Adventures In Europe

The first step in planning a trip to Europe is deciding where to visit. My first idea was to map out an itinerary that faithfully recreated Matt Daemon’s adventures in the first three Borne movies. After closer examination, however, this plan requires travel to four separate continents and would probably not be suitable for small children. Also, to be honest, I don’t think Katherine would be willing play the part of Marie who ends up getting shot and driving a jeep off a bridge in India. Similar logistical issues arose when I considered other movies such as National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Taken.

The scaled down version of our trip took us to Frankfurt, Paris, and Amsterdam which form a equilateral-ish triangle served well by high speed trains.

Since a trip to Europe is more involved than, say, just about any other place I’m ever going to visit, carefully planning what to bring is crucial. While a cooler full of soda and crunchy potato chips might provide a refreshing snack, such an approach might not prove to be cost effective given the current state of airline baggage fees.

After deciding what clothes to bring, I told Katherine to make sure everything was washed and would fit into the designated luggage. Our washing machine, sensing the importance of getting our clothes clean, decided to rebel. “The washing machine is broken” is not the text I wanted to receive at work the day before our big vacation. But what fun would that be?

A little home appliance side note here– all I needed to do to fix the washer was to clean out the drain trap. However, the way Whirlpool designed the machine I had to unstack the washer and dryer, tip the washer up, and remove screws on the bottom of the machine just to reach the trap. Thanks Whirlpool for adding several hours to what should have been a ten minute project. Also, I called customer service to have someone come out and help me lift the dryer back on top of the washer but they informed me that… OK, I didn’t actually call, but I fantasized about it. Obviously the entire design is a result of the small appliance repair mafia.

You might not believe what happened on the nonstop flight from Denver to Frankfurt– nothing. We all just sat in our seats and watched a bunch of movies. Being on a plane for 10 hours and crossing 8 time zones did take a toll on us when we arrived. After checking into our hotel in Heidelberg, Germany, we stopped at a local fast food type restaurant called “The Heidel Burger.” No, it wasn’t really called that. This is where Samantha’s body decided, in no uncertain terms, to be asleep.

Our next stop was Paris. We might have enjoyed this city more if I hadn’t been pick pocketed on the Metro. While not any fun, Katherine managed to keep her wallet the rest of the trip. So I was just a gentleman and let her pay for everything the rest of the trip. She did give me a modest cash allowance each morning.

While in Paris we visited the usual tourist destinations– the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Soc duh something, and Notre Dame. We also stopped at the Chocolate Museum, a few random playgrounds, and about 5 local bakeries. After hauling our kids on the Metro for three days I really feel like they are ready for anything else life has to offer.

Next town– Amsterdam. Since I had lived in Holland for 6 months back in the day, I really took over the tour guide duties. Our hotel room, I think by total chance, ended up being the coolest room in which we have ever spent the night. It had floor to ceiling windows and jutted out sideways from the side of the building.

We spent one day visiting Haarlem, the town where I lived.  While I generally preferred fast food while on the trip, I did insist that we have a nice steak meal at my old hangout Wilma and Alberts. We also tried to rent bikes to see more of the city, but we couldn’t find bikes with kid’s seats. Side note here– Haarlem is a lovely medium sided town in Holland and Harlem is a much, much, less lovely borough of New York City. I dream of scraping together enough money so I can get out of this shit hole and move to Lovelaand.

We acquired two bicycles with kid’s seats in Amsterdam. We rode around the outer most canal of the city. Most of that time I spent being completely confused about who had the right of way and riding carelessly into the path of oncoming trams. We also took a break at a playground so the kids could stretch their legs. Apparently riding on the back seat doesn’t wear them out too much.

Frankfurt was our final city to visit on this trip. Our hotel was a small hole in the wall with beds made from surplus WW2 mattresses. We all missed this hotel in Amsterdam, but it was too late to turn back. The highlight of this town was a small playground near our hotel. I didn’t think it was that great, but the kids loved it and we ended up going there three times just to keep them happy.

By the time we arrived in Frankfurt I was tired of navigating foreign language public transit systems, so we just walked around places near the hotel. One thing I noticed is that people in Germany don’t jaywalk very much.

So after 10 days it was time to head back to Denver. While waiting for our connection in Washington, DC, Samantha told me, “I’m not tired sleepy, I’m tired complain-y.”

Santa Fe

I packed up the family last week and drove down to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here are some interesting and possibly true and/or false facts about this city.

Santa Fe was founded, according to my daughter Isabel, during the time of dinosaurs. Apparently this was a very busy time that also covered various events such as the creation of the cosmos up until sometime after the time I was born. This claim is supported by the fact that the roads were constructed before the discovery of Euclidean geometry that defined the concept of straight lines. During the initial road building the construction crews ingested liberal quantities of peyote and followed the direction of their spirit guides. This process has led to a series of city streets that curve around randomly, perform loopy-loops, and pass through dimensions that modern day scientists have been unable to recreate. Warning– using Google Maps on your cell phone may very well cause your device to catch on fire.

The city was a pretty quiet place until the arrival of the stucco mafia in the late 1800’s. The city experienced several decades of turmoil until the great drywall massacre of 1847 when the stucco mafia formed an alliance with the wind-catcher union and the trendy restaurant federation. The effects of this epic battle can still be seen today as Santa Fe is best known for endless stucco buildings, people selling wind-catchers for large sums of money built from materials scavenged from the local dump, and a barrage of food establishments which sell strange food on tiny plates that for some reason have to cost way more than seems reasonable.

Well, that about sums up everything I learned last week on vacation. Stay tuned for my next vacation trip blog tentatively titled, “Crap I found in the basement and argue with my wife about if we should throw it away.” I’ll be working on a better title for that between now and August.

Solo Weekend

For the first time in several years I had the entire house to myself for the entire week. My wife, children and in-laws all skipped town to go see my brother-in-law get married. I would have gone too, but I wasn’t able to get the week off of work to make the trip up to Michigan. I stayed home, worked Monday through Friday, and kept an eye or two on the dogs to make sure they stayed out of trouble.

On the week nights I didn’t do too much out of the ordinary. For the most part I would come home, clean up, feed the dogs, and, if I could stay awake long enough, watch a movie on Netflix from the category “Stuff you aren’t allowed to watch with the kids in the house.” The list includes Battlestar Gallactica, Caprica, Rush Hour, and Highlander. My wife doesn’t seem to want to watch Highlander with me much anymore. Well, that isn’t exactly true– she really never wanted to see it from, I suspect, the moment of her birth. Especially impressive since Highlander wasn’t released until several years after her original birthday. I’m not sure what her exact stance is on the four sequels and the cable television series, but I suspect it lands somewhere in the– and I’m being generous here– “unfavorable” to “throw the lamp into the television to make it stop” range.

So what about the weekend? On Saturday night I went out with a friend from work to play laser tag. I used to play a lot in high school, but I think it has been at least 15 years since I last strapped on a laser tag vest. While there have been some minor technological improvements, the game is pretty much the same as I remembered. Right before leaving the house I started a load of laundry. This explained why, when we entered the black-light lit staging area, my hands were glowing bright white. Maybe I’ve watched a few too many episodes of CSI, but I kept thinking that everyone else was thinking that my hands were recently covered in blood or other bodily fluids. I would have gotten away with killing that hobo if I hadn’t gone to play laser tag after having disposed of the body in a wood chipper. I’ll remember that for next time.

That about wraps up the notable activities for the week. Everyone is coming back tomorrow evening, so things will be back to normal when I come home from work tomorrow night. Hmm… maybe I have enough time to watch Terminator 2 before I go to sleep tonight.

I Just Knew It Was Going To Happen

On April 16, 2012 an airline passenger was detained by the TSA due to luggage that contained two silicon breast enhancers that exceeded the TSA’s limit of 3.2 ounce limit on liquids and gels.

Back on January 19, 2012 I made the following fake quote from the TSA after the “cupcake in a jar” ordeal:

“And really, nobody is going to care about this whole cupcake fiasco in a few months once we instruct all of our agents to feel up women if the agent suspects her bra is constructed with more than three ounces of gel enhancing material.”

