Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Day Thirteen & Fourteen: Our Journey Ends


  • "Home, James!"

We left with hand-written directions to the Heidelberg military PX where we would stock up on some missed and needed American goods. Grandma is a military mom who could grant us entrance and buy us food. We were more than willing to go along in the game and finding the PX was just that, a game. The directions were clear, but like so many other adventures in our Tour Bus, the way was all an illusion. First we found the base where they helped us turn around and head towards the PX which was several blocks away. Once we found this PX they made us get out of the van, took each of our passports, and searched the van as we stood in a line along the wall. I was impressed at how thorough they were and thankful at the same time. I felt a bit of pride as I watched our countrymen at work.

As soon as we pulled into the PX it was like stepping over heavens threshold. I had to restrain myself from kneeling and kissing the paved "American" parking lot. A car lot sold the latest American cars, even a couple used ones. Fast food was congregated in one corner of the mini-America, dry cleaners and shoe store on the other. There was a bookstore which was tempting to rummage through, but we chose the store next to it as it was the largest and we assumed we'd find our foods there. It was like stepping into a Wal-Mart back in the states. It amazed me to see people pulling American dollars out of their wallets to pay for things. You've no idea how long it's been since I've held a twenty dollar bill in my hand. I actually felt the urge to grab one out of their hand and give it a good rub. We loaded up on all sorts of amazing things we'd forgotten about or never knew about and went in search of the food items.

Fearless Leader had surveyed the layout of the place and determined there was no food to be had behind this military fence so we'd have to search for the other location, but while we were here Taco Bell was calling our names . . . quite loudly. You never know how good Taco Bell really is until you've missed it. We waited in that line and ordered twice the amount of food we'd be able to eat and savored every little bite we got. The left overs joined us for the rest of the ride home and even if we never got to eat them we'd at least live off of the lovely aroma they'd fill the van with.

Upon finding the other PX location half way around Heidelberg, we parked outside the gates as we'd not signed ourselves in properly at the last stop. Only Army mom and pop could enter the gates and gather the goods. I made a quick list of the items we'd been missing most and those things which were heavy or impossible to ship from the states and sat in the van disappointed that I wouldn't be able to wander the aisles myself and live the experience of an American supermarket again, but when they returned with overflowing grocery carts I couldn't help but be pleased with the experience as it ended. By the time we'd found a spot for every packed paper bag (you can tell you're hopeless when just the sight of a paper bag makes you leap for joy) the van was filled to every last crook and cranny it could yield and we cruised on down the road.

We almost missed our dinner due to some communication errors. You see, some of us still had some sight-seeing in mind, while others only had road on the brain. We did eat and we ate at a city known for its beautiful cathedral, Koln, Germany. The city is lovely. I can tell you this because we had to drive down practically every one of it's main streets and across each of its bridges to find a spot to eat next to the cathedral towers. By the time we did the sun was setting on them, but the atmosphere made up for the lack of sun. A group of street musicians stopped in front of our sidewalk table to play us a few tunes while we ate our South American meal. I cannot say it was even South American, but it was supposed to have been inspired from somewhere on that continent. It was tasty, nonetheless. Even though we only got to see the towers from a distance, the experience was still one to remember and closed our tour of Europe properly.

The road led us home and we pulled into our familiar street sometime after midnight. The children were laid asleep into their own beds for the first time in two weeks and I wondered if their dreams would be sweeter. We adults unpacked the van as speedily as we could and clambered into our own beds to prepare for the day of departure.

Day Fourteen was just that; a day of departure. It was a haze of packing and running from room to room preparing for the inevitable goodbyes. Even as we all piled back into the Tour Bus without ceremony for the last time there was a buzz of emotion which clouded what was really being felt. The van was parked, the lines were wound, the bags were checked, and the plane beckoned it's last few passengers. As they pushed their way through security the grandchildren waved goodbye with tears and Screech Monkey called after them by name accompanied with loud cries of abandonment and the pain of loss. I had not seen this emotion in her ever before and I felt sorry that she could not experience the parting of ways with her grandparents more frequently. Eventually we turned our backs and parted our separate ways with a let down so severe it seemed as if we'd been dropped into a dream . . . or could it have been out of a dream?

