M4 en entrevue à Radio-Canada!

Nous avons eu le privilège récemment de parler un peu plus de notre voyage dans une entrevue avec Johanie Bilodeau de Radio-Canada Saguenay Lac-St-Jean. Voici le lien pour entendre l’entrevue, lire le texte et voir des photos:


From a humble grape comes a legacy.

Ramblings from the Alps

Allô mes amis, we are now almost into our third full month of travelling and it has been amazing so far! We have driven across Canada (a post that still needs to be written!), visited Iceland, did a quick stop by in Switzerland (which I will get to later!) and are now (still) in France. So, being in France I thought I would open up this post with the first things you need to do when in France … of course they are clichés, but they are so for a reason! Of course you need to eat cheese and bread, drink wine, ride your bike under the Eiffel Tower whilst wearing a white/blue striped shirt and a beret with a baguette in the front basket, and do generally what Parisians do – sit at one of the thousands of local cafés and enjoy the day; but not to be forgotten, as Paris has such a rich history in art and culture, is just wandering the confusing streets of Paris staring aimlessly at the almost infinite amount of statues and historic sites and soaking it in. Visiting the Louvre should also be on the list, if you can dedicate at least 3/4 of a day to wandering those hallowed halls, as even the most uncultured can’t possibly remain unmoved or uninspired by the remarkable selection of some of the most amazing art and artifacts in human history. Be warned however, that the place is huge, and somewhat confusing to navigate at first, so plan well!

Well, we have already mentioned the Parisian experience, but of course the last blog left out a few things. One thing that we have experienced a few times now in Europe, is being excluded from restaurants because of our kids. I thought that it was a bit strange the first time, as we approached a completely empty restaurant, save for 1-2 tables, but then the “maitre’d” saw us and our kids, and suddenly the restaurant was full. Ok, I guess that could be reservations that haven’t shown up yet – so we moved on. The next place was a bit less subtle. It was around 8:00 pm on a Wednesday or Thursday, so I understand that it is prime time, but when we got to the next place, the owner was pleasant and started chatting to us about a table, then she saw the kids come in right behind me, and all of sudden the restaurant was full (although it was almost empty). Nothing she could do. Oh, but if we wanted to sit all four of us at a tiny table outside on the 50 cm wide sidewalk next to the extremely narrow, yet active street, on two chairs, away from the rest of the customers (or lack there of) then maybe they could accommodate us. Yeah, nice try… no thanks. By this point the kids were pretty hungry, so sushi to go was the easiest solution to this issue. Yep, strange, but sushi is our kids go-to fast food! Definitely could be worse, so no complaints there – just not necessarily the most economical everywhere! This also happened to us in Switzerland for lunch… albeit in a busier restaurant, but the look from the owner was the same – sees the kids… oh, we are busy, too busy for you.

Anyway, we are over that… so back to our adventures in France! We have (with the exception for Marianne) been trying to be more open to speaking french; Marianne is holding out! She refuses to speak french… kidding, of course! Even Maëlle has been doing her best to make an effort to speak a bit more in french. It isn’t every time, but she is making more efforts than ever before. She is doing well… she has ‘Est-que je peux’ (Can I?) down pat …  and is expanding her dialogue everyday!

Ok, so we have learned the keys to speaking french in France (from a barely mono-lingual neanderthal as myself) are:

  1. On your first attempt at saying something hard, just say it low and mumbly….
  2. After that doesn’t work, on your second attempt to get someone to understand what you said, say it quickly with a more nasally sound and make sure you end your sentence with a rising inflection… so that you are almost asking them something.
  3. Now, while they look at you deciding if you have mental issues, the third attempt to get someone to understand your strange accent should be said higher pitched than the previous attempts and with more attitude. Make it seem like they have the issue with understanding, not that you have no idea what you are saying.
  4. When all of that fails, and it will, point at something random and run away quickly or… ask someone who speaks french to say it exactly how you said it and watch the other person miraculously understand what you wanted.

Actually, I have found that my very moderate french skills have helped tremendously in France. I haven’t had too many instances where I was completely lost. There are a few individuals that I have met that speak faster than others – but the majority speak clearly enough for me to understand what they are saying and or why I need to move le car out of the &%$@#$% way. But yes it has been okay… so thank you grade school french, because of you I can find out the time, determine if something is too expensive or not, and ask for the toilette! But really, my time in Quebec and with the extended family has helped the most!

