Disaster in my Island Hut Bathroom

Big, booming claps of thunder wake me up at 5:00 am this morning, punctuated by lightning that flashes through my all-too-thin window drapes, even though it is pitch dark outside. The monsoonal rains feel as though they will crash through my bungalow roof with ease at any moment. Where is my tropical Thai Island paradise?

Wide awake, I get up to go to the bathroom, without my glasses (never a good idea) and without turning on the light so I won’t wake up Gracie.

When I realize we are out of toilet paper, I grope unsuccessfully in the dark without leaving my “seat,” for the extra roll I know is somewhere in this bathroom. I can’t find it.

Fine. I will use the bathroom sprayer thingy then. But when I grab for it, the nozzle disconnects and water starts spraying everywhere. It doesn’t take but 2 seconds to realize I now have a monsoon inside and outside my hut.

I try to shove the nozzle back on, in the dark, but can’t. It’s like trying to put a nozzle on a hose that’s on full blast. Immense volumes of spaztic water gush forth all over me and the bathroom floor, walls, door, sink.

I need to turn on the light, but I can’t reach it without letting go of the water tube and nozzle. When I do finally let go, it’s like a “Crazy Daisy” sprayer, the kind you have in your yard outside when you’re a kid.

The water tube gyrates all over the bathroom as I try to find the light switch. I use the Braille system and finally locate it far from the place where I remembered it to be.

Now I can clearly see this disaster in the making, even without my glasses. The first thing I spot is the extra roll of toilet paper, now soggy. I am so in trouble here. I contemplate turning the light back off.

Instead I hold the nozzle to the free-flowing water tube as firmly as I can. I flush the toilet thinking maybe that will make the water pressure subside and then I can just stand there flushing the toilet for the next 4 hours until Gracie wakes up and runs for help.

The toilet flushes fine but the water pressure remains the same. Down on my knees I go, one hand holding the Crazy Daisy and simultaneously trying to push the nozzle back on, water spraying me in the face and everywhere else, and the other hand feeling for a valve or a knob to turn off the water supply. None exists.

I have got to stop this flow of water somehow. If I can get the water tube to the sink or to the shower that will work. But the tube is too short to reach that far. And now the nozzle falls off completely into the toilet. I see the little black washer, which should be firmly inside the nozzle, floating in the toilet. I stand there holding the eternally-flowing water tube.

I stick the tube into the toilet bowl. This isn’t much of a solution, I think. But it does stop the water from gushing everywhere momentarily.

And then an interesting thing happens – as though everything before this hasn’t been interesting. Just before I think the toilet will overflow because the water tube is pumping an extra 500 gallons of water per minute into it, the toilet kinda self flushes.

I stand there for a moment bewildered. I check the “water security” of the bathroom. I spot a drain in the floor and a good sized lip by the door which will prevent any water from going into the other parts of the room, since I’m on my way to recreating Noah’s flood here.

I wait for the toilet bowl to re-fill and then, amazingly, it does not overflow. Ever. Even with my super-charged water tube adding to its water supply in voluminous ways.

This is a ray of hope! I watch for another 5 minutes, position the tube securely under the toilet seat and firmly inside the toilet bowl. I go back to bed and check the “situation” every 30 minutes. Unbelievably all is well.

Finally at 8 am, I go to the front desk, explaining my situation to Thai hotel staff members who speak barely a lick of English.

I say very slowly, “I have a problem with my toilet.” She looks at me quizzically. I say, “Problem. Toilet.” She tries to mouth the words back to me. She doesn’t know the word ‘problem.’

She gets another co-worker. I explain the situation by displaying vividly wild hand gestures and imitating gushing water sounds. “PSHSHSHSH!” I draw on all my thespian skills for this dramatic performance.

Her eyes get very big. Yes, she understands. They send someone immediately who turns off the water from a valve somewhere outside, then installs a brand new sprayer and hose for me.

It’s all fixed now.

Like I’m ever going to use that thing again! In the dark. Without my glasses.

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Gracie’s blog: graciebrownworld.wordpress.com
Zack’s blog:
allaroundtheworldwithzackbrown.wordpress.com

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The laundry that will not dry

When you set out to travel for months instead of a week, backpack space is very precious and determines just how many pairs of undies, socks, and pants you can bring. And what I realized early on in this trip is the the alarming rate at which these things become dirty. Times that by a family of 4 and suddenly you are undone by laundry.

No surprise that It becomes mandatory to find accommodations that come with a washer and dryer. Then I remembered I was in Europe, and it became mandatory that I had a washer – and I’d pray for a dryer. Apparently I need to step up my prayer life.

To even get a washer is a boon — it beats hand-washing in the sink by a mile. Oh yeah, I’ve done some of that. But we’ve landed in a couple of places where the laundry simply will not dry.

First among them, Venice. But why? The weather was warm and perfectly moderate. The first night we needed to wash everything. I ran one load. I opened the teeny plastic lid on the washer. I unfastened the teeny metal basket inside. I loaded the clothes. I added detergent, and pushed the proper buttons.

It was late at night, but I needed the laundry to finish before I fell asleep so that I could hang it out to dry. This is why no one in Europe does laundry at night.

The washer wouldn’t stop. Literally. It ran and ran and ran until finally at 1:30 am Curtis managed to pry open the lid without breaking it, and keep it from going round and round. The laundry sat in a small pool of water all night.

