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Driving a Tesla on an 1800 mile road trip

I’ve wanted a Tesla since I first laid eyes on the Tesla Roadster. When the Model S was announced, I was excited, but I couldn’t get over the price tag, and the only one I could even talk myself partly into had a sad range between charges. I wanted an all-electric car for some time, but I also like taking road trips in a comfortable car. My Audi A3 TDI was a good compromise on comfort, luxury, performance, and economy, and it served me well.

But every time I walked past that Tesla shop in Oakbrook Center, I fell a little more in love. Then I test drove one and I was a goner. I did the math, and I could indulge myself in this extravagance. We don’t have kids, we don’t have any desire to get a cottage or a boat. So we decided to do it. This was going to be a treat, pure and simple. It’s a nice bonus that it’s also a pretty green vehicle. I can charge up at work for a pittance (less than $8/mo) and most of that power is solar.

And I love it. Driving it is pure pleasure. But this post isn’t supposed to be me raving about how neat my car is. This is about how manageable it is to take an all-electric car on a long-range road trip.

The rollout of the Tesla Superchargers is what really made this into a road-trip car. Instead of driving 250 miles, then stopping for 8 hours to charge up, we’d now only need to stop for anywhere from 10 to 60 minutes, depending on where the next supercharger was. So, as long as your route included supercharging, you were good to go. The latest updates to the Tesla nav software includes “smart” routing through superchargers. I put quotes around “smart” for a reason, but more on that later.

Normally, I charge to no more than 90% capacity, but before a long-range road trip, you want to get a full charge. So, while I was working on the day our trip started, I let it get all the way charged for the first time since I’ve owned it.  It showed an expected range of 270+ miles, with an “ideal” range of 300. But there’s no way I’m hitting ideal, though I did try for a while.

You do this little calculation in your head that boils down to “I can drive slowly and spend less time at the next charger, or I can drive faster, get to the charger faster, but spend a little longer there.” If the charging stop coincides with a meal break, why not spend a bit more time there and grab a bite? Besides, this car is too fun to drive like a landboat. It’s a performance car.

Bearing that in mind, we begin!

Day One

First Leg: Chicago to South Bend.

Because I was fully charged when I left work, we could hit the road and skip the Country Club Hills supercharger. And, thankfully, the auto-routing software recognized that. It gave us a route (for the whole day’s journey to Windsor) that took us through Indiana, Ohio, then up through Detroit with brief charging stops in Mishawaka, IN (South Bend area), Angola, IN, and Maumee, OH (near Toledo). This is due to the fact that when we left there was one supercharger in Michigan on the route we were taking. We’d have charged up fully in St. Joseph, then driven slowly to barely make it to our hotel in Windsor.

The drive was uneventful and we found the first supercharger fairly easily. Nobody else was using it (there were 8 stalls total), so I parked, plugged in, and we wandered over to the adjacent mall to see what there was available. This only called for a short charging stop, (by the time I snapped this sceenshot I already had enough to continue and it was telling the time remaining for a full charge) but we decided to take in a Flat Top Grill since we hadn’t done that in a while. By the time we’d finished, I had a near-full battery, and we hit the road again.

Second Leg: South Bend to Toledo

The car realized I wouldn’t need to stop in Angola thankfully, since it’s a bit out of the way, and doesn’t have much around it. The drive to Toledo was smooth and problem-free, and we decided we’d use a short charging stop to run into the adjacent Meijer and grab some snacks for the next day’s journey. Again, by the time I snapped this screenshot, we’d already had enough juice to continue on.

Third Leg: Toledo to Windsor

Lots of construction between Toledo and Detroit. But it was late enough at night it wasn’t a big deal at all. I wish the Tesla had the option to add apps to the system. As it is, some people have done some clever things to make the on-board web browser more of a tool. For instance, I use a website designed for Teslas to be able to get a read-only view of Waze. Helpful for finding speed traps and incidents.

The border crossing was a bit slow going, and stop-and-go is a killer on the battery’s range. But I wasn’t too worried with over 100 miles to spare and knowing the hotel I’d booked had a Level 2 charger. In a Tesla, your charging rates are roughly 3-4 Miles Per Hour of charge for Level 1 (standard household outlet, 120V), 18-30 MPH for Level 2 (240V, various outlets), 100-120 MPH for Level 3 (ChaDeMo Fast Charge DC), and 300MPH for Tesla Supercharging. So an overnight at around 20 MPH would do me just fine.

Alas, pulling into the hotel, the one charger was occupied by a Volt. Thankfully, I had more than enough range left to leave it overnight, then drive to the Comber Supercharger for breakfast and kW!

We had a bit of a scare, though, as the 3G signal in the Tesla went away shortly after we crossed the border. I thought I’d read that the Tesla’s included data would work in Canada, and I was counting on that. Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, it seemed to happily switch to whichever Canadian carrier it was roaming with and the crisis was averted.

