The Perfect Gift

This week marks 15 years since I packed my two suitcases and boarded a mid-sized plane to begin my new life in Charleston, South Carolina.

A few months before, I had never even heard of Charleston and probably couldn’t have told you if it was on the beach or in the mountains. But I was fresh out of law school and willing to go wherever I could get a job. Which meant, frankly, pickins were slim.

When I had arrived in Charleston, a few weeks before for an interview at the Bostic Law Firm, initially, everything seemed to go wrong. US Airways had lost my bag.  I got a migraine. I was staying with people I hardly knew and (due to the migraine) could hardly hold an intelligent conversation with. My potential employer was stuck in KY due to weather so, to buy time, I ended up having an intimidating interviewed by every one of the firms’ four attorneys and the paralegal. When I did get a chance to speak with Mr Bostic, we took a hard look at the licensing differences between California (my home state) and South Carolina and we concluded I was pretty much a fish out of water. I felt very much like the young, ignorant law student that I was. I wasn’t really ready to be a lawyer.

So when Mr Bostic offered me a job making $38,000/yr, I felt like I had won the lottery; not because of the money but because of the enormous odds that we’re not at all in my favor. As I contemplated the opportunity over the course of the next day, I felt sure it was the next right thing.

I arrived in Charleston the second time on a rainy Tuesday. Actually, it rained every day the first month. But I hardly noticed. I was so busy trying to make heads and tails of my new job that the weather outside was pretty much irrelevant.

One thing I quickly realized was that my prior employer had given Mr Bostic the misguided notion that I was a computer genius. He wasn’t trying to lie exactly. To him, anyone who could send an email was a computer genius. And I could send an email.

But Mr Bostic—eventually “Curtis” to me—wanted me to install a server, a new printer network, and new legal software. And I didn’t have a clue. He would eventually figure that out.

So that was the beginning. Curtis took a chance on a green-as-grass girl from another state whose main job experience to that point included teaching piano, filing papers, making phone calls, applying stickers to first grade math papers, and checking head after head for lice. About the only skill from my prior life that came in handy was the ability to send an email.

Despite all my ignorance, Curtis treated me as an equal with the other attorneys at the firm. He spoke highly of me to others. He affirmed my work. He often stopped to explain things to me that I probably should have already known; but didn’t. And he chose to forgive my many, many mistakes. Sometimes, he even owned them to other people instead of pointing out that it was me that made an oversight.

I immediately found a lot of fulfillment in my job. I liked learning new things and I also found that we did a lot of work for churches and nonprofits—helping them get started or untangle serious issues. He had a lot of business sense and an authoritative manner that often passed on confidence that helped clients head in the right direction. I could tell he had a lot of people’s respect from various segments of the community. We were never hurting for clients.

Not all those early days were easy.  Most were long and many were pressure-filled and almost all of them stretched me in some way.  I specifically remember one particular time when I was feeling frustrated trying to sort out a legal research project and I landed on an article that encouraged attorneys and law students to own their work and to strive for excellence.  I remember getting an attitude adjustment from its pointed admonition: Figure it out.  You are not a potted planted.

That little article has stuck in my head all this time and the admonition has come back to rebuke me from time to time.

Over the last fifteen years, As Curtis has traveled all over the world, I’ve booked a ton of flights and spent hours of my life on the phone haggling with Delta airlines over last minute changes. I’ve helped prepare countless powerpoints…searching for the right pictures and the right quotes and sometimes trying to think of the right illustration. I helped him run for Congress, transition to general manager of the Kinzer Companies, and start non profits. I’ve helped buy and sell properties, airplanes, cars, and kangaroos.

But what most people don’t know is the extent Curtis has gone to to support me. He and Mr Jay painted my first house. He paid to fix up the first car I bought in Charleston—which had been in a strange sort of wreck that left it scraped and dented on both sides. (And he hasn’t given me grief despite the fact that I think I’ve scraped every truck he’s owned.). He and Jenny let me be a part of many travels and I have happy memories with the Bostic’s all over the world.

But I think far more than his generosity to me, I’ve been motivated by the opportunity and the words of affirmation. He chose to include me in some larger cases, deals, and projects that a new associate would not typically get to work on. He didn’t have to do that; especially early on when I had little or nothing to contribute.

Curtis encouraged me to grow and learn professionally, but even beyond that, he helped me grow as a person. He knows I love to work with kids and when I suggested doing respite foster care, his reply was, “I think that’s a great idea!”

And when foster care ended up being a lot more of a time and energy commitment than I anticipated, he tried not to complain about the significant distraction and many afternoons of missed work. I mean, he really, really tried.

A couple years ago, when Curtis was given an office inside The headquarters at the Kinzer Companies, where we frequently travel, one of the Kinzer employees showed up with a plaque of Curtis’ name to put in the slider on the door.

“Where’s Danielle’s?” Curtis asked.

No one had thought to get me one. There was only one slider on the door. And, frankly, my feelings weren’t the least bit hurt. I wasn’t the manager.

“Let’s get her one.” Curtis said.

And Curtis didn’t put his name on the door until after he put my name on the door.

It’s funny, if my name had never been mounted, it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. But the fact that he stopped everything and wanted me to feel like an equal and have some ownership of the office still means a lot to me.

Other things have changed over the years. I don’t spend as many hours on the phone with Delta airlines as I used to. We haven’t sat in court together for a long time.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that I’m very grateful. I sent 50 resumes before I talked with Curtis and had had only one interview.

When I was drafting this blog, I remembered and re-read this post which I wrote five years ago. It essentially said that dreams don’t always come true, and that’s a good thing. The undertones were that my life hadn’t exactly gone as I planned. My intentions of working 3-5 years had turned into 10. And I was learning to trust God’s hand and believe that His story of my life would be a good one.

