Monday, April 27, 2009

Dandelion time

Every Prague park hosts dandelions this time of year. They seem to grow taller here than in the States, with flower heads that stretch halfway across my hand. Caroline has a hard time resisting picking them. She tells us that "every childrens like dandelions" so she must too.

This weekend, I took a few apart to show her their seed filaments (still unaired) and the sticky milk from their stems. In this picture, she's trying to set sail a few petals before they separate from the seed.

In other news - C and I decided* that we'd send out postcards to everyone who commented on Heidi's house. Not everyone gets a Heidi postcard from Heididorf, but everyone gets a Heidi postcard. So now all I need are addresses. You can email me from my profile page.

*I'm a softie, and found that I couldn't, after all, bring myself to draw names.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Heidi's Home

Have you read the children's book Heidi? When we were little, I read Heidi every fall for a few years, curling up with the book and a bowl of crackers and cheese to tide me over the first delicious chapter. I loved how different her life on the mountain was from our low country marsh and water world, and I'd get sniffily every time I read about her trip to Frankfurt and how she longed for her home and for her grandfather and friends. Thanks to log cabin replicas, I thought I had a good idea about the mountain hut she lived in, but I grew up wondering what her alp and the view from her window might really look like.

My sister moved to Switzerland ten years ago, and since then we've spent many of our holidays there, exploring Zurich and the mountains nearby. But I'd never been to Heidiland, so on the last day of our Easter trip we decided to go visit the mountains where Johanna Spyri gave Heidi a home. Caroline is just the right age for an introduction, and it would give us a chance for one last walk before we headed back to Prague.

Heidi's alp is south-east of Zurich, very close to the border of Lichtenstein and not far from the most western tip of Austria. The mountains here are toothy and steep, and jut up from the river and the valley with no knee-high hills to soften their edges. We drove off the highway from Chur, and in less than five minutes were heading directly up hill through Maienfeld and then past orchards and up to the Dorfli, the small hamlet where Heidi's Aunt Deet and mother were sprung from.

Dorfli, renamed Heididorf, is now a collection of mountain houses with nice cars in the driveway and beautiful, postage stamp gardens. Behind the houses, heading up the slope yet again, stands a small museum, a goat pasture and a house modeled after Heidi's grandfather's hut. Caroline was enraptured with the hut, and she went searching about the rooms to find a few of the grandfather's three legged stools, to climb up the ladder into Heidi's bedroom and best of all, to sit on Heidi's bed and feel the hay mattress.

When we left the hut, we visited the goats, who were having a slow day napping in their shed. They perked up when they saw visitors with goat feed and one handily jumped the fence to beg for his share. He ate the bag too, in a last moment spurt of gluttony. Then it was time to head back to our cars and wend our way to the highway (this time through back roads that took us through more orchards, a Swiss military encampment and many small, nearly empty, villages.) As we drove, I read Caroline the first few chapters of Heidi. We have been reading Heidi every night since.

Our copy is a new edition we picked up at the museum for Caroline. While we were there I also bought some postcards of Heidi illustrations. When Will asked me who they were for, I said, for Kolo readers of course!! So if you've followed me this far down the page, and would like a postcard of a Heidi scene, I have three to mail away. I'll do a random pick on Friday, just leave a comment, and let me know your email address if I don't have it already.

Photo by Julia@kolo. Illustrations by Maria Kirk, from The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Heidi.

Monday, April 20, 2009

View over Lake Lucerne

[1.] Fountain in front of the Grand Hotel, currently closed for renovation. [2.] View over Lake Lucerne. [3. and center] Caroline on the ferry. [4.] Wild flowers and tree on top of Bürgenstock. [5.] Tavern characters welcome guests for lunch. [6.] Adams family warning sign, very high up indeed.

What is more Swiss than an alp or a lake? Easter Monday we decided to visit both, and faithfully followed our brother-in-law, Micha, along two-lane roads that went up and up in dizzying curves and swoops until we stopped, in the middle of a field, across from a lone fire station.

A terrible back seat passenger, I stumbled to the grassy bank by the parking lot, declared that we'd landed in paradise, what a nice field, and was it true we didn't have to drive anywhere ever again? Caroline and her cousin Julian started to collect buttercups, and the baby met grass and decided the spikey stuff just wasn't for him.

I could have stayed there all day (I was sure we could find bottled water, if not the fire station did have hydrants nearby) but just as we were starting to hook daisies into chains and discuss snack options, Micha looked up from the map he'd been pouring over since we arrived and called his troops to order. Time to march!

