To Prague! (Finally!)


It was our last hold out.  Of all the places we’d had on our “must visit” list before we came to Vienna, Prague was the only one we hadn’t been to.  It’s supposed to be lovely, it’s close to Vienna, and everyone who goes just loves it, so of course we were planning to go.

In fact, we’d planned to go 4 different times since we’ve been here.  I no longer remember all the reasons our previous trips have been cancelled.  I know that at least one was because the boys were sick, and I’m fairly certain another was because Dan had something come up at work and we couldn’t go away.  I vaguely remember that one time there was an issue with train tickets being sold out on the dates that we had planned to travel, but that might have been a different trip.  Regardless, it was past time for us to make a trip to Prague.

And so, last June, we finally went.  We found an apartment, booked our train tickets, did a minimal amount of research (I hadn’t realized where, geographically, Prague actually is until about 2 years ago — it’s actually WEST of Vienna).  And we were off, on another travel adventure, to a new country.

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We traveled by train, which was something we hadn’t done over a significant distance in quite a while, and we found it, again, to be fun and easy compared to our more recent air trips.  I love the train, because we don’t have to be there 2 hours early, we don’t have to worry about which luggage gets checked or carried on, we don’t have to wait in line for security checks (though that might not always be a good thing, I suppose).  All we have to do is show up and get on.  We got a spot in the “family friendly” carriage, so we were not the loudest or the crankiest passengers, and our table top at our seats had a board game built into it.  (The conductor dropped off the playing pieces when he checked our tickets.)  The trip from Vienna to Prague was uneventful and pleasant, and no one was interested in checking our travel documents (which is what we’ve gotten used to within the EU . . . though that may be different these days).  Our plan for getting from the train station to our rented apartment involved taking the tram, which was slightly complicated, because we don’t speak Czech, and were completely unfamiliar with the tram system, but we sorted it out once we arrived in Prague, and it was actually incredibly easy and relatively user friendly.  (Though we struggled, throughout the weekend, with figuring out how to use the automated ticket machines for the tram system.)  We managed to pick an unusually hot weekend for June, which was slightly inconvenient, because we had also selected an apartment without air conditioning or ceiling fans.

Once we arrived and were settled in, though, the heat provided extra motivation to get out and explore the city (since it was hotter inside than outside).  Our first destination was the Prague castle, high on the hill overlooking the city, and we got there (again) by tram (though at this point we were mostly catching on and we found it progressively easier and extremely convenient to navigate the city this way).

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We were struck, almost immediately, by how friendly people are in Prague.  People actually smiled to us at they passed (which I found unnerving, initially, until I realized just how much I’ve adapted to living in Vienna).  When we had trouble with the ticket machines for the tram, passersby stopped to help.  And in addition to being generally friendly and outgoing, almost everyone we encountered spoke truly excellent English.  We were worried that since we were traveling to a country where we spoke not a word of the language (apart from what we studied in the Rick Steves guidebook on the train on the way there) that we would have trouble communicating, but we absolutely did not.  It wasn’t an issue at all.

Now what WAS an issue was that, by the time we sorted out where we were going, got off a stop early accidentally, and walked the rest of the way up the hill, we had one very, very cranky and tired 4 year old with us.  He fell asleep on the tram, and by the time he got up, he didn’t want to walk, he didn’t want to see anything, he didn’t want to be there.  We found a quiet place at the top of the hill (behind a monastery) and sat to check out the view and give Liam a chance to rest.

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IMG_0015Prague really IS as beautiful as everyone says.  The bridges over the river are picturesque, the winding, cobbled streets are romantic, the view from the hill down over the city is lovely.  As we abandoned our post overlooking the city, and began to walk down towards the castle, we came upon a procession in celebration of Corpus Christi (which was apparently the day we were there).

By the time we got into the actual castle grounds, many of the buildings were closed for the day (it was late afternoon), but that was actually ok, because the kids wouldn’t have been up for much historical study at that point.  Instead, we explored the grounds in near privacy, the kids got to run around a bit, and we found a spot to enjoy the view from a slightly different perspective.  We took the tram back to the center of town, and went for a quick stroll to the Old Town Square after a lovely Czech dinner, but we were all tired at that point, and a more extensive investigation would have to wait until the next evening.

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Our first day in Prague, though tiring, was just as lovely as we’d come to expect from other travelers’ stories.  So often, when people enjoy a place so much, it doesn’t quite live up to its reputation.  (Plus, we’ve become a bit jaded with our extensive travel history.  We’ve seen a lot, and we’re getting a bit harder to impress these days.)  Prague, if anything, exceeded our expectations.  Journeys are always a bit more tiring than we expect, and the heat certainly took some of our energy out of us, but we got to see an impressive part of the city just in our first afternoon, and we were very much looking forward to our further explorations.




