Tuesday, June 26, 2007


We are back from Germany. We loved it! A beautiful, fascinating, green, clean country. I am certain that my sister, a comfirmed Anglophile, might also become a Deutschephile after a visit (especially considering her love of good beer, great bread & cheese & chocolate, bratwurst, Ikea style furniture, and lovely gardens).

Considering the challenges of long airplane travel, a 9 hour time difference, a virus that got us all but hit the Papaya especially hard, and a painful emerging incisor for the Banana, the kids were great travellers. We spent the first few days (at a friends' house in Kaiserslautern) mostly enjoying the green humidity, walking to the excellent local bakery & buying cheap, fresh bread, watching the five kids (ours & our friends') play together, and admiring the beautiful flowers everywhere. We spent the next few days in the green, rolling hills region of Bavaria, staying with Papaya Daddy's folks & visiting small villages, castle ruins, and large cathedrals in bigger towns. We did a beautiful, short river cruise with towering cliffs on either side of us and enjoyed a little bit of Germany's wonderful rail system. Then we traveled to the mountain region of Bavaria & took in the breathtaking scenery of the Alps. We rode a cog rail train that ascended a couple thousand meters towards the peak of Zugspitze, Germany's highest peak (on the Austria border), then got on cable cars that took us almost the rest of the way up (some stairs, a ladder, and a few well placed cables facilitated our climb to the very summit). We rode more cable cars to an indescribably lovely alpine hiking base called Alpspitze. We toured the bizarre Wagnerian-opera fantasy castle that Mad King Ludwig built in the late 1800's. On the way back to Frankfurt for our flight home, we stayed the night in a converted monastery inside Rothenburg, an amazingly preserved medieval walled city.

We packed a lot into a short two weeks! And we are tired.
Things we loved about Germany:

1. Nice mix of the old and the modern. Lots of history - almost every town has its own castle ruins, cathedral, or both. But the houses had (on the indoors) a nice, modern, clean-lines, Ikea-like style that we favor. There were all kinds of well-made, convenient features - like heated floor tiles, roulades at all the windows, cool toilet flush mechanisms (you could choose big flush or little flush each time), big bathrooms, heated towel racks, etc.

2. Child friendly. There aren't enough children being born in Germany, so the government actually subsidizes (generously) its citizens to bear them. The corollary to this is that the country itself felt welcoming to children. Kids under 6 years old were pretty much free of charge everywhere and on all public transport, which is usually not true in the States (although the States wins out as far as kids meals in restaurants go). There were lots of public playgrounds everywhere.

3. Good, cheap bakeries. Good cheese. Great cheap produce. Cherries everywhere, basically falling off trees (it was the season for them). Very good, cheap chocolate. You can buy great food from all the EU countries without paying import tax.

4. Relatively green (as in environmentally friendly) - compared to most places in the States, anyway. (The fact that gas is about $7.00/gallon probably has something to do with this.) Bike & pedestrian paths everywhere. Great train & public transport systems. Huge windmills everywhere. Lots of solar panels. Subsidized biodiesel at the gas stations. Smart cars are ubiquitous. Virtually everything is recycled, even garbage scraps.

5. Small fear of dumb lawsuits = more fun for kids. The play equipment available in parks, as well as the super-fun preschool attractions at the Playmobil theme park we visited, allow kids to do fun things that they never could in the States, because of the possibility of hurting themselves & suing the pants off somebody. Basically, Germans expect parents to use their common sense & be responsible for their kids rather than trying to ensure safety by allowing only boring, safe play equipment.

6. Wonderful gardens & beautiful flowers everywhere. Fragrance & the smell of verdancy in the air. (Of course, we came at the right time.)

