Monthly Archives: October 2012

Salvador Dali: Cool, Crazy and Creative.

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These are the words our just-turned-nine year old used to describe Salvador Dali today having spent three hours perusing his works at the Dali museum in his birthplace, Fuegeres, Spain. Now, just so we don’t get ahead of ourselves, she was really tired and pretty fed up by the time we left, and we did have to rush the 21st and 22nd rooms a bit. But still, its great that she was able to come up with such positive words to describe Dali’s work. Let’s face it, there could easily have been harsher words used to describe it. And she was quick to point out that it is his work that is cool, not him. Him, apparently, not cool at all. What with that mustache and the crazy eyes…
She was fascinated by the constant reappearance of Gala, and spent a while speculating on who she might be, and whether she would have been mad that he painted her with her boob showing. Because its disgusting, obviously, and if it were her, she would have been furious.
The older two girls would have been happy to spend more time there – there is so much to see in every picture, you could spend an hour on each one. (I couldn’t, but apparently they could). That would mean we’d have been there until next Wednesday, I think. They are not kidding when they say much of his life’s work is housed there! Some of the kid’s other thoughts today:

It’s amazing that he could do really normal paintings and sculptures, and then do these!
I wonder why he decided to do his Soft Self Portrait with a piece of grilled bacon…I guess everything’s better with bacon.
Who would think to put corn around someone’s neck, and a baguette on their head?
Do you think Dali was a poacher? (in response to the one with all the stuffed squashed pheasants)

They loved it though, which quite surprised me. I guess when you think about it, the eyes of a child are the perfect eyes for a lot of this work. No judgement really, just fascination and wonder. We have lots of questions for Google tomorrow.
And I think we almost succeeded in our attempt to pass it off as a Halloween Field Trip. One of them even suggested they could do a Dali inspired Halloween picture tomorrow since so much of the crazy fits in well with Halloween. All in all, I think he was a big hit. And our children continue to amaze me with their incredible insight and open-mindedness.
Road School is so enlightening. For all of us.
By the way, it was very cool, and well worth a visit. But make sure you have lots of time, because you really could spend the day.

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Caves: Who Knew?

I have never really understood the fascination with caves. Dev used to go “caving” when we lived in England, which always involved helmets, flashlights, and lots of dirty clothes. And in my imagination at least, lots of sheer drops, ladders, and narrow, dark tunnels. As inviting as that may sound to some people, it wouldn’t really float my boat. And maybe the caves he went in were like that, and maybe they weren’t; I don’t know. But after yesterday’s trip to Les Grottes de Grande Canalettes, my views on caves have changed quite dramatically.
There were no sheer drops, or at least, I didn’t have to go down any. There were no narrow, dark tunnels. Or again, none that required me to duck. And no ladders of any sort. (I researched extensively beforehand to ensure that this would be the case). In fact, there was nothing even remotely claustrophobic about this enormous, cavernous even, system of caves. Surprisingly, there was nothing scary at all. Except for the oddly deformed cat that was hobbling drunkenly around the gift shop after us at the end of our visit. Now that was scary.
Anyway, back to the caves. Saying they were amazing is so inadequate. I can’t think of anything that has filled me with such awe. And we’ve been to some awe inspiring places over the last couple of months. The beginning of the caves is a pathway of tunnels that were hollowed out by underground rivers millions of years ago. You can see the rushing water in your mind and imagine it carving away at the rock, millimeter by millimeter over the years. There are some stalagmites and stalactites here, and it’s really cool to see the water dripping onto the stalagmite, building it up even more. The kids held their fingers under the water and swore they grew!
But it’s when you get through these tunnels and come into the first of the chambers that it becomes suddenly mind-blowing. I can’t really describe it – in this case, the pictures will have to speak 1000 words. But the sheer vastness of the chambers, the columns of calcification that you can’t even wrap your arms around, the 30 foot high stalagmite towers, and the thousands of icicle-like stalactites hanging from the ceilings are just so unbelievably impressive. And they just keep getting more impressive as you move along. The chambers get bigger and bigger, you come across a lake full of cauliflower shaped calcifications, there are draperies of mineral deposit like lasagne noodles stretched across the ceilings, and the colours of the columns change depending on the prevalent mineral, from the pure white of lime, to iron red, and manganese black.
And finally, as you climb up to the most enormous chamber of all, it’s just everything. Everything combined and more. Accompanied by coloured lighting and classical music, we sit on benches here and just take it in. Weirdly, this is one of the most spiritual experiences I think I have ever had. Maybe it’s just the realization that you are sitting under a mountain in a cavern that has been shaped by Mother Nature over millions of years. Or you feel the presence of an omniscient being in such stunning, yet completely natural phenomenon. I don’t know, but it makes you feel very small and insignificant. Such a minute part of this vast, incredible world.
In any case, I’m a cave convert. Obviously.
Oh, and the educational implications….just an afterthought really, but still. Our oldest said it was one of the most amazing things she has ever seen. She wouldn’t let any of us speak as we went through! The middle one said, “Did you take a picture of this?” approximately every 4 seconds, so we’ll assume she concurs. And pearls of wisdom from the youngest? “This place would be so much better if it had burgers and fries you could eat on the way around”, and “This opera is giving me a headache”. Oh, well, you know what they say – two out of three ain’t bad.

