Tag Archives: travel

Have Kids, Will…Go RVing

Where has the time gone?  Is it Groundhog’s Day already?  This past Christmas (2014), I took my family on an RV trip for the first time ever.  Despite having four boys and a fairly outdoors-oriented husband, we are not much of a camping family.  And let’s face it, staying in an RV is just camping on wheels.  I used to actually like camping and worked really hard to convince the hub to go along with it.  He called it “pretending to be homeless” and saw zero appeal.  Somewhere in our 19 years of marriage, he came around (sort of), just as I was giving it up.  Being perpetually sleep deprived is not conducive to sleeping on a hard ground. In a tent.  With a toddler (or two) and a snoring man.  But, I am cheap.  (I mean, frugal.)

When I was thinking about what to give my boys for Christmas, knowing they really don’t need anything and we are limited on space, I immediately thought of a trip.  The prospect of travel is always appealing to me, but paying for six plane tickets is not.  So, after some research, I decided it was high time we tried out an RV.

It turned out to be not so bad.  In fact, the traveling part was quite nice!  We were able to pop popcorn in the microwave, get cold drinks out of the refrigerator, take naps, and use the toilet…all without stopping.  It got to smell a little bit funky, but there was a TV with satellite channels, a card table, a bigger table for games of Scrabble, and plenty of space to stretch out and read.  Lots of distractions!  Of course, my intention was to split the driving as equally as possible, but I somehow managed to scrape a shrub, get stuck in a parking lot, nearly side swipe a guard rail, and generally make my husband nervous every time I drove.  So instead, I did a lot of reading and game playing with the boys.

We made our way from Maryland to Florida within a two-day time frame.  Santa delivered tickets to Universal Studios, where we spent two and a half days exploring Harry Potter’s world, riding roller coasters, and eating crappy, expensive food.  It was wonderful!  Then we went to Gatorland (the best, weirdest amusement/animal park EVER), and into St. Augustine.  During this time, we spent the nights in our rented RV at a few different RV parks.  I had looked into KOAs ahead of time and reserved spaces at a couple in Florida.  They were all clean–impressively so–and family friendly.  We found some great nearby restaurants, which saved me from having to buy groceries and cook on the RV stove (my Christmas gift).

As far as camping goes, this was definitely the way to do it.  We’ve stayed in tents, camping cabins, and deluxe cabins.  But for the distance we traveled, camping in the RV was a fun and fairly stress-free experience.  Can you really ever call family vacations stress-free?  I think we did okay.  It felt really good to come home and take a private shower, get some time away from the constant spell casting, courtesy of Olivander’s wands, and to sleep in my own bed.  But, we made some really good memories for a bunch of die-hard Harry Potter fans, and satisfied my itch to go RVing.  Being in 75 degree weather didn’t hurt, either.

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Have Kids, Will…Attend a French Bullfight

 

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It has been well documented that Ernest Hemingway was a fan of Spanish bullfighting.  His first experience as a spectator in 1923 in Pamplona sparked an obsession in him that lasted a lifetime and led to his writing Death in the Afternoon.  What Hemingway found so fascinating about bullfighting had everything to do with the blood and gore that now send animal rights’ activists charging the streets in protest.  He viewed the violent deaths of those massive beasts as something glorious, something humanity ultimately craved, whether on the battlefield during war or within an arena during a bullfight.  Whether or not we agree with Hemingway’s assessment, bullfighting continues today.  It is followed by both a passionate group of supporters and an equally passionate group of protesters.

While bullfighting originated in Spain, southern France also has a long history of the sport.  For over 150 years,  corrida has maintained its tradition as a cultural pastime, especially around Easter.  The highlight in the city of Arles, France during the festival Feria de Pentecote, is a bullfight held in the ancient Roman arena near the center of town.  This is where I was first introduced to French bullfighting.

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The day my husband and I were at the Arenes d’Arles (the semi-modernized coliseum) was a Thursday.  Unfortunately, there were no bullfights taking place that day.  But…my interest was piqued!  As we left Arles, I lamented the fact that I would miss seeing a real, live French bullfight inside an ancient coliseum–an event I hadn’t planned or even known about–but one that was now festering in my imagination.  We continued on our way to a small, seaside village that is known for its gypsies, horses, and cathedral,  Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  It’s an out-of-the-way place, enchanting in its own right, yet completely different from the medieval villages we had visited previously.  Every year its citizens honor Sarah, the patron saint of gypsies, with a parade carrying her statue from the cathedral.  According to legend, Sarah was the slave girl who accompanied Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobi (sister of the Virgin), Mary Salome (mother of James & John), Lazarus (raised from the dead, remember?), and Martha (the Magdalene’s sister).  In order to escape persecution, they fled their homeland and floated in a boat without a sail across the sea, landing in the Camargue region of France that we were now visiting.

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Imagine my delight when I saw that a bullfight was taking place that very afternoon in Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer!  People were filing into a much more colorful and newly built arena.  It looked like something you’d find at a circus.  For ten euros each, my husband and I found a seat in the upper most section.  The spectacle below was like nothing I’d ever experienced!  The bulls were huge, snorting and bellowing as they entered the arena.  Twelve svelt young men in snug, white outfits scattered around the bull, taunting and calling to him.  Ultimately, unlike traditional forms of bullfighting, the goal was for each bullfighter to pull ribbons off  the bulls’ horns.  They had to get close enough to the agitated animals to pull off a ribbon, but get out of the way fast enough to avoid injury.  Points were accumulated with each of these ribbons, so it was a competition between the men, and the bull got to live.  I found this to be a relief!

