Arrivederci to Sicily, Italy…for now

Thursday, November 17, is our last day in Balestrate, Sicily which is located in the Palermo Provinciale. We have spent 15 days in the ‘baglio’ (Italian courtyard farmhouse) which is surprisingly the longest that we have stayed in one place since starting our journey 2-1/2 months ago. We now have visited 4 countries (Portugal, Spain, Germany & Italy). Living out of suitcases with a relatively small allowance of space for each of us + school supplies has been challenging and exacerbated by the fact that we are acquiring more things to pack every time we visit a new place. Girls like to shop after all! As many of you know who have traveled, there are certainly no shortage of places to spend your money wherever you find yourself in the world. In order to maintain the delicate ‘balance’ and to avoid buying more suitcases to ‘lug’ our stuff around we have had to send items back home in every country so far. This would seem to be an easy task, right? Just go to the local post office, get some boxes, paste an address label on the box and off it goes! Not quite so simple as we have found out. The post office in Italy (Poste Italiane) has not been an exception and was actually the most challenging so far. We originally set out to find the nearest DHL service center after using the website ‘store finder’. In Germany, DHL (international package courier service) is now aligned with the German post office (Deutsche Post DHL) and we found it very easy and affordable to mail several packages. So we figured that DHL would be our best option in Italy as well.  We were unsuccessful in finding any of the DHL stores in the addresses listed on the website (which I suspect has outdated information).  On one of these adventures (yes, every simple outing is an adventure when you are a ‘stranger in a strange land’), we stopped at a neighborhood café in the local

village of Alcamo to use the WC (toilette) and to get a snack. The proprietor had not heard of DHL (at least not in the vicinity) of the café but offered to check on his smartphone. Everyone in Sicily (or so it seems) has a smartphone. He found a ‘pack and ship’ nearby – about 600m. He tried his best to give us directions but our limited Italian and his limited English was just not enough. Meanwhile, the girls who were eating on one of the café’s outdoor tables spied a playground across the street.  I accompanied the girls across the street to the playground while Tiffany continued the ‘conversation’ with the friendly café proprietor. A couple of local residents stopped in at the café and had an animated conversation about the ‘pack and ship’ store. The cafe’ proprietor then offered his companion (compagno) Louis to us, he would ride in our “macchina” (car) and walk back. A series of complicated directions with many hand gestures were offered on how to get to the nearby ‘pack and ship’ store. We were not parked nearby so we felt that this was not our best option. Notwithstanding the fact that our car only had room for five and Louis looked like he had just walked off the set of the Sopranos. I came back to extricate Tiffany from this exchange and was relieved to find that she wasn’t being held for ransom.

It has been our experience thus far that when asking for help from the locals, one needs to exercise the necessary patience and see the process through to avoid being labeled a “rude American”.  We graciously thanked everyone for their help and left the establishment still unsure as to our next move. I decided to walk the entire surrounding neighborhood determined to find the ‘non-existent’ DHL store while the girls played at the park. I was unsuccessful. Meanwhile Tiffany had struck up a conversation with a mother in the park on the topics of homeschool and world travel they were conversing with limited Italian and English. After a few minutes it was established that both women spoke Spanish. She and her 5 year old son, Christiano were playing at the park as well. Tiffany explained our dilemma and failed attempt to find the DHL center. The woman Liliana had not heard of DHL either which really puzzled me. She suggested using the Poste Italiane (Italian Post Office) to ship the packages. The local post office was only a few blocks away. We had actually been there a couple of hours earlier to mail some postcards. We incorrectly assumed that we could just go the counter and buy stamps (like we have done in every other country so far). Not the case in Italy.  The post cards are weighed and stamps electronically applied. The cost was €2.20 per post card. Not cheap compared to the states!. At this point, we kind of dismissed the idea of using the post office to ship anything home since we figured the cost would be exorbitant and communication impossible. Liliana convinced us that the post office was our best option and offered to take us and translate, to inquire about pricing, boxes, form, etc.  Tiffany while extremely grateful for this offer felt like this was an imposition on her time. Liliana thought nothing of helping us and spending whatever time necessary to help us accomplish our task. So off we went.  Tiffany went inside with her new friend, Liliana  and came out over an hour later with several bright yellow boxes and a fistful of forms (€14.50 for 3 boxes) to fill out (all in Italian, of course) while the children played outside on the Lion Statue.

Girls and Christian in Front of Poste

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Liliana and Tiffany in Front of Poste

Tiffany thanked our new friend for her gracious and unsolicited help which required her to translate from Italian to Spanish (which Tiffany could understand) and then to English (for me to understand it). It was not done…yet but we were making progress. We headed back to the car and Tiffany proceeded to fill the yellow boxes and to fill out all the paperwork for shipping from Italy. I headed across the street to get a couple of cappuccino’s to go and a potty break (in Europe, the expression is take-away). We have made many improptu stops at countless cafes in every country whenever we hear “I have to go the bathroom” to use the WC (toilette). Most cafe’s don’t post that the bathrooms are for customers only, but we always tried to be respectful and usually ordered an espresso or a pastry. At the café while waiting for my coffee, a gentlemen at the counter engaged me in conversation. Between his English, Italian and a bit of German, I figured out that he was offering to buy me a drink (a local specialty?). I thanked him politely and declined. He gave me a few lessons in Italian anyway and 20 minutes later I was on my way with the cappuccinos. Tiffany was in the car because it was raining still working on the shipping paperwork. She had a fierce determined look on her face. We waited for a break in the weather and trudged back to the post office with the boxes filled but not taped as the might require inspection. The Poste Italiane uses a queue numbering system similar to the DMV where you have to wait…patiently. As this was our third trip that day we were ushered to the appropriate line.  Soon it was our turn at the counter. Some of forms had not been filled out correctly and the very helpful postal clerk also opined that the value for the enclosed items was too high which would be a high VAT tax in addition to the shipping cost. So, Tiffany diligently filled out the forms again, again, and once again. After about 2 hours +, all the packages finally had been weighed and the shipping forms affixed. We paid the fee (€165 euro) for three packages and just to be clear, these packages are not filled with foreign treasure rather miscellaneous crap. I was satisfied that this was a fair amount all things considered and actually less than I had expected. Tiffany was unexpectedy presented with a signature yellow Poste Italiane coffee mug after she explained (not complained) that we had spent ‘all day’ in the post office. The mug was given to her by a very helpful gentleman who appeared to be a supervisor who must have appreciated her determination in successfully navigating the bureaucratic morass.

