Sunday, October 17, 2010

last october break

For the kids' fall break this year we decided to go to Disneyland, mostly because the kids have been asking to go back to Disneyland ever since we ended our last trip two years ago. This is also the kids' last school "fall break" since they'll be transferring to a school next year which has a longer summer break, but no break in fall.

We went to California Adventure first and our day started out nice enough. There wasn't much of a crowd and we got into the rides and attractions quickly.

But the forecast called for rain for the next two days so I was prepared with our rain jackets but I was worried that this could really be a disaster for our trip. Soon after we arrived in the park the skies got very dark...

...and then the rain started. We headed into an indoor ride, one of Erin's favorites (I think she rode this one four times last visit)--the Tower of Terror, where you are in a Twilight Zone-themed haunted hotel elevator that malfunctions and drops repeatedly. Allison and Kate were tall enough for it and though we knew it got dark inside sometimes, everyone seemed okay with trying it. Erin loved it, no surprise there, Allison said unconvincingly that it was "pretty fun" but Kate was terrified and isn't pictured here in front of the ride because she was still calming down I think. Oops.

Luckily she pretty quickly forgot about how terrible that was because there was plenty of interesting things to distract her. The rain came intermittently. When it stopped we'd dash onto a ride or two outside (we could always practically walk onto anything), and when it started again we'd duck into a covered ride or show or something else.

During one downpour we went into an animation studio building where you can see exhibits about how animation is created and how voice-overs are added. When we entered the girls were pleasantly surprised to see Goofy and Jessie from Toy Story and the girls danced and played with them. Soon Cinderella and Pluto and Woody from Toy Story came in too and they all stayed and played with the few children there for a long time. I mentioned to an employee that I had no idea so many characters would be here, since we've never been in there before. She answered, "There usually isn't but it's raining and we don't have anywhere else to send them."

The next day the rains continued and we started off with breakfast in Goofy's Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel. Our table was visited by more characters than I can list here and at one point several of them got some kids together and danced with them. Allison only watched, but Kate got into it.

And we headed to Disneyland and some more rides in the rain.

Again the we found the park nearly empty and we could just walk onto just about anything. Our jackets kept us dry and I was really realizing that Disneyland in the rain is far from a disaster.
But by the time we had lunch the rain stopped, the ground dried and the jackets came off.

And we didn't see any more rain for the rest of the week. The park was still relatively empty so the girls got to join in with a pirate band in the New Orleans area, and everyone gave a big thumbs up for the Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster.

Because we had no lines to wait in we had so much more time to explore things we haven't tried before, like the giant river boat ride.

That evening, now that I was confident they could be worn without getting soaked, the girls picked out some official Minnie Mouse ears.

The next day we came back to Disneyland to see a couple of the attractions that we missed the day before.

Then we went over to California Adventure because there were two big shows that we wanted to be sure to see. The rain was definitely history and we had beautiful sunny weather and a warm day, so naturally the girls were interested in spending their first dry day by running through the fountains and getting wet.

It was so warm that by the afternoon the girls wanted to cool down with some ice cream.

That evening Trish and Hugh (who live about 10 minutes away) joined us for dinner in the park and a fantastic new outdoor water and lights show in the evening called "World of Color".

The next day, our last one before heading home, we again went to Disneyland.

We had breakfast with Minnie Mouse and her friends.

Then more rides.

And a trip to what I still remember as Tom Sawyer's Island (which was closed in the rain) and which has now been renamed "Pirate Island". I like the old name better.

Trish and Hugh left work early on this friday to join us in Disneyland in the later afternoon and we hoped to ride Space Mountain again, which was all re-done in a Halloween theme. The girls and John and I already rode it earlier in the week.

By this point it hadn't rained in two days and there was a special Halloween event going on the park starting at 6pm that night, so Disneyland suddenly became very, very, very crowded. We were two hours from the time the park closed and the wait for Space Mountain was 80 minutes. Erin and Hugh and Trish and I decided to get in line while John and the twins went elsewhere. The time passed relatively easily as the obscenely long line moved along, and when we were just less than 5 minutes and about 40 feet from getting on the ride, it suddenly malfunctioned, stopped, and we were told we'd all have to exit the building and we were given special passes to return to it at the front of the line on another day, which didn't do any of us any good at all.

"This is HORRIBLE! This is just SO HORRIBLE!" Erin kept saying over and over. Well, yeah, it did really suck, mostly because I wanted Trish and Hugh to see how they changed the ride for Halloween. And it's a really fun ride in general. But of all the things we saw and did, this was really the only low point in the entire last 5 days, I reminded Erin.

The next morning we reluctantly left the Disneyland Hotel.

But we'll be back, and if we're lucky, it will be raining during our next visit.

Monday, October 11, 2010

ein deutscher in amerika

Oma was born and raised in Germany and I've been to Germany twice with her to visit her family and do some sight-seeing. On both of my trips I spent a lot of time with her various cousins' families. One of her cousins, Tobias, is a university student who knows a fair amount of English and is interested in America. On my latest trip to Germany earlier this year Tobias and his family took me on several sight-seeing day trips, and I invited him to visit us if he had the chance to let me return the favor.

Tobias has been to the US twice before. He visited a friend in NYC a couple of years ago, and before that he visited Oma and Opa's house in rural PA. I explained to him that where I live is a totally different America than either of those places, and unlike NYC he's unlikely to see muscular guys named Vinnie with greasy hair and Bronx accents, so he was intrigued. He booked his trip to see us during the last weeks before his fall semester began. He left a very cold, rainy Germany and found unseasonably warm, sunny weather here, and he was thrilled.

