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!

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!

Swiss fall

Before we knew it, it was autumn. Glorious summer was over, and the shorter, cooler days began. But we still made the most of it! We spent weekends enjoying the area, with all-season farmers’ markets and sunny afternoons.

The skating rink opened in town – a cute little covered arena that is free to the public (plus the cost of skate rental, if needed). We took the kids several times. And I enjoyed the attached “buvette” – pop-up refreshment stand that serves hot chocolate and vin chaud (mulled wine). Basically vin chaud is my favourite drink of all time. I spent most of the season looking for opportunities to visit markets and events to “sample” the various vins chauds, you know, for science.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, it was Halloween! But it’s not such a big deal here, so we kept it small. We spent an evening with our friends, which mostly turned into a vodka sampling party. You know, for science.

On Halloween proper, we did some trick-or-treating in a nearby expat neighbourhood with some other friends, and that was insanity. There were a limited number of houses actually giving out candy, and more than 100 kids running wild down the streets trying to figure out who was offering candy and who wasn’t. It was like Lord of the Flies: Candy edition. At one point, we saw a group of kids (not ours) just open up someone’s door and walk into their house… they didn’t have any candy. We wrapped up early and headed home to enjoy the spoils.

Another weekend, we made the trip into Geneva to watch a lightshow on the University buildings. It was a narrated digital projection of – basically – the journey of evolution, told from the perspective of amino acids. Sounds really fun, huh? Actually, it was very well done, with a lot of amazing images, and even audience members who couldn’t follow the French narrator enjoyed the show…

…With one caveat: from the start, there was a single, random lady at the front of the building who was dancing a sort of modern ballet routine in time with the show. She was so tiny compared to the scale of the building and the projections, it was hard to even see her. We weren’t even sure she was actually part of the event – was she just an audience member who was feeling really inspired by the role of amino acids in the formation of life?? Eventually one other tiny dancer appeared and they spent the whole show doing their interpretation of the narrative. The jury is still out about their legitimate involvement.

Other times we played football with friends, went to a hockey game, and hiked around the area. One weekend, there was a festival in Geneva – l’Escalade – which is a celebration around mid-December each year, commemorating one night in 1602 when the Genevois defeated invaders from Savoy by dumping boiling soup on them while they tried to scale the city walls. Hence, l’Escalade, which means “the climb” in French.

Nowadays, it involves getting little vegetable soup-shaped chocolates, which you smash with your fist and yell “Thus perish the enemies of the republic!” and then eat the pieces. We did that. Also, you go into the old town, eat vegetable soup on the street and watch super old army reservists shoot super old muskets in a demonstration of the Genevois prowess. Anyway, we got to see an old canon go off, so that was neat. But the mulled wine wasn’t very good – I know these things because I am a sampling expert now.

Italy: From the Alps for a piece of Pisa pizza

Over the Easter holidays, we took a trip to Italy with my parents. We piled into our rented van and headed out, destination: the west coast of the boot, where we had rented a little villa for the week.

It’s easy to misjudge how close Switzerland and Italy really are. I think we might actually be able to see Italy from our house… Even moreso, it’s surprising how much a change in temperature and terrain you can see in just a few hours. We drove up around Lac Léman and through the Saint Bernard tunnel (we didn’t see any real Saint-Bernards, but we did see a few statues, with the brandy barrels and everything!). Traffic was good, and we made good time. And before we knew it, suddenly we had climbed over snowy alpine peaks, through dry Italian savannas and arrived at a rocky coastline peppered with tunnels. Italy really likes its tunnels. It seems like the entire coast is tunneled straight through rock.

We spent the night in Arenzano, just next to Genoa, and enjoyed an evening walking the coast and breathing the Mediterranean sea air. However, we quickly discovered that when you take 4 adults and 2 children with picky eating habits and all with a tendency to not make decisions, you run into issues of finding and acquiring dinner. We wandered around town for a while, and most places were either not open yet or unsuitable for one reason or another, until we finally settled on Lebanese take-out. In Italy. And then LittleB almost threw up in the park. So we spent the rest of the night in our hotel room, watching the live-action Scooby Doo movie (the sequel) dubbed into Italian. In other words, it was a classic TheCayas vacation evening.

The next day we made a quick stop in Genoa and ate probably the best gelato ever. Then we spent some time overlooking the city from the Spianata Castelletto, until we were almost literally mobbed by several tour groups and swarms of tiny flies. We also managed to nearly get our rental van stuck in the parking area, when the corners of the narrow Italian streets were too small for us – but with some careful spotting, my dad managed to climb the wheels over several large curbs and get us free. On to Viareggio.

