Friday, December 28, 2012

Where is he taking me?!

I hope everyone has had a wonderful holiday season.  It's nice to know it's not quite over yet (although my body could certainly take a break from all the sugar sweets!), and we still have one more holiday left before life tries to return to normal.  What are your plans for New Years this year?

This year my hubby is taking me to a surprise destination to ring in the New Year.  I'm not even kidding... for months now he has planned a "mystery trip" being careful not to give me even a single detail.  He's always working hard to make this time of year special for me. I have one of those birthdays that can easily be forgotten because it lands, quite literally, right after the holidays on January 2.  This year is no exception :)  It has been months in the planning, and today is finally the day that we leave for our mysterious trip!

So, where is he taking me?  I'm not lying when I say I haven't got a clue.  He didn't even tell me what to pack until yesterday! Can you believe he kept this secret for so long?!  Is he taking me to Switzerland to play in the snow? To the islands to find a piece of the sun?  To South Africa on a safari? Or up to Iceland to sleep in an igloo and see the northern lights?  

What I do know today is that we are leaving at noon to head to the Frankfurt Airport and we'll be back on Tuesday.  I also now know that the weather is pretty typical for Europe this time of year, but slightly warmer than the weather we are having here in Germany.  Hmmm... My bags are packed and it was a hoot to pull all my things together with no idea where I'd be spending the next four days.

If you could go anywhere (within reason, of course) as a surprise destination, where would you hope it would be?  I'm afraid to guess because I'm so excited with anticipation that I'm afraid to ruin it!  Besides, I've made it this far and now I'm within hours now of knowing :)  

We'll be back next week and I promise to share all of the fun details!  Until then, I hope everyone has a safe and very happy New Years!


Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas in Germany...

With the excitement of Christmas before us, we are also sad to say good-bye to another wonderful Christmas market season here in Germany.  Nothing says "the holidays" like wooden stalls full of holiday gifts, traditional German food, and a hot cup of Gluhwein (turns out even the alcohol free versions aren't all that bad).  We couldn't wait for Advent so that all of the markets would go into full swing.  We had big plans with our friends to visit them ALL...ok, at least the ones within three hours of home.  Our goals might have been a tad bit optimistic this year, but we still had a nice holiday season and we really enjoyed the markets we did have the time to visit.

The weather always helps keep things exciting during "Christmas market" season.  You just never know what you are going to get.  Last year we were plagued with horrible, cold and nasty torrential rains.  This year, the weather was all over the map.  For most of the month of December though, our corner of the country was really cold, or at least it felt pretty nippy.  And now, the rain is back and the temperatures are downright balmy.  

Our favorite Weinachtsmarkt, hands down, is in Erfurt, which sits north east of us in Thuringia in the old part of East Germany.  The town is beautiful in and to itself, and it's a place we have placed on our map of must-see day trips when the weather warms up. We found this market last year and immediately fell in love. Aside from visiting the Weinachtsmarkt in our local town of Bamberg, Erfurt was first on our list.  We decided to visit another town that sits just 20 minutes east of Erfurt, called Weimar.  It's a really small town, so we knew the market would be quaint and quiet.  Weimar is actually the location of the very first public outdoor Christmas tree back in the early 1800s.  The Weimar Weinachtsmarkt was located in the center of town and it wound its way through pedestrian streets with rows of wooden stands.  It was a great market to start off our season.

the rides are always little r's favorite part of the markets
I like the food, of course!
Weimar Weinachsmart!  little r is so camera shy!
Life like traditional wooden pyramid at the entrance to the market
Weimar Weihnachtsmarkt
On one edge of the Weinachtsmarkt was an ice skating rink - we were sad we ran out of time
We left the sweet town of Weimar and geared up for fun in Erfurt.  Just like last year, parking was an exciting part of the adventure.  We managed to park on the other side of town this time and we were so glad that we did.  It turns out that last year we missed a large part of the Weinachtsmarkt that goes throughout the downtown portion of Erfurt!  The market is amazing and so full of life and people.  It was really, really cold that day, so once the sun went down, we all huddled close to keep warm.  We also visited the market on a Saturday evening this year, and holy cow were there a lot of people!  Because of the crowds and the cold, we skipped the ferris wheel this year, but we still managed to find some great rides for little r to enjoy.

