Dec 30, 2012

2012: The "Newsletter"

2012-- In Quotes

"I'm not going to get married. I'm going to live by myself and have a dog and a horse. And, I'm going to buy a yacht. And a yacht for my horse."
-Mia (9), either formulating big plans to become the world's first nautical equestrian, or someone is a little bitter that she didn't get the dog, horse, yacht, and horse yacht that she asked for for her birthday. 

"I don't think I've ever been pooped on by a bird."
-Donna, at the Eiffel Tower in February. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what happened at precisely the next moment. Which proves that even the birds in Paris are rude. 

"I don't care."
"So what, I've seen it before."
-During our trip to Paris, Mia and Sam react to seeing the Mona Lisa in person. Also, Notre Dame got a big thumbs down from Mia. Tough critics.

"So as it turns out, the key to a good vacation is consuming large quantities of ice cream." -Mark, reflecting on the odd success of our road trip around the Netherlands this Spring. 

"Wow, Mommy, you have a really big bum!"
-Nate (4), while sharing a bathroom with me in Portugal this August. The thing that really stings is that Nate only speaks the truth. 

"Ooh, a foot cleaner!"
-Sam (7), upon seeing a bidet for the first time in a hotel this Summer.

"I actually like castles now. And I'm not just saying that to get an ice cream."
-Mia, in one of the more shocking revelations of the year, at the  Castelo de Jorge in Lisbon. 

"Nate, when you grow up, you're going to realize that everything you say is wrong."
-Brotherly advice from Sam.

"I can't believe how happy I am that French women do, in fact, get fat." 
-Donna, during our second trip to France in October. In full disclosure, we were sitting at a McDonald's. So thank you, imported unhealthy American culture-- way to do your thing. 

"Is that a baguette vending machine? It is, it's a vending machine just for baguettes. France is so awesome!"
-Obviously I was very hungry (but I still think it's pretty awesome).

Mark"Nate, what do you miss about America?"
Nate"The Eiffel Tower."

"Het is zo vervelend als mensen ons vragen om Nederlands te spreken."
-What Mia and Sam say when asked to say something in Dutch. (Translation: It's so annoying when people ask us to speak Dutch.)I thought snark would skip a generation, but apparently not. 

"Oh, look! That guy is throwing up!" 
-Nate, just yesterday, pointing to a huge picture of a boy drinking out of a bowl at our favorite Japanese noodle place. This quote perfectly encapsulates our Christmas vacation so far, as all 5 of us were struck down with norovirus this week, which we most likely spread to my brother John and his family, who were visiting from England. It was a week of cozy living conditions (11 in our little apartment!), public transportation mishaps, lost children (rather, one lost Sam on Amsterdam's busiest shopping street), and lots and lots of throw up. Merry Christmas to us!

"Gelukkig Nieuwjaar--
we missen je allemaal!"
(Happy New Year-- we miss you all!)

Wherein We Sweat Our Way Through Portugal

OK, so I fell off the face of the earth for a while, and this is only 3 months over due. But I simply can't be a bloggess extraordinaire and a connoisseur of funny YouTube videos, all at the same time. And when people take videos of their loved one's post wisdom-teeth-extraction, and put them online for me to laugh at, well, I take that obligation seriously.  So here it is, finally-- the last installment of our epic trip.

Portugal: sweltering heat, colorful tiles, grit and graffiti, stunning coastline, stucco and red roofs, monuments, custards, and castles. It's been so long, I had to go back and read my journal, because about all I could remember was that is was so unbelievably hot. Try to keep that in mind, because pictures do not convey temperature very well. We were melting I tell you. In fact, I had all these plans of bike riding and hiking in the Algarve, and we pretty much immediately realized we would be doing none of that, and instead would be in, or very nearly in, water as much as possible. Here are a few interesting tidbits from my journal, that I'd almost forgotten about: 

1. The worst argument with Mia occurred within 30 minutes of landing in Portugal. We were in our rental car en route to our hotel, and the cause of the fight was over how many times I could handle being asked "how much longer?" Turns out it is no more than 3 times in 5 minutes. 
2. We got lunch for the whole family at a food court in a mall for 10 euros. 
3. My favorite quote of the trip, on the beach in Lagos-- Sam: "I wish we had some water floaties." Mia: "I wish we had some snorkeling stuff." Nate: "And I wish I had a remote control train that can shoot at things." 
4. Quote from my journal: "Day 19: More fights/conflict with Mia. Maybe someday I'll learn how to handle them? My current approach of passive-aggressive belittling is pretty ineffective."
5.  The beds in our hotels in Portugal were rock hard, every single one. However, all but one hotel had a bidet, which our kids thought were foot baths. So, our take-away is that in Portugal, that clean, fresh feeling takes precedence over a good night's sleep. 
6. That's all I can remember, now on to the pictures.

