Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back in Bellevue, Washington - we're no longer expats!

We can no longer call ourselves expats anymore - we're back in Bellevue again.

It's great to see all our old friends again, and plug right back into our former social life.  I do miss Geneva and our friends there a lot, though.

We're back in our old house - it feels so huge!  It's 3200 sq ft, so large, but not incredibly huge by American standards.  Our our apartment in Geneva was about a third of the size, though.  It feels like acres of rooms,  vast swaths of counter space...sheesh, and the cabinets...what did I ever put in there?  The kids can play downstairs, and I can literally not even hear them.  But I never really felt cramped in our Geneva apartment. I've always liked smaller spaces, and to me it seemed that there was plenty of room.  Also storage was set up more intelligently in Geneva - there weren't these huge cavernous closets like we have here, there was more easily accessible shallow storage.

Some of the differences between Geneva and here that struck me the most are:

  • Nobody's walking on the sidewalks!  And that's where sidewalks even exist.  One of the most traveled roads close to my neighborhood, Newport Way, has a library and a community center on it, but no sidewalk at all.  You're forced to drive, or take your chances on a really busy narrow road.
  • Back in Geneva I drove maybe 5 or 6 times total once we bought a car - it was just rarely necessary, and usually I let Eric drive.  Here I've already driven at least 20 times, and have just slid right back into the driving lifestyle.  There's really no alternative, not in the neighborhood that we're in.
  • Customer service is incredible here.  You go to a store - not even a high-end store, a regular store like Target or Walmart - and clerks are usually helpful, friendly, and even chatty.  Very different from in Geneva.
  • Finally, no more sticker shock.  Prices at stores are reasonable.  We just went to a mega grocery store (Winco) to stock up on groceries since we have nothing, and came away with a car full for about $300.  It would have cost at least $1000 in Geneva.  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Finishing up in Geneva

All good things must come to an end, and thus it is with our time here in Geneva.  We're headed back to Bellevue in late August, and the kids will start school there the next week.

I've experienced so much here, met so many great people, and seen so many amazing sights.  It's been a life goal of mine to live overseas for a while, so that has been checked off my bucket list.  But it has certainly left me with a greatly expanded appetite for the novelty and freshness of living overseas!

The minutiae of moving has been occupying my days recently.  Selling the car, getting the attestation de depart (an official document stating that you're leaving the country, without which you can't cancel any contracts), arranging movers, selling the things we won't be bringing back - all takes a lot of time.  I've been having to make a lot of phone calls in my broken French.  I have a decent accent in French, so people assume I speak pretty well, but my vocabulary is quite scanty, so basic things sometimes stump me.  Then I'm there on the phone, trying to fire up Google translate and hit speakerphone at the same time - stressful! But so far everything is going okay.

Not having a routine (no work, kids not in school) is definitely something that sounds better than it actually is, for me anyway. I find I got a lot more done in the little bits and pieces of time I had outside of work than I am now.  But as soon as I find a job back in the US, maybe I'll be longing for the free time I have now!

What will I miss most when we're back in the US?'s a long list.  I think how I can walk to everything, and living right next to a big park and very close to the lake are close to the top.  I've been swimming with the kids at Baby Beach almost every day now for the past few weeks, and it's been awesome. I'm able to go out with my goggles into the deeper water - it gets quite clear out there too, I can see all the seaweed and yesterday saw a bunch of perch too.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blind people in Genvea

Assuming there's about the same amount of blind people in Geneva as there are in Seattle/Bellevue, I think they're a lot better off here in Geneva.  Why?  Simply because I see them out and about, tapping away with their white canes, going places and doing their business.

I see them taking the bus frequently, there was one at the train station the other day when I went to Bern, using her cane and a guide dog and taking a train, independently, for crying out loud.  I just can't imagine that happening in the US.  In any case, I haven't seen it, maybe it happens in other cities.

I saw another blind guy, with his two children at the playground, supervising them, and accompanying one of them to the bathroom.  Impressive.

Monday, July 1, 2013

School's out for the summer!

Last week was the kids last week of school this year - and their last week of school in Geneva, since we're headed back to the US in fall.  There's lots of "lasts" now!  I think the actual school work ended more than a week before school ended, because the last week of school here is spent in a frenzy of room cleaning. Apparently absolutely everything in the school room needs to be emptied out, and the students are pressed into service for the cleaning.  Mine didn't mind at all.  Here's a Facebook comment from an expat friend who had a child in Geneva public schools:

"Mommy, guess what I got to do in school today?
"what, sweetie?"
"All morning we got to clean the classroom! then we went to recess, then we got to clean the classroom some more, then after lunch we still got to clean the classroom!"

So, overall, how was school for the kids?  I have to differentiate quite a bit between Peter's situation and Kenny's.  Peter's teacher did have a few peculiarities.  She sometimes was overly directive with the parents, and was really strict on certain paperwork issues, like giving 10 days notice when the kids were going to be absent from school.  But aside from things like that, I liked her.  The kids liked her, she communicated regularly with the parents, she arranged lots of outings, and she set up a potluck dinner for the families.

Kenny's teachers, on the other hand, were a total mixed bag.  My biggest problem was the whole plural "teachers".  At the beginning of the year he was split between two teachers - each of them a mother with young kids, who was teaching only 2 days a week.  Then one of these teachers went on maternity leave, and another teacher stepped in.  It was a real mess, I never knew who to communicate with, and basically the whole split teacher situation was awful.  I never got any kind of notes from any of his teachers, and a lot of tasks - like creating a class contact list - slipped through the cracks.

Both kids really liked school, though.  Peter was a favorite with everyone, and numerous other parents told me how sad their kids were that Peter was leaving.  Kenny, being older, had a harder time adjusting.  Also at this age lots of the kids have known each other for a long time, and already have all their friends.  But he did make friends, and has come away with happy memories.  He had a sewing project that went on, every other week, for the whole year, and has now come home with a huge stuffed caterpillar as tall as he is, which he's very proud of.

Last Friday there were 2 "fêtes des écoles" - school leaving festival.  One was for 1P to 4P (Peter is in 2P). The little kids paraded with their teachers to the Parc de Bastion, where they had all kinds of rides and entertainment set up.  No parents were allowed to be there until it was time to pick up the kids, at 5:30, and it was incredibly crowded - young school kids from all of Geneva were there.  But Peter said he'd only been on 2 rides - I think with the number of children there, logistics must be a real mess.

Peter and his teacher
Kenny's fête des écoles was much more satisfactory - it was in the park right next door to us, and was basically an open air festival, with a band, some bouncy houses designed for older kids, climbing walls, etc. He enjoyed running around with his friends for about 4 hours - from 7 until 11 PM.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Swiss parents are more hands-off in playgrounds

Yesterday Peter and I went to a new playground at Parc Beaulieu while Kenny was attending a classmate's birthday party.  There was a really exciting piece of playground equipment there that the kids - older ones, too - were lining up to use.  It's kind of like a maypole, with four chains attached at the revolving top.  Kids need to cooperate, but when they get going, they can swing around in a a circle quite nicely, kind of like an amusement park ride.  

There was an American mom there with two kids, both around 10, and I watched as she coached her kids on how to use this piece of equipment.  I guess I'm more used to the Swiss way of doing things now (much more free-range), because it really shocked me how very managerial she was with her kids.  There was no question at all of letting her kids learn how to do this on their own.  She was there the whole time, unraveling the chains, coaching them on where to run, giving one of them a time-out when the other got bonked on the head by an errant flying handle, even though the first had nothing to do with it.  

Previously some other older kids had been doing a great job of helping the younger kids enjoy the ride.  But with this mom around, they just faded away.

Do kid's activities really need to be micromanaged like this?  I don't think so.  And I think we're doing our children a real disservice in not letting them be more responsible for themselves.

Also, while we were there 2 boys, one about 4 and another about 6, asked Peter if they could kick around his soccer ball with him.  The 6 year old chatted with me a bit, asking how Peter had learned to play soccer, etc.  In the US, these kids would be warned away from ever talking to an adult, because of "stranger danger".  