In the morning I wrung out the clothes by hand, then again with my handy-dandy microfleece bath towels (thank you REI). This didn’t stop me from putting another load in the laundry, believing somehow it would work perfectly this time.

I hung the first load of clothes on the clothes line in the bathroom. I hung the rest all around the apartment, anything with enough room to dangle a sock from.

Not to bother. It was warm, and we would be out all day in the canals of Venice. Everything would be dry when we returned.

Imagine my surprise when we returned that night and nothing was dry. Or even drier. The only thing that had happened all day in that apartment was that the IKEA laminated press-board shelves started to warp where I hung the socks.

And the washer was still running from the morning. That’s 8+ hours of going round and round. I busted into it this time, finding the clothes sitting in a full pool of water. Back to the wringing routine. I got a blister on my hand. I need to do more manual labor in my life.

I hung the second load of laundry out to dry, finding drying places on door handles, the refrigerator, the bunk beds, the bars on the windows, the metal shelf hooks holding up the now-warped IKEA shelves. I would’ve hung laundry on the kids if they’d stood still.

Surely items will be dry by morning. I awoke the next morning to almost completely soggy clothes. What in the world?

Thank God we were in Venice for 5 days. It took all of 5 days for that first load to dry. That second load never did dry, and I just packed it up and took it to Milan.

The other place where laundry will not dry? Rome. Perfect in every other way, except laundry drying. At least in Rome I had a large, plastic drying rack with plenty of clothes pins, perfectly set up on our roomy outdoor balcony. The temps were idyllic for clothes drying, or so I thought.

I hung out every piece of clothing we had. The kids donned my clothes since every stitch of their wardrobe was in the wash. Nothing will make you chuckle harder than seeing your daughter dressed baggily in your pants and dress, and your son in your too short white v-necked t-shirt and yoga pants with wide purple trim at the waist.

Optimistically I hung out those clothes. And in the morning, still only a minor improvement in the wetness factor. I flipped all the clothes like pancakes for the next 4 days. I perfectly positioned them on the drying rack. I took pains to create the best free-flowing breeze zone on the balcony.

My efforts yielded very slow, deliberate drying efforts. Eventually they did dry, and I lay exhausted on the bed, realizing it was time to do another load.

How it made me long for Budapest and Wini the laundry queen. Before I could even make a pile of dirty clothes my good friend was putting them in the washer and loading them in the dryer before I knew the wash cycle was finished. If I could’ve packed her in my pocket for the rest of this journey, I would have.

I’m happy to report that my laundry situation has since improved dramatically. In Lucca, Italy I was privy to the most amazing machine, a 2-in-1 washer/dryer combo. Yep, a machine that washed and dried the clothes all in one. Pure heaven. It took 90 minutes to wash and 3 hours to dry a load, but I didn’t have to touch it.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better than that, I landed in Singapore at Cheryl’s condo on the 15th floor with a killer view, and a live-in housekeeper named Edith. God bless her soul, she washed, dried and ironed our clothes all in one day. I felt like bowing and kissing her feet.

Now we head to Thailand and Cambodia where Lord only knows what awaits my dirty clothes.

Running for Trains – a day trip to Cinque Terre

A day trip sounds so easy. Yes, a day trip, YES! Let’s do a day trip.

Everyone told us that Lucca, Italy is the best place in the world to stay (and they are right). They also said it’s the easiest place to do day trips from (hmmm, I’m not so sure). Of course I may be tainted by the seemingly inexhaustible things that can go awry when it comes to our travels.

Indeed, let’s do a day trip from Lucca to Cinque Terre. Why, it’s only a mere 90 minutes by train, which is nothing for us seasoned travelers at this point. As long as it doesn’t involve a night train, we are good to go.

We are up in plenty of time to catch the 8:42 am train. I shower, and pack a light lunch since we’ll be eating at quaint cafes in Cinque Terre for lunch and dinner. It’s no surprise what I pack – salami and mozzarella sandwiches, on bread that is fresh but altogether too thick and dry to make a good sandwich. I tuck in 10 clementine oranges to boot. These little delicacies are like eating candy right off a tree. We bought 4 dozen at the outdoor market, and finished off 2 dozen in 2 days. I carefully place these little treasures into the backpack.

At 8:10 I am screaming now, we must leave! God bless Gracie, but the speed at which she moves makes the tortoise look like the hare. It’s utterly remarkable and completely unnerving at the same time. She is the absolute replica of my sister Michelle in this regard. Michelle who was nearly set upon by every sibling and parent in our household, for the same slow reasons.

Finally, we are OUT. Out of the house, and we are walking briskly. Curtis is way up front, trailed by me, then Zack, and way at the back, Gracie. I wave my arms frantically, yelling at them to hurry, urging them forward with my arms. Zack passes me in 10 seconds. I hurriedly look back to Gracie, she’s gaining on me. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

We scurry along the medieval fortress wall which runs 4km in a circle around Lucca. A wide, lovely walking, biking, running path is on top of the wall, providing a great viewpoint of the surrounding area. And also a barometer of how far you still are from the train station.

It’s chilly, but I’ve pulled off all layers except a t-shirt now. I glance at my watch, 10 minutes until the train leaves. I scream, “10 minutes!!” We start to run. Down the medieval stairs, across the medieval lawn, across the busy street where we launch ourselves into the traffic barely pausing to look for oncoming cars.

