SJ on the Move

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Brussels Day 2

Our next day in Brussels, SJ and her mom hung out at the playground for the morning while I gave a presentation. In the afternoon, we decided to take a bus tour of Brussels, since many of the tourist attractions aside from the Grand Place are a bit spread out.

The most notable attraction we saw on our tour was the Atomium, a 165 billion times larger model of an iron atom that was created for the World's Fair in Brussels in 1958. It was originally designed to be torn down after the World's Fair, but became an icon for the city and was recently restored.

One of the things that's really great about having kids is hearing them say bizarre words like "Atomium". SJ was quite taken by the Atomium, and couldn't stop talking about it.

The other significant visit of the day was to Mary's Chocolates in Brussels, who is the official chocolatier of the royal family in Brussels. Her shop has pictures on the wall of famous people visiting the store, including of course the King of Brussels, but also George and Laura Bush.

The chocolates were definitely pricey, but we have to admit they were quite exceptional. We purchased some other chocolates in Belgium as well, but we were quite spoiled after trying the chocolates at Mary's.

In the evening we took a short train ride to the next stop on our Belgium tour, Ghent.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Off to Brussels

I had a business meeting in Brussels, so it was a good opportunity to take along the whole family for a long weekend trip to Belgium. We were able to take the ICE high speed train this time, which really felt like riding in style. We reserved the "little kid room" on the train, which felt like we were travelling in a living room.

There were a total of 6 seats in our little "suite" - four wrapped around the table, and then another 2 in a semi-separate room. For most of the trip we had the entire compartment to ourselves, which was very nice.

For the last leg of the trip, a man came an sat in one of the other seats in the compartment. A few minutes later, an older man came by and started talking in French. He didn't really seem to be addressing us specifically, but rather seemed to be talking in general. He and the other man in our compartment spoke back and forth for awhile - but we had no idea what they were talking about. The older man seemed rather agitated, but I wasn't really sure what we were supposed to do. There were plenty of seats on the train, so it didn't seem to be an issue of finding a place to sit.

After the two finished talking, the older man continued to stand outside the door to our compartment. After 10 minutes or so, the older man started crying. He cried for about 5 minutes, and then stopped, but continued to stand outside our compartment for the remaining 40 minutes of the trip. The whole episode was very disturbing.

Once we got to Brussels we checked into our hotel, which since we were staying on a business trip was much nicer than the level to which we are normally accustomed. I found out later that the royal family in Belgium keeps a floor reserved at this hotel for when they are staying in Brussels. In fact, we noticed later that all the side streets around the hotel were blocked off and guarded with police, so it is possible they were staying there when we were.

After checking in, we headed downtown the to the Grand Place, which is pretty much the tourist attraction in Brussels. It is the central square in town that is marked by a couple of impressive gothic buildings, and an impressive array of old guild houses. Interestingly, the house where Karl Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto is in the Grand Place. Karl Marx really got around during his European travels, as this must be the fourth of fifth place where we've walked in the footsteps of Karl Marx.

Brussels was busily setting up for a big Christmas lights display that was set to be started the following weekend. We were disappointed that we wouldn't get a chance to see that, but SJ had a good time wandering around the square nonetheless.

Off the Grand Place is Brussels' most famous tourist attraction, the Mannekin Pis. I have to say it is one of the most overrated tourist attractions I have seen in Europe. The statue itself is probably less than 2 feet high, and for some reason they have developed the tradition of dressing the statue up in ridiculous outfits.

After the Mannekin Pis, SJ took a nap in her stroller while we went for a walk around the city. Like something straight out of a sitcom, as we passed underneath a passageway it erupted with the sounds of incredibly loud bells. Amazingly, SJ did not wake up - she must have been really, really tired.

We ended up in the park in front of the royal palace just as SJ woke up from her nap, and as luck would have it, there was a rather nice playground.

Always the swing connoisseur, SJ found a new type of swing in Brussels that she had not seen before. She was quite thrilled.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Beethoven's House

This Sunday was a special holiday in Germany, so the Christmas Market was unfortunately not open. It was, however, a pretty nice day - fairly blue skies and high 50's - so we still spent most of the day outside.

From the number of people that were in downtown Bonn yesterday, it seems like a lot of people were expecting the Christmas Market to be open. It was almost as crowded as it is on Saturday's, except there was no place for all the people to go.