The villa we rented was in Torre del Lago, which turned out to be quite a sleepy little village but we discovered it is famous for two things: 1) It was the summer home of Puccini, who would write his operas in a little tower beside the lake, and continues to be celebrated with a huge opera festival each summer. But we missed it, being there too early. And, 2) Torre del Lago is apparently a famous gay beach, with huge crowds coming in the summer to enjoy all the bars and shows along the coast. We missed this too, being too early. We only saw a couple of mostly naked Italians on the beach and what could have been a few trans ladies, but otherwise it was pretty deserted.

We had picked the area since it was a good home base for visiting the rest of Tuscany. In particular, it was only about half an hour from Pisa – which was on our must-do list, so we checked it out on our first day. As it turns out, Pisa is quite small, and there’s not a lot there except for that crazy tower. And it is seriously leaning, folks. I mean, I knew it was leaning but it really defies sense. But we had a good time wandering around, taking pictures of all the tourists trying to take one of those “holding up the tower” photos and all the pigeons that sit on statues’ heads (that makes me giggle every time). We tried to find lunch, but as usual, our family herd is not good at that sort of decision making. We ended up eating at a generic fast-food kind of pizza place, BUT it was called “Pisa Pizza”, which you can imagine, led to many jokes about “eating a piece of pisa pizza”. It continues to this day. Worth it.

Cows & hills & wine

So far there are lots of great things about living in Switzerland:

  • Easy commuting – it takes me 10 minutes by car or a short walk to the train for a door-to-door trip of about 40 minutes.
  • Great access to high-quality food and drink – local markets abound for getting fresh produce and meats, and we live in the middle of hundreds of vineyards spread throughout the valley, so the wine is abundant and delicious and local (at a work function, a colleague selected a certain wine off the menu because the winemaker was also his mailman).
  • Beautiful outdoors – although we haven’t jumped into the dedicated outdoor life of most Swiss people, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that we can go outside and enjoy the experience instead of dreading the heat, crowds and stares.

But all this means that my days are disappearing faster than ever, with lots of things to do and wine that isn’t drinking itself. I’m not spending hours in the car or hiding indoors anymore: and that was the time I used to spend writing blogs! Sorry.

To show my apology, I present to you a goodie story that I’ve been saving for a while – the day we went to the Swiss cow parade.

There are a lot of cows in Switzerland. And the Swiss love them. They feed them well, give them lots of room to pasture, and care about their happiness. Even the meat in the supermarket boasts that it comes from “happy animals”. Part of this high level of care (and a very long history of farming) is the use of pastureland in the mountains. But that’s only in the summer, of course – so each autumn, there is a pilgrimage of farmers and their cattle coming down to the warmer, safer fields along the lake.

This cow parade has turned into a big festival, where families dress up their favorite cows in flower headdresses and elaborate bells and tour them around the mountain villages in the hopes of being voted the ‘prettiest cow’.

The rest of us watch the cows go by, try not to step in cow poop (unsuccessfully), and drink wine (very successfully). We also enjoyed stocking up on local goods like sausages, honey, malakoffs and baguettes, and we were serenaded by a chorus of alpine horns.

My favorite part was the guy playing an instrument I’ve never seen before, which I can only assume is called “coin in a bowl” because it is – literally – a coin in a bowl. He would hold this giant ceramic bowl in one hand, spin a coin into its mouth and gyrate the bowl in circles, echoing the sound of a spinning coin along to the rest of the musicians. I’m not sure it enhanced the music in any way, but it was entertaining. And he took his job very seriously.

After the cows continued down the mountain, the magic was over, so we left too. But soon it will be time for the cows to parade back up the hill – and I can only assume the spring parade party will be just as exciting.

To cap off the day, we went into the center of town where there was a wine harvesting party taking place at the castle. There are a small number of communal grapevines, and everyone was allowed to clip off some grapes and add them to the truckful.

Up at the castle courtyard, they were crushing them into fresh grape juice, which was delicious! We didn’t have time to get into the whole experience, but if we had planned it better, we could have bought a tasting glass and sampled all the local wines. Next year!

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!

#SwissLivin

So we live in Switzerland now.

