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 @ yahoo.ca or mvieweg @ gmail.com

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: http://viewegkids.blogspot.com/2008/06/performing.html

Email us! Do you have any summer holiday plans? christinateskey @ yahoo.ca or mvieweg @ gmail.com