Wednesday, August 15, 2007

London's Forbidden Planet and the Journey Home

Woke up on our last day in Europe and got packed up from our brief stay in the hotel. Had a full English Breakfast of hard boiled eggs, toast, and coffee. Certainly not the grand Swedish treatment, but good nonetheless. The hotel held our bags for us while we set out for an excursion to London's Soho shopping district. We popped by Victoria Station on the way out to buy a day Transit pass. The line-up at the ticket office was terrible, so we went to an information office for the Southern Railway. We were told that they could set us a combined transit pass plus ticket for the train trip to Gatwick Airport. When we got there, there was only a very brief queue of aged people. When my number was called, holding Alden, I asked for the combined pass. The little man behind the desk was fairly irate that I would ask such a thing. "Where does it say that I would sell you a pass?" But like a good Englishman, it was too rude for him to refuse, so with grumpy faces, and muttered comments, he reluctantly sold me a pass, "because I had a young child".

So we were set for transit for the day, freeing up significant waiting time later. We hopped on a double-decker buss and headed past Westminster Abbey, and back up to Trafalgar Square. We got out there and walked up Charring Cross Road search for Forbidden Planet a London institution for sci-fi memorabilia. I really wanted to get some cool Doctor Who merchandise, while we were in Great Britain. The store was great, with a massive bookstore/movie warehouse in the basement and very imaginable model, toy or collectable from the past 60 years of science fiction. We spent about an hour, and all came out with little treats (the boys looked so cool at the cafe later in the day playing with their 12" dolls of Doctor Who (Alden) and Cyberman (Elwyn).

We spent the entire rest of our short time in London walking around Soho, popping into shoe stores, browsing in Marks and Spencers, having a Japanese noodle lunch at Soba (where I had eaten six years before). throughout many of the cities that we had visited, I noticed these little tile space invaders tucked away in little corners. They were extremely cool little displays of what I am guessing is gorilla art of some kind. i think we need a couple such space invaders in Ladysmith. We hopped on the London Underground, made our way back to the hotel, strapped on all our bags (Karen had bought one extra roller-luggage for some of the things we had bought) and walked to Victoria Station. I felt a little tense, hoping that we would not be late, but we made in in time enough for Karen to buy Belgium chocolates for the trip home.

Gatwick airport was extremely busy, the heart of the crowds pulsing around the security gate. The UK seems to be on heightened security, and we had to do the thorough check, removing our shoes, opening bags, and so on. Once we made it through, we had a few hours to kill, watching aircraft come and go from the 95-gate terminal. We finally boarded, being the first on the Airbus 330, and occupied our 3 seats in the centre isle, and the one on the right side across. The boys were fairly antsy for the first couple hours of the fight, bickering with each other, and feeling more hungry than we had anticipated. Karen and I switched seats to share the Alden-management a bit, but finally we were fed and the movie started. The boys fell asleep, Elwyn awkwardly curled up in one chair, and Alden sprawled out over two. Karen and I tried (with success for the most part) to stay awake for the entire 9 1/2 hour flight home, not wanting to suffer jet lag too badly in Vancouver. Three movies played, made it through a bit of my new William Gibson book, and at last the long flight ended. Tired, we dragged outselves out to the long term parking lot where Brian Olding very graciously had parked our car the day before, and we drove to the Holiday Inn for a long nights sleep (our bodies at about 5am London time).

Woke up Tuesday in Vancouver feeling fairly refreshed. had some debate over where to have coffee and breakfast, not knowing Richmond well, and having expectations that exceeded our options. got back in gear by spending a few hours at Ikea, reminiscing about our great trip to Sweden, before heading to the ferry home. The boys are very happy to be back, exploring all their old toys, picking blackberries, and telling little stories. Elwyn remarked that he just couldn't believe that he was back from Europe, and that he had forgotten all the little things that were here at home. It is like a rediscovery, with the common-place and everyday feeling special again.

It was good to see all my old friends again. We all seem to be in a similar life place, working, having bought our first home and having had children. It seemed for all of them that we had just been together the other day, though it had been years in many cases. Hopefully it won't be so long before we all meet again.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Long Walk in Stately London

We woke up early this morning, said goodbye to Vera and Raja and Radim drove us to the Prague airport to take our flight to London Stansted. We spent the last of our Czech money on breakfast and trinkets in the airport before heading on a very clean and neat Easy Jet flight. It was first come first serve seating, and we were early so got good seats at the front of the airplane for the quick 2 hour flight. It is hard to imagine that in such a small space, so many different cultures, languages, and histories have developed. The world gets much smaller than you think it is when you take these little hopper-flights around Europe.

We were feeling cheap and took the coach to our hotel in central London instead of the trains (our rail passes not working here in the UK). It was a long, poorly ventilated, and jerky trip but we made it without any puking, so I was at least content. The hotel is a few blocks from Victoria station in a otherwise relatively quiet, residential part of London. Unremarkable, if not somewhat disappointing room, but we didn't pay much, so there you go.

Didn't stick around long in the hotel before going off for a walk to Buckingham Palace, the Royal Gardens, and beyond. The palace kind of takes you by surprise, walking up Buckingham Palace Road, it is just a gritty city street, then around the bend and it opens up into this gold-guilted, majestic space. It was really quite spectacular. Even after having seen castles and palaces in Paris, Stockholm and Prague, this was really very impressive. Reminds you very much that this is a living-breathing monarchy that was once the centre of the entire industrial world.

