several different meals, including one called “barfi” that seemed to demand that we take a picture with the sign.

We found our way back to our vehicle and found it in the same condition as when we left it. I was concerned about the contents, so I parked it as close to the end of a row as possible and backed it in such that the tailgate could not be opened without moving the vehicle.

We continued on towards Budapest. We found the city without problem, but had a significant amount of difficulty locating their National Defense University (Hungarian West Point). A friend of mine is a member of the faculty there and he arranged for lodging on post and also offered to show us around the city for a day and a half.

We meandered back and forth across the city for quite a while and got to see their tomb of the Unknown Soldier and several expansive parks before we finally concluded that we were not going to be able to find the appointed meeting place. We finally broke down and called my friend only to have our German cell phone run out of money mid-way through the conversation — no surprise considering that we were paying 1.59 Euros per minute at that point. We pulled into a gas station and I managed to convince the attendant to allow us to use his phone by holding out a handful of Euro coins and simultaneously holding my other hand up to my face while making a phone symbol of sorts. I spoke to Guyla and then he spoke to the gas station attendant such that we learned that we were only two tram stops away. He came to pick us up and we discovered that we had actually been on the right street earlier in our search. We had been looking at the police academy instead of the compound on the other side of the street as it was behind a dense wall of foliage and not immediately visible.

Guyla suggested that we should stop for some carryout Chinese food and Allison jumped at the suggestion. She has developed quite a taste for Chinese food sometime in the last few months. We went to a nearby place and Charleen was astonished when Guyla pulled right up on the sidewalk to park. I took Allison with me and the three of us walked across the street to the carryout place. They had a different approach than I have seen before. Specifically, all of the food was prepared and waiting in steam tables behind a glass counter. You could actually see everything and you made your selections based on what looked good. I spent about $12 for about twice as much as I expected we would eat (mainly because I did not want to risk having it all get consumed and still having a hungry kid or wife) and then went to our accommodations. Guyla had arranged for us to have two rooms at their guest lodging and they were very spacious and extremely reasonably priced — four room nights only cost me 7,000 Forints, or about $33US.

We settled the kids in for bed and then watched a movie on our laptop. It made for a very pleasant end to a very busy day.

March 28th (Day 11)
My day started with a run at the NDU, followed by breakfast in their “bar.” Guyla arranged for a private room for us (a benefit of being a Colonel, I’m sure) and it was a good thing because everyone in the rest of the place seemed to be smoking cigarettes.

After breakfast we headed out on a driving tour of some attractions that would have to wait for a subsequent visit because there simply was not time to see everything. Some of these areas of interest included the zoo, hot baths, opera house, main cathedral, and the parade grounds they used to show their military might when they were part of the Warsaw Pact. An interesting fact: their military is now roughly 25% of the size it was during the cold war and they have no structure like our reserve/guard system.

Once we finished with the things that we would not be seeing, we moved on to some really neat stuff. Our first stop was Castle Hill. There are two ways to reach the castle that overlooks the city: by car (boring) or by rail. We opted for the rail option mainly because it was so unique. The castle area itself was built in Buda starting in the 13th century and expanded hundreds of years. The railway was added about 150 years ago and is unique because it only runs a few hundred meters and the entire track is at about a 45-degree angle. Therefore, when you board at the bottom, your view of the city improves every second as the car climbs the track.

The view from the top is truly spectacular. You can easily make out all of the significant buildings in Buda and Pest and see most of the seven bridges that brought those two cities together into one. The castle area is also significant because it was the sight of the last battle in the area during WWII and there was one building in particular that looked like it had been the last bastion of the siege. It seemed as though if you put your hand on the wall and stretched out your fingers you would touch at least one bullet hole or other place where something impacted the stone wall, regardless of where you started. Guyla told us that over 100,000 soldiers occupied the hilltop in defensive positions and the Russians fought a bloody campaign to conquer the area. He also explained that all but one of the buildings had been rebuilt and that reconstruction was still not completed — amazing considering the relative state of peace that has prevailed in the area for the last half-century.

We walked all over the castle hill area and also visited the St. Stephen’s cathedral. He was the king who turned Hungary into a Christian country and his coronation was officiated over by an emissary sent by the Pope. The cathedral was amazing and the museum featured a reproduction of the crown he wore during his reign. The original is in the Parliament, but that building fell into the realm of an attraction that we did not have time to visit on this trip.

While walking around, we also saw something far more modern and very unique. Based on the small area and small streets on the hill, they have a converted golf cart that they use as a mail truck. According to the mailman who was driving it, there are only two such mail trucks in the Hungarian postal system and the other one was in a different city.

Our next stop was upriver about 30km at a small town right on the banks of the Danube. We found a neat little pizzeria and had a great lunch before continuing on to do a little shopping. I bought a painted wooden spoon to hang on the kitchen wall while Allison and Lizzy both wound up with embroidered Hungarian shirts. Charleen struck out, but her big souvenir of the trip was still about a week away.

Our next stop was at the castle where the Danube makes a significant bend — hence the area is referred to as “Bend of the Danube” by the locals. We hiked up to the castle and happened across a man with a falcon who was letting tourists pose for pictures with the bird on their arm. Charleen put on the heavy leather glove and the bird hopped right over to her. She spent a few minutes petting the bird while I took pictures and shot a little bit of video of the scene.

