bryggen, then and now

Bryggen, in between.While walking along Bryggen Wharf in Bergen, Norway, I ran my fingers across the boards of one building facade. The wood had started to soften, ravished by the saltwater air and harsh Nordic winters, but it still didn’t have the pliability I would have expected. It was only one of the little experiments I did during our stay in Bergen, testing to see if the relatively recently reconstructed UNESCO World Heritage site could be trusted to represent its actual history.

The wharf had been a busy thoroughfare in the city for hundreds of years. It existed before the Hanseatic League made Bergen one of their headquarter cities and was greatly improved upon during their tenure in the 1300’s. But the buildings of Bryggen, made of wood, could not resist the fires that plagued the city. Parts of the wharf were destroyed and rebuilt, time and time again, most recently in 1955.

Before we left on our trip to Norway, I had spoken with excitement about seeing the wharf with my own eyes. Between the postcard-worthy beauty of photographs and its inclusion in several period novels I’d enjoyed, I anticipated that the brightly painted buildings, refurbished or not, could hold the magic of the city’s magnificent history for me. A friend I shared my excitement with, however, was not quite so optimistic.

“Bah, I hate those reconstructions,” Robert said. “It’s like a theme park for adults. They’ve rebuilt it, sure, but only to put in a nice souvenir shop, a snack bar, and maybe even a photographer’s studio where you can pay $19.95 to dress up like a nineteenth century Norwegian sailor.”

I discounted his comments until my arrival. To my dismay, I saw that the wharf buildings, now separated from the harbor by a busy city street, were filled with tour operators, restaurants and the dreaded souvenir shops that he predicted. And to add insult to injury, most of the shops carried all shape, size and manner of troll figurines, prominently displayed in the windows.

It was my son who took me beyond this façade, to find something altogether different. Something caught his eye down a small alley. Faced with such curiosity from a toddler, what else could I do but follow?

The wooden buildings were a mish-mash of planked walkways, stairwells and old-fashioned room outcroppings that had, over time, started to lean into each other. The alleys, with some buildings aged over 200 years, had been built upon and over, creating a somewhat surreal maze to navigate. My son thrilled himself by walking up, down and over, the weathered wood making a pleasant stomping noise under his feet.

Medieval lever systems poked out from just under the roof line just waiting for some rope and a load to heave. An abandoned wagon sat behind a stairwell, next to a large door that was probably once a stable. And back here, there were still shops. But they were hidden in nooks and crannies, visible only to the most stalwart explorer – like my son.

As I watched my son once again climb through this wooden labyrinth, I was startled by the footsteps of an oncoming traveler, made all too noticeable by the timber walkway.

“It’s something, isn’t it?” a young Australian man said to me, nodding a hello and giving my son a big smile.

“It is. Although I wonder what it would have been like back in its heyday,” I replied with a smile.

“Probably not too different from now. Up there would have been offices, sure, but down here for the masses? Places to find new berth on a ship, grab a glass of grog and a plate, maybe buy a few trinkets and find a warm bed for the night.”

He was right. As a bustling seaport, Bryggen probably always had an element of the theme park quality that Robert had mentioned. It was an intrinsic quality of the town, something vital and necessary to the success of the port. Though Bryggen’s current incarnation had adopted the more modern ice cream and plastic doll trade, it was not inherently different from what it had been all those hundreds of years ago.

As my fellow traveler snapped a few photos and moved on down the alley, I closed my eyes, breathed deep and allowed my son to draw me deeper into the jumble of staircases and alleys. It was all too easy to imagine a sailor in port for the day, meandering through the wharf to find a way to spend his earnings.

Now it was our turn. My son and I rambled, two pretend sailors on furlough, enjoying the feeling of being a little lost. We kept on until we came across a tiny shop in the shadows of a corner. Inside, we browsed the merchandise, compelled to spend the money burning a hole in my pocket.

