It has taken me a couple of days to get around to writing up the Europe tour. I picked up a little cold on the way home, combined with the jet lag, and I was pretty out of it. But I’m semi coherent now, so here goes.
I’m not going to post all the pictures. My wife was posting those on Facebook the whole time, and I’m pretty sure Jack would get angry if I overloaded the website and crashed it again. Anyways, the pics are all up on my and her Facebook pages if you want the full on tourist slide show effect. We took Unabashed American Selfies at pretty much every landmark we came across.
We’ve been married for 18 years, and this was the longest trip we’ve taken together in that whole time. This was also the first time in Europe for both of us, and we were motivated to see as much as possible. We were there for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to leave a lot out, but we were busy the whole time.
My new phone has an app that tracks how many steps you take and how many flights of stairs you climb. To put “busy” in perspective, during this trip we walked 118 miles and climbed 274 flights of stairs.
You will notice some themes in this report. Bridget loves the history, the culture, the sights, the art… I mostly travel for the food. But hey, 274 flights of stairs, so I was hungry.
I also learned that I do remarkably well with jet lag. Bridget, not so much. I was adjusted to Europe time in the first 24 hours. It took her about a week and a half. Plus we picked up a cough on the plane ride over, so that made it fun. Interesting side note, there is this cold medicine in England called “Night Nurse” and I don’t know what the hell they put in it, but it kicks Nyquil’s ass. I’m betting we can’t get it here because you can cook it into meth or something, but damn, it is awesome, and it will knock you the hell out… Either that or I just took way too many of them.
We started in London. I was there for London Book Fair, some parties related to that, and a signing at Forbidden Planet. Jim Minz was there for Book Fair too, which meant we ate with Jim a lot, because Baen Company Credit Card, and Jim is even more of a foodie than I am. Score. So people ask me, snidely, about the quality of British food… I wouldn’t know. We only ate at really nice places the whole time.
For example, one night the owners of Titan (fantastic people) took us out. And then Mick Jagger shows up and sits a few tables away. That kind of restaurant. So as far as I know, British food is awesome. Though we did also hit some pubs, because Pub Food, and I needed to check authentic fish & chips, and meat pies off my list. And cheeses… Oh man, I tried like 48 kinds of cheeses while I was in London.
As far as sights, we walked up and down the Thames. We spent a whole afternoon at the Tower of London (it was raining, so hardly any crowd, which made it nice). We toured the National Gallery. We spent one day just doing the hop on and off tour on the Big Red Bus, and did the Thames River boat tour. We visited the Imperial War Museum. I climbed to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral (beautiful, and that day took the record with 47 flights of stairs). Kind of quiet and out of the way, but the Temple Church—where they signed the Magna Carta—was fascinating. We ate at the restaurant at the top of the Shard, which I believe is the tallest building in Europe, but don’t quote me on that.
Of my tourist adventures, just one funny thing about the Imperial War Museum. It has this super amazing in depth section on WW1. Extremely well done. Lots of details, going through the war month by month, from the events leading up to it, until the very end. So I’m going along (from Grimnoir, I really know this time period well) loving it, get to the Russian revolution, see a bit about how this was now make or break time for the allies, because the Germans made one last push before the Americans could get there, desperate battles, details about the struggles, there’s one little tea set with a bust of Black Jack Pershing (scowling, obviously)… and then YAY! WE WON! THE WAR IS OVER! And I was like hey, wait… Where’s the part where AEF showed up? I thought I’d missed a display. I mean really, they had displays for the Turks, and countries like Luxembourg, where’s America? Oh, there’s an American gun over there… Nope. That’s the IRA. So apparently America didn’t actually participate in WW1. I know it’s the British War Museum, and we didn’t show up until the tail end, but come on, guys. We did mobilize like 4 million men, had like 300k casualties, and kind of wrapped the thing up for you.
No wonder Black Jack was scowling.
The signing was fun. Forbidden Planet is geek heaven. This is where Simon Pegg and John Boyega shopped before they became famous. I got to meet a few people I know from the internet, and we had a good time.