After catching my breath back, we walked through the gold-guilded Canada gates and into St. James Park. The Mall (a main roadway) is closed to cars on Sundays, so it was quite a pleasant walk for the boys, who were ever-interested in the bird life. Eventually, however, the park had to end. We headed past the massive 19th century monument to the Duke of York, past the Britsh Columbia building (repleat with BC flags and coats of arms) and into Picadilly Circus. Walked along to one of the worlds largest toy stores. We all had fun there, though it was way too crowded with people. Picked up some neat little things for the boys, which they carried as treasures for the rest of the night.

Found a good little Indian restaurant for curry and lassies, and then carried on walking, first through Soho and Chinatown to Leicester Square, then to the famous Trafalger Square, which is dominated somewhat by the large Canadian embassy. All these Canadian monuments (we saw several Canadian war memorials and tributes, as well as these fine buildings) makes you realize how important Canada must have been to the UK as a colony and ally over the past few hundred years.

Finally caught a double-decker bus back to Victoria Station and turned in at the hotel, the boys having had one of their longest walks since Paris. Need to rest, as tomorrow is our last day overseas.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Day and Some Knights Outside of Prague

We all woke up this morning for a journey to an ancient ruin at Okol, a famous site a short distance outside of Prague. Karen, Elwyn and Vera went on the metro and bus, while Radim, Alden, Emil and Raja drove in Radim's car. After a few diversions for us getting coffee, boys having to pee, getting slightly lost, we arrived at the castle just a few minutes before the bus riders.

The castle ruin was impressive even from the country road we approached it from. There is a high tower, with several smaller castle wall features below. I it is a 13th century site with very rustic construction, small rooms, but quite defensable, I would think.

This day, and many weekend days, hobby knight enthusiasts dress up in armour or period costumes, practice sword fighting, archery, mead making, falconry, or other medieval arts. there is a minimal fee to access the castle, and a little tourist stand of wooden swords and shields for the kids, but otherwise, it is purley for fun, not for profit. You can really feel that energy in the place too. Everyone was having a good time.

There were guards at the door, checking people's tickets, grilling them, asking for 'bribes', but all in joke. However, they were dressed well and were quite heavily armed for the 13th century, and they completely terrified Alden. He was sure they were 'going to sword' him and as we walked up to the gate, he cried so hard in terror, that they just winked at us and let us get through unaccosted. Then Alden popped his head up from my shoulder and asked 'did we sneak past them?' and was very proud that we had.

Elwyn tried out archery (difficult) and we climbed around the castle a bit before the first fight demonstration began. We watched it enthusiastically, and then by 1:30 we got hungry so headed out of the castle to a tiny little restaurant nearby. We couldn't read the menu (Radim, Vera and their kids were not hungry yet), so we walked a little further to a pizza joint. While we were there, it began thundering and raining really heavily again. We had hoped to go back to the castle, but by the time more than an hour had passed, we all decided to give it up and head back. Radim chanced to see an old friend there, who gave Vera, Karen and Raja a ride to the metro, and the boys all headed back in the car.

On the way back, we went out to see the plot of land that Radim and Vera bought. It is in a very picturesque little town of Libčice, about 30 minutes north of Prague. After poking around the site where their house construction will begin this fall, we went to the city centre to have a look at the old neighbourhood Radim grew up in (very nice villas in Praha 6), and then on to the tower at the highest point of land in the city. Walked through some rose gardens, past an observatory and into a funky hall of mirrors, before the boys were got so tired that they became surley. Meanwhile Karen, Vera and Raja went back to the Chodov shopping centre near their flat, and had coffees before pursuing a bit more shopping. We headed back to the flat for a late supper of salad and perogies, got the kids washed up and to bed by 10:30, so they would get enough sleep before our morning flight back to London.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Pounding Pavement in Prague

This old communist-era apartment is being rennovated, so after 8am, all the hot water is turned off for the day. Yesterday, I had a shower by boiling water on the stove and having Karen pour it over my head. Today, I woke up early enough to have a proper shower, and had a nice quiet hour before everone else woke up.

We made our way with Vera, Emil and Raja to the main historical centre of Prague, the Prague Castle. We took the metro and then a tram. The trams were cool, runing quietly along the streets, and up the big hill to the castle. We got out and approached the castle, seeing the crowds of tourists getting thicker and thicker. We got past the formally dressed castle guards (evidently, it is still the official residence of the Czech president), and the crowds of tourists were completely overwhelming. There were hours long wait to get into the nice old gothic church. there were exorbidant fees to walk along the medieval streets filled with tourists shops.

Before getting too caught up in it, we decided to descend down the hill through the castle gardens (not too expensive a fee) and have a quiet respite for lunch at a little german-czech restaurant. The onion soup was very good. In the gardens, the kids picked grapes growing there (not intended for tourists to eat im sure), which they liked very much.

We then walked across the historic Charles Bridge, which is the main pedestrian bridge across the river in Prague. There are many massive statues of bishops and historic figures, like this one pointing up to the Prague Castle. The bridge was completely choked with tourists again, and we made our way off, into another historic square. Elwyn found a little gift for his grandmother in a Czech crystal shop, but the crowds and long walk had pretty much worn us all out.

