Dispatches from the top of Europe

We focused our summer holidays this year on tourist activities around home. Because why go so far afield when we have some great things to do within a few hours of us? So we made the most of a visit from my mom to tick some big ones off our bucket list. And this was a big one both figuratively and literally – Mont Blanc, the highest peak in western Europe!

Mont Blanc is home to the steepest vertical ascent in a gondola in the world, which takes you up to the “Aiguille du Midi”, a mountaintop viewing point at (nearly) the summit of the mountain. It starts in Chamonix, a little French tourist town at the base of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from our place.

When we arrived at the Chamonix kiosk, it was already packed. People of all kinds were milling around – some with full mountaineering gear. I was feeling a bit underdressed in jeans and a sweater, even though it was one of the hottest days of the year: we had escaped from temperatures nearing 40C back home.

We bought our lift tickets and were told to come back for boarding in 2 hours. The town didn’t hold much excitement on an early morning, but we managed to fill the time wandering around, checking touristy shops and grabbing a couple of crepes at a cafe patio that we shared with a bunch of wasps. Some North American tourist at the next table over said “I can’t wait to get home and eat inside for once” – because a couple of wasps outweigh a beautiful outdoor mountain vista patio? Dude.

Back at the line up, we waited another 20 minutes owing to delays. At last it was our turn, and we were driven through the doors and jammed like sardines into the gondola. We were the last ones on, with standing room only and nowhere to hold on – but we lifted off safely and flew up into the sky, watching our car get smaller and smaller in the parking lot below. Once or twice the gondola shuddered, throwing us around and eliciting “whoas” from the group. I’m not good with heights and might have peed a little.

The first leg of the trip took us over the tops of trees and grass, landing at a midway station at the base of the glacier field. We were already nearly 2000 m high and the air was fresh as we exited the lift to transfer onwards. We stopped at a viewing platform to look out across a sweeping wall of rockfall and dusty glaciers. And to take some selfies.

We boarded like sardines again onto the next lift, this time getting a coveted spot at the front of the chariot, where I was able to get a video of the ride (sorry about the reflection of my hot pink phone cover). This was the leg that took us nearly vertical, up another 2000 m into the clouds.

We arrived at the peak and stepped out onto a walkway in the sky, officially 3800 m up. And wow, could we tell. The air was thin and cold, gusts of wind whipping up from the glacier peaks and misting us with droplets of clouds. It was challenge to walk up the few flights of stairs to the viewing platform, suffering from a lack of oxygen and our legs feeling like lead. But we made it, looking out from the top of the world at the nearby frozen giants and into the etched valley below. A plane flew by, well below us.

So once we had our fill of taking panoramas and selfies, what else could we do but visit the cafeteria at the top of the mountain? So we spent the rest of our visit snacking on some overpriced sandwiches and drinks before heading back to the gondola for our scheduled ride home. It was another long wait in an overcrowded hallway, this time punctuated by mild dizziness, and I’m pretty sure it also gave one of the kids a chance to let off a bunch of farts, because some vapors were following us around and it wasn’t pleasant. But we eventually re-boarded and floated back down through the clouds, as our magical trip to the highest food we’ve ever bought was over.

Mont Blanc panorama

Sur le Pont d’Avignon…

We took a spur-of-the-moment trip to Avignon – the city of the popes in Southern France. It was still early in the season, so although it was a bit chilly, we had the city to ourselves without all the other summer tourists.

The main attraction for us was, of course, the Avignon bridge – you know, from the song. But there were plenty of other great sights too, including the Palais des Papes, ramparts circling the medieval city, and some great museums and restaurants.

The Palais des papes is an ancient castle from the 1300s, where a series of popes held their seats after being chased out of Rome. It’s astonishingly large and basically falling apart after so many centuries of abuse and misuse – but that almost makes it more interesting, thinking about the extra years it spent in various forms, including army barracks. In fact, I just checked wikipedia, and it even says that the chateau has retained “a “work of destruction” aspect that French poets and writers have referred to over the centuries, with its powerful sense of beauty, simplicity, grandeur and immortality.” So there you go. Worth the visit.

So, then we made it to the Pont d’Avignon. Did you know that apparently they didn’t even dance or sing on the bridge? And if they did, it was under the bridge, not on the bridge? At least that’s what the bridge museum sign says. My entire childhood was ruined that day. But we broke this tradition and did both the hoe-down and a regular dance at the very edge of the bridge. Take that, history!

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse, On y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
On y danse tous en rond

 

 

Just so you don’t think we spent the entire time looking at old buildings, here are some other (mis)adventures:

  • We desperately wanted to take the “little train” tour around the city, but when we arrived at the designated spot and time, no little train showed up. We were all disappointed (mostly me). So we walked up the big “Rocher des Doms” anyway, to see a bit more of the city in the meantime. We wandered around there while we enjoyed the view around the landscape and the kids had swordfights with some sticks, because you know, that’s why we spend money to go on vacation. By the time we were on our way back down, the train was there! We ran and ran down the hill, and we caught it! And then it took us… back up the Rocher des Doms. Yay.
  • Walking around town, we were all desperate for a snack. And by some miracle, there was a kiosk giving out free samples! Of chocolate bars, even better. The only catch? It was a slab of milk chocolate tucked into dry baguette, like a sandwich. It was so, so very dry. But it was free, so, Yay.
  • Another day, we spent the afternoon in the Petit Palais art gallery, with a collection of famous renaissance paintings. That was really exceptional, that is until the kids set off the art alarms too many times by crossing the wall sensor barriers. So we left rather quickly.
  • One evening we did our research and found a highly-rated restaurant nearby the hotel, so we headed over for dinner. Since it was the down season, we turned out to be the only patrons. The couple who ran the place were very friendly – some of the nicest people we’ve met on our travels. They gave us some great wine recommendations and cooked us regional specialties. They were even lovely with our kids, to the point of bantering with them like family friends. Such a nice dinner. That is, until the woman teased little J a bit about not getting her dessert because she didn’t clean her plate. So J threw a piece of bread at the woman. I swear to god, she just launched this bread crust across the table and smacked this poor lady right in the chest. It happened in slow motion, as I watched in equal parts horror, shame, and (no lies) a bit of pride, as this bread flew threw the air like in some food fight movie scene. I’ve never been so mortified in my life. J later said it was an accident, that she only meant to pretend to throw the bread, but I think that’s a bucket of lies. At least the lady was very kind about the whole thing and probably has kids of her own who sometimes throw bread at strangers. They still gave us some nice apératif drinks on the house, so that was a win I guess?

I think you should go. We recommend the chocolate sandwiches and bread crusts.

 

Happy Costa Rica Birthday

Sometimes the mysterious workings of the universe are perfectly aligned in your favor. Like that time I got to spend my birthday in Costa Rica. Sure, I was attending a workshop rather than on vacation, and I missed being with my family, but I suppose if had been able to choose anywhere to go on a birthday getaway, San Jose would have been high on the list.

We stayed at a hotel tucked away in the suburbs of the city, with large gardens and a great view of the mountains from my window. In a fit of birthday wellness (which has since passed, don’t worry), I spent most mornings at the gym or playing tennis with colleagues in the gorgeous morning sun.

During the week, we took a field trip to an agropastoralism pilot site. I brought along a film crew, hoping to capture some great footage of how farmers are helping regrow forests on their fields.

Ah, naïveté. As it turns out, agropastoralism, at least according to that site’s manager, really just involves a lot of cow poop. So we got a lot of great footage of excrement treatment pools, bio-gas collectors, and plain old manure. Many a #ShitPile #OscarSelfie was taken that day!

We also enjoyed a few nights out on the town. One began in a hard metal bar named ‘Steppenwolf’, or rather, whatever ‘Steppenwolf’ is in Spanish, which I can’t remember anymore, and ended in a beer hall where the servers kept trying to give the 1L beers I was ordering to the men at the table instead of me. I was offended. Also, I drank all those dudes under the table.

