One Step Away

So this one time I took a ten-month paid vacation to the Middle East. Since this is supposed to be a blog about travel tips, here you go: If you want to see the Middle East, take a time machine, go back ten years and join the army. I promise you’ll get to Iraq.

This other time, eight years later, I took a few hour tour of the city of Belfast, Ireland. Although much time had passed, the first thing that came to my mind when we started driving around the city was my deployment.

In Iraq I remember thinking “My God, why the hell do people stay here?”
I came to realize for many, leaving was just not an option. How can you leave if you have no rights because you are a woman? If you have no opportunities because you are poor? If you have no idea there is anything else because you are uneducated? If other countries won’t take you because you’re the wrong religion or color or speak the wrong language?

In my mind the people left in war-torn countries were only there because they were unfortunate victims of their circumstances. Either that or they were the bad guys. To me, it seemed like Iraq was simply beyond saving so there was no reason anybody in their right mind with the ability to escape would stay.

It really wasn’t that simple though. If it were a conventional war where the US were fighting the Iraqi Army and there were traditional “good” and “bad” guys then my analysis might have been accurate, but the official Iraqi Army was on the same side as the US. The people were fighting were members of various terrorist organizations, crooked Iraqi cops, civilians and others, all of whom were also ceaselessly fighting each other.

The problem in my opinion was that rather than having loyalty to their nation, the people of Iraq first had loyalty to their immediate family, then their clan, then their race, then their sect of Islam, then, maybe, their country. There was no unity, no patriotism, and no national pride. Granted, these things too can and do cause war between countries, but Iraq couldn’t even get it together enough to make a country that would stand on its own for more than a week once the crutch of the US government was taken away, let alone start a formal war against any sovereign nation.

And while all of this was sad, it was not personal for me even when I saw it first-hand because I do have rights and money and a good education and I’m Christian and white and I speak English. To me the people of Iraq lived in a backward culture. Even though they were the same freaking religion and from the same freaking country and they spoke the same freaking language and their skin was the same freaking color, they somehow fabricated things to divide them. In my mind, I was living on another planet and could not picture America as a place with any parallels to that desert country.

I left Iraq, moved around the world with the Army to awesome places like Hawaii and Germany, got married, had kids and Iraq became for me at most a chrysalis where I transformed from a naïve and nervous teenage girl to a strong and self-assured woman and at least a distant memory.

Then Belfast hit me in the face.

Why on Earth would people who led lives so seemingly similar to mine chose to stay in a place where military helicopters hovered overhead, and 20 meter high barbed wire topped walls and hotel bombings were the norm? To be fair, quite a few people did leave. The wealthy, the middle class, the highly educated got out while they could and, unfortunately for the working class people of Belfast, took their talents, skills and money with them.

The people of Belfast, who, just like the Iraqis, were all the same freaking religion and from the same freaking country and they spoke the same freaking language and their skin was the same freaking color, took up arms against each other.

In a nutshell, the thirty or so years that Belfast was a war zone was due to the Protestant majority wanting things to remain as they were (which meant they could legally persecute Catholics by keeping them from applying for jobs, denying them political offices and just generally treating them as second class citizens) and to stay a part of the United Kingdom and the Catholic minority wanting all of Ireland to unite as a nation independent from Brittan and to have the same rights as Protestants.

According to our tour guide who lived through The Troubles (as these times are called in Ireland) as a Catholic, leaders of both sides played up the conflict as a religious one to their advantages. Catholics and Protestants separated themselves, moved to homogenous neighborhoods and built walls between them that remain to this day.
Unlike Iraq, the people of Belfast did have national pride. The Catholics wanted to be an Irish nation. I can relate to wanting independence. The Catholics wanted the same rights and status as Protestants. I can relate to wanting to fight for equality. This did not seem like a foreign planet. It seemed like a culture eerily similar to mine.

If Iraq was ape and the US was man, Northern Ireland was my missing link.

I left with the feeling that war is not a thing reserved for other people, it’s merely one step away. In the case of Northern Ireland, while the war was not entirely religious, by choosing to focus on the differences in their religion the situation went from one that was a potentially manageable political disagreement to one that became a bloody crusade.

From across the Atlantic Ocean I see what is happening in my own country and sense something ominous on the horizon. I see political disagreement, which is nothing new, but rather than focusing on uniting as a country to fix our problems I see people jumping at every opportunity to point out differences in race, gender, religion and economic status.

“Catholics are destroying our Irish culture” seems pretty damn similar to “Gays, Muslims, Refugees, the Black Lives Matter movement, Cops, Liberals, Conservatives are destroying our American Culture”.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have beliefs or speak your mind. I’m just saying be careful. Consider that perhaps, even way back in 1768 when it was published in the Boston Gazette, “united we stand, divided we fall” may just have a grain (or boulder) of truth in it.

I was a teenager when my mother went back to college. She had to fill out applications and in the area of the application in which she was supposed to indicate her race she marked “other” and wrote in “human”. This is the example I strive for. Maybe by the time my children grow up they won’t have to indicate their race on an application form. Maybe their religion can be between them and God and that pact can be respected by others. Maybe they can be different without being ostracized. Maybe they can just be American; nothing more, nothing less.

 

So this one time I took a ten-month paid vacation to the Middle East. Since this is supposed to be a blog about travel tips, here you go: If you want to see the Middle East, take a time machine, go back ten years and join the army. I promise you’ll get to Iraq.


Why a weekend in Salzburg is the Perfect Getaway

Do you live in Bavaria? Have you been to Salzburg, Austria? If not, WHY NOT?! Salzburg was our favorite weekend trip so far! Read on to find out why!

