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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Sonja's Travels' LiveJournal:

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Monday, November 3rd, 2008
9:37 pm
Trip photos
My photos from Florida are available on Flickr.

There will likely be more to come once John has a chance to download his photos.
Saturday, November 1st, 2008
8:53 pm
Beach
We originally planned to visit the Clearwater beach and the Tampa zoo this morning, but this morning we decided to take it easy and spend the morning hanging out at the house and swimming in the pool. We figured it would let us have a little birthday celebration for John and Erika at lunchtime, and then the kids would sleep in the car on the way to the beach.

No such luck on the sleeping in the car, the kids didn't fall asleep until we were almost there, and were really loud and challenging.

We did have a good time at the beach, though. Erika collected shells and went fairly far into the water with me, while Karl stuck to the very edge of the water with John. I even got to go all the way in while other people watched the kids. And no one got a sunburn.

I'm glad we went out to the beach, especially since the kids had never been to a sandy saltwater beach before. It feels like a fitting conclusion to our Florida vacation.
Friday, October 31st, 2008
2:22 pm
Fire ant bites!
We noticed this morning that Karl had a funny rash,and while we thought it likely they were insect bites, particularly in light of his encounter with an ant hill and about 100 mosquitoes yesterday, we took him to an urgent care place to make sure it wasn't something contagious.

It took the doctor 30 seconds to diagnose fire ant bites, so we can safely go to the Halloween party later and have a baby staying with us tonight. Whew!

We sure are making a lot of use of emergency medical services on this trip!
Thursday, October 30th, 2008
7:56 pm
Enchanted Forest Sanctuary
This morning we went back to Sea World yet again, where we saw the show featuring rescued cats, dogs, and other animals. It was pretty impressive; I was most struck by the cat walking a tightrope. The kids both enjoyed it, too. We also touched the rays and visited the aquarium, where the kids really liked walking on the glass roof to one of the displays. We topped off our Sea World experience with a visit to the playground, which has a quite spectacular climbing structure.

In the afternoon, we drove east to the Cape Canaverel area and visited the Enchanted Forest Preserve. It has some easy hiking trails through amazingly diverse landscapes. We saw armadillos, several kinds of spiders, lizards, mushrooms, and interesting animal tracks. I was sad to discover that the armadillos are a destructive non-native species, because seeing them was amazingly cool. The wolf spiders in their perfectly round burrows were also pretty amazing.

I'm really glad we went over there- definitely a highlight of the trip.
Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
8:11 pm
Shamu
This morning we were able to get over to Sea World at 9 am, so we saw more stuff before the kids ran out of steam. The sea lion show was a bit too silly for my taste, and Erika thought it was a little scary, but we did all enjoy the shark encounter exhibit. You actually get to see sharks from below, via a transparent tunnel underneath the water. We also saw the Shamu show, in which killer whales do tricks like dolphins. It was pretty impressive, though I honestly liked watching the dolphins better during the dolphin show yesterday.

Later in the day, we visited the Audubon Bird of Prey Center, which was small but definitely worth our while. Karl is obsessed with owls, so I'm glad he got to see real ones.
Tuesday, October 28th, 2008
9:15 pm
Real
When I was a kid, my parents refused to take us to Disney on the grounds that it is fake, but they were fine with Sea World. I don't think I fully appreciated what they were getting at until today.

Sure, Sea World is intended to be entertaining. But it also sparks questions in your mind about things that are real- animals and the natural world. It's not predictable, since no one knows what the animals will be doing at any given moment.

I have nothing against Disney, but it is all a fantasy.

On a less philosophical note, we all enjoyed the dolphin show today, and also managed to see the penguins, manatees, and sea lions. Slowly we're getting through more of the main aspects of the park!
Monday, October 27th, 2008
9:35 pm
Look ma, no... tooth?
This morning we headed over to Sea World, where the highlight was watching walrus swim underwater. They are big! We also saw beluga swimming underwater- Karl kept saying 'kick kick kick' while he watched them propel themselves through the water.

