The time I washed Sarge’s passport

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Our latest European weekend road trip started with us loading up the car and checking to make sure we had everyone’s passports. Sarge thought I had packed his, but I just had mine and the kids’. So he went back inside and discovered his passport was in the pocket of a pair of his work pants that I had put through the washing machine.

We tried in vain to flatten the pages as we started our drive. We weren’t sure we’d make it past the border crossing on our way from Croatia to Slovenia, and we almost didn’t. The Slovenian border guard was definitely not pleased. He grumbled and looked like he was going to toss it in the trash. Eventually, he scanned and stamped our passports and let us through. I still have lingering border-crossing anxiety.

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When we made it to our Airbnb in Ljubljana, our host, Vandana, welcomed us with maps and a wealth of information about the capital city. She also runs a youth hostel, is a painter and a yoga teacher and is a real ambassador for Slovenia. We talked for half an hour about the region’s history, parks, caves and attractions.

Meanwhile, Sarge found a heavy table leg to press his passport, and the kids found an English-language movie channel and the wifi password. We had to pull the boys away from the screens to set off to see Ljubljana’s bridges, castle and dragons.

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We managed to miss the river cruise I had already paid for, the second time this has happened to us in a river city on our travels. I think the lesson here is to avoid buying boat tour tickets in advance. The boat will leave without you.

We abandoned our original plans and wandered past government buildings, Slovene statues and pedestrian bridges in search of food. Sarge and the kids saw a sign for a “Burger Bar,” and we decided we had to check it out. We hadn’t had American-style burgers in six months. The way they serve them in the city where we’re living in Croatia is more like Croatian meat patties on flatbread.

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I’m not sure if it was because we had skipped lunch or that the burgers, French fries and onion rings were that good, but we enjoyed the comfort food of Pop’s Place. I read later that it’s considered one of Europe’s top burger joints. I’m glad we ran into it on accident.

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There’s so much to say about Ljubljana (one of my newfound favorite cities) that it will take a few posts to get to everything. (See upcoming posts about the Ljubljana Food Tour and the castle).

For me, one of the highlights was just strolling through it. It’s small and walkable. Ljubljana stopped allowing cars in its city center in 2007. Now, its core is a pedestrian zone with open-air markets, shops and cafes and interesting architecture in every direction.

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We left our mark on Ljubljana by hanging a “lock of love” on Butcher’s Bridge. While Sarge and I have not yet made it to Paris see the famous love locks over the River Seine, I like the idea of leaving a symbol of unbreakable love alongside locks of thousands of other couples. Sarge carved our initials onto a padlock, and the kids took pictures as we locked it on the bridge and threw the keys into the river. They didn’t even cringe when we kissed.

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It’s hard not to fall in love with Ljubljana itself. I don’t know if many Americans have heard of it, much less can pronounce it (Americans call it “loo-blee-ah-nuh.” Local pronunciation is more like “lyoo-blyah-nah.”) It somehow escaped my memory of learning geography and names of capital cities. Part of me would like to keep it a secret. It’s still relatively uncrowded and underrated. It looks like something out of a fairy tale and even has tall tales about dragons to go along with it.

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Just don’t tell anybody else how great it is. I’d hate to ruin it.

 

Pigeons in the Piazza

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Back when we were young newlyweds, Sarge and I planned a European rendezvous.

At the time, he was serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, and I was working as a newspaper reporter in Hawaii. We met up on his mid-tour leave in Germany, rented a car on an Army post and set off for more countries than we had ever been – all in the span of two weeks.

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One of my favorite spots we visited was Venice, where we stayed in a hotel off the beaten path that had interesting artwork on the walls and a romantic arbor-covered restaurant in the back garden.

When we made spur-of-the-moment plans last week to take a weekend trip to Venice, I pulled out my worn Italy guidebook that I packed from the States and searched for that little hideaway. Of course, it was completely booked. It’s July in Venice. But through the magic of the internet, I found a reasonably priced apartment across the canal on the island of Giudecca, and we piled in our tiny rental car for another European road trip.

We told the boys we’d do all of the quintessential touristy things we could fit in a 24-hour tour, including taking in the art and architecture, a gondola ride, Venetian food and souvenir shops.

