Friday, 12 October 2007

The most exciting thing we encountered on our drive to Hallstatt was a McDonald’s at the junction where we left Germany and entered Austria. It was the most amazing McDonald’s I have ever seen. It had an outdoor living room with nice wicker furniture and a candle burning on a pretty coffee table. It had a gas burning fireplace inside, next to a McCafe that was similar to a Starbucks, there were videos playing in the bathroom (Tarzan in front of the little guy’s urinal, and music videos for the big guys, according to Clay), leather couches and cool, modern chairs upstairs and down. Very sleek and modern.

Outside was a great playscape with several castles and a huge climbing space with tubes winding in and out of each other. Then inside was a separate playscape, more like a gym, with an obstacle course that had a button at the beginning and end so you could start your time and then hit it again when you finished to see your time. What could be more perfect for our time-inclined children? It also had a basketball hoop and tons of little bouncy yellow balls, with a fun little storage place where you made a basket and it wound down different levels to the bottom where you could retrieve it again. There was a climbing thing, some stationary bikes with monitors that you could race each other on, and even a Wii (although we didn’t know how to make this work).

What started out as a concession (“yeah, ok, we better stop here, we don’t know when we’ll see food again”) turned into an hour and a half playtime. It wasn’t “fast” food, but it was a great way to burn off some energy, and some fries.

After hitting the road again we encountered a mind-numbing traffic jam on the autobahn, what we hoped would be the speedy part of our trip. After forty minutes we finally merged into one lane and were on our way. We exited and began to drive down the yellow lines (small roads) on our map. Clay commented that I seem to choose the places that aren’t located on nice, blue highways. They may be harder to get to, but they sure are beautiful.

Hallstatt clings to the shoreline of a wide, blue, still lake. There is a mountain rising up behind it, complete with waterfall, and inside this mountain is a salt mine we’ll explore tomorrow. This evening we made friends with some ducks, ate at a great pizza place, and admired a pear tree that snuggled next to a house in the market square, framing its windows and doors. This is a nice, cozy town and we look forward to getting to know it better.


Saturday, 13 October 2007

We woke this morning to gray clouds hiding the top of the mountain, the funicular that takes us to the salt mine disappeared in a cloud. It was a perfect day to go underground! After breakfast, we walked five minutes to the funicular and got our tickets. As we approached, we heard singing. There was a tour group blocking the door, so I couldn’t glimpse of who was making that beautiful music inside. I was disappointed when the singers got on the car before ours, we hadn’t gotten a good look at the owners of those voices.

We were joined by many stout, German-speaking Austrians, some sporting green velvet jackets and those great Alpine hats with a feather sticking out the side. These were the real deal, not people dressed up to please the tourists. We made our slow way up the hill, there was a ten minute hike from the top of the funicular to the start of the tour. When we reached the top, we caught up to the people singing, they were on the front porch of the building where we were told to meet our guide. I would have paid a lot of money to hear these people, but they were absolutely free.

They sat casually on the front porch, smoking cigarettes and singing the most marvelous harmonies, smoke spiraled out of their mouth as if you could see the melodies drifting among them, little clouds of harmony. Inside were a group of deaf people, chattering silently with their hands, their fingers flying, seemingly unaware of the music surrounding them. Maybe the air vibrated with the bass and they could feel it in their fast-flying fingers, maybe that’s what they were talking about.

Before taking the salt mine tour, we all had to put on “miner’s clothes”. Basically these were loose-fitting pants and shirts with reinforcements in the rear. We needed these for the two long, wooden slides we slid down inside the mine. The kids got a real kick out of this, on one of them they even got their picture taken and their time recorded like they do on a roller coaster when you go down a big hill. I don’t know how much they learned about the salt mine. The tour was in German and heavily-accented English.