Schneeberg revisited

When people think of Austria, they think of the Alps.  And rightly so.  The vast majority of Austria is mountainous (over 3/4 of Austria is in the Alps), and a good bit of it is uninhabitable due to the height and steepness of the peaks through the center and west of the country.

Vienna, however, is in the far east of Austria, and, rather than being in the mountains, it is located in the gently sloping valley carved out by the Danube.  Vienna is hilly, but not mountainous (my apartment is only at 186 m above sea level, for example).  So, if we want mountains, we have to travel.  We’ve been all over Austria’s central mountains (including very near the highest, the Grossglockner), through the Italian Alps on a train (which resulted in a bit of a shock when we woke up and saw ourselves surrounded by snow), and have visited both of Vienna’s “local mountains”, Rax and Schneeberg. Though we spent lovely days at both of the local mountains, the trip back and forth to Schneeberg was definitely simpler, so this past May, when winter was behind us and we felt like getting out to the mountains for a bit, we went back to Schneeberg.

Our only significant complaint about our last trip to Schneeberg was that, due to a lack of detailed planning, we didn’t get enough time to explore.  So this time, knowing that the trip there was long-ish, and that in order to maximize our mountain hiking time, we’d have to plan our connections (3 different trains, not including Vienna’s public transit) carefully, we planned ahead.  The desire to plan ahead was tempered by our desire to have at least decent weather at the top, so though we planned ahead, we didn’t want to buy our actual tickets too far ahead.  But we were (theoretically) prepared.  The morning of our trip, we got up early, and left the house with nearly an hour to catch our train (the trip to the train station is less than 25 min) … and yet, we somehow missed our train.

I’m still not entirely sure how it happened.  We left the house with plenty of time.  We had to wait a while for our first U-Bahn, and then a bit for the second, but sometime shortly after we got on that second U-Bahn, I realized we were, at best, barely going to make our train.  As soon as we got to the train station, we started running.  It’s a big train station (which was part of the miscalculation — I had counted “arriving at the train station” as “being at the tracks”, which is about a 10 minute underestimate when traveling with kids), so we ran across the whole thing.  I still had to print our tickets, too, and I was shaking with the stress and adrenaline, so I entered the confirmation number incorrectly.  And that was it.  Dan and the boys had run up to the tracks to wait for me, but I never even got up there.  They were on their way back down, having seen the train pull away, before I got there.

It wasn’t really a big deal — the next train was in an hour — but I was so disappointed.  I felt awful for dragging us all out of bed extra early for no good reason.  I was embarrassed that I had failed to allow for enough time.  I felt guilty that I’d made my kids sprint through the train station for no reason.  I felt terrible that they felt stressed and worried about our day.  So I cried (which did not improve the stress and worry situation, which made me feel worse).  But, all was not lost, and so I went into the ticket office and got us new tickets for the next train.  I found out when our new connections would be and we crossed our fingers that we’d be able to change our reservation for the Salamander train that would take us up the mountain.  Then we got breakfast, regrouped, and got on the next train without a problem.

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If you make the connections properly, it’s not a long trip — only about 2 hours from the center of Vienna, and quite lovely.  First, you take a big train to one of Vienna’s outlying suburbs, and then a tiny electric train (which honestly feels more like a bus) out into the countryside and to the base of the mountains.  When we arrived, we were scolded a bit for missing the train we had been booked on, and informed that we were lucky to get a spot on a later train, but we did get a spot.  Because of our less than ideal departure from Vienna, we ended up with nearly an hour of downtime until the special Salamander train up the mountain.  (For those keeping track, that means we would get to the top of the mountain 2 full hours later than we had intended.)  But, no worries.  To fill the time, we got some coffee (for Dan & I) and made our way to a nearby salamander-themed playground (for the boys).

At the appointed time, we went back to the train station and got on the Salamander train for the 45 minute ride to the top of the mountain.  At the bottom of the mountain, it was late spring, nearly summer.  Everything was green and lush, the kids didn’t need their jackets, and I was thinking I may have over-prepared for our adventure.  As we ascended, however, things changed quickly.  By halfway up the mountain, our surroundings looked more like early spring than late May.  The trees were just budding, the wildflowers just starting to think about blooming, and, as we ascended, there was more and more snow everywhere.  Rather than being over-prepared, I started to worry that we might be under-dressed in our fleeces and raincoats.

At the top, it felt like early March, rather than late May.  The kids climbed on massive snow piles, and most of the play area at the summit was unusable due to the amount of snow cover.  The wind whipped around us, dark clouds hung overhead, and banks of fog curled around the rocks.  It did not feel like it was nearly summer.  It was winter again.

