Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Pope Sighting in Krakow


When we booked our stay in Krakow, we had no idea it was the host city for the bi-annual World Youth Day (actually a week-long event) for Catholic youth from around the world culminating with a huge outdoor mass celebrated by Pope Francis.

When we learned we would be sharing this captivating city with well over 400,000 young people we were actually excited. It seemed just the sort of Senior Nomad experience that we love. It also explained why Airbnb’s were more expensive that week than we expected - and also why many denizens fled the city for an early vacation.

Nothing like rain and an invasion of teenagers to clear out a town.
 Pope Francis arrived in Krakow on what the Italians call the volo papale, or “papal flight” which actually is an Alitalia charter. We, on the other hand, arrived on Ryanair Fl. 7751 from the Netherlands. Our Airbnb host provided detailed instructions on how to get from the airport to her apartment avoiding any challenges caused by WYD. Here is what Oliwia said in her email:

"I usually recommend taking a bus from the airport as it stops close by, but this time I think it will be best for you to take the train - bus routes have been changed in the area for the WYD."

Just to double check, I decided to stop at the information desk in the arrivals hall to get their advice. They heartily recommended we take bus 292 which would drop us off right in front of our apartment. Looking back, we should have followed our hosts’ advice and taken the train. The key phrase I ignored was “bus routes have been changed in the area for the WYD”.

Once on board the 292 I went forward, with map in hand, hoping the driver spoke English and he could tell us where to get off. That would be no. And no. Imagine the poor man driving a huge articulated bus with me standing next to him trying to “talk” every time we came to a stoplight. It became apparent using sign language and jabbing at the map that the bus was not going to take its normal route and he was very stressed out about it - and the closest we could come to the apartment was about a mile away! Oops.

Now we like to walk, but it had already been a long day and we had both our large REI suitcases plus day packs and no Polish SIM card, thus no Google Maps…just a paper map we got at the Information Desk which showed the major streets and landmarks. Our apartment was on a little side-street deep in the city.

That’s when a young man sitting next to Debbie on the bus overheard our distressed conversation and asked in English if he could help. If there is one constant throughout our journey, it is the abundance of guardian angels, apparently on standby that appear whenever we have a challenge. Turns out,  this latest angel, named Matthew was a first year law student in Krakow not only helped us get off at the “temporay” stop closest to our apartment, he got off with us and helped haul our luggage for the mile-long walk to the apartment and left us at our front door. Once again we were reminded of the kindness of strangers.

Our Guardian Angel Matthew and one tired Senior Nomad
Why didn’t you just a taxi you might ask? We don’t often splurge on taxi’s when public transportation is easy and under any other circumstances this bus journey would have been a piece of cake. It also turned out that not just buses were being rerouted - the entire center of the city was blocked and barricaded at every turn and car traffic was even more curtailed, so in the end it couldn’t have turned out better.

World Youth Day was a sight to behold. Thousands of young people from all over the world were waving flags, singing, praying, and exchanging badges and hugs with kids from other countries and their own. There were concerts on every square, outdoor masses and picnics. And nuns - lots of nuns in every sort of habit, as well as some pretty hip young clergy. Debbie even saw the Pope drive by in his Pope Mobile.

Debbie just managed to catch the Pope driving by.
The atmosphere in the city was contagious. So many happy kids joined by faith.
We saw hip priests, backpacking nuns, and scenes like this everywhere.
Krakow is a wonderful city. Full of history and the must-see city in Poland. Spared by WWII the buildings are stunning and the Wawel Castle and Cathedral are well-worth a visit. We took two Free Walking Tours. The first focused on Old Town, the second on the Jewish Quarter. Both were educational and informative.

A rare moment away from the crowds. Krakow is beautiful.
We were thankful to have a great apartment in a perfect location close to the Old Town - Here is a link to our Airbnb https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/351091. It was just around the corner from a great second hand book store and coffee shop that sold only American books. Debbie took over a quiet corner as her office.

 An American bookstore that served excellent coffee, brownies and apple pie.
The shop offered three rooms filled to the ceiling with English books. Heaven!
I’ve mentioned before that we depend on Rome2Rio to plan travel between cities. The app is absolutely amazing. I still wonder how they have managed to find bus, train, flight information from any city in the world to any other city with incredible accuracy.

While we were in Krakow, I needed to decide how to get 200 miles away to Lviv in Eastern Ukraine, our next destination. I searched and searched all over the site but could never find a bus or train leaving at a reasonable time - most left very late arriving in Lviv before dawn. Or they took a very circuitous route - I couldn’t understand why it would take 9 hours to go 200 miles. Mostly because there is low demand. Poles want to go to EU destinations, and Ukrainians cannot travel to Poland without a difficult to get visa.