I came away with the only thing I thought proper: two small troll dolls, their faces fixed in a comical grimace. One was for my son who had led me to this place and understanding. And the other? Inspired, I could think of nothing better to get as a memento for my friend, Robert.

tea set

We loved this post from Jen L over at Go Get Your Jacket:

Remember Garanimals? They were sets of clothes that were matched by a color or an animal so that you always knew what shirt went with which pants. If the tigers or whatever on the tags matched, then the clothes did, too.

A lot of people made fun of Garanimals. They became a punchline, usually invoked when a grown man looked like he’d been dressed by two different people, both of whom were blind. In the dark.

Not me. If they’d been offered when I was a kid, I think I would have snapped them up. As it is, when I discovered a more upscale version for my own child, I was deee-lighted.

I had just ordered a whole bunch of fall clothes (some from my friend Eliza’s company The Pink Giraffe), when I received the fall catalogue from Tea Collection. Now I’m itching to pull out my credit card for a five-piece ensemble called the Cooper set for William. It consists of a tiger long-sleeved t-shirt, a monkey long-sleeved t-shirt (bonus for the monkey), a striped hoody, a pair of cargo pants and a pair of ticking stripe pants. Five pieces for $105, which ends up being $21 per piece, which, you know if you’ve bought nice children’s clothes recently, is not a bad deal.

And here’s the best part: they all go together! You can wear the monkey shirt with the ticking stripe pants OR the cargo pants, or even put the hoodie on, too. Woot! Let me just give a big shout out to pre-matching clothes. I have rudimentary accessorizing skills at best. I sometimes put outfits together and then stare dubiously at them: “Does that look good together? Is that the same shade of green? Will the preschoolers laugh my child off the playground if I dress him in these two pieces at the same time?” Usually I do okay, but the doubt is always there, lingering at the back of my mind.

So this more sophisiticated modern-day version of Garanimals is just my speed. It doesn’t hurt that the clothes are absolutely adorable. Adorable clothes for little boys that won’t make me doubt my own sartorial prowess (or lack thereof). Here’s my MasterCard.

Note: Garanimals has? have? actually staged a comeback, but they’re no Tea Collection.

red butterfly

I am reading Red Butterfly (by Deborah Noyes) to my daughter, Mila. The book tells the story of a Chinese princess who smuggles the secret of silk out of China. Mila is interested in the pictures, of course: the girl’s long black hair, her red slippers, the sparrows pecking mud along the road to the summer palace, the court musician plucking her pipa, the graceful coppery fish in the garden pool. But the story is about silk and about the little girl who wants to take a piece of home away with her on her bridal journey, even though it is forbidden. Much of this is beyond my own little girl’s comprehension…what does arranged marriage mean to a preschooler in the American Midwest, after all? But I want her to understand at least a little of what the story is about. I want her to understand why the girl speaks of silk as a splendor, as woven wind, why she longs to take its secret away with her on her long road from home.

I put the book down and tell Mila to wait for just a moment. In my closet I have a silk skirt. It’s not really Chinese, but it is silk. And it possesses just enough of that splendor, that woven windiness the princess describes, to do the trick. I set it in Mila’s lap and she oohs and ahs as she fingers the soft fabric. She has been curled up on the couch with a polyester fleece blanket that, for some reason, she’d become inseparable from earlier in the day. She goes from fingering the silk to rubbing it across her arms. Clearly, she is enjoying the sensation. Her expression is beatific. All at once she pulls away the fleece blanket, disdain evident in her gesture, “can you take this off, please?!” And, when the offending polyester has been removed, she spreads the silk over her bare legs, burying her hands in its whisper soft folds. Serenely, almost royally, she asks to continue reading the story. And I do. And I think, this time, “woven wind” and “swirls of silk” and “windy silken promises” actually mean something to her. I think she understands that little Chinese princess better than she did before.

