Follow by Email

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ecuador

After three weeks back home in Cincinnati, it was pretty weird to be packing up and hitting the road again.  The time we spent at our house provided us with a great sense of familiarity, which we soaked up after ten months of staying in more than one hundred different places in 24 countries.  The familiar became exotic for us, as we got to see family and friends and places we had missed in more than 300 days on the road.  The challenge of routine everyday activities was gone, replaced by a welcoming ease of language and setting, which was very relaxing.  Now, it was time to leave that comfort level behind and dive back into the daily experience of living with a different language and culture.

Travel is enticing, however, and it took less than 24 hours for the thrill of the road to get us in its grips once again.  Our first stop was Quito, Ecuador.  We were on our way to a house-sitting assignment for 20 days in Cuenca, a 45-minute plane ride from Quito.  Our flight arrived in Quito at ten at night, so we booked a hotel for the night and would head for Cuenca the next day.  The Hotel Antinea was adorable, with great architecture and a welcoming feel, that started right in the cozy lobby.
My expectation upon traveling after being home for three weeks was that I wouldn't want to be living in unfamiliar surroundings and getting clothes out of a suitcase each day once again.  But those feelings faded away,  replaced by the sense of adventure of communicating with people in a different land and also by the sense of unity that we felt as a family.  Our ten months on the road from December of 2011 until early October of 2012 had created an unspoken bond that we all felt, even as we were seated apart on the flight from Atlanta to Quito.  It's what we'd done for almost a year now, and we really enjoyed it.

One of the more enjoyable parts of the trip was landing house sitting gigs.  We got the twenty-day house sitting job in Cuenca through trustedhousesitters.com, the site we used to take care of 5 labradoodle puppies in France back in July.  Our quality care of the property and pets there resulted in getting a glowing reference from that homeowner and paved the way for our next job through that website.

When we saw the listing for the house sitting job in Ecuador, we were immediately intrigued.  It was from a couple in a condo who needed someone to take care of their two older cats, plus it also featured Direct TV and wireless internet.  As much as we like to experience the local culture, it's also a nice perk to be able to have a bit of a taste of home, so the satellite TV and internet helped trigger our applying for the job.
Kathy and Maik, the cat owners and condo people, were originally uneasy about the whole house sitting concept, but Annie exchanged a couple of messages through the website and convinced them to do a video chat session to try to help seal the deal.  We chatted for about 15 minutes with them while we were in South Africa, and agreed to head to Cuenca at the start of the South American phase of the trip.

After a comfortable night in Quito, we headed for Cuenca on a Wednesday afternoon.  A 45-minute flight landed us in the capital of the Azuay province of Ecuador in the southern highlands of the small nation on the western coast of South America. It's nestled among the sierra of the Andes mountains, with an altitude of about 8200 feet, or roughly three thousand feet higher than Denver. 
The condo where we lived with Whiskers and Spirit was part of a multi-family building on the western edge of town.  On the ground floor of the complex were some shops, including a hair dresser, fish place, a couple of clothing shops and a mini-market.  There was only one woman who worked there the entire duration of our stay, and her name was, predictably enough, Maria.   She spoke exactly no English, but we had a great time chatting with her during our nearly daily visits to her shop.  It was a fun experience to converse with her in our "gorilla" Spanish and her patient toddler-level Spanish. (Me in Spanish: "Me like eat food.  Me like Cuenca and those beer!" Her:  Esta Bien!") 

One of the more appealing aspects of life in Cuenca is the large ex-pat population.  Cuenca is considered one of the top spots for foreigners in all of South America.  It's a city of about 500,000 people and the locals are friendly to gringos, plus there is a very well-organized gringo culture that meshes well with the Cuencanos.  Annie signed up for a daily email from a service called the Gringo Tree, which contains a handful of notices about activities in the community, along with a classified ad or two, sort of a Craigslist type of thing.
Taxis are very affordable, costing only about $2 to get into the center of town, but most of the time we headed into Cuenca, we chose to walk.  With no major hills in the way, the stroll was fairly easy.  We made that walk pretty much every day at least one way.  Three times a week, we took Spanish lessons at a bookstore in town where the people we are house sitting for took lessons and we slid into their two-hour spot while they were back home in Chicago.  

