Post Paris Post

We spent the first week of April in Paris, in a cozy corner apartment a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, and right down the street from my amazing cousin Georgia. As soon as we knew we would spend a year in Europe, I knew we’d spend at least one week in Paris. Paris is the only place in Europe where we have an actual relative. Not a relative in the sense of someone you don’t know but is somehow distantly related to a great aunt whose father came to the New World on some boat from Sweden or Poland or some other place in the Old Country, but an actual relative – my first cousin.

I also wanted to go to Paris because Jason and I had been once before and hated it, and everyone else who’s been seems to love it. We were college students, railing around Europe after semesters abroad, and we made the obligatory stop in Paris. But we soon discovered that the city was in the grips of a massive train workers strike that meant almost every major attraction was closed because people couldn’t get to work, or they decided to stay home out of solidarity, or both. For us it meant walking around a hot, dusty city, schlepping a large duffle bag that I for some insane reason felt was the appropriate luggage for a trip around the continent. We were broke and annoyed, and after two days of cheap wine, cheese and bread, we left, humming Jonathan Richman’s song, “Give Paris One More Chance.”

So, we gave the city one more chance, and we’re glad we did. This time the trains were running, the museums were open, it was fresh and cool, we had a bit more cash in our pockets, and while we had three children to amuse, we also had extremely generous Georgia to help us out. We arrived late on a Saturday afternoon, and after checking into our apartment, we headed down the street to Georgia’s place, where we were greeted by her gorgeous and mellow Collie, Briar, and the sumptuous aroma of the dinner she and her husband Stefan were cooking.

Paris is of course known for great food, and we did have several really fantastic meals out, but the best food we ate in Paris was at Georgia’s house. We quickly adjusted to the later eating times and longer meals of “real” adults in Paris, and enjoyed three wonderful dinners at Georgia and Stefan’s home. Walter endured the wait by studying a National Geographic magazine about the Titanic, and then recreating in great detail several diagrams of the sinking ship. The girls took an immediate shine to Georgia, whom they had met only once before, and joined in the conversation and routine. Each dinner included both veggie and meat options, as well as pasta for picky Walter, and always a cheese course, with at least five different cheeses to sample with bread and fruit. Georgia’s place quickly became our second home, filled with wonderful books, cool art, comforting food, generous family and a lovely dog.

Our first full day in Paris was the first Sunday of the month, when most museums are free for everyone, so we decided to introduce the family to Parisian art at Musée D’Orsay, with its expansive collection of impressionist art, and L’Orangerie, home to Monet’s massive water lily murals. Unfortunately, the line at the Orsay was so huge we could barely see the entrance, so we decided to pass and walk across the River Seine to the Tuileries Garden. There we found an eclectic collection of sculptures, some beautiful trees, and a Spielplatz (none of us use the word playground anymore)!

Fashionable Anya on a Paris Bridge

Greta & Tuileries Garden Sculpture

After playing, we headed over to check out the line at L’Orangerie. Fortunately it was more manageable, and after scarfing down some bad street vendor food, we finally got inside to see some paintings. The museum layout was apparently designed by Monet specifically to house his giant water lily murals. After stepping through a blank white room, we emerged into a large, oval room with four massive paintings surrounding us. The natural light seeping in from above and the actual serenity of the fairly crowded room were perfect for studying the paintings.

Walter & l'Orangerie Model

All five of us were awed by seeing the brushstrokes so closely and experiencing Monet’s complete command of painting the vast spectrum of subtle light. A second similar room displayed paintings of the same scene at four different times of day, underscoring this specific brilliance. Jason and the girls took a closer look at the rest of the art and checked out the special exhibit on Debussey and visual art. Walter loved best the models of the Orangerie building. All in all, a great first museum for us all!

Afterwards we walked from Place de la Concorde past up L’Avenue des Champs Elysées to L’Arc de Triomphe. It’s one of the most famous strolls in the world, but any past glory has now been overtaken by modern excess. The street is filled with obscenely expensive cafés and hyperfashionable stores, and crawling with people who simply want to be seen. Perhaps that’s what the street has always been, fashions changing with the era. By the end of the street we were all tired, and the famous Arc de Triomphe was also disappointing, surrounded by speeding cars and concrete – a celebration of the excesses of war capping off a celebration of the excesses of consumerism. Luckily we ended the day with another great meal with Georgia and Stefan.

The next day we set out to climb the Eiffel Tower. A broken elevator meant that the Tower lifts were running at half-capacity, making booking in advance impossible for our timeline. So we decided to hike up the over 700 stairs to the second floor. With all the walking we’ve done in Europe this year, a few hundred steps didn’t intimidate us, and little Walter was most excited to get a close-up look at how the Tower was built, so he could replicate it with Legos. Unfortunately, by the time we got over there, even the line for the stairs was snaking endlessly around the Tower legs! So, we quickly changed direction and headed for Notre Dame, hoping to climb the bell tower and come face-to-face with a gargoyle. Jason also wanted to see the glorious stained glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle, a smaller church on the same island in the middle of the Seine. However, excessively long lines again foiled our plans on both accounts!

We did get to see the inside of Notre Dame’s impressive sanctuary, with its beautiful rose-shaped stained glass windows and gothic grandeur. The massive organ was being tuned while we were inside. Greta and Jason marveled at the minute changes in pitch coming from the giant pipes, but the deep, loud rumbling agitated Walter and Anya, so we couldn’t stay too long inside the crowded church.

Outside the Amazing L’As du Fallafel

Thrice deterred and more than a bit grumpy, it was clear that we needed some good food to lift our spirits. We found exactly what we needed at L’AS du Fallafel, an Israeli-style falafel house in the old Jewish quarter of the Marais neighborhood. Numerous friends had recommended L’AS, apparently it is world famous. The giant, mouth-watering falafel sandwiches on warm pita, dripping with sauce were served by cute Israeli guys in a family-friendly locale (where we witnessed a French child screaming about her lunch, by the way, so don’t believe everything you read). We stuffed ourselves with perfect comfort food, perhaps the best sandwiches our family had ever eaten.

I then slipped inside the kosher bakery across the street to stock up on supplies for our Passover Seder. Lugging a giant box of matzoh and a jar of gefilte fish, we made our way through the Marais to Place de Vosges, Paris’ oldest square. Anya and Walter played in a sandbox with a couple other kids, while Jason, Greta and I took in the sun and watched dozens of people doing the same. Reluctantly leaving this spring grandeur, we headed to the Centre Pompidou, the National Museum of Modern Art.

Walter Chases Pigeon outside Pompidou Center

The Pompidou Center was the only museum Jason and I managed to get into during our first visit to Paris. For whatever reason it remained open during the train strike so we took full advantage of its free lockers to stow our luggage and air conditioned rooms filled with eclectic modern art. The building itself looks like it’s been turned inside out, with pipes and innards jutting out everywhere. The kids enjoyed the wacky architecture and art as much as we did, although at first they weren’t sure what to make of the art that didn’t really look like art. Why is a large white canvas with one red blob, art? Commentary is art, I suppose.

Girls & View from Pompidou

The kids had fun hiding in the crevices of Winter Garden, a large white cave with black lines dividing sections. And they especially liked the early 20th century art – Walter was impressed with cubism and Anya with paintings containing circles. Greta liked to study the progression throughout the decades. Later Jason tweeted Walter’s assessment of cubism: “They painted a picture, crumpled and cut it up, then pasted it back together. Cool!” The Pompidou Center picked it up and retweeted it, so accurate was his description!

That night Georgia and Stefan were busy with a second set of guests, Stefan’s brother and wife, so we set off on our own for dinner. Around the corner from our apartment was the famous little street, Rue Cler, which, in a two block section, is packed with wonderful food markets and restaurants. There we found our favorite restaurant, Le Petit Cler, which had something for all of us, even Walter who loved the spinach goat cheese lasagna so much he had it both times we went. The place was filled with tourists, including an American couple who told us that their cousin who lived around the corner recommended it (so did ours!), but the lack of locals didn’t detract from the really good food and kid-friendly staff.

The next day we headed across town to the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, a science museum which looked like it would be a boon for each of the kids. Unfortunately, the rigid and expensive ticket pricing, as well as the method by which the museum was divided up by age group, left us a bit caught in the middle. We opted for the older kid, less expensive option, which unfortunately required a more reading than we expected, especially challenging given that many exhibits weren’t translated. And the entire place was absolutely crawling with French school children on field trips, so every section was loud and chaotic. But, we still managed to find some activities that appealed to everyone, including a mini-rocket launch, a DNA matching game, a transportation exhibit with a fun video-photo collage, and a very cool optical illusion exhibit. We spent several hours there weaving through exhibits and crowds before we had to escape for some fresh air and quiet.

The museum is part of the Parc de la Villette complex, which is an incredibly odd combination of eclectic sculptures; gardens; play, exhibition and performance spaces. Apparently the Park’s design is post-modernist, deconstructivist architecture, as inspired by the philosophies of Jacques Derrida, and if that’s the case, it is really effective. We wandered through the maze of a park, climbing on various structures, including several of the 35 giant red “follies” that Anya was convinced were constructions sites.

Anya & Walter in Parc de la Villette Spielplatz

The kids and I rode on the double-decker Jules Verne carousel, and then we found a gem of a post-modern Spielplatz. It included zip lines, human-sized hamster wheels, mini-golf-course-like elements, sand boxes, bouncy areas, and lots of nooks in which to hide. We all had a great time there, playing and relaxing. On the way out of Parc de la Villette, Jason peaked into the Musée de la Musique, while the kids and I searched unsuccessfully for some ice cream. Jason spent some time in a Bob Dylan retrospective, before dashing through the enormous collection of every type of musical instrument possible. He came out saying he wished we’d visited music instead of science that day, but alas, we had no more energy for museums just then.

