Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Return to Eastern Europe

Athens, July 1990
Twenty years ago (how could it be that long?), I was lucky enough to backpack a bit of Europe with my three cousins. I was 20 at the time. I'm the dorky one on the far left with the caterpillar eyebrows.

Since we had almost no money, we spent most of our time touring in Eastern Europe where life was cheap. Armed with our Eurail Pass, we slept on trains at night, sitting straight up in a compartment full of strangers. We would time our arrival for the opening of the tourist information offices, the banks to change money, and the embassies to arrange the visa for our next day’s destination. We stored our backpacks in the central station lockers and ate from street vendors. Each morning we would read through our travel bible, the “Let’s Go Europe”, deciding on destinations for the day focusing first on the places without entrance fees.

The night train to Belgrade
 I traveled Europe for less than $30.00 a day.

After 21 days, I had changed. I had lost 10 pounds. Dinar, Drachmas, and Forints jingled in my pocket. I had seen the inside of many beautiful churches, and the outside of many famous museums and music halls. I had met gypsies, communists, Aussies and Kiwis, and cute boys from Eton. I had traveled so far by train I was convinced I surely should have fallen off the edge of the earth.

And I swore that I would never travel Europe again on so little money.

Prague, 2010
This past weekend, my husband and I celebrated 15 years of marriage by traveling to Prague. Our one hour flight defied the 1000 killometer journey beneath us. And there we were, in a Golden City full of towers and castles and medieval bridges. We ate in fine restaurants and slept in a soft bed. We entered each castle and museum never giving more than a moment’s thought to the cost, (ok except the Jewish Cemetery which was wildly expensive. I hope they put the entrance fees to a good cause).

Old Jewish Cemetery
 I have everything (within reason) that I’ve ever wanted. I have the most amazing of husbands and three beautiful and healthy kids. I’m living this crazy expat life where ladies of leisure get together at coffee to discuss their travel plans, their maids, and their tennis game.

Still, crossing the medieval Charles Bridge with the seething mass of tourists, I saw backpackers. The real ones, carrying their world on their back like turtles. The whole of their adventure was before them.  They were off to see the inside of churches and the outside of expensive museums. They would soak in the architecture and look in shop windows.  And that night they would stare at the schedule board in the Central Train Station and decide where to go next. They will meet everyone: gypsies and communists, Aussies and Kiwis, thieves and saints.

And for that moment, I was jealous.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When the Hotel is the Best Part

Hotels in Europe are my nemesis. I sit looking at their shiny web sites… analyzing… skeptical. The restaurant photo, is that crystal on the table? The building is old, how thin are those walls? Do the reviews mention those red-flag words: “sleepy’, “quiet” or “romantic”?

I ignore all claims of a hotel being “family friendly”. I am no longer lured by offers of a “family sized” room. I’ve been to enough hotels. Those hotel marketing people cannot be trusted.

I am not a seasoned traveler any longer, I am a jaded traveler. I have to be:  I am a mother of three small children.

Every so often, though, I do get it right.

Normandy, France is known for a World War II invasion and a certain Tapestry in Bayeux. But in the hearts of my children, it will be known forever as the location of the Manoir d’Herouville.

I found the Manoir on, my travel bible. There were 67 reviews about the Manoir, each of them giving five out of five stars. Could this be possible? No, I thought. These must be honeymooners, or maybe traveling retirees. But, there were reviews by families, claiming to have small children, using phrases like “beyond all expectations” and “everything we wished for.” High praise. This I had to see.

Set in a valley of farm fields and forest, the Manoir offers classic Norman architecture dating from the 16th century. The early 18th century Pigeonnier was our home for the week. In pre-Revolutionary France, owning a Pigeonnier was a symbol of special favor with the king. For a nurse with the heart of an archtectural historian, like I am, it was nirvana.

Of course the kids don’t care at all about the impressive history or the fact that the Pigeonnier ceiling had 15th century timbers (so cool!). Ask them what they liked about Normandy and they will tell you about fishing in the pond, exploring the Manoir gardens, and a certain chicken named Reggie.

Reggie is a chicken who thinks he’s a dog. He begs for scraps, he cuddles, he coos when he’s petted. He chased after us on little chicken legs, betrayed that we would leave him in the driveway.

