Sunday, November 18, 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.

Thursday, November 15, 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.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Epic Three-country Road Trip, Part 1: Pilsen

Terry came for the kids' fall break and we took a road trip - something we normally don't do. Something we probably won't do too much again. But as the title indicates, it was epic.

We started with a plan to get to Pilsen early enough for one of the last Pilsner Urquell tours of the day. However, they were sold out so we got a tour for the next day. And for good measure, we went ahead and bought tickets to the Pilsen Underground tour for the next day as well.


Terry and the brewery and a stunningly beautiful day

Pilsen has nice parks. The kids had a great time playing on a series of mosaic'd faces and animals they lay on the path between the town center and the Pilsner Urquell brewery.
I've got to be honest - we have gone on a LOT of brewery tours. This was without question the worst. I don't know if our tour guide was new and didn't know anything or if this was the norm, but we spent a lot of time just waiting for things or watching a movie or two. For comparison, the Guinness tour was a 100% electronic experience and they still did a better job of getting the tourists interested in the brewing process and the history of the brewery.


Tour highlights: riding in the Czech Republic's largest elevator - in the brewery - then eating lunch in the Czech Republic's largest restaurant - on the brewery property. Other highlights included getting beer mugs for each of us and letting the kids get theirs engraved because, as Terry noted, this may be the only time Zoltan gets a touristy tchotchke with his name on it.

After lunch it was time to head to the Underground tour, which was far more interesting. To be fair, tromping through a city's hidden world is always going to be interesting no matter what, and it was a nice touch to have signs marking which street corners now-closed passages to the surface would have opened onto. Apparently people kept many of their valuables in the underground passages, to include, for some, their livestock. I can only imagine how that worked!

Another stop on our Pilsen experience was to the Great Synagogue. It was absolutely stunning and a testament to the size and wealth of some previous Jewish citizenry.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Lisbon

We went to Portugal nearly a year ago, when Terry and the kids came to visit me last winter break. It took Terry a while to edit the photos.

After three days in Porto, we hopped a train down to Lisbon. There, we cashed in hotel points and stayed at the Marriott. It's a lovely hotel, but a bit far from most things.

On the day that was supposed to be rainy (but was in fact sunny), we went to the Lisbon oceanarium - one of the world's best aquariums. My family would definitely agree with the assessment, as we ended up spending the entire day there. Zoltan even spent allowance to acquire Oscar the otter to commemorate one of our favorite exhibits.
 Puffins!
 This guy doesn't even look real
 The otter was absolutely the highlight

The next day was supposed to have nice weather and rained all morning. Gloriously, as we approached our tour guide around noon at the appointed spot, the rain softened and dried up and we went on our "food tour" - put into quotation marks because it was so much more. Our tour guide, Silvia, was recommended by a friend who had been in Lisbon about a month before us and who also had kids.

She took us all around the city, introduced us to the city's "secret" street elevators, mounds of delicious food (and got our very reluctant kids to at least try more different dishes that Terry and I could have on our own). We had alerted her to Alex's intolerance so after bringing us to what she considered the best place to get Pasteis de Belém, she took us to a different bakery for treats Alex could try.In addition to all the food, she was a wealth of information about Lisbon's, and Portugal's history and some contemporary issues. I was so skeptical of some of what she told me I went and looked it up myself (yes, tempura, that Japanese delicacy, came from Portugal!)

 We took very few photos in Lisbon. This gem is of a comic depicting Lisbon's history, painted into an archway by a public toilet.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Kronberg

Friends invited us to accompany them to the "Apfel Fest" in Kronberg that boasted 100 different varieties of apples. Like Milli Vanilli, we'll blame it on the rain, but there were only two different stands of apples that included fewer than two dozen different types. Admittedly, within that much smaller sampling there were a bunch we had never heard of, much less tasted. And of course we brought home several kilograms of apples to eat fresh, make apple chips, apple crisp, and other delicious apple treats.

Then we took the opportunity to wander around the town. Absolutely charming. The kids gave out assignments: they handled scouting duties, I was the photographer, one friend was the "noticer" (noticing and pointing out cool things to look at) and the other friend was the all-around "helper."

I hope I fulfilled my duties sufficiently :-)

 Half-timber, but with brick
 Carving on the corner of someone's house. 
The guy who makes up the beam on the right has a flower covering his crotch.
 A Socratic quote someone decided to paint on their home. 
The real question is, why don't we all do this?

