Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Handy European Travel Tips

We are back from our two-week vacation to Europe, and we are almost totally adjusted back to Pacific Standard Time, if passing out at two in the afternoon and waking up ready to go at three in the morning counts as being adjusted. I have not been very productive this past week in my jet lag fog, but the least I figured I could do was impart some of my newfound travel wisdom. Just think of me as a really poorly-informed Rick Steves.



Traveling on airplanes with kids
If you are considering flying long distances with children, it is best to gather up their books and every electronic device you own (iPads, iPods, Leapfrogs, etc.), put them all in a backpack, and bring that backpack, along with the children, to Grandma's house and drop them off, because you should never fly with children.

Rental cars
Don't ever rent a car in Europe. You are not qualified to drive there. Italians drive like NASCAR racers on a combination of crack and grappa. Germans drive like Formula 1 racers on a combination of meth and more meth, and uppers. Lane lines are only fun road decorations in Italy, and have no bearing on traffic patterns. Lane lines on the German autobahns are strictly followed, on the other hand. The only problem is, neither lane is built for you. Traffic in the slow lane consists of big rig trucks going slower than you want to and traffic in the fast lane consists of Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes going about four kilometers per hour over the speed of sound.

Take the train between cities. Train stations offer a wonderful opportunity to stand confused in front of a large board written entirely in Latin and scribbles, and then a great exercise opportunity where you do the steeplechase while dragging three hundred pounds of luggage after you realize your train is leaving in two minutes, four platforms away.

Buses and trams
Once you have caught your train, and then subsequently changed trains to go in the correct direction, your awaiting destination city will have a marvelous bus and trolley system. The trolleys and busses run on very strict schedules, which are not posted anywhere, and are subject to change based on the meal and nap times of the driver. The bus lines are marked with all the stops, so they are very easy to decipher if you born in the city you are visiting. If you weren't, none of the stop names will correspond to any of the attractions you want to see, so just jump on board the first large vehicle that stops for you, and see where it takes you. It doesn't matter where it goes, because all European cities are old and historic, and there is a restaurant that serves beer and wine on every corner, so you really can't go wrong.

Europeans love tolls. If you were crazy enough to rent a car, while you are still alive you will get to pay tolls. Many countries make you buy a sticker to put on your windshield. Austria is nice enough to let you buy a ten-day sticker that only costs a little. Switzerland is nice enough to let you only buy a sticker valid for the whole year, which costs enough to fund an entire road crew for a month.

Italy doesn't have stickers, because Italy loves tollbooths. Second only to Insane Cab Driver, Grumpy Toll Booth Operator is Italy's number two growth occupation. There is a toll booth at every single exit on major Italian freeways. Judging by the state of the roads in Italy, it seems that the tolls only go to support the toll booth infrastructure itself, and possibly the politicians’ girlfriends’ clothing and jewelry budgets.

Germany is the one country without road tolls. They gave up on tolls a few years ago, because everyone drives too fast to be able to collect them. They tried to install those automated coin basket toll booths, but too many hapless motorists were accidentally killed by stray Euro coins, like rifle bullets, being flung out of Porsche windows.

There is no parking. All the spots in Europe are already taken. Park on the sidewalk or in a field outside of town. (Side note: When renting a car, make sure it is no wider than the narrowest sidewalk - approximately eighteen inches.)


It is very helpful to learn a few key phrases at a minimum for each country you plan to visit. The most important one is, “This is my cousin who speaks fluently and will order food for all of us.”
Other helpful phrases include:
“Do you know anyone who would be willing to buy our children?”
“Which one of these trains has Nastro Azzuro beer in the bar car?”
“Do you take third-party American checks at this toll booth?”
“What is the bail amount?”
And, “Have you seen our car? We parked it on this sidewalk last night.”

Eating is really the main reason for traveling to Europe, so enjoy yourself. The food is amazing. Just don’t expect to eat at a normal hour, or for a normal time period. Italy is the best example of this. Lunch in Italy occurs sometime between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. Restaurants do not open for dinner until after eight o’clock. Dinner is served in courses that last approximately three hours each, so expect to be at the restaurant anywhere from three to five days. Breakfast is served the night before.

