Eighteen Days In The US

I traveled to the US with a series of lists.  I had places to go, people to see, food to eat, and crap to buy.  In eighteen days, I drove my rental car over 1200 miles across three counties.  Here’s why:

I had a Culinary To-Do List, because there are just some foods that have no good analog in Germany.

  • I ate at Friendly’s with Lorrie on my first night back in town.  After a year in Germany, it was a little bit jarring to be handed the check before were finished eating.
  • I got my diner fix, including the aforementioned Friendly’s visit,  the Moonlite Diner with Vicki and Ilona, iHop, and Denny’s (in which I ate the Gandalf’s Gobble from the Hobbit Menu.  Hilarity ensued.)
  • I got proper Thai food, having dinner one weeknight at Chaiyo Thai with Vicki.
  • Plenty of good burgers were eaten, including Jack’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, and Charm City Burgers, where I also fulfilled my tater tot needs while lunching with Marc.
  • I had lunch at Muddy Waters with Karen.
  • I met my Tex-Mex cravings by joining my brother and his boyfriend for Taco Tuesdaze at Tijuana Flats.
  • I had Sushi with Holly at Katana, a fantastic tiny Sushi place in North Miami Beach.
  • I had a proper and delicious steak with my elder brother at the local Longhorn.
  • I finally got around to trying The German Bread Haus, a German bakery on Commercial Boulevard, East of I-95.  I brought some pastries into the office with me, and they were quite good.germanbreadhaus
  • I also ate at the Cheesecake Factory, the Melting Pot, Rotelli, Miller’s Ale House, TGI Fridays, and Jimmy Johns.  I may be forgetting a few places-  this trip was all about the food.

I had an Acquisitions To-Do List.

  • I stopped at Costco to get a ginormous bottle of Excedrine and some Flintstones chewables for myself.  I also picked up some generic Sudafed, another thing I haven’t found a satisfying version of over here.
  • I managed to find a pair of New Balance shoes I liked to replace my aging and slightly less comfortable pair.  I also picked up some more work pants and long sleeved t-shirts in Target.
  • I went back to the ski store in Delray Beach to get another scarf and wound up buying an awesome neck fleece that I already love beyond all reason.
  • I went to Abercrombie & Fitch to get a pair of sweatpants that Jenny asked me to bring back to Germany.
  • I also went to the grocery store for some other requests- I came back to Germany with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Nerds, and A-1 Steak Sauce.
  • As an aside, shopping makes me kind of looney.  This results in bad product based puns.  For example:noway

I had an actual task-based To-Do List.

  • storageI successfully moved my stored stuff from a 5×10 unit in one location to a 5×5 in another facility.   The place I was using claimed to be climate controlled and pest controlled, but it was near a canal and the doors weren’t sealed very well. As a result, I had various droppings and former insects, frogs, and worms in and around my stuff, along with live silverfish in the books.  As if that weren’t bad enough, there was already humidity damage starting to show on some of my books.  The new facility is immaculate and completely indoors.  Also, the smaller unit in the new facility will save me roughly $65 a month in storage fees.  You can see what’s left in storage in the picture to the right, including my beloved coffee table.
  • I snagged an International Driving Permit.  I don’t drive here, but if I need to, this could be handy.
  • I got a haircut at Kathleen & Company, the place I went to for eight years before I moved to Germany.   I can get a haircut anywhere, but this place deserves loyalty.
  • I worked a week in the Florida office.
  • I went back to my Neurologist for a followup.  I haven’t made the time yet to find a Neurologist in Germany.

I also had a Gatherings To-Do list, which originally contained just a few shindigs, but wound up including much more.

