Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ultimo fin de semana en Marzo

Este semana estuvo llena de actividades. Aparte de que ahora trabajo 4 dias a la semana, los viernes JP y Sydney vienen conmigo a la escuela. Sydney se porto excelente, ni parecia que tenia 3 anios e interactuo con ninios de 4-6 como si nada, siguiendo instrucciones, jugando, tomando turnos, cantando y bailando. JP tuvo un dia mas dificil, y tuvo varios timeouts. Todavia estoy debatiendo si deberian venir conmigo todo el tiempo o solo los viernes. En Junio tendre que decidir. El fin de semana tambien estuvo lleno de cosas que hacer. Con la primavera llego un buen clima asi que ayer salimos a andar en bici y hoy fuimos a nadar y a cenar con nuestros amigos lo Kelsos.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter in Scotland

The next day, we flew from Dublin to Edinburgh (pronounced Edinbura). We stopped by the hotel to check in and drop off the bags. Our room was not ready, so we decided to have some lunch at the hotel. We had a traditional dish called Haggis, Nips, and Tatties, which translated into English, is haggis, turnips, and potatoes. Haggis is a dish that evolved from food shortages through the country's history. It consists of all the leftover parts of an animal (sheep mostly) after it has been stripped of all its good meat. These leftover parts are then ground up, put into a sheep’s stomach, and boiled - that's how it was done in the old days anyway. It has the consistency of corned beef and has a gamey taste, but absolutely delicious. Our waiter told us that the way to eat this dish is to have an equal amount of haggis, turnip, and potato on every forkful. He also mentioned that this is the dish they serve when the country celebrates "Burns night" on January 25th. The poet Robert Burns is somewhat of a national hero, so on this particular night of the year, groups of people get together, eat haggis, drink whiskey, and perform readings of their favorite Burns poetry. After this rather educational lunch, we bought a ticket to see the cities three main attractions: Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh Castle, and the Royal Britannia. The ticket also included two days on all of the cities' four tour buses, so we hopped on one of the buses and got ourselves to Holyrood Palace, which was the original home of Mary, Queen of Scots, and is the current official Scottish residence of the Queen (when she is in town). The Palace was built as an addition to a 12th Century Abbey, built by King David I. The Abbey is said to have been an act of thanksgiving for the King’s miraculous escape from the horns of a deer, while hunting near Edinburgh on Holy Cross day (legend has it that the deer had a cross between its antlers – the King closed his eyes to pray for his life. When he opened them, the deer was gone, but the cross remained). In the church was preserved, in a golden reliquary, the fragment of the True Cross brought by David's mother, St. Margaret, from Waltham Abbey, and known thereafter as the Black Rood of Scotland. After visiting the Palace, we finished out the rest of the bus tour and got ourselves back to the hotel for dinner via a local city bus. The locals on the bus were very polite, always saying hello and thank you to the driver. They were also very friendly with us, always asking if we needed help with directions, asking where we are from, etc. I guess it was obvious that we were tourists given our multiple layers of winter clothes - despite the near zero temperatures, the locals were wearing short sleeve shirts, maybe a light sweater at most. The next day, we traveled south to the town of Rosslyn to tour the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, also known as Rosslyn Chapel, founded in 1446 by Sir William St. Clair. This is the Chapel described in the DaVinci Code and is thought to be the resting place of the Holy Grail (theorized in the DaVinci Code to be code name for the Virgin Mary). The inside of the Chapel is mesmerizing. It contains very intricate stone work designed by Prince William, carved first on wood by carpenters, and then into stone by masons. This detailed stone work is in the columns, around windows, in the ceiling, etc. As many people of the era could not read or write, different biblical themes are presented symbolically by carving objects and people in various poses into the stone. The amount of carvings in the chapel and the level of detail to which this is done is really incredible.

