Monday, April 20, 2015

Back in the concrete jungle and "the takeaway"

Click here for the video slideshow of our European vacation.

Our Emirates flight back to NYC left Milan past 5 in the afternoon. It was an 8-hour flight. Our scheduled arrival time was around 8pm Eastern Standard Time. I could’ve easily chosen to sleep, but I had this surge of energy in wanting to write my blog. I ended up writing 2 of my blog entries while en route back to New York.

The 8-hour flight flew by so quickly and in no time, we were back on US soil. We breezed through immigration and customs. It was raining slightly when we arrived at JFK International Airport. We took a cab and headed towards Manhattan. For the next 24 hours, it is in Midtown West where we will be staying one last night and milking every single moment of our vacation. 
Since I’m a frequent Marriott customer, we were given an upgrade with a city view at the Fairfield. What does that mean? It had views of the Empire State Building and the New Yorker building. It was bit rainy that evening, the skyscrapers presented a different kind of beauty.

So Cal peeps in NYC - A few weeks before our Euro trip, I found out that our friends Edith and Ron Alangui (from Castaic Lake) and their family were headed for NY around the same time. We exchanged text messages and easily agreed on one thing. “You up for some halal?” That meant meeting up at The Halal Guys on W. 53rd St and 6th Ave. Since it was showering quite a bit, Ethan and I decided to take a train up to 50th St and crossed over towards 6th Avenue. We met Ron, Edith, and fam right outside Starbucks. I’ve been a fan of the The Halal Guys for so long that visiting their cart is a ritual whenever I visit the city. While eating our food, Ron and I got to talk about our trip, and I shared some tips for their NYC adventure and their future vacations. After meeting up with the Alanguis, Ethan and I decided to treat ourselves to a cab ride back to our hotel. When he and I got back to the hotel, we saw Nancy and Madison sleeping soundly and realized we best get our much needed rest.

Enjoying every New York minute
While I went to bed around 11:30pm, my jet lagged self woke up around 4:30am and I couldn’t go back to sleep anymore. Nancy got up shortly after I did. Our flight back to LA was scheduled to leave 9pm that evening, so we had around 12 more hours of play time in the city. Since we've all been to NY before, there was no need to visit the regular touristy spots. Instead, we had plans to try and get tickets to Finding Neverland, a brand new show on Broadway starring Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer. I watched this show 3 weeks prior, and truly enjoyed every bit of it. I just knew that we had to catch it as a family during this return trip back to the city. I actually had it all planned that when we flew back from Milan, we decided not to head back to LA, instead, spend one more day in New York on April 8th which was also our 15th Wedding Anniversary.

Before going to the theatre to get tickets, we headed downstairs to eat. Our hotel provided free hot breakfast. After eating, we walked 6 blocks and turned right on West 46th Street to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. There was already a line that formed which lessened the likelihood of us getting 4 tickets. When the box office opened at 10am, there was only 1 discounted rush ticket available. I wasn’t going to get it, but Ethan wanted the ticket, so there, we bought him the only ticket that was left. It was only $37 - front row orchestra. Tickets in the Orchestra sell up to $242 (insane!!!). At this time, only 1 out of 4 of us had a ticket to a matinee show.

15th Anniversary Wicked luck
We tried to get rush tickets to other shows but by 10:30am, the rush tickets for the matinee shows have all been sold out. We looked at our list, and Madison said she wanted to watch Wicked again. Nancy and I were on the fence about watching this show again. Madison watched this last summer in NYC when she won the lottery. But we decided to try our luck. Joining the lottery was the option we took. We signed up, entered our names, and by noon, the lottery winners were announced. The 5th one called - Edward Francisco (that’s me, in case you didn’t know hahahahaha). We were hoping 2 of us would get called which means we could get up to 4 tickets. But, we were happy with having 1 winner (2 tickets). And with me winning these 2 tickets, I gave the orchestra seats to Madison and Nancy.

So that now leaves me with no show to watch. I’ve been coming back to NYC so often  and have been fortunate to watch many of the shows playing on Broadway. I’ve really narrowed my choices to just watching the new shows. Nancy suggested I buy tickets to Finding Neverland so I could go with Ethan. While it was tempting to watch this great show again, I opted to watch this new show that’s playing next door to where Wicked is playing - Fun Home. Nancy went to the box office and got me rush tickets (2nd row orchestra). So there, all 4 of us had tickets to a matinee show!!!