So what do I win for predicting just how far the TSA is willing to go on their quest for security?  Oh, and by the way, the passenger in question is a cross dressing male Britney Spears impersonator and the incident occurred in the Las Vegas airport.  So maybe I didn’t guess that part quite right, but I had the overall theme going.

Lax Security

Security screening in one major airport was completely closed today for the better part of an hour after experiencing another cupcake related incident.  A senior administrator at the TSA explained. “While we feel that we have made every effort to explain our actions related to the ‘cupcake in a jar’ incident, we would also like to ask the general public not to bring a dozen cupcake jars through security– especially when their primary ingredient appeared to be chocolate flavored laxatives.”

Suspicious Cups

A high level administrator at the Transportation Security Administration responded to criticism when an agent recently confiscated a cupcake from an airline passenger in December because the food product in question exceeded the maximum quantities for liquid, gels, and aerosols.  A detailed explanation of the situation was posted on the official TSA blog, ending with:

“And really, nobody is going to care about this whole cupcake fiasco in a few months once we instruct all of our agents to feel up women if the agent suspects her bra is constructed with more than three ounces of gel enhancing material.”

Spring Time

Katherine and I took a short road trip to Saratoga Springs, Wyoming in August just to get away for a few days.  About three hours drive from Loveland, Colorado, this town consisted of some hot springs, two gas stations, a handful of hotels, and a few hundred people who seemed to have taken up residence here for their own personal reasons.  We booked a room at the hotel which included access to several hot tubs and a large pool filled with mineral water.  Some of the hot tubs were mostly covered with teepee-like structures that gave a large amount of privacy, just in case, say,  you and your partner needed some alone time to, oh, review old tax returns or exchange highly sensitive military intelligence.

The hotel room had its own share of peculiarities.  In addition to the queen sized bed, much of the room was occupied by a large rustic looking armoire.  I’m not sure if it was real rustic or fake rustic– around here it could go either way.  Inside the armoire is a very medium sized television set.  A shelf above the television is a shelf bowing under the weight of a large VCR with, if carbon dated, would probably be traced backed to the early 1980s.  I can’t remember ever having been in a hotel room with a VCR.  We got all the standard cable channels, some better than others– perhaps a sign of a few too many sets connected to the cable feed.  All the network channels were based in Denver, which kind of negated the feeling that we were out in the middle of nowhere.  Or at least as much of nowhere that is left these days.  Come to think about it, we did pass a large Walmart distribution center about 60 miles from town, so somewhere is getting closer all the time.

The only other notable attribute of the hotel was the high pressure nozzle on the shower.  This device literally separates the water molecules into individual atoms before shooting them out at a velocity approaching the speed of light.  This causes the water to assume wavelike properties and travel straight through my body, the tub, the subfloor, and so on until it slows down somewhere, I suspect, near the molten core of the planet.

While somewhat limited in our dining choices, we found a rather small-townsy type place that served a small selection of breakfast options.  We must have come during the morning rush, because the one waiter was overwhelmed trying to take care of everyone.  When the shelf of clean coffee mugs became empty, one of the customers cleaned up a few tables, took everything into the kitchen, and came back out in a few minutes with a dozen clean mugs.  That’s what I like about visiting small towns– well, that and we didn’t see a single mugging or car-jacking.

Escape To New York

For everyone just catching up on my life, a few weeks ago I married my long time partner in crime, Katherine.  So in any future posts here on my website I will, at one time or another, refer to Katherine, Kat (though not Kathy, she hates that–I think it has something to do with the cartoon strip), my wife, my baby mama (more on that as it develops, but the short version is: yes, yes, December 15, 2009), and finally the one person in the house who knows where things are located.

In our consistent approach of reaching our relationship milestones in the complete wrong order, we decided to go on our honeymoon a few weeks before the actual wedding.  We decided, for no exact reason, to spend a week in New York City.  Our flight from Denver to LaGuardia was uneventful.  Katherine gave me the Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons” to read during the flight.  I quickly started thinking the book would make a great season of “24” if Tom Hanks hadn’t starred in the big screen version that came out last week.  And, let’s be honest here, the script just doesn’t have enough gratuitous torture sequences to show off the talents of Kiefer Sutherland.

After a relatively short cab ride to our hotel, we got our luggage put away and started randomly walking around the city.  Central Park to the north, and Times Square to the south– we had plenty of areas to explore.  My first impression of Times Square:  this is not the bisexual prostitute cowboy part of town I saw in that John Voight film.  (Who, coincidentally, was also in the most recent season of “24”, but I digress.)  I didn’t even see that naked cowboy.  No, Times Square is a busy mix of automobile traffic and pedestrians who stop in the middle of the sidewalk because they need to get a half dozen pictures of the 37 foot neon “Mr Peanut” on the corner of 45th and Broadway.

As we visited different parts of Manhattan, we noticed everyone has formed an alliance. Times Square, Chinatown, Midtown, and of course the magicians have all resorted to aligning themselves– presumably against one another, or at least against the magicians, who always seem to have some kind of trick up their sleeve.  Keeping a fragile peace over the island is the Ray’s Pizza Alliance with has locations literally on every block of the city.

Whenever I would see a scene from a movie or television show involving Central Park I always thought it looked like a back lot somewhere in southern California.  But I can now personally attest that, yes, that is what Central Park looks like.  The rest of the island has been stripped of all natural vegetation, but one rectangular area in the middle was spared.  I think of it as an island with a mowhawk.  A pamphlet about the park when on and on about the beauty of Central Park.  Maybe the island would look better if they just built the city where Central Park is and left everything else how it was when they got there.  Somehow I think it is a bit too late for that.

For no particular reason, I wanted to go see Coney Island.  We took the N train all the way south and walked a block to the boardwalk.  The weather was warm, the sun was shining, and Coney Island was closing up for the night.  We arrived at 6:05 PM five days before the unofficial start to summer, Memorial Day, and the place was a ghost town.  We got there just in time for the restrooms “convenience hours” to have expired.  Nothing promotes tourism more than locking the bathrooms when people might be interested in using them.  We headed back to the subway, and we saw an ad on the side of a bus for Coney Island that read, “Coney Island: Really Fun, Really Open.”  And no, I’m not making that up.  We stopped in the bathroom at the subway station before getting back on the train.  Not the best facilities I’ve been in, but I wouldn’t call it a shithole.  Katherine, however, did use that exact description for the ladies room.

So that wraps up the highlights of our trip.  I finished the book on the flight home and we made our way back home to Loveland.  Now I’ll be busy getting everything ready for my wedding in a few weeks.

Travel Guide: Estes Park

Welcome to the first installment of the newfunny travel guide. After an exhaustive planning session, I have decided to focus this series on various geographic areas in Colorado. Being that I’ve lived in the state since I was three, I have more than two decades of life experience to help provide rich and thoughtful descriptions. Or I can just make stuff up as I go along and pretend it actually happened. Either way, my goal is to provide entertaining, useful, and possibly historically accurate information about Colorado.

There is no single best way to get to Estes Park. But, if you are starting the journey from Denver, Colorado, get on I-25 and head north. Unless, of course, you are on a bicycle, in which case a less highway-centric route would be advisable. Exit the Interstate at Highway 34 and head west. This will take you through the town of Loveland and into the mountains. Stay on Highway 34 through the canyon, and eventually you will drive right through the town. You can’t miss it. Estimated travel time: 1 1/2 to 2 hours, unless your girlfriend/wife/significant other/life partner/pet has a hankering for cherry-rhubarb pie. (But more on that in a minute.)

From a geological perspective, the most interesting aspect of the ride to Estes Park is Big Thompson Canyon. Despite stunning views of the high canyon walls, the area, much like the Bubonic Plague, is best known for its history of death and destruction. The date was July 31, 1976. The nation as a whole had just finished cleaning up all the fallen ticker tape from its bicentennial celebration when a sudden rainstorm drenched the area, causing a massive flash flood. When all was said and done, 146 people died in the canyon that day, and countless homes and businesses in the canyon were destroyed.