SALZBURG

  1. The size. If you’ve only got a few days, Salzburg is the perfect city to check out. The old town is small enough that you can explore all the major points of interest in a couple days without rushing, having to take public transportation, or walking too far for your kids’ little legs. We drove down after school let out on a Friday and were able to see everything on our list by 3pm the next day, leaving us enough time to make the drive home before dark.
  2. Location, location, location! Salzburg was only about 3.5 hours from where we live in Germany. On the way down our GPS took us on back roads and the drive was beautiful. *Note* make sure to set your GPS to avoid highways on the way back! We didn’t and traffic on the highway was terrible (and not as scenic). The city itself is gorgeous with an awesome mountain/cliff that you walk through to get into the old town, a scenic river, lovely streets and shops and they speak German – not that I’m fluent in German AT ALL, but I at least have learned how to order food and ask where the toilet is, which is more than I can do in any other language besides English.
  3. It’s so musical. Do you like Mozart? Do you like the Sound of Music? Of DoADearcourse you do! You can check out Mozart’s birth place, take a picture with his statue and even get a Mozart chocolate Easter Bunny (if you’re willing to pay €27 and are there at Easter time)! Sound of Music fans can check out the gardens at Mirabell Palace & Gardens where the famous Von Trap children jumped up and down steps singing “Do, Re, Mi”. My kids loved running through the tunnels of leaves in the gardens and seeing the unicorn statues. If you’re a die-hard Sound of Music fan you can pay to do a whole tour where they’ll show you more filming locations used in the Sound of Music. We just enjoyed the free gardens because, hey, they’re free, and we had other stuff we wanted to check out that day.
  4. There was fun stuff for kids. Did you know Salzburg is home to one of the best preserved medieval castles? You can see it resting atop its giant hill from the old town. We decided to head toward it and see if there was a way to easily get to the top. As it turns out, you buy a ticket for a rail car ride (which is relatively inexpensive and stroller friendly!) that takes you up to the top. Our boys loved the ride up almost as much as they loved exploring the old castle and looking down at the city below. We also went to the Salzburg Spielzeugmuseum (toy museum) which our boys thought was awesome. To me it seemed less museum more play-center, which was actually great for our family. It’s totally interactive with giant build-it-yourself marble runs, train sets you can play with, dolls and stuffed animals to play house with and even a slide to take you from the 3rd to 2nd floor (because who needs an elevator?)! In addition to these activities, just walking around was fun for the kids because of the street performers, horse-drawn carriages and the opportunity to eat delicious würst at every corner.
  5. No hidden costs. We made sure that the hotel we booked had parking included and was within walking distance of the old town. That way once we got there we were able to just leave our car in the hotel parking and not have to worry about transportation costs. This seems simple enough, but in other cities (I’m looking at you Zurich!) we’ve experienced hotels which “included” parking at a cost of $25/day that they didn’t mention in the booking. Also, we didn’t have to pay to get into places like gardens or cathedrals. Souvenirs were reasonably priced as were tickets to attractions like the palace and toy museum. Food was very affordable, especially if you eat from the street vendors.  Also, with Salzburg being right on the German border, if you are part of the Esso program that the military provides you have plenty of opportunities to get your gas in Germany to save some money on your drive.

So that’s it in a nutshell! We loved everything about Salzburg! It’s a got all the conveniences of a major city yet with a small-town, friendly atmosphere that you and your family are sure to enjoy.

Why you should go to Salzburg if you have a free weekend

Have you been to Salzburg? What was your favorite thing about this city? Comment below! If you need help planning your trip to Salzburg, check out my free 4 day weekend planner!

 



Free 4-Day Weekend Trip Planner

Ah, the 4-day weekend, a.k.a. a 4-day, a.k.a. a DONSA, a.k.a. arguably one of the best things about being in the Army. If you’re stationed OCONUS a 4-day provides the perfect opportunity to get out and take a quick trip to another country (like we did in Greece and Switzerland). The only down side is that you’ve got to do so much planning and researching and scheduling that it can make your head spin!

Make planning your next weekend getaway easy with this free Excel download!

Well, lucky for you, I’m a big nerd! I’ve got this weird Microsoft Excel obsession (yeah, I know, I should get that checked out) and am going to share with you the ultimate 4-day trip planner that I’ve created.

It’s got snazzy things like drop down menus

Drop Down Menu
Oooo. Ahhh.

You can fill in the blanks with all your trip information…

Fill In Blank
Pretty fancy, huh?

It adds up all your expenses for you…

Now that's just sexy.
Now that’s just sexy.

And it’s all yours! Just type in your email and follow the steps to get access to my super-secret page of free downloads!DOWNLOAD NOW!



10 family activities for under €10 near Hohenfels

Exploring Europe is awesome, but often times it can be time consuming and expensive to plan and take exotic trips with your family. Sometimes all you have is an afternoon to kill and a few bucks in your pocket. From numerous Google searches I know that it can be hard to find something to do nearby when you don’t even know the language or what to look for online. I’ve done the “work” for you and checked out all kinds of cool places with my family just so I can share them with you (I know, it’s a hard job but someone’s gotta do it)! Here’s a list of fun stuff for you and your kids to check out near Hohenfels all for under €10 per person!

P.S. If you’re looking for more fun things to do without going too far check out my post on Boring Sundays in Bavaria10 Family Friendly Things to do near Hohenfels

  1. Explore a cave in Velburg

The entrance to this cave is located in the Erlebinswelt Velburg complex which has a high Caveropes course, ATV tours of the forest, a biergarten and hiking trails. All of these things look pretty awesome and if you have older kids, be sure to check them out, but with little ones and a small budget you’re probably better off sticking with the cave. You have to buy tickets at the booth for a guided tour as you are not allowed in on your own but it’s only €4 for adults and €2,50 for kids ages 3-15. We ended up going on a tour with a group from a nursing home which actually was nice because they all seemed to find our children endearing rather than annoying. The cave is nice and cool so this is a good activity for those hot summer days!

  1. Check out a monument to victory over Napoleon and a medieval castle near Regensburg

Befreiungshalle Kelheim (Kelheim Hall of Liberation) was built by King Ludwig I to commemorate both the victorious battles against Napoleon and the unification of all the German races. Check out the giant limestone and marble statues and enjoy the view of Bavaria. Nearby is Burg Prunn which is a medieval castle which dates back to the year 1037! The castle has interactive exhibits so you can truly get an idea of what it was like to live in the middle ages. Buy a combination ticket and see both in one afternoon for €7,50 (or use your Bavarian Castle Pass and get in free like I talk about in this post).

  1. Go to a Chocolate factory

Chocolate? Check. Coffee? Check. Gummy bear cave? Check. Animatronic elephants? Check. I love it when a place is less than 20 minutes from my home and easy to find – like, you literally can see it from the highway easy to find. This little chocolate factory is fun for younger children and the only cost you’ll incur is that of the delicious chocolate you will WildLifeParkinevitably buy.

