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Sunday, November 28, 2004

I can't believe it has been over a week since I last posted. I'm in Florida at my folks' house now, and I haven't gotten around to hooking my laptop up to their internet connection. I've been having to sneak off to their office just to check email a couple times a day, and frankly there just hasn't been anything terribly blogworthy to report.

I found out at the last minute Monday evening that Condor airlines would let me check my bags that night for my flight on Tuesday. I raced up to Frankfurt airport with my friend Phil and 200 pounds of my most essential junk. That gave us some extra time to sleep in the next morning, and we made it to our gate with time to spare.

My cat Eddie was a real champ for the journey. I had to pull him out of his carrier at least 3 times to go through security checks, and he was quite well behaved each time.

My friend Cathy picked us up at the Orlando airport with her husband Jose and delivered us to my parents' house here in DeLand. Good thing they brought an SUV, as our 200 pounds of junk plus 15 pounds of cat takes up some space!

My sister came to DeLand on Wednesday to spend the holiday weekend, and my grandmother came for dinner on Thursday. On Friday we all headed over to Leesburg for a second Thanksgiving at my Aunt Hazel's house. Yesterday we just vegged out here, and today Jenny and I took the kids to see the Spongebob movie (sucks, sucks, sucks) and then out for milkshakes at Friendly's. Tomorrow we shall begin to settle into what should be our new routine for the next few weeks and hope to get some schoolwork done.

I just spent a couple hours sorting through the backlog of digital photos I have on my laptop, and it made me a little nostalgic to see my pictures from last Christmas in Germany. I know I'll miss the Christmas markets, and I already miss the hot spiced wine. I'm really glad we came though--already almost an entire week has flown by, and the passage of time is what it's all about this year.

Speaking of time, the only thing that I really don't like about being over here is the time difference that this puts between us and Fred. In Germany, he is only a couple hours ahead of me, and we frequently get into email conversations over the course of the day. Here, he is just getting to work when we are going to bed. I always wake up to a good morning email, but by then it's almost the end of the day for him. We did have one bit of good news from him though in his Thanksgiving phone call: They have upgraded the phone lines, and he can now call us from his office using a phone card! The kids are excited by this new development, and we hope it means we can talk a little more often now that Fred won't have to go stand in line at the phone tents.

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Saturday, November 20, 2004

My cousin Ally sent me the following funny, and I thought it was worth sharing:

At New York's Kennedy airport today, an individual later discovered to be a public school teacher was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, protractor, set square, slide rule and calculator.

At a morning press conference, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement.

He is being charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

"Al-Gebra is a fearsome cult," Ashcroft said. "They desire average solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in a search of absolute value. They use secret code names like 'x' and 'y' and refer to themselves as 'unknowns', but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the axis of medieval with coordinates in every country. As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to
say, 'there are 3 sides to every triangle'".

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, "If God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes!!!"

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Friday, November 19, 2004

Today makes 6 months since Fred left for Iraq. Can you believe that? I can't decide if the time has flown or dragged. I guess it's done a bit of both.

The kids, the cat, and I are leaving Tuesday for the States. We're going to hang out in Florida with my folks through the holidays. I plan on returning to Germany when Fred comes back for his midtour leave (hopefully sometime in February). That will give us a nice break from the German winter and still leave us with several months to travel in Europe if it turns out that we're moving back to the States this summer.

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

The internet is the new refrigerator door. No longer do proud parents have to show off their kids' works of art by sticking these masterpieces to major appliances. With a few clicks of the mouse they can be on display for the entire world!

Annabelle has worked diligently over the past couple of days to create a storybook. First, she wrote out her story, noting exactly which text would go on which page. Then she typed the story, printed out the pages, and did the illustrations. I scanned them into the computer and uploaded them to an album. Check it out: Princess Sue in the Forest Zoo.

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Austria, Part II: Salzburg 

We awoke in Vienna on Tuesday, November 9, to find a white powdery substance falling from the sky. It wasn't sticking to the ground in the city, but we went through some amazingly beautiful scenery on our train ride to Salzburg.

We arrived in Salzburg a little after noon and set out on the bus ride from hell. Fortunately, we were on the bus for only 4 or 5 stops, but we were stuffed in like sardines. Sardines with luggage. Sardines who were eager to get a bite of lunch before setting out on their Sound of Music tour!

When we arrived at the gift shop that serves as the office for Bob's Tours, the shopkeeper sent us away with vague directions to a restaurant and said that she would have the tour guide pick us up there. We left our luggage in the shop and set off in search of our lunch.

Cafe Fleischlaberl (Kapitelgass 11, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Sundays) turned out to be our new favorite Austrian restaurant, and we ate all 3 of our Salzburger lunches there. The owner, Chris, is a very friendly Englishman who is married to an Austrian woman, but it was George the waiter who won our hearts. On each of our subsequent visits, he knew our drink orders (1 Sprite, 1 Fanta, 1 water, 1 Coke, and 1 Diet Coke) and offered us "the usual." The kids raved about the spaghetti, while Gretchyn and I mourned on the second and third days when we were unable to re-live the glory of those stuffed peppers. The apple strudel was new-shoes good--it was served on a bed of warm vanilla sauce.

After lunch our Sound of Music guide picked us up in a bright yellow minibus, and we headed off through the snow flurries to look for the Von Trapp Family Singers. Our first stop was the Leopoldskron Palace, whose rear view was the back of the family home in the movie:



From there, we continued on to Hellbrunn Palace, where we got to see the gazebo. Our guide told us that tourists used to be able to go inside the gazebo. Then one day a tourist who was so totally NOT 16 going on 17 tried to pull a Liesl by leaping from bench to bench. She messed up her knee, and the gazebo has been closed up tight ever since. I did get a picture of the kids standing outside:



From there we headed out of town and up into the hills where the snow was really coming down hard AND sticking to the ground. We drove to the village of Mondsee to see the church where Maria and the Captain tied the knot.

On our way from Mondsee to St. Gilgen, our guide pulled over to show us this privately owned castle:



We stopped in a gift shop in St. Gilgen, and Alex bought a traditional Austrian dress. Mike and Annabelle made snowballs in the cemetery across the street:



From there, we continued on to a restaurant for a strudel break.

It was dark by the time we arrived back in Salzburg, but we were still able to visit Mirabell Palace and see the steps the children in the movie played on when Maria was teaching them to sing. We hopped up and down, singing, "Do mi mi! Mi so so! Re fa fa! La ti ti!"

We were thoroughly exhausted by the time our guide dropped us off at our hotel, the Goldene Ente (Golden Duck). We had splurged and decided to stay right in the middle of the old town, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. We had to take 2 separate rooms, but they were still a good deal: Gretchyn's double was 68 euro, and my triple was 93. Here's a shot of our room before we spread out all our stuff:



Dinner in the hotel restaurant was a true bargain. We asked if they had a child's portion of Wiener schnitzel, even though it wasn't on the menu, and the waiter said of course. Each kid got an enormous slab of schnitzel as well as french fries for just under 5 euro.

The next morning another guide picked us up for our salt mine tour. As we drove through the snowy woods, I couldn't resist shooting a little video from the van. Twice.

Before long we had driven over the border from Austria into Germany and into the little summer resort town of Königsee:



From there we went to the town of Berchtesgaden where we saw several Wolpertinger in the window of a gift shop. Apparently, this is the Bavarian cousin to the American jackalope:



I took this panorama of paintings that commemmorate the soldiers from Berchtesgaden who died in WWI and II. If you click on the photo below, you can view a larger version in a separate window:



The next stop on our tour was a salt mine. We all dressed up in ridiculous looking miner garb and road a train deep into the earth:



One of the high points of the salt mine tour is the really big slide. You can't see Annabelle in this picture, as she is tucked in between Mike and me. You also can't see that Mike is screaming in agony, as he somehow managed to wrench his shoulder on the way down:



Here are my little miners trudging off into the bowels of the earth:



After our salt mine tour, we returned to Salzburg for another delicious meal at Cafe Fleischlaberl. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and visiting Mozart's birth house.

For dinner that night we chose to return to our hotel restaurant. There's a lot to be said for trying new things, but when traveling with children there's a lot to be said for sticking with the tried and true!

I had planned on sticking with the tried and true apple strudel, but Gretchyn convinced me that we should try the Salzburg nockerl. The menu said it was for 2, but this sucker was HUGE!



We heard people from another table of Americans gasp in amazement when they saw it. One of the women was trying to convince her friends that they should order one. Gretchyn and I offered to let her try ours, so the waiter gave her a clean spoon, and she took a big spoonful back to her table. Her friends all tried it and agreed it was quite good. Gretchyn and I agreed that there was no way we were going to be able to eat the whole thing, so Gretchyn got up and delivered the untouched half of our nockerl to their table. We all shared a good laugh over this, and I got a photo for the blog. Here's Gretchyn with our new friends:



While Gretchyn and I enjoyed dessert, the kids were upstairs playing with the rodents. Yes, rodents. Mike and Annabelle have a collection of Beanie Baby rodentia that they play with obsessively. Every rodent has a distinct personality and family history, and if you ask Mike or Annabelle about the rodents, you will regret it when they talk your ears off. Anyway, here are Mike, Annabelle, and Alex holding Cheeser, Flinch, Nutty, Ears, Pellet, Pux, and Ratso. Pat (the other groundhog) appears to be MIA from this photo:



The next morning, Gretchyn and Alex went to visit another Mozart house while I took Mike and Annabelle up to see the Hohensalzburg Fortress, which looms over the town.

The view from the fortress was quite impressive. If you click on the picture below, you can see a larger version in a new window:



We met up with Gretchyn and Alex at Cafe Fleischlaberl for one last delicious lunch before getting on our train back to Mannheim. Here are Mike and Annabelle with George the waiter:



We opted for a taxi to the train station instead of reliving the bus hell and arrived with plenty of time to spare. The train ride home was uneventful, and we cruised through Burger King's drive-thru on the way to my house.

The next morning I took Gretchyn and Alex back up to Frankfurt to catch their flight home, and before we knew it, our Austrian adventure was over.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

From Fred--My Room 

The room I sleep in is one of 2 end rooms in a 3-room trailer. It is roughly 13 by 13 feet in size. The door is in the middle of one wall. The walls are thin--paneling over 2-by-2-inch framing. The outer skin is thin aluminum siding.

It may sound like I am complaining, I am not. I live by myself in a climate controlled (window air conditioner) private room. Many Soldiers here live 2 to a room the same size. Some live in open bays and some live in tents. I am fortunate. I dodged the tents for approximately 6 weeks when I first arrived in Iraq and was waiting for this room to open up. I am the first of what may be many occupants. I suppose that figure will depend on how long we stay in Iraq.

I have added a plastic 4-drawer chest of drawers, a towel rack:



a footlocker, two folding chairs:



a couple of area carpets, and a coffee table to the issued twin bed, night stand, and wooden wall locker. I have rigged a clip-on light over the head of the bed to provide a light to read by at night:



It is a comfortable place to end the day. I spend very little time in the room. All I seem to do there is sleep, but it is a place I can go to and be alone with my thoughts, read a book, or watch a movie on my portable DVD player.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Calling All Wieners! Part I of the Austria trip 

Time for the first installment of the long-awaited Austria report! On Friday, November 5, my friend Gretchyn arrived from the States accompanied by her 8-year-old daughter Alexandra. You may remember that Gretchyn visited me last May for the Thelma-and-Louise 2-day tour of Germany, Austria, Lichentstein, Switzerland, and France.

We took Gretchyn and Alex from the airport to lunch at our favorite restaurant, Morgenstern, which is nestled in the hills of the Odenwald, the small mountain chain due east of Mannheim. This is the place that we discovered with the Mitchells last winter when we took the kids sledding. The restaurant has quite an extensive menu, good prices, and an awesome selection of cakes. Here are Alex, Mike, and Annabelle getting to know each other after their schnitzel lunch:



From there, we went to the mall to buy sandwich fixings for the next day's train journey. While we were there, we stopped in at the sports store Engelhorn so the kids could play on the really fast slide that connects the third floor with the first floor.

Gretchyn and I spent Friday evening getting ready for the next day's train journey while the kids introduced Alex to the wonders of German TV. Spongebob Schwammkopf proved to be quite a hit!

The next morning we drove my van down to the USO parking lot and hopped on the streetcar to go catch our train. The value of the German trains never fails to amaze me. Tickets and reservations for 5 people (3 of whom had discount cards, and another 2 who pushed us up to that magical number 5 for the group discount) between Mannheim and Vienna, with a 2-day stopover in Salzburg, came to a mere 201 euro.

Our train ride was uneventful. We shared a compartment as far as Munich with an older German lady who was kind enough to lend us her Swiss army knife to cut open our sandwich rolls. After she got off, we pulled the seats together to create a huge bed for lounging for part of the rest of the ride.

We arrived in Vienna at around 6:00 Saturday night and immediately got lost, thanks to some bad directions given by a newspaper vendor. After we walked first one direction and then the other on what we THOUGHT was Mariahilfer Strasse, we gave up and went back to the train station and grabbed a couple of taxis. Moments later, we were checking into the Hotel Corvinus.

We had found our hotel through a Rick Steves' book, and it turned out to be at least twice as nice as I had expected. For a mere 109 euro a night, we had a sparkling clean, recently renovated room with beds for 5 (although the fifth bed was a rollout cot that we dubbed the bed of nails--Annabelle gets my undying gratitude for taking it for the last 2 nights and swearing that she loved it), a private bathroom with a shower (strictly sitdown due to a lack of curtain), and breakfast each morning. Here's a shot of the kids making themselves at home in the room:



We asked at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation and were told that the restaurant downstairs was quite good. Truer words were never spoken! We had a delicious dinner and enjoyed trying each other's meals. We had our first Austrian Apfelstrudel here--a dish we were destined to enjoy at a total of 10 meals over our 5 days in Austria (you do the math).

After supper, we retired upstairs to our room where the kids got hooked on a TV show featuring (I swear I'm not making this up) a loaf of disgruntled bread and his friends, a sheep and a cabbage-looking thing. Apparently, Bernd das Brot is quite the hot item in German/Austrian pop culture! The kids were entranced and watched the same episode for 3 nights in a row.

Sunday morning we set out to explore Vienna. We bought all-day passes for the local transportation system and hopped on the metro. First stop: St. Stephan's church. We were amazed to discover an underground chapel preserved behind glass in the metro station there. Above ground, we walked around the exterior of St. Stephan's taking pictures. Here are Mike and Annabelle with a miniature of the church:



When we rounded the corner to the fourth side of the church, we saw a huge line of horse-drawn carriages lined up waiting for tourists. You can imagine, I'm sure, how intense the begging was on the part of the children, and I must admit: Gretchyn and I didn't need much convincing. We opted to spring for the full 1-hour tour of the city, and it turned out to be the best 100 euro we spent on the whole trip. We sat snug under our blankets while our driver ferried us around, stopping at all the best spots so we could take pictures. Here we are sitting in our carriage:



After our carriage ride, we headed for the Sacher Hotel, home of the original Sacher torte. The torte itself was quite tasty, but unfortunately their apple strudel left something to be desired.

We left the Sacher on a sugar high and headed to the museum at the Spanish Riding School. We weren't able to see the actual horses, but we did enjoy strolling through the museum exhibits and watching the film of the horses demonstrating their various moves. Annabelle bought a Lippizaner scrunchy as a souvenir in the gift shop:



From the riding school, we wandered over to the Haus der Musik. Our favorite exhibit was the one that allowed you to write your own waltz by playing a dice game. Apparently, Mozart himself was known to compose this way occasionally, and if it's good enough for Mozart . . .

By the time we left the music museum, it was getting close to suppertime. We headed back to our hotel, eagerly anticipating a repeat of the previous night's supper. Much to our chagrin, we found our beloved restaurant to be closed on Sundays. Once again, it was Rick Steves to the rescue, and we headed back downtown to the Esterhazykeller. It's located deep in a cellar, and is somewhat like what a rabbit warren might be like if rabbits served beer and Austrian cuisine. Definitely don't miss going to their website and clicking on the various links to see photos of the place. I can't do it justice here.

Dinner that night was quite an adventure. At Esterhazykeller, you order your drinks at the table, but for food you have to go stand in the buffet line. Gretchyn decided that she wanted to try an Austrian beer, and she was kind enough to share with us. We took this picture of Mike to make Fred (in dry Iraq) jealous:



After supper we headed back to the hotel, where the kids enjoyed yet another night of depressed bread on TV.

Monday morning we took our time getting away from the hotel and didn't reach Schönbrunn until late morning. We opted for the Grand Tour (40 rooms for 10.50 euro) but agreed that we would have done just as well with the shorter tour--much of the extended part of the longer tour was under renovation.

After the tour we stopped for lunch in the cafe there at the castle. Cafes and restaurants at tourist attractions tend to be either very good or very bad. This was one exceptionally good! I have never before had such amazingly good potato soup, and their apple strudel ranks up there as one of the best we ate on the whole trip.

After Schönbrunn, we arrived at the Opera just in time to take their last tour of the day. My kids had been looking forward to the opera tour in much the same way one might anticipate a root canal. They were pleasantly surprised to find that not only was it painless, but it was actually quite enjoyable! We got to sit in the velvet seats and even walk up on stage to watch the crew building the set for that evening's performance. After the tour, we stopped by the Opera Toilet in the metro station before heading back into the cold for further exploration.

Our next target was to find a fountain we had seen from a distance the night before. It seemed to be in the direction of the Karlskirche, so we headed off in that direction. As we passed through a park, Annabelle adopted a pet leaf:



We wound up going into the church and taking their Panorama Lift to the top of the cathedral. We got an up-close look at the paintings on the ceilings and climbed another 100+ steps to get to the very tippy-top to look out over Vienna. Unfortunately, the metal reinforcement in the glass window panes obstructed much of the view.

After we left the church, we found the fountain within a matter of minutes. It was well past dark by this time, and the ever-changing colored lights were beautiful. Here is Mike pretending to summon the waters:



We headed back to the Sacher Hotel so that Gretchyn could buy a few Sacher tortes to take home with her. From there, we split up for the evening--I took the kids back to the restaurant underneath our hotel for supper while Gretchyn returned to the Opera. She spent several hours on her feet, both in line and in her place in the standing room area, but for less than 5 bucks she was able to watch the first act of Beethoven's only opera, performed on the stage of the Vienna Opera House. I'd say that's quite the bargain!

When Gretchyn returned to the hotel, the kids were already in their jammies and parked in front of . . . yep, you guessed it . . . the bread show. She and I left the girls with Mike and headed back down to the restaurant so that I could keep her company while she ate her supper and filled me in on her opera adventure. I enjoyed a nice cup of Glühwein while she ate her meal and then helped her polish off yet another apple strudel.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

We arrived home from Austria last night, happy but exhausted. This morning I took Gretchyn and Alex up to Frankfurt to catch their plane and spent the rest of the day Christmas shopping and frantically wrapping packages to ship on Tuesday.

