Thursday, August 21, 2014

Losing Photos, and Capturing Memories, in Tuscany

I woke up this morning thinking, “If I was keeping up with my blog, I’d be better equipped to capture some of the special moments from this trip.” 

So, though my entries are sparse lately, there is something I'd like to share... 

As a parent, photos begin to take on a hugely valuable role in vacationing. You spend a small fortune on any given trip with your kids, and you know that - without the help of photography - they will remember little of that excursion. 

(Though it would be equally accurate to say that I may not remember bits and pieces of the trip without those snapshots!)

So photos are a way of capturing special moments in time. And yet, as wonderful as they are, photos are limited in what they can deliver. 

After a long, wonderful dinner with our Italian friends here in Turicchi last night, 8-year-old Lukas came to me just before 11. He began insisting that I follow him around to the dark area at the front of the Tuscan farmhouse. 

“You’re going to be so sad if you don’t see this, Mom.” 

Every grain of me screamed, “It’s late and he needs to go to bed. This is unnecessary.” And I was ridiculously tired. Yet part of me knew that it was important. Less than a minute later, we reached the spot that he wanted to show me. He said, “Listen, you have to here the owl.” Unfortunately, Lukas had heard the owl just before dinner, hours earlier... so he was long gone. But Lukas spotted a deer, and I looked up into the sky, only to see a beautiful, dark canvas, dotted with thousands of little stars. I hugged Lukas tightly and directed his gaze skywards. 

There is no photo for this. 

Nor is there a photo for the moment that Alexander, our “tough boy” gently took my hand at Florence’s Piazzale Michaelangelo, after just having seen me cry for one of the few times in his life. I had had my wallet and iphone stolen. My PHONE! With so many beautiful, precious PHOTOS!!! 

But Alex’s tiny little hand, along with Lukas giant smile and Emma’s sweet, inquisitive voice,

“Mama, ist dein Phone weg? Mama, hat eine Frau es weggenommen?” - “Mama, is your phone gone? Mama, did a lady take it from you?”

...they reminded me of what’s really important in life. 

And what about those moments last year, in this very place, where “strangers”, or people I had known for a few short days, took my children home, fed them dinner, and brought them to bed, while I was delivered to a foreign hospital alone, in an ambulance where no one spoke english? I have no snapshots of this night, but as I sat in a Tuscan hospital, I blindly trusted that my kids were in good hands. Again, no photos.

The most important moments in life are beyond the realm of digital photography. They are intangible. It’s like trying to capture love with a butterfly net. Sometimes memories - with the help of a few written words - are more than enough. 

That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying. Ever

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Caldine Calamai and Our New Tuscan Family

The directions received from our soon-to-be Tuscan hosts were somewhat unnerving. 

“Turn right after the gas station and head up the road towards the church. The road gets a little narrow at that point, but don’t worry. Our pickup makes it through, so you’ll be fine. But call us from there and we’ll come and meet you to get up the road safely.” 


And we would have done just that, had it not been 10 pm, and had we not known that our hosts were retirees. The idea of having this retired couple get up out of their bed, in their pajamas, to come down and meet us in the village, just seemed unacceptable. (That was before we met Guido and Charlotte.) 

I had decided: we’d be fine. I had taken four-wheel-driving courses in Queensland, driven on the “opposite” side of the road for years, driven on icy European streets, and mastered the infamous German Autobahn. I had this. Besides, after driving hundreds of kilometers, we were now on the home stretch. Just another 10 or 15 minutes to go. How bad could it be? 

As luck would have it, the road was dark, making it almost impossible for me to gauge how narrow it was and how adventurous this drive really was. As far as we could tell it was just a rough, unpaved road with the occasional stick screeching past the car. A virtual walk in the park. 

But where WAS this place? 

The road winded ever-upwards. 
A railroad track. 
A church. 
An old cemetery. 

Still no darn farm house. Had we taken a wrong turn somewhere? Did we even have cell phone reception out here? 

Just a kilometer or so away from the old cemetery we finally see the sign for “Caldine Calamai”, which directs us to the large old stone house where we would be staying. And it’s at this point that the road gets most interesting. Ha. Could my minivan-like Mazda 5  handle this? There was only one way to find out. Thoughts like:

“Yes, 4-wheel-drive would be pretty appropriate right about now.” 

and “What would happen if we got stuck in the remote Tuscan countryside at 10:30 PM with three kids?”

came and went, countered by: “No time to entertain those types of thoughts. Keep driving, Liz.” 

And then, a large stone farmhouse. Yes, it says Caldine Calamai! We made it! 

Only the next day would I realize that it is only wide enough for one car, but is a two-lane road, providing the only access to the dozens of citizens who live in the Turicchi area. How do you get up and down it? Honk your little heat out. Honk like there’s no tomorrow. Honk like your life depends on it. Because guess what? It does. The road curves? You honk. Think you see a car? You honk. When in doubt... honk.

If our week in Tuscany was a 5-course Tuscan meal, our arrival was the antipasti, setting the tone for the rest of our curious, tantalizing courses that would be served up to us in Turicchi and surrounds.

Course 2? Let’s name it the day of relaxation on the farm, where we went hiking, visited an old abandoned farm, went swimming in our pool overlooking the Tuscan hills, and BBQd with our hosts. It was a day where kids could be kids, and adults could watch lazily.  

