Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sisters Across the Ocean

Happy Birthday to my dear, sweet, wonderful SISTER Natalie! Today is my sister Natalie's birthday! I have been meaning to write this blog update for 6 months. Today is the day to write this post because, well...I guess I just want to get all emotional and basically get myself dehydrated by crying way too much.

September 9, 2013 was a day I will never forget. It is the day that my husband surprised me with the biggest surprise of my life. My two sisters Natalie and Julie came to visit me here in Luxembourg. Four months earlier, my husband Jeremy emailed my sisters to tell them that he was going to fly them to Luxembourg to visit. Understandably, they were in shock and disbelief but when they realized that Jeremy was serious, well it was time to get planning.

Finally after 4 months of planning, the day finally came. I remember that for a few weeks before my birthday on September 11th, I had specifically told Jeremy that I DID NOT want to celebrate my birthday. I wanted my birthday to pass as if it were any other day. I definitely did not want any kind of presents, cake or other festivities. All I wanted was to not be alone for lunch on my birthday. That was it.

A few weeks before my birthday, my Mom kept telling me, "You are going to have some great surprises for your birthday!". To that I responded, "I don't want anything. Please don't do anything". I was getting annoyed that she wouldn't just let my birthday just go away. I did not want to turn 39 because that meant that I was going to be 40 in one year.

September 9th
That morning started like any other morning. I got up and got the girls dressed and ready for school. I drove them to school and came back home. When I got back home, Jeremy was cleaning the kitchen. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: What are you doing home? Don't you have work today?
Jeremy: I am working from home today. Remember I have to go pick up 2 guys from the airport this afternoon.
Me: Why don't the guys just take a taxi to their hotel or to Amazon?
Jeremy: They are good friends and I'd rather just go get them.
Me: Oh....Kay.....(I am thinking this is really weird, but whatever because Jeremy is cleaning the kitchen)

The entire morning Jeremy is acting very, very giddy. I couldn't figure out what was causing him such excitement but I figured he must be happy to just be at home and not at work.

That afternoon, he tells me he wants me to go with him to pick up his 2 co-workers from the airport. I am still bewildered by his request and wonder why he is so insistent on me coming with him. He is acting so WEIRD.

We drive to the airport. As we are driving there our conversation goes like this:

Me: I will just wait in the car while you go get your friends.
J: No, you need to come in with me.
Me: Why? Normally you would just tell your friends to jump in the car as you are driving past the airport. These must be REALLY good friends.
J: Yes they are really good friends and I just want to be extra nice and pick them up.
Me: Ok...whatever. This is really weird that you are picking them up at the airport. Remember I have to go get the girls from school by 3:20. Will we have enough time to drop them off at their hotel and then get to the school in time to pick up the girls?
J: Yes I think we will be just fine.

The whole time I am thinking my husband is acting so bizarre. All I could think was that my friend Elise was flying back from America that day and maybe she had a surprise for me that Jeremy knew about.

As Jeremy and I were walking through the parking garage, I remember Jeremy turning his phone camera on to video. I thought it was weird that he turned it on but then I figured he had just turned it on accidentally.

Then I say to him, "You know, I do like living here in Luxembourg. I just wish Natalie and Julie could come visit me".

At that moment, Jeremy thought someone had told me that my sisters were flying here to surprise me. Fortunately, no one had told me and I was completely unaware. I had no idea that in about 15 minutes, my wish would come true. I was completely unaware that my sisters were coming to visit. As I stood in the baggage area waiting for Jeremy's co-workers, at first I thought I would see my friend Elise. But I didn't see Elise. Then I saw Jeremy's co-workers come through the arrival door. But then what happened next completely scared me to death. I literally thought I was seeing a ghost of my sisters and ran away I was so scared.

Here is a video of my birthday surprise!

The next two weeks were AWESOME! While my sisters were here visiting we took a weekend trip to Paris. We took a few day trips too. Jeremy put together a video of some of our photos and videos we took while we were traveling through Europe.

I love my sisters! I will always treasure those two weeks we had together. It was so much fun and I can't wait to see them again soon!

Happy Birthday to my sister Natalie. I wish I was flying to Salt Lake City today to surprise you for your birthday but alas I am in Luxembourg. Natalie is one of my favorite people in the whole, wide world.

