Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Best of the European Outtakes

It’s been a week since we returned to Denver, and it feels great to be home.

The past four months have been unbelievable in every sense of the word. I’ve chronicled much of it within this blog, but there were some things that didn’t fit.

So, here are a few of the highlights from the European Leg of FunEmployment.

If you get lost in Athens, this dog can show you the way.
Ego Boost: I walked into a restaurant in Athens with Fran and our friend Karyn. The waiter who was showing us to the table stopped me, shook my hand and said, “Just you and two beautiful women? You're a legend.”

Unlikeliest Tour Guide: As we walked to the Acropolis in Athens, we stopped to look at a map. We knew it was on the hilltop above us, but we weren’t sure which roads provided the most direct route. Just then, a stray dog came wandering by. He looked at us, barked and then started walking on a road ahead of us. Based on the map, we were going the same way as the dog, so we followed. He led us up the hill and to the parking lot, occasionally turning his head to look at us. Once we arrived at the ticket booth, our canine friend disappeared back down the hill. Apparently, strays in Greece are very well trained.

Most Unique Restaurant: Near a market in the heart of Athens is a doorway that leads down to what appears to be a dark cellar. We walked in and the proprietor motioned for us to sit at a nearby table (there were only about 5-6 tables in the room). He spoke no English, so he just started delivering random plates of food to us. There was also a chunk of ice that he put down below a copper pot full of white wine directly from a barrel. Once we got our fill, he walked over and wrote 25 Euros on the paper table covering. We paid and went on our way.

Our waiter (right) made himself comfy at a nearby table.
Sometimes You Shouldn’t Ask a Waiter for Advice: During our first night in Nafplio, Greece, we went to a restaurant that was quite crowded. The waiter, a stout man with a long, curly ponytail hanging below a sizeable bald spot, stopped at our table to take our order. However, he quickly changed his mind and said he would be back after smoking a cigarette. His ill-fitting glasses kept sliding down his sweaty nose. We asked him what he liked on the menu and he cackled with delight, reminding me instantly of Tom Hulce playing Mozart in Amadeus. “I don’t like anything here,” he said. At first, I thought he was kidding. I’m pretty sure that he was not. We ordered four small dishes to share and he said that we were up to six. We asked what they were because our count did not add up. “I added a few others. If you don’t like them, just push them aside, and we’ll pretend they never happened.” The bizarre scene only got more strange 15 minutes later when we looked a few tables over and saw the waiter sitting there, smoking a cigarette and drinking beer. When he caught our eyes, he cackled again. It was something like this:

If the House is Rockin’: At our hotel in Nafplio, Greece, we were awakened at 7 a.m. For about a minute, we heard a strange noise and the room seemed to be spinning around us. Since we had not consumed ridiculous amounts of Ouzo the night before, Fran thought a crazy dog had gotten loose somewhere in our room or the room above ours. Other people we talked to reported that they, too, were awakened at the same time but didn’t really think much of it. It turned out to be a 5.6 magnitude earthquake that was centered right between Crete, Athens and Nafplio.

Scrambled Gambling: The language barrier was not terribly significant in most of the places we went. Most people we talked to knew at least enough English that we all could get our points across using English, a butchered stab at the other language and a heavy dosage of charades. Of course, our confidence that everything was understood completely evaporated at restaurants, especially in Greece. Every time that a server left with our order, our eyes were always wide as we wondered what would make it to our table. Most of the time it was close enough, but there were a few exceptions. My favorite happened to our friend Dan in Napflio. He ordered eggs one morning. The waiter delivered a banana split to the table, and then he argued that Dan definitely ordered it. The banana split sat on the table melting for several minutes until the manager came over to ask if anything was wrong. I wish I would have been there to see the look on Dan’s face.

If Colorado is the Napa Valley of Craft Beers,…: When our adventure started, I told Fran I wanted to try the local beers whenever we visited somewhere. Perhaps it was not a wise decision. The Ecuadorian government runs the brewery that creates the majority of beer in that country, all of which give Milwaukee’s Best a run for its money when it comes to mediocrity. Peru beers weren’t much better. Copenhagen and London had a few that were pretty good, but Italy should probably stick to red wines. Greek beer, however, sets a new standard for beer. I wouldn’t call it a high standard. Most Greek beer tastes like the smell of sweaty feet.

