Archive for the ‘Vacation’ Category

Part III:  Beyond the Kefaluka Bubble

Bodrum Castle overlooking Bodrum Harbor.

It was tempting to spend the entire ten-day trip hunkered down in beach chairs, umbrella drinks in hand, supervising sand castle construction and attempting to break up sisterly spats without leaving the lounge chair.  But, since this was our one and only trip to Turkey, we knew we couldn’t waste this opportunity to explore the historical lands that lay beyond the Kefaluka bubble.  A bit begrudgingly, I pried my bottom off the beach and joined Jim and the girls (and 40 physicists) on a bus trip into the ancient city of Bodrum.  We were getting quite used to traveling with a throng of physicists, but I am not sure I could say the same for the poor scientists.  On the hour-long bus trip into Bodrum, the girls happily sang songs and exclaimed over the desert-like scenery, and although these were joyful noises, they were still shockingly loud.  Jim’s colleagues may have been tired of traveling with two giggling, wiggling, snot-dribbling (leave it to my children to catch a cold in paradise) children, but I, myself, found it completely reassuring to be accompanied by a group of people who could convert the price of a trinket from Turkish Lira, to Euros, to U.S. Dollars in the blink of an eye.  It was like I was surrounded by a group of superhuman calculating machines, with a penchant for rattling off historical facts about the Bodrum peninsula, Alexander the Great, and crusading knights.  Who needs a tour guide when you have friends like that?

Bodrum is a beautiful Turkish port that is home to countless gleaming white yachts, beautiful wooden schooners (or pirate ships, for the three and under set), a formidable stone castle that sits sentry above the harbor, and a bustling marketplace.  It was the site of ancient Halicarnassus, the home of Herodotus, and housed one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.  (Which, if you are interested, was built as a monument and tomb for the ruler Mausolus, by Artemesia II of Caria, who was both his sister and his wife.  I have to admit that I wasn’t really paying attention to the history of Bodrum until that fun little fact caught my ear.)  The Mausoleum stood proudly in the city for seventeen hundred years, until it was finally leveled by earthquakes.  Sometime in the fifteenth century the crusaders used stones from the quake rattled monument to fortify Bodrum Castle, so there is not much left to see of the Mausoleum today.  But, I spent a great deal of time chasing Maggie around Bodrum Castle, therefore I may or may not have saved my daughter from breaking her face on a stone that was once a wonder of the ancient world.

Emma with an extremely important Roman Governor at Bodrum Castle.

Bodrum Castle, though extremely toddler unfriendly, was pretty awesome.  Emma loved it because it was home to not only knights, but a special breed of knights that also moonlighted as pirates.  To a three-year old with a fondness for all things medieval and a pirate costume hanging in her closet, this fact was almost too much to bear.  She loved the “knight pirates” and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the crusading soldiers who built the castle were brutal, bloody fighters, not quite the jolly pirates she pictured.  The castle showcased breathtaking views of the Aegean Sea with no unsightly railings to mar the scenery, or to protect streaking toddlers from plunging headfirst over the side of a turret into the crystal blue waters below.  It also had some spectacularly steep, narrow staircases, but so are the perils of castle exploration with a toddler.

Toddler launching pad at the top of Bodrum Castle

After extracting Emma from the “knight pirate castle” we wandered through the narrow streets of Bodrum where I attempted to work up the courage to barter with shopkeepers selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags.  I am not really a handbag-type of person.  I have a mysteriously sticky, sometimes smelly, but very convenient diaper bag that houses everything from my wallet to emergency bubbles to a first aid kit.  I also have a ten-dollar Old Navy cloth purse that I purchased six years ago that is my “fancy bag.”  Although, I’m pretty sure that if you can throw your purse into the washing machine it no longer qualifies as “fancy.”  Alas, such is my bag situation, so I went to Bodrum hoping to purchase a shiny, new, fake “fancy bag.”  I was not prepared, however, for the vast selection and the in-your-face shopkeepers.  I walked into several bag shops, only to be faced with floor to ceiling displays of heavily patterned leather bags and a man yelling a string of prices into my ear.  On my first two attempts I walked in, freaked out, turned on my heel and bolted back to the comfort of my whining children.  In one shop I finally gathered up the courage to pick up a Burberry bag and ask the man how much it cost.  He told me an absurdly high price and I panicked, practically threw the bag across the store, and once again retreated outside to my family.  I am a horrible bargainer.  I needed an ally, a shrewd shopper to aid me in my quest to find the perfect, cheap knockoff.  Jim is many, many things, but a shopper he is not.  He had no sympathy for my purse problem (“What’s wrong with that one?” pointing to the grungy diaper bag on  my shoulder).   My quest for the perfect bag ended before it really began, and I left Bodrum purse-less, which is probably for the best because I have heard some scary stories about Swiss customs confiscating knock-offs and levying unbelievably expensive fines on poor, unsuspecting purse neophytes.  But sometimes, when I am soaking up sour, spilled milk and gluey cracker crumbs off the bottom of my diaper bag, I still think about that perfect fake Burberry purse in Bodrum market and I concoct elaborate, eloquent bartering dialogues in my head.  Ahhh, the bag that could have been.

Fishing boats in Kos Harbor, Greece.

After our trek to Bodrum we spent a few days relaxing within the Kefaluka bubble, but we returned to the outside world to take a trip to the Greek Island of Kos.  Feeling especially adventurous because we had left the throngs of scientists behind, we boarded the shuttle to the Turgutreis.  The drive to the ferry was gorgeous as we wound up and down hills and in and out of harbor towns; the blue Aegean glistening in the sun on our left and the brown, hillsides towering above us on our right.  The ferry over to Kos was a bit tiresome, as we had to muddle through passport control and customs on both ends of our trip.  Luckily for us, Greek customs officials are the most family friendly people on earth and went out of their way to pluck us out of long lines and shuttle us up to the front.  We felt like movie stars, or maybe just extremely lucky, frazzled parents with two children, one badly in need of a diaper change, and the other fighting a losing battle with a squeezable apple sauce container.

