Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Home again home again jiggety jig

Last night in Leiden
Well our grand adventure has come to a close. Our last week in Leiden was hectic and fun. We had good-bye dinners most every night of the week with the various friends we had made in town. Kurt had about three send-offs from the lab which he said was very gratifying. The kids and I scurried around returning our residence permits and library books, finding homes for excess toys and food, and buying all manner of gifts to bring home. I spent the rest of the week weeding our stuff and packing.  As you may recall we brought four suitcases, two large backpacks, a pac n play and a bike trailer with us to Leiden. I stuffed the suitcases and backpacks until they were bursting. I even had to deconstruct the frame for one of the paintings I bought in order to fit it in. Luckily we were able to distribute the weight so that none of the bags exceeded our 50lb limit (one was exactly 50). We ended up selling off the bike trailer to some friends. I was initially resistant to the idea but, as Kurt explained, it would have cost $50 to take it on the plane, we sold it for $40 and a new one in the U.S. costs $90. So essentially we will get another one for free and it will be a lot less hassle than lugging the old one to the airport.

On our last night in Leiden we headed to the markt to try out the ice skating rink that was set up in a floating barge in the canal. When I say "we" I really mean Kurt and the kids (my legs are not the same length and skating doesn't work for me). When I say "Kurt and the kids" I really mean that Kurt skated with the kids in his arms as skating doesn't really work for them either. The atmosphere was festive and it was the perfect way to say good-bye to such a great city. We ate dinner at Jackets to use up the free jacket coupon that we had earned for being frequent customers. It was tasty as always.
  Pingu, and Kurt and I watched Oblivion. It was a good film for a flight- not something I would want to devote precious movie time to at home but entertaining enough.
Jasper and the boys at Schiphol Airport
The taxi arrived right on time Saturday morning. Jasper, our landlord's brother, graciously helped us get everything into the cab and accompanied us to the airport. We got there early enough that the check in line was reasonable and so we had plenty of time to shop for tulips to bring home. We had read in our guide book that only the tulips sold at the airport were approved for U.S. export (they require a special seal). We said our goodbyes to Jasper and proceeded through security. Kurt got pulled over because he forgot to take the multi-tool out of his carry-on bag. We handed it over to the authorities and went on our merry way (although Kurt was less than merry). We had lunch at the airport and boarded the first flight to Iceland. Klaus napped, Leif watched

The first flight was delayed somewhat but we made our connection just fine with time to spare for customs, a light dinner, some run around time for the kids, and a bathroom break. This last one proved somewhat problematic for me; the woman's restroom smelled so bad I was literally gagging and felt sick to my stomach for the whole 8 hour flight.  It didn't help that Klaus could not seem to get comfortable and was doing flip flops in my lap with his elbows uncannily finding my stomach. After some ginger ale I felt much better and Klaus eventually fell asleep. Both boys slept through landing but woke up when we tried to get off the plane. They mostly held it together through the passport control line but towards the end Klaus was on the floor crying. Some sweet woman let us cut in front of her and saved us and the rest of the people in line from the agony of a crying and desperately tired 17th month-old. At the baggage claim we engaged a porter with a large cart and started piling up the suitcases (when we got home I realized we forgot the pac n play. argh!). The porter lead us through customs. We had to go through a special section because we had checked on the form that we had visited a farm during our time in Holland (the Kinder Boederij as it is called is a great free 'petting' farm in Leiden. We went twice!). It ended up not being an issue. Customs just wanted to make sure we would not be visiting an U.S. farms any time soon.
  In the arrivals area, we were greeted by my fabulous in-laws who were somewhat the worse for wear due to the winter weather they had to brave to get to Dulles. Luckily it was just raining by the time we got there and the drive home was a little slow but uneventful. When we got home we open the door to find a huge welcome home sign installed by our neighbors Jane and Damon and a crate of food from our friends Sam and Josef. It felt so nice to have been missed.
  For the last few days we have been unpacking, decorating for Christmas, and trying very hard to get the boys over their jet lag (they keep waking up at 3 am ready to go for the day! argh!). Kurt is currently in Canada retrieving our cat, Orange, from his cross boarder adventure. I am sure he is sad to leave the attentions of Nick and Abby but I will be happy to see him even if he is not happy to see me.
 Closing thoughts: 
 Despite my high hopes I totally failed to learn Dutch in any sort of useful capacity. Other than interactions with cashiers and wait staff the amount of Dutch I learned was not nearly enough to trump the Dutch people's command of English. You win this round Nederlanders! Sigh.
 Things I will miss about Nederland: (besides all the friends we made)
Bike lanes!
The museums and the museum card that got me into all of them for 40 euro for a year.
La Trappe Dubbel
Hagelslag (sprinkles that one consumes on bread. I won't miss the taste so much as the quirky nature of it)
tofu (some of the best I have had)
Hendo's fries
2,000 km of nearby coastline and dunes to match

