31 December, 2009

Marlboro boy?

Oma just asked S and B if they'd made any resolutions for the new year. S's answer: Yes! I'm going to quit smoking! (???)

Happy New Years' Eve, everyone!

25 December, 2009

Generation gap

Last night we watched Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the kids. And it gets to the part where the Abominable Snow monster is about to devour Rudolph and his family-- I almost wet my pants with fear at that part when I was little!

So the Abominable Snow monster goes: "RAAAAWWWRRRRRRRRRRRRR!" and B starts to giggle and says:
"Actually the special effects in this film are pretty poor quality..."

24 December, 2009

Your brain is full of spiders...

You've got garlic in your soul...

19 December, 2009

Is there a 10 step program for people like me?

It's happening again. Every year it's the same thing-- December rolls around and I lose control of all the balls I'm juggling and everything crashes down around me. I don't know if it's due to the weather or the darkness or all the pressures of the holiday season, but I'm starting to forget things-- enough so that it's becoming embarrassing!

Last week I stood up a friend who waited for me in the cold for 20 minutes before she finally gave up. I forgot to send B to his after school reading group on Monday. Invited someone over to my house, but didn't give her my telephone number OR address! I've got overdue library books waiting to be returned, and yesterday I raced to the nursing home only to realize that I'd come on the wrong day!

I started to blog about this whole phenomenon, but then forgot to finish the post!

And the topper: this morning I went to the grocery store at the crack of dawn (because I forgot to do it yesterday) got to the end of the checkout line and realized that I'd left my wallet at home!

Luckily the cashier was really nice about it: she sent me home with my frozen stuff and I came back and paid and got the rest of my groceries later. How embarrassing!

(My kids are getting sick of me asking them the same questions over and over, but then again, paybacks are hell, guys, because your socks are STILL on the floor despite my repeated reminders.)

Normally such a bout of extreme mental-fog might be worrying, but it's a small comfort that this happens to me at about the same time every year. (Perhaps THAT should be cause for concern?!)

With so much fumbling around lately I end up scrambling to compensate for all the things I've forgotten and hoping nobody notices. It seems I'm living the life of an alcoholic, but then without the alcohol, the wild parties or the made-for-tv movie to document the drama!

18 December, 2009


Our livingroom is set up so that you enter from behind and only see the backs of the people in the room. This morning I walked in and was just about to scold S for standing on the couch when I realized...

he wasn't. His feet were firmly planted on the ground and he was towering over the seat back.

When did he get so big?!!!

12 December, 2009

Now THAT'S an accomplishment!

Christmas market season has begun here in Germany, and last weekend we headed "downtown" to check out the festivities in our little village. I gave the kids a couple of Euros for s'mores and they raced off to hang out with friends in front of a bonfire.

Yesterday S started animatedly recalling B's sticky adventures and that it was amazing that he didn't throw up after eating so much junkfood.

"Wait-- how many marshmallows did he eat?!"

S started counting thoughtfully and ticking off his fingers: "... four, five, six"

"Six marshmallows?! Yuck-- that would probably have been enough to make me throw up!"

"What?! NO! He ate six portions! That's 18 marshmallows and 42 cookies!"

10 December, 2009

It's not the mountain that defeats you...

...but the pebble in your shoe.

Had a bit of a sad day at the nursing home yesterday. After helping out with lunch I sat for a while with a woman who's 94-- she started crying and saying how unhappy she is-- that she doesn't LIKE noodles, but they keep giving her noodles. And that she used to be strong and busy and she could HELP people, just like I do, and now she can't even regulate the thermostat on her radiator.

She was just so distressed, and I let her rant, because that was about the only thing I could do. Held her hand and stroked her hair, and I ended up crying myself, because I can imagine exactly how she feels-- when you're feeling crummy and all you want are potatoes and you keep getting served noodles instead...

09 December, 2009

Drink coffee = Live longer

This? Is my friend's parents' front yard. Her mom was just about to go out and weed the garden, but was dragging and stopped for a cup of coffee. She was sitting in front of that window when she saw the driver lose control of his truck and plow right up into the yard! Thank God for caffeine addiction, because otherwise she might have been flattened right along with the begonias!

08 December, 2009

Culture shock to the nth degree...

The weather has been gray and crappy lately, so the women in my Aikido group decided we should all go to the sauna together.

"You know everyone's going to be naked there, right?" asked B, horrified, when I got home.

It's true, ze Germans have a much lower threshold for getting naked than we Americans. I've been to the sauna on several occasions with other friends, but it was always during Frauentag, when only women are allowed in, which doesn't bother me at all.

This time, however, we went to the Mineraltherme in Böblingen, and it was gemischtes Sauna-- open to both men and women.