That’s when I saw Rome2Rio’s option for “Ride Sharing”. Something we had never considered before. Since nothing else made sense, I clicked on the option and it took me to a website call Bla Bla Car. Our daughter Mary had told us about the site but I’d never check it out.  The site offers rides from A to B and you can pick your ride based on how much you want to talk during the drive. One Bla means the driver isn’t into chatter. The more Bla’s the more the driver and fellow passengers are looking forward to passing the time in conversation.

Thanks to Bla Bla Car we found a new transportation option for our travels.
The website is based in the UK and I was surprised and thankful to see that someone was looking for passengers from Krakow to Lviv on the exact date of our departure with a civilized departure of 10:00 am. The driver’s name was Artem and he was the only person listed within a two week window going from Krakow to Lviv. So I quickly created a profile and filled out the background check information on the website and signed up. Now that I was a “member” I could send an email to Artem asking if we could join him. If you want to try it some time Here's a link

Later that day, I got a reply but he did not answer my key question. Would there be room for our two large suitcases plus day packs.  I worried that we might not fit in his car. We traded emails over the next couple of days and to make a long story short, “just to be safe” I booked all three seats he had available since he really hadn’t responded to my question about our suitcases.

Team Bla Bla. Artem and his wife Yulia who thankfully could bla English.
On the morning of our departure from Krakow, we did our usual pack n’clean and then waited out in front of our apartment at 10:00 AM hoping and praying that Artem would show up in his Peugeot 203. Shortly after 10:00 Artem pulled up with a woman in the front seat. We had thought that was one of our three seats plus two in the back. Instead we had bought the three back seats. If there had been another passenger we would not have been able to fit since the trunk was already ½ full. Another oops!

Artem, and his wife went to work shuffling and stuffing things in various corners of the car making room for both our suitcases. Of course that meant that we had one of their small suitcases on the seat between us and we had both day packs and our red bag of snacks in the back seat with us but heck, for $40 USD and door to door service to Lviv I was feeling good about BlaBlaCar. Off we went.

Road food including this hotdog in "tube" - and excellent invention!
Turns out, Artem is Russian and spoke no English. He didn’t speak much Russian either. Definitely a one-Bla-man. Thankfully his Ukrainian wife Yulia spoke English. They are both in their late 20’s and live in the South of France where she is a chemical researcher at the University in Aix-en-Provence. They are regular users of BlaBlaCar and we we caught them on the last leg of their 1,200 mile journey from Aix to a small village east of Lviv where they would stay with Yulia’s family for their summer holiday.
Leaving Poland and entering the Ukraine. More on that fascinating country next time.
In the end, it was a great experience and we felt part of the global community as we crossed the border into Ukraine with our new found Russian and Ukrainian friends. Meanwhile the political leaders in the Ukraine and Russia seem to be on the verge of starting WWIII. We didn’t Bla about that.

We arrived safe and sound 6 hours later in Lviv thankful for the enriching, albeit cramped experience. I have already found another opportunity to ride-share in a few weeks when we go from Tbilisi, the capitol of Georgia to Yerevan in Armenia. From Lviv we will fly to Kiev, the capitol of Ukraine. 

It was fun to mix with the American kids. God bless them all.

Stand by for the news from the Ukraine.

Thanks for following along,

Michael

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Wrong Front Door


Our host in Amsterdam was out of the country so his friend Carlos checked us in. He was  cheerful and very helpful with directions on getting from the Amsterdam Central Station to the apartment - even meeting us at the nearest tram stop and leading us to the front door. We were running late, and it was his birthday, but he did a great job of giving us a tour of the apartment and some local information before rushing off. That was the end of any further five star experiences with this particular Airbnb. Here is the listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/664904

The picture on the website that led us to believe we were staying in the black house.
We knew something was wrong when Carlos walked us past the lovely house shown in the listing and instead crossed over to the other side of the street to a non-descript building without any character.

Our actual front door across the street.
 We smelled “bait and switch” and that’s how it all shook out. In my opinion this particular host purposefully misleads his guests by showing the front of the beautiful building across the street and its front door. We were disappointed but it became even more apparent within a few hours of our arrival that our host was not interested in hospitality.

The apartment itself was very nice and did in fact, look like the pictures in the listing (however the washer and dryer in the picture are not connected - nor is the dishwasher) There were a few other things that didn’t work, including the oven, but when we contacted him about the few things that would make a difference in our two week stay he showed zero interest in fixing them. And he reminded us that he is not “running a hotel” and we shouldn’t get used to the service we received from Carlos - that was apparently out of the ordinary. On top of that, our host admitted in an email that he uses a fake name for the listing for reasons that could only be explained by someone who is an expert in analyzing paranoia.

