Two Scoops of Slovakia & Czechia, with a Viennese Cherry on Top

Last year Tim went to the International Meteor Conference (IMC) in Serbia by himself. This is unusual. He has been traveling with his family–me and the kids–since before the kids were kids, while the kids were becoming kids, and now that the kids are kids. We applied for Global Entry for the girls and realized they had 18 countries on their passports at ages four and five. Anyway, Tim is part of a meteor tracking project that involves everyone from amateur astronomers to scientists at SETI & NASA. These folks are spread out all over the world and the IMC gives them a chance to meet face to face and do nerdy stuff together. This year, to make up for previously going alone, Tim brought all of us, including his mom, Barbara, to the IMC in Slovakia.

We flew from San Francisco to Prague and spent the night at a hotel before driving south to Slovakia. Can I just say, without any originality on my part, that Prague is a beautiful city? It was cool to be there even for a few hours.

We crossed the Czech/Slovakia border with no fanfare at all thanks to the Schengen Agreement, which basically makes for open borders between 26 European states.

Southwestern Slovakia

The IMC was held at an equestrian event center, Rozalka, in the small town of Pezinok, Slovakia. Tim stayed at the conference while Barbara, the girls and I stayed at a penzion in town.

Penzions are like a cross between a hotel and a bed & breakfast. In this case, there was a receptionist and an area with dining tables, a couch, and a television. Our rooms had simple furnishing, a television, a bathroom, and spotty WiFi. We ate breakfast, European style*, in the reception area. *Coffee and tea, an assortment of sliced cheeses & deli meats, breads, sliced cucumber, tomato, and bell pepper, yogurts, granola, and eggs & sausages.

The weather in Pezinok was warm and humid. There were thunderstorms, which I love, and hot, sweaty nights, which made it hard to sleep, so I don’t love them. Intrepid travelers that we are, we quickly located the important things in Pezinok: an ice cream shop, the beer store and the playground.

It’s never too wet for ice cream.

The girls got to ride a horse named Duck at the equestrian center.

The Rozalka Stables were cleaner than my house.
Duck. Thrilled to be ridden by a four year old.
We couldn’t figure out how to tell the horse lady in Slovakian that Vanessa wanted to try controlling Duck herself.

I met Tim’s Czech friend, Vlastimil, whom he had roomed with the year before. Vlastimil recently earned his PhD in Astronomy and takes beautiful photographs. We made plans to meet up in Czechia with him in a few days.

On the second to last day of the conference, we joined Tim’s fellow scientists for an excursion to a nearby 13th century castle, Červený Kameň Castle, nestled in the Little Carpathian Mountains.

Don’t get any ideas, Tim.
The cellars of Červený Kameň Castle were atypically tall and airy.

A storm blew in and forced a cancellation of a local observatory tour. It rained so hard it was nearly impossible to see the road driving back to Pezinok. Dinner, more strudel than anyone could eat, and traditional Slovakian music and dance were a fun way to cap off that part of our trip.

It wasn’t all without tears, though. (In fact, with two girls, there are tears all the time.) Take, for example, the Pezinok Ball Pit Disaster of 2018. For lunch on our way out of town, we ate at a restaurant across the street from the penzion. Our kids had been told not to bring their new favorite dolls into the restaurant’s play area. So, of course, they brought their dolls into a ball pit and promptly lost them in a mass of plastic balls three feet deep. Both Vanessa and Zara tried to find them but couldn’t. The pit was stifling hot and designed for only small bodies to get in past the toy house and netting. Tim took pity on their tearful faces (and loud sobs) and somehow managed to a.) get his six foot frame into the pit and b.) find the dolls. But alas, this didn’t happen without him first accidentally tearing away a couple of his fingernails on a hidden snag. I gave him a “Daddy of the Day” award and two bandaids. The girls gave him big hugs.

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Vanessa in the ball pit after failing to find the beloved dolls. All hope is lost.

Bratislava, Slovakia

Dolls in hand, we piled into the rental car (which for unknown reasons smelled like a Portapotty) and drove to Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. We visited the old town and Slavin, a war memorial & cemetery for the over 6000 Russian soldiers who lost their lives freeing Bratislava from the Nazis in 1945. While we were there, a famous Slovakian pop star, Jožo Ráž, was being filmed by a TV crew. Locals were quite excited about it but we were like, “Who?”