I didn’t attempt to drive in London. Too short a time to try and figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road. Also, note, if you’re going there, you will quickly discover that when you’re crossing the street, you are looking the wrong way first. Not that it matters, since apparently it is impossible to actually drive more than six miles an hour anywhere inside London, because it is all one lane streets crowded with bus lanes, and bike lanes as big as the bus lanes.
Another fun little story—kind of the opposite of the Ugly American Tourist stereotype, while still being my culturally insensitive self—Bridget and I are riding on the train one day. We rode the train in London a lot (we were staying over on the west side in Shepherd’s Bush), and the train was always crowded. Now I’ve got this thing that if I’m ever on public transportation, if I’m sitting down, and a woman or someone older than me has to stand, then I immediately give up my seat for them. Period. That’s just how I was raised.
So we’re riding along, rush hour, we got on at a quiet stop, so Bridget and I are sitting. The train stops again, fills up, and this woman is stuck standing. So I immediately offer her my seat and stand up. (note, there are a bunch of British dudes sitting around us, and none of them would offer their seats). Apparently this is odd enough that another woman sitting next to my wife remarks on it. I don’t notice. I’m standing. Then we stop, a bunch of people get off, and I sit down again.
Next stop, same thing, more people arrive, there’s a woman standing, so I get up and give her my seat. Each time this repeats, the British women are all surprised, happy, and thankful, with an increasing number of British men scowling at me, because shockingly enough, the women were all very friendly and surprised by the gesture, and now the lady sitting next to Bridget loudly remarking on what a gentleman catch I am. Last time, I stand up again, this time for an attractive young woman (seriously, you guys won’t even offer your seat to a pretty girl?) and she says something to the effect of how you don’t see men give up their seats on the train here, and I just can’t resist, so I (loudly) say (with my obvious accent) “Oh, that’s just how we do it in America.” All of the men just kind of look at their shoes.
That’s right. That’s payback for the War Museum leaving out Black Jack.
Seriously though, I really enjoyed London. It is a cool town. My favorite part had to be walking to the top of Saint Paul’s. I don’t recommend it for anybody who is scared of heights. The little stairwell along the dome is very narrow, and I could only get my toes on the steps, but worse was the newer metal staircase that’s just kind of hanging in the middle of an open space between the walls. Amazing view from the top though. Beautiful city.
From London we hopped a little jet down to Nantes in Brittany. My French publisher L’Atlante is headquartered there, and we had a fun signing. Luckily at the event there was an American from Tennessee who’d married into a cognac making family who was able to jump in and translate. Thanks!
This part of the trip was my first experience with navigating around without speaking the language. I’d been told by seasoned travelers that the best thing to do in France was to learn enough phrases to at least attempt to communicate, that being taken as far more respectful than just blundering your way through starting out in English. Problem was apparently I said Bon Jour way too good a couple of times, and the person I was addressing assumed I understood the torrent of words that they immediately responded with, until they’d realized I was standing there, going, dur, erp,… uh…. And then they took pity on me.
After that I discovered that you can pretty much maneuver your way through a foreign country as long as you know how to say Hello, Thank You, and Excuse Me. Combine that with pointing, grunting, and holding up fingers to indicate quantity and you’re golden.
I rented a car at the airport (sporty little Peugeot thingy), and immediately discovered that all of the Americans I’ve heard whining about European traffic were full of crap, and roundabouts are awesome when all the other people on them know what the hell they are doing.
Nantes is a nice town. I think the good folks from my French publisher thought I was exaggerating when I said that I wasn’t one of those wussy American tourists who wanted to eat at TGI Fridays, and that I preferred whatever the locals eat, because at dinner one night they ordered me this mega oyster bucket. And you had to eat them in order, because it was all the oysters of Brittany, in order down the coast. That was a lot of raw oysters. But I was all like, slurp, yum, slimy and salty. Next! Until I had a plate full of shells. I’m not a big Foi Gras fan, but this was the first time I’d seen actual Foi Gras fat. It was so thick and yellow that I assumed it was cheese. Ate that too. Told you guys. Local cuisine? Bring it on!
Then we took a road trip up the western side of France to Normandy. We stopped by Mont St. Michel, which is absolutely breath taking to see off in the distance all by itself. Then we headed to Bayeux, and we took a bunch of small roads through little villages. Bridget has an Art History degree, so she needed to see the Bayeux Tapestry in person. I thought it was really cool, considering that it was basically a big thousand year old comic book.
