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.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paris Bucket List

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I Love Paris in the Springtime......With A Bucket List

Our family spent a whirlwind, 3 day exploration in Paris. It is always the Number 1 vacation spot to visit, falling to #2 this year only because so many people are going to London to see the Olympics in person. Next year, Paris will be the top vacation spot again (as usual) so I had to go to see what all the fuss was about. Everyone reading this blog has learned of my bucket list and "to do's" that have been met on this sabbatical and crossed off.  Just like gondola rides and experiencing vertigo at the leaning Tower of Pisa, Paris held a very special and unique goal on my list. It involved the Eiffel Tower. I know that most bucket lists include this famous icon, but my requirements were truly unique. Just seeing it did not count. My goal stated that I had to gaze at the Eiffel Tower while sitting in a French cafe and sipping espresso. This meant that, not only did I have to find the famous tower, I also had to find a cafe within viewing distance that served espresso and even had an empty table and chair for me to occupy. (a challenge at most Paris cafes, even those far away from Eiffel). I think this strange requirement stems from seeing way too many Hollywood movies that show an Eiffel-filled view from every apartment window, restaurant, park bench and, yes, every cafe in Paris. I am not sure how this is possible, but growing up, I knew it was true and my goal would be very easy to meet. Just find any cafe, order some coffee, then sit back and gaze away. I now have been to Paris and I can tell you that such is not the case. We visited the structure twice and both times we had it in plain view and began walking towards it. Both times, half-way to our destination, we lost it and were turning in circles on a Paris street yelling "Where did it go? How did we lose something so BIG?!" (Either the French residents are use to this phenomena or they thought our family really strange, spinning in circles like Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly in "American in Paris") Both times, after some serious walking, we relocated it and resumed our trek, finally ending up at the equally beautiful and impressive structure. But where was my cafe? My espresso? My cute guy wearing a black beret and striped shirt? (Wait, maybe that was my mime) The second time we visited and I still had an Eiffel Tower on my bucket list, I was really feeling hopeless.

 We walked back towards our hotel, looking in shops and restaurants. All I could think about was my bucket list failure. How could I come this far and fail? Without looking for anything in particular, I glanced over my shoulder as I had this feeling that someone was following me. To my total surprise, there stood the Eiffel Tower, looking down at me even though we had already walked for blocks! I quickly looked around and saw a cafe just down the block with an empty table. Like a kindergartener making a mad dash for the last available seat in Musical Chairs, I ran down the sidewalk and skidded into the chair, moving it a few feet. (OK, several feet) I'm sure my fellow diners were impressed as well as startled. I put packages in the other 3 chairs for my family members who were still searching for me. When Jim finally reached the table, his obvious question was something about what in the world was I doing? I simply stated, "Look behind you. I am going to mark one off the list." He and the girls sat down and I ordered espresso for Jim and I. Forgetting my own rule of speaking s-l-o-w-l-y so that the French who know English as a second language can follow my train of thought, I began talking a mile a minute to our unsuspecting waiter about how this spot was on my bucket list and now I was meeting my goal and the Eiffel Tower was in front of me and he would soon be bringing my coffee. He merely nodded, smiled and said, "Good!" I knew he had probably only understood Eiffel Tower and coffee and was wondering why Americans needed to compile a list of all of their buckets. He brought my espresso and Jim's, keeping his distance so as not to catch the crazy American lady's mental illness. That turned out to be a good thing because as soon as the cup was placed on the table, Jim knocked it off, baptizing the French sidewalk. The waiter doubly liked us now. He was gracious and brought us another espresso, free of charge, with the instructions to drink up, as in fast, and cautiously backed away from the table. I didn't care. I was basking in the glow of the Eiffel Tower, sipping an espresso, humming La Vie En Rose and imagining that every person that walked by was wondering who the cute French girl was. Speaking in a fake French accent, singing to herself, and clearly a little crazy, no?

Je Amour Vous!

