Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Last day of Fall Term 2014

Maeve and Silas's last day of Fall term was December 19, 2014.  Silas's class came to school in costume.   Silas dressed up as one of the 3 Kings (Reyes Magos) with a store-bought hat, Mom's shirt as a tunic, and a gold necklace made from string and a plastic bracelet.  He also had a colorful sash from Mike's blue exercise band.   Everyone in his class looked great.
The 3 Kings visited Silas's class and Santa visted Maeve's after a morning open-house breakfast that the parents were invited too.  Whoowee - we got to go in the school!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas time and elementary school in Spain

Some interesting happenings from school in the last couple of weeks before Christmas break.

  1. Maeve learned her first thing all fall in English class this week. They made Christmas cards.  She made one for her Dad, and learned that you write merry with 2 R's.
  2. Silas has learned a lot of Christmas carols.  The other night he sang "Mira como beben los peces en el rio", a traditional Christmas Carol, for about 30 minutes in the bath.
  3. Silas came home yesterday with a cut-out, colored (his work), paper nativity scene.  The Belen, or nativity scene, is a big Christmas icon here.  Today we're looking for a shoe box to use as the stable.  I said it was for the wise men, and he corrected me, that it was the baby Jesus and Mary.  He doesn't quite have Joseph's name down in Spanish.
  4. 2 weeks ago, Silas came home with 2 copies of the toy magazine from El Corte Ingles (the biggest department store here), that they gave out at school.  He got a copy for Maeve.  This is a la the Sears Wishbook from back in my day, handed out at school.  We got at least 2 good afternoons of hours of searching through the book and narrowing down choices for Santa and the 3 Kings - they both come here!
  5. Last week, Silas came home from school with one copy of the toy magazine from another store.  
  6. Maeve has decided that the reason the 3 Kings don't come to the United States is that they come on camels and can't cross the Atlantic Ocean.
  7. On the last day of school before break, the pre-schoolers can come to school in costume.  Silas is asking around in his class if he can borrow one.  We got him a 3 kings hat and we'll see if  we can rig him up a gown.  I think that either Santa or one of the 3 Kings also comes to school that day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hiking La Pedriza in the Guadarrama Mountains

Family in front of trail leading to el Yelmo
 On Sunday, we went hiking in the La Pedriza area of the Sierra de Guadarrama.  It's less than 1 hour from Madrid, and an area of rugged granite outcroppings.  Much better reached by driving your own vehicle than the bus - we got a car out from bluemove.es, a local carsharing company, and the day was much easier than the first time we went out on public transit. The park is criss crossed by trails, some of the long distance trails even require scrambling up big granite block - hard work for 5-year-old legs, but beautiful.  For old, not so tall mountains that were scraped bare by glaciers, it's ssurprisinglyrugged.
Mountain Goats - a big male
 We'd seen several groups of mountain goats in the Gredos mountains, which are more remote, but we also saw them this time in Pedriza.  Several times there were lone goats on top of a ridgeline.  When we were near Elefantito (see the photo below), we saw a group that crossed the trail below us.  There were at least 2 males with large, circular horns.  We'd thought we'd seen a mixed group of males, females, and kids in the Gredos, but it was clearly the first time we'd seen males as their shaggy black bellies and large horns are quite distinctive.
View from Elefantito, Madrid skyscrapers 40K away in the background
 The Manzanares River, the small river running through Madrid, starts in La Pedriza and we crossed it at the start and end of the hike.  From the ridgeline, we could look over the plain and see Madrid in the distance.  Amazing view.
At Elefantito
The first part of our hike was up to Elefantito, an aptly named rock formation.  The trails were great, but steep, until we got on the side trail leading up to Elefantito, and couldn't find the cairns.  We've had that problem a lot and had to do some time consuming trailfinding.  Part of the problem in La Pedriza is that it's very heavily traveled and there are lots of little side trails and it's hard for a hiker new to the area to know which one is the main one if it's not blazed or marked.   The big, main, long-distance trails are very well blazed, but we seem to like heading off on smaller trails also and there we run into trailfinding issues.  That is an opportunity for the kids to practice trail finding and making decisions about which trail they think will be better to take.  And we've had lots of opportunities to practice trying to keep our feet dry on wet trails this fall.  Silas has gotten quite good at walking on the rocks and balancing,

