Swapping Homes Anybody?


Monday, September 19, 2011

Insider Secrets for Succesful Home Swapping

Now that we've walked the walk and talked the talk, I put this blog to rest for the moment.Till we do another swap next year.I will report on the selection process in detail when the time cometh.
If you want to read up on our experience and learn how to save thousands of $$$, it's available on Amazon Kindle for only $0.99 instead of scrolling back here. If you liked it, please recommend it to friends who are contemplating to do a home swap. I can only encourage everybody to go for it. We saved oodles of money and so can you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Fair Balance

We're still undecided whether this is a rotten window frame or just one that hasn't been painted in years. This is the master bedroom French window nextto the mattress on the floor and there is black mold on the ceiling right above it. Is that an indication?
A reader commented that she found the idea of home swapping outright scary. Well, if you look at the bad examples of pictures we chose, I agree.
I went through the website's discussion board trying to get a feel for what people worry most about home swaps. They discuss whether food should be left for the exchange partners. Good idea to provide for a breakfast if they arrive late. Bad idea if they leave half eaten plates and outdated items in the fridge. Most agree it goes without saying that staples like pasta, salt etc. should be up for grabs if needed. But doesn't courtesy indicate you replace those?
Another subject was  whether and how to change the sheets and whether to launder them. Given that most flights tend to leave early, departure day is always hectic.For everyone. Our French partners had left us clean sheets on the bed. Nice, but coming in late at night one isn't happy to make the beds.That's why I had the idea of having a cleaner do this for us and them--and see how it went wrong. Next time lucky! I hope. A matter of concern also was whether to iron the sheets.Admittedly they look better ironed and some of our French ones were. Others needn't be ironed depending on the fabric. According to the boards discussion, the Italians and French put big emphasis on them being ironed. My grandmother used to do it. At least we had bought a second set for each of our three bedrooms. So if not ironed, at least they matched and fit. Nobody discussed leaking pipes, sliding toilet seats, or broken toilet roll dispensers.
Most participants were happy campers, had done many an exchange and were looking forward to the next. If, however, people are just happy (there were a few) to have a roof over their heads and room to cook a meal without having to go to a restaurant every day, they will not understand my complaints. I do not want to lower my standards that much. In my view it all depends on what you have to offer in exchange. There needs to be a fair balance. Having started looking again yesterday--yes, already!-- for next year, after I signed in to the discussion board and updated our site as requested, we will be more vigilant. In contrast do some people who asked me here: "Are all French dirty?" I do not think so and we'll keep trying. Monsieur said he would pay the ON DEMAND TV bill asap. I hope it's not too 'delicate'!
My Advice  for Home Swapping Sites: Start a rating system similar to Trip adviser. And to home swappers #7: Do not run a hotel! We had too many visitors: Friends, family, children. No matter how exciting the location, no matter how much you want to see them all when it's so convenient for everybody. They still want to be entertained, taken out while you run a household, strip beds for the next guests, clean, do the shopping and cooking. At least I did. Get some free time and relax enjoying what you have. I was almost ready for a vacation afterwards....}

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Don't overprepare

We now have our thousand pictures organized and I can pull out a few examples for my claim that the house was substandard. One of the home swap rules is to leave closet and drawer space for your exchange partner. We had moved our stuff out of each bedroom to a great degree. This was the only closet space (in pic on the right) we had in a five-bedroom house. My handy husband bought a shower curtain pole and stuck it in a door frame to create hanging space where there was clearly none. They hadn't even emptied their trash cans...no where...they were all overflowing and the kitchen one was ...ripe. The blue wall paper came peeling down in many places, or the white one too. Or look at the frazzled runner. Who cuts a rug like that? The most off putting for me was the mold and grime in the shower that we shared for 10 days with my in-laws. Or the black mold on the ceiling in the master bedroom.Hubby swears the black on the window frames wasn't mold only lack of paint...Ahem...Whatever.It lacked attention.
We had brought our house in order, painted and repaired minor things so that we left it in prime condition.Advice # 6: Do a little of that but wait for major painting or repairing jobs for when you come back.
From the standpoint of a much neater and better houses, the German house owner had said:It is what it is. I guess so. But when it's in this condition?

Competition: The first reader who can send me the answer to this question will get a copy of my novel Next Time Lucky: Confessions of a Dating Guru and also a copy of this blog when it comes out on Kindle.
What purpose does the outdoor structure in the picture on the right serve? Be precise, please.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Advice #5 get a Reference

Let's say you have chosen a prospective member in the country you want to go (and you can also do home swaps here in the USA). You have found somebody who fulfills your criteria regarding, location, smoker or not. children or not and last, but not least, pets or not. You have established a convenient exchange time that suits you both. You agree on swapping the car. Now it's time to build up some kind of relationship between the two families (parties). After all, you want to know who is going to stay in your house. What do they like doing? Which trips are they planning? Which other people are coming to visit or join them?
The website will tell you whether they are newcomers to this experience or old hands. In fact, we encountered people who have home swapping over 20 times. Our French partners had done 10 prior swaps, allegedly.
Modern media like Skype are handy to get an occasional  cheap call in, talk about preparations that are going on, swap extra photos, and dare to ask for a reference. We did that with our German exchange partners. Not with the French. I was so impressed by his job and the lifestyle what I expected to go with it in my small imagination, that I just took it for granted they would have similar lifestyles and standards.
Wrong! We had bought new towels and sheets. They offered us stained pillows and non-matching sheets. We bought new mattress protectors, their 4 inch rubber/foam mattresses would not pass muster and make it onto my garden furniture. We had bought two new chaises. All of theirs were green or black with no attempt at cleaning them. The evasive answers he gave me at times I justified by him being so busy. Wrong. When we had problems and grievances during our stay, he brushed  them off by saying:"Don't worry. It's French.It's delicate." And I can well visualize the Gallic shrug going with it. Swapper beware! Prepare! if you lose an exchange this way, so be it. That could be for the better.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Car swapping

I had the best radio interview experience ever today with Melissa Ross (NPR). Thanks for making me  so comfortable. ( I had about a dozen in my former business as a matchmaker plus some TV appearances). Very well researched; she had even read the last few blogs.
I'd like to continue my evaluation with the swapping of a car. That's an option that saves you a big chunk from your pocket book. A rental car can cost up to $1000 a week. Both parties need car insurance but no special permission from the insurance companies, as far as I know. We simply left our insurance details in the glove compartment of our car and so did our exchange partners. In the agreement, the drivers that are allowed to drive the car are listed.
If you know anything about cars in Europe, particularly in cities, you know that Europeans tend to buy smaller cars. One reason is that they have to pay much more for gas than we here in the USA in spite of the recent spike here (1 liter equals about Eur 1,50.) The other is because parking space is very precious.Most people living in cities --like in NY-- use public transport for commuting to work or even for going on vacation. There is a very efficient network of fast trains in many European countries, particularly in Germany (Thalys) and also in France (TGV).
So the cars we had at our disposal were not SUVs but useful for what we needed them.A bit small for me as I'm tall. Funnily enough, in Germany we were given the wrong keys by mistake. So we had the pleasure of cruising in their bigger car until we found out.
Pity that the French car's AC was broken. During the first few minutes of my first ride, the red symbol Service light came up. Worried, I called the French owner. "Don't worry", his standard phrase btw, "it's been like that for some years." Now that's reassuring. Conscientious as I am, I had taken mine for a full service shortly before the exchange. In France, I caused a hub cap to fall off  and couldn't put it back on. We left them a note admitting it and asked them to send us a bill.
As part of the exchange agreement, the car exchange agreement, indemnifies you against damage that is caused. In case of an accident, we would have had the relevant numbers and insurance details handy to alert whatever car insurance was involved.It is a risk, but one that we took willingly considering the immense expenses otherwise. Thank God, we only deplore the loss of a beach towel and a saucepan and gained lots of sand from the beaches in and around the car in the garage. (First thing my husband did coming home was actually sweep the garage, imagine!) Thrashing the car would have bee really bad.
Advice #4: Make sure about the car that you are getting, how old it is, whether it's working properly, what type of gas it takes and that proper insurance is provided.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Pay TV mystery solved

