The Scottish Saltire

The Scottish Saltire

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Week That Was

Well, it has been a very busy week since Nikki and I returned from Paris last Sunday. That evening Bert, Nikki and I went with their friend, Nadja, to an outdoor beer garden to watch Germany play Turkey in the European semifinal soccer match. The restaurant had set up a big screen outside and the atmosphere was very festive. We ate, drank and cheered our team on to victory and a place in the final match. The walk home after the game was absolutely wild with excitement! People spilled into the streets to celebrate. Cars filled with exuberant fans waving flags and honking horns zoomed all through the town. It was a beautiful summer night and the celebrations lasted well into the wee hours of the morning.
The final Championship match was played last night between Germany and Spain. We watched the match with Nadja again, at the same biergarten. Alas, a victory for Germany was not in the cards. The final score was 1-0 in favor of Spain.

On Tuesday I went with Nikki to Heidelberg. She teaches classes in Business English at the Fachhochschule (a university of applied sciences) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her time was committed from 9:30am until 2:30pm so I busied myself in the pedestrian shopping area with a bit of window shopping, a bite to eat and then a visit to the castle which is one of those must see venues to anyone playing tourist in this part of Germany. When I worked for the USO our tour to the Heidelberg Castle was one of our most popular. It's construction was begun in the early 13th century and it has a history of destruction and rebuilding over the next 500 years or so. The castle sits on a hill overlooking the town and it is a 262 ft. climb to get there. You can reach the castle by way of 3 different routes. You can walk a cobblestone path, climb the stairs or you can take the tram.
The castle hosts over 3,000,000 visitors a year, mostly from the U.S. and Japan and boasts the world's largest wine barrel. The barrel is over 27 ft long and 24 ft high and has a capacity of 55,345 gallons of wine! I took a one hour guided tour of the castle and then poked around a while on my own afterward until it was time to meet up with Nikki back down in the center of town. We chose one of the many outdoor cafes and enjoyed a late lunch before returning to Ludwigshafen on the train.

On Mondays and Wednesdays Nikki teaches English (at various levels) to employees of the chemical company BASF, which has its world headquarters here in Ludwighafen. One of her classes is comprised of only 2 students who knew very little English when she began with them. Nikki normally meets with Swen and Wolfgang in one of the classrooms on the BASF campus (it's huge!) but since it's summertime and the weather is so beautiful she and they decided to meet outdoors for lunch this week. Their goal is to become proficient at conversational English so chatting over lunch becomes not only instructional but a practical experience. And by having me along it gave them both the opportunity to speak English with someone unknown to them as well as their instructor. Swen and Wolfgang are friends outside of work and like to travel. On their agenda in the next couple of years is a trip to Scotland for a week of hiking! We had a very enjoyable lunch and it was fun to watch Nikki teach under the guise of conversation.

On Thursday afternoon Bert took off from work a couple of hours early and he and I went bike riding along the Neckar river. We biked about 10 miles and stopped in a little town called Ladenburg. The town was on the other side of the river so we crossed with our bikes by ferry. The ferry was big enough to carry 2 or 3 cars plus a number of people. We left our bikes in the middle of the town and spent about an hour exploring the medieval town by foot. Though the evidence is not concrete, Ladenburg claims to be one of the oldest towns in Germany. It was lovely and we took some wonderful pictures. After a while we stopped at a little outdoor cafe for something to drink and to just sit and enjoy the early evening. We boarded the train, with our bikes, a little after 8pm. Nikki had just finished up with a meeting in Mannheim so she hopped on our train when we pulled into the station and the three of us finished the ride to Ludwighafen together.
After returning home Nikki and I decided to go for a walk. We walked over the the Park Insel (island) and spent about an hour just strolling around the perimeter (a couple of miles) and talking (of course!). When we left the Park Insel we wandered back across the bridge and settled ourselves at an outdoor table of yet another cafe for some coffee and tea. When our waitress heard my accent she asked if I was from America. She told us her boyfriend is an American soldier from North Carolina. He is stationed here but has been deployed to Iraq since September. We had quite a long conversation with her in a mixture of English and German. Most of my conversations with anyone but Nikki and Bert tend to be a mish mash of the two languages.

