Saving Sweet Briar

It’s been a rough week.  Last Tuesday, within a single hour, I said goodbye to my wonderful canine friend (which I’m not quite ready to write about yet) and got some shocking and heartbreaking news — my alma mater, Sweet Briar College, would be closing this summer.

“Shocking and heartbreaking” might seem like a bit of an overstatement when describing the closing of a school, especially one I haven’t attended in nearly 20 years and haven’t visited in almost 7.  But Sweet Briar is not merely an educational institution, and its closing is not just the routine or inevitable result of gradual shifts in educational trends.  It is my second home (or, perhaps, now that I live in Vienna, my third).  Dan & I met and were married there.  Dan’s father taught there for many years.  I made many dear friends while I was there.  I learned more about the world and about myself there than I had any idea I needed to learn.  And I received one hell of an academic education, too.

Sweet Briar is a special place.  It is one of a dwindling number of women’s colleges.  Besides being a single-sex college, it is southern, rural and extremely small.  It carries with it an old reputation of debutantes and snobbery — once probably valid but long since left behind.  Those with only a passing notion of Sweet Briar may dismiss it as a “finishing school”, but in doing so only reveal how outdated their information is.


Sweet Briar is so much more than those labels.  Like so many of my fellow alumnae, I never thought that I would end up at Sweet Briar, or at any women’s college.  I wasn’t “girly”.  I liked boys.  I was a liberal and distanced myself from anything with the label of “southern”.  I was a bright, hardworking kid, and I wanted to put an impressive (possibly Ivy League) name on my CV.  I also didn’t have a lot to spend on college.  When I first heard of Sweet Briar, I dismissed it completely, even though my best friend had fallen in love with it.  I was not interested.  It was not what I wanted.

And yet … the more I learned, the more it was.  The photos of the campus in the brochures were stunning.  There was a thriving equestrian program where I would be able to get actual college credit for my passion.  The class sizes were small.  And, they really seemed to want me there.  From there, more than anywhere else, I was contacted — by alumnae, current students, admissions staff.  I was courted.  I went to visit, and (like so many of my fellow alumnae) THAT was the moment when everything changed.  The campus was stunning — like something from a movie.  The students were friendly — not just to me, but to each other.  The students and the staff chatted together like friends in the cafeteria.  The classes were small … and intimidating, but for all of the right reasons.  The professors asked questions AND THERE WAS NOWHERE TO HIDE.  I saw girls — women — step up and speak out in a way I had never seen before, confidently, respectfully and passionately.  I was impressed and a little awed.  And, suddenly, I was seriously considering a women’s college.

I applied to Sweet Briar, but I was never one for half-measures — I also applied (and was accepted to) 10 other schools.  To most, I got significant scholarships.  There was at least one school on that list that I was sure I was going to attend.  It had everything I wanted.  But then I went to visit, and no matter what my head told me, my heart compared every bit of it to Sweet Briar, and it came up lacking in every way except for its name recognition.  As for Sweet Briar, the financial aid and scholarships they offered were impressive, but not enough.  I was surprised to feel so sad when I called my admissions counsellor to tell her that I couldn’t even consider coming because of finances.  And I was beyond amazed when she called me back with a better offer.   In the end, I narrowed my choices down to 2 — both women’s colleges — and no one was more surprised than I was.  I let my heart decide, and it chose Sweet Briar.  It was one of the best choices I ever made.

It’s not that every moment was perfection.  I had times when I questioned my decision (including a big part of my sophomore year when I seriously considered transferring elsewhere), but the good parts were so worth the struggles.  The students really were kind and welcoming.  The classes really were tiny and rigorous.  The professors really did get to know you — I saw them in the cafeteria, out on walks around campus, and went to dinner at their homes (and if you missed a class they’d call to see how you were doing).  The campus really was picture-postcard perfect all the time.  I really did get to ride for course credit.  The traditions, which seemed odd and a bit antiquated at first, became precious to me, and included me in a long line of brave, intelligent women who had come before me.  I made some amazing friends, and I became one of those thoughtful, confident, educated women who didn’t hesitate to open her mouth and speak her mind.  I loved my college years and I value my Sweet Briar education tremendously.  I have no doubt that I made the right choice, and given the opportunity, I would go back and do it all over again.

But that was almost 20 years ago.

Last Tuesday, seemingly out of the blue, the President of the college announced that the Board of Directors had voted unanimously to close the school, effective late August of this year.  Just like that, this place I hold so dear was dying.  I’d had no clue this was even up for consideration.  The powerful and passionate alumnae network had not been told that there were dire straits.  We were all taken completely by surprise by the announcement, which was put to us as a done deal.  Apparently the college’s enrollment and financials had been on a downward trajectory for years, and, according to the president (sorry — interim president, who has been on the job only 6 months), there was no way to recover.  The school was doomed and the decision had been made to bow out gracefully while the going was still good, leaving students to find another place to finish their education (or even to start it, as acceptance letters for next fall had already gone out), and leaving faculty and staff facing impending unemployment (and in some cases with losing their homes).  I felt as if I were losing a close friend, someone I didn’t even know was ailing.  It was like a bomb went off in my brain.  I was devastated, shocked, confused and angry.

