Happy Anniversary-Year 2

It’s that time of year again.  It’s the 2nd anniversary of our move to The Netherlands!  In preparation for celebrating this second anniversary, I had a look back at the one year anniversary post from last year and found that while year one was an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and trying to settle in, year two proved to be a little calmer, although it had its own set of challenges.

We kicked off our second year with an awesome trip to Iceland, and, while that was a lot of fun, we were also a bit apprehensive about how the coming year would go.  As we wound down on year one, almost every single one of my close friends was leaving the area.  I wasn’t really sure how it would feel to “start over” again.  In addition, we were nervous about the teacher that our youngest had as she was pretty tough.  And, our oldest had struggled a lot with letting go of the life we had in The States and accepting the life we currently had in The Netherlands.  On top of that, we were going through the process of buying our house in The Netherlands and making decisions about what to do with our house in The States.  There was a lot to be uncertain about.

As we started back to school, I was a bit down without my friends, though I did still have one close friend that I did several things with.  Having her around really helped a lot, and, as I was now heading up the PTSA group at the school, I tried to really force myself to get to know several other parents, both new and returning.  While most of the friendships were not quite as close this year as the ones the year before, I did find that I enjoyed many of the people, and we were able to do things together.  I also found ways to be in touch with some of my friends from the year before, which was nice as well.  We even began working on planning a trip to London to spend a weekend together which was one of the goals that I had for our second year here (spoiler alert-Covid ruined that). I was also working on the goal of doing a regular biking activity with a few of the moms at the school and had a schedule of excursions planned (spoiler alert-the weather ruined that).  So, as we moved into the Fall, I felt pretty good about our social life.  I was in a Bunco group, weekly tennis lessons, a bookclub, and had coffee and lunches regularly with other moms.  We also had another family or two that we enjoyed doing things with regularly.  We had even socialized with our neighbors a couple of times.  By the start of 2020, I had rejoined a choir and a yoga class.  Those old feelings from year one of being out of place and uncomfortable were there sometimes, but for the most part, we felt like we had found a niche, and we felt more connected to the customs and celebrations here and more prepared in how to handle the ins and outs of our daily lives here.

At school, the kids were facing a few struggles.  Socially, there were some tough situations facing both of them, but nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary for their ages.  Our oldest was also facing struggles with the Student Council that she was heading up and our youngest was having some issues with the classroom environment.  Overall, though, they were doing well.  The oldest seemed to have finally let go of the hangups regarding old life versus new life and was enjoying one of her friendships here in particular.  She was enjoying several of her classes and her music and she even had a weekly dog walking job.  The youngest was enjoying extracurricular activities. learning a new instrument and socializing with friends.  Overall, there seemed to be a more positive outlook on things.

In the first half of the second year, we were able to take several trips which were a lot of fun.  We also did several things around The Netherlands.  We were able to have my mom for a visit at Christmas time.  We were looking forward to several upcoming trips and activities.  And then, the second half of our second year arrived and with it came Covid.  It seemed like everything changed overnight.  The kids were no longer in school and hence their social lives came to a screeching halt.  Our youngest struggled with this tremendously.  Our oldest felt glued to the computer for classes and assignments and missed being able to be in person with her friend.  My social life also came to a halt.  There were no more activities, no more seeing friends and because everyone was spending so much time assisting and monitoring their kids’ distance learning, there was little communication with anyone.  In addition, all of our trips that we had been looking forward to were canceled, the visit from my mom was canceled and several special school activities were canceled.  We were not very happy.

At the same time though, we were getting to spend a little more time together.  We were taking a lot of walks, eating lunch together, our oldest and I were working on a daily music challenge which required spending many hours a week together, and I was able to give some real attention to helping our youngest improve school and organizational skills.  On a personal note, I was working out and meeting some fitness goals and I was exploring a new interest in art and card making.  It was far from an ideal situation, but we were trying to make the best of it.

We finally made it back to school for a few weeks just before the end of the year.  Though we were a little nervous, the kids were glad to be back and got to have a few of the regular end of school activities which was nice.  But life was pretty quiet, and I could feel a small negative aspect to all the staying distant.  That feeling of being a little out of place and uncomfortable was growing.  Now, going to the store or having to interact with Dutch people felt a little worse than it previously did.  Driving, biking or having to take transport somewhere felt a little overwhelming.  It was like a little backslide thanks to all the months of isolating in our English speaking, Americanized home and school environment where we were not forced to be a part of Dutch society at all.  And, it also made very clear that I had failed miserably at one of my goals for year two which was learning more Dutch.  It has been a bit of an unsettling realization.

But, as we finish year two, we are trying to remain positive.  We just got to take our first real trip since Covid began, and it was a lot of fun.  We also have recently been able to get together with the other family that we like to do things with, and it was really nice to be social again.  We are still really enjoying living in The Netherlands, and we like the area that we live in a lot.  There are a lot of nature areas near us, and we really enjoyed walking in and photographing those areas in the spring.  There are also still a lot of things to do in the area and in nearby European locations.  And we still really love the international nature of our life here and getting to know people from so many different places.

But, as with every year it seems, with those positives come the struggles.  Again this year, we had to say goodbye to some friends at the end of this year, we just found out that our closest friends will no longer be at our school next year, Covid is still wreaking havoc making everything for this year (school, socializing, travel, etc. an uncertainty and at times a fear), and we are not sure where we will be at the end of year three and with that uncertainty comes a lot of decisions and potential stress.  It seems the only thing we can do is hang on and try to make the most of year three, whatever that looks like.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to take a look back at the goals we had for year two and set some goals for our third year.  Of course, as we learned from Covid, and at times from the expat life in general, life may just come along and make all of these goals impossible.  In which case, it will be time to make some new goals.

