Spring Break in Paris, part 1

We planned a getaway to Paris over Joe and Sam’s school spring break for a couple of reasons. Joe had never been there before, and we didn’t want to spend our year in Europe without going to at least one of the big cities that tourists usually visit. I’ve always liked Paris, and have some French language skills that make traveling there easier than going to Italy or Spain. And most importantly, we were able to coordinate the dates with my mom to meet up with her there for a couple of days while she toured through Italy and France with a friend (hi, Linda!).

Ulm is a bit of a train hub, so it was no problem to find a train route without connections to get us to Paris. We did have trouble booking the seat reservations for the kids, because they’re minors in Germany but not in France, so we went to the info desk for some human help. The attendant was able to snag us four first-class seats for a cheaper fare than second-class! We were happy to have a little bit of extra room and some charging ports for our electronics.

We stayed the night before in a hotel near the train station since our train departed pretty early the next morning, and Lucy proceeded to bonk her forehead on a bedside table. You may very well see a goose-egg lump on her forehead in some of these photos, and that’s the reason why!

Day 1: Arrival

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In the morning, we ate some so-so train food and tried to keep the kids occupied for the 5-hour journey. They fared well until we crossed the German/French border. After Strasbourg, the TGV train began its high-speed route through the rapeseed fields of central France. It’s hard to see, but the right-hand photo above shows the display screen with a speed of 311 km/hr! To achieve such high speeds, the train cabin was pressurized and became very hot and stuffy. That’s when all four of us began to feel some degree of motion sickness. Both Sam and Lucy fell victim to the nausea, so we arrived at the Gare de l’Est quite a bit worse for the wear.

For most of our week in Paris, we avoided the metro because it’s too hard to navigate with a stroller. We took a city bus to our rented apartment in the Ledru-Rollin neighborhood in the 11th arrondissement. After checking in with the landlady, we were finally able to relax and recover a little.

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We enjoyed the view from our apartment, and it was nice to have a small kitchen and an extra bed for the kids. It was on the 7th floor (!) of the building, but luckily had a tiny elevator that would carry one adult and one child or suitcase at a time. The elevator was an experience in and of itself! Shame I didn’t take any pictures of that odd bit of machinery. We decided we were too exhausted from the train journey to attempt the restaurant meal and Seine river tour on the Bateaux-Mouches we had planned. Instead, we bought some groceries from a nearby shop and made dinner in our apartment so we could get to bed early. Such is the life of families with young kids!

Day 2: Paris Disneyland

We felt like silly tourists, but Sam’s been asking to go to Disneyland since he first saw a TV commercial featuring Buzz Lightyear as a two-year-old. We decided that his enthusiasm combined with Lucy’s obsession with Minnie Mouse meant that we couldn’t pass up the convenience of a day-trip to Paris Disneyland.

We took the metro and the RER train a half-hour outside of central Paris to arrive at the crowded Disney gates.

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Here’s Joe and Sam posing for the requisite photo in front of the Mickey topiary out front.

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Even “Les Toilettes” were cutely designed, in typical Disney fashion. Lucy and I spent a large part of the day waiting for Sam outside of these fixtures. It’s been a long time since I visited a theme park with a preschooler, and it’s not always easy!

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And we had to get a castle shot of Sam, as well. The Paris Disneyland castle is especially pretty. Travel websites mention that they had to make it especially fantastical to compete with all of the real  castles in the nearby region.

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We waited in our first queue, for the carousel. I had planned to pass this one up, since there are so many carousels for tourists to ride all over Paris, but Sam insisted. And he was right, it was worth the wait.

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I spent the ride standing next to Lucy’s horse and making sure she didn’t fall off.

Next we went to the It’s a Small World ride. Not my favorite, but every travel website said that it was the best option in the park for small kids, and possibly the best of the Small World versions amongst the various Disney parks worldwide. Their advice was spot on, and my kids adored the experience and watched the animatronic dolls singing with awe in their eyes.

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Then we met Tigger. I think we could have left at that point and called the day a success. In Lucy’s opinion, it was already the best day ever.

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We managed to tour the inside of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as well as the animatronic dragon in the cave underneath. Sam still swears to this day that the dragon was real, and we can’t convince him otherwise. It was a bit too dark in there to take any photographs, however.

Then we hurried out of the Disneyland park for a character lunch at Cafe Mickey. We had booked this spot in advance, because we knew that we wanted our kids to have a chance to meet a few characters in costume without having to wait in long lines.

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Neither of my kids ate much of their food due to the excitement, but it was well worth it.

We went back to the park and visited some of the other lands.

