Friday, September 26, 2008

The danger of typos

I will probably regret posting this, but here goes. In reading the weird news section I came across this piece about an "offensive" typo. A college in Des Moines, Iowa's school handbook lists upcoming events. "Black History Linch and Learn" is a February offering. Call me insensitive, but I thought that was a hilarious typo! Seriously, I laughed out loud. Future printings will of course have the typos corrected and stickers are available to place over the erroneous phrase.

Of course I can now never run for political office...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Day Six: Schaffhausen

Before leaving Lucerne, I really wanted to see the Löwendenkmal. This is a sculpture memorial to the 700+ Swiss guards (mercenaries) who died trying to defend King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and their children from a murderous mob during the French revolution. Mark Twain described the sculpture of a mortally wounded lion as "the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world" (A Tramp Abroad). It truly was moving. It was a little tough to find as we were still learning the ins and outs of our new GPS system. We wound up parking the car in a small alleyway meters away from the park in a very obvious no parking area. It looked like a private alley and loading area for some artisan shops. We literally ran to the monument, paused long enough to take a few pictures, then ran back to the car. Perhaps not the inspired introspection that the artist had in mind.

We then packed back into the car and headed North. Our journey took us right through Zurich. I am hoping that our journey took us through the most unpleasant portion of Zurich as it was not all that inviting a city. It was during this portion of the journey I was happy to have bought the GPS. It made the transit relatively stress-free. On the other hand there were a couple of detours along the way that the GPS made a titch more stressful than necessary. A barricade and arrow told me to detour left. The GPS told me to go straight. The GPS told me to "turn around when possible". Repeatedly. The funny part was that the kids thought it said "Turn around, impossible!" and were a little concerned as to where exactly their mother had taken them. They are always judging me!

Arriving in Schaffhausen just before noon we discovered another little foible of the GPS system. It is programmed with a number of camping grounds, but not with the entrance to the camping ground. It will take you to the closest point on a public road to the camping ground, which is sometimes not anywhere near the entrance. The campground itself was the prettiest of the trip. It was right on the Rhine river, had a lush green grass field along the river, and two wading pools for the kids.

After a quick lunch and setting up camp we were off to our main local destination: Rheinfall. This is the largest waterfall (by volume of water falling) in Europe. It is no Niagara Falls, but it is pretty impressive in its own right. In the picture you can see the train bridge just behind the falls. We crossed the bridge and then climbed up to the tourist building and paid 1CHF ($1) to climb back down the stairs alongside the falls. Viewing platforms are at 4 different heights descending the falls and at the bottom one you feel you can reach out and touch the water. You can't though, I tried. Michael (I am tired of the initials by now) was appropriately impressed. "Cool" he exclaimed. Chris carried Michael up the stairs on his shoulders, but Lucas was climbing by himself right alongside me. As we turned the 6th or 7th corner and I started to feel tired I began to lament that I couldn't keep up with a 4 year old. Not 30 seconds later Lucas started to complain he was too tired to go on. Yay! _I_ could have kept going, but we took a breather before continuing the climb.

By the time we got back to the camping site we were all pretty hot and tired. We pulled on our bathing suits and went for a dip in the really cold Rhine river. Michael was not so impressed so he soon switched to the nearby wading pool. I had hoped to visit the old fortifications of Schaffhausen or the quaint village centre of Stein am Rhein. Swimming and relaxing was a better idea. I was trying so very hard to be flexible for my poor, over-scheduled family.

For dinner we went to the Coop restaurant just down the road. Coop is one of the two major grocery chains in Switzerland (hurray for lack of competitive prices!), so the "restaurant" was more of a cafeteria. Additionally, the kitchen closed at 5pm (!) so the selection was less than thrilling. I mention this only because there was a play area, complete with a touch screen video game that spoke German. The boys were both rather taken with this play area and requested it, incessantly, for the rest of the trip. To this day they lament not having the opportunity to return to this particular Coop restaurant.

Speaking of over-scheduled, next up: St. Gallen, Lichtenstein, and St. Moritz!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Day Five: Lucerne and Mount Pilatus

This was the first and only morning that we had a pee accident in the sleeping bag. After a lot of confusion we wound up being able to do a free load of laundry at the campground. The prepaid cards were not working, and the stress in my face convinced the reception to throw the bag into the staff machine. Woohoo!