Emma and Maggie exploring the Asclepeion at Kos.

Kos was beautiful.  It is definitely a tourist destination, as evidenced by the hundreds of shops selling postcards, small replicas of Greek statues, and t-shirts boasting questionable slogans.  But Kos, to scholars of ancient Greece, is more than a tourist destination.  It was the home of Hippocrates, often called the father of modern medicine, and we visited the site where he learned and practiced medicine, the Asclepeion of Kos.  It was there that I discovered a place more terrifying for the mother of a wandering toddler than a castle, an ancient ruin.  The ancient ruin of the Asclepeion was dusty, with crumbling steep stone steps, tempting cracking pillars that were just perfect climbing height, and so many stones, bricks, and marble chunks to trip over that it was mind-boggling.  I think between the two of them, the girls fell at least one hundred times, and the ancient ruin police (aka old ladies with floppy hats, blue blocker sunglasses, and ear-piercing whistles) had to crisply tweet in Maggie’s direction five times for climbing on relics.  I spent so much time trying to keep Maggie from scrambling onto what was probably the first operating table ever made, that I didn’t really stop to appreciate the history of the deathtrap in which we wandered.  I am glad that we have photographic evidence that I was actually there, and I can look back on those pictures and finally feel the appropriate awe for the ancient grounds where I chased the girls, wiped bloodied knees, and tried in vain to evade the whistle blowers.

An aerial view of the deathtrap that was the ancient ruins of Asclepeion.

After touring the Asclepeion of Kos we walked through the Marketplace at Kos, or the Agora, which was once one of the biggest, most bustling marketplaces in the ancient world.  It was amazing to wander through the ancient square, and because Maggie was safely strapped in her stroller, I had a chance to truly gaze upon crumbling ancient archways, and stone pillars.  I grew up in a town that prides itself on the old historical buildings that line our main street, most of them dating from the mid to late 16oo’s.  As a child I would visit these old buildings and imagine the early colonists churning their butter, and drying and salting their fish while the children played outside with wooden hoops and stilts.  I used to think my little town was steeped in history, but standing in the Agora at Kos, amidst stone structures built in the second century BC,  I was truly in awe.

Jim, the one time classics scholar, escaped the gluttonous walls of the Kefaluka for a final excursion without his girls.  He took a three-hour bus ride to the ruins at Ephesus where he saw another of the famed Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis.  I am glad that he was able to wander around the ancient city without three whining, hungry females trailing after him, tripping over rocks and scaling headless statues.  (Truth be told, in sightseeing situations I am often the biggest whiner of the bunch, but at least I don’t attempt to climb statues.)  Ancient ruins are to Jim what castles are to Emma, what a playground with a tall, twisty slide is to Maggie, and what my computer, when streaming American television, is to me.  He deserved a day to himself to truly take in all the sights, read all the boring placards, and actually listen to his tour guide.


The Library at Celsus

Dionysus, Hermes, and Jim


Temple of Artemis

And so ended our ten-day trip to Turkey.  Our first family vacation was a success, filled with unending sun, swimming, exciting day trips, and lots and lots of yummy Turkish food.  Some of us worked (poor Jim), some worked out (one half hour session on the treadmill while in paradise deserves to be commemorated forever in blog form), others dug countless castles, colored pictures with multi-lingual camp counselors, danced the night away at Mini Disco, and were treated like princesses by the staff at Kefaluka.  It is a trip that we will remember always.


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PART II:  Ladies Who Lounge

Maggie digging on the shore of the Aegean.

The girls and I took an immediate liking to the Kefaluka resort.  Maybe it was the breakfast buffet with overflowing bread baskets, fruit towers, pancake bar…I really could go on all day.  That first morning we frolicked in the restaurant for so long we almost forgot about the five pools and the Aegean Sea that lay waiting just below the balcony.  I lazily sipped Turkish coffee, making every effort to appear nonchalant and act as though I was accustomed to the incredibly strong brew, while the girls feasted.  If whining children threatened to interrupt my caffeine revelry, I merely tossed them a nutella covered pancake in a move akin to throwing a slab of meat to quell a pack of wild dogs.  Breakfast on that first morning, after a horrific day of travel, was nothing short of bliss.

Emma, getting used to the kiddie pool at Kefaluka.

We could not resist the call of the water for long, though.  After rolling ourselves out of breakfast, we headed to the kiddie pool conveniently located beside an enticing play structure, two seesaws (because who doesn’t love to seesaw in a soaking wet bathing suit), and swings.  On that first morning the girls were timid in the water.  Although the pool was intended for small children, it was still pretty deep on Maggie, and she could not be trusted to wade in the water on her own.  The first time she slipped she didn’t seem to mind the unintentional dunking, but the second and third times were not pretty.  Emma, eager to wear her brand new water wings, splashed and played happily, but I don’t think she got a drop of water on her upper torso.  Those water wings, though worn faithfully every day, did not get a proper dunking until four days into our trip when Emma finally braved the depths of the kiddie pool and began “swimming”  (i.e., crawling around on her stomach in shallow water and tentatively kicking one foot and paddling with one arm, Michael Phelps, she is not.)

After a few hours in the pool the girls were ready for a little break, but it was not quite time to meet Jim for lunch, so we explored the hotel for a bit.  We happened upon the Kid’s Club, a wonderful indoor play place with craft tables, a pirate ship climbing structure, and shelf upon shelf of toys.  The girls played happily in there for an hour, and I was tempted to forge new birth certificates that would prove they were four years old so that I could leave and do some solo poolside lounging.  (Emma, ever so mature, could easily pass for four.  Maggie on the other hand, well, her stinky diaper would be a dead giveaway.)  Alas, I was stuck with the girls, but the Kid’s Club offered some comfy pillows on which I could perch and with minimal physical exertion I could govern my flock.