That night an attempt was made for a family meal with Georgia, Stefan and their other guests at a small restaurant, which serves primarily omelets and wines from the small town of Sancerre in the Loire Valley. It’s a family restaurant and Georgia and Stefan, and Briar, have become part of the family. Hopefully after our branch of the family visited, Georgia and hers weren’t disowned. I was able to dig up several sentences of French as I apologized to the owners for the screaming boy who parked himself under the table. Jason gulped down some wine and eggs before dragging an extremely fussy Walter back to the apartment for some pasta. C’est la vie avec les enfants, non?

The next day we finally climbed the Eiffel Tower. Jason went to wait in line early while I got the family ready, and stopped in our favorite bakery on our block, Nelly Julien, for croissants and other baked goods for our wait and climb. We met Georgia and Briar in line, and Anya went off with them to shop and prepare lunch while the rest of us ascended the metal hulk. When the Tower opened, we were some of the first people to start up the stairs. Climbing just over 700 stairs wasn’t actually difficult. After a few hundred we made it to the first level, which is the wide lower platform that includes displays about building the Tower and its history. Walter was fascinated by the mechanics of how the Tower was erected in 1889, and wanted to see each photo documenting the process. It was incredible to see workers, sporting no safety gear at all, hanging onto the sides of the Tower-in-progress.

Climbing up to the next level, Walter started to tire, and Jason and I remembered just how much we really didn’t like heights, but Greta plowed forth undeterred. The second level had an even better view of the surrounding city, but was much more crowded and chaotic.  But, having gotten this far, Greta was keen to take the elevator to the very top level, so I ignored my vertigo and agreed to go with her. Jason and Walter took the elevator down to wait for us in the park way below.

Ruth & Greta at Top of Eiffel Tower

As the packed elevator whirred ever upward, I flashed back to a visit my family made to the World Trade Center in the late 1970s, my terrified mother pinned to the inside wall of the top level of the Tower, unable to look out at the magnificent view of New York City. Not wanting to repeat this scene, I managed to ease myself to the edge of the Tower to look out over Paris. As I did so, my fear diminished, and Greta and I had a great time watching the tiny scenes below, especially a nearby soccer game and the boats on the Seine. The top level includes a replication of Gustav Eiffel’s famous visit with Thomas Edison in Eiffel’s tiny office, as well as one of the shortest public bathroom lines in Paris!

After meeting up with the boys, we went back to Georgia’s apartment for a gourmet lunch prepared by Anya, Georgia and Georgia’s sister-in-law, Deanna. Given the choice between climbing hundreds of stairs and then looking down at tiny buildings below, or shopping for and preparing fresh food for everyone, Anya easily chose the latter. She loves to shop and cook and eat, so my future chef went with Georgia and Deanna to Georgia’s favorite Paris market, the Marché du Pont de l’Alma.

Deanna, Georgia and Anya's Lovely Luncheon

When we arrived, the three of them were happily chatting and chopping in Georgia’s tiny kitchen, Anya in her own personal heaven. Anya beamed as the food was laid out and we all shared asparagus-stuffed pasta, meats, breads, veggies, and Anya’s gorgeous salad, beautifully adorned with heirloom purple tomatoes. And of course there was a cheese course, and magnificent mangoes and strawberries for dessert. A perfect Paris morning for us all!

After all that climbing, shopping, cooking and eating, we could have had naps, but Paris was calling. We headed over to the Musée de l’Armée and Napoleon’s Tomb. We saw the excessively decorated tomb in its grand home, but we, especially Jason, enjoyed looking closely at the impressive armor collection. The beautiful, intricate, and sometimes downright odd designs were interesting to contemplate, especially in their context as battle costumes.

We also enjoyed, especially Walter, looking at the contents of the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, which was a series of miniature models of various towns, forts, castles and harbors used in the 17th and 18th centuries by the French army to plan battle strategies. The intricately detailed scenes were well preserved for their delicacy, and again, interesting to contemplate in their context as battle fabrications. It was fascinating viewing together the personal and architectural defenses of war.

Afterwards, we went to the Musée Rodin to take a walk in the peaceful sculpture garden. The museum itself was closed for renovation, but the garden alone was worth the stop. Rodin’s famous, The Thinker sits contemplating life just inside the garden, and many other sculptures are scattered about. I’m not a huge Rodin fan, but the juxtaposition of his works with the serene, ordered garden was the perfect setting in which to view his art. If I lived in Paris, I’d visit often just to sit and be a thinker (or reader) in the beautiful garden. We ended the day with luscious crepes in a traditional creperie around the corner from our apartment. There was no fussing that night as we all found what we wanted rolled inside the savory buckwheat and then sweet buttermilk crepes. Bon Appétit!

Having finally hit our stride, we decided the next day would be major art museum day – first the Musée d’Orsay to finally see all those Impressionists, and then Le Louvre because you’re supposed to go there and see the Mona Lisa when you’re in Paris, right? (Unless there’s a train strike.) The Orsay, a former train station beautifully renovated into a museum in the early 1980s, and even more recently updated, is perhaps the most perfect museum I’ve ever seen. Not only is the art exquisite, but the building and light and layout and colors are exactly right for showcasing the work. Although it was busy and the most famous paintings sometimes required a little wait for a good view, it never felt chaotic. The museum’s design evokes the necessary peace to enjoy the art, and architectural elements such as the giant clocks are beautifully integrated into exhibitions.

Overlooking Main Orsay Gallery

For me the paintings and period covered by the bulk of the art in the Orsay coincides with those covered by an amazing art history class I took my final year at Oberlin. I loved that class so much that if I’d taken it as a first-year, I may have been an art history major. So it was great to see some of the paintings I’d studied, in person, and to share with the kids what I remembered about their significance. While there were dozens of paintings I was excited to see, probably Manet’s Olympia was the most amazing to experience “in the flesh.” Anya and I spent quite a bit of time staring back at the stunning Olympia, wondering what she was thinking and who had sent her the flowers.

(When Anya was a toddler, we dragged the family across London on Easter Sunday so I could see my favorite painting of all, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere at the Courtauld Institute. After paying the large entrance fee, we learned that the painting was on loan in Berlin! We tried to look at other paintings, but Anya was tired and wanted to get back to her Easter basket, so she had a huge meltdown in the middle of the gallery. Seven years later, it was wonderful to be sharing a quieter moment with her in front of a different Manet masterpiece.)

But in addition to so many paintings that Jason and I knew, there were plenty that the kids themselves recognized. So, they were also excited to get up close and examine the brush strokes, step back to see the full effect, or view it from a different angle to see how the light changes. Walter loved the model of the Paris Opera House, as well as the many Monet paintings–he was particularly fascinated with the painters who were set-up in the museum, creating copies of famous paintings, presumably for an art class. The girls seemed to love it all! But, we all did get tired, and hungry, so we had to rush through the gorgeous Van Gogh’s before heading out.

After some parental arguing over an appropriate lunch place, we lucked into a tiny vegetarian restaurant where we ate the only two dishes offered – ratatouille and lentil stew. Both were perfect so we ordered some more since Walter surprised us and devoured his share. Fueled for the walk to see some more famous art, we headed for the Louvre to find that mysterious woman. Alas, the Mona Lisa wasn’t difficult to find, we just followed the herd of people heading toward her. Unfortunately, the massive flow of human beings meant that many amazing works of art simply got crowded out on the way to see one small portrait in a giant room. The number of gawkers in front of Mona Lisa prevented us from seeing her entire visage, and Walter and Anya, who were the most excited to see the famous smile, were able to see the least.

Greta Touches Top of Louvre Pyramid

Anya and I went in search of some David and Delacroix paintings, the most impressive of which was the latter’s Liberty Leading the People. But the horrible light, cluttered method by which paintings were hung, and the noise and crowds soon got us down. Greta, Walter and Jason caught a quick glimpse of some Greek sculpture including theVenus de Milo, and then we all escaped through the giant glass pyramid. Score one for the Orsay, as the Louvre was just too damn nutty! Commenting at the end of the day, Jason summed up the juxtaposition of these museum experiences this way: Musée d’Orsay takes an old train station and turns it into an elegant, beautiful museum, while The Louvre takes an old museum and makes it feel like a chaotic, overwhelming train station.

Anya, Georgia, Briar & Greta

That night we had another lovely dinner with Georgia and Stefan, after which the girls stayed for a sleepover. They loved the special attention, especially the relaxing breakfast and morning walk in the park with Briar. They threw her ball and meandered through the Eiffel Tower gardens, and truly enjoyed time spent in Georgia’s world. Later in the morning Walter and I picked up Anya for a quiet day in our neighborhood, while Jason gave a talk at the American University in Paris, and Greta and Georgia spent the day together at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet. After seeing so much European art during our travels this year, Greta was thrilled to see something new, and to try to figure out a different historical puzzle. For example, in what was billed as the “Asian Pantheon,” Greta and Georgia tried to decipher the many Buddhist gods, finally realizing how little they knew about them, compared to Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods. They arrived back at our apartment bearing gifts of decorative turtles and intricate origami paper, and stories of their great day together.

Walter & Greta with Glimpse of Notre Dame

For our last evening in Paris, we took a boat ride along the River Seine from which we had fabulous views of many of the sites we’d seen during our week, including a closer look at the wonderful flying buttresses on the back of Notre Dame and the diverse collection of bridges crossing the Right and Left Banks of the River. Afterward we walked along the Right Bank to get a different view of the Eiffel Tower, and for the kids to enjoy a final carousel ride. Finally, we enjoyed another great meal at Le Petit Cler and then walked a few blocks to get a full view of the Eiffel Tower’s nightly glittering light show. It was a great way to end our week in Paris. The next day we reluctantly bade farewell to Georgia, making a final bakery stop before heading for our train back home.

