One of my favorite things about traveling is discovering how other people go about their everyday lives. How are we the same? How are we different? We had barely been in Germany 24 hours and my travel journal entry for one of the first days there was dominated by a list of things the Germans do differently (and, one might argue, BETTER).

  • Carbonated water is a thing. Often when purchasing bottled water you will be asked if you want flat or non-flat (especially if they've sussed out that you're not from around those parts).
  • Many of the windows open in a V shape rather than the double-hung or winding handle types we have here. For example, when you open a traditionally shaped vertical rectangular-shaped window, the top of the window angles into the room, forming a semi-V shape in its frame. I don't know the logic behind this. Just thought it was cool.
  • Speaking of windows, I didn't see any screens on windows anywhere. Not saying there aren't any. I just didn't see any.
  • The plumbing fixtures (handles, faucets) were uber cool. Our hotel was very
    We stayed at the Miniloft in Mitte near the Natural History museum. Highly recommend if you're into the contemporary style.

    contemporary, so this was no big surprise. But most other places we went that had public restrooms like bars, restaurants, train stations, airports, etc., had interesting, cool fixtures as well. Yes, some of them took me a minute to figure out how to turn them on and off. One place in Munich had Harley Davidson hardware.

  • Speaking of plumbing: just about every public restroom also had modern toilets with buttons on the tank or even on the wall to activate the flush feature - no handles.  Many have two buttons, depending on how much water volume you feel is necessary for an effective flush.
  • I mentioned in a previous post but since it is one of my favorites, will mention again: you can walk around town with an adult beverage. Open. Openly drinking it. People, this is what a civilized country looks like. I've lived all over the U.S., and the only two places I've been where this is allowed (outside of street festivals, of course) is the French Quarter in New Orleans and a few blocks in Savannah where the tourists tend to congregate.
  • Just about everyone in the tourist biz (restaurants, hotels) speaks English.
  • Just about everyone is very friendly.

    Vintage Benz - not buttercream, not a taxi, but still a sweet ride
  • In Berlin , many of the taxis are late model Mercedes Benz; usually a buttercream color.
  • Many of the Mercedes Benz, taxis and otherwise, have no model number on the trunk like they do here. Why do you suppose this is? Are they just so familiar with the models, this would be superfluous? Or they just don't care what model, as long as it's a Benz?
  • As mentioned in a previous post, our cab driver in Berlin drove like a maniac. I totally was not expecting this. In Rome, maybe, but not Berlin. But since this is the land of the Autobahn, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised.
  • The trains are amazing - clean, efficient, on time, affordable. Why don't we have more of them here???
  • The train stations are amazing. We were in several during our trip. The station in Munich was our favorite place to go for snacks and coffee/tea. There was only one (Gare du Nord in Paris) that was a little down-at-the-heels. More on that in a future post.
  • Recycling glass and plastic bottles is a big thing. You will see neat piles of empties along the sidewalks. It's their version of giving a few coins to panhandlers - they are left for folks who turn them in for deposit money. In fact, once we were approached by someone who noticed we had just finished a bottle of water. It was weird at first, but once we realized what they wanted, it was okay.
  • Bicycles are ubiquitous. Many families bike together to school, parks, shops. Most wear helmets.
  • Generously sized sidewalks accommodate not only pedestrians but also bikes, and sometimes, parked cars.
The Berlin Tower with some of its less space-age neighbors
  • Modern architecture is often cheek by jowl with historical. In theory, you might find this jarring. But it was actually delightful - the modern buildings were almost like a cherry on top, nestled among their vintage neighbors.
  • The bedclothes in the two hotels we stayed at were interesting. My son was delighted to learn they dispense with a traditional top sheet (he's been a top sheet hater since childhood). Our queen size bed had two matching twin size comforters rather than a single queen. This is actually genius and eliminates wrestling matches over the covers - you each have your own! And the comforters are sheet fabric on the outside, and comforter on the inside. So you still have a sheet-type item on you. It's just part of the comforter, and therefore saves an extra step when making the bed.
  • It was amusing seeing 'American' restaurants branded as ethnic food. Burgers were the main offering. There were a few that touted themselves as Texas style barbecue. We didn't sample any (it seemed a little silly to seek out American food while traveling in Europe), but I am very curious what the Germans offer as Texas-style 'cue. One restaurant offered southern/soul food. Another had a rock-n-roll theme.
  • American fast food chains were commonplace. I was prepared for the McDonald's and Burger King; less so for the Subway chain, which was as ubiquitous there as it is here. Fried chicken was also quite popular. Oh, and in case you're wondering what native German fast food consists of: currywurst. It's wurst-style sausage links, cut into bite-size pieces and served in a curry sauce (like a really flavorful ketchup); usually with a side of fries like you would get at any American fast food joint.