We went for a quick coffee and snacks before heading to another park, well-outfitted with the same play things as found in most of the parks of Ladysmith. We met Radim, who got off work, and went back to the mall near their house for supper of gnocci. Radim and Vera took all the kids back to their appartment, giving karen and I a couple hours in the evening to shop by ourselves. Karen found a few nice things in the mall before it closed and we came home. Elwyn and Alden are really enjoying their new friends, all falling asleep together, though I fear they might all have picked up some kind of runny nose.

Spend the night talking about life, the future, and the past, looking through all of the architectural drawings Radim and Vera have had drawn up for the house in the countryside that they will be having built this year. It will be wonderful for them to make the change to this new place, i think the kids will love it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Pouring in Prague

We arrived in Prague by air from Copenhagen last yesterday afternoon. During rental car from Klippan to Malmo, though I forgot to fill up with gas, and our north american credit cards do not work in unattended gas stations. I fear a major fuel bill coming from the rental car company. I really do prefer trains, and so did the boys. The whole hour long trip down, they complained and fought.

Took the short train from Sweden to Denmark, where our flight was to leave from. Got through customs in a breeze -- the European Union border controls are almost nil. The cheap flight was fast and uneventful. Prague was 8 degrees hotter than Sweden, and considerably more humid. Elwyn was sweaty right away, his eczema irritating him for most of the day.

My old friend Radim, who Ive known almost as long as Ive known Karen (same goes for Roger, now that i think about it) picked us up in his company car and we drove to his apartment which is right in Prague. He has two children Raja and Emil, both the same age as Elwyn and Alden. They have enjoyed meeting and play well, in spite of the total spoken language barrier.¨

Radim and Vera live near the largest mall in Central Europe. It is an impressive place, well priced, good selection, lots of things to do for the kids. When we went out there to eat supper, they had a childrens centre, kind of like at Ikea, where you can drop off the kids for a very small fee, and pick them up when you are done shopping. They are well attended by adults, and they get to play with all the dream toys you can think of. The four of them had a ball, while we ate a very tasty dinner.

The next day we got up and out of the house at about 10am, going back to the mall for good coffee and bagels first, before heading out on Pragues excellent metro system. The stations are a mix of pre and post communist. This station was particularly cool in the stark communist design. We went to Wencalis Square (of the christmas carol fame), then walked around the old city centre for several hours. topped up the SIM card of the old cell phone that Radim lent us (there are twice as many active cell phones as there are people here, and life seems almost impossible without them), and headed out.

The humid air got more humid and an extended thunderstorm crashed down on us by about 2.30pm. We were in a cafe eating and were trapped there for a little while before we decided to head back to the metro and try to get back to the mall. The boys were pretty moody and argumentative, and no one was particularly happy in this modern and stylish cafe.

The rain broke after about an hour, and we checked out a very historic square where the old city hall was located. The impressive old architecture was evidently refurbished in the 1980s just before the communist government collapsed in the Velvet Rrevolution. We hopped on a bike-drawn carriage and zipped through the old city to the metro.

We met Radim back at the mall (Vera was home sick for the day with the kids), and we headed out to the river bank, overlooking some baroque period ruins and the city below. There on the hill is the a pleasently nontouristy Vyšehrad castle. It was built in the 10th century, on a hill over the Vltava River.

While we were very much enjoying walking around the grand grounds of this castle, the thunder started to flash again. We quickly walked to an odd little cafe-pub, made up of left over communist huts just beside (or possibly within) the castle walls. We had juice, coffee, roasted corn and bbqed mushrooms, while we sat under a large umbrella outside the cafe. It poured cats and dogs. The umbrellas over the outdoor seating areas started leaking through so we went inside. The rain and thunder and lightning continued to thunder down for almost an hour. A little lake was created in the gravel outside the cafe, and then just as quickly as it started, the rain stopped. The whole city started moving out from under shelter again, and we headed back home for supper, some chatting and to bed. Hopefully tomorrow Vera will feel a bit better and can come with the kids with us to Prague Castle.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Laying low in Klippan

Just a short blog tonight, as we have to get up very early tomorrow to catch our flight from Copenhagen to Prague.

We had a very slow morning today, visiting with the other families and trying to help keep the house in order. We eventually headed off at two o'clock to the National Park at Röstånga. It was a short hike down a forested trail (lots of beech trees) to a small lake fed by a spring. The name of the lake evidently has mythic connotations to Odin and the coming of the first Christians. We stayed for a brief picnic before heading out.

Drove to an outdoor swimming pool to cool down (about 28 degrees here now), and them home for a supper of abundant leftovers and a fantastic home-made spit pea soup.

After supper, we went to the neighbours yard, who had built a little playground with a trampoline, a 30 meter zipline, and some swings and such. The boys had a great time until sundown.

Came back and put the kids to bed. Kjell and Per-Yngve (the couple who let us stay in their house) invited us for a night cap of aquavit, bombay saphire gin, lemon snapps, and some sort of pear cognac. we had only little samples, as the high-culutre drinking is a bit new for us. Tired now, and very happy we were able to come to Sweden for over a week. Hope we can come back soon.

Castles in Denmark and Sweden

It was a day of castles. We woke up and drove out -- all 11 Canadians as well as Roger, Caroline and Elsa -- and headed in a caravan of rental cars to the ferry terminal in Helsingborg. There are big ferries that make the 20 minutes crossing of the Öresond every 30 minutes. It was a warm sunny day and we had fantastic views of both historic cities of Helsingborg in Sweden and Helsingor in Denmark.