Europeans devote most of their time and energy to the culinary arts, doorknob design, castle maintenance, and road closures, so very few professionals are left over to handle refrigeration. To reduce service calls, all European refrigerators are set to keep food just above room temperature. If you have food you wish to refrigerate in your hotel or apartment, it is best to keep it in a basement, a cave, or submerged in a river. It will last longer that way. Also, do not ask for ice. Ice cubes do not exist in Europe.

Europeans don't tip. You might be tempted to take advantage of this fact, but please don't. We as Americans must keep tipping. It's our strongest advantage in the war for seating priority.


Public restrooms
Back to tolls and infrastructure for a moment, the public toilet industry is also a major moneymaker in Europe. Short of your own accommodations, you will pay to pee most places you go. In a show of love and appreciation for the next generation, kids are always free. (Or maybe they just got tired of cleaning up the accidents when the parents couldn't find enough pocket change in time.) It will cost you, the adult, anywhere from twenty to seventy cents every time you have to tinkle, so have coins at all times. Most countries have automated turnstiles, but Italy still relies heavily on the personal touch. Creepy Coin-Collecting Bathroom Attendant is Italy’s third largest growth industry.

Just resign yourself to the fact that you won't have a satisfying shower until you get home. Many showers will try to fool you by being life size. Don't fall for it. You are sharing water pressure with the entire town, or you only get hot water in six-second bursts every three minutes. Otherwise, the shower will be the size of a phone booth, if you were to miniaturize a phone booth.

Counter space
Don't expect any. Counter space in most European bathrooms consists of the little flat spot in the side of the sink designed to hold the soap. Most airplane bathrooms have literally five times more counter space than the average Italian bathroom.

Like the showers, don’t get your hopes up for powerful or robust plumbing. In many areas of Europe you are lucky to get a toilet instead of just a hole in the ground. Flush intensity ranges from “light mist” all the way up to “spilled a glass of water.”

Some places have the baffling “shelf toilet,” which has a flat porcelain plateau directly beneath your seat, with the exit hole moved all the way to the front of the bowl. Anything you happen to put into the toilet sits perched proudly on the shelf until the mighty flush, when it is (hopefully) punted off into the hole. Good call, Europe!

And then there’s the bidet
The most mystifying device in the European bathroom is the bidet. I will be blunt here, because the bidet is confusing enough as is. We Americans have a vague notion that this device is supposed to somehow aid us in the cleaning of our butts. Sure enough, the bidet is always sitting right next to the toilet, suggesting that a pants-down transfer is expected.

All the bidets we encountered had a standard-looking faucet that would shoot water horizontally across the top of the bowl, but with standard low water pressure, so as not to be able to accidentally shoot past the end of the bowl.

So, here’s the problem, Europe. If you are expecting this thing to take the place of my toilet paper, we’re going to need about sixty or seventy more PSI, here, and some kind of splash guard. This thing has a standard sink drain, so a toilet paper/water combo cleaning does not make sense plumbing-wise, even if there was a world where that would make sense practicality-wise.

In short, Europe, you have placed a low sink next to the toilet and I don’t know what you want me to do with this thing. After many hours of long contemplation, the only possible explanation I can come up with is that you want me to sit on this thing and use the water faucet in combination with one of my own hands to take the place of toilet paper. If that really is the case, I must ask you Europe, what in the actual hell are you guys thinking?  

(Side note: You probably shouldn’t ever shake hands with anyone who purposely owns a bidet.)

Well, the bidet may remain a mystery, but I hope I was able to help with some of the other stuff.

Safe travels!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume III

We were supposed to come full circle back to Milan, but...

Psychic Travel Log, Volume III – Austria

After a magical week of lounging and eating in the Italian countryside, we punched a few new holes in our belts and reluctantly got back on the spider web of confusion known as the Italian highway system, headed north to Austria.