But, here’s the thing.  Remember those confident, intelligent, outspoken women who knocked my socks off when I came to visit the school?  Sweet Briar has been turning us out for DECADES.  And within a day, the shock and tears had made way for outrage and determination.  We’re not ready to say goodbye.  There are thousands of strong, capable women out there who love Sweet Briar, and we’re willing to fight to keep her alive.  There is work to be done, there are questions to be asked, and there are sisters to be helped.  This is what we DO.  This is who Sweet Briar trained us to BE.  This is not where this story ends.



1261I’m kind of shocked to realize that this is my first post dedicated to Trunkis, the ride-on, pull-along, carry-on kid-functional suitcases we got for the boys last year.  It’s long overdue.

We first saw something like a Trunki once at the airport when dropping off a friend over a year ago.  A family on the opposite train platform was loading up two kids on two small, elephant-looking suitcases, which the parents then pulled along behind them.  I thought it was so fantastic that I took a few pictures of this completely unknown family.  Later, I asked around among my friends, and everyone kept saying they were “Trunkis” even though the ones I saw the first time were either by a different brand or a much older model.  When I finally found them online, they seemed too expensive, and my boys have backpacks and suitcases already, so I just let it go, but I never really forgot about it.

1271The next time we encountered such a thing (and the first time we “met” a real Trunki) was at London’s Luton airport during our trip to the UK last summer.  We went into one of those travel shops at the airport (I no longer remember why — I think Dan was looking for something) and they had a variety of Trunkis for sale . . . of course, all down at kid level.  B saw them and fell in love instantly.  He touched them, he wanted to open them, he wanted to ride on them.  I intended to say no, but since I’d been looking at them before, and they were actually cheaper in person (plus no shipping!) I decided to go for it.  Especially after the salesperson assured me they would 1549work as a carry on (even on EasyJet — and I told him that if they said no at the check-in counter, I was bringing it straight back).  We only got one, because we wanted to know if it would work, and initially, Liam wasn’t too disappointed, since he was mostly riding in the stroller.  B immediately climbed aboard and started doing laps up and down the check-in line.  He was hooked, and Liam was, very shortly thereafter, jealous.

008B’s Trunki worked great on that trip.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that it did, indeed, fit even EasyJet’s small allowance for carry-on luggage, and B’s other carry-on suitcase actually fit inside with a little room to spare.  After that trip, we decided Liam should have one, too, but we didn’t go back through Luton, and we didn’t find them anywhere else.  After we got back to Vienna, B decided he wanted to give Liam his very own new Trunki for his birthday just a few weeks later, so we went ahead and ordered one (which was a lot more expensive).

And the rest is history.  We’ve gotten quite fond of and attached to the Trunkis.  They have joined us on every trip since, and they’ve stood up to a ton of abuse from the kids.  After 6 months, 3 flights, 3 train trips and a road trip, we feel like we’ve broken them in and road tested them pretty well.  Here are the pros and cons that we’ve found so far:


  • 053They’re cute.  I don’t mind looking at them all the time.  I imagine they’d be super easy to spot coming around on the conveyor of checked bags (although we haven’t tried that yet).  And, unlike the many character-themed backpacks and suitcases, I don’t think the kids are likely to “grow out” of the Trunkis as quickly.
  • They’re sturdy.  Other than a bit of paint/decoration wear (very minimal) I’m truly impressed at how well these have stood up.  My kids use them every day around the house, not just on travel.  They sit on them, they ride on them, they climb on them (I wish they didn’t do that last part).  They open and close them on their own.  They’ve been kicked, knocked down, dragged and raced around the house.  And that’s in addition to be lugged on and off of trains, in and out of car trunks and into and out of overhead compartments.  These things are really well built.
  • 027They’re easy for the kids to use.  B has been able to open and close his since day 1, and Liam figured it out by the time he got to be about 2 1/2.  They can also be locked (the adjustable carrying strap has the “key” attached).  My boys use them around the house to store things (i.e., hide them from their brother) and it’s nice that they can access the inside on their own (although pinched fingers are a concern).  The boys can climb on an off when we’re using them as a ride on and can pull them along behind them with the carrying strap (although watch out for unaware people walking alongside — the boys aren’t great at watching exactly which direction the Trunki is going behind them and they could definitely take someone out).
  • 081They’re carry-on sized.  We’ve tried it, it’s really true.  They fit in the overhead bin and within the guideline for carry-on luggage.  They can be rolled down the aisle in the plane, too, and up the jetway with a child on top (which is especially nice since even gate-checked strollers are often not returned until baggage claim).  They also fit nicely behind the front seat in a car, right at the kids’ feet, so they can see “their stuff” in the car.  (Also makes kid stuff easily accessible, because  you don’t necessarily have to dig through the back/trunk . . . and if you do, a Trunki is distinctive and easy to find.)
  • 052They double as a ride-on.  On the way to the gate at the airport or to the train at the station, one of the kids (whichever one isn’t in the stroller) seems to always want to be held.  Being able to have them ride the Trunki is incredibly functional (although it does require some steering on the part of the passenger, and you have to watch out for people walking nearby).  Also, when waiting in line (which is a lot when you travel) the Trunki provides a seat that isn’t just on the floor.  Whenever the kids get tired of standing, they can always sit on the Trunki instead.
  • 001Convenient for packing.  You can fit a lot of stuff in a Trunki.  We have managed to basically pack the boys entire clothing and such for a week (not including diapers) in their Trunkis.  With winter clothes, B is just starting to run out of room.  It’s nice to have the kids’ stuff separated — especially when in comes to finding things like socks and keeping track of what belongs to which child.  (Are these Benjamin’s gray socks or Liam’s?  Whose blue fleece is this?)