Year Two Goals

  1. Learn more Dutch -oops…socializing, PTSA work and watching TV took precedence.
  2. Visit more places (we’ve got some really great vacations and day trips on the horizon that we are really looking forward to)-we tried, we really did but Covid just messed this one up.
  3. Take some biking excursions and/or work up a biking group with some friends-I did one with friends and we did one as a family.  Dutch weather is hard, you guys!
  4. Take a small ladies trip or do some other exploring locally with friends-I went to some Christmas markets downtown with some friends and to a friend’s store opening in another city, does that count?  Again, Covid reared its ugly head and blocked my ladies’ weekend away plans.

What I learned from these goals this year- reaching goals can be hard especially when things outside of your control interfere or when you just really don’t commit to something.  But you can always adjust your goals and explore goals you didn’t know you really had.  I added some goals this year after setting these original goals-

  1. Complete the Kiliminjaro Climb challenge with my oldest-did it
  2. Push for and join a parent/teacher choir at school-did it (though it was short-lived thanks again to Covid)
  3. Lose weight and get in better shape-did it

And now….Year Three Goals

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer.
  2. Visit more places-I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem).
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate)

And so, with some reflection on this past year, a positive outlook and fresh goals in mind, we are ready to jump into year three of our overseas journey.  Thank you for coming along with me on this journey for another year.  Happy anniversary and away we go!!

 

Trekking Through the Alps

While our travels in 2020 have not turned out as planned, we decided to go ahead and take a vacation this summer.  While we contemplated several possible scenarios based on the current pandemic situation, we finally settled on a trip that we had planned to take back in June with some modifications.  Thus, we rented an RV and hit the road for two weeks to trek around Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany.

Day 1

Our first day was mainly spent driving through Belgium, Luxembourg and France on our way to Switzerland.  IMG-20200725-WA0000Once in Switzerland, we made our way to Bern.  We saw some nice scenery as we made our way in including some huge and dense fields of sunflowers.  I could not get any decent pictures of those but snapped a few of some less dense fields later.

We had a slight mishap (think small, steep mountain road and an RV with nowhere to turn around and no way to continue up), but some nice folks helped us through it.  However, we got into Bern pretty late due to that, so we only had time to get some dinner.  There was a pizzeria near our campsite so we opted for that but went for a Swiss feel by trying Rivella, a popular soda drink there, and some Swiss beer.

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Day 2

Our day began in the capital city of Bern.  We took the morning to walk along the Aare River (it’s a very fast-moving river and people were floating/swimming down it) into the city.

The city was a sort of old-style that was very attractive even among modern amenities.  We saw the parliament building, cathedral and shop-lined streets with fountains running down the center of the street.

One interesting feature in Bern that I have not seen anywhere else was what appeared to be cellar doors lining the street in front of shops.  Most of the doors were closed, but they are actually entrances to shops, restaurants and clubs that are underneath the street-level shops.

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After walking around for a bit, we climbed above the city to the Rose Garden.  There were some nice views of the city from there.

We headed back down to watch the clock tower which was supposed to have moving figures on the hour.  It did, though they were not too exciting.  We did enjoy some nice pastries while waiting, though, which helped assuage the disappointment.

After a return walk along the river to our campground, we loaded up and drove on to Montreux which is situated on Lake Geneva.

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We drove through the Laveux Vineyard area where we had a lot of great views.

We drove around part of Montreux on our way to Chillon Chateau, a castle situated on the water.

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We walked around the outside of the castle and along a lakeside path to a terrace restaurant for a drink (local wine and beer).

Then, we walked back to the castle area where we had a sausage and cheese plate for dinner along with a little Swiss chocolate.  We decided to leave the area and head on toward Zermatt, our next stop.  There were lots of mountain views and step farming style vineyards on the way as well as a castle on a hill.

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Day 3

Our day began with a drive into the resort-style village of Zermatt.  The village is comprised of tons of chalet-style homes, hotels, restaurants and shops as well as a church with a cemetery.

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It is also home to the famed Matterhorn.

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We stopped for a Swiss specialty on the way to a trail leading toward the Matterhorn, zopf-a soft braided bread.

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It was very good and gave us a little boost for our climb up the trail.  The views on the trail were very nice with lots of wildflowers and, of course, the mountains.

After walking up for a while, we headed down to Gorner Gorge to get a view of the glacial water flow.

We walked back into Zermatt for lunch.  We tried Rosti for the first, but definitely not last, time (it is on every menu in a multitude of variations).  It is basically a plate of hash browns and this particular version had cheese and tomatoes.  We also had some schnitzel and sausage and Zurcher Geschnetzeltes-veal with a mushroom and cream sauce along with some local beers.

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We walked around the village a little and went into the church and cemetery before stopping to buy some nusstorte (nut tort), Zermatt Birnenbrot (basically a pastry stuffed with a dried pear and other fruits spread) and some Swiss chocolate.  The nusstorte was okay, the Birnenbrot was not appreciated at all and the chocolate was delicious!

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After leaving Zermatt, we drove through many mountain roads with waterfalls and little villages at the base of the Alps each filled with little chalets and churches.  We also saw deer, mountain goats and sheep along the way.

At the top of a huge mountain climb, we found a glacial lake and stopped for a few pictures before heading down the other side of the mountain to the Interlaken/Jungfrau area and more specifically, Wilderswil.

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After settling into a campground there, which would be our home for the next 4 days, we walked to a nearby restaurant for a dinner of (you guessed it) Rosti, this time with a fried egg, Schnitzel, Cordon Bleu made of local veal stuffed with mountain cheese (did you know cordon bleu originated in Switzerland) and lamb Emmenschtel (a sort of lamb stew in a cream curry sauce).  We also added some local beer to the meal for a nice end to the day.

Day 4

Today, we decided to check out the towns around the Interlaken area-specifically Unterseen, Thun, Oberhofen and Wilderswil.

We started in Unterseen.  It was a really cute town with lots of chalets and the river running through the city in two places, but there was nothing too exciting to actually do or see there.  We tried a few pastries and walked around for a bit before heading on to Thun.