I'm working on getting my 160+ photos together so that I can blog the whole trip. I would love to get caught up not only on Austria but also on the second half of Russia by the end of the weekend. We shall see!

In the meantime, check out this amazing church built out of Lego and dedicated to a cat.

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Sunday, November 07, 2004

Quickie post to say hello from Austria! We're sitting in an internet cafe down the road from our (really excellent) hotel, and this international keyboard is making me nuts. There's so much to tell, but I guess you'll just have to wait until we get home later this week to hear about it. It's a long story, involving a nice train ride, getting lost on the way to the hotel, a horse-drawn carriage ride around old-town Vienna, sacher torte and apple strudel at the Sacher Hotel, the Lippizaner museum, a really cool music museum, and 2 (so far) excellent suppers of traditional Austrian fare. Oh, and the mattress from hell. Yes, there's pain, too.

Mom, you know our 20-minute phone call last night? Apparently, it drained my phone card. Unless I get a chance to get another one, that'll be it phone-wise until Thursday night.

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Friday, November 05, 2004

My friend Gretchyn arrived this morning with her 8-year-old daughter Alex. We're leaving tomorrow for 5 days in Austria--3 nights in Vienna, 2 in Salzburg. I probably won't blog until we get home, but I do promise to take lots of pictures. Off to finish packing . . .

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Thursday, November 04, 2004

I thought about starting my first post-election post with a portrait of our beloved president composed from pictures of our service members who have died in Iraq. I've decided though that I'm just too burnt out to rant about the election, so I'll just say this: Echt unglaublich, dass dieser verdammte Scheisskerl diese Wahl gewonnen hat! So ein Mist, jetzt müssen wir ihn nochmal vier Jahre lang ertragen. Scheisse, Scheisse, Scheisse!!!! I was disappointed to learn that Germans don't really use an F word when they cuss. That's too bad. I sure could have used one.

I have been besieged by requests for Fred's secret recipe for BBQ meatballs. I've never been any good at keeping secrets (except for about that one thing my sister did back in high school), so here it is: Pour a bag of frozen meatballs into a crockpot. Add a jar of BBQ sauce. Add a jar of grape jelly. Turn on crockpot. Wait a while. Eat the meatballs. See why we keep this a secret? It sounds disgusting, but it really is good.

And now for something funny and unrelated to politics! My sister and 2 of her coworkers dressed up as the three blind mice for the company Halloween party. Jenny is the mouse on the right:



Aren't they cute? It's the back view though that really cracks me up:



She also sent me this picture of a couple of her friends. Bet you can't guess what they are:



Why, that's the upper and lower GI!!

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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Happy Election Day (I hope)! My friend Jutta is coming with her kids to spend the night with us and keep us company as the results are announced. Amy is coming over too with Rebecca, and we're going to have quite a little party: fondue (cheese and chocolate), BBQ meatballs (Fred's secret recipe), Texas caviar (ultimate party food--see recipe below), and frozen strawberry daquiris. I should be cleaning my house or otherwise getting ready, but here I sit, stuck in front of the computer.

Last night Mike and I watched the tail end of Fahrenheit 9/11 on one of the German TV channels. Afterwards he turned to me and asked: "So does Utah like Bush?" I wasn't sure why he would ask about that particular state, but I said: "Well, I don't really know offhand. They're pretty conservative, so I would have to guess that yes, they do." He looked at me, utterly aghast, and demanded: "Don't you think that might make things a little AWKWARD tomorrow night?!" That's when it hit me--he meant Jutta, not Utah.

Jutta has promised that if Bush wins, she will teach me how to cuss a blue streak in German. I hope it doesn't come to that.

You should consider making your own batch of Texas caviar tonight. Simply drain and rinse a can of black beans, a can of garbanzo beans, and a can of corn. Mix together, along with a jar of salsa, a squeeze of fresh lime juice, chopped fresh cilantro, and diced avocado. Serve with corn chips (I recommend Tostito Scoops). I get rave reviews every time I take this to a party.

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