  • They can get clunky.  Empty, they’re light and easy to move around.  Full, they can get heavy, especially when carrying it with the shoulder strap (or carrying two!) while pulling a piece of rolling luggage or pushing a stroller.  Also, because they’re hard and not squishable, they don’t fit easily into the bottom of a stroller.  The only option is to carry it or pull it.  They’re not ideal if you have a long way to walk and it will be in a place where you can’t or don’t want the kids to ride or pull it.
  • 004They’re expensive.  I don’t remember how much we paid for the one we bought at the airport, but the one we ordered was £38.  (Of course, it doesn’t help that Benjamin chose the limited edition, most expensive version to get for Liam’s birthday, and that we had to have it shipped from the UK, which cost even more.)
  • They become essential.  Now that we have them, there’s little hope of travelling without them.  The boys are set on bringing them everywhere.  So, even when we take short weekend trips where we might not have packed separate suitcases for the kids, the Trunkis are GOING to be coming with us.  So, we’ve now put ourselves in a situation where we are taking at least 3 bags with us (2 Trunkis, 1 backpack or suitcase for grownups) wherever we go, no matter what.

Overall, we love them.  They aren’t the only functional solution to luggage for kids, but they’re pretty great, and we’re glad we have ours.


(Also, in case anyone wonders, this is in no way a sponsored post.  I received nothing from Trunki, nor from anyone else, at any point.  This is just my opinion.)

Dyeing eggs in Austria

This is, oddly, already our third Easter in Austria, although we haven’t yet been here two years (thanks to the weirdness of the calendar magic that determines the date of Easter).  The first year, our Easter celebration was a little improvised and strange, and didn’t involve dyeing eggs at all because we were living in a tiny temporary apartment with no kitchen table and I would have lost my mind if I’d even attempted it.  Last year, we had a really nice Easter, and we even colored eggs, but for that we used the dye I had bought in the US before our departure and had intended to use that first Easter but didn’t (which was also down to all of our things being literally on the ocean when Easter passed by — egg dye included).

As a result, this, our third Easter in Austria, was the first one for which I had to figure out how to dye eggs without familiar supplies from home.  My initial hope was that there would be a lovely display of Paas dye kits at the grocery store checkout, but no.  Easter eggs are a big thing here — the Easter markets sell hundreds (if not thousands) of hollowed out, intricately hand-painted eggs.  The grocery stores sell pre-dyed packages of 10 hard-boiled eggs (because eggs here come in tens, rather than dozens).  But I hadn’t seen any way to dye them at home.  (And food coloring is NOT a thing here, so that wasn’t an option.)  When we were in Salzburg last weekend, I saw some relatively familiar-looking boxes of egg-dyeing supplies, but not wanting to carry it all the way home, I opted out . . . only to come up empty everywhere I looked in Vienna.

20130330-161751.jpgThursday morning of this past week, I still hadn’t come up with a plan and I was running out of time.  B had painted eggs in school, so that was my fallback strategy, but I imagined that was going to be more frustrating than fun, in general.  So Thursday afternoon, I gave up, went to a grocery store and literally started digging through an Easter display, somewhat alarming the grocery restocking guy.  But I found what I was looking for!  A flat, thin package of 6 envelopes of “egg ink”.  The instructions were, of course, entirely in German, but I went for it, anyway.  Not knowing how much “ink” I was getting per envelope, I got two packs, and had Dan pick up 20 eggs on Friday.

Of course, this being Austria (where the organic eggs come stamped with their farm of origin, which is fantastically cool) all of my eggs were brown, and I didn’t know how that would impact our plans.  I sat down with Google Translate and came up with a rough idea of the directions, including a helpful guide as to which of the dye packets would work on brown eggs.