One of my favorites-- the seasoned travelers en route to Portugal. 

FYI: in case of an emergency landing on Ryan Air, there are no dentures, jewelry, high heels, or eyeglasses allowed. So too bad, old people. 

I don't even remember the name of this town anymore, but here we are somewhere in the Algarve. So different from Norway already. 

First day at the beach. Warning: I am not responsible for any naked people in the background. 

Sam begged to rent this slide boat. Guess who wouldn't even go down the slide? 

Oh, it was an amazing coastline.

On a boat to explore some grottoes.

Yes, that man is as naked as a newborn. Zoom in at your own risk.

We stayed in this tiny village near the Southwestern most point of Portugal. Almost all the old homes had been turned into vacation rentals, and it had a fantastic little pizza place that served the best chocolate mousse I've ever had. You must go sometime. 

It was insanely hot. The fact that, after taking this picture we did not jump immediately into the water, was considered a form of child abuse by some members of the family.

Instead we walked down to the Southern-most tip of Portugal: the end of the world. And to Mia, it was. 

But she was willing to take a break from complaining to pose for this picture. That's my girl.


We spent 4 days at the beach. By this point, we were actually a little tired of it. Almost.

While waiting for our train up to Lisbon, we encountered the film crew of "Top Chef Portugal." We were definitely filmed in the background, so now we're pretty famous in Portugal, I imagine. 

From what we gathered, they were preparing a meal on a train station platform. Why? Because it's "reality" TV, that's why. 

We made it to Lisbon. We did not get screwed over by their public transportation. 

Everybody cheered.

Yes, the hop on/hop off buses are a rip-off and super hokey, but our kids LOVE them and actually sit quietly listening to the prerecorded tour guides. They think the cheap head phones are the best and rave about how nice it is that they give them to us for free(!).

If you ever make it to Lisbon, go to the Aquarium! One of the best I've ever been to. That turtle is swimming under a glass walkway.

On our way up to Castelo de Jorge, a medieval castle site in the middle of Lisbon, and the site where Mia told me (exact quote): "I like castles now. And I'm not just saying that to get ice cream." 
I know. 

Look who likes castles now! 

OK, this meal started off nicely enough, until our food arrived.  And see those accordion players in the back ground? Yeah, they were just the beginning of an all out attack of hyper-aggressive street vendors. Eventually, our refusal to buy the world's cheapest (and I don't mean least expensive) glow-in-the-dark piece of garbage resulted in nothing less than a full-blown existential crisis for Sam. He left in tears. I left hungry. But luckily Nate never noticed that the "hamburger" he ordered was actually a ham sandwich. 

 My sister-in-law told us about these little custard pie things, and oh my. Salvation! If I was eating those, you could probably sell me a hundred glow-in-the-dark overpriced pieces of crap. They are that good.

The next day we took a day trip to Sintra, which boasts not just 1 but 3 castles. Mia's favorite! Though at some point during that day, she may have reneged. I'll let you skim through the pictures of everyone having a wonderful time. As far as I remember correctly. 

Our very final leg of the trip was Porto, a city in Northern Portugal. It was a lovely city, but honestly, we were so tired, we mostly walked around and found places to sit and stare. We arrived on Sam's birthday, so for dinner we went to Europe's fanciest McDonald's. And I'm not kidding either.

This crappy photographer didn't capture it, but there were chandeliers, stained glass, 20 ft ceilings, and probably an original da Vinci fresco (maybe not that last one). It almost tricked you into thinking the food tasted good too. Nice try McDonald's. 

We came across an animal market, and these pictures do not even come close to capturing the number of public health violations going on there. 

And with that, we said goodbye to Portugal. 

At the airport, heading home. It'd been a long, long trip. On our plane, Mia actually said, "thanks for planning a great vacation mom!" Seriously people. I can't decide if she was sincere, or if it was PTSD. 

Oct 13, 2012

Channeling Our Inner Vikings in Norway

Norway: breathtaking views, vikings, trolls, fountains, wooden cabins with grass roofs, mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, emerald water, ultra modern architecture, clean, efficient. In so many ways, Norway reminded us of home-- both Northern California and Seattle. For that reason, it might be my favorite stop on our trip. But Norway holds its own distinct charm, and was an incredible place to visit. It was also an expensive place to visit- the third most expensive country in the world actually. Sandwiches for everyone from a 7-11 cost us 35 euros ($45) for lunch on our first day. To be fair, they were not bad sandwiches for a 7-11, but still, that is $9/sandwich! From a 7-11! Norway, you crazy.