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Day Twelve: Heidelberg, Germany

City View


  • Tour the old walled city, even if the shops are closed on a Sunday
  • Find the path up to the castle on the hill
  • Make our way across the famous old bridge
  • Once across find one of the paths leading to the road with a view, Philosopher's Way
  • This is the night I've been waiting for. I will walk with my husband in the castle gardens at night and enjoy a touch of romance.

Somehow we were now in the stride of vacationing life and got out of the hotel in the morning and began walking the streets before moBerry Cute Angelst of the other tourists arrived. It was a Sunday and the shops were all closed except for a few that opened later to cater towards the tourists. The cathedral in the center of town was also closed, but you could hear the pipe organ playing from blocks around it's center. Like every other city street we've walked during this trip there was enough to distract us, making each block take a half hour to walk. A small fruit stand on the side of the road, a view of the mountains through a side street lined with multi-colored three story brick buildings, each bedecked with verandas or windows dangling with colorful vines and flowers.

Over time we found ourselves at the base of the castle. A long and steep cobblestone road led up to the gates and from there we wound our way through the various stages of walls and barricades. The castle never saw a single victory and with each capture the new inhabitants rebuilt or added on so the walls and ways were as confusing as numerous. But the view from the hill was lovely. The town A Sisters Gentle Boostconsisted of orange roofs and river running along its side. The historical arched bridge crossed the river to where a hill covered in various fields overlooked the town. I knew this would be our next adventure, but for now we enjoyed the castle and its gardens.

High above the city the gardens terraced themselves along the hill behind the castle. Artists came to entertain the tourists with their enchanting music here and many people either stood along the wall to stare out at the view, lazed on the green grass, or walked the enchanted lanes. We chose the later. I drew my daughter into my own fantasies, encouraging her to imagine the time when princes and princesses walked the gardens alone. Together we walked and everyone else vanished. The only sound was our own footfall and the splashing of water from the fountain in the middle of the pool at the end of our shady lane. Where another lane merged a prince bumped into us unannounced and asked to join us in our midday walk. Shyly she took his offered arm and he escorted us to the pool. He left us there to dream away our fantasies while looking into the waters and mingling with the modern crowds. The spell was broken, but I trust it was a time and place that will forever remain in her dreams.

We found what remained of the rooms of the castle, even what was hidden below: a huge beer barrel. Huge just does not describe it's size. There were stairs to get to the platform on the top of it. It was here we tasted our first ice wine. A bottle cost 50 euros, so we took the tasting first. It was the most glorious wine! I would easily be able to live off of the wine itself, but would likely have to sell my children and spouse to afford it (a thought which sometimes passes my mind). Our parents left with a bottle and upon remembering how hard my father looked for a bottle of this when we were last in Germany we picked them up a bottle as well. My mouth waters at the thought of this delicacy.

By now our tummies were rumbling and we took it upon ourselves to find the coziest place (for some reason "cozy" just doesn't describe the atmosphere as well as the Dutch word "gezellig"). Fearless Leader had spotted a pub with character along the main road in the old city earlier that morning so we headed towards it. Sure enough, the inside was full of charm and it only got better as you Fancy Hat Manwalked further into its various chambers. Before long we found ourselves on the back patio which was covered to form an extra room minus a wall or two. Subtle trickling sounds from the fountains set the mood and we relaxed for a delicious linner. The food was great and the beer was better.

We left the pub wishing we could have lingered a little longer, but our tummies could hold no more. It was tempting to make up an excuse to come back later. Instead we turned towards the river and crossed the arched bridge. She was beautifully made and as we found out later, she also used to be completely covered. Amazing it must have been.

Somewhere on the other side of the bridge was a path which supposedly met up with the Philosophers Way, a walking road which gave a phenomenal view of the city. We spotted the narrow entrance into what appeared to be an alleyway lined with tall brick walls covered in green moss and overhanging ivy. It was like a maze without the extra corridors and I soon found myself racing up the path behind my daughter who insisted the others were chasing us and we needed to get away from them as fast as possible. With each turn we were sure to lose them. Who's fantasy were we living now? We ran all the way until we reached a terrace with a view and I forced her to stop for a breather. I've never been a runner (for long, at least) and the steep uphill run was getting the better of my sea-level lungs. The others caught up to us and I realized there was an issue I had not witnessed first hand in my escape. The men were now carrying the double stroller and its charges up the hill as there were too many steps to get it up and at odd intervals. They'd already dismissed turning back as they had no way of letting the two escapees know of a change of plans, so on we went up the hill. Up and up it went with tiny switchbacks and narrow turns. The men had sweat drenching their shirts and all of us were puffing, but the view from The Way was worth it all (or so they claimed). There were many views along the path down and at each we took a few moments to take in the beauty of them. The sun was now beginning to set and gave a spectacular glow to the city.

