Customs

customs

By customs, I don’t mean that it’s customary to say “thank you” when some one gives you a gift. Although if you don’t, then you’re kind of a jerk. I’m talking about the customs agents at the border of a country who inspect your passport, ask you questions, and decide whether or not they’re going to let you enter their country. I have a few friends who are serious world travelers, and they could speak to this subject with much more knowledge than I can, but I can talk about what it’s like to go through customs in 6 different countries, so I figured, why not?Let’s start with a simple question: how do customs agents in the USA compare to customs agents in other countries? The answer: we’re total prigs. Getting back in to this country, as a US CITIZEN, is a pain in the butt. Every US customs agent I’ve ever met has grilled me before letting me come home. Coming back from Canada was the most ridiculous example of this. My husband and I drove across the Canadian border to see Niagra Falls. We drove back the same day. The US customs agent asked us at least 20 questions – including “How do you know this guy?” – “Uh, he’s my husband?” – before he finally waived us through the checkpoint. I started wondering if somebody had hidden a body or some drugs in our car – the way we were being questioned, I thought for sure he was going to search us and find a dead guy in the trunk. The agent was the definition of by-the-book, and it was a tense situation.

The Canadians, on the other hand, didn’t stamp our passports (damn! no proof I was ever there!) or ask us anything other than, “Here to see The Falls? Coming back today? Have a nice time.” So my advice is this: go ahead and drive that dead body into Canada, but for Pete’s sake, don’t drive it back into the US. I don’t have any other advice on body disposal, though – sorry.

The Germans scared the crap out of me. I flew into Stuttgart, just me, alone, and they asked me about a thousand questions. I guess American girls in their twenties don’t travel alone to Stuttgart. So the German customs agent looked at my passport, looked at me, looked back at my passport – back at me. Me. Passport. Me. Passport. This went on for what felt like hours. No smiling, no talking, no nothing. I just stood there and tried not to twitch too much. Here’s how the conversation went after that:

German Customs Agent: “Why are you visiting our country?”

Me, “Uh, I’m visiting a friend.”

GCA: “What friend?”

Me, “A friend who lives here. She used to work with me.”

GCA: “How long have you known this friend?”

Me, “Uh, several years?”

And on and on and on. What is this friend’s name? Where will you be staying? When will you be leaving? What kind of food are you going to eat while you’re here? Okay, so he didn’t ask that last one, but man, I thought at one point, this guy could really give the Gestapo a run for their money! I wanted to yell, “Look! I am not a sketchy character. I even have a German last name!” Which I did at the time. Finally, he let me in. I’ve never been questioned that extensively since, but the US customs guys definitely come in at a close second.

What about the French? Ah, the French. Viva la France! I was fully prepared to answer all sorts of questions about my reason for visiting, length of my stay, etc. They didn’t ask me one question. They didn’t even look at my face as they stamped my passport and waived me past. It was great! I’d go back just for that reason alone.

And the Swiss? They just wanted money. “It’s 40 Swiss Francs to drive onto our highways. Pay up. No I don’t want to see your passport.” We just bought our way in, and that was that. Again, no stamp on the passport though. Rats!

In Mexico they were super friendly. They just smiled, asked us a few questions, and welcomed us into their country. Come! Spend your money here! So happy to have you! Free lobster dinner if you listen to a time share sales pitch.

But every time I leave the US, I come back. Which means more US customs agents. And they just don’t mess around. I haven’t even tried coming from somewhere that’s actually dangerous – I mean, we’re talking about Europe and North America! What countries were you visiting? How long were you gone? What are you bringing back with you? You know, I tried to fit that dead body from Canada in my suitcase, sir, but I just couldn’t cram him in, so really, just some wine and chocolate.

Next on our international travel list: an island, and we’re bringing the kids. Can’t wait to see what kind of questions they get hit with. I am sure of one thing, Corey can’t keep his mouth shut, and he will confess to everything. “I ate 20 hot dogs, I’m bringing an illegal piece of fruit with me, and my parents have a dead guy in their suitcase.”