 Our first stop was Oslo.
I had to spend an hour or two at the Tourist Information office, so the kids had free reign at the plaza in front of the central train station. 
Nothing says "we give up" quite like letting your 4 year old run around in public in his pajamas, which are also hiked up to his armpits. 

In fact, let me take this opportunity to talk about this kid for a minute. Nate, who has been seemingly running for the World's Best Behaved Child Award since birth, decided to make up for all those years of easy-going, mellow, angelic behaviour on this trip. I promise he went through his terrible 2's, terrorist 3's, and eff-you 4's all at once. When we were driving in Germany one day, Sam started complaining, "Mom, can you move Nate? He's just really bothering me with his loud singing, wiggling, hitting, poking, whining, bad breath..." When he wasn't throwing tantrums, tormenting his siblings with his halitosis, and generally being ornery, he was perfecting a flair for all things goofy and silly. And nothing brought that out like posing for pictures. We have so many pictures of Nate being a goofball, I had to make another collage. 
I think we have our future theater major. 

So our first stop in Oslo, was the Norsk Open Air Museum, which should have been one of the highlights of the trip, as it is amazing, but Mia would have none of that, mostly because we made the mistake of telling her it was a museum. Tip #2: When traveling with kids, avoid using the M-word at all costs. 
 Old Stave Church? Mia says No Thanks. 

 Cooking demonstration.

Oh, Mia hated this. 

I loved all the old cabins with grass roofs. Some of my children were less enthused.

I don't know if this some sort of Norwegian thing, but we found a four way drinking fountain. I seriously want this installed in my house. 

We moved on to the Viking Ship Museum, which was equally despised by Mia, if not more so. Something about really amazing ancient artifacts just rub her the wrong way. 
Perfectly preserved viking ships are soooooo 9th century. 

Next to Legoland, the kids would probably tell you that playing in our hotel rooms was their favorite part of the trip.  When we got back to our room that afternoon, they played happily for a few hours while we unpacked and looked up places to eat.

They were so happy in fact, that they seemingly lost all ability to listen and respond to any requests to get ready to go get some dinner. It should be noted that Mark, happily reunited with his phone and wi-fi connection,  also lost touch with his listening skills. Well, hell hath no fury like a woman who is tired, hungry, and being completely ignored. It was decreed that everyone would go to bed immediately and there would be no dinner that night. There were protests all around, so the mean old witch stuffed the children in the oven and ate them for dinner. Oh wait, that's a fairy tale. In reality, Mark came to the rescue and brought in some greasy, overpriced hamburgers while I sulked and gave everyone the stink eye. That'll teach 'em.  

However, the next day dawned bright and beautiful, and the promise of a day of biking around Oslo made everyone happy. Also, horned bike helmets helped quite a bit. (Side note: the helmets only fit Mark and Sam, and we were barely able to get Sam to pose for this picture as he refused to wear the helmet on the bike. In fact, he just saw this and begged me not to post it. Ha ha, sorry buddy. I'm still mad about being ignored.) 

On the way to the Royal Palace. No horns for us. 

All that euphoria lasted just until we got to the naked statues at the Vigeland Sculpture Park, and someone threw a tantrum and then got yelled at and then refused to pose for this adorable picture.
Hint: that person is Mia. 

I believe this one is called "Mother Traveling with Small Children." 

Cooling off, in more ways than one, at the Marina.

Reenacting Munch's The Scream (you can see it advertised in the background). 
Then we went and saw the real thing. 

The building where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. As you can see, Sam
 got a lot of mileage out of The Scream. I think it really spoke to him. 

Last morning in Oslo. We went to an old castle/fort looking over the city. Let it be known to all that in this picture, everyone is happy. Even Sam. That's his happy face.

Another example of Nate being Nate. 

The rare thumbs-up assessment from Mia. Sam on the other hand...

So we're eating lunch in town, when this goes by, with peppy music blaring and perfectly synchronized marching:
So naturally, we joined the throngs chasing after, and ended up at the Royal Palace
 for the changing of the guards.

What followed next was possibly the most boring 25 minutes of my life. I promise you there was a full 10 minutes where the guards stood in 2 lines and stared at each other, while ABSOLUTELY NOTHING happened. We survived to tell the tale, but let me assure you: nothing zaps you of your will to live like pomp and circumstance.

