For our first full day in Berlin, we headed out to Potsdam to visit the famous palace of Sans Souci, which means “without worry” in French. Frederick the Great spent his summers there in the 18th century. The entire park houses several different palaces. Sans Souci was Frederick the Great’s favorite palace. It is actually not that big for a palace, with only about a dozen rooms. We took the train from Berlin out to the park. We arrived near the new palace, but had timed tickets for Sans Souci, which is on the other side of the park, so we had a pretty long walk to get there. Fortunately it wasn’t rainy.
After the tour of Sans Souci we had a little snack of leftover rolls from breakfast and some fruit, and then found a bus that took us back to the new palace for the tour there. We stopped at the museum shop there to get a cookbook that Meg liked, and then we got a tour of the new palace, which is much bigger than Sans Souci. Frederick the Great had it built to display the wealth and power of the kingdom of Prussia. Emperor Wilhelm the second spent much of the last several years of his reign during World War I here. One of the many interesting facts we learned was that Frederick the Great allowed common people to tour the palace even while he was in power, so long as they were dressed appropriately (which for women apparently meant wearing a dress 6 feet wide).
After the tours we had a tasty lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in Potsdam, then made a brief stop at the Nauener gate before heading back to our aparment in Berlin near the Brandenburg gate.
We had to change trains from the S-Bahn to the U-Bahn at Zoologischer Garten, and I managed to drag everyone to the Kaiser Wilhelm remembrance church, which, while only a few blocks away, seemed long for tired legs. I think it was worth it though, to see the contrast of one mostly-destroyed church from WWII, and the new church right next to it, which is bathed in blue light from the stained glass windows.
The swim club has an internal swim meet every December. In January they present the awards. Meg was really excited for it. Last year she got 3rd place, and this year 2nd. Her times were: 56.40 50m freestyle, 1:10.22 50m breast, and 1:09.84 50m backstroke. This was Spencer’s first year, and he didn’t make it into the top three, mostly because he was just getting over from a nasty cold, but he still got a medal. His times were 47.78s 50m freestyle, 1:06.72, 50m breast, and 1:05.13 50m backstroke. We are very proud of both of our swimmers!
We ended up being very busy in the Advent season with a number of activities for the kids, so we did not get to as many christmas markets as we had hoped. A colleague had mentioned to me that one of the several markets in Cologne remained open until January 6th, so we decided to check it out a few days after Christmas. Clare needed to get her screen replaced on her iPhone, so we used the Apple Store appointment as an excuse to get there (turns out it was only the screen protector that was cracked after all!). The kids had been asking to go ice skating in London, but we said no because it was super crowded. So this time we said yes. Clare was patient while the three of us went skating. It was certainly one of the most pleasant skating experiences of my life. With mulled wine and smoked meat wafting through the air, surrounded by pine trees, in the historic downtown of Cologne, with the cathedral in the distance. It was worth the price.
After seeing 2000 year old civilization in Italy in October, we decided to go back even further in time in December to visit experience the druidic magic of the sunrise during the winter solstice at Stone Henge. Clare found a tour which would take us from London to Stone Henge, where we would get to stand right in the middle of the rocks, a privilege only 1% of visitors to Stone Henge get. Usually you can only look at the stones from a path around the perimeter.
Before our adventure to Stone Henge started, we had a few adventures along the way. Clare had booked an apartment in London back in June, and shortly before the money was due for it, she had the feeling that it might be a scam, after reading a review that it was a fake address. So she ended up booking 2 rooms in a regular hotel instead. It started to seem more and more like National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We had also booked train travel from Aachen all the way to London, taking the Eurostar train from Brussels to London. But then we learned that the French train service was on strike, and there was a pretty good chance that our train from Aachen to Brussels might be cancelled. So at the very last minute we decided to drive to Brussels instead and park there. We ended up parking at the best parking garage ever – Park Indigo. Not only was it freshly painted and clean, but it had hanging foam dividers between each parking spot, and classical music playing. And it was only 15 Euro per day, half the rate of the parking at the train station, and only 3 blocks away.