A big sigh of relief this morning. After yesterday's shock about our Comcast bill where we found out that the French family had rented 20 videos at our expense.We were mostly troubled by the question how this could have happened since we put a 4 -digit Lock Pin on our View on Demand feature. Even a very math/ PC savvy person would be hard pressed to go thru the 10,000 possibilities. We could barely remember that pass-code ourselves.Comcast was equally puzzled. Of course they thought we'd left the code floating about.Yeah, right; or that it was the same as the house alarm. Anyway, last thoughts at night, drifting off into a half-awake state sometimes give answers.We have numerous TVs in the house and with the new digital decoders that Comcast introduced last year, we were carried away and got a second for the bedroom, in case we ever want to buy a film there. In fact, we have never used it. And lo and behold, we had only protected the family room TV with a pass code. You would think that your whole system, every TV in the house, then would be protected. Only makes sense. But  not so. So that mystery was solved. And even better news this morning.
On perusing our exchange agreement, we found a clause we had put in  "You agree to pay for any use of our pay-per-view television service that you do during your stay, if you want it, otherwise we'll deactivate it".
They signed it. That's how we can get our money back, theoretically anyway. Of course they also signed the following, "We will leave the home clean. We will ensure a high standard of cleanliness, and make sure that the floors are vacuumed and mopped, refrigerator emptied of outdated food, stove and oven are grease free, bath and shower are free of mold and grime. You agree to maintain and leave our home in the same state."
What became of that I started to describe.
In not heeding this clause, they actually violated several principles of home exchanges that that website lists at the top. More about that....
Advice #3: make sure your ON DEMAND/ Pay TV function is disabled.Password protect it to avoid quibbles over money.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The House is still Standing

We're home and the house is still standing. Except for a broken kitchen cabinet door, a missing beach towel and saucepan, a broken door stopper and rearranged kitchen utensils and dishware.The question on everybody's mind  is: Would you do it again? Would you recommend home swapping?
In short: yes but with a few caveats and extra precautions. I left a diplomatic hint here before that the second exchange was less wonderful than we had expected. And now that the second exchange partner is no longer in my house I will not gloss over what caused us some hassle and kept irritating us as long as we were in theirs.
I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings but I'm compelled to give my readers a few pointers as to what to watch out for if they want to embark on a home swapping trip. The owners of the website where we signed up don't want a rating system like Tripadviser in order to keep their customers' privacy. Especially the European ones- they said- are very worried about privacy. That I know from my German background. In Germany, as in other European countries, privacy laws exist that the USA has not adopted or maybe gotten rid off. I appreciate their concern. I also understand that for them all subscribers are paying clients, i.e., money in the bank. At the same time, Europeans have very stringent and effective consumer rights. When I had my dating agency, I felt responsible for my clients, noted their feed-back. I was also concerned about my own reputation and that of my agency. In my opinion, the readers who are following my blog deserve an honest report.
Home swapping is like dating, I said that before. Perusing these sites is like weeding, an image that just came to mind coming in from the yard. Mr. Freud was clearly at work here: Sorting the wheat from the chaff. (Or weeds from the gaffe. Gaff is a Dublin slang word for abode).
Let's start with photos on a website. Like on dating sites photos can be deceptive. The house we found in place had some resemblance to the one on the site, but it had aged about 10 years. That happened to me more than once with men. It's not only women who lie about their age on dating sites...
Mold next to bed in masterbedroom.
I should have guessed as much because one of the kids in the pictures was a toddler, now a teenager. The depicted new looking garden plastic furniture had deteriorated to a moldy black; the fence was torn up in places, some prominent plants had died, the sun umbrella was gone. It hadn't seen a lick of paint in the last 10 years, fixtures and some furniture were broken, and many a light bulb was missing. Photos don't reveal the smell. They are hardly ever close-ups where you see the dust or grime. And there was plenty of it. That was actually a grievance I had to deal with in my dating encounters. You never ask a potential meeting partner how clean he is and how cluttered his house.  
What you can ask, however, and what I will do in the future is pick a place that has access to a cleaner or even employs one on a regular basis. That is a good sign. I had asked the other party if they could provide a cleaner for when we were leaving. This way I wouldn't have to do the overall clean myself at the end of our 4 weeks. No, he said and laughed it off by adding that, allegedly there were no cleaners available in August; perpetuating the myth that everybody goes on vacation in France then and everything closes down.
Our first exchange family had a cleaner and were willing to pay for one here in our house when they left. The second family clearly wasn’t house-proud and it showed. Strangely enough, they had left numerous packets of wipes (lingettes) all over the house. The cynic in me has a sneaking suspicion that they do an exchange once a year to have their house cleaned properly and light bulbs bought....}
Advice #1: Ask how old the photos are. Although the website suggests after the exchange to update your details, not everybody seems to do so and get away with it for a while.
#2 Make sure you have access to a cleaner before, while and after your stay.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The last repas

Only in the last few days did we learn that there were places of interest in the immediate vicinity of our little town; e.g., St.Germain-en-Laye, situated close to the Carrefour we used to shop at, had a lovely castle.We never knew. Plus the only open restaurant on a Monday night in August which also was a holiday: Assumption Day. We had a friend visit us whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years. What a reunion! A lot to catch up on including the introduction of a new husband.
The next night we drove around Medan, a neighboring village, looking for the house where Emile Zola lived. In addition, we were rewarded with a beautiful meal for less than what we were used to paying in the city. Quite en famille and next to a volière. Our home exchange partner had only divulged this info in the last few days. I guess everybody visiting the Hotel de Paris would have preferred to go downtown to Paris anyway. The chance of a lifetime. There is so much to see. Weeks aren’t enough, just to scratch the surface.
Then it was time to pack our menagerie of 6 Big Berthas again. Half of my clothes I didn’t use due to the weather. We don’t travel lightly, but the tool kit we brought was used twice, once in each house. The superglue came in handy and we used the coated wire to fix the dishwasher.
The pre-ordered taxi arrived on time. We had to make sure it would hold all our stuff. Price ca. 90-95 EUR. That was exactly what my in-laws paid coming from the airport. But the logic of same distance didn't hold. We were charged EUR 125.Pourqui? Mais oui, the taxometer was showing 125. Aha?!Maybe the man had fallen on hard times or saw that we we're business travelers. I didn't argue in my weak French. Then they normally refuse to help you unload or even drive off with your stuff.
The flight home went with Air France although we had booked Delta as usual. I much prefer the new aircraft Air France provided, a Boeing 777-200ER; more leg room, wide seats and the fact that the seats went back almost horizontal. My first time on a flatbed. In the last delta Sky magazine I had read about Delta’s investment of 22 millions into flatbeds. Hubby actually had the good fortune to avail of one on his short trip to San Francisco. It makes all the difference.
Food wise, however, I was rather disappointing. Where was the famous French cuisine? Delta’s menu and wine list won hands down. We made it back to the States without any hiccups. For once, my fingerprints matched on entering the States. We had problems there before. Our car that was parked at a friend’s house closer to the airport needed a new battery. That’s an obstacle you can do without after a long tiring day.
The trip has come to an end. Still hoping to get that NPR interview with Melissa Ross that had to be postponed due to bad phone lines from France.
What questions is she likely to ask?
What questions do you have for me?
What am I going to do about my dissatisfaction with the last exchange, however?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pere Lachaise Cemetery- a Romantic Stroll?

