Monday, August 24, 2009

Train Travel

From Dorfgastein, we packed up our luggage and allowed thirty minutes to get all of us across town and to the train station in time. The kids are such seasoned pros that it took ten minutes! We weren't just being paranoid about the time: the train stops at Dorfgastein for exactly sixty seconds. I noted that the minute the train pulled in, a conductor jumped out of the door to help us up and get our kids and suitcases on (not that we needed him!). Once on the train, it was a nice ride home, since we had a compartment to ourselves. Soon we put the kids' seats down and they passed the time dancing and playing cars and watching Emperor's New School on the computer. It is a very civilized way to travel.
Once back in Vienna we had almost 18 hours to get ready for the flight home. It seemed like enough time when we were making the travel plans!
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This is for those who want to see what traveling with us is really like.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Oh, What Do You Do In the Summertime?

This goes back to the last week in July, but the pictures just came in, courtesy of Danny and Shelly. It was probably the hottest day of our summer, and everyone went down to the Neue Donau to swim.
There were feats of skill, the likes of which we do not see in the United States.
Rob and Maddie are the two in the swim shirts here.
Kylen and Rob give Will a great send off.
Even Sebi got in on the action, leaping into the Schone Blaue Donau.
The students orchestrated this cannonball chorus for Curtis. That is Will caught in the crossfire, but my favorite parts are the grins on Katie and Tomas's faces in the background.
The schone gelbe sunset.
The girls' synchronized jump. About an hour after everyone came home, a storm broke out like nothing we have ever seen before. Looking out our window was like watching a dishwasher. The trees were flapping about, rain came down in sheets, then hail that ruined cars and our friends' garden house roof, and the lightning and thunder were incessant -- it looked like an erratic strobe light. In the morning we found out that eighteen trees were downed around the Ringstrasse. So you take the summer weather when you can get it!
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Now that we're safely away from those parts, I can announce that there was a reprise of the 2002 Hallstadttersee Polar Bear Swim. The first one still provokes shaking heads among certain Austrians. The swim was well-attended, very cold, and there was one injury from a diver who slipped on the board and landed on his back. He was not at full "YA!" strength for a few days after that, as you might imagine. I personally cannot believe Maddie did this, despite photographic evidence. Jumping into complete blackness terrifies me. Especially seeing the mounted fish on the wall of one house there -- they were like eels with a pirahna face on the front. I would not like to meet one of those on his home turf at high noon, let alone in the middle of the night!
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Final Dinner: Steindlwirt

I know I don't talk about them much, but we did really have students. Here is the group who came with us to the Alps section of the program. These people were great sports about hiking down mountains, climbing icy cave stairs in the dark, climbing to the alm, descending into the salt mines, riding multiple trams and funiculars, and even Dragan's bus. We would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to all of Dorfgastein for stopping your traffic while posing for and taking this picture. It's our fault that that biker was late to dinner.
The students were also extremely good to our children. Here Leah is teaching Maddie a hand play. Kari french braided her hair another time, and she actually got to have a sleepover with three of these girls in Hallstadt when the "family room" only came with four beds ("What? You can't make it work?! We don't have any other family rooms!"). I think every one of the men on the trip spent time with our boys too, wrestling with them, joking with them, listening to heaven-only-knows-what story from them, and comparing scars (Will and Kylen have lived parallel lives so far, with stitches in eyebrows and chipped teeth and on and on). Student attention was second to none.
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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amoser Alm