Five years later, I’d like to add the follow up story and just be clear: I don’t feel like my life is a consolation prize. God doesn’t give out consolation prizes. He gives good gifts (James 1:17). At 38, I am more confident than ever that God loves and cares for me. I am more amazed at the little ways he works and the small prayers He answers for His glory.

I am more grateful for the people he’s put in my life—my parents, my siblings, my friends, my church, and definitely Curtis and Jenny. He could not have picked a better couple to help me grow those first years in the working world.

I guess I’ll never know what my life would have been like had I not moved to Charleston. But I’m glad I did. I learned I wasn’t a potted plant (And a few other things besides). A job at the Bostic Law Group was the perfect gift.

And I’m grateful. Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, Curtis.

Day 12 the Stillness of Dunkirk

The sun was bright; The air was clean and fresh. I could hear seagulls overhead. We were only in an ugly bus stop, but I had the feeling I was going to like Dunkirk.

I had sensed that Dunkirk, France was not a popular tourist destination. There were no tours, no trains, and not much else between Brussels and Dunkirk, so I had built my day around a public bus schedule which meant a very early start.

It also meant I spent two hours waiting for a bus that morning—5:45 to 7:45. The bus had been an hour late also which meant I arrived in Dunkirk an hour later than planned. Which also meant I would have only two hours before I needed to catch the only bus back.

I checked Siri and the 1940 museum and beach were a 34 minute walk away. Which meant that I was going to have less than an hour to do both.

It wasn’t ideal, but I did enjoy the walk. It felt so different than the craziness of Amsterdam…I wasn’t constantly dodging bicycles whizzing past me and shops selling trinkets and French fries every four feet.

My walk wound around the port and a few signs now and again paid tribute to the events of 1940 and the miracle of the mass exodus that saved 330,000 troops. But for the most part, it was just a simple quiet walk through a small port town going about it’s Friday morning business. The hills were not alive with the Sound of Music, there was no Tour de France, and no 1992 Olympic Games.

It did take all of the 34 minutes Siri said it would, so I was in a rush by the time I got to the museum. This whole trip, I’ve scarcely been to a museum and now I found one I wanted to see and there was not time. :(. It’s not huge, but I could have spent an hour except that I wanted to save enough time to climb up to the beach.

The beach was quiet too. There may have been a dozen other tourists, but that was it.

I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel glad there was no one there to break the stillness of the place or whether, perhaps, this is a bit underdone give the significance of the events that took place here. (I mean, they only had five magnets on a little stand for a gift shop and the only one commemorating WWII was an airplane. I mean, I like airplanes and all, but this is Dunkirk. Just sayin’)

I practically ran back to the bus station only to find that, once again, the bus was crazy late. Didn’t seem quite fair that I had to spend a third of my time sitting at the bus stop; but I decided just to be glad it was a beautiful day and, unlike this morning, there were benches to wait on.

There was not a direct route back to Brussels, but that was okay because I still had one last place I hoped to see in Belgium: the village of Ghent.

If you ever go to Ghent, do yourself a favor and take the tram to the center of the old city. It’s a long walk.

Of course, I walked.

My plan here was to rent a bike and just ride around the back streets instead of doing the typical churches, castle, canal, and belfry. I’ve seen so many great places to ride a bike the last few days but hadn’t ridden at all.

I’m not sure how, but I ended up doing the church, castle, canal, and belfry stairs. I’ll post the pictures although it probably looks by now like every other little town I’ve visited in the last twelve days. It’s a bit of a shame, because it does have its own little flair…but I guess I’m a little burned out on picturesque towns. I didn’t even want chocolate or ice cream. Shoot, I even paid the 3 Euro for the tram on the way back. And I didn’t even buy a magnet.

It must be time to come home.

I’ve loved my tour of Europe. In twelve days, I went to 10 countries and walked over 100 miles…just me and my black back pack…Full of magnets.

I visited Ireland (Galway, Cliffs of Moher, Bunratty); Cologne, Germany (if it counts); Italy (Venice, Cortina and the Dolomites); Budapest, Hungary; Vienna, Salzburg, and Schönbrunn in Austria; Barcelona; Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Dinant in Belgium; Luxembourg; Amsterdam and Harlem, Netherlands; and Dunkirk, France. [I had previously visited four of these countries and at least four others in Europe (England, Scotland, Czech Republic, Switzerland). I had planned to also go to Slovakia, but we’ll have to save that for another trip].

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the scenes of Europe, but at the same time, I don’t think I could have crammed much more into two weeks. And when it was all said and done, I lived out of that back pack for 17 days. That’s long enough.

It was a trip I hope to always remember. It was a return home that I hope to forget. I may or may not blog about my return trip, but regardless, let me make it clear once and for all: I do not like JFK airport. Sitting in it for hours on end is awful. Sleeping on the floor there is pitiful. Getting help there is impossible.

So…while New York is not at all a pleasant welcome, it is sure good to be home.

Thanks for taking this trip with me and if you feel even a little bit jealous that you didn’t get to go, picture yourself on the 17th day living from a backpack sleeping on the floor of the airport. Then be glad you’re home.

Day 11 – Dodging Bikes in Amsterdam

Each day starts with me locking my hotel room door with a key from the roll I was given when I checked in, then winding my way down six flights of steep, creaky stairs to the lobby. There, a little man who takes his duty to feed us breakfast very seriously, gives a cheery “Bon Jour!” and offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never say no.

After that, he brings a basket of bread to the table, crowned with a soft buttery croissant. I do not know who makes them but I want to take them home with me. I can smell the freshness. He also brings a plate of meats and cheeses and will make a boiled egg if I ask. Of course, There is also a selection of fruit and muesli. Today, I had a plumb and an apricot.

I realized that I still haven’t had a waffle here in Belgium and I probably should before I leave. In fact, I definitely should.

