Sunday, June 26, 2011


Well, it’s our last night in London. Our last night of the entire vacation, actually, and although we’ve had a great time, I think we’re both ready to be home. Only 12 hours of flight left!

So we got into London (from Nice, France) late (so late) on Friday night (Saturday morning, actually). Now, up to this point everyone we met on our vacation was great. The people in France were extremely nice (and understanding of the fact that we spoke zero French), and likewise for those in Germany and Switzerland. Enter the first (and, actually, I think only) rude person we came across: The UK Customs Officer.

So in our (albeit) limited experience, entering and exiting countries was easy. We show our passports, say “oh, we’re just visiting and enjoying the sights”, and we get to come on in, thank you very much. That’s not, however, how the UK apparently operates. After explaining to the guy that the reasons we had no physical return ticket or hostel reservations were because neither of those companies required us to have them to check in/out (just a passport/ID to confirm), and that none of the other countries we visited had required us to have these documents, so we didn’t think/know that it would be a problem, we were given a reply SIMILAR (but not exactly, because it is Monday night and this was on Friday, remember?) to this:

“Well this is the UK, yeah? And to enter the UK, yeah?, you are required to satisfy a customs official, yeah?, that the reasons you give for entering the country match the actual reasons you are entering the country, yeah? And what you are telling me, yeah?, is that you’re tourists, YEAH?, but you don’t have any proof of hostel reservations or a return airplane ticket, YEAH?, so basically you are failing to meet the requirements for entry, YEAH?

He did let us in in the end, though, but not before putting a flag on our names in the system, so that during any future attempts by us to enter the UK our customs official will be sure to check for a return ticket, and we may be stopped if we do not have one. Apparently we tourists are are a dangerous sort of people. (Still, the fact that he let us in anyway, and told us that we only “may” be stopped in the future tells me that he was just being a bit of a grumpy jerk.)

Anyway, we found our way (in the rain) from the airport to our hostel. The taxis here, by the way, are great. As are the rail (tube) systems.

Our hostel! Mind the gap

So over the next few days, we saw the London sights. Big Ben, Parliament, The Tower Bridge, The Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, and any other capitalized attractions that might be lingering around. We ate fish & chips, we bought tacky London souvenirs, we drank pre-canned gin and tonic (mainly me), and we spent a lot of time looking up at things older than our own country.

Us. And some clock, I don't know. At that Palace whatsit. BUT HOW DO THEY GET IT IN

Off wit it! So cool.  Not the worst G&T I've ever had.

On Monday (today) we met up with a friend (Lauren V!) for dinner (more fish & chips, mmmm) before going to the Globe Theatre (Theater) to see Much Ado About Nothing (another parenthesis!). We opted for the cheap groundling tickets, because we were after the experience of standing for hours until our feet, legs, and backs scream on the outside, and our brains scream on the inside. The play was great! The actors were brilliant and they really played with the audience, which I think was one of the merits of having three floors of people sitting so close to the stage. It was really cool, and I’m very glad we bought the tickets, but next time maybe we’ll opt for actual seats.

So good the picture deserves extra girth. The Globe!

So we leave tomorrow, to go back home. London was definitely one of my favorite places to visit on this whole vacation. It’s a big city, but it really doesn’t feel that way – apart from the times when you’re fighting through the throngs of people trying to get a glimpse of Buckingham Palace – and it’s managed to stay pretty (unlike Berlin).


If I had to pick a few favorite things that we did in London, they’d be walking across the Tower Bridge, seeing the play at the Globe, walking across the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge (I love bridges, apparently), and just wandering around. Honestly, the best thing you can do in a place like this is to just pick a street and walk down it. You don’t really need to worry about being lost, because eventually you’ll either hit the river, or a tube station.

So yeah. Great place. And even though I feel like this post was a little cut short, phoned in, clipped, just because, or whatever favorite phrase you have for “quickly written garbage”, it was still a necessary addition. See you soon!

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Well, here it is. The original limestone chunk the rest of our shambling vacation house was built around. (Shut up.)

So after around six and a half to seven hours of driving on the Swiss Autobahn (so nice) and Italian-and-French mountain roads (not so nice, and a little terrifying), we arrived in Jausiers, France. Mary was carsick, and my butt hurt. We had only stopped twice – once for food, and again for gas – mainly to try to find an ATM, because we had only used about a quarter of the tank. This car apparently has an enormous gas tank. I’m dreading the fill-up.

Tunnels are the best! Autobahn. Best highway. Mountains, Gandalf!

Anyway, we checked in to our flat (at 6:30 – half an hour past their normal closing time, and half an hour before the front office would be closing for the day), and had a look around. The area is beautiful as we are surrounded on all sides by mountains and all manner of churches and towers built upon them – one of which is quite close.

This picture has twice the normal amount of churchtower. Picaresque. Cheeeese.

Our first full day – Sunday – was spent mainly driving around and taking pictures. It seemed that every time we drove around another corner, we saw another mountain (or another angle of the same mountain) that we just had to take pictures of. Jausiers and the neighboring towns of Faucon and Barcelonette are all very quaint (as I’m sure are any other neighboring towns in this area), and we tried to find every possible setting for pictures. We even climbed up to that very close church tower in Jausiers, which was actually not that hard, and seriously worth the view.

Quaint. Quaiiiiiint. QUAAAIIIINT!

Cemetary with the best view. See? It was stop number 4! I am king of the world, but I am slightly uncomfortable with that.

Look! It's that river we keep seeing! Look! A big shadow! Every town has the coolest church ever.

We tried a few times to drive into Barcelonette (the largest town in the area, quaint as it is) and do some shopping, but it seemed like most of the stores were closed. I think we decided that it’s a bit of an off-season for the area – maybe most of their business during the year comes during ski season. Even our hotel (resort?) seems empty – I think we’re the only ones in our particular building (each building has 8 flats). Mostly we walked around, admired the landscape and ancient buildings, and tried not to hit any of the cyclists (or motorcyclists) we ran into on the winding mountain roads.

Monday was our two-year anniversary (weird, I know), so I put on a tie and we went in to town (Barcelonette), determined to have a nice dinner.

All dressed up.

We had planned on this place we walked by called “the Patio” that looked nice – mostly outside, nice canopy above, all in this rock-wall terrace area. It looked extremely anneversaryish, but unfortunately it was closed. At five o’clock. Maybe it, too, is seasonal. So we wandered around, and finally settled on one of the four or five restaurants in the town’s main square. Here we found the main challenge of being in a foreign country and not speaking one bit of the local language – ordering food. We had no idea what anything was. We could make educated guesses, but once we were past the subcategories of the menu, we were stumped. Sure, we could have asked the server for help, but we ended up just picking random things and hoping for the best. Mary ordered “Lasagne”, and I have the sneaking suspicion that her pick was not as random as she let on, as it turned out to be lasagna. I ordered something called a “croque monsieur”. Our waiter asked how I wanted my meat cooked (medium). Hmm. So I get meat. This is looking up? What arrived was a circular “steak” (tasted and felt more like a dense hamburger patty, which was okay) topped with a fried egg. I also got french fries!

The food was pretty good, for what we figured out was mainly a bar-type establishment. It’s hard to tell when every (every) restaurant in this town had “SNACK” somewhere in big letters. The less-pretty-good part was the subsequent invasion of flies. Seriously. As soon as we started to eat, our table was mobbed. They were everywhere! I felt like I had to eat faster than I was comfortable with, all while waving my hand around in the air like a moron. Looking around, I don’t remember noticing anyone else exhibiting this type of behavior, yet people were eating. Maybe they were okay with flies walking all over their food? Or maybe circular hamburger patty-type meats with eggs on top are a particular fly delicacy. Either way, we finished our food and beat it, passing by this enormous fluffy brown and black dog that Mary wanted a picture with but we were too slow on the camera and too shy to ask for. Happy anniversary! (It was actually really fun, and we mostly laughed about it, both during and afterwards.)

On Tuesday we drove up to a lake about an hour away – mainly to see the lake, and partly to run across one of the many rafting companies we knew were in the area. We did them both! On our way to the lake, we stopped in at Anaconda Rafting, one of the companies with which we could receive a discount as a result of our resort reservation. The (extremely nice and English-speaking) lady who was working there recommended that we try something called “hydrospeed”, which we eventually signed up for and which I will describe to you in a little bit. Stop rushing me.

Continuing on to the lake, we soon found ourselves in a tiny town – the name of which I can’t remember (it was something French) – with a spectacular view of the lake (again, the name of which I can’t remember, and can’t be bothered to look up right now). The problem here was that, while the view was excellent, we wanted to be IN the lake, not hundreds of meters above it. We did enjoy a nice view of this island chapel thing, though:

Down there. That's where we wanted to be. Look! OMG LOOK AT IT!

So we decided to continue driving around until we found a beach – if there was one. Eventually, drawn in by some colorful kayaks and their potential promise of fun, we found a spot where we could get in the water. I would call it a beach, but I would be lying. It was like a beach, only instead of sand near the water, there was pavement, and instead of sand further away from the water, there was grass and trees and picnic tables. It was a little weird, but there were people sunbathing and a few people in the water, so we decided to give it a shot. It worked out pretty well – we stayed for about an hour, during which I got a sunburn on my stomach, Mary got one on her back, and we learned that the rumors of topless sunbathers in Europe are all (mostly) true! (Mostly in the sense that in movies they all happen to be in their late teens/early twenties, and in real life they all mostly happen to be in their late forties/early fifties.) There was even one completely nude swimmer, but she was a toddler and I don’t think that counts.

You may be wondering why I don’t have more pictures from this lakeside/topless/concrete beach/mountain road adventure, and you are not wondering for no reason. The night before I was dumping pictures from the camera memory card onto the computer, and I forgot the crucial ending step of putting the memory card back in the camera when I was done. As a result we had to rely on the internal memory of the camera, which amounted to five pictures, most of which we reserved for pictures of these awesome rock columns we just happened to find as we drove by. They were pretty spectacular, and worth the ten minute hike to see. And if you are also wondering if I was kicking myself the entire day for forgetting to put the memory card back in the camera, the answer is yes. Yes I was.

This pillar was hollow. Is hollow. ISN'T NATURE AMAZING HOLY COWCOW

Hydrospeed. The thing we decided to do on the river (the name of which I DO remember. It’s the Ubaye river). Since we were on a river, I didn’t take my camera, and there are no pictures. So let me explain to you the particulars of hydrospeeding and how it differs from rafting. I’m not sure why I feel the necessity of explaining the differences between the two things, but it seems like a good idea.

So with rafting, you have a bunch of guys with life vests, helmets, and paddles together in an inflatable rubber raft, going down the rapids trying to avoid the larger rocks while paddling and hopefully staying in the boat. This is the group goal. Probably everyone’s individual goal is to stay in the boat and not look like they are paddling wrong.

Now let’s talk about hydrospeed. With hydrospeed, you have a bunch of guys (maybe – on Wednesday it was just Mary, me, and William, our “guide” – or, “the guy who tries to keep us from killing ourselves on the river”) who put on wetsuits with special reinforced padded areas on the knees and shins, followed by life vests, flippers, and helmets. Then, each person is handed what is essentially a large, foam kickboard and each person is told that this is their “best friend” in the river.

That’s it. That’s all you get. Then you follow this guy (William, in our case) into the river, where he has told you that you will be going through rapids of class 2, 3, and 4 (6 being the highest and described as “only waterfalls”). You are also told that this is better than rafting because “with rafting you can fall in the river – with hydrospeed, you are already in the river!”

This was actually really, really fun. The entire run (about 10 or 12 kilometers) lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes, and I was genuinely surprised and disappointed when we were told that we were done. It might sound a little daunting, but the hydrospeed (the kickboard) and life vest keep you up in the water, and controlling your direction with the flippers was actually not that hard. The hardest part for me was getting out of the main flow of the river and off to the side the few times we stopped along the way. I’m really glad we were able to do it (even though we forgot the paper with our discount and had to pay the full price – which was only about 8 euro more, but still), and would love to do it again if anyone is going on a river trip and wants to invite me, or whatever. Here are some pictures of other idiotic people (not us – no camera, remember!) enjoying the pleasures of hydrospeed:

 Hydrospeed1 a2-hydrospeed-julijske-alpe-3_clientHome

So now it is the last day. I am writing this in our flat, and sometime today we will probably head down to the internet cafĂ© to check our email and upload our pictures (and this blog!). We might try again to do some shopping, but it’s raining a bit so who knows. Tomorrow morning, we will check out and head to Nice. Our flight to London doesn’t leave until 9:30 pm, so we will get to spend some time poking around the city. Maybe we’ll go to the beach – it’s supposed to be one of the nicest.

Monday, June 20, 2011


So now we’re in Switzerland! Or were – I’m a couple of days behind. But let’s just use our powers of imagination, shall we?

Anyway, we touched down in the Basel airport on Wednesday (the 15th), found our way through the terminal, to find Debbie (a friend of mine from high school – FES situation) waiting for us. After catching a bus back to the city, we soon crossed over the border between Switzerland and France. What? Oh! Apparently the Basel airport is actually in France. Weird.


After the bus ride to her apartment (she lives very close to the downtown city center of Basel) which she graciously offered to basically let us have for a few days (she stayed with a friend), we dumped our luggage and then headed out for some Cordon Bleu (delicious). We walked around a bit more, had a beer or two, then dragged our feet all the way back to her apartment, where we collapsed into a 2-or-3 hour nap.

