Monday, October 27, 2008

Day Ten: My scariest day of the trip

This one is for those of you who like the long posts!!! The scares got bigger as the day progressed.

As we were breaking camp some new arrivals to the campsite were surveilling us. After a few false starts they asked if we were leaving and if the spot we had chosen was a good one. They kept looking between the car and us.

"You don't speak German" they stated more than asked.


A pause and a look again at the German license plate on the car.

"But, you ARE German" they again stated more than asked.

Chris explained that we had borrowed our German friend's car for the trip and it all made sense to them.

After 2 days of exploring the Engadine valley, and a few wrong turns that took us up and down some rather steep and narrow roads, we decided that the brakes in the car were working fine and that we would not have to visit a St. Moritz mechanic before leaving. We left via the Maloja pass. I tried clipping some Google map with the terrain function for you to appreciate the video game-ness of this situation (there is a grey squiggly line that represents the road we were driving). Perhaps the photo of the GPS trajectory might also be informative. Needless to say, it was an exhilarating, if nerve-wracking time. Chris was in the driver's seat as he was the most experienced in the whole "down-shifting" braking technique. He did great. While my nails were digging into the palms of my hands they never actually broke the skin and I think it is in large part due to Chris's confident driving ability. Although the occasional "This is so much fun, I feel like I'm in a video game" comment did not exactly ease my mind. Even after the crazy crazy pass part, the road kept going down down down. Well, we WERE going from a departure elevation of 2000m (6600ft) down to essentially sea level...

Once in Italy we marvelled at the little villages. It felt like we were in a movie. We passed by Lake Como and decided not to stop at Bellagio despite a high recommendation from colleagues. We just wanted to get to our next camp site and relax. After leaving the Como area we had to climb up some hills and travel a lakeshore road through some rather small villages. The last 2 hours of this drive were easily the scariest driving hours of the whole trip! The speed limit was constantly in flux...120, 90, 50, 30km/hr (75, 55, 30, 20mph) and back up again so we were never really sure what a safe speed was. We were going through centuries old villages with small streets and buildings right up to and overhanging the sides. There didn't look to be enough room for one car, let alone two cars to pass. And then there were the Italian drivers! I had driven right through Torino during the olympics, right downtown. I thought I knew how to handle Italian traffic. Non è vero! This was a whole 'nother level!

So we would be inching along at 30km/h (20mph) in the centre of a small town and some oncoming traffic would blow our doors off at 120 (75)! Others would wait patiently to overtake us and then floor it! Then there were the unexpected, single lane tunnels, where we learned the hard way that one was supposed to honk before entering since there was a nice 90-degree bend in the middle of it! Of course there were no signs to tell you this, you were just supposed to know. We had two things working in our favour. One, only half the Italian drivers are speed demons with a death wish. The other half like to drive 30 in a 120 zone, so it was almost like we were locals! Second, as we were reminded in the morning, our license plate was German, so if we were pissing anybody off, and we likely were, they just thought we were Germans. The Italians don't like the Germans anyway.

It was almost comical after we crossed the border back into Switzerland. Sure, the architecture was similar, the geography was the same, but somehow the roads seemed wider and better marked. More Swiss indeed, but still Italian enough that Chris was going crazy trying to follow the traffic through downtown Lugano. The Maloja pass hairpin turns were coming back to haunt us as we made our way through the city. Finally in the outskirts again we ran into another problem. The TomTom directed us to our campsite, but there was no campsite. Needless to say our nerves were fairly shot at this point and I almost cried with relief when I saw the very small, inconspicuous sign with a tent on it pointing down what looked to be a dead-end dirt road. I convinced Chris to follow it and we had arrived!