Everyone on the roads out in the Tuscan countryside was still trying to kill us, but they seemed to do it at a slower and more relaxed pace than in the big city of Milan. Unfortunately, however, they had tractors with crazy-old trailers, so it evened itself out to be just as death-defying.

Surprisingly, we made it to the border with all of our fenders and most of the original paint. As soon as we crossed over into Austria the drivers were ninety-seven percent less crazy, and I was able to pull to the side of the road and, with some considerable effort, unstick my hands from the wheel and get the blood flowing back to them.

At the first stop for gas (which was roughly three thousand Euros per milliliter), we noticed the other glaring difference in our new surroundings. Everyone sounded different.

What were they thinking when they invented German? They’re so close to Italy. Couldn’t they have just used Italian? Everyone in Italy sounded like they were offering me warm bread and telling me it was OK to take a nap. Everyone in Austria sounded like they were hacking up a fur ball while demanding that I fix the engine and run somewhere to put out a fire.

Still, as a Schmatjen, these were my people. Strangely enough, however, not one of them knew how to pronounce our last name. I know for a fact that we don’t pronounce it right, but I at least figured they would know the correct way. Everyone in Austria and Germany made the same “what in the hell is this mess of letters?” face that we get in the U.S. Bummer. I was hoping for some insight there.

Well, at least they have schnitzel. And German beer. For all their faults with the language, they sure know how to craft superb flat, breaded meat and brew wonderful beer.

We were on a whirlwind tour through Austria and Germany. We visited Innsbruck, which is German for “Holy cow, look at this place!” My people are very appreciative of their surroundings.

We toured a salt mine in Salzburg, which is German for “Salt Town.” My people are also very literal.

We visited Neuschwanstein Castle, which is German for “this is a two-bazillion square foot castle, but you’re only allowed to see the porch.” My people are not very welcoming with their big buildings, either, I guess.

Then we drove to Bamburg, Germany, which is another really old city with a lot of really old stuff. It was one of the only cities not to get bombed in World War II, so it is ironically named, from an American pronunciation perspective.

A lot of the stuff in the town of Bamburg is literally a thousand years older than me. Many of the residents have carpet older than the United States of America. Those facts were totally lost on our boys, who had just completely tuned out to how amazing Europe was and had deteriorated to the point of simply complaining about a lack of French fries and how everything was old and made of gray rocks.

This, along with our considerable lack of money, signaled a time to make our way back home.

From Bamburg, we were scheduled to drive back to Milan on what would end up being today, the 22nd of July, when all of you finally catch up to us and this column is automatically posted thanks to the wonders of the internet.

We were supposed to fly out of Milan on the 23rd. After careful consideration regarding the feasibility of a road trip back through Italy, however, we decided to drive to Frankfurt instead, purchase new full-fare flights home at the ticket counter using fake names, and report the rental car stolen, which we left in a ditch just outside the airport.

That just seemed easier than driving back through Italy.

It was a great trip, but we can’t wait to be home.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume II

Our European vacation adventure continues...

Psychic Travel Log, Volume II – Cortona

One week into our vacation we had almost fully adjusted to the time difference, although Son Number Three continued to fall asleep in his lunch and wake up at two in the morning. That was only a problem because our Milan Airbnb apartment was the size of our master bedroom at home. Naturally it was billed as “sleeps twenty,” because it was enormous by European standards. We spent a lot of time outside.

We spent two and a half days in Milan, with the main activity centered around going to see The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci. He painted it on an entire wall of a church.

Here’s a recap of the viewing:
Everyone: “Wow. That’s a big painting.”
Boys: “Why does it look so old?”
Me: “Because it is.”
Boys: “Who are all those people?”
Me: “Well, the one in the middle is Jesus. The scary looking guy is Judas.”
Boys: “Who’s the lady?”
Me: “That’s John, not a lady. I’m not really sure who all the other ones are.”
Boys: “Why aren’t they eating?”
Me: “They’re about to.”
Boys: “We’re hungry.”
Me: “Me too. Who wants to go get pizza?”