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Undaunted, we began our hike.  Our plan was to continue along the path we had started on our previous visit, and then to go further, possibly as far as one of the two peaks.  But though we were (relatively) enthusiastic (me and Dan more than the kids), we just weren’t going to make it that far.  It was cold and windy.  Very cold and windy, and slightly misty.  We had come prepared for a springtime hike, but not for a winter one.

But though we accepted we would not be going as far as we’d planned, we were still going to enjoy our mountain adventure!  So, after about half a mile, we stopped into an Almhutte for a break from the wind and a warm treat (goulash and hot chocolate) before continuing on.  We were not, at all, the only people put hiking, though we may have been the only non-Austrians).

IMG_0004After a bit more hiking, we came upon a fun discovery — one of several sources of Vienna’s lovely drinking water.  I knew that our clean and tasty drinking water came “from the mountains”, but I didn’t realize that one of the sources would be a big pile of snow (presumably over a frozen lake or spring), surrounded in less than intimidating barbed wire, along the side of a wide hiking trail.  (There was a young girl who had climbed down into the snow pictured here, but that seemed like an extraordinarily bad idea, so we wouldn’t let the boys join her.)

But after that, we were pretty much done.  Our vision of an entire afternoon spent hiking several miles was overly ambitious given the conditions (or at least due to our level of preparation).  We were just thwarted by the cold and the wind … and the fact that it was basically still winter up there.  And though we enjoyed our colder-than-expected hike on the mountaintop, we definitely learned that late spring is still a bit early to hike in the high Alps.  On the bright side, as it turned out, my morning miscalculation didn’t really cost us any precious mountain time (because we wouldn’t have stayed longer anyway, and we got to be there in the “warmest” part of the day, relatively speaking).  In the end, it was another adventure, and another learning experience, and I think we’ll save our next mountain hike for summer.

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Adventure playground

It’s a tradition at Benjamin’s school that every year, each class takes a trip together.  In the older grades, the trips vary from a weekend spent camping to a week skiing in the Swiss Alps, but for the younger classes, a day-long field trip is typical.  Last spring, B’s class took their trip to an “adventure playground” called Robinsoninsel (Robinson Island).  I had no idea what to expect from an “adventure playground”, but B’s teacher had talked several times about how much she was looking forward to it, so I imagined it was going to be a pretty fun day.

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As one of the parents who had volunteered in B’s class throughout the year (and, possibly, as the first to volunteer), I got to join them on their adventure playground trip.  I, too, was pretty excited when the big day arrived.  A whole day to play outside with my kid and his friends?  And it counts as school?  Sounds great!  Once we got there (after a tense moment when I almost missed the bus stop with my assigned group of first graders), I started to understand the excitement.  This was a really cool place.  It covered most of a city block and looked like the kind of “playground” a child would design of you let them — there were rope ladders, trees to climb, swings, hammocks, tree forts, rabbits, ducks, a pond with tadpoles, and a “smurf house”, made of living trees.

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As always, one of my favorite things about being able to join in on these outings is that I get to spend the day with B.  But also, as I had been in the classroom every week and gotten to know each of his classmates as well, it was great fun to watch each of them explore their new environment in their own way.  There were actual goals to accomplish, like looking at bugs under microscopes and learning about different types of animal habitats, but most of the day was spent in a less structured type of learning — climbing, balancing, running, jumping, getting dirty and discovering on their own.

Though the day was gray and drizzly at times, we had a fantastic time (and, on the plus side, no one had to worry about sunscreen, including me).  It was a wonderful opportunity for a group of city kids to learn and play outside for the day, and I felt honored to be able to join them.

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Bratislava

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, is just a short trip from Vienna — the closest capital city to where we are.  (I also recently learned that it’s the only capital city in the world that borders two independent countries — Austria and Hungary — so that’s pretty neat.)  It’s an easy trip, and we’ve always meant to go, but somehow, in our years of travels, we’ve never gone.  We’ve planned to go many times, gotten as far as booking hotel rooms and transportation, but never actually made it happen.

This past May, we finally went.  It’s close enough, and small enough, that we made a day trip of it (after some degree of deliberation) and opted to travel by boat, rather than by train or car.  The idea of a boat trip seemed really fun, and we did a bit of research to try to find the best (and most cost-effective) way to get there by boat.  (The MOST cost-effective would have actually been the train, but we were set on the idea of the boat.)  We settled on taking a Slovakian hydrofoil boat (rather than the more expensive, and more centrally located, Austrian boat).  The Slovakian boat would leave from a pier on the Danube, while the Austrian boat went from a spot on the Danube canal (much closer to where we live).  The Austrian boat had several daily departures and returns, while the Slovakian boat had only one.  The Austrian boat definitely would have been more convenient, but we decided to be adventurous (plus save a few Euros) and try the Slovakian boat.  Though we had planned to buy the tickets ahead of time, we didn’t, and so our goal was to arrive a few minutes before departure and (hopefully) buy our tickets there.