Another evening involved a team dinner at a poor, unsuspecting local establishment. They might have had an inkling when we booked a table for 25, but I don’t think they were expecting us to discover these crazy ‘Beergaritas’ on the menu and proceed to order about 20 of them. What’s a beergarita? Well, it’s a fluorescent blue alcohol slushie with an open Corona bottle somehow added to the liquid upside down and then garnished with a stick or two of fruity decorations. It sounds better than it is. Actually, it doesn’t even sound very good. But we ordered a bunch of them.

The chartered bus on the way home turned into a drunken karaoke singalong to such classics as ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’, and we spent the rest of the evening drinking a few clandestine bottles of rum out in the parking lot. I don’t think we can ever go back to that hotel.

When the hard week of work was over, I had a single day to try and pack in some sightseeing outside the city. There are a number of beautiful places around San Jose, and if you have enough time, you could visit national parks, beaches, volcanoes, wildlife reserves, and more. Some lovely work friends agreed to take me on a trip to one of the nearest volcano parks, to see some craters and lagoons up on the summit.

The drive was about an hour, passing through coffee plantations and fields of berries and bananas as we spiraled toward the top of the volcano. We looked down and saw the city stretching out below, ringed by distant mountains, imagining the way down to the ocean over the other side.

The crater park was extraordinary. As we walked toward the peak, the ground opened up into a huge pool that was changing color from blue to opaque white with the passing clouds overhead. The rocks told a story of violent geology, streaked with red and brown, covered with dark, ashy soil climbing up the sides. The forest around the crater’s edge was dark and moist, swallowing us from above like a knitted roof.

And it was windy. And cold. We could barely hold onto our coats and bags as the wind and fog whipped past us. But we watched the morning mist roll through at an accelerated speed, like the world was on fast forward.

There was no way to cap off such an amazing place. So we drove away, and I hopped onto a plane and flew off into the night. Happy birthday to me! I’m now accepting suggestions for next year.

Indonesia #friends

I recently had a work trip back ‘home’ to Jakarta (with a short detour to Sumatra). My favorite part of visiting Indonesia is visiting some of my favorite people. And I was lucky enough to make new friends this time too. Nothing says ‘friends’ like a bunch of selfies! ❤️❤️❤️

Oscar selfie new friends
New friend 2
New friend 3
Old friend 1
Old friend 2
Old friends 3
Oscar selfie old friends
Old friend 4

Marrakech taxi adventures

Late last year I spent a week in Marrakech for work. Like usual with work trips, I saw very little other than the inside of the hotel, the inside of the conference center, and various taxis and airports along the way.

Luckily, because it was Morocco, the hotel, the conference center and the various taxis and airports along the way were actually pretty cool. I stayed in a riad – which is a big old house that has been renovated into a boutique homestay-slash-hotel. It was lovely and open, with beautiful ornate architecture, creaky wooden doors, and decorative glass windows and tiling. But, it was winter in the desert, and it turns out old, creaky, open houses are not the most comfortable places to be when the sun goes down. Although our rooms had heat, they did not have internet. And although the shared spaces had internet, they had no heat, leading to many nights and early mornings huddled up in sweaters trying to get our work done, basically in an open courtyard in the desert. The conference center itself was a tent city – also in the desert – so the days were excruciatingly hot, but you had to dress warm enough to survive after dark. It was a challenge.

Since I was arriving for a work event, I had brought some booth materials and giveaways, including a few hundred USBs and copies of a recent publication. Well, Morocco did not like this. I was detained at customs for several hours while they sifted through all my luggage and passed me between various officials trying to decide what to do with my materials (and me, presumably). At least I wasn’t the only one – many other arrivals were having the same thing happen to them. After counting every USB individually and photocopying pretty much everything I had with me, they stuck it all into a holding room until a higher power decided what to do, and they let me go with a random phone number scribbled on a piece of paper and a vague promise that someone would contact me in the next few days.

The next morning, I arrived on site at the event and found out that an error had been made with my pass, and I couldn’t enter the venue until the following day. Again, I was (kindly) detained and had all my papers and passport and everything checked while I was trapped in a no-man’s land of not being able to enter the venue but not being able to go anywhere else. Eventually strings were pulled and I managed to get my pass several hours later.