We skid into the train station, 8 minutes to go. We buy tickets and I’m sure we are overcharged by $50 while simultaneously trying to exchange a previously unused train ticket. It’s always good to throw in a complicated maneuver like that when time is on the line.

“Which train platform?”I ask. “Platform 1,” the ticket seller says. Seems right, as a thick mob of people wait on platform 1. Finally the train arrives, we all hop on. But it seems strange that the train whose first destination is Pisa, has only 2 cars on it, since Pisa is a main tourist destination.

We sit on the train and wait and wait. I get this feeling that we are not on the right train. I ask one of the passengers, “Pisa?” “No, no, no,” she says. We hurry off the train, find a conductor, confirm this is not the right train and he sends us to platform 3.

I look at the clock. It’s well past 8:42, but we run to platform 3 anyway. Thank God for the Italian way of life, because the train is late, and just arriving as we reach the top of the platform stairs. We throw ourselves onto the train and hastily find seats. I sit in a pool of sweat.

Nevertheless, we are on our way and I am grateful just to be on the correct train. Thirty minutes later we change trains in Pisa, then 45 minutes later, in La Spezia. The connections should happen one after the other. Except, inexplicably the train from La Spezia to Cinque Terre has been cancelled “indefinito.” That costs us 90 minutes of waiting around for the next train at noon. We eat lunch on a long bench outside the station. We while away the minutes in wait. Finally we board the train at noon, arriving at our first Cinque Terre destination at 12:20pm.

To recap, we left at 8:52am, we arrived at 12:20pm. We are just 2 hours over the 90 minute “day trip” time. Sounds about right for us. We try not to remind the kids that it’s taken 3-1/2 hours to get here, but they are painfully aware of it.

Fortunately, the view overtakes us all as the train rambles along the coastline. Cinque Terre is a serious of 5 villages built into the sheer cliffs and rocky mountainous area along the west coast of Italy. Built some 1,000 years ago, it is like stepping back in time. And stepping up a thousand stairs at the same time. Actually, it’s more like 10,000 stairs — in every village.

It’s possible to hike along the coastline from village to village, but with the recent rains some of the trail has been washed out and the trail is closed. So we trundle via train from village to village.

We start with village #4, Vernazza. The homes steeply slope down to the water’s edge, which is ringed with a small, beautiful, clear-blue marina. The kids climb the rocky face to reach their own personal viewpoint. I turn away when they climb down, I cannot watch. I am sure I will have to have them medi-vac’d out when they take a misstep.

Other tourists sit on the piles of large, black rocks that encircle the marina, eating slices of pizza and drinking small bottles of wine. We promise the kids we will eat pizza like this in the next village.

After an hour of wandering around, we head back to the train and stop off at village #2, Manarola. We walk up, up, up and are rewarded with a fantastic panoramic view of the town and sea. The sea is forever, without a landmark visible as far as the eye can travel.

We walk down, and back up again. I should be counting the actual steps, but I’m not sure I can count that high.

Gracie loads up on photos. We cannot stop taking pictures of each other, of ourselves, of the view, or us in front of the village, or us in front of the sea, or us in front of the vilage and the sea at the same time, which takes some serious photographic maneuvering.

We take so many photos that we lose track of time. We think we’ve missed the next train, but aren’t sure. We run up to the train station (everything is up). We run through the train corridor. We’ve missed the train.

That’s ok, we need pizza anyway. But there is not an open pizza joint to be found in this small village. We search in vain. We are in no man’s land according to Italian time. Nothing is open from 1-4pm in villages, towns, cities. We forget this every day, I don’t know why we can’t remember. Instead, we buy postcards and eat clementines on a bench, followed by Mars bar candy bars. Hopefully, this will tide everyone over until our last village where we will sit down and have a nice, leisurely early dinner.

We catch the train to village #1, Riomaggiore. We disembark on the only piece of flat ground that exists in the village. We dutifully begin our upward ascent, step by step. It becomes a mantra of sorts, the eternal upward motion of foot to hill, foot to stair. It’s like climbing Mount Rainier, but much warmer and without a guide.

We scurry up to viewpoints. A cathedral sits at a distant point, and we make our way there. The view I can’t explain, it is like a painting that you want to buy and put in your bed to sleep with every night. It is so beautiful that we take 1,000 photos of it, hoping they will capture one tiny shred of its reality.

We wander aimlessly through the tiny village, looking at a smattering of shops that are actually open. Most are closed. So is every pizza joint and restaurant. We look longingly at the menus posted outside. We search for a sign that declares they will open at 4:00pm. None exist.

We walk down to the marina, downhill streets filled with small, colorful fishing boats stacked side by side on the pavement, proof of the winter that’s come and coming to these deserted outposts. Fishing tackle drapes over their sides, on the walls behind.

Then we walk up, up, up for the sunset view. We’ve arrived at the absolute, perfect time and watch every last thread of the sunset. The colors span the entire sea, cast golden light on the village and we wonder if we’ll ever see anything this stunning again.

Except for the clock. The clock is stunning because it says our train is leaving now. We yell to the kids, they turn and run towards us. We run up the street. We run up 4 of the longest, rock slab flights of stairs I’ve ever known. Curtis and Zack sprint ahead. Gracie passes me on the 3rd flight. I’m trying, really trying to run up the 4th flight but oh my word my legs. In my mind I feel as though I am running but when I look at Gracie running, I realize I am not running at all. I might actually be standing still.