For the rest of the day's adventure, we boarded a boat near our campsite and spent an hour and a half cruising on the Four Canton lake. Further along the lake there are some really impressive, cliffs rising vertically out of the water, and villages only accessible by boat. We then got off the boat to board the train. This is where the idyllic vacation (sleeping bag pee notwithstanding) came to a screeching halt. We wondered why everyone was pushing and shoving to get off the boat. This is Switzerland, the land of orderly and efficient transportation. Except at Pilatus. We stared in dismay at the crowd of hundreds in front of us, standing as a crowd across the main road and up the train station entrance. Some cars stopped, did a 3-point turn, and decided to try another way around. It was noon. It was hot. Several people bailed out, but we had pre-paid and I wasn't sure how to go about getting our money back, so we persevered.

Funnily enough, all around us were Canadians. There was a group of retirees from British Columbia right beside us who were quite taken with L. His habit during the entire trip was to strike up conversations with anyone he could find, particularly if he found they could speak English. He would boldly commence "Hi! My name is L. I am 4 years old." Several of the adults would tell me later how happy they were that he wasn't afraid of strangers and willing to speak to adults, a skill I hope to cultivate. Being shy myself, I beamed with pride as he guilessly chatted away. We have been listening to the Barenaked Ladies new kid's album "Snacktime" and L and M would give little concerts to all the people waiting in the heat. After slightly more than 2 hours we were able to board the train.

In order to climb an incline of 48%, a double cog system was designed by William Locher and the Pilatus train is the only public train to use this system. It was really quite spectacular, but also the reason why we had to wait for 2 hours. The design means that trains can't switch tracks and there is one spot in the middle of the mountain where the tracks are able to move horizontally to allow 2 trains to pass. M was asleep by the time we reached the top and stayed asleep while we watched some alphorns and found a picnic area. I went off in search of juice (nope) and beer (oh yeah) and by the time I returned M had awoken. L was more interested in feeding bread to the birds than actually eating himself. The birds were great entertainment for the boys and C and I could relax. We then went through a rock path (Dragon Path) carved into the mountain with rock windows looking out. It was done in honour of a local artist, Hans Erni, who illustrated several of the Pilatus legends. Most have to do with dragons, but there is also the legend that Pontius Pilate's soul rests in a mountain lake and if it were disturbed....bad stuff would happen. In 1585 an expedition of priests and local men went out to test this prophesy and found that nothing happened when they disturbed the lake's waters. Spoil sports!

As we were climbing up to one of the peeks we heard a helicopter approaching. We saw the characteristically red rescue helicopter land just below the deck with the picnic tables. It looked like the helicopter was going to plow right in to the hundreds of tourists crowding the railing to get a good look. I had a barely controllable urge to cover M's eyes but of course the helicopter landed safely. It was a pretty cool sight though, to see a rescue helicopter in action on a mountain top. Maybe not so cool for the person actually being rescued, although someone once told me that riding in an ambulance was really cool even though everything else that was happening was decidedly not cool.

The way back down was by cable car, only capable of fitting 40 people at a time, so it was another hour long wait to get on board. It was more like a roller coaster as the cable car swung out from the mountain and sped quickly down the line suspended over limestone rocks below. We then had to find the city bus back to Lucerne. By this point we were all tired and cranky and we stopped for the first and only time on the trip at McDonalds. I had been hoping to walk around Lucerne a bit in the evening but it was already past our bedtimes as we sat down to dinner. I did insist on walking through the historic covered bridge, prominently featured in billions of postcards and tourists photographs. Looking at the map I thought we could handle walking along the lake back to our campground. It was a lovely walk, and we were all so very tired by the end it.

Next stop....North to Schaffhausen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How could I resist you?

I love musicals. I have always loved song and dance movies. I wanted to be a dancer growing up. Well, I dreamed about being a dancer, but I didn't want to be a dancer enough to actually, you know, work at it. Anyhoo....with this background knowledge, you can understand how happy I was that my friend asked if I wanted to see Mamma Mia. I was never able to see the theatre production so I hoped the movie would make up some of that disappointment. I was a little nervous, having read some rather nasty reviews. But really....most people don't like musicals. So I took reviews of a campy, ABBA-laced musical with a grain of salt. The one common thread was that everyone agreed that Meryl Streep did a good job and was the best part of the movie. What a shocker! Really? Meryl Streep is an excellent actor? No way!
My friend loved the movie the first time she saw it, but allowed that perhaps the fact that she was tipsy at the time helped the movie enjoyment. So, I tried to follow her lead. I guess I have finally built up my alcohol tolerance because I was definitely not tipsy. I enjoyed the movie immensely anyway! After having seen the movie, I have to say that Meryl Streep did an AWESOME job and was by far the best part of the movie! I already knew she could sing as she is track two on Sandra Boynton's musical CD Philadelphia Chickens (Nobody Understands Me is the title of her song). I really have to see more Meryl Streep movies.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Day Four: They have pioneer villages in Europe!

