Oche Alaaf!

Today was the big parade in Aachen. We learned our lesson from yesterday’s parade in Würselen that it might take awhile for the parade to get to the center of town. Clare did some research on the parade route, and it kicked off near the East cemetery at 11:11, so we figured if we got downtown near Elisenbrunnen around noon that should be okay. We got on the bus around 11:30, and it was already very full when we got on. We managed to squeeze a few more people in along the way, but not many. We got to the central bus station a little after noon, and the parade still hadn’t gotten that far yet.

While the floats mostly hand out candy, some also handed out other stuff like coupons, small bottles of liquor, or perfume and cologne samples. Spencer got a Puma cologne sample and liked it so much that he wanted to go to the drug store today to buy some. We decided to do that while waiting for the parade. It turns out they were closed for Karneval. Then it started to rain, so we ended up going to the Curry Palast for some lunch. By the time we were finishing lunch, the parade was finally getting to us, and the rain was letting up. So we were able to enjoy the parade for an hour or two. We got back on the bus around 2:30, which was not nearly as crowded as on the way there.

At dinner I asked the kids what they liked better – Halloween or Karneval – both said Karneval – lasts longer, more candy. I think you can consider us all Karneval Jecken now.

Würselen Alaaf!

Karneval is a big deal in the Rhine region around Aachen. We have been looking forward to it for quite some time, peppering co-workers with all sorts of questions about what kind of costumes to wear, where are the best parades etc. It turns out that most of the people we asked actually don’t like Karneval much. Many people described it just as drunken debauchery. Nevertheless, we decided to try it out for ourselves.

Thursday is known as Fat Thursday, which means eating lots of Berliner – jelly filled doughnuts. At 11:11 at my workplace there was a whole buffet of them. The kids got out of school at 11:11 after a bunch of partying at school, with no homework for the break. At 11:11 the women of the town typically take over the city hall. There is also a tradition of the women cutting off the ties of the men. Meg made me a paper tie just for the occasion. Interestingly enough, no one at work cut off my tie, so Clare did that evening.

Friday we took a day off from Karneval. Saturday we went to the Neanderthal museum which is near Düsseldorf. We enjoyed learning about our closely related ancestors near where their fossils were first discovered. Afterwards we went to Düsseldorf to check out the Karneval scene there and get some Asian food (Düsseldorf has a large Asian population). We enjoyed seeing all the different costumes. We did see some drunken unruliness, but not too much.

Sunday we went to the parade in Würselen. It’s nice that we can just walk there. The parade started at 12:30, but we met some friends and neighbors near the end of the parade, so it didn’t actually reach there until almost 2 p.m. There were quite a few nice floats pulled by large tractors, lots of candy, and several bands. It was very nice.

Oh, and “alaaf” is what you say around Karneval time. It is sort of a greeting, plus also just a fun thing to say when you are at the parade and want to get some candy hurled to you. That is, unless you’re from Düsseldorf, where they say “helau”. And of course Düsseldorf and Köln are rivals, so you shouldn’t say “helau” in Köln, or “alaaf” in Düsseldorf. One of our neighbors had constructed a little mobile party wagon, with a place for several cases of beer, a built-in bottle opener, and a boombox for playing party music. And it also had a sticker with “helau” crossed out on it.

Happy St. Martin’s day

November 11th was St. Martin’s day, which is celebrated in the more Catholic regions of Germany, which includes Aachen. Since it is not celebrated at all in the USA, I had to learn all about it. St. Martin lived in the 4th century, and was a soldier in the Roman army. Legend has it that one day he was riding back to camp and there was a freezing homeless man on the road. He ripped his warm coat in half and gave half to the stranger. Later in his life he became a monk, and eventually a bishop. He did not want to become a bishop, but the townspeople really wanted him to. They were all encouraging him to, so he ran away and hid in a barn. The townspeople went out at night with lanterns looking for him, and eventually a goose honked, which gave away his position. He finally decided that he would be a bishop if the people really wanted him to. That’s how the traditions around St. Martin’s day started. You eat goose, and the kids make lanterns and make a parade. Oh, and they also have tasty sweet breads in the shape of St. Martin, which are called Weckmänner (around this region). Elsewhere in the German speaking areas they are known by a variety of different names such as Stutenkerl, Klaaskerl, or Krampus, and are actually usually eaten on St. Nicholas day instead of St. Martin’s day.

On Sunday I made a goose breast with potato dumplings and red cabbage. It turned out okay, though I think it was supposed to be crispier.