It's not like we have an obsession with graveyards, but having been to Paris several times, I needed to see it and strike it off my list. It's often called the city of the dead due to its size (118 acres) and number of celebrities buried here; the biggest in the east of the city; situated in the 20th arrondissement. It's supposed to be beautiful and associated with a romantic stroll on a Sunday afternoon.
"At the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804 with great fanfare organized the transfer of the remains of La Fontaine and Molière." All of a sudden, it was chic to be buried there. Now there is an impenetrable waiting list, I'm told. To cut to the chase, I was underwhelmed and not inspired.I had expected more trees and shrubs. Most graves are ancient, over a hundred years old and have no flower decorations; some have a few weeds.Many graves are in need of repair and their tombstones suffer from neglect and rust.
Among its most famous occupants are Chopin, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde. The compound is like a mazed little city and the graves are hard to find in spite of a map you can buy for 2 EUR. There were several groups led by tour guides, an indicator that they were at a famous grave. Mostly French and unknown to us.I joked about the shape of some of the older, tall, upright tombs. They resembled a phone booth, a Porta Cabins, or Disney castles with turrets. Why Oscar Wilde is so popular, I don't know. It has a modern shape in contrast to the rest and is covered in lipstick marks.But see for yourselves.
It also contains a good number of memorials for fallen soldiers of the two big wars, people who were killed in 1871 when Bismarck invaded Paris, the communards de 1871, Abelard and Heloise and a separate memorial to most of the known concentration camps. For a complete list of all who are buried there see Wikipedia.
It has a big crematorium too and an area for modern, anonymous burials, so called memorial gardens.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Catacombs, Sacre Coeur and Jardin du Luxembourg

At the weekend while my daughter and I went to see Sacre Coeur, hubby went to inspect the catacombs of Paris. We didn't know there were any - in Rome, yes- until we read about it in a recent National Geographic.It was also described as one of the scariest tourist destination. We preferred to see the famous church in Montmartre, although it was mobbed which had to be expected. They say that the French are on vacation in August- except of course the ones who run the city and tourist destinations. Plus the tourists were out in force in spite of some nasty rain.
Hubby waited almost two hours in line to get into the Catacombs, an underground ossuary at today's Place Denfert- Rochereau where about 6 millions remains are interred. In the late 18th century, Paris cemeteries were literally overflowing . Sanitary conditions around the church  and cemetery Saints Innocents became so unhealthy that the city had to act. One man got the task to solve the problem Police Lieutenant General, Alexandre Lenoir. Bodies were moved to underground mines from several surrounding graveyards.
The more morbidly inclined can read up on the subject Catacombs_of_Paris.
After that a stroll in the fresh air of the gardens were quite in order to bring hubby back to the here and now.
We weaseled our way to the Porte de Clignancourt where I had made cheap purchases at the famous flea market many moons ago. Today the area is firmly in African-Arab hands and we two blondes stuck out like a sore thumb. My daughter took many pictures of foreign garbs and head gears and was quite content to skip the actual market due to persistent rain.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Some trivial news I picked up on the trip that is not to be trifled with, however. Shopping carts in Germany and France only work if you put a EUR in and then they come apart and you can use one. How US shop owners don't worry about losing theirs is a legitimate question. You get the EUR back when you return it. Sometimes a similar token or a coin of a foreign denomination works as well, but you need one on hand. I spoke about the return of plastic and glass bottles to shops in Germany before. Here is a picture of one of those machines that then give you a return receipt for the cash out. I had never done it before, looked rather stupid not knowing how to handle it, and thought I'd put it here.
In France, in our neighborhood at least, they collect recyclables: glass bottles on Wednesdays, plastic bottles, spray cans, drinking cans and cartons as well as paper on Friday and the remainder of the trash on Monday. That makes for three cans outside.
Another triviality but of the utmost importance is that in the whole Metro system network, miles of underground interlinked transport, there is not one toilet facility. Arriving at the Gare St.Lazare from which we always take our commuter train to the suburbs, there are exactly two Porta Cabins/loos for a 50 cent charge.But alas, they are closed after 10 pm.So run for the nearest McDonald or so.
I saw some confused faces in restaurants when patrons notice that toilets often serve for both genders. Often there is 'Monsieur' on the left and"Madame' on the right and the hand wash basin in the middle. See a very special soap below. Without going into  too much of a detail, stalls are often on a timer to save electricity. One has to be prepared to be suddenly in total darkness for a few seconds until you make a move and the light comes on again.
German gas stations,  as a rule, do not take credit cards outside. You need to go in and pay after filling up. Most places don't take American Express. That is slightly better here in France. Reason? Vendors want to avoid the exorbitant merchant charges. I did too when I was still in business in Ireland. There is a difference of almost six percentage points between Visa, Mastercard and Amex.
Gas stations in France have a barrier at the exit. You cannot do a runner and not pay. They are not geared towards using credit cards outside yet as we this side of the Atlantic.You're practically locked in until you've paid.
Talking of prices. A glass of wine in a modest brasserie is 5EUR, in a better restaurant starting at 10, same for beer. A half bottle of water is 4,80; a liter EUR. My beloved fruit tartelettes went up too.In a boulangerie they are 2,80; in restaurants, they vary between 4,80 and 9EUR. Same for a Creme Brulee.
For a meal in a mediocre restaurant in Montparnasse which attracted bonvivants and famous writers at the turn of the last century, we paid 160 EUR for four. Just a main course and a glass of wine or beer each (I had hot tea). No desserts. Now get your calculator out and do the math.
PS.A reader's comment:
That is a prime thing for a country that wants tourists.  Women have to pee... often... at unexpected times... often in a hurry.  If they want to lure the lovelies they'd better have lovely loos.  Right?
No more holes in the floor.
Maybe a loo report from every town and city you visit would be a real asset to readers.  Might even help get city fathers, if there are burgermeisters around who care about such things, to look at loos as a big ass-et. Tourist loo-res, as it were.
Tour a loo a loo ree, tour a loo a lie?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crowds at Versailles

I hate the crowd control at Disney’s amusement parks, but what I hate even more is the lack thereof. Versailles was inundated with gazillions of tourists, apparently. First you stand in line for a ticket (25 EUR); then you stand in line to get access to the castle; then you wait patiently for an audio guide. The booth closed right before my family turned up. They had run out of the handy hand-held devices. But after spending 75 EUR and having waited for almost 2 hours, they were committed. They decided to go for something to eat and drink first after this initial hurdle. After they left the restaurant, guess what: One should have got in line for the entrance again because the restaurant, technically speaking, was outside the chateau area. Hubby found a sympathetic crowd handler and forced their way back in.
It was a sunny day. The wonderful castle was filled to the roof with people and sunshine. So rooms were stuffy, crowds shoving, but you couldn’t fall over because of the mob around you. If someone wanted to tie their shoe laces, he would have been stampeded into the ground.
The Hall of Mirrors was open to the public again. It was undergoing repairs the last time we were there. Several other rooms in the ladies’ quarters, however, were closed off.
This is a second hand report from hubby. I’m glad I saw it before and didn’t go today

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sure feels like autumn

Waking up to 10 Celsius is a far cry from the Florida heat. I know we wanted a reprieve from the humid summer temperatures back at home, but little did I know I would swap it for cold and wet. All of last week except for the day my in-laws arrived, it was too wet, cold and windy to even sit outside on our lovely yard. All that cleaning of the pool for their arrival was in vain.We haven't been in yet. Today it's supposed to climb up to 23 (and sunny). But there is a cold wind blowing. The forecast for Friday and Saturday is rain again.I remember summers like that in Ireland. There it's a regular recurrence; a given and people are used to it.Like in Ireland, here the tomatoes that grow abundantly in the garden, are starting to rot. The rabbit or guinea pig doesn't like tomatoes or radishes. Their hay was totally soaked and their grains started to sprout.We had to do a major cleaning job - again.
France should be basking in summer heat. When I ask natives about this weird weather pattern, they shrug and tell me we should have come in June.Whether all these tourists milling about would prefer the heat over this weather since no place has AC, I doubt. Weren't there years where people even died in Paris because of heatwaves? I hear Britain has a heatwave now. Often it didn't make it to Ireland, even though these two islands are so closely located. The bad weather influence of the Atlantic (in this case maybe even remnants of Emily) always hit Ireland first and then are deflected to France.So it will remain a mixed bag. Some people are never happy..., n'est-ce pas?
The washer is going at top speed for my daughter's arrival tomorrow. She'll get the rain....But the weather is the same in Germany I hear. When we arrived at our first swapped home in Germany, I saw the rowan trees had red berries.Oh my, my mother used to say when they are red the summer is over. When we left, they were dark red. And the summer was basically over since then. There may be truth in these old sayings.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Boat Ride on the Seine