 Things I have missed at home in Gettysburg:
Family and friends
salad dressing (The Dutch and I do not agree on salad dressings)
having a microwave
having a freezer in the kitchen
having a bathroom on the second floor
cheap diner food

It is good to be home. Dag, Nederlands! Het was pretigg kennis met u te maken!  
Our klompen

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Reverse Thanksgiving- Bringing the New World to the Old World

  A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you all! Before you start feeling bad for us poor expats stuck in a non-Thanksgiving country around Thanksgiving let me reassure you that we rocked Thanksgiving Nederland-style. 
  Our good friends, Carrie and Richard Russel, who are on sabbatical in Scotland, hopped a plane over the channel with their adorable kids, Henry and Beatrice. They arrived on Wednesday afternoon and we immediately took them for a walk downtown. The market was just ending but we caught the waffel guy before he closed up and introduced the Russel family to fresh warm stroopwaffels. We then herded our sticky brood up the 40 steps to the Burcht, successfully completing our goal of taking all our guests to our favorite spot in Leiden.
  For dinner we ordered in a vegetarian rijsttafel from our go-to Indonesian place, Surakarta. After waiting around for the delivery guy for about a half hour Kurt realized that he had received a text from the place saying that our order would take 1 to 1.5 hours. The bedtime clock was ticking so we hurried up and made the kids some food. Thanks to our slow eaters we were still at the table when the take-out arrived and even the kids tried some. All the adults enjoyed it but the kids only seemed to like the sweet topping (we are still not sure exactly what it is). Go figure!
 Since the Russels are Jewish we also celebrated the first night of Hanukkah. Leif and Klaus are always up for holidays which include chocolate and presents and Kurt and I are always up for festivity but due to Kurt's passive Jewish heritage we don't really know how to celebrate Hanukkah. Lucky for us the Russels know what they are doing. Also lucky for us Carrie was able to find a menorah and candles in the UK; I haven't seen any in the stores around here which I'm not sure is a reflection of a low Jewish population as much as the fact that the Dutch do not seem to be interested in commerce. There isn't a whole lot to buy for anything any where. 
 Thanksgiving morning we had planned to borrow our friend's bakfiets (a bicycle with a large wooden box on the front for hauling kids and groceries) so that the whole crew could take a ride around town. Unfortunately our friend's baby got sick and had to go to the doctor so the plans fell through. Instead we briefly attended an American Thanksgiving service at Pieters Kerk, an old cathedral where the Pilgrims just happened to worship when they lived here. The kids sat for all of two minutes before they were up running around. We prepared to leave but one of the event organizers begged us to stay assuring us that it was a family service and it was to be expected. So we stayed for about a half hour more and the kids ran around the empty area sectioned off for protestant services while the adults listened to a few of the speakers. We left after a stirring rendition of America the Beautiful and headed home for nap and dinner prep. 
While Klaus and Henry napped and Kurt cooked the rest of us went to the Pilgrim Museum (finally! and it was free that day!) Contrary to previous reports I though it was thoroughly enjoyable. None of the actual pilgrims are known to have lived in the 12th century building but it is chock full of items from the era and gives a good sense of what life would have been like for the Pilgrims. The rooms were small and dark with one hearth for heating and cooking. There was a small bed built into the wall where adults would have slept in a semi reclined position (it was thought to be better for the adult body).There was also an inhouse (as opposed to an outhouse) but rather than leading to a sewer it collected in a cistern under the floor. When it was excavated the museum found all sorts of small ceramic catholic icons that must have been dumped there during the protestant reformation. The curator of the museum was very sweet; Almost as soon as Leif and Beatrice stepped in he was handing them all sorts of period clothing to wear. It was a surprisingly hands-on museum for a place stuffed with antiques. The kids got to sit in a 800 year old chair and Bea got to wear a 400 year old headpiece. 
Now on to the feast! Kurt pulled off an amazing meal for cooking in a small kitchen with little more than a cook-top and easy bake oven. Since turkey isn't common here, he made chicken (made no difference to pescatarian me) which everyone seemed to enjoy. At my request he re-created his mother's patented stuffing balls. There was also corn, mashed taters, rolls, green bean casserole(also me), cranberry sauce, sweet taters, and pumpkin pie. Everyone ate their fill and we had enough for lunch the next day. I had made hats for everyone but no one wanted to be the pilgrims so we had a table of Wampanoags.  
 On Friday we escorted the Russels to the Oude Rijksmuseum, the Netherland's antiquities museum. I am really going to miss this one when we go. It is a world-class collection with a talented museum staff. The top floor, a permanent exhibit which explores the history of the Netherlands, is especially great. It is brilliantly set-up to appeal to both kids and adults. For the kids there are hidden "bedrooms" scattered about the exhibit where they can climb into all manner of beds from throughout time. Leif's favorite was the viking bed. For adults the exhibit is informative but not overwhelming with a wide selection of artifacts.
Friday night we indulged in some greasy food from Hendos claiming that it was fulfilling the Hanukkah custom of eating food prepared in oil. After putting the kids to bed we tried to coax Carrie and Richard into watching a holiday flick (which is what Kurt and I always do on black friday) but we failed and ended up introducing them to pbs' new Sherlock. 
On Saturday we squeezed in a trip to the Saturday market before the Russels had to catch their plane. Carrie and Richard boldly tasted the raw herring and the kids munched on kaas stangels (cheese sticks), strawberries and suiker waffels. 
 An all around fabulous Thanksgiving! Take that Pilgrims! The old world still has some charms.
 Thanks, Russells! We will miss you state-side! Come home soon!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sinterklaas is coming to town.

