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Lauberhorn Downhill, in the shadow of the Eiger and Monch.

CHAPTER ONE:  Downhill Racing with a Bug and a Goose

35, 000 Swiss can’t be wrong.  This is the thought that ran through our heads as we booked a last-minute hotel room in Interlaken, and hastily threw jackets, backpacks, snowshoes, and survival gear (think Tinkerbell stickers, fruit leather, and diapers) into the car and prepared to make the 2 hour trip up into the Swiss Alps.  We had been planning on going to the World Cup ski races in Wengen, Switzerland for all of five days, but in the waning hours of Friday night we changed our plans from a day trip to an overnight.  It takes a special breed of crazy to book a hotel at 10 pm on a Friday, frantically pack the car and attempt to clean the house, collapse in bed at midnight, only to roll right out again a mere 5 hours later.  We callously yanked the girls from their warm beds, slapped them into their car seats, and were zipping down the deserted streets of Thoiry before they, even knew what hit them.  We didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to think about the enormity of the adventure that lay ahead of us.  We didn’t ponder the fact that the Lauberhorn World Cup races are one of the biggest sporting events in Swiss culture, and they are even (as I just learned from reading Wikipedia) some of the most widely attended winter sporting events in THE WORLD.  Had we discussed these interesting bits of trivia, we may have had second thoughts about dragging our very small children up a cog railway, to stand for hours in the snow at the foot of a glacier, surrounded by tens of thousands of drunk, cheese-dipping ski fans. But, in classic Hirschauer fashion, we didn’t think, we just jumped in our car and drove, fueled by the promise of catching a glimpse of Bode Miller, and the thrill of watching men hurtle themselves down an icy slope at speeds upwards of 80 mph (roughly 130 km/h, for all you metric fans out there).

Train snacking.

We made it to Interlaken in record time, parked our car at the hotel, donned our snow gear, wedged the girls into backpacks and headed to the train station.  We ended up catching the 10 am train, giving us plenty of time (we naively thought) to comfortably make the start of the race at 12:30.  The tricky part about getting to the Lauberhorn downhill is that you need to take three different trains up the mountain to reach an accessible viewing area.  The first leg of our trip was deceivingly easy.  On our way to the station we had met up with another expat family from Thoiry (who would become our compatriots in this adventure even though they hailed from the UK and cringed every time we began to chant U-S-A) and our children played together on the train, and munched on imported Goldfish crackers, as we lounged in our seats and chatted about how freakishly uncrowded the train was.  Where were the throngs of spirited Swiss ski fans?  There was no song-singing, or Austrian/Swiss trash talking on our train.  The first leg of our trip was, to be honest, kind of boring, leaving us with a false sense of security, tricking us into thinking that the journey to the Lauberhorn would be a piece of cake.

 

The ease of our morning travel was shattered when we arrived in the picturesque town of Grindelwald where we were supposed board our connection to another train to head further up the mountain.  It was in Grindelwald that we discovered where all the people in Switzerland had been hiding themselves.  There they were, 35,000 sled toting, flask chugging, Swiss ski fans all attempting to board one small, antiquated train.  The reason why Interlaken had been such a ghost town was not because we were early (because truthfully when are Hirschauers ever early) but because we were almost shamefully late for the biggest party in Switzerland.

 

After waiting over an hour in a crowd of noisy, yet jolly and surprisingly polite, race-goers, we finally crammed onto a train and completed our journey to the race.  It is to be noted that our hour-long layover in Grindelwald was worth it because it allowed me to track down some much-needed diapers as we had left ours in the car (quality parenting move).  Diaperless on a glacier with a stubborn two-year old who refuses to even glance at a potty (even though there weren’t really any toilets to speak of, as evidenced by the number of drunk Europeans I witnessed heeding the call of nature with nary a tree, snow bank, or bush to hide behind) was not my idea of how to spend the perfect Saturday.  With diapers in tow we reached our second-to-last destination of Kleine Scheidegg and decided to ditch the train crowd and walk the twenty minutes down to the race viewing area.  It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the kids were ecstatic to be off the crowded trains and allowed to run free in the snow.