It was arranged somewhere along the way down that we would get our date night tonight. There was a pool at the hotel which had to be used at least once during our stay and the grandparents thought it an appropriate diversion for our crew of kids. Isn't it funny that if you get a hotel with a pool you never have time to use it, but feel guilty if you don't? I wonder if it is more stress to get a hotel with a pool and constantly worry about how to fit in enough time to use it, or if you should just get a hotel without a pool and take in the sights instead. I suppose the moment you did that you'd find yourself with a huge chunk of time on your hands and nowhere to spend it.

We rushed out of the hotel and into our freedom. The city was not as active as it had been when we entered it on Saturday night, but we were not out for the night life. We were out just to be . . . free. We walked the streets at our own pace, stopped when we wanted to stop, peed when we had to pee, and laughed . . . a lot. We found a restaurant tucked into a candlelit square just off the main footpath. In the center of the garden square was a lit fountain and we seated ourselves at one of the tables placed around its rim. We were late enough that most of the other couples were slowly trickling out of the gates by the time our food hit the table. We didn't need much as we'd had our late dinner in the pub. In fact, we'd originally set out for ice cream, but who could refuse this scene. We ordered a pizza to share and chocolate desserts instead. It was wonderful to sit at a table and not have to talk over the numbing chatter of children or their constant interruptions. We could pick whatever topic we wanted without worry about little wondering ears, well maybe for the ears at the next table, but I think they were more interested in our English than the actual conversation. We sat by the foEvening Ladyuntain and laughed together until all the other tables had been cleared and ours was the only remaining candle lit. The air began to bring with it a slight chill and we took our cue to exit the garden gates and make the walk up the hillside to the castle gardens. The gardens and castle walls were lit and on every other bench sat lovers, some by candlelight with wine, others in a remote dark corner. What was this couple doing? Well, seeing that we'd forgotten the candles and the wine, had a bed waiting for us in an empty room back at the hotel, and had just had the best time talking since the ocean, we got out the camera and the tripod and set to work trying to capture some night shots of the castle. I suppose this may have been more for my own pleasure as my man would likely have chosen a dark corner if I'd really given him that option, but we were both happy with our chosen entertainment anyway. We captured angle after angle and soon the clock struck midnight and most all lights went out in the gardens. The security team made their rounds and we packed up the tripod and the camera for our journey back to the hotel.

The return journey was longer than I'd anticipated; it always takes at least twice as long to make as the original. My feet were killing me and I found walking along the cobblestones in my bare feet was preferable to the ache from my worn shoes. I refused to put them on even for our ritzy hotel and snuck across the marble floor as quiet as a mouse so as not to be detected without the proper attire. Once we made it back to the room I inspected the shoes and realized I'd worn a huge crack across the middle of the sole like a hungry mouth munching on the bottom of my foot with each step. Gladly, I threw them in the trash. Now I was stuck with my smelly Keens. I bought the Keens when they first arrived on the market and they have been great shoes with the common drawback that most sandals come with: odor. Although, these came with a special sole that if you placed them in the sun they'd descent themselves. Unfortunately, the weather this summer has not been sunny and I cannot say if their magic has worn off or if I have not been able to be as diligent as previous summers to keep them from getting a scent, but they've stunk out a number of victims this summer. Sorry to all of you had to come across their path. Dare I throw those handy, expensive, yet smelly things away? I haven't yet. Smelly though they may be I cannot bare to part with them, even if I cannot bare to wear them.

