Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pets vs. Kids

When you meet new people in the military community, there is a bucket of general questions people usually draw from to quickly find some common ground. One of the first few questions is inevitably: Do you have any kids?!

It’s understandable – most military families do. In fact, most military families have lots of them! Which is why people ask… and why they are stumped for further conversation when hubby and I say, “Nope!”

Sometimes this leads to more awkward questions such as, “Why not?” or “Do you plan to?” in an attempt find a relatable point of view. Most often, questions like this lead to some awkwardness and an eventual parting of ways. Occasionally you find those who successfully navigate the conversation, who I find are actually worth keeping around. And every so often, you get the people with Mommy/Daddy Brain who react as if you've just told them your hobbies are mountain biking, crocheting, and dicing up the homeless to sell as meat on the black market. 

(Mommy/Daddy Brain: A medical condition in which some parents completely forget how to relate to adults without children.)

After several awkward moments and many failed attempts at conversation, I adopted a new response.

This opened me up to a whole new world of people who treated their pets like their children. I even discovered that some people who I thought had children had actually been talking about their pets the whole time!!  

Young couples without children, older couples who had kids that had already left the nest, and others in between who had gotten sick of explaining their choice to not have children – many of them were using their pets as baby decoys! It was brilliant!! Most times if you had already bonded over a story with someone, they didn’t seem to care that your story was about a furry baby instead of a human one. The point was simply having something in common.

So when I started answering, “No, but I have a cat!” I found myself among several pet owners (both with and without human kiddos) who appeared thrilled to confess the love of their own little furry babies. And should the conversation ever skip the standard questions about kids and home life, you could often pick up context clues to determine whether someone was telling a story about a pet or child.

Some clues were more obvious than others, since most people don’t name their human children “Muffin” or “Killer”; but you can apply the general idea that if the name is one not often heard, a person may be talking about a pet (especially if the name ends in an "ee" sound). Also, kids aren’t normally described as ‘begging’ for treats or getting out of their ‘leash’. A more subtle clue, however, might be agelessness. Parents tend to make reference to their offspring's age, even if indirectly ("The joys of having a toddler..", "My 3 yr old..", "After her birthday.."); whereas pets will remain ageless and descriptor neutral ("My little one.."; no concrete descriptors such as son/daughter/toddler). 

Clearly it is a fine line, though, since pet owners and parents can often hold meaningful conversations about their children without disclosing if they’re of the fuzzy or human variety.

This pet/kid tactic came in very handy for me when I was volunteering at our last duty station. Interactions were often brief, spontaneous, and informal with service and Family members who visited the office. A quick point of common ground went a long way toward making someone feel welcome. But I found it was also a great way to break the ice with newer office mates! Often when someone new would show up, it would be kind of awkward until you found a point of shared interest. More often than not, this new tactic provided an immediate commonality!

Shortly after the holidays we got a new volunteer. This was an easier time of year to get to know someone because you could ask questions about their holiday experiences. Normally if kids or pets were a factor, they would get mentioned in this discussion anyway – avoiding the awkward scenario of asking. So when we met, I chose the safe route!

I have heard tons of stories about dogs reacting to new types of weather (especially snow) since military families have a tendency to move from one extreme climate to the next. It never gets old. Like children, every pup has it's own unique personality that adds something to the stories.

Anyway - Perfect! I thought. She’s a pet person, like me. We are going to work so well together!! 

Then I made one...

First-time Kid/Pet Conversation Rule: Never get too specific. In a world of paranoia and obsession, you never know when you may accidentally strike a nerve or open Pandora ’s Box. 

Questions that get into details too soon could put you on a parent’s watch list or open you to an earful on how someone dared to disqualify Mittens at last year’s cat show! Or, perhaps even worse, this could happen:

This realization was only made worse by the fact that she just happens to be Native American. For a few moments I found myself sweating bullets, trying to think of an explanation for what I'd said. Of all the things you could have asked, Alex, why that?! Could that be misconstrued as some kind of horrible racist comment?! OMG She must think I'm awful!!

Fortunately, she turned out to have a great sense of humor and we both burst into laughter over my mistake. A few weeks later I actually had the privilege of meeting little (very human) Bailey, who was absolutely adorable.

