Category: vacation

Biggest Surprises of My European Vacation

One of the things I love about traveling are surprises. You never really know the experience you’re going to have until you’re in the middle of it. (Ironically, one of the things I hate most about traveling are also surprises. When you think everything’s going to zig, but it does nothing but zag, that can be either very good or very, very bad.)

This past trip, I was revisiting a lot of places where I’d already been before. Salzburg. Vienna. Prague. I didn’t really think I’d get too many surprises out of those places, but I was okay with that, since they were some of my favorite places to visit. And yet they still managed to surprise me. In Salzburg, I read in advance about how incredible the Untersbergbahn was. Supposedly it was a gondola ride up a mountain.

I’ve done some of those. They’re fine, but I didn’t know if I really wanted to do another, especially when there were so many other things I could be doing, and this would require a special trip out of our way. But all the reviews I read of it said it was great, so we tacked it on at the last minute. As we followed the GPS to the spot, I was impressed by the mountains. We were in the Austrian Alps, and those peaks are pretty tall. I kept looking for a small peak where the gondola would take us, but I couldn’t see it.

When we were ten minutes away, I saw a tiny little house perched near the top of the biggest peak in the area. Surely that couldn’t be the . . . But then I saw the gondola heading up the mountain, and I knew it was. 4,300 feet up into the sky in under 10 minutes, leaving you 6,000 feet above sea level at the top. It was gorgeous and exhilarating, and I can’t believe it took me three times to Salzburg to find out about it.

Likewise, the trick fountains of Hellbrunn were a great surprise. I’d been there before (it’s where the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” gazebo resides from The Sound of Music), but somehow never checked out the fountains. They were made hundreds of years ago, designed to spurt out water on unsuspecting guests. They’re very successful in that task. I thought I’d be smarter than the fountains, but I got quite wet through the course of the tour. Each time you thought you’d escaped the worst of the water, but there was almost always a fountain right where you’d run for safety, and it would only turn on once you’d stopped to catch your breath.

The kids loved it. Salzburg was already a favorite city. To find two new fantastic experiences there was a real treat.

But the biggest surprise of the trip for me was a new city: Krakow. I’d never been to Poland, and Krakow was just about 3.5 hours from Denisa’s mom’s house, so it seemed like an easy trip to make. I didn’t know much about the city. It was nothing much more than a somewhat familiar name on a map. My expectations weren’t extremely high. It was just something to do, some place to go.

But it was absolutely charming. It’s got a compact old city, packed full of beautiful churches and buildings and a castle. It’s walkable, with great restaurants and a fantastic central square. It also feels very Eastern European, with the architecture and building design. We stayed right in the middle of the old city (had to walk a half mile to the parking lot where we stashed our car, since there was no parking or driving where we were). Sure, there was no AC at night, and the apartment was a bit run down, but the city itself was marvelous. I definitely want to go back. It didn’t dethrone Prague as my favorite European city, but I still loved it.

As for worst surprises of the trip . . . the last apartment in Budapest probably wins that award, but we won’t dwell on that. Remember the positive, I say. And nothing’s better than a really great surprise.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Budapest in Three Trips

This past vacation, I had the chance to visit Budapest three different times. Once at the beginning, once in the middle, and once at the end before we flew home. It was interesting how each time I went gave me a different experience, and I wanted to use that as a place to discuss how little things can make us each have entirely different impressions of a place or event.

First, a description of each visit.

Denisa and I stayed in Budapest together when I arrived in the country. She’d left the kids with her mom, and we had two days to explore the city on our own. (Well, more like one day, seeing as how on the first, I was still very jet lagged.) We stayed in one of the nicest hotels in the city. (Easy to do, when the city is fairly inexpensive. I think our hotel was about $150 a night.) It had a wonderful breakfast included each morning, air conditioning, modern facilities, and was very conveniently placed.

We spent our time going to different restaurants and exploring the city, walking 10 miles the one full day we were there. We had dinner at a lovely Hungarian restaurant with live music. We tried different ice cream shops and food trucks. It was an adventure, and tons of fun. Budapest seemed quite safe, friendly, and modern.

On our second visit, we were with our kids, and we met up with my sister and her family. 13 of us in all. We stayed in an apartment that was also close to downtown. It was fairly modern, if spartan. It had air conditioning, but the building itself had seen better days. (One of my nieces was startled by a rat running down the stairs as she was heading back one day.) No elevator, and it was quite a hike to get to our rooms. (Three flights of stairs, and then my own room was another two flights up.)

We spent our days going to actual places. Visited Parliament (gorgeous!), cathedrals, and parks. Budapest still felt safe and friendly, and the kids all had a great time. It was much more hectic than when it had just been Denisa and I, but that was to be expected.

On our third trip, we stayed one night, right before we left on an early flight in the morning. The apartment was downtown, but it was in a building that was poorly lit and in bad condition. The “air conditioning” advertised was in reality two old fans. The room was sweltering at night, and I couldn’t stand up in the shower (the ceiling was too low). It took a half hour for us to check in.