1144Of course, we’ve pretty much never been early for anything, so instead of arriving early, we got to the boat just minutes before the scheduled departure, without tickets and without time to stop for cash.  We were hoping we could pay with a card, and when we arrived at the dock, out of breath from our jog from the train station, we tried to enquire about purchasing tickets.  While Dan tried to find out about tickets, I questionably eyed the boat, which looked a bit more worn than the pictures we’d seen online.  Time was short, though, and one of the staff waved us inside.  We thought we were going in to get tickets, but no.  There was no way to buy tickets on the boat, so we were to ride to Bratislava, and then buy tickets at the boat station on that end!  This was all a bit hard to understand, though, because none of the crew spoke German or English (and we don’t speak Slovak), but we eventually got it sorted out, and we were on our way down the Danube!

1146At first, we were slightly disappointed that there was no outdoor seating (which we had seen on advertisements for the Austrian boat), but once we got underway, it was clear why — we got going WAY too fast for it to be safe for anyone to sit outside.  The boat was comfy enough, with a little snack shop (we got some coffee and some Slovakian treats), and there was a protected outside spot to stand and see the scenery.  Our choice of boat (and route) was completely affirmed, though, when we got to ride through one of the gigantic locks on the Danube.  (The Austrian boat, which moors on the canal, comes out downstream of the locks.  Thus, that boat has a 15 minute shorter trip, but the long way was totally worth it.)

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1160Our boat pulled up into a giant holding area, a massive set of gates rolled closed behind us, and, very gradually, the water leaked out of the holding area and we watched as the walls of the lock, at first level with our eyes, gradually rose far above our heads.  Finally at the lower level, the huge doors in front of us opened, and we got underway again.

After that, our 90 minute journey was pretty uneventful, and we were soon in Bratislava, Slovakia.  (A new country for all of us, and, for three of us, our first time behind the former iron curtain.)  Our first task was to purchase our tickets for our trip, but other than that, we just wandered around the city.  We weren’t entirely sure what to expect.  We saw a very old-fashioned looking tram system, some very interesting urban art, and a group of Hare Krishnas parading through the streets.  We loved Bratislava’s winding streets, enjoyed some fantastic hot chocolate, and tried a very Slovakian lunch (well, Dan & I did — the boys had schnitzel).  We indulged the boys in ice cream, as is our travel tradition (even though it was chilly and rainy), walked by the American embassy and played in a park.  I liked the feel of the city — a bit smaller and less opulent than Vienna, but definitely European . . . and not as “Eastern European” feeling as I was expecting.  My favorite thing was the series of birdhouses stationed throughout the green space in the city center.  Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the boat (by way of a Slovakian grocery store to check out the local treats).

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1213We saw a lot of Bratislava, and definitely enjoyed our time, but our day there was not quite long enough.  I think we may have to go back another time, to see the castle and explore some more (and maybe to do some shopping, since I believe there are some British and American shops there that we don’t have here).  Our trip back to Vienna was lovely, and slightly more peaceful (our kids were worn out a bit from our day), and we got to go through the lock again, this time watching our boat lift up to the shoreline from far below.  Though there wasn’t a lot to DO in Bratislava, we certainly spent a lovely day there, and I expect we will return.  It’s a fun and easy day trip, and honestly, I think the journey alone was worth the effort.

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Schönbrunn summer concert

Every year, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra puts on an outdoor concert on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace here in Vienna.  The concert is recorded and rebroadcast in the US (and perhaps elsewhere) later in the summer, but it actually takes place in May.  (As a result, every summer we get calls and emails from friends and family asking if we are going to a concert that actually happened months earlier.)  It’s a free event, but due to busy schedules, sick kids, and inertia, we’d never been before.  This year, we made the trip out to Schönbrunn to see it.

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Weather-wise, we may have chosen the worst year of our time here to finally go.  It was raining, and though we hoped that the drizzle might hold back the crowds, there were lots of people in attendance (though, since we’d never been before, it’s possible that it WAS significantly less crowded than it would have been in great weather).  When we arrived, we got to walk through and under the palace to enter the grounds (a passage I’d never seen open before), and out into the gardens, which were fenced off and organized to corral the people and protect the flowers.  There was no chance of getting a spot (standing only) anywhere near the orchestra, so, after a bit of wandering, we took a position with a good view of one of the tv screens showing the action (the point being to hear the music, anyway).  The Gloriette was lit by colored lights, and the atmosphere among the crowd was happy and relaxed, excited for the concert.

