Tuesday, October 28, 2014


We always enjoy our time in Heidelberg, a lovely town in southwest Germany, but it never seems to get any closer. In the old days when we flew from Hong Kong it was a long ways. Now, in Germany, the drive continues to surprise us; typically four hours without traffic. Maybe it’s not the length of the drive but the time in the car with everyone. Thank goodness for podcasts!  But once there, we visit Opa and visit the places we know and love; the playgrounds and the zoo! Our kids have not outgrown the usual haunts (except maybe the library, where twenty books in English used to take a whole afternoon) but they are close to outgrowing them. We hit them all again on a recent trip, standing back, remembering and taking lots of pictures.
Heidelberg, hit hard during 17th century wars and rebuilt in the 18th century with a baroque style Old Town, is a wonderful place to wander. The main street through the old town is completely pedestrian and winds through many old buildings with plagues (which the kids can sort of read in German). We passed an old building that was a stable, a bar, and army headquarters, all within a couple hundred years. We walked past the hotel with Chris and Kelli stayed when meeting us years ago. The stand where Adam insisted on buying a wooden sword. The good gelato shop. The bad gelato shop. The old English bookstore is gone but we found a great craft supply store, a ceramics studio and a frozen yogurt shop. Sadly, our fun bike rental shop is no longer.
Without bikes, we wandered over the Old Bridge and up the north side of the Neckar River, walking along the old Philosopher’s Walk. A steep path up leads to a walk on the other side of the river with great views of the Old Town and the castle. Phil used the time to wax philosophical with the kids and they loved it but that all promptly turned off when we hit our old playground. The one with the wacky swings, part see-saw, part rope swing. The kids played, climbed trees and splashed through the big waterworks structure they have. A lovely last sunny day before the time change and official winter.
For many years, Heidelberg was the headquarters for US military forces in Europe with Campbell Barracks and Mark Twain Village. All that has been closing in the last few years. The elementary school closed after the 2011-2012 school year. The high school with its mascot drawn on the outside of the gym is empty. The military is mostly moved to nearby Wiesbaden. We drove past empty barracks, deserted playgrounds in route to visit friends from Munich who have moved to Heidelberg. It all seemed unspeakably sad. When at the friends, particularly a girl who is friends with Adam, he played tag with this girl, running hot and sweaty and our girls teased him mercilessly. Despite that brief nostalgic shift, all has reverted to usual; running, teasing, laughing, crying. And all continued in that vein on the next long car ride of our journey!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Oktoberfest: third time's a charm

I can’t say we are surprised by Oktoberfest anymore. We know it’s coming in September rather than October. We know it will be crowded. We know which rides the kids like. We know which tent we might be able to get into. We know there will be sausage. We know there will be pretzels. But most importantly, we know to get our tracht ready early!
Everyone, locals and tourists alike, wear tracht to Oktoberfest, though apparently this was not always the case. Basically, tracht are Bavarian folk costumes, including lederhosen and dirndls. Lederhosen, leather breeches with a front flap and held up by suspenders, are embroidered and teamed with checkered shirts, clog like shoes and our favorite, calf warmers! Dirndls, dresses with an apron tied on, can be plain or elaborate, made of all colors with plenty of silk and ribbon. Typically peasants wore tracht but somehow all this evolved into high fashion by the 1880’s and have stayed there, at least in Bavaria.
We bought the kids various outfits when we first moved here and they were happy but they all grew. We forced them into the same tracht for year two, though Adam did rip his lederhosen as he squeezed into it. And their tastes changed a little. Shorter dirndl skirts are more popular with teenagers as are short shorts lederhosen. Well, beating the crowds, we bought new tracht these summer. Tori opted out of the dress and purchased lime green lederhosen shorts. As the day we went was a little cold, she wore her Dad’s green calf warmers too! Royce picked a pretty purple and green dirndl and Adam now has man sized lederhosen. Phil and I were happy not to have outgrown our outfits over the past year of pretzel consumption.
Dressed in all of the above, with a few friends in tow, we hit Oktoberfest just one time this year.With sun Oktoberfest feels like a state fair; food, music, rides, albeit one with plenty of beer. The kids have Oktoberfest safety lessons at school and this year the twins were more frightened than excited. We did have one moment where Phil and I stopped and the kids went in three different directions in search of whatever they wanted to eat. I ran after them into the crowd, couldn’t find them and returned breathless to Phil. Who stood with all the kids and their chocolate dipped fruit and cotton candy.