So many people enjoying the market that day
The stars are always my favorite
The merchant's bridge in Erfurt was beautiful lit for the season
Everyone was keeping warm with gluhwein and tall glasses of red wine
Entrance to the Erfurter Weinachtsmarkt!
Such a picturesque market - we love it
The gorgeous cathedral makes for a stunning backdrop for the market
little r was giving some driving tips to his new buddy
Overview of the market from the steps of the Cathedral
So pretty - you can easily see why it's our favorite
The following weekend we decided to venture out on the train to see the Romantic Christmas market in Regensburg at the Thurn und Taxis Palace.  Regensburg is one of Germany's oldest towns dating back to 179 A.D.  We had heard nothing but amazing things about the Christmas markets there, and we were not disappointed.  I'm not sure we were quite prepared for the crazy crowds on the trains, but this time we were definitely prepared for the cold.  And man, was it cold that day...  Not only is the Weinachtsmarkt in Regensburg beautiful, but the town itself is something not to miss. The Romantic market is set inside the walls of the Palace and it's all lit up with torches to guide you through the maze of wooden stands. We were sure not to leave Regensburg without seeing the Regensburg Weinachtsmarkt as well.  Just like Erfurt, we can't recommend the markets in Regensburg enough.  

Center of the Palace - Romantic Christmas Market Regensburg
there was a tiny ride inside the palace
Romantic Christmas Market - Regensburg
Enjoying a chocolate covered, hazelnut Schneeball - little piece of heaven
Beautiful Cathedral
walking across the old stone bridge in Regensburg
on the old stone bridge - brrrr, it was SO cold!
beautiful Christmas tree in the center of one of the markets in Regensburg
Lucreziamarkt - artists and craftsman display all of their beautiful  handmade wares
handmade soaps and other special gifts were found at the Lucreziamarkt
Scene as the sun went down at Christkindlesmarkt Regensburg
As much as we love seeing the markets, we were surprised by how much the cold weather can take out of you especially with a toddler in tow.  The poor kid just didn't understand why we were fighting crowds to stand out in the cold and carry hot liquids.  If there wasn't a ride or he wasn't getting chocolate from St. Nick, then there was no reason to stay too long.  The weather turned from cold to wet and our lives got busy and we were fighting off colds.  So, we laid low for awhile, until the last day of the markets gave us an itch we just had to scratch.  

The weather was still a bit unpredictable, so we thought we'd keep it close to home and avoid heavy crowds.  So we ventured up to Coburg, which sits literally 30-40 minutes north of Bamberg.  It's a Bavarian town of royalty known for its Palace (or Veste), and the town center is actually quite beautiful.  The market was very small and quaint, but it was just what we were looking for.  We were able to enjoy one last afternoon and evening of gluhwein and wonderful German food before the Christmas season came to a close.  We even got to take little r for a carriage ride around town - lucky boy :) 

Entrance to the Weinachtsmarkt in Coburg - horse carriage and all
He LOVED this ride.  Gave us a high five every time he passed us.
Weinachtsmarkt Coburg
It was a little soggy that afternoon, but everyone seemed to enjoy it anyhow
we really loved the architecture throughout the old town of Coburg

St. Nickolaus giving away goodies = happy little r
beautiful Rathaus in Coburg at the edge of the square
Weinachtsmarkt in Coburg as the sun went down
little r enjoyed his carriage ride through town
...but I think he enjoyed sitting on the horse so much more :) 
More pictures of the old town - so pretty...
horses were taking a rest
final picture of town as we walked to the car 
So, it's time to get ready for Christmas day.  We made some incredible memories this holiday season as a family.  It's always difficult to be so far away from our families this time of year, but we are enjoying creating our own traditions.  Little r is so spoiled by everyone. Our tree is overflowing with gifts, and we are so excited for him to see what Santa brought him this year.  I've already eaten all the cookies left for Santa, and the carrots left for the reindeer. Oh, and the eggnog is gone, too - oops!  

