The past two weeks of the journey have taken me to Köenigstein, Germany to spend with my cousin Sarah, her husband Tom and their 3 awesome kids: Sam - age 4, Vivienne - who turns 3 in 2 weeks, and Teddy - a sweet 5 month old little guy. I'm so thankful to have had this time with them! And I'll tell you why.
But first, some background.
I have lots of awesome cousins but Sarah is the cousin I've spent the most time with growing up. I remember being excited to spend night after night at Grandma and Grandpa's house but it was even more exciting if Sarah was staying as well. I recall making keys from paperclips and strips of paper to play hotel, singing Billy Idol's Mony, Mony in Uncle Chuck's old bedroom, dishing up Ruffles and ranch dressing for Gramps on motorhome trips and years of horse show memories with Grandpa, Grandma and Aunt Karen. And through the years we haven't seen each other more than once a year and maybe for just a few hours at a time. But we have a great history with each other and we just seem to "get" each other.
Sarah and Tom moved to Germany in the fall of 2012 because of Tom's job with Price Waterhouse Coopers. They had previously lived for 2 years in Moscow about 5 years ago and then started their family in Chicago before packing up last year. I love that their sense of adventure and passion for traveling and experiencing other cultures has not changed even with the arrival of children. This summer they spent a week in Paris when Teddy was just a month old. And only got around using the Metro! Impressive!
And so I shouldn't have been surprised when they proposed a weekend trip to Bruges, Belguim with an overnight in the Netherlands. Sarah found an amazing hotel the day before, they packed the kids in the car and away we went! We made a quick stop at the Haribo candy factory. I may have been just as happy as the kids to be able to stock up on the best candy in the world. (I do believe this is at least the 5th blog post this candy has been mentioned in. I do wish I could share this candy with you all. Instead you will have to imagine the sweet and sour and creamy and gummy candy that I call "red rope.")
We had planned next to make a stop in Cologne but instead made a game time decision to check out the charming village of Valkenberg, Netherlands. The remnants of the Christmas market were left behind... including some awesome apple benigets and brats. I also got my first glimpse of the famous Dutch canals. But the highlight may have been snuggling little Teddy in the Baby Bjorn all day. So sweet!
We ventured another hour to our home for the evening at the Hotel Winselerhof Immediately we were in awe of the grounds and started to dream up some Bed and Breakfast dreams. The grounds were made up of an old barn and stables surrounded by a vineyard. We had an awesome little family friendly suite that was perfect for the company.
And the menu of the restaurant on the premises seemed as though the chef asked himself, "I wonder what food Ashley likes the most? Let's put that on the menu." It made the choice difficult but I settled for the carpaccio on focaccia, mushroom ravioli and finished with tiramisu. I do have a rule that if tiramisu is on the menu, I must order it. I know it's a cruel rule that I've made for myself. Not gonna lie, the tiramisu was far from the best but the rest of the experience was wonderful...amazing ambience, fantastic flavors and cozy company.
The next morning we were awaken by a soft pitter-patter of rain that Sarah and I loved the sound of. Unfortunately we planned to be walking around Bruges that day... not the most fun in the rain. After an amazing breakfast spread we made the trek to a little town that I had just heard of this year when both my best friend from high school, Kristen, and best friend from college, Annie, both happened to be visitng this spring at the same time. I heard it was fantastic so I was excited to be experiencing it myself. As we arrived, the sky cleared up and as we exited the crazy high tech parking garage, we were immediately captivated. The Magisto video I made doesn't do it justice so you'll just have to visit yourself. But maybe this can inspire you.
We all decided that 4 hours was FAR to short to experience the amazing architecture, food and ambience of this Belgium town. But I quickly declared my misson for the day was to accomplish the consumption of the self-declared "Belgium Trifecta": Belgian Waffles, Belgian Beer and Belgian Chocolates. I had no problem accomplishing this task, even considering our time constraints. (If you are wondering, the "I'm in the best shape of my life" comment from 3 posts back has become an innacurate comment temporarily. But, I'll be working off my Frankfurt physique in two days as our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro begins. The timing couldn't be better.) And again, I was on Teddy duty again, happily! This kid is amazing! A combined 7 hours in a car seat and 4 hours in a Baby Bjorn and he didn't make even a whimper. And Sam and Viv were major troopers in venturing all over the town.