The Kid’s Club was run by an adorable girl named Amandine, who Emma and Maggie took an immediate and affectionate liking to.  Amandine spoke five languages, I am not kidding, five.  She grew up in French-speaking Belgium, so she spoke French and Flemish.  She learned English in school; married a Turkish man, hence the fluency in Turkish; and had picked up a little German since working at Kefaluka.  When she first met the girls she spoke to them in perfect French, confused by their French activity books that are impossible for me to understand, but somehow keep the girls busy.  Her French pleasantries were met by our tried and true befuddled stares, and so she adeptly switched to English.  She was nothing short of amazing, and I felt like a dunce as I watched her dazzle a room full of children, alternating effortlessly between Turkish, English, and Flemish.  (She is also the bestower of our first European cheek kisses.  When we bid her adieu at the end of the week she gave us delicate kisses on each cheek.  Jim was the last to be smooched and I could see his face getting redder and feel his anxiety heightening as she turned her smackers upon him.)

Amandine was just one member of the famed Kefaluka “Animation Team,” a group of 20-something party people whose job it was to entertain (i.e., torment) guests with games, strange, ritualistic poolside dances, and evening variety shows.  The girls and I spent a great deal of time trying to avoid members of the Animation Team.  We all had our reasons.  Maggie and Emma quickly grew weary of the cheek pinching and tickles doled out by the overzealous crew, and I was terrified that they would force me to play one of their embarrassing pool games.  On our first day I witnessed a group of Animation Team members haze an innocent sunbather.  They forced the poor man to abandon his book, and play a game in which he stood on a lounge chair and attempted to drop a coin into a Dixie cup while six crew members jeered, poked, and harassed him.  When he failed to successfully drop the coin in the cup they pushed him in the pool.  No joke.  I waited for him to yell at the team, but he emerged from the pool with a huge smile on his face and jovially accepted the complimentary frozen beverages that they were offering as consolation prizes (not a very enticing prize considering that Kefaluka is an all inclusive resort).

I have a phobia of situations that demand audience participation.  It took root during an assembly featuring puppeteers in grade school and has been fed by a wide variety of street musicians, magicians, and jokesters.  I had a very, very bad experience involving a high school improv group and have tried to steer clear of audience participation assailants ever since.  And now, here was another group of seemingly innocent, amiable youths stalking me on my Turkish vacation, hindering my poolside relaxation with the threat of public humiliation, unwanted drenching, and watered down frozen beverages.  Luckily, my children provided me with the perfect excuse to opt out of their sadistic games.  Sorry, you can’t push me in the pool, I have a small child attached to my hip.  No thank you, I don’t want to play a raucous game of water polo with you and some other guests, I need to take my three-year-old to the bathroom.  Maggie and Emma spent a great deal of time being pulled and prodded in different directions in an attempt to shield their poor mother from the dreaded “Animation Team.”

The girls and I quickly fell into a grueling, harsh routine at Kefaluka that included waking up at the crack of 8:30, hitting the breakfast buffet, and then making the bothersome decision of whether to go to the pool or the beach.  The beach, though not as good for swimming, offered lots of sand to dig in and rocks to throw.  It was a very difficult decision.  Most days we went to the beach for a little bit, hit the snack bar for a morning treat, and then visited Amandine in the Kid’s Club.  We would meet Jim for lunch, trying not to gloat too much about all the fun we had while he was stuck in meetings, and then the girls would nap.  Nap was by far the best part of my day, because Jim, who was not really on vacation, held down the fort on our balcony and did more work, while I got a few hours to truly lounge by myself.  The Kefaluka provided ample cozy spots for quiet repose with a book, and I took advantage of each and every one.  After naps, we would head to the pool for a few more hours of sunshine and an ice cream cone.  It was a glorious schedule.

Emma demonstrates her "swimming" abilities. Next stop...Rio 2016.

Jim and Maggie trying to understand the physics of an authentic Turkish water slide.

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PART I:  The Journey

After two solid days spent unpacking, laundering copious amounts of stained, sweaty, sea-salt encrusted vacation clothes, and reintroducing myself to the kitchen, things are finally back to normal at Chateau Hirschauer.  Our return to the real world after ten days of cloudless beach weather in Turkey was shocking; Emma had a tearful morning at school after carefree days building sand castles, splashing in pools, and pillaging the all you can eat dessert buffet; and Maggie, exhausted from endless water play, baby disco dancing, and looking a bit haggard after a diet consisting exclusively of french fries, oranges, and ice cream, wandered around the house like a zombie until finally collapsing in a pile of dirty laundry.  It didn’t help our vacation fatigue when we returned to Thoiry to find that our quaint, often sleepy French town had morphed into a carnival site complete with cotton candy machines and mini roller coasters in the school parking lot.  So, this weekend, meant to be a recovery weekend, was instead filled with late night torch parades, missed naps, wild marching bands, flower floats, and lots and lots of candy.

While there will be more, much, much, more on the bizarre awesomeness that was the Fete de la Saint-Maurice in a future post, let me return to the subject at hand; our adventures on the Bodrum peninsula in Turkey.  Two weeks ago we pulled Emma from school (gasp, the former teacher pulls her child from school in her second week to indulge in a beach vacation…I am still working through the guilt), packed our bags and headed for a physics conference at a resort on the coast of the Aegean Sea.  I should have known when we arrived at the airport and queued up (I’m not learning much French here, but am becoming fluent in British) in back of a throng of 80 physicists all headed for the same hotel, that the flight was bound to get complicated.  There was the fact that we were in possession of the only two wriggling, shrieking, kicking, jumping small people in a flight of middle-aged, computer wielding, serious looking physicists.  It is one thing to annoy an entire plane full of people you have never met and will never see again, but it is quite another thing to torment a group of Jim’s colleagues, some of whom are senior to him, and all of whom we were to be vacationing with for the next week.  Our troubles began in the check-in line when Maggie grew weary of the cereal I was so kind to shove in her face and took up her new favorite pass time of covertly pushing Emma’s buttons (think hair pulling, toy snatching, unwanted tickling).  The “torture thy sister game” rarely ends well, but on this particular day, in this particular line of impatient, technology deprived scientists, the howling reached catastrophic levels.  By the time we made it up to the check-in counter to be informed of the 2 and a half hour delay that awaited us, I was ready to chuck the whole beachside vacation idea in favor of turning tail, heading home, and watching Disney’s Robin Hood on repeat for the next ten days.

