Friday, June 22, 2012

The Dutch Top Five List

Now that we are home, I thought it would be appropriate to end our blog by listing five things I will not miss about the Netherlands as well as five things I will miss. (I like to be fair)

The Netherlandish things I won't miss are:

1. The Dutch language. I grew tired very quickly of hearing people attempt to spit while talking. Dutch makes the guttural German language sound absolutely lyrical. One needs to back up when facing a person speaking Dutch or possibly use an umbrella to avoid the spray each time an "H" is pronounced. I couldn't help but think how much work the Dutch put into talking and how sore their throats must be at the end of the day.

2. The absence of warm and fuzzy manners. On a daily basis, the Dutch citizens stepped on my toes, ran grocery carts into me, opened refrigeration case doors in my face, and banged into my body with their suitcase or themselves. Not once did anyone say anything in Dutch or English about "Excuse me", "Oops, sorry", "Are you OK?" Nothing. Even my children noticed the absence of manners. This behavior is also exhibited between Dutch people so I never took it personally as a statement that US citizens needed to stay home. It would be a nicer place to visit if they just used some courtesy. Please watch Sesame Street, Netherlanders, and see what Elmo has to say.

3. Crossing the street. I learned at a very young age to look both ways before crossing the street. I am pretty good at it actually. But in the Netherlands, you have to look both ways as you cross the 2 bike lanes before you ever begin to look both ways for cars in the next 2 lanes. As much as I appreciate all of those biking citizens, I can't tell you the number of times I was almost Schwinned to death, standing in a bike lane while checking for cars on the street. Thank goodness for those little bike bells. And for the swearing and yelling bicyclists that ride in Amsterdam. I don't know how to say "Excuse me" in Dutch but I do know how to yell "Get out of the way!", followed by an expletive.

4. Gray weather. I know the Dutch are famous for tulips; I saw it in a book once. And I know that it takes sunshine to grow those tulips. But I am not sure when there is sunshine in the Netherlands. From January through May, I believe we had about 7 days of nice weather. When the sun would peek out from behind the clouds, it became a monumental event in our family's apartment. Each time this occurred, someone would yell, "Sun's out!" and all of us would run to a window as if a giraffe was passing by. The gray just got old and, well, gray.

5. Dog poop on the sidewalks. I don't want to pick on the Dutch folks on this point as we found it true in all of the countries we visited in Europe. The people in Europe love their dogs and take them everywhere; the grocery store, restaurants, church, you name it. I like that in a country. But they just don't pick up after their little canines. Not only does one need to step over and around little brown blobs while walking, but it seems that all of the corners on buildings and walls are wet from dogs leaving pee-mail for other dogs. I realize that this activity is in a dog's nature, but someone needs to inform them they are peeing on historical, 600 year old stucco. I'm sure Mozart's dog never did that.

Things I will miss about living in the Netherlands:

1. Living simple, small and sparse. It didn't take me long to adjust to the way the Dutch approach life in general. It is less work and less time-consuming to have a small yard, a small house that is furnished with simple, functional items is quicker to clean and maintain, a tiny car is easy to park and doesn't drink tons of gas, and a small, simple meal takes less time to prepare and contains fewer calories. Brilliant. Way to go, Dutch!

2. Scarves. Everyone in the Netherlands wears scarves. And I mean everyone. Women, men, toddlers, grandparents, everyone. I figured out that wearing a scarf always makes one look stylish and pulled together. No one will approach you to be on the show "What Not to Wear" if you are wearing a scarf. Even if you are wearing jeans and an old T-shirt, a scarf pulls it all together and makes others believe you are a trend-setting European. Try it. It works.

3. Market Day. Most cities in the Netherlands have a town plaza which holds a market every Saturday. Vendors set up tents and display their wares. You can buy everything at market, at great prices, from fruits and vegetables, to fish, panty hose, dog collars, cheese, clothes, boots, flowers, and of course, scarves. There is a community, old world feel to it as shoppers bargain with vendors, sit in outside cafes to drink coffee and talk, merchants yell out what they have to sell, and people pull metal carts behind them to hold purchases. It is fun. It is always an event that no mall can compete with. And I will miss it.