A boat ride on the Seine is an enjoyable way to see this famous city. Wherever you want to go, however, is miles away from where we’re situated, miles of Metro rides which is a science in itself. Green lines, pink lines, brown lines, change trains at certain stops, down the stairs, up the stairs onto another train maybe. There are the navettes: hop on and hop off boats which you can use pretty much along the Seine. The one of our choice, however, does a round trip and included a guided tour. Its starting point was near the Eiffel Tower only to be reached various trains. Metros go every few minutes, but for trains you have to wait much longer.The lines for visiting the Tower were as long as ever. We have been up the Tower before on a cold February day where we promptly caught a cold. Today people were basking in a humid summer sun. Yes, it is bigger than the one in Vegas. We bought four ice creams for just under 20 EUR, the better part of $30. The boat goes past the Place de la Concorde with its famous Obelisk of Luxor, a 3300-year-old granite monolith which was given to France by Egypt in 1829. Then it passes the long buildings of the Louvre, the Musée du Quay d’Orsay, a former train station converted into a museum. It hosts old and modern art and at the moment an exhibition about Brigitte Bardot. In passing you see Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cité and Pont de l'Alma where Lady Diana died underneath in the tunnel.  It was named was named to commemorate the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War.  The Flame of Liberty at the bridge's north end has become an unofficial memorial to Diana. Lots of well adorned bridges with plenty of gold from its days of royal glory. Paris is called the city of flowers, too but this time I didn’t see too many.Cutbacks maybe?

The Parisians have a stretch along the Seine called ‘Paris Plage’.  It’s dedicated to recreation on or rather near the water for those city dwellers that do not go on the annual August vacation; it’s also a tourist attraction. You see sun umbrellas and deck chairs; sand has been hauled in and several big sand castles were built; but you cannot get access to the water, no “lido” for water sports or swimming. It was well frequented and people waved at us in the passing boat. Funny for a Floridian since the weather isn’t even that hot.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Our first sightseeing stop: L'Opera.

On my previous trips to Paris I failed to visit the inside of the Opéra or Palais Garnier – Opéra nationale de Paris. We made it our first sight-seeing stop. The grand interior is well worth a visit, resplendent in gold and marble. Our amateurish pictures don’t do it any justice. In the main auditorium, its ceiling was painted by Chagall. (We saw a glass stained window with allegorical biblical scenes created by this artist in the Cathedral of Reims as well by the way). It also has an eight-ton crystal chandelier, and purple velvet seats set around an Italian –style stage.
 The Opéra was inaugurated under the Third Republic, following fifteen years of setbacks including a nightmarish discovery by the architect Charles Garnier, of an underground expanse of water. This rather deep lake, the stage for executions during the Commune, was the inspiration for writer Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera.
Did you know that fish, fed by the scene shifters, glide through the underground waters of the Opera House and bees, from two hives on the roof, collect their nectar in the nearby Tuileries gardens?
It’s a easy walk to the Louvre and the Tuileries from there. But also to the big shopping icons like Galerie Lafayette on Blvd. Haussmann and the Left Bank. Those were closed, however, on a Sunday.  
The Left Bank was famous for its bohemian and liberal life style.” Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein poured drinks here as fast as prose. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir chain-smoked their way to existentialism here, but the arrival of chic shops like Ralph Lauren’s last year dispelled any notions of lingering antiestablishment.” Delta’s Sky magazine sings the praises of a hip new area for boutique and ethnic shopping as well as antiques near Rue Oberkampf and Blvd. Beaumarchais.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It got better

After the initial shock, I felt better once hubby found the switch for the central heating. Arriving in a strange place when it’s dark and you’re tired makes for uneasy feelings. The house had been all shuttered up and gloomy. The next day, we opened up the French windows and let in a frail Parisian sunshine.  We felt much better after that. A few hours of cleaning and a bottle of air freshener later, things looked up even more.
It’s a lovely house if a bit dated and rundown; a withering flower that has seen better times and more attention when it was younger. In contrast, we had spent many a weekend to prep our own abode: repaired little things, done touch-up jobs, bought new towels, even sheets. A friend asked me before we left,”Why don’t you do all that after your return?” We just wanted to present our home at its best.
I’d better concentrate on the positive. The location is just magnificent. Within a reasonable train ride into Paris and not too far from Versailles; in a quiet upscale neighborhood with big gardens and beautiful views. We have our own swimming pool and rabbit. Plus a guinea pig thrown in. That’s right. Two weeks before our departure, we got the request to feed these two pets. What could we do? I had specifically chosen a house without pets. They are outside, however, at least at the moment. (Hence the smell?)
Since the weather picked up yesterday- now around 80 F- we mostly live and eat outside. The open windows and doors provide a fresh breeze. No air condition, or rather a broken unit outside. What we do miss, however, is the lack of an ice-maker or at least a little freezing compartment in the big fridge. There is a deep freezer in the garage but that’s a long way from the kitchen.
And we made friends with the pets. The rabbit loves dandelion and the guinea pig prefers carrots.  But they firmly remain outside.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Take the "in" out of Intrepid, please

Did I mention we have a second home swap planned in France near Paris? After 2 days on the road with pit stops to see two famous cathedrals, I’m beat. First we visited the big Dom in Aix La Chapelle (Aachen)  where Charlemagne was crowned in 800 A.D. and then the huge Gothic cathedrals at Reims. built a thousand years ago and where all French kings were crowned. This included a little detour from the direct route to our destination, but both were worth it. The weather Gods seem to be thinking it’s autumn already. Mostly cloudy with rain showers and 17 degrees Centigrade max. Both times we got out of the car to do our sightseeing, the sky cleared up temporarily so that we could walk to the cathedrals on dry foot and even have a bite to eat sitting outside, wrapped in a blanket, however. Restaurants in Germany provide those when the weather just wouldn't comply. We drove through the beautiful countryside of the Ardennes in Belgium, very hilly and deeply forested.Lots of battles took place here in both World Wars, Even the 120km from Reims to Paris showed us lovely, green French countryside, surprisingly devoid of populated areas.
The car’s navigation system took us right into evening rush hour Paris, a place you do not want to experience. Everything was choc-a-block and Miss Navi constantly rerouted us, sent us on U turns to avoid the “traffic problem”, as she called it only realizing when it was too late that there were more of the same in the other direction. We had an unscheduled free two-hour-long sightseeing tour of Paris, the Internal Peripherique as well as the External. Trying to get over a bridge to cross the Seine was the target to take us out of this bedlam. There may have been traffic rules in the olden days. Now everybody seems to fend for himself, the survival of the fittest. Motor bikers weaseling their way between cars in a dangerous fashion domineering the roads.Well, if some don't make it, it only proves Darwin is right; let's not forget that kidney donors are badly needed and derive form this pool of humanity. I drove while hubby tried to reconcile Miss Navi and his own GPS (mentioned before!) as well as juggling a map.
People cut in in front of me from all sides; I wasn’t the typical alpha male Parisian forging through and our foreign number plate didn’t earn us any sympathy. I had done trips from Ireland to Germany that took me through the French capital before. I wonder how I ever navigated the Paris road system on my own, without a GPS or navigation system or a hubby in the passenger seat. 
We made it to the house just before dark, found the keys and were able to disarm the alarm. We also brought in all our six Big Berthas without the skies opening again on us. We were at the “Final Destination. But sometimes it's happier to travel than to arrive…
In the meantime a little storm had been brewing back home. The change over from one family to another in one day required some careful planning on my part, i.e. to have the taxi in place at the appointed time for pick up and drop off. And the more important thing for me was to guarantee a clean house for the newcomers. For that purpose I had hired a cleaner to tidy up after the Germans and change the sheets and wash the towels. It's no fun to arrive to an unmade or dirty house after a transatlantic flight and travel time of almost 24 hours.
The cleaner sent me an email “You won’t like this, but…the Germans locked the door from the kitchen to the garage which has a deadbolt.” The cleaners couldn’t get past the garage for which they had the lock number. So the house remained uncleaned, the next, the French family couldn’t get in the way they had expected. They had to find the hidden key in the dark in the slashing rain only to face unmade beds at midnight. Why the Germans locked the door thru which they had entered themselves initially and why the cleaner didn’t call me, remains a mystery. I would have told them how to get in.
Why the French, however, weren’t fussed over the state of the house and its cleanliness is pretty clear to me now. People have different standards and concepts of what is clean.