So those of you that are fans of David Sedaris have probably heard a little about this before but for the rest of you here is your introduction to Sinterklaas, the dutch version of Santa Claus (actually you really should hear it from Sedaris too if you have time Six to Eight Black Men ). So like Santa, Sinterklaas is a version of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children and sailors. He brings gifts to good children, dresses in red and white, and enters your house by chimney. Unlike Santa, Sinter leaves gifts on December 6 (Saint Nicholas day), lives in Spain, and travels by boat and by horse. And instead of elves he has African slaves as helpers. Well former slaves. They are called Zwart Piets and are usually played by white people in black face. They are supposed to be somewhat mischievous and idiotic and probably the most prominent display of racism in the Netherlands. From the smiling Zwart Piet decorations hanging up in all the stores one could be lulled into the belief that yes in the past the piets were looked down upon but now they are a charming effort at incorporating diversity into the holiday. But I have been assured that that is not true and that its racist origins persist.

 Kurt and I are of the mindset of 'when in Rome do as the Romans do' so we have talked to the boys about Sinterklaas (we told Leif he was Santa's cousin) and we plan to give them little gifts on the 6th. There is another component of the Sinterklaas tradition which is the arrival of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands in late November. There is a huge ceremony and everyone gathers to watch the boat come in. Today Sinterklaas arrived in Leiden and we took the boys to go see the spectacle. I was prepared to be horrified by the Zwart Piets and to silently judge all of the Dutch people around me. The truth is it was a very festive gathering. All the children were dressed as zwart piets (some in even in black face which was still disturbing) but I saw no animosity toward the Zwart Piets. The kids loved them as much as Sinterklaas himself. So I am going to go naively out on a limb and give the dutch the benefit of the doubt that they have given up their racist ideas and have come to embrace this character as their equal and as a cherished part of their holiday.
  Klaus enjoyed dancing to the music and watching the Zwart Piet acrobats. Leif said his favorite part was the woman on stage singing the (awful) songs about Sinterklaas. They both enjoyed the gobs of kruidnoten (little gingerbread cookies) handed out by the Zwart Piets and the free balloons. Surprisingly Leif was not impressed by this:

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

There and back again

York Minster
Our last days in England were spent in York and London. We drove to York after our day at Warwick Castle. We were again rushing to get on the road so that the kids could nap in the car. The parking lot at our Warwick accommodations was the smallest parking lot known to man with an even smaller exit. Kurt had to do some ridiculous number of turns to maneuver the car out (think of that scene in Austin Powers where he gets the golf cart stuck between two walls). Anyway by the time he go the car out to the road his nerves were a little frayed. He quickly typed York into the GPS and we set off.
  We had been speeding along for two hours, wondering when we would start seeing signs for York, when we realized that we had selected the wrong York from the GPS menu. Fortunately we were not going entirely the wrong direction but it did add an hour and a half to our drive time. When we finally arrived we settled into our comfy B&B, Amber House. I liked all the places we stayed on our trip (well except for the hostel in Bath) but I think I liked this place the best. Winning features included a claw foot bath tub and the option for a vegetarian full English breakfast.

