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Temporary Residency in Croatia

November 10, 2017 Favorites, Freewheeling No Comments

We just left Croatia after almost five weeks in the country, the longest we’ve stayed in one country by far. We absolutely loved it and see why it is the new “it” place in terms of beach vacations. We took a ferry from the Istrian Peninsula (Pula is where we stayed for two nights) out to the islands and then returned to the mainland after 3+ weeks of island hopping. The mainland alone has 1,104 miles of coastline. On the islands, the waterfront bliss is pretty much endless. Quaint little towns line the coast and hillsides and you just can’t believe the beauty.

No Stress on Cres

No Stress on Cres

 

Losinj, The Island of Vitality

Losinj, The Island of Vitality

 

Baska, on Krk Island

Baska, on Krk Island

 

Rab, The Happy Island

Rab, The Happy Island

 

Novalja, Pag Island

Novalja, Pag Island

Great big caveat: we were here in the off-season. Not just barely past the high season, the OFF-season. We arrived on October 4. Many (now most) campgrounds, restaurants/bars, markets were/are closed for the season. All of the beaches are empty. While I am still mourning a summer devoid of hot, sandy beaches and warm water, I found comfort in warm afternoons and having entire villages to ourselves.

From what we read and heard from locals, we would have been miserable in Croatia in the summer. “What you see here,” referring to any given beach, “every spot taken! You could not find one place to sit down – and would never be able to park this big van! Pfft – and no dogs allowed!” As it is, we parked overnight right on the waterfront, where it was quiet and secluded. We enjoyed happy hour with Miles on the beach, bringing our chairs and drinks, throwing the ball for him. He was happy, we were happy. Life is good!

Camping Stoja, Pula

Camping Stoja, Pula

 

Split

Split

Things we loved:

  • The scenery. From the small towns dotting the coastline to the hills and mountains that rise from the sea, it’s so stunningly beautiful. Even if the buildings themselves are somewhat run-down, the red roofs that dot the landscape are visually appealing. And where we went, there’s water everywhere. Waking up to a sea view, riding my bike along the water and on hills where there’s a view of the sea all around, running on a waterfront promenade… I mean, come on. This is my kind of place!

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  • The people. People seemed to go out of their way to help us, and with a genuine smile. Whether it was navigating on unmarked trails, parking our big van, or accommodating Miles, we felt very welcome here. We met locals and other tourists who were anxious to chat with us and share their tips and suggestions on where to go next and what to expect. We met fun people who were happy to buy us a drink to keep the night going, chatting about anything and everything. Whether we were in big cities like Zadar, Split, or Dubrovnik, or the small villages on the islands, we enjoyed ourselves even more because of the kind and helpful people.

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  • English is prevalent. The small villages on the islands accommodate a lot of European tourists, and English is often the common language among them all. In the bigger cities, English is written (signs, menus) and spoken everywhere. If not, we got by on smiles, gestures, and Google Translate.

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  • Cheap drinks. We drink beer and wine. At restaurants and in grocery stores, these items are quite inexpensive. So inexpensive, in fact, that I lost my perspective. “Can you believe they are charging 18 kuna for this glass of wine? This place is expensive!” Then I reminded myself that 18 kuna is the equivalent of $2.77 and ordered another. In the grocery stores, I would buy box wine and was able to score a 10L box for 69 kuna. That’s 13.3 bottles of wine for $10.63. And it’s a good daily drinker! My go-to wine has been a boxed Vranac, which I can find for $7.55 for 3L. Done and done, time and again. Greg’s beer runs about $1.50 for a half-liter bottle or can in the grocery store and is 18-20 kuna in restaurants. Drink up!