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And it was lovely.  The music was fantastic and the setting absolutely stunning.  It was fun to be out for the evening, even in spite of the rain, and the kids enjoyed themselves more than we had expected.  It started relatively late (for us), so we knew we wouldn’t be able to stay for the whole thing, but the boys happily stayed for over an hour of classical music, which was pretty impressive.  They danced and clapped and ran around as much as the crowds allowed.  After about an hour, the boys were getting antsy, and we were all getting a little stiff-legged from standing/holding kids, so we decided to call it a night.  Rather than fight our way back out through the crowds, the way we came in, we opted for a side exit, through the gardens and out towards the zoo.

And that was the most magical part of the night.  We could still hear the music from the concert, but, as we walked through the trees, we were mostly in darkness.  There were spotlights among the trees, which gave us some guidance, and a steady flow of other people also leaving the show, but we were mostly on our own in the warm, summer darkness, in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace.  We let the boys run ahead, warned them to watch out for puddles and for other people, and listened as their laughter came back to us as they ran and leapt through the gardens.  It was so joyful, so peaceful and so beautiful, I could have stayed there forever.  It was an absolutely perfect summer night, in an improbable place, with my most favorite people.  It was like a dream.  I imagine that if my boys remember it, it will be the kind of memory that seems like it wasn’t actually ever real.  I doubt I will ever forget it.

Mother’s Day hike

It’s taken me years to figure out how to make Mother’s Day work at our house.  If we were in the US, we’d get together with my mom and do something nice like a dinner out, most likely, which would be great.  Here, it’s a little less straightforward.  The idea is for the boys to make a nice day for me, but a lot of what I actually need the most is a break from my usual “mom” duties.  I don’t want to spend Mother’s Day doing anything other than being with my boys, though, so I’ve finally discovered the key to having a great day: I get to decide what to do, and no one gets to complain.  (That works better in theory than in practice, though.)

In reality, it’s kind of an opportunity for me to get to do something I’ve been wanting for us all to do but haven’t had the chance.  Over the past few years (though never before on Mother’s Day) we’ve been working on a hike that we’ve cobbled together in bits and pieces (including this past April when I foolishly assumed that pleasant weather down in Vienna would translate to pleasant weather up in the hills — which it did not).  My lone Mother’s Day request was that we complete (or at least continue) that hike.

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931And so, we set out to do just that.  We took the bus to the stop where we had quit during our early April snow shower hike.  Luckily for us, it turned out that we had done very nearly all of the uphill hiking on our previous journeys, and we had only to walk down the hill to Vienna.  That also meant that we were also able to start our hike with a gorgeous view over the vineyards and down into Vienna.  And then we set off, down the hill, through the woods.

The boys had brought stuffed friends along with them, as well as binoculars, and we took lots of breaks — to look at bugs, climb on trees, and admire the lovely views.  Our walk through the woods gave way to a walk along the edge of some of western Vienna’s many vineyards, and then along some hilly ridges lining farmland.

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1015We walked, and we walked, and we walked, and though the occasional grumble came through, they were remarkably patient with indulging my request for the day.  We picked wildflowers, smelled lilacs, and did our best to stay out of the way of the many bikes that flew past us.  Near the end of our nearly 4 mile long hike (good thing it was mostly downhill!), the route turned steeply downward, crossed through and under what looked like maybe the remains of an old city wall (anyone know what it is — near Nussdorf, Eichelhofstraße?), and then, quite suddenly, we were in Nussdorf, at the end of the hike, and finally, completely finished.

In all, it took many tries over several years, but we did it.  And I had a lovely Mother’s Day with my boys (and I think they enjoyed it at least a little bit, too).

Labyrinth

The grounds and gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace are some of our favorite destinations here in Vienna.  We visit the zoo on a regular basis, make a point of going to the Christmas and Easter markets every year, and always enjoy a climb up the hill to the Gloriette, with the lovely view over Vienna as a reward at the end.  Still, with our many visits to Schönbrunn, we had never been to the labyrinth, though we’d always meant to.  So, this past spring, we took a free day and made another trip out to the gardens of Schönbrunn.

Our main goal was to explore the labyrinths, but we were planning to make a day of it, so we got started early.  I had always wondered — what would the labyrinth be like?  Would it be fun?  Boring?  A little scary?  Would we get truly lost?  That was part of why we hadn’t ever done it — we weren’t sure we’d enjoy it, but, with the recommendation of a friend and her slightly older (than my kids) son, we were up to try it.