Day Two

First Leg: Windsor to Comber

This hardly counts as a leg, since it was a half hour’s drive. We left the hotel bright and early and 30 miles later hit the first Canadian Supercharger on the trip, in Comber, ON. Not a lot going on at this charging station, but it had what we needed – a Tim Hortons for some coffee and breakfast. We only needed 10 minutes at this stop, but I was hoping I could avoid a stop in Toronto since we’d be going through at rush hour. As such we enjoyed a breakfast break and let the car charge up quite a bit before hitting the road again.

Second Leg: Comber to Woodstock

The route the on-board nav wanted us to take would have us stop in Woodstock (just northeast of London), then again in Toronto, finally in Kingston, then on to our destination near Ottawa. I was hoping I could employ some deep charges and bypass Toronto entirely While charging in Woodstock, we did some lunch at Wendy’s, had a coffee at Tim Hortons, and let the beastie slurp up all the energy it could. My guess was if I charged fully, I could take the 407 bypass north of Toronto and make it all the way to Kingston for the next charge.

In Woodstock was our first Tesla sighting! While I was plugged in two other Teslas were charging and another one was pulling into the lot just as we were leaving. Up to that point, I was the lone charger at all of our stops.

Third Leg: Woodstock to Toronto area

We drove on northeastward, taking the 407 toll road bypass around Toronto (the 401 through is notorious, and I’ve experienced it enough to know I didn’t want to do that to my range). On a whim, we used the on-board browser to bring up PlugShare and look up other high speed (L3) charging options in the Toronto area, on the off chance I could top up and not have to go to Kingston at all. And we found one! The Markham Civic Center had a new Level 3 charger that was operating free of charge for the rest of the month. So we made our way there, plugged in using my handy ChaDeMo adapter, and snagged a cup of coffee at a nearby Second Cup. When we got back to the car, we were ready to go straight on to Ottawa!

Fourth Leg: Markham to Carleton Place

The rest of the drive was on scenic, twisty-turny rural highway driving at moderate speeds, with a handful of construction delays for the first 90 minutes or so. The drive was unremarkable, except that I got my first taste of what a Tesla will do to warn you if you’re going out of range.

My Tesla knows about two types of chargers. First are official Tesla chargers like superchargers and “destination chargers”, or Tesla-specific chargers that are installed at hotels or other “destinations”. They’ll charge me up at around 30MPH (60 if I had the dual charger option installed in the car). The others are places my car has previously charged. So, for example, the L2 chargers where I work, or my garage (where I’ve plugged into the house outlet for a top-up from time to time). Here, in the middle of nowhere, there’s none of that. So, as I was getting further and further from Kingston, I got a warning that I was leaving the range where I could hit a charger. I dismissed it and went on towards my destination, knowing I would be plugging in to my brother’s house when we got there.

Of course, the car didn’t know that. A little while later, another warning popped up informing us that we were now officially out of range of any chargers. Basically a “I warned you! Now you’re on your own!” message. We laughed and drove on. As we pulled into my brother’s driveway, the car was showing about 70 km of range left.

Plugging into a house with the biggest extension cord I’ve ever used

I’ve occasionally plugged in at my house for a top-up charge. At 3-4 MPH, an overnight charge gets me about 25 miles of range. That wouldn’t cut it for this, so prior to leaving I made sure my brother had an electric dryer outlet, and that it was somewhere usable. The mobile charger that came with the car has about 20 feet of length, and I had a 30 foot 50A extension cord. We estimated that would reach the car. We were close.

I eeked every inch I could out of that setup, and still had to back the car up onto the walkway and nearly into the bushes, but I was able to make it reach. The Tesla is smart about recognizing what it can and can’t draw from a particular charger, but in this case I was fooling it and had to teach it its limits. The car believed I was plugged into a 50A circuit with a NEMA 14-50 outlet. However, I was using an adapter to plug it into a 30A NEMA 14-30 outlet. Unfettered, the car would have tried to draw 40A of current and likely would have tripped the breaker in the house, but the on-screen controls let me drop it down to 26A, and I let the car happily slurp away the electricity for a nice overnight charge.

That charge would get me through the whole weekend, though I’d need to do one more charge overnight before departing on our trip home since I didnt get any opportunities to charge up elsewhere all weekend. A nice thing I noticed is when I plugged in the second time, it remembered from the location that I could only draw 26A and kept that setting for this charge.

The Drive Home, Day one

First Leg: Carleton Place to Kingston

With a nearly fully charged car, we punched in the address of our London Hotel into the nav and let it guide us. And we hit our first bout of what I can only describe as the stubborn stupidity of the Tesla supercharger routing. For as smooth as it went on the drive out, on the drive back it was oddly insistent on us making some stupid side trips. For example, I presumed the charger would route us through Kingston, then Toronto, then Woodstock and finally London. Nope! It said our first stop should be Cornwall! This is the route it wanted us to take. Instead of, say, this. I thought that was needless and crazy, so we changed the destination. This time, our destination would simply be the Kingston Supercharger. “Okay,” said the car, “let me find a route for you… here, first, head to Cornwall…”

Happily, you can remove the charging stops from the directions, at which point it routed us direct to the supercharger.