Maria Elena, our instructor, was very patient with us, especially with Ben and Marley.  Annie and I had some lingering Spanish knowledge tucked back in the distant recesses of what's left of our brains and some of that actually bubbled back to life.  The kids caught on reasonably quickly, and it was fun to put our limited but increasing knowledge of Spanish to use on the streets and in shops and restaurants.

We also put it to use during our second week in Cuenca, during the tres dias de fiestas the city was having as part of it's Independence Day Celebrations.  Vendors were selling a wide variety of wares in tents set up in locations all across the city.  Annie jumped on the chance to buy some alpaca blankets at a good price but most of the time we just tent-shopped, enjoying being among the crowds who filled the city from all around Ecuador.  
One of the highlights of the three days of celebrations was a parade held on the middle day, which we watched from the central square in town, Calderon.  The parade participants included a wide variety, with some sporting wild outfits and putting on a brief performance in front of the reviewing stand just to our left.
My favorite was some girls dressed in indigenous outfits who danced their way down the street.
The parade and festival were great ways for us to really get into the local culture as well as feel tall.  One thing that really stood out as we walked around the streets of Cuenca for almost three weeks was how much taller we were than most of the locals.  Gotta admit, that at the height of 5'8", I enjoyed that aspect of life in Ecuador.

Annie's daily email from the Daily Gringo updated us on the events that were happening in Cuenca, especially those targeted at Gringos such as us.  Various restaurants had "gringo" nights during the week, and we checked a few of those out during our stay.  One of the first we tried was a bit of a dud, as the food wasn't very good and the prices were high.  Plus, at the table next to us, what looked to be a first date was going on. They both looked to be in their 60s, with the woman at the table talking quite loudly, and the man trying to act patient while at the same time having a look on his face like he couldn't wait to get out of there.  Then at the end of their evening at the restaurant, he whipped out some dental floss and started digging into his teeth like he was starving and wanted every last morsel of food wedged between his pearly whites.  I don't know if he did that to try to make sure that he would never have to sit through a dinner with this woman again or not.  Turns out that we ran into him a few other times around town in our three weeks there, and he chatted us up once at lunch and turned out to be a very nice guy.  He was a Texan who had just moved to Cuenca a few months before.   As we were wrapping up our meal that day, I was tempted to ask him if he had any dental floss that I could use, but I managed to restrain myself.  

A more enjoyable Gringo night was our second Friday night there when a cute restaurant where we had breakfast once early in our stay was having a Mexican night.  That's one food group that we all enjoy, so we got in a cab and told the driver where we wanted to go and he headed in that direction.  As we got to where the restaurant was, I wanted to say something along the lines of "here is fine" which in gorilla Spanish would have been "aqui is bien" but instead I gestured and said "Estoy aqui!", which is "I am here!" I realized my mistake and tried to correct myself, much to the amusement of the driver and my family.  

Another popular gringo hangout that appealed to us was at a place called the Inca Lounge.  On Sundays, they showed NFL football games.  We stopped in there three of the four Sundays we spent in Cuenca, making some new friends and enjoying hearing from people who had decided to take the plunge and move from the U.S. to Ecuador.  It was a fun atmosphere, and one of the best things was that we only saw one Steelers fan our entire time there.


One of our inspirations for this trip is Anthony Bourdain and his TV show, No Reservations.  He has one of the best gigs in the business as he travels the world, going to locations of his choosing and eating the local food and drinking the local drinks.  His show has been an influence on some of the locations we have picked, especially San Sebastian, Spain.  In his shows, he frequently has what he calls a local "fixer."  That's someone who can guide him to some unique places to go and help him avoid unsavory spots.  We had a fixer in Cuenca:  Gladys the cleaning lady.