Friday, April 20, 2012


Shakespeare 101 or What Your English Teacher Never Taught You

The third city we visited in Italy was Verona, a small, historic town and the oldest city in Italy. It has the second largest arena, right after the Colosseum in Rome. It contains walls and tiled floors that were built in 100 BC. It even has great ravioli. But the number one reason I chose to spend 3 days in Verona is that it is home to the families Capulet and Montague - the families that raised those two rebellious and star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. I am a major fan of the book, thanks to my 9th grade English teacher who taught me that reading Shakepeare would not make one suddenly sprout nerd glasses and saddle shoes. Not only did I survive reading the play (with the help of the handy margin notes) but I found that I really enjoyed Shakespeare. Please don't share this with any of my 9th grade classmates. I feigned lots of eye-rolling and "PU's" just like they did when we were told we had to read "yet another" Shakespeare play. In my head, I was doing the literature happy dance.

Like all good travelers, I went on-line and searched for a guide to give our family an authentic tour that covered, not only the historical locations connected with the play, but also the locations used for the movie "Letters to Juliet." (Hey, I had to have a selling point for my 16 year old daughter) I began email correspondence with the tour company owner, Michelangelo. My first email covered the important issues of cost for a private tour and whether his real name was truly Michelangelo. He assured me his name was genuinely given to him by his parents at the hospital and I felt the tour charges were within my price range. It was a "go".

The morning of our tour, we were met in the hotel lobby by our guide, Daniel. (I didn't feel it necessary to ask if his name was legit.) The entire tour was on foot as Old Verona is pretty small. Daniel and I led the way, the 2 girls made up the middle of our duck line and Jim kept us safe by walking in the back to beat up any houligans (as Katie calls them) that might accost our group. I had plenty of time to talk with Daniel and find out his life story. Anyone who lives in Verona and makes his living walking the streets and giving history lessons has got to be living an enviable life. He told me he knew Italian, English, Spanish, German, French and was currently working on Russian. I told him I knew English. "And by the way, can YOU knit a sweater from the top down and do a spot-on impersonation of the Wicked Witch of the West?" OK, I didn't say that last part but it did go through my head and I felt so much better about the language thing.

Daniel took us to the historical points of interest and several of the movie locations. We all snapped pictures like the goofy tourists that we were/are. But the fascinating part of the tour was our discussion of "Romeo and Juliet." I am here to tell you that for years, we all have been douped by English teachers and old William himself. If William lived today, I'm sure there would be a cover story on People magazine, exposing him as the fraudulent, plageristic guy that he was. First, I need to tell you that Shakespeare never darkened the door of Verona. He never stepped foot in the city. Second, and most scandulous, is that decades before William was even born, another man wrote the story about the Capulets and Montegues - and this man had actually been to Verona. Shakespeare read this original story and decided to write a play, adding a few fabricated details here and there. It seems that  the Montagues and Capulets were two families at war with each other, similar to our Hatfields and McCoys. This part is true. One of the members of the Montague family did kill a member of the Capulet family but we do not know if that man's name was Romeo. Nor do we know if the name of the Capulet man was Tybalt. Unlike the play, the entire Montague family was asked to leave Verona, not just "Romeo." This made the Montague family really mad and regret that they ever begat "Romeo" in their already shakey family tree.

As far as map issues, the Montague house was indeed within walking distance of the Capulet house so Romeo could have easily made it that far. However, the wall that surrounds the Capulet house would have required a catapult to get him to the other side so he could hide in the bushes and spy on Juliet who was talking out loud to herself. I'm not sure why this activity did not seem to deter Romeo's ardour towards her. He must have thought her crazy as well as beautiful.

Then Daniel drops the tour info bomb: no one really knows if Juliet ever really existed. Shakespeare made up the romance situation to give a motive to the murder of a Capulet member. I was so disillusioned. Even knowing that Juliet may have been totally fabricated by Shakespeare, I still wanted to visit her home and balcony. I also wanted to see the mailbox where damsels in distress send letters to Juliet for love advise. (just like in the movie). Daniel assured me that the Juliet council of advisors is indeed real (he could tell I was getting fainty from the possible fake Juliet thing) and they do actually answer letters from women who can't seem to figure out life and love for themselves.