Our Family in Paris

We gave Paris a second chance, and despite its reputation as being a city for lovers, it turns out that it can be a city for family. While lines, crowds, fatigue, and some over-hyped sites got us down, the best part was finding some gems, and then sharing them with family – a favorite painting; a great view; a cool building or spielplatz; the perfect falafel, croissant or bleu cheese; a wonderful cousin and her dog – a great week in Paris!

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Green Göttingen

I’ve lived in a bunch of college towns – Ithaca, Oberlin, Cambridge (MA), Austin, Madison, and Middlebury. College towns tend to be more environmentally conscious than most American towns, what with all of those concerned 20-somethings and academic hippies around, right? My home town of Ithaca, New York probably has more of both per capita than any other American city. And it has one of, if not the first, comprehensive recycling programs in the country. I remember sorting glass bottles and bringing stacks of the New York Times to the recycling center when I was a tiny girl in the 1970s. My alma mater, Oberlin, and my employer, Middlebury, regularly duel over which is the greenest liberal arts college. It’s probably a draw, but I do have my favorite in the eco-race.

But, after living in all of these places, and spending significant time in many other supposedly eco-friendly locales, I have never lived in a college town where life is more obviously, and nonchalantly, environmentally-friendly, than Göttingen, Germany. I say nonchalantly because living in an environmentally-friendly way here is so integrated into daily life that it’s hardly noticeable. But, as an American, I notice it, and over the past few weeks, I’ve taken some photos to document what I’ve noticed (scroll down for a gallery of more).

Sea of Bikes at the Train Station

The most significant feature is that bicycles abound here. The first thing you see as you exit the train station in Göttingen is a sea of thousands of bicycles, parked by commuters coming and going from the city. I can never figure out how people find their bikes in the mass, but I think most bikes are in use rather than abandoned, as a good bike is too important to leave behind here. There are bikes and bike racks everywhere, and cars defer to bikes on the road in most cases. Even buses wait for bikes to make their way down the narrow city streets, driving slowly behind without honking until an opportunity to pass presents itself. I’ve never heard any driver complain, probably because most car and bus drivers are also bike riders.

The Fellowship of the Bicycles!

Jason’s academic fellowship at the University of Göttingen included a bike for each member of the family. Jason and I were given loaner bikes from the University’s stock, but they bought bikes for each of the kids to use this year. One of our first shopping experiences was choosing bikes and helmets at one of the dozens of bike shops in town. The next visiting faculty family will inherit our kids’ bikes, but in the meantime, bike riding is important enough here that it was assumed by the University that buying bikes for the family should be, without question, included in the fellowship. (Jason and I hope to write about a year without a car, and life on a bicycle, in a future blog post.)

Waste Containers for our Building — Compost (green), Paper (blue), Garbage (brown)

Next we noticed the vast array of recycling options and locales here. Jason mentioned in an earlier post how confused we were at first, as there are no less than six daily options for disposing of household waste. But now, just like German families, we’ve got the system figured out and integrated into our daily routine. In Vermont, we’re used to a single-stream system, plus returnable bottles, which is user-friendly because we can just dump all paper, metal, glass, and most plastic into a single bin and put it out on the curb every-other-week. We also regularly compost, bringing food waste out to a large bin in our back yard.

In Göttingen, every building shares paper recycling bins, as well as compost bins for food and garden waste, and garbage bins for stuff than can’t go in any of the other diverse receptacles. For beverage containers, all beer bottles and most soda and water bottles must be returned for a deposit ranging from eight cents to 25 cents depending on the size and material (large plastic bottles require the heftiest deposit). You often see (and hear) people hauling back large quantities of beverage (mostly beer and bottled water) containers on their bicycles. I’ve seen people peddling bikes with trailers filled to the brim with bottles clanking down the cobblestone streets back to the supermarket.

Major grocery stores all have bottle return machines, into which you can put an entire case of bottles. Of note, the bottles are washed and reused, as evidenced by the white ring on the outside of most beer bottles, where the glass has worn down from multiple uses. Didn’t Laverne and Shirley used to wash bottles for a Milwaukee brewery in the 1970s – why did this practice stop in the States? Sure, returning lots of fragile, heavy bottles is a pain (especially with only a bike), but if you want to buy more beer, isn’t it worth it?

Glass Recycling Containers, or Giant Aliens?

For non-returnable glass bottles, every few blocks or so there are large tubs, which I think resemble fat friendly aliens who need a bath, for sorting white, brown and green glass. We’re lucky to have the glass recycling aliens living across the street from us (perhaps because we also have a wine shop across the street?!), so we don’t also have to haul the rest of our bottles too far. The kids like to take the glass out by themselves, and put the right color bottles in the right slots, just like I did all those years ago in Ithaca. The tubs are emptied every couple weeks by an enormous semi-truck with a pulley that somehow manages to make its way around the narrow city streets. For the first couple months we were here, watching the glass recycling truck empty the alien tubs was a favorite activity for Walter.

Recycling for Plastics, Metals and Packaging

Finally, all plastic and foil packaging, including beverage tetra paks, is picked up curbside every two weeks. Food wrappers, bags, containers and other packaging all goes into city-provided yellow bags. The answer to the question of “where does this thing go?” is usually gelbe Sack! A green dot (grüner Punkt) on the label lets you know that an item can go into the gelbe Sack. The Gelbe Sack recycling is what pushes the German recycling system over even the comprehensive Vermont system, as it allows for many of those miscellaneous items to be recycled. The program is funded by a surcharge on food packaging, so that the food industry is paying to recycle the waste its products create. This incentive to reduce the surcharge and the cost of the program through less waste means that manufacturers here tend to keep packaging to a minimum.

The many recycling containers are confusing, and do require more work than dumping stuff into a single bin. And while I know that all Germans don’t follow the system (somebody in our building puts everything in the garbage bin!), I’m willing to bet that Göttingen’s recycling participation rate is higher than Vermont’s. Many Americans don’t bother to follow rules if it isn’t convenient. Policy makers  argue endlessly over creating user-friendly incentives and time-saving ways to follow guidelines. Here it seems that time-consuming and complicated tasks like sorting and hauling stuff to six different locales is done because that what is required, to save resources and to follow the rules!

A year ago, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and created the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Germans took to the streets to demand that their own country find an alternative to the many nuclear power plants Germany has relied on for emission-free power generation. Remarkably, the government responded quickly with a promise to shut-down the bulk of those plants within an incredibly short timeline. This plan has created an enormous scramble to replace nuclear power generation with other renewable, homegrown sources and to do it extremely quickly. The magnitude and complexity of this shift has been compared to the challenge of landing a man on the moon, and will cost billions of Euros.

Bicycles and Anti-Nuclear Signs are Everywhere

To me what is remarkable is that German citizens protested, demanding a change in their energy policy, and the government actually listened. Reminders of the numbers of Göttingers who want a shift away from nuclear power are everywhere, in the form of bright yellow and red stickers and flags, which read:  “Atomkraft? Nein Danke!” (Nuclear Power? No Thanks!). Walter loves to spot these stickers, especially those in another language. He’s seen Spanish, English, Japanese, and Arabic, to name a few, as well as hundreds in German. Near the town hall there’s a Fukushima memorial asking people not to forget the disaster, complete with a newly planted memory tree decorated with paper cranes.

Multi-Use Water-Power System — Agriculture, Recreation & Electricity

Efforts to use renewable energy are readily apparent in Göttingen and the surrounding area. Starting just south of town is a water system that includes multiple dams and levies that monitor and shift the water level in the small Leine River that runs through Göttingen. The water levels are manipulated to irrigate farm fields, generate power through a series of dams and mills, and keep an appropriate amount of water in a human-made lake used by people and water fowl alike. So the system serves the multiple purposes of agriculture, energy production, recreation, and wildlife support. The Leine River is tiny and slow, so I can’t imagine that a ton of power is generated, but it follows a long tradition of water mills in Europe and it serves as a constant reminder that every little bit helps. Signage and diagrams along the waterway help people understand how the system works, and why it’s important.

Neat, Multi-Use Land Management — Agriculture, Recreation, and Renewable Energy

Greta and I like to ride our bikes around the lake, Kiessee, and the paths that line the waterways out to the farm fields south of town. The fields are neatly squared off, with bike and walking paths in between – fitness and fresh food make good neighbors. In the fields, southeast of town are several giant windmills that rotate to catch the wind. Taking the train around Germany, we’ve seen hundreds of windmills dappling fields and hilltops. It’s an incredible site to be zooming past on the Intercity Express (ICE) and see dozens of windmills covering green fields, like dandelions blowing seeds in the wind.

One of the Many Solar Panel-Covered Houses in the Small Towns Surrounding Göttingen

In addition to the windmills, nearly every small town we’ve zoomed past has its red clay roofs covered with shiny blue solar panels. Germany is not an excessively sunny place on average, but it’s one of the world’s leaders in solar energy production. Solar panels cover homes, barns and even churches in small towns. It’s as if the towns are trying to generate all of their own power through the combined efforts of their rooftops. And apparently some towns actually are accomplishing this – truly local and cooperative energy production!

It’s not all sunny, unfortunately. The German government recently announced a sudden reduction in solar power support, which will likely drastically cut into new solar projects. The local paper reported recently that this reduction would mean the loss of local jobs, as the solar power industry here is major economic force. I can’t quite see how Germany will reach its renewables goal without continued support for solar, but even if solar power production remains at today’s levels, it’s still vastly higher than the United States.