Nik has no teaching obligations on Fridays. She usually uses the day to prepare lessons for the following week but this Friday was consumed with packing in preparation for the big move to their new apartment the next day. Bert had already packed most of the living room so I tackled the kitchen while Nikki concentrated on the bedroom and bathroom. This small one bedroom apt was quite sufficient for Bert when he lived alone but since Nikki moved in a year ago it has just gotten more and more crowded. Time for a bigger apt!

We were up early on Saturday and ready to get started by the time about half dozen of their friends arrived to help with the move. Moving day is always a lot of work but when there is a group of people helping it can also be a lot of fun. I really like Nikki and Bert's friends. We all worked hard and the English and German just sort of floated around amidst the laughter. Around noon Nikki and Nadja and I walked to the grocery store from the new apt and picked up picnic food to feed the troops. We laid out quite a spread and everyone took a break for lunch. Then it was back to work! Once everything had been transported and everyone had been thoroughly thanked, hugged and plied with beer before they departed, it was time to put the furniture back together. Martin stayed behind to help Bert with the bedroom wardrobe. German bedrooms don't have built in closets. So the closet is a free standing piece of furniture. And this one is enormous! It covers one entire wall with doors and drawers and hanging spaces and a full length mirror.

This apt is wonderful. Much bigger than the one they just left. It's a split floor plan with the master bedroom and bathroom on one side, a large living room, kitchen and dining area in the middle and the second bedroom and bathroom on the other side. The floors are a very nice light hardwood and Nikki chose very pretty warm paint colors for the walls. Since Nikki does so much work at home preparing for classes she is just giddy about having her own office where she can retreat and spread out. She feels a little guilty about claiming the extra room for herself since Bert doesn't get an equal space but Bert is already calling it 'Nik's office' and insists that it be so. It will, of course, double as a guest room when family and friends visit but its purpose is to give Nikki somewhere to work other than a corner in their bedroom.
They are on the second floor of the building and the living room and both bedrooms all have double glass doors that open onto a balcony which runs the full width of the apartment. The whole place is filled with natural light and has a very open and airy feel to it. The view from the balcony is very pretty and quite peaceful. It's also going to be a great place to entertain! Nikki and Bert are very excited about their new home and it's really sweet to watch them as they settle in and plan what they will do in this room and what they will buy for that room. I help when I can but also try to just stay out of the way sometimes and let the two of them build their nest together. It's wonderful to see Nikki so happy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Three Days In Paris

I'm in Germany! I landed last Thursday morning in Frankfurt. After going through customs and collecting my bags I hopped the train for Mannheim to be met there by Nikki and Bert. The three of us then continued across the river to their apt in Ludwigshafen. We had a little breakfast and then Nikki and I headed back to the train station. Three and a half hours later we arrived in Paris! After a short ride on the Metro, which is the Paris subway, we emerged from the underground about half a block from our hotel. Nikki found a great deal. To find anything decent for 100 euro ($165) a night in Paris is really hard. But through her diligence she found a room for us at the Hotel de Paris for 55 euro a night!! It wasn't fancy by any means but it was, to use a military term, "clean, dry and serviceable". We spent just enough time there to shower and catch 6 or 7 hours of sleep each of the three nights we were in the city. The rest of the time we were riding the Metro all over Paris to see the sights.

As most of you already know, during the time that we lived in Germany back in the late '80's and early '90's I worked for the USO. I wore a couple of different hats during my 4 and a half years with the organization. One was that of tour guide. And one of my favorite tours to lead was to Paris....of course!! What nut wouldn't want to go to Paris as often as possible? I had the great fortune of going at least a dozen times or more. I just had to take anywhere from 20 to 40 other people on the train with me! But, Hey!, I was getting paid to go to Paris!! (Me! A kid who grew up dirt poor, dreaming of Europe (no kidding), a place where, in my child's mind, only rich people went). All that was over a decade and a half ago, though. So I was just as excited as Nikki about our 3 days in The City of Light. She went once when she was about 12 but her memories of that first visit are rather vague and are kind of snapshotish so we were excited together.