Next Up? Course 3. That’s the Take-a-Trip-to-the-North-of-Tuscany-in-Search-of Waterfalls Day. And on our return, our hosts would tempt our palate with pasta served with homemade tomato sauce, to which we would add our version of Insalata Caprese.
Course 4 is our first “taste” of Italian hospitals. On this day we visited a new children’s hospital in Florence, where we had to wait a long time but walked out not having paid a cent. For an emergency room visit. The diagnosis. Emma had a skin rash. She received antihistamine cream to be applied daily. This is where we parted with my sister and her boyfriend. They were off to explore Florence. I would do the same with the kids. 

The Medici “Boboli” Gardens. Downtown Florence. Oversized Gelato cones. The Ponte Vecchio Bridge. And Piazza Michaelangelo, with it’s stunning view of the Florence skyline. Just wow.

Course 5 was a bit bitter. Maybe I could compare it to the much loved local dish of Chicken Liver Pate. It doesn’t taste bad, but I probably wouldn’t order it again if given the choice. This is the part of our meal-journey where I go hike with my three kids, misread the map, lose my orientation,  twist my ankle, break three bones, and get stranded on a hiking trail in the mid-day sun with my two-year-old daughter. The two older boys went for help. This, in a foreign country where they didn’t know their way around or speak the language. I was sooo uncomfortable with that. But more uncomfortable with my throbbing, slightly contorted foot. I knew they’d be fine. Just as I knew I’d be fine. Or maybe the word “hope” would be more appropriate here. 

The situation was terrible. For everyone involved. The poor owners of the guesthouse, who had now become our friends (thankfully), were searching for us in every corner of the countryside, retracing the steps they believed we had taken.

I was sitting beside Emma on a stony path, sans shade, battling light headedness with sips of water and calls to friends and family (I remember thinking, “Unconsciousness is so not an option right now.”

The boys were scared. Once they had found help, which came in the form of a well-built, handsome Italian man with slicked-back hair (a mirage?), I had gotten in touch with our friends and put them on the phone with our rescuer. They made an arrangement to take me back to their home (or rather villa), and we would meet there. 

From there we debated what to do. The closer hospital, or the better one? With a car, or with an ambulance? With kids or without? The decision was made for me to be taken to the closer hospital, with an ambulance, without kids. The kids would go home with my new friends, Guido and Carla. The hope was that I would be released that night. 

My phone battery was dying. They were loading me into the ambulance. I was instructing my 7.year-old that he was in charge and would have to help take care of his brother and sister and keep them calm. 

What I thought at that moment: “No tears, Liz. Your kids can’t see that.”

The doors to the ambulance closed. 2-year-old Emma begins crying. The ambulance pulls away. I lose all composure and am an emotional basketcase for the first half of the journey. My emotional state fluctuates for the next four hours in the hospital. Barely anyone speaks English. My kids are in an old house with many stairs, with people I have know for three days. And yet somehow I trust them implicitly. As if they were family. Thank God. But how unfair of me to push this on them. They suddenly have three kids to feed, clothe, and get into bed. 

They did just that. And then they drove 30 minutes at 10:30 PM to come and get me from the hospital and bring me back to their guesthouse. Thankfully, Guido is not your average 70-something-year-old retired physicist. An ex-runner, he practically single-handedly carried me down the slippery, stone-covered path to our apartment. From there I had to scoot down the stairs on my butt to get to my room. The crutches were not provided by the hospital. That was on our agenda for the next day. 

Fast forward to the next morning. I wake up. Lukas makes everyone breakfast. A grasshopper dances on my hair. My foot hurts. Guido comes, bearing crutches. He has again driven 30 minutes to find me a pair, and then back. Now that we have them we must return to the hospital, where I will meet with the orthopedic doctor. He will analyze the xray and CT tests from the previous night and most likely tell me that I need surgery. I already know that I will tell him that I will have this done on my return to Germany. We will stay one more night. 

My husband organized an ambulance to pick us up and bring us back to Germany. But only one child can ride with me. The other two have to come home with my sister and her boyfriend (who will drive our car home). Again, I am uncomfortable. It’s a full day journey. My kids can be a pain. My sister and her boyfriend are not used to the German Autobahn, or to my car. But in situations like these you learn to let go and trust. And hope. And that’s just what I did. 

But first, we would have one more meal in Tuscany. As luck would have it, we would end up in an outdoor restaurant overlooking Tuscany as the sun set, on a tip from Guido. Sadly, Guido and Carla couldn’t join us, as their son and daughter-in-law had just arrived. But the view was second-to-none. The wine was incredible. And the food was divine. We were just a bit rushed. And it’s never good to be rushed when dining out in Italy. But I had to get back to my new friends-turned-family. I knew my time was running out, and I was feeling sad. So we ate, returned to the guest house, and said goodnight to Guido and Carla and their son and daughter-in-law.

When that ambulance came, I knew I would cry. And boy, did I. I had to say goodbye to Guido. And Carla. And their son, Martino, and his wife Nadia. They were all so incredible and kind. I was sooooo lucky to have them. And a little unlucky to break my foot. But because of this mishap, I will forever have a special bond with this beautiful family. So six weeks of walking with crutches and not driving is a small price to pay for this unique, once-in-a-lifetime chance to gain four new family members. And good looking Italian ones, at that! Who knows, maybe I can get used to the chicken pate, afterall. 

Today, more than two months after our return from Italy, my 5-year-old son asked if we can bring “Papa” to Italy sometime to visit Caldine Calamai. I hope he joins us, but one thing is certain: The kids and I? We’ll be back. Next year, and for many years to come. And we’ll hike. Only next time I think I’ll take Guido’s advice, and read the map a little more carefully. ;-)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Traveling, Arriving, and My Countless Faux Pas

Albert Einstein once said, "I love to travel, but I hate to arrive."

