Sunday, December 23, 2007

Italy: Venice and Rome

We left for Venice early a few Tuesdays ago, first hopping a train from Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland. We were unsure of the border crossing into Switzerland, as our train schedule noted a 10-minute walk from the French train station to the Swiss one. It turned out to be a non-issue -- we had a one-minute walk past an empty border/customs booth, and then went straight on to our train. While in the station I had a sudden urge to eat and drink (only because we couldn't buy anything - like that weird urge you get to use the toilet when there are none around). The Swiss are serious about their currency and not accepting the Euro, and I wasn't about to change my Euros to Swiss Franks just for a snack. Luckily our layover was only an hour!

We then boarded a Swiss train for the remainder of our nine-hour journey to Venice. For a train that was making such a long journey, it was not as comfortable as many of the French or German trains that we've been on. However, it wasn't crowded at all, and that made a real difference to us as we were able to move freely about the car during the long trip. For a long portion of the trip we sat beside a man from the Kitchener-Waterloo area whose daughter plays for the Lugano (Switzerland) women's hockey team. He was one of a group of businessmen who brought MacDonald's to Europe and was darned proud of it. We had packed a gourmet deli lunch and I offered him some of our food at various times, but he told us he was waiting until he got into Milan to get a Big Mac and some fries. To each his own...

We arrived in Venice about 6 p.m. and found to our shock that a vaporetto (water bus) ride would cost us 24€. There was really no help for it, though; we were tired and it was dark, and our apartment was almost three kilometres from the train station. After a 40-minute vaporetto ride and two attempts to find the correct opening into the maze of Venice's streets, Mark asked a young man (who turned out to work at the nearby naval academy) how to get to the church near our apartment. Not only did he give us directions, but he also went out of his way to walk us there : ). We were met at the door of the apartment by the upstairs neighbour, a very nice older lady who showed us around and explained everything in rapid Italian. We just kept nodding and saying, "Si, si!"

Venice is a beautiful city with a maze of narrow streets and canals. We spent two days there, mostly just wandering around. We visited the Piazza San Marco and the Basilica, and I made the mistake of buying bird seed to feed the pigeons. (It was what I've always imagined Daphne DuMaurier's The Birds to be like, before they got really mean - they were on my head, crawling up my legs, sliding down my arms - yuck!) We splurged for a day of vaporetto tickets and visited the island of Murano where they make the beautiful glass ornaments. We learned to navigate our way through Italian grocery stores, and we also learned that Italian pastries, with their heavy feel and texture, are no match for French pastries! We watched with interest the deliveries being made to the stores and restaurants, first by boat, and then by hand-carts. Since no vehicles are allowed in the city (nor could they even drive through the narrow streets), everything is done on foot. Garbage disposal was another mysterious thing - we just left our garbage in a small, closed bag outside the apartment in the street every day, and it disappeared by the time we got home. We never did figure out the sewer system, but it must be interesting. Our bathroom backed onto a canal, and every so often after you'd flushed you would see a standing boatman go by at eye level with the window.

On the Friday we headed off to Rome on a fast Italian train. Now that was luxury! - probably the nicest train we've been on. It was good that we had a nice few hours on the train, because I got a rude shock when we got to Rome. It was crowded, dirty, noisy and scary with all the traffic. To come from Venice, where there are no vehicles, to Rome, where there are (seemingly) millions of cars and almost no pedestrian crossings, is some sort of huge culture shock! We learned very quickly that in Rome, you make your own pedestrian crossings. The method: edge out into the street, waiting for a small break in traffic. When you see a break (no matter how small), confidently stride out into the road, maintaining intense eye contact with the nearest drivers who are threatening to run you over. Don't hesitate, or they will all drive around you. Once you've reached the other side of the road, breathe a huge sigh of relief, then get ready for the next one.

After several such crossings, we found the apartment rental agency, and then our apartment. This one had a great view of the Basilica Santa Croce in Gerusalemme right across the street. (The same street where several drivers seemed to think that red lights mean "slow down, see if any pedestrians are in front of you, and if not, then just go".)

We had a bit of a family melt-down while in Rome. I think it was just too many days of traveling and walking around strange cities all day. It started raining the day that we visited the Coliseum, and by the time we got back to the apartment we were very cold, wet and tired. It took us an evening in the warm apartment to shake it off, but by the next morning we were back at it, visiting the Vatican Museum. It certainly is an awe-inspiring place. I was amazed by the number of tourists who were there - I can't imagine how crowded it would be in the summer. The lineup to get in was three blocks long, but at least it went quickly; it only took us about 20 minutes to get in. We took in several of the historical sites in Rome, mostly by wandering around, our usual method. We also rode the metro a bit and were quite impressed with it. We bought the reasonably-priced day tickets at four Euros each, because they allow you to jump on and off the metro without having to worry about paying each time. The kids really enjoy using the metro and are really getting to be experts at manoeuvring through different systems now that they have had a few for practice!

Coming back to Strasbourg proved to be a challenge as we had booked a night train and then had to find a way to keep ourselves busy for the day. In the end it turned out to be more of a challenge to our budget than anything else. We had to check our bags at the train station (34€), went to a "time machine" presentation (64€), and accidentally ended up in a very nice but expensive restaurant having ice cream and coffee (we won't discuss the bill on that one.) We took the night train to give the kids the experience, which they really enjoyed, but we decided it definitely wasn't worth the money! Not only that, but we were really tired the next morning after being awakened at 5:30 a.m. in order to get off the train at 6:20 in Bern, Switzerland. (At least the kids slept well!) We had a couple of quick train changes and the required but eerily silent border crossing at Basel, and we were back in Strasbourg just after 9 a.m. For the rest of the day we mostly sat around and stared at each other in exhausted befuddlement. We gave a small thought to trying to make one more day trip to Stuttgart before our Eurail pass ran out but nixed it pretty fast when we thought about how tired we were.