After checking into our hotel, getting some coffee, buying Metro passes and making a plan of attack we were off to see Notre Dame, the magnificent 12th century Gothic cathedral that sits on an island in the River Seine. Bridges connect the island to both the Right and Left Bank of the Seine. We elected not to ride the metro all the way to the cathedral but to get off at the river's edge so we could walk across the bridge known as the Pont de Neuf. The bridges of Paris are wonderful in themselves and should be experienced and not just viewed from the riverbank or from the window of a car or a bus. As we turned a corner and Notre Dame came into view Nikki and I said in unison, "Wow!" It is such an imposing structure. There is definitely nothing delicate about Notre Dame but its beauty is in the workmanship of the stone masons who labored for decades and sometimes died to bring into being this miracle of medieval engineering.

Next on our agenda was a stroll down the Champs Elysees, known as one of the most famous streets in the world and the second most expensive strip of real estate just behind Fifth Avenue in New York City. We began at one end at the Place de la Concorde, the largest Place, or square, in Paris. The Champs Elysees is about a mile and a quarter long and at the other end stands the Arc de Triomphe. Speaking of expensive, a stroll down the Champs Elysees should include a stop at one of the many sidewalk cafes along the way, if only for a cup of coffee and some people watching. But, Beware. We had one cup of coffee and one cup of tea and it cost us 18 euro (with tip 20 euro). That's about $33!!!!! To be fair, though, we did sit down at one of the most expensive cafes along the Avenue. But it was beautiful and perfectly located and the little sponge cakes that came with our drinks were very tasty! We sat for about an hour in the late afternoon and just watched all the people going by.

When we finally decided it was time to resume our stroll we continued in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe. The Arch was built by Napolean Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century to commemorate his military victories. The best part of visiting this Parisian monument is standing at the top of it and watching the crazy drivers below. About 6 or 7 streets all meet at this point like the spokes of a wheel with the Arch as the hub. The cars enter the traffic circle surrounding the monument and jockey for position to exit the circle at any of the other intersecting streets. There are no lanes and seemingly no rules. It's kind of like a grand prix free-for-all. And it's an awful lot of fun to watch! Fortunately, pedestrians access the Arc de Triomphe by way of tunnels that run under this racetrack. The alternative is harrowing just to think about!

It was almost 9pm by the time we reentered the Metro heading for our final destination of the day.....the Eiffel Tower. As with Notre Dame we could have gotten off the Metro very close to the tower but I wanted Nikki to see it from a particular vantage point so we got off at the Trocadero stop instead. From this direction you walk through the center platz of a beautiful theater, along a tree lined path on the other side that is surrounded by grassy slopes which are occupied by lots of people just hanging out and enjoying the end of the day. There is also a huge rectangular fountain that at times is alive with spouting water and spotlights after dark. Place de Trocadero is a gorgeous area with the Eiffel Tower looming at the end of the park and just across the river. The tower is huge! And the closer you get, the huger it gets until you are standing directly under it craning your neck to see the top. We paid our 12 euro each and waited in line for the glassed in elevator that would take us 180 meters (about 550 ft.) to the top of the tower. From this open air deck you can circle the peak of the tower to see the city in all its glory. It's an impressive view no matter the time of day but truly the best time to find yourself at the top of the Eiffel Tower is after dark. Paris is called the City of Light. It is always alive and awake. Consequently the entire city is lit up after dark. All of the major buildings and monuments are illuminated and easily recognized from this particular vantage point. And what a sight to behold! It was so much fun to watch Nik and see her reactions to this very unique experience. The night was warm and the wind was calm. We stayed for quite a while occasionally moving to a new position to see a different part of the city or to watch the boats cruising down the river (another activity that, in my opinion, is best experienced at night). After finally taking the elevator back down to terra firma we retraced our steps back across the river and to Place de Trocadero. To me even leaving the Eiffel Tower and walking through this open airy park setting is somehow more magical at night. Even at 11:30 on a Thursday night it is alive with people. As we headed back to our hotel on the opposite side of the city we were tired and hungry yet fully satisfied with the day. Earlier in the day we had seen a small simple cafe located next to our hotel and we were looking forward to sitting at one of the sidewalk tables and leisurely ending our day with hot food. It was 1:30am before we finally tumbled into bed that first night.