I make it to the top. Gracie turns around and yells, “It’s here!” Now I must sprint to the train which is ready to leave. I can hear the train sounds, sputting, chugging, ready to leave. I mentally will myself to pick up the pace. My legs feel like two large round drums filled with rocks. I want to lay down and roll all the way to the station.

I turn the corner, and there stands Curtis, Zack and Gracie waiting anxiously for me to arrive. The conductor stands with them, somewhat perplexed and disgruntled by us all. I leap onto the train, wipe the sweat from my brow and collapse into the train seat. Then I undress. I stop just short of complete nakedness.

We all recover in the 8 minutes it takes to reach La Spezia. We’ve timed it perfectly so that we can get a nice dinner in town, then catch the train back to Lucca.

It’s 5:00 pm. We walk down a very touristy pedestrian-only street filled with shops, cafes, restaurants. Correction: Restaurants that are closed until 7:00 pm. Cafes with lots of things to drink, but no substantial food. I make a decision — we are not going to find anything to eat before the train leaves. Let’s take an earlier train back to Lucca instead, and have a nice dinner there.

It’s 5:20pm. We have 20 minutes before the train leaves. A quick snack for the kids will have to do for now. We stop at a Creperie and order Gracie a nutella and banana crepe through the little window.

We run back towards the train station and up the hill. I search the train departure schedules and find the train we need. It’s on platform 6. It leaves in 3 minutes. We run to platform 6. There is no train, and it appears that there never will be a train on this platform.

We run to platform 1. We see a train, it could be the one we need. We have 1 minute to make the decision to get on or not. We are paralyzed. A train conductor sees us, we say “Lucca!”, and she points to the train further south on the tracks. We run to that train, hop on, and 1 minute later we are traveling down the tracks to Lucca.

We high-five each other, we are so proud of ourselves. We’ve done it, we’ve done the day trip. Now, if we can only find an open restaurant when we get to Lucca. When we do, we sit down exhausted at the table, order up 4 pizzas, and calculate our trip. Thirteen hours. An easy, breezy day trip of 13 hours. Twelve of those hours spent running.

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Gracie’s blog: graciebrownworld.wordpress.com
Zack’s blog:
allaroundtheworldwithzackbrown.wordpress.com

Bicycling in Tuscany, somewhat disastrously

I had visions. Beautiful visions of cycling through the Tuscan countryside, hair flying in the breeze, sun shining on my shoulders, a fresh picnic lunch tucked into my basket.

It’s such a nice vision, isn’t it? I had thought about it for so long I thought it actually might come true. But alas….cycling with the Brown family cannot be that easy.

It all started with a bang. “Up, let’s get up! It’s time to ride bikes!” I urged to my family. The weather was overcast and a little windy, but otherwise perfect for biking. Clearly, I wasn’t going to get my sunshine-y day with a picnic, but who cares? I’m in Tuscany in November for heaven’s sake!

Our villa we are renting comes with 4 bikes. What a coup! And yes, I said villa. At least I like to refer to it as my personal Tuscan villa. It is a large 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom home in Pugnano, smack dab in the middle between Pisa and Lucca. A 15-minute drive will land you in either town. But believe me when I say there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Pugnano. Which is why you must bike to get anywhere.

Arianna, who owns our villa, lives next door in her own villa with her family. Her parents live behind her. Her dad, who speaks no English, had fixed up the bikes for us and told us all about it. We understood nothing.

Not to worry. The bikes were fixed, and off we go. My bike had the baby carrying seat on the back. Everytime my pedal went around on the right side, it bumped into the baby seat. I adjusted my foot forward on the pedal to steer clear of this with every crank. Now we’re really ready.

I stuffed 2 apples, chocolate cookies and a big bottle of water in a small pack, and loaded up my front basket. How efficient a basket on a bike is!

Now in Italy, no one wears helmets, so neither did we. Only the super racing cyclists that speed by you at 90 mph every 5 minutes wear them, and believe me we do not fall into that camp. And FYI, Italy is loaded with cyclists — out here in the country they love to ride.

So here is my little tribe out on the narrow backroads of Tuscany, sticking as close to the white line on the right side of the road as possible without having their handlebars scrape against the building at the same time. There’s just not much space. It doesn’t help that Zack’s handlebars are vibrating and bugging his hands, so he has pulled his sweatshirt sleeves down and over his hands and is gripping the handlebards between a thick layer of bunched up sweatshirt.

But the Italians, they really know how to work around a cyclist. They seem to have unwavering confidence in the cyclist’s ability to keep their bike upright and not veer into the car’s path. And the cyclists seem to have unwavering confidence that the car will pass within 2 inches of their bike and yet not run them over.

Of course, coming from the shores of Lake Washington, this is a newfound realization for me. In Seattle, cars give cyclists about 6 feet of space and even then they are afraid to pass a cyclist.

We ride about 2 km on the town road before turning onto a dirt path that glides along the river. Perfect biking on a tree-lined path bursting with the colors of autumn. Finally, my long-awaited Tuscan bike ride!

“How long are we going to bike for?” Gracie asks. We’ve been going for all of 15 minutes. “For a while,” responds Curtis.

Fifteen minutes later Curtis realizes his back tire is getting flatter and flatter and flatter. We decide to keep riding anyway, just a little further. Another 15 minutes and we realize we need to turn around if Curtis is going to make it back home at all. It starts to rain, lightly.