So, what else have we been up to here? We have been in France for about three weeks now and have gone from Paris, to the wine producing regions of Bourgogne, to the foothills of the Alps in Chartreuse, in the eastern part of France, to the Alps near Switzerland.

All has been different, but not drastically so from Canada, in that I mean, all of the areas, with the obvious exception of the old towns and cities, are things that we have in Canada. Mountains, check! Farms, check! Highways with crazy drivers, check! Vineyards, check! But the scale of the vineyards and the amount of history from before 1800 here is incredible. I’m not sure anything in Paris was built since the 1800s – and some of the towns we have driven through were likely hundreds of years older than that! I don’t think I would want to live in a 500 or 800 year old building in Canada – winters might be a bit, well, chilly!

Two of the most interesting stops on our journey from Paris to where we are now, were the Château du Clos de Vougeot and the wine caves in the town of Beaune. Pronouced like Boney. Actually, I have no idea how it supposed to be pronounced, but that works. The Château du Clos de Vougeot was a fascinating look back into the history of wine making in France.

The fall colours descending rapidly around the chateau
Chateau du Clos de Vougeot

The traditions and history surrounding this estate and its wine are etched in France’s history and wine lore. We did the prerequisite visit, and even tried to snag a geocache there (to no avail!), leaning about the history of wine, the role of this estate in wine production for the wars, and its current role. All intricately detailed through the full estate museum. Too bad no wine samples were on hand! But fear not, we were able to right that wrong at the next stop. The next day, in the town of Beaune, we toured the wine caves under the town, and as part of that luxurious tour of the dank caves, were unlimited wine! I mean samples of wine! We were handed a small metallic saucer and told the caves would be found by following the informational path! So off we trudged, through the barrels and buildings until we met the narrow entrance to the wine caves. Apparently this place stores wine – aging it until it is perfect! We saw thousands of bottles! The oldest they are allowed to sell is a 1936 Pinot Noir, for a reasonable €450 (Euros), although they have older. It was quite interesting, and liquidacious! We tried at least 10 different wines (although I may have had thirds on some of them, and pulled a couple of open ones off the shelf and re-opened them… SHHHHH!!!). It was definitely an interesting visit, but of course, the girls were less impressed about wandering in dark, underground tunnels full of spiders and dust… that is until they met a woman with a dog, and then they were happy as clams. So, wine drinking done, we headed for the Alps!

And that brings us to now. Right now we are in a small town in northeast France, not too far from Switzerland, called Saint Jean d’Aulps. No idea how to pronounce that last bit correctly. Oh-pas? Oh-l-ps? Owl-ps? Oh-pehs? Oprah? No idea. It is near Morzine, which is easier to say. It is a small, hamlet in the Alps that becomes a hot bed of skiing activity in the winter. If you like to strap long planks of waxed wood to your feet and hurl yourself down a mountain at ludicrous speeds, then apparently this is a good place to be.

Normally, back in Canada, I would expect a place like this to be prohibitively expensive to enjoy, and maybe the accommodations and food in the winter is inflated to meet the demand, but the cost of the actual skiing appears to be incredibly inexpensive in comparison. I saw full winter passes going for around €300 (Euros) with daily rates starting around €20-25 / day. Crazy talk! Sure, there are fewer runs than Whistler’s 200-ish runs, but guess what, almost everywhere else in the world has fewer runs than that! Plus, can you actually ski 200 runs in a day? Unlikely, I mean I can only hit so many trees a day before I am done! So the 50 or so runs these hills appear to have are more than enough for many people. Plus, I have heard the snow here is pretty good! It’s too bad we won’t still be here during the ski season! Ok, if you are now asking why we are in a ski town in the off season, we have a good reason. After we left the Airbnb in St-Pierre d’Entremont, in the Chartreuse area, a chalet owned and run by Marianne’s old neighbour (a story I will leave for our head of small human creation to expand upon), we left for Morzine to pet sit! Yes, we are house/pet sitting! Yes, that is a thing, and no, we didn’t know these people before! We arranged it through a great online site that allows people to go on vacation and have someone come to their home, stay for free, and look after their pets. Win-win. Free place to stay, someone to look after the house, and no dead pets! (Maybe I should talk to their marketing department, see if they have an opening, I feel I could help them out with gems like that!)

