Monday, March 4, 2019

Turns out, you can go home again. Or at least stand outside and peek through the gates, Part 2



Day 3 - Can you go home again?  We first ran out to Ta'Qali to see how expensive the house signs really are, now that we finally came up with a name for the cabin that we all liked. Turns out that they are removing all the old Quantas huts and making pretty little stone buildings, so there is a ton of construction and it was hard to find Bristow Pottery (where everyone we knew back when got their signs) and also that they cost a lot more than we cared to pay for an upgraded 1950s hunting shack. Then off to the new Embassy (well, 8 years new or so, but they broke ground when we were there and we never saw it) for a tour by an old friend and seeing a lot of old faces in a very fancy new surroundings. I love that they created shade for the car parks by putting up solar panels. Solar in a country with 330 days of sunshine is just a no-brainer.

After that visit it was time for lunch and the "trip home". We first went to the parking lot of the local grocery store, where I used to buy all my produce from the lady with the truck. (this is a stock photo to get an idea of these produce trucks). She used to give Alex a banana to snack on while I made my selections and my weekly or more frequent trips were a big part of my Maltese experience.


Image result for malta produce truckThere was a truck still in the parking lot, but manned by someone who was clearly no relation. My heart sank a bit but we resolved to buy something there for old times' sake before we left. Then off  for pastizzi and other pies for lunch!  When we discovered the place we used to go to was still there and the cost of all the food we bought - the best meal we had eaten so far - was a fraction of even the  cost of the doner we ate the day before, we kicked ourselves for not eating more meals this way.  Thus fortified, we went back in time. Or rather, we walked past our old house. As we passed it, they had the front and back doors opened so I could see down the long, wide hallway that led from one to the other. We could see a tiny slice of the back yard and were reminded of how lovely the garden was. Then on to another one of our favorite spots in the country, San Anton Gardens.

The house where we had lived was one block from the Gardens and Alex and I had spent untold hours there in the shady green and relative coolness. There are ducks and swans in the various ponds, and red-eared sliders - the kind of turtle Terry used to have.  There's a small zoo-ish enclosure - all birds - to one side and a garden clock.  One of the side ponds now houses a pair of black swans who were mesmerizing to watch, especially noting the clutch of eggs the mom swan kept wandering back over towards (in their little shelter in the middle of the pond) when people came too close. Near the main pond is now a peacock and two hens. When we got to the main pond there were all the ducks and the white swans, but no turtles. We started to lament ever having tried to look backward. Then as we were leaving we decided to pop over to the third pond/fountain and there they were. All of them. Reminiscent of Yertle the Turtle's pond except with less fascism. Very survival of the  fittest, though, as we watched one particular turtle try to get out of the chilly water to sun himself and be constantly thwarted by other turtles either in his way or, in their own efforts to get up, pushing or kicking him back down. We all cheered when he finally got clear just before we headed out.

Returning to the car, we noted a different person manning the produce cart and he looked more likely to be a relative of the woman I remember so fondly. I asked him and it turned out he was her nephew, and he had been helping her for enough years he must have been one of the young men I remembered some times being there!

By then we were waffling on what to do next, whether to return to the apartment for a rest or hit one more spot. Going for gold, we decided to take the kids to the northwest coast where we missed the exact spot we were looking for and thus ended on a rocky, craggy part with much sharper points on all the rocks. Did not deter the kids, who by the end of the hour were soaking wet and thrillingly happy.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Turns out, you can go home again. Or at least stand outside and peek through the gates, Part 1

Ever since I was informed my next post would be Frankfurt, I have been planning to return to Malta and show Alex where she was born. The island generally, of course, not the hospital. That would be even more boring than the ancient historical pit where miniature hippopotamuses were found. Yeah, kids are too worldly and jaded.

Mid-February is the so-called Ski Break where apparently we're supposed to go skiing. Kids have never been, It's a great time to go to Malta, not too cold and there might even be rain. Between some issues with leave and Terry's ideas about how much time we actually needed to give to this venture, we booked a Tuesday to Friday trip. We also noted and kept marveling during our time there that we were returning to Malta within the week of the 10 year anniversary of our departure.