20130330-161731.jpgMy next job was to boil the eggs.  Which seems simple, but I couldn’t remember if the eggs needed to be prepared any special way, so I asked the Internet, and came up with a fantastic new method for hard-boiling eggs.  17 eggs (which is how many would fit in the two pots I used) and not a single crack!  (I had no idea if they were actually successfully hard-boiled, but they were, at least, more cooked than when I started.)  In fact, when I went to douse the eggs with cold water at the end, to stop the cooking process, I was surprised, after covering them completely in a cold water bath, to come back moments later to a pot of hot water!  The eggs held so much heat that they reheated the water on their own — it took 3 cold water baths to keep them cold.

Then I set up the dye — warm water and white vinegar, plus the dye packet, which really did look like ink spreading through the liquid.

20130330-162021.jpgAfter all of that, we sat down to color our eggs.  I had no idea how it would go — whether I’d bought the right thing, whether I’d translated the directions correctly, whether the brown eggs would work, whether the eggs were sufficiently cooked.  But, we gave it a whirl, and it was great.  The dye was strong and made rich, deep colors on the eggs, very quickly — and no problem that they were brown eggs.  Within a minute or two, the eggs were already darker than I’m used to after a LONG time soaking in the dye from home (my 20130330-162038.jpgfamily can attest to my propensity for leaving eggs in dye for far too long).  So, the only downside to the whole process is that it just didn’t take very long, which made it hard to keep up with the kids’ enthusiasm.  (And I think, had we spilled any dye, it would have been a major, and maybe a permanent, mess.)  Other than Liam dropping his first egg, pre-dye (which did at least let me know that the eggs had been cooked all the way through), and him squishing one post-dye, we had a very successful time.  Our eggs 20130330-162055.jpgturned out beautifully, and no one even had to be patient, since each eggs was finished before we could get the next one in.

The boys had fun, and it feels very Eastery here now.  Our first truly Austrian egg-dyeing experiment was definitely a success, but, as always, also an adventure.

Vienna to Salzburg by train: ÖBB vs. Westbahn

For our trip to Salzburg this weekend, we weighed the options, in terms of time and money, and ended up taking the “Westbahn” train from Vienna to Salzburg. This is a relatively new train service, and we’d never taken it before — for travel inside of Austria, we’d only ever used the ÖBB service. Using something new is always a little stressful, especially traveling with the kids — an adult might take a setback or an inconvenience with mild frustration and see it as a lesson learned, but for a little kid, it might create a ton of unhappiness (for everyone). So, armed with a recommendation from a friend, and the consolation that whatever happened, it was at least the cheapest option, we headed off to catch our Westbahn train at the Westbahnhof station in Vienna.

It was fantastic.

In addition to being cheaper (which was actually only true because Jo was traveling with us — Dan and I have ÖBB discount cards which would have reduced our fares), it was actually a lot more functional for our purposes.

The very best part is that the access to the train is at ground level — we just pushed the stroller right on board. On most of the ÖBB trains (except for the Regional Express), there are a few steep stairs. Trying to get the kids and the stroller into the train quickly and safely is always stressful and difficult. Then there was a large luggage rack right inside the door, so once we were on, we stowed all of our bags, folded up the stroller, and made our way up to our reserved seats on the upper deck (being upstairs was fun for the kids and gave us a nice view, too). When we were boarding, we saw a special car along the train that looked to be set up for families — we didn’t know anything about that, but we’ll look into it for our next trip.

Once upstairs, we found our seats and got comfortable. The seats aren’t numbered, so rather than having specific seats reserved, there was an entire table roped off for us. Since we were 5, rather than 4, that meant Jo didn’t get to sit immediately next to us on the way home, but she was guaranteed a seat on the upper deck of the same car (and I’m sure we could have asked people to switch seats if it had been an issue). There wasn’t any room at the seats for luggage (which was the only negative we encountered) but they did have coat hooks. The tables were very functional, with no places for pinched fingers. On the other hand, almost all of the seats are at tables, which might be more awkward for someone traveling alone. The seats were easily adjustable with a tiny bit of recline (standard for what we’ve seen in terms of the angle of reclining, but easier to adjust). And, it was so convenient to have power outlets between the seats for recharging . . . especially because there was also free Wi-Fi on the train! It was great — it was no problem to entertain the kids on the trip. We had access to games, tv, everything, for the entire ride. And the ride itself was relatively short (about 2.5 hours to Salzburg, slightly faster than the ÖBB Railjet).

There was a self-service café located in every-other car, which was great, because although having a full-service café car is nice, it can sometimes be tough (and occasionally impossible) to actually reach it and then get safely back to your seat. This was easy. And, each car has its own attendant, so there’s always someone to ask if a question or an issue comes up.

20130326-163100.jpgThe bathroom signs get extra points for humor. I also found the bathroom clean, and I witnessed the ladies’ room being cleaned mid-journey, which is always a plus.

Overall, we loved it. It was much more functional for our purposes and less expensive. I’m so glad we gave it a try!