Friday, June 14, 2013

On my own in Amsterdam

We've been on a lot of family trips recently, but I also wanted to do a trip all by myself.  What with cheap fares on Easyjet to Amsterdam, and my 50% work schedule, it wasn't hard to arrange.  I packed super light, so that I wouldn't have to go to my hostel (yes, I stayed at a youth hostel, more on that later) to drop off my things before going sightseeing.  I basically carried everything with me all the time.  It turned out to not be a problem at all - I have a thing for ultralight travel and lightening my load was a fun exercise.

On Monday, I arrived around 9 AM after cutting it WAY too close with the flight (I missed one of my buses, and then the security line was very long).  I went straight to the Rijksmuseum, the biggest and most popular one in Amsterdam, and then just strolled around town.  I went through the red light district, but there wasn't much going on - it was only about 5 in the afternoon.  I thought there was nothing going on, just a bunch of windows with curtains on them and red lights over them, but I was wrong - I did see one lady in a window.

In the evening I attended a Quantified Self meetup.  It was interesting - all the talks, etc, were in English, although with a few exceptions all the people attending were Dutch.  Also it was less...rigorous, less scientific than I thought it would be.  I would have liked to stay longer except that I was really tired from getting up so early to catch my flight, so I bailed early, and went to the youth hostel.  The youth hostel was totally fine, except that I was sharing a room with 5 other ladies.  One of these ladies must have been passed out or something, because her phone alarm went off at 6 in the morning.  She didn't even wake up.  Another woman tried to turn it off, but just hit the snooze button.  This happened 2 more times at 10 minute intervals.  Finally I asked the woman that was hitting the snooze button to hand it to me, was able to turn it off completely, and got a few hours more rest.  A good thing, too, because I was about to toss it out the window.

I ended up chatting Tuesday morning with 2 American women who were studying violin in Manchester (apparently it's cheaper there, though they still quoted costs of somewhere around 20K USD a year, just for tuition - seems very high!).

Then I took a tram straight to a bike rental place close to the train station.  I soon had my 1 speed, back-pedal for brakes bike, and took the ferry north of Amsterdam.  It was a gorgeous day.

The bike was fairly comfortable - the seat was actually more comfortable than mine - but after using it, I now appreciate bikes with gears and hand brakes much more.

Here's a few pictures from my ride

Very flat, but the wind can make it difficult 

In the town of Holysloot
After my bike ride, I had coffee and cake in the restaurant on the top floor of the Amsterdam library.  It has a really nice balcony with a great view of Amsterdam.  Very pleasant to sit there after a long bike ride!

My flight back to Geneva was late in the evening, around 9, so I got to the airport with plenty of time.  There wasn't a soul at the security line - great, I think to myself.  Not really - they exercised all their equipment on me, including the full body scan device, and then totally picked apart my tiny backpack.

Overall  a great trip, especially the bike ride.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I get to bike to work!

My commute starts with getting my bike out of the "bike garage" in the ground floor of my apartment building, folding up my right pant leg to avoid the bike chain, and pedaling down to Lake Geneva.  I bike along the lake, passing a lot of famous sights - the Jet d'Eau, the English Gardens, the Bain de Paquis.  On a sunny day (which have been scarce recently, unfortunately), it's a glorious ride, most of it off the road or on bike paths.  There's lots of pedestrians, but it's actually kind of fun to avoid them - it's like playing a "dodge 'em" type video game.

On the way to work - looking north on Lake Geneva

I'm on an old clunky bike, so lots of people pass me - even ladies with skirts and high heels, sometimes.  (Yes, some women here bike to work in skirts and high heels - and I've seen plenty of men in suits, as well.)  Maybe I shouldn't blame the bike - maybe it's me that needs to get in better shape?
On the way home - Jet d'Eau and Mount Saleve are visible
There's substantial amounts of other bike commuters sharing the path with me.  And almost nobody wears a helmet while biking.  A few more than in Amsterdam, perhaps, where from what I saw, literally no adults wore bike helmets (and yet, they have by far the highest percentage of people biking to work and school).  

We had a few days of rain last week, and I got absolutely drenched on my way home.  I didn't mind so much my jeans getting soaked, though maybe I would have if my bike ride had been longer (it's about max 20 minutes).  But my hands did get very cold.  So until the weather gets a little better, I'll be bringing my rain pants and gloves with me.  Even in the rain, it's an enjoyable bike ride, except that the fun of dodging pedestrians is gone because they stay inside.  Another bonus - I don't need to work out anymore, except a bit of strength training here and there.  I figure with 40 minutes of biking on the days that I work, I'm good.  

My route to work now is pretty settled, but for the first few weeks, I constantly tweaked the route to try to make it shorter, safer, and find the shortest waits are at intersections.  Here's the route via Google Maps.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

More random notes - German vs. French Switzerland, tourists in Lucerne, tops at the grocery store

Some more random notes:

- We just spent the weekend in Lucerne, in the German speaking part of Switzerland.  It's a really noticeable, the difference between German speaking and French speaking Switzerland.  I specifically noticed this in the area of women's shoes, which I was looking at because I wanted to buy some. In the German speaking part of Switzerland, women wear much more comfortable shoes when out and about.  Another thing - the setup for bike lanes and pedestrians is much more advanced in the German speaking part of Switzerland (though any part of Switzerland is far better than the US in this regard).

- Lucerne is packed with tourists.  The two biggest easily identifiable groups are the Indians and the Chinese. However, the Indians seem to always travel with their family, while the Chinese travel with tour groups.  I assume much of that has to do with the fact that the Indians speak English very well, whereas the Chinese don't.

- A Chinese couple in Lucerne wanted for whatever reason to get photo of them with my kids.  I didn't understand at first - I thought they were offering to take a picture of me with the kids.  But no, they wanted a picture of themselves with the kids!  Strange.  I took a picture too.  Also strange was the fact that they were grinning like mad when talking to me, but when it came time to take the picture, they got all serious.

- Peter was talking to me, and forgot another English word - this time a pretty darned important one, "boy".

    Peter: "What's that word, for what I am?"
    Me: "You mean, a boy?"
    Peter: "Yes, that's it, I forgot!"

- The grocery store Migros has new marketing campaign.  For each 20 CHF worth of goods that you buy, you get a top similar to this, which elementary age kids are absolutely wild about collecting.
For the day-to-day things that we need, we go to the other big grocery store chain, the Coop, so we don't get the tops.  But when we were in Lucerne, there was a Migros grocery store at the train station, which was open American style hours (i.e. not closed on Sundays and holidays).  We arranged our sightseeing around visiting this grocery store.  A couple times a day, the kids would go in, buy two small cartons of chocolate milk, and the generous cashier would give them 2 tops each.  We did that a few times, and came home with quite an accumulation.  I asked for one today at the Migros, but without the kids, and my cashier refused, saying it had to be above 20 CHF.  But the cashier next to her just handed me one!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Kids and Travel

We have 2 boys, ages 5 and 9.  Do they like to travel?  Well...hmm. Not nearly as much as I do. And I have occasionally heard the complaint, "I want to stay here this weekend!".  I don't know when kids develop a desire to see "sights", but it certainly isn't yet.  No, travel with kids this age involves a lot of compromises, and a lot of slowing down.  Here's some of the things that make it work better for us:

  • Screen time.  Normally, at home, screen time is pretty limited.  But on trips, when we're in the car, or flying, it's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of games and movies.  The old iPad is pressed into service, as well as the Nexus that was supposed to be mine, and occasionally, my phone.  
  • Breaks!   Lots of them, and frequent.  Take a little break, open the snack bag, sit down for a while.  Basically, do things at the kid's pace.  
  • Candy.  What more can I say?  I have a little container that I fill with Skittles, which I call "walking pills".  When Peter gets tired of walking, a walking pill will pep him up considerably.  Then negotiating when he gets the next walking pill can consume the time until the next real break.  
  • There's things my boys can spend hours doing. For instance, throwing rocks into a lake.  Go ahead, spend an hour or two doing just that.  The museums can wait.
  • Bring toys.  Whenever we go on a longer trip, I have the boys both bring a small mesh bag with little toys, like little Lego characters, etc.  They can spend a remarkable amount of time playing with them.  
  • Books.  I bring Kenny's Kindle along, and also load some children's books onto my Kindle, to read aloud to Peter.
  • Games that can be played while walking.  For instance, "I'm going on a camping trip and I'm going to bring a ... ".  Each person then adds one item, and has to remember the previous person's item.  It gets tricky!  Form teams as appropriate for the younger kids.  Another favorite was going through the alphabet, trying to think of an animal name that starts with each letter.  And the perennial favorite, 20 questions, made a easier for little kids by choosing a category (like fruits, or animals).

