Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

We're just enjoying our first Christmas in Victoria. In an unlikely series of weather events, it turned out to be a white Christmas, something we didn't have in Strasbourg last year. However, I don't think the snow will last long -- it rained last night, and today the sun is shining brightly.

Last year we had a tight budget, so we set a 10€ limit for each present. This year we thought we would carry on the tradition, so we were to spend a maximum of $15 on each person. Most of us ended up going over the budget by a bit, but on the whole we were good about sticking to the limit.

We also had fun doing our Christmas Eve presentations for each other. Last night we learned about Christmas traditions in Finland, Germany, France, and other countries, listened to streaming Christmas music from the internet (after I finally found the sub-woofer for our computer speakers in the filing cabinet), enjoyed some of Meghan's flute selections, and talked about our best Christmas memories.

This Christmas and last are very different, yet they're also alike in many ways. Last year we spent Christmas in a foreign land; this year, even though we're back in Canada, we're spending Christmas in a new city, still a "foreign land" to us. Last year it was just the four of us in our little apartment in Strasbourg; this year, since we still live a great distance from our extended families, it's just the four of us again, but this time in our new house. But as always when we have a family celebration, we treasure the fact that our little family is a very close-knit one, sharing adventures that will mellow into memories that will last us a lifetime.

Whether you're celebrating alone or with loved ones, in the middle of an adventure or relaxing at home, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and the very best for 2009!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Victoria, the land of ice and snow

The weather has finally prompted me to do what no other experience in the last few months has managed to -- make a blog posting. The normal temperatures for Victoria are 7C for the high and 2C for the low. During the last week we've had temperatures down to about -10C at night and still below freezing during the day. The temperature has felt much colder on some days due to the wind, which blows quite regularly here.

Not only is it cold, but we're in the grip of a major winter event in Victoria: snow and ice that actually stays on the ground. Now don't get me wrong -- we're not surprised, shocked or appalled. Our many winters in Burns Lake, and before that, Yellowknife, have prepared us well for the white stuff that we have been experiencing. But I must admit that we're not driving our van right now, since we only have summer tires on it. This is a direct result of many years in the north which led us to buy separate sets of summer and winter tires -- and who's going to put winter tires on a vehicle in Victoria!

People who were born in Victoria all have a secret gleam in their eye when you ask them about the weather. Snow (that stays) is such an unusual event in Victoria that they all seem to really enjoy it. However, if you speak to anyone who has moved to Victoria from virtually anywhere else in Canada, they're seriously ticked off about the weather! The worst part for them at this time of year is heading back to where they came from (e.g., Edmonton, Saskatoon, etc.) for the annual Christmas visit. Not only are they heading into cold weather, but they're leaving the cold Victoria weather behind! This time they can't even brag about how warm it is here in the winter.

Surprisingly, the cats are really enjoying the snow: they go outside quite regularly during the day and get crazy in it (especially Aurora). Meghan is also thrilled. The one bad thing about Victoria for Meghan was the idea that there might be no snow in the winter. Perhaps in an effort to win her over and make her feel welcome, the city has provided a blanket of white for her to enjoy, and Meghan is making the most of it. She has been going outside at least twice a day to play in the snow and only comes in when her feet start freezing. Considering she only has rubber boots (another sign of our unpreparedness, having discarded the old winter boots when we left Burns Lake) she does quite well.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Penthouse Suite

We spent the month of September in a condo just north of Beacon Hill Park. It was a nicely kept place, and well-decorated. It also gave us one more life experience -- I think it will be the only time in our lives that we will be able to say that we lived in a penthouse suite!

The best part about living at the condo was being right across from the park, but staying downtown on Douglas Street was a close second. We were just up the street from the Royal BC Museum, so we bought memberships and spent a few Saturday afternoons there, seeing the exhibits and watching IMAX films. Weekend mornings were a lot of fun for Mark and me. We would get up fairly early and go for a walk through Beacon Hill Park and down to the rocks at the ocean.

After checking to see which cruise ships were in, we would circle back through downtown to pick up a coffee for Mark. When we got back to the condo, the kids were sometimes just getting up.

Another advantage to living downtown was being able to walk to work. When I started working at the Queen's Printer building in the middle of September, I only had to walk five minutes to work, which meant that I was also able to come home for lunch if I wanted. Mark's office was a little farther, but he still only had a 15-minute walk. We were able to park the van for long stretches of time (one time nearly two weeks!) and feel good about lessening our "carbon footprint".