We found a site again within spitting range of the kids playground. This was to be my reward near the end of the trip. An expensive campground, but with children's programing, a great playground, a wading pool, a swimming pool, a beach...and warm, sunny, Mediterranean weather. Chris and I started wrestling with the tent after I showed the boys to the playground. After packing up in single digit temperatures, we were now trying to put the tent up on a sun-baked, rock-filled site in 30 oC heat. Between the heat and the built-up stress of the travel, neither of us were exactly overflowing with patience or understanding. After a frustrated exchange about the tent I went to check on the boys. I heard Lucas calling for me. While he started explaining his grievance I scanned the area for Michael. My stomach plummeted. He was nowhere.

"Lucas, where is Michael?" trying not to panic.

"I don't know, but blah blah blah" Can't concentrate on poor first born child.

"Lucas I'm sorry, I can't listen right now. DO YOU KNOW WHERE MICHAEL WENT?"

"No, but, blah blah blah" Panic setting in but good now.

"Lucas I am really sorry, but it is very important for me to find Michael right now! Stay here, don't move!"

Shit, shit, shit. There is a pool! There is a beach! Why did I leave them unattended? Argh!!! I ran to the wading pool and scanned it more out of panic than reason. Michael really doesn't like pools, was the only thought saving me from actually going crazy. I ran to the big pool, lifeguard present, no sign of Michael. There was a big aquarium at the check-in office that Michael (to this day) wouldn't stop talking about....right next to a very busy parking lot. I decided it was a more likely destination than the beach and start running towards the entrance of the campground, scanning and listening (over the loud thumping of my heart) all the way.

I spied him crying and running away from where I was, I sped up, and he turned a corner. Several other campers looked at him worriedly and then spied me running after him. Their expressions were supportive and kind. They felt accusatory and judgmental. I caught up with the little devil and hugged him tightly all the way back to our campsite. That, my folks, was the scariest moment of my life to date. I can't believe how upset I am getting typing about it a whole 2 months later! Of course I am rather hormonal right now...

Once the tent was more or less up we changed into our swim suits and went down to look at the lake. As was (thank God!) his habit, Michael had to be coaxed in and wouldn't go past his knees. Lucas and Chris explored a little further out. It was the second time we were able to go swimming on our summer camping trip. Lugano is supposed to be a slice of the Mediterranean in Switzerland and I tried to relax and soak up the atmosphere. Unfortunately the atmosphere was getting very cloudy very quickly and the 30 degree heat of the afternoon was quickly dropping.

While getting ready for dinner we saw the camp train go by. Every evening between 5 and 6 an electric train with several open carriages toured the campsite with the children. Lucas and Michael love trains. I took them over to where the boarding was supposed to take place and saw already a pretty large crowd. When the train arrived it was quickly apparent that there wouldn't be room for us. Disappointed, I reassured them that we would get on next time. We were the only ones left at the departure point after all. We waited the 5-10 minutes and the train was back in sight. A crush of children also appeared but I was going to make sure the boys got on. I thought I was going to make sure the boys got on. These were some very pushy kids. I loudly complained that some of the children pushed past my kids and I loudly assured my children that they would be able to get on next time. I loudly said that although SOME kids are NOT very nice, they would get their turn next time. I loudly thanked them for being so very patient. Some of the moms looked at me a bit apologetically. For those who do not know me, I can be a titch passive aggressive.

As we waited again I started to panic that maybe the train was on its last run. I was so angry and frustrated that my boys were just brushed aside and at my inability to be pushy like the rest of these people. Okay, with hindsight, I'm sure it was a good example for them on how to be polite and play fair....but at that moment in time I did not want to be polite. When the train arrived again I grabbed on to the first car. There was a child there who did not want to get out. I looked quickly at the rapidly filling seats and realized it was this car or wait again. I forced the child out. I told him he had had his turn and now it was time for other kids to have a turn. I got in and pulled my boys in with me. I was filled with an odd combination of pride and guilt as we bounced along the campground.

We decided to eat at the onsite restaurant. The waiter did not speak English, but he did speak French with a rather strong Italian accent. It was enough for us to be able to communicate. For the first time we were able to watch some of the Olympics on a screen above the bar. My numbers obsessed child was delighted with the swimming competition: lane numbers, record numbers, heat numbers, time elapsed numbers. Ever since the EuroFootball Cup he has also been obsessed with flags and called out any that he recognized.