I watch Zack turn around and bike towards me. He seems a little wobbly. I look down at his bike, and his handlebars are loose. I offer to switch bikes with him which he readily accepts. He races off down the trail with the baby seat.

I hop on his bike and start off. I quickly realize just how loose the handle bars are. They are swimming from side to side. By “swimming” I mean, if you took your handle bars and shoved them all to one side so that 80% of your handle bars are on the other side of your bike, and then you shoved them back to the other side again.

I looked like a total drunk trying to ride that bike.

Gracie, ahead of me, is having troubles with her bike too. It wants to veer right, which is a little dangerous since the river is on the right. If she doesn’t continually overcorrect, she’s going in. This doesn’t stop her from strapping her camera onto her right wrist, banging it against the handle bars as she rides along.

She decides that taking pictures while she is riding is a good idea. She puts the camera at eye level, veers right, overcorrects, loses her balance and falls down in the grass.

I don’t see this because I’m way behind Gracie. I’ve stopped to try and re-tighten the loose handlebar bolt. That’s when my chain falls off. I kneel in the damp dirt, grasping at the very, oily chain (newly oiled, apparently), dislodge it, re-position it, and get it working again. I grab a handful of gravel and rub it between my hands to try and get rid of some of the oil.

I zoom off again, all over the trail, and pray to God I don’t come across anyone, let alone someone walking their dog or their frail grandmother that I will assuredly run over.

This is because not only were my handle bars now moving side to side as though pig grease had been applied to them, but they also began to twirl around and around like a magical wand from Harry Potter. So you know how you hold onto your handle bars and can reach the brake? Well, that’s harder to do when your handle bars are upside down and moving side to side.

I somehow manage to weeble wobble my way back to almost the beginning of the trail. I ride up and down small hills without shifting gears since, well, I can’t reach them as they are twirling around.

I crest a small hill to find Curtis on the other side, at the bottom of it, waving his arms. “Don’t ride down this hill!” He’s right, it’s a straight shot into the river if I can’t turn at all, and if I turn only a little, I will crash into the cement tunnel holding up the bridge.

I walk my bike down the hill, under the bridge and try once again to re-adjust my handlebars. “Oh my God, no functione,” an Italian man running by says as he stares at my bike incredulously. He’s clearly panicked at my bike’s state of affairs. “No functione!” He gives me directions (I think) to go get it fixed in the nearby village. “Buono!” I say, “Good,” like I understand every word.

I look down at my bike. The chain has fallen off again. Down into the dirt and oil I go, reclaiming the chain and putting it back in place.

I hop on the bike, Gracie behind me. I balance very precariously and begin to ride. I promptly lose control, can’t reach my twirling brakes, and screaming, down I go, into the grass. All I can hear is Gracie laughing.

I stand up, dust myself off and pick up my bike. My handlebars fall off — completely.

I just laugh and laugh. The vision of my perfect Tuscan bike ride has long since vanished but the hilarity of the excursion has saved the day!

Curtis comes to my aid, and switches bikes with me. He “runs” my bike home, jogging alongside it while simultaneously trying to control it. We must look like a bunch of freaks out here.

“No functione!” Truer words were never spoken, about my bike or about my vision of a Tuscan bike ride.

Strike!

Strike!

You can’t come to Europe during an economic crisis and expect perfect sailing — or a perfect bus, subway or train schedule.

The day before we purchased our tickets from Interlaken, Switzerland to Venice, Italy, we learned there was a rail strike in Italy. Because of this, the Swiss ticket clerk suggested we only purchase a ticket to the Swiss border, since he couldn’t guarantee that the trains in Italy would be running for us when we arrived. Great.

In fact, he had no information about the train strike, except that it would last for 24 hours. Apparently the Italian government announces these strikes in advance, and the railroad determines which select routes it will operate. As Gracie said, “then what is the purpose of the strike if they tell you about it in advance? Isn’t a strike supposed to make things hard?” Not in Italy, which posts all strikes well in advance on the rail website. Very helpful.

All we knew is that we needed to get to Venice BEFORE the strike started at 9:00 pm on Saturday. And of course we were traveling on Saturday.

Best to take the earliest train on Saturday then, considering the 6-hour train journey to Venice. No surprise, the early train is sold out. We can only get seats on the 1:00 pm train. And only as far as Milan, Italy. We purchase these from the Swiss clerk.

Since the Swiss clerk doesn’t want to sell us tickets past Milan, we purchase train tickets from Milan to Venice online that night. We’ll have 45 minutes to change trains in Milan, and should arrive in Venice at 8:00 pm. One hour before the strike begins.

When we board the train bound for Milan, the sign says that service across the Swiss border may be disrupted and this train may only go as far as Domodossola. I cross my fingers and pray this is not true, because Domodossola is nowhere near Milan, let alone Venice. And we have booked accommodations Saturday night in Venice.

We happily sail through Switzerland heading south, and surprisingly don’t hear one more word about a train strike or a stop in Domodossola. We arrive in Milan 20 minutes late, but with enough time to easily make our next train. And before you know it, we have arrived in Venice, met our host at the train station and are settled into our apartment for the next 4 nights. Phew!

Come to find out, Greece isn’t much different than Italy.

When we arrived in Athens, we knew how to catch the train to our hotel. But wait — there’s a strike in Greece today. All trains, subways and taxis are on strike.

Only the bus is operating — and it will not go all the way into the city center, Syntagma Square, which is where we need to go to make the next subway connection to our hotel.

