Grüß Gott!



The German way of saying hello is “Guten Tag” (good day, literally).  But in Bavaria, it’s Grüß Gott.  The German ß is pronounced like an “ss” and I discovered it as an alt-S on my keyboard.  Grüß Gott (“Gruss Gott”) means “may God greet you.”  In the mornings, it is said quietly as you pass people on the sidewalk.



I was curious about the mysterious chalk message scratched on many doors here and found it in our Rick Steves’ travel guide.  This house blessing is done on Epiphany (celebrated Jan 6th). Epiphany is the Christian holiday celebrating the Magi’s adoration of the baby Jesus.  Epiphany is observed more strictly in Catholic Europe than in the US.  The message is “20 + C + M + B + 14”.  The letters are the initials of the three wise men Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar— and also stand for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Christ bless the house”).  The small crosses between the letters remind all who enter that this house has been blessed in this year (20 + 14).  On many Oberaudorf doors, the previous year is smudged out and the new one written over it.  The European Epiphany holiday includes gift-giving, feasting, and caroling door-to-door—often for a charity organization.  Those who donate get their door marked up in thanks.  Seven months later, nearly every door in this small town proudly sports this inscription.

I understand Europe has many holidays, many of them religious.  We’ve witnessed a few of these store and bank holidays already.  I’ve read the churches in Europe are often dying, but you wouldn’t guess it by the frequent state religious holidays.




We have loved our place in Oberaudorf.  The pictures just above are from the view off our balcony. The picture below is the front office.


We slumber beneath individual duvet comforters only and on top of a fitted sheet.  The windows are covered by a rolling, plastic shutter people lower at night.  The shutter is hoisted and dropped into place by a thoughtful canvas strap inside the window casing (you have to look closely in the shot below). The “garage door” shutter keeps light and noise out.  In the mornings, people  let in the morning sun by rumbling their shutters up.


The oversized, screen-less windows sport ingenious handles.  The window is locked closed while in the six o’clock position and in the “swing open” position at three o’clock.  The twelve o-clock position allows the top of the window to be tilted into the window providing ventilation and the security of a locked window.  Our patio door works the same way.


Active lifestyles are king here.  Kayaks on cars and people on bikes enjoy the winding roads. The hometown hero is Bastian Schweinsteiger who plays for the German national football (soccer) team.   He is a professional player and helped Germany capture the World Cup last month.  His footprints are on display outside the town’s tourist information.  His dad’s sports store—Sport Schweinsteiger—is next to the ice cream store and the bakery in the heart of town.   He doesn’t carry the tennis balls we were looking for but we did buy a soccer ball from his store.  We struggle in our German to tell him we enjoyed watching Bastian in the World Cup and the dad brings out autographed shots of his famous son.  We spot a couple wearing Schweinsteiger Bayern Munchen jerseys snapping a selfie in front of the store.


Our walls hold a Bavarian calendar that has a monthly scene of life through the year.  August’s page displays this great shot of rafters enjoying beer and greeting naked people frolicking on the river’s beach.  Too bad, I didn’t see any sign-ups for such trips!


The family “ski lodge” hotel includes the swimming pool room, 80s style fitness room, ping pong room, and a sauna.  I enter the sauna area one evening to use the men’s restroom.  The sauna itself has a glass door and glass wall.  I lock eyes through the glass door with a naked man and woman sitting in the sauna.  Without meaning to, I immediately turn to read any signage on door assuming I’ve entered a private area. No such sign is posted.  It’s just good ‘ol, naked Europe!

We love the lodge and its playground but the trail down by the town’s small river is somehow ours.  We walk and run alongside the trout facing into the current.  Sometimes there are rainbows.  But mainly it is a gravel path with the sound of rushing water.  Trees, footbridges, a candle shrine to a beloved daughter, a few houses, chickens and sheep border our trail.  There are worn, granite rocks to build kid bridges and “secret” places to dig.


On the day before we check out, the family who runs the place comes to our door and delivers a picture book of the area and a delicate coffee mug.  Bavaria is a treat.


A few German tidbits

Luke pointed out one day, “You seem to be drinking more beer here, Dad.”

Me—“Well, yes, uh, yes I am.”
We are in Bavaria after all.  I almost feel like it would be unnatural not to enjoy a few of the delicious, tall cool ones around here.  I’m supporting the local economy, right?  I’m sure it’s for the good of the people.  These Bavarian beers tend to be weiss (wheat) beers and “dunkel” (dark) weiss beers.


I’ve been here almost two weeks so I’m confident I can speak about an entire country with some authority.  I am a monolingual American after all.  Forgive me for not getting pictures of more of these things but they are fleeting.  I’m working on it.  Many of these noted differences should be a good opportunity for you to laugh at a guy who does not speak the language (especially former exchange students and anyone who took German in HS and college).

We enjoyed dinner out at a local gasthof (seems to mean informal restaurant) near the train station and sat outside on a cool evening.  The waitress had spent a month in New York and must have been sent to our table because of her excellent English.  She wore a traditional Bavarian dress as a uniform.  She asked what we wanted for drinks and asked me right away if I wanted a beer.  It seemed to be assumed.  I clarified I wanted a small beer as I was driving and I think she asked, “Oh, a half liter?”  The liter mug seems to be the norm around here.  Will cracked us up by saying, “I don’t like beer yet.”  The waitress laughed and said, “You will, you will.”

Our friends, the Mantzes, were kind enough to lend us a book on Culture Shock in Germany.  Of course, I’m not done with it yet.  I am an American after all, and only pretend to care about other cultures…      Not true, not true.   I took the kids down to the creek and we ended up building a little pile of rocks in the creek.  We received some smiles from passing locals on the trail and a couple looks that bordered on the stinkeye.  I read in the book later that the Germans generally prefer it to be quiet between 1-3 in the afternoon.  We may have been violating that time frame and we are not the quietest crew.  It might also have been related to the fact that we all had on red, white and blue body paint and were chanting “USA, USA, USA!” for a few hours.  Sundays, no one mows the lawn and nearly every store is closed.  Even in this vibrant, small town, most stores close on weekdays between about 12 and 2.

