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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


Salzburg, Austria

When I was starting to put together an itinerary for our summer expedition, I budgeted four weeks for four European cities. After a lot of back and forth, input from various fellow travelers and friends, research, and a “fuck it, let’s do this” attitude, the itinerary morphed into eight cities over five weeks. Eight cities we had never visited before, and a ten page itinerary detailing over a month of travel. It was a masterpiece that took several months — booking airfare and train reservations, lining up hotel and Airbnb accommodations, researching excursions, planning day trips, strategizing what and how to pack for a family of four for a five week trip in six foreign countries. It was an undertaking not for the faint of heart. But it got done, and it’s impossible to overstate how good I am at travel logistics. Like, ridiculously good. There was little room for fuck-ups, but somehow Tom found a way. I delegated one simple task: please book a car rental for our road trip through the Alsace Wine Route during two specific days, clearly explained in an email. ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS READ THE EMAIL. Did Tom read the email? Apparently no, because he booked he wrong dates. Not a big deal and easily fixed. The second fuck-up was not as easily fixable: DO NOT LOSE YOUR PASSPORT 36 HOURS BEFORE AN INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT. Shouldn’t have been hard when all of our passports were stored in a lockbox safe. However, a few weeks before our trip Tom took his passport out of the safe to do a banking transaction and then swore he left it on his desk. Except it wasn’t there. He broke the news to me on Friday evening, and our flight was leaving on Sunday afternoon. You can imagine how fun that Friday night was, ransacking every crack and crevice of our house in search of the missing passport. At one point in the middle of the night I even ventured into the backyard to peer into the bushes. You do desperate things when you’re desperate. We needed a back-up plan so I started googling like crazy to see what our options were. Predictably, it’s really really really hard to get a replacement passport issued within 24 hours, especially over the weekend when government offices are closed, especially when there isn’t a life or death emergency. The closest scenario resembling an emergency was that Tom feared for his life because of the threat of spousal homicide. I’m joking, because I channeled the shit out of my yoga practice and kept cool as a cucumber under the most provocative circumstances. Tom survived the weekend unscathed because of yoga.

I managed to find a passport application office that was open on Saturday and snagged the first available appointment. I filled out all of necessary forms online, including a lost passport report. The funny thing was, the passport application required an original certified birth certificate. Tom was able to locate his original birth certificate issued by the State of Texas in 1976, stored among his elementary school report cards in a crawl space behind a basement wall, but he had no idea where he put his damn passport.

We both woke up early Saturday morning after an anxious, restless night. Tom kept re-tracing his steps, trying to solve the inexplicable disappearance. The only change he made to his office in the past week, he said, was removing a backpack. He already searched the backpack, he said. He held the backpack up, stuck his hand into it, and, lo and behold, pulled out his passport!!! Unfortunately, when you submit a lost passport report, the missing passport becomes invalid and can no longer be used for travel, and a lost passport report cannot be cancelled or revoked, even if you end up finding your missing passport mere hours after reporting it lost. Tom went to his appointment and explained everything to the agency worker, who strongly cautioned him not to travel with an invalid passport, which meant that he would have to stay behind and wait for a new passport to be issued while I boarded a plane as a solo parent to two kids en route to Europe. OH HELL NO. The itinerary said nothing about me being a solo parent for any part of this trip. Determined not to leave the country without my husband, I called airport customs, explained the situation, and got just enough reassurance to hope that my husband probably wouldn’t get arrested traveling with his invalidated passport so long as he received his new passport before trying to re-enter the U.S.

Everything worked out in the end. We arrived to Munich on Monday morning and traveled to Salzburg by train without any issues. Later that afternoon, the U.S. State Department sent an email notifying Tom that his lost passport report had been processed. We barely made it through foreign customs by the skin of our teeth, and luckily the time difference worked in our favor. We embarked on our European adventure in the charming city of Salzburg as scheduled.

Salzburg was beautiful but we got the sense that it existed solely for the pleasure of tourists, kind of like an adult version of Disneyland. Its most popular excursion was the “Sound of Music” tour, which shepherded busloads of tourists like us to various location sites where scenes from the movie were filmed. Local German-speakers could care less about the film, but fans from all over the world flocked to hear behind-the-scenes tidbits while singing along to the musical’s soundtrack. We enjoyed the tour, but probably would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t so tired from the morning walking tour of the city that we had done immediately beforehand. The walking tour consisted of a boring lecture about the city’s origins, inhabitants, and industry, something about salt mines and wealthy bishops who built monuments to their egos. Blah, blah, blah, when can we have a beer? On the “Sound of Music” tour? Well then, what are we waiting for? A couple of buzzed parents might have dozed off here and there.

We were glad to have visited Salzburg and the kids loved it, but after it was checked off the list we were looking forward to all the exciting new places on the itinerary.