Jožo Ráž on the steps in black, while Tim plays it cool and pretends he’s not looking.

Some of the graves had photographs of the Russian soldiers.

We wore Barbara out walking around Old Town Bratislava, which was to our advantage later when she wanted to stay at the hotel. She watched the girls and we got to be grownups for a couple of hours, having dinner at a restaurant we went to years ago on our first trip to Bratislava, and stumbling upon a cool night life spot.

Can you spot the tourist?

On our way back to Czechia, we stopped at Biofarm Nature Stupava, a place we have visited before. It has animals, a playground and a restaurant featuring simple, homemade food.

It’s a hard life.

Czech Republic, Southern Moravia

After lunch we made our way to Southern Moravia, in the Czech Republic, to the city of Brno. It is this area that Vlastimil is from.

Brno is a lovely looking city, with tall colorful buildings and amazing churches. We climbed lots of steps up to see the views and ring a bell, and lots of steps down to see some bones; we found a farmer’s market full of terrific produce (including a selection of super hot peppers, notable since nothing seems to be spicy in this part of the world) and ate some delicious traditional food–think goulash, dumplings, cabbage.

A farmer’s market in Brno.
View of Brno from the Old Town Hall Tower
The Dragon of Brno
Peter and Paul Cathedral from Capuchin Monastery
Capuchin Crypt. After seeing this place, Zara kept telling me she doesn’t want to die.

One of two bells in St. James Church, Brno, Czech Republic.

Vlastimil and his delicate, perfectly behaved rescue dog, Dessa, met us at an archeology museum, Archeopark Museum, built into a hill overlooking three lakes in village of Pavlov. It has a replica of the famous Venus of Dolní Věstonice figurine and is highly worth visiting. Then we went for lunch at Cafe Fara in Klentnice and took a hike to some castle ruins known as Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle. Barbara and the girls stayed at the restaurant while we hiked up the hill. It was so much fun to get away from it all and be able to see for miles.

View of Sirotčí hrádek from the town of Klentnice.
Vlastimil and Tim.

Sirotčí hrádek, the Orphan Castle

Our day of castles wasn’t done. The Czech Republic has the highest density of castles in the world, claiming over 2000 of them. Vlastimil took us on a drive through the Southern Moravian countryside, stopping at a few more castles and Lichtenstein buildings. This area is called the LedniceValtice Cultural Landscape, a World Heritage Site. We saw the Lednice Castle, the Temple of Three Graces, and the Valtice Castle. The whole time our girls focused exclusively on Dessa, castles be damned.

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Dessa was a highlight for our girls.
Family photo + borrowed dog in front of Zamek Lednice. Vanessa hurt herself & wasn’t up for a photo.
Tři Grácie, the Temple of Three Graces, used to be a spot for Lichtenstein hunters to gather for post-hunt feasts. Now it’s a spot for Dvě Graces.
Valtice Castle.
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See? It’s all about the dog.
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The greenhouse at Lednice Castle was filled with tropical plants.

Eventually we ended up in his home town, Břeclav, at a cool beer place–did I mention Czechia is the beer drinking capital of the world?–where we got to meet Vlastimil’s smart, funny girlfriend, Paulina, and the kids got to jump on a trampoline and play cards with us adults.

Visiting a science center in Brno. I thought I had a little more time before she starts driving!

Across the street from our hotel was a ropes course called Jungle Park. Of course we had to take the girls. It proved to be quite exciting.

Vanessa was a natural until she fell.
Go, Zara, go!

Just a couple of years ago they could barely walk.

The actual rope course was across the river from the place you get your equipment from. To get there, you zip line across (or in my case, carefully wade across). Both kids had fun doing the zip lining.

On the ropes course, Zara was impressing us with her bravery until she got to a section that was intimidating to her. She started crying and refused to continue to the next section. While we were focused on her, Vanessa went ahead. All of a sudden we heard Vanessa crying and yelling for help. She had climbed into a chair that was supposed to be untied by an adult before it zipped along a rope. Her body had slipped out of the chair. She had a harness on but it was tangled and her head was caught. She dangled above us, scared out of her mind. We talked her down, literally, and she was able to slip her head out of the chair and lower herself close enough to us that we caught her. Vanessa loves the monkey bars and has built up some awe-inspiring upper body strength which served her well in this situation.

All this happened without a park attendant noticing or helping (different than the US). I had mistakenly assumed an attendant was always at the zip chair spot. Vanessa had a nasty rope burn on her inner arm but was otherwise unhurt. After a break, she did the course again, including that scary zip chair.

Zara, meanwhile, already hesitant to continue, watched the whole thing from a tree platform. She ended up needing a ladder to get down. Watching her sister scream in terror and fall didn’t help her morale. She rallied, too, though, and boldly zip lined back across the river.

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We said goodbye to Brno and headed to Vienna, Austria, where we’d spend a day before flying home. On the way, we returned to Valtice Castle to see their Baroque Theater. The original was damaged in the 1940s and 1950s due to the war and communist sensibilities but they recently rebuilt it–it opened in September 2015– and since it is new, we were able to play with the sound effect equipment. Super fun! We made the sounds of thunder, rain and wind. We also got to see underneath the stage, with all the trap doors, ropes and pulleys to raise up the actors and move set pieces. It was complicated and brilliant. Barbara and I both agreed it would be marvelous to see a production there.

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The Baroque Theater at Valtice Castle.
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Zara making wind. No, not that kind of wind. Theatrical wind.

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After the theater tour, Tim and Barbara went to a “wine library” in the castle while Vanessa, Zara, and I played in the grass and daydreamed, finding shapes in the puffy white clouds. An added bonus was an Old English Sheepdog dog show being held on the castle grounds. One of those dogs is a thrill to see, imagine a dozen!

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Castles, clouds, and sheepdogs.

Along the road, we encountered an unexpected and delightful sight.

Vienna, Austria

Brno and Vienna are only about 1 1/2 hrs by car. We dropped Barbara and the girls off at the Intercontinental Hotel in Vienna and drove the rental car back to the Brno Airport. Goodbye Portapotty smell! We took a taxi to the Brno train station, and caught a train back to Vienna with only two minutes to spare. Tim is a master traveler.

Night train to Vienna.

The last day of our trip was spent at Prater, a landmark amusement park situated in the heart of Vienna. We took the subway, went on some rides including the Grottenbahn, a fun little fairy tale ride that gives children prizes at the end (our girls chose vampire teeth over water guns and cheap jewelry), a water ride, and the giant Ferris wheel, Wiener Riesenrad, and the Liliputbahn train that goes around the park.

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Notice who didn’t go on this ride. Me.
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All these beautiful trees right in the middle of Vienna.
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View of Vienna from the Ferris wheel.
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Time to go home…

We finished off the day with dinner at 1516, a beer place Tim and I discovered years ago when we first went to Vienna. Then we went back to our beautiful room at the Intercontinental to pack for the long trip home.

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The Beck’s 2018 Summer Adventure: Slovakia and Hungary, Week One

We did it again. We gathered up strollers, suitcases, booster seats, our passports, and, oh wait, yes, our kids and flew to Vienna. The kids were great on the plane. After traveling with babies and toddlers, I am grateful for their flashes of reasonable-ness, their ability to watch in-flight entertainment, and *not* sit on my lap the whole time.

From Vienna, we took an hour train ride to Bratislava, Slovakia, where we planned to spend a couple of days getting over the acute phase of jet lag. Experience has taught us that an affordable, urban place is best for this purpose. You can always find late night food in a city and no one blinks an eye at sleeping in.

This wasn’t our first time in Bratislava. This is an advantage since we know the pivo place next to our hotel has good, traditional food and is kid-tolerant. We know, too, that the zoo is worth returning to.

Once acclimated to Central European time, we bought snacks, sticker books, and beer and boarded a train for Budapest, Hungary.

The train was so crowded that, at first, Tim was stuck in another car with our luggage. A fellow passenger told me there was a kid section on the train so the girls and I struggled along looking for it. Every compartment we passed was stuffed with people. The walkways were nearly impossible to get through.

Eventually, we ended up in an area intended for bikes and wheelchairs. Vanessa and Zara gamely plopped on the floor while I anxiously hoped Tim, who had all the tickets, would find us before the ticket master. Miraculously, he did, and not only that, he managed to talk the ticket master into kicking out the college age guys taking up seats in a kid compartment. I spent the rest of that trip extra grateful for the seats we had.