According to the slate numbers (look closely among the slate tiles), the house was originally built in 1456.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Single Parenting is Hard

Disclaimer: I am still happily married to the father of my children, who provides financial and emotional support as much as the six hour time difference allows, so I recognize I do not face many challenges truly single parents do.

I'm into my first month as a single parent. For three days in the first week I tried to get to the grocery store but by the time I got home from work, cooked dinner, fed the kids and myself, cleaned up and spent a few decent moments with them, it was their bedtime. I could have gone to the store then, and one night I did pop out for milk and bread, but generally the remaining hour before my own bedtime was filled with dishes so we had clean things to eat from in the morning, a bit of work I had brought home in returning for leaving a bit early, other chores and maybe a shower.

My work day is pretty solidly 8 hours, plus 1/2 hour lunch and the 20 minutes or so it takes to get there or back. My children do plenty of chores, from dishes to laundry to cleaning the bathroom on the weekend. On the evening that we came the closest to running out of food we just had sandwiches for dinner. In the world of actual hardship, mine barely registers.

And yet.

Single parenting is hard.

When one child is completely melting down and needs my full attention for an entire hour, dinner doesn't get made. The other child's needs are ignored. Lunches aren't planned, dishes aren't cleaned, and everything waits until the storm passes. The evening logistics become especially challenging because children have a relatively short window for all that must be packed in between coming home from school and going to bed, and generally the adult things need to just wait. The work day is crunched back into eight hours - for the last few months it had been expanding longer and longer - so now there is always a small anxiety that something there is being missed or forgotten.

Bless the people who do this without an end in sight. Bless the people who do this with younger children, unreliable transportation to work, erratic or long work hours, a rush hour commute.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Saalberg Roman Fort

On Labor Day weekend (not a holiday for the kids) we ventured over to Bad Homburg to check out the Roman fort. Having spent time in northern England, and from reading Rick Riordan books, we thought we were pretty well versed in all things ancient Roman empire.

The fort does a really good job with presenting what life must have been like for the Romans living in Germany. There were exhibits, for example, showing how they made shoes - from cutting the leather, to the kinds of thread used (boar bristle) to the nails used to attach the sole onto the upper.

There was also an exhibition and lesson of how to properly throw a spear. We would have been failed recruits of the Roman army, but it was fun and interesting nevertheless.

There was also this room of life-sized paintings where people could put themselves into the picture. And a trunk of "Roman" clothes for people to dress up, if they chose, while doing so.
Farming is hard


We stopped for lunch in the museum's restaurant, which had been billed as having traditional Roman cuisine. I think my mushrooms sauteed in honey and I forget what else, served with bread and a soft cheese loaded with herbs, was probably a relatively authentic option. The kids' schnitzel ... maybe not so much.

Zoltan had forgotten his fleece so he and I shared mine, so we may have cut the day a bit shorter than if we had all been warmer. The kids insisted on stopping at the gift shop, where each one procured a new implement for the arsenal.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Oh, and I got tenure on Friday

Other than teaching and the foreign service I'm not sure of too many other professions that have a tenure process. Essentially, it is when an employer agrees that it no longer holds the right to fire you absent seriously egregious behavior and sometimes not even then.

In the foreign service, generalists have five years from the day they start A-100 to be granted tenure. The first assessment is at the third year of service, the second assessment is about a year later, and the third assessment is 6 months later. If it's "three strikes you're out",  then by the five year anniversary the employee is heading to his or her "separation address" - which most of us consider the place we want the Department to send our stuff when we retire.

Roughly 40% of employees are tenured on their first look. There are certain requirements that must be met before a person can even be considered, such as language training and Consular work (or being in the process; for example one colleague of mine was tenured in her second month of consular work and I know people have received tenure when they have not yet completed their first experience with language training). I'd have to guess, but it is something like 90% are tenured on their second look.

It has become something of a tradition for these lists to come out on Friday DC-time-zone evenings, ostensibly for people to have the weekend to get over disappointment. The rumor mill had been working feverishly this time, with all expectations that it would happen the Friday before Labor Day.

And this time the rumors were right. So Saturday morning I woke to a few notes of congratulations, checked to  be sure and it was in fact true.

ol' Uncle Sam has saddled himself with me.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Rüdesheim

With the advent of the children, the tourism has commenced. Before Terry left we managed a trip out to Rüdesheim to do the usual "rundfahrt" or round trip: a cable car ride up to the Germania monument, celebrating the unification of Germany.




Then the 45 or so minute hike with lots of stopoffs for things to see ...


 ... then over to the chairlift ride down to the Rhine river and the town of Bingen, where one catches a ferry back to Rüdesheim.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Eclipse

July 27 saw the longest lunar eclipse in a hundred years. Although I hear the US wasn't able to see it, it was supposed to be well visible from Europe. Around the time it was supposed to start, I started wandering around looking for the moon. Between trees and buildings, I couldn't see anything. I checked in with friends and neighbors here in Frankfurt and for a good hour there was no news. Then someone mentioned it was visible. I ran out.

Not having a videocamera or a high quality camera of any kind, I had to capture it on my Smartphone. Although the photos were nothing at all, the videos at least caught the essence of what was going on. In the first video the moon is clearly reddish. By the end, the moon was passing out of our shadow and becoming much lighter, brighter and whiter.

Yes, the quality sucks. But it was cool to see it.

Which reminds me that back in November a friends mentioned that the International Space Station would be visible overhead in the DC area, and the kids and I went out to watch it pass.  Didn't capture that one at all, but it was pretty cool.

Around 11:15pm



Monday, July 16, 2018

Idstein

The food at the Burg Eltz cafe didn't appeal to me so I decided to stop somewhere on my way home. I had heard Idstein was a pretty city to visit so had it in mind. Hadn't really thought through that it's an hour away from Burg Eltz and I only left there close to 2pm ... suffice it to say I was hungry and grumpy when I got to town.

Most of the restaurants were closed in mid-afternoon but I found one that was open and not too far from where I parked and I tried a potato-and-bean-pancake (like a latke but with some kind of small white bean among the potato, presumably to protein it up). It was very tasty and the radler I had with it was refreshing so I was ready to hit the town after I ate.

The main sight in Idstein is the "Hexenturm" or Witch's Tower. Unless my German is way worse than I think it is, you can go to the tourist info center and ask for the key to go inside. When I wandered past the building there was a tour guide just closing up, but I plan to visit the town again so it wasn't a big deal not to get inside.
The town is filled well amazingly well preserved, colorfully painted half-timber housed. I may have mentioned this before but I am beyond charmed by half-timbered houses.
 It looks like it's falling down, because of the angle of the timbers.
That is not a real cat on the side of the house

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Burg Eltz

Nothing gets me moving like the recognition that things are soon changing. After essentially hibernating for a year, I'm going sightseeing. Burg Eltz was spectacular and beautiful but it was also a bit of schlepp to get to and I don't think Terry and the kids will care that much if they miss it.

Burg Eltz is still owned by the Eltz family - more than 850 years after the first part of the complex was built!  To get to the Burg*  from the parking lot you can take a shuttlebus or wander for about 15 minutes through the forest. Obviously, I walked.

The only way into the castle is with the tour, and they do tours about every 15 minutes. I probably missed or misunderstood some of what the tour guide was saying;  between impatience and wanting to use the German I've learned, I opted for the German language tour although there was an English speaking one 15 minutes later.

No photos are allowed inside the building, so 95% of what would be interesting to see is not captured. Although the first part of the burg was built in the 1100s, most of the items they had on display dated from no further back than the 1500s. There was a lot of original furniture, armament, and other household items ranging from about the 16th century up through the present day - in one room, along with 16th century portraits, is a photo of the family that could not have been taken more than 10 years ago. One portrait from an ancient patriarch noted that he lived to 94 years of age - in the 1500s! Another two rooms contain the hunting trophies, including antlers from deer, moose and elk, two enormous bear rugs with heads still attached, and pelts that had to have been wolves.
The inner courtyard, where we waited for the tour to begin

The admission ticket also includes entry to the "Treasure Room". One entire wall was covered in beautiful shotguns, many with the owner's name carved or engraved in metal and with other ornamental metalwork. There was a case of swords, and one of hunting implements. Another case held a variety of small clocks, and another held various objet d'art. I guess when one family holds the old homestead for more than 800 years, it isn't too hard to go searching for antiques in the attic.

The building is beautiful and well preserved

* I had to look this up and was fascinated by the explanation. "Schloss" is the commonly understood word for "castle" in German, and this was clearly a castle, so why "Burg"? Apparently, a "burg" is a castle wherein defense is a, if not the, purpose of the building - as opposed to a "schloss" where defense was less important and a nice, solid fancy building is sought. Learning new things every day.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sunday Hiking

On Sundays in Germany nearly all establishments are closed. Restaurants are largely open, museums of course, but little else. Many folks go to church. Nearly everyone (seemingly) goes hiking.