At the end of the day, I am very glad that these people are doing their jobs and keeping world travelers safe. I do find a lot of humor in their differences, but I’m glad they’re present to stop the people who really are trying to bring in drugs, dead bodies. Or worse.

Advertisements

A Night in Zurich (Last Day)

Image

We spent our last night in Zurich, mostly because the hotel was close to the airport. We’d spent the day visiting Jungfraujoch, and we were completely exhausted. So when we discovered that the Alden Luxury Suite Hotel was spectacular, we decided to just stay in and order room service. Ah, room service. We had originally planned to explore Zurich and have dinner out, but we quickly nixed that idea.

The Alden is a boutique hotel with only 20 rooms, much like our Paris hotel. But unlike our Paris hotel, the room was ENORMOUS. It was an apartment, really. It sported a huge bedroom, a living room, a dining area, two bathrooms (who doesn’t need two bathrooms?), and a balcony. The master bath was as big as my kitchen. It was crazy. Why wouldn’t we want to stay and enjoy it?

During the course of our trip, everywhere we stayed Damian noted that we were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. Most people just nodded and offered some form of congratulations, but the Alden upgraded us to that palatial room and gave us a chilled bottle of champagne. Sweet! We changed into some giant fluffy robes and ordered room service. The food was nothing to rave about, but it was fast and easy. We paired it with the champagne and some Swiss chocolates. A nice end to a wild day.

The next morning, June 1st, we rose early, checked out, hopped in the car and headed for the airport. Thank goodness it was a Sunday morning and nobody was out, because navigating the streets of Zurich was not easy. Damian had to listen to me instead of the GPS, because she just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with him. Turn here, turn there, turn over there! Oops, we missed it. When we missed a turn and went the wrong way, we came upon a group of six police cars.

Six police cars. In Zurich. And we’re getting pulled over. Panic attack anyone?

We didn’t know what was going on. My first thought was that we had taken a restricted road toward a federal building, and we were either going to be instructed to turn around or taken to the hoosegow. (Hey Mom! We got arrested in Switzerland. Can you come bail us out? It’s only a 9-hour flight. No biggie.) But the officer just greeted us, asked us if we spoke English, inquired about our business on the road that morning, and wished us a safe flight home.

Phew! In hindsight, we think it must have been a sobriety check point. At 7:30 AM. I guess the Swiss like to party.

We made it to the airport, through customs (we were asked several questions by the Swiss customs staff before we could board the plane), and to our seats for the long flight home. They were offering a free glass of wine in a plastic cup with lunch – possibly in an effort to knock everybody out – and a couple of in-flight movies. I took advantage of all of that. We made our connection in Philadelphia and took our 17-minute hop back to BWI.

We got home at 7:30 PM, so the boys were still up, which was wonderful. I missed them terribly, and I couldn’t wait to hug and kiss them. Mason was wildly excited to see us – he pretty much hurled himself into my arms – and both boys talked simultaneously non-stop about all the fun times they’d shared with their grandparents. We enjoyed putting them to bed, and we crashed hard ourselves not long after.

Would we go back? It’s a big world, and there are so many places we still want to explore. But I fell in love with Provence and Interlaken, so if we could squeeze either of those places in on a future trip, then yes. Part of me wants to just chuck it all and get a job as a waitress at the Victoria Jungfrau Hotel.

Many thanks to my wonderful husband for all his hard work planning this trip. The memories will last forever.

Ziplining in Jungfraujoch – The Top of Europe! (Day 10)

Image

We woke at 6:30 AM to begin our greatest adventure yet. On Saturday, May 31st, we traveled to Jungfraujoch – the top of Europe – at 11,745 feet above sea level. Matt Lauer went for “The Today Show” years ago, and you can see the video here: Jungfraujoch Today Show Video. It’s a fantastic 8-minute glance into just what we experienced. Worth a look. Accessing Jungfraujoch required 3 steep, expensive mountain trains and 2.5 hours of travel to reach the peak.

At 6:30 AM one of the friendly staff at the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel called our room and said, “Good morning, Mrs. Fleming.” I croaked back, “Good morning. Thank you,” and hung up the phone to begin the day. Damian was already up, and I knew he’d have ants in his pants to get started on our journey. I resisted the urge to throw a pillow over my head and go back to sleep, and instead I got up and dressed for breakfast.