The area around my hotel (the main square) is being set up for the Grand Start if Tour de France beginning Saturday. I have watched the set up take shape each day as I walk past.

Last group tour today; I was going to Amsterdam. Our guide today couldn’t have been more opposite of the energetic Spanish girl we had yesterday. He was tall and large and quiet. This tour was supposed to be in both English and Spanish and I don’t think either was his native tongue, so it seemed like it was often too much trouble for him to translate, so he said nothing at all.

Our first stop was a small, family owned farm near the city center where they make cheese and clogs. My first impression getting off the bus was that it was a bit quirky and unkept—not at all the type of place you would expect a tour bus to stop. My second impression—and all of them after that—was that it was VERY quirky and unkept.

Perhaps we stopped there because the owner spoke many languages. He impressed us by spouting off in English, and the languages used in the surrounding countries (French, German, Dutch), but also Chinese (says he knows three dialects), Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and maybe others; I don’t know.

He tried to do his little cheese making demonstration in English and Spanish—he really did. But I think it was more of switching back and forth—one step in English, the next in Spanish, and so on. Either way, he had a lot of personality and was fun to listen to. He started and finished with samples of their Gouda cheese in various flavors and it was delicious. He said he was an eighth generation cheese maker. That’s hard to get my head around.

We didn’t get a demonstration, but they had clogs in all stages of development and he was clacking around on the concrete floors modeling them for us and claiming they were very comfortable.

His wife and son ran the gift shop so it had some order and charm to it. I have no room in my back pack for a block of cheese, so I choose a magnet for my memory of this fun and funny little place.

After the cheese shop, they gave us a photo op with a windmill. While the technology of these old windmills has been replaced with a newer version, there are lots of the old ones still running. I learned they were meant to be (and this still is) someone’s residence. I don’t know how convenient it is, but It’s sure cute.

Another thing I never knew about that area is how many Dutch live in little houseboats along the water. There were all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. And there were cool looking bike paths all through the country. That looked like fun to me.

The guide showed us some of the highlights of Amsterdam as the bus slowly crawled through the city. While Belgians are more known For their bike riding, I quickly realized that the Belgians have nothing on Amsterdam. “Beware of bikes!” Was the guides final admonition as we got off the bus. I heard some folks talking that there are 3,000 bike/pedestrian accidents in Amsterdam a year and I realized this was, quite possibly, the most dangerous part of my trip. The bicycles often had their own lane, but one had to cross the land somehow and there was a constant stream of bikes and they did not slow down. The bike parking lots were amazing and at the train station I wondered how one would ever find their bike again.

I decided to go to Haarlem by train first. I have been there before but I was drawn to the home of Corrie ten Boom and her family. They helped Jews during WWII and consequently Corrie suffered in Ravensbruck concentration camp and her sister died there. I would recommend the stop if you are ever nearby.

Back in Amsterdam, I walked around, smelling Cannibis and attempting to get in the Anne Frank museum, but I guess you can’t even enter a gift shop unless you buy tickets months in advance.

I dodged bikes, walked along the flower market, attempted to avoid the red light district, and and eventually bought a smoothie and some Dutch chocolate. It’s a very busy city and there was lots more to see but things I was most interested such as the Bible museum and Jewish museum seemed to be closed. If I had known the bus was going to be more than 30 minutes late, I would have taken the time to go by the Jewish WWII memorial that we had driven by earlier. Oh well.

My take away from Amsterdam is that it is a beautiful town and you might enjoy it if you are quick on your feet and like the sickly sweet smells. But the highlight of my day was probably the quirky cheese man and his delicious Gouda cheese.

Step count: 19,000

Cumulative step count: 203,000

Day 10 – Luxembourg and Dinant

Up until now, the group tours I have taken have had max a dozen people. Today, we were 50 people strong all on one big bus. The common tie between all of us: English.

That definitely doesn’t mean American. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how few Americans I’ve met on this trip. Far more have been Canadian, Australian, from the UK, or even India. Many times, I’ve looked at someone and thought they were from the US until they opened their mouths.

Anyway, our perky Spanish guide held a large purple sign over her head and hearded us toward the bus. There were a half dozen other tours leaving from the same time and place so it was a bit of a zoo. Thank goodness for her purple paper taped on a wood stick which she held triumphantly above the crowd.

It is a long ride to Luxembourg. But Marium taught us a lot about both Belgium and Luxembourg on the way. Belgium is a country of about 11 million (roughly the population of Georgia); Luxembourg has about 600,000 residents. Both are effectively governed by Parliament although Belgium has a king and Luxembourg has a duke.

Luxembourg, the city, is as old as the ninth century—having originally been settled by the Vikings. Luxembourg, the country, only dates to the nineteenth century. The name Luxembourg means “little fortress” and the city was apparently a very good one. When we got there, we saw some of the old city walls and it was easy to see why the location above the river was formidable.

The main industry in Luxembourg is banking and finance and it is a wealthy country considering its size. Minimum wage is roughly ~$13,50/hr and they have more Porsches per capita than anywhere in the world.

I didn’t really feel like paying 25 Euro for lunch, so another girl and I walked around a bit and then got a wrap at a small corner cafe. I haven’t said this (or thought it) about any food I’ve had so far this trip, but there is only one word to describe it: disgusting. (Mostly mayonnaise with wisps of lettuce, tomato, and prosciutto). I noticed my friend threw hers in the trash can too as we walked as well.

The guide showed us Parliament and the Duke’s residence. There were a number of churches, squares, an outdoor farmer’s market, and all the typical retail offerings of a small, high end town. She also talked a good about the EU, which had its beginnings here and cracked me up with some of her English phrases such as her frequent references to “sky scrappers.”

Leann and I walked across the bridge to the new part of town and back…There is a pedestrian/bike bridge suspended below the car bridge which made for a nice shady place to walk and take some pictures.