4. Flowers. The Dutch are famous for flowers. They grow bulbs and flowers and hold flower auctions that are second to none. Local growers send their stock on planes to fill florist shops and grace dinner tables all over the world. Travel books state that the Dutch do not look on flowers as a luxury but as a necessity. We found that to be very true. A flower bouquet was on grocery lists right next to butter, milk and apples. Flowers were on patios, dining room tables, front steps and balconies. They just made everything seem more colorful, more festive and more inviting. And most of the time, I kept a bouquet in our apartment. I hope to keep that tradition going now that I am back in the States.

5. Trains. My family has had some interesting, exciting and even scary things happen while traveling on trains. Broken down trains that made us scramble to find an alternate route, packed trains that made me search for my children, missed trains with forfeited (expensive) tickets, and even taking a train once going the wrong direction. (As in, away from our destination, not towards it.) But most of the time, train travel for us was an exiting adventure. Once we got the hang of how the system worked, we all became experts at train travel. At first, if we had 10 minutes between train connections, we were panicked. After a few trips, if we had 3 minutes between connections, we knew we were fine.  If we had 5 minutes, we could stop and use the bathroom on the way to the next platform. If we had 7 minutes, we could use the bathroom and stop for coffee to drink on the train. Which is another wonderful part of train travel; you can take what you want on board. No one checks the weight of your suitcase, sends it through an x-ray machine or pats you down for hand grenades or scissors. You just get on. You can take food, hot coffee, an open paint can, your dog, a bike or an M16. No one cares. There is nothing like sitting in a train car, eating the snack you packed, gazing out the window as the scenery passes by, while you think complete thoughts. It gives you that childhood security feeling, knowing your dad is driving the car, mom has packed great food, and the world is a wondrous place to explore. We got to explore, and I am so very thankful for that.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Yodeling and Yelling in the Alps

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Yodeling and Yelling in the Alps

Our last big, hurrah trip was planned to celebrate the end of finals as well as the future trip back to the United States - something we were all looking forward to. Jim and I decided on Switzerland and the Alps as the logical places to celebrate. We spent 3 days in Domodosola, a charming city in Northern Italy that is a tourist spot for those living in Italy and Switzerland - not visited by folks from outside of Europe. Perfect. The only hardship about choosing a location like that is there is no one there who speaks English as there is no need to speak English. Italian and maybe a little French is all you need to get by. So, we spent lots of time acting out what we wanted and being flexible in what we got after our outstanding miming efforts. Marcel Marceau would have been proud. We took a panorama train ride into the Alps of Italy, all forests, flowers and enormous stone train trestles. We kept expecting to see Heidi and Grandfather at any moment. We also took a 3 hour ferry trip around an enormous lake that was home to several cities that were summer resorts for the famous and very rich. Our family walked and shopped in Stresa, amid the beautiful women wearing designer dresses and lots of bling jewelry, holding on to their husbands arms as they left a 5 star hotel. Ah yes, we fit right in.

Our next 3 days were spent in Zurich, Switzerland, home of the incredibly expensive hotels and even more expensive meal. I am not sure how the locals can afford to eat in this city. After we got off of the train, we decided to get a snack to tide us over until dinner and found a Burger King conveniently located in the station. We ordered a whopper for Grace and two medium fries and two Cokes for the rest of us. Our total bill was twenty-five Swiss francs or almost 30 dollars. I had visions of fasting for 3 days.

On our first day, we took a bus tour of  Zurich, Rapperswil and Liechtenstein, the smallest country in the world. (Everyone needs a claim to fame, right?) Our last day in Zurich, we went to Jungfraujoch in the Alps, nicknamed "The Top of Europe" since it is the highest point in Europe. (12,000 feet) We traveled by bus to a cogwheel train that carried us to the top of Europe. The train felt a little rickety and old as it climbed the mountain and suffered frequent hiccups and jerks as the cogs slipped on the tracks. It didn't help my confidence level as we passed banners proclaiming 2012 as the year celebrating the train's 100th birthday.