And so ends the crazy traveling. We will still travel, but much less now that we have to pay out of our budget for our train or plane tickets. We really enjoyed our forays throughout France, Germany and Italy but recognize that it's a lot of travelling to do in a short time. Any further travel we do will have to be more carefully planned out and arranged in advance to take advantage of better rates. But for now, we get to slow down, relax, and enjoy what Strasbourg has to offer.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Visitors from Canada

Last Monday we walked my sister Barb and her husband Pat to the train station to see them off to Paris. They had just spent four days with us in Strasbourg and were heading to Paris for a few days before returning to Canada.

We had a great visit with them, finally doing some of the touristy Strasbourg things that we had saved up for visitors. We toured two churches, including Strasbourg’s famous Cathédrale Notre Dame, where we trudged up the 332 steps to the platform with its amazing view of the city. We were first in line, and we really felt the pressure on the way up until we let a few people go ahead of us – with the narrow circular staircase, there was only room for one at a time.

We went to Kehl, Germany, by train (only 11 minutes), but it was a cold and blustery day, so it wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. We left Barb and Pat and the kids in separate department stores and then Mark and I walked further up the street to see if we could find some German wine.

We also took the Ill river tour, and the kids and Mark had fun furtively switching everyone’s pre-recorded audio guide from English to Italian in mid-explanation. After a few months of staring down at the tourists in the boats, it was fun to be the ones that everyone was staring at. We tried waving at a few people but just got some weird looks… except for the “boys” under the bridge near our apartment, who all waved at us from their beds as we glided by their makeshift community.

We took the train south to Barr (the village with the wine festival) and hiked up the mountain again but took a different path on the way down. We had a wonderful view of Barr from a different angle and even spotted a few castles. Barb’s boots had a bit of a heel, so I teased her about hiking in her stilettos – something we had watched another woman do on our first trip up.

During the visit we christened our party grill, or raclette. We had had such a fun supper in Birkenwerder with Horst, Eva and Matthias that we decided to buy our own raclette. When we first heated it up and put oil on the grill, we thought we might have to feed the people from the fire department as well – it made so much smoke. It’s a good thing that the grill creates a lot of heat, because we had to warm the apartment back up after leaving the balcony windows open for so long! After things settled down, we had a very memorable meal with different meats, vegetables, cheeses and of course, wine.

I will remember their visit as the one with bretzels and wine. On more than one occasion we left the apartment late, and bretzels served as lunch. Then there was the wine – all over Strasbourg, people are selling glüwein (vin chaud or mulled wine) from stands in the Christmas markets. Every time we passed the market at the train station (and we were there a lot!), we tried another variety. Every time we went to the grocery store, we bought a few more different kinds of wine to try with supper. It certainly expanded my knowledge of the wines of the area!

So we waved them out of the train station, with their seats backward to the motion of the train (I’ll have to ask Barb how that went for her!) and then went home to relax for half a day before packing for our Italy trip. We haven’t heard from them yet but are optimistically assuming that they didn’t get lost on the Paris metro…

Thanks so much to Barb and Pat for coming all this way just to visit (I'm sure that's what it was!) and for all the treats that you bought us. Now that we're back home to our apartment and email, I've heard from Barb that they got home safely.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stuck again!

We are now in Rostock, and we’re being held hostage by another train strike! Last time it was southern France, and this time it’s northern Germany. This time, however, we’re not paying princely sums of money to stay at an apartment or hotel. We’re very lucky to be staying with Mark’s second cousin Matthias, who is an orthodontist and has a practice in the nearby city of Bad Doberan.

We arrived in Berlin last Thursday afternoon after a very relaxing train ride from Strasbourg. It took us a while to figure out the S-Bahn (Berlin’s above-ground tram system) but we finally made it to Birkenwerder, a suburb of Berlin, where Mark’s relatives, Horst and Eva, live. On Friday, Matthias (who is Horst’s son) came from Rostock and we had a very nice supper. It reminded me of a fondue, except the cooking apparatus is different: a grill on top for cooking a bit of meat, and then small individual square pans that you stick in the middle for making a gratin. You load up your little pan with small slices of the grilled meat or seafood, vegetables and/or potatoes, then put a slice of cheese on top and stick it in the middle section to broil. The kids had fun making their own dishes, and the adults enjoyed the conversation over the two hours it took for everyone to finish eating. The Germans have a word for this kind of meal – komunikativ – and we spent some time trying to find an equivalent word in English (but never succeeded).

We arrived in Germany at a very busy time. November 9 is a very important day in Germany, both in good and bad ways. It is the anniversary of three major events: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; Crystal Night, when the Jews were burned out of their synagogues and shops before WWII; and the revolution in 1918. November 11, so important to us in Canada as Remembrance Day, is not recognized in Germany. Instead, this November 11 we had a roast goose in honour of St. Martin’s Day.

On Saturday we took the tram back into Berlin and walked down to Checkpoint Charlie, the place where people crossed from the American sector of Berlin to the one under East German control before the wall came down. We had intended to go to the museum but decided not to after reading an impressive display about the Berlin Wall along the street. Saturday night saw us hobnobbing with people in the German entertainment industry, as we were invited to an outdoor party at Dirk and Daniella’s (Dirk is Matthias’s brother). Of course we didn’t know we were hobnobbing because we didn’t know anyone there, but we had some very interesting conversations! There were lots of kids there, and even Cameron and Meghan had fun. At the party one of the parents asked me when our kids would start a third language (kids in Germany start English in fourth grade, then another language of their choice at about age 14). It made me a little sad for the state of language learning in Canada, where many kids don’t ever learn even a second language.

On Sunday Matthias drove us from Birkenwerder to Rostock. During the trip (some of it while traveling 165 km/hr), Matthias told us about the day the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. He was a student at university in Rostock at the time, and when he heard the news that people would be allowed into West Berlin on that day, he took the train into Berlin. As the weekend wore on, more announcements were made that the wall would be open for a longer time. By the time the weekend was over, the wall was down, and he was the most tired he had ever been, because he, along with many other East German citizens, had spent the weekend celebrating. It gave me shivers listening to his story, knowing that he had personally lived through an event that will be forever written into world history.

Rostock has been fun and a real break for the kids. Since we arrived on Sunday, we’ve been to an English class at a German school with Gina and Tess, the two girls from downstairs; we went bowling with Gina; and the kids have been watching movies (in English!) and playing with Matthias’s PlayStation. They both recently bought themselves inline skates and have been practicing skating around Rostock. They inform us that the cobblestones that line many of the sidewalks here are very difficult to navigate! When we had the choice today to try to make a run for home before the train strike starts, or wait a few days in Rostock until it is over, they both voted to stay.

