Sunday, February 26, 2012

La Jonction - where the Rivers Rhone and Arve meet

Took a bus trip to today to Bois de la Batie - a park with a large playground and small zoo. We brought some stale bread to feed the ducks, some of which swam under the ice for minutes at a time - we worried that they wouldn't find their way out

We crossed over the River Rhone on a railway bridge.

And here's La Jonction.  We're going to have to come again and go to the little pier sticking out at the end of the peninsula, where you can really get a great view of the waters joining. The bus connections were very convenient - we took bus #2 out, and bus #9 back, no changes needed.


We went to Rome over the kids winter holidays. We were teetering on the edge of not going, since Eric was quite sick over the weekend, in bed for 2 days solid with some kind of virus. I got it too, though not as bad, and then Peter got some kind of stomach upset with vomiting and diarrhea. We probably would have stayed at home, but the drainage in our bathroom was being fixed (a major project involving the ripping out of part of the floor), and we wouldn't have had a shower for days, so that tipped the scales in favor of going.

I was VERY nervous on the trip, just in case he vomited or had diarrhea. He actually did vomit, but in the airport and it was easily cleaned up. Poor guy. He got better as we stayed in Rome (we were there 4 nights) but still wanted to be carried most of the time. Sometimes it felt like my arms were about to fall off!

One unusual thing in Rome was that there were no passport checks when coming into the country. Nothing whatsoever, we could have been there completely illegally. We paid 40 euros for a taxi into the center, which is apparently a fixed price, and were at our hotel (Residenzia Frattina) within half an hour. The hotel is quite small and very centrally located. The kids were very excited by the idea of having a breakfast buffet, because they remembered the one at the Novotel in Paris, but this buffet was much smaller.

Italians are famously kid-friendly, and we experienced that as well. They smile more at kids, and ask them questions. At one point I was walking with Peter down a narrow street that cars were zipping through on, holding hands with him, with him on the traffic side. A car stopped, with an older couple, and the driver leaned over and said something like, "bambino sempre parte del muro". I pretty much understood it (children should be on the side of the wall), because I understand Spanish, and it's fairly similar. And the guy was right - I should have been holding Peter's other hand, and walked next to the cars myself.

The Italian food we had was definitely not outstanding. My expectations were a little too high, I think, because I'd just listened to a coworker of mine rave about how fantastic the food in Italy was. But I should have remembered that this particular coworker raves about everything. We tried a few restaurants, but got nothing that stood out as exceptional. One that we went to was called the Life restaurant. The owner or manager was standing outside, coaxing us to come in with excellent English. It all sounded great on the menu, but the actual food was really bland. Plus, there was a "service charge" for the table, which is apparently somewhat of a rip-off. And the bottle of water that we bought was definitely just tap water that we paid 3 Euros for. I later looked up the place on TripAdvisor, and found lots of positive reviews that were almost certainly posted by the owners. Too many mentions of their "stupendous lobster tasting menu". Note to self - the negative reviews are usually more accurate. Also, in very touristy areas, people that accost you and speak English really well are usually scammers.

On the plus side - we REALLY enjoyed the ice creams. We got them every day, because it was pretty warm in the sun (and thank goodness it was sunny every day except our last!). They were too big for Peter, so once he'd enjoyed it a while, and it was getting messy, I would say, "Okay, 5 more licks, and then make it disappear when he'd finished his 5 licks.

On Friday we got a relatively early start and walked to the Coliseum. I should have had us skip it, because I figured as famous as it was, there would be massive crowds even though this is the off season. And yes, there were massive crowds. But it was much worse because of the fact that more than half of the area that's normally open was closed off - supposedly because of aftereffects of the snowfall from a few days ago. Unless there was structural damage, I don't understand why it was closed. In hindsight, if I were to do it again, I'd completely skip the Coliseum - or maybe just do a quick run through - definitely NOT do the guided tour, which was massive and overcrowded.

Instead, I'd spend my time at the Roman Forum, which was much more interesting, less crowded, and had more places to explore. There were vendors - I believe they were Bengali - all over the place, with a serious lack of imagination in terms of what they sold. There were souvenir scarves, sunglasses, and little crystal squares with laser-etched souvenir scenes inside, and camera tripods. And that's it, thought there were dozens of vendors. I imagine they're provided with a bunch of goods that can be sold at a really high margin. They avoided the police, and had all their things set up in such a way that they could run away at a moments notice, which they did, frequently, when the police gave halfhearted chase to them.
Peter at the Coliseum
It was a tiring day for the kids - poor Peter, in particular, was asking for hours when were were going to get ice cream and go home. I carried him quite a bit. We finally decided to go back home, and stopped for ice creams. At the first place we looked, a simple cone was 12 euro each! The normal prices is 2 euro. Definitely pays to look around.