We intended to walk around Thun, but, after driving for a bit without being able to find anywhere to park the RV, we gave up, drove around the town, saw a castle and a cute bridge over the river studded with flowers and then headed to Oberhofen.

Oberhofen was not originally on our list to see, but it was actually a nice little stop.  It had a really cool looking castle on the lake and we found a nice place to stop for lunch.

Today we had (I’ll give you one guess) Rosti with bacon and onion, Schnitzel, Cordon Bleu (are you sensing a pattern here?) and two new dishes-a sausage and cheese salad and Alplermagronen-essentially macaroni, cubed potatoes and bacon in a white cream sauce served with a small pot of applesauce for putting over the pasta (don’t worry, you’ll see this one again).  Of course, we also had to try some local beer.

We drove back on some fun roads along the lake, before having a little downtime in the afternoon.

In the evening we walked around Wilderswil, the town where our campsite was located.  There were a lot of chalets and flower gardens on the way to the train station.  Behind the train station, there was an old bridge over the river which led to a church and cemetery.

The cemetery was really nicely maintained so we walked around it for a bit before heading back to our RV to have our dinner which consisted of cheese from the cow belonging to the owner of the campground and some lamb sausage from a farm in the town.  We also got some bread baked by the campground owner.  We ended the meal with a couple of liqueur-filled Swiss chocolates (one filled with a pear liqueur and the other with Kirsch)-pretty good!!

Day 5

Today we went to Beatus Cave.  We had to climb up the mountain to the mouth of the cave.

Once inside, you could hear the rushing water that flows through the cave.

The best thing in the cave was a really cool mirror pool which gave the impression that the ceiling was repeated one level below.  It was slightly disorienting.

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After the caves, we ate at a small restaurant near our campground.  We had (say it with me) Rosti and Alplermagronen, some of the best we had, and cheese fondue with forest mushrooms.  The fondue was served with bread, gherkins, pearl onions and little potatoes that came out in a small burlap sack.  We also tried a Riesling from a town 20 minutes away on the lake.  We ended the meal with a meringue dessert.  It was all very good.

After our lunch, we drove to Trummelbach Falls.  It was a really interesting waterfall because it was running in and out of the rocks/cave.  We took an elevator up inside the rock and then walked all through the rock and carved out spaces to view different parts of the falls as it made its way down to the river below.  It was a cool example of erosion.

Day 6

Today, was the day I had been most looking forward to- hiking in the Alps with all of the wildflowers and mountain views.  But instead, it decided to rain.  The flowers and views were not at all what we were hoping for, but we decided to make the best of it and tell ourselves that we were getting to view the trails in a different light with hopes that the day after would be sunny.  So, while we had expected beautiful bright flowers and skies, we got a more eerie, misty looking experience.

We began by walking toward a waterfall on a small trail near the cable car station.

Then we took the cable car up to Mürren.  Even with the cloud cover, we had some nice views going up.

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At Mürren, we started the Bluemental trail where we were treated to pretty scenery comprised of wildflowers, waterfalls, streams and cows with melodious bells.

We hiked up to the flower garden where they had information about the flowers of the region and we saw some Edelweiss.

We had lunch at a terrace near the garden.  We had Raclette, a special Swiss cheese that is melted and eaten on top of potatoes, pearl onions and gherkins, as well as some mountain cheese and sausage and regional beers.  We would have never known that there were amazing views of the mountains at this terrace except for a very brief clearing that revealed part of the mountains.

After lunch, we walked the mountain view trail.  We had no mountain views, but we were treated to a lot of wildflowers and cows.  The cows all had different shaped and sized bells which really made the jangling sound very melodic.  As my husband said, “we were treated to an orchestra of cows.”

We came out of the trail through a forest and onto a hill of tons of sleeping cows.  It was a little eerie with the foggy mist and all the cows just laying around staring at us!

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Finally, we walked through Mürren past some pretty flower gardens before heading back down the mountain in the cable car.

We went to the same restaurant from a few days before where everyone got the same thing they previously ate (yes-Rosti, Schnitzel and Cordon Bleu) except for me-I tried the vegetable cream soup which was very nice.

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Day 7

After 3 days of rain and overcast conditions, today was our last chance to see the scenery of the Alps, so we were hoping for a nice day.  It did not disappoint!  Though it was not completely clear, we had sun and views, so we were very happy.  We took a historic train (it has been running for over 100 years) up the mountain to Schynige Platte.  There, we hiked a trail around the rim of the mountain where we had views of the lake below, snowy peaks and a glacier and lots of wildflowers.  We even saw a badger from a distance!  And, of course, there was the music of cows!

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After the trail, we walked around the Alpine Botanical Garden which had a really nice display including more Edelweiss.

We listened to the Alpenhorn players and sat on the terrace to eat Aplermagronen and Shnitzel with regional beer.  It was freezing, so we ate fast and then walked around the botanical garden some more to warm back up.

Before heading back down the mountain, we sat on another terrace and had some apricot kuchen and wildberry cake.  The apricot was only politely received, but the wildberry cake was delicious.

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After returning to the valley, we walked to Interlaken for dinner.  We had Rosti (again!) with bacon and egg, Zurcher Geshnetzeltes (the veal in mushroom sauce) and some regional bratwurst with Rosti.  It was not our best meal.

Day 8

Today, we moved on to Lucerne for a few hours before entering Liechtenstein.  Before leaving our campground though, we had a breakfast of bread baked by the campground owner and cheese from her cow as we did every day that we were there.

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In Lucerne, we began by walking to the Lion Monument which is situated in a park area.  It commemorates the Swiss guard killed in the French Revolution.

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Then we made our way to Hofkirch and the Jesuit Church.  They were fairly plain on the inside but were large.

We walked along Lake Lucerne which was filled with boats and the fast-moving Reuss River and saw a couple of wooden footbridges including Chapel Bridge.  The bridges had triangular paintings running along the rafters.

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We wandered around several of the streets and strolled the Weinmarkt area.  The buildings were really neat, and many had elaborate drawings or paintings on them.  There were also a number of fountains throughout the city.

