Friday, September 28, 2007

Jack Turns 17

Yesterday was Jack’s 17th birthday and I’d write about it but I’m feeling too old. You see this is his LAST birthday as a juvenile. Which makes me….well, you know.

When he was a baby Mike would hold a footy pajama clad Jack under the arms and dance him across the top of the couch. “Do the Jack, J-Jack, Jack, J-Jack, Jack, Jack”.

On his first birthday, being the first Nolan grandchild, he got a Fisher Price slide and the rapt attention of 10 adults as he slid down it in my living room for hours. “My” we all exclaimed “Isn’t he brilliant!”

When he was 3 we took a flight from the Mankato airport to Milwaukee. He walked into the airport like he owned the place – going up to strangers, tugging them on the jacket and saying “I’m Jack Nowwwan”. They looked to me with confusion. “He’s running for The Senate” I replied.

When he was 4 and 5 he spent hours imagining, designing, and building things. “Mom” he’d say, “I need a stapler, glue, tinfoil, battery, pinking sheers, large needle, 3 eggs, a light bulb, dish soap and 6 egg cartons”

Ages 6-12 were spent in the ravine with neighbors Andrew, Aaron and Chris creating medieval weaponry out of sticks, newspaper and duct tape, defending battlements and harvesting the neighbor’s raspberries.

Ages 13-15 he learned to scuba dive, he joined the swim team, excelled in school, became well know for his sense of humor and genius in math and on the computer.

At age 16 he got his driver’s license, got a job and learned to fly an airplane.

And now at 17 he has traveled to 15 or so countries learned a little Spanish, French, and German. He has been in the Himilayas at 16,000 feet above sea level, and dived to 100 ft. below the sea.
He is planning his college career – wants to be a pilot and business owner and a computer scientist.

And just today he asked if I couldn’t find him a stapler, lighter, some baking soda and tinfoil.

WE LOVE YOU JACK! Happy Birthday! And don't think I didn't notice what you were doing with your finger in that picture.

Dreams of Reims

Reims, France, an hour south of Paris, is exactly as picturesque as a small French town should be with its cobbled streets and provincial stone buildings, window boxes spilling pink geraniums and purple salvia. The men are dark, handsome and scarf-clad and the women are elegant and beautifully dressed. It appears to be a law that residents carry around a warm bread baguette and bicycles sport a basket holding freshly cut flowers.

It has a lovely Notre Dame Cathedral with stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall and an alter to my favorite Catholic Saint, Joan of Arc, looking all brave and small and female in her battle armor. The Cathedral is dimly lit by overhead fixtures and thin, tall taper candles in standing candelabras. As we walked through I noticed bullet holes from WWI scattered throughout the walls and pillars. They give you that thrilling sense of “danger in the sanctuary.”

And it is the home of eight or so Champagne houses. Champagne is proof that life is beautiful, we were meant to be happy, and it is acceptable to drink at breakfast.

Mike and I toured Tattingers and Veuve Clicquot Champagne Houses. We nodded appreciatively as we learned of the origin of champagne, the process by which the champagne is made, fermented and clarified. But mostly just were just silently wishing the huge, blonde, middle-aged British biker dudes (in their full leather chaps) would stop asking questions so that we could get to the tasting room.

We tromped through the dark, cold caves which are dug out of the chalk that is the bedrock of the city. Chalk is evidently the perfect environment for the making and storing of champagne. It is also pretty cool for carving “Jules Rules” with the heel of your shoe when no one is looking.

The good news is that the champagne was exquisite as expected. The bad news is that it is hugely expensive – even at the houses themselves. But the best news is that my unsophisticated palate appreciates the $16 bottles just as much at the $40 bottles, and the “cheap stuff” was widely available at the bottle shops near our hotel.

We spent the bulk of the afternoon carrying around a bread baguette (as is the law), my purse full of stinky cheese and trying to find the most righteous spot to sit in the grass and enjoy our picnic.

On our way out of town we passed a park. There, sitting on a bench, was a shabbily dressed man, looking rather homeless, but giggling to himself and drinking French Champagne out of the bottle - for breakfast. He has a better zip code than I do.

The drive to Zurich from Reims was picturesque, but somehow sad. Our car wasn’t hard to identify. It was the VW Taurag with a grown woman, face pressed longingly to the back window, tears streaming, arms outstretched as it motored down the Autobahn, away from France.

Monday, September 24, 2007

New Pictures Koblenz and Reims

go to this link for new pictures

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Off to Champagne

One of the best things about being in Germany is that you are 4 to 5 hours away from EVERYWHERE. On Wednesday morning Mike and I went into the University to plan a weekend trip to Zurich to visit his sisters Kellie, who lives in Zurich, and Anne who had flown in as a surprise for Kellie’s birthday.

The clouds then parted; a single beam of sunlight shown down upon me and the angles sang as Mike discovered that Koblenz is only 4 hours from the Champagne region of France. We made plans to leave that evening, spend 2 nights in Reims, France, and then to Zurich for the weekend.

Off to our German language lesson at Boas Vindas Language School, we spent two hours learning to count and the pronunciation of German abc’s. The kids picked it up naturally, pretty quickly. Mike and I had more trouble. Mike was trying to learn the difference between pronunciations of the letter i and the letter e, (sort of the difference in sound between “ee” and “eee”). “No” Kirsten, our instructor said “it’s eeee”

“eeee” said Mike.

“No eeee” said Kirsten.

“EEEE” said Mike.

“No eeee” said Kirsten.

“Kerpow, splat” went Mike’s head as it exploded all over the table.

We had big fun in that classroom, laughing and learning together. Everyone felt safe enough to practice aloud (you can’t embarrass yourself in front of your family) and the kids were particularly pleased that they “got it” faster than the adults. It is one of the best memories I will take from this trip.

Around 4 o’clock we piled into the car and headed to Reims, France, the center of the Champagne region. The drive was beautiful, as the trees and fields are changing into their fall clothes. Bright green fields of grass lay next to luminous golden fields of wheat and newly harvested fields the colors of caramel, almond and coffee. And there were cows, lots of cows.

The color of the sky as the sun set behind the mountains was unreal. Lemon and orange sherbet streaks gave way to the cornflower blue bits of sky. I got chills watching it and had that “tugging on my heartstrings” feeling for most of the drive. Maybe it was the anticipation of seeing the region that gave birth to that “sparkling nectar of the gods”, or maybe it was my chromosomes recognizing their French ancestry, but I had one of those “peak moments” where my chest filled up with gratitude and awe, practically moving me to tears. My kids think I’m a nut and Mike won’t let me drive.n

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Corinth to Koblenz, Germany

The beach at Corinth Bay is an incredible array of beautiful stones in pale greens, lavenders, blues, greys, oranges, blacks, browns, and whites. The stones are flat and rounded from the pounding of the surf and range in size from “drink coaster” to tiny grains of sand. They are great for skipping on the water, and smashing in half to peer inside, and they get hot in the sun. Anna and I had a blast playing “stone spa”, placing the heated stones on our muscles, shoving them between fingers and toes, and pouring the sun-warmed pebbles all over our backs.

The weather turned chilly during our last few days, as if nature was signaling that our beach stay was over and it was time to get down to business. One morning, around 10 a.m. we were sitting at the beach. The water was still like glass, and the sun was shining in the cloudless sky. In a matter of 10 minutes the wind started to blow and the waves grew huge – 4 to 5 feet tall. We played in the surf, jumping in the waves until they got to be too much for us. That was our last day in the sea.

We left Corinth on Sept 9, with the help of Paul and Lia who came to bid us farewell with a big bottle of ouzo and a ride to the train station. Paul helped us sort out how to buy the correct tickets, and sent us on our way.

We flew to Frankfurt, Germany and rented a car, our first time driving since June 8. Being “Gadget Boy of the Millennium”, Mike has a GPS program that runs on his laptop. Jack navigated from the front seat. Our start was just a little bumpy, taking 3 wrong turns that terminated back in the parking garage of the airport. After these 3 “cool down” laps, we were ready for the autobahn.

Trouble is our car wasn’t so much ready. Oh it operated fine, just had nothing in the way of “pick up” which isn’t something you want in the left lane of the autobahn while a Mercedes semi trailer is bearing down in your rearview mirror at the speed of light. Just a little scary.

We arrived in Koblenz, and met our landlady who let us into the 3 bedroom condo that we will rent for the next five weeks. It is darling, with a sunny yellow kitchen, tiny, gated yard, living room, three bedrooms and two baths. One slight problem is that there is a shower in only one of the bathrooms, and it is tiny. Also, the light has begun to flash on and off, not blinking like a fluorescent bulb will, but actually on and off like a roller disco. We call it shower-disco.

We are hand-washing dishes and hanging clothes on a clothesline these days. It’s positively 1956 here in the Nolan world. I even clothes-pinned a dishtowel to my shirt yesterday as I was making homemade chicken noodle soup and didn’t have an apron. (With a Coke costing 3 Euros (about $4.50) in the restaurant, we are eating at home these days).

And it is incredibly beautiful here. Koblenz is in the Rhine River Valley, where the Rhine meets the Mosel Rivers - both rivers are narrow - only 1/4 mile across so it is easy to see the far banks, the delicious natural beauty, and the gingerbread villages that populate the area.

Narrow, two-lane roads snuggle the river on both sides, and are bordered by a 3 foot high ancient, grey-brick wall (decorated and maintained by some grandmotherly German lady with millions of bright red geraniums neatly placed every 30 feet or so). The banks of the river are steep - soaring up several thousand feet and are planted with grapevines in tidy sections around rocky outcroppings. The castles (one every 10 miles or so) are perched atop these craggy hills and glower down on their respective vineyards. This goes on for hundreds of kilometers in all directions. Oh, and the leaves are turning. I go into beauty shock every time we make the drive. It's Mother Goose and Grimm’s Tales, Cinderella and Snow White every where you look.

Mike started teaching at WHU last week and loves it. Two of his students asked him to advise their Master’s Thesis. He doesn’t quite understand how it is that when he comes home we don’t sit quietly and listen to him with rapt attention and ask thoughtful, intelligent questions.

We don’t have internet at the house, so it has been more difficult to keep the website updated. We have to all tromp down to this elite, ivy covered university en masse, to use the computer lab which makes Mike all nervous and twitchy. I told him I would try to keep from gutting a possum in the quad, but I don’t think he thinks I'm funny

Corinth, Greece

Leaving the heat and crowds in Athens, we traveled to Corinth, Greece, an hour train ride south west from Athens, on the bay of Corinth. We stayed at Basil and Linda’s Janavaras’, flat, just a few blocks from the beach. It was beautiful and relaxing.

Our week in Corinth was spent doing exactly what we wanted to do, which was mostly nothing at all – apart from eating too many gyros and fried calamari, drinking too much vino at lunch, lazing on the beach, and trying but failing to learn some Greek.

Basil’s family (Paul and Lia) met us at the train station and took good care of us with gifts of wine, pistachios, and ouzo. They helped us throughout the week and we shared a nice dinner with them in Loutraki. Lovely people.

I spent much of my week policing my kids, trying to make sure they didn’t wreck anything in the Janavaras beautiful condo. What is it about staying at a friend’s home that brings out the chimpanzee in teenagers? At one point I intercepted Charlie with a knife in one hand and the fireplace lighter in the other, just “walking around looking for stuff”.

Homesick set in about mid week. School started back home on Thursday, and my kids read excited emails from friends about the start of the year with subjects like “You can’t believe who I got for a homeroom teacher!” and “What am I going to wear on the first day?” It was hard for them to be missing out on all of the back to school buzz.

It was also the first time that I really questioned myself and the wisdom of this decision to take them away from their home and friends for five months. I heard that voice in the back of my mind saying “What are you doing? Get home and give your kids a NORMAL life with friends and activities and school”.

But of course, that is the voice of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the unusual, fear of not following the status quo. And it has been my experience that any decision based in fear turns out to be a bad decision.

I know that even when we are tired, frustrated and fighting, when it feels like I’m just “spinning my wheels” and when my kids say things like “I don’t care that it is thousands of years old, I just want to play a computer game!” That this is the right decision for us and that this experience will change all of our lives in ways we don’t even know yet.

Monday, September 3, 2007

New Photos Austria and Greece

New photos of Vienna, Athens, and Greek Islands Here

Vienna to Athens

The Vienna airport does it right. No security until you are at your departure gate. No long lines, standing behind clueless first-time travelers trying to carry on their gallon-sized jug of Scope with $760 worth of quarters in their pockets.

The EU also does it right. No lines for customs or to have your passport stamped. No crying babies, no stinky, travel-weary backpackers shoehorned next to you in an over-lit auditorium-sized room. No over-zealous, self-important business-types who just have to make a phone call THIS INSTANT, and are arguing with customs officials about just how important they REALLY are.

Nope – just baggage claim, and off you go.

We arrived in Athens to very hot weather, and in the wake of the terrible fires that devastated much of southern Greece. These fires were the worst that Greece has ever seen, destroying some 469,000 acres of forest and farmland, and killing 65 people.

Our taxi driver pointed out some of the razed land visible between the airport and the city of Athens. We met a couple who had visited Olympia just a day before it burned. They said the restaurant they had dinner in just the night before was completely gone.

There is a smoky haze that lingers over the city of Athens now, and the heat, they are afraid, is likely to rekindle some sparks. Though, news today is that the last of the fires are now under control.

We spent the last three days in Athens, touring the Temple of Zeus, the Olympic Stadium, the Parthenon, and taking a day cruise to the islands of Poros, Hydra, and Aegina. The crowds are huge and the weather is very hot, so we are doing the “go until you can’t take it any more and then stop, sit, have a Gyro and glass of Ouzo” tour of Athens.

The food has been incredibly good. Seriously, unbelievably good. I am ruined for Greek salad and tomatoes. Mike’s goal has been to eat an gyro an hour until we leave, or he dies.

The highlight for these last three days has definitely been the island of Hydra where we jumped off rocks into the blue Aegean Sea, and swam in the salty, clear water for hours. Our next favorite was the beach on Aegina where we had chicken fights, (Charlie and I are the reigning Greek-Island Champions) laid in the shade of a beach umbrella, ate fresh, pan-fried calamari and drank ice cold Mythos beers.

Today we leave for Basil and Linda Janavaras’ place in Corinth. I can’t wait! But first, just one more Greek salad.

Vienna Waits for Me

After 2 weeks traveling around China and Tibet, we made our way to Vienna, Austria for three nights. It is a spectacular city full of so much beauty and history. Unfortunately we were so jet lagged (passing out at 5 pm and waking at 3 am to start the day) that we slept through most of it.

Anna had the toughest transition from the 10 hour flight. While waiting in the airport for our van to arrive her head spun around and she turned into the “spitting, snarling travel beast” that we all harbor somewhere deep inside. We all just looked at her in astonishment. “Who is this child? Is she having a seizure? Why isn’t her mother doing something?” The next morning, however, she didn’t remember a thing about the whole incident. Cool. I always have to have drunk a whole bottle of wine to make that claim.

We stayed at a spectacular hotel – Alstadt Vienna (thanks Kellie!) very near the heart of the museum district, and took a handsome cab (horse and carriage) ride to get the hour-long-short-and-sweet tour. “Beethoven lived here….Mozart performed his first concert at six years old here…Freud practiced here” type - deal.

Taking a tour, even just a short one is really a good way to get the lay of the land when you are in a new city – especially with kids. It cuts down on the first few hours spent looking at a map and wandering around lost while people whine at you.

We passed by a “farmer’s market” and later went there for lunch. It turned out to be a small wine and beer festival complete with heaping plates of spicy fennel potatoes, sausages, and diced fried pork. Yum. But it was also our first experience with EURO vs. RMB. vs.US Dollar. US $5 for a coke. Ouch.

Mike and I spent an afternoon making a few new friends in a small Viennese wine bar. It was my first taste of the grape in a month!

Although we didn’t visit any museums, we did manage to get the kids to a performance by the Vienna Symphony and Opera Company. This was given at the Royal Palace in the Ballroom. It was lovely and the kids really seemed to enjoy it. They sat still, paid attention, and even bobbed their heads from time to time.

I, however, was a different story. As the symphony was in full glory, and the tenor in his beautiful tux was belting out a piece from “The Marriage of Figaro”, I couldn’t help but picture the Bugs Bunny cartoon, and my brother Jimmy’s rendition of “I Kiwwweddd Da Waaabbbiiiitttt”. I giggled through the whole thing and embarrassed my family.
Of course the next day I claimed not to remember a thing. Must have been the jet lag...or the wine bar.