27 October 2014

On Top of the World

Before we arrived in Germany, Curtis's mom informed us that her cousin Karma lived not too far from Stuttgart. We got in contact with her and she was super helpful in getting a bed for Sebastian while we were here. She came to visit us on our second night in Germany and invited us to visit her in Ulm.

I had never heard of Ulm, but we knew we wanted to visit Karma at least a couple of times. We decided that this last weekend would be perfect. We had finally recovered (emotionally, at least) from the lost wallet and were willing to travel once again.

Regional trains within the state of Baden-Württemberg are very inexpensive, so we knew we were starting our trip on the right foot. We left our house at 9:30 in the morning, and due to another train strike, didn't arrive in Ulm until about 1 o'clock. Karma picked us up at the train station and we drove just a short drive to her daughter's house.

We had a lovely Chinese salad and fried rice for lunch and chatted as if we had known each other for years. Karma told us stories about Curtis's grandma and grandpa—how they first met and what Karma thought of him for the first time.

Then Lorraine, Karma's daughter, and her husband, Hao, showed us around the city center in Ulm.

Ulm sits at the crossroads of the Baden-Württemberg state boundary and the Danube River and is known for being the birthplace of Albert Einstein. Ulm is also known for having the church with the tallest steeple in the world. And Curtis and I climbed to the very, very top.

The Ulmer Münster, or Ulm Minster, is a Gothic-style church that was begun in the 14th century and completed in 1890. It stands 530 feet tall and houses 768 well-worn stone steps to the very top. Of course, the intricate details on the interior of the church are as impressive as the details on the exterior—and just as impressive as, if not more than, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. I wasn't around in 1377, but I imagine the tools and construction equipment in that day were a bit more primitive than what we use today.

To build a sturdy ceiling as tall as this is remarkable on its own. But add vibrant stained glass, colossal organ pipes, intricate stone-carved gargoyles (hoisted to 500 feet in the air)—I am completely in awe.

Since Sebastian and Livia were sound asleep, Lorraine and Hao felt confident—and kind—enough to allow us to climb to the top by ourselves. We weren't able to climb Notre-Dame together, so we were just beside ourselves at the opportunity to see the Danube from the tip of the spire.

We began our ascent up the steep, spiral staircase, excited and taking in each view—both inside and outside the cathedral. We tried to imagine the monks who, over hundreds of years, wore down the stone in each step.

We finally made it to a platform with views of Münsterplatz and close-ups of stone gargoyles. We were already dizzy and sweating, but we looked up and realized we were only one-third of the way to the top!

I started feeling incredibly uncomfortable going up the second tier of stairs. The stairwell is extremely tight—room for only one person to go up at a time. It's very steep, claustrophobic, and dark. And on an overcast day, the open windows (which were open) didn't contribute much light. My knees started to shake and I may have started hyperventilating a bit. Step by step, we made it to . . . 

. . . the next tier . . . ! We weren't even at the top yet! We still had to climb that ultra-narrow staircase in the middle of the spire. But not before we got a panicked phone call from down below. Apparently, Sebastian woke up a while ago, and we missed a few desperate calls while we were on our way up. Both babies were in more of a panic than I was. But we were so close!

We snapped a few pictures beneath the gorgeous spire and made the final climb up to the "Third Gallery." Oh, my shaky hands, my unsteady legs, my weak spirit! We were so high.

We quickly took a selfie and Curtis decided to run down to rescue Sebastian and Livia. If climbing up the stairs made me nervous—with Curtis right behind my back—I was nearly sent into a panic attack trying to climb down all by myself. Nothing to hold onto except those gaping windows.

It took me a full fifteen minutes longer to tremble down the stairs than it did Curtis. I am not ashamed.

We strolled around the old and new parts of the city for the rest of the time we had until we had to catch our train back. Fun fact: It took about the same amount of time to travel to Ulm as it does to get to church every week. 