Despite being drained and surrounded by construction
materials, the Trevi Fountain had a line of people
wanting to get a closer look.
Sorry, Folks, Park’s Closed. Moose Out Front Should Have Told You: I have been told that in addition to the Coliseum, everyone visiting Rome needs to see the Trevi Foundation. But when we arrived, there was plexiglass around a drained fountain. According to legend, if you throw a coin in the fountain, you are guaranteed to one day return to Rome. In the construction zone, there was a bathtub-like side pool. According to a nearby sign, visitors were welcome to throw coins in the substitute fountain. We were not surprised, of course. Every major tourist destination that we went to in Europe seemed to be under construction. Parliament in London is mostly covered on one side.  Workers have had scaffolding around the Parthenon for more than 30 years.

Did You Know Peter the Great Was a Dentist?: While we were in St. Petersberg, we had a tour guide who told what some might consider an overly romanticized history of Peter the Great. Some of the better nuggets of “fact” included the following:

-       Peter the Great never had any servants. His wife, Catherine, cooked his meals, including his daily 30 eggs for breakfast.
-       Peter the Great was an inspired architect who seems to have designed just about everything in the city, including buildings and several fountains.
-       Peter the Great was a dentist. Sometimes at dinner parties, guests would point to someone and say that he was suffering from a toothache. Peter the Great would go to the unsuspecting man and tear the tooth from his mouth. I’m sure such practical jokes caused great laughter among those present, especially the person suddenly with one less tooth.

After telling this story to a few people during the wedding weekend of some friends in Napflio, it quickly became a drinking game that lasted the entire weekend. Randomly throughout the weekend you could hear people say things like, “You know who built all of the ruins around Greece? Peter the Great. Drink.”

Random Stats Since May 22:
Total Flights – 25
Total Airports - 24
Total Air Miles – 29,081
Total Beds Slept In – 31

Total Hours Spent in Buses - 27

Monday, September 1, 2014

No Place Like Home

One of our final sunsets in Nafplio, Greece.
About six months ago, my life reached a crossroads.

My job, as I knew it, had taken a new direction – one that I simply could not take with it. Around the same time, my girlfriend, Fran, was going through almost the exact same thing with her job.

Life was changing, and much of it was out of our control.

Our careers and futures had become question marks. But instead of looking at the gravity of finding new jobs, which might require even more changes, Fran and I looked at each other and narrowed our situation down to one simple thing.

This was an unbelievable opportunity for us. So many things were out of our control, but that opportunity was very much in our hands. We had to make the most of it.

Two months later, we were boarding a flight for Peru. Then one to Ecuador. Then on to the Eastern U.S., Denmark, Estonia, Russia, Italy, Greece and others. There were 13 countries, 25 flights and an endless supply of memories and new friends.

It has been nothing shy of unbelievable.

But a trip like this cannot last forever.

As I sit at a sidewalk café in Nafplio, Greece, I am enjoying the slight sea breeze blowing through the maze of pedestrian streets, as the bright sun tries to fight its way through the awnings that provide shade.

I’m loving it, but I also know that at this time tomorrow, we will be on an airplane heading toward home.

That part, too, feels right.

When I was in school, I studied abroad for a summer in New Zealand and for a semester in Australia. At the end of both, those people who were staying longer asked me how I could possibly go so soon, and I wondered how they could stay longer.

My time at each of those places was wonderful, but I always knew the end dates, and I think my subconscious prepared me for exactly that length of time.

Because despite the wonderful new places I’ve visited and the amazing new people I’ve met, I have never lost sight of the fact that I live in an amazing place, full of some of the best people in the world.

I have no idea where our lives and careers are going to take us. But for now, I’m ready to come home.

Next stop: Denver.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

How a Hotel Ruined Athens

I’m at least a little demanding when I travel. I’ll admit that.