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  • The pizza. We eat a lot of pizza. I’ll get to the main reason below, but we would go to a restaurant and each order a pizza that’s 14″ in diameter — G always orders the frutti di mare and I always get the vegetable. Each pizza costs 50-60 kuna. That’s $7.70 to $9.24 in USD. And the kicker is that it’s so big that we would usually only eat half of the pizza in one sitting, so we’d have another meal waiting for us in the fridge. At that price, we couldn’t afford NOT to eat pizza for almost every meal! (Between the two of us, I can’t believe we don’t have a single picture of pizza!)
  • Water is everywhere. I’m not talking about the Adriatic Sea this time. I mean that we had access to potable water — for free — at every gas station, as well as at several places in each town and/or along the highways. We’ve got a 40-gallon tank and we do our best to conserve. But as any #vanlifer knows, where to get water is always on your mind.

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Things we don’t love:

  • The price of gas. Fuel is quite expensive everywhere in Europe ($5-6/gallon) and it’s no different here. So it’s not something we disliked specifically about Croatia, it’s just worth noting as a general dislike.
  • The limited cuisine options — and no spicy condiments! This is why we ate so much pizza. Even in the cities we visited, the variety was really lacking. We would have loved to see a taco truck parked on the corner! What we would have done for a quick pad Thai or curry! Greg ordered a hamburger a couple of times and was really disappointed, so he stopped ordering it. There’s fresh seafood on the menu at most places, but they want over $20/plate and any side dishes are extra. We’re on a budget and don’t want to spend that much for a quick lunch, so we opt for pizza.
  • Rocky beaches. This is really stretching as a dislike, if only to come up with a third item for the list. In an ideal world, the miles and miles of beaches would be sandy. In Croatia, most of the beaches are rocks or pebbles, which isn’t ideal.

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During our stay, we paid almost as much for ferries as lodging fees. We spent eight days in paid lodging (which is average for the three months), costing $262. We took six ferries, costing $180. It’s the cost of doing business, and we were very happy with the mix of staying at campgrounds or apartments versus free camping, and the opportunity to visit all the islands was well worth the ferry expenses.

Our last stop in Croatia was Dubrovnik. We spent two days touring the city, including hiking up to Fort Imperial for a view of the city from above. It was windy and cold, but so worth the trek up the mountain.

Dubrovnik

We said farewell to Croatia during a strong thunderstorm and headed to Montenegro, a stop on our way to Greece. From there, the plan is to take a ferry to the boot of Italy. Adventure awaits!

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Good Samaritans Exist

October 26, 2017 Freewheeling No Comments

If you see something, say something!

I was riding my bike out of the town of Lun, Croatia (on the island of Pag) today and saw four kids grappling with one another. Two of them were really going at it – a boy and a girl. The other two boys were half-heartedly throwing rocks and hitting the other boy with a stick. I was climbing a steep grade, so I had plenty of time to observe them.

By the time I reached them, it was very clear they were not just playing. The one boy was a couple of years older than the others (maybe 12-13 to their 10-11) and he was swinging the girl around by her hair. She got in a few good kicks and punches, but he had a clear advantage in size. I got off my bike and asked if everything was okay. They didn’t speak English, but one of the boys looked at me with big eyes and shook his head no.

I yelled for the older boy to stop and walked toward him to pull him off by his backpack. He let go of her and brushed past me, heading up the hill. The other boys yelled at him as he walked away and I helped the girl to her feet. I brushed her hair away from her crying face and offered her water from my bike bottle. I helped her put her backpack on and the three of them walked down the hill without another word.

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Glad I stopped to help these young people instead of assuming they were just playing around.

Trust your instincts!

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Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

September 9, 2017 Freewheeling No Comments

I read the book Lilac Girls with my book club a couple of months before leaving on our European adventure. It was a well-written book, but tough to get through because of the subject matter. It is historical fiction based on what went on at the the “re-education camp” in Ravensbruck, Germany. This camp was for Jewish women and children, and also the site where 74 young Polish women were subjected to horrific surgical atrocities in the name of research for the SS.

When we got back to Germany after spending almost two weeks in Denmark, I knew we’d be heading south toward Berlin and thought I’d just see how far away Ravensbruck was off our path. It was basically on the way, and situated near a series of lakes that were worth exploring in their own right. I mentioned it to Greg in passing, but he was non-committal.

I ended up working the entire day while Greg drove (which means eyes on my computer, not paying attention to road signs), so when he said, “We’re here,” I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about. And then I saw the large building that is the headquarters for the memorial that has been set up at the concentration camp.