Arriving in Denmark we got our bearings with Roger and Caroline endulging their traditional feast of bright red, long Danish hotdogs with spicy mustard and dried onion flakes. We then trooped on to the famous castle where Shakespear set the play Hamlet. It was the crown castle of a Danish king in the 1600s, and on the outside is quite impressive. After we explored the grounds together as a group the party split up until the 3:30 ferry back to Sweden, to explore on our own. We poked around in the castle a bit, which was rather museumy and not too appealing for the boys. Then we headed out to the quaint old town quarter of the Danish city, had lunch in a square, did a bit of shopping (Karen bought well designed 'pirate' rubber boots for Elwyn), and headed back to the ferry.

Roger and Caroline were headed back to their house to prepare for a big BBQ they were going to have for family and friends, and Elwyn decided that he wanted to join them. Karen headed off on her own for some more shopping, so Alden and I decided that we would go explore the old crown castle on the Swedish side. It was more of a public outdoor park than a museum, with running fountains, great views and really authentic architecture, well preserved. Alden loved exploring the little corners and dead ends, and we topped it all off with some fancy ice cream treats.

Went back to Roger's house where the BBQ was well under way. We had Caroline's mother and her husband, the neighbours who are hosting our family at their house, Roger's friend Tobe, as well as the Canadians from Montreal (Bobby and Cathty, Ian and Laura and their three kids Veronica, Ryan and Emma). We had a lovely BBQ, with the gift opening at the end. The coolest wedding gift, in my view, was from Caroline's life-long friend, who had bought them an old phonograph. Stayed up late, chatted, watched the stars with Caroline's telescope (found a faint and fuzzy Andromeda galaxy).

Sunday, August 5, 2007

A Wedding in Sweden

Roger and Caroline live in a small town of Klippan, where their parents and grandparents have also lived. Roger's grand-uncle builT a dance-hall and restaurant on a nice viewpoint of a hill above the farming area that Klippan is nestled in. The original building burnt down about 15 years ago, and the local equivalent of a Rotary club got together volunteers to rebuild a community hall of sorts in its place. Roger and Caroline booked this spot for their wedding to take place.

On Friday after breakfast, we headed up to the place that the wedding was to take place, helping set up the tables and prepare some of the decorations. Elwyn and Alden enjoyed setting out little colourful Ikea beads and candles on the tables, just like any kids would, and the place looked beautiful when it was ready.

We headed back down the hill to buy shoes for me in Klippan and then to Roger's house, where we joined another family of Canadians, who are also staying with Roger and Caroline for their wedding. They have three kids, 7, 5 and 1, so Elwyn and Alden were fully entertained by Veronica, Ryan and Emma. Had a nice supper and visited late into the night before heading to bed to rest for the big day.

Saturday was the morning of the wedding. Caroline needed to have a bracelet picked up at the jewlery store in town, so after breakfast we headed into Klippan to explore a little. Enjoyed a few little shops and a bakery, before headed back to Roger's house to get changed for the wedding. My new suit looked fine, and fortunately didn't need any alterations. Elwyn and Alden wore their new shirts from Paris, and Karen her new jacket along with a particularly beautiful shirt she has.

We arrived at the wedding site shortly after three to find Roger and Caroline and Roger's youngest sister Fredrica all making final preparations. The wedding was perfectly planned, with about 65 guests (11 from Canada, a family from Germany, and the rest, from what I could gather, were local folks from Skåne). The 5 Canadian kids and Elsa were really the only little ones there, and on the whole were independent and well contained.

Roger had asked me to be his witness at the wedding, and Caroline her long-time friend Annette. We stood to the left of the gragarious municipal official who married them, with Roger and Caroline standing on the other side. The vows were quite brief, from what I could gather only really requiring that they explicitly agree that they would be together in sickness and in health. The family and friends all looked on, as we stood outside in the courtyard of the dance-hall, overlooking the farmland and wooded vistas below. The marriage official, after the wedding chatted Annette and I up a bit, telling us about how he had lived in Toronto 40 years ago, working for International Machinery. The crowd looked awkwardly on waiting to greet the new husband and wife. Annette finally clicked in and said that we needed to go congradulate them first, before everyone else would come. We did that, and the wedding party really began in earnest.

After about an hour outside of sipping elderberry juice, we were called in for supper. The caterers had prepared a three course feast of (1) a fantastic greek cheese and basil salad, (2)a main course of potatoes, green beans, and either pork roast or a yummy vegetarian dish called Korn in swedish, but made of mushrooms, and (3) a cake of local swedish red currents, some kind of fluffy cream, ice cream and a chocolate nut crust. It was all excellent.

Sweden has a Zero tollerance drinking-and-driving law, and pretty well everyone, as far as I could tell, respected that rule. We danced and enjoyed conversation all night before turning in around midnight (though the party went on for a few more hours=. Amazingly, the kids made it through almost all the way.