The rain started just before dinner. Lightly and off and on. By the time we hit the sack it was coming down more steadily. The sun baked ground was not absorbing the water very well and some sections under the tent felt more like a mudbath than solid ground. Thankfully the leaking was kept to a minimum and not in the sleeping quarters at all. The rain kept going, and the thunder and lightening joined in, all night long.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day Nine: Muottas Muragl‎

That night was definitely colder than the first night. We awoke to actual frost on the car. Chris was of the opinion that he would not survive another night as cold as that. We could either move on, or buy him a warm sweater. Aside from my claims of willing to be flexible with our trip schedule, I was rather loathe to leave without having gone up one of the mountains, so we decided to see what kind of shops might be St. Moritz....on a Sunday (NB. there is no Sunday shopping in Switzerland).

First though, was our day trip of going up a mountain. We had chosen to go up "Muottas Muragl". Don't ask me how to pronounce that, I can barely spell it. We had passed by the station for this trip already several times and found it again with little difficulty. The parking lot was jammed full. We decided to mosey on down the road 100m and park in a practically empty parking lot. To get back to the departure point we had to march single file along a rather busy road. There was approximately 30cm (1ft) of space between the guard rail and the pavement of the single lane road. Needless to say I was having panic attacks that my 3 year old would decide to dart into traffic. Illogical perhaps, considering it was painfully obvious even to a 3 year old that mommy was pretty stressed about staying as far from the road as possible and of course I had an iron grip on his little hand!

We got in the line-up to buy tickets and were quite entertained by an Italian woman directly in front of us who was having a very animated, very Italian argument with her poor husband. He was trying to park their car in the rather overcrowded lot and she was quite exasperated with his attempts. "He's from the North, you see. He is quite useless at parking. I am from Rome. I could park in a tree. I have no shame." To this we admitted that we were Canadian, and that we were in awe of the European ability to maneuver their cars into impossible places. "Yes, we have made parking an art-form". We whole-heartedly agreed.

We boarded the funicular train and started up the mountain. This mountain isn't as high as some of the other destinations in Engadine, but it does allow a gorgeous view of the valley and the lakes. At the top there is a restaurant and hotel. We unpacked a picnic lunch for the boys and then picked up some delicious soup at the cafeteria for the adults all while being serenaded by alphorns and yodellers. In the picture you might notice some fence posts. The posts have two thin wires connecting them, and this is all that separates you (and your children) from a somewhat steep drop. I'm not saying a cliff exactly, but sufficiently steep that an inadvertent tumble would likely result in injury. But that was just my illogical mother paranoia creeping in again.

There is a very short hike to a mountain hut where for the low cost of 1CHF (1 dollar) you can try some fresh alpine pastured cow's milk. Thankfully it was cold milk. I was worried it would be warm, which wouldn't have bothered the boys, but it might have been a little more difficult for the adults. It was very rich and creamy, so Chris only had one sip, but the boys and I readily finished the rest with enough gusto that the woman tending the shack seemed pleased.

We returned to the top of the funicular where there was an humungous playground. We let the boys play there for a couple of hours while we just looked in awe at the view. But then it was time to hunt for a sweater!

We walked the streets of St. Moritz, I was peering in the windows of Louis Vuitton, Versace, Burberry, Chanel, and a bunch of places that I didn't recognize the name of, but were surely exclusive shops of the rich and famous. None were open of course, being a Sunday. I thought we might have to walk into one of the upscale hotels with the Rolls Royce cars in front and see if the hotel shops had a sweater we could acquire. We finally found a corner store open, and miraculously it sold overpriced sweaters. Not as overpriced as the hotels though, I'm sure.