We are pet sitting a grand old lady, a beautiful golden retriever that is getting up there in years. She is around 11 years old, but still has some energy when the kids are around. We are also looking after a 1 year old black cat. It’s a cat, but is actually friendly. Maxine keeps trying to pick her up and carry her around like a baby – and so far, no scratches! I know, wow! The owners are away for 2 weeks, so we get to chill out here, relax, take in the local scene and look after some furry creatures. The girls really want to get a pet after travelling, so this is a great way to determine if they have any ability to look after one! or two! So far, so good! Maëlle has been great at taking the dog for walks so the dog can do her business! We are proud with how she has taken responsibility for looking after the dog.

The girls taking the dog for a walk in the woods!

While we have tucked our weary bones away in this little village for the past couple of weeks we have had the chance to explore a bit and take advantage of the last great weather of the fall. It has been glorious here, up until the last few days (rain!), with the amazing colours of the changing leaves, and the mountain peaks encircling us like pillars in a magnificent open air theatre. We have reveled in hiking and biking in the sun, been contented to bask on the back deck reading and having a glass of tasty beverage, and even have bounced like kangaroos on crack on the trampoline (mainly the girls… mainly…), because, why not?! Also, while the sun was out we explored the area and went to a couple of interesting local markets, historic sites, and seasonal events where we blended and mingled as if we weren’t from here.

The first weekend we ended up at a wine/beer/food event, eating local, drinking local, and enjoying something that should probably be more prevalent in our life than it is. Connecting with friends and neighbours over food and drink harkening back to times when it was more important to make acquaintances and to share, than to get likes or views on your opinions or photos from anonymous strangers online. And just this past weekend we stumbled upon a little market with goods from monasteries from all over France. Handmade, hand crafted, hand brewed, all made by monks who apparently have a lot of time on their hands! But they do make good stuff! We learnt a bit about the local abbey and that monks make a lot of good things! No idle hands there!

So here we are, out in the wilds of the Alps, keeping some very friendly animals fed, learning a bit about our surroundings, including how to drive in the Alps on some crazy twisty roads, and taking in the relaxation that we have been sorely lacking over the past years.

But, we are getting itchy to keep moving, as has been our M.O. for the last 3 months or so. Oh, and while something have changed, somethings have remained the same. The youngest of our brood decided, yesterday, that shoving something up her nose would be fun! Yay! You know the little baby bel cheese? The wax covered ones? Yes, she told us that she rolled up the wax and put in her nose. Why? I HAVE NO IDEA! Anyway, it was stuck so far up we couldn’t see it and of course it was causing her discomfort. She whined and whined and we tried to get her to blow it out, sneeze it out after sniffing pepper, and even pick it out – but nope! It was stuck fast! We gave up, hoping she would just get it out naturally. But after a while, no chance – so Marianne went in. She grabbed the tweezers and gently dug through the mini gold mine to find the red ball of treasure! Success, she seized it with her expert grasp and pulled forth, with a triumphant sigh of relief, the offender stuck deep in the nostril… and guess what? It wasn’t actually the little wax wrapper, it was the WHOLE PLASTIC WRAPPER on the outside of the wax. Like, what, are you kidding me? How the?? Anyway, our smallest, and well, strange little one was free of her plastic plug, free to breathe again! Oh, the joys of children sometimes! I’m not sure this will be the last time we have to do this.

When the next week comes we will be off! Off to different pastures and different mountains, exploring Europe from our little 4-wheeled oil burner. We shall update more later!

M (Undersecretary to the head of lodging, germ removal, and child bearing)

Look at the pretty lights!

