042 – Life Share: A European Trip Recap

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Episode Summary

A little life-share moment as Amy gives listeners an overview of her recent month-long European trip, including background planning, travel insights and reflections, piano books she took as gifts for friends, food experiences, a crazy story, and more.


Items Mentioned


Have you ever taken a month-long vacation? This was my first and I have to say, I’m still not sure if it made it easier or harder to go back to work. While we had all of last week which was fall break around here to reset, my brain is having a hard time switching off Europe and back to piano teaching.

So, since this podcast is all about living life as indepenent teachers and I know many of you followed our journeys on social media, I thought I would take this week to simply share with you just as I would my real-life local friends.

In today’s episode I’ll walk you through our month long trip, where we went, how we planned it, food we ate, piano music I picked out to gift to my friends kids, interesting random facts and more (including a really crazy story).

If you’re planning a trip to Europe or just want to hear even more fun details, consider jumpingn over to the blog at Pianopantry.com where I just posted a fun and quite large list of random observations my husband and I noticed while traveling. Many of these things are pieces of advice and I think would have been useful to know myself.

You can find the link to that blog post in the show notes along with links to several items that i will mention in this episode today. Rather than telling you 5 times throught the episode you can find the link in the show notes, just know that if I mention something specific, you can probably find a link there.

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space we talk about all things teacher-life related from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

Let’s set the stage a little bit. My husband Drew and I have never been to Europe but it has been a dream of mine. My family hosted multiple exchange students growing up and many of them were from France so that country has been on my sights for a long time. After spending a long 5 years slowly building our house, and rarely taking a vacation that was more than a long weekend in our 20 years of marriage, I told my husband for our 20th anniversary it was time to go big. We needed it and he agreed.

The plan was just for a more normal 10-14 day trip in the fall utilizing one week of our fall break around here so I didnt’ have to shut down my studio for too long. However, after contacting my friend in Germany who we were plannning to visit, we realized they were going to be on vacation in that two week period and due to their schedule we would have to come three weeks earlier than we intended.

I looked at my husband and said…well, I would hate to not utilize fall break so why don’t we just go for a month and then use fall break to recover! Done. Instantly we became month-long European backpackers.

This change in schedule is actually what inspired episode # 28 on Flexible studio calendars as I had already published my studio calendar in May and had to go back and completely re-think the school year.

Anyway, so, we are the kind of people that prefer to do all of our own planning rather than using like a tour group but I’ll tell you what, it was a LOT of work. I did a little bit of planning over the summer but it wasn’t until the summer slowed down that we hit things hard at the beginning of August and it took us every bit of our free time over the course of the 4-7 weeks leading up to the trip.

The best advice we took was to only take a carry-on with one week of clothing. We researched and purchased new luggage – the best investment ever – and what we landed on was an Osprey brand wheeled travel pack which was a 36 liber carry-on that converted to a backpack. That was a whole ordeal having to prepack and figure out how little we could actually make do with. We actually had to pack 3 times in order to whittle down our options.

Also, finding just the right bag was not easy. Osprey’s bags are amazing but also a little confusing to figure out because the mens and womens bags have different names even though they’re the same bag. Luckily we had a great local outdoor shop we worked with to help us figure it out. So that is my first recommendation – carryon only that converts to a backpack. We then also had small daypack backpacks.

It was almost impossible plannin every little detail ahead of time and it’s important to us to allow for flexibiltiy, so we planned the path and the big stops and from there improvised and planned each leg of the trip a few days prior.

We nailed roundtrip tickets to Paris from Chicago for $600 apiece which we were super happy with. After arriving in Paris we took the fast train train from Charles de Gaulle into Strasbourg France and then another into Mannheim Germany in the west part of Germany.

When we lived in Australia, back in 2006-2009, my closest friend there was German. I haven’t seen her for 13 years so seeing them in Cologne was part of the early plans. Her mom lives near Mannheim however and offered to host us the first night. I can’t tell you how nice it was so nice going into a foreign country and having a personal welcome.

The next mornign we rented a car and embarked on a quick 3 day trip down the Romantic Road in Southern Germany and then made a full circle to the southwest to drive through the Black Forest. Highlights on the romantic road included Rothernburg aub der Tauber – a village surrounded in medieval walls, and, our ultimate goal, Neuschwanstein castle which boarders on the Alps in the South.