No credit

In the US, we pretty much used our credit cards for everything.  We used them for the obvious stuff, like grocery shopping and filling up the car with gas, but we also used them for incidental expenses — coffee at Starbucks or a fast food meal.  It was rare that I had more than a few dollars in my wallet in actual cash.  I used credit for everything and I generally assumed that my credit card would be accepted everywhere (and it was).

Moving to Vienna was a shock.  By comparison, you pretty much can’t use a credit card anywhere here.  You can’t use credit at a grocery store, the drug store, most cafes, many restaurants, bakeries, the doctor’s office, or even the hospital emergency room.  You generally have to be prepared to pay with cash or debit card here, and many places don’t even accept debit.  (Our new pediatrician takes our debit card, which was a lovely surprise after our previous one who only took cash.  I think I forgot to get cash out for the appointment about 80% of the time.)  Here, pretty much the only places that accept credit cards are the ones that cater most to tourists (like McDonald’s).

It’s just a different cultural norm and a different attitude towards money.  People who live here are used to it.  In some ways, it has actually been very nice.  After getting over our initial frustration, stemming from never having enough cash on us and simply not being used to being limited to what was in our account at any moment, we’ve adjusted.  We carry more cash, and we’ve gotten used to living within our means . . . because there isn’t any other option.

It’s been great doing that, and I’m grateful for the experience, because, living in the States, and having access to credit, I was never going to stop using it for EVERYTHING.  It’s been good to be forced to change my attitudes about money a bit.  Until, just over 2 weeks ago, when we had a moment of minor panic because we had almost no money in our account.  Almost none.  Very, very little.  And over 2 weeks until pay day.

At first, we were freaked out.  We were afraid the money had been lost, stolen, or billed incorrectly.  Nope, it had just been poorly managed, by us.  I’d been lax about checking the account and balancing the checkbook . . . for the past 3 months.  Everything had been going along just fine prior to that, so I wasn’t overly worried about it.  But then, Christmas happened, we took on a few new expenses, and my mental image of, “Yeah, I’m sure that’s all working out ok” was just wrong.

We basically had 2 weeks with no money.  It was no fun.  We ate a lot of leftovers and a lot of pasta.  We didn’t buy anything we didn’t absolutely need, and we didn’t do anything that didn’t absolutely have to be done.  We made it, but it was close.  And there wasn’t anything we could do about it from a cash flow standpoint — we couldn’t buy our groceries on credit instead, or just eat dinner out at restaurants.  We had to tighten everything up and make it work.

It’s all sorted out now.  The budget has been adjusted and we’ll be fine from here on out.  But, yikes.  I really am generally glad for the practice we’ve gotten at living on what we have in our account, but I sure was missing my credit cards for the past few weeks.

Tom Tom vs. Garmin Nuvi

For each of our last two trips, we rented cars, and both times, we rented a GPS to take along.  It added to the cost, but we were glad to have had them.  It was less expensive than turning on data roaming every time we would have needed it, and having one provided a massive peace of mind when traveling as a family — we knew we wouldn’t get hopelessly lost, we knew we could always find a gas station or something to eat nearby.  It was well worth the cost.

On our trip in Scotland, we used it to find a hotel when we were having to pull over every 20 minutes so B could be sick.  We used it to find our way to interesting looking places, and to get us home again, when we decided to get lost on purpose.  And it was super helpful in estimating how long a trip will take.  Before we went, we had heard several cautionary tales about how long it took to get everywhere in England and Ireland and about how much it was going to mess up our plans to constantly underestimate travel times — we ended up having no trouble with that at all, even when we decided, on a whim, to turn off on the scenic route to Edinburgh, when we chose to skip one of our planned destinations in the Cotswolds, or when we had to detour due to a closed motorway driving from York to London.

On our UK/Ireland trip, we had a Tom Tom, and certain things about it drove me crazy — the touch screen wasn’t sensitive enough and it was hard to get the volume right (it was always waking the kids up).  But, after our recent Austrian/German trip, I regretted every word I’d ever said against it.  The Garmin Nuvi we had on this most recent trip was terrible for our purposes, and it really made me appreciate the Tom Tom.

With the Tom Tom, finding and using the features was pretty easy.  The day/night setting was easy to find, zooming out and/or switching to an overview north/south geographic map view happened the way I thought it should and gave me the results I wanted.  The verbal directions it gave were clear and well-timed.  It warned us about speed cameras (which was kind of cool but not needed, since we were traveling on unfamiliar roads — and I’m also unsure about whether the Garmin would have provided the same information if we’d been using it in England).  When it came time to take an exit, it would zoom in and also show us which lanes we could use to exit, or stay straight, as we needed — it was so helpful, and much safer, to know ahead of time how many lanes we had to move over BEFORE we actually had to do it.

