Adventure in the Alps

For our vacation this year, Tracey and I decided to go on a more hike-oriented trip through the Alps. Hitching a ride on one of our My Way Alpine Tours, we packed our bags, left scorching Seattle, and started our adventure in even more scorching Salzburg!

The itinerary roughly went East-to-West, and is likely best visualized with a very handy map.

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The Handy Map

Salzburg

Flying out to Munich via Reykjavik, we landed Saturday afternoon, cleared customs, and immediately took Munich’s hybrid commuter rail system to the main train station in town. Grabbing our tickets, we settled our tired selves into one of the hourly trains to Salzburg, Austria.

Arriving in the very warm and muggy Salzburg was especially fun. Trudging to our AirBnB we quickly settled in before going off to buy groceries and water. Lots of water. The time is 17:40. We quickly find that the store closest to our apartment closed at 17:30 and reopened on Monday. Well, okay, so we started walking to the center of town: surely there is a store open later there, right? Spending our energy in the form of sweat, we discover that this is indeed a terribly incorrect assumption: everything is closed until Monday. Things are not looking so great when I dash off a quick tweet of forlorn sadness about our current situation. And then an angel appeared in the form of a coworker who had edited our book section on Salzburg a few months before and noted that the Spar in the train station was open until very late in the evening. We were saved! The recon was correct! The night was warm, but we settled into the warm apartment at least on the road to hydration as the skies filled with rolling thunderstorms.

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Canadian Adventure

While in the middle of a company Christmas cruise last holiday season, Brian texted a fairly sloshy Nikky and asked if I was up for a week-long trip that started in Montreal and ended in Toronto. Never really one to shy away from a new adventure, I said “sure!” and let the logistics handle themselves.

Come May, we set off to visit the central core of our northerly neighbors.

Montreal 

Aggressively French, Montreal feels like someone took Paris and smooshed it together with the Portlandia stereotype of oppressive hipsters. The first day the forecast was to fairly moderate in temperature and not terribly rainy, so we decided to go on a walkabout the city first and then explore the hill park (Mont Royal) that the city is named after before capping off the day by visiting a few brewpubs and scarfing down Montreal-style bagles by the dozen.

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The next day was planned to be the museum day! Yay! Except it was Monday. And on Monday in Montreal, everything is closed. Everything. Even the cat cafe. After much consternation, we found a small natural history museum on the campus of McGill university to visit. It had dinosaurs and fossils, so things work out.

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Montreal featured a well-ran and convenient public transit and metro system, and we were able to use it to quickly and cheaply get ourselves around this rather sprawling city.

Ottawa

On Tuesday (my birthday!), we took the train to the capital of Canada. Ottawa felt a lot like if you took a the rather backwater capital of Washington, Olympia, and bolted on a federal government of a much smaller United States onto it. There was a university that we stayed near, and the entire town was very walkable.

The night of my birthday, we went to a wood-fired pizza place and then enjoyed some different kinds of Scotch at an Highlander pub. It was fairly low-key, but we needed to retire early for the big day we had planned in Ottawa. Why was it a big day? Because we only had one full day in the city, and had a lot to cover!

After checking out the big public market and grabbing some pastries, Brian was ambushed by a local news crew.

We checked out the parliament and library, including a short guided tour through the building.

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At the Canadian War Museum we saw lots of exhibits that were very proud of the fact that the Canadians beat the tar out of the Americans whenever we tried to invade. But the real cool part of the museum is that they had Weather Station Kurt, which was a WWII-era automated weather station landed on Canadian soil by a U-boat and discovered decades later.

Ottawa also had lots of spiders and sculptures.

That night, we signed up for one of the “escape room”-type adventures all the cool kids are doing these days. Brian, Andy, and I met up at the place with the three other people we were assigned to, and spent the next 45 minutes barely failing the room. We had all of the clues figured out, but the coordination wasn’t perfect and we ultimately didn’t put them all together for the final box that would have had the solution.

And then we were done with Ottawa.

Toronto

On the train to Toronto, the three of us had facing seats, with a fourth person sitting with us who was randomly assigned. He was a very interesting fourth person, who had a locked suitcase with him that he would occasionally open to grab documents with the Canadian government seal marked “Secret,” and then use his Blackberry(!) to talk to people about trade deals. Otherwise the trip was largely uneventful and we arrived in Toronto.

