Munich, Germany

At what point during a five week tour of European cities do you know it’s time to go home? I believe I know the answer to that question: when you puke in a hotel bathtub and have to clean it up with a tea cup and your bare hands, the universe is telling you to pack your things and go.

After we arrived to Munich, our final destination, Tom asked me how I felt about the impending conclusion of our travels. I had spent so many hours over the course of so many months planning and anticipating this trip, and now that it was coming to a close I was feeling all the feelings: joy, relief, sadness, gratitude, a looming sense of despair and loss of purpose. We had gone on so many adventures, enjoyed so many activities, and made so many discoveries as a family, I couldn’t have asked for a more wondrous experience. I was beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to travel with the people dearest to me, to do what I loved most with the loves of my life. I was relieved that, miraculously, we hadn’t suffered any major disasters or illnesses and, for the most part, most things had gone according to plan. I was looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. I was disappointed that this adventure was now mostly in the past instead of the future, and wistful about all the cities we hadn’t gotten to see yet. I wished we had more time to explore…until the second to last day when I puked in the bathtub, at which point I was glad to be heading home.

I didn’t intend to have excursions on our last two full days in Munich but due to rain we moved a concentration camp tour and a castle tour from the beginning of the week to the end. I thought it was important for the kids (and us) to learn more about the history of Nazi Germany, so on our second to last day we left our hotel room around 9 in the morning to grab some breakfast pastries before our 10 o’clock tour. I had a bite of a doughnut and a sip of coffee before we boarded a train to the concentration camp site. The timing of the tour wasn’t well-planned because it lasted over 5 hours with no scheduled meal break, and since food wasn’t allowed on the premises, Tom took the kids outside of the camp grounds around lunchtime so they could eat the snacks we had packed. I didn’t want to miss any part of the guided tour so I stayed with the tour group until the end. By the time we got back to our hotel room around 4 in the afternoon, I was famished and greedily stuffed my face with charcuterie, bread, and cheese from the local outdoor market. I remember sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with Tom, but he swears he had only one glass and I polished off the rest. That’s probably what happened, because I passed out in a drunken stupor and woke up a couple of hours later feeling nauseous. Tom was napping in bed beside me and the kids were watching a German cartoon on TV with their backs toward us. I stumbled out of bed and into the adjacent bathroom, which, unfortunately, didn’t have a toilet. Many of our European hotel rooms housed the toilet in a separate room away from the rest of the bathroom. In this case, the toilet room was by the entrance on the other side of our enormous suite, and there was no way I was going to make it there in time to do what had to be done. So I launched myself face first into the bathtub and vomited the entire contents of my late lunch. Lovely. I turned on the faucet to try to rinse out the disgusting swill, but guess what, regurgitated charcuterie is rather lumpy and doesn’t drain well. My horror rose commensurately with the water in the clogged bathtub. Do you ever have moments in life where you would give anything to not have to deal with the present reality? Where you would pay any amount of money, every last cent you owned, to escape the consequences of your actions and postpone the moment of reckoning? This was one such moment for me. Too anguished and hungover to deal with the fact that I had clogged a hotel bathtub with my puke, I turned off the faucet, drew the shower curtain closed to conceal my sins, and tumbled back into bed. By the time I woke up again it was dark and I was alone; Tom must have taken the kids out for dinner. With dread I stepped into the bathroom and pulled back the shower curtain to confirm that I didn’t just have a bad dream. Alas, it was no dream — the watery puke was swimming right where I had left it. I gritted my teeth and summoned fortitude for the unpleasant task ahead. All I could find in the hotel room to aid my efforts was a teacup, which I used to scoop refuse from the bathtub to transport to the toilet on the other side of the vast suite. After shuttling back and forth several times, I stuck my fingers down the bathtub drain, pulled out the remnants causing the clog, and was finally able to wash the remainder of my vomit, along with my dignity, down the drain. The bathtub wasn’t exactly clean, however, so I lathered body wash between my palms and scrubbed the basin with my hands until there was no longer any residue of my crime. No physical residue anyway. The odor and shame lingered. When my family got back from dinner I was grateful to learn that the kids had been oblivious to my sickness, although Tom had caught a glimpse of the horror show behind the curtain. He felt badly for me but couldn’t bring himself to clean up the revolting mess, though I would have been mortified if he or a housekeeper or anyone else but me dealt with it.