The next day (today, Sunday) we had a very late start (no surprise there), and we had a modest plan of having all the Canadians with Roger, Caroline and their 1 year old daughter Elsa head to the beach. there is a fantastically sandy and large beach in the nearby town of Ängleholm, which is only about 20 minutes away from the house. We made it there at around 2, and spent the days, packed in with all the young and beautiful Swedish crowds, ordering pizza on the beach for supper and coming home at about 8pm. It was a lot of fun for the kids, and quite relaxing for Roger and Caroline, who have been in super-prepare mode for the wedding. Came home and the boys went to bed with Karen by about 9, while I stayed up and chatted for a few more hours.

Really enjoying hanging out with my old friend Roger again. I only wish I had at least another week to spend here, just hanging out with our families. Like I said in my speech at the wedding, I think Skåne is very luck to have Roger back.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Fire, Knives, Swords and Royalty

(Thursday) Woke up on our last day in the luxurious Stockholm Sheraton, feasted on another elaborate complimentary breakfast, packed our bags and checked out. We had most of the day to spend in Stockholm before our bullet train back to Malmö departed. Debating briefly where we should go, we decided on checking out the Gamla Stan (Old Town) again, taking in the changing of the Royal Guards at the Palace, and then heading into the shopping district to see the height of Swedish consumerism.

On our way to Gamla Stan, the kids were transfixed by Mario and Luigi, two Mario Brothers doing impressive juggling. Karen got pulled into the fray, standing calmly in the line of fire of burning torches and sharp scabbards. It was a great show, though I don't think they collected 100 coins to make it to an extra life.

The Old Town is home to at least two Swedish science fiction stores. Massive selection of reading -- in English and Swedish -- as well as comics, roll-playing games, War Hammer, and the rest. Seems that the heady escapism of scifi is going strong here.

Just before the Royal clock tower above the Nobel Prize building struck noon, we assembled for the changing of the guard. We had excellent front row positions while hundreds of other tourists strolled in and joined the spectacle. The guards organized themselves quietly, while some of them managed the crowds. Then, at 12:15 sharp, the thundering sound of marching drums, followed by a full Royal brass band lit up the streets.

Elwyn later said that when the drums were going, his heart was thumping really hard, and that for the next day he heard the brassy songs in his head.

At least 45 minutes of ceremonial guard changing ensued, with arming and disarming, dismounting and remounting, all orchestrated by a sternly confident master of the ceremonies. The guards all looked very young. We learned from Roger later that as a part of the manditory millitary service in Sweden, everyone had a chance to serve at the Royal Palace, but only the best squads get selected. Lots of women were in the guard, and the King supports a farily major equestrian operation to which goes far beyond his marching horses, with programs for the nations youth.

We only left about an hour for shopping in the city centre, which was fine as the infamous Swedish prices really prohibited any serious purchases.

Hopped on the x2000 to rocket back down to Malmö. 4.5 hours later, we arrived and met Roger at the station. Avis, where we were to rent a car to drive around for the next 5 days, was closed and the people who we phoned had no recollection of my reservations. An hour and a half of waiting in a hotel lobby later, the very apologitic Avis people drove out from the airport with a large-sized car, offering a free day, free upgrade, free drop-off fee, 10% discount on the total price. I accepted the terms, and headed back to Roger's house in Klippan for the rest of the night.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Vikings from Canada

Slept in this morning (hard to avoid it in this pampering Sheraton), and were treated to a free hotel breakfast. This was no ordinary stale muffins and warm orange juice like in North America. This was a serious restaurant breakfast, buffet style with every kind of breakfast food -- from traditional swedish herrings in mustard sauce, to continental crepes, to American-style hashbrowns and eggs. Outsiders had to pay a stunning 40 CAN a head, but karen had it included in our kids package. We sat at a large table with a Swedish family who had a girl exactly Elwyn's age. she was really keen to chat with Elwyn and learn about him, so through their mother, we had a lovely time.

Got out by 11:30 to the shopping district so I could buy a suit for the Wedding this saturday. H&M is a great Swedish departemnt store. Think IKEA, only clothes and you get the idea of good design and cheap prices. For the equivalent of 200 CAN, I was out of there in an hour with a new linen suit, tie and shirt, very happy.

We hopped a cab down to the Swedish national museum of history. It is a extremely well-designed museum showing the history of Sweden from the stone age, vikings, and baroque periods. Best of all, however, is the outdoor activity area for kids. Here, we really got treated to one of the very best museum experiences ever (free with the modest entry ticket).

We started with both of the boys maknig a viking flatbread, rolling out the dough with a stick and cooking it on an iron plate over a fire. they did most of the work, and enjoyed eating it. Then, we moved on to metalurgy, where they both got to make a cast of actual ancient museum pieces in some sand, melt down some kind of soft metal over an open forge fire, then pour the molten metal into the sand, splashing it with water to complete their casts. They were great and did it all! these little iron age adventurers went on to try on chain mail shirts and helmets and had the best wooden sword fight of their lives. Alden was in his glory. Wound down with a tug-of-war(Alden and I won) and a kind of elaborate pillow fight, where Karen and I had to ballance on a large wooden beam and try to knock each other off. Like Robin Hood and Little John, Karen handily knocked me over to the mat below, much to the delight of the fans looking on.

From the museum, we took the efficient Stockhom subway back to the Old Town and had our third real vegetarian meal. The boys were tired and fussy, and didn't eat much, but it was pretty good, in an atmospheric old building, probably over 1.5 centuries old. Walked around the Old Town some more, past the place where they give out Nobel prizes, and then onto the Royal Residence in Stockholm. There were Royal Guards there, which Elwyn and Alden found fascinating, yet terrifying. They looked fantastic with their polished silver helmets, striking blue uniforms, with white leather trim, carrying muskets and bayonettes. Elwyn and Alden became quite tame, subdued even, as we walked by these official men and women on duty.

