Friday, November 27, 2009

American Mommy in Zurich - Letter Three

Week 3 was a big travel week - in and outside of Switzerland (so I'm afraid that this is an even longer letter than the last two!!). On Saturday morning Deb and I left to go to München (Munich, Germany), four hours by train. (Josh and his mom Pam had a nice mother-son weekend at home.) Great train ride (definitely not like Amtrak - they actually follow their schedule to the minute). We had breakfast in the dining car (again, head and shoulders above Amtrak - white tablecloths and all). If you allow yourself, you can meet some of the most interesting people on the train. A very nice (and very cute) young man sat down across from us (the trains are set up with two seats across from each other). Turned out that this 29-year old is from Mexico and has been working in Geneva for two years. Got his Masters in Economics from Harvard. He is now working on his PhD in his "spare" time with a professor in Munich. So he was on his way to meet with his professor for the weekend. Their meetings are while they snowboard!! They go down the slopes, then discuss his thesis on the way back up. He told us about the American-style football league in Europe. Deb LOVES NFL so she was really excited. He plays for the Geneva Seahawks. So the funny story is that there is a rule that no more than one American at a time can be on the field playing for a team. They actually mark the Americans' helmets with a large letter "A" to identify them!! So his helmet has an "A" but he wants an "M" for Mexican!! Deb kept teasing me that I wanted to fix him up with someone because he was smart, athletic, adorable and so personable. He travels to Central and South America for his job. But after his third year job commitment, he wants to move back to Monterrey, know of any single women who speak Spanish and willing to relocate??? (I'm still trying even though I have no idea what his name even is.)

We were extremely surprised when we arrived in Munich that the train station there is SMOKE-FREE. Have I mentioned how all of the Europeans smoke all the time?? Of course, you walk right outside of the station and you can't see or breathe. We checked into our hotel and set off to explore. A few blocks away was the Karlsplatz and it was PACKED with Saturday afternoon shoppers!! We walked amongst the crowds to the Marienplatz and then just wandered and wandered and wandered, looking at churches and government buildings and my favorite, the Viktuelienmarkt (an outdoor food market that was quite interesting). It was so crowded everywhere and just packed in the streets. I guess EVERYONE comes to Munich and shops there on Saturdays. We had a great time in Munich but it was definitely not our favorite city or a city that either of us thought we'd ever have any interest in going back to - unless it was for Oktoberfest (we could put up with the crowds for that)!! Munich seems a little schizophrenic - very old, massive buildings that have been converted to ugly, uncharming stores. Most other cities have also added shops to the ground floors of their old buildings, but Munich did it kind of crassly. The other thing that really hit us was the presence of Polizei everywhere - and lots of them. And in comparison to Switzerland which is sooooo clean, Munich was kind of dirty - trash overflowing in the trash cans on the streets, etc. Even with all of these considerations, we did have a very nice time and were glad that we went - my first time in Germany outside of the Frankfort airport and Deb says that doesn't count.

The most fun that we had - aside from lunch at the Hofbrau Haus - was shopping for Deb's dirndl. You know, Heidi clothes!! The TIGHT embroidered dresses with the little white puffy shirts underneath with lots of cleavage showing and the eyelet apron. She looks quite cute of course. When she tried it on, she couldn't get it zipped up so we asked the salesclerk for a larger size and she just said, "No, this fits," and yanked up the zipper. I think Deb can wear it if she doesn't eat anything - or breathe for that matter. I'm sure she'll blog on her dirndl so keep reading her blog for the post - and picture. Now Josh just needs to get his Lederhosen and they're set for their next party!! That, I want to see. Dinner that night was Italian. When we asked the concierge about restaurants and then told him I needed vegetarian, he switched his recommendation from Bavarian to Italian!! After dinner, we turned on the TV and what was on, but the German version of American Idol - and they were awful! They even have their own version of Simon Cowell.

Small world time. Having bagels the next morning at Coffee Fellows, we met an American who is in Munich working on a project for two weeks. Turns out he used to be a professor at the University of Iowa!! He told us about his book, The Oxford Project. When we got ready to leave, he gave us his business card - Peter Feldstein. I knew it - I'm in Munich, Germany and I find a Jewish guy from Iowa!! Check out The Oxford Project ( Also while we were there, we saw someone wearing a University of Texas Longhorns hat and another kid wearing a Minnesota t-shirt!

I'm used to clocks everywhere after a few weeks in Switzerland, but in Munich, there are CUCKOO clocks everywhere. Every size imaginable. Deb looked at buying one but I reminded her about the "Cuckoo, cuckoo" that they do over and over again - and make you crazy. The best clock there was on the Rathaus (the New Town Hall), the Glockenspiel. Every day at 11 a.m. it chimes and re-enacts two stories from the 16th century. It consists of 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures. The top half of the Glockenspiel tells the story of the marriage of the local Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lothringen. In honour of the happy couple there is a joust with life-sized knights on horseback representing Bavaria and Lothringen. The Bavarian knight wins every time of course. This is then followed by the bottom half and second story - Schäfflerstanz (the coopers' dance). In the 16th century a particularly bad period of the plague hit town and everyone went into hiding. The first people to dare go back onto the streets were barrel makers who performed a big dance to show that it was okay to come out again. The whole show lasts about 15 minutes. At the very end, a very small golden bird at the top of the Glockenspiel chirps three times, marking the end of the spectacle.