After that long day, back at the riad, I realised that I couldn’t find my travel wallet. The last time I could recall having it was that morning at the venue. Despite some panicked phone calls to colleagues who checked with security and lost & found, no one could find it. The only place I could have lost it was somewhere on the way home – like in the taxi, for example. Well, fudge.

In the meantime, customs guy emailed me to say that I could go pick up my materials ASAP by bringing back the random paper and my identification. All of which was in the back of a taxi somewhere in Marrakech. Fudge.

But, dear readers, this is where things finally turned around. When we had arrived home in that taxi, I had a stroke of genius and asked the driver for his mobile number – so we could call him directly and get a ride whenever we needed it over the week. Can you imagine, what are the chances that I happened to get the number of the one random guy who would soon be in possession of all of my paperwork and cash?

It turned out that he was absolutely lovely, and brought back my wallet completely unharmed – albeit after a minor traffic jam delay during which I called him about 100 times and stood out in the street for an hour in a panic – but he was very nice about the whole thing and I cheered loudly and hugged him and I might have accidentally agreed to marry him. But he did drop us off at the market for free after that.

And the next day I got my stuff from customs without further incident. Later that week, we made reservations at one of the higher-rated restaurants in the area and were looking forward to a great meal. The place was hidden away in the bowels of the souks, down a series of side streets, each darker and more convoluted than the last. Eventually a guy met us with a hand-held lantern to escort us the rest of the way. This was shaping up to be good.

But then we went in and the hostess could not find a record of our reservation. Turns out someone else took it and didn’t write it down in the right place, so essentially there was no room for us. This led to some yelling between the hostess and the owner while they tried to figure out what to do with us. Eventually they added some extra chairs to a table – basically putting us in the hallway, but we went for it anyway. Then the staff yelling continued. Literally – these people were just screaming at each other and following each other around the restaurant to continue the argument. It was the most bizarre thing ever. This all would have been worth it if the food was as good as expected, but it. was. not. I had some kind of meatball dish that was literally just meatballs in tomato sauce, but so salty it was nearly inedible. And to top it off, the place did not serve alcohol, so we couldn’t even drown our sorrows in a nice bottle of wine.

Our last evening of the event was another exciting restaurant meal, where we went to a posh place boasting “authentic” belly dancing shows in the evening. We actually went because the food was amazing (and it was), but ended up staying for the show. If by “belly dancing” you mean what was essentially “strippers”, then I guess it was authentic? These gals were pretty much giving lap dances to various gentlemen in the crowd, and were being compensated with cash stuffed into their minimal clothing. But it was to vaguely arabic sounding music, so I guess it was legitimate, right?

To cap off our exciting week, I booked us on a day tour of the nearby Atlas mountains, where we stopped at a berber market, a ladies’ argan oil cooperative, rode camels, and had lunch in what was quite possibly the most beautiful lunch spot I’ve ever seen.

All in all, I kind of loved it and would go back to Morocco in a heartbeat. Except I think me and my USBs are probably on a list somewhere.

Strasbourg snow & Swiss cheese

While my parents were here, we decided to do a little tour. Last year we went to Italy, so I figured we should do something in the other direction – and since we had such a lovely time in Strasbourg last time, I thought it would be nice to go there with them. Unfortunately, it was a bit chilly and snowy! Somehow we managed to arrive over the few days that it wasn’t sunny. But that didn’t stop us, we still enjoyed a fantastic few days.

The main sight is of course the cathedral, which was just as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We also took the same little train trip, as well as a boat tour around the canals. It snowed while we were on the boat, and then something happened to the motor so they had to take us back early. We went to re-book the trip, but it was taking such a long time that we got reimbursed instead. Free boat trip! I also dragged my dad to my favorite game store, where I bought a discounted game that was some kind of unholy union between steampunk and Risk  – it was too complicated for us to figure out (in French)!

That day was also my mom’s birthday, so we booked a nice dinner at the Kammerzell House restaurant. You think sometimes these kinds of famous places are charging for more of a touristy experience, but actually the food was very good, with a great wine list, and the servers were really attentive. It was lovely.

On our second day, we toured the zoological museum, which was small but really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many weird taxidermied animals in one place. There were probably a thousand birds, many of them misshapen and hilarious. Easily a highlight of the trip!

