thursdaysd Wanders South

Old Sep 18th, 2015, 12:00 PM
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thursdaysd Wanders South

I planned my European trip this year in three parts. It was built round my niece's wedding in England at the end of August, and the center section was two and a half weeks in England. Since I had to travel in the summer, I decided it was the perfect time to finally visit Scandinavia, and I just finished the TR for that section:

http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...goes-north.cfm

I stayed very busy in England, and got behind on the TR, so instead of writing a TR for England (maybe I'll do that after I get home), I'm starting over with the third part, a zig-zag trip south, taking in north-east France, a little Switzerland, northern Italy, and the Basque country, finishing in Barcelona on Halloween.

As with the other TR, I'll be posting the same text, but with photos, to my blog:

mytimetotravel.wordpress.com

September 11-14, 2015: Struggling in Strasbourg

Growing up in England, I would spend every winter suffering through a series of colds. When I moved to North Carolina, where the summers are (very) humid but the winters (very) dry, I was delighted to make it through the cold season with just one or two illnesses. Since the weather while I was in London this trip was more like winter than summer, I suppose I should not have been surprised to succumb to a virus. A visit to a walk-in clinic in Portsmouth produced the depressing advice: "take paracetamol and come back in two weeks if you're not better". At least the advice was free.

By day five, when I was scheduled to fly to Strasbourg, I was no better, and although had no wish to fly while sick, I didn't have a Plan B. At least I figured I was no longer infectious. I made it through the flight without too much discomfort, retrieved my bag (from a different carousel than the one listed on the monitors), took the train into town, and it was only when I checked into the Hotel Suisse, right behind the cathedral, that I realized I had become almost completely deaf. Happily, by next morning I could hear again, but it had been frightening, and walking the streets with no sound from the traffic was decidedly eerie.

Despite my temporary deafness I had been able to order dinner, at La Cloche a Fromage. In my experience, few places want to provide fondue for one person, but La Cloche was happy to fix fondue or raclette for solo diners. The restaurant also owned the most extensive cheese selection I have seen outside a shop, and I went back another night for the degustation menu. Add in a cheerful staff, some of whom spoke impeccable English, and I was tempted to go back a third time.

On my previous visit, in 2009, I had fallen in love with the cathedral, easily one of Europe's best, and the main reason for my return. Perhaps it was because I was visiting in mid-September instead of mid-April, or perhaps river cruises had become more popular, but Strasbourg was a lot more crowded than on my first visit. Some, like the couple from Nancy who sat next to me at dinner Saturday night, were French, but most seemed to be groups off the river boats. Still, I got a good long look at the cathedral, both inside and out. The magnificent west front, totally covered in statues, still soared over the Place de la Cathedrale, the stained glass still fascinated and the gilded organ still gleamed. Protective railings hid the lower level of the pulpit, but the angel column and astrological clock in a side chapel still drew the largest crowds.

Building started exactly a thousand years ago, and as part of the celebrations the west and south fronts were lit at specific times at night. Unfortunately, it was too cold and wet for me to want to linger outside, especially as I remained sick. Indeed, so far from getting better, I was getting worse, with paroxysms of dry coughing attacking me at irregular intervals. Research on the web ruled out bronchitis, but perhaps I had walking pneumonia? When asked about a clinic, the helpful woman on the hotel's front desk sent me literally round the corner to a doctor.

The French doctor agreed with the English: virus, will take two weeks to clear up. But he did write me a prescription for some medications, and the visit was interesting. The waiting room held maybe seven chairs, and across the hall was just an office and an examining room, and the doctor. No receptionist, no nurse, and no back office staff processing insurance claims. Since I had neither a French nor an EU medical card, the doctor wrote me a bill, for all of 30 euro (the three medications cost 13 euro). No wonder the American health system, weighed down by the red tape and bureaucratic overhead of the insurance industry, costs so very much more than the European ones.

Besides the cathedral, I had planned to spend more time admiring the many old buildings in Strasbourg, and to make a return day trip to Colmar. Between the weather and the virus, I had to scale back a bit, but I did see more than the cathedral.
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 12:41 PM
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I'm looking forward to this trip report. I've Always wanted to visit Strasbourg, and the Basque country also calls my name.

Also in Italy, most family doctors don't have a secretary or other staff. When you join the National Health Service, you choose a family doctor from a list of doctors practising in your town. (You can choose a doctor in a different town if you prefer.) The doctor gets paid a flat fee to attend to your primary health needs, and to refer you to a specialist, if she thinks it necessary. So there's no insurance claim at all.

Doctors here spend a good deal of their time just writing new prescriptions. Even if you're taking a medicine that you'll need to take for the rest of your life, you have to get it refilled about once a month, and you can't do it by phone (yet). Our family doctor has taken on a secretary to help with the prescription part of the practice, although each one still has to be signed by the doctor.
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 12:42 PM
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Hi THURSDAYSD,

Running out the door so I don't have time to respond - but I will!

Glad you posted....
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 12:53 PM
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bvlenci - highly recommend Strasbourg. More coming. Also good base for other worthwhile places, like Colmar. The difference between the French doctor's office and my US doctor's office was so extreme it was almost funny.

LTD - nice to see you here!
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 02:01 PM
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I love Strasbourg and Colmar and your TR's, so definitely following along.
Just noted on your other report about airbnb and the keys, I recently registered with them and booked some accommodation without even noticing the part about key pickup LOL, lucky you reminded me to check this...
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 03:28 PM
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Strasbourg is on our list, so looking forward to your impressions.

I hope you feel better soon!
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 04:41 PM
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Following along, sorry to hear about the virus, very tedious.
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 05:19 PM
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Following as well......just returned from a wonderful vacation in the UK and delighted to meet you the 1st of the month.
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Old Sep 18th, 2015, 11:47 PM
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Good to see you all! So nice to meet you at the London GTG, gail.

I'm going to put up one blog post for Strasbourg with just photos, as I have a bunch of ones of street signs, but will write a second post before I do that.
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Old Sep 20th, 2015, 09:15 AM
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<b>September 12-14, 1015: Strolling Strasbourg</b>

When I visited Alsace the first time, I chose to stay in Strasbourg rather than Colmar because I figured there would be more to do if it rained. It rained a lot, and I visited pretty much every museum on the T.I.'s list, even including the Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, although admittedly, that was as much for the building as the contents. The building was indeed interesting, and I enjoyed a special exhibition on color, but the permanent exhibition, as I expected, left me cold.

It rained a fair amount this time too, but I only revisited a couple of museums. I had wanted to go back to the Musee de L’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, where the collection includes the statues removed from the cathedral during the French Revolution and later replaced by copies. Alas, it was closed, apparently for work on the building, and instead I went next door to the Palais Rohan for the Decorative Arts Museum. I enjoyed it a bit more this time - perhaps I had missed the explanatory text last time? But I did not revisit the Beaux Artes and Archaeological Museums in the same building.

With somewhat limited energy, I didn't make it back to the enjoyable Musee Alsacien, but I did have a nice time at the equally recommendable History Museum (if you go, do get the audioguide). I had actually forgotten about the magnificent three dimensional plan of the historic city, which has a room of its own. I had not forgotten the informative displays on the years of the city's independence, but I think the 20th century displays may have been new. The city, and the region as a whole, did not have a happy time, tossed back and forth between France and Germany as the fortunes of war dictated, and the citizens had a particularly hard choice after Hitler annexed the area in 1940, the men who remained being conscripted into the German army.

The city today feels thoroughly French, but a border existence has of course left its mark, and I considered the half-timbered buildings of the Petite France area, the tourists' second target after the cathedral, more German than French. Very photogenic, of course, and although it was overwhelmed by tourists on the weekend, I found it quieter on Monday. But photo-worthy buildings can be found all over the old town, and Strasbourg is a great place for just wandering.

The Petite France area is also notable for its canals, and the old town as a whole is surrounded by water. Sunday afternoon I abandoned the crowds west of the cathedral and strolled east along the river bank. My rewards included an attractive church and a pretty park. If I had kept going east I would have reached the very modern enclave of the European Parliament, but I didn't have that much energy. I could have joined one of the boat trips, but during the middle of the day they were packed, and later my cornea problem would have made it almost impossible for me to see against the sun.

Talking of modern buildings... I was traveling with a downloaded chapter from Lonely Planet (no question, I much prefer paper guidebooks, but on a long trip some compromises are necessary), and Lonely Planet recommended a visit to the newly opened Grand Mosque. A little puzzled to find no mention of it in the literature from the T.I. I stopped by to enquire. Oh yes, I was told, it does exist, a little far from the center perhaps, and yes, you can visit. Not in the literature? But it's a new building and we concentrate on the history. Not being at my brightest at the time, I did not point out that the Modern Art Museum and the European Parliament were also new.

I didn't make it to the mosque, and I didn't make it back to Colmar either. I had intended to go my last day in town, but the morning was occupied first by my visit to the doctor, and secondly by a panic when my iPad refused to turn on. By the time I had taken it over to the Apple store on Place Kleber, which I had fortuitously noted the day before, and where the problem was quickly fixed, it was too late to get to Colmar before lunch, and after lunch the rain started up again.

