Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Back in the US of A

I am back in the country of my birth for a visit, and it turns out there are a few things I've missed but not realized I miss, living in France.

10. Size 12 shoes. Yes, that would be about a 45 In France.
9. The grande decaf mocha frappuchino no whip that came with a huge straw!
8. Ease of doing business in English.
7. The jr. bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries and barbecue sauce from Wendy's.
6. Big cars; our Ford back home is huge compared to typical cars in France, but fitting my 6 feet 3 inches into a Ford Flex is just that much easier.
5. The cost of clothes.
4. Missing the heat wave (95+ degrees!) in Clermont-Ferrand this week!
3. Papa John's pizza. Don't have to order sans pomme de terre!
2. Latvians. Although Greenville wasn't overflowing with Latvian-speaking friends, there were more than in Clermont-Ferrand, and currently visiting in the midwest we have all we could wish for.
1. Family. Although the phone, skype and email are wonderful tools, nothing beats a hug from grandfather or a big smooch from greatgrandmother!

We had a visitor this morning!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

IWC picnic

The International Women’s Club (IWC) of Clermont-Ferrand has been instrumental in helping me feel at home, introducing me to people and easing the transition into French life. Officially, the IWC “is an outreach group providing social interaction for English speaking women in the Auvergne region of France.” Lauris and I most often participate in the mom and babies club, but I’ve also blogged about the book club and hiking club, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lauris and Roberts with the canards in Lac Aydat
Sunday the mom and babies club hosted the annual picnic at Lac Aydat. A 30 minute drive southwest of Clermont-Ferrand, the largest natural lake of the Auvergne has a swimming area, picnic areas, a campground, and rentals for water sports. It was at one of the picnic areas that everyone met up, and although the weather was chilly, the sun was shining and we had a wonderful time. We utilized the permanent grills on location, and while the sausages and shish kebabs cooked, we enjoyed the various dishes everyone brought to share, let the children run amuck in the three children’s playgrounds, and caught up with old friends while making new ones.

For anyone moving to the Clermont-Ferrand area, I recommend getting in touch with the IWC. There is a yahoo groups website as well as a facebook site where more information can be found, questions asked and people contacted.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bonne fête des pères!

Lauris vēlās novēlēt savam tētim, Čikāgas vectētiņam un Kalamazu vecpapam brīnešķīgu tēva dienu! Viņš saka "tē-te."

We will be celebrating all weekend. But there is other business at hand as well.

When our home internet package arrived two days ago, I was elated. We would no longer have to depend on the air card for internet, and seeing as I had run out of gigs four days ago and was currently sans internet, the „Livebox” had arrived with perfect timing. I restrained myself from beginning the installation; I’m sure Lauris would have only helped the effort, not hindered it, right? When Roberts got home we were tempted to skip the whole dinner/put Lauris in bath then to sleep routine, but managed to stick to it and then... it was time! We unpacked the two boxes, four hundred miles (that’s 640 kilometers) of cord, three instruction manuals (in French) and I should have had my first hint that I was not going to be surfing the worldwide web the following day. Actually, the installation went very easily until it came time to plug everything in; turns out instead of a cable/phone jack type outlet, we need a space-age looking T-shaped outlet! Oops. So maybe a few months more until we figure out who has to install these things and how to get them out here. And then, not only will we have dependable internet, we will also have French television and a landline phone!

On a different topic, Lauris has proven himself to be quite the little climber. A few days ago I returned from the kitchen to find he had pushed a chair to the table in order to climb up on the table and get to my chocolate bar. For those interested, it was a dark chocolate bar that I had been looking forward to all day. Little hands and mouth covered, don’t know how much he managed to get in but it was enough for a super-sugar-high and then a super-sugar-crash. More recently we put him in his crib for a nap before the time he wanted to nap, and as I retreated to the kitchen Roberts reported “he’s at the door!” Which meant he had used the footstool of the glider to climb up and out of his crib. Which is at the lowest possible setting. Which is the only means of restraining him we currently have. Correction, had. Well without the benefit of the footstool it isn’t quite as easy, but using one end of the crib he vaults a leg up, pulls the other up, and then slowly starts letting himself down. The one time I witnessed this he stopped when he realized how far off the ground he still was and climbed back in, but it is only a matter of time. <Sigh> Roberts reports they make some sort of net to cover the top of the crib, but I think this will only make him more determined…

Friday, June 17, 2011

Food, friends and the Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port

After some serious traveling in the past two weeks, we were ready for a weekend at home. A month or so ago we had gotten in touch with our friends in Chatenet and found this weekend to be mutually available for them to come visit us in Clermont-Ferrand to return the favor of wonderful hospitality we were shown on our visit at the end of January. I spent Friday awaiting their arrival while watching the streets being barricaded on the next block and cars being towed left and right, wondering if they were ever going to be able to find parking, or even our apartment!