W.C. Report:

What is it with the places in Europe and toilet paper? Even in that classy pub we ate at they were all out of toilet paper. When I entered the ladies room I spotted a group of women dividing the last of their kleenex to share and took it upon myself to do something about it. I went to the bar and informed them there were several ladies in the WC without toilet paper and I was concerned for them. At least they got right on the issue and ran with a stack towards the room. Knowing the disaster which awaited in that room I took my chances with the toilet in the front room. Know what? No toilet paper. But I was getting used to the routine and checked before I even thought of establishing my position upon the thrown.

Tragedy Report:

We did not leave the town with souvenirs, we did not get ourselves a bottle of ice wine, and we did not get a coo-coo clock. And I left with worry over whether or not I stored or gave away the candle nativity carousel that our German-Dutch friends gave to us when they moved, as the same ones being sold here were several hundred of euros each. I loved it then, but did I find it worth the space it would take up in my in-laws basement at the time? I fear I may have let it go as my friends did, but like so many of my belongings left behind in the states, I cannot remember where it may have ended up. I hope it found a better home than Goodwill if it is not waiting for us in the basement.

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Day Eleven: Welcome to Reims . . . France!

Smile Before You Enter

Welcome to Reims

We awoke and packed hurriedly to get out of the hotel and find ourselves a nice little French cafe where we knew a tasty French breakfast awaited us. Fearless Leader had taken the chance to jog around the city before any of us awoke, found thPick ONE!e cathedral, and spotted those few little places were we might find parking and place to eat. We picked the cafe with display windows in the front and a long stretch of tables spilling out over the cobblestone square and settled in for our first and last French breakfast. Most of our company ordered the usual croissants, bread, and coffee, but I took the chance to bring my daughters up the display window and let them pick out one item of choice. I, naturally, picked out one of the largest and most delicious looking things to share with everyone. When my mother-in-law went to pick it up at the window they asked if we would like it boxed to eat it as dessert that evening. Ha! By evening we'd be in Germany and the air or atmosphere across the border would not do a French pastry the justice it deserved. We'd live lavishly this morning and eat according to our hearts content. The meal was the best I've ever had and I will not forget it in this lifetime. I imagined myself sitting in under the umbrella in the middle of the square all day long eating one after another of the various pastries at the slightest rumble of my tummy. But the tour must move on and we walked the streets towards Reims Notre Dame.

At this Notre Dame the kings of France celebrated their coronation ceremonies and lining the walls were the various kings which had entered commonly royal and left with a crown upon their head. This cathedral has witnessed many a great day. The building which stands today was built in the late 13th century to replace a destroyed basilica which had been the baptismal place of Clovis, who was the first to start the tradition. It was full of stained glass windows and statues and pews and the like and I could have found myself bored with yet another cathedral if it weren't for the history which its walls had witnessed. I never liked history in school, but now that I get a chance to live it I am fascinated to the point of loosing myself to wander with the halls with ghosts of the past. I envisioned Joan of Arc escorting her king, Charles VII, through the doors and into victory by means of a coronation in the only church able to perform such an honorary feat. I had to force myself to rightly envision her at a young seventeen? She died burned at the stake only two years later. This church also saw the coronation of the youngest king, Louis XIV, at the age of 4. What would possess a nation to crown a four-year-old king? I can only imagine the uncertainty and forced national pride that filled the aisles on that day. Leave my daydreams I must, for there was a date we could not miss a second time.

Silly SculptureReims is known in the champagne region for the chalk pits which house the champagne as it ages. As a result we were given the choice of a variety of different wineries to choose from all in the same vicinity. I took it upon myself to make reservations with the one house which was recommended above all others and one of the only which required a reservation. I figured if we had time for any of the others we could travel to them as well, but by this time in our trip we began to grasp what goals were within realities grasp. One tour would be enough for the day before we'd be back on the road heading towards the German border. I also choose the Pommery estate because it was established by a woman, Madame Pommery, after her husband died leaving her the beginnings of a winery. She turned it into her own taste and design and found her own abandoned Roman chalk pit which she turned into underground tunnels to house her champagne. I felt it might do my family of girls some good to see all that a single woman could accomplish. She was a lover of art so, to this day, the tunnels are filled with various forms of art. Originally she had hired a sculptor which she sent into the caves to carve elaborate masterpieces along the walls. He worked non-stop for five years in the tunnels, carving by candle light, until he went blind. We've been having issues with our new reader lately; she can't seem to put books down even to sleep now and we often find her reading well into the dark night. I've told her we love her to read and she can read before she falls asleep, but she must only read a short while before it gets dark otherwise her eyes will suffer. Thankfully the fateful tale of the artist supported my argument and she has stopped reading into the darkness since.A Gift From God