By contrast, the Garmin was incredibly frustrating.  The touch screen was more sensitive (which saved my fingers a bit) but every time I touched it, even accidentally, it would shut off our navigation to our desired destination, which was particularly uncool when I hadn’t realized I’d touched it.  The German city and street name pronunciations were terrible — it was absolutely impossible to understand, since it was neither correct in German nor an American-English bastardization of the word.  Rather, it used some kind of hybrid not quite German with poor pseudo-German pronunciation that left us laughing, but meant we couldn’t use the audio cues to help us find our streets or exits.  (I don’t know whether the Tom Tom would have had the same issue because we used it in only English speaking countries.)  Everything felt unintuitive.  Figuring out how to switch in and out of night mode felt complicated each time, and I have to wonder if it didn’t have more features than I was able to discover.

Those were small frustrations, though.  Of bigger concern was the fact that the display only showed the roads you were actually going to use, most of the time, rather than displaying an entire area map.  That meant that we couldn’t see our other options as we went along, and I also couldn’t say helpful things like, “It’ll be the third left” because the only left it would show was the one you actually wanted to turn on.  The voice commands were ill-timed (they came at the last minute, most of the time) and the image display updated slowly.  We missed our turns, several times, because we thought our turn was still coming up as we were driving past it.  Also, perhaps the most inconvenient, was the fact that you couldn’t see your map on a normal, geographic, north/south map.  Most of the time, having directions relative to our direction of travel was fine, but in one case, there was some confusion about which Ingolstadt we were heading towards.  Although we knew we wanted to go north of Munich, and looking at a map of Germany would have told us which one was located there, all we had to choose from were distances and relative direction from where we were.  We ended up guessing and double-checking with the maps on our cell phones, but it was kind of silly that we couldn’t just look at a map and say, “Hey, there it is!  That’s the one we want to go to.”  In fact, we often couldn’t even zoom far enough out to see our destination on our directions, so we were left knowing nothing more than our next direction and the time or distance or direction of our destination.  We managed, but it was frustrating.

They’re both better than Apple Maps, though.  Every time we tried to use that, it took us on a route that was twice as long (or more) than it should have been (in one case, a trip that ended up taking 18 minutes was predicted to take over an hour with Apple Maps) and it kept warning us about tolls that didn’t exist.  The times we needed to confirm the GPS directions, we actually pulled Google Maps up on our phone’s browser and used that instead.  Other than being able to remind us that Germany is north of Austria, Apple Maps didn’t do us any good.

Biking Melk to Krems

When we first decided to move to Austria, we sat down and came up with a “wish list” of things to do while we were here.  The very first thing to go on that list was a bike trip from Melk to Krems along the Donau.  (It was something we picked up from watching Rick Steves before we came.)  The trip is close to Vienna, and everything we read about it seemed great — easy, accessible, fun for the kids.  We wanted to get to see some of Austria and get a little exercise along the way.  Never mind that I haven’t been on a bike in about 14 years (as it turns out, it really does come right back to you) — the bike trip went on our list and it’s been a priority ever since.

It required good enough weather to give us a pretty narrow window of the year, and it required enough planning that we couldn’t just get up on a nice Saturday and go, so it kept getting put off.

Well, today, we fixed that.  We rented bikes, took the hour and fifteen minute train ride to Melk and rode 40 km down the shores of the Danube until we arrived in Krems, where we climbed back on the train and rode the hour back to Vienna.

We had a good time.  The area is stunning, in places.  The river is wide, and the towns that dot the river are among the most picturesque I’ve ever seen, one after another, all beautiful.  We saw castles, gorgeous church spires and cute little homes nestled together throughout the Wachau.  The trail is, in most places,a dedicated bike route which is integrated into the landscape — we travelled past farms, through woods, along the river, and right through charming towns.  One of our favorite things was seeing the private homes which had hung out a flag or a sign advertising an available room for rent. Truly, some of the views were the best I’ve seen since living in Europe.  Each town we passed looked like a postcard or a painting.

Part of the town of Melk.

The town of Melk, where we started, is very pretty and its famous abbey is impressive and unique.  We stopped in Melk for ice cream and coffee to help fuel our journey, and it was lovely.  We stopped again, for dinner, just before Krems, and had a lovely meal which included many ingredients from farms we had ridden through or past.  The last part of the trip included sections through vineyards, with views of the hills on one side and the late-afternoon sun on the river and the towns on the other.  It was fun to be outside, and nice to travel under our own power . . . while not being limited to walking-with-a-stroller pace.  The river provided cool breezes throughout the day, and we found at least one place (just as we were entering Aggstein) to rest and fill up our water bottles.

The kids had a great time (Benjamin was the most enthusiastic about the trip and the best attitude throughout the day — the rest of us had at least a few grouchy moments).  The boys shared a double-wide children’s trailer connected to Dan’s bike, and they got along all day.  They loved having the wind in their hair, and looking around at different sights and landmarks.  It was fun.