After that little incident, I decided not to play pet roulette anymore. I still tell people that I have a cat when they ask about children, but I don’t play guessing games when people talk about their own little loved ones. Four-legged or two, doesn’t matter to me. And I certainly don’t ask anything too specific…

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Toilet Trauma

So I realize I’ve talked a lot about our travels, which is an excellent benefit to being stationed where we are; but I’ve said very little about the rest of life with the military and marriage. Both of these things have the extreme potential to put you in the loony bin or drive you to murder if you take them too seriously. The trick, in my opinion, is humor. It’s the only way to survive – especially if you’re dealing with both of these afflictions (marriage and mustard gas). Sometimes you may have to really search for the humor in something, other times it just happens naturally.

Today, it was a natural occurrence for me.

I went in for a long overdue trim of the hair hesitant of every step. Since we moved here, my hair cutting experiences have always left me with a sore scalp. I often feel as though I'll have no hair left to cut by the time they finish brushing it. In the States, it can feel as though you’ve gone in for a head massage and makeover rather than to trim off some split ends. In Deutschland, it can feel like you've accidentally signed up for torture survival training!

Today, however, I was relieved to find someone who treated my scalp as if it were actually attached to a living thing. She spoke English, as well, so we got to chat a bit. Normally I’m quiet when I’m in the chair – a combination of my introverted tendencies and not wanting to distract the person holding sharp scissors close to my face. But with the pleasant surprise of comfort, I found myself fairly conversational.

The normal questions came up, of course – How long have you lived here? Do you plan to travel? Do you live nearby? So it wasn’t long before we discovered that we’re actually neighbors! She lives in the building across from mine, so we empathized over the things we like and dislike about stairwell living. (For those of you who have never lived in overseas military family housing, ‘stairwells’ is the common term for the apartment-like structures we often live in. A stairwell is exactly what it sounds like – an indoor flight of stairs. In this case, however, it also refers to the group of apartments that reside off that particular stairwell, and sometimes the families that live there. It might sound silly – but most of us are just glad it isn’t an acronym!) Our most emphatic sympathies came over the subject of all the noise in the stairwells: dogs, people talking, children, soccer games, doors slamming, etc.

To properly understand the noise issue, you have to understand our stairwells. First of all, you can hear just about everything that happens in the stairwell itself because of the echo created by the concrete walls that enclose it. When someone enters, assuming it’s a quiet afternoon, you can usually hear every step they take on the way to their apartment. Secondly, the closer they get to your front door, the louder their steps are.

The next thing you must understand is the layout of our particular apartments, most notably the proximity of the bathroom to the front door. Not all units are created equally, so I’ve drawn a diagram of our own unit:

The funny thing about the sound issue is that if you’re in the bathroom, you can’t hear it if someone is shouting to you from the doggie tap dancing arena (also known as the living room); but you can hear conversations being held in the stairwell crystal clear.

This, of course, opens you up to a myriad of concerns stemming from the main question: If I can hear them... can they hear me?

For most of us, the bathroom is a private place. When we go in and close the door, we like to imagine that all sounds are blocked to outside ears, all smells are contained, and pretty much that what happens in the bathroom… stays in the bathroom. We may know better, but that doesn't stop us from pretending. Even if someone hears something, smells something... whatever. It's family! 

But with this setup, who knows?! 

Could someone walking by hear that occasionally audible ‘plunk’ as you drop the kids off at the pool? Do your neighbors get to boogie to your morning shower tunes? Exactly how many listened last fall as you lost your fest food and sang your praises to the porcelain throne after that one last pint of ale?

For some this could be more embarrassing than others.

But the one fear that I thought I was alone on, until confiding in my oh-so-gentle hair tamer, was the one I get when I’m on the toilet and can hear someone coming up the stairs...

They’re coming for me!

…well. Not exactly for me, but it’s more the idea that they’re going to accidentally walk in my door thinking it’s their own.

This thought is equally adrenaline-inducing whether you pee with your door open or shut, we agreed. Why? Because many of us have the desire to use the facilities as soon as we get home, and it’s all the more convenient when the front door leads right to the bathroom door! There wouldn’t be enough scenery between the two to indicate to someone ‘wrong house!’ before things were seen that could not be unseen.