Following our chapel tour, we took bus number 15 back to the city. Upon our return, we boarded another city tour bus and went straight to Edinburgh Castle. The Castle sits on a volcanic rock (known as a crag) and has a beautiful spot overlooking the city. The Castle is not that impressive on the inside, however, it does house the Scottish Crown Jewels, which we were able to see. After exploring the Castle, we walked a bit of the Royal Mile, which is a stretch of road connecting the Castle with the Palace. It just happens to be 1 mile long, hence the name. The Royal Mile is filled with shops and restaurants, as well as a cathedral called St. Giles. About a quarter of a mile down the Royal Mile, we hung a left on Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) Street, which leads right onto Waverly Bridge. Waverly Bridge connects the Old Town with the New Town and is also the location where all the tour buses depart from. We hopped on yet another tour bus that took us to the water front, where docked is the Royal Yacht, Britannia. The Britannia was the last of the Yachts serving the Royal Family and was decommissioned several years ago, now serving as a museum of sorts. We took a self guided audio tour while the kids were down for their nap. We saw all the amazing rooms on the ship, which included the royal bedrooms (separate rooms for king and queen), living rooms, dining rooms, galleys, officer’s lounge, post office, infirmary, etc. Most impressive was the grand dining room where all the special functions are hosted. It’s a huge room with a dining table seating 30 or 40 people. The room has plush carpeting which can be rolled up to expose a dance floor. The room also has a projection system that can be used to convert the dining room into a movie theater. Other impressive aspects or factoids about the ship include:

- It contains a separate room housing all of the royal silver – each piece of which had to be polished daily.
- The ship has three separate galleys – one for the Royals, one for the officers, and one for everyone else.
- Whenever a crew member performing his regular duties encountered a Royal, he was to stand perfectly still and stare straight ahead until the Royal left the area.
- There were military musicians on board to strike up a tune whenever the Royals wanted to hear some music.

After the tour, we had a late lunch in a restaurant overlooking the water and the Britannia, and then got back on the tour bus to complete the tour circuit for that particular bus. We returned to Waverly Bridge, decided we had had enough for the day, and returned to the hotel. We originally planned to stay in Edinburgh a full three days, but had already seen everything we wanted to see in two. Therefore, we had an extra day to fill, which we decided we would figure out how to do once we got to Glasgow. As such, in the morning, we took one more bus tour before departing for Glasgow. All the bus tours we took were excellent and had live guides. We learned mostly about all the prominent people who came from the area. Glasgow is the literary capital of the world, producing writers such as Robert Burns, Robert Lewis Stephenson, Sir Conan Doyle, and more recently, JK Rowling (we passed the Elephant Café where she wrote most of the first Harry Potter book). In addition, to writers, many other great minds came from Scotland including James Watt (inventor of the steam engine, which in turn spurred the industrial revolution), and Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of the telephone).

After the bus tour, we went to the train station, which is right below Waverly Bridge, and bought our tickets to Glasgow (9 Euros each). The ride was about 45 minutes. We arrived to Glasgow before noon and got ourselves to the hotel, which was just a few blocks away from the station. We bought another hop on hop off bus pass, good until the end of the following day, and put it right to use. Glasgow is a much more modern city than Edinburgh, and while it has plenty of museums (most of which are free to the public), it does not have the historic sites that we most enjoy. We were able to see most of the sites that afternoon and spent the next day visiting the inside of some of the museums. The first stop was to Glasgow Cathedral, founded by St. Mungo, patron saint of Glasgow. St. Mungo brought Christianity to Glasgow in the 6th century. At the time, he referred to the city as the Dear Green Place, which in Scottish translates into Glasgow, hence how the city got its name. Actually, the name “Mungo” is Scottish for Dear One, which is what the people of the area dubbed this man, whose real name was Kelvin. We next went to the following museums:

- St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art (unique museum that explores the importance of religion in people’s lives across the world and across time)
- Transport Museum
- Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

After museum hopping, we had a late lunch and then did some shopping on Buchanan St, one of the main pedestrian shopping areas in town. After becoming shopped out, we went for a late dinner, which turned out to be a problem. Restaurants need a special license to serve families. Some licenses only allow children in their establishment until 6PM. However, after some searching, we were able to find a restaurant in the train station that had a license to serve until 8PM.

Well at this point, we finished all of our sight seeing as well as our shopping and still had an extra day to kill, so we decided to make a trip to Stirling. Stirling is the entrance way to the Highlands of Scotland (and also the entrance way to the lowlands from the perspective of invaders) and is where William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought their famous battles. Stirling is Northeast of Edinburgh and took us about 1.5 hours to get there with a train/bus combination. When we stepped off the bus, we saw a very long and steep incline leading up to Stirling Castle. Fortunately, one of our favorite hop-on hop-off buses pulled up just as we were getting off the other bus. It took us over Stirling Bridge (where William Wallace fought his famous battle in 1297), to the Wallace Monument, the Robert the Bruce Monument, and finally up to Stirling Castle. The Castle was built by James V and was where Mary was crowned Queen of Scots. It was later abandoned by the Royals and became a barracks for the military. Restoration work began in the late 1900’s and continues on today.
After exploring the castle, we returned to Glasgow and treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner at TGI Fridays, which was a special treat since we do not have one in Zurich.