We left the post office without any packages and felt very good about our accomplishment. Earlier, Tiffany’s new friend had suggested that we try to visit the thermal hot springs (Terme Segestane) which were near Castellmmare del Golfo, not far from Alcamo. She explained that she spent a lot of time there with friends and family members and was going the following day. We parted company and hoped that we would perhaps run into each other at the hot springs.  The thermal hot springs are reportedly very therapeutic and relaxing. It was raining the next day and it did not look like it would be a good idea to visit the Terme Segestane. However, after a few hours of schoolwork, the weather improved and we decided to set out to find the hot springs. The road is definitely off the beaten tourist path and was a precarious drive down a seriously eroded and rutted dirt road (we were following directions that we had gotten off a website post!). At the bottom of the dubious ‘road’, we found a clearing where there were several cars parked. As we parked, an elderly gentleman acknowledged us and told us that we were at the right place. I picked up a German accent in his speech as he spoke Italian to us and soon found myself engaged in somewhat of a conversation with him in my limited German. He was from Wurzburg, Germany and had been coming here for 10 years to the hot springs. I am not sure what ailment he claimed he had cured but it sounded convincing to me. From where we parked, it was a short hike across a rock filled stream to reach the hot springs. The natural ‘pool’ was actually quite small but it was definitely hot and there was a pervading odor of sulphur which was not entirely unobjectionable (surprisingly). We all really enjoyed the hot springs. The weather turned again and once we heard thunder we knew that it was time to leave. The road was so steep that any rain at all would make it too slick to drive. We got out just in time and were followed by three other cars who also prudently left when we did.DSCN0096

The trip to the Terme Segestane was a good ending to our Sicily adventure. We returned our rental car (intact) and we promised ourselves that we would return to Sicily and Italy as there is so much more that we would like to see and experience in this amazing country.

Onward and upward.

Bernie

 

You can see Liliana’s Art @ http://www.lilianacoppolatrame.com

 

 

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Sicilia

Our first impression of Palermo was that this island has immense natural beauty; tall impressive rocky hills contrasted by the blue of the Mediterranean. It was a really easy flight from Nuremburg. While we waited for our luggage, I got the girls a snack at a nearby vending machine. I was ‘over the moon’ about the vending machine dispensing a snack consisting of a tiny brick of parmesan cheese with saltines (I was expecting parmesan flavored crackers).

It was necessary to rent a vehicle as our destination was too remote for any public transportation.  This is our fourth European car rental thus far.  The basic cost of the car rentals has alway been extremely low (€5-8/day) but there are a few cautionary things to note:

  1. Renting a child car seat is ridiculously expensive (€8/per day).
  2. GPS and WiFi €11/ per day
  3. The car rental agency  will charge a damage deposit in the amount of (€500 for a 1 day rental and up to €1200 for a longer term).  This will be reimbursed after the car is returned intact. (Good Luck!)

Despite some very harrowing driving experiences (see driving MAD…rid!), not to mention parallel parking on ridiculously narrow streets between two cars without a centimeter to spare; we have managed to return all of the rental cars unscathed so far (cross your fingers on the fourth).  I  have noticed that when booking an inexpensive car from Travelocity, Ryanair, etc.,  the option to buy insurance pops up. Don’t bother. The car rental agency does not recognize this as ‘legitimate’ insurance and still requires you to put up a significant deposit from your credit card.  It was explained to us at the car rental agency that this is ‘third’ party insurance and has nothing to do with the car rental agency and in the event of an accident you would have to pay for the damage and later try to recover from this third party… total scam. The very lovely car rental agent then tried to sell me more insurance saying that she would throw in the car seat for free thus saving me €80 if I only I would pay an additional €279 up front. My budget deal had suddenly turned into a very pricey car rental.  I refused this dubious offer and opted to take our chances by securing the insurance on the car with the credit card deposit instead.  I recalled that when we were at the car rental in Barcelona, we were waiting behind a French couple that was taking ages to complete their rental. We had no idea what was taking so long. The French woman kept waving her paperwork in the air, saying “we already paid for insurance”. They had made the same mistake that we did purchasing the online insurance which the car rental agent promptly rejected.

We had a relatively easy drive from the airport as our Airbnb host had emailed us impecable directions. We arrived too early to check in so we drove into the neighboring village to buy groceries.  This is when we first saw it: THE TRASH.  Yes, it was everywhere…not litter but entire garbage bags strewn on both sides of the road like a landfill, except on the road.  It was an incongruous and disconcerting contrast to see this gorgeous landscape with the huge piles of trash along the roads.

Bernie read a few online posts and found out that the trash problem is not just confined to Sicily but exists pretty much everywhere in Italy. There is a lot of finger pointing in the government, disgruntled employees, graft and corruption and yes, even local mafia that share the blame for the huge trash problem. Even though the residents pay a lot for trash collection services, the actual collection is infrequent and sometimes does not happen at all. So they throw it out on the road.  I witnessed this happening on a Saturday morning as a station wagon pulled over to the side of the road and unloaded several bags of trash.  It seems some people burn their garbage as I have seen small fires from a distance and smelled the smoke.  At our Baglio, there are labeled bins and very specific instructions as to how to separate the garbage, leading me to believe there are those who are conscientious about the rubbish situation.