Strolled around a bit more before heading back to the hotel, buying a couple of souveniers at a tacky tourist shop.

At the hotel, we found that we had also been given 600 Kroner (about 96 CAN) worth of credits for the hotel pub. So, after the kids went to sleep, Karen and I snuck down to the bar, enjoyed a couple of beers, a glass of Aquavit, a Swedish cheese plate and a bowl of chantrelle mushroom soup. It was a heavily adult hour. The kids were still sleeping soundly when Karen went back to the room. I've been blogging for almost 2 hours now, catching up. This ancient free computer has no java, so I can't upload pictures to my blog. I'll add them later, as there are lots of good ones.

Splendid Stockholm

(Tuesday) The Swedish X2000 train was an exceptionally fast ride, over 265kmh for very long stretches (the French trains never got much over 200, and the German ICE hit top speeds only for a few minutes at a time). Though it was fast, it was long 4 1-2 hours. At these speeds, you body really feels the movement, tossing you back and forth, and feeling a constant micro-movement that is quite destablizing. About 3 hours into the ride, Karen and I were feeling train sick. The kids Gravel helped (though they didn't seem to need it themselves).

Out seating was a bit mixed up by the agent in Canada, with Karen and Alden in car 4 and Elwyn and I in car 5. We didn't even have seats beside the kids, but the polite Sweeds didn't tolerate that indiscression for more than a moment. Elwyn spent the jiggly trip building and re-building his new Lego, while Alden coloured and played with his new horse and knight. We had a modest lunch of microwaved lasagne and bread, keeping our bellies as calm as possible. Finally, after rocketing through the forest, lakes and little Swedish towns, we arrived in this emerald of a city, Stockholm.

We walked a block from the central station to our room at the Sheraton, where Karen had booked a family room. A true businessman's hotel, it has every ammenity, at a price. Not at all charming, but very modern and super-comfortable (luxurious, really), it was a good home for our two nights.

We went for a long walk down the touristy pedstrain stree Drottnigg and voer a bridge to the Old Town Gamla Stan. Alden liked exploring the little alley-ways, which eventually took us to the harbour Stömmen, where we boarded a little ferry that took us to Djurgården -- a massive area of the city set aside by the king for a large park. We strolled around and chanced on a cute little playground, right beside a free live outdoor theatre. Elwyn started playing with a Swedish girl his age, even though he couldn't speak with each other. They laughed alot and had a great time, and Alden played mostly on his own (as he often does in playgrounds).

We walked again north, past an old castle that is now the Nordske museum, and headd over the bridge into the theatre district. There, Elwyn was treated to 10 minutes on a huge trampolene-bungy jump thing, where you bounce 10 meters or more into the air with each jump. We stopped briefly for a late supper of pizza and coleslaw (to suppliment our earlier french fries lunch), and then headed back to the hotel for bed.

The Three Kings and a long train ride

(Monday) Our next day in Köln seemed short but very full. We went for a stoll in the Altermarket, an old area of the city that has been built up since Roman times. Found a pharmacy for some good quality german essentials, then went on into a busy pedestrain mall. A Lego outlet store beconed us all quite strongly -- Elwyn especially so. A perfect Lego Death Star greeted us at the door )with a 549€ tag!) The boys got their fill of Lego play and shopping and we headd to the Dom Cathedral than I had photographed the night before, looking for an inside view.

Here, the remains of the Three Wise Men (yes THE ACTUAL three kings of Jesus fame) are kept in a gold box, housed in a spectacular gothic chapel, which had been built on an old Roman holy site for that purpose. 12 stunning churches surround this wonder, all of which were bombed in the war, and which are still partially going reconstruction, one church at at time. It takes decades of work, as these are pretty amazing places. Rain pounded on us in brief torrents throughout the day, but we managed to stay quite dry.

then our 19-hour-long train ride began between Köln and Stockholm. We boarded a German ICE train, which took us across Germany to Berlin in about 4 hours, travelling at speeds up to 250kmh. German trains seem socially colder, with less well-stocked cafeterias, terrible coffee, leather seats, glass doors, and so on. Comfortable, nonetheless.

We arrived at 10:30pm and waited in Berlin Central Station for an hour before bording our old Swedish sleeper train for the overnight journey across the Baltic Sea. The boys managed to stay awake right until their heads hit the Swedish train's little pillows at 11:30pm, and all things considered, were remarkably civilized. We had two cabins with two narrow bunk beds in each, the boys claiming the top (netted) bunks. I had a rough sleep, waking frequently with the violent motions of the old train, though the 3-hour ferry crossing was peaceful enough.

We arrived in Malmö at 8:30am and waited another hour in the station for the X2000 bullet train to Stockholm, chatting pleasently with a PhD (geography) student from the University of Washington, embarking on her year of field research in Sweden, studying the geography of swedish prostitution laws. Elwyn, groggy but civilized, charmed her with stories about his new Lego inventions.