The World’s Fair was also in Milan this year, so we booked tickets ahead of time for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s a recap of the fair:

Boys: “Where are the rides?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Boys: “Where is the Ferris wheel?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Boys: “Where are the corn dogs?”
Me: “It’s not that kind of fair.”
Wife: “At least there’s no scary meth addict carnies.”
Me: “Who wants to see the exhibit on hybrid disease-resistant corn crops they’re growing in Africa?”
Boys: “We’re hungry.”
Me: “Me too. Who wants to go get pizza?”

We then rented a car and drove from Milan to Cortona. I bought the insurance because I don’t understand Italian well enough to know that it was being included. That was a good thing, because Italian drivers are insane, and Italian roads have no actual rules. At least they drive on the right side of the road, but the road signs make no sense. I feared for my life for the entire seven-minute drive from the car rental place back to our apartment.

The first time I drove in Italy we didn’t have kids yet. I remember it being kind of fun – sort of like driving in Tijuana while wearing a blindfold. I remember a lot of my life before having kids as being fun. Now, however, that my sweet, precious children were in the car with me, asleep and drooling at ten in the morning, the whole driving in Italy thing was no longer fun. It was ridiculous. Why is everyone in this country trying to kill my family with their cars and their scooters?

In order to accommodate six people, we rented the largest vehicle manufactured in Europe that is not a city bus or a cement truck. That being said, it was smaller than a Toyota Camry. Even so, our car did not fit in any of the lanes designated for vehicular traffic, nor did it fit on any of the sidewalks where Italians normally drive. There was also no place to park it. I was forced to simply leave our huge people mover in the center of the road blocking both lanes when I needed to stop. Fortunately, this is normal in Italy and no one noticed.

We were heading for a town called Cortona. Actually, we were heading for a farm house in a small village near Cortona that does not appear on any maps. What could go wrong?

Fun fact: If you are trying to find a farmhouse in a nonexistent village that is only two kilometers (whatever those are) from the town of Cortona, it will take you approximately four hours to locate it, once you have reached Cortona.

Italians apparently consider it rude not to know where you are trying to go, so if you ask for directions and they don’t know, they just make something up to be friendly. No wonder everyone here drinks wine like marathon runners drinks water.

Also, I learned that the Italians don’t bother with the diagonal red stripe on their “don’t do this” road signs. For example, a sign with a red circle and a car in the middle means “no cars,” even though there is no diagonal red stripe through the car. The red circle with the car in the middle and no diagonal red stripe definitely does NOT mean, “OK for cars to go here,” like one might surmise if one was used to the presence of the apparently-not-so-universal diagonal red stripe on “don’t do this” road signs.

Also, when you happen to drive your car into an Italian no-car zone, you will learn a lot of new hand gestures from the helpful locals.

Since we had been in Italy for almost a week on local time - or about three months on our bodies’ clocks - Son Number Two spoke fluent Italian by then, so he was able to pick up enough of the farm country dialect to figure out what all the hand gestures meant. Unfortunately, he wasn’t allowed to say those words in English.

We finally arrived at our farm house paradise where we spent the week swimming, eating, catching up with our long-lost relatives, and desperately avoiding driving anywhere unnecessary in our giant car.

Cobblestone streets in ancient cities may look quaint and picturesque, but they are hell to do a U-turn on when you misread a red circle sign.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Psychic Travel Log, Volume I

By the time you read this, it will be the 8th of July. I will have already been experiencing the 8th of July for longer than you have, unless you are reading this in Europe, because that’s where I am. At least, I hope I am. I’d better not still be in Portland at the airport!

You see, our family is on an amazing vacation to Italy, Austria, and Germany right now (hopefully), but I am writing this before we left. I was very skeptical of my ability to complete this column while on vacation with my family, since I’ll be traveling with my wife, my mother-in-law, and all three of our boys. I’m not even sure what I was thinking when I signed on for this trip, actually, but I have to assume I will be splitting my time between telling my children not to touch the five hundred-year-old piece of artwork and telling them to go to the bar and order me another Peroni. A bigger one this time.