All worrying was as usual for naught, as they arrived in the late afternoon in high spirits, and we immediately sat down to some important business; eating. This proved to be a recurring theme of the weekend, as meals are a focus of any Latvian gathering. The evening was spent enjoying a long dinner while watching the activities out on the street. The blockades turned out to be for a running festival, Courir Clermont, which qualifies runners for similar, national, race(s) later in the year. The Rue Blatin - Place de Jaude corner was the finish point for about 7 different categories of races. Max and Lauris got reacquainted over toys while the adults caught up on the events of the past months, and it was late before the last slices of peach pie were eaten and everybody headed to bed.

The next morning was a much anticipated morning by at least two people in the apartment, as we had brought back some salmon from Bergen and decided to wait until Saturday morning in order to share it with our guests. On freshly-baked croissants lathered with Philadelphia brand cream cheese (a very recent addition to store shelves in Clermont) the smoked fish was more delicious than the samples that prompted the purchase in Bergen had promised. We lingered over coffee until several naps later, and then headed out in the sunny Auvergne day.

Our first destination, Place de Jaude, had not yet regained its form after the dismantling of the Courir Clermont tents. The water fountains had not been turned back on and were definitely missed. The Opera is also being renovated, and one end of the Place is cluttered with construction pods and equipment. We didn’t stay long, but headed east past Marché St-Pierre, Musée du Ranquet with its beautiful spiral stone staircase and up Rue des Gras with Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption standing guard at the end. We arrived during the French lunch, and so were not able to climb to the top of the tower to see the view of the city, but our guests indicated they would have time the next day and so we headed further to Basilique Notre-Dame-du-Port.

Founded in the sixth century but burned down by Vikings, the present day structure was rebuilt in the 11th and 12th centuries. The edifice is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. With the mosaic of multicolored stonework on the outside and the raised chancel, the church is striking and I recommend a visit to both inhabitants and visitors of Clermont.

A detour through Place Delille before heading south to Jardin Lecoq. There the boys enjoyed a snack before energetically engaging the playground structures, and both were not quite done when it came time to leave. A stroll past the fountain and a glimpse of the swans in the pond perked them right back up. But the adults also needed a snack, so we headed home for lunch, refreshments, naps and games, not necessarily in that order. Lunch merged right on into dinner, and with charades and good times it was midnight – a late hour for parents of one year olds - before we even noticed.

Sunday brought the opportunity for our guests to see the interior of Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, but soon came au revoirs and their departure home. After an evening stroll to Place de Jaude we also turned in, and remarked how luckily Monday was a holiday; it would give us time to recuperate after a non-traveling, yet full weekend!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Nuts in Norway part deux

After a hearty breakfast at the hotel on Friday morning we packed sandwiches for the road. Three complimentary meals is a deal that can’t be beat. Another bonus of staying at this hotel was the tower. The front desk encourages people to get a key to a mini-museum and spiral staircase that leads to the top of the main tower of the old building, from which we had a full view of Bergen and vicinity since the hotel was right on the fjord in the Bryggen area.
Should have taken the boat back to France
The Norwegian name for wharf, Bryggen is a series of Hanseatic commercial buildings lining the eastern side of the fjord. The wooden buildings are the only remaining group of their kind; they are of the famous kontorer architecture built all over Europe by the Hanseatic League. The city of Bergen was founded in 1070, and the area of the present Bryggen constitutes the oldest part of the city.

The wooden kontorer buildings

We crossed the street to the waterfront fish market at Torget to sample their fares, and in the end were convinced to buy some river salmon to take back home. There was salmon marinated with garlic, smoked salmon, ocean salmon and river salmon, and the choice which to purchase was hard, as all the samples were delicious. But our wanderings had to end, as a glance at the clock showed we were cutting it close to catching our train back to Oslo.

Free samples pay off for the fishmongers
The train ride back was as fascinating as the trip west; although we were seeing the scenery for the second time, it gave us the opportunity to notice details we had missed, and catch up on some sleep. This train also had a different set-up, there was a family car with a playground for children, as well as a bigger café car which provided more room for exploration by Lauris. We were happy to be back in Oslo, and even happier to see our waiting hosts. They had prepared a delicious dinner and we enjoyed their company late into the night.