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Language Fascination

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Today, we were in three different countries in the space of an hour. Andorra, France, and Spain. It’s a strange feeling driving from one country to another in such a short amount of time. I was trying to compare it to crossing the border into the US, but it’s not like that at all really. Things actually change, most notably the language, as you cross a border. For example, as you are driving from France on the way to Spain, you are following signs for Espagne, then when you get into Spain, you are greeted with a sign saying Espana, and when you leave Andorra, you are guided by signs to Espanya. Yes, they are subtle differences, but the whole language change is not so subtle.
In France, the official language is obviously French, and in Spain, it’s Spanish, but there are areas of both whose actual language (official or not) is Catalan. One of those areas is the Pyrenees-Orientale, where we are. And, Catalan is the only official language of Andorra, although Spanish is widely spoken as well. It feels like this language is a sort of mix of Spanish and French, but I think I’d be shot down by an actual Catalan speaker for saying that. I read somewhere that it is actually more similar to Italian…one of the Romance Languages apparently. I don’t know, but it sure makes for some interesting and confusing attempts at conversation. In fact, language in general seems to be making me really confused – fascinated, but confused just the same. I often find myself thanking people in a language that doesn’t really belong, because:
A. whatever language they are speaking is familiar, yet unfamiliar, and
B. I sometimes forget where I am.
I’m forever saying Grazie, when I should be saying Gracias, and Gracias when I should be saying Merci. And I don’t even know how to say it in Catalan. Fail.
And, speaking of language confusion, we met the local shepherd this week, a wizened little woman who introduced herself as the “bergere”, and who has clearly spent her entire life up on the mountain tending her sheep. But when she’s not up there doing that, she’s down here offering to show us the “quatro petit lapins” she has at her place! We all followed her down the hill a couple of days ago, and she showed us the rabbits, her dogs, her chickens, and the place she keeps her orphaned lambs when she has any. We stumbled through our conversation catching words of French, but with Spanish words thrown in as well. We didn’t do very well. It’s amazing how, when faced with an actual conversation, you forget all the French you ever knew. It was obvious she was making an effort at using French words for us, since she didn’t know any English ones. Mairi did manage to figure out just enough to get us the basics, and after a while, we left the tiny “shepherdess” with a big handful of a chard type vegetable from her garden, which I cooked last night, followed by five fresh eggs the next day from her hens, which made us a tasty omelette this morning. The girls were very shy of her at first, but now Mairi has started having a good go at communicating, and has since taught her sisters to ask “Can I play with your dogs?” in French. Plotting and planning for tomorrow!
What I do love about all this language confusion is that the kids are really starting to pick out the similarities between different languages. Common roots, or words that obviously derive from the same Latin word. Instead of just dismissing a word as “foreign” and something they can’t understand, they will sometimes attempt to figure it out based on what they do know. And as an English teacher, that is exciting to me. It may be confusing and difficult for us when we are trying to find our way around, and figure out what we are buying, and I must admit, I have cursed the fact that every time we get used to a new language, we are faced with a new one on more than one occasion. But when I stop and think of the richness of the experience, especially for the kids, I need to give my head a shake and embrace it. And say thank you. Or grazie. Or efharisto. Or gracias. Or merci. Or whatever.