Trains of all Kinds — ICE, Regional, Commuter, Freight

And of course, there are tons of very cool and convenient trains here in Germany. We know the local train station extremely well, which includes the fried fish restaurant we eat at almost every time we come home from a family journey – our welcome home comfort food. Jason is an expert on booking train reservations, and has racked up an amazing number of frequent traveler points with his train travel around Europe. Of course, compact, efficient development makes train travel, cooperative energy production, and bike riding through farm fields from town to town much easier too.

View of the Beautiful, Eco-Friendly Heating and Lighting System in the Reichstag

As a national symbol of a reunified Germany that values renewable energy production, the Reichstag Building, the seat of German government in Berlin, was fully renovated in the 1990s to include a high-tech energy generation and storage system. We learned a bit about it when we toured the amazing glass dome that spirals up from the center of the building. The dome includes a photovoltaic system of solar panels and shades, and ventilation system, for the central governing chamber.

Anya and Greta Learn about the Green Reichstag Dome as part of the Audio Tour

The Reichstag was burned in 1933 and Hitler used the fire as an excuse to take control of the government and severely curtail fundamental human rights. The building was rebuilt in the late 1990s to serve as the meeting place for the reunified German Bundestag. That renewable energy production even entered into the design of the renovated building is a great feat, given all of the other hugely significant historical and political elements at stake. The weight of history combined with the energy of the future.

Back in Green Göttingen, there are many other little things I notice every day to remind me of how much more environmentally conscious this town is than most American towns, even those with cool colleges. Windmills, low-flush toilets, bikes, no free bags at grocery stores, anti-nuclear signs, extremely energy efficient appliances – and the list goes on.

But I don’t really think that all of this couldn’t be accomplished in my favorite college towns back home, or any other American city or village for that matter. If Americans could stop obsessing over what is easiest and most convenient; start accepting that the not-in-my-back-yard mentality is destructive and that cooperative solutions are most effective; and start urging policy makers and industry at all levels that they are ready for a change, then I think it could be done. Imagine if we had cool trains, free bikes and beautiful windmills everywhere, wouldn’t that be grandly green?

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Birthday Season

In our family we all have birthdays between December and March, so winter is Birthday Season for us. Jason’s early December birthday usually gets subsumed by Hanukah and Christmas, but he can’t complain too much though as his birthday meal is usually latkes, homemade applesauce, and brisket. This year we went to the Christmas Market for Glühwein and treats on his birthday, and later he met a friend for a beer. But since Jason and I have passed the forty-year mark, we actually try not to think much about our birthdays, so real Birthday Season begins when we take down the Christmas tree and Walter starts to list everything he didn’t get for Christmas or Hanukah, so therefore wants for his birthday!

Born in mid-January, Walter has grown accustomed to celebrating everything important – meaning all holidays for which he receives gifts – in a very compact amount of time. He’s not terribly fond of birthday parties, as they can be overwhelming for him, but faced with the likely prospect of no party with friends this year (due to the Kindergarten chaos), he was worried about how he’d celebrate his special day.

Very Excited Birthday Boy & Adoring Sisters

To help compensate for his homesickness, I sent out a plea to a host of his friends and family back home, asking that they send him cards filled with pictures, artwork and stickers. Thanks to his many good friends, Walter was showered with birthday cards, receiving an average of one a day for two weeks straight. He had no idea that I asked people to send him things, so he was genuinely touched that so many people had remembered his birthday. The cards now hang around his doorway, so each time he enters his room, he’s reminded of the friends back home who love him. And his sticker collection is second to none.

Walter Excited about his Cake on Fire

We celebrated his birthday (on lucky Friday the 13th!) with a family party, filled with lots of Lego gifts and a repeat viewing of one of the Star Wars movies. For dinner we ate his favorite meal – lasagna with pesto béchamel sauce. The next week he started his new Kindergarten, and after a rough couple days, he asked if he could celebrate his birthday at school. School birthday celebrations here are a huge deal, so I thought his asking for one was a good sign. He brought in cake to share with his new class, and his teachers gave him gifts – a nice set of colored pencils, a finger trap game, and a backpack reflector trinket. Walter was excited by the gifts and reported that the kids “loved the cake.” I think the fact that he got to celebrate his special day with these new classmates helped to break the ice and start to transform strangers into friends. It was a huge turning point for Walter, so I’m grateful for what turned out to be his well-timed birthday.

Greta’s early February birthday falls nearly in the exact middle of our Birthday Season. At her age, birthday parties are a bit in flux, even more so in a new country when still getting used to the cultural norms. So Greta was a bit unsure of what type of party to have, although she was sure she didn’t want to pass up a one-time chance to celebrate her birthday with her friends here. She decided on a classic pizza party, featuring a neighborhood-wide scavenger hunt as the main activity.

Nine girls, including Greta, gathered at our house on a Saturday afternoon. Jason took Walter and Anya to a friends’ house, returning with the younger siblings in time for cake and farewells. My brother Rob, who was visiting for a few weeks, and I, stayed to host the party. But more than any other children’s birthday party I’ve experienced, this one seemed to run itself. Greta’s friends were gracious and mature, excited to honor Greta and make sure she had a great birthday in Germany.

Greta & Friends on a Birthday Scavenger Hunt

Greta's Birthday Friends Pose for a Scavenger Hunt Self-Portrait

After everyone arrived, we sent the girls out into the frosty, dim afternoon to find or photograph a list of eleven items (for Greta’s eleventh birthday), which I’d carefully written up in the best German I could muster. The list included such items as: a piece of chocolate for the pizza chefs, photos of three bike riders, eleven bottle caps, and an item which starts with the letter “G” (for Greta) in both German and English. Rob and I watched the pack of girls enthusiastically descend on our neighborhood, and then return in an hour’s time, rosy cheeked from the cold and successful in their search for every item. My favorite find was a small plastic charm in the shape of a Christmas present they’d found on the sidewalk – “gift” in English and “Geschenk” auf Deutsch.

Greta's Birthday Gift Roulette

After they’d warmed up and inhaled some snacks, Greta opened her presents. To choose the order for opening, Greta spun a bottle; she opened the present of the girl to which the bottle pointed. I love this twist on what most Americans know as an awkward party game usually reluctantly (for me at least) played at teenage parties. Perhaps German teenagers also play this version of spin-the-bottle, but I’d rather remember it as German children’s birthday gift roulette. Her friends were sweet and generous, giving her books in German tailored to her ever-improving German reading level, craft items, sweets, and two games. Three friends chipped in and gave her Göttingen Monopoly, a great souvenir to remember streets and landmarks here.

Greta's Pizza Party

When it was time to eat, Rob and I set out plates full of pizza toppings with which the girls could cover their personal-sized pizzas. Rob, master pizza chef that he is, pumped out the dough and then cooked over a dozen pizzas to feed the party guests and family of the birthday girl. It was quite an operation, and earned him rave reviews, like, “This is exactly like a restaurant, but the pizza is better!” The girls ate, and toasted Greta, and then played a game where by when one of them said “Peter” the group had to eat like she did until she said “Paul” to change the action to something else. It took Rob and me, and our slow German, awhile to figure out why the girls were standing on chairs, using no hands, or speed-eating pizza!

After enjoying Greta’s coconut birthday cake, we turned out the lights in the house so the girls could use the glow sticks they’d earned for their successful scavenger hunt to search for gift bags Anya had hidden throughout the apartment. The party could have lasted much longer with these wonderful girls truly enjoying each other’s company, but parents arrived and guests said their good-byes. Greta was glowing with joy at such a wonderful party.

Greta & Uncle Rob at Cron und Lanz

Two days later was Greta’s actual birthday, so she brought chocolate brownies to school for her class, which were a giant hit. Like at Jewish weddings, birthday children here are lifted up in chairs, while the lifters sing, “Hoch soll sie leben!” (High shall she live!), one of several birthday celebration songs.  Greta’s class treated her to this tradition, which she said was fun! After school we all took Greta to Göttingen’s premier bakery, Cron & Lanz, for delectable cake in the fancy, chandeliered dining room.

Anya's "Favorite Book" Bag from Gramma

Anya’s birthday follows ten days after Greta’s, so we keep the momentum going. Anya also got to celebrate her birthday in school, with M&M cookies brought from home and the chair raising and song. She got to choose the kids to lift her in the air – seven girls and one boy, which almost mirrors the gender ratio in her class. When I picked her up from school, Anya was happily handing out pieces of the extra cookies to eager classmates, hungry after the class’s weekly swim lessons. As we left, her friends excitedly yelled more birthday congratulations and expressed excitement for the party the next day.

By the time of Anya’s party, Uncle Rob had been swapped for my sister, Aunt Clara. Jason took Walter elsewhere for some Star Wars-related male bonding, while Clara, Greta and I stayed for the party, which included eleven super-excited second grade girls! While these second-graders were a bit more energetic than the fifth-graders, these girls too kept the party moving with an ever-expanding list of party games. Germans love to play games, especially board games and party games. So every child had a game she wanted to play, and Anya enthusiastically agreed. Kids tried to tell me the rules, but their excited explanations were too fast for me, so I sent them to Anya whose German is now just as quick as her friends. I watched as the girls tangled themselves in knots, giggled, ran around, hid around corners – whatever the game called for. Their glee was all I needed to understand.

Clay, Chatter and Joy at Anya's Party

The girls ate snacks faster than I could put them out, fuel for their joyous frenzy. They did quiet down for a bit while they made beads, animals, fruit and other trinkets out of quick-baking clay. They traded balls of colorful clay and sang and chatted. In addition to knowing tons of games, German kids also know lots of good group songs as a result of an early emphasis on choir and singing, so when one girl started to sing, the rest joined in, including dear Anya. Their beautiful voices filled the kitchen as their hands worked the clay.

