Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Last week I had a George moment, which is rare for me.  Aside from the fact that I prefer to think of myself as more of an Elaine, I also tend to be more of a Friends girl than a Seinfeld one.  Though I watched both shows religiously, I must admit that no tears were shed when the cell door slammed shut on Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer.  In contrast, the night that Rachel ditched her flight to Paris and showed up at Ross’s door, in an absolutely perfect culmination of ten years of relationship angst, was a sob-fest at my house.  On a sorrow-scale of one to ten; one being sniffling over a Hallmark commercial (hey – it happens, the lonely old lady whose face lights up after reading a card from her neighbor kills me every time) and ten being the time I cried so hard while watching Finding Neverland that I vomited (in my defense I was about six months pregnant and teeming with crazy hormones and weird morning/all-day-long sickness), the Friends finale was a solid eight.  Even now, almost seven years later, I have one to two Friends flashbacks a week.  When I come down with a cold, the first thing I do is sing “Sticky Shoes” in my best sultry Phoebe voice, and I often end arguments by saying “It’s a moo point.  It’s a cow’s opinion.  It’s moo.”  (If there had been a debate team at my high school, I would not have been on it.)  Last week, while window shopping in Geneva I saw what looked a lot like an apothecary table from the days of yore, and every single time I move a large piece of furniture through a narrow stairwell/hallway I am consumed with the urge to scream “PIVOT!” at the top of my lungs, and nine times out of ten I succumb to the urge.  (This scenario played itself out recently when trying to haul our large Thule roof box up our teeny, tiny European staircase.)

Enough with the Friends memories, this is all about the George in me.  It happened on the way home from a well deserved night out with some friends.  We met in Geneva to forage for fondue in the big city, celebrate a belated birthday, and luxuriate in a meal without crayons, crackers, and be-wheeled toys careening across the table.  Mission accomplished.  We shared some delicious fondue, even more delicious wine, and lots of laughs.  The only wrinkle in the night came after we left the restaurant and located our car, which, due to insane amounts of traffic we had parked in the bowels of a hotel parking garage.  Apparently the very same night we were enjoying our simple ladies dinner, the Genevois Glitterati (including Gwyneth, hot off her SNL gig, who I was on the lookout for all night long) were out on the town for a ritzy watch convention.  First of all, I really think Gwynnie would have had a much better time kicking it mom’s night out style with a cheese laden fondue stick in one hand and wine glass in the other than hobnobbing with a bunch of snooty Swiss watchmakers, and second of all, I had no idea that watch conventions drew such large crowds.  The parking garage was packed to the gills, like a showroom crammed with shiny, high-priced automobiles.  We were thrilled to find a spot that was large enough to fit our car, and we didn’t think much of the fact that we had been forced to park so close to a concrete wall that my friend had to slide out the passenger side.  At least we weren’t in danger of dinging any Jaguars.

When we returned to the car after dinner, I thought it had to be a joke.  Some moron with a tiny, little Euro car had squeezed himself into the space (and I use that term loosely) next to ours.  I actually looked around for a hidden camera.  The cars were so close together that none of the doors would open.  We could get the driver’s door cracked just wide enough to slip our purses through.  No one, not even Gwynnie (who let’s face it, with those vegan tendencies would never join me in a cheese eating extravaganza) could have squeezed into the front seat of that car.  And the jerk who parked next to us?  There is no way that he was able to exit his auto in a dignified manner.  You can bet that he had to slink out of his tailgate.  Staring at our car sandwiched up against the diminutive hatchback, I could feel the warm, blissful glow that comes from spending time away from my children start to wither and die.  It was replaced by blind Costanza-like rage for the offensive driver who callously squished his car into a too-small space, much like the way I try to squeeze myself into my pre-pregnancy jeans.  Well, you know what dude?  I know better than to leave the house with my circa 2006 jeans on, and you should have known better than to park in two tired mamas who were just trying to enjoy a night out on the town.