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IDS: Internet Dependency Syndrome

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A new blog follower asked me a question today, so I have decided to try to answer it in a post. I’ve been thinking about doing a post like this for a while, but more from the psychological perspective than the practical one. I’ll try both.
Warning: I just re-read this post and it is a rambling disaster. But I can’t be bothered to tidy it up, so it is what it is. Read it or don’t.
Psychologically, I have found my extreme dependence on the internet a little disconcerting. I wouldn’t have classed myself as an internet junky before we started planning this trip, but I guess I may have become one. I say that because of the feelings of isolation, vulnerability, and sometimes downright fear I have when we are cut off. This seems wrong somehow. I mean, people have been travelling Europe for a long time, way before we had internet and cell phones. My sister and I travelled for a month in the late 80s. No way to contact anyone. No looking at accommodation reviews, no online booking – no nothing. In fact, I think we made two calls to our parents, collect from a payphone (which my children thought was just something Maroon 5 made up for the song).
Aside: as a parent, I cannot imagine the torment of my children being off in the wild blue yonder and only hearing from them once every two weeks; I think it would send me to an early grave. But again, that’s another self-help post for some time in the future…
Back on topic. It feels a bit pathetic to rely so heavily on the internet, but I guess that is just indicative of the world we live in. That’s how we operate. I didn’t make any phone calls to book accommodation for this trip. I didn’t speak to a travel agent to book our flights. I didn’t go to a ticket agent to buy our ferry tickets. I did it all online. And granted, sometimes I wish I could just let someone else do it for me, and I have complained more than once about the number of hours I have spent online planning for this trip, but in reality, there is an unlimited amount of information out there that we would never have been able to access without the internet. I can see multiple pictures of any hotel room or apartment we might want to book, and I can usually find out anything else I want to know thanks to traveller reviews and detailed websites. It’s amazing.
And it’s annoying. Often, there is just too much information, and if you read it all, you will never have any fun. Because you’ll spend your entire life online weighing up the pros and cons of accommodation A versus accommodation B, based on price, location, parking (included or not), breakfast (yes or no) and the favourability of the 342 reviews posted online. Possibly on 4 or 5 different websites. Oh, and then you need to figure out which of the sites you should book it on. Trip advisor, Booking.com, Hotels.com etc etc. My policy has always been to find the accommodation on one of those sites, then go directly to the hotel site, and book there. Always the best price. However, that has backfired a couple of times. Once when we got lost but had to keep pushing on to get to our hotel, despite the fact that it was close to midnight and our kids were losing it, because it could not be cancelled. Apparently some of the booking sites allow cancellation without penalty. The other example is when our chosen hotel showed up full on their own website, but I found a room available on Booking.com.
Oh, dear, I digress again. Take my advice on this. Find one, and if it looks ok, book it. Do not agonize over the details and worry about whether the next one on the list might be nicer. Just do it. Oh, but wait. Make sure it has free wifi first:)
OK, back to the purpose of the post. The 3G ipad has been fantastic. When we can find a sim card for it. And when we can find a place that will let us do a pay up front plan. Which should be easy, but hasn’t been. Airports are a good place to do this, we have recently discovered. You can get a sim card for most devices which is operational within 10 minutes. In Italy, we had to wait 24 hours after buying the card for it to become operational, but you could buy it easily in any little electronics shop.
In England, this was much more difficult. We found the right company, Three, after much research and time. Here we could get a 1gb sim card and pay for it up front. We also bought a cheap phone and got a pay up front sim card for that from Orange. This has been great, and has worked in all other European countries so far. A little more expensive than in England, but usable, and we are able to top up online. Oh, but only because I have a British bank card…that’s another issue for a future post.
Back to the ipad. In Italy, we could quite easily get a sim card, but the provider TIM, didn’t always come through, and it was a weak signal in many areas. Still, it worked. Until we crossed the border into any other country. Which is the big problem with the ipad really. The sim cards only work in one country, so even if you have usage space left, it disappears when you leave the country. Not too expensive though, so doable. You can usually do it for about $25 for 1gb or a month, whichever comes first.
I did see, after we left Canada, that you can actually buy your sim card for France online, and have it delivered to your home before you leave. That would have been well worth the effort. Not sure if you can do that with other countries or not, but what you don’t want to do is arrive in a country with kids in tow and then try to find a store where you can buy an ipad sim. That’s not fun. And not always possible either.
Thinking back to Cinque Terre for example. Not much wifi around there, except at an internet cafe. So, here the 3G would have been really useful. But no place to get a sim card. And you sure don’t want to brave those winding little mountain roads again to go back to civilization and find a place.
Which takes me back to the psychological side of things. Finding that first internet cafe after the culture shock of Cinque Terre, and logging on after three days to check emails and post our whereabouts on facebook gave me such a feeling of relief. It was almost euphoria. Like I had just injected a potent mood altering drug directly into my bloodstream…
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But you get the idea. I actually don’t feel safe without the internet. Which is frightening in itself. These feelings and reactions are, I’m sure, in the dictionary under physical addiction.
Oh, and the cell phone, which has actually been much more necessary than I expected. Especially when you’re somewhere off the beaten track with no internet! I texted our host upon arrival in Cinque Terre and he came and found us. Without that phone, it would have been pretty tough to find our accommodation, especially since no cars were allowed in the village. And the ipad map wasn’t working due to no internet.
And speaking of the ipad map; it has saved us many many times. It’s just another thing I’m completely addicted to….oh, my.
Good thing I’m not a gambler or a big drinker. I think I may have been in trouble. Or in a Betty Ford Clinic while my family enjoyed the trip without me.