But more tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Was it worth it?

People who are reading my blog ask me to report at the end if it was worth it.
We're only at the half-way point and I can safely say, ‘we enjoyed it’. We saw parts of Germany we would never have dreamed of visiting, as they're not considered too touristy. We stayed in a very comfortable house for 4 weeks for nothing; eh, we offered our own in exchange. If you think about the benefit of that: we were told when the sprinklers didn't work as set, we got updates about the state of the lawn--when the lawn man didn't turn up, that the newly repaired washing machine still presented with the same problem. Somebody kept an eye on the mail and watered our plants. The house is and looks lived in which gives us a good feeling although we have a house alarm. In addition, we had a car at our disposal. An outlay not to be underestimated. We stayed in a house that really had everything we needed except for the ice maker and AC which we didn't miss. Well, most Europeans have a smaller fridge than Americans. That is one thing I definitely would change if we were to live in Germany again.
We met the family we swapped homes with, a delightful family. It's a great bonus if that happens. The next family from France we'll only meet after our stay when we're back in FL and they are about to vacate our house a day later.
There was no report about anything getting thrashed. The cleaners might rectify that tomorrow... It was my son who broke a coaster in this house. As way of compensating for that our exchange partner bought one of my books. Hey, a sale was done, too!
With all these modern technologies it's easy to keep on top of things. We email almost daily, when a crisis lurks -like I couldn't switch on their TV one day we skyped. Mail is being forwarded to our current destination although with a hiccup on the part of USPS. Cheap telephone lines make communication in both places easy.
We also met their parents who may have kept an eye out without us knowing and I got two jars of my beloved quince jelly which I'll never make myself in my life again.
In comparison, the really nice flat we rented last year, lacked certain mod cons or they were not functional in spite of us paying EUR 1000 for just one week. Obviously our rental car was on top of that.
It gave me ample of time to update my impression and adjust my memory. That will keep me going when away again form my native homeland for a while. We stocked up on Rumkugeln and other goodies. Enough to see me through a few weeks, unless Hubby partakes too much. He also grew find fond of Broetchen etc.
There are many websites to choose from, but this one has a lot of members worldwide and over 1000 in Germany. Have a look for yourself It's like browsing a travel catalog.
Will we do it again? Yes, we are. going to....tomorrow. And if that experience proves anything positive like this one, we might add another month next year. If we wanted more, my American husband would run into Visa restrictions. But there is a way to deal with that. I'm very grateful he arranged his heavy work schedule around my needs of being in Germany. In France, at last, he'll be on vacation for the most part. I'm so glad.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The oldest castle fortification in Germany

After the road blocks were removed and we were able to get out of Dodge, we drove to Friedberg. The Iroman cyclists had gone thru it and the reporter mentioned that old fortification built between 1171 and 1180 by King Barbarossa. Hubby needed some fresh air after his trip back from CA and having slept for hours. Cute little town.If there was more time, I'd go back for some shopping,but hey--I'm off to Paris next.
The castle's gardens had an exhibition of unpublished photos from a private collection of the Tzar family.It commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Tzar and Tzarina coming to Friedberg in August 1910. Buddies Nick (Nikolaj of Russia and Will, Wilhelm, Emperor  of Germany, enjoyed the summer here with their children..Four years later, World War I broke out and their were arch enemies.The exhibition referred to it as an almost forgotten war here in  Germany in contrast to other countries, e.g. England who commemorates it on Poppy Day.
Fortified with an umbrella we walked the grounds and took many good pics. It got quite chilly alright.We warmed up in a local brewery and were glad we had done this little trip on the spur of the moment. See glass of beer. We didn't go to one beer garden during our stay as expected.Too wet and cold.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Men made of iron

In contrast to the prevailing heat wave in the US, the weather here is cool, mixed with the occasional rain, temperatures are hovering around 15 degrees Celsius. Almost deal for today's triathlon.The competition starts at 7 a.m.with a 3.5 km swim through the Langener Waldsee (Lake Langen) , then a 180km bike ride, twice from Frankfurt to Bad Nauheim and back.That's a similar distance of an 'etappe' of the Tour de France. A soon as that is completed, they embark on a marathon.That's right, as if the previous sport activities wouldn't be a huge achievement on their own, they run 42 km!.I knew marathon runners in Ireland, saw them train and saw them sweat. Doing a marathon after that 'etappe' de Frankfurt plus the swim, is beyond my imagination. But I couldn't run for the bus, as they say in Ireland.
We watched it a bit on local TV and went for a ride. The photo shows some neighbors who had been watching the race under the shelter of a bus stop and were still partying.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

IRONMAN is coming

The town is bracing itself for the advent of a true athletic event:Ironman.de.The European championship of  an US triathlon event :Ironman. Streets have been cordoned off and tomorrow when they race past, we have to stay put. There is no escaping between the hours of 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Suits us- we have to pack out bags, remember? 6 "Berthas".
Hubby arrived on schedule back from CA. At the moment, he doesn't quite know where he is and what time.
Since I had no insurance, the (emergency or urgent care) charged me like a private patient:EUR 15 for consult and 10 for extensive physical. That is about the equivalent of my co-pay!
The next step of obtaining the medications also made me wildly aware of a difference between "socialized"
German Healthcare and the US system. Here you take your prescription to a Apotheke (pharmacy-most of them are privately owned. No chains like ..you know who). You hand your piece of paper to the competent pharmacists; he disappears into his storage or shelving area, comes out with my  medications, puts them in a bag, and rings up the money. The transaction is over in less than 5 minutes unless you ask him for advice. If they are out of a certain product, they will procure it within a few hours, often even deliver to your house, as my good pharmacy friend in Stuttgart always does.Their individual packaging makes it easy to tell them apart. No five bottles that look alike and could easily be mixed up.No waiting for pills to be counted. Individual leaflets of how to take them etc. are inside each package. See for yourselves. I wonder why can Germany do it and the USA can't?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Warning: Don’t trust Google Maps!