We got a bit of a late start on day two but we had only one destination....the Palace of Versailles, about 12 miles and an easy train ride from downtown Paris. Begun as a hunting lodge by Louis XIII in 1624, it was enlarged and transformed to a sumptuous chateau by Louis XIV. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived here at the time of the French Revolution in 1789. The palace is a massive example of 17th and 18th century French luxury with all of the art and statues and painted ceilings. It is a feast for the eye, especially the Hall of Mirrors. I was most anxious to explore the grounds, though. It seemed that whenever I had the opportunity to visit Versailles in the past I either didn't have enough time or it was raining or just too blasted hot to be wandering around outside and I was determined this time to see the grounds. It was a beautiful day so Nikki and I set our speedometers to stroll and set out down the path along the Grand Canal. We passed statues and fountains and gardens and groves of perfectly groomed trees. By 3pm we still hadn't seen all there was to see but I was satisfied for the time being and we needed at least a couple of hours to see the inside of the palace. So we stopped at a food stand on the grounds for one of my favorite foods in Paris, a baggette with jambon and fromagge (ham and cheese on a long chewy roll) and ate on our way back to the palace. When we had finished touring the inside we hopped on a little tram that took us to another part of the grounds and Marie Antoinette's private gardens and playground. After a very full day we departed through the gates of Versailles about 7pm. We once again ended our day at the little sidewalk cafe near our hotel, tired, happy and full.

Day three began at Sainte Chapelle, a chapel built by Louis IV in the mid 13th century. I wanted Nikki to see Sainte Chapelle after seeing Notre Dame. As beautiful as the stained glass windows are in Notre Dame, they pale in comparison to what you see when you emerge from the staircase into the upper chapel of Sainte Chapelle. 600 square meters (6456 sq. ft) of beautiful stained glass windows. Two-thirds of this stained glass is original, over 700 years old and in pristine condition. The windows of the chapel were removed and safely stored away during the revolution in 1789 and then again during WWII in anticipation of the German invasion of Paris.

From Sainte Chapelle we made our way to the Musee Rodin. I'm not really much of an art lover. I can look at a famous painting and think, "Oh, OK, that's nice, but..." I never really understand what all the fuss is about. I've been to several of the art museums in Paris, including the Louvre, but more just because I thought I should go rather than out of a real desire. That was probably the reason I went to the Rodin museum the first time, too. I don't remember. What I do remember is the way the sculptures of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) just took my breath away. For the first time in my life I was actually moved by something artistic! I could have spent hours wandering through what was once the sculptor's home, studying the minute details of his creations which were displayed throughout the house, upstairs and downstairs. I fell in love with a life sized white marble sculpture simply called The Kiss, not realizing at the time that this was one of his most famous pieces along with The Thinker and The Gates of Hell. The Thinker was the only one I had ever heard of, but before that day could not even have told you the name of the artist. Auguste Rodin was the first and so far the only artist to actually make me stop dead in my tracks and whisper a long drawn out "Wow". He was such a student of the human form. The Kiss which is made of cold white marble shows such tenderness between these two people held in each other's embrace. The man's hand laid gently on his lover's hip is one of my favorite parts of this sculpture. I wanted Nikki, who loves all forms of art, to see this artist's legacy to the world. And I wanted to go back there myself to see if Rodin's sculptures truly did move me the way I remembered or if perhaps I had just romanticized the experience over the years. They did and I hadn't! We wandered from room to room oooing and aaawing over each new discovery and pointing out little nuances as we detected them. One time I crossed the room to Nikki to say, "Oh Nik, come look at this one!" To which she looked a little perplexed and pointing to the sculpture in front of her said,"But...but...I'm looking at this one." I guess I was getting a little carried away. After satisfying our hunger for art we decided to satisfy our hunger for food at the cafe located within the gardens of the museum.