Thankfully, museums are one of the few things open on Sundays so we decided to finally visit the museum of Bonn's favorite son, Beethoven. On the way to the museum, we stopped to enjoy some great music being played on glassware. It seemed like a fitting prelude.

Sadly, the Beethoven museum is much like many many little museums we've seen that are in famous people's houses. It's a creaky old house, with little in it except for some family paintings of the Beethoven family, some original sheet music, a display case of instruments, and an old piano that I assume Beethoven once played on. I say assumed, because everything in the museum is only labelled in German.

However, it does appear that the Beethoven museum is making an attempt at trying to spice things up a bit. They have a modern exhibit that is in a building attached to the museum that looks to visualize Beethoven's one and only opera. They have you go into a small room, with a large screen on one wall, and then they play the opera while depicting the voices as 3D objects (a spiral, circling balls, etc.). I give them points for trying, although I have to say that it wasn't really that impressive. SJ didn't care for it at all, so we had to leave in the middle of the performance. Instead, she enjoyed looking at the several busts of Beethoven they had in the courtyard.

On the way home, we passed by a few people that were walking around the MarktPlatz holding signs for "Free Hugs". What they were doing, I have no idea. I guess giving out free hugs.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Just as it was starting to look like Christmas in Bonn, the weather has started to seem like September. This Saturday it was in the 60's all day, which gave us a great opportunity to spend most of the day outside.

Our first stop, of course, was the carousel. SJ has been pretty good about only getting one ride on the carousel, although it oftentimes has been a bit of a struggle to pull her off.

Getting off the carousel wasn't too difficult today, as SJ spied an even more exciting attraction, the ferris wheel.

SJ really had a great time on the ferris wheel, and was quite enthralled.

It also gave us a good opportunity to snap some good pictures of the Christmas market. We spent a good part of the day walking around the Christmas market, sampling some of the German treats.

SJ went back for a second round at the Belgian waffle stand. We also caught one of the bands that was playing today, but they must normally only play in funeral marches because all of their songs were very sombre. Not quite the spirit of the Christmas market.

Friday, November 24, 2006

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

One of the really nice traditions in Germany is the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market). Every year, almost every town sets up little booths for a month before Christmas where vendors sell homemade crafts, gifts, and food. It is really amazing how large these markets are. There are dozens upon dozens of these booths, all lit up with lights.

Today was the first day that the Weihnachtsmarkt was open in Bonn, so we all headed downtown to take in the festivities. Of course, SJ's first stop was the carousel.

Tonight there was also a live band playing music. SJ had a great time dancing in her own little "mosh pit" that she formed in front of the stage with a couple other kids her age.
Later on, we found an even more elaborate carousel complete with multiple levels and spirals. I am sure we'll be returning there many times over the next few weeks. Thankfully, you get a good discount if you buy the ride tokens in bulk. So, we can stock up.

The Weihnachtsmarkt is also a great opportunity to enjoy some good German holiday food. In addition to the staple bratwurst, tonight we tried Reibekuchen (shredded cake) - which is a patty of shredded potato that is deep fried and served with a side of applesauce. Quite tasty. We also finished off with a Belgian waffle and some Dampknudel - which is a big ball of barely cooked dough that is covered in warm vanilla sauce and cherries. Very yummy!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Unfortunately, there is no Thanksgiving in Germany - at least for the 99.9999% of Germans who weren't invited to our house this Thursday evening.

We have a lot to be thankful for this year, so Jill was undeterred by a lack of proper cooking implements, ingredients, English weights and measures, and a refrigerator the size of a cupboard and plunged ahead with a full-on Thanksgiving feast.

We invited SJ's friend from playgroup and the playground, Jona, over to celebrate a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings - turkey, stuffing, carrots, peas, mashed potatoes, gravy, and crescent rolls. A good time was had by all. Now for the cleanup...(we really miss our dishwasher).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Bagel Brothers

Since today is a slow news day, I figured it was time to share a little bit about our 'home away from our home away from home' here in Bonn - Bagel Brothers. Bagel Brothers is a small chain of bagel shops with about 12 stores in Germany.

It's interesting, because it is a German company, but the restaurants are clearly American style. For example, the restaurant offers special deals on 'ein Dutzend' bagels (a dozen), even though people in Germany never use the term 'Dutzend'. In fact, I once went into the store and asked for a Dutzend bagels, and they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about (even though the menu says "Dutzend").

There are many reasons why we quickly adopted Bagel Brothers as one of our favorite hangouts. In the summer, it was one of the few places that had air conditioning - which was a welcome relief. Bagel Brothers is also nearly always open - well at least for Germany. They are open until about 10 p.m. (which is really, really late for Germany) and they are also open on Sundays, which is also pretty rare. There is only one other bakery in Bonn that is open on Sundays, that we know of, and they are only open for a few hours. Bagel Brothers is open all day.

It's also relatively cheap, and pretty good as well. It's kind of a cross between Bruegger's Bagels and Au Bon Pain back in Boston. They have bagels, but most people go there for the bagel sandwiches - which are really very good. It's very easy for me to stop there on my way home and pick up dinner. SJ likes it as well, which is very helpful.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Our weekend

Since we've been doing a lot of traveling lately, this weekend we decided to just stay around Bonn. The weather was supposed to be pretty dismal this weekend (it was), which also contributed to our decision to stick around. It had been a rather pleasant week, with weather in the high 50's for most of the week.

Friday night my department had a special dinner event, sort of a very delayed 'summer outing'. It was a wild boar roast held at the Waldau, which is the wild animal park that SJ enjoys quite a bit. We didn't tell SJ that the food we were eating was probably one of the animals she had seen running around on one of our previous trips to the Waldau. She's a little young for that life lesson.

It was a nice dinner, and SJ was incredibly well behaved. We were very proud of her.

On Saturday, the Kaufhof department store unveiled their big Christmas window display. They had a large number of robotically animated stuffed animals moving around and dancing to various Disney tunes - auf Deutsch. SJ enjoyed looking at the animals and listening to the music, so we hung out and gazed through the window for quite a while.

After that, we went and played at the playground and on the train for awhile. It was a rather dreary day, but it was still important to let SJ get out and run around for awhile.

I also took the opportunity to get my haircut, a rather nerve-wracking experience since the hairdresser not only didn't speak English, but spoke German with a Vietnamese accent. Well, my hair was at least shorter when I left than when I came in. Whether or not it was an improvement or not is open for debate.

Unfortunately, the weather was even worse on Sunday. We made a return trip to the Kaufhof to watch the animals some more, and also made a stop at Mr. Baker to get our Sunday morning pastries.

We also let SJ run around for a bit through some of the puddles. It was too wet to go to the playground, so we had to let her get some energy out somehow.

It is nice that Sundays feel very relaxing here in Bonn, but they also tend to be rather boring since absolutely nothing is open. Next week the Christmas market opens up, and that is supposedly open on Sundays - so at least we'll have something to do for the last few weekends that we are here.

What is that thing?

Our hotel in Luxembourg had this contraption mounted on the wall in the bathroom. It looked a little like one of those built-in vacuum systems, but it wasn't that.
I thought maybe it was a Flow-Bee, for a quick, mess-free haircut in the morning. But, it wasn't that either.
Actually, it was a hairdryer. You'd think that maybe a wall mounted hairdryer of this size would be some amazingly high powered contraption straight out of 'Tool Time' on 'Home Improvement' that would dry your hair in 5 seconds flat.
However, disappointingly, it was an amazingly poor hair dryer - given its incredibly large size.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Go Bucks!

One of the greatest rivalries in college football is between Ohio State and Michigan. Well, as of this morning, they are ranked #1 and #2 in the nation with only one more game to play in the regular season.
Of course, that one last game is against each other. The winner of today's game gets a trip to the national title game, so the stakes couldn't be higher. It's a pretty rare occurrence when the #1 and #2 teams in college football play each other during the regular season, and even rarer that it occurs so late in the season. Today's game should be a doozy.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Luxembourg - Day 2

Our second day in Luxembourg, the weather was certainly less rainy, although it was still very cold. Since we figured that we might not have many more opportunities to travel to Luxembourg in the near future, we decided to take a tour bus to make sure we saw all that there was to see.

A big advantage of the tour bus is that SJ really seems to enjoy tour buses quite a bit. Since it was the offseason, we also got the chance to have the best seats in the house. An additional advantage of taking the tour bus is that we didn't have to navigate around Luxembourg. I must say that it has to be the most difficult city I have ever been in to try and find your way around. The streets are the narrowest and most windy I have ever seen. On top of that, there is so much construction and detours, that you very often find yourself having to double back the way you came because you "just can't get there from here".