If you have to be delayed for two and a half hours with scores of your husbands nerdy colleagues, however, the Geneva airport is the place to be.  For starters they apologized profusely for the delay (the first “I’m sorry” I have ever heard at an airport counter, I nearly fainted) and gave us vouchers worth 40 CHF to use at any restaurant in the airport.  So, we collected our free lunch, including an obnoxiously expensive Starbucks latte (the first I have had since arriving in Europe) and sought out the fabled airport play area.  I am leery of airport play areas, they are usually sticky with mysteriously tacky toys that I find disturbing.  Also, I swear I can see the germs snaking their way through the nooks and crannies of the grungy toy planes that Maggie will inevitably decide are delectable snacks instead of plastic disease vectors.  The Geneva airport, I am happy to report, has an inconceivably pristine and decidedly unsticky play area.  If you happen to be in the Geneva airport with children I urge you to visit this germ-free wonderland.  It is a sterile oasis of wooden climbing toys, kitchen sets, slides, and popular children’s books.  There is a sparkling toddler sized potty, comfy changing table, and free diapers and wipes.  In a word it is airport heaven.  We happily passed the two hours, the girls in their stocking feet and I with medical booties over my shoes (I’m telling you the Swiss are fanatics about their cleanliness), sliding, reading, and cooking the delay away.  It was divine.

After working out some energy in the immaculate Swiss play place, the flight to Istanbul was relatively uneventful.  Thank goodness because we happened to be sitting directly in front of the Physics Analysis Coordinator (translation: head honcho) of Jim’s experiment.  We arrived in Istanbul aware that we had missed our connection to Bodrum, but seeing that eighty other people also missed their flight, we weren’t too worried.  I was concerned with the unfathomably long line at passport control.  On the three-hour flight to Istanbul the girls had reached their bribing limit, and no amount of pretzels, granola bars, or stickers was going to keep them quiet while we slowly snaked our way toward the customs official.  So we spent a lovely hour or so inching our way forward, trying desperately to quell our unruly, crabby, and excruciatingly loud children.  I feared that we would be kicked out of Turkey before our passports had even been stamped.  Finally we reached the unusually cheerful passport control officer who smiled and cooed at our two wild-eyed monsters, writhing and struggling in their umbrella strollers.  His enthusiasm for the children that I had long grown weary of was disarming.  I had never in my life met a more friendly passport official.  It was like he was a kindergarten teacher wearing a Turkish customs uniform.  He somehow managed to pacify the girls and their whining faded into giggles as the magical (yet extremely slow-moving) passport official stamped our books and welcomed us to Istanbul.

The Istanbul airport was huge, crowded, and super stressful.  We weaved our way through the bustling mob of travelers, searching for the domestic terminal and the group of physicists that we had somehow lost in the passport control maze.  Sweating and breathless after our sprint through the airport (including a frantic trip through security where I nearly had to be restrained from punching an impatient business traveler) we arrived at our gate, reunited with the scientists who I’m sure were hoping that we were lost forever, and discovered that our connecting flight was an hour and a half late.  Deep breathes were taken by all, and we set Emma and Maggie loose in the Istanbul domestic terminal, which was not as kid friendly as the play area in Geneva, but offered plenty of space for the girls to run laps.

We finally arrived in Bodrum a full five hours behind schedule.  Next up in our marathon trek to our hotel was an eighty minute bus ride over bumpy, winding, extremely small roads.  We did not put our bags down in our room until after midnight.  All in all the trip to Turkey, originally intended to take roughly 5 hours, took us 16 intense, sweaty, maddening hours.  I think that our transatlantic flight from Chicago to Geneva was easier.  But, when we were finally able to toss the girls into bed and retire to our balcony with a much deserved glass of wine, I declared our 16 hour exodus from Thoiry  to Turkey to be a success.  The light from the moon, which on our first few nights in Turkey echoed the crescent shape from Turkish flag, glistened off the Aegean Sea, and the sound of crashing waves upon the shore lulled us to sleep.  We were officially on vacation, the girls and I that is, Jim had to wake up early for conference meetings.  Science never sleeps.

The girls and I atop Bodrum Castle.

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Too much sun, too little typing. Maggie and I lounging on a paddle boat on Lake Annecy, France.

Summer is in full swing and it has been harder and harder to find time to post.  Between company, trips to fabulous summertime destinations, crazy kids, and my insanely embarrassing trash television addiction, Pardon My French has been sorely neglected.  My vocabulary and writing skills have also been adversely affected by too many episodes of The Jersey Shore and the teen drama Pretty Little Liars (why my taste in television failed to mature past 9th grade, is beyond me).  I think I hit rock bottom when I quoted Snooki at a play date and somebody asked “What’s a Snooki?”  I got some strange looks from the normal moms who couldn’t comprehend why I knew so much about a three-foot, big-haired (okay maybe she’s 3 and half feet with the hair), overly tanned, permanently inebriated, loud mouth from Jersey.

That was yesterday, and I made a promise to myself that I would not, under any circumstances visit the casttv website (the gateway drug for bad t.v. watching overseas) during nap time today.  Instead I vowed to work on my blog and perhaps peruse CNN.com to enlighten myself on the goings on in the world, and to find something more relevant to discuss at the dinner table other than what disgusting thing Maggie touched at the park today (something unidentifiable dug out of a trash can) and the use of the word “grenade” as it pertains to the social dalliances of the boys on the Jersey Shore.  Of course, after a long morning at the park spent peeling whiny children off my legs and urging them to go play with their friends and leave Mommy alone for two seconds, and a car ride home where I played the game “who can be louder, crying children or Mommy’s radio?” (and lost, unfortunately), I collapsed on the couch where I immediately caved and watched an episode of Top Chef (but that is a Bravo program, infinitely more intelligent and classy than other reality shows, therefore justifiable).  It wasn’t until the episode wound to its conclusion that I felt able to tackle my first blog post in (gasp) 20 days.

