Monday, July 25, 2011

Our Last Few weeks

These last few weeks in our overseas experience have simply flown by. I had hoped to document them along the way but life is what happens after you make other plans. My back went out for a little over a week and I was completely non-functional. Meanwhile the kids had a few days of sports camp before heading off to away camp. Today, the morning of our departure, I woke up at 5:30am and haven't been able to fall back asleep so here's the last few weeks in short.

Away Camps

Morgan went away to camp in Barria for a week. Here away camps are by lottery rather than first come first serve. The camp Morgan attended is run by the government and she signed up with a good friend. We arrived at the bus in Bilbao and all seemed fine for her. She climbed aboard the bus and then a few minutes later when all the kids were on, she came running off. Morgan had never been away from home for that long and wasn't so sure she could do it. In the end, she had a really good time, went swimming, did lots of crafts and sports , made new friends and loved all the counselors. The food was horrible but that's to be expected. Apparently they had a nightly dance that ended around 11:30, long after Morgan can usually keep her eyes open. All in all, I think she might even go away to camp again...

Maia also went away but she went to Pedernales which is a camp run by the bank, also a lottery. In her case she was not able to sign up with a friend but since she has been away before that was less of a concern. Her camp is near the ocean and in walking distance to our friend Marina's house, for those of you who knew Marina, the high school student that lived in Madison last year. Pedernales was a boarding school and it is very organized. Each child's bed has a number that matches the wardrobe and the towel hook in the bathroom. There are 2 swimming pools, lots of animals, ocean, biking, hiking, sailing, horseback riding, gymnastics, and a variety of other activity options. Needless to say, Maia had a great time and liked it better than horse camp in the states.

What I learned is kids are a bit more catered to at camp here. I have been told children are sacred and I'd have to say I agree with that in how they are treated. That isn't to say that they are all princes and princesses. The community is really built around children and making sure they have the parks, activities and the experiences available to them that the society deems important. That means all children regardless of socio-economic class or disability have access. The lottery is one example and the price of the camps is another. A week of day camp in the states is far more expensive than even overnight camp in Spain. Camps are for the kids to enjoy and learn both activities and values. The kids are responsible for their own things, but they are served. They don't have regular jobs of hopper and scraper at meals, they don't have to clean the bathrooms, and if they don't feel like making their beds, they don't have to do that either. Sheets and bath towels were provided for Maia while at Morgan's camp the kids slept in sleeping bags but bath towels were provided.

Our trip to pick Maia up included a visit to Mundaka to see Marina and her family one last time. We spent a bit of time at the beach with Morgan and then enjoyed lunch and the company of Marina's family before heading to the camp.

Despedidas, Until We Meet Again
For as beautiful and sunny as our day in Mundaka had been on Saturday, the following day when I had planned a "See you later" get together including beach and BBQ picnic, we ended up with rain, wind and cold. We had a last minute change of location, still outside but under a roof at Cevecera El Molino near where we live. Everyone survived the cold and we all agreed that this is what happens when you try to plan something. Hard to believe it was the 17th of July and we were in long pants and jackets. Regardless the company was great and that was what we were there for. Our friends from Vitoria came as well as Marina who traveled 2 hours alone to join us. Of course my exchange sisters, their families and many of our friends were also there.

In the short two days remaining the kids went to sports camp while Dean and I worked, packed the house and did as many of those last minute things as we could. I decided to bike my run and take pictures. Here's what I have been looking at for the past 7 months, although there weren't always leaves on all the trees...

Our last two nights were late ones as we got together with friends in the evenings which turned into night.

Dean and I spent late nights/early mornings packing and cleaning the apartment. Today is the morning of the end of our seven month adventure that flew by. We would all like to stay longer and we know we will be back, hopefully sooner rather than later...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Switzerland, A City View: Zurich, Schaffhausen & Old Friends

We decided to sleep in a little. Eventually we headed out beginning at the train station. From there we started a walking tour along the river towards the lake, Zürichsee.