The Kingston Supercharger is neat. It’s smack-dab in the middle of a “Fashion Mall” with a hotel in the parking lot as well as a couple of restaurant options. There are other food options within a trivial walk, but since we wanted to fully charge in Kingston (in hopes of, once again, bypassing Toronto charging), we opted for a sit-down meal at Boston Pizza, despite the recommended stop time of only 11 minutes. When I pulled up there were three other Teslas charging up and one more joined us not five minutes later. One tasty meal later, we were fully charged and ready to roll out. (And I was the only Tesla left at that point.)

Second Leg: Kingston to Markham

The nav saw we had a full battery and happily routed us through to the Woodstock Supercharger when we punched in the hotel address. Unfortunately, it routed us straight through Toronto, which I really wanted to avoid. So I thought, let’s tell it we’re going to Markham, and that will make it route us up onto the 407.

A side note – I’m a capable driver, and don’t rely on my nav system to tell me exactly where to go. In fact, I’ll often disobey it when I’m sure I know better, and watch it adjust around me. However, the 407 is a weird highway. When you are coming from the west, it’s a no-brainer fork in the highway — keep right to stay on the 401, keep left ot move to the 407. But once you get past Toronto it just… ends. It never hooks back up with the freeway. It kind of turns into the 7 (a two lane rural highway) that’ll take you to Ottawa via some 90 degree turns as it crosses other highways. So, getting onto it coming from the east is not something I know instinctively how to do.

Okay, we punch that in, and the nav directs us there, but not the way I want to go and still on the 401 well into the heart of the city. We erase it and try again. And now comes brain-dead supercharger routing episode 2. It wants us to turn around and go back to Kingston (now about 20 miles behind us) and charge up for less than one minute before heading back on our way. Now, any destination we put in insists on turning around and going to Kingston first, so we turn off supercharger routing again and just continue on, navigating manually that we’d turn off the 401 just past Pickering (Brock Rd, Route 1, for those keeping score).

By the time we get to Markham, I decide it’s worth a 10 minute stop or so for a bathroom break and to top up at that Civic Center charger again. I had to wait for about 10 minutes while someone else was using it, then I was able to plug in and juice up. My phone’s data doesn’t work in Canada, and I didn’t bother buying a Canadian SIM since the Tesla’s data *did* work and wifi was fairly ubiquitous. This charger, however, required a card (which I didn’t have) or an app (which I did) to activate it. Luckily there is wifi in the area, however its signal did not reach to where the car was. So Tisha and I did this complicated dance wherein I plugged everything in, wandered over by the buildings to get a signal, sent the signal to activate the charger, and when Tisha saw it come on she’d press the start button. Worked like a champ.

We grabbed some coffee at a nearby Tim Hortons and a snack to tide us over until supper and make our way to London.

Third Leg: Markham to Woodstock, then London.

The routing was smart enough this time that it routed us to London via the Woodstock charger (in fact, it only asked for a 5 minute charge at Woodstock). However, I have certain needs when I’m in Canada. One of them is Harvey’s. To me, Harvey’s is the best fast food burger in Canada (I don’t count things like Five Guys, which is kind of a step above fast food.) And the Woodstock supercharger is a very short walk away from a Harvey’s, so our supper plans were set. Uneventful charging, got nicely topped up and we were ready to go to London shortly. My original plan had me parking the car overnight at one of a couple of L2 chargers within a mile of the London hotel we were saying at, then riding my bike back to the hotel. But since we got such a good charge at Woodstock, that wasn’t necessary at all. We simply checked in and went to sleep.

Day Two

First Leg: London to Comber

A quick breakfast in London meant we weren’t going to want to eat in Comber. In retrospect, I should have had us wait and just eat breakfast at the charger in Comber. As it was, we sat there for a little bit, but when it was evident we were simply killing time we got back to the car and figured out the plan. We got enough of a boost in Comber that it was now offering us a route that had us drive through Michigan then veer south to the Angola Supercharger in Indiana. That seemed okay by us and we went on our way.

Second Leg: Comber to Ann Arbor

See that up there? Ann Arbor. Not Angola. As we were driving, we used the plugshare page to see if there were any high speed non-superchargers just to avoid an unnecessary side trip (and the Indiana toll road). We found one, a Nissan Dealer in Ann Arbor. However, I noticed another Orange (high speed) marker on the map and hit it. “Ann Arbor Supercharger” was the name. Huh. We punched “Ann Arbor” into the Nav and the supercharger came up as a suggestion, so we hit it. Turns out this supercharger opened the day after we left.

We pulled in and plugged in with the goal of getting us to enough charge to make it to St. Joseph’s and not have to go into any unnecessary side trips. A coffee at Starbucks (I miss Timmy’s) and we were on the road again toward home!

Third Leg: Ann Arbor to St. Joseph

If I drove very slowly, we probably could have made it to home (barely) from the Ann Arbor charge, but I didn’t drive slowly and I wanted a late lunch/early supper sooner than that. When I punched in the destination of home, it came back with routing us through Angola again, which seemed silly since St. Joe’s was on the way. So I had to remove the supercharger stops and it showed us having -11% battery upon reaching home. That clearly wouldn’t work well. At various points on the journey I’d turn on supercharger routing again, and it would stubbornly insist on going out of the way to Angola (which, really, has nothing to offer in terms of killing time while charging) rather than to St. Joe’s. I’m not sure why it gets so stubborn or why it makes such non-intuitive choices like this. This is, I believe, the third software update I’ve had since this feature was introduced, and it’s not really gotten better.