We don’t have a regular internet connection, so we went for the first time in a week to an internet café yesterday to read our email and check our bank accounts. I was thrilled to see an email from the editor of, who wants to use one of my Flickr photos – the Strasbourg train station – on their website. I’ll be very excited to look at the site to see where the photo ends up!

So now we’re stuck in Rostock until Friday, when Matthias will drive us back to Birkenwerder. The train strike is supposed to be over on Saturday at 2 a.m., so hopefully by Sunday enough trains will be back on the rails that we can get back to Strasbourg. We hear there’s also another train strike happening in France, so we’re not holding our breath at this point!

No new pics on Flickr right now as I can’t download any off the camera until we get home again, but here’s the link:

Update 19 Nov 07: We made it home to Strasbourg at 3:00 p.m. Sunday after a relaxing seven hours on the train. German strikes appear to be more organized than French ones! Check out the link above for new Flickr photos.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007


Yesterday we finally made it to Paris. Not through Paris on the plane, or in a Paris train station during a strike, but really to Paris.

We had an early start, getting up at 6 a.m. for a 7:15 a.m. train. (Remarkably, we left the apartment a minute before our deadline - a first in our family! I guess that's the difference between taking the train and driving yourself!) On the train, Mark and I had to sit in one half of a club car (two sets of seats facing each other), while the kids sat together a few rows back. We've had good luck up to this point with our TGV train reservations, usually being able to get a club car as a family. However, this time the train was very full, and we had to take what we could get.

It was a slightly uncomfortable trip as we sat across the club car with a mother and son who didn't seem inclined to talk. Usually if people take an interest in us (especially our English), we chat with them about who we are and what we're doing, but this pair just didn't seem interested. It's not surprising, because most French people try hard to give everyone their own space. This might not be a French thing, but possibly a fact of life where many people are forced to live together in a small space. By ignoring other people in the tram, train, or bus, you have the illusion of privacy.

As the train rolled through the outskirts of Paris, Mark and I discussed how little we thought the city would impact us. I commented that no matter what else Paris is, it's just another city - a big collection of buildings and people. As we were entertained on the Paris metro by an enterprising duo with a trumpet and saxophone, I started to change my view, to think that maybe there is something special about Paris. And then we got to the Louvre. I just wasn't prepared for how the sheer immenseness and beauty of it took my breath away - and we weren't even inside the museum yet!

The first thing we did was to track down the Mona Lisa. We got lost a few times and went around in a circle once, but we (and about 100 other people) finally found her. It's a wonderful painting, but I think a bit overrated now. Her image is everywhere, and it almost seems anticlimactic to actually see the painting. You can't even get very close to the painting anymore, and if you want to see it without 20 people in front, you have to queue up with the 100 other people there to shuffle between a set of ropes. I had thought that photography wasn't allowed in the museum, but I was shocked to see many people pull out their digital cameras and take a picture, flash and all. I cringed for them, as I thought for sure they would be wrestled to the ground by a group of security guards. However, when that didn't happen, I reluctantly took out my camera and snapped a shot of Mona (because you can't go to the Louvre and not get a picture of Mona!) I was so unenthusiastic about getting a picture that both kids took the camera and got their own shots. I think we ended up with two semi-recognizable pics out of the 10 shots that we took.

Once we got Mona over with, we spent a bit more time looking at paintings on the way to the Roman and Greek statues. We had gone to the Louvre with a mission in mind - to combine the kids' Fine Arts and Social Studies classes with a comparison/contrast essay on Greek and Roman art. Although Meghan is in grade 5 this year, our teacher had suggested that both of the kids do grade 7 Social Studies, which covers ancient civilizations. It's a great idea, allowing the kids to work together on projects and study something that is more relevant to them this year. We'll be able to do some incredible field trips!

Around lunch time we exited the Louvre and headed out to look for something to eat. We found a little stand between the Louvre and the Tuileries gardens and grabbed some petit pain fromage (Cameron loved them) and a sandwich poulet for Mark and me. We camped out on the grass with several other people and some very brave pigeons and sparrows and ate our lunch in the sun. We could see the Eiffel Tower in the background and debated about whether to return to the Louvre for the afternoon or strike out for some other attraction. In the end the Louvre won out, partly because we had already sprung for the tickets for the day, and partly because we didn't know how far we would have to walk to see anything else.

For some reason both Mark and I were a little disheartened by the morning in the Louvre, and so we returned with heavy steps. However, the afternoon turned out to be a more enriching experience for all of us. The kids were absorbed with finding and taking pictures of the statues that they would use for their reports, and we got to see some really interesting parts of the Louvre like the dungeons of the original building, a chateau built by Charles V. Although we hadn't planned it, we also spent some time looking at the Egyptian and Mesopotamian rooms.

About 5:30 p.m., exhausted and hungry, we gave up and went to find some supper. We headed back to the train station on the metro and looked at the menus of a few restaurants before deciding that we didn't really want to spend 50€ on a meal that might not work for all of us. We ended up buying some groceries and eating supper while camped out at the train station. (I did regret our decision to not eat in a restaurant after biting into my third baguette/bun/pastry of the day. I could have killed for some hot food!)

After a three-hour train ride and an eight-minute walk from the train station, we were home at the apartment in Strasbourg again. I was so tired that I don't even know when the kids and Mark got to sleep, because I beat them all to bed!

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

National Train Strike: Nice to Strasbourg

Last week at this time we were starting our journey back to Strasbourg from Nice with some trepidation. Already we were starting out a day later due to Thursday's national train strike. When Mark and I went to the train station in Nice the evening of the strike, we found out that our train for the next day had been canceled. We were told that it would be better to travel on Saturday than Friday, the first day after the strike, so we rebooked our tickets for Saturday and made arrangements to stay one more night at the rental apartment.