We had one final excursion on our last day: visiting two of the famous palaces commissioned by the eccentric (code word for gay) King Ludwig II of Bavaria. A different kind of disaster struck during this tour, more psychological than physical. I’d always been a maniac about capturing every noteworthy vacation moment on camera, and as we were waiting in line to cross a footbridge that offered the perfect vantage point for a beautiful shot of Neuschwanstein Castle (on which Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle was modeled), I was devastated to discover that the memory card in my camera was completely full. No more pictures? No more pictures on the last day of our 5 week vacation, the day we were going to tour fairytale castles built by a flamboyantly gay king?? What was the point of going anywhere or seeing anything if we didn’t have photographic documentation??? I was about to have a panic attack when Tom whipped out the video recorder he randomly brought along and retrieved a back-up memory card that, thankfully, worked in the camera. Crisis averted. I was able to take castle and swan photos to my heart’s content, although the prospect and potential trauma of having to rely on our memories of the day felt like another sign from the universe that we had overstayed our welcome, and the time had come for us to stop being tourists.

The best parts of Munich weren’t the tours or attractions or pictures of the tours and attractions, but simply enjoying good food with good friends. Isn’t that always the best part? We had a disproportionate amount of Asian food during our stay in Munich because our friends Lu and Wei took us to some amazing eateries, including an obligatory biergarten, and Wei fed us even more amazing homemade noodles, God bless her. After 5 weeks of bland Central European cuisine, we savored Wei’s garlicky noodles like manna from the heavens. The kids really hit it off with Lu and Wei’s daughter, who they didn’t quite remember from our Malaysia travels and who we will always call Ting Ting no matter how grown up she gets. It’s nice to reconnect with old friends and compare notes, to see how much our kids have grown. In the end our travels reinforce and remind us of the things that give us so much pleasure in life: family, friendships, beer, food, wine, merriment, memories (whether digitally recorded or not).

https://photos.app.goo.gl/zwi7EdTMQvK5Zu266

 

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich was one of the destinations squeezed into our itinerary because a friend insisted that the Swiss Alps were a “must-do” and it turned out to be a cool city and worthwhile experience but man oh man was it expensive! Yes it had great food (predominantly Italian) but for those prices it’d better be good. We tried to have a cheap meal once after getting back late from an all day excursion, and ducked into a no-frills noodle joint in the basement of the train station. We ordered two udon bowls and two miso soups, all served in cardboard takeout containers, and paid over $40USD for a meal worth not more than $10. But alas, you don’t go to Zurich for affordable meals, you go to see beautiful mountains. Which would have been a great idea if you didn’t already live in Colorado and see beautiful mountains every damn weekend. I was super excited to travel to Jungfraujoch, coined the “Top of Europe” because it was the highest railway station on the continent. This particular excursion complicated our packing strategy because we had to carry around winter gear during five weeks of summer just to be able to visit Jungfraujoch and the ice palace carved inside a glacier. I had no regrets, even when we finally reached the summit to peer out over the snowy mountain caps and Tom joked, “How is this different from Keystone?” The summit didn’t even reach 12,000 feet, and we had skied at higher elevations at Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, and Copper. We were grateful to have witnessed the spectacular views of the Swiss Alps but were also grateful to live in a place that offered equally spectacular vistas.

The excursion that caused the most anxiety and ended up being the most awesome was our day trip to Mount Rigi and Lucerne. By this time in our travels we had already completed a bunch of excursions and were starting to feel the effects of daily nonstop activities. We were getting tired, and encountered some bad weather on our third day in Zurich. Walking in the chilly rain to embark on our last full day excursion in Switzerland, Tom started getting cold feet, literally and figuratively. He wanted to cancel and rest. Hesitant to torture my family by dragging them on a tour they weren’t enthused about, I asked the tour operator if we could possibly get a refund. Of course not. So we boarded our coach bus and crossed our fingers. The cable car ride up to Mount Rigi was enjoyable, but at the top icy rain and winds dashed all hopes of a scenic hike. I loved my kids so much because they were good sports and braved the stormy weather so I could snap some photos. Up to this point our excursions had largely been successes, and for the first time I felt like I had failed my family. Our fortunes reversed when we descended Mount Rigi and unexpectedly boarded a bomb-ass yacht. The tour description mentioned a boat ride to Lucerne but didn’t describe exactly what kind of boat ride; after our disastrous experience atop Mount Rigi, I prayed we wouldn’t be exposed to the elements on a turbulent boat. Not only was the boat adequately protected, it was a straight-up yacht. An AMAAAAAAAAZING yacht with a first class cabin that we snuck into to order cocktails. The day only got better after that. After reveling in the gorgeous scenery we arrived to Lucerne and were delighted to find yet another lovely European city. Lucerne’s most famous attraction is the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world, so of course we had to cross it. In a matter of days we had scaled Jungfraujoch to the Top of Europe and crossed Europe’s oldest wooden covered bridge. After our tour, we dined on authentic Swiss-German cuisine at a popular beer hall in Zurich. It was a most satisfactory finish to a most satisfactory day and, despite an inauspicious start, it turned out to be one of the best excursions of the summer. Although Tom never did or would utter a word of reproach while we were sitting in a cafeteria on top of Mount Rigi to wait out the storm, the reproachful look on his face was soul-crushing. I felt like I hadn’t done enough to avert temporary discomfort. The fundamental objective of my life is procuring my family’s happiness, and their unhappiness is my misery. I chose this excursion and I forced my family to endure it. By the end of the day I grew only more confident and secure in the knowledge that, ultimately, I am always right.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/dyDNduYRej1bEjRc7