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Archeology and Stuff

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So, I emailed the kids’ teachers today for the first time since we left. I wanted to check in to see how what we were doing compared with what they were doing. Because if I’m honest, I don’t feel like we’re doing much. Weeks where we are on the road, nothing really gets done, and even now we are settled in one place for a few weeks, it’s hard, somehow, to make the time to do “school”. Yes, I know travelling is an education in itself, but as I think I may have mentioned before, I don’t want them to return to school feeling lost in any way. Hence the need to check in.
One teacher got back to me almost immediately with a pretty detailed run-down of what they were doing, and he happened to mention that they were doing an archeological dig in class tomorrow using rice as soil, and with real artifacts supplied by Parks Canada so they can learn how we discover information about the past. Excellent idea – what an exciting hands on lesson for a grade five class!
It occurred to me as I finished reading the email that we had been to the “Dig” archeological museum in York where our own little students had a similar experience. They were able to dig up real artifacts from York’s Roman occupation, it’s Viking era, and it’s Tudor period. I was pleased to make the connection, so I started to tell the teacher about it in my response email. Then I remembered we had also been to the current Roman excavation of Vindalanda near Hadrian’s Wall. Then I thought about our brush with The Acropolis, our tour of The Roman Colosseum, and finally our visit to ancient Akrotiri in Santorini where we actually walked on the streets that had been buried in volcanic ash for the past 3,500 years.
Then I stopped writing the email because it sounded braggy. I just deleted it and said instead that she was familiar with archeology from our trip, so she should be ok for social studies.
The great revelation for me, though, was the fact that even when I think we aren’t doing any “school”, we are, of course, doing all kinds of it. It’s just not the kind where we are in a classroom or sitting at a table. I need to make sure I remember that more often. The experiences our kids have had with just that one topic in the past two months are more than many will have in a lifetime. It reminds me how lucky they are. How lucky we are. What an amazing gift to our family and to each other this year is, despite it’s ups and downs. In fact, there aren’t really any downs, are there?

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Mountains are Quite High Really.

So today, with the assistance of the new walking shoes, we went on a real hike. Now I think I have a better understanding of what hiking in the Pyrenees is all about. These mountains are huge, and pretty spectacular. Even for someone who has spent a fair bit of time in mountains (not me, obviously), they are stunning. It’s hard to appreciate their grandeur from a distance, but today we went to Les Gorges Caranca and started at the bottom at a pretty little river, and as we wound our way up the side of the gorge, the scenery just got more and more impressive.
And for me, unfortunately, more and more frightening. It’s such a weird feeling. A dichotomy. I want to go up. But somehow I can’t.
I know it’s hard for people who have no fear of heights to understand, but those of you who do will be able to relate. How I ended up marrying the man I married becomes more of a mystery to me as we explore more of this rugged and beautiful area. Opposites attract? I don’t know. He literally vibrates with excitement and enthusiasm when he gets near a mountain, and the higher up we get, and the more “airy” it gets on the path, the more excited he gets.
I vibrate too, but it’s not from excitement. I’m scared up there, and at the risk of sounding completely pathetic, I just don’t get how edging your way along the side of a cliff 1000 meters up in the air is fun. I try to understand. I really do. Some people might think I’m being negative, but I’m not. I enjoyed the hike. The views were amazing, and it’s such a great family thing to do, but when it got to the point where you needed to hold a wire “hand-rail” so you didn’t fall into the gorge, I was done. I tried to go further. I wanted to rise to the challenge. My middle daughter wanted me to as well. She really takes after her father, and it goes without saying he was itching to go further. In fact, he’ll be off up there again on his own in no time, I’m sure. But I couldn’t do it. In some ways, I feel like a bit of a failure, but we still had a great couple of hours on the mountain which we all really enjoyed. It was beautiful, and I’m so glad to be able to experience somewhere so different from where we live. And I loved that as we walked, we met some people who greeted us with Bonjour, and others with Hola. There’s just something so exotic about being so close to three different borders, and sharing the mountains with so many different cultures.
And as an added bonus, on the way home, we saw a guy dragging a dead wild boar up the road, and that’s not something you see every day!