From Elefantito, we'd planned to walk up to a pass and then back down to our car on a well-traveled forest road called the Autopista (highway) because it's very accessible.  But it was getting late, and that loop was long, so we decided to take another hiker's advice and cut through a meadow at the base of El Yelmo, the central peak in this part of the park, to make a shorter loop back to the parking lot.  We did that, and then could find nothing, no cairn, no obvious water-logged trail, nothing, to mark the trail down.  Frustrating!  So we backtracked and asked another group of hikers. They were incredibly nice and knowledgeable, and showed us the trail to the upper part of the meadow and where the downward trail started.  That trail had many people on it, and went by the face of el Yelmo with many rock climbers.  On the way down, we went through another mountain meadow that they've used to shoot western movies, and then by another rock face we'd seen over 50 climbers on in the morning.

A full day hike with tons to see, a little bit of getting lost, plenty of scrambling, and great views.  It's amazing to be able to take the kids on all-day hikes now.  Silas was quite tired in the first hour, that had about 400M elevation gain through creek-covered trails, hard going, but once we got into the day, the kids had energy and we had a good time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hiking the Gredos Mountains

Last weekend we went hiking the the Gredos Mountains, in Avila Province about 2 hours west of Madrid.  You're not allowed to camp in any parks in most provinces of Spain, so we'd booked 2 nights in a Refugio, or a mountain hut. The highest peaks of the Gredos are about 2,500 meters, so not so tall but there is skiing there in winter.  We hiked up to Laguna Grande the first day, a 6.5 K hike.  The weather was awesome, the trail was great, and the kids were running around in short sleeves.  We saw 2 mountain goats on a ridge above the parking lot.  The scenery is dry, high, plains, and the upper parts of the mountains are glacially-carved rock.

 A couple hours in and a few hundred meters higher, we started finding patches of snow.  This was good for lots of snow tromping.
 Four hours in, we came to Refugio Elola, on the far side of Laguna Grande, a lake left in the glacial cirque,  This is the trail on the descent to the Refugio - clouds had rolled in but we still had some peeks at the peaks.
 Day 2 we planned a full day, 12 K circular hike, over  ridge, to the next cirque, the up over the ridge and back down to the refugio.  We had some trouble trail finding out from the Refugio and did some scrambling around the lake until we found the trail over the ridge and down into Garganta, the next cirque.  From there, we again had trouble trail finding going up over the next ridge, and at lunch time we'd gotten socked in with snow falling and decided to call it.  We turned back around, and low and behold on the downward trail we could find cairns and had a much easier descent despite the snow.  At the bottom in Garganta, it was again sunny for lunch and we could see the peaks.  I was ruing deciding to back off.  But then we saw a herd of mountain goats.
 They were moving from one rocky outcropping to another, a group of 1 male maybe 2 females and 2 kids. It was amazing. Easy to see, cautious of us, but clearly used to hikers.  This is a photo of the male, behind a kid and one female crossing an outcropping.

After a sunny lunch and goat watching, it was back over the ridge and around the lake to the refugio.  This time we could again find the cairns for the trail going down, so the trail was much better.  But, it started to snow, and then the snow turned into rain, and Silas had had it.  Mike had to carry him a bit, off and on, for the last 90 minute slog out of the slush, hard work for Mike and an unhappy Silas in unpredictable winter weather.  Back at the refugio, everyone changed socks, warmed up, the kids got a  warm Cola Cao (Spanish version of hot chocolate) from the refugio kitchen.
 The next morning, we woke up to several inches of snow outside the refugio,  Here are the kids before starting out the 6.5 K hike back down to the car in the snow.  I didn't get a photo of our bedroom, but there were 24 bunks, 3 vertical rows of 4 beds on each side of the dorm room.  There were several dorm rooms on the second floor and the refugio could hold over 60. Downstairs was the communal room and kitchen -- the dining/communal room was slightly warmed by a wood-pellet stove.  Most supplies were hauled in on donkey-back, though two young men who ran the place had passed us on our way in on Friday and another one appeared sometime on Saturday (the refugio was much fuller on Saturday night than Friday, though still not full).
 Lots of snow with some sun breaks.  Not many views on the way out.
 It was a bit of an upward slog over the ridge because of the weather.  Luckily, on the ridge, there were tons of icicles hanging off rocks and we got a couple of K of kids with energy to check out rocks for icicles to eat,  Yum!  Why were we carrying water?
By the time we got back to the car, most of the snow was gone and Maeve was picking up snow from piles and dumping it in puddles so Silas could throw rocks at it and break up the slush.  Winter weather fun for all!  There were also a few hundred people in inappropriate gear on the last kilometer of trail.  We realized there were 3 groups of people -- folks who wanted to hike and were prepared, and 2 groups of folks who wanted to play in the snow and/or to look for wild mountain goats, none of which were to be seen because of the hordes of people and multiple dogs.  Good end to the adventure.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Public School in Spain