St. Patrick's day in Dublin

We spent the Easter holidays in Ireland and Scotland - it turned out to be one of our most memorable holidays yet. We have always wanted to go to Dublin for Saint Patrick’s Day, so we planned a trip to arrive on the 16th and depart on the 18th. After the trip had been planned, we found out that the Catholic Church moved the feast day of Saint Patrick to Saturday the 15th. Many cities moved their Saint Patrick’s celebrations to the 15th as well, however, fortunately for us; Dublin was not one of them. We got up bright and early on the 17th and proceeded downtown. We went to the Temple Bar area (large pedestrian area) and had a traditional Irish breakfast at The Boxty House, an Ireland institution. After breakfast, we went to the parade, which starts at Parnell Square, proceeds down O’Connell Street, and then onto Pearse Street running in front of Trinity College, which is right in front of the Temple Bar area. We were situated in front of Trinity College, and having gotten there about an hour early, had secured a pretty decent location from which to see the parade. The parade had started at 12:30, a half hour late due to the tardiness of The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councilor Paddy Bourke. The kids loved seeing the marching bands, floats, and exotic costumes. After a couple of hours the parade was wrapping up so we made our way over to the Guinness brewery in St. James’s Gate.

We took a tour of the storehouse, which consists of 7 floors. It was a special day for the brewery in light of Saint Patrick’s, so they had live music on several floors, including a local marching band on the ground floor. There was also a demonstration of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian blend of martial art, game, and dance created by enslaved Africans in Brazil during the 16th Century. At one point in the demonstration, they invited JP to come out and take part in the show, who amazed the crowd with his version of the art, which looked more like break dancing. The whole Guinness experience turned out to be a really family friendly event (all the real partiers were downtown in the temple bar area), and we all had fun taking part in the celebrations and learning about the brewing process to boot. After the tour, we were all exhausted so we took a taxi back to the hotel (something we rarely do - we always try to soak in the local experience and use the public transport whenever possible). The next day, we flew from Dublin to Edinburgh.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Fin de semana en las montanias

El fin de semana pasado fuimos con los companieros de trabajo de Jim y sus familias a Grindelwald. Es un pequenio pueblo en la region central de Suiza donde la atraccion principal son... adivinaron! las montanias. El anio pasado Jim hizo sus pininos con el "snowboard" y este anio decidio cambiar a los esquies (asi se escribe?). JP por su parte tomo su primera leccion de esquiar y despues yo lo ayude un poco. Syd se quedo en la guarderia en la punta de la montana y yo pues trate de mantenerme de pie, esquiando un poco y ayudando a JP el resto del tiempo. Fue muy divertido y tambien dificil.
En estos fines de semana hay una tradicion. Despues de la cena (que por cierto este anio fue Fundue), a las 10 de la noche bajan de la montana en trineos. El anio pasado solo yo fui y Jim se quedo con los ninos. Este anio, la sobrina de uno de los companieros de Jim fue la ninera oficial asi que este anio pudimos bajar de la montania juntos.
La familia KPMG es una bendicion. El estar fuera de tu pais es aveces triste pero cuando tienes amistades como las que hemos encontrado aqui, hacen la vida de expatriado tan facil.....
Espero poder mas fotos pero aqui van algunas.

Sydney's 4th birthday

Despues de la visita de los Abuelos, nos dispusimos a celebrar el cumple de Syd. El tiempo pasa volando, y ahora con unio mas, Sydney es toda una pre-escolar. Juega con sus muniecas, le encanta el maquillaje (supongo que le podemos agradecer a Abu), y ahora que le ha crecido el cabello, casi todos los dias pide su "colita de cabalo". Aqui hay una fotos para que la vean en accion.

Mom and Dad's visit

Mom and Dad's visit

Mom and Dad arrived on Thursday, February 14th tired and frustrated. They had been rerouted due to weather delays and their luggage did not make it. Instead of arriving in the morning, they finally made it in the late afternoon. After completing the lost baggage forms, we picked up the kids at the day care and had a quiet evening at home. Unfortunately, a good nights rest was not in the cards as Dad fell ill and spent all night throwing up in the bathroom.

Given the horrible night and the jet lag, Mom and Dad spent the morning sleeping in. Sandy and I spent a good part of the morning following up on Mom and Dad's lost luggage, but to no avail. Since we were all leaving for Portugal in the morning, we decided to do some emergency shopping in case the luggage did not make it (which turned out to be a good idea since the luggage did not make it for another 3 days). Sandy got out of work early and took Mom and Dad to pick up the kids at day care. Dad and I then stayed with the kids while Sandy and Mom did some last minute shopping. After the shopping, Sandy made a special dinner (lamb, mmm, my favorite) to celebrate Mom and Dad's visit. We packed, relaxed, and got to bed at a decent hour for the big trip to Portugal.

