Thursday, July 31, 2014

Yet another La Quinta...

We're staying at a La Quinta about 40 minutes from where our soon to be former house is.  It actually would have made more sense to stay at a La Quinta closer to Converse, since it's on the way to Houston.  But Bill's mom lives on the northwestern side of San Antonio, so we decided to stay closer to her.  She's driving us to Houston.  Or actually, Bill will probably drive... and she will come along and drive back home afterwards.

I'm going to stay in the hotel tomorrow while Bill deals with the movers.  I've done all I can do and the dogs need to be kept out of the way.  I'm happy because I don't want to go back to that house ever again and now I don't have to.

We are at La Quinta because it's pet friendly and reasonably priced.  It's basically got all we need, though if we were sans dogs, I'd want a more comfortable place.  The breakfast at La Quinta rather sucks.  This particular La Quinta is pretty well booked, too.  Hope I can keep the dogs calm tomorrow.  I'd almost want to go with Bill tomorrow because I think I'll be bored, stuck here with no car.  But it's really too hot to leave the dogs outside all day while the movers come in and out of the house.

Hard to believe I'll be in Germany again in just a few days.  I will have plenty to write about.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Paying for a seat reservation...

So I asked Mr. Bill to check out seat reservations on our Germany flight.  There were none, so he decided to make them.  But it turns out Lufthansa charges for seat reservations made more than 24 hours in advance.  A lot of seats were taken and he didn't want to risk us being seated apart.  So he paid $70 for us to be able to sit together.  Considering one of the seats he reserved was a middle seat, I kind of think it sucks.  But I'd rather pay the $70 and know we have seats together than not, I guess.

If you don't want to pay the money, you can risk reserving your seat 23 hours before you take off.  It probably would have worked out if we hadn't reserved our seats, but this move is stressful enough as it is.  By this time next week, I expect to be comatose in some German hotel.  Bill will be preparing for his new job and I will be entertaining the dogs and looking for housing.  Should be fun.

I'm getting pretty sick of all the nickeling and diming on flights these days...  I hope we enjoy Lufthansa, though.  I bet we'll like it better than United.  At the same time, shame on Lufthansa for charging $70.  Or maybe shame on us for paying it...  I did laugh when Bill said our seats are near the latrine.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

A week of silence...

It's been a week since my last travel post, mainly because I've been pretty busy with preparing for our move to Germany.  One week from today, the move begins in earnest.  Some of our stuff is presumably already on its way.  The cars go on Monday and barring any disasters, should arrive within three weeks of being shipped.  Maybe we'll see them in early September.

I joined a few Facebook groups for Americans in the Stuttgart area and, I have to say, had this not been our second move to Germany, I would be extremely grateful for their existence.  When we moved last time, we didn't have these Facebook groups with their very up-to-date information.  I still anticipate some pain on the German side of this move, but it's not as bad as it might be if we were landing there blind, like we did last time.

Yesterday, we went to Randolph Air Force Base to buy a new case for my new laptop and a mouse so I don't have to use the trackpad, which I can't stand.  Whenever we go there, it feels kind of odd to me.  It looks just like the AAFES in Stuttgart at Panzer Kaserne, which is where the facility is located.  I know it well, because we were there a lot during our first tour.  Although almost five years have passed, it almost feels like we were just there.  It's very odd to me.  I guess the older you get, the faster time flies and the more it seems like some things were just happening yesterday.

I know there have been some changes in the Stuttgart area.  For one thing, Panzer now has a hotel that was being built when Bill and I were there in 2009.  We won't be staying there because it's booked solid.  Besides, Bill and I would rather not stay on post.  I don't even know if we'd be allowed to, since he's retired now.  I think it's going to be weird adjusting to Bill as a civilian, wearing his own clothes instead of a uniform.  On the other hand, I think this job will be better for him than a job at a big four accounting firm would have been.  He relates well to military folks and that work interests him.

I'll miss him in his ACUs, though...  He looks great in his uniform.  I think we'll miss all the consideration you get in the military, too... like being able to take care of personal business sometimes during business hours.  This move may be harder for us in some ways.  On the other hand, we have the benefit of knowing and loving the area already.  It'll turn out okay, I think.  It just may be a challenge at first.  Once we're there, I have a feeling we'll be able to stay as long as we want to, as long as Bill stays a contractor.  

