Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nicholas survived his week at JCLC

The Army JROTC Cadet Leadership Challenge (JCLC) was an intense week of physical challenge. There's a website with photos, but I pulled the ones I found with Nicholas in them.

His nose is burnt raw, his feet are blistered, but he made it through and earned recognition as the runner up for Honor Cadet of his platoon (there were 4 platoons with 35 kids in each). Super proud of him!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Need I say more?

They're all home!

It's fabulous to have both girls home, with both boys, and both parents.  It's not going to happen much this summer, so I'll take it when it's on!

Ian returned home from his trip to Cameroon on Saturday morning, and Rebecca arrived home from Savannah the same morning.  That evening, Becca and Nicholas went off to Nicholas's junior/senior prom.

Aren't they cute?

Sunday we ran some errands and watched "Get Out" in the evening. Excellent film. I encourage folks to watch it.

Today being a Monday holiday (except for Nicholas), we ventured out to Rebstockbad swimming hole.  Germans love to swim and go to the spa, sit in saunas, steam away their worries.  Rebstockbad is a cross between the typical German swimming spot and a water park for kids.  It's not a place we would spend a day at, nor is it just boring lap lanes. But it was fun for a couple hours of slides, high dives, wave pool, and next time we'll go on a US holiday so there aren't quite so many little people.

We followed swimming with bowling where Nicholas showed everyone up.

Unfortunately, there's work tomorrow.  I like May and June, so many 4-day work weeks. I guess it means we do have to go.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Now that you've heard of Live Escape Rooms, go do one.

It's still surprising to me that there are people who haven't heard of Live Escape Rooms. I know they are sweeping the planet, available in most cities.

So far we've done these...

Istanbul (I&M, with friends): MazeUp - Ottoman
London (all of us, 2 teams): HintHunt - Zen Room
Paris (I&M): HintHunt - JM's office
Amman (5 of us plus an extra, 2 teams): Escape the Room - Secret Storeroom,
Amman (Ian, team building): Escape the Room - Detective Office
Berlin (I&M): House of Tales - Kowloon (adult)
Prague (all of us, 2 teams): Mind Maze - Alchemist's Chamber
Belfast (all of us): Escap3d - Heroin Den
Frankfurt (all of us): Escape Events - BioHazard

DC (Ian, team building): Insomnia Escape Room - Alchemist
Orlando (all of us): The Escape Game - Prison Break
Orlando (all of us):  The Escape Game - Heist

The general idea is the same for all escape rooms. You are "locked" in a room, given 60 minutes to unravel the clues and puzzles, and escape. Some rooms are decidedly easier than others, most rooms need 3-4 brains to get out in time. If you have a 2-person team it's easy to miss simple things, especially if the room(s) is particularly dark.  If there are more than 4 players you run the risk of tripping over each other as spaces also tend to be small, especially if you have multiple rooms to work through.

You'll also have an eye-in-the-sky in the form of an employee who tosses you clues if you're plain stuck. That help can come in different ways.

The best rooms are non-linear, meaning that everyone on your team has a puzzle to focus on and enough items in the room to investigate.  We enjoy rooms with hidden doors, use of tech, and clever puzzles. Our favorite was probably HintHunt in London, and least was Escap3d in Belfast (though Belfast still gets talked about, not necessarily for good reasons).

Obviously, all this is very general, for good reason. Never give away any information as it ruins it for others.  Really best to go in blind and just enjoy your time. We encourage you to give them a go, and let us know which ones you recommend.

Find one near you. Not all, but quite a few to get your started: Escape Room Directory

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A quick anniversary trip to Berlin

Happy 21 years to us :)

Ian and I hopped up to Berlin for a couple days.  While it's driveable in 5 hours, when you only have a couple days it is easier to fly. Thursday evening we wandered around to Checkpoint Charlie and had dinner at the Seaside.  We recommend the Seaside as you choose your fish from the ice counter and pick your sides (my spargal risotto was beyond tasty), and it was all fantastic.  We had great weather on Thursday, so while we were indoors all the glass doors were open to the street.

Friday morning we made our way across the street to the Einstein Kaffee for breakfast.  Ian and the gentleman behind the counter struck up a conversation in Arabic - way cool.  We went there for breakfast the next morning too.

The day was stunning, warm with clear blue skies.

Checkpoint Charlie

We had a plan for Friday.  First, the DDR Museum, an interactive look into life in East Berlin.  I'm used to my museums American-sized... huge and too much to do in a trip.  European museum are like their fast food... small portions in small packaging. But the DDR is a hands-on museum, so to read and do all it offers still takes 2-3 hours. The only drawback, and I don't think it's avoidable, is it's the perfect place for a school group.  You're not going to lose your students in a German museum, but they do take up ALL the physical space, and the noise they make takes up all the audio space. Since they also had a scavenger hunt sheet to fill in, they also took up all the moving around space. Ian and I just sighed.  The museum is well done and well worth a visit. Try to time it without the school group. Good luck.