I'd heard stories from friends before, but still wasn't quite emotionally prepared to parade around in my birthday suit with a couple hundred strangers. And it would have been fine if they were all minding their own business, but I saw several men who were quite obviously there as spectators.

At one point we entered a sauna and were faced with 30 naked people squeezed elbow to elbow on benches arranged in stadium seating. I sat at the only free space at the bottom next to the stairs, and every couple of moments someone passed by and I was eye to eye with an unknown manly appendage as it passed by me on the way up to the upper rows.

It was very, very weird.

After visiting several different saunas the Aikido ladies and I sat in front of a fireplace and had a coffee. I was finally getting used to the general atmosphere and was feeling relatively relaxed.

We finished our coffee and went to go take a shower and get dressed and go home. I followed G into the locker room, relieved to have finished the ordeal without bursting out in inappropriate laughter, and smiling about the blow-by-blow description I was going to give M as soon as I got home.

We took off our bathrobes and entered the shower area, and were suddenly confronted by the sight of 4 burly, naked men who looked up and smiled in greeting as we came in...

07 December, 2009

Talk about a tricky pregnancy and difficult birth!!!

S and M were hanging out this weekend chatting when suddenly S piped up:

You know what?! If you and Mom had met 6 or 7 years later you would now have known me longer than you have Mom!

26 November, 2009

He's got a point!

Today was a regular school / workday here in Germany so we had an abbreviated version of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Thursday is kids' cooking day lately, so B and I spent the afternoon preparing spicy sweet potatoes, turkey breasts with sage dressing, salad, and mini pecan-pies. The latter was a real treat-- pecans are scarce here, and once I'd finally scored a couple of bags I realized I had no way to shell them.

We actually had a lot of fun massacring them with a pair of M's pliers-- sometimes they exploded and spread shell and pecan shrapnel across the livingroom floor. Which is no problem when one owns a Labrador.

(Yet another thing for which I am thankful...)

Once we'd eaten I retold the story of Thanksgiving and M asked the kids what they are thankful for.

S nodded sagely and said: "you, Mama, D, our health, our family and our friends."

Then we turned to B, who was wiggling on his chair: "I'm thankful that my bed isn't made of nails..."

20 November, 2009

Good lord!

Throughout the course of today I have:
  • hauled myself to the bakery at the crack of dawn to pick up supplies that were ordered for a class field trip (*M was reading this over my shoulder and reminded me that I actually got there 1 1/2 hours BEFORE the crack of dawn. ;-) )
  • hiked 5k
  • somehow survived a grueling 1 1/2 hour yoga class
  • comforted a 1,000 year old woman at the nursing home and let her cry into my sweater
  • grabbed a shovel and plastic bag and followed the boys down the street to pick up someone's pet cat who'd been killed by a car
  • practiced handstands with S
  • learned how radio frequencies are transmitted at the Kinder Uni in Stuttgart
  • raced to school to bring books to a certain child who forgot them thereby heading off unmitigated disaster
  • taken that VERY SAME CHILD after school to a friend's house to pick up a copy of the weekend homework, thereby heading off unmitigated disaster
  • done laundry, cooked meals and oohed and aahed over a new rocket car design that this same sweet child thought up all by himself. (it had very nice mirrors!)
And now I am pooped and am ready to fall comatose on the couch.

Happy weekend, everybody!

16 November, 2009

This bag is not a toy!

The other day I turned around and found this lurking behind me.

I love how it says: "Danger of suffocation! Keep away from children!" across his right ear. I'm nothing if not vigilant...

08 November, 2009

Lemon Olive Oil Cake

Made this on Friday and we LOVED it! I'm not a big cake-eater, but this is the perfect combination of sweet and sour and bitter. It's dead easy and is absolutely delicious!

Lemon Olive Oil Cake from Dr. Weil

While you might be hesitant to use olive oil in a dessert recipe, such fears are groundless. Olive oil gives this cake a unique flavor and richness that is balanced out by a little sweetness and the light freshness of lemons. Hesitate no more!

4 (organic) lemons, zested and juiced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 eggs
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups evaporated cane sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder

1. Combine zest, juice and olive oil in a small bowl.

2. In the mixer combine eggs & salt. Mix on medium for 2 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and continue to mix until pale and thickened.

3. Turn mixer to low and slowly sift in the flour and baking powder, followed by the olive oil mixture. Do not over mix at this point; just incorporate the ingredients.

4. Pour this mixture into a cake pan or muffin tin. Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes for cupcakes and 35 minutes for large cakes. Poke with a toothpick to check for doneness.

5. Serve with Greek yogurt and fresh strawberries. Enjoy!

06 November, 2009

Life with boyz

My mom and dad asked for a recent picture to take with them when they visit my grandparents later on this month. Somehow I don't think these shots were what they had in mind, but this pretty much captures the essence of life with two lively (lovely!) boys!