511There are a few labyrinth choices — one set made of short hedges (that you could see over), and another with 8+ foot high hedges — more of a classic hedge maze.  We decided to start easy with the short one.  It was a good choice.  The kids took off through the maze — literally.  While we adults were limited to the actual paths, the kids could slip between the hedges to switch routes.  They got ahead of, and away from, us very quickly.  The only way it worked was that we could still see their heads as they ran on through the maze.  Though I was slightly concerned that we might lose track of them, we actually didn’t, and I think it was extra fun for them to reach the end of the maze well before we did.  At the end, we were rewarded with some large games — an interactive fountain, some balancing tables, and a big musical instrument the kids played by stomping on it.  A success!  Much fun, and no one got lost.

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539After our success in the little labyrinth, we decided to take on the bigger one.  This one, with hedge walls over 8 feet tall, was not a place we could safely get separated.  We stuck together and wound our way through, encountering, at each dead end, a stone block bearing a zodiac symbol (for reasons I don’t understand, but the kids were enthusiastic to learn the symbols).  At the end, we got to enjoy a lovely view of Poseidon’s Fountain.  The journey was relatively short, but we had to discover the way out, as well, so it was a good adventure.  After finding the exit, we stopped for an ice cream and some playtime at the playground — including an elevated eagle structure (whose wings were actually flappable — only in Vienna!).

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We wanted to extend our day at Schönbrunn, so we climbed up the hill behind the palace to the Gloriette (something we’ve done many times before).  We took a hike through the woods, had a picnic lunch, and inadvertently took dozens of inchworms along with us on the rest of our hike (they kept dropping out of the trees onto our clothes).  We finished up our day with a climb to the observation area at the top of the Gloriette (our first time up there) for an even better view over Schönbrunn and Vienna.

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As usual, we had a fantastic time visiting the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace.  It remains one of my favorite places to take the kids in all of Vienna.  And, even after 4 years here, we were able to experience something new and exciting in a familiar place.

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London with Elaine!

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I am woefully behind (as usual), but I have been putting bits and pieces of this post together since the end of April.  Back sometime in the early spring, my friend Elaine mentioned wanting to go back to London sometime for a girls’ trip.  It wasn’t a hint — she was just talking.  She didn’t expect that I, a mom of 2 with a busy schedule, would be willing to drop everything and go away for a weekend.  But I totally would.  So, excitedly, we (she) started planning (she handled all of the arrangements, my part was mostly to coordinate my proposed absence with Dan).  In the course of a single afternoon, mostly via Facebook message, we had coordinated, planned, and booked the tickets.  We were going to London!!!

Prior to April of this year, I had been away from the kids overnight exactly once (not counting when I went to the hospital to have Liam, which does not count as being “away from the kids”).  The first time I went away, I found it hard to be away from the kids, but I also really enjoyed myself, and I was game to try again.

Elaine truly handled all of the planning.  She asked for my advice and input, but she arranged everything — all of the reservations, the flight, the hotel, all of the scheduling.  That, alone, was like a vacation for me — I’d never before taken a vacation and had to think about so little!

As the day approached, I packed, I did tons of laundry, and I stressed.  Would everything be ok without me?  Would they all have enough clean socks?  Would Dan be totally overwhelmed?  Would I even enjoy myself in the face of all the worry over things at home?  As usual, I spent my first few hours unable to relax.  Between guilt over having left the kids, stress about catching the flight (this time, like almost always, unwarranted), and a constant feeling of having forgotten something important (where are the kids?!?!), I found it hard to initially embrace the whole “girls’ weekend” idea.  Thankfully, for both Elaine & I, I was pretty well adjusted by the time we landed.

Our first evening was pretty much taken up by a Tube ride to our lovely hotel in Kensington and a mad dash to find something tasty to eat before everything closed.  We found a yummy Indian place close to the hotel, had a quick dinner and called it a night.  We had a full parade of shopping and dining planned for the weekend — exactly the kind of stuff I struggle to get to do while traveling with the family, so I was really looking forward to it.  In addition, I was excited to keep up my good fitness habits by running while on vacation (something I generally skip, but I’m feeling a bit more dedicated these days, and not having to tend to anyone else’s needs first thing in the morning helped get me out the door).  So, the next morning I rose early and ran over to Kensington Gardens in the rain (which felt extra impressive).  I got a little lost, saw some swans, and felt very proud for having made a point of exercising.

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239Saturday’s plan was for shopping and eating, and we started with a ride on one of London’s ubiquitous red buses (top level, of course, for extra tourist points).  We visited Whole Foods, stopped by some clothing shops, and even saw the T.A.R.D.I.S. at Earl’s Court!  After that, we went and had a lovely (and very fancy) tea at The Connaught, where everything was delightful!  We shopped at Selfridge’s, walked through Soho and Covent Garden, and shopped a little more!  Then we finished our day with tasty cheeseburgers and milkshakes — both of which are surprisingly hard to find (made properly) in Vienna.