After an early afternoon break at the hotel we found our way to the Liquidrom.  We don't usually pack swimsuits but with the potential of the Liquidrom, we tossed them in. After living near the Dead Sea (a decidedly interesting but gross place to hang out), we looked forward to floating again in salt water. We spent 2 hours and the first 30 minutes we had the salt pool all to ourselves, floating in bathwater, watching the colored lights, and listening to the classical music under water. Swimsuits required in the salt pool, but optional in the rest of the facility. We had a quick snack and sat by the outdoor pool for a bit before enjoying one of the saunas and the steam room. Germans are very free at their spas, saunas, steam rooms, parks, swimming pools... The saunas were towels only.  The steam room was no fabrics. NO fabrics. Farewell towel. Farewell swimsuit. It's the most German thing we've done.  For 5 minutes. Steam rooms are really hot and uncomfortable. Back to the salt pool for more total relaxation. It was a delightful time, so glad we went.

Back for a little break and it was dinner time.  On the next block was the Rausch Schokoladenhaus - Cafe & Restaurant - everything is touched with chocolate. The bread was infused with cocoa nibs.  The pasta had chocolate shavings. The meat was sprinkled with cocoa and chili. The cafe is over the chocolate shop, and the dessert options looked beyond delicious. The molten chocolate cake definitely was. Of course we recommend it. Go early, it closes at 7.

Saturday we weren't heading home until the later afternoon, so over dinner we checked Trip Advisor for its recommendations.  We knew we'd walk down to the Brandenburg Gate at some point, but before that we figured.. what about an Escape Rooms.  I figure I'll write a separate blog post about Escape Rooms (it's such a surprise still when people don't know what they are).  There are a number of options in Berlin, but one a few blocks away won due to proximity. On Trip Advisor it's called Team Escapes and said it was open until 9:30.  We stopped in to ask about a reservation.  They've changed their name to House of Tales, and have 4 rooms. Check out their website to see their offerings, but we were encouraged to take on Kowloon - Walled City. We weren't fully aware, but as it turns out, Kowloon was their hardest room and claimed to handle 6 people (up to 12 if you have enough for 2 teams).  We needed one more person to get out in time, someone to double- and triple-check puzzles and catch on to things a little quicker, but 6 people would have been tripping over each other so don't do that.  But fair warning, Kowloon is for 18yo and up. Seriously. It is extremely mature. Adults only. No, srsly.

We had a ton of fun but didn't make it out in time, so that was disappointing. They did let us finish. The only recommendation I'd have is to have a visible timer, or a reminder that the phone they hand you can be used as a clock. The first time we had a warning was with 10 minutes left.

Across the street from the escape room was the Trabant Car Museum. We were a little confused why there was a museum dedicated to the crappy Easter German car produced that was made of largely recycled plastic waste. I guess I answered my own question right there.

We made our way to the Bradenburg Gate and planned to walk through the Tiergarten but the entire area was closed off for a race. It was then we realized the true attraction of the Trabant... the Trabi-Safari. Trabants were making there way through the streets of Berlin, mixed in with the Segway tours, the Hop On Hop Off buses, the bicycles, the Hot Rods... It looks like it'd be a great way to see Berlin.  Who wouldn't want to ride around in a cardboard and plastic deathtrap?

So happy 21st Anniversary to my sweetie.  Thank you for the trip to Berlin.  Time with you is always fun and I love to laugh with you and see the world with you. This journey is amazing and I'm so glad I get to do it with you walking next to me.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Frankfurt ComiCon

SO many people were dressed up, but no, no photos of them. I'm not one to ask strangers for their photo.  How many Negans and Deadpools can one ComiCon hold?

Look it up.

We saw Podrick signing autographs.

Look it up.

There were little sets all over with costumed folks setting the scene and inviting people for photos, like the Governor's room with his heads in fish tanks, and a spot for the various storm troopers to collect with a Star Wars hall behind them. It was fun to watch people take their poses.

We'll probably go next year :)

Back to all odds.