I continue to be amazed by the beauty of Switzerland with its old buildings, many of which are painted with typical Swiss style, and the beauty of the rivers and lakes that run through so many of its cities. Add to that an incredibly efficient public transit system used by thousands daily and there isn't much to complain about, except perhaps the prices. We did well in buying a Swiss Pass which covered all of our transportation needs to and within all cities as well as many of the museums and other places we visited throughout the week.

Once we reached Zürichsee the girls were asking for a boat ride. We soon discovered that our Swiss Pass covered that as well. We hopped aboard a 90 minute boat trip on Zürichsee. The excursion took us to several ports of interest including Küsnacht, a fashionable suburb where I believe Tina Turner has a home, Thalwil, an important railway hub, Rüschlikon, a former farm village, now home to 3M and IBM, and Kilchberg Bendlikon, once home to a few famous writers and now home of Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate. It was a beautiful sunny day and quite relaxing. We discovered a few fine spots for a swim as well if we return on a warmer day. We arrived at the pier quite hungry and found a nice pasta place set back into the old town. From there we started back toward the train station and on to the hotel.

After dropping our things and regrouping it was time to meet up with Sofia and family. I met Sofia 24 years ago in Spain and we have remained in contact through letters, then email, holiday cards and on occasional visits in between. This was the first time that our kids would meet. Despite how many years had passed, we still connected like old friends. It was really great to see her and her husband again. The kids took a few minutes to warm up to each other but in no time they were playing quite well together. Spanish was the common language for them.

Dinner was amazing and I was so glad to be feeling well enough to eat again. The homemade pizza-like appetizer was followed by several kinds of grilled meats, salads, and corn. The weather was perfect for grilling out and they have a lovely home in the countryside making for just the right setting. During our time at their house we were visited by the neighboring cows and some horses that were out for a stroll. Dinner was followed by a lovely pastry assortment.

We headed back to the hotel full, happy and with a meeting plan for Sunday.

We met up with Sofia and family at the Zurich train station. The kids were happy to see each other again. We found our train to Wintertur where we then changed to Schauffhausen, 3 minutes between trains and a change of platforms but still made it with 4 kids and a stroller in tow. The Swiss rail system is an incredibly well greased wheel. Even the girls have come to appreciate train travel and public transportation done right.

Dean and I had visited Schaffhausen many years ago during the spring. It was quite different to see the falls in the summer with so much of the mountain snow having melted. The water was mesmerizing and extraordinarily loud.

We took the boat ride to approach the falls for some pictures and a quick shower. The kids seemed to enjoy the shower part. There were also some paths that went down along the cliffs to the side of the falls where we were able to get some nice photos.

By 1:30 we were all ready for lunch. Sofia had reserved a lovely table for us on the terrace of the castle. Just below the terrace was an old park which worked out well for the kids.

After enjoying our leisurely meal we decided on a visit to the castle. The view of the falls from the inside was quite nice and the tour was a bit curious. It was like a Walt Disney animated ride only the animations began as you entered each room rather than you sitting in a boat being driven by each scene. The animations told the history of the castle and the area during various periods of its use. Entertaining, informative but perhaps a bit cheesy.

From there we headed back to Zurich. As always we parted with an until next time rather than a goodbye as I'm sure we will meet again, hopefully at some point within the next decade. Monday morning, the 4th of July we headed back to Bilbao with only 16 days left in our 7 month adventure. Time is really flying by and there is never enough of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Switzerland, A City View: Cheese, Chocolate & the Olympics

Probably the most anticipated day of the trip. Can there be a bad day when it includes a cheese factory and a chocolate factory tour? For most people not, but of course I managed to get a stomach virus so it was definitely not my best day... This day took us to La Gruyere region of Switzerland, a day trip from Bern.

We went at a normal pace rather than a Lauren pace but it was also a bit rainy so that worked out. Our first stop was Gruyère for the cheese factory. We had planned a trip up into the town which is really beautiful but it was raining so hard we decided to skip it. We ate lunch in the factory restaurant instead.