We left Nice for Marseille at 8:30 Saturday morning, optimistic about getting back home to Strasbourg about 7:30 p.m. After spending almost three hours on a TER (regional train), we arrived at the Marseille station, which was very cold, windy and unfriendly. We hurried in to the salle d'attente (waiting room), which was packed, and looked on the electronic board for our next train. A minute or two of panicky searching confirmed our fears: our train had been canceled. Mark gamely went to the information counter to check. Within minutes he came rushing over and said, "We have to leave now! Track I, to Lyon." While I composted (validated) the tickets, Mark and the kids ran full-tilt down the track with our baggage. So many things could have gone wrong: Track "I" in French sounds like "E"; the train was due to leave right away but was a few minutes late; and there were actually two TGVs sitting on the same track but bound for different places. Luckily Mark had the presence of mind to ask for the train to Lyon and was directed further down the track.

The trip from Marseille to Lyon was the best part of the day; it just went downhill from there. In Lyon, we waited in a long line to get tickets to Strasbourg. Our train wouldn't leave until 17:48, which meant almost four hours of waiting, but at least we would get home around 9:30 p.m. We waited impatiently to see our train show up on the electronic board, and when it didn't, we were a little upset but not surprised. Mark and I headed back to the ticket office, and that was when it got a little weird. The woman behind the counter didn't even issue us new tickets, but wrote on the back of our old one. We were to take the 17:00 train to Paris Lyon station, get on the Paris metro, transfer to Paris L'est station and take a TGV to Strasbourg. It sounded good in theory, but the timing only gave us 30 minutes to get from one station to the other. With a 20-minute metro ride, we were pretty sure we weren't going to make it. However, it was our best bet at the moment, so we boarded the TGV for Paris just before 5:00 p.m. It was an uncomfortable feeling because we didn't actually have reservations, something that's required on every TGV, and we got kicked out of our first choice of seats by a family. We had only been in our seats for a few minutes when we heard an announcement: passengers for Strasbourg were invited to leave this train and take another train to the Massy station. Luckily I was with several people who understand French much better than I do, or I would have missed the announcement.

After waiting on Track C for the new train, the track was changed at the last minute. By this time we were just rolling with the punches. We had started to identify other passengers who were in the same boat as us (to stick with a travel metaphor!) We all boarded the Paris Massy train, again without reservations or tickets, but by this time we didn't care anymore. Then came the lowest part of the travel day: while on our way to Paris Massy, it started to get dark, and both Mark and I became very anxious about what we would face when we got to the next station. We didn't know if we would be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, or even whether or not our next train would be running. Given our track record that day, we thought not, but we were so out of control of the situation that we had no way to plan our next move.

When we arrived at Paris Massy, we followed our friends off the train, out of the station into the dark, and finally to another TGV station nearby. When we got there, we found out that the train to Strasbourg had been canceled. No surprise there. Now we were 22 people and two large dogs, stuck in an outpost railway station at 8:30 p.m. with nowhere to go. You would think that this would be a low point, but at least I felt that there was security in numbers. Luckily the ticket counter was still open, and a few of the more vocal members of the group negotiated (argued) with the ticket people to find us some place to sleep and new tickets to Strasbourg the next day.

I'm sure it took some coordination of the part of SNCF, but we were taken care of from that point on. They stopped a TGV train for us, and we got off at the Paris Montparnasse station. We left our luggage at the information counter and were marched out of the station and down the street to a restaurant. We were provided with 25€ each to have supper, which was quite generous. Meghan and I didn't quite make it, because we were much more tired than hungry, so we left without eating and made our way back to the train station. We were directed to Track 6, where a TGV train was parked overnight. I had thought to get some extra sleep but was quite spooked by Meghan and I being the only ones on the train. I had visions of the train taking off with only us on it. Also in the back of my mind was the question that Meghan posed to me as we got on the train the first time: "Mom, can rats get on the train? I just saw a couple of them."

After a few cell phone calls to Mark and Cameron to find out how fast they could get back from the restaurant, people started straggling back. We spent the night trying to get comfortable and never really succeeding. At 5:40 a.m. an SNCF employee rousted us and directed us to the waiting room, but we were already off and running. Our large group navigated through the ticket validation gates and labyrinth tunnels of the Paris metro system, and boarded the metro for the Paris L'est station. Our last hurdle before leaving for Strasbourg came when the young woman with the two large dogs was denied boarding the train because only one of the dogs had a muzzle. We heard her burst into tears, and several members of the group, who by now had bonded in a way that only adversity can do, rushed to her defense. We were relieved when we heard that she was able to board, but had to sit in a compartment by herself with the dogs.

The rest of the trip was rather mundane. Meghan and I snoozed, and we were home in the apartment before 10 a.m., as we live only a seven-minute walk from the train station. We were exhausted and amazed that we had survived the trip home. Unfortunately, the trip home overshadowed our trip to Nice, the two of which will be forever linked in our minds.

For more on our trip to Nice, see our Flickr photos:

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Fête des Vendages in Barr

Last weekend we attended La Fête des Vendages in Barr, a 45-minute train ride from Strasbourg. I found out about the festival earlier in the week from my instructors at the French language school. Not only did I pick up quite a bit of French during the two weeks, but we also had impromptu lessons about the local food and wine. This comes in handy for festivals this time of year, which include a lot of wine! (Maybe all French festivals do).

In preparation for Saturday’s trip to Barr, we went to the train station on Thursday to get tickets and scout out the tracks. Luckily we have Meghan, because she entitled us to a Carte Enfant+ which gives us discounts on some train fares, including a whopping 50% discount on travel in the Alsace region. Cameron, to his delight (but not ours), is considered an adult at 12 for the purposes of train travel.

It was a good thing that we went to the train station early, because we were very confused by the schedule. Barr is a very small station on the way to somewhere else, and it wasn't listed on the screen. The other thing we didn't know is that they don't post the track numbers for the trains until about 20 minutes before the train is about to depart. It turned out that we had to take the "Selestat via Molsheim" train - how do you get Barr out of that?? We felt a little silly going to the information booth twice to ask which train to take, but we finally figured it out. It's helpful to know that if your train says it's departing at 9:30, it's the only train leaving at that time (at least in Strasbourg), even if your actual destination is not listed. We felt much better when we got out to the track, where all of the small station stops were listed, including Barr. Before we left, we memorized the names of the two stations ahead of Barr, and on the train, we kept a close eye on the stations, as none of them are announced.