Saturday morning brought another wonderful meal; Brigita had prepared pancakes. This may have been the reason we got a little bit of a late start up to Frognerseteren, a 19th-century eatery perched on a mountain-side overlooking the city. The building is in Viking style architecture with the “dragon-style ornamentation.” We sampled the famous apple cake, and took a table out on the patio with a view over Oslo. The sun was warm on our shoulders, and it was reluctantly that we left for our hike down the mountain to Holmenkollen.

A sunny 29 degrees C in Oslo
There has been a ski jump on the hill overlooking Oslofjord since 1892, but this particular one is famous from the Olympics. Modernised several times, it continues to be used for international competitions and from the top there is a 360 degree view of Oslo and the surrounding countryside. Although beautiful, there was a long wait for the elevator up and back down, and in retrospect we might have been satisfied with watching a skier practice on another jump on our hike down; when there is no snow, the jump is covered in turf, and with sprinklers they are able to simulate winter conditions. Snow or no snow, after seeing the size of the jump as well as how steep it is, even in the landing area, I believe ski jumpers have to have to at least be a little nuts.

France has rugby, Norway has ski-jumping
Returning to the city, we stocked up on supplies for our evening’s barbecue in Vigelandsparken. One of the most visited sights in Oslo, the park was designed by Gustav Vigeland, a sculptor who worked on it for almost forty years but died one year before its completion. It contains 227 granite and bronze sculptures… of life-sized naked human forms. From the famous screaming pot-bellied baby to entwined lovers to the giant monolith of writhing bodies, it was really… something. The sunny grassy areas were filled with families barbecuing, playing soccer and rugby and enjoying the wonderful summer weather. We had a delicious dinner, sitting outside on blankets in the evening light. Back at home it was the Norway-Portugal soccer match and another evening of great conversation and company. 

Lauris admiring the Vigeland sculptures
Sunday morning we were fed another wonderful meal before being escorted to the train station to catch the train that would take us out to the airport. Although the trip home was difficult (see the post on CDG and ORLY airports), I look back at our trip with satisfaction:  happy with what we were able to accomplish, and with a better idea of what I would like to visit and see in the future.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Nuts in Norway part une

Wednesday afternoon we flew to Oslo, Norway’s famous capital located on Oslofjord of the east coast. Our good friends, Viestarts and Brigita, had helped us with our planning from the beginning, and we were in for four days packed with sightseeing and Norwegian hospitality. For a long time now, we have known that we had wanted to see one of the famous west-coast fjords; but with our limited time I was at a loss for how to accomplish this until Brigita suggested “Norway in a Nutshell.”  It worked out as perfectly as was possible, and although we spent two days away from Oslo and our hosts, the tour made the most of our limited time.  We were able to take in several of the biggest hits of the region, if only superficially and along with hundreds of other tourists.  With Lauris and only two days we unfortunately were not the ones hiking and kayaking the miles of fjords – but we took pictures of those hearty vacationers, and probably had more hot cappuccinos.

Not the biggest rock in the fjord
Early on Thursday morning we were fed Norwegian lox on toasted bagels with cream cheese,  which, along with a hot mug of coffee, almost convinced me to abandon all travel plans. But Viestarts urged us on, escorting us in the early morning to the train station. We arrived with plenty of time to pick up our Norway in a Nutshell trip tickets at Oslo-Central and catch our train, which would take us west from Oslo to Myrdal, on the Oslo-Bergen train line. The trains were half the trip; the sights visible from the windows were incredible, and I believe traveling by train is one of the best ways to see a country. We quickly left Oslo behind for lush, green countryside. As we climbed into the mountains we started seeing snow, and by the time we reached Finse (alt. 1222, the highest station on the Norwegian rail system) we were surrounded by snow covered tundra, frozen lakes and jagged mountain peaks. The train took a 10 minute pause in Finse, enabling passengers to hop out and photograph the Hardangerjøkulen glacier before speeding on west.

Top of the Norway rail line
Four hours and forty minutes after leaving Oslo we stepped off the train in Myrdal, with a quaint little rail station, a few dozen houses scattered about, and not much else beside the surrounding mountains. Tourists, ourselves included, were already snapping waterfall and mountain pictures.  We had not had a bite of the hot dog or sip from the hot chocolate from the station by the time the connecting train arrived, but we boarded, made ourselves comfortable and soon the train was off, following the Flåm river valley down from the mountains. According to the Flåm railway, almost 80% of the railway line has a gradient of 55% and it travels through 20 tunnels for a total distance of six kilometers. Of these, 18 were excavated by hand. The scenery was breathtaking although we were made to really feel like tourists, especially when soon after the narrators described a Norwegian folk tale of sirens, that supposedly appear to travelers and lure them with their beautiful singing into the wilderness and probably to death, we witnessed a dancing spectacle off in the distance at the first waterfall stop, dancers appearing and reappearing to the sound of an enchanting little number.  Luckily the conductors, whistles in hand, successfully lured us back to the train.