From there we took the train to Broc Fabrique for the Callier chocolate factory tour. It has changed a ton since our last visit. We started out seeing some old films on chocolate to pass the time while we waited our turn on the tour. The tour itself was quite interesting and completely animated with lights and sounds to bring ambiance to the story. It started from the discovery of chocolate and led us through to the current factory. There was a bit about how chocolate is made, without giving away any of the secret recipes of course. Following the tour and buying a few souvenirs, the kids played in the Calliers playground while we waited for the next train.

Here's what the girls have to say about what they liked best:
Morgan: I liked learning the history of chocolate because it was interesting.
Maia: I liked the tasting of the chocolate and the movie theater part.
(They are still girls of few words when put on the spot.)

We returned to Bern exhausted but in time to prepare dinner and to play a couple games of foosball before calling it a night.

We checked out of our hotel and took a few final pictures of Bern before heading to Lausanne. It was a an hour or so which was a nice rest for me as I was still a bit under the weather. Our main point of attraction was the Olympic Museum.

We took the metro down to the lakeshore where we had some food by the lake. From there we walked along the water spotting some really fun paddle boats. I'd love to have something like that on one of the Madison lakes for weekend enjoyment. We continued our walk until we came upon the Olympic Museum. We weren't allowed to take any pictures inside the museum but we did get some fun ones on the outside.

Here's what the girls have to say about what they liked best about the day:
Morgan: The torches were the most interesting part.
Maia: Everything!!!

When we finished at the museum it was time to head to Luzern for the night. I have always loved the beauty of that city and in past visits have wanted to stay there. We arrived to find that we were upgraded from the Rosli Guest House to the Baslertor Hotel about which I certainly wasn't going to complain.

Switzerland, A City View: Bern

We arrived at our hotel in Zurich around 8:30pm on Monday. Easy to find and great location. Typical Swiss hotel, no AC. It was around 25ºC/90ºF with our room on the 5th floor of the hotel. HOT! But the beds were comfortable as well as the sofa sleeper so that was the most important. We took military style showers or sponge baths as the water was ice cold. Apparently the water heater must have been out and they couldn't divert the sun to heat the shower water. Once we were out it felt good in the room.

First thing Tuesday morning we found breakfast at the pastry shop on the corner. Then we gathered our belongings to head to Bern. We'll be back in Zurich for the weekend so we didn't take the time to see any of it at the moment.

We hit Bern around 11:30 and quickly caught a tram to the Backpackers Hostel. They are closed between 12-3pm so we would have been stuck with our luggage if we hadn't arrived in time. Our room is phenomenal. Spacious with 2 single beds and 2 bunk beds along with lots of floor space, a very unusual find in Switzerland.

Another sweltering hot 90 degree day. We grabbed picnic lunch and headed to a park. Challah and salami with gruyere followed by some fruit hits the spot. By the way, the pre-made challah sandwiches were with ham. I never quite understood that combination but it always humors me.

We then headed down the main shopping street towards the bear pit or perhaps I should now say enclosure as it is a much improved space over the original dry barren pit. The pit now has a small gift shop and the enclosure is a large hillside with a water stream below.

We abandoned our original plan to head to the Rosengarten due to the heat. Instead we opted to head back to the hotel for our bathing suits and check out the free public pool beside the river, a perfect spot for a steamy hot day. The pool was definitely refreshing. After a bit of swimming, Maia and I decided on a short float down the river. The current is extremely fast and we didn't have good shoes to wear so we went barefoot. Staying close to the shoreline was a bit hard on our feet but we weren't going to venture too far, only from one stop to the next. A nice experience but a bit scary with a kid. Maia, my amusement park thrill rider, didn't want to do any more than what we had done. The float part was fine but the getting out was challenging. Maybe when she is older we'll be a bit more adventurous about the experience.

After a brat, another dip in the pool, and some ice cream, we were ready to head back to the hostel. We walked by the Parliament and the splash park after riding the tram up the hill.

On our way back we realized that the stores close at 7pm and we still needed to buy dinner and breakfast. One of the nice things about our hostel is the ability to buy, store and cook food in the kitchen. So after a bit of grocery shopping we were in for the night. Fed, showered and exhausted, we headed for bed.

Scenes of Bern