A friend found this fabulous-looking magazine last week that mapped out 60 hikes in the Frankfurt area. We chose one and set off. Just getting to the starting point was an adventure, as it had us traveling to a town about 40 minutes away where we had never been before. We drove through horse country and spent time on tiny roads where two cars could come nowhere near abreast each other. Happily there was just field to either side so nobody had to drive backwards for a half mile, as could happen on the Maltese goat roads.

The magazine rated each hike based on how much time was spent in forest vs. field vs. road, how long each hike was in terms of kilometers and expected length of time (at either relaxed or sporty paces). The descriptions were as detailed as "and then there are three wooden benches to your left...". It seemed we could not go wrong.

And yet.

My legendary lack-of-sense-of-direction did not fail. Within 5 minutes of our hike nothing matched the map or the written out description. We asked a fellow passing hiker for help. We learned we were looking at the wrong map - rather than have written directions on the page facing the map, the magazine set them on the same page as the map on the other side, the better to tear out the one perforated page and carry with you.

Turned out that didn't help us orient ourselves.

In the end, we picked a landmark located at a point around the far corner of the hike, used Google Maps to get there, then set the return course for our starting point. We hiked through very pretty woods, had a lovely conversation, then got wurst at the restaurant that was the starting point.
 
Terry needs to build one of these at the cabin.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Porto

Waaay back, in 2017 (barely), Terry and the kids came to Germany for holiday. They spent almost a week in Frankfurt, getting over jet lag, celebrating Christmas, and hanging out. Then on my birthday we got on a plane and visited a country that had been on my must-visit list for a long time - Portugal.

Recognizing that we'd have a holiday and a Sunday in our first weekend in the country, we opted for an air-b-n-b in Porto for our first stop. The apartment was wonderful, one of the bigger places we've stayed, and the hostess left a bowl of fruit, Oreos and milk for us :-)

Unfortunately, the market where we planned to stock our shelves closed a few hours before we got there, so that was a downer. After our fascinating and delicious experience in Barcelona's La Boqueria, the visit was a planned high point. oops.

Gate closed, no vendors inside. This market is closed.

The plethora of intricately tiled homes and narrow, windy, twisty streets makes a stroll around Porto one of the best ways of spending a day, and that is exactly what we did.


The Dom Luis bridge connects the northern side of Porto (where we stayed) with the southern side (where all the wineries are).  Below, the barges full of barrels of port.

In the midst of the wandering, we found a playground for the kids to burn off some energy.  They will probably report back that the playground was their highlight of Porto.




There was a huge street festival with music and entertainment for new year's eve, right around the corner from where we were staying. We told the kids if they wanted they could stay up for it, and we'd go out to to ring in the new year.  By 11:00pm they said they were ready to go home and go to bed. Turns out we could see a bit of the fireworks from one of the windows, so Terry and I still got a taste of celebration.

On New Year's Day, again, there was little open so we spend the day outdoors wandering through the city. The cable car was one of the few operational tourist happenings, and we took a ride.

In front of the train station they even tiled the rocks!  It was fun for the kids to take a little break and get off their feet for a few.

Terry doesn't like port, and the kids are kids, so in the end I didn't even taste a drop of port while in Porto. Leaving something for the next time!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Spargelsaison

I have written about paying $10 for a small bunch of asparagus in winter in St Petersburg so that I could consume vegetables other than carrots or cabbage; my cred as a non-hater shall be considered well established.  Spargelsaison ("asparagus season") in Germany is a real thing, and it is incredible to me that people will pay 20 Euros for a serving of asparagus in a restaurant at the height of the season. In a normal restaurant. Supply vs. demand anyone?

Asparagus is tasty.  White asparagus does have a milder, more delicate flavor. No arguments here. But ...

The thing is, during the Spargelzeit ("asparagus time") it is mid-to-late-spring. There's something else going on too, something that should be the queen of the season and somehow, bewilderingly, is not.

Strawberries.

I have been tragically and pathetically lazy. Next spring will be different. 

The field I visited this morning was a 10 minute drive from my apartment. You can buy a box there, or bring whatever kind of container you like and they weigh it before you start picking, so that you are only paying for the fruit. The prices were excellent too, with reduced cost the more you pick. We may go back to jam making next year!