Our kids are in Colegio Fernandez Moratin public school in Madrid, Spain.  Silas is in Infantil 5-year-old class, and Maeve is in 3rd grade of primary school.  They're in the same school, different buildings.  We're happy with the school, other parents in the school definitely feel like it's a good school, and the kids seem happy to go in the morning and are totally exhausted when they come home in the afternoon.  So all's well.  But, there are just a few differences that we're discovering...

  1. Parents are not invited in the school.  There is a secure fence around the school property and it stays locked and parents must be buzzed in.  Before and after school, there's a huge mass of parents waiting for the janitor to open the gate to come in to drop off or pick up their kids.  In addition, on the primary school gate, the school recently put up the following sign:
    This sign says, "Once the first week of school is finished, the students are prepared to get in the line themselves.  The parents can look at them from outside the fence.  Thanks.  The director."
  2. September and June are half-days (9-1).  The rest of the school year is full days, 9-12:30, 2:20-4pm.  Given the 2-hour lunch break, full days are actually only 1 more hour of instruction a day.
  3. The lunchroom is full of meat.  The school secretary told me the kids are not able to eat lunch in school because there are no provisions for vegetarians.  I have also talked to the head of the cafeteria, who said it was okay with her if the school office okayed it, but that the kids have to bring their food warm in Thermoses.  Lunch is the big meal of the day, and there is an assumption that the kids would need a complete, warm meal. I now need to go talk to the school director to see if she'll allow the kids to stay.  This is an issue because we're moving to full days and (1) I want the kids to be able to play with others after lunch and (2) it takes 15 minutes home and then 15 minutes back to school so we won't really have time to eat and then even rest.  If we could get a rest, it would be worth it to go back home.  We'll see what happens...
  4. There is almost no communication with the families.  We know Maeve's schedule because she wrote it down.  We know her content because she brings home her books to copy down her homework and we see what she's working on.  We would have no idea for Silas (no schedule, no information about his specialists (English, art etc), no information about content), except that we looked at his textbooks before he took them in.  He met his English teacher for the first time last week.  He has recess every day.  The teacher did tell me that they have one period each day when the kids do work at their desks (copying, coloring etc).  Silas apparently doesn't think this is much fun. Silas likes that the teacher ends each day with a story about Aris, a rainbow-colored hair character that is the central character of their integrated skills curriculum.
  5. The curriculum depends on the textbooks, which teachers follow directly, and correlates to the national standards.  It is incredibly rote in Primary school.  The teachers seem to do more interaction in Infantil.
  6. Handwriting is a big deal.  Silas is learning cursive.  Maeve should start every page with the date in red ink and a header in blue ink before starting to copy/answer, either in ink or pencil.  This was discussed, I kid you not, for over 5 minutes out of a 1 hour meeting with the teacher and the parents the 3rd week of school.  The discussion of having started to use pens at the beginning of 3rd grade, a radical idea, took up another 5 minutes of the meeting.
  7. Parents and teachers here really care that their kids do well in school and learn - exactly what we're used to!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Now I understand churros

I finally understand churros.  I've eaten them a few times before, and always with disappointing results:  they're just dry, oily dough sticks.

Then, we visited Chocalateria San Ginés, the most famous churreria (churro shop) in Madrid.  It's plastered with photos of celebrities who have eaten there, such as the king of Spain, actors, sports stars, and politicians.  We had to sit inside, at the last available table, since the dozens outside were all full.