It still feels like a bit of an extended vacation, but the reality is slowing sinking in as we get more and more settled. Let’s list the happenings so far:

GEOGRAPHY
This is a beautiful place, no question. It has everything: rolling fields of corn and sunflowers, orchards and vineyards in every backyard, mountains all around, a shining silver lake on the horizon, quaint stone villages hidden throughout the valley… and we’ve had days and days of beautiful, sunny afternoons, and fresh, crisp evenings. Flowers are still blooming and fruits are hanging heavy in all the trees.

I know the weather will change soon, and these adorable country roads winding through the Jura will be covered with treacherous snowfall. But we’re keen for some winter! I’m looking forward to watching Saint Bernards frolic through across the snowfields, depositing a barrel of brandy at my feet…. That’s a real thing, right? I’m also looking forward to at least one broken limb this year as the entire family learns how to ski, poorly. It’s a good thing we’re paying 1000 FRANCS PER MONTH on health insurance, just for that kind of situation.

Which brings me to…

MONEY
Things are crazy expensive here. Of course, being used to our dollars stretching quite far compared to the Rupiah, prices seem even more extreme. But it’s the fact that you have to pay a lot for EVERYTHING that is a hard pill to swallow. Groceries are expensive. Rent is expensive. Parking is expensive. Restaurants are expensive. Trains are expensive. You pay fees for TV and radio (whether you use them or not).

Anyway, we’re basically out of money over here. Would you contribute to a GoFundMe account if we opened one? Kidding, but really, you are going to see a lot more posts on here about “we stayed in this weekend and ate ramen, darned socks and played board games” instead of “we visited an amazing city, bought expensive art and ate delicious food etc. etc…” But I’m sure that we’ll figure out the tricks to saving money soon enough… for now, here are the ways we are foolishly squandering our paycheques:

HOUSING
Our realtor told us that a healthy real estate market has about 4% available housing. Here, it is 0.4%. And all properties are incredibly overpriced. This fun graphic gives you a peek into the obscene costs of renting here. That being said, we spent one day visiting about 7 properties, and we jumped on one just for the sake of having somewhere to live. So we move in next week. It’s great to have a more permanent place to live, if only so we can stop dumping our stuff in various hotels/vacation rentals around the area. We just moved out of a dumpy motel and into a lovely homestay apartment, but I do feel bad for our very generous landlords who have to put up with our shrieking children, B’s socks all over the place, and my incessant mandolin playing… Soon we will have our very own neighbours to annoy with the same things!

It’s a 3 bedroom apartment with an open-concept kitchen/living room. And it’s… 80 m2, maybe? So we’ll be taking a lot of advice from the IKEA small spaces designs. And it’s anyone’s guess whether our incredibly oversized furniture from Indonesia will even fit. Probably not. We’ll find out when it all arrives in October.

SCHOOL
The kids are still out of school. Oh my god, please kill us now, or at least come and babysit. Getting them into school has been a dominos game of first housing, then insurance, then local immigration approval, then registration, then planting a golden egg under the light of the full moon… but thankfully we managed to get them registered today with the goal of having them start early next week.

And it’s a local school. In French. Now, B and I both speak French, but we were basically too lazy to speak it to the kids for all these years, so they don’t speak French. Regrets there. Anyway, Switzerland seems to have a generous language integration program, so we’re hoping they pick it up quite quickly. Or they fail out and we pay 50k/year to put them in international schooling…

LIFE and CULTURE
So far, the people and the life has been great. Before moving here, I heard some opinions that Swiss folks can be unwelcoming or at least a bit reserved, but everyone we have met has been more than welcoming and incredibly keen and supportive towards us. It’s possible that they are just amused by our “quaint” Canadian French and the fact that we are GIGANTIC compared to everyone else. But it doesn’t feel like we stick out too much. In fact, I’d say that this area of Switzerland actually seems a lot like Canada. Take a bit of Vancouver landscape, a bit of Quebec City downtown, and a bit of the Montreal or Toronto attitude and you have Geneva.

We learned how to play Petanque with some new friends at the downtown court, shadowed by a group of enthusiastic local players who taught the kids some colorful new French words. We picked some apples straight from a tree in the backyard. I found out there is a Circus School here, and am counting the days until I can register. We’ve been drinking all the regional (on sale) wine we can find. We played life-sized chess under the watchful eye of a Geneva elder. J had a crazy temper tantrum in a Geneva diner and we had to bodily carry her out in shame. So I guess it’s just like home!