The tour through the old part of Luxembourg is done pretty quickly, but the tour bus also took us out to the new business center of Luxembourg - which was somewhat interesting. Luxembourg is a major financial center - similar to Switzerland - so they have a lot of huge banks where people with more money than I stash their cash. There are also a number of new buildings for the EU, as they have a number of their offices in Luxembourg.

The most interesting stop on the tour is the new modern art museum that is built over the ruins of one of the forts overlooking the valley. Like all things in Luxembourg, it is currently under construction - which means that we couldn't really appreciate the stunning views because they were walled off with chainlink fences, but it looks like it will be impressive in the near future.

After the tour, we stopped by an outdoor market thinking that they, surely, would have some food stands with some Luxembourgish cuisine. Unfortunately, it was mainly blue jeans and overpriced knick-knacks trying to pass themselves off as antiques. So, we ended up at an Italian ice cream shop that served crepes. Well, at least we got closer to Luxembourgish than the chicken cordon bleu at the Turkish restaurant the night before.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


This past weekend we took a weekend excursion to Luxembourg, which is a relatively convenient 3 hour train ride away. Our journey began on a rainy Saturday morning at about 8:30 a.m. Interestingly, Saturday was 11-11, which is the official start of the Carnival season in nearby Cologne. So, when we arrived at the train station, there were already about 100 people there all dressed in crazy costumes - some of them already enjoying a beer for breakfast - headed to Cologne. Needless to say, we were very glad that our train was going in the opposite direction.

One of the things that we have really enjoyed about Germany is travelling on the train. Since our apartment is only a 5 minute walk from the main train station, the train is very convenient. Bonn is also on one of the main North-South train lines, and is just a short trip away from Cologne, which is one one of the main East-West lines.

We also learned recently that for a mere 6 Euros per family, you can reserve your own "cabin" on the train, which has just been great for travelling with SJ. She gets to play, and Mom and Dad get to stretch out and relax.

When we arrived in Luxembourg, the weather was unfortunately a lot like the weather we had left in Bonn - bitterly cold, and raining. Undeterred, however, we set out to explore the city.

The most dramatic feature about Luxembourg is the fact that it is built around a rather large valley. This makes for very impressive views, and beautiful old bridges.

Luxembourg has 3 main tourist attractions. The first is the Grand Ducal Palace, which is the city residence of the royal family in Luxembourg. Much to SJ's delight, it is guarded by a "marching guy" who walks up and down the well-worn path in front of the palace and stomps his feet. SJ fell in love with the "marching guys" in front of Buckingham Palace, and was ecstatic to see some more.

Luxembourg, like just about every major city in Europe, has an impressive cathedral, the Church of Our Lady. In addition to being one of the prettiest we've seen in Europe, it had the added benefit of being very warm - which was greatly appreciated on this cold and wet day. Fortunately, SJ has developed a great interest in cathedrals. Unfortunately, she has a difficult time respecting the "Silence Please" signs, so many of our trips to cathedrals end with us ushering a screaming SJ past the stares of disgruntled worshipers.

The last big tourist attraction are the casemates, or fortifications, that have been built up all around the Luxembourg. Situated somewhat on a plateau, surround by cliffs, Luxembourg had a lot of natural defenses. However, these were augmented over the centuries with additional walls and 16 km of underground tunnels built into the cliffs. To use yet another LOTR analogy, think Helm's Deep. In the summertime, it's possible to go exploring in these tunnels, but they are closed in the offseason. Interestingly, they mentioned that Luxembourg has never fallen in battle, but they also mentioned that the city has been occupied at least 3 or 4 times by other nations.

At the end of the day we looked to find a decent restaurant to experience was regional Luxembourgish cuisine. We asked the receptionist at our hotel for a recommendation on a good "family friendly" restaurant that would be good for a 2 year old. Well, I guess the 20 something behind the counter had never seen a 2 year old before because she sent us to a fancy-schmancy Italian place with 18 Euro entrees and 3 wine glasses at each place setting. Needless to say, that is not my definition of "family friendly".

So, we ended up at one of the innumerable Turkish restaurants that you find within Europe. They are fast, and they are cheap, although they could never pass for high cuisine. In a nod towards the local cuisine, in addition to kebaps this Turkish restaurant also served chicken cordon bleu, with french fries. Ah well, fast and cheap. The proprietor was also kind enough to offer SJ a free dessert snack (kind of like a Ho-Ho). Now that's what I call "family friendly".