The churros were terrific.  They had been deep-fried at high heat, so that the oil had not permeated them.  They were still piping-hot.  (The shop has very high turnover, and it serves nothing but churros and chocolate.)  We also ordered a cup of chocolate, eating the churros the traditional way by dipping them in the chocolate drink, which was neither sweet nor bitter.  The chocolate is served in cup, but it's more like a sauce:  it is almost as viscous as pudding and it really sticks to the churros.

This experience with churros reminds me of when I first understood plain yogurt, in Greece at Karren Levis and Greg Kerman's wedding.  I had eaten tremendous amounts of yogurt in the US, but always with berries or other flavoring so that the yogurt was really a vector for the other flavors.  I didn't like plain yogurt, which struck me as both bland and sour.  Though I usually bought a cheap store brand, this applied to better prepackaged yogurts as well.

Then, while we were in Greece, I tried plain Greek yogurt.  It was a revelation and seemed to me a completely different food that only happened to share a name with what I had been eating in the United States.  It is traditionally eaten with honey drizzled over the top, but it doesn't need much.

Since then, I eat Greek yogurt from the supermarket (so fatty, it can't be called a health food), and it's not the same but it's still good.  And I even appreciate regular plain supermarket yogurt more, since I see what it is a dim echo of -- though I do not eat it by choice.  Mostly, though, we make our own yogurt from Greek yogurt cultures.

We will definitely go back to San Ginés.  I might even try churros again in the US.  But probably not.

(Photo credits:  Sandie)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Party schedule

We were delighted that a boy in Silas's class had a birthday party last weekend, giving us a chance to socialize with the other parents.  We had already met a few during drop-off and pick-up at the school.  By contrast, it has been harder to get to know the families of Maeve's classmates, since the third-graders are more independent and the families don't hang around the kids as much.  Also, those families have been together for six years, since the kids were 3 years old.

Suppose that you were throwing a birthday party for a 5-year-old.  When would you make it end?  7pm?  7:30pm?  8pm?  That's when Silas couldn't take it any more, but when Maeve and I left at 8:30 we were among the first to leave and other families were still enjoying it.  The party had started at 5:30.

The previous night I had been at a conference in Cádiz, and I left the banquet at 1am when it was still going strong, with the entertainment having started after midnight.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to rent a short-term (less than one year) furnished apartment in Madrid

After you have done something for the first time, you are full of ideas and regret about how it should actually be done.  So, I can share with you advice about renting a furnished apartment in Madrid for less than one year.

We wanted an apartment by the beginning of September, so we started looking in June.  That was far too early, because many apartments don't go on the market until they are ready to be occupied.  In fact, some apartment-searching websites have a tickbox that asks whether you plan to take possession in less than 7 days or more than 7 days.  We contacted a number of landlords nonetheless, with specifics about the location (it had to be within walking distance of the public school we had chosen for Maeve and Silas), size (we wanted enough space to host guests), and dates (4 months).

Quite a few of the landlords were uninterested in renting for less than one year, and quite a few never responded at all.  But some did, and three rental agencies were very positive, pointing out their large stock of rentals that fit our needs, explicitly saying that a short-term rental is no problem, and telling us to contact them once we were on the ground in Madrid.  One individual landlord did the same.  (Renting sight unseen doesn't seem to happen.)

After we arrived in Madrid, we contacted the three rental agencies.  Every agency told us that they couldn't help us because a rental contract of less than a year is impossible.  We visited the apartment that was being rented by the individual who, upon hearing we were looking for a short-term rental, said that would be impossible -- even though our contact email had been quite explicit.

So we switched gears.