On our last day in Dorfgastein, we decided that we had to go to the Amoser alm. The kids have gone in the past to bake bread here, but that happens on Thursday and we were here on a Monday. Rob went down to the tourist information office in town and had them call to make certain that the alm had krapfen that day. I kid you not! This is a matter of great concern if you're going to trek out there. Krapfen are basically a jelly donut, but the Amoser alm krapfen are divine donuts. Rob calls them 'a little bit of heaven' and he's not exaggerating. They did have krapfen, and so we went despite the weather forecast.
[click to enlarge] As soon as we arrived it began to downpour. So we slipped inside to eat our krapfen and hot chocolate. Soon though, the kids found the fly swatters and were hard at work exterminating them, both inside and out. They absolutely loved the work; why have I never bought them fly swatters?
Here you might be able to see the rain coming down. This is looking up at the bread oven and the house from the hut that holds the chickens, rabbits, and two ducks.
Sebastian loved the krapfen as much as the fly extermination.
In the midst of all of this chaos of rain and guests running inside and back out and ordering diverse and sundry items, Frau Rock is serene. In fact, this humungous pan of blueberries was her next project: she was making jam over the next two days. Visiting any of the alms we've seen leaves me in awe of these people. I cannot believe the amount of work they do to keep up a farm, a restaurant, and make so many of their own items from scratch. Frau Rock is definitely cut out for it. Not only does she maintain her good sense of humor, know how to entertain kids on a rainy day, teach bread baking to tourists in any language, she does it all in a dirndl. Let's hear it for her, people!
Joss was out back, playing in the water trough, making friends with the calves, not wearing enough clothes again in the rain.
Then the weather cleared up and we moved outside for some Rat-a-Tat Cat (with intermittent fly swatting).
This is just to show you what real Austrians do when they come to these parts. They Climb Every Mountain. And they do actually use the ski poles. If they are old school, they use wooden walking sticks, and at some destinations we've been to, like the ice caves, you can buy the enameled badges to put on your stick.
Rob was going to settle up the bill and I told him that I needed one more krapfen. I mean, who knows when I might come back this way again? And it is sort of like the $64 tomato, in that the work and money that it takes to get to one of these would be halved if you ate two. "Besides," I told him, "two bits of heaven are better than one bit of heaven." He concurred.
After that, we decided that we had better start down while the rain had let up. Although we did not have our ski poles, we brought the stroller and we meandered down the hills looking at things like this. Beautiful. Then we sat down for a minute under a tree, and as soon as we did, it began to pour again. We waited for five or ten minutes, putting on kids' rain gear, and then decided that we were going to go for it instead of trying to wait out the rain. It didn't let up until we had gotten back home, which was probably an hour later. If The Hills Are Alive, we realized, it is because it has been raining. A lot.
Close to the bottom of the hill, a teeny green truck stopped next to us. The driver rolled down the steamy window without a word and handed me an edelweiss blossom. When I exclaimed over it, he reached down and pulled out two more, along with some berries I'd never seen before. Then he drove off. Edelweiss are hard flowers to find because they really are blossoms of snow and only grow up at the very tops of these mountains (this is the point where I confess that we only go to the easy lower alms, and there are actually hoch alms that are located much higher on the mountains and are only accessible during the summer months). So this is the first time I'd ever seen a live one. We decided the little man in the truck was the Edelweiss fairy. He crystallized the way that we feel about the Amoser alm and all of Dorfgastein: that it is magical and you never know what might happen. You might get an edelweiss. You might taste the most perfect jelly donut of your life. You might find a red and white mushroom. And who knows? Maybe there are gnomes who live underneath it?!
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Dorfgastein Solarbad

I haven't blogged in a week, and it is because we're home now. As I foretold, you can't talk about Dorfgastein when you're back in the desert. Really it isn't possible, but I'll try.
The kids were able to sneak in a trip to the pool even though as I mentioned, it was going to rain the whole time we were there. At least to the McFarlands, the pictures from Dorfgastein are in technicolor while everything else fades to black and white; and it has done this every time we've visited (this was our fourth trip back). Does it look that way to you too?
Our whole family loves swimming, and this is such a stunning setting that it is one of our favorite places to be in the whole world. Enough said.
I'm going to go console myself with my extra-grande kitchen appliances and my garbage disposal which was the thing I missed most this summer.
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Thursday, August 13, 2009

For the Grandparents: Joss in the Alps

On our hike down Joss ended up with his shirt off and out contemplating the cows. Then it started to rain, and instead of putting a shirt back on as I would have with earlier kids, we took a picture of him. The cows were also curious about Joss. 

Strohlehen Alm

Our last stop on the trip through the alps was Dorfgastein. We  first came here in 2005 and have loved it so much that we have visited again in 2006 and 2008. It is a tiny, tiny town and there is nothing to do here (perhaps that is why we love it so much!). The kids walk down to the drugstore in  town and buy candy by themselves and then walk over to the giant chess set and play in the town square. We go hiking around the green green hills or swim in the pool. This time we were only coming for three days and rain was forecast for all of them.
So at a break in the weather, we were thrilled to catch a ride with the Bukovics up to the Strohlehen alm. An alm is a mountain farm, and at least nowadays they also function as rest stops or destinations for hikers or agritourism. I had wanted to come to this alm because here they make their own cheese and hold demonstrations every Friday. Unfortunately we weren't there for a demonstration, but that will be a good reason to return.
They have a few animals and make and serve their own farm lunches. Here the boys are playing in the water trough that cools the beers, milk, etc. You can see the tables with people eating, playing Settlers of Catan and admiring the stellar scenery in the background.
Inside, Maria is showing me the colossal copper pot they use to make cheese. Thanks to Saydi, I've made cheese now a few times -- I find it daunting with one gallon of milk; I cannot imagine making it in huge batches like the Mairs do. Note the cool oven here with  ceramic tiles, and generally the interiors. These farms are as old as the hills, pretty literally. Through the generations, the names of the families have sometimes changed, and Rob noted that in the town cemetery, people actually had both their family name and the name of the alm or establishment on their headstones as if it were a title.
The alm had something for everyone. It had quite a few things for  Joss.
Maddie made friends with Shira, the alm's  doorbell and crumb snitcher. She was a love.
Here is Herr Mair, who must have thought we were such kooky tourists, taking pictures of everything, but truly, you ask for it if you wear lederhosen and a hat in these  environs. Actually, if you wear lederhosen anywhere you're asking for pictures!
This was our plate of bauern essen. There is sausage and bacon, local,  their homemade butter and cheese,  veggies and their own spreads. One of the spreads was called potato cheese in translation, but I think it is akin to a pureed potato salad.  Maria told me it used sour cream and it was awfully good.
Here Harald is chopping up his bacon with his own scary mountain man knife. Harald and Maria have been our hosts in the past and it was Harald who showed Rob how to play the lethal Austrian version of horseshoes. This time I got them to tell me how they met. Maria grew up in the house and pension that she now runs, Haus Tirol. She met Harald when she and some friends went to the bar, literally next door. She also had two cats in tow, who used to follow her everywhere. She's like Mary Had a Little Lamb in the flesh and it just fits her so well. Simply hearing her voice and those droll little Austrian words makes everything that she says sound like it has windowboxes with geraniums on it.
Later Harald was giving her a hard time about their tiny dorf. Rob said later "yeah, you would let that last about four seconds" and I reminded him that it isn't for nothing that cats follow Maria wherever she would go.
The kids played and had a party, and except for eating, we didn't see much of them.
Will in the tire swing. The tractor tire swing.
Joss meets Schneeweisschen, Knuftle, and Kleine Onkel.
We also got to visit the cheese room downstairs in the cold storage. What you see is about half the room and half the cheese that they make in a week. A week! In addition to everything they need to serve, they also sell cheese and butter to visitors. We took a wedge back and it was good stuff. Stinky, though. Frau Mair says it is an acquired taste -- even local kids last week made their parents sit at a different table because they were having the cheese!
While we were up at the alm eating, we watched the hikers come in. When two old geezers huffed up the mountain, one of them on  crutches, with their two geezerette wives about five minutes behind them, we were shamed into hiking at least down the hill. So we  walked back down admiring the scenery. The videos are just of Joss babbling in another trough and Joss walking down the path.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Eis Riesen Welt

[click to enlarge] From Salzburg, we left for Werfen to see the largest ice cave in the world. To get to this hole in the mountain, first we had to take a death-defying bus ride. There is a secured entrance where a woman came up to Dragan and asked him how long his bus was (10 m) and whether it could make the 10% grade. At which point Dragan lifted his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders and Rob and I wondered if he'd even understood the question, because that bus is easily Paleozoic or late-Cretaceous period.
After escaping from the bus, we still had to climb two blocks or so to the ticket office, another 15 minutes to the bottom of the tram, up the tram praying all the way (see Maddie above and the teeny tiny tram shadow against the limestone mountain), and then another half hour hike to the entrance of the cave. At this point the kids suited up in their rain pants and Rob found the strangest bathroom of his life -- carved out of the rock and with water coming out of the sink so cold it stung, but he said it tasted like the cleanest, purest water he'd ever had.

This system of caves goes into the mountain nearly 40km, and is filled with ice because of the shape, where the cold air coming out in summer and warm air coming up in the winter causes freezing and melting of the water inside (the shape was created when an 40 million year old ocean receded). The tour only goes into the first km or so, but even that entails climbing up and down more than a thousand stairs. In the dark. Carrying a davy lamp. Sebastian was having enough trouble that Rob gave back his lamp. When the middle eastern family in front of them had an argument and decided at the only crossroads to turn back about 1/4 of the way in, then there was no light for Rob and Sebi to ascend by, except the people behind. Maddie and Will were both with Megan who took great care of them.
I was so proud of all the students and kids for going! The kids say it was 'dark' 'cold' 'creepy' and 'you couldn't see the entrance when you got up there'. Rob said it was very untouristy and the guide had magnesium flares that he would light whenever he wanted to show something to the group. He would also slide up and down the ice to get around, and he was wearing nothing more than tennis shoes!
After coming back down, the group sat at the parking lot for a minute to eat some lunch. This butterfly kept attaching itself, first to Shelly and then to Maddie. Maddie named it Copper and would have kept it as a pet, but I told her Copper didn't want to die in Dragan's bus. None of us did.
And here we are on the way down again, looking back up toward the cave, just happy to be alive.
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And this is what Joss and I were doing while everyone else was climbing stairs in the icy darkness. For four hours. I have never been so grateful to have to stay out of a tour. Of course we saw two dogs who were heading up to the cave, but they probably comported themselves perfectly!