 

Hundschopf section of the Lauberhorn downhill. Notice the adventurous spectators on the top of the rock, that is where we thought we would be able to hike to...only in our baby-backpack-less dreams.

The walk to the race was uneventful, save for the drunk sledders, skittish skiers, and the time that I slipped and fell on my arse with Maggie strapped to my back.  (Maggie was unscathed by the bump, as my well-padded tush took the brunt of the fall.  I, however, was a bit unnerved and considered swiping a can of Eigerbier from a passing sledder to take the edge off.)  We followed the roar of the crowd to the Hundschopf (dog’s head).  It is a famous jump, where racers launch themselves off a rock face and as soon as their skis touch back down to the snow, they are catapulted into a sharp left turn.  It is very popular viewing area, I think that at least 20 of the rumored 35 thousand fans were parked at the Hundschopf.  We had crazy plans to hike up out of the crowd and find a peaceful place to watch the race, but the trip to the viewing area had been so harried that we thankfully entered the crowd, set up camp near some raucous Austrians, and joined the party.

A few of our closest friends watching the Hundschopf jump.

If I take one thing away from our racing adventure (and it won’t be witnessing Bode Miller rock the downhill because he came in eighth and we were so late that we missed his run by at least an hour) it will be the art of Swiss tailgating.  The people we saw at the Lauberhorn downhill truly took tailgating to a whole new level.  They built bars out of sleds, displaying bottles of tummy warming liquor and stacked high with  local beer.  Unphased by the prospect of hiking with mass amounts of cheese, wine, and bread strapped to their backs, the Swiss toted large fondue pots up the mountain and set up shop in the snow.  They feasted on hot, gooey cheese, chugged wine out of real glasses, and did shots of schnapps all the while waving their Swiss flags with fierce pride and organizing giant slopeside sing-a-longs.  The crowd was deafening when a Swiss skier took to the course and silent when any other nationality zipped past.  There was a large, loud Austrian contingent near us made up of mostly round, hairy, intoxicated men who looked like they had never skied a day in their lives.  They seemed to be closely related to Bill Swerski’s Superfans (“Da Bearsss!) and took every opportunity to boast about the Austrian skier who eventually won the downhill.  At one point Jim asked the Austrian standing behind us if we could take a look at the starting list that they were smart enough to bring along.  The guy jovially informed us that there was no point in familiarizing ourselves with the skiers that were still to come because all the Austrians had already skied, and there was nobody left in the field (including 2 Americans, thank you very much) that could beat his guys.  It turned out that he was right, Klaus Kroll ended up taking the coveted helicopter ride down to Wengen, beating out two Swiss skiers and crushing the spirits of 35,000 local ski fans.  (The winner of the Lauberhorn downhill gets to ride in heli-style while the other poor schlubs are forced to take a train, albeit a private one, just like the rest of us.)

Maggie and I leaving the downhill. The smiles on our faces are directly related to the free chocolate bar I am clutching in my hand.

I won’t bore you the details of how we got off the mountain after the race ended.  Let’s just say it was a painfully long process, made bearable by singing Austrian superfans, free Milka chocolate bars, gummy bears, and the kindness of strangers.  (One woman gave us a blanket to help protect Emma’s bobbing head, who somehow managed to sleep peacefully in a backpack for the almost the entire way home.)  It wasn’t until we boarded our final train of the day that we managed to secure seats.  Having spent almost the entire day on my feet with Maggie on my back, sitting down was nothing short of bliss (perhaps this feeling was heightened by the teenage boys in the seat next to me who looked like hipster skiers, yet were singing Justin Bieber in broken English.) We eventually made it to our hotel, collapsed on the beds and sunk into an exhausted stupor.  I was even too tired to object when Jim found an episode of the Simpsons dubbed in German with which the girls promptly became enthralled.  (In my defense, the Simpsons seemed almost Disney-like when you couldn’t understand what they were saying.)  And so ended part one of our marathon World Cup adventure, with the girls laughing hysterically when Homer almost sits on Maggie and Jim trying in vain to dole out Simpsons quotes in a foreign language.

