Saturday, February 21, 2009

Europa

As some of you know, Natasha and I are now committed to spend the entire month of April in Europe. Our current itinerary is:

1) Fly into Frankfurt, Germany, stay the night to recover from jet lag.
2) Prague, Czech Republic and stay for 2-3 days.
3) Munich, Germany, day trips to F├╝ssen and Dachau.
4) Night train to Florence, Italy, staying for most of the day
5) Rome for 4 days
6) Night train to Paris for 6 days
7) Fly to Nottingham, England, stay the night, hang out for a day
8) Go to London for 6 days
9) Fly to Oslo, Norway for 3 days
10) Fly to Frankfurt for the flight home (May 1st)

Of course, none of this comes on the cheap. If anyone wants to pitch in for supplies, we have a wishlist for equipment here. If you are so kind as to buy clothing, the sizes required are indicated in the notes on the right hand side of the wishlist. Thanks in advance for your generous donations! Special attention may be given to donors when it comes to keepsakes and such :)

We've already purchased the plane tickets to Europe - we found an insanely cheap direct flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, which is what inspired us to go in the first place. We bought our railpass already:
This pass allows us to use the train any 5 days we want for 2 months, and go through 5 countries indicated on the pass. When we bought the pass we got a sweet discount at the Rick Steves travel store, so we stocked up on goods:

Pictured here from left to right: railpass, travel towels, free maps, hostel sheets, toiletries bag (front row) money belts, inflatable neck pillows. If you don't know, Rick Steves is a guy who does travel shows for PBS, and his hometown is Edmonds, WA (13 miles north of Seattle) and he runs a store there which hosts free classes on travel and language skills, has an extensive free library of travel books, a collection of DVDs of his show. He is basically a suburban middle class white guy who helps other suburbanites travel through Europe - and is also fighting for your right to smoke pot.

We also paid a hefty fee to a consultant to look over our itinerary and give us some advice - she saved us three times her cost on the railpass, so I highly recommend this if you plan your own trip sometime (if you happen to be near Edmonds. They will do this over the phone but it costs extra).

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Day

For Valentine's Day, surprised Grayson by having a Valentine to him printed in Seattle's alternative newsweekly, The Stranger.

Here's the cover:
Printed on his birthday! Some were especially dirty...
We were in Canada when it printed, so I had to grab an issue all nonchalantly on Valentine's Day while we were out having coffee and point it out to him.


I hope everyone had a great Valentine's Day!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Canadialand

For my 27th birthday we visited...Canada! It was the first sojourn out of the US for both of us. Money was tight, but we will be leaving the area soon and this will be one of our last opportunities to visit Vancouver for many years.
We rode the train up north along the sound, at times right beside the Pacific:

When we arrived, we were questioned by a polite but curt Canadian border guard, who gave us a battery of questions about our plans, and let us go unmolested.

We left the train station and immediately found the SkyTrain. This is probably the best form of public transportation I've ever seen. It is what the Monorail in Seattle was trying to be. Best of all, you use the same tickets to ride it as you do the buses there. It basically runs in a circle on a track around the city, going super fast and stopping at each station every few minutes. It makes the craziest noises running along the track, which I couldn't even describe. It also plays strange jingles when it stops and starts to let you know when the doors will be closing or opening (which happens automatically at each stop).
We made it to our hotel - by showing up before our room was ready, the hotel was forced to upgrade our room for free in order to accommodate us, which was super nice. The complimentary breakfast included DIY waffles, which were awesome.

Vancouver is huge, and in very large parts of downtown seems to have been built overnight. The skyline is vast, and most of the buildings are of fairly recent architectural style (read: made almost entirely out of glass and designed with modern geometric styles).

Some of the best buildings we saw:

The city library, in a colosseum/modern style:
Canada Place, which is home to the Vancouver IMAX theater, which is a fairly prominent feature of the waterfront due to this strange design:

The Lookout (Vancouver's ghetto version of the Space Needle):
As you probably know, Canada features two official languages, English and French, and laws require that most signs and labels carry both languages. We found some otherwise familiar items around that had both languages on them:

We also found some other peculiarities. Note how they like to spell "center" (in all cases, not just this one):
Their street crossing signs are all brand new, and feature LED lighting, and most have a hollow figure instead of a filled one to save power (although the only good picture we got was this exception):
Vancouver is scheduled to host the Olympics in 2010, so the whole city was hopping with construction and paraphernalia in preparation for this event. They had a big rock sign with a digital countdown timer in the park next to the art museum.

Some other things we did:
Visited the Space Centre, saw this vintage rocket engine and this 1/5th size model of the Hubble telescope, and the creepy crab water fountain/statue they have out in front):
Caught some nice shots of the skyline from multiple vantage points:
Visited a small part of the enormous park they have sitting at the northwestern corner of the city (which is almost as big as the city itself), and ate a delicious candy bar unique to Canada:
Tried a strange local favorite, called Poutine, which is basically cheese curds and gravy on fries. I didn't love it, but it wasn't bad:
And last but not least, celebrated my birthday in a humble way with delicious cupcakes:
A million other shots of random stuff we saw on the way:
The ride home was a bit more difficult than our arrival. The Canadian border guards hand searched both of our bags and ran past us with the drug dogs, and thoroughly questioned us with that deadly seriousness that clearly conveys the message of "I'm willing to shoot you if you make a wrong move." The American agents that boarded the train and questioned us at the border had the same attitude. It is interesting to watch the tools of the state doing their business.

We made it home to our lonely kitty, who missed us very much.

So what was great about Canada and what wasn't?

Great: infrastructure, especially transportation. The buses weren't as spacious but they were much more technologically advanced, having computerized voices and displays inside showing the next stop. They also had digitial "next arriving" signs at some of the busier stops. The SkyTrain is awesome, and unlike Seattle's Monorail, is actually used by local commuters.

Not so great: the bus system is paperless, so you have no idea what routes go where unless you have access to the Web, which we weren't willing to pay roaming data charges to access, never mind someone who doesn't have a phone with a full Internet browser.

Great: people were all very friendly (except some homeless person who hassled us with Bible verses).

Great: the money is very convenient - there are no $1 bills, only $1 and $2 coins (called loonies and toonies, wtf) which work in all vending machines.
Great: the buses are really polite - instead of the OUT OF SERVICE our buses display, the Canadian buses have a very nice "Sorry...Out of Service." Nice touch.

Great: there is a public discipline on escalators, where people who don't feel like walking up the moving steps stay to the right, and allow fast climbers to move on the left. Maybe there are some American cities where this happens, but I've never been to one.

These are only the benefits given to a traveler; the citizen of Canada also has access to their free healthcare and social services. So all in all...
We couldn't agree more.