Things that are important to me, are not important to them, and vice versa.  For instance, Peter saw an old bent earring on the sidewalk.  At first I told him not to pick up that old dirty thing, but then I reconsidered, and he happily played with it, washed it at the next fountain we saw, etc.

It's interesting to note the kind of things that kids remember.  For instance, there was a particular cafe we went to in Lyon, at the Basilica of Notre-Dame.  When we went there the second time, he remembered that the first time we were there, he had his favorite "Twisty" popsicle for the very first time.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Starting job at the UN

In the spirit of, "when one door closes, another door opens", last week was my first week of work at the UN, working for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).  The UN has such an aura about it - perhaps a bit tarnished sometimes, but still - that I'm excited to be working there, at the "Palais des Nations".  There's so much history here, so many dreams and plans for peace, so many delegates and diplomats in the hallways. Geneva is a very multi-cultural, international place, but the Palace of Nations in Geneva is the very epitome of international.

A few first impressions:

The offices are enormous!  I'm in the E building (the "new" building, though it was built in the 1970's).    Here it is.

I share an office with one officemate, and it's literally about 30 feet long.  Other offices in our group are also extremely spacious.  You can't even really chat with someone while leaning on the doorway, because their desk is usually so far away from the door.  At Expedia, we just had rows of desks, facing one another.  I would conservatively estimate that Expedia packed at least 5 or 10 times as many people to the square foot.  That's more efficient and much cheaper, of course, but it is kind of cool to have massive offices like these.

My office
On the ground floor of the E Building is a large cafe/lunch area.  It looks like it could be from a 1970's James Bond film - it has scores of low-slung leather chairs, looking out over the lake.  Very pleasant place to hang out.

My desk is a massive sturdy old thing that looks like it's from the 1970s, same as the building.  Very solidly built.

There's a curious lack of any kind of common or public space in the office building.  I walked around the other day for a bit of a break, and in my walk along the entire lake side of the building, there were nothing but offices with closed doors.  You have to go down to the first floor cafe (pictured above) for a common area.  I'm used to smaller offices (desks, really) but pleasant and plentiful common areas.

The view is great - the building is set in a big grassy park, with views of the lake and mountains.  My boss has a great view of Mt Blanc.

The grounds are beautiful, especially on a sunny day.  The whole area has a wonderful view of Lac Leman, the huge old trees - it's just gorgeous.

The Palais des Nations is a very impressive old building, with extremely high ceilings.

There are 2 massively long corridors going from my building to the Palais des Nations.  One is on the 3rd floor, and one is on the ground floor, which on that side of the building is underground.

Third floor corridor
The UN cafeteria is a great deal, with great food at prices that, for Geneva, are reasonable.  That's probably why it can get very crowded - also with the constant conferences and meetings, things get very busy.  They have great fancy desserts as well.

There's peacocks everywhere!  Apparently the original owner of the property that gave it to the League of Nations made as a condition of the bequest that the peacocks were to be there perpetually.  The first day that I biked in, I saw two, a male and female, just on the loading dock area where I lock my bike.

The people are such an incredible mix.  I don't think I've met 2 people from the same country yet in my office.  Let's see...Greece, Italy, Serbia, Hungary, India, Great Britain...nope, so far everyone I've met has been from a different country.

Looking up towards the Palais des Nations

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rainy Barcelona...

Unfortunately the weather on our trip to Barcelona was really poor - 1 day of clouds, and 2 days of almost solid heavy rain, which is apparently really unusual for that area.

I booked an apartment, which was huge and very clean, but didn't have anyone on-site, so nobody to ask questions of, nobody to store our luggage with.   The first morning I bought cereal and milk for breakfast at a little grocery just a few steps away.  The owner had the shop open at 8 AM, then I saw the same guy at around 8:30 that same evening.  That's gotta be rough.

Overall, I really liked Barcelona, even though the weather was crap.  I could see spending much more time there than just a long weekend.  It's very lively and energetic, people seem very cosmopolitan (especially compared to Madrid), and there are lots of interesting shops.  We spend most of Friday strolling around the old town (the Gothic Quarter), luckily that was the one day there was no rain.  The pedestrian area is huge, you could get pleasantly lost there.  Our first stop was on Las Ramblas, a big pedestrian walkway in the old town.  I had read so many warnings of pickpockets that we were very alert and had our money stashed carefully, but we had no problems.  I did see one teenage girl who looked like a gypsy, who was doing some kind of scam, but nobody targeted us. The best part of Las Ramblas was the market, where they had all kinds of great fruits.

We had a disappointing  experience at El Corte Ingles, trying to buy new sneakers for Kenny since his old ones (bought in Madrid) were falling apart. We went to three separate El Corte Ingles department stores, just a few hundred meters from each other, and in each one they pointed to another one, and didn't seem to know what was sold where.  At first it was a problem because I asked for shoes (zapatos), but the term for sneakers is different (deportivos), and they're sold in different stores.  Finally at the last one they did have sneakers, but instead of having all the sneakers together, they had each brand in a different location, i.e. Adidas on one floor, Puma on another.  It was a real hassle.

Walking around the old town
Getting around on the Metro was very convenient and fast, really cheap at 1 euro, and easy to figure out. Plus, the metro stop was only just a few steps outside our apartment.

We asked around Friday to find a "typical" restaurant.  Aa guy at the tourist office recommended the 4 Gatos, which we sat down in, looked at the menu, and after debating for a while, awkwardly took our leave - it was very expensive and there was little choice.  We ended up eating just a few doors down for much cheaper.  The best part of my meal was the beans - white beans with olive oil and a parsley sauce, very tasty.  The artichoke was fine too, though I think grilling is not a good choice for artichoke.  Other than that, we ate mostly in McDonalds or kebab places, and one Turkish place).  

Saturday and Sunday it rained heavily.  Saturday we went to the Sagrada Familia (long line, Eric liked it but I could have skipped it).  Then in the afternoon we went to the CosmoCaixa Museum of Science - outstanding place to visit, and cheap!  Only 3 Euros for adults.

The displays were awesome, interesting, and most everything worked.  We met an American family in the cafe who had been living in Barcelona four years, and were headed to San Diego in a few months.

A robotic drawing arm at the science museum
The worst part of the trip was the taxi to get to the airport.  The guy took us in the OPPOSITE direction !  After it seemed like the drive was taking too long, Eric checked on the GPS on his phone, and showed it to me, and I asked the taxi driver why were were going this way.  He said, "There's a marathon today", and then got straight on the highway headed to the airport.  I didn't challenge him, but we checked later, and the marathon was in March!  What a scumbag.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Another lovely bike ride in Cologny

The weather was perfect today for a ride, so I took advantage of the sun for a short ride into Cologny.  Cologny is a very expensive, very exclusive area.  I biked around the outskirts, where there are lots of vineyards and horse farms.  The roads leading out of the city were a mess - supposedly solid bike paths disappearing and reappearing like a cheap magician's trick.  But once I got out into the country, it was a delightful little bike ride along quiet roads.

Some moving sculptures (literally, the arms went up and down) at a hospital complex.  The complex  was huge and park-like - felt like a university.
Peaceful little roads
Lunch overlooking the lake and the Jura mountains

The pier at Port de Bellerive

A campground nearby had these cute little cabin.  Inside was just a little  bed, no more.

At the nature center Pointe-à- la-Bise

The view from the bird watching tower - I saw a pair of Great Crested Grebe doing a mating dance!

I didn't actually take this video, but it looks exactly like what I saw from the bird watching tower.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

First bike ride of the season - Genève-Satigny Route 102

This would be a pretty minor accomplishment to one of the legions of people in Geneva who bike long distances every day, frequently with kids on bike trailers or bike seats.  But anyway - I took a nice long (for me) bike ride on my own today.  The inspiration was Genève-Satigny Route 102 ( but I didn't follow it exactly, and also didn't finish.    Also spring is here - that was a big inspiration too!