In true George fashion (and fueled by a nice Swiss Chasselas) I stomped my feet, shook my fists, and whined at the unfairness of our situation.  What kind of person would park like this?  How were we ever going to get home?  Would we be stuck in the parking garage until the jerk who parked us in deigned to return to his car?  Luckily, my much calmer, Jerry-like friend, assessed the situation and noticed that we could wedge the door to the back seat open just wide enough for even a non-Gwynnie-sized person to squeeze through.  So lamenting the fact that I had taken those extra swipes of fondue, I made myself as flat as possible and shimmied my way into the car.  In all honesty, the path to freedom was not as tight as I thought it was going to be, but this did not quell my anger.  I demanded that we leave the imbecile a note.  I could not imagine exiting the garage without unleashing my fury in witty, piercing prose.  I procured a pen and an old receipt and readied myself to write the most cleverly insulting note in my literary history.  But, in that moment, with emotions running high, I pulled a George.  When faced with grave malfeasance and a chance to right a wrong, I choked.  Like George in the meeting room at Yankee Stadium, who when insulted by a colleague is struck dumb and unable to muster a comeback, I was left mute in the parking garage.

I finally mustered up a half-hearted note, the contents of which I cannot really remember, but definitely included the words “How rude!” (which is way more Stephanie Tanner than Costanza) and “Learn how to park!” and stuck it under the offending driver’s windshield wiper.  The note was a weak, awkward expression of my true feelings, and I shudder with embarrassment every time I think about it.  In  homage to George I should have at least written “The parking store called and they want their spot back,” which I admit makes no sense, but here I am, two weeks later, still searching for the perfect comeback.


The perfect comeback.


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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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Our first Christmas in France was filled with new experiences, some shocking, like the sudden arrival of Christmas decorations in October, others deliciously soothing like the welcomed appearance of vin chaud (hot, spicy, mulled wine) at every single outdoor event we attended.  This year I learned that life is better when indulging in a warm, alcoholic beverage.  Hordes of grumbling, shoving, faux-merry Christmas market revelers turn amiable and festive after just one sip from a Santa-festooned mug of piping hot vin chaud.  While shopping at our Sunday market, cupping the warm, aromatic brew in my frosty hands, my snot-encrusted, whining children magically sound like two jolly carolers, spreading cheer (as opposed to their nasty cold virus) throughout the crowd.  The local ski club charges the bargain price of 1 Euro for this cold weather staple and the Thoiry pompier (firefighters) give it away for FREE.  You gotta love municipal workers who dole out free alcohol on a Sunday morning.  Vin chaud, welcome to my life.  I think we are going to be very, very good friends.

Christmas of 2010 will forever stand as the year of Santa.  It was the year that my three-year-old became a card-carrying member of the “I ♥ Santa” club.  For the first time in her little life she fully realized the power of the Claus and spent the majority of her December dreaming about Santa, asking questions about Santa, and drawing pictures of Santa.  Her behavior magically improved, she was kinder to her sister and less apt to erupt in ear-piercing shrieks.  She efficiently collected data on the Big Man in Red, grilling us like a seasoned Law and Order detective.  Where does Santa live?  Who does he live with?  What is Mrs. Santa’s real name?  How many elves reside with Santa?  What do elves eat?  She peppered me with questions until I would cry mercy and seek outside counsel in the form of my infinitely more creative husband.

We were officially Santa crazy at the Hirschauer house and it didn’t help matters much that there were Santas everywhere in our little French town.  Now, French Santa, or Pere Noel, is a different breed from the traditional sack-wielding, sleigh-driving, jolly old elf that we are familiar with in North America.  Pere Noel doesn’t seem to ride in sleighs or pal around with reindeer.  The French take a much more “Mission Impossible” approach to delivering presents.  The Santas in our town dangled from ropes, and shinnied up drain pipes like furtive cat burglars.  They hung from military grade cables, looking like a band of special ops taking over the produce section in our local grocery store.  The houses on our street were teeming with acrobatic Santas.  One family had as many as ten tiny Pere Noels scaling the front and side walls of their maison.  Their backs were always to us, faces turned away from passing cars and pedestrians in an attempt to conceal their true identities.  Why so furtive Pere Noel?  Are you spending the holidays spreading cheer and goodwill towards man, or are you pocketing a few trinkets for the Mrs.?

The girls were a bit confused by this new twist on the lovable Christmas icon. After seeing a life-sized Santa dangling precariously from a top-story window Emma exclaimed, "Mommy! Santa is falling!" Burglarizing Santa, Nyon, Switzerland

Poor Santa dangling from the ledge was not nearly as disturbing as this headless Santa in Geneva.