Good night everyone, and Merry Christmas!!!  We hope your day is special in every way.  



Thursday, December 20, 2012

little r is going to have a brother...

Somehow we are halfway there. Boy, time sure does fly, doesn't it? I'm at 20 weeks already, and everything is going really well. At my appointment this morning, the little guy finally gave us a good look so we could be certain that we are definitely adding another boy to our clan. We didn't get a good shot from the ultrasound worth printing, but we did get a look at his strong heart, all 10 fingers, both feet, and he kept looking at us with a huge smile. I feel like I've completely fallen in love with him already.

I'm finally easing out of the morning sickness mania, the headaches are fading away, and my belly bump is showing proudly. The second trimester can be so much fun. My favorite part, aside from finally looking pregnant, is being able to feel the little guy kicking and rolling around. Except for an unwelcomed chest cold that took over my body this weekend, I'm feeling pretty great these days. (Being sick while you are pregnant is never fun.) Little r is having so much fun watching my tummy grow (and my boobs - holy heck!). I think it's safe to say he's pretty excited to have a brother soon.

Now that the baby bump is proudly showing, I'll try my best to take pictures more regularly so you can watch the baby grow with me. We have another big ultrasound right after the holidays, so maybe we'll get lucky with some decent photos of the baby to share.




Monday, December 17, 2012

Learning a new language

After being here over a year and feeling as though my German was getting nowhere, I decided my language skills needed a big boost. I took the plunge and signed up for a German intensive course at a school here in Bamberg. It was a full immersion course where German was the only language spoken pretty much at all times. After much anticipation, I finally completed two weeks of the course. It's offered in one-week intervals. You can register for as few or as many weeks as you'd like. Based on the cost and the busy-ness in our lives, Big R and I decided I could easily take two weeks worth. And it was an amazing two weeks.

This course was seriously intense. They have you take a placement exam before you begin so they can put you in an accurate level. The first day wasn't too bad. I left thinking this was going to be a piece of cake. The second day I felt like a deer in the headlights. Holy crap. It was so freaking hard. I felt incredibly overwhelmed and frustrated. I had thoughts that I needed to be in an easier level because it felt so far over my head. Then I realized I needed it to be difficult. They would never put me in a level that I couldn't handle, and I wanted to be pushed. I needed to be pushed if I wanted to take my German to another level. The challenge was completely necessary. Otherwise, I would have just taken a more elementary level course at a community college.

Learning a new language is no cup of tea. I found myself having days of being overjoyed at what I was learning, and then days where I felt I could cry from frustration. Despite spending 40 hours completely immersed in a challenging language class, there is so much German I need to learn. I listen to conversations on train and bus rides and I get upset that I still have trouble understanding. I also know that my vocabulary needs a boost.

All that said, I can't believe how much I did learn. The learning environment at the school helped everyone feel comfortable using their German. In fact, we had to use German to talk to each other, and colleagues that are in the same situation are extremely forgiving. I still have a difficult time finding the words when I need them, but I'm less anxious about trying. I'm thinking in German sentences now, I just need to get over being shy about using them. It's tough.

