Saturday, June 27, 2015

Day 15 - OAM - Saturday, 20 June 2015 - Rothenburg to Frankfurt airport to home/Final Thoughts

Luggage drop was at 3:50 am. Most everyone seemed to get their bags outside on time but our bus was nowhere to be found. Seth didn't feel comfortable leaving all of the suitcases outside while everyone else was inside having breakfast so he stayed outside with the bags.

Our bus finally showed up – I guess he had gone to the other hotel to pick up our other blue bus students before coming to pick us up. We loaded the bus up and headed off just a bit after 4:30 am. It was a 2.5 hour drive to the Frankfurt airport. Just as we had flown into London, there were groups scheduled to fly via Atlanta to OKC and other groups that were scheduled to fly to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City and then to OKC.

It was a 31- hour day and it took us nearly 27 hours to get home. We finally made it home at around midnight.

Final thoughts and observations

The tour was definitely well organized and many details were covered well and it was obvious that there had been lessons learned in the past (don't stand on the plastic chairs at the farewell event, fondue is constipating, don't move the furniture/beds in the hotel rooms, quiet time is every evening at 10 pm, etc) and those were applied to our tour. I really appreciated how OCD the bus coordinators were with checking and then double checking that all bus passengers were accounted for and that nobody left their passport behind. In retrospect, we decided to accompany Amina on this tour rather than letting her go by herself because I didn't know how comfortable I would have been doing that but I realize now that she would have been in very good hands. A lot of information, though, was scripted (pre-written) and was outdated. Nobody uses phone cards anymore. Even post cards have gone by the wayside. More effort needs to be directed at keeping families in contact with one another via better Wifi opportunities.  I can only imagine how agonizing it was for family that had to stay home - wondering what their child was up to, if everything was going ok, and what new experiences they were having.  The tour participants would benefit from a more detailed review of the difference between 110 voltage and 220 voltage and a heads up on the additional, unavoidable extra costs (eg even to use the bathrooms or the crazy munchies you get sitting on a bus all day). In addition, restrictions placed on staff to interact with us on our Facebook group is also a bit antiquated.

There are pros and cons to traveling in a large group like this. One of the definite cons is the fact that you have to compromise some quality for quantity. I really disliked the mass production “restaurant” in Paris – Le Saulnier. I hated the hotel in Seefeld. At these facilities that tend to cater to large tour groups – there's really no incentive for them to provide customer service. I'm not used to being a patron in an establishment (hotel or restaurant) and being treated as a nuisance rather than a customer. It just seems like that was the prevailing attitude in some of the places that we patronized – but that's the nature of the beast (group travel), I suppose.

We totally lucked out with the weather. No rain in London and very little rain towards the end of the tour. One significant problem that could have been much worse was the lack of working A/C on a bus with almost 50 people on it (at least it was a problem on the Blue Bus – not sure about the rest of them). The trip from Paris to Crans-Montana was pretty miserably hot.  I really wish our bus driver had been a little more friendly.  Getting on the bus nearly every day to his grumpy face and demeanor just detracted from the experience.

I think there was too much selling going on during the tour. I felt that we had already compromised a great deal by staying in what I would describe more as a pension or hostal rather than a hotel and dining in cafeterias rather than restaurants. I really wonder what type of (financial) arrangements there were with the various businesses that we were directed to – the “tourist traps” - ranging from the staged pictures in Sunnegga in front of the (invisible) Matterhorn to the Swarovski store to the Venetian glass blowers. Maybe it's just me – we're really not into buying a bunch of souvenirs to take home.  Perhaps the idea was to make the trip more memorable by giving students the opportunity to pose with a St Bernard or make souvenir purchases more easily, etc, but it struck me as being too touristy.