The trip was memorable with the fantastic, snowy views, outside decks for picture taking, and an ice palace, complete with ice sculptures, ice walls and ice floors. (Thank goodness for those handrails!) But something else that left a memorable impression on us was the tour guide, who everyone affectionately nicknamed Mr. Crazy Man. He was a petite man, with Asian features and black hair that was gelled into a combination mohawk, bed-head hair-do. No one could figure out his nationality due to an accent that included rolling of R's that went on for minutes at a stretch. I kept thinking that we would need to perform the Heimlich maneuver to get his tongue back on track. He was highly excitable and got agitated easily, resulting in a delivery of high-pitched yelling and rolling of R's. When the tour bus arrived at the cogwheel train station, he gave everyone detailed instructions on what order to complete activities at the top of the mountain and where the group would meet again for the train ride back down. He then became quiet and all of the bus occupants leaned forward, waiting for the next directive. Obviously finished, he clapped his hands and yelled "Get off the bus!!" Everyone complied. Since we had a large group, we had to walk all smashed together as one unit, as we were all afraid to lose sight of our mighty (and loud) leader. Luckily, he put a glove on a long metal pointer to hold up in the air as he walked so we wouldn't lose sight of him. Unluckily, he placed the glove's middle finger on the pointer so we caused quite a sight for other travelers, who laughed as we passed them. We boarded the cog train with Mr. Crazy Man giving a push to each tour member, just to be sure. With each push he would reassuringly yell at us "Get on the train! Get on the train!" I told the girls I thought this must be his first really large group and he was just afraid of leaving someone to live the rest of their days on top of the Alps.

After we rode the train and reached the top of the mountain, everyone split up into family groups to tour a museum, walk through the ice palace and take pictures outside in the snow. It was beautiful, clear, and so quiet at the top. We were glad Crazy Man was by himself, drinking a cappuccino in the Alps coffee shop. At four o'clock, the tour group met again at the entrance to the train platform for our return trip. I am not sure how the guide determined all 62 of us were present and accounted for, but somehow he did. We walked to our train and began boarding, being helped along with his familiar pushes and loud encouragement to "Get on the train! Get on the train!" On our way back to Zurich, we stopped in Interlaken so we could drop off a group of four tourists we had picked up earlier on our way to Jungfraujoch. As we pulled up to the hotel curb, there was no talking or movement on the bus. Our guide stood up, clapped his hands and yelled, "Interlaken group! Get off the bus! Get off the bus!" I think the group of four had stayed in their seats on purpose, just to hear Mr. Crazy Man yell one more time. Somehow, his wild ways had endeared him to all of us and the yelling had become our voice of reason.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Battle of the Bruges

So far, all of my blog entries have been written looking for the humor in a situation. Some situations have been funny even while we were in them and others didn’t seem to have a funny side until long after they had ended. My trip home from Belgium last week was not funny in any way and it remains void of humor today. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon so I will write about the trip as I experienced and remember it.

My family and I traveled to Bruges, Belgium for the weekend. We had a wonderful time exploring the old town, quaint shops, churches, a museum, and my favorite destination, the gelato stands. We left the city at 6:00pm, pulling luggage behind us and preparing ourselves for the challenge of taking 3 different trains to get back to Eindhoven. We took the first train which arrived in Antwerp at 7:35, plenty of time to catch our 8:00 train to Dordrecht. The Antwerp train station is a cathedral-like building with ornate architecture and four different levels of tracks. We found our platform and waited for the train, surprised that there weren’t more people waiting with us. The digital sign read “trein”, Dutch for train, and then a 12 letter word that we didn’t recognize.  We went back upstairs to the ticket office to ask for a translation and learned that the word meant cancelled and we would have to wait until the next train at 9:00. We used our extra hour to eat dinner and return downstairs to the platform. Because the 9:00 train would be carrying the 8:00 and 9:00 passengers, the platform had already become very crowded with anxious, disgruntled, weekend travelers. Jim and I took charge of the suitcases and kept Grace and Katie ahead of us in line so they could get into the train car quickly and find seats, hopefully together. 