Tim booked us a lovely room at the Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the Danube River. Sitting on the bed, you could look up and see this view.

For dinner, we went to a nearby restaurant along river and had goulash two ways. Goulash is so good even Vanessa likes it.

Budapest is a beautiful, friendly city. We were there during an air race, which added an additional thrill to our visit. It also added a lot of extra noise and walking but if I could choose again, I’d take the airshow.

The small planes would speed by, roaring past exquisite historical buildings lining the Danube, doing loops, banking through large cones and ending in an exhuberant release, disappearing off into the sky. Loud speakers announced times and penalties (too much G, not enough smoke).

On our first full day in Budapest, we walked to Margaret Island, Margitsziget,
formerly royal hunting grounds and now a large park with gardens, musical fountains, an aqua park, a petting zoo, bike rentals and more.

You could use the toilets for a fee. A modest fee, I’ll admit, but it poses a problem when your four year old only lets you know she has to go after it becomes an emergency and you have no foreign money on you. The cost also adds up when someone has a pea-sized bladder.

One of the things we anticipated visiting in Budapest was the baths/pools. It’s a thing here. The aqua park was relatively empty, probably because it wasn’t a hot day. The girls had a blast–they don’t care if they’re starting to turn blue from the cold. Personally, I wasn’t quite as eager.

Eventually, we found the warmer pools, which were great until the time came to get out of the water. Then it was all that jittery “I’m cold, I’m hungry!” type of talk.

Budapest Castle was almost directly across the river from our hotel but the nearest bridge was closed during the day for the air race. This was a bummer since we’re pushing two kids in strollers and I have a bad right ankle. Tim looked up how we could take public transit to the castle but it would take a long time and it was such a beautiful day, I wanted to walk anyway.

It was quite fun to walk the long way around, we enjoyed the racing planes, the gorgeous clouds, and the other people around us. At one point we stopped for a beer. Later we stopped for coffee and cake.

Tim and Vanessa wanted to explore the labyrinth under the castle. He’d read that there were kid tours at a certain time and we ended racing up the seemingly never ending steps, strollers in hand, trying to make it on time. Tim is a vigorous walker and I find myself often–ok always–falling behind.

Luckily both girls were willing to do the stairs themselves because I, for one, had enough trouble hauling myself and the stroller up the hill and it would have been so much harder to carry a 40 pound kid. I almost felt like Cinderella for a minute as I looked around between breaths.

Unfortunately, we never did find the kid tour for the labyrinth but we had a blast exploring it on our own. Some sections were completely dark, some had low lighting and “fog,” and all of it had creepy music. We read about how Dracula had been inprisoned there and it had been a shelter during the second World War.

Vanessa got a little unnerved at certain points but overall the girls were impressively brave. I overheard two teenage girls using them as examples of why they should be able to handle the dark. “See, that four year old isn’t scared…”

After all that walking, I loved taking the funicular down the hill from the castle.

We finished the day at a beer festival on top of a mall–guess who’s idea? There was casual food, lots of beer, of course, and a playground for the kids. The World Cup has been going on and Europeans are watching it everywhere we go. It adds a fun element to the trip and I get to sit down!

Next up: Taking an eight hour train ride to Belgrade, Serbia. Will we have seats this time? How long do we have to wait for passport control at the border? Did we bring enough snacks? Will someone in our group have a meltdown? Check back to find out.

Ljubljana Summer 2017

Between Soča and Ljubljana, in a wide valley called Vipava, there is a little town called Ajdovščina. If you go through the center of town and keep driving toward the hills, you will find our friends Anita and Matej busy running one of Slovenia's newest and most exciting craft breweries, Pelicon. We have been visiting them since their brewery was in its infancy. To get their beer, you had to go to Ajdovščina. Now it's available in multiple places in Slovenia and they have gained international recognition for their beer.
We stopped by to say hi on our way to Ljubljana and to check out their new taproom.
The temperature was picking up and a heat wave was predicted for Ljubljana. Everyone was starting to wilt but some cold drinks in the taproom perked us up. One of their beers is called Out of China, a play on the pronunciation of Ajdovščina. We returned to out favorite little hotel in the old town of Ljubljana. I arranged for them to do our laundry, as I do whenever I stay at Hotel Allegro. I follow Rick Steve's packing advice, packing one week's worth of clothes no matter how long the trip is. Traveling becomes a bummer pretty quickly with too much stuff. But a suitcase full of dirty clothes is also a bummer!