The St. Joe’s supercharger has plenty to offer (and more on the way). We had a nice meal at Moe’s before embarking on the final leg of the journey.

Fourth leg: St. Joe’s to home

An entirely uneventful drive, except a brief period where I decided I’d try to keep pace with a BMW i8 that passed me, and then I decided I’d let him get the speeding ticket rather than both of us. Besides, it may be an electric, but it’s also still a gas burner.

Thoughts and other tidbits

  • It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. If I was completely trusting in the car’s navigation, I would have been just fine, just not as fast and efficient in terms of distance. The brain-dead and stubborn supercharger routing needs some tweaking. If a supercharger stop shows up as requiring “0 minutes”, why even include it, especially if it requires going out of your way or even backtracking?
  • I could have made do with nothing but the Tesla Superchargers on the route, only going off-script for charging at the places I was staying.
  • Sites like PlugShare.com, Supercharge.info, and EVTripPlanner.com are tremendously useful when planning out the trip. And plugshare’s custom Tesla interface for the in-car browser works like a champ for improvising on the road.
  • The ChaDeMo adapter is not cheap (though it used to be $1000, so that’s better), but if you want to do a road trip I think it can be indispensable as it opens up so many more fast charging options.
  • The extension cord was a life saver.
  • So happy the car’s 3G worked so well in Canada. I was able to get map updates, browse, and stream Slacker the whole time with only one or two dead spots that lasted only for a couple of miles.
  • At the Kingston Supercharger, I don’t think I’ve ever heard my car be so loud. When supercharging, the A/C works very hard to cool down the battery, and on this hot day it was working so hard it actually kind of sounded like my car had an engine.
  • There’s something really satisfying about being able to pass a car or truck any time you want to without the car ever struggling. Even at 70MPH, if I floor it, I’m up to 90 in a heartbeat and past whatever I was looking to get around.
  • If I had an iPhone, the app would alert me when my car has enough charge to reach the next destination. For some reason the Android app lacks this ability, but they tell us it will come.
  • Some people notice the car and ask questions (the Canadian border agent was asking me about it after he’d grilled me enough to determine I wasn’t a threat), and people will come up to you at the superchargers to ask about them. We had a bunch of kids waving at us as we’d pass them or they’d pass us at various points in the journey.

Other pics and stats:

  • The first day: You can see where I was charging at work (pink line at ~200V), then supercharging (over 400V). Looking at the grey line, you can see when I really laid on the acceleration.
  • The second day: The supercharger stops are pretty clear, then the constant charge I got once I was at my brother’s place. The app I run to collect these stats stopped communicating with the car midway through the trip home when we hit a dead spot, and it never seemed to recover. So no sexy stats for the trip home.
  • Collection of pics, most of which are linked in this post.
  • The route we took on Google Maps, not including day trips into Ottawa proper.
  • Trip Meter A is the road trip total

Fandom

Anyone who’s seen my twitter feed or Facebook feed for these past couple of months will have surely noticed a high amount of posts related to hockey, specifically the Blackhawks.

Anyone who knew me growing up would find this absurd. I never followed sports or showed any interest in it. Blasphemy for a Canadian when comes to hockey, but there you go. I paid some attention to the ’92 and ’93 Blue Jays winning the world series, but otherwise I was generally oblivious to sports.

I had my fandoms mind you. I could geek out about Star Trek, Star Wars, and various other fantasy or scifi properties with these best of them.

And that’s what’s kind of funny. We can sit there as intellectual geeky people and hold ourselves to be above the jock culture, but really it’s not about that, it’s just about finding something you derive enjoyment from and finding ways to derive further enjoyment from it. Be that gaming (tabletop or video), sports, or being a spectator. It’s still just latching on to something you like and riding it.

I find it funny that as someone in my mid forties I’ve become such a follower of the sport of hockey, given I spent the first 23 years of my life in Canada and couldn’t be bothered to give it a second thought.

But, somehow, I’ve become a fan of the sport, and the team that represents my adopted hometown (can you believe I’ve lived here for over 18 years?). I’ve also become a fan of NFL football, and am a new season ticket holder to the Chicago Fire MLS team, but that’s a different story.

I’ve thought about why I’ve chosen to invest some fraction of my happiness into how well a group of well-paid athletes (who are mostly not from here) fare in a contest with 29 other teams/cities represented. And the thing is, I can’t give a good reason beyond "it makes me feel good".

I never much followed hockey as a kid. My primary exposure was playing "knock-downs" with my brother, Fred, and him telling me who the players were. He was (and is) a Bruins fan to the core. Sure, he’d talk about the big names at the time, but the tales of the quintessential Bruins dominated. Bobby Orr (obviously), Phil Esposito, Gerry Cheevers, etc. I learned the names of the big players, and they stuck with me. But I never really appreciated the full history.