We entered the Capulet courtyard to find it packed with other love-struck tourists, just like us, snapping pictures and visiting Juliet's statue. I need to tell you that there is an immense number of square feet of wall in this place. And every inch of it is covered at least 3 layers deep in sharpee notes, sketches, band aids, chewed gum and pieces of paper. The idea is to get your thoughts, initials, little hearts or revenge message onto the wall one way or another. Bandaids and blobs of bubble gum are just a great way to accomplish this as you can write on them. It was kind of an "Eewww!" moment for me and seemed to detract from the romance of the area. I tried to overlook the gross factor and not touch a thing. I did take a picture of Juliet's balcony. Which leads me to one other piece of fabricated trivia that I hope does not burst your Hollywood trust-bubble. When MGM came to Verona in the 1930's to shoot the "Romeo and Juliet" movie, they decided the real balcony was too plain to be believed. They found an alternate fancy balcony in Lucca for Norma Shearer to stand in and talk to herself. The city of Verona was so insulted (they seem to have lots of citizens there who fly off the handle) that they added a fancy bacony just below the actual, historically plain one.

After we walked back to our hotel,  I shook Daniel's hand good-bye, expressing my thanks for such an awesome tour. As I stood in the street, fabricated playwright info swirling in my head, I decided that every bit of my beloved play was real. Someone along the way got a little jealous of Shakespeare, probably one of those hot-headed Verona people, and tried to muddy his reputation. It may not have been a couple named Romeo and Juliet. It could have just as easily been Rodney and Jane. But it happened and it lives comfortably, in my 9th grade English mind.

By Becky Capulet

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Big One That (Unfortunately) Didn't Get Away or There's One Born Every Minute

We spent 3 days in Lucca, sightseeing, riding bikes, climbing historical towers and eating ourselves into pasta-induced comas. Absolutely heaven on earth. (Although in heaven, I am hoping that pasta won't give me 4 extra pounds to work off)  On the morning of the 27th, Grace's birthday, we got on a train for Florence and then transferred to another train which took us straight to Venice - the romantic capital of the world. (If you are a guy, take note. If you are an engineer, just keep reading.) Since Venice is a very expensive city to stay, eat, sight see, and just generally breathe in, I tried to keep our hotel expenses to a reasonable amount; no bigger than the national debt. I finally settled on a hotel with a mid-range star rating that didn't have too many Travel Adviser posts that included the word "bedbugs". Our room was listed as a "Quad Room" which means it will sleep a family of four. They neglected to tell me that this meant while standing up. With a double bed covering one wall and 2 twin beds across from each other, we had just enough floor space between the twin beds to walk to the closet across from the double bed. Finding a place for our luggage was quite the challenge. We moved them as needed to walk across the room. We tried to think of it as playing a large, live action chess game. Now we know where the saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt" comes from - Italy.

Our bathroom was especially challenging to manuver in as it was 3 feet by 4 feet, not counting the shower stall. Just big enough to fit a toilet, a sink and 2 feet standing in front of the sink. And one needed to move almost all the way into the shower stall just to shut the bathroom door and use the sink. Speaking of the infamous shower stall, it had a tiny sliding door that opened just enough to let a pygmy squeeze in as long as he was naked and greased with Crisco. I am not a big person but I kept finding bruises on my hips from hitting the wall or shower door frame each time I attempted to enter or exit. Drat those 4 extra pasta pounds.

Since our first night in Venice was Grace's 16th birthday, I decided we needed to do something unforgettable, but hopefully, in a good way. The first order of business was to take a gondola ride, an event which everyone should have on their bucket list. Now, I will attempt to give you some pointers on taking a gondola ride when you go to Venice to check the item off of your list. First, if you take a private ride, it is very, very expensive. Try to fit at least 18 other passengers on the boat with you and divide the bill. Next, it is not necessary to have the gondolier sing as that doubles the price of the ride - literally. Try to talk him into whistling instead. Promise to not report him to the gondolier union. Lastly, tell the gondolier that it is your daughter's 16th birthday so he feels sorry for you. Work up a couple of tears if you feel that will help. Try to have your daughter present just to give your story more credibility. We ended up taking a private boat ride (yeah, yeah, I know, it was expensive but you turn 16 once in your life so it was OK) and I did tell him it was Grace's birthday, hoping he would maybe sing Happy Birthday in Italian. He didn't. But in his defense, I did forget to work up the tears. He ended up taking us on a fabulous ride all around the canal and then took us out into the open bay with the speed boats and sail boats. It was dusk, the sky and water were colored pink and orange from the setting sun, and we could see the dark silhouette outline of St. Mark's Cathedral in San Marcos Plaza. Absolutely magical and memorable - just what I was wanting. I think Grace's favorite part of the boat trip was being on the open sea and taking beautiful, sunset pictures. Perfect.