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I had forgotten about the birds. I had no idea one of my boys’ lasting memories of Venice might just be playing with the pigeons.

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As soon as we entered St. Mark’s Square, it wasn’t the breathtaking beauty of what Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe” that they boys noticed. It was the hundreds of pigeons and what seemed like almost as many Bangladeshi birdseed hawkers.

Half a dozen vendors accosted us, shoving bird food in the boys’ hands and roses in mine, and putting their palms out to Sarge for money. It probably cost Sarge 40 euro for us to walk across Piazza San Marco.

“We’re not spending money,” Sarge explained when I urged him to stop handing out coins. “We’re making memories.”

Those street hawkers loved us. The boys made it out of the pigeon frenzy alive, and I ended up with a dozen red roses.

I also had a chance to relive some nostalgic memories. We took that gondola ride with the kids, just like Sarge and I had done years before.

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And the next morning, we found that hotel with the grapevine arbor. It wasn’t open to the public for breakfast, but we snapped a few photos anyway.

We picked up some souvenirs, a glass bracelet for me and fedoras for the boys. “W” talked me into letting him get a dog, at least one made of Murano glass. Thank goodness he didn’t pick a pigeon. Those things will give me nightmares.

Road Trips and Memories

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When I was a kid, we went on family vacations every summer, and those trips are some of the highlights of my childhood memories.

My dad, an avid boater, liked to go to the water. My mom, a teacher, liked to educate us with history and culture. So we usually did a little of both. Dad strategically packed everything for our family of six. Sometimes we rented an RV – once to Walt Disney World and once to Canada. On another trip, Dad towed the sailboat to South Carolina. And for several years, we rode in style in the family van that he configured with a table and benches that collapsed into a bed. Mom made the brown cushions and the curtains, and we had plenty of room to play games, color or sleep.

We always had maps and a giant road atlas that I’m sure my siblings and I fought over to pinpoint where we were going and whether we were almost there. I remember my older brother being an excellent navigator. I miss those maps.

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On our European mini road trip this weekend, we relied on our phone apps to get us to our destinations. My phone service didn’t connect outside of Croatia, so it was hard to tell what country we were even in just going by road signs that I couldn’t read.

Some things, though, are universal. Border crossings are exciting, whether it’s a state or a country. And as much as I love having authentic experiences meeting people who can talk about what life is like where they live, I still love touristy stuff.

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I like double-decker buses that you can hop on and off to get an overview of a city. I like watching street performers and wondering how they endure wearing body paint in the summer heat. I like landmarks and statues and taking goofy pictures with the kids. And I like seeing the world from my kids’ perspective.

One of the boys’ favorite parts of the trip was spotting Ferrari sports cars in Budapest, Hungary. If they were going to have a scrapbook from this trip, it would include pictures from their self-guided tour of the parking garage near the apartment we rented, where they excitedly documented cool cars.

That scrapbook also would include a picture of the architectural sculpture directly across the street from the apartment we rented. “A,” who is 11, opened his bedroom window to take pictures and giggle. “Mom!” he said, “Doesn’t it look like he’s taking a selfie naked?”

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“A” liked the hustle and bustle of Budapest’s urban core and the tall buildings and people milling about. “I’m going to miss this city,” he said when we left. “I’d like to live here for a few days.”

“W,” our 10-year-old, liked that our Airbnb rental was above a Lego store. And he was impressed to learn that the man who invented the Rubik’s Cube was from Budapest.

The next day, Vienna, Austria, became their next favorite city. Its Ferris wheel and amusement park caught their eyes as much as any palace or monument we visited.

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Our whirlwind tour of Budapest and Vienna didn’t leave us much time to cruise along the Danube River (which we tried to do, but the tour boat unfortunately left without us when there was no one to unlock the pier gate). We didn’t have time for museums or to linger in coffee shops or a chance to see one of my favorite paintings in person. But I’m sure Gustav Klimt’s works will still be in the Belvedere Museum if I make it back to Vienna.

We had the usual trip headaches (including that tour boat leaving without us!), a parking ticket and no air conditioning on a hot Vienna night. But we left impressed with the history and beauty of both cities, the grand boulevards and majestic buildings.