When we got to Barr, we did a couple of smart things. First, when it finally dawned on us that many French fêtes consist of wandering through stalls of things to buy (marchés), which our kids hate, we went to the candy stall and let them each pick out a bag of candy (read: bribed them). It's amazing how that will perk a kid up! 12€ later and we were good to go until lunch (ok, so some of that candy was Mark's and mine). The other smart thing we did that day was go for a hike in the hills above the town. We had a wonderful view of the village and surrounding area; we got to see grape vines up close (and even steal a few of the sweetest grapes I've ever had); and the kids got to clamber up and down a rock wall that guided us most of the way up the steep hill. The combination of the beautiful weather, the excitement of a train trip, and the different activities we undertook made for a great day for all of us.

A lesson we took from this day is that no matter how mature our kids are, they're still kids, and they like to play. While Mark and I enjoy walking around the city looking at buildings, or looking at all of the strange and wonderful items available for sale at a marché, our kids get a little bored by this. When we're out for the day or on our travels, we have to remember to make time for kids' play. It makes it easier for all of us.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chimney woes

After the events of the last few weeks, Mark has a new title: The Pigeonator.

When we first moved into the apartment, we heard a flapping noise in the chimney, and we thought, "Oh, great, we have pigeons living in the chimney." After a while, it became apparent that they weren't living in there so much as trapped... (Don't ask.) After three weeks of alternating flapping noises and silence, we managed to phone the apartment owner, who arranged for someone to come over and depigeonize the chimney. I wasn't at the apartment at the time (I was attending my first day of French language school) but Mark was disgusted that it was just a guy with a broom and a pail. After the guy removed two dead pigeons with his high-tech equipment, Mark said, "I could have done that!"

So this week, Mark had a chance to prove himself. After hearing more flapping and cooing in the chimney, he went in to investigate. He removed the cover from the hole in the back of the chimney and used the handy cane to drag out... two more dead pigeons. But he really outdid himself yesterday. While the kids and I were gone getting Cameron's first French haircut, Mark launched himself into action. He took the printer box, cut a hole in one side toward the end, and covered it with some clear plastic. Then he cut another hole in the other end to match the one at the back of the chimney. He also cut two flat pieces of cardboard, one for the back of the chimney and one for the box. When it was ready, he removed the cover at the back of the chimney, put the box against it and waited... but not for long. The light shining through the clear plastic attracted the pigeon, who, according to Mark, "...was pretty assertive about getting out of the chimney and investigating the light." After that it was a simple matter of putting cardboard over the hole in the box and the back of the chimney and moving the pigeon - still in the box - out onto the balcony. Mark reported that it took a while for the pigeon to come out of the box. He followed the pigeon's progress from the box to the balcony railing to the roof of the apartment building next door. I was surprised that it could still fly.

So how long can a pigeon survive in a chimney with no water? At least four days, we figure. And now when we hear the familiar flapping and cooing, we know who to call - The Pigeonator!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Getting settled

Written on Sunday, September 23, 2007, but not posted due to lack of internet at home, something we won’t enjoy here until October 5 [note during editing: we actually got our internet on September 27!]; more about French bureaucracy later. My apologies for such a long post, but since we’ve left the hotel I have had to save it all up until we get to an internet café or the library.

The last ten days have been a whirlwind of administrivia as we try to get settled into our new digs. We have applied for residency cards, moved into the apartment, worked on getting the gas, electricity and internet, and enrolled the kids in music lessons. Along with these are the usual daily chores of doing the grocery shopping, schooling the kids and taking our "get to know Strasbourg" walks.

Applying for residency cards: a lesson in bureaucracy

On Wednesday and Thursday last week Mark and I went to the prefecture to get our residency cards. On Wednesday, we took a number (52 when they were on 22) and waited to be given a list of the documents we need to get our cards. On Thursday when we came back, we took a number and waited to show them that we had the correct documents. Then we were given another number and waited for another person who processed our documents. After an hour or so, we walked away with temporary cards that say that we have applied for the permanent cards. Both Mark and I need to apply to our home provinces for an original birth record that states our parents’ names. Très importante, the woman says…

Moving into the apartment

We moved into the apartment in stages over last Friday and Saturday. On Friday morning when we went to the rental agency to make the last cash payment for our two-month rental deposit, we were told that the gas had been cut off in the apartment. While the kids were still at the hotel, Mark and I made a run down to the apartment to try to get the gas reconnected before we moved in the next day. (Each one-way trip from the hotel to the apartment involves about 1.5 km of walking and a 10-minute tram ride). But the gas man could not cometh… Tuesday, they said, which would mean four days without cooking. (And in the end, after much anxiety, many phone calls on the cell phone, and a search for a missing key that involved the caretaker who would be away until next Sunday, we found out that the gas hadn’t really been cut off after all…) Friday afternoon we made another trip back to the apartment with the kids and a load of luggage.

On Saturday Mark and I made an early trip with more luggage, then went back to the hotel to pick up the last load of kids and bags. As happy as we were to finally be in our own place, we were not happy that the woman who had been hired to clean the apartment on Friday had done nothing – no vacuuming, no dusting, no scrubbing of floors or windows, no cleaning of bathrooms… so you can guess what we did on Saturday and Sunday. My hat is off to Mark who spent about four hours on Saturday afternoon cleaning the fridge and scrubbing a year’s worth of grease off the kitchen floor and walls.

It’s quite a nice apartment, but as time goes by we find that we’re still dealing with a few small problems: a toilet that doesn’t flush properly, a washing machine that has to be cranked through its cycles by hand, and last, but certainly not least, a pigeon living (stuck?) in the chimney. We haven’t heard it so much the last few days, so we’re thinking this might spell the end for the pigeon (good thing no one got really attached to it.) The really good news is that someone is coming first thing Monday morning to clean out the chimney.