That's all I can think of for now. Would love to hear some of your observations on the little details that make a big difference to your travel experience. Next post I'll get back on track with more scoop on our tourist trek through Berlin.

I know I promised a series of travel posts about our 2016 trip to Europe as newbie tourists. But after spending the first week of 2017 in bitterly cold South Dakota during Winter Storm Helena, I thought I would re-share this post instead. Enjoy and stay warm!

Bald Eagle Lake is under all that snow and ice

January 2001 was our third winter in the Great White North that is Minnesota. By then we had adjusted somewhat to the infamous Minnesota winters, mainly due to two things: an excellent road-clearing infrastructure, and the extreme weather clothing industry.

We lived in Minnesota for eight years, and I kid you not - we had TWO snow days. In eight years. Think about that for a minute. We had two snow days the first six months after we moved to South Carolina. That doesn't mean it didn't snow all those years in MN. Oh no. It snowed. Not inches. FEET. All those pretty little white flakes contributing to the PSC - the Permanent Snow Cover - from about December to March.  But the snowplows were out there like banshees. Roads plowed pretty as you please in plenty of time for the school buses to come chugging along. Man, my kids were ticked off.

Mine wasn't this shaggy

I had so many different types of coats when I lived there. Along with all the windbreakers and hoodies and sweaters and parkas, I had two super heavy, beastly thick coats. We're talkin' Jeremiah Johnson here. One was a sheepskin-type coat, buff color suede on the outside and the woolly business on the inside. But as a brunette (a 'Winter' for you gals who know your season colors) that buff color never looked particularly good on me (dead giveaway - people always asking me if I felt okay when I wore it), so when I found a similar style coat in a gorgeous dark chocolate brown for a sweet deal at a consignment store in St. Paul, I snagged it. You look at this coat and your first thought is 'buffalo hide'. A really stylish, well-tailored buffalo hide. Talk about warm! It was like walking around in a toaster oven. They were some of the first things I gave away when we got word we were transferred to South Carolina. Absolute rock-solid guaranteed lock I was never, ever going to need those coats south of the Mason-Dixon line.*

And then there was the temperature-rated footwear. I was not aware such things existed until I moved to Minnesota, and boy was I glad they did. Let's not forget the special socks, underwear, hats, gloves for wind, snow, ice, sleet, fog, and all the various combinations. Minnesota is a very clothing-intensive place. If you go there in any month other than July, you will need to pack lots and lots of extra items. Layer!! If you move there, buy a house with lots of closets and storage space - you will need it.

But I digress.

Snowplows and cold weather gear notwithstanding, I was born and raised and lived most of my first 30+ years in a warm weather climate, and not just any warm weather climate. I am a Native Texan, and when I say warm, I mean HOT, and not just your garden variety hot. We're talking preheat the (electric) oven, open it up and take a deep breath, singe your nasal hairs hot. People say if you live in a warm climate, your blood is thinner. I don't know if that is true or not but I think it is true in spirit - you just never get used to cold weather. In addition, based on my informal survey aka Common Sense, there are way more people moving south or traveling south to escape cold weather than there are those going in the other direction. Just ask Ohio and Long Island how many of their former residents now have a South Carolina zip code, and for good reason.

It was a struggle for me, getting through some of those long, cold winters. I remember the time I got an ice cream headache walking into a headwind from the parking lot into the grocery store. I think it was 4°F before wind chill calculation. Hey, at least it was above zero! Here's how crazy my thinking got after a few years up there: it wasn't cold as long as the temp was in double digits (above zero, of course). So as long as it was 10° or warmer, I could usually trick myself into bearing one more day of winter. It didn't take me long to get my thinking straight after we moved to South Carolina, where everyone knows anything below 50°F is cold. That reminds me of the time my folks (also Native Texans) were visiting and my mom kept asking me why the children we passed playing happily outside weren't wearing coats. It was probably about 50 outside, and to a Minnesotan, that's downright balmy!

Minnesota is a gorgeous place and I love my Minnesota friends. But after eight years there, I am convinced hell is not a place of fire and flame. Nope. It is icy and cold, dreary and overcast. The wind is always in your face, you are always one layer short, you've lost your only hat, and you are out of lip balm.

* Extra points if you actually know where the Mason-Dixon line is. Google if you must.

The tips studied, the bags packed, and the potential disruptions successfully avoided, at last we departed for Berlin. We left late afternoon from the East Coast. After a stop in Atlanta, natch (when you live in the southeast, you always stop in ATL), we got down to business. Our next stop was Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, then, finally, Berlin mid-afternoon the following day.