  1. Play at the Free Wildlife Park

This place is only 30 minutes from Hohenfels, is open all the time and is free! They have deer, pigs, donkeys, sheep, a lake with waterfowl of all kinds, nature trails and an awesome playground. Plus, they have an automatic animal food pellet dispenser so you can feed the animals for 50 cents. Read more about it in this post by MilliGFunk!

  1. Step back in time with the Open Air Museum

This is an outdoor museum set up like an old-timey farming village where you can experience what it was like to be a farmer, beekeeper, black smith and many other things. Sundays you can buy bread that’s baked in their antique oven, they hold special historical and cultural events throughout the year and of course they’ve got a playground too. Only €12 for a family day pass.

  1. Go to a fest

If you want to experience Bavaria in all its glory (think beer and lederhosen) then you need to check out some fests. Everybody knows about Oktoberfest in Munich, but throughout the summer and early fall almost every town in Bavaria has some type of Volksfest. Click on the “Go to a fest” link above which has all the major fests in Bavaria listed alphabetically by town.

  1. Fossil hunting and museum

I don’t know about you, but my boys absolutely love dinosaurs. Bring out your inner paleontologist by checking out this fossil museum. Buy the combo ticket and rent some chisels and shovels (combo ticket and tool rental comes out to less than €5/person!) and start excavating the nearby dig site. You can take the fossils you find home with you too. Super cool!

  1. Take a guided city tour Amberg or Regensburg

Take a tour of a city you think you’re familiar with and you’ll be surprised how much you can learn! Walking tours are a great way to get some exercise and discover hidden secrets nearby. Amberg and Regensburg tourist information offices both offer guided tours in English. Amberg’s is only €9 for a whole family! Regensburg is not as cheap at €16 for the family ticket but they also offer special kids tours in English if you have a group of kids (perhaps a scout troop or playgroup) that look pretty cool.

  1. See Walhalla & take a trip to Ikea

Perched on a hill overlooking the Danube is a giant memorial modelled after the Parthenon IkeaIceCreamand named after the home of Viking gods. Inside it is filled with busts of famous Germans. It only costs €4 for adults to go in and look around. Staying outside and taking in the spectacular views is free. Walhalla is basically just one big room so it probably won’t take you more than 30 minutes to see the whole thing. Why not go ahead and take the 12 minute drive to Ikea afterward to grab yourselves some 50 cent ice cream cones? Is this just an excuse to go to Ikea? Maybe. “Honey what did you and the kids do today?” “We went and saw an architectural masterpiece/treasure-trove of German culture and history and went to Ikea”

  1. Give glass blowing a try

I haven’t been to the Joska glass center yet but really want to check it out! Apparently Bavaria is famous for glass making. There are driving tours of eastern Bavaria that take you through numerous towns renowned for their glass making abilities. This place is one of the stops on the glass route that looked the most interactive and kid-friendly. It has a huge kid’s play area, restaurants, shops and – wait for it – you can blow your own works of glass to take home with you!

Phew! That list should keep you occupied for a while! Let me know if you’ve tried glass blowing and how it is or if you have any other things you would add to the list in the comments below! Don’t forget to share this with your friends on Facebook and save it on Pinterest for later!



How to do a Weekend in Zurich with 3 Kids

Last summer on our vacation to France we drove back home through Switzerland. It had some of the most beautiful landscapes we had ever seen and we decided to put it on our list of places to go back and visit when we had a chance. A free weekend finally presented itself and I started planning.

Last summer on our vacation to France we drove back home through Switzerland. It had some of the most beautiful landscapes we had ever seen and we decided to put it on our list of places to go back and visit when we had a chance. A free weekend finally presented itself and I started planning.

After a quick search on the internet we decided to check out Zurich because not only is it the biggest city in Switzerland, it was the closest to our home and I don’t know about you, but for me 3 small children + long car rides = torture equivalent to gouging my own eyes out with a toothpick. I headed to the library to pick up a travel guide, went on booking.com to find a hotel last minute, loaded up my Esso card, packed our bags and before you knew it we were ready to go! Here’s how you too can do a weekend in Zurich with 3 kids!Fraukirchen

  • Pick your route. The drive to Zurich from Bavaria is absolutely beautiful… at least I think it is. Kinda hard to tell while you’re doing passenger seat yoga to try to reach behind you to put a bottle in a screaming baby’s mouth while simultaneously opening fruit snacks for your two-year-old and talking your six-year-old down from a near panic attack because he can’t get through this level of whatever the heck he’s playing on his LeapPad. But I imagine there are stunning mountains, lakes and farm fields full of friendly cows. After about four hours in the car we made it to Zurich and our hotel around 3pm. If driving like this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you could try the train like Urban Bliss Life talks about in their post about traveling to Zurich with kids. Looks like fun!
  • Find a place to stay. We stayed in the Crazy Cow Hotel because a. It was pretty Cowaffordable, b. it had parking and c. uh, hello?! Do I need a reason to stay in a cow themed hotel?! Some other options besides hotels that we use a lot are AirBNB (like we used on our trip to Greece) and staying at campsites (like we did on our trip to the Netherlands). Or, if you prefer books to cows and you have a little more cash to spend check out this freakin’ awesome Library Hotel in Zurich that Points and Travel writes about!
  • Take a walk around the city. We checked in, parked the car, and got all our stuff situated in the hotel room before starting out for a walk around the city. Per our travel-guide book’s suggestion we started out at the main train station, walked Grossmuensterdown the famous Bahnhoffstrasse where we saw some famous chocolate shops (which we could not afford to buy anything at), luxury brand clothing and watch stores (which we could not afford to buy anything at) and fancy hotels and restaurants (which we could not afford to buy anything at). Window shoppin’ like a boss. Then we walked up to see Fraukirchen and Grossmunster – the famous churches of the city. The city is gorgeous, very clean and very expensive. It seemed like everybody was very well dressed and we saw some very expensive cars driving around. I guess banking is working out pretty well for the Swiss. We ended up eating cheeseburgers for dinner because we’re so cultured. Hey, the Swiss are famous for their cows and not only did we eat those famous cows we topped them with fine cheese from those cows. Don’t judge me! After dinner we walked along the lake and then found a park for our little guys to run around in before we walked back up to our hotel for the night.
  • Take advantage of your weird sleep schedule.  Surely a long day of driving followed by hours of walking followed by staying up late would help small children sleep past 6am on a Sunday morning, right? Ha! Hahahahahaha! You’re funny. Up we rose, that beautiful Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn! All we had on the agenda for the day was to check out of the hotel, go to the Zurich Zoo and make the drive home. However, the zoo does not open at 6am (I know, crazy, right?). Fortunately, there was a coffee shop we had spotted down the road that did open at 6am so us adults grabbed ourselves a couple cups of strong coffee and all of us had some chocolate croissants for breakfast. Then we walked through the city center again because we had some time to kill. It was actually really nice with nobody around; very peaceful compared to the Saturday afternoon traffic. We were able to find a souvenir shop that was open so we could buy another spoon for my collection and take some pictures without a bunch of other random people in the shots.Bahnhoff
  • Find child-friendly attractions. Our kids love zoos so if I hear there is a good one where we’re going, we usually check it out. The zoo in Zurich was nice, but be prepared because it is pretty pricy (like over $50 for our family) and parking is extra. I think the zoo in Nuremberg is landscaped better, has more shade (we got very hot) and the maps are easier to follow (we could not find the lions in Zurich for the life of us). That being said, it did give the kids a chance to see some cool animals – the elephant exhibit is pretty awesome –  play on the awesome playground there, and stretch their legs so it still was a good way for us to spend the morning. Space in Your Case has another good list of kid-friendly attractions in Zurich if the zoo is not your thing.