Other than enjoying the feel of another historic and traditional German town, we loved being with some family. Although we had never met and are we aren't very closely related, we felt so comfortable with Karma and her family. It made us realize how lonely we actually are and how thirsty we are for friendship and good company. We've decided to return to Ulm next month for Thanksgiving break—not because we want to climb the Münster again, but because we want to feel that connection, even on the other side of the world.

23 October 2014

Things in Germany, Volume IV

Public Transportation
First on our list today is Sebastian's favorite German adventure: public transportation. He especially loves the trains here. We'll sit at the train stop and face the direction the train is supposed to come. And when it comes, we throw a party (a quiet one, but still . . . )! He yells, "Choo-choo!" and bobs his head from side to side. It's like going on an amusement park ride every time we have to run errands. Which makes errands so much for enjoyable.

Flush Buttons
When I was living in Ukraine, we had two buttons on the top of the toilet: a small one and a large one. It should go without saying which one to use when. Well, Germany has similar flush bu—they aren't really buttons . . . but panels? You can stop the flush if you only need to flush a little bit or just let it go if you . . . well, you know. And am I the only one who has flushed the toilet based on pure habit when there was nothing in the toilet to begin with? Well, there goes 10 gallons of water for nothing. (Maybe I was sitting there watching Sebastian take a bath, for example.) I've always thought it would be a great idea to have a stop button on the toilet. And here it is.

Hard Rolling Window Shutters
This. These. I. Love. They are called Rolladen or rolling shutters. You roll them down each night (or nap time) and they block out everything. I have always really hated window blinds. They are easy to break and are a pain to clean. These rolling shutters, on the other hand, are outside the window. I love them for a few reasons. One, they block out the sunlight when Sebastian naps. They help him sleep much better and longer so that he is less cranky. Two, they block out the sunlight in the morning. Sleeping in never felt so good. (This is actually a plus and minus. Sometimes I wake up and have no idea what time it is.) Three, they make me feel safer. Rather than merely locking the door to my patio, these babies cover the entire door. Four, they are also great protection from the weather. I imagine they block out some of the chill that comes with winter wind and storms, but we shall see!

When we buy our first house, I want these. I don't care how much it costs.

If you are out all day (doing whatever you do all day) and happen to get hungry, you'd likely stop by a fast food place. Not necessarily because you love fast food, but because they are everywhere and they are convenient. You see teenagers stop at Jack-in-the-Box for lunch and whole families dine out at Chick-fil-A. Shopping malls present a line of fast options, including hambugers, pizza, Chinese, and cheesesteaks—all of which are greasy (and delicious). Bakeries are the fast food of Germany. Yes, there is McDonald's and KFC (I know, what?). But rather than seeing bags of fries at the train station, everyone is snacking on baked goods: from hearty, pumpkin seed loaves to sweet, flaky hand pastries. And we love it. Especially Sebastian.

Signal Kommt Signal
Have you ever pressed the button to cross the street . . . and waited so long that you wonder if the button even works? I know I've sat at cross walks and pressed the button like six times just to make sure the traffic lights got my message. Well, in Germany, they've figured out a perfect solution to your impatience and impertinance: the "signal kommt" signal. Signal kommt means "signal is coming," but sometimes I read it as, "Don't worry. I heard you. Be patient."

*Bonus* Pedestrians (again)
I know I usually only post five Things in Germany that I Wish Were in the US, but I just have to mention how much I love the pedestrian-friendly attitude around here. I walked past this beautifully lit crosswalk the other night in our small neighborhood. It's hard to tell, but the light is situated directly over the middle of the crosswalk—not positioned off to the side. Maybe I don't normally notice crosswalks, but I don't recall them being so well lit. OK, maybe they are well lit in busy areas, but in the middle of a small neighborhood? And, I might add that cars always stop for you. I know I've waited a while in the past for cars to stop so I could cross the street, but here, where ever you see zebra stripes, pedestrians have the right of way.