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My favorite European hotels… so far

Bill and I have been very fortunate to have spent a lot of time in Europe.  I'm very happy to be going back, if only because it means I can blog about the cool places we're bound to see while we're there this time.  One important part of traveling in Europe is finding a good place to stay.  Europe has an abundance of good hotels, but a few we've stayed in over the years stick out in my mind.  Here's a list of some of my favorite hotels in Europe.


We were fortunate to be able to take one last quick trip before we PCS'd back to the US in September 2009.  I decided we should go to Budapest, because I figured the other places I wanted to see-- mostly western European capital cities-- were more accessible from the United States.  Budapest seemed more exotic and it was also cheaper than places like Rome and Madrid (both of which we visited later).  Corinthia Hotel turned out to be a wonderful place to spend three nights.  We sprang for a reasonably priced executive room, which gave us access to a lounge where we had generous access to snacks and drinks all day.  The hotel itself is beautiful and conveniently located.  It also features a fantastic spa.  We were left we a great impression of Budapest and would happily go back… 


Parliament in Budapest


We visited Bella Baita in May 2008.  Run by American pastry chef Marla and her Italian husband Fabrizio, this adorable little B&B is located about five kilometers up a mountain side and offers stunning views of the French border.  Bella Baita is very reasonably priced, yet it offers a very authentic taste of Italian culture.  Marla and Fabrizio go to great lengths to give guests unique ideas on things to do.  When we stayed with them, we took a cooking class and Marla took us to the market in Pinerolo, a very charming little city where there are very few Americans.  We also visited Turin, which is where the flagship Eataly store is (a great place to visit if you're a foodie), and Briancon, a charming Alpine French border town.  I hope we can visit Bella Baita again during our next stint in Germany.


View from Bella Baita


Bill and I visited The Blue Beetroot in Bolaslaweic, Poland in November 2008.  At the time, it was a fairly new place that was just being discovered by American military wives on the hunt for Polish pottery.  Since then, it's become a booming place.  Bill and I didn't go there for pottery, though we did bring some home with us.  We went because it was our 6th anniversary and we wanted to visit Dresden and Prague.  I wasn't so hung up on pottery as I was interested in The Blue Beetroot, which I had stumbled across on Trip Advisor and thought sounded like a neat place.  We spent five nights there and visited Karpacz, a ski resort area, the Borowski glass factory, Dariusz Milinski's art gallery, and Legnica.  It was very cost effective and we kept surprisingly busy!  


Mr. Milinski's Puppet Theatre… across the street from his art gallery.  It's an amazing place.


We stayed at this charming, family run hotel near Dijon just a couple of months ago.  I wish we'd had longer than one night to enjoy this cute little inn.  We had an adorable room with a great view of the surrounding area and the hotel is located in a darling little residential area complete with a beautiful chapel.  It's a healthy walk to Dijon proper, but I managed to do it despite being well past my 20s.  Breakfast is served in a parlor and includes a delicious fruit salad, croissants, and fresh coffee by the pot.  The couple who owns this hotel are very kind and gracious.  If you don't mind being outside of the city center of Dijon, I highly recommend Hotel la Bonbonierre.  


Breakfast near Dijon...


This is a nice hotel in the Jewish Quarter of Seville.  It's located within steps of the cathedral and the maze like Santa Cruz neighborhood in Seville.  Bill and I really enjoyed this hotel's stylish interior and helpful staffers.  It's right in the thick of things without being too noisy.  If you visit Seville and enjoy spas, be sure to visit Aire, a very relaxing hammam within walking distance of the hotel.  And if you didn't bring a bathing suit, don't worry.  They have some there you can borrow.


Inside the Seville cathedral…


We found this gem of a family run hotel on Jetsetter.com and stayed there in May 2013.  It's located outside the city limits of Florence on a beautiful private estate.  Step behind the gated entry and enjoy the beautiful, natural scenery, peace, and quiet.  The hustle and bustle of Florence is just a short cab ride away.  One thing that made this hotel extra special for us was the arrangement they had with a local trattoria owned by another family.  It was close enough to walk to from the hotel, but the owners of the restaurant would pick up hotel patrons because the road in front of the hotel was dangerous to walk along with its hairpin turns and heavy traffic.  The restaurant offers delightful and authentic Italian cuisine and a waiter who easily speaks four languages.  


The view at Hotel Marignolle...

I may have to continue this post soon, but for now, these are just a few places we've enjoyed since our European adventures began in 2007.  I can hardly wait to discover more places when we go back to Germany in two weeks!  





Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Checklist...

1. Plane tickets-- check
2. Dogs booked-- check
3. Rabies shots and microchips-- check
4. Movers scheduled-- check
5. Cars shipped-- working on it
6. Carpets cleaned-- not yet
7. Ride to airport-- check
8. Stateside hotel booked-- not yet
9. German hotel booked-- not yet
10. German house found-- not yet
11. Junk hauled away-- not yet
12. Stuff donated to Goodwill-- partially done
13. Retirement ceremony?-- not yet

It's slowly coming together.  Sadly, Bill's first retirement check didn't get to us today, so that's one more stressor…  Good thing I saved some money.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Logistical hell...

So now we're trying to get everything together for our move.  A lot of it is going to be up to us, which means that it's going to be a big pain in the ass.  On the other hand, once we're done with this, we should be logistics experts.  We have to get one set of movers to move a little less than half of our stuff and another set to put our stuff in storage.    Then we have to ship our cars, buy plane tickets, and take care of our dogs.

Once we get to Germany, we have to find a place to live.  I think it might be easier this time than it was last time.  There aren't as many soldiers looking since most of them have to live on post now.  Also, there's more of an internet network with people leaving advertising for their landlords so we don't have to hire a realtor.

I think once we move to Germany, we will be able to stay awhile… probably longer than a couple of years if the desire to stay is strong.  These next weeks will be a challenge and it will be expensive for us  to get settled.  But then we'll be able to see new places and do new things.  And I'll be able to offer some guidance to government contractors who are functioning under the reality of government cutbacks.

For now, I'm just wondering why it's so damn expensive to get a one way ticket to Germany…


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The dark underbelly of Disney's "magic"...


 Aug 1, 2011 (Updated Aug 1, 2011)
Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Well-written and revealing.

     

    Cons:Tarnishes Disney's squeaky clean image.  A bit self-indulgent.

    The Bottom Line:Take a peek behind the facade at the Magic Kingdom.

    When I was growing up, I was a big fan of amusement parks.  Two of my three older sisters had jobs at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia, which meant my childhood was punctuated with free passes to Anheuser-Busch's version of Europe.  In 1989, when I was on the edge of seventeen, I took a job at Busch Gardens and spent four summers peddling ice cream in a fake German village.  From the very beginning of my employment at Busch Gardens, it was impressed upon me and my colleagues that we were there to create a special experience for park guests.  There were many rules to follow in the interest of promoting a wholesome family friendly image.  All Busch Gardens employees were referred to as "cast members" and our uniforms were called "costumes".  We were encouraged to think of ourselves as entertainers, rather than mere ride operators, sweepers, or food service employees.

    Some park guests really did buy into the fantasy; one time, I was even asked if I was really from Germany, the way park employees are at Walt Disney World's German pavilion.  Although the job was fun and I made a lot of friends, I eventually grew weary of the political nature of Busch Gardens and the tourist trap quality of amusement parks in general.  I stopped working at Busch Gardens in 1992 and, save for a couple of isolated visits, have pretty much left behind my love of amusement parks.  I am still somewhat fascinated by them, though.  That's why I decided to read Chris Mitchell's 2010 book Cast Member Confidential: A Disneyfied Memoir.


    Who is Chris Mitchell and how did he end up working for Disney?


    At the beginning of Cast Member Confidential, Chris Mitchell explains that he was in need of a little magic.  He had come to Orlando from Los Angeles, running away from his career as a sports photographer and his mother's cancer diagnosis.  He applied for a position as a Disney photographer, hoping to find a diversion from the bad turns his life had taken.  He easily landed the job, though the man who hired him could tell he was overqualified for the position.


    Chris Mitchell's new job was to take pictures of Disney characters posing with guests at Animal Kingdom.  Aside from that, Chris Mitchell, like everyone else who worked for Disney had to follow "the rules", rigidly enforced so that no one spoiled the Disney magic for paying customers.  Mitchell's boss, Orville, handed him a thick cast member handbook and ordered him to study it.  He would learn such rules as never to make hand gestures or eat in front of guests while he was working.  He would get a haircut that complied with Disney's strict appearance guidelines.  He would, above all, learn that the most important rule of all was never to "break character".  When he was on the job, Mitchell was never to behave in a way that went against the Disney image.  That meant he had to smile, be very friendly, and basically not be real.

