Friday, September 21, 2012

Where Are The Swedish Fish? - Sweden

We are back from Sweden. Ahh... Sweden. It was so beautiful. So green. So peaceful. So wonderful. I will sing the praises of Sweden forever, or for as long as I love my new Volvo.

Last week we flew to Gothenburg, Sweden on a budget European airline called Ryan Air. They have crazy cheap prices. The only catch is that you can only bring one small carry on and I do mean one. No purse, no camera bag. ONE carry on. If you want to check a bag it's more than your ticket.  Most people bring a back pack the size that children take to school so that is what we did also. In this smallish back pack we could only fit 4 shirts, 4 changes of underclothes and socks, and 2 pairs of pants and a few small toiletries. Packing was simple for a change. I am hoping that as we travel more that we become like a well oiled travelling machine. My kids will easily be able to grab the things they need and pack their bag and sling it on their back and off we will go. A girl can hope, can't she? Well, anyway, you can't bring too much on this airline so you end up looking the same in almost all of your pictures. People ask us if we did all this stuff in one day. No, we answer. We just didn't have a lot of clothing options. What is fashion though if you are in Sweden?

When we arrived in Gothenburg, the car company Volvo picked us up from the airport and took us to our hotel. That brings me to the reason for our trip to Sweden. My husband ordered a new Volvo XC90 for me! It is fabulous. I love it so. Although, since it has been 7 weeks since I sold my old car, my beloved GMC Yukon back in the States, I would have been happy with a tin can on wheels. I have felt so trapped here on this Army base without a way to get around.

We arrived on Friday and our car wasn't going to be ready until Monday so we took the weekend to do some sight seeing. First thing that we noticed is that everybody speaks perfect English in Sweden. Everybody. People would greet us with a 'hej' which is Swedish for 'hello' and sounds exactly like 'hey' in English. We would answer back 'hello' and they would slip seamlessly into English. A little side note on this - It felt very strange to walk into a store and be greeted by 'hey' and then to answer back 'hey'. I felt like I should follow it with a 'wuz up'. Seeing as how everyone (and their dog) spoke English we didn't feel too impressed to kill ourselves learning Swedish phrases. The only one we learned and really used was 'tack så mycket' which is pronounced 'talk sa mewkia' and means 'thank you very much'. Most Americans don't even bother with learning that so we got big smiles from all people that we thanked using their native language. 

The first day we walked around downtown Gothenburg, which in Swedish is spelled Göteborg and pronounced 'Yuh-te-borya'. Gothenburg is a small metropolitan area and is very, very clean and well maintained. Everyone is fair and thin and dressed well. It was a yuppy heaven. 

After walking around a bit we decided we wanted to see more of the Swedish countryside so we rented a car. Alexander and I walked over to the rental car store where I proceeded to pull on a door for a good 30 seconds while the Swedish car rental person sat inside watching me. Why did I pull for 30 seconds? Because it was a push open door. Since moving to Europe and travelling often I have tried really hard not to appear like a stupid American. I don't want eye rolling or muttering under breath about how ignorant Americans are. I want to impress people with knowledge and sophistication. Well, in this case, knowledge and sophistication were completely blown so I just owned my stupidity. I finally figured out the door and walked in and said loudly to the guy at the counter, "Am I an idiot or what?" and then pointed at my head and made a face with my tongue sticking out which made him laugh so hard coffee came out of his nose. We are now good friends. Another side note here- When we returned to the car rental place my husband and I walked to the front and Alexander and I were quiet seeing if my husband made the same mistake we did. He pushed open the door quickly and we shockingly asked how did he know to push and not pull? "See that word right there?" he said. "It means push." And he then gave me a face that pretty much said Really? As in, 'You really had that hard of a time opening this little tiny door? So I stuck my tongue out at him and said "Okay Mr. Albert Einstein of languages and door opening ability. I don't speak Swedish." To which he answered "Neither do I." With quite a smirk on his face. 

We took a free ferry to the island of Hono which is off the coast of Gothenburg. It was full of little neighborhoods and tiny mom and pop grocery stores. We loved it. Except for the wind. The wind was blowing about 30-35 miles an hour off the ocean. Brrrrrr...

We ran over the rocks and hiked around the coast. We watched wind surfers with a death wish brave the waves that were crashing on the beach. We watched an old man sit on a small pier and try to fish. We looked out at the vast expanse of ocean thinking about how far away from home we were.

After we felt we had obtained a sufficient wind burn for the day, we returned on the ferry.

We visited a local candy shop in Gothenburg looking for some local fare. And what could be more Swedish than Swedish fish! We asked the cashier (who spoke perfect English) where the Swedish fish were. She answered back were we looking for a fish restaurant? No! We want the candy Swedish fish! All she had was a bin of sub-par candy fish. Not called Swedish fish, but called pastel fish. Oh Sweden, you almost had the chance to be perfect. And yes, we bought the Non-Swedish pastel fish and they were okay. But nothing like we were hoping.