On the highways, I’ve seen sedans and hatchbacks pulling tiny, economical trailers that hold a couple of beds.  I have not seen one full-size pickup yet.  They are woefully behind in their King Ranch truck quotient.  Also, no Jeeps for these mountain roads.  Not a surprise when gas costs about $8-$10 a gallon.  I’ve heard the drivers must pass a rigorous educational course and it shows on the tight roads.  You’ll also see motorcycles with sidecars and people actually riding in them.  Everywhere, are the ‘wagons’ (station wagons) whether Audi, BMW, VW, you name it.

I now know where 80’s music goes to live forever—German radio.  While driving, we’ve heard the best musical decade on several stations.  Bring it on, you know the 80’s were the best.  Flock of Seagulls, anyone?  Police, Whitney Houston, Steve Winwood, vintage U2, Journey—it’s a musical time capsule.

Rest stops are something to behold.  Compost bins, decent restaurants, beautiful picnic tables but you do have to pay for the rest rooms, generally.  We saw reserved parking spots for women (or maybe it was mothers) near the park for children.  In some places, we’ve seen seven different recycling bins for various products.

They label their trails with precision.  There were metal trail signs, just like road signs, with time to hike instead of miles.  Faithfully placed trail markers guide hikers through any confusing areas.  You frequently hike through fields that hold farmers’ cows and horses.  Barbed wire was wrapped around several parts of the trail since the land was also used for grazing.  The trail was challenging and a few parts in America would have had legal notices on them warning of imminent destruction or the like.  Of course the unintelligible signs (to us) along the trails might have been legal notices for all we knew.



At the local grocery store, you pay separately for the bakery.  Apparently, so people can get their fresh bread fix without having to wait in the full line?  A few American brands have made the shelves; Palmolive, Kellogg’s, Miracle Whip.  I’ve already described how you’ve got to show up with a Euro or 50 cent Euro coin to unlock a grocery cart.  The wasps fly right into the bread case since it’s near the door.  No effort was made to stop them from setting up shop on some good-looking pastries.  We saw this in two separate places and no one seems to mind.  They must not have received the memo that you need to design a grocery store around two enormous aisles of soda, chips, crackers and snack foods.

There are approximately 87 different types of sausage, wurst and other types of meat at the deli counter.  I don’t speak any German and the explanatory names are lined up at the front edge of the display case.  The meats are distributed throughout the case with very little relationship to the signage.  I do a lot of pointing to get the specific wurst I want.  I don’t want to hold up the line to ask her to write out the name of the item.  The funny thing is that I get exactly what I’m asking for and still don’t know what it is.  Each one we’ve tried has been fantastic.  We are playing a lot of ‘learning German’ apps but I need to find one on German meats identification.  This could be the next big thing for all the confused American travelers—a Meat Facebook.  I think I need to find a venture capitalist to get this thing off the ground.

I’m sure you’ve heard German before but I had missed how long some of their words can be.  The name of our hotel is 12 syllables long.   Overall, it sounds familiar to our ‘English’ ears.

The playgrounds have real teeter-totters and actual zip lines.  We even found some kind of hamster wheel thing the kids love.  Kids over the age of four actually play on the playground equipment.





A few typical European items?—We have a very small fridge in our flat so we are going to the grocer every couple of days.  It looks like we are not alone.  Lots of folks are biking to and from the little store with a small bag, likely for the bakery or the grocer.  Going to the bakery in the early morning for fresh bread and pastries seems to be a male activity.  Men and teenage boys bring back the goodies.  The food is simply fantastic.



Exquisite chocolate and candy, as Will will attest. The Happy Hippo shots go out to all the aircrew that love these things.





When we were first getting in to our apartment, we saw a couple walking their small dog into the door next to ours.  As I was fumbling with the key, I think it was the man’s bright yellow Crocs (shoes) that caught my eye.  I looked up to see he was wearing a dark pink jeans jacket and a matching pair of capri pants.  I almost forgot all about the key.

Lisa just saw a man biking down the road wearing yellow pants.  I’m not sure if they were rain pants or not.  But the other day, at the ice cream shop she did point out a man sitting with his sons while wearing white shorts with grey flowers on them.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

He inspired me.  What a wonderful country!  It made me wish I’d brought my American flag pants and my ‘Merica T-shirt.  Anyone got the number to Amazon Europe?

If you go for a walk in Bavaria


If you go for a walk in Bavaria, you might end up in a soft rain.

If you end up in the soft rain, you might see a full rainbow in the mist of the sky.

If you see a rainbow, it may be just as the rain is beginning to taper off.


If the rain tapers off, your kids might stop to dig a new canal off the town’s main creek.

If your kids dig a canal, a dog named Tinkah might come up and sniff you and help you begin a conversation with two lovely Bavarians named Fred & Ellen.

If you meet Fred & Ellen, they may invite you for coffee at their apartment not far from the creek.

[compliments to Laura Numeroff of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” fame, of course]

And so we were thrilled to speak a little English with a great couple and to walk with Fred back to the apartment as the aging Tinkah rode in the car with Ellen.  They welcomed us in and broke out a lot of smiles and Apfel-Kirsch juice (Apple & Cherry).  The juice comes from a factory a few kilometers away that presses the apples they bring in from their yard.   Fred offered some to our kids and their eyes got wide when he poured a huge water-glass size cup nearly to the brim.  That first glass didn’t stand a chance.  Fred broke out a second big bottle of juice and graciously bent down to pour them more.  The kids polished off that next bottle too.  I think Will had three full glasses and Luke four.  An obvious grandfather, his eyes sparkled and crinkled watching the kids devour the fresh treat and react with joy at the flavors.

Ellen set the table with cups, saucers, sugar and milk.  Then, she came out with a pan full of apple strudel.  I’ll admit my mouth began to water as soon as I saw that beauty. The apples in the strudel had been picked from their tree the day prior.

All eight of us settled in at their table.  The kids practiced their manners and diligently fought their elbows’ desire to hang out on the table.  Ellen brought out a teapot of tea the kids could handle and coffee for a few of us.  Before long, Luke led the way by asking where the “toiletten” was.  For some reason, the other kids had a similar interest…

Fred & Ellen showered us with openness, generosity and strudel.  We finished off that pan of Viennese apfelstrudel.  They told us about wartime family experiences and shared stories of going to East Germany after the wall came down.  They shared maps and recommendations of cheap restaurants to enjoy (they knew about larger families) in the area and lakes to explore.


We left their welcoming apartment and jaunted down the street with an extra spring in our step.  The sun was shining now.  Then we noticed both of them out on their balcony smiling at us and waving.  We waved back and shouted “Auf Wuedersehn” as one.