Anya’s friends were generous with their gifts, so she spun the bottle many times to unwrap the books, crafts, games, sweets and other presents. Parents and children were eager to ask what Anya might want for her birthday, but because she couldn’t decide, she asked everyone for eine Überraschung – a surprise. She got what she asked for, and was thrilled. She loved all of her gifts, but the family’s favorite is the game Dixit, which I won’t explain here, but I highly recommend for families with younger children.

After Daddy’s famous cheesecake and Anya’s second chair-raising, we hung up the piñata. Anya was excited to introduce this Mexican party tradition, now so popular at American birthday parties, to her friends here in Germany. Only a few girls had heard of a piñata, but once they learned it was filled with candy, they were more than excited to try to break it open! I couldn’t find an actual piñata here, and didn’t have the time or patience for papier-maché, so Anya and I made one out of two paper bags, which we filled with treats and confetti and then decorated with streamers.

Anya's Birthday Piñata was a Hit!

As always, the kids had to really beat on it to break it open. We went through three rounds of three hits from eleven girls, so when almost 100 whacks didn’t work, big sister and little brother got turns, and then finally Daddy and Mama employed well placed smacks and rips to let the goodies loose. As the girls gathered their booty, parents started to arrive, but the girls were reluctant to let themselves be dragged home. Parents gathered in the kitchen to chat, while the girls’ unyielding energy morphed into a giant pillow fight.

German parents seem much more willing to let children’s chaos play its course. There is much less children’s play management here than in the States. It’s refreshing, but something to which I’m still getting accustomed. While a stereotype of Germans is that they like order, when it comes to children’s celebrations and play, parents don’t tend to interfere or demand a false sense of calm. Parents watch, or not, but they generally let the kids play. Perhaps this is why by the time they are fifth-graders, kids can more or less manage their own parties. And certainly this is one reason why so many children here share in a common culture of birthday games, songs and rituals.

Anya's Birthday Friends, after the Piñata

So, I let the pillow fight happen, squelching my American parental urge to rein in the kids. After a bit, parents collected their children, as Greta discretely hid the pillows. Little girl hugs and squeals continued until the last party guest departed. Our apartment was littered with confetti, which we continue to find everywhere. Anya was exhausted, but satisfied with a successful party and time with her darling brood of girls.

Usually Valentine’s Day comes right in the middle of our birthday season, so while I’m juggling party invitations and gift bags, I’m also making sure the kids have sufficient Valentines made to cover each child in their respective classes. Thankfully, Valentine’s Day isn’t celebrated by children here. Anya told her friend, Esther, about the tradition, and the two of them cut-out hearts and covered them with glitter for each other and their families. Sweet and simple.

Anya & her Teacher, Frau Laspe

A couple other celebrations did weave themselves into our birthday parties this year though. In late-January, Anya’s class said farewell to their main teacher, Frau Laspe, who had been with the class for a year-and-a-half, and with Anya since August. She’d been a teacher at Albanischule for nearly three decades, helping introduce many new pedagogical and curricular innovations, including a beloved science laboratory. The class feted her with an afternoon of sweets and games. The school kitchen was filled with various cakes and candies, the classroom with board games, and the gymnasium with loud energetic revelry; the kids all enjoyed what each room had to offer. Each child brought in a small gift that together filled a lovely antique suitcase. Anya gave her a maple leaf-shaped bottle of maple syrup and a maple leaf pin from Danforth Pewter in Middlebury. At one point, the chaos in the gym was interrupted for games and songs in honor of Frau Laspe. It was a classic example of a German party, and a nice way to say good-bye to a fine teacher.

Greta's Faschingstag Fortuneteller

Children in this part of Germany also celebrate Faschingstag or Rosenmontag on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. It’s the children’s day during an extended Carnival. The specific traditions vary greatly in Germany, with Köln being the city that goes completely wild for Carnival, comparable to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. Each of the children’s schools celebrated Faschingstag to some degree, and they all went to school in costumes and with treats to share with their classmates. Anya’s school reserved the entire day for revelry during which kids paraded around the school and surrounding area in elaborate costumes (Anya’s was one of the simplest in her class) and danced to loud music. Children also gorged themselves on candy; our homemade sugar cookies with rainbow sprinkles were apparently too healthy for most kids to try. It was a bit overwhelming for Anya, but she enjoyed the creative costumes her friends donned.

Anya in School as a Frühlingsfee (spring fairy)

Han Solo Walter Celebrates Faschingstag in Kindergarten

The kids in Walter’s Kindergarten loved our sugar cookies, and the usually party-shy Walter had lots of fun dancing and celebrating with his new friends. Greta’s class voted to celebrate Faschingstag, as their teacher was of the opinion that they might be too old for it. So, they took a mellower approach, but still came to school costumed with treats to share. For several days during the week of Carnival, it was not unusual to see people walking around in costumes, and the number of little girls showing off fairy wings and face paint was noticeably larger than usual. It all made up for a somewhat under-whelming Halloween for our kids, and I think, makes more sense than begging for candy at strangers’ houses.

My mid-March birthday officially marks the end of Birthday Season in our family. Jason and I went out for a wonderful dinner at a nearby restaurant, while the kids stayed home playing cops-and-robbers with their teenage-boy babysitter. Jason and I ordered the Überraschungsmenu, which was a four-course surprise selected by the chef. Everything from the fruity mixed-drink, to the perfectly seared lamb, to the luscious chocolate mousse was wonderful. Jason, who’s been out a lot during his many guest lectures here, said it was the best meal he’s had in Europe – I’m so happy we shared it for my birthday.

I also enjoyed my time to myself, which I spent reading a good book (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks), doing yoga (42 sun salutes), and taking a bubble bath. The family gave me some wonderful gifts, including lots of chocolate and crafts, and a lovely necklace with a string of five moonstones. Greta says it’s my Fünf in Deutschland necklace. And so it shall be.

Celebrations, birthdays and holidays, bond people together. They solidify friendships, teach about a culture, and make you feel comfortable in a new place. Our birthday season, planted in the middle of our time here in Germany, did just that. It made new friends, even better friends, and gave each of us a tighter connection to our adopted home and our family’s place in it.

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This is a story of the Kindergarten journey our family has taken this year in German. It’s mostly Walter’s story, and mine too, but all five of us have been affected by one of us being unhappy. It’s a lengthy essay, one that has been brewing in my head for several months, as I waited to see how it might end. For the past several weeks I’ve been drafting it on my computer, hoping for a sign that a positive resolution had finally been found. Thankfully, Walter drew me a picture to let me know things were OK.

Kindergarten was first conceived by German education philosopher, Friedrich Fröbel, who coined the term in 1840 for an early childhood institute he had founded in Blankenburg, Thuringia. Until this time, almost no formal early-childhood education existed in most countries with the exception of church-run nursery schools for poor children. Fröbel’s Kindergartens were for children from all social classes and religions, and his philosophy included the belief that early childhood education could be a social equalizer.

Concerned that children were not able to get a broad based early education from their mothers at home, Fröbel promoted supportive, nurturing classrooms, recognizing the vast learning capacity and brain development of very young children. Fröbel engaged women to staff Kindergartens, providing some of the only paid employment for women of the time, and therefore tying the Kindergarten movement to the emerging feminist movement of the era. He started training institutes for women interested in staffing Kindergartens, and his teaching force underscored the ideals of social tolerance and equality.

Fröbel’s philosophy and the Kindergarten movement spread throughout the West during the mid-19th century, and the first American Kindergarten was founded in Wisconsin in 1853. Fröbel’s work contributed to the thinking of subsequent education philosophers who also greatly influenced early-childhood education including Austrian Rudolph Steiner who began the Waldorf school movement, and Italian Maria Montessori.

With such noble roots, including ties to social justice and feminism, the prospect of sending my son Walter to Kindergarten in Germany should have been a good one. Although, as it has turned out, Kindergarten in Germany has been nowhere close to the high quality experience Walter would have been assured of in Vermont.

Walter's picture of the plane we took to Germany

There is a somewhat confusing distinction between German and American Kindergarten I should clear up before going too deep. Kindergarten in the United States is for just one year, usually for five- to six-year olds, and is generally the first year of “formal” elementary schooling. Kindergarten in Germany generally serves children three- to six-years old, and is separate from “formal” schooling. First class is the first year of Grundschule, the German elementary school. Most German children enter first class at age six, which corresponds with the usual entrance age for first grade in an American elementary school. So, in order to be fairly comparing the schooling options for children of the same age group in both countries, I will compare German Kindergarten to what is generally known as American preschool, plus Kindergarten. Continue reading

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Guest Blogger: Ein Sechster in Deutschland

For the past week, and the next two, we have hosted/are hosting Ruth’s brother Rob in Germany. Rob is a writer by trade and temperament, and we have drafted him to contribute to our blog to chronicle his time here, and document our trip to Berlin. Here’s Rob:

On Monday, January 23, I boarded a flight out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, bound for Frankfurt (via Dulles). I arrived in Frankfurt the next morning and caught a train for the German university city of Göttingen, in Lower Saxony, where my sister and her family are living for a year while my brother-in-law is a visiting fellow at the Licthenberg-Kolleg, the university’s institute for advanced study.

The interior of St. Jacobi (St. James) in Göttingen

On my first full day in Germany, my sister Ruth showed me around Göttingen while her three children—Greta (11), Anya (8), and Walter (6)—were in school. We went into the old St. Jacobi (St. James) church, dating to the 14th century, but festively painted in Renaissance style. The gilded altarpiece dates to 1402. Ruth ended up having a long conversation with (or rather, listening to a long lecture by) Herr Knittel, the churchwarden, about the history of the church. We also passed many historic plaques on buildings where famous scholars lived, including a plaque for Benjamin Franklin, who was here in July 1766. I also paid my respects at the grave of the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, which is in a cemetery not far from Anya’s school. I also spent a lot of time helping Walter sort through his Lego collection.