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Living with Less

As I sit here applying a little lipliner from the stub of my MAC spice liner that happened to be in my purse, not in the broken-into car, I feel cranky again. This is the only cosmetic I have left. So, I’m applying a little and putting vaseline over the top. Why? Not sure…that’s a whole other blog post I imagine. Or maybe some sort of self help book…
Anyway, the robbery happened a week ago today, so we have been here at La Fougere in the beautiful Pyrenees for almost that long. And have we done much hiking? Have we enjoyed long rambling walks around the lakes and along the rivers? Have we taken advantage of the fact that we finally don’t have to drive every day? Have we been to the numerous amazing thermal baths we keep reading about?
No. We have not.
Why? Because it has taken us almost a week of driving around to any town big enough to stock walking shoes to actually get a pair of shoes. I have big feet, and apparently either all women in France have big feet and so they’re sold out (which is not the scenario I expect is true), or more likely, no women in France have big feet. Merrell lady’s shoes come in sizes up to European 44, but no store here has any over 41. I take a 42. So, every store I went in had maybe one or two pairs of shoes in that size, but all of them were men’s. Which is fine as long as they’re not really wide, and big and black and clunky and manly. Which they all have been. I did finally get a pair yesterday afternoon. They are big and manly and not something I would really want, but they were on sale, and so my thought process is that I can wear them now and buy something I really want when I get back to England.
This is only one of the inconveniences that has resulted in us not being able to fully enjoy our beautiful surroundings. It takes a really long time to find a place where we can buy underwear for the whole family. And don’t even get me started on bathing suits. I have a big body too, and buying a bathing suit generally takes me longer than buying shoes. Or any other item, really. Even for the kids, it is not the right time of year to be buying bathing suits. None of us has found any yet, and so no mountain hotsprings.
The thing is, we did not come here to shop. It is not a shopping sort of a place. Half the stores don’t even open unless they feel like it. In France, they close from 12-2, and then reopen. Maybe. And in Spain they open 10-2 and then close from 2-4:30 or 5. Depends. Some of them only open at the weekends. Some close on the weekends. Some close on Mondays. Some on Wednesdays and Fridays. In short, it is almost impossible to go anywhere with the intention of shopping without a written schedule of opening and closing times. Which, naturally, does not exist.
What I need is a mall, a really big one that opens from 10-10 and has stores I recognize. We could go to Barcelona, but with the car window still out, we can’t really go too far. Oh, and that’s the other thing; we have now driven to Spain twice where the closest Citroen dealer supposedly was, and it was closed both times. Yesterday we finally found one open in Bourg Madame, on the border, but they need to order the glass so it will be Wednesday or Thursday by the time we get the car fixed.
Now, this all sounds very negative, and I don’t want it to appear that we are not appreciating our time here. Most of the time, everyone is very positive, and we are just getting on with it. We are learning to live with less, which is never a bad thing. For example, when I get up in the morning, I don’t have to decide what to wear. If it’s cold and cloudy, I wear my long pants and my long sleeved top, and if it’s sunny and warm, I wear my t-shirt and my short pants. And up to today, I always wear my flipflops, regardless of the weather. Today, though, I will wear my men’s walking shoes.
Another positive, I asked one of the kids to go upstairs and get dressed this morning, and she said, “I have no clothes”. Right. Much easier. Pajamas are clothes and clothes are pajamas. Good.
Also, our kids have always been pretty good at entertaining themselves without much, but this brings new meaning to it. They have been playing very intricate and detailed games with a wooden chess set and board they found in a cupboard. I believe one kid controls the white guys and the other the brown guys who live in the “castle” which is the box. The pawns are villagers who also live in the castle, the bishops and knights are servants, and the coloured pieces from the Ludo game are the evil interlopers trying to take over the castle. Fabulous.
It’s all good. But I still get cranky over the fact that all our belongings are probably in a dumpster somewhere in Rome.