7. Friendly people (on the whole). Nice to Americans (at least to us), even though we speak almost no German.

Things we didn't like about Germany:

1. The beds. After sleeping in three different German "double" beds, we can see why the government is paying such a premium for babies. It seems like Germans really like their own personal space at night. All the "double" beds we saw or slept in were really two twins pushed together, with seperate fitted sheets & separate twin duvets on top. Invariably, either Papaya Daddy or I would sleep (badly) in the crack in the middle, and both of us would end up with uncovered legs at some point(s) during the night in our effort to sleep with our bodies touching while using two personal-sized covers.

2. The small, slow washers and dryers. It takes about 4 hours to do one small load of laundry. I was very glad to get back to my own nice equipment. If I lived in Germany, I might not enjoy doing laundry quite so much.

3. Icky meat stuff (mostly pork tidbits) mixed together & encased in tubes. Everywhere. Lots and lots of it. I asked a waiter about a "salat" I saw on a menu, only to find out that is was a salad of cold, sliced sausage in a vinaigrette. My sister, who craved bratwurst in pregnancy, probably would have loved it - but we, vegetarians-that-eat-meat-on-vacation that we are, couldn't quite stomach them.

4. The Frankfurt Airport. What a mess! We arrived 3 hours early for our return flight, and by the time we got to the gate they were already boarding the plane. During those 3 hours, our passports were checked & scanned four times, we went through three different security-type checkpoints, and each one of us was wanded & frisked thoroughly. And I mean thoroughly. The security lady even squeezed the Banana's diaper, front & back, to make sure there was nothing scary in there (besides the expected, which is often scary to us). She stuck her hands down my pants & underneath my bra & made me remove the scrap of paper she detected in my back pocket & show it to her. The next time a security breach happens concerning air travel, it will probably not be at the Frankfurt Airport.

5. Second hand smoke. This is the non-child friendly part of Germany. They are still in the dark ages as far as non-smoking areas go. There is smoke all through the airport and hanging thick in the air of almost every restaurant. In fact, restaurants have cigarette vending machines at the entrance and they are also ubiquitous in hotel lobbies. We were very glad it was summer so we could eat outside most of the time.
6. Germany is 9 time zones away. Enough said. We are zombies.

Money saving tip in case you ever visit Germany: Learn to pronounce leitungswasser (tap water) well enough so that waitstaff can understand you. You will save a fortune, since a glass of bottled water costs the same as beer.
Okay, enough disjointed reflections. On to the pictures! What follows is but a sampling of the wonderful things we saw. (Any of the pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Waiting in the Phoenix Airport, full of energy & excitement (at least the kids are).

On the 767 in Chicago, destination Frankfurt. Energy is beginning to wane.
An ancient ruler of Speyer - and us

The jetlagged Papaya sacks out in the Speyer Cathedral. Roman emporers are entombed in the catacombs beneath him.

The small, nontouristy village of Kalmunz in Bavaria (we were climbing down from the castle ruins)

Skipping rocks at the destination of our short Donau River cruise from Kelheim

The Banana amuses herself on long van rides.

Num-num fountain in Regensburg

View of Eibsee from cog train (on the way up to Zugspitze)

Standing on top of Germany (summit of Zugspitze)

View into Austria from Zugspitze cafeteria (Austrian side)

Heaven (aka Alpspitze) - see the cable car?

More heaven. Hiking trails everywhere, from easy to expert

Not a bad place to kick up your feet

Coffee & cake break

"Climb every mountain..."

Picking a dandelion bouquet for Mommy

Walking the old city walls in Rothenburg

Papaya Mommy family air travel tip #37

Even if you are accustomed to remarking to your kids, at the end of a long & boring experience, “Hey, kids, let’s BLOW this joint!”, refrain from saying it loudly & enthusiastically as you wait to deboard an airplane after an international flight. You will, at the very least, receive strange & worried looks from your fellow passengers. You will feel fortunate (as we did) to escape further notice.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Off to Germany!

This morning we are attempting to get ourselves together to get out the house & on our way to Phoenix. We are on the dawn of the largest trip our family of four has ever attempted - a 2 1/2 week vacation to Germany!

