Wednesday, March 29, 2017


In the summer of 1978, my parents packed up their things, along with six children and a few suitcases, and left California for a promising new future in what was then called West Germany. I was nine years old at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, Axl is nine years old, his brother seven, and we are heading to Germany again, landing in Frankfurt Germany, same as then. The only difference is, we will not be moving on to Bavaria, but will remain in Frankfurt, our posting for the next four years.

After the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Africa, we are happy to add another continent, Europe, as our next stop. So far, the readers have more or less read about third world countries, now they will get to read about a first world country and life in one of its major cities. 

First, the trip there. Here I'll add a few extra tips for the last week before moving. A week before flying to Germany, we stop shopping altogether. Here we need to consume what we have, eat out or order in if we need to. No need to buy anything (especially perishable), now that we're about to hit the road.

Next, we cancel our trash pick-up service and take the cat to the vet, since the European Union requires a certificate of health to be issued within 10 days of our flight. You will also need a micro chip for the EU. As an aside, some extra advice: on the day of the cat's vet visit, keep Kitty inside. We have to postpone the first vet visit, because she is nowhere to be found, as if that darn cat had a sixth sense. Next, keep your laser pointer handy. Use it to play with the cat a lot, and on the fateful day, have the cat follow the laser point directly into her cage. It's like taking candy from a baby. 

Last but not least, cancel any outstanding services you may have: internet, trash pickup, cable, etc. There is nothing more frustrating than to pay for services that are no longer required. 

We take a United Flight from Dulles to Frankfurt, total flight time seven hours, forty minutes. The cat is in the cabin with us, and the poor thing can't stop shaking. Axl and Bash are bored until they realize that they can check out as many movies and games on their little screens as they want. I'm guessing I sleep no more than 30 minutes for the whole flight, I'm just too uncomfortable. The next day, I will have to whip the jet lag the hard way. It happens. 

Although Frankfurt Rhein-Main is not my favorite airport, it's done very well, considering how it's expanded over the years. Too many airports do not account for the prospective sudden growth spurts that are as much a fact of life to major hubs as population growth and the expanding infrastructure that needs to go with it. We will discretely withhold the names of the offenders here. On second thought: no, we won't. Paris, New York, Rome, Berlin...come on down. 

From the moment we get off the plane to the time we arrive home, 45 minutes have passed. Frankfurt, of course, is the well tuned machine I've grown accustomed to over the years. It is, after the Ruhr Area and Berlin, the third largest metropolis in Germany and arguably the most important with its location and banking business. 

Spring greets us in Germany. There is still a bit of a chill, but nothing that will stop us from taking a walk outside, either to the park or the supermarket. 

So after day one, a warm hello from Germany. Get ready for many interesting new posts from Europe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The North Carolina Arboretum

Getting tired of posts in the U.S. about Western Carolina yet? Fear not, this will be among the last ones before our time draws to a close here. The next post will be revealed in due time, and like the others, it's a guaranteed dandy. Bear with me just a while longer here. 

For now, it's more of Western Carolina, then. The Arboretum is a 434 acre public garden located just outside of Asheville and neighboring the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. The Arboretum was established almost 30 years ago within the Pisgah National Forest. If the Western Carolina Nature Center is your place for animals, then this is the place for dendrophiles, or plant aficionados. 

After our most recent visit here, I am convinced that this is perfect for hikers, (non motor-)bikers, and runners. Do you have a dog? Bring him out! I am not so sure this is the place for kids, since they take an interest in plants the way Americans do in cricket or french fries with mayonnaise. If your kid is into hiking or cycling, then by all means: take the kid with you. Just be warned that there will probably be more groaning than grooving when all is said and done. I'll think twice before taking my kids back here. Parents with kids, use your own judgment. 

Personally, I think this is the perfect place for the hikers who would prefer to know where they're going than simply rely on a compass and the sun. If you like the hiking, but can do without the adventure, the Arboretum is for you. There are a dozen good trails, all marked, so that getting lost is very unlikely. And as an encore, you will be educated about plants and trees on your trails, as if you were on a guided tour. You can easily hike for hours here without any fear of getting lost.

At the Baker Exhibit Center, there's an exhibition inside that reminds me of what we already saw when we visited Cherokee Nation, although the focus here is on the trees and plants, and how people, usually Native Americans, benefited from them. There's the canoe that was carved out of the trunk of a large red oak, or the rocks that Cherokees used to make arrowheads. 