Or as we soon called it, the “more Canadian version of New York City.” As in, if you removed all of the smell, interesting people, and cool things of NYC, you had a rather sterile metropolis. Toronto was largely a disappointment, although we did see the Hockey Hall of Fame, which featured aggressively hipster sweaters.

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We toured Fort York, which was an interesting oasis of historical property smack dab in the middle of town. Once again, they made sure to point out that the Americans ultimately lost to the Canadians. It was a common refrain.

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Toronto has a large island park right next to the downtown core, which we went and visited for an evening. It’s a fairly unique feature of the city.

And that’s it really about Canada.

The Trip Back

Our flight plans both ways involved flying from our Canadian city to Seattle through Chicago. The flights over went well, but on the flight back we were on a smallish regional jet getting ready to take off when the flight attendants thought they smelled chemical burning. The pilot came back and checked, and he got a big ‘ole wiff of something smelly. Thinking it was the chemical oxygen generators (which are a big issue if they just go off on their own), we pulled back into the gate, deplaned everyone, and had to figure out what was going on. We got in a big line to find alternate flights that processed about 2 people every half hour, so after an hour of standing around doing nothing, they announce the flight is back on and we all get back on.

The pilot reported that the smelly smell had been identified, and we just had to wait for security clear us. Since even though it wasn’t a security incident, they still had to have security clear us. Because of reasons. Eventually we take off and I overheard the flight attendants talking about the source of the smell. What was it?

Verdict

Montreal was fairly accurately billed beforehand, and we had a lot of fun in the city despite all of the attractions being closed one of the days we were there. It was mostly our fault for planning the outside day when the attractions were open, and planning an inside day when the attractions were closed. I’d definitely go back.

Ottawa was a city we wish we spent an extra day there. It had lots of museums and government buildings to see and do, and turned out to be a fun time.

Toronto was ultimately disappointing: it was a rather generic large city without a lot of unique things to see and do. It could be a rather sterile alternative to NYC if you dislike smelling hot garbage all the time and don’t mind a crappier metro. We could have easily shifted the second full day in Toronto to Ottawa and had a much better time.

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Vancouver BC

Although Seattle is the best city of all time forever, our neighbors are a fun way to experience how other urban areas live the Pacific Northwest life. Tracey and I decided to visit our Northerly neighbor Vancouver for the weekend.

After fueling up at Uwajimaya, we caught the last Amtrak Cascades train of the day Northbound on Friday. As it is with trains, we were in a car with nine very loud people going to celebrate a bachelorette party. So they were annoying. And our train was quickly delayed for around 90 minutes because a couple of freight trains decided to start swapping cars in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know much about the logistics of freight trains, but shuffling cars certainly isn’t a quick operation. Arriving at midnight, we took the SkyTrain to our hotel, checked in, and promptly passed out.

But then the morning arrived! And we had a yummy juice and organic breakfast before wandering off to Granville Island. Vancouver has a lot of water and not a lot of bridges, so they rely on networks of water taxis to get people around.

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(You can see one here)

Granville is basically what would happen if someone decided to throw Capitol Hill and Pike Place Market in a blender. Not really an island, it’s more of a former industrial area that has plenty of rad as hell shops bolted on. Chomping on some Fish ‘n Chips, we took another Aquabus down near Stanley Park.

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Stanley Park is quite the thing, and the best way to experience it is by bike!

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It’s a nice easy 8km loop around the park, and you’re along the water the entire time. A small lighthouse, views of the lovely port, and a few beaches pass you by while leisurely peddling. Returning the bikes, we eventually found a place to eat with a few bits of angst. Vancouver ain’t so into vegetarian food. They love locally sourced food, but mostly of the red meat variety.

The next morning we went to Gastown and checked out their version of Pioneer Square. After the first gosling sighting of the year, we were off to a highly recommended used bookstore. Owned by an extremely bookish individual, the store had a loose organization scheme that was largely defeated by haphazard piles of books everywhere.

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Still, I found a fairly interesting book I ain’t never heard of before.

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Books purchased, we stopped by the Chinese Gardens in Chinatown. It was a much more modern (and smaller) garden than the similar one in Portland, but offered some quiet isolation in the city along with a chance to hang out with some chill-as-hell turtles.

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Grabbing a quick lunch on our way back to the train station, we left Sunday evening and spent the ride home enjoying the view, our new books, and the fun extras CBP does when you enter the country. When we arrived in Canada, we only had to go through immigrations, who spent a good 30 seconds with us before allowing us in. Arriving back in the states, we had to go through customs prior to even boarding the train, they X-rayed our bags, and they made the train stop on the border and checked everyone again.