Wild West Iceland – Winter Winds, Whining, and a Wonderful Waterfall

When you are travelling between places in Iceland by car it has become obvious that you need to do a few things before you set off. First, make sure you car hasn’t been blown away over night. Winds seem to scream endlessly here, switching directions at will, and well, you might need to find a good parking spot to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere! Second, check the weather. Will the next day be windy, snowy, sunny, rainy, foggy, or… all of the above. Checking the weather is more important than the distance you are driving. You could circle the island in one long day, and essentially not leave route 1, so a map, in practice is not that necessary – but the weather dictates more where/when you can go. Third, always check your fuel. Yes, just like normal back home. You don’t get a free pass on buying fuel unless you somehow rented a magical car that doesn’t need fuel. Distances aren’t great here on an average day’s drive, but the hills and curves and inevitable stops for photos and sight seeing make it seem like you are driving the car with the world’s worst fuel mileage. After a few days of driving on the coast into a 20 m/s headwind, I was sure our rental car (the trusty Dacia Duster 4×4) was getting 10 l / km instead of the reverse. Also gas stations seem to pop sporadically, sometimes many at once, other times, none for 200+ km. And certainly not last, but fourth, make sure you pack at least 30 kg of snacks (per child under 18) for each hour of the trip. Driving in the back seat of a car, while on vacation, seemingly becomes more calorie intensive than a cross-fit workout in a hot yoga studio. Endless chants of ‘snacks’ or ‘I want to eat something’ seem to emanate from the second row of the four-wheeled transportation system the second the engine starts. It matters not if breakfast was but a few minutes prior, or lunch was still freshly on their lips, the ear-piercing, soul-crushing call for food is incessant and without remorse. I, naively at first, thought the offspring had been working on their rendition of a ‘punk’d’ skit – but I was soon to learn, to my dismay, and continuing dismay, that it wasn’t so. We have been trying to mitigate it, by reinforcing the use of the term, ‘Please’ before the begging, so we somehow justify it to ourselves that our kids are not in fact miniature versions of Neanderthals, but seriously who are we kidding, we just endlessly repeat ‘Say please’, and when they eventually do we give them snacks and they have learned nothing. Kids 1 – Us 0.

So, as I was saying, driving anywhere in Iceland is a bit about time management, massive quantities of rations, weather knowledge, and skill. As our last post mentioned, skill is a sorely lacking attribute of many drivers here in Iceland. I definitely worry more about the oncoming car than the narrow, no shouldered roads, or the hurricane force winds that seemingly come from all directions. A couple cars in the ditch on lightly snowy days tells me these people have no business driving here in October – but hey, who am I to take away their dream of seeing Iceland. I am just hoping the next few days here goes smoothly on the roads!

Ok, back to some real travel stuff. Where were we? Oh yes, we left Akureyri the other day and headed west. We booked an Airbnb somewhere near the ‘town’ of Húnavatnshreppur (Yep, that is how it is spelled and it wasn’t me just mashing a bunch of keys on the computer keyboard.) We found the place relatively easy after a calm drive through the mountains and valleys of the northwest – luckily too, as a storm was moving in the next day and would have made that drive a bit tougher. Beautiful area – lots of scenic lookouts and majestic vistas. Amazing contrasts in the area, from the green fields to the white snow covered peaks abounded along our route. Horses, sheep (or as Maxine calls them – sheepees!), and even a few bovines dot the fields of the landscape along our path. Anyway, as we arrive at our Airbnb we notice it is a farm – a totally real farm. Not a ‘ranch’ or a ‘we have a few chickens so we call it a farm’, but a real local farm. We can tell by the smell – oh and the fact it is a farm, with barns and horses and a butt-load of sheep. We are greeted and shown to the one room palace that we have inherited for the night. It is small, but stylish and functional, but the real show is outside. A small herd of border collies show up to introduce themselves. At final count there are 5 of them, but generally, the mother dog goes solo while the 4 males (father, brother, and pups) run amok around the property. The girls are instantly drawn to the dogs – and likewise for the dogs. Maxine is the perfect size for jumping up on and licking, so she soon becomes a carte blanche for the dogs’ artistic tribute to muddy paw prints and saliva. They are masters at their art.

With the cleanliness factor thrown out the window, and down a cliff, Marianne searches desperately for her Norwex cleaning products to make sure Maxine once again can be seen in public. In the meantime, Maëlle and I don’t look back and head for the open pasture, dogs in tow (then way ahead of us, then beside us again – oh boy do they have a lot of energy.) We go off in search of sheepees and horses, but they see us and the dogs coming and head for the back 40. The dogs chase the sheep around a bit, more to harass than out of working instinct, but the sheep are probably used to it by now. So, we get our photos of the sheep from far, and move on. We can feel the temperature dropping and the wind picking up as the clouds descend into the valley – but knowing we are going no where that night makes us feel better.

