home again, home again

well, we made it home on Wednesday. we woke up in Paris at 5:30 AM (that’s 10:30 PM in Chicago). we landed in Chicago at 1:30 PM and by the time we got through customs and picked our car up at Paula’s parents and then drove home it was 9:00 at night. for those of you who aren’t mathematicians, that is nearly 22 hours. none of us slept on the plane but the kids managed to fall asleep on the drive from Chicago to our house. Paula and i watched the presidential debate and then we had to fall asleep so we didn’t have a chance to go through mail or check phone messages as we’d been up for 24 hours straight.

the whole family woke up between 4 and 4:30 AM and we were wide awake. that’s 10:00 AM in Paris, so that was really sleeping in. it’s taking a while still to get used to the new time zone as we woke up at 6:00 AM today (the next day). JD and Ellie wanted to go to school so 4 hours after we woke up we headed off to the first day of school — wearing jackets. heh. we got to school a little early and checked in at the office and then found their lockers. their classrooms are far apart, but somehow they ended up having lockers just across the hall from each other. how cute. we saw their teachers and then they started school so Paula and i left. after school, we greeted the kids out front and they both reported good days back. Ellie spent nearly the whole day taking the NCLB test in reading. she also took a reading placement test for her teacher that others had previously taken. she received her score that day. if you’re curious, she was in the 98 percentile, which is extremely good and she’s reading on a 5th or 6th grade level. it’s so interesting to compare Ellie and JD. they’re both our kids, but they have completely opposite strengths. Ellie excels in reading while JD is extremely talented in math.

a funny thing happened after the kids got home. JD went to the bathroom and then opened the door and asked for help as he didn’t know how to flush the toilet. i think all of the toilets we’d used in Europe had the flusher as a button you push on top of the tank. he didn’t even see the flusher lever on the side of the tank. we all got a good laugh out of this one.

some friends of ours dropped by a care package that included dinner, so we didn’t have to bother with that on that first full day back. but what we did bother ourselves with was heading down to the Honda dealer and buying an ’09 Honda Civic Hybrid. we were going to buy a Fit, but i said to the salesman when we walked in that i’d prefer a Civic Hybrid but i don’t have time to wait on a waiting list as i am without a car. that’s when he said that they’d received one late the previous day. we walked out and it was pretty darker gray color. i said we’d take it without a test drive. just then another couple and salesperson walked out to see it. our guy told them we’d just bought it. whew. now Paula and i can park in the close parking lot at work as they have many spaces set aside for hybrid vehicles. hee hee.

after school, we went over and picked Ziggy up. he was so happy to see us. he’s now being perfect. i think he thinks we must have left him because he did something wrong so now he’s trying to be the perfect dog. i’ll just let him continue thinking that.

as i noted, today we woke up closer to 6:00 AM. i walked the kids to school as Paula was getting ready to help take kids on a field trip. Ellie and JD were still being treated like celebrities when their friends saw them. i imagine next week will be back to normal. i hope anyway.

last day in Paris

day 43 (10/14)
last day. well, today was our last full day in Paris and in Europe. right after breakfast, we walked across the street and walked past a phone booth. JD’s shoe (sandal) came off and he stopped to put it back on. as he was doing so, the little old lady who apparently lives in the phone booth came running out and gently pushed JD and yelled at him. this surprised JD as he didn’t see her coming. Paula then yelled at the woman who then ran back to her phone booth and picked up the phone and started dialing 3 numbers at random. she listened and then probably got a recording as she started banging the phone against the wall of the booth. JD was amused by this so the shock of being pushed wore off quickly. we moved on, but this made quite the impression on JD and Ellie. we walked around for a few hours while my mom and Bill headed off to a Pere-Lachaise cemetery (largest in Paris and most visited with many famous people).

just before lunch, we met up with my mom and Bill and they then to the Science museum with the kids. unfortunately, the children’s wing of the Science museum was closed so that didn’t go so well. Paula and i headed to the end of the 1 metro La Defense where we ended up in a giant shopping mall. we found a great cafe for lunch and then shopped. i bought a book for the plane tomorrow and another wool sweater. Paula found nothing, which has been par for the course. she just can’t find stuff on sale like i can.

we headed back and walked around our hotel and then we all got together and went for dinner. we ate at the same place as last night. the food was great all around and we had some nice desserts as well. Paula and i walked around some more after dinner and got lost with no map, but then pulled out the trust ol iPhone and had it show us right where we were using Google maps. viola! we were found and no longer lost. whew. our alarms are set for 5:30 AM to catch our 9 hour flight. gulp!

