Category Archives: travel

a rambling tale of strasbourg and a bear named Otto

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Christmas Markets + hot wine; promise me those two things in one location and I’m there.  In this case, that location was Strasbourg in mid-December.

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Right before Christmas, we jumped on the fast train and rocketed down to soak up the local color and drink our fair share of vin chaud in Strasbourg.  With a name like Strasbourg, doesn’t it seem like the city should be located in Germany, rather than France?  I think so, but although I was born with a directional and geographical disability, I found out that I have the ability to become more adept at geography when it benefits me.

When I think of the term “Christmas Market” the image of little old ladies knitting mittens is the first thing that pops into my head.  The second thing that pops into my head is realization that those hand knitted mittens, although often cute, never, EVER, keep your hands warm.

Getting off the train in Strasbourg, I was surprised not to be assaulted by mittens, but rather I was greeted by every type of Christmas trinket available.  Sadly, nearly none of it was handmade and virtually nothing was even made in France.  From the original product perspective, I would say the markets were a bit of a bust, unless your sole purpose was to expand your collection of mini figurines to surround your model train setup.  But once I determined that there were few goods I really wanted to buy, I changed my focus to determine which market stall had the best vin chaud (hot wine).  Hot wine tastes much better than it sounds, since it has spices in it to make it taste delicious.  Since each stand seemed to have their own recipe, I had to try them all.  In the end, there was no clear winner – it was all good.

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While we were there, we also found out that the Tomi Ungerer museum was located in the city.  What?  You don’t know who Tomi Ungerer is?  Have you ever read The Three Robbers?  It’s one of few children’s books which includes a blunderbuss, a pepper-blower and a huge red axe.  It is also a book that will most assuredly scare the shit out of your small children (especially if read in a deep voice in a dark room).

This is a magazine with an article about Tomi Ungerer that I bought while in Strasbourg (notice on the cover under Ungerer’s name his quote is “it is necessary to traumatize children” – maybe I like him so much because we share the same parenting philosophy):

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Tomi Ungerer has been one of my favorite authors and illustrators for nearly my entire life, starting with the original version of “Flat Stanley” (written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer).  Seriously, who doesn’t dream of becoming flat and getting mailed to California?  I still dream of doing that.  Or maybe I will mail myself back to France once I finally leave…..

This year in school, Owen’s class read Ungerer’s classic “Otto” which is about a stuffed bear that was owned by a Jewish boy during WWII.  I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will tell you that it is not an easy read.  Don’t let the fact that the main character is a stuffed bear fool you; Ungerer is nothing if not a realist.

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In any case, once we found out that the Tomi Ungerer Museum was located close to our hotel, it was on the top of our (read: my) list of things to do.  I was so excited to go to this museum that we ended up arriving a bit early for the daily opening and I found myself nearly climbing up the giant metal gates and screaming like a groupie.  Once inside, we found a treasure trove of antique toys (Ungerer’s personal collection), as well the original illustrations to most of his books.

As we entered the top floor of the museum, Owen spotted the original stuffed Otto across the room and he ran toward him.  In French museums, it is extremely normal to ignore all rules.  In our two years here, I have witnessed untold numbers of people taking pictures of things in museums, even when they are literally surrounded by giant signs forbidding photography.  When Owen asked if I would take a picture of him with Otto, I did a cursory glance around the room to see if there were any signs forbidding photos and not seeing any, I took out my camera and snapped a picture.  As soon as the security guard, who was chatting around the corner, heard the shutter click, she rounded the corner and gave me a severe reprimand for taking a photo where they were not allowed.

In the past I would have been horrified for getting busted, but I’ve perfected my “c’est comme ça” look and I flashed her a shrug.  Even Owen wasn’t phased by her.  He tends to be the (only) rule follower in our family, however he whispered to me as we walked out of the museum, “I don’t care that we got busted.  At least we got a picture of the REAL Otto.”

