Monday, June 30, 2014

Hello, I Am Back!

In Dublin airport, Ireland

Hello my dear friends!!! After four weeks I am back to my blog and very excited to share the last weeks with you! Remember I had told you in my last post how much I was looking forward to spending time with Kaefer and the Geek? Well, that is exactly what we did - spending the most wonderful time together while traveling some countries in Europe.

During the last few weeks before we left I was almost bursting with excitement and impatience - I really couldn't wait to go! It had been five years since we were in Germany the last time. Kaefer had asked whether we could visit some other countries in Europe beside Germany and we granted her wish this time since we all wanted to go to different places in Europe - places we loved and hadn't seen for way too long.

So that is why we didn't take a direct flight to Frankfurt, but flew via Dublin to Edinburgh first.

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh

This was our only true rainy day during the entire trip - unfortunate that it was in Edinburgh, fortunate that it didn't happen after that. And even the rainy day was okay since we hadn't seen much of rain for more than a year here in California.

The day of our arrival though the sun was shining and so we can attest that yes, there are sunny days in Scotland. We discovered Edinburgh in the rain, eating haggis (which was so good that I wonder where it got its bad reputation from) and black pudding, listening to bagpipes and generally enjoying our first taste of European life and culture - I almost immediately felt at home.

The Shambles in York

We had rented a car because we wanted to travel in Britain. Driving on the "wrong" side of the road was odd, especially having the steering wheel on the right side of the car and the shift stick on the left. It felt awkward in the beginning and I have to admit that I almost freaked out in one of the small villages on a very narrow road where cars were parking along one side of the street and sometimes even on the other as well. Oh well, perhaps I tell you a little bit more about that in another post.

Anyway, we went to York and spent a most enjoyable day there, wandering the narrow lanes and admiring the beautiful minster. We bought chocolate in a specialty store where we also had some heavenly hot chocolate. This was the first place in Europe where we realized that the World Cup was taking place (at that time England was still in the game).

The Cotswolds - the white dots, of course, are sheep

The Cotswolds have always been my very favorite part of England that I had visited so often in the late 80's and early 90's, spending weeks and weeks there. But - that is more than 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, it has changed over the years - the villages and the beautiful landscape were still the same, but the crowds were enormous! This was very new for me. When I used to go there the villages were busy, but not crowded; it was still more peaceful and dreamlike, a retreat from the "real" world. Not anymore, unfortunately. However, the villages still hold their charm and the landscape is simply beautiful as ever. We stayed in a quiet farmhouse B&B with lovely hosts and had a good time.

After that we went East to stay with my friends Fiona and Andy for a few days. When they had heard that we wanted to go to London they spontaneously invited us to stay with them. They live in a small town only 30 minutes by train from London. The last time we had seen each other was when Kaefer was still a toddler, 14 years ago and not even a year before we moved to the States (which we didn't know at that time). Fiona and I started out as pen pals in 1986. A year later we met in person, and have met each other many times while we were still living in Germany. In between they spent a few years in Thailand, but came back before we left. I can't tell you how it felt to see them again, and it was as if we had seen each other just the week before. It was wonderful. The few days we spent with them - mostly the evenings since we were in London during the day - were absolute bliss.

Big  Ben, London

We took the train into London St. Pancras every day and explored the city. London, too, has changed a lot and mostly to the better. It was modern, clean, efficient public transportation, new coaches in the tube, but they still warn us to "mind the gap". I was happy that they still do! The people were sweet and friendly, there were endless food choices from all over the world (one evening, when we met another friend of mine with his wife, we had a super delicious dinner in a Turkish restaurant), music on the streets, and the atmosphere was good. I fell in love with London all over again. I have always loved it - I spent a lot of time in London when I was younger - but I hadn't thought that it would charm me that much again.

So I was quite sad when after five days we had to say our good byes both to Fiona and Andy and to London, and board the Eurostar.

The Eurostar leaves from St Pancras station which is a hyper modern and clean train station while the amazing old building (you see some of it in the picture above) is integrated in the modern design in a beautiful way (Andy had worked on this project). By the way, you could see St. Pancras station in one of the "Downton Abbey" episodes (check this one out). The modern train takes you through the South of England (of which you don't really see very much) before it dives into the tunnel under the Channel to come up after only 25 minutes. You see a lot of the area you ride through before arriving at Gare du Nord in Paris. Now, Gare du Nord is a different story. Remember, you have just left modern, beautiful St. Pancras only to land in gritty, grey, stinky Gare du Nord - it still looks like in the late 70's when I arrived here from Germany to see my friend Evelyne. Nothing has changed at all, it seems.

Tour Eiffel seen from l'Arc de Triomphe

And Paris hasn't changed that much either. Of course someone is on strike all the time, this time it was the SNCF (the French railway company). Paris was beautiful, charming, stinking, dirty, friendly, annoying and, of course, crowded. We had rented an apartment in the center of the city off Avenue de l'Opéra on the fifth floor (no elevator!) above the roofs of Paris (so to speak) and it was completely quiet. An oasis in a busy city.

Yes, I also loved Paris. It was the Paris I remembered with its street cafés where you sit, drink a Kir and do a lot of people watching (my favorite pastime in Paris). I adored the food (who doesn't?). I hated the harassment at all the touristy spots, especially at the Tour Eiffel (not once were we harassed in London!). I liked the people most of whom were helpful and friendly. We were there when France won in the football match against Honduras during the first round of the World Cup (I use the term football here in the European - and world - way and not in the American way) - it's always cool to stay in the country that plays (and wins) and to join in their enthusiasm (and now Germany has to play France next...). One of my personal highlights was re-connecting with my friend Evelyne. While we were teenagers we were pen pals and saw each other almost every year - she came to my home in Germany over New Year's and I went to her home in Paris over Easter. The last time we saw each other was in 1984 while I lived in Vienna - 30 years ago! We somehow lost touch over the years, but re-connected a few years ago when I found her on Facebook. She now lives in Lyon, but when she heard that we were coming to Paris she hopped on a train in order to meet us. It was delightful to spend the day with her!