The Baglio is situated amidst olive groves five minutes south of the Mediterranean. From the upper sun terrace you can see the Sea and the Mountains.  This is my favorite Airbnb thus far ($49/night). A baglio is a building (usually stone and masonry) that encloses a large courtyard with one point of entry typically a large wooden door that can be secured.   Baglios were originally built to defend against pirates and other criminals. Half of our Baglio has been renovated. The remaining half is home to several cats which the girls have befriended. The renovated farm house has stone tile flooring, exposed log ceilings and a lofted second floor. Substantial tall doors open out to an enclosed walled-in patio. You can reach the rooftop terrace through the lofted second level. A perfect blend of the old and new. If you are curious for more pictures you can see them at this link: https://abnb.me/EVmg/6LybmUFJ0H

After an intense lightening storm which knocked out the electrical power and the WiFi (a generator and emergency lights kicked in); we decided to take a few days and explore Palermo the capital city of Sicily.  Bernie read a few blogs concerning the manic driving in Palermo, and we opted to park at the airport and shuttle bus it in, having learned our lesson in Spain.  This plan all worked out rather smoothly as we had visited the airport the previous day to connect to Wifi.  We were becoming quite familiar with the Palermo airport by this point. We checked into this underwhelming hotel (Hotel del Centro).  It was adequate, but somewhat less comfortable than our Baglio.  We walked around a bit and ate local desserts on our first rainy night. The next day we had a reprieve from the rain and took a horse carriage ride around Palermo taking in the sights and sounds. See video below.

I picked up a brochure at our hotel listing several high end stores at an outlet mall somewhere near Catania.  When I asked at reception how to get there the plump and somewhat surly concierge told me It was too far I couldn’t get there from here an that I should go to a different mall, which he proceeded to pull up on his desktop.  To look at the screen I had to pass a little door and step up behind the counter, Elle followed me in the man loudly said “attenzione”, as Elle bumped his security screen, I rushed her out of there and again she bumped the security screen and received another “attenzione”. We are not sure Elle realized she was being admonished in Italian. Bernie would not be detoured by this lack of information. He found out how to travel by bus and we set out the following day.  I had some trepidation about the bus station since I had read a post describing the dangerous crossing from the bus drop off to the street. The post read:

“Via Roma is dead ahead of you when you come out of Palermo Central Railway Station main exit. From here, you are can only escape by playing chicken as you dash through the middle of The World’s Fastest-Moving Taxi rank, The World’s Craziest Coach Station, and then Italy’s Most Dangerous Roundabout which is adorned with Italy’s Longest Zebra Crossing. Honestly, it is 40 feet long and actually divides into two separate black and white stripy ends forming a giant Y-shape. Whoever designed this place scored Null Points for road planning, as they entirely forgot the bit about humans needing to get in and out of railway stations. You have to go through this ordeal if you want to get out of the station and into the city. I advise you to do as the locals do, and buy a string of rosary beads to twirl while running, all the time praying loudly to the Madonna for protection and guidance.” https://siciliangodmother.com

We walked to the train station having  no trouble at all crossing  Via Roma, we have become very adept at crossing busy streets, in Europe. Purchased our pricey tickets (€18/person roundtrip, €90 for our family), and settled in on our very comfortable, lightly perfumed Mercedes Bus for the 1hour 40minute journey to PRADA. It was a very scenic along ride along the northern Mediterranean coast, including  countryside, mountainous roads, cows, sheep, sun.  The children hardly complained a bit.  We had 4 hours at the mall and a mission. I headed straight to PRADA and purchased a gorgeous pair of seriously discounted black high healed leather boots, which are completely impractical for my Maui lifestyle, but make me feel young. After the first stop, PRADA, I visited Versace, Gucci, Dolce and Gabanna, just because I’m in Italy and why not?  The girls were playing at the playground during this time. Right next to the PRADA store was this really opulent Italian children’s store called MONNA LISA, this place was over the top, opera style princess dresses, high heeled glitter shoes and faux furs. The girls each came out with an outfit, Elle got the rainbow glitter high heels, she preferred the gold, but they did not have her size. We went back to PRADA, so Scarlet could try on a pair of ballet flats but she didn’t like them, so we left and went to lunch next door. After lunch I went back to PRADA (third time) the sales associates were all smiles and as I checked out with my score €100 Miu Miu sunglasses the woman who sold me the boots smiled gestured 3rd time and made a heart with her fingers. For my first time at PRADA it was worth the effort it took getting there.

We love to read your thoughts and comments.

Tiffany

Germany’s not so final… resting place

As some of you may know who read my recent blog post, I intended to take my family and visit the local village of Roβtal (Rosstal) which is located very near to Nuremburg (about 20 minutes by train). There is a cemetery in Roβtal where my grandfather (my father’s dad) is buried. Before I left for my German high school trip in 1971, my father gave me a little hand-drawn map that showed where the headstone was located within the cemetery. My German host family (their last name was Schwarzbach – I can’t believe that I remember it after all these years!), was kind enough to drive me to the cemetery. From my father’s map, I was able to readily locate the headstone of my grandfather.

We decided to travel to Roβtal for our little pilgrimage on an overcast gray day (perfect, I thought for a visit to a graveyard) the day before Halloween. I had pre-planned our outing to Roβtal a couple of days ahead and thought I knew which subway and bus lines we would need to take. We took the subway (U-bahn) to the Hauptbahnhof (main train and bus station) where we would catch the “S4” bus directly to Roβtal. After 20 minutes of looking in vain for the right bus stop, we finally asked for directions and I was told that the “S4” is actually a train (not a bus). We were directed back to the train station (across the street) and located the right train platform 22 (there are 23) just minutes after the train had left the station. Since the next train was over two hours later, we decided to go back to the Altstadt to do a bit more shopping to kill time. The next two days (October 31 – Reformation Day and November 1 – All Saints Day) are both German holidays where all stores and many restaurants are closed and this would be our last opportunity to do any ‘real (Tiffany) shopping’. After the successful shopping trip (including pillows and jewelry) and a stop at a sumptuous ice cream parlor, we headed back to the subway station and were again distracted by a street musician. After a few minutes we realized that we were cutting it very close if we wanted to catch the next train to Roβtal. We ran thru the train station (no exaggeration) and got on the train as the doors where closing. We were headed to Roβtal.