So here I am, finally sitting down to the computer, with almost a months worth of outings, pictures, and memories to document, and I am completely exhausted from writing my first paragraphs.  I am obviously out of writing shape and will need to ease myself back into some sort of routine.  Lucky for me, unlike my dismal running program, I can blog with a glass of wine in my hand and a plate of chocolate by my side.  Getting back into top writing form should be easier than losing my baby belly.  Rest assured, Pardon My French fans (aka my mom), I have not been arrested by border patrol, I am back in writing mode and will be updating the blog soon with our adventures in Annecy, the South of France (ooh la la), and an insanely delicious authentic French meal that Jim and I enjoyed sans children (thank you Grandma Eileen).  But for now, I need to take a break, as it took me all day to write these few paragraphs, and there is an unusually charming serial killer beckoning me from Jim’s computer (because surely serial dramas on a premium cable channel do not count as trash t.v.).

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The leaders of the course zoom past us on stage 8 of the Tour.

I am sitting here watching the final stage of the Tour de France, wishing I was sipping champagne along with Contador and team Astana, but also wondering why they are celebrating with 90 km left in the race and a 38 second lead.  Is a 38 second deficit in a bike race akin to a four touchdown lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl?  Is it physically impossible for Schleck (who is now and forever to be known as Shrek in our house, and is an obvious toddler favorite) to force the pace of the race, turn on the gas, and leave Contador in the dust, 40 seconds behind?  Whatever the reasons, this final stage of the race is dull, dull, dull.  If I want to watch a pack of guys going on a joy ride in the French country side all I need to do is look out my window.  I wanted to see some drama today, some flying elbows, or head butting.  (In all fairness, it has taken me a while to finish this post, and the end of the race was exciting.  Perhaps I spoke, or typed, a bit too soon.)

Two weeks ago, when Team Griswald donned their Livestrong t-shirt (Nana), packed a picnic lunch and headed out to see the Tour, the atmosphere was anything but dull.  We were lucky enough to have the Tour pass very close to where we live in Thoiry.  After a ten minute drive and a fifteen minute walk we found ourselves a shady spot on the side of the Tour route and settled in for a few hours of waiting.  We were perched at the top of a down hill and correctly guessed that the riders would be flying by us, but it was a very family friendly vantage point.  Initially we had hoped to position ourselves in the mountains on one of the huge climbs so that Jim and Grampa could don crazy super hero costumes and run wildly alongside the ascending riders, and Maggie could use her Curious George monkey to accidentally hook Lance’s handlebars and give Nana the opportunity for some face time with her hero.  (Emma and I, of course, are much to poised and mature for such antics.)  But, the reality of having two toddlers means that waking up at the crack of dawn to camp on a mountainside for six hours in order to catch a 5 second glimpse of cyclists is not really a viable option.

One of the caravan floats.

Our vantage point was perfect for us.  It was shady, an extremely important factor given the molten-like temperatures.  There were other children near us for the girls to shyly interact with, and we were able to spread out blankets and eat a comfortable picnic lunch.  About an hour and a half before the riders came through a frenzied, party-like buzz filled the air.  We all jumped up off the blanket (because that was what everyone around us was doing) and pushed our way to the edge of the road, unsure of what exactly was happening, but swept up in the fever of the crowd.  The excitement was due to the arrival of the caravan, which I assumed was just a parade of team buses, camera crews, and reporters.  It was, indeed, a parade, but it was more along the lines of Mardi Gras then the official procession that I had imagined.  Each Tour sponsor had elaborate, colorful floats and trucks with attractive young girls tossing samples and other goodies at the crowd.  People went wild going after mini packages of Cochonou sausages, Belin cheese crackers, and polka-dotted Carrefour hats.  We were bumped and jostled a few times before my killer instincts kicked in and I joined the melee, coming up with an armful of hats, some crackers for Maggie, and a Disney themed Tour comic book for Emma.  The girls loved the caravan.  Snacks flying through the air, Lady Gaga blaring from trucks, what more could they ask for?  The caravan was pretty neat, but it would have been much better (and much safer) had the trucks and floats not been roaring by us at highway-like speeds.  Not only did they go by us in a flash, but the booty that they tossed out to the crowd was whipped at us at a dangerous clip.  Most goody tossers aimed for the feet, but there were a few who mistakenly threw packages up into the air, and one man standing near us was whipped upside the head by a rogue sausage packet.  Poor Maggie, driven into a frenzy by the appearance of the Haribo gummy bear float, was shocked into reality when she was slapped in the face by a bag of gummy bears.  Her hurt and anger were tempered when the offending gummy bears were opened and consumed, but she spent the remainder of the caravan peeking out from the safety of my legs.

Once the caravan had passed us by we had an hour or so to kill before the riders came through.  This was the most difficult part of our day.  It was nap time and we were in the middle of nowhere, frying in the blazing heat, with children caught in the throes of a candy induced sugar high and a midday sleep deprived meltdown.  With help from our Tour schwag we kept the girls busy until the tell-tale noise of whirling helicopter wings alerted us to the on coming riders.  We grabbed our noise makers and roused the girls from their candy comas and got ready to greet the riders.  The anticipation of seeing the riders was intense, there were a few false alarms, and everyone was on the verge of heat exhaustion when we finally saw the first group of six riders emerge from the tunnel.  But the appearance of the riders sent adrenalin pumping through us all and we cheered, banged pots, tooted horns, and jumped around with wild abandon.  The leaders of the course zipped past us and we eagerly turned to greet the peloton.  We waited patiently for them to zoom through the tunnel.  We waited, and waited, and waited (no longer patient, and no longer full of enthusiasm), until finally, four or five minutes after the leaders, they swarmed through the tunnel and past us down the hill.  Once again the appearance of spandex clad, helmet topped, zooming cyclists sent us into a noise-making frenzy.  It was quite an experience, and one that, despite the heat, complaining children, killer flying gummy bears, and long periods of waiting, we would all do again in a heart beat.