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In celebration of our illegal Otto picture, I suggested we go drink some vin chaud (with chocolat chaud for the kids).

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Neuschwanstein Castle

Following this blog must be a very frustrating experience.  I taunt you with sporadic posts about the many stories I have to tell you…………….and then I wait months to tell them to you. How annoying. Luckily the readership of this blog is so small that I am only annoying a small percentage of the world.  I’m truly sorry that you happen to be in that small percentage.

You may be happy to know that just because the blog has been silent, doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Au contraire! In fact, there are lots of things going on – so many in fact, that it’s hard to make the time to write it all down. You can sleep well tonight knowing that the story engine of my mind is chugging along. Or you can punch your computer knowing that the story engine is chugging and yet I give you nothing. It’s your choice completely.

Now back to the regularly scheduled programming.

Here is a story that I started writing months ago for you:

As we were travelling around Germany in the camping car this past summer, we had very little idea of where we would end up each night. However, after our stop at the nudie camp, we knew that there was nearly nothing we couldn’t handle.

One place that received glowing recommendations from a few friends was Neuschwanstein Castle, so we decided to point the bus in that direction. However, after a few nights on the road, we came to a couple of realizations:

Realization #1: The camping car is actually more like a clown car, since once you stop and unpack it, the stuff seems to literally explode out of the car. While we were driving, things seemed to fit neatly in their places, but once we stopped, the campsite became littered with tables, chairs, shoes, dirty laundry and wet towels, just so we could uncover our sleeping spaces for the night.

Realization #2: Once you have unpacked your clown car, you spend the rest of the time avoiding repacking it until you are ready to drive it away for good. That meant that we quickly started to adjust our camping car strategy from just driving around looking for random campsites, to driving around looking for random campsites that were within walking distance of something that we wanted to see. And that is how we ended up hiking to Neuschwanstein Castle rather than driving up to it.

When we arrived in the small town named Schwangau closest to the castle, we found a campsite within walking distance of the castle and managed to secure the last available spot. I’m pretty sure I even did a fist pump for joy when I emerged from the office with the site map aiming us toward the spot. And I may have even smirked a little bit as I walked past the line of camping cars also trying to get a space in this camping area.  I’m just glad those people in line didn’t witness the smirk getting wiped off my face by the realization that our campsite was located directly above the dumpster, which made things……um………….ripe when the wind was blowing in a certain direction.  Still, the stink was a small price to pay for the fact that everyone was wearing clothing at this campsite.

We figured out that a hike to the castle from our campsite would be about 12k (roughly 7.5 miles) one way and since we had completely the Rando with minimal drama, we imagined that the walk to Neuschwanstein Castle wouldn’t be so bad. Additionally, Map Man (aka Tim), found us a route up the back side of the giant mountain to the castle, so we wouldn’t have to go on the average road where all the normal people walk. It’s clear that being normal is something we try to avoid.

The next morning, we got up at the crack of dumpster stink, to start our journey. We packed a lunch, filled up our water bottles and started off. The first 5 miles went fine as we hiked through farm land with cute German cows all over the landscape. We thought we were home free when we finally arrived at the base of the mountain, since we could see the castle perched on top and we knew in less than a couple of miles we’d be there.

That’s when Owen noticed a sign at the base of the mountain, which read, “Ticket Office” with an arrow pointing the other way. He pointed it out to me saying, “Don’t you think we should go that way? It says that the Ticket Office is over there.”

The logic of following clear signage always seems so mundane, doesn’t it?  Where is the adventure in that?  Instead, I said, “We don’t need to go to the Ticket Office. We’ll just buy our tickets at the top.”

What happened next is best described in pictures:

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We climbed up and up on a thin metal bridge bolted to the side of a giant wall of boulders.  It was high.  There was a rushing river below.  It seemed to take forever.  Owen realized he had a slight fear of heights.  This was not a great moment.  Eamon, however, loved every minute of being very close to death.