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In Frontierland, Joe and Sam inspected the cannons and attempted a tour through the Phantom Manor. Unfortunately, the ride broke down while they were in line and they didn’t get a chance to experience the haunted house. Meanwhile, Lucy napped in the stroller and I greeted the riverboat’s arrival and watched the Big Thunder Mountain ride get stuck and evacuated. It wasn’t a good day for ride maintenance at the park, apparently.

Then we went to Adventureland and explored the many bridges and tunnels on the Adventure Isle and let our kids burn off some extra energy at a nice playground they have there.

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It was fun to see a life-sized version of Captain Hook’s pirate ship.

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Lucy woke up from her nap in time to play on the playground, so afterwards we bought the kids some popsicles to help beat the heat and keep their spirits up.

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Sam tried to pull Excalibur out of the stone on our return journey through Fantasyland. We had to break the news to him that only the true king of England can succeed, and he was mightily disappointed!

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In Discoveryland, Sam found some sculptures to climb and even spotted Wall*E and Eve! We used a Fast Pass we’d picked up after lunch to avoid the 2+ hour wait for the Buzz Lightyear Lazer Blast ride. I wasn’t sure if it would be too much for my kids to handle, but they both enjoyed it.

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The inside of the ride has a lot of black-lights and targets you’re supposed to shoot at with your laser gun, so it didn’t make for very good picture taking.

We had planned to go back to Fantasyland for a bit before catching the parade, but our kids had other plans. They needed a snack so we spent a good half-hour waiting in line at a snack bar for some food. Then, the clouds coalesced and drenched us with a heavy downpour. We abandoned our plans because of the weather and our exhaustion, and instead went to wait in line for the train. Paris Disneyland has a steam-engine railroad that runs the perimeter of the park, so we rode that back to the Main Street portion of the park where we had dinner reservations waiting for us.

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Lucy really liked riding on the train, despite the fact that we’d ridden trains to get to Paris and to get from the city out to Disneyland. Perhaps this train better matched her schema for what a train should be, with real “choo choo” noises, unlike the modern counterparts we’d previously encountered.

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Our excursion to Paris Disneyland was well worth it. I was surprised by how well our kids handled all of the stimulation and excitement. I’m glad we managed to pack so much into our single day there and have such a magical time.

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Climbing the Münster

Earlier this spring, we finally did it!

On a slow Sunday, with nothing else to do, we found ourselves in the town center and decided to attempt the Münster climb that we’d been meaning to do since we first moved to Ulm.

We paid our fee in the cathedral gift shop, then began to ascend the 768 steps.

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The view from the bottom. It’s a very tall tower!

I didn’t manage many interior photos while we hiked. The entire climb is a narrow spiral staircase, and there were other tourists ahead of us and behind us at all times. Since we were carrying Lucy, and often Sam as well, we felt like we were already holding up the queue and didn’t want to stop for a photo on the stairs. Plus, as anyone who’s visited European cathedrals before will know, the staircase is very dark and likely any pictures we tried to take wouldn’t have turned out very well.

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We made it to the first landing. It provides a view of the Münsterplatz and the people strolling below. You can’t see it in this picture, but Joe and I were both already flushed & sweating!

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The view from the second landing. We were getting pretty high up!

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We also spotted some fierce-looking gargoyles en route. Most were on corners of the building that we couldn’t capture by our cameras. There was lots of caging at every opening, to prevent climbers from dropping things (or jumping) from such heights.

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The second landing also had a roof-top that became an impromptu slide for my kids. I truly believe this was their favorite part of the whole adventure!

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Happy kids. It’s a lot easier to be smiling when you’ve been carried by your parents up 500+ stairs.

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This is the final stairwell. The Wikipedia page for the Münster accurately states that there is “barely enough room for one person.” And we had kids in our arms. Every time we had to pass someone going in the opposite direction, we had to hug the wall or the center column and hope that we would not lose our footing. Yikes!

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I think we were delirious by this point. Maybe it was the altitude?

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A quick snap of Sam on the final stairwell. At least half the tourists seemed to give up and not attempt this last climb, so we didn’t feel quite as much pressure to hurry. Sam actually did a very good job of climbing portions of the tower without [much] complaint. I think that living on the 5th floor of our apartment building has built up his tolerance more than we’d realized.

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This is the roof of the main church below.

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And a view across the Danube.

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I don’t know what Lucy’s so grumpy about! You can see from the photo how narrow the circular walkway around the top viewing platform is. It was difficult to pass around other tourists. I wouldn’t recommend bringing young kids on the Münster climb, simply because of the cramped walkways.

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Here’s some selfies of Joe with the kids at the top.

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After all those stairs, we felt we deserved to reward ourselves with some gelato.

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Here’s a last photo taken by Sam. Kudos to all who have succeeded in climbing the Münster tower! It’s not an easy feat and I’m glad we managed it once before we leave this German town.

Lindau am Bodensee

When Joe’s brother Jeff’s came to visit at Christmastime, we were lucky enough to manage a day trip to the town of Lindau. It’s a small island in Lake Constance (der Bodensee in German), and a popular vacation destination. It’s at the southernmost part of the country, near the borders with Austria and Switzerland.

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We drove onto the island by bridge and parked near a marina that reminds me a lot of Poulsbo, for some reason.

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Lucy wasn’t too happy to be out in the cold. Toddlers have no appreciation for the picturesque views!

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Jeff helped us to lead an eager Sam into the town center. In the background, you can see the city wall which runs along the outskirts of the island.

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A view of the wall from above.

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After navigating a few narrow, winding alleys (definitely not stroller-friendly, but we’re getting used to it!)

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…we emerged into the heart of a charming, Bavarian village.

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It has the requisite town church.

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Since we came during the Christmas holiday, many of the shops were closed. We mainly just wandered the streets and planned to come back another time. Don’t let the blue skies fool you, it was terribly cold out that day! Note in the foreground how Joe ended up carrying Lucy much of the day to help keep her warm.

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Love the Bavarian rooflines with their architectural details.

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I haven’t yet lost my fascination with the Bavarian exteriors. Leavenworth is great and all, but it can’t compare to the real thing surrounding us at every turn.

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And these swirling business signs are so beautiful.

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Lindau also has, of course, an ornately painted Rathaus (town hall).

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At the far edge of the island, we finally found a bit of sunshine to thaw out in. Such a beautiful view of the blue lake and Alps beyond.

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The Lindau harbor has a lion sculpture to stand guard, and Bavaria’s only lighthouse.

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We owe a huge thanks to Uncle Jeff for the idea to visit Lindau and helping to get us there. It was a fantastic single-day getaway for us.

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We even got to stop on the drive home for a little snow.

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And Sam got to fulfill his month-long request for a snowball fight! What a happy boy.

ein Spaziergang an der Donau – A walk along the Danube

Here’s some more shots of our favorite place to stroll — the banks of the Danube.

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Portions of the old city walls still exist and are a nice raised walkway.

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From the ramparts, you can see one of the tributaries, called the Blau (Blue) which flows directly through central Ulm. The Danube cuts between Ulm and Neu-Ulm (where we live). The winding path of the Blau is another nice walk, and it is the site of the best historic buildings surviving in the city. I’ll show some more of those journeys in a later blog post.

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Or you can walk on the paved pathways right next to the river. This is where the joggers prefer to roam, although there are separate paths for bikes and pedestrians, which is a nice way to help traffic flow more smoothly.

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Above is a view from the lower path. You can see the wall, with the city buildings behind.

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There are bridges at almost every major intersection. So, we can cross back over the Danube whenever we are ready to return to Neu-Ulm. This is often how we roll…piggyback style. Sam has become a fairly good long-distance walker, but at times he needs to be carried a little.

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This is a small island that’s formed by an off-shoot of the Danube named die Kleine Donau (“the Little Danube”). There’s a nice park with picnic tables to watch the boats and birds float by. We frequently observe kayaks and crew teams, but not very many larger, motored river boats.

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We can see the Münster from almost anywhere. And there are often men fishing at intervals along the river. I’m not sure how much they actually manage to catch. But we like how there are often stairs leading down any steep banks to access the river easily. It seems in America that any steep riverbanks would be heavily barricaded and blocked by guardrails to prevent accidents. It’s evident of the differing attitudes towards safety that we’ve observed here in Germany.

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Lucy likes to spot all the dogs that out walking with their owners.

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Here’s a shot of me, walking with the stroller among the fall leaves.

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Sam’s always good at spotting wildflowers.

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We’re grateful for any clear days where we can get out for a stroll and some fresh air. Our old neighborhood was not very good for walking. It’s a treat to have so many pedestrian-only paths with such a beautiful river view.

Playground pics #3

Sam loves to find new playgrounds when we are out on our walks, and more often than not, he’s successful at it. They’re tucked everywhere in our new neck-of-the-woods.

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This cool pirate ship was hidden among a public green space. It’s tied to a Biergarten that operates during the summer and provides a nice place for the kids to play while their parents relax nearby.

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Lucy loved this short little slide and went up the stairs and down the slide on a continuous loop for a good twenty minutes straight.

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There she goes again!

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She also loved digging in the sand. Most of the playgrounds here use sand, which is less common than rubber or bark chips or even gravel in our part of America. The sand certainly does get into everyone’s shoes and makes the kids more messy, but it’s a softer surface to fall upon. I’m still undecided about which playground surface I prefer.

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We also later heard from a local mom that the Biergarten restaurant actually hides golden coins in the sand. If one of the kids finds one, they get a free ice cream or other treat. What a fantastic idea! I can imagine any kid from ages 3-12 spending hours digging in the sand once you told them this news.

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Lucy found this seesaw near the heart of Ulm, just behind the Rathaus (city hall). A lot of the playgrounds have these spring-supported seesaws, which are great because kids of different sizes can still use them. Seesaws seem to be a lot less common in America these days. I remember lots of injuries in my childhood from merry-go-rounds and seesaws, so it’s likely they’ve been removed to prevent injury and insurance claims. In Germany, with no bicycle helmet laws and infant carseats commonly placed in the front passenger seat, there must be less concern regarding mere playground accidents.

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One more mini playground, found tucked amid some soccer fields at a sporting area a short walk from our apartment.

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And here’s Sam, our intrepid playground hunter even finding slides in the rain.

That’s probably the last of our playground adventures until the warmer spring months. Not very pleasant to get wet sand all over your hands or soggy pants from an attempt at the slide.

Das Ulmer Münster

I’ve been neglectful. We’ve lived here in Ulm for 4+ months and I have barely mentioned the most famous tourist sites here. Part of that is because we have little kids in tow. They’re not patient enough yet for most of the museums and not old enough to ride on the beer bike.

The city of Ulm is not very well-known to most Americans. When we first started thinking about coming here, we learned that it is the birthplace of Albert Einstein (although he only lived here for his first year of life, so all of the Einstein references around town are a bit of a stretch). Ulm also is the site of the failed flying attempts of the “Tailor of Ulm“. But most notably, our new hometown has the tallest church steeple in the world, the Ulm Münster.

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The Münster was begun in the Gothic Era (1377) but construction was halted due to a lack of funds and to the city’s conversion to Protestantism in 1530. Like the Cologne cathedral, it wasn’t completed until the late 19th century. The completed church was the tallest building in the world from 1890-1901, when the Philadelphia City Hall surpassed it.

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The outside features gargoyles and intricate carvings of biblical scenes.

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It is not a cathedral because it never housed a Catholic bishop. The Minster/Münster term derives from the Latin for monastery and is related to (but not the same as) the Anglican term used for Westminster and York Minster.

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Mozart played on this organ during a visit in 1763, although his father Leopold described Ulm as a “hateful, old-fashioned and disgusting place” [source].

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It is a Lutheran church, with seating for a congregation of 2,000. The interior, like most European cathedrals, features beautiful artwork at every turn. Even the ceiling is painted and gilded.

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The smell of incense, candles, and aging wood permeates everything.

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With the dim lighting and stained glass windows, it’s hard to capture the interior with our camera.

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Sam always feel good to be able to say a prayer and light a candle for our loved ones.

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Outside, there are some stone sparrows to climb on. The sparrow is a common sight around Ulm, being one of the town’s official mascots. It is meant in jest, since the legend has it that the residents were unable to figure out how to navigate a large beam through the city gates until they observed a sparrow maneuvering a long twig into its nest lengthwise. But the Ulmer citizens have embraced this symbol of their ineptitude and it is represented in public artwork at every turn.

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We still haven’t managed to climb the 768 steps to the top of the steeple. We’ll have to get a babysitter for that one, since I don’t exactly relish carrying our two kids up that many narrow, winding flights of stairs. But we’ll manage it sometime before we leave this Germany city, by gum! It’s definitely at the top of our to-do list.

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Did you know that there are wild swans swimming in the Danube?

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We often see them on our walks along the riverfront. It’s a pretty neat sight for me, since swans were a rare sight in my childhood. These swans don’t seem to be migratory, because they’re happily swimming and flying around even in the sub-freezing temperatures we’re currently experiencing. Perhaps they are well fed by the Ulm citizens and don’t wish to travel.  Our kids do certainly love to try calling out to the swans and ducks and trying to converse with them in “quacks”.

The cold makes it harder to venture out of our cozy apartment. I’m much less inclined to bring Lucy out for a little exploratory wander when her nose turns red from cold and her hands turn into stiff white icicles. That combined with the school syndrome — Sam in his first year of public school is bringing home every illness that crosses his path and then sharing them with Lucy. It’s going to be a long cold & flu season for our family.

This all affects the blog because it means less photo opportunities. But I’m still running way behind on some posts, so in the upcoming days and weeks I hope to publish some of our photos from the last few months. And perhaps a video, if I can figure out how! So stay tuned…