The Freiburg Cathedral in the black forest was amazing as was an outdoor museum we visited that housed 25 houses, barns, and other buildings from all around Germany since the 1300s. We also had a really fun driving the winding roads through the beautiful black forest to visit the All Saints Abbey which was a ruin from 1192.

After that 3-day road trip, we returned to our host in Mannheim them drove with her the next morning to her daughter’s house in Cologne which is in Northwest Germany. We spent the first weekend with her family and spent time exploring Cologne – a city which was compeltely decimated in the war except for the beautiful gothic cologne cathedral.

Two of her children take piano lessons so I enjoyed picking out some fun music for them. For the 14 year old daughter I took The Sebastian Sessions by Trevor and Andrea Dow and for the 8 year old boy, Chrissy Ricker’s Let’s Quest! book with Video Game Inspired Solos. I also took a copy of the Reflections of Indiana suite by Melody Bober since, well, we’re from Indiana.

I just have to add here that Germany was never on my bucket list but wow, we absolutely loved it. IT was beautiful and we would love to go back and see more some today, so I highlgy recommend travelign Germany.

After leaving them, we took a train into Amsterdam and got to enjoy the fun city that’s full of canals and lots and lots of bikes. We are so glad we didn’t try to rent a car in Amsterdam. The city streets are very narrow and everyone gets around on bikes. It’s pretty cool actually, I mean, they literally have bike parking garages there.

We indulged in some fun Dutch food experiences including bitterballen which is like a meatball but the meat inside is more of a paste than a ground meat; they were good – just a different texture. We also had dutch pancakes which are really thin pancakes about the size of a medium pizza and you can do them either sweet or savory just like a crepe.

Unfortunately it rained a lot in Amsterdam which put a damber on the experience. One lesson I learned is to make sure you have proper rain gear with you. I just had a windbreak that was lightly waterproof, and a small umbrella and it wasn’t enough. We were poured on during our outdoor country windmill tour and the rain doesn’t stop the Dutch. I regret not taking my hiking shoes and only having tennis shoes as my best walking shoe as they are not waterproof and I walked in completely soaking wet feet for several hours that day. We had the same experience in London at one point too so it wasn’t just a one-off experience. So, pack good rain gear.

One more fun food we had in the Netherlands was mint tea. I’m not a tea person but all this was was a huge handfull of fresh mint and boiling water and it was delicious.

Next up was London. Originally, the city wasn’t on our sights but once we found out a good friend of ours would be there while we were to run the London Marathon, there was no question – it became part of the tour. One of our trains out of the Netherlands was delayed though and so we ended up having an 8 hour layover in Brussels Belgium which prooved to be a great delight. We spent all day exploring the city and were thankful for our backpack conversions with all of the cobblestones.

We got to spend a couple of hours exploring this amazing musical instruments museum. I have so many photos from this museum of pianos from over the past centuries I’m planning on doing a blog post soon so be sure and signup for my email list so you get notified when that post goes live.

I also took the opportunity being in Belgium to have waffles. Now, we’re not talking here about the fluffy belgiun waffles you know but liege waffles. They’re a different type of dough that is a lot more dense and slightly more caramelized. It’s the only type of waffle I ever eat anymore at home. PSSSt. There’s a link to a recipe in the show notes!

London was a lot of fun. We did a big day tour on the top of an open air hop-on-hop off Big Red Bus hitting all the sights like the London Tower, The London Tower Bridge (which by the way is the big beatuful one that I assumed was what we know as the london bridge). The London Bridge – the one from the song – is a boring contemporary looking concrete bridge.

Anyway, we saw Westminster Abby, Big Ben (which is the name of the bell, not the tower it’s in… or the clock), and Buckingham palace. The biggest highlight for me though was Borough Market on the south side near the Tower of London. The food there is amazing. We passed vats of paella and mushroom farro risotto and all kinds of tantalizing things. I enjoyed a unique sandwich called a salt beef bagel which is actually spelled beigel. We even had goats milk ice cream for dessert.

As I mentioned earlier, part of this leg of the trip was watching our friend run the London Marathon. Neither one of us had every watched a marathon or even a cross crountry meet and I can’t tell you how exciting it was. The wheelchair race was also super exciting to witness as well. We had no idea – there is so much energy that goes into the race and while it’s competetitve the runners are also looking more for personal bests than anything.

