Saturday's trip to Monschau, Germany was well worth the ninety-minute drive east over the border that marked the third different country in which the kids have set foot in their short yet remarkable lives. It was a thrill for me to finally get to use the language I studied in school; everyone was a little surprised, including myself, that I was able to give the non-English-speaking waiter a detailed order entirely auf Deutsch and that we received everything we desired! After a deliciously efficient German meal, we set out to explore the town by following the waterway coursing through and underneath the streets.  

Monschau, the "charming gem of the Eifel region," is nestled in a narrow valley of the Rur River. Mentioned in historical texts as early as 1198, it is easy to imagine settlers choosing this location for its beautiful natural resources in the fertile and defensible valley. Today it's a tourist and health-resort destination for Europeans of every nationality.

The town center has many preserved half-timbered houses and the narrow streets have remained unchanged for 300 years. On the heights above the city, Burg Monschau serves as a reminder of the past and a site for modern theatrical and musical performances.

We were thrilled to be among just a handful of tourists exploring the castle that afternoon. Like several sites we've visited, there wasn't a warning sign, security guard or admission desk to be found; we were free to explore the entire grounds independently and make our own history. While I found out later that the fortress was used as a seat for dukes starting in 1433 and that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V besieged it in 1543, none of that mattered as we roamed the raised walls and narrow stone staircases and peeked out of the archers' windows overlooking the valley below.

We're continually surprised and pleased at the lack of excessive safety measures at places like these. Apparently proprieters of sites such haven't been sued enough to decide it would just be easier to lock the gates and restrict access.

After some ice cream bars on the way out of town, we took up an invitation to meet our friends Carlos and Frank for dinner at the sprawling, kid-friendly recreation area in St. Truiden called the Speelhof, or Play Farm. Once a mid-1800's site for aristocratic socializing, it is now a destination for locals to jog through the manicured trails or let loose on a whole bunch of playground equipment that has long since been outlawed in the U.S.

On Sunday morning, we met Betsy's friend Els, her husband Max and their lovely daughters Jill (7) and Anna-Paulina (3) for breakfast in Brussels before caravanning to Luxembourg City for the day as the kids put their fourth pin in the world map. Although the girls speak Russian and Dutch but no English, Quinn became fast friends with both and was eager to ride with them on the two-and-a-half-hour drive southeast into the 20th smallest of the 194 independent countries in the world. 

Bordered by France, Belgium and Germany, Luxembourg is often overlooked as tourist destination but is a true gem. The entire country, which is mentioned in texts as early as 963, is just 999 square miles in size - smaller than the state of Rhode Island (1,545).

Luxembourg has the second highest GDP per capita in the world and it shows in everything from the cleanliness of the streets, the ubiquitous landscaping, the way the carefully-planned modern construction matches the restored infrastructure and the refreshing lack of smokers. The relatively small royal palace is in the center of picture below.

All the tours were sold out for the day so the kids and I hope to return by train one day soon to get a look inside and to visit the subterranean network of catacombs built into the cliffs that once served as defensive passageways.

The capital, Luxembourg City, is situated in a lush and brilliantly-fortified valley at the confluence of the Alzette and Petrusse Rivers and provides the most comprehensive glimpse we've had at an ancient city's defensive walls. Check out the wooden portcullis still ready to be lowered by rope to prevent marauders from entering the city by way of the river.

Max went to graduate school in the city for several months and served as our guide, directing us on a tour that took us over 75% of the downtown historical area in just a single day. There were stunning panoramas and amazing photo opportunities at every turn as we made our way from one side of the city to the other by winding up and down the city walls.

We ended up having long lunch at a British pub where we enjoyed the second half of the women's Olympic marathon before wandering through a street art fair where this organ grinder was plying his trade.

After yet another ice cream purchase (and a Grand Marnier crepe for me), the kids were entranced by this gilded street performer.

Later, we made a stop at a picturesque little park to play several rounds of multilingual hide-and-seek during which all the adults got involved.

It was a much-needed diversion for me in particular as my beloved TCMABL Twins were just getting game-one of their (our) victorious week-eleven double-header sweep underway as they (we) reclaimed first place with just two regular-season games to go. (Keep it up, guys!)

Our route back to the car took us by a historical site of great significance. The building below served as Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg from 1940-1944.