But I generally tuned out sports. I never bothered to learn the rules, and the games generally interfered with my preferred TV viewing regimen (especially in the summer when we had no cable). By and large, I vacillated between ignoring or loathing it.

But here we are, many years later, and like the people who cheered on their knight in the joust, or their gladiator in the coliseum, I cheer on my favorite hockey team. And it makes me happy.

Ultimately, it’s not really defendable on a real intellectual level. And maybe it shouldn’t be. It’s something lower level, something more reptilian, maybe.

If they start stinking up the joint, I may not invest so much of my happiness in they outcomes of the games. But for now, I want to enjoy the ride.

Vienna

So, I never got around to writing up our Vienna experiences.  Our last night in Vienna was spent in a hotel, so I didn’t have the keyboard I had at the apartment.  And since then I’ve been busy and/or tired.  After finally uploading some photos and updating posts, the previous entries now have links to photos in them, if you’re interested.

Prague, Bratislava, Budapest.

A Google+ Photo Story is also available.

We arrived in Vienna in short order after leaving Budapest.  There’s a nice high speed train that links the two cities, and we were there in a little over 2 hours.  There was some weird police activity going on at both points of the train ride.  While sitting in the station, some Hungarian police boarded the train and started asking some seemingly random people in the seats near us (but not us) for passports.  Nobody was able to produce any, and were asked to accompany the officers off the train.  Okay, that was weird.  Then, between the last stop before Vienna and the Vienna stop, some Austrian police came through and asked random people around us (but, again, not us) for passports and other things, and those people were then rounded up into the adjacent car.  No idea what was going on there, it was a kinda weird start to the last leg of our trip.

Our flat was immediately adjacent to the train station, as I’d noted previously, so we were quickly set up and on our way for our first day in the city.  For the first time since my unsuccessful attempt in Prague, we decided to get a SIM for our wireless modem since they were so cheap (€5 for a SIM w/ 1GB of data).  That worked flawlessly, and we were able to pick up a few bags of Tisha’s new favorite snack (which, of course, is not available in the US).  We hit the Vienna cat cafe for a bit, and also visited a great little Christmas market (here’s a 360° view of it).  We visited the Slovak center in Vienna to take in an exhibit of Christmas decorations that our host in Bratislava invited us to.  A nice, fun day, all in all.

Our next day, we did a city walk with a stop in the St. Stephens church and its associated Christmas market. Our self-guided walk took us through some of the sights and the main pedestrian mall, as well as the Capuchin Crypt.  Ultimately it ended at the Palace grounds (where there was yet another Christmas market), and from there we made our way  towards a cafe for some coffee before walking to the city hall and its associated (and huge) Christmas market. After exploring the market and enjoying walking the city some more, we made our way back towards Stephensplatz for some dinner.

After a nice morning coffee, we hit the main big street market in Vienna, “Naschmarkt.”  Enjoyed a nice lunch at an authentic feeling small gasthaus named “Landssknecht Treff”. We decided to visit the Opera House for a tour.  I’m glad we did, it was so inspiring it made me want to go to the opera for a performance, so we bought some cheap seats for the following night. We rounded out that day with the Music Museum (Haus der Musik) for their weird, fun exhibits, some beers at a local brewpub (1516) before dinner and adjourning for the night.

Our following day was all indoor activities, mainly spending a day at the very impressive Museum of Fine Arts, followed by the opera we bought tickets for.  It was an Italian opera telling a version of the Cinderella story, called La Cenerentola.  We both really enjoyed it, and were impressed with the view from our supposed sub-par seats.  We were in the Procenium seating, so in a box by the stage.  But we could see most of the activities just fine (unlike the poor people behind us who could not see a thing).

On our last day, our intention was to visit Schöbrunn palace.  I’d mistakenly assumed it being a lousy day and being December would mean the tourist crowds would be minimal, but I was wrong.  They had long enough wait that we would have spent the day waiting to just get a little time in the palace, so we hiked back to the center for a visit to the Albertina museum, which we both really enjoyed.  Earlier in the day I’d made a dinner reservation at this wonderfu little restaurant we’d found called Gasthaus Poeschl, which is where we headed after another visit to the Vienna cat cafe.  The restaurant was simply fantastic.  The food was delicious and very authentic, as was the clientele.  It’s a tiny place, with maybe seating for 50 people, including at the bar (where Tisha and I were seated).  Great beer, great food, and at the server’s suggestion we did a little after drink of Nusserl.  I have a mission to try and get bottles of this, but it looks pretty much impossible to find outside Vienna and Germany.

That wraps up our 2014 European adventure.  Another fantastic trip!  Can’t wait for the next one.

Budapest

This trip was all about doing things we’ve never done before. Going to countries and cities we’ve never seen, discovering new cultures and languarages. This was, by far, the furthest from our comfort zone. In past trips we either knew English was abundant enough that we’d have no trouble whatsoever (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands), or the main language was one that at least one of Tisha or I had some training in: France (me), Germany (Tisha), Russia (Tisha), Belgium (French in the parts we visited), Switzerland (German). But aside from Vienna (where German is spoken), this was going to be new territory. People generally speak a little English, but you’ll find some who really don’t, or are as self conscious about their English as I am about my attempts to mangle their language. But we got by just fine.