Day 1 - arrival mid-afternoon, discover that the apartment where we were staying expected the payment in CASH, and use almost every last Euro paying that. Find an ATM, replenish, and head off to my favorite city, Mdina. I really do love me a walled Medieval city. We wandered a bit before the sun went down, getting to the Bastions a bit late to watch the sun actually setting. The kids loved racing down the high walled narrow cobblestone streets of the nearly deserted city. We found a place for dinner, chosen because it opened before 7pm. Big reminder: Maltese food is rarely delicious and it's a near miracle to get out of dinner for fewer than two hours.

Day 2 - meant to be "see the sights" day. First stop, Ghar Dalam. It's a prehistoric cave that was filled with animal and human bones. There is a huge bone display in the museum area and a bit of information about the plate movements that led to Malta detaching from some other landmass (Sicily? Europe?) and the shrinking of some animals that were caught here as well as the enlarging of other animals.  Then you can go visit the cave. The kids were, as described above, absolutely not impressed. The ticket for Ghar Dalam also included admission to another prehistoric sight that was recently opened (within the last year) so obviously nothing Terry and I would have seen before so we also wandered down that way.  The kids insolently asked why we thought they would be interested. Ugh.

We decided to cut short some of the other sights we planned to see, and instead headed to Rabat and the Catacombs. When we got there we confirmed that although we had been to St. Paul's Church and Grotto we had never visited the Catacombs. With the kids' love of all things Roman these days we figured it would be a hit and it was. The Catacombs were marvelously done, with pavilions explaining an aspect of what we were seeing (for example, the different kinds of burial vaults, or the differences in how different religions used the spaces). The kids of course were thrilled with running in and out of the various vaults and places where lots of dead people used to be - bonus that it's underground!

As we had driven into Rabat to get to the Catacombs, I thought I recognized the vendor where I used to buy the crazy delicious Maltese nougat. After the Catacombs we all needed a treat so we visited the vendor, who offered us tastes of other treats we had totally forgotten, like a pastry that is what Fig Newtons want to be (dried figs, honey, nuts, I think some citrus, in a fresh buttery pastry crust). When everyone had made their selections, I also got as much nougat as I thought I could carry home. More than a week later I am still working on it and it is still as delicious as I remember. We took our treats across the street to a cafe for cappuccinos (mom and dad) and a non-dairy smoothie (kids). It was a moment where I was a bit astounded at how much we had remembered, as I don't recall going to Rabat even a dozen times and yet the town center felt very familiar.

Idstein Part 2

When Terry was here for the kids' last vacation, we had a weekend in town before leaving for Malta. Wanting to get out a bit more than we have in the Frankfurt environs, I suggested we check out Idstein. We had budgeted just a tiny bit too much time - we were tired and ready to eat before restaurants opened for lunch, and lunch was over before the tourist information center opened to hand out the key to the Hexenturm (the "witches' tower" that I had missed in my previous trip).

But, before the tired grumpies took hold of the kids and turned everyone into monsters, we had great fun wandering through the very charming city and all its half-timbered houses. 

There is a building that had a series of medallions set in the plaster depicting Johannes Gutenberg's apparent presence in the city and work on the famous press. We also stumbled on a larger stumbling stone than we had previously seen, because this one commemorated the destruction of an entire synagogue.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bishkek

(oops, this was meant to be put up during the same month as our other Kyrgyzstan trip report posts)

Our original plan when we organized our trip to Kyrgyzstan was to keep the rental car one day after arriving in Bishkek and check out the national park Ala Archa, a reasonable day trip from the city. By the time we got to Bishkek we needed to not get back in a car so we ditched the plan and never regretted it one moment.

Instead, we took it relatively easy.  Our apartment was pretty central so we could walk a lot. We arrived in the early evening and after settling into the apartment went to the nearby Obama Cafe. A cardboard cutout of our esteemed leader greets guests at the front door, and the kids enjoyed shaking his hand. The meal was pretty good, American/continental fare of course.