Starting out around the train station was tough - there's some marked bike lanes, but they're hell to try to follow in the midst of nasty traffic downtown.  Once I got on a separate bike path, though, things were much more pleasant.  I went by:

  • some kind of petroleum refinery
  • a playground next to what looked like public/social housing, where loads of people that you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley were hanging out
  • a pedestrian/bike bridge over the highway
  • finally a playground with a nice view of the Saleve.  

Overall, a really enjoyable ride.

View of Saleve in background

I believe these signs indicated where the gas pipelines were

No one to take a picture, so I took one of my shadow!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

More random notes - street cleaning, language acquisition, and crayons

A few more notes that aren't enough to make a full blog post:

- When walking around in Geneva in the earlier part of the morning, you'll usually see street sweepers.  They have these little street sweeping vehicles, driven by one man and will usually have two helpers who have these really old fashioned looking brooms - like broomsticks from a Harry Potter movie.  They sweep from the sidewalk, and between cars, into the path of the street sweeping vehicle.  The funny thing is, Geneva streets are very dirty compared to other places.  It's mostly dog poop, which is everywhere. AND people will actually sometimes put it in a bag, then drop the bag right on the street - assuming the street sweeper will take care of it.

Street sweepers, view from our kitchen.  Notice the tiny figures in
bright yellow on the sidewalk
- Peter forgot the word "sister" in English.  It came up in a book I was reading to him, and he asked me what it meant!  He's forgotten quite a few English words, but this one shocked me a bit.  I guess, for kids, "easy come, easy go" in terms of languages.  The husband of a friend of mine lived in Denmark for 2 years when he was age 7 to 9, and spoke Danish fluently.  After moving back to Germany with his family, he promptly forgot it, and now can't understand or speak it at all.

- I've thought quite a bit on how to help the kids retain their French language skills.  Other people I've talked to have thought about putting their kids in French immersion school, but that's too much work and expense for me.  And frankly, while it's great to speak another language, I don't want emphasize it to the point of sending them to a special school.  So, the plan is this - I'll buy a bunch of popular kids movies (Lion King, Finding Nemo, etc) that are dubbed into French.  When we're back in the US, that's what they can watch for movie time.  Easy peasy, I hope.

- Crayons, for 6.70 CHF a box - that's currently $7.21 USD.  I was looking for watercolor paints for Peter, and found these at the Migros on Rue de Eaux Vives.  It's really just regular wax crayons, and only 10 of them.  They're in a nice metal box, but still!  In the US, I've bought boxes of 24 crayons on sale for 25 cents a box.  Maximum, you could probably pay $1 for a box.  How the heck do they come up with these prices?)

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walking along Lake Léman...I'm going to miss Geneva!

We've made the decision to head back to the US in late August.  It'll be great to see friends and family again face to face, to have a huge smorgasbord of IT jobs available instead of the slim pickings that there are in Geneva, and to pay reasonable prices for things again, as opposed to the stratospheric prices you encounter here.  But there's a tremendous number of things I'll miss.

I just took a walk to the H & M store to get the kids a few items of clothing. It's about a 20 minute walk along the beautiful Lac Léman.  In just that 20 minute walk, you see so much!  For instance:
  • Two people finishing the hull of a large sailboat in the lakeside boatyard 
  • A cameraman shooting a scene
  • A group of 3 year olds on an outing from their daycare, looking for pinecones, with cute bright orange vests on for visibility  
  • Loads of tourists from all over, taking pictures of the lake, the city, and the Jura mountains
  • The little tourist train that goes around the lake
  • Lots of moms with kids
  • The Jet d'Eau fountain, with lots of swans and ducks around

  • A merry-go-round that just opened up again a few weeks ago (it's closed in the winter)
  • Dozens and dozens of people in outdoor cafes and restaurants, enjoying the warmer weather 
  • Rollerbladers and skateboarders
  • The excursion boat that goes up and down Lac Léman...we still have to try this one

It's such a pleasant, lively place to visit, and we live only about a 5 minute walk away. Yes, it's definitely something I'll miss.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter holiday in northern Italy

There's lots of photos of our trip here - I also put a few of my favorites in this post.

After a bout of stomach flu (norovirus or something like that) that both kids came down with Tuesday, they were over it enough that we thought we were ok to head to northern Italy, starting in Turin.  We stopped by Issognes Castle in the Aosta valley.  It was not really worth it, because you had to be on a guided tour, which was in Italian only, and also photos were not allowed, even though there was some very interesting old grafitti, from the 1600's.   I tried sneaking a photo, but since there were only 6 people on the tour (4 in our family, and a couple), the guide put a stop to it.

We stopped in Verres after our tour of the castle, at a little kebab place.  In a similar little town in the US, you'd find lots of fast food places.  But here, all over Europe, in the same type of little town you'll find a couple kebab/pizza places, usually run by Arabs.  I know the conventional wisdom is "big chains bad" but I would really love the option to have a 100% predictable restaurant experience - i.e. fast food - everywhere we go.  Sometimes I'm just too tired to want to navigate something new.

And there, unfortunately, Kenny had a resurgence of his norovirus (or whatever it was).  Maybe it was the strong smells of the place, who knows - in any case, he vomited after we'd been there a few minutes.  The owner was nice about it, cleaned up, and led Kenny back to his personal bathroom in the back.  It turned out he was half Lebanese, half French, and spoke French quite well, which was handy since I don't speak Italian.  He gave Kenny a glass of sugar water, which he said he always gave his own son when he had stomach problems.

So, we then drove on to Turin (Torino).  Unfortunately, Kenny started vomiting again in the car.  No, it was not a good drive!  Luckily we had a strong plastic bag.  We got to the apartment, got settled in properly, and Kenny rested in bed, then started feeling better.  Even more unfortunately, by that point I was starting to feel a little queasy.  I had been really careful to always wash hands after dealing with the kids, but since the kids had been well a few days by that point, I relaxed a bit with the incessant hand washing, thinking they were over it.  Well, Kenny wasn't, so I came down with the same thing.  The next day (Friday) Eric took the kids to the Egyptian Museum while I dozed at the apartment and ate nothing at all.  We all went out for dinner to a nearby restaurant that was supposed to have typical food from the Piedmont region.  The kids got what looked like regular spaghetti with tomato sauce to me, but they said it tasted weird, and ate very little.  I ate very little because my stomach was still sensitive.  So Eric was really the only one that ate anything.

Around Torino
In the next few days we went to the Cinema Museum, walked around Torino.  Easter Sunday was a truly gorgeous, sunny warm day - yipee!  Based on the forecast, it may be the only one we have here in Italy, so we appreciated it fully.  In the morning we took a walk around the city center, towards the river Po.  Almost all stores were closed, and most restaurants.  Then we took a taxi back to our little apartment, and drove out to Sacra di San Michele.  Now that was a place worth seeing!  Beautiful old ruins, along with a church, and in an amazing setting, high on a prominent outcropping of rock.  Most of the rest of Italy thought so, too - it was absolutely packed, and parking was tough.  We got some great shots of the cathedral with the mountains in the background - lovely. Also lots of shots of a cloud shadow that I thought looked very much like a dragon!  Supposedly the building was the inspiration for Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

At Sacra di San Michele
After 4 days in Torino, we spent another 4 days in Verona, also in an apartment - smaller, but nicer, with breakfast included and great for kids, with a large playground just outside, and huge back lawn. It was about a 30 minute walk along the river to the center - a touch too long, but okay.  Verona is more touristy than Torino (in Torino we barely saw any tourists at all) but very beautiful, full of old buildings, with a huge pedestrian zone - pretty much the entire old town.  Some cool old bridges to visit, lots and lots of crowds, especially on Monday, which was a holiday in Italy.

On Wednesday we took a day trip to Venice.  We were questioning our decision to drive (the train is supposedly convenient as well) after being stuck in a traffic jam on the way there - at least 45 minutes.  When we drove by, it looked like whatever accident had happened was completely cleared up, but there were still people waving flags, off the side of the road but still catching enough people's attention to slow them down.  Venice - again, very beautiful city, really the most beautiful one that we've been in here.  There's very few spots that you wouldn't want to take photos, what with all the canals, bridges, beautiful buildings.  So, we ended up with lots of photos to sort through.

Peter loved feeding the pigeons in Venice
Thursday was a partial rest day (lots of playground time for the kids), then in the afternoon we went to Sirmione, on Lake Garda.  The ruins of a Roman villa there were stunning, very enjoyable to walk through.

