Thursday, April 17, 2008

Urlaub am Bauernhof

I have been working some very long hours at work lately. This has been painfully noticed by the children, who may have even forgotten who I am. I would leave the house at the same time they went off to school, and for a few weeks, I would get home after everybody had gone to bed. (Sometimes even Stacy!)

Now that the kids go to a Swiss school in Rüfenacht, they follow the Swiss schedule for time away from school. You may not be aware of how differently the Swiss school system handles vacation time:
  • Christmas: Two weeks
  • Sportwoche: One week in February or March, I think this is set up so that the Swiss families can go to the ski slopes together one last time.
  • Spring Break: Two weeks after Easter, three weeks for the kindergarteners.
  • Summer Break: Five weeks starting on 4 July.
  • Fall Break: Three weeks starting early September.
Last year, I had to go on a trip for Fall break, but this was at the ISB -- it was not three weeks long, but still: WORK got in the way of a family vacation.
Christmas break, I didn't take any time off, Sportwoche was spent with me on the phone all the time, as I was on-call that week. (And the company got its money's worth out of me!) Stacy made well sure that I took some time off work during Spring break, with all sorts of threats!

As you may or may not have imagined, it is quite hard to overcome the inertia of four kids and get everybody out on a vacation. Most hotels won't let you crowd all of those kids onto a hotel room floor, and some insist that we book THREE rooms instead of two. A hotel for three rooms anywhere in Europe can get quite expensive very quickly. Especially with the terrible exchange rate for the US Dollar versus the Euro (1.58 USD per EUR).

Stacy found a nice compromise by finding a vacation at a barn. No, we are not sleeping in haystacks, and we're not shoveling manure. This is a bread and breakfast sort of affair, at a barn in Austria. The organization that puts together all of these establishments on-line is called "Urlaub am Bauernhof" which means "vacation at the farm" This is the first vacation I have taken with the family in a long time, the last time was probably a beach vacation in 2006.

The logistics involved in moving all of these people to a neighboring country, not to mention all of our luggage, can only be mastered by the "Urlaubschef" (Vacation chief) Stacy. There was not enough storage in our car to bring all of our luggage, along with all of our kids in one trip in the car. The trip is about 3 and a half hours by train or by car. Once we folded up all the seats in the car, and loaded all of the luggage into the hatch-back. There was only enough room for two occupants (positions driver and shotgun), so the rest of the kids had to go to Austria by train.

Since I have a General Abonnement (I ride all public trains in Switzerland for free) , along with some "Junior Karte" (Kids with paying adult ride for free); we all made way by train; leaving Stacy and Jake to go by car. The GA does not pay for fares outside of Switzerland, so once I crossed the border at Sankt Gallen, I had to buy a 14 CHF ticket to Bregenz, Austria. This is an extremely cheap way to cross into Austria! 14 CHF to transport 3 kids and an adult from Bern to Austria? The GA is great.

Stacy went by car, Jake "navigating" in the right seat. On the way, Jake attempted (repeatedly) different ways to annoy his mother. He would sing awful songs in the worst singing voice he could muster. "Are we there yet?" But mostly the "dumb noises and incessant repetition" Mission accomplished.

The kids and I arrived at the Bregenz Bahnhof at around 3:30. As Joey was getting off the train, he shouted "We're in Australia now!" By then, Stacy had made it to the house and unloaded the luggage by herself. The kids spent time on a great playground right on Lake Constance, so it was not really difficult to let Stacy go to the grocery store in time. In time? You ask. On a Saturday afternoon, all of the grocery stores close at 5 pm, and don't open again until Monday morning. Going out to eat 4 times with the weak dollar could have easily made this cheap vacation very expensive!

Stacy called me to coordinate. We agreed that groceries were vital, so she went to the grocery store for some desperately-needed shopping. The kids were untiring, and continued to play on the playground with great enjoyment. This playground boasted a zip-line, an excellent tire swing, and a round-about.

Right away, I felt at home -- the kids on the playground spoke High German for the most part (I have a very hard time communicating with Swiss kids, as they generally don't speak High German yet) . There were a bunch of kids on the round-about, who responded "extremely fast! (Ja ganz schnell!)" when I said "Shall I spin you fast? " I spun these kids on the roundabout so fast that I actually made one sick. (how awesome). This is my kids' favorite toy at the playground, something not found in the US, so going too fast is not possible.

At the farm, the hosts had manufactured a hutch for the rabbits to live in for our stay. When Stacy asked them if there was room for them, the hosts responded, "Oh we can come up with something for them". There was plenty of grass for the bunnies to nibble on, and a place to hide when the local critters came up to look into the cage to see what's inside.

At the farm, we were greeted with the friendliest dog I have ever met, named Lucy. She had a habit of tripping us as we were trying to walk. The dog would just sit down right at your feet, and rest her head on your thigh, saying "pet me! pet me!" She would often just run up to you and lay on her back for you to rub her tummy. Really: The nicest dog I have ever met! Even Jake the caninophobe wasn't afraid of Lucy.

The hosts were pleased to find out that we speak German, and insisted that I get a chance to practice my German a bit. To make it easier on her, I spoke only German with her after the initial meeting. The husband, the farmer, did not ever speak anything to me other than the local Austrian dialect (I didn't get its name), which wasn't too terribly difficult to decode; given my Bärndütsch training. The accent wasn't so thick, and many of the words were the same.

Where was this place? It was on top of a mountain right on the lake shore of Lake Constance, the Bodensee -- The view was pretty spectacular. This picture here is taken from the top of the hill looking down on the Rhein as it empties into the Bodensee. It wasn't that great looking in pictures -- much better in life.

They had a pair of ponies for Cecilia to ride (which she did many times)

The weather ranged from spectacular to miserable. Being on top of that mountain, we really got to experience the difference between "rainy day down low" and "snowing at the tops of the mountain" The bunnies, living outside in their new shelter didn't mind; they like to play in the snow, dig in it, and shake it off of their bunny heads. Unfortunately, the rest of the family found its self hiding indoors on the snowy day we had. Fortunately, there was wireless access, and some of the boredom was driven off by the temptations of the Internet. There was cable-tv in the house, but TV here really doesn't interest us; and Austria is much the same.

We drove into Germany to find a huge shopping mall. It was just like home in so many ways. As far as I can tell, they do not have huge shopping malls like they have in Northern Virginia. On our way through Germany, we crossed Lake Konstanz (Bodensee) by ferry, to visit the city of Konstanz, on the other side. At Konstanz, we visited the "Sea Life Museum"

In the next article, I will describe our day trip to Liechtenstein.

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