By the time we were back, we pretty well felt like we’d seen Luxembourg. There were some nice parks, and overall, I got the feeling that it would be a pretty nice place to live if you’re in the banking and finance world and you really like mayonnaise.

On our return trip, we stopped in Dinant, a very picturesque Belgian village where the inventor of the saxophone is from. We then wound our way up the river; it was a very beautiful drive. The area had had a coal boom in the 60s and 70s but has since lost most of its industry and is now mostly summer homes and strawberry growers.

I felt a little yuk by the time we got back. I wasn’t sure it is was from the long ride or the mayonnaise lunch that I had tried to chase away with gummy bears.

Overall, it had been a good day, but I felt the boxes had sufficiently been checked and I likely won’t be returning to Luxembourg.

Step count: 16,000

Cumulative count: 184,000

Day 9 – The Beautiful City of Brugges

Brugges 20

It was another beautiful day. I had not gotten the early start needed to go to Dunkirk, so I decided to switch things up and take the day to go to Brugges, a small Belgian town by the ocean.

When I say small, I’ve heard it has a population of 1,000 but receives an average of 25,000 tourists a day.

So I guess it goes without saying that it is a tourist town. But there is a reason why 25,000 tourists a day go there. It really is beautiful.

I was on my own today and it was about noon when I arrived. I wandered my way through the city in comfortable shoes, in no particular rush and with no particular destination. I was determined to let today be a less stressful day.

Roughly in the center of the city is this looming bell tour…83 meters tall and I’m sure, at one time, important to the defensive strategy of the city. I waiting in a long, slow line to climb the 366 steps to the lookout over the city. I got to hear the chimes from inside the tower which left an impression. It was all interesting, but I hated to waste any time because I felt sorry for all the folks waiting in the long line below.

But I did get a few shots of the city from the look out 366 steps up:

Some of the city had medieval history, but I didn’t really know what the history was, so I decided to take one of the canal tours. I had read that they were a beautiful way to see the city and I figured I’d learn some of the story at the same time.

The guide packed us in and immediately began talking and joking. He was switching off between languages though (Belgium has three official languages, French, Dutch, or German), and while I know English was in the mix, I couldn’t tell when he was speaking English except that I kept hearing him boom “Sixteenth Century”…”dates to the Sixteenth Century…” “vas built in the Sixteenth century…” and finally with pride, “twelfth Century!”

So it was a pretty ride and I decided just to enjoy it and not be frustrated that I didn’t learn a thing. There is always Wikipedia.

Brugges 8

There are 1,000 restaurants. Maybe more. I settled on a take away of Finnish beef stew and fries. It was good and definitely filled the space that had freed up since the hotel breakfast.

Brugges 5

I also thought I would satisfy my sweet tooth by popping in to some of the 1,000 chocolatiers that all boasted they had the world’s finest chocolate and figure out which one was actually best for myself.

I ended up only buying chocolate at one but I looked at a lot of beautiful chocolate. Smelled a lot of good chocolate. And, if they offered samples, I never said no.

Brugges 12

In true tourist town form, it was retail heaven and all the big names were there as well as lots of local specialty shops, antique shops, and souvenirs shops…where I got my magnet. Again, I was glad for my little backpack which helped me avoid temptation, but I did enjoy looking at the handmade lace and a few of the other shops of curios.

Brugges 4

It was tempting to rent a bike…it’s a thing in Belgium and they were convenient to rent, but the main streets were a bit too crowded; and anyway, I had splurged on the boat tour. So I contented myself to walk some of the outskirts. It was a larger town than I expected. Surely, far more than 1,000 people live there at least with seasonal help.

I took the train back to Brussels where things are getting crazy as they set up for Tour de France beginning here Saturday. There was a tiny bit of evening left, so I caught up on email and made a much needed trip to the laundry mat.

I looked it up and learned that Brugges (spelled four different ways…depending on which language you’re using) was founded by the Vikings in the 9th century. It was a port town and had its hay day between the 12-14th centuries before Antwerp rose in size and importance and Brugges began to decline. By the 1800s, it was the poorest city in Belgium.

Recent tourism has undoubtedly turned the tide and one of the row houses along the canal sells for 1.5 million Euro. And I could feel good about my life knowing I had done my part to sustain this lovely little town with almost no history and no industry. Except selling the world’s finest chocolate.

Step count: 22,000 Cumulative step count: 152,000

Day 8 – Bratislava…or Barcelona…then Brussels

I woke up naturally. Finally. It was nice to feel like I was in something of a routine. I had time for a leisurely breakfast and tried three different kinds of jam with my bread. They were all delicious.

At the last minute, I changed from my most comfortable walking shoes, to the flip flops to match my skirt. I felt much more relaxed today.

I was still not in a rush as I headed out for my tour to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. This time, the tour guide was not coming to the hotel, we were to meet in front of the Vienna Opera House.

But I was not concerned about getting to the right place. I had plenty of time and the green line runs from right near the hotel to right in front of the Opera House. What could go wrong?

But not only was there an easy plan for today, I also had a plan B and I had been severely torn between the two. Due to a series of events, I had a flight to Brussels both Monday (today) and Tuesday. If I made it to Brussels one day early, I would lose the opportunity to go to Slovakia, but I would gain a longer layover in Barcelona and a possible day to visit Dunkirk, France. While I have been to France and have not been to Slovakia, I was getting a little burned out on Middle Eastern towns; and the idea of visiting the famous beaches that hosted the escape of 400,000 Allied soldiers seemed like a good trade.

But after much deliberation, I had stuck with plan A because, after all, I had paid for the tour to Slovakia and the night’s hotel in Vienna and I hate to waste money.