In any country we’ve visited, you can typically get by with only English, but if you have a phrasebook or dictionary for the times there’s too much of a barrier (or to help you decode a menu), and just make it a point to learn the courtesies and pleasantries, you’ll get by just fine. Czech and Slovak are similar languages, but not the same. Thank you in Czeck is pronounced “DRAH-koo-yeh” (where the DR is more of a dzr sound with a rolled r). In Slovak, it’s “DRAH-koo-yem”. But “please” in both is “PRO-seem.”

But, Hungarian? Throw all that out the window. The Hungarian language is nothing like its neighbors. Its closest relative, for some reason, is Finnish, but even those are only distantly related. Hungarian “thank you” is “KUR-sur-nerm”. “Please” is “KAY-rem”. So just when I’d gotten used to saying “dobry-den” for hello/good-day in Czech and Slovak, in Hungarian we switch to “YO-na-poht”.
You get used to it after a day or so, but it’s disconcerting to switch so frequently. Thankfully, by the time we hit Austria, I could fall into my little bit of survival German pretty easily, having been in German-speaking countries a few times. “Bitte” and “Danke” are like second nature. “Grüss gott” is a bit different that “Guten Tag”, but is easy enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself, at this point in the tale, we’re in Hungary, so on with that.

After another delightful breakfast with our Bratislava hosts, we made our way to the train station for our train to Budapest. Not too long a ride, just under three hours. Upon arriving in Budapest, the weather was not any different than what we’d faced most of this trip – rain, drizzle, and occasionally fog. We met our charming host at our flat in the city after a short bus ride. He gave us plenty of tips and recommendations, then left us to our own devices, se we strode off to discover the area.

We walked the main shopping drag near the apartment (Andrássy út), often called the Champs-Élysées of Budapest. Very pretty, very pricey. We got to check out yet another Christmas market, and ride a big overpriced Ferris wheel (much like we did in Paris last year). Our post-supper activities were limited to another attempt at shoe repair by me, some much needed laundry thanks to a machine in the flat, and a frustrating attempt to stream the Packers game on my tablet (that was ultimately successful, but we fell asleep before the game ended).

The next day, it rained, so we relegated ourselves to indoor activities. Up until now, the rain has been sprinkles or drizzle, but this day was outright raining to the point we had to break out the umbrella. We went to Matthias church over on the Buda side up the hill, which was quite impressive. But the rain did in my last attempt at shoe repair, and I knew I was fighting a losing battle. My feet were soaking wet and cold, so off to the mall we went, back to the Pest side of things. We found a Tesco, and I bought a pair of sneakers and some dry socks (my feet were soaking by this point). After changing into dry shoes and socks (which felt *sooo good*), I tossed my water-logged shoes into the trash, and after a bite to eat we made our way back to Buda to do the Hungarian House of Wine. Turns out the place was inexplicably closed, possible for good. So we figured we’d try the wine cellar across the street at Hilton. Alas, they were closed for holiday. Sigh. I will not let this get me down. We took the bus/metro back to Franz Liszt square (where we were staying), and had a lovely chicken paprikash dinner, and some grog. Yum.

Our last full day in Budapest proved to be a rainy day again, so we took off to do the parliament tour, then the fine arts museum. We were going to try to do a river cruise, but the weather just wasn’t going to make that worthwhile, so instead we found a charming little cat cafe to go hang out at before supper. This place had five or six cats with free reign over 3 floors of the place. Some would come to hang out with you, some would let you come pet them. We stayed for a coffee (for Tisha) and a couple of beers (for me), and unwound surrounded by cute kitties.

And that’s all she wrote for Budapest. We’ll be back, if only to see the beautiful city without the clouds and the rain. Next entry I’ll sum up our wonderful Vienna visit. Until then, jó éjszakát!

Bratislava

As I sit here at the end of our third night in Vienna, I think about two things. One is that I am way too immature to avoid making tons of wiener jokes every time I see it written down, and the other was how much fun our short stay in Bratislava was.

Well, before I talk about Bratislava, I’ll tell a short story. Leading up to when we would be leaving, I noticed my shoes were making a squishy sound when I walked in puddles or they got wet. I ignored it, because I’m an idiot. The day before we left I noticed I’d worn holes in the bottom of the soles. I did *not* want to be breaking in a new pair of shoes for a 2 week vacation that would involve walking miles every day, so I bought some shoe repair goop and took a decent attempt at waterproofing the soles to last until I got back. I loved these shoes. They were super comfortable and I used them for last year’s vacation just fine.

By day 2 in Prague, I could tell the job wasn’t holding up, so I got some more goop from a shoe repair place down the street form our flat and made another attempt at repair that night. It held up *okay*, but by the time we hit Bratislava it was going downhill fast. So that’s where we pick up the journey.

We left the flat early in the morning and made our way to the train station to catch our 4+ hour train ride to Bratislava. Finding our host in Bratislava was easy and went exactly as planned. I’d mentioned earlier how we were doing Airbnb stays exclusively this trip, and I tend to prefer to find a place where we can rent a whole apartment. However, for this trip, since we were only staying a couple of nights, an interesting opportunity arose. We found a host who was renting a room with its own bathroom in a nice modern apartment in Bratislava, but we would be sharing the apartment with her, her husband, and her kitty named Pif.