Exploring Rotterdam and Köln

(Sunday) Woke up in This Neck of The Woods with Elwyn at about 9am this morning, rising quietly before everyone else in the house. Enjoyed a typical Dutch breakfast of toast with butter covered with chocolate sprinkles, and then more toast with a dutch gouda cheese. After a leisurly morning drinking coffee and chatting, we went to explore a bit of Rotterdam's waterfront. We bought a 'strippencart' (a long strip of card with multiple fares paid on it) so that our whole group could travel by tram down to the water.

Rotterdam is a pinache of stuning architecture -- all recent as the place was raised during the bombing of WWII. A city of 500,000, it seemed busy and upbeat, though evidently it was 60% immigrants and veryhight unemployment. They recently passed a law saying that you could only move to the city if you could demonstrate that you had employement of a certain income level, otherwise you couldn't move there from somewhere else. Some social engineering! The vibrant downtown and waterfront belies all these social realities, however.

We walked back part-way to their flat, then hopped onto another tram. We noticed how lovely and large the windows were -- 4 feet tall at least -- very well designed. We picked up a huge mound of french fries for a quick lunch before boarding the German ICE train for Köln.

We had 1st class seats on this sleek bullet train, but were stuck in the row next to the smoking lounge. A complaint to the conductor got us moved to another 1st class car. Elwyn has a long chat with a 17 year old from Yosemite, California who was travelling around with his skateborad. Elwyn told him a long story of a super-skateboard that he has a mind to build one day, one that can transform into almost every transportation machine -- from skateboard-rock-driller to skateboard-helicopter.

When we got back to our seats from this long chat, Alden was melting down with Karen, having got so mad about some small thing that he spit at her. A long time-out in the 1st class bathroom, repleat with abundant sobbing and cursing, restored order to a degree. Alden was out of sorts for the rest of the day.

Got to Köln and made the short walk past the stunning High Gothic Dom cathedral, to our hotel room in a little inn called the Rhein St. Martin. the room was on the top floor, overlooking the Rhein River on two sides. Spectacular views in a very large, charming and comfortable room. I had booked it months in advance on the advise of a guide book and was not at all disappointed.

We went downstairs for some supper and chanced upon a chinese buffet with Tofu. That was all it took to get our protien-starved Karen in the door. We got the kids back into the bath (their first since the start of the trip) and to bed.

I then went out for some night photography of this impressive riverside city. On my way out, I heard some familiar 80s music coming from a little souless pub in the otherwise touristy market area. I popped in and enjoyed an icy cold local beer, while listening to great old tunes by the Stranglers and the Psycedelic Furs before taking some photos and returning to my king-sized bed for the night.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Rocket to Rotterdam

We realized last night that we have come to Europe with no electronic devices other than our digital camera, and that includes no alarm clock. Needing to be out of the appartment by 8:30am to catch our bullet train, we needed to wake up early -- and the boys went to bed at an unprecidented 11pm last night, on the account of a very late dinner in a quatier Indienne. Fortunately, I told my self "wake up by 7, wake up by 7" so many times before I went to be that I woke up at 3 and 4:15 and 5:45 and 6:30, when I finally decided to get over with it and go buy an espresso at the bar downstairs.

We made the train with time to spare, having said our goodbyes and thank-yous to Reiko for her excellent hospitality. We boarded this grand train, staffed by stylishly uniformed French train attendants, serving yogurt as thick as sour cream and good strong espresso onboard. We chanced to sit beside a family with bags from Mountain Equipment Coop, quickly identifying them as fellow British Columbians. Elwyn sat right across from a boy Aden who was celebrating his seventh birthday and they had a grand trip rocketing across France and Belgium at a stunning 300 kmh. The train had to slow down from Brussels to Rotterdam because of track upgrades, but it still was a very swift and painless journey. Train travel is really a very civilized way to get around.

We got out at Rotterdam central station and quickly oriented ourselves with Elwyn using the compas attached to his adventuring belt. Three blocks stroll and we arrived at the flat of our friends Yvette and Johannas, and were very happy to meet new baby Mercedes. Elwyn was totally afflited with baby giddiness, giggling heartily everytime they made eye contact.

Today happens to be the day of a major brazillian-style carnival in Rotterdam, and we headed out for a walk on the streets. The entire city centre was closed to vehicle traffic and a huge parade wound around the town, with partiers and lookers on packing the streets by the thousands. We ducked through it and headed for a big saturday market area, buying some good fresh fruit, dutch cheese, and fresh fish.

We came back to their flat after the adventure and while supper was made, Yvette organized Elwyn and Alden to make little sailboats out of scrap paper and the little card containers that the fresh berries came in. We went out to the canal and tried to sail them, the punts flipping over from the mast without a keel. Doffing the sails, their toy punts drifted across the canal into the reeds to become building supplies for the nests of the resident ducks.

Had a great supper and visit before turning in to the little cabin that Yvette and Johannas have built in the backyard of their flat -- a place called This Neck of the Woods -- that Yvette runs as a respite for visiting artists.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Last day playing in Paris

Another day of shopping for Karen, and it is off to the grand parc de la villette in the northeast corner of the city for me and the boys. The metro emerged for us in the middle of a jewish neighbourhood, allowing us to stock up on some good, cheep (and Kosher) smoked salmon sandwiches before heading into the park.

We got there and headed straight for the enormous dragon slide, made out hundreds of old wooden barrels, fashioned together to form two huge dragons with slick metal slides coming out of their mouths.