Our friend is a machine. He finished the 26.2 mile race in 2:42 and placed in the 600s out of over 50,000. That’s like a 6 minute mile for 25 miles. It’s crazy. Once the race was over though, in true London style, we were happy to help him rejuvenate with a big platter of fish and chips and a pint of Guinness.

We took a train out of London down to Portsmouth UK and boarded an overnight ferry that took about 10 hours across the english channel to Saint Malo, France which is just on the edge between the Brittany and Normandy regions. We had a tiny little cabin to sleep in and it was very economical as the ticket was basically our travel and hotel for that night in one.

My friend from Germany had mentioned that she loved Saint Malo and now I know why. There’s a portion of the city that is called Old Town and it’s simlilar to what we experience in the German village of Rothernberg where the city was surrounded entirely in a medieval wall. That’s the thing in Europe, just everywhere you look are old buildings and they are just so incredibly beautiful.

The amount of cobblestone roads everywhere is also quite amazing and also quite had on the feet (and luggage as I mentioned earlier). That’s another reason I wish I had my hiking shoes – eventually cobblestones even take a toll on on good tennis shoes when your’e walking all day.

This part of the trip was our second roadtrip. We rented another small Fiat and drove the Normandy region hitting all of the WWII sights along the northern coast. Before we made it that far though, we made the stop at the famous Mont Saint Michel which is an island with an Abby commune on top where to this day 12 monks and nuns live.

One staple meal in this region is mussels and fries which became one of our new favorites. We have never had mussels. They’re so tiny and you would give this giganitic bowl of them for like $15, sometimes in a white sauce but we really liked the white wine broth version.

While traveling and seeing all of the Normandy sights including a German, British, Canadian, and American memorial cemetaries, it was really neat to see and hear how much to this day the people of the region are grateful to the Allies for D-Day and freeing France. There are little memorials everywhere you look. We could have easily taken 4-5 days although we covered a nice amount in 3.

Finishing up the road trip, we circled back around to return the car to Saint Malo then took a train 8 hours south to Bordeaux to visit our childhood exchange student and friend. They spent the weekend touring us around Bordeaux, driving around wine country, and introducing us to foods like foie gras which is a duck or goose liver pate and snail. Both of these items we had never had and both items we thorougly enjoyed. The foie gras was amazingly smooth, creamy, and rich. As for the snails, we had them not from the shell but in a little puff pastry appetizer covered in a green herb butter sauce. Apparently, my friend said snails is more about the sauce than the snail itself.

When we were walking around Bordeaux, they stopped at this little pastry shop and bought something called a Canneles which is a small pastry with a crisp exterior and a soft moist custard-like interior. The exterior is flavored with dark rum or cognac.

My husband became absolutely obsessed with these little things and promptly ordered a set of copper molds from France when we got home. Apparently the copper mold is the best way to get the crisp caramelized exterior like the originals.

They also drove us about an hour over to the West coast where we climbed the highest sand dune in Europe. It was quite the hike but totally worth it!

OK. So I have one big story to tell you at this point in the trip. So, we had to take 2 or or three trains from Saint Malo down to Bordeaux. Every time we moved locations I would tuck my small cross-body purse into my small daypack backpack for transport. For some reason this particula time I didn’t, I jsut slug it around my body in the morning separetly from my backpack and roller suitcase.

So we take the first train, switch to the next train and about 10 minutes in the guy is comign around to look at our tickets and it makes me think about my purse so I’m looking around frantic as you can imagine realizing that I don’t have it. I’m not 100% sure if I left it at the airbnb or on the train so I message the airbnb person and the ticket guy tries to quickly get ahold of someone he knows who is on the train we had just come from while my husband starts cancellign credit cards.

Unfortunately he came back and said they didnt’ find it and we woudl need to submit a claim for to the SNCF train service and then go to the American embassy to obatian an emergency passport. The good news was we knew we had enough time in Europe still the passport would doable, it just woudl require forfeiting some of our fun plans.

