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Yesterday we packed a lunch, said “Au revoir” to France and made the two-hour drive to Bern, Switzerland.  Guten Tag, Bern!  Finally, an opportunity to flex my German-speaking muscles, stun Jim and our companions with my incredible bilingual abilities, and make Frau Chappel, my high school German teacher, proud.  In my rose-tinted memories my German was flawless, my vocabulary vast, and my pronunciation pure Germanic perfection.  In reality, however, I found that I could only remember useless, text-book phrases.  I was a bit depressed when I realized that a hip, smartly dressed Bern resident was probably not going to inquire on the method of transportation I used to go to school.  (To which I would swiftly reply, “Ich gehe in die Schule mit dem Bus,” OR because I am such a stellar student, “Ich gehe in die Schule mit dem Auto.”)  Gradually, though, as I eavesdropped on conversations, and read every sign I passed out loud, I began to recapture bits and pieces of my former bilingual prowess.  It did not help that nearly every person we encountered spoke perfect English.  They would initiate a conversation in an incomprehensible mixture of French and German, take one look at our befuddled faces, and begin again in almost accent-less English.  The Swiss that we came across yesterday were so nice, so polite, and so accommodating that I found myself wishing, more than once, that we lived in Bern.

Our main objective in Bern was a trip to the zoo, but as I look back upon our outing, the zoo was really the least exciting part of the day.  It served as a convenient spot to rendezvous with our friends who had also made the trip to Bern.  There was also a lovely playground, a wooded picnic spot, and the requisite animals to entertain the toddler set.  We saw an array of reptiles, some penguins (always a crowd pleaser), a moose, a snowy owl who hypnotized Maggie with her head spinning abilities, and some monkeys to delight our friend Eva, who was adorably clad in the sweetest monkey dress (making her, in my opinion, the cutest mammal at the zoo).  As soon as the children grew sleepy, however, we plopped them in strollers, high-tailed it out of the zoo, and set off for a nap inducing stroll into Old Town.

Leaving the zoo, we walked along the Aare River, a gorgeous, fast-moving water way that snakes around the Old Town.   For a little en route entertainment we watched crazy Bern youths jump off bridges into the chilly (think fresh Alpen snow melt) blue/green river.  They wouldn’t have seemed so crazy were it not for the amazing speed at which the river was flowing.  People would land in the water with a splash (and a yelp as their blood froze in their veins) and immediately go zooming down the river in the strong current.  We were concerned, at first, as we watched these people practically body surfing down river, but a friendly Swiss man assuaged our fears by describing the net-like apparatus that gobbles up straggling swimmers and saves them from a close encounter with a damn.  If a swimmer were unable to make it safely to one of the many staircases that are situated along the river bank, the net would surely save him.

The view of the old town from the River Aare. On the left is the last exit point for adventurous swimmers before they are swallowed up by the net.

We followed the winding waterway into Old Town, leaving the daring river surfers behind, and began to climb the hill up into the old city.  It took my breath away, not the hill, though it was steep, but the cobblestone streets, the alpine detailing on the houses and apartments, the colorful flowers decorating window boxes.  The beauty in Bern is truly in the details.  We saw elegantly curved shutters, brilliantly painted awnings that stood out against gray stone buildings, circular windows that contrasted to the clean lines and symmetry of orderly apartment buildings.  We rewarded ourselves with a beer in a street-side cafe after the hot hike up to the city, a dalliance that would have been infinitely more enjoyable had our napping children stayed asleep.

Fortified by our beers we set off to explore the city.  I discovered that Bern was a mecca of cute kitchen stores, and because I am a firm believer that one can never have too many brightly colored bowls or adorably patterned ceramic pitchers, I found myself in shopping heaven.  (When shopping for kitchen wares you are guaranteed to have a good time because, in my experience, a bright orange colander, or embroidered dish towel, can never, ever make you look fat.)  Aside from being a treasure trove of overpriced decorative items, Bern was, more notably, the home of Albert Einstein when he wrote his Theory of Relativity.  While this means very little to me, it is of course, very exciting for my physicist husband.  We explored Albert’s apartment, which has been made into a museum, and spent a few minutes looking at pictures of the famous scientist, trying in vain to keep Maggie from lounging on the actual couch upon which Einstein once sat.  (Which had a large sign with bold letters, imploring people in four different languages to please refrain from sitting on or touching the furniture, presumably, especially if they have sticky, cracker encrusted fingers.)  We also paid reverence to the clock tower that Einstein stared at every day and that was the inspiration for his revolutionary ideas about time.  Here is the part where I should probably elaborate on Einstein’s theories, but I won’t, because as I have unfortunately discovered over the years, marrying a physicist does not magically make physics less mystifying.