So, despite this place being a 5th floor walkup (which is to say 6th floor for us North Americans), how could we turn down staying with a kittycat? We’re glad we did. Ingrid and Stephan were excellent hosts and spoiled us rotten. They treat it like a real Bed and Breakfast, so we got the whole treatment with coffee and a *wonderful* homemade tiramisu when we arrived. Breakfast every morning was a lovely continental breakfast with delicious coffee (and when she learned I had a cold, she made me some excellent ginger tea). We couldn’t have felt more welcome, and their kitty was super cute and adorable (and very much wanted to be in our room all the time).

During our brief stay in this tiny city, we got out and explored a nearby shopping center, saw the Church of St. Elisabeth (Blue Church), visited a couple of Christmas markets (of course), had more hot mead, punch, walked through an old cemetery, explored the old town, and bought some insoles for my shoes in an attempt to keep my feet dry, since they had now graduated from making squishy noises to simply taking on water. And it was raining more frequently. The insoles gave some minor relief, but I was not optimistic.

Oh, and we saw a hockey game.

I want to talk about that hockey game – it was amazing. It was a small arena (by NHL standards), with a hockey capacity of around 10,000 people. But this crowd was amazing, and it was infectious. I was so into this team winning, and I had never heard of them before we started planning this trip. They had a small section in one of the ends (nearest our seats, actually) that was standing room only, and had a fan-made cheering section. People with drums, flags, leading chants. This was a team that was flirting with last place at the time, but these fans were super into the game. And, my fellow Blackhawks fans who see games at United Center will appreciate this, they kept their butts in the seats while the puck was in play! Nobody sitting on their phone talking to people and getting up, blocking views without regard to what’s happening on the ice. Everybody waited until the breaks in play to do anything. And there weren’t so many breaks in play, either. Maybe one TV timeout per period, tops.

Here’s a video of what it sounds like during play — you can barely hear the official audio and sounds since the crowd chants are so loud: http://youtu.be/711TxOZF4HY.

It was a great game, we saw a penalty shot, it went to overtime, it went to a shootout, and Slovan won. I had the seats in the corner for around €17 (tickets ranged from €12 for standing room to €22 for the best seats which were sold out when I tried to buy them). I felt like I was at a playoff game, and we both had a ton of fun. I highly recommend it.

So, that’s the Reader’s Digest version of our visit to Bratislava. It, like Prague, is another place I can see myself going back to, especially since it’s so close and convenient to Vienna.

Next up, I’ll recount our stay in Budapest, wherein we learn that the most picturesque cities can suffer from a coldness that creeps into your soul and unceasing rains that creep into your soles. But, it was still a great city!

Dobrú noc!

Trip Update: Prague

I’ve been pretty quiet on this trip aside from the sporadic facebook or twitter update. That’s mainly been due to the fact that I don’t like writing anything of substance on an on-screen keyboard, and unlike last year I did not bring my bluetooth keyboard with me in an effort to keep things as minimal and light as possible. Mission accomplished, BTW, this is the lightest I’ve traveled. The bag with everything I’m wearing/using fits comfortably on my back and into the overhead bin of any plane. And I can wear it for hours without issue.

I write this from Vienna, where the apartment we’re staying in happened to have a USB keyboard that I could plug into my tablet, so I’ll happily chug away the next couple of nights before bed providing some minimal details and pictures. I like to do this to help me remember what I’ve done, to. We travel for the experiences, so it’s best to commit them to memory. I’ve tried to keep the minutiae to a minimum. So, let’s begin with the first city on our trip, Prague.

We arrived in Vienna after a night of flying, and had a couple of hours to kill before our afternoon train to Prague left for Vienna, so we wandered around the area near the train station and grabbed a quick lunch. This actually worked out well for us, since it turns out the apartment we were staying in during the last part of our trip is *right there*, so the familiarity with the neighborhood helped us find it. But that’s the later part of the journey, and we’re not there yet. And thus, back to Prague.

Our train ride was long (4.5 hours) but relaxing. I had directions on how to find our Prague apartment from our host (we’re almost exclusively staying at places found on Airbnb.com for this trip with only one night of hotel stay immediately preceding our flight home). Unfortunately, as has come to be the norm on our travels, not everything went according to plan. The directions would have been perfect, if not for construction making the tram take a different route and us getting off about 1 kilometer away from where we wanted to be.

I also had the wrong phone number saved for our host, so I couldn’t call him. I had no data service here, and couldn’t find a place with wifi, so we asked around for directions. The English of the people I asked or help was only marginally better than my Czeck (which was limited to please and thank you, at this point), but we got close. Our host called my phone when we were late (about 30 minutes past when we were expected) and he realized the construction messed us up, but he got us back on track and walked to meet us and walk us back to the apartment.