Then we headed out in the evening heat to see the city. Ljubljana is always vibrant and active but this was the most people I've ever seen. It was hopping, with new restaurants and souvenir shops, and gorgeous Europeans with their dark tans and beautiful clothes.
Barbara and I started shopping within a few minutes of being outside. I've learned that if I see something I like, it's best to get it right away as you never know if you'll have a chance to go back.

We got some sladoled (ice cream) at a shop our friend Iva turned us on to on our last visit to the city. (Iva does food walks and is simply tons of fun as a person. When she swears in English, which she does frequently, I always giggle. It sounds so innocent when she does it.)

The sladoled place, Vigo, has a large selection of innovative flavors. This time they had lemongrass, coconut and passion fruit, and mango sorbet, among others.

We watched street performers and took in the gorgeousness of the hot summer night in Ljubljana.
Pretty soon Tim received word that Anita and Matej had decided to come to Ljubljana for dinner and meet us for drinks after. Barbara watched the girls while we went out for beer.

Anita and Matej had just been to the Ukraine for a wedding and we enjoyed hearing about it. Based on what they told us, I'm pretty sure Ukraine won't be at the top of our travel list anytime soon. At one point the hotel they stayed at, touted as having four stars, didn't have any running water.

I especially enjoyed my shower at Hotel Allegro that night. It was so hot I kept the water cold.

The next day we decided to finally visit a popular and highly advertised tourist spot in Slovenia: the Postojna cave, home of the "human fish," amphibian-like creatures that historically were thought to be baby dragons. Thus the reason for our visit. Vanessa is a huge dragon fan.

The day highlighted Barbara's trouble with walking. She has trouble with her knees. There was the walk from the parking lot to the cave, half of it uphill with lots of steps. The train into the cave made me think we might be home free but then the guide told us it's "only a one kilometer walk" as he kicked us off the train deep in the cave.

The cave was huge, deliciously cool, and full of stalagmites and stalactites.Our guide said we must stick together. The one kilometer walk involved significant inclines and Barbara's biggest trouble is with walking downhill. Pretty soon our large group disappeared ahead of us as we stayed back to wait for Barbara. Even the little old lady with a cane walked easier than her. In fact, everybody walked better than her.

It's difficult for me, as a nurse whose job it is to assess people, to watch her struggle, sense her embarrassment about it and listen to her try to rationalize it. "Oh, downhill is really just psychological for me," she said. No, it is hugely physical, I can see that as she walks.

Barbara will grab a stroller pretending she'll help by pushing it when in fact she relies on it like a walker. She insists she doesn't need knee replacements, claims her doctor even told her that, won't consider getting a disabled placard for her car, and yet she is so limited by her mobility. I'm confident that any decent orthopedist or even a regular GP would quickly realize she is not fine when it comes to walking.
Anyway, the cave was neat and the "baby dragons" were worth seeing.
We returned to the Ljubljana Zoo to see our favorite elephant, Ganga. She's about 43 and is the only elephant there. She seems sad, a bit, but well cared for. And we can feed her, which is simply amazing.
After the zoo, we ate across from our hotel at a new restaurant.
The square just down from our hotel had a small stage set up, so Barbara grabbed an outdoor table nearby. Boy, were we glad she did!

A salsa band played upbeat music and quickly the square filled with people ready to dance. While waiting for the music to start, the air was still and muggy. If you paid attention, you could see heat lightning in the sky above the castle overlooking us.

As the music started, the wind began to pick up and the lightening intensified. My instinct told me it was going to rain–it was so hot that rain was the only reasonable conclusion. I got the girls back to the hotel even though the party had only just reached full swing. The rain started while they laid in bed.

Our last day in Ljubljana we lunched with Iva. She was in the middle of the both exciting and not so exciting process of buying an apartment with her boyfriend, Rok. She told us about needing to expand her food walk business simply because the demand is so high and there is only one of her.

Between Iva and Anita and Matej, it is easy to grasp the youthful vitality of Slovenia. There is a sense that Slovenia is their oyster, it is their country. All three of them seem determined to bring new ideas and ways of doing things to a place studded with history and tradition. These friends we have made are a big part of why we love Slovenia.