Thieving Pere Noels, however, have nothing on the strange, bough-straddling Santas that were immortalized in neon lights and illuminated our street this holiday season.  What is a bough-straddling Santa, you may ask?  Well, it is a Pere Noel with an odd penchant for placing Christmas tree branches between his legs and riding them like a bucking bronco, or a witch on a broom.  Why does Santa do this?  What possible place does a Santa with a fir-tree between his legs have in childhood lore?  And why is it that the French do not believe in a Santa that drives a reindeer drawn sleigh?  According to the French, Pere Noel either rides a phallic tree bough or burgles his way into our home, and I am not sure which option is less disturbing.

A right jolly old elf! (Freud would have a field day.)

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So here I am, five days into 2011 and I think I am doing pretty well on my ever-expanding list of New Year’s resolutions.  I have washed my face morning and night with an age defying cleanser every day since the first of January, and I am on the lookout for a reasonably priced French, wrinkle-zapping, miracle night cream.  (This resolution was bred from the sickening feeling that took residence in my stomach each and every time a well-meaning European man mistook my mother and I for sisters this past week.  My adorable, and I must admit, extremely young-looking mother left our vacation glowing from the compliments, while I slunk away feeling wrinkle-ridden, sun-spotted, and panicked.)

I have gone on three runs and two walks, on the annoying advice of Bob Greene, Oprah’s fitness guru, who callously orders readers of O Magazine to exercise for SIX HOURS  a week.  Maybe that is possible if you get paid to work out, per Mr. Green, or if some hired hand literally drags you from your bed and pushes you out the door every morning, per Oprah, but for me this six-hour mandate is going to be quite a feat. Even with my five days of exercise (an impressive stat in itself) I still have yet to hit 200 minutes, which means I still have more than 2 hours of huffing and puffing ahead of me to fulfill my quota for the week, and I was counting on at least one day of total and complete inertia.   Bob Greene is now and forever my enemy.  In the future I plan to refrain from reading O Magazine, but for now (or for however long I can keep up this resolution ruse) Mr. Greene’s directive is seared into my brain.

In another resolution coup d’etat, I have successfully warded off the snacking bug during all five nap times in 2011.  As much as I cherish nap time, the blissful silence, the opportunity to use the restroom in solitude, the unfettered Facebook time, the clandestine Jersey Shore watching, it is also a time when I tend to graze through my cabinets in a manner not unlike our neighboring gluttonous French cows.  While skimming through pictures of other people’s vacations I unconsciously consume half a bag of pretzels, in the time it takes me to catch up on the trials and tribulations of Lindsey Lohan’s most recent rehab stint I impressively polish off half a wedge of brie and a baguette.  During nap time I eat because I am often too busy to eat lunch with the girls, but I eat without thinking, and I overeat because the stress of the morning has left me weak and haggard.  This year I have vowed to try eat my lunch with the girls, and to not eat anything but fruit and vegetables while they are napping.  For some reason gorging on carrot sticks is not nearly as tempting as polishing off that bag of popcorn in my cupboard.  This resolution just may be my Everest.  As I type this I am peevishly sipping on a cup of herbal tea and desperately trying to ignore that box of chocolates sitting on the counter.

That was it.  Those were my three big resolutions, and I was mildly impressed with the fact that I had faithfully held up the resolutions for five whole days.  Lurking way back in the corner of my mind, however, was a tiny voice, annoyingly reminding me about the blog that I had started with such enthusiasm when we first moved to France.  Remember that blog, Maura?  Remember how you wrote every, single day for weeks, and then every other day for a while, which turned to once a week, which quickly turned to once a month, until finally, not a word has been written since October.  Oh my poor neglected blog!  The guilt that has been steadily building from my blogging drought weighs heavily on my mind.  I read friends blogs and cringe with shame (all the while enjoying your witty prose, and beautiful pictures, I promise).  I read blogs by people who blog for a living, and marvel at their doggedness, their carefree writing style and super-hero like ability to tackle writer’s block, and wish that I could capture just a bit of that talent.  If I am really serious about this whole resolution business, I owe it to myself to dedicate at least a sliver of these efforts towards my blog.  I have been avoiding my blog like a certain beloved children’s storybook character eschews green eggs and ham.  But, today I bit the bullet, I looked that Sam-I-Am in the eye, grabbed my plate of green eggs and ham, and opened my WordPress page for the first time in months.