  • I drove out to Wellington for my sister’s fabulous Thanksgiving Extravaganza.  In the past, our family has sometimes splintered off into different directions for Thanksgiving, but this year most of us were all in the same place.  A small portion of the group is visible in this photo, including both of my parents, one of my brothers, my brother-in-law and his brother, my nephew, both  nieces (2 and 22), and my niece’s boyfriend.  Not pictured, but present:  The other brother, my sister and my sister-in-law.  Like I said, it’s a big and convoluted family, but we’re a fun group.thanksgiving
  • I went to a “Friendsgiving” dinner that was being held by John, another long time friend.  I arrived between their dinner and dessert courses, which was perfect timing for chatting and being social.  It also gave me the opportunity to give him one of the two Bavarian beers I brought with me from Germany.  He was pleased.
  • I had a pair of birthday shindigs- one with friends, and one with family.  The friends party was held on the Saturday night before my actual birthday-  I had friends join me for a fantastic dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Season’s 52, followed by some drinks at a Ft. Lauderdale Irish pub.
  • My aunt, uncle, and cousin were in Miami for a wedding and since the timing matched up, they joined part of the family for brunch on that Sunday.
  • Sunday night was the second birthday shindig- my father put together a dinner at another restaurant and I got to see more family there, including a few who weren’t at Thanksgiving dinner.
  • I have a lot of friends outside of Florida who I wanted to see, but I only had the time to travel to one other state.  I took the dart-board approach to selecting who to visit, and I wound up going to Minneapolis to hang out with Debra, another old friend there.  We had dinner in the Mall Of America, which I had never been to.  That place is HUGE, and has a theme park in the middle of it.  There are roller coasters.  In a mall.  Amazing.

Last but not least, the most important to-do list item of all was to remember to come back to Germany.

frosty

A Weekend In Köln

Continuing on my longstanding trend of seeing new cities because there’s a concert there that I want to see, I went to Köln (Cologne) to see Owl City.  I’d seen them once before, in Orlando, and the previous show was bigger- more people on stage, real stringed instruments for the violin and cello bits, and so forth. This time around, it was in a smaller club with a smaller lineup.  Still a great show, though.

There’s more to Cologne than a happening concert venue, though.  While I didn’t see the entire city by any stretch of the imagination, I did see some nifty parts of the city.  Here are some interesting things about Cologne.

The Beer Is Tiny:

The local beer, called Kölsch, is a pale and tasty drink which is usually served cold in very small cylindrical .2 liter glasses.  The picture below is an abnormally big one.

In pubs in Cologne, the common practice is to immediately bring you a new one every time your glass is empty without any prompting.  To make the beer stop flowing, you have to leave your glass half full or put your coaster on top of it.

It Has A Pretty Neat Bridge:

If you arrive to Cologne via train as I did, you come in on the Hohenzollern bridge, which crosses the Rhine river.  This is the most heavily used rail bridge in Germany, with around 1200 trains passing through it every day.

The bridge also has a pedestrian walkway alongside the tracks, and since 2008, the fence between the footpath and the train tracks has been covered in love locks much like the bridge here in Regensburg.  While I was taking these pictures, a couple got married a few meters away from me, and then placed their own padlock on the bridge.

Their Cathedral Looks Just Like Ours*, Except Way Bigger:

You can’t miss the Kölner Dom when you come out of the train station.   The cathedral is enormous and it was constructed in Gothic style, just like Regensburg’s Dom*.  As a result, the look and feel of the place is very similar.  It’s just much, much larger.   It’s huge.

No, really, it’s enormous.  Here’s a closer shot to give you a sense of scale.

Climbing the spire is a pretty popular tourist attraction.  It’s 509 spiralling stone steps to a viewing platform just over 322 feet above the ground.  They’ve put in fencing to keep people from dropping stuff, but even with the fencing, the view is pretty spectacular.

Tour Groups Everywhere:

Look, a Segway tour group!  I swear, I’m gonna ride one of those things some day.

They Have A Cable Car:

The Kölner Seilbahn has been crossing the Rhine river since the late 1950s.  With my previously established love of tall places, it’s a given that I had to ride it across.

They Have A Chocolate Museum:

Of all the museums I’ve been to, the Schokoladen Museum is my current favorite.  The actual history of chocolate wasn’t all that interesting to me, but the place has functioning chocolate manufacturing processes which can be seen at various steps.  One part is an entire automated line which made the small chocolates that are given to each visitor as they enter the museum. The machine below is constantly turning molded chocolates in various shapes as they dry and harden.