Ramen State of Mind

It was now past 12 noon and the matinee shows were scheduled at 2pm. We only had one type of food in mind…RAMEN. Having been in Europe for the past 2 weeks, we had no access to ramen, or didn’t really look at places with ramen. Not sure I’d trust ramen in Italy to begin with :-) So, ramen was definitely part of the plan. Fortunately, it was just a matter of crossing 8th Ave and 51st Street for us to get to Ippudo West. I’ve eaten here many times and the location was perfect. Not too far from where we all had to be at 2pm. The temperature around the city was in the 40s, no rain, but a bit on the cold side. Ramen was the fix we were looking for and I was so glad it all worked out.

Matinees Divided
We all made it to our shows before the 2pm matinee. Ethan’s theatre was on W. 46th St. so I dropped him off to make sure he got there safely. Nancy and Madison got to the Gershwin Theatre just fine since it was so close to Ippudo West. I made my way inside the Circle in Square Theatre and found my seat right before the show started.

After the show, we all met up and Ethan couldn’t stop raving about Finding Neverland. He now understood why I wanted the family to watch this show. Now I can only hope to return back to NY and for the rest of the family to watch this show. 

We all met up with the Alanguis one more time. They were right outside waiting for the lottery for The Book of Mormon. We couldn't stay very long since we still had to gather our stuff and make our way to the airport. Shortly after 5pm, Ron texted me that they won lottery tickets to the show. Yes!!!

Finally headed home
It was finally time to get our luggage from our hotel. From our hotel, Nancy and the kids went ahead and took a cab towards Penn Station where they caught a train towards Newark Airport. I, on the other hand, took a bus towards Secaucus. I left my luggage and laptop at a Marriott hotel Secaucus before flying to Europe. They were kind enough to hold my luggage for me for 2 weeks. Once I obtained my belongings, the hotel even offered to take me to the train station on a shuttle ride. I love you, Marriott!

I met up with the rest of the family at Newark Airport by 6:30pm. Check in was a breeze. The best part, I was upgraded to First Class, while the rest of the family had choice seats(roomier seats). That was a great way of ending this European vacation.

The Takeaway
When I wrote my blog entries during our trip to Maui, I ended the blog with a takeaway which basically summarized my lessons-learned from the entire experience. For this European trip, there were quite a few takeaways.

Go see the world - I mentioned this earlier. We made a conscientious decision to "just do it", to pull the trigger when the opportunity knocks. Things will fall in to place, and that's exactly what happened. We made a decision to try and visit new places and we did. No resolutions...just decisions.

Pack light - I was gone from home for 3 weeks (including my 1 week of work back East). I survived with 1 carry-on and a backpack. I didn't bring everything I needed. Since coming back from our vacation, a few friends were still amazed that we only had a little carry-on and a backpack per person. It can be done. It wasn't our first time doing this (traveling light). Anything we missed, we were able to purchase them wherever we went. As long as we had access to a washer (even with no dryer in Europe), we were able to do our laundry with no problem.

Gotta love hard shell luggage and spinners - And no, I'm not thinking about the spinning hubcaps or wheel covers, but the spinners on our hard case luggage. Since we traveled to places mixed with sunny and rainy days, we didn't have to worry about our belongings getting wet since our luggage had a hard shell. The spinners also helped in pulling or pushing the luggage wherever we went. There's this new trend on a luggage, they look lighter, flexible, and meet the size criteria. I gotta look in to that some more.

Walking shoes - I need better shoes. My feet were screaming for help, and I finally listened after being in Europe for nearly a week before I bought a new pair. I ended up throwing my Doc Maartens in Paris. Those shoes were my go-to shoes when I walk around in NYC, but Europe demanded much more walking from me (and I should've know better). Note to self: find better walking shoes that's good for all occasions (casual or semi-casual).

Apartments vs. Hotels - Since coming back, lots of friends also inquired about our apartment rental experience. We rented different apartments for our party of 8 (or 9 when we were in Paris). We had bedrooms for our group, with access to our own washing machine, kitchen, and private bathrooms. Being in one apartment also allowed all of us to stay together, and we didn't have to worry about meeting up in a central location since we all stayed in one place.  It was such a big gamble to base my decision on simply reading the reviews. But it all paid off. To be perfectly honest, I was simply content with a bed to sleep in and hot shower.