Today is hump day! In 4 weeks time we’ll be on the plane home. Due to more internal discomfort, I had to make a trip to another doctor on a Friday afternoon. The local telephone book connected me to an emergency service. Since I hadn’t visited that neighboring town, I trusted Mr. Google with my quest for the location and route: 7.4 km and 14 minutes. Big mistake, and not for the first time. We had several bad experiences over the years which caused marital disharmony when hubby totally relied on the all-knowing map provider; I knew my hometown better and would have bet the farm the searched for location was not there. Another time, He (yes, I always call him Mr. Google; a woman is better at directions…}) on the way to Yosemite Park on our honeymoon of all occasion, he made us take a road up to a mountain top which ended in a dirt track. The mountain ranger was curious what business we had up there until we explained. Then he nodded knowingly. We've now developed a system in which I drive according to my husband’s directions which he gets live from the GPS on his I-Phone. He would do both at the same time if my female persuasion skills didn’t prevent him from doing so. But he wasn’t here and I had to fend for myself.
Yesterday’s wild goose chase included my search for a local branch of Deutsche Bank which is the corresponding business partner of Bank of America. An online chat with a BOA associate had revealed that. Corresponding banks don’t charge the usual fees for ATM withdrawals and cash transactions. Besides, only Deutsche Bank is authorized to accept $100 bills and has the facility to check if they are counterfeits. Mr. Google sent me to a Sparkasse in the same location. No wonder, the locals had shaken their heads in response to my question. They didn’t know Deutsche Bank had come into town. And the town has its own Sparkasse. I needn’t have driven the 5kms. Except it tuned into 15mls when I got a little lost between villages, because I had not googled the return route….}. For my next inquiry into an insurance company I proceeded with more caution, called ahead if they were who Mr. Google claimed and if they were it said location. It turned out, the friendly representative answered my questions satisfactorily and I didn’t even have to drive there.
I’ll stop here. Enough gripe for one day. Coincidentally, the dictionary tells me the word gripe also explains my aforementioned internal discomfort.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A quiet day back on the ranch

We're getting lazier and lazier here. If the weather persists, we'll barely make it out of the house. Miraculously, it clears up in the evening so that we can get our constitutional. Not much for a strapping young man who plays American football for fun.I found a few more objects worth taking a picture. A US mail box, rather unusual here. We had one on the Irish farm, but just a simple, regular model, not as cute as this one. And this one here doesn't even go with a farm.
The other picture shows a phenomenon that I noticed last year already further south, Bavaria way. Most private houses have solar panels. How this is feasible with far less sunshine than in Florida, bamboozles me.
The fruit is a rare find:a quince tree.Makes for wonderful jelly, but a lot of work. And a tiny personal success: my son made me overcome my fear of horses by asking me to feed them carrots tonight. In spite of having lived on a farm and having horses, I have been too timid to go near them.Some bad experience that I should reserve for my Irish blog:www.Ioncehadafarminireland.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We feel quite at home here in spite of the weather

Another day of bad weather --at least no Floridian steam room-- brought the arrival of my son for a precious few days.The evening rewarded us with some sunshine and milder temperatures as well as a great sunset. We made good use of it by going on a walk around and thru the fields as I did many a time before with all my visitors.In the past 3 weeks, the blackberries and plums ripened and I eat as I go along. Like my daughter, my son headed straight for the young cows (yearlings) and ponies. Rephrasing the old family saying: You can take a boy out of a farm but you can't take a farm out of a boy. 
The other two pictures show modern German apartment architecture here in town and that Germans bring their bags when they go shopping. And not just the measly little Publix bags that I took years promoting until I saw a number of people actually bring them. No, real baskets.I had mentioned this before on my Irish blog.http://www.inandoutofireland.blogspot.com/ When we first arrived on Irish soil, I was the only one who even had or brought a basket to the shop. The shop owner looked condescendingly at me,"Why bother? We have plastic bags now". She shook her head about the incredible German government that charged their citizens a small amount for plastic bags since the 80s. She added"That wouldn't go down well in this country". It took until the year 2001/2 until European laws leveled the playing fields for European consumers.By then I had moved away from the farm and never met shop-keeper Deirdre again. Curious to know what she would have to say for herself....

Sunday, July 17, 2011

So near and yet so far

As I'm writing this blog,  the Women's Football World Cup is about to roll over the TV screens. Though near Frankfurt, I'm not in the stadium yet watching from the comfort of my nice home. The set-up of  the stadium is quite impressive with a retractable glass roof which is currently covering the grounds because of the lousy weather that kept me indoors all day. With hubby off back to the USA for a few days and my latest set of visitors gone, I had time for myself -after stripping the beds and changing the linens for the arrival of my son tomorrow. TIVO or the technology of DVR has't made it to modern Germany yet for some unknown reason, so I really better watch carefully. You cannot rewind  if you want to or stop a program if you have to..                 
Even Angela Merkel is there on her 57th birthday.She is a big football fan. There was speculation whether Mr. or Mrs. Obama would turn up. But the President couldn't make it because of the debt crisis -so rumor  has it here.  As Germany is out of the competition, I can wholeheartedly say: USA GO!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big difference

After some proper rain yesterday and all night, there is a lovely freshness to the air:but it's supposed to warm up again. I'd like to introduce you to some typical German features/ laws that don't exist in the USA, as far as I know.
1. Recycling. Oh yes, there is some recycling in our home town in FL, mostly in suburbia and not in condo neighborhoods. Here every household has to separate their trash into different categories. Wine bottles and other glass bottles for which you haven't paid a return-pledge (" Pfand", a couple of cents), need to be taken to glass recycling containers that are placed all over town, or even each little village. Once there, you must differentiate between white, green, and brown glass. Because of the accompanying noise, it's forbidden to dispose of them after 8 P.M. and on Sundays.
Bottles that you paid this pledge amount for go back to the store; this applies especially for crates of beer or soda bottles. You separate paper and cartons from your household trash into the blue bin (trash can). Some towns insist on a Bio-bin, the brown can, meaning you gather your organic materials in there: left over foods, vegetable or fruit peels, and yard clippings etc. Here it isn't obligatory, but it is where my aunt lives up north. No garbage disposals. I don’t know whether they exist at all or are forbidding because of recycling laws.
Talking to German friends they are quite appalled by the idea of a garbage disposal. “They only feed rats in the sewerage system” is the prevailing belief. How is that avoided in the States, I wonder. Coming form an organic farm, I never liked the idea of a garbage disposal either. Left-over were ALWAYs fed to some animals.
You buy yellow plastic bags for plastic, packaging, (no paper or cartons), metal, plastic bottles that contained shampoo, household cleaners, deodorants, milk cartons. The bag itemizes what goes in and what not. (Sorry that is not too good a shot! My daughter should have taken a pic of it). It also emphasizes that everything has to be clean. I.e. people rinse their empty yoghurt cartons or aluminum cans.
And then there is a blue can for “rest” trash. I haven’t quite figured out what goes in there, honestly. We’re probably messing up royally here. If the trash collectors find things in either of the bins that shouldn’t be there, they refuse to take it and leave the full can on the curb.

The photo on the left shows a bottle return machine and some crates stacked up next to it. You put your bottles in that round hole one after another and press the green button underneath when finished. You get a receipt and your money at the check-out. This was a new system for me too!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A trip to Speyer

  I chose the hottest and muggiest day to travel to Speyer, a town in the vicinity of Heidelberg.It gained some notoriety through a GI called Elvis who allegedly lost his heart there. No, I'm not taking you there.Speyer is famous for its cathedral that was begun in 1025. Wikipedia offers its complete history if you're interested: Speyer.My mission wasn't sightseeing but visiting an old friend way back from Ireland who landed in a nursing home there. He had sold me his wine business in Dublin when he retired. The road trip also went past Schwetzingen. Yes, it has a castle which I never visited but the area is the pinnacle of growing white asparagus. You can buy early asparagus from Morocco in March. But a real German asparagus lover frowns at the idea and waits for Schwetzinger or local one to appear on our local markets.Alas, the season is over. Another place of interest which had escaped my attention so far traveling thru Germany is the Hockenheim Ring.If you're familiar with Formula I motor racing, the name means something to you.I don't want to belittle Nascar Racing or the Daytona 500, but it's just a cast-off of Formula I racing whch embraces the whole world. It also comes to Indianapolis Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Besides Monaco, Dubai, Japan, Bahrain, UK, Barcelona, The Grand Prix has two race courses in Germany, The Hockenheim Ring and the Nuerburg Ring. The town of Speyer itself resembles so many towns in Germany that have old parts of town, mostly pedestrianized with gorgeous timber framed houses, endless opportunities to sit out and have a coffee of meal. Weather permitting, of course. And it did. We're waiting for a weather front to come thru.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Another castle

