All good things …

Jamie – 29 December 2011

We’ve tried not to count down the days.  It’s impossible not to of course.  This evening at 11.30pm we board QF94 bound for Melbourne and that final journey marks the end of our six month adventure. There will always be memories and a real sense of achievement, although for the children these will inevitably fade over time.  Maybe also for Bec and I in our later years! That’s why this blog is important. I plan on preserving it for our future trips down memory lane along with about 5,000 photos that we’ve taken.  Foster has been writing his own daily journal which has doubled as part of his homework routine.  I did the same when I traveled with my family through Europe in 1981 and still enjoy pulling it off the bookshelf every few years.  I’m sure he will find similar pleasure in the years to come.

Without doubt this has been a once in a lifetime event.  Six months worth of accrued long service leave, a strong Australian dollar and the children all being young enough that six months out of school should not (hopefully) jeopardise their formal education were all drivers of our decision. Bec and I also yearned for some extended quality time together – something that is also hard to achieve in our modern world. It became clear in 2010, when the idea took hold, that we faced an opportunity that will almost certainly never arise again. And life is just too damned short. Few can say they have travelled non-stop for six months with their entire family around the world – careers, money and time are strong headwinds – and that is one of the reasons we felt so strongly about doing it given all our stars were perfectly aligned.

I hope that my children’s relationship with me has been permanently strengthened.  If they didn’t fully know me before we left they certainly do now, having had me around 24/7 for the last 183 days.  And I feel like I know them infinitely more than before we got on that first plane – it has been fun sharing so many extraordinary experiences, while at the same time watching them grow up and mature along the way. This is not to say it has been plain sailing.  It doesn’t matter how close you are – travelling as a family unit, often all sleeping in the same room, and spending all your days together without the regular interaction of friends will always give rise to moments of cabin fever.  However, if we have awakened in our children an awareness of the world beyond our shores, a love of travel, and an appreciation of the importance of family then in my mind we have done what we set out to achieve.

Settling back into “normal” life will not be easy.  The children will have to get used to a more organized routine, particularly once school starts. It will be interesting to see how effective our home schooling has been.  Both boys have loved their maths and I’m confident they are fine there.  In terms of English, the nice thing about travelling is that, even as a child, you are forced to read as the world is full of words – sign’s, guidebooks, menus, and books during down time. I think both boys will be fine with their reading.  Writing is another matter – Foster did his journal, often somewhat reluctantly (which at times was understandable given his brother and sister weren’t keeping one).  We may have a bit of catching up to do there but we shall see. Otherwise I’d like to think falling back into their friendship groups will be easy but have heard from other travelers that this is sometimes hard. Bec and I will probably settle into our old routines a bit easier, but I’d like to think we too have leaned things about ourselves and each other that will help us deal with some of life’s ups and downs.

Keeping a blog has been lots of fun and in many ways became a surprising highlight of our trip.  It is a good discipline to put your thoughts into words on a regular basis.  It can provide the pleasure of reliving an exciting day, or simply allow you to collect your thoughts and learn something about yourself. Being creative by doing things like writing a blog is lots of fun.  Creativity is nurtured at school but for many of us gets lost in our adult years and that’s something I’m keen to work on when I get back.  I have a creative wife and three young and willing participants so there is no excuse. I just need to find the right outlet!

We always had a budget for the trip and I ran the near final numbers last week and was pleased to see we have come in well under.  The flights, accommodation and car hire costs were essentially fixed and it was Bec’s insistence that we eat in whenever possible that drove the savings.  Staying in houses or apartments that had kitchens (rather than hotels) was key. That way we knew we were eating quality food, the children were more inclined to eat meals they were familiar with, and our budget benefited enormously.  We did of course eat out at times – that was always meant to be part of our experience – but each was a planned event which the children understood was special.  Hats off to Bec as this workload fell to her.

Trips like these can’t be measured in straight numbers.  But numbers are what interest me and so here are a few that I find interesting:

48,700

The cumulative number of kilometers we have flown on our 15 flights. So as a family we will have collectively flown 244,000 kms which is two-thirds of the way to the moon. I also worked out how many kilograms of CO2 that makes us responsible for but was persuaded not to print it as it made us look totally and utterly environmentally reckless. I would note however that it was neither practical nor feasible to have done our trip by bicycle, canoe or foot (though we did use those modes wherever possible).

40,000

The approximate number of words we have written across 52 posts on our blog (averaging 2 a week).

4,667

The current number of separate views our blog has received while we have been travelling. Even when you strip out family and other committed readers I find this number to be intriguingly high. It was not our intention to develop any sort of following but we seem to have tapped into a few people who enjoyed being on a vicarious journey with us, which is a nice thought.

119

The number of days we hired a car. Of these, 117 involved driving on the “wrong” side of the road and the driver being on the “wrong” side of the car. We had only had one accident, but it was a proper one with all airbags deployed and car written off.  Importantly no one was seriously hurt!

31

The number of separate lodgings we stayed in as we journeyed through 8 countries during our 26 weeks away. Accordingly we became used to all manner of mattresses and room decors. It sometimes took a few moments to work out where we were when our eyes opened each morning.

4

The number of suitcases we set off with.  We are returning with six but that doesn’t tell the real story.  Along the way we shipped two tea chests from London, four decent sized boxes from continental Europe and sent back two full suitcases with family from New York a few weeks back.  Then there is the hand luggage items which have got larger and more numerous.  Probably all to be expected and we will no doubt enjoy all the fruits of our journey when we get home.

Virtually zero

The amount of television I watched during the entire six months (and I didn’t miss it once). I did however have one coffee in the morning and either a beer or wine for dinner every night. The final results are not in but I appear to be exactly the same weight as when I left, which disappoints me a bit as a good friend who also travelled for six months lost a lot of weight – my daily beer/wine and lack of commitment to my running program after the second week was probably my undoing.

Our last night has been at the Sheraton Gateway which is right next to Los Angeles International Airport.  We spent yesterday taking in some sun at Venice Beach which is actually a lovely long and wide beach – perfect for the family as long as you stay off the dodgy strip.

This morning Foster and I walked around to Lincoln Boulevard which sits at the end of 2 of LAX’s 4 runways.  We had fun watching (feeling!) all manner of aircraft – including an A380 – thundering about 100m above of heads seconds before touchdown.  There is nothing quite like avgas in your nostrils while your ear-drums are trying to tear. Real boy’s stuff.

Well, that’s about it from me.  Have to help pack those suitcases one last time and then hope Bec can distract the Qantas ticketing girl as they pass across the scales in LAX for their final journey home. Fifteen and a half hours non-stop in the air with young children – I’m quietly hoping this will be the least memorable part of our trip but I somehow doubt it.

An A380 on final approach over Foster.

What we saw when we looked up at the A380 !

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A family Christmas

Jamie – 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas everyone (although for most reading this posting it is already late Boxing day). In LA however we still have a few hours of the day itself.

Right from the early days of planning our trip Bec had wanted to spend Christmas Day at Disneyland, the so-called “happiest place of Earth”.  This sounded excellent and the children and I were very supportive, but I wondered what it would be like to have a Christmas without our traditional setting and in particular, away from family. Family has always been central to our Christmas celebrations and as much as we five would have each other, I harboured a small concern that the day would not feel quite right.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried – family came to the rescue.  My first cousin Anna Roberts (née Ackland) lives with her beautiful family – husband Andy and children Chloe and Sam – in Monterey, a stunning coastal town just two hours south of San Francisco. We were always going to be dropping in on our way driving down to LA, but Anna and Andy generously offered to have us all stay for the 22nd and 23rd of December – and of course insisted that we have a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings while we were there.  Like us, the rest of their family are on the other side of the world.

The Roberts recently moved into a lovely four bedroom house in the intriguingly named street “Deer Stalker Path”.  We saw neither deers nor stalkers while we were there.  A better name would have been “Christmas Decoration Boulevard” as almost every house is adorned with hundreds of festive multicoloured lights and many went a lot further – you could almost feel the drain on the grid as the sun set and the rainbows of colour came alive.  The children loved the walk we did after our big Christmas feast.  A number of houses had a mechanical Santa – one waving from the chimney, another peeping from his sleigh in the front garden.

On Friday I took our children and Chloe to the Monterey Aquarium (more on that later) while Andy went to work and Bec and Anna spent a day in the kitchen.  They had huge success – we had a whole roast turkey, a large leg of ham, roast potatoes, peas, gravy, and a real Tasmanian plum pud – thanks to my aunt Cate, Anna’s mother – that had a few years of age on it and tasted fantastic.  I even chipped in with a batch of hard sauce – equal parts butter and icing sugar, whipped to a cream with a few healthy dashes of brandy before being chilled.  Bec had the children make personalised placemats for everyone, and the table was a work of art with candles, crackers and bowls of toffee.  As far as Christmases went it was as good as any of the last 43 I have attended.

Our family Christmas - 23 December, 2011

Monterey’s aquarium is a must see for anyone visiting.  Rather than looking into tanks you walk through or under most due to some brilliantly engineered glass tunnels and walls. There is nothing like being nose to nose with a Leopard Shark, Sea Turtle or 5,000 anchovies.  I’ve eaten thousands of the later in my life but never realised how beautiful they are in real life as they swim past in a vast glittering school of silver.  Many of the tanks are enormous – the largest holds 3.8 million litres of water which is 100 times larger than our pool at home. We definitely got more than we paid for when a real grey whale swam past the aquarium while we were there.  It was about 100 metres off-shore and we had some great views of its pectoral fin as it moved onto its side to scoop the shallow sea bed for food with its wide mouth.  It helped having an actual whale expert standing next to me as we watched in awe.

My favourite exhibit was the jellyfish – graceful, dancing drifters that pulse and glow, flash colorful lights and often pack a powerful sting.  They were particularly photogenic inside their dark room, lit up with lights from below.

My favourite exhibit - the jellyfish!

New best friends - Sari and Chloe.