But to have 2-3 bedrooms with 1-3 bathrooms, WiFi, washing machine, a decent kitchen...we couldn't have asked for a better set-up. Thanks to rental sites such as AirBNB and VRBO. We used them before in Maui and Mammoth, and I'm sure I'll be using them again in the future.


So what if I don't speak French and Italian - Language was not a barrier. English is still a universal language, and with the help of a smart phone, I was able to bridge the language gap with anyone I spoke with in France and Italy. 

If all else fails, just ask - that's exactly how we survived. We weren't gun-shy in approaching a stranger to ask for directions.

Talk to the locals - whenever we arrived in a new city, we talked to our cab driver or apartment owner/manager (for instance), and asked for local places they themselves would go to for lunch or dinner. Their advise - simply invaluable. 

Take public transportation - for the most part, we took lots of rides using the subway (metro rides), local trains, high speed trains, trams, shuttles, buses, and a few times using a cab. We had to find the best way to take unlimited rides using the combination of all the rides available to us. We were given maps which we used to get around the city. We could've rented a car (which would've been another adventure). Safety using public transportation was always a question, and we were fortunate that we felt safe in all of the places we went to during this trip.

Use the right credit card/s - Know what your card can do for you. Some cards give you rewards or points for miles or cash back. Before we flew, we made sure that the cards we carried had no foreign transaction fees. Those fees could easily add up to 3% per transaction. Use a card with Smart Chip technology. More merchants outside the US are only accepting cards with Smart Chip. It is also for your security since it is harder for thieves to get data from your card.

No Itinerary, no problem- well, this one is quite debatable. We had a basic idea where (which city) we'd be visiting, and had a basic clue of places to visit. However, we didn't have an exact itinerary, we had an inkling as to what we wanted to see in the cities we visited. It was too far fetched to visit everything, so we went by what was accessible to us via transportation or by going on foot. We were on our own time. We didn't have to rush per se. AAnything we missed, we decided to try and go to those places the next day.

Cell Phone Usage - I, of all people, did not take the time to find out the cell phone usage I'd be needing in Europe. We all survived using public WiFi when we were out and about. Lots of restaurants and coffee shops offer free Wi-Fi, so during our break times, we had a little something to eat while we surfed the net. Special thanks to Gemma, she lent me one of her spare cell phones which I used for basic phone calls to the property owner. But other than that, we didn't have the luxury of having access to a full-serviced smartphone....and yet, we survived.

You're on vacation, have fun - that's my final takeaway. It was okay to get lost. It was okay to not know the language. Be spontaneous, it's all part of the adventure. I'm so glad that we were able to experience this with our family and friends we met along the way. I simply can't wait for the next adventure. We've got our passports ready and are already on the lookout for the next trip. Where to? Only time will tell. In the meantime, thanks for reading along and for following our journey. So revoir....arrivederci.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Milan -> Lake Como -> Louis Vuitton

Back to Milan
After milking every single Parisian moment, it was time to head back to Milan for the final leg of our European vacation. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 8:30am from Charles de Gaulle Airport. This means that we have to be at the airport by 6:30am or 7am at the latest. While there were options to take the Metro or bus, it would’ve been challenging and risky knowing that 8 of us would have to do train transfers in order for us to make it to the airport. Fortunately, Em and Ben found a great deal on a private van for all 8 of us. This gave us the peace of mind that we’d make it to the airport all in one piece.

Weights and Measures (Ryanair vs. EasyJet)
A few days ago, I wrote about my experience with Ryanair. In general, they allow 2 baggage allowance (a luggage up to 22 lbs, and another smaller item up to 13 lbs). If you meet the criteria, along with the size of the baggage - then you will not be charged. Key thing was to also meet with weight limit. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve heard so much about Ryanair since articles were written about potential baggage nightmares with them. Fortunately for our party, that didn’t happen during our flight from Venice to Paris. 

EasyJet, the airline I booked for our flight from Paris to Milan, had a different policy. What struck me most was - NO WEIGHT LIMIT. This was the reason why we were confident enough to even shop in Paris knowing that weight would not be an issue.