Go us.

Talkin’ About Travel Bags

The classic idea of “backpacking through Europe” ultimately misleads you for the vast majority of the trips we actually take abroad. Unless you plan to spend a few months literally hiking through forests and trees across the continent, it’s likely you aren’t going to be wearing your back for any long period of time. As rough as some trains can get, you’re not hauling around a sleeping pad, cook stove, and a tent.

Choosing your travel bags is a personal decision: there’s no right or wrong way. These are the bags and methods that work well for me and my style of travel. I encourage you to find your own!

Main Bag: Deep Storage

Your main bag is the nexus of your stuff during the trip. It’s your deep storage, your reservoir of layers, and everything needed to live out of your bag for an indefinite time. The main criteria I look for when selecting a main bag are:

  • Can hold 5 days worth of clothing without requiring any wash, but maybe not more than that
  • Easy to carry by hand
  • Fits in all airlines while minimizing wasted space
  • Isn’t prone to being overpacked by stuffing things on the exterior
  • Can be used as a backpack for up to an hour a day while still being comfortable
  • All items are easily accessible in the bag, and packing/unpacking can be done quickly.
  • Looking for a random object search shouldn’t necessitate unpacking everything above the entire length of the bag in order to find it.

Of course, when I started going on trips to Europe I immediately went and purchased a nice swell hiking backpack. 70L of capacity, a detachable bag, lots of straps, and plenty of pockets! It was instantly stuffed with things I didn’t need and I became a one-person wrecking ball that hit everything I saw with a bag that was ill-suited for the task at hand. Instead of being nimble and lightweight, I was carrying around dead weight just in case I needed that third sweater.

And then that large bag got stolen. Lesson learned? Well…

Next up was a 62L hiking pack. It lost a little bit of weight in the process, but there were still tons of exterior straps and loops and pockets that were easily caught on things that cities have. Not to mention the bag still encouraged overpacking, and was frequently damaged by baggage screening machines. And, being a hiking backpack, it was a top loader. Good luck finding anything useful in your bag in under 10 minutes.

Because that’s a thing. You don’t want to be the person with a huge backpack and carry it on a plane. Sure, the front desk people at the airport might let you through, they’ll sure as shit gate check it if they see how large and stuffed your bag is. And that’s a serious downer.

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REI Flash 62. Great for hiking in nature. Not so great for being a urban traveller and living out of your bag for three weeks.

Then I decided to experiment with a smaller bag. Maybe a hiking pack, but instead of one built for a cross-country hike, one that’s just for a night or two?

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REI Lookout 40. Same problems, smaller size.

Getting a 40L hiking pack was certainly an improvement. Clothing choices were necessarily forced to be light, and gear had to be considered carefully. Still, the bag has a lot of overhead due to its design to be carried for 8-10 hours a day with gear strapped on the outside. It’s a great bag, and I use it camping quite a bit. But it was still prone to the same issues that the larger hiking backpacks encountered when being used in a city.

My current choice is a Tortuga Travel Backpack. It doesn’t have many exterior pockets, has front loading for the main compartment, fits within all airline carry-on requirements, and the back/waist straps can be concealed to turn the pack into a handheld bag without anything for security machines to snag on.

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Day Bags: Where Expensive Crap Goes

Nice! You have a main bag that you like! Now it’s time to figure out what your day bag will be. This is the thing that will hold your water bottle, a camera, guidebook, and maybe some passports. You’ll also stuff it a bit while flying to put it under the seat with all of the things you need for the 8 hours of hell ahead. What I look for in a day bag are:

  • Light and compressible enough to be stuffed in the main bag, if required
  • Can be easily carried in addition to the main bag when on a travel day. This can be either as a light backpack worn on the front of the chest, or a messenger bag on the side.
  • Can securely hold the things I need for a typical day exploring.

Initially, I used my Mountain Hardware Fluid 26 lightweight backpack. Back when I was lugging around 70L+ bags to Europe, I could put this backpack inside my main bag and then pull it out when I needed it. It was pretty great if you ignore the fact I was carrying around far too much weight in the first place.

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Then I went with a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag, X-tra Small.

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This wee lil’ bag can fit a jacket and book. And that’s about it.

I eventually went a custom-designed Timbuk2 Small messenger bag with lots of reflective strips and fabric built-in. It can hold the things you need for a day without encouraging you to overpack and end up with a severely pissed back.

