Monday, January 14, 2013

Travel Log #9 Soaking it Up and Sucking it Up

The next morning, we got ready and went over to the train station to reserve seats for our train ride to Sweden (see previous post). While at the station, we tried to get lunch at the food court and figured with all the choices we could please everyone. Emerson decided he wouldn’t eat anything except crackers and it dissolved into a huge fight that ended with me dragging him kicking and screaming through the streets of Copenhagen back to our hotel. Normally I would take that kind of Emerson catastrophe into the bathroom for privacy until he cooled down, but once again, we were faced with bathrooms that charge money to be let in.

This kind of meltdown is embarrassing enough when it happens in our regular life, but it was infinitely worse in a crowded city where everybody already talks several decibels lower than the average American (so a heck of a lot quieter than our circus).

By the time I got him back to the hotel, I was shaking with anger and sick to my stomach that this was how we were wasting our one precious day in Copenhagen. In retrospect, this blowup was a long time in coming. He was having an extraordinarily good period for several months and actually won student of the month for his class in December. But as the principal was announcing his name for the award, his teacher was giving him an X for bad behavior. That was the beginning of a not so good period. Traveling, with all the schedule changes and constant pressure to be quiet and well-behaved, further turned him into a little devil who relished every opportunity to cause trouble.

I’d like to say our little blowout was a turn for the better, but honestly his behavior is about the same. But we vented just enough steam for me to step back and realize that trying to make my kids into quiet Scandinavian children was just not going to happen and I needed to reserve my energy for days like this. Maybe the pressure of constantly being with my husband and children for a month straight will improve my parenting in the end. Or maybe we’ll strangle each other. Only time will tell…

Anywho, we salvaged the rest of the day by going to the children’s museum inside the National Gallery. The kids got to be their crazy selves with no restrictions for several hours, including abandoning the Viking ship I thought was completely awesome so they could spend more time cooking in the pretend ancient kitchen. I love that I never know what my children are going to do from one minute to the next.

As we tried to leave the building, we were blocked by cameramen and photographers mobbing a couple who were coming in for a film event in the Gallery. Somewhere on Danish television there is a video of these (unknown to me) celebrities with Emerson in the background complaining about his sleeves being bunched up.

When we finally escaped, we went to Nyhavn (a harbor from the 1600s and the home of Hans Christian Andersen for 18 years) for dinner. Luckily we found an empty (i.e. kid-friendly) café that served great smorrebrod at a good price, so I finally got my wish:

We spent the rest of the night looking at the quaint houses and ornate buildings that would have looked straight out of a postcard if we could have taken pictures in the daytime. I thought Michigan winters were dark with cloudy skies and the sun setting around 5. But the skies here were just as cloudy and the sun set around 3. So here’s Copenhagen at night:

It was a short stop and we only touched on a few of the city’s highlights, but it was well worth it. Screaming kids and all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Travel Log #8 Velkommen to Denmark!

When the next day dawned, we were feeling better and ready for the next leg of our adventure. We caught the train without mishap and spent the morning watching the sunny countryside sweep by. We got an unexpected adventure when the train went inside the ferry to Denmark. We were told to get off the train, which was an interesting ordeal, but we came up the stairs to find ourselves on a floating mall. There were stores, a food court and even a play area for the kids, which we all greatly appreciated. We scored three surprisingly healthy kids meals for lunch and boarded back onto the train when we reached Denmark. 

I spent the rest of the ride with my face plastered to the window since we didn’t have time to stop in the small towns my ancestors are from. We had planned to take the bus out there and search the graveyards and churches for any records, or at least say we had walked through the towns, but the logistics of doing that with three kids and all that luggage just couldn’t be overcome. This was as close as I came - the train stop for Maribo where my ancestors lived for generations:

When we finally landed in Copenhagen, we made a blissfully short walk to our hotel and vegged out for a couple of hours. Our two full days in the city had been whittled down to a day and a few hours thanks to our detour in Germany, so we tried to make the best of the night by taking a walk through the main square (Radhuspladsen) and Europe’s longest pedestrian street called the Stroget. The boys enjoyed playing “Red Light/Green Light” in the square and we enjoyed watching the hordes of bikes roll by.

View from our room

I was determined to eat some good Danish smorrebrod (an open face sandwich that has been turned into an art in Denmark), so we searched the side streets for a good restaurant. We had been warned that Copenhagen was insanely expensive, so we finally bit the bullet and picked what seemed like a reasonable restaurant. I didn’t end up getting the smorrebrod I wanted, but we all had a good meal and didn’t cry (too hard) when we saw the bill with 25% tax. I could tell by the conversation the waitress was having with the tourists behind us that they had not been forewarned. I did think it was strange that Robbie kept pushing the kids to drink their water, but after we left he pointed out that a glass of tap water costs about $2 a glass.


