Ah, the perfect vacation. It will be a long time before we can do something like this again. Anthony has been wanting to take me to his old mission for a while, but between finances, pregnancy and nursing babies, it's never been a good time. This year, he had a work conference in England in January, so we thought, "why not?" My parents heroically accepted to watch our kids for 10 days. So we met in Germany after his conference - Jan 18-27 (counting air travel days).

Day 1 (Tuesday) - Stuttgart

Anthony wanted to see a little of south Germany, but still be close enough to get to Berlin. So Stuttgart became our starting point. Turns out it's not really a tourist site, but it was a great place to catch up on jet lag, see a busy modern German shopping district, buy a fun new game, and get some insanely delicious doners and gelato (I'd return to Stuttgart just for those)!

Riding the Rails

One of the big treats of Europe is experiencing superb public transit. We used the U-bahn, S-bahn and Strassen-bahn (did I forget one Anthony?) to get around. (Anthony informs me I forgot the Regional-bahn). I loved traveling by train from city to city. We talked, ate, read and slept without any driving stress. It was also fun to see the countryside of Germany - even if it was covered under feet of cold January snow. I got a kick out of seeing the rented gardens along the rail. People in cities who want to try their green thumb can rent a 50-square-foot garden in the country to tend. Clever idea. And it makes me grateful for all my free backyard dirt!

Our travels took us from Stuttgart, to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, to Dresden and finally Berlin.

Day 2&3 (
Wednesday-Thursday) - Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Recommended by the Duffin clan, we were so delighted by our stop here. Rothenburg over the Tauber river is a well-preserved medieval city. The houses, streets and protecting wall all stand much as they did 500 years ago. We stayed in the atmospheric Gasthof Goldener Greifen (the mayors old house). I discovered one of my most favorite German meals here too - Spaetzle.

We spent Thursday visiting the church and two famous museums in town. I learned some crazy things about old-time laws and punishments. In some ways it sounded barbaric, in other ways it kind of made sense. I mean, if you were caught quarrelling with a neighbor, you both had to stand in the town square locked to each other for a day. How many poor sport soccer parents would we have with punishments like that? It kind of makes me wonder how people 500 years from now will view our system of lawyers and courtrooms to "prove" (or artfully convince) one's innocence. The big claim to fame of the city is the original well, which brought life-giving, fire-stopping, water in from the river. It's underground canal was kept top secret so enemies couldn't destroy it.

The most unique feature of Rothenburg is the fortress wall surrounding the entire city. Significantly bombarded in WWII it has since been restored. It's a blast to walk along the ramparts of the wall looking down into 500 year old history and out the loopholes (windows) at modern day Germany.

Day 4&5 (Friday-Saturday) - Dresden

Moving further north, Dresden gave us a taste of German art culture as well as WWII destruction.

A few fun pictures from Dresden I took to show my kids.

Home of the famous Saxon king Augustus the Great, this is where he commissioned and collected hundreds of amazing vessels and sculptures in all different forms. The vault consisted of 10 rooms each with a different theme - such as bronze, silver, amber, crystal, etc. This was perhaps my favorite art collection I've yet seen. We also visited the famous "Old Masters" painting museum, where I discovered that I'm not a big fan of looking at the same 5 Biblical stories painted over and over again in various forms of nudity. Sculptures rock. Paintings bore. And so we moved on to...

Day 6-7 (Sunday-Tuesday) - Berlin

The city where Anthony served his mission. Anthony planned to be in Berlin on Sunday so we could attend the East Berlin ward he served in. (I nearly froze to death in my nylons walking to the church on the coldest January day Germany has seen in 100 years!) Anthony had a great time being back and reminiscing with familiar people. We were invited to the home of Werner Riedel for dinner (authentic German cooking!). He spoke fair English, his wife spoke none, but still I hardly felt the language barrier as we enjoyed talking about their many travels. On the way home we snagged pictures of Anthony's first mission apartment and the familiar street he walked everyday.

On Monday we explored the city. We started with a freezing morning walking tour (which we almost skipped because of the cold and we're both glad we didn't). We stopped in the U-bahn to see pictures of the burning Reichstag, visited the Jewish memorial, the Bradenburg Tor and of course, the Berlin Wall. We spent the afternoon at Checkpoint Charlie and then swung by the Reichstag that night (next collage). That picture of my feet - that's me standing on the Berlin Wall! Red bricks mark the original path of the ripped-down wall throughout the city.

