Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Some Denmark Stuff

I have been meaning to write about Denmark for a while now, mainly so that I don't forget what we saw and did there.
Buuuut, before I write about Denmark, I better mention how it was that we got there. We took an overnight train! FUN! For some reason, P and I were super excited about this part of the trip, and we really weren't disappointed. In fact, while on the train we learned that it was running several hours behind schedule and we literally cheered.
We've been hearing a lot of bad stories about high speed trains lately, but it is truly such a comfortable and civilized way to travel. We took along a little dinner, and watched the countryside roll by. Eventually we settled into our bunks (with their advertised "snug duvets"!) for a snooze, although that is where the train experience didn't shine quite as brightly, since no one in our group slept particularly well. No matter, the little breakfast in the little box to be eaten on the little table made up for it. Yes, it was a good old time.
So then we were in Denmark. We were staying in a suburban area of Copenhagen, which, because it is only suburban by European standards, was an easy 25 minute bike ride from downtown. It was a chill couple of weeks, full of rye bread themed picnics and hanging out with Gaby and Brian, who were the real reason we were there. We saw a bit of Copenhagen, and some of the surrounding countryside and nearby places.
Copenhagen itself was nice. Beautiful, walkable and highly bike-able. More so than the Netherlands I would say, which is funny since I would think that Denmark's Northern climate would preclude biking for large parts of the year. Unfortunately, it was also extremely expensive, but we found ways to make it work, mainly by not eating out (although I am filled with regret that I didn't get porridge at one of the porridge cafes!). There were ample opportunities for high quality picnics with amazing big city parks everywhere. We had beautiful weather when we were there, which was nice of course but also meant that I rarely pulled out the camera with all that bright sunlight.
And finally we said farewell to Scandanavia. I'll tell you about our vacation from our vacation in Germany another time. Until then!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

These guys....

At Assistens Cemetary, Copenhagen.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

And then it was over.

Here we are, back in Toronto again. Five countries in six weeks, and now, back to YYZ and loonies and the heterogeneous. Back to more excellent yoga places than I have time to sample, including this place just down the street which made (yoga-) news for its interesting positive space initiatives. Back to "healthy food", aka almond butter and sweet potatoes and kale, kale! Not together, but these were just some of the hard-to-find staples of our diet that we missed while away. Back to good coffee that doesn't cost $6 (I'm talking about you, Copenhagen).
Even after visiting all of the glamorous, beautiful, historic and functional European cities, Toronto is, well, still the one I love the most it seems. "The good thing," says Patrick (on missing Toronto), "is that the weather is always bad." But then later "there are a lot of bad things about Toronto, I just can't think of any."
I have a lot of photos to sift through, from Denmark and Germany. Right now, we're just enjoying the familiarity of home (or at least, one of our kind-of homes), plus we're living with a jet-lagged little boy. We slept in to the glorious hour of 5:30am this morning. More soon.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