After our boat ride, we walked the streets of Venice looking for an appropriate birthday dinner restaurant. In Italy, it is a common sight to see a waiter standing outside of the restaurant, encouraging people to come inside to eat. When they are nice and smile that cute Italian smile and offer you the moon, it is difficult and feels rude to say no. Sometimes we would reply that we would be back or we would keep looking, Graci. But this waiter's speech was so convincing that we needed to eat at his establishment that we just walked in like we were under a hypnotic spell. And he just happened to have a table for four suckers, er, I mean, tourists. The restaurant was crowded with happy diners and the ceiling was covered with little white lights, lanterns and grape vines. This had to be a great place, right? We were given English menus that were covered on the front with a list of the specials of the day, conveniently written in Italian. The waiter said, "Since these are in Italian, I will read them to you." (Future Italy travelers, take note) He went down the list, pointing to each one and reading it out loud. "This one is a lovely pasta in cream sauce, this one is a chicken dish, and this one is the very special entry for tonight which is fresh fish, layered with calamari and lobster." All of the prices were between 13 and 15 Euros, pretty standard prices for Italian main courses. In Italy, it is common to order a pasta dish for each person, then a bigger main course for everyone at the table to share. After we each ordered our pasta dish, Jim suggested we order the fresh fish to share. I protested, saying I wasn't that hungry after loading up on gelato all afternoon, but Jim persisted. Something about a birthday dinner. Remembering the reasonable price list, I agreed to the catch of the day. (us?) After our pasta plates were removed, the maitre de came to our table carrying a huge platter that would have put our US Thanksgiving turkey platters to shame. It was obvious that this was a big deal as the restaurant suddenly went silent and all of the other patrons stopped eating to watch the tourists receive their scam feast. With a great flourish, he laid the platter on our table to reveal a fish the size of the shark in Jaws. All around this whale-size fish were lobster claws, calamari, and grilled vegetables. I knew immediately we'd been had. I went pale and told Jim this entree probably cost 50 Euros. He put my fears to rest by replying, "At least!" We went ahead and ate, although we couldn't nearly finish all of the food. I'm not sure if that was due to the size of the fish or the bill yet to come. After the platter was removed, our waiter returned with frozen lemon drinks for each of us and proclaimed, "On the house!" My stomach churned. The bill would be even bigger than I thought. I leaned toward Jim and said, "They are buttering us up for the big shock." Unfortunately, he agreed. Our waiter brought the bill and quickly returned to the kitchen - smart man. Jim and I had the following conversation:

Me: I want to see the bill.
Jim: Oh, no you don't.
Me: Oh, yes I do.
Jim: Oh, nooooooo you don't.

Not being able to stand the suspense, I grabbed the bill and looked at the total. 180 Euros - almost $250! Jim kept reassuring me that it was OK, this was a birthday, we were in Italy, the stock market would come back. We paid with a credit card and I could have sworn I heard it cry out in pain when it was swiped. We walked back to the hotel much poorer but wiser tourists.

Two nights later, we were searching the streets of Venice for our "last night in Venice" dinner. We passed our infamous, scam-serving restaurant and I considered challenging the waiter to a duel. Possibly slapping him in the face with a giant trout. We saw him in his usual spot, outside the restaurant, talking to a tourist couple and trying to convince them to come inside to eat. Sweeping his hand up into the heavens he announced, "And tonight, we are serving a special fresh fish!" Yep, there's one born every minute.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why Are All of These People Speaking Italian?