The Bismarck Tower

On my second day in Göttingen, I took a walk by myself up into the wooded hills above Göttingen to see the Bismarckturm, a pseudo-medieval tower built in the 1890s to honor the “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, the architect of the German Empire, who had been a law student at the University of Göttingen as a young man. The tower is at the top of a high hill overlooking the city, but was easily-accessible (zugänglich means “accessible” in German; I’m learning a lot of odd vocabulary) from Ruth and Jason’s apartment. I’m hoping to return to the tower and do more exploring in the woods before I leave Göttingen. At the moment, however, it’s about twenty degrees colder here in Germany than it is in Minnesota, so I will have to walk rather briskly to avoid freezing.

After a week in Germany, I feel like I can understand and read quite a bit more German, but I don’t really have the confidence to speak any. Greta, however, is getting quite fluent (and Anya is also doing very well), and I’m very impressed by my sister Ruth’s ability to dive into conversations with people in German.

On Friday afternoon, the entire family—Ruth, Jason, Greta, Anya, Walter, and I—boarded the high-speed ICE (intercity express) for Berlin. We arrived at the relatively new Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in the early evening and walked to our rented self-catering apartment on Turmstraße, in the quiet neighborhood of Moabit. During WWII, Moabit was known for a huge prison used by the Gestapo. Our apartment was near a prison and the Kriminalgericht (criminal justice building), but the notorious Moabit prison of Nazi times is no longer standing.

But it was strange to be in a city with such a notorious history, a city in which there are still ample reminders of the tragedies of World War II and the Berlin Wall. On my first morning in Berlin, I walked down to the Tiergarten to have a look at the Sieggesäule, the monument celebrating Prussian victories over Denmark, Austria, and France in the mid-1860s. After World War II, France carried off the friezes on the base of the column as spoils of war (as the Russians carried off much of the “treasure of Priam” that Schliemann excavated at Troy in the 19th century), and only recently returned them.

The Sieggesäule in the Tiergarten

After being in England for a year, it was an odd experience to be in a country with a history of being both proudly imperialistic (like Britain), and also soundly defeated. The history here is definitely complicated. It’s so strange to walk into a building like the Berliner Dom (the Berlin Cathedral) and realize that it was built under Kaiser Wilhelm II (World War I), severely damaged by Allied bombing in World War II, left in disrepair by the Communist East Germans until the 1980s, and finally restored to its original pre-war state after reunification. There are so many layers of history in Berlin, and it’s fascinating how the restoration of a building can repair the ravages of the past, and yet leave the memory of those ravages so painfully close to the surface.

Ruth & Greta in front of the Berliner Dom

In the Pergamonmuseum, there are reconstructions of three great architectural monuments of the ancient world: the great altar from Pergamon (ca. 150s BCE), the Ishtar Gate (6th c. BCE) from Babylon, and the Miletus market gate (ca. 120 CE). The museum itself was heavily reconstructed in the decades after the war. One of the strangest displays in the Neues Museum, which contains the bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1340 BCE) and other ancient objects, is the Fragmentarium, which contains bits of the museum itself that couldn’t be put back in the right place when the museum was rebuilt in the 1980s-2000s.

Haydn, in the Tiergarten, still showing damage from World War II bullets

After visiting the Sieggesäule, I walked through the Tiergarten. I stopped to look at the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven Monument, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, and the memorial to gay victims of the Nazis, then met Ruth and Jason and the children at Potsdamerplatz and headed over for a visit to the glass dome on top of the Reichstag. It was a cold visit, but gave us great views of the city. And at the very top, I ran into a group of St. Olaf College students on a January term visit to Berlin. (Note: St. Olaf is in Northfield, where I live, and my older son is a student there.)

Anya & Greta in the Reichstag dome

After the Reichstag visit, Ruth and Greta and I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Gemäldegalerie, the fabulous collection of Old Master paintings in the special Kulturforum west of the Sony Center (and across the street from the Berlin Philharmonic) in Potsdamerplatz. The collection includes two gorgeous Vermeers, more Rembrandts than I’ve ever seen in a single museum, some of my favorite Germans (Cranach the Elder and Holbein), and hundreds of other great pieces (including one by my eccentric favorite Carlo Crivelli, with his trademark cucumber). Nearly eleven-year old Greta is the perfect museum companion, studying everything carefully, asking great questions and making great observations. She’s a smart girl.

Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Lucretia," in the Gemäldegalerie

The second day in Berlin was spent almost exclusively at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, the museum of technology, which includes detailed and fascinating exhibits on everything from computers (Conrad Zuse’s 1938 Z1 computer and its descendants) to trains (including Kaiser Wilhelm’s personal train carriage and a cattle car used to transport Jews to concentration camps) to planes to boats to cameras to radios—there was even an exhibit (which we made fun of) on the manufacture of suitcases. We spent about six hours at the museum, and could have spent more. It was brilliant. I was completely worn out afterwards, and glad to spend a low-key couple of hours making our way to dinner in Prenzlauer Berg via the Gendarmenmarkt, where we briefly visited the Deutscher Dom (heavily reconstructed), where I found a silver Coventry cross of nails on the wall, given (unless I deciphered the sign wrong) by the late Queen Mother to former BRD President Weisacker to symbolize the reconciliation (Versöhnung) of Germany and Britain. We ate dinner on Sunday night (using a Groupon) at a tapas restaurant with another American family living in Berlin.

Brandenburg Gate by night

Monday—our last day in Berlin—was a big museum day. I walked from our apartment down Alt-Moabit, past the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, then down Unter den Linden to Museuminsel (Museum Island). I eventually met Ruth and Jason and the kids at the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral.The building has been beautifully restored to its neo-baroque pre-War splendor, but it didn’t impress me as much as my favorite gloomy old English churches and cathedrals, like Lincoln Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey. In the shadowy crypt of the cathedral is a macabre collection of Hohenzollern lead coffins from the 17th through the 19th centuries, all laid out and labeled like a museum exhibit, some with dried-out wreathes laid in front of them.

From the cathedral, Ruth and Greta and I headed to the museums, while Jason took Anya and Walter to the Sea Life Center. Our first museum was the Altes Museum, which has a fantastic collection of Greek and Roman (and Etruscan) antiquities. Then we went to the Pergamonmuseum, and ended with the Neues Museum. In the Altes Museum, there was a smoke-damaged Roman sarcophagus that had been stowed in a bunker that caught fire in the bombing late in World War II. The Altes Museum was quiet and uncrowded, and I probably spent the most time there, looking at sculptures and vase paintings. The Pergamonmuseum was heaving with people. The Babylonian Ishtar Gate, reconstructed with pieces excavated in Iraq in the 1930s, looked oddly as if it could have been constructed out of colorful Legos—like the Lego model of Berlin itself that the kids saw at the Lego Discovery Center on Potsdamerplatz.

Young Roman girl playing knucklebones

I think my favorite piece in all of the museums was a mid-second century CE sculpture, probably from a Roman tomb, of a pubescent girl playing with astragaloi (knucklebones), a game like dice. What I’ve learned is that a throw of four knucklebones that land in different positions was called an “Aphrodite,” and that depictions of girls playing knucklebones seem to represent the transition from childhood to adolescence and marriageability (as well as chance and fate). This little girl has two knucklebones in different positions. I wonder what the significance of that is? Perhaps it symbolizes life cut short. She has a very sweet face, although I believe that she has a reconstructed head. Again, it’s hard in Berlin to figure out what’s authentic and old, and what’s recreated.

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Holidays in Germany

Although the holiday season is past, 10-year-old Greta has been working on a blog post about her experiences celebrating holidays in Germany. If you want to see more pictures, flashback to our holiday photo album. Here’s Greta:

The holiday season is over, but it was a time that I will always remember and treasure. I thought it was so fun seeing all the differences and similarities in the celebrations here. Some of our experiences were really funny, and some were just amazing. I’ll never have a holiday season quite like this one again.

The first holiday my siblings and I always look forward to is Halloween. We usually trick-or-treat in our neighborhood with friends, dress up and eat dinner (chili and cornbread) at my house. We didn’t really know how Halloween would be celebrated in Germany or that it’s not actually celebrated much, but one of our friends here and her friend were going trick-or-treating, so we decided to go with them.

Dressed up for Halloween

The costumes are a big deal normally, so we spent as much time as usual on them. Anya was a bat, Walter was Luke Skywalker, and I was a vampire. So we tried to find the costumes with the limited supplies there were in Göttingen, and it took a while. We also bought a bag of candy like we usually do for trick-or-treaters. Then we invited our friend, her family and her friend over for dinner. We ate chili and cornbread and then went out.

All the houses in our neighborhood are apartment buildings, so I thought we would just going to go to each bottom floor, but our friend wanted to go all the way up, so we spent a while at each house. Some people weren’t home, and only a few knew what we were doing at all and had candy ready! Some didn’t know what we were doing when we said “Süßes sonst gibt’s Sauers” (trick or treat), and they gave us money, candy that was supposed to be for them, or nothing at all. Meanwhile, we only got a few trick-or-treaters at our home. It was fine, but weird, definitely not my favorite Halloween, and I came home thinking, “Did we really just celebrate Halloween?” But we thought it was pretty funny. It was like having a dream that was half realistic and half…well, dreamlike.

Lanterns for Martinstag

In November there’s a German holiday called Martinstag in which kids walk around the city with homemade lanterns and sing songs. The legend of St. Martin is that he was riding his horse through the woods and he saw a poor man in the snow. He cut his coat in half and gave one half to the man. Walter had made a lantern in school and Anya and I also made ones, so we decided to participate in the parade in town. We went a little late, but Mom thought it would be OK because there was a church service before the parade of kids and lanterns. Well, we got there and no one was there. We searched a lot, but we just couldn’t find the parade. We only saw it when all the people were going home! So we went home, too, but we hadn’t done the parade. It wasn’t a big deal, just an experience to laugh about.