With all the build up of 14th century Rothenburg, 17th century Dresden, it was at the Berlin Wall that the great panorama of history gelled and came alive for me for the first time. On Tuesday we visited the German history museum where I saw for the first time the great cycles of history. Peace, war, new maps. Over and over again. The world I once imagined was stable and flat is actually volatile, cyclical and round. Amazing. Unsettling. It made me anxious to want to learn more of the story. What will happen in the next 50 years? 1000? It's exciting. Too bad I won't know (except in the afterlife), but cool that I get to see so much of that history now.

A few more fun pictures: Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower (think Bourne Supremacy), the top of the Reichstag, old school pinball and "cannons" at the German History museum. Washing our clothes, German "art" (aka graffiti), the famous home of the missionaries' favorite doner spot, rotegrutze (raspberry gelatin in vanilla sauce).

One of the best bonuses of the trip was that we came home with new friends. Irene and Oliver Luedtke and Irene's sister Tine. Irene and Tine grew up in the ward where Anthony served and Anthony helped teach Oliver the first missionary discussions. Anthony was surprised to discover that Oliver is now the ward clerk and that Oliver and Irene had gotten married. They graciously hosted us at the German History Museum and then took us out to an authentic DDR (old Communist) restaurant. All three spoke excellent English. I had a blast getting to know them, hearing their perspective of the fall of The Wall (when they were about 10) and learning all about German vs American culture. Hanging out with them made me want to learn German because I think it is awesome to be able to make friends half a world away.

Of course, while we were away, we missed our kids terribly. We talked with them online most nights - the only way to go with kids so young. They wiped my parents out, but they also bonded like never before. Thanks Mom, Dad, Austin and Ruthie for letting us have this magical trip to Germany!

Tenessee Christmas

Christmas season officially begins with the decorating of the tree. Shortly after, we blockaded the tree with the couch to prevent little miss curiosity from pulling it over. Every morning, Austin hurdled the couch to plug in the Christmas lights for the day.

Another important family tradition is the annual grandma picture with Santa Claus. Ruthie did not dig this tradition too much. Austin got into the spirit of it, informing Santa he wanted train tracks for Christmas.

We started (hopefully) a new tradition this year - a Christmas mailbox, where elves and mommy can deliver Christmas surprises all month long. This included Christmas stories, crafts, movies, decorations and treats. I didn't bother taking a picture of the mailbox because it was just a diaper box with one end pulled out (you can see it the picture below by Ruthie's table). In the future I hope we'll have a fun day decorating the new mailbox each year and anticipating the fun deliveries.

We celebrated this year in Tennessee. Thankfully, I wasn't pregnant this time, so we could all fully enjoy the trip. Before we left, we had a mini Christmas at home, opening a few family gifts that were too large to travel.
We arrived late on the 23rd, so before we knew it, it was Christmas! The kids lined up on the stairs Christmas morning ready to go. (Christmas PJs were supplied by Grandma Duffin). Some family members were still sleeping in (the thrill is lost in adulthood), but Oma, Opa and Hilary joined my little early risers. One of Anthony's gifts was Jazz tickets (really a gift to me too - we enjoyed watching them win that game against the Nuggets by the way). Everyone's stockings included some traditional items - fruit, m&ms (which I devoured), mini Baby Ruth's, and a bag of Cheetos (which Austin devoured).
Santa did his job well - Austin got his train tracks and Ruthie got a new puppy.

Later, when the rest of the family woke up (poor Amber had a stomach virus!), we opened family gifts. Tia Claire got the kids adorable Disney PJs, and Buzz Lightyear gear, plus a membership to the Childrens' Discovery Museum in Salt Lake! Ruthie got toys and books, Austin got an airport (one of his favorite toys still), I got a cash card which I am using to get a couple much needed massages and Anthony received some stylish new business apparel.
Other notable events included the traditional Christmas candlelight ceremony, a game night at the Barnes (bottom right above), the Gatlinburg aquarium (thanks Amber for planning that!), a lively religion discussion, a trip to the park, lots and lots of fun with cousins Olivia, Sophie, Rosie (Kerry's kids) and Henry (Amber's boy). Ruthie also became a savvy little traveler this trip.

Ruthie learned her first distinguishable word - "Henry"!
(Of course, 3 months later, she now has several good words)