We walked and walked and walked - saw Maximilian this and Maximilian that - statues, streets, castles. Ended up walking through the English Gardens. I would describe them as the Central Park of Munich. There was a group of men and women who were surfing in the Isar River. They were great - wet suits from head to toe. Signs saying "Surfen und Baden Verboten" didn't stop them obviously. There are some videos on YouTube if you search for "Munich English Gardens Surfing".

Time for real Bavarian food - and real Bavarian beer! I of course had water but Deb said it was great - and BIG, huge steins of it. I think the stein was about as big as Deb - we figured about 3-4 beers - and little Deborah finished the whole thing. Deb had a platter of brats/weiners and sauerkraut and I had my favorite spetzle. It came with Käse (cheese) and Zwiebel (onions). My treat was a giant, hot, fresh Bretzel (not misspelled - that's what they're called here). The band was playing up a storm (think oom-pa-pa) and lots of people were dressed in their Sunday best - they really do dress like in the movies. You share tables and just have a wonderful, joyful time eating and drinking. This was the Germany I expected. I can't even imagine what it must be like during Oktoberfest. They even have a room where people have their personal biersteins locked up and I understand you have to get on a long waiting list to get one. Hard core beer drinkers in Bavaria.

We decided that we were tired and ready to just sit and have some coffee or tea - and maybe try a German dessert. So off to another Bavarian beer hall, the Weisses Brayhaus. Deb tried to order an apfelstrudel with vanilla ice cream but the very cute waitress in broken English shook her head no and pointed to another dessert. We thought that meant that they were out of strudel. She started to almost faint on the spot telling us in sign language how much better this other dessert was. Swooning was probably the right description. So we ordered the Kaiserschmarm. She was so right! OMG! A caramelized pancake with rum-soaked raisins, split into smaller pieces while frying and served with hausgemachten (a good word to learn to look for - homemade) applesauce. Wow!!! She was so right. (I said that already, didn't i??)

Back to Zurich. Pam went home on Monday morning so we were back to one Mommy at the Peterthals. Monday we had lunch at Google (sound like a broken record??) because Stella the Pug had a lunch date there with Emma the Pug. Deb and I then had the fun job of finding a laser printer in stores with no English. We did it. But then came the shlep to the bus, on the bus, and UP THE HILL. You know how big those printer boxes are. How did they ever get all of their apartment furnished and carried up those hills???

Tuesday, back to the train station. This time we trained it twice and then took a bus to Vals, spa-land. Ahhhhh.....mineral baths. Hotel Alpina Vals was our home until Thursday and it was a very nice vacation. The snow-covered Alps were everywhere you looked. Charming town. As I told Deb, I could just feel my blood pressure and heart rate slow down. to the baths!

Therme Spa is quite unique in its design. Vals is a very quaint small town that commissioned a famous architect to design a building suitable for their famous mineral baths. The building is built into the mountain all out of local Valser quartzite and very dark and modern and linear, with little nooks and crannies everywhere, all with different temperatures of the waters. We started in 32° C which was like a very nice warm bath. There were also baths in 34° C, 36° C (indoor and outdoor), 42° C and then the ice pool at 14° C (57.2° F) very appropriately named. My toes went in after the Fire Pool (107.6° F) but that's it. Some people actually emerged their whole bodies in it and then went back into the hot bath. There were the usual, but kind of bizarre, wet and dry saunas and even a nude bathing area. Deb wouldn't let me go in - maybe it's because the people who went in right before that were these little old man and his wife. Our favorite was the "grotto" bath at 34° C - a small square secluded, quiet area with nice gentle whirlpool jets. The next day we went back after a nice long walk and also had foot massages in their spa. (Kurt, you are so much better than Jenny was!!!)

Of course I have to tell you about the food in Vals. Our hotel served us dinner and breakfast since we had a package with half pension. We did not expect 4-course gourmet dinners. Wow! Our waitress was the best and so accommodating to make sure my meals were vegetarian, even without us notifying them before we arrived. Our second night there she even had written out the menu in English so she'd get it all correct and had veggie options already selected for me. We had some wonderful pumpkin soup (Kürbissuppe) and apple-pumpkin soup (Apfel-Kürbissuppe). Again, cream and butter...I'm trying to find a recipe and make it "healthy" - oh, and taste yummy too.

On Thursday we reversed our route and walked to the bus stop and took a bus and then a train and then another train and then a tram and then walked up the hills to Deb's and then back down again and back on a tram to a bus and walked to her friend's to pick up Stella (and yes, then back on a bus to a tram to the hills to the apartment)! We had just over 24 hours to recuperate and pack and leave again (and deliver Stella to another friend's to dogsit), this time for a long weekend in Prague. Deb says we're staying put after that.

Next week we are going to try making a few recipes before I leave. Any suggestions??? And still on my list before I go home is Cheese Fondue - so many foods to try; so little time!

Coming home Monday...

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