Our delicious Thanksgiving feast

My Grandmother was here during November, so we celebrated Thanksgiving with her. We also invited another American family over. We usually have a Thanksgiving feast with lots of relatives, but this year it was smaller. But we still had our traditional meal: a turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and for dessert, pie. It was delicious! Despite the fact that I’m vegetarian, I decided to eat the traditional turkey. We also watched the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special and played music. Although Thanksgiving felt like it was stuck in the middle of another holiday because people had started to celebrate Christmas, and we didn’t get days off from school, and we were probably some of the only people celebrating Thanksgiving in Göttingen, I had a great time at our feast. It was small, but I liked it that way, because we still had the tasty food and the amazing friends and family.

Meanwhile, Christmas season was already starting. One of my favorite parts was the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market), because I thought it was so merry and bright, even though it was in dark, cold winter. It was in downtown Göttingen starting in late November. There were Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), bread, nuts, candy, cookies, Würste (sausages), crepes, Glühwein and more yummy treats for sale. There were also craft stands, selling blankets, clothes, ornaments, pots, glassware, wood ware and other beautiful decorations. The holiday lights strung around evergreen branches lit up the streets, showing street names (actually now I know a lot more of them than before), reindeer, stars, and glowing balls! Since it was gets dark so early in winter in Germany, we could often see the Weihnachtsmarkt at night, when it was the most gorgeous. It also had a Ferris wheel, which Anya, Walter and I rode on a few times. I liked the Weihnachtsmarkt a lot!i

The Christmas spirit was all around, which meant that it traveled into our home and schools, too. We made yummy and beautiful things, which are parts of all of our holiday seasons every year. Like always, we got a Christmas tree, and it looked great decorated with our homemade ornaments, which we had to work extra hard on, due to the lack of millions of decorations that we usually bring out at Christmas time. Some of them we made at Anya’s school, because it had a “Back- und Basteltag” (baking and craft day). There we made gingerbread, crafts, cookies and most of all fun, surrounded by good friends.

In my school we had a class holiday party, and right before vacation there was a school church service. The theme was “Freude,” which means “joy.” The school orchestra played, the teacher choir and the 11th and 12th grade choir sung, and students gave presentations or read out of the Bible. I thought the service was really nice. One of the presentations I liked was about older students who were staying a while in Ethiopia, because FKG (my school) has a partner school there. They taught the students there about what Christmas was like in Germany, and in return the students from Ethiopia showed about Christmas there. Although holidays in Ethiopia and Germany are much more different than the USA and Germany, I guess I liked it because I was learning about holidays in Germany, too.

But because my Dad’s family is Jewish, Christmas isn’t the only holiday in December for us. We celebrate Hanukkah, too. We eat latkes, light a menorah, play dreidel, and at home, celebrate with other half-Jewish friends. But because there aren’t many Jews in Germany, we had friends over and taught them about Hanukkah. I told the story in German, we had the same Hanukkah meal, we played dreidel with one Anya made, Mama cleverly made a recycled menorah out of old bottles, and we played with our friend. I thought it was really fun, and we shared our tradition with people who didn’t have it. It made me feel really good.

Building Legos by the Christmas tree

After a while, Christmas itself finally came. Actually, I was a little sad, because it meant that the Weihnachtsmarkt I loved would be gone. But there were still more things to discover: for instance, that presents are opened on Christmas Eve and “der Weinachtsmann” (Santa Claus) comes then too, so kids go out while he comes. We did that, but saved the rest of our gifts for the 25th. All of them were great! We also had delicious meals on both days, and the day after, we went to Rome, where we had a great time and spent New Year’s Eve and Day!

So, although the holidays were different than usual, and I was missing the family I would usually see, I had a wonderful holiday season! I’m not surprised to say that most of the differences were what made it so amazing. I hope you all had as good a holiday season as my holidays in Germany!

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Our Roman Holiday

Choosing to travel to Rome for our post-Christmas holiday trip was a practical and nostalgic choice for Jason and me.  We wanted to go somewhere in Europe we could reach by train and where the sun would most likely be shining: five plane tickets are expensive and late-December in northern Germany is ever so dark. But Rome is also where Jason and I concluded our honeymoon, exactly 14 years ago. It was the fourth leg on a post-Christmas Italy tour that also included Venice, Florence and Siena. For the kids, the promise of constant pizza and pasta, ancient gods, expansive courtyards, and funky ruins seemed to be enough. Rome, with its endless sites and greatest chance for sun, won out over other possible destinations.

The full family at the Palatine

We took an overnight train from Munich to Rome, which seemed a good choice to maximize days in Rome and heck, to see what an overnight train is like. Unfortunately, the once train-obsessed Walter was terrified to sleep in a moving bunk bed with a stranger occupying the sixth spot in our couchette. He spent the first couple hours crying frantically and begging us to go home. I felt horrible for the Italian grandmother, who spoke no English or German, trying to sleep with our family! Finally after midnight, Walter drifted off to sleep, calmed by watching the glowing Christmas lights, churches and castles float by as we traveled through the snow-covered Austrian Alps. We arrived intact the next morning, unrested, but happy to be off the train and into the sun!

We filled our days to the brim seeing many of the sites with which most people are familiar. The kids showed incredible stamina, moving from one famous scene to the next, generally only fussing when their bellies were empty, their feet sore, or their heads full. For Jason and me, it was enlightening to see many of the same sites we took in 14 years ago, this time through the eyes of our children.

We’d read in a traveling-with-kids guide book that a strategy to keep young kids interested in art museums or churches is to give them a visual scavenger hunt. On our first day, we visited one of Rome’s four grand “patriarchal” cathedrals, Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which is bedecked with intricate mosaics, a stunning gold alter, and soaring paintings. Greta’s scavenger hunt for Anya and Walter included multiple angels, crosses, birds, four-legged animals and babies Jesus. The hunt had them craning their necks to see the grandly decorated ceilings, scanning the multi-colored floors, studying paintings and focusing on the tremendous beauty and religious glamour surrounding them.

The Family in St. Peter's Square

Basilica San Giovanni in Laterano

A similar scavenger hunt in St. Peter’s Cathedral at the Vatican kept them almost as interested (although waiting in line to get in had worn them down more). After that, we no longer had to give them things to find, they created their own scavenger hunts to keep themselves interested in each church. Walter liked to count doves, find the sweet spot under a dome so he could stare up at its exact center meters above, and locate organs and other sources of music. Anya preferred counting angels, especially the cute ones playing violins, locating the babies Jesus, and identifying the types and uses for four-legged animals in the artwork. Both kids loved the rich colors and endless shapes decorating these stunning houses of worship and power.

A nativity carved in a Panettone

The timing of our trip also meant that we were treated to elaborate Nativity scenes in every church and many public places. German Lutherans may set the standard on Christmas markets, trees and treats, but Italian Catholics know how to set the scene for the birth of Christ. So, in addition to the scavenger hunts, finding and comparing nativity scenes became a fun activity. We found nativity scenes set in Panettone cakes with marzipan figures, many with real running water and twinkling lights, and one scene using a centuries-old wooden baby that Jesus alleged had healing powers – which just looked to us like a scary baby!. The lovely nativity scene in St. Peter’s kept Anya and Walter’s attention long enough so Greta and Jason could wait in line to see Michelangelo’s famous Pietà sculpture. A nativity scene also provided incentive for the girls to run up the Spanish Steps after a long day of site seeing.

While the churches in Rome are certainly stunning, it was things in motion outdoors that consistently captured all three kids’ attention: flying pigeons, climbing cats, and flowing water. Since arriving in Göttingen, and hence living in a city for the first time, Walter has been perfecting his pigeon chasing prowess. He’s experimented with technique and strategy so as to illicit the grandest aviary reaction. The main square in town literally becomes his stomping ground whenever we’re there. He’s so good at setting pigeons in motion that it often seems the birds and Walter have choreographed the steps and flight.

Pigeon Chase at Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Jason & Kids Being Goofy!

We told Walter the Roman squares would be filled with pigeons, although there weren’t as many as we’d remembered; clearly the city has invested in better street sweepers. Walter’s best pigeon locations were outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and in the piazza next to the Pantheon. The former location offered clear running space and a platform from which to jump. The girls eagerly joined Walter sprinting across the cobblestones, whirling in circles arms outstretched—three siblings together then separate then together again, the flight of birds intermingled. The latter location offered plenty of pigeons distracted by tourist food, so Walter could pull-off surprise attacks. The funniest occurred when he scared away a small flock of pigeons being hand fed by a well-dressed man, who barked like a dog at Walter in mock irritation, making Walter jump just as the birds did!

Kitty City

Di Gatti di Roma are legendary, but they actually do exist. Cats live amongst most of the ruins that dot the City. A couple sites have been turned into cat sanctuaries, as an attempt to both help the existing strays and to prevent further strays through spaying and neutering. We happened upon an informal site in the park Vittorio Emanuele we sought out for its playground. The kids named the site “Kitty City” and it helped spark their interest in spying cats in other ruins throughout our visit. Walter was so enamored with the cats that he insisted we buy a souvenir calendar for his Gramma who also would love the Roman cats.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona

The tortoise fountain at Villa Borghese

Finally the fountains, of which there are so many! Every piazza from the grand to the mundane has at least one sculpted basin with spurting water. I quickly ran out of small change, as the kids wanted to make wishes in all of these delightful receptacles. Favorites included the tortoise fountain in Villa Borghese, the boat-shaped fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps, and the grandiose fountains in Piazza Navona. But the most revered was the famous Trevi Fountain. We saw the Trevi, then got pizza and circled back to eat our lunch by its glittering water and charging horses. We would have gone a third time but a cold rain stopped our attempt to see the fountain lit at night. Anya loved it so much that she used her own money to buy a small model to keep by her bed.