When we got to the top, we were treated with amazing views like this:

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And we got to see the castle looming above us as we sat down to eat our picnic lunch, feeling smug that we had walked 12k with nary a whine, we overcame a death-defying metal bridge trek, and we finally made it to the top.

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Except then Tim noticed a sign that said “No Admittance to the Castle Without Tickets.”  No problem.  There was surely a ticket booth at the top, no?  I mean, what kind of country would be so organized that all the tickets would be sold in only one place?

Did I mention, we were traveling in GERMANY?  Did I also mention that GERMANY is bailing out multiple European countries from debt because of its extremely ORGANIZED and well run government?

Here’s a story shocker:  THE TICKET BOOTH WAS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN!  AND I KNOW THAT WHEN I TYPE IN ALL CAPS LIKE THIS, IT SEEMS LIKE I’M YELLING!  BECAUSE I AM!

In fact, the ticket booth is right at the bottom of the hill on the front side where all the “normal” people walk up.

Dear reader, could you have anticipated that ending?  I sincerely hope not because that would mean that my common sense is virtually non-exsistant.  And a parent with no common sense is………….well, actually, I’m pretty sure that’s called “reality TV.”

In case you were wondering, a giant pack of gummy bears makes a walk down a giant mountain much easier.

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And when you get to the bottom and find out that the tickets are sold out for that day, there is nothing like a game of German mini-golf to appease your utterly frustrated children.  The cigarette butts under the score card just add some additional spice to the flavor of the day.

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ps- You’ll be happy to know we made it in to the castle the next day.  That time, we left the clown car at the campsite and took the town bus.

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blame it on france

Wow!  With a vacation this long from writing on this blog, you’d think I were living in France or something……….

So sorry for the long hiatus.

I promise to come back here and tell you some of my favorite stories from recent months involving all of the following:  shopping carts, nudist camps, Neuschwanstein Castle, birthday parties, elderly friends, wine sales, fondue pots, Liechtenstein, and sleeping in a VW bus.

Here are a few of my favorite snaps from the summer – lots more stories to come!

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oh yes we did

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Let’s put it this way – it’s a 1987, that goes about 80km max (50mph) up hills, it has no power steering, and the steering wheel is as big as a large pizza.  I am in love.

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classe de mer – update

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Well, the Classe de Mer trip has finally come and gone.  For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read back through to figure it out yourselves:  start by reading this, then read this, then this and finally this.  Put down the Soduku and consider it your daily mental exercise to put the pieces together.

As a teaser, I’ll give you the very short story:  the school takes the kids away for a week every year, with no parent chaperones allowed, only teachers, and somehow everyone comes back alive.  How that happens is a mystery to me.

I’m not exactly sure what would possess an elementary school teacher to take away a class of kids for five days, but as a parent, I fully support this program.  I am such an enthusiastic supporter of this program, in fact, that I took all that enthusiasm and crammed it on to a train and headed to Paris for two nights with Tim during the Classe de Mer trip.  I will be the first to admit that my ensiasm for this program knows no bounds.

This year the school headed to a small town called Sables d’Olonne on the west coast of France for a week at the beach.  Here are the raw facts about the trip:

  • there was a 5.5 hour bus trip to get there
  • there were sailing lessons (too chilly to surf)
  • there was a visit to a shell museum
  • there was a visit to ‘les marais salants’ where they make French sea salt (‘fleur de sel’)
  • also included was a visit to a zoo

The only minor drama in the lead up to this trip was the fact that I put Eamon on the wrong bus to start things off the morning that the trip started and there was chaos as the teachers scrambled to find me.  After all, it was 6am and completely dark out.

Aside from my trip to Paris, the highlight of the Class de Mer trip were the postcards the kids sent home.  A couple of days after they arrived back in Fontainebleau, we got an envelope with two postcards inside.  The front of the postcards were the standard tourist fare, but the backs were outstanding.

Here is what Eamon’s said:

Chers parents

Je m’amuse bien et vous me manquez.