Collecting our caravan goodies, prior to the gummy bear incident.

Post caravan picnic while we waited for the riders.

Getting ready for the riders!

Nana and Maggie get ready to cheer on the leaders.

The Pelton (finally) emerges from the tunnel.

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The Hirschauers in Interlaken

After our whirlwind trip to Normandy, the Griswalds needed a few days to unwind.  The last leg of our road trip home had completely drained us of our adventurous spirit, and we recovered with long walks on Thoiry farm roads, tours of CERN (for Grampa), and visits with friends at toddler group.  We did manage to squeeze in a Geneva day, where we fulfilled Grampa’s wish to swim in the glacial waters of Lake Geneva (and to escape unscathed by the dreaded Lac Leman duck mites*), toured the streets of Old Town, and gazed upon the Geneva cityscape from the top of the Cathedral bell tower.  So, in reality, the Griswalds really only rested for one day, (battling crowds on cramped Geneva sidewalks with a stroller the size of a Smart Car does not a relaxing day make) and then we hit the road again, this time with Jim (our captain) in tow, to bask in the beauty of the Swiss Alps.

The drive to the Interlaken was infinitely easier than the drive to Normandy, which had almost scarred me for life.  We spent less than three hours in the van, and the scenery was so gorgeous that the last hour of the trip flew by in a blur of sparkling ice blue lakes, and jagged, snow topped mountains.  When Emma first laid eyes on the Jungfrau from the car window she was left speechless (a rare treat for those of us sharing the backseat with her) and finally blurted out the word “HUMONGOUS” in her best Murray from Sesame Street impression.  She was right, the mountains around Interlaken were gigantic, and mesmerizingly beautiful.  We happened upon a cute playground area complete with picnic tables just as we were entering the city (couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried, and of course, had we tried, we never would have found such a great spot) and stopped for lunch and a romp.

After the girls had sufficiently tired themselves out on the playground equipment we took to the crowded streets of Interlaken.  We spent some time watching paragliders float down from the mountain tops, bobbing and weaving in the cool alpine breeze.  Marring the somewhat idyllic mountain scene was the neon orange lights from a Hooters sign in downtown Interlaken.  Yes, Hooters (ye of the chicken wings, dangerously short orange hot pants, and painted on tank tops) in Switzerland.  What the what?  Just what we needed to complete our authentic alpine vacation in a Swiss mountain town, greasy wings and scantily clad waitresses.  (Instead of ranch or blue cheese, I wonder, do they serve fondue with those wings?)

We walked through the city of Interlaken, always with one eye turned to the snow-capped peaks above us, and succeeded in putting the girls to sleep in their strollers.  When traveling with small children it is critical to not let an opportunity like two comatose toddlers in umbrella strollers pass you by, so we promptly stopped at a Swiss cafe (not Hooters, to the dismay of some in our party) for some very large, very refreshing beers.  After being in France where they eschew cold beer in favor of wine and sell warm beer in miniature bottles and munchkin-like glasses, the extra-large chilled beer steins of Switzerland were a welcome sight.  We ordered four of their largest local lagers and settled in for a relaxing chat.  Amazingly both girls stayed asleep for our entire happy hour and were coaxed (bribed with ice cream) into sitting patiently while we enjoyed a second, slightly smaller, yet still refreshing, beer.  Upon leaving the idyllic cafe we walked straight into a toddler paradise, complete with jumping, bubbling fountains to frolic in and giant-sized chess pieces.  Without thinking twice we stripped the girls down to their French finest and let them loose in the fountains.  Interlaken was very good to us that day; sun, mountains, playgrounds, fountains, beer and ice cream, the stuff dreams are made of.

We left Interlaken and drove a bit farther up into the valley to our hotel in the town of Wilderswil.  In true Griswald style we had booked our hotel at the last-minute and we weren’t quite sure what to expect as we made our way through the quaint, winding streets of Wilderswil and up the hill to the Hotel Berghoff.  I half expected to round a corner and find a rickety, single level motel establishment with dingy curtains and a blinking vacancy sign.  I was pleasantly surprised by the pristine Swiss style hotel, nestled in the hillside with striking views of the Jungfrau and a Maggie-approved proximity to grazing cows.  The Hirschauers were lucky enough to have a family suite in the “Chalet” with a balcony looking out into the Alps.  Alas, poor Nana and Grampa were stuck in the big hotel, with a stunning view of our balcony from their only window.  After dropping our stuff in the rooms we hightailed it to the pool and enjoyed a surreal evening swimming and watching the sky turn pink behind the Alpen giants.

The next day Team Griswald split up and my parents took the trains up to the tip-top of the Jungfrau and hiked the glacier while we conquered the Alps at a slightly lower elevation.  The girls loved the cog railway that inched its way up the twisty, turning tracks past mountain towns, ski resorts, and various farm animals.  In Maggie’s world, every animal she sees is a cow, and there are no distinctions made between goats, donkeys, or horses.  She loved spying the many species of “cow” out the train window, and Emma kept a keen eye out for gushing waterfalls, that spewed snowmelt off the side of the mountain at awesome rates.  We got off the train at Kleine Scheidegg, a little resort town that boasted its own family of tame mountain goats (goats Maggie, not cows).  The girls loved playing with (harassing) the goats and feeding them (shoving dead grass in their faces) and were surprisingly unfazed when one of the smaller goats, having had his fill of weeds and greasy toddler hands, butted them angrily.  We finally tore the girls away from the goats and stuffed them kicking and screaming into backpacks so we could enjoy a short, yet extremely steep,  hike in the Alps.