I thought the park was really nice- not too crowded, lots of things to see, enjoyable for the kids, and real in a way that a pure amusement park isn't. We'll be going back during the course of the week- I'm glad we opted to see it a little at a time instead of cramming as much as possible in at once.

Later in the afternoon, we swam in the pool for a while. Karl wanted to wear the floatation swimsuit, which he seems to be getting used to. He actually wanted to lie on his back and kick, which he's never liked before.

After the swimming, Erika was climbing the stairs and fell, hitting her mouth on the edge of the stair. One of her front teeth was knocked most of the way out, which was painful and scary for her. Luckily, we were able to find a good emergency pediatric dentist, and Erika wound up having her tooth removed. Poor kid!

Hopefully the rest of the trip will be trouble free!
Sunday, October 26th, 2008
9:26 pm
Have car seat, will travel
This morning the kids actually slept until after 7, which definitely wasn't what I expected on their first night in our home away from home in Florida. It was too cold to swim right away, so we had breakfast, went to the grocery store, and then went swimming. The kids definitely thought having our own pool was very fun.

We intended to go to Sea World today, but never actually got there. We did wind up buying Erika a booster seat, though. We couldn't come up with any reasonable way to fit 4 adults and 3 kids in the minivan using the existing car seats or the integrated car seats, so it seemed as good a time as any to get Erika a high-back booster seat. Now there might even be half an inch of spare width along the back seat of the minivan! The car seat we brought with us for Erika is a hand-me-down close to its expiration date, so we'll just leave it here and take the new one home.

Instead of going to Sea World, we ended up going to a playground, where Karl was fascinated by fast-pitch softball. Later on, we went to a Halloween party- the kids were very cute in their cat costumes.

Perhaps tomorrow we will actually get to Sea World!
Wednesday, July 4th, 2007
10:08 pm
Aunt Erika
Today we drove out to Mandel to visit my aunt Erika, and also my cousin Renate who is in the process of moving in with her. I had an interesting conversation with my cousin, who always has strong views -- she's an ardent socialist and concerned about the environment. Some of the things we talked about include whether or not children living near nuclear power plants have a higher incidence of leukemia and her feeling that teachers in Germany today are poorly compensated and overworked.

We went for a walk around town to a playground, where Erika had a great time, and after the traditional Kaffeetrinken, headed back to Hofheim. It's hard to believe that we're starting on our way back home tomorrow!
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007
10:59 pm
Opel-Zoo
Despite a gray sky, we headed to the Opel-Zoo today. It's mostly interesting because you can feed some of the animals -- Erika had a great time with that and on the playground. They had some really nice equipment for older kids, like a huge multi-person swing that stayed level and was powered via a rowing motion, as well as a sort of standing see-saw. I was particularly interested by an exhibit of european wild cats, felis sylvestris sylvestris, which look just like domestic cats to me.

Unfortunately, it started to rain heavily just as we were about to eat lunch outdoors, so we had to eat standing up under a shelter. That was kind of the last straw for me; it's hard work carrying Karl everywhere, and I couldn't really trade off with John for a break because Erika wanted to be carried often, too. It occurs to me that the sleep deprivation on this trip has been really extreme for me, and I'm sure that's a major factor in my general lack of resilience.

Later on in the day, we met up with my cousin and her daughter. We'd thought of going for a walk in the woods, but since it was raining, we went back to their place. The girls played together again, and this time I felt like Erika was interacting more with Clara. My cousin Barbara came over for dinner, so we had a nice chat until it was eventually time for all the kids to go to their respective beds.
Monday, July 2nd, 2007
10:23 pm
Heading South
This morning we got up a little early, but that didn't help notably in getting us on the road in a timely manner. I think we finally got onto the highway at 10:30.

Other than some bad traffic due to construction, the drive to Hofheim was pretty uneventful. The navigation system in the Prius is fantastic -- we haven't had to look at a map since we got here. It's especially nice that it knows the exact configurations of all the exits, and reroutes you dynamically if you don't take a turn it suggests. I'd never really understood what the big deal was with navigation systems; I get it now.

We stopped at McDonald's for lunch, taking advantage of the ubiquitous playground to let Erika burn off some energy. Apparently, every McDonald's in Germany has at least an indoor playground, and only those in the middle of cities don't also have an outdoor one.

The apartment here in Hofheim is the most expensive of our trip, but it's very nice -- only the place in Bad Schwartau was nicer. We have two rooms plus a tiny kitchen and a bathroom with a washing machine. There's even a nice view, though the most important feature for us is the ability to have Karl sleem in a different room from Erika.

We arrived around 4, I took a shower with Karl and put some laundry in, and then we headed over to Georg and Angie's for dinner. Erika was pretty quiet the whole night, but enjoyed playing with Clara. I hope Clara had a good time, too! We got our schedule for the rest of the week sorted out, and it was nice to see Georg and Angie outside of the bustle of the wedding.
Sunday, July 1st, 2007
8:45 pm
Hannover Zoo
For the first time since we got to Germany, the weather was actually pretty nice today, so we went to the Hannover Zoo with my parents.

It was a really nice zoo. Erika's favorite part actually had nothing to do with the animals; they had a fantastic playground, complete with wading creek. I really enjoyed seeing a baby gorilla nursing about 2 feet away from me.

Afterwards, we all went back to the hotel for dinner, which for some unknown reason took 2.5 hours, including 30 minutes just to get menus. Since we'd also eaten there on Friday night without such problems, it's not as though this was their usual practice. At least the food was good when it finally arrived!
Saturday, June 30th, 2007
8:00 pm
Wedding
Yesterday we didn't do much -- packed up in the morning and headed to Hannover, checked into the hotel (and had them change us into a bigger room, as the one we originally had just wasn't going to cut it for three nights), bought more diapers, and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. We had sort of a tentative plan to have dinner with my parents, but their flight was delayed, so they didn't get in until late.

In the morning, we decided to avoid the rain while providing Erika with some roaming around by heading to IKEA, which we'd spotted on the road the day before. She had fun, we enjoyed identifying the minor differences in product lines (such as some nicer children's bedding and some travel-related items), and lunch was excellent. I like eating at IKEA restaurants in the US, but I've felt that the food has been declining in quality over time. Eating at the IKEA outside Hannover reminded me of how good IKEA food could be.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel, dressed for the wedding, and walked over to the church. It's really interesting to me how much more oriented toward walking people are in Germany -- I don't think most Americans would consider asking wedding guests to walk 10 minutes to the church, and later 30 minutes to the reception. Erika mostly sat between my parents during the ceremony and was very well-behaved, while John went outside with Karl, so I actually got to hear the whole ceremony. Because the groom is English, there were a couple of hymns I actually knew, including, somewhat surprisingly, Amazing Grace. Afterwards, the bride and groom demonstrated outside the church that they are capable of working together by sawing a log with a two-person saw. Additionally, they each cut out half of a heart from a large sheet, in which whoever finished first was supposed to be the dominant person in the relationship. Their friends seem to be convinced that the bride is the dominant person in the relationship anyway, and they made this even more obvious by giving him a pair of dull scissors.

The reception was scheduled for a while later, so we walked back to the hotel via an Italian ice cream shop, where Erika had her first-ever ice cream cone. She was very enthusiastic. :-) The ice cream shop turned out to be a very good one, definitely on par with the better ones I've experienced in Italy.

We decided that walking to and from the reception was not a very good idea with two small children, so since there actually was parking, we drove. One of the more interesting features of the reception was the way they mixed the guests up, putting some of the English guests from the groom's side and some of the German guests from the bride's side at each table. The food was excellent, and what I heard of the speeches was interesting, but unfortunately I missed some of them. Ah, well -- at least I got to see my cousin get married!
Thursday, June 28th, 2007
12:27 pm
Heading North
Wednesday morning, we got ourselves packed up and started heading to Hamburg, where we planned to meet with a friend and her daughter for a play date before continuing to Bad Schwartau. We ran into some lousy traffic due partly to construction, but eventually got to her place. The girls didn't really play together much, and Karl tried to eat all the toys, but we had a good time, and it was nice to see them.

The vacation apartment in Bad Schwartau is amazing -- it has a kids' bedroom, an adults' bedroom, a living room, kitchen, and small dining room. We'll be sorry to leave! Erika insisted on sleeping in the top bunk, or "upstairs bed" as she called it, even though she couldn't get into or out of it by herself. I guess that answers the question of whether she'd like a bunk or loft style bed at home!

Today we took a train into Lübeck, where we visited the St. Marienkirche and generally poked around a bit. In the evening, we cooked dinner in our apartment -- sausages with mushroom ravioli in mushroom sauce, taking advantage of the wide variety of sauce mixes available at any German supermarket. I suppose it's not really cooking to throw together a few basically pre-made things, but it's much more so than what one usually does when travelling! For breakfast every day, we've been going to a local bakery to get rolls and having them with various toppings like cheese, salami, black forest ham, plum butter, and nutella. It's so nice to be in a country where many people still go to the bakery for fresh bread every day!

After dinner, we visited the town's "adventure playground" which lived up to its billing. Erika enjoyed trying out the zip line, climbing on the various climbing things, using the see-saw with John, etc.
Monday, June 25th, 2007
7:50 pm
Great-aunt Erika
On Monday we spent the morning taking care of things like paying for our room and buying groceries. After lunch, John and Karl took a nap, and I took Erika out for a walk and a romp through the park. One of the challenges of a one-room place with the two kids is keeping Erika from waking Karl up. She´s really too young to be able to keep quiet for long.

Later on, my great-aunt Erika came by and took us out for "Kaffeetrinken." I put that in quotes because the main purpose of Kaffeetrinken, as practiced by all of the Germans I know, is to eat cake. Coffee is usually consumed, but tea is a perfectly acceptable alternative, and I´ve definitely encountered Kaffeetrinken sessions at which no coffee was even offered. Anyway, the cafe we went to is one my great-aunt apparently frequents with 5 of her friends, all of whom took the Gymnasium (high school) entrance exams together 81 years ago, when they were 10.

My great-aunt is a fascinating person, and we verz much enjoyed going back to her apartment to chat further. She even seemed to enjoy playing ball with Erika, who was pretty wild due to the time change. Karl thought she was terrific, and gave her huge smiles when she held him. One thing we talked about was an experience she had in 1938. She was working as a nurse on a ship which docked in New York, and was amazed that she could shop at night. The shoes she bought that day apparently saw her through the whole war.

On our way back from her place, we stopped at the grocery store for provisions, and then cooked dinner at the apartment. I find it amusing that the most generic sausages I´ve ever had in Germany are about as good as the best sausages I´ve had in the US. We joked that it was probably illegal to make bad sausages in Germany -- and come to think of it, that may be true. I remember years ago, the British were in a snit because they couldn´t import breakfast sausages to Germany, as they didn´t meet the DIN standard for sausages.

Tuesday morning, we got together with my Uncle Gerd and Aunt Petra, who is recovering from cancer surgery. To my great surprise, she was actually up for spending 4 hours together, including taking us out to lunch. I had really expected the whole visit to be less than an hour, but she insisted. It was great to see both of them, and hear about the goings-on in their family. My uncle tells me that the jews invented modern writing, and my aunt talked about family matters and personal philosophy. In other words, despite it all, they´re still themselves.

Afterwards, we visited the Huenxe locks on the Lippe canal, but it started to rain before any barges came by. I had really hoped Erika would get to see that, but it wasn´t to be on this trip.
4:55 pm
Flight over
We left for Germany on a 4:30pm flight from Baltimore to Detroit on Saturday, followed by a 9:30 flight from Detroit to Duesseldorf. It's kind of silly to fly west to Detroit to get to Germany, but since it was at least $900 cheaper for the 4 of us than any other option, I'm not complaining. Speaking of airfares, it's sort of shocking how much more expensive it is to fly with the kids than it was before we had them. Adding another full airfare plus a partial one (lap babies aren't free on international flights) really pushes the overall trip cost up into a realm we're not used to yet. Anyway, Saturday afternoon was a good time to fly -- no line to check in, security was a breeze, etc.

We had a 3-hour layover in Detroit, where we had a reasonable dinner at Max & Erma's, and Erika got to enjoy the portable DVD player. The flight to Duesseldorf went much better than I feared it might -- Karl slept almost the whole trip in the sling on my lap, and Erika watched DVD's and slept. I didnt' really get muc hsleep myself, in part because managing the situation so Karl stayed asleep required a certain amount of attention (I'm pretty used to sleeping while sitting up these days, so that wasn't the issue!), but that's much better than having him screaming.

We arrived in Duesseldorf around 11:30am on Sunday, zipped through passport control, retrieved our bags, and found the car-rental destk, where we encountered the first snag of the trip -- they had no car seat for Erika, although we had reserved one. Luckily, all the car rental companies seemed to have a congenial relationship with each other, so the Hertz guy was eventually able to get one from teh EuropCar people. By this time, the kids were both at teh end of their ropes, so after I finished installing Erika's car seat (easy to install, though a bear to adjust the straps to the right height), John took her to the play area for a few minutes while I nursed Karl. When they returned, we got Karl into his seat and got it installed (easier than putting an infant seat directly in a car in the US, though not as easy as using LATCH with an infant car seat base). The kids were both asleep in moments after we got the car, a Prius, on the road.

We drove about 45 minutes to Xanten, where John stayed with the sleeping kids in the car while I went to scope out our accomodations situation.

Here I encountered our trip's second glitch. I had booked a vacation apartment in the city gate (erected 1393), which seemed particularly interesting and practical. Unfortunately, the tourist information office, which organizes the rentals, had never heard fo my reservation, despite my official-looking confirmation from their own on-line booking system. They've apparently never had a problem with it before, and it's the same system they use if someone calls in to reserve a room. It turned out that despite the lack of a reservation, the second floor apartment was available for the exact period we needed, but it hadn't been cleaned yet. The woman working at Tourist Information was able to contact the cleaning people, and by 3:00 or so, it was all sorted out so we'd be able to occupy the place at 4:30.

I thought this was a level of customer service one wouldn't normally find in the US, and am really grateful they tried so hard to make it right. The apartment did turn out to be really nice, too, so it was worth waiting for.

We killed time by driving to Kleve in the hope of finding a supermarket that was open on Sundays (we hadn't thought to ask if one was available anywhere nearby), but didn't find one -- only all sorts of closed things like supermarkets, home improvement centers, car dealerships, etc. which would all be doing booming business in the US on a Sunday. We did find a gas station with an attached shop, but it didn't have anything beyond snack food.
Wednesday, June 20th, 2007
3:42 pm
Passport problems
We're leaving on Saturday for two weeks in Germany. Problem: Karl's passport, which we applied for 13 weeks ago (back when they said it would take 8-10 weeks), still isn't here.

We spent the morning at the passport office. In retrospect, we should have left Erika with someone else, but we just weren't thinking that clearly. She was very, very bored. Karl wasn't exactly thrilled with the whole experience, but he's easier to keep entertained in a 2 square foot space than she is, and he really did have to be there.

We theoretically had a 9:30am appointment. We showed up at 9:15 and started standing in line outdoors to get into the building. There were two lines: one for people who had letters from their congressional representatives, and one for the rest of us. It started to rain. Luckily for us, a nice security guard decided to pull all of the people with small babies to the front of the line, so we missed out on most of that hour of line-standing.

We gave our appointment number at the desk in front of the metal detectors, and they let us in. Apparently, they would have let us in anyway, since we were travelling within the next 3 days. John's belt and my shoes both set off the metal detector, so they obviously had the thing cranked up fairly high.

Then we stood in line for an hour and a half or so in order to get a number to meet with someone who could actually talk with us about our passport issue. Since we already had a passport application in process, we needed to meet with a supervisor.