Next morning it was off to Omaha Beach. The American Cemetery there is kind of awe inspiring. We walked up to where you could see the lines of white crosses just as the bells were playing. It feels like sacred ground. Very emotional.
While road tripping across France we stopped at a gas station and I impulse bought this candy bar at the stand called Kinder Bueno. OH MY GOSH MAGIC CANDY WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE? After that I tried all the candy bars of Europe, and I came to the shocking realization that American chocolate is waxy garbage, and we are losing the Snack Wars.
Next up was Versailles, which is a magnificent giant palace. Those people truly understood the concept of “bling”.
Then we drove over to Paris and dropped off the rental car. We spent three days there. If you make a triangle of the Lourve, to the Eiffel Tower, to Notre Dame, we were right in the middle of those. We spent the whole time wandering around, checking out sights (Yes, I know it is the city of love, but I will always think of Paris as the City of Ham Sandwiches, as there are literally ham sandwiches about every fifteen feet, and the French win bread).
Now this part of the trip was very research oriented because a lot of Alliance of Shadows takes place in Paris. I’m going to have to rewrite several scenes now that I know what the actual areas feel like.
The neatest thing in Paris to me was the Catacombs and the Ossuary. If you’re not familiar with those, read up on them. Absolutely fascinating stuff. The part you can access is a tiny fraction of the tunnels. When you’re down there, you can feel that you are way, way, down. And then you get to the part with six million dead people crammed into it. Yeah, really interesting. But don’t bring your little kids, like this one Dad of the Year had done. Poor little kid was going to have nightmares for the rest of his life, while Dad’s all like “Just pose next to the pile of skulls, while I take your pic, yay.” I found it to actually be a very reverent kind of place, or at least it was once we were able to let this really loud group of Italians past us.
Food highlight of Paris, we went to a really expensive, nice fish place for dinner. I got sea bass. Why? Because I’d had sea bass at some of the fanciest restaurants in Manhattan, London, and now Paris, and it sounds really pretentious and snooty to say that. Yes. I’m ready to be an Iron Chef guest judge! (side note, Paris won the Sea Bass Challenge).
A quick note on the security situation, just because lots of people asked me about it. No. We didn’t see any protests or riots, but then again we were over in swanky rich shopping area tourist central. Because of the recent terrorist attacks most of the cities we visited had soldiers patrolling the streets, usually in four man teams, with armor and rifles. (first time I saw the new FA MAS, and in Prague they were all sporting BRENs). Then there were cops everywhere, usually with subguns (MP5s mostly, but also some Beretta M12s). All of the big stores we entered had security checking bags and backpacks, and some cursory wanding of people. Though that part kind of ticked me off, because as an American that conceals guns every day, it was obvious nobody had trained the security guards where and how people actually conceal guns on their bodies, and I could have smuggled an RPG into a few of the fancy establishments that I won’t name. If you’re going to have security, at least teach them how to do it right.
Speaking of security, I won’t say where we saw this, because I don’t know what they were there for, but American trigger pullers stand out. It’s that Beardly McOperator look. I’m talking full Contractor Chic. When you see a dozen guys all eyeballing something, and they’re sporting 5-11s, Tap Out, tribal tattoos, Big Penis Watches, and various Surefire and Under Armor logos, and as innocuous bystander tourist guy I suddenly feel like I’m standing in line at SHOT Show, I certainly hope this isn’t you guys’ idea of “blending in”. Sheesh. At least have the really buffed dude ditch the paracord bracelets.
Related note, many of the locals we visited or dined with asked us about our feelings on visiting despite some recent events (and interestingly enough, visiting some of the other countries that were right next door to them, Germans surprised we visited Paris, etc.) and my response was always the same. Fuck terrorists. They’re assholes. We can’t let them dictate shit and I’m more likely to get hit by a truck.
At other times I had to explain to various Europeans that their news was full of it, and unless you were involved in the drug trade in Chicago, your odds of getting shot in America were about the same as getting shot in Canada.