Once you wander back outside, it's on to the large central lawn that is surrounded by plantings, both seasonal and evergreens. One of the central features is the statue of Frederick Law Olmsted, the often heralded father of American landscape architecture. There is an absolutely gorgeous Bonsai Exhibition Garden, featuring an extensive bonsai collection that needs to be seen to be believed. 

There's an amphitheater, also known as the Outdoors Event Center, plus a Greenhouse that has been closed to the public due to renovation. In front of the amphitheater is the Rocky Cove Railroad, a garden scale model train representing the train in Western Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. See also the Saluda Grade a few posts back. 

We spend more than two hours on the trails, although I have to admit I was a little annoyed at times by the cyclists. To be fair, they are pretty courteous and are on their best behavior. If that shouldn't suffice, there are numerous paths, primarily the Bent Creek Trail, that is only accessible on foot. We would take this all the way to Lake Powhatan. 

Okay, so maybe we overdid the hiking bit a little. When all is said and done, we hike a good eight miles, which was good enough for Axl, but oddly like pulling teeth for Bash, the more gifted specimen in a physical sense. The trick with kids is that you make them forget about the hike itself. What do they like to talk about? Bash talked about dinosaurs for at least two miles, Axl about new Terraria stories he could write. I still prefer to see my kids on trails than on the internet for the same amount of time.

Either way: when in Asheville, come see the Arboretum as well. There is no formal admission, although the high fee for parking ($14) seems to cover everything. It's worth every penny.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

FENCE: Foothills Equestrian Nature Center

As beautiful as Western Carolina is, I have noticed that I haven't even dedicated a post, let alone a single word, to my favorite place of all: that would be the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, in short FENCE. 

If you can't find one thing you like about FENCE, regardless of your demographic, then you can't possibly be human. Young, old, single, married, with or without children: chances are, there is something for everyone at FENCE.

FENCE is a nature reserve that is spread out over 380 acres of rolling hills featuring woods, wide open meadows, rivers and ponds. For hikers, birdwatchers, stargazers, or simply children wishing to burn some much needed energy, this place is simply spectacular, and I haven't even seen the equestrian part of it yet. 

The place itself is located along the I-26, although I prefer to take the more bucolic routes to get there, like Route 176 from Tryon or Route 108 from Columbus. Try it yourself! Be daring! On your way there, you can get used to the bucolic settings, the numerous gorgeous horse farms and the even more spectacular views of the ever present Blue Ridge Mountains looming in the background. 

This is a great place for kids as well. Whereas our kids first started the day with a groan whenever we told them where we were going, there would always be a smile on their faces by the time we left, the result of them having learned something valuable, besides spending a day outdoors, usually on the hiking trails. 

Last Saturday, for example, we attended a presentation by a local wildlife rehabilitation chapter, a non-profit also known by its name 'Wild for Life'. As the name suggests, this is an organization that specializes in protecting wildlife that has been brought to their doorstep, one way or the other. This time, they were focusing on birds of prey and brought two owls and a hawk to display to the visitors, birds of prey that otherwise would have perished. Injured birds brought in are usually the result of being shot, or even more common, being run over by cars. Seeing these birds up close and personal is a thrill in itself, something most people never get to witness. The kids were gawking at those birds as the birds were gawking at them.  

You have your pick of the trails, as well, most of them not exceeding one mile. At the end of our visit, though, I'm fairly certain we walked about four miles, a pittance by a hiker's standards, but a much needed reprieve for the kids from their digitally guided world. The trick is to tell them that they will be hiking less than a mile, and then let nature take its course. Before you know it, your kids get used to the trail, where they point out trees and animals, or other information of note that is left behind on the numerous trail signs posted by FENCE. It also helps to take a backpack with snacks with you, maybe even a book to read for when you take a short break. Here I recommend the shelter by the pond, where you can engage in some more bird watching, while the kids run around and play.

FENCE itself was established by a land grant in the 1980's, which stipulated what the land would be used for, thus assuring its conservation for future generations. Not surprisingly they understand that education is the key. It stands to reason that you will wish to protect the great outdoors the more time you spend there. 

In many ways, it is similar to the more renowned Tryon International Equestrian Center nearby, although it does without most of the fanfare and strobe lights. 

GREAT place, for adults and kids. For the one day you need to spend in the great outdoors with your family, try FENCE. And no, this is not an advertisement for them. None needed.
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