We followed the well-worn path up out of Kleine Scheidegg and found ourselves in a mountain meadow straight out of a scene from the Sound of Music.  Frauline Maria was lucky enough to be alone, spinning through the wildflowers in blissful solitude, we, unfortunately had to pick our way past throngs of Japanese tourists who were possibly more enthralled with the adorable children on our backs than the impressive rocky peaks of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.  Countless pictures were taken of Emma and Maggie as they sat in their backpack thrones, waving and smiling to their adoring fans.  We finally found a quiet resting spot for lunch, one situated far enough away from people that we felt like we were alone in the Alps, yet not so remote that the girls were in danger of tumbling down the rocky mountainside.  Emma and Maggie frolicked in the meadow and picked flowers in the shadow of the Eiger, while Jim and I rested and basked in the beauty of the mountains.  On our way back down into Kleine Scheidegg we stopped to rest our hot, sweaty, weary feet in an ice-cold mountain pond.  The Swiss have come up with some ingenious ways of enjoying nature, my favorite of which is the foot soaking pool with benches and jacuzzi-like bubbles.  It felt sinfully luxurious to dip your feet in the cool bubbly water, surrounded by the natural beauty of blue sky, green grass, and white-capped mountains.  And, of course the girls are always game for anything that involves taking their clothes off and splashing in water.

After enjoying a well-earned beer and sharing a tearful goodbye with the goats in Kleine Scheidegg we boarded the train and headed back to our hotel to meet up with Nana and Grampa.  They had had a fabulous day hiking and exploring the Jungfrau glacier.  Though tired, they came down from the mountain looking ten years younger and full of smiles, adventure, and happiness.  That night we dined al fresco at a cafe in the town of Lauterbrunnen, and then collapsed into our beds after a day spent hiking, playing, and laughing in the Alps.  The next day we took a family hike to another mountain village called Wengen, and after a delicious picnic and one last train ride, we bade our new friends Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau “Auf Wiedersehen” and made our way back home to Thoiry.

Peaceful slumber in the Hirschauer Chalet.

Riding the rails.

Making new friends in Kleine Scheidegg.

Soaking our feet, Swiss style.

*A note about “duck mites.”  After we mentioned that we had all gone swimming at a beach in Geneva, a friend disclosed her secret fear of parasites called “duck mites” that live in duck feathers and become a problem in the summer, when the lake water become warmer.  While I listened intently to her warnings and shuddered at the thought of tiny parasites boring their way into my skin and causing a nasty rash, I dismissed the issue, thinking that perhaps my friend was over-reacting.  But then, not even an hour later, I heard a health report on the English-speaking radio station sternly warning people about the dangers of duck mites.  Now, I realize that duck mites are not fatal, and something as simple as showering immediately after swimming will greatly reduce your chances of catching them, but I do not fancy getting an itchy rash that may last for weeks, or even months.  No thank you.  I count myself lucky to have swam in Lake Geneva and escaped rash-free and I will not chance fate again.  I haven’t so much as dipped a toe in the lake since I have been alerted to the existence those sneaky parasites.

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Maggie storms the beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, with the remnants of Port Winston in the background, an artificial port that the British establish shortly after D-Day.

When we broke the news to my parents that we were taking their only two grandchildren and moving them across the Atlantic, we knew that our announcement would be met with more sadness than enthusiasm.  After all, we had finally moved from the dreaded left coast to Chicago where we were an easy two-hour flight from Nana and Grampa.  Now we would be on another continent (greatly overshadowing the positive fact that a flight from Boston to Europe was only an hour or so longer than the Boston to San Francisco flight that they had endured for two years) and in a completely foreign time zone, thus making phone calls and skyping more difficult.  But, even when faced with these debilitating factors, we held two aces in our pockets.  The Ace of Nana was the fact that the beloved Tour de France would be passing extremely close by our house, making the odds of meeting Lance up close and personal increase exponentially.  The other Ace (and infinitely more important, because it was really not difficult to sell Nana on a trip to France.  The apple does not fall far from the tree; wine, cheese, chocolate, mountains, grandchildren…Nana was a piece of cake) was the Ace of Grampa.  He was a more difficult nut to crack, harboring a life-long hatred of flying and a deep-seeded love of his summer routine.  We were hard pressed to find a reason for him abandon his morning beach-side walks with the dog, daily tennis matches, nightly Red Sox games, and his lawn (my goodness, what was to become of the lawn while he was away?).  But, the Ace up our sleeves was Normandy.  If Grampa came to France (and let’s be honest, he would never miss an opportunity to visit his granddaughters, regardless of the flight time) we would reward him with a trip to visit the D-Day beaches.  Grampa is a man with many interests, the foremost of which is WWII.  He has read every book, watched every movie, dvr’ed every television show (a feat unto itself, seeing that my parents have yet to tackle hooking up their DVD player) having to do with WWII.  When my parents came to visit me in London (which I am realizing, with a shudder, was over 10 years ago) I endured an extremely long visit to the Churchill War Rooms and followed my father around as he reveled in the history there.  How could we move to France and deny Grampa the chance to walk the shores of Omaha Beach, gaze up at the intimidating cliffs of Pont du Hoc, and visit the serene grounds of the Normandy American Cemetery?

We were all excited to give Grampa the trip of a lifetime, which is why we cheerfully piled into our rented VW Touran van, packed to the gills with snacks, bags, strollers, and books.  If we had stopped to ruminate on the enormity of our road trip (roughly 500 miles) we probably would not have ever left.  But in grand Griswald fashion, we did not think, and hit the road with great enthusiasm.  Google maps calculated that our trip would take seven hours and 43 minutes, but, while google maps has a button to calculate walking time, or public transportation time, it does not allow for toddler time.  (Not a bad idea for any of you NoCal computer geeks reading this.  Add toddler time to the google maps function, allowing for anywhere from 1-4 hours for potty breaks, snack attacks, tantrums in rest area parking lots, and games of tag in sketchy interstate truck stops.)  Our trip up to Normandy took us a grand total of 10 hours, and I have to say, because of the bewitching powers of our portable DVD player and Nana and Grampa’s shiny new iPad (which almost did not make it back on the plane home due to a particular love of all things Apple) was not that bad.  Sure, it was long, and the French rest stops are particularly disgusting, but it was worth it.  (When describing a toilet that I encountered at a French rest stop to Jim, he said, “Oh, you mean a ‘squat toilet’ those are common in many parts of the world.”  Well, ‘squat toilets’ are not common in Emma’s world, and I welcome advice from ‘squat toilet’ patrons far and wide as to how to encourage a recently potty trained toddler to use such a disgusting and ominous device.)