With that snafu out of the way, we were set. The next morning, I spent a little time trying to get a data SIM working in my wireless modem, but it was not working out and I decided that wifi was ubiquitous enough in that city we could get by without it. It worked out pretty well, too. We decided to employ that strategy almost universally.

Over the next few days, we did a bunch of sightseeing, though I don’t have a lot of photos to show off because it was really pretty dreary most of the trip and didn’t lend itself well to photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being there, but it just wasn’t generally something that my little digital camera was going to make worth looking at. I look forward to visiting when it’s not rainy.

Our adventures include:

* walking from new town to the castle quarter via Charles bridge. (many walks across the bridge, as our apartment was almost adjacent. It’s quite pretty.)
* climbing the hill to the top where the Prague castle is, checking out the church and other sights at the castle.
* visiting many a Christmas market, and having many a delicious hot wine (or other similar hot, alcoholic drink).
* riding funicular to Petrin, and climbing the 299 stairs up their mini Eiffel Tower
* discovering a local treat called honey cake (medovnik)
* touring the astronomical clock tower
* touring the museum of medieval art
* discovering people bring their dogs into restaurants with them, and having some surprising (and cute) dining companions at a delicious Thai place.
* walking the Havelska market
* visiting the Communism Museum
* visiting the tiny Mucha Museum (which I really enjoyed)
* walking through Jewish quarter
* having soooo many pilsners.

Oh, and I caught a cold. Not enough to keep me down, just enough to be an annoyance. But, boy, am I glad I packed my decongestant nose spray “just in case”. My recollections from past trips were that the cold meds over here are just not very effective for me.

And so endeth the whirlwind first stop on our trip. Traveling from 6PM Saturday (Chicago time) to 10PM Sunday (Prague time), then Monday – Thursday taking in what we could. I’ll post some pics once they’re done uploading and link them here.

Next installment, Bratislava, featuring so many stairs, a cute kitty, some wonderful hosts, and an awesome hockey game.

Dobrou Noc!

Monday through Thursday, France and England

Monday was our last full day in France. We started out by visiting the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, followed by the cathedral in town. Both very impressive sights to see if you’re in the area. The cathedral is simply breathtaking and enormous.

This took us to just about noon, at which point we hit the road to make our way to Calais, via a slight detour to visit the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel. This is a memorial set up to honor a regiment from Newfoundland, most of whom lost their lives in a catastrophic battle in WWI. Up until this, all the war-related visits we’d done were from WWII.

We *just* made it, getting there about 4:15 (it closes at 5), so we were just getting the last sunlight of the day as well. The memorial is beautiful, and it’s rather striking to walk through the trenches the soldiers fought in. There’s a visitor’s center with a good exhibit and lots of information that’s run by the Canadian government, and staffed by Canadian students working abroad.

Going there added about an hour to our driving, but it was worth it. We made it into Calais just around 7, and after a dinner in town we called it a night.

Tuesday, we did breakfast at the hotel, then dropped the car off at the ferry terminal. We checked in early enough we were able to take an earlier crossing than the one I’d booked — this worked out pretty well, since it prevented us from navigating the tube with our luggage during rush hour. As it is, by the time the ferry crossing to Dover and train from there to London was done, it was around 3:45 (we gained an hour in crossing from the continent as well). As it worked out, we got to our hotel just around suppertime. So after dropping our bags, we hit a pub for a pint, then hit a Wagamama for supper.

Wednesday we set out to do something we’d not yet done in London — see a play in London’s West End (the London equivalent of Broadway). We’d had our sights set on "Jeeves and Wooster in Absolute Nonsense", as it was starring Steven Mangan, someone whose work in the show "Episodes" we quite liked. Plus it was getting very good reviews. So we got our tickets for the matinee showing (very nice seats, 7 rows back, center). At this point, we discover Mangan was suffering from a bout of pneumonia and was limited to doing one show a day. This, no matinees. Crap.

That being said, his stand-in was fantastic, the rest of the cast (all two of them) were just spectacular, and we thought it was a very funny show and a great experience. Lots of fun. After the show, we hit one of our favorite pubs (Ye Olde Mitre) for a couple of pints.

Our Wednesday night activity was to visit the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and do something neither of us had really done since we were both school age — go ice skating. What a blast! We wee both very cautious at first, but it came back to us. I managed the whole hour without once falling (woohoo!), and Tisha only fell once due to her being brave and trying to pick up something someone had dropped on the ice.

Thursday, we started the day by checking out the Selfridges department store and their Christmas displays. We met up with our friend Ben for lunch and beer at another of our favorite pubs, the Bree Louise. Great beers, great pies. Yummy.

After lunch, we braved a bit of a wind and rain onslaught and headed to the National Portrait Gallery. Finally, a quick dinner at a local pub was in order. We were nearby a place called the "Maple Leaf", a Canadian-themed pub. Canadian flags everywhere, hockey being shown on the TV (albeit a game from the start of the week), and Canadian beer (among other more traditional offerings). It was a neat experience.

Tomorrow’s our last day here. We’ll visit the Tate Britain gallery, hit another favorite pub, and play it by ear from then on. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Some photos from the above adventures:

https://www.dropbox.com/sc/qojq547tdj9k3np/QoiYSGXmPX

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