  • We stopped in rental agencies that we walked past on the street, saying we wanted a 6-month rental.  Although most said they could not help us, one of them did show us a large (1400+ square feet), pricey (as much as the rent for our furnished home in Seattle that is double that size and has a yard), unfurnished apartment in a perfect location, immediately across the street from the school.  We started scheming about just how little IKEA furniture we could get away with purchasing.
  • We were staying in a tiny apartment that we had rented for a week via AirBnB.  The landlord offered to extend it through the end of the year, but it was too cramped and was also a bit further from the school than we preferred.
  • We went further afield from the main websites that everyone uses and recommends; Cat spent many hours poring over listings on obscure websites.  We found an apartment that sounded fantastic, but someone else contacted the landlord just before we did and rented it for the first month.  We thought about piecing together two rentals, but we were not eager to move, which would stress us more and prevent us from feeling settled.  We found three places that were a 30-40 minute metro ride from school, but we had heard negative things about that lifestyle (less opportunity to interact with other families from the school, less sleep) from other expats who had tried it.
  • Many people had recommended AirBnB, but there was not much stock in the residential area where we wanted to live.  More seriously, most of the listings were already rented for at least a few days or weeks during the rest of the year -- we couldn't find one that wouldn't force us to move.  In retrospect, arranging an AirBnB rental well in advance would have been the best approach.
  • By this time, we were feeling extraordinarily stressed and were scoping out bridges that looked promising to sleep under.  But then things started to look up.  The first place we had seen (from the individual landlord) said they would consider a 6-month rental.  (We knew the landlord had shown it to some other people whom they preferred, but it must not have worked out.)  It had a weird layout but would have been acceptable.  The agency that showed us the empty apartment had pointed out that even if you sign a 1-year contract, a recent law guarantees that you get your deposit back if you give 1 month of notice and have been in the apartment for 6 months.  So we were searching for a 6-month rental with the expectation of losing the last month of rent.  We continued to be upfront about our plans rather than saying we wanted a 1-year rental, because that was the honest thing to do.
  • Best of all, one of the original three rental agencies called us with a possibility.  They showed us a furnished apartment of 1250 square feet that was located a 10-minute walk from the school, and we took it on the spot.

It wasn't quite that easy, of course, and it involved 4 visits to the rental agency for various steps of the process such as signing two phases of agreements and paying two types of deposits, fees, and first month's rent (6 months of rent upfront in all).  For the big payment, I went to a local branch our bank to withdraw cash.  (I had set up an account immediately after our the first day in Madrid, at a branch near IMDEA, with significant help from IMDEA who had already provided the bank copies of my passport, national identification number, and other information.)

The bank wouldn't give me the money -- you have to give notification a day in advance if you want to withdraw more than $800.  But the bank closes at 2:00 and we had made our decision at 2:30 the previous day.  I said I needed it for an apartment and looked grim.  The bank said they would call my branch to get permission to use part of my branch's daily cash allowance.  This didn't really make sense to me since the bills were going to have to come out of their own safe.  But I settled down to wait because I had been warned this would happen.  My branch didn't answer their phone nor respond to a fax.  I had opened my account at a building with a single a room about 12 feet square, and one employee, on the university campus; maybe that was all my branch consisted of?  My branch wouldn't take money from me when I opened the account, either, which I guess makes sense since students don't have any money anyway.  I had wired money from my US account as soon as the account was open.

After 45 minutes of waiting (and answering questions about why there were both German and Spanish residence visas in my passport), the bank relented and just gave me the money.  I was a bit nervous carrying it all and walked to the rental agency's bank where I had to deposit it.  I took a shortcut over the railroad tracks where there was a lot of graffiti and no one to be seen other than a pair of shady-looking immigrants who accosted me.  But nothing came of it, I got the money deposited, and later in the day we spent almost an hour trying to decipher the Spanish legalese on our lease before taking possession of the apartment.

We had chosen a neighborhood with good transit connections to the university on whose campus I will work.  Together with our desire for a furnished apartment, that meant that we were really in the market for a student apartment.  I don't know whether this complicated our search or made it easier.  I do know that our search would have been much easier if we had relaxed our location requirements, but the kids were already accepted into the school.  In the end, we signed a lease within about a week (an extraordinarily stressful week, but a week nonetheless).

Our apartment had a few quirks when we moved in, such as shattered glass in the living room, a generous icing of grease on every surface in the kitchen (Really, on the bottom of the shelves of a lower-level cabinet with closed doors?  How did the previous renters even manage that?), bedroom shutters that were stuck shut, very slow drainage in the bathroom, and so forth.  The previous renters had also left most of the light sockets empty -- 15 light bulbs were missing.  (Are light bulbs a popular item for theft?)  But we resolved most of these issues with a week of elbow grease (we washed every surface in the apartment and every item in the kitchen), harassment of the management company, and purchases.  I had expected us to say, "It may be a dump, but it's our dump," but it doesn't feel like a dump at all, we enjoy living there, and we are looking forward to visits from our families and friends.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Madrid Rio

Madrid Rio
September 20, 2014

Today we bought bikes (will be cheaper for Mike's commute in the long run, and we'll use them) from a used bike shop.  We came home via the new park on the Manzanares River.  In the last decade, the ring highway was put underground and there is now a great park for about 8 K on the river.  We live at the N end and will definitely enjoy eventually biking all of it with the kids.  We biked about 5 K home from the bike shop today, stopping at several awesome playgrounds along the way.

The first two photos are from earlier this week when I took the kids out to the river and they did a ropes course playground.
Madrid Rio

The photos below are from today, from our ride back from the bike shop, about 6 k or less in total.  Mike and my bikes weren't ready yet, so we walked/ran while the kids biked.  The first playground is made up of swings on the underside of a bridge.  Mike was pushing the kids so high they were swinging 8 feet or more in the air.

This is from the jabali (wild pig) playground, a little farther on. 

At Puente del Rey, which is a new pedestrian connector between Principe Pio (the neighborhood where we live) and Casa del Campo (a huge city park), there was a family sports day.  Silas spent a long time learning how to kick a soccer ball.  All the boys here play soccer and Silas has never played, so it was great practice for him.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Adjusting to the Spanish schedule

Last weekend we went out to dinner for the first time in Madrid.  We went to Yerbabuena, a restaurant that I had enjoyed on a previous trip.

First, we went for a paseo (a walk about town), which is what the Spaniards do.  The streets that are relatively deserted during the hot hours of the day teem with people at night.  Maeve enjoyed walking to the bus at 10pm when things were really starting to hop (though many people won't go out until midnight).

Amazingly, during our early evening paseo we ran into Manuel Carro -- my host at IMDEA -- and his family at one of the tiny playgrounds that are ubiquitous throughout Madrid; both of our families had chosen to stop there.  He lives outside town and says he only comes into the city center once every month or so, in this case for a museum exhibit.  He and the IMDEA staff have been invaluable in helping me navigate the bureaucracy of living and working in Spain.

Our family was were the first patrons in the restaurant at 8:00 when it opened.  When left at 9:45, the line of people waiting was told it would be 1.5 to 2 hours before they would be served.  We got home around 10:15 and that night was the latest that we have ever put the children to bed.

Spaniards generally have dinner at 10pm or so, though when Cat lived here in high school her host family ate extremely early, around 8:30pm or 9pm, because they had a 5-year-old child.

We are still working to adjust to the later hours, both in terms of sleep and in terms of timing our meals.  Lunchtime is 2-4pm, and most stores and businesses are closed then.  Many children are at home from school for two hours in the early afternoon as well.  Our kids can't quite manage between meals, and we are still calibrating how much snack, and when, will leave them willing to eat the next meal.  We will probably have Silas return to napping, which he had dropped 6 weeks ago when we left home, so that he can go to bed after 9pm and still be awake by 8am and at school by 9am.  The rest of the family has also delayed their bedtimes by several hours.  Unfortunately, I continue to wake at 6am and that will have to stop.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


What can I say, the kids had a great time the 2 days we were in Legoland.  2 days was great -- we did the whole park, and the kids could do repeats on what they liked. We didn't feel rushed, lines weren't too long, and the thrill was right for our kids.  All in all a good choice.

Favorites included frogger, a small-kid drop-you-down ride.

Amazingly enough, Silas was just big enough with shoes on to ride the adult version of this.  It was in the haunted house, and both kids loved it, despite Maeve having some anxiety beforehand.

The kids most loved the rides, although we also quite enjoyed looking at Mini Land. Silas went on his first roller-coaster.  The spinning cups were also a  bit hit, and Maeve, Silas, and Mike even stuck them out for one ride in a short downpour.

Oslo architechure

My favorite 2 buildings in Oslo:  one new and one old.