 

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg became my favorite city of all the ones we visited on this trip, and I hadn’t even heard of it before I started planning our summer vacation. A German friend and a friend residing in Germany both recommended Strasbourg as a worthwhile stop. Situated on the northeastern border of France in the Alsace region, Strasbourg had been annexed by the neighboring Germany from time to time until ultimately reverting back to a French city. The resulting amalgamation of French-German culture and wine was nothing short of magical. There are few things in life better than a paper-thin slice of tarte flambée topped with onions, cream, and bacon, paired with a cold, crisp glass of refreshingly dry Alsatian riesling. French influence gave hearty German food exactly what it needed, resulting in a more refined, elevated cuisine. Butter indeed makes everything better. We feasted on choucroute Alsacienne (charcuterie, sausages, and potatoes generously garnished with sauerkraut), fleischschnacka (rolled pasta stuffed with meat and onions), coq au vin (chicken stewed in wine), and foie gras pâté, among other classic Alsatian dishes, and the kids got their daily fix of buttery escargot while I stuffed my face with tarte flambée at every opportunity. When it came to regional cuisine, Strasbourg had all the other cities beat by a wide margin.

While food has always been my overriding priority, the city itself was astonishingly beautiful. Charming architecture set against romantic waterways and lovely flower-lined cobblestones took my breath away. Although there was plenty about Strasbourg that made it attractive to tourists, much like Paris it derived its attractiveness from innate beauty and intrinsic delights, unlike so many of the other towns we visited that existed mainly for the sake of tourists. As the seat of the European Parliament and European Union, and with France’s largest student population outside of Paris, Strasbourg was a real, vibrant city, one that we felt lucky to have discovered. Another bonus was its location by the Alsace Wine Route. We rented a car to drive along the famous route and visit neighboring towns that were all charming and picturesque. After this trip we joked that we had been so visually oversaturated with charming and picturesque villages that they had become boring. For much of the drive the kids had their noses buried in their Kindles and had to be admonished to look out of the window. Each time I yelled at them to admire the scenery, they would oblige with an exasperated, “Okay, Mom!” and glance outside before returning to their books.

Wine tasting along the Alsace Wine Route wasn’t as fun as I had hoped it would be. I’m nowhere near proficient enough to conduct a wine tasting in French, and was embarrassed and too self-conscious about acting like an American tourist. Strasbourg and the other villages along the wine route, including the enchanting Colmar, inspired newfound respect, and a passionate fondness, for riesling. I’m also partial to Crémant d’Alsace: just as tasty as champagne, but cheaper! What’s not to love?

Our last two excursions, to the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle and to Parc de l’Orangerie to visit its resident storks, were fantastic. Everything about Strasbourg and the surrounding Alsace region was fantastic. Give me good food and wine and something pretty to look at and I couldn’t be happier.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/Zb2jASLxhHWXQRBV6

 

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam was one of those cities that didn’t much peak my interest because, to me, it was synonymous with “legal pot,” which isn’t all that interesting after residing in Colorado. But hey guess what you guys, there’s so much more to Amsterdam than marijuana! Aside from its drizzly, uncomfortably chilly summer weather, the city was SO COOL. Yes it had amazing architecture and canals and museums and parks and attractions and public spaces and all that, but what we loved most was the FOOD. Ultimately we are governed by our bellies, and our bellies were so very happy in Amsterdam. We didn’t fully realize how tiresome German/Austrian cuisine had gotten until we were offered other options, and we were overjoyed to welcome seasonings and flavor back into our lives. In summary, Amsterdam has awesome Asian food, and Asian food is where it’s at, people. Not that I didn’t enjoy, immensely, the immense Dutch pancakes. I wish I had one right now. We even liked the traditional Dutch street snack of raw herring with onions and pickles.