We got up on Saturday March 24th at 4:30am and left our apartment at 5:30am. It was dark when we walked across town to the train station to catch our bus to the airport. When we arrived at the train station, we found, not only the ticket office closed, but also no buses running due to the early hour. This was going to make it much more difficult to take a bus to the airport. Being the resourceful travelers that we are, we hailed a taxi and arrived at the airport with time to spare. Good thing, as it took awhile to make it through security, weigh all of our luggage, (see previous blog entry for pooling) and making it through the metal detector. For some reason, I kept making the metal detectors go off so I had to be frisked and then totally scanned with a wand. The security officer finally decided that it was the zipper in my slacks that was making their machines protest. When it came time to board the plane for unassigned seats, there truly was a stampede of passengers for the terminal doors and then some nasty pushing and shoving trying to be one of the first to the airplane stairs. The girls were totally embarrassed by my behavior. We managed to get four seats close to each other on the plane and, yes indeed, they each had a seat belt. True to their word, there was no drink or snack service on the plane. They did have soft drinks and beer for purchase. Next, the 2 stewards walked up and down the aisles selling cigarettes. Then, they tried to sell us lottery tickets. I was beginning to feel like I was headed for Las Vegas.
After our plane landed in Milan, we took a bus to the Florence train station, then a train from Florence to Lucca. We had gotten up at 4:30 and arrived in Lucca at 3:00pm, so we were pretty tired. The last hurdle was to get from the train station to our hotel, hidden somewhere in the winding, tiny streets of an Italian city that was straight out of a Renaissance painting. Carrying, pulling, and generally dragging our luggage, we made our way over the bricks, rocks and cobblestones of Lucca. I had the distinct feeling that these streets were made before the arrival of wheeled suitcases. Along the way, we were treated to the lyrical comments of little voices expressing their appreciation of the historical sites they were seeing firsthand; "I'm tired, I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, Can't we take a taxi?" All set to the tune of Santa Lucia, of course.
Finally, after 30 minutes of hiking with the happy campers, Jim knew that we were within a few blocks of the hotel, he just wasn't sure which block held the coveted building. He navigates using the "geometrical method" (his words) while I use the, "Let's ask directions" method. After a few minutes of wandering and seeing the same blocks 2 or 3 times, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I walked into a corner, meat, cheese and fruit shop and asked the lovely lady behind the counter for directions to the hotel. I showed her the address on my paper and she lit up, knowing exactly where it was. Unfortunately for me, she was Italian.  After giving me several directions in great detail, complete with many hand motions which pointed the way to our desired destination, she smiled and waved me on. I thanked her (in Italian, I want you to know) and stepped outside to address my bleary-eyed, yet hopeful family members. Jim asked me what she said. I said, "Plenty. I just don't know what it was. Can you believe it was all in Italian and about 23 steps long?" I decided to follow the hand directions she had made and stop in the next store we came to for further hand motions.
After 3 blocks, I was overjoyed to see the street sign that matched the address of our hotel. I walked faster and stopped in front of the entrance to a building built in the 1600's - our hotel. Visions of hauling water from the town well to our room appeared in my mind. We all went inside and navigated the rickety stairs to a gothic wooden door with a handwritten sign on it, stating it was our B and B. I rang the doorbell twice but no one answered. At this point, all I wanted was a bed of straw so I could get horizontal and recover from the long trip. We rang the bell two more times and were ecstatic to hear the sound of footsteps coming. The door opened and a man appeared. I was so happy to see him, I grabbed his hand and enthusiastically began shaking it, explaining that I was Becky Caruthers and I wanted to check into our room. Continuing to shake my hand, he replied, "Hi, I'm Robert and I'm a tourist." I was too tired to be embarressed. He had left his hotel room to answer the door with the annoying American on the other side.  He pointed us to the manager's office who checked us in and showed us to our room. I shook her hand too, just not as enthusiastically.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Italy Will Never Be the Same