Finally, we walked up to the Musegg Wall, the old fortification wall, for a quick look before heading for lunch.

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While we, of course, had Rosti (with tomato, bacon, egg and cheese) and Schnitzel, we also tried a Lucerne specialty, Chogel Lipaschteli, which was a puff pastry stuffed with veal.  We tried a wine from Lucerne as well.

Then, it was on to Liechtenstein where our first stop was Balzers and Burg Gutenburg, an old castle.  We could see the castle on the hill as we drove in.  After parking, we first stopped at a really pretty church with a cemetery.  It was a quaint, stone church and it was probably one of the prettiest small churches we have seen.  To the side of the church, there was a vineyard at the base of the castle that we walked around.

We moved on to the campground where we had dinner of bratwurst with Rosti (nope, food in Liechtenstein is not too different from Swiss food), veal with mushroom sauce and Flammkuchen (the thin-crust pizzas) as well as some local beer and wine.  They also gave us a gazpacho type starter to try.

Day 9

Today, we went to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein.  We first walked to the outskirts of the city where there is a wooden bridge spanning the Rhine River which connects Liechtenstein and Switzerland.  We, of course, walked from one country to the other and back again.

Then, with Vaduz Castle where the royal family lives looming over us on the hill, we walked into the center of Vaduz where we saw St. Florin Cathedral.  It was pretty inside and out but mostly was simple.

We walked through the downtown area past several government buildings before finding a spot for lunch.

We had a starter of Vaduzer soup (a white wine cream soup) and then tried a stroganoff pasta, a beef fillet with Ribel (a sort of polenta) and a vegetable ratatouille with Ribel as well as a local and a Swiss beer and some local red and white wine.

After lunch, we walked up the hill to the Red House, a historic landmark, and the vineyards next to it.

We had a light dinner, but as it was our anniversary, we finished the night with a Rosé Spumante from Liechtenstein and some Swiss chocolate that we found in Vaduz.

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Day 10

Today, we hiked the Allspitz/Furstensteig trail.  We started early with an ascent over the valley.  It started to rain on us, but as a result, some animals came out of hiding and we saw marmots, a bunny and some chamois (goat antelopes).  We hiked up a huge mountainside to a foresty area where we reached a summit.

After this, we headed through a rocky area to the Furstensteig (Prince’s Way) trailhead.  The trail itself was very narrow and rocky and kind of fun but for those with a fear of heights, it was less enjoyable.  The trail provided some really nice views of the valley and mountains surrounding the area as well as Switzerland.  Then, it was back down through the forest to the car.

After resting a while, we went to get some dinner.  We had a melon and white wine starter and seafood and vegetable risottos as well as pork medallions.  We decided to try a white wine from the Prince’s vineyards in Vaduz.

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Day 11

We ended our time in Liechtenstein this morning with a hike on the Eschnerberg Trail in Schellenberg.  The trail was not overly exciting, but we did walk to the ruins of a castle from the 1300s and through forested and meadow areas with some nice views.

After the trail, we walked to the ruins of another castle from the 1300s that was a little more intact than the first.

Then, we drove into Germany to Rothenburg.  It is an adorable walled-in city with numerous clock towers, churches, old-style homes with colorful window boxes and fountains which is said to be Walt Disney’s inspiration for the village in Pinnochio.  It does feel like a fairy tale town.  However, while it is cute, it is quite touristy.  It would be amazing at Christmas, though, my friend that lives in Germany tells me that they may cancel all Christmas markets this year.

We had dinner on a terrace where we tried a local cheese platter, some Weizen beers, 3 local sausages with potatoes and sauerkraut and Schnitzel.  It was a nice meal.

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After dinner, we wandered the streets and did some window shopping.

We also stopped in a bakery to get some Scheebollen, kind of like a ball made of fried wontons which is then coated in either sugar or melted chocolate.  It is a Rothenburg specialty.  We tried powdered sugar, chocolate with Nutella filling, vanilla/amaretto with an almond paste filling and a plain chocolate coating.  We didn’t love them, but, spoiler alert, the next day we got a powdered sugar one from a different bakery, and it was very good.

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Day 12

We went back into Rothenburg briefly in the early morning.  It was much quieter then.

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Then we moved on to Otterberg to visit a friend.  They showed us around the town, and we hiked a ravine which was very pretty with a stream, lots of big rocks and trees (including many fallen ones which were perfect for climbing).

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Day 13

On our final day, we went to Cochem in Germany.  There was a lot of nice architecture in the city, but it was much dirtier and dingier looking than Rothenburg, though it was also, obviously, a tourist destination.  There was a cool main square with a fountain and a castle up on the hill that we walked to.  We tried a plum and streusel pastry which was okay, and then we bought some Riesling to take home as Cochem is in wine country.

Finally, we were on the road home.

Now, if you are thinking “this was a long post,” you would be right.  It was a long vacation!  But, I hope reading all of this didn’t wear you out.  Of course, in these uncertain times, this will likely be the last travel post for some time.  So, I hope you enjoyed coming along for the journey, and we’ll see you on the other side when we can explore some more!

First Pandemic Getaway

While I wish that I was posting about the adventure that I was supposed to be having in Switzerland at this moment, the pandemic has made that an impossible dream.  But, we decided that there were still a few things that were 1). allowed by various countries as far as travel and quarantine restrictions go and 2). safe enough for us to get a small getaway in.  With that in mind, we headed to Luxembourg City this past Friday and then to a campground in Malmedy, Belgium for a little hiking for the rest of the weekend, and thus, after months without, I am finally able to post something about our travels in Europe again!

During our couple of hours in Luxembourg, we walked around the upper level or old town of the city and the lower level referred to as the Grund.  Many people in Luxembourg were wearing masks, unlike in The Netherlands, and masks were required to go into the cathedral there.  The cathedral was the only building we were planning to go in, but as we did not have any masks with us, we were unable to.  Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable walk around the city.