Slovenia

I survived the car ride from Pula to Soca in the Julian (Slovenian) Alps. Even though Tim got a bigger car, it doesn't mean more sitting space for me.
We left the dry, scrubby landscape of coastal Croatia and climbed up a winding road that follows the river into the mountains. The environment became lush and green, the farmsteads tidy as a pin, fields of corn growing in neat rows, the occasional Slovenian beehive set back against a row of trees. Billowy clouds floated above increasingly tall mountain tops. The river we followed, the Soca, is brilliant blue-green. Calcium carbonate from limestone settles on the bottom of the riverbed, reflecting light like a swimming pool.
This area of Slovenia is a popular tourist destination, drawing outdoor enthusiasts for kayaking, mountain climbing, skydiving, biking, hiking and camping.
Pristava Lepena, the place we were staying, was still serving dinner outside next to a camp fire. They had the grill going and other hotel guests had that relaxed, chatty vibe of families away from all the day-to-day hassles of life. We heard English, French and German around the dining tables.
There was a rumor that some other visitors were from the US but we never encountered them.
A kid herd quickly formed, as it was only adult dark, not kid dark. Even though most of the children were older than Vanessa, I noticed her standing in their midsts, talking confidently. Soon, they were doing her bidding.
Zara sat off to the side, seemingly silent. Later, though, she was being carried on the backs of the bigger girls, which is perfect because she doesn't like to walk much.
After dinner we settled in the cute little cabins they have for guests. The cabins are rustic but equipped with all the basics. I love their steep roofs and alpine feel.
The next couple of days included lots of feeding of the goats. This served as a great social gathering spot for the kids.There was a French speaking boy, Keagan, from Switzerland, who didn't speak any English. Vanessa quickly befriended him, as she speaks French. You could see the pleasure in his face having a friend with whom he could talk to. They fed goats, swam in the pool, and hunted for bugs.
We had our dinners at the hotel restaurant. Meals were set outside and featured traditional Slovenian food. There are two cats that beg for food, despite the large sign that instructs diners to NOT feed them. But, but! Another distraction, at least for our kids, were the other kids encouraging them to skip their meal and go play.

The girls got to ride Pika a few times and I had a perfect ride on Linda the Lipizzaner down along the blue Soca River with Anina, from Finland.
Vanessa and Zara thrive outdoors. They found many delights like beetles, snails and even a little scorpion. I love watching them play and explore.
Oh Slovenia! You are such a lovely country, neat, unpretentious, astoundingly beautiful, friendly, delicious, and vibrant. If, for some reason, events conspired to require me to live in this country, I wouldn't mind at all.Next up: Ljubljana, Slovenia's sweet little capital city.

Croatia

Doberdan! We arrived in Pula, Croatia at sunset. Seeing the land and sea as we landed reminded me why this place is so popular. The water is bright blue, islands and inlets everywhere you look, the red tile roofs, dark green scrubby trees adding extra color to the already lovely scene.
Remember that guy who wouldn't let the man in front of him recline his seat to sleep on the international flight? I thought of him as I struggled into my seat on the plane. The person in front of me had already put his seat back (and we had early boarding!). He did put it upright once after a flight attendant made him before taking off, but as soon as she moved on, he put it right back. People.

There was heat lightening off in the south as we found our rental car. It was immediately obvious to me the car was too small, so Tim went back to see if he could get another car. He had booked the car last February, during the slow season, and now it was peak tourist season so he was doubtful about the options.

I managed to cram our three suitcases in the postage-sized trunk, which was good because they had nothing left. It was pure clown car as Tim tried to shut the back door. Vanessa and Zara in their car seats, their legs raised up on backpacks, above them car seat bags stuffed into the grooves, me with two strollers in the not even full space next to them, my thigh cutting into a car seat, the strollers pulling flesh from my knees. The car door took more than one attempt to close.

This would be ok driving the ten minutes to our hotel but we planned on having this car for the next two weeks. A three and a half hour trip into the Slovenian Alps. I get car sick and have a blood clot in my leg! I tried to think of the crowded buses of Mexico or India. It's not so bad, really.

We spent a couple of lazy days in the beach town Tim likes to take us to. We went to the beach, obviously, furiously trying to catch up on the sun tans everyone else has, and whose lack marks us as the new arrivals that we are. I never see sunscreen being applied at this beach and even hats are rare. I do see plenty of sun oil and cigarettes.