Then we rode one of the super trains to Germany. A super smooth 300km (180 mph) train is pretty freaking bad ass. Plus we were in 1st class, where your seat is basically a recliner, and they fed me duck and fine cheeses for lunch. Of course, when I did this I posted on Facebook about how a Euro bullet train makes Amtrack look like crap, I had a bunch of people helpfully lecture the guy who lives in rural mountain Utah about how we can’t do that here because of “population density”. Gee whiz. Thanks. I was unfamiliar with the concept.
In Germany we picked up another rental car. And unlike in France and England where all the cars we’d seen had been tiny, here we wound up with a big diesel Volvo station wagon. Comfy, but not exactly a sports car, only keep that vehicle in mind, because it’ll make my autobahn adventures even cooler later. 🙂
We spent a few days in Heidelberg, which is an absolutely beautiful little college, river town. The castle overlooking the town is remarkable and has one hell of a view. I found this part to be kind of quiet and romantic, at least until the Viking River Cruise docks and a thousand old people debark.
Best part of Heidelberg though? The food. Oh man, I love German food. Our hotel manager was from there, so we asked him where was the best place in town for authentic food. He steered us to a place called Vetters in old town. And I ended up eating there three times over three days. Bridget and I have this perfect symbiotic relationship, where she eats very little, and I’m perpetually hungry, so we both order a meal, I eat mine, she eats 1/3 of hers and gets full, so I eat the rest of hers too. German food rocks. Snitzel is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy. My whole life I’ve hated sauerkraut, but that is because I’ve only eaten American sauerkraut, which is toxic sludge that merely shares a name with this magical German food.
Then we drove over to Ramstein, where I had an event. This was just a little one at the PX, but we met some cool people. Then we visited another little town that I can’t remember the name of, which once again convinced us that despite European food being amazing at most things, they truly suck at pizza. Okay, so we lose bread and candy bars, but America wins pizza.
Then we visited this little town called Rothenberg Something Something, where their old town is this walled in area that hasn’t changed much since the 1600s. It was neat.
Of all the languages, German was by far the easiest to pick up words and phrases for me. Despite being related to Portuguese and Spanish, French sounds totally eluded me. And Czech is HARD (they have like 46 ways to make conjunctions). But German shares a lot of word roots with English, and the actual structure is pretty straight forward. Plus it is fun to just walk around and make up vaguely German sounding names for things, like a pigeon is Das Poopinbirden.
The next day we drove across all of Germany to the Czech Republic, and I got to experience the autobahn, which my whole life has been this sort of mythical place that has no speed limits, and is filled with drivers that understand slow traffic stays right, and where they never camp in the left lane, and in fact, if you’re blocking the left lane, they’ll come right up on your bumper at 100 miles an hour, honking, and flashing their lights. It was a place devoid of mercy, unforgiving of weakness. So we set out.
Apparently there are two kinds of tourist drivers on the autobahn. Those who are weak, fearful, whose crying pillows smell of lilacs and shame, who stay in the truck lane, or who wander out into the left occasionally, timidly, to be honked at and chased aside by awesome Teutonic Super Drivers…
And the other kind is the American who manages to average 180km an hour across all of Germany in a Volvo diesel station wagon.
It was AMAZING. I felt like a race car driver across an entire country. You know why German cars don’t have cup holders? Because if you stop to drink while driving, YOU WILL DIE. And you should. You need to be on. I’d get a gap, jump out to the left, floor it (because fuel economy is for hippies I’m on the mother f’ing autobahn!), and nobody pulls out in front of me in a minivan to enforce their personal speed limit, people ahead of me going slower (like 100mph) immediately get out of the way, and when some bad ass comes up behind me in a super car, I get out of his way, and then they blast past me like I’m standing still.
It was beautiful.
You wouldn’t think a diesel Volvo would be comfy at 112 miles an hour, but it really is. Yes. I friggin’ love the autobahn. If I lived here I would buy a giant BMW or Audi and drive very fast, all the time. Why can’t we have something like this here? I would like to institute autobahn style rules on I-15 in Utah. Sure, a few thousand people would probably die in the first weekend, but after that it would be awesome.
Then we arrived in the Czech Republic, which though it is an amazing country, has American style speed limits. And all of a sudden freeway speeds felt so very slow. (I also didn’t know how to pump gas there, which took a bit of figuring and guess work, since nobody spoke a word of English at the gas station, and it wasn’t like How Do I Operate Your Gas Pump was one of the phrases I’d tried to learn in Czech).