After climing on that for a while, we headed over to another section of the park, fenced in with activities divided by age categories. The 0-2 set was the usual climbers and sandbox, with an additional very bouncy pool of water with a ultra-heavy sheet of plastic around it (kind of like a densly packed waterbed made only for jumping on. There were two of these (one set in a kind of long ribbed ballon pattern, the other flat) for the 0-2 crowd and another 2 (both long ribbed ones) in for the 3-5 crowd.

The 6-9 year olds had a pro-grade zip line too. Since we were some of the first people in the park, we had the thing all to ourselves for an hour or so, and so Alden and Elwyn both zipped back and forth (and back and forth, and back and forth), hanging (dangling, really) from the zip line. It was cool until the big kids came.

We walked around the park for a while, seeing a french submarine, a huge geodetic ball, a functioning lock-canal system, and some pretty post-modern landscaping (not really aetheically appealing for my eye, but worth exploring, none the less). Met up with Karen by 2:30, and after briefly considering heading indoors to the fee-area activites, headed right back outside for another 2 hours of dragon slides, zip lines and bouncing. Exhaused from a heavy-duty park day, we headed back to our appartment, rehydrated, snacked, and then were taken out for an nice Indian supper with Reiko and her excellent french boyfriend Hugh. Got the kids to bed by 10:45pm, which is going to haunt us tomorrow when we have to be at the train station by 9:30am.

Off to Rotterdam in the morning. Paris has been great. Feel like we scratched the tip of an iceburg, but am very much looking forward to seeing new (and probably less intense) places.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

And on Thursday, they shall rest (or mostly, anyway)

Realizing that we shouldn't push our luck, today was a relatively quiet day in Paris. Let the boys sleep in, organized some laundry, and headed off on a late start to the UNESCO buildings, which are near the Eiffel Tower. I spend two hours with the UNESCO folks from the Intangible Cultural Heritage unit, having an excellent discussion about the status of self-government negotiations in Canada. Canada definately looks like the bad guy on the block these days in terms of the international indigenous rights scene, and the UNESCO folks share in these concerns.

While I talked, Karen and the boys headed to the Arc du Triumph -- Napolean's victory monument, which is now one massive traffic round-about, and then back to Jardin du Luxembourg for some relaxation. I met them there and headed back to the boat pond, which was even more popular with the boys today than yesterday. Where in Ladysmith could the kids push around well-crafted wooden sailboats? We definately need a place like this.

After sailing, Karen headed off for 6 hours of solo-shopping. Clothes shopping is not a gentile activity for two young boys, so we parted paths and headed for our own shopping quarters -- a toy store and fruit smoothies. Alden picked out a knight on horseback, and Elwyn an opposing knight, and adventurer's utility belt. They were happy all night.

Came back to the appartment early, prepared a simple meal here while the boys played (clearly appreciating the slower pace of the day) and Karen arrived back with one small package after being completely overwhelmed in the three elegant, old Paris department stores (single stores, each with more floor-space as Woodgrove Mall, and dedicated basically to clothing). Everyone happily resting, looking forward to our final Parisian day tomorrow. No pix shot today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Grand Day of Walking in old Paris

The third of a trio of massive walking days today, headlined with an early morning trip to the Notre Damme cathedral. I'm not really much for churches for the most part, but I have to say this is probably the most stunning building I have ever seen, anywhere. It is like a baroque song, precise, detailed, intricate, massive yet intimate, and absolutely otherworldly, from an age and aethetic far beyond our own. Alden saw two angels, no kidding. He just said unprompted "there's an angel" on two seperate occasions, just like you might mention seeing a hot-dog stand or something. The second one was a pretty intense statue of Mary (no wings, just an angel).

Walked away from the great former home of Quasimoto (Elwyn had read the book a couple months ago and wondered which balcony the Hunchback through the nasty priest off of) and into another intimate section of Paris around rue St Germaine. There, we saw a fragment of the original Roman wall of the city and one of the original Roman amphitheatres, which is tucked in amongst a built-up area of appartments. These, evidently, are the oldest structures in the city (several thousand years). Immigrant kids from the housing nearby were playing and kicking balls around in the amphitheatre. Lived-in history.

Had an absurdly expensive lunch at one of Paris' only vegetarian restaurants. Vegetarianism has not caught on here at all, unlike England, where 20% of the population evidently report being some kind of vegetarian. The food was unexceptional.

From there, we made our way to the wonderful Jardin du Luxembourg. This is a very massive park. In the centre is a large pond where the kids can rent little wooden sail boats which are pushed around just by wind. There was also a peddal-wheeled go-cart that Elwyn enjoyed and a large playground (about double the scale of Sutton-Maffeo in Nanaimo).

After several hours in the Jardin, we walked around some more, scoping the spider-web of streets in the neighbourhood (me getting sore, mushy, cracked feet) and eventually settled on Crepes for supper. Elwyn and Alden hated them. I accidently ordered a blue cheese crepe, also hating it. Karen, speaking french, ordered an omlette.

For the next two hours, I walked in a haze of sore feet and hunger through a district of antique shops until we arrived back at the Louvre. There, we gave the kids a break, going to the little theme park, and endulging them in some fair rides and ice cream. Things were better again. Puttered down rue de Rivoli, Paris's version of Robson Street until we hit a metro and came home.

Feeling sore and tired tonight, the kids flopped into bed.