Fast forward now to Monday morning, the shuttle ride from Boulogne-Billancourt (where our apartment was located), that was so convenient, and we made it to the airport by 6am. Check in was not an issue. Most of had our own carry-on luggage and a backpack. Since we had over 2 hours of wait time before our flight, we found ourselves sleeping right next to our gate.An hour prior to our flight, an announcement was made asking for volunteers to check in our luggage for free. We decided to do it, all 8 of us. Once we got to the desk, we were told that each of our 2nd item (backpack or purse) will cost us $55 Euros. WHAAAATTTT???? That’s 8 x $55 Euros -> $440 Euros!!! The desk agent said that only 1 baggage is allowed per person. Anything extra is $55 Euros each. We left the desk upset. We tried to empty our backpacks and squeezed them in our luggage. For my family, from 4 backpacks, we ended up with 2 backpacks as a carry-on, therefore, we ended up paying $110 Euros. It was a tough pill to swallow, but what could we do at that point.

So there’s a lesson learned for us, and for any of you who plan on flying with EasyJet, while weight is not an issue, the number of baggage you bring is limited if you want to pay $0. And for that, I can’t say I’m an EasyJet fan. The main saving grace was the ticket price, it  was close to peanuts which is why I decided to fly with EasyJet.

Milan...we got this!
After the baggage mishap, the flight to Milan was relatively unadventurous, no issues whatsoever. You might be asking why we flew back to Milan? In a perfect world, it would have been ideal to fly in to one place, and on the return flight back to LA, we could have chosen a different country or city. In our case, the airfare deal was JFK-MIlan, and Milan-JFK. So I tried to make the itinerary work where we visited other cities during our European trip.

Once we arrived in Milan I made contact with Gemma. It turns out that the day after Easter is a holiday for them. We agreed to meet them somewhere near Duomo. Unlike our first visit to Milan where we stayed in an apartment, for this last night in Milan, I booked us at the Boscolo Milano Hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph collection. It was more tricky to find an apartment for 8 people for 1 night, so this hotel booking was the right thing for us to do. 

To get to Milan from the airport, we purchased train tickets. This time we had no issue. A week ago, we had ticketing and credit card issues, not this time. We got this. It was a 35 minute train ride from the airport to Cadorna train station. From there, we took a cab that then  took us directly to our home for the next 24 hours, Boscolo Milano. The moment we set foot in the hotel, it was quite evident that it was not an ordinary hotel. It was Marriott’s high end hotel. it was not a traditional hotel, but quite trendy. Since I was able to use my Marriott points for the reservation, our rooms were upgraded. We were also allowed to check in earlier than usual, and for that we were thankful.

The plan now is to meet Gemma somewhere near Duomo. The hotel was no more than 10 minutes of leisurely walk to Duomo. We found a local restaurant and we were seated right outside to dine al fresco. Soon after, Gemma found us. She brought along little Sophia with her. it was so good to see them again. As a surprise, Gemma handed me a green box. I forgot that she promised to bake me something - her delicious carrot cake! Now that was a wonderful treat. I love…love…love…did I say love? Yes, I love carrot cake! Hers was sprinkled with all sorts of nuts including pistachios. We couldn’t wait to try it.
Lake Como, Italy
We had no major plans for this last leg of our trip. If I failed to mention this before, we were extremely tired from all the walking and sightseeing. We could’ve easily just lounged in our hotel room, however, we were given another option to see one more sight, Lake Como. We all decided to do a quick round trip. 
Geri, Gemma’s husband, joined us as well. We all took a train to Lake Como which was about a 1-hour train ride. The best part of the ride? Eating Gemma’s carrot cake. She came very prepared with forks and plates, and we were able to share the cake. It was exactly how I liked it…not too sweet. It was chunky, and the top  had this layer of frosting that did not overpower the cake. Thank you, Gemma!!!!

We arrived at the Como Lago train station past 3pm. It was crowded, very crowded. After all, it was a holiday to begin with. Right when we walked out of the station, we got to see Lake Como. Surrounding Lake Como to the right were the hillside homes. We walked towards a nearby park and what I’d like to call a little pier and snapped a few family pictures. After that, we walked across the street to the little plaza and found a gelateria. It has become a daily ritual now to try a gelato. 

Our plan to do a quick roundtrip was halted by the enormous crowd. When we headed back to the train station to catch the 5:17pm train, it was evident that it was packed with passengers and there was no way we’d squeeze in our party in to that train. Our next choice was to get on the 5:47pm train. We walked over to that train. The doors weren’t opened yet. But right outside each car, there must’ve have 50-60 people waiting outside. Once the door opened up, a few of us found seats, while some of us sat on the steps, while others stood. We were packed like sardines. I sat with Nancy and Madison in a 2-seater area, and found ways to uncomfortably squeeze myself in there. You gotta do what you gotta do. Weariness grew over us, signs that we’ve been vacationing for awhile now. The hourlong ride remained pack until the last 3 stops before making it back to Milan.