 

Aussie Adventure Part 2 – Around Sydney

Our Sydney holiday started with checking into our rental house for the week. It was in the Kings Cross area, just outside downtown, and I was looking forward to being within walking distance to lots of food and shops. It turns out we were very close indeed to some shops! Unforuntately, they were almost all *ahem* adult shops. LittleB was super excited to walk past a row of “toy” stores and really wanted to go in – we figured he should wait another 11 years or so before checking out those particular establishments.

But actually, the place we rented was along a very sweet little neighbourhood road nearby. The landlady was from France, so B and I woo’ed her with our language skills, and she was very excited to have her Canadian ‘cousins’ staying downstairs. We had the run of the bottom half of the family’s house, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, only a few hundred metres away from a subway stop and a grocery store, bottle shop, and plenty of restaurants.

We had six days to explore Sydney, and we barely scratched the surface. The first day, we decided to make the kids happy and visit the Aquarium. We showed up early to avoid the crowds – but it was still packed. We shuffled along, checking out all the fish, sharks and platypuses. The kids got these little quiz cards and got to move from station to station, answering questions and stamping their cards. They were so excited, and just wanted to run straight from station to station. So yeah, we basically paid $25 each for them to get a free piece of paper, oblivious to the wonders of the ocean all around them. But we did see some cool stuff. There are viewing tunnels through the tanks, where sharks, manta rays, and a lonely dugong swim right beside and above you so you can more easily check out the weird holes and crevices on their undersides. We also made it to the top of the tank during feeding time and got to watch all the sharks fight over chum. The aquarium also had all the other usual stuff – penguins, coral tanks, seahorses, jellyfish. It was a good time.

Afterwards, we wandered around Darling Harbour, checking out the boats and other tourists. Then we found Paddy’s Market – a huge asian flea market, where we bought some touristy junk (probably made in Indonesia) and paused at a playground nearby to let LittleB climb around on some kind of rope death trap structure. J tried to climb it but only managed to get stuck and then complain loudly and anatomically accurately about the rope hurting her lady parts. Yeah, I think Australia is going to miss us.

On our way back to our subway stop, we took a break in a park to rest our whiny children. Afer a few minutes, we started noticing that there were a lot of rather scruffy characters around. It appeared we had stopped in what might have been the local homeless park. My dad suggested the bench we were on was probably someone’s bed, so we moved along. But I’m not convinced the park was entirely full of homeless people, and I think most of them may have just been scruffy regular folks. In fact, most of Australia seems to be full of scruffy regular folks. So much so, that B and I started playing a game called “Hobo or Hipster?” – every young person in the city was put to the test. It came out pretty even, I think.

Overall, one thing we were particularly looking forward to on our trip was Australian wine. My parents make a point of buying Australian shiraz even back in Ontario – we definitely needed to visit the source of this nectar. So I booked us on a day tour into the Hunter Valley. I checked around online until I found a tour that first, would take all six of us, and also, would include stops not only at wineries but at a chocolate factory, a brewery, a cheese shop, AND an animal park where we would get to hug some Aussie animals. I should tell you that for the six weeks leading up to our trip, J would say every day that she just wanted to hug a joey. That was it, hugging a joey was all she wanted from the entire country of Australia. Luckily, this was the place!

On the day of the tour, we stopped at the animal sanctuary first. Our guide took us to meet the koalas right away. First of all, they were much bigger than I was expecting. And much more active – I guess I always thought they were more slothy. But no, they are actually more like curious kittens, except with huge razor claws that they want to use for climbing up your soft human flesh. Ok, they’re actually pretty horrible creatures. I mean, they were cute to look at and their fur was spongy and oh so soft, but they are not cuddly at all, despite what childhood books on the other side of the world may teach you. I’ve also heard that they all have gonorrhea, so there’s that.

Next, we entered the roo pen. The friendliest one was this old crotchety guy, much smaller than the others, and who, as it turns out, was actually a “walleroo”. I made some kind of (possibly rude) inference about awkward cross-breeding between a kangaroo and a wallaby, thinking that why else would you name an animal after a mix if it’s not actually a mix, right? Like a Liger. Nope, the somewhat offended guide told me that they are a completely separate species. Sure they are, Australia.

Anyway, finally we found the friendly actual kangaroo (she had a collar to set her apart) and J got to hug her! Wish fulfilled!

Inside the sanctuary building were some other crazy pets. Like a dog that was totally blind and deaf, so she just ran up to every person to sniff out who it was, while the owner called her to no avail. Then there were these two sneaky parrots that used all us humans in the room like a bridge, hopping from one to another until they reached the cookie shelf to steal treats. They were bitey.