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There was an audio tour available, but we got there as the grounds were closing. That in itself made it even more somber and impressive/oppressive. We were the only ones there on an overcast day. A few raindrops fell here and there as we walked around.
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An artist was commissioned to create a few sculptures for the memorial site, all of which are amazing and heartbreaking. The main statue, titled “Burdened Woman,” stands alone in a courtyard and is really stunning. As we walked out to it, the sun broke through the clouds and shone on the statue. It was really moving.
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The building with the cells (“the bunker”) is under construction, which is probably for the best. I don’t know that I would have handled that well.
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The setting reminded me largely of Alcatraz, with this beautiful view of the lake visible from the windows, if only you could have access to it all. The only difference, of course, is that these people were being held prisoner through no fault of their own.
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The below images are of the crematorium. Just let that sink in for a moment.

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The cobbled courtyard outside of that building was purposely cleared and placed there with the stones covering the ashes that they found in that area, indicating it had been a burial ground.
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The back wall of the property has the names of each country affected, and there are many plaques/memorials to individual groups. We have toured a couple of other memorial sites since then and have been surprised that some of the memorials have been made as recently as 2012.IMG_2792
It was an honor to visit this site, having read that book twice through (I was out of something to read when we got here and read that one over again — picking up many more details the second time). None of the information kiosks we saw said anything specific about “the Rabbits,” the girls that were subjected to these horrific experiments. I looked for a hospital or some other such building, finding nothing.If you’re interested in more information about the story of the Ravensbruck Rabbits, click here (with the warning to brace yourself for what you’ll find).
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Finding Favorites

August 28, 2017 Food, Freewheeling No Comments

Greg’s sister kindly asked if there’s anything she could send from the States, a care package of favorites we were missing. I thought about it, and the answer is no.

It’s funny how you learn to adapt. I’m not going to lie — I reeeaalllly miss “real” Huy Fong Sriracha, but have made do with what they sell here; one brand is better than the other. I’ve even found legit Tabasco (and carry it in my purse for when we eat at restaurants).

Sriracha

As for the other things I favored at home, I haven’t found dark chocolate peanut butter cups here, but have reacquainted myself with Riesen dark chocolate caramels (my grandma used to buy them) and found a delicious treat called Cocos Flocken, which are dark chocolate covered coconut stars. It’s basically a small Mounds candy. Sadly, I’ve only found these in one store and now I’m rationing them because I’ll be sad when the last one is eaten.

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We like to keep mixed nuts on-hand for a quick snack. These are easy enough to find everywhere, and the price seems lower than in the US. We were served a small dish of “crunch nuts” with our beer at watering hole in Ophoven, Belgium and we took a shine to those. They are basically peanuts covered in some crunchy coating and then dusted with spicy paprika (pepper) powder. Yum!

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Malibu rum is expensive here and we already have space constraints as it relates to storing beverages, so I am not able to enjoy my Malibu/La Croix cocktails. Instead, I buy the super cheap frizzante wines (literally $1.50 to $3 for 750ml) as a refreshing “day drinker.” They’re like a flavored sparkling wine with a low alcohol content. I miss my faithful Cocobon red wine, and I have taken to buying red wine by the box. It’s a much better value that way, it stores easily, and the selection is quite good.

G had a hard time finding beer to his liking in Germany, but has had better luck through Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. He generally likes a darker beer, but enjoys a light shandy or radler as a day drinker. It seems that no two grocery stores carry the same things, so we get to try a lot of new things every time we shop.

All the different grocery chains we have shopped at have a varied selection of pre-made salad kits. These are a go-to for us (supplemented with extra greens) because we don’t have enough room to store all the ingredients it would take to make just one big salad (greens, chopped veggies, beans, protein, etc.) on top of the other meals we are planning for. These have been great for driving days when we don’t want to spend additional money, not to mention prep time and cleanup. The Asian Chicken Lunch Salad turns into a tasty stir fry dinner by adding a bag of pre-cut stir fry vegetables and cooked chicken left over from another meal.

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The rest of what we eat is pretty basic and not unlike what we’d have at home: sandwiches for lunch, a protein and a vegetable for dinner, pita pizzas, lentil tacos, soup or pasta when we’re lazy or out of fresh food. We miss our favorite local restaurants, but have enjoyed some delicious food with the help of friends’ recommendations (and Google, of course).

I really appreciate Rhonda’s gestures, but I am enjoying finding new favorites — and will look forward to those peanut butter cups upon our return to the States.

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Holland Haikus

August 17, 2017 Fun No Comments

The Netherlands has been good to us and we were sad to leave its beautiful countryside, its lovely people, and our unlimited wi-fi.

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One thing I am not sad to say goodbye to is the wind! I thought I had been on windy rides during Ironman training on the Pacific coast, during races, riding across Iowa. The Netherlands wins the wind war. To pass the time while riding into these punishing winds, I took to writing haikus.

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The wind in Holland
Relentless in its blowing
Makes cycling harder

One must love cycling
Enduring the Holland wind
How many more miles?

The hills are calling
At least there will be less wind
Suffer differently

Wide open spaces
Remind me of Iowa
With far more windmills

Windy Holland ride
A big help on the way out
A bitch coming back

Flat landscape seems nice
Windmills and canals and dikes
Motherfucking wind

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Even Greg got in on the action:

Equipment matters
The wind is nothing to me
Aerobars are friends

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Expenses: A Month Without Basecamp

August 14, 2017 Freewheeling No Comments

July was an expensive month, to say the least. We’ll never come up with an official number; we paid cash for so many things and didn’t bother to get the “ticket” (receipt). We didn’t do any extracurricular activities like go to museums or rent boats and we need to eat regardless of whether we’re in our van or in paid lodging, so we were less worried about tracking that. Just for the sake of documentation, we ate all breakfasts in (other than one croissant and one coffee that Greg bought while walking the dog through town), we ate ~85% of our lunches in, and I’d say about 50% of our dinners in (we usually ate dinner at home 5 nights a week in San Mateo).

Our biggest expense by far was lodging. Without the van, we had to pay for a place to sleep since we left Greg’s sister’s house in North Carolina on July 6. The grand total for lodging was $2,305.46. We spent an additional $1028.31 in rental cars.

* pause while I collect myself to get over those numbers *

Ironically, the total is $3,333.77. The total number of miles driven across the United States was 3,333. Maybe 3 should be my new favorite number!

We expected to have from July 6 to July 22 without our rolling home, but the added expense for those nine days was really expensive. It is what it is: a sunk cost. Get over it.

July in Europe

Out of 11 different hotels/apartments, the average cost was $88.79. The most expensive place was a Sleep Inn hotel in the Inner Harbor area of Baltimore (the night we dropped the van off) at $154.76. The least expensive was a small family-run Airbnb in Bad Breisig, Germany at $65.

As a friend on Facebook commented, it was something of a “sampler package” of different accommodations. All in all, it was quite enjoyable. We went from urban walk-up apartments to rural farmsteads, each time immersing ourselves in the environment that surrounded us. Miles was a trouper all along, going with the flow and adapting easily.

To try and cut down on costs, we rented the smallest vehicle possible to get all of our stuff in (Greg giving me the caveat that Miles might need to ride on my lap everywhere we go). We got this Kia Sportage to get from Frankfurt to Cologne, and not only did we fit it all in, there was ample room for Miles so that he didn’t have to ride on my lap. In all honesty, his preference is to ride on my lap, so he was a bit disappointed in Greg’s packing skills.

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Included:

  • XL dog crate
  • XL suitcase
  • L backpack
  • 2 M backpacks
  • M duffel bag
  • 2 road bikes
  • box of extra shit that we stuffed our bike boxes with for the plane ride
  • Booze & snacks

Needless to say, we are thrilled to be living in Basecamp. Even though we have much less overall space, there is a spot for everything we have and we’re really quite comfortable.

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Back with Basecamp

August 10, 2017 Freewheeling No Comments

Greg found these decals that cover the Ford emblem, so now our van is called Basecamp. It works!

