Traveling with Baby

In living the expat life, Jeff and I have been fortunate enough to up our travel game this year. As you may know…from following our blog…we moved from the USA to Germany in October of 2018. Since then we have been able to visit Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain, Hungary, Luxembourg, Denmark and in a few days, Italy. Italy will bring Carson’s country count to 11 (and technically 12 since we will be visiting Vatican City…yes, it’s a country too)! This also means that we travel a lot, more than your average household. Sometimes it’s a quick 1-2 hour drive across the border, but other times it’s a quick 1-2 hour flight.

Recently, a friend asked me about my travel “must haves”. Wow…me? I’m usually so busy packing “must haves” for the baby that I don’t even think about what’s in my bag. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I was able to tell her what I always pack and actually use! I’ve compiled a list of “must haves” for both me and C and included links in case it’s a “must have” for you too. All links take you to the item or a similar item on Amazon. I am not sponsored by Amazon or any of the products listed. These are just things I have found and love.

  • Must Haves For Me:
    • Travel Purse
      • My great friend Stephanie came to visit us a few weeks ago. She had a travel purse that held a lot of items and kept them safe at the same time. You had better believe I ordered it as soon as she left and can’t wait to travel with it on our trip to Rome in a few days. It’s a leather mini backpack with zippered pockets, hidden compartments, holds an iPad and comes in a variety of colors! Face wipes
      • These are a must. Travel can be hectic and stressful. Whether you have a 60 min flight or a 6 hour flight, it’s always refreshing to cleanse your face with a wonderful smelling, cool wipe. I prefer to use the Yes To Cucumber Soothing Hypoallergenic Facial Wipes for Sensitive Skin. These are a little hard to find in Europe so I use whatever I can find that seems legit.Hand sanitizer/disinfectant wipes
      • Thinking about all of the germs in/on public spaces…yuck! Don’t! Seriously…just don’t. One way to ease your stress about the germs from traveling is hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. The Honest Company Hand Sanitizer is my absolute, hands down favorite. I love the different scents and the ease of the spray. Honestly, I carry 2-3 of these sprays with me all day, everyday…even while not traveling. I also love Clorox Wipes in a travel size. I personally love to wipe down the arm rests and fold away tray as soon as I take my seat in the plane. Small bag to hold cords
      • If you are anything like me, even while you are in a chaotic state, you like to stay organized. Not sure what it is about being organized that makes me feel calm but whenever I am traveling I have to have a small pouch or baggie to hold all of my electronic cords. If I’m really feeling inspired, I’ll even label them (doesn’t happen often). It can be a plastic baggie or a beautifully monogrammed zippered pouch as long as it holds all of the cords I have, it does right by me. (No link as this is probably something you already have in your house). I usually carry two of these with me. One for cords, as mentioned above. The other bag is for small items so they don’t get lost in my purse like floss-sticks, safety pins, a hair thing or two, moisturizer, nail file, clippers etc.Twist Ties
      • As silly as it sounds…twist ties. Yes, the twist ties that come on everyday items, yet I can’t think of one. I save and collect these in a way that makes my husband crazy. However, they make great binders for cords…you know, the electronic cords that are being stored in your small zippered baggie. Again, it’s the organization in a chaotic time that makes me feel at ease. Every cord is always wrapped and bound in an organized manner.Extra Charger
      • At this point in time, most airplanes have seats with charging ports. However, sometimes you will fly on a plane that is a little older and there are no charging ports to be found. You could turn off your devices but on a 9 hour flight my response is, “no way!” Especially not with a little one in tow. I always bring with me an external battery charger for my phone, iPad, electronics etc. This way, I know for sure that I am covered when the battery on my not-so-old-phone dies a little too quickly. Small Notebook and Pen
      • Even though most information is stored on my phone sometimes I like to actually write it down. Its always a good idea to keep a pen on you but I like to take travel notes in a little notebook/journal. Inflatable Neck Pillow
      • Let me just say that this is Jeff’s “Must Have”. He purchased these for both of us when we were traveling to China (15 hour flight) a few years ago and thank goodness he did! The Inflatable Neck Pillow provided some much needed comfort on long flights. Not only is it small and compact but it inflates incredibly easily to the comfort level of your choice. I only bring this with me on long flights where I want to sleep.
  • Must Haves for Carson:
    • Backpack Diaper Bag
      • When Carson was first born, I bought a beautiful leather diaper bag. It was large, elegant and heavy…very impractical. After a month of slinging this thing everywhere I went, my massage therapist suggested I get something a little more lightweight. I stumbled upon the Diaper Backpack. The backpack comes in a variety of colors and holds a lot of baby essentials. It is now our everyday diaper bag and we love it.Woofy, the Lovie
      • I’ve already mentioned our friend, Steph, but did I also mention that at one point in time, she was a nanny? She knows what babies want. At birth, she gifted Carson with a Lovie (mini blanket with an animal head). Woofy, the Lovie, is Carson’s absolute “Must Have” for sleep. Not sure if you’ve realized but we have quite a spirited girl with a huge personality. When she is tired, Woofy is all she wants/needs. Side note: we now have 2 Woofy’s…just in case. They are not allowed to leave the crib unless we are traveling. On travel days, we keep him in the diaper bag so she can have her comfort item on the plane. We also always leave one Woofy at home. Developmental/Busy Toys
      • Thanks to my expat/mom friend/the person I spend every day with Nicole, Carson now has a few toys that don’t leave the diaper bag. They are light weight and keep her busy when we are out and about.
        • The Dimple Toy by Fat Brain Toys is always a win! Carson loves pushing the colored silicone spots in and out. Another toy she loves is Pop and Slide Shelly a turtle toy from Fat Brain Toys. This one keeps both adults and children entertained. The colorful pieces on the turtle’s shell slide around and pop into place.The newest addition to our travel toys, especially on longer flights is the Wooden Lacing Watermelon Threading Toy. Carson fully concentrates and play with this toy for a solid 10-20 min. She enjoys threading the little green worm through all of the holes in the watermelon.Water Wow books by Melissa and Doug are also great to have on hand. Simply fill the little paint brush with water and paint the pages. When your little one paints, the water activates the colors in the picture including secret picture details. Painting on the go with no mess…sounds like a win-win to me!Travel Baby Chair
      • There are quite a few of these on the market at this point but we really like the super light weight, easy to carry portable high chair like the My Little Seat Travel High Chair. The portable high chair fits over the back of most chairs and keeps baby safe and secure. Many restaurants in Europe are pretty small and do not always have a high chair. This portable seats turns almost every chair into a high chair so you don’t have to eat with a baby on your lap.Pacifier Clips
      • Pacifier clips have been a must have for us since Carson was born. However, Carson has never taken a pacifier. She used to give us a look as though we had offended generations of her family every time we tried to coax her to take one. Almost 15 months later and she still hates them. The good news is that we don’t use the clips for pacifiers. We use them for, well, everything else. Attach one to the handle of a snack cup or bottle and “Voilà“, it doesn’t get lost when it is inevitably thrown. Clip blankets and toys to strollers with ease and again, they don’t get lost when the princess no longer wants these things.McClaren Travel Stroller
      • When I initially saw the price on the McClaren travel stroller, I about fainted. We already had a Running B.O.B. and a Chicco Car Seat Carrier. Why on Earth would we need another stroller! The good news is that we found one on CraigsList in decent condition. I’m so glad we did! It has traveled with us to 10, soon to be 11, countries. Harness Backpack with Leash
      • This is a new item that we will be trying out in the next couple of days. Carson loves, loves, loves to walk but doesn’t always love holding an adults hand while she is walking. She loves exploring and at 15 months old, doesn’t yet know stranger danger or the dangers of the environment around her. We thought it best to try out a backpack with a leash. Yep, we have officially become those parents. We are also going to call it her “snack pack” where we store her tasty treats…nothing too heavy as she is still pretty little.

Lady Luck

Before leaving Chicago, Jeff and I had quite the social circle. We loved spending time with our friends who, to be honest, became family. We knew that in moving to Germany our social group would change and possibly be nonexistent. I’ll just say that Lady Luck dealt us a pretty great expat hand.

Our expat community is large and includes members from Australia, the UK, Scotland, Spain, France, Germany and of course the US. We spend a great deal of time together but about once a week the ladies break away for Ladies Night (Montag oder Mittwoch fur Mädchens, Dienstag oder Donnerstag fur Damens, Freitag fur Frauen…you get the picture). Usually it’s a nice dinner with good wine, thoughtful conversation and belly laughs. Sometimes it takes us on an adventure or a weekend away (more on that in another blog post). Every time we are together I think to myself, these girls get me. We’ve all chosen or been thrown into the expat life and are surviving with grace.

I want to take a blog post to recognize these wonderful women, friends. Expat life comes with its challenges. These women are strong individuals and believe in celebrating each other rather than bringing each other down. They are trustworthy and honest, compassionate and non-judgmental, extremely supportive in good and bad times, humorous and are overall enjoyable to be around. We don’t need specific reasons to meet but occasionally it’s to celebrate a birthday or enjoy one last night together before an unfortunate departure.

As a stay at home mom, I live for these nights out. Please don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter with 100% of my being but I do love my nights away where I get to be “me” again. What some fail to realize is that stay-at-home moms don’t get to leave work or have weekends off. In fact, sometimes our “boss” can be a real pain, especially when tired, hungry, or well, it’s a Tuesday. My boss comes with me everywhere! And, not sure how your vacations are but mine are always work trips where my boss flails her little body around in a 2″ x 2″ space on the airplane.

Our ladies nights usually take place in restaurants around Essen. Essen is the town where the majority of us live. Coincidentally, essen also means food or to eat in German. However, as mentioned earlier, sometimes our ladies nights turn adventurous. Duisburg is a little town about 20 min from where we live. It is the home of an unusual attraction called “Tiger and Turtle”. This walk-in roller coaster like attraction was opened in 2011 and built atop a former dump. A climb to the top, promises beautiful views of Duisburg and the Rhine River on clear days. And the answer to your obvious question is no. No, you cannot climb upside down on the loop…but wouldn’t it be cool if you could?

A Moral Dilemma

Imagine yourself in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language, and are unfamiliar with who to call when you need help (first responders; police, firefighters, paramedics, etc). Coming from Chicago, I would say there are some things I’m pretty savvy at such as taking public transit, perusing local museums, finding a good deal, and spotting a thief. That’s right, a car-door-handle-checking, thief.

Before I ask you the question, let me paint you the picture…My mom, friend Stephanie, Carson (baby) and I had just checked out of the hotel in Copenhagen (more on the trip in another blog). We were standing on the sidewalk with all of our luggage, waiting for Jeff to get the car from the parking garage. Rolling down the street on his pretty descent bike (I’m now assuming stolen) is a man riding extremely close to the cars. He was a little wobbly so I kept an eye on him. I was trying to assess whether he needed help or was drunk and well, looking out for my family, friend and all of our luggage. I’m to be on alert when we are traveling.

After watching him for a few seconds, it dawned on me that he was checking the handles on every car door to see if the car was unlocked. Again, coming from Chicago, I’ve seen this a few times.

Finally success! The van at the end of the street, three cars from where we were standing, was unlocked! He double checked that the van was really unlocked, parked his bike behind the van and jumped right in. He made eye contact with us before he jumped in as if to say “yeah, what are you gonna do about it?” but in Danish as we were in Denmark.

Steph, my mom and I acknowledged to each other that this was actually happening but were not sure what to do. If we approached he could possibly hurt one or all of us, which none of us were willing to risk with the baby in our arms. We also didn’t know if he was working alone or with a crew. At the same time if we approached, he could have been spooked and ridden off, saving the owner of the van their possessions and the hassle of filing a police report, an insurance claim, and trying to get their items back.

By this time, Jeff had pulled up with the car and we quickly loaded our luggage, the baby and told Jeff what was happening. He decided that while he might not be able to stop it, he could at least tell someone. He went to the nearest store, literally across the street from where the crime was happening and told the store owner. She immediately came out and called the police (or whomever) to report the incident. Unfortunately before she could come out, the thief had finished and ridden away with his treasures.

Jeff reported what he could to the police over the phone but since the crime was no longer in progress it was no longer an emergency. We waited for about 30 minutes for the police to show up but needed to get on the road for our 8 hour drive home.

Now, here is my question to you, what would you do? In Chicago, I would have called the police immediately, taken pictures for evidence and said something. But in Copenhagen, Denmark…I did not.

Please tell me in the comments. What would you have done and why?

A Tale of Two Cities…Buda and Pest

Ten adults, three kids, and one long Easter weekend in Budapest with friends, coworkers and family. Since Chamonix went so well (more about that in another post), we decided the group should travel again. Many of us are expats from the US so traveling around Europe is a high priority. What’s great about this group is that on trips such as this, we feel very comfortable breaking off to do and see things on our own then join the group for group activities. The bad thing is that with a party of 13, sometimes it’s difficult to find seating at a restaurant for dinner especially in Budapest where many of the restaurants we came across were quite small. For this particular trip we had 9 Americans, 3 Spaniards, and 1 Brit! The expat family that travels together stays together!

We arrived to Budapest on Thursday evening and after a night of restful sleep, well as restful as it can be with a toddler sleeping in bed with you, we decided to walk around the city and explore. The first sight we came upon was St Stephens Basilica. This incredibly beautiful neo-classical building houses a mummified relic, the holy right hand of King St. Stephen. You can even pay 1€ to see it lit up. Since we went over Easter weekend, the basilica was adorned with so many beautiful white lilies, daisies and tulips.

Next we walked north on the Pest side along the Danube to the Shoes on the Danube memorial. This memorial is “To the memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944–45.” During WWII about 3,500 people, 800 of them Jewish were brought to the river, ordered to take off their shoes, and shot so their bodies would fall into the Danube. Living in Europe, there are reminders everywhere of WWII like memorials, tombs, and stolpersteins. This memorial made me quite emotional, especially the pair of children’s shoes. The pebbles represent prayers and all the shoes were full.

Some in the group are planners (not us) and booked a wine cruise along the Danube. A lot of interesting information is provided about the landmarks you can see from the boat. I highly recommend this as you taste the many different wines of Hungary…and by many I mean 7. You get 7 glasses, not just tastes, of wine. Since Carson counted as a full drinking human, we occasionally got a generous pour, like my glass of rosé!

After the wine cruise, we continued north. A short distance along the river is the beautiful, neo-classical Parliament building. Then found a spot for a quick bite to eat and refreshments (photo credit: Tracy Still).

Making sure to leave no landmark along the river on the Pest side unseen, we continued our journey through the Olympic playground/park then to the musical fountain on Margaret Island. We somehow managed to show up to the musical fountain for the last show of the evening. The fountain played music by Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles, changed colors and shot various water streams of water to the beat.

Walking back to our hotel at the end of the night seemed to take forever but did provide beautiful views of the city at night.

Saturday we took a 3 hour Bike tour through Budapest. We saw a ton of landmarks and got a little different history from the day before. We learned that King St. Stephen has a daughter named Margaret. He promised to commit his daughter to a life of devotion if the Mongols could be driven from the land. They were and she was. She took residence on this island, hence the name, at the age of nine until she died in her early 30s. What amazed me the most about the bike tour was that Carson slept though most of it.

Saturday afternoon found us hiking up a hill to the Royal Palace/Buda Castle on the Buda side and Instagram posing along the way. Of course refreshments were in order once we made it to the top!

On Easter Sunday, Jeff took Carson for the morning and a small group of us headed to Gellért Thermal Baths. The Romans are said to have discovered the thermal pools and used them religiously. Now tourists and locals alike enjoy the warm therapeutic waters of the thermal baths that can be found all around Budapest. Gellért has 8 thermal pools ranging from 19-38 C. May-September there is also an outdoor wave pool but we didn’t get to experience that.

In the afternoon, Jeff got some guy time on a beer bus and I took Carson to the Easter Markets. So many local vendors, so many beautiful things for sale, so much delicious food! We also spent a little time letting the girls play in a park by a fountain. They were champs being confined to their strollers for most of the trip (…and yes, they matched).

As it was Easter, many things were closed so we decided to host the group to a large pasta dinner at our hotel, which was an apartment style hotel…the only way to go with a little one! Everyone pitched in and we were able to have a wonderful Easter celebration. The picture below is of me about to try a Rachael cake, a Hungarian Jewish traditional cake comprised of many layers. Let’s just say that I’m glad I tried it but it was not my favorite. Crushed sesame seeds make up the bottom layer and the flavor from the seeds overpowered the rest of the cake.

Monday, our final day in Budapest led us around the Jewish quarter where we were staying. We toured the Dohány Street Synagogue. It is the largest Jewish house of worship outside of NYC. The courtyard to the side of the synagogue was the burial spot for 2,200 unidentified Jews during WWII. Behind the synagogue is the Tree of Life Memorial. Each leaf on the weeping willow memorial has an engraved name of a person or family who was murdered during WWII. There are hundreds of thousands of leaves.

Not sure how or why we didn’t find the Ruins Bars earlier but on the last day our whole group made our way into Szimpla Kert the first romkocsmá (ruin pub). These bars started as pop up bars in abandoned warehouses in the Jewish Quarter. Now these warehouses/bars are comprised of many different rooms, tons of random items like one would find in a rummage sale, art installations and graffiti…everywhere! The ruins bars are really cool.

Food. Can we just talk about the food for a minute? Not only is the Hungarian cuisine divine, and I’m not just talking about the goulash, but around every corner was another delicious, tasty treat. Thankfully our group is great at sharing!

Road Trip!

When a friend from the states, who has explicitly gotten their passport to come and visit, finally comes to visit…Road Trip! And what better way to break in the passport then to go to as many countries as possible in a short amount of time. Jeff’s good friend, Grant came to visit recently and hopefully we his European adventure didn’t disappoint. Our 5 day adventure took us through Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Below are quick descriptions of places we visited and some pictures from along the way.

Day 1:

  • Cologne, Germany
    • Kölner Dom/Cologne Cathedral-This amazingly beautiful cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. One of its treasures is the Shrine of the Three Kings which it is believed to hold relics of the three wise men. The Cologne Cathedral became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
    • FRÜH am Dom-After admiring the cathedral we headed to a traditional German brewpub a few blocks away. It’s the kind of place where you find a seat wherever you can, share, tables with strangers, beers are refilled almost as soon as they are empty and your beer consumption is marked on your coaster. (The marks on this coaster indicate the beers of the group…not just me. We each had 3, 0.2L kölsch beers).

  • Remagen, Germany
    • Brücke von Remagen-In the closing weeks of WWII, this critical remaining bridge over the Rhine river was captured by the US Army. This bridge was on Grant’s list of things to see as his grandfather took part in missions that helped secure it. The bridge collapsed 10 days after it was captured in 1945 but the towers remain.
  • Koblenz, Germany
    • Deutsches Eck-The German Corner is in Koblenz and is where the Mosel river merges with the Rhine. At the eck is a statue of Wilhelm I, the unifying emperor of Germany. This statue was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in 1993.

  • Augenroller (Eye Roller)-This is a strange monument that you might walk by if you didn’t know to look for it (or what it does). It’s the face of Johan Lutter, a 16th century robber. His eyes “roll” back and forth like the pendulum of a grandfather clock and every half hour his tongue darts in and out for a few seconds. He was beheaded for his crimes so some say he is there as a reminder to stay on track others say that he is there to taunt the citizens of Koblenz.

Day 2:

  • Verdun, France
    • Verdun Memorial-An extremely well done Memorial/museum to commemorate the Battle of Verdun in WWI. Over 230,000 young men died out of 700,000 casualties (dead, wounded & missing) during the long battle, Feb. 21, 1916-Dec. 19, 1916.
    • Duoaumont Ossuary-Just a few minutes down the road lies a memorial and 13,000 crosses which hold 130,000 unidentified remains from the battle. The ground around the Memorial is still sculpted by all of the bombs that were dropped and each year they find more remains of soldiers who died on the battlefield.

  • Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
    • Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial-The burial spot for General George S. Patton and 5,073 WWII American soldiers. While sad, the cemetery is incredibly beautiful. Included in the entrance of the cemetery are 2 maps that depict happenings during WWII. We arrived 10 min after closing so we came back the next morning before heading to our next location.

  • Luxembourg City-After visiting the American Cemetery we explored Luxembourg City. It was a Sunday (which means a lot of things in Europe are closed) but it’s pretty small so we were able to see a lot of the greatest hits before checking into the hotel.

Day 3:

  • Brussels, Belgium
    • Brasserie Cantillon-small brewery that makes phenomenal sours. Seriously delicious! If you are in Brussels, make the stop!
    • City exploring took up the rest of our day. We took Grant to all of our favorite places from our last trip. Check our “I Can Show You The World” blog post for more on Brussels.

Day 4:

  • Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    • Markthal-We drove from Brussels to Rotterdam and went straight to Markthal. It’s an apartment building, parking garage, and food hall with just about every food imaginable including our favorite, the fresh made stroop waffles. I didn’t know about stroop waffles until we moved to Europe and now they are one of my favorite foods…especially when made fresh! Imagine a circular thin waffle, cut in half then slathered with fresh caramel in the middle. Soooo delicious! (Jeff’s new favorite is the stroop waffle with Nutella in the middle. Yummy!)

  • Cube Houses-These are quite interesting to look at. They are houses that have been tilted by 45 degrees. The houses are lifted and are supposed to represent trees. Together they are supposed to create a forest. One owner has turned his cube into a space that curious visitors can tour. Rotterdam is an extremely modern city full of art. It pretty much had to be after getting almost completely demolished in WWII.
  • Vessel 11-This British Gastro Pub on a boat docked in the old city harbor was a recommendation from a good friend. I’m glad we trusted her. The atmosphere is cozy and unique, very nautical. We had a few drinks and the Bitterballen. If you’ve never experienced Bitterballen, you should. They are Dutch beef ragout balls. If beef stew could be in meatball form, this would be it!
  • Fenix Food Factory-In an old warehouse lies the Fenix Food Factory. This collective of restaurant is extremely hip and modern. It reminds me of Union Market in DC, a lot of delicious restaurants in one location. We got beers at Kaapse Brouwers and a Japanese pork pancake. Both were excellent choices.

  • Delft, The Netherlands
    • The city of Delft-is located between Rotterdam and The Hague in South Holland. It is known for hand painted blue and white pottery and is said to be the birthplace of microbiology. There is a medieval Oude Kerk (old church) which is the burial site of the famous artist Johannesburg Vermeer. The main town square that sits between City Hall and the New Kerk (built between 1381-1496) has plenty of shops with fresh Gouda, ice cream, blue and white pottery, wooden shoes and souvenirs. The city center reminded me of Amsterdam with all of the canals that run through the city.

Day 5:

  • Haarlem, The Netherlands
    • Frans Hals Museum-Our last stop took us to Haarlem to visit the Frans Hals Museum. Grant has been a big fan of the way Hals painted regular, everyday people since he learned about the artist in college. Hals was a Dutch Golden Age painter alongside Vermeer and Rembrandt. The museums collection includes other Dutch artists from around the same time period as well as modern art from Dutch artists. This museum is a definite must see if you ever make your way to Haarlem as it is incredibly well done.

Celebrating with Fire

Our mid-March adventure took us to Valencia, Spain for Las Fallas with our Swedish/Spanish friends (we’ll get back to them in a bit). Jeff and I had heard about this festival in Spain where they build these beautiful sculptures then burn them to the ground on the last day. Without knowing much more, we decided to go and bought our plane tickets. What could be better than a festival where everything is burned…besides Burning Man?

Year of the Woman!

A little background: Each year the many different neighborhoods in Valencia (around 350) sponsor and build a Fallas* composed of ninots** that are based on a broad theme. Sometimes the theme is satirical and usually focuses on local, national or world politics and events. Sometimes the theme pokes fun at trending societal norms and daily life. Familiar faces (celebrities, world leaders, and famous locals) make up the ninots which help tell the story, compose the theme and make up the gigantic Fallas standing between 35-50 feet tall.

Ninots are used to create the larger Fallas.

Fallas and Ninots

*Fallas means fire and refers to both the festival as well as the large statues/structures created.

**Ninot is a smaller statue. Many ninots together create a Fallas.

Brexit

Beachy Keen!

Where did this tradition stem from? Great question, I’m so glad you asked. In the 15th century, carpenters in Valencia would have to work by candle light and special lanterns in the evening during the winter months. The eve before the spring equinox and subsequently also the day of Saint Joseph, the patron saint of carpentry (March 19), the carpenters would stack their wood scraps, candle wax, and other junk they found when spring cleaning into the middle of the street and set it a blaze! By the end of the 18th century the wood scraps were formed to look like people, usually celebrating well known locals.

Well known locals

So…way back when the fallas were made out of wood, candle wax and junk, what are they made of now? Again, excellent question. Now, the ninots and fallas are made of wood and papier-mâché. Artists spend hundreds of hours meticulously constructing, sanding and painting the papier-mâché ninots. The artists and designers get one day, March 15, to take all of the ninots and erect the fallas in the middle of the street. Reminder, there are at least 350 of these being constructed at the same time and that just talks about the large fallas. Each neighborhood also sponsors a fallas infantiles or children’s smaller fallas only about one-third the size of the regular fallas. There are 600+ fallas, large and small, around Valencia during the festival.