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I’m still experimenting! For my next trip, I’m planning on bringing the Tortuga bag as my main, and bringing the Fluid 26 as a day bag.

Packing Thoughts

Hand Wash your clothes

If you’re going on a 3 week odyssey through Europe. Do not bring 21 pair underwear, 21 pair of socks, and 10 shirts. Bring enough supplies for 5 days and hand-wash your clothing every day or two. Every 10 days or so, go to a laundromat and give everything a nice scrub. Sure, you’ll be wearing the same shirt every third day or so, but who cares?

Figure out your favorite compression and organization scheme

I like compression bags, but other people like packing cubes. Figure out whatever you like and go with it.

Mississippi River Delta

While we were enjoying dinner on the last night of our cruise, our ship was preparing to enter the Mississippi River Delta. Night fell we as silently glided by the offshore oil rigs, and soon a well-light Pilot boat appeared from the distance. Hurrying to the front of the Carnival Dream, I stood on the 6th deck overlook that wrapped around the bow of the boat. The deck was devoid of light, and the navigation bridge two decks directly above me was shrouded in darkness with only the faint glow of navigation systems to pierce through the night.

A multitude of blinking lights beckoned in the distance as we neared the delta entrance. Some Buoys warned ships of hidden dangers, while others showed the safe channel into the Mississippi. Flames from the oil rigs illuminated our approach, and soon the faint moaning of the buoys could be heard. A laser blinked from the bridge, perhaps searching for navigation markers or gaining more precise information than the radar could provide.

We glided past the first barrier island, and the water gradually turned from an inky blackness to a distinctly muddy grey color. Although the water was smooth, the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the islands could be heard just a few hundred feet of either side of the ship.

Peering forward, the red and green lights marking the channel could be seen beckoning the ship forward. Along with the buoys were the orange glows of industrial operations just outside the river delta, and with them, civilization.

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Kansas City: truly once in a lifetime.

I’ve been to many places, and planning on visiting many more places. Something that wasn’t on either of those lists, until recently, was the Midwest.To be specific, Kansas City. My former workspouse at the housing authority and dear friend was part of Teach for America and was assigned to Kansas City two years ago. A few weeks before she was moving to greener pastures, I flew down to this city to spend a long weekend exploring a region I would never likely have a better opportunity to visit.

I was expecting a culture shock, but whew, what a culture shock it was.

Arts

Surprisingly, Kansas City has an excellent art museum in the form of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s not only free(!), but contains a wide array of subjects including some good contemporary art and Asian works. If you’ve seen giant shuttlecocks, it was likely here.

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BBQ

The Midwest is famous for their BBQ, and I took a slight break from vegetarianism to partake in a few samplings of the culinary goodness that comes from this region. The first night we went to Jack Stack Barbecue. This restaurant looks pretty nice inside, and has an upscale vibe. Then you look at their menu, which offers something like a big chunk of ribs, and two huge ‘side’ dishes for under $20. I grabbed some shortribs, and let me tell you folks, this meat is worth eating animals for. Slow smoked and not slathered in sauce, it was still amazingly well-spiced and very moist and tender. And the sides? I got something called ‘Corn and Cheese,’ which is essentially Mac-n-cheese but with corn.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Oklahoma Joe’s, which was, oddly enough, not in Oklahoma. This institution is housed in an active gas station, and has something of a consistent 1-hour line wrapping around the building. Their specialty is BBQ sandwiches, and again, this was some pretty amazing food and well worth the wait.

Driving

The drivers of Kansas City treat all lanes as their personal parking space, and will randomly slow down or stop in the middle of the road for just about any reason, real or imagined, that they may think of. They’re infuriatingly slow and inconsistent drivers.

Rivers

I saw the Missouri river! And the Mississippi! They flood sometimes.

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St. Lewis

We took a day trip to St. Lewis, where I learned that Panera is called St. Lewis Bread Company. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same institution and branding.

Took a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, and then we decided to go to the Missouri botanical gardens, which were supposedly quite awesome. Everything was going smoothly until we saw Monsanto research lab nearby, and then saw some Monsanto branding on a sign to the garden. Uh-oh. We rolled into the parking lot and quickly realized that the gardens, while independent, were pretty closely integrated with Monsanto, which is all that is good and wrong with GMOs. After much heart-wrangling and discussion, it was decided to go anyway because whatever.

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It was worth it. They had extensive outdoor and indoor collections ranging from all different types of plants and climates.

Conclusion

The Midwest was cool enough to see, but I’m not sure I’d actually recommend going there unless you have a reason to do so.

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Paris: Apparently they speak French there

After our lovely, if not inspiring, visit to Amsterdam, our next stop was to a city you may have heard of before: Paris. Due to the vagaries of train schedules, we would be spending three nights in the city, but only have two full days of exploring: we were scheduled to arrive very late the first day, and leave very early on the third. We knew this would be the busiest schedule, and probably the most complicated plan. Our apartment was going to be very small, located in Montmartre, and I should mention that we knew basically zero french between the four of us. We could hack Italian, Spanish, and German pretty well between us, and could get enough by in Scandinavia so that we at least got our general point across. No such luck in France, and we knew it.

Anyway, we’re arriving at Gare du Nord, which is the train station that the high-speed transport from Amsterdam arrives at. It’s already behind schedule due to a breakdown in front of us, and we’re quickly getting our stuff and leaving when we notice a couple of heavily armed French police at the terminal. They seem to be guarding some guy who is searching through his own bag for something, and we start walking past when one of them (with a rifle, of course) approached us and said something in French while gesturing what appeared to say “nothing to see here, move along.” So we start moving, and then he says something again.

We’re just staring at him, and I’m fairly sure none of us had anticipated this particular situation. It wasn’t even cached in our minds. After a few seconds of staring, he says “speak English?” Heads nod YES. “Passports and train tickets please.” Okay, we understand that. As we all start rummaging through our coats to find passports, I manage to snag my train ticket before anyone else and hand it to him. he seemed satisfied that at least one of us had a ticket, didn’t seem to care about seeing a passport, and let us go along. Strike one.

Getting through the Metro wasn’t an issue, and we soon step off into Montmarte, which is one of the more “lively” hubs of Paris, and home to the red light district. We soon find our apartment. Down a small side street that is quickly named “Shank Alley.” Finding our host and our room, she starts explaining everything in very rapid French. Oops. Strike two.

We get our room, get online, and we all immediately look for as many French apps as we could find. I’m not kidding in the slightest, all of our phones and tablets were downloading “learn French survival words” books and were quickly memorizing and horribly pronouncing basic phrases. We didn’t have a French speaker, and we knew it was going to be rough. The French are a lot like Italians, they may know English, but will pretend not to know anything because they like messing with tourists.

Let’s talk about the apartment. It was an economy studio with two small beds, a small dining table, and a bathroom where you literally had to straddle the sink in order to use the toilet. This is not sarcasm in the slightest. I’m not sure how anyone who is overweight or not flexible even use this bathroom. It was absolutely amazing.
Our first full day in Paris consisted of a plan somewhat like this: a) take a bike tour of the city in the day, b) kill a few hours, c) take another bike tour and river cruise of another part of the city at night. Easy? Easy.

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Nova had to use the restroom, and we all had to hide when she managed to mess it up and caused it to enter cleaning mode. Almost while she was inside.

Nova, uh, had issues with this Toilette

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The bike tour was pretty rad.

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The night tour was even more fun.

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A blurry picture of us on the river cruise. Note Oury photobombing us the hardest.

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On the second day we checked out the Eiffel Tower again.

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Notre Dame was pretty rad.

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Outside Notre dame.

Holocaust Memorial
The Holocaust Memorial was at the tunnel where most of the Parisian Jews were shipped to the camps. It was quiet, simple, and fitting.

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I think we all recognize this particular object. It’s also the home to an extremely bruising traffic circle.

BUT HOLY CRAP GUYS. IT’S TIME TO GO TO SAINTE-CHAPELLE. This is one of the few buildings that I absolutely had to see on this trip, and verily, one of the few structures that I had to visit in my life. Even though it was partially under reconstruction (the stained glass was distorting over time and they were in the process of fixing/replacing a lot of it), Sainte-Chapelle was an astounding structure. It was remarkable, and even more so for a building built in the mid 1250s. The walls appeared to be made entirely of stained glass, and the atmosphere, even in the evening, was even better than I imagined it.

I think I just stood around in awe.

I'm so happy right now you don't even know
I was too much in awe to smile.

After Sainte-Chapelle, we went to Sacré Cœur, which is much more impressive from the exterior than the interior.

We returned back, had some sleep, and went off to the Eurostar Terminal early on the third day to visit the Isles.

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