Even if someone came in and it wasn’t their first instinct to use the restroom, I think it would still be awkward knowing that some stranger was in your home while you were taking care of business.

Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking, ‘Don’t you lock your door?

Well the answer is yes! Yes, I do. But our locks are funny and outdated. They have three modes, dependent upon how far you turn your key:

        (1) Death Trap – the door is locked and you must use a key to get in or out of your own home.  
             (Very reassuring with how often our fire alarms go off, I must say.)
        (2) Hotel House – the door is locked to the outside. You can open it from the inside, no problem;
             but if it shuts behind you? You need the key to get back in.
        (3) Free for All! – the door can be opened from the inside or outside, no key necessary; it is
             simply unlocked.

That’s right. One click to the left too many and the community is free to roam your quarters! We don’t have a convenient little turny-knob on the inside that we can easily twist to lock the door after letting ourselves in. Others do, but for some reason our building does not. We have to use the key again. Now, after lugging up a few armfuls of groceries, you might well imagine how one might forget to re-lock the door.

When broaching this fear to my combed companion, I was hoping she wouldn’t think I was entirely crazy. I certainly never expected her to share this toilet trauma. So when she did, I think we both died laughing out of relief! Someone else shares my irrational fear! It was truly a bonding experience.

My husband thinks I’m crazy!’ she strained between bouts of giggles, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. But we knew better.

When I got home, I realized that I’d had a survival moment. Marriage can be stressful and infuriating at times. The military tends to make a habit out of pissing you off. Surviving the combination of these two things means you’re more rare than a millionaire but receive much less comfort and stability. It can be hard to laugh sometimes… but it’s so essential.

And sometimes, you just have to laugh about the things that literally scare the crap out of you!

(To those grammar-sensitive individuals out there, I fully realize that 'more rare' should probably be 'rarer'. It's driving me nuts, too! But it just doesn't have the same ring, does it?)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2012 Year in Review: Denver International Airtrap (Part V of V)

What I like to call the “Christmas creep” had begun even before we’d left for our final trip of 2012. You know what I’m talking about. Every year, the snowmen and Christmas trees and red bows start showing up earlier and earlier. By the time we’d returned, there wasn’t even any discount Halloween candy! It had all gone on sale and been cleared out before All Hallow’s Eve had even arrived. Now it was candy canes and hot chocolate and every manner of normal candy decked out in snowflakes, peppermint, and Santa Claus. I mean, Christmas was coming up soon, I guess…  right around the corner.  HOLY GEEZ IT’S TOMORROW!!!

Whew! Sorry. Got a little carried away there…

Truth is, I managed to escape most of the craziness that is the holiday season. Hubby and I had a nice quiet Thanksgiving to ourselves, then he boarded a plane to fly off for an 8-10 week school coded by a fancy acronym. This left me with the remaining holidays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, all to myself. To many, spending these holidays alone sounds like a nightmare – a tragedy akin to those told by the Greeks of old. But to an introvert like myself? It was more like someone just handed me a Piña Colada and a pair of sunglasses and told me my massage appointment was in half an hour.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have been with my family! Drowning in their love and hugs, stuffing myself with delicious food, and enjoying the luxury of delivery pizza would have been fantastic. However, if you’ve never experienced it, holiday travel is the worst!

A couple of years ago, my husband and I attempted to fly across the U.S. to visit his family for Christmas. We booked our flights with plenty of layover time, made sure to get to the airport with extra time to get through security… then waited for the almost three hours because our first flight was delayed. Fortunately, we made it to our next destination with a little under an hour to make it to the connecting gate. Plenty of time, right?!

That was day we found out just how huge Denver International Airport really is.
I think we each gained one level in parkour skill when we were still forever away from the gate and saw the Departures board start to flash ‘Boarding’ for our flight. Achievement unlocked: Master Baggage Dodger.

Panting and sweating, we arrived at the gate just in time! We approached the counter to retrieve our boarding passes. The woman there noted us in the system then told us to sit and wait until our name was called – we figured they were trying to keep things moving. Thankful for a chance to catch our breath, we watched while they called the first group to board. No worries, though – we thought – we had reservations. We weren’t stuck on standby. Then they called the next group to board. We weren’t concerned, though, because clearly they just wanted to get people on the plane before taking care of us stragglers. So they boarded everyone. Then the woman we’d spoken to called some names that weren’t ours and those people boarded. Then the doors to the boarding ramp closed.