Early Saturday (Christmas Eve) we said our sad goodbye’s to the Roberts and set off on the fastest route to Los Angeles – about 5.5 hours. This is one of the world’s premier coastal drives but sadly we had to stick to the inland road to make our appointed drop-off time for the car.  In any event both Bec and I had driven the coastal LA-SF drive before and this is one of those things that the children will just have to do themselves one day.  As it turned out they slept a lot of the drive anyway so we didn’t feel too bad.  The inland drive may have lacked sea-lions and a rugged coastal view however it did have its own beauty about it in a “Nullabor Highway” kind of way.  Long straight roads punctuated every 100 metres by another telegraph pole, until you get near to LA when the landscape becomes decidedly more mountainous and houses more frequent. Alamo gave us an early Christmas present by halving our car rental bill – a totally unexpected but much appreciated gesture.  We then checked into the Disney Hotel late afternoon, our home for the next four days, and began exploring the shops and restaurants of “Downtown Disney”.

Today started a little after seven, which for three children under ten in the same room on Christmas Day ranks as a royal sleep-in.   Santa had left some very modest sacks at the end of the children’s beds which surprised them no end but again proved that he really does know everything.  Have you been good? What did you ask for? Where will you be on the night?  He is not to be underestimated.

The rest of the day was spent in Disneyland.  We half wondered if the park would be quiet. No such luck – it turns out Christmas Day is one of the three busiest days of the year, alongside July 4th and New Years Day. Most rides had a wait time of an hour or so but park management did pull out all the stops – there was a special Christmas Day parade, and the decorations were spectacular, particularly when the sun went down. We commuted on the Monorail which left next to our hotel and took us directly to the centre of the park – we even managed to score a ride in the driver’s compartment.

Notwithstanding the crowds, everyone (staff and patrons alike) was in good cheer and throwing the season’s greetings around.  I learnt early that park staff may only say “Happy Holidays” for fear of offending non-christians which is a bit too politically correct for me.  I said Merry Christmas to everyone, which apparently did then permit a staff-member to respond with the same in return.

The day finished with fireworks, literally.  Our room on the 11th floor looks directly over the park and at 8.30pm the Magic Castle was awash in coloured flashes accompanied by loud booms, which in Room 2925 translated to lots of oohs and aahs.

It has been a great day.  Merry Christmas everyone.

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Biking the Golden Gate

Jamie – 20 December 2011

San Francisco is a pretty laid back city and our time here has been similarly relaxed. As Bec said, we are staying in the Fisherman’s Wharf area and it has given our time here a very nautical feel.  Sea breezes, ships, piers, bridges, sandcastles, and dozens of crab shacks – all just outside our front door.  Steve, our camp doorman (we are in SF after all) has the enthusiasm and energy I normally associate with a happy-go-lucky five year old which may explain why our children love him so much and why he never fails to have us laughing whenever we enter or leave the hotel. People like Steve make holidays memorable and infinitely more fun.

Saturday was a gloriously sunny day so the boys and I hired bikes and rode from our hotel to Sausalito.   This took us along the southern foreshore of San Francisco Bay to the Golden Gate Bridge, which we rode across on the west side (looking straight out over the Pacific Ocean) and then along the northern foreshore down into pretty Sausalito. From there we caught a ferry back past Alcatraz to the Ferry Building in the Financial District and then had a short ride along the Embarcadero back into Fisherman’s Wharf.

It was a relatively easy ride – probably about 12 kms – and took in many of the city’s best views. Foster had a low-speed head-on with an elderly gentlemen as he rounded a corner on the bridge. Thankfully no one was hurt but both ended up on their backs and were a bit shaken up as they remounted. On reflection, my years of shouting “left lane” at Foster on previous rides probably didn’t help the poor boy – in the US they drive/ride on the other side of the road/track.  Nevertheless we all agreed it was a great day that we really enjoyed.

Mylo about to ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.

On Monday we explored San Francisco’s famed Chinatown.  Bec had researched this well and our first visit off the cable car was a fortune cookie factory.  I was surprised to see how manual it was – there were a couple of old chinese ladies folding the warm biscuits by hand, after inserting the obligatory paper fortune.  We bought a bag of 20 for $3.50 and Bec howled with delight at her first biscuit’s fortune.  Had I not been the one offering her the bag I would have felt sure that I had been set up.

Bec (Emelda) was pretty chuffed with this fortune cookies message.

We then found an excellent Yum-cha (Dim Sum over here) restaurant around the corner where we sat next to the kitchen and watched them folding hundreds of dumplings by hand while the trolleys came past offering all our favourite dishes.  Our family of five emerged from an absolute feast for less than $35 which seemed astounding given the quality of the food.  We did seem to be almost the only westerners in the restaurant which might explain the great value.

Later in the day we visited Pier 39 to say hello to the sea-lion colony that live (voluntarily) on the pontoons at the end of the Pier.  These 350 kg animals feature along the entire California coast and many of them, being creatures of habit, return to San Francisco to live the good life on the pontoons.  When not sleeping they seem to enjoy yelling like crazy, probably just to wake the others up.  No way I could sleep through that noise. Did I mention the smell?

The sea-lions of Pier 39.

Today we all walked along the foreshore to a great museum call the Exploratorium, which promotes itself as a museum of science, arts and human perception.  This reminded me a lot of the NEMO museum in Amsterdam which we visited (see earlier posting) and offered over 450 participatory exhibits.  It is a lot more than just levers and buttons.  Many of the exhibits require you to use all or large parts of your body. Our children’s favourite was a tornado machine you could stand in as a vortex of steam swirled around you.  I loved an exhibit which allowed you to release a drop of water into a cup full of water and, if you had set the flash timer correctly, a camera would record the exact moment of impact.  If you were lucky you could also have your own image recorded as a reflection in the resultant drop blast.  Very clever stuff.  Here is Sari’s excellent effort using a 365 millisecond flash setting.

Sari looking at herself in a perfectly timed drop of water.

Sari exploring the colours of light.

The museum is contained within the Palace of Fine Arts Building, which is itself an amazing landmark building.

The very cool San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts.

While beautiful and a great place to base ourselves while in San Francisco, the Fisherman’s Wharf area has a lot of buskers and beggars.  The buskers include a wide variety of musicians (of greatly varying quality), artists (mainly quick portrait artists and the spray can variety), the standard statue performers, and then there are the weird ones – like the guy dressed up as a dog who has three real dogs dressed in sun glasses and Christmas hats. The idea being that you have your photo taken with them all for the special price of $5.

One guy who we will not miss when we leave is a dishevelled guy who hides behind corners and jumps out at you with arms waving very aggressively. As soon as you yell – and everyone does – he replies “made ya holla, now gimme a dollar”.  He has done it to us twice now, guaranteeing that he will never receive any money from the Adamson family.  I would not be surprised to read about his untimely demise one day when he makes the mistake of jumping in front of a highly strung NRA member.  Another memorable individual I guess.

Only five days till Christmas !

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BYO Chocks

Bec – 17th December 2011

We’ve hit San Francisco, after a wonderful week in Lake Tahoe, full of adrenalin and high expectations and after only two days, I can already report that the city of San Fran …… hasn’t disappointed and I don’t believe it will!

Our first activity on the San Francisco checklist was the Muir Wood National Monument, a pristine wilderness area filled with magnificent Redwoods trees that are between 400 and 600 years old. To put this in context, some of these trees were born hundreds of years before Columbus even thought about sailing to America!

The tiny, weeny people at the base of the trees are Foster and Jamie

The kids were blown away by how tall these beautiful trees were and I thought that the experience was really starting to have a profound effect on Foster when he turned around and told me to shhhhhh! I said to him “I agree, it’s a very special place”….Foster says “no Mum, look at the sign”……

Please be quiet for the bark!!!

I bet the rangers didn’t think the sign would be translated like that when they wrote it!

So we continued on through the Redwood Forest, although a whole lot quieter, when the children found a wonderful hollowed out tree, perfect for the winter hibernation…Jamie and I were thinking of leaving them there till Spring…but we changed our minds after seeing how cute they looked all tucked up.

Muir Redwood Forest done – check…onto the next activity on our list……crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. This is one of those sightings that never fails to make your heart beat a little faster. She is a wonderous bridge and much bigger than I remember. I drove, Jamie photographed and kids oohed and aahed in the back!

And so, we arrived into the heart of the city, the bay area, Fisherman’s Wharf and checked into a fantastic hotel that really welcomes families!! (A truly rare find). Set right next door to Victorian Park and Hyde Street Pier, we have been thrilled to be able to give the kids a park to run in and a beach to build sandcastles on. San Fran has put on a display on unseasonally perfect weather. The temperature is sitting around 15 degrees celcius, but with no wind to speak of and the sun shinning, the outdoors are constantly beckoning.

No trip to San Francisco would be complete without a ride or two, or six on the Cable Cars, so we grabbed our passes and found one to take us up those amazingly steep hills that this city is famous for.

Even in the most litigious country in the world, it is great to see that some traditions never change. You are still allowed to ride the cable cars, standing on the outer running board as long as you don’t lean out in the passing traffic! The boys were thrilled on learning this rule and proceeded to ride on the running board all over San Fran, calling out ‘hello’ to everyone who passed by.

Every city has their own special way of doing things, certain tools that help you fit in, or in this case, help you to stop your car from becoming a runaway when parking on the hills. Due to the incredibly steep streets, cars come complete with their very own ‘chocks’! Another invention borne out of necessity! Love it!

Note the attached 'chock' under the wheel

The Cable Car Museum was our next stop and it is housed in the Cable Car Barn at the top of Nob Hill. It is here, that all the underground cables, pulling these vehicles meet and go through the engines that drive them.

The underground cables with the name of the cable line above

Jamie could have stayed there all day simply watching these machines but the kids were eager to pull him in every direction, calling out “Dad, you have to see this”. The Museum was jammed pack with displays, working instruments and bird’s eye views of what goes on underground.

We loved this museum...a must for any family visiting San Francisco!

The kids even found a display that answered my questions about “what happens if a cable snaps” and “how long does a cable last?”, and for all you naturally cautious people out there, or as my husband would say ‘up tight and nervous’, there are checks in place to make sure cables don’t snap…they frey….but they don’t tend to snap completely. It made me feel comfortable enough to jump back on a cable car outside the museum!

