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.

 

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!

Christmas Catchup

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of 2015. It’s been a whirlwind year, and an even busier past few months filled with travel, work, settling in, new school and lots more stuff I can’t even remember.

But we were lucky to end the year with a visit from Grandma L, and we managed to fit in a few day trips around the area. Here are the highlights:

We spent a day in Gruyères, a small medieval village best known for the cheese of the same name. As it turns out, it is also home to the H.R. Giger museum – that was a weird discovery. I don’t usually expect to see hypersexualized alien torsos and spinal columns on display in front of a stone house from the 1400s. But the cheese was great, and the adorable local castle even better – straight out of a movie set. We capped off our trip with a visit to the Cailler chocolate factory, whose highlight was a 20-minute animatronic history of chocolate followed by all-you-can-eat chocolate tasting.

In the lead up to the holidays, we headed to the Christmas market in Montreux and took the funicular train up the mountain to meet Santa. Montreux is a beautiful area, with a view of the whole valley and across the lake. Well, apparently it is. It was completely foggy while we were there, so we only saw blank whiteness all around. BigB spent the whole train ride texting me “The Langoliers are coming… Langoliers…” The market itself was cute – personally, I was on a mulled wine tour of the various kiosks, which I’m pleased to say was quite successful. Then we had a weird potato and cheese stew called tartiflette for lunch that had very little flavour other than salt – so basically like all Swiss dishes.

Up the mountain, we arrived at Santa’s Grotto. First we had to walk down a poorly lit underground hallway for nearly 500m until we emerged into some kind of tiny WWII bunker that was decorated for Christmas. The kids didn’t really want to visit Santa, so that was a bust. But at least BigB got to sit on the big guy’s lap. Not sure what he wished for…Then we stopped partway down the mountain at another little Christmas village on the grounds of a castle, where the kids watched a play (in French). LittleB’s assessment: “It had its ups and downs. But I don’t really know what it was about.” J said it was about “magic” and “an accordion”. Sounds like exactly how I would imagine a French christmas play. The adults hung around outside and enjoyed the wood fire and watched the clouds start to clear away for a little sunset magic of our own.

And suddenly it was Christmas!

Best wishes to you all for a wonderful 2016!

Moving on… again

I’m finally back online after a long summer of avoiding my laptop like the plague. I just couldn’t bring myself to open it up, even for personal activities like blogging. I think I might have had a bit of computer PTSD or something… anyway, here we are again, starting the transition to somewhere new, and all the hauling around of our stuff that it entails.

About six weeks ago, I packed up the last of our life in Indonesia and hopped on a plane to spend the summer at home in Canada. B and the kids were already there, having left as soon as school ended in late June. I stuck around to wrap things up, including two intensive weeks of sorting and cataloguing our things in anticipation of moving them. In the end, it took three days and 108 boxes for our household to be loaded onto a shipping container – I can’t believe that only a few years ago, we dumped a handful things into only 7 boxes for our move to Indonesia! Where did the 101 other boxes of things come from?

It was an interesting packing process. A troupe of guys showed up with some flat cardboard and Tetrised our stuff into approximate rectangles – putting pillows and kitchen containers into the negative space of a chair, for example – then placed the rectangle on a piece of cardboard and custom-built a box up around it. It was cool, but I’m pretty sure some of these boxes are not going to fit into any other place that we live in the future…

So where are our 108 boxes headed? Well, hopefully they haven’t been lost at sea (I recently read “The Wave”, which has left me with a deeply unhealthy obsession with cargo ships sinking randomly… you should read it) – but assuming they have made it across the ocean, the plan is to meet them in Switzerland, where we’ll be based for at least the next two years. I got a new position with an international organization there, so we’re looking to settle just north of the Geneva area.

Back in May, I visited Switzerland during my job interview process. Although I was hoping to do a bit more sightseeing and didn’t have a chance, I did spend a few hours wandering around the small villages north of Geneva and in Geneva itself:

So, that brings us to today. Here we are, traveling on the train to begin a complicated dance of getting ourselves out of the country: me and the kids are taking this train into Montreal, where we will stop at the Swiss embassy to drop off our passports. B is currently driving to Montreal with a friend – and our 8 pieces of luggage – stopping at our airport hotel to drop everything off and meet up with us later in the day. Then we pick up our passports and visas tomorrow and fly to Geneva from there. Aaaannnd that’s about all we have planned.

We don’t have a place to stay temporarily, or anywhere to live permanently. The kids are already missing school (which started yesterday, and which they’re not registered for anyway), and we have too much luggage for us to manage on any kind of public transport.