Now we were worried.

The wench – because that’s all she was to me at this point – finally called our last name as if we weren’t the only people left sitting in that section of black faux leather, butt-numbing seating. She was sorry, of course, but the plane was full and we’d have to go see customer support to find a new flight. (Because you know, they just leave those lying around during the holidays.) But what about our reservations?! Oh, she said, you didn’t check in at least an hour in advance… so you lost your spot.

I tried to check in, though! I explained, trying to ignore the fact that the plane was backing out of the gate as I spoke. The mobile site was down, and then we were on a two hour flight and couldn’t have possibly checked in! (WiFi on planes wasn’t a thing, then, kids.) This woman was a skilled veteran of the airline industry, though. You could tell. Because when I told her this and explained our death-defying race between two gates that were miles apart, she looked up at me with those aged blue eyes…

…with an expression that said: zero shits given.

So we stood in line next to all the other infuriated passengers for an hour or two. We listened to everyone’s sob story about trying to get home to family and felt sorry for all the customer support people who basically had to tell them it was impossible. Then it was our turn. The guy could not get us to our original destination or returned to our point of origin until the 27th – the day we were scheduled to fly back across the U.S. anyway. Unable to afford a hotel, we were going to be stuck at the Denver International Airtrap for days.

Oh, wait! He might be able to get us to another city near our destination sooner… Oh, wait… nope. No. All of the flights were booked solid with a long list of stand-byers waiting in the wings. We felt crushed and defeated; but we didn’t cry or give him the same sob story we’d heard everyone else give. We did something even more helpful! We just stared at one another. Wordlessly. And after a few moments of palpable silence, the customer support gentleman piped up that we might try Alaska Airlines because they have a couple of flights going out that way soon…

And we were off! New terminal, new destination, new airline… no understanding as to why they’d help us, but we were willing to give it a chance! It was a good thing we did, too, because they got us there. We waited for another hour or so in their line amongst an entire plane of passengers who had only been told that they had a plane, but no crew to fly it. (Genius!) Fortunately, we were not all bound for the same destination. The woman who helped us got us on a flight within a matter of minutes. Then she marked her initials on a couple of unprinted boarding passes, told us to RUN and she would call ahead to the gate to tell them to hold the plane for us.

And they did!

Almost twenty hours after our journey had begun, we finally made it to the next closest airport to our destination… at 2am; which was really about 5am, for us. Talk about some jet lag…

Needless to say... given this previous experience, coupled with the price, I decided against the potential madhouse of trying to make it home for the holidays.

The time alone proved productive, as well! I’ve had the time to reflect upon the previous year, after all. And in doing this, I realized something very important: Part of being an adult – a happy adult – is to face the difficult parts of life, to learn the hard truths, to endure the insufferable moments… and to choose from the shit and the mud what you’re going to carry with you from it all.

My New Year’s resolution for 2012 was to be more positive – to find what little good there may be in a totally FUBAR situation. I wasn’t always great at it and some days I just straight up failed. But when it came to looking back on the year, I chose to write about the positive things – the awesome places I got to see, things I got to do, and the things I had rather than didn’t have. I could have written a lamentation on being alone on Christmas or done a five-part series detailing every argument hubby and I had last year; but is that how I would want to look back on my life?

My 2012 certainly did not go without heartache or tough times. But that is not how I’m choosing to remember it.

…even if it took me till mid-January to get around to it.

How will you choose to remember 2012?

Monday, January 7, 2013

2012 Year in Review: Top of the World (IV of V)

Unfortunately, summer had to end. Soon, gone were the days of sun and warmth, of green leaves and t-shirts, and picnics out on the lawn. In their stead arrived beautiful trees of red and gold, crisp air, and- …snow?! WTF. Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk!

Before telling you about that, though, I should admit that there was a tiny bit of chilly weather before the snow came. It was my absolute favorite time of the year: pumpkin everything season!! Many people refer to this as “Fall”, I’m told; or “Autumn”. But let’s be honest… the reason for the season is that tasty orange gourd that we’ve found OH so many uses for. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin burgers, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin bratwurst, pumpkin spaghetti, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin lasagna, pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin beer, pumpkin wine… but why stop with food?! You can also carve ‘em, chuck ‘em, float em, paint ‘em, make sculptures out of them… really, what can’t you do with pumpkins? So versatile! And, appropriately, celebrated.