So, by 7:45, I was sitting in a seat on the green line. I was supposed to be at the meeting place by 8:15 and the tour was to leave at 8:30. It would be about a 10 minute ride to get there; so I zoned out briefly; still chewing on Plan A and B and the pros and cons of each.

vienna 16

After a few minutes, I started paying attention to the stops; my general sense was that mine, Karlsplatz, was still a few a away.

But to my surprise, I was almost back to my starting point. What? I was so confused. But sure enough, the train was running toward my hotel stop.

I was scratching my head as I got back off the train and headed up the stairs and across the station to get back on. I felt like I was in some kind of a time warp movie. I heard them make an announcement (in German) but it meant nothing to me.

I rode the train again until everyone suddenly got off. Everyone but me. I figured it out at the last second and jumped off too. They had closed a section of the train for repairs and the train would return to start. I would have to find another route.

I looked at Siri—I was 3 miles from my destination but it would be a slow three miles walking. It was already after 8:00. There was no way I could walk it in time.

I didn’t really have time to figure anything out, everyone else was jumping on another train; in fact, it was so full, I didn’t think I could fit. But I was just able to squeeze in on and wedge myself between some other travelers.

But now I had another problem. It was so tight, I could not see the train map showing the lines, stops, and directions. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

As the train gradually began to unpack a little at each stop, I could catch glimpses of the map whenever another traveler moved her arm.

I kept checking my watch. Did I have time? Could I make it? Should I give up and go to plan B? I didn’t have time to decide anything, I could only keep moving…generally figuring it out on the fly…jumping from the green line, to the brown, to the purple, and finally, to the orange which would take my to my original destination. I had the subconscious sense that if something went wrong, I’d retrace the maze of lines back to the hotel and switch to Plan B; but miraculously, I kept getting on the right trains going the right directions.

The clock was unforgiving though. 8:15 came and went and I began to realize I wasn’t even going to make 8:30. They would not wait for me. I knew they would not wait for me.

The final train station, Karlsplatz, was a large one, and I practically raced through the station to see if there was hope of catching the tour. It was 8:29.

The Opera house was not there.

It was a little mistake, but it had huge consequences. I had come out the wrong exit. It probably took a full ten minutes for me to fix my mistake.

By the time I got to the front of the Opera House, there was no sign of a van. I tried to reach the tour operator but there was nothing I could do but email. It was past 8:40 and I was sure they were gone.

So here was the other thing. My flight—the plan B flight that I had not planned to take—left at 10:40. And I was four trains away from my stuff back at the hotel.

Plan B it was. Back down to the train station. I studied the map just long enough to confirm that the route I came truly was the most direct. I also set a timer to see how long it would take me to get back. I would have to get to the hotel, pack, ride four trains back here, then catch the airport train…which only ran on the half hour. Then I would ride the sixteen minutes to the airport, check in, and go through security, and board all in about 1.5 hours. It wasn’t doable.

But still, as I waited for the train, I tried to write down each train line, direction, and stop I would need for the return trip for quick reference. God bless whoever it was that came up with the idea of giving each line a different color. They deserve knighthood, sainthood, and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Siri, however, was not so helpful. She stinks at German and as I typed in all the names, she kept trying to auto correct them. Finally, I gave up.

I caught the train and used the ride to keep playing the timing through in my mind. I *might* be able to make the flight if I took a taxi to the airport instead of chancing the train. I had to try.

I packed in no time at all and had the driver waiting outside. But this driver defied every reputation of cab drivers everywhere. He was in no rush. The only thing that seemed to be moving was the clock.

It was 9:59 when we pulled up at the airport for my flight which was supposed to board at 10:00. I kept checking my phone, but the flight was on time.

It was 63 Euros for the cab ride. And there was pretty much no way I was going to make it. So much for plan B. Little mistakes can sure be expensive.

Plan C would be to catch a train to Slovakia myself. I didn’t feel much like going back to the hotel to drop off my stuff and then retracing all those steps for a fifth time that morning. Maybe I would just throw my back pack in the Danube and go.

But I pursued plan B doggedly, trying to be kind to the elderly couple in security in front of my who kept pulling more and more bits and bobs out of their pockets. Then the Spanish gentlemen…acting very much like he has never been in a hurry in his life.

I made it. Not by much, but I made it.

Barcelona 2

 

My layover was in Barcelona. I took the Aerobus into the city center. Turns out, the 1992 Olympic Games were to Barcelona what the Sound of Music was to Salzburg.

Given my limited time and disinclination to repeat my Vienna experience and walk 10 miles with my backpack, I decided to splurge on one of the hop on, hop off bus tours with the audio guide.  I figured that way I would learn some of the rich history of the area.

Basically, the audio in a nutshell was: this city was reinvented for the 1992 Olympic Games.

One would have thought that the Mediterranean Sea made it’s appearance for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Since I really didn’t have time to hop on or hop off, I contented myself with the leftovers of a chocolate bar I bought in Saltzburg and taking pictures from the top deck of the bus. But if I’d had time, I would have gotten off here which apparently is where you can view ancient ruins from the Roman Age under the city. The guide didn’t tell us much about it…it must not have played a part in the 1992 Olympic Games.

Barcelona 7

I don’t know if all of the trees were planted for the 1992 Olympic Games or not, but they offered pleasant shade and the breeze off the ocean was very welcome. Between that and the overall friendliness of the Spanish people, I was starting to release some of the tension of the morning’s craziness.

I took the train back to the airport, and I was glad I did because it took us, apparently, through the part of the country that hadn’t gotten reborn for the 1992 Olympic Games. It was a very different picture that reminded me more of South America. Maybe that’s why they push tourists to take the Aerobus.

I’ll spare you the details, but it ended up being another harrowing near miss of a flight due to a 15 minute bus ride between terminals, super slow security, and a gate that kept changing. But God is good and I made it okay; just started feeling like I need to get back to work to get away from all this stress of vacation. :).  That’s what I get for wearing my flip flops and trying three different kinds of jam on my bread.

But that’s the way it is sometimes. And the good news is, I should sleep well tonight. That is, after I burn these shoes.

Day 7 – The Sounds of Salzburg

I was barely in the van before she asked the first question…

“What is that?”
“It’s a cement mixer” the guide answered.
“Why is it in the street?”
“Because they are doing construction.”
“Is it permanent?”

Oh boy. I thought. It was going to be a very, very long ride to Salzburg.

The lady who loved to ask questions, though Indian, told me she lived in Hong Kong. Wherever she was from, clearly, she was familiar with The Sound of Music. Except for the first one, every question she asked pertained to the movie…is that the lake from The Sound of Music? Is that the church from The Sound of Music? Are we going to see all the sights from the Sound of Music?

I began to wonder if the driver was going to take us to Budapest and jump off the chain bridge.

But he seemed unphased (probably having heard that question a million times before), and he patiently explained, that no, we were a long way from Salzburg. And no, we would not see ALL the sites from the Sound of Music because when they made the movie, they actually spliced footage from all over; not just Salzburg or any one place.

We promptly stopped at a roadside restaurant and shop where the driver must be getting some kind of kick back…none of us felt much like eating given that we had just had a hotel breakfast and the items in the shop were beautiful but expensive.  We were anxious to see the hills that were alive with the sound of music.

After days of looking forward this this trip, I was beginning to wish I had just taken the train to Salzburg by myself (although the driver assured us that this would not have included the lake district…which has scenery from the Sound of Music). The lake (Modsee) was beautiful although incredibly busy on a Sunday with folks riding bikes, swimming, or sunbathing. There was really no time to do anything but take a few pictures, but I guess now I can say I’ve seen the lake from the Sound of Music. If anyone cares.

The lakeside castle where some of the scenes were shot was never actually a home of the VonTrapps (their real home was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII but has recently had been turned into a hotel).

When we pulled into Saltzburg, I felt a bit more disappointed. It was just a city.

saltzburg 29

Josef, our driver pulled into a parking lot beside an ornate church (and confirmed that, no, it was not the church in the Sound of Music).

He explained that we were in the new city and after showing us a few sites from the Sound of Music, he would take us into the old city.

My new Sound of Music loving friend (“SOM”) was not in good shape, so walking was slow. We did eventually reach the Mirabelle Garden and the place where a few shots were taken as Maria and the kids are singing. I am going to have to go back and watch the movie…I really don’t remember unicorns.

There was a lovely park there and a band was playing (no, nothing from SOM). But the park runs along the river and we stopped a few times as the guide pointed out significant places. It turns out, long before Rodgers and Hammerstein, a young man named Wolfgang Mozart had left his mark in Saltzburg. The city is very proud of this heritage as well they should be. There is at least one other well known figure from Saltzburg, the scientist Christian Doppler. Maybe someone would care if the hills had not come alive with the Sound of Music.

Josef showed us where famous local chocolate was made and other important things like good places to buy ice cream.

He showed us another fountain featured in the Do-Re-Mi scene of SOM. I cringed waiting for SOM herself to say, “that’s not what it looked like in the Sound of Music,”
But instead, she simply said, “where can we buy souvenirs?”

I guess there is nothing more inspiring than shipping containers and construction debris.

“It’s almost free time and you can all go do what you want.” The guide told her, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

But first, he took us to the graveyard by the Abbey where the VonTrapps hide from the Germans in the movie. It is a lovely little graveyard. In reality, the VonTrapps did not hide in a graveyard, they left the country on a train before the war started.

Saltzburg 15

And truthfully, I’m not sure what was actually filmed because even though there are many caged areas such as are depicted in the movie, I didn’t see any tomb stones that aren’t flush against the wall.

But maybe the fictional heros in that Abbey have done more than make for an exciting story because the abbey is still functioning to this day.

After the graveyard, I went back a few centuries and hiked the hill to the castle. I will say this, if I worked there, I would not need a gym membership. That was no joke.

Saltzburg 12

But it was worth the hike. The Castle was originally built somewhere in the 1400s and occupied by the Archbishops of Hamburg. The site of city was originally chose because of its defensive position on the Danube and near the mountains, but salt mines were discovered which made for the city’s main industry. (And consequently, the name, Saltzburg).

The Archbishops were the spiritual and civil rulers and apparently, had frequent need to exercise disciple to maintain their control. The tour including the torture chambers and a rather terrifying hole that led to the dungeon.

There is also a significant WWI and WWII history involving the Castle and grounds although I didn’t absorb it all.

Overall, it was a pretty cool castle and afforded beautiful views of the city below.

On the way out, I learned that one of the elements in the SOM was not fiction, and that is that puppetry was a huge part of the culture in Saltzburg. Part of the museum captured this and it was fun to see.

Saltzburg 2Saltzburg 3

Even though I took a train down the mountain, I definitely felt the walk/hike that morning had earned me an ice cream lunch. I tried some new flavors including black current and elderflower. Let’s just say, it’s a good thing I also got an old faithful, chocolate.

I took a quick photo in the gorgeous church where the Captain and Maria got married. There was a couple doing the tango on the steps. I don’t know why. They didn’t tango in the Sound of Music.

SAltzburg 1

Having covered medieval history, WWI, the SOM, and the tango, I felt like it was time to visit one of Mozart’s houses. Our guide had told us which one had the best museum, the one where he was born and lived as a child.

The house and museum were pretty well done and told the story of this child prodigy who left a quite significant mark on the music world considering he only lived to be 35.

They had a lot of replicas and even some original artifacts (along with a lock of hair that might or might not be his).