    Mitchell explains how Disney characters are selected for their roles; the hiring process is brutal and exacting and requires much more than just acting skills.  Because of that sacred Disney image, characters must be the right height, have the right look, and be willing and able to never break character no matter what, even if someone else's life depends on it.  Mitchell describes some of the "face characters" he knew who worked very hard to perfect their impersonations of Disney characters, right down to employing method acting techniques when they were off the clock.  He knew a woman who completely changed her lifestyle just so she could be more like Cruella Deville, a character role for which she had worked very hard to obtain approval to perform.


    A peek behind Disney's backstage 

    Of course, no human being can behave like a Disney character all the time.  From the beginning of his stint at Disney, Chris Mitchell is exposed to the people behind the "magic".  He immediately finds out that the squeaky clean characters he follows around all day have much darker alter-egos.  He runs into Disney employees who are open homosexuals, binge drinkers, drug users, and one guy who commits vigilante acts for good causes.  He offers glimpses at Disney sponsored housing communities for employees at the many Disney themeparks in the Orlando area.  Your college dorm might have been party central, but chances are excellent that it would pale in comparison to the apartments rented by Disney employees.  Aside from a look at the party habits of Disney characters, Chris Mitchell also offers a poignant look at all the talent that has washed up in Orlando, people who, just like Mitchell, had run away from the demons of their lives outside the Magic Kingdom.  He also offers a little insight about park guests who are Disney fanatics.  Called "collectors", these guests keep Disney employees on their toes.  


    My thoughts


    I mostly enjoyed reading Chris Mitchell's book.  I have never so much as set foot inside a Disney theme park, but I've still been affected by Disney.  I've seen Disney movies and television shows, and have heard Disney music and stories about Disney vacations from friends.  I can't deny that Disney productions are usually very entertaining, if not a bit too perfect.  As a kid, I always wanted to visit Walt Disney World, but now as an adult, the prospect of going to theme parks isn't nearly as interesting to me.  I still love to get a vicarious experience through reading tell all books like Mitchell's.  An added bonus is that Mitchell is a decent writer who has a knack for turning creative phrases, even though some of his metaphors are a bit bizarre.


    I will warn that this book may be disheartening for some readers, especially those who really love Disney.  If you want to preserve the Disney magic, you might not want to read this book.  it really offers a jaded look at Disney and reveals its "magic" for what it really is.  Moreover, I got the feeling that while Mitchell did get a book out of his experience at Disney, after less than a year on the job, he also lost some of his idealism.  The author also occasionally comes off as a jerk, although in fairness to him, he does sort of admit his jerkiness.      


    This book reminds me just a little of a South Park episode that aired a couple of years ago.  The South Park kids end up revealing Mickey Mouse's money hungry dark side which uses the Jonas Brothers to exploit little girls from wholesome families.  The episode was funny, but also kind of dark and sinister.  In some ways, this book is that way too.  It makes Disney out to be a greedy corporation staffed with a lot of characters with poor character.

    Overall


    Disney is famously protective of its image and seeks to create "magic" for the masses.  That means the people who work for Disney have to follow a lot of rules, much like the ones I had to follow at Busch Gardens.  Of course, Disney's rules make Busch Gardens' rules look positively lax.  This book offers a fascinating look at what goes into Disney's brand of corporate magic, though I have to admit that after reading this book, I'm even less inclined to visit Disney World.  I'll stick with luxury cruises on SeaDream I.


    For more information:  http://castmemberconfidential.com/

    Cute anecdotes about working for Disney...

    Pros:Feel-good stories about working for Disney.

    Cons:The stories are old blog posts that originally appeared on the Niles' Web site.

    The Bottom Line:If you need a light read about Disney, this book is a good bet.

    Those of you who regularly read my book reviews may remember that I've written a few reviews of books written by people who have worked for Disney in some capacity.  When I get interested in a subject, I often end up buying several books and having a Kindle makes that habit even easier to indulge.  That's how I ended up reading Robert Niles' 2011 book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider.  I was also reassured by the mostly good reviews this book got on Amazon.com.

