Monday, July 29, 2013

Eating our way across Europe

Eating in Europe can always be an interesting experience.  No matter how much you tell the kids to expect something new, no one really understands until we get here.  In most cases the first experience is a positive one, but there are times that some kids choose to pass on the salted chicken leg.  It is good that we keep moving across this continent.  Different countries bring different foods.

On the first Saturday of our trip, we covered a lot of ground and enjoyed three different meals in three different countries. We had breakfast in Germany, lunch in Austria, and dinner in Italy.  Not bad day for a group of kids that includes some that have never left the United States.

After traveling all day, our arrival in Italy on Saturday night was a welcome one until we stepped out of our air-conditioned bus.   With new countries and changing food, there also comes changing climate. The heat here was pretty shocking.  Many of were surprised by the fact that the hotel restaurant didn't have air conditioning.  At dinner, we ate one bite, then took a drink of water, another bite followed by another drink. Local people sat around completely oblivious of the heat while many of were sweating profusely.  Tourists!

On Sunday morning, we were welcomed into Venice with the announcement that it was the hottest day of the year.  While only 90 degrees, the humidity was at times unbearable.  Thank goodness this country has gelato!  After grabbing a pico cup of Italy's famous version of ice cream, many of us jumped into the 11th century Basilica of San Marco and the neighboring palace to escape the heat.  The labyrinth of streets and bridges also provided much needed shade.

Even thought the day high of gelato was a mere 4 servings (the record on our trips is 10), everyone seemed to survive the heat and have a fantastic day.  We left the city around 6:30pm just as the heat began to waver.  As these trips are meant to do, you can easily imagine spending more time here on a future return visit. If the food doesn't do it, the sights will always make your dream about returning to Europe.

Jim Sill

Day Two's Trip to Dachau

In between Heidelberg and Munich, we had the amazing opportunity to visit the first Holocaust concentration camp ever built: Dachau. The phrase uttered over and over was, "I can't believe I'm here." We saw the trains tracks on which the Holocaust prisoners were transported. We walked the same path victims walked when entering the camp. We stood in the courtyard where prisoners endured countless horrors.

Most of us had previously studied about the events of the Holocaust, but actually touching the bunks the prisoners slept in, standing inside a gas chamber, and staring into the ovens of the crematorium: these were experiences we will never forget - which is, in fact, why these places still stand: so that we will never forget.  Today, we physically experienced a history lesson,  and although the events it covered were sobering, it is one we are grateful to have experienced and will remember forever.

Tanya Perez

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Away We Go!

We arrived almost on time this morning in Frankfurt, Germany after a flight Dallas, Texas that lasted a little under 9.5 hours.  Since this is a trip with a lot of first timers on board, I was a little concerned about the bumpy ride out of DFW.  I even had the flight attendants check on the kids once in a while.  It turns out that most everyone had a great flight.  Some slept and some did not.  There was even a chaperone that didn't catch many z's because he was too caught up in
'The Incredible Burt Wonderstone'. The caught up on some sleep in the buss.

While waiting to pass through immigration, a few of the kids recognized the smaller group from Canada that is joining us on the tour.  They are a great group of ladies with lots of smiling, curious faces.  Afterward, we met up with our tour director, Lindsey, just outside the doors.  As always, she met us with a warm greeting and promptly began memorizing names of everyone on the trip.  Always an amazing sight.

After a successful run through the ATM, we all headed out to meet our bus driver, Antonio from Italy.  He will be with us through Paris and has already shown us he can navigate the tiny streets of Heidelberg.  These skills will come in handy as we pass through the Alps.

We had a nice easy day filled with walking the castle grounds, meandering the old streets of town in search of a inexpensive German treat and much more.  Some of us (Mrs. Sill ) found a church tower to climb.  The 280 steps offered us a nice view of the city below.   I am hoping to make this an activity that everyone can enjoy.  All churches are good practice for the Duomo in Florence, a grueling 463 spiral steps to the top.

We finished off our day today with light meal of chicken and potatoes at our hotel here in Ludwigshaven.  While most enjoyed the ice cream for dessert, so grabbed a slice of Plum Torte that our guide bought for my birthday.  Delicious.

It is about 10pm here and I am about to take a walk around the rooms to check on the kids.  I expect them all to be out cold.  It was a very long day and it is only just  the beginning.

Jim Sill

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Our Muse

In 2008, a fellow teacher at El Diamante High School asked me if I wanted to help chaperone her 30 students on a 21 day trip to Greece, Italy, Switzerland, France, and England.  Being a lot more broke than I am today, I was hesitant to go for two reasons; I didn't think I would stay married if I went without my wife and I was pretty sure I couldn't afford the cost for both of us to go.

When I posed the problem to a different friend of mine, he simply asked me if this was the summer that I would save money or the summer that I would take my wife to Europe.  Off to Europe we went!  This blog is the highlight of those moments.

Looking back, I never knew how much that simple gesture by that incredible English teacher, Robyn Ziessler, would change our lives.  You see, traveling with relative strangers can create tricky situations.  You either bond for life or you'll never speak to them again.
"I have found out there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." -Tom Sawyer Abroad
I have seen kids go on the trip as best friends and return home strangers.  A lot happens to your view of the world over there.  In the case of our friendship with Robyn, we bonded for life.  It just so happens that she and her husband knew how to travel AND they really knew how to have fun.  They knew when to turn up the heat and when to cool things down.  We laughed, loved, cried and itched our way around that continent.  In the short time we had together, we traveled to 7 different countries that summer.  Each stop gave us memories that will impact us forever.

Now five years later, my wife and I will lead fifth and last trip with students.  Like Robyn did for us, we are bringing along future tour leaders.  I hope their experience will be as amazing as ours was in 2008.  I hope even more that we can make an impact on the kids like she did on every tour.  We leave in just a few hours from now.  We are ready and totally excited!
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
Jim Sill

Monday, July 8, 2013

Time Has Come to Sing a Travelin' Song

Time is getting us closer to boarding our flight to Frankfurt.  Tonight is our last true meeting with students, so tonight we focus on one of the most important parts of travel....luggage.

To help us get ready, the meeting we are going to focus on what goes in it and how we lug it around.  We will take that bag for a little walk around campus and up a few stairs. Ok. More than a few stairs.  Last year, we had a couple of kids completely repack their bags because of the staircases we climbed at one of our last meetings.  Since kids are totally responsible for loading their luggage on and off buses and into hotels, one staircase can bring that fact to a cold reality.  The suitcase has potential to cause some problems during our 17 day trip.

Used with permission by geishaboy500
We often have a good distance to walk from our bus to our destination.  This isn't a big deal with wheels on a bag.  The issues come when we get to a broken escalator deep down in the subway or when the hotel elevator is the size of a 10 year old child.  

Students should focus on getting that bag as light as possible while packing essentials. Remember that we discussed the baggage allowance allowed by American Airlines.  For the airline's official rules, check out their website.  The maximum weight of a checked bag without a charge is 50 lbs./23 kgs. At the start of our trip, bags should weigh much less than that to allow room to pick up souvenirs along way.

Think about what needs to go in it.  Start by taking a look at the EF Tours packing list.  If you are interested in more reading about packing, checkout these packing tips: part one and part two.  On their website, EF Tours even points us to a website to create your own personalized packing list at

One of most important things to consider about what to pack is the weather.  Kids should go ahead and use their smart phones to check out the weather patterns at our destinations.  Italy will be hot. Switzerland will be cool.  France should be pleasant while London will be cool and potentially rainy.  A couple pairs of long pants will be enough since most of them will want to wear warm weather bottoms (aka shorts and skirts).  They should pack a bunch of light shirts that cover shoulders.  Tank tops can be ok for some of the days when we have some free time.  We let everyone know if a church is in the itinerary that day.  Also, don't forget a rain poncho (dollar store!) and/or a small umbrella.  We will cover this in more detail tonight, but for other things that I recommend, check out our own website here.  

How to pack those clothes can be an whole differnt story.  I have been working on that story for years.  Youtube offeres a wide range of advice on how to pack a bag.  Try this simple Youtube search for some ideas.  I like to use a combination of packing cubes and this:

Lastly, students get to carry another bag on the plane (aka a carry-on).  EF Tours gave us their infamous backpacks that we will hand out tonight.  It is small and lightweight enough to fit under the seats on the plane.  If they choose not to use the EF Tours bag, they are welcome to bring along their own. Don't bring along another suitcase!  Just have them bring their own backpack or messenger bag.  This is the bag that they bring on the bus everyday and could easily be lugged around on walking tour
days, if needed.  Airlines also allow for a "personal" bag on the plane.  This usually means a purse.  Since I don't carry one, I bring use the bag allowance to bring my camera shoulder bag.  I don't recommend students bring a large camera, but this allowance does allow them to bring another small bag, if needed.  Avoid that if you can because the more you bring equals the more you carry.