We are in a state of flux, but this is magnified whilst traveling. Things are changing. We are surrounded with that which is unfamiliar to us.

Strangely, I need this to survive. Don't get me wrong, I can keep my head above water for a short time when treading is in order, but - to stick with the swimming analogy - it's easier for me to stay afloat if I am moving. And it is also when I am at my happiest.

That's the great thing about living abroad. No matter how long you've lived in a place, no matter how integrated you think you are, you're constantly learning... or, on the flip side, constantly "screwing up."

Which brings me to my second favorite Einstein quote, "A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new."

To this day, I am constantly put into situations where I encounter something unfamiliar. In spite of having a German husband, German kids in German schools, German in-laws, German friends, German neighbors, and a German house, I am still the "strange foreigner" at times... probably even more than I realize!

Case in point: I meet a distant relative today - my husband's second cousin - who happens to live in the next village. And, I should mention that I like her a lot, though I seldom see her. How do I greet her? A great, big, American-style hug, of course!

Well it turns out that, for a German, or more specifically, for a Franconian (as cultural norms vary from region to region), this is weird. I could tell by her body posture, and it was confirmed by my in-laws an hour later. Oops.

And then was the incident last week that I began eating lunch while standing, not waiting for my girlfriend and her son to sit down at the table. And, while we're at it, I...

Often leave a couple bites of food on my plate.

Lay down my knife while eating.

Write cards with poor penmanship (relatively speaking), but a beautifully, thoughtfully written message.

Just plop myself down on the floor if I want to look at something quickly, even if there is a chair or couch nearby.

Friends, family, and neighbors, I'm sure this is not the complete list, so feel free to submit other odd "Liz" faux pas. But, to return to the original Einstein comment about his love of travel and loathe of arriving, it appears as though I still haven't quite "arrived" , and perhaps I never will. I am a foreigner in a "strange" land, and - with a little luck and some creative thinking - it will forever remain exotic and wonderful, and I will never cease to make mistakes.

And that, readers, is most comforting in my opinion. Life in Germany truly is still an adventure.

Ich bin eben noch nicht ganz angekommen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Final Stage of Culture Shock

According to the esteemed author and counselor of intercultural and multicultural issues, Paul Pederson, there are five stages of so.called culture shock. They are as follows:
1) The Honeymoon Stage 
2) The Disintegration Stage 
3) The Reintegration Stage
4) The Autonomy Stage
5) The Interdependence Stage

A simpler rendition (think Wikipedia) is the one encompassing a shift from the "Honeyoon Phase" to the "Negotiation Phase", then from the "Adjustment Phase" onto the "Mastery Phase". However you look at it, it a fascinating phenomena. We are like moldable, cultural clay, and the - sometimes dramatic - shift in our words, actions, eating habits, dress, and (if you happen to be a travel blogger) blogs demonstrate how truly pliable we are. 

But this is where it gets tricky. As a writer, your writing style varies depending on the stage of culture shock that you are in. Let's look specifically at the simpler stages listed in the second paragraph, When in the "Honeymoon" and "Negotiation" phases, it's easy to write about what you find fascinating or odd about your new culture. And in the "Adjustment" phase, you can write about what you miss at "home" or what frustrates you about the new culture. But what does one write about when in the "Mastery Phase"? Just how fantastic everything is? How well adjusted one has become? Let's be honest. Who wants to read about that? 

When that point comes, perhaps it's time to reinvent yourself.

"Mastering" a culture doesn't mean you love it all of the time. It means you feel at home there, maybe more at home there than anywhere else. And the occasional adventure will still arise. Like when you hear someone use a new word for something you were quite certain there was no other word for (how about "Sonnabend" for Saturday?!?). And perhaps those adventures are just as worthy of our time and efforts as the Honeymoon Phase topics (like visiting castles and taking a trip down the Romantic Road).

Another example of something that would be suitable for the "Mastery Phase": the mind-boggling differences in healthcare systems! In December I spent a week in a German hospital for a moderately serious medical issue. They were understaffed and didn't take me seriously when I complained about what was ailing me, which resulted in a second surgery. Was I blown away and frustrated? You betcha! But, to put it in perspective, our basic German health insurance paid for someone to help me out around the house for TWO MONTHS after the surgery. These people helped me clean the house, cook, pick up my kids and drive them around, and even went grocery shopping for me. There are not many countries that provide this sort of post-surgical support, and had I not had it, I may have had to return for an additional surgery. 

No matter where, in the world, we live, at the end of the day we take the good with the bad. And the adventures that come along with the "Mastery Phase" enrich us as Erdenbürger (or earthlings - how cute is that?)), just as much or more as those initial "Honeymoon" adventures. The relationship matures with time, like an old couple that stays together and is still in love after all those years. :)

Perhaps you have other ideas. As we continue to ascend the ladder of Culture Shock in our respective countries, how do we stay passionate about our writing - or other forms of artistic expression - and continue to share our stories and experiences? Please share!

And until then, safe and happy travels!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Our Global Community - Strength Through Solidarity

It's been a while since I've written, and I know this is a bit harsh of a post after such a long sabbatical, but I feel quite passionate about this topic and would like to share it with you.

