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 cafĂ© 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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