And with that, it was time to leave Oslo. We took a train into the mountains and stayed in a small town next to this lake.

We stumbled onto a little Norsk Heritage festival, hiked around the lake, got a little lost, and ate at a pizza joint where I made Mark take this picture, and if you've ever traveled in Europe you will immediately know why: 
Water!! Big, beautiful glasses of free, refillable water. This is why I love Norway, right here. Our pizza may have cost $50, but we had all the water we ever wanted-- with absolutely no beverage shame. Bless you, Norway. 

Next, we made our way to the far Western coast of Norway to the charming city of Bergen. 

With manholes like this, what is not to love? 

We rode the funicular up the hillside, and took in the views that made me homesick for  the Bay Area. 

The Bergen Funicular offers a treasure hunt through the woods that the kids loved, and took VERY seriously. Really, don't try to suggest to them that it wasn't an extremely important treasure hunt. I'm quite sure they thought there were lives on the line.

Norway is known for it's troll mythology, and I love that they had these sprinkled throughout the woods:

Back in town, we try to walk through the historic warehouse district that is now an UNESCO World Heritage site, but suddenly our happy little treasure hunters could not possibly walk another step without complaining, loudly, about everything. 

Here, I believe that Mia is in the middle of saying, "why do we have to stop every 3 seconds to take another picture?" By the look on my face, you can see that I agree.

So sometimes you just have to stop and let the kids climb some trees and draw in some dirt, 
and catch the historic buildings on another trip. 

The next morning we hopped on a ferry that took us through the fjords,
 to a little town called Balestrand on the Sognefjord. 

Postcard perfect, yes? 

Word's cutest mail box shed.

Family photo op.

Viking burial ground.

Tiny little church.

Fjord jumping. I just need to point out that Mia loved this. She really loved it. So we did it twice. 

The next morning we got up early to go on a little glacier excursion, 
which involved getting on another boat.

The scenery was incredible, and we not only have the pictures to prove it, but also the pictures of people taking pictures of the scenery to double prove it. 

Below the glacier.
It was so amazing, it inspired the kids to hug. That is one powerful glacier. 
Someone, however, felt a little threatened.

The little town closest to the Glacier was known as a book town, and it had tons of these bookshelves and sheds of books for sale scattered throughout. How cool is that? Right Mia? In fact, let's take a picture because you love it so much! 

The next morning we were up early again and took another boat to a town called Flam. From there we took a ride up the mountain on the Flam railway, one of the top train rides in the world, depending on which Top Train Ride websites you are reading. I'm guessing it's also one of the most expensive, and at the price we paid for tickets, there was no way I was going to allow any electronic distractions. So we started out like this:

And ended up like this, 30 minutes later when we stopped at a waterfall. 
Mia isn't in the picture because she was in a time-out back on the train. Sam and Nate are clearly wishing they were too. 

On that note, we hopped on another train back to Oslo, where no one was forced to look at the scenery, and we all lived happily ever after, for the next 5 hours. 

One Last Funny story: The trains in Norway have Family Cars where there is a little play area for kids, because they are awesome like that. On the way back to Oslo, we met a kid in the family car, and when I saw him and his older sisters, I knew they were either mormon or from Utah. My mo-dar was going crazy. The boy was probably 9 or 10, and pretty soon he and my kids were playing, and it didn't take long to realize they all spoke English and came from the US. I asked him where he was from, and of course, he was from Tooele, Utah, but his family is living in Prague right now. Pretty soon he asked me if was familiar with his favorite podcast, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." I'm not making this up people. So I said, yeah, it's one of my favorites too. Then he had me to listen to his favorite episode of "Politics Takes a Holiday," a musical political satire show, which he had memorized by the way. He entertained my kids for an hour or so, and eventually we all went back to our seats. 
So now it's time to play my favorite game: 6 Degrees of Mormon Separation. Someone out there has got to know of a family from Tooele, Utah, living in Prague with 2 teenage daughters and a 9 or 10 year old son who has a thing for political satire podcasts. And please, I hope that it's your cousin's roommate's old dentist's bishop's former mission companion who lives next door to a family that moved to Prague. OK, ready? Go. 

Norway, we loved you, and your free restaurant water, and your rugged viking charm. Even Mia loved you, though it was hard to tell at the time. But you totally broke our bank account, so we'll see you again when we're millionaires. 

Next up: Final destination, Portugal.