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Part 4: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006

The purpose of our trip to Berlin was to visit the Pergamon Museum. This museum has a great personal significance to me because it is the location of the original Ishtar Gate that was removed from Babylon when the Germans did an archeological dig there in the early 20th century. I had spent a year in Babylon, Iraq and looked at the reproduction countless times. I always wondered how it would look compared to the original and I finally was going to get my chance. I was excited! The kids were hungry! I would wait.

We had lunch at a neat little Italian café just down the block from the museum. I ordered the kids a tortellini dish that seemed a bit advanced for them so I thought they would split it. As it turned out, Lizzy was too hungry to split a lunch and we had to get her another order. I had gorgonzola and basil pizza that was phenomenal and Charleen had a stuffed crepe that was equally as delicious.

On to the museum! We paid our admission and learned that this particular museum furnished all guests with a set of headphones and an electronic device that would play descriptions of the exhibits in a variety of languages. We found the Babylon exhibit right away and explored the exhibit. The kids were really interested in the headphone things and they would go from display to display, punching in the numbers and listening to the descriptions. It was great to see them take such an interest in a museum, even more so considering the significance that it held for me and also for Charleen as she had recently visited Babylon, even though it is no longer a coalition base.

We left the museum and inadvertently wound up exploring Berlin a bit while searching for the right Autobahn. It looks like a very interesting city and I could see spending a week there at some point. Unfortunately, the time line on this trip only provided for a very short stay.

We made our way down to Ramstein and had a quick dinner at a rest stop along the way. We arrived at Ramstein and checked into our lodging. We decided to put the kids to bed while Charleen and I stayed up to re-pack everything so that we could head in different directions. We finished that up at about midnight and loaded the car so that we could get up and get moving quickly in the morning.

April 5th (Day 19)
I called upon waking up and learned that our show time was bumped back from 0800 to 1000 so that gave us enough time to have a quick breakfast and try to get Charleen a new ID card before leaving. That turned into an absolute debacle based on some bureaucratic red-tape at Ramstein and we wound up having her take us to the PAX terminal and return to the place while we were waiting on the flight.

We were the second CAT III travelers manifest and we knew at that point that we would make it back to the US because it was a rotator flight from Kuwait that we were joining mid-way home. We hung out in the family area and our children played with the other kids who were also waiting on the flight.

Our good-bye with Charleen was brief and relatively painless. One big reason that we had chosen to go on vacation together (rather than having her come home) was that it would be easier on the kids than having to explain that she was home for leave but could not stay. As it turned out, this was the right decision as the kids readily accepted that our vacation was over and that they would see mommy when she came home for good this summer.

The flight was characteristically full and crowded, but we managed to get the last middle row. Therefore, we had three seats together and the kids did not have anyone within arms' reach (due to small kids, not an abundance of leg room) to bother. One interesting thing on the flight -- the flight crew had to move a dozen people from the front of the plane to the back before we could take off.

Lizzy made friends with a woman traveling back to the US who entertained her for hours. She insisted that it was no problem, but I still felt that I was imposing. Finally, I decided that it was time for the kids to take a short nap. They managed to sleep for about 60-90 minutes total and then we were on the ground at BWI. Unfortunately, any time savings that we gained from a quick flight were eaten up waiting for the last item to arrive off the plane -- note: try to avoid checking the car seats when traveling Space-A on a commercial airplane as they will probably be the very last items removed from the cargo hold.

We went out to the curb to find someone in a red jacket to find us a cab back to Dover. This was a suggestion that I picked up on the Space-A message board and the suggestion was that $30/person was about what I should expect to pay. Mr. Red Jacket quoted me $155 and I quickly moved in the other direction.

Our next stop was the USO where they had a very old list that indicated that we would pay around $150-300 for a shuttle service to take us down to Dover. I was fed up and elected to rent a car instead. I had initially planned to rent one-way and drop off in Dover that night, but was unable to make a reservation because all of the rental car offices in Dover would be closed by the time that we got down there. It was apparent to me, based on my lack of sleep and the hour, that we would be spending the night in a hotel between BWI and Dover, so I decided to go ahead and arrange a one-way rental with a return the next morning.

We took the shuttle over to BWI's consolidated rental car location and discovered that Hertz was out of cars. I got in line at Avis and concurrently called their toll-free reservation hotline. I made a reservation for the smallest vehicle I could and was quoted a price of about $70, including tax. When I got up to the counter, I gave them my reservation number and learned -- big surprise -- that they did not have any of those cars available for a one-way rental to Dover. We wound up with a mini-van instead.

The kids were asleep by the time that we hit the entrance ramp to the highway.

I drove about an hour and decided that it was time to get off the road and get some rest. The first two hotels we tried were out of discountable rooms and I was not about to pay $139 to have a room for 8 hours. We continued on and I finally found us a room at a Holiday Inn Express (my personal preference) and agreed to renegotiate the rate with the manager come morning.

Unfortunately, morning came a little earlier than I had expected. The phone rang at 0600 and it was the front desk telling me that I had to come downstairs because there was a problem with my vehicle. I looked out the window and discovered that the problem was that it was on the back of a tow truck that was leaving their parking lot!

I threw on some clothes and hustled downstairs. I demanded to know what was going on and was told that I had parked illegally and they had my rental car towed. I demanded that they have the tow truck bring the car right back and they told me that it was up to me to get hold of the towing company and make the necessary financial arrangements to have the vehicle returned.

I was clearly getting nowhere with the idiot at the desk, so I went outside to look for some indication that I had actually parked improperly. Not finding any, I decided to call 911 to report the theft. I told the dispatcher as much as I knew and she said that an officer would be out shortly. I walked back into the hotel and advised the person at the desk that it would probably be in her best interest to ensure that the manager arrived before the police showed up and then went back to the room.

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