We ate lunch on Thursday at a really nice, clean-looking restaurant in Sirmione.  Unfortunately, Eric started to feel the effects of that lunch very early Friday morning - he had a serious case of food poisoning.  He was up a lot of the night.  We were scheduled to head back to Geneva on Friday, too -  4.5 hour drive.  He definitely wasn't in a condition to drive, so I ended up driving back to Geneva.  I was pretty stressed about it, since I haven't driven much in this car at all, and have only driven a total of 4 times in the entire past 18 months.  Plus - I didn't have my driver's license!  But we wanted to get home.  So, I drove back.  Unfortunately I got stopped for speeding in the Mont Blanc tunnel.  The limit is 70, and I was going 83, and they do monitor it very carefully.  Just as I got outside the tunnel, two police officers flagged me over - one French, and one Italian.  My stomach was turning somersaults.  I pretended to look for my drivers license, but eventually just told them the story - usually Eric drives, and the only reason I was driving was because he was sick.  Luckily, they didn't make a fuss about the drivers license (wonder if that would have happened in the US?) but I did still have to pay a 41 Euro fine on the spot.  And I may have gotten yet another ticket, as well - there's one area where you need to slow down quickly from 130 to 70 kilometers per hour.  A light flashed there - I think a speed camera took my picture.  So, it could be a very expensive drive back.  But we sure are glad to be home!

Monday, March 25, 2013


There's a week long school holiday in February here in Geneva.  Apparently most families with kids who can, use it for skiing.  We took advantage of that week to fly to Israel (a direct flight though EasyJet, thank goodness!)

The security going to Israel wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.  We got to the gate way too early, and then about a half hour later, we had to vacate the area while two special security officers did a sweep, and then had everyone go through a procedure whereby they swabbed a little paper over the belt buckle, shoes, and hands, and the paper went into a sensor, which presumably checked for explosive residue.  Once we arrived in Israel we did go through a minor security screening, but it wasn't much more than asking us what the purpose of our visit was, and checking passports and pictures.

The ramparts of the old city of Jerusalem

Our hotel, the Dan Panorama Jerusalem, was huge and had lots of American church tour groups.  I was a little surprised by the atmosphere.  Here we are, in a place that's very exotic for us, and we're surrounded by really friendly church groups from the bible belt!  We were upgraded at no cost from a family room to a suite, which was nice, and gave us plenty of room.

One of the things that I looked forward to every day we stayed there was - the breakfast buffet!  I'm not exaggerating when I say it was the largest and most varied breakfast buffet that we've ever seen.    And not your standard breakfast buffet dishes, either - there were many different types of salad, lots of hummus, a HUGE cheese selection, many different fish dishes, plus the items that you'd expect at a breakfast (cereal, different breads, eggs).  But no bacon, of course, everything was strictly kosher!  No meat at all, as a matter of fact.  I don't understand all the ins and outs of when something is kosher or not, but mixing meat and dairy is not kosher.

Breakfast buffet at the Dan Panorama

One pleasant surprise was that there were lots of water fountains everywhere!  In the airport, in museums, around the Western Wall.  It reminds me of what things were like in the US before this mania for drinking bottled water got hold.

We put up a bunch of pictures from Israel on our picture website,, they cover most of what we did.  So here I'll just jot a few quick notes:

  • I've been carrying a little Swiss army knife everywhere, through airport security, for months.  Nobody ever found it.  At the security for the Western Wall, for the first time ever, it was found.  They let me keep it, though.  
  • There were LOTS of youth groups all over.  At Ein Gedi Nature Preserve there was a huge group of schoolgirls, and also a large Birthright group (the organization that brings young adults with a Jewish heritage to Israel for all expense paid trips) with armed guard.
  • Masada was very impressive, a stunning location, and ruins scattered all about.  We could have spent much more time there, didn't even see Herod's castle.   I wonder what happened to the 2 women and 5 children who survived the mass suicide?  At the food court area at Masada, there was a group of Palestinian kids (were they actually there to visit Masada proper, or because it was the only food in a long stretch) who were not very friendly, we sat at a (very long, plenty of room) table where some of the girls were sitting, they immediately got up and walked away.
  • So many soldiers walking around with machine guns!  They were all over the Old Town of Jerusalem
  • We got stopped at a roadblock on our way to Masada.  A female soldier with a couple male soldiers stopped us (they were stopping everyone) and said, very casually, "What's up?"  Eric didn't really know how to respond, I said, "We're headed to Ein Gedi'.  She said "Have a nice trip", and that was it.
  • I assume it's for military reason, but in Israel Google Maps does not have anywhere close to high resolution photos like they do everywhere else we've been.  You try to zoom in, and it's completely blurry.  Plus, you can't download offline maps for Israel.
  • Eric and Kenny (Peter and I had already gone back to our hotel) had stones thrown at them by some teenagers that they were taking pictures of as said teenagers moved what were probably stolen goods through the city walls.  Eric created put some pictures up:  Luckily they weren't hit, but it was scary.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The "walkability" score - off the charts here in Geneva

This is something I'm really, really going to miss when we head back to the States.  Walking everywhere!  I love not needing to get in the car, even though we do have one now, for every little thing like we had to our old neighborhood in the Bellevue.  Here's an incomplete list of some of the things within easy walking distance:

  • Kid's school (3 minutes)
  • Little convenience store where the kids can buy candies from a bin (1 minute)
  • Huge beautiful park with playground, wading pool, etc (2 minutes)
  • Loads of restaurants and cafes (1 minute)
  • My work (6 minutes)
  • Small grocery store (2 minutes)
  • Larger grocery store (12 minutes)
  • Huge free natural history museum (12 minutes)
  • Ski rental place (10 minutes)
  • Library (OK, not nearly as good as in our old neighborhood, but still - 2 minutes)
  • Beach park with playground and swimming area (5 minutes)
  • Lake Geneva (5 minutes)
  • Shoe store (6 minutes)
  • Laser tag place where we had Kenny's birthday party (7 minutes)
  • North Korean Consulate (just had to throw that in there!  it's very close - 5 minutes)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

London for New Years

The contrast between Marrakech and London is huge, of course.   Marrakech is challenging and fascinating, but not an easy place to travel.  London is a world city, full of anything and everything you want or need, but I don't feel the need to write things up for posterity, because it's all quite well known and I wouldn't be writing up anything new.  

So, just a few quick notes.   We went to the HMS Belfast our first day in London, which was great though Eric and I got separated (each with one kid) and without working phones, it was hard to find one another again.  The next two days, Peter had diarrhea, so badly that I stayed at the hotel with him to get over it, and actually bought diapers when we ran out of clean underwear and the hand washed ones were wet.  I wondered where the diarrhea came from?  He had diarrhea in Marrakech, but that had been gone for 2 days by the time he got it again.  Was it a relapse of the Marrakech diarrhea, brought on by eating too much in London?  Or was it a new strain?  I was very grateful to be in a nice comfortable hotel room in London (with central heat, carpeted floors, lots of light) instead of being in the place were were at in Marrakech - interesting, unique, but not very comfortable.  

We took taxis a few times, but then switched to the subway system, which was fast and convenient (except for the first day we tried it, which was a holiday with restricted schedules).  The hands-on section of the science museum was a favorite, especially the dry ice table.

Marrakech for Christmas

I'd been to Marrakech about 25 years ago, when I was studying abroad in Seville.  It was fascinating, but definitely not stress free. This time, I wouldn't be staying in the micro-budget ($6 for a three person room, so $2 a night!) hotels that I stayed in then, though they were actually pretty comfortable.  I had booked for our family a what's called a riad, which is basically an old house in the Medina that's been converted to a small hotel.  

The Marrakech airport is impressive architecturally, and it was amazing to be stepping out into warm sunshine instead of freezing rain as we've had in Geneva for the past few weeks. The kids were very impressed by the newness and strangeness of it all - the flatness, the sun, people wearing the djellaba (long robes with hoods).

The next eye-opener, after the beautiful weather, was the moped accident we saw on the ride home from the airport.  The moped was carrying a husband and wife and young child, and it was knocked over.  I don't know if anyone was seriously injured - it didn't look like it.  The thing that was crazy, though, was that for whatever reason  there were about a dozen soldiers and also policemen right at that very intersection, not more than 20 feet away, and they didn't help at all.  Very strange.