05 November, 2009

Just don't bury them in the sand!

Poor B has a cold. Today he sneezed several times in a row, rubbed his poor chapped nose and said wearily:

"Ow! My nostriches hurt!"

03 November, 2009

Oh shit!: the sequel

(Note: This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. If you haven't seen that one yet you might want to read it first.)

"Hey S, do you know what happened to those condoms and the wrappers?"

It's the crack of dawn and S is wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa waiting for breakfast. He nods sleepily, crawls under the sofa and drags out a box of condoms and two wrappers and I feel relief flood through my body.

And then the humor of the situation hits me and I start giggling like a maniac.

Yesterday could have been so much worse. The poop? On the landlord's shoe? That was only the tip of our slumdog iceberg here! At least when he walked in the door S had the good sense to hide the goods and throw out the unrolled, slightly rumpled condoms that were lying on the dining room table amidst the Halloween candy wrappers and school books!

OK, I guess I should backtrack here:

S came home from school yesterday wanting to know what a condom is. Someone had made a joke about one and he had only a vague idea that it was something bad or dirty. So I gave S and B an in-depth explanation about birth control and disease prevention and I even brought out a box of condoms and gave them a couple so that they could unwrap them and see what they really look like.

There were a couple of remarks that had me stifling a nervous laugh: "Wait?! This is supposed to fit around my penis?! It's HUGE!??"

Afterwards of course they blew them up like balloons and let them fly around the room. I asked them to clean it all up and get back to their homework. When I left the room they were laughing about a greasy smudge the lubricant had left on the dining room window.

Shortly after that the landlord arrived....

Move over, Clark Griswold, you've met your match!

02 November, 2009

Oh shit! (literally...)

We have a tiny yard. I mean miniscule. It's only big enough to house a few good sized dandelions and an unidentifiable conifer. Consequently, the only one who uses the yard is the dog, if you get my drift. Which is fine by me-- it's an easy way to let her out at night before going to bed and every few days I get out there with a bucket and a shovel and clean it all up.

Have I mentioned all of the houseguests we've had lately? Two weeks worth of revolving door guests here at Chez V, which means I've been distracted from less visible tasks like scooping poop. That's what? 14+ piles of fragrant goodness clustered in a 2 x 5 meter space.

Today the landlord dropped by unannounced to read a meter. I hate it when he does this, because it's just embarrassing to have him sniffing around our place while we're in the middle of lunch / homework / sportsbag hell. I clean up in the mornings and in the late afternoon, but frankly at 3 pm this place looks like the projects!

So he read his meter and we discussed a neighbor's tree that's becoming overgrown and is blocking the view. He promised to check on it, said goodbye, and left.

I made a comment to S about the state of the house and was just saying "...but at least he didn't go out into the yard" when S spotted him walk past the back door! I got outside just in time to see him in the neighbor's yard scraping poop off of his expensive leather loafers...

Somehow I'm thinking we can kiss our deposit goodbye...

31 October, 2009

quick rundown

Was just realizing how little I've blogged lately! We've been busy and I've written so many posts in my head but somehow they just never make it Online. Here are a few brief notes to bring you up to date:

An American friend took us onto the military base last Wednesday to see "Where the Wild Things Are" at the theater there. It was a real American movie experience including salty buttered popcorn (rather than the nasty sweet stuff they serve in Europe) Twizzlers and Whoppers. Oh, yeah, and the film, which was also really enjoyable.

S and B went off to sit up front with the other kids and when they met up with us afterwards they handed us their boxes of half-eaten candy-- it had been too much, even for them!

M popped a handful of S's leftover Whoppers into his mouth and was chewing happily when S piped up:

"You know what?! When I opened those the bag ripped and they spilled all over the floor. So I picked them all up and put them back into the bag. But I must have picked up lost candy from other people as well, because some of them tasted a bit rotten!"

If only I'd had a camera to take a picture of M's face at that moment!


I went to the doctor on Thursday and got myself vaccinated for the seasonal flu and the swine flu. When I asked if that wasn't a lot for my body to handle at once I just got a sneer from the perpetually crabby nurse who then barked at me to roll up my sleeve.

My suspicions were confirmed: For two days now I've had fever, chills and muscle ache-- I feel like I've been through a couple of rounds with Kimbo Slice! If only I could still move my poor shot-weakened arm I would head down and shake that sadistic nurse until her teeth rattled!


Speaking of roughing up evil Germans, we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark today with the kids. I originally saw that movie as a 11-year-old Florida girl who had never been further than North Carolina. S and B, on the other hand, could actually follow the German dialogue between the Nazis. That, and thanks to their trip to Cairo last year they were able to pick out discrepancies in the Egyptian scenes. Like the fact that Indiana Jones didn't become incapacitated by diarrhea after eating those dates which you saw get rinsed off with tap water...

Man there's a lot of violence in that movie! And the drinking!!! Do you remember Marion doing shots and drinking that Nepalese guy under the table? Well, I didn't either, but it was in there and was completely inappropriate for a movie supposedly targeted at children. Made for a very interesting debriefing session at the lunch table afterwards!


Thursday the kids attended a workshop at the National Art Gallery (Staatsgalerie) in Stuttgart, where they were able to visit a temporary exhibition of Edward Burne Jones' works. There was an entire section devoted to Sleeping Beauty with the treacherous briar wood where brave young soldiers and tender damsels fell into an enchanted sleep.

After the tour the kids were taken back to a studio where they painted their own masterpieces depicting how they would have broken out of the briar bushes in the enchanted forest. S came back with a lovely painting of a suit of armor and a sharp sword. B's solution? A formula 1 Ferrari with a protective mesh around the cockpit...


S and B are also attending the Kinder Uni, a special set of lectures for kids in which different professors from the University of Stuttgart give talks about 4 different timely topics.

A couple of weeks ago they got to learn how emails travel from one computer to the other. In November they will see how sounds are transmitted to your radio. The kids all get to sit together in a real lecture hall at the university and the parents aren't even allowed inside-- we watched the proceedings on a video screen in another room! I don't know who enjoyed the whole experience more, me or the kids!


Tonight is Halloween and the kids both have plans to stay over at friends' houses! Oma and Opa are here and M and I are going to take them out to dinner.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

28 October, 2009

Before and After

Yeah. This was the picture I probably should have posted yesterday: S channeling his inner Calvin. (of Hobbes, not of the Protestant Reformation...)

27 October, 2009

He's 10!!!

S hit the double digits today! Funny, because in my mind I'm still about 35-- so somehow he's getting older but I'm not! Not a bad set-up if you ask me!

15 October, 2009


Ugh. B came home from school with some kind of stomach virus today. He was genuinely sick when I picked him up, but since then he's regained some color in his cheeks, is talking nonstop and ate a whole bag of cookies while I was out running an errand. Somehow I think he's out of the woods. ;-)

The problem is that I'm starting to feel really crappy myself. We have houseguests coming in tomorrow and I'm completely overwhelmed by the preparation. After a full day of puttering around the house still looks like a bomb went off in it. This thanks mostly to one little "sick" person who is following me around scattering the products of his birthday origami set. Every time I get a surface cleared it magically fills back up again with gum wrappers and other flotsam. His teacher is (understandably) gun-shy with viruses and has expressly asked me to keep him home tomorrow...

Maybe I could send him over to your place tomorrow? He's very cute, can tell you a lot about aerodynamics and would be happy to cook you lunch! PLEASE! I'M BEGGING YOU....

14 October, 2009

He's just as shocked as I am!

My baby turns 8 today! How is this possible?!

22 September, 2009

Expat meme

Ian did this meme the other day and since I'm lacking inspiration this morning I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

How long have you lived away from your home country? 17 years! (With one three-year period in which we moved to Michigan with M's job. Which was a funny situation because we lived there as expats and as the wife of a foreigner I was eligible for language lessons and culture training!)

Do you still feel like you’re just visiting? No. In many ways I feel like a foreigner when I'm in the US.

What do you notice the most has changed about your home country when you go back for a visit? The rise in the obesity rate-- it's shocking!

If you were to move again, would it be back to your home country? I wouldn't rule it out, but it's certainly not a goal.

Do you ever get homesick? Not really. We moved around a lot when I was small, and my parents and brother have left Florida, so there's really no place that I can go back to. I miss my family, and Florida's weather, but don't really have a home to get homesick for.

If you read the news, do you read it in your native language or that of your host country? I read the news online in English but that's about it. I see everything else as an opportunity to strengthen language skills, so any kind of literature, magazines, newspapers, etc. I read in either German or Dutch.

What do you like the most about Germany? It's clean and orderly. There's a lot of consideration for the environment. Lots of open spaces and woodland where we live. Abundant farmers' markets and organic produce. I walk or bike almost everywhere-- it's a very green way of living!

What grates you the most? The school system is very frustrating. It's preposterous to think that you can decide at age 9 if a child is capable of studying at a university later on in life.

Did you speak the language of your host country before you arrived? Not at all.

How long did it take before you felt comfortable speaking the language? To be completely comfortable? 1 1/2 years, but I couldn't have done it without intensive language lessons at the Volkshochschule.

If people switch to English when you speak to them in their language, how do you react? I HATE it! It's hard not to take it personally-- people usually only do that when they want to show off that their English is better than my German. Luckily it rarely happens anymore, but when it does I just stubbornly continue to speak in German. I need the practice!