The drive back home was just as beautiful as the drive there. Ultimately, we enjoyed Zurich. Things that we could have done better: understand that the cost of living is very high therefore everything from food to hotels to souvenirs are more expensive than anywhere else we’d been in Europe; maybe schedule a walking tour so we could learn more about the sights we were looking at. This was a beautiful city in a beautiful country and I hope you get a chance to visit someday too! If you have any questions or comments, hit me up below!



6 Reasons why you Should Travel the World with Kids

Are you the type of person that thrives on excitement? Are you the kinda guy (or girl) that loves a challenge? Are you slightly masochistic? If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions then you, my friend, should try traveling the world with a kid (or two or three)!

6 reasons to travel with kids

People often ask me why I travel with my kids. I’m not really sure if it’s because they are just curious or if it’s because they are concerned for my sanity. Either way, I sat down and thought about it and came up with a list. So without further ado, here are the reasons why I travel with my kids and why you should too (travel with your kids, that is, not mine… although you can totally borrow mine for a week or so if you want)!

1. A pack mule is your spirit animal. Do you dream of laying on the beach in your bikini with nothing but a Mojito in your hand? Ew! Me either! I’d much rather shove my mom-pooch into a “figure-flattering” ruched one-piece while I carry a baby in a car-seat, a toddler, a six-year-old’s hand, towels, buckets, shovels, a picnic basket full of snacks, a cooler full of drinks, hats, sunscreen, diapers, wipes, water shoes, Hot-Wheels cars, an umbrella, a camera and car keys. Sure, son, I can definitely hold your sunglasses too! I know you aren’t holding anything else and you can clearly see I’ve got my hands full, but I wouldn’t want you to have to strain your delicate little wrist, now would I? That’s right, just balance it precariously on top of the cooler while we try to cross the street without getting hit by a truck… Good times!

2. You think looking at historic landmarks for a duration of more than 3 seconds is overrated. Oh, look, the Parthe – Jonah, don’t chew on that leaf – non. Oh, look, you can see the whole city from – Nate, stop throwing rocks over the castle wall you’re going to hit somebody in the head and kill them – up here! You know that the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the world is to realize that life is short and that this 3-second glance is all the time you will get to enjoy what’s before you before your children run away and/or injure themselves and/or destroy a famous building that’s stood for hundreds of years – until it met your horrific offspring. Ah, building mem’ries!

3. You can finally compete with those “crunchy moms”. Did you know that every time you bottle feed a baby a crunchy mom dies? Don’t worry, it’s okay, all you have to do is clap your hands three times and say “I don’t believe in vaccines” and they’ll come back to life. No longer do you have to deal with feelings of inferiority for clearly not loving your child as much as a crunchy mom does because you don’t use cloth diapers! If you travel the world with kids, the next time a crunchy mom gives you a dirty look for feeding your child a chicken nugget you can respond with “Oh, believe me, I know this is basically a gluten-covered dog turd – it’s nothing at all like the chicken nuggets we fed our children in Paris, don’t you agree? Oh, you haven’t taken your children to Paris? I see.” (Insert smug stare here). Now they feel guilty and inferior! See how I turned that around? Bam!

4. You love being broke. You know that feeling when you’ve paid off all your debt, you’ve built up a good emergency fund and you’re making solid monthly contributions to your Roth IRA? Blech! Like, sooooo annoying, right?! Even the Bible says that money is the root of all evil, so it’s pretty much your Christian duty to get to spendin’!

“Money is bad.” – God

Aw, bummer, I found a great deal on flights – it’s only $200 to fly from Europe to the US. But wait! I’ve got 5 people in my family, so now I get to spend $1,000! Plus, lets add some baggage fees for all the crap my family has to bring everywhere it goes. YES!!! Just have some kids so you can multiply all your travel expenses by 5 and money will disappear from your bank account as fast as Oreos do from my pantry when I’m pregnant (that’s pretty much lightning speed, BTW)

5. Mario Kart was your favorite game as a child. Didn’t you just love swerving all over the road to avoid obstacles, listening to the catchy sound effects and music while being shot with turtle shells? Well, now that you’re traveling with kids you can relive your favorite childhood game! Except now the obstacles are real-life 5-hour traffic jams, the music is “The Wheels on the Bus” 18,000 times in a row, the sound effects are a screaming baby and arguing preschoolers (don’t worry, you can hardly hear them over the sound of your own sobbing), and the turtle shell is a sippy cup flying at your head! Awesome!