The old town and The Grund are very compact areas so we could easily and quickly see many things.  We saw the cathedral, the Place d’arms, Place Guillame II, and the Passarelle Viaduc.

We walked to Place de Constitution and the Palais Grand-Ducal where we watched the guards marching out front before making our way to the Casemates du Bock.

 

There are tunnels under the casemates that were used in WWII but the casemates themselves were closed so they were not accessible.  We did, however, enjoy some great views from the casemates and a nice walk down the Chemin du Corniche on our way to The Grund.

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While in that lower level of the city, we had a short picnic lunch and walked along some gardens and orchards before heading back up to the old town.

On our way out of the city, we stopped at the American Cemetery of Luxembourg where General Patton is buried.

After arriving at our campground and setting up our tent, we took a short walk about the mountain trail that was accessible from the grounds.  There were some nice panoramic views of the area.

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On Saturday and Sunday, we hiked about 25 miles worth of trail both near Malmedy and near Spa.  Worth mentioning, between our campground and the trails, was a small town with some cute little churches and this beautiful gazebo in the center roundabout.

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Our hike on Saturday morning included trail along the river which looked almost like blood because of the red mineral running out of the earth, through a pine forest and some open meadows.

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Roots of a massive, long tree that had fallen over.
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Tree roots covering the ground.

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Mushrooms and moss growing on this tree.

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Our afternoon hike began from our campground so we decided to have an outdoor lunch at the campground restaurant which featured 44 Belgian beers.  We tried a couple of different ones including one that is brewed by the campground itself.

The afternoon trail was bit tough as it had a lot of uphill sections and sections that were a little overgrown and required sure footing to pick your way over all of the rocks.  Nonetheless, we made it through and were rewarded with views of the forest, pastureland, a small castle or manor estate and the largest waterfall in Belgium.  We even walked through a deforested area and a rock quarry before ending up hiking along the river where we saw the backside of a deer retreating into the forest.

Finally, on Sunday morning, we did our final trail which required that we climb along the riverbed crossing it many times over bridges or shallow areas and even walking in a very narrow path along the side of the hills running along the river.  The path also crossed through several forested areas and passed homes on large pastures before ending up running along a larger, fast-moving river.

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All in all, it wasn’t the trip we had planned on taking but it was fun (and tiring) and it felt good (and safe) to finally get out away from home.

 

A Time for Remembrance, A Time for Celebration

While WWII was an important war for many countries, including the USA, little is done to continue commemorating the war in those places.  That is not the case for many European countries, including The Netherlands.  I find their commemoration quite interesting and thought that perhaps some of you might as well.  So as Remembrance Day and Liberation Day are upon us, I am sharing a little about the events.

On May 4th, the Dutch begin the commemoration with Remembrance Day.  This day began as a day to remember those who lost their lives in WWII.  Since the 1960s, this day has also been designated for remembering those who lost their lives in other wars and peacekeeping missions, much like Memorial Day in the United States.  The difference, though, is that Remembrance Day is meant to remember all victims whether military or civilian whereas Memorial Day is generally reserved for remembering military personnel who lost their lives in military service or combat.

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On Remembrance Day, a national ceremony is held in Dam Square in Amsterdam following a service in the church there.  The King and Queen and other dignitaries proceed from the church service to the square and lay wreaths at the foot of the national war memorial in the square.  Church bells ring for 15 minutes followed by two minutes of silence at 8:00pm which is observed by the entire country (traffic and public transport, flight takeoffs and activity in restaurants even come to a stop).  Following the moments of silence, more wreaths are laid for:

  • people who were murdered because they were in the resistance
  • Jews, Roma and Sinti who were persecuted and murdered
  • civilians who were casualties of war
  • civilians in Asia who died as a result of the Japanese occupation
  • soldiers and merchant seaman who have died in service

In addition, school children (one for each year of liberation in The Netherlands) and people from organizations representing the different groups affected by the war lay flowers.  All of this plus somber and poignant music, speeches, and performances are broadcast on national television.   It is very important to the Dutch that these people and events are not forgotten.

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The end of the Remembrance Day ceremony marks the beginning of Liberation Day which is a bank holiday every five years.  On May 5th, The Netherlands commemorates the day the Nazi occupation ended in the country, and it is a day for celebration.  A Liberation flame is lit shortly before midnight on May 4th in Wageningen, where the historic documents of Nazi surrender were signed.  Torches are then taken by runners, cyclists, and inline skaters to other Libration fires all over the country.  During the day, there are military parades and music festivals and concerts around the country.  The Dutch flag is displayed at many homes and businesses and the Dutch are encouraged to think about their freedom and its importance.

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But don’t think that the Dutch have forgotten that they were not wholly responsible for their liberation.  The country has the utmost respect for the countries that assisted them in ending the Nazi occupation.  The nation was liberated by Canadian forces, British infantry divisions, the British I Corps, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, American, Belgian, Dutch, and Czechoslovak troops, and the flags of these nations and groups are flown on vehicles in the parades around the country.  In addition, throughout the year, in the town of Margraten, where one of the US WWII cemeteries is located, local citizens tend the graves.  Many American soldiers stopped in Margraten before crossing into Germany during the war, and they often stayed in the homes of Margraten families.  Their sacrifices have never been forgotten, and the amount of respect and gratitude felt for them is so great that the people of Margraten do more than just tend the graves.  Families adopt specific graves, take flowers and other mementos throughout the year, and, in some cases, are in communication with the surviving family members of those soldiers.  The adoptive families take it so seriously that they pass down the tending from generation to generation.  In addition, thousands of Margraten citizens fill the cemetery and place Dutch and American flags at the graves for a large Memorial Day celebration each year.

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And while WWII involved many non-European nations, the war seems much less removed in Europe.  The evidence of the war can be seen more readily here, the effects are more apparent in everyday life and the memories and lessons of the war years and liberation are never far from Dutch minds.  These yearly commemorations are very important days for the Dutch and serve to remind us not only of the atrocities so that they are not repeated, but also of perseverance, gratitude, hope, joy, and the celebration of freedom.