Enrolling in music lessons

We are now the proud owners of an electric guitar (a copy of a Telecaster) and a keyboard, both purchased after the first music lessons – Cameron on guitar and Meghan on piano. It’s the first time the kids have really had to interact with people in French, and they both did really well, but I’m not sure how much actual music they learned. For Meghan especially, most of the learning was about trying to convert to the French system of calling the notes do, re, mi, etc., instead of c, d, e. It’s a 10-minute walk to the music school, which we will do for the next four Wednesdays. French kids don’t go to school on Wednesdays (but they do go Saturday mornings), so most extracurricular activities happen on that day. At this particular music school the music lessons run in cycles of four weeks – three weeks of individual lessons and then an ensemble – and we only enrolled the kids for one session, thinking that we will be traveling to Italy and Greece by the time the second session gets under way.

The life of nomads

Cameron asked me the other day if I knew how long we’ve been living out of a suitcase.

"A week," I answered, thinking that he meant since we moved into the apartment.

He then informed me that we have not unpacked our clothes since July 14 – well over two months! We’re getting a bit desperate to unpack and truly settle in, but we still have to clean out the closets and cupboards and firm up the bedroom arrangements. Currently Mark and I have the master bedroom, but we’re thinking of switching with the kids for the smaller room so that they can have a bit more space to spread out. We were trying to find a way to give them a bit of privacy, perhaps with a screen or other type of room divider. However, after going over our budget a few days ago, we’ve decided that maybe the kids will have to make do with ignoring each other!

At the end of our initiation period in the apartment, we have decided that, on the whole, things are going very well. We are very happy with the apartment and its location near the centre of the city; Strasbourg is a beautiful and safe city in which to live; and we are looking forward to the prospect of traveling to Italy, Greece, Germany and Great Britain. Today was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and as Mark and I took a stroll around Petite France, I could feel happiness welling up inside. Who can ask for more? : )

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Five neat things about Strasbourg

(in no particular order; some are particular to Strasbourg, and others are more generally European)

The bike lanes

We are definitely getting bikes when we get settled into our apartment. It almost seems that bicyclists have more rights than pedestrians, with 2/3 of the sidewalk generally reserved for those on bikes.

Even as a pedestrian, you have to shoulder-check (as Mark says). You may think you have the right-of-way, but you always have to keep an eye out for cars nosing into the pedestrian lanes while making turns. We have become very Strasbourgois in our strolling; no one waits for the “homme vert” (green man on the lights) to cross the street. You just check both ways and go, whether it is homme vert or homme rouge.

The toilets

For the most part, toilets get their own rooms (la toilette or WC). Everything else is in another room (la salle de bain). This make sense, but I find myself going into la salle de bain and locking the door before I realize that the toilet is not there.

The architecture

Except for some big, blocky apartment buildings in Esplanade that were put up in the 1970s, most of the buildings here have amazing character. I find myself wanting to take a picture every time we walk down a new street, because it’s all so different from what we’re used to seeing.

The wonderful little shops – pattiserie, boulangerie, etc.

Although there are grocery stores that have almost everything – we have been shoppng at ATAC and MarchéU while staying at the hotel – there are still little shops everywhere that specialize in one or two things. This goes for almost everything from pastries, wine and flowers, to electronics. The idea of the megastore has definitely not arrived here yet (and that’s a good thing, in my opinion).

We ran into this while looking for an apartment. There is not one single agency that has information about all of the furnished apartments available in Strasbourg. This is not unlike Canada, but here each agency may only have five or ten properties (apartments or houses) that they look after. There must be 60 – 80 agencies in Strasbourg. We had no idea what we were up against when we started looking for a furnished apartment.

The cathedral

It’s absolutely magnificent (and none of my pictures do it justice). It’s so big, and the square in the centre of Strasbourg where it is located is so small, that it’s impossible to take a picture of it unless you’re far away and up high. We haven’t taken the tour yet, but it’s on our list of things to do once we get settled into the apartment.

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Keep in touch! We'd love to hear how you're doing.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Epic Journey to Germany

Ok, so what we really did was hopped the D-line tram to the Aristide Briand station, walked half a block, squeezed on to the #21 bus with about 60 other people, and then sweated through the 10-minute ride across the Rhine River to the town of Kehl, Germany.

A few people have recommended Kehl to us as a place to go shopping and relax. We had a nice day walking through the pedestrian mall, checking out all of the stores. The prices in Kehl are very reasonable, and it seems to have more of a selection of the types of stores that we patronize in Canada than does Strasbourg. Both Meghan and I got warmer coats, as the weather in Strasbourg has been decidedly cool for the last few days (although yesterday was very warm and sunny).

It’s amazing how the Rhine River absolutely divides the two countries; although Strasbourg seems mostly French but faintly German with its street names and gastronomic influences, Kehl is all German. The only French we saw or heard was at the café, where the menu was in French and German, and the waiter spoke French (albeit very badly – poor Mark wasn’t sure what language the waiter was speaking and so kept switching back and forth between French and German!)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Finding an apartment

I've been reluctant to post for the last week or so because of our anxiety and frustration in finding a furnished apartment. I wanted to wait until I could say, "We've found an apartment!", but I also want to report the realities of our trip, not just the good parts.

Last Wednesday we lucked into finding a three-bedroom furnished apartment near our hotel, which is in a very nice area close to the European Parliament. We were able to view the apartment that day, and although it is a bit older, we decided it would suit us. The kids were especially impressed because it comes with a cat. The main drawback is that the apartment is far from the tram, which can be an issue when you're on foot. It also has a tiny kitchen, even smaller than the one we had in Burns Lake.

The next day we looked at another apartment closer to the city centre. The building is located on a busy street and the area is not as friendly as the one where the first apartment is located. However, the inside of the apartment is much newer and nicer looking than the first. This one only has two bedrooms, but it has a very spacious living room area.

We decided we would take the first apartment and phoned to let the woman know on Friday. At this point we found out that she is only the caretaker, and she had to phone the owners.

We have been in the grips of anxiety ever since, waiting for her to call back. Mark phoned on Monday, to hear her say "one or two more days" before she would let us know. Compounding the frustration was the knowledge that our room rate was escalating due to the sitting of the European Parliament, which convenes for three days once or twice a month. When Parliament sits, the room rates go up and hotels are full. In addition, the staff at the front desk of the hotel were never sure if we could get another night since our original seven-day reservation ran out.