I have to say that my two sisters, Julie and Natalie, are very funny, bubbly, kind, generous and wonderfully good-hearted. Two of the greatest blessings in my life are my two sisters. They are my best friends and I miss them terribly! Sending you lots of love today Natalie on your birthday!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Driving Me Crazy! Red Lights, Roundabouts and Road Signs

Each weekday, I spend at least 2 hours driving around Luxembourg. Most of that time is spent driving my girls to school and back home. Some of it is to run errands and some of it is to drive to activities. With that much time driving around this city, I think I can give an honest assessment of what it is like to drive in Luxembourg. Driving around this city literally has driven me crazy on more than one occasion.

Driving in Luxembourg has many similarities to driving in America but there are many differences too. Luxembourg and the entire European continent drives on the right hand side of the road. Just as there are bad drivers in America, there are bad drivers in Luxembourg. Rude drivers are, unfortunately, everywhere.

Before I moved to Luxembourg, I hadn't even thought about what it would be like to drive in a foreign country. In fact, it was the least of my concerns. I mean, different could it be?

Red Lights
Want to turn right on a red light? Well it is not going to happen here. In Luxembourg, turning right on a red is a BIG NO-NO! For the longest time I would get so frustrated at the car in front of me at the red light. Their right blinker is blinking but they would not turn right. After much frustration, I was finally informed that right turns are only allowed on green lights. It still frustrates me....especially when there is no one on the street.


Traffic Lights
They work the same here as in America. Red means stop and green means go. The only difference is where the traffic light is actually placed. Here in Luxembourg they are placed at the line of the intersection right where your car stops. If you are the first car to stop, you will likely not be able to see when the light changes from red to green because the light is directly above your vehicle. Traffic lights can be very difficult to see, especially if you are the first car at the intersection. If you are the second or third car back, it is OK. If you can't see the light above you when you stop, sometimes there is another light placed on the side of the street so if you can't see directly above you, you can try to maneuver or contort your head into a position to see when the traffic light turns from red to green.

Traffic Light. 
Notice that the main traffic light is directly above where you stop.
Notice that there is a corresponding light off to the right side in 
case you can't see the light directly above you.

Luxembourg loves their roundabouts. They are everywhere.

Roundabout sign
This is the worst roundabout in Luxembourg. Try to avoid 
this roundabout during rush hour if you can. 

Watch the cars go round and round and round and round.

 In case you don't know what a "roundabout" is, here is the definition:
A roundabout is a type of circular intersection or junction in which road traffic flows almost continuously in one direction around a central island. 

Here is my definition of a roundabout:
A roundabout is a type of circular intersection that will hone your defensive driving skills as you try to enter the traffic circle. Pray that your car can go from 0 to 75 km in a few seconds. As you drive around the central island and try to get off at your exit, maneuver with "race car driver" reflexes so you don't hit the cars on either side of you or in front of you. Try to go fast enough so the car behind you doesn't hit you. 

In case it didn't come across clearly from my definition of what I think about roundabouts, I will tell you that I really, really dislike roundabouts. I miss traffic lights that make a section of cars stop so another section of cars can go . I understand that in theory, roundabouts should keep traffic flowing. When it is the middle of the day or late at night, I agree that the traffic flows and then I think it is a good idea. If you are headed anywhere in Luxembourg during morning or evening rush hour, roundabouts are your worst nightmare. There is no traffic flow and you inch your way slowly as cars merge together all headed in the same direction. Each morning I spend 20-30 minutes trying to get through two roundabouts.

I did learn a little while ago that in the country of Luxembourg that I "am lucky enough" to drive each day through the worst roundabout in the entire country. There are more accidents that happen at this roundabout than anywhere else. I think this could possibly contribute to why I have such a low opinion of roundabouts.

Road Signs
Besides the fact that the road signs are all in French or German, there are many signs that are completely different. For many months, I thought that the sign in Luxembourg that actually means "NO STOPPING" meant "DO NOT ENTER".  I remember thinking it was so weird that they had "DO NOT ENTER" signs everywhere. Once it was pointed out to me that they were "NO STOPPING" signs, it was like a "huge fog had lifted".