Playing in the shadow of history.

We arrived at our hotel in time for a surprisingly delicious dinner, set Grampa up with an early morning tour of the D-Day beaches and collapsed into bed.  The next morning Grampa left bright and early, and Nana, the girls, and I headed out to soak up some sun on the Normandy coast.  Our concierge recommended the seaside town of Arromanches-les-Bains.  We had no idea that we were headed for the historic Port Winston and would be letting the girls loose amidst wreckage from World War II.  We were a bit taken aback when we arrived at the beach and saw giant, seaweed covered cement platforms washed up on the beach, and other crude floating blocks a bit farther up shore.  I was wary to let the girls frolic on such historic sands, but a quick glance to my right showed four teens in a tense beach volleyball match, and to my left I saw a family entrenched in some serious sand castle construction.  No one else seemed to be phased by the remnants of World War II that dotted the sandy coast, instead they were enjoying the seaside as it was meant to be enjoyed.  Before WWII and the fateful day of June 6, 1944, Arromanches-les-Bains was probably famous for its quaint ocean-side beauty, kitschy storefronts, and ice cream shops.  It is still a beautiful town with grassy cliffs that offer breathtaking views of the ocean, and cute stores where you can buy anything; a neon orange Arromanches t-shirt, beach shells, a classic French bateau neck striped shirt, or an American flag.  The girls enjoyed hours and hours of digging holes on the sandy beach and playing around in the surprisingly warm surf.  It was the perfect spot to pass our time while Grampa reveled in his history lessons.

After naps at the hotel we journeyed back up the coast with Grampa to soak up all he had learned on his tour.  It was the perfect time to hit all the historical monuments with the girls.  They were well rested from their naps, the sights were clearing out at the end of the day, and both girls were dazzled into good behavior by the promise of carousel rides and ice cream at the end of the evening.  The move to France has been tough, being so far away from family is really hard.  But nothing made me happier than listening to my dad describe the D-Day landings while overlooking Omaha Beach.  At that moment all the chaos of moving, the homesickness, the Goldfish cracker withdrawal, was all worth it.  We had a wonderful afternoon touring the beaches with Grampa.  (Note to parents, D-Day landing sites are almost as treacherous as castles.  It is terrifying to watch your children frolic in the dusty, cement-laden pit of a German bunker.  I won’t even mention the barbed wire.)

The next day we made the trip to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.  I was a bit nervous about bringing the girls to such a sacred and serious place, but they were on their best behavior.  We packed up the BOB with books and snacks and they happily munched away and took in the serene beauty of the cemetery.  The memorial is cared for and run by the United States government and once you drive onto the property the feeling immediately changes.  The difference was palpable for me, having not been in the United States for almost three months, it just felt different there.  The grounds were immaculate, not a grass out-of-place.  American flags stood proud against the brilliant blue sky, perpetually at half-mast.  Three colors stand out in my mind; the emerald green of the grass, the clear blue of the sky and ocean, and the crisp, clean white marble of the cross and star-shaped headstones.  The order and serenity of the cemetery stands in contrast to the devastating, chaotic battles that took place upon the sandy shores that loom below the gravestones.  It is such a beautiful tribute to the heroic soldiers who gave their lives in the Normandy Invasion and the harrowing battles that followed.  The time we spent at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial was emotional and very special.  Emma and Maggie walked seriously through the cemetery, the pinks and pastels of their skirts standing out against the rows of stark white marble headstones, not comprehending where they were, yet acting reserved and respectful.  They are however, living, breathing, ticking toddler time bombs, and just as we were approaching meltdown mode, we were rescued by the other-worldly voices of choral singers.  I thought I must be dreaming as the melody of “God Bless America” floated toward us, just as I was wrestling with Emma to please smile for one last picture.  We all stopped and followed the singing to the main monument in the cemetery where a group of older singers were standing, music books open, serenading us with gorgeous music.  It was nearly impossible for me to hold back the tears as the singers wrapped up “God Bless America” and started in on the National Anthem.  We discovered that they were a traveling chorus from southern California, and were practicing for a concert that they were holding the next day, July 4th.  How lucky were we, to be touring the American Cemetery with a heavenly chorus, on a sublimely gorgeous day?  Even Emma and Maggie, who had had their fill of sitting still in a stroller, were struck numb by the patriotic singers.

And that is where our idyllic tour of the Normandy coast ended.  We left the cemetery full of emotion and love for our family and fellow-man and began the long journey home.  Six hours later when we called it quits for the night in Dijon all feelings of goodwill were replaced by frustration and exhaustion.  It is on this leg of the journey, however, that Jim (who unfortunately could not join us on the trip because of work) earned his new nickname.  He is now and forevermore to be known as Chloe O’Brian, the heroine of the epic 24 series.  We were hopelessly lost in Dijon with nary a map or street sign to help us and Jim, all the way in his office at CERN, was able to direct us via cell phone to our hotel.  His Chloe-like manipulation of google maps (along with my Jack Bauer-esque ability to relay landmarks and decipher street signs) helped us find our way through the labyrinth of streets in Old Town Dijon to our hotel.  Jim swears that he was aided only by google maps, and did not have the luxury of Chloe’s satellite cameras, but I am still suspicious of CERN’s actual capabilities.  Who knows what super secret navigational devices he may have at his fingertips.  If it weren’t for Chloe, we may still be circling the streets of Dijon, a nonsensical city where nearly every street we passed was either one-way, or closed for construction.

Maggie in a German bunker at Pont-du-Hoc.

A well-earned reward for an afternoon spent touring bunkers and beaches.

Trying really hard not to cry while listening to the chorus sing "God Bless America."

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