Today things are looking up. We befriended Rawad, a young Lebanese-Canadian man who works at the hotel front desk (and is also a Masters dental student), and he has taken on our challenge of finding accommodation. Last evening when we told him we were moving to a different hotel because it was becoming too expensive, he encouraged us to speak to the manager and strike a deal. We did, and then the manager also tried to help us find an apartment by phoning around to a few places. We also made an appointment to see Bernadette, who showed us the second apartment. Luckily it is still available, and we could move in on September 15 if we want. She speaks excellent English, and she would be able to help us get our electricity and gas connected.

If this doesn't work out, we are also considering renting an unfurnished apartment and furnishing it ourselves. This is a scary thought, considering the maze of bureaucracy that surrounds every business dealing in France, but we would do it if we had to. There is a wide selection of unfurnished apartments here, and in the end, no matter how difficult, it's all part of the adventure!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Arrival in Strasbourg!

We finally made it into Strasbourg about 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon. My first impressions of the city and its surroundings were positive but blurry, mostly from sleep deprivation, but also from watching the taxi meter click by. After our 1 - 2 hours of sleep on the plane the night before, we weren't interested in taking buses and trams to get into the city, so we took the easy way out and grabbed a cab. Forty Euros later the four of us and our 12 bags were dropped off at our hotel, a little shell-shocked at the price but relieved to be somewhere with beds again.

Last night we forced ourselves to stay up until 9 p.m. so we could get used to the new time zone as quickly as possible. We walked around our neighbourhood and bought some groceries to bring back to the hotel. We bought the obligatory baguette along with cheese and wine and had ourselves a nice picnic feast before turning in. Both Mark and I woke up about 4 a.m., but our fears about not being able to get back to sleep turned into amazement when we woke up again at 10:30 a.m. This is not something I'm likely to see again (Mark sleeping in so late), so I had to note it for the record!

Today we went to the main square downtown with the intention of starting to look for an apartment or house, but our timing was thrown off by our sleeping in. We did manage to buy two cell phones and get a list of real estate agents from the Office de Tourisme, but that was as far as we got. Meghan was drooping badly and it was getting late in the afternoon, so we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow Mark and I may head out by ourselves to look at places to stay; now that we have to cell phones we feel a little more comfortable leaving the kids at the hotel while we go out.

I'm feeling very excited and optimistic about staying in Strasbourg, despite my lack of language abilities. I've decided that I need to go to a language school sooner than I initially planned, because my lack of French is driving me crazy. The rest of the family is coping quite well, and I'm feeling lost 75% of the time... not a good feeling for me when I'm so used to being on top of things and in control. One of the reasons we took this trip was to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and I managed to do that quite easily as far as my French is concerned!

What little we have seen of the city so far is beautiful, with many historic buildings and mature trees. Our priorities for tomorrow are warring with each other: we really need to find a house or apartment, but the tram is free for one more day, so we would like to ride it as much as possible. We may just have to combine business with pleasure and ride the tram while on the lookout for a place to stay.

I'll sign off for now - it's getting late and I don't want to mess with my sleep cycle any more than traveling eight time zones forward already has!

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Au revoir!


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Visit in Rocky Mountain House

For the past few weeks the kids and I have been staying at my mother's house. The kids went to Science Camp the first week, and now they're in swimming lessons this week.

It has been an adventure (or should I say, a zoo) staying at mom's this time because we have our two cats with us. But it doesn't stop there: my mom has a cat, and we're also looking after my sister's cat. (Are you counting? Does that make four cats?) My sister has graciously agreed to look after our two cats until we come back from France next summer, but since her cat is quite territorial, we felt it was best that they all meet on neutral ground (i.e., my mom's house). To add to all this confusion, my mom has been looking after Tess, a Boston Terrier puppy, on and off for the past few weeks. And then there's Neely, my niece's dog (also a Boston Terrier), who also comes to visit once in a while...

Considering the mix of people and animals, we're all getting along quite nicely!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Our house (for now)

We'll be moving away from Burns Lake in stages over the next few weeks. The kids, cats and I are leaving next Saturday for Alberta. Mark is working until July 31, and then he will join us. We thought we should take a video of the house before we leave, since it is our first (and only!) one. We ended up with two short videos due to camera battery limitations!

Here's Part 1: Main floor and upstairs

Part 2: Downstairs

When I was downstairs, I said "disaster area" three times! You can tell it was unscripted. YouTube also managed to grab the one area of the video that is black - where I discovered that someone turned out the light over the woodstove area. Oh well.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

It's coming together...

It's been a long time since I've posted anything, but we have been waiting for several pieces to fall into place before we could tell everyone...

We're going to France for a year!!

(See the tiny sign in front of our house? It says, "House for Sale".)

We have been thinking about this trip and planning for over a year, and finally it's becoming a reality. Here is the chronology of our progress to date:

February 26: We traveled to Vancouver to meet with the French Consulate and apply for long stay visas, which we need if we're spending more than three months in France. The applications totaled more than 70 pages, and 48 of them had to be filled out by hand. While there Mark and I were told that we needed to get leaves of absence from our jobs, which doesn't follow the normal procedure.

March 26: Mark told his boss in Prince George about our plans and asked for a leave of absence. Because the plan is to not come back to Burns Lake, and all leaves of absence over six months have to be approved by the Deputy Minister, Mark's request was sent off to Victoria.

Late March: We had the kitchen floor redone (went from laminate to ceramic tiles) and had the main floor bathroom tub surround fixed. The carpenter was good but in a hurry and left lots of the finishing details for us which took us (i.e., Mark) countless hours to complete.

Late March - early April: I asked for and was granted a one-year leave of absence. When I got the letter, I faxed it to the French Consulate, indicating that Mark had also asked for a leave of absence but didn't have the paperwork completed yet.

April 18: Our visas arrived by courier - exciting day!

April 20: We purchased our airline tickets from Calgary to Strasbourg, France, leaving Sunday, August 26.