Every year a nearby town hosts a pumpkin festival in the palace gardens. (You know, a palace that you can take tours of – not one that someone actually lives in anymore!) Every year there is a theme: last year it was dinosaurs, this year it was Switzerland. The theme determines what they make out of pumpkins. Last year - dinosaurs; this year - the Matterhorn, Three Musketeers, and a giant Swiss flag. They also have activities for all ages, but the best part (in my opinion) is the food and live music. I vlogged a little bit there, too; but here are some photos!

Pumpkin Cake; Pumpkin Soup w/ Pumpkin Maultaschen (ravioli); Pumpkin Streudel 
Carving GIANT Pumpkins!
Now, about the snow… It arrived only a few days before hubby and I were supposed to leave for our anniversary trip in late October. Normally when you see an early snow, you get something that lightly covers the ground and melts off by noon, or some wispy flurries throughout the day… but not this snow. We woke up to a few inches of thick, heavy snow and it was still coming down in big, fluffy flakes; snowman snow. It was unexpected, certainly, but beautiful! How wonderful, I thought, to actually get to see the mountains all covered in snow! Of course I did not think about there being travel implications... or having to drag a heavy suitcase through four inches of the stuff. 

I can only assume that this kind of weather was a surprise to the Germans this early in the season, too, because every single train we had arranged to take was either cancelled or delayed. What should have been a 4-ish hour journey down to the adorable little town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, nestled at the foot of the Alps in Bavaria, turned into more like… 7 or 8 hours of the Amazing ****ing Race. It took no less than four trains, two taxis, one bus, a nice German man who called the train people and shared the information with us unexpectedly, and a considerable amount of time running around and/or waiting in the cold. But we made it!

The city is actually two separate, but very smooshed together, towns: Garmisch and Partenkirchen. In fact, I hear they don’t get along very well (there’s still some dispute about whether it should’ve been Partenkirchen-Garmisch and such nonsense). However, they came together when Germany wanted to make the bid for the 1940 Winter Olympics. Neither town was big enough to host, but together they could pull it off! But how did they overcome their differences and hatred of one another, you ask? Well, it was either that or get thrown in Dachau. That Hitler! Such a charmer… But moving past that little tidbit, this place has lots to offer. For instance… the site of the 1940 Winter Olympics!

Portion of the Stadium
Ski Slopes - though the original from 1940 was made of wood
Our first excursion, however, was out to the nearby (and very famous) Neuschwanstein Castle! (Also known as “the Disney castle”, as it inspired Walt Disney for Sleeping Beauty’s castle and the movie Bambi.) I have wanted to go here since we moved to Germany. It is like the castle of all castles! Which is incredible considering it was never even finished – only about 14 rooms were completed. It was a little disappointing because the bridge where you can take fabulous, fabulous photos of the entire castle was closed (unless you were one of the crazy Russians who hopped the fence); but it was truly a winter wonderland!

As much of Neuschwanstein as I could get in one shot.
View from the castle.
Castle guards (obviously)
On the way there we also stopped by the Wieskirche – a Christian pilgrimage site that houses a small statue of Jesus that supposedly wept once. The church was amazingly beautiful and ornate. The statue was quite far away, though, so it was hard to see. (Thank goodness for the zoom feature!) A bonus was that there was a little café near the church that served hot drinks and was well-known for their fresh made donuts. Ironically, though, these “holy” donuts had no holes at all!

Another day we took a trip to the ancient and still active Ettal Monastery that still brews its own beer. They’re particularly fond of their dopplebock brew, which is almost the equivalent of a loaf of bread in a glass! In fact, they’re so fond of it that they once asked the Pope for permission to drink it during Lent. The Pope had them send some over for him to try, to determine if it was ok. Of course, it had to travel all the way to Rome and these were the days before refrigeration... So by the time it reached the Pope, he took one sip and decided that if anyone wanted to drink that nasty crap (might be paraphrasing a bit, here) then they were more than welcome to! “Ew, yuck, yuck!” I believe were his exact words. Well played, monks. Well played…

After the monastery, we walked over to the cheese farm that’s on the grounds for lunch. Monks are smart… because this place basically pays them in cheese to exist on their property. Beer and cheese? Happy monks! Clever monks.

