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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.

2

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!

cautionnanoFor many people, mention 'November' and their faces light up with thoughts of juicy turkey dinners, splurge desserts, warm toddies by the fireplace, football, family, falling leaves, and many other sensory delights.  But if you get a reaction more similar to PTSD, or having been tasered, that person is probably a writer.

November is known to many aspiring as well as established writers for its 50,000 word National Novel Writing Month challenge, or NaNoWriMo.  If 50,000 words sounds like a lot to you, but you're thinking it must be a snap for writers, think again. It's the writing equivalent of a marathon. It takes preparation and skill, and a lot of folks who start, don't finish.

I've done NaNo several times. I've completed, or 'won', as they say, more often than not. I have a hard time equating the dumpster fire manuscript I've created with 'winning'. I prefer the term 'survived'.

As with marathons, one wonders: if it's so unpleasant, why do it? For similar reasons, I suppose. I like a challenge. I do it to improve my skills. And even if my project is light years from being ready for publication, it's a great 50,000 word start.

Every year, I swear I will plan better before the start. I haven't done very well with that. Massive procrastinator, massive pantser. Funny how those things tend to go together! But I've taken a run at an outline this year. I will be drafting the third book in a trilogy, so I have a better idea of story, characters, and so forth, than I usually do. I'm actually looking forward to getting started.

Many participants claw their way to December 1, gasping for a break, and end up not writing anything else for months. Totally understandable. I guess since I've survived NaNo so many times, I've grown some writing scar tissue. I no longer feel the need to take a big break. Although it is outstanding to not compulsively check word counts every five minutes once December rolls around! I plan on spending December and January editing the three books. I want to have the first book self-published by my birthday, which is the end of February. That will be my gift to myself.  It's a little ambitious to get them edited that quickly. And I will also need some cover art. But that's the plan.

Anyone else out there crazy enough to try NaNo this year? My NaNo user name is DoFo. Look me up and add me as a Buddy, and I'll do the same. Misery loves company.

Little by little, I am evaluating the Smaug's hoard of self-publishing advice out there in the wide world and cherry-picking the tips that make sense (to me, at least).  I'm finally getting around to transitioning from Blogger to self-hosting. I had no beef with Blogger. It just seems the logical next step in my journey as a self-published author to graduate to self-hosting as well.

Here's the upshot: I watched Jane Friedman's video on how to transition to self-hosting and followed her instructions. Unfortunately, a few things have changed in the process since she posted the video, and I wish I had a take-back on one or two of the steps that caused me some angst before they sorted themselves out. The main thing you might want to consider is to just point your domain to Bluehost instead of transferring it. In hindsight, it seems a little easier. But I wanted to be free and clear of Go Daddy, where my domain had originated many years ago, because the whole elephant hunting thing really rankled and I was looking for an excuse to stop doing business with them. I won't bore you with the tech nerd details, but if you want those details, reach out to me in the comments.

I'm still in the honeymoon phase of learning a new interface. I've always been a DIY fiend and tinkering around with customizing this site is loads of fun for me. But I need to set some boundaries on the tinkering since November is fast approaching and I will be participating in NaNoWriMo again. I expect I will futz around with the theme options indefinitely. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Also if you have any comments about your experience with Bluehost or WordPress, chime in. I look forward to hearing from you.