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Hiking The Pyrenees in Flipflops is Not Recommended

Before I begin this post, I want to point out that I am aware there may be children viewing it; therefore, there will be no swear words in it. I am going to leave it up to my readers’ own judgement to insert appropriate swear words where they deem it necessary.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Due to the Roman Robbers (directly before “Roman” would be a great place to insert expletive of your choice – just so you get the hang of it), the only footwear I currently have is flipflops. We have been in the mountains, 1600 meters up (where, interestingly, mosquitos cannot survive) for 72 hours and my mountaineering husband is chomping at the bit to get us out hiking. We have had a couple of little walks, but nothing you would need a map for, so they don’t count really.
Anyway, we have spent the first couple of days settling in, recovering from our long and traumatic journey here, and just getting the lay of the land. But today, we must hike.
So, we set off to the ski town of Font Romeu, where there are a smattering of outdoorsy shops, so I can buy some walking shoes (on the way to Lac de Bouillouse where we will hike).The fact that it took me 3 weeks to find a pair of sneakers before we began this trip should have been an indication that this would not be an easy task, but to be fair, we had briefly checked the stores out yesterday, and I knew there were lots I liked, so I thought it would be fine.
Until I realized it was 11:36, and all the stores in France close from 12-2.
Needless to say, I did not get any shoes. But today was a hiking day, so hike we must. We drove up to the Lake where “we” decided on a shorter route than was originally planned, and headed out. After the first ten minutes (which was more of a steep scramble than a walk), I knew this was not going to be a hike for my flipflop-clad feet, but onward we pressed. Our “guide” was sure this was the steepest part. And it was. But the rest was rough rocky terrain, very little of which I would actually refer to as a path. The girls thought it was great. The two younger ones pretended to be on horses the whole time, and Misty and Sky were often racing ahead of us searching out the little yellow route markers to blaze the trail. The oldest walked along checking the map with her dad, commenting often how beautiful the hike was.
I wouldn’t know. I was busy with my eyes on the ground, painstakingly picking out every step to insure I didn’t lose a toe on a particularly sharp rock or break an ankle as my feet slid around my flipflops. Both eyes on the ground also served the purpose of enabling me to avoid eye contact with other hikers as they passed by with their mountain boots and walking sticks. I can just imagine what they were saying in Spanish or French (I don’t even know for sure what country we were in) about the crazy lady in the flipflops.
After an hour or so, we decided we’d better turn back. It wasn’t quite as sunny as it had been when we started. It was, in fact, 11 degrees and starting to rain.
For those of you who have ever tried to walk in flipflops in the rain, even on a flat surface, I don’t really have to explain to you what it would be like trying to get back down the steep scramble as your feet attempt to find some way to grip the bottom of the sopping wet flipflop so they don’t slide out entirely. I probably would have been better off trying to do it barefoot. Lucky my gallant “guide” was there to support me on the really treacherous parts. Even Misty and Sky struggled with those!
Despite the trials, we made it back in one piece. Toes and ankles intact. I don’t think we’ll be doing anymore hiking until I get some new shoes though.