Eamon

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This roughly translates to “I’m having fun and I miss you.” When I read it, I said, “Aawwwwww.  Did you miss me?” Eamon’s response:  “No I didn’t miss you at all.  The teachers made me write that.”

Ouch.

Then I read Owen’s postcard.  It read (in English):

Dear Mom + Dad,

It is so fun.  Can you make an extension for me to stay?  I do not miss you at all!!!! Today, “Wednesday” we went sailing I was the driver of the boat.  I got a room of two with Diego Eamon had to sleep with the cps.  We got a great view of the sea and the lake!!!! We have got to come back here.  It is a cool beach town with lots of little shops and Big WAVES.

Love Owen XOXOOXXXOOO

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When I asked him about his postcard, he said, “I really didn’t miss you at all.  See that ‘do not’ on the postcard that I underlined in red?  I really meant it.”

Truth be told, when I was sitting at a cafe in Paris, O &E weren’t the first things on my mind either.  Sometimes a little separation is a good thing.

This was the view from the apartment we rented in Paris:

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the very good and the somewhat sad

I know I’ve spent some time writing about the great French products that contribute to the high quality of life in France (think: wine, cheese, bread), but one thing I have spent less time talking about is the outstanding people who live here.

Fontainebleau and the surrounding villages, are a mishmash of French natives and many other people with interesting lives from around the world.  As well as learning many new things about France, we’re getting an education about many other places where our friends have lived (Happy Diamond Jubilee, Your Majesty!).  I’d like to think we’re teaching people something too – in fact, a friend here recently wrote me a text that said, “Just reading up on Vermont.  If the capital only as 7,500 people, where on earth do you guys live?”  I guess this proves that a place cannot be measured by the number of inhabitants alone.

Prior to moving here, I was at a stage in my life where I thought that it was somewhat difficult to make new friends.  It’s not that I was looking for new friends necessarily, but the opportunity didn’t arise very often that I had the time/energy to meet up with people I didn’t already know well.  But what I learned since living here is that I’ve still got it – as in, the ability to make new friends, which s lucky for me since this could be a very lonely place without some friends.

Our area in France is somewhat transitional by nature (people are here on short-term contracts, there is a rotating group of business school faculty, etc), but meeting new friends is made easier by the fact that people here welcome outsiders readily.  So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that because this place is fabulous but somewhat transitional, there is also a constant stream of people leaving.  And sometimes those leaving people have become friends of ours and watching them leave really sucks.

It’s hard to say goodbye to people we have known for only a short time, but with whom we feel so comfortable that it seems we’ve known them forever.  If there is one upside to our most recently relocated friends, this would be it:

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Meet Ollie, our temporary pet who we’re watching while our friends get settled into their new lives in Australia.  Ollie will be joining them there sometime in the near future, but until then, he’s living with us.

Oh, and he doesn’t really like cats all that much so Justin‘s reign as the king of our household is being threatened.  Welcome to life in a monarchy, little cat.  Here is Justin sitting on his throne, otherwise known as the bidet.  Nice.

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amsterdam

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I’ve been meaning to tell you the story about our trip to Amsterdam and I’m finally getting to it – here it is:

In March, Tim had some mandatory time off from work and the kids were dying to take a trip on one of the fast trains in Europe, so we booked a trip to a city that I’ve been dying to visit – Amsterdam! To top it off, we booked a canal boat for our stay – oh, yes.

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We had a great train ride and when we arrived, we took a short walk from the train station to the boat we rented. The boat owner, a nice guy in his late 50s, met us there and after showing us around, told us that he was going to be taking a canal cruise later that day and asked us if we wanted to join him.

When I hear things like “canal cruise,” I think of things like big sightseeing boats of tourists, and since it was unclear what kind of boat cruise this was, I didn’t immediately jump at the offer. He said he would let us get settled in and swing by to see if we wanted a ride, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that he pulled up with a small old school canal motor boat, rather than a giant boat teeming with tourists. And along with his girlfriend and her daughter in the boat, he had a very nice spread of wine and cheese. Even better.

