Swapping Homes Anybody?


Thursday, August 27, 2015

When Tourists & Refugees Meet

Strasbourg was going to be the topic for my next post.
Listening to the news of political developments all over Europe, the Refugee Crisis, which have to do with vacation make me sad, however, and rethink our trip: How lucky we are, how privileged to have the means and freedom to travel wherever and whenever we choose to. I never thought I'd write about this topic!
Refugees, asylum seekers, economic refugees flood the gates of Europe. They come from troubled or civil war ridden countries via Turkey, they risk their lives on tiny boats over the Aegean to little Greek islands, Kos and Lesbos, that are only a few miles away.Over 7,000 only last weekend.300,000 in total so far; that is more than in all of last year.When they are in Greek, they are in Europe and close to a safe, civilized and dignified life.
The problem is that these islands are popular tourist destinations. This is peak vacation time and Greece needs the income of tourists badly to survive. But these refugees who are often washed ashore want to survive too. Some hotels have put fences and guards to keep the paying tourist apart who are paying for their annual holiday and are entitled to their cocktail brought to them on the beach while a few meters away a refugee lathers up with some soap and shampoo he was given and swims out to wash it all off." I know it's not good for the sea, but I need to look after myself first."
Approx. 140,000 come over the border into Hungary who started to build a fence - like the Berlin Wall with barbed wire on top. Continuing into Serbia, they walk for days to reach trains that take them to Montenegro and again, they are in Europe with all its social benefits.Montenegro declared a state of emergency. No refugee wants to be registered there as the ultimate destination is Germany, Great Britain or Sweden. They walk along the motorway from Calais to the Channel Tunnel.Whole camps have sprung up where thousands wait to make it onto the train under the Channel somehow. Great Britain is blaming France for not doing enough.I saw them personally in smaller numbers when I was still doing my wine import routes that way. Heart-breaking, frightening, embarrassing: you drive by in your safe car and can't do anything..
200 thousand have come from Libya to Sicily or Lampedusa. so far 2,3000, however, have drowned because  of overloaded, inadequate vessels, lack of life jackets for people who can't swim. Human traffickers are involved on all routes charging thousands of dollars.In another tragedy,over 70 people suffocated on a truck in Austria trying to reach the West, probably moved my human traffickers.
German is considered the "Schlaraffenland", the land of milk and honey or Cockayne. (See Wikipedia: "Cockaigne or Cockayne /kɒˈkn/ is a land of plenty in medieval myth, an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist.")
We're expecting 800,000 refugees/immigrants this year alone. That is 40% of all humans fleeing one disaster, regime or other  in the whole world. About 104,000 came via the Serbian corridor this year already.The Minister of Economics, Sigmar Gabriel, assures us that Germany needs these people in our workforce as our numbers are dwindling. At the same time, the governor of Bavaria admits that his officials are tired and overworked and that people are not all registered and fingerprinted as they should. So they can slip through the net; not be registered and just disappear. Let's hope they are not all criminals.
All this in the light of the biggest refugee crisis Europe ever experienced since World War II - and this is not the end of it. It reminds me of my own family's plight, just a few individuals of 13 million people who were on the move in 1945-47. (See my short story below).
In the Balkan war crises we got 250,000 asylum seekers whereas France AND GB together got 50,000.Not only do the Germans pay for Greece's malaise but for the rest of the EU and now the rest of the world. The horrible truth and irony is that our weapon exports to the likes of  Saudi, Egypt, Yemen, etc.doubled! Tell me there is no direct connection, please!

Now let's resume our vacations. There are only few days left.American children already are back to school; the French will start again on1 September. We'll be home soon too.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


If you have an interest in glass and crystal, the name Lalique will mean something to you. On a coolish day, after yesterday's deluge, we drove ca. 40 minutes to Wingen sur/Moder to see this exceptional exhibition. The name is famous worldwide, but hardly anybody knows that these ornaments are produced here and not in Paris.

Glass has been blown in this area of Alsace/France for hundreds of years.Workmen originally moved here from Germany because the necessary types of sand and other minerals are to be found here galore.
This map shows how the factories concentrate in this area. And now to the superb, delicate, impressive artifacts on show there.
A tiara, a brooch showing two butterflies and the head of a horse took my breath away.The pictures need no further comments.Enjoy!