Not long ago, when our parents were young, people got out of life what they put into it. If you planted a garden, you reaped the harvest. If you chose not to plant a garden, it might have been because you bartered or helped with the labor of harvesting. If your neighbor made jam, you might have traded her some of your fresh eggs for a jar of strawberry marmalade. You may have even looked after each others children. And you ensured that - if your neighbor's house was broken into - criminals were brought to justice. Of course, it wasn't always altruistic. You knew that you, too, would benefit or - if nothing was done - that you, too, would suffer. Everyone had their role and was invested in the fruits of labor and the good of the community.

Today, we reap, but we don't sew. Our waste is deposited somewhere far away, where we cannot see it, therefore it matters not how much of it we produce. Our oil is taken from somewhere far away, and it matters little if there is an oil spill. Our coffee comes from places where children have their childhoods stolen from them. And somewhat closer to home, shootings and murders take place. Other people's children, mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, husbands and wives are killed... often solely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grotesque crimes - to humanity and nature - are reported on our televisions and in our newspapers daily, but they are too far away to effect us. Or so we think.

Think small. Today, the world is our neighborhood. Unless, of course, we say the the food, oil, paper, and other goods are no longer of value to us. Things happening far away do effect us. It is our duty to know what's going on in our global community and to demand that - when crimes are perpetrated, be they near or far away - the criminals are brought to justice.

Newtown, Connecticut. Aurora, Colorado. These are the most recent unspeakable crimes to cross our headlines. They are terrible. Enraging. And will hopefully move the U.S. slowly in the direction of gun control. But their communities are our communities. Their crimes do effect us. No matter how close or far we may live from these communities, we are their neighbors. We need to come together in this time of crisis and work towards change.

Here's another recent example of evil that makes my blood boil...
A family of 11 elephants was found slaughtered in Kenya a few weeks back. A mother was found lying next to her calf, killed while she tried to lead her baby to safety. The poachers pursued them with a helicopter, meaning the elephants didn't have a chance. These beautiful, kind, incredible animals were murdered only for their ivory, and left to rot. Somewhat surprisingly, what bothers me most is not the deed. There have always been evil people in our world and there always will be. But what is terrifying is the apathy of others and our inability - as a world community - to bring these criminals to justice. The world has become a small place, but we allow people to ruin our beautiful planet without suffering consequences. You say it's too far away? That the Kenyans must get this under control? To that I reply that in a few decades we will be lucky if there are a handful of surviving elephants in zoos for our children and great grandchildren to see. As a species, they are no match for the humans that poach them and the ivory trade. Fortunately, there are some people fighting for their survival:

We are one, WORLD, community. And we can make a difference -- by caring. About more than just our city, our state, our country.

We have ONE planet. The world is OUR oyster. If we don't treat it as such, we will suffer the consequences. Through individual action and solidarity we can overcome apathy and evil, and make our communities - and the world - a safe place once again.

Again, sorry for the rough beginning, but I felt so compelled to address this, and it feels great to be writing again! Wishing you and your family a happy and successful 2013!
(And hopefully one filled with much more blogging, in my case!)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Our Van Trapp Family Adventure

The Alps. Those beautiful snow-topped jagged peaks made famous by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music are virtually at our doorstep. Once upon a time we lived three hours from the Great Barrier Reef, and seldom visited it. And now we're three hours from one of the most scenic mountain ranges on the planet, and we get there on an average of once per year. I'm determined to change that.

Some dear friends of ours head down to the Alps on a monthly basis, and I admittedly envy them. They hike the Alps, ski the Alps, sled the Alps... heck, they live and breathe the Alps. So naturally, when they invited us to join them for a sledding adventure in the area that they know best, we jumped at the opportunity. 

Though we didn't put our heads together and sing melodically about "snowflakes on noses and whiskers on kittens", we did take a cable car up to the top of the Wallberg, have a delicious lunch, and enjoy one incredible panorama. Our kids were on Cloud 9, literally, thanks to the cable car ride and the excitement of sledding down a mountain, not to mention warming up with steamy hot chocolates and the opportunity to eat a plate full of french fries for lunch.

Wallberg's "Rodelbahn", or sledding slope, is the longest natural slope of its kind in Germany, at 6.5 km. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the bottom by sled, and sleds - known here in Bavaria as "Rodel" - can be rented at the base of the mountain for the €5 per day (plus a deposit).

Important notes for sledding novices (like me):
  • Kids should wear helmets if at all possible (ours were probably the only children without them)
  • Ski goggles are important, as the sleds have a tendency to throw snow into the faces of sledders
  • There's no such thing as dressing your kids too warm. Think big scarfs, warm hats, gloves, and those little covers that go on top of ski pants / snow boots.

Not interested in sledding? The Wallberg cable car operates year-round and the scenic view offered at the restaurant is second to none. At 1620 meters above sea level, Wallberg lies at the edge of the Tegernsee, a beautiful lake at the heart of the Bavarian Alps. I, for one, fully intend on going back for a visit in the summer -- with the whole family. It's part of that promise I made to spend more time in the Alps. No sense in living in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet if we choose to take it for granted and neglect to explore it! So if you're in the area, head out to the Alps. You won't be disappointed!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Our Life in "KW" - The German "Kalendarwochen" Concept - Part 2

While composing the last entry, I realized that its length was making it difficult to digest in a single sitting. So for your reading enjoyment, our adventures for "Kalendarwochen" 49-52 will be listed in this posting. They're less about exploring the unknown and more about a multi-cultural family's attempt to establish holiday traditions.

And, in case you missed the last bit it began like this: "As I was considering how to make up for my recent absence from the blogosphere, the thought occured to me that I could introduce you to the german "Kalendarwochen", or "Calendar Weeks" concept. Otherwise known as "KW" (pronounced "Ka-Vae"), in this corner of the world they often organize their lives according to the weeks of the year, and what better way to cover all of this missed time?"

The IWG's Annual Cookie Exchange
To read about the month of November, click here. Or to see what we were up to in December, just read on... 
Week 49: PAR-TAY! 
Organized and attended our "English Without Border's" Christmas get-together at a quaint old restaurant in the historic district of Erlangen; had a blast at the International Women's Group's (or IWG's) annual Christmas Party at a nearby castle.


Week 50: Cookie Exchange and Nuremberg Christindlesmarkt
Attended (and baked for) the IWG's annual Christmas Cookie Exchange in Herzogenaurach. Etched into my memory: The BBC's "Rocky Road Christmas" and hostess Petra's incredible homemade eggnog. Later that week I braved the mega-crowded Nuremberg Christmas Market with three little kids. How? Baby Emma was strapped into the Baby Bjorn, which freed up both of my hands for her 3- and 5-year-old brothers. :) Loved the "Kinderweihnachtsmarkt", or "Children's Christmas Market", and was impressed with the boys for helping me do some last minute Christmas shopping along Nuremberg's fabulous Karolinenstrasse (listed here as the city's top shopping district:

Week 51: Countdown to Christmas!
When we're in Germany, we celebrate like this: Christmas Eve we always do dinner at my in-law's, and the kids love opening gifts brought by the "Christkind" (literally translated as"Christ Child"). Before going to bed the boys write a letter to Santa Claus (with my help) and prepare a plate with homemade cookies and some carrots for his reindeer. Then Santa's self-appointed elves set to work wrapping any remaining presents, followed by last minute decorating and answering letters to Santa's biggest fans. Christmas morning we're up early having some hot cocoa while opening presents and stockings. On the afternoon of the 25th we have friends or family over for a big, American-style Christmas day meal (this year our friend Claudia came by with her partner and children). Lastly, on the 26th, known here in Germany as the "Zweite Weihnachtstag" or "Second Christmas Day", we have my in-laws over to our place for a traditional German meal. The days leading up to Christmas are always stressful, but once it has begun, we all tend to enjoy the holiday! :)

Week 52: A small-town New Year's 
This year we'll be celebrating New Year's by inviting over some friends, who also have three children, for fondu and fireworks. The only drawbacks: the absence of snow make it less magical than the New Year's past, and I'm always slightly freaked out by the crazy rocket-launching and fireman-grade fireworks that are set off by family, friends, and neighbors. Duck!

Here's to hoping that our 2012 will be equally full of incredible adventures, including those here at home, where baby Emma will be exploring her new world and learning how to eat, crawl, walk, and talk! Wishing you and your family a wonderful new year!
~The Krafts

Our Life in "KW" - The German "Kalendarwochen" Concept - Part 1

As I was considering how to make up for my recent absence from the blogosphere, the thought occured to me that I could introduce you to the german "Kalendarwochen", or "Calendar Weeks" concept. Otherwise known as "KW" (pronounced "Ka-Vae"), in this corner of the world they often organize their lives according to the weeks of the year, and what better way to cover all of this missed time?

This week being the last of the year, makes it number 52, and since my last posting was on November 4th, or week 44, I have about 7 weeks of "Wandering Family" adventures to share with you. :) Let's get started!
Dinner at Donatella's

Week 45: Catching up with the International Women's Group
Once a month I organize an English Language group for the International Women's Group which we call "English Without Borders". This week we met at the Kalchreuther Bakery in Neunkirchen am Brand to speak english and catch up over a traditional German breakfast. It's also the week that my sister arrived from America, the week of my 34th birthday (which I celebrated with friends and family here at my home), and culminated in my sister and I being invited to a lovely Italian women's home for a tapas-style party with women from around the globe (Macedonia, Germany, Italy, the Phillipines, South Korea and the U.S.).

Opa's Childhood Home
Week 46: Exploring Tobi's roots
Tobi's father comes from Hetzles, a tiny town about 10 minutes's drive from us. If you like German villages filled with half-timber buildings, you'd love Hetzles, which is why it happens to be one of my favorite spots to take visitors. We headed out with my sister on a cold Autumn day in search of the childhood home of Tobi's father, and found it. Now a barn, it's a tiny half-timber building which Tobi's father's family rented prior to building their own home around the time of the second world war, and - though it's fallen into disrepair - I find it cute and somewhat intriguing. We also wandered down the village's main street, chatting with random locals about their leftover pumkin displays, a somewhat icky cow stall, apple and pear orchards, homemade schnapps, and the history of Hetzles.

To be continued... :)

Week 47: Franconian Treasures - a walk through UNESCO-Heritage Bamberg and coffee with friends in Nuremberg
Highlights of this week included wandering around the gorgeous UNESCO-Heritage city of Bamberg with my sister and baby Emma, and meeting a friend for coffee along the Pegnitz River in the pedestrian area in Nuremberg. While in Bamberg, we especially loved popping into tiny shops along cobblestone streets for Christmas presents and decorations! My favorite find: the tiny bookstore just near the bridge leading to the old city hall. Other high points: Enjoying a big Thanksgiving dinner here at home and celebrating the 11th anniversary of our wedding with a night out at the movies. Movie of choice: "Eine Ganz Heisse Nummer" - a popular German flick with several much loved actors about three women who begin a phone sex business (in a small town - HA!) to save their convenience store. It's great to be able to watch foreign films and fully understand them. Makes living abroad even better!