There are two signs that are completely new to me. One is the "Priority Road" sign and the "Yield to the person on your right" sign. I didn't even know these signs even existed for the first 7-8 months I had lived here. These two signs do not exist in America. Looking back it now makes sense why so many people honked, sweared and flipped me off. I had no idea I was supposed to yield to the person on my right. For a long time, I thought the person on my right was very rude for not yielding to me and cutting me off by merging into traffic when it seemed like I was on the main road and they were entering traffic. When I was on a "Priority Road", I just thought people were being "really nice" and letting me go first. We have stop signs and intersections in America. We only yield in America if you are entering traffic or if you are getting on the freeway.

The "Priority Road" sign means you are on the main street and you do not have to stop for the person on your right. The "Yield to the person on your right" sign means exactly what it says. Even if you are on a busy street and it seems like you should have the right-of-way, you have to stop and let every car on your right enter your lane and go in front of you. Then you can go. I call it the "imaginary intersection". You may have to stop but you may not. Just depends on traffic so watch out because a car on your right just might be coming. I know I can't change the way traffic is done here, but since I am writing my opinion, I think "STOP" signs are more effective and better at preventing accidents.

Additionally, when you come upon a "Yield to the person on your right" sign, you will also see it painted on the pavement, the "Yield to the person on the right" sign. The pavement sign is always painted white and looks like a triangle with an "X" in it.

"Yield to the person on your right" sign.
This sign is painted directly on the pavement.

In case you missed the gigantic triangle painted on the road, 
this sign means "Yield to the person on the right".

The bottom sign in the shape of a diamond with a 
yellow square is the "Priority Road" sign.

I have no idea who or how they came up with the idea to have a yellow square signify that you are on a "Priority Road". Personally, the color yellow signifies caution to me. I have only ever seen it used in signs for warnings or to proceed with caution. I thought this sign meant "BE CAUTIOUS WHILE DRIVING". I would never have imagined it meant "you have the priority on this road so drive with confidence because entering traffic is supposed to yield to you". 

End of No Passing Zone
This sign makes no sense unless you know what the sign for "No Passing" looks like.

No Passing
You may not overtake other vehicles except bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles.

Really?...For a long time, I thought this sign meant that it was a two lane road.

No Stopping
Stopping or standing on the roadway is prohibited

Really?...because to me this sign does a better job of saying "do not enter". 

Do Not Enter

Regular Yield Sign

Direction signs are Yellow

Top Triangle: Slippery when wet or dirty
Bottom square: Beware of ice and snow

Falling Rocks
Watch out for rocks on the road and do not stop or park

No Parking
Really?....because that sign didn't signify no parking to me.

Yellow direction signs.
The small blue sign points in the direction of the American Military Cemetery here in Luxembourg.

Top Sign: Church Services
Middle Sign: Watch for Children
Bottom Sign: No passing

This is one of the weirdest signs I have seen. It is a "No Parking" sign. You will notice it says 1-15. That means that you cannot park on that side of the street from the 1st to the 15th of each month.
Of course that is what it means.

Where am I?
If you are new to Luxembourg and plan on driving in this city I have one very, very important piece of advice. Get a GPS. The street signs are tiny...that is, if you can find them. If you were coming to my house, the street sign for my street, is almost literally hidden. If you are driving down the street heading east, you will not see my street sign. If you are driving west towards Luxembourg, you might see the tiny street sign on the side of someones house if you know exactly where to look.

The street sign is the small white sign attached to the traffic light. 
If you still can't see it, look at the red and white striped pole. Go up a little 
ways on the left of the pole and you will see the street sign. 
Or just get a magnifying glass out and maybe then you can see it.

I think Luxembourg does not want you to  know where you are as you are driving. Just enjoy the scenery and because there is only a slight possibility of knowing what street you are driving down. I think Luxembourg wants people to feel like they are solving a mystery as you figure out the city and what the names of the streets are. Why else would street signs be so small and difficult to find? Often there are no street signs or they are placed in the most unlikely place. Thankfully, my husband got a GPS for our car. My GPS has saved me on many, many occasions.

I got really close to take this photo. 
I think it is very cool that there is a street in Luxembourg called "George S. Patton Boulevard". 
George Patton is also buried at the American Cemetery in Luxembourg too.