What a contrast between the 40-minute puddle-jumper from Columbia to Atlanta and the massive Air France winged beast taking us to Paris! This was my first time on Air France. The flight attendants were impeccably dressed, hair and makeup to perfection in the European style - barely there but perfect (the makeup, not the uniforms!). They all appeared to be multilingual. It was delightful listening to them chatter among themselves in French, then assist passengers in a variety of other languages.  Air France even had a charming short film communicating our safety instructions via the small video screens embedded in the back of each head rest.

I must admit I slept very little during the seven or so hours of trans-Atlantic flight time. Some things that surprised me:

  • How uncomfortable the seats were. It was like trying to sleep on a cheap sleeper sofa, the kind with the metal bar right across your back placed strategically to be as uncomfortable as possible. It was plenty dark, and relatively quiet. But those seats!
  • Our route was projected on the video screen, so we could track our progress if we chose. If one assumes it was accurate, we basically hugged the coastline of North America until it was just a short hop over to the British Isles, then over to Paris. We weren't that far from land relatively speaking until that little bit between northeastern Canada and England.  I guess I thought we would fly a straight shot from Atlanta to Paris, not up to New York, Newfoundland, and so
    International terminal, Charles de Gaulle airport

    forth. People tell me due to the curvature of the earth the route we took is more efficient. I couldn't help but think of the ancient mariners who kept the shoreline in sight as long as possible.

  • My goodness, they feed you on these long flights! And we were in economy! Meals and snacks were plentiful. By the time the last one was served not long before we landed, I seriously was thinking, 'enough, already!'.

We arrived on time in Paris, where we got our first-ever passport stamps - yay! No lines, very simple. If only all of our air travel interactions were so easy. . . Next (and final, thank goodness!) stop: Berlin.

We were greeted by a wonderful sight at Berlin airport: the smiling faces of my daughter and son-in-law. Somehow we had arranged to arrive within an hour of each other, even though they traveled separately from us as well as each other. So we piled into a cab together and headed to our hotel. I was not prepared for the insanity of a Berlin cab ride. Screeching brakes, rude gestures, loud exclamations - what an exciting welcome!

Much of Europe was experiencing a heatwave during our trip. Berlin was warm and sunny. We were too excited to sleep off the jet lag. So we hit the town on foot. Our daughter and son-in-law had been to Berlin the previous year on one of his gigs; in fact, they had stayed at the same hotel we were at this time. So they knew the area pretty well. We walked around the corner and hit the first cafe we found for a surprisingly cold stein of German pilsner. Another travel myth busted: the beer is not warm over there!

Mantee Cafe, Berlin

We continued our stroll and found a delightful restaurant in a park and had Swiss-style bratwurst, sauerkraut, and the German version of mac-n-cheese for dinner. Our best surprise was discovering one can stroll the town with an adult beverage in hand, purchased very reasonably from one of the many corner convenience stores. Berlin must believe in that adage about having only one chance to make a great first impression.

More on Berlin in the next post!

I want to tell you all about my recent experience as a first-time traveler to Europe. But before we get into the oohs and ahhs, I'm gonna share with you some travel planning tips and how they translated into real live travel during our trip (see what I did there??).

One of the first things I did once we decided we were going to Europe was to Google my booty off. I spent a lot of time on Rick Steves' website. I also found a ton of info on Pinterest, believe it or not. It started with searches on what to pack and blossomed from there. And, of course, friends and family who had travel experience were very generous with advice.

My top tips:

  • Backpack or roller? We went with backpack-style because we are in decent physical condition. Actually they were more of a soft-sided suitcase with backpack straps. Just be careful not to overpack.
  • Shoes are heavy. Make them the last thing to add and the first to toss when trying to lighten your load.
  • Sleeping comfortably on an international economy flight won't happen unless you self-medicate. Bring something to do in case you've seen all the in-flight movies. Hydrate. Plan that first day after you arrive as a recovery day.
  • I'm not in love with the concept of the money belt, but I would've been much more anxious without it. I rarely took mine off. The hubs, on the other hand, was not a fan, and usually left his in the hotel room safe. Having said that, we had absolutely no safety issues in almost three weeks away, two of those as my daughter and I traveling alone after the hubs went back stateside.
  • We had euros and pounds sent to us from our local bank in advance. Others may advise you to wait and exchange your currency when you arrive, usually because you'll get a lower exchange rate. But the exchange rates from our bank were comparable, and getting the currency by mail before we traveled eliminated the possibility of panhandlers or muggers loitering around the ATMs who target inexperienced travelers like ourselves. If you want to wait to exchange, do it at an airport at a booth that is beyond security. We had an unpleasant experience with a panhandler while exchanging pounds for euros at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris toward the end of our trip. Lesson learned. Oh and BTW their money is fun! Ours is boring!
Departing from our local airport, CAE

The most important nugget of info that I was not aware of and that almost cost us our trip was passport status. Both of us have had passports since 9/11; neither of us have had a chance to use them until this trip. I remember feeling very dispirited when mine expired, still in pristine condition, never stamped. But I had it renewed anyway, just in case. Folks, this is a good strategy. You never know when you will need it! My husband's passport had a different renewal date than mine - it wasn't expiring until December 2016, so I didn't give it a second thought since we would be over and back long before then.