Second to last day (still Paris)

day 42 (10/13)
walking. today was a day of walking. my mom and bill took the kids after breakfast and they headed off to the Luxembourg Gardens again to play. Paula and i set off for the Musée de l’Orangerie, which is near the Louvre. this museum hardly had anyone in it. we first saw a bunch of Picasso paintings in the basement along with Renoir, Matisse, Soutine, Gaugiun and Monet among many other artists. we finished with the many pieces of art in the main part of the museum and then decided to go and view Monet’s famous Nymphéas (Water Lilies). we were not prepared for what would come next. i wondered why they had a part of the building devoted to one famous painting. even the Mona Lisa was in a room with many other painting (sort of). well, this isn’t just one painting; rather, this is a collection of giant paintings that all flow together. first, i should note that there are 4 paintings in each room and there are two round rooms, which are pretty good sized. the paintings are like giant murals that are probably 7 or 8 feet tall and about 30 feet long. they then have about 10 feet before the next giant painting starts (and there might be a hallway out in those 10 feet). each room is 1 giant masterpiece. it’s hard to describe but it was breathtaking. i expected a normal sized canvas so this just blew me away.

anyway, Paula and i decided to walk from there to the Gardens of Luxembourg to meet up with the kids. this was a pretty good walk. we had lunch in the same place we ate back on day 39 and we had the same fun waiter. we decided to split up again after lunch. Grandma and grandpa Cook took the kids to some palace on a hill (or church, i think) while Paula went shopping and i decided to walk to the Picasso museum. i thought it’d be a 10 minute walk and it turned into 1/2 hour. i finally found the museum up a hill and discovered it was closed until October 24 for renovations. doh! so i walked back down and found Paula. we grabbed a Starbucks and jumped on a metro to near our hotel for more shopping. i was pooped so i headed back to the hotel while Paula shopped and eventually everyone came back to meet with me. the kids stayed with the grandparents and Paula and i shopped a bit more and then grabbed a great dinner at a sidewalk cafe near our hotel. i had a chicken skewer meal with an excellent sauce — like Tandoori Chicken and Paula had a delicious salad, which she said was very, very good. a fun day, but i walked from one side of Paris to the other and i wouldn’t recommend that to anyone. then again, i saw a lot of Paris today and i think i can get around without a map for the most part now. that’s got to count for something, eh?

Paris again

day 41 (10/12)
first, i need to let my father know that we’re thinking about him and sending our best vibes his way. we love you dad.

today our corner cafe was closed so we found our breakfast elsewhere near the train station across the street. we were then off towards the Seine. we hoped off near the spot where Princess Diana had her fatal crash so there is a monument there commemorating it and people still leave fresh flowers and notes, etc. we also noticed that a marathon was happening so we watched and cheered for runners for a bit — i heard there were 35,000 runners so the flow of runners going by was non stop. we enjoyed some time near the river and then we headed down to the river and boarded a boat for a lunch time cruise. this lunch cruises up and down the Seine, but i have to tell you they served one of the best meals we’ve had. first, they brought out a sweet tasting pre dinner wine, which was pretty good. then, they gave us choices — i’ll go over my choices and try and fill in some of what others had. i had a duck breast starter and it was sliced with a little bit of pate and fresh green beans. i believe others ordered a pate of duck something, but it wasn’t as good as the duck breast. we then had the main dish. Bill, the kids and i all ordered the Filet Mignon and it was incredible. soft and easy to cut and good sized. both Ellie and JD ate all of their meat and potatoes. i have to say, it was very, very good. Paula and my mom both had the salmon and they were also impressed, but it couldn’t have been as good as our food. Bill, the kids and i all ordered some chocolate dessert and it was also very, very good. Paula had ice cream something or other — meh; and my mom had the Baba in Rum, which really tasted like Rum with baba. heh. they brought us two bottles of red wine and 1 bottle of white wine and the kids had orange juice. we finished the meal with coffee. this meal and tour lasted a couple of hours and was worth every penny. oh yeah, they had an accordion player come to each table and play a few songs. we had him play happy birthday (late, i know) for JD and JD thought that was just the coolest thing in the world.