Our final stop for the day was Lombard Street, or more affectionately known as ‘the crookedest street in the world’. We walked it and watched cars twisting back and forth, making their way to the bottom, struggling to get round the tight bends. You certainly wouldn’t want to be in a hurry!

And so, with the kids weary from a day full of fun and activity, we headed back to our home at Fisherman’s Wharf. Tomorrow will be another huge day….Jamie and the two boys are planning to bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausilito, then head back home on the ferry ! We still have six more days in San Fran, seems like a long time but we have a million activities on our list that we would LOVE to do. I believe the city of bridges is laying down a challenge a for us…..well I’m up for it…let’s see how we go!

I can guarantee there will be more blogs to come from this fine city!

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Skiing in California

Jamie – 13 December 2011

It turns out American Airlines filed for Chapter 11 (bankruptcy) on the day we flew from Washington to Orlando. I doubt that had anything to do with our delay and subsequent re-routing via Dallas but it highlights the problems the US airline industry continues to have.  Chapter 11 allows them to continue to fly while they attempt to sort out their debt problems. The flight from Orlando to San Francisco was an average one at best but at least they got us to our destination, using the route we had paid for, and in broad accordance with their advertised times.

We had a one night layover in San Francisco before driving 3 hours to the Northstar ski resort, which is part of the Lake Tahoe ski region on the northern border between California and Nevada. Skiing was never intended to be part of our itinerary but we figured we had some surplus days and why not make the most of our location.

It is definitely early season, which means snow levels are below normal, however Northstar is famed for its snow making capacity and while not all runs are open those that are average an excellent foot and a half of snow (excellent by Australian standards).  We have had great weather – lots of sunshine (and consequently no natural snow) but the nights have been clear and cold which has allowed them to make lots of new snow for the next day.

All three children have had two full days of lessons which has them now skiing independently (including Sari) and that was our goal. Now at least we can go skiing back in Australia and have a good skill base on which to build. Bec has skied since she was four and remains a beautiful skier.  I can handle any slope but have little of the natural technique that Bec so effortlessly displays.

After yesterday’s lessons the boys were keen to demonstrate their new found talents to me and Mylo suggested a nearby lift which we boarded.  This proved a mistake on my part. Nothing but blue and black runs from the top.  The top was relatively flat and it started well but them things steepened and I found myself having to shuttle each between my legs one at a time (hiking back up each time to retrieve the next son).  It probably took about half an hour but felt like three and I was desperate for some feet-up time and a beer at the end of it.

It is day three today and we decided to have a quiet day with Bec and the children staying in the lodge by the fire and knocking off some homework.  I meanwhile downloaded my favourite songs onto the Ipod and hit the slopes early.  There is something indescribably wonderful about skiing hard to your favourite music on a cloudless day down long slopes lined with towering fir trees.  It is midweek and so there are no queues.  I basically went from summit to base (about 700m of vertical descent) continuously for three hours, using the chairlifts to catch my breath while I soaked up the panoramic views.

Technology has long played a role with skis, bindings, boots, etc – and now it has made its way to the lift tickets, which now work a bit like a toll-road e-tag.  You can wear it anywhere on your body and the scanners at the entrance of each lift will read it regardless.  Using wireless technology it also keeps track of the number of runs you have done, the vertical metres you have descended, etc – all of which can be accessed by logging onto the ticketing website and entering your ticket number.

On the subject of technology, I realised coming up the lift that my match-box size Ipod could record video, so here you are – summit to base (takes about 5 minutes):

 

My legs now have the kind of satisfying ache that tells you you’ve actually engaged in some serious exercise for a change. It has been a while since I’ve felt like this and I love it.

Our lodge is part of a new condominium complex known as the Tahoe Mountain Resort. We are in the heart of the Northstar Village which boasts a 9,000 square foot skating rink just outside our front door, surrounded by outdoor fire pits to warm ourselves by.  There are loads of restaurants and bars built around the rink but our condo has an enormous kitchen and so we have self catered all our meals – much better quality and value for money!  The boys have hit the (free) skating rink for an hour each night which is impressive given their full day on the slopes.

Tomorrow is our last day here – we head back to San Francisco on Thursday for a week. Weather permitting we plan to have the children back into ski school so that Bec and I can have a bit more quality ski time.  When they finish we will find a nice GREEN run and have our first real “family ski outing”.

The Tahoe Mountain Resort, with the ice-skating rink in the foreground.

Foster and I on the rink after a full day of skiing and skating - he's ready for bed!

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Theme parks and weighty issues

Jamie – 8 December 2011

We have had just over a week now in Orlando and it has been a very relaxing week indeed.  The weather has been warm – mid 20’s each day – and we have been reasonably unstructured in our planning.  We have even made a habit of sleeping in, something we oddly haven’t done much of at all in our travels to date. Sort of a holiday within a holiday.

Orlando, as many will know, is the theme park capital of the world, and we have visited all the major ones.  We have been staying at the Floridays Resort (which is excellent) and have rented a car (which we recommend as the parks are spread over a wide area). December is a good time to visit – there have been few queues to contend with.  It is a telling fact that for a city with a population of just under 240,000 it has some 47 million tourists a year.  The two big operators are Disney (who have 4 theme parks and 2 water parks here, not to mention 33 hotels) and Universal (who have 2 theme parks and 1 water park) but there are a lot of others. They are all large-scale affairs – you usually find yourself parking your car in a 100 acre car park that can hold over 10,000 cars, catching a multi-carriage bus to a large ticketing area with dozen of turnstiles before entering the actual park. The Disney World Resort alone occupies 120 square kilometres – that is twice the size of Manhattan!  So it is not unusual to purchase multi-day tickets, and that is what we did – 3 days at Disney World, and 2 days at Universal.

The boys were up for all the rides which surprised me.  Only a year ago I would have had to work hard to get Foster on a roller coaster.  Now he is happily going on the most adventurous rides in the park, including the “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios which accelerates from zero to 92 kph in 2.8 seconds in complete darkness and pulls 4.5 g’s, which is more than an astronaut experiences in a shuttle take-off.  And he did that ride twice.  Mylo if anything is even more adventurous, but sadly constrained by height requirements which knocked him out of contention on a few rides. For the record however he did ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

Sari and Bec understandably preferred the shows to rides.  Beauty and the Beast, and all that.  The best park for the whole family was clearly EPCOT which is part of Disneyworld and is dedicated to the celebration of human achievement.  All the rides, exhibits and attractions are designed to showcase human innovation or international culture.  It is a nice mix of rides and shows and what Bec and I liked is that it had a high educational content (which the children did not detect).  Foster and Mylo designed their own roller coaster on a computer and had to allow for various critical inputs – speed, angles, etc – for the ride to “work”. Once successful they could climb into a hydraulic simulator on the end of a large robotic arm which would take them on their ride, exactly as they designed it.  Needless to say I got a little involved and steepened a few descents, added a few cork-screws, and generally pushed the machine to its boundary limits.  The boys loved it and the hydraulics got a good workout.

Foster particularly liked rides with water, especially if some (or a lot) of the water found its way onto the riders themselves.  The first time this happened was on a Popeye ride in one of the Universal parks.  It looked like a peaceful float down a mock river in a circular open-air 8-seater boat where we all faced each other.  Two rather large (read “very large”) women joined us in our “boat” and sat opposite, and this proved very fortunate. After leaving the boarding area we turned a corner and immediately descended down a set of white water rapids with huge waves.  Gravity took over and our craft turned so that our two fellow passengers became the bow of our boat.  This meant two things for them. Firstly they had no idea what was coming up as they were now facing backwards. Secondly they wore the full force of every wave that hit the boat (and in the process shielded us from a lot of it).  Their smiles were gone after the first wave but sadly for them there was no way to get off, or move to our side of the circle for that matter – good quality belts and an effective locking system saw to that.

Not that we escaped the water – we were drenched by the end of the ride.  But our adrenaline was pumping, we were smiling, and it was a sunny day. There were also small cell-like rooms at the end of the ride where, for $5, the three of us could climb in and be blasted by hot air for five minutes.  This as good as dried us out and had us off searching for other “wet rides”.  We found quite a few, but not before I had forked out for some all-body raincoats for the three of us.

The children up close with "Bruce" from Finding Nemo.

Mylo, Donald and Sari.

The women in our Popeye boat were not the only over-weight people we saw.  Many western countries are battling with the issue of obesity but I have never seen so many “large” people in my life as I have in the USA – it is a well publicised and very real problem over here.  According to a Government website, two-thirds of people in the USA are technically overweight and a third are defined as obese. The reasons are many and often obvious – diet is the big one. Too much of the wrong type of food. Too much fat, too much sugar. On the days when we have eaten out we find if we order for three that will more than feed our family of five, much to the consternation of the waitress.

In Australia a regular coffee is about 240 mls.  When I ask for a regular cappuccino here it comes in at 350 mls and if I were to ask for a “Venti” (as many people do) it comes in at over 700 mls.  That contains about as many calories as a standard meal – and that is before they add their donut or bagel to the order. Interestingly many menus over here carry a calorie-guide alongside each food or drink item, but I didn’t detect this changing people’s behaviour or food choices.

A little bit of research highlights some interesting consequences – US airline seats are considerably bigger than they used to be, as are average coffin and gravesite plot sizes.  Pity the pall bearers!  All of the theme parks we went to have stroller areas but it is not uncommon to see as many ride-on scooters parked there as there are children’s strollers.  In another proud-Dad moment, Foster suggested that we walk to the ticketing area from our car park rather than catch the bus.  It was only about 300 metres yet we were alone in that effort – everyone else waited for the bus.  Anyway, enough fat talk – there are plenty of healthy people over here as well, but the problem is real and growing!