Present Physics Geek

Future Physics Geek

We had a wonderful time exploring the city.  Bern on a beautiful, hot summer day is glorious place to spend time with friends.  We capped off our urban walkabout with kababs in a small, grassy park with safe places for the girls to run, and gorgeous views of the river and city limits.  I am glad that the zoo brought us to Bern, but equally happy that we ditched the caged animals in favor of cobblestone streets, cold wheat beer, a physics pilgrimage, and joyful wandering with good friends.  There is still a great deal of Bern we did not have time to explore and I am already excited for our return trip.  Maybe next time I will be brave enough to join the locals in floating down the Aare River, perhaps a few more Weissbiers and some floaties would be in order.

Most. Beautiful. House. Ever.

The weary traveler finds respite in the welcoming arms of a Swiss giant.


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Today, I stumbled upon one advantage of not being able to speak the language in France.  People who would ordinarily yell at me, make snide remarks, or give me a hard time, somehow swallow (most of) their annoyance because they sense (correctly) that their outrage will fall on deaf ears.  Yes, I can still see the eye rolls and hear the exasperated sighs, but thankfully I am spared the condemnation.  At least that was my experience today at the Thoiry Mairie (town hall).  The girls and I made a trip into town to begin the process of registering Emma for preschool next fall.  Joy of joys, public preschool in France begins at age three.  Next year, for four mornings a week, Emma can go to big girl school and learn French, while Maggie and I spend some quality time together, petting cows and showing our bellies to squares full of strangers (two of her current favorite activities, fingers crossed that she will mature over the summer).

Everyone is immensely excited about this new stage in Emma’s life, so we approached the Mairie with light hearts.  My bag was filled with important documents and a carefully crafted list of French statements that I had google-translated in case the clerk at the Mairie did not speak English.  It is possible that Emma misunderstood our mission and thought she was going to school right then and there, because her face fell when we entered the building and saw a tall counter, and vinyl waiting room chairs instead of toys, books, and preschool sized furniture.  I stuck a fruit leather in her hand (thank you Spitz family) and plopped her on one of the chairs, while I approached the desk.  The clerk and I exchanged Bonjours and then the real fun and games began.  The nice woman at the town hall did not speak English.  So I confidently handed over my cheat sheet and not so confidently stammered “ecole” and pointed to Emma.  With a glint of annoyance behind her business like smile, she accepted my google-translated statements and my folder filled with important documents.  To quote Emma, it was “easy, peasy, lemon squeezey.”

But then came the forms.  Oh, why, dear city of Thoiry, can’t you have forms printed in French and English to appease poor slobs like me who never imagined living in France and therefore took German in high school.  Come to think of it, I would even accept a form in German.  That can’t be too much to ask for, can it?  With shaking pen, I began filling out the form, but was stumped at the first blank, “NOM.”  Did that mean first name or last name?

“Ahh, pardon?”  I asked the lady in my nicest, most polite voice.  “Nom?  Er…first nom or last nom?”

What followed was an ineffective system of  pointing, document waving, and me repeating all the names in my family (Emma?  Maura?  James?  Hirschauer?)  I thought I understood what she was trying to say so I filled out the form putting all first names in the first blank, and last names in the second blank.  The form, which should have taken less than five minutes to complete, took me what felt like hours.  Apparently, it felt like hours to the Mairie clerk as well, because she huffily snatched it from my hands and began filling it out herself using information from my important documents folder.  Well, if playing dumb (ok, not really “playing”) got me out of paperwork than this language barrier thing might really work for me.  I could feel that the poor Mairie clerk was really frustrated, but she could not express her annoyance in anything other than sighs and eye rolls.  We finally emerged from the Mairie with paperwork in hand, the number of the school director (I think) and strict instructions to call the school the next morning.  Emma was on her way to becoming a French public school student!

It wasn’t until I got home and looked at our paperwork that I noticed that Emma’s mother was listed as “Kathleen Hirschauer” and her father as “Francis James.”  It looks like I am going to have to head to the Mairie again tomorrow to clear up that little matter.  Perhaps I should bring a bottle of wine for the Mairie clerk, who knows, we may understand each other better after a few glasses.