Sunday - our first full day in Marrakech.  We had breakfast here at the riad, which was included in the stay.  Even though there's only 7 rooms, and it seems that just a few are occupied, there are multiple women working here - I've counted at least 3.  That's on top of the owner and her husband.  
Breakfast was a little skimpy, definitely not the buffet type breakfast that the kids look forward to at hotels.  It was the Moroccan style flat bread, plus these interesting pancakes that remind me a lot of the Ethiopian injera bread, but much smaller, with butter, jam, juice, and coffee.   All on a low table, which is traditional here, but really makes me realize why a standard height table is much more efficient.  There was incense and the works - very atmospheric.  

Rooftop of our hotel
Then we walked to the Marrakech Museum and the Ben Youssef Madrasa, quite close by and next to one another. Getting there was  basically a matter of asking people, and picking carefully who I chose to ask for directions - for instance, shop keepers.  We had good luck with everyone we asked for directions, they were very helpful. 

The museum, which I believe used to be a royal palace, was interesting enough, a decent sight to go see given that the real "sights" in Marrakech are the street life.  What little signage we saw was just in French and Arabic, but I managed to work my way through the French sometimes.  The Madrasa was much more interesting. It's an old school where boys used to study the Koran.  It's basically a collection of rabbit warren type little cells, many of them with no windows at all, where the boys studied and lived.  In two of the cells, there was a little layout of what life was like back then, and they showed a little study table, plus cooking pot.  Did they really cook for themselves?  Seems very inefficient in a school like this. Some of them had these really interesting lofts, with the ladder basically consisting of boards inserted into one of the corners, and a hole into which you crawled up into the loft.  Don't know if they slept up above but down below, but a very efficient use of space.

After the Madrassa we walked to the Jemaa el Fna.  The Jemaa el Fna is the main public square of Marrakech, very famous for its street performers and street life. It was pretty easy getting there, I asked directions and had no issues.  Walking in the narrow medina (old town) streets is a real experience.  There's a huge amount of moped, bicycles, and pedestrian going by, and also occasionally cars and trucks.  We made very sure that the kids were always holding hands with us on the building side, not the street side. Also little tiny stores/stalls all over the place.

baby turtles for sale

We walked around the square a bit - I tried to remember where I'd stayed 25 years ago when I was here (during the semester that I was studying in Seville).  I couldn't remember, though, other than it was very, very close to the actual square.  There was also a pastry/yogurt shop I was hoping to find, which I couldn't either.  The orange juice stands are still there, loads of them, and the water sellers (there only for photo opportunities) , the tooth pullers (also only for photo opps).  It's a little overwhelming, and also you feel like you need to be on guard at all times - which is true, you do need to be on guard at all times.

The walk home didn't go so well.  Our riad isn't close to anywhere very popular, it's kind of an out of the way neighborhood, and most people don't know where it is.  The way it's identified is by saying that it's close to a certain gate of the old city walls that encircle the medina.  We basically found our way there, but with some dead ends and wrong turns, plus running into a bunch of rowdy teenage soccer playing boys who told us a certain street was closed.  I had read (searching for "scams in Morocco") that this is the oldest trick in the book, but it turned out the street actually was closed, ha, ha, kind of humiliating going past those kids again.  Then they wanted to guide us back to our hotel, and one who was particularly persistent ended up going with us (we wouldn't have needed him, of course, I could easily have asked my way back) but we ended up paying him 5 dirhams anyway just to get rid of him and because we were chicken not to.  He loudly complained about this, saying in French, "What's this, my friend?".  Kenny was astounded, as the kid was only a few years older than him.

Monday - my 45 birthday!  
This morning we went to the Majorelle Garden, in the new town.  It's a decent place, pretty touristy, lots of interesting cactus plants that the kids and I had a fun time naming (like the "i need a haircut" cactus for one that had very long and hairy looking thorns). Today's main activity was to meet Malika, a Moroccan lady who babysat for our kids back in Geneva while she was visiting her sister there.   I had arranged via email to meet her at a restaurant - I asked her for suggestions but she wanted me to pick one, so i just picked someplace from my guidebook, supposedly on 10 Rue Loubnane. We walked there from the garden, and found what the map and some people said was Rue Loubnane, but no restaurant.  I asked a bunch of people on the street, a security guy, some guys just sitting around (there's tons and tons of people just sitting around in Morocco) and a pharmacist, and then walked into a furniture store store to ask.  The ladies in the store said they didn't know where the restaurant was but called the manager.  I ended up asking him if he could call Malika for us, and he had a conversation with her.  He arranged for us to meet her at a cafe across the street.  So we went to the cafe.  It was all dark and there were signs saying - no dancing, no taking photos - just what kind of cafe was this, anyway?  Plus there were hookas and ash everywhere.  Anyway Malika came and found us there.  it was great to talk to her, and be able to ask her all our questions about Morocco.  We did find the restaurant after all, turns out it was on another street that was actually rue loubnane (or maybe there were 2 streets with the same name?).  Anyway, it was closed!  So she drove us to another restaurant nearby that she knows, a very modern looking place.   We had a cafe style meal that you could have had at many places in the US.  She's about to start training (or maybe has started already) as a pharmaceutical sales rep. It was really great to see her, and feel like we have a little bit of an insider view on the country.

Later on she drove us back the the riad, which she said was on her way - I hope it really was!   We saw another accident, a bike got hit by a moped.  The bike rider (absolutely everyone here goes without helmets, bikes and mopeds both) hopped over to side of the road, gingerly touching one leg.
Then we hung out the hotel room and let the kids play on the ipad.  For dinner, we walked to the place
Jemaa el Fna again. That's where all the action is, so that's where we go.  We walked there through some crowded medina street with LOTS AND LOTS of moped traffic.  Oh my gosh, they drive by so close to us sometimes.  Peter was walking as usual quite slowly - at one point we stepped aside to let all the people lined up behind us go by.   We were definitely "slow moving vehicles"!  There's so many things that I would have liked to take to take photos of - tiny little stores, fruit and vegetable markets,  but I feel a little awkward.  Also for a long stretch, until we get close to the market, we're the only tourists around, so I didn't want to stand out too much.  One thing in particular I wanted to take a photo of but didn't - a bike with a bunch of about 20 cow hoofs tied to the rack on the back tire.  Little moped repair places were everywhere, with the work being done actually on the street, there were mobile gas stations for the mopeds.  There was actually no traffic in the streets we were walking on, except for the mopeds, but they were more than enough.  The exhaust was really foul, and pollution in general here is tremendous, and forms a brown haze over the city.

After dinner at the place Jemaa el Fna, negotiating the taxi ride home was (and always is) a bit stressful, though I'm getting used to it.  We've been paying 50 dirham every single time, even though the owner of our riad told us we should pay 20, or max 30 dirhams.    But we've never gotten anyone to accept less than 50 dirhams, even after walking away.    There's always a big group of men that crowd around and tell you why it should be more expensive.  Anyway, the guy leads us to the taxi (he was just the taxi pusher, not the actual taxi driver) and the driver starts heading towards our riad. 3 boys about Kenny's age start pushing the taxi - or pretending to push it - in any case, they then all 3 hopped up on the back of the car!  They were on only for a few minutes.  But my boys were very impressed.  I told Kenny if he ever tried anything like that I'd lock him up for a month.  He asks, "would I still get food?"

When we finally got to our riad, there was the opportunity for one last scam, which was that the taxi driver had no change.  It was completely untrue, of course, it's just one of the many tricks that are used to separate you from your money.  We managed to scrounge up the right change, finally. Oh yes, on this taxi drive, we saw yet another accident.  This one was a fender bender between 2 cars.  Man, the accident rate here must be horrendous if in 2 days we've seen 3 accidents, even though they've been pretty minor.

And then were were home.  Whew! Our riad, the Riad Rose de l'Orient, is okay.  If I had to do it over again, I would have chosen modern and efficient and central over authentic and interesting and in a non-touristy area.  But, there wasn't that many options left by the time I got around to making the booking.  There's no central heating, and though the days are very warm and beautiful and sunny, it gets darn cold at night, especially when walking with bare feet on the cold tile floor (no carpet).  There's a little space heater which were're using, but it doesn't prevent the floor and the toilet seat from being FREEZING!