Cutting Hair and Cutting Teeth

Livia was born with pretty hair. It wasn't quite the mop that Sebastian was born with, but it was just pretty. Nice and fluffy on top, long in the back. Just pretty. But it soon got out of hand. She probably wasn't even a month old. But I just couldn't stand to cut it. I'd ask Curtis if he thought her hair was too long. "It's kind of pretty, though," he'd always say. And it was! But now that she's almost five months old (!), I decided it was time. So, I cut her hair. And it hurt—me, that is. Livia was an angel, as always.

But what hurts me even more than cutting her pretty hair is when Livia decides to cut things on her own . . . cut teeth, that is. 

She looks so sweet and innocent . . . but then . . . 

October 19, 2014: The day I got teeth.
Eeek eek!

Livia, you are just growing up too fast. You are just the sweetest thing. I say that every day, you know. You sleep like an angel. You are happy almost all the time. You smile at me from across the room! I love love love your gummy smile, but I know you can't stay small forever. And that makes me so excited to get to know you more and see who you are. I love you and I love your cheeks!

(Don't mind my hair. Sebastian was just crawling on my head.)
Oh, and happy birthday, Auntie Austen!!!

15 October 2014

Paris, Parks, Pigeons, and Pockets

185 kph. That's how fast we got to drive on the Autobahn. In a Mercedes-Benz. To Paris. 

We drove for six hours the first weekend of October, chatting the whole way about how we are livin' the dream. Until we stopped just outside of Paris, bumper to bumper, at a traffic light. That's when the window washers vivaciously shot our windows with soap and squeegeed them clean. They were joyfully animated until we didn't pay them for something we didn't ask for. Persistent fellows, banging on our windows. That red light seemed longer than the entire drive to Paris.

We finally made it to our apartment, which was located in the hipster-trendy, northeastern part of Paris. While we were awaiting our travel partners, we decided to take a stroll to a nearby park. I'll just remind everyone that Europeans know how to do parks. Parc de la Villette offered zip lines, running hills, climbing nets, bounce pads, and (to Sebastian's delight) pigeons.

We found our way back to the apartment, expecting David and Sabrina at any moment. David is one of my oldest friends. In fact, the first time I traveled to Europe ten years ago with Crew 425, it was with David. When he and Sabrina were first married, I visited their house at least once a week. They would talk of traveling through Europe in so many years, and I joked that they could pay me to accompany them and be their translator. Well, in case you don't know Sabrina—she doesn't joke around.

They arrived around eight o'clock in the evening. We decided to drive to a widely recommended spot, Sacré-Cœur, to enjoy the Parisian moonlight. David rode up front, I sat in between two car seats, and Sabrina got marooned in the back. It turns out, everyone had the same idea. Parking in Paris is, in case you can't imagine, like parking on a cloud—impossible. So we spent a while circling the basilica before we decided we should turn around. We forgot our camera anyway.

We started the next morning with a walking tour of the right bank of Paris. We began with the opera house (the inspiration for the "Phantom of the Opera"), strolled past the Ritz hotel, gazed at ritzy diamond jewelers, and studied the architectural renovations. We ended at a charming park, complete with rude Parisian children. The highlight of the tour, however, was the most perfect sunlight and clear sky.

We wanted to enjoy that sunlight as we ate our lunch. We found an outdoor spot at a nearby cafe, only to realize the menu was Americanized and a bit more than we wanted to pay. Burgers in Paris? Sinful. So we turned a corner and found a pleasant little bakery with fresh sandwiches under four euros a piece. Score! We now know that mascarpone cheese makes a heavenly sandwich spread and that quiche lorraine is a new Sebastian favorite. We perched ourselves on a stone wall outside of the Louvre and reveled in our bakery find.

After lunch, we wandered along the Seine, pausing to admire the bridges and vendors. The paintings made us stop. Now, five years ago, I walked through similar streets lined with vendors selling jewelry, souvenirs, and paintings. An impressionist painting of the city of L'viv caught my eye. I debated for a few minutes whether or not I should buy it, but ultimately decided against it. I've regretted that decision since the minute I walked away. So when we passed these paintings of the Eiffel Tower, we couldn't pass another opportunity. We now own original art.

We found our art-owning selves at the base of a lovely bridge where a tour boat was docked. We decided a hour-long tour on the water would give us another chance to rest our feet and bask in the sunlight. (I brought sunscreen—don't worry.) Sebastian loved being on the boat but did not, apparently, love the sights.

We walked over to the Notre Dame, stopping to enjoy another highly recommended to-do: crepes. Now, don't hate me, but I wasn't impressed. I have had crepes just as good in my days at the FLSR and in my own kitchen. That may be because we stopped at the wrong crepe stand. I saw some mighty delicious-looking crepes after we came out of Notre Dame. Next time, I keep telling myself.

Notre Dame was as impressive as it sounds in Hunchback, which I read in its entirety while living in Ukraine. Although I don't remember all the details of what I read, the details are obvious when you step in front of this building. What is most impressive, however, is that construction of this magnificent building began even before the year 1200 and was finished in the mid-1300s. I often marvel at the Salt Lake Temple, constructed in the 1800s. Not even considering the technology and equipment available at the time, the stonework is immaculate. But Notre Dame is a completely different level of grandeur. Not only was it completed hundreds of years before, but the meticulous Gothic elements and vibrant stained glass are more than stunning.

This building did not disappoint—well, every visitor except Sebastian. We very well could take a space ship to Mars, and he would only be disappointed that there were no pigeons. So, Sebastian has now chased the Rats of the Sky in two nations' capitols this year.

But look at the way he folds his hands as we walk away.

We hopped on the metro, giddily discussing our evening plans: Going out for escargot and night-seeing Sacré-Cœur while David and Sabrina watch our sleeping babies. We couldn't even remember the last time we went on a date. My mouth was already watering thinking about all that garlic and butter . . . until we realized Curtis's wallet was no longer in his pocket.


I learned quickly on the metros in Kiev how to hold your bags when you're smashed in between countless people. I guess the small towns around Berlin are different. Despite his preemptive tactic of keeping his wallet in his front pocket, they still got to it. Too bad we just visited an ATM.

Well, that put a downer on the evening. It's a good thing that our friends are so good, they not only babysat for free but paid for our night out.

It turns out that after putting babies to sleep, searching the apartment frantically for a wallet just in case, and moping around, we didn't actually leave the apartment until probably after ten p.m. I usually go to bed by then! We were on the metro home near (!) one in the morning. So much for going to the Louvre early in the morning.

We decided instead to drive to the Eiffel Tower. How many cars could be out on a Sunday morning anyway? Uh. Driving in Paris is crazy. We didn't know it before we got there, but the roundabout near the Arc de Triomphe is insane. I didn't whip my camera out until after our near-death experience, but there aren't even lines. I do not exaggerate when I say we are lucky to have made it out alive! Without a scratch, even!

But we were rewarded with a perfect parking spot. In fact, it was too perfect. We were so close to the Star of Paris that we had to walk like a mile to get this picture.

Eating snails was on my bucket list. Holding the Eiffel Tower was on Curtis's.

We stopped at a small park with a perfect view of the Tower to let Sebastian chase some more pigeons and to let Livia enjoy her last moments in the City of Love. Look at those lips.

Paris was too much for two days, but I believe we saw nearly everything we wanted to see. I told Curtis, "I can see why people like it here." The rich history, the grand architecture, the delicious food. (The gorgeous weather helped too.) But I can't stress enough how stressful it was not knowing French. I've never been in that situation before. But I blame myself. And aside from the rude Parisian kids who literally screamed in Sebastian's face on the playground (and the rude pickpocketer who stole our money), we met lovely and hospitable French people, especially the host of our apartment. When we go back (which we will), we want to get proper crepes, speak French, climb to the top of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, and leave the car at home.