One Last Thing About Köln:

The city is adjacent to another nearby town, Brühl, which is the home of the  PhantasiaLand theme park.  That’s another post, though.

One Week In The UK, Part Two: Edinburgh

From King’s Cross Station, it took roughly four and a half hours to get to Waverley Station in Edinburgh.  The train ride was pleasant enough.  I had splurged a tiny bit on a first class ticket for this ride, so I got a nice window seat and my choice of sandwich and chips during the journey.   Some of the coastal views along the way were pretty spectacular.  At one point, I even saw a bright yellow helicopter hovering over the ocean just off the coast.  Alas, I have no telephoto lens.

On my arrival into Scotland, I checked into the hotel and then wandered around a bit.  I didn’t really have any plans for that first night, and I wound up going to the movie theatre and catching the Dark Knight Rises, which had been released that very day in the UK.

That night, I had a conversation with my partner-in-crime Jenny via text message.

Jenny: How is Edinburgh?
Me: Edinburgh is… under construction.

It wasn’t all of Edinburgh that was under construction, it just seemed like it.  The platform at the train station was under renovation, and the street my hotel was located on was also under significant construction.  It turns out that Edinburgh is undergoing significant work to put in a tram system.  Tracks are being laid down, traffic is being redirected in different places, and construction barriers are everywhere.

Edinburgh had a large set of Olympic rings set up in a park near Royal Mile, the stretch of road that leads to the Edinburgh castle.  Plus there were bagpipers all over.

Imagine my surprise to discover that they still have Police Information Boxes in Edinburgh!  I kept my eyes peeled for Timey Wimey things, but I didn’t see anything else out of the ordinary.

This gruesome looking tower is the Scott Monument, for Sir Walter Scott.  If you climb the 287 steps to the top, you get a spectacular view of Edinburgh.  Also, if you’re tall-ish like me, you get a pretty good whack to the noggin-  the archways are somewhat low.

From the top of the Scott Monument, you can see Arthur’s Seat in one direction. A lot of people make the hike up to the top, as it’s not all that far away.

…and in the other direction, you can see Edinburgh Castle and the buildings along Royal Mile.  As a side note, this is one of the single best photographs I have ever taken.

I was only in Edinburgh from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning.  My entire focus for going to Edinburgh was to see the Hitchhiker’s Guide Live show, which was pretty keen.  This edition of the live show included Neil Gaiman as The Book, and had a special guest appearance by John Hodgman as the meat of the day in Milliways.

After the show, I went to a pub next to the theatre for a drink,  where I bumped into John Hodgman in the men’s room.  This led to a brief and hilariously awkward conversation during which Hodgman was thoroughly polite despite the ridiculousness of the setting.

The next morning, before I headed to the airport, I went in search of a famous statue of Sherlock Holmes, only to discover after wandering around the place it was supposed to be that the statue was moved to storage in 2009 because of the tramworks.  It was supposed to have been replaced in 2011, but the tramworks are very, very, very behind schedule.

One Week In The UK, Part One: London

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson

Ever since I was eleven years old, I’ve wanted to see London.    My fascination with the city started when I would come home after school, running from the bus stop to catch the second half of the day’s broadcast of Dangermouse on Nickelodeon.  For the uninitiated, Dangermouse is the world’s greatest secret agent, a mouse in a white jumpsuit with an eye patch.  His assistant, Penfold, is a hamster in a tiny blue suit.   The link above is part of an episode.  To date, Dangermouse is still my favorite cartoon.

As I grew older, the UK criss-crossed my personal pop culture landscape.  Many movies I loved were filmed, in part, in Pinewood Studios about twenty miles outside of the city.  Here’s a very short and in no way complete list:  Superman and Superman II, the original Harryhausen Clash of the Titans, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Legend, the James Bond movies, Little Shop of Horrors, Aliens, the first two Hellraiser movies,  the 1989 Batman, The Fifth Element, Stardust, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (the single finest movie adaptation of a stage musical ever made), and The Dark Knight.  Granted, most of these didn’t showcase London, but they were made there, and in my brain, that counts.  Sweeney Todd has an entire song just about London, though.