The next morning, we were all up at 6AM to catch the train to Basel (about an hour train ride) where our flight was leaving from. The plane boarded on time, but once we were on, the flight was delayed for about an hour. We flew from Basel to Porto, Portugal and arrived around noon. It was an easy flight (about 1.5 hours) and the kids slept for most of it. We took the subway to our hotel, which was just about 2 blocks from the subway station and right in the city center. The weather was sunny and warm, so we decided to take advantage of it with an open top, hop on-hop off bus tour. The bus has a red route and a blue route. We decided to do them both and saw:

Ribeira – the part of the city near the water (Douro River)
São Francisco church – amazing woodwork on the inside of this church
House of Music
City Hall
The six bridges connecting Porto with Vila Nova de Gaia
Vila Nova de Gaia – other side of the river – famous for its port wine cellars
Mosteiro da Serra Do Pilar – old monastery which is a World Heritage Site
Estadio Do Dragao (Dragon Stadium)
The Foz – beach area on the Atlantic coast

After the bus tour, we had dinner at the Ribeira and sampled some Portugese chorizo (spicy sausage). We found that in Portugal, it is common for restaurants to bring out dishes that you did not order (in this case, baskets of bread). If you do not eat these extras, you will not be charged for them, which we found out the hard way. We also noted that Porto is a very hilly city. We got our exercise for the evening by walking back to the hotel, which was farther away than what the map indicated, and all up hill.

The next day, we filled up on a huge buffet breakfast at the hotel before heading back out to visit a few spots up close that we had seen the day before on the bus tour. We went to the Mosteiro da Serra Do Pilar, followed by port wine tasting at the Calem port wine cellar. We learned that Port is made from special grapes grown only in the Porto region and fortified with Brandy. We tasted a Tawny, which is a Red Port aged 10-30 years before bottling, as well as a White Port – both were excellent. We then went to Sao Francisco church which has amazing guilded woodwork on the interior. The church is connected to a museum which we also visited. We learned that up until the mid 1500's, Portugal did not have cemeteries, so the dead were buried in churches. This museum housed the church catacombs where we could see piles of human bones. After the church visit, we took a closer look at city hall, and then went back to the hotel for a rest. Mom and Dad took the kids to McDonalds for dinner so that Sandy and I could have a quiet dinner on our own. We walked all the way back down to the restaurants by the river, only to find that they do not open for another hour and a half. So we walked back up and joined Mom, Dad, and the kids at McDonald's for a little snack. After the snack, we got everyone settled in back at the hotel and then went back out for dinner. We made our way back down to the river and picked out one of the 10 or so restaurants on the waterfront. We had some delicious shrimp (gambas) and rice (kind of like a paella). After dinner, we admired the sites on the other side of the river, and took a taxi back to the hotel (by this time, we were sick of the 1 mile walk up the steep hill to get back to the hotel).

The next day, we had another delicious breakfast and got ourselves down to the train station for our next stop, Lisbon. We took a train to another station, where we were scheduled to get our Lisbon train. However, we found out that all the trains to Lisbon had been cancelled due to flooding. So we returned our train tickets, rented a car, and drove to Lisbon. It was a relaxing 3 hour drive. Dad and I chatted in front while Mom and Sandy played games with the kids in the back. We arrived in the early afternoon and picked up some tourist information. We were unable to check into the hotel for another couple of hours and we had the rental car for 24 hours, so we decided to take a drive to the area of Sintra, about 30 minutes away. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of a large park containing three castles. We toured the main castle at the top of the hill and were absolutely amazed – check out the pictures. After the site seeing, we went back to the hotel and got ourselves checked in. Dad and I then dropped off the rental car a couple of blocks away and walked back. On the way back, we spotted a couple of nice restaurants, one of which was right next to the hotel. Since it was late, we went to that one for dinner. We all had the barbecue grill for two, which consisted of various barbecued meats (steak, pork, sausage, beacon) and was absolutely delicious.