Remarkably, when I opened up my blog I was greeted with a call to arms; in the upper left hand corner of my page a gauntlet was thrown by the people at WordPress, a challenge to blog at least once a week for the next year.  For the more courageous at heart there was the option to blog every day for the year, but I chose the infinitely easier way out.  Apparently, thousands of others suffer from dysfunctional bloggers block and WordPress is daring them, daring me, to change.  Do I dare?  Yes, I do.  The truth is that I feel better when I blog.  It is almost like exercising.  There are so many days when the last thing I want to do is lace up my sneakers (and let’s be honest, many days I simply don’t, please don’t tell Bob) but once I do, I immediately feel invigorated and that feeling of energy and accomplishment carries me through my day.  When I blog I am also rewarded with a sense of a fulfillment.  When I write I feel like there is more to my life than the endless cycle of cook food, feed food, clean up food, with a little bit of laundry, child chauffeuring, and bottom wiping sprinkled in for fun.  My blog is also a way of giving back to my family.  It is a record of our amazing adventures in Europe, a history of the crazy things that happened and will happen to us while we live in France.  When I think about my blog in this positive light I am invigorated and eager to write more.  It is no longer an albatross around my neck, another chore, like cleaning the toilet, that I must slog my way through before I can relax.  I need to remember why I blog, for my own sense of self, my emotional and intellectual well-being, and for my family.

So, a fourth resolution has been added to my list; to blog at least once a week.  Any words of encouragement on this front are greatly appreciated.  And, if there is anyone who is willing to call me every night to make sure I washed my face, that would be very helpful as well.

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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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Premier Jour d’Ecole

The big Bug outside of the Ecole Maternelle.

Jim, Maggie, Emma, and I walked toward the Ecole Maternelle on Friday morning in nervous silence.  Silence is unusual for my family as there is always someone whining for a snack/book/toy, or tripping and erupting in tears, or chatting my ear off about dijets, detectors, and data sets.  Come to think of it, I am usually silent, it is the people that surround me that are the noisemakers.  But, on this particular morning we were all reserved because we were tingling with the anticipation of Emma’s adventure in French school.  Jim and I were struggling with thoughts of our tiny baby girl (only 5 and 1/2 pounds when she was born, the little Bug) suddenly being old enough to wield a backpack and navigate a classroom all on her own.  Emma was wide-eyed and serious, but not at all scared of starting school.  She looked as if she would burst with excitement as we waited for the school doors to open.  And Maggie, poor little sister, was panicked.  She bounced back and forth between Emma and me, unsure of which person to attach herself to.  She did not want to leave her beloved sister, but she was not quite ready to forgo Mama’s arms in favor of an unfamiliar classroom.

We waited amidst a crowd of parents and children, all buzzing with first day of school excitement.  I strained my ears, searching out some English speakers in the native crowd, and was pleasantly surprised to hear a few families conversing in English.  In fact, the more I listened the more English I heard, along with a little German and Italian sprinkled in with the French.  Thanks to its close proximity to CERN and Geneva, our tiny town is really very international.  It calmed my nerves a bit to know that my baby would not be the only non-native speaker at the Ecole Maternelle.

When the gate to the school was finally unlocked, we followed the crowd through the playground (temporarily losing Maggie to the brightly colored climbing structure) and into the school.  Aided by our incomprehensible, yet visually informative tour that we took earlier in the summer, I was able to locate Emma’s classroom without any problems.  We found her coat hook and shoe cubby and stood there for a few minutes unsure of what to do next.  It was then that I remembered the advice of a very wise woman, who said that when navigating the first few days of school it is best to simply look around and do what everyone else is doing.  Emma and I glanced at the families in our vicinity (Jim was wrestling with an increasingly more frantic Maggie) and noticed that all the children were sitting on benches and changing into their school slippers.  (In France, children are required to bring slippers to wear in the classroom.  When I first heard this I was panicked about where in the world I would find slippers, but then I stumbled across the endlessly long slipper aisle at Migros.)  So we sat down and put on Emma’s brand new, purple flowered, velcro chausonns.  Maggie escaped from Jim’s clutches and began tearing off her own shoes, still not knowing where exactly Emma was headed, but positive that she must be shoeless if she was to join in the fun.