Little Viking
York itself was lovely and our first day there the weather was just perfect- 60s and sunny sunny sunny. On Lars and Sam's recommendation we checked out the Jorvic Viking Centre. York was built upon an ancient viking settlement called Jorvic. Some of the ruins of Jorvic were uncovered in the 70s and preserved under what is now the museum. In the first room of the museum a clear glass floor lets you walk over top of the foundations of several buildings from Jorvic. There are also some of the millions of viking artifacts that they have uncovered on display. Next you hop into a roller coaster type car and float through a recreated Viking city complete with smells. See video. Next were some more displays on viking life and craftsmanship and a few skeletons that they had unearthed nearby. Owing to Kurt's viking heritage we went a little crazy in the gift shop. I thought Leif would be impressed by the ride but he treated it with as much disinterest as he did the rest of the place.
On the York walls
 For lunch we bought some pies at the open air market and at them in the plaza outside the York Minster, a huge, opulent cathedral. After settling the boys down for a nap back at the B&B I went out and walked around the city. I found a post office and sent back the hand towel we had accidentally stolen from the first place we stayed at. I also was finally able to find a replacement pair of shoes for Klaus. There is an adorable medieval section of York called "the shambles" where the streets are still sized for carts and the crooked buildings lean into each other and over the street. Felt like being on a Harry Potter set. When the kids woke up we took a stroll around the city walls which are almost entirely preserved. Then we ate dinner at a vegetarian place called El Piano. Rick Steves had recommended the place but we only found it to be ok.
  In the morning we had planned to tour the inside of the York Minster before heading off on the long drive to London. For a rainy morning we were surprised at the crowd headed into the Minster. Unfortunately for us that crowd was there to actually attend a service and because the church was actually going to be used as a church tourists were not allowed in. It was probably all for the best since the ride to London was really long.
 Actually we weren't even driving to London directly- we had to drop the car off at Southend Airport and then take the train in. We were unable to pawn off the car seats that we had bought on the car rental guy so in addition to our luggage we had to carry two lard car seats. Despite this, my economical husband refused to get a taxi from the train station to the hotel. We loaded up Leif's spot on the stroller with the baby bed and car seats and Leif road on the back of the wheeled suitcase as Kurt pulled it. After about an hours walk we stumbled into the Dockside Hotel. As we started checking in Leif started freaking out and we finally got it out of him that he needed to use the potty. I'm sure we scared the quiet man at reception but he showed us to our room anyway. Kurt had scored this hotel room on Expedia for the ridiculous price of $90/night including breakfast. That is really unheard of in London. Now, granted, we were in the East end but the hotel is five minutes walk from a tube station and bus stop.

On Saturday we took the bus into Trafalgar Square where we were greeted by an unwelcome side: a giant NFL sign. There was a NFL rally going on. Apparently American football is trying to find an audience in our sister nation. I was pissed. I didn't want to see something so American while I was on my England romance. Anywho we signed up for the Original Tour Double Decker bus tour. We sat up on top of course :) The tours are set up so that you can hop on and off at various stops. We got off at Buckingham Palace and watched the guards march around for a bit. But other than that we just sat back, listened to the tour guide and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. At around one I headed back to the hotel room with the kids and Kurt went to see a production of Les Miserables. He said it was good although as Kurt usually does he had lots of critiques.

On Sunday we tried to beat the crowd to the British Museum but it was already packed by the time we got there. We breezed past the Rosetta Stone and headed straight to the Parthenon Marbles. For some reason I had thought the pediment sculptures were a bit better preserved so I was rather disappointed at their fragmented condition. For lunch we ate at a pub called Shakespeare's Head. I was again annoyed by the NFL clad table next to us but I enjoyed my vegetarian sausages none the less. Since Kurt had gone out the afternoon before it was my turn. I scurried over to the National Gallery to see their collection of northern Renaissance works. Luckily for me most people prefer the Italian Renaissance so the Dutch rooms are not quite as crowded. I saw Van Eyke's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (It was just as sumptuous as I had hoped) and Holbein's The Ambassadors (much larger than I imagined and so full of detail!). After that I walked down to the houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
Kurt and Leif playing football wiht Big Ben
At 6 we had planned to meet up at Westminster Abbey to hear a free organ concert. Due to a misunderstood text I assumed that Kurt had aborted the idea of coming and so I went in and sat down. Westminster was much smaller than I had imagined which only made the huge organ all that much more bone rattling. The concert was only a half house but it was enough of a chance to sit and contemplate the beauty of the church. When I walked out I was greeted by my smiling family. They had made it after all but had been seated in the back. Kurt had bargained for Leif's cooperation in attending the concert and so we now had to find him a place to play with the new football (rugby ball) that we had gotten him. Right across the road from Westminster was a patch of grass with a great view of the now illuminated Big Ben. Kurt and Leif played their version of football while Klaus rolled around in the leaves. At one point some Spanish tourists asked me to take their picture. I picked up Klaus so that he wouldn't toddle away while I did so. Before I knew it the tourists had taken him out of my arms and were posing with him for the picture. So somewhere in a Spanish scrap book there is a picture of my son with a group of total strangers standing in front of Big Ben. Perfect for out last night in England
 The trip home turned out to be somewhat eventful. On our last night England was scheduled to get hit with the worst storm it had seen in 10 years. We heard the rain and wind all night but it did not seem too terrible. At breakfast, the news reports said that all flights were cancelled due to the storm. Luckily for us we were taking the train home. Unfortunately for us parts of the London Tube were also shut down due to storm debris. What should have been a 30 minute tube ride to St Pancras Intl Train Station turned out to be double that but we did make it onto the train. In Belgium, also hit with the same storm, things were a bit worse. Trains were being cancelled and redirected left and right. I'm not sure how many different trains we rode that day but we eventually got back to Leiden, albeit 4 hours later than planned. We did meet some great people on the train and, while I was sad to leave England behind, it made me realize how much I really like the Dutch as well. Everyone is so friendly and so willing to laugh here.
 Anyway thus concludes our trip to England. Shew!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