And speaking of beer… hubby and I got our brewmeister certification later that evening!! Ok, it may not have been very authentic as we still have not actually brewed any beer of our own… but we took a tour of the Griesbrau brewery in Murnau, learned a lot (particularly about Bavarian purity laws), and passed a test! That counts, right? We also got to try “beer liquor” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – liquor made out of beer. Sounds gross, tastes delicious.

This guy was our tour guide. He. was. awesome. And hilarious. Every time he mentioned a tidbit of information that was going to be on our test, he would stamp his foot and point a finger in the air. By the time we’d finished a couple of beers, he would do this repeatedly until we all laughed. Hilarious.

The highlight of the trip, of course, was our anniversary. On this day, we decided to go to the highest point in all of Germany: the Zugspitze. Before I show you photos from this trek, though, let me just say… Whoever says “I feel like I’m on top of the world!” has clearly never actually been anywhere near the top of the world. Because we weren’t even close to the very top yet and it was COLD – like painfully cold. If Jack Frost and Old Man Winter could somehow have a threesome with the Ice Queen and all three of them produced a baby… colder than that baby! And windy, to boot. In short? People who use that phrase don’t realize the nipple-numbing experience it is to really be “on top of the world”; otherwise they probably wouldn’t use it.

In fairness though, before your fingers start to fall off… it truly is amazing. It is incredibly beautiful and awe-inspiring and just… well, I’m glad I took so many pictures! I’m also glad that there was a biergarten and little café serving warm drinks to thaw you out. Not only can I say that I’ve been to the highest peak in Germany, but I can also tout that I’ve eaten at the world’s highest beirgarten! (Much different from my first biergarten experience.)

Zugspitze from a distance.
The way to the top.
On top of the world.
World's Highest Biergarten.
The way down? *Gulp!*
One of our final adventures in the area was to Partnach Gorge. The day was sunny, almost warm even, and the snow was melting off. We decided to head to the gorge and make a “photo date” out of it. So we grabbed our cameras, threw on our hiking boots, and set out to see the natural wonder of the area. Only after we’d arrived did I wish we’d come once at the beginning of the trip – when it was cold and iced over – and returned at the end, so that we could see it in both states of its beauty. The going was definitely a bit wet, but well worth it!

At the end of the trek we’d worked up quite an appetite, so we stopped at the little restaurant that’s just at the entrance to the trail. The perfect end to a perfect day, and a wonderful vacation: a giant cup of delicious hot cocoa.

(Because if I ended it with our journey home, I might have to admit that buying a 6-pack of the Ettal Monastery’s brew was a poor decision. At least, that’s what my shoulders thought after 5 hours of having to haul it around… Ah, well!)

<< 2012 Year in Review, Part III                                               2012 Year in Review, Part V >>

Saturday, January 5, 2013

2012 Year in Review: GamesCom (III of V)

This next chapter of 2012 completely indulges my geeky/gamer side and my travel lust. August of 2012 took us to Koeln (or the Americanized version, Cologne), Germany for GamesCom!

GamesCom is the largest gaming convention in Europe and when I say “gaming”, I don’t mean Scrabble. It fills the majority of the Koeln convention center with game demos and displays, gaming equipment, gaming merchandise, schools featuring programs in game design and development, etc. In short, it is as much to do with the gaming universe as you can possibly imagine. It was intense!

My favorites from this year included Borderlands 2, StarCraft II, and FireFall. Unfortunately, I judged one game by its cover (and the length of its line, because sometimes size does matter) and missed out on Dishonored… which took the prize for Best Game that year and has received rave reviews since. Go figure. Aside from testing out new games, we got to preview a new Star Trek game that’s coming out in 3D, encountered several cosplayers (people in costume), and scored some free swag from the Razer stage!
Diablo III, Demon Hunter
It’s not my best work, but I also tried my hand at vlogging (video blogging [web logging]) for the first time! In case you’re interested:

Perhaps one of the best parts of our stay was our hotel. I would have to say that perhaps one of the key aspects – one of the make or break elements – of any vacation is the hotel. If you are pleasantly surprised or at least merely satisfied with your accommodations, it’s like getting an ‘A’ on your first test of the year. It gives you a solid, positive foundation for things. If you have a crappy hotel where there are bugs, or the water isn’t hot, or the bed is massively uncomfortable, etc., everything else in the trip has to be that much better to make up for it.