1. New: Oslo opera house.  It's on the waterfront.  There is tons of construction still going on around it as Oslo has put a highway going next to the port underground, which has opened up lots of land for public spaces.  We walked up and down on the roof of this awesome building.  Amazing views and just great feeling -- one side has a ramp that goes down into the water and there are tons of folks just walking around on top of the building.
This first picture is of Maeve and Silas walking down the ramp from the top of the Opera.  I didn't get a really good photo that shows how cool it was to walk up, around the top with views, and then the kids galloped down.  Just tons of fun.

This is a view of the Opera house from Ekeberg park. 

2. Old:  Stave Church.  The kids and I spent about 5 hours one afternoon in an open-air museum in Oslo with buildings from all over Norway.  Several houses had actors/educators in period costume who answer questions.  We'd been to a similar museum in Bergen, with just Bergen houses, so the kids knew the most fun was to go where the actors were.  The highlight for me was a stave church from the 1200s, that was moved to Oslo a while back from its original location a bit inland.  By some stroke of luck, this church never rotted and was used as a church until the 1800's when it moved to Oslo for the museum (most had no foundation and the pine got wet and rotted).  It was incredibly dark inside, with a lot of intricate wood carving inside and out, very viking-looking with dragons. The kids got very good at spotting the dragons in the carvings around the doors.  See how many you can find!

The staves mean the columns -- the interior of the church was built with single pine trunks -- very tall, very straight.  From back in Viking times, folks would inherit trees their ancestors had identified as good for being a mast, hull etc and 100 years later would cut them down to use. Same for the columns for this church.  The highest part was built around single tree trunks, then a short ambulatory around that, and then the front porch was the shortest.  Very nifty and  very dark, especially after being treated with tar as a weather protection, again Viking technology. But most people apparently were very used to the dark, as poor houses at that time still had a fireplace in the center of the room with a hole in the roof and that was their only light.  This church was built a little over 100 years after Olaf "converted" Norway to Christianity.

I think of the roof as a cross between a Chinese pagoda and the prow of a Viking ship. From the front it just looks like a 4+ level roof, but from the side, the dragon heads are very distinctive. 

The kids' favorite parts of the folk museum were either the playground, getting ice cream, or grinding coffee in one of the houses.  Silas also enjoyed running around the Stave church on its porch. And they liked trying to lasso the reindeer in the very small Sami section.  I'll try to get them to make a best-of list and post it.

Our family in Oslo

We've been travelling around Denmark and Norway for a month, and are on our way to Madrid tomorrow for the rest of 2014.  I haven't posted at all, but on this our last day of a wonderful time in Scandinavia, I just had to post.  Mike missed most of Oslo, travelling back to the US to get our Spanish visas, so the kids and I had seen much of the town and got just a bit off the beaten track today.   This afternoon, we went to Ekeburg Park, a large park with sculptures throughout the grounds.  I would highly recommend it, especially for active kids.  One of the sculptures was of a Moibus, which Mike wanted to see.  In this photo, Silas is climbing on the sculpture and Mike and Maeve are looking at a model moibus so she can understand how it can have only one side when a strip of paper usually has two.  All family interactivity with art. This is so our family!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

... and it's the produce.  On multiple occasions we bought fruit or vegetables that went bad quickly, such as carrots browning and tasting bad after a day in our refrigerator.  Some of the food seems fine, but it's hard to predict which ones, and we've had the problem at multiple stores.  Maybe Danes are accustomed, like many Europeans, to go grocery shopping frequently, eating whatever they buy within a day or so.

Here's another difference we noticed.  Cat had to visit a doctor for what turned out to be a subcutaneous infection that required antibiotics.  Cat was trying to learn more and, midway through the examination, the doctor asked, "Do all Americans ask so many questions?"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We are going on sabbatical

In a few days, we will leave the country for a year.  We will be in Europe (based in Madrid) from August through December, then in South America (based in Buenos Aires) from January through July.

Mike is on sabbatical (he gets a year off every 7 years without losing his job).  He will work at IMDEA Software in Madrid, then at the University of Buenos Aires.  Cat will quit her current job, though Literacy Source hopes she will re-join them when she returns to Seattle.  While in Madrid, she may also do some work at IMDEA, and she is confident about finding work in Buenos Aires.