When the boys got on the boat, he asked them if they could swim, in a jokey manner which I laughed at, until I realized that there were absolutely no life vests in sight. Oh, those Americans, ever so cautious!

What happened next, may go down as a highlight of our time here – a two (!) hour boat cruise of the Amstel River and canals with a commentary by a true local. It was outstanding and we got to hear lots of local lore like the story of local celebrity Viktor IV, the American artist who lived on the Amstel and accidentally died trying to untangle some ropes under his boat, as well as the story of the Anne Frank House and the addition to the building funded by Steven Spielberg.

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During our boat trip, I had a really nice conversation with our boatlord’s girlfriend and her daughter. They were both really interesting people, but I found the boatlord’s girlfriend particularly interesting. How many people will you meet in life who have been Blackjack dealers in Botswana? Not many, I expect. So far I have met only one.

That night, we ate dinner on our boat and after dinner, Tim decided to take a walk around town at night. After about 20 minutes, he came rushing back on to the boat saying, “You have GOT to get out here!” Remember how I told you that Tim is a world-class trespasser? Well, I am a world-class house snooper. I love to see the insides of peoples’ houses and am particularly interested in what kind of furniture and art they have.

It turned out that Amsterdam is a prime viewing location for house snoopers like me since nobody even has curtains, let alone shutters. When I got out on to the street at night, I saw incredible art, amazing furniture and at least three dinner parties that I nearly invited myself to. Although the people looked fabulous sitting around drinking wine and eating a delicious looking meal, I really thought they could use a funny American to spice it up a bit, since there was absolutely no loud laughing and outrageous behavior. Doesn’t everyone need a loud American at his/her party?

While we were visiting, we rented a car for a day and drove out to Keukenhof which is one of the main locations to see the famous tulips of the Netherlands in spring. It’s only open for 3 months a year and the gardeners there plant over 7 million bulbs by hand annually. We were there at the beginning of tulip season, but it was still incredible to see and a highlight of an outstanding trip.

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The last day we were there, the kids were dying to go to the popular science museum called NEMO and I was dying to look in some galleries and check out some other sites – namely the Red Light District. Who can go to Amsterdam without going there? Definitely not me.

It’s a little mind-boggling to me that a profession like that would be enjoyable, but apparently the sex workers in Amsterdam are unionized, they pay taxes and they get great heath care. From that standpoint, what’s not to like? However, I’m pretty sure that the prostitutes who stand on the forest roads near my house aren’t getting such great benefits for their employment. Like everything else, I guess it depends on where you work.

When I arrived in the Red Light District it was early afternoon on a Saturday and even still, the women in the windows were out in full force. I was mostly surprised by the themed clothing that I saw. I was expecting lots of lingerie, but instead I saw a mix of cheerleader outfits and sporty girl outfits, complete with tall sports socks, very small shorts and sports bras. There must be a market for that look, because the women were working it for sure.

After sauntering through the RLD, I came upon a very nice pottery shop right next to the last sex shop. When I went inside, the potter came out of the back room and said, “Hi there and welcome to my shop! Were you looking for it or did you find it accidentally?”

I said, “Well, I kind of stumbled upon it by accident. I wasn’t really looking for it, but I’m happy to find it. Your stuff is beautiful.”

That’s when he replied, “I figured you weren’t looking for my shop because most people who are looking for my shop come from the other direction. I noticed that you came through the Red Light District.”

What’s wrong with being nosy AND liking pottery?

I can’t really say enough about Amsterdam. I loved everything about it – from the bike culture to the quirky inhabitants. It doesn’t hurt that the city is one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. I fully intend to move to Amsterdam someday and live on the river in a boat like Viktor IV. But if there’s any need to untangle any underwater ropes, I’m calling in the professionals.

Oh, and when Tim and the boys went to NEMO, here was the poster for one of the exhibits at the museum. Gotta love Amsterdam.

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