For most of the time that we were in the condo, we were waiting to take possession of our new house. That happened on September 27, but since we had paid for the condo for the month of October as well, we took some extra days to make the transition over to the house.

By the time we moved into our house, we had lived in two other areas of Victoria. That, combined with driving all over Victoria in search of a house to buy, meant that we have a good understanding of the geography of the area -- a good introduction to a new city!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Our new (old) house in Victoria

I'm pleased to say that we are well on our way to being homeowners in Victoria. We have purchased a house in the Lambrick Park area (actually in the municipality of Saanich), and we will be able to move in on September 27.

While we looked at many different types of houses, we found that the well-maintained "character" houses appealed to us the most. Some of these houses can be 80 to 100 years old; ours just happens to be a little older than that! It was built in 1900 (making it 108 years old this year), and several people told us that it was probably one of the original farmhouses in the area.

It's set back from the street on a plot of land known as a "panhandle", which is basically the back part of a long lot. One of the homeowners living on this large lot would have subdivided it, making two smaller ones. The records that we have for our lot seem to show that this was done around 1972.

The house looks small from the outside but is quite roomy inside. There are four bedrooms: two up -- the kids' rooms -- and two down, so guests, come on over! and two bathrooms, one of which is an ensuite off the master bedroom (yay!) The house has a fairly large living room/dining room combination, a shaded sun room off the back and a concrete patio. Those are the good things!

Things we have to or want to remedy: some galvanized metal piping downstairs, which must be replaced with copper or plastic; a gigantic fig tree in the back whose fruit must be cleaned off the ground regularly for fear of attracting wasps, and whose roots will eventually crack the concrete pad under the sun room; a minor damp spot in the main bathroom shower; a sagging floor in one of the bedrooms; lilac-coloured paint in the master bedroom (not to our taste); and the little matter of the small/cramped kitchen. (This last one might take a while to fix!)

Future project: kitchen remodel

The sun room is nice, but it's actually quite shaded due to the large fig tree just outside to the right of the picture. I think this picture must have been taken a few years ago!

The lilac-coloured paint has to go!

Our own bathroom!

Disclaimer: The photos of the house are not mine (they are the ones that were available on the realtor's web site).

How are things going for you? Did you or your kids go back to school this week? Drop us a line! christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Friday, August 22, 2008

Buying a house in Victoria

I have been feeling guilty lately due to my lack of blog postings, but my excuse is that we have been heavily involved in the business of getting settled in Victoria. The kids and I have been house-hunting, Mark is adjusting to his new job (and the idea of actually having to go to work each day after having almost a year off!), we have registered the kids for school, and I have also been trying to locate temporary rental accommodation for us for September.

Our biggest chore, of course, has been to find a house to buy. Although we had researched housing over the internet while still in Strasbourg and knew in theory how much houses cost in Victoria, it still makes me a little dizzy to think that we will be spending about a half million dollars -- yes, that's right -- on a house. That is the price of a slightly nicer than average -- not spectacular -- house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms in a decent area of the city.

The houses in Victoria that we've seen come in three flavours: character, 1970s and modern. (Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on houses, so the commentary here is based simply on our very limited exposure to the housing market in the last few weeks.) The character houses were built anywhere from 1900 to the 1950s. Many of the earlier ones do have a lot of character, with bedrooms built into attics, coved ceilings, fireplaces and hardwood floors. A tip-off that you will be walking into a 1970s special lies in the real estate agent's listing advertisement: "House has been lovingly maintained by original owner". Translated into real terms, this means that the house was repainted last month in the original colours in preparation for selling, but no thought has been given in the previous 35 years to any other updating. These houses feature dark imitation wood paneling on the walls, and lots of carpet -- some shag, some with different colours in each room. The few "modern" houses that we have seen have been very ordinary: three-bedroom, two-bathroom ranchers (all on one level) with carpet throughout. One house that we viewed was so uniformly beige that everything blended together. By the end of the viewing, it was hard to tell where the floors ended and the walls began!

When hunting for a house, one's priorities soon become very clear. We had a very short list by the time we had seen our first few houses: a nice yard (for Meghan and the cats); two bathrooms and at least three bedrooms (after sharing a bedroom in France, the kids each want their own); and some separation of private areas in the house between the adults and the children (very important when you have teens or pre-teens!)

