Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
Friday, November 3rd, was a driving day. We said goodbye to Dale and Peter and thanked them once again for their hospitality and friendship. Then we started our drive on Autobahn A3. It was a familiar highway, one that we had driven scores of times in the old days, except now half of it was under re-construction. Despite that, Frankfurt came and went on schedule.
Farther north, the German highway was less familiar, and still interrupted with construction, lane shifts, and generally tiresome driving. The breaks for recharging the car were welcome, especially the stop where we indulged in Burger King Whoppers. We probably have not had real, drippy, fast-food, burgers in years - or decades even.
Finally, we reached The Netherlands and the tidy and well-trimed Dutch Autobahn. The GPS worked fine and we found both a Maastricht Supercharger to top up and the simple Novotel we had chosen. Both were outside the old part of town, since I was not feeling THAT brave.
We moved all our bags in and set off for a neighborhood walk, our only exercise on our Burger King day. Not enough, but something. Our neighborhood was a mix of old and not-too-new. I should have taken pictures, but I'm not sure early evening shots would have captured the sense of the place. Maybe another day.
Saturday dawned gray and drippy, but it would be a very positive day for us.
Two dozen years ago, almost exactly, we bought a flat in Kyiv that needed work, lots of work. Through luck and the wisdom and connections of friends, that project turned out remarkable enough to make Architecture Digest - the Ukrainian version. Key to that success, was Lena Dobrovolska, our interior designer. Fresh out of architecture school, her imagination and abilities turned ideas into reality. (And eventually build a company.)
Three years later, we left our Kyiv dream apartment behind, saying goodbye to friends and promising to stay in touch. As our lives moved on, staying in touch proved difficult. Eventually, social media such as Facebook helped, but only a little. What changed things for us and, much more for Lena, was Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Our promise to "stay in touch" turned to urgent messages of "is there anything we can do to help?".
We did what we could as Lena and her two kids escaped the country and spent months finding a place to land. We could not watch the news without thinking of her. Ultimately, Lena, her 13-year-old daughter Fiara and 10-year-old son Fedir ended up in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Seeing them became a required stop on GERT, our Great European Road Trip. This Saturday was reunion day.
Lena picked us up at the hotel and whisked us over to her neighborhood, right in the center of Maastricht. We were introduced to Fiara, now 14-years old, and Fedir, now 11. We were also introduced to Oleg, Lena's partner, who had joined them in Maastricht, their not-home-because-that's-Kyiv. Over the next hours, we toured their not-home city and caught up. It was a cold, wet, and wonderful day for walking. Here's our picture album:
We squeezed in an old church, just because we were in Europe.
A remembrance for hostages in Israel.
Another sad part of world news.
Our evening walk was capped by a trip to the skateboarding park to see Fedir's moves.
We brought Fresno State hats for the kids.
And this ended our reunions with friends from Bavaria, France, and Maastricht. These are our GERT highlights, for sure. Tourist things are interesting, but rekindling old friendships was the base of our two months of travel.
We started Sunday with our last hotel buffet breakfast. We had nothing planned other than the drive to a Frankfurt Airport hotel, so we enjoyed eating a bit more than we should. We kept saying "When we get back home, things will be different!"
The four-hour drive was not particularly scenic. In the north, we passed by some of the last coal power stations left in Germany, with their cooling towers sending more gray into the clouds.
Rain and clouds followed us the whole way, making Marianne's driving day not so pleasant. We were glad it was not long.
Next to the Frankfurt Airport, we pulled off the Autobahn on the same exit Marianne had used when she taught school at Rhein-Main Air Base's Halvorson-Tunner middle school. The school and base were closed in 2004 or 2005 and the grounds have been cleared to make way for a large cluster of airport businesses such as our modern and sterile Best Western hotel and The Italian Restaurant where we had our last meal.
On Monday, we got up, packed the rented Tesla for the last time, scooted over to Sixt Car Rental Returns, schlepped bags to United Airlines, and were glad to leave them. The process was stressy, mostly because moving bags from Sixt to United check-in involved some long walks, several elevators, a tram, more elevators, and lines. This part probably took 90 minutes.
Then it was immmigration and security. Getting passports stamped was quick and efficient, but security was complicated by Marianne's pacemaker. Checking her required a thorough pat-down and complete search of her carry-on, finding nothing.
From there we had more walking and, eventually, a pause in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, a perk our expensive tickets had earned. It was not quite as fancy as the SFO Polaris Lounge on the way out, but good enough.
Boarding went quickly, thanks to our Row #1 seats. With a 20 minute delay for air traffic, we were on our way. The 11 hour and 15 minute flight included a couple meals and plenty of screen time. The fold-flat seats were comfy, the only way to go!
Arrival at SFO was more walking, more formalities, and more waiting for bags. Then, properly loaded down, more walking, elevators, and a tram to Avis for another rental car. That process was complicated by not having the right car at first, but two hours after landing we were on our way. Ninety-minutes more, and we were hugging Sam, Ava, Gabby, and Mamal. Whew.
There was be one day there, and then the drive to Fresno.
John and Marianne