Tag Archives: beer

Spring in Stuttgart

4 Apr

Hello again! I go from MIA for nearly a month to twice in a matter of days! Sheesh. I’m sorry about that. But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve got something big in the pipeline- a project that’s been taking up a good bit of my time and that I’m really excited to share with all of you in the very near future. *And before some of you start jumping to (crazy) conclusions, nope, I’m definitely not pregnant, nor adding any living creature to the family 😉 But in all seriousness, it is a venture that I’m pretty damn pumped about and that I’m feeling so, so good about. I promise to share more in the coming weeks!

That being said, let’s consider this a photo dump post because we haven’t had one in a really long time! March was a really busy month around here- you already saw the Retro Classics Car Show and that we had Uncle Andy here to join us for the Bunkerhotel– but we also spent a heckuva lotta time welcoming spring, hanging out with friends, welcoming biergarten season back (hallelujah!), exploring new (to us) haunts in our city, etc.

So in completely random order, I present to you the, ‘Thomas Family Month in Pictures…’ (*warning: it’s alot, like alot alot. 😉 )

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New pants, vintage boots ❤

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The 70s called- they want their look back. Never.

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You know a carwash is the bomb.com when you have to take a picture.

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Thumbs up for new house shoes at school!

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One pup took the other pup’s treat. Can you guess which is which? Ha!

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Afterschool Tea Parties ❤

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When you’re still in a funk from yesterday, but you have to walk the city…1. Ear buds in so no one will talk to you – > No explaining that you don’t speak German. 2. Sunglasses on so no eye contact. 3. Ball cap on to erase any doubt that you’re American. Ha!

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(German) Breakfast of Champions

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Tulip Trees are my favorites ❤ (And Redbuds…)

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Sunrise from my side of the bed…

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Nothing better than homemade frozen yogurt pops after school!

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Slumber Parties ❤

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When you don’t know if it’s because you just got out of school for the day, or if it’s that it’s finally feeling like spring, or if it’s that the sun is out for the fourth (!) day in a row…You’re just…THANKFUL.

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Saturday morning farmers market ❤

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When you see one of these in your mailbox, it’s a great day. When you see 5…It’s like freakin’ Christmas! Bring on the packages!

Sunday afternoon at the Stuttgart Planetarium. Neve’s first such experience- she LOVED it.

Another Sunday afternoon at the local biergarten with friends…

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Pretty impressed with myself for creating this Stuttgart skyline…

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Beauty and the Beast in 3D ❤

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She loved this outfit she picked all by herself ❤

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Stuttgart Opera House

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New Palace

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Whew! I warned you it was alot! Ha! Thanks for sticking it out with me. I promise I’m going to try to do better this month. For now, I’m going to try to contain my excitement as my mom gets here in 36 hours!! Total last minute surprise trip just in time for my birthday this weekend (and Easter the following) and I simply can’t think of a better gift than having her here. In many ways, it’s been a very challenging season for my whole family (will elaborate on that in due time…), so having her here for just a couple weeks is a really good thing for me…and for her. Can. Not. Wait. ❤

Volksfest!

6 Oct

…Otherwise known as Stuttgart’s better version of Oktoberfest! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- the original Oktoberfest in Munich is fantastic, but the one here in Stuttgart- called Volksfest- is just a little bit better. On the surface, they’re identical. Both are giant fairs complete with oodles of rides, games and greasy foods. Both have 12+ huge tents serving up fest beer, German food and live entertainment. So what gives Volksfest the edge? Well frankly, the tourists. Or lack of them! Munich has become such a ‘bucket list item’ for so many people- mainly Americans and Brits, according to the stats- that it just has a bit more of a touristy vibe, and beyond obnoxious crowds. Higher prices year after year, marketing to everyone but the locals, more souvenir stands full of useless crap, cuisines moving away from traditional Bavarian style…Volksfest just feels a bit more ‘real.’ In fact, most predict that it will take over the top spot (it’s currently the #2 beer celebration in the world) within the next decade.

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Volksfest, attracting about 5 million people each year, takes place over three weeks in late September/early October- coinciding with Oktoberfest happening a few hours away. Let’s take a quick look at it’s really cool beginnings…

In 1815, a gigantic volcano eruption in Indonesia led to a climatic catastrophe even in Europe. The explosion hurled rocks, ashes and dust into the sky. These were distributed by the jet stream around the world and caused crop failure and famine in Europe. The winter of 1815 in Wurttemberg was the coldest in history- snow until May, no summer, alternating rain, whipping hail and thunderstorms continuing into the growth season. This made harvesting crops in those years impossible. Throughout Germany, people were starving. The little existing flour was stretched with sawdust and the planted potatoes were dug up again. When Wilhelm became King of Wurttemberg in 1816, Czar Nikolaus of Russia, helped with deliveries of grain. Then, in 1817, when the first harvest wagon from the region was finally brought in, King Wilhelm celebrated by throwing a harvest festival for his people. He donated cash prizes and honorary awards for outstanding agricultural accomplishment- the festival was designed to encourage the farmers. Today with around 350 companies, Volksfest is the biggest carnival-festival worldwide.

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On the train, headed to Fest…Thank God for public transportation!

We were really pumped to get to do two Fests this year- the first a few weeks ago with friends in Munich and this time here at home with our girl and Uncle Andy ❤ Neve LOVES fests- the rides, the lights, the tents, the music, the dancing…She was in Heaven, and this time, she had her own dirndl like Mommy!

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My favorite pic of the night ❤

The rest of us had a pretty kickass time ourselves, too. Unlike a few weeks ago, this time, being in the tent wasn’t the main objective. When Neve goes with us, we usually get there in time to (hopefully) find seats in a tent (we lucked up on the third tent we tried!), eat dinner and have a beer or two, then spend the rest of the night riding the rides, eating fair food and marveling at all the festivities. And you know what? I 100% love both ways of doing it! There’s definitely something akin to Christmas morning about watching the wonder and the pure joy through your daughter’s eyes.

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We ended up in the Dinkelacker tent. Coincidentally, this is the brewery that’s a block from our house and we can use our keen senses of smell to tell when they’re brewing 😉

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Some friends back in Columbia, SC, are doing a school project where ‘Flat George’ travels the world and returns home with stories and pictures from his adventure. Tonight, Flat George joined us at Volksfest!

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Never, ever, ever has there been a cuter little ‘German’ girl. Or one who loves Fests more. ❤

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Sweaty and out of breath from dancing and singing on our table ❤

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Dad and Andy about to be slingshotted into the night sky!

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Just try to get this kid off the rollercoasters!

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Have you ever ridden fair rides in a dirndl and lederhosen? Ha!

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‘Twas definitely a fun, fun night here in Stuttgart. And one that almost didn’t happen- at least not as we’d planned as I’m sure many of you know that there’s a hurricane headed straight for our hometown, Charleston, SC. Well, at the last minute, the predicted storm track shifted just a bit eastward and the projected speeds slightly lowered. That coupled with the uncertain airport closures and insane parking lots that are currently the roads in the Lowcountry helped my parents make the decision to stay with us through the weekend as originally planned, which meant not only our fun night at Volksfest, but also John’s early birthday celebration scheduled for tomorrow night! Yep, we intend to keep the shenanigans going right up until they board that flight! ❤ (And yes, that’s another saga in itself- can’t even imagine this house without them here by this point, so I’m not even going to go there yet! Telepathic hugs appreciated! ;))

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Oktoberfest!

25 Sep

Show of hands- how many of you have a visit to the world famous Oktoberfest on your Bucket List? Well, it was definitely on ours and had been on my parents’ ever since we moved here, so after a decade of being in and out of Europe, we’ve finally crossed it off! And it was totally worth its spot on the list, too. SUCH a fun experience!

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So to kick off this little picture post, y’all know I’ve got to get a bit nerdy and give you some backstory. Don’t judge. Oktoberfest is the largest beer festival in the world, complete with a traveling fair. It takes place for 18 days in late September/early October every year in Munich, Germany (about two hours from us in Stuttgart). Other cities around the country also host similar festivals (stay tuned for my post on Stuttgart’s own Volksfest- our personal favorite- in a couple weeks!), but Munich’s was the first (held in 1810, as a wedding celebration for King Ludwig and Queen Therese) and is still considered the most popular, drawing more than 6 million visitors each year and serving nearly 7 million liters of beer (!).

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Our tent for the day, Schutzen Festzelt. Each tent is known for different things. Ours was known for good food (especially pork) and good, modern music by live bands. It’s one of the larger tents, holding about 8000 people.

So what does Oktoberfest look like? Well, it’s basically a giant fair- complete with rollercoasters, giant stuffed animals to be won at games, and greasy fair food- with ‘tents’ (ie. giant wooden restaurants) throughout, each serving its own kind of food and drink. I tell you what- these ‘tents’ are more sturdy and better put together than many a house I’ve been in! That’s how permanent they look and feel! The majority of tents specialize in whole roasted chickens and beer (each tent is sponsored by a different brewery), but there are also wine tents, dessert tents, wild game tents, etc. In addition to varying cuisines, tents range in size from smaller (2000ish people) to massive (10,000 people), as well as style (traditional, progressive, rowdy, older crowds, etc.) So in other words, choosing which tent you’d like to spend your time in is big business and there are lots of things to consider!

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So do you just choose one and walk in? Well, yes and no. There are two different options for getting into the tents. The first is to go during slower times (ie. weekdays, earlier in the day) and hope to find a seat inside. Sometimes you luck up, other times you don’t. (You can’t be served food or drink without a seat.) If you tried to do this at night or on a weekend, you’d have about a 0% chance of this happening. The second way is to round up 10+ people and buy a table reservation in advance (this isn’t an option for smaller groups). With reservations, you choose one of three ‘shifts’- morning, afternoon or night- in the tent. Although we’ve done it both ways, this time we opted for Option 2 and it couldn’t have turned out any better! We always prefer the afternoon shift for various reasons- less being exhausted before it’s all over, more stamina, slightly more ability to hear ourselves think, more stamina, less vomit from surrounding patrons…so that’s what we went with this time. Plus, half of our group was leaving the next morning for their Ireland vacation, so…yeah 😉

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Of course we’re embracing the culture! With the number of fests always going on, we had to splurge for a dirndl (it’s three separate pieces- the dress with built-in corset, the apron and the blouse) and lederhosen. Traditionally, the placement of the apron bow denotes married/single/widowed and the symbol in front of the suspenders is the region you’re representing.

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Walking through the front door of Schutzen Festzelt at noon and already a madhouse. Each tent has its own decor, its own colors, its own placement of stages and tables…Fest tables are typically long and skinny with benches down each side to accommodate 10 people each.

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View from our table on the second floor. BEST seating we’ve ever had! (And yes, this is how packed it is on a Thursday afternoon!)

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Festival beer is sold in one size and one size only. Each masse holds 1 liter.

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Can I get a hallelujah for whoever invented the pushup bra?! They make them here specifically to go under dirndls- and to add 2+ cup sizes! 

We realized while we were home this summer that our good family friends, the Heaths, were also planning to cross Oktoberfest off their Bucket List this year, so the coordination plans began. Our two families go way back. My mom and Susan worked together in the operating room at Trident Hospital in Charleston in the late 80s. When I was in middle school, and the Heath boys in elementary school, we started vacationing together, along with two other familes- the LePines and the Forinashes. In other words, we’ve all been close for the last 20+ years <3. Harrison, the youngest Heath, graduated from West Point a few years ago and is now stationed in Germany with his wife Sammi, so just like my parents, his parents and his brother, Kyle, are in town for a visit. What better excuse to plan some awesome joint ‘fest’ivities. (Ha! See what I did there?!)

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Our tent sold Lowenbrau beer, one of the most popular breweries in Germany.

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When you discover the table behind you is also from N. America…Canada, but close enough 😉

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Finding the perfect hat 😉

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The Heaths

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View from the deck…

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FUN ❤

One of my favorite things about doing the afternoon shift is that when you leave the tent, the sun is just going down and the fair is in full swing- all the lights and sounds and smells that can’t help but make you happy! No, you don’t always necessarily feel like riding loop-di-loops after 5 hours in a tent, but walking around and just taking it all in sure is fun in itself.

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Missing our girl- Neve’s favorite ride at every fair!

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We really did have such a fun day- and to get to share it with my parents and our great friends from home was just icing on the cake…er, gravy on the schweinehaxe! Ha! Definitely an experience- a little trip to Munich- we’ll never forget. Next week, Round 2 at Stuttgart’s Volksfest!

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Just in case you were wondering what one eats for dinner after a full day of festing…We plan ahead ❤

And to quote another girlfriend who also just got back from Munich, “Rick Steves said it best: ‘Fest is about people getting together to celebrate culture, happiness, and embracing life.'” Yes, it surely is. ❤

Already Friday!

18 Mar

*Just so I don’t forget, for those of you who follow along on Facebook, I’m going to be taking a little hiatus and deactivating my account this weekend. (Doesn’t everybody just need a little break every now and then?) So please be sure you’re subscribed to the blog (click the button on the righthand side –>) so you won’t miss when we have new posts!

You probably won’t notice, but I titled today’s post as a direct wink to my last one, which happened to be ‘Finally Friday!’ (I’m so clever, right?) This week has flown by and in a good way because we’ve had some really good stuff going on! For starters, we got in a terrific date night where I left off last week- tried a new rustic German restaurant that totally hit the mark on all fronts, especially with their in-house cut charcuterie. O. M. G.

In even bigger news, Uncle Andy arrived last Saturday! Honestly, I’m not sure who was more excited- us or him!

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See what I mean? Ha!

So let me back up and fill in any of you who don’t know who Uncle Andy is exactly. Well for starters, he’s not technically Neve’s uncle because he’s not technically mine or John’s brother. But he might as well be. You see, we met Andy in 2004 when John started working at SPAWAR in Charleston. I met him- and his girlfriend at the time (she was a troll, btw)- at the office Christmas party that year- and the group of us, along with several others, became fast friends. We formed a weekly trivia team (we won more times than not!), we boated every weekend, we ate food. After a few years, Andy ended up needing a place to live, so he moved in with us. What a fun few years we had all living under one roof! (John’s brother, Mark, even lived with us for part of that time, so it was especially good times!) And he wasn’t just family to John and me, but to our whole family. Holidays, celebrations, hard times…We were all family and still are to this day. Eventually, Andy decided to put down some roots and buy a house of his own- a mile down the street from us. A couple years later, Neve came along and it was love at first sight for she and her Uncle Andy. They’ve had their own special bond ever since. So yeah. Not sure whether I’d call him a brother or a best friend or just an integral part of our lives, but whatever he is, he’s family. ❤

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Three weeks old…

The weather has been fantastic this week for the most part, other than one random day of snow. Yeah, mid march and we’re over here with snow! Ha!

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Ummmm?

But other than that, we’ve been able to get out a good bit and soak it all in. We have a lovely park just up the hill from our house- it has three playgrounds, lots of walking paths among the vineyards and some great wide open spaces for the pups to let loose. And as of this week, it has flowers! Spring is coming, dammit!

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We were so excited to introduce Andy to our friends. They’ve all heard so much about each other, that I just couldn’t wait for everyone to put faces with names. What better time and place for introductions that with our neighbor, Collins’, birthday at the best burger joint we’ve discovered in Stuttgart!? It was seriously the best night we’ve had in AGES. It was so easy and comfortable and FUN. John said that it felt so much like ‘home’ and he’s right- it really did. It’s amazing how quickly- and genuinely- people become YOUR people.

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Not sure what we’d do without this group right here. Just so you know who you’re looking at, starting on the left…Abigail and Collins live next door to us on top of the shopping mall. They’re from the DC area by way of Minnesota and Camaroon. Their daughter, Amalie, is 2 1/2 and the sweetest little thing. She’s a firecracker like Neve. They’re due with Baby #2 in July. Matt and Emma live a train stop away also downtown and are from Summerville just like us, so not sure how we never crossed paths until we got all the way over here! Their girls, Emmie (6) and Ellie (1), are as different as night and day, but both just so awesome and Neve things they’re terrific. This tribe makes my heart happy.

Not much too picture worthy the rest of the week. We’ve just been exploring the city, visiting the bases, playing on playgrounds…Neve is absolutely adoring having Uncle Andy here. As you can see, he’s up for just about anything- human slide, playing with princesses, snuggling before naptime (although no one tops Daddy Snuggles 🙂 )…

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And before I forget, I just want to share how insanely proud I am of my girl and her swim lessons! She can now jump- or be tossed!- into the deepish (5′) end without anyone in the water, bounce off the bottom and swim to the side! All by herself! Long story short, but we haven’t had the easiest go of learning to swim over the last 2 years (yes, that’s how long we’ve been trying to learn!), so to see her so comfortable and confident around the water is amazing. And she loves her teacher, Mr. Isaac. Like love loves him. He’s from Uganda and has been here for 2 years- and is phenomenal with kids. About a month ago, we were walking home from school and she started giggling and blushing and finally said, ‘Mom, I can’t wait to see Mr. Isaac today. He is SOOOOOO handsome like a prince!’ It was the most precious thing!

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That’s about it from these parts! We are excited for the weekend just so we can all be together without pesky work or school getting in the way! Ha! We’re hoping to head south to Lake Constance to visit Affenberg Salem, aka Monkey Mountain. It’s a sanctuary for primates (and storks??) where you can roam freely with them on acres and acres. Sounds like a blast, right?! Best part, it’s supposed to be around 50F and partly sunny both days! I know, I know. Pretty bad when this southern girl is getting excited for weather descriptions like this!