Our family conversation on the short walk home was full of praise for their hospitality, their warmth and their grandparently ways. The kids explained how they would one day be grandparents.  Camille would learn about and join the kids in whatever activity they enjoyed.  Luke would have a zip line in his backyard for the kids.  They asked me if I was going to be a good grandpa. I sure hoped so.

In my heart, I held more words unspoken.  I am no longer as comfortable with bold pronouncements of far-off tomorrows.  I don’t know if it is the diagnosis of two years ago that adds weight to my thoughts sometimes. Or the hospital walls that held me for a time.  Or simply that years have passed.  I now realize my previous thought-life rested on a foundation of insidious assumptions and easy-going entitlements. I want to guard my heart from meandering back to that place.  I know that I desperately want to be one half of a happily married couple and a grandfather someday.  But I am grateful today to be made newly aware of who holds the answers to my future. I do not want to presume upon His many blessings and his gracious provision while it is called Today.

These days, I endeavor to stay in the “now” more than I did.  It is a constant returning to Today from the thoughts and fears that cloud the future.  I try to count the cost of my decisions, but I feel the sun on my face with a greater intensity these days.  I run from the rain less.  I know that today the Son has risen.  By its light – by His light – I can see today’s steps before me. It is more than enough.  I have seen the smallest iota of the goodness of His promises, I remind myself to trust in Him and to not lean on my own understanding.

I know I need forgiveness for my recklessly wandering thoughts and my greedy heart.   Help me to see the beauty before me today.  The rainbow in the misty sky is a promise. The trees breathe life.  Generous people surround me. The rushing river pours itself out and yet it keeps being renewed.  I can stand on his promises.  He came to give us life, and life abundant.  Surely, the best is yet to come.


First hike above Oberaudorf

When the rain died down, we scamper up into the hills above ‘our’ town.  We meet a 17% grade as we climb out of Oberaudorf.


People with walking sticks frequently lope down our road (Bad Trißl Straße) and up into the steep roads and paths surrounding town.  You press yourself into the foliage or shoulder of the narrow road to let the rare car pass.  A man in a VW bus squeezes by in his Bavarian felt hat.  We climb out of the forest into an expansive view of Bavarian towns crowned with mountains.

Sheep dot the steep grassy slopes.  They get a wild idea we have food for them and the young ones bound toward us. Wildflowers of purplish-rose, white, and light blue welcome us to their altitude.  We crane our necks to see into an old barn as we slow to let our eyes adjust.  A barn cat eyes us with suspicion.

On the rooves, long pipes or wooden beams keep snow and ice from overpowering gutters.  People have obviously lived in this valley in comfort for centuries.
An unseen saw whines in a large metal barn, slicing wood into the ubiquitous 18-inch-long pieces.  Everywhere firewood is precisely cut and meticulously stacked.  The pieces are laid in interlocking columns to bookend the stack then filled in between. A gap is maintained between the stacks and the house to discourage wood-eating insects.  Many wood stacks (‘woodpile’ seems not generous enough) have rooves to keep out the elements.
Cows’ hooves have left deep ‘post holes’ in the soft turf. Electric fences leap across the uneven terrain powered by a ‘car’ battery down the line. The gently sloping fields invite hikers to picnic or just to sit.


People lounge at wooden picnic tables on their back patios and tarry over great glasses of bier.  A couple greets arriving guests and turn their heads toward us as we hike down the road.

You would have everything you need up in these hills.  Cows and sheep provide milk and meat.  Wildflowers and grass are bountiful. The soil is rich and the summer sun life-giving. Culverts and drain pipes dug under roads control the plentiful water.  Bees are kept to provide honey.



Little towns scroll by as little more than names and a few houses.  Zimmerau boasts one sign.  We pause to read a sign just short of Buchau where the map indicates a crossed knife and fork.  This means a Gasthof, Gasthaus or similar sit-down place.

The kids point to the highest peak in front of us, “Can we climb that one?”  We assure them not today but perhaps soon.  Regrettably, it is time to turn around.  We find ‘squished frog’ corner and the kids are thrilled to find something gross.  They are stronger than they realize.  So are we, by the grace of God.

A lady waters her plants by her barn abreast the road.  “Ver gut,” I point out (I think this is German at the time).  Confused, and yet smiling, she corrects me with “Schone”.  It is “beautiful” and she knew what I meant.  The whole family pets her very-pregnant small dog outside her barn.

The kids practice navigating us up into the mountain roads and back again.  They are picking up so much.  One of the main reasons we planned to come to Bavaria was to hike in the Alps in the summer.  The Alps are schone beyond measure, or words.  Is this the slightest shadow of what heaven will look like?  We wonder.  We shall be back up again.


Lovely Oberaudorf in the Bavarian Alps

Ahhhh, what a place to wake up after arriving at dusk the night before.  It was Sunday, so the only food we had was what we could scrounge out of our bags.  Thank you to Mrs Witkop for cooking for us before we left!

Our first foray into the little town was on a quiet Sunday afternoon.  A gravel path leads you by the hand into town through a grassy field framed by Bavarian houses.


Everything seemed closed except for a packed ice cream place in the heart of town.  We got in the busy line and tried to figure out the German names for the ice cream flavors before our turn to order arrived too soon.  The kids were very eager to know if I’d be ordering for them at the counter.  We found the Schoko Minze (Chocloate Mint) name flag sticking up out of a familiar flavor behind the glass and all four kids tumbled onto that choice and each other.  The ice cream was delicious.  We couldn’t read any of the signs on the tables in the packed outdoor cafe and seemed to be drawing quite a few stares.  It was hard to tell if it was that no one else looked to have four kids in their family or Luke’s Star Wars shirt or the ice cream already dripping on our hands or our lack of German or that we were obviously not from there…
We found a small pond with picnic benches outside of a closed bistro to enjoy our tasty treat.  The kids described how tough it was to not be able to talk to “anyone”. But there were fish in the pond and horses across the street to distract us all.




The closed stores of a sleepy Sunday afternoon allowed us to get the lay of the land with few people out and about.  We attempted a biergarten for a meal and found the kitchen would not be open for a number of hours.  I s’pose we are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.
A coffee shop held our attention with its rolls, croissants and strong coffee and we sunned on the patio.