France, avec bebe

During our week in Grenoble, Patrick was pretty busy with his conferencing, so Heiko and I had a lot of time to explore on our own. We had some quality time at the French playground, exploring several parks (though, the suitability of the non-playground parks for children was debatable, the ground seemed to be composed almost entirely of cigarette butts and broken glass), and wandering around the large pedestrianized centre of the city. I had a number of opportunities to observe French parenting in action, and some time to reflect on Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman's book on the key differences between American and French parenting philosophies, which I wrote about before.
Some of the anecdotes that she relays in the book were not really reflected in what I saw (that is the nature of anecdotes though, n'est ce pas?), and some were. For instance, though much used, the playground was not a site of much chumminess between parents, not even casual conversation. This was a bummer for Druckerman, who had hoped that having a baby in France would lead to new French BFFs and insider Paris tips. For me, I didn't much mind, since my French is in such a bad way, but it was noticeably different from the Fort Collins playgrounds we frequent. It was also awkward at times. For example, in a train station in France, Heiko caught the hand of a pretty little French girl who appeared to be about two. The thing that made it weird was that she was holding her dad's hand, and I was holding heiko's hand, which meant that we formed a strange hand-holding chain. The kids didn't seem to find it awkward, just holding on to each other in stony silence. But those moments of exploratory hand holding felt long to me as I tried and failed to catch the eye of the stranger at the other end of the chain.
Also true was that I didn't see anyone breastfeeding anywhere. Well, that isn't quite accurate. I sighed a little sigh of relief when I noticed a woman breastfeeding in the playground, but when I got close enough realized that she was English. So that may be a reflection of the low breast feeding rates in France (or at least short duration of breast feeding).
I will just take this topical opportunity to say how lucky and happy I feel to be nursing on this trip, however out of fashion it may be in France. Nursing is super effective at comforting and quieting Heiko during all of our train and plane travel, and settling in to all the new places we've been. It is also the most convenient and portable snack ever! And finally, 500 extra calories a day for a nursing mama? Pretty awesome given that I have been a baguette, croissant, wine, cheese, crepe, pannekoeken, and chocolate eating monster.
But back to France. One thing that was super annoying was that apparently the French don't believe in high chairs (these pictures were from the only place we did have a high chair - at the highly touristy Bastille restaurant. Note also the orangina in the lovely glass bottle). At one restaurant we were offered a car booster seat, which was humerously disfunctional, jetisoning poor Heiko out of the chair with the slightest movement. Have you ever tried to eat with a super squirmy one year old on your lap? As a result, Heiko's stroller was used as a crappy highchair stand-in, which means that now it is covered with the ghosts of many croissants and cheeses past. Quelle domage. The other thing is that most restaurants don't even begin thinking about serving dinner until 7pm (and still, it seems to be regarded as kind of tacky to eat dinner at that hour). So, the basic message seemed to be that eating out is not for small children. The few babies that I did see at restaurants seemed to be simply sitting around in their "push chairs", tolerating everything rather obediently, which was indeed Druckerman's observation too. I would describe Heiko as pretty good with restaurants, but the long and laid back French dining style was a challenge. No matter. We did lots of self-catering in our "aparthotel", and certainly high quality ingredients and delicious wine were easy to find.
Speaking of food, one of the other big points that Druckerman makes is the essential difference between eating philosophies of French and American parents. She claims that the French feed their babies and children exactly four times a day. This is true of both breastfed and food-eating children. I think it was something like 8am, 12pm, 4pm (gouter - snack), and 8pm. In contrast she claims that American parents can be seen offering snacks at all times, whether it is the squeezie pack of fruit at the park or breast milk on demand, etc. This bit is definitely true - I have been encouraged by our doctor to feed Heiko "a lot a lot", and that beloved Dr. Sears, father of attachment parenting, strongly recommends allowing children to graze on food throughout the day. He actually sells a glorified ice cube tray called the "nibble tray". Well, we don't have a nibble tray, but I do try to offer snacks to Heiko, and even now we still BF on demand. I suppose Druckerman's point was that food is used to placate North American children, while food is viewed differently and not used as comfort in France. It all sounds very civilized of course, but at its core is a kind of disciplinary philosophy that I'm just not on board with. Plus, I can get the between-meals-hangries with the best of them, so it is beneficial for everyone if the snacks are abundant.
But anyway, my long winded point is just that I saw snacking! In France! Land of no snacks! I saw squeezies in the playground! So there we go. Disputing anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence.
And with that, I should cut this off. France was fun. It made me feel a tiny bit inadequate as a parent and as a person, since the French are just kind of a superior people. But it was fun to take in all that civilized ambiance, and to realize that I'm pretty comfortable with the choices we've made about bringing up Heiko, no matter how un-French they may be.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

French walks

We had a bit of free time as a family in Grenoble, so we got to do some "hiking"/ walking. I'm never really sure where the boundary between hiking and walking is, but no matter.
We went up to the Bastille, which sits on top of a large hill overlooking the city (476m). The entire hillside is terraced and there are a multitude of winding pathways, dark stairwells and switchback roads all leading directly up. Most people take the funicular, but we strapped H into the front pack and headed up. We were rewarded with lots of terrific views along the way, despite the overcast skies. In fact I liked the hike so much that I powered up with Heiko again the next day. That time we "bubbled" down... Which was slightly terrifying but also fun.
We also stopped in at the local hiking information office, where we had a funny interaction with the clerk.
- "Do you have any suggestions for easy hikes with a child?"
- "Yes, a lot".
Full stop.
Eventually we did get some more helpful details from this guy, so on Saturday we assembled some ginormous baguette sandwiches and set off. Following his recommendations, we ended up hiking some trails on a low hill just outside the city. At first when we entered the forest, the deep shade under the tall and thick forest canopy was a relief after the exposed roads of the nearby village. Birds sang cheerfully overhead. As we went on, the trail seemed to cut deeper into the forest floor, sometimes becoming quite muddy, and was pocked with large slippery rocks. As it was primarily a horse trail, we were dodging piles of shit, and flies buzzed consistently around our ankles. At some point, the birdsong seemed to become more shrill, constant and ominous, and we encountered only one or two other hikers. With Heiko asleep in the carrier, we fell into a quiet and steady trudge through the dark forest. Although neither Patrick nor I said anything to each other at the time, we much later discovered that we were both thinking about the war. Sometimes visiting countries like France it can be hard to reconcile the knowledge I have of the wars with the present day vacation experience of cities and civilization. Being in the dark forest, even on that hot summer day, I could begin to visualize some hint of the country's challenging past. Needless to say, I didn't take any photos of that part.
But enough of all that! We eventually came to the edge of the forest and entered into a picturesque open area (see above). We found a picnic spot and revived ourselves with our sandwiches and a mini bottle of wine. Yeah, this is French style hiking people. Side note: the almost overbearing smell of ripe cheese, cantaloupe melon, saucisson sec and basil is such a powerful smell memory from childhood trips to France.
Cue bad parenting moment:
We took a different lighter and brighter route back to the tram, so we were left with only happy thoughts of our hike outside grenoble.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Getting "Madame"-ed