England Part 2

In our last episode we visited Stonehenge, Dartmoor, and Tintagel. These sites draw big crowds in the summer months but not as much in October giving us the feeling that we had the country to ourselves. We had really settled in to this tranquil tourism which made the hustle and bustle of Bath a bit disappointing. Bath is a gorgeous city built on top of a Roman settlement and some natural hot springs and made mostly of 1700s homogeneous looking buildings of golden "Bath " stone.  It is popular with international and domestic tourists alike making it a bit of a party town. It is also really expensive; The only reasonable housing deal I could find was a private room in the YMCA with a bathroom down the hall. It felt like being in college again only with kids (not something I recommend). It was fine really but I wouldn't have wanted to stay there for more than one night. They did have laundry facilities which I was grateful for as Klaus' car seat still smelled like vomit. After settling in at the Y, we enjoyed Cornish pasties for dinner and then took a walk around town, darting around several tourists who were already obviously drunk.
 The Klaus alarm clock got us all up too early for the YMCA's free breakfast. So we decided to pack everything up and take it to the car which was stowed in a nearby mall's underground parking garage (parking is also really expensive).  Since we wanted to do it in one trip, everyone had to carry something. Even Klaus had to hold his lovie, a stuffed tiger we call Hobbes.
After breakfast we toured the Roman Baths, an amazing bath/temple complex that was uncovered in the center of town in the 1700s. The hot spring that inspired the the bath's location still bubbles up and fills the pools that the Romans dug. The audio tour was free and wonderfully informative but unfortunately the kids only let us listen to a fourth of it.
 After the Roman Baths we tagged along on on one of the free walking tours put on by The Mayor's Corps of Honorary Guides. Our tour guide, Andrew, was very entertaining and had a superb delivery. He made us like Bath inspite of our initial bad impression.
  After a picnic lunch outside the Bath Abbey we raced back to the car, both to get our tired lads off to their nap but also to avoid an impending storm. We made it into the car before the skys opened up but we were still pelted with Klaus' tears as we proved to be too late for him. To comfort him I shuffled through the bags in the back seat to retrieve Hobbes. It did not take long to discover that Hobbes was not there. As I began to think back about it I realized that I didn't remember seeing him in Klaus' hands when we packed the car early that morning. Which meant that he must have dropped it on the walk to the car. I don't know who was more upset, Klaus or me- As a child I once lost my cherished "blanky" in a grocery store so losing a lovie is a very traumatic thought for me. At the same time I also realized the Klaus was missing a shoe. I wanted Kurt to turn the car around but between the crowds and the rain there was no way we were going to find either Hobbes or the shoe. Plus we needed to get going so that the boys could nap in the car. So we left bath one shoe and one tiger lighter.
  Our next destination was Oxford for the boys first college visit...Just kidding. Kurt and I are huge fans of
Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis, two mystery series set in Oxford. While the murders in the show are grisly the setting is beautiful and we wanted to see it for ourselves. We stayed at a great B&B called Park House, where the inn keeper Kathryn dug out a huge bag of trains for the boys to play with. They loved her instantly. The only problem was that there was no wifi and I was still holding on to some hope that we could find Hobbes or at least order a replacement. The thought of it made me really anxious the entire time we were in Oxford.
  After reading about it in our guide book and seeing it in Inspector Lewis, I really wanted to go punting in Oxford. Even though it was raining Kurt and the boys graciously complied. A 'punt' in this case is not the football move but rather a type of flat bottomed canal boat that is pushed along using a long metal poll (think Venice). We arrive at the boat house just as the men running it had decided not to open that day because of the rain. With my best pitiful tourist performance and my cute child props I convinced them to rent us a punt. We explored the canal for only about an hour as it was pretty hard work for Kurt and also we were hoping to make it to another free walking tour.
Klaus picking out his seat in the
 Balliol dining hall
  We missed the walking tour but it was probably for the best. I'm not sure the kids would have put up with another one. So instead we walked around Balliol College (Oxford is made up of 38 autonomous colleges) founded in 1263 making it the oldest college in the University. Not many of the buildings admitted tourists but I recognized a few of the quads from Inspector Lewis. Leif and Klaus were unimpressed. That's ok- international tuition is 50 grand.
 For lunch we went to an Itsu, a chain of restaurants serving fresh healthy Asian inspired food- totally awesome! Then the boys and I took a nap at the B&B while Kurt walked around more of Oxford. We met up for dinner at a pub called the Eagle and Child which boasts Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as former patrons.