Luxembourg does a great job when it comes to parking garages. They clearly state how many spaces are currently available in each garage. If there is no space, you cannot enter the garage until a car leaves. I like this because it means you aren't driving around forever trying to find a parking space when there is none available. Parking can be expensive here in Luxembourg. In my opinion, I think the parking rates are about the same as parking in downtown Seattle. Everything in Luxembourg is more expensive so it is all relative. 

Entrance to Parking Garage

Buses and Trains
Buses and trains are the main source of mass transit here in Luxembourg. There is no subway. The buses and trains are very efficient. The train station in Luxembourg is beautiful. I have been very impressed with how on-time the buses and trains are. They are very comfortable and offer many convenient routes and times. 

Here is something important to know about buses here in Luxembourg. Buses ALWAYS have the right-of-way...or at least they think they have the right-of-way. Carpool lanes do not exist in Luxembourg. The bus lane is in essence the "carpool lane". Get out of the way of the bus because they are not afraid to run you over. The bus drivers are fearless and drive with confidence. They are the boss of the road.  

People like to drive fast here. There are speed limits but they seem more like a "helpful suggestion" than a speed limit. I rarely see police officers on the motorway (or anywhere in Luxembourg for that matter). In Luxembourg, the freeway is called the motorway. I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that goes fast in Luxembourg are the cars. European cars are engineered and built to go fast. They are really fast for a really good reason. You better be able to go fast because if you can't, you will  most likely be run down by a Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, Audi or a BMW shining their brights at you and tail gating you like they are attached to your back bumper. It is not unusual to be driving 140kph (87 mph) and have a Porsche, Mercedes or Audi go past you so quickly that it seems like you are standing still on the side of the road. 

One of the things I have found refreshing about driving in Luxembourg is that very rarely will people use their car horn. Almost all drivers use their brights to signal to you that you can enter traffic or you can turn. "Using your brights" is also how the car coming up behind you signals that they are going fast and you need to get in the right hand lane. It seems so much more civilized than honking or waving.

Luxembourg drivers on the other hand do something that drives me crazy! People will just stop and park their vehicles in the middle of the road with their hazard lights on. Delivery trucks just stop in the middle of the road and put an orange cone behind their vehicle. Most roads in Luxembourg are narrow. Now traffic that was already driving down a narrow two lane road, is now having to adjust to sharing one lane with on-coming traffic. People park on sidewalks. People park where there is no parking available. It is so prevalent here to just park wherever you want. 

European luxury vehicles are very prevalent in Luxembourg. It is very normal to be driving down the street with a Porshe in front of you and an Audi behind you. In the next lane over is a Mercedes and BMW. It seems like a few times a week, I see a Ferrari or Aston Martin driving down the road. Luxury cars are the norm here in Luxembourg. In fact they are so common, that when my Mom was visiting, she said to me, "I see everyone driving a BMW here. It almost makes you think that you should be driving a BMW". 

After driving in Luxembourg for 18 months, it all seems very normal. It helps that Luxembourg is a tiny country and there is only 1 main freeway. I understand the road signs and know how to get where I need to go. Most of the time, I don't use my GPS. Of course it is still helpful when I want to know the fastest way to get from point A to point B or if I am headed to a new place. Driving in Luxembourg became easier the more I did it. It can be complicated at times and stressful when you can't figure out how to get where you need to go. I have exited many times off the wrong exit. I have driven around roundabouts a few times trying to figure out which exit to take. I have made lots of mistakes but eventually I figured it out. I think that is true of most things in life. Practice makes perfect! 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Berlin, Germany - Tierpark Zoo

We headed to Tierpark for some family fun. The girls loved going to the zoo. The zoo encompasses 400 acres. To give you an idea of how big the zoo is, Tierpark is 4 times the size of the Seattle zoo. There are 846 different species of animals residing at Tierpark. Good thing we had comfortable walking shoes because we were walking all over this place.

The zoo is located on the former grounds of Friedrichsfelde Palace. The palace is located in the middle of the zoo which I found to be quite strange. It was weird to see a palace in the middle of a zoo. The palace was beautiful and the grounds surrounding it were magnificent and not "zoo-like". 

Yippee! We are at the Zoo!

Jeremy held out his shoe and this swan tried to bite him.

Friedrichsfelde Palace

Grounds surrounding Friedrichsfelde Palace

Pelican on the grounds near Friedrichsfelde Palace

Claire loved the monkeys

Isabella loved watching these funny monkeys