On Monday the boys and I made the one hour drive to the Kennedy Space Centre, near Cape Canaveral.  It is an interesting time for NASA now that the Space Shuttle era has come to an end after 30 years (the last shuttle flew in July this year).  The International Space Station will now have its crew (including US members) deployed and returned solely by the Russians. NASA says it is now focussed on missions to Mars and the Moon but concede it is all at least a decade away. Un-manned rockets still leave regularly from the KSC (but none while we were there). Our visit was still exciting – we toured the Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest single story building in the world) and walked right up to the Shuttle Endeavour which was being prepared for its new home in a Californian museum. We went as close as you can go to the main launch pad, walked alongside a Saturn V rocket (the type that took man to the moon) and watched an IMAX film about the International Space Station.  We also touched an actual rock from the moon.

We leave for San Francisco tomorrow.  Lets see how American Airlines goes this time around.

Foster touching a real moon rock.

The Space Shuttle Endeavour - being readied for mothballs.

The "rocket garden" at the Kennedy Space Centre.

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Printing money and dodgy airlines

Jamie – 1 December 2011

We flew into Washington a little sad, having had such a great time with family and friends in New York City.  We didn’t realise how much we had missed this part of our lives until we had to say goodbye to it again.

We had a short ride from the airport to our hotel which, it turned out, was only three blocks to the White House.   Being mid afternoon – and a surprisingly balmy one at that – we thought it important to drop in on Barack and Michelle but unfortunately they were out. Nevertheless we admired their fine house (from about 50m over the north lawn), spotted a few snipers on the roof (I spy with my little eye something beginning with “S”) and Sari proved she could get her entire body through the White House fence.  We got her back on the right side of the fence pretty quick but Bec and I had visions of someone on the roof observing her closely through scope cross-hairs.

A prize for the first person to tell me what's wrong with this photo? Also, can you see the sniper watching?

We decided to make the short walk around the White House to the Washington Monument when out of the blue (literally) the Obama’s arrived via two very large helicopters that came in low and slow from the south.  We were too far away to see anything clearly but it was exciting and the children could sense that we were watching something significant.

Barack and Michelle arriving home.

This sense was magnified several times by the awesome sunset that played out over the next half hour, casting the White House, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial in amazing colours which we caught on film.  It was a lovely evening and we covered quite a few kilometres (“miles” over here) on foot – including along the Reflecting Pool (drained for repairs) to the Lincoln Memorial. The children recognised Abraham Lincoln (from “Night at the Museum, Part 2”) and half expected him to come alive I think.

Sari at sunset on Monument Hill.

Sunset, looking down to the Lincoln Memorial over the Reflecting Pool.

Grand old Abraham Lincoln.

The next day – Sunday – we visited the International Spy Museum, which displayed and explained everything a 7, 9 and 43 year old boy would ever want to know about the great art of spycraft.  We saw all the tools of the trade – secret microphones, secret cameras, modified cars, disguises, you name it .. we even adopted false identities which we had to keep for the duration of the visit and which got tested as we passed several “border guards” along the tour.  Great fun – even the girls thought it was excellent.  I then visited the Arlington National Cemetery  – a military cemetery that dates back to the Civil War which is set amidst 624 acres of rolling hills overlooking Washington.  Amazingly (or maybe not?) it averages about 30 burials a day. I found it very peaceful and very beautiful to walk around.

Arlington National Cemetery.

On Monday Bec suggested we visit the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving, which is responsible for printing all of the paper currency that gets used in the USA.  This was a fascinating tour which took in the entire production line from rolls of paper at one end to pallets of wallet-ready notes at the other. We observed everything from a long glass corridor above the printing presses and learnt that it rolls out nearly US$1 billion in physical notes every day!  One woman employee down on the floor had written an amusing sign above her chair which read “How do you think I feel. I just printed my lifetime salary in 94 seconds.”  It was a free tour and something we would definitely recommend to others visiting.  You can even buy sheets of uncut notes in the Gift Shop – at well above face value!

The boys and I then walked to the National Air and Space Museum, one of the 19 museums that make up the Smithsonian Institute (the worlds largest museum and research complex), where we spent the rest of the day.  This museum houses virtually every original item associated with landmark achievements in the field of flight and space –  including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis and the Apollo 11 command module (which carried the first men to the moon).  We also went on flight simulators, watched a 3D IMAX film on the history of flight, and then saw a documentary about the cosmos in the planetarium.  I don’t think we saw half of the displays but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Mylo and Foster in front of the Apollo 11 command module.

We flew to Orlando, Florida the next day and that was NOT fun.  You hear a lot of bad stories about people flying around the States and this was our turn to experience it. Having arrived in good time and checked in our bags we began boarding our 11.10am flight when there was an announcement that the plane had been deemed “Out of service” and we should collect our bags from the arrivals carousel and proceed to the ticketing counter to see what could be done in terms of re-booking. This is a pain when you just have hand luggage, but when you have a family of five travelling the world with luggage for six months it registers on the Richter scale.

Bec and the boys collected the bags while Sari and I tried to get re-ticketed.  There are 25 flights a day between Washington and Orlando (obviously not all are American Airlines) but in the end the best they could do was send us to Fort Worth, Texas on a 3pm flight to connect (hopefully) with a flight to Orlando an hour later.  A flight which would have taken under 2.5 hours took us 8 hours in the air (and halfway across the USA!) and we arrived back on the east coast at 11pm as compared to the originally planned early afternoon.  At least we (and our luggage) got there – as it turned out we left Washington 30 minutes late and that seriously threatened our one hour changeover in Texas. The gods were smiling however – a favourable tailwind saved us.

We were all a bit grumpy the next day and don’t feel particularly well disposed to American Airlines but otherwise no harm done – bring on the warm Floridian weather and theme parks!

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Loving The Big Apple

Jamie – 26 November 2011

I’ve been to New York City quite a few times in my life.  I ran the marathon here twice in the late 80’s and have travelled here on work and holiday several times since.  I still get a big kick every time I come – it has an energy level and uniqueness about it that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. I love walking the streets and being re-acquainted with the smell of freshly baked pretzels and roasted chestnuts from the street vendors, the steam coming up from the subway, and the hustle and bustle of eight million people marching to their own song. I’m told NYC is the safest it’s ever been and nothing I saw this visit contradicted that.  It apparently reflects the good work of a recent police commissioner who started keeping very detailed crime statistics by postcode and would immediately flood any area where there was a crime “blip” with large numbers of flying-squad police teams.  The criminals were effectively removed before they could get established and everyone seems a lot happier!

This 10 day visit was all the more exciting as we had close family and friends in abundance – something that our trip has not had for a few months.  Bec’s lovely cousin Sarah insisted that we live in her three bedroom apartment in Front Street, Manhattan for the first seven days while she and her daughter Lucy relocated for “some fun” in the Standard Hotel.  Not only that but Sarah had also arranged for our last three days to be spent in a two-story Penthouse in the Upper East Side which belonged to some great friends of hers who were elsewhere over the Thanksgiving holiday period.  We felt like we had won some fantastic competition as we lit a roaring fire in our 34th floor fireplace and settled back to dine on our turkey with a view for miles in every direction.

Sarah, Lucy and Rob (in our magnificent Thanksgiving apartment)

Another of Bec’s cousin’s, Matt Baker, is thriving as a jazz pianist over here and he joined us for a number of outings including some ice-skating at Bryant Park (where the children had a very successful lesson), yum-cha in Chinatown and of course our Thanksgiving lunch.  I also had the pleasure on my last night of watching Matt perform at a wonderful wine bar on the Upper East Side.  New Yorkers love their jazz and it is not hard to see why Matt is over here – he is loved and followed by many.

Bec and Matt

We visited two of our favourite friends – Jim and Eva Blanshard in Brooklyn, and Robyn Lea and Tim Hunt in Scarsdale (a very picturesque village half an hour by train from Grand Central).  Both have young children who immediately bonded with our own – sight unseen – and we loved being able to spend some quality time with old friends, and to hear of their lives in the Big Apple.

Our great friends, Jim and Eva Blanshard.

Robyn and Tim's lovely children - Izzie and Freddie (It was unseasonally warm!)

The Lea/Hunt residence in Scarsdale - one of the most beautiful houses we have ever seen!

At Sarah’s suggestion we saw two broadway shows – each very different to the other.  First up I took Foster and Mylo to a musical, “Spiderman – Turn off the Dark” which closely followed the original story of how Peter Parker became Spiderman.  The music (written by Bono and The Edge from U2) was fantastic and the show had amazing circus-like stunts where the performers literally flew all around the theatre just above the heads of the audience.  The boys loved it and were still “wired” as we caught the Metro home just before midnight.

Sarah, Bec and I then thoroughly enjoyed “Other Desert Cities”, which has had outstanding reviews and starred our compatriot Rachel Griffiths, alongside Stacy Keach and Stockard Channing (who had a stand-in the night we went).  It was a fun night which saw us inadvertently go overtime on our pre-show dinner and have to run in pouring rain up 15 blocks (as the traffic was gridlocked with people escaping Manhattan for Thanksgiving).  We arrived a little late but were let in and were on such a high that wet clothes were quickly forgotten.

We did some shopping, including a visit to FAO Schwarz (New York’s most famous toy store) where the children danced on the giant keyboard (which will only mean something to people who have seen the Tom Hank’s film “Big”).  We even braved the famous “Black Friday Sale” which falls the day after Thanksgiving.  Unsurprisingly this completely blew our four suitcase capacity out of the water but we have been saved by Sarah and husband Rob who have kindly volunteered to bring back our excess luggage to Australia in a few weeks time as they will be in Australia for Christmas this year.  Where would we be without Sarah and her magnificent family – she has given so much of herself to our enjoyment of the last ten days and we will be forever grateful!

It is ten years since the World Trade Centre towers came down and we visited Ground Zero, as it is still known.  While the two original towers took just three years to build, the area remains a construction site as five new towers get built around the original two “footprints” which will forever remain memorial sites and never be built on.  We visited the tribute museum which displays items relating to that terrible day – aircraft windows, messages on scraps of paper from loved ones who were never found, strange shapes of metal that you slowly realise were once forks and spoons, etc.

There was none of the footage of planes going into buildings which usually dominate the media. Instead there are photo’s of the almost 3,000 people who died that day and a selection of personal items which belonged to some of them, donated by their families, which made it all very real to those of us who did not know them personally.  It was a very moving experience for both Bec and I.