Perhaps other people have been luckier in finding their "dream home", but many of the houses that we have seen have some limitations. One house was beautiful but situated on a busy street; the road noise bothered us, and we thought it might be dangerous for the cats, who don't have any "street smarts". Another house had a beautiful yard that backed onto a park, but all of the bedrooms, including a very odd-shaped 6' x 13' room, were upstairs, and one large room downstairs was used as a formal living room; the layout resulted in wasted space and a lack of privacy for us. We got as far as thinking about making an offer on another house, but it would have required extensive renovations to put in a proper bathroom and two bedrooms downstairs.

It seemed like it was going to take some time to find just the right house, but we only have a few days left at the suite that we're currently renting, which turns into a women's residence during the university school year. And so, after seriously misjudging our timing and our ability to find a house, I booked a furnished downtown condo for the months of September and October. Two days later we made an offer to purchase a house, only to find out that the owners want to leave by the end of September! Now we are scrambling to remove the conditions on the offer -- arranging for a house inspection and the mortgage -- and we are crossing our fingers that the nice woman at the condo rental agency will be able to find another renter for October!

If all goes well with our offer to purchase the house, I will be able to share more details about it in the next few days. I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Stolen Identity!

Last week while on my daily grocery shopping trip to the mall just across Tillicum Road, I had my credit card refused -- not just once, but twice. Curious, but not really bothered by it, I pulled out my only other credit card and paid for the groceries. (Isn't our society wonderful? We have multiple ways to rack up consumer debt almost instantaneously!)

When I phoned the credit card company the next morning, I was in for a shock. After identifying myself through the answers to several personal questions, I was asked if I had been in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, or India on Thursday. Having traveled a lot in France and Germany as late as the end of June (those might have been harder questions), I could readily and emphatically answer, "No!"

I then had a very interesting chat with the customer service agent who told me that someone had tried to charge $1300 worth of clothing on my credit card in a store in Saudi Arabia. That transaction had been blocked, but then the person tried to charge $800 at the same store (probably thinking that the credit limit had been exceeded). That transaction was blocked, too. Then the next day, someone else tried to use the card somewhere in India for electronic goods.

When I asked how this could have been done, he said the most common way is for thieves to install their own card reader at a store, and then come back later and pick it up -- now with all the digital information about people's credit cards recorded on them. They then produce phony cards and use the internet to sell the cards to willing buyers. I don't know how much a person would pay for a stolen credit card, but in my case, the buyers -- more than one, because I'm assuming that very few people are in Saudi Arabia one day and India the next -- got a really bad deal -- not even a flash pair of new jeans!

Wondering whether this had been done while we were still in Europe or after we had returned to Canada, I asked about the timing. Do these thieves wait for weeks or months before creating the phony cards, or do they do it right away? Unfortunately, my customer service guy was no help with that. Sometimes it happens quickly, but he told me that one thief had waited more than 10 months. So while it could have happened during our stay in Europe, I suspect that it occurred back here in Canada. While in Europe we used our Canadian credit card very rarely, preferring instead to pay out of our French bank account. These French cards are not credit cards; they're more like debit cards, and you need to have a PIN number for them, which makes it more complicated for thieves.

This all leaves me wondering just who these people are who can so brazenly use what they know is a stolen credit card. I might have a bit of sympathy if they tried to use it for groceries or health care, but expensive clothing and electronics -- give me a break!

The upside to this story is that it leaves me with more confidence in the credit card company's ability to recognize when a credit card number has been stolen. Before we left for France last year, I phoned the company to let them know that we would be living there and traveling throughout Europe, and they made a note in our file. In all that time, we never had a transaction refused. The other thing that the customer service guy reminded me is to always verify the transactions that have been posted to your account. That usually isn't an issue for me, because I check my account online at least every few days. He also reminded me that you have 30 days to report a suspicious transaction, or you may be liable for it. Luckily, it didn't even get that far.

In the end, that account was closed, and in four business days I was able to pick up a new card from the bank down the street. My whole identity wasn't stolen -- just a little piece of it, and for a very brief time -- but it feels good to get the whole me back.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Arrival in Victoria!

We've actually been in the Greater Victoria area for a few days, enjoying our temporary rental suite and exploring the city. On Wednesday Mark started his new job as Director of Forest Worker Safety, while the kids and I have been researching available houses on the internet and driving around Saanich to get a feel for the neighbourhoods. Perhaps it was the European experience, but the kids have turned out to be excellent navigators!

Our trip from Strasbourg to Victoria was circuitous but relatively trouble-free, except for the six lost pieces of luggage! (which caused us to almost miss our plane in Toronto and delayed our departure to Manitoba for a day). We stayed in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, with my mom for a few days on each end of our trip and took two days each way to drive to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, to visit with Mark's parents. On the way to Victoria we stopped in Vernon, BC, to visit with our friends Wendy and Ray, whose kids are attending Family French Camp.