The day after he arrived I took him to SF, but before getting there I thought we'd stop at a beach for a bit. We watched some surfers and he picked up some sand dollars shells (he'd never seen them before) and he was also unfamiliar with kelp, which was lying here and there around the beach. We also found a dead, decapitated sea lion--a shark victim I suppose. We certainly have beautiful wildlife to enjoy at every turn.

Then we headed to the GG bridge to take in the views and walk along the bridge.

Next we headed to the wharf area, where we caught a ferry boat to Angel Island. Once there we rented bikes and went riding around and visited the old asian immigrant holding station which is now a museum.

When we returned to the wharf we walked around a while and we came upon perhaps the most important SF tourist attraction next to the GG bridge--the Bushman. If you are unfortunate enough not to have stopped to watch him in action, watch this video taken by my brother a few years ago.

We walked by the Bushman from behind him, and as soon as I saw him I pulled Tobias over to the side of street and told him we have to watch him for a few minutes because he's going to get money by scaring tourists. I think Tobias thought I was completely nuts. As we watched he scared the daylights after several groups of people and we laughed so hard that we were nearly crying. It's worth enduring the touristy wharf area once and a while just to see the Bushman at work.

The following day, on the advice of a friend, Tobias and I took a student-led walking tour of a nearby university with a famously beautiful campus.

And we also hiked in a redwood forest and visited a winery with great views of the valley.

Tobias was interested in how cherished the redwoods seem to be. The winery even built their amphitheater around them rather than cut them down.

Over the weekend all 6 of us took a train ride from the mountains, through the forest, and down to the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.

And Tobias was delighted again to find himself back on a beach. He and the girls went wading for a while and collected shells, then we all went on the boardwalk for some rides.

Tobias rode the famous Big Dipper coaster twice, and loved it.

We talked over Skype 2 days before he arrived. I asked him if there was anything specific he wanted to see here and his answer was "your German school and your kids' regular school." Tobias is studying to be a teacher and thought it would be interesting to see "a typical american elementary school".

One problem there is that there really isn't anything typical about our elementary school, and the next problem was I didn't think the teachers would exactly go for it. But when I emailed the girls' teachers the next day with a kind of "I know this is a totally strange question, but..." kind of note, I was surprised to read that all of them welcomed him in their classes, and Allison's teacher came up with the idea of having Tobias speak to Kate and Allison's whole village about Germany and Oktoberfest, since the kids have been talking about the fall harvest season lately.

The next day I was volunteering at the school as usual and Allison's teacher elaborated on her email, "It's great to expose the kids to holidays of other cultures but all we ever get are offers to share Indian and Chinese holidays year, after year...after year. We NEVER get to hear from anyone from Europe. He just HAS to speak to the kids!"

Yeah, well, he was already on his way here and I couldn't ask him about this until he arrived. Oktoberfest is a Bavarian thing and Tobias isn't Bavarian. I know that Oma gets annoyed when people generalize the Bavarian culture to the whole country and everyone in it and I wasn't sure if Tobias felt similarly and would be receptive to this request. On the drive to my house from the airport that evening, I conveyed the teacher's idea, and he was actually very flattered to be asked to speak to the kids and he was very excited.

Over the next week I helped him assemble some photos to show the kids with maps of Europe and Germany and photos of Oktoberfest and fall harvest crops there. I operated the computer while Tobias talked, and we also found a video of some traditional dancing and a video about the history of the event too.

After the presentation the teachers gave the kids Oktoberfest word search puzzles that we found online and printed. The presentation went really, really well. Tobias really seemed to enjoy himself and he spent the rest of the time in their classes helping kids with art projects, and observing lessons and taking notes. He thought the school and the teachers were fantastic.

He also spent a day observing at the local German-American school--the private school where the girls and I take a class on saturday mornings. During the week they have a full K through 12 bilingual program and Tobias could possibly work as a student teacher there for a few months later in his college career. He spoke to several of the faculty there and said he made many good contacts who he plans stay in touch with.

In between all this sight-seeing and school-seeing Tobias had fun with the girls, speaking to them in German and reading to them and playing games.

And I made sure to introduce him to important american cultural items. First, there was food.
Some of the things he tried for the first time and really enjoyed:
ginger ale, corn dogs, saltwater taffy, american beer, california wine, sausage links with breakfast, fluffy pancakes, cinnamon toast, chicken parmesan, cornbread.
Some of the things he's only eaten once before, while visiting Oma and Opa in PA several years ago and he had again here:
tacos, donuts, corn on the cob, steak.

His favorite fruit is strawberries but he said you can only get them for about 2 months in Germany. So while driving back from ocean kayaking one day, we stopped at a large fruit stand adjacent to a farm and bought a TON of them. I made John's mom's famous strawberry pie and we had plenty left over for him to enjoy for many days.

We started watching a movie on TV one night but he couldn't understand the accents well (american actors trying to be british). So I started looking through our DVD's for a comedy (his favorite). I had "16 Candles" in mind but we don't have it, so I chose John's favorite comedy, "Better Off Dead". Tobias laughed and loved it. How could you not?

And so, culturally significant, historic, and magnificent local sights seen and heard and tasted, Tobias' last day here was spent per his request, at the beach.

Tobias reluctantly left us after two weeks. I tried to give him his fill of sun, sand, strawberries, and mexican food and some sense of why this is such a nice place to live. I think he agrees and I'm sure he'll be back, though I hope I can get back to Germany first.