Though the tunnels are not as full as they once were there were still several alleys which were piled rack upon rack as far as the flash could penetrate and further. Bottles of reserve lay collecting dust from each year behind bars. The previous means of transporting bottles by an overhead pulley system still wound its way through and around walls. It was amazing to tour the caves, but the girls were chilly and frightened in the low-lit passages. We were glad to get back above ground and to our wine-tasting, which warmed us up enough to move on to the next country.

Once we crossed the border we stopped in a little German town and found the local pub. The locals all gave us a look as if we'd just beamed down from an alien ship, but let us pass after some minimum inspection. The food was wonderful, it was refreshing being back in a familiar atmosphere and language. The girls were anxious for schnitzel again and scarfed it down like it was going out of style. Likely, it was. We would only have a few days to enjoy Germany once again. After the girls were done eating I took it upon myself to escort them out the door once more as they had energy to burn and noise to make which did not go together comfortably with the older generation of Germans seated nearby. Once out the door I noticed a little back street which called to my inner sense of adventure. I knew the rest of the family would come looking after the bill was paid, but if they didn't find us waiting at the Tour Bus this little road would surely be the next best place to look, right? When we rounded the corner we bumped into the town playground which was full of play equipment the girls had never dreamed of before. This country must not worry about lawsuits as the toys were marvelously fun! My favorite was the tiered mountain of rocks and grass which you had to climb to reach the top of the slide. And a tunnel ran underneath just big enough for a small child to crouch through. The girls tried out each to burn off some of their pent up energy and we had blast. I made Swinging Sisterssure the ruckus was loud and the laughter plentiful so the rest of our party could find us. Eventually they did, but not after much worry and wonder, and when they did it was all fun and games started anew. Even the adults took the toys for a spin. Some of the locals joined us before long and it ended in exchanging directions towards Heidelberg. All we really wanted to know was if we could get back onto the interstate going the right direction from this little town or not, but he began a long and ominous report about how we'd be up for a long and difficult drive trying to find our way to the elusive Heidelberg, which he wasn't even sure he'd be able to find himself. Very reassuring. I wonder if he'd ever really left his village.

Heidelberg was easy to find. The hotel was not. We did arrive late, as he'd predicted, but once we got to the street the hotel was supposed to be on we drove circle after circle without ever passing it's number. And whoever said men don't ask directions? This time, instead of Burger King, it was Subway which saved the day. No, we wouldn't let her out of her seatbelt because we were sure the hotel was just around the corner, and once the local Burger King gave us the proper direction, it was. From this point on it is all a blur. Something about parking the bus and elevators and hallways leading to nowhere and cards which wouldn't work in the doors and a bed.

WC Report:

All is as normal as it ought to be. Either that or we are getting used to it ;)

Tragedy Report:

While touring the cathedral Squirrel Monkey chose a border rope to take a seat on. If I could have seen the thought pass in the space between her ears I may have had the available split second to prevent the accident, but my mind was not within those borders at the moment of her decision. The second her feet left the floor her butt slipped off, feet flew into air, and her head cracked itself not on the stone floor but upon the edge of one of the centuries worn stone steps to the altar. By the sound that it made I knew we were in for a howler and by the time I could get her up in my arms the screams were echoing off the walls and between the rafters of the ancient church. I knew her daddy could not miss the call where ever in the church he may be, but I sent my eldest off to guide him to the correct source of the reverberating din. You know you've been through this scenario one too many times when you can go through the list of tests, signs, and symptoms with the speed and accuracy of an emergency room nurse. She had an instant hematoma, but it was soft, which is actually a good sign. You'd think soft should be bad, right? I imagine my finger pressing into a hole in the skull, but in reality if there were a leakage from a break in the skull the hematoma would be firm and would steadily grow. She had a headache for the rest of the day, but it got better as the day went on and soon the only reminder of her fall was hidden under her hair and only mentioned when it was time to brush her hair or she received a bump in the wrong location. I do not need to tell you that she was not a happy camper for at least a couple hours regardless.

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