(This has made me a lot more sensitive to this issue, however, and when the shoe is on the other foot I try to be very respectful of people who are trying to practice their English.)

What has been the biggest change you’ve had to make in leaving your home country? Funny, there have been so many spread out over such a long period-- no single one sticks out. Maybe just learning new languages. I've picked up three so far and have no intention of stopping any time soon! :-)

If there were a button to improve anything about your expatriate life, what would it say on the button?
"Cheap flights" It would be nice to visit my folks more often!

21 September, 2009

Need a laugh?

While we're on a Russian video jag I had to post this one as well. This has to be the worst cover ever made! I apologize in advance...

19 September, 2009

Tainted love: Soviet style!

Don't tell anyone, but I think I might like this version even better than the original!

(*Am I the only nerd who noticed that one of the guards is wearing a Russian army cap instead of a German one?)

18 September, 2009

Once for S and once for B and that was it...

A discussion with the kids yesterday evolved into a sex ed opportunity.

How can those two people have had sex? They're too young to have kids!

Well, you're right. Pregnancy can only happen if you've had sexual contact, but not all sexual contact results in pregnancy. Women are only fertile a couple of days per month and there are things you can do to keep from making your partner pregnant. And thank goodness, because otherwise you'd probably end up with thousands of children!

WHAT?! THOUSANDS?! Am I going to be having sex that often?

*groaning inwardly*
Well, not anytime in the near future, I hope. But between two people who love each other sex is a wonderful thing, and someday you will probably be having it regularly.

OK. I think-- hey. wait a minute! Does that mean that you and Daddy have had sex more than twice?!

17 September, 2009

Photo update

Here is a bunch of photos that I took last week.
Customized souvenir brought back from ItalySelf portrait taken while riding a bicycle
As long as they don't blind someone with that umbrella S and cousin S are ready for any kind of weather!This was the pictogram for the women's restroom at the campground. ???

16 September, 2009

The fastest person on the whole world! [sic]

My speedy little Dutch boy in his pajamas and crocs on the campground...

(S and B made and edited this themselves using S's mobile phone.)

15 September, 2009


Hi! We're back and are caught up in the maelstrom that is the first week of school. So far, so good, but I'm having a pretty hard time adjusting to the early-morning regimen...

Schmutzie linked to this video clip and I just can't get enough of it. It's simple, elegant, and manages to make me cry every single time I watch it for some reason... (Be sure to click on "Full Screen" for maximum tear-jerker effect!)

04 September, 2009

On the road again!

We're rounding out Travelpalooza this summer with a week-long camping trip in Holland with M's parents. Am packing the camper for the last time and it's bittersweet! We've had such a great summer and in some ways it's hard to see it winding down!

The boys go back to school on the 14th and are not sure what to think about that. It's probably a good thing that we'll be away next week so that they'll be distracted and have less time to get nervous.

See you when we get back!

02 September, 2009

The high price of cheap food

Schmutzie posted a link to this article and I read it with horrified fascination. The statistics, while not surprising, are scary and eye-opening. (and hopeless. unless something changes soon we're going to eat ourselves out of house and home...)

Here are some of the more titillating statistics, but the title links to the whole article for those of you like me who wanted to know more...

Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans. Those hidden prices are the creeping erosion of our fertile farmland, cages for egg-laying chickens so packed that the birds can't even raise their wings and the scary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria among farm animals. Add to the price tag the acceleration of global warming — our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.

Despite increasing public awareness, sustainable agriculture, while the fastest-growing sector of the food industry, remains a tiny enterprise: according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), less than 1% of American cropland is farmed organically.
As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver.

According to the USDA, Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.

With the backing of the government, farmers are producing more calories — some 500 more per person per day since the 1970s — but too many are unhealthy calories. Given that, it's no surprise we're so fat; it simply costs too much to be thin.

American farmers now produce an astounding 153 bu. of corn per acre, up from 118 as recently as 1990. But the quantity of that fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.

When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what's known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approximately 6,000-sq.-mi. area that has almost no oxygen and therefore almost no sea life. Because of the dead zone, the $2.8 billion Gulf of Mexico fishing industry loses 212,000 metric tons of seafood a year, and around the world, there are nearly 400 similar dead zones. Even as we produce more high-fat, high-calorie foods, we destroy one of our leanest and healthiest sources of protein.

The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.
Since 1935, consolidation and industrialization have seen the number of U.S. farms decline from 6.8 million to fewer than 2 million — with the average farmer now feeding 129 Americans, compared with 19 people in 1940.

The USDA estimates that Americans throw out 14% of the food we buy, which means that much of our record-breaking harvests ends up in the garbage.

31 August, 2009

Sofia wrap-up

I'm back home, tired, but very happy.