On the drive home, we followed the Alsatian wine route part of the way, stopping in the medieval village Riquewihr for lunch. This was probably the most adorable little place I’ve ever seen, with ancient cobblestone streets winding around rows of colorful sloping houses. We had lunch, ironically, at a Swiss-style restaurant. But it was nice.

Back at home, I took my mom and the kids to the Cailler chocolate factory. They had been asking for weeks to visit, and the week after Easter seemed like a good time (and there were plenty of chocolate sales to be had). We also stuffed ourselves with cheese in nearby Gruyères, where my mom had raclette for the first time – even though I had made her a homemade cheese fondue the night before and we had sworn off cheese for eternity.

Too soon it was time for my parents to head home. I’m sure they’ll be back again soon!

Bali summer camp: Wedding edition

Over the past, oh, decade or so, there have only been a handful of times we’ve managed to take an adults-only trip. Once was New Year’s in Banff a few years ago, and otherwise a few long weekends here and there. So any time we can get away on our own is a fantastic opportunity all on its own. Throw in our best friends’ wedding, a visit “home” to Indonesia, meeting up with amazing friends old and new, and a relaxing week on a tropical island, and you have the makings of the perfect trip!

The happy couple – from Australia and Canada, respectively – decided it would be easier to have their families and friends meet halfway for their wedding, bringing us all back to Bali to celebrate their marriage where it all began in Indonesia. Grandma came here to stay with the kids for a week while we snuck out of town. I was fresh off my trip to Hawaii, so although I literally flew around the entire world within a few days, I was still game.

First we spent a few nights on our own in Sanur and then we headed over to Lembongan island for about a week. We were lucky enough to book in at a resort with several other (child-free) couples, and the entire week felt like adult summer camp – drinking bedside (and in) the pool, staying up late playing cards, watching sunsets and sunrises and evening stars, and sharing embarrassing stories about our mutual friends. We rented scooters and traveled around the island all week, stopping for snacks and drinks, exploring the beaches, and visiting other resorts.

The wedding itself was just perfect – at sunset, on the beach, filled with gorgeous colors and smiling faces. Everyone had spent the week already getting to know each other, so there was none of that wedding “awkwardness” of having strangers trying to bond over the course of an evening. That comfort might have led to me drinking too many ciders and spending the night being loud and underclothed in the pool, but it was all in good fun. And when you get a bunch of Canadians and Australians together with a bunch of alcohol, what else can you expect?

Other highlights included a snorkeling trip, which was rather poorly planned on the morning after the bachelor/hen party. Fortunately the ladies took it easy the night before, but the guys were up too late and got too drunk – as it turns out, a bunch of hungover guys on an early morning snorkeling trip is a terrible idea. By the way, when you throw up in the ocean while snorkeling, it doesn’t bring all the fish to you. It just fills the ocean with vomit. Disappointingly, the reefs around the areas we visited were not very healthy, so we didn’t see much. But I still enjoyed getting out with my snorkel while B napped on the beach.

I mentioned we rented scooters – well, by “rented” I mean we paid some local families to give up their scooters for a week or so. They were not in the best condition. Between five of us, we probably had one working scooter. All the brakes were questionable, no one’s speedometer worked, starters were patchy, but it was worth the freedom of being able to tour the island on our own schedule. There was one sketchy bridge connecting our island to the next island, which we crossed several times to visit the restaurants and beaches on that side despite it feeling unsafe – and horrifyingly, it collapsed only days after we had been there, so my gut feeling was terrifyingly correct. Oh and there was the time B broke his toe on a wall by driving a bit too close… but otherwise we were ok, moms!

Too soon it was over, our friends were Mr and Mrs, and we had to head home. We had a day to kill in Seminyak, and we were looking forward to getting some (slightly illegal) DVDs, Indonesian knicknacks, and visiting our other favorite Bali restaurants and shops. But the weather was not in our favour, and instead we spent most of the day waiting out the rain in various cafes until we gave up and went to the airport to kill the hours before our plane left.

Who is getting married in Bali next?? We’re totally there.