After all, I cannot understand the world myself simply by reading about it. I must taste and see and feel and listen. As we all must. Mila is no different. It is not enough to simply tell her a story or teach her a lesson. I must share with her the warm spices at our favorite Indian restaurant, dance with her to the lilting traditional French songs on her favorite CD. I must let her find illumination in the woven whisper of silk against her own bare skin. If I want her to learn and to love, I must help her to experience. As we read to the end of Red Butterfly, I am already storing away ideas in the back of my mind, thinking about the books we’ve read and the conversations we’ve had and about how I might bring bits of those ideas to life for her in a whole new way.

polar bears in paris? travel to paris in december can be wonderful for kids!

Have I mentioned we are crazy about traveling? Generally we look for an island with surf, sun and Mai Tais and that is our destination. However, our most recent travels took us on quite a journey. We started in San Francisco and traveled to Paris, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, back to Paris and then returned to San Francisco. Not your average destinations of choice for a husband, wife and 4-year-old daughter. Paris in December…the dead of winter, Saudi Arabia..a country you can’t even get into without sponsorship, Egypt….don’t only AARPs go there?, and back to Paris in January…hard to believe it was even colder than December. It was the most fantastic trip of a lifetime.

This will be the start to a series of posts about our travels, tricks we found to making it smooth and easy with a 4 year old, travel disasters you might like to avoid, cultural experiences and how we are trying to make it all stick in her long term memory.

One thing Olivia won’t forget is the polar bear in Paris….

Paris was fantastic in December. We knew we would be experiencing all the seasons of the year in the next 6 weeks and we had to pack the appropriate items in just a few suitcases. We packed nearly correctly for winter in France. The key to our warmth lied in scarves and hats. Although Olivia looked tres chic in her Tea Collection denim and a pair of pink suede boots, her parents screamed “silly Americans tourists” in their white running shoes. The French DO NOT wear white running shoes.

We had only a brief stop in France before flying to Saudi Arabia where there would be no holiday season whatsoever. We were quite looking forward to that. Until Paris. In Paris we were fortunate to get a different view of the consumer season. The merchants in Paris gave a very different feel to the holidays.

All the store windows in Les Galeries Lafayette (a shopping area that is several blocks) are decorated each year for the Christmas holidays. They are not trying to advertise or sell you what is in the window rather it is a huge competition between the mall shops to have the most awe inspiring sidewalk window scene. The window displays are so popular that the sidewalks can become overcrowded to the point of not being able to see…except for the children. Kids are treated to a stair-stepped platform in front of the windows especially for their viewing. Kids do not miss a glorious thing.

After viewing all the amazing windows, from floating babies to dancing penguins, we went inside to find the elevator to the roof. On the roof of Les Galeries Lafayette during winter is the most fabulous ice maze that wanders here and there, ultimately ending at an igloo with a surprise inside… a polar bear. A 6-foot tall stuffed polar bear. Kids are running around laughing and hiding while adults are amazed by the 360-degree views of all of Paris. It was a real unexpected treat in Paris. While we will remember the amazing magnitude of the Eiffel Tower, Olivia will remember the polar bear in Paris.

take a trek from home

Is your little citizen dreaming of a trip abroad? Do you wish you could take them to China’s Great Wall or Costa Rica’s rainforest but have to savor a “staycation” instead this year? If so, we’ve found another way to get traveling: an amazing site that will take you and your little citizen trekking across the globe.

Global Trek sponsored by Scholastic is your little citizen’s passport to the world. Older kids can wander the site on their own and younger ones can mosey around the globe with your help. The site features a background, guided tour, and information about the people of each country. It even has a space for your citizen to journal about what they learn as they trek. This is a great site for making the foreign a little more familiar for your little citizens, especially the older ones!

oktoberfest in the family way

Inside OktoberfestI hung tightly to my husband as we entered the tent, petrified that if I loosened my grip I would lose him in the motley crowd. And so I was happy to follow where he led, too overcome with the smells and sounds of the party to navigate anywhere myself. But what I really wanted was for us to turn right around and head out.