 

My So Called Pandemic Life (Expat Edition)

At this point, we are all at least ankle-deep in our self quarantined, pandemic lifestyle.  I, like most everyone, have experienced difficulties and disappointments.

For one, travel that we have been planning and looking forward to has been disrupted.  First, a mom’s trip to see some very good friends that I have not seen in nearly 9 months came to a halt less than 24 hours before leaving, and then, our upcoming family spring vacation, which I have actually been looking forward to for many years as it was to a country that I have wanted to visit for some time, was decidedly canceled as that country’s borders are closed.  At the moment, we also have some long-awaited trips to 3 other countries that are all in danger of being canceled.  These are disappointing times.

Another issue that we are all experiencing is the fear of what the economic picture will look like when the pandemic dust has settled.  Not one of us is immune to this.  How will we be able to support our existing lifestyles, will we be able to pay bills, what jobs and businesses will still exist and how will their lack of existence affect all of us, will we be able to sell and acquire properties and assets, will we be able to send our kids to school or retire?  These questions weigh heavily on all of us.

Another difficulty that many are experiencing, including myself, is this strange scarcity of resources.  There are no times available for grocery delivery meaning that you have to trek to a store and risk virus spread.  And yet, when you go to the store, you can’t find the things that you need.  It is one more frustration in an already frustrating time.

There is social isolation.  The lack of communication and connection with friends at a time when you need connection and support the most is indeed trying.  It is hard for adults and children alike.

Finally, there is the fear of being sick and needing medical care.  You worry about yourself, your family and your friends.  And there is no definitive, trustworthy source from which you can find reassurance or answers as information varies greatly and changes daily.

Just like all of you, I have faced these difficulties.  But, there are a few added difficulties for Expats that many of you may not realize.  First off, some times that travel that is getting canceled is not just a desired and planned trip that you are disappointed about, but a lifeline to those you care about and rarely get to see.  It may also be a source of getting products and supplies that you can’t find in the country that you are currently living in.  Finally, for us, it’s also a chance to do some medical visits that are outside of the medical services that we utilize in the country we live in.  And now, we have no way of knowing when we might be able to make that trip.

Second, while you may find it difficult to quarantine away from family, for an Expat, we now no longer have a choice.  If your family member gets sick and needs care or hospitalization, you can most likely visit them (even if it has to be in a protected environment); we cannot.  If our family becomes ill, we have to watch that play out from a large distance and we can be of no assistance as we are no longer allowed to travel.  We have to worry about not being there and how we will arrange for the care of a loved one.

Thirdly, there can be added fear and frustration when you do not wholly understand the language of the country that you live in.  Emergency press briefings and warnings are issued in a foreign language, signage informing patrons of safety procedures are in a foreign language, neighborhood chats for assistance and isolation relief are in a foreign language and you have to rely on translator services which are not always accurate or up to the task.  This leads to further feelings of isolation and fear.

Finally, you are isolated from country camaraderie.  What is that?  You know the sentiments that express the belief that all the citizens of a country can overcome a problem together because you are living it together and together you are strong?  That’s country camaraderie.  As an Expat, you are not a part of the camaraderie of the country you live in, because you are an outsider there and won’t stay for long.  You are also not a part of the camaraderie of your native country because you aren’t there.  I can’t tell you how many posts I saw in the past week claiming “we are the greatest country and we will get through this together” or “our great nation has endured things before and we will survive this because we can do this together.”  As an Expat who isn’t present, that kind of support just doesn’t include you.  In fact, it feels like it excludes you; like you don’t deserve support because you are not currently a part of that nation.  It’s a little frustrating and sad to see because, in reality, this is a world problem, not a nation or community-specific problem and for Expats, that point is especially clear.

So, here we are-each with our own set of challenges and each with a similar set of challenges.  I, by no means, am trying to say that it is worse for Expats in this situation.  I’m simply trying to share my perspective and maybe share with everyone some things that you otherwise wouldn’t think of as we all face this reality together.  Safety and health to everyone!

 

Adventure in the Arctic Circle

We have just returned from several adventure-filled days in Tromso, Norway where there is plenty of fun (and snow) to be found!

Day 1

Our first day in Tromso was spent exploring the city.  We began the day by stopping in a cafe overlooking the water to try some Norwegian waffles.  They are served with a strawberry puree jam and a cream that is reminiscent of clotted cream.  They are also eaten with a slice of brown cheese, the taste of which is very difficult to describe.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either so I’m not sure what it was exactly!

 

As we made our way through a somewhat slippery Tromso, our first stop was the Polar Museum.  The museum had a lot of historical items and information regarding the trapping industry and polar explorations in the region.  I have to say that the trapping information was a bit much for some of us as it was pretty graphic and a little hard to stomach.  After the museum, we walked through the Skansen village area to the bridge connecting the island and the mainland.  The wind on the bridge was insane and we really felt like we were going to be blown away at some points.  On the other side of the bridge sits the Arctic Cathedral which has a rather unique exterior but a fairly plain interior.

 

Back across the bridge, we made our way to lunch where we tried the locally brewed Mack beer, fish soup, torrfisk (panfried fish with potato, veggies and bacon), and reindeer wraps.  And while the thought of eating seal after seeing the information at the Polar Museum was not at all appealing to some of us, one of us, who shall remain nameless, decided to go for it and ordered the seal which was toted as being caught by a 7th generation hunter.

After lunch, we walked to the domkirke and took a quick look inside.  The inside was very plain but the outside was cute.

Next, we stopped at Polaria which is an aquarium.  While they had some exhibits on fish and other sea life from the area, the main attraction was the seals.  There are many viewing points where you can watch the seals swim by and over you.  There was also a feeding and training session that you can watch which was entertaining.  The aquarium also showed a couple of panoramic films about the wildlife and scenery of the area and the Northern Lights and how they are formed.