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Emma’s love of all things medieval hit a crescendo today as we attended the Grandes Medievales d’Andilly, an enormous Medieval festival in a nearby village in France.  Though I love a good castle, am fond of princesses, and think that knights are pretty cool, I am not a connoisseur of Medieval Festivals, and perhaps not a fan of the actual Middle Ages.  Medieval times were dark, dirty, and smelly.  Today as I tramped through fields, past sweaty men in chainmail I thought, why can’t somebody put on a Jane Austen Festival?  Wouldn’t those men, heaving heavy swords around and sweating in their metal hats, rather be comfortably sitting in a drawing-room at some large country estate, watching an accomplished young woman play the piano forte?  I know that I would enjoy a reenactment of the ball at Netherfield infinitely more than I enjoyed watching grown men pretend to sword fight each other in a hot and dusty sand pit.

Emma, on the other hand LOVED everything about the Medieval festival.  From the moment we got out of the car and she laid eyes on her first costumed monk, she was in heaven.  (Mommy, it’s FRIAR TUCK!)  For the duration of the day her eyes were in a permanent saucer-like state.  The place was teeming with knights.  Maggie was in constant danger of having an eye poked out as men sauntered past her with swords hanging from their waists, the sharp tips bouncing along dangerously at toddler eye-level.  There were good knights (gallant, shiny, silver sheathed) and bad (black cloaked, and frightening).  Emma really enjoyed the reenactment where we watched knights of all shapes and sizes fight each other in battle (after battle, after battle).  There was a commentator and a story to go along with the reenactment, but we could not understand a darned thing.  The girls did not care, they cheered right along with the crowd, but it drove me nuts.  I kept leaning over and asking Jim “which one are the bad guys?”

Faun on stilts

After a day filled with Medieval observations I came to the conclusion that folks in the Middle Ages were wild about stilts.  Everywhere I looked today I saw a person (I use that term loosely because most people were dressed like fairies, centaurs, or a host of other weird creatures) walking on stilts.  Our first sighting was an exciting event.  (Look at that half-man, half horse on stilts!)  But after our umpteenth stilt spotting we grew weary of the giants.  (Oh look, another absurdly tall fairy.)  Even the girls seem unfazed by the behemoths clomping up and down the wooded paths.

The festival was really quite impressive.  There were throngs of people participating in the reenactment aspect of the weekend, and everyone stayed eerily in character.  Once in a while you would catch a peasant checking a text message, or spy a page grabbing a smoke, but on the whole everyone stayed firmly in character.  I am insanely curious about these festival people.  How do they choose what role they are going to play?  I assume the roles are doled out.  How else can you explain the poor (no pun intended) people who were forced to play Medieval peasants?  No one would choose to rub mud on their faces, black out their teeth, wear tattered clothes, and roll around in the dust and dirt for a weekend, would they?  You can bet that I would object to any role other than the queen who rode regally around the ring on a white horse in between battle reenactments.

Sword-fighting Bug

The highlight of the day for Emma was the trip to the Medieval tchotchke tent, where she was permitted to pick out her very own sword.  All day she had looked longingly at the lucky children brandishing wooden blades but had not whined or complained once.  She had merely sought out a suitable stick and tried, in vain, to battle with the other swordsmen.  The sword and shield crowd is tough to break into, especially if you do not have the proper equipment, and our poor Bug was shunned.  Once she got hold of the coveted wooden sword, however, she immediately found a group of knights to do battle with.   She is a tough Bug, and held her own with a gaggle of boys that were easily twice her age.  We watched from a (close) distance, as she knocked swords with these boys, and gamely played dead whenever they poked her in the belly.  I was amazed at my little Emma and the tenacity she showed in engaging in sword fight play with a group of older, unknown, French-speaking children.  I’m not sure where she gets her bravery, but I am grateful for her willingness to leap head-first into foreign situations.  Maybe her adventurous spirit will rub off on me, after all we do spend every waking hour of every day together.

Emma dominates the boy with the water bottle as Maggie attempts to join in the action.

Emma battles the (incredibly kind and gentle) black knight.

Oh look, another crazy man on stilts.

Next weekend we are going wine tasting.  No knights, no castles, and no half horse, half men on stilts allowed.

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