Vanessa is obsessed with her new swim mask. Personally I don't like to be reminded of the sea life in the water. It gives me the heebie jeebies, I can't help but immediately think of sharks. Barbara sat at the beach bar, no swimming for her. I guess the people watching was satisfying enough.

Tim was trying to decide between two different places to stay. He ended up canceling a reservation for a place that had two flights of stairs, on account of Barbara's knees. The joke was on us when we realized the hotel he opted for had four flights of stairs to our suite at the top of the building. (The good news? It was a beautiful hotel and both kids managed the stairs on their own. We've come a long way since last year in that regard.)

On our second night, Tim and I went back to the Pula amphitheater to see Sting in concert. The amphitheater is strikingly beautiful, especially at sunset. And there is something special about being in a place that has been a venue for human entertainment for two thousand years.

Sting was great, he sang plenty of Police songs and didn't spend much time talking. His adult son is in the band and he had a terrific voice.

The crowd was similar to most of Croatia–white and well dressed. When I commented to Tim about how white it was, he reminded me that it wasn't that long ago when this country was at war trying to rid itself of white people that were just a little bit different. Oh yeah, good point. Even the hotel housekeepers are blond.

We had some good Istrian food. Truffles, white wine, blitva. Tim had seafood.
On our last day at the beach, we rented a pedal boat for an hour and took the girls out on the bay.

I was reminded that we weren't in the US when we had to ask for life vests for the kids. If there's nothing else I've learned as an ER nurse, it is to put life vests on people who don't know how to swim.

Things were going great until Zar poked Vanessa with the whistle on her life jacket and Vanessa retaliated by pinching Zara's forearm. Then, just as Zara stopped crying from the pinching, she got stung by a bee under her arm. It was traumatic for her and she told me between sobs that she "needs to go to the doctor." Some TLC and an ice cream helped her feel better.
Tim did his best to remedy the car situation. He went back to the rental place and returned with a normal sized sedan. It will still be uncomfortable for me squeezed in the back but at least the strollers won't be in my face.Next stop: the Slovenian Alps. I love the place we are going so much I could spend all summer there!

This is not the last of Croatia for us. We'll be returning for the last week of our trip.

England, Part II

On our last day with Felicity, we went to a pub that a work friend, Becky B., told me about. She knows an American guy who has lived in England for over 30 years. He owns a pub called the Dog and the Hedgehog. By name alone, I was ready to visit! As luck would have it, the D&H wasn't too far from Birmingham.

We had a great Sunday roast at the Dog and Hedgehog and once again, played on the lawn with the girls.


I tried to talk to the owner, Bill, but he wasn't there at the time. Then it was a bittersweet goodbye to Felicity. Becky was going to join us in London for a couple of days.

On our way to London, Zara had to use the potty for the 100th time (what was that big rush for potty training anyway?). We stopped at a rest stop that had a mini mall, a hotel, and a petrol station. England really isn't that big for these sorts of places!

We spotted a hedgehog on our way out. Naturally, we had to stop and see him up close; he delighted everyone.

London was short and sweet. We went to the Natural History Museum to see their exhibit on whales. There was a section of whale aorta on display that was about ten inches diameter!

They had an excellent dinosaur exhibit, too. Vanessa is taking after her Aunt Felicity, who once gave a long and detailed lecture about dinosaurs to her fellow kindergarteners. Sometimes she made innocent mistakes, saying a large dinosaur weighed 60 pounds when she meant tons for example, but overall flooring everyone with her knowledge of dinosaurs and her ability to orate at age five. Similarly, Vanessa will point out a dimetrodon and then tell you it's not actually a dinosaur.

Next Tim took Vanessa to the Pink Floyd exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum while Becky and I took Zara to Hyde Park. As if we hadn't done enough for the day, after the museums we popped down on the double decker bus to see the Big Ben tower.

It was hard to say goodbye to Becky. She spoiled us with all the help taking care of the girls. It's hard to have both sisters live so far away.

At Heathrow we quickly found our next travel buddy, Tim's mom Barbara, waiting in a lounge. Together we boarded a plane for sunny Croatia!

England

Birmingham

Our trip from Los Angeles to my sister, Felicity's, house in Birmingham was generally uneventful, just the way I like it.