We continued up the hill and explored each of the three main levels of the fortifications before reaching the inner part of the castle. The whole place was quite amazing and the displays they had constructed painted a picture of life in those days. Even more interesting was the story behind the castle — it was the sight of a medieval summit meeting in 1335 between the kings of Hungary, the Czechs, and Slovakia. The significance of this treaty is that it normalized trade between these three people and established the rules for commerce between three different nations.

We finished the tour of the castle just as they were getting ready to close up for the night and then headed back to Guyla’s house where his wife had prepared a fantastic and authentic Hungarian meal for us. We had a champagne toast and appetizers before continuing on to a homemade goulash that was fantastic. We also enjoyed a variety of sausages and fresh vegetables and a delicious Hungarian cake for dessert.

After dinner, Guyla took us to the citadel overlooking the town so that we could see Budapest at night. The city was beautiful! One of the most striking things we saw was the chain bridge. It was strung with lights and illuminates the river below with a gentle light — very impressive to see.

Unfortunately, our time in Hungary was finished and we packed up so that we could leave in the morning.

March 29th (Day 12)
We drove in some typical big-city traffic until we were able to get on to the highway leading out of town. Our itinerary had us travelling to Crakow this day and it turned out to be a much longer drive than expected. We stopped for lunch at a Bodega, a small inn out in the Slovakian countryside, near Liptovske — a ski area. Ordering was a bit dicey as no one in the place spoke English and my German was only sufficient to ensure that we got things that looked familiar for the family. I ordered something described as the specialty of the house and it turned out to be a sausage stuffed with breading and meat — it was pretty good! The entire meal wound up costing us 13 Euros, or about $15. Not bad for a family of four. The kids, of course, made a Slovakian friend who they played with until she had to leave.

We pressed on towards Crakow and finally reached the outskirts of the city in the late afternoon. We called our appointed lodging place (Old Town Apartments) and asked for directions. They were unable to give us driving directions to their office even though it was supposedly located on a prominent street in the old town district. Instead of providing directions, they reiterated where they were located and suggested that we follow the signs — only there were no signs. I finally lost my patience after about an hour and a half and had Charleen go in to a gift store to try to buy a map and ask for directions. It was almost an hour later when we finally found their office — it was located on a street so small that it was virtually impassible. I stayed with the car while Charleen and the girls went in to secure our lodging for the evening.

It was about a half-hour later when they finally returned to the car with an address and some scribbled directions. We set off to try to find the place so that we could unload the car before taking it to some nebulous location to park it overnight. This search proved even more fruitless than the search for their office and it ended when I lost all patience after another hour of driving around. The closest we came to actually finding the damn place was when we were on a street with the same name, facing in the wrong direction, and several dozen building numbers away. We never did find the other part of the street that may (or may not) have actually included the building where we were supposed to stay. I pulled the plug on Crakow at that point and returned to the rental agency to give them their keys back and ask for a refund. Naturally, no one there had the authority to grant a refund so I insisted that they contact someone who did have the authority. This led to me being placed on the phone with their manager, who also did not have the authority to grant me a refund. I explained to them that they would be receiving a charge-back from my credit card company and also informed them that I would contact the web-based Polish tourism service that we booked through to explain our difficulties and recommend that they drop that service from their listings. We left Crakow about 5 hours after arriving, having seen nothing but their streets and with me as pissed as I ever got on the entire vacation. One side note — the first business-type call that I made after landing in the US was to my credit card company to dispute the charge for that night in Crakow.

Our next day was to be in Warsaw and I decided that we would have a quick dinner somewhere on the road and just push through so that we could have a whole day to explore their capitol city. We wound up stopping at a McDonald’s. I think that it is inevitable that all Americans who visit other countries for more than a few days wind up with at least one fast-food meal — and this was ours. We were back on the road again in no time and wound up checking into a Hotel Gramada location at around 11 pm that evening. On the upside we were only about 90 minutes distant from Warsaw and that meant that we would be able to manage a full day there.

March 30th (Day 13)
We had a pleasant breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and then I went to pay the hotel bill while Charleen took the kids to the bathroom before we got back into the car. I looked carefully at the bill and learned that they had tacked on an extra 40PLN per child that I had not agreed to the night before. It took a few minutes to convince the woman behind the reception desk that I would not be paying something that I had not agreed to when we checked in and finally the bill was correct. Our night at the Gramada wound up costing us about $130, not too bad considering the size of the “apartment” (more like a suite to US travelers) and the quality of the breakfast.

We left the hotel and made the short drive to Warsaw. While heading for the center of the city, we happened to look at a building on our left and discovered that it was our hotel (Hotel Jan III Sobieski). Miraculous — it was the first time that we had made it to our destination without any confusion or extra time spent bumbling around a foreign city. We parked the car, checked into our rooms, and then headed out to explore for most of the day.

We took a bus down to the old town area and then set out on foot. Charleen was pretty hungry at that point and asked if we could find somewhere for lunch. We walked right past the royal palace and then headed down a small street towards the old town center.