We have met so many wonderful hosts over the three years that it was inevitable that we’d get a clunker at some point, and we did. But as we always remind ourselves, “it is not what happens to you that is important, but it’s how you respond to it.” And the knowledge that we had other great Airbnbs booked down the road helped, too. So there you go. I got it off my chest and I feel better for it.

Our goal in Amsterdam was to enjoy a city we love - a city we have now visited three times and always find new and interesting things to discover. We also needed time to finish the manuscript for the book so that’s why we parked here for two weeks. The good news is we had a great time and we finished on deadline. Whew!

Opening day of the European Athletic Championships. I am in heaven! I got to watch Yuliya Stepanova, the Russian athlete "whistle blower" compete. She started the whole Russian doping scandal fiasco - a story I follow it closely.
Good times included two days at the European Athletic Championships at Olympic Stadium which was an awesome lead-in to the Olympics in Rio. We also made a stop at the Modern Contemporary Museum (Moco) to see an interesting exhibit of work by the infamous street artist Banksy and some great work by Andy Warhol. Sort of an artistic version of “compare and contrast” two iconic artists of their time.

Frightening thought by Bansky - it could be a Trump campaign poster!
Seems I am always running into Lenin. This one courtesy of Andy Warhol.
Debbie had a long morning at the Rjiksmuseum. That was her version of heaven.
Her favorite portrait in the musuem - the original "spoiled, fat baby child" as she likes to call some people.
Debbie enjoyed a leisurely morning at her favorite Amsterdam destination, the Rijksmuseum. And we were fortunate to have dinner with good friends Jan and Desiree Ohrstrom. We met them years ago when we shared a slip along side their sailboat at Elliott Bay Marina. Jan is Danish. Desiree is Dutch. When they left Seattle, they moved to Leiden, a few miles south of Amsterdam so we have seen them every time we’ve been in the Netherlands.

Not the best photo - but certainly some of the best people we know, Jan and Disiree.
We were also able to host our son-in-law, Gregoire, Mary’s husband, for lunch as he was in Amsterdam on business for the day. It was nice to be able to meet family at the train station - sort of like we lived there. Debbie has often said she could see us settling down in the Netherlands.

A nice afternoon with Gregoire that including a walking tour of the city.
After two weeks in Amsterdam we moved south to The Hague, which is known locally as Den Haag so our travel day was only 45 minutes on the train where we joined daughter Mary and her three children, for a ten day stay at family-friendly Airbnb. This time we took over an three story home while the family was away on their own vacation. Two little boys live there and much to our kids delight, there were toys from the ground floor playroom all the way three flights of stairs to the attic. Mostly legos, marbles, transformers, cars, and other “boy” toys that have small pieces. There was also an enclosed backyard that was a big help in keeping track of everyone. Here's a look before we undid all this tidyness:  https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/3351313

The playroom in our next airbnb - it only looked like this for about five minutes after we arrived!
One of the benefits of being Senior Nomads in Europe has been the opportunity to watch Collette, Marcel and Jacques, now 2, 4, and 6 years old, grow up. Mary got called to work on a project near Amsterdam just far enough away that it made sense for her to stay with the film crew for four days … did I mention “bait and switch” earlier? That left Michael and I on our own for a few days, but we managed - especially since we had use of a bike that allowed Grandpa to take the big kids off to the park. The kids were great, and we managed three trips to the beach in between reading books, coloring, playing games, changing diapers and what seemed like endless amounts of eating. And now for a little Grandparent indulgence...

Colette getting the swing of things!
Marcel on patrol. Look out Mooma he's coming for you!
What a tidy two year old! Jacques enjoying his ice cream all by himself.
Any time is snack time! We had such a great time with these munchkins!
I am glad we had this bike to use! I made many trips to the park with Debs and Jacques joining on foot.
If you love the Netherlands but have never ventured outside of Amsterdam, think about visiting The Hague. Although Amsterdam is officially the capital Den Haag has been the seat of government since 1588 and it is home to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. It is also the home of the Belarusian Consulate where Michael made several visits to obtain visas for our upcoming trip to Belarus. Also take a trip to Delft and Haarlem - both beautiful towns.