The concert was a lot of fun. The sets were extravagant and she'd mixed a lot of her songs together in a really interesting way with a great mix of old and new. The stadium was full-to-overflowing. (I just saw in a Bulgarian newspaper that there were more than 50,000 people in attendance!) We had tickets out on the field, which turned out to be fun, because everyone was dancing and singing along.

The one complaint I have is that the show started 2+ hours too late! The audience remained remarkably cheerful and well behaved, however, true to my other impressions of the Bulgarian people over the weekend. During the entire evening I think I saw only three people who were visibly intoxicated, and everyone around us was friendly and relaxed!

When I mentioned this to Lyudmil, the owner of our B&B, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said wryly: "We are used to waiting..."

I just can't say enough about how friendly everyone was this weekend. For some reason I'd expected them to be gruff and distant, and I hate to say it, but more like the Russians. (Who can be very friendly if you get to know them, but who are very rude to strangers.) But people in Sofia consistently went out of their way to make us feel welcome! For example, L and I took some pictures of these guards in front of the President's residence. When turned around to leave when a woman suddenly came up to us, tapped L on the shoulder and said: "Wait, you're about to miss something great!" We walked back and got to see the changing of the guard, which was really impressive!

The city is full of green spaces, and the park in front of the national theater has a whole row of stone tables with chessboards on them. At any given moment most of them were manned, and there were small clusters of onlookers crowded around to watch the games.

L and I stopped to watch and one guy sitting at a table on his own kept urging us to play. Suspecting some sort of trap we turned him down a couple of times and he said: "No money! Just play!" So eventually L gave in and sat down and played with him. One of his friends smiled and boomed: "Welcome to open air chess club!" We ended up spending the better part of an hour just enjoying the relaxed, easy demeanor of these guys hanging around in the park!

In fact, we had such a nice time, that as we were leaving L turned to me and said: "You know, I owe you an apology. Yesterday when you texted me and said how lovely the city is and how nice the people are I didn't really believe you. Thought you were gushing, or just plain insane! But you were right, this place is fantastic!"

Another impression: The main streets in the administrative center of Sofia are paved with yellow cobblestones, which were a gift from Austria back at the end of the 19th century. It lends the whole area a warm, friendly feel. This morning I've searched the Internet to see if there was some sort of connection between these yellow bricks and the ones of Oz fame. Can't find anything, but can testify that these are definitely NOT in Kansas...

Another fascinating footnote: There's a residence hotel that's been built in the center of the city at the site where a 3rd century Roman amphitheater used to be. But instead of just building on top of it they've actually incorporated the ruins into the architecture of the building so that it's part of the lobby and decor. It was very elegant and lent the whole atmosphere a very sophisticated feel.

Oh, and the food was surprisingly delicious! I'd been expecting beige Russian-style mystery meats and simple carbs. Instead we got to sample a wide variety of salads and colorful dishes that satisfied even my picky vegetarian palate. And it was so incredibly cheap! We would eat these spreads of really delicious food and even with drinks and then coffee afterwards it rarely came to more than EUR12 for two people!!!

I guess it's time to stop gushing and close this. Of course we also saw our share of decaying courtyards, crazy electrical wiring, stray animals and a handful of homeless people, but on the balance my impressions of Sofia were overwhelmingly positive. It's beautiful, friendly, affordable and unpretentious. Really my kind of city!

I'll leave you with a few more pictures...

29 August, 2009

I heart Sofia!

Sofia is absolutely lovely! I am completely floored! (Seems this is the second time I've been surpised by a city in the last couple of weeks. Maybe I need to review my preconceived notions?)

Yesterday I got in at about lunchtime and spent the afternoon exploring. I'd forgotten how easy it is to sightsee sans enfants and managed to see almost all the major sights, including the Church of St. George, St. Sofia, and the Russian church.

Spent some time at the National Archeological Museum and admired its impressive collection of Roman (what else?!), Greek, and Thracian artifacts. They had some incredibly well-preserved helmets and armor from the 6th century BC, household utensils, jewelry, clothing, books-- it was fascinating!

My favorite piece was a bronze bust. Apparently no one can agree if it was the rendering of a philosopher or a homeless crazy person. It was lifesize and the eyes were made out of alabaster and glass paste in three different colors so that they were very lifelike, perfectly detailed even down to the eyelashes and the tearducts-- it really looked alive!

After that I walked down to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. I've been in a loooooooooooot of cathedrals over the years. Some of them were more beautiful, some of them were larger, most of them older, but I've never, ever experienced anything like this one. It was so atmospheric and subtly beautiful! I felt the presence of God in there. I'm not sure if I even believe in God, but I was so moved that I sat on a bench for a half hour soaking in the atmosphere with tears streaming down my face and dripping off onto my blouse.

