The picture above is the village of Lupburg, our home away from home while in Bavaria. Our house is on the right, below the onion dome church . The people are friendly, helpful and best of all, love to keep things "in order."

Fire makes it better

We recently stumbled upon a delicacy of the German Christmas Markets...the fire bowl drink (feuerzangenbowle). A friend mentioned the stand on the other side of the Danube River in Regensberg so the family made its way wandering through the cobblestone streets in search of the elusive concoction. When we stumbled upon a long line of eager patrons waiting patiently for their drinks we knew we found something special. The drink comes served in a special cup that allows the sugar cube to rest on the side while the liquor is poured generously on top of the sugar and drink. Then, the magic comes when the server takes a small blowtorch and lights the drink on fire. We were duly impressed. So much so, that on subsequent trips, we made a beeline for the stand, passing up any imitations along the way. We thought this was a Regensberg specialty but are happy to report that Munich hosts a Fire Bowl Square right near the Old Town with several stands dedicated to the drink, and includes a 20 foot tower of copper with fire flaming out from the center. All we can say is "bring it on!"
Click below for a short video...
Fire on my drink

Christmas Markets

Village Square, Esslingen

Pausing for a quick pic between sips of gluhwein

Starting just after American Thanksgiving, German villages and large cities play host to Christkindlmarkts...the traditional seasonal markets featuring handcrafted goods, fresh baked goods and  live music. We were able to visit several of the top markets this year: Dresden--the oldest market in Germany; Stuttgart--the largest market in Germany; Esslingen--a medieval market featuring pirates, wenches and lots of street performers; Nuremberg--voted "the best" market; and Regensberg--a collection of 4 markets in one city.  Each has their specialty but all have one draw in common: gluhwein, a hot mulled wine served in commemorative market coffee mugs.  You pay a deposit for the cup allowing visitors to choose which cups they want to collect. (most cost between 2-3 euro)  A spin on the gluhwein drink is "feuerzangenbowle" literally translated "fire tongs punch".  This drink is mulled wine with a sugar cube doused in alcohol and then lit on fire.  Not only is it tasty on a cold winter's night but adding the flame on top makes it irresistible.

One of the pretty booths at Christmas Market
Street performer, Esslingen

It rolls

In October, Tim and I went north to pick up the newest addition to the Rietkerk family: a Volvo sedan.  The Army ships one vehicle with the family when you move overseas. We donated the trusty gold Honda Accord and shipped the Honda minivan.  For the past 3 months, the van has been great. It's taken us as far north as Denmark and south to the Czech Republic.  With more than 115,000 miles on the 2006 model, we thought now would be a good time to purchase another vehicle. Being in the land of "no speed limit", every soldier's dream is a super fast car. Most choose the BMW 300 or 500 series in black. In fact, there are so many of these models on military bases, it's hard to believe they are something special in the States.  Tim and I were first taken with the BMW, but after careful research (and the 50th anniversary special Volvo was offering) we decided to purchase the Volvo S-80, a 4 door sedan, in the classic dark blue Volvo color.
When you purchase a Volvo, you can have it delivered to the dealer OR you can opt to take factory delivery up in Sweden, which is what we did during the last weekend in October 2011.  The deal goes like this: if you elect to pick up at the dealership, you will pay a $600 delivery fee.  If you go to the factory, Volvo pays for your trip up north and then you drive it back home.  Tim was able to get leave approved for the trip to Sweden and on Monday, Oct 31 we boarded a train in Parsberg (a 5 minute drive from our house) to Kiel, via Regensberg and Frankfurt.  The train travel took 8 hours but was thoroughly enjoyable.  No distractions to our reading selections, we stopped at the Starbucks in Frankfurt for a little snack and then enjoyed a picnic lunch with bottles of wine on the train.