On Monday evening, the kids school organized the parade, which ended with a big bonfire – the biggest our kids had ever experienced, since big bonfires are a no-no in dry Colorado.

Madrid – last day

Meg and Rob with the Palacio Real de Madrid in the background
Meg and Rob with the Palacio Real de Madrid in the background

For our last day in Madrid, we mostly took it easy again. We walked to the royal palace and to the egyptian temple which was moved in the 1960s from Egypt because it would have been flooded with the creation of a dam. Both were a fairly short walk from our apartment. The kids really enjoyed the labyrinth-style gardens near the royal palace. After a couple hours we went back to the apartment and relaxed. This turned out to be good timing because it started to rain a bit. We did go out again to get some churros and hot chocolate, which was delicious. Clare and I had another date night, in which we simply walked around the plaza mayor and finished the last of the Lagavulin scotch we had bought at a great price in Andorra. I definitely did not want any of that to go to waste.

In the morning we packed up and started the long journey back to Aachen. Our plane was delayed by an hour or so because of plane traffic crossing the Pyrenees, so by the time we got home it was after 8 p.m. I made a quick pasta dinner while Clare went shopping, since the grocery stores are closed on Sundays in Germany. We were all happy to be home (although I was missing the Spanish weather).

Madrid – Puerta del Sol et alia

Spencer by statue at Puerta del Sol

Since we had all gone to bed quite late on Tuesday, we slept in and took it easy Wednesday morning. Eventually we decided to get out of the house to explore a bit, and decided to split up. The girls went to get their nails done, as a special treat to Meg, since Spencer had a treat by going to the soccer game. Spencer and I decided to head to Puerta del Sol, which Clare described as a sort of Times Square, and was only a short walk. To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by Puerta del Sol, though we went back a different day at night, and it was much more lively. We did see a couple street performers – a Mario and Luigi. They were very impressed with my moustache and wanted a picture with me. Well, rather, they wanted me to give them some money to take a picture with them, which I did. I usually give something to the street performers, especially the musicians, because I find live music pleasing. I keep thinking that Spencer and I should start busking in Olde Town Arvada – he can play saxophone and I can play pandeiro. We could specialize in jazz bossa novas and sambas. We’ll see if that ever happens. I had promised Spencer that Puerta del Sol might have some kiosks which sold Champions League trading cards, and sure enough they did. So we got some trading cards, and some post cards. Some of the post card images were also not that far, so we decided to continue walking on a bit to find them. We walked by the National Bank of Spain, the Palacio de Cibales, and the Puerta de Alcala. We failed to find a restaurant to both of our likings, so we ended up just going back to the apartment for lunch. There was an interesting part where a circuit tripped and we couldn’t find the circuit breaker, but eventually I called the AirBnB host and figured it out. After lunch we played some cards, and Spencer learned how to do the bridge! (shuffling cards)

While we were seeing big buildings, Clare and Meg were getting their nails done, browsing souvenir shops and getting churros. They had some good finds at the souvenir shops. Meg mostly bought souvenirs to give to others, some for Christmas. She is very generous.


Rob and Meg on the tobotronc roller coaster

One of the things I had read about in Andorra was Naturlandia – a kind of amusement park, which boasts the longest nature slide in the world, go-karts, zipline, and archery, among other things. The kids were very excited to do archery. Clare was not too excited about most of this, so we decided to split up on Sunday – the kids and I drove for 45 minutes (with approximately 6 wrong turns) to Naturlandia, while Clare relaxed and did some hiking near our apartment in Soldeu. We arrived at the park around 10:30, and it was nearly empty, because it was shoulder season. It turns out that the archery was closed, but the kids wanted to stay anyways. We ended up being one of the last people to leave at 6 p.m. The kids were really great about taking turns, since I had to go 1-1 with them on many of the attractions. Spencer really enjoyed these mini jeep go karts they had, which they called buggys. He must have ridden those about a dozen times. Meg wanted to do the Airtrekk and Zipline, which we did early in the day. I was terrified at first, but was brave, mostly because Meg was braver than I. After I got used to it, I was okay, and had a good time. Spencer didn’t want to do it at first, but after I told him my story about skydiving, he decided to give it a try. He did great, and we ended up doing it 4 or 5 times total.

continue reading for more exciting times and pictures


Welcome to Andorra!
Welcome to Andorra!