We said a somewhat sad farewell to Utrecht, and a day of train travel later we arrived in hot and dusty Grenoble, France. It was quite a shock after the cool (cold, even) wet weather we had in clean and efficient Holland to suddenly find ourselves in the fend-for-yourself chaos of French train stations. Stroller? Luggage? Baby? Enjoy these stairs! The ascenseur is broken/nonexistent, fools. This is what my bag is full of these days, by the way:
But we made it, eventually. In fact we had scheduled an extra long layover in Paris, so we ditched our luggage in the train station and took a walk over to the Jardin des Plantes, for some much needed green space time and a crepe. Heiko's first crepe, in fact.
After that, Heiko found a hollow stump and sat in it. This entertained him for quite some time, not to mention the many many passers by. The whole Paris stop was a nice if short reminder of why people think that city is romantic. It is grimy and frustrating, but also beautiful and charming. Ah, Paris.
Anyway, we headed south west to Grenoble, nestled in the alps. From there we embarked on a week of speaking French embarrassingly poorly, baguette and croissant eating, and wine drinking (hardly a new feature of the trip really, although we really got into the Cotes du Rhones wines there).
One feature of this stay in France, and to explain the perhaps misleading title of this post, is that unlike previous visits, this time I was solidly in the "Madame" camp. In other words, I was not, not even once, called "mademoiselle" (can you tell it breaks my heart a little?). And I know, by all accounts I am definitely, very properly "Madame". Almost a decade over the 25 cut off for the younger woman's term, I'm also married, a mother, and not to mention that apparently the French have officially done away with the totally sexist mademoiselle delimiter anyway. But still. Still. C'mon. Couldn't someone, somewhere, have called me mademoiselle, even just one time? No, the answer was no.
My own vanity aside, it was a fun week, which i'll write more about soon.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ah, Amsterdam

From Utrecht we took a day trip to Amsterdam, to go to the Rijksmuseum and to revisit some of our favourite sites from a trip we took there a few years back. Of course this gave me lots of opportunities to reflect on the difference between traveling before baby and with baby.
There was of course the Rijksmuseum debacle. If there is any question about whether Heiko is laughing or crying in this picture, make no mistake. He hates it. But truthfully, I didn't like it much more than he did. This is Rembrandt's famous Night Watch painting, which is really big. Big as in large. That is probably the most intelligent thing I can say about it at this point. With all the crowds and the crying and so on, I didn't get a chance to look at the interpretive panel, and everything I ever learned/knew about art seems to have vaporized in the last decade.
One thing that is funny is that everyone takes pictures of these famous paintings. I did it too! By what does it mean, to have a photograph of a famous work? Clearly the reproductions in books or on posters would be far better than anything you can take yourself in the gallery, but I guess it isn't about that. I guess it is about having proof that you were there, standing before that vision of artistic mastery. I also stood before this garbage can in the museum. Isn't the light pretty?
The museum has actually just reopened after many years of closure due to restoration. It is pretty nice, but really I didn't see too much of it. Patrick kindly whisked Heiko off to the Vondelpark while I extended my visit by half an hour, but my focus just wasn't there. I'll try again another year, with an older Heiko perhaps.
We also did other Amsterdam stuff, like walking beside the lovely canals, eating French fries with mayonnaise from a big paper cone (Heiko slept through that part, poor boy), admiring the bicycle parking infrastructure (must be seen to be believed) and checking out some of the little shops selling all the handsome European goods. We searched for and found a cafe that we had stumbled upon several years back, and where I had enjoyed an amazing tuna sandwich. So I enjoyed another amazing tuna sandwich, and the experience was only brought down a little by the waitress who gave us a bit of attitude for bringing Heiko along.