We happened across a street performer who was dressed from head to toe in black muslin and looked like the grim reaper with the staff that he was holding. There was a cup for coins in front of him and he would stand perfectly still until someone dropped a coin into the cup. At that point, he would begin shaking some bells that he had hidden in one of his sleeves and raise and lower the staff. It was creepy, yet entertaining all at once and the kids loved it! We watched the show for a while and then headed further down the street to find a place for lunch.

We opted for a place called Pierogarnia — a pierogi restaurant. The restaurant was very quaint and only had about a half-dozen tables all together. The wait staff was very pleasant and spoke enough English that we did not have to try to struggle through the menu or our meal. The kitchen was located at the rear of the restaurant and there was a lady sitting on a stool making the pierogis by hand — definitely a good sign as far as our search for authentic Polish food.

Charleen and I both had a sampler plate that included several different varieties. We ordered a “sweet” plate for the kids that featured plum, sweet cheese, and apple pierogi. Allison took a liking to the apple and Lizzy seemed to like the cheese. Neither of them liked the plum, but Lizzy took a huge liking to the meat-filled variety and actually wound up eating more of them all over Poland.

We continued down the street towards the old town square. I was astonished at how empty the square was when we finally got there. It was a rainy day, so there were very few tourists and only a couple of “art” dealers. Even more surprising, the sole gypsy family (it is terrible to say, but I viewed them as potential pick-pockets) was sitting quietly on a bench and only one of them made a half-hearted attempt to beg money from us.

We looked around the old town square for a while and the kids chased every pigeon they could see before walking on towards the new town square. Getting there involved walking by an old castle and down some narrow streets. The weather was much colder than Charleen was accustomed to (March in Iraq usually brings temperatures in the 90s) and she was cold. We stopped into a small store and bought her a hat with matching gloves. I am pretty sure that one purchase did more to increase her comfort level than any of the others on the trip.

We walked around the new town square and the associated cathedral for a while and then headed back towards the royal palace. The weather had improved gradually over the course of the afternoon and that left us thinking that it was considerably earlier than it actually was. As a result, we missed our opportunity for a tour. We noted their opening time and decided that we would try to make things work out such that we would be able to visit it in the morning.

We were walking towards the bus when we spotted something interesting — a huge portrait of Pope John Paul II being prepared for mounting on the front of a museum. Based on how they were preparing things it looked to Charleen and me as if it was a Polish joke in the making. We hung around and watched for awhile, but nothing catastrophic happened so we left.

We caught another bus back to the hotel — the cost for all four of us to ride was about $2 — and freshened up a bit before dinner. We had driven past a sushi restaurant on the way and that was what Charleen decided she wanted to have for dinner. She was feeling a bit of a cold coming on so I put her in a taxi to go to the local Apteka (pharmacy) while the kids and I walked down the street to the Shokuyoko Japanese restaurant.

We walked in to a very nice, albeit warm, restaurant that looked like a lot of the higher-end sushi restaurants do in the states. The most notable difference was that almost the entire dining room was divided up into individual dining areas by the placement of the paper screens. This created a very cozy atmosphere and probably kept the noise level down as well.

Charleen finally arrived and we ordered a variety of sushi and other dishes. Everything was fantastic! Our sushi that night definitely ranked right up there with some of the best I’ve had anywhere (it did not hurt that the kids were well behaved either). After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and Charleen took Lizzy up to the room to get ready for bed while I took Allison into the desert bar for a piece of desert — a reward for eating so well and even trying something new — wasabi (Japanese horseradish paste) on her sushi. She ordered a chocolate cake that came wrapped in a wafer-thin layer of chocolate and dusted with some chocolate powered. I let her eat her fill and only managed a couple of bites myself. It was nice to be able to spend some one-on-one time with her during our vacation and I think that it made up for the fact that I had spent several hours building a snowman with Lizzy when we were in Garmisch. Lizzy definitely enjoyed her time alone with Charleen, too. She decided that she wanted to be the first one ready for bed, and also be a helper to get things ready for the morning. She went through the shower and got her pajamas on, then helped lay out the next day’s clothes before Allison and I came back and we all went to bed.

March 31st (Day 14)
We went to breakfast in the hotel and discovered a feast! They had everything typical of a Polish breakfast (sausages, cheeses, vegetables, etc.) along with some good stuff typical of an American breakfast (cereals, scrambled eggs, toast, etc.) such that everyone wound up happy with their meal — a rarity in our family.

After breakfast we took a cab over to the old town area so that we could tour the royal palace. There were just so many spectacular things to see inside that it seemed that the few hours we spent was only a sample. As a hobbyist woodworker, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work that goes into creating spectacular woodwork. I was especially astonished at the intricacy of the floors. Each room was graced with a different style floor, each of them amazingly intricate, and displayed phenomenal craftsmanship. There was even one room that had a floor that resembled something that Escher might have created because the use of contrasting species created a 3-dimensional appearance. As wonderful as the floors were, the furniture blew it away in terms of sheer beauty and detail. The veneer work and carving was some of the best that I have ever seen. One thing that Charleen found interesting about the castle was that there were custodians stationed in every room. They ensured that no one damaged the furnishings, but also pointed the way through the castle such that you didn’t miss anything.

Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the entire old town area was a picture I noticed on the way out of the palace — it showed the damage sustained by the area during WWII and the devastation was total. I found out later that something like 70% of the buildings in Poland’s cities had been damaged to the point where they had to be rebuilt from the ground up — the old town in Warsaw was no exception.

We stopped in a small town outside of Warsaw so that we could add some more time to our cell phone and have lunch. We wound up at a place where no one spoke English, but we were able to make ourselves understood by pointing and gesturing. Our lunch was fantastic! Charleen had a whole trout while I opted for a kielbasa and the kids ate soup and schnitzel.

We drove on towards Torun, a medieval town near Bydgoszcz where we were scheduled to meet up with a couple of Polish friends from my time in Iraq. We made contact with Adam by cell phone and he directed us to a home center (along the same lines as Home Depot or Lowe’s) and we found the place without incident. Adam and family arrived in less time than it took Charleen to take the kids into the store to go potty.

We followed Adam over to his parent’s home and found that another one of my friends was already there, waiting for us. We let the kids out of the car to meet everyone and they immediately spotted the chickens in the yard. They chased and chased those chickens until Lizzy caught one and Allison cornered one. They both came back from around the side of the house toting chickens. Of note: Allison is unwaveringly our sweet kid while Lizzy has a mean streak a mile wide. Nowhere is this difference more evident than in one of the photos of the two kids with the chickens. Allison was gently cradling the one she caught and petting it to calm it down while Lizzy had an iron grip on the one she caught, with a hand wrapped around its neck to prevent it from getting away. I guess that is just one more bit of proof that each child is different.

We left our car parked at Adam’s house and we all rode in the two other cars. It was a refreshing change for me to be a passenger and I enjoyed being able to look around without having to constantly keep my eyes on the road and the other cars.

Adam and Jarek took us down to the old section of town and parked very close to the pedestrian area. Torun is significant because it was the home of Copernicus and there is a prominent statue of him right outside the town hall. Adam pointed out to us where he was stood during a pro — democracy demonstration that he participated in during the 80’s and also where he was when he was arrested, along with numerous other participants. We walked around the old town area for a while (it was raining) and then tried to go to one of his favorite restaurants. Unfortunately, they did not have a couple of the traditional menu items available and we wound up driving out to a rustic place out in the country called Chata Goralska. We did not discover this until the night before we left Poland, but Charleen somehow managed to leave her wallet at this restaurant.

With ten of us evenly divided between adults and children it was probably for the best that the place was not very crowded. I had the chance to try a traditional Polish winter drink as well. I was very put — off by the name and the description, but tried it anyway. Warm beer. It is basically mulled cider made with beer instead of cider and it was really tasty. I was surprised that I liked it, but I guess that was due to the fact that the spices made a significant difference in the taste.

I let Adam order for me while Charleen requested something billed as roast beef. She wound up with tournedos of beef and her dinner was out of this world. I had a bowl of cabbage soup followed by potato pancakes with goulash and we all shared some pierogis. Naturally, Lizzy wound up eating a bunch of pierogis instead of whatever was ordered for her while Allison was too busy playing with the other kids to eat much of her food at all. Adam and Jarek had a teenager and two preteen girls between them, and the girls were fascinated with the big kids. They spent most of the evening holding one of the big kids’ hands. They also had the big kids spinning them around in the restaurant, until we noticed what was going on and put the kibosh on it.

We had a very long and leisurely dinner and the kids occupied themselves quite well. They are both very taken with older girls and they had three of them to play with at the restaurant. It was wonderful for me to be able to spend some time catching up with friends who I had not seen for about 18 months, but who I worked, traveled, and lived with for a half year during my tour in Iraq. It was also very interesting for me to meet their families and have the opportunity to tour their towns with them. There is simply no comparison between visiting a place as a guidebook — toting tourist and having someone who lives there show you around.

After dinner, we drove back to Adam’s parent’s house and said our good — byes before leaving for the hour — long drive in to Bydgoszcz. Jarek was going in the same direction and it had already been established that he would lead us right to our hotel. This was a real bonus considering that we did not have a map of Bydgoszcz.

We had called the Hotel Pod Orlem from the road and discovered that they did not have any adjoining rooms, even though that was what had been specified on the reservation. They had not bothered to contact us to let us know that they were unable to give us what we requested. As a result, we wound up with a suite instead. It turned out that the suite was on their executive level and was enormous. Not merely big, but enormous. So enormous that the living room included a dining area with a table that would seat at least 8 diners. Our bedroom was not that large, but the living room/dining room really made the place. It was tastefully decorated and very comfortable. When in Bydgoszcz, stay at the Pod Orlem — $140/night goes a long way.

April 1st (Day 15)
We had a good breakfast at the Pod Orlem, albeit not as good as we had at Jan III Sobieski and then met my friend Marcin at our hotel. He had his wife and his daughters with him. The girls are identical twins and only a few months younger than Allison so the four of them were instant friends even if there was a language barrier. It is simply amazing to me how adept our children are at making friends and using non — verbal communication to start playing with children from other countries. I doubt that a statistically relevant number of American children ever experience this, but I do believe that it is a positive experience that we are enabling our children to have.