Most interesting was the story about the “salt man”. In the early 1700’s some miners discovered a dead man whose body had been preserved in the salt. They decided this man died about 150 years before, carried him to town and gave the body a proper burial. Somehow, scientists today have determined that this body they found was actually 3000 years ago, but have been unsuccessful in finding the remains. Nate had all sorts of ideas where they should look for the bones, and Benji was all questions, wanting to hear the story again to make sure he got it right.

To leave the mine, we followed the almost entirely German speaking crowd into a tunnel with a long sort of train in it. It was actually a series of logs, hooked together on wheels, that we discovered we were supposed to straddle. By the time we arrived the logs were all full, and we ended up spacing out over the length of this “log ride on wheels”. The boys were way up ahead, Alayna was squeezed in front of some old man, as was I, and Clay was in the rear somewhere. An engine pulled us through this final tunnel of the mine, and it was very strange to go whisking through these narrow tunnels (ducking so we didn’t hit our heads) straddling a log with perfect strangers that spoke no English. The kids thought it was pretty cool.

We grabbed some lunch at our hotel, checked the windows to see if it was still raining, then settled in upstairs for a lazy afternoon playing Backgammon and Nine Man’s Morris on our magnetic game board while Alayna was able to hook up with some friends by phone and email. It was a nice, quiet afternoon, but we hope tomorrow the sun rises and we get to explore that glorious lake.

For dinner I tried to squeeze in a little school, one of Nate’s assignments was to write a limerick so I got out some paper and pencils and everyone in the family had a go at it. I thought they were pretty clever so I’m including them below:

Benji’s (with a little help):

A meerkat ate a bug
The bug was a big old slug
He caught another
Just for his mother
And she gave him a big old hug

Nate’s (he did this one all by himself):

There was a boy named Dan
He thought he was a man
He joined the army
And heard the alarmy
It turned out it was a band

Alayna’s (she wrote several, her first was her best):

I’m attempting to write a rhyme
But it’s hard to keep it in time
I’ll try and try
Until I die
Oh, maybe I’ll just be a mime

Meredith’s (I had to explain this one to Nate!):

It’s hard to explain a joke
Its funny-ness goes up in smoke
You try for a smile
But after a while
You realize it’s probably broke.


There was a boy named Lance
Who was taking a trip to France
He needed to go
But his mom said “no”
So he had to pee in his pants.

It’s nice when our family gathers around the dinner table for some high conversation . . .


Sunday, 14 October 2007

Clouds still hung over the lake when we woke in the morning, but we set off towards the main market square anyway, hoping it would burn off. We raced some leaves down a creek, something we had done the first day we arrived and the kids begged if we could do it again. After that excitement, we headed down a street, stepped into a nearby store that had some Roman ruins in their basement, and speculated on the story behind the objects we saw (most explanations were written in German). As we exited the store I heard music and caught a glimpse of a man in lederhosen playing a tuba before he disappeared around a corner. I called to Clay, we gathered our chicks that were scattered throughout the store checking out souvenirs, and we raced down the road to find out what the commotion was all about.

A group of about 20 men, some playing tubas or trumpets, were getting on a flat-bottomed boat. They all wore those great hats with the feathers on the side, and three of the men held strange, short-barreled guns. A woman in a traditional Austrian dress nearby told us to hold our ears. The boat set off, and the men shot their guns, which sounded like cannons. The sound was really startling. We had heard guns earlier that morning and thought maybe they were blasting some new tunnels in the salt mine.

As the boat began its journey down the shoreline of the lake, the woman told us we would be able to follow them along the shore. She said they were celebrating a successful hunting season, and this celebration only happens once a year. Serendipity! The men began singing as we followed their slow-moving course down the lakeshore, playing their instruments and waving their hats above their heads. As we followed, we noticed some Americans speaking nearby, and they had kids. My radar went up, but before I could ask one of the parents where they were from, the other mother asked me.

