Friday, March 31, 2017

Europe Trip 2017 - Day Four

On Sunday, we had breakfast at our Hilton hotel in Cologne. Luckily my sister's reward status got us free breakfast, because I'm pretty sure it would've cost an arm and a leg. It was very elaborate and had a million options. After that, we hooked up with Kim and Fabian and did some walking around the city. We passed by the Cathedral again and then walked along the Rhine River for a while, just enjoying the nice weather and sights. We had lunch plans already set with Kim's dad in another city, so we didn't have much time. After about an hour, we headed back to our hotel to check out. We loaded up and started the caravan to Kerpen, where Peter lives.

Peter joined us for lunch at Gasthaus Schweitzer. Meezy and I actually ate there with him and Kim nearly 7 years ago, so we thought it fitting to make a return! It has a biergarten and is known for its ridiculous portion sizes. As expected, the guys all got big beers and crazy meat dishes.

It was so nice to catch up with Peter and introduce him to my sister and her husband. I asked him when he'd visit us in America, but he said the flight was too long! Guess I'll just have to come back to Germany to see him again. After lunch, we decided to visit Dusseldorf since this was our last day with Kim and Fabian and we didn't want to leave them yet! It was about an hour drive, but we didn't care. Once there, we found a parking garage near the city center. They are not made for big sedans!! The spaces are so small and every turn inside the garage will make you feel claustrophobic. Our car had sensors around the entire perimeter and any time an object came close to it, it would beep. Driving through a parking garage is hilarious because the car beeps like crazy.

We walked along the Rhine River in Dusseldorf and enjoyed seeing all the people in the park sunning, playing, making out, and eating gelato. It was a lovely day and everyone seemed so carefree. We watched some barges go by and just tried to soak up every minute.

As it got later, we had to say our goodbyes to Kim and Fabian because we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us to get to Maastricht. We were sad to go, but also knew we had amazing adventures still to come.

In Maastricht, we stayed at Hotel St. Martenslane. It's a small, funky hotel, but the accommodations were great and the reception area and front desk staff are top notch. Who doesn't love a vending machine in the lobby that offers beer?

The only downside to this hotel was the parking. The first option they gave me was something that seemed like a storage unit. While the rest of my group was bringing luggage to the rooms, I tried to park the car. There were only a couple spaces available and they were pretty much meant for tiny egg cars. I pulled into one, but then someone tried to drive behind my car and there wasn't even room for them to do that. Guess my car was too big. I backed out, exited the garage, and drove around to reception again. I told them the issue and they offered another parking garage option. That one at least had full size spaces, but the maneuvering to get into them was comical. Once you entered the garage, you quickly came to a dead end, so if you hadn't grabbed a spot immediately, you got to do an Austin Powers-worthy 18 point turn. I was just glad no one else was around to see it.

What they call a "parking garage"

By this point, we were all pretty hungry, so we walked over to De Gouvernuer, a bar and cafe my sister had visited on her last trip to Europe. They had surprisingly good food, so I was happy. A relative of mine, Patrick, met us there. I actually had never met him before, but his father found our family on Facebook a couple years prior, thanks to our unique last name. We determined that we were indeed related and could actually trace back where our family trees met. My sister had met him for the first time last year, so now it was my turn! Pretty crazy, but also awesome. He brought along some homemade licorice-flavored alcohol that he called "Dropshot." It's not licorice like we think of it, it's made from licorice root candy, which is like a mix of salty and licorice. Nonetheless, I let the rest of my group handle the taste-testing on that.   

After our late dinner, we retired to our hotel. I felt like we had already done enough to call this a successful trip, but luckily we had even more fun things on tap. Sleep didn't seem to be one of them, though!!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Europe Trip 2017 - Day Three

On Saturday morning, we started our day with breakfast at our hotel. Normally that wouldn't be worthy of a mention, but OMG the breakfast spread was ridiculous, considering it only cost 10Euro per person. Also, I had no idea pretzels were considered a breakfast food, but I wholeheartedly want to bring that trend to America.

From there, Kim, Fabian, Jo, Trey, Meezy and I split into two cars and drove towards the Nurburgring. It was cool to experience driving a car in Germany. I know not every car will have this, but our Volvo had the head up display so I could always see in my line of sight what speed I was going, what the speed limit of the road was, and if there were any road restrictions (like a no passing area, for instance). Of course not having a speed limit on the Autobahn is cool, too! My sister and I thought it was amusing that many of the road signs included a large picture of an upcoming attraction or city, instead of just the name of it.