6. You want your children to see the good and the beautiful in the world. This is it. I know we’ve been having fun till now, but this is the real reason we travel with our kids. The more we travel the more we realize that people everywhere are more similar than they are different, there are more good people than there are bad, and that if you look hard enough you can find something positive in almost every place and situation. You should travel the world with children to teach them that the world is bigger than the little corner that they are used to. You should travel the world with children to show them that no matter where you go in life your family will keep you safe and try to help you have fun. You should travel the world with children so they will appreciate coming home. Even though it can be a challenging and scary, you should travel the world with children to show them that working as a team and being brave can help them get to the places that most other people never have a chance to see.

Have you traveled with children? WHY, please tell me WHY(?!?!?) you would do such a thing in the comment section below!



A Family Trip to Athens on a 4-Day Weekend

With the promise of a PCS on the horizon, I knew it was time to get cracking on my European travel bucket list. Sure, going to Latvia would be awesome, but what countries will I kick myself for having missed out on should we leave Germany in the next few months?

Greece. That’s the one I had to see. Ever since I took a Greek mythology class in community college I’ve wanted to take a trip to this ancient country and now I finally had the chance. With only a long weekend to explore the country we focused in on Athens.

Athens in 4 DaysAbout a week before our trip I booked a flight and an AirBNB. We did AirBNB for a few reasons.

  1. I wanted a place that I could do laundry for free since I only wanted to bring carry-ons
  2. I wanted a place with a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out every meal
  3. We stayed at an AirBNB on our way to the Netherlands and loved it

Word to the wise: plan more than a week out (duh). I know I could have saved some money on lodging, or at least had more places to choose from, and definitely would have saved money on plane tickets for our whole family. As it was, I used SkyScanner and chose the cheapest flights that didn’t go through a sketchy country (but, honey, we could save $200 if we just take the 14-hour layover in Syria!).

Things went pretty smoothly before the trip. I was able to fit all of our luggage into carry-ons (thanks, Army, for teaching me how to pack) the night before our flight. Also, I was able to check in ahead of time online and print out our tickets. That way when we got to the airport we were able to just go straight through security rather than having to stop at the ticket counter. #winning. The flights went just as horribly as expected. We were those people with the crying baby. Eh, oh well. Like, seriously, I love that by the 3rd kid this totally just doesn’t bother me anymore. They were short flights. You only have to hear my kid scream for maybe an hour. I have to listen to her scream 24/7. You’ll be ok.

We flew from Nuremberg to Munich to Athens. By the time we got to our final destination it was almost midnight. Our AirBNB host was super awesome and he met us at the airport with keys to the apartment and was able to hail a cab for us and give them directions in Greek for us. Finally we made it to the apartment and crashed for the night.

The next morning we were up bright and early. Our apartment was 200m from the Acropolis and on the third floor and had a really nice view of the city. After we were all showered and dressed, the first thing we did was go to find a supermarket and get some groceries for our stay. We saved a lot of money by booking a place with a kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat out every meal. Plus, eating out with kids is pretty much horrible (if you need more evidence read about our trip to Prague).

With our shopping trip complete, the groceries put away and some fresh coffee running through our veins we headed out to the Acropolis Museum. This was a really beautiful museum filled with ancient artifacts and art. It was less than €10 for adults and the kids were free. We enjoyed the chance to learn some of the history behind what we were about to see when we made our way up the mountain to the Acropolis, which is what we did once we finished at the museum.

Just so you know, entrance to the Acropolis is not cheap. It’s like €20/person over the age of 5. But, it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities so we forked over the money and started our hike. There are a lot of stairs so if you have little ones bring a carrier. Also, there is hardly any shade so it gets really hot and all of us got sunburnt, so be prepared with hats, sunscreen and water. Once you make it to the top, though, it’s all worth it.

The AcropolisHow amazing is it to stand in a place that somebody stood over 2,500 years ago? How amazing is it to imagine all the feet that slowly eroded the marble on which we walked, creating smooth dents in every stair? How amazing is it to imagine all the history, all the people and their stories, all the tragedies and triumphs, all the changes in the world that have taken place while these very buildings stood here, unchanging despite the chaos around them? It’s pretty amazing.

So we left the Acropolis full of amazement (please, say “amazing” one more time, Deb) and walked around to see some of the other historical sights. Of note was Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul is said to have preached and where you can get some great shots of the Acropolis. After dinner we went back out and saw the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s arch and explored a nearby public park.

The next day way Sunday. Oh, but it wasn’t just any Sunday. It was Greek Orthodox Easter. Which we didn’t know when we decided to go on our trip because it is not the same day as every other Christian religion’s Easter. Which meant almost everything was closed. Awesome.

Here are the things that were available for us to enjoy while everything else was shut down:Athens Guard

  1. McDonalds (of course)
  2. The beach
  3. Watching the changing of the guard at the Presidential Mansion
  4. Most of the shops in the famous Plaka neighborhood

So that’s where we went. We started with watching the changing of the guard, which was conveniently right across from McDonalds where we got the kids some ice cream cones. Then we paid waaaaay too much for a hop-on-hop-off bus ticket that would take us to the beautiful beach for an hour or so (seriously, we should have just paid a taxi), and then finished our day walking around the Plaka neighborhood where we saw dozens of little lambs being roasted rotisserie-style in typical Greek Easter fashion. The boys found this both fascinating and horrifying.

“But, mommy, lambs are cute!”

“Yes, but they’re also delicious, so…”

Hopefully they aren’t scarred for life. Also, I just realized I totally should’ve named this post “Athens: Carry-Ons and Carrion”.

Our last day we really only had time to pack up, tidy up the apartment and head out to take a bus to the airport.

We really enjoyed the few days we spent in Athens. The food was great (eat a gyro and try some real Gbeachreek yogurt!), there is so much history, the sunny weather was a nice break from the usually cold and grey German weather we’re used to a
nd the people were delightful. They were friendly, talkative and welcoming, and love children! Almost everywhere we went people were laughing with our children, admiring the baby and giving free trinkets to our boys. I really wish I had more time to explore the rest of Greece. I can’t wait until I have a chance to go back and see more cities and all of Greece’s islands. Goodbye for now, Athens, I’ll come back again, I promise!

ATHENSI hope you enjoyed the story of our vacation to Greece! What country is on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!