Out of circulation for a few days due to tummy bug. The food, the muggy weather or is it just going round, as the doctor said.The last trip my daughter and I made was to a town called Koenigstein which I had never heard of before. It's situated in Rheingau, one of the famous wine producing areas.After some climbing up the ruin of a castle, a lot of picture taking, we deserved our lunch 'al fresco.'The area we are staying in is not exactly touristy. The trips we are making are short, an hour max to the west of the metropolis of Frankfurt. A hill (instead of mountain) range of low height covers both sides around Frankfurt and is called Taunus. The other towns I mentioned before like Eltville, or the Rheingau are considered German tourist destination for retires or old age pensioners. Hadn't expected to do this, yet--but it's lovely, relaxing and shows me a new part of my own country.
Over the weekend, a girl-friend drove up 200km to me.What joy a reunion is after some years. Hubby asked whether I missed 'home?' A bit, I had to admit. He didn't, surprisingly enough.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Another day, another blog

Getting quite busy here maintaining my Irish blog http://www.inandoutofireland.blogspot.com/ and promotion for my book going plus the blog on that one http://www.nexttimelucky.blogspot.com/ while, at the same time, my daughter is visiting. She's taking us for walks into the fields behind the neighborhood everyday. Having grown up on a farm in Ireland, she is quite the outdoor type. and enjoys tiny things in nature. She is also a good photographer and finds good shots in unexpected places. She loves the horses in the nearby fields, having had her own once and naturally pats young cows. We saw a stork land in field where grass was just cut, but it's a bit too far away. I haven't seen storks since my childhood and these were in nests up on chimneys.
 Although we're only 15 mls from Frankfurt, we have all this green countryside around is, cornfields, woods, and orchards.It's also surprisingly quiet in spite of the heavy air traffic.I was worried because I had heard a few planes then.They rotate the approach fly paths every night so that the noise is evenly distributed. The hotel owner where  we stayed on our first night also told me that they just gained permission to build a new runway and landing strip. Thus Frankfurt Airport (FRA) will DOUBLE its starts from 300,000 to 600,000 a year. The German economy is booming.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In the Name of the Rose

On 4 July, we made a wonderful excursion to an old cistercian cloister, Eberbach, about 45 km from here near thepretty medieval town of Eltville / Rhine..It's better known from the film based on Umberto Ecco's book. One would never have guessed the film was made here. The surrounding landscape is totally different, rolling hills and woods as opposed to high bleak Alpine mountains.The cloister is in great repair, was secularized in 1806. Since then it is a working vineyard owned by the government of the Hessian State and makes lovely wines of some renown. The only room remotely resembling what I remember of the film is the so-called dormitory (for lay people). A huge empty hall where, in the film, the library was placed, with a door to the secret tower upstairs full of forbidden books. In the basement, musty as real wine cellar has to be, dozens of ancient, dark wooden barrels reminded me of the scene where they found one dead monk floating in a mixture of wine and blood. In the summer, classical concerts are played in the more than sparse, overly plain former chapel. They have a classic garden restaurant with typical fare for the weary traveler and, of course, wine and cider.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

One card down

Sunday we went into Frankfurt City to pick up my daughter. We saw the famous Roemerberg, Dom (Cathedral) but had no time to visit the birth place of Goethe which is nearby.. A lovely meal sitting by the Main when the sun eventually showed her face somewhat.
At the huge train station, waiting for her train's arrival, my husband wanted to withdraw money with our Bank of America Visa Debit card. He couldn't. He wasn't even asked for a PIN. The machine just gobbled it up. Hubby spent hours on the phone with Bank of America and chatted online with Visa. My daughter and I in the meanwhile went for a walk thru the nearby fields: sunflowers, apple trees etc. Hubby learned that we should have alerted Visa that we were going abroad .Hello? We've been doing this for years. My husband travels all around the world and never had it happen. The jewel on the crown was that we had used the same card at a different location the day before and even got our money. .Now we are down one card.
The weather picked up again and we're enjoying the outdoors.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Historic Spa: Bad Nauheim

We went to a neighboring town called Bad Nauheiim, 22mls north of Frankfurt.It's one of the age old spas renowned for taking "the waters'. A fashion that developed over a hundred years ago in towns that had mineral wells, hot or cold which were deemed to have remedial qualities for many an ailment. The resort is noted for its salt springs, which are used to treat heart and nerve diseases. Here's one of the public water fountains.
Elvis Presley lived here during his stint with the army and he used the gate of the castle ("Burgpforte") as the motif for a record cover in 1959.
It's also renowned for another historical factor: General Patton was assigned to command the Fifteenth Army with its headquarters in Bad Nauheim. While Frankfurt was heavily bombed, this little resort was spared because the general loved it so much that the uS headquarters were moved there. On December 9, 1945 General Patton left Bad Nauheim for a hunting trip near Mannheim, which resulted in a fatal car crash that took General Patton's life. Happy 4 July!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cool and thunderstorms

As opposed to hot and thunderstorms, it makes for a welcome change. Whatever bit of a tan I brought from FL has dissipated already. The bottle doesn't work as well without real sun in addition! No AC in the house also means no heat if it gets any colder at night.
The other thing we take for granted in the USA is an ice maker. At least my hubby likes his sodas with ice. But we came prepared with the old-fashioned ice trays and a container to put the cubes into. Well, we don't travel lightly. We brought Splenda, Ziploc bags, Special K (the big box from Costco), a thousand adapters, cables, plugs, even Worcester Sauce."Honey, the war has been over for 60 years. We do have these things in Germany, too."
"Yes, but it's cheaper when we can bring what we have at home already since Delta brought the bags free of charge for a platinum member frequent flyer."Alas, we still had to haul them around  and up some stairs.
So a little bit of exploring is  in order for today. Maybe even a walk in between the showers. Took pics of neighborhood yesterday, But all of  a sudden my laptop doesn't recognize my camera anymore when I want to download them. Strangers in a foreign country ...

Friday, July 1, 2011

Finally there...

The big day to take over our holiday home had arrived. And maybe to face the music; see for ourselves whether the pics on the home swap website lived up to their promises. Having met the German home owners/swap partners the night before, we felt very confidant. They are really nice people who have been to the States before.
We drove the short distance from the hotel to their house to drop off our multitudinous bags and then drop off the rental car in Frankfurt’s fair city. From then on we have the use of their cars.
The house is beautiful and exactly the way I had expected it. A typical German house with blinds outside, electric in this case which is very practical. It’s in a quiet neighborhood, 5 minutes walk to a big supermarket and a quick drive to some little restaurants and the Gelateria I had been hankering for. The house has two terraces; one has sun in the morning, one in the evening.  The garden could have been designed and planted by myself with similar features on our own porch with the predominant color being blue. It has all the mod cons we need like dishwasher, dryer etc. and a gym in the huge basement where we can store our bags. In fact, it has everything, even the same flatscreen tV that we have! But it doesn't have AC which is a real draw-back for my American husband. And no fly-screens. So first thing on our shopping list beside food was a fly swatter and a net to build a fly screen.
On the first day, I cooked my white asparagus that our exchange partners had bought for me, in the afternoon an apple strudel was baking in the oven and the evening was rounded off by one of my favorite TV shows. I’m a sucker for Krimis, i.e. detective stories/thrillers. In the US, I’m taping them on a German website and download them from there onto my PC. Here, lazy and still jet-lagged on a brand-new comfy couch, I nibbled at my favorite liqueur filled chocolates watching it live. Yes, the jet-lag took a bigger toll this time not having slept on the plane.
While the first 2 days it was as hot as in Florida, the weather now has changed. It’s just below 20 degrees Celsius, the umbrella sprang into action already but that saves me watering their garden. The nights are cool;  we sleep with the window open until some noisy birds wake up and us at the same time. I just close the window. I hear the German family is enjoying our pool.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“When somebody makes a journey, he has a story to tell”