Mozart was reasonably successful during his life, but he lived an popular tour life and his death left his young wife and kids with quite a bit of debt. Constanze proved to be a prudent business woman and managed to turn things around and preserve his legacy remarkably well including publishing his first biography. After about 10 years, she did remarry and eventually returned to Salzburg which she and Wolfgang had left a few years after their marriage.

When we met back at the van at the end of the day, I chatted with SOM and learned that she hadn’t done much of anything because it was too hot. When she kept complaining, I thought about asking her if she wanted to sign “My Favorite Things” but I decided against it.

We waited at the van for the last of the group to show up and we could hear music playing from the full choir and orchestra inside. It wasn’t Mozart or Rogers and Hammerstein, but maybe it’s appropriate that our final moments in the city were filled with the beautiful sound of music.

salzburg 36 (2)

Day 6 – Budapest by Bus

The driver was at my hotel promptly at 6:45 am. The free hotel breakfast opened at 6:30 am, so I had made good use of that extremely valuable 15 minutes. Breakfast that morning had been a beautiful sight.

There were nine of us headed to Budapest, which is about a 2.5 hour drive East. I really don’t know that much about Budapest since it isn’t mentioned in the Sound of Music (or any other books or movies I could recall). Thankfully, the driver/guide filled us in with the history of Hungary during the drive and I stayed awake for a pretty large percentage of it.

Budapest 3

Budapest is a town on the Danube River (which is not a beautiful blue…just sayin’). It was originally settled during the Roman Empire, but was then conquered by the Magdars and a bunch of other people.

It turns out, Budapest is a very beautiful city. The driver was trying to cover as much of it as possible so we only had a few minutes at each place, but it was obvious that a lot of resources had been invested into the architecture of the lovely town—some dating as far back as 86 AD (There are actually a ton of different architectural styles and it’s almost impossible to tell which ones are ancient and what is recent, but they’re all ornate).

Hungary suffered under communism from the end of WWII until 1989. Apparently, after the iron curtain fell, everyone went out and bought cars whether they needed them or not (which you really don’t…unless you want to get out of town…something those folks had probably never been able to do until then).

Hungary became part of the EU in 2004 (although it’s still not been able to reach the financial standards necessary to officially adopt the Euro).

budapest-8.jpg

I wasn’t expecting much of Hungarian food since it hasn’t really made a presence around the world, but I have to say, the lunch I ate was one of the best meals I’ve had on this trip.  Or maybe it just seemed that way because I’m still catching up on calories from those 25,000 steps yesterday.

I met several nice folks on the tour and walked the chain bridge afterward with a lady from Australia. She and her husband have 4,000 sheep (plus dogs, kangaroos, etc) on over 3,000 acres somewhere in the middle of the country. She was only too happy to walk with me. I guess living that remotely, she and her husband see a great deal of each other and not a whole lot of other people.

The guide had told us an interesting story about the chain bridge that connects “Buda” and “Pest” and the pompous architect, Adam Clark who had designed and built it.  He said he jumped off to his death in the Danube after some students criticized the lions at the entrances because they didn’t have tongues.

We thought it was an interesting story, but on a whim I googled it, and Siri says Adam Clark died of lung disease when he was 54 and brought up a photo of his grave stone.  But then, I have learned that Siri is not exactly a reliable source of information.  Who knows, maybe a famous architect did jump off his bridge into the Danube because someone said his lions didn’t have a tongue.  Sounds legit to me.

At any rate, it’s a beautiful bridge. And really, a surprisingly beautiful city.  I don’t know about all the history I learned today but maybe I’ll be a little more motivated to study up on the history myself.  Someday, I’d love to go back with a little more time and get lost in the Labyrinth under the city.  With Siri.

Budapest

Step count: 17,000
Cumulative Step Count: 114,000 (~57 miles)

Day 5 – Keeping it Real in Vienna

vienna 11

It’s not Vienna’s fault, really. It’s just not fair to ask a city to be the next stop after a trip to the Dolomites. There was probably nothing Vienna could have done that wouldn’t seem like a little bit of a let down after breathing that mountain air.

Toni's contribution to Vienna Architechture
Toni’s contribution to Vienna architecture

Not that it was all bad. A little graffiti just sort of keeps it real.  Actually, there is a lot of graffiti.

Grafitti aside, Vienna has a much different feel from Venice. Venice, at this point, is a tourist hub where people get around by boat and walking. Vienna is a modern, working city where folks get around by car, bus, train, bike, motorcycle, scooter, e-scooter, horse drawn carriage, baby carriage, Segway, Big Bus, running, or, in my case, walking.

Vienna has a different smell than Venice too.  That’s a good thing.

When I arrived, I realized that pretty much everything I know about Austria I learned from 1. The Sound of Music; 2. Miracle of the White Stallions; or 3. Old cassette tape on one of the composers…I.e. the Life of Mozart. (I guess you could also throw in on a much lesser scale, 4. Woman in Gold.)

At any rate, as I started passing one ornate building and one impressive statue after another after another, I realized I didn’t know what or who any of them were and consequently, all I could think about was how heavy my back pack was and how much I regret my codependency on unreliable Siri.

If you haven’t seen Miracle of the White Stallions or heard of the Spanish Riding School or the famous Lipizzaner horses, I’m not really surprised. But apparently, some people have because I figured the riding hall had about 500 seats. Tickets weren’t cheap. And at 11:00 am, every seat was filled and folks were standing along the walls.

The empty riding hall...because I don't want to be the one to "irritate the horses"

It’s hard to describe the performance and they would not let us take pictures because it “irritates the horses” so I can only recommend you look them up or view the recent Netflix special on these beautiful Stallions. They have a way of almost dancing and a long tradition of performing that has not changed in forever.

I did notice, however, that neither the show nor the Netflix special in any way references the story told in “Miracle if the White Stallions” in which the US army saved the breed toward the end of WWII. I think we deserve a little credit in the form of discounted tickets or something. Just sayin’.