We headed back for our last night at the frigid cold campsite and let the kids play at the playground until they were well and truly exhausted. I remembered to put on socks that night, so I was much warmer. Chris also found his new St. Moritz sweater helped him sleep better too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Gobble, gobble

Canadian's are discriminated against abroad. There are no turkey's in October. The butcher will tell you that it is too early in the season for full sized turkeys. Turkey season begins in November....for the Americans. But, if you order in advance, it is indeed possible to have a full sized turkey for Canadian thanksgiving.

This year we joined new-comers to Geneva for Thanksgiving. As guests instead of hosts I once again put my turkey-making skills on hold until Christmas. Instead I tackled pumpkin pie for the first time, including made from scratch pie crusts also for the first time. If I do say so myself, it was perfect and delicious! I ate far too much food, but I feel very little guilt, it was thanksgiving after all!

There were 5 kids in total, a baby, 2 girls who are 3 years old, and then my two. I have to say that I was très impressed with my little darlings. Okay, Michael ate nothing but the cherry tomatoes, but I expected that. Lucas on the other hand actually tried everything! I was floored. Veggies, stuffing, turkey, wow. I think he is growing up.

The petite hostess was too excited to stay at the kids table, but the other three managed to keep their bums in their chairs for most of the meal. Once the meal was coming to an end, Michael asked to be excused to go and play and I gave him the go-ahead. A few minutes later he was calling from the playroom, his button had gotten caught on the rug and he was stuck. On my way back to the table I realized, guiltily, that Lucas was still patiently sitting at the kids table all alone. I told him he could get down and play and he hesitated. It was clear. He wanted to try the pumpkin pie and was not going to jeopardize his chances by premature playing! The little darling. I reassured him that he would still indeed get some dessert and he left to play with the rest of the kids. It is mind boggling how every once in a while they decide that a rule must be followed to the letter, whereas usually most rules are viewed as recommendations.

Our friends have a house. With a backyard. And a driveway. This is practically unheard of amongst our normal circle of friends. Michael was in 7th heaven riding the Little Tykes little red car up and down the driveway, then the Barney motorcycle, then the Finding Nemo ride-on toy. Repeat ad nauseam. While all the other kids were playing inside, Michael kept requesting to go outside, all alone, and zoom up and down the driveway. I panicked at one point as I realized that it had easily been 15 minutes and he hadn't been heard from. I looked outside and it was definitely dark. I ran to the door. He was still going up and down the driveway happy as a clam. In my limited defense, the back yard is completely fenced and there is a security gate blocking the driveway.

We made it home only an hour late for bedtime. Nevertheless, we paid for the routine disruption on Monday. Perhaps I should say that the school paid for it, and Chris paid for it. I was spared the bulk of the consequences sequestered away at work.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Day Eight: St. Moritz

The view from our campsite!

It was a cold night. Very cold. I was very thankful that we had bought the boys nice warm sleeping bags rated down to zero degrees. Mine and Chris's sleeping bags were not that warm. We were going to be camping in August after all... I forgot about that whole altitude thing. Our camp site was at about 2000m, and our breath was visible in the morning.

A sign of how cold it was is that the boys actually snuggled in their sleeping bags in the morning rather than getting up the moment their eyes opened. Chris shook the tent to get the dew/frost off.

Lucas asked "Who's there?"

Chris growled "A bear!"

Lucas responded "Well, you can't eat me now, I'm reading a story."

With that Lucas continued reading stories to Michael in the tent while Chris was killing himself with laughter outside. It was one of the things that surprised me the most on this trip. Lucas's reading skills really took off and he much preferred reading from our big book of fairy tales all by himself than playing his Leapster video game. Not all the time of course, but still.

After breakfast, we set off in the still slightly burnt brake smelling car. The TomTom had some auto mechanics programmed in so we got directions to the closest one. In St. Moritz. A feeling of trepidation overcame me. You can't trust auto mechanics at the best of times, but now we were going to cold-call a mechanic in the playground of the RICH and famous. After finding the spot...full of Porsches, Ferraris, and Mercedes, it was closed.