Gladys worked for Kathy and Maik, the Chicagoans we were house-sitting for.  She comes in once a week and cleans their condo and does a great job.  She also speaks pretty good English, it's certainly better than our Spanish.  We got to know her a bit and talked to her some and she offered to take us to some Inca ruins about two hours outside of Cuenca called Ingapirca.  She had just gotten a new car and was excited to take us for a drive in it.  She even said she knew of some places to get cuy (pronounced coo-ee), the local delicacy better known north of the border as guinea pig.  We'd seen Anthony Bourdain eat some cuy in one of his shows and he seemed to enjoy it, so we just had to give it a try.

The first two-thirds of the drive were on a nicely maintained highway, called an Autopista.  Gladys was an excellent driver and we enjoyed the smooth ride.  Things got a little bumpier once we took the turn-off at the decrepit sign that pointed in the direction of Ingapirca.  There were as many potholes as there were turns on this winding road, and Gladys did a fearless job of guiding her new Chevy Sail around the suspension-bending obstacles while somehow not losing any of that new car smell.  

Ingapirca is well known among the locals, apparently so well known that the government decided there was no need to put up signs saying, "hey gringo, Ingapirca this away!"  Gladys patiently stopped and asked directions from time to time.  At least that's what we thought she was asking.  She could have been saying, "hey, I've got a carload of gringos, and they must be loaded!  They've been traveling the world for almost a year, and you should see all the Apple devices in the condo they're staying in.  I think their last names must really be Jobs, can you help me find some people to tie them up?"  Okay, maybe she wasn't saying that, or maybe she couldn't find anyone to help carry out her evil plans.  Whatever the real story is, we made it safely to the ruins, which are supposedly the best-preserved pre-Spanish Inca ruins in Ecuador.  
The ancient walls and pathways at Ingapirca aren't exactly Macchu Picchu, but they were impressive nonetheless.   The complex was originally built by the local people called the Canaris, and the Incas came along and did something that rarely happens when two differing groups of people collide:  they co-existed peacefully.  The Incas adopted some of the Canaris traditions, while the Canaris accepted some of the ideas and customs that the Incas brought with them.  What a concept!
After about forty-five minutes or so, we had seen enough ruins and were ready to check out a couple of restaurants open near the entrance that we had spotted on the way in.  But before we could get to those, we noticed a small one-story white building with some tables out front and a sign listing some food offerings. 
At the top of the list: cuy!  Turns out one of the little buggers is enough to feed three people, so we knew that would be just right for Annie, Gladys and me.

The restaurant was run by an indigenous woman who was very friendly, and served up a local cheese that Marley had grown fond of, while frying up a fish that Ben just loved.  
As for the guinea pig, Annie liked it, probably more for the experience than the actual taste.  Gladys happily took the head of the guinea pig saying that was her favorite part, including the brain. 
For me, the effort it took to get what little meat there was off the bones was not quite worth it.  It tasted a little gamey to me.  I can eat chicken until the cows come home mooing your praises for not eating them.  I like big juicy hunks of animal flesh, not little slivers.  Still it was a great experience, and a testament to having the services of a local fixer.  

The route back to Cuenca happened to go through the home town of Gladys, Canar.  She was very proud of her birthplace, and even stopped to show us her adorable grand daughter.  

It was a display of grandmotherly love that needed no translation.

Another discovery we made in Ecuador is that Cuenca is actually the birthplace of the Panama hat.  The hats, which are hand-woven, gained popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They were shipped to other parts of the world through the isthmus of Panama and since that's where they were first purchased they became known as Panama hats.  Stores, or tiendas, all across Cuenca sell the hats, but we decided to go directly to the source:  The Panama Hat Museum.   Inside were tables filled with Panama hats of all shapes and sizes, and they would take special orders for the regular retail price of $25.  I actually had to get an XXL for my big American noggin and Marley got an XL in a very pretty purple.  We picked them up the next day and had fun wearing them around town, while also enjoying their protective nature from the equatorial sun.
Our Spanish instructor Maria Elena wound up being a great resource for us on life in Ecuador.  She was very enthusiastic about showing us and the kids how the locals lived.  One Saturday, she took Ben and Marley on a half-day field trip to a couple of small towns outside of Cuenca.  Marley bought a beautiful locally made guitar for a fraction of what a similar guitar would cost in the States.  Our daughter looked adorable with the guitar strap over her shoulder, like she was ready to hit the streets and do some busking to help us afford to get back home.  