Next we moved on the the chocolate factory. Ok, we grew up in the town near the Hershey factory, so I wouldn’t call this place a factory in comparison. There was one tiny chocolate stirring machine and then some chocolate for sale… so I guess it was a chocolate producing place at least. It was expensive but tasty.

Luckily the wine was great. The first place we visited was a family vineyard, where we bought a bottle of delicious and expensive merlot to bring home with us. We also visited another vineyard in the afternoon, where we took home some yummy dessert wine. That place had a strange quirk of scattering the ashes of dead family members on rows of grapes and then naming the wine after them. I still can’t decide if that is sweet or a bit creepy. Either way, we drank some “Rosie” and she was pretty tasty.

Lunch was a stop at a big vineyard called Tempus Two, where we had some awesome umami burgers and did our cheese tasting. That was a bust, since all the cheese was just spreadable goat cheese with different flavorings. Um, where is all the actual cheese? Anyway, at least we got to drink some more wine with it.

Last stop was a local microbrewery, where we tried some strange options like “Christmas pudding” and some other ones I can’t remember. Also there was a bouncy castle to keep the kids busy while we drank. They knew how to do drinking right. Oh yeah, and I forgot to tell you that we were on this tour with another family – a family of Irish folks, half of whom were not drinking and the other half who barely drank anything/could not hold their liquor. Talk about going against stereotype. At least B and I drank enough for all of them combined, you know, just to make up for it. It was the least we could do.

 

Canadian Thanksgiving – the real one!

Last weekend, we headed into Jakarta for the real Canadian Thanksgiving in Indonesia. Organized by the local Jakarta Canadians group, it was a traditional turkey dinner held at a downtown hotel.

The menu was very tasty: roast turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots & peas, brussels sprouts with bacon, roasted pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and a selection of desserts that included tiny pumpkin tarts very close to the real thing! The only thing missing was my mom’s stuffing recipe.

It was a great night. Two of our other Canadian friends came along, as well as a handful of wanna-be Canadian friends. Oh, I should mention that there was free alcohol for most of the night, so the party was well lubricated.

We figured that since we have whiny kids who fall asleep at 7 pm, we should book a room in the hotel and just stay overnight. It was brilliant. Sure enough, J fell asleep before dinner even started, and LittleB spent most of the evening playing gameboy under the table. We were able to put them to bed halfway through the evening and then come back down to continue the party!

Planning for this overnight, I decided to take the leap and drive into Jakarta on my own. It actually wasn’t too bad. As I’m discovering, it’s not the traffic that makes driving difficult, it’s that unless you have the routes memorized, it’s impossible to find your way around. And you can’t trust GPS. Google maps was sure that the hotel was located somewhere on some crazy backroad that you couldn’t access, so after many stops for directions at coffee shops and every foreign-looking person on the street, we finally found the place by chance. I also successfully made it home the next day, despite waking up with a hangover at 5 am. Thanks, kids.

 

Rome: the friends

Rome was a whirlwind of amazing sightseeing, delicious food, plentiful drinks, wonderful friends and of course a bit of work thrown in. I was attending a conference with other technical representatives from our partner organizations around the world. There’s something special about the common experience, knowledge and natural disposition of folk in the same types of jobs that makes it easy to get along instantly – really, I guess it’s just nice to be among your own people!

A colleague from work and I arrived early Sunday morning after a grueling 16-hr flight. Nevertheless, we managed to meet up with half a dozen others at the hotel and we headed off for a tour of Rome proper. It was a lovely, sunny day, although not as warm as spring should be. Ok for me though! That day we saw many famous places – Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Novana, Sant’Angelo Bridge, St. Peter’s Square. It was also just a great time wandering around with new friends.

The rest of the week consisted of long days in our conference sessions followed by many late nights trying to make the most of the eternal city. On Monday, one friend and I missed the train home from the conference (mostly due to the free-flowing wine at the kick-off cocktail party after the session); we just owned it – drank the rest of the wine while waiting for the next train, headed into the city center, had dinner at a little pasta place steps from the Pantheon, and wandered back to the Trevi fountain to snap some evening pictures. I thought maybe there would be fewer tourists at midnight, but I was wrong!