In the end, it would be an understatement to say that our excursion was delightful! At the same time, I was just as delighted to spend time at home with the Ouimettes. Living the solo life allows for great flexibility and independence. But it's also nice to be plugged into a family unit. Sarah and Tom might not feel the same, but I came to love the routine of family life. Breakfast for the kids, coffee for the adults. Doing dishes. Doing laundry. Coming up with a dinner plan. Winding down the evening with a good movie and a glass of wine. And sitting on the couch. I didn't know how much I missed just lounging on a couch. It hasn't happened in 3.5 months! That would be another to add to my list of "small things."
And yet again, the theme that its "all about the people" holds true for these two weeks here.
I love that I got to experience, first hand, Sam's love for trains. He got a big boy train set, including a "high speed" train for Christmas. On car trips, his sixth sense is spotting any train in the vicinity. And he anticipates his first job will be a train driver. Personally, I think he will be designing a high speed rail system to bring the United States up to "speed" with the rest of the developed world. I also got to experience his depth of knowledge on volcanoes and lava in a twenty minute monologue last night that was quite impressive, creative and entertaining. The kid is sweet AND smart!
I love that I got to experience, first hand, Miss Viv's "sass" as Sarah and Tom call it. "Sass" indeed. On the car ride home from Bruges, she informed all of us that she was "in charge." There is not a doubt in any of our minds that she believes this to the fullest extent. And just when she takes the sass a bit to far, Viv turns on the "sweet" and melts your heart. She'll run up and give you a big hug, say "I Love You!" or just give you the cutest glance with her sweet eyes and mouth. Did I mention she turns 3 next month? AND she gets to start school next month. Get ready Frankfurt International School. I know Viv is!
I love that I got to experience, first hand, what Sarah has long claimed to be the happiest baby in the world. Sweet Teddy and I bonded. I felt like I could be the most helpful to Sarah and Tom by holding him as much as possible, but really I was just being selfish. I loved his laugh as much as his snoring as he fell asleep on my shoulder. I'm so thankful to have gotten time with him, especially at this fun baby stage. I can't wait to see what he grows up to be.
I love that I got some quality time with Tom. I know that he works hard, but I admire the way he makes the most of the time he has with his family during his time off. It was fun to see him down on the floor with Sam teaching him how to play with his "big boy" train, naming Viv's pink Barbie pony "Pinkalicious" and snuggling with little Teddy during the Bears game... (Sore subject... Sorry Bears fans). And when the kids were asleep, he expanded my musical library as always. I now know about great music from Brad Mehldow, Red House Painters and Blakroc. I shared the joy of TED talks with him and he reciprocated by sharing some of his favorites from "This American Life." He also declared that 2014 would be a great year to reinstate the FIEE, "Family Intellectual Expansion Exchange" which was this amazing virtual dialog that took place among many family members by sharing thought provoking articles and then creating a platform for discussion. (Yes, this family is perfect for me.) I'm in! Who's with us??
And, of course, I love the time I got with Sarah. Her life is full with three little ones but she manages to keep things in perspective. Despite being pulled in every direction, she manages to be a great listener with an amazing memory. She managed to do whatever she could to make me feel at home... chocolate and fresh flowers in my room, free reign to raid her fabulous closet and treating me to many of her culinary favorites.
So yesterday, as I began to pack my bag, it hit me that this was the first stop on my journey that I was truly sad to leave. That's not to say that I enjoyed my experiences everywhere else any less. I think it's clear that I've loved every stop on the itinerary. But this one was different. It just goes to show that the bonds of family can run deep and that being with people who "get" you can make any place feel like home.
Sarah and Tom, thanks for opening your home to me these past two weeks. Your extreme generosity can never be repaid but I'd hope to be able to offer my hospitality to your family for a Colorado visit when you return to the states!
Although sad to be leaving, I have a grateful heart for my blessed time in Germany.
Oh. And I also loved my king sized bed with crisp, clean sheets, four pillows (although I could get by on 3) and a fantastic down comforter. But now... It's back to sleeping bag / sleep sack living for the foreseeable future. Such is life.