Needless to say, the long plane flights there and back, as well as the jet lag from a 9 or 10 hour time change, are not at the top of my list of fun activities, especially since the Banana is still a lap child. The trip back, especially - a 10 1/2 hour daytime flight - promises to be a trying experience.

But we plan to have a great time while we're there! We'll be staying 5 days with my dear friend & her family in Kaiserlautern (she has children the same ages as my children), then another few days with Papaya Daddy's parents in a Bavarian town near Nurnberg - Nuremberg in English. (Papaya Daddy's dad teaches at a Department of Defense high school on a military base there). Then we'll spend four nights at a military resort in the Bavarian Alps (near where Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" used to be), right on the border with Austria and with views straight up Germany's highest mountain. We're pretty excited.

Will our plants still be living when we return? That is the burning question, and the only regret we have about leaving for such a lengthy trip. (We are paying a couple of teenagers to water, with a bonus for each plant that still looks good when we return. Let's hope this is enough motivation for them to pour it on. It almost never rains here in June, so they'd better.)

Probably no blogging while we're gone. Auf Wiedersehen!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Gardening blog entry (before & after)

In response to my sister's repeated requests for pictures of our yard and gardening efforts, here they are - a last minute effort before we are off for Germany. What follows are pictures that portray the result of hours and hours of tough toil that went into making our yard a pleasant place to look at. (Please forgive the weird formatting of text in this entry. Blogger doesn't always do what I want it to.)

First, the before pictures. The two pictures below show what our back yard looked like about 2 weeks after we moved in (try to ignore the very pregnant woman and just notice the beautiful yard). We don't have a picture of our front yard, but be assured - it looked exactly the same!Okay, after a year and a half of dragging in various found objects (rocks, wood, rain barrels & a swingset) scavenged off the yards of people who moved away, pulling hundreds of thousands of bad weeds, collecting a lot of seeds from plants we liked in the desert & sowing them last fall, and spending a few hundred dollars and a few hundred hours on more nice plants, trees, & soil amendment, here is what our back & front yards look like now:
One of the biggest projects we did in the past month was to (attempt to) begin a lawn in our back yard. We blew almost $100 by ordering 140 plugs of Buffalo grass over the internet - a miracle cultivar that's supposed to love clay soil, love intense sun, stand a lot of foot traffic, need only a fraction of the water of more conventional Kentucky Bluegrass, and shoot out "aggresive runners" to spread fast around the yard.
I'll let Papaya Daddy tell the story of our planting. Before I cut & paste the email he sent to his dad explaining the process, let me just tell you a little about the soil in our yard. It is hard, heavy, cement-like, grayish black clay. The best tools for working with it are the pick-ax and the jackhammer (the man who installed our satellite dish for the internet used a jackhammer). Anyway, here's what went into planting about 120 square feet of grass. We:
  • pulled weeds
  • used a spade fork to loosen the hard clay down to 10 inches
  • spread on sand, gypsum, all-purpose fertilizer, whole wheat pastry flour (that's right, it had gone bad, so we figured...flour comes from wheat and wheat is a grass, so...you are what you eat?)
  • Mixed in above materials with the spade fork
  • Sifted the mixture with the fork, bringing the big clumps to the surface
  • Pulverized the big clumps by whacking them with the fork
  • Loosened the clumped roots of the 140 grass seedlings (or "plugs", little tufts of sod), by cutting shallowly with a pocketknife (suggested to release growth & repair hormones)
  • Planted the plugs
  • Stomped on the plugs (suggested to improve root contact)
  • Watered with "root stimulator" (diluted seaweed extract & "Superthrive" vitamin concentrate)
  • Stood back and admired.
Our lawn - now you, too, can stand back & admire!
Believe it or not, after three weeks of heavy watering, the plugs are actually starting to green up & put forth a few runners. I think they actually might make it.
After the lawn was finished, we received our next internet order from High Country Gardens - 33 little plants. I also got 12 dianthus plants at church for Mother's Day, and it was time to transplant the little herb seedlings we had been growing inside (into five different planned herb gardens). Although the seedlings were little, they were all supposed to grow into large perennials, and so required a 12-inch square hole each. As we found out, that's a deep hole, especially when you're chipping away through cement. This is how the sequence of our perennial planting went (for each of the 33 plants):
  • Use all of the muscles & tools at our disposal to excavate a 12 square inch hole. Use a measuring tape so we don't fool ourselves (what I thought was 12 inches was usually only 8 or 9).
  • Amend dirt before refilling hole. Measure out 3 gallons of native clay. Mix with 3 or 4 gallons of coarse sand (we collected about half a ton of it from on top of the mesa and filled up our Corolla, almost killing our suspension to get it back down). Mix in about a gallon of planting mix from nursery in Flagstaff, 2 handfuls of YumYum organic plant food, 2 handfuls of gypsum (to soften the soil further), and a heaping tablespoon of phosphate. Try to get it all mixed up.
  • Pour amended dirt back into hole.
  • Try to find a place to dump all of the native clay we're not putting back in.
  • Unmold plant, scratch out roots with knife, and actually plant it.
  • Form a well around the new plant.
  • Fill well with clear water & let drain.
  • Mix up root stimulator & fill well again; let drain.
  • Mulch plant (fill up well) with coral colored gravel (again, picked up in Flagstaff) - any other kind of mulch would blow away on days like today (the wind has been blowing 35-50 mph since this morning).
  • Shake out arms & start on the next hole.
We found that it was one thing to admire plants online and click them into our shopping cart, and another thing altogether to actually receive them, plant them, and take care of them. But they're all in now (and still living), and we're excited about what will come of them. Here are a few sample pictures:

This will one day be a lovely patch of blue & purple flowers (lavendar, salvia, blue flax, & one Arizona Sun gaillardia for contrast) -
note the abundance of mint behind (the sunflowers are native & all came up from the seed we scattered last year)

This will one day be a lovely patch of red and orange flowers (agastache, penstemon, dianthus, & gaillardia)

Our mini-Stonehenge in the front yard (2 types of lavendar & one penstemon)

Our Maynight Salvia - favorite plant so far (because it's flowering!)
While I was typing this, the wind blew over the Oranges & Lemons gaillardia flower in the front yard that was just starting to open up - snapped off half the plant. We've been watching it & anticipating for almost two weeks now, and we are pretty upset. Hopefully, the other half will come back again. This is not an easy place to garden - but that makes it all the more exciting when we do succeed!
Our happy, happy back yard

Monday, June 04, 2007

Arachnophobia (aka Home Alone at Night Fears)

Usually, only the vomiting of one of my children can give me an adrenaline rush strong enough to keep me awake most of the night. I'm ashamed to say that despite both my kids sleeping the night through, I probably got as little good sleep last night as my husband, who was running the ER.

The reason? Just after I got both kids safely in bed, I sat down on the couch to do some reading. Glancing up from the Bible, I saw a great, big, dark brown spider walking across the floor and disappearing under the couch. Although our house is home to many innocuous cellar spiders, it was the first time I had seen something of such ugliness and magnitude. It didn't look like a black widow, so my first thought was that it was a brown recluse, which are endemic around here. (Indeed, last year our pastor & his sons brought a brown recluse they caught on their kitchen counter to show us, telling us the story of how Mrs. Pastor had been bitten, was severely ill for over month, and narrowly escaped serious necrosis of her hand.) I started feeling a little skitterish about walking around the floors barefoot, and started worrying about my kids in bed by themselves with such scary predators roaming our house. I decided to leave the spider to await Papaya Daddy's discretion when he returned home the next morning and headed to bed, where my feet would be safely above the floor. I stood on the couch to turn off the lamps next to it, just in case Scary Spider decided to dart out from underneath and bite my bare toes.