Friday morning we awoke, with the plan of leaving Barcelona and heading to Valencia. We were just about packed and ready to go when Clare got a message from the AirBnB host that there was a big storm in Valencia, and that the restaurant where we were supposed to pick up the keys was probably going to close, but that we could still get the keys some other way. We decided to do a bit more investigation. I contacted one of my work colleagues in Valencia, and he said that they had closed schools and it was pretty bad. The weather forecast was calling for rain all weekend. We decided to look into other options. But first we had to leave the hotel. We took the Metro to the main train station, and used the WiFi there to do a bit more investigating. We ultimately decided to travel away from the storm – to Andorra, for three nights, then one night in Zaragosa, and then on to Madrid. Luckily we had rented a car to travel to Valencia, because we had been unable to find any train connections. Since we had booked directly with Hertz, we were able to change the destination from Valencia to Madrid, and we also paid an extra 8 Euro per day for an upgrade to an Audi A4, which was really nice driving in the mountains.

In case you don’t know, Andorra is a tiny principat in the mountains between France and Spain, and is actually ruled jointly by Spain and France. The only official language is Catalan, though most signs also have Spanish, French, and many English. It relies heavily on tourism, particularly skiing. October is definitely an off season, so we were able to get a 2 bedroom apartment with a beautiful view for three nights for only €280. It took quite awhile to figure out exactly where we were going to stay and get the car, so by the time we arrived in Andorra it was starting to get dark. When we found the apartment, which had seemed like a regular hotel when we booked it, I found that the reception had already closed – it was only open from 2-6 p.m. I tried calling the number by the door to no avail, and we started to get worried about whether we were going to be able to find a place to sleep. We all got back in the car and started to drive towards France, where we could use our cell phones (our cell phone plans here don’t charge extra for pretty much any country in the EU except for Andorra). I decided to turn around and check at a different hotel which we had passed, where I could see that the reception was open. I inquired about a room there, which was going to be over €500. I then asked if the person could help me contact the hotel we had booked, and he was very nice to help me, and we were able to get in.

I actually knew very little about Andorra before we decided to go there, other than having read a play titled Andorra by Max Frisch, which I had always enjoyed. It turns out it is a bit more populated than I had expected – about 70,000 people – though who knows how many people are there on a ski weekend – it has a lot of hotels. On the drive through Spain to Andorra I mixed my time between helping Clare with directions, taking pictures, and reading up on Andorra. I learned that there is a gigantic thermal bath there, and also a nature / amusement park. On Saturday we ended up going to the thermal bath, and it was indeed very cool. They had many different pools of various sizes and temperatures – mostly inside, and some outside. They also had several cold pools. Meg was impressively good at staying in the cold pools. I don’t know how she did it. There was one section built like a Roman bath, and the instructions were to stay in the 36°C pool for 3 minutes, then the 14°C degree pool for 3 minutes, then relax on the stone benches for 10 minutes. I didn’t last more than 30 seconds in the cold pool, but Meg probably lasted more than 5 minutes.

After the thermal baths we went into town to find some lunch. We ended up at a place called Big Ben, which was quite tasty. Spencer had a hamburger, as usual, and the rest of us had the menu with various different dishes. Clare had snails for her first course, which she said were really tasty, and the rest of us tried to not look while she was eating them. By the time we got back to our apartment it was after 7 p.m. We had some snacks and watched some Modern Family, then went to bed.

Happy mother’s day Clare

breakfast in bed for Mom
breakfast in bed for Mom

Meg recently read a Berenstain’s Bears book about Mother’s Day, which included making breakfast in bed of blueberry french toast for Mama Bear. She wanted to replicate it for Clare. We woke up around 7 yesterday and got to work. Meg did a wonderful job cracking 4 eggs without getting any shell in. Spencer helped a bit mixing it up, and cutting up some strawberries. Meg cut some tulips from our garden. Clare doesn’t actually like eating breakfast in bed, so we actually ate in the dining room altogether.

After church, we had Grandma Ellen and Great-grandma Dorothy over for Steak and Shrimp. It was a very nice mother’s day.

Noshing nieces and nephews in New York

After we had some great fun in Philadelphia we headed up to Clinton, New York to visit the Dibbles. We had a really nice time. Highlights included visiting the Rich Dibble farm, meeting the newest addition Rosemary, hiking around Hamilton college, some great New York pizza, incredible food for Thanksgiving dinner, and a very relaxed, mostly unplugged time. Keep reading for about 80 magnificent pictures.
p.s. The above group picture was the only one which didn’t have a kid sticking out their tongue! It looks like Spencer is giving us the bird, but I think that is unintentional. Unfortunately Abe had to leave to tend to a cow before we took the picture.