I've always enjoyed the scenery while driving through the Rocky Mountains -- a favourite family winter weekend outing when I was very young was to drive five hours to sit in the hot pool at Radium Hot Springs, so I know the road fairly well.

However, for the last 17 years we have driven north on Highway 93 towards Jasper to go home to Burns Lake. This time, we chose a more southern route, heading west toward Field and Golden.

Although it felt somewhat like the old trip with my mom and dad, this time it had a special significance -- I'm now the mom, and we were heading with our kids toward Victoria and our new life in Canada.

It's amazing how fast one acclimates back to one's home country. I think it had something to do with the fact that we were so busy traveling and visiting when we first got back to Canada -- our usual summer holiday activities. It was almost as if the whole past year had never happened! The change from the cobblestones, French, and Euros to asphalt, English, and Canadian dollars took only a matter of hours. Although I am nostalgic for France and Europe, I can't say that we stayed there long enough for it to permeate into my being. I was getting quite a bit easier with the French language by the time we left, but it was still a relief to come back to an English-speaking world.

Yesterday as the kids and I were getting our new library cards, I reflected back to the same experience in Strasbourg at the beginning of our stay: we all went as a family, and Mark did all the talking because his French is much better than mine (and those of you who know me will understand how difficult it is for me to let Mark do all the talking!) In contrast, yesterday was a breeze. But what a joy it is to have our French experience and be able to share it with other people! Our new librarian was very interested to hear how the library system worked at the Bibliotheque Municipale de Strasbourg, like the fact that we were charged different rates for a library card depending on how many and what type of items we wanted to borrow.

From library cards to looking at schools and going to (and looking for) work, we are now settling down to real life in Victoria. It's a small but beautiful city, and there will be many opportunities for us and the kids to pursue over the next few years. We're looking forward to it!

How's your summer going? Email us: christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Check out our photos on flickr

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Eating out (or not)

We haven't been out to very many restaurants in Strasbourg or on our trips throughout Europe this year. Eating out in Europe is generally very expensive, but our eating at home is not really a backlash against the high prices. Even in Canada, we don't go out to restaurants very much, for a few reasons. First, and probably most importantly, both Mark and I really like to cook, so we share the cooking duties almost equally.

We have our family favourites from what I like to call "international fusion cuisine", and we also like to try out new recipes. The other reason for not going out is that it is difficult to find a restaurant that all of us (read: the children) like. When we're away from home and forced to eat in a restaurant, we finally found that the best strategy is to order a selection of dishes that we think everyone will like, and then share them around.

The challenge has often been to decipher the menu. I do fairly well with menus in French, but I have to really work with the German (luckily there's always Mark -- don't go to Germany without him!) He's very good with both languages, but even he can be fooled, like the time he ended up with veal kidneys in a nice mustard sauce!

Although we haven't dined out in the evening much, we have gone out for a few lunches, which has usually been a result of our time management (or lack thereof!) When we've had visitors, our days have gone something like this:
  • Plan to wake up and get going early for a day trip
  • Get up relatively late (just the rest of us -- Mark always gets up early!)
  • Have breakfast between 10 and 11 a.m.
  • Take a long time to get everyone out the door (sometimes due to eight or ten people trying to use the toilet one last time!)
  • Debate about postponing the departure because it's almost lunch time
  • Leave anyway
  • Have everyone get hungry almost right away
At this point, there's two options -- find a boulangerie (bakery), patisserie (pastry store) or épicerie (small grocery store), grab some pastries or other snacks and carry on, or find a café. Most of the time we like to grab something and carry on, but sometimes -- when it's too cold, too hot, or day five of non-stop sightseeing -- it's better to sit and relax in a café.

It's coming to an end...

This will be my last blog posting from France. I'm sad because I feel that I have many stories still left to tell, ones that are better told "on location". I may still write about France, but to me it won't have the same authentic feel as it does when I sip on a glass of Alsatian Riesling and listen to the sound of the cathedral bells tolling outside the balcony window.

But all good things must come to an end, and we're heeding my mother's advice by leaving the party while we're still having fun. Thanks to you all for sharing this great adventure with us! However sad we feel about our adventure coming to an end, it is balanced against our excitement about moving back to BC and the opportunities this will provide for us and the kids. (Stay tuned -- more on this later).