I read every Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book as it came out.  Tom Baker was my Doctor until 2005.  I watch Love Actually at least once a year.  A hefty portion of my regular television viewing comes out of the BBC.  My favorite living author is British.

My point is that I was predisposed to love London even before I ever dreamed of traveling there.  And I did, of course-  dream of traveling there.  When I finally got my passport back in 2006, it was with the intention of making it to London.    I was just waiting for money, time off, and someone to travel with.

As I gained more seniority at Mr. Company, the money became less of a constraint, and the time off became easier to come by.  I was still waiting for a travel buddy though, but it never quite worked out.    Meanwhile, I went to other places.  I traveled widely in my own country, visited Canada, and spent two weeks in Hong Kong for work.   Then in late 2010, my life reached “Do-Over” status-  I found myself single again and temporarily without an apartment of my own.  In that time of upheaval, I made a promise to myself that I would reach London before my fortieth birthday.

Fast forward to April of this year.  I’d been in Germany for a scant five months, and I saw a link on Facebook to a Neil Gaiman post.  The surviving cast members of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio shows were doing a live touring version of the radio shows. Neil himself would be the voice of The Book in the Edinburgh, Scotland show on the 21st of July.  Twenty minutes after I read the post, I had already purchased tickets.    Thirty minutes after I read the post, I had compared the dates of the Olympics to the date of the show, verified that the week leading up to that event was a full week before the crowded Olympics began, and requested my vacation time.    The trip formed from that point forward.

On Saturday, 14 July, I flew into Heathrow Airport, with an Oyster Card, a LondonPass, and a very basic travel framework locked in.  I had a ticket for the London production of Wicked on Tuesday.  I had a rail ticket to go from King’s Cross Station in London to Waverley Station in Edinburgh by rail on Friday.  I had the aforementioned HHG Live ticket, and airfare to go from Edinburgh back to Munich the following Sunday.  And finally, I had a list of things I wanted to see, based on a lifetime of absorbing the UK into my soul like so much mercury on the skin.  I had a terrific time, and I took nearly a thousand photographs.  I’m only going to share about two dozen of them here.

London Just Being London: 

I started out my time in London by using one of those hop-on-hop-off tours on a double decker bus.  This is a great way to get an overview of a new city, and the tour guides are usually pretty interesting.  Right away, I saw London being, well, London.  Bowler hat.  Tails.  If this guy had a monocle and a walking staff, my day would have been complete.

As my hotel was in a slightly residential area near Westminster, I got to see a lot of types of living arrangements, and one of the threads that I noticed was that TARDIS blue (Pantone 2955C) is a very popular color for people’s doors.

The London Eye:

I don’t really know why I love the idea of this thing so much, but one of the things at the top of my “I MUST DO THIS” list was to ride the London Eye.  When the Eye went up in 1999, it was often referred to as “the London Eyesore,”  but people have warmed to it since then and it’s become a much loved part of the London skyline.  The Eye is basically a giant Ferris wheel, except that each of the cars is an oval shaped, sealed, and air conditioned compartment big enough for about 25 people to move around.  The compartments are rotated throughout the ride so that the compartment is always completely vertical, and a ride around the entire circumference takes about thirty minutes.   During the ascent, you get a pretty spectacular view of Big Ben, the houses of Parliament, and Westminster Bridge just across the River Thames, and once you reach the top, you have an amazing panoramic view of London.

Preparation for the 2012 Olympics Is Everywhere:

The London Bridge has a set of gigantic Olympic rings hanging from the upper level.  I wish I’d posted this before the Olympics started, since I took these pictures beforehand.  Now, of course, this picture has been done by every news agency in the world.  It’s interesting to me that the rings fold up when the bridge has to open.  I actually got to see this happen, as they opened the bridge for a passing boat while I was visiting the nearby Tower of London.