Next day we took care of business, returning the car, visiting the Osh Bazaar to get fruits and veg and learning a bit about the bus and taxi systems in the process. We also walked out with 2.5 kilograms of honey, adding to the kilo we'd purchased on the road back to Bishkek from Issyk-kul. We are completely enamored with the honey in this part of the world.  We also discovered a cafe that carried a full line of vegan desserts, enabling Alex to enjoy a rich chocolate cake in a cafe for the first time (Hello, Astana. C'mon, if Bishkek can do it, you can. Seriously, there is nothing you are incapable of achieving if only you want to do it!)

We also ate Nathan's hot dogs (again, c'mon Astana!).  We gorged on cherries and apricots, only to learn upon return home that cherries and apricots had come to Astana too during that week.  We visited the National Museum and checked out a variety of art, reminding me that the kids do have a longer tolerance for museums than they used to and especially when we make an effort to engage them.  We visited the WWII memorial with an eternal flame and tribute to the war years of 1941-1945, and discovered we hadn't taught the kids much about that time.  In preschool in St. Petersburg they learned the Piter story, focusing on the horrific 3 year "blokada" wherein the city was essentially cut off from the rest of the world for years and many starved to death, but neither school nor we had taught them much else about the war.  So on a beautiful sunny day in Kyrgyzstan we talked to the kids about Hitler, and a bit about Stalin.

We visited the old style Panfilov Park, which was essentially a pay-per-ride amusement park where the kids had a great time on rides that would have been condemned in the USA.  The park was insufficiently staffed, and some rides were only open during some times, so the kids didn't get to do everything they wanted but it was still a win.  We ate unfortunately bad Indian food because I just wanted Indian (note: it didn't scratch the itch).

Monday, January 21, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part III

Next stop was Rothenberg ob der Tauber. It is highly recommended among the Frankfurt Consulate Community and I had been saving the trip to do when the whole family was here. The city's oldest part was built about 1000 years ago, and it is a walled city that has retained its entire wall.

We also planned to pick up a couple of holiday gifts at the homeland of Käthe Wohlfahrt, the company whose wooden Christmas items have graced pretty much every Christmas Market I have ever attended. The store can be a bit overwhelming, and it is sort of set like the Duty Free section in an airport - you're forced to walk through every single section from entry to exit - which can be annoying when a child needs the bathroom in the middle of the store and you have to wind your way through half the store just to get out the door (apparently no restrooms for customers there).

Between the bad weather and the too-short amount of time budgeted to this town, we didn't do half of the wandering we'd have liked to do. The Christmas market was darling. The highly recommended Night Watchman Tour, starting at 8pm, was everything we'd been told it would be. The man who runs it has a wonderful theatrical presence, even with a crowd of 50+ people he can be easily heard and the information he relays is interesting even to the kids. It was Alex's favorite part of the trip. We will absolutely make time to go back once more before we leave Germany.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part II

The morning after our return from Köln we hopped in the car and headed down to Heidelberg. I had such high hopes for Heidelberg!!  BUT other than the castle, which is spectacular (I love a good ruin), there was nothing much for us. The multiple Christmas Markets were each tiny with little we hadn't already seen. Or eaten. I was so disappointed with Heidelberg I didn't even keep the glühwein mug.
 View of the castle
View from the castle

Heidelberg is a beautiful city. The bleak weather kept us from venturing up to the Philosopher's Way and the intermittent rain kept us from pulling the camera out at all most of the time.

For what I am sure were solid reasons at the time, I had booked us for two nights in Heidelberg - our only two-nighter of the trip. For the second day we ended up deciding to pop over to Speyer. In hindsight, this might have been a blessing in disguise because otherwise we would not have ventured over there and the city is darling, the Christmas Market is lovely, and the Technology Museum is absolutely worth the visit. It was by far the most expensive museum I have visited in Germany and we're talking about going back. It has an incredible collection of machinery - cars, boats, airplanes, helicopters, motorcycles, even a space shuttle - and visitors are able to wander around inside many of the exhibits. A major highlight was the submarine. This was the pouring-rainiest day of the entire trip so no photos of the market. Here's one of a piece of the Berlin Wall and mannequins in period costume. The light blue car in the bottom corner is a Trabi.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part I

Terry was here for the kids' winter holiday (which is still ongoing, entering its third week, dear Lord will we survive this much togetherness?) To celebrate the last winter in Germany, we went a-Christmas Market-ing.