What are your summer plans? Email us at christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

See our pictures on flickr

Friday, June 6, 2008

Greek Vacation

Last week at this time we were winging our way home from Greece. We spent most of our week there slathering on the sunscreen and trying to keep cool. When we planned our trip a few months back, I checked the high temperatures for May and found that it should be a balmy 25 C. Reality proved to be quite different, with central Greece suffering from a mini heatwave; one day -- unfortunately the one that Cameron and Mark went into Athens -- was as high as 40 C.

One of the hot days, spent on the concrete and at the Acropolis in Athens.

We were not ready for the hot weather, but we were also quite unprepared for the Greek language. Although we had tried to memorize the Greek alphabet and a few key phrases before we left, it seemed just too foreign and out of context. I remembered a few words like please/you're welcome (parakaló or παρακαλώ in Greek) and thank you (efharistó, or ευχαριστώ in Greek) from my trip to Greece many years ago with my friend Kelly, but that seemed to be the limit of what I could take in. Perhaps we've finally hit language overload, with French, German and bits of Italian floating in our heads, but I think the biggest problem with our learning Greek is that many of the letters look entirely different from ours, and some even read "backwards". For example, the symbol that looks like a "p" (ρ) actually makes an "r" sound, and the pi symbol (π) that looks somewhat like an "r" makes a "p" sound.

Deciphering the signs at the bus stops was a lesson in Greek pronunciation!

After our initial worries, though, we didn't have any problems at all because many signs in Greece are also posted in English, and quite a few people there also speak at least some English. We learned a lot about pronunciation from riding the tram, where the signs for each station alternated from Greek to English.

Our apartment in Voula, a suburb of Athens, was very spacious and modern, and -- a first for us -- it included air conditioning. In addition, it boasted several wild cats wandering through the backyard along with three resident turtles. This furnished apartment was one of many that we have rented over the internet, a practice that we'll continue should we ever come back to Europe. We have always enjoyed our stays in typical neighbourhoods of the area rather than a tourist hotel and have often found ourselves chatting with the owner and/or neighbours. When I spoke with Kosta, whose mother-in-law owns the apartment, he said that Greece is very expensive compared to other European countries, and salaries are quite low. People do okay there, he said, because family members help each other out, but most people don't have a lot of money. Many people have to take out loans to go on holidays with their families.

For tourists it seems to be a different story. Unlike some other places in Europe, prices in Greece seemed very reasonable, and no distinction was made between "tourist prices" and local prices. The worst case of this that we saw was in Venice, where a vaporetto ride for locals is 1 €, but for tourists is 6 €. (And for us, multiply that by 4 -- ouch!)

On the way to Aegina

On a French or German train, a small bottle of Coke costs around 2,80 €, but on a Greek ferry, that same bottle costs 0,80 €. Before boarding the ferry, I bought three large pastries for 5 € at the Piraeus metro station, but the same food at the train station in Strasbourg would have cost almost 10 €.

The only unfortunate aspect of our stay in the apartment was that it seemed to be quite far away from the things that we wanted to do; the upside of this was that we really learned how to use the public transportation system! When we first arrived we took an airport express bus to get to our apartment; we used the lengthy tram system to get into Athens; we used the tram and then the metro to get to the ferry at Piraeus; and we used a local bus to go to Lake Vouliagmenis.

Riding the tram

It's a bit of a panic to use the bus/tram system in Greece, because the bus or tram doesn't stop unless a rider signals a stop or someone waiting to get on flags it down. For people who don't speak Greek or know where they're going, this can be a problem! On the buses we always made sure to ask the driver if it was the right bus and then checked with him part way through the ride to ensure that he remembered us and our stop! We were treated very hospitably by all of the bus drivers, but especially by the driver who took us to Lake Vouliagmenis even though we didn't have tickets (we didn't know that you couldn't pay on the bus).

Despite the hot weather, we had a great time. Our outings included a few mornings at the beach, a trip into Athens to see some of the famous ruins, a ferry boat ride to Aegina, the island closest to Athens, and a lovely day spent at Lake Vouliagmenis, a mineral salt water lake kept at a constant 25 C (even in winter) by underground hot springs.

Lake Vouliagmenis

The day that we went, it was so hot that the water felt very cool and inviting, and we spent most of the day while not in the water just relaxing at our table in the shade of a large umbrella. As this was the day before we left on our return to Strasbourg, it was a lovely finale to our "vacation". The trip to Greece was an unanticipated expense, especially at this stage of our stay in Europe, but we all agreed that it was well worth it.