I know I'm sounding a little negative, and honestly I wouldn't like to live in Morocco  for the long term.  But it's definitely a fascinating place, there's so much to see.  It's like going back in time a little bit, too, with all the haggling that's necessary.  Apparently in the US, back before the 1920s or so, one of the reasons that department stores became popular was that they had fixed prices.  Previously haggling was necessary for many items, even in the US.

In the
Jemaa el Fna there' s an area where they sell a few animals - mainly I saw lizards and turtles.  We saw a guy haggling over a little lizard for his son.  He took the lizard, and offered the seller 30 dirhams - put it in his hand, spoke coaxingly to him.  He did end up giving him 40 dirhams, though.  It was interesting to watch.  Haggling is such a way of life here.  It's not good for the introvert, really.  Or maybe there are no introverts here.

Right next to the ice cream stand that we always go to, there's always a blind guy standing there, bolt upright, selling little packages of tissues.  A lot of little kids sell packages of tissues, it's one step up from begging.  I eventually bought something from him - I was a little nervous about it, and uncertain how it would work.  I ended up just going up to him and asking for some tissues, and he asked for one dirham.  I gave him two, thinking to give him a bit of a donation, but he felt the coins in his finger, and felt that they were two one dirham coins, and said I should only have given him one dirham.  So I asked for some chewing gum as well.  But I think they were 2 dirham.  Anyway, the whole transaction was a little complicated.  It's a good thing people understand my primitive French.

It can be stressful walking around the Jemaa el Fna.  There's always vendors coming up to you, trying to sell something, or trying to get you to take their picture for a tip.  Also there were many people trying to go directly to the kids and get them to hold some toy, like these little wooden bending snakes.  I had told Kenny and Peter how to react - hold their hands straight down by their side, and just shake their heads.  They did well.  I found that the best way to deal with the vendors was to just give the faintest shake of the head instead of vigorously trying to get rid of them.  And definitely don't look at them, any kind of eye contact just encourages them.  It can be stressful, but it's also a very lively, interesting, invigorating area.  I did see a few comments on TripAdvisor on how very unpleasant it was to be accosted constantly by people trying to make money off you .  My guess is that the people who have very negative reactions to it are the ones who try to be polite and humane instead of just staring past them like I did.  Trying to be polite, saying, "No, thank you", only encourages them, and they get aggressive, thinking you're a chump.

In the Jemaa el Fna there are guys who stand around with monkeys (in diapers) on leashes, pouncing on anyone nearby who looks like they might want to get a picture.  I stayed away from them, because of the hassle of trying to negotiate a price.  But there was a Moroccan family who approached them, and got some great pictures of the kids laughing as the monkeys tried to pick nits out of their hair.  Mom and Dad, monkey guy, kids - everyone was smiling and having a fun time.  

So I decided to try as well.  With foreigners it's totally different, though.  I asked the monkey guy how much, and he says whatever you like.  I said  5 dirhams, he says too little, then I said 10, but he's already putting the monkey all over Peter, then another guy with a different monkey is putting his monkey on Peter's other shoulder, I'm telling him to go away but he doesn't.   Then when it came time to pay him the 10 dirhams they pulled the change trick on us - he said he had no change.  He took our money - I think it was 50 dirhams, then went around to other vendors,  supposedly asking people for change but came with a motley collection of different coins - including Euros! Obviously this was meant to confuse us.  It wasn't the right amount either, or even close. Then the other guy, that I told to go away,  comes around and asks for money as well.  You feel like you're totally a public resource, that it doesn't matter at all if you have a bad experience or feel stressed or cheated.  You can't post your bad reviews anywhere, there's no negative consequences for them at all for being complete assholes.

We had dinner in the same terrace restaurant.  It was okay, I've had the tajine now a couple times in a few restaunts now - it comes out incredibly hot and covered, so you can be quite sure it's safe to eat.

On Tuesday we went on a drive (with a driver and car, arranged through our riad).  Our driver Youssef was supposed to speak English, but I think because we arranged this so hastily (or maybe they just don't have many guides who speak English) his English was almost, but not quite, non-existent.  I'm pretty good at communicating with people whose English is poor, but my skills didn't work with him.  He would say something he thought was English, but it wasn't. Then we would try to ask him something, and he just didn't understand.  I don't even think his French was that great - there were a few things that I wasn't able to make understand, and usually people here understand my (admittedly kind of pigeon) French.

Youssef, our guide, kept on saying things like, "This is where they fabrik rugs", or this is where they fabrik Argan oil".  I tried to explain to him that it would be correct to say, "This is where they MAKE rugs".   He had a hard time getting it, then was telling me that he's heard people from England using the word the same way he was. Not very willing to learn.  

We drove up to the Ourika Valley, up to the supposedly famous 7 waterfalls.  What struck me most was how many people are just sitting on the side of the road, doing nothing.  Or maybe they were doing something, and I just couldn't figure it out.  A few times I did - for instance, I saw some men just standing at an overlook area, but it turns out they were waiting for tourists to come, and sell them necklaces.  But sometimes - really, I think they're just hanging out. Also - there's so many more men and boys about than there are women.  Where are all the women and girls?

Along the rural road we saw lots of sheep, goats, people harvesting olives, and cactus fruits.   Even though the cactus fruits were red, our driver told us they're not good now, and only ripe in summer.

In towns that we passed through, there were many school kids around on the street, all of them wearing short white jackets over their street clothing.  They get out of school at the weirdest times - for instance, at 10 AM the street in one town were crowded with kids.  I assume they go home for lunch, then head back to school.  Kind of like here in Geneva, but in Geneva it's a more reasonable lunch hour of 11:30 to 1:30.  Or maybe they were just out for recess, and didn't have to stay in a playground - or didn't have one?

There were many, many pedestrian bridges across the Ourika river.  Most of them were very makeshift looking things, rough planks across flimsy wires.  The funny thing was that in many places, you'd see 3 or 4 of these little bridges quite close together, one for each house.  Why wouldn't they collaborate, and make one good bridge?

At the end of the road, our driver said (and I had a very hard time understanding him) that we needed to hire a guide to actually walk up to the waterfall.  That was a unwelcome surprise.  We ended up paying a guide 100 dirhams to take us up to the first waterfall. We could easily have walked up ourselves, but felt pressured to take the guide.  The trail was packed with tourists like little ants, each little group with their own guide, crawling up this rough little trail, which could have been a very easy trail with very little bit of moving rocks around.  Maybe they didn't want to put the work into it, and then lose the guides their jobs.  Another thing about the trail was that - it was absolutely packed with little tiny shops on both sides until you got almost all the way up to the waterfall.  There were probably a few dozen shops, all along this little trail.  They sold all kinds of souvenirs, but what Kenny was most interested in was the geodes.  They were black on the outside, and really colorful inside, hot purple and incandescent orange.  It's a good thing we didn't buy any.  We did a little research on them later on the internet, it turns out they were all fakes.  Though apparently in some areas,  Morocco does have some interesting and unique rocks and gems.

Ourika valley was frankly kind of underwhelming, especially since the waterfall at the end could only be interesting in a place like Morocco, but certainly not if you come from the Pacific Northwest, waterfall capital of the world. If we had gone up further to the other waterfalls, maybe we would have gotten to some more interesting scenery.  

We stopped at a place where they sell Argan oil, which is from a tree that apparently only grows in Morocco.  They had a little demo there of how it was shelled (manually, of course), and ground down for the oil, which is then used for cooking and cosmetics.  
We didn't buy anything, but did tip the ladies that were doing the shelling and grinding because we took some photos.  It's a little stressful to always be needing to think of how much do you tip the various people.

We stopped at another place, which our guide told us was a typical Berber house.  We saw the kitchen - very primitive.

Then we climbed a ladder up to the roof, where I guess they dry things.  Kenny started walking around there - not close to the edge, but the guide told him to come back.  It looked like the roof was made up just of dirt and small rocks tossed on top of plastic, over some kind of framework, and he probably could have damaged it.