But I guess not knowing what the heck we’re doing is part of the fun.

See you in Switzerland!

Paris part 1: the palace

The train from London to Paris was pleasant but unremarkable. Once again, we didn’t see anything but darkness in the tunnel, and we watched as the English countryside turned into the scattered suburbs of Paris. We arrived at the Gare and hopped on the metro to Bastille – where we had rented an apartment for the next four nights.

If you’ve never been to Paris, then I don’t blame you for this – but for all you folks who have visited or lived there, you neglected to warn me that Paris is the least suitcase-friendly city in the universe. We went up and down about 10,000 stairs between getting off the train and entering our apartment. No escalators. No elevators. Just many, many stairs and plenty of uneven sidewalks interrupted by construction. I think, actually, by the time you go down into to the bowels of the Paris metro and walk the several kilometers of winding underground paths to your stop, you might as well have just walked along the street. Also, normally I subscribe to the ‘pack 2 pairs of underwear in a bag for the week’ kind of travel mantra, but for this trip, I made the mistake of bringing an actual suitcase (to bring back large amounts of delicious Parisian treats). So I had to lug that suitcase through what I assume was equivalent to the distance of the entire metro line. Only backpacks for me from now on.

But we did make it safely, and we couldn’t wait to head out for amazing French food for dinner. But where to go? We did some quick online searching and found a highly rated restaurant nearby that was unique in being run by a single chef who also acted as waiter and host – serving only a handful of people each night, as though you were sharing a meal with him at his house. Perfect! I called him up and managed to get reservations for that night.

And it was AMAZING. Easily in my top 3 meals of all time.

The next day, we decided to venture out to Versailles. Travel tip: Don’t book with an overpriced tour. It was an easy train ride and we had no problem buying tickets at the palace itself for much cheaper than any tour.

We were expecting a lavish, opulent palace filled with rococo curiosities. It turned out to be more like a dusty museum that had been pillaged of its contents over the course of a few centuries. Actually, I guess that’s exactly what it was – an empty building with most of the stuff having been sold off for the good of the republic at various points in history. There were still a few items in the main bedrooms, but they weren’t *stunning*, and they were caked with dust. It was most interesting to see the layout of the building itself – I’ve watched enough period piece movies to know that the king and queen had zero privacy, and this proved it. All the rooms were essentially hallways, and it was pretty clear that they were high-traffic zones. Probably they didn’t sleep much in there, and it was mostly for show, but still, they really did give themselves to the motherland, in all the being-naked-and-going-to-the-bathroom senses of the word. The Hall of Mirrors was cool, but again, kind of dusty and run down.

We wandered outside into the gardens, which are enormous and famous. But because we were there in early spring, they were mostly ugly and misty. Plus there were some refurbishments going on in many of the fountains. The entire garden is hundreds of acres, which was so overwhelming we didn’t even bother leaving the palace area to explore deeper into the yard. Time to take our tired feet home for some wine.

Along the way, we stopped at the Notre Dame cathedral to watch pigeons poop on all the tourists, found a little cafe and ate some crepes for lunch, and I bought some local art. It was a perfect Parisian afternoon!

Next up: Art!

London part 1: the arrival

Back in March, my sister and I went on a Thelma-and-Louise style trip to Paris and London (minus the manslaughter and double suicide, of course…). But it was a super fun last-minute vacation, and extra special because it was probably the first time we had ever traveled together, just the two of us. Why Paris and London? Well, it seemed to be a fair halfway point between Canada and Indonesia. Plus, who wouldn’t want to go there??

It’s taken me a while to post this because we crammed so much into our week abroad that I was exhausted just trying to sort through all the photos. But now I’m ready! So let’s do London.

We met in the Paris airport on a chilly Saturday morning. As it turns out, public spaces in Paris are not heated. Coming fresh off the plane from Jakarta, I had to put on two pairs of pants just to keep warm while I waited. Soon my sister arrived and there was much rejoicing. Our plan was to head straight to the Gare du Nord and catch our train to London. We hopped on the metro, passing what I think must be the ugliest part of Paris: crumbly buildings, industrial yards, graffitied train stations and gypsy tents made out of discarded fridges and old clothes. As it turns out, most of Paris looks like that, but more on that later.

When we arrived at the Gare, we had a few hours to kill before our train to London, so we took a little wander around the area. Although there wasn’t a lot to see – other than about 1000 cafes, all with the exact same red awnings and wicker chairs out front – we stumbled on a lovely little indoor market (also not heated) selling fresh produce, flowers, seafood, cheese, meats – so we picked up a little treat of salami and delicious stinky cheese for the train ride. Our train companions were thrilled about that.