Double check the TSA carry-on policy to make sure students don't have their carry-on items confiscated:

This should help us start the meeting of right tonight.  Be sure to bring along a packed suitcase for our little workout.  After tonight, you have look at your bag in a whole new way.  Just remember that no one ever thinks back on the trip and wishes they had packed more in their suitcase.  

See you soon.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Prepared to enjoy the Essence of Europe 2013

Hello all,

We are only a few weeks away from another great trip to Europe using EF Tours with students from El Diamante High School in Visalia, CA.   This summer, we are scheduled to visit the following countries in order: Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France and England.

It should be an exiting 17 day trip.  Many of our travelers have never been to Europe.  This even includes some of our chaperones.   The sites we have picked to visit will keep these people coming back again and again.  I know this is true because my wife and I can't stop making the trip across the Atlantic.

We are excited to be bringing along a few of EDHS's finest teachers.  Basically, they are teachers in training.  Since this is the last EF Tours trip for my wife and our family, we are turning over the reigns to Mr. Sheaff and the Perez'.  I inherited the lead role after the passing of our dear friend, Robyn Ziessler, in 2011.  After I left EDHS in December of 2012, we felt it was time to let another teacher from the school take charge.

This summer, we are very fortunate to be traveling with our favorite EF Tours Director, Lindsey, again.  My wife and I have had the pleasure of traveling with her on all of our trips since 2008.  She has become a dear friend and we are very excited to have her again.  Her easy going attitude helps keep the unexpected in perspective and her incredible experience has made us aware of things that we never would have seen.

You can tune into this blog while we are oversees.  I will be posting updates. pictures and news from the road as much as the wifi allows.  You can also follow the 140 character version by following us on twitter at (@ziesslertours).  You can also just get the pictures from our Instagram account at or simply check out the pics from all of us posting on Instagram with the #edhstravel hashtag.

We takeoff in just over 20 days.  Stay tuned for life (ours) changing events.

Jim Sill


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Italy in a Day

Many of EF Tour destinations are visited in a day. Our Guide, Lindsay, talks of tours that feature one day visits t to Rome, Venice and more. It is hard imagine trying to take in the history, culture and food of Italy in one day, but these kids gave it the ol' college try!

It was funny to hear the stories of their Italian dreams prior to our arrival. Some wanted to decorate their rooms with all things Italy, others wanted to practice their language skills on vendors while others just wanted to defeat Lindsay's tour record of 6 gelatos in one day.

Our morning in Florence started with a guided walking tour. Our guide led us though the maze of streets past restaurants that have been serving pasta for hundreds of years, old market places and statues carved by masters.  The whole center of the walled city is covered in cobblestones. It is amazing to hear the clip clop of horse drawn carriages getting closer to you as you walk the streets just as one must have heard in the times of Michelangelo.

The kids commented on how bizarre it was to have a church like the Duomo stuck right in the middle of these streets lined with houses and shops. It is as if they wanted it to be in its own area far enough away from the hubub of daily life. It is a little hard for some of them to see a time when church was part of daily life especially with the plague ravaging the city outside.  (Perhaps I will have them read parts of The Decameron before next year's trip.)

During our free time to roam the small city within a city, some kids choose to just shop and hone their haggling skills in the market. As a warning to you back home, some of them are getting very good at it. Others choose to climb the shorter bell tower of the Duomo.  It was a smart use of time for first-timers because not only are there less stairs but it also doesn't have the line compared to the dome climb. I past on the dome climb in 2008 and wasn't about to miss it this time. You see, the dome climb has about an hour's wait before walking up a grueling 463 steps most all of which are inside a tight stone spiral staircase.  The first reward comes about halfway up when you pop out onto a ledge inside the church dome directly under the gigantic paintings of purgatory. The rest of the climb is in between the interior and exterior walls finishing on top with a spectacular view from of one of the largest church domes in the world. The two hour trip is a must-do event and worth a trip back.

When we met back at the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, we heard tales of victory, bargains and plain old good times. Your kids must really like you because the bounty they bought will make you feel like you went with them.

We finished our day with a breathtaking scramble to the top of the Piazza de Michelangelo over looking the Arno  River lined with the red clay rooftops of Florence.  Equally impressive was the site of the the Duomo popping out of it all like striped hill.

Each student made the most of our day visit.  It just goes to show you that it's not the amount of time, but the how you use the minutes.