Week 48: Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Regensburg an der Pegnitz, and Passau (which is on the Danube, Inn, AND Ilz Rivers)
Before my sister headed back to America I was determined to show her around a bit. And I owed her one night at a castle, as a belated birthday present. Reservations were made at the "Hotel Schloß Ort" in Passau, and to get there we had to travel through Regensburg. As we piled into the car, it occured to me that I had already taken my sister to Regensburg last year. Rats. I wanted to introduce her to somehing new and incredible, and wondered what else I could show her in the area prior to arriving at our Passau hotel. Then I remembered Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and new it wasn't far from our home. I plugged it into our navigation system and we were off. Rothenburg is without a doubt one of Bavaria's most beautiful, well preserved Medieval cities. Which explains why it's also so dreadfully overrun with tourists. We wandered through the crooked cobblestone streets, had some delicious traditional German food in a leaning, half-timber-housed restaurant, pushed our way through the shockingly overcrowded, yet somewhat charming Christmas market, then headed back to the car, castle-bound. The navigation system revealed that the Passau trip had gone from two hours to three hours, which meant that Rothenburg was in the opposite direction. Oops! I had had a truly blonde moment. Once we finally arrived in Passau we had a great time, and some highlights were: staying in castle "Schloss Ort", visiting the Passau Christmas Market, overeating at a cute little Italian restaurant, gawking at the interior of the gorgeaous yet gaudy cathedral, warming up at a Vienna-style coffee house, walking along the picturesque riverfront, and taking in the view of the city from the hilltop fortress. We did end up stopping in Regensburg on the way home for lunch, an incredible Hungarian pastry, a walk along cobblestone streets, and a quick stroll across the old pedestrian bridge spanning the fast-flowing Pegnitz. What a trip, what a week! :)

To be continued... :)

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Family of Five in the Berchtesgadener Land

Many months have passed since our last family vacation, thanks to a ruthless combination of my husband working feverishly to complete his MBA and my obsessive nesting and disproportionately large belly. But - I'm happy to announce - not long after ditching the belly for the baby (6 weeks, to be exact), it finally happened. My overly ambitious mate agreed to take two whole days off -- which, judging by his refusal to stay home after baby #3 was born, was a huge deal. Fast as a flash I researched inexpensive travel options both locally and abroad. I can now tell you that, here in Europe, cheap flights are hard to come by at the last minute (plus, baby Emma has yet to apply for her passport!). But, as luck would have it we live in one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and after just a 3 hour car ride we were ready to disembark for our first Alpine adventure as a 5-pack.

Berchtesgaden has everything needed to make a European-hungry "Ami's" (American's) eyes water with delight: a castle, two gorgeous competing church towers, a charming old chapel accessible only by boat, the Alps, incredibly scenic hikes, men in their notorious Lederhosen, women in traditional German dirndls, and - last but not least - a local bakery with fresh-baked breads and pastries.

But nearly every adventure can be improved upon and if we ever return to Berchtesgaden, I can assure you that we will not be staying at the farm we chose this time around. Something about the snuff running down the farmer's face, his lack of enthusiasm for his guests, the rusty old playground, the horses stalled up in a foot of their own waste, and the That-70s-Show furnishings in the guest house, say that it wasn't worth the €100 ($140) nightly rate in the off-season. 

Fortunately for us, kids pay little attention to these things and Berchtesgaden offered plenty of incredible distractions, boasting everything from the Watzmann indoor swimming complex and child friendly "Salzzeitreise" salt mine tours to boat rides on the Königssee, the Aschauerweiher Fairy Tale forest, and endless farm animals. And, to our surprise, the hike (& picnic) turned out to be a major highlight of the trip from the kids' perspective as well. 

Before last weekend we wondered how having three kids would affect our travel, but now I can honestly say that it hasn't changed much. Afterall, travel is always about getting out of your comfort zone. And no one ever said that traveling with kids would be easy. But it's so worth it. Just ask our kids. :)

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Two Cultures, Two Languages, And Two Amazing Little Boys

Unfortunately I've fallen terribly behind on blogging, but if you want to keep tabs on what we've been up to please check our corresponding family blog. Here's a link to the latest posting:

Safe and happy travels!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Eating, Praying, and Loving Through America

Like my own personal, traveling-alone-with-two-kids, version of Eat, Pray, Love (by the talented Elizabeth Gilbert) -- our month in the U.S. unfolded like chapters in a book.

Key Lime Pie - An Old Florida Favorite
Florida, a feast of epic proportions, was not unlike Gilbert's time in Rome,  Every day we ate delicious food, with larger-than-life portions - with most of our quality time with family and friends focused around mealtimes. I played the role of tourist guide to my 5-year-old (and his half-pint brother), and - in between meals with family - took him to such American classics as Wendy's and Panera's. Pure indulgence.

Our long Easter weekend in Tennessee and Georgia were much the same, though with a more southern flair (think BBQ) and a laid-back tempo. The homemade fudge and apple fritters, sold in charming country stores across the South, will haunt me for some time to come in the form of my ever-expanding belly and - later - through the dreaded post-pregnancy give-me-back-my-figure battle. Still, it was worth every, buttery, bite!

"Pray" Hosts - Jim & Maureen
Fast forward to Gilbert's India segment - which for us took the form of The New York State and Niagra Falls. It was there that our wonderful host and hostess, Aunt Maureen and Uncle Jim, served as the modern-day-Christian equivalent of the Yogis Gilbert encountered in the Ashram. Everything seems centered around their faith. Heck, we even prayed before meals, at which point Lukas looked at me slightly puzzled, but ever the curious traveler. Their faith reflected in everything, from how they drive to their interraction with total strangers at the grocery store. And, rather than focusing on material things and fancy restaurants, Maureen and Jim were preoccupied with their spirituality, and their do-unto-others-as-you'd-have-done-unto-you mentality certainly left a lasting impression on us.  