In bed, I thought about how brown recluses like to hide out in piles of clothes and wondered if there were any under the covers. I turned the light on and checked. The bed was clear. I turned the light back off and was on my way to falling asleep when I decided I needed to visit the bathroom. I turned the light back on, looked over the side of the bed before getting down, and saw another large, dark brown spider. This time, the adrenaline hit me like a brick wall. Our house was infested by scary poisonous spiders! I picked up my bedside book and tried to drop it on the spider. I think Jane Eyre must have made some impression (although it wasn't a direct hit), because the spider appeared stunned & didn't run off immediately. I tried to pick up the book to repeat my attack, but the spider had regathered his (her) wits by this time, and ran under the bed. I shakily grabbed a flashlight & a flyswatter, and spend 10 minutes pushing around the dusty detritus under our bed, attempting to deal a death blow to this invader of my safe home. Finally, I succeeded in my death wish. With shaking hands, I used the flyswatter to pull the dead spider out and put it in a dish to show Papaya Daddy the next morning.

Hapless victim of irrational nighttime fears

I still couldn't figure out what kind of a spider it was (especially since it was, by this point, all curled up & covered with dust bunnies). However, both my nerves and my imagination (both of which tend be a bit unreasonable, anyway, when Papaya Daddy is away for the night) were strung sky-high by this point, and I lay in bed with a racing heart, knowing that I killed a brown recluse and that others were probably crawling over my innocent children in their beds, biting their faces pressed so trustingly into blankets and pillows. The Banana had cried when I dressed her in her sleeper before bed - maybe it was because a brown recluse was inside the footie & was biting her. Oh, how I regretted putting a bedskirt on the Papaya's bed. Such a convenient way for a spider to access him. My mind filled with elaborate plans for how we were going to move all the furniture the next day and clean thoroughly under each piece, with one of us grasping the flyswatter to do away with any more Evil Spiders. We would start with the living room couch.

How I wished for the presence of my cousin, the Fearless Spider Hunter, the one who happily lets venomous arachnids crawl up his arm. He could not only identify the spider for me, but would almost certainly lay my fears to rest (or at least attempt to, with the best of his reason and zeal). Unfortunately, nobody was around to quiet my head and so I lay awake for a large portion of the night.

When morning finally came, I did what I should have done right away - a Google image search of various types of spiders to figure out what I had killed. Although I could have done without the horrific pictures of necrotized brown recluse bites, I'm happy (and somewhat sad, for the spider's sake) to say that the poor spider I murdered was most likely (as those of you in the know have probably already figured out by my picture) an innocent wolf spider. When I read that wolf spiders come out at night to go hunting (for bugs, not for people), my conclusion seemed even more certain. Even my husband (after initially jumping back about two feet when I showed him the dead spider - he has his own share of arachnophobia) agreed with me.

So, in the brave light of daytime, knowing that my husband will be guarding the house with me tonight, I'm (mostly) sorry I swatted the wolf spider and feel much better about the possibility of cohabitation. And so, brave arachnophile cousin in Virginia (if you read this blog), please forgive me for killing a spider and do your best to lay my remaining uneasiness to rest. Does the above look like a wolf spider? Are wolf spiders a menace to my children? Will they crawl over them at night and bite them? Will they dart out from under the couch to attack unsuspecting bare feet? Should I even bother to remove them from the house, or simply turn a blind eye and try to summon a hospitable spirit towards them?

In other unwelcome visitors news, we finally found the mouse in our garage whose nests I've been destroying and whose food stashes I've been removing in an attempt to "starve" him out and encourage his departure. He got starved out, all right. He climbed through the neck of an empty sparkling lemonade bottle (same size & shape as a wine bottle) in our recycling bin. By the time we found him, he had been there for a few days and the bottle no longer smelled like sparkling lemonade. We decided that some glass bottles are not worth recycling, and felt glad that the trash was being picked up soon.

I much prefer live human visitors in our house.