When the train pulled into the station, we were amazed to see that the train was already full. People on the platform began to push and crowd together to be first in line to board the train. As soon as the doors opened, people shoved and pushed, trying to get what little standing room was left. As instructed, the girls jumped into the corridor between the 2 cars and disappeared. Jim stood in the corridor with our 2 suitcases and I began searching for the girls. I guessed they had gone into the car on the right so I opened the metal and glass door to find a sea of faces, totally packing the seats and aisles.  Luggage, as well as people, filled the aisles, making it impossible to take one step forward. I told the person closest to me that I needed to get by to look for my children. I was told no, because there was no way I could walk in the aisle. I could hear Jim behind me in the corridor, yelling that we had children we couldn’t find. My mother adrenalin kicked in and I began pushing people out of my way, stepping on whatever got in my path. I began yelling the girls’ names at the top of my lungs, panicked that the train would be leaving in 2 minutes and I didn’t even know if they were actually on board. A woman standing in the aisle said, “Tell us their names and we will call down the row.” Like a bucket brigade of words, people began yelling down the line of people who passed it on to the next group, all the way down the car. No girls answered. I turned to retrace my steps, pushing luggage into people, stepping on feet, whatever it took to get back to where I had started. The only other place to look was the car to the left of the corridor. I began pushing through the passengers in the hall, passing Jim and yelling the girls’ names again. I got almost to the door of the other car and saw a little hand waving in the air and a voice yelling, “Mom! We’re here!” I could just make out the top of Grace’s head in the sea of people. I told her to stay right where she was and not move anywhere. I went back to Jim and our luggage and straddled one of the suitcases since there was no more floor space to stand. 

All of the passengers in the enclosed room stood front to back and shoulder to shoulder, trying to hold on to family members and belongings. Some were speaking French, some Dutch and others English. One woman standing almost nose-to-nose with me had a tiny daughter with her who was getting anxious, standing among the mass of legs and rising temperature.  The mother picked her up and stood her on top of one of our suitcases. Most of the trip, the little girl stood with one foot on our luggage and the other against my black pants, pushing with her foot to keep her balance.

 I knew our station was the third or fourth stop but I didn’t know how long we had to travel. An hour? Forty minutes?  Twenty?  I closed my eyes and began saying the alphabet slowly, just to pass the time. People began defending any personal space they had by pushing arms and elbows into whoever stood closest to them. Others gave stern glares if their floor space was invaded. Touching someone’s foot meant they could step on yours. One man leaned his body against the back door so hard, we knew he would fly out if it opened just a crack. A woman standing with her back to the front door kept searching each passengers face while everyone else chose not to make eye contact since we were standing so close. The room grew hotter and all of the windows in the doors fogged over, making it impossible to read station signs. Finally, the train began going slower and slower, coming to a stop even though we had not reached a station.  Silence.  We stood and waited.  Then, a woman made an announcement in Dutch on the PA system and the train started moving again. A man who spoke Dutch and English  translated for us and said the next stop would be the terminus and everyone would have to leave the train and get on another one. As we traveled to the next station, I couldn’t help but think of the people who were forced into freight cars during World War II, totally out of control, no space to sit down, not enough air, and no idea how long their train ride would be or what was going to happen to them. My situation was so minor but it gave me such an appreciation for the words and images I had seen on a history page.

At the next station, the car doors opened and people streamed out, racing to the edge of the next platform, trying to be first in line. We were now going to add all of these people to another train full of passengers. When that train pulled into the station, people began running for its doors. I was afraid we would get separated from the girls again but they stayed by Jim’s side and I constantly scanned the crowd for his red coat. The new train was a double decker which gave us more space. Again, we ended up in one of the corridors between cars but it held a set of stairs to the second level. Every step held a passenger and their belongings. Jim and I stood with the girls at the bottom of the stairs. A woman outside of the door struggled with a bicycle, trying to lift it up into the walkway. A conductor walked by the train car and told her she couldn’t get in because there was no room for her bike. She continued to struggle and push the bike, determined to somehow get on board. Jim reached down and helped lift the bike inside. I watched him and wasn’t sure if I should be proud of him or irritated that now we would share our limited space with a rusty bicycle and basket. I decided he was noble.