I've been to the Nurburgring before, but I was excited to visit again, especially because 3 of the people in our group had never been. We grabbed lunch at the diner on-site, which is right by the entrance to the track. The parking lot was full of ridiculous cars and we got to see some pretty sweet ones driving by the restaurant windows, heading towards the entry. After we finished eating, we drove a couple miles away to get a good viewing spot for the racing. If you aren't aware, the Nurburgring is a public track where anyone and everyone can bring their car and skills out to see what they're made of. That means you'll go from seeing a car worth hundreds of thousands of dollars with a Sunday driver behind the wheel, to a fifty-thousand-ish dollar car that's had the passenger seats removed and roll cage added with a "professional" wearing a helmet behind the wheel, all the way down to a young kid with a Passat, with no business driving fast and taking corners. There's really no telling what you'll see on any given day.

It's so entertaining to not know what or who is going to come around the corner next, and not know whether they'll handle the turn correctly! After we watched for more than an hour, we piled back in our cars and headed towards our next destination - the Haribo store in Bonn. This is another place we've been to before, but I figured it was worth an additional visit so my sister and her husband could see it. We're used to seeing a few bags of Haribo gummy bears for sale in our stores in America, so this store is eye-opening! It has every known variation of gummy candy available, including some non-gummy items. It's certainly a good destination for parents needing to buy souvenirs for their small children back home!

Only like 1 color of gummy bear? You're in luck!

I mean, I'm guessing something to do with coconut and marshmallow, but there's no telling.

From the Haribo store, we drove into Cologne and found our hotel - Hilton Cologne. Being a Hilton, it was definitely nice, but the shower was much smaller than I would've liked! I know things in Europe aren't built for us obese Americans, but being able to move my arms while showering is usually helpful. 

We dropped off our luggage and headed out into the city to do some exploring. The hotel is very close to the famous Koln Cathedral, so we certainly needed to drop by and give it another look. We also walked across the famous Hohenzollern Bridge, above the Rhein River, which is filled with tens of thousands of love locks (including one for me and Meezy that was placed there by Kim years ago. No clue how to find it now!). 

I read that the Koln Triangle was a cool place to see the whole city, especially around sunset, so we made the trek there and rode the elevator to the top. Crowds weren't too bad and we got some nice shots.

After our sightseeing, we decided on a dinner location - Si, Claro. Eating Mexican food in Europe can be an adventure in itself, but this place wasn't too bad! They had guacamole and hot sauce, but no queso. (WHY IS THAT A THING). We got a laugh when both Kim and Meezy ordered cabrito taquitos, with totally different things in mind. Being from Texas, Meezy assumed they'd have goat meat in them, but Kim knew they were goat cheese taquitos. When the confusion was cleared up, Meezy was fine with accepting the goat cheese, but Fabian was shocked that we really thought goat meat was coming. jajaja!

Since Kim and Fabian live in Cologne, we went back to their apartment to hang out for the rest of the night. They were the most wonderful hosts and had gotten some of our favorite snacks and drinks beforehand to have ready for us. It was another great night of relaxing and catching up with our friends!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Europe Trip 2017 - Day Two

We arrived in Frankfurt around 10am and picked up our rental car. It was a really nice Volvo S90. Since there were 4 of us and we all had bags, we knew we'd need a large sedan. It didn't take long to see how out of place we were, though! (Small cars are definitely the norm). We drove 20 minutes to our hotel - Premier Inn Frankfurt Messe, where we'd be meeting our friends, Kim and Fabian. They live in Cologne, but had taken the day off work so they could explore the city with us. They would stay the night in Frankfurt too, and then we'd caravan the next day toward Cologne.

The Premier Inn had rave reviews online and was very affordably priced - 59Euro for the night, and 10Euro more per person for breakfast. Almost sounded too good to be true! It didn't disappoint, though. Parking, reception, lounge area, rooms, etc, were all immaculate. Even though it was only about 11am when we got there, they let us check in because our rooms were ready. We freshened up and eagerly awaited our friends' arrival.

When Kim and Fabian arrived, we headed out on foot to check out Frankfurt. Our first stop was the Eiserner Steg - a footbridge over the Main River. It has a quote atop it from Homer's Odyssey. It's also a love lock bridge - meaning couples attach locks to it and throw the key into the river, symbolizing their unbreakable love.

Translation: "while sailing over the wine-dark sea to men of strange speech"

Kim, me, my sister

By this point, we were hungry for lunch, so we found a restaurant called Dauth Schneider. Their sign said they were famous for their apple wine, so you know the guys had to try it. 

We all found dishes that appealed to us and the food was wonderful, but the "best" part of the meal was a sampler dish we got that included some "Handkas mit Musik." I don't remember the names of the other items on there, but I do recall the eggs covered in some sort of green sauce were delicious. But, back to the main attraction - the "Handkas mit Musik." That is the bottom right item shown below. It is a cheese with a pungent aroma, covered in onions. Meezy and my sister tried it and they said it was fairly awful. Haha. It tasted rotten and gave them terrible breath. We asked the waitress why it was called hand cheese with music and she said, "the music comes later." We died laughing. Basically, this dish was going to give them gas.

After lunch, we did some more walking and checking out the sights. Meezy saw a store selling whiskey and we decided to stop in to see if it carried a Japanese whiskey he's had a hard time finding in the US. Sure enough, it did! We also had the chance to admire the architecture in Frankfurt, see a lot of old buildings, and grab a photo op with some "modern" art. 


By this point, the jet lag was catching up to us, so we decided to head back to the hotel and lay down for a couple hours. After getting a quick nap in, we walked to the nearby Skyline Plaza to check out the shops and pick a dinner place. The coolest part of the shopping center was the Skyline Garden on the roof. We climbed up to the Observation Deck and enjoyed amazing 360 degree views of the city. 

Observation Deck, or as I like to call it "Aaaa shitz platform"

After dinner, we walked around the mall a little bit and stumbled upon a place that looked like it could serve us some delicious dessert - Bunt Waffel & Crepes. It did not disappoint! We selected some delicious sauces and candy bar toppings for our waffles. 

After that, we walked back to the hotel, grabbed drinks at the bar, and played some Dutch Blitz. It was so nice to spend time with Kim and Fabian, but we didn't want to stay up too late because we knew we had a ton more adventures in store! 

Europe Trip 2017 - Day One

Our flight to Frankfurt was set to depart around 11am, going through Detroit with a 3 hour layover. Our plan was to drop the kids off at my parents' house at 7:30am, pick up my sister and her husband a few minutes after 8am, and then be at the airport by 9am. The best laid plans, right?

The night before this schedule was to be put in motion, I was laying in bed after midnight, trying to shut my brain off so I could go to sleep. My phone chimed and startled me and I looked to see who was texting. It was from Delta...our flight was delayed by 2 hours. It seemed really weird to be getting an alert about a flight delay, about 10 hours before the flight was supposed to happen. I tried to find a reason for the delay, but there wasn't bad weather in our city or in the city we were headed to. My sister and I started messaging each other, brainstorming what we should do. With a 2 hour delay, there was still a chance we could make our connection in Detroit, but it would be tight. She got on the phone with Delta, to see what our back-up plan should be if we missed our connection. The agent wasn't too helpful, and couldn't even tell us why our flight was going to be delayed in the first place. After 20+ minutes on the phone with no resolution, my sister gave up and we decided to just go to sleep and check the flight status again first thing in the morning.

When I woke up the next morning at 6:30am, the delay still showed to be 2 hours. I proceeded to get ready as previously planned, figuring we could take things a little bit slower, since we'd be waiting at the airport for a couple extra hours. At 6:45am, that all changed when I got a text from Delta that said our flight was now 3 hours delayed and we would definitely miss our connection. Damn it! Meezy got on the phone with Delta immediately and asked what we could do. They said there weren't 4 seats available to get to Frankfurt from Detroit later that day, so if we flew to Detroit, we'd be staying there overnight and essentially missing our first vacation day in Europe. That was not going to happen! While Meezy was on the phone, I was online furiously searching for other flight options. I found one that went through New York and got us to Frankfurt just a couple hours later than originally planned, but here was the departed at 9:55am. Considering it was already after 7am at this point, and we hadn't woken the kids up yet, the departure time wasn't ideal. But, it was our best chance to stay on our schedule for Europe, so we grabbed the seats.

I frantically finished getting ready and packing up the last of our stuff while Meezy got the kids up. They were not happy with the rushed schedule! We hightailed it over to my parents' house, which thankfully is less than a mile away. They were lifesavers for being flexible for us. My sister had to bring her girls over to their house too, because our earlier flight meant they couldn't drop them off at school before heading out. We said our goodbyes and rushed to my sister's house so they could drop off their car and carpool to the airport with us.

We made it to DFW a few minutes after 8am and luckily there was hardly anybody at the baggage drop-off or in the security lines. We finally breathed a sigh of relief when we got to our gate. We grabbed some breakfast and waited for boarding. Just as people started to line up, the gate agent came over the loudspeaker and said, "Sorry to inform you this flight is delayed by 45 minutes." Eye roll. Okay, whatever, we can handle this. After 45 minutes elapsed, we did indeed get to board the plane!

New York was experiencing some crazy wind as we were flying in, so the landing at LGA was ROUGH! I had to lean forward and put my head between my knees to make sure I didn't throw up or pass out! We had to collect our bags and transfer to JFK, because that's where our flight to Frankfurt was going to depart. We got a cab and it took us 45 minutes to go the 10 miles between the airports. We checked our bags again, went through security again, and headed to the gate area.  

On our original flight, I had purchased $100 upgrades to our seats so we could sit in Comfort+ on the long flight to Frankfurt. The alternate flight we had to select didn't have those seats available, so we got stuck with regular size seats. They were awful!! The wind was still a problem when we were set to depart, so JFK only had one runway open. We had to sit in a queue that added about 30 minutes to our time on the aircraft. Never again, y'all. I tried and tried to find any comfortable position so I could get a little sleep on the flight, and it just didn't happen. Same for the rest of my party. We had no legroom and no room to lean forward on our tray tables either. Let it be a lesson to you - don't settle for regular seats on an 8 to 9 hour flight. Spring for an upgraded seat that gives you more room!

I really wasn't expecting such an adventure on Day 1 of our trip, since it was only supposed to be a travel day. But, we were just very thankful we made it to Frankfurt, only 2 hours later than originally planned. Now it was time for fun!!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Europe Trip 2017 - The Preface

In 2009, Meezy and I hosted a foreign exchange student from Germany. We didn't know at the time that it would result in a life-long friendship (with not only her, but her entire family!). After she left in early 2010, we decided to travel to Europe later that year to visit her, meet her family, and do a ton of sight-seeing. Ever since then, we have been lucky enough to see Kim again numerous times, mostly because she has booked near-annual trips to visit us. In 2015, Meezy had to go to London for work and I tagged along, so we took that chance to book a day trip from there to Belgium, where Kim and her boyfriend met us for the day. In 2016, my sister Jo and her husband traveled to Europe, and made sure to spend a weekend with Kim then too. My family and hers have formed an incredible bond and it's a given that we'll look for every opportunity we can to see each other, even though we live 5,000 miles away. 

Last year, Meezy and I signed up for Scott's Cheap Flights travel alerts. It's a free (or paid, if you want a premium subscription) site that sends you emails whenever good flight deals are found. You can customize your location so that it only sends you notices when there's a good deal from your preferred airport. In early November, I got an email that announced half-off flights to Germany for spring 2017. My eyes got huge and I immediately alerted Meezy. He was game for a trip, so I contacted my parents to check their availability for babysitting our kids. Then, I emailed my sister to see if she was interested too. We started talking about potential dates and what flights we'd select. By the time we decided on one, the cheap fares had ended and the prices had gone back up. Noooooooo! I was so disappointed. But, the good news was that we had already selected which week would work for a trip for both of us, and we already confirmed my parents could babysit. So, the plan was to wait for another fare alert and book immediately next time!   

As luck would have it, we had to wait less than 2 weeks for another good deal to pop up. Once we got the email from Scott's with the alert, we pulled the trigger! We were set to fly into Frankfurt, arriving on a Friday morning, and then flying back out of Frankfurt the following Wednesday morning. That would give us 5 full days of vacation, which we knew we would make great use of. My sister and I got to work on planning the itinerary and making all the transportation and lodging arrangements, and of course coordinating with Kim and her family to make sure we'd be able to spend time with them! 

Dutch Turns Five

My little Dutch boy celebrated another birthday recently. I feel like this was a big one because now it means he's eligible to start Kindergarten! His favorite breakfast items are chocolate donuts and kolaches, so you can guess what we started his day off with.

Before we took him to daycare, I couldn't resist grabbing a picture to commemorate the day. It's hard to believe I've been his mom for 5 years.

Before his birthday, I asked him where he wanted to have a party and he said Dave & Buster's. That's pretty much his favorite place in the world because he loves playing games and then getting to select toys/prizes afterward. I looked into their party packages and wasn't too impressed. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on the location or their food, because I know Dutch only cared about the games aspect. I also didn't want to invite everyone in his class just for the sake of it, so we opted for a family party with only a couple of his closest friends. That way we could still go to D&B to play games for a while and then head back to our house after for refreshments.

We arrived at D&B right when they opened on a Saturday, so we didn't have to battle crowds. I provided game cards for the kids in attendance and that kept them busy for a little more than an hour. After they redeemed the tickets they earned for prizes, we drove to our house to eat pizza and cake and let the kids play for a while.

Dutch wanted a superhero theme, so I made a Captain America shield out of fruit. 

SpiderMan graced the cake

I always love to display the silly things Dutch said over the past year

Dutch had a wonderful time and I think the adults did too, since most of our kids are getting to the age where they can play by themselves now and we can just hang out and relax! I was happy to celebrate my kiddo's birthday and provide him a fun day with loved ones. He can be a stinker sometimes, but mostly he's our smart, funny, sweet big kid.