See our pictures on Flickr. (I'm slowly catching up with pictures that haven't been posted for weeks due to a very bad internet connection.)

Update: I've just come back from watching the kids perform at their end-of-year concert. It was so great to hear them play with the "band"! I've posted three (very short) videos on YouTube, and you can see them on the kids' blog:

Email us! Do you have any summer holiday plans? christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Monday, May 19, 2008

Our neighbourhood in Strasbourg

We're in between "gigs" right now. Yesterday saw the departure of our latest group of guests, Mark's sister Barbara and nieces Natasha and Erica; and Friday we leave for Greece. Hopefully we can use the next few days to clean up some school work and learn the Greek alphabet!

In the meantime, I'm already getting a little nostalgic for Strasbourg, and we're still living here! I think this has been precipitated by the baby steps that we're taking towards moving back to Canada. Mark has been talking to people at work, we're planning our schedule to visit Mark's parents in Manitoba, and we're registering the kids at a science camp in Rocky Mountain House in mid-July.

With the end in mind, I've started looking at our pictures in a new light: as souvenirs, rather than as markers of our day-to-day lives. I still feel the need to capture some particular images of our lives here, so I'm making a list. However, I've got a collection started, and below are a few of the memories that I want to keep: images from our Strasbourg "neighbourhood".

The Ill River

The Ill River, a tributary of the Rhine, splits and flows around the centre of the city of Strasbourg. This was the view from one foot bridge to another near the Place République at the beginning of March. I was so amazed that the leaves were out on the trees already.

The Paris Store: Hypermarché Asiatique

The Paris Store is the best Asian foods store in Strasbourg, and it's right across the street from our apartment. You can buy some really crazy stuff here, and it's cheap! (in a good way).

Place de la Cathèdrale

Located about a 10-minute walk from our apartment, the Cathèdrale Nôtre Dame is the number one tourist attraction in Strasbourg. The Office de Tourisme is located in the place, so the cathedral was one of the first sights we saw, although it was a few months before we explored the interior and climbed the 328 steps to the viewing platform.

Evening view from the apartment

Strasbourg is a happening place, with new construction and reconstruction projects happening everywhere. We've been told that Alsace is a rich area with special deals negotiated with the French government; we feel safe here, partly due to a large police presence.

Fishing on the Ill River

According to one of Mark's German cousins, the French consider fishing any time and anywhere to be one of their God-given rights (the French have a lot of these). According to us, this just doesn't look like real fishing!

Parc du Fossé des Remparts

We spend a lot of time at this park, whose entrance is about a kilometre away from the apartment. Mark and I both use it as a jogging/walking trail; one lap is just over 2 km. We have watched the wildlife in the park -- ducks, coots and nutria -- over the seasons, and admired the carefully tended family garden plots.

Petite France

Petite France, also a 10-minute walk from our apartment, must be tourist destination #2 in Strasbourg. This collection of ancient half-timbered buildings, some dating back to the 1500s, embodies the spirit of Alsace.
Photographer's Note: the young model pictured here against the ancient building is Chris's mom.

We've got the best of both worlds right now: still in France, but happily anticipating our return to Canada. I'll be keeping my camera ready to capture the bits and pieces of our lives here before we leave.

Email us! christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Read the kids' blog:

See our Flickr pictures:

Friday, May 9, 2008

Hiking to châteaux

One of Meghan's wishes this year was that we could hike to a castle, one that wasn't restored so she could wander around and explore it at will. So far we have visited three castles, and two have fit her requirements.

Heidelberger Schloss

Our first castle trip was back in November when we visited the Heidelberger Schloss. Technically it's not a hike, but we did have to walk about 2 km from the train station to reach it. It's a huge, amazing complex, but it wasn't quite up to Meghan's standards as it has been partially reconstructed. We also had to pay an entrance fee (another bad sign), and visitors are not allowed into any of the inner rooms except for the few that have been converted to other uses, like the apotheke (pharmacy) museum and a commercial wine shop.

Huge wine vats in the cellar at Heidelberger Schloss

We struggled a little with the cold that day -- it was our first taste of European winter, and we weren't ready for it. Walking through the freezing and drafty stone buildings, it was easy to get a sense of how cold they must have been back in the days when castles were actually people's homes.

In contrast, the other two chateaux have been more to Meghan's (and our) liking. In contrast to the first, we hiked to the other two in spring when the weather was warmer, and it may have made a difference to how we felt about them. At the end of March we went on a hike to Chateau D'Andlau, just outside of Barr, when our friends from Burns Lake were visiting.