Breakfast at the hotel was included with the price of the room, and the first seating was at 7:00 AM. Guess what time we got there? I’ll give you a hint: not 7:01 AM. We were the first hotel guests to arrive, and the staff seated us near the window in their atrium, which offered stunning views of the Swiss Alps. The breakfast was served buffet style, and it was the fanciest buffet I’d ever seen. (Those of you who enjoyed the Spices breakfast buffet at the Royal Hideaway may be surprised to hear that.)

We ordered drinks and then picked up our plates. Anything I could imagine was spread out before me. French toast with whipped cream and syrup, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, an enormous assortment of gourmet cheeses arranged on tiered plates, sliced meats, croissants and rolls with butter and 8 different flavors of jam (everything from cherry to orange marmalade), fruit tarts, fresh fruit (including strawberries, blackberries and pineapple), various muffins, coffee, different flavored juices, a full compliment of Japanese fair (miso soup, etc.), and a giant honeycomb with fresh honey dripping down over it. I could have sat there for hours enjoying all the delicious goodies and looking at the Alps.

After breakfast, we were able to purchase our mountain train tickets (at a discount, which was helpful, because they were pricey) from the hotel. The hotel offers no late check-out options, so we had to check out and leave our bags with the concierge. Our first train was set to leave shortly after 8:00 AM from the Interlaken Ost railway station, which was within walking distance of our hotel. Tickets in hand, we struck out for our first train ride. This is a map of the route we took (note that we went up one side of the mountain – the green path – and came down another – the yellow path).

Image

The first leg was a relatively short 25-minute ride up to Lauterbrunnen. While the views were enjoyable, we were still close to the base of the Alps at this stage. In Lauterbrunnen we changed trains and took another mountain train up to Kleine Scheidegg. This train was pretty steep, and it offered some incredible views of the surrounding mountains and Swiss towns. We switched trains once again at the station in Kleine Scheidegg for the final leg of the journey – the train to Jungfraujoch.

The final train chugged slowly up the mountainside, bringing us through dark tunnels to the peak. There were 5-minute stops along the route, allowing riders to exit the train and snap pictures memorializing the journey to the top. At around 10:30 AM, we reached the station at Jungfraujoch and got off the train to begin our tour.

There was a lot more to do and see than I expected. Restaurants, bars, shops, even an ice palace in addition to the unreal views. We came for the views, and we only expected to be up there for an hour, maybe 90 minutes. We stayed for 3 hours. 

We began our tour at the Spinx – this was the absolute highest point. From there, we had views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau mountains. Since it was a sunny day, we were able to see through the cotton-like cloud cover all the way down to the ground far, far below. People liken the views from the Spinx to the views from Mount Everest. Minus the swag of saying, “I climbed Mount Everest!” I’ll never know if that’s really true, but I must say, standing above the clouds outside of an airplane in the thin air was absolutely majestic. The surrounding snow-capped mountains only added to the magic of the place. This is a shot from the Spinx, and, if you look closely, you can see the ground through the veils of cloud

Image

We continued our tour of the area by visiting the ice palace. Everything was made of ice. The sculptures, the walls, the ceilings, even the floor – all ice. There was a sign depicting a man slipping and falling as we entered the first cave. When you’ve got international guests all speaking different languages, best to go with funny pictures. We did not fall.

Image

The next area was called “snow fun.” Here we found an outdoor area nestled high in the mountain tops which featured hiking, skiing, sledding, and ziplining. Guess which one we picked? For 20 Swiss francs, we chose the ziplining! I’d never done it before, and I thought, “If I don’t do this, I am going to regret it for the rest of my days.” So we did it. We each had to put on a harness and climb a seriously rickety ladder up to a platform where we were given a lesson on detaching from the line at the bottom.

