Tag 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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team mossot

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I know that I’ve made no secret about my desire to find an elderly friend in France.  I also know I have written a few times about the elderly woman who lives next door to us, Mme Mossot, however I haven’t given her nearly enough time on the blog to accurately represent how important she has become in our lives in France.  If you don’t remember the stories about Mme Mossot, she’s our 85-year-old next door neighbor who first wrangled the wild kittens living in our garden and after that, she convinced us to adopt JJ (I just can’t bring myself to call him Justin), our massive French street cat.

The history of Mme Mossot is as long as her long life and I could write a two part book about her.  Part I of the book would be about her past life as an artist, an art journalist, an interior decorator, and an animal crusader.  Part II of the book would be about our interactions with Mme Mossot and it would read something like Tuesdays with Morrie, with a lot less death and a lot more quotes and advice. Mme. Mossot is a highly opinionated woman and although I love her for it, but I can guarantee that it’s much easier to be friends with her than to be related to her.

In the early fall, there was a special exhibition in Paris that Mme Mossot wanted to attend and I promised her that the kids and I would go with her.  The exhibit was at the Musee D’Orsay and it was called Misia.  Misia was the muse and benefactor to many famous artists in France in the early 1900s and this exhibit pulled together all the paintings of Misia made by all the famous painters she knew throughout the years.  

Since Mme Mossot lived in Paris most of her life she knows the city very well and when she told me it had been a couple of years since she had been to the Orsay, I believed her until we got to the door.  At that point, I suspected that it had been a little bit longer than a couple of years when she tried to show her French senior citizen’s card to the security people at the entrance of the museum as if it were the ticket desk.  She also tried to write a check at the desk to buy the tickets and although there is still an affinity for check-writing in France, the young man looked at her like she was from another planet.

Part of the reason that Mme Mossot was so interested in seeing the Misia exhibit was because her husband was the nephew of Pierre Bonnard, a famous French painter.  Bonnard was one of the primary painters at the Misia exhibit and when we entered, Mme Mossot started pointing out Bonnard paintings that she had seen before in her life at Bonnard’s house and at other shows of his.  It had always been clear to me that she has lived an exceptionally interesting life, but that day at the museum further reinforced my belief.  

The exhibit was great, and afterward Mme Mossot told us she’d like to take us out for gouter at the new restaurant that had opened at the Orsay.  Once we were seated at the restaurant, we scanned the menu and each ordered a dessert-type snack.  However, as soon as Mme Mossot’s ice cream arrived, she called the server back over to the table.  Apparently the menu had promised a praline cookie on the top of the ice cream, but when the ice cream arrived, the praline was nowhere to be found.  Mme Mossot complained to the server about “false advertising” the server gave her the classic French eye roll and told her they had run out of cookies.  After the server left, Mme Mossot told me that she was a “crusader for the tourists” in Paris who don’t know that they are being taken advantage of by the French and who don’t have the ability to speak up about it.

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Being a tourist can be hard, especially when you live in a foreign country and have a tendency to feel like a tourist all the time.  I’m just glad to know Mme Mossot’s got my back.    

Here is the picture of us in Paris that Mme Mossot took:

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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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a new way to play badminton

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When we got the VW bus this past spring, our main goal was to drive around and see lots of cool things, but I also had one other goal – not to break down in the van.  I really wanted to give my kids some cool memories, but there are some memories that I’d like to avoid.  Like the ‘breaking down in the middle of the night on a dark scary road,’ kind of memory.  Trust me.  I am living proof that those memories do not leave you.

In any case, I had high hopes for our van and our big summer trip and although we had a rough idea of where we wanted to go (Germany, Austria, Switzerland?, Liechtenstein?), we never came up with a detailed plan.  We planned to make a detailed plan, but that really never happened and since we had taken the van on a weekend camping trip at the start of the summer, we had some idea of how camp sites worked in Europe.  We booked places to stay for only the first two nights and then we just decided to wing it, since, as far as we could tell, there were campsites all over the place.