So, I submit the form to the SNCF train service and then we wait. Several hours later once we’ve arrived at my friends house, we finally have a chance to tell them what happened. At that exact same moment, I get an email stating that the train service found the purse. Unfortunately it was all in French but fortunately we were with French people who could help! Honestly the timing of all of this could not have happene in a better location. If I had lost it in the UK we would have been in a bind trying to get back to France.

Anyway, so they read the email and find out that I have to pay a $10 retrieval fee, OK no big deal, and while the purse had been found it was in Brest, France was was in the very far Northwest corner and a 9 hour train ride essentially back the way we had come.

They were not allowed to ship the purse – it had to be picked up in person. Again, we would hae been willing ot do that if needed but that would hage killed 2-3 days of our trip entirely.

Luckliy my friends fiance had a colleage in Brest who he called and was able to arrange for her to pick up the purse – after we went an affadavit stating she could get it, double-checking the passport was actually still in it which luckily it was along with all our cards and money. They then ahd to organize a package to be sent from a UPS dropoff in Brest to a UPS pickup location at a store on the Champs-Eleyses in Paris for us to retrieve when we arrived 4 days later.

What an ordeal, oh my! We are so thankful for our friends and I will say they actually ha d lot of trouble wiht the UPS website tryign to get the package organized but in the end all ways well and we retrieved the purse in Paris 4 days later. Amen, thank you Lord, I could come home! LOL

Is that a story of what?!

So, our final leg of the trip was Paris for 6 days and hit sights like the palace of Versailles, Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triumph, and the Louvre Museum. One thing we did was use Rick Steve’s app guides. We of course, walked along the Champs -Eleyses to retrieve my purse, and more.

Being in Paris, I just had to take a cookign class of some time so I settled on a macaroon class what was a lot of fun. All the croissant classes were booked which is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t plan too far out but that’s OK, I prefer being more spontatneous anyway and the macaroons were great.

One thing we began to wonder in Paris is if anyone there ate at home. Everywhere you walked all you did was walk past restaurants – I’m not even exaggerating. It was really interesting because as a person who just loves food, I was not overly wowed by any food we ate in Paris one bit. Granted, we didn’t eat at any fancy French food restaurants, but even so, it’s funny but if just felt like it was hard to weigh what restaurants would be better than others as there were just so many and often had similar types of menus.

A traditional french breakfast consisted of a pastry of choice – and yes, the croissants were absolutely divine, a hot drink of choice, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The freshly squeezed orange juice machines were everyehwere – in restaurants, grocery stores, and on portable food carts.

One fun thing we did eat was something called Raclette which is actually a Swiss dish although the word Raclette means “to scrape” and that’s exactly what you do. They give you a chunk of cheese under a warmer and it slowly melts. You then scrape the cheese onto your plate and eat with boiled potatoes or bread. Think of it as another form of fondue, really.

Well….I think I’ve finally come to the end.

Whew, this is quite a lot to tell you about and I’m doing my best to keep it to the point and as concise as possible! There is just so much I could share but I know time is always of the essence.

I’ve hope I’ve brightend your day will all of these stories.

Thanks for being here!

Don’t forget, if you want to take in more from our travels including a list of lots of interesting random observances such as… every shower we used in Europe had the exact same shower head except for maybe a handful, you’ll want to jump into the show notes for the link to the blog post on PianoPantry.com

If you want to stay up to date with the Piano Pantry blog and podcast, you can also find a link to subscribe in the show notes.

I would love to hear from you about my stories today. Have you had any of the same experiences in Europe? Did you find this travel advice helpful for future travels? Connect with me online via Instagram at amy chaplin piano, or on facebook at piano pantry.

Wow, it’s been awhile since I shared a fun fact! You know me as a piano teacher but back in my younger days one of the first things I considered doing was being an accountant. I think the only reason is that math was one of my favorite subjects in school. Another thing I also considered when I was in a mid-point in my life career goals was being a chef.

So, essentially I got my undergrad degree in music ed and taught middle school and high school choir for 3 years while teaching piano part time, then we moved to Australia for my husbands job for three years and I just worked for a temp agency in business while teaching piano part time. When we returned to the US in 2009, I was either going to go to chef school or back to music school. The decision felt easily made when a grad school assistantship offer basically landed in my lap and from there I went down the piano pedagogy route for my masters degree. The rest is history. Food is fun to me and who knows where it may take me in the future!

See you next week, friends!