The next day we had a surprise for the girls, we had arranged with the organizer of the Airbnb to get the girls a tour of the horse stables and to ride a horse. Maëlle was pretty excited, and showed us in her usual way by throwing a temper tantrum. Seems logical?! Someone must have added urine to her corn flavoured traditional breakfast cereal to make her so ornery, but who knows sometimes. Anyhoo… because of the weather that moved in the girls weren’t going to be able to ride the horses outside. The winds were too strong, and with the driving rain at times, it wouldn’t have been fun. The girls could barely walk into the wind – so I’m sure they would have been blown away like kites should they have been on the horses. Still, the girls got an hour with the horses; brushing them, petting them, and sitting on them. Maëlle also rode her horse around in the stable for a bit. It was pretty hard to get her to let go – as she seems to like these huge beasts. Maxine didn’t actually want to ride the horse around the stable, and seemed more interested in the dogs – especially the older male, who was absolutely attached to her. His tail wagged so much every time she walked near him that I thought he was going to take off like a helicopter. So we didn’t force her, instead as she wandered around the barn the farm / horse owners told us lots about their horses and Icelandic horses in general. Once again, the Icelanders seemed cold at first, but were totally friendly when you started to talk to them. Marianne even managed to snap a pic of me touching the horse – which I think is about the 3 or 4 horse I have ever pet in my life. Horses don’t seem to like me – not sure why, I generally don’t even try to touch them.

After this great experience we had to head out. We packed up the Duster and headed off into the blowing gale;  but just before that, I actually let the girls try to walk head long into the wind, and it almost blew them away. I didn’t stop them, I kinda wanted to see how far down the field the wind would push them, but they made it to the car! What? … like you wouldn’t do the same… 🙂

Anyway, with our visit with the horses over, we set off in the car immediately after a quick lunch, only to hear the melodic bellows of ‘I want to eat something’, followed by our one millionth, ‘You just ate, and you need to say please’. Our drives start so well!

The rest of our drive was interesting. With only about 1.5 hours of driving to the next destination, our road appeared to be clear, despite the warnings from the weather service; however, the winds were stronger than anticipated. Yes, driving in the wind requires a bit more reaction than anticipation as you can’t see the wind, but still it all comes down to slowing down if necessary. As we approached our turn off to our Airbnb, the winds had been mild, only about 20 m/s at most, and mostly from the back, so we were just getting an extra push. Well, that changed quickly. A blue sign loomed ahead with an unknown place name on top and the temperature and wind speed (I think that is what they are – I am just guessing) displayed in digital numbers, so they can be updated in real time. These signs only tend to appear when there is some sort of mountain pass or long stretch of open to the ocean road; they serve as a notice and warning to those who dare attempt the crossing. Our sign read a balmy -2C and a blustery 30 m/s wind speed (108 km/h sustained winds). I guarantee the gusts were above that! Anyway, the next section through the mountain pass was interesting – as I was seemingly dealing with swirling 100 km/s winds that were blowing the truck back and forth. I’m sure Marianne can testify that my driving technique that day resembled the old arcade days when we used to grab the steering wheel of a racing game and wiggle it back and forth in a futile attempt at making the inactive car on screen do our bidding. It almost felt like that at times as I wasn’t sure if I was helping or making it worse – but with no room for error, I decided to slow down and keep us on track. I saw a few oncoming drivers with concerned or downright scared looks on their faces as we snaked through the pass – no reassurance at all that the conditions ahead were any better. But, as I am now writing this, you have guessed, we made it! Actually it turned out to be not so bad, as our 4 wheeled steed proving itself up to the task once again. The key you see, is to slow down and not crash! I have found that the most effective way of driving from place to place here in Iceland! Who knew it was that simple?

We are now hanging out in our little chalet in the valley near Búðardalur, west Iceland. Tonight there northern lights are visible in the sky. Not the most amazing ever, but still pretty cool. I got a few photos of them – and it shows them pretty well. It actually looked better with the camera than with the eye.

Look at the pretty lights!
Amazing Aurora Borealis over the night sky in Western Iceland.