Stop One - Köln. Home of the only decent Ferris Wheel we saw the entire trip. In hindsight, I feel a little bad about only letting the kids go on once. The Chocolate Museum was decent although compared to other museums on the trip, pricey for what it was. A major highlight for the kids was, as usual, the bunk beds in the hotel room. Köln Cathedral never ceases to stop me in my tracks, although this was the first time I went inside.

On our way to Köln the train was switched out for another train that was exactly the same except the car numbers were different which means that no reservations were honored. Thankfully we were able to secure identical type seating to what we had paid for so no complaints. On the return trip, however, we got to the station too early so when we saw that train was also switched out I went to the DB travel office to see if we could switch to an earlier train given that our reservations didn't matter anyway. The lady first explained that I couldn't switch us to an earlier train because of the class of ticket we had purchased ... but ... we could depart on a train that left 30 minutes after our scheduled one, and arrived 30 minutes earlier and have the exact same type of seating to what we reserved. Customer Service!!!

* Tip to the wise: Frankfurt to Köln can be a 1 hour trip or a 2 hour trip, so pay attention when booking tickets.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Why do we buy them toys?

Each child has spent a large part of this evening entirely encased in a sleeping bag. First they wandered around testing out life as an inchworm/a caterpillar. Then of course they started bug battles that ended with my son suffering an objectively minor, but emotionally major, wound. This will not end well.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Epic Road Trip part 3: Wroclaw

From Saxon Switzerland, we headed into Poland. Although we stopped at Boleslawic for the night and a bit of pottery shopping in the morning, our real destination was Wroclaw. All we knew about it was that it was a little city filled with brass gnomes. You can buy maps at the tourist info center, or find maps online, or just wander around with eyes peeled. Gnome hunting was a highlight of the entire trip for the kids.


 It reminded me a bit of Boston's Freedom Trail, in that the gnomes seemed specifically placed in neighborhoods around the city that tourists might not otherwise visit, but that the city might benefit from tourists discovering. Once such location that comes to mind is a small network of back alleys that sheltered, in addition to the gnomes, some brass farm animals and a number of independent shops, cafes and souvenir stores.

In addition to the gnomes, the town center area is also quite picturesque.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Epic Three-country Road Trip, Part 2: Saxon Switzerland National Park

On Day 3 of the Epic Road Trip we left Pilsen for Saxon Switzerland National Park, which is not in Saxony nor in Switzerland, but instead in Germany near the borders of Czech Republic and Poland.

Kudos to Microsoft or whoever has that program of rotating beautiful places on earth as the logon background.  That's where I first saw a photo of the place a couple of years ago, with its spectacular rugged rock formations. By then I knew I was on my way to Germany for my next tour and I made a plan to get to it. It's a big pain to get to from Frankfurt, but it is a mere convenient waystation on the Epic Road Trip!

We took the usual tourist route across the Bastei Bridge, which is free although parking costs a little bit. The half-price fare (due to construction) to go into the space that was once an old castle was more than worth it, as it had several decent exhibits and signs explaining what used to be where. It also had some of the best views and closest approaches to the edges of rock. Imagining what could have encouraged people to try to live in such a harsh environment was a fun mental exercise.

We also got to watch a number of rock climbers try their luck against the sharply peaking faces. But apparently none of those photos met with Terry's critical eye because none of them appeared again after he finished editing everything.

 Iconic photo of Bastei Bridge
 That is not a person. It is a sculpture known as the Angel.
Terry and Alex hanging out in a cave while Zoltan and I rest elsewhere. It's hard being 8 when everyone else is older and stronger.