It was just down the street from the current Romanian Embassy and surrounded by several quaint villas on a tree-lined street overlooking the river. As Max and I passed by and contemplated the site, he asked me, "Can you imagine the two of us walking down this street seventy years ago?" Indeed, my Russian friend and I would both have been shot on sight instead of strolling casually past this building, snapping photos with our wives and children. The plaque at lower left, by my rough translation, reminded people "when you pass here, thank the patriots who fought the Nazi terror of this house for freedom in our homeland." How fortunate we are to enjoy the liberties and conventions of daily life thanks to the sacrifices of our predecessors.


As I write this on Monday evening, the kids and I have had another lazy beginning to our week...a load of laundry, a stack of worksheets, plenty of Olympic coverage on the TV and an afternoon visit to the cinema for Ice Age 4 (as lame as that franchise is in English it was even more difficult to sit through in French). In addition to the BBC and Belgian Olympic coverage, we have also found the French and Netherlandish channels, affording us a unique glimpse into the European view of the Olympics. While many people complain that NBC covers only American athletes and stories, I can tell you that the grass is not greener on the other side. Studio hosts and live look-ins on every channel unavoidably focus on events and athletes of national interest and we feel we've enjoyed even less exposure to stories of global interest. Trust me, even though we get everything live by being in this time zone, the wider coverage and production value that U.S. viewers have access to are definitely better than what we are seeing. I should, however, eat my previous words and acknowledge that Team GB has vaulted from 21st to third in the overall medal standings. Still, we plan on making fools of ourselves at whatever events we can attend this coming weekend in London with our Stars and Stripes and fist-pumping chants of "USA! USA! USA!" whenever possible.  


With no plans today save for finding that first good glass of Belgian beer, the kids and I hit the town once again as Betsy drove to the office for another day of international success. We had noticed a skate park during our day-one stroll and decided to pack up the scooters and see if we could find it again. Xander, Vaughn and Quinn really enjoyed zipping around when I wasn't borrowing one of their scooters.

The skate park was right in the shadow of the Eglise Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, a church that has a posted roster of pastors dating back to 1278. 

Once again the paintings, sculptures and woodwork throughout the interior brought a quiet reverence to all three kids during our lengthy visit. The artwork, while often morbid and depressing, is nonetheless inspiring with its antiquity and stunning detail. This is a marble skeleton greeting visitors near the front of the sanctuary.    

After lunch at the flat, we ventured out with little in mind other than to check out a nearby Metro stop for next week's more distant explorations as well as a park and some sort of large castle-like structure we could see on a city map. The park turned out to be extremely cool, with a maze of little wooden shacks, ladders slides, climbing ropes and swings.

One of the shacks was labeled "Ale House" with a foaming beer mug sign over it and, unlike America's ridiculously safe playgrounds, this area was a lawsuit waiting to happen. We loved it and I'm sure we'll make it a frequent stop.

The park led to the Porte de Hal, a 14th century city gate from the second set of defensive walls that once enclosed Brussels. Most of the other gates were demolished but this one survived since it was used as a prison, customs house, grain silo and church over the years before it went through numerous renovations to become the historical site and museum it is today. At the bottom of the picture you can see the original 600-year old structures that housed a portcullis and drawbridge over a moat. We rolled up right at closing so will be back soon to visit the exhibitions inside.

The lights and sound of a local street carnival then attracted our attention. We rode the giant slide a couple of times and made our way down the strip to soak it in.

We got our first order of Belgian fries and dove in.

It was just like being on the midway at an American state fair but there was no spandex, everyone was smoking, several stands were selling escargot (didn't try it yet), the carnival game prizes included very realistic toy knives and guns and - finally! - there were boobs.

Once the hardworking breadwinner of the family returned to the flat and had a chance to unwind, we set out on foot to find a place to eat. We had heard about a nearby restaurant in Sablon that was full of Tintin stuff and we were delighted to come across it. The Comics Cafe was filled with tons of really cool artwork with an emphasis on the great Hergé. There were framed original Tintin sketches and way too many things that I want to go back and buy. But tonight was about enjoying our first real Belgian meal and it couldn't have been much better. Betsy and I shared a couple of Karmeliet beers and we dove in family-style to orders of beer-braised beef with fries, tandoori scallops and filet of sea bass. It was a very memorable meal and the upstairs reading and drawing area is a place the kids and I will quickly get back to.

A couple of notes after a few days:

I haven't inhaled as much second-hand tobacco smoke in the last five years in the U.S. as I have already here. I forgot how much I particularly hate smelling it while I eat and am delighted that our country has banned smoking from most public places. 

As the kids and I stroll around, we have been stopped several times by people asking for directions or chatted up by locals. I am pleased that we don't appear to be tourists and hope that we continue to blend in. Of course, as soon as I open my mouth, the deception is revealed. 

Cheers from the Comic City!