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Raw Data from Our Journey

I know that we have a lot of people checking out Kidding Around Europe hoping to track us and see what is going on with our trip.  The reality is that while we are out on the road we simply do not have the time and resources to keep KAE updated with all of the latest stuff.  Likely once the kids are older, this will not be so much of a problem.  With them being so young, we lose our entire evenings dealing with child logistics and there is little time left to write.  What time there is is spent struggling with Internet access problems, desperately trying to get pictures and videos uploaded and trying to write my own blog which has the raw details of our trip that we need to record so that we are able to write KAE properly.  It is exhausting.  I am actually writing around three thousand words per day on our trip while we are on the road but sadly that is not making it here to KAE.  At this point we will be writing most of the updates here remotely once we have returned.

In the mean time there is a ton of stuff for people to read and watch if you are really interested in keeping up with us.  We have three main external resources of “unfiltered” content that we will be using to assemble KAE so if you want, you are welcome to check them out.

My primary blog is Sheep Guarding Llama and I am diligently keeping it updated.  Tons of reading and long winded, but lots of details and stuff and gives you a lot of insight into us.

Our photos are all uploaded to Flickr as we go so check out the Sheep Guarding Llama Flickr Europe 2012 Photostream.

Our videos, all 1080p, get posted as clips, unedited, to YouTube.  These are not very popular, as you can imagine, and range in style from quick grabs of a cool fountain or a pan of a great vista to the kids on a playground.  Some neat stuff if you dig through.  Scott Alan Miller on YouTube.

Keep checking back, we will be adding to KAE regularly.  But if you are bored, check out our other feeds to see what we are up to!

Soft Drinks in Europe

Coming from American (or Canada) you are likely used to having abundant, cheap soft drinks available at every turn.  Soda, especially cola, but all kinds are everywhere.  Every gas station, every restaurant.  They come in huge sizes and cost next to nothing.  It is a staple of American culture.  Arriving in Europe a lot of Americans will go into “soda shock” because, quite simply, there isn’t any.

Okay, that is a bit dramatic.  There is soda available everywhere in Europe but not anything like there is in North America.  Soda selection is small, the sizes served are very small and always come from bottles not from a fountain and the price is absurd.  Europeans do drink soda but in very small quantities and as a special treat – not as a regular component of their fluid intakes.

You may think that you will just hit the grocery store and pick up cans or a two litre of soda to meet your needs.  But even in a grocery store a two litre of Coke or Pepsi that might cost you as little as eighty nine cents back in the States might set you back three Euro (think four dollars) in Europe.  Doable, but a large expense and that is just the grocery store price.

And don’t expect free refills.  That is unheard of in Europe since drinks come from bottles, not from a fountain.

I’ve asked Europeans about this and they feel that it is simply a cultural thing – prices are high because Europeans don’t drink the stuff.  In Europe people drink water, beer, wine, tea and coffee primarily.  Soda just is not a natural part of the diet.  Considering that beer and wine and available to almost all Europeans by the age of sixteen the cultural introduction to soft drinks that happens so strongly during the teenage years in American just doesn’t exist in Europe.

Traveling with kids who are accustomed to drinking soda regularly might be tough.  I highly recommend working on cutting the habit a bit before traveling so that the lack of soda is not part of the culture shock experiences when stepping off of the plane.  For kids this most likely means moving to drinking mostly water.  Thankfully tap water is clean and safe in Europe.  When we travel, even with the one year old, we use tap water everywhere without concern.  If anything, European tap water is better than water in most of the US.  And just like in the US, bottled water is ubiquitous so if you do not want to risk tap water you always have options.  Bottled water is probably more common in Europe than in the US and you must be careful because in restaurants it is bottled water by default, not tap.

Another important note about soda: if you do want soda and are used to drinking diet in the US, it is called light in Europe.  So a Diet Coke at home is a Coca Light in Europe.  Weird, I know.

In addition to different names, the selection of soft drinks in Europe is a little different.  The US has a much broader selection and some drinks rare in the US, like Fanta, are quite popular in Europe.

If you feel that soft drinks are a requirement, feel free to order them.  They are available.  But be prepared for a lot of differences especially around how much you will pay.  Americans are so accustomed to using soft drinks as the cheapest step up from tap water than having this role be replaced with beer in Europe can be pretty surprising.

For adults traveling in Europe consider moving your soda habit to beer and wine to be “native” for your trip.  This allows you to save money compared  to soda, experience local specialties wherever you travel and experience European life a bit more up close and personally.