Once we arrived in Kiel, it was a 10 minute walk to the Stena Line ferry where we checked in, received room keys and hit the buffet.
The ferry left port at 7:30pm and traveled across the Baltic Sea overnight. We arrived in Gothenburg Sweden at 9am and left our luggage in our cabin, which we would return in the evening. We were warmly greeted by our Volvo driver who whisked us away to the factory, about 15 minutes from the dock.  Once at the factory, we were the first to check in and our car was rolled out in the delivery waiting area. We were like first time parents, oohing and ahhing over the shiny new toy.  Our Volvo rep Leif took us on a tour of the bells and whistles of the car and then let us take over and take it on a spin on the test track.  Lest you get too excited, the track is about 1/4 mile long and limited to low speeds.  We'd have to wait to test the power in the engine until after lunch.
At 11:30, we enjoyed lunch in the restaurant which featured a traditional Swedish meal: meatballs, potatoes, gravy and lingonberries. Better than IKEA! Then, it was time for our factory tour. Sorry, no pictures allowed but it reminded me of the Disney movie Wall-E or the ride "Cars" at Epcot: lots of robots doing very detailed work. When we did see humans, they were surprisingly young; I don't think we spotted anyone over the age of 50 on the floor and most looked like young adults. Impressive tour though.  They kept emphasizing that every Volvo is created with specific customer specifications. Every vehicle is pre-ordered and built to match the end user's desires.
We left the factory at 3:30 and drove around the city enjoying the sound system and bluetooth capabilities.  Once on board the ferry again, we made our way back to the buffet.  After a restful night's sleep, we disembarked with the car and headed south to Lupburg.  We made it home in 8 hours and thoroughly enjoyed driving the car on the autobahn.  Tim got the car up to 110 mph, a thrilling prospect after many years at speeds half that.  We are going to enjoy traveling to new places in this car.


Tim deciphers the map to figure out where to go next...icons show us the types of trails they have: important sites, beautiful scenery, or restaurants along the way!

A favorite pastime of the Germans is walking.  I had heard about the volksmarches that many villages host during the summer but I was surprised at the sheer number of people who enjoy walking as sport.  Many carry trekking poles to give them a boost in heart rate. However, I've noticed quite a few who simply drag the poles behind them as they walk leisurely on one of the many trails around Bavaria.
Occasionally, I meet up with some Army friends to take part in this pastime.  More often, I take Lady for a walk around my neighborhood. We have enjoyed watching the changing scenery, as summer moves into fall.
Katie,  LeAnna and MonaLisa take a break during the walk 

Pigeons roost in See

My traveling companion on most days...LADY

Which way do we go?

Climbing on top of hay balls in a field...surprisingly squishy

I know, I know So off to school I go..

Will-6th grade; Lilly-2nd grade

Parents and students wait in anticipation of the ribbon cutting ceremony opening Hohenfels Elmentary School
for a new year of learning
August 2011 The school year started off in spurts with 2 kids beginning class on Monday and 1 kid getting a bonus day before diving into a new routine.  Before leaving the States, we bought backpacks and lunchboxes for the younger kids to slide right into cool school style here in Europe.  First correction made: 6th grade boys don't really take lunch boxes to school anymore.  They use brown paper sacks.  Second correction: Although I attempted to make sure they had "proper" school supplies, we were shocked that DODS (department of defense schools) in Europe doesn't make families provide classroom supplies.  So, the numerous 3 ring binders, looseleaf paper and Crayola water colors are tucked into a bedroom upstairs waiting for art projects on rainy days at home.  
We'll get it right next year; apparently, first day of school photos are conducted on the rock with the castle in the background.  Silly newcomers!

Will and his 6th grade buddy, Reese

The neighborhood gang waiting for the bus
(no high schoolers...they got to sleep in for one more day)

The kids leave the house at 7:10am and head for the bus stop, a short 1 block walk from the front door. The bus that picked them up on the first day was a ratty affair...seats were torn and windows had been etched by disgruntled kids from years gone by.  But, they load the same they have for eons: little kids get on first and sit in front (by the driver=SAFETY from big kids) and then middle schoolers get on and try to score a seat as close to the back without infecting the high schools and finally...the scary high school kids get on...ear buds conveniently tucked into their ears to block out the noise of bothersome little kids who want to high five each one as they walk down the aisle.
I greeted the kids with rice krispie treats following the second day of school.  I thought i'd pretty much outdone myself and told them, "Hey! I made you a surprise!"  And Will looks at me and says with a roll of his eyes, "I'll bet it's rice krispie treats."  I guess I'm as predictable as starting school in Fall.