I loved this place because it offered us space to be a family, to make a little noise, to cook dinner in a kitchen, to put tired, happy, and sunkissed kids to bed on a separate floor, and at night to go out and see the stars of the Milky Way.

Sue and Dave, our hosts, were so accommodating. Sue told me up front, “We just love having children here.” And she meant it. Imagine, someone who was thrilled to see my kids each day. Someone who offered them treats from the kitchen. Someone who gave my son and husband a tour of the Nazi anti-aircraft artillery that just happened to be hiding in the barns.

This was such a far cry from our experience in Vianden, where a B&B owner followed my 2 year old around the dining room buffet hissing, “Shhh!!!” each time she spoke.

This place was like home. Actually, it was better than home, it was a real vacation.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"Livin' Movida Loca" by Guest Blogger Amy Abroad

“Jalouse?” I heard Tina ask the bouncer.

I shifted in my new boots, the boots I bought in a fog of ecstasy when I realized they zipped up over my calves.

“Jalouse?” she asked again.

The bouncer said something else.

“Straight down this way?” Tina pointed. “Jalouse. Jalouse. Jalouse.” She said it over and over, like a mantra.

Thank God for Tina, I thought. She can talk to anybody. She’ll figure out what we should do. After all, it was Heather’s 40th birthday, and we’d traveled all the way from Amsterdam to London to celebrate. And here we were, all five of us, ready to par-TAY.

“Jalouse,” she said when she came up to us a moment later. “Like jealous? I don’t know.” She shrugged.

Jalouse was another nightclub, a short walk away. The club we were standing outside of was called Movida. According to one review I read online later, it’s the “most significant and exquisite club venue” in London and “has played host to the world’s rich and famous.”

We didn’t know what to do. Stand in line and hope the bouncer thinks one of us is sufficiently attractive to let through the velvet rope? Or give Jalouse a try?

I took a long look at the line of 30 people waiting to get into Movida.

I say 30 people in the broadest possible sense. Because 12-year-olds aren’t people… not yet.

I knew that those kids had to be at least 21 in order to see and be seen at Movida, but I couldn’t get my head around it. They couldn’t be 21! Not those gangly toddler girls that look like they’ve been drawn where they stand by Edward Gorey.

“Slips of things,” my grandmother might have called them.

They wore tiny hip-hugging sheath skirts and huge strappy sandals that looked like they’d sunk their feet into cement blocks instead of shoes. Their pupils peeped jadedly out from ovals of smeary black eye liner, and their bare legs went up, up, up to their shoulders.

These girls were jaded, I tell you. Jaded—at the age of 12.

Why our concierge had thought to put us on the “guest list” at Movida I can’t fathom. And little did I know at the time, but being on the “guest list” doesn’t mean the bouncer checks your name off on his little clipboard, winks at you, and watches your ass as you sashay in. No. It apparently means that you may, if you so desire, stand in line behind 30 prepubescent stick figures and pray that the bouncer takes pity on you and your friends, who have 14 children among you.

My first thought: Doesn’t he know who I am? I’m the jet-setting, worldly-wise expatriate housewife and lady of leisure who just dropped $365 at the Bobbi Brown counter at Harrod’s. Without a sting of buyer’s remorse! I mean, come on! I’m not some wanna be; I’ve arrived!

My second thought: Oh, God, when did I get so old? And so un-pretty? I mean, Brown fraternity brothers used to pick my picture out of the pig book and invite me to their parties. But, then again, that was 1989. And here I was, three children and too many chocolate chip cookies later, and the standard of beauty was little girls who look like little boys who like to wear little skirts.

The competition outside Movida was prodigious.

So we headed toward Jalouse and thought philosophically about ageism and the prejudice of the pretty people and how there are cliques that still don’t want you as a member—even now, more than 20 years after you wore that mortarboard.

But when we got to Jalouse, we discovered that the Gorey girls had followed us there, too. Apparently, London was infested.

There would be no drinking apple martinis and rocking out to Dexy’s Midnight Runners tonight. We hopped a cab. Back to our hotel. Back to our PJs and ponytail holders. Back to “Troy.” And while Eric Bana and Brad Pitt didn’t make us feel any better, they didn’t make us feel any worse, either.

Written by my friend and fellow blogger Amy Abroad