Anyway, today was a chill day with a bit of hiking, some visiting of farm animals, and some ice cream. I mean, when is a better time to have ice cream than when it is freezing outside? The ice cream doesn’t melt on you and it tastes just as good! Despite the chilly temperatures we decided to get out and explore. Marianne wanted to do a hike, but as everywhere is Iceland seems to be someone’s backyard or farm, I wasn’t sure where we could actually hike. Well, I found a hidden and amazing waterfall near by that you could hike to. And it was only about 30 mins away. Well after a disappointing lunch at the local greasy spoon, whose menu consisted of 5 types of burgers, and fish and chips (what a selection!) we decided to find this secret gem of falling water. No map seemed to have it listed, which peaked my interest, but the online photo showing this amazing wild flow of water sold it. So off we went. The road headed west on the peninsula toward Snæfellsjökull National Park, and soon turned to gravel. The posted 80 km/h speed limit seemed a bit ambitious for most, but we rumbled on over the pot holes and bumps. A quick 30 minutes or so later we approached the area of the trail to the falls. Five minutes later we backtracked, searching for the route to the falls again. It should be right where we were, but the only think there seemed to be a driveway. We tried it anyway. Icelanders have proven friendly to our feeble attempts to pronounce their place names, so I was hoping us accidentally driving across their front lawn in search of a secret and almost unknown waterfall would be met with equal kindness. I mean, why not eh? Luckily, we didn’t have to try to use our best Canadian ‘Sorry, eh’ as the road actually bypassed the house by a few metres and climbed precariously through loose rocks into the rocky cliff beyond. As we climbed, the main road slipped away, and the allure of the majestic hidden falls beckoned. But suddenly a large warning sign appeared. Seriously, here? Did we enter into a forbidden ecosystem? Was this a military installation and armaments were scattered everywhere? Were there lava flows or rock slides? Nope. It was a sign warning us not to drive on the runway. Yes, runway. But.. but… where? A barren rocky/grassy strip of land with yellow painted rocks lining the perimeter must be it – but seriously, who would land a plane here? So, we avoided the runway – which would have been harder to drive on than our road, and continued, finally reaching a small parking area, not far from the bustling airport.

Now, we hike. The kids loved the idea and instantly jumped out of the car ready to go… not! It was cold (-2 or -3C), there was no iPad to comfort them for their arduous journey of 30 minutes, and well, we wanted to do it – so that alone was enough for a full on mutiny for the first few minutes. But we overcame the opposition and marched on. We found the first waterfall / cascade only a few metres from our prime parking spot. We scampered down the loose lava stone hill to admire the view, only to tell the kids, with much backlash, that this was not the hike, but only the start. So off we went in search of the true hidden gem. Maxine did her best fire truck impression for the first few hundred metres, while Maëlle, to her credit, was great all day with the hiking. We continued along a some-what used road up into a nearby pasture. Our movements observed on all sides by the judgemental sheepees. They stared at us, but ran when we said hi. How rude! Soon we came around the corner and there it was, through the rocks, in the upper portion of the ravine, the gem of the west, the majestic and unrivaled waterfall that was supposed to be named: Lambhagafoss. Of course, that is what I thought it was called, and honestly have no idea if it was called that, as it wasn’t on any map. But there it was. It seemed a bit smaller than I expected, a bit narrower, a bit less water, and maybe not quite so majestic, maybe a bit ordinary – but still a waterfall! I had found us a waterfall in the (somewhat) back country of Iceland, far from the touches of man – except the airport and the farms and the sheep and the fences everywhere and the roads… yes yes… in the wild! So we started towards it. We didn’t get right to it, as the ravine seemed to cut off that possibility – and it seemed so remote (or the kids were complaining… one of the two), so we headed back. Out mission was accomplished, with a slightly diminished return on the waterfall awesomeness, but a waterfall none the less. I guess a few days without dramatic, enormous waterfalls all around you make you seek out what you took for granted only days ago! So, with that done, ice cream was the reward at a near by local dairy farm / creamery, where the girls also got to see bunnies, cows, and other farm like animals.

Tomorrow we are off back to Reykjavik, for a couple of final days in the land of ice before heading off to Paris. We are going to explore a huge lava tube, and hopefully try a few of the local delicacies (Plokkfiskur!), as our food budget definitely was helped by us cooking for the majority of the times. We’ll update more then, and maybe I’ll get to my take on the pools here – other than just being awesome!

Ciao for now.

M – Manager of luggage handling for the M4 travelling corporation