I think that the main thing that's surprised me about Sofia is how lively it is. The streets are absolutely teeming with people! Even as I was walking back home at 8 pm the parks were full of people out enjoying the good weather. And when I say full, I mean jam packed-- the park benches were all occupied, and there were children running around everywhere! In one park I passed at least 5 different groups of people crowded around chess games.

I don't know why, but I came to Sofia expecting gray buildings and decaying Soviet drudgery. And perhaps that's the case in the outskirts of the city, but the center is colorful and lively. And the main difference I've noticed is that people are smiling and friendly. Even the guy who caught me surreptitiously taking pictures in the museum was nice! And when a cleaning lady caught me in a wing of a church where I didn't belong she shooed me back with a smile and a pat on the back.

The family that runs Casa Ferrari, my bed and breakfast is wonderful. Friendly, open, and very proud of their city and heritage. Yesterday evening I caught a ride with the owner out to the airport to pick up my friend. Her flight was delayed about an hour, and to kill time Lyudmil took me on a drive to see the sights that are not necessarily in the tourist booklets.

Because he knows I'm interested in Sofia's Soviet past he drove me out to a neighborhood populated with towering concrete soviet-style apartment buildings and showed me the central heating system, where gas supplied by Russia is transformed into steam and piped out to heat the city. As we were driving back he asked me wryly: "And? Did this remind you of Russia?" and I had to tell him that it didn't. Not at all! The main street was in a good state, the cars parked along it were relatively new and clean. There was no garbage littering the street, no hopeless air hanging over the place. (Of course I only viewed these things at night through the window of a speeding car, but even at night it's hard to ignore the depressing atmosphere emanating from run-down Soviet-block neighborhoods in Russia...)

I guess I'll close this long travelogue for now. Am happy to see my friend and we've got the whole day to hang out and then the concert this evening, so I'll be posting again soon...

27 August, 2009

Ve vill rrrock you!

I'm going to pop on over to Bulgaria this weekend.

No, seriously! I'm actually not kidding. A friend and I will be spending the weekend exploring this enigmatic city and will see this controversial pop star whip a staunchly Catholic country into a frenzy.

I'm such a sucker for contrasts, and I can't imagine a bigger one than this trip. Am really looking forward to entering the Twilight Zone!

24 August, 2009

More photos

Goofball will probably be relieved to see that I've removed the Wikimedia photos and have uploaded my own pictures into my vacation posts. Here are a few more that didn't fit in with the posts, but which I wanted to post anyway.
Why is there an enormous spider on this sex shop?!
Why on earth, in a country overflowing with delicious ripe peaches would you advertise a dessert with the can in the picture?!

And finally, here's a mosaic I made with a fun tool from Big Huge Labs...

22 August, 2009

Pulling up stakes

Yesterday we spent the day in Venice, and I'm probably the only visitor on earth who was actually surprised at how lovely it is!

I spent a blurry evening there 23 years ago at the tail end of a blowout European tour. It was the umpteenth stop in ten days and we'd already seen so much that I think my brain's memory card was full. We gobbled down pizza, sat in a gondola and then got herded back onto the tour bus. I was so tired and overstimulated that I didn't realize just how spectacular a city it is!

John Berendt wrote that he used to have "random photo days" in which he wandered around and took pictures at random moments, just to see if he could find a single corner in Venice that is not photogenic. (he never did.)

We were completely and utterly charmed by the city despite the heat and the hoards of tourists. Even S and B enjoyed sightseeing, and that's saying a lot considering how we've kind of pushed our limits with them lately with city tours.

M and I really enjoyed seeing the Fenice, Palazzo Barbaro and other sights mentioned in "City of Falling Angels".

The kids spent about an hour feeding pigeons on St. Mark's square and B even coaxed one to sit on his head.

We ate an excellent lunch at VinoVino-- B, being the ever-curious epicurean, ordered polenta and cuttlefish in ink sauce and I enjoyed an exquisite Venetian risotto.

Later we found a little alleyway named after M, which was very funny considering his name is never heard outside of Holland.

D was really suffering in the heat, so every hour or so we would toss her into a canal. This turned out to be doubly useful-- she'd rolled in something unmentionable before we left because she smelled HORRENDOUS! It was really embarrassing-- people would come up to pet her and then would stop a couple of feet away with their smiles frozen on their faces. The canal water cooled her off and thankfully, over time it even neutralized the stench.

Once we'd seen the manditory sights we explored picturesque sidestreets and alleyways. And at the end of the day we took a vaporetto along the Grand Canal from Plaza Roma down to St. Marks.

What a fantastic experience!

Our vacation is drawing quickly to a close. Today we visited a local winery and tasted wines and olive oil. I came out feeling a bit blurry around the edges-- must have been the oil...

We swam for one last time in the lake and I took D for one last hike up the cliff at the shore near our campsite.