I went first. Mostly so I wouldn’t chicken out. I attached my line, sat down, and I was off! Seeing the white mountains fly past my face, feeling the wind – oh, what an adrenaline rush! And then I wiped out at the bottom and got snow in my pants. Everybody does, though. You just land in the snow, detach yourself from the line, and stumble out of the way of the next crazy zipliner. It was great – we both loved it. Here we are, in our gear, after ziplining.

Image

After that adventure, I needed some refreshment. So we bought some hot coffee from a little bar and sat down to watch the other adventurous people, enjoying the sunshine on the snow. We walked to the plateau afterward, which is a wide flat area (hence the name) that features a web cam. We stood and waved at that webcam like idiots, hoping to get a shot of ourselves up there preserved for all time. In true, “We made it! Check us out!” fashion. There are two stills of us from the webcam, captured by my father-in-law, who got up at 1:30 AM in Las Vegas (there’s a 9-hour time difference between Las Vegas and Jungfraujoch) to find us up there. We are so thankful to him for going above and beyond.

Lunch! There are restaurants in Jungfraujoch, but, as you might imagine, they are pricey. The only way to get supplies up there is via train. But what the hell, right? You’re only there once. We sat down at a table that afforded more great views of the mountains around us and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Personally, I don’t mind paying more if the food is good and the atmosphere is nice. Damian had a lobster bisque and salad, and I had a creamy leek soup with ravioli and shitake mushrooms paired with a salad. The bread basket, which was 3.50 Swiss francs per person, offered pretzel-twisted rolls and butter. It was all fantastic.

Next stop: shopping! I have never seen my husband express so much glee over shopping in my life. He bought all sorts of nick-knacks, including a cow with a bell. Maybe it was the altitude. I bought a gorgeous smoky quartz necklace and matching earrings. That was the first trinket I’d bought for myself on the trip, so I didn’t feel guilty about dropping a wad.

Finally, after 3 hours up in the thin air, we hopped a train and made our way down the other side of the mountain, through Grindelwald. We picked up our bags at the hotel and, just when we felt like resting and enjoying the hotel, we hopped in the car and drove 90 minutes to Zurich. That drive featured the longest tunnel yet – 5,200 meters! Damian said, “Whoa. That’s a 5 K!” Yep.

We eventually made it to our hotel, totally wiped out from our adventures. But I’ll talk about that, and our trip home, another day….

Cable Car Ride in the Swiss Alps, Anyone? (Day 9)

Image

Well, we didn’t blow off the top of Mont Ventoux on day 8 of our adventure, so we opted to head to Switzerland on day 9. On Friday, May 30th, we woke for the last time in Avignon at 6:45 AM. This was way too early for the B&B owner, but she left us some croissants and cheese to take in the car with us for breakfast.

If you’re eating a sandwich, you might want to put it down, because I’m going to be offering a seriously nasty description shortly. We drove for 6 hours to Interlaken, Switzerland, and on the way we learned a few things. First, the Swiss make tunnels that are feats of modern engineering. Why go over a mountain when you can just punch a hole right through it? We must have gone through 30 or 40 tunnels of varying length. There were moments when I wondered if the light at the end of the tunnel would ever appear.

Second, we learned that restrooms along the highways are disgusting. Foul. And I’ve been in some foul bathrooms in my life. Nothing as bad as these. There were no toilets, just holes in the ground that you had to squat over. Third-world-country nasty. (shiver) We used them only when absolutely necessary, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get those horrible images out of my head. Okay, the gross part is over.

Third, when we reached the border of France and prepared to drive into Switzerland, we learned that the Swiss cared even less about who we were – and why we were entering their country – than the French. And the French just stamped our passports without even looking at our faces. I bet I could have handed over a passport picturing a 6-foot-tall Asian man and the French still would have stamped me in. The Swiss didn’t even want to see our passports. We could have lost our passports back in a Paris bar, and they wouldn’t have cared a fig. They wanted 40 Swiss francs for a highway pass, and that was it. Give us your money, and come on in!

A lady holding a money belt stopped us on the Swiss border and asked for the highway pass fee. Of course we didn’t have 40 Swiss francs, and because the last toll road had been almost 30 euros (yikes!), we didn’t have 40 euros either. Luckily she directed us to a spot where we could park and pay inside by credit card, or we would have been hosed.