At home the kids relaxed and watched some Italian comics on TV. It's amazing how absorbed they can be in TV, considering they don't speak Italian. Then, after some stomach upset issues and related clean-up with Peter, we went out to dinner at a restaurant near-by (better, but still wouldn't go back) and then hung out at the Spanish Steps a bit. In the evening, the vendors were trying to sell laser penlights, and light-stick rubber band powered helicopters. At the top of the Spanish Steps was a church that was having a service in French. There were four female figures all covered in a white cloak in hood - perhaps it was noviates taking the vows to become nuns?

We did most of the famous touristy things.  We went to the Spanish Steps multiple times (it was within a few minutes walk from our hotel), because Kenny wanted to see the action.  He bargained with a vendor there for one of the squishy balls they were selling (got him to 1 Euro from 2 Euros.

Also we went to the Piazza Navona.  Kenny actually got separated from us there.  He was with Eric, and wanted to run to where Peter and I were sitting, but somehow thought that we were on the other side of the square.  Ironically I had walked around the square with Kenny a few minutes earlier, and we had settled that if he got lost, he would go to the central fountain, which has a big column and is very visible.  But he got a little teary-eyed, and concerned bystanders had him stay with them instead of letting him go to the fountain.

This old fountain can be used as a drinking fountain too

On our last day there, Sunday, we went to St Peter's Square.  We should have timed things differently, because there was a mass being held (which was broadcast outside in the square), so the church was actually closed until 1:00 in the afternoon.  So, we just wandered round the square and absorbed the atmosphere.  There were more nuns and priests than I've seen in my life.  Plenty of younger priests, too, they weren't all old.  I thought there were very few men becoming priests now?  Also, for some reason there were lots of American priests, judging by accents.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

More sickness

It turns out that I did get the nasty virus that Eric had.  Lots of coughing and just feeling cruddy.

Poor kids, they've been cooped up in the house for days now because both Eric and I haven't felt well enough to take them out to the park or something, and they don't have school this week.  The only plus (?) is that they've been watching lots of French cartoons.  Now, when I ask Kenny what he understands, he's been saying, "A good amount".  That's up from the "nothing" that I heard a few months ago.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Cold and sick

What a cruddy weekend.  It's as cold as ever, and very windy so we really feel the wind chill whenever we head out.  Which wasn't very much this weekend.  Eric is in bed now with a nasty virus of some sort, and has been in bed all weekend, eating nothing and just drinking some orange juice occasionally.  I got out yesterday with the kids, to the Ikea store, looking at some rugs that we might buy to make our apartment a little more homey.  Right now it has a very barren feel to it.  Kenny really enjoyed getting an ice cream from the ice cream machine there in Ikea - you pay 2 francs and get a little token that you can use in an automated ice cream machine.  Peter and I got the 1 franc hot dogs.  It seems like a fairly normal price, but it's amazingly cheap for Geneva.

Today (Sunday) we just got out a little bit in the afternoon to the park next door - Parc La Grange.  I wish we'd known sooner that there's a nice little sledding hill there - not steep at all, but so many people use it that it's extremely slick.  So slick that within seconds of setting foot on it I slipped on my hip, hard.  But you can also go pretty fast down a very gentle hill.

The kids enjoyed it, though.  Unfortunately I think I'm coming down with the same thing Eric has, and going sledding definitely didn't help.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Grocery shopping in Switzerland

The day after we arrived in Geneva, we went grocery shopping.  It just felt strange - on top of the massive jet lag, to find very few of the things that I was used to seeing at grocery stores in the US. It seems wimpy to say you have culture shock in a wealthy, modern country like Switzerland, but I think there was definitely some of that.