I started the next day with another run to Kensington Gardens (and since I didn’t get lost this time, I had more time to actually ENJOY the gardens).  We then went and had fantastic Dim Sum (along with Chrysanthemum tea, which I had never had before), shopped at Hamley’s, and took another self-created impromptu bus tour of central London.  We had time for a bit more 268shopping, and finally some really yummy Eggs Benedict (which Elaine and I have bonded over) at a restaurant where the waiters aren’t allowed to take pictures (in case they might accidentally capture someone who would prefer their photo not be taken!).  We also decided to sample a few macaroons, which were even better than they looked!

Our time was quickly winding down, so we hurried back to the hotel to collect our things and head to the airport.  It was a wonderful, whirlwind weekend, and I’m amazed at how much we fit in.  I was also so pleasantly surprised to find that Elaine is not only a dear friend, but also that we are remarkably compatible travel companions.  We had a busy, full, grown up, girlfriend trip, and I came back refreshed, reenergized, and ready to get right back into things.  I missed my boys, of course, but I also felt truly grateful to have had
some time to remember how it feels to be the part of ME that is separate from being a mom — the part who likes spicy Indian food, clothes shopping (including actually trying things on before I buy them) and having conversations that don’t involve being interrupted every 8 seconds.  It was a definite success, and I’m so very glad we went.

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The lost backpack

Getting the kids to and from school every day is controlled chaos.  We commute on the always crowded rush-hour trains and buses.  Last year, in the mornings, Dan would take both boys in, dropping B at his school first and then taking Liam to his school, 2 U-Bahn stops away.  Then, at noon, I would go to get L from his preschool, rush home for a quick lunch (and, some days, a short nap for L), and then go back to B’s school to pick him up with L in tow.  (We’ve changed things up a bit for this school year, but the basic principles are the same.)  By the end of the day, we’re all tired.  L is either desperately in need of a nap that he’s not going to get, or groggy from just having woken up from a too-short nap.  B is tired from a long day at school and sometimes PE or after school sports.  And I’m worn out from managing it all.  Our trip home can be relaxed, peaceful and comfortable, or it can be stressful, crowded and grouchy — it depends on the circumstances and on our own states of mind.  Such is the reality of traveling to two different schools each day via public transportation.

I try to not be the packhorse mom, laden down with bags, books, paper, sweatshirts, art projects, toys, gym clothes to be washed, and coats, for several reasons.  It makes me grouchy.  I’m already tired.  I don’t feel like it’s safe when my hands are over-occupied with STUFF when they should be free-ish to help the kids on and off the train, up stairs, onto an escalator, or through a crowd.  And, I feel that teaching the boys to be responsible for their own things shows them what a pain it is to drag around extra stuff and hopefully makes them more aware of the consequences of their own choices (and less likely to think that it’s absolutely necessary to drag every Beanie Boo on every outing).  That being said, last year B was carrying at least two bags home every day, and the choice was not his — it was school-mandated.  So, I would typically carry my purse and one of B’s bags, while B was responsible for his second bag, and they were each in charge of anything else they might have brought along.

But even with our routines, and our attempts to not be overburdened, it doesn’t take much to unravel the whole thing.

One day last April, we were headed home, as usual, and had gotten to the last leg of our trip before the last 2 block walk home — the bus.  L had recently been in the habit of collecting coins, and he saw a very cool Russian one on the floor of the bus, after we were already on and seated.  Since we were already underway, and I’m not in the habit of letting the kids run around a moving bus, I told him that if it was still there when we were getting out, he could pick it up.  He was very focused on it, and every time the bus so much as slowed down, he was poised to leap out of his seat and grab it.

My mind was on L and the coin, and preventing him from hurting or endangering himself trying to get it.

We finally arrived at our stop, the last one on the line, and L enthusiastically leapt down and retrieved his coin.  Yay!!!  We all got off the bus and made our way through a crowded flea market on our block.  We got home, went upstairs and inside, and then realized we were without B’s backpack.

The buses from our stop run every 5 minutes, so, in the hope that we would be fast enough, we threw our shoes on again, ran out onto the landing, realized the elevator was in use, rushed down five flights of stairs, dashed back downstairs, through the courtyard and the flea market and back to the bus stop, where a bus was waiting.  Though I was fairly certain, just by looking, that it was not our bus, we climbed aboard and checked anyway.

It was not our bus.  Our bus, and the backpack, were gone.  We were too late.

B, already panicky about having lost his backpack, was crushed.

We fought our way out again against the flow of embarking passengers.  And then, at a loss for what else we could do, we sat on the step of the bakery near the bus stop and waited.