The Trevi Fountain

Honeymoon Reshoot at Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is the only location at which we have a photo of both Jason and me on our honeymoon. The last day of our trip, we finally asked another tourist to snap our picture to prove that we’d been in Italy together. We recreated the picture, this time taken by our daughter, both of us looking older and more fatigued. I enjoyed the Trevi Fountain more this time with Greta explaining the significance of Neptune, Walter chasing pigeons, and Anya gazing at the sparkling water in awe. We munched pizza, made wishes and forgot that just a bit ago we’d all been arguing about where to get lunch.

Of course Rome is full of ruins, and ruined things capture the imagination of children. From that first tower of blocks they build and then knock down as babies, kids like to imagine how things got built and then destroyed. On our first full day in Rome, Jason and I tried to plan an elaborate schedule that fell apart, like so many Roman ruins, before we could even get out of the apartment. So, we decided to wing it, and head to the center of the City to see what we could see.

First, we got a glimpse of the Colosseum, then Greta spied the two winged chariots on the roof of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, then we walked past part of the Roman Forum, and then we rounded a corner and saw a huge scene filled with ruins, columns, white marble, grand sculptures, church domes and so much historic eye candy it was breath-taking. Fortunately my eyes were on Greta who saw the view and absolutely swelled with wonder, excitement and awe. To see my daughter experience such glee at the very instant her world had been enriched and expanded was a perfect moment. I was thrilled to be her mother.

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine

Trajan's Column with Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II behind

A few minutes later, Walter sat pondering Trajan’s Column and the ruins strewn around it. Jason had read a bit to him about Rome’s early history, and then Walter explained how it was ruined, with pieces about historic eras, looters, erosion and the passage of time, including: “Some people add things they want there, and then some people take pieces and use them to make other things. And things get old and fall apart.” He was fascinated to try to figure out what partial structures might have once been and how the layout fit together on a map.

Greta atop the Palatine Hill

Although the Colosseum was only a few blocks from our apartment, we didn’t trek down there until our fourth day in Rome. We stopped in a few churches in the vicinity, ate lunch, and by the time we got to the Colosseum the lines were insane. We decided to head to Palatine Hill to get tickets where the lines are shorter. A good idea, but the extra time caused Walter and Anya to finally hit their church-and-ruins-gazing wall! I took them back to the apartment for a well-earned rest. Jason and Greta stayed to explore Rome’s oldest neighborhood, the alleged birthplace of the City, and later a fashionable venue for the homes of emperors and celebrities. The site included cool puzzle pieces of art, palaces, gardens, an ancient stadium, and sanctuaries, as well as wonderful views of other Roman ruins and sites.

Anya at the Colosseum

The tunnels beneath the Colosseum's stage

The next day we did finally see the Colosseum, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s truly an incredible structure, even after nearly 2000 years. Imagining it filled with 70,000 people cheering for blood, with actual griffins perched on its rim, waiting for the remains of the day, is incredible. And there are still discoveries to be found: a partial equestrian sculpture was on display that had just been uncovered this past decade. Walter wants to figure out how to build it out of Legos, using photos and the souvenir model we bought from one of the multitude of stands outside. Given the amount of time he spends clicking those plastic blocks together, I’m sure we’ll have a Lego Colosseum in our basement when we get home.

My favorite new-to-me site was the Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally constructed as the tomb of Emperor Hadrian, and then later converted to a Papal Fortress. It looks like a boat-shaped birthday cake that’s been lit and docked along the Tiber River. The ship’s sail is a glorious statue of the Archangel Michael, who allegedly appeared atop the castle to mark the end of the plague in 590 AD.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

Greta & Ruth atop the Castel

Jason took Anya and Walter to the hands-on Explora children’s museum, which offered the kids a welcome break from ancient things that cannot be touched, while Greta and I spent an afternoon together exploring the passageways, rooms and porticos of the castle. We had a blast climbing the steep stairs, peering in dark corners, imagining Popes hiding inside while Rome was being sacked (again). Greta explained to me various methods for defending fortresses she’d learned while studying the Middle Ages, including pouring vats of boiling water on attackers scaling the outside walls! While imagining battles and hiding Popes was fun, we spent the most time gazing upon the incredible panoramic view of Rome from the upper terrace. It was a clear day and we could see well past the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in one direction, the Vatican in the other, and a beautiful view of the Tiber and the setting sun on the hills above.

The River Tiber from the Castel

A sweeping view of Rome from the Castel

As the sun faded, we walked along the river to meet the rest of the family in Piazza del Popolo, glowing with lights and bubbling with people. We peaked into Chiesa Santa Maria del Popolo to see the two Caravaggio paintings inside, my favorite being the Crucifixion of St. Peter, which is a brutally honest, yet somehow beautiful, depiction of a horrific scene. As a family we walked through the city down the middle of Via del Corso beneath a full sheet of red, green and white holiday lights. We stopped for a break at the Spanish Steps to marvel at the bustle of a gorgeous city on a holiday night. We finished our night with the best gelato we’ve ever tasted, at San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain.

Food was actually one of the few disappointments I had in Rome. Many people recommended eateries to us, and I think we were only able to follow-up on one of them (thank you, Sean – the fried ricotta was amazing!). When you travel with kids, you have to eat when they have to eat, or the whole day could be ruined. With no food, the whining could turn into a full-blown meltdown, and before we know it we could be carrying a kicking and screaming boy across miles of small cobblestones streets. I have some experience with this exact situation, and it ain’t pretty.

So, while we noted many restaurant suggestions, marking many of them on our trusty map (which I found on the ground outside the Pantheon, much to Jason’s delight), we didn’t really get to any of them. The timing and locations never coalesced when we needed them to. The result was a lot of restaurants that were there when we needed them, which meant they were not necessarily the best Rome has to offer, with the exception of the perfect gelato and one really excellent meal at a place we found by luck. The gelato was so perfect because it was so subtle. The trademark flavor was honey, not the typical show-stopper. The flavors did not boast, they simply were…divine. As the New York Times review displayed outside said, “Try the pear, and you’ll wonder if you’ve ever really tasted a pear before.” I hadn’t.

We were able to follow-up on a general recommendation to try a dish specific to Rome: cacio e pepe (thank you, Paul!). Again, perfect for its simplicity – just Pecorino Romano cheese, olive oil and ground black pepper over spaghetti. I tried it in every restaurant we went to, but the best was in a restaurant just up the street from our apartment, La Taverna Del Monti, that we tried on our first night in Rome because it was the only place nearby that had pesto pasta (Walter’s favorite) on its menu. Of all of our random picks, this was the best; we had a perfect meal with perfect service and terrific family harmony.

Unfortunately, we went back for our New Year’s Eve dinner and could not recreate the experience. The reasonably priced menu had been replaced by one that was shorter and about 50% more expensive, the food and service were rushed, and our family was tired, ready for our Roman holiday to end. After a disappointing meal (which was still good, just not great), we went back to our apartment to watch Shrek 2, the kids pick from the hundreds of DVDs in the apartment owner’s collection that he generously offered to us. (We’d watched Shrek on our first night in Rome.) Luckily we were able to get the kids to sleep in the relatively secluded bedroom before the massive fireworks and street rockets began. The Romans go nuts on New Year’s Eve, with grand-scale displays at major venues as well as individual revelry on every street.

The kids slept and Jason and I watched out the window a bit, craning to see the explosions nearby, and remembering our other New Year’s Eve in Italy. On our honeymoon we rang in 1998 in Florence with a perfect 8-course meal in a small restaurant filled with native Florentines, too much to drink (for me at least), and a late-night stroll/stumble home through the celebratory streets. While Jason remembers it a bit less favorably, for me it was the perfect New Year’s Eve. This year, we drank no champagne and worried the noise would wake our tired children…

The emperor capuchin, which looks like a Dr. Seuss character

Anya has a conversation in body language with a monkey

By the last day, we were feeling rather hairy

Our last day, we maneuvered through the streets littered with the remains of the celebration, and went to the Bioparco Zoo and through the City’s large park, Villa Borghese. The zoo was pleasantly better than we’d expected, even comparing favorably with the Vienna Zoo, which is world-renowned. We especially enjoyed the wide selection of primates, which were endlessly amusing.

That night we hopped an over-night train back to Germany. Our return home was much smoother. Walter knew what to expect, and we lucked out and the sixth person in our couchette was a no-show. So, we had more space and no strangers; we even got a bit of sleep. And the next day we were happy to be back home, and it really did feel like home. People spoke German, and we knew what was going on.

A few days later we watched the 1953 movie Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in her first leading role. It tells the story of a princess who visits Rome as part of her European tour, but “escapes” to spend a delightful day with the company of an undercover American reporter. Princess Ann goes by the pseudonym Anya while on her holiday! We delighted in scenes at many of the places we’d just been to, including a fantastic party on a barge on the River Tiber in front of Castel Sant’Angelo.

The movie is refreshingly unsentimental, emphasizing the actual everyday work and obligations a princess might have. There’s no running off with her true love and living happily ever after (unlike in Shrek, for example!). At the end of the movie, the princess returns to her duties, leaving the man she’s fallen in love with. The man does the right thing and doesn’t expose the princess’ day on the town, giving up the chance to publish a lucrative story. In the final scene at a formal press conference, the reporter and his photographer friend let the princess know her secret is safe with them, and they slip her an envelope of photos by which to remember Anya’s grand day in Rome. And with that, it ends.

Anya's Roman Holiday

Tired parents resting in the Piazza della Rotonda

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