Taking a peak behind the curtain

The Postma Family in the backyard of the Winter Palace, St Petersburg, Russia

August 11 St Petersburg, Russia
Of all the stops on our cruise, perhaps the crown jewel was St Petersburg.  Partly due to the fact that few have ever seen this city and partly because it was the end of our week-long cruise, we were eager to get off the boat and take in as much of Russia as possible.  I was able to secure a tour through Red October Tours prior to leaving the States and our tour guide, Svetlana, was waiting for us when we got off the ship. We were among the first passengers to clear customs in Russia and we kept thinking we were going to be stopped for some reason.  But, it was an easy process and we made our way to the private coach hired to take us around town.
Catherine the Great's Winter Palace
 Our first stop was the Winter Palace, a 30 minute ride from the ship.  The palace was built in the small village of Pushkin and it was interesting to see the combination of small private homes, large apartment buildings and government monuments along the drive.  Probably the first thing your eye takes in is the fabulous blue the palace is painted. No where else in Europe is this color used so predominantly.  We were struck by the sheer grandeur of the building, which was built not as a residence but as a show piece to prove how rich and powerful the Russian nobility was.  The rooms were filled with gold, mirrors and lots of decorative touches.  The palace grounds are immaculately groomed and offer sweeping views of the property.
Kristen and Tim in the "backyard" of the Winter Palace

Bill ensures his headphones are working properly
There's a chapel inside the Winter Palace
Instead of living in the Winter Palace, Catherine had this little addition added and spent the
remainder of her life living "simply"

Troy was Lilly's guardian during the tour

Following our stop at the Winter Palace, we took the opportunity to eat at the original stroganoff restaurant. Legend says that a soldier, who lost his arm in a battle, was served this beef main dish because he could eat it without using a knife.  It was absolutely delicious.  My personal recipe doesn't even come close.  Accompanied by a cream of mushroom soup and a drink called kvass (like root beer but has some fermentation process) it was the perfect break to reenergize for the afternoon.

Our next stop was the Hermitage.  Like all great cities, a good art museum shows off how powerful you really are.  The Hermitage was originally a residential palace and many rooms are open to tour.  In the 1800s, the decision was made to allow commoners the opportunity to stroll through the building and admire the collections.  It is a "must see" for anyone visiting St Petersburg and the crowds were intense.  Our tour guide led us through the main highlights and then gave us some time to browse on our own.  We enjoyed gazing at the Impressionist collection and saw some artists' work up close and personal.  Very little of the Hermitage is kept in climate-controlled environments so you can really see the brush strokes and shading the artists employed.

To round out our tour of the city, we stopped at the Church of Spilled Blood, an impressive onion-domed church which is more colorful than St Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.  We also visited the sphinx from Egypt and gazed at Peter and Paul Fortress on the water.  It was a grand view of a truly remarkable city.

Tallinn Estonia

August 10  It was a competition to see who could get back to the cruise ship on time following our excursion into Stockholm.  Steph, Bryan and a handful of kids elected to take the water taxi from Gamla Stan to the boat; Tim, Kristen, Bill, Eva and Lindsey tried hoofing it back to the ship.  It didn't seem too far but when you're under the clock, every minute counts.  Both groups made it back before the ship sounded its horn.
Old town, Tallinn Estonia

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Estonia  Russian-Orthodox

We took the opportunity to walk on the old city wall

Tim and Lilly on a tandem bike ride

I couldn't resist the chance to be a "qualified back-seat driver."

The girls try on fur hats, Estonia

Sunset from the ship

New development in Tallinn Estonia

Following another filling dinner meal and night at sea, we pulled into Tallinn Estonia at 7:30am.  From the ship, we could see tall spires and red roofs dotting the coastline. We were eager to embark on our city walk.   We left the ship and walked through a little market village set up expressly for the purposes of hawking goods to desperate souvenir shoppers.  We browsed quickly through the wooden shacks on our way to old town, about a 10 minute walk.  Estonia's history is a constant tug of war for domination of its ports by both Sweden and Russia. The people, however, demanded independence and currently enjoy a vibrant economy and tourists to Tallinn are not disappointed.  The town reminded me of the Medieval Times Restaurant, with old town walls, wooden market stalls and vendors dressed in Renaissance garb.  The smell of sweet-roasted almonds wafted around the town square and quartets entertained us with lively folk music.  Several of us took the walking tour of the city and another group rented tandem bikes for an exhilarating tour of the streets.  Cobblestones make for a bumpy ride but the weather was pleasant and everyone was in a good mood.
We returned to the ship back through the market stalls and managed to satisfy our souvenir craving as well with painted tiles and hand-made jewelry.