Netherlands Friends Reunion

We left Paris and rolled into the Netherlands by late afternoon. B slept most of the way, which would be a running theme for the rest of our trip. We had rented a shared farmhouse / cottage in Breukelen with two other families – and we were looking forward to seeing our friends from Belgium and Indonesia.

The place we rented was a little farm with some modern cottage apartments – more than enough for all of us to stay comfortably. And there was a large shared kitchen space that proved essential when hosting 6 adults and 6 kids for 3 days! More importantly, there was a barn full of cows and cow poop and tractors and the kids were in heaven. It was a great few days of nice meals, evening games, plenty of drinks, sightseeing and catching up. B spent the whole time sick in bed, basically on the edge of death from bronchitis. But the rest of us had fun!

On our first day, we took the train into Amsterdam for the afternoon. Wow, it really does smell like pot, and it was crazy overrun by tourists. We didn’t have time for too much, but we managed to squeeze in a canal boat tour. It was looking like it was going to be a pricey tour, something like 20 EUR per person (we were 7), but then in a Christmas miracle some random guy walked up and gave us free passes. Apparently he had won them in a contest but couldn’t use them. Free boat tour! I enjoyed seeing the city from the canals, though I would have liked to explore more of the winding streets and little shops on foot. We did manage a bit of walking around the city after that, but it was cold, and our troupe of kids got bored and whiny no matter how many waffles and treats we gave them, so we headed back home.

The next day we went into Utrecht, where we had prearranged a really nice city walking tour. The guide was a younger guy who went out of his way to make it a fun quiz game, stopping at different spots for fun and spooky stories about the old town, to keep the kids engaged. It was a beautiful little place and I would have, again, liked to see more of it!

The next day was time to go, and thankfully B was feeling a bit better. We decided to stop again in Utrecht for one more quick look around so he could say he saw something in the Netherlands other than a barn and cottage and bed. It was nice to take a bit more time, seeing some little shops and having a nice lunch before saying goodbye to our friends and hitting the road.

It was about a 10-hour drive home, so we spent the night at a hotel in Luxembourg. That was a nice break, just to relax somewhere with a pool and a nice breakfast. Too bad we left the next day and didn’t realise until halfway home that we had left behind our electronics bag that contained ALL of our device chargers and plugs. Argh. Luckily the hotel found them and kindly mailed them along, so we only had to go a week without.

Time to start planning next year’s trip!

New Year’s in La Ville Lumière

New Year’s Eve isn’t all that exciting once you have kids – basically we stay in and I usually sleep through the ball drop every year. But it is fun that we have managed to start a new year in different time zones and places over the past few years: Jakarta, Sydney, Banff, Leuven and now Paris!

If you recall, BigB was pretty sick, but I managed to pack him into the car and drive us on to Paris. It’s only about a 5 hour drive from here, and the weather was in our favor. As usual, there was plenty of fog along the way so the views were not exceptional, but the sun came out a few times and gave us glimpses of some beautiful frosty landscapes.

We arrived at the adorable, tiny apartment we rented. It was probably the most parisian place ever, filled with weird knicknacks, old theatrical posters, a bathroom plastered with books and maps, a collection of VHS tapes from the 80s, and the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen (we couldn’t even figure out how to get the over door open because it kept getting stuck on the door frame beside it). So, basically, we loved it. It also had a huge balcony (it was the top floor of a large apt building) with views of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and across the city. Well, theoretically it did. Mostly we saw fog. And it was cold. We didn’t spend much time out there.

We arrived on NYE itself, so we grabbed a few groceries from the store and settled in for the night. A few bottles of wine and a viewing of “Conan the Barbarian” went down well. We brought some sparklers to light outside, but forgot a lighter, so we just looked at unlit sparklers for a while, and went to bed by probably 10 pm. Happy New Year!

We woke up the next year and headed out for the day. New Year’s day in Paris is celebrated quietly, but there was a parade happening in the Champs Elysées – so we checked that out. Their Christmas market was still going on, which meant we filled up on vin chaud and crepes, poked around at the shops, and saw some depressing animatronic “christmas” dinosaurs. The parade itself was a bit of a mess – it wasn’t well organised, just clumps of people crowding around a handful of marching bands from the US and some random other acts. The best part was probably the tiny firetruck blowing confetti at everyone. We followed it around for a while to get extra confetti. By the way, air-blasted confetti gets everywhere.