Our ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ plan seemed to be going well for the first part of the first week.  Not only did we hit upon some outstanding campsites, but we got some amazing spots within those campsites.  This was the point in the trip when we started to get cocky.  Our luck had been so good, we started to feel like we were invincible.  {cue the suspenseful music}

Then one day, we took a particularly long time sightseeing and ended up getting a late start on our way to our next campsite.  When we finally arrived at that campsite, there was a huge sign notifying us that all the spots were taken.  At that point I could hear fear start to creep into Owen’s voice when he questioned me about where we would stay that night.  I reminded him of my ‘one star camping area crisis plan’ which meant staying in the parking lot of the closest McDonalds.  For some reason my camping crisis plan did nothing to easy his mind.

So we drove on and about 10 minutes down the road, the same thing happened again.  The campsite was full.  As I was trying to come up with a plan (or at least find the nearest McDonald’s), the oil light came on in the van and a loud beeping sound started.  If you didn’t know this already, there is nothing like the beeping sound of an engine failure to create chaos in the mind of a nine-year-old boy who is prone to melodrama.  As Tim pulled the van over, Owen screamed, “WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE VAN?  AND WHERE ARE WE GOING TO STAY TONIGHT?  YOU GUYS ARE THE ADULTS!  AREN’T YOU SUPPOSED TO HAVE ALL OF THIS STUFF FIGURED OUT?”

If I were telling you this in person, I would stop at this point in the story for a long pause…………………………..and with a straight face I would say, “Poor little dude.  He still hasn’t figured out that he has parents who have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.”

While Tim was dealing with the beeping noise in the van, I started frantically calling campsites in the local area to try to find a spot.  After about 10 minutes, we had solved both crises.  The oil light was off and we had a reservation at a small campsite about 15 minutes away.

We finally pulled into the small campsite up in the mountains and it was one of the nicest we had seen to date.  Green grass under the camping cars (not rocks) and a relaxed atmosphere.  With a sense of smug satisfaction, I said to Owen, “See your parents CAN figure things out, after all.”

The woman at the desk told us to pull the camping car in, get set up and then come to check in at the desk.  After set up, I was on my way back to the desk  when I happened to notice a man walking by to wash his dishes in a very skimpy towel, but I didn’t think too much of it.  Once I arrived at the desk, the woman started telling me about the campsite and where everything was located.  That’s when she said, “So since we’re a naturist camp, the first half hour of swim is the pool is with no clothing and the second half is with clothing.”

And my response was, “This camp is a whaaaa………………….t?”

In case you happen to be as slow to recognize reality as I am, the term ‘naturist’ is the modern-day term for ‘nudie’.  I had booked my family at a nudie camp.  It turns out that there was a large nudie section and a smaller non-nudie section.  Luckily for us (read: me), our camping car was parked in the non-nudie section, but directly facing the nudie section.

When I got back to the camping car, the boys were hurriedly putting on their bathing suits for a dip in the pool.  Trying to sound cheerful, I started the following conversation:

Me:  Guess what, guys?  We’re actually staying in a nudie camp, so if you want to go swimming right now, you won’t need those bathing suits!

Owen:  Did you say, nudie?  Like ‘no clothes,’ nudie?

Me:  Yes, a nudie camp means wearing no clothes.

Owen:  Wow!  Cool!  Can we stay another night?  Can you even do things like play badminton naked?

Me:  Yes, in a nudie camp you can play badminton naked.

Owen:  I want to play badminton naked!

Me:  Do you really want to play badminton naked?

Owen:  Well………….ok, maybe not totally naked.  I know where I want to go – I want to go to an ‘undie camp’ where we can do everything in our undies.

Me:  Owen, you already live in an undie camp – it’s call our house.

While the boys went swimming (at the non-nudie time), I poured myself a tall beer and sat facing the gate of the nudie section, marveling at how uniformly tan everyone looked walking in and out.  Then my mind wandered to the wide range of activities that you do while camping and the health and safely implications of doing those same things while naked.  Then I poured myself another beer.

Just the thought of playing badminton naked makes me shudder.

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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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donkey horror movie

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Here are some strange pictures and a strange birthday party story for you (yes, that is grass in his shirt):

Owen was invited to a birthday party the other day by a friend in his class. The classmate’s mother just told me the address and the party time, but she didn’t tell me anything about what was happening at the party. When we arrived at the address to find a donkey stable, I was a little curious. Although I was invited to stay at the party, I made up a big excuse about having something important to do and drove like hell out of there. For me: Donkeys + Birthday Cake = trouble.