We started our hike in the Obbürgen valley.* It wasn't, at first, the most scenic of routes, though we did pass a long barn filled with whispering cows and a radio turned to country music. But it was stroller friendly and snow free, and after pushing the stroller, carrying the baby, and cajoling Caroline up the mountain (in turns), we felt we'd earned our lunch. The view from the top of Bürgenstock is gorgeous too - Lake Lucerne stretches out far below, the hotels that line the ridge are Magic Mountain worthy, and you can see alps nearly to Austria.

After lunch at a ridge top tavern, we hiked down a path steeper than our route up. The guys carried the stroller over the bumps and my sister and I swung Caroline between us and reminded her of the ice cream just a few kilometers away. We found her cornet at a ferry stop on the south side of the lake, and she nibbled it up while we waited for our boat (and drank martinis, yum). The ride across the lake was short but wonderful, and on the way back to my sister's house I dreamed of houseboats on the lake, and hikes in high summer. Switzerland in August, here we come!

* You can also reach the top of Bürgenstock by funicular. Built in 1888, the Bürgenstock Bahn is the oldest electrical funicular in Switzerland.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Zurich in the spring

A week ago, we drove from Prague to Switzerland to spend Easter with my sister and her family. They live just outside Zürich in a little town on the lake, but every time we visit, my sister and I try to plan a morning in the city.

Switzerland is rightfully known for its trains and public transportation, and on our trip downtown, I wound up taking plenty of pictures of the train stations we passed through. Probably the most iconic image from that morning shows [1.] our platform's clock five minutes before the S-bahn arrived.

[2.] The children didn't go with us, but James saw us off. He was aptly (and accidentally) dressed in his choo choo train overalls. Keeping with our theme, the children played trains all weekend.

[3.] The train station in my sister's town is just by the lake, beside a villa that has been turned into the town hall. The town has set up a parade of sculptures for visitors passing by.

[4. & Center] After making the requisite visits to book and toy stores, we stopped by Jelmoli, one of Zürich's biggest department stores, just before we headed home. We visited nearly every floor to cross off the last of our list - yogurt glasses, an Easter dress, straw for baskets, and coffee pastilles (a jelly bean alternative). Our last escalator ride took us to the basement where we ate Asian food at stand up counters before heading to the train station.

[5.] Electrical wires for trains in Switzerland all seem to be above ground, most likely to avoid the dangers of on the ground electrical lines.

[6.] Waiting for the train home, we people watched and I snapped the last of my station pictures.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Imagine, this is not here - Prague's John Lennon Wall

We're still settling down from the excitement of Sunday, with occasional lapses back to bubbly when a new story pops, or another cool photo gets unearthed. One of our friends who talked to both the Obamas had a story posted on (a fun fashion blog I'm partial to. Go, check it out!), and yesterday we were the lucky recipients of a picture of Caroline waving at President Obama as he shook hands after the speech. I'll post that picture as soon as I get permission from the photographer.

But April weekends aren't just about Presidential drop-ins. No, this last weekend we also celebrated from afar the birthday of Will's sister, Meg. We had just mailed her one of our favorite illustrated books - The Wall: Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sis - and I wanted to make sure I had the latest view of the book's main character. So Saturday we took a tram to just below the castle stairs and wandered through the little alleys connecting the mainland to Kampa Island until we found just the street we wanted.

John Lennon wall, Kampa, Prague 
Running along Velkopřevorské náměstí, not far from the Charles Bridge, this is the wall where Czech kids and the communist regime of the late 1980s clashed over graffiti and freedom of expression, just before another wall fell. Its name, the John Lennon Wall, comes from the tradition of having a portrait of Lennon, lyrics from his songs, or as you see above, a peace sign with Imagine painted into it. Today anyone can write on the wall, it isn't illegal, and when tourists come to visit they often do.

These pictures are for Meg, to show her what that wall looked like last Saturday, and to show you the most famous Czech graffiti spot of them all. Happy Birthday Meg!!

Monday, April 06, 2009

What a day!

1. Sunday, we woke early and by 7 or so were squeezing on to a tram headed to the castle. It was a very crowded tram, and also a very quiet one.
2. We were so early the security gate we came through was nearly empty - a nice surprise.
3. C was in a great mood! Apparently early mornings agree with her ;-).
4. The morning haze over Prague never quite lifted throughout the speech.
5. Our tickets placed us right next to the Czech government stage. They arrived a lot later than we did. The police were out in full force, both on the ground and...
6. ...perched on the surrounding palace roofs.
7. One of C's friends from choir found us a few hours into our wait, C was ecstatic. If you watch C-Span, we've heard that both C and her friend appeared on TV.
8. The club wielding Titan guarding the castle's gates looked like it was about to take a swing at the press club. They seemed unfazed.
9. President Obama, gesturing during his speech. It was remarkable. A transcript is here, but listening to it live and feeling the excitement all around us made it seem even more powerful.
10. Unlike the audience, the current Czech government did not react with a great deal of enthusiasm to his speech. Central here are the ex-Prime Minister Toplanek and the President, Vaclav Klaus.
11. Caroline, listening to the speech. When President Obama declared that when he was born, few people would have predicted that someone like him would one day become the President of the U.S., Caroline called out from her perch on Will's shoulders - "We did that!!"
12. Michelle Obama joined the President as he finished the speech, and they walked hand in hand down to greet the crowds. Caroline's "Hello Mr. President!" got a wave.