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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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The Saleve

I have mentioned before that our apartment has great views.  On a clear day you can see the snowy peak of Mont Blanc, jutting up high above the French Alps.  Standing sentry in front of the distant white-capped ridges is a large slab of rock that I have affectionately nicknamed the White Cliffs of Dover.  It turns out that the massive plateau has a real name, The Saleve, and is a treasure trove of toddler friendly activities.  Today we visited the Saleve, rode the cable car to the top, and blew our minds looking at the views of the city, the Alps, and several crazy, dare-devil paragliders.  Outings with new and interesting forms of transportation are big crowd pleasers in this family, and the cable car did not disappoint.  We boarded the car to a chorus of squeals from the girls.  Thankfully for the other passengers, their joy was muffled when they pressed their noses up against the glass to watch the cars and houses shrink to miniature size as we glided up the mountain (well, Emma was watching the changing scenery, Maggie may have simply been licking the glass).  I was surprised by a feeling of queasiness as I peeked around the girls heads and glanced down at the countryside far below our feet.  The cable car was a bit wobbly, and perhaps I was missing the feeling of a pair of skis to anchor me.

Up on terra firma, we immediately cracked into our picnic lunch.  Eating is usually the first order of business in this family and it often happens that we arrive at a beautiful destination only to ignore our surroundings for the first hour while we nosh.  After the crankiest of us had been sated (I am tempted to label Maggie with the title of grumpiest when hungry, but really it is me) we explored the deck area overlooking stunning views of Lake Geneva and the city.  We were overtaken by a bus tour, and I seriously considered blending in with the straw hats and t-shirts when I noticed their guide graciously giving out glasses of wine, but I was dragged back to reality by an acrobatic one year old attempting to vault the protective railing and roll down the rocky face of the Saleve.  We escaped the swarming tourists (remember, we live here now, so we obviously are well-informed, superior locals) and headed up the hiking path in search of more wide open views.

I may have been standing in a cow patty, but it sure was pretty.

Unfortunately both our hiking packs are still en route, so we were forced to enjoy a slow, toddler paced hike up to the top of the Saleve.  Both girls surprised us with their tenacity and endurance, they may have walked at a snail’s pace, and stopped to examine every stick, rock, and bug, but they completed the short hike on their own.  We followed the trail to a meadow, and dodged cow droppings as we walked around and admired the view of Mont Blanc and the Alps.  Emma and Maggie both found playmates to frolic with in the pasture.  Maggie befriended a sweet Italian girl and immediately absconded with her ball, and Emma followed around two school-aged French girls, who patiently helped her climb trees and collect sticks.  (Maggie’s friend rebounded nicely from the theft of her ball and taught Maggie her new favorite phrase, “ciao-ciao.”  In the two hours it took Maggie to settle down and fall asleep in her crib last night, she could be heard continually repeating “Ciao-Ciao Emma, ciao-ciao Mommy, ciao-ciao Daddy, ciao-ciao girl.”)

Jim and the girls next to the runway.

After a relaxing romp in the meadow we followed the trail a bit farther up to the tippy top of the Saleve, where it turned out, the real action was.  All day long we had noticed colorful dots of paragliders floating high above our heads, and we had stumbled upon their departure pad.  A portion of the top of the Saleve had been cleared and paved for the use of paragliders and we were lucky enough to reach the top right when a group was getting ready to take off.  Maggie and Emma are well versed in parachutes, as they have played with them during library story hours and gymnastics classes.  Toddlers are attracted to parachutes like bees to honey, and it took all of my strength to keep Maggie from ducking the fence and grabbing hold of the colorful chute.  Once I had secured Maggie in a choke-hold we were free to watch the paragliders run off the side of the cliff, gracefully floating up and away in the warm breeze.  It was a spectacular sight.

Take off

This picture is so peaceful and gorgeous, I am almost tempted to give paragliding a try. Note the use of almost.