Chausonns clad, with beloved backpack hung carefully upon her very own hook, Emma confidently approached her classroom door.  We waited in line to speak to her teacher, Madame Doubroff, a gentle, gray-haired woman with a smiling face and brightly flowered dress.  She greeted us warmly, and her smile did not waver when we answered her initial questions with distressed, blank stares.  We explained that we did not speak French (I am becoming masterful at brandishing my “Je ne parle pas Francais”) and she was able to speak to us in broken, but much appreciated English.  Emma, exasperated with her bumbling parents, slipped past us and immediately took up residence in the pretend play center in her classroom.  We had to call her back to us to administer our goodbye hugs and kisses.  I felt the tears welling up in my throat as I held her close, but she wiggled free, anxious to get back to the food and kitchen toys.  She did not give us a second glance as we bade Madame Doubroff farewell, and wrestled Maggie away from the classroom where she was crying and clutching the door frame.

Our diminished family walked back to the car, peering into the window to ensure that Emma was happy and settled in her classroom.  We spotted her firmly entrenched in the pretend play center, unaware that her overly emotional, voyeuristic parents were watching her with watery eyes.  Maggie was making no pretenses of hiding her dismay at having left her sister behind.  She was alternately collapsing onto the sidewalk in anguish, and making mad dashes back to the school in an attempt to infiltrate the doors and join her sister in the Shangri-la that was the preschool classroom.  We made it back to the car where Maggie was easily distracted by raisins and the opportunity to read the Cinderella book that Emma usually commandeers on car trips.  We dropped Jim off at work and spent a relaxing morning running errands and playing with friends at toddler group.

Three hours later we rejoined the families at the gates of the Ecole Martenelle and waited with bated breath to see Emma’s smiling face.  Madame Doubroff greeted us again at the classroom door, and as I waited for other parents to claim their children I peeked inside and saw my little Bug sitting patiently on the floor (criss-cross, applesauce) in line of other children.  I have never seen her be so still, so serene, and so quiet.  It was then and there that I determined Madame Doubroff to be some sort of mystical preschool whisperer, able to silence whiny children with a nod of her head, and to quell fidgety bodies with the twinkle in her eye.  When Madame Doubroff called her name, Emma flew from the ground and dashed into my arms.  She had a huge smile on her face and had clearly had a wonderful morning, but I could tell from the way she clutched my legs, that she had missed me, just a little bit.  Maggie greeted her long-lost sister with a joyful hug, that was (surprisingly) returned with equal love.  Maybe this time apart will be good for my normally feuding daughters.

Reunited, we returned to CERN to have lunch with Jim and get the full report on Emma’s first day of school, which was unsurprisingly, but unfortunately vague.  I found myself wishing that I had slipped a tape recorder in her pocket, or attached a nanny cam to her hair clip, in hopes of catching some glimpse of what had transpired at school that morning.  She emphatically stated that the day had been “fine” and “fun” and had admitted to loving the play kitchen and dolls.  She told us that Madame Doubroff had sung some songs, and that most of the kids had joined in, but that she just listened because “I don’t speak French, Mommy.”  (Duh-uh, Mommy.)  I felt a little nervous when she told us that she had not made any new friends, or talked to any children because (once again) “I don’t speak French, Mommy.”  But then I realized that Emma is only three, and most three-year olds I know do not have stimulating, deeply intimate conversations with their peers, or with anyone for that matter.  She will make friends, she will begin to understand the language, we just need to give it time.  For now I am grateful that she enjoyed school and is anxious to return on Monday.

On a side note, on my trips to and from the school I noticed some very positive signs that led me to believe that our neighborhood school will be a perfect fit for Emma.  One, was that on a clear day, which it was on Friday, Mont Blanc is visible from the playground.  Imagine a bunch of maniacal preschoolers running rampant in a playground and pausing for just a moment to look up and gaze upon the snowy peak of Mont Blanc.  It is quite a pastoral scene in the background of a lively and often chaotic place.  Adding to this sense of calm and peace is the official name of the school “Les Tourterelles” which means “the doves” in French.  What could go wrong in a school with such a beautiful, poetic name?