After the whole Swedish/pastel fish fiasco we took our children to a park in Gothenburg. Half the kids running around in this park had white blonde hair. I missed my lighter blonde hair. Swedish parks seemed much more fun than any park I grew up with. Check out this slide!

And check out these giant bowls that you can spin around in!

My husband and I felt short changed that we didn't get these things at playgrounds that we grew up with. So we tried them out too.

There are no words...

The next day we traveled up the coast to the village of Fjällbacka. A tiny town built into a little strip of land between a rocky coast and cliffs. It was gorgeous. 

There is a short climb up some steps built into the cliff side and then through this crack in the rock. It was like something out of Indiana Jones or that scene in the movie Goonies where the large rocks are suspended above your head. We all said silent little prayers as we walked under them.

Watch out.

After winding our way through this crack and up more stairs, we came to the top of the rock out cropping and we were rewarded with sweeping views of the whole village. Of islands out at sea. Of boats sheltered in the harbor. Of clouds coming in. And with wind. Again. Lots of wind.

Sweden was amazing. It touched a part of my soul that answers to oceans and wind swept beaches and cottages sheltered against rock. I could see myself here. I could imagine living here. Forever. But enough of that because it was Monday. It was Volvo day. I was getting a car.

Volvo picked us up at our hotel and took us to the factory. Upon arriving at the factory we found out there were five other groups of Americans who had come from the States to pick up their own Volvo in Sweden, drive it around Europe, and then ship it back to the States. Who wouldn't want to do that? You get a Volvo and a trip to Europe! It's this whole thing that Volvo has been doing for years! Why didn't I know about this? Future trips for Volvo's and Sweden are in the works.

We stood around with the other Americans comparing notes on which model and color we had all picked out. In the waiting room there is a glass garage where they drive your car out and present it to you. They then show you all the features of your car and then you get a chance to drive it on the test track out front where you can drive as fast as you want. 

When they brought my car out, I seriously almost cried. 

Yes. That is me hugging my new car. I wasn't ashamed at all. We got our car first so all the other Americans watched and laughed and applauded as I hugged my new Volvo.

After Volvo gave us a tour of the factory floor where we got to see a Volvo made from a painted shell to a fully functioning automobile (which if it takes about 55 hours like they said, why did my car take so freakin' long) and then a lunch of Swedish meatballs. Not too shabby. Thanks Volvo! 

After three long days I loaded my family up and we drove our new Swedish car into the Swedish sunset with long sighs of contentment. The whole time in my head I am thinking about what Volvo means. It means 'I Roll' in Latin. Hmmm, I thought. Not only in my new Volvo do I roll, I rock.

Now we had to drive home. We stopped for dinner at a Swedish steakhouse in Malmo, Sweden. Malmo had much more of a big city feel than Gothenburg. 

One difficult thing about Sweden is although they are part of the European Union, they are not part of the Euro Zone. The two entities are not synonymous. Sweden operates under their own currency of the Swedish Kronor. At the time of our trip the exchange rate was $1.00 to 6.6 SKR (Swedish Kronor). It made figuring out prices much more difficult than when we went to France and could carry the Euro we use in Germany straight over and use it there. 

Malmö, Sweden.

We had wanted to spend the night in Copenhagen, Denmark. But after further examination of the map, we realized that left us with far too many kilometers to drive the next day. We had to get further into Denmark. We pushed on to Odense, Denmark where we stayed at a yucky Best Western. Here another difficult item presented itself. Denmark isn't on the Euro either. It operates on it's own currency, the Danish Krone. After paying for the hotel I did some research. All the Scandinavian countries like Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark are part of the European Union but operate on their own individual currency called krona, kroner or krone. Come on Scandinavia. I know you want to maintain a sense of individuality and buck the trend. But if you can't go with the Euro, at least make a common currency among yourselves. Just something to think about. 

We returned home late on Tuesday. Put 950 miles or 1,528 kilometers on the new Volvo. It performed quite well on the auto-bahn. Vroom vroom!

We have resumed normal life here in Heidelberg once more. But a little piece of Sweden stayed with me. I can't wait to go back. 


Monday, September 10, 2012

Paris, The First Trip - France

We made it! We have lived in Germany for four weeks now. It's okay. But I don't want to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about is the spur of the moment trip to Paris that we went on the first weekend we were here. 

When we got here we were dumped into temporary living on base here in Heidelberg. What? Heidelberg? I thought you were going to Wiesbaden you might be saying. More on that later. So yes, I live in Heidelberg, Germany. And we were in temporary living on the base there which is really a hotel room. Nobody was really too happy. After all the lead up to coming here, the selling of the house, the parties, the teary good-byes and then we get here and bam. Nothing to do. Let's go to Paris!