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After spending a full month apart, we were nervous and excited to see what awaited us when we were finally reunited at the Port of Antwerp. To recap: we had to drop the van at the Port of Baltimore on June 30 to be compliant with having it there five business days from the shipping date. It was supposed to take two weeks to cross the Atlantic, but we got word that our ship got bumped from the shipping order and it would be three weeks. A lot of rushing for no reason — BOOOO! In the end, we were able to pick the van up on July 31. Not ideal, but also nothing we could do.

So we kept paying for lodging, riding our bikes, and enjoying our time in Belgium.

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In addition to working with (and paying) a shipping company (and a TWIC), we worked with (and paid) a receiving company to take care of all the paperwork and whatnot, and our contact was wonderful. Thank you, Rita! It took almost three hours of waiting/worrying/driving/waiting/worrying, but Greg was finally able to go into the huge parking lot and drive Basecamp out of there.

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While G was getting the van, I took the opportunity to let Miles out of the car and walk him around the parking lot. When he heard/saw the van coming down the driveway, he jumped off the ground and pulled at his leash to chase it. He recognized his home!

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One of the things they make you do when you drop it off on the shipping end is remove the license plates. While Greg went to work re-attaching our California plates, I went to work looking things over. We were more than a little bit surprised and utterly delighted that everything was as we had left it. We had packed that thing to the gills and nothing was missing or damaged — most importantly G’s mountain bike.

We still had the rental car that needed to be returned to Cologne the next morning, so we caravanned from Antwerp back to Ophoven, Belgium, which is a waterfront locale that was near where we had stayed at one of our stops along the way. It got us closer to Cologne to drop the rental car the following morning, and gave us the perfect backdrop for our first night of wild camping in Europe.

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Let #vanlifeeurope begin!

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I Woke Up Like This

July 28, 2017 Fitness, Fun 1 Comment

Greg and I went out for a long bike ride on Wednesday. The route took us along the river and canals that run the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. We had to take a ferry across the canal at one point and I was chatting with another cyclist as we crossed. As we disembarked the ferry, he turned to me and said, “Let me be the first to welcome you to Holland.” Yay – another new country for me!

Welcome to Holland!

Welcome to Holland!

 

The bike trail that I had been riding on was paved and flat and glorious. You could see for miles around and the scenery was stunning. In all honesty, it looks like Iowa! I have several friends riding RAGBRAI this week and I felt like I was riding with them (except without 10,000 other cyclists and Mr. Pork Chop waiting in the next town).

Corn fields for miles

Corn fields for miles

 

And onion fields, which is more like central California

And onion fields, which is more like central California

 

As I was cruising down the path at a fast pace, a bee slammed into my face, just at the base of my left nostril. It hurt like a bitch! Instant stinging (surprise!) and my eyes were watering as I continued pedaling and rubbing my face to make sure I had gotten it off me and the stinger wasn’t still in there. I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was a young kid and I quickly remembered how not fun it was. The area didn’t swell up or become inflamed, so I forgot about it. I even forgot to mention it to Greg until later that evening. “Oh yeah, I got stung by a bee and it hurt like a bitch.”

The rest of the ride was mostly uneventful. More beautiful scenery. A chat with (and assistance from) a lovely Belgian couple who helped navigate an unmarked detour. Sunny skies for the first time in a week.

This bridge was part of the detour

This bridge was part of the detour

 

I woke up this morning (today is Friday) looking like I’d had a stroke. Or that my attempts to look like Kylie Jenner didn’t turn out as intended.

don't hate me because i'm beautiful

don’t hate me because i’m beautiful

 

WTF, delayed-onset allergic reaction?!

I think you can kind of see the spot where the stinger entered if you look really closely under my left nostril, which is totally a place that I want people paying close attention to on any given day.