Lukas gardening with host, Tim, in Keene, NH

The Vermont and New Hampshire portion of our trip, in which we took a road trip with my Mom and spent several days with my sisters, was not unlike Elizabeth's time in Bali. The part of the old Balinese medicine man was taken by a young American male (who happened to be my sister's landloard until recently). There was no telling sketch, and people did not come to Tim to be healed. But he could not seem to do enough for the total strangers staying at his house, and this mystified me. Picking up fresh-baked goods every morning, volunteerting to entertain my children during my sister's graduation ceremony, doing nothing as his neighbors destructive hens peck their way through his gorgeous garden, sharing his only bathroom with three female guests and two children -- all of this made me wonder what drives his kindness. If not religion, what motivates him to be kind to others? Simple karma, or is it selflessness based on love? I'd guess it was the latter, and since we reap what we sew, and how wonderful that Tim was - and continues to be - determined to sew the seeds of love. And of course, that my mom and sisters and I could finally be together again certainly reinforced the "love" portion of our journey.

Niagra Falls on the "Pray" portion of our journey

So we ate, prayed, and loved our way through the United States of America (at least the Eastern seaboard portion of it). :) We're thankful to my Aunts, Uncles, Mom, Grandparents, sisters, cousins, and friends for sharing their homes, homemade meals, and lives with us. Though part of me longs to live closer to those that I cherish, I treasure these wonderful, intensive, visits. I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to be around some of my favorite people in the world for 24-hour segments, sharing them with my children. It's so much better than the alternative - quick meals or short family get-togethers - and makes for incredible, memories. And with just a little luck, this is the stuff that'll get us through the next dark German-winter. Gosh, it looks like the fudge and fritters may come in handy after all. :)

Tim's thoughtful welcome note to my Mom

The boys hugging on a Jacksonville beach.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The 2011 Vacation - A Month in America

Every year we try to take the kids away for a month, either to a place that we love, or a place that we long to see. It usually ends up being a vacation full of so many wonderful memories, that the details of what we experienced - and when - begin to melt into one big, incredible adventure.

In 2009 it was Australia, while in 2010 it was a month in the U.S. followed by a couple months in the UAE (with side trips to beautiful Oman and Nepal). And this year we're exploring what I consider to be one of the most stunning, and diverse, lands on the planet, the East coast of the United States of America.

Unfortunately Tobi's not able to join us this trip, as he's made completing his MBA this year a top priority, but he insisted that we go on without him (giving him plenty of time to concentrate on his studies without distraction).

Truthfully, I would have loved to have done a full-out road trip from Florida to New England, but that would have meant sacrificing precious time with distant loved ones, all of them wonderful people that we only get to see once a year. So we opted for a few weeks in Florida, a road trip up to Tennessee, a long Easter weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains and small-town Tennessee, and a week and a half in New England.

And all of that is being done with family, which means that I'm able to see the world with the children, while allowing them to bond with some of the most important people in my life. What could be better than that? 

We've had a couple of hicupps along the way, like doctor's visits and a tummy virus, but those are things that could just as easily happen at home, so who cares?

And now, since the battery of my laptop is dying, I have to say goodbye and begin packing for our roadtrip back to Florida. The Blue Ridge Mountains, not to mention our "redneck Easter" here in Tennessee, were incredible. Next stop, Stone Mountain, where we plan to do the cable car ride and potentially the famous light show. I'll be sure to write all about it once I find my power cable! :)

Safe and happy travels,

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Skiing the Dolomites, but Missing the States

Strange, when you're homesick, how your country can sometimes haunt you. Here I was, high in the mountains in a gorgeous part of Italy, eating a fabulous Italian meal, when friends proceed to tell me this story:

On a past journey to Montana for snow skiing, they arrived without their luggage and snow gear. After asking around, they determined that there was no place in town if to hire gear. Amazingly, a woman at a concierge desk - an angel in disguise - invited them to her home and lent them her and her husband's personal ski gear - free of charge.

After they relayed the story, they said, 'Could you IMAGINE that ever happening here?!?' Indeed, I couldn't. Which is not to say that people in Germany and surrounds are any less friendly; the idea of "random acts of kindness" just hasn't quite caught on here. Instead, the very same friend has an Aunt in Süd Tirol who cooks a meal for her bachelor brother daily, because of a promise she made to her late mother. And that's probably something you wouldn't see often in the States.

But I always love hearing stories like that from people I meet. Stories of astonishment at how kind Americans can be to total strangers. I have to admit that it gives me a feeling of pride that makes me want to rush home and hug everyone I see. :)

And so began our ski weekend in the Dolomites. Stories of America morphed into a very long journey on a chair lift in the region of Helm, which - in turn - gave me far too much time to contemplate the last time I had gone skiing. "Really? It's been  seven years?" I asked my husband incredulously. Sometimes his good memory is a bad thing.

My mind was racing. Three months pregnant, I ski a maximum of once per year (for a day or two), it's been seven years since the last time, and I've been a maximum of seven times in my entire life. Yikes. And then we arrived. Just put on the friggin' skis. Take a deep breath. And ski one little turn at a time.