That night, we found our way to the local Oktoberfest near the Tennisplatz.  You’ve gotta love how German is full of words stacked upon each other in a building block fashion.  Tennisplatz and parkingplatz tell you what you need to know.  A “Handschuh” is a glove.  The expected, white Oktoberfest tent held benches of what looked to be locals in their dirndl dresses and liederhosen.  Families, older people, huddled tables of teens, awkward preteens—they were all there.  The oompah band took frequent breaks for people to talk and played loudly and proudly.  It was a community scene more than a drunk fest.  Our waitress was tolerant of our lack of German and helped us as much as she could in her limited English.  I was happy to get my mitts on a large beer as were the kids with their Fantas.  Wurst and kraut for the parents and roasted chicken for the kids.  All the food was delicious and even better since we were famished by our late arrival and the closed Sunday kitchens.  Once we found a decent English speaker we were able to wrangle some aluminum foil for the kids’ leftovers.

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The kids found the playground outside as the alpenglow of a Bavarian Sunday evening descended on the scene.  Note the game booth and the bald eagle adorning the shoot ‘em up game.  A little Americana, Bavarian-style.

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The kids spotted a booth selling sweets outside the tent.  There was cotton candy and chocolate-covered berries amongst other delights.  They pulled at our shirt sleeves with their eyes on the prize.  I said whoever was brave enough to go order in German could have a 5 Euro bill.  Their eyes got a little bigger and the pulling stopped for a second.  Then Ana spoke up, “I’ll do it.”  We ran through a quick rehearsal.  Camille went with her for moral support.  Ana recited her rehearsed order and the girl behind the counter reached for the desired Erdbeeren (chocolate-covered “strawberries”) on a stick.  As soon as she got the goodies, Ana turned with a huge smile and raced towards us, forgetting her change, “I did it!”

The next day we made the grocery store expedition.  They have the same grocery cart philosophy I’ve seen in France.  You put a Euro in the cart’s handle to unlock the cart from its stack.  When you return the cart, the slot unlocks and you can retrieve your Euro.  It makes a lot of sense.  The store’s aisles are tight for American standards.  All four wheels on the smaller carts swivel to facilitate shoppers in navigating past each other.

Will had decided I needed some assistance in pushing the cart.  We peeked our cart out into the main aisle and directly into the way of an oncoming shopper.  We pulled the cart back and knocked off a jar of honey from the display case that crowded into the side aisle.  The large jar crashed loudly to the floor and honey began to ooze all over the aisle.  Hello, the Americans are here!  I grabbed an employee and used Google translate to try and explain we needed a ‘cleanup on aisle 4’.  We are living on Google Translate.  They were gracious to assist and cleaned up our mess quickly.

Ordering our deli meat and cheese and getting it sliced was also a great exercise in humility.  Travel truly helps keep you learning as you gesticulate and struggle to get your message across in the few German words you own.  Good fun and wonderful for the kids to see the attempt. I employed the helpless look combined with the cheesy smile while pointing at the desired goody, “‘Dri’ hundred grams, bitte?”   Pathetic I know, but it got the point across for the 300g I was ordering.

We returned to find Lisa on the other side of the store, about 20 feet away, surrounded by two clerks with confused looks on their faces.  Lisa had translated “Half and Half” directly into German and they had no idea what she was talking about.  The clerk had enlisted the help of another in translation and a few onlookers turned to enjoy the show.  When Lisa explained it was cream for the coffee the clerk yelled out something that sounded like, “Ah, milch fur kaffee.  Kaffeemilch!”  She then led us to an end cap with a few “coffeemilks”.  Each one was about 2/3 the size of a Coke can.  Bavarians must not be big fans of coffee cream!

Your papers are not in order… (or Fun with Customs!)

After landing at Ramstein, it felt so good to be off the jet and into the fresh air of Germany.  Walking across the ramp to the awaiting buses, we could see our luggage strapped and netted down to the baggage pallet being unloaded.

We were one of the last families in the immigration line.  A bored German military official in his short-sleeve blue shirt and epaulets sat behind a window and checked our passports.  He had hardly any questions for us and stamped our passports.  We sailed through immigration and went to baggage claim.