I did make it back to my favorite restaurant from my last trip, Strissel, on Saturday night. I had made a dinner reservation at lunchtime, but it had disappeared. Fortunately, I had made it for 7:30, which was early enough for me to get a table anyway. The place was slammed, and I watched a lot of people turned away. The foie gras d'oie "Maison" was as good as I remembered, and a local specialty, tarte flambee gratinee, more filling than I expected.

This visit would, of course, have been more successful if I had been feeling better, but I still managed to enjoy myself, and would still be happy to return. And if I returned I would definitely go back to La Cloche a Fromage and Strissel!
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Old Sep 20th, 2015, 09:26 AM
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Oops, that should have read 2015, not 1015, of course. Unfortunately I haven't figured out how to time travel.
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Old Sep 25th, 2015, 07:29 AM
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Wifi in my hotel in Varenna was abysmal, and wifi in my hotel in Stresa (well, on Isola Superiore) didn't work until late last night...

<b>September 15-18, 2015: Not So Hot in Nancy</b>

Traveling while sick, especially traveling solo while sick, is a miserable experience. Admittedly, some situations are worse than others. Breaking my wrist in Switzerland was a lot worse than the virus I had acquired in London. Still, I had a lot less energy, and even enthusiasm, for sightseeing than usual. The weather in Nancy didn't help, being cold and grey when not actually wet and windy. Even my Norwegian umbrella, guaranteed sturdy, got blown inside out a time or two.

This is by way of explaining why, although I had returned to Nancy to revisit its museums and wander its streets photographing Art Nouveau buildings, I managed the former and not the latter. A more accurate weather forecast might have helped, as the weather was worse instead of better my second full day in town. Still, even Art Nouveau buildings need a little sunshine to photograph well, and trying to manage both an umbrella and a camera in a high wind is a recipe for disaster.

While I am a big fan of Art Nouveau, the term covers several different styles, and I like some more than others - I am not wild about National Romantic for instance. French is one of my favorite variants, and Nancy was the home of French Art Nouveau, and of some of its most famous practitioners. My museum day began at the Musee des Beaux Arts, although once again I was totally unimpressed with the main collection, and had some difficulty finding the Daum glassware in the basement. The museum had been extended at least once, and the visitor is confronted by elevators that only go to certain floors, and signage that is less than helpful. The staircase in the addition is quite nice, however.

Once I found the access to the basement, at the far end of the main floor, I had the feeling that the area was treated as something of an afterthought by the museum staff. It was anchored by the massive remains of some of the city's former fortifications, I noticed a rather bleak lecture room, one wall held a massive modern tapestry depicting good fighting evil, designed by Jean Lurcat and created by Aubusson, apparently for the university, and one long, low room held case after case of Daum glassware, mostly from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. A couple of other cases held more recent output. After a slow and appreciative walk past the glassware, I took a look at the rest of the museum. About the only thing that held my attention was an installation of colored lights and mirrors. You could walk into it, and I found it quite attractive.

But the museum I most wanted to revisit was the Musee de L'Ecole de Nancy, a house built for Eugene Corbin, a patron of the Nancy school, and completely furnished with items from the period, some of them owned by Monsieur Corbin or his brother. When I had visited the last time I had been carrying a heavier than usual day pack, as I was switching hotels, and had been a bit distracted. The museum still didn't have secure storage, but I carried the important items in the waist bag that doubles as my camera case, and left my day bag in the unguarded cloakroom. This time I went round slowly (when not attacked by a coughing fit) and was pleased to find a second option on the audio guide, commentary supposedly from the owner.

The lack of secure storage was a problem at other Nancy museums. The Beaux Arts museum said they didn't have a cloakroom, but when I found a perfectly good set of lockers, and went back to the front desk to point this out, said that they were off limits because of terrorism. (The security guard took pity on me and let me use one, but don't count on it.) The Lorraine Museum had no storage of any kind, and once again I was carrying a heavy day pack while I waited to check into the Hotel des Prelats. I can't really recommend this museum, all you really need to know is that a former King of Poland became Duke of Lorraine and Bar after his daughter married King Louis XV of France (must have one's father-in-law suitably situated), and that he was responsible for Nancy's stunning Stanislas square. Unfortunately, the beautiful gilding on the baroque ironwork that is a feature of the square looks its best in sunshine, and there was no sunshine while I was in Nancy. Consequently, I took no photographs of the square, having take a lot the last time.