The kids’ shoes got saturated with water in Torun, so Charleen decided that we should try to buy them some European shoes that same morning. There is probably no better way to go about something like that then to go shopping with the mother of two similarly aged girls in the area where she buys a lot of their clothing. Unfortunately, it turned into a bit of a fiasco because the kids were being excessively picky and the shopping experience is a bit different than it would be in the US. In this part of Poland, you select the shoes you want from the displays on the wall and an employee will rummage through huge bins of shoes (no boxes) trying to find that style in the size you request. Sometimes they have them, sometimes not. This was very frustrating for our girls and it took a few shoe stores before they wound up with new shoes. Allison got a pair of blue leather sneakers and Lizzy got some pink, sparkly shoes. Naturally, she managed to ruin them within an hour of walking out of the store. Charleen bought a total of three pairs of children’s shoes (Lizzy got a different pair also) and the total bill was less than $20.

With the shoe debacle behind us, we were finally able to see some of the old town area in Bydgoszcz. We went to the main pedestrian bridge across the river and Marcin pointed out a very unique statue. It is a tightrope walker suspended above the river and the statue is actually balancing on a tightrope. We continued on to see a mountainous sculpture commemorating the site of a church that was destroyed by the Nazis during WWII and Allison managed to catch a sickly — looking pigeon in the town square. That led to a rapid decontamination before we continued on with our sightseeing and an admonishment about touching pigeons. Our walking tour took us to a church that was more than 1,000 years old after the town square and then we continued on to see an area known locally as the Venetian district because of its’ canals. There were numerous ducks and white swans in the canals and I had to be stern with the children to ensure that they did not slip on a bank and fall into the water because they saw an opportunity to harass some indigent wildlife.

We headed back to the hotel to pick up the cars so that we could drive out to a place in the country for another traditional Polish meal. This time, Charleen and I both had a rye soup served in a bread bowl. It was scrumptious and Lizzy took an immediate liking to it as well. She told Charleen repeatedly not too eat too much because she wanted more bites. What a character! Naturally, she had pierogis and ate a huge portion of those as well. It is astonishing that she is 5 years old, weighs less than 40 pounds, and eats like a longshoreman. The kids found a playground outside and spent a lot of time playing with their new friends.

Our next step after lunch was at the local botanical gardens. Charleen was exhausted, so she took a nap while we took the four little girls for an hour — long hike. They were so excited to be out in the fresh air that they ran all over the place and climbed on everything they saw. At one point, Allison slipped and skinned her palm a little bit. She was crying when she asked me to look at it for her and I told her that I thought she was probably done climbing on things for the day. The tears disappeared instantly and she ran off, telling me over her shoulder that she was feeling much better.

The botanical park was filled with statues, rocks, and hills and I think that it was an excellent idea to bring them out there to run off some of their energy and also to do something more enjoyable for children then looking at old stuff. Again, another advantage to seeing an area with someone who lives there.

We went back to Marcin’s flat after the park and the grown — ups had snacks and hot tea while the kids played. The twins were enrolled in a modern dance class and they wanted to put on a performance. I was really impressed with their routine and also glad that our children were unable to follow the song that they used for their music as it was American hip — hop and not really appropriate for children. I suppose that it was fine for kids who did not understand the lyrics, but that was a recurring theme with music that we heard various places. Later in the vacation, we had a very elegant dinner while listening to some hardcore gangster rap.

It was great to be able to spend so much time catching up with Marcin and also getting to know his wife. He was another very good friend of mine in Iraq and I told him before I left that I looked forward to the day when our children could play together. And play together they did — they even went out to the local playground together. The girls had a blast with the twins.

Dinner was another set of Polish specialties and these were all home — made. There were several different varieties of pickles and other appetizers followed by three different entrees. Our favorite (by far) was a beef roll stuffed with vegetables and served over bigos (a very traditional cabbage and onion casserole). Charleen and I found a private moment to discuss the dinner and we concluded that Marcin and his wife must have spent the better part of a full day working on the meal. It was SOOOOO good!

Eventually, bedtime arrived for the twins and it was obvious that our kids were wiped out as well. Marcin led us back to the hotel and also showed us the road to Sczcecin so that we could make the next day’s drive as short as possible.

April 2nd (Day 16)
I checked us out of the hotel and found yet another discrepancy on the bill. I managed to convince the person at the desk that adding undisclosed charges after someone checked in was simply not acceptable and had it taken off the bill. That seemed to be a recurring theme that irritated me greatly.

We loaded up our car and checked out of the hotel so that we could drive to Sczcecin — the next stop on our marathon vacation. We were on the outskirts of Bydgoszcz when we happened across a flea market being held in the parking lot of a medium — sized church. We decided to stop and ultimately wound up buying each kid a new pair of pants. One of the most frustrating things on this vacation was our unrequited desire to find some clothes with other than English writing on them — it was simply not to be.