On our final Saturday in Cuenca, we got together with Maria Elena and her two children at what had become our favorite restaurant in Ecuador.

Chitople featured some great burritos and tacos and quesadillas, with fresh ingredients and a fun atmosphere.  It was great to see Maria Elena with her children, who were very well-behaved, especially considering we took about two hours to eat lunch.  

As has been the case with so many of our stops in more than two dozen countries, our best memories of Ecuador will be the people we met along the way. 
I came across a quote in the beginning of a book called Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann that sums it up pretty well.  It is attributed to Aleksandar Hemon in The Lazarus Project who wrote:  "All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere.  That is what the world is."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Vienna/Munich-Living on Schengen time

A quick show of hands please, and no using your Google machines:  How many of you have heard of a Schengen Visa? We hadn't heard of it either until Marley and Annie went to London in July during our 30-day house sitting job outside Paris.  As the girls headed from France to the U.K., they were grilled by a border officer about how much time they had spent in Europe.  It seems that, thanks to the Schengen Agreement which dates back to 1985, citizens of the United States can spend 90 days in the 25 countries that are Schengen members in a 180-day period.  Annie frantically emailed me and I started doing some research and some math (multi-tasking baby!) and figured out that from when we entered Europe in May from when we were scheduled to leave Paris in August, we would have about six or seven days to play with without violating the Schengen Agreement.

Our research showed that the penalties for violating the Schengen agreement varied wildly.  Annie found a site that talked of fines of over $1000, with others reporting a ban from the Schengen countries for a six-month period, and we heard unsubstantiated reports of having to change your last name to Schengen for a violation.   We were relieved to find out that the two countries where we would be going after leaving France (Ireland and Scotland) were not part of the Schengen Agreement.  And we were scheduled to go to South Africa in late September, so we had a little less than a week to hit two more locations before being targets of Interpol or whoever monitors this whole Schengen thing.

After much deliberation, we decided to spend three days in Vienna and four in Munich prior to heading to South Africa, which would be our final stop before heading back to the United States for about three weeks for a wedding in Cincinnati.  That wasn't nearly as much time as we had hoped, but it beat being branded as international criminals or making reservations in the last name of Schengen for the rest of our lives.

It was in Istanbul Turkey where Ben started to develop his love of schnitzel.  We had just gotten into town and were strolling around on a nice sunny day in early May when we came across a cafe with outdoor seating and a menu that had something for everyone in our family.  The schnitzel they had there was unexpectedly delicious, and withstood the challenge of every other piece of schnitzel that Ben and I tried over the next several months throughout several spots across Europe and the United Kingdom.  But the ultimate test would come in the home of schnitzel:  Austria.

The apartment we rented in Vienna was on a busy street called Lasallestrasse, just outside the city center.  When we arrived in town and got a cab, I told the driver the name of the street, pronouncing it like any good Cincinnatian like the high school in the Queen City, Lah-SAL.  The driver looked very puzzled so I showed the name of the street on the confirmation email, and he said with a look of recognition and slight annoyance, "ahh, La-zell-strassa".  Okay, Arnold, whatEVer, drop the attitude and just get us to the apartment!

From the moment we arrived in Vienna following our flight from Dublin we saw large advertisements in the airport for a restaurant that apparently specialized in Schnitzel, judging from the photos of ginormous servings of Schnitzel.  Seeing as how there were no restaurants that looked that appealing near our apartment in Vienna, we decided to get on the U-Bahn and find our way into town and hopefully eat at Figlmullers for our first meal in Austria.

We weren't all that optimistic about being able to get a seat right at lunchtime, but as fortune would have it, a table opened up just as we got there and we happily slid onto the wooden benches in the crowded but cozy room.  I had seen online some pictures of the schnitzel offered up by Figlmullers, which looked massive.  I thought that they couldn't possibly be that big in person.  Wow was I wrong!