The grand tent was filled to capacity with wooden tables, glorious ceilings and chandeliers and oh-so-many beer drinkers. The throngs of revelers pushed us so quickly towards the center of the building that I could no longer see the exit. All around us, people laughed and sang, raising large mugs high in the air. As we scuttled past, those seated would tip their glasses and exclaim, “Prost!” in our direction, seemingly wishing us both cheers and encouragement to find our own place to sit. But instead of priming me to party, the smell of their body odor and stale Maß beer became more than I could bear. I fought back nausea and tried to remain close to my husband. A waitress brushed by me, with liters of beer looped around her, sloshing some on my arm.

“I need to get me one of those!” my husband yelled over his shoulder at me, nodding approvingly at the waitress and her ability to part the crowd like the Red Sea. I knew that he meant he wanted some beer, but I would have greatly preferred her ability to cut so easily through the mob.

At some time in their lives, everyone should experience Munich’s Oktoberfest. It is a historic tradition of celebration. A great place to try some of Germany’s finest beers. And of course, it is the party to end all parties, attracting visitors from all over the world.

But at that moment, I strongly believed that visiting Oktoberfest only a few days after finding out I was pregnant might have been the worst idea ever.

Our tickets had been purchased, our hotel booked – no small feat for Munich at the end of September. And the trip was a dream come true for my husband. Though I wasn’t quite as excited, I have to admit I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to fully partake in all the event had to offer. I had planned to party like a rock star and now would be unable to have even a glass of beer. But there was no helping it. I figured, “How bad could it be?” and decided that there was no need to cancel on baby’s account. I could watch my husband have a good time. In fact, it might be better this way. I could keep my wits about me and make sure that no one ended up “in the bag” – the tent-like gurney contraption that the German Red Cross used to deal with the dangerously intoxicated attendees. But the little life inside my belly, fiddling with my hormones and senses, hadn’t been briefed on my brilliant plan.

Between the unruly crowd, the obscene quantities of alcohol, and the traditional Bavarian sausages, I felt queasy as soon as we arrived on die Wiesen. And our attempts to find unreserved seats in the beer tents only heightened that feeling. There was no way I could stay inside. I told my husband that we needed to leave at once. And lucky for him, he immediately started fighting the multitudes in the opposite direction to get us out.

Once outside, my husband gave me his best doggy look and said, “Maybe we can sit out here.” The outside of the tent had decks built around it with communal tables for those who were unable to get inside. Gulping in a few breaths of the clean night air, I was all too happy to oblige him.

As we walked towards the tables, a group of Italians immediately moved over to allow us to join them. They were all laughing and having a good time, happy to let us join their fun. And when the waitress arrived a few minutes later, they ordered the table some beer. My polite refusal garnered strange looks and more than a few gentle protests from our new friends. “You must have at least one! How can you come to Oktoberfest and have not even one beer?”

“Thank you, but I can’t. I’m pregnant, errr, schwanger.”

“Schwanger?” they asked with confusion and then briefly conferred among themselves. “Ahhh, incinto! You mean you have bambino, yes?” I nodded in assent.

They turned to the waitress and instead ordered me an alcohol-free liter of Maß. Perhaps not the cola I would have preferred but lovely all the same. At least now I could say I had tried a beer!

When our waitress returned with no less than thirteen full glass liter mugs adorning her arms – including my alcohol-free one – the Italians took no time in toasting to my and my baby’s health. As the evening progressed, I found that I was having a grand time, even without the help of alcohol. Conversation flowed over the full glasses all around me but I understood that those beers weren’t necessary to experience the real Oktoberfest. I had been right all along – being here was better sober.

I was able to see the glorious tradition of a festival centuries old. The true warmth of Bavarian hospitality as the citizens opened their city to thousands of partygoers. The beauty and workmanship of those astounding beer tents. And of course, the camaraderie and friendship that could grow out of simple luck and proximity. It was an amazing thing to behold. The experience couldn’t have been any fuller.

As I rubbed my belly, listening to the laughter surrounding me, I raised my glass of alcohol-free Maß and tenderly whispered down to the baby inside me, “Prost.”