We stayed in Paris for five days before we took the train to Germany where we first stayed with my brother in Hameln (the town of the pied piper) for a couple days and then went to the tiny island of Spiekeroog for a family reunion with the Geek's family. Did you know that there are several small islands that belong to Germany? Most of them are on the North-western coast and Spiekeroog is one of the Frisian Islands, right between the North Sea and the mudflats, the Wadden Sea World Heritage site of the UNESCO. It's a car-free island and the only way to get there is by ferry. We stayed in a kind of youth hostel which wasn't the most fortunate choice, but it wasn't bad either. The fun part was that we watched the Germany-Ghana match here with a bunch of other people and that was just hilarious!

On the open sea side of Spiekeroog there is an endless sandy beach perfect for long (solitary) walks and looking for shells (which was lovely for Kaefer's little cousins who are 4 and 6 years old). We walked into the village every day, hang out with family, played mini golf, ate the local food (lots of fish) and generally had a rather good time. 

However, too much of a good thing isn't good either, and I was quite relieved when it was time to say good bye and we took off for the last leg of our trip, Amsterdam.

A gracht in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands, one of the most liberal countries in the world (I think). However, it is not the seat of the Dutch government (that is Den Haag). While we already had seen lots of bicycles in both London and Paris, Amsterdam beats them all when it comes to bicycle riding. It is unbelievable! Of course I love it! However, as a pedestrian you have to watch out for the bikers as many of them seem to be above all traffic laws. It must be a nightmare if you're out with little children. But I do take this kind of transportation over any kind of roads clogged with cars; on top of that it gets you into the smallest lanes and alleys, parking is (almost) no problem - we even saw a huge bicycle parking garage at the central station in Amsterdam. The city lies two meters below sea level and many canals are found here, the famous grachten. You can walk along those grachten for the better part of the day and still haven't seen them all. This is what we did, stopping at some little café for breakfast or an afternoon snack - panekoeken (pancakes) are super delicious here. In the evening, when the queue was a little bit shorter than during the day, we visited the Anne Frank Huis. I am so glad and grateful we did.

This was our last day in Europe, our flight to San Francisco - again via Dublin - was scheduled the following morning. I left with a very heavy heart. During those few weeks on my native continent I realized that I am a true European at heart and I always will be. While I didn't connect with Germany at all this time - probably due to the fact that I don't have a home there anymore since my Dad died this February - I felt quite at home in England (I always have) and France, and also in Holland. I love the history that you practically see at every corner, the old buildings, the often crooked towns with their narrow lanes and broad boulevards, the contrast of the ultra-modern, the efficiency, the fierce protection of the environment, the more liberal mindset in many places, the diversity. I know where these people come from because I am one of them.

This was just a short (?) overview - I'm sure more will come in the next few weeks. I took so many pictures, and I want to share some of them with you. They won't be the postcard views but my way of seeing the places we went to. I hope you will enjoy them.


My shop has re-opened after our vacation.
Come check it out!
I have added ACEOs to my items.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

School's Out

Friday was the last day of school - oh such bliss! Kaefer wasn't the only one in our family who was looking forward to it, I was as well. The past six weeks have been crazy - every year it's the same, and every year I wonder why it has to be this way. It seems that teachers wait until the very last minute with big projects, there are tests and finals - it's just crazy busy.

But now the summer has started, and we welcomed it in our own way. We went to the beach, Kaefer, her friend K and I. It wasn't a particularly warm day at the coast - it seldom is. The Pacific Ocean here at the North Coast tends to be cold, windy and often foggy. We didn't have any fog, at least not until the early evening, but it was still a bit on the chilly side.

However, that didn't hold us back from having a picnic on the beach, sitting on some driftwood and eating sandwiches and chips. After that we closed the bags safely so that the seagulls couldn't get to the food and the girls went to the water while I walked around, taking pictures.

There is always something to photograph at this beach. The river runs into the ocean here as well, so there often are people who kayak to the mouth of the river and rest here, enjoying the scenery.

Although the air was cool, the sand was warm and even hot in some places. Many coastal plants were flowering.

There were dead crabs, only the remains of the shells while the seagulls ate the rest of it.

Beautiful driftwood - this one has been here for ever, and often the seagulls sit here, watching beach goers for food (what else?).

Some algae (I guess)...

... and beautiful rock formations.

It was puppy season for the harbor seals, so part of the beach was closed to give them space. Unfortunately there are still people who get too close to the seals and then the mothers abandon their babies - it's awful. This afternoon, though, the seals stayed by themselves without any human intruders. They love to hang out at the river side of the beach.

Here you can see them a bit closer thanks to my zoom.

Someone had drawn circles in the sand (this photo was taken from the top of the cliff on our way back)...

... and of course there were footprints in the sand everywhere.

The girls had fun writing in the sand and then waiting for the incoming tide to wash it all away. Yes, they even went into the water even though it was freezing cold!

And this is what I am going to do for the next few weeks - spend time with my daughter, with my family. I have been looking forward to this for the past two months, and I'm so happy that  finally we have the time to do this. Which means I won't be here very often for the next two, three or even four weeks.

Have a wonderful summer everyone (at least all of you in the Northern hemisphere - I know that you're sailing right into winter in the Southern hemisphere)!!