Just because it’s funny, I took the below picture first. I had to take a second picture in better lighting conditions (and with a slightly better expression) because this looks like a mug shot taken at 3 AM after a bar fight. My mouth is already crooked, and the puffy lip on the left side just exacerbates the whole thing.

inmate number 260717

inmate number 260717

 

So, as was the case with poison oak (which I was never allergic to as a kid), I guess that I have developed a mild allergy to bee stings in my old age. Good to know! I’m glad it’s just a mild allergy, because my reaction to poison oak is now violent. This doesn’t hurt or itch, so I guess I got off easy.

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Daily sMiles

July 27, 2017 Fido, Freewheeling, Fun No Comments

Miles often comes along when I take care of little ones, which means he’s no stranger to a children’s park. It’s true that he doesn’t enjoy those parks as much as he enjoys a dog park, but it’s also true that children are known to drop food and he is happy to clean up after them.

One thing he has always struggled with is the swings. He has a love/hate relationship with them because it’s so fun to chase a kid on a swing, but then the swing comes right back and hits him. He’s finally learned to stay out of the way, but he can’t help but bark in protest.

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I found a short zip line at a children’s park in Bad Hoenningen last week and just had to try it out. Miles and I were out for a run early that morning and there was no one in the park. I zipped down that cable, giggling the whole way! It was so much fun that I made Greg go back with me to capture it on video.

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There were definitely more people in the park at noon than there were at 7 AM. Particularly, there were two women sitting on the park bench right next to the zip line feature; one woman was visibly crying. I felt bad having so much fun (and that there was so much commotion with Miles’ barking) while she was clearly not having an enjoyable time.

This video captures it all perfectly:

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I’ve decided that Miles is frustrated with the swings because he wants to join in on the fun! A few days prior to this zip line incident, we were at a park alongside the Rhine River in Cologne. There was a swing contraption there that was conducive for dogs (obviously). It wasn’t hard to lure Miles into the swing with me and I think his smile says it all:

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Hurry Up and Wait

July 20, 2017 Freewheeling No Comments

“Hurry up and wait” has been the motto of our adventure thus far.

We really had to rush to get to the east coast in six days, which was a timeline put upon us by U.S. Customs at the Port of Baltimore. The vehicle needed to be at the port five business days ahead of the ship date of July 8. Because of the Fourth of July holiday and the preceding weekend, that meant June 30. So we rushed those 3000 miles and got the van dropped off, only to have 10 days to hang out on the east coast before our flight to Germany.

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The Port of Baltimore * Packing quickly and choosing the wrong footwear * Greg and Miles in the James River (Richmond, VA) * Miles making sure G doesn’t get lost on a dirt path

After spending the weekend in Baltimore, we were fortunate to spend July 2-6 in Oak Ridge, NC with Greg’s sister’s family. We were also fortunate to be able to borrow a car from them, both of these things saving us several hundred dollars in lodging and car rentals. Thank you, Rhonda and Peter! Greg’s parents drove up from Asheville to visit with us there, saving us several additional hours in driving.

We spent July 7-10 in an AirBnB in Baltimore, buttoning up last minute things and preparing to say farewell to the United States.

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G entertaining his family in NC * Enjoying Dom Perignon in Baltimore * M fussing over Miles at the airport * G’s creative tagging of Miles’ crate

The timeline on the van was originally scheduled as two weeks at sea, arriving in Antwerp on July 22. We figured we would use the 11 days in Europe to acclimate a bit, sort out our visa situation, and catch up on work. We have accomplished two out of the three (the visa situation is still unsorted), but got word from the shipping company that our vessel was pushed back in the arrival order and it won’t come in until July 28. We won’t be able to get it until July 31 at the earliest.

*sigh*

It isn’t that we aren’t enjoying our time exploring new places and having room to spread out in the hotels and AirBnB apartments that we have rented. It’s that we’re paying a significant amount of money for lodging and car rentals while we wait for our self-contained rolling home. And we’re just a little bit bitter about having to rush out of California, only to spend another month waiting…

It’s out of our hands and we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing until our ship comes in. We go to bed when we are tired, we wake up when we’re rested. It’s nice not using alarm clocks! We are mixing it up by eating local fare and cooking at home. Oh, and swimming/biking/running — these are some of the things we do best!

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