Authorities in the area used the natural disaster as a catalyst for change. Bridges in the canyon were rebuilt, roads were improved, and the, “In case of flood, burrow to safety” road signs were replaced with a more effective campaign recommending that people instead climb out of the way of flood waters. In addition to these infrastructure changes, the receding waters provided a fertile environment for various tourist-oriented operations to blossom. Businesses in the area tend to focus on such niche markets as cherry-rhubarb pie and high-volume discount T-shirt sales.

While the drive up the canyon is chalk full of visual stimulation, anyone looking for even more colorful scenery might want to consider taking Devil’s Gulch Road instead of the main highway. Located about ten miles up the canyon, this slight detour adds a few miles of twisting road to the journey. In exchange for a reduced average velocity, this route goes through remote mountain areas and the small rustic town of Glen Haven. To get an idea of how out of the way this road is, the Starbucks corporation hasn’t even begun to attempt replacing the general store with a coffee franchise.

The main street in Estes Park is a pedestrian friendly series of shops. Being a secluded mountain town, many of these stores focus on specialized candy and dessert items. This phenomena can be traced back to the spring of 1910, when the state legislature passed a law limiting where certain types of food can be produced and distributed. As a result, you can’t buy fresh-pulled taffy anywhere on the front range or eastern plains. In Estes Park, however, there are no fewer than seventeen stores that produce this delicacy on a daily basis. In the slower winter months, groups of candy thugs meander through town threatening violence to anyone even thinking about making a purchase in the wrong taffy store.

Despite this minor turf war, the area is quite family-oriented. During the warm summer months children can be seen enjoying themselves on just about every sidewalk, often times with their hands, mouths, hair, and clothes enveloped in a sugary, gooey, slobber-laced mass of pulled taffy. When they finally surrender to the sticky force of the candy, these kids inevitably head back towards their parents for assistance. Mom and dad stop their window shopping, smile at the display of childhood innocence, and watch as their offspring try to outrun the pack of local domesticated canines focused on scoring their next hit of refined sugar. The slower children generally come out unharmed, except for the severe psychological damage associated with being stuck at the bottom of a taffy-induced dog pile.

One of the most well known landmarks in town is the combination Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Following at a distant second is the Stanley Hotel. While the Hotel’s fried chicken is mediocre at best, this location is what comes to mind when recalling the movie, “The Shining.” The classic horror film, directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson, and based on the Stephen King novel, has almost nothing to do with the physical building. The book was only loosely based on the hotel, the hotel in the movie doesn’t look anything like the real one, and high-profile movie stars hardly ever rampage through the building with a fire ax while possessed by evil demon-spirits. In fact, the hotel sports a light, open, and refreshing architectural design.

In an attempt to “make it real,” the Stanley Hotel was used in “The Shining” miniseries. Like most other Stephen King made-for-TV specials, the final product received poor reviews and, based on the Nielson television rating system, was watched by fewer people than it took to film the show. To date, revenue from the miniseries trails behind “The Shining” book sales, “The Shining” movie DVD rentals, and even advertisement proceeds from The Simpsons’ “The Shinning” Halloween special. The Stanley Hotel was briefly featured in the full length motion picture, “Dumb and Dumber” as Jim Carry pulled up in a Ferrari at the Hotel’s main entrance. It wasn’t the Stanley Hotel in the movie– it was, according to “the script,” supposed to be a glitzy hotel in Aspen. Despite intense and continued efforts, the Hotel has yet to make it to the “A list” of motion picture locations.

So there you have it– Estes Park in a nutshell. While this chapter is not designed to be a complete history and travel guide for the area, it should help casual visitors understand the overall character of the city. For more detailed information, as always, please refer to your local library or pulled taffy Mafia connection.

Heading Out To San Francisco

For one reason or another, my family isn’t very big on Christmas tradition. We don’t cut down live trees. We don’t prepare an elaborate turkey dinner for Christmas. Heck, we have yet to construct a family coat of arms. This probably means the Lutfey family isn’t every going to be featured in a Norman Rockwell painting anytime in the foreseeable future. Despite all of this, we do make an effort to be in the same city every year around the holidays. This year my mom and I packed our bags and headed out to visit my sister in San Francisco. (NOTE TO SELF: Come up with a witty and insightful “Rice-a-roni” joke to end the paragraph.)

My journey started out by driving to Denver International Airport. My plan was to park in the long term parking lot and take the shuttle to the terminal. Which would have worked fine, except for the fact that the long term parking was too full to accept any new cars. I honestly don’t how this could happen since the airport is located in the geographic center of the Great Plains. I think letting cars park next to the paved parking lot in one of the hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped prairie land would be a valid option. But then again, people often tell me I think too much. My concern started growing when I kept driving towards the airport only to find the on-site long term parking was full. Same thing for the relatively close-in economy parking. The only option left was parking in the actual parking garage. Fortunately, there was plenty of empty spots. Unfortunately, it is the most expensive place to park in the entire state of Colorado. As I got out of the car I noticed a sign stating that all cars left would be towed when either A) Thirty days had elapsed, or B) The bill for parking exceeds the estimated blue book value of the car.

Once we arrived in San Francisco and got all of our belonging settled, my sister drove us around the city so we could see various points of interest. After seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf, my sister drove us through the mission district (a predominantly gay part of the city.) As we were stopped at an intersection, I pointed to a man in the crosswalk and said, “He looks SO gay.” Right after I said that, I realized my window was open. The guy looked right at me, made a “telephone” gesture by extending his thumb and pinkie finger, and mouthed the words “call me.”

OK, the last part just happened in my “wouldn’t it have been funny if…” fantasy world. My mom was completely offended by the whole situation, which only made it more entertaining for me. My sister was amused, but thought I was flattering myself. I spent the next hour or so making the telephone gesture whenever my mom looked at me. My sister’s boyfriend sat in the car quietly thinking to himself, “They will be gone in three days. They will be gone in three days….”

Over the past few years we have gotten into the habit (or “tradition”, if you will) of going to see some form of theatrical presentation around the holidays. In the past we have seen “Rent” and “Phantom of the Opera.” This year my sister purchased tickets to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” I must say it was quite an experience. Anyone familiar with transsexual Nazi propaganda musicals knows exactly what I’m talking about. For all the other people out there still living in trees and caves, the show centers around a young man whose penis is cut off in an elaborate attempt to escape from East Berlin during the mid 1980s. Despite (or maybe because of) the odd premise, I enjoyed the evening. The musical numbers were fun to listen to and the finale used enormous volumes of artificial fog. (NOTE TO IMPRESSIONABLE READERS: Please do not take this paragraph as an endorsement of genital mutilation.)

After my whole “getting stuck in the women’s bathroom in an Amsterdam McDonalds” experience back in 1999, I thought my days of writing about fast food franchise restrooms were over. Not so, it turns out. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Despite being in the culturally diverse city of San Francisco, we stopped in a McDonalds near my sister’s apartment one afternoon for a quick bite to eat. Situated on the west side of the city near a monstrously large park, the area is home to quite a few homeless people. One of the fundamental rules of owning a restaurant in a large city is to make it really difficult for anyone to use the bathroom facilities. Most of the time this involves the use of a bathroom key tied to some sort of large and cumbersome item such as a brick or open container of scalding hot french fry grease.

This facility, however, took the inaccessibility concept one step further by installing a remote buzzer device. Anyone wanting to go to the bathroom would go to the cashier and asked to be buzzed inside. In principle, this is a decent solution. There is, however, a weak link in the system– it assumes everyone understands the concept of a buzzer. Which, unfortunately, was not the case. As we sat at a table we watched several people have difficulty gaining entrance to the bathroom. One young man kept trying to turn the knob after the buzzer stopped, which turns out to be the exact opposite of what he was supposed to be doing. This led to a rather annoyed manager coming over and giving him a quick lesson on how to operate the door. This was followed by a spirited philosophical discussion of “if there is one person in the bathroom and two stalls, am I allowed to go in?” After we finished eating, I decided it would just be easier to go outside and pee in an obscured corner of the parking lot.