Wenlock and Mandeville, the Olympic and Paralympic mascots, are all over the city now, expecially along the Thames.  I saw and photographed at least a dozen different variants, with different “outfits” painted on.   This one is at one end of the Lambeth bridge, with his back toward Parliament.

The preparation was extending to areas outside of the city as well.  I took a boat to Greenwich on one of the days, and we passed an active ship from Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, which was docked for the duration of the games. I never found out the name of the vessel.  (Edit after original posting:  It was the HMS Ocean.)  Lots of military folk were wandering around Greenwich.  When one group of them wandered past…   What’s the word for a group of British naval officers?  A platoon?  Division?  Flock?  I think I’ll pretend they’re like dolphins and say it was a pod of soldiers.  Anyway, when this pod of soldiers wandered past, I heard one little boy say to his father, “Daddy, are those space marines?”  I had to fight very hard to not laugh.

Unfortunately for me, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich was closed because of preparations for the Olympics.  I was kind of bummed out by this, because I wanted to straddle the Prime Meridian so I was standing in two time zones at once.  Oh well, at least I got to see a helicopter landing on the deck of the Naval ship.  That was nifty.

There’s Lots Of Touristy Stuff, Too:

No first-time visit to London would be complete without checking out Westminster Abbey.  I was kind of entranced by how many famous graves were there.   I stood over the graves of Laurence Olivier and Charles Darwin, and I sat for several minutes in Poet’s Corner, which has graves and memorials for too many literary giants to list here.  There are so many graves and memorials in Westminster Abbey that there’s a separate Wikipedia entry to list them all.

Trafalgar Square has Nelson’s Column, and Piccadilly Circus has a lot of electric lights and a ridiculous amount of musicals.  They have now made musicals out of a variety of movies that I didn’t think were particularly musical.  One of the evenings, I didn’t actually have any plans, so I went to a second musical.  I bought tickets about an hour before showtime for “Ghost: The Musical.”  It was a week night, and it wasn’t terribly full, so when I picked up my ticket at the box office, my seat had actually been moved forward to about the tenth row.  I thought the idea was ridiculous until I saw that the music was from Dave Stewart (most people know him from Eurythmics) and Glen Ballard (most people know him from, well everything.  The dude has six Grammys.)   It wasn’t bad.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know the plot.  The transition to a musical wasn’t as jarring as I would have expected.

I quite enjoyed the London Film Museum, which had a lot of neat stuff, including Daleks, a TARDIS, the superman suit from Superman Returns, the Batman Begins batsuit, and a large variety of props from other movies.  There was an entire room of Harry Potter stuff, and a large exhibit dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, including a full sized original Bubo.  This was a highlight for me.

I saw The Monument to the London Fire, but I didn’t climb the 300+ steps to the top.  I walked to Cleopatra’s Needle, an actual Egyptian obelisk (a gift from Egypt) on the banks of the Thames.

I visited the British Library and viewed some of the collection in their so-called Treasures room, which included some of the oldest known bibles in many languages, original handwritten lyrics from the Beatles, very old folios of Shakespeare, and much  more.

The Yeoman Warder Tour (sometimes called the Beefeater Tour, although Yeoman Warder is the correct name) at the Tower of London was informative and interesting, and also free.  Plus they spit a lot when they’re speaking.  The front row needed rain slickers, Gallagher style.  There’s a separate tour to see the Crown Jewels, but that doesn’t really interest me as much.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has a pretty nifty tour, and if you time it right, you can see a play there as well.  I didn’t time it right, but I plan on going back sometime.

I went to the British Museum and checked out things like the Rosetta Stone (amazing) and the Egyptian collection from the tomb of Ramses II.   I especially like how everyone observes the ‘Do not sit on the steps’ signs here.

The gift shops had a lot of neat stuff, but I was particularly amused by William Duckspeare.

Another stop that was almost required viewing for a first time visit to London is the Changing Of The Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace.  Or, as I like to refer to it, the daily viewing of the umbrellas in the near constant rain.  I did get a few pictures of the guards doing their thing, however.  I read somewhere that there are four guards when the Queen is in residence, and two when she isn’t, so I could see that she was out that day.  Here’s one of the two guards who was on duty.