After the town exploration, it was time to begin the real adventure by going on a nighttime snowshoe hike.  As we arrived for the hike and began suiting up in our thermal snowsuit and snowshoes, it began snowing.  After what seemed like a lengthy process of getting the shoes on correctly and finding the right sized poles, we were off.  Let me just tell you-snowshoeing is hard work!  The shoes were awkward to maneuver and it was really hard to move through the snow.  We got really hot and sweaty inside our suits and the work was exhausting.  After hiking for 20-30 minutes, we stopped in a clearing and our guide made a small fire.  Unfortunately, it was too cloudy to see any Northern Lights.  We headed back to the center and it began to ice which added to the challenge.  At the center, we went to the Alaskan Husky dog yard.  There are 300 sled dogs there.  We got to meet a few puppies and dogs before heading inside a lavvu structure (like a teepee but in this case made of wood with a fire/cooking stove inside) to have some bacalhau (fish stew), hot chocolate and chocolate cake.

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Day 2

This morning, we headed back to the center for some dog sledding.  The day began with another tour of the dog yard where we again got to meet the puppies and more of the adult huskies.  Then, we got to go on an hour-long dog sled ride.  We went two to a sledge with a musher and a team of 9-10 dogs.  During the ride, it was icing and very windy so at times it was very painful being pelted with ice, but mostly it was lovely arctic scenery and a chance to see how the mushers guide the team.  After the ride, we thanked our team by petting each one and then went back to the dog yard where we met a lot more dogs.  After all of this, we headed into the lavvu again for some lunch.  This time we had bidos which is a soup made with reindeer meat and vegetables and more hot chocolate and chocolate cake.

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After the morning in the cold, we decided to stay in our apartment and play darts.  We entertained ourselves like that for a couple of hours before getting dinner at Art Cafe.  We had farikal (a mutton stew which is the national dish), finnbiff (a reindeer meat dish with lingonberry sauce) and fish stew.  We also tried some akveitt (alcohol made from potato) and a couple of different Mack beers (white and dark).  We finished off with some carrot cake.  It was a delicious meal!

Day 3

Today we woke up to huge snowflakes.  We drove to a reindeer center where we began by receiving a food bucket and walking through the herd of 300 reindeer.  A couple of the reindeer would eat from your hand, but most just wanted to stick their head in the bucket.  We later learned that all of the reindeer were pregnant females.  All around the snow-covered field were snowy mountains and water.  While we walked around the reindeer, it began to snow heavily.  It felt like a perfect winter scene!  We then went two to a sled for a reindeer ride.  The scenery was very pretty and we were joined by a few extra reindeer as we moved on the outskirts of the field.

When our sled ride was done, we entered a gamme, the traditional home of the Sami people for a lunch of bidos.  This was the same reindeer meat soup that we had the day before but this one was more of a stew.   

After lunch, we listened to a cultural lesson about the Sami, the indigenous people of the arctic region.  We learned about the Sami way of life, language, and clothing among other things.

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Then it was back to the apartment for more darts (somebody got a bull’s eye twice-me!) before going to get a snack of pancakes with strawberry puree jam and joining our tour group to chase the Northern Lights.

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We were in a small group tour so we were able to drive pretty far to see the lights.  On this particular night, the skies were forecasted to be the clearest in Finland so we began the several hour drive to get there.  Along the way, our guide provided a lot of information about Norwegian culture and legends, the wildlife of the area, the climate and the science and legends behind the Northern Lights.  While we encountered very heavy snow for a lot of the drive, as soon as we got close to Finland, we had clear skies, and once we reached a good stopping place, we immediately had Northern Lights.  Now, I’m not going to lie to you-Northern Lights do not look like what you see in the pictures.  Rather than appearing as a dark, emerald green, they appear more whitish to pale green to your eye.  However, once the picture is taken, you can see the green vividly.  We did get to see the lights dancing, and we also got to see a somewhat rare phenomenon of a flare going up and across the sky.  Our guide told us that it was an above-average display.  While it doesn’t look as amazing as it does in the pictures, it was still really cool and after watching for an hour (in -17C/-2F temperatures), our guide made a fire and we had hot chocolate and cooked reindeer sausage with lompe (potato pancake).  Then it was a long drive back to Tromso; we arrived at 2:30am.

 

Day 4

We woke to heavier snow than any other day but trudged out to get some Norwegian waffles and join our Fjord boat cruise.  We were a little worried as the tour began because the visibility was terrible with all of the snow, but it soon cleared and the scenery was beautiful-snowy mountains, icebergs and an ice field.  We were able to see several white-tailed eagles and watched them fly down to the water to retrieve fish with their talons.  And then, we got to see a beluga whale!  He came to the boat and interacted with the crew.  He swam around the boat a lot and then continued to follow the boat as we sailed off.  Our son got to sit in the captain’s cabin and learned all about driving the boat, the controls and navigating.  Then he got to try fishing with the crew.  It was a great experience and as we sailed back toward Tromso, we had a Norwegian salmon fish soup to top it off.

We were greeted back in Tromso with heavy snow coming down as big flakes.  We went to dinner where the boys had a smoked moose steak appetizer, and then we had reindeer filet steak, pan-fried cod with mussel risotto and some dark Mack beer.

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Day 5

It was once again snowing heavily in the morning, but we went out to get some breakfast of skoleboller (cream-filled pastry), cinnamon buns and a krumkake waffle cookie filled with cream.

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We played a last round of darts before heading to the airport in a heavy, blowing snow.  Unfortunately, we had some flight delays, but in the end, we got to watch the plane be deiced before heading out of the land of ice and snow.

It was a short trip, but it was full of really great adventures, wonderful family time and once in a lifetime experiences.  The arctic promised to be filled with amazing experiences and adventure and it definitely delivered!

Starting the Year in Sunny Spain and Africa

Our new year began with a trip to a few new places-the south of Spain and Morocco.