One piece of good news: After two months on the road I was in dire need of a hair cut. An enquiry at my hotel produced a recommendation for a salon literally next door. I was pleased with the result, especially as it cost about half what it would have done at home. (Checking the real estate listings, I was also surprised by the house prices - considerably lower than I expected.) I finished my visit with dinner at the Brasserie Excelsior, one of the few remaining commercial Art Nouveau buildings in town. If I return to Nancy, and I may well, I need to remember that the interior of the restaurant is not that interesting, and the food overpriced and pedestrian. On the bright side I can recommend the omelets at T'Roi, just off the square, and the enormous slice of raspberry pie and coffee I enjoyed at Foy, on the square.
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 07:43 AM
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Anyone still reading?

<b>September 18-21, 2015: Respecting Zurich</b>

On Fodors, people are always being advised not to go to Zurich. Now, if the issue is whether to spend time in the mountains or the cities, under most circumstances the mountains should win. But it also seems that when it's just a matter of cities, Zurich is still always getting dissed. Now, the only time I tried to visit Switzerland's mountains, my trip was cut cruelly short when I fell and broke my wrist as soon as I arrived in Murren. I do want to go back, but for an appreciable amount of time. On this trip, I was just looking for a three night stop to break the train trip from Nancy to Varenna, on Lake Como.

My first notion was to wander through the Black Forest on the way south, but I got spooked by recurrent German rail strikes, and I wasn't sure anywhere rated three nights. I did book a hotel, with difficulty, in Konstanz, but then discovered that Oktoberfest started the day I planned to arrive. Since I am no fan of beer, loud parties or oompah bands I promptly canceled the booking and made one for Zurich instead. Zurich made the train trip easier too: one change in Basel between Nancy and Zurich (where the passport control offices were empty but the customs office was manned), and a direct train to Como where I could transfer to the ferry to Varenna. So I put up a post asking whether anyone had a good word to say about Zurich, and I did some research on my own account, and I concluded that three nights might actually be too short. Between interesting museums, a pretty lake, and several possible day trips I thought I would have no difficulty staying busy. And I was right, although I would have been happier if the museums I was most looking forward to seeing had not been undergoing renovation.

I spent the rather gloomy afternoon of my arrival day walking down one bank of the river and up the other side, visiting three churches on the way and checking out a few of the shops. (Not that I had the least intention of buying anything.) I enjoyed the river views, admired several of the buildings, and was repaid a number of times for looking up. The Grossmunster, supposedly founded by Charlemagne, had impressive, carved, bronze entry doors, stained glass by Giacometti, and a stern statue of Zwingli close by. Across the river in the Fraumunster I was reminded that I don't care for Chagall's stained glass (or his paintings, for that matter). No photos were allowed in those two churches, the third, St. Peter's, was notable only for the largest church clock in Europe.

The next morning the sun shone and I activated my Zurich card, which covered public transport, and headed for the Bellerive museum, only to find it closed. I was able to photograph a Corbusier house right opposite, and since I was close to the boat dock I decided to take a "short" (ninety minute) trip on the lake, covered by the pass. This worked very well, as I saved sightseeing time by eating lunch while I was on the boat, and I very much enjoyed the views. True, the lake is not surrounded by mountains, but the hills are fine, and so are the many villas and villages.

In the afternoon I attempted to visit the Design Museum. Its usual digs are also closed for renovation, but it was hosting a couple of exhibitions in a building further out. (The permanent collection can only be seen on a guided tour, and the times didn't work for me.) I found the exhibition on digital media mildly interesting, but was seriously impressed by a display of Steve McCurry's photographs. Many were from Afghanistan, covering over thirty years, but some were of places in Asia that I had visited. His photographs are so, so much better than mine... I finished the day at the History museum, where I enjoyed the period rooms, some built into the museum itself, and some impressive gold hoards, along with artifacts from La Tene. The museum was being expanded, but the main collection seemed to be intact, and the courtyard hosted an exhibition of photographs of work and workers, a number of the occupations shown are now obsolete.

My second full day I went to St. Gallen, primarily to visit its magnificent library. No photos are allowed, so I can only tell you that its claim to be one of the best libraries in Europe is well founded. Its collection goes back to the 800s, and the room itself is impressive. I was glad of the audio guide, which also covered the temporary exhibition on the development of legal systems. While checking directions on my phone I noticed a Textile Museum, which took up part of the afternoon. I had not previously known that embroidery had been Switzerland's main export around the turn of the 19th century.