We found the information centre in St. Moritz and were told that all mechanics are closed on Saturdays. Sundays are no shopping days in Switzerland. Frequently stores are also closed on Mondays. We decided that we should be fine for the next few days since we would only be driving in the valley, no big mountain passes for us.

After lunch we headed out to Sils i.E. a small town about a 10 minute drive on the other side of St. Moritz. Our Engadin expert, the one who has been vacationing here since she was a baby, told us this was her favourite easy hike. It took us a while to realize where we had to park to get to the beginning of the hike, but once we were on the trail it was pretty smooth sailing, er hiking. The path goes around a sort of peninsula jetting out into the last of the big lakes dotting the Engadin valley. A wooded path, a shining lake, surrounded by mountains, it felt like paradise. The boys were moving painfully slowly and we stopped at every vantage point to take pictures and investigate. During our time in Engadin, Michael became a great fan of "breaking" bugs. Chris figured that since it is so cold at night the insects are really slow. The insects were definitely no match for Michael as he ripped a great many of them apart. Rampant bug killing is normal for boys though...right? Not a sign of some deep-seated sociopath in the making? The 30 minute hike took us a good 3 hours, but we enjoyed ourselves.

We treated ourselves to a nice steak BBQ that night, with couscous and salad. The boys had pizza at the canteen again. Our goal was to stay up late and see the stars. This was our first real out of town campsite, and at 2000m, I was hoping for some good star action! After dinner we put on the only sweaters we had brought with us and went exploring the camp. It was huge, with a little pond where we could see fish jumping, there were some glacier fed streams, and there looked to be some sort of rock quarry. There were no assigned camp sites, campers were told to find a nice spot and pitch their tents, or park their camping cars as the case may be. It felt almost like going through the real estate section or open houses to see what other people's houses look like. I was busy peering at all the different tent models, the gear left out on display, the various camping set-ups. Finally dusk arrived, and the cold. We stretched out the bed time routine as much as we could and finally we saw our first star. We tried desperately to ignore the cold and the boys started to see some of the heavenly bodies. But then even they were asking to crawl into their sleeping bags.

That night was even colder than the first night. Chris was convinced that the boys were going to die of exposure, so we split up again. One child, and one parent nervously checking every so often that the child was still warm and snug in their sleeping bag. And it was another shivery night for the parents.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Day Seven: If it's not's not St. Gall

This is a ginormous post, but since this is my blog, you guys are just going to have to put up with it. You meaning all 3 of my visitors :)

This was to be our longest driving day in the trip, so Chris was up before the break of dawn obsessing about getting on the road. Our first stop was the library in St. Gall. Since the library is part of an ancient monastery established in 613, deep in the old part of St. Gallen, we had fun navigating the one way, narrow roads trying to decipher what our GPS was trying to tell us. Does it mean this road or the next one? Eventually we made it and found ourselves at the entrance to the cathedral. Not actually on the itinerary, but lets take a peak. WOW WOW WOW WOW. A stunning example of Baroque architecture, according to the literature. I would have just said breathtakingly ornate.

We then hurried off to find the medieval library. The delicate inlaid wooden floor requires all visitors to don felt slippers over their shoes. These are one size fits "all" so I felt a little foolish in them, until I realized that Lucas and Michael also needed to somehow fit in them. Because the slippers are so big, one needs to shuffle along to make sure they don't fall off. I guess it is a two-fer, protect the floor and get some polishing done too. To enter the library one passes beneath a sign "psyches iatreion", which is Greek for “Pharmacy of the Soul”. The library contains over 400 books and documents that are over 1000 years old. There are 2100 handwritten books, and some very beautiful illustrated books on display in glass cases. The room itself is again in the Baroque style and the whole place is a UNESCO Heritage site both for the architecture and for the books. Equally impressive was the behaviour of my beloved children. Not to brag or anything, but we were in there for 20-30 minutes and nothing above a quiet voice emanated from their lips. They didn't even have to be reminded not to touch anything! Of course the sense of reverence and awe in the room is palpable even to a 3 and 4 year old. But we couldn't stay long, we had places to go!