Ona lighter note, I awoke this morning a little hung-over from watching Matt at the wine bar till midnight, and suddenly thought I should confirm today’s flight to Washington DC.  This proved fortunate as at some point in the last four and a half months our 12.30pm flight became an 11.10am flight and the cab I had booked would have seen us arrive at the airport just after our plane had left.  Anyway – all good, we somehow managed to wake the children, shower, pack, and reschedule the cab in just over half and hour and ended up with time to spare at JFK.

Bec and I in Central Park

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Subway Pole-itics

Jamie – 24 November 2011

Most New Yorkers ride the Metro each day to go to work, and it is not unusual for a busker to board and ply their trade, be it with their voice, a guitar, accordion and so on. Almost always people look the other way and ignore the post-performance hat being passed around the carriage. I wish I was wearing my hat today as I am confident I could have made plenty.

Sari, as anyone who has followed our blog will recognise, has worn a fairy dress every day of our travels (she has several to chose from) and will often complete the picture with a dance in public at some point during the day. Bec and I plan to post a “Dancing Sari” pictorial special one day soon as we have plenty of material.

Today was no exception. The audience were travelers on the #6 train between 51st Street and 59th Street – most of them, like us, returning from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The dance involved a pole, and were she not 4 years old I would probably feel a need to have a fatherly chat regarding career paths and the importance of making wise choices in life.

Happily for me she is just a 4 year old who felt a need to dance, much to the enjoyment of many in the carriage. I was fortunate to have Bec’s cousin Matt with me who caught it all on film, which I now provide a link to. (Clicking on the below picture will show the film clip).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Ben, Jerry and Irene

Jamie – 16 November 2011

We saw Boston as a bit of a layover as we adjusted to the six hour timezone change from Amsterdam.  That said, we enjoyed our time there and it was nice to be back in the land of English speakers.  Sure enough we all woke at 2am for the first two days, and Bec and I had to work hard to get the children back to sleep.  Boston has some great family restaurants and we went out to dinner early both nights – the children were keen at the start of the meal, and asleep before the bill arrived.  On each occasion Bec and I had to carry all three bodies out of the restaurant door which may have been a little unsettling for patrons arriving for their meal reservation. Ultimately their body clocks were forced to accept our new time zone and by the time we got to Vermont we were largely back on track.

In Boston Sari proved to be a bit perkier than the boys during the days and accompanied me on a walk of the Freedom Trial, a 4 km journey from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charleston. The trial is marked with a (mostly brick) line built into the footpath and roads, and simple ground markers explaining events, graveyards, notable churches and other buildings provide stops along the way.  The highlight was a climb up the Bunker Hill Monument, a 67m tall granite obelisk that was built about 170 years ago.  This offered a wonderful view over Boston, for the princely sum of 294 steps (not bad for a sleep deprived 4 year old after a 4 km walk). She never asked to be carried once which made her Dad very proud.

Sari at the Bunker Hill Monument, Boston

Aside from Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers we also dined at the Barking Crab Restaurant, a great clam-shack in the Seaport District where you can buy lobster cooked 15 different ways.  It was a lively and fun venue – perfect for children (even those who just want to sleep) and Sari managed to get the guitar guy up on stage to dedicate a song to her, on account of her dancing and flirtations with him, before sleep overcame her.

Sari and her guitar guy, The Barking Crab Restaurant, Boston

The 4.5 hour drive to Stowe, Vermont was very pretty although much of the country bore the scars of Hurricane Irene which came through in late August.  It is extremely unusual for a hurricane as large as this to come as far north as Irene did – the last one this big was in 1901. She started in the Caribbean and worked her way up the east coast of the US and into Canada, taking 57 lives and causing an estimated $15 billion in damage. We saw literally thousands of trees with limbs ripped off or hanging.  We later leant that some of this damage was also caused by a massive and unseasonally early snow fall over the Halloween weekend (just 2 months after Irene).  In some parts of New England over 80cms of snow fell on trees still in leaf which caused many of them to fall. Powerlines were also damaged which left millions without power for several days.

As we drove north we were lucky to be back in (also unseasonal) warm weather and couldn’t help but wonder at the so called “once in a hundred year” weather events that now seem to be occuring on an annual basis!  Much of New England is poor and, as beautiful as their country is, it is sadly apparent that this has been the ruin of many.

Our stay in Vermont was wonderful. As Bec has documented already, we were spoiled by the Newstead’s great friends – Michelle and Sam Labow – who surrended their house to us for three days and went to great efforts to show us all around Stowe and its surrounds.  It was lovely being back in a house, as opposed to a hotel, and to enjoy delicious home cooked meals.  The children were in a constant state of excitement thanks to the snow showers and outings like the Ben and Jerry’s factory tour.  A few days after we left them Michelle emailed to say that they had found the banister knob that mysteriously went missing during our stay.  Sari couldn’t quite remember where she had put it so this was a great relief to her parents.

We then drove south to the historic and very beautiful town of Mystic, Connecticut, where we spent three days before heading into New York City.  Mystic sits on the Mystic River which flows into Long Island Sound.  Its flat land and plentiful timber supply saw it become a major centre for ship construction during the 1800’s and it now hosts the Mystic Seaport, the largest maritime museum in the USA. The museum’s collections and exhibits include over 500 historic boats and a recreation of a 19th century seafaring village spread over 37 acres.  I spent an entire day walking fascinated around tall ships and lighthouses.

The beautiful Mystic Seaport.

We visited a working steam driven cider house (the last one in the USA).  This beautiful old factory produced without doubt the best cider (apple juice) I have ever tasted.  We also walked through the local cemetery, where Bec ingeniously set the children a series of tasks which they loved – find the oldest headstone, draw their favourite headstone, find out which wars the veteran graves related to, etc.  It was really interesting tracing some of the original founding families through several hundred years of history via their headstones.

Visiting the Mystic Cider Mill.

Foster doing some "cemetery homework".

My 80’s junky wife (her words not mine) had us all visit Mystic Pizza for dinner one night.  For those who did not watch teen movies in the 1980’s, Mystic Pizza is the name of a Julia Roberts film which was set in this restaurant, and having a meal here brought Bec as much joy as I got from a day at the Seaport.  The pizzas were excellent and it was fun being surrounded by film memorabilia while we ate.

Dining at Mystic Pizza.

This morning we drove from Mystic into Manhattan which felt like a trip in a time machine.  We have gone from a village of 4,000 to a city of 8 million.  We are here for 10 days, including Thanksgiving, and have lots planned.  All very exciting.

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Boston Buns, Burgers and Political Satire

Bec – 11 November 2011

Whilst in Boston we visited ‘Bartley’s Burgers’, an eating institution for the students of Harvard University since 1960.

Featured in the movie, ‘The Social Network’, about the origins of Facebook, Bartley’s Burgers is the place that uni students hang out, eat, make jokes about politicians and solve the problems of the world.

The burgers are named after influential figures or celebrities, past and present, so the menu can make for some interesting reading.

The walls of the restaurant are covered in stickers and posters that make jokes at the expense of every group in society, which gives the diners something to smile at and take the focus away from the fact that they are clogging their arteries with 8 ounces of char grilled burger, swimming in cheese, ketchup and mustard.

Here are a small selection of posters/stickers that made us laugh……..Hope you enjoy!

Sorry, you'll have to bend your neck

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Peace, Love And Ice-Cream

Bec – 12 November 2011

Who would have thought that you could find all 3 of my favourite things in one American East Coast state, Vermont.

The birthplace, and still to this day, the home of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and of our hosts, Sam and Michelle Labow.

We’ve spent the last three days being spoilt rotten by Stowe and all it has to offer. We’ve experienced beautiful sunny days, followed by snow dumps and hail.

Let it snow let it snow let it snow

Yes…Stowe has it all…a little like Melbourne…the possibility of four seasons in one day.

The main reason for our visit to Stowe was to see Sam and Michelle, whom I have not seen since I stayed with them after Mum died 15 years ago. Neither one of them has changed a bit, they are still the incredibly generous, warm, tactile people I remember.

Sari absolutely adored her time with Michelle

This was an opportunity for them to meet the children and Jamie. Both have been officially approved…thank goodness.

We set off this morning after a light breakfast to the Ben and Jerry’s Ice cream factory which is only ten minutes away. It wasn’t that crowded…maybe it had something to do with it being only 6 degrees outside and a little too cold for ice cream…but try telling a four year old that …..or for that matter Michelle…….who loves her ice cream.

It’s a great tour of the premises and you really get the sense that Ben and Jerry’s is a unique operation….a company that is successfully able to balance shareholder’s profits with corporate and environmental responsibility. In this day and age that’s a big call!

Stowe, Vermont itself is a beautiful example of a small rural New England town. The town has very strict rules regarding the restoration of buildings and as a result it has maintained the magical feel of a fairytale dolls house set in rolling green hills, complete with wooden covered bridges.

A picture perfect Post Office

We’ll be very sad to leave Stowe tomorrow morning knowing that it may be quite a long time before we are back again, but just like the Von Trapp family from Salzburg, who finally settled here after escaping Nazi Austria……..so long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodbye!

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Canal bikes and red light sleep-overs

Jamie – 6 November 2011

And so we reach the end of our time in Europe. We are in Amsterdam where we have spent a lovely three days with of one our closest friends, Andrew “Max” Walker. Max is godfather to all three of our children, who know him simply and with great affection as Uncle Max. Max gave us an amazing send-off by securing, through his work, the top three floors of a beautiful old apartment building which overlooks one of the main canals (Sengal). It is so special to be able to spend our last few days in Europe with him.

We are a ten minute walk from the central railway station, which is to say we are near to some fascinating houses illuminated at night by a red bulb and whose scantily-clad occupants sit by their window waiting for their washing machine to finish. At least that is what we told the children. Mylo didn’t quite accept this response and so we then explained that they were inviting people to have a sleepover, and no, he couldn’t go.