Day 1: Malaga

On the evening of New Year’s Day, we flew into Malaga and began exploring the next morning.  We began our day in the Plaza de la Merced where Picasso’s birthplace sits on the corner of the square.  The square itself is home to a Picasso statue, several restaurants and is lined by orange trees.

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We grabbed some pastries, which we stopped to enjoy in the square, before heading into the city center.

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We stopped in a small church where they had a small nativity scene set up which was very lovely.

Next, we walked through the center with all of the shops and restaurants to the Market Atarazanas which was a very cool building with elaborate ironwork and beautiful painted glass.  There was a lot of really great produce to be found at the market.

After this, we walked to Episcopal Palace and the Malaga Cathedral.  The cathedral only had a small portion that was free to enter but they had an amazing, large nativity scene set up in that area as well as a manger scene made of plant materials on some stone statues set up outside the door.

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We wrapped up our morning with a trip to the Roman Theater and Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress.  If you don’t know, the Moors were the Muslim people that inhabited and ruled the Iberian Penisula, which Spain is part of, during the Middle Ages.  Inside the fortress walls, there were very lovely tropical plants and floors with beautiful designs made from small stones.

After this, it was on to the beach area.  We walked through a lush park between the shops and the beach and then down to the water.  It was not exactly a beautiful beach area and as the day was a little overcast, the water was not too pretty so we didn’t stay long before going to lunch.

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At the restaurant, we began the meal with some aceitunas (olives) and Malaga sweet wine-similar to a port.  For the meal itself, we had some local beer, Ensalada Malaguena which was a cold salad with cod and orange segments atop a potato salad type mixture, Pipirrana (a tomato, pepper and onion salad with shrimp and octopus), Rabo de Torro (bull tail) and albondigas (meatballs) in almond sauce.  It was all very good!

After lunch, we walked to the bull arena and stopped in a bakery for some molletes (white baked bread) and torta de Aceite (a dry cookie).

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Now, it was time for an uphill climb to Castilo Gibrafaltro-former Moorish castle.  There wasn’t much left to the structure itself other than the outer wall and some garden areas but the views were nice from the top.  And we got to see a really crazy looking Spanish squirrel!

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After all that climbing, we decided we deserved a snack so we stopped at one of the restaurants at Plaza de la Merced for some gazpacheulo (a cream-based fish stew) which was delicious, anchovies on Ceasar salad wraps and melon with ham and bruschetta.

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After resting for a while, we went out in the evening for dinner at Restaurant Picasso where we had calamari, pork knuckle, roasted beef in a red wine sauce, a pineapple stuffed with greens, walnuts and cheese, albondigas, chicken croquetas, and a Spanish omelet.  We also tried two other Malaga wines and some Sangria Malaguena.

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Day 2: Gibraltar

On the next day, we drove two and a half hours to Gibraltar.  Interestingly, Gibraltar is actually its own territory which governs itself, rather than a part of Spain.  However, Gibraltar, having once been a colony of the UK and still under their protection and defense, has a large British influence.  In fact, in Gibraltar, the primary language is English although they also know and speak Spanish since they border Spain.  But aside from knowing these two languages, Gibraltarians have created their own dialect which is a blend of English and Spanish and is very interesting to hear.

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After crossing the border into Gibraltar, we made our way to the water casements market place for lunch.  Here we tried Rolitos which was ham, seasonings and chopped olives rolled inside a thin piece of beef and served with a special sauce.  We also had Huevos de la Flamenca which was a mixture of peppers and potatoes cooked in a sauce with sausage, serrano ham and a fried egg on top.

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After lunch, we took the cable car to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar, which is said to be one of the pillars of Hercules that was left when he broke the mountain between Africa and Europe, to spend the afternoon on the Rock.

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After stepping off the cable car, my mother was promptly attacked by one of the large Barbary Macaques that roam freely on the Rock.  My kids declared this to be the highlight of the trip, though I’m not sure my mother would agree.  The Macaque seemed to be going for her purse, but she managed to wrestle it free, and she and the monkey parted ways.  These monkeys are everywhere, though, and it was a while before my mother felt that she was not going to be attacked by another one!

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After this initial excitement, we headed to the skywalk to take a look at the views and then to St. Micheal’s Cave which is, according to legend, where the Macaques crossed from Africa to Europe.

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After the cave, we tested our ability to conquer our fears when we went across the suspension bridge on the side of the Rock.  I wasn’t too scared, but my height fearing children were pretty nervous.

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Finally, we took the long walk to the Great Siege Tunnels.  We didn’t have time to go very deep into the tunnels, but it was interesting to learn some of the history of Britain’s defense of Gibraltar when the Spanish attempted to regain control in the late 1700s.

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Day 3: Tangiers

The third day of our trip brought our long-awaited day trip to Africa (cue the song from Toto if you are anything like our family).  It was the first time for all of us to go to the African continent.  Our day began very early when the tour company picked us up for a one hour ride to Tarifa, Spain where we embarked on our one and a half hour ferry trip across the Strait of Gibraltar.  Upon arriving in Tangiers, we boarded a bus for a driving tour of the new city which is comprised of quarters belonging to different nationalities such as French, Spanish, American, British and Italian.  The city is comprised of all of the different nationalities because of the many countries that have controlled Tangiers at various times.  On our drive, we drove by some very expensive homes including the home of the mayor of Tangiers and the summer homes of the Moroccan king and the king of Saudi Arabia.  Somewhat surprisingly, Tangiers is very green and tropical.  Our guide informed us that while two-thirds of Morocco is Sahara, the northern parts are very lush.

Our first stop was at Cap Spartel, where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet.

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In this coastal area, we were able to ride camels on the beach.  Our son was so excited that the tour guide allowed him to go on three rides instead of just one.  It was definitely a bit tricky to feel comfortable on the camel as they are pretty wide and quite jostly, not to mention the awkwardness of the moment that they stand up and lay down with you on their back, but it was quite the experience!  While other people in the group (and our son) took their turns, we were able to pet the smaller camels on the beach.