We arrived safely on Saturday afternoon as planned, after a very enjoyable train ride. After checking in at the hotel, we went to the London Eye, the big ferris wheel by the Thames. Spencer didn’t want to go, so he and I went bowling while Meg and Clare went on it. Then we had some tasty Korean mexican fusion street food, headed back to the hotel, and called it a night. Sunday morning we woke up at 3 a.m., quickly got dressed, and headed out in a cab to the place where the bus was picking us up. We got on the bus right around 4 a.m. and arrived at Stone Henge around 7 a.m., where we had about a 20 minute walk to the stones. Meg was wearing her new scout jacket, which is waterproof and quite warm, and was eager to show us all how she is a better hiker than us, and kept walking ahead, in spite of my requests not to. When we got to the stones, the Druidic ceremonies were just about to start. I set my backpack down for a minute to pull out my camera, and then Meg was gone. A minute or two later Spencer and Clare came back to me, and we could not find Meg, but the ceremonies were starting, so we just walked towards the stones. Soon we were crowded in by hundreds of people, and there was no turning back. Meg ended up finding a security guard, and ended up watching most of the ceremony with them. After the ceremony was ever it didn’t take too long to find her, and she didn’t seem that worried about the whole thing. It seems she had even a better spot for viewing the ceremony than the rest of us. That is one independent girl!
After Stone Henge our tour bus continued on to Salisbury, which has one of the largest churches in England. Unfortunately we could not go into the church itself because they were having services, but we did get to tour the grounds a bit and we also got to see one of the original copies of the Magna Carta, which is also housed there. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the Magna Carta itself, but we do have a few pictures from inside the room.
This year we celebrated Thanksgiving ahead of time, on Sunday, since we don’t get Thursday off in Germany. Last year a half-American, half-German couple in Würselen were gracious enough to invite us to their house. This year we hosted. There were 10 of us total, so we added our patio table to the mix, and decided to put on some Oktoberfest tablecloth Clare had picked up for 10 cents. So, you can call it Novemberfest if you like 🙂
We spent most of the weekend preparing – shopping, cleaning, and cooking. I had ordered a turkey from the butcher about 3 weeks in advance. On Friday they called me to say that it was not available. Apparently the delivery company had just told them. They did have turkey breasts available, so I ordered one of those. Then on Saturday morning our friends called to say that they found frozen turkey at the grocery store. So we ended up getting both just in case. With a lukewarm water bath the frozen turkey thawed successfully, so we ended up having a ton of turkey. Clare made a fantastic turkey soup. We have been eating leftovers all week. Thursday we had a complete Thanksgiving meal a second time with all the leftovers.
Even though life in a foreign country continues to be tough some times, I am thankful we have had the opportunity. The week before thanksgiving we had parent teacher conferences, and both Spencer’s and Meg’s teachers all said that they are doing great, especially since they have only been speaking German for such a short time. We are really proud of both of them. Now it is time to celebrate Advent!
Several weeks ago some of the kids in Spencer’s soccer team went to play laser tag, and the kids (and I) got hooked. Today I finally bought a membership card so I can track my points between games. It is fairly exhilarating, and we all get very sweaty. It is also a good way to calm my mind, and focus on the present.
It turns out that the place in Würselen about 1 km away is one of the best around. Just another great reason to live in Würselen. In addition to a large area and several moving walls, they also have really cool art made from bicycle parts, like this alien figure.
While Clare were doing the wine tasting on Monday, we asked the honeymooning couple what their favorite thing was in Sorrento, and they said taking a boat tour of Capri. This hadn’t really been on our list before, but we decided to try it, and indeed it was one of the favorites of everyone. It was one of the most expensive things we did, but it was worth it. The boat ride was very relaxing. It left from the port just a 2 minute walk from our apartment, the guide was great, the weather was beautiful, and seeing the coast of Sorrento and of Capri up close from a small boat is surely the best way to enjoy its beauty. Capri itself was not that interesting to us. We enjoyed a nice pizza lunch near the harbor, searched for the funicular to the top of the island for 20 minutes, finally found it, and then just did some souvenir shopping.
One of the big highlights of the trip was definitely going to Pompeii and Vesuvius. After much research we decided to simply take the train, and then get a guide once we got to Pompeii. That turned out to work quite well. The part that was less than great was taking the public bus to Mount Vesuvius. On the way there, Meg had to sit on Clare’s lap, and I had to stand the whole way. On the way back, we actually missed the bus! There was one scary moment where we were worried we might be stranded on a volcano, but ended up getting a taxi and not having to pay a fortune. Vesuvius was not quite as cool as I thought it would be, but I think the kids really enjoyed seeing it, and putting together the two – without the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79 CE, Pompeii would not have been preserved like it is.