Although it was tempting to strap ourselves onto a parachute and float down to the car, we took the safer route, and stopped for an ice cream at the snack shack on our way down.  Tuckered out from her hike, Maggie slept in my arms while Emma devoured a chocolate ice cream creation and managed to cover every last inch of bare skin with a brown, gooey mess.  Emma is most happy when she is working diligently on an ice cream cone.  In between licks she looks at her cone with an awe-filled smile on her face, like she can’t believe that the whole thing is hers and hers alone.  I, of course, have fallen into the annoying parental habit of stealing the cone to “clean it up.”  I’m not sure why I do this, because I can still remember the frustration of relinquishing my ice cream to my dad, but I think it is some unwritten parental code.  We boarded the cable car and rode back down to our car with happy, worn out, ice cream filled children.  Another castle-free Saturday, I wonder how long I can keep this dungeon-less streak going.

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We all have our reasons for loving our new home in the French country side.  For Jim and Emma it is the close proximity to castles of all shapes, sizes, and historical significance.  Maggie is thrilled by the abundance of farm life that seems to follow us wherever we go.  (Honestly, I think that Ikea may be the one and only place we have visited where there was not a cow, chicken, or horse within smelling/petting distance.)  I (and I may have mentioned this before) love the wine (and cheese, and chocolate, but for today I will focus on the wine).  Yesterday we spent the day celebrating the hard work, craftsmanship, and talent of local Swiss wine makers.  The canton of Geneva held its 23rd annual Caves Ouvertes, an ingenious festival where independent wine growers open their doors to the public to honor and taste the 2009 vintage.  If exploring dank, dark, dungeons is Emma’s idea of the perfect day, then roaming the green, sloping hills of the Swiss countryside in search of crisp, cool, glasses of local Chasselas is my version of heaven.

We parked our car in the town of Satigny, just across the hillside from where we live in Thoiry, got out the strollers and headed up the hill to our first open cave.  There we purchased our 5CHF wine glasses and began the tasting extravaganza.  I am not a wine connoisseur, and will not pretend to know much about grapes or the differences between good and bad wine.  I am, however, a lover of delicious spirits, and my cup was overrun with red, white, and bubbly goodness all day long.

We wandered along winding roads, and stopped for lunch at a crowded winery where a full band serenaded us with the theme song from The Blues Brothers, and the girls took turns swinging on a tree swing.  Heralded by their Trader Joe’s bag, we stopped to talk with an American couple from Tennessee.  They were Caves Ouvertes enthusiasts and directed us to nearby wineries and shared their knowledge of local grapes.  (They also told me where to find organic peanut butter in this peanut-less land, but warned that it was as expensive as sticky, nutty, spreadable gold.)  After our picnic, we headed up the road with a bottle of Pinot Noir for the grown-ups and two pink My Little Ponies for the girls.  (A vineyard owner’s daughter with an entrepreneurial spirit had set up a used toy booth that kept the girls entertained while we sipped.  We thanked her for her patience with Sticky Fingers Maggie by paying 1CHF for two tiny ponies that, judging from their closely cropped manes and tails, had seen better days.)

We took a long walk, following the winding road into small towns, past hills lined with row upon row of twisted grape vines.  We had no idea where we were going, but the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, our bellies were full of bread, cheese, and wine, and the girls were peacefully asleep in their strollers, so we continued on.  We wandered down country lanes, and up farm roads until we rambled into the hilltop town of Choully.  Choully is a quaint, sleepy Swiss village, but yesterday it was alive with people of all ages, walking cheerfully through the streets with wine glasses in hand.  We found a winery with an inviting patch of green grass and a  cobblestone courtyard that was perfect for romping children.  Emma and Maggie attempted to join some older boys in a game of football, but settled for chasing after the players, who skillfully dribbled the ball in and out of the crowds.  I went in search of a restroom and discovered that the wine makers were opening more than their caves to the public, but their homes, as well.  Feeling unsure of myself, I opened the door (which was labeled WC) to a beautiful home, crept down a sparkling tile hallway lined with water-color paintings and fresh flowers, and into a small bathroom that was clearly not normally for the public.