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Monkeys watching monkeys at the Servion Zoo, Switzerland.

Yesterday the girls and I packed up the car and made the hour drive into Switzerland to visit the Servion Zoo, outside of Lausanne.  Armed with Raffi tunes, snacks, cryptic google maps directions, and with a clear view of Mont Blanc out our car window, we zipped along the highway in search of lions, tigers, and bears.  I was a little nervous about tackling a road trip without Jim, but as I had a gaggle of supportive moms meeting me at the zoo, I decided to take the chance and head out into Switzerland on my own.

Most of the zoos that I have frequented have been in the middle of cities, thus making for harrowing, traffic strewn driving experiences.  Picture two hyped up children, salivating for a glimpse of a wild animal and doing their best monkey impressions; add two frantic parents, swearing at traffic, cursing the incorrect directions, and vowing never again to venture into any sort of metropolitan area.  Usually by the time I even arrive at the zoo I have a headache the size of a silverback gorilla.  The Servion Zoo, however, like all things Swiss is tidy, organized, and relatively stress free.  The zoo is situated in hills above the city of Lausanne, and instead of navigating around potholes and past aggressive city drivers, the girls and I flew along winding country roads surrounded by green meadows and grazing cows.  (It is nearly impossible to feel stress in the presence of lazy, grass-eating, black-and-white spotted Swiss cows, especially if the pasture in which they are lounging is bathed in sunlight and rimmed with mountains.  Makes me want to be a cow, but then I remember steak.)  Maggie, was so enamored with the cows that she could have possibly skipped the zoo entirely, but her sister was not so easily dissuaded.  Emma is not nearly as fond of cows as Maggie, she finds them stinky (can’t argue with that) and is positively appalled with their propensity to poop everywhere.

We arrived at the zoo with nary a wrong turn, curse word uttered, or meltdown and joined our friends inside.  All thoughts of mooing cows were erased as soon as we stepped into the monkey house.  Cows, animals that we see multiple times a day, have nothing on furry, acrobatic, swinging monkeys.  It was inside the monkey house that I discovered the downfall to this small, tidy, idyllic Swiss zoo.  All the animal signs were in French.  Meaning, each time a child asked me “What’s that, Mommy?” I had to try to read the French name plate and make my best guess.  Often, I knew the animal by sight, sometimes I could read the French word and using my context clues (go first grade teacher) decipher the correct animal name.  There were a few terrifying times when I just had to guess.  Just what were those deer-like things with huge antlers?  Daddy deer, like I confidently told my daughters?  Or some other species of deer entirely?  Luckily I was joined in the zoo excursion by a few women who were infinitely more well versed in animal species names than I and who were patient enough to correct my mistakes with limited laughter.  Like when I declared that the tall, feathery bird in the corner was an ostrich, but it was actually an emu.  Or, when I told Emma the colorful birds in wire cages were peacocks, but they were pheasants.  By the time we actually saw a peacock I was so discouraged by my knowledge of zoo animals that I was certain it was an escaped pheasant, until he showed me his tail.

We did encounter some animals that could not be misidentified.  There was a huge brown bear taking a dip in a pretty cushy new enclosure that was outfitted with trees to climb, snuggly caves, and a large watering hole.  The kids were delighted to happen upon three lions, who were being fed a delicious afternoon snack of huge hunks of raw meat, and two beautiful striped tigers enjoying the same treat in their own enclosure.  We saluted our fellow North Americans, the buffalo, petted some goats, howled with the wolves, quacked with the ducks, and had an all around wild time at the zoo.  The girls were asleep in their car seats before we exited the zoo parking lot, Maggie may have been out before I snapped the final buckle on her car seat.  Saved from the gentle, yet immensely annoying voice of Raffi by two sleeping children, I tuned into my favorite Euro pop radio station and enjoyed a relaxing ride back to France.  The snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc still visible out my window, guided us home.

Maggie and her friend Eva on the swings. Such sullen faces for fun times on the swings. This is one of the two pictures I took yesterday. I brought my camera determined to document our day, but left with only these (bad) pictures, taken five minutes into our trip.

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