For example, when I go to a restaurant and order a ribeye, I do not like when they come back with a hamburger.

Likewise, when I reserve a room at a hotel, I expect them to put me in the agreed upon room, preferably with some resemblance to the photos on the website.

I understand that sometimes there are hurdles on the road. Our airplane was running late, putting us into Athens with just enough time to catch the last Metro into the city. We were later than expected, but it was not a big deal. 

We felt pretty confident in our planning. We had booked the Attalos Hotel more than a month earlier, and reviews on both Booking.com and TripAdvisor.com were outstanding. The photos showed a variety of rooms, so we requested one with a double bed and a single bed since there are three of us traveling now.

Attalos Hotel responded when we sent an email to let them know we would be arriving late, and they said it was not a problem, adding helpful directions via Metro, bus and taxi. We were delighted.

But when we arrived at 1 a.m., we went upstairs and found a dingy room that was just big enough for the three twin beds they had crammed in.

Now, I understand that rooms in Europe are generally smaller than those in the U.S., but this one was a fire hazard. And that was before we added our luggage.

We went back downstairs to ask for the correct room. The man at reception was nice enough, but he shrugged his shoulders and said that was the only room available.

After we showed him the photos from Booking.com, none of which looked anything like the room we had been given, he shrugged again.

He said he couldn’t do anything, but we were welcome to bring it up to the manager the next morning. Not exactly the customer service that so many people talked about in their reviews.

We were questioning whether our luggage would actually fit anywhere other than on the beds with us, and we explained again that what we booked was not what we were given.

He shrugged again and repeated that he had no rooms available. He said there was nothing he could do.

Knowing this was going nowhere and that he had no power to fix the problem, we suggested he call someone who could take care of the problem. He looked incredulous. In fact, he looked frightened.

I have had my share of problems at hotels over the years and throughout the world. Almost without question, the problem was fixed quickly, either by changing my room or booking me in a comparable hotel and covering the difference of the rate if it was higher than I originally booked. A hotel in Cusco, Peru even paid for our night’s stay in a different hotel after realizing that they had mistakenly given away our confirmed room.

This idea of booking us into another hotel seemed completely foreign to the receptionist. We are in Greece, so it probably was.

However, if he couldn’t fix the problem, we needed someone who could.

It took some coaxing, but he finally managed to find someone he said was the owner.

They spoke to each other in Greek, as the receptionist explained the situation. Then he handed me the phone.

The “owner” said there was nothing he could do. I again pointed out that the photos and description on Booking.com did not remotely represent what was in the room they had given us.

During at least one point, I may have raised my voice a little when I suggested that the “owner” was completely and totally interrupting me.

It was not a pleasant conversation.

Finally, he said that we had two choices: either we could take the room we were given, or the receptionist could help us book a room nearby. But he made a point of saying that we would be paying the price of the new hotel, regardless of how much it cost.

It was late, and I was tired. This clearly was not going to work out, so I handed the phone back to the receptionist, ready to take our chances on somewhere eles.

They spoke a little longer and hung up.

That’s when the receptionist told me what the owner had said: “He said he promised you that if you stayed in the room we have tonight, we can give you a good room tomorrow.”

It wasn’t ideal – and it wasn’t what he told me – but it sounded like a decent compromise.

We went to the room, and I stacked some furniture in the closet to make enough room for our bags.

I am not exaggerating.

As we were leaving the next morning, the daytime receptionist said that they would move our bags to the new room as soon as it was ready, and we could just pick up a new key when we finished our tour of Athens.

When we got back, she handed us the key and told us that the “manager” had requested to see us.

Figuring it was an olive branch, we headed up there. He said, “Is your new room all right?”

I said that we had not been up there yet, so he asked us to return after we had seen it.

We went up and found a suite with two small rooms. One had a double bed, and the other had two twins. There was also a balcony (which was almost as big as the first room we had been given) that had a lovely view of the Pantheon in the distance.

It seemed that the Hotel Attalos had more than made up for the issues the night before, and I headed down to the “manager’s” office to thank him.