The biggest problem with Zurich, alas, was the cost. Hotels were high, but I scored a reasonable if somewhat worn place a stone's throw from the huge main station (which had an equally huge shopping arcade underneath). Food and drink, however, were stratospheric. Over $5.00 for a single shot of espresso! Fast food (at the Nordsee chain) almost $20 without wine! So I did not eat particularly well in Zurich. Plus it turned out to be the center of the DCC scam. Every place I used my credit card, and I mean every place, from coffee shops on up, had their machines set to offer USD before CHF. At least the machines gave me the option, but I got very tired of figuring out how to select CHF. (For those unfamiliar with this piece of banking chicanery, it means that you are charged in your home currency with a hefty markup on the exchange, instead of in the local currency plus whatever currency conversion fee your credit card company charges - which for the cards I travel with is zero.)
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 08:38 AM
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Frankly, I have always liked Zürich, but probably not for the right reasons. I think it is quite lovely and interesting, but more importantly I have friends there with whom I stay and who won't allow me to spend a single franc when I am with them, except for the final ritual chocolate shopping. They pay for the restaurants, they pay for transportation, they pay for anything that I glance at in a shop with the intention of buying it.

They don't even seem to realize that the reason I visit them in Zürich so rarely is because it is so embarrassing. Luckily, I am able to host them in Paris from time to time, but even then they still pay for about half of their expenses, no matter what I try.

Of course, I will not deny that their finances surpass mine considerably so this is perhaps the way that things should be in a perfect world.

Last time we went around the Zürichsee quite a bit, and this is some of what I saw: http://anyportinastorm.proboards.com...ee-area?page=1
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 10:53 AM
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Love the post and the pics, kerouac, thanks for the link. Those bells were priceless!

Happily, no snow when I was there, in fact bright sunshine for my lake cruise, but I was still feeling under par and didn't take photos.

No "incident" on my train, but I did notice that almost everyone in my carriage got off at the last, otherwise undistinguished, station in France. No passport checks, but French custom's officers came through, and there were custom's officials in Basel checking some people. I also noted that the French train still came in before the currently defunct passport booths, and that they had not actually been removed.

I sympathize with your feelings about your friends' generosity, and I do agree about liking Zurich, although if I go back to the area I will try to improve my timing and stay in Konstanz, where I can maybe afford to eat! I liked going downstream from the station, and admiring the buildings, several of which had interesting carvings, and I liked going upstream under the trees, which were sporting autumn colors, and had branches trailing in the water.

BTW, for anyone reading who is interested in my hotel, it was the Arlette Beim (or Am) Hauptbahnhof.

Question for kerouac - is the DCC scam confined to people with US credit cards, or is it practised on Europeans as well?
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 01:12 PM
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Actually, just about every ATM in Switzerland gives you a choice between receiving Swiss francs or euros and just about every coin machine (bus and tram tickets, parking meters...) also accepts euros but at the exact current rate. I'm sure that DCC is proposed for purchases but at the normal rate since everybody knows the proper exchange rate by heart.

Everything that I have read seems to imply that the Swiss are certain that they will adopt the euro sooner or later since they are surrounded, but they want to delay the moment as long as possible.
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 02:36 PM
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Hi, Thursdays, I'm catching up with you again. Sorry you were stilling ailing in Switzerland.
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Old Sep 27th, 2015, 05:13 PM
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Hola from Cuenca Ecuador. I have only just found this, have been pretty much incommunicado since middle of August ( when you were on the Hurtigruten if I remember rightly!)
I am going to try to keep up but not sure if I will manage to make any pertinent comments. I get back around the same time as you, November 2 whenever that is.
Hope you are feeling better by now. Just going to reread more carefully.
Take care.
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Old Sep 28th, 2015, 12:28 PM
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Interesting, kerouac, thanks for the info. If the exchange rate is correct, it's a convenience, not a scam. In the case of USD, it is very definitely NOT the correct exchange rate. I was too busy looking for the way to opt for CHF to pay close attention to amount in USD, but I'm pretty sure that coffee, already in the stratosphere at 5.05 USD had another 20 cents added, and a meal at 20 USD was marked up by 2 USD. So 5 to 10%, which could add up fast in Zurich!

Hi Kathie, when do you leave on your next trip? Am still short on energy, alas, but the cough has mostly gone.

Hope you're having a great family time in Ecuador, gertie. Yes, mid-August was Hurtigruten and my niece's wedding.
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Old Sep 28th, 2015, 12:46 PM
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We leave on Nov 2. We are excited to be returning to Burma!

Your question serves as a reminder that I still have plenty to get done before we go!
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