Packing “Light”

We are traveling in Europe exclusively by rail, so we need to be able to easily manage both the children and our baggage.  In the early planning stages, we considered renting a car so that we could more easily haul our stuff around, but I don’t like to drive, so that would not have been a nice vacation for Scott who would have ended up driving most of the time.  Also, the scope of our trip would have had to be much smaller, because driving for thousands of miles around Europe is quite a different undertaking than riding the rails.  In the end, we decided that taking trains was the better option for us as a family, but for me, this decision added the challenge of packing for a family of four in such a way as to make us as agile as possible.

I first stumbled upon the packing light concept in 2004 while searching online for packing lists for Disney World.  The basic premise is that no matter how long your trip is, you should be able to fit everything you need within a carry-on sized suitcase.  You must be willing to do laundry, b0th in your hotel room sink, and for longer trips like ours, in laundromats.  It is essential to pack clothing that matches, for instance, all tops should match all bottoms, and 1 or 2 pairs of shoes should be all one needs to pack.  There are many of excellent websites devoted to packing light, so I’m not going to delve any deeper into the specifics of it here.

Now, packing light for an adult is fairly simple.  Adults don’t really need much stuff: clothes, toiletries and electronics, that’s pretty much it.  Children, on the other hand, require all kinds of peripherals: bottles, diapers, formula, blankies, toys… the list really can go on and on.  Children are less adaptable.  Our 3-year-old daughter cannot sleep without her special pink polka dot blanket and her Dora the Explorer pillow.  Our 1-year-old daughter likes her stuffed giraffe and her purple polka dot blanket.  I am confident that I will not be able to find replacements for these beloved items in Europe, so they not only must come with us, but also must be closely guarded against loss.

Here is a photo of the luggage we are taking to Europe:

2 Ikea rolling backpacks with zip-off dayppacks padded and suitable for carrying laptops, iPads and other delicate electronics, 1 umbrella stroller (Combi Flare), 1 ERGO baby carrier with matching backpack, 1 Skiphop bumblebee backpack for our 3-year-old to carry, and not pictured here an Ikea reusable shopping bag with a zippered top to use to carry snacks onto the plane, since we have a 6 hour layover between our flight to NY and our flight to London, and I have a picky eater.

I keep unpacking the luggage and looking for things to leave behind.  For example, I dumped the separate bottles of laundry detergent, dish washing liquid, body wash and shampoo in favor of a couple of 2 ounce bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Miracle Soap.  This stuff gets great reviews among light packers, so hopefully it will work out for all of the uses named above, but if it doesn’t it’s not like we’re going to be in a 3rd world country!  We can buy anything we need over there, which is important to remember.  This afternoon we watched Rick Steves’ Europe travel skills episodes, and in one of them he said “Pack for the best case scenario.”  I’ve been pondering that advice all evening, and am seriously considering removing half the amount of diapers I currently have packed.  Europeans do have babies after all, so it’s not likely I will encounter shortage on size 4 diapers!  I do plan on posting the complete list of our luggage contents, but I’m going to wait until I know for sure what will make the cut.  Stay tuned!

Decisions, Decisions

When we started preparing for our first big trip to Europe with our kids we discovered that there was a real lack of good travel material addressing our needs. So we set out to produce our own.  Traveling with kids presents many challenges but also opportunities. Our trips are necessarily less about fancy restaurants, romantic getaways and extravagant resorts but having our children forces us to focus on safety, practicality and ways in which to turn our fun travel into valuable educational situations.  We are both professional consultants and always intended to homeschool our two girls in order to give them the ability to live highly mobile and flexible lives.  Traveling with them gives us the ability to turn normal travel into lessons on sociology, history, geography, art, music, anthropology, archeology and more.

Being mobile workers with kids with backgrounds in technology, media, writing and venturing into home education we felt that sharing our adventures in traveling Europe with our children would potentially be of great value.  We hope that you think so.

One of the hardest choices that we had to make on our first trip to Europe was whether to do the bulk of our traveling by car or by rail.  Unlike the United States, Europe is extremely well connected by rail and traveling that way is possible with few limitations.  When I was in Germany in 2009 I arrived in Amsterdam with no plans and just trusted the rail system to get me to the right country and city.  And it did without a problem.

At first we were planning to use trains so that we would not have to deal with expensive care rentals and the headaches associated with driving in several foreign countries – many of which have very different driving cultures than we are used to, being from the US.

But then we discovered low cost car purchase options that lead us to think that the added flexibility of the car might make sense.  In the end, however, the sensibility of riding comfortably and safely in the train, not getting lost, having the kids able to move around won out.  We decided to get an all Europe access Europass and have the ability to see the entire continent if we so chose.