From Sculptures to Skeletons....We went from the Musee Rodin to the Paris Catacombs. Toward the end of the 18th century the population of Paris was burgeoning and more building space was needed. The cemeteries were also becoming overcrowded and because of mass open graves, improper burials and earth saturated with decomposing organic matter the residents near some of these cemeteries were getting sick. To solve both issues it was decided to close all existing cemeteries within the city and restrict new burials to 3 new cemeteries located outside of the city limits. The remains of the dead which were buried in the condemned cemeteries were disinterred, some of them hundreds of years old, and transported under the cover of darkness to a section of the underground mining tunnels beneath the city. This macabre sight has been open to the public since the late 19th century. To reach the Catacombs you first descend about 60 ft underground via a narrow stone stairway. There you begin walking through a series of tunnels which are perhaps 5 ft wide and 8 ft tall. Eventually you come to a tunnel with a sign over the entrance which reads in French Here Lies the Kingdom of the Dead. As you enter this tunnel you see stacks and stacks and stacks of human bones, mostly arm and leg bones with human skulls used to create patterns or designs in these subterranean burial walls. It is quite a sight and something definitely off the beaten path of most tourist attractions. The last time I was in Paris there was no line to get into the Catacombs. This time, however, the line of people waiting to wander through The Kingdom of the Dead was quite long. The tunnel floors were also a bit muddy back in the early '90's but now they have a nice layer of fine gravel upon which to tread. And the whole experience is just as creepy as ever.

The last thing on our agenda was to take a boat ride down the Seine River. This is also best experienced after dark so we had bought our tickets earlier in the day and planned to catch the last cruise at 10:30pm. After the Catacombs we had enough time to go back to the hotel, freshen up and grab our jackets before heading back to the docks. Did I mention that last Saturday was the Summer Solstice? In celebration of the longest day of the year there were city wide music festivals all day long and into the night. Everyone was celebrating. As we cruised along the Seine on the open air upper deck of the boat it seemed that the entire Paris population was lined along the banks of the river and both sides of every bridge traversing it. They would yell and cheer to the boat passengers as we slowly cruised past them so, of course, we would yell and cheer back at them. It was such a party atmosphere and as usual the whole city was lit up. The commentary on the boat was given in several languages and pointed out those monuments and historic buildings that were spotlighted and easily seen from the river. The river cruise lasted an hour and it was once again 11:30pm before we called it a day and returned to our hotel....with a stop at our little cafe for a late night dinner before turning in.

We left Paris at 9am on Sunday morning and settled in for a pleasant 3 1/2 hour train ride back to Germany. Fortunately the train was not crowded so Nikki and I were both able to stretch out and catch up on a little sleep before arriving in Ludwigshafen where Bert met us at the train station for the short walk back to their apartment. It was such a fun trip and totally satisfying. I have wanted to go back to Paris for so long and to be able to go with Nikki just made it all the better!

We took a ton of pictures but haven't gone through them yet. I'll post them as soon as I can.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Family Affair

  • What a fun weekend! I arrived at Paul's house about 7:30pm on Thursday. It's such a beautiful drive between here and there and I do love a roadtrip. Aunt Carmen and Uncle Dick were already there and Shelly and Steve got in about midnight on Friday. We were all determined to wait up for them and were pretty bleary eyed by the time they got there. Then, of course, everyone had to sit around and talk for a while. We couldn't just go straight to bed. It was my first time meeting my cousin and her husband. I wish I had gotten to know my family much earlier. They are so much fun and just really great people. To give you an idea of what they are like I think the family motto should be Take No Prisoners. There is constant teasing and laughter. If you don't think you can hold your own you better not stick around. I had to really be on my toes. Speaking of which, graceful little thing that I'm not, I tripped going UP the stairs, which happen to be in plain sight of everyone in the living room. As soon as it happened Paul jumped on it, making as much fun of me as possible and his father and son joined right in. All I could do was laugh and say, "Shit, I was hoping nobody saw that." But I got in a few of good ones of my own here and there over the course of the weekend.