The next day we did a little walk around to see the Bastille (which was under construction, so instead we checked out the Starbucks next door), visit Notre Dame (where the kids were only interested in the spinning play structure at the playground), and exploring Saint-Germain (where our rain-soaked kids just cried until we fed them hamburgers and went home on the metro). So, we managed to see Starbucks, a few playgrounds, a hamburger joint and some metro stations. All in all, I guess it was a typical vacation for us!

We ended the trip with an evening of sparklers (we finally remembered to buy a lighter), watching “Peter Pan” in French on VHS (watching something on “tape” blew our kids’ minds), and a microwaved frozen pizza (recall the oven issue) – and we left town the next morning on our way to the Netherlands!

Aloha, Hawai’i, Mahalo

This one time, I went to Hawai’i.

But before you get too excited, it was for work, and I barely saw anything but the inside of the conference hall and my hotel room. One day, about 7 days into my trip, I managed to stumble outside and see the sun for the first time since my arrival.

I did try to make the most of my limited free time, however. I filled up a handful of evenings and one full day with trips to the beach, sunset cocktails, bowls of poké, midnight ocean swimming, and an epic bus ride to the North Shore to buy a locally handmade ukulele.

On the one hand, Honolulu is one of the most touristy places I’ve ever been. Walking down Waikiki strip is like walking through an American mall that has just been decorated to look like what people think Hawai’i should look like. On the other hand, taking the city bus through the city and beyond, I saw more homelessness and signs of addiction than I’ve ever seen. One guy even came and sat next to me on the bus, and he was vaping something and having loud psychotic outbursts – taking a disliking to a completely innocent gentleman in a nearby seat. After yelling and acting crazy, he eventually just got up and walked off the bus, to everyone’s relief. The bus ride also took me past both the biggest jail and the biggest army base I’ve ever seen, as well as pineapple fields spreading from horizon to horizon. Even in Hawai’i, America goes big or goes home, I guess.

At least the sweet baby ukulele I bought was 110% worth it. Imua concert size, made with Hawaiian Koa wood from the big island, with geared tuning pegs and abalone inlays… It is now my favorite thing in the world. Also, what’s up with all the rainbows, Honolulu? I thought the whole rainbow-over-palm-trees-tropical-island thing was bit of an exaggeration, but I think there was literally a rainbow in the sky at least once a day.

I’d love to go back and visit some of the other islands, have a full luau, maybe take a ukulele master class or do some scuba diving. Next time, I guess!

I left my heart in Strasbourg

We spent a fantastic long weekend in Strasbourg. What a charming little town! The cathedral is glorious, all the historical buildings are perfectly preserved, the food is delicious, and the city is so easy to navigate. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Being there in September, the weather was a bit chilly, and we had some rain. And then there was the time LittleB got run over by a bike. We were crossing the road and a cyclist went against the light and totally plowed him over. He was fine, just a bit beat up. She was roughed up as well, but I had a harder time feeling bad about it since she was the one in the wrong, even though she insisted he “appeared out of nowhere”. Anyway, no hard feelings, Strasbourg. We still love you.

Savona weekend

I thought one trip to Italy while living here would be enough, but I was wrong! It’s so easy to get there, it might become a dangerously regular activity around here.

Only a few weeks after we had our Tuscany Tour 2016, we went on a spur-of-the-moment long weekend trip to Savona with some friends. Savona is on the north coast of the Mediterranean (actually the Ligurian Sea at that point), just 5h or so from our house. Spring was in full bloom by that time, so we had no snowstorms through the Alps, and enjoyed a beautiful drive down through Italy.

We rented an apartment right on the harbor, a modern place overlooking the whole marina. And it turns out that Savona is a major stop for cruise ships – so we had a great view of these huge floating apartments coming into dock. It was very cool.