I made a point of stopping on Sunday at the Animals In War Memorial.  There are many, many statues, memorials, and the like in London, but this one is dedicated to all the animals that served alongside British and allied forces in all the conflicts of the 20th century.  The memorial has a bronze sclupture of a horse, a dog, and a pair of pack mules moving through a curved wall.  It’s a visually striking memorial, and the site I linked to up above has good pictures of it.  What I found most interesting, however, was that people are obviously visiting this memorial on a regular basis.  There were candles, wreaths, and even a horseshoe left behind in tribute.

London Has Character:

One of my favorite things about the city was that you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a pub with an interesting name.  (Well, you could, but it would have to be a very patient cat, and you’d have to be out in a field somewhere.)  One of my lunch choices was based entirely on where I was when I really, really had to pee one afternoon.  This is the Minories Pub not far from the Tower of London.  The food was amazingly delicious, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

London Also Has Characters:

There’s an area in the corner of Hyde Park nearest Marble Arch called Speaker’s Corner, and there is a tradition of people going there to speak their minds on Sunday afternoons.  My first full day in London was a Sunday, so I couldn’t resist stopping by to see the… let’s call  them outspoken people.  Most of them were religious, most of them were espousing some form of Christianity, several of them were condemning Islam, and all of them were fascinating to listen to for brief spurts.  I took a lot of pictures of people speaking.  This guy had the most eye-catching outfit of the day.

I walked up and down the Thames while I was there, covering several kilometers on both banks, and I really enjoyed some of the scenery and people on the South bank.  One day, while I was walking along the South Bank back toward my hotel,  I passed this fabulous fellow who was silently dancing his way in the opposite direction.  I’m burning with curiosity as to what it was all about, but he never stopped moving long enough for me to ask.

Mind The Gap:

My friends here in Regensburg have figured out already that I’m kind of a nerd about public transportation.  I love the crap out of good public transit, and London has an amazing collection of ways to get around.  I especially love the London Underground, often referred to as The Tube.  I love the Mind The Gap signs.  I love the subway cars.  I love the distinctive push of air that you can always feel coming up the tunnel a good fifteen or twenty seconds before the train appears.  I love that even when I was going the wrong direction and was basically lost, I could still easily navigate my way back to places I was familiar with on the Tube.

Don’t Forget To Go Outside Of The City:

There are a lot of places I wanted to visit in the UK that I didn’t have time for.  I didn’t manage to visit Stratford On Avon, the final resting place of Shakespeare.  I didn’t even get to see large swaths of London. I’ll hit Cardiff next year, for some of the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who events.    I did, however, take some time on Wednesday of my week to hop a train from Waterloo Station in the morning out to Salisbury.  From the Salisbury train station, there’s a regular bus that goes every  thirty minutes or so out to Stonehenge.  It took me roughly two hours each way, but it was totally worth it to see this in person.

Next Stop, Edinburgh:

I checked out a lot of other things, much of which I”ll remember tomorrow or the next day that I wanted to get into this post.  For example, I went out of my way to see Fenchurch Street Station because I love the character that Douglas Adams created.  I also found Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station and got my picture there. (And as a result, couldn’t get the Pet Shop Boys song out of my head for the rest of the day.)  I ate Fish and Chips and Indian Food.  I had a drink in a pub off Carnaby Street.  I bought some underwear in Marks & Spenser, because everyone says it’s really good stuff.  I went on the London Eye twice.  I walked more in one week than I usually walk in a month.

And finally, I left.  From King’s Cross Station, I took the train up the coast to Edinburgh, Scotland.

But that’s another post.

Amsterdam

I took hundreds of photos in Amsterdam, because there’s just so much to see and do there. I already put up a few pictures of the locals celebrating the Euro 2012 championships, so I’ll leave those out here.   I’ve selected twenty-seven photos out of the hundreds that I took, and I’ll just talk about the individual photos in lieu of a “first we went here, then we went there” styled trip-report.

Ready? Go!

There are twenty-seven photographs after this More link.