we then walked across the bridge over the Seine and caught a bus at random. fortunately, it stayed next to the Seine and went in the right direction so that 3 or 4 stop later we jumped off and found ourselves at the Museum — errr, Musée d’Orsay. this is a museum that has Picasso, which i really wanted to see . . . but it also has Degas, Manet (Picasso devoted many of his works to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and this painting was here as were Picasso’s), Monet (not to be confused with Manot), Renoir, Seurat, Van Gogh (including Ellie’s favorite Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles, and a self portrait), and also Whistler (portrait of his mother) among many other famous artists. all i can say is WOW! this museum was just awesome. and kudos to the kids for walking through the whole thing — we even got kicked out at closing because we were trying to stay as long as possible viewing stuff. heh.

off to near the Eiffel tower. we found a grassy area and just hung out and chatted and enjoyed the park by the tower. as it started to get darker, we headed across the street and found 2 carousels for the kids and also found waffles to eat with chocolate on top. we headed up the hill to get a better view of the Eiffel tower and then the lights came on. the tower is blue at night and gorgeous so we took a bunch of photos and watched people and finally grabbed a subway home (home is relative when you’ve been on the road this long without one). today was just a perfect day in every way.

and the photos from today are great so check them out here: http://flickr.com/photos/jayhawk/

Paris continued

day 40 (10/11)
we ate at the cafe on the corer again for breakfast — a little over 12 Euros. we were then off to Bois de Boulogne on the west side of Paris. this is a giant park (perhaps 4 kilometers across) and they have a giant amusement park area for kids. JD and Ellie rode various rides all morning and then it came time to try the labyrinth house of glass. they both entered quite excitedly and immediately split up. after a while they didn’t emerge. we could sort of see them in various places and we heard a big bang — JD had crashed into a glass wall. after that he was no longer enjoying the labyrinth and Ellie heard him cry a bit and she stopped enjoying it. so i went in to find them. i found Ellie pretty quickly. she grabbed my hand and said, “come on dad” and turned quickly and smacked a wall. so now she’s crying as well. it took us another minute or so to find JD. i guided them out and they decided it was a horrible thing and that it should have never been built.

we jumped on the Metro 1 and jumped off in the center of the city where we ate lunch. it was right next to the Louvre. i walked up and bought tickets (no line). and we entered (again, no line at all). in fact, we sort of had trouble finding the entrance under the giant glass pyramid because there was no line to follow. heh.

we immediately made our way to the Mona Lisa. awesome. this was one of the few places that had many people, but we could easily get to the front of the crowd for viewing. in some parts of the Louvre, we’d have whole rooms to ourselves. when Michelangelo’s Dying Slave came up in conversation, JD perked up and said, “hey, didn’t Van Gogh paint the Dying Slave also?” he was correct. i guess he’s taking in much more than i’ve given him credit for on this trip. ;~)

we viewed as much of the Louvre as we could and then grabbed a Starbucks coffee — it’s amazing how they get the best locations in all of these cities. we then headed out to the gardens outside of the Louvre while grandma and grandpa headed back to the hotel to get ready for church. the kids played tag for quite a while and then we discovered a carousel. we jumped on the Metro 1 and rode to the FDR stop for shopping on the Champs Elysées — the most expensive real estate in Europe, so i have read. this is the high class shopping district. we didn’t buy anything, but it was a site to behold. we also got to see the Arc de Triumph at night so that was really worth it. we ate sushi and headed home. fun times.