Eventually we had to fly back to Colorado. We got on the plane and I realized the passenger in the seat next to me was the same guy one I yelled at in the Mission District. Let’s just say I had some explaining to do. Or was I sitting next to my mom? Either way, the plane landed in Colorado, I went back to Loveland, and my sister’s boyfriend is happy to be rid of us for the better part of a year.

Divide And Conquer

I was planning on writing about the town of Divide, Colorado on my recent trip to eat dinner with Kristin and her mother, but that was before I discovered the size of the town. Located a bit west of Colorado Springs, Divide basically consists of a gas station, a stop light, and a two story mini-mall. Curious about why a town of this magnitude needs a stop light, I researched the matter at the Teller county library. It turns out the traffic control device was installed in the spring of 1921 as a way of getting people to stop and wander through the inevitably small selection at the local video store.

Most of the residents of Divide drive to the neighboring town of Woodland Park for their consumer needs. A few miles down the road from Divide, this town has its own unique character. The first thing I noticed driving through Woodland Park is the abundance of Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug convenience stores. I counted a total of four on my way through town. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed except for the fact I drove by two of them that were separated by a small unrelated building. In addition to the many, many occupations I’ve claimed to have no knowledge of in the past, I now must add to the list by saying that I’m not a top level executive at Conoco (or Loaf ‘n Jug for that matter). I just can’t see the logic of placing two of the exact same stores twenty-four feet apart in a small mountain town. I can only theorize this strategy was implemented to cater to the following situation:

A man driving a late model minivan approaches the first Conoco. His wife and two kids are quietly taking in the mountain scenery.

Husband: Well, we have plenty of gas. Honey, do you want to stop for anything at this safe and hygienic Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug establishment?

Wife: No thanks dear, I think we should just continue on our journey.

Husband: Bobby, Sally, are you two doing okay back there?

Kids: (In unison) Yes dad.

Husband: Great– I’m glad we can spend this quality time together.

And then, 0.0003 seconds later:

Bobby: Dad! Sally threw up on me.

Sally: Dad! I threw up on Bobby. And I have to pee. And I want some candy and soda.

Wife: Your kids need tending to, Jack. And why did you have to drive through that plague of locust? The windshield is a mess! And I need a cigarette. Make that a few.

Husband: Will everyone just SHUT UP for a second? I’m trying to think what to do here. We could turn around and go back to that last Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug. (Looks at the dashboard) OH CRAP! We are dangerously low on fuel—- we don’t have enough gasoline for a U-turn. We are all going to die!

Wife: (Looks up the road) It is a miracle Jack! There is ANOTHER Conoco / Loaf ‘n Jug just past this building. We are saved!

Husband: Phew! When we get back home I’m going to find the Conoco executive who arranged these convenience stores and give him a big hug.

In addition to the convenience store curiosities, Woodland Park has it’s own unique history. For example, Kristin and I ate lunch at Quiznos. After we ordered our food and sat down to eat, she explained to me how this store front used to be occupied by the Christian Science Reading Room. Kristin just rolled her eyes at my suggestion to combine the two and name it “Sandwiches Good Enough For Jehovah.”

Despite being a quiet mountain town, Woodland Park has an impressive police presence. The ratio of law enforcement officers to civilians is similar to that of a Siberian prison colony. On our way back to Divide, we had the honor of receiving a police escort through town. Things got even more interesting when Kristin threw a cigarette butt out the window. We got pulled over and the officer started off the conversation by saying, “I’m pulling you over because you tossed a lit object from your car. Did you know that is illegal?” He then went on to explain the forest fire danger in the area. While I wanted to discuss the long term dangers of artificial fire suppression, I had a feeling this would not be the optimal time for such a debate.

Kristin, who has no love for the police, didn’t seem to enjoy the conversation very much. To help remember that night, Kristin was given an authentic document from the Teller county police department which gave her two options. She can either pay the thirty-eight dollar fine or be hunted down by attack dogs and officers wearing full riot gear in an ATF training exercise.

After all that, we managed to get back just in time for dinner– which I must say was quite lovely.

Olympic Adventures Part 2

Throughout the journey I could not keep myself from thinking how very odd it was that Kristin kept several restaurant quality meat cleavers in the sun visor of her automobile. Comments such as “you have no idea how badly I need a second spare ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ CD” did little to calm my nerves. Despite all of this, I managed to survive my Olympic adventure with my body and Pink Floyd collection completely intact.

Feb 15, 2002 6:30 PM

Kristin and I climbed into her car and headed out of Boulder. I love taking road trips because there is just so much time for me to explain my views on life to all the passengers of the vehicle without being forced to remove any of the countless tangents of my thought process. For example, I spent a large percentage of the drive to Cheyenne, Wyoming explaining how the turn signal lever in Kristin’s Geo Prizm is functionally superior to the one in my Saturn. In a more conventional social situation I would have gotten to the main points such as lever shape, blinker noise, and the force required to change signal states. As we moved north along I-25 I was able to cover all these topics while still having plenty of time to consider the optimal turn signal blinking rate (which remains unresolved) and how many times the turn signal should blink when changing lanes on the highway (I prefer 5 blinks myself).

Feb 15, 2002 8:30 PM

We arrive in Cheyenne, Wyoming to meet up with two of Kristin’s friends who started their trip in central Illinois. The plan was to meet at the local Denny’s. Before leaving, I had gone on the Internet and printed out a map along with directions for getting to the restaurant. This really helped out the situation since neither of us was terribly familiar with the town. The fact that the Denny’s had recently gone out of business did not help the situation. After contemplating our options, we decided to set up camp at the local Village Inn and wait for Robi and Troy to arrive.

A bacon cheese burger and a cell phone call later we were all at the same place at the same time. Kristin and Robi have been best friends since the beginning of time. Troy is Robi’s landlord and good friend. Out of the four of us, Troy is by far the biggest hockey fan.

Feb 16, 2002 4:45 AM

After driving all night long through Wyoming and Utah we arrived in Salt Lake City. Our plan was to sleep on the living room floor of some Kristin’s friends who lived in town. The fact that her friends had recently gone out of business did not help the situation. Oh, wait, I’m getting confused with the last journal entry. Walking into a strangers house at four in the morning and crawling into a mattress set up on the floor is a feeling I think I’ll never be completely comfortable with.

Having a three year old running around the place four hours after we got to sleep was not exactly normal for me either. Except for waking us up so early I have to say Tanner was a lot of fun. I’m pretty good at managing children I can physically pick up with one hand. He also had a lot of cool toys which meant I was willing to hang out with him whenever we were at the house.

Feb 17, 2002 9:00 PM

All of the planning, traveling, and playing with Tanner have finally paid off. We didn’t know until the night before that our tickets to the Women’s Hockey semi-finals would pit Germany against—yes, you guessed it—Kazakstan. Despite all of our cheering, the Kazak ladies were no match for the Germans and their blitzkrieg approach to ice hockey. The game ended with the German team winning by a score of 4-0. The German women advanced to the next round and the Kazakstanians face a long plane ride home to their homeland of funny hats and vodka enhanced “they actually let us play in the Olympics” Mamushka celebrations. My proposition to go console members of the losing team at a local drinking establishment was not well received by some of the other people in the group.

Feb 18, 2002 1:30 PM

We left the Olympics behind and headed back home to Colorado. Since we are traveling during the day this time around we got to see all the scenery of southern Wyoming with the benefit of generous quantities of sunlight. In all honesty it doesn’t really improve the situation. Perhaps the part of the country is best viewed in the infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths.

Feb 18, 2002 10:30 PM

After many, many hours in the car, we finally got back to my apartment in Boulder, Colorado. I really believe it was worth all the effort to see the game. Given my current financial situation, it will be a long time before I get to see anything like that again. Unless, of course, I can find someone to come with me on a road trip to Kazakstan.