After the show, I decided to try to go to the hotel to try to drop off my backpack which, after carrying it around since 4:00 am, seemed to weigh far more than 1,000 lbs. I had intentionally booked a hotel near a train station (although a bit out of town for cost reasons), but I had never found out what train station. So it made for a very, very long walk. I felt like Christian in Pilgrims Progress carrying a heavy burden. It didn’t help that I had made a poor choice of shoes that day.

I neglected to mention that while I was looking for the Spanish Riding School that morning, I had been talked into buying a concert ticket for later that evening by a street salesman who gave me a special discount. 😉

By the time I made it to the hotel and shed my burden, I had learned that the hotel was right next to a palace (Schönbrunn Castle) which also was hosting a concert that night that sounded very similar. Schönbrunn was cool, quiet, inviting, and it was RIGHT THERE. But no, I had paid 30 Euros for a ticket to a concert all the way back in the heart of Vienna. That meant I was in for more trains and a lot more walking to end a day that had started at 3:00 am. Ugh.

So after a few hours of catching up on emails and work and fighting to charge my phone and computer with a temperamental outlet in my room, I headed back to the train station…thankfully, now I knew the closest one to the hotel (not the one I came on) and the closest one to the concert hall, so I figured all would go smoothly, but I left two hours early just in case.

What I didn’t know then was that the clever salesman had been peddling tickets that looked *almost* exactly like the concert going on at the Opera House that night.

I tried going to the address on the ticket, but Siri pulled one of her “you have arrived” stunts when clearly, I had not arrived.

Then I started asking locals who all directed me to the Opera House but after arriving there, I realized that although the ticket looked like the same concert going on at the Opera House, it was not.

After nearly two hours of walking, I was extremely close to giving up when I happened to light on another salesman on the street selling tickets for the same concert I’d been duped into. “It’s just beyond the Opera House” he told me, generally pointing. Then he gave me a map. Which was also no help.

But I found it. Somehow. And my some miracle, I was even on time.

And although I was in the cheap seats and couldn’t see much of anything, the musicians were good and the music was beautiful—Mozart, Grieg, Vivaldi, etc.

vienna 6

So there you have it…a nod to Miracle if the White Stallions and the Life of Mozart. Sunday, I plan to go to Salzburg and find out if the hills are still alive with the Sound of Music. Hopefully, my feet will have recovered by then. In honor of the Woman in Gold, I will not go to any Museums.

Not at all a bad way to spend the day after the Dolomites.

In fact, I’m hesitant to admit it…but even though I’d pick a day at the Dolomites over a day in the city every time (and I’m generally not one for concerts that begin at 8:30 pm), I do love the European way of walking every where.  I love to see couples dressed up and catching trains for an evening out.  I love the rows of little, privately owned shops and the simplicity of only buying what you can carry home.

Total steps today: 25,000 Cumulative steps: 97,000 (~39 miles)

Day 4 – The Dolomites

 

I was not a happy traveler when the alarm went off. 6:30 am was really 12:30 am EST and it felt very much like getting up in the middle of the night.

But I was very much looking forward to the group tour to the Dolomites and the directions on how to get to the tour pick place were a little sketchy, so after last nights’ experience, I wasn’t going to take any chances.

Thankfully, I had significantly lightened the load in my backpack and I at least had the benefit of the lessons learned the previous evening for navigation, but I still made the mistake of thinking I would save 15 Euro and walk to the pick up point 34 minutes away. I will skip the details and tell you that an hour and 30 minutes later, I arrived by water taxi having spent 20 Euros. But the important thing was, I arrived.

We were in a smaller van and it didn’t take long to see why. Winding up the narrow roads of the Dolomites was exciting enough without extra axles.

We drove through the ugly town where the people who work in Venice live, through the grape vineyards, and then began winding our way into the mountains.

It’s hard to describe the rest of the day with words. I can’t even do it justice with pictures. The Dolomites are truly beautiful and rival anything I’ve ever seen and maybe more.

Our Italian guide, Francesco, was friendly and didn’t seem to miss a photo op along the way. Even so, I was jealous of the numerous motorcycles, hikers, bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. They definitely had the right idea.

We briefly stopped in Cortina. This small mountain town of 6,000 was just awarded the hosting of the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. It looks like it’s used to handling tourists, but I am curious how they plan to get a million people up that winding mountain rode. I suspect it will be forever changed.

Perhaps they plan to expand, but they’ll never make it by 2026 if it’s up to these guys we observed.  We had a good laugh watching this guy roll rocks down the hill with a rake one at a time while the guy below barked orders on what to roll next.

Road work

For lunch, we stopped at the beautiful lake town of Misorina. It was truly breathtaking. We all enjoyed our lunch made from locally grown/handmade pizzas, pastas, and more.

The weather was perfect. After lunch, I took the walking path around the lake and ended the stop with chocolate gelato. I definitely found my happy place.

When we got back in the car, the emails and texts started hitting my phone. My people were up. Back to reality. But it was a super fun day.

I must be getting the hang of navigating Venice. When the driver dropped us off at Piazza Romale, Siri said 17 minutes back to the hotel and it only took me an hour. Including the water taxi. Of course, it is a little more complicated to navigate with Siri in one hand and a cup of rapidly melting gelato in the other. So there’s that.

But the good part was that I was the Rialto Bridge, San Marco square, and 1,000 little shops that make Venice the beautiful city that it is. I could see why someone who likes old, charming, dirty, inconvenient, crowded cities might like Venice. At least maybe in April or May.

Venice - Rialto

But I didn’t have the least little bit of regret for spending my day at the Dolomites. If I ever turn up missing…don’t look for me in the Dolomites. Just saying.

Step Count: 20,000
Cumulative total: 72,000