We ran into a group of Jim’s CERN colleagues in Choully and shared a bottle of crisp, refreshing Chasselas with the jovial, childless (lucky physicists!) crew.  On the streets of Choully, Emma and I found the car of our dreams, a bright pink Peugeot, and seriously considered stealing it and taking it for a joyride.  After tearing ourselves away from the shiny candy colored vehicle (I am pretty sure we were both stroking the hood and saying “Please, Daddy, can we have one?”) we headed back down the hill to find our car in Satigny.  Luckily, there were a few more vineyards to visit on the walk home.

In the town of Peissy we found a lively winery that was crowded with revelers drinking and dancing to a brass band.  Being no strangers to the dance floor the girls vaulted out of their strollers and joined the crowd.  They were soon joined by a mischievous little boy who I recognized as one of the football players from the previous winery, we will call him Electro Boy (because that is what it said on his t-shirt, which was really more like a half-shirt).  He seemed to remember the girls and wasted no time breaking into their sisterly dance circle.  I think Electro Boy liked Emma and Maggie, but it was difficult to tell as his primary form of communication was parading around like a monster and growling in their faces (which they enjoyed immensely).  Electro Boy was very brazen and was sweet on Emma.  He chased after her, at one point grabbing her hand, and planting a big, fat, kiss on her cheek!  Ahhh, those passionate European men, they learn their tricks at an early age.  The band finally wrapped up their playing a little before six.  Maggie and I accidentally offended the crowd by zealously dancing to the final song, which I am pretty sure was the Swiss National Anthem.  In our defense, I have never heard the Swiss National Anthem before, nobody was saluting a flag or anything, and it was quite a peppy tune.

Burning up the dance floor.

Sisters busting a move.

Electro Boy...on the prowl.

Emma's first kiss, caught on film.

Yesterday was an incredibly perfect day.  The sun shone down on us, but a cool breeze kept us all from overheating.  The atmosphere of Caves Ouvertes was simply spectacular.  I felt like a part of a gigantic, loving, wine sipping community.  The girls found playmates (sometimes cheeky ones, we’re keeping an eye out for you, Electro Boy) at every winery we visited.  For the most part people walked or rode bikes from cave to cave so the roads were quiet and it was comfortable and relaxing to explore the countryside on foot.  Everywhere you looked there were people picnicking, lounging between roadside grape vines, and noshing on local cheese and bread.  It was like a giant neighborhood block party, except the “block” was a large area of hillside vineyards.  I ♥ Caves Ouvertes, I wish it could be every weekend.  Alas, I will have to settle for the memory of sun drenched hills and crisp white wine when I descend into another castle dungeon next weekend.

Pink is the new Hirschauer mobile (we just need to get one more Hirschauer on board with the idea.)

Frolicking in the vineyards.

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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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Hooray for the European holiday schedule!  This week the French celebrated the Ascension with a four-day weekend.  Jim, finding it hard to completely embrace the holiday schedule, worked on Thursday but took Friday off.   We had planned to visit a nearby fort, but it was closed for the holiday.  Instead we wandered about the countryside in our little Renault.  We had a full tank of gas, a picnic lunch, and were content to wind our way through the hills until we found the perfect place to picnic.  In the little town of Frangy we happened upon a playground that proved to be the ideal spot for our lunch.  The girls happily made themselves dizzy on the merry-go-round while we snacked on sandwiches.

After lunch we decided to explore the neighborhood, and wandered down to a wooded path that ran along the river.  As we rounded a bend in the path we almost ran smack into a camel’s behind.  That is not a French idiom for roadblock, I literally mean we came dangerously close to a camel’s behind.  Unbeknownst to us there was a small circus setting up camp in a nearby parking lot and we had stumbled upon their grazing camels.  Four camels were tethered (loosely, in my opinion) to stakes and were lazily munching on leaves and grass.  The camels made me extremely nervous, but the girls were fascinated.  Taking a wide berth, we walked past the humped beasts while Emma and Maggie oohed and ahhed, and I held my nose.  If you do not already know this, take heed, camels stink.