Since all arriving passengers are in the same predicament, we cram onto the public bus with our luggage — standing room only — and take the 30 minute ride into the heart of Athens.

Well, almost the heart of Athens. The bus driver refuses to drive his bus to the center of Syntagma Square because it is too dangerous. He offloads all of us just east of the center. Now where do we go?

All us travelers are in the same predicament. The poor bus driver acts as a defacto tour guide operator and gives directions as best he can with his limited English. I wait patiently for my turn, point on my map, and he points down the road and down a path. Ok, that will do.

Lucky for us, the bus stayed there for a while with all the commotion because when we picked up our bags off the sidewalk to leave, and counted the number of bags we had, we were short one. One very important daypack that held the computer and ipad. I run to the bus, bang on the door, and point wildly to the one backpack I’m holding and then point back into the bus. The bus driver understands, finds the backpack and opens the door to hand it to us.

This is the second “save” of the trip. The first save happened on the very first stop of our trip: Frankfurt. After the all night flight from Seattle, we arrived, very groggy, and had to figure out how to take the subway to our hotel. We put down our bags to make plans. We picked them up again and walked down the corridor and down the escalator, before I realized I had forgotten my small bag upstairs which had my wallet, passports, credit cards, iphone, camera — just a few important things — in it.

I almost threw up. I raced back down the corridor and in the distance I could see my bag sitting there all by itself. No one around. Like a little waif searching for its mother. “Are you my mother?” Yes I am.

But I digress…Now that the kindly Greek bus driver has retrieved my precious technology backpack, we head to the subway. The strike doesn’t allow subways to operate outside of the city, but it’s fine for them to operate inside the city. Don’t ask me why.

But it’s not this easy. It never is. Now we have to change from the subway at Monastiraki Station to the aboveground train to Omonia Station. Sounds harder than it is, but the killer is how HOT we are. It’s 80 degrees outside, and inside the subway station it feels like it’s 100. We are dying. My pack starts to feel very heavy.

We connect from the subway to the train, which is also able to operate only inside the city during the strike — and pop out at Omonia Square, a stone’s throw from the Acropolis.

Now….how will we get to our hotel? The printed receipt for our hotel shows no map. We have an address, but of course we have no map of Athens to show us where the address is. Quite frankly, it’s a miracle we’ve made it this far on this trip. Who travels like this anyhow?

The nearby kiosk vendor sees us standing there with blank looks on our faces and comes to our rescue. I point to the address and phone number on my piece of paper. He calls the hotel but gets no answer. He grabs a beautiful, large, multi-faceted Athens map from his kiosk, spreads the whole thing out on a ledge, and dutifully studies it before Opa! there’s our hotel.

He calls the hotel again — someone answers. They confirm his find on the map. He gives me detailed directions using the 5 English words he knows: Here, 2, Left, Then, There. He also counts to 13 in Greek.

We trudge up the road, get lost in 2 short blocks, and have another Greek man come to our rescue, “I am a driver, I can help. I must put my glasses to see the map. I am now a 52.”

Ah yes, it’s 13 blocks UP to our hotel. That’s why the kiosk man counted to 13 in Greek. I don’t complain (outwardly), I just continuing walking and walking and sweating and sweating. The most awesome part is that there are 44 large, steep, cement stairs at the end of the road, and our hotel is at the very top.

I love Athens.

Why you should never take a night train from Budapest to Zurich – or anywhere else

Night trains seem like a good idea when you are well rested.

You say to the train ticket seller, “I’d like to buy four seats on the night train from Budapest to Zurich.”

He asks, “Would you like a cabin with 4 beds?”

You hesitate, ponder this idea, and politely decline the offer. Even though it is a 12-hour journey.

Oh how I wish that ticket seller had grabbed me by the collar, pulled my head against the plate-glass window separating us, and knocked some sense into me.

Remind me never to take a night train ever again. You can easily recover from a night train experience when you are 23, but when you’re 48 and traveling with your family, no one recovers.

Our train compartment held 6 tight-fitting seats, 3 seats facing 3 seats with not nearly enough leg room in between for anyone over two feet tall. The four of us shared the compartment with a really old man from Hungary who kept his big suitcase on the floor (unbelievable!), and a big-in-a-football-linebacker-kind-of-way Hungarian guy. Thank God the elderly many got off an hour into the ride. That left 5 of us to jockey for space in our compartment.

Now, years ago night trains seemed to have ample room and the seats always slid down to make a bed. In my mind, I thought this would be so on our journey to Switzerland. But oh no, our seats didn’t budge one inch.

I have a very distinct memory of train seats sliding down to make a bed. I was on a night train through Italy while traveling with Kim – and two Italian boys had seats in the compartment too. When it got late, we all put down our seats which made 4 beds. One for each of us, presumably.

I woke up in the middle of the night to find one of the Italian boys trying to hold Kim’s hand while she was sleeping. As a good friend, I really should have done something. But of course I didn’t. I just rolled over and laughed myself back to sleep.

Truly, I would rather have had an Italian boy trying to hold my hand while sleeping than be in my Budapest-Zurich compartment with the 5 of us.

Curtis, always willing to roam, found lots of room in the compartment next door, so spent most the night in there. Until the super angry Swiss police boarded the train at the Swiss border and had issues with a young guy in Curtis’ compartment. Curtis quietly slipped out of that compartment after flashing his USA passport, and none too soon. The next thing we knew, the Swiss police dragged the guy out of the compartment, and threw him and his bag off the train. Yikes!