We collected our luggage and gave the posted wi-fi a quick try.  I began to notice a US Customs Agent talking to departing travelers as they exited the glass enclosed “chute” out of the baggage claim and Customs facility.  We’d seen this agent briskly walking across the ramp as we’d been bussed from the aircraft.  As one of the last families still in the baggage area it seemed like the time was ripe for moving on.  I wheeled my bag towards this exit as the agent neatly blocked our path.  The breast of his shirt was emblazoned with “US Customs Agent”.  He was not overly tall, but thick and wide.  He appeared to be no stranger to the gym.
“About ready to go?” he pointedly asked.  I answered yes and he seemed pleased to point out that Lisa did not appear ready.  She was finishing zipping up her bag after getting out a device to check for wifi.  He overheard her say she was going to look up the parking location of the car.  Our incredibly generous friends, the Wingfields, are stationed in Germany and are loaning us their car!
“You don’t remember where you parked?” he asked, with a smile on his face.
“We didn’t park it, our friends parked it,” I said.
“Oh, so they were driving your car?” he looked to be either curious or headed towards interrogation.
“No, it’s their car and they parked it here for us.”
“Well, if it’s their car, that’s going to be a big problem for you.  And, do you have an international drivers’ permit?” he still had that big smile on his face.  I assured him I had the permit and tried to explain our friends had been very diligent in researching and tracking down the German rules on loaning out a German-licensed vehicle.  He was quick to clarify that it was not just the German rules but that it was “our” rules also and it was likely we were not in compliance.  I explained that my friends already had the paperwork in the vehicle certifying we were allowed to drive the car.  He was beyond dubious and said that was not possible unless I’d already submitted copies of my international driver’s permit, ID card and passport.  I assured him I had completed those tasks thanks to the Wingfield’s attention to detail.  The agent seemed disappointed.  The Germans really do have a rule (and it may be the US Status of Forces requirement as well) that you can only loan your car out for a maximum of 90 days and the dates must be approved beforehand.
“How long will you be here in Germany and in Europe?” was the next line of questioning.  Lisa and I compared notes later and it was becoming quite clear the less information this agent had, the better.  I told him we thought we’d be in Germany about five weeks total and in Europe for a few months.  I had looked at the State Department website and various country pages for visa requirements before leaving.  Most countries have a 3-month tourist visa entry limitation.  Since we planned to be bouncing around countries, we did not plan to bump up against 90 days in any one country.
“Well, you can only be in Europe for a total of three months,” he seemed to be enjoying this conversation.  I had not heard this one before and was not sure what he was talking about.  I doubted this was true as I know it’s been done before.  But there was a good chance he was trying to help us and about a 100% chance that he know more about this subject matter than we did.  A quick vision of massive itinerary changes flashed through my mind.
“Yeah, they are all ‘Chang-gin’ countries.  You can only be in them for 90 days than you have to go home.  Go over that time and you are likely to be deported.  You flying out of Ramstein?” he eagerly queried.  I said I was not and asked what these ‘Chang-gin’ countries were.  These countries comprise most of Western Europe.  When I told him we’d be visiting the UK soon he got a bit confused as he wasn’t sure if the UK was one of these nations or not.  Evidently, I’d be doing some research right away.
“I’ll get a German immigration official so we can get this sorted out,” and he was gone.
It did occur to me to make a run for it and flee into Germany like a wild refugee hitting the Continent on the lam.  The Von Trapps ran from the Germans, right?  Probably wouldn’t have worked out to well with all the Mesquits, our rolling duffels and our pesky principles.  The kids were certainly getting quite the introduction to Europe!
He returned efficiently with not one, but two, German officials in their uniforms.  They confirmed I could spend only 90 days in ‘Chang-gin’ countries.  When I asked which those were, they produced a list of 26 nations.  I asked how to reset those 90 days and he answered that after the 90 days I should go home for six months.  Once I explained our rough travel itinerary they were extremely helpful.  One of them intimated I should just spend time in France as they don’t really keep track of the time requirement.  He nearly winked at me, smiled and turned on his heel.  The Customs agent suddenly became quite supportive of our cause.  Perhaps we did not fit into the usual ‘box’ he expected to categorize Ramstein travelers into.  I didn’t even want to get into our full background story since he seemed to get very excited about any information he was given.  When he asked where we were going after Europe, I mentioned “Israel, if the situation allows.”  His attitude softened more, and he said there shouldn’t be a problem, especially if we were flying there from Greece.  With that ringing in our ears, we nearly ran out of those sliding doors.  It felt like ‘their’ eyes were watching.
The parking garage and car were exactly as the Wingfields had described.  In the deserted parking garage, I got to find the hidden key on the vehicle and felt a bit like Jason Bourne.  Just without the amnesia or training or the good looks or the death threats.  But I was in Europe with my deadly fists…
We ran through the KMCC (the enormous Kaiserslautern Military Community Center) for a few quick errands.  We bought a European SIM card for Lisa’s iPhone and grabbed a Subway lunch since we were tired and hungry.  Ran through the KMCC mall amazed at the gigantic Base Exchange shopping center and the Outdoor Recreation shop with its cavernous climbing walls.  We grabbed two coffees and hit the road.
We had a 5.5 hour drive ahead of us south to Bavaria.  Our reservations started that night in the town of Oberaudorf so the timing was great.  We were just tired from the poor sleep in the aircraft seats.  Thank God for those fast German roads, especially the Autobahn.  The speed limit is often 120 km/hr or 130 km/hr.  That’s about 75 to 82 mph.  I did that speed or better but cars still came flying by us.  If you aren’t speeding you feel like you’re letting down the drivers around you.  It is certainly true that if you are in the left lane of the Autobahn you’d better be watching your rear-view mirror.  They came up fast and furious behind you.  It wasn’t just the Mercedes, Audis and BMWs.  A few VWs, Hondas and even the rare Hyundai sped by.  German drivers apparently will not or are not allowed to pass on the right so they will stay on the tail of whoever is parked in the left lane.  I would estimate some of the drivers passed us at upwards of 120-130 mph.  In the frequent construction zones, all clearly marked, the three lanes in your direction of travel were taken down to two.  The lanes were incredibly tight and it was hard to imagine such close quarters being tolerated on US roads.  Or for many of our large vehicles to fit in such tight lanes.
The gas station sold fuel for approximately 9 dollars a gallon.  Ouch.  The bathrooms were not free but had a turnstile that blocked you from entering.  You put in 0.70 Euro for entry and received a 0.50 Euro voucher for use in the restaurant/coffee shop.
At our next rest stop/petrol station we took in a meal.  Well-maintained picnic tables near the parking lot helped out families like ours traveling on a budget.  Nearby were large compost bins for your food scraps.  Dogs enjoyed complimentary food and water.  Two people behind the buffet line served spaetzle noodles with sauces of your choice, salads, wurst, brats and plenty of coffee.  It was a far cry from the greasy Roy Rogers or such that one would expect along the Jersey Turnpike.
We followed the GPS, were awestruck at the approaching Alps, and arrived about eight o’clock.  The lodge proprietors are a family we’d emailed to set up the reservation.  They checked us in, gave us our keys and thoroughly showed us the place.  An underground parking garage keeps your car snow-free similar to a Colorado ski place.  We walked through the ping-pong table area and kiddy play room, the small swimming pool room, the grilling room, the laundry room and she explained the various doors and requisite keys.  Bread from the local bakery would be available each morning near the little office after eight in the morning.  All the books on the loaner shelf were in German.
We only unpacked a few things and hit the sack.  I did have a second to try out a few electrical adapters and tripped the circuit breaker a couple of times.  We slept hard after a good travel day.  Not deported yet!

Charmed, I’m sure

I’ll admit to previously having less interest in Germany than in other European countries.  I’m sorry!  I feel like I need to duck and hide when I say that, but I hadn’t given German(y) much thought.  As recently as June I declared that I didn’t like the German language.  Perhaps, I was a little too influenced by the Eastern German pilot training buddy of Brent’s who stood oh-so-close and kept spitting on me.  What I’ve found instead oozes charm, kindness, beauty, and surprisingly humor.

I love German!  The cadence strikes my funny bone fairly close to where the guy in Frozen in the mountain hut selling sunscreen resides.  And often words are either humorous or entertaining to say.  For instance, in order to exit the highway you take the “Ausfahrt”  — pronounced somewhere between “us fart” and “ass fart”  Try saying that with 4 ten and eleven year olds in your car without laughing. Yesterday, we had to turn around in Mr. Schmuck’s driveway on our way to Austria.  The poor Schmuck! (which actually means jewelry).  And the laundry … oh the laundry was a challenge.  I’ll tell you about that in just a minute.  I’ve found that several things are pronounced and mean the same in English.  Shoe is “Schuh” and pronounced the same.  Washing is “wasch” and pronounced “vash” and machine is “Maschine” and pronounced “machin-eh”.  Many words have that “eh” at the end or maybe an “en”.  Kind-eh fun-en.  :0)


I showed up last Saturday not even knowing how to count to ten.  Between our guide books, google translate and some kind English speakers we are getting along and learning.  So far our biggest disaster is toilet paper that ended up scented and decorated with flowers and some body wash that might be shampoo or shampoo that might be body wash.  The groceries to me seemed low threat because almost everything has pictures and is at least edible.  So what if your coffee milk is a little too sweet?  The laundry however was a more serious matter.

Several times on Monday I stopped by the communal washing machine and it was full.  So, I determined to wake early and haul our family’s three loads down three flights of stairs, through the underground basement hall, the shower room, the indoor pool, to the laundry room located just below the office before anyone else arrived.  Despite jet lag, I made it to the machine at 6 am.  No one else was there!

Hmmm.  No one else was there – to ask for help.  Besides feeling a bit creepy sitting on a bench in the basement downstairs from the office, I couldn’t read the settings on the machine!  This was serious!  One wrong selection and suddenly our clothes intended to last all year could end up pink or sized for Barbie dolls.  What to do?  I hadn’t brought my phone with Google translate because, even though I had prepared it the night before thinking that I’d want it for Facebook, I couldn’t see my phone in our darkened room without waking the kids.  Should I “Plegeleicht” the clothes?  How about “Extraspulen/Starken”?  Thankfully one English word shined amongst the choices:  “Dunkles/Jeans”.  Whew!


“I’ll wash the jeans and darks first, and then go find my phone,” I thought. So, I put a 2 Euro coin in the place where coins go — that much was obvious.  I knew how to put the soap in (I have vast laundry experience.)  But then, I was stumped.  A red button and a white button both lived next to the coin slot.  Buttons are meant to be pushed?  On the machine itself was a “Start” button, a “Startvorwahl” button.  In my pre-caffeinated mind “Startvorwahl” meant start now!  A grey button and an orange button with “Tur” next to it were also on the control panel.  In the end, I’m not sure what I did other than push each one at least once until it started.  After, I started the darks I sat on the bench in the quiet dark basement for a while.  I had heard that Germans had a lot of rules and I wasn’t sure what the rule was regarding leaving your laundry.  I didn’t want to be rude to our hosts.  Finally, I felt weird enough sitting next to the office in the near dark that I went back through the pool room, shower room, hallway, up the stairs, to the apartment.

Everyone was still asleep, but at least I found my iPhone.  Hurray!  I now had hopes to understand the machines with my translation app.  I quietly read until it was time to sneak back out the apartment and down the stairs, through the shower room, through the pool room, and to the laundry room. Still no one was there.  Unfortunately, due to the underground location of the laundry the translation app wouldn’t work — no cell service, no wifi.  Yikes.  Now I had a double problem.  I had a new load to wash without ruining and I was facing the dryer for the first load.  Here were my choices:


Wow.  Should I “mangle fecht” our clothes or “shrank rock” them?  Remember they were our jeans, so I couldn’t choose the no heat at all option, which I guess the Luften was.  I went with “Bugelfeucht” because it was under the general category of “Baumwolle” which sounded like wool to me.  I still don’t know the full translation, but from experience it leaves the clothes rather damp after running it twice.  That works, no damage done.  For the other load, I realized that it didn’t really matter.  They were mainly white, so if they got hot water they would be clean and if they didn’t, they would be a little less clean — a consequence I could live with.  For that load, I chose “Pflegeleicht” mainly because it was opposite Jeans/Dunkles.

Finally, my brain awoke enough to remember my phone had a camera.  I began snapping pictures of the dials and signs.  I went back through the pool room, shower room, hallway, up the stairs, to the apartment, carrying my remaining load (is it OK to leave my unwashed loads? I didn’t know the rule.)  At the apartment, the family was beginning to stir!  I typed the words into Google translate on my computer as soon as I’d finished making the pot of coffee.  Oops!  One sign said I was supposed to take my street shoes off on all those trips through the indoor pool.  The bench I sat on was for — shoe removal, not waiting for your laundry loads.  When I returned, down the stairs, through the hallway, through the shower, after taking my shoes off, through the pool room, and putting my shoes back on, I was better armed for the third load, and the office was open.  Within a couple of hours we had clean clothes and nothing was ruined.


Guess what else?  I love Germany!  We are in Oberaudorf, Bavaria only 3 kilometers from the Austrian border in the midst of the Alps.  The landscape includes beautifully green, forested mountains with both deciduous and evergreen trees.  Hiking trails lead to waterfalls, mountain peaks, farms of sheep that wear bells, cattle, poultry, orchards and bee hives.  The architecture is charming and the people are kind and welcoming.  God led us to the perfect place to begin our adventure.  The small town we are in is a German vacation spot, so tourists are normal, but Americans less so.  Our hostess speaks enough English to help warn us about Austrian tollways, but we are also inundated with opportunities to practice German.  The rural location adds to our feeling of safety.  Open windows and prolific walkers of all ages abound.  The baker and grocer are about 3/4 of a mile away.  I can now count to ten in German.  The kids are motivated to speak German.  “I just want to talk to them!  Most interesting to me is the familiarity I feel with this town.  It almost feels like a mix of Texas and Oregon.  The landscape and climate are wet, cool and lush, much like my experience of the Pacific Northwest.  We’ve already had a few glorious days of rain.  The part that reminds me of Texas is their pride of place.  On our hike, a farmer drove by in his European little van wearing his Bavarian felt hat with feather.  Liederhosen can be seen on men and boys around town and dirndl, the traditional dresses, are on display in several shop windows.  In my version of Google culture translate, I can see some farmers sitting in a gas station in west Texas with boots on donning their wranglers and western shirts.  Yes, I’m charmed.

So, Germany, I publicly apologize for my lack of attention.  You obviously haven’t been concerned.  I’m glad you are our first European stop.  Thanks for the kind welcome.

Fly your family “free” to Europe

8 Aug

All you have to do is join the military, accept the risk of getting stranded enroute and the flight’s free!