Olympic Adventures Part 1

Given certain lighting conditions I can appear to be a very busy man. The rest of the time the truth of my productivity is quite obvious. Yes, I’m part of the population who gives late night infomercials about space aged automobile engine lubricants their coveted 0.002 Nelson rating. Despite my incredibly hectic schedule, I have managed to violate the known laws of physics by tearing a hole in the space time continuum large enough to permit a brief trip to the upcoming Olympics. And I managed to do so with a surprisingly small quantity of after market engine lubricants.

While I’ve had enough negative experiences with the opposite sex to start my own television show (stay tuned on Fox for Cops, followed by another two episodes of Cops, followed by the brand new series “When Dates Go Bad”), every now and then something good happens when I’m out on a date. Kristin and I started things out by seeing the movie “Brotherhood of the Wolf.” The story centers around a dangerous monster roaming the French countryside. An extensive search of the area turned up little more than an unshaven and slightly hung over Andre the Giant sleeping rather peacefully in a remote ravine.

I must have done something right because shortly after our first date Kristin invited me to go with her and some friends to attend the Olympic women’s hockey event. After asking a few standard questions anyone put in this situation would politely bring up, I learned that one of Kristin’s friends in Utah changed her mind about going to the game. I quickly accepted the offer. It will keep me out of trouble for a while and I’ll achieve my life long dream of being an official Olympic alternate.

After consulting the Internet for driving instructions, we plotted our road trip to Atlanta, Georgia. After a little more research, it turns out they decided to move the Olympics to the state of Utah. Go figure. While it seems like a whole lot of effort, it actually works out better for us since we will be driving with the rotation of the Earth instead of against it. Once again we asked the Internet how to get to our destination. After thinking about it for a few seconds, a route appeared on the screen that takes us through northern Colorado, southern Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and finally Utah. Once we enter our destination state, we will drive around in increasingly smaller concentric circles until our car runs into some lake. I’m not sure what the “vortex” option on the travel web site was talking about, but I really don’t have time to go back and investigate the matter in more detail.

Quite a bit of attention has been paid to the extravagant nature of the Olympics. None of this will be lost on me. Especially as I’m sleeping on a futon in an unfamiliar house full of people I have yet to meet in a state I’ve never seen in person. Or as I’m screaming across the complete mountain time zone in a late model Geo Prism. But I made it quite clear to Kristin that I sing along to the radio unless someone’s ears start to bleed (in which case I merely hum along to the music).

One of the biggest stories in the news involves the increased security surrounding all official Olympic events. Given the recent terrorist events this seems like a fairly reasonable course of action. While the Secret Service and FBI are reluctant to give out information regarding specific details of possible threats, the general concern involves an unplanned visit by a high profile Afghan resident who goes by the name Geraldo.

Is going on a road trip with someone I just met a very good idea? Are the Olympics as exciting as everyone makes them out to be? Should I leave my favorite CDs at home in case Kristin is really a homicidal maniac who plans on killing me and occasionally casually throwing bits of my chopped up body out the car window along I-80? There is only one way to know for sure. Stay tuned for next week’s story which will either be titled “Olympic Adventures” or “Sure I’m being chopped up into little pieces, but at least my Pink Floyd collection is safe at home.”

Annoying Janet

This week Brian’s girlfriend Janet got added to the “People I Annoy” list. Having known each other for a couple of years now, Janet and I get along reasonably well. She has yet to invite me over to a slumber party where everyone stays up all night to eat microwave popcorn, drink diet Pepsi, and watch Brad Pitt movies, but we are also not to the stage where I would find it necessary to hold her hostage in my garage in a convoluted scheme to help Brian discover his long lost true love like in the movie “Saving Silverman.” Mostly because that would make me the character who realizes he is gay and goes on to marry his ex-con militaristic homosexual football coach on stage at a Neil Diamond concert. Like I need to go through that again.

The whole situation started at the train station in France named “Paris Nord”. No, it’s not a typo, it’s French. Translated into English it means “the last stop before Eurodisney.” OK, maybe my French skills aren’t as finely honed as, say, anyone in Europe who hasn’t lost their tongue, but I’m not making up the Eurodisney part. I planned to “rendezvous” (once again, that’s French) with Brian and Janet at the station after their plane landed in Paris earlier that day. As much as they love French train stations, Brian’s parents trusted our navigational skills enough to remain back at the hotel.

By the time I got into town and settled into my hotel room, it was really too late to go out and do anything. I sat down on the bed and did little more than contemplate paying 400 units of the local currency for an 8 ounce water bottle from the “courtesy” bar. (Another French term meaning “we know you are too lazy, scared, or stupid to walk to the store.”)

The next day we toured the city and learned quite a bit about the history of Paris. In the morning we saw the factory where they make French people snooty. Later on in the afternoon we saw the building where all the tacky models of the Eiffel Tower are put together. This assembly process takes place in the very same factory that manufactured the metal beams for the original tower. That was until the 1980’s when the plant ran out of space and had to be relocated in the nice pristine rolling hills of Southern Asia. We finished off the day with a classy dinner. By then it was about nine o’clock at night. Everyone in our “entourage” except Brian and I decided to call it a night. We left the hotel after casually telling Janet “We’re going to hang out for a while.”

Before I go any further with the story, I should point out that Brian and I had not seen each other for the better part of five months. We talked on the phone and exchanged emails, but that doesn’t compare to hanging out in person. Up to that point in our friendship I don’t think we had ever been apart for longer than two or three weeks at a time. We had quite a bit of catching up to do. And to be honest, I really like to gossip about everything– as evidenced by the fact I spent large quantities of time writing about every minute aspect of my life, posting it on the Internet, and then begging the world to read it all.

After leaving the hotel we aimlessly walked around the city. We eventually found our way to the “Louvre” (yet another French word—this means “huge art museum with strange pyramid in the courtyard.) We sat down and talked about random aspects of our lives for “a while.” (I know that’s not French. The quotes are employed as a foreshadowing device. When I tell the story in person I make the “finger quotation mark” gesture.) Eventually the conversation started to focus around our observation that it was no longer dark. This quickly led to a “have we really been out here for seven and a half hours?” discussion.

Anyone who eats a traditional French dinner and then sits outside all night will eventually feel the need to evacuate his or her bladder. Now I’m not saying we peed “on” one of the most famous museums in the world, but I’m not going to say we didn’t pee “in the general vicinity” of said structure. After our immediate biological needs were addressed we headed back to the hotel. I commented to Brian that he wouldn’t even have to wake up Janet in the middle of the night when he got back.

This was completely true, but made largely irrelevant by the fact Janet fell asleep when we left and woke up a few hours (less than, say, seven and a half) later to notice a lack of her significant other in the room. Deciding that we had been out longer than “a while” she became very concerned about our well being. She called Brian’s parent’s hotel room. Brian’s mom was not at all concerned with our being out all night in a foreign country with no explanation of our agenda. She did what she could to put Janet at ease by explaining this is completely consistent with our past behavior.

Despite these reassurances, Janet stayed up the rest of the night envisioning our lifeless corpses floating down the river in the heart of Paris possibly to be violated in some unnatural way by a medieval sewer dwelling monster. In reality I was busy explaining to Brian all the things I saw in Amsterdam floating around in the canal water. And to this day, I can’t quite put into words exactly how that smells.

I don’t know exactly what happened when Brian got back to his room. I, on the other hand, went back to my hotel room occupied only by the bottle of outrageously expensive water I was flirting with the night before. The next morning (45 minutes later) we all met for breakfast. Janet made a point of saying she wasn’t mad at us. While I’m admittedly not an expert on this matter, I’m pretty sure that when a woman specifically says she isn’t mad that implies on some level she isn’t exactly happy either.

