Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘family’


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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Part III:  Beyond the Kefaluka Bubble

Bodrum Castle overlooking Bodrum Harbor.

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

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

Emma with an extremely important Roman Governor at Bodrum Castle.

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

Toddler launching pad at the top of Bodrum Castle

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

Fishing boats in Kos Harbor, Greece.

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

Emma and Maggie exploring the Asclepeion at Kos.

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

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

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

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

 

The Library at Celsus

Dionysus, Hermes, and Jim

 

Temple of Artemis

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

Read Full Post »


PART II:  Ladies Who Lounge

Maggie digging on the shore of the Aegean.

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

Emma, getting used to the kiddie pool at Kefaluka.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »