Vienne, tu me manques

We left for Vienna on December 24. We hadn’t been in Vienna for quite a while – we changed trains there in the summer but didn’t stay over night. We spent a single night there on the way to a wedding in June. But I think the last holiday in Vienna was a long weekend in March, when the triplets celebrated their second birthday.

So, as usual, we spent the week in a hectic blur of food and people. We met with my family on the 26th, Gergö’s family on the 29th and friends on all the other days. We were staying in the 7th district, very centrally and close to Mariahilfer Straße, which is a big shopping street. There were trams and the most useful of all busses, the 13A really close by. So I had the opportunity to play a lot of Pokemon Go during my week in Vienna. I could turn a lot of Pokestops on the tram and bus and hatch eggs and even put the occasional Pokemon in an arena.

I also went shopping – we found ourselves with a couple of hours to spend right on the biggest shopping street of Vienna. I bought a ridiculously huge dark red down coat. It even has fleece lined pockets! Several people commented on the size of it and how I look like Bibendum (the official name of the Michelin man, as I recently learned on twitter). I would have preferred it in black, obviously, but it was the red one that was 60% off, so I will be snug and smug in my ridiculous enormous coat.

Despite my declared dislike for Christmas markets, I managed to visit two in my week in Vienna.

Because we met with so many people we went to a lot of cafés and restaurants. And people in Vienna still smoke inside. We had brunch at a place that is non-smoking for breakfast, but it reeked of smoke from the night before. And even weirder: there are little stickers to show if a place is smoking or non-smoking or both and the non-smoking stickers are red and the “smoking is allowed” stickers are green.

When we visited some friends in the 14th district they told us that they have a Chinese restaurant around the corner that they’d love to try, but you are allowed to smoke inside. And as we walked past the restaurant we all glanced inside and there really were people smoking away at the restaurant tables. Very unreal.

I noticed two other things I apparently really got used to in France: When you enter a restaurant or bar or brasserie or café in Paris, in most cases you wait to be seated. Sometimes you are told: sit wherever you like but mostly you are seated. I went to a café with a friend and there were people waiting for a table that was about to become free and my friend suggested to look around for a table for two. I wanted to say something like “surely we’ll be seated right after them” when I realised: nobody cares where/if we find a place, it’s everybody for themselves in here.

Then I, the person to stop at red lights in Paris, found myself impatiently crossing at red in Vienna – with the exact same excuse as everyone here: There was no traffic! There’s really no point in waiting around at a red traffic light if there are no cars! And I promptly crossed the road in plain view of the police while looking in their direction. I didn’t get a ticket, though. Probably because it was in the middle of the night and there really was no other traffic. And today I almost got run over by a motorcycle because I was so busy avoiding Puddles (and checking Pokemon Go on my phone) I didn’t see that the light had turned red again.

I also noticed things that changed in Vienna: There are far fewer firecrackers before New Year’s Eve. When I lived across a playground in the 2000s, it felt like the teenagers from the school around the corner tried to blow themselves up every day of December. And it was still bad a few years ago, when we looked after Gergö’s former dog. Now it’s much quieter and I only heard firecrackers on the 30th and 31st. All that’s left to learn for Austrians is that the firework starts at midnight.

In a weird counter example to my experience in Viennese cafés, I saw a queue in front of café Sperl on Gumpendorfer Straße. People were actually standing outside in the cold waiting to have coffee in there. It seemed ludicrous to me. I remember Sperl as the place with the most worn down leather chairs and grumpiest waitresses and it was really smoky, too, though that may have changed since I last went there (in 2008 maybe?). I bet the café is mentioned in a guide book as the real Viennese experience and that makes people willing to queue for overpriced coffee.

Luckily we got to see a lot of my nieces, the triplets, as well. They love to sing right now and will burst into strange songs at any occasion. When we had a playdate with friends who have a daughter of the same age, two of them grabbed hold of railings in the hallway, dangled from them and sang “Hoch sollst du leben / an der Decke kleben / runterfallen, Popschi knallen / so ist das Leben” (“you shall be celebrated / stick to the ceiling / fall down, hurt your bum / that’s life” – I just checked, there’s a category called birthday songs on Wikipedia, but the original version of this song is missing, just like the children’s version).

Anyway, everytime they sang “runterfallen” they let themselves drop to the floor. Songs seem to be a way to get them to do stuff – as long as it’s not being quiet. There’s a song about a bear sleeping where they will immediately lie down and pretend to be a sleeping bear. They even include the snoring noises sometimes. The trouble is it goes on: the bear wakes up and then hops, hops, hops, or stamps, stamps, stamps, or dances, dances, dances all day long.

The apartment complex where my sister lives has communal spaces. We took the kids’ new train set and went to the “theatre”. It’s just a big room that could be used as a stage. Not half as fancy as the cinema room or the communal kitchen. The theatre just had the problem that the lights went out every 5 minutes. Whenever that happened H. would scream, get up and run towards the sensor, while I. spontaneously started to sing Bruder Jakob / Frère Jacques. She even sang it in French, well, an approximation of it.

We also went to the climbing room. The girls would have preferred the slide room, but they are still a bit too small to climb the ladders alone and we wouldn’t fit in the slides in case they got scared and needed support. The climbing room is mostly interesting for the big mat that covers most of its floor. While two of the kids ran around playing catch and doing summersaults, A. rearranged our coats and played with my handbag. I gave it to her thinking there’s nothing in there that could break. She promptly took out the USB cable and stuck the micro-USB end into the regular one. “That works?”, my sister asked. “Only with force.”