We rented a car and then drove to Paris. Why didn't we take the train you might be asking. Here's why. The train is expensive. As in around €115. One way from Frankfurt to Paris. Times that by 6 and then double it for our trip back. Currently one Euro equals $1.28. Pretty pricey for a weekend to Paris. So we rented a van for the bargain price of 500 Euro and off we went. 

We had no idea where we were going. We put 'Paris' into the GPS and started driving. Now here is where I made a huge mistake. My children were currently driving me crazy so I came up with the brilliant idea that there would be no iPod's or Nintendo DS's allowed on the drive. We were going to be driving through the French countryside! Look at that! The drive from Heidelberg to Paris is a pretty straight shot on the A6 to the A4 (European highways). Through Germany we drove through some beautiful hills with little villages tucked into the valleys. White houses with red tiled roofs. A picturesque church steeple rising out of the middle. Then we hit France. Nothing against France but the landscape changed pretty quickly from rolling hills to basically flat plains of corn and grain. Tractors were busy tilling the fields. Cows roamed and mooed at us. We yelled out the windows, "Hello French cows!" 

After about an hour of French countryside, my kids were bored stiff. I started getting comments like "Really Mom? Enjoy the French countryside? It looks just like Kansas." Which it did. And what do kids do when they are bored? They tease and bug each other. 

Finally, after about 4 and half hours we had Paris in our sights. Mind you, we had no idea where we were going. We had no hotel reservations. We just got in our Volkswagen rental van (we are so German) and took off. Paris streets are a little different than American streets. First, there really are no lanes. It's an every man for himself kind of attitude. And there are a lot, I mean A LOT of tiny one way streets. It's a maze. Luckily for us the geographic center of Paris is quite near the Eiffel Tower. We found a parking spot and got out.

And the first thing we saw was a woman squatting behind a tree peeing with her skirt up around her waist. Welcome to Paris.

It was a quick walk to the Eiffel Tower. The sun had just set so we were in for a real treat. The Eiffel Tower is lit in these golden colored lights.

And then every hour on the hour, it twinkles with white lights like a giant Christmas Tree.

It was magic. 

After watching the Eiffel Tower go twinkle (not tinkle like the lady behind the tree) and eating some hot fresh berry crepes at the foot of it, we were pretty tired. It was time to find a hotel. We drove past a Holiday Inn Express and checked to see if they had any vacancies, but unfortunately, they didn't. But the one down the road did! Spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express. A French Holiday Inn Express. The breakfast they offered was very French. Unflavored yogurt. Blech! Lunch meat on croissants. That was okay. 

We decided to see some sights. First was the Cathédrale of Notre Dame which I have to say is celebrating it's 850th anniversary this year! I can't fathom anything being that old and still standing. 

It's getting new bells this year. People took down the original bells during the French Revolution (1789-1799) to melt them down into weapons and only cheap hollow sounding bells were ever made to replace them. This year they get an upgrade. The Cathedral of Notre Dame has free admission and the line we stood in out front only took about 20 minutes to get through. While we waited, we took in some of the scenery around the cathedral.

And some of the detail work on the cathedral.

It took over 180 years to build. People who worked on it for their entire lifetime wouldn't live to see it's completion. That's dedication. 

We went inside and had a seat. I sat there on the hard wooden pews imagining what had taken place in this magnificent hall.

How many people have sat here for hundreds of years listening to preaching? Had anyone ever begged for their life? How many people were married here? Were they happy or were they scared? How many people sat in the confessionals listing sins? How many people sat at the feet of unmoved stone saints pleading for help?

There was only one way to pay proper respect and that was with a quick silent prayer that those souls that were here in the past found rest and those that came in the future would find answers and peace. And onward we go.

We ate at a cute French street cafe were we had coque monsieurs and pommes frites (french fries). Very tasty.

We decided to check out the Louvre Museum. Upon arriving there we realized it was really too late to start something of that magnitude so we went sight-seeing around that area. My son Aidan had one hope when we came to Paris and that was to see a mime. Street performers have been outlawed in Paris so he was pretty much out of luck. He decided that if he couldn't see a mime, then he would be a mime.

Aidan in a box.

Aidan pulling on an imaginary rope. 

After a long day we went to find a new hotel room. We wanted to see different areas of Paris so we decided to stay in a new hotel every night. The next hotel we stayed at was definitely not the Holiday Inn. It was tiny on a tiny one way street. The elevator was literally the size of a broom closet. There was only room for one person and one bag at a time. The rooms only came with two twin beds so we had to get three rooms. Got kind of pricey. Matt had parked illegally to register and then was advised if he wanted his car in the morning he better move it. He then drove around for the next hour looking for a spot. That's the thing about Paris. No where to park. 