We continued on to Sczcecin and made our way in towards the city center. We were scheduled to meet my friend Darek and spend some time with him and his family. I’ve known Darek since 2002 when he was a foreign student at Ft. Lee and we attended the same Officer Advanced Course. I also got to spend a fair amount of time with him in Iraq as he was at a base in the same town as me and we would get together to compare notes on the experience on a regular basis. I certainly learned a lot about the Polish military from him and consider him to be someone I will remain friends with for years to come. He and his wife were also instrumental in helping us arrange certain aspects of our vacation.

We stopped by a bus station because Charleen wanted to use the bathroom. Darek called to check on our progress while we were waiting for her and then drove out to meet us there. We followed him over to his flat and conducted proper introductions. His children are a bit older (Ada,12 & Karl,17) but they seemed happy to play with Allison and Lizzy. His 12 — year old daughter was a big hit with them and spoke sufficient English that they could talk with her in addition to playing. She wound up taking them to a park while I caught up with Darek. He showed me a year book of sorts that had been presented to each of the Polish soldiers on his rotation and I looked through it and spotted many people who I had known and served with as well. The commonality of our experiences was really emphasized by reviewing the photos and talking about the people and places.

Darek’s wife Agata fed us some Polish stew as a snack and then we went to find the children so that we could go check into our hotel and set out for some late — afternoon sightseeing. We followed Darek down to the old town center and discovered that our hotel (Podzamcze) was virtually in the shadow of an old castle. We entered through the restaurant and got checked — in. Our “apartment” was on the second floor (ground floor did not count) so we hauled our bags up three flights of stairs — a task that would have been far more difficult if we had not had Darek and his 17 — year old son helping us. After that, we ditched the car in a guarded parking area that left me a little leery. Fortunately, I was able to park it right next to the guard dog’s pen and he barked at me enough to make me think that he would be an effective deterrent.

We put everything in the room and Charleen elected to take a nap so that she could try to kick her cold. The girls went with me and we went sightseeing with Darek and his family. We walked down by the river and Darek pointed out the port system to me (we’re both logisticians, so it was interesting for me even though the average person would have been very bored) and showed me where the Polish Army shipped all of their stuff to Iraq for the mission we were on.

We continued to walk around the old town area and Darek pointed out a place that is very popular in the summertime. It is a huge set of steps that overlook the river — very picturesque. Darek also pointed out a bunch of other places that he suggested we go see the following day. It got dark as we were walking and talking, but that was no problem. The problem started with the rainstorm. We hustled back to the hotel and said our goodnights.

I took the kids up to the room with the intention of seeing what Charleen wanted to do about dinner. As it turned out, she had not taken a nap and was not feeling any better. It was at this point that she had determined that her wallet was missing and it would be another day before we discovered that it was in that small town outside of Warsaw.

I decided to go with carry — out that we would eat in our room. I took Allison with me and we walked down the street to a pizza place. We discovered that they had stopped serving hot food at 6pm so we walked back to our hotel to see what the restaurant could offer. We wound up with a salmon carpaccio, some pierogis, and a salad. We asked the young man behind the counter to bring it up to us when it was ready and it wound up taking a little longer than expected. The kids were tired, but that did not stop Lizzy from plowing through the pierogis.

April 3rd (Day 17)
We went down for breakfast and wound up with a delicious selection of Polish food complimented by made-to-order scrambled eggs. The kids ate a huge amount of food and I called Darek to make arrangements to meet so that we could tour the city some more. Charleen took the opportunity to run down to the car and scour it for her wallet to no avail.

We set out on foot and Darek took us to his church as our first stop. I was very old and very large. I was astonished to see that they were building what appeared to be townhouses right in front of the church. I asked Darek about it and learned that they were to be church property and would house clergy members. Still, it caught me by surprise to see that they were building anything that would obstruct a view of their beautiful church.

We walked inside and discovered that they were holding mass for school children at the time. The music was rocking and loud so I assumed that they were trying to broaden their appeal. The church was beautiful inside and we looked at the various chapels built into the alcoves. One of these shrines was a memorial to the 21,857 citizens of the town who were killed during a period of only a few months of 1940. Another one was a memorial to lost sailors (it is a town with a deep-water port), while a third one memorialized the number of Jews who had been killed in the concentration camps. Our tour of the cathedral ended with a large chair where we took pictures of one another sitting in it– it was the chair used by the Pope on his visit to Sczcecin back in the 1980s.

The kids were angling for a snack, so we ran them through a small grocery before continuing on our walking tour. We went to see a mixed-use building also. It housed a medical school and also art studios. An interesting combination. Darek and I discussed architecture a little bit. He told me that the buildings from the communist times (they are instantly recognizable) are gradually being replaced by buildings which fit with their surroundings much better. I found it interesting to see that the remaining blight of communist times is gradually being replaced.

We had a very nice lunch at a restaurant that Darek selected and then continued on to a park where the kids could play, after picking up Darek’s wife from work. She went back to pick up their daughter and we arranged to do some more sightseeing all together after the kids played with Ada for awhile. Lizzy managed to find people to serve her at the park by pushing her on the swings without speaking the language. Allison turned into a monkey, intent on making her way through an entire set of monkey bars that included a transition from rings to bars. It was amazing to watch her figure out how to best do it and accomplish the task at hand. We stopped to look at a huge statue of three eagles taking flight– symbolizing the spirit of the Polish people.