Now, Prague is super cool. It is a really neat city. We dropped off the Volvo (farewell my friend) at the airport. My Czech publisher had warned me that Prague taxi drivers loved to rip off tourists, so a local author met us there and got us a ride into town, where we met with some others for dinner. And the next morning we met more people who guided us around. They were excellent hosts. Truthfully, in Prague they treated us like rock stars.
The outskirts of Prague are like most modern industrial places, nice parts, rough parts, lots of graffiti, that sort of thing, but as you get closer to the heart of the city, the vibe changes. And old town Prague is simply beautiful. Big parts of it have hardly changed for centuries. I really loved Prague. The Czechs are a fun people. They have this kind of to hell with it sense of humor that meshes really well with mine. They’re big on long meals and animated conversations. They really hate socialists.
I had a couple of events in Prague, both of which were great. I wasn’t joking about the rock star treatment. I knew I sold well there, but the reception was unexpected. We were in local magazines. There were really enthusiastic crowds. People had printed off glossy photos of me from the internet to sign. I got intercepted by fans in the bathroom for signatures. They had made t-shirts with me as a cartoon character like the Heavy off of Team Fortress.
In the city we visited Prague castle, which is pretty epic, and the Charles Bridge. We spent a lot of time wandering around by the river, and hitting various things around the old city. The famous astronomical clock is remarkable. We visited the Czech military museum, and they’ve got some guns there that are extremely rare in the west (this was the part where I turned into the tour guide).
Czech food is kind of similar to German food, but a little different. They love meat in sauce, usually with some sort of dumplings, and man it is good. I had goulash, wild boar, snitzels, you name it. (and fried cheese!) And they do this traditional street food desert that’s sugar dough wrapped around a stick, cooked over an open fire into the shape of a bowl, which you can then fill with ice cream and Nuttela (Europeans put Nuttela on everything).
Our last day, Bridget and I just wandered around by ourselves, checking out shops. Pro tip, if you ever want to get a really, giant fancy crystal chandelier, go to Prague. That’s kind of their thing. And they’re used to shipping them to the US. After that we went to a grocery store and filled our luggage with Kinder and Orion candy bars.
Then we flew home, and that was one hell of a travel day. We got up at 3:00 AM, took a flight to Amsterdam, and had our flight from there to SLC delayed for an additional five hours, so we got to hang out at the airport there doing absolutely nothing, to then have a 10 hour flight home. (on that flight I read 200 pages of Brian Durfee’s upcoming book—it is good—watched Mad Max, Jurassic World, and Creed, so I kind of caught up on some of the popular movies I’ve missed lately).
But we picked up a new cold somewhere along the way (Bridget got it a lot worse than I did and she’s still wiped out) and between that and jet lag, I can’t really remember the first part of this week. Though apparently the LA Times decided my brief little Hugo blog post from then sounded “bitter”. That’s the ticket. 🙂 Yeah, you mopes should run with that.
As we drove home, and lackadaisical minivans blocking the left lanes enforcing their arbitrary personal speed limits, I realized that I would really miss the autobahn. Seriously, let’s just try it for a week. Sure. There will be lots of fiery wrecks and exploding minivans, but after that it would be awesome.
I’ve been playing catch up. I get a ton of emails every day, so it is going to take me a bit to get through all of this. I also owe Baen a Bubba Shackleford short story for an anthology ASAP. Then I need to edit Alliance of Shadows with all my European research trip stuff. Then it is on to MH: Sinners editing.
However, when I was catching up on my emails yesterday I discovered that Audible had sent me the final finished recording of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent, narrated by Adam Baldwin, and I had to drop everything to listen to the whole thing. Oh man. I died laughing (and I already knew all the jokes!) Adam absolutely rocks it. He gets into the performance, and does a full on audio play, with different voices for every character. And some of the celebrity impersonations (won’t give them away) were amazing, because I didn’t know he did impersonations.
I had a wonderful time. This was the best trip Bridget and I have ever taken together. We got to see a lot of great things, met a lot of wonderful people, and had some unique experiences. It sure does feel good to be home though!