Our apartment, at 119 Sengal (top 3 floors)

Amsterdam is beautiful. Tall narrow houses, many with a lean, facing onto cobbled roads and fully working canals. Most of the locals ride bikes and you really have to be vigilant every time you walk outside your front door as the distinction between footpath and bike lane is often unclear. Young children have a difficult enough time remembering that roads and cars are dangerous, so we have had to watch them particularly carefully.

We hired a couple of “canal bikes”, which are actually ride-on peddle boats that seat four (the back two being passengers). This was a real highlight and much better than going on the tourist canal boats that we saw. It was surprisingly easy to sit back and take in the views as your legs made circles and you cruised along. The canals were not especially crowded and we covered a lot of territory in our two hours. We passed some truly beautiful houseboats, along with the odd neglected half-submerged smaller craft. I’m surprised we didn’t get lost as every canal and bridge looked identical to the last.

Peddlng around Amsterdam on our canal bikes.

We handed our canal bikes back in next to Anne Frank’s house, which I had visited on a previous trip. Bec and Foster joined the queue and were very happy that they did as the story of how the Frank family and three other friends hid from the Nazis in a “secret annex” of Otto Frank’s office building for over two years (before they were betrayed) is fascinating. Sadly the Frank’s suffered the same fate of so many Jews in the Second World War and all but Otto (the father) died in concentration camps. Anne was a young teenager at the time and documented her life while in hiding in a personal diary which was later published and has now been read by millions. It is an incredible book which I think everyone should read.

We also visited NEMO, which is not a lost clown fish but in fact a large science museum located next to the Central Station. It was designed by Renzo Piano and shaped like the front of a large ship. It boasts a motto of “You must touch everything” and was another example of a museum which clearly had children front of mind in its design and content. Science and technology is showcased in the form of a series of interactive exhibits. Foster and Sari created a bubble around themselves by standing in a tray of detergent and raising a metal ring out of the tray and over their heads. Sadly I had forgotten to take the camera, but it would have made our Paris bubble-blowing busker proud (see an earlier Blog).

They also loved watching a performance by a mad professor who set up the longest “chain reaction” I have ever seen. You know the type – a domino is tipped which tips about 100 other dominos in turn, the last of which pops a balloon which swings a weight which lights a candle which burns some string which releases a ball which knocks some cans which fall into a net which starts a fan which blows a toy boat along a tube which pops another balloon which makes a lead weight fall from the roof onto a basketball which has a tube attached which shoot air into a foam rocket which launches over the crowd to much applause.

That is the short version. The actual event went for nearly 10 minutes and had over 50 different “triggers”. Great stuff. As a young boy I used to love constructing simpler (2 or 3 step) versions of this concept using string and cardboard boxes to try and catch birds in our garden. I never came close. Sari nearly ruined today’s entertainment by leaning over the rope fence that contained the audience and blowing out the candle – something she has taken to doing in every restaurant we visit. Thankfully the professor was alerted to the “break” in his chain in time for the candle to be re-lit without causing the experiment to fail.

One sad thing that did happen – after 5,200 kms of safe carriage we said goodbye to our faithful car. I can happily report that she was returned free of dents and scratches (although the interior needs a very serious vacuum!). There is no way we could have ever driven around Europe without GPS-Jane – we marvel at how people did what we have done in the days before this clever technology existed.

It has been a great way to spend our final days in Europe. We are a little sad to be closing such an exciting and fun filled chapter of our travels but with seven weeks still to come in the United States we have much to look forward to. We are up at 4.30am tomorrow morning – something we are NOT looking forward to – to catch a 7.30am flight to Heathrow before connecting through to Boston a few hours later.

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The Night-watchman

Jamie – 4 November 2011

In our research on where to travel to in Germany there was one name that kept coming up everywhere we looked:  Rothenburg ob der Tauber.  Friends of mine had been there. Fellow travellers we met along the way had been there.  Everyone said “you have to go” and the travel websites raved.  It is always risky then going to a place like this as your expectations have been raised to such a level that disappointment is all but assured.

We drove the 2.5 hours from Munich to Rothenburg o.d.T with high expectations and it did not take long to see what all the fuss is about.

This was a very wealthy town about 600 years ago thanks to its positioning on major trade routes. It sits high on a hill with a massive fortified wall surrounding it, and looks down on the Tauber River. It used to be one of the 20 largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire – today you would simply consider it a small town.  After centuries of prosperity it was crippled in one foul swoop by The Thirty Years War and Black Death which both hit in 1630 leaving the town poor and virtually empty. It remained dormant for the next several hundred years, thereby preserving its 17th century state. Apart from some damage during WW2 it remains one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the world. It is just like walking into the Middle Ages.

The main square of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

A section of the wall which surrounds the town. You can walk the entire circuit.

The real fun of the town comes from two features. Firstly, the bearded night-watchman who tours to the old-town each night (accompanied by an entourage of visitors) to “lock the gates” of the wall. In reality he is a walking historian – in traditional dress with cape, lamp and spear –  who recreates history through his story telling of “the old times” which is delivered with great humour and wit.  The children thought he was wonderful – Foster even did the whole tour again on our second night (in zero degree temperatures) and roared with laughter at all the jokes which apparently were even funnier on their second telling.

The night-watchman.

The second attraction of the town is its its main industry – Christmas decorations! This might sound a bit uninteresting to some but when you take a town as beautiful as this and give it an “eternal Christmas” feel it creates something truly unique and unforgettable.

Bec and the children discovered a couple near the main square who were making apple juice using an old fruit press.  You had the choice of hot or cold apple juice (Foster loved it hot) and there was no wastage anywhere – the large cakes of pressed fruit simply get fed back to the farm animals!  Tasty AND environmentally friendly!

You simply can not help but feel good walking around this town. Everyone is smiling. Everyone is happy.  It has a purity about it which is hard to describe. All the locals we met (from our restaurants to the hotel) were delightful. It would be magical to be here in the depths of winter when the town is under snow. Next time!

Pressing apple juice the old fashion way.

After two wonderful nights we headed north for another 2.5 hours to Rudesheim am Rhein.  This is another old town on the so-called Romantic Road – a 350 kms route that was once the main trade route that connected southern Germany to central Germany (from Fussen in the south to Wurzburg in the north). As its name implies Rudesheim is on the Rhein and our intention here was to catch one of the tourist boats for a river adventure. Unfortunately we arrived two days after the “tourist season” ended and there were no boats to be had.

Nevertheless we went for a long walk along the Rhein and enjoyed the region’s famous Riesling and schnitzel. A highlight for all of us were the friends we made with a lovely family at one of our dinners.  Their son, Julian, spoke almost no English but was familiar with the rules of Uno (and later Hide and Seek, once all the other diners had left) and that was all that was required for a wonderful night of laughter.

Next stop Amsterdam – a 4.5 hour drive and our final destination in Europe.

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On a wave in Munich

Jamie – 29 October 2011

Munich’s not exactly known as a surfing Mecca.  By my reckoning it’s about 450 km to the nearest coast and even then we are not talking surf beach. Nevertheless people do surf here, and it is very exciting to watch.  It happens at the southern end of the English Garden, a 900 acre park in the centre of Munich. It is here that the Eisbach (a shallow and very fast man-made river) enters the park under a bridge, falls into a submersed trench, and rebounds up to create a wall of water that is perfect to surf. The perfect “standing wave” – good for as long as you can balance.

Surfing in the middle of Munich !

Surfers – clad in full body wetsuits – take it in turns to jump in from one of the two walls lining the river and “carve it up” from one side to the other while trying to incorporate as many tricks as they can.  In that sense it is more like water skiing than surfing. Occasionally a rider manages a 360 degree turn or a clear air leap and the 10 or so riders waiting their turn clap their boards in mutual appreciation.

Lining up to "drop in".

Foster and Mylo decided to score each rider with a mark out of 100.  Their scoring seemed to reflect “ride duration” and “size of stack” rather than degree of trick difficulty but it kept them completely engaged in the spectacle and added to the fun. The authorities seem to neither encourage nor prohibit the surfing.  There is a simple sign stating that persons who surf do so at their own risk and should be experienced surfers given the strength of the current.  The current is very strong and very fast.  A rider completes their ride by exiting the back of the wave – usually involuntarily – and then has to swim as hard as they can to one of the sides. Inevitably they finish up 30 to 50 metres downstream.  It doesn’t help that they have a six foot board strapped to their ankle.

Today we watched the surfers as part of a broader exploration of the English Gardens.  We hired bikes for four hours – Mylo and Sari rode tag-a-longs behind Bec and I while Foster rode his own bike. We seemed to be the only people in Munich wearing helmets but I insisted and no one argued. Foster was on a much bigger bike than he is used to but he was absolutely fine – one fall on some gravel but he picked himself up stoically, brushed himself down, and resumed his ride.  It was the perfect day for a bike ride – cool but very sunny.  The trees which filled the park had all turned their autumn colours and we seemed to be riding through a constant stream of nature’s confetti.

First stop was the nudist meadow, a part of the park in which nude relaxation is permitted. Note: we were observers not participants. Sadly (for the boys and I) it seems that men not woman are out at this time of year – so we moved on, quietly vowing to return in mid July one year when the best flowers are in bloom.

We rode on to one of the three beer gardens housed within the park – my kind of park (not that I was drinking – I was riding with one of my offspring in tow after all).  This was the “Chinese Tower Beer Garden” which includes a rather magnificent multi-level Chinese tower in which you can drink beer and eat pork and sauerkraut.  Today there was also an Oom-Pah-Pah band playing which we enjoyed for a while before riding onto a nearby lake.  Here we enjoyed a simple lunch and fed the swans, geese, ducks and surprisingly the odd sea-gull (who may have been there mistakenly on account of the surfers).

Lunchtime in the English Garden. The birds eat more than the children.

The children then voted that we return to watch some more surfing, which we did.  This time Foster and Mylo found a vantage point that was next to where the surfers were “dropping in” and offered a fantastic close up riverside view of the action. Better still there were no crowds of people to contend with.  The reason for this become apparent with the third rider who was particularly good at 180 degree turns two feet from the river’s edge. Foster, Mylo and poor Bec (who had gone to caution them against getting too close) were on the receiving end of a torrent of water which drenched them from head to toe. Foster and Mylo of course thought this was fantastic (until they realized there were no replacement clothes anywhere nearby). Bec was less than impressed but took at all very well in the circumstances.