After checking out the meager circus tents and seeing more grazing animals we packed up the girls and headed home.  Unfortunately we had been so cavalier in our meandering trip to Frangy, we had absolutely no idea how to get home.  We drove for a while and then Jim spotted a sign for the town of Collonges, that he recognized as being in the general direction of our apartment in Thoiry.  Thankful to finally have a direction and a plan, we followed signs to Collonges.  Little did we know, there are two Collonges, one in France and one in Switzerland.  We were, of course, heading for the one in Switzerland.  We realized this when we hit the Swiss border, which was teeming with border security.  We cross the border between France and Switzerland nearly every day and have never run into border guards.  But, for some reason, at this border cross, on this particular day, there were many, many guards.  I, of course, immediately began to freak out because we did not have our passports.  Visions of us in a Swiss jail (perhaps being rescued by Bill Clinton) danced in my head and I fought back the tears.  My heart raced and as we approached the guard station I tried to look nonchalant, and Swiss.  The guards waved us through with barely a glance in our direction.  We didn’t stop, we barely even slowed down.  All that worry (and Clinton fantasizing) for nothing.

Like pioneers in the wild west, we used natural landmarks to help orient ourselves.  We located the Jura, the mountains in which our little village is nestled, and pointed our car in their direction.  It took us hours to get home, but, we had full bellies, children who were still dazzled by the magical appearance of camels in the woods, and the feeling of relief after having narrowly escaped imprisonment in a Swiss jail.  Here’s to hoping all European holidays are filled with this much excitement.

Close call with a camel's behind

Be grateful that this was not taken in smellavision

Accidental Circus

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This morning we packed up the girls and headed to Gruyeres, Switzerland for a day filled with castles, cheese, and chocolate.  Personally, I don’t think there could be anything better than a day filled with cheese and chocolate.  If I have to chase my 18 month old demon child around a cobble-stoned death trap to earn said cheese and chocolate, well, that’s ok with me.  We kept our fingers crossed for sunny day, but alas, the clouds seem to have settled in for good.  I was not aware that we had moved to Seattle.  Jim checked the weather before we left and informed me it was 7 degrees in Gruyeres.  This news caused me to pause in my preparations.  No way was I trudging through a cold, dank castle in 7 degree weather.  Oh, wait, 7 degrees celsius.  (Come on people, don’t make fun.  I don’t have the time (or brain capacity, apparently) to solve complex mathematical equations just to check the temperature.)  Jim assured me that while 7 degrees celsius is far from ideal, it is not frigid.  So, we bundled the girls, packed every extra coat we had and headed out to storm another castle.

Approaching Gruyeres, Switzerland

Gruyeres is one of the most picturesque places I have ever been.  It is nestled among brilliant green hills, with pristine pastures and thriving evergreen trees.  Hiking paths and ski trails zigzag across the hillsides.  It looks like an outdoor wonderland, and even in the rain I was tempted to pull on some lederhosen, grab a walking stick, hiking boots and hit the trails.  You can be sure that the Hirschauers will be back on a sunny weekend to fully enjoy all that the beautiful countryside has to offer.

We strapped the girls in their strollers and huffed and puffed up an excruciatingly steep hill to reach the quaint, medieval village of Gruyeres.  Well, I say medieval, but it is really a Disney version of medieval with boutiques selling expensive Swiss watches and French-Country antiques, and a weird museum dedicated entirely to the Alien movies.  (Apparently the man who designed the Alien monster is a local hero.)  It was extremely beautiful, the steel grays of the cobble stone streets and buildings made the green mountainside even more spectacular.  The entire village smelled of fondue, which although is a tasty dish, does not have an appetizing aroma.  Walking past several restaurants my suave three-year old loudly observed, “Something stinks in there, Mommy.”  We hightailed it up to the castle, where the chances of offending the local chefs were small, but the chance of losing Maggie off of a turret loomed large.

