Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Adios, Alemania

July 22, 2014

(I've included links. Click on those to learn more about the locations I've mentioned in this post)

Zugspitze on the left side of photo
2,962 m (9,718 ft) above sea level,
the highest peak in Germany
My sojourn in Germany is coming to an end.
In some ways, the time with my kids has gone all too quick – on the other hand, it seems like I’ve been away from my home in Olón, Ecuador for a long time, and I am looking forward to being with friends again, and sleeping in my own bed.

Since I last wrote, my daughter Kacie, my granddaughters, and I have had a few adventures.
Over the fourth of July weekend, we went to Garmisch-Partenkirchen (probably better known as just “Garmisch”, much to the consternation of Partenkirchen residents.  
They are adjoining towns with quite a history and rivalry).
Garmisch is in southern Germany, in Bavarian Alp country. Nearby is Germany's highest mountain, Zugspitze, and we had a beautiful view of it from our hotel.

Neuschwanstein Castle
During our mini-vacation in Garmisch, we took a couple of day trips.
On our first day, we decided to go the nearby Neuschwanstein Castle (the iconic “fairy tale” castle – probably Germany’s most photographed tourist attraction – and Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland’s Cinderella Castle).  It is also where the Nazi’s stored some of the purloined artwork and other treasures during World War II (there is a scene or two in the current movie “Monuments Men” that references this hiding place).  According to Wiki, “the SS considered blowing up the palace to prevent the building itself and the artwork it contained from falling to the enemy”.  Fortunately, they didn’t.

We had only 6-month Chloe with us; Kacie carries her in a chest snuggler, and she’s an easy-going traveler.  (We left Clara with a babysitter at the hotel, which had a lot of fun activities for kids her age).
While one can take either a bus or a horse carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, we chose to take the half hour walk (uphill) to it.  I wore my Nike “memory shoes” that I bought while here; they are generally comfortable, but on that day, I thought the only thing they remembered is where my blisters were located.

Behind us is Hohenschwangau Castle.
Ancient castle situated 
near Neuschwanstein castle.  
 Constructed in the 12th century.
Tours are also available at ticket booth
 to see this one.
This was just before we started 
our walk uphill to see

The castle has 300 steps, and doesn't accommodate strollers. It made me grateful for the conditioning I’d previously been getting, regularly climbing the 38 stairs to Kacie’s third floor apartment.
It was built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, with construction beginning in 1869. King Ludwig II apparently was a somewhat of a peculiar guy, who died under mysterious circumstances (to this day still not explained) before the castle was completed, and still has been left unfinished,  which is something I was not aware of before we took the tour.  After our tour, we made the 15 minute hike over to the “Marie Bridge” (The Marienbrücke, overlooking the Pollat gorge).  From there are the best photo opportunities of the palace.

 View of Marienbrücke from castle side. 


The next day, we went to Munich. For some reason, I've always pictured Munich to be a dreary, gray, dull place (I don’t know why) – but it was anything but that.  We drove by the fairgrounds where the world-famous Oktoberfest is held every year, and then walked the old town and Marienplatz area with a tour guide to see the Glockenspiel clock that puts on an entertaining 10-15 minute show with revolving animated characters jousting and dancing, and walked through the Frauenkirche (a church, that is known for the “Devil’s Footprint” just inside the entrance).  Our tour ended at the Hofbräuhaus beer hall and I had - by far and away - the best beer I've been able to sample since I've been in Germany. 

3-D model of Munich

Devil's Foot Print

Afterwards we had some free time to stroll the city on our own, and we had a lovely lunch at the farmer’s market, where there were numerous restaurants, food booths, and fresh produce vendors.

Neuschwanstein Castle definitely is a "bucket-list" thing to do...but to tell the truth, I thought our day-trip to Munich was more fun.

Gammy Leigh enjoying a truly great beer.
Little Chloe digging the cardboard coaster.

On our last day in Garmisch, we drove to a post-card picturesque lake (Lake Eibsee) for a little hike with the kids. Well, at any rate, the kids went….Gammy Leigh was pretty tired by that point, and enjoyed the view from a lakeside café while they went exploring.

A couple of tired kids

When I first got here, little Chloe was not yet able to sit up. Now she is not only sitting, but on the verge of crawling as well. She is so good natured, just adorable – a little “Gerber” baby for sure, and it’s been fun to watch her take these small first strides.

During my time in Germany, there was also local German/American “Freundschaftfest" (Friendship) Fest. It was week-long festival/fair/carnival that had a bunch of great food booths, and fun rides for kids and grownups alike.

The fair really gave me a lump in my throat.
I got to be here for Clara's first cotton candy, her first Ferris wheel, her first "train ride", her first "wheeeee big slide".... because she may now be old enough to remember a few of these moments.

I know I will never forget them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

38 Stairs

June 27, 2014

I have been in Germany for a month now.  I’m here to see the kids, and help my daughter Kacie with my grandchildren – Clara/3-yrs and Chloe/6-mo – because of her job (while her husband, Pedro, is away for a couple of months because of his) for two months.
Kacie’s apartment is spacious, charmingly decorated and comfortable.  

But it is on the third floor.  That is 38 steps up (or down – I’ve counted) from the front entrance of building.  I probably walk these stairs at least 20 times a day (usually lugging something heavy up them). This doesn’t count the seven other steps to basement when I need to retrieve or put away the stroller.
Kacie leaves for work around 6AM (taking the baby with her, to drop off at child care). My day starts at 7AM, when Clara awakes.  She has breakfast, and then Clara and I usually go to the apartment complex playground for about an hour around 10AM to work off some of her energy. At that time of day, there are generally no other kids (or adults – most are at work), so it’s a time of inner reflection for me while I watch her.  Clara is potty training now, so we kind of need to stay close to her “big girl” potty seat.  She goes to nursery school three mornings a week for a few hours, so I do get a break to take a leisurely shower, catch up on emails, screw around on Facebook, etc. in the meantime.

We go through a lot of these

Because of the time difference between both Ecuador and friends in the States, it is not a good time to Skype any of them for a chat.
Our afternoons, after lunch, are generally a repeat of eat/play on playground/play with neighbor kids in community yard, or in apartment to watch more “Little Einstein”, “Barney”, “Mickey Mouse Club” and I believe I have reached my maximum level of forbearance listening to those theme songs.
I currently would prefer shooting a staple gun into my forehead at this point rather than hear them. I now lean towards (and tune to) “potty training for toddler” videos for Clara to watch.
If I sometimes think that my days are “boring”, Kacie’s schedule is even more grueling. She gets home around six in the evening, is still nursing Chloe, and we feed the kids, bath them, each gulp down something fast to eat, and both collapse into bed by around 10PM.

Chloe - who is such an easy going child, and
grown up so quickly, even within the time I've been here.'
We are now sitting up.

Kacie has the car all day, and there is not much nearby for Clara and I to do. However, downtown Wiesbaden market place is a 40 minute walk away (downhill going/uphill coming back – pushing a stroller), and now that I’ve acclimated and become more familiar with my surroundings…Clara and I head there several afternoons a week.  We sometimes go to the lake where we can feed the ducks, but “Gammy Leigh” has definitely wised up…as soon as Clara gets dozy and starts nodding off in her stroller, I make a beeline to the nearest outdoor café for a quiet snack and sample a German beer before making that uphill walk back home.

Whew!  I’m definitely getting a work-out here between those damn stairs and our afternoon walks to town.
My legs, butt, and calves are getting buff…..Haven’t seen this kind of work out since I last went to a gym – which was at least 20 years ago.  I can’t say the same about my upper arms (even pushing the stroller isn’t making an impact)….I’m afraid they fell a long time ago, and aren’t ever getting back up.

Thankfully, on a couple of weekends, when Kacie is off and in a “homebody” mood (and I’m itching to get out for “no kid time”) I’ve been able to spend a couple of enjoyable late afternoons exploring Wiesbaden, and early evening meals in town.

A huge multi-story department store I discovered during
one of my lone afternoon ventures out.
The grocery store was on bottom level, and I will say
This is my kind of wine department section!

A menu in German.
I  rest my case regarding
long words in that language.

I really need to learn a few more basic words in German. Thankfully, many folks in Europe speak English. 
Because if I think my español still sucks (after four years of living in Ecuador), my German language skills are truly spastic.
German is close enough to ingles that I can sort of get it when I see it written.
It doesn't help that most German words typically contain at least 27 letters, on average.

My other challenge is trying to get back up to speed with “child gear” stuff.  They are either “new-fangled” or I’ve forgotten some it.  Mostly though, they are all physically tough, confusing, or too heavy for me now.  Especially things that require “unlatching” with thumb and hand muscles that are now feeling every bit of my age.

Hell, those adjustable latches and belts on strollers, car seats, are impossible; unscrewing baby food jar lids requires some tricks and every ounce of my hand strength, and then there is that look of bemusement in my daughter’s eyes when she spies me wrestling the high chair to the floor, trying to unlock the damn tray off of it to clean (okay…that one is a bit of exaggeration).
Open heart surgery would be easier for me to perform.

My ultimate nemesis are these damn buckles.

One innovation I love.
  An engineering marvel.
  And I am bringing a few of these back home,
which will be much appreciated by my friends
who know I am a klutz with major
 tendency to spill or break anything
 glass while talking with my hands.

But you know what?  Though my knees and thumbs are begging for relief, and it would be heavenly to sleep in, I wouldn't trade one minute of this time with my kids here, and it is flying by all too quickly.
I'm sure that when I get back home to Olón, I will yearn for and treasure these moments always.
I am also trying to get to England to see my middle daughter, Katherine, her hubby Clive, and 8 month old twins, Isobel and Levi, but that is becoming more complicated and expensive than I anticipated (I can only do this on a weekend, when Kacie is off work), so that is still up in the air.

To all my Olón friends!
I miss you guys and looking forward to seeing you all again!

A few of my friends who came over for
tacos and dominoes at my place
 the night before I left
for Germany. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Czech Mate

June 15, 2014

Again, for those who may just be reading this blog for the first time, I am a four-year expat living on the coast of Ecuador, in the town Olón, but now on a two month trip to Europe (primarily Germany) to visit my daughters and grandchildren living here.

My daughter Kacie took some vacation time when I arrived in Germany a few weeks ago, to help me get acquainted with my surroundings, and the kids’ routines (Clara/3-yrs and Chloe/6-mo).

Then we took a wonderful 5 night/4 day jaunt to Prague, Czechoslovakia  – around 5-6 hours from here (not counting stops to change and feed kids).

We stayed in the luxurious “Royal Suite” at the Hotel Residence Retezova, located adjacent to the Bethlehem Chapel in Old Town Prague.  Our suite was on third floor, and had downstairs and upstairs living areas:  2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a fully stocked kitchen, a gorgeous high-beamed living room with fireplace, and the second level came appointed with a comfortable loft den, and an outdoor balcony overlooking the chapel – courtesy of my well-traveled brother, Jack (who has been to Prague) as a special treat for us. And what a treat it was!
Additionally, the staff there was wonderful and couldn't have been more accommodating, understanding, and helpful -- especially since we had such young children with us.

One view of the room

View of Bethlehem Chapel
from our outdoor balcony

Clara eyeballing the bidet for a drink

Prague is a stunningly beautiful city, with its many churches, castles, and spectacular architecture, but with a toddler in tow, and a nursing infant, we were only able to get a “taste” of the town, and somewhat limited to the sites we were able to see.  It is very much a “walkable” city, but not so much with one in a stroller, and a nursing baby in a carrier.

Another challenge was the language (I know virtually “nada” in German, and the Czech language and signs had me completely stymied. Fortunately, many Europeans speak English).  Also, although the Czech Republic is on the Euro currency system (and is accepted), the Czech “Koruna” was the preferred cash used in most shops, museums, and restaurants we visited, so I had to make several trips to local money exchange locations to trade in my Euros for that coinage…once again, all the paper bills in either currency looked like “play” money to me, and a little difficult for me to figure out exactly what I was spending from a dollar perspective.

And may I also say – it’s been quite an adjustment to be in these surrounding after four years of living in the little fishing village of Olón, Ecuador...bit of a culture shock.

One of the first sites we headed out to see was the medieval astronomical clock located in Old Town Square. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still working.  Every hour, the clock chimes and four symbolic figures are set in motion, along with doors that open above the clock displaying the Apostles as they pass by. Crowds gather each hour in the square below and neighboring restaurant balconies to watch the presentation.

The Astronomical Clock

Old Town Square is just a fun place to hang out, with musicians and street-act performances (which reminded me somewhat of New Orleans and San Francisco scenes), and we went there often during our stay, (usually enjoying cappuccinos in the plaza, but one afternoon we enjoyed the view and lunch from the terrace balcony of the “Hotel U Prince” hotel).

The Charles Bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, was another one of our favorite places to hang out.  There are towers on both sides, and around 30 statues (baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas; the originals have been placed in the National Museum –according to Wikipedia) line either side of the bridge. 

Along the bridge are various art, craft, jewelry kiosks, and once again, assorted musicians.  It also provides a great view of the city, in particular, Prague Castle on the hill above it.

Kacie was carrying the baby in her chest-snuggle, I was generally pushing the stroller. I definitely have some spatial disorientation regarding the front wheels of that contraption, and several times accidentally bumped into other peoples’ feet, and ran over a few ankles with it, which really pissed off at least one lady, despite my profuse apologies.

Legend has it that if you rub the golden dog,
you are assured of returning to Prague.
So, of course, we rubbed him.

Adjacent to the dog, is the woman.
Most people rub her too.
Presumably..ummm... just to touch her butt.

One day we headed across the Charles Bridge to see the Prague Castle. The Guinness Book of Records lists Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world.
We first stopped at a riverside café for lovely lunch, and Clara had a chance to throw bread at the ducks while we ate.

The café where we had lunch one day

Nearby the café where we dined (I believe in Malá Strana district of the Vltava, near a water wheel) were “love locks” on a small pedestrian bridge, which I found charming. It’s a bit of a hike uphill to see the castle, made even more challenging pushing the buggy.

A “love lock” or “love padlock” is a padlock 
which sweethearts
 lock to a bridge, fence, gate, or similar public fixture
 to symbolize their everlasting love,
 often throwing the key into the river.

The Prague Castle grounds were breathtaking. Though we bought the full-tour tickets, we arrived too late in the afternoon to see all of the buildings, and a number of areas were not accessible with a stroller.

St. Nicholaus Church

Clara enjoying the "bubble guy"
Lots of folks stopped to take her picture

I also wanted to see the Old Jewish Cemetery, and we went there late the second afternoon to check out the hours. As it turned out, it was the last time it would be open during our trip because of a two-day Jewish holiday that began the next day.  So the kids went back to the room while I raced around it for one hour before closing time to see as much as I could.

According to Wiki, “It was in use from the early 15th century (the oldest preserved tombstone, the one of Avigdor Kara, dates back to 1439) until 1787”.  Because burial space was limited, the cemetery soil was stratified, bodies were buried on top of each other, with the previous tombstones moved to the top level each time.

“The numbers of grave stones and number of people buried there are uncertain, because there are layers of tombs. However, it has been estimated that there are approximately 12,000 tombstones presently visible, and there may be as many as 100,000 bodies buried in all”.

Another place I wanted to see was a small museum my brother raved about after his first trip to Prague because of its fascinating (though grim) history.  I had a few hours our last afternoon (without kids) to go see it.

It is located in the church of St. CharlesBorro-meaus (also known in past as Orthodox Church – Saints Cyril and Method).  The crypt was the last hide out/last stand and refuge of Czech patriots/paratroopers who carried out the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (acting Nazi “head of state” during the Czech occupation). I believe there were about 15 men who took their last stand there, when they were betrayed by a coward who was in on the plot initially. They were surrounded by 800 Gestapo soldiers, and each Czech patriot fought to their death – or committed suicide - rather than surrender. The Nazi’s retribution for this conflict was severe (two Czech towns were annihilated and more than a thousand brave Czech men, women, and children were eventually executed for their participation for helping the resistance fighters). Having the opportunity to leisurely tour this museum was very moving experience.

Taken by friendly Spaniard guy I met on my way
to the find the "Krypt". I took one for him too.
Charles Bridge in the background 

On our last afternoon/early evening, Kacie, the kids, and I walked back up the hill to the castle so we could take photos as the magical dusk glow bathed the city below.  Later we stopped at a charming outdoor café for a delicious last dinner on our way back to room (on the castle side, before Charles bridge).

I’ve driven through England, Scotland, spent a few days in Paris, and taken two really wonderful trips to lovely Amsterdam…but if I had my pick now to visit a European city again, it would be Prague.
It was a special trip, with my daughter and kids, and wonderful new memories to be forever shared with my family loved ones.

Taken our last evening in Prague