After all was said and done, I’m not sure Brian and I really did anything wrong. But we both feel bad Janet stayed up all night worrying about our welfare. Fortunately it didn’t ruin the whole trip. I think I did a decent job of patching things up with her a few days later when I assisted Janet in the fine art of getting drunk on plum wine at a Japanese restaurant in Amsterdam. But that’s another story.

Trip To Pennsylvania

They say getting there is half the fun. While I am not sure exactly how that phrase came into existence, I seriously doubt it applies to excursions involving airline travel. If it does, however, I can only expect to enjoy the rest of my trip the equivalent of receiving a full body pat down by a 45 year old bald man wearing purple latex gloves. But eventually the driver let us get into the taxi cab and took us to the airport.

Getting through the security in the airport was no cake walk either. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have eaten that second bowl of Total cereal before leaving for the airport. It turns out that having 200 percent of the recommended daily allowance of iron was more than enough to set off the metal detectors. For reasons that I honestly do not understand, my request to be examined by a nearby perky attractive young female security guard was not well received.

Just to keep everyone on the same page here, I recently traveled to Taylor, Pennsylvania to spend time visiting relatives I haven’t seen in more than five years. My mom and I found a good deal on airplane tickets back to the east coast, so we flew from Denver right into the Scranton / Wilkes Berre airport. I suppose a more accurate way of describing the situation would be to say our plane gently landed on the runway next to the airport.

We didn’t plan this ahead of time, but we arrived in town the day before my cousin’s oldest daughter’s birthday party. Seeing Ted really put the amount of time since my last visit into perspective. Here is the main gist of our conversation:

Ted: Hi Omar, I haven’t seen you in forever! What have you been up to since we saw each other last?

Me: Well, not too much lately– I’m working on being a writer. Oh yeah, and I have built a new web site. What about you?

Ted: I got married and have three kids.

While I generally don’t get invited to many birthday parties for four year old girls, the big screen television equipped with satellite cable and complete NFL game coverage made sure that all age groups were equally entertained. The older males at the party were preoccupied with determining how the outcomes of the games would effect the playoff prospects of their favorite teams. The small girls at the party amused themselves after all the presents were unwrapped and examined by everyone. The amusement, of course, was derived almost exclusively from a large cardboard box.

The largest box was about three feet high and two feet square at the base. The girls, who where dressed up as their favorite Disney heroines, wanted nothing more than to get inside the box. Not being able to think of any good reasons why they shouldn’t be inside the box, I picked them up one at a time and placed them inside. The next thing I know I am rolling them around on the floor inside the box. Their experience seemed quite disorienting and nauseating, which is exactly why they found it entertaining beyond description.

After ten minutes, the box gave up and burst open, causing the girls to pour out onto the floor. After one final round of exuberant giggling, the girls moved on to a slightly more high tech entertainment device: the karaoke machine. I had one of those “life isn’t fair” realizations while witnessing the girls completely mangle Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA.” Everyone at the party thought they were cute and adorable, but when I do the exact same thing in a seedy college town bar after a downing a couple shots of tequila none of the nearby perky attractive young females seem to have similar feelings of admiration.

Everyone knows that the fine art of residential use lamp repair has fallen out of favor over the years. During my stay in Taylor, I got a glimpse into this rare electrical experience as my three uncles worked to fix two of my grandmother’s broken lamps. My rough calculations led me to the conclusion that the replacement plugs and wire consisted of less than one percent of the total cost of the project. The rest of the budget included the beer that was consumed during the repair process.

Over all I had a great time in Pennsylvania. I really enjoyed playing with some of my younger relatives, some of whom I haven’t seen since they were negative two. While I can’t predict the future, I am going to try and get back there in less than five years from now. I’ll bring my extensive karaoke skills and a much, much bigger cardboard box.

Road Trip

August 24

For the last two full days of our vacation, we decided to take a road trip with Scott’s parents. The original plan was to drive Scott’s parent’s Volvo, but the word from the repair shop was a cracked cylinder head caused the explosion on the trip home from the airport. While I’m admittedly no automotive mechanic, I think fairly highly of Volvos made in 1988 that have been driven 176,000 miles. But all good things must come to an end, and this was no exception. After a brief discussion, we all agreed the only logical course of action was to break into the local mortuary, steal two cadavers, situate the bodies in the front seat of the Volvo, and roll the vehicle on to the autobahn during the middle of the night.

While Scott and I were taking in the sights in Berlin, his father was busy trading in the Volvo for something else. After a series of intense negotiations he exchanged the car for a very nice cup of coffee to enjoy while looking for a new vehicle. He eventually agreed to buy another slightly less broken Volvo. I assumed we were going to take the car on our weekend excursion, but in Germany it takes roughly two weeks to buy a used car. I’m not sure what is involved in the whole process, but it starts with multiple signatures, continues with an extensive paperwork trail, and somewhere along the line requires a complete DNA sequencing analysis from all parties involved in the transaction.

Fortunately, Scott’s father was able to secure a rental car for the weekend. Given the extensive presence of the German automobile industry around Stuttgart, I was expecting to spend the next two days driving around in a Mercedes or BMW. But since the reservation was placed less than the customary thirty weeks in advance, we ended up with an Imbizu. Yes, it’s the best four-door compact diesel that Spain has ever designed and manufactured. Ever.

August 25

As much as it pains me to do so, I must admit that the Imbizu is doing a pretty good job of getting us around. It doesn’t do much to make me feel cool, but it does manage to get us around the steep mountain roads. To the best of my knowledge none of the cylinder heads have cracked. That is, of course, if diesel engines have any.

That is enough about cars. After spending the past eight days with Scott, I can’t help but to notice that he likes to walk a noticeable distance in front of everyone. At first I thought it was just me walking too slow, but now that we are with Scott’s parents I’ve decided he walks faster than everyone in the group. I’ve mentioned it a few times, but he still does it. I don’t really mind except for the fact he is out of earshot, so it makes any kind of conversation rather impractical. I’ve been entertaining myself by calling him “Scout” and envisioning him getting snared in a trap involving a net concealed under a bunch of leaves and attached to a nearby tree. Perhaps I’ve watched a few too many episodes of “Xena Warrior Princess.”

We have spent the day visiting various castles and their surrounding towns in Germany and Austria. While castles come in many shapes and sizes, the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they are all built on ground that is a lot higher than the rest of the area. The only exception to this rule seems to be the “White Castle” hamburger franchise which generally settles in the crappy part of town all across the Midwestern United States.

While getting to these structures requires a moderate amount of uphill hiking, seeing them close up is worth the effort. In one village in Austria, we walked up to the ruins of a 12th century defensive outpost. Despite the fact that many of the upper levels had collapsed, you can still see the general design of the building. I kept thinking this is what my apartment is going to look like a few years down the road.

August 26

Today we drove through Liechtenstein. Proportionally, I’ve already spent too much time writing about it. I’m not sure how they managed it, but this country is a four mile wide sliver of land sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland. The most notable quality of this country I’ve discovered is they charge you to stamp your passport.

We rather briefly drove through Switzerland, but most of the time was spent driving on a road next to a large lake. While visually stimulating, I don’t really feel as though I got to experience the true Swiss culture. I didn’t even see a single person drinking hot chocolate. So even though I can add it to the list of countries I’ve been to, I think sometime in the future I’ll come back to get a better look around.

August 27

Well, that wraps things up for my trip to Germany and neighboring countries. After spending ten days here I’m definitely ready to be back in Colorado. The public transportation isn’t as good and we don’t have quaint little villas in Colorado, but at least we never had to worry about evil oppressive forces occupying parts of our state. Unless, of course you count Colorado Springs.

Berlin

August 20

I’m sitting on a train I am moderately convinced is heading towards Berlin. I think the uncertainty of getting on a train in another country where they don’t speak English makes the experience just a bit more exciting. I could just imagine getting off the train only to realize we somehow managed to end up in western Canada. In case you aren’t familiar with the events of my life, I’m in the middle of a ten day vacation trip in Germany with my longtime friend Scott.

Growing up in Colorado I have developed a resistance to using public transportation. One thing I’ve been noticing is that trains in Germany can go really fast. In addition to numerous messages in German, the electronic message board at the front of the passenger car would occasionally say how fast the train was moving. During the trip the speed of the train would reach 250 kilometers an hour. To put that into perspective for anyone not familiar with the metric system, that speed is 108 times faster than any form of public transportation moves in the state of Colorado.

After watching the German country side for an hour or so I eventually dozed off. I’m not exactly sure how my brain works, but my overactive imagination doesn’t seem to sleep when the rest of my body is recharging itself. I started dreaming about my apartment back in Boulder. I suppose I need to preface this by saying I’m not the best at keeping my apartment as clean as I possibly could. In my shower I have a circle of rust from a shaving cream can that has been there for, well, a lot longer than I really want to admit. It’s there, and I know it’s there, and it knows I know, but it doesn’t smell funny or seem to be growing, so I generally don’t spend much time worrying about it or attempting to get rid of it. But in my dream, the ring of rust penetrated all the way through the material of the tub and a perfect circle fell through to the floor as I was shampooing my hair. Mental note to self-clean shower upon returning to apartment.

Our hotel room, which Scott picked out, is quite clean and spacious. And it is right across the street from the “Erotik Museum.”

August 21

We started the day traveling to the east side of Berlin. Until 1989 this section of the city was controlled by Communist forces where the general population was forced to wear funny hats and dance the mamushka every night. We took the subway to one of the main squares in East Berlin to get a better idea of what life would have been like under such an oppressive regime. As we walked up the subway stairs one of the first things I saw was a man wearing brightly colored clothes, a large rainbow umbrella, and a strange mechanical contraption around his torso. Upon closer inspection, the equipment was a completely self-contained grill designed for cooking sausages. Say what you want about communism, but they are light years ahead of us in personal hot dog vending devices.

Despite several navigational errors on the local subway system, we are still in Berlin. Due to a massive misunderstanding in the scale of our map, we decided to walk the entire length of a park located in the center of the city. On the map the park was roughly the width of my thumb. In reality it is much, much bigger. By the time we got to the exact middle of the park we realized the magnitude of our miscalculation. Of course by then we didn’t have any choice but to walk the rest of the way out of the park.

August 22

After seeing a few more sights in the morning, we headed back to the station to catch the train back to Stuttgart. I’m not sure why, but the train stations in Germany have a noticeable lack of seats. I guess they decided the trains are so punctual that there isn’t any need to wait for a train-it’s just there when they say it is. Scott and I were sitting on the ground waiting for the train to arrive when what looked like a homeless man started talking to us in German. Being that I can’t even pretend to speak German, I just kind of nodded. When he realized I didn’t know German he got all annoyed and started saying things I can’t repeat here. Not because they were profane and inappropriate, but because we was yelling at me in German which we have already established is not my language of choice for optimal communication. After a few minutes he got bored and walked away, possibly to yell at someone else who doesn’t speak his language.

These are the highlights from Berlin. Stay tuned next week for the last part of my vacation involving a road trip to the countries of Austria, Switzerland, and, most important, Liechtenstein.

Adventures In Europe

No matter how many times it happens to me, I’m never totally comfortable when I am stranded near a nuclear power plant and witness an explosion. I suspect this is a good thing. But, as usual, I’m getting ahead of myself.

This story is the first of three documenting my recent trip to Germany. If you are anything like me, you may be wondering what exactly I was doing several thousand of miles away from my apartment in Boulder, Colorado. Like every other aspect of my life, it just happened.

The whole situation started when I decided to accompany Scott (a friend I have known since I was three years old) to visit his parents who recently moved to Stuttgart, Germany. After flying into the airport at Frankfurt we found our luggage and met up with Scott’s parents. We piled our stuff into the back of the used Volvo they purchased after arriving in the country and headed out on the Autobahn.

I’m not exactly sure what caused the car to overheat on the way back from the airport. I suspect it was either a larger than usual payload, extreme heat and humidity, or what the German people like to refer to as “fahrfegnugen.” Before this trip I had always assumed it to be a condiment for bratwurst. Whatever the reason, we pulled over at a rest stop to investigate the situation in more detail.

After coming to a complete stop and opening the hood of the car, the three males got out to troubleshoot the situation. A few minutes of quiet contemplation produced three completely different and largely contradictory explanations as to the cause of the overheating. It was either A) the radiator, B) the water pump, or C) the windshield wiper fluid. Always the optimist, I decided to choose the one component in the car which I knew the most about. Having run out of windshield wiper fluid in my own car before, I knew how to handle the situation. The fact that the situation shared no common symptoms with my previous experience in no way influenced my diagnosis of the situation.

My idea about the windshield wiper fluid being low turned out to be incorrect. After locating the reservoir, it quickly became apparent there was enough of this fluid for the car to operate. Adding to my extensive database of car repair knowledge, I now hypothesize that windshield wiper fluid is not directly related to the regulating the temperature of an automobile engine. At least for Volvos.

While I did learn something new, it wasn’t proving to be immediately useful in getting the car back in working order. After letting the engine cool down a little bit we slowly opened the radiator cap and noticed it seemed a bit low on whatever type of fluid it was suppose to contain. We ended up pouring a bottle of water I had filled up back at the airport into the radiator. We started the car back up and the temperature returned to an acceptable level. We cautiously got back on the highway.

After a few minutes, the temperature returned to its “too hot” reading on the dashboard. Lacking any actual numbers on the temperature gauge, I can only make an educated guess as to what constitutes an abnormally high engine temperature. Based on causal observations I believe the far left side of the gauge represents room temperature and the far right side represents the surface temperature of the sun.

So once again we pull off the highway. This time, however, we stopped right next to a nuclear power plant. This is when I remembered I recently purchased a membership in AAA. I whipped out my cell phone and called the 1-800 number. After explaining the situation with the vehicle overheating the woman on the other end of the line explained to me that AAA stands for something something of America, and that they did not have the resources to dispatch a tow truck to Germany.

After several additional calls to a more local automobile support group, we were able to get some assistance. A man in bright orange overalls filled the radiator full of water. He then shook one of the rubber hoses that ran from the radiator to some other part of the engine. I don’t think he should have done that. The hose burst open and steam and water came flying out in all directions. The guy wasn’t hurt, but the car seemed to be done moving under its own power for the day.

Eventually a tow truck arrived and took us all to the local Volvo shop. By then it was after 6 PM on Saturday. Being that we were in Europe the shop had already closed. The sign on the window said, “We will be open again in September-October at the latest.” We left the car at the dealership and took a series of taxis and trains to get the rest of the way back to Scott’s parent’s house.

The flight from Denver, Colorado to Frankfurt, Germany took roughly nine hours. Getting the rest of the way only took another six. We did all manage to get there without any other difficulties. I learned a lot on the trip, and I’ll never forget how to say in German that, “The automobile has exploded by the nuclear power plant.”

Taco Bell

It’s not uncommon for a young man, overflowing with exuberant lust and apprehension, to write a love song to a woman who has captured his heart. It is very uncommon for a young man to do the same for an international fast food establishment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the sake of continuity, I’ll start at the beginning.

My love affair with Taco Bell started back in high school. I know I annoyed a lot of my lunch time friends by wanting to go to Taco Bell for lunch every single day. Sometimes the urge to get my hands on a fifty-nine cent bean burrito was so strong that I would totally forget the fact that I was supposed to be in Mr. Eggert’s second period algebra class. To cover my tracks, I never turned in my math homework and often times got in arguments with the teacher and said mean things about him outside of class. To this day, my parents never discovered the true reason behind my insolent behavior.

The relationship only got stronger when I went off to college. And, no, I’m not talking about my high school algebra teacher. Taco Bell franchises were located on both sides of the CSU campus. The pinnacle of my love for Taco Bell occurred when my girlfriend at the time moved into an apartment that was directly across the street from the Bell. I would ride my bicycle over to her place, get enough tacos and burritos for the both of us, and walk up the stairs to her apartment. It was an entire evening of fun for six dollars. If I only realized at the time how perfect my life was back then, I wouldn’t have let it change so drastically. Sigh.

Well, back to the story. I finished up with college and my girlfriend and I went on to get a job in my slice of the real world. I was molded into a computer geek which gave me the financial resources to eat fast food at will. In retrospect, I suspect I started to take it for granted. Taco Bell was always there for me and I no longer had to sacrifice anything to enjoy it. But gone too was the anticipation of another reunion. The fire burned less brightly.

Everything changed in 1999 when the company I worked for at the time decided to send me to work in Amsterdam for six months. I moved everything I owned into storage and got on an airplane with nothing more than a backpack and two suitcases. When I got there I quickly discovered some shocking facts about world travel. The weather in other parts of the world is not comparable to Colorado, the customs officials don’t care what you bring into Holland, and, most importantly, Taco Bell is not keeping up with other fast food establishments in their plans for world occupation. During the worst of my withdrawal period, I wrote the following song expressing my feelings:

“Taco Bell, Village of the Damned”

Here is the story that I’ve got to tell
About my favorite place to go and eat– its called Taco Bell

One day I got on a plane and flew across the sea
Unaware of the fate awaiting me
You see they have BK and they have Mickey Dee’s,
But Taco Bell has still yet to be.

So now I’m a long way from home and I just don’t see
That plastic tacky bell calling out to me

Taco Bell, you’re my water in the sand
Taco Bell, the franchise promised land
Taco Bell, you’re my favorite one night stand
Taco Bell, the village of the damned

And so I just can’t sleep at night
Knowing that I’m a world away from that
drive through open twenty-four hour culinary delight

Despite the obvious pain of being away from something so near and dear to my heart, I survived my trip to Holland and came back to Colorado with a deeper and more mature understanding of my relationship with Taco Bell. We started off young and giddy-wanting to be together every day and talking to each other until all hours of the night about anything and everything that came to mind. Things cooled down a bit after that, and the shock of moving half way around the world from her put everything in perspective. These days I take comfort in knowing that when I’m having a bad day I can invite her over, make a big bowl of popcorn, and watch a movie on the couch with my arm around her. We have known each other for so long that we don’t need words to communicate. Taco Bell will always be there for me.

Six Months In Amsterdam

Now that I think about it, the title sounds like a good title for a song. It would be kind of like “One Night in Bankock” but with less of a techno beat and more references to sex and drugs. In case you didn’t already know, I spent the first half of 1999 living and working in Holland. Here is my trip report.

Technically, it’s illegal to buy and smoke marijuana in Holland. Of course it’s also possible that you will sleep walk into the nearby woods in the middle of the night only to be awakened by the sound of your leg setting off a bear trap, but most reasonable people don’t stay up at night worrying about getting caught. You can also go into special “herb” stores and get whatever other goodies that you feel the need to put into your body. Is this the best way to run a society? I really don’t know, but my experience has been that the number of people on the street that you don’t want to have anything to do with is comparable to any other large city I have ever visited. It’s way better than New York City.

The other “selling point” of Holland is the legalized prostitution. If you go into the Red Light District you can shop around for women conveniently displayed behind the glass windows of their “shops.” Provided you have the money and you don’t have any visible open sores or other odd physical defects, you can have the woman of your dreams in convenient fifteen minute increments. Is this the best way to run a society? Once again, I really don’t know, but it doesn’t appear to be destroying the city. As one of my friends who came over to visit from Colorado said, “They still have pimps in Holland, but it’s more of a desk job.”

Holland is chalk full of first rate public transportation. Based on my experiences and some information that I pretty much just made up, here is my advice on how to build a city without having to depend on automobiles: First of all, start building the city in the middle ages when people are too busy with things like neighboring armies, crusades, and the plague to ponder ideas like the internal combustion engine, traffic flow patterns, and the needs of the middle class. Combine this with a series of interlocking canals and you have a city that just isn’t very friendly to automobiles.

There is actually a law in Holland that forbids the construction of parking spaces in the city limits. OK, OK, they don’t REALLY have laws in Holland, but it is almost impossible to find a parking spot in Amsterdam. The only vehicles that you see on the roads are taxi drivers and tour busses. Since their job is to just drive around all day it really isn’t a problem. Occasionally a lost tourist from a neighboring country will accidentally drive into town. The desperate search for a parking space ends when their fuel supply runs out and they are forced to stop in the middle of the road. When this happens, the angry taxi drivers and tour bus operators stuck behind the vehicle work together to push the car out of the street and into the closest canal.

As difficult as it is to get around Amsterdam with a car, it’s quite simple to get around with the public transportation. Intercity trains, subways, trams, and busses all work together to get you where you need to go. After a long day at work it is a lot less stressful to get on the train than to have to drive an automobile. I think it has something to do with the fact that you don’t have to actually drive the train. They have people for that.

While the trains in Holland are, on the whole, pretty safe, every now and then you will see things that make you wish you had waited for the next train. The most disgusting thing I saw on the trains was a guy who picked up a crumpled Heineken beer can from the floor in an attempt to extract the last precious drops of alcohol that the previous owner missed. There were also the two women on the train late one night who were shooting up heroin. The really strange thing was that nobody else on the train seemed to care.

Whenever I hear the phrase “stick it where the sun don’t shine,” I always picture Holland in the winter months. Between the extreme northern latitude and constant cloud cover, the sun doesn’t make much of an appearance until the spring. Combine this with cold temperatures and a fairly constant drizzle of rain and you have a nation that doesn’t receive many tourists for half the year. The popular joke for the Dutch to say to foreigners goes something like, “Of course we have summer in Holland. Last year it was on a Thursday.”

One of the most difficult aspects of my trip involved the language barrier. While the majority of the natives speak English, you never know when you will come across someone who can’t speak your language. Of course there are times when body language is more than enough to communicate information. A lovely example of this phenomenon occurred after a rather odd series of events put me in a unique situation with a young woman at a local restaurant. Our nonverbal conversation, insofar as it can be expressed in words, went something like this:

Me: “I know that I am in the women’s bathroom in a busy McDonald’s restaurant. I’ll leave now”

Her: “I don’t know why you are in the women’s bathroom in this busy McDonald’s restaurant, but I’ll let you save whatever small amount of dignity you have left at this moment in time by not screaming or otherwise drawing attention to the situation. I hope the rest of your day goes better than this.”

Here is an interesting concept that is worth mentioning: in Europe, they play music videos on MTV. Sure, they play commercials and they have occasional news updates, but it’s mostly just videos. It seems like the producers of MTV in Europe realized that constantly broadcasting footage of a bunch of twenty-year-old college dropouts driving around the world in a Winnebago just isn’t very entertaining.

I generally don’t keep track of any kind of vital statistics about myself beyond the usual, “my heart is beating,” “I’m hungry,” and “I’m currently standing in the women’s bathroom in a busy McDonalds restaurant,” but the past six months have seen some rather significant changes in my lifestyle. Here are some of the more interesting numbers that I came up with.

Taco Bell franchises I found in Holland: 0
House plants I killed: 1
Different countries in Europe I visited: 6
Number of fruit stickers I put on the phone in the apartment for no particular reason: 10
Most consecutive days I was forced to wear long pants: 89
Most consecutive days I didn’t eat at an American franchise fast food establishment: 121
Days I didn’t see a “Saturn” brand automobile: 183
Days I preserved the natural ecological balance of the back yard of the company apartment: 183
(or, the number of times I mowed the lawn) 0

I can honestly say that I enjoyed these six months in Amsterdam. For someone who hasn’t spent much time outside of Colorado, I have come to realize that there is a whole different world out there where people aren’t very tan, don’t wear sandals, and don’t have much interest in who killed JonBenet Ramsey. Sure, they get the words “soccer” and “football” mixed up most of the time and have adopted darts as their new national pastime just because a Dutch guy won the world darts competition last year, but these are small problems that can be easily overlooked. To quote the most commonly spoken phrase on any American talk show, “Can’t we all just get along?”