I showed her how to plug it into my external battery instead – I figured it might save her hours of time if she learns early on how to plug in a USB cable the right way up.

When it was time to brush their teeth before bed, they weren’t impressed my by rendition of “Zähneputzen, zähneputzen, das wird deinen Zähnen nutzen” though. I didn’t think anybody else knew this song. We had to sing it in kindergarten while the other kids brushed their teeth until it was our turn at the sink. Now I googled it and apparently it’s a thing to motivate kids to brush their teeth. Well, it didn’t work.

Later in the week we met with Gergö’s family, including his two nephews. His brother was impressed how much more experience we have with little kids now (“please sit down on the chair to drink”, “use both hands to hold the glass!”, “Ok, I’ll walk up and down the stairs with you, but you have to hold my hand!”). It was also the one and only occasion for me to impress someone with Pokemon Go. The 5-year-old was interested in the game, and duly impressed by my Pikachu wearing a Santa hat and my strongest Pokemon, a Tyranitar with over 3000 CP. He even caught a Sentrett while we waited for the train and only needed 5 or 6 Pokeballs to do it. Most grown ups’ reaction is “Somebody is still playing this?”

We also met his other brother’s fiancée. But Gergö didn’t get a chance to talk much or ask about the dress code for the upcoming wedding because his crown came loose. So we spent the evening at the dentist on weekend duty.

the smile of a real princess.

It wasn’t really how I wanted to spend the evening, but it could have been much worse. Across from us in the waiting room was a girl with her parents whose horse had kicked her in the face. Her dad carried bits of her front teeth in a tupperware container.

While I was waiting for Gergö to finish two young men showed up – one had a toothache, the other came to help with translation. When they struggled with the information form I offered my cell phone as a dictionary. They had brought their own, but readily introduced themselves – (Hello, I’m XYZ from Syria!) And while the translator’s German was pretty good, they were happy to have some help with words like Herzschrittmacher/pacemaker, Spritze/injection and the like.

The doctor glued Gergös crown back into place and most of the visit was spent waiting for the cement to dry. And it was also fairly low on bureaucracy for Gergö: He filled out two forms with the data on his European health insurance card and didn’t have to pay anything. He reckons there will be a bill from his French insurance at some point.


À l’enfer et de retour

We just returned home from holidays in Austria. When I last saw my family in Salzburg in May I asked them if they wanted to go on a holiday together. My office closes for two weeks in August, so I had to take the time off anyway. And I wanted to see my family, but I also wanted to do something that feels more like a holiday than hanging out at my mom’s and my sister’s place.

They agreed and so we went looking for a place to rent for a week for 6 to 8 adults and 4 small kids. I’d have loved to go to Croatia, but the triplets aren’t up for long car rides. In the end we decided on lake Neusiedl. It’s only an hour from Vienna. I didn’t find anything on Airbnb but I got some recommendations from a friend so I found apartments in Podersdorf. It’s the only beach of lake Neusiedl, all other places have the Schilfgürtel (a belt of reeds around the lake, sometimes several kilometres deep).

The apartments were in an area from Podersdorf that time forgot. Dark red curtains, weird green couches, balcony tables far to large for the balcony. My sister thinks they just put everything that’s no longer needed in the nice hotel in these apartments. It was cheap, though, and there was a Spar with excellent air conditioning only 200 metres away. And a little playground (a swing, a plastic house, and a slide) in the yard right underneath a tree. My sister had even packed an inflatable pool for the kids.

Apparently they are really proud of their heating, not that we ever needed it.

I mention the air conditioning, because it was really very hot. I’d happily run all shopping related errands just to check out the supermarket’s drinks department, separated by a door and extra cool. When I booked the apartment I was a little worried what we’d do with 3 cranky toddlers if it rained for an entire week. Summers in Austria are no guarantee for sunshine. They can go either way. But instead of rain we had a week of 32 – 35 degrees celsius. The lake had the temperature of a bathtub.

The cool thing about Podersdorf is that the lake doesn’t get much deeper than 1m there. Even I can comfortably walk all the way to the buoys. It also means that when we went into the water with the triplets my shoulders were rarely under water and despite the SPF 50 I got a sunburn on the first day.

The kids have just started to enjoy the water more – they have been visiting my dad’s partner’s family and their pool and I think their step cousins left a big impression. A. mentioned their diving several times (“auch untertauchen!”) and wanted to try as well. She only ever let the water cover her mouth, swallowing a bit of sea water, but on the last day she wanted to go without the floating tyre, to practice.

The other cool thing about lake Neusiedl is that with the apartment you get a card that lets you use the bus and the Strandbad for free. I misplaced mine about 2 days in and posed as my brother in law for the next several days. I blamed the loss of my card on the kids – they often showed up in our room before 7 am to watch youtube videos or photos. Sometimes I could keep them busy (and let their parents and sisters sleep a little longer), but sometimes the videos just didn’t cut it and they went back to their room to ask “Mama, mama, mama!” until she woke up (“Oh, she woke up!”). I still have the earworms from all the children’s songs in my head and they will never leave me (“Daddy finger, daddy finger weh a yu.”)

A few years ago I was at a friends party and somebody there kept saying “Lieb sein, nicht zwicken!” to their kid all the time. He never tried to pinch me, so I found her constant reminder more annoying than his interest in his surroundings.

With the triplets, my sister had to be more specific on occasion: Don’t pinch, scratch, bite or push your sister!” They could be extremely cute, all three of them on a tire swing on the playground, singing “happy birthday to you, marmalade im schuh” for every person they know. But they can be grumpy little beasts when they get tired and hungry and nothing is more tiring than a day at the beach.

We also went on a carriage ride in the nature reserve. Two mares pulled our carriage and impressed the kids. We got to see white donkeys, which are bred there. We saw herons and geese and cows. And we saw very little water – the summer has been so dry that a lot of the marshland that makes up the nature reserve has dried up. The coachman kept pointing out the places that are usually water.

An old drawing well and a tent like structure for sheperds

The lack of water meant that there were fewer mosquitoes than usual, but Gergö is still covered in many, many purple welts. Normally it’s me with the giant swollen mosquito bites, I don’t know why they went after him this time. I appreciate it, though. They even stung him on his ear, the soles of his feet and inside his belly button.

I’m a giant hypochondriac, so I immediately assumed Lyme disease when some of the stings developed a red circle. Then the red cross called and asked for blood donations and we found out that visits to Lower Austria get you banned from donating blood in France for 4 weeks, because there’s West Nile Virus.

It turned out to be an allergic reaction, of course, but now that I read up on West Nile Virus I have an entirely new disease with vague symptoms I can imagine having.

On Saturday my dad visited and we went on a boat ride. It was just families with little kids, a lot of “Arthur, be careful!”, “Leni, don’t lean out of the boat.” We went past Hölle, the hottest corner of Austria, apparently.

Then, in the afternoon we rented a pedal boat. We got one that looked like a beetle car and had a slide down the front of the boat. I imagined it would be dangerous, having these difficult to steer boats with kids sliding down being squished between them. But the lake is so shallow everyone but the kids could just stop the boats and even steer them from the outside while we were waiting to catch the sliding kids.

At the moment stand up paddling is all the rage and my brother in law recently got a board. I thought you just stand on a surf board, but the SUP is in fact inflatable. I tried it out as well and promptly fell on my butt. With a little instruction from the resident paddler, the second attempt went okay. It’s really not that difficult and my sense of equilibrium isn’t bad after all these years of yoga and pilates. But sports in a swimsuit on a reflecting surface must be the worst idea for someone with my skin color.

On the weekend Podersdorf had a Feuerwehrfest, the equivalent of the bal de pompiers in France. We dropped by for a cheap beer and terrible oompah music. It turns out there’s a Hungarian version of Rosamunde and my brother in law knows all the words to it.

Feuerwehrfest traditions

On Sunday it finally cooled down and it was windy. The lake was covered in the sails of kite surfers.

We had to get to Vienna to catch out flight, so we packed and left by bus. Then we took a train to Vienna, and Gergö forgot his suitcase on the train. He noticed 5 minutes after leaving the train but it was already gone when he went back to check. We spent a few hours trying to get it back, but the lost & found is closed on a Sunday and all we could do was write a message to get it delivered to France.

The ÖBB will send the suitcase to France for 30 €, that’s the same price as booking an extra piece of luggage for a cheap flight by Austrian Airlines, in case you were wondering. The one thing I’m concerned about is the damp towel I wrapped my damp biknis in before packing it in Gergös suitcase. I’ll find out if polyester molds soon enough, I guess. Maybe this means Gergö will stop making fun of me for the time I forgot to pack knickers for a week in Vienna. Probably not.


Allons enfants!

We are having a long weekend. Friday was Bastille Day, French independence day.

I asked my colleagues at work what is traditional to do on this day, but they just shrugged and said get drunk on champagne. When I asked again in our chat a couple of my colleagues tried to convince me it’s tradition to give presents to your coworkers. I am naive, but I didn’t fall for that one.

Recently a coworker said something in French with a fake American accent. I laughed, because I found it funny that he can do French with American accent but not American with an American accent. I asked him if he can do German accents as well. He sheepishly replied he did fake German accents several times but I never noticed. I can totally believe this and found it very funny. He even made the gesture that says “it went right over your head” to explain how I never noticed anyone speaking with a German accent. Since then I heard him do the accent and noticed it, but to me it sounds more like a Dutch accent. I strongly deny that my v’s sound like f’s! Another colleague who learned German in school and can still quote Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude does a better German accent, I thought. The other colleagues think it doesn’t count since he knows some German.

Back to the holiday weekend: as we learned on “What the fuck, France“, on the night before July 14th there are often firefighter balls. We went to the one in Palaiseau last year. It had a band that played French hits,sausages, and a VIP lounge for the mayor, and they were really proud of a productinvented in Palaiseau: plastic bags that fit a wine bottle. You freeze them to keep your wine cold.

I found it quite an authentic thing – like a Jahrmarkt or Feuerwehrfest would be in Austria. So we visited the bal de pompiers in the 12th district. They emptied out the fire station to make room for the main stage, the junk food truck and the beer and champagne bar. And they parked the fire trucks outside, so the garage could double as a disco. So far, so identical with anything comparable in Austria. Only the firefighters are indeed very fit in France and there’s no grilled chicken.

The band played a lot of film themed cover songs with costumes and choreography. I learned that there is a Lucky Luke song, only it’s pronounced Lüky Lük in French and not Löcky lük, as I would have expected.

We also checked out the “disco” and it was awesome. There was a group of teenage boys who showed up and danced. They impressed the girls so much, they got applause and were cheered on. At some point there was breakdancing. The crowd cheered! A white haired lady joined them on the dancefloor – Not breakdancing, but showing off her moves. She got a big round of applause. A little girl wearing a white dress, she can’t have been older than 10, did a split on the dancefloor. The teenage boys, middle aged ladies and little girls were a lot cooler than I remember my adolescence.

The other thing we tried out on Thursday night, even before ogling the pompiers and seamen, was the terrace of the hotel opposite our house. We’d been walking past the terrace several times but it was always closed. It’s in the backyard of an ugly Ibis hotel, looking out over the park. It has food trucks and furniture made from palettes and potted pear trees – what’s not to like?

I finally gave up just showing up there and hoping it would be open and googled the place. Turns out they made this fancy terrace but hate money so much that they only open it once a week – on Thursdays.

To be honest: fried maki won’t be my new favourite food.

On July 14th Gergö and I both had a moment where we thought “The train station is loud today, and sounds different from normal.” At about the same time we realised that it’s the air show over the Champs Elysees that went past our house as well.

In the evening we met up with a German friend and had our own little barbecue: there’s a place on Rue du Pot de Fer that offers barbecue on a hot stone. While we sat and ate a photographer with a big fancy camera walked around our table neighbours and took a million photos of them eating. Or possibly close ups of the hot stone.

Halfway during our meal the group left only to settle down at a bar across the street, still followed by the photographer. We don’t know any French celebrities, so we just said “must be an instagram star” and kept on eating. Right as we were leaving a young man bearing flowers walked past. He was also followed by photographers. He disappeared pretty quickly but a little further down the road we heard a crowd cheering and finally the young man in a woman’s embrace. There was kissing, and clapping and two people filming everything. I wonder if it’s up on YouTube yet.

We made our way to the Seine – we sort of wanted to see the fireworks, but really wanted to avoid the crowd. Along the Seine and on various bridges across people were already gathering at 10 pm. There were picknicks, beer, and champagne. We walked past a fairly busy area and settled down across the Musée d’Orsay.

I don’t include a picture of the Eiffel Tower on purpose – the light show is under copyright and you are not supposed to publish pictures of the Eiffel Tower lit up. The law of freedom of panorama (Panoramafreiheit) is limited in France (and Belgium, as far as I know).

Only at 11pm, when the fireworks started, did we realise why so many people were sitting a little further away: the firework was not actually higher than the Eiffel Tower, but about at the same height. So when you can only see the top third of the tower and the rest is covered by buildings and trees, you don’t see a lot of fireworks either. Oh well, we did our civic duty of watching the fireworks even if it was only a little bit of it.


La tête dans les nuages

Last Friday I left work early to fly to Salzburg, for my grandparents birthdays. I took the metro to get to the train, to go to the airport where I took the plane to Salzburg, the bus to the main train station, and the train to Taxenbach-Rauris. There we were picked up by car by my sister. Remind me of that journey the next time I claim I don’t need a drivers license.

The whole family stayed at holiday apartments at a farm on 1200m elevation. We slept in downstairs, so I when I woke up I could hear the triplets running around a floor above us. In the mornings I would walk up to the other apartment through the finest drizzle. It took me a while to realise that we had been inside a cloud and the could was drifting up during the morning.

 


Basse Terre est plus grande que Grande Terre

One of the highlights of our holiday certainly was the little excursion we did to Basse Terre. Basse means low or down but it’s actually higher than Grande Terre (the island we stayed on) and also bigger. The name is misleading. Basse can also mean down, and it’s called Basse Terre because it’s downwind of Grande Terre.

Basse Terre has more agriculture than Grande Terre, because it receives a lot of rain. At least the side that’s protected by la soufrière, the volcano. The area surrounding the volcano is a nature reserve and a national park.

We started our tour by visiting a beautiful waterfall, Cascade aux Ecrevisses.

Cascade aux Ecrevisses

I am a little jaded with regards to waterfalls after visiting Iceland. But even I have to admit that the rainforest is beautiful.

We continued out tour at the botanical gardens, where it started to rain heavily. They are prepared for this, though and handed us all an umbrella. The garden used to belong to Coluche, our guide told us. Everyone nodded and I didn’t dare ask, fearing it would be a really important French statesman. Turns out he was a French comedian (so I think it’s okay that I’d never heard of him).

The garden has an aviary for rainbow lorikeets, an Australian species of parrot. You can walk inside the aviary and buy a bit of nectar from a dispenser. Then all the birds will approach and try to steal the little cup from you. It was loud and very awesome.

As you can see from the pictures, they move fast and I was equal parts delighted and scared with having birds sit on me and steal food.

For lunch we got a little lecture on rhum and mixology. Gergö went for ti’punch, as usual, and I tried my aperitif with the fruit of the cashew nut. I didn’t even know that it exists. According to Wikipedia it’s called cashew apple, but I only saw it in the form of confit. It tasted sweet and like fruit and it might as well have been peach or plum, to be honest. I’m not complaining, though.

rum with the fruits of cashew nuts

After lunch we went to Malendure beach, where the sand is black from the volcanic stone. We boarded a little boat that took us out to pidgeon island.

The area is the Jacques Cousteau water reserve. The boat had a glass bottom and we could watch the fish (and the divers) while we sailed. Once out there we also got masks and went snorkelling ourselves.

 


La Guadeloupe

The second week of our holiday we spent in Guadeloupe. It consists of several islands. The two main islands, Basse Terre and Grande Terre, are like butterfly wings meeting in the middle. They are in fact connected by two brides.

On Guadeloupe we stayed in a much smaller hotel directly in Sainte Anne. The hotel was in walking distance to the municipal beach, a market, several sorbet vendors, a few supermarkets, lots of restaurants and a Pokéstop.

The view from the breakfast terrace

I liked being closer to infrastructure and shops and I indulged in coconut sorbet almost every day. The vendors are everywhere and I wanted to try them all out. One called herself the doyenne de sorbet and had a sign which listed all her tv appearances. I think her coconut sorbet contained a little ginger and maybe nutmeg, it was delicious.

Best coconut sorbet ever.

The sorbetière is on the left. The sorbet is in a container the middle, surrounded by ice. When you order sorbet, they crank the handle a little to turn the container inside the ice. The ice block on the right is for making snow cones, called sno bol.

Usually we would lie in our lovely garden with a view of the sea and walk the 30 metres to the municipal beach for a swim. One day we explored la caravelle, instead. It came recommended by my friend V, who went to Guadeloupe in summer.

It was a 20 minute walk along the beach, past a small fishing harbour with lobster traps. We didn’t go through the revolving door, but I still wonder why there used to be a barbed wire fence. The cab driver on Martinique explained that all beaches are public, so maybe there used to be hotels that tried to keep the locals out but not anymore.

Unlike my friend, we didn’t see any iguanas, but we saw lots of pelicans flying, diving and swimming not far from us. Since there weren’t any sorbetières we had to make do with floup, which is surprisingly good. There was a former interior designer from France metropole who left it all behind to sell crêpes on Guadeloupe. She made an excellent job, too, the ones with sugar and lime were great.

Gergö and I finally got up the courage to order langouste in a restaurant.

The langoustes are cut in half and then thrown on the barbecue as is.

It’s quite intimidating, they leave everything on – the head, the hairy legs, everything!

I’m too squeamish for all this. I don’t like to undress my food before I eat it, much less wrestle with it. So I still don’t understand what caused me to order a prawn skewer.

It was good and slightly less intimidating than the langouste. But probably equally dangerous what with giving me a  pointy sharp object right when I’m hungry. I love that you always get sweet potatoes, plantains, yam (which is called igname) and other local vegetables if you order legume pays.

I think you know everything about our holiday when you look at the pictures: all the photos I took are either of food, the beach or the view from the hotel.

 

Except for the one picture from the market.

 


Fort de France & Nord de la Martinique

We booked a bus tour of the North of the island to get to know more than just our little beach. We were expecting a bus full of elderly French people and except for the young women with a selfie stick, that’s what we got. I have preconceptions about German tourists abroad and was suprised to learn that quite a few of those preconceptions are true for French tourists as well. At least they wear the same kind of terribly patterned holiday clothes and also get loud and drunk when there’s wine for lunch. They don’t complain about the air conditioning as much as Austrians and Germans do, though.

Our tour took us to a church in Ford de France that was built in the image of scare coeur.

After the church we visited the botanical gardens. 
Our guide was a bit of a botanist and language buff and explained lots of words by their greek or latin roots. There was one couple on the bus who didn’t speak French, so he explained everything twice and I had a chance to catch the stuff I didn’t understand in French when he repeated them in English. That worked pretty well for me.

On this trip I learned bananas are not palm trees but a type of grass (like bamboo). And the tiny bananas you sometimes get are actually a different kind, not the Cavendish banana. Bananas take 9 months to grow and the plant dies after the harvest. Before they do, they produce one or more offshoots from which the new banana plant is grown. Banana season is all year long, so in the one grove we visited there were almost ripe bananas as well as those who had just bloomed.

In French the plant on which bananes grow are called a bananiers and it’s the same pattern for all fruits. You just add the syllable -ier at the end.

We also visited the infamous mont pelé. That was one of the few things I had read up on before climbing on the plane – the eruption of the volcano of 1902 that killed every person but one in the then capital of Martinique, Saint Pierre. When I think of volcanoes, I think of lava flowing down a mountain. So I didn’t get how something relatively slow moving can kill an entire town.
 The eruption of 1902 was a pyroclastic surge though. It means basically that the core of the mountain heated up but very little of that heat and gas escaped upwards. Right until one side of the mountain collapsed and an avalanche of stones, ash, and hot gas swept down the caved in mountainside and right into the town. The air was so hot it incinerated trees and structures. People died from the intense heat and/or the poisonous gas. The sole survivor was in an underground cell of the prison that was badly ventilated and he barely made it and was badly burned. There were more survivors apparently, but they were much further away from the town center – either on boats that were pushed out into the sea by the explosion or on the boundaries of the town where the heat was less intense. It was the same type of eruption as when Mount Saint Helen exploded.

After 1902 the main city of Martinique became Fort de France and it’s the commercial hub still today. The capital of Martinique is Paris, though (The guide made a point of explaining that to us.) Saint Pierre is a fishing village of a few thousand inhabitants now. It never quite recovered. You can visit ruins of a theatre and the prison.

Lunch was very Martiniquaise: We had planter’s punch / planteur as aperitif. Accras and spicy black pudding / boudin noir carraïbe for starters, followed by Colombo pork, a stew with Indian spices. And the lunch spot was quite interesting too: We were at a restaurant on Mont Pelé. It’s forever shrouded in clouds and looks like the end of the world.

Looks are very deceiving though. It was windy, but still very warm and humid.

We continued our tour at a rum distillery. There was a very short intorduction into the production of rum, followed by a tasting. The rum of Martinique and Guadeloupe is called rhum agricole and is made from fermented sugar cane juice, not from molasses as on other Caribbean islands. It’s burned to a very high alcohol percentage and then watered down to 40% for rum that’s exported and 50% for the rum that is consumed locally. The local drinks are planteur (planter’s punch) which is a mix of fruit juices and rum and ti punch. When you order ti punch you often get served the bottle of rum, lime slices and a bowl of cane sugar and you help yourself. You squeeze the lime, drop it into the glas and use it to dissolve the sugar. Then you add rum.  You stir. That’s it. It’s an aperitif and like all mixed drinks usually made with white rum. The aged ones are amber and darker, depending on how long they aged and in what kind of barrels. They are usually drunk pure after a meal.

Apparently every year’s output tastes a little differently – the sugar cane is sweeter when it’s hotter and better when it rains at all the right times and not the weeks before the harvest. I doubt I will develop a palate fine enough to vintage, though.

The only other trip we did on Martinique was to the capital main town, Fort de France. We tried to figure out how to go there by bus, but we couldn’t find a connection. Busses are organised by town and we couldn’t find any reliable information on busses connecting towns. The hotel wasn’t helpful either. They just said that busses are too complicated but they could call a taxi. They wouldn’t say how much that would cost either not even approximately.

The shortest route to Fort de France was via a ferry from across the bay. Our driver was the kind that likes to chat, and immediately started to explain. There are two things you shouldn’t do when on holiday: get stressed about time and try to save money. “This is going to be expensive”, I thought. And it was: about 50€. The ferry across to Ford de France was 7 € for the return trip.

we were on a boat

the fort

We spent half a day in FdF, walking the streets and visiting the covered market. Whenever we get close to a market Gergö goes into purchase prevention mode and tries to talk me out of buying anything. We could agree on getting a giant avocado for dinner and had a great lunch upstairs.

I also bought a sim card and after lots of hand wringing managed to activate it. After visiting the Schoelcher library and the headleass Jsephine we tried to visit the Fort, but we couldn’t find an entry. Walking around it we found a little public beach instead and a corner where iguanas hung out.

We used the new found connectivity to play Pokemon go (obviously) and to research alternatives to the taxi ride home. We found a page listing Taxis Collectifs and with lots of trial and error found a line that went all the way to sainte luce for 4,20 each. We weren’t sure if it really existed because online it only showed up as running from Sainte Luce to Fort de France and not in the other direction. The stop for our line ended up being right across the ferry harbour. It was the sort of mini bus I know from Barbados, but without the melodic horns. It generally seems more regulated. There were even designated stops and prices depending on distance traveled. I guess that’s what they mean when they say Caribbean but organised by the French. We made it home in 45 minutes and were really proud of having saved that taxi fare but even more so of having solved the public transport puzzle. It’s a matter of pride, when you don’t drive, I think.


La Martinique

We just returned from two weeks in Martinique and Guadeloupe. We booked the holiday pretty late and went through a travel agent. So I was really not very well prepared for the trip.

I only realised that Martinique and Guadeloupe are French departments while sitting at the travel agent. They belong to France and have the Euro as the official currency, French as the official language and I could travel with my Austrian Personalausweis to get there.

I did some very cursory research trying to figure out if my phone plan would work the same over there. It’s the same country after all. It doesn’t though – all providers have a little asterisk somewhere that says “France metropolitaine” which is everything that is in Europe (mostly the hexagon plus Corsica). Guadeloupe, Martinique, la Réunion and Mayotte are referred to as D.O.M which means departments d’outre mer (oversea departments).

Altogether there are 100 departments in France. I live in the department of Essonne (91).

When I told people about our upcoming holiday they warned me that the accent spoken on the caribbean islands would be difficult to understand. Actually, that wasn’t quite true. I understood most people reasonably well, especially the ones working at hotels and as guides. Several times people said something like “I detect a little accent” before asking where we are from. I guess they are trying to be polite, but I always have to laugh about the blatant lie.

We stayed a week at an holiday apartment village in Martinique close to Sainte Luce. It’s on the southern coast, the Caribbean side. We specifically chose something in walkable distance to a town. When we arrived I was surprised by the size of the apartment complex and the whole operation.

view from the hotel lobby

It was Monday night, which was also the night of complimentary drinks offered by the hotel. We dutifully showed up and listened to the introductions by the enormous pool. Only when I saw the animation schedule and when the animators were introduced I realised that this was a “club” holiday.

Animation can mean many things in French, so I didn’t assume there would be water gymnastics and beach volley ball and drinking games every day. It was easy enough to avoid being animated, though. All of it was happening on hotel grounds on not on the beach. The upside of the large complex was that there was a superette as small supermarkets are called, a bar, a laverie, and three restaurants, one of which was a snack. The word is pronounced more like snuck than snack btw.

There’s a 5 hour time difference between Paris and Martinique. Like the last time we visited this part of the world, we woke up crazy early and wandered down to the beach to explore and take photos.

The caribbean is the only place I ever visited where I frequently find myself at the breakfast buffet when it opens, even if it’s 7 am. Unlike other islands, there was no reggae music and fried fish for breakfast. I don’t complain though, the selection of fresh fruit was excellent and copious and there were always at least 3 cats around to watch while they stole leftovers from empty tables. And a kid called Anaïs who frequently tried to escape up the stairs.

For Sunday breakfast we didn’t just get the accra de morue (fishcakes made from codfish) we’d been hoping for, but also ti’punch.

I like the expansive pool areas of large hotels, but only to look at. We always went down to the beach and swam in the sea. Even though the breakfast room was pretty full, there usually were few people on the beach. One person we noticed right away was a woman with a two huge bags on a blanket. She constantly changed her bikini and always wore a matching pareo. It took me a while to understand that she sold those bikinis. After that initial vendor we saw one like her on every beach. In Guadeloupe there were several using the municipal beach as a catwalk. I’d never seen it before and I still don’t really get it. Do people buy bikinis that might or might not have been worn before by the vendor? Do they even have that kind of money on them on the beach?

When we set off to explore the nearby fishing village we got into one of those downpours that soak you to the bone. I don’t mind the Caribbean rain, though. It’s never cold and therefore not as uncomfortable. And it makes for the best rainbows.

rainbow over Sainte Luce

Also it usually clears up again really quickly, and then you get to see birds that look like pterodactyls but are probably frigate birds or pelicans.

Pelicans or frigate birds

The fishing village / town of Sainte Luce really isn’t big. We found a supermarket that was slightly bigger and cheaper than the one at the hotel. And there were lots of seaside restaurants. When I say restaurant I mean a shack with plastic chairs in the sand and a grill out front. Most advertised langouste vivants (live spiny lobsters) but that seemed like a bad idea, ordering a living lobster.

We ended up at the Baraqu’Obama. Yes, we chose it for it’s name. It didn’t have wifi, and I didn’t know many of the sea food words. When I asked the waitress to explain lambis I didn’t understand her explanation at all. She went to get her cellphone to google the word and showed me the results in google images: it turned out to be the thing (clam?) that lives inside a conch. I didn’t even know that they are edible, much less their name.

And that's what a conch / lambis lookes like

And that’s what a conch / lambis lookes like. It tastes better than it looks.

Only much later I learned from a guide that they have been heavily overfished and had to be restricted to Decembre and January.

to be continued…


Au revoir, Vienne!

I returned from Styria to Vienna on Monday 2 August. I think most people forgot I was still here, or assumed I had returned to France by now, so I had a rather quiet ten days, compared to my previous visits.

I met a couple of friends in the evenings, which left the days to do some work, complain about the heat, visit the triplets and hunt Pokémon. My current house sitting flat has a great balcony but sadly no internet connection.

pias balcony

 

A bracelet made from a zipper.

A bracelet made from a zipper.

Because I was running low on my cell phone’s data plan, I’ve been drinking too much matcha latte at places with free wifi and conveniently placed electrical outlets.

 

Wednesday afternoon I visited my dad’s partner at the store where she sells among other things the awesome jewellery and upcycled clothes she creates.

Afterwards, I was at Café Schilling. They have outdoor seating with built in heaters for winter. The heaters are not in use right now, of course, and unplugged. I could use the free electrical outlets for my computer, which is rare for outside seating.

At one point I got to chatting with my seat neighbour and she asked if I am at university, which I find immensely flattering :-) I explained that I was working on a website and she asked for my card, because she might be interested in one herself. I had to admit that I don’t have one. Instead I scribbled my email address on the back of an old subway ticket.

When I told the story to my sister she ordered me to go print cards at the copy shop at the train station right away, which I dutifully did. Now I have 30 cards with my name, email address and phone number. Black on white background. At least they make it very clear that I am not a designer.

rat graffiti stencil

Later that week, I saw this stencil and my mind immediately went to Pokémon Go again.  What if people start tagging the city with the places where the rare ones spawn.

One morning I went to Stadtpark. It was in the news recently for being Vienna’s Pokémon hotspot and I wanted to see for myself. It’s pretty bizarre and a little unreal. Lots of people sitting on benches in reach of three Pokéstops. You can recognise the players easily: most of them have a cable from their phone to their pocket, where the external battery provides extra power. The game is a real battery drainer.

 

When you walk into the park new Pokémon spawn everywhere. All around the park are small groups of people shuffling zombie-like, staring at their phones. Intermingling with them are tourists, looking at maps and taking pictures of the golden Strauß statue.

Last Monday I met with a friend for dinner in the city center close to Maria am Gestade. I walked there, crossing through some of the most touristy areas of Vienna. Everywhere there are tourists looking at maps and looking at buildings, taking photos and selfies. I’m rarely in the city center and when I am, I barely register the beautiful surroundings anymore.
It’s during these summer nights that I really enjoy the city center. It’s so vibrant, so many people speaking so many different languages out and about, walking, talking, eating ice cream.

rhyming dod poop baggies have to be one of the most Viennese things I encountered lately

rhyming dog poop baggies have to be one of the most Viennese things I encountered lately

On Tuesday I visited a friend and talked him into a walk around a newly opened park, despite already having a cold. It’s all about walking at the moment – that’s how you hatch Pokémon eggs. I noticed the baggies they provide for dog poop are newly designed and now rhyme.

I also spent some time at Hotel Schani. They rent out coworking desks, but also let you use their wifi for free if you sit in their café area. I quite liked the atmosphere, probably because it was quiet (apart from Lounge versions of 80s and 90s pop songs). I also like how they rent out electro scooters and long boards. And finally, they don’t bring these teeny tiny little glasses of water along with your coffee, but have a bassena instead. I’d rather get the water myself than be brought 1/8th of a liter. Yesterday, while showering, I could smell the chlorine in the French water and realised that I didn’t drink nearly enough of the delicious Austrian tap water.

Bassena

A bassena, for those of you who are not Viennese, used to be the public tap on every floor of a tenement where people fetched water from. It’s also synonymous for gossip because that’s where you chatted with your neighbours.

I’m back home in France now, reunited with powerful wireless internet and smelly cheese. As a good bye present to myself I went to the airport two hours early and had a big fat ice coffee at Demel.

Ice coffee in Austria actually contains ice cream. In the back you can see the teeny tiny glass of water I complained about above.

Ice coffee in Austria actually contains ice cream. In the back you can see the teeny tiny glass of water I complained about above.

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Au Royaume-Uni

A while ago we decided to spend a long weekend in London, simply because it’s only about 2 1/2 hours away by train and the tickets were on sale. Our journey started under ideal conditions.

oyster card and adapters

We found our oyster cards and adapters, packed our bags and were about to walk out the door on Thursday when Gergö said to me “Yes, I’ll lock the door.”, followed shortly by “Verena!”. I was reading something on my phone and didn’t notice the ominous use of my first name at all. I closed the door behind me, looked up and saw that Gergö was fishing his keys out of his pockets again. He shook his head, disappointedly. Naturally, I assumed he forgot something. “Your suitcase?”, he said after unlocking the door.

I grabbed my suitcase and didn’t even have time to be embarassed about forgetting it, because at that moment an upstairs neighbour joined us in the stairway and started talking to us. I understood most of what he said (“You live here? Since when?! Really? Since August?!”) But it didn’t make any sense, so I asked him to slow down. Instead he switched to English saying pretty much the same thing. He thought someone much older was living here, not us. Did we live here all the time since August? Really, August?! But then we must have heard them upstairs! I said yes, sure, we did, and told him not to worry. I hear what I assume to be renovations going on upstairs from time to time, but I don’t really mind and we never complained either.

Mystified why our neighbour appeared so upset about our presence we left for Paris in a hurry. The Eurostar ticket recommends to be at the station 45 minutes early to check in. I knew there was a check in process at Gare du Nord but I had not realised at all that there would be serious passport controls. One queue for leaving France followed by another one for entering the UK, and both actually looked at my passport and my face. They also scanned the luggage and had us walk through metal detectors. You can still bring liquids and don’t have to remove your computer from your bag, though. Bizarrely there was a notice posted about not bringing WWI artiller on the train with you. Apparently it’s a recurring problem.

je ne regrette rien

I was really excited about going through the tunnel underneath la Manche, but it’s no different from any other tunnel. It turns out that it’s more the concept of taking a tunnel through the sea than the actual experience that I like :-)

Our hotel was a budget place in Whitechapel right next to the biggest mosque of London. It’s an area that used to be famous for Jack the Ripper and now is famous for its excellent Bangladeshi curry. The street signs are bilingual in English / Bengali. Because it’s Ramadan right now, there were a lot of ads asking for donations. I remeber those by muslim aid. I also saw that some restaurants advertise the possibility to rent the place to celebrate iftar for big groups and many stalls selling dates and sweets.

We loved the area right away. It’s really close to Brick lane, with lots and lots of curry houses, shops, street art, and a former brewery with hipster street food. We had great curry that first night. Before returning to the hotel we found a nice pub selling craft beer. We had a pint of ale, sitting down at a large table. Soon, we were joined by three women drinking wine. One brought the bottle and a jug of ice cubes which she proceeded to distribute in her friends’ wine glasses before pouring the wine. I still wonder if they’d get kicked out of a French bar for doing that or if the barman would simply refuse to give them ice cubes in the first place.

We met Gergö’s friend J for breakfast the next morning in Spitalsfield. We decided to walk there and it was one of those walks where I stopped to take photos every 5 minues.

It was only possible to get a table at the breakfast club because it was a Friday and not the weekend. It’s so hip, not even Barbra Streisand can cramp its style.

Barbra Streisand was watching us eat

Barbra Streisand was watching us eat

And sadly, breakfast club was also home of the most terrible pun I’ve ever read. That says a lot, as I live with Gergö.

I ham so eggsited

<insert sad trombone sound here>

After breakfast, we wandered around the area some more. There was a magic store that was sadly closed. I’ll never find out what the ingredients are of the can of vague sense of unease.

20160617_112305

And a shop selling craft beer. It’s a little comforting to know that it’s not only hipster coffee shops that have those terrible slogans on chalk board thing going on.

beer...now, there is a temporary solution 20160617_125436

And I found out that I’m not the only one resenting the signs and/or finding it all a bit much.

cupcake free zone - here to stay...not a pop-up

Gergö had really been looking forward to British ales. We like Belgian beer, but they are all comparatively sweet and strong. So we bought a few rare local craft beers to take home. We rested our feet down at the canal for a scenic cup of coffee.

canal  coffee with a view

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by Spitalsfield market. I snuck an illegal photo of the one tshirt that wasn’t on offer at every second stall. I got caught and very politely told off for it, too. I don’t feel too bad about it though, as the motive is already available on amazon.

crows before hoes 20160617_143159

Despite the bad treatment of red wine, I still want to see the UK remain in the EU. And as it turns out, Churchill agrees. Or possibly he has really bad indigestion, it’s very hard to tell from his expression.

We spent that evening at the London zoo. A couple of nights each summer it’s open late and there are street food vendors (notice a theme?) and special events.

I also saw Asian lions, an aardvark, a little monkey wee on a woman who got too close, a sloth, and spooning monitor lizards.