But, it wasn’t really what I expected, and it wasn’t as amazingly wonderful as I was kind of expecting.  40 km is LONG.  It was not the “entirely downhill” route I had read about (although it was, by far, mostly downhill or nearly flat most of the way).  There were a few significantly brutal hills (one wich, near Schonbuhel, actually required that I get off and walk my bike to the top).  Some sections of the trail were very buggy (probably not an issue during other times of the year) and parts of the trail were alongside very busy roads — some of which had traffic that moved at a high rate of speed.  The trail wasn’t particularly wide, so the proximity of the fast cars made me uncomfortable, especially with the double-wide trailer, and most particularly when another cyclist was passing us.  Some of the trail was actually *on* quiet neighborhood streets — which wasn’t awful, but not what I expected.

Today was hot (hotter than the low-to-mid eighties that were forecast), and long sections of the trail (sections between Aggsbach and Spitz, for example) had almost no shade.  Those parts were hard because the kids got hot and cranky, and there was nothing we could do to relieve the situation.

Our stop for dinner was tasty, but with typical Austrian service (slow) it contributed to us just barely making the very last train back to Vienna.  Overall, the trip took longer than I expected — we left the house just after 9 this morning, and didn’t return until after 10 at night.  The ride itself was over 4 hours, plus a 2 hour stop for dinner, a stop for coffee, almost 3 hours to pick up the bikes and get them to the train station, an hour (plus) up, an hour back … not sure where the other time went (the bikes haven’t even been returned yet — that’ll be tomorrow).  The kids had to be really patient — a lot of sitting still and being passive — on the train, on the bikes, at the meals.  That’s not easy when you’re 1 and 3.

My sweet guys — we were still in Vienna!

Overall, though, the single hardest part of the trip was getting the bikes from Vienna to Melk.  Getting through Vienna (from the rental place to the train station) was harrowing in parts and then fitting the double trailer on the train was difficult (we managed, though).  The bikes, although relatively comfortable to ride, are big and heavy, and hard to maneuver on and off the train. It’s not fun to wrestle them (especially when also trying to wrestle children).

We had a good time.  But, I don’t think I’d recommend this trip to someone else in our situation.  With older kids, I think it would be fun (if they had their own bikes) but then you’d have added stress, especially along the highway-adjacent portions.  For just adults, it’s a fantastic trip, but it was only the fact that my kids get along fantastically and are generally patient that the trip went as well as it did.

That said, if I did this trip (or another like it) again, I’d do some things differently.  I’d bring more water.  I’d rent bikes in Melk (or wherever we were starting from) and either return them to the same place or arrange to have them picked up.  It would have cut hours off the trip and started us off fresh and excited instead of frazzled and worn.  Instead of renting a double trailer, I’d rent one single trailer and a child seat for the back of the bike.  That way, each child would have his own space, and they could switch seats periodically to change things up and give them a new view.  Plus, they’d get good time in with both parents (as it was, I only talked to the boys when we stopped — which was pretty often — or when we ate).  I’d do a shorter trip — I’d pick out the most beautiful section of the Wachau, bike that section, then hop on the train when I was tired.  We didn’t do that because we hadn’t done the reasearch to know what options made sense.  40 km is a lot longer than I thought it was — 25 would have been less grueling.

We really did enjoy ourselves, but it isn’t on the list of things we MUST do again, nor is it on the list of things I suggest for others travelling with their kids.  I’m surprised, because I’ve heard and read such great things about this trip (even from people with little kids).  And, since it SEEMS like such a good idea (see beautiful Austria, at your own pace, and it’s downhill!) I really wanted it to be great.

It was great, but it was more the company that the adventure.

One mom to another

Dear moms of the world,

I know you’re like me.  We love our children.  You had a change-the-world moment when you looked into the face of your baby for the first time and you become anchored to that tiny soul.  The world suddenly revolved around that little person in your arms, and you would do anything to protect them.  The love you feel for your child is awesome and deep and amazingly strong.  You love that baby fiercely, and you are a force of nature that would do anything for that child . . . and then, at some point, you realized that every other mother has had that moment with her baby, too.  The world is a different place after that.

We love our babies.  We promise them that we will protect them, take care of them, love them, cherish them and move mountains if we have to.  We would die for them.  (And that isn’t hyperbole.  We really would.)  We want them to be happy, to feel good about themselves, and to be adored.  I will love my children completely, forever.  I hope that one day, my boys find someone who cherishes them as much as I do (it won’t happen, but I hope they get close).

Like all moms, I also fear for my children’s future.  I worry that they’ll grow up to be unhappy, insecure, unsatisfied, demoralized, ill, hopeless or lonely.  I worry that somewhere between now and adulthood they’ll stop feeling loved, or safe, or special.  It’s a concern that sometimes keeps me up at night.

If you could show me the future, and it showed that my children will be happy, healthy, fulfilled, loved, enthusiastic, peaceful and safe, I would walk around in a state of constant bliss.  THAT is what I want for my kids.  I know you want that for your children, too — we all do.  It’s a mom thing.