I barely remember any of this because I had drugged myself and the kids with super-sleepy Dramamine. I was desperate for sleep. I would have taken the whole bottle if I could’ve stayed awake long enough to take more.

We arrived in Zurich at 7:20 am, groggy, grumpy and bleary-eyed. We bought a Swiss Rail pass for 4 days, and boarded our next train on the way to Interlaken. It would take a transfer in Bern, a transfer in Spiez, and a transfer in Interlaken before we would land in Lauterbrunnen at 11:20 am.

Man, we were exhausted.

So, I’m just sayin’. DO NOT TAKE A NIGHT TRAIN. EVER. Unless you’re under 25 and you have a cute boy in your compartment trying to hold your hand.

A Swiss Homecoming: A return to my “roots” after 25 years

There is only one way to have a Swiss Homecoming – eat fondue. Twice.

But let me start way back at the beginning.  When I was in my early 20’s, I graduated college, worked for a year, and saved up all my pennies. Then I purchased my 12-month, open-ended airplane ticket, strapped on my backpack, and traveled the next year with friends.

The journey began in June 1987, and my first traveling partner was Kim. Europe treated us well for the next 2 months, we did our Eurail Pass proud, and traipsed through as many countries as possible. Kim left me in Europe to start Law School and I continued up to Sweden to visit friends.

After Sweden, I ventured down to Switzerland to meet up with Kristina, another friend from Seattle. Kristina was working at a Christian chalet in Iseltwald, on the shores of Brienzersee in Switzerland. When I visited Kristina there in the fall, my funds were close to depletion and I knew I couldn’t last much longer before I needed to head back home.

Priscilla, the chalet owner, suggested that I take the cog train up to nearby Wengen, a car-less village in the Swiss Alps, and look for work for the winter. My German was painstakingly poor, my confidence level was low, but my determination to stay in Europe was high. So up I went.

I queried hotel owners and restaurant owners for three hours about working over the winter, and was greeted with every Swiss German, High German, and French version of “no.”

Deflated, I noticed a chapel on the edge of the cliff and walked towards it. No, not to throw myself off of it. A bench stood at the far edge, and I sat down and prayed a simple prayer. “Lord, I want to be here for the winter more than anything. I don’t know where else to look for work here, so if you want me to be here for the winter, please show me where to go. And if you can make it quick that would be great, since the last train down the mountain is in 30 minutes.”

I stood up, walked down the same village street and noticed a new street that I hadn’t seen previously. Looking at my watch, I figured I could head down the hill and still make it back up for the train. I stumbled upon Hotel Edelweiss, and ventured inside. No one was there that afternoon. But as I looked around, I saw a bible (in German) and thought, well, maybe God DID lead me here. I wrote a note in English with my phone number at the chalet, explaining I wanted to work in Wengen for the winter.

Running back up the hill and hopping on the last train, I sat down with little hope. It looked like I would be using my 12 month return trip ticket way before the 12 months was up.

Back at Iseltwald that night, the phone rang. It was for me. It was Hotel Eledweiss! I couldn’t believe it. They needed another person to work at the hotel for the winter, and could I come back to Wengen tomorrow and meet with them? YES!

The next day I trundled back up to Wengen, met the Baertschis and the rest is history. I spent the next 5 months cooking, cleaning, and skiing nearly every day in the Swiss Alps. It was the kind of magical experience that even now I have to pinch myself about. It was a dream come true.  Even better because Kristina found a job at a restaurant in Wengen for the season too – so I had an English-speaking buddy to boot!

Fast forward 25 years, and I’m on a pilgrimage back to Switzerland, this time with my family in tow.

After our recent stay in Budapest, our family headed to Switzerland, via night train from Zurich. Then we traveled from Zurich to Lauterbrunnen, finally arriving at 11:20 am. We hustled to our place quickly. We had to check-in by noon or wait until 3:00 pm and we were way too tired to be waiting around anywhere for 3 hours. Luckily, we made it in the nick of time.

Day 1: Lauterbrunnen. In the valley, boasting 72 waterfalls from sheer cliffs that line the valley, the beauty is overwhelming. Our special accommodations for the night: Valley Hostel. I have to admit, I was not looking forward to staying at a hostel after that train ride. But this is where lack of planning on your trip absolutely pays off. The hostel wowed us. We booked into an 8-person bunk bed room and the kids reveled in the “loft” bunk beds – way up high, like their own secret enclosure with a small window boasting a priceless view of the valley. It was their own personal tree fort without the tree – and they LOVED it!

Too exhausted to eat out, we grabbed supplies at the tiny grocery store and what could be more perfect than cheese fondue? We cooked it up at the hostel, along with a pizza for Zack, mixed a big green salad, and sliced bread, cauliflower and green apples for the fondue. Heaven!! The dining room full of windows faced the Alps and blessed us with a great view.

Day 2: We hopped the train to Wengen, still as stunning as ever. There is nothing like climbing from the valley floor to the middle of the Swiss Alps, and leaving most of civilization behind. Just quaint mountain villages and true Swiss chalets dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. I felt like I was home.

Hotel Edelweiss was home for me for 5 months long ago, and now it would be home for one more night. The Baertschis sold the hotel 3 years ago, but still live nearby. Daniel, who now runs the hotel, greeted us like family and reserved two rooms on the top floor, right next to the room I had lived in.