I briefly looked at a map of the village (online) before we left and was sure that I could locate the cemetery from memory. We headed toward a church (kirche) where I assumed we would find a cemetery in the vicinity (which is often the case). We found the church and a school with noisy children playing in the yard but no cemetery. Tiffany coaxed me to ask someone for directions.  We found a gentleman who was picking his child up from Kindergarten who spoke enough English to point us in the right direction. So we headed off in the general direction that he gave us. A couple of minutes later, a car pulled over on the road and the same gentlemen gave us a bit more specific instructions (he must have assumed and rightfully so that we could not find it on our own).  We finally found a small church and cemetery after an arduous trek up several narrow winding streets. The cemetery looked vaguely familiar to me and actually wrapped around the church. We headed off to find the headstone of my grandfather (Wendelin Stroh). To our surprise, virtually all of the headstones in this cemetery were almost new and the dates inscribed were all fairly recent and most of them were family burial plots. There were no headstones dating back to the time period (early 1900’s) when my grandfather would have lived and died in this village. I was disappointed and confused as to where the old headstones would be. I asked a middle-aged woman that was walking thru the cemetery if there were any other cemeteries in Roβtal. Her English was not very good (about as good as my German), but I was able to learn that there was another small cemetery near the train station stop. So after a quick stop for a bite to eat at a local bakery, off we trekked to find the ‘other cemetery’. We walked and walked and finally found the other cemetery. It happened to be across the street from a pleasant little florist shop. The girls wanted to buy some flowers to place on the grave of their great-grandfather and they each picked out a single rose that they thought to be special.

The experience at this cemetery was the same as the first one that we found. All of the headstones were very new. I even approached a gentleman that was working in the cemetery and specifically asked about my grandfathers headstone but had no luck. As it was getting late in the day and we were all very tired of walking (cumulatively  – almost 3 hours), we decided to head back to our apartment in Nuremburg. Needless to say, I was sad and disappointed that we had failed to find my grandfathers gravesite. It certainly was not for lack of trying! When we got back our apartment, I went back on-line determined to try to find out what happened to the old cemetery that I had visited almost 46 years go. I must admit that what I discovered next really surprised me! By German law, cemetery plots are actually leased for a period of 15 to 30 years. The fee varies from town to town and is approximately €1,000-3,000 there may be a possibility to renew the lease. Many plots are reused after the lease expiration and the remains along with headstones and any markers are removed.  This is apparently a very common cycle in Germany due to limited space. Basically, it is impossible to find any gravesites that are older than 25 to 30 years since they have been ‘reused’ for the more recently deceased souls. It is very likely that during our arduous search of the cemeteries in Roβtal and reading all the names that we did happen upon the ‘former’ gravesite of my grandfather and were just unaware of it at the time. Learning that the burial plots in Germany are ‘reused’ did offer me some consolation that our search was not in vain.

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Digital Screen Albrecht Dürer

On the German holiday of Reformation (think of the famous Martin Luther and the 95 theses – basically propositions for changing the Catholic Church doctrines that Luther disagreed with), we went to visit the Albrecht Dürer Haus (House) and museum. The house is where Durer lived and worked with his wife almost 600 years ago. The museum does not actually have much of his original artwork since his coveted drawings, woodcarvings and paintings are in permanent collections all over the world. Instead it contains digital screens with images of his art and reproductions made by  German artists. I have personally had a fascination with some of his art work (especially the fine line drawings) since I was in high school and first visited Germany on the 500 year anniversary of his life.

We feel as though this trip has been a success as we shipped back two large boxes via DHL filled with Chocolates, Lebkuchen and Sausage for my mother.  My mother said to me during our summer visit to North Dakota “If I could I would fly to Nuremburg buy Lebkuchen and get on the plane and go back home again.”  I must admit this was largely part of our decision to fly into Nuremburg specifically, to fulfill this wish. We have already decided to come back and see more of the country, we hope on our next visit to Germany we will persuade (kidnap) my mother to accompany us.

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photo credit: Grace Stroh

 

Bernie

 

Eat, Play… Live (Essen, Spielen…Leben)

EAT: I’ll admit, I had a preconceived notion of what German cuisine would be like.  Mostly the atmosphere of the restaurants; dimly lit, heavily cloaked in velvet, with antler décor and many food items containing blood.   We have yet to see anything like this here in Nuremburg, quite the opposite. The local eateries are very modern, gorgeous well-lit interiors, with bent wood furnishings, felted wool place matts and seat cushions, many including vegetarian options. Our first food experience was a vegan place just a few blocks from our apartment, we were eager to get a break from the jamón of Spain. The girls happily consumed lentils and rice, while Bernie and I tried the Veggie Burgers mine was called the Monkey Burger and yes it contained sliced bananas and had a peanut sauce and was quite delicious.  The second day we wandered into another well-designed establishment and I ordered a green bowl. We thought this was just a regular coffee shop, but to our delight they had a variety of wholesome and delicious food offerings, reminding us of home. Later in the week we stopped at this nondescript place called HOT TACOS.  The exterior was understated but to our surprise, the interior very quirky and quit charming and the food excellent.  This place was run by a New York born grown-up English speaking military kid, who was very friendly and took much pride in his establishment and could not figure out why we would leave Maui for this weather. They enquired if they could return home to Maui with us.