We arrived in Dordrecht station and all four of us climbed down from the train, so glad to be out of the mass of people and heat. The air felt so good. We waited for our last transfer, sitting on the platform bench and discussing our adventure of the last 90 minutes. I was so thankful for a place to sit, some personal space, my family safe and together, and the freedom to go wherever I pleased.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Favorite French Food - Glace!

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The Charms of Paris

I have had one souvenir goal for this sabbatical; to buy a charm for a bracelet in each city that I visit. Some cities have sold charms that were pretty easy to locate and others were not quite sure what charms were or who would ever want one. Clearly their charm bracelets went out with poodle skirts and saddle shoes. But for the most part, I have been pretty successful in my search and will have a very noisy piece of jewelry once I get home. (The point of wearing the thing of course, is to drive those around you crazy with the jangling noise) I found two wonderful charms in Paris, The Arc and The Eiffel Tower. But Paris held many charms for me that were not of the metal variety. They are the kind of charms that, in any other city, would make you grimace and hiss through your teeth, "What is wrong with this place?!" But in Paris, you take it all in stride and murmur lovingly, "I just love this city and all of its charms!" I will tell you about three of them that endeared Paris to me forever.

My first "charming" experience occurred on my very first day of walking the streets of Paris. Our family had just left a department store where I had purchased two charms. (see above) The clerk had put them in a little shopping bag with handles, about the size of a piece of bread. I only note this to make a point in regard to how small and harmless this bag was. And, keep in mind, that bracelet charms do not weigh very much. I could have just as easily carried my purchase in my pocket but the clerk was wisely wanting me to feel like I had truly purchased something, justifying my self-indulgence.

As I walked along, I noticed a woman ahead of me with a similar shopping bag except that hers was the size of a refrigerator. I make the size reference again only to prove that this woman was carrying a personal weapon on her arm, in the shape of a shopping bag. As I walked the crowded sidewalk, I realized that I needed to move my arm and bag away from her direction or I was going to bump her with the teeny sack I carried. Even with my best efforts, as I passed her, my sack grazed against her Frigidaire-sized bag. Holding her bag out in front of her and swinging it with all she had, she hit me full-force with the weapon. Just like those little old ladies do in the cartoons with their purses. I was so surprised, I didn't know what to do or say. I just kept walking, asking my family, "Did you see that? Did you see that French lady hit me? Did you?" They hadn't, but thought it must be some type of charming French gesture. Kind of like an initiation. My arm felt otherwise.

My second charming experience involved French food. May I just say at this point that I loved Paris, its architecture, its people, its culture, its music. Everything, except its food. I tried all types but just could not find anything beyond dessert that I liked. Our medium-well cheeseburger was bright red throughout. The chef who made my club salad had only one criteria; throw in anything that was bigger than a golf ball and see if the silly American will still eat it, even when it's covered with oil and vinegar. One evening, my husband's special French dish was a plate covered with watery mashed potatoes with a sausage swimming in the middle. Not bad for only $27, no? In defense of the French, I could live off of glace, which is French ice cream.  In fact, I tried to accomplish this goal, every single day. Thank goodness we were only there 3 days or I would have gained 12 pounds.

My last charming experience occurred in our hotel. On our first night in Paris, I laid in bed, drifting off to French dreamland when I was awakened by a scratching noise. I sat up, thinking that a bird was trying to enter by way of our window. I turned on the light and looked out the window. No bird. I turned off the light. The scratching returned. It was then that I realized that the noise was coming from within the wall, just under the window. I've read about the sewer rats in Paris. I saw the Pixar movie "Ratatouille". This was Remy come to visit. I laid awake, trying to gauge how much further he needed to chew before he was part of my room decor. But, this was Paris, where all things charming happen. I tried to think of him as Mouse-atouille since that sounded so much friendlier.....and smaller. The noise continued on the second night, as well as the third. By the third night, I found the sound to be comforting, in some weird way. The animal was not planning on coming into my room or he would have made it by then. He was just doing some kind of remodeling project within the walls of this old and charming hotel. He probably even wore a little black beret. After all, this was Paris, always a charming place.