The city felt much colder, somehow. Darker. Less safe. We still had a good time, but really only when we went back to the places we’d been before.

If I’d gone to Budapest only one time, my experience of the city might have been very different, depending on where I’d stayed and what I’d seen and who I’d seen it with. But it was the same city, each time. I kept asking the kids what their favorite city was. Vienna came up a lot, and I think a fair bit of that had to do with the fact that our first night there was perfect. Beautiful apartment. A subway ride into the heart of town, where we saw Stephansdom and then walked to the old Rathaus, where there was a food and film festival going on. We ate under the stars and watched opera on the big screen. It was fantastic food and great atmosphere.

A vacation isn’t just where you go. It’s who you go with. What you eat. Where you stay. What you do. It’s the weather. Your health. The other people you meet. A few bad or great experiences one way or another can really skew the whole experience. In the future, I think I’ll be more ready to spend a bit more money to ensure good accommodations, as having a solid home base makes a huge difference. Our first two places were great. The third . . . not so much.

I remember seeing Dublin. We stayed way outside the city in a chain hotel, taking the bus thirty minutes in each time we wanted to see anything. I’m glad I’m at the point where I can spend more to be able to have a better experience, but it’s important to remember that this extends beyond vacation and into everyday life. The way we experience our towns and our jobs can be heavily influenced by what we can afford (or not afford) to do. Where we can afford to live. What we can afford to eat.

If someone ever tells you about the experiences they’re having in a place or with a person, never dismiss them because they conflict with what you’ve seen or done. Remember how complex everything can be, and listen.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

A Peaceful Weekend

I’m back at work after a nice, restful three day weekend. Well, not entirely restful. I still worked on writing, which I do pretty much without fail, because at this point, I don’t feel like a day was a good day if I didn’t get my 1,000 words in. Can you write yourself into an addiction? I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to.

We took the family off to a vacation home on Springy Pond, about 45 minutes away from Acadia National Park. The original plan had been to go to Acadia while we were there, but the traffic . . . did not bode well for a trip out there. Acadia isn’t the biggest park to begin with, and between gorgeous weather, the long weekend, and the fact that the leaves in Maine decided to wait to change color until just barely, and it was a perfect storm for big crowds.

So instead we did a couple of outings. Went down to Ellsworth, checked out Woodlawn, did some shopping, and ate some good food. (Big G’s on the way home, and 86 This! on Saturday. I can heartily recommend either.) We also played a bunch of games at the rental house we were staying in, and went kayaking on Springy Pond.

I wasn’t on Facebook much at all, and I have to say I felt a lot better for it. Before the weekend, there’d been another garbage fire of a conversation on my Facebook wall, and it left me with a very sour taste. The vast majority of people I interact with online are respectful and considerate. I believe there are some people who don’t have that gene, or they somehow didn’t have it properly develop during their upbringing. But interacting with people who are blatantly rude can be very depressing. I hate just walking away from someone who’s saying obnoxious things, but I feel like sometimes that’s just what I need to do.

Which of course begs the question, “Why do you still post to Facebook?” I know plenty of people who have stepped away from the venue, or they’ve locked down their posts so only friends can view them. I continue to believe that if my posts are just read by people who agree with me, then they stop really filling a purpose. I want people of all mindsets to read them. I just wish they’d all be polite in their responses.

Perhaps the real answer is just to do what I did this weekend, and unplug for a while now and then to remind myself that mouth-breathing trolls on the internet just don’t matter.

In any case, it’s time to head back into the fray. The semester is practically halfway over, believe it or not. Better yet, there are no conferences between me and Thanksgiving break, so maybe I can catch up on just about everything.

A guy can always hope, right?

A Camping Report

As I mentioned last week, the family and I headed to the great outdoors to go camping for our first time in five years. I really wasn’t sure how the trip would go. It was MC’s first time. DC’s second. And while I always would tell people that I liked to camp, I clearly haven’t done much of it recently. Plus, this wasn’t just going to be a camping trip. It was going to be a Camping Trip. I mean, we weren’t going to drive up to a camping spot, throw up a tent, and eat food out of the cooler we stored in our car. We were going to drive two hours, load all our stuff for three days into a canoe, and then paddle for 1.5 miles to our camping site, far from wifi and electronics.

This might not have been the full Lewis & Clark experience, but it was at least a Lewis solo record.

So we had to be sure all of our important things were in bags that would keep them dry. I’d like to say that I prepared like a professional for this trip, figuring it all out and becoming a camping master in the process, but that would be a lie. I just have a friend who’s a Maine guide (his wife is too), and he pretty much did everything for my family on this trip other than pack our bags. He picked the spot, planned the menu, brought the food, brought the tents, gave me the right bags, brought the right mats, brought the canoes, brought the fishing poles.