5 People, 1 Day, Under $100 Trip to Prague

I seriously considered naming this blog post “The Stokes’ and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Trip to Prague” but then decided that it was neither entirely accurate or at all a positive way to get people to read it. So instead, let’s go with “5 People, 1 Day, Under $100 Trip to Prague”. Here we go!

PRAGUE

This post contains affiliate links.

 

It was that time again. Entire WEEKS had passed since we’d left Germany to explore another country and I started to get the itch to go see some other corner of the world. As we were still paying off our credit card bill from our trip to Greece and didn’t have the money from my husband’s GI bill that we normally get each month since he had to take a month off of classes, we decided to just take a day trip to the nearby Czech Republic and its famous city of Prague.

Prague has an interesting history and unique culture. I looked around to see what activities others recommended that were cheap and fun for a day in Prague and this post from Just a Pack was the best post I found. However, in the end I decided that since time was short, a walking tour outlining the highlights of the city would probably give us the most bang for our buck. We booked our free tour with Sandeman’s since we had enjoyed their tour so much on our trip to Amsterdam.

View of Prague from CastleSo, we looked up the exchange rate, packed up our favorite double stroller and the baby wrap just in case, threw some diapers and bottles in a backpack, grabbed our passports and left our house around 8AM on a Saturday.

The drive started out okay. The weather was good, hardly any traffic, and we kept the kids entertained with some audio books (Who Was Abraham Lincoln? & Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, Book 1). The trouble started at the Czech border. We stopped at the border to try to get some Czech Koruna from an ATM since they don’t use Euro. Alas, there was no ATM. What they did have was about 5 booths selling vignettes for your car.

“Uh, hey, Josh, do we need a vignette?”

“No, why would we need that?”

“I don’t know, I thought I heard somebody say once that you need one.”

“We should be fine.”

“What if we’re not?”

Long story short, we got a vignette. For €16. We didn’t need it (you only need one if you are driving on certain types of toll roads. Here’s more info). This bothered me because 1. I wasted money, 2. I wasted money due to my own ignorance and lack of research and 3. My husband was right, dangit!

Since there was no ATM at the border crossing, we searched in our GPS for an ATM and found one that was about 10km from our location. However, it was not 10km down the highway, it was 10km off the highway in some little rinky-dink, run-down town. And it did not have an English option. So I took a wild guess, mashed some buttons and miraculously ended up with the Czech Koruna I was looking for. Just so you know, there are plenty of ATMs in Prague, you really don’t need to worry about pulling out money right at the border. You’re welcome.

The rest of the drive was not bad and we were able to pretty easily find parking once we got to Prague’s city center by searching for a garage in our GPS. By this time it was about 11:30am so we started to walk around the city to lookPrague Pretzels for lunch. Our tour was not scheduled until 2:00pm, so we figured we had plenty of time.

We walked across a bridge toward the Prague Castle and found a little place to eat
lunch. One nice thing about Prague is that there were restaurants on almost every street and they all seemed pretty affordable. We picked a place that was advertising traditional Czech cuisine.

Oh, lunch. Have you ever eaten out with 3 kids under 7? Hang on, let me be a little more specific. Have you ever eaten out with a 6-year-old boy whom you are pretty sure has ADHD but refuse to get it checked out because you’re not really sure you believe in ADHD and even if ADHD is a real thing what if he doesn’t actually have it and you’re just a sucky parent and don’t want to face that fact? Furthermore, have you ever eaten out with a soon-to-be 3-year-old boy who needs a nap and whose favorite new thing is screaming at the top of his lungs at random intervals not because he’s in pain or somebody is kidnapping him or something serious but just for the pure joy of hearing his own squeaky little voice? Furthermore, have you ever eaten out with a 5-month-old little girl who is not happy unless you are holding her oh and not just holding her nicely in your lap while you comfortably sit down noooo you must be holding her while you stand up because for some ungodly reason she can tell the difference in altitude or something and it’s a freaking tragedy if you hold her in the exact same position you were when you were standing up but decide to sit down? Well, I have. All at the same time.

So, yeah, the food was great. We spent the equivalent of about $50 for our family, which isn’t bad considering the amount of beer my husband had to drink to maintain his sanity.

baby flashing gang signs
Aww! Look at these cute little tourists!

The tour was supposed to start in front of the tourist information center. We followed signs, located the tourist information center by about 1pm, and then decided to just walk around a little and grab our souvenirs before the tour started.

We found a little souvenir shop and I took my 6-year-old in with me to find a collector’s spoon for me and a little pin for the collection he has started. Josh and the stroller-bound children stayed outside since the stroller was too big to fit in the shop. Spoons were near the outside door to the shop and then we had to go further in to pay and find a little pin. The further in the store we went the more penis merchandise there was. Like seriously. Penis mugs, penis key-chains, penis magnets, penis straws, ball caps that said “I love Prague” with a picture of a penis on it. One penis, two penis, red penis blue penis. This one has a little star. Say, what a lot of penises there are! I paid for our non-penis merchandise and then tried to get out without my son touching anything. Traveler’s tip – leave your kids outside when you go in a souvenir shop in Prague.

It was almost 2pm, so back we went to the tourist information center to meet our tour group. Except nobody was there. We walked around the block and couldn’t find anybody. I went inside the information center but there was a huge line and I knew I wouldn’t get to the front of the line until after 2pm. I frantically looked up and down the street but finally had to face the fact that this must not have been the right link up location and I should have (once again) done better research before going on this trip.

I pretty much had a melt down because now I would have no clue what I was looking at and I can’t read Czech and there are no signs in English, but my husband kept his cool and pointed out that we could still walk around and see the sights without a tour guide. So that’s what we did. We walked up to the castle where we saw some awesome Prague old town squarepanoramic views of the city of Prague and got some gelato for the kids, we walked around a few cathedrals, and then we decided to cross the famous Charles Bridge.

The bridge is awesome. Lined with historic statues, street performers, artists and merchants it gives you a taste of culture all in one convenient and scenic location. Once we made it across the bridge I saw signs for the tourist information center again. Huh, that’s weird. And then I realized that there are two tourist information centers. We had been on the wrong side of the river the whole time! Ugh! It was pretty obvious that we had been on the wrong side because this side was packed wall-to-wall with tourists whereas the other side had plenty of space for us to move around the streets.