  In the morning we bid farewell to Kathryn and then drove 10 miles to Blenheim Palace, the country home of the Duke of Marlborough. Imagine a mini (although not too mini) Versailles. The Palace was impressive even at the breeze-through pace at which I saw it; Leif and Klaus were not willing to suffer another tour so Kurt and I took turns walking through the grand salons, dining rooms, and library. Luckily for the childed- tourist, the palace also offered a play garden complete with maze and giant chess set and a fun train/tram that took you there. Our two weary little travelers perked up in this more child-friendly environment and we had a grand time there before driving an hour to Warwick.
Warwick, is home to Warwick Castle where Edward II's lover Piers Gaveston was imprisoned and executed in 1312. Despite its dubious history it is now a rather fun amusement park. There are no rides or anything but parts of the castle are set up with walk-through displays and several live shows. We saw the great hall and state rooms which provided a lovely view of the river Avon as it passes very near the castle's base. We also walked through the "Kingmaker" exhibit where very life-like wax figures prepare for a battle in tableau. The "Secrets and Scandals" exhibit was similarly set up. Leif was a bit wary of the wax figures but I think he enjoyed seeing all the different rooms. After touring the castle a bit we headed out to the grounds to see a real trebuchet launch. Warwick boasts a life-size wooden wheel trebuchet that, as impressive as it seems to us today, must have been terrifyingly impressive at its inception. I am in love with the past but it is seeing things like this that make me happy that I live in the age that I do. Life sucked back then.We were also really impressed the birds of prey show. The castle has a collection of trained falcons, eagles, and buzzards. The falconer assured us that all of the birds were bread in captivity so we could watch their amazing swoops and dives without feeling too guilty. We ended our day with a walk along the castle walls and then walked back to the car enjoying some tea and scones along the way. How wonderfully British!

 I'm not sure when I will get around to writing part three of out trip. Kurt and I are participating in NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) and it is sucking up all of my spare time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

  I think I have gushed in this blog several times about how much I love all things English; tea, t.v., literature, drama, actors, landscape, architecture, history- pass it all my way. Well we just returned from an Anglophile's dream vacation- a 10-day driving tour of Shakespeare's "demi-paradise". Unfortunately I found the country of my dreams to be very close to reality, allowing my infatuation to hit swooning level. Oh England! I know "My county tis of thee" is a knock off of "God save the Queen" but I don't know the lyrics to that one...anyways..of thee I sing!
  The trip we planned was probably not the best for the kids (but at this point their idea of a dream vacation is to stay home and do the same things that we always do with a sprinkling of treats and presents). The plan was to tour something in the morning and then, in the afternoon, drive to a new location while the boys nap in the car. I guess it has been too long for Klaus to remember spending significant time in the car and he was less than amicable to the idea. So, while we forced him to go through with the plan, he agreed to only sleep for forty minutes and then cry for the rest of it. Deal.

We saw Stonehenge, Dartmoor, Tintagel, Bath, Oxford, Warwick, York, and London. The trip was too long to cover in one post so I will break it into three. We will start with Stonehenge, Dartmoor, and Tintagel.
 Kurt and I formulated the trip itinerary more or less on the advice of travel writer, Rick Steves ("My buddy, Rick" as a fellow hosteler in Gimmelwald called him) although we disagreed with him totally on our first stop, Stonehenge. Steves recommends Avebury, another prehistoric site, that does not draw stifling crowds of tourists and where you can actually walk up and touch the stones (Stonehenge is roped off and you can't get right up to it anymore.) I still really wanted to see Stonehenge and so I overrode Steves on this and I could not be happier that I did. As impressive as the site and its construction sounds in books and film, it is staggering in person. The sarsens are so much bigger than one would consider movable objects which makes the sheer audacity of these ancient Britians so endearing.
 After stopping at Stonehenge we had a disgustingly eventful drive to Dartmoor. Let me back up a little. We flew into London's Southend airport. The airport is nicely situated far from London traffic and is cheaper to fly to than Heathrow. We had a rental car reservation set-up complete with car seats. The reservation was a bit cryptic about the car seat rental fees but we figured it couldn't be too much. Normally the things are old, dirty and barely safe. So we were a bit shocked when the car rental guy said that it would be 10 pounds a day per car seat- we were planning to use them for 9 days so 180 pounds or $289 dollars- just to rent them! We balked at the cost and the guy, who was actually pretty sympathetic, suggested that we go to a store around the corner to see if we could pick up seats for cheaper. Turned out to be a great suggestion- we got two decent seats for 68 pounds. We had no plan for getting rid of them at the end of the trip but it was still the obvious choice.

Anyway- on with the story. Klaus hadn't eaten a very good breakfast but I chalked it up to all the excitement over the plane ride. When we stopped for lunch I tried to force a few bites down his throat but he was having none of it. Klaus is normally a pretty good eater so I should have been more concerned. I guess I was a bit preoccupied with Leif who was throwing a fit about eating his own lunch ( a burger and fries- what is wrong with this kid? At his age I would have inhaled it!) so when Klaus vomited all over the parking lot it came as a bit of a shock. Luckily we were not in the car yet but it did get on our clothes. We cleaned up the best we could and drove to Stonehenge. Klaus seemed fine as he toddled around the grassy plane of the neolithic site and I didn't think anymore of it. But when we got back in the car to drive to our B&B, 2 hours away, he began to fuss and cry. It got so bad that we had to stop the car. Just as I was about to get him out of the seat he threw up all over himself, me, and the brand new car seat. I used up nearly all our baby wipes cleaning him up by the side of the road. For the rest of the ride I sat wedged between the two car seats, smelling of vomit and rubbing my son's head to help him settle. Luckily our B&B, Yarrow Lodge in Bovey Tracey, was run by the sweetest couple, Hanneke (who is from the Netherlands) and Phil, who helped us get cleaned up, made us tea and dinner, and sent us happily to cozy beds.
The next day we embarked on a driving tour of Dartmoor National Park as recommended by Rick Steves. We traveled narrow roads lined by stone walls hidden beneath scraggly hedges (at one point we got stopped by a few cows on the road) and passed though adorable villages composed of only a handful of thatched roofed houses. We drove up and down the sheep dotted moors and marvelled at the green purple and gold landscape. We made stops at Haytor, Post Bridge, and Scorhill Stone Circle.
Top of Haytor
Haytor is natural granite deposit that pokes out of the top of one of the moors and offers a great view of the surrounding countryside. We hiked up to the top but unfortunately our view was blocked by the fog. The wind was intense so we tried to find shelter on the leeward side only to stumble across a herd of wild horses who had the same idea. We decided to leave them to it and skipped down the hill back into the car.