Château D'Andlau

In front of an old stone fireplace at Château D'Andlau

The château, which looks very imposing from a distance, is mostly a ruin that you can explore from the inside out. All of the wooden pieces of the château have long since rotted, leaving only the stonework behind, but you could see where the huge fireplaces were, and it was fun speculating where all of the rooms would have been.

The third castle, Château de Wasenbourg, has been the best so far, even in Meghan's opinion. The château was quite a pleasant surprise for us as we had not done a lot of preparation for the trip. Because we had not yet traveled north of Strasbourg, one Saturday in April we got an Alsace train pass for the family (a deal at 26 €) and headed out to Niederbronn-les-Bains, a village that we read about in the Michelin book that my sister Barb left us. One line in the book told of a château which was an hour hike from the town, so we decided to try to find it without any maps or other planning. After some uncertainty about the initial directions, we found the sign that showed we were on the right path. The hiking around the Alsace region in France is amazingly well laid out, with symbols such as red triangles or blue circles indicating the path to follow, and times to landmarks given in minutes and hours -- but you have to step lively to arrive at your destination in the given time! Luckily our château was no exception, and the signs indicated that our hike was 1 hour 15 minutes in duration.

This hike was more of a climb than any we had done so far, but ultimately it was worth it. Coming over the rise at the top of the hill, the first thing we saw was a huge monument created back in Roman times that was built into the stone. It was only when we were right beside it that our attention shifted to the château itself; and according to Meghan, this one was even more fun to explore than Château D'Andlau.

The kids peer over the edge at Château de Wasenbourg

At Château de Wasenbourg, we could sit by the windows at built-in stone seats, and Meghan was able to walk completely around the top part of the château.

How many other people have sat in these ancient stone seats, staring thoughtfully out the window?

We spent about an hour exploring the area; the only thing spurring us back to Niederbronn-les-Bains was our hunger (unfortunately this was one of the few times when we didn't bring enough snacks.) On our way back down, we all agreed that, without even planning it, this turned out to be one of our most successful château hikes!

We hope to see at least one more château before we leave, but we'll have to plan our time carefully. With visits from family and our upcoming trip to Greece, there's not as much time left as we'd like to have before our return to Canada. And we still have so many things left to do!...

Have you done any hiking lately? We'd love to hear about it! christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

See our family pictures on Flickr.

Check out the kids' blog.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Day at Lake Constance

My mom has been visiting us in Strasbourg for almost two weeks now, and we wanted to show her a little of Germany while she's here. So far she's seen quite a bit; her flight from Calgary landed in Frankfurt, and she's been back several times since then. We wanted to see the Black Forest, so it was an easy decision to make a day trip by train to Lake Constance.

The train ticket is a good deal -- 27 € for up to five people to travel for a day in the Baden-Württemberg area of Germany, which stretches from almost Mannheim in the north to the Swiss border in the south, and from the French border on the west to just past the city of Ulm in the east. Unfortunately we had to tack on the extra cost of a return ticket from Strasbourg to Kehl, the German border town just over the Rhine River from here, which raised the cost an extra 18 €. However, it's still a cheap way to travel!

The train trip was interesting, but most scenic in the middle when we wound our way through the mountains of the Black Forest. In many ways it reminded us of the scenery in northern BC, but in Europe the forests seem a bit more sterile when you see how carefully they log the trees and remember that very few wild creatures exist in these forests now.

Konstanz, Germany

We didn't spend much time in Konstanz, the German city at the end of our train trip. When we first arrived it was a little chilly, and after a brief trip to the tourist information centre, we made a beeline for a restaurant. When I say "beeline", I'm talking about a bee that can't actually remember where the hive is, because we did our usual zig-zagging from this café to that sandwich bar, rejecting them for the usual reasons: the kids won't eat that; it's too expensive; they only serve sandwiches.... We finally found a nice little café that served exactly the right type of food for the right price, and we had such German delicacies as pea soup with wieners, fried potatoes with vegetables and cheese sauce, and käsespäeztle, (noodles with cheese).