Maeve and Silas are registered in the Fernández Moratín public school in Madrid.  The school instruction is in Spanish, which is what we wanted since our whole family speaks Spanish.  We are looking for an apartment that is near the school and has enough space for visitors to stay with us.

We haven't yet figured out our school and housing situation in Buenos Aires.

We have rented out our house for the year.  It has been a good opportunity to get rid of a lot of things we don't really need, and we will be packing quite lightly for our year abroad (one checked bag for the family).

It will be quite an adventure  and this blog may become more exciting as a result.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

MacGyvering open a locked bathroom door

On Friday night, my son locked the upstairs bathroom door with the whole family (including him) on the wrong side of it.

No problem, I thought:  this happens sometimes with the ground floor bathroom, and I just poke a screwdriver or Allen wrench into the small hole on the faceplate to release the lock.  But, there was a problem:  when I did so with the upstairs bathroom, the Allen wrench met no resistance, just empty air.

I disassembled the main-floor bathroom lock and determined that there are two ways to reassemble the two halves of the lock.  The intended orientation permits the door to be unlocked from the outside, because the hole in the outside faceplate aligns with the lock release mechanism.  If you rotate the outside half of the lock upside-down before screwing the two halves together, then there are baffles that prevent access to the lock mechanism.  I took off the outside knob and faceplate of the upstairs lock, and I could see the ends of the screws:  the lock had been assembled with the screw heads on the inside, so I couldn't disassemble the lock.

The door opens in, so I couldn't just remove the hinges.

A molding and a firm door fit prevented using a credit card, or even a more flexible card, to card open the door.

I could not pick the lock, because there is no keyhole.

Eventually, I did what MacGyver would have done: I opened the door with a piece of paper, dental floss, and an extension cord.  I tied the floss to the paper, slipped the paper over the top of the door, and lowered it to the bottom of the door where a half-inch gap let me retrieve the paper.  Now, the floss was running from the top of the door to the bottom, on the inside, while I controlled the ends from the outside.  I untied the floss from the paper and tied it to the middle of the extension cord.  I fed the extension cord under the door, making a loop on the inside of the bathroom (with the floss tied to the middle of that loop).  Then I yanked up on the floss, which looped the extension cord over the handle.  By pulling on the cord, I could turn the handle, which unlocked the door.

As soon as the door was open, I disassembled and reassembled the lock so that next time I can easily unlock it from the outside with a screwdriver or Allen wrench.

(A tip of the hat to hakzorz at Instructables for the idea.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Spring hiking

One weekend in April, the kids and I took advantage of good weather and went hiking both days.

On Saturday we climbed Mt. Si -- an impressive feat for a 4-year-old at 8 miles long and 3150 feet of elevation gain.  At the top, clouds rolled across the ridgeline, but we got a peek through them:

On Sunday we climbed Rattlesnake ledge, an easy and rewarding hike (4 miles, 1150 feet of gain) that we do one or two times a season.  Here are the kids still full of energy at the top:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Silas's 5th birthday party in Meridian Park

Silas's 5th Birthday party in Meridian Park

Mike and Granddad Paul enjoyed the swings.

Silas had a dinosaur cake.  A T-Rex was chasing a stegosaurus that was calmly eating a fern and there were lots of fern around and water underneath.

Silas an Will, his best friend from pre-school.

Monday, May 26, 2014

José Alvarez Serna in Seattle

José Alvarez Serna is a teacher from Columbia who spent a year as an intern at Maeve's school, McDonald International School.  Both the students and the teachers loved him, because it's great to have another teacher in the room to help managing 25 squirming, excited pupils.

We were even luckier.  José shared our home for three months, from December to March.  We had a wonderful time sharing our lives with him.  Here are a few of our memories.

José experienced snow for the first time, and we built a series of snowmen in our back yard, front yard, and in the park.   They started out small, but some of the later ones were taller than we are!

José celebrated Christmas with us.  There were always extra little hands to help him unwrap -- whether he needed the help or not.

José cooked traditional Columbian cuisine for us.  He even made it vegetarian.

José joined us for eagle-watching on the Skagit river.  We had the good luck to see 5, including 2 on the wing.

José returns to Columbia next month.  We will miss you!