Our hotel was spectacular.

It wasn’t extravagant or particularly posh, but that staff was prepared. Extra, superbly multilingual, staff were on hand; all of them working together like parts of a well-oiled machine - and seemingly happy to be there! It was as if they all actually enjoyed, or at least didn't mind, their job. By our third day I began to wonder if management was slipping them little yellow pills full of happiness, because I thought surely one of them would have cracked by then. The hotel itself was also clean, well-situated, affordable, and comfortable. And had fabulous signage!

Above all, though, it was quiet. Several door handles were adorned with the provided “I’m at GamesCom!” hangers. There were children. People were up at all hours. The hotel was even on a busy street! But it was gloriously quiet. It was everything a convention-goer needed. Clearly, though – I’ve gotten off track.

After seeing as much as we possibly could at the convention, hubby and I headed out to explore the city. Now, I think it’s fair to say that Europe isn’t exactly known for its air-conditioning… and many will tell you that’s because it simply doesn’t get hot enough to warrant it. Superior engineering, a generally cooler climate, and the laid-back lifestyle of most Europeans mean that while it may get a bit uncomfortable at times, the summer heat is completely tolerable.  Except… NO! It was in the 80’s, pushing 90*F (that’s pretty much 30*C and above) almost every day we were there! (It rained one day, I think it may have dropped to a balmy 79*F.) If you were not in air conditioning come mid-afternoon, your shoes were quickly becoming your own personal little swimming pools. 

So we made one of our first exploratory stops in Koeln the Claudius Therme, a mineral bath. We discovered its enticing waters after stopping to have lunch there on our way to ride the gondola across the river (great view! Though beware those who are afraid of heights).

Lunch was nothing short of amazing – wonderfully fresh and delicious. The seat we took looked out over the mineral baths and the calming, cool-looking water simply called to us. We resolved to return... and were there the very next day, swim-suits in hand, and dripping with sweat because it was hotter than ever! Judging by the line, we weren’t the only ones who thought so either.

While the line did move fairly quickly, it felt excruciatingly slow. The people waiting in line to get in didn’t even look much different from those coming out! Only we were dripping with sweat and they had just showered. Once we finally made it, though… oh sweet heavens, it was worth every drop of sweat spent waiting. Anyone who’s not been to a thermal bath – you’re missing out! Go! Right now. Though be sure to check the dress code wherever you go – Europeans tend to be anything but shy about nudity.

The next morning we were up early to catch the train out to Bonn. It was highly recommended by a friend who used to live in the area, so we thought we’d head out and check out Beethoven’s old digs.

Some of you smart donkeys out there might be thinking “Didn’t Beethoven live in Austria?” and you would be correct. However, he was born in Bonn and lived there for quite some time. The house where he was born still stands and is now a museum. As a Beethoven fanboy, I found it vastly interesting and quite moving – hubby didn’t find it nearly as enjoyable. Ah, well. (Photos were not allowed indoors, just out front and from within the courtyard.)

Though Bonn has much to offer, our time was short. Back to Koeln! One of our first few days in the city, we had taken a trip downtown to kind of get the lay of the land and make note of some of the places we'd like to return to. We wandered around the beautiful downtown area for some time and explored the enormous and absolutely gorgeous gothic cathedral. 

After our trip to Bonn, we returned here and made our way to the German-Roman Museum, the oldest parfumerie in the world, and (my personal favorite) the Lindt Chocolate Factory!! Lindt is certainly not my favorite chocolate in the world, but no chocoholic (might I just note that spell check has no problem with this word - I didn't realize it was a real term) would turn down a chance to tour a real live chocolate factory! So that's exactly what we did.

You're welcome.

Oh, and they had a cafe...

While I wasn’t a huge fan of the local beer (clearly a deciding factor on whether or not I should return to a place), I would have to say that Koeln has been one of my favorite destinations in Germany so far. I certainly look forward to going back for GamesCom 2013!

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