The coffee shop served some decent meals in spite of a bad write-up on TripAdvisor which had also mentioned the Chateau across the road did wonderful food.Except it was only available for prebooked functions and groups.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Strasbourg Travel

With a Metropolitan area of over 700,000, the seat of the European Parliament and its Court of Human Rights besides several other institutions, you would believe it was well connected  by air traffic. Surprisingly few airlines offer flights to few destinations.Do all the EU officials come by car with their drivers? My friend who spent the weekend with us came by bus from Cologne (ca. 370km). Yes, since travel has been deregulated only 3 years ago, there are long distance coaches that come from as far as Hamburg in the north and go on to Munich and beyond for a fraction of a train ticket which would have been close to EUR250 retour: She paid EUR 41 both ways!And a modern, comfortable bus with WiFi, toilets, hot and cold drinks as well as snacks. With only one short stop to pick up more passengers. Until then Deutsche Bahn (German trains system) had the monopoly to offer travel options.
I had expected to find flights from here to Berlin when I was looking around.But maybe German politicians take government planes? Or the frog green Bus"Mein Fern Bus" i.e., My long distance coach or Flixbus or Postbus too waiting for her bus to arrive, I struck a conversation with a South African couple who had done the full length of German and now waited for their bus to Freiburg. If you know me a little you know that I like talking to strangers, especially about travel and our hobby Home Swapping.
We had a great weekend with her and also my son who came to visit.The weather was gorgeous  to that we made full use of our huge balcony-terrace.
More about Strasbourg tomorrow. It deserves its own chapter.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Going for a Drive

A friend asked me back home,"And what do you do all day if you are away for so long?" Seriously.
Sometimes nothing.Depends on the mood. Read.Sometimes visit touristy spots (see post about Berlin and more to come). You also have to go shopping and cook occasionally unless you can afford to eat out every day.Go to the swimming-pool (scroll back a little).
Sometimes you get visitors like friends who want to use your hospitality if you are in an interesting area or even house your grown up children or other family members where you have spent too many nights.I wrote and warned about that before.If you overdo, you end up being like a B&B with  a lot of work!
Yesterday we just went for a drive.

The northern part of Alsace, the Vosges, has more forests and natural beauty than the southern part with all its famous touristy towns that all look like taken from picture books, so quaint.We were on our way to a town called La-Petite-Pierre (never found out where the big one is) when we saw signs for a Castle Lichtenberg. We confused Miss Maps big time when we changed our route and went to see that castle first.Her insistence was so annoying that we had to switch her off.
What a steep climb, but we got our constitutional in. The Little Pierre had mixed reviews, so I wanted to see it for myself.We found a lovely tearoom, because obviously you have to make stops and fortify yourself. Does it get any better? Great cakes, if expensive (5.50 a piece; EUR) and some bric-a-brac.

Also a few architectural gems which come close to the wonder world of lower Alsace. There by the way, the surrounding countryside consists mostly of vineyards.None here.
Yes, these dilapidated houses exist too.
Studying this war memorial of WW I and II, we discovered almost exclusively German names. We wondered if they died for France or Germany. This part of the world belonged to both countries at different times; actually, it changed hands four times in 75 years. Germany conscripted young ca. 100,000 Alsatians. Many of them volunteered for the navy in order to avoid fighting their brothers.  We were also surprised because when reading up on the area we learned that Hitler considered Alsace as German.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Giving you Ideas....

Had to use this huge map to give you a better idea of the area I 'm talking about.From Wissenbourg in the North to Mulhhouse the countryside is blessed with exceptional wine growing areas and touristic, quaint old villages. If  you go, Strasbourg, Colmar are a must.And in between a dozen of gems I wouldn't want to miss out on if it were my first visit. Currently, we are staying in the Haguenau area with our home swap.It's not exactly bang in the middle of this beautiful region but w have more forests and nature sights here up north/west. The area is called Les Vosges.
Pure chi-chi sightseeing you can do in towns like Obernai,
 Kaysersberg where the house where Albert Schweitzer was born can be visited.

Munster where the famous and very aromatic cheese hails from.
Where to start?
Each town basically has its own wine specialties, wine fests and degustations...You can spend your day slightly inebriated just from all the tastings. At this time of year, in addition, they show their splendor in millions of flowers in window boxes and parks and gardens.

Going Hot and Cold on Me

Back to our home away from home in Alsace after a wonderful weekend I spent in Germany's capital with my daughter. Berlin is such an exciting city. I had been there several times before but to get the insider scoop on a tour is no much more entertaining.
Der Reichstag (like the American Capitol)

We did a boat trip thru the city past the government buildings and other parts of town that belonged to the former East.
There, bid parts of the wall are still standing.I had thought it had been dismantled; not by officials but tourist who liked to take a stone home, preferably with some graffiti as a souvenir.The new hip entertainment scene is also located there.
Cool buildings and the hippest of people. The latest is to be dressed all in black with a black backpack and your hair up in a bun- boys too!For the 20-34 somethings, computer nerds, music fans and freaks and everybody who wants to be "in". They call themselves hipsters.
We still had far more than 30 degrees of mugginess and the refreshing thunderstorms only came Sunday night.But lo and behold, when I had to leave on Monday, there it was  again almost 30 and the humidity.

Before I even had left "home", the weather here had broken and it remained kind of wet and cold.
On my return, we had a situation!

There is always a time during each house swap where we desperately try to figure out the heating system.After 95 degrees last week it is down to barely 60 and at night? Who knows? Who looks? But me having to go to the bathroom several times and sit on that frigid commode let me go into the basement and check out what's what with the central heating. Unfortunately technology has so much progressed since I left Germany and this, in addition has its description in French, that we have no choice but wait for better weather.Or buy a heater. Last week we were looking for a fan to cool down the place. But they were all sold out.The shop assistant called the sales an "eruption".
Victory! I persuaded the father of our exchnage partners to switch the central heating on for a few hours late in the evening and the mornings...until it gets warmer at the weekend. He explained he installation they had for heating the house and water: A wood pellet burning oven! Very economical and few emissions.France has the lowest electricity prices due to the fact that they still heavily depend on nuclear power whereas Germany which has sworn off nuclear has the highest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Our Vacation Home in France

And now, finally to our vacation home in France.We are very happy, a good choice as we have a lot of room and everything is almost new and spick and spank. The owners are very creative people and this is definitely the most colorful one we have ever been to.Some examples:
The family room (TV area) going out to the deck.

The kitchen isn't less bright, equipped with German Siemens/Gaggenau appliances.Top notch like last year in Amsterdam.
The sunken cooking area has  a gas ring with a wok. And on the right is a spacious sink and fridge etc.The view from the family room with a huge glass dining table to the kitchen area.

The deck is inviting all day long with a big sail shading us from the sun. Again room at the table for 6 people.Pic later.

Looking at the master bedroom
and at the bathroom it becomes obvious that somebody is the artistic force in the house.The colorful walls are wallpapered with a silky like texture, not painted;same in the bathroom.

When we arrived looking for the address, Google maps was a totally lost.Tiny streets that intertwine with houses numbered 1a and 1 b.That means that our home owners had built their abode in grandma's former huge veggie garden.Now they have a joint smaller one.Granny is still active, in her eighties and insists on being called Oma= Granny. When we asked neighbors where our family lived, they didn't know their family name and couldn't point out the house.Only the first names revealed their thereabouts.
A word about the language later.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Radiant Heat and Food

I'd never have believed that it could be hotter in Europe than in Florida.The day of our arrival, we had to brace ourselves against 39 C whereas in Jacksonville it was only 32 C. It feels like melting. If only it melted the fat! Fans were sold out of course -we tried 3 big shops in a big city on the way. Nobody has AC, or course, except for hotels that belong to chains (not your local B&B or picturesque old tourist trap) The official news reader on TV issues practical advice what to do to stay cool:
-put underwear and shirts into your freezer before putting them on
-avoid activities and staying in the sun too long
-keep windows and blinds closed all day until it cools off (I don't like sitting in the dark!)
-put  a bucket of ice water next to your bed.
I wouldn't have believed I would have the same old, same old discussion again: get an Ac or not.Europeans mostly don't have one, i.e. private houses and I mean neither the French, nor Italians nor Germans who now exceed in topping temperatures too.
The usual argument against AC being: we normally only get a few weeks of heat.A few weeks too many in my books.What are they worried about? That the AC goes off when not in use or runs up the electricity bill when switched off?
My memory has 1990 down for the first real beastly hot long summer with temperatures above 30 (90F).
Before that, Germans had to go to Spain, Greece or Italy  for a chance of a decent sunny summer vacation.
All of a sudden, you could bet it would reach you at home.It was the summer we had emigrated to Ireland. Even there we had long spells of hot weather almost reaching 30 and our water well running dry.
Mother-in-law refused my suggestion to have an AC put into her bedroom under the eaves at least.Oh, no, the dust, dirt and having handymen in the house;besides the almost indecent cost of 2000 Deutsche Mark (1,0000 $ then).
In the following year we had the same discussion; and then regularly every other year. Stubbornness prevailed and she would still suffer if she was still alive.RIP!Now I hear it from friends etc. Not one conservation partner swore that he would definitely get one now!
Why this long tirade? Because  now, we are sitting in an overheated house with no end of roasting temperatures in sight, scorcher after scorching day while our house in Florida....is being enjoyed by  our French exchangers.
However, with the daily increasing refugee crisis in Greece, Italy, Hungary, Turkey rattling my European conscience, I promise to stop whining about hot weather.
Here are some pics from our stop in Metz.

Still in business?
The bus was from Northern Ireland- Ulster- btw.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Your House is not Alone

One of the biggest advantages for me if not the biggest- is that your house is occupied all the time during a home swap. Sure, you can hold your mail and also have a security system in place, but people coming and going, the lights on any given night prevent burglaries as any insurance broker or cop will tell you.
Normally you can expect from your trading partners that they will water your plants or provide pet care if that is needed and part of your arrangement.
In the meantime we have made it into Germany where I'm going to meet my children before making our way down to France. The French family is en route exchange a French version of 95 degrees with  whatever hits them in Florida! For us these temperatures here are breathtaking, literally. On of the reason for our annual journey is the cooler climate. Not so this year! And to bear it without an AC is difficult when you're so used to it. I'm already bored with the never changing discussion that "we only have this heat for a few weeks every year".Yeah, sometimes months! And even these few weeks can be hard on the system!.Not too sure yet if I can grin and bear it....In the meantime: I deserve my refreshments, don't I?