The hotel organized by the conference was not near the city center, rather it was in the suburbs and, as we found out, not very close to many good restaurants. We had seen one pizza place nearby, so on Tuesday we thought we could grab a few pizzas and bottles of wine and hole up in one of our hotel rooms. About 7 or 8 of us headed out on the hunt, only to discover that the pizza place was out of pizza. I don’t know how that is even possible… in Italy. Anyway, we spent the next hour wandering around trying to find a suitable replacement. Eventually we split up to divide and conquer: one group looked for pizza and the other was in charge of wine and accessories. I was team wine. We arrived at the wine store (re: grocery store) 5 minutes to close and they had already locked the doors, alas! The game was afoot. Luckily, further down the street we ran into a few other friends who had seen a restaurant/deli around the corner. We bought a few dusty bottles from the top shelf, and with our wine in hand, we met up with the pizza crew back at the hotel and piled into Codrin’s room for a raucous evening.

Wednesday night, we were determined to have better luck. First of all, we wanted to bring a UK friend into the fold, so we figured a beer night was in order. One of the local attendees volunteered to take us to some of her favorite places in town. She found a fantastic pizza place, where I ordered the most delicious pizza known to man: it involved truffle paste. Then we spent the rest of the night drinking beer in an “Irish pub” down the way.

The conference organizers put together an official group dinner on Thursday. By now, a core group of us (the “back of the bus gang”) had become very good at drinking and causing ruckus together, so this was bound to be a fantastic night. Sure enough, as 25 of us (and one misplaced Italian family) piled into a tiny Sardinian restaurant, good fun ensued. Several rounds of wine, many speeches and an impromptu talent show later, we brought down the house. The remaining group who could keep up headed out for a nightcap at a nearby bar. More fun ensued.

Friday night, after stopping for some goods at Eataly, four of us took a tour of the Vatican museum. Incredible. Unfortunately, we got split up in the crowds and two of us spent half an hour waiting for the others in the Sistine Chapel. I’m not complaining – if you’re going to spend half an hour waiting somewhere, it should be there. But it was getting late so we abandoned them and headed back to the hotel. The others made it back eventually as well, so no harm done. They did miss the Raphael Rooms, though!

All good things come to end… On Saturday, a few of us headed back downtown before our flight to stock up on food and gifts. It was a rainy, blah day, mirroring how I felt about leaving. But at least I managed to pack about half of Italy into my suitcase to enjoy back home (including 2 jars of truffle paste!).

 

La bella Roma

Sightseeing in Rome!

 

Happy New Year!

Selamat tahun baru!

We had a very nice night at home to celebrate the new year. We made homemade toaster oven pizza, drank far too much wine, enjoyed good company, and we were treated to a free fireworks show from our balcony.

It turns out that Indonesians love their fireworks. I think we were the only household in the city who didn’t set off our own display. The whole horizon was lit up for almost an hour. It was intense and beautiful!

This was a snow play area in the mall we visited yesterday. But the snow was more like slushy ice, and it was pretty gross. Oh yeah, and it cost SIX DOLLARS to play in it.
This was a snow play area in the mall we visited yesterday. But the snow was more like slushy ice, and it was pretty gross. Oh yeah, and it cost SIX DOLLARS to play in it.
Our friend brought over some sugar so we could predict the future in the Finnish tradition.
Our friend brought over some sugar so we could predict the future in the Finnish tradition.
You melt the sugar and then pour it into a bucket. The resulting shape then tells you something about your future.
You melt the sugar and then pour it into a bucket. The resulting shape then tells you something about your future.
Too bad we did something wrong, and this was the only shape that survived the process.
Too bad we did something wrong, and this was the only shape that survived the process.
So I guess most of us are going to die... or get married. I'm not sure.
So I guess most of us are going to die… or get married. I’m not sure.
We watched the telecast of the Sydney fireworks.
We watched the telecast of the Sydney fireworks.
Then we watched the live neighbourhood fireworks from the balcony. This was around when I lost my wedding ring over the edge. So maybe our future prediction was true after all...
Then we watched the live neighbourhood fireworks from the balcony. This was around when I lost my wedding ring over the edge. So maybe our future prediction was true after all…
Champagne!
Champagne!
Obviously fireworks are hard to capture on an iPhone, but I tried my best...
Obviously fireworks are hard to capture on an iPhone, but I tried my best…
Fireworks 2
Fireworks 2
Fireworks 3
Fireworks 3
Fireworks 4
Fireworks 4
Fireworks 5
Fireworks 5
Fireworks 6
Fireworks 6

Best wishes to everyone for the new year!