As we sat at our table waiting to order, we looked on in amazement as plates of schnitzel were brought out to diners around us.  They were the size of manhole covers!
We ordered two for us and we probably could have gotten by with one they were so huge.  The schnitzel was as good as advertised and our timing turned out to be pretty good, too, as there was a long line waiting to get into the restaurant as we walked out.  I slyly advised those queued up to "try the schnitzel, it's really good."  Not sure they get my subtle humor in Vienna, but my family got a smile from that one.

For one of the few instances in our trip, the weather didn't cooperate during our time in Vienna.  The fairly steady rain washed some of the beauty away from what we had been told was a very beautiful city.  Fortunately in a city such as Vienna, there are plenty of things to do to get out of the weather.  Plus, it has a very clean and efficient subway system called the U-Bahn.  Our stop was at Praterstern which was about a block away from our apartment.
Being underground for a good portion of our short time in Vienna was a good way to stay out of the weather.  We took the U-Bahn into the city center and spent a very interesting few hours at the Hofburg Palace, looking at the imperial apartments and the Sisi museum.  It was a fascinating look back in time at both an era and the story of a very captivating woman, Elizabeth.  Thanks to her marriage to Franz Josef I, Sisi became both the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary.  She had grown up as a free spirit, and didn't deal well with the structure of a royal lifestyle.  She also lost a daughter, Sophie at a young age, which triggered a life-long struggle with depression. It was a good lesson in how some people who seem to have everything may actually be miserable while others who seem to be lacking of material possessions we spend so much time collecting wouldn't have their lives be any other way.

Even with our limited time in Vienna and the less than chamber of commerce weather, we enjoyed the atmosphere of the city.  It's definitely on the list of places that would make for a good return visit.

With the Schengen clock ticking loudly in our heads, we headed for Munich after only two nights in Vienna.  And just like we did in our first few hours in Austria with our trip to Figmullers', our first half-day in Munich included a stop at a well-known restaurant, the Hofbrauhaus.  Obviously it's a massive tourist attraction, the type of which we've tried to avoid during the trip, but for us, it was a "can't miss."  Annie and I both have a German heritage, plus we wanted to see if it could somehow live up to the Hofbrauhaus in Newport, Kentucky across the river from our hometown of Cincinnati.

We arrived at the Hofbrauhaus on a Friday night around 7pm, so it was packed.  As we waded into the crowd, it became apparent that it was a "seat yourself" set up.  There were no signs informing customers of that, and the servers had absolutely no interest in aiding our navigation of the massive seating area.  Guests squeeze onto benches on both sides of what basically are picnic tables.  The main aisle was crowded with others such as ourselves looking for the elusive empty bench, so we decided to try to get off the main drag a bit, and that strategy paid off.  Just as we turned the corner, we saw four people arise as one from a bench, so we sliced through the crowds like German tanks through the Maginot line advancing on France.

Our excitement about getting a seat slowly eroded away as we were repeatedly ignored by our "server."  She was a very attractive pony-tailed red-head whose appeal was aided by her adorable drindle.  It was a very busy night and clearly she was a bit overwhelmed.  We did manage to flag down one of the women strolling around selling massive pretzels that were very good and controlled our hunger until we finally got our food.

We chatted up some people sitting next to us, sharing our story with them and hearing about their travels as well. Our red-headed server ended up actually smiling at us as things calmed down a bit and we wound up enjoying our visit to the Hofbrauhaus.

Munich is a great city for a stroll around town, with plenty of picturesque streets that welcome visitors.  To get from our location, about 15-20 minutes out of town, we took the above-ground tram which gave us a good look at the city.  The tram works well in conjunction with the underground U-Bahn to get travelers pretty much anywhere they could want to go around the former capitol of Bavaria.

Our second day in Munich became quite possibly the best example of "going with the flow" of the entire trip.  We left our apartment in the morning and got on the U-Bahn with the intention of heading to the Olympic Village.  A tower there provides a nice view of the city, and taking our kids to the site of the 1972 Olympic Massacre would be consistent with our practice of exposing them to some of the more depressing moments in human history.