Also, I’m not sure if Europe has the internet or Wi-Fi yet, so I wanted to be safe.

So, in lieu of three weeks of reruns or nothing at all, I thought I would write our European vacation travel log ahead of time. I have traveled extensively with my wife and her mom, and I have lived and traveled with our three boys all of their lives, so I am already pretty sure how things are going to go.

Psychic Travel Log, Volume I – Milan

We started our trip at the Sacramento International Airport. Like many things in Sacramento, it’s a smaller, duller, less awesome version of a regular city’s airport. It recently got the “international” status by finally offering a flight to Canada. Actually, it’s really a flight into Seattle with an optional bus ride to the border, but apparently that counts.

When we checked in, the gate agent said, “You’re going to Milan?”
“From here?” she asked, with a puzzled look on her face.
“Wow. Neat. And you’re flying with the kids?” she asked, watching Son Number Three climb into one of the giant potted plants by the end of the counter.
“Good luck with that, sir.”

Five minutes into the flight from Sacramento to Portland, Oregon we realized that is was a colossal mistake to bring three children on an airplane with only three adults to chaperone them. The first flight was only an hour and a half, but we were already exhausted from playing man-to-man defense with no subs. What were we thinking? We sat stunned in the Portland airport dreading the next flight from Portland to Frankfurt. The flight would be approximately two hundred hours long. There was no way we could do that with the kids. We searched frantically near the shops and restaurants for someone to buy our children. No takers.

Reluctantly, we all boarded the aircraft. We gave up trying to control the children somewhere over Newfoundland. When we landed in Frankfurt, there was a tense fifteen-minute period when we could not find Son Number Three, but eventually one of the flight attendants located him in an overhead storage compartment in the galley. We were asked never to fly Lufthansa again.

The local time in Germany was listed as 2:00 P.M. on July 8th, but it was really 3:52 A.M. on the 12th of August on our bodies. Completely numb at this point, the short flight from Frankfurt to Milan was a breeze. That was largely due to the fact that we put the kids on a later connecting flight. Most of them made it into Milan on time.

While in Europe, we were not staying in any hotels - only Airbnb apartment and house rentals. This is because European hotels are designed to hold and average of 0.5 guests per room at a cost of approximately nine thousand euros for each half guest, with a surcharge of two million euros for every half guest after one and a half.

Safely at our final destination, we set about figuring out how to get ourselves and our considerable amount of luggage to our first apartment rental in downtown Milan.

Why are all the signs in a foreign language?

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Freedom isn't Free

The Fourth of July is a special time for me, and not just because of the magnificent pairing of beer and explosives. I have always loved celebrating our freedom, but the last couple of years have been extra special, because it was around this time in July of 2013 when I extricated myself from the business world to become a full-time writer.

Now, when I celebrate our freedom as Americans, I also have a little mini personal celebration of my daily freedom from having a boss. I guess I should say, a boss that I’m not married to. Two years ago I traded one boss for another, but my new one is much easier to work with, and I can sleep with her without it being an ethical issue.

Prior to my incredibly liberating decision to quit my job, I had an eighteen-year career in engineering. While I don’t miss much about the working world, I do miss the people now and again. I worked with a lot of good, smart people, a lot of good but not-so-smart people, and a few folks that can only be categorized as brain-dead.

Strangely, it’s the brain-dead ones I miss the most. They were never easy to work with (or for), but if you could survive the frustrations, they did provide a level of entertainment that you just can’t get anywhere else. 

Sure, now I’m home with my kids, and they say ridiculous things.
“Dad! He hit me in the nuts with an X-wing fighter.”
“Only because he just bit my butt.”

That’s all well and good for a laugh, but it’s slightly tempered because it’s to be expected from young kids. The real true comedy comes from when those inane comments are coming from a grownup. When you get that kind of idiocy from a colleague, a client, or your boss, that’s comedy gold.

Over my career (perhaps sensing that someday I would become a writer), I wrote down some of the verbal gems that I received. Here are some of the highlights:


I was talking with someone about a company’s operations in Thailand, and he kept referring to the workers as “Taiwanese.”
Importing people from a different country seems unnecessary.