That ended our bike ride but we still considered it a wonderful day.  The English Gardens are made to be ridden around – there are bike paths all through it, without fear of cars – and getting out for some outdoor exercise in such a picturesque setting was just what we all felt like. Foster, who has always been an avid cyclist, rated it one of his favourite days thus far.

We would definitely recommend a day spent riding around the English Gardens to other families visiting Munich. What could be better than an outing involving bikes, surfing, beer gardens, lush meadows, and the possibility of a nudey?

A cycling paradise. It will be a while before Sari can ride her own bike by the look of things.

The Chinese Tower Beer Garden.

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The Greatest Gift You’ll Ever Know… Is To Love And To Be Loved In Return

Bec – 30 October 2011

Today was the 15th Anniversary of my mum’s death.

It’s hard to believe that so many years have passed by since we lost her from our lives…… it still feels like just yesterday I was a child and she was with me, leading the way, guiding me and comforting me.

So much has changed for me since Mum died, I became an adult, I fell in love, got married and had my own family.

The way I remember my mum has mellowed with time and as a woman and mother now myself.. so many opinions and thoughts about her have changed. This for me is the saddest part…the fact that I can not sit down and talk to her as a woman, a friend, a mother….who would have struggled with the same issues as me…..and may have had some answers for me.

One particular incident was with my mothers close friend Michelle Labow, whom I stayed with in Stowe,Vermont after Mum died.

It was my first night in her home and we were telling stories about Mum, remembering her through our own eyes…….Michelle told a story about Cheryl telling wickedly naughty jokes, having a couple of glasses of wine and having every one at the table fixated on her as she held court.

I shook my head at Michelle and stated that she must be thinking about the wrong person. My mum never really drank more than a sip…she certainly didn’t tell naughty jokes or hold court at a party. Who did she think she was talking about!!! I left the table quite angry and confused. This was my mum’s friend…..someone who was supposed to know her intimately and she didn’t know her at all. So I thought!!!

It turns out…she knew another woman… Cheryl…her friend!

Later that evening, Michelle came to me and explained that neither of us remembered her incorrectly, we simply remembered different facets of her life…….I as a mother and nurturer…and her as a friend and a vibrant woman..who could turn heads and tell a really great joke (often forgetting the punch line …..which made it even more hilarious)!

At the time..I thanked her for explaining but I didn’t get it.

It has taken me 15 years to get it….and her message was probably one of the most important things I ever learnt about my mum.

It’s so easy to get caught in the ‘mummy trap’, you know you are truly entrenched when your children’s friends know you as ‘Foster’s mummy’ instead of by your first name.

My mum was obviously a lot better at keeping all the areas of her lives compartmentalised and I wish I could talk to her about just how she managed to do that.  As I get older I realised she was so active both inside and outside of home, at the hospital, at school, in the community, as a daughter, as a wife but probably more importantly to her as a friend to so many.

She and my dad, valued and value their friends. They had such a diverse and wide reaching network of people they cherished and derived joy from.

In my life, I feel that maybe I have not paid enough attention to my friendships, letting them slip as the ‘Mummy trap’ took hold…always vowing to ‘catch up’ when things slowed down. Well, my friends….things are never going to slow down…so I am just going to have to shift priorities.

It’s funny… in life… we plan for babies…we plan for our children’s education….. we plan for accidents by taking insurance…..we plan for holidays….but the one certainty we have in life….. is death, it’s definitely going to happen .…and we never really plan for it. Everyone always says…..I ran out of time…who saw that coming…..well it is coming…so get out and enjoy your lives, your families and your friends.

And on the 15th anniversary of Cheryl, I am using her death to realise that I am still ALIVE…and that it is my responsibility to live my life in the most fulfilling and useful way that I can. There is a wonderful saying…” You can not control how you enter or when you leave this life…but you can choose how you live whilst you are here”.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Mum before her death with a list of questions. My final question on the list was “Do you have any regrets?”….she thought long and hard about this and I was a little afraid of what the answer might be….but it came back as  “Yes…I would have worn the pink dress rather than the yellow dress to my 21st”.

That’s it right there folks..….if that is your greatest regret in life…then you lived it pretty well !!! We should all aim to go out this way.

So to all those family and friends who loved my mum and were so loved by her I say thank you for making her 50 years so happy and so fulfilling.

xxxx

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Not The Sound of Music

Jamie – 26 October 2011

I like The Sound of Music in a once-a-year kind of way.  Interestingly the Austrian’s themselves are almost unaware of this well known musical, despite it being a major tourist draw card to their country.  In fact, it was having its first ever theatrical showing in Austria while we were there – amazing given that the film was released in 1965. There are several theories for this ignorance: The original film was in English rather than German. Also, the Austrians probably did not appreciate the reminder of the role their country played in WW2 (a strong theme in the film).  However, apparently enough time has passed for the theatrical version to be a success as it is booked out for the next three months. It also probably helps that it is being presented in German.

Anyway, the good news for me was that Salzburg had a lot to offer beyond TSOM.

Top of the list was probably the salt mine tour – there are a few mines near Salzburg but we went to the one in Berchtesgaden. It had everything a child could want in a tour. You got dressed up in jump suits. It was underground and sometimes very dark. The descent involved a very cool 1.4km ride-on train through a very narrow tunnel followed by a couple of 40 metre wooden slides that were very fast (facilitated by the jumpsuits). There was an underground “mirror lake” that you crossed by boat while a laser show played out on the cave roof just above your head.  You dipped your finger in and then tasted the very salty lake water. You leant that if you consumed just 150 grams of salt (or more) in a day you would die. Who knew how close to death I was with some of those fish and chips I used to have! In fact you learnt everything there is to know about salt and in particular the process of harvesting the “below ground” variety. The tour lasted an hour and a half, and our children declared it better than Disneyland. A very satisfying declaration for a parent to hear!

Underground fashion. All kitted up for the salt mine.

The salt mine "Mirror Lake"

Our second favourite event was a ride up the Jenner-Bahn (a spectacular 3.3km gondola ride up to the top of Mt Jenner).  The views were marvelous as we were carried above the snow line.  The children had been pleading to visit somewhere with snow, and the excitement as we stepped out at 1800 metres above sea level was impossible to contain.  We were almost alone at the top and celebrated with a major snowball fight.  Bec and Sari also built a very cute snowman before we retired into the summit restaurant with its million dollar view for a hot chocolate and apple-strudel feast.  The boys and I then decided to test our new hiking boats with a 2.5 hour walk from the middle-station at 1200 metres to the bottom of the mountain. It was a really lovely walk through pine forests and across alpine streams.  Being the end of autumn many of the trees below the snow line were throwing their red and yellow leaves to the wind.

Our magnificent view from the top of the Jenner Bahn

Bec and I took it in turn to visit Mozart’s childhood home in the old-town which we both really enjoyed.  I also enjoyed the Mozart Kugeln that most shops seemed to sell.  These are chocolate balls filled with marzipan. I think they are yum. Bec thinks they are yuck. Marzipan polarizes most people.

As so often happens we discovered our favourite eat-out venue on our last night and wished we had found it on our first.  Austria’s largest Beer Hall (the Augustinee Braustubl) is contained within a monastery in the Salzburg old-town. There are actually four halls (two for non-smokers) and you simply choose your clay stein from the “stein shelf”, wash it in the stream-water fed fountain a few steps away, and take it to the barman who will fill it for a few euro. It seems that there was only one type of beer on offer – from a magnificent wooden barrel – and it was delicious! Extremely drinkable. Even Bec (who is not a beer drinker, or drinker full stop for that matter) agreed that her sip was “very nice”. Also inside the monastery is a food hall selling the most mouth-watering assortment of traditional Austrian delicacies – roasted and BBQ’d meats, along with salads, breads, etc.   What we liked was that the halls seemed to be filled with locals not tourists (as evidenced by the lederhosen and felt hats), and that there were as many grandparent types as there were younger drinkers. Everyone was laughing, no one was (obviously) drunk – and the joyous atmosphere rubbed off on the entire family as we gnawed away on our pork ribs and Schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock).

The other highlight was a visit to Hanger 7 which is a monument to all things associated with the Red Bull group. As the name suggests, Hanger 7 is based at Salzburg Airport and contains an amazing collection of aircraft, helicopters, racing cars and artwork. I’ve always associated Red Bull with the energy drink – and that is certainly its core brand – but this is really the story of Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire who founded the company, and his passion for aviation, architecture and the arts.  Hanger 7 itself is a unique building – an enormous glass and aluminium structure housing the entire collection along with three first class restaurants and cafes. It is free to view the collection and they present you with a boarding pass as you enter which the children loved.

Hanger 7. The modern day Aladdin's cave for boys.

My next Xmas present. This jet pack flew a man across the English Channel.

We visited the Salzburg Zoo which was a little disappointing (for someone who has been to the Sydney Zoo). That said, the children really enjoyed an area where you could feed the sheep and goats by hand. One exhibit that I particularly enjoyed was the rat and mouse display.  It was a mock kitchen where the “absent owners” had rather foolishly left food on the table and the cupboards open. Well needless to say there were about 300 mice and rats in that room having a party to end all parties and you could literally walk amongst it all (behind the safety of a glass wall). It all felt disturbingly like it could have been your own house and the true enjoyment of the exhibit lay in watching the reaction of people as they entered the room and took the sight in.  More than a few people immediately turned around and motored out of there. I find it funny that people will press their noses against the glass of a snake enclosure but run a mile from a mouse enclosure.

Don't worry, she still has five fingers on her right hand.

Our hotel in Salzburg... Just kidding - the house mouse enclosure at Salzburg Zoo.