To get to the Olympic Village, we had to change trains at a station that carried lines on a north/south route.  As we waited at the station, we started to notice a lot of people wearing scarves and jerseys of the Bayern Munich football team.  As a family that was pretty into European Football, in part having really enjoyed the UEFA Championship earlier in the summer as we followed our favorite, the German National Team, (Der Duetscher Fussball Bund!) we were aware of the Bayern Munich team.  They play in the Bundesliga with other teams from Germany.

Two different U-Bahn lines ran on the track that we were waiting by.  The yellow line, which was due by in about 6 minutes went in the direction of the Olympic Village after taking a left turn shortly after leaving the station.  The blue line, which was due to come by in about 8 minutes went straight north, and I noticed on the message board that about six stops away there was a big soccer ball.  That led us to the conclusion that there must be a home game for Bayern Munich that day.
We waited and watched as the yellow line train came and went and two minutes later we got on the blue line and headed toward the big soccer ball stop.  The train was filled with people all geared out in Bayern Munich logos.  It was right about then that I wished I had brought my Bayern Munich jersey that someone had given me a few years back but that I left behind in Cincinnati.  I didn't follow the team, I just liked their jersey, and it was one of about a half-dozen European Football jerseys I had in my closet back home.

The next question was whether or not we would be able to get tickets.  We had no idea who they were playing and if it was a sellout or not or how much tickets were.  As we got off the train once it arrived at the Frottmaning stop, we followed the crowds toward the massive arena.  It was a mostly gray day with a slight threat of rain, and we weren't really dressed for that but we decided to go ahead and give it a try anyway.

We came across a few guys selling tickets, but no one had four together.  As we continued the long walk from the train station toward the stadium, I was trying to figure out if I knew which players from the German National team were on Bayern Munich.  Some of the blank spots were filled in by the names on the backs of jerseys worn by fans walking along with us.  There was Gomez, and Thomas Muller, who Ben had a jersey of.  Plus, there was Schweinsteiger.  Jawohl, Schweinsteiger!

Over the course of watching the UEFA championship earlier in the summer during our time in Croatia, Italy and Spain, Bastian Schweinsteiger became my favorite player.  He was the protypical German, with strong angular facial features, a shock of blonde hair, with a precise yet aggressive playing style.  Plus, as we watched the UEFA games in three different countries, it was fun to hear announcers in Italian or Spanish be describing the action (which of course we couldn't understand) and hear them say the name Schweinsteiger.  The Italian announcer in particular seemed to really enjoy saying the name, and we equally enjoyed hearing him say it.  I was really hoping that if we got tickets and got to see the game that we would be rewarded with a goal from Schweinsteiger.

A few hundred meters away from the stadium were some ticket windows and sure enough, people were in line.  Annie and Marley hung back while Ben and I made our way to the front of the line.  The most expensive tickets were $60 a piece, and Annie and I made a quick decision to go for the top of the line in what would probably be a once in a lifetime experience.

I used what little German I knew to ask the fraulein cashier for four tickets.  She took a look at Ben and asked how old he was, and when I told her he was 12, she informed me that his ticket would be half-price.  Ach du Leiber!  Our day kept getting better!  Can you imagine going to the ticket window at an NFL game and being informed that you child's ticket would be half price??

The game didn't start for about another hour, so we hung around outside a bit enjoying the atmosphere.  We got Bayern Munich scarves for the kids and decided against a jersey thanks to the pricey on-site prices.

The atmosphere inside the stadium was electric.  And smoky.  Cigarette smoking is not only not banned like it is at sports facilities all across the U.S., it's actually encouraged.  When I was out on the concourse at one point, I spotted a concession worker pushing a wooden cart around offering cigarettes, cigars and lighters for sale.  Took me back to the days of Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium when men would smoke cigars at Reds games and for years, the smell of cigar smoke would take me back to those days.
Once we got inside the stadium and found our seats, we discovered we had lucked out and got seats on the sunny side of the seating bowl, which really helped since it was a cool day in the 50s and having some Vitamin D splashed on us from time to time made a big difference in our comfort level.  As we settled into our seats, the teams were on the field warming up and I started to notice that I recognized several of the Bayern Munich players from the German National team.  Eventually they posted the roster of the entire team up on the scoreboard.