We've traveled the world pretty extensively and our preference is to stay in more upscale hotels and patronize nice restaurants and take private tours (fewer than 6-8 people). Even though our tastes run at a different level and standard, we did enjoy this tour overall and I would recommend it. For a lot of students and adults this trip was viewed as the trip of a lifetime and for many, it was, and that was a lot of fun to watch. We had the opportunity to visit some places that we would never have chosen to visit out of the blue and are glad that we did it. Prior to taking this trip, I had read some basic reviews about it and have to admit that the reviews were correct in that this was just a sampling of many places – that there really wasn't enough time at many of our destinations to truly tour it well. We would someday like to return to our favorite which was Rothenburg and we joked about how we should take a “burg” tour someday…..Rothenburg, Heidelburg, Brandenburg, Hamburg, etc.
Lastly, this tour is not a vacation. With only a handful of mornings where we got to “sleep in” - meaning breakfast was at 8 am instead of 6 or 7 am, the pace is pretty frenetic. It's less of a problem with the teens but it definitely is a difficult itinerary the older you are especially with limited access at times to elevators and a lot of walking/climbing on cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks. 

We won't have a chance to do this tour again - our younger child is not musically inclined - but I can see why others would choose to go on this trip either as a student after high school graduation, as a repeat with another child, or as a chaperone/staff after having attended in the past.  I have to give big kudos to the Johnsons and the Shimps on the blue bus - they had a great attitude during the entire trip and were so patient with the silly little quirky things that were bound to happen along the way.  They are, after all, middle school and high school teachers.  Bless their hearts!  I know we couldn't do it!  So for anyone who wandered on to this blog looking for information before committing to sending their child/ren on an Ambassadors of Music tour, I would it.  A trip of a lifetime for Seth and I?  Nope.  For Amina?  Sort of.  The time together and the experience?  Definitely worthwhile.  

Day 14 - OAM - Friday, 19 June 2015 - Rothenburg, Germany

Breakfast at 8 am in our hotel was really good – much the same as the hotel in Austria except that the selection of cheese/meat/bread was larger and, for the first time, they had scrambled eggs. 

A word about hotel keys.  In the U.S., we're pretty spoiled by our hotels.  Typical amenities that I had previously mentioned like shampoo, conditioner, hair dryers, etc, are the norm but no so much in Europe.  Hotel keys were also a little interesting.  At our Paris hotel, we were given a key card that literally was a punch card with holes.  In Switzerland, our room key was an actual metal key and we actually forgot to lock our door at night because we had to lock it with the key from the inside.  In Austria and Germany, we had key cards but there was only 1 card per room and if it was lost, there would be a charge for it.  This issue with hotel keys posed a problem at times for the students who were assigned 2-5 per room with only one key.

We had some free time in the morning until the band concert in the plaza at 2:05 pm. We wandered into a coffee shop and bought some coffee beans to take home with us. 

 Seth and Amina got majorly distracted by the Birkenstocks since there was a 10% discount for OAM and also because the prices were so much better than the prices available in the US. 3 pairs of Birkenstocks were purchased. 

I wandered into a home store and saw some bags stamped with Route 66 on it - we had been told along the tour that Route 66 was "big" in Europe.  

The buildings in Rothenburg were so colorful and decorated – this one reminded me of Christmas. 

We found the Crime museum and paid the entrance fee to view the displays on 4 floors. The museum was quite a big bigger than I originally assumed. What's amazing to me was the amount of time and energy spent on crafting the various torture and shaming devices on display and the copious notes and instructions written about using them. Many of the reasons for using these devices was beyond silly – gossiping, quarreling, drinking coffee (illegal at the time), and being a bad musician. We spent about 2 hours in the museum and I thought it was really interesting to see all the displays.

shaming device for bad musicians

neck violin for the neck and hands

We explored a bit looking for someplace to have lunch and the first few places we checked out were not even open or didn't open until 2 pm which was really odd for a Frida. We settled on an Italian restaurant which turned out to be quite good and very reasonably priced. Seth and Amina had pizza and I had the rigatoni al forno (baked pasta with meat sauce) – they were all really good. We also had an excellent bottle of sangiovese.