    This book is obviously about Niles' experiences working for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  As a Disney employee who operated rides in the 1980s and 90s, Niles ran into a number of amusing situations involving park guests.  His chapters relate stories about everything from rescuing castaways from Tom Sawyer's Island to the awkwardness of having to ask women in line if they were pregnant.  All the while, Niles keeps his tone upbeat and his language clean and wholesome.  The closest he hints to anything remotely off-color is when he writes about a couple who engaged in some questionable activity on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

    I mostly enjoyed reading this book, but it occurred to me that the chapters were kind of disjointed as well as familiar.  And then I learned that this book is basically a collection of blog posts.  Indeed, Niles is the creator of ThemeParkInsider.com, a Web site that offers reviews of theme parks and theme park hotels, as well as travel tips.  Apparently, a lot of the anecdotes in this book originally appeared on Niles' Web site.

    Niles is obviously a Disney booster, so Stories from a Theme Park Insider will probably really appeal to people who love all things Disney.  I have never been to any of the Disney parks myself, but I did work at Busch Gardens Williamsburg for four summers. A lot of Niles' stories were somewhat familiar to me and they gave me the chance to reminisce about some of the more positive memories of my own theme park employment experiences.  At $3, this book is also not going to break the bank.

    If you like true stories about theme parks, especially Disney's Magic Kingdom, I can recommend Stories from a Theme Park Insider.  It's a quick, light, mostly positive read that will probably leave you smiling.  On the other hand, if you frequent Niles' Web site, this book might not feel particularly new.  Also, keep in mind that Niles' stories come from the late 80s and early 90s.  If you're looking for more recent anecdotes, this book might disappoint you.

    Robert Niles' site: http://www.themeparkinsider.com/

    Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    Virginia

    My husband Bill and I just took a very quick trip to Virginia, mainly so I could say goodbye to my dad, who is on his death bed.  Virginia is my home and I felt comforted by that when we landed in Norfolk, though that was my first experience with the Norfolk airport.  I was amazed by all the pretty trees and distinctive Virginia accents I heard over our too brief trip.

    I've already delved into what's going on with my dad on my main blog.  Here, I want to focus on travel.  Bill and I had to arrange for a very sudden trip, which would  have been very expensive had we not had plenty of Delta Skymiles to burn.  I can be grateful to the Army for that, at least, since we had enough for two tickets from Houston to Norfolk by way of Atlanta (80,000 miles).  Had we not had those miles, it would have cost us about $1100 to fly from Houston and over $2000 to go from San Antonio.

    We live about three hours from Houston, so we were already a little travel weary once we got on our flight on Saturday.  Yesterday's trip home from Houston was even more tiring, since we got there just in time for rush hour.  It felt like being in D.C. again and took almost an hour to get beyond all the congestion.  

    I have to hand it to Delta.  I was afraid Bill and I would be separated on the plane and seated in the ass of the aircraft.  Actually, we weren't.  There was only one leg where they tried to split us up and that was easily rectified.  Naturally, I didn't get frequent flyer miles for this trip, though I will get credit for buying Internet access.  Usually Delta's Internet works well, but this time I had some issues with it-- at least when I tried to access it on my iPad.

    We stayed at the Hampton Inn right across the street from Sentara CarePlex Hospital in Hampton, Virginia.  My dad is a patient there, so it was very easy to cross the street to visit him.  We were given a nice room appointed with a shower, couch, microwave, and refrigerator.  The couch came in handy, because a couple of uncles and a cousin and his wife showed up on our second night for a visit.  Internet was free and there was a pool and fitness room, though I didn't try either.

    CBN… Pat Robertson's empire in the Norfolk area.

    I wasn't all that impressed with the breakfast at the Hampton Inn.  It wasn't well stocked on the first morning, which was the only time we ate it.  The hot items weren't too appetizing and the juice and coffee weren't very good.  Fortunately, we will soon be living in a place where breakfast at hotels generally doesn't get messed up too much.

    I wish I'd had time to stay longer, though we did enjoy a visit at Fort Monroe's beach and a restaurant near Buckroe Beach that was right on the water.  The Hampton Inn is conveniently located in a quiet area and as long as you have a car, you can easily get to restaurants and shopping.  There's also a lot to do in the Hampton Roads area.  I grew up there, so I don't appreciate it the way a non-local might… but maybe I appreciate it more in other ways…


    We discovered a nice pizza restaurant at the Atlanta airport on Concourse A.  It overlooks the tarmac, so you can watch the baggage handlers.  That turned out to be very entertaining, especially when the bags fell off a plane… or maybe it was a truck.  It looked like the plane.

    Given the shit that has happened this month, I almost wish I could just move back there and forget about Germany.  I'm serious.  This international move shit is really getting me down.