I bought my own fishing license. Does that count as preparation? Probably not, since I forgot to do that until we were already almost out of cell range and had to pull over to the side of the road to do it.

But this is the sort of thing he does professionally on his summers, and I’d always wanted to do it, so I’d planned this with him for quite some time. I wanted to see what it was like, and he was gracious enough to agree to take on the Bryce family for a few days.

I’ll admit that I’ve been stressed out enough the past few weeks that I didn’t leave on the camping trip in the best of moods. I have this writing deadline that’s taking up all my free time, and plenty of chores at home that needed doing. Why was I leaving to go do nothing for three days? Not only that, but I had to pack those wet bags oh-so-carefully. So as I was cursing under my breath, packing said bags, I really wished I’d never scheduled this thing in the first place. It was just one more thing to do.

Thankfully, that’s exactly why I schedule things ahead of time. Because past Bryce knows that future Bryce will be really happy he did cool things, even if present Bryce is a real stick in the mud.

We went on the trip, and we had a glorious time. It was an entire lake, and there were literally only two other groups on it. We canoed, swam, read, played games, ate like kings, fished, and explored. The kids paddled around on solo canoes. Tomas lit a fire from scratch without using matches. We picked wild blueberries and ate bass that we’d caught hours before. I even managed to stay on track with my writing goal, typing on my iPad during a brief rain break. The weather was cool, not hot, and it only rained a little. We went to sleep listening to loons calling on the water, and I woke up each morning to watch the mist clearing from the mountains around us.

It was about as Maine as you can get without having a wild moose walk through your camp.

Better yet, the whole family loved the experience, and they all wished we could have stayed longer. (Pro tip: always leave wishing you could have stayed longer. If you’re on vacation and are really wishing you could be home, something’s not going right with the vacation, and you’re blowing time off that could be better used at another time. I’d much rather my kids leave a camping trip wishing it could have lasted another day than come home wishing it had ended a day earlier.) I believe we’ll do this again next year.

In the meantime, if any of you out there is considering going on a camping trip of the kind I just described, exploring the Maine wilderness for a few days, either canoeing down a river or paddling over to a site and settling in, let me know. Like I said, my friend does this professionally, and I can now say without a shadow of a doubt that he provides a wonderful experience. He knows just what to do, he has all the equipment you’ll need, and he makes a mean sweet and sour chicken dinner. The only down side is his schedule fills up fast, so it’s kind of first come, first served.

I think it would make for a fantastic family vacation, especially if you’re not from Maine in the first place.

How Busy is Yellowstone the Week of the Fourth of July?

Every time I told someone I was going to head up to Yellowstone, they were initially excited. “Awesome!” they’d say. “When are you going?”

“July 1st.”

And almost to a person, that’s when the excitement would fade. Instead, their eyebrows would raise, and their tone would change to one of polite concern. The sort of tone you use when someone tells you they just opened a LuLaRoe store and wouldn’t you like to come to an in-home boutique session next week. “Oh,” they’d say. “You and everybody else in the nation, right?”

It was as if there were some unwritten law somewhere that stated that the week of July 4th, everyone would descend on Yellowstone en masse and make it as hellacious for each other as possible.

After this conversation played out with enough different people, I began to doubt my life choices. Perhaps going to Yellowstone that day was a bad decision. Maybe I should do something more reasonable, like skydiving without a parachute, or swimming with Great Whites. But after consulting my schedule, it was clear that if I was going to go to Yellowstone, it was then or not at all. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.

I’m on the flip side now. I have been to Yellowstone the week of the Fourth of July, and I am here to tell you all that all those people who were concerned for my sanity . . . didn’t need to be.

Don’t get me wrong: There were plenty of people in the park. Parking was bad for Old Faithful, the Paint Pots, and Artist’s Point. But “bad” in this case means “I had to wait for 5 minutes at the Paint Pots, walk for 5 extra minutes for Old Faithful, and wait for 20 minutes for Artist’s Point.”

If these were ride wait times at Disney World, everyone would be amazed at how short they were. The weather was gorgeous, too, so it’s not like we can chalk it up to “people just didn’t want to go.”

Basically, anywhere that was easy to get to and didn’t involve hiking at all was mobbed. Anywhere that was even remotely strenuous? Not that bad. If I’d gone on any real hikes, I’m confident I wouldn’t have seen many people at all.

So if you’re ever in a similar situation, and you’re wondering if you should give it a go, don’t let the naysayers dissuade you. We had a blast in the park. The only bit of advice I would give would be to leave your hotel early. We left Jackson Hole at 7:30am, and all was well. Also, download the cool Geyser App they have for the park. It’ll let you know when the geysers are scheduled to go off again. Just update it before you go into the park, or do it at Old Faithful. Cell coverage everywhere else in Yellowstone is pretty crummy.

And because I kept quoting him time and time again, and my kids have never seen him, here’s a Yogi Bear clip to show them what I was talking about.

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