PLAY: We have discovered well-designed organic play structure, after play structure here in Germany. As our Waldorf friends know, our play structure at Haleakala was imported and built by German Engineers. I am coming to realize that this type of design is not unique to Waldorf Schools, it is just how the Germans design.  The structures are high off of the ground, daring, challenging, entertaining our girls for hours (or as long as we can bear the cold).  Grace said “Mommy can we go to the stick park?” A park we had missed while walking to the Kinder Museum. This structure is all but camouflaged to anyone who is not on the constant look out for a park. Contrary to the parks in Portugal and Spain, while prevalent, all appeared to be designed for small children 4 and under.  I have learned in my parenting that risk taking is a necessary part of a healthy development, that the girls need to experience danger to a certain extent in order to thrive, grow and learn to moderate themselves.  We have found that the Germans have incorporated this tree-climbing element into their design. The girls have been delighted by changing fallen leaves and begged to make piles to jump into, while I freeze.

We found the Spielzeug Museum at last, containing 600 years of toy making history. The girls enjoyed it, but had more fun the previous day at the Kinder Museum.

Live:  As we have told ourselves and others, our mission for this journey was not only to see new places but to really live in that place  and experience the daily life.  We are accomplishing that.  Amidst the touristing, visiting some local sights we are shopping at little markets for groceries, playing on the playgrounds, taking local transportation (the U-bahn) yes we have become quite accomplished in this.  We must look like we know what we are doing, so much so that a woman asked me to help her with the ticket machine in some foreign language (maybe Russian?). We love the U-bahn all of my public transportation fears assuaged by the expedient, clean and efficient transportation €11.40 (all-day ticket for our family). To our surprise no one has checked our tickets it seems to be the honor system, I question if the penalty is so severe that no one dare risk it.  Below are some clips of street entertainers and people out strolling about on a Sunday afternoon.  Exiting the U-ban yesterday, hear what we encountered:

Loving all things German, my husband, our school, the Mini Cooper, the country, etc.

Tiffany

P.S. Comments are totally welcome and invited we love hearing your thoughts.

Nuremburg, Germany…my return to the Fatherland

My deep roots are German on both sides of my family so this country understandably has a familiar and comfortable ‘feel’ to me personally. I last visited Nuremburg when I was a senior in high school (way back in the time machine in the year 1975). I was a regional winner in a national high school German language contest and the prize was a trip to Germany along with several dozen other high school students from all over the country. Each student was placed with a German host family where we ‘lived’ for several weeks and also attended school for a brief period. There were special bus trips arranged to Munich and Berlin (at that time there was still an East Berlin under Russian occupation and West Berlin). I recall that we were even briefly allowed to cross the check-point into East Berlin as part of the trip! Of course, there were also a few visits to some famous medieval castles. After countless years of  ‘not using it and losing it’, my German is now very rusty to say the least and I now wish that I had the time to ‘relearn’ German again before embarking on this admittedly impulsive world travel adventure with my family. But we have not had any real communication problems since most of the locals that we have interacted with speak at least a little bit of English.

My father’s family hails from the Nuremburg area and I recall him telling me about one of his first jobs as a youth working for Grundig. I miss my father very much and some days it is hard to believe that it has been almost 18 years since his passing in 1999. In a couple of days we plan to take a short bus trip to the neighboring village of Rostal where my grandfather on my father’s side is  buried in a church cemetery. I recall my father telling me that his father was somewhat of a dissident and frequently got into trouble with the authorities. I regrettably never met my grandfather since he died in his 50’s and never made it to America with the rest of his family that emigrated after WWII ended. I see this as a rare opportunity for our girls to visit the cemetery of their great-grandfather and to learn a bit of their ancestry.

Emboldened by our experience with the public transportation system in Barcelona, we decided to take the subway (U-bahn) to explore the Altstadt (literal translation: old city) a couple of days ago. There is an intriguing mixture of very old and very new buildings. One building in particular caught my eye; the Neues Museum (literal translation: new museum). It was a museum of contemporary-modern art. No old masters adorning the walls of this museum and frankly, while quite interesting nonetheless, the interpretation of the artists’ intent is usually a bit of a head scratcher. You can decide for yourself from some of the photos attached to this blog. Even if the art exhibits failed to inspire me, the buildings’ architecture and helical stair did impress me.

 

On Friday, we visited the Rudolph Steiner-Schule (Waldorf School) in Nuremburg. We contacted the schools’ secretary thru their website (all in German of course) and requested permission to visit the school with our three children who attend the Haleakala Waldorf School on Maui. The secretary was very accommodating and arranged for one of the schools’ teachers (Julia Schlagbaum) to greet us and give us a private tour of the campus and to answer any questions. Julia teaches French and English at this school (which are the two languages that are taught at this Waldorf School as part of the curriculum). We learned from her that the Nuremburg Waldorf School is one of the largest in Germany with approximately 950 students in grades K, 1-13. It was raining pretty hard the day that we visited the school so we only got a quick tour of the grounds but enough to recognize the Waldorf gardening area and extensive playground areas. We also got to visit the 4th grade classroom and noted the familiar artwork on the walls and chalkboard (celtic knots) and the kindergarten classroom. A large addition was constructed about 17 years ago that included a ‘bistro’ gathering area at the main level which appeared to be very popular with the staff and older students. We also saw the impressive kitchen which prepares the hot lunches daily (3.75 Euros). The tuition is a surprising 350 Euros per month with even lower rates for siblings…..hmm. All in all, it was a good experience for all of us (even our youngest girls, Eleanore-2nd Grade and Grace-Kindergarten) to see and connect with another Waldorf School on the other side of the world! As we were leaving, the schools’ secretary surprised us by giving us a copy of the book “Der Sonne Licht” (translation: The Sun’s Light), which is a wonderful compilation of poems and stories used as a textbook by Waldorf teachers.

 

Saturday we started out with the intent of visiting a popular Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum) which displays over 600 years of German toy history and instead ended up at a Kindermuseum (Children’s Museum) instead (I misread the city map!) We decided to check it out since our children were already familiar with similar museums in other cities (St. Paul, Minnesota and Chicago). The very interactive museum was a big hit and we spent several hours on the three floors of the building which covered everything from life at the turn of the century to organic farming, sustainable development and greenhouse gases (ie., global warming – of course).

We also managed to get a ‘bit of shopping’ in as well! More posts to come. Stay tuned.

Bernie

 

Curious Life

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Garudasana

Life is a curious thing. If anyone could have told me 11 years ago that in 2017 I would be traveling the world for 9 months with my beautiful daughters and husband, I would not have believed it, yet here I am. It has been rough at times,  I’m not going to lie or cover over the gritty truth with smiling photos.

We have been living in Airbnb’s and therefore appreciating the local life, shopping in corner stores, taking local buses, washing and hanging the clothes to dry, the list could go on endlessly.

The thing is even if you told me last year we would do this I might not have believed it.

My skin is dry, my face broken out, and my bottom quite larger than when I left Maui mid last July (The bread is really good here). The children have crying bouts as often as I do. Bernie and I have laughed harder than we have our whole marriage, it helps that he does some kooky stuff occasionally (regularly). Through it all we are developing a closeness a bond, a tenacity… when I feel like quitting and going home Scarlet spurs me on saying we are going to do what we said we were going to do, we are not quitters. Then Eleanore says something delightful like:  “I’m going to move to California, no wait I’m  scared of the dark”.

We came with a finite about of space and it is difficult to say no to buying just one more little stuffed animal (x three) especially when I have mommy guilt for packing up and selling all of their stuff. Every time we have to move to a new Airbnb, and pack up the house I feel like I am going to have a mild mental break. Then the Universe grants me another little boon, like low shipping costs, friendly postal workers, no line and an ample parallel parking space in front of the Correus (post office). Proving that all of my worries are needless and a waste of vital energy. I have been trying to learn this lesson for ages, don’t stress, be in the moment, breathe. It goes against my waiting for “impending doom” nature.

We’re really doing this it is sinking in 50+ days in and booked through January… there is no going home. We are home. We are doing this to connect with each other, ourselves, other cultures.

The beauty of this curious life is that we don’t know what is next or just around the IMG_6623corner and when we think that we do we’re mostly wrong. The surprise, the feeling that yes the Universe holds me I am supported… oh and that shopkeeper who ripped me off on stamps the other day also has to answer to the laws of Karma.

P.S. I wrote this a week ago and now I am happy to report my butt is shrinking, my face has cleared and I got a dental cleaning for 19euro ($23). Life is better!

Tiffany

Celebrating Grace’s 6th Birthday in ¡España!

 

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Our Grace is now 6 years old! Her birthday is on October 20. She shares the same birthday as my dad who passed away in 1999. The old saying of ‘how time flies when you are having fun’ is so true. I can’t believe how quickly the past six years have come and gone. I have such a vivid memory of the day that Grace was born. We brought her home to the first house that we rented after arriving on Maui February, 2011. The house was on West Kuiaha in Haiku and we had these great neighbors, Neil Vonhof and Tracy Mills. I remember Tiffany handing our new baby to Neil. I am not sure how much baby holding experience that Neil had but he seemed to enjoy the experience. Even though we have moved from West Kuiaha, we continue to keep in touch with Neil and Tracy who we now consider to be lifelong friends.

Another milestone occurred during our travels; Grace lost her 1st tooth in Madrid a couple of weeks ago! Much to our surprise, her tooth fairy (named Lupita), even found her in Madrid and left her a lovely note with (2) one Euro coins.

To celebrate Grace’s birthday, we ordered a ‘special strawberry cake’ from the bakery around the corner. We all had little presents for her that we had purchased here and there in various shops in Portugal and Spain the past couple of months (carefully hidden of course). We had a very nice lunch at a seaside restaurant in the quaint neighboring village of Sitges. The weather even cooperated and the girls were able to spend a few hours in the water afterwards. A heartfelt thank you to all the family members and friends who sent birthday greetings to Grace!

We are now down to our last few days in Spain. We have a rental car to return at the airport and then will spend one more night in a Barcelona hotel before departing to Nuremburg, Germany next Tuesday.  Not much time to ‘brush up on my German’ but I will give it a try anyway. The Nuremburg area of Germany is where my father had one of his first jobs in his youth (Grundig). His father (my grandfather who I never met since he died in his 50’s) is buried in the small neighboring village of Rostal, Germany. My father is never far from my thoughts as I tread my way gingerly thru this challenging 24/7 task of parenting three young girls along with my wife, Tiffany. My father and mother raised 10 children and I marvel everyday how they accomplished this feat and got us all to adulthood! 0C0AA9DC-3A90-4F11-807F-A1B01EA0D63D

Our last Airbnb in Spain is a quirky, narrow almost 3 story tall space. The owner is a free-lance architect (arquitectura in Spanish) and we think that this is actually where he lives when the space is not rented. The place has a rustic and also a postmodern industrial warehouse type of appeal. There are some very interesting architectural features that would definitely not be approved by any building inspectors that I know. There is a large opening in the upper level bedroom (which is actually about 13 ft. above the main floor) where the flooring has been removed and the wood beams are exposed. What makes this unique is not the hole in the floor but the fact that there is no railing. The photos kind of speak for themselves. There is also no handrail on either side of the concrete & tile stairs which is designed as a partial archway bridge.  No doubt that this is the reason that the Airbnb description states that this dwelling is not suitable for small children! Tiffany and I had intended to sleep upstairs and we did this for one night until Tiffany had a premonition that one of the children would wander upstairs in the middle of the night looking for us and accidentally fall thru the opening in the floor. Tiffany was also concerned that I might ‘sleep walk’ (which I don’t) and would also unintentionally ‘go over the edge’. After one night, we decided to move the mattress downstairs and we all slept on the main floor for the duration of our stay to avoid any mishaps.