As Dominica hates driving, even in her home country, I was very relieved with the choice of train over car travel.  No one wants to see Europe more than me and having to “see” it al from the driver’s seat would mean that I would miss most of it and be very sad.  Train travel will be much more equitable and will keep me from becoming stressed worrying about maps, schedules, sleep, etc.

After months of planning we finally settled onto a plan for our trip that, at the very least, included our end points.  Contrary to every plan that we have had thus far, we are starting our trip by flying from Newark to London and we are returning from Lisbon.  If you were privy to all of the “we think that this is the final plan” moments that we had over the past several months you would never believe that these ended up being our starting and stopping cities.

For the last several months we were sure that we were going to be flying through Dusseldorf.  Originally we had been starting in Ireland.  Now Ireland is not even making our agenda.  After Ireland we were flying directly to Warsaw, Poland thinking that I would be working there but that was changed to London.  Our flights alone have been an extremely fluid topic.

At the end we both felt that we were more upset not getting to see Iberia than not getting to see farther east.  So we dropped Prague and Berlin in the hopes of seeing Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon.  Our trip is going to be focused very heavily on very western Europe with Nottingham, England as our starting point, western Switzerland and Piedmont, Italy as our main foci and short trips down the Rhine, into France, into eastern Italy and maybe Austria and then crossing Spain and Portugal before returning home.

One of the most important aspects of our trip to us is getting enough time in each place for us to settle in and get a feel for the area.  No matter what we do the trip is going to prove to be a whirlwind and we want to make is as relaxed as possible.  We don’t want to exhaust ourselves or the kids.  We have a lot to see but we want to be a little less tourists and a little more a piece of the places that we visit.

Even with our starting and stopping cities selected there is a tremendous amount of unknown lying between them.  We know that we are flying into London and heading straight up for a several day stay in quiet Nottingham where we will acclimate to European life and the cold weather (I am writing in early march from Texas where it is already warmer than summer in England) before heading to Belgium where we will also be staying for several days.

Writing a Travel Blog

One would not expect getting temporarily laid off from work would kick off a surprise European adventure, but that is exactly where the story starts.  I got laid off for three weeks and with the free time we decided to pack up the kids and head to Europe for a much needed, long term vacation.

Dominica and I have been to Europe before.  In 2007 we spent some time in England and Northern Ireland.  We loved our time there.  I returned again, on my own, in 2009 to Germany.  We had just had our first child and it seemed like dragging her, only eleven months old, on a short trip to Germany would be problematic.

This time we were going to go for much longer and with me having been to the continent and dealing with being in a country where we did not speak the language made Dominica much more comfortable about doing it with kids this time.  This time, though, there are two kids: Liesl who is three and Luciana who is one.

In preparation for our trip we did a lot of research.  And I do mean a lot.  We acquired and read many travel guides, we watched every episode of Rick Steve’s Europe multiple times, we watched House Hunters International, we read blogs, talked to friends in Europe and joined online forums.  We weren’t just setting out to explore Europe, we were going to do it with kids.

Our trip to Europe was bounded by two very solid events – the wedding of my one cousin in New York in May and the wedding of my other cousin in June, also in New York.  We were traveling from Texas to New York for the weddings and the European vacation had to fit in between them to justify the time away from the office.  The juxtaposition of events made it make sense to actually extend the time in Europe and to work from there, rather than from New York, for several weeks.  So we made our plan to be in Europe for five weeks.

Five weeks, in Europe, with kids.  Other than my honeymoon, this would be my first honest to goodness vacation for twenty years.  Needless to say, I was a little excited.

Given the amount of time that we were going to be overseas the range of possibilities for us was nearly endless and we found the planning process to be, to say the least, overwhelming.  We started planning the trip in September but were not traveling until May.  That is a long time during which to make and change plans, which we did.

Europe is a big place full of endless options.  We decided that we had to limit our travels or we would easily talk ourselves into attempting to see absolutely everything and would exhaust ourselves and ruin the opportunity.  But on the other hand with Dominica having never seen mainland Europe and I having only seen a small corner of Germany and a bit of The Netherlands by train we really wanted to take the chance to do a “survey of Europe” and get an overall view and feel of the place.  This might be our one big chance.

Decisions, decisions.  At the beginning we thought that we were going to be starting in Warsaw and heading south spending most of our time in Switzerland and France.  It seemed like every few days we would come up with a completely different plan that involved different routes, different modes of travel and, most dramatic, different countries.  The trip was so open ended that we were having a really hard time gaining perspective.