All the traveling we do has turned our girls into mini Rick Steves. They have their moments, of course, but I'd argue they travel better than most adults.

There is one thing that happened on our flight worth mentioning. It is an example of self-centered rudeness in its purest form. What is it about air travel that brings out the worst in people? Or the best, depending on how you look at it. During that dark, quiet time when people are supposed to be sleeping, a man next to me refused to let the man in front of him put his seat back. He claimed that if the seat was back, he wouldn't have enough room.

This very same man had his own seat back. Of course.

The poor man in front sounded truly puzzled. "I don't understand how the rest of the plane has their seats back but you don't have enough room. You're smaller than me."

This guy in the front seat maintained his dignity throughout the encounter, which got a little tense. Other passengers started chiming in, standing up for the guy in front. "Who asked you?" growled Rude Guy, who was cementing his assholeness with each passing second. Then Rude Guy's wife, snarkily suggested the guy in front switch seats with his own kids. Surprisingly (to me, anyway, because Rude Guy was being so rude), the guy in front thanked the woman for her suggestion and proceeded to rearrange the seating with his sleepy looking children. I guess Rude Guy is "special." (But not special enough for First Class.)

After landing, Vanessa complained her ear hurt. Uh oh. I hoped she just needed to adjust to the pressure change but worried that it was an ear infection. She hasn't had ear problems from flying in the past.

Driving to Birmingham, I had to fight to keep my eyes open. So. Hard. Concentrate on the funny little lorries, the tail-gating speeders in their Opels, look at those fluffy sheep…mmm, sheep, sheep makes me sleepy. Who could possibly be in a hurry in quaint little England? Is it tea time? If I was that tired, Tim must be, too. Since he was driving, I had to stay awake in solidarity. He was driving on the wrong side of the road like a champ but still. It wouldn't help to have me sawing logs next to him. The girls have no such hesitations, they slept the whole way.

My sister Becky answered the door once we got to Birmingham. She's staying with Felicity and James for the summer. We played on the lawn until Felicity and James got home from work (playing was our rested kids' idea, if it were up to me, I'd have taken a nap). And then we played some more.

This was our third visit to Birmingham and probably our last. Felicity and James are moving for work at the end of the summer and Becky will be in Cambridge at her new nursing job.

Vanessa's ear was still hurting. She was crying from the pain and her whole body felt feverish. That darn thermometer I packed was nowhere to be found.

The next day Felicity helped us figure out where to take Vanessa to a doctor. She made a call and was advised to take us to a walk-in clinic. This was my first experience with the NHS. The building was government style, bare bones posters on the wall, plastic chairs. No carpets, potted plants, or magazines. Only a few other people seemed to be waiting. This was certainly no crowded US emergency room.

I filled out a brief form and we sat down. In less than a half hour, Vanessa was seen. A well-groomed young doctor called her name, brought us to a large exam room, and did a quick but thorough assessment, including taking vital signs. No medical assistants or nurses in sight. "Oh," he said as he looked in her ear, "that looks awfully red." He diagnosed Vanessa with an ear infection and printed out a prescription for an antibiotic, suggesting we wait a few days to see if it goes away on its own. Then we left, not having to give them our insurance information or a single cent in payment. Walking in to the walk-in center.

She really wasn't feeling good.

After giving Vanessa more pain reliever, she perked up and we spent the rest of the afternoon at a geology museum. Which was also free.

Vanessa continued to have ear pain and fever, really the worst ear infection she's had. So when Saturday morning rolled around and she was still waking up in terrible pain and high fever, we decided to pick up the antibiotic. At the Boots pharmacy, the pharmacist handed me the medicine, gave quick instructions and said goodbye. "Don't I have to pay something?" I asked her. "No, it's on a green sheet, so there's no charge," she smiled at me. Wow, thanks England.

Another thing we did was visit the park across the street from Felicity and James's. There was a mini amusement park set up and we all had fun in our own ways.

We went to an exhibit called Dinosaurs In The Wild, ate at a cereal bar, went to a pub with good Indian food, walked in the rain, took a bus and a train.

The whole visit included being spoiled by our hosts. Hot coffees placed in front of us at breakfast, meals labored over, kids carried, kids bathed, late night game sessions, drinks poured, even shoulders massaged. It's definitely a vacation!