Paperwork patience, and Paypal gets you Visa every time! We're goin' to Belarus.
In the middle of all this, we continued doing travel planning including our decision to fly back to Seattle in mid-October which meant we had three months to dig deeper in Eastern Europe and see: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia in the coming weeks. By early September we will be back in Western Europe with stops in Sicily, Florence, Lausanne and Paris where we will check-up on the European grandkids before getting on another Iceland Air flight to Seattle. Yes, that’s the one where you change planes in Reykjavik and have the option to get off the flight for three days to explore Iceland and then continue your flight at no extra charge.
So far we haven’t been enticed - which seems odd for Senior Nomads.

Media interest in our journey continues and while we were in the Netherlands an online news site called Business Insider ran a story about us. Here is a link - Business Insider The editor liked the first story enough to ask us to write an article for them with tips on how we stay within our budget. Here is a link to that story Business Insider. Every time we have an interview or write about ourselves, including the book, we have a “pinch me” moment were we can’t believe we have been so blessed that we can live this crazy Senior Nomad life. We don't take it for granted.

Flowers for the lovely Mrs. Campbell. We are so blessed.
After spending three weeks in the Netherlands we said goodbye to Mary and the grandchildren and caught a Ryanair flight from Eindhoven to Krakow, Poland. We were there 25 years ago just after the collapse of the Soviet Union so we were anxious to return and see how the city had fared. It is a very beautiful place filled with so much history, some good - but mostly tragic. It’s worth a visit. However, after we booked our Airbnb we learned that Krakow was going to be hosting World Youth Day (that lasts a week) while we were there which meant that 400,000+ young Catholics plus Pope Francis would be joining us…..or maybe more appropriately, we would be joining them. Hopefully it will be turn out to be a “blessing in disguise”. Stay tuned.

Good bye for now ...

Thanks for following along!

Michael

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The World Kept Turning


After the vote came in and the majority of people wanted to leave the EU, crystal balls were in short supply as no one could predict what would happen next. In London political leaders escaped to the country and confusion was the order of the day as we wound-up our two-week stay in Peckham Rye.

One day after the Brexit vote a few of the ladies that lived on our lovely lane set off for a protest of their own to rail against the decrease in pensions for elderly women or something like that.

Our Peckham Rye neighbors ready to take on the next cause
London is a city we know well having lived there for five years when the kids were young - mind you, that was 30 years ago, but some things about London just don't change. But of course some things do, and on this visit we were able to witness London's Pride Parade. We joined hundreds of thousands of other spectators and marchers on June 25th and spend three inspiring and entertaining hours pressed against the metal fencing at Picadilly Circus. It was a warm day - and the drag queens, were, well dragging, but most everyone was happy and joyful.

You look fabulous Darling!
Music blared from big red double decker buses, bands played, niche groups like Granny Lesbians and a bunch of men dressed as puppies punctuated employee groups from dozens of major companies in the UK.  Representatives from every religious group on earth including: “Catholic and Gay” to “Muslim and Gay” came rolling one after another. The whole experience was a kaleidoscope of color and cultures from across the UK and around the world. Great entertainment and fun on the one hand - yet sobering to see all the signs of support for those killed or injured just days before in the Orlando nightclub shooting. A reminder, as if we needed one, that the joy and love of life never can escape tragedy and hate.


Which raises a question that we hear often from friends….

Aren’t you afraid traveling in Europe with all the terrorist attacks and suicide bombers? At this point, senseless violence seems to knowing no borders, it makes as much sense for us to be here as anywhere. If one were looking for a safe refuge from danger, I’m really not sure where a person would go today. Of course we are staying away from the obvious places - so don't look for blogs from Tunisia, Egypt or sadly, one of our favorite countries, Turkey. We will be traveling soon to the western parts of Ukraine; Belarus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, but we feel those are safe.

In stark contrast to these kinds of discussions, we really enjoyed watching the Euro Cup football matches with teams competing from all corners of Europe. Sports has a way of bringing unity in a way nothing else does. One night in London we were able to enjoy a wonderful evening concert at the esteemed St. Martin-in-the-Fields church just off Trafalgar Square. The all-Mozart program was the perfect antidote to today’s challenges listening to music that Amadeus Mozart composed 250 years ago, some when he was not yet a teenager. Glad he chose music over a football career. 

Afterward we rushed to a nearby pub to catch the last few minutes of a quarter-final match between Wales (where Debbie received 1/3 of her DNA) and powerhouse Belgium. The match was a classic case of the underdog vs the sure thing. Wales fans were crammed into the tiny pub all fixed on a single TV above the bar. Amazingly enough, Wales came out on top and apparently as tradition would have it, the crowd and both bar tenders began dancing and singing along to the famous Welshman Tom Jone's hit “It’s not Unusual”. I suspect that the song had been cued in the CD player just in case! Here's a look back at Mr. Jones singing the original - and the dance that everyone in the pub seemed to know, but us!