[please forgive the tardy post as we are working through wi-fi access challenges]

The military space-available (”space-A”) travel system allows military members (and retirees) and their immediate family to fly free on military aircraft that have extra seats.  If you are active duty, you can sign up as soon as you are on leave.  Then, show up for roll call prior to the flight.  Roll call is a published “show-up” time that occurs anywhere from 2.5 to 4 hours prior to departure.  You must show up at the passenger terminal prior to roll call to have your leave paperwork, military ID cards (for kids 10 and over) and passports checked. At roll call, pax terminal personnel call out the names of who made the cut for the flight.  The list is adjudicated based on what categories travelers are in and the date they signed up for travel.  For instance, a family member returning to Europe to rejoin their military spouse would be in a higher travel category than a military retiree.  When kids are out of school, the demand for space-A flights explodes and many “signed-up” travelers are left without a seat in this game of musical chairs.  If you are manifested onto the flight, you still run the risk of a maintenance issue canceling the flight completely or a maintenance or weather issue causing an in-air divert.  You also run this risk with an airline but the difference is that the US military does not owe a space-A traveler any transportation to their actual destination.  Any subsequent flights will require your action.  Overall, space-A travel is not quite equivalent to the contract one has with an airline ticket but it is a fantastic benefit.

Some aircraft types are more reliable or passenger-friendly than others.  Many aircraft have web seating along the sides of the aircraft (read “uncomfortable” for long flights) or have airline seats similar to what you’d find on a domestic airline.  Some have cruising speeds superior to airliners but others are famously unreliable due to maintenance issues.  Amongst many other types of aircraft, are C-21 Learjets and Army C-12s (King Air aircraft).  Propeller-driven C-130s are sometimes available but require several stops to get to further destinations.  I flew on a C-130 as a cadet and remember a red vertical line inside the cabin illustrating where propeller blade fragments would enter the aircraft during a materiel failure.  Far more prevalent are the KC-135s, KC-10s, C-17s and C-5s.  “Patriot Express” rotators are contract carrier aircraft that depart out of places like BWI airport in Maryland.  The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC) even has its own terminal gate at BWI.  Companies, such as Atlas Air or World Airways, compete for the government contract to carry troops throughout the world.

A wonderful resource to explain the ins and outs of space-A travel is
Our family’s hope was to maximize our chances of getting a flight by targeting four different East Coast bases—BWI in MD, McGuire in NJ, Andrews in MD and Dover in DE.  We also signed up at a dozen American and European bases in case of contingencies.  The travel schedule is published only 72 hours out.

As early August arrived, we watched carefully for those flights that would be easy to access with rental car return and allow us to arrive in time for our August 9th reservations in Bavaria.  McGuire had two flights on August 8th so we set our sights on that date.  The first flight of the evening was on a C-5, which is famously unreliable.  It is one of the largest aircraft in the world and can carry truly outsized cargo.  Passengers fly in the windowless “upper deck” above the cargo in airline-style seats facing backward.  I write “airline style” because the seats appear to be 1960s-era airline rejects…

On August 8th, we packed our duffels and backpacks at the Witkops’ beautiful home.  Frantic searches for a Kindle, boy shoes, jackets, and a T-shirt turned up their respective subjects and a pair of dirty socks in a bookshelf to boot.  We took some photos then loaded up in the rental van.



Three different traffic jams on I-95 cut deeply into our planned buffer in NJ.  We finally arrived at the Enterprise location outside McGuire and were grateful for a ride to the pax terminal.  We were fortunate to be the first ones called at roll call as we’d signed up weeks prior and our passports and IDs were checked again.  Our wonderful friends, the Simonsens, picked us up and graciously fed us a quick dinner.  We got just a few minutes with our dear friends, the Prices.  Both families were so kind to look out for us and deliver us back to security.  Our travel documents were checked one last time and we entered the gate area.  Our kids immediately began searching for pre-flight power outlets for their Kindles.


We loaded into one of the two buses that delivered all 73 space-A travelers to that behemoth sitting on that ramp. The passengers were nearly all young families. The C-5 was operated by the West Virginia Air National Guard and at least two loadmasters proudly displayed their WV ball caps.


As a passenger, you board the C-5’s “top floor” troop compartment via the longest air stairs walkup you’ve ever seen.   From the airstairs, we observed the pilots returning to the aircraft with several Papa John’s pizzas for the crew.  The troop compartment looks like it was taken from a Soviet-era warship.  Lisa termed its aroma as being “old gym”.  Perhaps Old Spice is taking notes for their next men’s grooming product.   Loud, motorized sounds were likely related to the stabilizer repositioning, the flaps being set, the APU (auxiliary power unit that supplies aircraft power prior to engine operation) operating and who knows what else.  Lisa looked to be wondering if she should be very concerned or mildly terrified.  With its maintenance reputation, I’ll admit to being somewhat dubious we would actually takeoff.  The loadmasters provided the requisite safety briefs including descriptions of both emergency oxygen systems.  But we taxied out smoothly and took off with no issues.  We were on our way!


Soon after takeoff, the loadmasters turned the lights down low, made sure the cabin was warm and the passengers settled in for the short night of an eastbound crossing.  Sleeping bags and loveys were quickly deployed by many families.  We kept our earplugs in due to the deafening engine noise inside the aircraft.  You had to lean within a few inches of someone’s ear to be heard.  Water was available in huge, plastic jugs tied to a metal railing. To fill your water bottle you stood on a large, metal grate suspended over the cargo floor some twenty feet below.   The kids slept well.  Lisa and I slept the best we could.  A few hours into the flight, the aircraft began to increasingly rumble.  The aircraft began to moderately pitch up and down due to turbulence and the loadmasters shouted for people to “buckle up”.  I was distinctly aware that we had our whole family tucked along the spine of this beast over the dark North Atlantic.  I’d experienced the feeling of remoteness over the ocean many times before but it had been barely a passing thought when I’d been a member of the crew and had radar and weather information at my fingertips.  The underlying uneasiness made me think of the intrepid crews and passengers that crossed the Atlantic by ship over the centuries.  I found myself praying that we’d find our way safely through these thunderstorms and make our destination of Ramstein Air Base without a divert.  Ramstein is just outside Kaiserslautern and about 90 minutes southwest of Frankfurt.