Klaus at Scorhill
We ate lunch at the East Dart Inn in Post Bridge after checking out the two bridges in town, one of which dates from the middle ages. After that we coaxed the boys back into the car and drove to Scorhill, another neolithic stone circle. The rocks are not nearly as large as the ones at Stonehenge but the mystery of the place is just as intriguing. The ring sits down in a vast valley with no sign of human habitation in sight. We were the only ones there at the time which made it even more solitary and tranquil. Leif and Klaus enjoyed tumbling off of one of the fallen stones while Kurt and I made wild speculations about the purpose of the site.
 After that we drove to the Cornishman Inn in Tintagel. Despite the driving wind the boys and I enjoyed the Inn's playground while Kurt rounded up some dinner. The innkeeper put us in a room far from the bar where a band was to provide the night's entertainment. We didn't hear a thing and we all slept well.

In the morning we toured the ruins that lent the town its name. Tintagel (pronounced Tind-ta-jel) according to folklore, was the home of King Arthur. There are layers of ruins on the site that span the dark ages to the 19th century. The peninsula is rocky and steep and offers a great view of the Cornish coast. One can walk all around it and even though it via a cave ("Merlin's Cave") hollowed out by the sea. The boys could not climb the uneven, often slippery, stairs of the site so Kurt and I certainly got a workout carrying them but we had a good time exploring. Later Kurt said that if there was one thing he had to cut it would have been Tintagel but I disagreed. True its connection to King Arthur and even the existence of a King Arthur is up for debate but I still thought it was a great look at England's past, which is charmingly a mixture of fact and fiction.

Monday, October 14, 2013

In-laws and In Bruge

 Warning! This is a looooong post.

As you may remember from my previous post, my in-laws were scheduled to visit the day after our friend Janel left. They arrived according to plan and, just like Lars and Sam, they hit the ground running. Kurt took them downtown for a small tour and some drinks at Annie's (one of the boat bars near the markt). They boys and I met up with them after nap and we took them up to the Burcht before heading home for a dinner of Indonesian take-out.
  The weather for the next day was predicted to be gorgeous so we rented a boat in the morning and went on a canal tour. The sky was crystal blue without a hint of humidity. We puttered around the lakes and canals until it was time to get the boys home for nap. While the kids and I slept Kurt,Dale, and Erik went to a few of the old churches and the antiquities museum. That evening my in-laws graciously ate Hendos take-out while we went out for another anniversary date.
   On Saturday we took Dale and Erik to the market so that they could experience its atmosphere and sample some of it's tasty treats. Erik was easily convinced to try the raw herring and onions although Dale abstained.
   Dale had accidentally made their rental car reservation for a day earlier than was needed so she and Erik had to pick it up on Sunday morning. Kurt really wanted his parents to see the dunes so we agreed to bike there and have them drive to meet us there after they picked up the car. Once again the weather was fantastic with clear blue skies. The sun is getting lower and lower in the sky so its rays always seem to be at a glorious angle that makes everything look golden. We meet at the Meyendel boerderij, a small "petting(?) farm" with a visitors center that dispenses information about the dunes. From there we hiked to the beach and had a picnic lunch on the silky sand. No matter how careful you try to be if you have a picnic on the beach you have to accept the fact that you will ingest a certain amount of sand. After lunch the Andresen-Buehrers headed home while the Andresen-Lindens drove around Den Haag.
 When we met up again later that evening we went to a restaurant that Kurt and I have been eyeing for sometime because of its outdoor seating area that you can drive your boat up to. Appropriately enough it is called Doc 2. We enjoyed drinks and bruschetta out on the dock and then went inside for dinner as the sun set. I don't remember what the others had but I had mushrooms in cream sauce on toast. Heel lekker!