The trip was only a few hours, and the track went under the English Channel. I was hoping it would be epic – how often do you get to travel for miles underneath the water? But we didn’t see any coastline or actual water, because the tunnel starts so far away from the edge, and then inside the tunnel is quite dark – of course, because it’s a tunnel. This makes total sense in hindsight. I’m not sure what I was expecting; maybe one of those glass aquarium tunnels where fish swim right over top of you? I guess that was a bit unrealistic. So the ride wasn’t very exciting, but it was neat to see the Paris suburbs turn into quaint English pastures as we chugged along.

We rented a little apartment in London just south of Regent’s Park, perfectly situated to walk to most of the tourist areas, and right on the underground line for areas that were a bit too far on foot. That night we were up for an adventure, so we headed straight out to explore the town!

The first place we ended up was an adorable and totally packed English pub that was about the size of a small living room. We shoved our way to the bar, ordered some pints and started chatting to a couple nearby. Turns out they were visiting from the U.S. and were equally up for an adventure. So the four of us had a few more drinks and wandered off to find “real English” dinner – that didn’t turn out to be too hard, and we soon found ourselves in the (probably haunted) top floor of a pub eating a variety of liver pies and heartily overcooked vegetables. And it was all as bland and tasteless as we expected. Mission accomplished!

We stumbled out of the pub and wandered around Piccadilly Circus – which, disappointingly, is not at all the animal kind of circus. Wikipedia informed me that our British friends use “circus” to mean a junction of streets in a circle. Silly. We checked out some shops, I bought a coat because it turns out London is cold, and eventually parted ways with our American friends to get a bit of sleep back at the apartment.

Next up: Irish partying & garlic love

Sri Lanka part 3 – the hills

Our last two stops on the trip were to Ella and Kandy before returning to Colombo and home.

Ella is a beautiful little village in the high tea mountains. We stayed at a boutique hotel which had a single-family bungalow perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking “Ella Rock.” We arrived in the early evening when the fog had rolled in, so we weren’t sure at first whether or not the location was very good. But then suddenly the mist rolled away and we saw a beautiful view across the mountains and valleys. It turned out to be another perfect few days.

In the morning, we visited a heritage tea factory and saw how the leaves went from green to tea. They didn’t allow us to take any photos, and although B snapped a few illicitly, they didn’t turn out. Suffice it to say that making tea is a rather labour-intensive process. And honestly, the tea we drank in Sri Lanka was the best I’ve ever had in my life. Also, we drank so much of it so often that I felt like I was living with my mom again. We bought a few boxes to bring home with us, so if you are lucky you might get to try some.

We enjoyed the rest of the day wandering down the (very small) street of Ella village and stopping for some lunch and snacks. That night, we played cards on the balcony and watched the full moon rise and light up the mountains.

The next day, we said goodbye to Ella and hopped on a train to Kandy. The views of the countryside were astounding. In fact, it got to the point where we just had to literally stop taking photos because it was so exhausting. It was a long trip, but we enjoyed it. The windows opened and we could watch everything passing by. The train only travelled at about 15 km/h, so it was easy to see it all.

We arrived in Kandy around dinnertime and made it to our hotel. Luckily we had booked into a very new, higher-end place with western-style amenities. We were all ready for a warm shower and a night of TV watching. So we ordered some room service sandwiches and hunkered down.

In the morning, we headed into the city to wander around. We walked through markets and temples, and it was Easter Sunday that day, so there were a lot of festivities happening. I guess even Buddhists like Easter. Well, there were a lot of churches too. Anyway, we bought some snacks and checked out some stores. We unsuccessfully tried to find a cool colonial graveyard I had read about, but the day was still fun. We spent the afternoon back at the hotel enjoying the pool.

The next day, we checked out early and backpacked our things back through the city (our train didn’t leave until the evening). At last, we managed to find the graveyard we were looking for, as well as a great batik store that is highly rated. After a picnic lunch beside the lake, we headed to the Botanical Gardens for the afternoon. The gardens were large and lovely. We saw flowers, ferns, cactuses, trees, lakes. At one point, J fell and hurt her hand, so we stopped to bandage her up and grab a snack. A herd of monkeys came through and started aggressively circling us. They were getting between me and my cubs, so I sort of yelled and stomped at them and almost started a human-monkey turf war. We GTFO of there right away, luckily no harm done!

We carted a pair of tired kiddos to the train, and after a couple of hours on the train to Colombo, we flew home early in the morning back to real life.

We’ll miss you, Sri Lanka!