We finally got to Milan’s Cadorna station by 7pm and with one more subway ride, Gemma and Geri took us back to Pizza Sprontini, the same pizza place we’ve all been talking about during our entire trip. Em and Nancy went to a local grocery to shop for Italian goodies/chocolates. The rest of us stayed and ate our pizza. Again, it was delicious. Maybe it was even better than the first time. I’m so glad that we ate here since we were already familiar with the food. The cheese! Oh that cheese. It was all about the cheese.

Grazie Gemma, Geri, and Sophia
After dinner, we walked to the nearest tram to head back to our hotel. This was the final time that we’d be with Gemma and family. They live not far from Pizza Sprontini. Since we are now “Milan experts”, we told them there was no need to take us our hotel anymore. They still gave us clear directions how to go get our hotel. But it was time to say goodbye, or so long, or see you later. Thank you, Gemma, Geri, and Sophia - for being part of our European vacation. You made our Milan visit worthwhile, and thank you for accommodating all our crazy requests. We hope to see you again in the future, whether it’s on a return trip to Italy, or whenever you visit the US. God bless!!!

Boscolo Milano, it’s what the doctor ordered
We made it back to our hotel safe and sound. We decided to head down to the pool located in the basement. We had no idea what we were in for…a treat. After nearly 2 weeks of walking, the pool at Boscolo Milano was exactly the thing we needed to cap off our vacation. It was warm, therapeutic, relaxing, everything we needed it to be at that point. It was a good way to unwind, and we found ourselves appreciating what the past 2 weeks were for our families.  The pool area was actually a spa. There was also a sauna, and other rooms to help you relax. Just writing about it now brings me back to that zen moment. Thank you, Boscolo. I hope to return again soon.

Chop, chop, chop!
Shop, shop, shop!
We got up at 730am, finally,  we had close to 8 hours of sleep. We all headed down to the complimentary buffet. When you hear the words complimentary and buffet in a hotel - the words continental breakfast quickly come to mind. But it was nowhere close to that. It had the finest cheeses, meats fruits, soup, salad, juices, and much more. Coffee selection was your espresso choices. I think we stayed there over an hour. I’m telling you, we were on a relaxation mode at this point. After breakfast, we all decided to meet downstairs by 12:30pm so we could all catch a train to go back to the airport for our 4:10pm flight.

After breakfast, instead of heading back to the room to pack, Nancy was on a mission. Two weeks ago, she stopped by at the Louis Vuitton store near the Duomo (inside Galeria V. Emanuel). She had her eyes set on a few items. She decided not to get them then, and also avoided shopping at the other Louis Vuitton stores in Florence, Venice, and Paris. Why? If she did, we’d be carrying those purchases with us during the entire trip. The challenge: we had less than 2 hours to shop. The store opened at 10am and we were there by 10:15am. The sales lady found out we were celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary so she came out with a couple of champagne flutes to help toast our anniversary (well, I think it was more about getting us in the mood to shop). By 10:30am, that LV store was already bustling with customers. Fortunately, we found one dedicated sales associate who helped us over the next hour. It was a treat to see Nancy pick out her selection of different purses and wallets. While she did that, I just kept myself busy by roaming around the store and watched other people go about their purchases.

Nancy finished shopping for her LV goodies by 11:20, and after a lengthy transaction using our passport info etc, we made our way back to Boscolo Milano by 11:45am. We weren’t fully packed yet. The next 20 minutes were dedicated to packing the rest of our items for our flight back to the US. We accomplished that and met and Em/Ben and family downstairs, and we all took a cab and headed to Cadorna train station and caught the train back to Malpensa Airport.

Our flight back to New York with Emirates Airline was delayed for about an hour. It was no big deal. We were just glad that we made it to the airport safely, took care of credits with the Milan customs, and so for nearly 2 hours, we hung around the airport, ate our last Italian meal and relaxed. Our European vacation has come to an end. It was definitely jam packed with unforgettable memories. When I write my final entry for my European blog, I will have a section dedicated to our stay tuned. In the meantime, thanks for reading. The next entry is our 1 day back in NYC.