A few minutes before 12, we got to talk to someone, who informed us that Karl's passport had been printed at the New Hampshire office (presumably at some point today while we were standing in line). She called them to see if they could get it pulled out of the queue for whatever kind of mail it was going to go into and have it FedExed instead. She also sent them e-mail. Then she took Karl's new passport application, birth certificate, and photos, looked at my passport, had me sign something (I have no idea what, I was pretty wasted by this point and John was the one actually standing at the counter talking with her through the bulletproof glass), looked at Karl, and gave John a get out of line free card so he could come back by himself after lunch and see whether the New Hampshire people had gotten back to her.

We had lunch. John went back to the passport office, and the rest of us went home.

By 3:00, the folks in New Hampshire still hadn't gotten back to her, so she accepted Karl's new application, and said she'd call us by 6pm to let us know whether she'd ever heard back from the New Hampshire office, or whether we should come in at 11:30am tomorrow to pick up Karl's passport. Which involves at least another hour of line-standing, though at least none of the children need to be present for that one.

So, in summary, I'd say that the people at the DC passport office are very nice, but they need at least three times the staff they have, and an office at least three times larger. And they need better ways to communicate with the regional passport processing centers. I'm jealous of the people I know who are allowed to use the Capitol Hill passport office.

Edit: She called us at 6:25 to tell us the FedEx tracking number for Karl's passport. It should be here tomorrow by 11:00. She's also going to mail us the his other passport application back, including the second copy of his birth certificate. Yay!
Monday, August 21st, 2006
5:41 pm
Saturday & Sunday
Saturday morning, we headed to breakfast with the rest of the family shortly after 8. Everyone was heading out that day, so when we got back to the hotel, we finished packing and loaded up the car. Erika was very sad to leave everyone -- she really enjoyed having so many family members around for the week!

The drive to Boston was pretty uneventful, and we found hotpoint's new place without difficulty. Soon after we arrived, we all decided it would be fun to go visit The Construction Site, a totally fabulous toy store. Every time I go there I wish I had, oh, $1000 to blow on Playmobil, Brio, Lego, etc... After a pleasant dinner at a nearby brewpub, we headed back to hotpoint's and soon went to bed, knowing Erika would get up again at 6am...

In the morning we had breakfast at the S&S, after which we packed up the car and headed home.
5:29 pm
Friday
On Friday, we planned to go look at tide pools in the morning, but due to a series of timing problems, didn't manage to get to it -- instead, we spent a ridiculous amount of time waiting around for breakfast at a seriously short-staffed restaurant, after which I did a little light shopping while John took Erika back to the hotel for a swim and a nap.

They wound up getting back from the pool shortly after I got back to the hotel, after which Erika took a very long (3 hour) nap. We spent the time playing Mystery of the Abbey with various family members, and then eventually went to dinner at the Jordan Pond House Restaurant, which specializes in popovers. Dinner was pretty good, and Erika spent a lot of time walking down to the pond with various family members.

After dinner, we went up to Cadillac Mountain to look at the stars, but it was far too windy to stay long!
Friday, August 18th, 2006
2:07 pm
Seasons restaurant, Thursday's activities
On Wednesday night, we ate at a really good restaurant -- Seasons, which just opened this year. It's by far the most worthwhile place I've eaten since we got here, and I would highly recommend it. I had an appetizer of piquillo peppers stuffed with crabmeat, followed by lobster stew. Both were delicious and far more interesting than most of the food I've seen here.

Thursday morning, we went on a ranger-led walk in the park, during which we looked at various mosses, lichens, etc. The walk started from the beech hill parking area, which is across Somes Sound from Bar Harbor. There are an enormous number of different mosses and lichens along the path, and the ranger did a nice job of explaining the differences between them, their reproductive mechanisms, and so on.

In the afternoon, John and I went for a long drive to encourage Erika to nap, and eventually had dinner at the Parkside restaurant with the whole family. I actually ate beef there -- for some reason, the filet mignon was the item on the menu which most appealed to me. I thought the food at the Parkside was the second-best I've eaten in Bar Harbor -- not quite as interesting as the Seasons, but certainly entirely enjoyable.
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