Friday, June 29, 2012

Road Trip, Day One: Verdun & Reims

218 Km, 3 hours, 3 minutes

So, on day one of our giant road trip through Northern France, we headed for Reims, in the Champagne region, stopping off at the WWI battle site of Verdun along the way.

The Memorial museum just outside the town of Verdun was really impressive.

Will thought the giant guns outside were particularly cool.
 As did Kate:

Inside the museum, which was quite busy, we found a real WWI fighter plane:

The museum also housed a ton of WWI artifacts (soldiers' belongings, uniforms, guns and weapons), and some rather gory before & after pictures of injured veterans who underwent what were probably the first facial reconstruction surgeries ever.  (No pictures of that, don't worry.)  For me, one of the most impressive displays, however, was this below, which showed what the area around Verdun looked like after the battles:

Verdun, of course, was the site of some of the most violent and destructive fighting in WWI, and many of the nearby towns were not just damaged but completely obliterated.  We learned that there were nine villages nearby that were totally destroyed, literally wiped off the face of the earth, and never rebuilt.  These towns are known as les villages d├ętruits of Verdun.  Each town is marked with a sign, but for most of them not a stone remains:

How sad to think an entire town (or 9!) could be completely erased from the map and never rebuilt! We also learned that in 1919 a law was passed that gave each of these destroyed villages a municipal commission with a president who functions like a mayor for these "ghost" towns.   I'm not sure what these mayors do, exactly, without a town to govern but it seems like a nice way to ensure these villages are not forgotten entirely.

For more information on the destroyed villages:

After the museum, we drove by the Ossuary of Douaumont, where the bones of 130,000 unknown soldiers are interred, but the kids were ready for lunch so we didn't stop:

Since it was a beautiful, sunny day, we stopped for a quick lunch at a nearby outdoor cafe.

They were definitely enjoying the sunshine!

The kids had their usual -- Will a Croque Monsieur and Kate an omelette -- because, for some strange reason, they had no interest in ordering the Andouillette:

The description in English:  Pork Intestines filled with stomach of ruminants.  Yum!
It must lose something in the translation, don't you think??  Coincidentally, a salad I ordered later in the trip was adorned with this particular sausage and, though I knew what it was, I gamely tried it.  And instantly regretted it.  I'm a pretty adventurous eater and will try anything once, but this was...not good.  It tastes exactly how you'd imagine intestines filled with stomach would taste.  

After lunch we drove over to the nearby Bayonet Trench memorial:

 This memorial marks the spot where about a dozen soldiers' bodies were found in a trench after the war, their bayonets sticking out of the ground in a line.  The soldiers, all "unknown," were probably killed by a sudden bombardment and were buried in the trench where they lay.

After visiting this memorial, we got back in the car and headed off to a less solemn destination, Reims (which, incidentally, is very hard to pronounce in French:  RANCE, with that tricky French "R" at the beginning and just a hint of an "N").  Reims is known for two things:  1) Champagne (it's the capital of the region) and 2) its magnificent cathedral:

It really is impressive, from all sides:

The cathedral is adorned with many statues, but this smiling angel is the most famous.  
The kids and I played "who can spot the angel first" and we had a bit of confusion since there is actually more than one smiling angel:

She's still smiling, despite the missing wing.  But I think the angel in the first photo is the famous one.
The weather couldn't have been better and the kids had a blast playing in the courtyard in front of the cathedral.  Will even posed for me... reluctantly:

This is Kate's dramatic pose.

Posing for photos is okay as long as you're allowed to punch your sister in the head.

While Kate was splashing in this fountain, a little French girl ran up to her, pulled out a tube of sparkly pink lip gloss, applied it to Kate's lips and then promptly ran off.  Kate thought that was just about the best thing ever.  Guerilla makeover!

After the kids had their fill of splashing and running about, we had a nice dinner and enjoyed a glass or two of something bubbly:

A perfect end to a wonderful day...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Another Road Trip

This time from Luxembourg, through the Champagne region in France to Normandy, then Brittany, back through Normandy and finally home to Luxembourg.

View Larger Map

1,622 km     18 hours, 57 minutes

It was a good one.

Back with details soon!

Thursday, June 7, 2012


(Bring Your Own Medical Supplies)

See the giant needles up front? Yikes!!
Tomorrow I'll be going for the first of a series of five weekly injections* to my knee and -- to my surprise -- I discovered I have to bring the medical supplies with me!  All of them!:  the medication to be injected, the numbing agent, the disinfectant, the bandages and, worst of all, the syringes and needles. So I spent the afternoon at the pharmacy, gathering supplies and placing orders for the medication.

I just have to say, I do not like this system one bit.  Besides the vague feeling that I should not be trusted with the Very Important Medication that will be injected into my knee, I am also a bit disturbed about spending so much time with the needles that will be doing the injections.  There are 10 of them!  And they're big!  I'm really tempted to "lose" them but I know that will just postpone the inevitable.  So, I will suck it up, be a grown-up, and bring the stupid needles to the appointment.

But I am not happy about it.**

* Incidentally, I had this same injection last year in the U.S. but they conveniently do it in one super-sized injection -- 10 ml all at once rather than five separate injections of 2 ml each.  Whether it's worse to inject more at a time I don't know, but five visits = 10 injections (one of the medication, one to numb) = 10 needles!  I think I prefer the Super-Sized dose...

** On a happier note, we just returned from a week-long road trip through northern France (Normandy & Brittany) and I'll be back soon with the details and photos.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Zipping through the trees

On a recent weekend, we took the kids to a local adventure park where they could climb up high in the trees and fly around on zip lines. 

Luckily for my heart, the beginner course wasn't too far off the ground.

Needless to say, they loved it. 

 First, we did a brief training where they taught us the procedures, including how to clip and unclip the two carabineers attached to the harnesses.  One of the carabineers had to be clipped to a rope at all times.  

And then they turned the kids loose to climb... 

 ...tightrope walk...

...leap from one swinging log to the next...

 ...and generally have a fabulous time. 

This round, we convinced the kids to stick to the relatively tame "debutante" course, but I have a feeling next time they're going for the scary course!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eernewoude, Holland

So my plan of getting caught up on this blog isn't going too well.  Lately it's been derailed by my obsessive planning of our next getaway, a road trip from Luxembourg through France to Normandy and Brittany.  And when I say "obsessive," sadly, I am not exaggerating.  The planning may or may not have involved multiple Excel spread sheets, several potential Google map itineraries, hours (days?) spent reading hotel reviews on and scouring travel forums for the very best places to visit.  (No one has ever accused me of being spontaneous.  Or underprepared.)  But it's all planned and booked now, which means I once again have time to write about our past adventures!

During the kids' spring break, we spent a few days in the north of Holland, an area we'd never visited before.  It was the wrong time and location for seeing tulips, but we'd already done that so we didn't mind.  Even better, we went with some Dutch friends who knew the area well and did an excellent job of playing tour guide for us.

That, I have decided, is the best way to travel.

The tiny town we stayed in, Eernewoude, is in the province of Friesland way up in the north of Holland.  I knew nothing about it before we went but it is a beautiful place that seems very proud of its identity.  They have their own language (Frisian) and their own flag too:

We rented a bungalow in a lovely national park that was crisscrossed with canals (some bungalows even come with a boat!) and beautiful nature trails to explore.  It was gorgeous.

The view behind our bungalow
The bungalows

Lots of houses in the area were topped by these decorative....things (I've forgotten what they're called), many in the form of swans.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to a farm that produces cheese.   First we watched cheese being made in the factory. The curds/whey start in a giant vat and then are separated by machine and scooped--by hand--into round molds.

They make many different kinds of cheese.  On the day we visited, the cheese had cloves mixed in!
The molds are then stacked three-high and pressed down by machine so that all the whey drains away.
Kate found the whole procedure fascinating.
Then the cheese moves into the next room to be coated, aged and sealed in wax. 
Will didn't really like this part of the tour.  It did smell pretty bad.

After touring the factory, we got to visit the farm and see the cows that provide the milk for the cheese. 

Will skipped most of this part too.  According to him, it didn't smell much better than the factory.
Naturally, we bought a ton of cheese in the gift shop, and Kate and I made a pretty good dent in it before we even left Holland.

I also really enjoyed driving around the cute little villages in the area.  Unfortunately, I didn't get many pictures but did manage to snap a few photos of the thatched houses that seemed to be everywhere!

Interestingly, many of them were only half-thatch, half-tile.  
When I asked about the half-thatched roof, my friend told me that the back part of the house used to be the barn and was tacked on to the originally very small farmer's house much later.  More info on Frisian farmhouses here:

It was a very relaxed vacation.  We spent time just wandering around the park, chatting, letting the kids play together, drinking coffee.  Though our friends kept worrying that we would be bored (one of them referred to the area as "the Oklahoma of Holland") we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  It was so nice to discover an area of Holland we may never have thought to visit, to enjoy the picturesque villages and countryside (the kids were particularly delighted by the adorable lambs that were everywhere) and for me, just this once, to leave the planning to someone else.

No obsessing necessary...

More tourist info on Friesland

Saturday, May 5, 2012

And so it begins...

...the onslaught of mail that I cannot read.  At all.

I guess this move really is happening, despite the fact that I've been doing my best not to think about it for the past couple of months.  Though we won't actually move until July when the kids finish school, we got the keys to the house in Berlin this past week.  So for the next couple of months, Roger will be camping out there during the week, flying home for the weekends.  There's no furniture, of course, and it'll be pretty dark since there are no light fixtures either.  Oops.  We forgot about that part.  Personally, I'd have let the company put me up in a cushy hotel instead of camping out in a dark, empty house but Roger is determined to stay there.  I'm thinking the kids and I will take a trip to Berlin soon so we can hit up Ikea for a lamp or two and maybe an air mattress. :)  And then maybe we can do some painting and figure out if all our furniture is going to fit.  Oh, wow.  We have a lot of work to do, don't we?

On a related note, I started my first German class this week.  It was... hard.  The teacher rattled on in German and I think I caught about every tenth word.  She asked some questions, answered them herself, then the students were supposed to do the same.  I contributed a lot of blank stares and not much else.  I didn't realize quite how lucky I was to have a solid background in French before moving here, not that my French is perfect, but I can at least understand most conversations and read my mail, for goodness sake!

I have a feeling that Google Translate and I are going to become the very best of friends in the near future...

Monday, April 30, 2012

They're at it again!

The frogs, that is:

Actually, I'm pretty sure these are toads, not frogs
Yes, the annual amphibian love fest has once again begun on our doorstep.  Saturday morning, we opened the back door to find this couple.  The next morning, they had been joined by SEVEN others, for a grand total of NINE toads -- four couples and one lonely solo guy.  The kids were simultaneously disgusted and fascinated -- as usual -- and my suggestion that Kate kiss one of the toads was met with a look of complete horror.  But she did gather all kinds of leaves, grass and flowers to nourish the amorous critters, only because she didn't know how to catch flies for them.

Amazed that this has happened yet again, I did a little bit of Googling and found that toads do in fact return each year to the same place to mate and leave their spawn (lucky me!  all over my doorstep!).  Of course, last year's spawn was promptly scrubbed off the doorstep with bleach, so no little toads emerged.  I don't know what these guys are thinking.  Hoping to break the cycle and to avoid accidentally stepping on the little guys, we (and by "we" I of course mean Roger) very gently relocated the toads to the forest where their babies at least stand a chance of hatching.

In my Googling, I also discovered that toad and frog mating happens with a vengeance in certain locations in Luxembourg, and the city actually puts up signs blocking off roads where the little critters tend to congregate, not only for the safety of the animals but also for drivers.  Squished toads, apparently, are very slippery!

Also, in some parts of France, they build "crapauducs" -- barriers that guide the animals into holes where they are trapped until they can be removed to safe places.  ("Crapauduc" has to be the best name ever! Crapaud means toad in French).

More info here (but in French):

Now we're just waiting to see if they return or if others are going to turn up.  I can almost guarantee that no toad has ever been hatched on my doorstep, so it is a complete mystery as to why they all congregate there...