Now imagine, for a minute, that your child grows up to be gay.  (Maybe you think that can’t happen.  Maybe you think it’s one of the worst things that could happen.  But, humor me.  Imagine it.)  Imagine that your child is also happy, confident, healthy and satisfied with their life.  And that they are loved.  They are the center of someone’s world.  There is a person, who they adore, who looks at them almost the way that you do — someone who sees how marvelous, charming, intelligent, sweet, kind and amazing they are.  This person is the light of your child’s life.  And they want to be together, and be a family.

Can you see it?  (Does it make you a little sad?  It’s ok for the idea to be shocking to you.  You can work on that part later.)  But if you can REALLY imagine it, what do you want to happen next?  Do you want your wonderful, joyful, loved child to be able to happily build a life with this person who thinks they’re the greatest thing in the world?  Or do you want them to face ostracism, bigotry and legal invalidation?

You’re a mom.  You want joy for your baby.  Of course you do.  It might be hard to accept, if you’ve always been taught something else, but deep in your heart, you know that you want your child to be happy, loved, cherished and safe.  You don’t ever have to explain it to anyone.  You don’t even have to acknowledge that you know what’s right.  But when you vote, vote for the right thing.  Otherwise, you’re letting your child down.  You’re undermining those quiet, cuddling, baby promises you made.

They won’t remember it anyway

Something we’ve heard a fair bit since we started this adventure is, “There’s no point in travelling when your kids are this young.  It’s too much work, and they won’t remember it anyway.”  It’s come in slightly different forms, from friends, from family, from strangers.  Most recently, we got this advice from an older American man we met as he waited for his wife outside of the Starbucks in Versailles.

I don’t entirely understand why people say that to us.  I understood it a little when it was said BEFORE we packed up our family and moved to Austria, but when you’re standing with two kids in a stroller and an Ergo in front of a Starbucks in France, the ship has kind of sailed on that opinion being useful advice.

It may even be true that they won’t remember much of our travels, but it completely misses the point.  Saying, “Don’t travel, the kids won’t remember it yet” is like saying, “We don’t have our camera with us, we might as well sit at home and stare at the walls”.  Is the point of traveling . . . of doing anything, really . . . just to have a perfectly formed, indelible memory of the event?  Sure, memories are nice, like perfect pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower are nice, but you don’t GO to France to take the picture.  (At least, I hope not.)

The point is to have the experience.  Not solely because of the memories it creates, but because of what it does to us.  The idea is not to passively observe these things we see when we’re travelling, but to experience them and allow them to change us.  We see, we learn, we try, and then we fail or succeed.  It expands our perspective and alters our perception.  We travel because it teaches us about the way things are done elsewhere.  We learn how things we’ve taken for granted aren’t assumed other places.  We learn about things that are tolerated, embraced, accepted or unheard of in a way that is completely different from the way that we think.  We learn that we’re capable of more than we thought.  We learn how to face adversity with flexibility and joy.  We learn all of these things, too, about our travel companions (in my case, I learn about my family, which is a pretty big deal).  Most importantly, we spend the time together.

Whether or not my kids take a single concrete memory from our time in Europe is irrelevant.  The knowledge of where they’ve been and what they’ve done will change their perception of who they are and how they fit into the world.  It will frame their ideas of what they are capable of.  It will inform their notions of what family life is like.  Benjamin is more confident than he would have been without our adventures.  He travels happily at 3 years old — climbing into his window seat on the plane and buckling his seatbelt.  He knows to watch for the seatbelt fastened sign to be turned off because he knows I’ll let him get up on his knees and look out the window.  He reads the signs to navigate in some of Vienna’s busiest train stations — a skill that translated to Paris.  He knows he is capable of doing things I was nervous about doing when I was an adult.  Liam will never know a time where he hasn’t been a citizen of the world.  He’s eaten in very fancy French restaurants (in France) and took his first steps on a different continent than where he was born.  I believe that my boys will fear less, try more and take fewer things for granted.  They will carry these ideas with them FOREVER, even if they have no recollection of visiting the Arc de Triomphe or sledding in Innsbruck.

And, it has changed me.  I know now that I can do more than I thought I could, and I can handle it more gracefully.  I’ve learned to let go of a lot, and I have clarified my priorities.  I take myself less seriously, and I hope I approach life a little more kindly.  I’m more pleasant to be around (most of the time) and our home is more peaceful.  I am happier, more relaxed and more flexible.

So, is whether or not the kids remember the fountains of Versailles really relevant?  It’s not where you go — how you get there’s the worthier part.  And, of course, who you are when you arrive.

Watching the planes in Paris.

Two steps forward, one step back

By nature, I love efficiency.  I like to spend a little extra time planning in order to save myself time executing the plan, I like to expend as little energy to be as productive as possible — I like to maximize both my time and energy.  I’m really good at it.  I can pack activities, chores and errands into a day as well as I can pack the back of a car for a vacation.

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