The big party for Zach was Saturday night. Well, technically it started at 2pm on Saturday afternoon but it went well into the night. Genelle's parents came plus a bunch of Paul and Genelle's friends. Genelle worked really hard to put everything together and she did a great job. Food, decorations and enough beer, wine, tequila, rum and Crown Royal to pickle everyone. Not the kids, of course, but the rest of us did a damn fine job of it. Eventually the party migrated to the game room and to Paul's recording studio, which are both in the basement. Between ping pong, air hockey and an impromptu jam session it got pretty loud.
With the exception of Genelle's parents and my aunt and uncle I was the oldest person at the party and I was the last man standing at the end of the night! Most everybody had either gone home or gone to bed so Paul, Shelly, Steve and I decided to watch the movie I had bought Paul for his birthday. Did I forget to mention that in addition to Zach's graduation the weekend also included Paul's birthday on Friday? We were talking about movies last time I was there and he had never seen Start The Revolution Without Me. So that made his birthday gift an easy one. Anyway, Shelly and Steve lasted about a half hour into the movie before they threw in the towel and headed for bed. Paul lasted longer but didn't make it to the end of the movie either. He fell asleep (or should I say passed out?) on the couch. We were downstairs in the game room. So it was about 3am when I threw a blanket over him and headed for my own bed. Actually I headed for Zach's bed, having taken over his room for the weekend and relegating him to the couch in the living room. When you are trying to sleep nine people someone will always end up on the couch and Zach drew the short straw. So I tiptoed past the family's newest high school graduate as I made my way from the basement and through the living room to the upstairs.

Everyone was moving kind of slow the next morning, especially Paul and me. It was Father's Day and for some reason he and his dad thought they should get special treatment. Imagine that! All they got from everyone else in the house (besides gifts) was a hard time. We didn't do much that day. Genelle made a big breakfast (which my stomach politely declined) and we vegged out most of the day in front of the TV. Shelly and Steve had us watching NASCAR, then Paul had us watching golf. It was the last day of the U.S. Open and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I got really into it. It was neck and neck between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the end and they finished the tournament in a tie so they had to have a golf-off today. I actually watched the end of it when I got home this afternoon! Tiger won by one stroke. The Open ended about 9pm last night so we put in Will Smith's movie I Am Legend. It's not the kind of movie I would choose but it was really good. Really suspenseful and creepy. I was sitting next to Genelle and she kept jumping when the movie would startle her. She also shushed me a couple of times at the beginning of the movie so a while later when Shelly and Steve were whispering I pointed at them and told Genelle she needed to shush them! That cracked her up. When everybody else went to bed after the movie I stayed up with Zach and Austin to watch an episode of South Park. Then I went to bed. Who knows how long they stayed up!

Genelle had to leave for work about 6:30am this morning and the rest of us had to get on the road so we were all up early. Carmen and Dick were driving back to North Carolina with Shelly and Steve before flying back to Las Vegas next week. Paul rolled the boys out and the 8 of us all went to The Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Needless to say there was a lot of picking and poking and laughter around that table. We said goodbye in the parking lot and I pointed my car north and west back toward the 'Burgh.

I thought of my dad a lot yesterday. I spent most of my life without him but yesterday was the first Father's Day in 12 years that I didn't buy a card or make a phone call. Looking around me, though, at the family he gave me, I felt his presence in their love.
Thank you, Dad. I love you.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Let the Summer Fun Begin!

I'm off to Haymarket, Virginia this afternoon. Paul's son, Zach, is graduating from high school and this is the celebratory weekend. My Aunt Carmen and Uncle Dick (Zach's grandparents) flew in from Las Vegas and their daughter, Michelle, and her husband Steve are coming from North Carolina.

I still get excited about spending time with my relatives. For so much of my adult life the only people I knew who I was directly related to were my children and my brother's children. It's still a novelty to me to look at someone from my dad's family and think "This is my family. We are related."

I will have just enough time when I get back to unpack and repack because next Wednesday I'm going to spend a couple of weeks with Nikki in Germany. As soon as I land we are going to Paris for 3 days! What fun!