Today we did the Saadian Tombs.  They weren't all that interesting, but there was a guy there chipping out little shaped pieces of tile (either for repairing the tile they have, or just for giving to the tourists for a tip).  They must have those little tile cutters here, don't they?  But this guy was using a regular hammer and chisel.
Then we went to the El Badi Palace ruins.  Now that was impressive, I really enjoyed it.  We spent a long time there, wandering around and playing hide and seek among the ruins, listening to the storks, exploring around what were apparently huge pools.  

I have a memory from the other time I was in Marrakech, 25 years ago.  I could have sworn that back then there were women doing laundry in these same pools, which were then filled with water.  But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.
For lunch we walked back to the Jemaa el Fna, and ate at the same place we've been to before, which is pretty reasonable.  A troupe of acrobats came by and did a bunch of flips, and made a human pyramid, then came through the restaurant and collected tips.  

After lots of walking through the souks (loads and loads of tourist shops, all selling things that look very similar) we bought the kids a few trinkets from a stand that had clearly marked prices, because we didn't want the hassle of bargaining.  Then we slowly found our way back to the Jemaa el Fna, and found a taxi (asking price for the trip was 100 dirham!  But another guy took 50 dirham, which is apparently already quite a bit more than what locals pay).  We went by this one intersection - the same one where we'd seen an accident when we drove here from the airport - and there was another accident!  This one looked worse, there was somebody laying on the pavement, with someone supporting their head.  No ambulance to be seen.  I commented to our taxi driver in French, "there's a lot of accidents here".  He said, "No, there's a lot of moped drivers that don't respect the law and drive too fast".  Okay then!

You get to see an incredible amount of street life here, walking around the Medina.  These two scenes stick out in my head:  a teenage boy was abusive to a kid in a wheelchair.   I think the wheelchair kid had asked for a cigarette.  I don't know what the teenager said, but it wasn't nice based on the wheelchair kid's reaction.  Then an older man gave a lightweight cuff to the teenager who was abusive, gave the boy in the wheelchair a cigarette, and patted him on the shoulder.  Also, just before we got into a taxi to come back to the riad I saw a similar scene - the son of a coconut cookie saleslady (they sell lots of these on the street) was crying, because a teenager walking by had just said something mean, to him I gathered.  Then of the next group of teenage boys walking by, two of them went up to the boy and gave him a kiss, and whispered something to him.

Just a few minutes before that, we'd see a women and man violently shouting.  I think the man was on a bike, and had hit the woman.

Yesterday evening we went to a pastry place.  It looked pretty nice, and the pastries were absolutely great - one in particular was a big fluffy delicious almond pastry for 6 dirham, about 75 cents.  So we were going to head there again today.  But as we walked in we saw that this time the inside of the glass pastry cases were absolutely covered with flies and wasps.  It seemed like a fairly high-class shop, too - how could they not do something about this?  Yech!  So no-go on the pastries for today.  Though I'm sure that what we ate yesterday also had plenty of fly footprints on it. Or maybe they had just sprayed them with insecticide...

Maybe that's why Peter was sick today.  He's had a cough since we got here, but this morning he had diarrhea twice, and didn't eat much for breakfast.  We hung out a bit here after breakfast, because I was wondering if Peter would have an accident if we went out.  Finally we decided to go out and take our chances.  I did take some extra clothes with for Peter.  

In a horse-drawn carriage - Peter wasn't feeling so well.

We went through the tannery (very close to our house, we gathered up a guide almost instantaneously who wanted to show us through.  We had the usual dithering about how much to pay him - we said 10 dirhams, and ended up paying him 20 at the end, though he didn't speak any English and wasn't really very good).  

What an awful place to work that would be - he told us a little about the steps of leather production (soak in lime then scrape the hairs off, soak in pigeon excrement for some reason, do something to it with wheat flour that I didn't quite get, then actually tan it).  I saw a lot of hides that were very poor quality looking, with holes in them, etc.

Pits in the tannery

After the tannery, we went towards the Jemaa el Fna, asking our way.   I like doing that - you ask directions (always being careful to ask people who look respectable), go whatever direction they tell you, then ask again whenever there's an intersection.  It can work quite well, because there's always someone around to ask.  Once we asked a group of teenage girls, they gave us directions, then gave Peter and Kenny a kiss!

I was carrying Peter most of the way, since he didn't feel so great.  Then all of a sudden he said, "Mom, I think I went poop!   What a dilemma, right on the road like that!  We whipped out the extra clothing, toilet paper and plastic bags that I had, and did a little changing.  It was over in a few minutes, but we were in a narrow road in the Medina, with cars and lots of mopeds and pedestrians going by, and by the time we finished there were quite a few people behind us waiting to get by.  A little bit further down the road, I asked  one of the shop owners of a tourist store where we could buy some diapers, and we were able to buy 3 individual diapers from a tiny stall just down the street in case of another accident.

After that, we had lunch at a little restaurant on the place, (both kids ate almost nothing), then went looking for a carriage ride.  The taxi driver from last night had said that it costs about 120 for an hour, and told us how expensive he thought that was.  The first carriage driver told us 600, then went down to 400, but wouldn't go lower than that.  Then we went to where there were lots of them, right across from the Club Med.  They told us 600 at first too, then went down, and we ended up paying 150.  It's pleasant going around in the carriage, you're up above the traffic and hustle.  But we did go along some roads that were far too busy and smelly for my taste.  The exhaust fumes here are really extreme.  

After the carriage ride, we took a taxi home - our last one, because we're having dinner at the riad tonight, and will be going to the airport tomorrow morning.  Bargaining over taxis has been quite an experience here.  The owner of the hotel told us it's maybe 20 or max 30 dirham to get from here to the Jemaa el Fna.  We've NEVER gotten that price, it seems like they have an agreement to charge the tourists 50 minimum.  I asked the owner of the hotel, she said perhaps because there's 4 of us, or because it's Christmas and there's lot of tourists around.  Or maybe my bargaining is not up to par.  I do all the bargaining, since Eric doesn't speak any French.  A few times also they've started out at 100, but we've always paid 50 so far.  Yesterday the driver asked for 100, and Eric thought they said 400.  He guffawed and said "400! No way!"  Then the driver says, no, not 400, just 100, not 400 my friend!  But after that point we weren't able to get him down to 50 anymore - I think it was because he thought our anchor price was 400, so 100 shouldn't be that bad.  We ended up getting another driver.  Our riad is in a little bit of an obscure location, it's close to a city gate that is not one of the famous ones.  The taxi drivers frequently have to ask the other drivers standing around for directions.

I wonder what the taxi drivers would try to charge if you didn't settle on a price beforehand?  Which is what they all try to get you to do, in any case.  

You ask "do you know where XYZ location is?", they say yes, then you say, "How much to go there?".  Then they ignore your question, and repeat, "yes, I know where it is, hop in".  They want to get you in the taxi before settling on a price.  Bargaining is fun and challenging for a while - it's a very intense way of living - but over the long run I would get more than a little tired of it.

Right now the kids and I are relaxing on the beautiful rooftop terrace of the riad.  You can hear all the sounds of the city (particularly the schools nearby, the kids are very loud!) but the air is very fresh, the sun is warm, and it feels very cozy.  They're busy playing games on the ipad (what would we do without ipads?) while I write.

We've definitely not gained weight here in Marrakesh.  Breakfast at the hotel has been fairly modest.  For lunch we've usually eaten at some of the restaurants at the Jemaa el Fna, and dinner was either at those restaurants or at the hotel.  Generally we've had either the tajines, or the kefta (grilled meat on a stick), which usually comes with rice and french fries.  Portions are on the small side.  

Normally when traveling we'd bring with lots of snacks on our daily excursions, like fruit and cookies, but we don't see much that's familiar here, and so haven't bought much.   I would have loved to go to a regular grocery store, and they do exist in the new town, but not in the Medina.  In the Medina, there's just tiny little storefronts that you don't even walk into, you just ask the guy standing there for what you want.  I wonder how much business they do in a day?  There's a very distinct demarcation between the tourist stores (souvenirs) and the non-tourist stores.  The non-tourist stores are either single purpose (like eggs, say, or meat) or more general stores that have all kinds of things, like candies, little packages of shampoo, etc.

I wonder how much more (if any) the tourist shops would sell if they had fixed prices?  It would be an interesting experiment, because I think lots of people are like me and are not really that interested in bargaining.