Late April: We changed our minds about trying to find a permanent place to stay in Strasbourg before we leave. Instead we have booked a hotel for the last week of August and will take the time to look around in person. If we don't find a place that we can move into right away, we will secure something for October and then travel to Italy and Greece for the month of September.

Early May: Mark was granted a general leave of absence and received word from the Assistant Deputy Minister that they will try to find him a position on his return.

I faxed off applications for the kids to enroll for next year in E-Bus (short for electronic busing) Academy, an online school from Vanderhoof, BC (just down the road towards Prince George from us.)

We have been madly cleaning up the house in preparation for its sale. It's amazing how good it feels to get rid of years worth of junk - we should have done it a long time ago! We will try to sell the house privately first, and even though we haven't put up a "For Sale" sign yet, we have already had several inquiries.

May 10: We put up two (very small) "House for Sale" signs, one on our lawn and one on the highway (thanks to Cameron who slogged through the ditch in water over his boots). This earned us two more phone inquiries, but we have only shown the house once so far.

May 17: I sent our information out to two home sale web sites: and Unfortunately, our listings won't be up in time for the long weekend, but then doesn't everyone go camping anyway? : )

At this point, selling the house is our next big hurdle... or maybe it's cleaning out the kids' bedrooms... I'm not sure which will be harder. Both will happen eventually!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Our 2006

Happy New Year!

2006 was a busy year for us, and the following is a brief summary of our adventures.

Since January 2003 I have been concentrating my efforts on completing a Master of Educational Technology (MET) degree from UBC. In 2006 I finished four of the 10 courses, including ETEC 590, the graduating project, for which we had to present a portfolio of our learning during the program. I am looking forward to graduating in May after my last course!

I had intended to take a full leave from my job for a year but ended up teaching half-time for a few months. I was very excited to teach “Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers”, a course in the teacher assistant program, as well as filling in for a few courses in my other job in the Applied Business Technology program. When I was finished teaching at the college at the beginning of February, I put my name on the sub list for the school district to find out what it is like back in the K-12 system. The result? I survived, but by the end of the school year, I was saying to the booking person, “I can't work Mondays or Fridays... no, I don't really want to go back to that class... no, sorry, I can't work next week... and, oh, the week after that looks bad, too...” : )

This school year started off with my working two evenings during the week. However, one of my co-workers is now on maternity leave, and I am covering for her, which means that I will be working straight days until June. It's good for us in that we won't have to worry about the evenings anymore, but I will really miss my mornings at home to be able to work on the last course for my degree.

Mark spent the past year becoming more familiar with his role as District Manager for the Nadina Forest District. He started last year with a controversy about snowmobiling in a protected area near Smithers and worked his way through many Mountain Pine Beetle issues. We missed him several times throughout the year as his work took him to Vancouver and Prince George, with many day trips to Houston, Smithers and Vanderhoof. (Some of the Vancouver trips are to do work for the Legislative Policy Committee – doesn't that sound like fun! - I always tease him about it). Mark was also very busy cutting down trees in our yard this summer. Between him and a professional tree faller from Vanderhoof, who we hired to cut down the trees by our electrical lines, we now have 17 fewer (dead) pine trees in our yard. It really changed the landscape, and it has taken me a while to get used to it.

Cameron and Meghan are doing well in school. Cameron is now in grade 6 and Meghan in grade 4, both still in French Immersion. We really weren't sure how this year would shape up until almost the first day of school. Meghan's class (a 3/4 split) went back and forth between the primary and elementary school, until they at last decided to move them up to the elementary school. Cameron's class was without a teacher until the last minute, when they hired a woman who was a very good teacher but didn't speak much French. Luckily, this year their class has Cynthia, a 20-year-old French Monitor from Quebec. To complicate matters, the teacher's husband got transferred within a few weeks of school starting, and the class had a sub for the last six weeks before Christmas. Many of us think that Cynthia held the class together during that time; she'll have many interesting experiences to take back to Quebec with her at the end of the year!

The kids are still doing their regular lessons; however, Cameron switched from piano to guitar this year. Meghan still loves the piano and practices playing it almost every time she walks by. They had been doing Tae Kwon Do in the fall until someone accidentally pulled the fire alarm and got them kicked out of their gym! We expect that it will start up again as soon as the teacher finds another place to hold the lessons. For many winters the kids have taken cross-country ski lessons, but we decided to skip them this year. Meghan especially is too young for the group that she is in (her skill level is good but stamina is lacking), a result of being a dedicated ski lesson family, registering our children for lessons almost every year! We have made the commitment to go skiing as often as we can, regardless, and we want to have the kids try downhill skiing this year. Cameron is also anxious to go snowboarding again, but I'm thinking that Mark and I will go back to downhill skiing. I may have permanently wrecked something when we took our last set of snowboarding lessons!

When we weren't going to school or work, we had a few short but fun holidays. We travelled to Portage La Prairie, MB, during our two-week Spring Break in April and stopped to visit with my family in Alberta, and Mel and Gord Clark and family (kids, cats and dogs!) in Vanguard, SK, on the way. We had a good visit with Mark's mom and dad, and were able to record some audio conversations about their families and times past. Not satisfied with just one visit, Mark travelled to Portage again in June to help his brother Eric with some house projects. In late July we went to Rocky Mountain House, AB, to visit with my mom and enroll the kids in swimming lessons. As we have done in the past, the kids and I went earlier than Mark; a few days later, Mark took the train from Burns Lake to Jasper (with an overnight in Prince George) where he and I met and spent a night before driving back to Rocky. After Rocky we went to Edmonton and met with Mark's sister Barbara, her husband Tom, and three of their four kids. We had a good time with them at the Waterpark in West Edmonton Mall and the Telus Science Centre. Although we didn't have to go anywhere, it was a treat to visit with Bob, Sheila, kids and dog in August, when they actually came to Burns Lake! At Christmas we decided to do something non-traditional, so we booked a room for two nights at Esther's Inn (“tropical oasis”) in Prince George and went swimming and shopping. It was actually quite relaxing as we did our small amount of shopping in the early mornings before the crowds came out.

That's it for our news. As we head into 2007, we are looking forward to exciting new adventures in Burns Lake and beyond. We wish everyone the best for the new year!

Chris, Mark, Cameron and Meghan

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