This hotel also offered a buffet breakfast, which was not as good as the hotel in Porto, but still pretty respectable. The bus tour we agreed to take this morning did not start until 10AM, so we went down to the city center and hopped on the famous yellow tram number 28 for a short tour of the city. Tram 28 supposedly makes a loop around the city, but we only stayed on long enough to travel through the old neighborhood of Alfama and see a bit of St. Jorge's Castle. We went back down to the city center and bought tickets for the tagus tour, which of the four different bus tours, seemed to offer the best coverage of the cities different attractions. Lisbon is quite a bit larger and more spread out than Porto, we really had to pick and choose where we were going to spend our time. The highlights of this tour were:

Praça do Comércio - large open square facing the water – this is where downtown, as well as all the tours start
Padrão dos Descobrimentos – statue honoring Portugal's early explorers
Belem Tower – actually an old castle that was never completed – see pictures
Baixa – downtown area full of pedestrian shopping areas
Ponte 25 de Abril - sister bridge of the Golden Gate in San Francisco was designed by the same architect in 1966 to connect Lisbon with the Setubal peninsula across the Tagus (Tejo) River. Formerly known as the Salazar Bridge, it was renamed after the Carnation Revolution, which on April 25, 1974 ended the dictatorship.
Cristo Rei - Similar to the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro, this statue stands over 100 meters tall on the opposite bank of the Tejo River from downtown Lisbon.

As one of the stops is at a shopping mall near the hotel, we decided to get off there and take a lunch break. We had lunch, shopped a little bit, and then got back on the next tour bus. We had thoughts about getting off the bus to explore the Belem area, but the kids fell asleep and it started to pour outside, so we stayed on the bus for a few more stops. We got off in the Baixa area and by this time, it stopped raining and the sun was coming out. We did some souvenir shopping for a couple of hours and then caught the last bus back to the shopping mall near the hotel. Mom and Sandy did some shopping while Dad and I looked around a grocery store with the kids. Mom was hoping to find some clothes to supplement the limited selection she was able to bring from home, but could not find anything she liked. We walked back to the hotel and hung out for a little while before dinner. We tried the other place that Dad and I had spotted the night before, which turned out to be a great choice. Dad had the pork and clams, which was an odd combination, but delicious. Mom had the sea bass. Sandy and I split a shrimp and rice dish (huge portion). All in all, a great meal.

The next day, we had a nice breakfast, packed our bags, and took a hotel van to the airport. The flight back was again very easy as the kids slept most of the way. We got back to Basel, took a bus to the train station, and a train back to Zurich. We finally got in about 7PM, at which Mom and Dad had a very welcome surprise - their bags had finally arrived and had been delivered to our apartment. We spent the rest of the evening going through all the presents that Mom and Dad had brought from the US – it was like Christmas morning. Mom noted that Aunt Sue had done most of the shopping, so a big "thank you" to Aunt Sue!

The Portugal trip was fairly active, so we took it easy the following couple of days. On Thursday, Sandy took Mom and Dad souvenir shopping and on Friday, Mom and Dad ventured into the city on their own. They took a city tour in the morning, met Sandy and I for lunch, and then did some shopping on their own before meeting me at the train station to get back home. By this point, Mom and Dad were adjusted enough so that Sandy and I could really take advantage of their visit. So we went out to the movies Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night.

On Saturday, Sandy had purchased day passes a couple months in advance. These day passes allow travel anywhere in Switzerland, so we took the opportunity to go through the Alps down to the southern part of Switzerland. We visited a tiny little town called Locarno. Locarno has a great Mediterranean climate and boasts the most hours of sunlight of any Swiss city. In the morning we visited the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, which is the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared to Fra Bortolomeo d'Ivrea in 1480. For lunch, we treated Mom and Dad to their first Swiss fondue. After lunch, we visited some of the local sites, including Piazza Grande (the main square in the heart of the town), Castello Visconteo (castle dating back to 998), and the Church of Sant' Antonio featuring the altar of the Dead Christ and a beautiful wooden liturgical altar. We caught on ice cream on the way back to the train station and then took another beautiful train ride back home.

On Sunday, we had brunch at a restaurant called "Movie". We all ate way too much and walked it off by doing a lap around the block. We went back home and enjoyed the rest of the sunny and warm afternoon by spending time outdoors with the kids.

On Monday, we took Mom and Dad to see Cirque du Soleil, Delirium. It was an amazing show.
On Tuesday, Mom and Dad took a boat tour on Lake Zurich. After the tour, I took them to do some more souvenir shopping. Afterwards, we went to Sandy's school where she teaches kindergarten 2 days per week. We got a quick tour of Sandy's school before hopping in the car and picking up the kids at their school. We had a nice dinner at home and hit the sack early to get a good night's sleep before the big trip back to the US.