Another highlight was dinner at a local pub in our Peckham-Rye neighborhood to watch Iceland vs England in another Euro Cup thriller. It was the biggest match for England in the tournament and I visited three pubs in the afternoon looking for just the right place to watch the match: good food, lots of TVs, and a nice atmosphere. I settled on The Rye, just a few blocks from our house and made a reservation. See below how they “reserve” tables. This was another David and Goliath match with little Iceland (total population 330,000) vs England (53 million). The match was in the “knock-out stage” of the tournament where the winner goes on and the looser goes home.

The perfect table for two - Backgammon went untouched as the match was a nail-biter.
The match came just four days after the Brexit vote so everyone in the pub was feeling more than a little anxious about life in general. When the whistle blew and Iceland knocked England out of the Euro Cup with a 2-1 win you could hear a pin drop in the pub as English fans realized that not only was the country going to exit the European Union sometime in the next two years, in the space of 90 minutes, they actually did exit the 2016 Euro Cup. It was a Senior Nomad moment to be there! Son Chris was happy since we had placed a bet on his behalf for Iceland to go all the way - and he was getting closer to a big payday. 

Another highlight was visiting a nearby museum that we had never heard of but was recommended by our host called the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was just a short bus ride from Peckham Rye and a nice leisurely walk through an large, flower-filled park and the picturesque village of Dulwich to the museum which markets itself as the “oldest purpose-built museum in the world.” It was a lovely afternoon out, but the paintings themselves were not that memorable. Here’s my favorite of the lot:


A lovely portrait called "A Girl at the Window" by Mr. Rembrandt from 1645
We turned the calendar over to July which meant it was time to move on to Amsterdam. As usual, after checking Skyscanner and other apps, the most affordable flight we found was on Easy Jet from Stanstead Airport. When you think of London airports Heathrow and Gatwick come to mind but much smaller Stanstead in the northwest corner of London is another alternative and the hub for most low-cost airlines.

Our travel-day route included: a train from Peckham Rye to London, a bus to Stanstead, the flight to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, a train ride into the Central Station and finally the #4 tram to our new Airbnb. Although the distance is only 200 + miles as the crow flies, it took us ten hours door to door.

We’ve talked about Ryanair and Easy Jet before. The actual ticket prices are alluringly cheap - but if you check bags, and of course we have to, the price goes straight-up. For example, our actual tickets for this trip were something like $50 for the one-hour flight, but checking 20kg of baggage each added another $50 so total cost per person was $100. In the big scheme of things, still reasonable. The challenge with Easy Jet is they only allow one carry-on per person. Since we both have small (and super heavy) day packs and Debbie has a purse, we are already in trouble trying to get everything we have in our suitcases and backpacks, and no matter how hard we try, we do end-up accumulating “stuff” and struggle to get to that 20kg weight - let alone down to one carry-on.

Don't know how we'd manage without our luggage scale. But like any scale we wish it weighted lighter.
With all that said, we headed to the airport that morning knowing we had one carry-on bag too many and too much weight. At check-in, when the rubber hit the road, the agent said that each person was allowed an extra carry-on if it was a Duty Free Bag so if we could get our extra things in one or two of those we'd be fine. New information! We figured it was a push-back from the Duty Free stores on the carry on restrictions - people weren't shopping because they thought they couldn't take the bags on board.

So off we went, through screening and out to the gate. Debbie went to find the smallest things she could purchase from Duty Free and still get two bags. Our plan was then to distribute all our extra stuff in the Duty Free Bags. The good news, Debbie came back with 2 bags as planned. The bad news, she bought more stuff. Of course it all made sense -- a few fun things for the grandchildren who we would see in a couple of weeks, and her usual large bag of Gummy Bears. We were close to being in the same state as we were in at the check-in counter.

So we resorted to our usual fallback of filling the pockets of our coats to the brim, filling the sleeves of the coats from cuff to shoulder and then gracefully folding our coats over our arms in a casual fashion before approaching the gate with: two back-packs, two Duty Free-Bags, a smile on our faces and our passports open the right page with boarding passes at the ready. Somehow, we managed to get through without incident but when we got to our seats, we quickly distributed things into the overheads and squeezed in our seats with zero leg-room.  As always, with me in the middle seat so Debbie could have her window seat.


Birdseye view from our Easy Jet flight.
I’ll close out this post and pick it up again when we arrive at our Airbnb in Amsterdam. You’ll enjoy hearing about the great apartment with the worst host we have ever experienced in 3 years. It was bound to happen and it did on our 110th Airbnb.

Safe travels.

Michael