It turns out they’ve been in Germany for four years, but came from San Antonio! They had three boys ages 10, 8, and 6, and a little girl age 2, and we spent a happy two hours chatting while the boys ran around together and Alayna played with the little girl. Our boys were really impressed that the other boys could slip between speaking German and English, maybe they’ll be inspired to learn a language! The little girl was named Mercy, and she was a cute little thing.

I learned all sorts of interesting things about Germany from Holly, the mom. The schools don’t do any sort of music, art, gym, they don’t even have a cafeteria. When the kids are in school it’s all school, but their oldest boy gets out at 1, and the younger two at noon, so they have time in the afternoon to do what interests them, whether it be music or art or something else. Germans are serious about education, Holly said when her husband was being deployed to Afghanistan for a year she went to the school and asked if she could take the kids out for a day to spend some time with the dad. She asked a teacher they considered to be very nice, and she said “I’m sorry, no.”  The teachers, and what they are teaching, are treated with the utmost respect. Early on in our trip we met another family from Germany, and they were amazed that we were allowed to home school our kids for a year. Homeschooling is not allowed in Germany.

Another thing I learned is that kids aren’t allowed to drive in Germany until they are 18, and it costs 3,000 euro to get a driver’s license. You’re also required to take a one year driving course, and if in the first two years of driving you have an accident, you lose your license. Period. And, if a driver has an accident and they find even a .03 alcohol level in their blood they go to jail and their license is taken away. Needless to say, they have a much lower level of accidents. Mike, a doctor in the military, said that they have closed 80% of the trauma centers in recent years because they just don’t need them.

We loved spending time with the Joneses, whose boys also eat French fries after they drop on the ground and were just as close to falling into the lake as ours. We finally had to part ways, they were on their way back home, and we found ourselves that playground we spied the first day we were here.

There was a pretty green island connected to the shore where the playground was by two planks of wood for a bridge. Clay had to try it, and of course the kids followed. I got it all on video, hoping for some dramatic footage, but alas, all was well. It would have been a great place to play on a hot summer day, splashing between the island and the main shore and running around in bare feet. Unfortunately the sun had gone behind a mountain, leaving the playground in dark shadows, and it was getting chilly, so we kept our shoes on.

The kids had fun playing anyway. Benji found a little cat. While Nate and Alayna were racing on a playscape, Benji went across that wooden bridge all by himself, crouched down low and held out his hand until the kitty came to him, and then gave it some love (he is our animal boy, and probably misses the dogs more than anyone else). The small town of Hallstatt lay in the background across a bend of the lake, the sun shone on the mountain across from us, it was a very pretty picture.

In fact, the whole day was a pretty picture. The clouds burned off while we were watching the hunters in the boat, leaving us a gorgeous day with blue skies reflected in a still blue lake, the occasional duck or swan making our acquaintance, and picturesque houses climbing up the side of the mountain. Parachuters jumped off a nearby mountain top and drifted down, spiraling around and drifting where the wind took them, like wounded butterflies all bright in the sky.

Clay went to go pick up some laundry and move our car, and when he returned my feet were about frozen. He stayed behind with the kids and I had a glorious thirty minutes on a patio a ways down that was still in the sun, my hands cupped around a tiny cup of cappuccino doused in sugar and cream. I also ordered a delicious cream cheese strudel to share when everyone arrived, but unfortunately, they took too long and I ate it all myself!

We leave in the morning for Salzburg for a quick night, and then we’re off to Italy. As I look at the web site and see all the pins on the map, I’m amazed at all the places we’ve been. Did we really do all that? We ate pizza at the same place we did the first night, and felt like old-timers sitting at the same table. The man remembered us and joked with the kids, and we saw one of the men who was on the boat earlier that day. Good old what’s-his-name. It’s like we’re putting all these little roots out, and someday, if we ever return, we’ll have a little plant started. A thing to call our own that can grow bigger, as we add to our experiences. The Davis trees. We sure are scattering a lot of seeds.