I would never dare tell Jim or Emma this, but I am beginning to think that all castles are the same.  For me, the entire castle experience is a blur.  Instead of inspecting ancient dungeons, or marveling over the king’s throne, I am constantly calculating the risk factors involved in the spiral staircases, rickety railings, or any number of sharp stones that are perfect for tripping over and impaling a small child.  The castle at Gruyeres did have some beautiful and interesting art, both modern and historical, that I was able to appreciate out of the corner of my eye as I chased Maggie from room to room.  Emma particularly loved the Knight’s Room, a cavernous hall with a large table (not round, unfortunately) and murals depicting scenes of courtly life.  The scenes of battling knights confused her (“Which ones are the bad guys, Mommy?) and she loved the picture of a knight and a princess.  I told her it was a painting of a knight professing his love for the princess, but later read that he was instead taking her prisoner.  I kept this detail to myself.  Frankly I breathed a sigh of relief when our tour of the castle was through and we could head back into the village for my cheese and chocolate reward.

Storming the castle, part deux

We descended unscathed from the castle and directly into a Ricola commercial.  In the village square five men were playing alpine horns.  It was a sight to see, these men playing impossibly long, wooden horns in the middle of a medieval village.  I’m sure they do this every weekend, but we felt quite special, listening to their Alpine tune.  Then the rain came and we hustled inside to a cafe for coffee and ice cream.  Emma and Maggie, oblivious to the damp, cold weather, have come to expect ice cream on our weekend adventures, and Gruyeres did not disappoint.

A Ricola moment

We headed down from the village and drove into the town of Broc for the much-anticipated tour of the chocolate factory.  Not having done much research (preparedness is not our style) we weren’t sure what to expect at the factory.  What we didn’t expect was 5 large tour buses and throngs of people lined up at the factory doors.  The chocolate factory is apparently quite a popular excursion (duh) and we were not prepared for the crowds.  Although I had been looking forward to pillaging the tasting room at the end of the tour, I agreed that even chocolate is not worth waiting in a line 100 people deep.  We slunk away from the factory, chocolate-less and annoyed at the euphoric people leaving the factory with bellies full of chocolate samples.

I had informed Jim earlier that day that there was absolutely no way I was cooking dinner that night.  He was welcome to prepare dinner, or we could eat out.  Either way I was not stepping foot in the kitchen.  Guess what we did for dinner?  We rolled back into Thoiry around 5:30 and decided to stop at a pizza place to eat an early dinner before heading home.  Well, while 5:30 is just a bit early for dinner in the States, it is positively unheard of to eat dinner that early here.  We tried two pizza places that were closed, not scheduled to open until 7.  Then we found a place that would take us.  We were the only people in the restaurant, and our waiter immediately brought Jim and I glasses of sparkling wine, which we did not ask for, but who am I to turn down a glass of wine?  He then said something to us in French, gave us our menus, pantomimed eating, and abandoned us for 20 minutes.  Under the guise of using the restroom I went to scope out the situation and found our waiter, along with the kitchen staff, eating dinner in the next dining room.  Hmmm.  Apparently this restaurant wasn’t quite open either.  We didn’t know what to do.  Should we wait for our waiter to finish his meal?  Should we leave?  The language barrier prevented us from asking any questions so we just waited there and entertained the girls as best we could.

We had given up all hope and were on the verge of packing it in, when our waiter came back for our order.  He smiled and spoke in congenial tones, as if it were normal to greet customers and then disappear for 20 minutes.  Oh, well.  We ordered pizzas, beer for ourselves, and milk for the girls.  There was a bit of confusion about the milk.  He asked me some questions that I could not decipher, and to which I kept nodding and smiling.  He returned with warm, steamed milk for the girls.  Somehow I had agreed to warm milk.  Emma was enchanted with her “coffee milk” and loved sipping the warm drink.  Maggie, on the other hand was completely confused and frustrated with her milk, but then the pizza came and she rebounded.  The dinner, which had a rocky start, turned out to be a delicious adventure.  I’m beginning to realize that life in France is often that way, confusing and disorienting at times, but if I am able to handle the chaos with grace and patience, it is wonderfully surprising and delightful.

Emma pondering courtly love in the Knight's Room

Sisterly, courtly love

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