City Gate... or something Debbie pointing out where the cute little ferry is going to take us. Cordon Bleu! Cheese volcano!

We woke up to her telling us that the weather was beautiful, and that we were going swimming. In the Rhine. So cool! It was actually very nice, but I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to drop the camera in the river. We took a bus upstream a bit, hopped in the river, and floated downstream for a while. It was really nice. They have these waterproof bags they use for clothes during just these occasions. Very smart. After the swim, we decided to walk around the city a bit more. Basel is in a geographically interesting location, being very close to both France and Germany (later in our stay we saw where the three countries come together – as you will see). This makes for (I think) an interesting mix of culture and language – the Basel dialect of German is apparently very different than what they speak in Germany, and often the two have some difficulty communicating.

We went swimming here! Toast boy Drink it!

On Thursday we took a train out to visit Bern (the capital) and Lucerne (another major city). Bern had some very interesting architecture that is apparently not common for Switzerland (covered sidewalks, basement stores, that sort of thing), which would have come in handy later, in Lucerne, when it started raining on us. More on that later.

I can't remember what this is. Basement bar! Covered sidewalks!

Also in Bern, we saw the city bears! There is sort of a free zoo with a few bears in it in the middle of the city. That was really cool. We also saw the Swiss capitol building, which had some great views off the back of it (apparently the Swiss don’t really consider Bern the capital, but it just happens to be where their government members meet and whatnot). There was also a clock tower with moving parts that was slightly underwhelming, but still cool.

Spot the bears. Where the bears used to be. MUH

The capitol building Around the back of the capitol. Same place - Debbie this time.

Best yard! Under. Whelming. MUH

In Lucerne, we saw the famous pedestrian bridge (part of which had recently burned down, and had to be rebuilt), along with a giant stone lion and a stones-left-behind-by-a-glacier park that was too expensive to go look at.

Famous! rawr. Too expensive.

It started to look like rain, so we skipped a boat ride (that we spur-of-the-moment planned) and started to head back to the train station. We juuust made it before it really got going. Back to Basel!

Gathering for the storm. We almost didn't make it. GTFO

For our last full day in Switzerland, we decided to walk around Basel some more, seeing some beautiful churches and fountains and things.

Basel town hall BLAUGH The Basilisk - state symbol of Basel.

Cathedral under construction. Inside of it. More inside.

Debbie had received some free tickets to Basel’s big Art festival/gallery (which happened to be going on the week we were there), so we headed over to check that out. There was so much art! I could feel the pretention and snootiness growing inside me as I appreciated more and more bricks and rocks and paint and naked people. Tip for artists – slap some exposed genitalia on something, and you’ve made instant art. Apparently.

The Art. It is Basel. Look at the little furniture. LOOKS LIKE A WHALE.

After the art, Debbie mentioned there was a marker where Grance, Swermany, and Fritzerland all join up together. Something like four corners, but with only three, but with countries!? I’m in! I told her we had to see it. Little did I know that involved a fairly long bus ride and an even longer trek out in the port/harbor section of Basel. It was cool when we got there. Not cool to head back. We decided to go a different way, and ended up in some kind of shipping yard. I thought we were going to get smushed.

Under. Whelming. SMUSH 

But we made it back to civilization, and ate at an Italian restaurant. Well, it was a pizzeria, but in Switzerland, so while it had pizza and pasta and things, it also had bratwurst and schnitzel and other Swiss favorites. I had a classic Swiss dish – bratwurst and has browns with an onion sauce. That is obviously not the German name for it, but I have forgotten it (big surprise). After dinner, we went out for drinks, meeting up with some friends of Debbie’s. It was a really fun time. We played Uno and had beers, and met some very friendly people whose names I don’t remember. I am not a clever man.

Biers! Mary and Debbie Debbie and... whatshername

On Saturday morning, we got up, got ready, and were driven back to the airport by the friend Debbie stayed with (again, names. I’m the worst). We found the rental car place (which was on the French side of the airport), found our rental car (a very nice Citroen automatic with built-in GPS, thank god), and then found ourselves driving around in France. With Debbie and her friend still in the car. With our luggage still in the other car. Oops. Apparently it’s quite difficult to get from the French (Mulhouse) side of the airport to the Swiss (Basel) side. So after about twenty minutes of Mary driving around in France, we made it back, got our luggage, said goodbye, and headed off into the great wide (narrow and mountain-y) open. More on driving and France in the next post. Stay eager!