Ach. Du. Leiber.  Bayern Munich had SEVEN players from Der Deutscher Fussball-Bund on the team.  (Another name for the German National team is the NationalMannschaft.  Talk about some testosterone on the field!) Among those seven was the captain of DDFB, Philip Lahm.  Ben and I couldn't believe it, in part because we had really hoped to see Germany play in the UEFA Championship during our time in Europe, but we just couldn't make it happen.  This was like seeing the national team with great seats in a great atmosphere. 

A couple of factors helped add excitement to the match-up between Bayern Munich and the team from Mainz.  One was the fans themselves, especially the ones in the end zone to the left of where we were sitting.  These would be ones that might be described as hooligans at first glance.  About four sections of seats were filled with crazies who jumped up and down and chanted and sang the entire game.  They were led by one guy who stood on some sort of stand in front of the first row and they enthusiastically followed his lead without a break.
Another aspect of the experience that was unforgettable and that I had never experienced in any sporting event anywhere was the way player introductions were handled.  The announcer would say the player's first name, and then the entire crowd would shout the players last name.  For example--Announcer: "Achtundzwanzig (Number 28) Holger---"  70,000 Germans: "BADSTUBER!!"  It gave us chills!  That process got even more dramatic during the game once Germany started to score, which didn't take long.

Soccer games aren't known for being high-scoring affairs and it's pretty common to go an entire 45-minute half with no goals scored by either side.  So it was surprising and exhilirating to have Mario Mandzukic score for BM with less than two minutes played.  The crowd went crazy assisted by the PA announcer--Him:  "Mario!" Crowd: "MANDZUKIC!!" Him: "MARIO!!" Crowd:  "MANDZUKIC!!!" And for a third time:   Him: "MARIO!!!"  Crowd: "MANDZUKIC!!!!!"  It was bedlam--glorious, unrestrained German frenzy, which admittedly has led to some ugliness in the past, but this was just pure Bavarian joy!

I've watched a lot of soccer games over the past seven years or so since I started following international football and I can't remember seeing a goal scored so quickly at the start of a game.  At this point I'm thinking that we're going to see a 7-0 blowout or something as Mainz seemed to be awestruck at facing mostly players from the German national team of which they had exactly none.  They did have a player with the last name of Bungert, which is a form of my last name in parts of Germany.  He didn't score, but did get a yellow card, displaying the Bangert/Bungert temper for which we are sometimes known.

With such a quick score, the mood among the fans was festive to say the least.  Figuring that a victory was pretty much assured, I was just hoping to have a goal from Bastian Schweinsteiger, especially now that we had heard how they celebrated goals by the home squad at Allianz Arena.  Plus, the scarf  we bought for Ben featured Schweinsteiger's likeness and last name.  It didn't take long for Bastian to come through.

Only about ten minutes after the first goal, Bastian took a pass from the left side of the field and headed the ball into the goal from just in front of the net in a play that developed with blitzkreig-esque speed.  Gooooooal!  PA: "Bastian!" Us: "Schweinsteiger!" PA: "BASTIAN!!" Us: "SCHWEINSTEIGER!!"  PA: "BASTIAN!!!" Us: "SCHWEINSTEIGERRRRR!!!!!!" Total Bavarian bedlam, absolute chaos, but with German-like precision.  I've been to some big-time sporting events in my time, including a World Series (Game 3 1975, the Armbrister bunt) and a Super Bowl (XXIII)  and I've never felt anything like it.  I half expected a fly-over from the Luftwaffe it was so exhilarating.
After those two quick goals, the game settled down as Bayern Munich went into something of a defensive mode and it was still 2-0 at half-time.  Then something disturbing happened about 15 minutes into the second half:  Mainz actually scored. Ach Du F-ing Lieber!!  Das is nicht gut!! That was NOT supposed to happen.  What had been a relaxing, rollicking affair like a stroll through Oktoberfest with a stein of beer in each fist and a fraulein in a drindle on each arm was suddenly a tight game.  And it stayed that way right up until the end of full time at 90 minutes, with extra time to come.