We met up with our friends who had rented an apartment nearby and spent the afternoon on the beach, having a few drinks, walking around the city, and settling in for a pizza dinner, before heading home around 9 pm or so. But when we arrived at the apartment building, we discovered that there was an outer building door that had been open all day and was now closed (so we didn’t realize it was there) – and we didn’t know the code or have the right key to open it! And since it was late at night, no one seemed to be coming or going, and no concierge was on duty. I tried calling the apartment owner without any luck. We waited for over an hour before the kids got too cold and tired to hang around out front. What to do??

We thought about sleeping in the car, but that was too pathetic. We couldn’t figure out if there was another hotel nearby without internet access, and it seemed so crazy to double pay for accommodation. Luckily, we got hold of our friends and they very generously let us come to their place – even if they really didn’t have enough room for us!

And that, folks, is how we found ourselves sleeping on a tiny kitchen floor, on a piece of foam, with only a tablecloth for a blanket, while all our stuff enjoyed the night in a swanky modern apartment. We did eventually get the code and made our way into the apartment the next day.

But it didn’t ruin our good time. There was still a street food festival to taste, an ancient fort to explore, a beach to enjoy, and plenty of limoncello to drink. We saw Christopher Columbus’ house, which was pretty cool, regardless of how I feel about his claim to fame, and I also found Dante Alighieri street, which made my day.

Writing this, it might be time to go back to Italy again!

 

Carcassonne in Carcassonne

Our summer holidays didn’t go as planned.

I only took one week off work in July, because I was leading up to a big event and couldn’t be away from the office for more than that. So it had to be a great week, the pressure was on.

We made plans to drive up to Hamburg and visit some good friends there. Google figures that’s about a 10-hour drive, and we would stop for some sightseeing along the way – Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Hanover – the whole of Germany was open to us and we were going to make the best of it.

But at the same time we were making our travel plans, a parallel narrative was taking place. Let me tell you that story, the one about how we bought a used Italian sports car from a dude on Facebook.

When we moved to Switzerland, we were broke and desperate for a means of transportation. We found out about a local Facebook group where people (mostly expats) would post things for sale. And what luck when a really nice looking Alfa Romeo sport wagon came up for sale – a bit older, but in our price range, and the guy is ready to move it quickly. We met up, loved the car, paid him, brought it home. Now, we know cars can have quirks, and older cars can have even more quirks – this is not a deal breaker. In fact, there’s something I like about those annoying car tics that give it personality and make the car more ‘yours’.

Our car doesn’t like to start. It’s a bit random, and it’s mostly electrical. But, like a stereotypical high-maintenance Italian lady, it happens at the worst moments and when you’re in a rush. Like in a parking garage after you’ve already paid and your exit ticket is running out. Or when you need to get the kids from school and hurry to an appointment. Or when you parked illegally for a moment to drop off a package. Or, you know, the day before you want to drive to Germany to see your friends for the holidays.

So the car spent several days at the garage trying to fix this not-starting-and-also-random-stopping-while-driving-in-the-road problem so we could try to prevent dying or being stranded somewhere in the bowels of Germany, I don’t know which is worse. But by the time the problem was fixed, we missed the window of opportunity that was our week in Hamburg.

But I still had a few more days off and I needed to squeeze the life out of that long weekend before returning to a long summer of working. Where could we go that’s closer than Hamburg and still be an awesome summer holiday-worthy trip?

The answer came from our board game obsession. Carcassonne is a French city that has seen many waves of settlers and conquerors over several millennia and is famous for its well-preserved medieval citadel and fortified city. And in the game, you get to build up the area with your own walled cities and citadels inspired by the place. So obviously we were experts about the area and excited to visit this place we had built and conquered ourselves so many times before. Perfect!

We packed up and enjoyed the drive to southern France, only about 5 hours. We rented an apartment downtown, within walking distance to all the shops and restaurants, and only a short drive to the medieval Cité. And we did make the best of  it! Castle ramparts, ancient cathedrals, seafood dinners, mornings at the lake, bell tower views, carousels and knights. It was hot! I think our car melted a little but we still love her.  And then it was time to come home. We only got one speeding ticket on the way, so that’s a plus too.

By the way, anyone want to buy a gently used Alfa Romeo?