I overheard this conversation in a break room once:
World Traveler: “I lived in Europe for two years. My favorite part was driving between all the different countries.”
Geography Major: “Did you ever drive over to Australia?”
WT: “Uh... I was in Europe. I did drive to Austria a bunch of times. It was great.”
GM: “I’ll bet the beaches were nice, huh?”
WT: “Uh...”
I’ll bet if that other company opened a facility in Australia they would staff it with Austrians.

English as a second language – Awesomely, however, every single one of these gems come from people born and raised in ‘Merca

I had someone substitute the word “oversight” for “insight” in a phone call and not skip a beat. “Your excellent oversight with that problem...”
Yes, any time I can help by overlooking your problems, I’m happy to do so.

I worked with a guy for a long time who just made up words. My favorite was “squose.” He believed it was the past tense or past participle of squeeze.  He would say to clients things like, “We squose four into the same space.” It was magical.

“Not the most eloquent solution”
Irony isn’t even a good enough word.

And then, just to really keep everyone on their toes, the same guy said, “In his eloquent way, he picked a Thursday to start the project.”
You aren’t even using the word wrong the same way. How many incorrect meanings do you think it has and what are they??

Someone talking about the honor his son was receiving for high school graduation:
“He’s graduating magna cum lau, or whatever”
So I guess the milkman helped him with his homework all these years?

"I point-blank alluded to him"
Nope, nope, nope, nope.

And my favorite category: Idioms – Know when and how to use them – and most importantly, what they mean. Again, awesomely, all from born and bred ‘Mercans

“Now he’s singing to the choir”
In the context of the conversation, this was a wonderful mixture of “singing a different tune” and “preaching to the choir.”

“He wants me at his call and beckon”
A good example of the rule – if you don’t know the idiom, don’t try to use it.

“This hits home right between the eyes”
It does?

“That’s been their Achilles' heel in their side... or however you want to say it”
However I want to say it? I guess if it was up to me, I would choose one or the other - Achilles' heel or thorn in their side. That's just me, though.

“Take the political middle of the ground”
I think it was a combination of high ground and middle of the road.

“I'm treading on a gray area”
Uh...?Possibly a mixture of “thin ice” and “gray area,” although, one of those is a lot worse than the other, so I’m not sure how serious this is.

“He beat him to the punchline”
Sure he did.

“Squealing like a stuffed pig”
Stuffed... stuck... they all squeal.

“The ship is sailing, but no one's at the helm, and we're not tied up to the port”
Uh... say what?

“I would undress him with both barrels”
Dress down, maybe? Or unload? Or are there some other issues you want to discuss?

“Didn't mean to throw gasoline on an open wound, there”
Fire... salt... who can keep track of all this stuff?

“Just tell them we’re keeping our pulse on it”
I would tell them that, but I don’t want to confuse them.

“I took it as a grain of salt”
Like, it was really small?

“Shot it up the ladder”
This was supposed to be “run it up the flagpole.” The only thing they got right was “it up the.”

“The ball is in my court, but I don’t have a player on the other side of the net”

“We don’t want any black toes on this one”
Yes, frostbite is not a good option. My best guess is it was a hybrid of “black eyes” and “stubbed toes.”

“They’re breathing down my throat”
He meant “breathing down my neck,” but the misuse of the idiom left a visual that I couldn’t unsee inside my mind.

“I’m trying to tread water lightly on this one”
Jesus? Is that you?

They say freedom isn’t free, and that’s very true. I may not be tied to an eight-to-five office life anymore, but that freedom came at a cost. I lost out on a regular supply of this kind of comedy magic.

I mean, sure, one of my sons just told me he accidentally dropped his underwear in the toilet when he was peeing. That will be a hilarious story, but the fact remains that I still have to clean it up.

Happy Independence Day! God bless ‘Merca!

See you soon,


Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen

Check out The Smidge Page on Facebook. We like you, now like us back!

Also visit Marc’s Author Page  for all his books. Enjoy!