As we inched our way off the wiesen (fair grounds), it was crowded but festive. The wiesen, a bare dirt field most of the year, takes on a magical fairy tale feel and somehow you are dressed up and part of it. As the girls twirled and whirled on our walk to the train and home, we smiled and thought how much we liked the little kid parts of Oktoberfest …the dress up, the rides, the candy...and how we wished our kids could stay little forever...or at least remain indifferent to the more grown up parts of Oktoberfest for a good bit longer!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hut Hiking

Our favorite thing about Germany is the Alps. An hour drive from our house gets you into the Alps and some great hiking trails. But in all honesty, we have hiked the same two – though scenic-  trails over and over again for years. Thanks to an infusion of alpine advice, we’ve finally expanded. Adam has crossed over to boy scouts and to a whole new set of hikes and I’ve been included in a Scandinavian hiking club. I can keep up with them now but fear those days are numbered when the snow comes and they strap on skis. 
Recently, Adam and Phil hiked with the boy scouts up to a hut, spending the night and doing a “hut hike,” something Phil has long wanted our family to try. Basically, they walked a few hours  up to a hut, basically a small kitchen for day hikers on one floor and has a room for overnight hikers on another floor. The boy scouts arrived at the hut, hiked around it all day, then sleep over and hiked down. The boys described the sleeping conditions as two long mattresses put on a huge bunk bed. Apparently, 13 people sleep side by side on each mattress. Sounds fun but Phil has not rushed out to organize another hut hike for all of us!
Our typical hut hike is more of a lunch break. Most mountains here maintain a hut on the top serving a set menu of warm food and drink. Typically, a hiker can expect to get a large bowl of linderhof soup, lentil soup, with or with a sausage in it, some sort of fruit cobbler for dessert and of course a beer. The huts are typically family owned, with kids the same as our kids clearing the tables, carrying multiple large glass beer steins back to the kitchen. We recently sat at a picnic table in the sun, resting after a hard ascent and watching the crowd. We watched a baby stick first his finger in his Dad’s beer and then his whole fist, licking off the beer with increasing frequency. It’s a different drinking culture here and definitely one that includes a beer on the top of every summit.
Our most recent new hike was just south of Garmisch, very near the Linderhoff Castle. I thought to combine our hike with a visit to King Ludwig II’s castle, completed in 1886, but we got a late start and were pulling three somewhat reluctant kids along so decided to skip this.  We went straight to a high mountain trail to Purschling, one of many peaks in the area. Purschling is home to the lovely August Schuster Haus and after refueling with plenty of soup and cake we headed for the rocky summit of Teufelstattkopf, about 1700 meters high. The steep trail is all rocks and roots and an exposed walk along a ridge in many spots. Once we saw the summit and the rocky ascent with a wire rope affixed to the rock, the kids were rejuvenated.  We held the rope, some of us more tightly than others, and got up to the small cross on the very top. The walk down was straight down, tricky footing until we made the main trail again that lead to a high alpine meadow and the August Schuster Haus again. Earlier, there were many hikers but after the summit, we saw no one else. We reached the car park just as darkness fell. A solid six hour plus hike. 
We’re really loving our expansion into the Alps. Lots of smaller summits to try, not to mention the big one. Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. The kids want to hike it rather than take the cable car up but that will mean getting out of bed early on a Saturday. With our new teenage sleeping patterns, that remains on the wish list for now.