He quickly cleared off one of the chairs across his desk and motioned for me to sit.

That’s when I started sensing that this was not going the way I anticipated.

“Last night, you were very unpolite (sic) to me and unpolite (sic) to my receptionist,” he said. “I don’t need to stand for being treated that way.”

Seriously? This wasn’t a mea culpa. This was a trip to the principal’s office. It also struck me as strange that the “owner” I had spoken to the night before was now the “manager.” Either way, I certainly did not like his tone.

At this point, I was fired up. I repeated that it was the hotel that gave us a different room than we had booked. A woman at a nearby desk began chirping at us, too.

Now, it was me who must have looked incredulous. What seemed to be an acceptable solution had plummeted into the most unpleasant hotel experience I have ever had.

As I was asking again about their blatant misrepresentation on Booking.com, which appears to be their primary source of their bookings, the woman chirping nearby continually interrupted me, just as the “owner/manager” had the night before. I again may have raised my voice slightly, when I requested that she not interrupt me.

Of course, my favorite moment came when the “owner/manager” claimed that they did not have rooms such as the ones pictured on the website. I’m not sure if he knew what he was saying or not, but it did make me pause.

In the end, our friend Karyn looked at the hotel employees and/or owners and asked, “What good did it do for you to call us in here? You seemed to have appeased the situation, and now you’ve made it much, much worse. I, for one, am tired of standing here while you waste even more of our time in Athens than you already have.”

With that, Karyn left. She made a great point, so both Fran and I followed.

It’s really too bad. Everyone we met in Athens – aside from those at the Hotel Attalos – were kind, inviting and enjoyable to be around.

But because of the sour taste left from dealing with the people at Hotel Attalos, we decided to cut our time there short.

Instead we opted to add an extra day on the coast in Nafplio. I spoke with the owner of the hotel there, and she was happy to have us early. She even offered to upgrade our room (it already had more beds than we needed) since we were staying longer.

I’m really looking forward to staying there.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Taking Our Time in Tuscany

The heart of the Chianti region.
We have seen a lot of wonderful European cities on this leg of the Funemployment Tour, ranging from London to St. Petersburg and Stockholm to Athens.

Each one has an energy and a beauty unique to itself. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of things to do and sites to visit in each one.

Each one is exciting. And each one is exhausting.

So when we pulled into Tavarnelle Val di Pesa in the Tuscany region of Italy, we were delighted by the lack of size and the lack of bustle.

It was exactly what we needed.

This isn’t to say that the town lacked things to do. It mostly lacked the seas of tourists that we had been wading our way through for the previous few weeks.

We arrived on a Tuesday for no other reason than it fit our schedule. Luckily for us, that was the evening each week that the town square turns into a lively marketplace.

Almost every town in Tuscany
looked like this in some way.
Bars and restaurants opened to the square, moving tables and chairs outside.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, there was a restaurant grilling steaks on the courtyard outside, and it smelled amazing.

The waiter escorted me next door to the butcher shop, where I received a two-inch steak cut in front of me. I took it back to the man at the grill, where he seasoned it with only olive oil and sea salt before throwing it over the coals.

It tasted as amazing as it smelled. With all due respect to the steaks in places like Kansas and Argentina (I have had outstanding steaks in both places), this was the best I’ve ever tasted.

We were surrounded at the restaurant – and around the town all together – by locals and people who had driven in from neighboring towns.

It was lively but also intimate and welcoming.

For five days, we started our mornings off with a run and a trip down to the town’s coffee shop/bar for some breakfast and caffeine, and then we headed out each day on excursions.

There were medieval towns and vineyards everywhere, and each one had its own uniqueness that made it different and interesting.

Sunset from near where we stayed in Tavarnelle.
Most of the towns were swarming with tourists, and that was fine.

Because at the end of each day we returned to our little hamlet in Tavarnelle, where we dined on fresh pasta and opened the wonderful bottles of wine that had discovered that day.

Overall, it was peaceful and fairly perfect.

It was just what we needed out of Tuscany.