Fallas Infantiles

Children’s Fallas

So what exactly happens? When do we get to the burning of these beautiful sculptures? Patrons of each neighborhood walk to the Plaza de la Virgen in traditional Valencia costume with an offering of flowers for the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Forsaken. These flower offerings then cover the statue of the Virgin Mary…no, she does not go up in flames during this festival.  Women are dressed in beautiful bodices and flowing skirts of various colors with their hair plaited and decorated with gold pins and covered in veils of lace. Many of the dresses have been in the families for generations and even serve as wedding dresses. Men, also known as falleros are dressed like pirates in black pants, black jacket, white shirt and colorful scarves and tend to carry flasks.

Traditional dress, band, parade and flower offering.

A band, las desperta, is placed at the start of each neighborhood parade and firecrackers follow. Speaking of firecrackers, everyone and I mean everyone is either throwing poppers or lighting firecrackers. The bigger and louder the noise, the better. There is also a fire parade, Cavalcada de Foc, leading the casal faller or fire starters through the streets to their respective falla and incorporate colorful, noisy fire displays.

Cavalcada de Foc or Fire Parade

March 19 at 10:00 pm (22:00) around the city, the smaller fallas, fallas infantiles, are lit. The larger structures don’t burn until 12:00 am (00:00) the morning of March 20. Fireworks are places inside and around the fallas to start the burning of these incredibly beautiful structures also known as La Crema. After a 5-10 minute firework display (in each neighborhood at each fallas) that rivals 4th of July firework displays in the states, the fallas eventually catches fire and they burn baby, burn. From start to finish the entire fallas has burnt to the ground in around 30 min leaving nothing behind but a smoldering pile of rubble. By morning, clean up has happened and one would never have guessed that these magnificent structures had even existed.

Falla and Falla Infantile before and after.

Back to our Swedish/Spanish friends. Jeff and I met them on our honeymoon cruise in 2016. They had delicious looking deserts so I just had to ask what they ordered and if it was any good. My inquiry about sweet treats led to a wonderful conversation and lifelong friends. They were so kind to visit us in Chicago for New Year 2017 and we were finally able to visit them this year in Spain! We spent a few days with them in Torrevieja before heading to Valencia. Their hospitality is unmatched! We had an extraordinary visit and hope to see them again soon.

Our Swedish/Spanish Friends

I Can Show You The World

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium was a place that I never knew I wanted to go and is now a place I can’t wait to go back. It easily sits in my “Top 10 Cities Around the World” list alongside Barcelona and Venice.

While the Germans don’t really celebrate Halloween (it’s a new holiday, only partially well received around here), there is a national holiday for All Saints Day, November 1. If All Saints Day lands on a Thursday, as it did in 2018, Jeff’s company provides a bridge day or Brückentag on Friday allowing workers an extra day off or a bridge to the weekend. So we packed up our bags and drove about three hours to Belgium to explore the wonderful city of Brussels!

This was what one might call a “last minute trip” that we decided to partake in on a Monday with a departure of Thursday. While last minute planning is exhilarating it also comes with some challenges such as acquiring a hotel at a fairly reasonable price on a European holiday weekend. Luckily I have a husband who is talented in seeking out good hotels at decent prices. It also helps that Jeff and I realized that when exploring a new city, the hotel is where we sleep at night…not where we spend the majority of our time. We are always looking for a comfy bed, clean linens, close to public transit/trains and free Wi-Fi. In Europe we have found that the NH brand meets our criteria.

We ended up staying at the NH Brussels EU Berlaymont. As the name suggests, the hotel is located about a block away from the Berlaymont Building which is the home of the European Commission and the European Council. It is also a quick walk to the train and Parc du Cinquantenaire.

The Grand Place in Brussels is a large, open pedestrian area that features beautiful architecture such as the Town Hall and the Guildhouses. It was about a 30 min walk from our hotel or a quick train ride. Our first day exploring Brussels, we walked from our hotel, through Brussels Park, past the Palais Royal, took a few pictures, warmed up with some hot chocolate then made our way to the Grand Place. Unfortunately I can’t remember all of our details over the three days we were there but I do remember the overall great vibe and picturesque places that Brussels had to offer.

When I think of Brussels, more specifically Belgium, I think of food. Yummy, delicious food! Waffles, chocolate and beer were the first to come to mind. For some reason I didn’t know that Belgium is also famous for fries. I guess I’ll have to go back! Back to the food we did eat! The waffles with Nutella were incredible and can be found EVERYWHERE! So melty and delicious. We had milk, dark and hot chocolates at a chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud. Then spent a good amount of time drinking beer. Why not, right? We went to 2 beer locations, the first was a beer bar Moeder Lambic, the second was a brewery Brasserie Cantillon that specialized in sours. We did grab a beer at Delirium Café but it was packed so we stayed outside.

Brussels also has Manneken Pis, a well known public sculpture. The good news is that there is not just one but three of these statues! There is a boy (the original), a girl (outside of Delirium, thought to have been placed there to encourage tourists to eat at the restaurant that was there before Delirium), and a dog (newer and it’s painted yellow not a fountain). We only made it to two. The boy statue periodically gets dressed in costumes. Not exactly sure what this particular costume represented.

Besides the peeing statues, Brussels is full of beautiful, public art. If you ever get the chance to visit, do it! See all of the wonderful things and eat all of the delicious food!

The Bare Necessities of Getting to Know Germans

Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife. I mean the bare necessities, old Mother Nature’s recipes that brings the bare necessities of life.

Have you ever heard of the peach and the coconut? Yeah, me neither…until the cultural training we had a week ago.

It is said that Americans are like peaches, soft. Americans tend to be extremely friendly, smile at strangers, offer personal anecdotes and are very helpful. Americans ask how you are doing and expect small talk in return. Americans say things like “we should grab coffee sometime.” But, just like the peach, American’s have a hard inner pit. They are extremely private and do what they can to protect themselves.  So, while they say things like “we should grab coffee sometime,” it probably won’t happen.

It is said that Germans are like coconuts, hard. Germans do not appear to be friendly, do not smile at strangers and will not start a conversation with a stranger. It may take a few cracks, but with time the hard exterior eventually breaks and Germans become friendly and loyal friends. When Germans say “we should grab coffee sometime,” they will set the time and date. If you ask a German how they are doing, expect a lengthy answer on how they are actually doing, good or bad.

Upon first moving to Germany, I had an experience in which roles were reversed. I was the coconut moving through unfamiliar places with my hard outer shell. During a trip to the grocery store, I tried to get out of a vinegar tasting by saying I only spoke English. Unfortunately for me, the sales girl also spoke English. When she wasn’t completely sure about an English translation, she would ask the another woman who was also experiencing the vinegar tasting. The other woman was a bit older, in a wheelchair and knew the English translations right away. After the tasting, I went about my business and continued through the grocery store.

About 20 minutes later, I run into the other woman in one of the aisles. She proceeds to introduce herself, Barbara, and ask questions. Were we visiting? How long have we been in Germany? Would we be interested in having dinner at her house? Yes, you read that last question correctly. I was a little taken aback at this peach like behavior but said yes anyway. We exchanged phone numbers and went our separate ways. Before I had returned home, Barbara had already texted to set up a time and date…very German.

When Jeff got home from work, I told him all about my day…and how we would be going to a German couples house for dinner that Sunday. He, like you, had many questions about the whole situation. Where did I meet this woman? How did dinner become part of the conversation? Would we get murdered if we went? (Well, the last question may be a little extreme.) I finally convinced him it would either be a great time or a great story to tell later.

So…we went!

Barbara and her husband Dieter* were wonderful hosts. Barbara loves to cook and just wanted people/friends to cook for. She said that most of her recipes are for four to six people, so when she cooks, she ends up having too much food leftover. Barbara had prepared a four course meal and it was clear she spent a ton of time preparing for this dinner.

Their German apartment was completely decorated with an autumn theme; leaf plates, napkins, serving platters, etc. There were garlands of leaves hanging from the bookshelves and around the windows. Barbara, as we found out later, loves to decorate for the changing seasons and various holidays. She also loves collecting dinnerware and serving sets from the states.

Back to the four course meal…the first course was roasted pumpkin soup with crostini and pumpkin seeds on the side. The second course was salad with baby field greens, apples, cranberries, walnuts, and a balsamic vinegar dressing just like the vinegar we had tasted at the grocery store. The third course, the main course, was a millet salad with cranberries and pistachios and a veal and potato tagine dish with roasted vegetables. The fourth course consisted of a variety of fruit marinated in orange liqueur. Start to finish, our meal was spectacular! The conversation never stopped and was extremely rich with information, travel stories, a minor German history lesson and a lot of getting to know each other. Four and a half hours later and a diaper change in the middle of their living room, we were on our way home, talking about how wonderful the experience was and how we were glad we stepped out of our comfort zone to share in a dinner with Barbara and Dieter. (I’ve added links to recipes that are similar to what Barbara made).

*Side note: My middle name is/was Dieter. In my world, Dieter was my mother’s maiden name. While I knew that Dieter was a first name, usually assigned to boys, I have never met a Dieter…until now. Dieter, Barbara’s Dieter, thought it was hilarious that my middle name is/was Dieter. He explained that in Germany, boys were named traditional boy names and girls were named traditional girl names. Carson threw him off a bit because it is traditionally a boys name. He said that it has always been a bit shocking to him that American’s can name their babies whatever they want.

**I wish I had known Barbara and Dieter well enough at the time to take pictures. The dinner really was absolutely spectacular and should have been captured!

Even Princesses Have Rough Days

Yesterday was a rough one…emotionally.

Yesterday was the first time I experienced a real sense of culture shock.

It doesn’t help that Carson has a cold and therefore is extremely grumpy, irritable and not sleeping well. It also doesn’t help that Jeff and I finally got our “Cultural Training” about how to live in Germany. During the training we were told that culture shock is like a roller coaster with highs and lows. Yesterday was definitely my low.