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A Lot Less Luggage

My very well travelled and worldly friend Kim emailed me just as we were leaving for this trip to tell me never to leave anything we valued in the car. Well, that’s pretty difficult when your car is kind of your home, but we have tried to be careful. But now we are travelling lighter.
Our flight from Athens to Rome was delayed on Saturday, so instead of being able to go into Rome to visit the Colosseum and The Vatican, we had to stay at our airport hotel for the evening. Because of this, we decided to leave the hotel early in the morning, and see the sights before we began the drive to Nice. So, we did some research, and asked the hotel staff, and the plan we came up with was to drive as far as the outermost Metro stop (where, according to the map, there was parking), and then take the metro into the city. Hotel staff thought this was a good plan – not driving into the city avoids massive congestion charges, and we would only be leaving the car for a couple of hours. The expected parking lot didn’t actually materialize, but there was some parking on the street outside the station, so off we went.
Unfortunately, while we were touring the Colosseum and getting our picture taken with very overpriced gladiators, someone was smashing our car window and making off with the vast majority of our luggage. When we returned to our car, quite jubilant from our visit to such an amazing site, and proud of ourselves for having navigated the metro without a hitch, still in good time for the long drive to Nice, we found the back seat of the car full of glass, two out of three of our suitcases gone, and the kids backpacks too. The really heavy suitcase full of math books remained. The irony.
Now, the really bad part of this is not our clothes, cosmetics and toiletries, vitamins and medicines, shoes, bathing suits, masks and snorkels, address books, netbook, iPods, all our chargers, and all the bags, although all this is mighty inconvenient. The really bad part is the kid’s journals that they have been keeping faithfully since we left home, and their teddies that they have had since birth. This is what makes me most upset and angry. How dare they mess with our children’s security? And what use are teddy bears and journals to a thief? They could have at least thrown them out nearby so we could get them back. There were many other little things in the kids’ bags that were important to them, the things they chose to bring on this trip, as well as souvenirs from their travels so far, but because we had just returned from our “backpacking” holiday in Greece, the bags were heavy, and we didn’t want them to have to cart them around Rome. And as it was 8:30 on a Sunday morning, it seemed like it would be ok. Not so much.
We have been trying very hard to focus on the positives. It’s just stuff. We are all ok. We had the ipad, wallets, passports and cameras with us (although we can’t charge them now anyway…). The window that was smashed was a small one, and we were able to patch it up and get on our way with only a couple of hours delay at the police station. We did not lose the car. We did not lose a child. There are so many positives.
But I’m still angry sometimes. And I’m still sad sometimes. And I’m so sorry for the girls’ losses. Although, again, these are not losses compared to those they could have been. But if I could get one thing back, it would be a $20 teddy bear, not an ipod touch or my new sneakers…
Moving on.
When we finally got to Nice and found our apartment, it was about 10:30 pm and it was a dirty smelly hole. We slept with the kids, and in the morning, we left. Despite the fact we were supposed to stay for two nights. It was gross, and it wasn’t as if we were going to have fun looking around Nice in our car with the window out wearing the same dirty clothes we had on all night and the day before. We didn’t even have a toothbrush. That made the dirty apartment seem even dirtier.
So, what have we learned? What wisdom can we impart to future travellers? I’m not exactly sure, but I’m thinking, don’t go anywhere unless you can get secure parking, cover all your stuff with a blanket so it looks less tempting(?), and I’m guessing having a car without foreign plates would be good. Although that may be tricky. And possibly illegal.

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What I Want to Say About Athens

What I want to say is that it is a horrible city. Dirty, unfriendly, scary, and covered in graffiti. Don’t go there.
But something holds me back.
I think about the state the country of Greece finds itself in, and know that a huge city like Athens will feel it more than other areas. I imagine how I would feel if my children studied for years only to face the prospect of long term unemployment. Would they go out and paint every available surface with angry graffiti if they had nothing better to do, and no hope for their future? How friendly would I be if my already meager income was being taxed again and again to compensate for a government who has borrowed from so many other countries it is on the verge of collapse? Or if after 35 years of working, my pension has suddenly disappeared? Or if I am now renting a home I might have previously owned. Perhaps I would feel bitter enough to want to destroy what’s left of my neglected city? I might even be a little intimidating or condescending to the tourists who come for a night and spend only a few euros en route to somewhere more glamorous. And maybe I don’t fix the air conditioning in my run down hotel, or re-hang the shower door, because I have other priorities for my money. Like food.
Or perhaps I might even rant and rave almost viciously about the state of my country to the family of five in the back of my taxi who has clearly just returned from vacationing on a Greek Island, and then rip them off for almost double the price of a more “official” cab…especially if I was 40ish with a young family and no way to make life better for them.
So, instead of saying don’t go to Athens, I feel like saying go, but go with your eyes wide open. Know what to expect, and give yourself a couple of days there in case your first attempt at seeing The Acropolis does not quite turn out as you planned. And get a good map.

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