     Hello from Eindhoven - where we are just now getting temperatures over 60 - spring has arrived! The tree outside my window is getting little buds on the limbs and are sure to be full of leaves when we return from Italy. Seeing some sunshine and warmer weather has definitely improved our family's morale. We have not experienced the suntan-worthy, 80+ degree spring in Indiana but, after weeks of gray, wet weather,  we are really welcoming this "balmy" 62!
     Tomorrow we leave at 5:30am to board a plane for Milan Italy. (would you like to help me get 2 teens out of bed at that hour? Didn't think so) We will go by train from Milan to Lucca, a small, historic city outside of Florence. I can not wait to fly on the airline here. It is a bare-bones operation and I am hoping that the seat they give me comes with a seat belt. Speaking of seating, it is unassigned seating so I guess there will be a mad rush across the tarmac to see who gets to the best seats first. I'd better wear my tennis shoes for all that sprinting.
     It is also interesting that all passengers are required to print off their boarding pass ahead of time. If you fail to do this and you make the ticket counter clerk do that nasty job for you, it costs 55 Euros. Also, you may bring one piece of carry-on luggage and that one piece includes a briefcase, a purse, a small dog or paperback book. If you dare to bring any of those extra things, you'd better be able to stuff them in the carry-on luggage. (poke holes for the dog) Wait! It gets even better! The carry-on must not be any bigger than 22"x16"x8". Check those dimensions on your home yard stick - that is one itty-bitty suitcase to hold everything for 9 days of travel. Can you say disposable underwear?          Looking for the humor in these international traveling situations, I continued reading the 2 pages of rules that the airline sent us. I was so amused that the airline stipulates that, not only do you have to fit everything into a suitcase the size of a purse, the rules demand of passengers that "there will be NO pooling of luggage contents!" That means that if Jim miraculously has a bit of space in his backpack, I can't put any of my belongings in that space. Will there be Pooling Police at the gate? I thought about putting a pair of heels in Jim's backpack but I knew we would be busted on that one. The Pooling Police would probably force him to attempt to get the shoes on to prove he was innocent of pooling. That would be so humiliating and not a good way to start a vacation. Plus, Jim just does not look good in heels.
     After 3 days in Lucca, we will travel by train to Venice (the most absolutely, best, most beautiful city in the world) for 3 days. We will actually be in Venice for Grace's 16th birthday - we anticipate a wonderful celebration for her that she will always remember. (gondolas anyone?) Then, we travel by train from Venice to Verona for our last 2 days. We plan on taking a Shakespeare tour while we are in Verona so that should be super special for this die hard fan of Romeo and Juliet.
     Since Katie could live on spaghetti, she was quite excited when we informed her that she will be in the pasta capital of the world, where spaghetti is eaten at just about every meal as an appetizer. Her idea of heaven. We may be rolling her out to the plane at the end of the trip. Hope I can manage that as well as run for a seat on the plane.

Arrivederci! (That's Italian for, "I never pool belongings.")


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Heidelberg, Germany hosts the Olympics

We got to take our first, family, out-of-the-country trip this last weekend to Heidelberg, Germany. We left on a Friday, March 9, and returned on Monday, March 12. We had a great trip and got to visit the historic old town and the Heidelberg Castle. I forget how young America is until I go to cathedrals and castles that were built in 1500. That is old, historical real estate!
The most exciting part of the trip was our first, international train trip, complete with 3 transfers just to challenge us all the more. (extra credit for over achievers!) We were especially excited to ride the "Hi-Speed", one of the super-fast trains in Europe that make getting from one country to another in 4-5 hours a reality. We rode 2 "regular" trains and then transferred to the Hi-Speed train in Dusseldorf. It was a 1 1/2 hour trip and we'd only been riding for 25 minutes when the train stopped in a station. The conductor announced something in German and all of the passengers looked at each other and kind of chuckled. I wasn't in on the joke and, being totally in the dark, I assumed the worst and thought that something was either wrong or she had told everyone to check out those weird tourists in Car #22 - us. Then, she kept talking and made another announcement which made everyone groan. OK, it was bad news or she had just told a really bad joke. Then everyone stood up, collected their luggage and began exiting the train. OK, she couldn't have been that bad so this was an ominous sign. Jim grabbed the attention of a passenger across the aisle and asked what was going on. She explained, in wonderful English, that there was a mechanical problem with the train and all passengers needed to get off and find another way to get to their destination. Just like that, we were in a foreign country, couldn't speak the language, didn't know where we were or how to work the system to find an alternate route to Heidelberg. After we picked up our luggage and stepped off the train, Jim continued to talk to the 2 women who had been sitting across the aisle from him. I think they felt sorry for us since we had 2 children with us and we looked so pitiful - plus we had been the butt of the conductor's jokes so they felt like they owed us one. Remember, we in the US are use to marching up to the ticket counter at the airport, thumping on the desk and demanding that they find us an alternate flight to Detroit. The train stations in Europe feel no such pressure for stranded passengers. The women told us we could follow them to a bus headed for the Koln ("Cologne" in the US) airport. We weren't sure how that would help us, but talk of an airport did make me consider flying back to the Netherlands. Then, the more techy woman pulled out her iPhone and looked at her train schedule app. I almost kissed her at that point but was afraid she might lose her concentration. She said we would need to catch a train from that station that would take us to the Koln train station, then transfer to a second train that would go straight through to Heidelberg. The second train that departed from Koln left at 3:17. I looked at a nearby clock - it was 3:04. To say we hurried is putting it mildly. We thanked them profusely and ran to catch the first train that left at 3:08. As soon as we jumped on, it left the station. It took about 3 minutes to reach the Koln station and we began running for the second train. It was to leave at 3:17. I looked at a clock as all four of us ran through the station - it was 3:12. We arrived on platform 7 and checked the digital schedule board. The announcement for the Heidelberg train was flashing, meaning that it was pulling into the station. Whew! Made it! And then I looked at the board more closely - the train was leaving from platform 5! I yelled to the troops, as only a panicked mother can, "We have 3 minutes, RUN!!" We ran past platform 7 and then 6, running into several people on the way. Poor Jim and Grace were carrying the luggage and running as fast as they could. Finally, we got to platform 5 and jumped onto the train, just before it left. I was never so happy to board a train in all my life. About an hour outside of Heidelberg, we rode for miles along side the Rhine river. We saw tiny towns with little chalet houses and huge castles on the mountain tops. I kept repeating, "This looks just like Germany!" Even though that seems to be a no-brainer, it is always nice to visit a foreign country and find that it matches your mental images just perfectly. Thank you to the lovely lady with the great English, thank you to the smart woman with the train app, and Danke to Germany for being so beautiful.