I no longer feel strange in the grocery store, I'm used to the experience now, but here's the things that bug me:
  • Grocery stores close at around 7 pm, and are closed on Sundays!  This is really inconvenient - you can't just shop whenever you want.  Plus, on Saturdays it's really crowded since most working people  do their shopping then.
  • Expensive!  It's amazing how expensive things are here.  Meat, for instance - probably 3 times the cost of meat in the US.  
  • No cream of mushroom soup, cream of celery - no cream of anything soup.  
  • You need to weigh your groceries yourself.  There's a little self-service counter in the produce aisle where you put your bags, punch in the numeric code for whatever you got, and then it prints out a sticker for your bag.  We learned this the hard way after going to the counter with all our fruits and vegetables, and then needing to abandon them after it turned out we'd forgotten to weigh them.
Here's a few things I like here:
  • Amazing flavors of yogurt.  They have all the standard flavors, but also, I just bought hazelnut (okay, but probably won't buy it again), and plan on trying rhubarb flavor, coconut flavor, and granola flavor next.
  • Persimmons are very popular here!  And they actually go on sale at a reasonable price, or at least they did in fall.  They usually come from Italy, and taste great.
  • Shelf stable packaged lunches.  These look a lot like frozen lunches in the US, but instead of needing to be frozen, they're shelf-stable, and can just stay in your file cabinet at work.  Very convenient.  I've tried a few, and found one that I really like, rice with a piece of chicken on the bone.  I've only ever seen boneless in the US. I tried another variety - rabbit - which I'm definitely NOT going to get again.
  • Tuna salad lunch cans.  This is like a very large can of tuna, but with all kinds of veggies and dressing.  Quite good for lunch at work,with a few crackers.
  • UHT milk - ultra high temperature pasteurized milk that lasts for months without refrigeration.  I really like this, no need to clog up our small fridge with tons of milk when you can put it in the pantry.  They also have UHT cream.
And here's some things that are just different
  • Eggs sitting on regular aisles, not refrigerated.  I guess eggs last quite well without being refrigerated
  • Whole skinned rabbits in the grocery store.  With heads and legs and everything, and eyeballs staring at you.  
When we've needed to really stock up, we've done short term car rentals and gone to France.  France is a little more reasonably priced, but still not close to the US in prices.  We've tried the E.LeClerc, Carrefour, Migros, and Casino.  No particular loyalty to any supermarket yet, although since Casino is open on Sunday, that might be someplace we go to more often.  

A few weeks ago we rented a car Sunday specifically to shop at the Carrefour nearby in Annemasse.  According to their website it's open Sunday morning.  We put the address in our GPS and drove there, eagerly anticipating checking out a new grocery store.  Well, no dice.  Though their website said they were open Sunday morning, they were actually closed.  I was pissed!  On the plus side, I remembered that I'd seen a larger grocery store on the way, Casino, that looked open, and we checked them out on the way home.  They were indeed open, and are much closer than the Carrefour anyway, so we'll probably go back there often.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


We're in the middle of a major cold snap here, the likes of which haven't been seen in decades.  Even Rome has snow - something that hasn't been seen for 27 years!  There's snow on the ground from a few days ago, but it's gotten colder since then - the temperature right now (9 PM) is at -11 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit).  Damn cold!

I had planned to do a train trip somewhere this weekend—Nyon or Lausanne—but with the weather like this it makes no sense.  So we're staying pretty close to home.  But we're not just staying in and hibernating, we're getting out and about, just planning our trips very carefully to avoid waiting too long for buses and trams, and avoid walking too far outside.

We went to the local ludotheque (toy library/community play space) this morning, just a few blocks away.  It has limited open hours, but is very nice place to go with kids to hang out, get out of the house, and you can even rent toys.  Eric has gone there with the kids a lot, but it was the first time for me.

Saturday afternoon we went to the mall Balexert which has a huge Migros.  Migros is a grocery chain here that comes in three sizes - small neighborhood store, larger store, and megastore.  The megastores seem to be the closest you can come to a Target here.  We needed to buy a present for a birthday party that Peter has been invited to, his first here.

We have no control over the heat at our apartment, except to turn it off, but the management has turned it on full-blast.  It used to be that you could put your hand on the radiator and warm your hands nicely.  Now the radiators are burning hot and you can't touch them for more than a second or so.  It's still colder inside, and condensation is forming on our single pane windows - condensation that freezes.  We put the outside blinds down to hopefully keep a little more of the heat inside.  And I'm using an extra blanket at night.  But I feel fortunate that we're quite warm and cozy - I was just reading an article on what it's like in Afghan refugee camps.  That would be misery.

Sunday morning we took a trip to the jetty next to baby beach (baby plage) which is very close to our apartment.  We bundled up with everything warm that we own and headed out there.  Overall we stayed fairly warm, but I got cold in weird places - shoulders, elbows - I guess where my parka wasn't well insulated.  With the high winds and super cold temperatures, everything on the windward side was covered with a thick coating of ice - sometimes up to a foot thick!

I'm glad we weren't out here when this ice was forming!

The kids enjoyed throwing chunks of ice onto the parts of the lake that were frozen 

A rescue effort for a swan