Wish Nicholas a happy 17th birthday :)

Nicholas is 17, Jonathon is 15, Rebecca is 19, and Katherine is 21. Kinda nuts.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A weekend in South Africa

Most of the places Ian travels to aren't hot spots of awesomeness. Most are middle of the road, some are kind of "challenging," but there are a couple that are pretty neat.  Copenhagen, yes.  And I was lucky to accompany him to Johannesburg.  It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing because chances are pretty good we won't get down that way for a tour.  And just like our fantastic trip to Moscow when the Gormans were there, we were lucky to have the Hales in Pretoria for our time in South Africa. (and Dan in Stuttgart when we went through, and Rebecca in Copenhagen, and the Woodards in Munich...) Hotel living is fine but it's really fun when you have some friends showing you around.

The Hales live in a house on the side of a hill that overlooks a conservation park.  When they're lucky, they see wild animals from their gazebo.  And 15 minutes away is a safari park. (They spend their vacations in safari parks all over, one of their latest trips was to Botswana).

Part of the park is sectioned off for their lions, who were all doing a very cat thing. Sleeping. The park has 2 males and 4 females, broken into 2 rotating groups of 3 for 5 days inside the small enclosure and 5 days in the broad sweeping open area.

Welcome to Jurassic Park.

She's so pretty.

In the main park there are no tall animals due to lighting strikes (bunches of trees are charcoal, keep the giraffes out of there!), but plenty of zebras, ostriches, eland (big antelope), and even some rhinos and medium cats.  The cats there, as expected, were never seen.  Not with those tall grasses and it being the middle of the day.  We did track down a rhino which was very cool and we'd not found it unless someone pointed us in the right direction and it started moving in the shade of a tree.

Dark blob under tree = Rhino
The safari, as undersold as it was by Jason, was very awesome.  I know it doesn't rank with open jeep trips in massive parks following herds of elephants, but for a quick trip down the road on a weekend visit to South Africa.... Fantastic.

They took us to dinner at Crawdaddy's, showed us the Voortrekker Monument, found a Starbucks so I could get a Pretoria mug, and let us stay overnight in their home (thanks Noah!). We promised the Hales we'd visit while they were in SA and they took great care of us.  Thank you!

Wait, let me back up.  The Voortrekker Monument. Wow. I have to say I'm amazed it hasn't been torched and torn down brick by brick.  The history of Dutch (and British) advancement into South Africa is one that mirrors almost down to the tale of the colonizer advancement into north America. Covered wagons, indigenous peoples, backstabbing, sorties, guns vs spears.  And it's all told in a huge relief carved into the walls of the monument.  The Dutch are civilized.  The natives are barbaric. It was really awful.  The museum in the basement was interesting in a "hey, we have these identical things back in the States." I'm glad I went, I'd never go back.

Back in Johannesburg, Ian had some work, but we also had a day off so we got a tour guide through the hotel and went out for a day.  From the Apartheid Museum to the South Western Township (SoWeTo... Soweto), we spent all day out and about with our guide, Shepherd.  I think the most eye-opening part was realizing that the architects of apartheid learned from the processes, and mistakes, of the Nazis and other oppressive regimes.  Their design was brilliant and horrifying.

Stones in the garden plots outside Mandela's home.

Awesome birds wandering around.

Soweto matchbox home.
Bear with me, I know you know all this already, but I learned a lot (which is the point after all).  After reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, I was more aware of how much I didn't (and still don't) know about SA history.  Everyone knows that Mandela was released from prison in 1990, was elected president in 1994, and died in 2013. He was in prison for 27 years for conspiracy and sabotage against the existing government. Apartheid ended between 1990-1993, but of course, like in our own history, that doesn't mean that racism went out the window and everyone lives happily together in a grand world of middle-class abundance.  Far from it.  One of Mandela's promises was that houses would be built and given to all those who needed one - the matchbox homes... two rooms with electricity and water. The promise has still not been fulfilled. Part of our tour was visiting the home of a man who still lives in a shack.  His mother still lives in a shack.  She has been on the list to receive a home for 30 years.  Now with his own family, he is on the list as well, much further down. If there's anything that drives home white privileged American, it's visiting a man in his home made of random boards and corrugated plastic and metal sheets. Like my time in Antananarivo (and Lomé and Chennai and...) seeing this level of poverty is nothing new to me, but...

Black Madonna of Soweto
And then there was the visit to the Catholic Church where in June 1976, a Soweto student uprising led to children and teenagers converging on the only place that was open to them after police began shooting.  In the mayhem in the streets, one particular child became the touchstone for the movement. Hector Pieterson was shot and killed, along with hundreds of others. What were they marching against?  The language taught in the classroom. It's a convoluted tale and best read elsewhere, like here.

And our last stop was at the former home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela.  Mandela was married 3 times, the middle one was Winnie who still lives in Soweto, but elsewhere.  It was an interesting glimpse into where Nelson Mandela became the statesman.

A visit with a touch of learning. We may never go back to SA, but I know this trip will stick with me.