DEC26C85-9276-4F83-9609-EB65F927A501We had a couple of days of very heavy thunderstorms and pounding rain and discovered that the roof had sprung a leak (actually several leaks). We got out the pots and pans to catch the drips. One locked room on the upper floor (off limits to Airbnb renters) appeared to have the most severe roof leak. The only way into the room was thru a narrow opening in the wall above the stair landing. We contacted the owner and informed him of the leak situation. He told us that he had repaired the leaks but obviously not well enough. He allowed us permission to enter the locked room thru the narrow opening in the wall. Scarlet volunteered  to squeeze thru the opening (from my shoulders). We managed to get a bucket into the room and she mopped up the rainwater and placed the bucket to catch the drips. Within the next 24 hours the large bucket had filled up with water from the rain leaks and Scarlet had to empty it and mop up the floor once gain since we were concerned about damage to the floor and ceiling.

 

Mahalo to Neil Vonhof, Tracy Mills and everyone else (you know who you are) for all your great comments to our travel blog.

Next post from Deutschland!

Bernie

 

 

 

BARCELONA (capital of CATALONIA)

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Park Güell

We have now made our way to the other side of Spain to the coastal city of Barcelona. This very large urban area is home to almost 5 million people. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia and has been in the world news recently due to the populist ‘separatist’ movement that is seeking to declare independence for this region from Spain. Our Airbnb host (who is from this region) patiently explained the history of Catalonia and the uneasy ‘marriage’ of this region to Spain starting in the 1400’s thru the present day. The region of Catalonia has it’s own language (Catalan) which is similar to Spanish but no more so than French and Portuguese which are all ‘romance’ languages. In my brief conversations with two taxi drivers in Madrid and Barcelona respectively, who are on opposing sides of the issue; I have learned that this issue is a big deal, primarily because of the economic implications. In a nutshell, Spain (ie., Madrid) has borrowed a lot of money from Germany . Barcelona (representing Catalonia) objected to the financial bailout of Spain. Germany wants their money back with interest (of course) and is very concerned that the breakup of Spain and Catalonia will have a de-stabilizing impact on the country (and it certainly will!) and their ability to pay their debts. If the independence for Catalonia succeeds, it will also shake up the entire EU which has other member countries with similar internal problems.

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Girls enjoying a panoramic view of Barcelona from Güell Monumental Plaza (La Sagrada Familia can be seen in the background to the left of center)

Our Airbnb is located in a small hilltop village (Vallirana), which is located about 30km or so from Barcelona. We were advised to avoid Barcelona last Sunday due to the demonstrations that were expected in the city but we did manage to make our way into the city’s main commercial district on Tuesday (October 10, 2017) mostly for shopping. After my horrible driving experience in Madrid, there was no way that I was going to drive in Barcelona so we left the car parked and took a city bus instead. The next day was a homeschool day for the girls and we decided to return to Barcelona to do a bit of sightseeing. The famous basilica La Sagrada Familia (sacred family) and Park Güell were on our agenda. Unbeknownst to us, the day we picked to go back to Barcelona was a national holiday ‘Fiesta Nacional de España’ which has a historic connection to Columbus Day (now celebrated in the US as Discoverer’s Day).

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Waiting for the Bus 

We waited and waited at the bus stop for the ‘express bus’ that we had taken into the city a couple of days earlier but because of the ‘holiday’, there was no express bus and only a few other buses on routes that we were not familiar with. After an hour and half wait, we decided to take the next bus that stopped. We knew that all the buses were headed to Barcelona from our location. After all, how far could it be from the city centre? Well, this particular bus dropped us quite far from La Sagrada Familia. Tiffany managed to get directions and we soon found ourselves riding on a subway below the city which literally dropped us across the street from our destination, the very imposing basilica designed by the famous Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi (God’s architect). Gaudí died in 1926 after having spent 43 years working on the basilica. The structure has several tower cranes amidst the churches very tall towers which are being used to hasten the completion now scheduled for 2026 on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Short Video clip below:

From the basilica, we walked approximately 2 miles (uphill) to Park Güell. This park was originally a residential development also designed by Gaudí that failed as a business venture since the homes were located too far away from the much smaller Barcelona city center. The park offers stunning views of Barcelona and the Balearic Sea. We took a bus back to the commercial shopping district that we were already somewhat familiar with hoping that we could then catch a bus back to our Airbnb in Vallirana. Because of the national holiday, there were no buses heading in our direction. By now it was getting dark and not only where there no buses, there were very few taxis. The girls were tired from being on their feet literally all day. I estimate that we probably walked roughly 4 miles that day. We gave up trying to get back to Vallirana and spent the night in a Marriot Hotel in the area. They required us to book two rooms since there were five of us. The clerk insisted that it was hotel policy and we relented rather than argue. We got a good nights sleep and finally made our way back to our Airbnb on Friday (by bus of course).

With only a couple of days left in Vallirana, we spent Friday and Saturday exploring the village and the neighboring town of Cervelló. There is a castle in ruins (which appears to be undergoing a very slow restoration) Castello de Cervelló high in the hills above Cervelló that the girls & I had a lot of fun exploring.

Tomorrow (Sunday) we head back down the hill to the village of Vilanova I La Geltru which is located on the beaches of the Balearic south about 45km south of Barcelona. More fun in the sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prado y Pandas

While attempting to purchase online tickets for el Museo del Prado, I discovered that you can visit this famous art museum (one of the five most visited sites in the world) for free  during the last two hours of each day.  As we had already purchased a two day city tour hop on and off bus ticket, I carefully planned that for the 2nd day, Sunday we could enjoy a tour of modern Madrid, have something to eat and arrive at the Museo at exactly 17:00.  Much to my delight this part of the plan was fulfilled exceedingly well.  As we hopped off the bus and proceeded to the entrance of the Prado, we became aware of a line to get in.  This line snaked back and forth around the side of the building and probably consisted of somewhere between 500 – 750 people.  The wait was just 30 minutes as the line moved very quickly.  I was a bit naive to think we would show up and waltz right in; nevertheless, we  had the incredible opportunity to be among the work of the Masters.  Most of what we saw was heavily religious themed and the children asked questions and made comments like “Mommy why is his head on a plate to a massive wall sized depiction of John the Baptist?”  or “Now I am scared I will/ we will be nailed to a cross”.