When I returned to pick up Owen and his friend Diego from the party, they were not at the donkey stable, so I sat and waited. After about 15 minutes, I saw the gang of kids and the few parents who stayed, walking up a dirt road toward the car. When Owen saw me he started running and as soon as he got close to me he screamed, “That was like a donkey horror movie!”

Apparently, the family rented a donkey for a few hours to carry a birthday picnic into the forest and after they loaded up the donkey with bags of food and a cake, they set out for the walk. About halfway through the party and right after they had eaten the cake, a thunder-storm rolled in. A huge clap of thunder sent the donkey bolting into the forest, carrying all of the party supplies. What happened next was hilarious – especially if you weren’t a parent chaperoning the party.

When the thunder clapped and the donkey ran, the kids panicked and, according to Owen, they started running and screaming through the forest in absolute hysteria. Of course, this didn’t help the situation. Not sure the dark sky and heavy rain helped either. Evenutally, the parents got the kids under control and had a talk with them about remaining calm, but the donkey was long gone.

Since the group needed to get back, they started walking and eventually started seeing things on the trail that had fallen off the donkey’s back as it ran. The group followed the trail of party goods to a clearing where they eventually found the donkey comatose on the ground, too scared to move. After some coaxing, they were finally able to get the donkey up and the group realized that in his frenzy, he had torn the pack bags. When the group emerged from the forest, they were holding all of the party goods in their arms and the parents of the party boy looked fairly pissed.

Other than a huge scratch across Owen’s face right under his eye, there was no lasting damage from the donkey party, but the experience was accurately summed up by Diego as we drove home.

He said:

“I told my mother all morning I didn’t want to go to the party, but I really wanted to eat the cake, so I decided to go. After seeing that donkey, I know I should have stayed home.”

Well said, Diego.

Below you can catch a glimpse of Owen’s favorite nighttime reading book. Also, not sure where in the world this would be “See on TV.”

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zoo residents

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I have a running joke with my mother about the number of days that our kids are in school in France.  As a retired US teacher, my mother thinks it is hilarious that nearly every time I speak to her I tell her that the kids have an upcoming day off, or that they’ve just had a day off.

I’m not going to lie, there are many, many holidays in France.  In the month of May alone, there were 5 school days off.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but kids here have a half day of school every Wednesday (and some children, in certain grades have no school at all).  That said, the school day is longer here and the summer vacation is shorter.  In the end, I’m sure it’s about the same as the US, but it seems so different (and I love it).

So during the last holiday weekend we decided to head south back to the Loire Valley with some good friends to see more castles, the only panda bear in France, and some wine caves – not at all in that order.  As far as the castles go, you’ve got to see them to believe them – no amount of narrative can do those things justice.  And as for the wine, tasting is believing.  Sorry I can’t be more descriptive.

As we were walking through the zoo to see the pandas, we came upon an outdoor habitat that had a huge crowd around it.  When I walked a bit closer to check out what the crowd was looking at, I was slightly stunned and mostly horrified.  The huge crowd had gathered to view the North American Raccoon.  One of the raccoons in this habitat had clearly learned to work the crowd as he was sticking his little paw out from underneath the glass of his habitat to try to get food from the awestruck tourists.  As we North Americans know, depending on where you live, the raccoon  ranks right up there with the skunk or squirrel for household menaces.  I was half expecting to see big trash cans in the raccoon habitat as the food source.

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See the look on this guy’s face?  It’s almost like, “Oh shit, I’ve been spotted by an American who knows that I eat trash and live near dumpsters.  Please don’t tell anyone in France!”

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Generally speaking, I support the existence of zoos as a concept, but I often feel bad for most of the animals in them.  Especially when you see the big cats who generally roam many miles each day cooped up in big glass enclosures, it makes me a bit sad.  I know they’re well fed and well cared for, but still…..

But you know what?  The North American Racoon has got a sweet deal in the French zoo.  No more trash picking for him.  Even though raccoons are nocturnal, this group of raccoons was wide awake and putting on quite a show for the adoring crowds.

And the giant pandas?  Those dudes were fast asleep.  On a scale of animal popularity the raccoons stole the show.

{On a side note, the boys and I were in Paris the other day at the Menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes.  The Menagerie is a small zoo that was created in 1794 and according to Wikipedia, it is the oldest zoo in the world.  There were also a very active set of North American Raccoons there with a big caption under their habitat that read “The Americans in Paris.”  No wonder our international reputation can be iffy.}

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