Considering that there is an abundant amount of flopping by soccer/football players who collapse as if they were shot by a sniper after the mildest of collisions, extra time is almost always added on to the end of the game.  In this case, an extra two minutes would be played with Bayern Munich clinging to a 2-1 lead.  Can you say precarious?  It would be a major letdown to have the game end in a tie after those two speedy goals in the first 13 minutes.

Fortunately for the assembled masses at Allianz Arena, Bayern Munich picked up its game playing confidently yet cautiously, not allowing Mainz to do much on offense.  They seemed to be waiting for just the right moment to strike and strike they did with only about 30 seconds left in extra time as Toni Kroos blasted in a pass from the right side to put the game away at 3-1.  The crowd deliriously shouted "KROOS!!" three times in answer to the PA announcers call of "TONI!" What a fantastic ending to what was just an unforgettable day.

Over the course of more than 9 months on the road, our extemporaneous decision to follow the fans to Allianz Arena was one of the best ones of the entire trip.  Our afternoon watching Bayern Munich and experiencing the passion of German football fans was possibly my favorite moment of our entire adventure.  There are a couple of reasons for that.  As someone of German heritage, it's sometimes difficult to be proud of that considering the not-so-distant horrible past of the Hitler years.  I get emotional watching the NationalMannschaft mostly because I love to see the German fans so proudly wearing the national colors and I love to fly our German flag from the front of our house in Madeira.

Another factor that made the afternoon so memorable that it was shared as a family and especially between me and Ben.  German football is the one sport that we both get into the most.  He shares my love of the Reds, Bengals, Bearcats and Buckeyes, just as I did with my dad.  But for whatever reason, the one team we enjoy following together the most is Der Deutscher Fussball-Bund.  And to see that in person in such a great environment is a bond we will share for the rest of our lives.
After the glorious Bayern Munich victory, our day wasn't done.  Some friends of ours in Madeira had introduced us through Facebook to a Madeira grad who lived in Munich, and we made arrangements to meet him in one of the many outdoor beer gardens that dot the landscape of Munich.

Robert lived close enough to the one we agreed to meet at that he could ride his bike there.  The beer garden featured many picnic tables and a two-story gazebo from where a band played traditional Bavarian music.  It was a festive atmosphere, enhanced by a group of guys celebrating what we hoped was a bachelor party.  Or perhaps it was just embracing an alternative lifestyle.
At any rate, they were having a great harmless time and providing every one around them some quality entertainment. 

After a short wait, Robert showed up and we hit it off right away.  He had some great stories to tell about being an American living in a foreign country and it gave him a unique perspective about our trip that we really appreciated, having been on the road for ten months.  We shared with him our stories of traveling as a family, including some of the movies we had watched with the kids, as the German band played in the background.


It was great to meet a former Cincinnatian who was loving living in Munich and who could personally appreciate the adventure we were on as a family.  Robert traveled abroad as a pre-teen and he had some great words of experience to share with Ben and Marley about the impact that their travels would have on them as they went through their teen years and grew into adults. 

The next day was our last full one in Munich before leaving for South Africa, and we knew it would have a tough act to follow after the Bayern Munich game and meeting our new friend Robert in the beer garden.  We got up in the morning having no firm plans, which is pretty unusual for us.  Annie did some research on the internet and discovered that for a decent price for the four of us, we could take a train to Salzburg, and still be home the same day before it got too late.  So that's what we did.

The train ride to Salzburg was around two hours long, through some beautiful Bavarian countryside.  The beauty of the Austrian city lived up to the many rave reviews we had heard from friends and relatives who had been there.
After a yummy lunch we decided to take the tram up to the castle overlooking the city to take advantage of the gorgeous day we had gotten.
The view in every direction was spectacular, especially looking to the north into the Alps.  There is so much history to be absorbed in a few hours in Salzburg, but we did the best we could.  Before long, it was time to get back on the train for the ride back to Munich, accompanied by some locals dressed in the traditional Bavarian garb.
We were sad to see our time in Europe come to a close.  There was still more to see that we couldn't get to in our 90 days there.  But as we've said all along, part of the purpose of the trip was to find places we we would to return to for longer periods of time.  And we definitely found more than one of those.