One of the things on my “To Do” List was to find a pediatrician for Carson. I was provided with the name, phone number and location of an English speaking pediatrician by two of our cultural specialists. Luckily for us, the doctor was less than a five minute walk away. As I wasn’t able to dial the German phone number (yes, I have since figured it out. Apparently one needs to drop a zero in the area code after dialing the country code.), we paid the good doctor a visit.

Talk about a failure! After waiting for half an hour, the receptionist didn’t speak any English*. Thankfully a mother of one of the patients waiting did. She helped translate. I was told that this particular pediatrician was not seeing new patients. When asked if there were any other English speaking pediatricians in the area, the receptionist just shrugged her shoulders. While I stayed composed, this wonderful mother, the same one who had helped me before, saw that I was upset and was able to provide me with the name, phone number and address of another English speaking pediatrician.

Defeated, Carson and I went home. After Instagram messaging with a friend from home, I got the courage to call the newly recommended pediatrician. Again, the receptionist didn’t speak English* but she tried. Success! Not only was this pediatrician taking new patients but I was able to set up Carson’s one year check up (the U6 as it’s known in Germany).

Most days are great. They are, for the most part, easy. Yesterday was not. I need to remind myself that while this has been an amazingly wonderful, once in a lifetime experience so far, I’ll have rough days too.

*Side note-I know I reside in Germany and German/Deutsch is the language spoken. With that being said, many people speak English. If they don’t speak English perfectly they say they only speak a little but in reality, they are mostly fluent and can carry a conversation. My German language instructor has told me that anyone under the age of 35 has probably had five or more years of English in school.

A New Town for Belle

Little town, it’s a quiet village

Every day like the one before….

Our new town isn’t exactly little…according to Wikipedia, it’s the fourth largest city in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia state. Population is around 589,000 which is small in comparison to Chicago’s 2,716, 450 the USA’s third most populous city.  Our new town is charming, especially our neighborhood. It reminds me, a little, of our former Lakeview, Lakeshore East and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods in Chicago. We are within walking distance to a plethora of little specialty shops, delicious cafes & restaurants, a variety of grocery stores and the gym. This is extremely helpful as we are a one car household and Jeff uses it to get to work. There is also an amazing transit system (trains, buses, and trams) that gets us to the hauptbahnhof (main train station) quickly and fairly easily.

Since moving, my career title has changed from teacher to stay-at-home mom. There were times that I thought teaching was difficult but I at least got weeknights, weekends, and even holidays off. The job of stay-at-home mom is intense, as I’m sure many can attest to, as sometimes my boss can be a bit mercurial.

Each morning after Jeff leaves for work, I casually start my day with coffee and quietly tiptoe around the house as not to wake Sleeping Beauty. After some alone time, I get the baby up, fed and we head to the gym. The gym is absolutely wonderful! There is a kinder care room, classes, and even a coffee bar! The classes are mostly taught in German but I’m great at monkey see, monkey do. The best part of the whole experience is that Carson loves the kinder care teachers and watching/playing with all the kids.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the gym, we head to a nearby cafe for some lattes and a bite to eat. I luckily met other English speakers at the gym and sometimes they, as well as our Pilates instructor, join us for coffee and conversation.

       

There goes the baker with his tray, like always

The same old bread and rolls to sell…

Living in Germany is like living in a Hallmark Christmas movie…or the 90s. I hang out at the mall regularly and the entire town is decked out in holiday lights, greenery, and I walk through the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) regularly. Nobody has a gluten allergy and everything has full-fat! In fact there is at least one, if not two, bakeries on each block (not an exaggeration). All items are freshly baked each day and are so delicious that I forget daily that I pledged the night before to go gluten free (not the best option with all of the deliciousness surrounding me). If it weren’t for me walking everywhere I need to go, even IKEA, I would have gained weight in the two months we’ve been here.

      

Our grocery stores are small, about a quarter of the size of grocery stores in the states, but still seem to have everything we need. The difference is that instead of having a multitude of choices for one product, you only get two or three. We also shop at least three times a week as opposed to our usual one time per week in the states. There are no “organic” signs on any produce because its ALL organic, not to mention extremely reasonably priced, but that also means it goes bad quickly. We’ve learned quickly that you need to use what you buy within a few days. We’ve also learned quickly that spices don’t exactly taste the same. I never knew I would be so happy to see my American spices while unpacking.

There are a few downsides to living back in the 90’s like people smoking everywhere, paying for most things with cash, tanning bed salons (including the free bed at the gym), everything is mailed through the Deutsche Post (cash card in one envelope, bank pin in another, telephone pin in another, and online pin in yet another), and almost everything outside the Hauptbanhof is closed on Sundays.

Look there she goes, that girl is strange no question…

I didn’t realize this until my Mother In-Law pointed it out but I get stared at…a lot…and unfortunately its not because I’m the most beautiful person in the room. I get stared at because another stay-at-home mommy and I are booking our way through the pedestrian walkway, taking the train with ease, doing mom things and speaking English loudly to each other (yeah, loud Americans…its a thing!). It is not that we are getting disapproving stares, more so stares out of curiosity. In fact, we’ve had people stop us so they could introduce themselves practice speaking English (more on that in another post).