We skied, we ate, we drank, and we skied some more. After 5 hours or so I noticed one of my knees starting to ache in the middle of the day's most challenging slope. I was going too fast, so I turned, and turned, and turned, cutting across the slope horizontally, but building up speed nonetheless. We got to the bottom. I took a deep breath, at which time my husband revealed that the last slope was in fact "black" (black is the most challenging, but this one was an "easy" black). I had skied a black, and I hadn't fallen once all day. I figured it was a good time to throw in the proverbial towel and people-watch with a nice hot cocoa at the nearby hut.

The others continued for another two hours while I enjoyed the sunshine and a good book. When they returned, we tapped our keg of Franconian beer in the parking lot, and with Aprés ski music playing in the background and white-topped mountains peering down at us curiously, we soaked up the last bit of the sun's rays before retiring to a friend's home for homemade Italian Pasta Carbonera.

I walked back to our pension a bit before the rest of the group, along the banks of the Gsieser Stream, piercing the unsettling silence with my footsteps. It seemed as though every star was visible that night, and they dimly illuminated the leaning timber barns that lined the way to our guesthouse.

Sunday we found a great spot to admire the castle where our friend Marco's mom had spent most of her childhood. He told us stories of visiting his Grandfather, and how he would get two bottles of hot water to keep him warm while he slept, which he would wake up to find frozen.

Castles and fortresses dotted hills and mountains as we headed over the Brenner Pass, into Austrian. Once in Germany, we stopped at a great little traditional restaurant in the town of Holzkirchen (near Munich) called the Alte Post, where we were served by friendly women in dainty dirndls while indulging in hearty Bavarian dishes.

Some may find five hours' drive to be a bit much for a weekend trip, but the mountains, sunshine, snow, castles, and wonderful company, made it worth every minute.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two Children vs. Three - The Great Travel Dilemma

It's no secret that we love to travel, but in our lives it takes precedence over things like a second car, or various status symbols. Those are nice to have, but certainly not above traveling. I suppose we kind of felt the same way about a third child until recently. Yes, three children might be nice to have, but not if it means a dramatic change in lifestyle. And then it happened. We now have about 6 months to come to terms with it.

Of course, we battled with ourselves because we knew that our time and attention would soon be divided in three ways, rather than two. But more than anything, each of us (independently) tried to picture exotic journeys with three children. Through South Africa's Garden Route with three in tow... a place where (small) rental cars make up a considerable cost of the journey, and it's not uncommon to come across lodges that don't accept children. Through Oz with three kids crammed in the back seat, wanting desperately to finally visit the Hunter Valley wineries, but unable to because of our "precious" cargo. Heck, just trips back to Florida to visit family will be challenging. How many people have more than one guest room, and how will FIVE of us cram into one room?

Not surprisingly, my blog postings have been quite infrequent lately. So much has been going through my head!!!

But now that we've had a couple of months to ponder these things, I'm determined to make it work. There's no way for us to stop traveling. So when baby #3 turns two and we have to pay for a seat, we'll need a second income. That's doable. And more planning will go into our trips. Gosh, there must be a ton of blogs and books out there about traveling with a big family... and if there's not, maybe that's my calling!

At the end of the day, travel is something we want desperately to share with our children, and where there's a will, there's a way. "Live the life you've imagined."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Year Later - Thoughts On Leaving The Netherlands

We finally found the time, and the weather, to make our 650km return visit to The Netherlands; a place we once called home. Though it had been six month since our last trip (which is quite long for a two-and-a-half year old), if you'd seen the kids on that 7-hour car ride you'd have thought this is a monthly commute, and when we arrived with Oma & Opa Claeijs (which is what the kids call our friends Peter and Julia), they walked right in, forgetting all about me. Obviously, they felt right at home.

It was just over a year ago that we packed the last boxes and headed down to Germany, saying "Tot Ziens" to a country that had overtaken our hearts over the course of two-and-a-half, quite incredible, years. 

With this being an anniversary of sorts, it was only natural that I begin to reflect on our time there, and especially our likes and dislikes.

Somewhat ironically, a year after our departure some American friends were moving back to the States after their equally long Netherlands adventure, and I asked the husband what he would miss most about the country. Not surprisingly, his answer was one that Tobi might have given one year earlier. Why? The working spouse of an expat couple adjusts effortlessly and, most often, has no qualms with saying goodbye. The reason is clear, they never get as rooted in the country. They develop professional relationships, while we develop relationships with people who we trust implicitly... to take care of our children, to watch over our house, to care enough about us to teach us the language (just writing this is making me teary eyed), to care enough about us to still love us when we fail to master the language, to watch after our pets, to invite us into their homes - and lives - in spite of our limited time there. It's so different. We see the country through completely different glasses. 

But, getting back to the point, the husband answered that he would miss both the sea and the centralness of the country, with its easy access to other European countries.

I didn't have a chance to ask my friend - his wife - the same question, but I can imagine what her answer would have been. She might have said, "I'll miss the the windmills, the water everywhere, the picturesque tree-line country roads, the language, the boots and people's sense of fashion [we've actually had a conversation about this], the bicycles (often with 2-3 children on board!), the architecture and conscientious Dutch window treatments, the local butterfly gardens and nearby theme parks, but most of all -- the people."

At least, this is what I would have told you. Yes, the sea is also fabulous, but the people are what make our time in any given place - in this case Zeeland - so special.

So Zeeland, a year after I left you, I want to say thank you again for the memories. My heart hurts a little when I think of having left, but this means that my time with you was well spent, with wonderful people and meaningful relationships, and that - in the end - I found a way to make you my home.