Speaking of Heiko, I would say he had a pretty good day, once he got his Vondelpark/french-fries-missing nap in. He found a rock on the ground which he carried all the way home to Utrecht, after touching it to all the parked bikes in Amsterdam. And that kind of summarizes his approach to travel I would say. On the one hand, he finds everything interesting. On the other hand, I'm not sure he really knows that his rock is from Amsterdam.

By late afternoon, we were a little overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists, and the task of keeping Heiko from jumping into traffic or into the canals. Plus, cobblestone sidewalks were just not meant for strollers (even empty ones). So eventually we found our way over to the Jordaan Neighbourhood, which, while very close to the centrum, is also much more residential. We saw kids playing outside, and people returning from work. We looked at all the lovely apartments and considered what life would be like as an Amsterdam family. We paused for pictures by quieter canals. All this solidified my travel interest in everyday life. (However I should mention that the Jordaan is also a pretty upscale neighbourhood, so we weren't necessarily observing average everyday life). I love the quieter streets, and by far my favourite touristic destination is the grocery store. Maybe it is just a ridiculous and impossible quest for an "authentic" travel experience, and the grocery store would also become just as touristified if enough people were interested. In any case, we did finish our trip to Amsterdam with a stop in the grocery store, picking up some smoked herring and a few other dinner essentials.
As a final side note, I had to laugh at a question we got from our Dutch house exchange partners (we are staying in their house in the Netherlands while they are in ours in Colorado). They were asking about going from Fort Collins to Denver, and whether it would be too busy to drive and therefore should they take public transit? Ha! These poor Europeans. They don't understand the poverty of the train and public transit network in North America, and the states in particular. Truly, there is no way to get from Fort Collins to Denver that is in any way convenient. It would almost be funny how shitty it is, except that it isn't. Meanwhile, we enjoyed using our chip cards on the buses in Utrecht, the high speed rail connection to Amsterdam (less than half an hour), and finally the tram in Amsterdam. What a system.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Nethies

(First - I'm so behind! Will aim for shorter and more frequent posts)
And then we arrived in the Netherlands, country of bikes and canals and excellent cheese. Also rain and an autumnal chill in the air. Having foolishly ditched my wool sweater in the arctic, I had to buy a jacket here to try to keep a little cozier. Plus we got Heiko his first pair of rubber soled big boy shoes (see below for the cuteness. The ridiculously expensive will-fit-for-three-months cuteness).

We are staying in Utrecht, in a proper Dutch house complete with rickety steep staircases, unheated bathrooms, clothes that stay damp after the wash for days and days, euro-sized kitchen components, and about a million kids toys. Heiko is basically in heaven, especially when the Legos come out. We are all in heaven, actually.

(Stroopwafel, store brand wine, Miffy book + Amsterdam map)
Traveling with a child is different from traveling without one, obviously. Going out for meals can be a juggling act, and I'm finding that I frequently don't have a free hand to take photos. Nap times must be respected, and you should not, say, begin your visit to the Rijksmuseum exactly when your child wants to nap (oopsie!). However, one thing I have been appreciating about Dutch culture is that they really love children. Many of the restaurants we have been visiting have kids play rooms, or other special fun things for children (though the kids menus mostly consist of things like pancakes with chocolate sprinkles ("hagel slag")). Plus lots of people like to talk to Heiko in various languages, which is cute. We are also becoming connoisseurs of European playgrounds, which are way more dangerous and fun than North American ones.
Speaking of dangerous and fun, safety is something I find so interesting here. The culture in North America and especially in the states is to blame others for bad things happening. Here I feel that people are much more willing to take responsibility for the risks that they take. For example people bike around with their children in all manners of ways. I have seen numerous women here biking with their sometimes very very new little babies strapped to their bodies. As they get older, the little ones move to the front of the bike, which is so sweet. Sometimes there is even a little windscreen for them. When they get a little bigger still the options multiply. They are in a seat on the back, a box on the front, or perched in precarious looking ways anywhere on the bike really. The variations are endless. But the point of it all is that I don't think anyone is about to sue Baby Bjorn because they biked around with their kiddo in the front pack and something tragic happened.
At the same time, I feel like nothing makes you worry about possible safety hazards like having a child in North America. At every turn there is a warning, precaution, horror story or what-if. And so, we haven't been biking around here quite as much as we might have liked, and we opted to use the backseat on the bike, as opposed to a very dubiously attached front seat, though the bike owner insisted it would be fine. Still, we've been having a blast whizzing around the scenic Dutch countryside. Watching the curls on Heiko's unhelmeted head dance in the breeze, as he laughs and points at cows from the back of his dad's bike is a vision I will cherish forever and ever.