An amazing day.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

President Obama's Prague Speech Spot

...or, the Prague square soon to be seen round the world

This weekend, President Obama is stopping off in Prague to deliver his only public speech during his current European visit. His trip is a big deal for the Czech Republic, and already you can hear the helicopters making their practice swoops over our roofs. The U.S. embassy has cranked out its warden messages, Facebook notes, and website notices to the thousands of people who want to come to see him speak, and anyone living along the main road from the airport to downtown knows that they have to keep their windows closed, and cars should probably avoid the avenue altogether.

But if you are a resident of a country that does not sing "Kde domov můj?" at its hockey games, or drink pilsner as if it were the local ice tea, you may be wondering where exactly the President's people have chosen to have him speak, and perhaps, why?

Sunday, April 5th, at 10:00 a.m. President Obama will speak at the castle end of Hradčanské náměstí, or Hradčany Square. Pronounced h-rad-chan-skeh nam-yes-tee, Hradčanské náměstí is a long, narrow square just beyond the Prague Castle's main gates. It isn't by any means the largest square in Prague, but it has the advantage of being surrounded by buildings that are mainly museums or government buildings, the roads approaching it are easily secured, and it has a spectacular view of the castle behind it.

I thought you might be interested in seeing what the square looks like on a normal day, when perhaps thirty people are out and about on its pavement and greens, rather than thirty thousand. Please note the very vigorous guard holding a club over the right side of the gate, and his slightly stiffer, yet live, counterparts in the sentry boxes beneath him.

Edited to add: Here is a photo of Saturday's view of the Square. The guards still stand in their boxes, and I wonder if they will also be there for the speech? (Note from Monday: The guards stood sentry the entire time, even when they were behind the stage.)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Coffee, Cakes, and Ceramics

Essen isn't all about mines and heavy industry (though the Krupps family have played an important part in its history for hundreds of years). It also has street markets the equal to some of my favorite in France, cute boutiques and coffee shops, and at least one bakery that would stand out in even the most cosmopolitan of cities.

We Saturday shop in Prague, visiting local stores to pick up staples and surcees for the week ahead. It's one of my favorite times of the week and about the only reason I can imagine waking up early on a weekend morning. So when Manuel and Isa, the friends we stayed with in Essen, invited us to join them on their Saturday stroll we jumped at the chance. We visited Essen's farmers' market, stopped off at a bio grocery, and took a break for coffee before sending the strollers with their bags of flowers, cheese, sausage, vegetables and a chicken or two home with the babies and a contingency of grownups to carry the bags up the stairs.

Then C, Manuel and I headed to Manuel's favorite bakery, Criolla. A bakery run by a Colombian couple, it offers cakes, meringues, pies, caramels and even homemade marshmellows. But not the vanilla flavored marshmellows you might be thinking of. These marshmellows were meltingly delicate passion-fruit flavored morsels of goodness. If you've ever imagined the Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that is exactly what they taste like. We also acquired two cake quarters for after lunch coffee and they turned out to be the moistest, most lemony cakes I've yet to eat. But the crowning glory of our taste test were the chocolate meringues. Chewy insides with outsides that melt in your mouth, they were so good, Will declared them the Best Ever Meringues and I had to agree. If you happen to be in Essen, I say, hie thee to the bakery, you will not be disappointed.

After lunch we took a tram-metro* to the mines of yesterday. There we visited a pottery studio housed in one of the old buildings of the mine. The Keramische Werkstatt Margaretenhöhe had an open house exhibition of their pottery, and we were lucky enough to be invited along to see the workshop and wares. We toured the studio (big enough for five potters and the many pots, plates and bowls they prepare before glazing, small enough to charm the children with its boathouse feel and bamboo garden) and ate more cake and coffee before heading home for the evening. It was a very cozy day, as Caroline said.

*We rode underground and above ground in it, and it looked like a tram, so I gave it the clunky title of a tram-metro. Perhaps someone else can tell me what these cool cars are called?