And one last thing. My dear friend, Eleanor, had back surgery last week and has not had the best first week of recovery. If everyone could say a little prayer for her- we are sending the biggest hugs! Eleanor, Neve wanted to take this pictures just for you ‘so you would smile.’ ❤

 

Beautiful Belgium

1 Jun

Happy Monday, everybody! Well, it’s June 1 and our forecast here is 100% rain and in the 60s. Not cool. Although 60s is better than 50s, which is what we had- along with a good bit of rain with the exception of Saturday afternoon- this past weekend in Belgium. But you know what? Even with the less-than-ideal weather, we still had a terrific time during our first visit there and can’t say enough good things about it, especially Bruges. More about that in a sec…

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Keeping It Real: I knew days ago that this would be my KIR for today. Paying to use public restrooms. DRIVES ME CRAZY. Not even so much the actual paying part, but the, without fail, getting all the way to the bathroom (that in Europe, is inevitably down three flights of stairs in the basement and then a 1/4 mile walk) and having forgotten your .50-€1. And there’s no getting around it- there’s a turnstyle at the entrance AND a worker there monitoring (and cleaning the stalls in between uses- I’ll give them credit that their bathrooms are very clean). And then I never know the rules about little kids. Do they pay, too? So I need to pay €2 for Neve and I to use the bathroom? Crazy. I decided weeks ago, no, with my rationale being that we only use one stall. Apparently my logic was flawed as one of the toilet monitors pointed out to me this weekend when we both walked through with just my one payment. Alas, there was a language barrier and I played dumb to her yelling as we made our way into the stall. I also ignored her scowls and carrying on as we exited. Oh well.

Just hunt for the greens!

Just hunt for the greens!

And one little mini-KIR just because we found it such a fantastic invention. Take a look at the parking garage above. I know it’s kinda tough to see, but notice the lights above the cars. Most are red, but some are green. Get it? The greens show you where there’s a vacant spot! How genius is that?! No driving around hunting for spots- just follow the reds until you get to a green! We need this in the States! And as a side note- I swear that all parking garages in Europe have floors so shiny and clean you could eat off them. John and I can only come up with that most are underground and therefore not exposed to the elements?

5+ hours, two ways, just about every weekend...Makes for a pretty darn good road tripper!

5+ hours, two ways, just about every weekend…Makes for a pretty darn good road tripper!

So Belgium. Actually one of our closer road trips. We left first thing Friday morning and made it to Brussels by lunchtime. Spent the afternoon exploring, then drove the final hour to Bruges for a late dinner. Worked out perfectly. Really going to miss being able to make such awesome time on road trips because of this:

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Brussels, another huge city (started in the 10th century by Charlemagne’s descendants) with a population of over 1.2 million, is the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union, as well as the headquarters for NATO. It’s bilingual as it sits right on the boundary between the country’s language communities (French in the south, Dutch in the north), although English is definitely utilized extensively as the lingua facta- we didn’t encounter one single person who didn’t speak English. Bazinga!

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Brussels has a very ‘working city’ type of feel going on. And it should! Heck, it’s a capital (not only of the country but of the whole EU), a financial center, an educational center, a political center…Skyscrapers, people in suits, the worst traffic we’ve seen in a European city (!)…It does have a charming Old Town at the heart of it all, which is just lovely. Now, I know some of you won’t agree with us on this, but Brussels just wasn’t our favorite city. Don’t get me wrong- we’re definitely glad we were finally able to see it as it’s been on our short list for some time now and we definitely enjoyed our afternoon there- but overall with regards to what we like most about destinations and how likely it is for us to return, it just didn’t make the mark for us.

The Grand Place, constructed in the 10th century, is the central square of Brussels and contains Town Hall, the Belgium Museum, the Breadhouse and lots of restaurants…Very regal with some breathtaking architecture. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage sight.

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Town Hall

Town Hall

Belgium Museum

Belgium Museum

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From here, we branched out onto all the little side streets with no plan in mind- just seeing what we saw. First stop- lunch. Since we knew our time was limited, we didn’t want to take too much of it by sitting down at a restaurant, so we opted for the two street foods we were seeing the most of- French fries (actually invented in Belgium and a national food there) and waffles (also invented in Belgium- more on this later…).

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Lunch of Champions!

Lunch of Champions!

Belgium is considered to be a birthplace of comics and they have a distinct subgroup in comic history. They are integral to Belgian culture, from the early 1900s through today. Neat tidbit: there are more comic artists per square mile in Brussels than anywhere else in the world combined. How cool!! Two notable comics out of Belgium are Rin Tin Tin (an unoffical city symbol) and The Smurfs. One of our favorite parts of downtown Brussels was all the comic art/graffiti snuck in everywhere you turn- like a little element of surprise.

Wonderful 'graffiti' all over the city...

Wonderful ‘graffiti’ all over the city…

Rin Tin Tin originated in Brussels. Much of the graffiti has him added in somewhere. It's like a 'Where's Waldo...'

Rin Tin Tin originated in Brussels. Much of the graffiti has him added in somewhere. It’s like a ‘Where’s Waldo…’

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The week before we came, I happened to stumble across an article, ‘Top 10 Chocolatiers in the World.’ Three of them happen to be in Brussels! No big surprise, I suppose, as the country is known for this sweet, but still! Yes, we stopped in all of them. And yes, our resident ChocoDiva was in (expensive) Heaven! Pralines, truffles, bars…

One of the Top 5 Chocolatiers in the world...We also hit 2 others on the list. All within a mile of each other in Brussels.

One of the Top 5 Chocolatiers in the world…We also hit 2 others on the list. All within a mile of each other in Brussels.

Other notables from our walk: Mannequin Pis (aka Little Man Pee, the tiny landmark bonze statue of Brussels peeing into a basin), The Cycliste (the most expensive sculpture ordered by a city in modern times at €100,000!) and Delirium Cafe (the place with the world’s largest beer selection).

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Delirium Cafe. 2400+ beers to choose from...

Delirium Cafe. 2400+ beers to choose from…See the Top 100 list on the door?

thumb_IMG_3982_1024It poured on us the entire drive to Bruges, so by the time we got there, we looked like cold, wet rats. And hungry rats. God was definitely looking out for us as the first restaurant we passed as we set out on foot was exactly what we didn’t even know we were looking for. FONDUE. Warm, delicious comfort food at its finest. A quick check of online reviews (because we are nerds who don’t waste time eating at places with crummy reviews) and we were seated at the last available table. Definitely a cozy, quirky restaurant we will remember- love those kinds…

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Did you know that the sun doesn’t set over here until nearly 11p? Yeah, the longer we’re in Europe, the later it’s getting each night. Can’t decide if we like it or not- regardless, it definitely messes with your head! By the time we finished dinner, it was after 9p and we knew we were tired from our full day of walking, but it seemed so much earlier so we just carried on…Retiring for the night when it’s bright outside is just strange! Ha! Here’s our view walking back to the hotel from dinner…Yep, just past 9p!

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Our hotel...

Our hotel…

Back in our room, watching the sunset from our window about 10p...

Back in our room, watching the sunset from our window about 10p…

We woke up Saturday morning to dark clouds and the smell of rain, but what are you gonna do? You’ve got a day to see this awesome city and you’re not gonna let two little things like rain and cold keep you from it! So out we went!

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Gorgeous, right?! Alright, let’s talk about Bruges (pronounced Brooj, rhyming with the sport ‘luge’) for a minute. Bruges, situated in northwest Belgium on the sea, is considered to be the most well-preserved Medieval city in the world. It’s also called a ‘Venice of the North’ because of its canals (no, not as many as Amsterdam and no houseboats). The current walls and canals were built in 1128AD.

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The first Roman (they were everywhere back then, weren’t they?!) fortifications in Bruges were built in the first century BC as protection against pirates. The Franks took over the region in the 4th century AD and when the Vikings began assaults in the 9th century, the original fortifications were reinforced, bringing about successful trade with England and Scotland. From the 12th to the 15th centuries, Bruges had what is considered to be its Golden Era. Its port thrived and the city became a main player in the fabric trade, primarily lace and wool. (Lace shops are still all over the city today, btw.) Because of this, weavers, spinners and artists from all over the region were attracted to Bruges, making it among the wealthiest, most influential cities of the time. In fact, it was considered the “chief commercial city” of the world.

WOW. Someone handmade this map out of lace.

WOW. Someone handmade this map out of lace.

After 1500, gradual silting of the main inlet had caused Bruges to lose direct access to the sea and thus its status as the economic flagship of the area- a status that would now belong to Antwerp, a larger city just northward. Despite attempts over the years to reclaim its prosperity, Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance, it’s population dwindling from 200,000 to less than 50,000. By the late 1800s, however, its star began to rise again as wealthy French and British tourists took notice of its beauty and charm. Over the next century, the influx of visitors- and thus, money- brought Bruges back to life. Today, the population is about 125,000 (300,000 if you count the whole metro area) and attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. And once again, its port has become one of the most important in Europe.  Its Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage sight. “Rise, fall and resurrection make up the life story of Bruges, a city that glittered in Northern Europe with as much panache as Venice did in the Mediterranean World.”

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I'll admit I'm a bit skeptical (John is not, bless his heart)...A vial of Jesus' blood lay inside...It's inside a larger silver display piece, so can't be seen...

I’ll admit I’m a bit skeptical (John is not, bless his heart)…A vial of Jesus’ blood lay inside this church…It’s inside a larger silver display piece, so can’t be seen…

We spent the latter part of the morning touring De Halve Maan Brewery. Bruges is a city where beer is taken very seriously. Bars stock up to 300 Belgian varieties and many visitors aim to sample as many of them as possible. (We certainly didn’t attempt this, but yes, the beer scene was one that John was excited to experience.) But it is the beer made at the only working brewery within the city walls that is considered the finest.

Translates to 'Half Moon'

Translates to ‘Half Moon’

Halve Maan was started in 1856 by Henry Maes and it still family-owned and operating on the same small site within the Old Town. Our guide took us up steep steps into the attic and onto the roof, back down to the main level to see the new kettle room (installed just a couple years ago), and then down into the basement. We’ve done lots of brewery tours over the years, but this one was especially neat because, rather than being a massively huge operation with lots of bells and whistles (like Heineken, for example) it looked at the history- at how things were done ‘in the olden days’ and how many of those practices are still being used today.

Those are hops hanging from the rafters...

Those are hops hanging from the rafters…

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From the top of the Brewery...Looking across Bruges toward the sea...

From the top of the Brewery…Looking across Bruges toward the sea…

For every pint produced, about 300 pints of water are used to make it and, with restrictions on local water usage, De Halve Maan imports truckloads from a nearby well. In the early days, draymen were given seven bottles a day as part of their wages and often got a free drink in each bar they delivered to. The horses became so fed up with waiting for their drunken drivers that they often made their own way back to the brewery. When the horses were requisitioned during the First World War, Belgian shepherd dogs were used to deliver smaller barrels. Now barrels are in short supply because of a shortage of coopers – apprenticeships are no longer available. At De Halve Maan, it takes two elderly coopers two days to repair a single barrel. Replacements now come from French vineyards and Scottish distilleries.

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Bottling happens offsite at a warehouse 3 miles away in the industrial zone. Currently, trucks transport the beer to the warehouse from the brewery, but that’s only until the underground pipe system, currently under construction, is completed next year. At that point, the beer will flow directly to the warehouse. Cool, huh?

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There is an impressive collection of glasses on display at De Halve Maan – each of the 1,300 Belgian beers has its own design. When a new beer is invented, the right shaped glass must be found so that drinkers can appreciate fully its flavour and aroma.

Who knew that ridged glasses were designed to keep the warmth of your hands away from the beer?

Who knew that ridged glasses were designed to keep the warmth of your hands away from the beer?

The tour ended with glasses of their blonde brew- Bruges Zot. They also brew a Dubbel, a Tripel, a Quadruple and an alternating seasonal. Yes we tried all of them at some point during the weekend. I really like the Zot and the Dubbel. The Quadruple was one step away from liquor to my tastebuds, but John adored it, as well as their current seasonal, Wild.

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So the verdict for Belgian vs. German beer? Much tougher decision than last weekend’s when comparing British brews. This is a close race. By law, Germany can not include herbs or fruits in their beer, which means that you get way less variety than in Belgium, where the sky’s the limit (coriander is the most-used herb in brewing). So I guess Belgium may win this one. But John will tell you, German beer is amazing and among the best you will ever taste. Plus, beer in Germany is just about always less than €1 for a pint, but it’s back to being expensive in Belgium, so that’s definitely a downer.

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Next stop, lunch on Market Square. The main square of any town is always the most overpriced and it’s rarely the best food, but darn if they don’t always make for the best people watching and that feeling that you’re part of the hustle and bustle! We opted for fries. Again. Don’t judge. Side note: Did you know that you have to pay extra for ketchup (or any sauce) in Europe? Sheesh.

My lunchtime view :)

My lunchtime view 🙂

We had a lunch of fries and more fries at the place to the far right. Had the first table to the left as you walk through the little fence...

We had a lunch of fries and more fries at the place to the far right. Had the first table to the left as you walk through the little fence…

Once refueled, we made our way to the nearest canal to catch a boat. What better way to see Bruges than from the water? It turned out to be a great idea (thanks, John!) as we got to see several parts of the city that would’ve been too far to walk to, we got some interesting commentary along the way and Neve loved it!

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Dulcie and Meg would LOVE to watch all the boats passing by in the canals below!

Dulcie and Meg would LOVE to watch all the boats passing by in the canals below!

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Tight squeeze! Lowest bridge in the city!

Tight squeeze! Lowest bridge in the city!

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As pretty as the pictures are, they really don’t do it justice. Bruges is just so pretty- just begging to be on postcards! Ha! John put it a good way by comparing it to Rothenburg, the little German medieval city we fell in love with our first weekend here. They’re both so picturesque and so inviting, but Bruges goes that extra mile by maintaining the ‘real’ feel. Not that Rothenburg isn’t real, but Bruges is more than just its visitors. It’s a working, living, large-ish city. No replicas, no re-enactments…Just as you see it. And with canals. Everything is awesome when you add canals 🙂

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We found ourselves back at Market Square by mid-afternoon, so what better time and place to rest our weary feet?

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Lambic Beer- a Belgian fruit beer (tasted alot like wine to me...)

Lambic Beer- a Belgian fruit beer (tasted alot like wine to me…)

Since we didn’t have authentic Belgian food Friday night, we knew we had to find it now and that we only had one chance to get it right. And once again, we lucked up! We found a restaurant online that got 5 stars out of 100+ reviews. Darn it, we thought- should’ve made reservations last week. We called just to make sure. Low and behold, they’d just had a cancellation and we could have a table in an hour if we wanted it! Heck yes! The two national dishes- mussels with fries and Flemish Stew- were our goals. Mission accomplished! Both were very good. The mussels are different than what we get at home. No broth really- just some seasoning and the mussels standing for themselves (which says alot- usually stuff drowning in sauce is covering up something lackluster!). The stew, also served with fries (told you!) and salad, is very similar to beef stew, but done with dark beer (instead of red wine) and is pretty sweet. I wouldn’t order it again, but it made for a very good dinner. Not gonna lie, both of our favorite part was the cheese croquette appetizer. Belgian cheese is delish!

Belgian comfort food. We always love croquettes.

Belgian comfort food. We always love croquettes.

National dish- Mussels and Fries...

National dish- Mussels and Fries…

National Dish- Similar to beef stew, but made with dark beer...

National Dish- Similar to beef stew, but made with dark beer…

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One of our favorite things about Europe, and I’ve said this before, is the walking. We especially love walking after dinner- something about it just makes you feel good and helps with digestion. This is true at home in Charleston, too- our favorite date nights are always dinner downtown, then walking around until we find ourselves at Kaminsky’s for cake. 🙂 Anyhoo…Great after dinner walk. The sun continued to peak through the off-and-on rain clouds. The boats had been covered for the night, so the canals were glassy and quiet. The Square was alive with music- bands had been playing on a center stage all day long.

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A concert on our way home from dinner

A concert on our way home from dinner

My goodness, I love my girl...She's the perfect personality for me.

My goodness, I love my girl…She’s the perfect personality for me.

OK, I’ve been saving the best for last. You know it’s gotta be food-related. What can I say, we’re foodies through and through! Let’s talk about waffles. I’m a waffle lover from way back- I consider them among the best foods ever invented. We will never, ever, EVER look at waffles the same way now that we’ve had Belgium’s Liege waffles. I now know for a fact that they ARE the best food invented. Actually, because we’ve been doling out that title alot lately, we’ve started subcategorizing. Last weekend’s sticky toffee pudding gets ‘Best Dessert Ever Invented.’ Liege Waffles get ‘Best Street Food Ever Invented.’ Like what we did there? 😉 In Belgium, waffles are eaten any time of day (they must’ve gotten the memo from neighboring Netherlands and their pancakes)- breakfast, quick snack, dessert…God, it’s a perfect situation.

If you look closely, you can see the sugar pearls within the dough. Just plop a dough ball onto the iron...

If you look closely, you can see the white sugar pearls within the dough. Just plop a dough ball onto the iron…

Did you know that there are actually two kinds of waffles that originated in Belgium and the one that we call a ‘Belgian Waffle’ (the big square with crunchy outside and airy inside) is actually a ‘Brussels Waffle?’ An true Belgian Waffle is actually a ‘Liege Waffle’ and deserving of a Nobel prize. And an Olympic medal. Lord. Liege waffles are made with brioche dough (hi, Dad!) filled with sugar pearls that caramelize within as they cook. So what you end up with is this buttery, rich, denser than what you’re used to waffle with tiny moist sugar bits throughout. They’re served hot off the iron (yes, there’s a special 45 lb. liege grill that’s necessary to get the exact temperature needed to straddle the fine line between perfect caramelization and burnt), plain or topped with fruit, chocolate or cream. Disclaimer: Not all liege waffles are created equally. Fortunately, we found the BEST shop in time to stop by more than once. What? You’ve never had 3 waffles in one day?

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Neve preferred her waffles plain. I liked caramel with a bit of cream. John liked bananas and chocolate. We all also liked the speculoos (Trader Joe fans, you know what I’m talking about- the cookie butter!) Who knew Biscoff was invented in Belgium! And on top of a waffle? Ahhhh…

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waffle

Last quick breakfast in Bruges before hitting the road back to Germany...

Last quick breakfast in Bruges before hitting the road back to Germany…

I know, I know…Another ridiculously long post, but these countries we visit just don’t give me any choice! They’re so unique and so gorgeous and with so much history. And from what I can tell when I’ve heard from you guys is that you like to hear the ‘stories’ of a place as much as I do. Afterall, what’s the point of a picture if you don’t know what you’re really looking at? Thanks for sticking with me. 🙂

It’s another rainy Monday here in Wiesbaden, which means that Neve and I are boycotting getting dressed, instead opting for Mary Poppins and Horton Hears a Who cuddled on the couch under a blanket. 🙂 If the forecast is right, though, we have some sunshine and warmer temperatures (maybe in the 80s!) coming our way, so hopefully we’ll get into some good stuff over the next few days. We did learn that our current apartment is unavailable for next week (the one we had to extend), so Thursday we will actually be moving to a new apartment. Kinda bittersweet as we’ve grown to feel pretty at home here. Definitely not ideal having to pack up twice (once to move less than a mile away and again next week to come home), but there are perks- like an even better location over a department store in the heart of Old Town and lightning speed internet (hallelujah!). It’ll also probably make next week’s final pack go smoother as much of the ‘purging’ will happen before this week’s move. See, always looking for the bright side! Heehee. The brightest side will actually be our final adventure coming up this weekend- the Alps of Switzerland. Probably our favorite destination ever and now we will get to share it with Neve…Stay tuned 🙂

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London, we miss you already!

26 May

Happy (belated) Memorial Day! I hope you each had a wonderful holiday spent with family and friends, giving thanks for our freedom and those who’ve made it possible. We were really wishing we could be with our family for the day, grilling on the patio, enjoying some good conversation, indulging in Lemon Blueberry Cake that was supposed to be Lemon Blueberry Bars…Alas, our families are thousands of miles away- and we don’t even have a grill here! Ha! So we spent the (rainy) day in our jammies, watching Horton Hears a Who, baking Brown Butter Banana Bars (yes, they’re as sinful as they sound…), recouping from our little weekend holiday to the UK 🙂 Coincidentally, it was also a German holiday (imagine that), so the city was shut down regardless.

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Checking our bag at Frankfurt and ready to get on the plane!

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Made it! We took the train from the airport into the city (50 minutes), then walked to our hotel.

Y’all. London is fab. And it was such a welcomed change of- well, a ton of things- that we were all three definitely needing! For starters, the most obvious. Not gonna lie, the English language has never sounded so good! LOVED being able to talk to people, read the menus, read the billboards, understand the store clerks…Oh yeah. And being able to watch some TV at night in our hotel room. Neve even found a new favorite Sunday morning cartoon, RastaMouse! (No, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!) Speaking of the hotel, I think John and I are currently loving them about as much as Neve always does. King size fluffy beds with one big soft comforter (instead of the two that are the norm in Germany), regular showers (we don’t have one at our apartment), fast internet (we are paying out the nose in Germany for less than mediocre web access), full size soft towels (the ones we have at the apartment are closer to hand towel size and always crunchy from air drying since we don’t have a dryer), and maid service (don’t judge, but you never realize just how much you love your housekeeper until you’re without her!)…

Told ya! RastaMouse is from Jamaica so he has a terrific accent and knows all the Bob Marley tunes :)

Told ya! RastaMouse is from Jamaica so he has a terrific accent and knows all the Bob Marley tunes 🙂

Speaking of billboards, our personal favorite from the weekend...So glad we could read it for the full effect.

Speaking of billboards, our personal favorite from the weekend…So glad we could read it for the full effect.

Another welcomed change? The food. Don’t get me wrong, there are German dishes that we have really grown to love and will definitely miss when we come home (in fact, that’s how we celebrated Memorial Day!), but look, you can only eat so much sausage and cheese and bread before you’re ready for something more ‘normal.’ At first, we’d been a bit skeptical about British food as it’s not really known for its cuisine, but all in all, we really enjoyed it! We made it a point to only order ‘national dishes’- in other words, no pizzas or hotdogs!- and I can honestly say that we didn’t come across one thing that we truly didn’t like! Our favorites were Bangers and Mash (me) and the Fish and Chips (John).

Bangers and Mash- British sausages over mashed potatoes with brown onion gravy. DELISH.

Bangers and Mash- British sausages over mashed potatoes with brown onion gravy. DELISH.

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The Scotch Egg is a typical appetizer at pubs. It's a soft boiled egg, encased in sausage, battered and fried. Served with relish mustard. We liked it fine, but it wasn't a fav.

The Scotch Egg is a typical appetizer at pubs. It’s a soft boiled egg, encased in sausage, battered and fried. Served with relish mustard. We liked it fine, but it wasn’t a fav.

The absolute best culinary wonder we put in our mouths however, was…Sticky Toffee Pudding. OH. MY. GAWD. Y’all. We both agree that it’s probably the best dessert we’ve ever had. Like ever. And I’m a dessert Queen. There just are no words. So, British people refer to desserts as puddings. Some are actual puddings like we think of, but most are not. Sticky Toffee being one of them. It’s the most popular, well-known dessert in the country and it served on more pub menus than not. It’s a dark sponge cake sweetened with dates (I know, I know, but you 100% can not tell they’re in there!) that tastes kinda like a spice/gingerbread/molasses cake, drenched in hot, melted toffee (like a stronger tasting caramel), and topped with either clotted cream or ice cream. Our favorite was topped with honeycomb ice cream. And we had it two nights in a row…at the same restaurant…because it was that amazing. Don’t judge.

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The stuff Heaven is made of right here in this ramekin.

The stuff Heaven is made of right here in this ramekin.

Heaven help me when I learn to make this.

Heaven help me when I learn to make this.

The closest I can find to my reaction when eating Sticky Toffee Pudding. Disclaimer: John looked identical, but it's creepier when a man does it ;)

The closest I can find to my reaction when eating Sticky Toffee Pudding. Disclaimer: John looked identical, but it’s creepier when a man does it 😉

Our other favorite ‘meal’ in London- and a definite highlight of our trip- was our Gentleman’s Tea with our dear soon-to-be-married friends, Sandy and Simon. Sandy is practically my cousin as our families are best friends and we’re together for all holidays, celebrations, etc. She works for Blackbaud and took a job in London several years ago. That’s where she met Simon, the sweetest Brit we’ve ever met!, and they’re now engaged and living in downtown London- just beyond the Tower Bridge in my picture below. Lucky dogs. When they heard we were coming to London, they were kind enough to arrange for us to sample a true British tradition, the afternoon tea. We loved it. I told John that if we lived there, I would totally make it a regular weekend thing. He agreed. And teas aren’t just for ladies anymore- now there are ‘gentleman’s teas’ that incorporate real food (instead of just cakes and scones), coffee and beer. It was so perfect sitting there around this big round table, in this gorgeous dining room, having tea and catching up with old friends. Remember that change of pace thing I was talking about? SO GREAT. And such a nice dose of ‘normal.’

Sandy and Simon

Sandy and Simon

Sandy and I had the Chelsea Tea...Finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jellies, pastries and Earl Grey tea.

Sandy and I had the Chelsea Tea…Finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jellies, pastries and Earl Grey tea.

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John and Simon each had a Gentleman's Tea that included some meat, some cheese, french fries, some sweets...

John and Simon each had a Gentleman’s Tea that included some meat, some cheese, sandwiches, fish and chips, some sweets…

Alright, let’s get a bit serious for a minute and actually learn something while we’re here…London is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its founding by the Romans, who named it Londinium. London’s ancient core, the City of London, largely retains its 1.12-square-mile medieval boundaries. Since at least the 19th century, the term London has also referred to the metropolis developed around this core. It’s one of the leading global and financial centers of the world, having the 5th largest GDP. It has the world’s largest airport system, which is a good thing considering it’s the most visited city in the world! The population is estimated at 8.4 (yikes!), making it the second most populous urban area in Europe, behind Paris. A neat tidbit is that approximately 300 languages are spoken within the city limits! I believe it.

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Something we particularly liked- and noticed throughout the entire city- was the mix of old with new. I know that’s the case in just about every historic city, but there was something particularly neat about it here. Maybe it was just more visible for some reason? Or they’ve taken greater measures to preserve it? Like in the picture above- see that old church dating from 1300 surrounded by those marvelous glass skyscrapers? Yep, just walking down any random London road…

We started our ‘Tour of London’ at the Tower of London (like what I did there? Ha!), which happens to be right next to one of city’s iconic symbols, the Tower Bridge, which happened to be my personal favorite sight of the weekend. Not sure why. It’s just really pretty and unique. Maybe it’s the towers…Or the blue cables…Or the two walkways across the Thames River…Whatever it is, it works for me! Opened in 1894, the towers are each 213 ft. tall and the bridge spans 800 ft. across. The bottom section rises in the middle to let river traffic pass. Many people confuse it with the infamous London Bridge, which is actually the next bridge down and very nondescript. You’ll be able to see it a picture below…

Tower Bridge over the Thames

Tower Bridge over the Thames

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That’s the infamous London Bridge as seen from the Tower Bridge…Anticlimactic, no? The tall glass building on the left is called The Shard and is the tallest building in the European Union. Sandy and Simon, our tea mates, got engaged at the tippy top 🙂

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The Tower of London is a historic castle on the north banks of the Thames River in central London. Founded in 1066, it’s a complex of several buildings set within two concentric defensive walls and a moat. At the center is the White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name.  The Tower of London has played a prominent role in English history. It was besieged several times and controlling it has been important to controlling the country. The Tower has served variously as a royal residence, a prison, an armory, a treasury, a menagerie, the home of the Royal Mint, a public records office, and the home of the Crown Jewels of England (housed here since 1303). Speaking of the Crown Jewels, that was by far the neatest part about visiting the Tower. You’ve never seen so much glitz and extravagance under one roof. It’s incredible. Room after room after room of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, velvet…Crowns, swords, robes, globes, jewelry, scepters…WOW. Some pieces date back to 1200. Interestingly, the Royal Family still uses pieces as needed today…The only bad thing? No pictures allowed. So sorry.

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Entrance to the Crown Jewels. So beautiful. But no pictures were allowed inside :(

Entrance to the Crown Jewels. So beautiful. But no pictures were allowed inside 😦

The White Tower at the center of the castle. Currently houses the world's largest collection of armor.

The White Tower at the center of the castle. Currently houses the world’s largest collection of armor.

View of the Tower Bridge from inside the castle.

View of the Tower Bridge from inside the castle.

So after all that history, we spent the afternoon walking and just taking it all in. We found markets (there are so many and they each have their own specialties- antiques, clothes, food, etc.-), we found pubs (even more of these, so at least we’d done our research and knew which ones we wanted to find!), we got to be pros at the Underground…And in case anyone is curious, after extensive experimentation, John votes Germany over England on the beer front 🙂

Leadenhall Market

Leadenhall Market

One of the oldest pubs in London...

One of the oldest pubs in London…

Quick snack inside Spitalfields Market

Quick snack inside Spitalfields Market

London's first brewery, operating since 1300. Originally a monastery. Really neat, neat place.

London’s first brewery, operating since 1200. Originally a monastery. Really neat, neat place.

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In his happy place :)

In his happy place 🙂

Always a favorite!

Always a favorite!

London’s subway system, known as the Underground or the Tube, is the oldest underground railway network in the world, as well as the 12th busiest transit system (1.23 billion passengers carried last year!).  The first tunnels were dug just below the surface using the cut and cover method to accommodate normal size trains. Later, smaller circular tunnels were dug below, giving rise to the nicknames, the Tube (because of their shape), and the Underground (because of how deep they were.) Today, there are 250 miles of track and 270 stations. Now, I’ll be the first to say that metro systems can be beyond intimidating at first. It’s really tempting to just hail a cab and let them do the work for you, but one of the most important things we’ve learned after years of traveling is that biting the bullet and learning a city’s public transportation system is not only the most efficient and flexible way to see a city (there are stations everywhere and they connect to everywhere, fast), but it’s also the most wallet-friendly, by light years. Seriously, it only takes a good half a day and you’ve got it figured out. You buy your day ticket in the morning and you’re good til the next morning. Here’s the map we used the entire weekend to get us ALL over the place!

Our best friend for the weekend...

Our best friend for the weekend…

thumb_IMG_3734_1024Neve absolutely LOVED the Underground. Definitely her preferred mode of transportation while we were there, even over the one morning we decided to use the double decker buses, mainly because we thought she’d like them! By the end of the first day, she could tell us which direction for which line (ie. Red Line, Blue Line, etc.), could wait patiently behind the yellow line (minding the gap!) for our train to arrive and could swipe our cards to enter and exit. We rarely got seats (it’s that packed!), but she had no problem holding onto the bars and standing for our whole ride. And since we’ve been in Europe, she and I had been working on escalators, but now it’s safe to say that she’s got those down pat. Up or down, on or off, no more hand holding needed for this girl! *sigh*

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You’ve probably noticed her boo boos in some of our other pictures…That happened last week at the zoo playground when she got a little overzealous on a swingy fence. 😦 It’s almost completely gone now, thank Heavens!

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St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the English Baroque style in the 17th century, is an Anglican cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London. One of the most recognizable sights in London, it sits atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the city. Its dome is one of the highest in the world. St. Paul’s is still an active, working church.

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View approaching St. Paul's...

View approaching St. Paul’s…

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We started Day 2 bright and early at Buckingham Palace. It’s the residence and principal workplace for the British Monarchy- it’s the center of state occasions and royal hospitality. Except for late August and September, when the Queen goes on summer holiday, you can’t go in the palace, but only visit from the outside and watch the changing of the guards twice a day. And because you guys count on me to keep it real, that’s what I’m gonna do here. John and I both had the same reaction- ‘Is that…it??’ Yes, it’s huge and it’s surrounded by fancy gold-plated wrought iron fences, but we just didn’t find it very…regal? More like a government building or something. And very stark surrounded by concrete…thumb_IMG_3778_1024

You can see the guards in red, one on either side of the house. We weren't able to stick around long enough for the changing.

You can see the guards in red, one on either side of the house. We weren’t able to stick around long enough for the changing.

Approaching the palace. You can see it in the background...

Approaching the palace. You can see it in the background…

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The latter part of the morning was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We met up with my childhood best friend, Sabrina, her husband and two children. It was SO nice. I just love getting to reconnect with friends all over the world! Sabrina is actually from Germany. In early middle school, her family moved to South Carolina for her father’s work and she became my classmate at Pinewood as well as my gymnastic teammate. We were instant friends and remained pretty much inseparable until she moved back to Germany several years later. *Stay tuned below for a little flashback!* We stayed in touch via letters and emails over the years and have reconnected when we could- she visited the States in 2001, we met in Barcelona, Spain for a vacation in 2006 (me as a newlywed, her with a friend), and now in London. She actually went to school in England and has lived there for most of the last decade, working as an architect. Her husband, Don, is from South Africa, but has also lived in England for years. They have two little ones, Callie (4) and Bashy (1). Needless to say, Neve and Callie were instant friends and watching them together for those couple hours was dejavu in so many ways…We met at Hyde Park (London’s Central Park) and spent our time walking the dirt paths, stopping for carousel rides, and finishing up at the nationally recognized Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which I’ve got to say is another of the biggest, nicest children’s areas I’ve seen. So yes, an awesome way to spend our morning. Not sure who had more fun, Neve or her Mama!

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Circa 1993ish. We were 11 or 12...

Circa 1993ish. Boating in Charleston with my family. We were 11 or 12…

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Neve (3 1/2) and Callie (short for Calista, 4 1/2)

Neve (3 1/2) and Callie (short for Calista, 4 1/2)

Set at the edge of Hyde Park, maybe a mile from Buckingham Palace, is Kensington Palace, the official London residence of Prince Charles and Kate Middleton. It was also the first home of his parents, Charles and Diana, when they were first married, as well as Diana following her divorce until her death in 1997. Btw, I love me some Kate Middleton. Like in a nerdy way love her. I think she’s so pretty and so classy and I just want to touch her hair. I don’t even care that she wears panty hose. But alas, no sign of her.

thumb_IMG_3802_1024For this day, we thought it’d be fun to do the famous Red Double Decker buses instead of the Tube just for a change of pace. Meh. They made for a few good views and seeing a couple different parts of the city that we probably wouldn’t have had we been underground, but all in all? Not worth it. Too much time spent finding the bus stops, waiting on the buses (trains are every 1-2 minutes, buses are every 10-20…), sitting in traffic…So we used them three times- enough to justify the money spent for the tickets- then reverted back to the Underground. 🙂

View from the top deck of the Red Double Decker...

View from the top deck of the Red Double Decker…

Neve loved the buses, too!

Neve loved the buses, too!

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Y'know...Just walking down the street...

Y’know…Just walking down the street…The Justice Department.

As hard as we tried, we didn’t make it to Westminster Abbey before visiting hours were over. So bummed. But that’s something else we’ve learned over the years: there are only so many hours in a day, so do and see what you can, then move along. So we enjoyed it from the outside and kept on trucking. It’s so beautiful and ornate.

thumb_IMG_3827_1024Westminster Abbey, a Gothic-style church built in the 13th century, is actually no longer a cathedral or an abbey, but rather a ‘Royal Peculiar,’ a church only responsible directly to the Sovereign. Since 1100, all coronations and many royal weddings (the most recent being Prince Charles and Kate) have taken place here. It’s also one of London’s four World Heritage Sights.

That's Parliament in the distance on the right...More on that in a sec...

That’s Parliament in the distance on the right…More on that in a sec…

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Just behind Westminster Abbey on the river are the Houses of Parliament, where the House of Commons and the House of Lords come together. This area is a center of political life for the entire UK. Built into the corner of one of the buildings is Big Ben, the iconic four-sided clock and bell tower. We found this area, also known as Westminster Palace, to be the prettiest of all the buildings we saw. We loved the architecture, the stateliness, the prestige…We did, however, think Big Ben would be taller. Ha!

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View from Westminster Abbey

View from Westminster Abbey

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You can see the London Eye (now actually known as the Coca Cola Eye…)- the UK’s tallest ferris wheel built in 1999 as a celebration piece-  in the distance, but we opted not to ride it just because we’d had lots of great views already and our time didn’t really allow for it. Like Big Ben, it was smaller than we’d anticipated, although still impressive to know that it takes 800 passengers for a spin every 30 minutes!

London Eye

By that point, the sun was setting, so we made our way back to the hotel. On foot. That put us at about 8 miles walked for the day! For the second day in a row. Sheesh. So proud of our girl, though! She has truly become a traveler just like her parents! No, it’s not always roses, but for the most part, she’s so awesome. And you KNOW it was a successful day if this happens (disclaimer: she’s only fallen asleep in a car like 5 times in her life!)!

Yes, she's asleep on his shoulders...

Yes, she’s asleep on his shoulders…

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Our final morning was spent playing ‘we have to get to these last few places before our flight!’ The day before, we’d ridden through Piccadilly Circus- named for its circular shape- on the double decker and knew we had to come back. It, by far, had the most energy of any part of London. Kind of like a smaller Times Square, complete with LED billboards, souvenir shops, top restaurants, throngs of people…

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In front of the famous Eros at the center of Piccadilly...

In front of the famous Eros at the center of Piccadilly…

 

Trafalgar Square is the most well-known public space and event venue in the city. At its center is Nelson’s Monument (built in 1867), guarded by four lions on each of the corners. It reminded us of the plazas you find in Italy…in most of Europe when I really think about it. These squares are greatly underutilized in the US, in my opinion. They’re used for festivals, lectures, demonstrations, concerts, public meetings…

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Our last stop before catching the train back to Heathrow was the world-famous Harrod’s, the largest department store in Europe, for lunch and gawking. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard of Harrod’s, it’s a five story upscale department store with 330 departments and over one million square feet of selling space. Yowza. It was started in 1834- the current location opened in 1883, debuting the first ‘moving stairway. Nervous customers were offered brandy as they exited to ‘help revive them after the ordeal.’ Ha! During peak season, an average of 300,000 customers shop daily. How they afford it, I’m not exactly sure- I saw several pairs of women’s pants for more than $1000 and handbags seemed to average $2000 a pop…More than 5000 staff from over 50 countries work at Harrod’s. Y’all. You’ve never seen so much stuff for sale in your life. Departments are broken down into ‘rooms,’ so you wander from room to room looking at the wares. And each room is exquisite- uniquely decorated, colorful, opulent, twinkling…This place definitely qualifies as ‘eye candy!’ Anything you can think of is sold there- clothes, fragrances, appliances, furniture, sporting goods, jewelry, accessories, groceries…Which brings me to the food. The majority of the ground floor are the ‘Food Halls’ with any and every food item you can imagine…Counter after counter of breads, cheeses, pastries, veggies, chocolates, meats…They’re definitely the most popular attraction and jam packed with people eager for their delicacies. Luckily, we knew exactly what we were searching for and made a beeline when we got in the door: the famous Harrod’s Dough-ssant. Yep, that’s a cross between a donut and a croissant. It was good, but not amazing. Glad we didn’t get 37 of them like most people who were shoveling them into bags…There are also 32 restaurants within the store- we ate a French Fry shop, per Neve’s request.

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A food hall...

A food hall…

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Kinda like a glazed, fried croissant…

 

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Paris' famous Laduree (best macaroons of your life) even has their satellite shop here...

Paris’ famous Laduree (best macaroons of your life) even has their satellite shop here…

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Sorry for the extra long post, but it was just a terrific weekend filled with so many good things! It was also filled with lots of walking, some running, a zillion steps…So we were oh-so-thankful to have yesterday to sleep in, rest our legs and, as Neve says, to ‘be veggies. ;)I will say that the rumors are true- London is more expensive than you can even imagine, especially the food. We didn’t have one dinner- and I’m not talking fancy or 5 star, of course, because we chose pretty kid-friendly spots) less than $100 (converted from pounds) and one was closer to $200. Yep, 3 days is a good limit for us! Ha! The forecast for this week isn’t looking so hot (literally) here in Wiesbaden- pretty chilly, actually, and overly overcast- so not sure yet what the next few days will look like for us…Friday, we’re headed to Belgium- another first for us!- so maybe we’ll just take a few quieter days. Oh, and I almost forgot! Neve’s last day of school would have been this past Friday. One of these years, we WILL be in town for all the end-of-year festivities! Couldn’t let the day pass without commemorating, though, just like we did last year in Hawaii. I know I say it often, but Time, please slow down! Look how much my baby has grown in one measly year!

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First and Last Days of school this year...

First and Last Days of school this year…

 

Gettin’ Caught Up to Speed…

3 Feb

Hey, y’all!!  Long time no blog!  I hope this post finds everyone well and as eagerly-anticipating-Spring as we are!  As some of you have seen on Facebook, John and I are heading to Hawaii on Sunday- yep, it’s just Thomas, Party of 2 this time as the islands have a wretched quarantine law :(- and we’ve gotten lots of requests to update the blog ‘Aloha-style,’ so of course, we’re more than happy to oblige!  But, I figured since our last chat was November 3- JEEZ LOUISE, we’ve been home 3 months already!- I better take a sec and catch everybody up as to what’s been going on in our neck of the woods!

So, as you might suspect, getting home just in time for the holidays was every bit as fabulous as we knew it would be, especially considering the fact that it’s ‘our time of year…’  A quick sidebar to explain our claim to the month of December…Many moons ago, I was good friends with John’s college roommate.  With me living in Columbia for grad school and him living in Charleston at the Citadel, we often talked online via Messenger.  Well, right before Thanksgiving 2003, he called to tell me that his computer was broken and that he’d be sharing his roommate for the time being, so that if I ever saw ‘John’ online, to say hello because it could easily be him.  So, for the next week, any time I happened to see ‘John’ online, I said hello and each time I was told that it truly was John, to which I’d apologize for bothering him and immediately log off.  Well, the weekend after Thanksgiving, as we were about to repeat the above for about the 7th time, real-John added an additional line to his standard, ‘Nope, it’s really me.’  This time, he followed it up with ‘And there’s nothing saying that you can’t just say hello to me and chat for a while!’  In that moment, we were instant pals as I just loved his feistiness.  Over the next few weeks, we chatted online every day, neither of us knowing what the other even sounded like, let alone looked like!  Well, just before he was to go home for Christmas break, he suggested we meet for Mexican food and margaritas.  And to make a long story short, let’s just say that his planned 3-week holiday back to Kentucky turned into just shy of 4 days while the rest was spent back here in Charleston with me…falling in love <3…I know, I know, it’s cheesy, but as they say, the rest is history.  December and January became OUR months :).

OK, back to our update.  Workwise (for me), the holidays weren’t particularly stellar.  At all.  Within just a few weeks of my being back, my lead sitter- yes, the one who had been with me for nearly 4 years and who had run LPS while I was away- up and quit.  Via email.  Sent 4 days after she had ACTUALLY quit.  What a nightmare, and right in the middle of our busy season!  Needless to say, I had LOTS of unhappy- that’s an understatement and rightfully so!- clients, LOTS of messes to clean up and fires to put out, LOTS of four letter words screamed at me, LOTS of eating crow on my part….And yes, I lost several clients who had been with me since the day I opened and it was heartbreaking to the point where I just wanted to crawl in a hole and stay until it all went away.  *Sigh*  Doesn’t work that way.   To make another long story short, I was lucky enough to have two AWESOME sitters stick it out with me and together, the three of us- plus John when he could take off from his ‘real’ job!- made it through the season all the better- and richer! ;)- for it!  And I’m happy to report that I’ve since hired another full-time sitter who is working out swimmingly and another part-time, fill-in sitter who is also always willing to help, so life is finally back to good on the work front!  (Thank goodness since otherwise we wouldn’t be going to Hawaii on Sunday, right?!)

Beyond the work snafus?  The holidays were great!  We hosted Christmas for the second year in a row- I think after being away for months, we both just really liked the idea of being in our HOME and best of all, having all the people we love come share it with us for a day.  Our ‘theme’ was ‘A Southern Charlie Brown Green Christmas.’  I know, I’m so odd, but I just embrace it.  Don’t judge.  Since we’d just done ‘traditional’ for Thanksgiving, we decided to change things up this go around.  Fried chicken, collards, shrimp and grits, biscuits, banana creme pie…Lord, if nothing else, our holiday group can COOK!  MMMMM….

First time we all got to sit together! Yep, living room and office became the dining room for the day 🙂

In the South, y'all, there's nothing wrong with designating the real dining room for 'desserts only!'

John’s family came from Kentucky to visit for the week between Christmas and New Years, so that was definitely a treat as we don’t get to see them near as often as we’d like to.  Plus, it’s always fun to have an excuse to play tourist in your own city, whether that means seeing the sights or eating at all the best ‘vacation restaurants!’ Ha!  So, one of the things they were most looking forward to was a break from all the cold, wintery weather…Yeah, well…

The day they arrived was the same day we got our second snow 'storm' in a year! Sheesh!

But we still made the most of it 🙂

Fortunately, the weather improved and we were able to spend some good family downtown and on the water, like visiting an old favorite, the Yorktown, Charleston’s famous aircraft carrier.

John with his sister and parents on the flight deck...

Heading up to the Control Room...

So blessed to call this city HOME.

Hmmm…Random notes of interest…Max and Dulcie are doing very well.  Like the rest of us, it took them a while to adjust to being home- to having a yard, to not being able to go absolutely everywhere with us, to not traveling to a different country every weekend…But all in all, they’re just thrilled to be wherever we are- and having their ‘Poppy and Goddess’ (that’s what they call my folks 🙂 ) around is definitely an added bonus!

Amazingly, this is a standard sleeping position for our duo...

As is this one...

Yep, this one, too. They always have to be touching!

Dulcie's favorite spot in the house, just as it was in our German apartment- surveying the street from the back of the couch and alerting Max of any passersby 🙂

John and his buddies have two batches of beer brewing, a black IPA and a Belgian dubble.  Those of you who know John really well- er, at all ;)- know that beer is one of his biggest passions.  He LOVES trying beers from all over the world, touring breweries all over the world, researching them, learning about them, etc.  For the last few years, he’s really gotten into home brewing and has actually built up quite the little operation.  Eventually, his dream is to open a brewery…

Mark, John and Robbie forming the gameplan...

Cooking away...

Robby cooling the first one in an ice bath, John and Andre cooking the next one...

Preparing to ferment for the next few months...

Oh, and just this week, John got the second ‘half’ of his tattoo, the boy ‘mate’ to the girl he already had.  It turned out beautifully, just like the first one, so vibrant and bright!  The flowers on each represent all of his family members according to their birth months…

This picture totally doesn't do them justice! And can I just say...My husband is so hot.

Well, I think that’s about it!  Now that we’re all on the same page, I suppose my next post will (hopefully) be from my warm, sunny lanai overlooking Waikiki Beach in Oahu!  Our flight leaves early Sunday morning and arrives 10 long hours later, although with the 6 hour time difference, we’ll still arrive before dinner time.  And speaking of food, I’ll leave you in true Foodie Erin fashion…with John’s (first) Authentic Dutch Apple Pie that he made completely from scratch after having the BEST apple pie EVER during our weekend in Amsterdam last October.  Not only did it turn out perfectly, but it was BETTER than the famous Winkel Cafe!  Yep, that’s my man 🙂

 

The secret is in the 'crust.' It's amazingly crispy, buttery, chewy and soft...all at the same time...And yes, it's at least 6 inches deep.

And the inside is nothing but apples and spices...Best apple pie I've ever put into my mouth. Hands Down.

 

Oktoberfest 2010

28 Sep

What do you get when you combine a huge fair (think carnival food, the best aromas in the air, bright blinking lights and lightning fast rides full of screaming, smiling people) with the world’s largest bars and thousands of your closest friends?  Well that’s simple…Oktoberfest!

Welcome to Oktoberfest! (Also home of the world's largest mobile ferris wheel!)

Known as the Largest Volksfest (People’s Fair) in the World and the most famous even t in Germany, Oktoberfest is an annual 18-day festival running from late September to the first weekend in October.  It attracts more than 7 million visitors to the 104 acre park on the edge of town. 72% of the people are from Bavaria (southernmost region of Germany) and 15% of visitors come from foreign countries (both European Union countries and non-EU countries like US, Canada, and Australia.

In addition to beer and regular ‘fair fare,’ visitors eat huge amounts of traditional hearty fare including: Hendl (chicken), Schweinsbraten (roast pork), Schweinshaxe (ham hock), Steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), *John’s favorite Würstl (sausages) with Brezn (Pretzel), Knödel (potato dumplings), Kasspatzn (cheese noodles), Reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), Sauerkraut and Weisswurst (white sausage).

Our voyage to Oktoberfest was opening Saturday, so we decided to go a bit early to avoid the craziest rowdiness :).  After stepping off the train (of course we didn’t drive ourselves- safety first, folks!) and wandering around the booths and rides, we opted to grab a quick bite before choosing a ‘tent.’

Mom and Dad decided on sausage hotdogs...John had a brat...

I had a 'double doozie' ham and cheese crepe 🙂

Unfortunately, the weather was doing what it normally does, which meant that it was cold and rainy, but that didn’t stop us- nor anyone else!  Yep, all the people came out in droves- armed with umbrellas- to ride the rides, eat the food and drink the beer!

Before choosing a tent, we wanted to see a few of them up close and personal…These were two of our favorites:

This one looked like spring 🙂

This one had a very ritzy feel...

To give you an idea of all the tent options, here’s what we had to pick from…

  • Hippodrom – One of the smaller tents, it’s the first tent that many visitors see at the fest. As well as serving normal Wiesn beer, it also has a sparkling wine bar.  Considered one of the trendiest tents, it attracts the occasional celebrity.
  • Armbrustschützenzelt – Translates as the “Crossbow Shooters Tent”, a competition that has been a part of the Oktoberfest since 1895.
  • Hofbräu-Festzelt – The counterpart to the famous Hofbräuhaus, this tent is especially popular with Americans, Australians and New Zealanders.
  • Hacker-Festzelt – One of the largest tents on the Wiesn, they have a rock band that plays each evening (as opposed to the traditional brass band). This tent is also known as Heaven of the Bavarians.
  • Schottenhamel – Considered to be the most important tent at the Oktoberfest, mainly because it’s the first and the largest. On the first Saturday of the event, no beer is allowed to be served until the mayor taps the first keg, at 12 pm. Only then can the other tents begin to serve beer.
  • Winzerer Fähndl – This tent is noted for its huge tower.
  • Schützen-Festhalle – This is a mid-sized tent.
  • Käfers Wiesen Schänke – The smallest tent at the Oktoberfest, it’s frequented by celebrities, and is known for its especially good food. In contrast to the other tents, which must close by 11 pm, it’s open until 12:30 am, but can be very difficult to get in.
  • Weinzelt – This tent offers a selection of more than 15 wines.
  • Löwenbräu-Festhalle – Above the entrance is a 15 foot tall lion who occasionally drinks from his beer. This is overshadowed by another tower where another drinking lion sits.
  • Bräurosl – Named after the daughter of the original brewery owner, this tent has the usual brass band and a yodeler.
  • Augustiner-Festhalle – Considered by many locals to be the best tent, due to the fact it sells the best local brew, Augustiner, from individually tapped wooden kegs rather than stainless steel vats used by the other tents.
  • Ochsenbraterei – True to its name, this tent offers a great variety of ox dishes.
  • Fischer Vroni – Another of the smaller tents. Like its name suggests, this tent carries lots of fish on its menu.

Choosing a 'tent'...

Our 'tent'- They call them tents, but I mean...REALLY? Don't you mean 'log cabin mansion?!' Ha!

So just how big are these ‘tents?’  In a word…HUGE.  The smallest tent holds about 2500 people, the largest about 11,000- with the average being 8-9000.  Say it with me…WOW.

Come on in! And this was early afternoon! Just wait...

Cheers!

Bottoms Up! 'Fest Beer' is sold in 1 liter steins only, 8 euro each. No, you don't get to keep the stein. 😦

Here are some more interesting factoids for all you nerds like us who wonder about all this stuff! Ha!

  • Area: 104 sq. acres
  • Seats in the festival halls: approx. 100,000
  • Visitors: 6.2 million
  • Beer: appr. 6,940,600 litres
  • Wine: 79,624 liters
  • Chicken: 521,872 units
  • Pork sausages: 142,253 pairs
  • Fish: 38,650 kg
  • Pork knuckles: 58,446 units
  • Oxen: 104 units
  • Expenditure of electricity: 2.8 million kWh (about 14% of the city’s daily need or as much as a four person family will need in 560 years) Um, JEEZ!
  • Expenditure of water: about 90,000 m³ (about 27% of the city’s daily need)
  • Waste: 678 tons
  • Toilets: about 980 seats, more than 878 meters of urinals and 17 for disabled persons
  • Phone booths: 83 (Do they really still have these?!)
  • Lost property: about 4000 items, among them 260 pairs of glasses, 200 mobile phones, wedding rings, and even crutches!

How neat that we all got to share this fun new experience!

Starting to get ROWDY! You can see the live band in the distance on the left...and yep, that's a Patrick from Sponge Bob balloon 🙂

The party is officially crazy! Table dancing, singing along...it was AWESOME!

One thing the pictures don’t do justice for is all the people in their traditional, authentic German attire.  Men in Lederhosen and women in dirndls.  John and I have decided these will be our Halloween costumes next year, btw! 🙂

Lederhosen and Dirndl 🙂 It seemed like just about everyone had them on!

Our table, up and dancing 🙂

John, armed with just a little liquid courage, decided it would be fun to take the stein when it was time to head home.  Remember from above where I said that the price didn’t include a complimentary stein?  Yeah, well…He thought he was home free- the 10-lb mug tucked elusively inside his jacket and further hidden by an umbrella- through the ‘tent,’ out the door and ALMOST to the street…BAM.  Security was on him like white on rice! They whipped him around, peeled back that jacket and snatched the stein- all without saying a word!  Ha!  As a consolation, my husband had to make due with a Nutella-Banana crepe as we made our way back to the train.

OK, so we were all bummed about losing the stein and had to pacify with crepes! Dad had cherry, Mom had banana-honey and I had cinnamon-sugar. Mmmm...

We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend Mom and Dad’s first full day here in Stuttgart!  Well, I take that back…it could’ve been warmer and at least somewhat sunny!  But regardless, what a fun, unique experience- not to mention something John can check off his Bucket List!  Funniest part?  He had long joked that going to Oktoberfest would be like Christmas for him- then we ended up in the only red and green tent, complete with holly decoration!  How’s that for fate?

Headed 'home...'

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