My intelligence is something I have always had to work hard for. Might seem strange, but I was not born being smart. I was born being motivated. I put a huge effort into accomplishing my goals, and happily, I often find a reward for my work. With learning German, it was so much more difficult than anything I had ever done before. I went to law school and this seems harder for me. I'm convinced now that the idea that someone can have an affinity for languages is absolutely true. I am not one of these people, so I have to work much harder at learning a new language. I'm frustrated that I didn't take more language courses in school. Training your brain to work in a certain way can be critical when trying to accomplish a task like this. I hope that I am successful at convincing my children as to how important learning other languages in school can be. Despite how difficult or time-consuming it is. Just like learning how to play the piano or a musical instrument is important for brain development, I think language is the same way.

So, despite having some days where my brain went on overload and I literally felt it "turn off" during class, I think every minute of this course was worth the money and the time spent. I only wish it would have been possible to have taken more, and maybe this Spring I can take another week or two, we'll see. Although I have an incredible amount to learn, I understand better now how the German language works. I'm hoping I take the time to continue studying on my own and practicing the language with my German friends. They are always willing, I just need to push myself.

Probably the most important thing I learned these past few weeks is that it's worth taking the plunge and setting your mind to something. When you see a goal in front of you and you can find a way to achieve it, don't hesitate. It will always be worth it in the long run. Now if I could just apply this to other facets of my life, I'd be in great shape :)


Friday, November 30, 2012

Relinquishing control during pregnancy

Pregnancy is fascinating. And heading into my 18th week of my pregnancy, I'm constantly reminded how much control you have to relinquish while you grow a little person inside you. It's no secret that I have a strong Type A personality, and those of you that know me well, know that I am always trying to assert control over things in my life. It's a challenge for my obsessive and controlling personality to step aside and let things do what they need to do.

It might be a girl thing, or maybe it's just the pressures we get nowadays from the social media and each other, but I grew up with an image in my mind of what it would be like to be pregnant. Always an athlete and constantly working on making myself stronger, I wanted one of those fit pregnancies. The pregnancies you see in magazines and swear you hear your friends talk about. Those pregnancies are real and do exist, but I am not that woman and I'm thinking it's far from the norm for most people. Whether we want to face the reality or not, every woman's body handles pregnancy differently, and we just need to take care of ourselves as best we are able and accept what our bodies need to do to grow a healthy baby.

My pregnancy with little r was anything but easy. It was also void of many things I had always envisioned my pregnancy would be like and full of crazy things I swore I would never have to deal with. Because of the high risk of my pregnancy and the hypertension issues, I wasn't permitted to exercise other than walking. No yoga, no running, no gym. My job was intense and exciting, and my personal life kept things interesting as I lived in DC on the weekdays and went home to Richmond to Big R on the weekends. This time around I'm healthier, more fit, the pregnancy is going much more smoothly, and I do not have the stresses that come with working a full time job as an attorney. Things are different this time around, definitely, but my body is still keeping me in check and I'm not able to do all those things I had hoped or envisioned. The bottom line is, we really don't know, do we?

I'm reminded of all of this now as my belly bump is showing proudly and the weight is piling on far quicker than I want it to. You talk to friends that had the easiest time with their pregnancies, stay fit as a button, and recovered right away after they had their kids. Some don't show until well after their 20th week, and others never had to wear maternity pants. And our most common, yet horrible, question to each other as we're expectant mom's is always, how much weight have you gained? Why we do this to ourselves is a mystery to me. I suppose the competition is too tough to pass up or maybe we are worried we aren't in that "normal" range that you read about in all the "what to expect" books and guides.

What I realize I need to do is focus on myself. My friend, K, has something she preaches in her yoga class where she says to "keep your eyes on your own mat," or in other words, "mind your own business." Yoga is one of those practices that you can benefit from no matter your level, flexibility, or ability. Everyone and every body is different, so keep your eyes focused on your own goals and do not compete with others in the room. I think this is an excellent mantra for expectant mom's, especially those like me that obsess over numbers and how well I'm fitting into a norm. The truth is, you have no idea what it's going to be like until you are pregnant. And that's just the bottom line. Period.