After a total flight duration of about 8.5 hours, we landed safely and exited the aircraft to enjoy the cool, fresh air of Germany on our faces.  The horizon was studded with rolling, tree-covered hills and the sky held grey and white clouds.


It was a gorgeous day to be in Germany and we were so grateful for the free flight!

How do you pack for a year on the road?

6 Aug, 2014

How do you pack for six people (some of them rather small) for a year on the road?



Of course, our answer is that we really don’t know.  We have spent some time recently trying to get to an 85% solution.  We’ve enjoyed finding a few lists that others have posted online.  Rick Steves’ website had a helpful suggested packing list for short trips to Europe.  We heeded his “pack light” mantra for our 10-day Italian honeymoon and really enjoyed those backpacks.  We have discovered a few families that are blogging while doing the traveling nomad thing.  There appears to be a disproportionately large percentage of them from the Northwest.  Must be where the crazy people come from…

I seem to recall it being a bit easier when we were all 21-year-olds and jaunting around.   A few friends and I had a blast backpacking across Australia after college graduation.  We spent nights in hostels and even one in a schoolyard on a beautiful evening.  We played spades on the grass until bedtime.  A local police officer came by to make sure we were fine (and to check that we weren’t moving into the area for good).  Well, I am thinking this may be a different kind of trip.  Now our packing involves iPad minis, kindles (and requisite chargers) and at least eight “loveys”.


Everyone is taking a backpack and a rolling duffel.  The kids’ duffels fit into an aircraft overhead bin but are not nearly as wide as your typical roll-aboard.  Lisa and I splurged on a couple 28″ REI Wheelie Beasts (fancy name that means ‘rolling duffel’).  We did have a pretty serious discussion about taking a guitar that we don’t normally play.  It is definitely a delicate balance between wanting to pack items to refine our family’s education and taking so much that the airline baggage fee people break into cheers when they see the prow of our luggage cart swinging into their rope line.

Part of packing up was Lisa organizing this small sweatshop of a an assembly line.  I wasn’t sure if it was to get our change of address cards out or to expose them to parts of Asia.  We are so blessed to be staying with our friends, the Witkops, as we near the big departure for our Grand Adventure.


In the interest of packing light, we’ve tried to limit our clothing items.  Even when I try to be light, I still tend to pack too much.  We are trying to stay organized through using the packing cubes put out by Eagle Creek or ebags.

Partial list

Shoes–Flip-flops or sandals for all.  Running shoes also.  A pair of decent walking shoes for those that are not small boys.  However, Lisa will not admit to how many other pairs she may have.  I’ve learned not to ask.


Pants–2    Skirts/dresses for ladies.  I had to order some zip-off convertible pants to really complete the “hey, check out the rad tourist” look that I’m going for.  Lucky for Lisa I ran out of time to order in my American flag pants and my ‘Merica shirt.

Shorts–2 or 3 and at least a pair of running shorts.

Swimsuit– Just for the ladies, boys’ shorts serve both purposes


T-shirts & workout shirts–4

Nice shirts, long-sleeve & short sleeve–2

Sweater or fleece or sweatshirt–1 or 2

Scarf for ladies to dress it up

Yoga pants or jammies–’nuff said

And 1 of the following: Baseball cap or visor. Warm hat. Pair of gloves.  Rain shell.  Down jackets.  Thermals.

We had a mad scramble of buying necessary items as we prepared to craft our luggage in Texas and get ready to launch out of the States.  I think Amazon Prime might be from heaven.

PASSPORT–the ultimate textbook

An international credit card since we were previously just debit card people to avoid debt.

Several utility items also.  For food prep, we have a tiny cutting board, knife and mini spice jars.  We have two clotheslines for drying clothes in the room.  Also swimming around are a small sewing kit, earplugs, duct tape, knife, leatherman, sunglasses, small flashlights, etc.

The Electronica is legion.  It’s ubiquity seemed to earn it the right to be capitalized.  Since we’ll be homeschooling on the road, we’ve got three Apple laptops for the family.  We’ll be as paperless as possible to save weight by using our iPad minis (a generous Christmas gift from family).  Shameless plug for Apple products, as I’m sure they will be picking up sponsoring this blog, quite soon.  I know they need the publicity.  Two sets of worldwide electrical adaptors, two small power strips for rooms with too few outlets, and an amazing wireless, external hard drive for backing up the digital extravaganza and streaming music to multiple mobile devices. A bluetooth, mini-Jambox for tunes in the room and while traveling.  Cables upon chargers upon adaptors and enough to choke a mule.

Lisa has been reaching out to various curriculum publishers for digital copies.  We’ve met with various success thus far.  I am really excited to get the chance to be more involved in teaching the kids as well.  Math will be a lot of fun.

For our security conscience, we’ve got baggage locks all around and a cable lock to be able to lash our bags to something, or just all together.  We’ve begun to discuss the methods of some of the talented pickpockets in European train stations.  Neck pouches and foil for foiling RFID thieves are in the mix.

For the many photos we’ll be taking to show you, kind reader, and to record this journey I’ve purchased a ThinkTank CityWalker camera bag.  It is designed to look less “camera baggy” and perhaps, like less of a target.  I’ve got a Canon EOS Rebel T4i and a telephoto lens.  A mini-tripod still needs to be more fully tested but should allow some family shots.  Similarly, we each have a journal to keep track of our thoughts.

Lisa has a year’s supply of disposable contacts jammed into her bag and we have a packing cube full of medical supplies and first-aid kit items.  Shot records.  Digital copy of medical records.

We normally have the kids in sports or ballet so it will be a big adjustment to have them out of those activities.  We plan to do family workouts to keep everyone in shape and have brought tennis racquets.  I was amazed that they fit.  At least it’s something for the hand-eye coordination.  Will’s got a baseball.  The golf clubs I wanted Lisa to lug around for us did not seem like the best idea.  Not really, but we’ll see if car travel will allow a soccer ball and small pump.  My GPS running watch is with us to keep track our family’s running improvements!

For music, we discussed bringing a backpackers’ guitar or ukelele.  Nothing as of yet but we’ll see if we end up ordering something from the road.  And I’m sure we’ll be singing The Sound of Music in the Austrian alps.  “The Hills are alive, with the sound of…”   C’mon, admit you know it, don’t judge me.

The kids have not forgotten the really important items; Legos, small plastic animals, sketchbooks.  Whew!  Now does anyone have any experience with putting a European SIM card into their Verizon iPhone 5?