Seth and Kirby got the Chef pizza

Amina got the Mr Enrich pizza

I had the rigatoni al forno
amina's pizza

excellent bottle of sangiovese - one of the best we had on the trip

my rigatoni

seth's pizza (jalapenos actually = pepperoncini)

Kirby's "spaghetti" ice cream
After lunch, it was time for the bands to perform in the town market square (marktplaz) so I positioned myself up on the steps and recorded the bands with my ipad. I had been told that there was a webcam of the town square so that family at home could watch the concert, but the bands were positioned directly in front of the clock tower which, as it turns out, is where the webcam was so you couldn't really see the band - just the plaza opposite from where the band was playing.  Amina went to get a couple of schneeballens (snowballs) that we had seen everywhere – they were giant pastry balls coated with various things like chocolate, powdered sugar, or sprinkles. Someone had told us that they tasted like pie crust which was a good description except that I really didn't think they were sweet enough – they were just ok.

webcam picture during the band concert - can't quite see the band

jazz band concert
After the bands finished playing, it was time for the chorus to head to the Franziskanerkirche for their final concert of the tour. The church was nice enough to allow us to go upstairs to take pictures and video of the concert. We enjoyed their last concert and posed for one last family picture in the church.

Parents taking pictures and video

the end of a whirlwind choir concert tour

Dinner was back at the hotel – salad, chicken cordon bleu, french fries, and ice cream for dessert. 

We headed back to our room to do some packing and then at 9:15 pm, the kids were scheduled to have their last get together of the tour to do their farewell skits. We received our final instructions for departure day and then the 5 different colored buses did their farewells which ranged from skits to songs to poems – all very creative and funny.

red bus

green bus

orange bus

brown bus

blue bus

Day 13 - OAM - Thursday, 18 June 2015 - Seefeld, Austria to Rothenburg, Germany

No rest for the weary – breakfast was at 7 am and we hit the road again at around 8 am bound for Rothenburg. On the way, one of our bus coordinators, Randy, shared the lyrics he wrote for a song about our bus to the tune “Thank God I'm a Country Boy” - changing the words to “Thank God I'm on the Blue Bus” instead. The song was meant to be sung by the Blue Bus kids at the final evening before departure where every bus would be given the opportunity to do a skit or presentation. The words were hilarious and reflected some of the unique things our bus got to experience.

We arrived at Dachau Concentration Camp at around 10:30 am and had some free time to explore until about noon. It was drizzling pretty steadily. We walked over to the Maintenance building as a group where there was a very large display that chronicled the timeline of the camp.  After a bathroom stop (there was another set of bathrooms with no wait towards the other end of the maintenance building from where the film was being shown), I started at the beginning of the display and made my way through.  It was interesting but I wish there was more time to see the whole thing.  At 11:30 am there was a short film about the camp and then it was time to go.  We didn't have a chance to walk over to the other parts of the camp.

Our next stop was a restaurant nearby that was described as a “chicken place”. We started with a simple salad and some pickled vegetables. The main dish was fried chicken and french fries. The chicken was really good. After lunch, quite a few of the students (and many adults too) lined up to get ice cream from the vendor outside. We hit the road again around 2 pm.

We arrived at our Rothenburg hotel at about 5 pm and attended an orientation by our city coordinators. This time, most of the blue bus and the red bus both stayed “inside the wall” at the Hotel Schranne. The rest of the Ambassadors stayed in hotels just outside the wall. This hotel had no elevator so we carried our luggage up a flight of stairs to our room which was a typical room for this trip but I was so happy to see a hair dryer in the room. I was hoping for better Wifi at this hotel but that was not to be. We unpacked a bit and then headed to dinner downstairs at 6:15 pm.

arrived Rothenburg

our hotel - the Schranne

Discounts were everywhere


view from our hotel window
We started with a vegetable noodle soup, followed by pork medallions, and some kind of pudding for dessert. The food was pretty good. 

After dinner, we headed to the town plaza to meet up with the Night Watchman for his tour of the city which was rated as one of the best tours in Europe. The guy doing the tour was really informative and funny. He did really well considering there were so many people on the tour. He had a very laid back style and told some good stories. He normally charged 6 Euros per person but extended the student discount to OAM of 4 Euros.  Rothenburg is a really neat old city - the part inside the wall had cute decorated buildings and the area outside the wall was just beautiful with all of the hills.  This was a city that we would love to come back and explore with more time.  The Nightwatchman Tour group was huge but the guy led us around a small circular route and stopped at various places where his voice carried pretty well - even with so many people we really didn't have trouble hearing him.

After the tour was over, we actually got a little lost and decided to climb the stairs up to the top of the wall so we could get a vantage point to look for our hotel. We made it back to our hotel at around 10 pm.