I figured the crowds of tourists probably were heading to the famous sights so we literally just followed the largest groups of people which landed us right in the old town square where we were able to see the astronomical clock and the Church of our Lady Before Týn.

Prague Astronomical ClockAt this point it was about 4pm and the kids (and parents) were hot and tired and ready to go. We found our way back to the parking garage, paid for the parking, and made our way home. We stopped for dinner on the road to use up the rest of our Czech Koruna and continued on what was actually a relatively stress-free, low-traffic drive home.

Yep. So between the lunch, dinner and ice cream, souvenirs and parking we spent less than $100. Even the tour (had we actually found it in time) would have been free besides a tip for the guide. Next time I’ll make sure to get a travel guide from the library so I know what I’m looking at when we sightsee and have a map of the city so I can tell where my tour starts. I guess it wasn’t really that terrible and horrible, just a little unorganized. If you learn from my mistakes, I think you can have a really great time in this beautiful city for not a lot of money.

What are your travel tips for a day in Prague? Let me know in the comments below!



The real deal with long lines at airport security

So did you guys hear about this article where TSA is blaming passengers for the ridiculously long lines at airports? Crazy, right?! Go ahead and look up, passenger. See that? That big thing looming over your head? That’s a bus. TSA threw you right the heck under it.

The

As it just so happens, I used to work for TSA. It’s been eight years, so some things might have changed, but from my experience I think TSA’s claim that it’s all the passenger’s fault is not totally accurate. Sure, there are some things passengers could do to speed up the process like Valerie and Valise explains in this post, but passengers have no control over major factors in the speed at which people move through a security checkpoint like the amount of flights scheduled at one time, how early an airline will allow check-in, or the amount of TSA workers on shift at a time. Besides, even if most people take the time to learn how to pack (Going Awesome Places has a really good post on this, BTW), how dress (this type of shoe would be good), the proper way to package liquids (didn’t think I’d leave you hanging, didja? Here ya’ go!) and how to handle their crazy kids (last one I promise! Read this from Walking on Travels or read this great article from Trips with Tykes) all it takes is one uneducated person to slow down the line for everybody behind them.

So what was TSA thinking when they placed the blame on passengers? Why would any organization so brazenly bite the proverbial hand that feeds it? Three words. They. Don’t. Care. Here’s a little story to tell you why.

Imagine: The year is 2005 and little Debra (that’s me) is a 19 year old army reservist who just got hired on at TSA. She gets taught everything she needs to know to carry out the task of securing an airport. Once out of training, she enthusiastically starts carrying out her duties. Please start playing your favorite Rocky-style training music right now and get ready for the following montage.

  • Oh, that checked bag weighs 75lbs? No problem for this bag lifting pro! *uses She Hulk strength to throw bag into luggage scanner*
  • Oh, you thought you could just park in front of the airport all willy nilly? Move along lingering creepy guy – Freedom called, she needs this parking spot!
  • Oh, there’s a cell phone/probably-definitely-a-loaded-firearm-or-something-totally-dangerous-in-your-pocket-setting-off-the-metal-detector-nope-never-mind-guess-it-was-just-a-cellphone in your pocket? Get that thing outcha pocket and put it in a bin, sir!
  • Oh, you think it’s no big deal to have toothpaste that’s in a 4oz container? That’s how terrorist win, muthatrucker! *slam dunks said toothpaste into trashcan*
  • Oh, you want to take your pocket knife on an airplane? NOT TODAAAAY!

Needless to say, lil’ Debbie is loving her job. She works with some great people, feels like she’s really doing something to help people, meets local celebrities, discovers amusing things in people’s bags and finds the work mentally stimulating.

However, not to long after she starts this job, passengers start making comments to her. For some craaaaazy reason, they don’t like being wanded and patted down. They feel like their privacy is being violated by bag searches. They get mad when they’re selected for random searches. And they take it out on Debra by refusing to return her friendly smiles, ignoring her gentle instructions to empty change from their pockets, throwing hissy fits when they have to be subjected to further screening, and calling her an idiot when she has to throw away their precious liquids.

Deb is confused. Don’t these passengers understand she is just following protocol? Even if she wants to let them keep their liquids, she can’t or she gets fired. Even if she sees that patting down a baby or an old lady is ridiculous, if she refuses and only pats down people that look like terrorists (whatever that means) she will be profiling and she gets fired.

Perhaps if TSA trusted her to use her best judgement, she could do something to help out the non-terrorist passengers to move through security with more privacy and a higher liquid keeping ratio, but don’t the passengers understand that TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security and therefore part of the US Government and therefore a giant bureaucracy that cannot and will not trust the judgement of one little TSA agent?

Perhaps if the airline agents would show up at their counters the same two hours before the flight that they suggest passengers show up, they could help get passengers through with plenty of time to spare. Maybe if they explained to passengers the reasons their tickets might indicate they need selective screening (you bought your ticket in cash, you bought a ticket the same day you want to fly, you bought a one way ticket, and any other potentially shady thing that makes it look like you’re fleeing the country) they could help ease some of the confusion and stress of those who have to go through extra screening. Perhaps if airlines explained what time of day/week the most flights were scheduled to passengers so they could avoid the busy times they might be able to avoid long security lines all together.

As it stands, passengers don’t understand these things and the airlines don’t seem to want to help explain travel tips to passengers so it looks like TSA, to include Debra, is just a bunch of jerk faces trying to make people miss their flights.

Slowly but surely, Deb gets tired of passengers passively and actively hating her. She still carries out her duties as per regulation, but the spark starts to die out. The desire to help people make it through security quickly fades. Why should she help or care about people that are mean to her? What incentive is there for her to help people make their flights? It’s not like she gets paid extra for screening more people. Even if people fly less, she works for the government. Remember that bureaucracy comment from before? The benefit of the bureaucracy means that unless Debra does violate some regulation, it makes it really hard to fire her. So her motivation is to follow regulation to the letter rather than using her brain to try to help people quickly through security. She gets that passengers are frustrated, but she’s frustrated too. She feels powerless and unliked by passengers, so she inevitably stops caring so much about said passengers’ well-being and general opinion of her.