Today was my first and only (for this season) strawberry-picking day. Sadly, many of the berries on the vine were already moldy or half-eaten by the bugs. Unfortunate for the fruit seekers, although it is a great sign of little or no pesticide use.  It took about 40 minutes to gather about 1.5 kilos of fruit. While picking, I only snacked on the ones that were so close to being bad nobody would have taken them. They tasted like honey, they were so tooth-achingly sweet.

Monday, April 23, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: The Power

The Power by Naomi Alderman

When girls in the modern-day world suddenly gain the power to electrocute through their fingertips, their actions repudiate most gender stereotypes and set civilization on a crash course that, five thousand years later, looks starting similar to our own with one small exception...

Buy, borrow or don't bother: Borrow.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: Journey

(full title) Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West by Emma Bland Smith (Author),‎ Robin James (Illustrator)

This almost non-fiction book charmingly tracks the adventures of OR-7, the first wolf to cross into California in almost a century, and the campaign to protect him from aggressive farmers and other humans.

Buy, borrow, or don't bother:  Buy.  This would delight your favorite five-, six-, or seven-year-old paired with a stuffed animal wolf! 

Monday, April 16, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: Beyond Sleep

Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans
 
Overly self-conscious and self-important young geologist, carrying the weight of his father's too-early death and resultant failure to achieve greatness, goes on remote site visit critical to his thesis completion yet is painfully unprepared for any aspect of his journey.

Buy, borrow, or don't bother: Don't bother

Thursday, April 12, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: New York 2140

New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This book will delight anyone who has ever wondered just how will the world look in about 120 years when no entity on Earth seems willing or able to do anything to slow the pace of climate change;  the author fits in descriptions of extreme weather, human scientific and social ingenuity, and political showdowns in between the stories of the small group of fellow megalithic-city-within-an-apartment dwellers who change the world.

Buy, borrow or don't bother: Buy - and keep checking back over the next 120 years to see which predictions come true!

Monday, April 9, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This children's book first appears as a thriller - the protagonist's entire family is murdered in the first few pages - but instead turns into an adventuresome coming-of-age story (albeit under unusual circumstances) that has both children and adults constantly wanting to know what happens next.

Buy, borrow or don't bother:  Buy

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

One Sentence Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Imagine your favorite Russian writer got himself a good editor:  reminiscences about the scent of lilacs in the Alexander Gardens or waxing philosophic about why Russians took to duels so quickly still happen, but within one rather than 20 pages.

Buy, borrow or don't bother: Buy

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Köln

I took myself to Köln for the day today (Cologne, for the not-German-speaking).  It is well known for its totally crazy Carnival celebrations, and for some reason the train ticket was unnervingly inexpensive. Admittedly, several museums, and the Cathedral, were closed. I was saving the Chocolate and Mustard museums for when the whole family was here anyway, so not such a big problem.

Although the inside of the cathedral was closed, the outside obviously wasn't. I took a lot of photos. Here's just one:
 
My first order of business was to figure out what was going on and when and where. I basically accidentally found the "Battle of the Bands, 1790's style"





Around the corner was this delight:
Apparently, all the marching bands end up in one large park where there's a stage and the redcoats got to play more modern music (ABBA, among other things, no joke). I should have taken photos but in addition to the tents where one could buy food or beer, there were people with their own little beer-keg-on-red-wagon looking contraptions, most of which had signs proclaiming "PRIVAT"

Most of the spectators also had costumes, and if one came unprepared there were plenty of stores and kiosks ready to kit you out.  It was raining, and the city actually has quite a few good looking museums.  I hit an art museum that was actually open today and that nobody in my family would be interested in visiting - although they did have a decent program for keeping kids engaged, with certain artworks hosting extra signage especially for kids, some commentary and jokes, and a room with enormous bean bag chairs to hang out and chill out before venturing back into the art. Unusual for me, I spent more than 2 hours in the museum.

Another order of business was to find Kölsch to drink, as that is Köln's special beer.  I had been reading up on Carnival in the city and kept reading about having a "Früh" beer was an important part, and I kept thinking "OK, they drink beer early in the day, it's Carnival, that makes sense."  Nope. Früh, which means early in German, is also the name of the brand of beer. D'oh. So I had one. It was OK. All the Brauhauses were full past capacity with lines out the doors, so I got mine from an outdoor stand.  This was nearby. I liked the colorful houses on a gray day.
I had some time, so hit another museum that was right by the train station before heading out. It was interesting, but I was heading toward exhausted so didn't absorb as much as I might have.  As I headed back to the train station, there was this. I have no idea why:


And last but not least, in honor of my husband who adores everything pig, in the train station was this cafe: