Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We're Off to the Unknown (and Unwired) World

In a few hours we'll be on a train to Adelboden, in the Bernese Alps, via Spiez.  It's about a 2 1/2 hour ride from here in Zurich.  Hope the weather's clear because I know the route is stunningly beautiful.  And I hope the girls look up from their iPhones once in awhile to appreciate it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

First Day in Zurich

Our first full day of the big Girl Scout trip is slowly winding down here.  The girls are yawning and in their jammies, although still yammering away about all their new experiences today.  “Why are all the cars so small?”  “Why does the Starbucks coffee taste different?”  “What does Bahnhof mean?”  “Why does everyone smoke here?”  And, of course, “Why is everything so expensive?!”

We spent the day sightseeing here in Zurich, fortunate enough to have clear, dry weather.  Stopped in the Grossmünster Church, the Fraumünster Church with beautiful stained glass windows painted by Chagall (verboten photo I took is shown below,) walked along the Limmat River, and sampled truffles at Sprüngli Chocolate.  I’m only disappointed that Lake Zurich was not worth strolling, as it was completely shrouded in fog.  Pity the girls won’t get to see the gorgeous surrounding landscape reflected in the shimmering waters of the lake.

Stained glass by Marc Chagall at Fraumünsterkirche.

One other misfortune:  one of our eight girls was sick with the stomach flu today.  She missed everything, I’m sorry to say.  She’s feeling better now, but God help us if the bug passes successively to every one of us.  Tomorrow is a long day of train and bus travel we all need to rustle up for.  Cross your fingers for us!

In front of Sprüngli Chocolate.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Adventure

Merry Christmas!  The adventure has begun.  I am sitting at San Francisco airport with 8 teenage Girl Scouts (and two other adult chaperones) waiting for our flight to Zurich.  We decided just to make the best of our 6 hour layover here (thanks to American Airlines canceling three later flights) and are just resting, exploring, and eating lunch.  Hooray for free wifi at SFO so that I can blog, at least.  Don't know how many chances I'll have to connect in Switzerland.

Note for the future:  the airports are empty on Christmas Day.  We breezed through security and have plenty of room to stretch out and relax.

We will spend two nights in Zurich and then head over to the little town of Adelboden in the Bernese Alps to stay at the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts international program center.  Looking forward to a good time!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's a Pickle

There is a Christmas tradition that supposedly originated in Germany, though no German family I know has ever heard of it.  My mother certainly never has.  It is the legend of the pickle ornament.  Supposedly a Christmas ornament in the shape of a pickle is hidden somewhere on the tree by parents and the first child to find the pickle gets to open the first gift from Santa.

Upon researching this legend on the web, I have found abundant evidence that it is not a German custom.  Every site I checked said every native German they checked with had never heard of the pickle ornament.  So there.  It's confirmed.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Have you kissed under the mistletoe yet this year?  Or if you’re a single woman, have you put a sprig of it under your pillow yet this year?  Kissing under it will bring you good luck, as we know, but did you know that putting it under your pillow will allow you to dream of your Prince Charming?

Frigga, Norse goddess
of love and beauty.
These legends are thought to have originated in Norway with the Vikings.  It is said that Balder, the son of Frigga, the goddess of love and beauty, was killed by a dart poisoned with mistletoe.  Frigga then cried so many tears they changed mistletoe berries from red to white and raised Balder from the dead.  Frigga was so grateful she kissed everyone from then on who walked under the mistletoe.

Mistletoe was a mysterious plant to early civilizations because it has no roots of its own.  It is a parasitic plant that sprouts from bird feces and can eventually take over and kill its host trees.  