Apparently, there’s a word for French hillbillies who attend bullfights religiously.  I don’t remember what it is, but I was proud to be among them.  The gymnastic agility of the men, who had to leap out of the way to avoid being gored,  was remarkable! The enormity of the bulls, who pawed the ground, tossed their horns, and chased after the men was breathtaking.  The sheer energy of the event made for a very exciting afternoon and ten euros very well spent!  This form of bullfighting became one of my favorite things about visiting France.

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Have Kids, Will…Savor My Own Childhood Memories

While having dinner at The Aachener Brauhaus, a traditional tavern in Aachen, Germany–my great-grandmother’s hometown–I was suddenly reminded of my grandparents’ house in Pennsylvania.  Taking in my surroundings, my senses jolted with recognition.  The dark, grainy oak of the benches and moldings; the smell of sauerkraut, cigarettes, and beer; the sound of many voices, mostly the baritone of men blending together into a hypnotic hum, all became a blanket that wrapped warmly around me as I sat eating a plate of sauerbraten with red cabbage and potatoes. The jovial faces and sometimes boisterous conversations that surrounded me lent a feeling of comfort and familiarity.

My grandparents had 12 children, who in turn produced about 50 of my first cousins–no small feat.  Their home, when we visited, was always bustling with the activity of multiple family members visiting at once.  There was lively conversation, plenty of booze, massive, steaming bowls of either spaghetti or stuffed cabbage rolls–anything that could feed a large crowd, and an abundance of children running through the house playing hide-and-seek.  As the evenings wore on, someone would inevitably pull out a guitar or my grandmother would sit at the piano after being coaxed into playing Flight of the Bumblebee, an amazing song to hear and watch being played. The music would fill the living room and spill out onto the wraparound porch, where even more family members were catching up and swapping tales under the dim porch lights.  As a child, I didn’t often recognize the songs being played as my uncles would croon along to the guitar, but the sounds were soothing (and amusing as more imbibing took place).

The camaraderie of family and friends, coming together to visit, eat, drink, and entertain each other is universally appealing.  Nothing can replace the fundamental importance of generations coming together, whose shared heritage pulls history not from the pages of a book, but from the energy of the past.  The ghosts of those who have come before us, through life’s struggles and successes, live on in these moments–brought back to life through stories told and memories shared.  We carry our pasts with us no matter where in the world we go, and sometimes we find visiting other places helps to heighten our memories of past experiences as we are simultaneously creating new memories through new experiences.

As my children grow and I wonder who will need the most therapy for my sometimes inept parenting, I hope they are absorbing the best of what surrounds them.  Isn’t that what we always want for our children?  Knowing that both ordinary and extraordinary experiences will help to form them into the adults they will become, I hope they come to appreciate the ordinary love of family and the extraordinary effect it can have on them.

Have Kids, Will…Backpack Through Germany (Alone!)

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You might be wondering how, exactly, a mother of four young children can pick up and travel solo to Europe.  All I can say is I owe my husband–big time!  As much as I romanticized the notion of backpacking through Europe when I was younger, I never had the chance to do it.  I love to travel, but the “backpacking” part of it got old pretty fast and is much better suited to the younger set.   That part was purely accidental anyway since the airline lost my luggage, and my backpack was literally all I had in addition to the clothes on my back.  Given my propensity for mishaps, this isn’t surprising.

Going to Germany all alone wan’t the least bit intimidating.  I knew I could figure things out, like train schedules and restaurant menus.  I got really good at asking “Sprechen sie English?” as soon as I needed help with something.  Most Germans seem to know at least a little English.  When they don’t, a few hand gestures work just fine.  Of course, I had a few hiccups along the way.  Aside from my lack of luggage, which was remedied with a shopping trip after twice having washed my underwear out in the bathroom sink, I did misinterpret my train schedule one evening.  Without realizing that all trains to Aachen stopped at 11:20 p.m., I had a late night rendez-vous with the station master in Belgium.  He was kind enough to call a taxi for me once we established, with cave man talk and hand gestures, that I had missed the last train and was stranded.  Alone.  It was an expensive mistake, as I ended up paying 55 euros for the taxi back to Germany.

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I really enjoyed my day in Belgium and would love to go back soon.  Brussels and Antwerp were both amazing cities to visit.  The beer, the chocolates, the waffles–all delicious! Brussels, especially, will hold a special place in my heart since this is where a handsome, young waiter generously gave me an ego boost which, at this stage of the game, is a gift.   At 38, with four children, I’m pretty sure my sex appeal has fallen away like the leaves on my ficus tree that never gets watered.  After chatting with this fellow for a short amount of time, relying on his suggestions for food and beer, he asked what hotel I was staying in and would I like to have some company!  As creepy as that might seem, I was flattered and will be eternally grateful to him, even though I did decline…I swear!

Antwerp is an energetic and eclectic city, where I talked to a Hassidic Jew, a Texan expat, an Irishman, and had lunch in a pub owned by Russians who served Croque Monsieurs.  There are really great jazz clubs and museums, breweries and restaurants, and many, many bicyclists.  I loved how the city center has bike lanes that were more crowded than the actual streets.  Even ladies in dresses and heels were commuting to work on bikes.  No wonder they’re so thin!

The whole reason for this trip, which took me from Washington, D.C. to Aachen, Germany and Antwerp, Belgium, was to conduct research for a book I’m writing.  It will be loosely based on my great-grandmother’s experience emigrating from Germany to the U.S. in 1904, as a 16-year-old girl.  Her story has always intrigued me, so I’m taking bits and pieces of it, adding my own imaginings, and turning it into a historic fiction novel.  Stay tuned!

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