Our balcony faced the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau glaciers – the same view that left me speechless 25 years ago now made me cry. I was so happy to be back, I couldn’t believe I was really here again. I was so thankful God made a way for me to return, especially to share this with my kids and show them this part of my life.

Lucky for us, the weather gave us a nice, big break. It was raining when we arrived in Wengen, but the next day opened to glorious sunshine and an Alpine view for miles and miles. We boarded the cog train from Wengen (4,000 ft) to Kleine Scheidegg (6,000 ft), my old skiing stomping grounds. Kleine Scheidegg sits in the shadow of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau glaciers – a kind of “in your face” experience with them. The sheer size of them will knock you on your knees. A sense of majesty – about nature, about the power of God – takes over. You stand there awed by it all.

We were also awed by our picnic lunch “surprise.” I packed big salami and cheese sandwiches, yogurt, apples, carrots and chocolate bars. We sat down at a bench in the face of the glaciers and unpacked it, hungry and ready to eat.

But wait, where are the sandwiches? OMG. I forgot to pack them! Somehow I had left the sandwiches back at the hotel…..oops! Oh well, we loaded up on chocolate instead.

We spent the afternoon hiking around on those fabulous Swiss hiking trails, sunshine at our heels and vistas for days. An old, mountain man served us hot chocolate and coca-cola from his shack. We bought a postcard.

Just before the train was to leave, I decided I just had to go on one more quick hike, since it seemed to go right into the glacier. I promised, only 5 minutes up, and 5 minutes back. Up I went, huffing and puffing because at that altitude, it’s not like you run up these hills, unless you’re Zack. I wanted to get to the turnaround in 5 minutes. Zack and I snapped pictures hastily and turned to head back down.

We were late, it was time to run to the train station! Down we went, running as fast as possible, all the way to the train poised to depart. I could hear Curtis yelling to us. We hopped on the train, sat down exhausted and sweaty, and the train took off. Phew!

Back at the hotel we sat out on the balcony watching the sunset over the Alps. Picturesque!

That evening we wandered through town and visited the little church I sat at 25 years ago to pray for God’s help in finding a job. It was special to have this moment with my family, and share the story with them again, as a reminder that God hears, he answers, he loves us and gives us the desires of our heart.

Was it coincidental that I sat there at the church on this day, October 11, the same day as my last official day of work at World Vision? It was a sobering reminder that I can trust God in the leaving of my job. In the same way that he provided in a big way for me 25 years ago, he will provide for me again. And he just may give me a desire of my heart that today I know nothing about.

Of course we needed to have more fondue that night – so we did. At Bernerhof Hotel, sitting at a table in the greenhouse, seated by a matre d’ who was also our waiter and our chef. In low-season, there’s not many tourists and most places are closed down for an extended holiday for the owners. It makes for a nice, quiet stay with lots of opportunities to connect with the locals. When we left a nice tip for the matre’ d/waiter/chef, it made his night.

Back to the hotel to snuggle down under the big, feather down duvets that are the signature for all Swiss hotel stays. So comfy good, you never want to get out of bed in the morning.

But we finally did. The pouring rain had returned, but we didn’t care, we had our glorious day the day before. It had been an extra blessing from God – a brilliant day of unbelievable sunshine sandwiched perfectly between 2 days of rain.

Day 3: On to Wilderswil (next to Interlaken) to meet the Baertschis. Werner picked us up at the train station. I was worried he wouldn’t recognize me after all these years, but I shouldn’t have. He gave me a nice, big hug (well, it was a big hug for a Swiss person, they are usually very reserved). I thought my heart my burst, it was just so good to see him.

We loaded our backpacks into the car and Werner shuttled us home, where his wife Vreni was waiting for us. Truly, they are the nicest people ever. They treated me so well when I worked for them, and here they are treating us amazingly well again after all these years.

They put on a full spread for dinner with the Swiss favorite, raclette. Raclette includes using a cheese melting cooking device. Each person gets a small tray in which you place fat slices of raclette cheese, then put it in the raclette thingy. The cheese melts and gets crusty, then you scoop it out and pour it over small, boiled potatoes. Total deliciousness! Even better when you throw a piece of bacon into your cheese tray, cook it for a while and then add your cheese on top. Zack ate so much I thought he would explode!

So while were were initially drowning in fondue, the raclette really pushed us over the edge.

Over dinner Vreni explained that Werner was diagnosed with leukemia 18 months ago, and spent 4-1/2 months in the hospital beating back the disease. Thankfully, he is now in full remission and doing well. They are now 65 years old and retired, living in a 3-bedroom “flat” in Unterseen which is next to Interlaken. Their “kids,” the ones who were teenagers when I was last here, are now 39 and 40 years old! And Werner and Vreni are still faithful Christians, fully engaged in their new church of 3 years. They lived in Wengen for 30 years, so the transition of actually leaving was hard, but Vreni said once they left, she hasn’t missed it at all.

On that last Saturday morning in Switzerland, we enjoyed breakfast with Vreni and Werner, then headed off to the train station for our journey to Venice. Thank God, it’s not a night train.

As Werner drove us to the train station, we could see the Jungfrau shining down on us. Werner said, “Bye Bye Jungfrau,” speaking English with his typical Swiss German accent, and Zack has not stopped imitating it since. It brings a little bit of Switzerland with us wherever we go.