Norway's history is steeped in Viking mythology and Norse legends and a beautiful, picturesque Scandinavian country to visit.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg

Just received this postcard in the mail from my cousin and his girlfriend in Germany.  They live in Nürnberg, or Nuremberg, and just love the city.  When they were here over the summer they told us about the gorgeous Christkindlesmarkt, or Christmas Market, held every December in the large market square.  About 180 beautifully decorated wooden stalls sell gingerbread, baked goods, wood-carved Christmas wares, ornaments, and crafts, including the well-known "Nuremberg Plum People," little figures made from prunes.  The Christmas market draws well over a million visitors every year.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Movie Monday: Scrooge

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as a weekly feature to recommend films that might expose children and their families to any small bit of European history, folklore, scenery, or animated imagery as entertainment, perhaps new knowledge, or just a couple of hours of electronic babysitting.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

Acquaint your family with the haunts and landmarks of a Victorian London Christmas by watching this musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' 1843 novelette, Scrooge.  Filmed in the U.K. in 1970, it stars Albert Finney as Ebenezer Scrooge and Alec Guinness as Marley's ghost.  Even though this film is rated G, some of the more intense scenes involving the three ghosts may not be suitable for very small children, but that's what the fast-forward button is for.  The songs are entertaining, and Scrooge's change of heart from cold-souled miser to grateful individual after the spirit visitations on Christmas Eve make for a happy ending and holiday message the whole family will enjoy.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Support Passports With Purpose

Just want to give a little plug for my fellow travelbloggers who are hosting the fourth annual Passports With Purpose charity fundraiser.  The cause this year is to raise $80,000 to build two libraries for children in Zambia through a partnership with Room to Read.  With as little as a $10 donation, you can enter a drawing for the prize of your choice.  Check out some of the prizes:

•  110,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points
•  A five night stay in Budapest
•  A one week apartment stay in Assisi, Umbria
•  Two nights at a B&B in Ireland
•   A $500 voucher for an apartment stay in Europe
•  A 15-day 1st class Eurail Pass
•  A private tour of Florence's Central Market
•  Lots of travel gear, electronics, and clothing!

Donations for prizes close on December 16, when winners will be randomly selected.

Passport With Purpose was founded in 2008 by Debbie Dubrow, Pam Mandel, Beth Whitman and Michelle Duffy.  These women travelers host terrific travel blogs as well.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Photo Friday: Appenzell

Yes, I've got Switzerland on the brain.  This is the town of Appenzell, during the ceremonial descent of the village cows in the fall.

See more travel photos every Photo Friday at

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Current Currency Correction

The Swiss franc today is at $1.08.  When my Girl Scout troop originally budgeted our Switzerland trip the cost was 97¢, but a few months ago when I priced everything again the rate was $1.23, so I'm not going to complain.  I purchased about $200 in Swiss francs over the summer so we wouldn't arrive empty handed, and last week I foraged through hubby's and my shoebox, kept in the closet, full of discarded foreign coins.  There must have been hundreds of rupees, yens, liras, German marks, and Swedish kronor, but only 8.42 in Swiss francs.  At least we'll have some coins to pay the toilet lady at the Zurich train station if we need to.

My daughter asked me the other day, "Why don't we just get a whole bunch of Swiss francs, and then if we don't use them, convert them back to dollars?"  I explained the game to her - how you lose money with every conversion and transaction.  Remember how tricky it was before the Euro?  Every country had their own currency and you had to constantly figure out how to exchange enough money at once so as not to incur too many transaction fees, but not to exchange too much and have any left over.  Once on a flight home from Europe, the flight attendants passed around a hat allowing for passengers to toss in any unwanted coins.  They were going to donate them to charity.  I thought it was a terrific idea.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Blue Christmas

None of us wanted to depart on Christmas.  Everyone would rather spend the day with their family.  But since the airfare was almost $300 cheaper to travel on Christmas Day, we reluctantly agreed it was worth it.  Besides, the flight was perfect:  departing at 4:30 p.m. on American Airlines to San Francisco, it allowed us Christmas morning at home before we had to head to the airport.  Then there was just a 1 1/2 hour layover at SFO, followed by a direct flight on Swiss Air to Zurich.

But that was all before American Airlines changed our departure 4 times!!!!  Yes, 4 times so far.  I suspect it could still change again.  First AA said sorry, the 4:30 p.m. flight to SFO has been cancelled.  We rebooked your party of 11 on the 7:00 a.m. flight.  Whaaa??????  Are they, like, insane?  Eight young girls and their three stressed out chaperones with an 11 hour layover ON CHRISTMAS DAY???  I objected, and they switched us to a 2:30 p.m. departure.  Hmmph - now we have a 3 1/2 hour layover on Christmas Day.  Two weeks later came the next email from American:  the flight is rescheduled to depart at 12:30 p.m. - now the delay is 5 1/2 hours.  One week later:  flight rescheduled for 12:00 p.m.  I start to cry.  There goes Christmas with our families.  We'll be leaving pretty much first thing in the morning now just to get to the airport on time.

Can you imagine sitting with 8 teenagers at the airport for 6 HOURS on Christmas Day?  How sad is that?  Not to mention sitting on an 11 hour flight after that.  American Airlines has no sympathy for our situation, however.  Although there are dozens of flights every day from here to SFO, even on Christmas Day, American will not book us on another airline, even one of their partner carriers.  Their alternative??  "You can just cancel your trip."

Although our American Airlines flight is only one tiny segment of our itinerary (the other three segments are on Swiss Air and Alaska Airlines), our fate is in their hands.  Apparently the whole itinerary was ticketed by American (I booked through Vayama) so only American can change it.  And they're not willing.

Oh, and now they declared bankruptcy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Photo Friday: The Countdown Begins

Happy cows in Switzerland.

Now that it's December, the countdown to Switzerland begins.  My daughter and the other seven girls in her Girl Scout troop have been planning and fundraising and saving for three years to travel to Switzerland.  Why Switzerland?  Because one of only four Girl Scout international program centers is in the Alps in the town of Adelboden, Switzerland, and when they were in 7th grade they saw a picture of that cute little chalet in the snow and decided they wanted to visit.  They are now in 10th grade, and we leave on December 25th.  I am so proud of them.

Check out other Photo Friday posts at

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Story of the Adventskalender

Every year since my children were little, my mother brings them each a chocolate Advent calendar on December 1st.  My mother, as you may know from previous posts, is from Germany, and the Adventskalender is a German invention.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, Germans would count down the 24 days leading up to Christmas, usually just with tick marks on the ground or on the wall.  A man named Gerhard Lang is credited with printing the first color Advent calendar with 24 little pictures in Munich in 1908.  Several years later he created the calendar with 24 little doors, or flaps.  Behind each door was a Christmas scene or motif.  Chocolate Advent calendars came much, much later, of course, as Christmas became more commercialized, but generally the calendars are one way to get children involved in the spirit of Advent.

Two of the world's largest Advent calendars can be found in Germany, both in the façades of their cute little towns' city hall buildings.  The first is in Gengenbach, on the edge of the Black Forest, where the rectangular Rathaus (city hall) happens to have exactly 24 windows (two rows of 11 plus 2 in the roof).  A Christmas scene is painted in each window and unveiled one by one as Advent progresses.

Rathaus, or city hall, in Gengenbach.

A second beautiful, larger-than-life Advent calendar is in the town of Hünfeld near Fulda, just about smack dab in the center of Germany.  The charming, turreted little Rathaus also has just enough front windows to accommodate 24 unique Christmas scenes that are revealed one by one at night throughout the season of Advent.

Rathaus in Hünfeld.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holiday Shopping Ideas for Traveling Kids

Want to get your kids fired up for a European adventure?  Teach them a little geography or history of the European continent?  There are some fantastic children's books with just that idea in mind, and they would make terrific holiday gifts.

Check out the travel books recommended for kids by Travel for Kids at their website.  A couple of my favorite reads are:

David Robert Hogg at My Little Nomads also makes some great book recommendations on his website.  I like:

Happy shopping!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie Monday: Kidnapped

•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •
To Europe With Kids presents Movie Monday as a weekly feature to recommend films that might expose children and their families to any small bit of European history, folklore, scenery, or animated imagery as entertainment, perhaps new knowledge, or just a couple of hours of electronic babysitting.
•  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •  •

Another Walt Disney movie filmed in the rocky, mountainous region of the Scottish Highlands is the 1960 classic Kidnapped starring Peter Finch and Peter O'Toole.  Young boys will love the action and the sword fighting in this adventure film about a 16 year old lad cheated out of his inheritance by his cruel uncle and shanghaied aboard a ship to the New World.  The teenager escapes, has a run-in with the redcoats, and eventually recovers his lost inheritance.

In this film you will get a glimpse of the glorious empty grandeur of the Scottish Highlands.  A region that still today is very sparsely populated, it is rich in natural beauty and surrounded by vast, rugged mountain ranges, windswept islands, secluded beaches and captivating scenery.

Friday, November 25, 2011

. . . and Christmas Begins With a Vengeance

Are you a Black Friday shopper?  I am not.  There are parallels in my mind between the frenzied, scrambling shoppers on Black Friday and the participants in the running of the bulls competition in Pamplona.

Parking headaches.

Waiting for the stores to open.

Dodging the crowds.

The incessant holiday music.

Not liking what you see in the dressing room mirror.

Runaway deals.

Battle scars.

And the exhaustion when it's all over.

Disclaimer:  I have never been to Pamplona or the running of the bulls.  These images were taken from Google.  I have, however, been shopping on Black Friday, only without my camera.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Busiest Flying Day

Today, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is always the busiest flying day of the year.
Are you at an airport today?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Special Delivery!

Look what arrived in the mail today:  eleven Swiss rail passes!

We ended up getting the Swiss Saver Flexipass for 4 days within 1 month.  What this means is that we can hop on and off trains within Switzerland all day, on any four days, within a one month period.  (Back in the good 'ol days you really could hop on and off trains at random, but now most trains require a seat reservation, so that takes a bit of the spontaneity out of it.)  Anyway, one of our days will be to get from Zurich to Adelboden and another will be to get from Adelboden to the Zurich airport to go home.  That leaves two remaining travel days!  As I've posted before, we'll probably go to Gruyères one day and on a mountaintop excursion the other.

I purchased the rail passes from Rail Europe, and because we are a group larger than 9 people I couldn't order on-line, but rather via email/telephone with one of their Group Consultants.  I truly appreciated that it was the same consultant I worked with every time I called or emailed throughout the entire 8 months of our correspondence.  She was extremely helpful and responsive, too.

The value of a rail pass is excellent.  We paid $267 for the adult pass and $157 for the child pass.  Bonus for my group of high school sophomores:  a child in Switzerland is age 15 and under.  (One of the girls is already 16 - she was disappointed, of course.)  Bonus for the three adults traveling along with their daughters:  their daughters travel FREE.

If you calculate point-to-point rail ticket prices and compare to the pass, the savings are extreme.  For example, each of our trips to and from Zurich and Adelboden would cost $100.  Add the trip to Gruyères and a mountaintop and you're well over the price of the pass.  Plus, the Swiss Pass gives you free travel on lake steamers, buses, and a 50% discount on most private mountaintop trains and cable cars.

My Group Consultant at Rail Europe was also able to confirm our seat reservations on our two definite trains, so that is reassurance for me.  Plus, it's nice to pay those reservation fees in dollars instead of Swiss francs.  All around, my experience with Rail Europe was recommendable.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Photo Friday: Carcassonne, France

The enormous medieval fortress of Carcassonne, France, at night.  A fantasyland destination for kids.

This post is part of Photo Friday at

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Who is Oswald Von Wolkenstein?

The region of South Tirol in northern Italy is so much more like Germany or Austria than Italy, with its tall steepled churches, picture-book chalets, and snow-covered mountains.  Local restaurants serve wurst and sauerkraut, and in many of the villages German is the predominant language, not Italian.  The town of Kastelruth (Castelrotto in Italian) is one of those charming little villages, symbolized by the tallest (and probably the loudest!) bell tower in the region.  The local townspeople enjoy celebrating their folklore and often dress in traditional costume, making it a delightful place to visit.