All aboard!
In Flåm (pop. 500) we had 45 minutes, which delighted Lauris as he took advantage of a children’s playground before boarding the Maimiti, on the Aurlandsfjord, a branch of the world’s longest fjord, the Sognefjord. We never actually traveled on the Sognefjord, but cruised north until the Nærøyfjorden, on the UNESCO World Heritage List, which we followed southwest to Gudvangen. The boat ride was pleasant, and each direction one looked – the views unbelievable. In addition to the towering sheer cliff faces and tens, probably hundreds of high, cascading waterfalls, there was also the boat to explore. With three decks, a café, enclosed and open viewing areas, Lauris had plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, and two hours later we were sad when the boat ride was over, although excited about the next leg of the trip.

The family boat trip
In Gudvangen came the first hiccup in the Norway in a Nutshell tour; about one hundred passengers scrambled from the boat to board the one NiaN bus, and as we were probably last to disembark and obviously saw we would not fit, we wandered around the village for a while keeping an eye on the tourist crowd running hurriedly to every arriving bus. Roberts kept me calm, and exactly as he predicted, two more buses soon pulled up, and the last 15 travelers had a whole 50-person bus of space. Instead of heading directly for Voss, the bus took a detour and we soon found ourselves winding down the Stalheimskleiva road, the steepest stretch of road in northern Europe. 13 hairpin turns with great views of the Sivlefossen and Stalheimsfossen waterfalls with Laurīts blissfully asleep! This bus tour, colored by the driver’s slow precision turns and dry humor, was a highlight among the highlights.

Commandeering a Viking vessel
Voss is on the same railway line we were first on, from Oslo. We boarded the train for the last stretch of our journey that day, arriving in Bergen to a cold drizzle. Also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is the second largest city in Norway and is often called the “Gateway to the fjords.” Tired from the very long day, we hurried from the rail station to our hotel, leaving all sightseeing to the following morning. Although we had missed the complimentary dinner by ten minutes, the concierge had the chefs prepare some sandwiches for us, and thirty minutes later we were sprawled on the bed, eating gourmet sandwiches and watching TV. A very long day, but worth every second! And our compliments to Choice Hotels for making a tired, rain-covered family experience delight – missing a dinner deadline but still proposing to prepare sandwiches.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Stuck in Paris!

On our trip to Oslo this past week, we flew through Paris. CDG to be exact. Our trip home however was a different matter. Not wanting to take a six am flight out of Oslo Sunday morning, we opted for a 1230 departure, but one that had us switching airports in Paris. Little did we know what we were in for.

Roberts volunteered to write a guest blog on "how to navigate CDG." I told him for that he needs his own blog! Or maybe a 12 hour a day talk show... In any case, here is a tip when traveling to ORLY from CDG. You need to go pick up your baggage, then go terminal 2F and downstairs to the taxi area. There is a bus area beyond the taxi area, where you will find Le Cars (buses) with various destinations; EuroDisney and ORLY among them. The trip costs 19 euro per adult and takes about 1.5 hours.

He sure didn't spend the whole weekend passed out

Upon reaching ORLY, Lauris received his second pat-down, although they didn't check his diaper like in Atlanta. The airport was a madhouse; terribly long lines and waiting areas so full that the floors were all taken as well. And this was before any flights were cancelled. Note to parents with small children; ORLY does not allow strollers past security, be prepared to carry your child around once at the gate.

This would not have been so bad had the flight not been cancelled after we boarded the plane and sat on the tarmack for two hours. Then of course mass confusion, and by the time we were issued new tickets, shuttled to the hotel and checked in there, it was 1am. Fast forward to this morning, our flight for which we arrived at the airport before 8am for has been delayed two hours and we are once more waiting. But I keep reminding myself, bad weather happens. The last two times I was stranded overnight was in ATL, and I don't remember being comped a hotel room.

Looking for positives in this mess I see the doctor's station here in ORLY. Lauris took ill yesterday and we were able to see a doctor to get the necessary prescriptions, as well as have them filled right here in the airport for about 45 euro. Compare that to an emergency room visit? But even this would not have been necessary had we not been stuck here all day. So lesson learned; fly into CDG, fly out of CDG. And when you get stuck in an elevator there, the nice mechanics will be over tout suite!

* Now that this is out of my system I will be able to concentrate on the adventure we had in Oslo; stay tuned!

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