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Never Again

Work Sets You Free ......the inscription on the gates to the Dachau Concentation Camp

Bec – 27 October 2011

Today was the day I had been looking forward to and dreading, all in the very same heart beat.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the fact that we as humans travel around the world to see the most beautiful, most fascinating, most inspiring places on earth and we are all too happy to by pass or turn a blind eye to those places that emotionally or morally challenge us. Oddly enough, these are the locations in the world that offer us the greatest enlightenment, not only of the abhorent violence that humans are capable of…..but more importantly the strength of the human spirit, the ability to believe and survive….. even in the face of despair and hopelessness.

And so it was, armed with these beliefs that I set off for the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site.

The first thing that hits you, is just how close the camp is…….. and was to the center of Muinch.

We are staying in a major chain hotel, which is located on top of an SBahn station and all I had to do was catch a lift down from the lobby and there was a suburban train bound for Dachau.

When you pull up at Dachau train station you find yourself in the middle of a medium sized town, a happy neighbourhood with children cycling, adults shopping and life going on very normally…… all ten feet in front of the high fences and barbed wire.

I’m sure that’s how the Nazi’s got away with these atrocities…they simply carried them out in plain sight of everyone….people only start to question things if you try and hide them away.

A local bus dropped me at the front gate ….and I was instantly relieved to find a dignified, peaceful space that filled me with the feeling that I was entering hallowed ground….a sacred space.

The size of the Concentration Camp is overwhelming and I was not aware that the SS and Secret Death Squad also used it as their training grounds druing the Nazi reign, so the largest part of the camp is filled with very comfortable barracks, mess halls and manicured ovals. The rest was designated as Protective Custody Area.

The Roll Call Yard ...where officers could make you stand for up to 20 hours at a time

The autrocities carried out at Dachau are well documented, mostly becuase the SS and SA officers took lots of photos of the inmates and how hard they were being made to work. Thanks to them we can use these images to educate future generations.

The grounds of the Concentration Camp are easy to navigate and have been well marked so that comparisons to ‘then and now’ are obvious.

The Camp Road ...then

The Camp Road......now

It was in no way as distrubing or traumatising as I thought it would be…..in fact, I felt the message wasn’t quite strong enough….and this point was reinforced by the fact that German teenage students, at the memorial on a school excursion were making jokes and running around.

I’m sure it is a mixture of immaturity and a softly, softly approach…but I am convinced that my children at the age of 4,7 and 9 would have shown more respect.

In a society where young children have already been exposed to images of war, genocide, third world hunger, autrocities and revolution….simply from watching the nightly news…..how do you get the message across….how do you make them understand what these poor prisoners went through at the hands of their fellow human beings.

I came away from Dachau with very mixed feelings…….I was so proud to be able to celebrate the strength of the human spirit and to see that life goes on. The Jewish religion, culture and community thrives throughout the world…despite one man’s determination to wipe them from the face of the earth.

Yet at the same time….sadly I walked away with an overwhelming awarness that the true message is not getting through to most who visit the Dachau Concentration Camp. There may be a push for German schoolchildren to visit the Memorial site and learn about it….but the empathy and understanding is not there.

History is only worthwhile if we as human beings can learn from it.

I’m not convinced that as a race we are …….

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All things Edelweiss

Bec – 24 October 2011

When travelling through cities and towns you can often feel overwhelmed by the amount of ‘touristy’ souvenirs that are on sale. Wooden mini pinnochios in Italy, mini Eiffel towers in Paris and mini Parthenons in Athens. It is no different in Germany or Austria, but what has surprised both Jamie and I is the number of people who wear the traditional national dress in both countries as everyday clothing. The grey felted jacket with pine green piping that we Sound of Music fanatics refer to as “The Travelling Jacket” is worn by men and women in rural and urban areas.

On the warmer days, the lederhosen come out for the men but now that the days are getting much cooler they seem to wear corduroy knickerbockers with hatching down the side to tighten them around the calves. You also wear thick high socks under them.

In a world so fixated on fashion, it is lovely to see people being so patriotic but also practical in putting warmth first, after all these traditional clothes were made specifically for the Alpine climate and region.

On the topic of fantastic Austrian’s wearing their national dress, this morning I crossed a couple of dreams off my bucket list. # 87 to run through the arched trellis at Mirabell Gardens with my children, arms stretched outwards singing all the way. # 88 to jump up and down the marble staircase at Mirabell Gardens with my children , mimicking the scene from SOM and finally #89 to march around the fountain at Mirabell Gardens all in a row, tallest to shortest, once again singing all the way. I’m beginning to think that the reason I wanted to have so many children was always linked to my desire to become the Von Trapp family. I should have called Foster – Kurt, Mylo – Friedrich and Sari – Gretel…I wonder if it is too late to change……

The trellis archway

Tomorrow, Foster- or should I say Kurt – and I are heading off on the Original Sound Of Music Tour….4 hours of sights, music, facts and Von Trapps!!! Of course it’s touristy but to me…it’s Sound Of Music heaven…

Tomorrow is also our last full day in Salzburg so I promise…no more Sound of Music after that… but for now I am still entitled to at least 24 hours of Maria and the Captain.

My sincere thanks to my children and especially my husband for joining in all the Sound of Music activities and photos.

Making a wish in the Mirabell Fountain

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The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Fussen

Bec – 19th October 2011

…….” my heart wants to sing every sight it sees”……

For those of you who haven’t guessed it yet… I am a Sound Of Music fanatic from way back …..and although we are in Southern Germany, not technically in Austria…..it is the alpine region that surrounds us here that is dragging my Julie Andrews spirit from its depths…making me want to run to the Alps and ‘Doe a Deer’ from the highest heights.

Hello from Germany

If you are thinking that this whole ‘Sound Of Music’ thing is a little crazy……..I have to tell you that Jamie and the kids were a little hesitant about the happiness effect of the Alps as well…..but the mood is truly infectious and the whole family has caught the Alpine bug.

Yesterday, our first full day in Fussen, Germany……was voted unanimously as the ‘best day of the trip so far’….a big call from 3 kids who were starting to murmur about missing home a couple of days ago.

Hold on to your seats ladies and gentlemen….this is going to be a huge blog…because yesterday was a HUGE day!

My first stop of the day was to the traditional German outfitters across the road from our apartment…. unfortunately Jamie could not be persuaded by me to purchase a pair of Liederhosen (I think he would of looked fantastic in leather shorts and knee high socks! – but to no avail) …..so we moved on.

The hat was 'for sale' not Mylo ...

Back on track we headed off to Schwangu, which is a chocolate box Bavarian village nestled at the seat of the two famous castles, which are the draw cards for this tourist area. Foster and Jamie, ever the energetic ones decided to hike up the mountain, whilst Sari, Mylo and I caught a beautiful horse drawn carriage up the steep hill…along with all the other fat, lazy people. (I only went in the carriage to accompany my minors of course!!!!!)

A 10 minute walk through an amazing, sun lit, tall forest brought us out at the entrance to Schloss Neuschwanstein (the castle). Well worth every step!

Schloss Neuschwanstein in all its glory.......

This particular castle was built by King Ludwig to overlook his parents holiday home, Schloss Hohenschwangu, which is situated by the lake below, where Ludwig spent many happy years as a child.

Neuschwanstein is dedicated to Wagner and his operas and is a totally flight of fancy…..decorated by characters from the operas such as ‘Tristan and Isolde’…… and even comes complete with an artificial cave built next to Ludwig’s bedroom. There is gold everywhere and mosaics cover the floors. The children were gobsmacked by the decoration….but more so by the mystery surrounding his death….which happened the day after he was declared mentally unfit to rule.

Ever the conspiracy theorist ……I saw straight through this poor disguise to remove a king who was….40 and unmarried…had been engaged for 10 months then cancelled the wedding ….had no children….was the best friend and constant companion of musician and composer Wagner…..was a patron of Bavarian arts, music and fashion…..and used to only entertain men in his apartments after 9pm……women were banned!

Let’s just say ……in today’s age I don’t think it would have been such a ‘mystery’.

The castle took 17 years to build and two floors were never completed, as all building work ceased after the King’s death, so it is an amazing building to walk through and see it as the king himself saw it for the last time.

Neuschwanstein is famous for other reasons….. the fantastic Disney movie featuring Dick VanDyke and a flying car that goes by the name of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang used the castle as the set in the late 60’s……along with the great acclaim that Walt Disney himself used Neuschwanstein as his personal inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle that you see in Disneyland’s all the over the globe.

Not a bad legacy, for one ‘crazy’ King’s flight of fancy.

After our tour, the family headed down the mountain…yes Mummy walked….and yes I have proof (see photo…that’s me with the blue feather in my hair!!) Stopping along the way to take in the view and the clean mountain air.

The walk down through the magical forest

Our next stop was to the Tegelbergbahn (try saying that eight times, really quickly) Aktiv Park, which is the most wonderful outdoor activity park set right next door to the covered gondola which takes you up to the peak of the mountain at 1730m. Jamie and the children are hoping to do this activity today, weather permitting.

The Aktiv Park has a very long in ground Toboggan Slide that is 760 metres of high speed twists and turns, all done whilst seated on a plastic toboggan sled with wheels. This was high adrenaline action for adults and kids …….and we all loved it! Sari was a complete speed nut and kept wanting to go faster…..Mylo and I had a slight spill, leaning the wrong way around a turn but we recovered and Foster …….well, he just wanted to keep doing it again and again.

There was wall climbing, rock climbing, flying foxes, see saws, swings, log pulls and motorized mini motor bikes that kept us entertained till dinnertime.

2 very happy children

It was the children’s turn to pick the restaurant for dinner and this time we had Thai. Boiled rice,crispy duck and Nasi Goreng were the order of the day.

Foster and Mylo said they couldn’t think of anything at all to make the day better.

The weather has really turned today……winter is setting in for good……the skies have been so kind to us throughout Europe and winter has really held off till now……so we can’t be pessimistic about it’s snap arrival. Boots, gloves, hats and scarves are now mandatory outside the front door and heaters have been turned on in all the shops. Our minds are turning to Gluhwein and Hot Chocolates as we pack our bags again to head to Salzburg, Austria.

Danke Fussen….it has been spectacular …x

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