While we were eating we discussed alternatives for the day. This was one of the few times that we didn't have a goal in mind before we left: we had no map, no idea what attractions were in Konstanz, and no plan other than to ride the train through the Black Forest. In the end we decided that we would like to go for a boat trip on the lake, so after lunch we walked back towards the train station and lake shore. As we were looking around the boat docks, a passenger ferry rolled in which was headed to Meersburg on the other side of the lake, so we hopped on. (Of course all of this was due to Mark's good German and fine detective skills!) The brief ferry ride -- only 30 minutes -- was a lot of fun. We ordered a yummy apple strudel and ice cream treats, and the kids had a good time exploring the deck of the boat. Lake Constance is quite spectacular, and part of the charm for me was knowing that I was riding the waves in sight of three different European countries -- Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Meersburg, Germany

Meersburg is a cheerful-looking tourist town built into a hill, so we did a lot of climbing up steep stairs and streets. The kids found a playground half way up the stairs and stopped to play for a while. When we finally made the summit, we were treated to a wonderful view down Lake Constance towards Austria.

View looking east down Lake Constance from Meersburg, Germany

Unfortunately, we couldn't stop for long; we only had about 90 minutes before we had to get back on the ferry in order to make the train back to Strasbourg. On the way down we picked up some pastries and drinks in a tiny grocery store which we promptly wolfed down as soon as we got on the train. After our 2 1/2 hour return train trip, we arrived back home in Strasbourg just before 9 p.m., pleasantly tired from our day of travel and sightseeing.

Email us! christinateskey @ or mvieweg @

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Buying groceries and other shopping in Strasbourg

Since we came to France almost eight months ago, we haven't really "shopped", and it's been a liberating experience. We have never really bought things just for the sake of having them, and we are not collecting things here for the simple reason that we either have to leave them here or take/ship them back to Canada with us when we go. Both options are expensive. So when the kids ask, "Can we get this?" or when I wonder if we should buy something, the easy answer is, "No", and the reasoning is always the same. Like I said, liberating!

Nevertheless, the temptation to spend money is everywhere, and the possibilities for parting with your money are endless: from the petite Mom and Pop épicerie (grocery store) or shoe store to the huge mall of the type that you see in North America; and from the strange mechanized Casino grocery to the typically European marchés (open street markets).

You can buy eggs, bread and milk on your way home from the train at this automated épicerie (grocery store).

Daily market at the cathedral square in Freiburg, Germany.

One day of the week that you can hold on to your money (if you stay out of the tourist areas) is Sunday. Most stores in Strasbourg are closed on this day, and families use the opportunity to visit the parks or aller lèche-vitrine (an odd-sounding phrase for going window shopping). During the week many businesses still hold on to the custom of closing between 12 and 2 p.m. each day, something that has frustrated us on many occasions when we have forgotten. Conversely, when you're really hungry and want to spend your money you find that many restaurants are only open for déjeuner (lunch) from 12 to 2 p.m., making a late-afternoon meal very hard to find, especially in the smaller communities.

While we can avoid buying "things", we still have to eat, and thus we can't avoid grocery shopping, a chore that we do every one to three days. We can't really buy a week's worth of anything here, partly because we have a tiny fridge in the apartment, and partly because we either have to use the tram or good old foot power to get the groceries home. Luckily we live only a 300 m walk from Place des Halles, a mall in the centre of Strasbourg, and located there is Galleries Gourmandes, a full-service grocery store.

The kids avoid grocery shopping with us whenever possible.

Although the major grocery stores look much like their North American counterparts, there are some obvious differences. For example, in Galleries Gourmandes, the cheese, chocolate and wine sections are huge.

And not only is wine plentiful, it can also be cheap. It's possible to buy a bottle for 0,92 € (about $1.50). Now, I'm not saying it's good wine... just very affordable. : )

About 1/3 of the cheese section at Galleries Gourmandes -- the self-serve part.

More cheese counter -- cheese cut to your specifications and service with a smile.

In contrast, chewing gum is horribly expensive, as is anything North American. You can get Old El Paso salsa, for example, but you pay about 4 € (over $6) for a small jar. For a while we paid almost 4 € for a block of four instant Asian-style noodles, before discovering that a block of six cost about 0,50 € at the Asian foods store right across from our apartment.

While baking (and the supplies to bake with) are easy to find in North America, it's almost impossible here. I have begun to suspect that most French people don't make their own desserts. And why would they, with the choice available in thousands of patisseries and grocery stores in the city? I think that's why flour is only available in 1 kg bags, and rolled oats in 500 g boxes, and why it's impossible to locate baking powder! We have solved this problem by simply not baking anymore... sigh... and getting our dessert-fix at the patisserie like everyone else does.

Being unable to bake North American style has been a ... ahem... very sad experience for us.

Let us know what you're cooking tonight! christinateskey @ yahoo . ca or mvieweg @ gmail . com

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