Paris day 2

day 39 (10/10)
we started finding some sidewalk cafe for breakfast and then rode over to a stop prior to the Luxembourg gardens and walked to the gardens just for fun. we hung out there for quite a while and the kids managed to find a great playground . . . and even the mini statue of liberty. the whole gardens is just beautiful and the leaves are changing colors, which just added to the beauty.

we then walked into the Latin Quarter and found a good place for lunch. after that, we hit Notre Dame and then the shops around it. we found a place for crepes — mmmmm and Ellie bought a beret. off to the Arc de Triumph. we arrived and it was the first thing we saw coming out of the metro tunnel. awesome! and i had no idea you could go up it, so we did (absolutely no line either). there is no elevator and it’s something like 270 steps in a semi tight spiral. i had no problem but my kids weren’t too happy about the steps. i reminded them that they’re missing PE class. and they reminded me that PE is just 1 day a week and i am forcing them into PE every day. ah well. the top of the Arc provides some great views of Paris and the Eiffel Tower. at the bottom again it was time for the nightly lighting ceremony and they had some foreign dignitary from South Korea and a band playing, etc. we weren’t sure what was going on but it was neat anyway.

off to our hotel area — and we’re getting good with the metro. we chose some hot and happening French eatery and the menu was only in French and nobody spoke English. figured. i shut my eyes and pointed at my menu choices and they were great. actually, Paula did that as well and we weren’t disappointed. a very good day. tomorrow i think we’ll hit the river tour and do a double decker bus tour or something to give my mom and Bill and the kids a break off of their feet. who knows? we’ll decide at breakfast. it’s always worked in the past.

Paris – day 1

day 38 (10/9)
Paris. we woke up early and a 1 hour drive later put us at the big airport in Paris where we turned in the car we’d bought and Renault bought it back. fantastic program. we somehow fit out bags in a cab and rode to our hotel and our room was already ready. whew. my mom and Bill arrived about an hour later from the same airport and their cab ride was 20 Euros more. hmmm. anyway, we had a quick lunch nearby (we’re near the Opera something or other — pretty good location) and then we figured out how to get metro passes for 5 days (6 days wasn’t an option). we were able to take 1 train and hop off just above the Eiffel Tower . . . a short walk later and we were at the Eiffel Tower and in line to go up. the wait was very brief and we started up the tower. wow! i had no idea just how tall the Eiffel Tower really is. i’ve seen photos, but actually seeing it just blew me away. the kids both enjoyed riding up and seeing EVERYTHING from way up high. and to think, this was just day 1 in Paris and we’re here for 6 total days — our longest in any 1 destination. fun times ahead . . .

Bruges Belgium

day 37 (10/8)
we took off for Bruges in Belgium today and arrived in time for lunch. Paula and i both ordered a big ol Belgian beer and i also ordered a waffle along with my lunch. the kids even tried some local foods. Bruges is an incredible city as the city center is well preserved and looks like something out of the Renaissance period with a moat around it and the old castle-like buildings, etc. very neat.

we parked at the train station just outside of town and they provide you with a free bus ticket into the city center and back for parking there, which is cool. better yet, our total parking bill was $2, so we effectively parked and road public transportation today for fifty cents a person. can’t beat that. Ellie has been wanting a horse-drawn carriage ride for some time, so we found one here in Bruges and took that right after lunch. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed seeing the town from the carriage and the ride overall. we then set about walking around the town on the old cobblestone roads. this place is ancient and is just very cool. everywhere you turn is picturesque. i have added a bunch of photos to our site so you should check them out if you haven’t lately as the new ones are being added fairly often (including some new ones from Amsterdam just now added). here’s one from the main market square:

we left Bruges in the late afternoon and headed for France. we’re staying about an hour from Paris. i picked a hotel with English television (1 channel — BBC) so that i could watch the presidential debate. doh. it was last night (and we watched it from Amsterdam at 3:00 AM). so we didn’t even turn the television on here as the kids were too busy doing homework tonight. math, math, math.

Last day in Amsterdam

day 36 (10/7)
we started off visiting the largest street market in Amsterdam — Albert Cuyp. cheap prices and you can buy nearly everything. we didn’t really buy anything other than freshly squeezed orange juice, but it was quite the experience. we then jumped on the metro to the museum area and visited the renowned Rijksmuseum. the kids enjoyed a section devoted to artists who create for kids. but they pretty much ignored much of the rest of the museum . . . that is, until we got to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch painting . first, you should know that this painting is huge — something like 12′ x 14′ (or nearly anyway). there was a crowd viewing the painting but Ellie, JD and i squeezed our way to the front and sat down. i had a little guide about the painting and sat with the kids for about 20 minutes staring at this one painting and discussing what was happening and why it was significant and we learned about the historical importance of the painting and much more. the kids were very engaged.