 On the way back to the hotel, Robbie decided to go searching for some contact solution, so I took the boys with me. (Incidentally, he found about twenty 7-Elevens within a block of each other, but no contact solution. Danish people really love their 7-Elevens), Our hotel is only a couple blocks from all the main sights, so not a dodgy area at all. But there were a couple of strip clubs a few doors down, and now that it was dark out, they had big posters of half-naked women on the sidewalk and music blaring from speakers. As we walked by, the boys decided this was a good time to stop and boogie down to the music. Seeing my 4 and 6-year-olds dance in front of a strip club was not exactly what I expected when I read that Copenhagen was kid-friendly.

Travel Log #7 A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

We knew after our night of New Year’s Eve fun that the odds of making the 9 or 11am train to Copenhagen were pretty slim. After sleeping through our alarm and missing the 11am by just a few minutes, our fears were confirmed.  We had one more train to catch at 1pm, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach about it since we didn’t have reservations and missing the connection would mean being stranded somewhere for the night.

Since so much of this trip has involved riding trains, we had invested in a Eurail pass to save money and time. Despite its many benefits, one major downfall is that you can’t reserve your seats online for international trains and – at least when using the German railway – no one ever answers the English-speaking reservation line. We can say this with great certainty because we’ve tried about a hundred times over the course of the trip. If you call the German line, someone will pick up right away and then tell you (in perfect English) “No, I can’t help you. Please hang up and call the English line.”


Anyway, we can always get on a train with our pass, but reservations ensure that we get seats on trains that always seem to be too full. So we went to the train station with the hopes of getting reservations for the 1pm train and our friend Titus came along to help translate and in general help us get off without a hitch. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get reservations from the ticket agency either, so we jumped on and hoped for the best. Luckily, the train between Dresden and Berlin was nearly empty (probably a lot of other people slept through their alarms too) and we had the whole car to ourselves. When we got to Berlin, we checked the big board and went to the platform it indicated. As we approached the train, we asked a Deutsche Bahn worker if this was the train to Hamburg and she said “Yes, yes.” As we got on the train, we asked the DB conductor if this was the train to Hamburg. Again, she said, “Yes, yes.”

It was not the train to Hamburg                                                                            

Apparently we didn’t learn from our first experience in Frankfurt that DB workers say yes to everything, regardless of whether or not it’s true.

Our little detour ensured we would miss the last connection from Hamburg to Copenhagen, so after dragging exhausted and screaming children (they had been promised dinner on a train and that wasn’t going to happen now) through extra connections, we finally landed in Hamburg. On the train we had made a desperate and sheepish call to Titus, who once again acted as our personal travel agent and booked us a hotel across from the train station.

As we dragged our pathetic lot to the hotel, I noticed Hamburg was a beautiful city. If I hadn’t spent the day wiping tears (the kids and mine) I would have had the energy to pull out my camera and record it. Just trust me that it was.

We fell into bed and waited for Robbie to get some dinner. But of course, by the time he came back, this was how he found us:

I think at the end of this trip we will make a slideshow of us passed out in every country.
Here’s to a better day tomorrow….

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Travel Log #6 Happy New Year! (with addendum)

During this trip, we've learned all about German New Year's Eve traditions. The first lesson came from being woken up at 3am by loud explosions several days in a row leading up to New Year's Eve. Apparently, New Year's Eve in Germany is even bigger than the 4th of July in the U.S. And, like the U.S., there are several nights of "practice fireworks" leading up to the big night.

When New Year's Eve finally came, the snaps and pops started first thing in the morning and intensified throughout the day. Despite the fact that I didn't enjoy being woken up by unexpected blasts in the middle of the night, I have to admit this tradition makes New Year's Eve seem that much more festive.

We had another lazy morning, and then met up with our friends for a walk around the Grand Garden of Dresden. I haven't been bothered much by the things we've missed out on by traveling in the winter, but this was one exception. During the summer there is a small train for children that runs around the entire garden and kids actually drive the train. Luckily the kids didn't know they were missing out on anything, but I couldn't help but think of how excited they would have been to see that. Guess it's a good reason to come back...

The centerpiece of the garden is a stately palace.