Tomorrow we'll pull up stakes and head for home. Although it will be nice to sleep in our own beds again we've all said that we could easily stay another week-- this has been a really great vacation!

19 August, 2009

Vacation update III

Aida was a wonderful, absolutely amazing experience. I was kind of worried at first-- when we got to Verona it was 38 degrees C! But then the music started, and we forgot the heat and got sucked into the magic of the performance. All in all it lasted more than 3 hours-- the kids were tired, but they still enjoyed it, especially B.

This morning he confided that someone in his class once told him that his parents had forced him to sit through an opera, but that he didn't feel like we'd forced him at all yesterday because he'd really enjoyed it. Sounds good to me...

We're hanging out at the campsite today, swimming, reading and hanging out under our handy shade tree. Tomorrow we're headed to Venice.

I think it's time to close this down now. A big snail just fell onto my head from out of our handy-dandy-shade tree! ???!!! Watch out for flying kamikaze gastropods!

18 August, 2009

4 lake drive

Yesterday we escaped the touristy crowds on Lake Garda and took a drive around to 3 other lakes in the area: Lake Idro, Lake Valvestino and Lake Ledro. As you'll see from the picture, the area is mountainous and the scenery was spectacular!

We stopped for lunch at a little lodge nestled into the mountainside and had a local dish of polenta which has been cooked with alpine cheese. (Or more accurately, alpine cheese which has been cooked with a little bit of polenta sprinkled in.) It was creamy and delicious and turned into a boulder-like consistency in our stomachs as soon as we'd eaten it. Luckily Italian espresso functions as the perfect digestive-- by the time we left we were wired and full and very happy.

We went for a swim in Lake Valvestino and played with a beautiful Weimaraner puppy on the shore. B collected pieces of granite from the pebble-strewn shore and S and M coaxed D out into deeper waters for a swim.

On the way back we stopped in Riva for an ice cream and then drove down the western shore of Lake Garda and enjoyed the spectacular views over the water...

Today we're lounging around on the campsite trying to beat the heat. (Yesterday the temperature climbed to 37 degrees C (!!!) and today it's probably not much cooler!)

Tonight we'll drive to Verona to see the opera. I'm really happy with the Internet connection here at the campground, because I've been able to look up the storyline for Aida and have read it to the kids a couple of times so that they'll be able to follow along better.

*picture thanks to Wikimedia

16 August, 2009

vacation update II

Friday we spent the afternoon in Brescia. It was a pleasant surprise to discover how beautiful the center is, because the author of The Rough Guide had described it as industrial and unattractive.
We were in for another surprise as well-- we'd initially gone to visit the fine arts museum, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, but it has been closed for renovations until the end of 2010. This turned out to be fine, though, because we went to the local archeological museum instead, which had a really interesting collection of artifacts and artwork spanning more than 2000 years.

Yesterday we spent the day in Milan. Again I was pleasantly surprised-- for some reason I'd expected a skyscrapered big-city skyline, but the city is actually very beautiful!

We started out at the Duomo and walked north-- both the architecture and people-watching were equally fascinating. The boys fed hoardes of pigeons on the main square. (B, our little bird fanatic, was very impressed with the "cuddly" pigeons and wanted to buy one with his allowance to keep as a pet! I nipped that one in the bud pretty quickly.)

We also stopped to watch a chinese street artist who was cutting incredibly delicate designs out of carrots and turnips. They were as beautiful as they were bizarre!

The temperatures climbed past 35 degrees C, so we tossed poor D into a public fountain so that she could cool off. Then we fished her out again and beat a hasty retreat. Judging from the looks on people's faces Labradors are not exactly welcome to bathe in ancient monuments.

We spent the afternoon at the Brera Art Gallery (Pinacoteca di Brera), which was a real treat. Yesterday must have been some kind of holiday, and they offered free admission! This meant, however, that the lines were horrendous-- literally hundreds of people were waiting to get in. Everything was surprisingly well organized, however, and the lines moved relatively quickly.

We'd been waiting for about a half an hour when museum staff came up to us and said: "You are here with young children-- you are welcome to leave the line." and they ushered us past the last hundred people and right up into the museum! It was a bit embarrassing, but very nice to be able to get out of the heat and into the cool space inside the museum.

They had a really amazing art collection on display. (Our guide book pronounced it the most important collection of Northern Italian art anywhere in the world.) In addition to the paintings by Caravaggio and Hayez that I've included here they also had some really impressive works by Mantegna, Raphael and Crivelli. I don't pretend to be an expert in any shape and form, but I really enjoyed the gallery and the audio tour we rented.

Today we're going to lounge around on the campground-- we've tortured the kids enough with city trips and museums and they want to spend the day playing card games, reading and swimming in the lake. (Which sounds great to me!)

Time to turn off the computer and go stretch out under our shade tree!

*image of Brescia thanks to wikimedia