The next morning we went to our car and there was a very disturbing pile of something in front of it. A pile of poo. Not dog poo. Certainly not horse poo. It looked like someone had an emergency and ducked for cover between our high profile vehicle (Volkswagen van) and the car in front of us. We were disgusted. We drove right back to the Holiday Inn Express where we stayed the first night that has three beds per room instead of two and private underground parking. Ah...

We decided that driving the van around Paris wasn't really working. There are no parking places in Paris. And I really mean none. We parked the van in our poo free parking garage under the wonderful French Holiday Inn Express and had a try on the Métro. The hardest part of riding the Métro was buying our tickets. The system is fully automated and of course in French. We asked this French man of about 25 if he spoke English, he answered a little and then proceeded to help us buy our day long tickets. We headed out for the Catacombes de Paris

The Catacombes de Paris are an underground cemetery where the dead of Paris were placed due to overcrowding of church cemeteries in city limits. They hold about 6 million people. That's a lot of bones.

We rode the Métro. Got to the catacombs, and had them close five minutes before we got there. Ugh. Rode the Métro back to the Eiffel Tower. Climbed Eiffel Tower. At this point in our vacation the camera died. Crap. Anyway, the climb up the Eiffel Tower was great. Worked off all those crepes and eclairs we had been eating. Well, maybe not all the crepes and eclairs. We had eaten a lot. 

Had one last opportunity to eat dinner in Paris. Chose a little out of the way restaurant. At this point in our trip we had yet to meet a person that we needed to converse with that didn't speak English. At both hotels the staff had perfect English. At the French cafes they had passable English. Wasn't too bad. At this restaurant, the staff had basically no English. It wasn't a problem though. We had a great waitress. When we would point at the menu and say qu'est si voici (what is this) and she would say cow and then we would say beef? And she would laugh and say Oui! Beef! We still weren't too sure of what was going to show up on the plates when we got the food.

Paris wasn't all perfect though. It was hot for Paris. About 85° F (29.5° C). Pretty warm for walking around. And nothing, I mean nothing, is air conditioned. Whew. We got warm. And drinks. That is another problem. Paris drinking water is disgusting. They don't even have an option for it on the menu. If you ask for water they bring you a €4 bottle of Evian that is about the equivalent of 10 ounces. Not that thirst quenching. And bathrooms. There aren't a whole lot of them. Probably why we saw a woman peeing and then poo in front of our car. Every time we went anywhere we asked if they had a toilette and forced our kids to go. We never (thankfully) had to use the public bathrooms on the street where you have to pay. And trash. There is a lot of it. Major tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame were pretty clean. When you got off the beaten track like we did at our second French hotel you see a lot of garbage on the sidewalks and streets. And urine. Every stairwell to the Métro, walking along the Seine River, every alleyway reeks of overpowering urine. Paris has been settled for about 2,000 years. I figure there's bound to be some pee smell here and there.

So that was it. Well, maybe not all of it. Andre got to see that his name really is French.

Buildings everywhere said 'André This' and 'André That'. 

We had fun, but not too much fun. Here are a couple more pics of our time in Paris.

When we returned back to Heidelberg, we mentioned to some people we met that we had gone to Paris. Their reaction was, "Ewww, Paris in the summer? Never go in the summer. Always spring or fall."

Okay. Spring or fall. And I must say this advice is some that I will follow. Paris was crowded. Like crazy crowded. When we were on the Metro the train cars were about 90° F (32.2° C) and we were pushed in there against all these hot bodies. Hot, French, bodies. 

This is what I learned and what I will pass on to you for travelling to Paris.

1- Driving to Paris isn't too bad. Driving IN Paris sucks. Get a hotel with a parking garage.

2- Learn a couple of French phrases before you go. People are much more willing to speak to you in English if you ask them in French.

3- Use as much French as you can when speaking with a French person. They really appreciated it (even if it's only merci).

4- Take your budget and then add at least 25%. Paris is expensive.

5- Embrace the Métro. It really is the easiest way to get around. You just first have to figure out how to use the ticket machine.

6- Have a plan and research it. I guess that goes without saying. Something we didn't know is that museums in Paris are closed on Mondays. Would have been helpful before we showed up at the Louvre and the catacombs on Monday. 

7- Tell all of your friends that you are going to Paris. Rub it in their faces. For some reason the fact that we drove off to Paris for a long weekend has upped my coolness factor with some people. More than moving to Germany. Who knew?

We are planning a second trip to Paris next year to see the things we didn't get the chance to last month. Stay tuned for Paris - Trip Numero Deux in the spring! Next trip, Sweden!

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