we jumped on a metro and headed over to Sara’s Pancakes. wow! JD and Ellie both agreed that these are the best pancakes ever made. they come served on a giant plate and they fill the whole plate. they’re made very thinly and have toppings piked high. mmmmm.

we then went back to the NEMO Science Museum for the remainder of the afternoon. i sat reading on the roof overlooking Amsterdam while Paula and the kids went inside and had some fun with very few other kids in the building. we then hoped on a tram to the Dam area and shopped for a bit, people watched; and, then found a Tapas restaurant for dinner. i should note that just before finding the Tapas place, we found a hot dog stand and JD ate a big hot dog. so at the tapas place, i was surprised to see him eat a full meal, but he did. it was 8:30 when we finished eating and headed back for a little bit of homework and showers.

Amsterdam Again

day 35 (10/6)
we thought we got a quick start to the day so we wouldn’t have to stand in line at the Van Gogh museum. unfortunately, we were looking for a stop and it never came as we didn’t have the correct stop name. so i finally asked and we had to jump off and wait and then ride back. doh. so instead of arriving a little after 9:00 we arrived around 10:30. there was no line. we walked right in. the kids enjoyed the museum, but they also had their tired moments where we’d enter a room of paintings and they’d just sit and wait. but they did listen to us tell them about Van Gogh’s life and the museum even had narratives where you could see where Van Gogh would experiment with new techniques and then later see if those experiments turned up in his regular painting. the museum was pretty awesome. we hit the gift shop on the way out and Ellie bought some postcards and a book while JD bought a little artist set.

we then walked to a place for lunch — pancakes. and these were real pancakes. for example, JD wanted pancakes and bacon — it came and the bacon strips cooked right in. neat stuff. we then took a tram to the Anne Frank house. again we worried about a line, yet we arrived to find absolutely no line so we were in and experiencing it right away. this museum made for some really good discussions with the kids and at the end of the museum is a room where you can sit with the remote control and watch short videos and then answer a yes / no question with the group results tabulated on the screen. for example, a video might talk about freedom of the press . . . but then present a “press” that is hateful towards another group and ask if that should still be allowed (it wasn’t in the US). Ellie gave it some good thought before voting and asked very good questions as she struggled to her decision and then i’d ask her to explain her response. as we walked out, we came to the gift shop. Ellie had to buy an Anne Frank book and JD wanted an eraser.

we took a tram back to the Dam area of town and shopped. prices here in Amsterdam are far better than anywhere else we’ve shopped in all of Europe. i bought a couple of t-shirts and JD bought some clothes as well. this is funny because Ellie and Paula wanted to shop and they bought nothing. but there was a boat tour of the city through the many canals and then grabbed dinner — Italian food, which we missed dearly. homework for the kids and then bed.

Amsterdam continued

day 34 (10/5)
woke up early and jumped on a metro to the city center. guessed our stop and got it correct as we had just a short walk to the NEMO Science Museum. we arrived just after opening and it was quite empty. we spent nearly 4 hours in the museum as it’s designed for children and the kids had a blast with the hands-on activities (see photos for more). we played on computers; played with electricity; learned about genes and DNA; investigated secret codes; took lie detector tests; examined finger prints; and much, much more. as we left, many people had arrived and the place was packed. but we had hours of nearly having the giant building to ourselves. also, today was less than 1/2 price for admission so that was a pleasant surprise.

we had lunch on a main street and then headed to Madam Tussauds Wax Museum. by this time it was raining and we had to stand out in line for about 15 minutes to get in. yuck. but our rain coats worked well. the kids really enjoyed seeing the famous people and learning more about them . . . and taking photos with them. i have placed many of these photos on our site so be sure and check them out. for example:

we were tired after the museums but we had time to grab a heated Stroopwaffles (it’s basically a thick waffle with toppings of your choice — e.g., chocolate). mmmmm. did i say “mmmmm” yet? it was great. it was still raining so we shopped a bit and bough the kids some socks as the weather is cooler and we didn’t pack many. after this, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a short spell before dinner. we decided to eat in our neighborhood and then came back and did homework with the kids for the remainder of the evening.