The kids get out their energy with some good ol' tree climbing.
Afterward, the kids *attempted* to have nap time and then we regrouped for a scrumptious dinner of raclette (sort of like the Swiss version of fondue). When we were properly full of melted cheese and beer, our friends gave us some more lessons in German traditions. They showed us these paper streamers that work by pinching a ring of coiled paper and blowing on it. The kids, of course, had a blast trying this out and playing in the aftermath.

Raclette time!

Fionn starts off the dance party.
Emerson makes his own party hat.
Titus, Feodor and Sabina rock out.

We also predicated our fortunes for the New Year using a little kit they sell at the stores. Each person picks a metal charm and takes turns melting it in a spoon over a candle. When the metal turns liquid, you throw it into a glass of cold water so it solidifies into a new form. The group decides what this new form mostly closely resembles based on a list of possibilities included in the kit, and then you read aloud the corresponding meaning. Unfortunately, almost everyone's charm ended up breaking into a bunch of little metal balls in the water. We decided they must be eggs, which apparently means something along the lines of "don't put your eggs in another person's basket." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it's probably sound advice.

When midnight finally rolled around, Titus poured a glass of champagne for the adults and sprite for the kids (minus Emerson, who passed out just in time to miss the festivities), and we toasted and kissed and hugged the new year in. The city, meanwhile, exploded into a spectacular show of light and noise. We watched the fireworks from our friends' balcony for a while, then climbed up to the top of their apartment building for a view of the city. It was incredible. I am generally a hater of New Year's Eve because there's so much pressure to have fun and yet it rarely works out that way. But this year we really hit the jackpot.

The kids watching fireworks.
If only we had room to pack the tripod for our camera...

Now fully awake despite the time, we bundled up the kids and headed out into the street to do some of our own fireworks.

As if it wasn't already a great party, our friends ended the celebration with bowls of homemade creme brulee. Miniature blow torches, sugar, fireworks and staying up late - what more could a kid want?

We were leaving later that morning for Copenhagen, so we said our very sad goodbyes. I never thought I'd find myself in Dresden, but I'm so glad I did. It definitely pays to travel where you know (and love) the locals.


I cannot believe I left out the most important German New Year's Eve tradition of all! For some unknown reason, airing an old British comedy sketch called "Dinner for One" on New Year's Eve became a time-honored tradition in Germany and a few other countries in Europe. It's beloved by Germans of all ages despite the fact that many British people have never even heard of it. So we got to watch (and laugh) along with all the rest of Germany this time. As a result, when a Swedish ticket agent that was helping us make reservations two weeks later made the crack, "Same procedure as last year," I was in on the joke.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Travel Log #5 Going Downtown

So now that I'm way, way behind, I'll try to spit the next few out faster. (I know, you're sad you won't get to read a daily novella.)

The next day in Dresden, our friends decided to give us a walking tour of downtown. The moment we got out of the cars and started walking across the square, the wind picked up and we were caught in a sudden downpour. The square was full of tourists and locals and street performers, who all rushed for cover in the same places. As a result, we ended up sharing a covered entrance with a man dressed as a statue and another dressed as a gold angel. Our strange group huddled together for a minute, and then it was over as quickly as it started. 

The angel huddles in the back.

Our children were already whining for food, of course, so we made our way to a little market of people selling various German treats. We ended up drinking gluhwein (like hot mulled wine) and the kids ate plates of heart-shaped waffles covered in powdered sugar. When we get back to the U.S, the kids are going to have a hard time readjusting to a diet that doesn't include chocolate-covered blintzes for breakfast and waffles for lunch every day...

Now properly sugared and boozed up, we set off for an afternoon of walking and snapping pictures. We took a short detour through a medieval market and I tried (unsuccessfully) to get the kids excited about the knight with his big spear guarding the front entrance. He made for a good picture anyway.

We moved on to see the ornate opera house and the Zwinger palace. The Zwinger was originally part of the outer wall protecting the city, but in the late 1600s, Augustus the Strong had it renovated into an ornate party palace. Supposedly the longest party on record lasted 29 days, but no one can actually verify that. In any case, walking into the beautiful courtyard, even without the gardens in their full glory in the winter weather, I could see how the place inspired decadent behavior. Now it's used as a museum for porcelain and other fine art, but we figured small children and priceless breakables were a bad combination, so we stayed outside.
Opera House


After we strolled through the major sites, we went alone the river for a spectacular view of the city at sunset. Church bells rang out, the street lamps came on, flocks of birds swung through a pink and blue was perfect. Even with three loud children.

The boys sit on top of the world.

When the last bit of light failed, we packed into the car and headed back for another night of good food and good conversation. A friend pointed out on Facebook that I haven't yet mentioned beer drinking despite being in Germany, so let me assure you now, there was plenty of that too.