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.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Triumph of the Tower

Having read in the guidebooks that you really need to get to it early if you want to avoid lengthy (and I mean 4 hours plus) lineups at any of the main Paris attractions, the boys, Karen and I made it out of bed, fuelled on nothing other than espresso and enthusiams (well, the kids had yogurt instead of the coffee), we headed out again to the Eiffel Tower. It was drizzling when we went underground into the Metro. When we emerged 30 minutes later, much to our absolute shock, it was blue sky. How can the weather change so fast?

We made for the line up, having arrived at the base of this spectacular monument at about 9:30, and found the line up to be another shock -- only 5 minutes long. Squished in with a busload of Korean tourists (who were seriously charmed by Alden's long blond hair), we made for the top of the tower. As Alden said "Great Views! Where's the Church?!" Elwyn was also completely engulfed by the experience. No vertigo for these guys, and fantastic views of the entire city. We ate patries and waffles, and made it down a couple hours later. By the time we were down those 4 hour line ups (minimum) had already formed.

Walked into a posh area of Paris looking for somewhere to lunch. Found a little place the locals buy italian speciaty food, so we made a little picnic and headed back to the base of the Tower.

Then we fairly randomly decided to walk south, more or less to get to a metro and to see what was there. Found Rue du Commerce, which was an interesting street of little shops and cafes. We found one kids shoe store closing out and bought Alden a new pair of sandals (his blue ones were hardly holding up to the amount of walking we've been doing. Elwyn insisted we get the ones with cute little lights on them, which he is completely impressed with. Took another espresso break at an intersection which they were re-paving. Elwyn sat glued to the heavy machinery and the intensely busy french traffic rushed by.

Back to the apartment for a quick, cheap supper, then out again, this time to see the grounds of the Louvre. Alden again was amazed. He looked was stunned by all these 'trolls' everywhere on the face of the building, and decided that he would spit at them so they wouldn't bother him. We went for a long walk through the grounds of the Louvre (like a 3 km long walk!) towards the arc de triumph. We couldn't make it. A bit of ice cream from an absurdly overpriced vender-to-the-tourists and we made it home by a grueling 10pm.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rainy day in Paris

Woke up this morning and went down the stairs of the appartment while Karen and the boys slept to join the old men at the cafe on the corner, drinking espresso at the bar. I had an allonge, with crema so rich that it stuck to the side of the cup. Fantastic.

Headed out the Sacre Coeur -- a massive (no monumental) church on the highest point of land in Paris. We hiked a great set of stairs to get up there, light rain falling the whole time. We arrived, with hundreds of other Catholics, to view this wonder. I couldn't help but notice all the masses of gold and hardwoods, little tributes to the colonial past of the church.

We headed down the other side of the mountain by fundicular -- a kind of gondola -- and walked through the rain to a simple eatery (french fries and pizza slices). We waited out the worst of it there before poking around a bit in Tati, Paris super-huge dollar-store. Came back to the appartment, tired and hungry, and had a meal of pasta and cheese.

Then headed out at around 8pm to see the Eiffel Tower -- hoping to catch some of the evening glimmer. Basically as we got out of the metro, a real downpour pounded on us. We trudged through it for a while, getting some good, rainstreaked views of the tower before we were overcome by the elements and decided to head back. Alden fell asleep on my shoulder through all of this. We all plopped down tired and ready for a hopefully more sunny day tomorrow.

No jet lag to speak of for anyone, though I don't quite know how we have avoided it. Something will go awry soon, I'm sure...

Archaeological London

Got into London not too jet lagged and happily experiencing next to nothing in the way of security delays. Hopped on a local train which took us to Blackfrier Station and then a short walk across the centuries old Blackfrier's bridge to our comfy, tiny, hotel room. We were starved by supper time and could not come to agreement on the option of eating at the nearby Tate Mordern museum cafeteria, so we ended up spending an outragous $120 CAN for a mix of appitizers at a greek restaurant at the Bankside dock on the Thames River.
Karen and the boys crashed back at the hotel and I went out for a 2 hour night stroll to explore Waterloo train station and the touristy Southbank.
Sunday we got up and had the free breakfast at the hotel -- an impressive array of English cheese, French pasteries and terrible instant coffee. We then went for another random stroll, this time past Shakespear's Globe Theatre, onto a quick riverboat past London Bridge (which Alden still is singing is "fallling down, falling down...") to the Tower Bridge. We walked around an amazing little medieval corner of the city and chanced upon some excellent coffee and gelato for unbelievably low prices before treking over the Tower Bridge to one of our Queen's properites at the London Tower.
There we happened upon Archaeology day, marked with festive tents out on one of our Queen's lawns, and lots of happy archaeological elderly volunteers around, showing samples of Roman pot shards, neolithic cherts and a frieghtening array of dead aminal bones, all dredged up out of the River Thames right infront of the London Tower. Elwyn and Alden (both wearing suitably archaeological Tilly hats) were photographed for the archaeology societies newsletter by the president of the society -- a sort of Eric McLay of London. She told us that in a few minutes the gate down to the river would be open. It is only ever opened to the public for one day a year, for two hours that day during low tide, so that the archaeology society and their supporters could go down to the river and look for what the tide had sorted out since the previous year. Everything you find you can keep, though real goodies they encouraged that you give back to the society. So, we got the the shrot queue, were issued latex gloves, rubber boots (the river is still the dirty, stinky old Thames), and bottles of drinking water and we were let down. Alden was the youngest archaeologist in London by a long shot. We instantly started finding things -- edwardian stoneware, victorian pottery, lot of difficult-to-date clay smoking pipes, some intersting old glass, and a horde of modified flint, used in muskets. It was fantastic fun.
Then we walked back to the hotel, got our bags, caught a London cab to the massive Waterloo Rail Train Station and boarded the Eurostar train for a civilized three hour ride under the English Channel to Paris.
Arriving in Paris right in time for dinner, our friend Reiko (who is lending us her appartement) met us and took us out for supper at a classic french restaurant (I had some kind of tasty white fish in a rich, creamy sauce with a hint of artichoke hearts (yum!). Elwyn and Alden fell asleep at the table, waiting for the supper to arrive, and we had to carry them back to the appartment (up six flights of stairs, as there is no lift in this old building).

Monday, July 16, 2007

backpacks out of the basement, the pre-trip begins

"four sleeps until we go to Sweden" was the first thing Elwyn said today when he got out of bed.

Our plans are set and we are down to the last few things to arrange before leaving for nearly a month of holidays in Europe.

We are debating the pros and cons of taking our different luggage. Do we take backpacks or do we take airport roller luggage? That is the question. what will be more easy to control two excited kids with? I'm just not sure, though I'm leaning towards backpacks. The 20 kg per person limit of our cheap airfare is also playing on my mind. Whatever we do, we need to do it light.

I've mapped out our general route for the summer: london, paris, rotterdam, köln, stockholm (via overnight train through berlin and malmö), klippan, copenhagen, prague and back to london. Only the trip to and from Prague will be by air, otherwise we ride the rails -- at on at least four different bullet trains that I've booked so far.