After that minor adventure, we finished the drive to Interlaken and found our hotel, the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel. Interlaken sits between two lakes at the base of the Swiss Alps, and it is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I’d love to go back. And about this hotel, may I just say, WOW. It’s the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in, save perhaps The Bellagio in Las Vegas. The architecture was stunning, the room was exceptional in size and decor, and the windows in our room actually opened up to the cool air and views of the Swiss Alps. I wish we’d had more time to spend in that hotel just enjoying the space and views.

Image

We were pretty hungry after our travels, and I was dying for some coffee, so we checked our bags at the front desk and headed out to the hotel’s terrace restaurant for lunch. The weather was spectacular, and we could see the rose gardens, the park, and the rise of the Alps as we enjoyed soup and coffee. It was a wonderful respite in the middle of our frantic travels.

Because we had little time to spend in Interlaken, we decided to check in, clean up, and head out in search of a cable car ride. More adventure! We took the car and drove about twenty minutes through the Swiss countryside, admiring the lake views, the cottages up on the hillsides, the mountain trains, and the cows. Lotta cows in Switzerland. Anyway, we reached the cable car station, located in Stechelberg. There were three different legs to this trip; we could choose to take a gondola up to Gimmelwald (the first Swiss village on the mountainside), connect to a second gondola and continue up higher to Mürren (a second, higher mountain village), and/or continue up to the summit with a third and final gondola.

Gimmelwald is so isolated that you can only reach it via cable car. You can’t drive up there, giving it an isolated feel. At this point, I wasn’t sure how many cable car/gondola rides I was going to be excited for, so we just bought round-trip tickets between Stechelberg and Gimmelwald. The car was leaving in 3 minutes, so we rushed over and crammed ourselves on with the other travelers. We were surrounded on all sides by clear glass and steel, offering unbeatable views of the Swiss Alps.

And up, up, up we went! Looking up the mountainside, I felt like we were traveling straight up into the air. When we arrived in Gimmelwald, it was stunning. Just a tiny village with houses cut into the mountainside and stacks upon stacks of firewood everywhere we looked. There were no cars and very few people about; stands offering goods for sale were on the honor system (choose your item, leave your money, have a nice day!), and we saw more goats than humans. It almost felt like a ghost town. Almost. The goats and the smoke seeping out of chimneys spoke of life.

Image

We decided to take the second gondola up to Mürren. Mostly because, if it’s not the summit, it’s not high enough for Damian! But I was charmed by the quiet beauty of Gimmelwald, so I was willing to take another gondola ride and explore Mürren. Only we hit a snafu here – there were only machines at this level requiring cash for ticket purchase. No humans manning the ticket counter. So we made a plea with the gondola operator, and he agreed to take us up to Mürren, provided we bought a round-trip ticket at the manned ticket counter up there. We agreed, and we were off!

There’s nothing quite like the view from a cable car high in the Swiss Alps. We snapped pictures and pressed our noses to the glass to take in as much of the scenery as possible before we stepped off at our next destination. We arrived to find that Mürren was a bit larger than Gimmelwald, and while it also had that feel of isolation from the world, there were hotels up there rather than just tiny B&Bs. We explored the town, saw a few more humans, and while I tried to fight the feeling that I might just roll off the edge of the mountain, we decided it was time for a beer! So we found a restaurant with giant windows looking down over the mountain’s edge and enjoyed a beer. Now that was an experience.

Image

We took the cable cars back down the mountain to Stechelberg and then drove back to the hotel. We struck out to explore Interlaken, and we found a local place for dinner called The Ox Restaurant. It was great! We sat at a huge picnic table with a bunch of other diners. The people to our right were speaking German, to our left Japanese, but I didn’t feel like we were too close together. We split a traditional Swiss dish – sausage with tangy mustard sauce – and an ox burger. Have you had an ox burger? I had never had the pleasure. We both loved it. A bottle of red was a nice compliment to our meal.

We crashed hard and woke the next day for our greatest adventure to date: summiting Jungfraujoch, the top of Europe….