Another reason Amsterdam was so enjoyable was getting to meet up with the Berman family. Exploring a new city is always more fun with friends. Originally Amsterdam wasn’t part of the itinerary but we opted to sacrifice Budapest to be able to join the Bermans for part of their  vacation. So glad we did. We visited the Anne Frank House together, a somber and sobering experience but important for the kids to learn about the life of a girl who wasn’t much older than they were when she went into hiding. Afterwards the kids humored us with a tour of the Van Gogh Museum, a hike through the city, and dinner at a pan-Asian bistro.

On our last day we went all-out tourist and did the canal cruise circuit more than a couple of times, strolled through the famous flower market, ate herring, and drank Heineken. When in Amsterdam, right?

https://photos.app.goo.gl/Ywj5UKkBJpiFBig38

 

Berlin, Germany

We rented an artist loft through Airbnb for our week-long sojourn in Berlin, the mid-point of our trip and a chance to relax, catch our breath, and do laundry. It’s a large metropolis with lots to see and do, but mostly we enjoyed walking around and hanging out. We attended another classical music concert, this time in a gorgeous venue at the Charlottenburg Palace. While the venue was prettier and the music just as inspiring, it was harder to sit through as the night progressed and I had to sympathize with the boy when he got squirmy toward the end.

I booked two additional tours: a bike tour along the remains of the Berlin Wall with a brief history lesson about the Cold War, and a day trip to the city of Dresden. The kids absolutely loved the bike tour, and they tolerated my relentless picture-taking in Dresden with good humor. Dresden was yet another beautiful European city with lots of history and charm, but like Salzburg it owed its existence to the pleasure of tourists.

Berlin has a substantial Vietnamese population so we seized the opportunity to indulge in our favorite meal, phở, twice. After our first bowls of phở on Father’s Day, having the opportunity to watch a World Cup match between Germany and Mexico in a public venue underneath Brandenburg Gate among hundreds of thousands of soccer fans was a pretty cool experience not likely to be replicated.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/UUhgxvGakAXG8tf98

 

Prague, Czech Republic

We made the mistake of taking an Uber rather than public transit into the city center, and my initial impression of Prague was, “My God, what a dump!” We had just left the dazzling city of Vienna and were now stuck in traffic winding through the littered and graffiti-plagued streets of Prague. I imagined that this must be how foreign tourists feel when they enter Manhattan for the first time. And just like Manhattan, once you get past the gritty exterior, there is a glittering treasure in its core. By the time we drove through Old Town and arrived at our hotel in the Little Quarter, I was infatuated. After a delicious dinner that was a welcome departure from Austrian cuisine, I had fallen in love.

We finally hit the jackpot on our city walking tour and food tour. Our guides in Salzburg and Vienna had been expats while our guides in Prague were natives born and raised in Prague, and it made all the difference. The city tour included a boat tour and a fabulous lunch, and our guide clearly cared very passionately about her city, which made us care too. The food tour was fantastic; the local cuisine was elevated beyond anything we had sampled so far on this vacation. The only drawback was the hoards of tourists, an unavoidable side effect for such a popular destination. We saw so much impressive architecture, and explored so many lovely gardens and parks, that it was well worth battling the crowds. The boy even got to meet up with a couple of his favorite schoolmates, while the parents drank beer. A good time was had by all.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/txxuTc2JL9xBpEQN9

 

Vienna, Austria

Vienna was also a beautiful city, and felt like it had more character than Salzburg. I could understand why Mozart left his birthplace in Salzburg and set up residency in Vienna. It was just as expensive, but the accommodations were plusher, the food more appetizing, and the sights more impressive. We went on a fun and tasty food tour, followed by another boring and forgettable city walking tour. The highlights of the trip were visiting Schonbrunn Palace and attending a Strauss and Mozart concert. It was just enough classical music to make me feel cultured and inspired, with just enough opera and ballet sprinkled in to hold the kids’ attention through the two hour performance. And a glass or two of champagne makes any evening magical.

https://photos.app.goo.gl/zW1TotpYdCtSXBmy9