We spent one hour at the Prado and a half hour buying postcards and other souvenirs, including a cross stitch kit by Goya. Always trying to think up ways to keep with the curriculum.  I managed to sneak a couple of photos, the first one I was unaware that it was forbidden and the second, well I just couldn’t help myself.

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The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch

The very next day we went to the Madrid Zoo Aquarium, located a few kilometers from the city.  I persuaded Bernie to drive, again a mistake! We looped around Bernie’s roundabout and ended up parking in a swanky garage on Calle de Serrano, this is the high end shopping district comparable to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. After parking the car accepting defeat we hailed a taxi and  implored the driver to admit our 5 passengers, 1 rider above the legal limit and held my breath the whole way… that no-one would get carsick.  We arrived at the zoo, and after a not so easy entry with our smartphone ticket-less tickets, entered the expansive zoo aquarium.  We dashed to the Pandas, the stars of the zoo.  Scarlet’s only wish for this trip was to see Pandas in China.  When I discovered that they have Pandas at the Madrid zoo it was a must see!  We still plan to go to Hong Kong for Christmas, but just in case, we got to see the Pandas of Madrid.   There were throngs of elementary school-age children crowding the Pandas exhibit, but we were able to watch Bing Xing delicately eat a green apple followed by many stalks of bamboo. See the video bellow:

Next we walked around the corner and too are delight saw baby elephants cuddling affectionately with their mothers.

Later we saw many delightful animals, 2 bird shows and very spectacular dolphin show.  We again were limited with the time as I thought the park stayed open until 20:00 only to find out that it closed at 17:30.  I gave Scarlet the choice to go to the gift shop with her younger sisters or run back for another quick peak at the Pandas.  Much to our delight she chose the later and we were rewarding with a viewing of a young female panda,  Chulina (Cutie) was born in January making her an 8 month old cub.  I recently learned that there are over 2000 Pandas in the wild in China and more in zoos. Madrid has had very good success with breeding these magnificent animals.  See the below video:

All was well in the end as we found the right city bus to get us in the neighborhood of our Airbnb, found a mall which contained a  Starbucks and managed to walk several blocks in the right direction,  play at a park, and find our way home.

driving MAD…rid!

dscn0468.jpgI wish the pop-up ad on the internet would have said ‘Free rental cars in Madrid’. At least then, I would have been skeptical. Instead the ad offered a rental car for 5 EUR a day (about $6). We thought that this was a deal that we could not pass up and rented a car for pickup at the Madrid airport after our arrival  at 10:00 PM. After the paperwork transaction, I naively asked the agent for a map and he explained that all the cars had GPS navigation so I would not need a map. So we locate the car, turn on the navigation (in Spanish, of course since Tiffany speaks fluent Spanish) and start out to find the hotel. Little did we know that the hotel that we had booked for one night a mere 5 km from the airport would take us almost 2 hours to locate! After taking the wrong exits from the  roundabouts on our route and heading off in the wrong direction (of course), the navigation had to continuously ‘recalculate’ our route since I apparently was not following the very polite female voice commands. We traversed five different highways and numerous U-turns to get back on track. I sensed that there were times when the GPS was intentionally ignoring me which only added to my frustration. I thought (out loud) about parking the car and calling a Taxi several times. When we finally thought that we had to be in vicinity of our hotel,  we ended up driving on a narrow road in a very industrial area and thought we had made another wrong turn somewhere. As it turned out, the hotel was just around the block. We had finally made it to our hotel! Eleanore and Grace had fallen asleep (it was almost midnight). We all slept quite well that night and had breakfast at the hotel before heading off to our Airbnb, located somewhere in the ‘center’ of Madrid.

We figured out how to switch the navigation to English and I thought that after last night’s driving fiasco thought ‘how hard can it be’. Well, I was wrong! Madrid is a lot more intimidating in the daytime when you can actually see the throngs of very fast drivers and very large, multi-lane roundabouts. Once again, the navigation system befuddled me when the disembodied pleasant voice told me to stay to the left, enter a roundabout and then proceed to the next right. Sounds easy enough except for the fact the fact that the next right is across 4 very full traffic lanes. Did I mention all the motorcyclists and scooter drivers who seemingly ignore any traffic rules whatsoever and weave in and out of traffic between the endless cars, buses and taxis? I was shouted at by a frustrated motorcyclist “LOCO” translated Crazy.  My family now affectionately refers to this roundabout as Bernie’s roundabout. After over 2 hours of very frustrating driving including circumnavigating one of the largest and most complicated roundabouts in Madrid at least three times, a GPS system that gave me erroneous directions and put me into continuous loops a few times, and one of our children vomiting, we made it within a block of our Airbnb. Or so we thought. The pleasant GPS voice then said that the destination could not be reached for some reason? In a final act of desperation, Tiffany called the Airbnb host and after trying to pinpoint our location by giving him street addresses and intersections, he told us that he would come to us. I looked for a place to pull over somewhere (easier said than done in Madrid’s very narrow one-way streets). I found an illegal parking spot and two minutes later Diego (our Airbnb host) pulls up driving the wrong way on a one way street, in the style of a Spanish caballero (in a fine-cut suit, of course) says “Hello Tiffany”. The belligerent GPS had put us in a continuous loop on the block before the Airbnb. We brought our bags upstairs (2nd level). I had to move the car to a public parking garage a block away since there is no street parking in the center of Madrid for more than about an hour. I have never been a parking garage quite like this one. Sardines in a can have more room to maneuver than the cars in this garage! The cost of parking the car continuously in this garage quadruples the total cost of the car rental.  Lesson learned don’t answer the siren call of a cheap car rental, there is a reason they are giving them away.

Bernie….a little bit from Tiffany