Our next stop took us to see the old castle near our hotel. Unfortunately, it was closed to interior tours, but we got to walk around the courtyard and even see their open-air opera. I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to watch a performance in the castle’s courtyard during the summer.

We finished our tour and returned to the cars. It was there that Darek and Agata surprised us with a wonderful offer– they would take the kids to an interactive art studio and feed them dinner so that Charleen and I could enjoy some time alone. Naturally, we jumped at the chance!

We walked over to a big mall because she wanted to do some shopping. She wound up with some cosmetics and some personal hygiene products — none of which are available in the US. There was a brand of German hair care products that she had been watching the commercials for on Russian television with her Ukrainian friends and was dying to get her hands on. She bought three bottles each of shampoo and conditioner to take back with her. We also went through a big store that resembled a Super Wal-Mart in that they sold everything from consumer goods to groceries. They also had these interesting little shopping carts that were unlike anything I have seen in any of the countries that I have visited. Basically, it is a cart that holds a hand basket similar to the ones you find in stores in the US. The end result is that it looks like a miniature shopping cart that is regular height — I got one for Charleen if for no other reason than the photo opportunity.

We continued walking around the mall, looking for the holy grail of our trip– a decent looking shirt with Polish writing on it for Charleen. No dice. I led her into a jewelry store at one point and surprised her by buying her a new cross to wear. It is two-tone gold with several small diamonds set in the upright piece. I am not one for jewelry, but I’ll admit that it was beautiful.

While in the mall, we also stopped at a juice bar and had some of their concoctions. We also took a bunch of pictures of a Mercedes A-class that they had on display and even found a shoe store with the same red elephant breaking through the window as we saw in Munich. The difference that we saw was that this one was an appliqué as opposed to a life-sized model.

It was raining when we decided to head back to our hotel for dinner. I decided that we would catch a cab instead of walking in the rain and managed to flag one down in only a few minutes. We jumped into the back seat, learned that the driver did not speak English, and then discovered that neither one of us remembered the name of our hotel. Fortunately, we had a small guidebook and we were able to look up the name quickly. Oops!

We were concerned about the possibility of being late to meet the kids so we opted for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant instead of going out to another place. It turned out to be a great choice. We had a platter of grilled fish for two, a nice bottle of wine, and some wonderful creation for dessert. Dinner without the kids was a really nice way to wind-down our vacation and discuss how things worked out over the past two weeks. The kids arrived back and we said a huge “thank-you” for providing us the time to spend alone, even if we did spend it shopping and having dinner.

It turns out that the Darek and family had taken the girls to McDonalds for dinner (which every kid loves) and to an art studio where they were busy cutting out and painting Easter eggs with wax crayons. Ada accompanied them, and they enjoyed the attention from her as well as the project.

April 4th (Day 18)
We ate our last breakfast at the Podzamcze and I paid the bill for our stay. We spent two nights, ate one room service meal, one great meal in the restaurant, had a couple of beers on one occasion, and all four of us had breakfast both days– the total bill was $275!

We drove out of Sczcecin and decided on the fly that we would not spend the night in Berlin because there was a flight out of Ramstein the next day that we wanted to catch. We stopped at the Polish border on the way out and collected our last new passport stamps of the trip before continuing on to Berlin.

The purpose of our trip to Berlin was to visit the Pergamon Museum. This museum has a great personal significance to me because it is the location of the original Ishtar Gate that was removed from Babylon when the Germans did an archeological dig there in the early 20th century. I had spent a year in Babylon, Iraq and looked at the reproduction countless times. I always wondered how it would look compared to the original and I finally was going to get my chance. I was excited! The kids were hungry! I would wait.

We had lunch at a neat little Italian café just down the block from the museum. I ordered the kids a tortellini dish that seemed a bit advanced for them so I thought they would split it. As it turned out, Lizzy was too hungry to split a lunch and we had to get her another order. I had gorgonzola and basil pizza that was phenomenal and Charleen had a stuffed crepe that was equally as delicious.

On to the museum! We paid our admission and learned that this particular museum furnished all guests with a set of headphones and an electronic device that would play descriptions of the exhibits in a variety of languages. We found the Babylon exhibit right away and explored the exhibit. The kids were really interested in the headphone things and they would go from display to display, punching in the numbers and listening to the descriptions. It was great to see them take such an interest in a museum, even more so considering the significance that it held for me and also for Charleen as she had recently visited Babylon, even though it is no longer a coalition base.

We left the museum and inadvertently wound up exploring Berlin a bit while searching for the right Autobahn. It looks like a very interesting city and I could see spending a week there at some point. Unfortunately, the time line on this trip only provided for a very short stay.

We made our way down to Ramstein and had a quick dinner at a rest stop along the way. We arrived at Ramstein and checked into our lodging. We decided to put the kids to bed while Charleen and I stayed up to re-pack everything so that we could head in different directions. We finished that up at about midnight and loaded the car so that we could get up and get moving quickly in the morning.

April 5th (Day 19)
I called upon waking up and learned that our show time was bumped back from 0800 to 1000 so that gave us enough time to have a quick breakfast and try to get Charleen a new ID card before leaving. That turned into an absolute debacle based on some bureaucratic red-tape at Ramstein and we wound up having her take us to the PAX terminal and return to the place while we were waiting on the flight.

We were the second CAT III travelers manifest and we knew at that point that we would make it back to the US because it was a rotator flight from Kuwait that we were joining mid-way home. We hung out in the family area and our children played with the other kids who were also waiting on the flight.

Our good-bye with Charleen was brief and relatively painless. One big reason that we had chosen to go on vacation together (rather than having her come home) was that it would be easier on the kids than having to explain that she was home for leave but could not stay. As it turned out, this was the right decision as the kids readily accepted that our vacation was over and that they would see mommy when she came home for good this summer.

The flight was characteristically full and crowded, but we managed to get the last middle row. Therefore, we had three seats together and the kids did not have anyone within arms’ reach (due to small kids, not an abundance of leg room) to bother. One interesting thing on the flight — the flight crew had to move a dozen people from the front of the plane to the back before we could take off.

Lizzy made friends with a woman traveling back to the US who entertained her for hours. She insisted that it was no problem, but I still felt that I was imposing. Finally, I decided that it was time for the kids to take a short nap. They managed to sleep for about 60-90 minutes total and then we were on the ground at BWI. Unfortunately, any time savings that we gained from a quick flight were eaten up waiting for the last item to arrive off the plane — note: try to avoid checking the car seats when traveling Space-A on a commercial airplane as they will probably be the very last items removed from the cargo hold.

We went out to the curb to find someone in a red jacket to find us a cab back to Dover. This was a suggestion that I picked up on the Space-A message board and the suggestion was that $30/person was about what I should expect to pay. Mr. Red Jacket quoted me $155 and I quickly moved in the other direction.

Our next stop was the USO where they had a very old list that indicated that we would pay around $150-300 for a shuttle service to take us down to Dover. I was fed up and elected to rent a car instead. I had initially planned to rent one-way and drop off in Dover that night, but was unable to make a reservation because all of the rental car offices in Dover would be closed by the time that we got down there. It was apparent to me, based on my lack of sleep and the hour, that we would be spending the night in a hotel between BWI and Dover, so I decided to go ahead and arrange a one-way rental with a return the next morning.

We took the shuttle over to BWI’s consolidated rental car location and discovered that Hertz was out of cars. I got in line at Avis and concurrently called their toll-free reservation hotline. I made a reservation for the smallest vehicle I could and was quoted a price of about $70, including tax. When I got up to the counter, I gave them my reservation number and learned — big surprise — that they did not have any of those cars available for a one-way rental to Dover. We wound up with a mini-van instead.

The kids were asleep by the time that we hit the entrance ramp to the highway.

I drove about an hour and decided that it was time to get off the road and get some rest. The first two hotels we tried were out of discountable rooms and I was not about to pay $139 to have a room for 8 hours. We continued on and I finally found us a room at a Holiday Inn Express (my personal preference) and agreed to renegotiate the rate with the manager come morning.

Unfortunately, morning came a little earlier than I had expected. The phone rang at 0600 and it was the front desk telling me that I had to come downstairs because there was a problem with my vehicle. I looked out the window and discovered that the problem was that it was on the back of a tow truck that was leaving their parking lot!

I threw on some clothes and hustled downstairs. I demanded to know what was going on and was told that I had parked illegally and they had my rental car towed. I demanded that they have the tow truck bring the car right back and they told me that it was up to me to get hold of the towing company and make the necessary financial arrangements to have the vehicle returned.

I was clearly getting nowhere with the idiot at the desk, so I went outside to look for some indication that I had actually parked improperly. Not finding any, I decided to call 911 to report the theft. I told the dispatcher as much as I knew and she said that an officer would be out shortly. I walked back into the hotel and advised the person at the desk that it would probably be in her best interest to ensure that the manager arrived before the police showed up and then went back to the room.

I explained to the kids that there was a mistake and that they should try to get some more sleep, but they were way too excited for anything of the sort. A few minutes later the police arrived and I went back downstairs to discuss the issue with them. I saw someone who I supposed was the manager talking to him already so I walked up to the two of them and told the officer that I was the one who had called. I asked him for a few minutes to tell him what had happened and we spoke on the side for less than two minutes before he called the manager over and explained to her that she needed to produce the car quickly or else he was going to take my statement and then start making arrests. She scurried off and left me with the officer at that point. He was prior USAF so we had a nice conversation about the military while waiting for the vehicle to come back.

The van was returned and I grabbed the kids and the luggage and loaded up for the rest of the drive over to Dover. I stopped at the front desk and presented the hotel bill to the manager. I asked her if it would be necessary for me to contact their corporate customer service folks or if she just wanted to take care of the bill locally. I probably should have asked for something more considerable, but all I wanted at that point was to leave. She apologized and took the bill. I did not say anything, but I certainly hope that she reached the conclusion that the idiot desk clerk needed to be fired over this mistake and her behavior towards me.

We drove back to Dover, picked up the porter at their Avis location, and then proceeded to the base. We loaded up our truck and set out on our thousand-mile drive back to Illinois.

We arrived back home on the 7th – 21 days after leaving for this vacation — and the kids and I decided that we were very glad to sleep in our own beds that night.

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