Despite trying not to care what everybody thinks of her, Deb is apparently a hopeless people-pleaser dislikes the feeling that everybody thinks she’s a worthless waste of oxygen. Deb hates the feeling so much that two years later, when the army reserves decides to deploy her to Iraq for a year, she decides she likes the possibility of being blown up by IED’s better than she likes working for TSA and joins the active army.

The end.

So how can you make it through security quickly? Try to avoid the airline counter all together by checking in online ahead of time and printing your own boarding pass. Follow tips from the posts mentioned in the first paragraph. However, I don’t think a real solution to the problem of long airport lines will be reached until people stop trying to find out who’s to blame and rather start trying to fix the problem. Even if long security lines are the passengers’ fault, how does being mad at them actually fix the problem, TSA? Until airlines, TSA and passengers start working together lines will remain long and frustrating for all parties involved.

Do you have a solution to the long lines problem? Comment below!



5 Days in the Netherlands: Part 2

 

5 Days in the NetherlandsDay 4: Cheese Farm and Amsterdam

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Holland I think of wooden clogs. And cheese. Well, I pretty much always think of cheese. Mmmmm… cheese… Naturally, we had to go to a cheese farm/clog making factory that was right outside the city the day we were scheduled to visit Amsterdam. Enter Clara Maria dairy farm. This was a cute place where they do demonstrations on how to make wooden clogs and cheese. There is a shop where you can taste and buy the cheese they make there (as well as many other souvenirs), a barn where you can look at the cows, and a little restaurant. It takes less than an hour to look around the whole place and if you go in the spring you can see cute little newborn cowscalves. However, if your kids are like mine they will find the barn too stinky and the cows terrifying and will not really appreciate the rustic nature of the whole thing. I liked it though. And we got some pretty good cheese. If you can resist buying stuff in the shop (who are we kidding, we all know you’re going to buy at least one block of cheese) this is a completely free activity. If you’re going to be near Amsterdam it’s worth the trip.

Once we were full of cheese we headed toward Amsterdam’s city center. Did you know there are companies that give FREE tours of most major European cities in English? Well there are! The tour guides work off of tips so you don’t have to pay anything (although you should if you like your tour guide. C’mon, don’t be a jerk). I reserved us spots on one of these free tours of Amsterdam through Sandeman’s tour company. After the farm we drove to the link-up point in the city center and found some parking. Make sure you leave an extra hour for traffic and finding a parking spot, which is always challenging in European cities. We brought the double-stroller for our two little ones since the tour was scheduled to last about 3 hours, plus I brought the baby wrap ( Boba Baby Wrap, Grey )in case the baby got tired of the stroller. If you only have one day to spend in a city that you don’t know a whole lot about, I would definitely recommend one of these tours. We were able to see all the major highlights of the city without having to worry about getting lost, looking up what the major highlights were ahead of time, researching why these highlights were historically or culturally important, etc. It’s the lazy woman’s way to learn. The tour guide was great and explained lots of interesting facts about all the places we saw. We took a 20 minute snack/potty break about half way through and she was helpful in pointing out places that people might want to check out after the tour on their own. The only potential down side was it was a lot of walking. We did okay with the stroller and our 5-year old has boundless energy so it worked out for us. Oh yeah, and they do take you through the red-light district so you may have to cover your kids’ eyes for about 5 minutes if you don’t want them seeing nakie ladies. Our 2-year old and baby were too young to notice or care and I pretended the cobblestones were suuuper interesting and kept pointing them out to my 5-year old. Between him trying to look at the cool pathway and being in between my husband and me so our bodies mostly blocked his view when he did look up, he seriously did not even notice the girls in the windows. Or you could just not be as prudish as us and not worry about it… whatever floats your boat.amsterdam

This was a fun, educational, and cheap day. Ain’t that the best?! The only thing we had to pay for was parking in the city. We did tip the tour guide and buy cheese at the farm, but that was our choice. Plus we saved money by packing PB&J sandwiches for lunch and going back to our trailer to cook dinner. Winning!

Day 5: Madurodam and the drive home

Our last morning in the Netherlands we packed up and headed out for a stop at Madurodam before we drove home. Madurodam is an amusement park that has miniature versions of all the major cities and sites in the Netherlands. There are little activities throughout the park that teach you about the history of the Netherlands, architecture, windmills, canals, etc. There are also two huge playground areas and an indoor sports area where you can kick around a soccer ball. We sboyspent a few hours here and our boys enjoyed it. They especially liked the playground. We ate lunch at the café on site and then headed out for our long drive home.
This place is neat, but I think it would be better for older kids. It is pretty expensive for little ones who pretty much just want to play on the playground. The
food in the café was good, and fairly priced (we paid about 40 Euro for our family of 5) but when you are used to bringing your own sandwiches for lunch, that can add up. I would say if you have school-age kids this place is totally worth it because there really is a lot for them to see and learn, but if you have little ones like us just go find a free playground instead.

After lunch we drove all the way home. Originally I had planned to stop overnight in Frankfurt, but traffic was flowing pretty smoothly by the time we reached Frankfurt so we decided to tough it out and keep on driving all the way home. We had officially reached the point at which one is just completely over vacationing and just wants to sleep in one’s own bed. Of course once we passed Frankfurt we were in one continuous traffic jam the rest of the way home (AAARRRGGHHH!). We drove and drove and sat in hours of traffic and drove about 11 hours and a bazzilion potty breaks later, we were home.

Reflections:

Must do’s: The windmills! Also, take a tour of Amsterdam for sure. What to skip: If you are short on time don’t bother with the cheese farm. Unless it is April-June don’t worry about seeing tulips.

Where we saved $: Booking lodging at campsites; using Esso stations and our gas rations program and fueling up in Germany before crossing the border to the Netherlands; packing sandwiches and taking advantage of the kitchen in our trailer to cook dinner most nights. Where we overspent $: We ended up grabbing KFC after we saw the windmills, which was too expensive for food that was not special; I could have researched better places to park in Amsterdam so we wouldn’t have spent so much on a parking garage; I bought a few too many souvenirs; the tickets at Madurodam.

Overall, we really enjoyed this trip. We didn’t completely break the bank and we were able to see a lot of cool sites in just a few days. The car ride was torturous, but you really can get out and see the world even with three little kids! Go!



1 2 3