After leaving St. Gallen, I programmed in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein and we were on the highway once again. After seeing a few signs for Heidiland, I remembered the audio CD I had bought for the trip of an abridged version of Heidi, so I popped it in. Chris said he thought he saw a sign for Vaduz, but since I was getting to be a stressball driving on the highway, and he couldn't find our position in the travel atlas of Switzerland we had brought with us, we just followed along the GPS system. By the time we stopped to figure out where we were, we were at least an hour past Liechtenstein. Poop! I was rather disappointed, but we continued on our way.

To get into Engadin valley, one must cross a big mountain range. There are mountain passes, which in August are not so difficult to do. There are also train ferries, where a train ferries cars through the mountains in a long tunnel. This was an expensive option, but since the mountain pass was intimidating, and the boys are both fascinated with trains and tunnels, we decided to splurge. Alas, the GPS struck again. It led us to the wrong train station. I enquired at the train station where we SHOULD go, but neglected to write that information down. I had thought I had seen a sign on the highway indicating the correct exit and assumed that we could just look for that. WRONG. After going half an hour down one highway (the train was supposed to leave in 40 minutes), we backtracked to see if we could find the sign on the way back. No such luck. I thought that we should take another highway, the one we would need to take for the pass anyway. After another hour or so of driving around we gave up and started down, or rather up the road to the pass. Again, I was rather disappointed, and this time the boys were too.

The pass on the other hand was lovely, and not at all difficult to go up. We climbed up to 2200m from about 600m at the beginning. I was amazed at the number of bikers also traveling along this path. Actually, there were a large number of bikers EVERYWHERE we went. By bikers I mean bicyclers, not motorcyclers, although they did seem to hang out in gangs. Again I had the "luck" to be following someone very slow. On the other hand, this guy was REALLY slow. I also had little experience driving standard and zero experience driving a standard down a long and steep descent. I had thought that the best thing to do would be to hold in the clutch so no forward power went to the gears and then use the brake as needed on the way down, as I had done with every descent up until this point on the trip. Those descents were not this long. Those descents were not following someone this slow. By the time we got to the bottom, there was a STRONG smell of burning brake and we finally realized it was us. To be fair, there had been a lot of construction at the top of the mountain, so there were other unpleasant smells not related to my novice driving skills. I was convinced I had killed the car. The Engadin valley is still up at 1800m, so we were eventually going to have to go DOWN again. First though, we needed to get to our campsite.

Our campsite was the only "wilderness" one of the trip. It was about a 20 minute drive outside of St. Moritz at about 2000m. We set up our tent within sight of the playground and decided to eat at the canteen, in part because I was afraid to get in the car again. During dinner, the wind picked up and the sun started to go down. It got cold. The kids didn't seem to care and played happily at the playground while I shivered. We hit the sack a little early while the sun was behind the mountain range, but still giving some light. The boys were still a bundle of energy, no wonder after having been couped up in a car all day, except for that one outing to a LIBRARY!!! Poor things. After 2 hours of listening to them talk and play and fight we separated and had a one parent, one child sleeping arrangement that night.

Before I leave you, I would like to point out that my error in driving is apparently quite common for "first-timers". My friend who's aunt has a chalet in Engadine and has traveled there all her life said she made the same mistake the first time she drove the pass. Not to ruin the end, but the brakes never failed although they were smelly for more than a day. When we got back to Geneva one of the first things I did was take the car to the garage (the brakes also squeaked, but had since we started off) and the mechanic found the brakes to be in perfect condition. Phew! To anyone who is interested, the proper way to go down a mountain in a standard car is to gear down. The car essentially brakes itself when in 3rd or 2nd gear (or 1st if you are really going slow), but this does take a certain touch! What would you do in an automatic? I presume riding the brake the whole way down would also be a BAD idea. Maybe that is what the 1 and 2 options are for on the shift. I always ignored them, overdrive and reverse were the only options I paid attention to...