One of Kastelruth's annual traditions takes place on the streets every year in June and is known as the Oswald von Wolkenstein Ride.  Who is Oswald von Wolkenstein??  Well, he was a South Tyrolean poet, composer and troubadour in the 14th and 15th century who was admired for his diplomacy and military conquests.  In 1983 a medieval horse show was organized in Kastelruth to honor von Wolkenstein, and the event has increased in popularity ever since.

The three day festivities begin on a Friday with a village fair and the usual food, drink, and merriment.  On Saturday there is an opening pageant with bands, carriages, horses and knights followed by concerts, medieval markets, knight's games, and fireworks.  The riding tournaments, which actually begin on Sunday, consist of 36 equestrian teams competing in events that test medieval horsemanship skills such as spearing rings at full gallop, jumping hurdles, slalom gates, and negotiating a labyrinth.  It's a thrilling show to watch and reminds me of the terrific jousting shows in Carcassonne, France.

The final tournament and awards ceremony take place at Prösels Castle (Castello di Presule in Italian) below the Schlern mountain nearby, and is followed by more celebrating and medieval festivity.  Kastelruth is the ideal home base for exploring the Alps, the Dolomites, and the annual Oswald Von Wolkenstein Ride!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Free Bathrooms in Switzerland

Tip of the day:  The large supermarket chain of Migros, in Switzerland, has free bathrooms.  My group of 11 will be grateful for this, I'm sure, when we're sightseeing around town. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Girl Scout International Fair

Just returned from an International Fair hosted by my daughter's Girl Scout troop.  What a terrific way to expose young girls to other countries and cultures!  Each participating Brownie or Junior troop chose a country to exhibit with a poster board of facts and photos, some food or snack from that country, and a craft or costume.  The event opened with a parade of countries, each troop waving their flag.  Then, every girl had a "passport" and she could visit the exhibits, get her passport stamped, and sample the food.  Later, each troop performed a native dance from their country or sang a song or recited facts.

I loved the little Brownies representing France, who wore berets with French poodle neck scarves and served a slice of baguette with a wedge of brie on red, blue and white paper plates.  And I also admired the girls who chose Turkey, attired in head scarves and traditional dress, and the Englanders serving tea.  I think lots of little girls left the fair today with more knowledge of the world, and that's such a good thing.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11/11/11 at 11:11

Last year I speculated in a post about what would happen November 11th in 2011.  Not the end of the world or the planets aligning or anything like that, but regarding the parties marking the beginning of Carnival.  You see, even though most Carnival celebrations don't get serious until right before Ash Wednesday, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, there are some countries where the official start of the festival season is 11/11 at 11:11 a.m.  So I'm thinking this must be a REALLY big year for them.

The wildest celebrations of the 11/11 date take place every year in Cologne, Germany.  The revelers dress up in costumes and take to the streets, dancing and drinking, getting ready for weeks of partying.  Different groups hold parades and provide street entertainment; bars and beergartens are crowded.

The Cologne Cathedral

The city of Düsseldorf is a strong contender for 11/11 party central.  The day is called Hoppeditz Awakening here, named after a tradition based on the Hoppeditz character, who is sort of a carnival fool, or jester.  Hoppeditz reawakens every year on 11/11 at 11:11 a.m. on the Marktplatz in front of the town hall to open the Düsseldorf Karneval.  He begins by lampooning local politics, and he and the mayor engage in some good-natured hectoring, before the program continues on Burgplatz.  More than 300 carnival sessions and costume balls are celebrated in Düsseldorf between Hoppeditz Awakening and Ash Wednesday.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holland Through a Child's Eyes

When I downloaded my then 11 year-old's camera with photos from Holland two summers ago, I didn't think much of them other than he's got a lot to learn about taking pictures.  Of course having a cheapo digital camera didn't help the quality, but looking at his photos of Amsterdam, Gouda, Delft, and Rotterdam now, I realize that some of them are actually quite creative, and an interesting look at Holland through a child's eyes.  Look what impressed him in Holland (the first one for obvious reasons.)

This one was actually taken in Heidelberg, Germany, but I couldn't exclude it.
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