Ballenberg is an open air museum consisting of just over a hundred buildings of different architectural styles that have been moved from all parts of Switzerland. If you think of it, Swiss culture is made up of hundreds of communities living in valleys, isolated from each other by mountains. While there are a lot of similarities, there are also a lot of differences and Ballenberg is the place to come and see this firsthand. It consists of 33 hectares of land split into different geographical categories: the Jura (mountain range to the North in Switzerland), 4 different Midlands areas, 4 different alpine regions, and the Italian part. In each section there is at least one "atelier" or workshop, where you can see people in historical garb doing historical things. Of course historical in Europe takes on a whole new meaning!

My favourite was the a farmhouse from the Bernese Midlands where some man gave my small children nails and a hammer to test the relative hardness of 3 types of wood. I would never have let my sons do that on my own, but they were fully capable of discovering and exploring and banging (with proper supervision). There was also a set up for planing wood. Yes, a single, sharp blade that one uses to shave wood into various intricate designs and I allowed my precious angels to wield this blade all by themselves. I was being very brave! C's favourite was in the Ticino (Italian) part where there was a display about silk making, complete with live silk worms, moths, and silk cocoons that the kids (and parents) could pick up and investigate.

Honestly, this place is beyond huge. It is not possible to see it all in one go. I think the ideal way to see it would be on a school trip or as part of a tour, let someone else guide you through this humungous endeavor. I did find it a little difficult that everything was in German with very few descriptions being in French and Italian. If one were to come independently, it would certainly be a good idea to try to plan out a route beforehand to optimize exposure while minimizing all the walking!

This was the site of the first of 2 major L freak-outs. At the admission the customers receive a name-tag type sticker, presumably so security could do controls for people sneaking in. I would venture that over an area of 33 hectares there might be one or two places to try to avoid paying the entrance fee. Seeing our two small children the cashier wrote out their names on some spare stickers and a little drawing for them. How dare she! L LOST it! Putting a sticker on your clothes was tantamount to....well....something very bad. My guess is that he has been warned against putting stickers on fabric at home as the stickers will lose their stick, and this translated to the current situation as being a very bad idea. Anyhoo, during the yelling, screaming, and crying (the sticker was quickly banished to my purse, but the damage had been done), the Swiss air-force began flying maneuvers right over the park. Normally I would think a 4 year old boy would love to see fighter jets in action, doing flips, flying in formation, soaring loudly above. It was the loudly that put L back over the edge, or rather kept him on that other, bad side, of the edge. The tantrum, and the fighter jets eventually calmed down and by the time we found some of the farm animals, L was happy and exploring again. Afterward, he really liked all the exhibitions and climbing through all the old buildings. Perhaps he just needed to let off a little steam and stress from the first 3 days of our inaugural camping trip.

All in all though, I would like to go again sometime. Now that I know what to expect, I would make my own little commentary guide from the descriptions on the website and plan a walking route from the online map to see the many things we were unable to see the first time.

Next up....Lucerne and Mount Pilatus!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Day Three: Hiking at the First

Thankfully we knew enough about Swiss train stations and the tickets we wanted that we were able to avoid the LONG line at the train station and use the conveniently located self-service machine. We were able to catch the next train out to Grindelwald. We found where the gondola station was and bought tickets up to "The First". The boys were very happy to take the gondola ride up and the view on the way up was already impressive. A hike a few weeks earlier with an inopportune need for a bowel movement illustrated our children's reluctance to go au natural when nature calls. So, I tried to coax the boys into the bathroom before starting our hike.

The first bit of the hike coincided with cow pasture areas, which were delightful to look at, but the boys were less enthusiastic about the cow paddies we had to avoid. These are definitely city boys. Once past a gate enclosure protecting us from the cows and their paddies we continued on the way. As seems to be our custom, by the time we arrived at the beginning of our hike it was time for lunch. We found a nice spot with some rocks to sit upon and enjoy our picnic lunch where I took the photo for this post. This is also where the nice warm temperature decided to plummet and the wind definitely picked up.

An impromptu photo op had me turning in the alpine field and starting to sing "The hills are alive..." Then I saw another stretch of hikers approaching and decided that the hills were NOT that alive for me to be singing about it in front of other people, the moment had passed.

Bravely we marched onwards and were just about to turn towards our lake destination when I heard a small voice cry "I have to go caca". Ugh. We were above the treeline. I searched for some bushes to crouch behind...nothing. And the wind was picking up, and the clouds were rolling in. A passing gentleman informed us that we still had quite a way to go before reaching the lake (it was supposed to be an hour walk, without kids). We turned around and started hiking back to the gondola station. Of course once were were back within reach of toilets the moment had passed for Michael too.