From having lost many previous items on public transportation (the unseen cost of commuting with kids by train, rather than by car, is the insane number of times hats and gloves must be replaced), we knew that theoretically the backpack would be found and turned in to the transit authority’s central lost and found.  We also knew that despite the fact that Austrians are generally conscientious about getting things back to their owners (hanging up lost gloves and hats on the nearest fencepost is nearly a religion here) we had never before recovered anything that had been lost on public transportation.

The buses on that line run on a relatively short, 20 minute (ish) route through the center of the city.  So, I figured that shortly, the bus (if not the backpack) would be back.

We waited.  When the next bus pulled up, we hopped aboard behind the departing passengers to look for the backpack.  The interior of the bus was the wrong color.  Not it.

We waited some more.  The next bus pulled up, and we hopped aboard.  The driver scolded us for getting onto a bus that was not the next set to depart (the previous bus was still also waiting at the stop), and it was still not our bus.  We were getting discouraged.

The next bus pulled up and we hopped aboard.  Aha!  It was the right color inside!  And it had the same “One Direction” graffiti we’d had on our bus!  It was our bus!  But alas, when we climbed back to our seat, there was no bag.  The driver, confused at our excitement and enthusiasm, watched us as we walked up to the front.  “Bitte, hast du eine rucksack gefunden?”, Benjamin asked.

And, he had.  With a quick but kind reminder that we might not be as lucky next time, he happily lifted the bag over his little divider and presented it to B.

Everything inside was accounted for, and we happily headed home, grateful for the kindness of strangers, and for the Austrian tendency to help lost items get back to their owners.

4th Viennaversary

We arrived here in early April of 2011, amid the persistent wind and intermittent rain that characterize what is still early spring here.  I remember standing outside of the airport in a cold drizzle wondering what I had gotten myself into and feeling slightly mystified that I had truly moved my family to another continent.

That feeling of mystification returns every year when the anniversary of our arrival passes.  Each time I have to double check my math — we’ve been here HOW long?  And this year was the same.  The weeks leading up to our “Viennaversary” were spent stressing about whether Dan’s new contract would really be signed, so then, suddenly, it was the beginning of April and I was again counting years on my fingers to ensure I hadn’t fumbled the math.  We really have been here 4 years.

This year, our “anniversary” fell on the Monday after Easter, so Dan had the day off of work and the boys were out of school, so we were able to do something to mark the occasion.  The weather was a bit chilly and breezy with lots of big, fluffy springtime clouds, but the sun that was getting through was bright and we had recently had temperatures which were some of the warmest we’d seen since the fall, so we (I) decided we should mark the occasion with a hike in the Vienna Woods to a part of Vienna we had yet to visit.

We had done the first part of this hike last spring, so the plan was to catch up with the trail (by bus) where we had left off and to complete the rest of the route, which was largely downhill.  To get to our starting point, we had to take the bus up to the hills overlooking the northwest of Vienna, and it would take us nearly an hour to get out there.  The kids were less enthusiastic than Dan and I, (when I say “hike”, the whining usually starts right away), but they, too, were suffering from a bit of Vienna winter stir craziness and were complaining more out of habit, I think, than actual objection.  They packed a few toys and supplies (i.e., candy from their Easter baskets) and dutifully suited up for the day’s adventure.

I had made a slight miscalculation, however.  While it had been breezy, sunny and warmish in the heart of the city, it was windy, solidly overcast and quite cold at the top of the hill.  We had brought hats and gloves, but we were dressed for 50 degrees and breezy with sun, not 30 degrees and windy with no sun.  We were all pretty cold, but wanted to make the most of our trip.  On the plus side, we were able to sneak a few peaks through the leafless branches, views that would have been obscured by greenery later in the spring or summer.  We were looking for crocuses and daffodils among the leaves, and attempting to keep the kids interested, which worked relatively well.  But by the time we’d been walking for 20 minutes, it has begun to snow.

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I love being outdoors, and I’m up for a hike in almost any weather, but even I had to admit that this wasn’t quite what I’d meant to sign us all up for (nor was it what we’d come prepared for).  We trekked on down the hill to Kahlenberg, with a beautiful 1377(though cloudy) view over the city, and made it about another 100 yards before Liam began stridently complaining about his frozen face, and we all decided that perhaps this battle would best be fought another day.

In all, we lasted only about 45 minutes and about 1.2 miles before we gave up and headed for home.  We had walked the distance between two adjacent bus stops.

But, it was, as so much of this adventure has been, at least memorable.  I learned my lesson that marginal hiking conditions at 500 feet above sea level do not necessarily reflect acceptable hiking conditions at 1600 feet.  And, though it was brief, we did, indeed, see a part of Vienna we had not seen before.

We all went home to thaw out, and I was undaunted in my wish to one day finish the hike.  As for our 4th Viennaversary, however, we finished the celebration cozy at home.