The next day we all set off for Bruges, Belgium. If you have never heard of Bruges and you don't mind a bit of onscreen violence, rent the movie In Bruges and you will get a good eyeful of the town. Bruges was an economic center in Flanders (now Belgium) in the 15th and 16th centuries so the town is full of opulent churches and state buildings. Somewhere in the 1600s the canal, which provided their access to the sea, silted up and choked off the city's economic life-blood. Thus the town is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in Europe. It is getting a bit touristy but it is so much fun to visit that you can't pass it up. This was actually the second time that Kurt and I have gone. We visited there on at 2009 backpacking trip. We did not have kids at the time but we were also living on post-doc/admin salaries so the trip was a bit austere and we did not get to do everything one can do in Bruges. So when Dale and Erik mentioned that they might like to see it we offered to go along.

 We found a great 17th century house to rent called De Hoedenmaker (The Hat Maker) that was only a 10 minute walk to the town center. It had three rooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a quaint little garden. We all fit in there comfortably and it was much cheaper and nicer than getting two hotel rooms. Plus they had a dvd copy of In Bruges! We made Dale and Erik watch it the first night we were there and it is probably the first movie that we have recommended to them that they actually liked.
  Since the boys had napped in the car on the way down we were able to spend a good potion of the afternoon sightseeing. At first, we tried in vain to find a Flemish restaurant that they owner of De Hoedenmaker recommended. We were all a bit hungry and grumpy which made the search for the place that much more miserable. Finally we gave up and ate at the next cafe that we came upon. After that, as requested by Dale, we headed to Chocolate Row, a street lined with chocolate shops. If Leif had any sort of fat on him I'm sure he would have had a heart-attack from his excitement. We walked in and out of the shops buying any truffles that caught our fancy.
  After our chocolate binge we waddled back to the town square and jumped aboard one of the waiting buggies for a charming horse-drawn tour around town. Our tour guide was a sweetest Belgian girl you will ever meet (unfortunately I can't remember her name) with a great delivery and a straw hat. Although the tour was only 30 minutes it was good time and gave us a few ideas of what to visit the next day.
  After a mildly successful night's sleep, we headed to the Groeninge Museum. In 2009 Kurt and I opted for the Hospital Museum over this one in order to see Memling's Mystic Marriage of St Catherine alter piece. It was a tough decision because the Groeninge houses Van Eyke's The Madonna with Canon van der Paele with its eye popping brocaded velvets and palpable metalwork. Luckily we were now in Bruges again! I'm not sure that anyone else enjoyed the museum but I drooled enough for all of us. Oh Van Eyke! I love you!
  The Groeninge is pretty small so we had time to climb the 366 stairs of the Belfort before lunch. As well as a great view of the city, tourists get to see the inner workings of the bell towers bells and have the stability of their ear drums tested by its 47 bells. Neither Leif nor Klaus were big fans of the actual bells but they seemed to like the view and incredibly narrow staircase.

That afternoon, while the boys napped, Dale and I toured the Basilica of the Holy Blood. A tourist attraction even in its own time, this small ornate basilica houses a relic that is believed to be the blood of Christ, brought back from the crusades by a Flemish count. Unfortunately the relic was not on display when we visited but we enjoyed the intense opulence of the place.
  Before dinner we had time for a quick canal tour. Kurt and I were worried that it would be a bit redundant seeing as we already had the perfect tour by carriage the day before. But, once again, the tour guide was charming and the weather was beautiful. The boat was full of other happy tourists and we all chuckled together and admired the time traveling effect of Bruges.
  For dinner we carried our high chair the 30 feet from the rental to a restuarant called Tom's Diner. The name is somewhat misleading to an American audience (entrees started at 16 Euro and don't include hamburgers or fries) but we had read the menu outside before going in so we knew what we were getting into. Our table was in its own tiny cubby separated from the larger dining area by a curtain and overlooking the downstairs portion of the restaurant. The candel lit atmosphere was cozy and the food with its artistic presentation was great.

In the morning we bid farwell to my in-laws as they set out for the rest of their European tour. Before heading back to Leiden, we thought we would check out some of Bruges  fine old churches. Unfortunately the Church of Our Lady, which houses a Michalangelo original, was closed for repairs until November.  Saint Salvator's catherdral was open, however, and so we were not totally thwarted in out tourism efforts. Unlike in the Netherlands, these churches are still Catholic and have maintained much of their intense decoration. A feast for the eyes.
   At home in Leiden, we were greated by the beginnings of the 3 October Festival. This festival commemorates the unsuccessful siege of Lieden by the Spanish in the 1570s. I'm just going to come out and say it: I was hugely dissapointed with the whole thing. I was expecting something a little more old worldly; I had read about how the town hall still gives out herring and white bread to the people of Leiden as it had done after the siege. And about the hutspot (carrot/potato mash) that the towns people found in the Spanish camps after they had left. From the tour book descriptions I had expected a Renaissance fair style celebration. But 3 October is really just a huge version of the Gettysburg fireman's carnival. There is no history left in it. It is all about over priced rides and games and terrible/delicious fried foods. Oh Europe can't you see we only love you for idealized versions of your past? Why do you have to gravitate towards silly commercial stuff just like we do at home?