The German poet Matthias Claudius in Urian’s Journey around the World coined what became a famous phrase in the German language. Oh, so true, as most will admit. I’ll spare you the details of an otherwise uneven full trans-Atlantic flight (thank God), except that I didn’t sleep one wink and everybody else was snoring. The guy in front of me couldn’t be shaken awake shortly before arrival. The flight attendant had to put his seat back in the upright position. That straightened him out.
"Could I have some of what he was having...?"
The scene upon arrival in a new unfinished Terminal in Dusseldorf practically took our breath away. The narrow unventilated hallways leading to passport control were mobbed by ca. 600-800 people. Four other planes had arrived at the same time. There was NO GETTING in LINE. Just a sea of heads and throngs of sweating, irritated bodies shoving along inch by inch encountering the oncoming work crew.  For hundreds of yards of corridors, down steps, more hallways and more steps to be greeted by 8 German officials who remained totally unfazed. Inconceivable at US Immigration where crowd control is managed with serpentine liens --like at Disney--and by some fierce immigration officers hollering at you: "Keep moving, Sir! Stay in line, Mam!"
The site resembled an evacuation scenario in a crisis area somewhere in the world, not my good old Germany.  This leg of the trip -plane to passport control took over an hour. Hope this picture tells the story. Some wondered about German efficiency. 
Seven hours later we arrived in a hotel at our destination and met up with our lovely exchange partners. We were zombies. They still had to face the flight to the US next morning.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Welcome on Board

“Are you moving house?” The Delta associate at the check –in counter looked amused. “Eh, something like that…”  Our 6 bags of roughly 60 pounds each were kind of embarrassing, however. “But we’re staying a couple of months”.
Dragging them into the airport building from the Florida open air steam room, we were ready for a shower. Truck stops provide this useful amenity. No such luck, but at least we were down to just manageable carry-ons. The next challenge brought on another moment of perspiration: the dreaded security procedure. Standing barefoot, filling the bins with everything they want to scrutinize while the next person behind us in line is breathing down your neck,  sighing impatiently, while we take out computers, Ziploc bags with non-descript liquids etc, I broke out into another sweat. A taste of German check-out lines in supermarkets − in case you haven’t had that experience. There are no baggers to help you.  Instead the next customer nudges his cart stealthily into your heels if you’re too slow.
Next I’m escorted to the full body scanner while my husband is being whizzed past. Let them say what they want about the privacy of your private parts or lack thereof about these machines; you don’t see it yourself. Low and behold I had a forgotten key in my pocket which triggered of an extra pat-down. More sweating. Sorry, a lady perspires. After that we both needed a drink if only in lieu of a shower. Finally we board and are on our way.
In the meantime, we’ve arrived at our destination and are online again.  But first things first…

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Up, up , and away!

Tomorrow is the big day! Bags should be packed by then and our houses in some sort of order because we expect to find the same. Thank goodness, a cleaning crew will make the beds and clean kitchen and bathrooms after our departure. My mind is never on these trivial matters when I go transatlantic. Rather: are the bags too heavy or can I squeeze in another pair of shoes? Will the plane be on time or will it have a puncture again so that they need to fly in a tire from Atlanta to fix the plane which once made us miss our connecting flight to Europe.

Our first stop for 4 weeks will be near Frankfurt in Germany. It's a little historic town 20km to the northeast that nobody has ever heard of. It has several bedrooms, a little garden , a gym and a sauna.Well, we have an outdoor sauna here in Florida too! And the village has a Gelateria, bakeries for yummy breads and Broetchen, cheeses, meats and a fresh market. If I'm in luck, I can still purchase some of this year's WHITE asparagus. No, green doesn't come anywhere near it in this case. And the mushroom season isn't too far off, and raspberries and strawberries and... above all: Rumkugeln are widely available. I once made them myself. But they didn't beat the ones I love and buy for 0.99 EUR. Ah yes, and beer gardens! Wine gardens! It's near a wine growing area and Heidelberg and the Rhine....oh, I forgot how I missed it! Poor hubby has to work but he also will enjoy the produce, goodies, and outdoor refreshments....

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Like Dating it's not free

These home swapping sites aren't free. Their services cost about $100 plus. We decided for the one that seemed to have the most exchange homes in the areas/ country we wanted to visit. Some are clearly structured so that you can find immediately how well your desired area is represented. Others put more emphasis on the pictures and lure you in with fabulous descriptions. Every home owner, of course, writes up his own description. The agency we signed up with have a great number of home owners all over the States. They also seem to have a good support system and relationship with their clients. They answered our questions immediately. And we had many regarding contracts etc.
So if you feel like going to Colorado skiing or for a vacation in Hawaii, it's possible. As I said for us the target has been Europe.
Having published the article where I compare home swapping to dating, another agency approached me and offered me a free membership for a year worth $159. Thanks very much. Lots of beautiful looking villas, especially in South Africa and Australia if that's where your traveling bug is luring you. Here is their link Luxe Home Swaps  and see for yourselves. Doesn't that make you feel like packing bags straight away? What am I doing here. We're leaving in two days. I should be washing, ironing, backing, picking up the house etc. Thank God, a cleaner is coming before our exchange partner arrive next week!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Homeswapping is like Dating

Being an old hand on dating sites, my experience with a home swapping site took me right back.
As new hopefuls on a home exchange website, my hubby and I enthusiastically put up photos of our house, plus a catchy description together with details about us. We felt like kids in the candy-store: all these great places and houses all around the world up for grabs at the click of a mouse.
We approached desirable potential partners, sometimes we got replies, and sometimes not: “sorry but...or you're too late”. Then we thought we had found the right fit and we started to communicate by email with the prospective swappers.  At the same time we asked a couple of questions about what they were offering on their part. After a bit of research, at last we were ready to commit: “Let’s do it” only to get blown off: We've found somebody else.
It reminds me of Internet dating. After crafting a compelling personal profile, you click though gazillions of pictures and prospects; you wait for responses or actively approach potential partners. You communicate, sometimes slowly; sometimes unexpectedly excited, making quick progress in getting to know the other side. Then boom—you’re blown off and don’t know what hits you. They disappear from the radar or have the courtesy of informing you that they have met somebody else while you were getting your hopes up. Happens all the time. It’s called double timing.
We lost out while trying to cover our backs and avoid being disappointed if things turned out to be different to what they were portrayed to be. 
We are still "virgins" on the home swapping front so to speak, but we learned our lesson: Apparently one has to jump "into bed" here even more quickly than on dating sites.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ever swapped Homes?

With more dash than cash it's hard to fulfill your traveling needs...Thinking of the top '100 places you should see before you die' always makes my tummy churn and my face green with envy.
After a wonderful vacation in the Fatherland which cost a bomb, I had a brainwave. Somewhere and somehow I had heard about swapping homes. Well, on TV families are known to even swap spouses.With a little bit of investigation (thank you Mr. Google!),  I found an app for that.or rather several websites. Looking  at all the beautiful homes worldwide nurtured my travel bug that bit me years ago. He started to grow and make himself heard: If you swap houses with some of these people, you can stay longer. Hey, there is a way to swap cars too. That takes a big load of your pocket book. The bug could no longer be ignored.
Cheap package tours are an option, at least occasionally, but not in our circumstances. Especially if you live in "Paradise" anyway..We want to travel to Europe as much as possible because of family reasons. And hubby loves France and Italy. And his employer is too stubborn to let us relocate and pay for regular trips.
I was all for it immediately.
But:I hear you ask a).do you want strangers in your house? b) even sleep in your bed? Guess, how many different people share a hotel bed over time? c) What about valuables and personal stuff? Well, lock it away! And if a glass or a vase breaks, or a book gets mislaid...so be it. In any case, people have insurance.
Well, we women can be very persuasive with the right arguments and the right open-minded partner who wants to please his wife who is a long way from home...
That's how it all started. Hey, Europe here we come: The Intrepid home swappers! The world is your oyster- if you like oysters. Who knows where we'll go next if this works out?