Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas holiday

The next day was Christmas Eve, which we were spending with our friends the Monsch’s. We spent most of the day running errands and getting ready for the party that night. Christian Monsch cooked lamb on the grill as well as his famous chicken/potato salad – it was a feast to remember. The kids also opened a few of their presents. Christmas morning started around 7AM. The kids were excited to find that Santa had come, left presents, and had also eaten the milk and cookies left out for him the night before. JP got the violin he had been requesting for months while Sydney got a “Fur Real” Lamb and a number of “Hello Kitty” items. Presents sent by grandma and grandpa ensured that the kids were unwrapping well into the morning – they loved everything and I think they even got tired of opening presents after a while. We spent the rest of the afternoon organizing and trying to figure out where to put all the new toys, books, and clothes. The day after Christmas is called St. Stephans day and is also a holiday, so everything is closed. Therefore, we did some more organizing and in the afternoon went ice skating for the first time as a family. I had only been on skates once before when I was 4, so it was like the first time for me. JP picked it up very quickly and after only a few minutes was making laps around the rink. Sydney eventually got the hang of it and by the end we were all doing laps together - it was a great time. Afterwards, we went to visit our neighbor Frau Bauman who was in the hospital over Christmas for a shoulder operation.

On the 27th, we celebrated Sandy’s birthday by going skiing. This was another family first. We took a family ski lesson that went from 10-12 and 2-4.

On the 28th, we were exhausted (as grandma Lorrie likes to say). The skiing took a lot out of us, so we recuperated by going to the thermal baths in Baden. The kids were still full of energy and apparently unphased by the long day of skiing the day before.

The 29th was a true recuperation day. I took the kids to Sihlcity, where they play in an indoor playground/daycare center called Kinder Paradise. Sandy hung back to write some reports for school. In the afternoon, we just took it easy and caught up on emails, bloging (hence the amount of updates) and internet surfing.

Kids during Christmas Eve. I will try to get other pictures from the hosts.

Vienna take 3

The temperature was frigid (-15C) and the streets covered with slush, so we decided to spend the day indoors. We hit the first hot spot on our list which is the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts). This is one of the world's greatest art museums and in a palace that's a work of art itself. The mother of all Austrian museums – there is no other word to describe the "Kunst" other than mind boggling. It contains a world-class exhibit of the Habsburgs' art collection, including Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bosch, and Brueghel. Its, at the very least, a full day’s worth of sightseeing, however, with two kids, we cut that down to about 3 hours. The Museum also has an excellent collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art. The coin & medals collection is also exhaustive in its scope. A great attraction of Vienna at Christmas time is its Christmas Markets. They have about 8 in different locations around the city. Right outside the museum is a square called Maria-Theresien-Platz, which is home to one of the Christmas Markets. We braved the cold for about half an hour to explore this Christmas Market before wandering off to find a restaurant for dinner. We passed by another travel information office which happened to be open, so we went inside for a recommendation. The recommended spot was right down the street, so we went for it. It was a little pricy, but worth it for some traditional Viennese food. Portions are pretty big, so we would usually end up ordering food for 3 and splitting it amongst the four of us. Traditional food is also fairly heavy with soups like goulash and main dishes like wienerschnitzel. The next day, we decided to hit the Natural History Museum, which sits opposite the Museum of Fine Arts in Maria-Theresien-Platz visited the day before. This museum was erected as a mirror to its twin museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts). It exhibits various minerals (e.g. a collection of meteorites), fossils, stuffed animals, and skeleton reconstructions (among others, dinosaurs' skeletons). It also includes an anthropological section, where you can see the beautiful Venus of Willendorf which is 25,000 years old! It was a big hit with the kids. After taking a lunch break, this time Greek food, we ventured out to visit some of the beautiful churches. The first stop was Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral), in Stephansplatz. This is a patchwork of architectural styles, but predominantly Gothic. None of the original construction remains—the oldest extant sections are the thirteenth century Giant Gate (Riesentor) and Towers of the Heathens (Heidentürme), both of which are Romanesque. The 448 ft South Tower (Südturm), often known by its Viennese diminutive Steffl (also a nickname for the entire cathedral), was finished in 1433. This is where the Pummerin, a huge bell cast from melted-down Turkish cannons, hangs. Steffl's intended twin, the North Tower (Nordturm), was never finished. In 1511, building in Gothic style ceased due to being out of fashion. Over fifty years later, in 1579, a Renaissance spire was added to the Nordturm to make it look less like the builders had stormed off the job. The main altar has a Baroque panel showing St. Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr. The next stop was the Augustinian Friars' Church (Augustinerkirche), in Josefsplatz. It's said that other dynasties waged countless wars to acquire new lands, but "you, happy Austria, marry." Even in death the Habsburgs placated three different churches with the honor of caring for their remains. The best known, the Kapuzinergruft, contain their actual bodies. St Stephens holds their innards (intestines and other parts taken out during the preservation process). But the Augustinerkirche holds, in the Herzgruft (Heart Crypt), all the Habsburgs' hearts. The tradition began in 1627 with Emperor Ferdinand IV, who wanted to "lay his heart at the feet of the Mother of God" - literally. His heart, and those of his descendants, are preserved in silver jars which are carefully cared for by the Augustinian friars who run the church. The final stop on our church tour was Karlskirche in Karlsplatz. This is the largest Baroque cathedral north of the Alps, designed by the famous architect Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. Frescos done by Michael Rottmayr and paintings from the Italian Baroque painters Sebastiano Ricci and Giuseppe Antonio Pellegrini, and the Austrian painter Daniel Gran. Again, at end of the day, we visited another Christmas Market, this one right outside Karlskirche. Since we were close to the Opera House we decided to see if we could get some tickets. Friends of ours (the Kelsos) told us about standing room tickets that were available at a fraction of the price of regular seating. Since we did not have a baby sitter, we would not be able to sit for the entire theater anyway, so we tried our luck. We waited in line for about half an hour, but were lucky enough to get standing room tickets for only 4 Euros each to see that night’s performance of Macbeth. We grabbed a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant and then came back to the Opera. The Opera House is probably the most-beloved symbol of Viennese arts, and one of the first buildings to be rebuilt in the postwar era. It was built from 1861-1869 under the direction of architects Eduard van der Nüll and August von Siccardsburg for then-emperor Franz Josef I. The first performance was Don Giovanni, an opera by Austrian native Mozart, on 25 May 1869. Though now as well-loved as any member of the family, the architecture of the Opera was barely tolerated by the picky Viennese when it opened. Van der Nüll did not take these criticisms of his work lightly and committed suicide. A few weeks later, von Siccardsburg died of a heart attack. Doubly cursed, the Opera building succumbed to bombs less than 100 years later, during WWII. After ten years of Allied control after the end of the war, many cultural institutions reopened to celebrate the birth of the new Austrian state. This time the Opera opened with an adopted son of Vienna's work: Beethoven's Fidelio. The lush curtains and overall elegance contribute to the atmosphere of the Opera (even the nosebleed seats, so steeply pitched and close to the ceiling a nosebleed becomes a distinct possibility). We managed to see the first act which lasted about 25 minutes, before the kids started to get restless. We watched the second act on a TV monitor in the bar area and then decided to call it quits for the night. It was disappointing to not see more, but with the kids, we had no expectations to see more, and were just happy to experience Viennese Opera.

The next day we got up early to try and get tickets for the morning practice session of the Spanish Riding School - Spanische Hofreitschule which was first mentioned in a document dated 1572 and is the only equestrian institute in the world which follows a Renaissance model of classical schooling. Eleves, or students, begin their training immediately after completion of Austrian primary education (age 15 or 16), and are expected to be both sporty and clever. The school takes its name from a Spanish breed of horse first mentioned in Roman writings. In 1562, Emperor Maximilian II brought some of these Spanish horses to Austria to found a royal stud farm in Kladrub (Bohemia), housing them for a time in the "Stallburg" (oldest section of the Imperial Palace). The present school location was built in 1572. In 1580, Maximilian's brother, Archduke Karl, founded the stud farm in Lipizza near Trieste (now Slovenia). Interest in elegant riding had been growing for about fifty years at that point. During Renaissance times, powerful gentlemen who had already conquered the worlds of finance and politics looked to the writings of antiquity for new learning and an educated lifestyle to which they could aspire. Horsemanship which followed the ancient models described by Socrates and others became the fashion. Xenophon (430 – 354 BC) wrote "Men who understand the art of horsemanship, in truth, look magnificent." Who wouldn't want that? In the new Winter Riding School (built 1729-35), tournaments, masked balls, and other entertainment was held, but this would soon draw to a close – the royal stud farms at Lipizza were threatened by Napoleon several times and twice the precious stud horses were evacuated to Hungary. We were successfully in getting tickets and watched about an hour and a half of the 2 hour practice session. Many of the horses are white stallions and are really remarkable to watch. We had also hoped to get tickets to the Vienna Boys Choir, but as it turned out, they only perform on Sundays. The Vienna Boys Choir was founded at the pleasure of the Habsburgs. On 20 July 1498, Emperor Maximilian decided to hire six singing boys, the first permanent boys choir attached to the court. He also made arrangements for their education – fringe benefits that are difficult to get from a modern employer. The choir served the monarchy until its demise at the beginning of the first World War. The last Imperial Chaplain, Monsignor Josef Schnitt reestablished the Boys Choir as the "Vienna Boys Choir" in 1924 as a private institution. To earn money, the Choir began to perform outside the Imperial Chapel. Even though they are a not-for-profit organization, the rising costs of educating the choristers from a very young age as well as providing music and all the other variables required made establishing the Verein Wiener Sängerknaben necessary. In the afternoon, we headed to Schloss Schönbrunn. Schönbrunn is the ultimate palace experience in Vienna, because the Habsburg summer palace can be found here. It is comparable in grandeur to Versailles and is definitely a must-see in Vienna. The palace has also seen its fair share of excitement over the years, including a meeting between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschchev at the height of the Cold War. The Palace Park offers a lot of attractions, such as the Privy Garden, a Maze and Labyrinth, and the top-of-the-hill Gloriette with its Panorama Terrace. We took the Grand Tour, which is an audio guided tour of 40 rooms. The kids did surprisingly well as they had their own audio guides. There is a Christmas Market at Schönbrunn, which we visited after completing the tour and then went to the Christmas Market at the Rathaus (town hall). This one is more of a fairground than a Christmas Market, and is Vienna's largest and busiest. It is located on the large town square between Rathaus and Burgtheater. There was also an indoor portion where kids can build crafts like candles and picture frames. JP and Syd were interested in taking part so they each built their own Christmas gift while Sandy and I took advantage of the break to relax and warm up. After the Christmas Market, we found a great local restaurant and had a nice relaxing final dinner.

The next day, we were traveling back to Zurich, but wanted to hit a couple of spots before we got on the road. We went to KunstHausWien (Vienna House of the Arts), which we only wanted to see from the outside. The architecture of KunstHausWien would be a bastion against the dictatorship of the straight line, the ruler and T-square, a bridgehead against the grid system and the chaos of the absurd. Starting with the façade of the building, adapted from its prior life as a furniture factory, there is a Gaudi-in-Barcelona feel to the place. Windows peek out like eyes from curvy, rounded plaster and colorful paint. It's a Disneyland for grownups! Aterwards, we went to the Hundertwasserhaus and the shopping village situated about 300m from KunstHausWien. Again, very similar to Gaudi. We had hopes of seeing two other places, but it was not in the cards for this trip:
Freud Museum - This small museum is situated in Freud's historic flat where he practiced psychoanalysis for almost his whole life. However, the collection is limited mostly to documents of various kinds relating to Freud's life. Almost all of the flat's contents, including the famous original couch, went along with Freud to London when he fled the Nazis in 1939 and are now in the Freud Museum there.
Mozart House - This is the Viennese residence of Austria's most famous composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and a branch of the Vienna Museum.
After visitng the Hunderwasserhaus, we started our drive back to Zurich. We thought about visiting Salzburg on the way back, but decided to power through and save Salzburg for another day. We got home about 6PM, relaxed for a little bit, and then went straight to bed.

Vienna take 2

We spent the first part of the holidays this year in Vienna, Austria. We left on a Saturday morning and began the 8 hour drive to Linz, which is located just outside Vienna. Our plan was to get in early so that we could explore Linz, but the weather was not agreeable. Once we got out of Zurich, snow began to accumulate on the highways, so the traffic was moving pretty slow. We made a couple stops for food before arriving at our hotel at about 8PM, so no opportunity to explore Linz. Fortunately, the small family operated hotel also had a restaurant, so we ordered up some food and just ate in the room. The next morning, we were up early and on our way to Vienna. We arrived about 2 hours later and since the travel information office was closed, we went straight to the hotel located right around the corner from Prater Park. The Prater Park began its life, as so many European parks did, as a carriage-riding area for the nobility. The Park houses “The Riesenrad” (the giant Ferris wheel) and has become a well-known symbol of Vienna, featured in many movies (most famously The Third Man; also Before Sunrise and Ethan Hawke). The weirdest attraction in the Prater, though, is the Kugelmugel, a spherical house that, after failing to get a planning permit, declared independence from Austria. Originally built elsewhere, it was forcibly carted off to the Prater by Austrian authorities and now sits uninhabited and fenced off with barbed wire. We got the hotel and were fortunately able to check in even though it was only about 11AM. On our final leg in to Vienna, we did some quick reading and decided the best way to get around is with the Vienna card, which allows 3 days of unlimited public transportation not to mention discounts in quite a few museums and restaurants. As we were only going to be there 3 days, it was the perfect solution for us. So we ditched the car, purchased our Vienna cards, and headed by subway into the old town (The subway system in Vienna is very good. It also has trams and buses and like Zurich the transportation network is very reliable).
Sandy hates it when I do this, but here is just a little background info on Vienna:
Vienna is the capital of the Republic of Austria. It is by far the largest city in Austria (pop.~ 1.7m), as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre. As the former home of the Habsburg court and its various empires, the city still has the trappings of the imperial capital it once was, and the historic city centre is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The low-lying Danube plain in and around what is now Vienna has had a human population since at least the late Paleolithic: one of the city's most famous artifacts, the 24,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, now in Vienna's Natural History Museum, was found nearby. Vienna's own recorded history began with the Romans, who founded it in the 1st Century CE as Vindobona, one of a line of Roman defensive outposts against Germanic tribes. Vindobona's central garrison was on the site of what is now the Hoher Markt (the "High Market" due to its relative height over the Danube), and you can still see the excavations of its foundations there today.
Vienna hosted the Habsburg court for several centuries, first as the Imperial seat of the Holy Roman Empire, then the capital of the Austrian Empire, and later of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which finally fell in 1918 with the abdication of the last Emperor Karl I. The court tremendously influenced the culture that exists here even today: Vienna's residents are often overly formal, with small doses of courtliness, polite forms of address, and formal dress attire. One of the many paradoxes of the quirky city is that its residents can be equally modern and progressive as they are extremely old-fashioned.
Vienna has a reputation for having an excellent coffee culture. Vienna prides itself of its dozens of varieties of different coffees: Order a "Kleiner Schwarzer" if you want black espresso, a "Kleiner Brauner" if you want espresso with a little milk, a "Melange" if you prefer a cappuccino-style mix of coffee and milk and a "Kaffee Verkehrt" (or in the more modern places a "Kaffee Latte") if you like latte macchiato-style coffee with lots of milk. Most cafés in addition to coffee serve beer and wine and sometimes liqueurs. Many serve meals, especially at lunch, and these are often cheaper than in restaurants.

Vienna before Christmas

JP playing the violin

Santa brought JP a violin. He has been practicing and today he played seven consecutive notes of Twinkle Twinkle. This violin is borrowed. Our music teacher from school is bringing JP a new violin from Poland. We are very excited for him. This is a family effort though: Sydney taking the back seat, while Jim teaches me the very basics and then I teach JP; poor guy! He might be able to join the beginners strings class at school.

Ice skating in Zurich

Jim found a place to ice skate in the city, right in the court yard of the Landes Museum. It was another first as a family. JP took some lessons a couple of years ago but he didn't seem to care much about it. We tried it last week and it was really funny to see the kids (and Jim) in action.

Skiing at Hoch-Ybrig

Sydney tried for the first time skiing. She was fantastic, better than expected. JP of course is a natural and just wanted to get to the next slope after trying three small hills for beginners. We all enjoyed a family class with a great instructor who spoke great English with us and Swiss German with the kids. This was actually my bd present and I highly enjoyed it. There are no travel plans in the future except for skiing day trips over the next couple of months.

Let the skiing season begin

We got our ski equipment for this season. JP is super excited to try again this year. Sydney spoted some pinkish boots and that made her change her mind to try skiing too. Here are some pics of the kids choosing their stuff.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas

We chose the Lindt Chocolate Factory - Zurich - as the background of our Christmas picture. We hope everybody enjoys this holiday season and we send best wishes where ever you are.

Sami Claus - Dec 6

We were able to catch the official charity ride for the Kinderspital Zurich. This is a parade of close to 100 Santas on Harleys. It started at Sihlcity - certainly a spectacular show to watch and hear.

Ginger bread house

Sandy had to put together a ginger bread house for her classroom. Here is the final product and it was all edible.


No pics from Thanksgiving. We did have a blast celebrating with our friends the Monsches and the McDonalds. The kids had fun and we ate almost as much as we could've had in Syracuse. We of course missed Aunt Suzzy's pies assortment.

Jim ventured and prepared deviled eggs with no recipe... it was a hit and had no left overs =)

Visita del raton

La hada de los dientes, mejor conocida como el raton en Mexico, visito por primera vez la familia McKenney Guendulain. JP perdio su primer diente en Nov 20. Estaba comiendo pizza y de repente se le cayo el diente en el plato haciendo un sonido 'clinck'. El raton le trajo 5 francos que ahora estan en un frasco a lado de su cama. El dentista nos advirtio que JP lo visitara muchas veces pues no tiene mucho espacio. De hecho el nuevo diente viene rotado casi 90 grados....

Christmas in a shoe box project

This past November, the KPMG International Accounting Dept. donated money, time and labor to put togehter 39 shoe boxes sent to Moldovia for Christmas 2009. This was a great project to work on and we are looking forward to working on it again this next year.