Sunday, August 26, 2007

The First Day of First Grade

Tori started first grade this week with lots of smiles. With everything a little more familiar this year (ie. the big tour bus that picks her up from our apartment complex, the long flights of stairs at her school), Tori had a smooth send off. The twins and I, however, were just as emotional as the previous year. With some crying throughout the morning, we all put on our game faces by the afternoon. Adam and Royce very sweetly always request that anything fun we are going to do be saved for when Tori gets home from school.

This year Tori is in Miss Yoo's first grade class at the Hong Kong International School. She has a number of friends from last year in the class, not to mention two new girls so far known only as the blonde girl and the curly haired girl. Tori loves going to Miss Yoo's class and has told us all the books Miss Yoo has in her book nook. So far, no homework, though we have been told it is coming. Tori is in a class of 20 kids on the 5th floor of her school. She has recess on the 7th floor "roof" playground. The school actually has 15 stories but classrooms only on the first 7 floors. It is a huge school with lots and lots of steps but this year Tori handles it far better than I do!

We thought the issue this year would be that grade one stays at school an hour longer than the kindergarteners do. Not only does Tori not complain, she loves that last hour of the day which is math. In addition to the usual subjects of reading, writing and math, Tori also has PE, Chinese, Religion, Art, Music and Guidance (sort of social awareness) on a revolving basis. So far, this year math and the monkey bars are Tori's favorite subjects.

In the apartment complex where we live, many expatriate families go away for the entire summer, giving the whole place a sort of college town in summer feel. This past week the families have started to return. The common starter conversations are "where did you go for summer holidays?" and "who is your child's teacher?" Adam and Royce usually answer for me, yelling out the Eiffel Tower for our summer vacation. For Tori's teacher, Adam and Royce yell out any random letter of the alphabet. At first confused, I realized that Miss Yoo's name sounds like the letter "u" to their ears and their grasp of the alphabet is a little spotty. Well, soon enough Adam and Royce will start preschool too....and study that alphabet a little harder.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Discovering Discovery Bay

With the rigors of summer travel fading (actually with summer itself fading- Tori starts school next week!), we were again inspired to start exploring all the various places in Hong Kong we have not yet visited. We eased back into the day trip thing with a jaunt out to Discovery Bay, a residential community which we heard had lots of amenities, space and no cars. As I write these selling points I realize they might not sound worthy of a 1.5 hour trip to anyone but a Hong Kong resident. But we went and enjoyed every minute of it.
Discovery Bay is located on Lantau Island, the same island that has the airport and importantly, Disneyland. (We are on Hong Kong Island). Discovery Bay was built in the early 1980's, though construction is on-going (and one of the issues residents have). Now with Disneyland close (you can see Space Mountain) by there is a nightly fireworks show. First a vacation resort area and then a residential community, with both private developers and government involved at various stages, the result is community of single family homes, apartments, a big open plaza and plenty of upscale restaurants. The whole plaza area had a run down feel but we read the marketing materials there and realized it was just redone this year and that we should now be calling it the "water margin." About 15,000 folks live there, mainly expatriates, and notably cars are not allowed in the area. Folks get around by golf cart and we saw a lot of them.

To get to Discovery Bay, we took a ferry from Central but not your average ferry. This one was enclosed space, with air conditioning with more of an airplane feel than the usual ferry "in the open back of truck." The 30 minute ferry ride drops you off right at the plaza. We wandered around amazed by it all. We bought a new coffee machine and this in and of itself speaks to the ease of Discovery Bay. Our old machine has been broken for months but there is nowhere on the south side of Hong Kong island (where we live) to buy a replacement. With our new coffee machine in tow, we hit Tai Pak Bay beach, a 500 meter man made beach. It was blazing hot and within minutes the girls were in the water in their underwear, surrounded on all sides by expat kids in designer swim wear.

When it was time to leave, Adam cried "Do we have to go back to Hong Kong?" While technically he was right (we were on Lantau Island and not Hong Kong Island), I think he thought we were in a different country altogether. It did feel like that at times. Adam loved the space out there, where a boy can dig and run and not have to watch either the pedestrian or car traffic. As we walked back to our ferry, past the Pacific Coffee kiosk on the pier, the ease of access to cafeine won me over. Discovery Bay can make even the easy living of the southside and Stanley look hard.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Fun in Europe: Germany

Stuffed with croissants and tired of crowds, we left Paris just as our love for the city was starting to be tempered by the realities of young children on the road. We then took the train from to Heidelberg, where we were again fortunate to have Opa’s hospitality. We loved the college atmosphere of Heidelberg and yes, Starbucks and English language books stores were welcome too. With Phil’s Dad showing us the way, we hit the zoo, parks, boat rides and of course the castle.

Perched a bit up a hill and overlooking the Neckar River, the Heidelberg Castle was exactly what we wanted to see. Built around 1200, and then destroyed by lightning in 1537, by fighting during the 30 years war, and then by the French in the 1688, the castle has been restored to partial glory ever since the 17th century. With its commanding view of green hills and the river, and then hill rising behind it, the castle has inspired many besides us, including famously Mark Twain in The Tramp Abroad. We climbed around the castle and then stared down into the castle’s moat and were surprised to learn that due to mosquitos, it was drained. Domesticated animals, as well as animals brought back live from the hunt, were kept there. Stunned silence as our kids thought this one through. You could almost see the revisionism wheels turning in their heads. But then we came upon the head of a unicorn on the wall and things tipped back into the world as they knew it.

But we needed an urban escape, even from a great city like Heidelberg and thus headed for the hills. While we told the kids it was the Black Forest, it actually was a bit south of there with rolling hills and villages, all surrounding the Neckar River. We rented a small cabin within a small permanent camping area. As summer vacations started up in Europe, we would watch the cars loaded with families and luggage roll into our campground. License plates were mainly Germany and Swiss and we figured we were sure to be the only Americans there. Except of course for our American friends, who kindly joined us in this out of the way spot for a couple days of catching up. The setting was perfect for catching up and for kids; grass, wild flowers, space and nightly BBQ’s, not to mention plenty of slugs and bugs, which were also big hits.

Back in Heidelberg, we ended up back in play grounds again, frequently the one across the street from Opa’s apartment. The playground was the proverbial melting pot, with kids of all languages trying to play with our kids. Lots and lots of Russian spoken there, which was amusing for some of us. Tree climbing, one of Tori’s special skills, was greatly admired among all nationalities and languages and proved the great ice breaker. On our last night there, a man sat down on a playground bench and started playing the electric guitar. The kids were instantly drawn to him. The whole thing seemed slight off until a second man arrived and all of a sudden it was a bon a fide jam session. Playing for the crowd, the men started playing songs in English. Our grubby bare foot girls were serenaded with Stevie Wonder’s "isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful.."A fitting quirky moment to make our European departure, the likes of which one rarely finds in much more staid Hong Kong.