I wanted to run my entire pregnancy, but my body had other ideas. Eating right is a common goal for most of us growing a baby inside, yet fighting those food aversions and cravings is like no other. And doing an hour of yoga with a migraine or eating healthy when all you want is bread and starches to curb the nausea is something that gets easily put aside. Pregnancy is also not the time to push yourself. It is important to listen to you body. If you are tiring easily, you need to slow down. (This is something else I find incredibly hard to do being that I push myself constantly otherwise.)

So, as my belly grows, I plan to embrace the changes and keep my eyes on my own mat. I'll try to stop obsessing about the weight gain and just focus more on keeping myself healthy. The daily yoga practice I've been keeping is helping me feel strong despite what the scale says. I also never anticipated the headaches would be so fierce or the anemia issues I'm fighting requiring god-awful iron supplements that make you feel utterly fantastic, let me tell you. I'm excited about maternity clothes and showing off my belly to the world even if I swell up like a hippo the way I did last time.

What was your pregnancy like? Did you have similar thoughts or struggles trying to relinquish control over your body? Why do we let ourselves obsess over such strange things?



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Istanbul:Turkey for Thanksgiving

Istanbul is exotic, positively energetic, friendly in every possible way, and full of excitement.  Our family trip to Istanbul was absolutely fantastic.  We planned this trip after talking to several of our friends that had recently done the excursion to this city that spans two continents.  Everyone was overflowing with incredible things to say about Istanbul.  I think though, despite having talked with so many people about it, we really had no idea what to expect from this trip, but we were extremely excited nonetheless.

I have to say, this was probably one of our easier family trips.  Big R was able to find cheap airfare on Turkish Airlines direct into Istanbul from Nuremberg.  Except for the handful of trips we've traveled to by car, all of our air and train travel has required us to drive to Munich or Frankfurt.  It seems the departure times have always been at an ungodly hour requiring an overnight stay or a ridiculously early waking hour.  Not this time.  Nuremberg is a simple and easy 45 minute drive from our house.  It was pure heaven for a family well-accustomed to the unneeded stresses that often comes with the "travel" part of our trips.  (Parking at the airport is a tad more expensive than we had anticipated, but overall it was worth it.)

So, after an easy commute to the airport and a positively exceptional flight on Turkish Airlines (we were served a gourmet meal for a 2.5 hour flight!), we landed in Istanbul.  We did relatively little planning for this trip in comparison to others.  Big R secured the flight and he found us a perfect hotel right in the center of everything with an off-season rate that can't be beat (only 40 EUR/night!).  Because we saved so much on the hotel, we decided to splurge for the car service offered by our hotel and not fight with the metro from Istanbul.  We had heard stories that it was an adventure to be had - we just were not in the mood for it to be had by us.  Aside from a minor glitch in us somehow missing the sign with our name on it, everything worked out fairly perfect.

We stayed in Sultanahmet, which is the Old City of Istanbul.  One of the things we absolutely loved about Istanbul was that despite it's enormity, many of the "sights" that draw visitors were all located within a short walking distance of each other.  I have no doubt there is so much more to see and experience in Istanbul than what we fit into our short stay there, but we never felt shorted.  Our hotel was a five minute walk from the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Bascilla Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar.  We didn't take long to settle in, and immediately went for a walk after sundown to take in the city.  As soon as we heard the muezzins voicing the call to prayer, we knew we were in a different place than we had ever been before. 

Minaret - a distinctive feature of a mosque - sends the call to prayer from the top of its tower

Here are some photographs to give you a flavor of the sites to see around the Old City in Istanbul:

My favorite picture of the Blue Mosque - just breathtaking!
Inside the Blue Mosque
Intricate details of the ceiling inside the Blue Mosque
All of the mosques had hanging lanterns as lighting - beautiful!
Little r and me inside the Blue Mosque
One of the entrances into Hagia Sophia  - built in 537 A.D.
Ornate details inside this 2,000 year old structure
Taking in the incredible details of Hagia Sophia
Ceiling of Hagia Sophia
View of Hagia Sophia
Entrance to Topaki Palance - we were welcomed by a rainbow
We were excited to visit this Palace used until very recently by the Sultans
They spared no detail on the walls, ceilings, floors...

View of the Bosphorous River and the Asia side of Istanbul from the Palace

Inside the Grand Bazaar - we were early and beat the crowds
A vendor selling lanterns that are common throughout Istanbul
Inside the Bascilla Cistern
The underground structure was ancient and wondrous...
The Cistern had a romantic yet spooky feel
The sites are most definitely something to see in Istanbul, but what we loved most about this city was experiencing the entirety of it.  It was easily one of the most friendly places we have ever visited. The Turkish people are so friendly it's almost overwhelming. Children can do no wrong, and little r was constantly the center of attention.  It did not matter where we were or what we were doing, little r was noticed and daunted over.  He loved it, and it put Big R and I at ease because we were not constantly concerned about whether he was behaving.  This child could do no wrong in the eyes of Turks.  You think I'm kidding.  We had no fewer than two complete sets of strangers ask to have our pictures taken with them, and he was practically adopted at every restaurant. At Hagia Sophia, a swarm of young girls just about attacked Big R while he was carrying little r just so they could see his sweet little face.  I had to get a picture.  The best part is, you can't see little r in the picture, so it looks like Big R has a young Harem!

Big R and his Harem - little r is in there somewhere - promise
We also LOVED the food in Istanbul.  Our usual approach of seeking out a place to eat based on atmosphere, feel, and affordability never led us astray.  We had the most incredible meals on this trip.  I'm still dreaming about them.  It was the end of November, and the weather was not exactly warm, however, we sat outside for most of our dinners because the patio seating was heated and cozy.  We never did take the time to chill with a hooka and a cocktail (for probably obvious reasons - haha), but that's something that looked like an experience I'd recommend to others that do not have a toddler in tow and are not expecting :) 

Freshly squeezed pomegranate and other juices were available at stands all throughout the Old City
Lighting at one of the restaurants
Common street scene full of cafes and restaurants 

My absolute favorite meal and eating experience we had in Istanbul was an impromptu stop at a very local, amazingly authentic cafe near the Spice Market along the river.  It looked amazing, so I grabbed Big R by the arm and pulled him inside.  It was crowded with metal plates as tables and small stools as chairs.  Everyone was cozy and enjoying their food.  It was clearly a locals favorite.

The food was cooked right before you on a large grill - this picture does not capture the small size of this cafe
It was absolutely delicious!
Heading into the Spice Market on a busy Saturday afternoon!
It was an overwhelming sensation for the senses!
Our Thanksgiving holiday in Istanbul was primarily unplanned and we had no idea what to expect.  We were happily surprised by how much we fell in love with the people, the culture, and the experience.  We visited the sights, ate as much of the delicious food as we could find, made friends with dozens of people including other Americans, Turkish families and restauranteers, and even folks from Montenegro.  We adopted at least half a dozen stray cats, and got cozy on the metro during a rainstorm that left everyone soaked.  I can't recommend this city enough, especially if you have children.  The weather was wet and cold (because that's how it always works out for us), but I think that visiting this city in an off-season is the best way to take it all in without the smoldering heat and crowds. 

Here are a few more photographs of our fantastic experience in Istanbul...

We bought little r a flute, and he played it the entire weekend
Outside the Blue Mosque (baby bump alert!)
A perfect place for a cat nap
Shopping was an experience unto itself in Istanbul
We made many furry friends on this visit - strays in Istanbul are as friendly as the people!
Delicious Turkish pastries near the Spice Market
We took a boat cruise down the Bosphorous - little r made many friends!
View from our hotel roof terrace during breakfast each morning
Our last morning in Istanbul - the sun finally came out
Family portrait in front of the Blue Mosque