Little did I know that expiration date is meaningless. After the second person told me a passport is no good if it is set to expire within six months of your travel date, I got a little nervous and made some calls. Sure enough, it was true: apparently you can leave the USA with a valid passport expiring within six months. It's getting back in that's the problem!

The party line on getting a passport renewed is a six week wait. But of course no one would commit to that. If you're in a jam, like we were, you can pay for expedited service, which shrinks the wait time from weeks to days. Yay, but ouch!

To add more fun to our passport dilemma, before we knew about this expiration wrinkle, we had applied for something called a GOES pass (Global Online Enrollment System) to expedite getting through customs and TSA security lines. This process requires a background check and in-person interview, which of course requires you to bring your passport. So we couldn't send his passport off for renewal until after our GOES interview, unless we wanted to forfeit the hundo we had paid for his GOES application. We didn't.

GOES interviews are held at various locations around the country; usually at major airports. Our local airport is not considered major, so we had a minimum two hour drive to the nearest location. Securing an interview time is a dicey proposition. You will find many of the interview sites booked months in advance. But here's what they don't tell you: people cancel all the time. So don't despair! This just means you have to constantly check the GOES site to see if a date has opened up at a location convenient to you.

Once we learned this little hack, we were able to get an interview in a matter of weeks rather than months, just in time for our trip. However, it meant we would need to rush from the interview to the nearest post office to drop the passport off for its expedited service. We had a two week window between the GOES interview and the departure date. A very kind woman at the local post office who often dealt with panicky travelers like myself said passport turnarounds were running 8 business days, but of course she couldn't guarantee anything.

Berlin Flughafen (airport)

So we spent the next several days tracking the passport's renewal progress and sweating bullets. I suppose you know the outcome since I'm blogging about our family trip to Europe: yes, it arrived in time, thank goodness! It came on a Friday before we were set to leave on a Tuesday. People, don't do this to yourselves! As soon as your passport is within six months of expiration, get it renewed. It's fairly painless this way, loads cheaper, and you won't lose sleep over it like we did.

As for the GOES, yes, I highly recommend. As I mentioned, it speeds up TSA on the domestic leg as well as customs when you're coming home. One thing it does NOT do, however, is expedite non-TSA security screenings outside of the USA. Remember, security is separate from customs. This was a painful lesson learned, but I'll save that story for the next blog post, in which I'll discuss our first week spent in Germany.

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2016 has been a crazy year, hasn't it? I mean, CRAZY. And not in a fun, Girls Night Out harmless hijinks way. More like a Charles Manson crazy. Ugh. I don't think I know anyone who is not looking forward to a fresh start with 2017.

Of course there was the election. I guess the positive spin on that would be, 'thank goodness it's finally over'?? And so many beloved celebrities are no longer with us. Pretty sure Gene Wilder's first name was short for 'genius'.

On a more personal note, it was getting a little scary how many of my neighbors' loved ones passed away this year. There were a half-dozen family losses on my street alone, and my street is a very short street! No gang shootings or terrorist attacks were responsible; just the inevitable awakening from this dream we call life. My sweet mother-in-law passed away this summer after along battle with Parkinson's. And our beloved yellow lab died in January. No disrespect intended lumping the two together - we loved both of them very much and are still thinking of them often.

As life often does, we had some positives to help balance out the gloom. We had two different family occasions that provided the opportunity for our far-flung family to get together in person, which is always such a delight. No, seriously! But the big kahuna, the one thing that happened this year that absolutely keeps 2016 from being a total loss, was The Bucket List trip.

Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower

I've had travel on my bucket list for ages. We were able to do some travel within the U.S. while we were raising a family. But I had my sights set a little further afield. Now that we are empty-nesters and some of our financial obligations have been met, we are finally able to do it.

This first major international trip came about sort of out of the blue. It was a simple phone call that did it. My son-in-law is a musician and has traveled all over the world. One day my daughter called and as we were chatting, asked if we wanted to join them on his next trip. He was going to be performing in Germany for a couple of weeks and she thought she would tag along and wondered if we would like to join her. Um, YES!

So for the next couple of blog posts, I'd like to share my experiences as a first-time Baby Boomer-aged international traveler with you.  We had some ups and downs, but the ups definitely won!