Marathon-runner Becky


Click here to view these pictures larger


Click here to view these pictures larger

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Out & About

This past Sunday, my dad decided it'd be good for us all of us to get out of the house. It'd been five days or so since Katie and I had left the apartment, so we were definitely willing to let ourselves be forced out of our bum-clothes to get some walking energy into our under-used legs.

We bundled up and started off to brave the cold.. It had just recently snowed four fluffy inches of snow. Of course, we didn't bring any snow appeasing shoes. We were walking and praying our feet didnt fall off due to the wet & cold. We made it though, and went to our first museum here- the DAF museum. DAF is a car/truck/engine company known regionally in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. I don't know if it was just me, but I was disappointed that I never saw any sign of Daffy Duck there. Oh well. It was a very cool museum! Very well put together and fancy- as far as museums go. We enjoyed looking at all the 50s- early 70s vintage cars! Mom fell in love with a few, and Katie, with her obsession of all things auto, was in Seventh Heaven. They also had some vintage service vehicles! They had a silent film playing in a theater that was under the cafeteria. The whole experience was very neat. We have 5 pictures attached of us there :)

When we left the museum we decided that blood sugars' were dropping, bodies were beginning to freeze, and getting warm food was becoming imperative. We headed downtown to do some explorin'. We ended up going to the mall and getting my mom a charm bracelet to start off her collection of charms per country. Afterwards, we went to a McDonald's (so European) and all got fries and coke to carry us to dinner. Well, the snack was just right to tide us over until an hour and a half later when we dug into some tapas! (also very European).. It was wonderful. We ate till we couldn't manage another bite, and then started the walk back home.

The whole day was fun. We got to see some very interesting things, eat some very delish food, and have a great family day.

Sidenote: While upon leaving theDAF museum, we met another American (YAY!) He's an electrical engineer and works for the American part of the Company in Eindhoven. He has family in Indiana too. Oh what a small world. He gave us some pointers on the city. Now we know where to rent bikes! Whoo! I cannot wait for spring...

 ^^ Dad, Katie, and I posing in front of a one-seater car. It was used in a circus in the 50s

^^Katie using the computer to control the position of a statue outside

^^Katie's Singing in the Rain pose

^^My Singing in the Rain pose

^^Bre and Scott, is this the car I can drive?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Handyman 101

Early in our Hong Kong sabbatical, I established a close relationship with the building's handyman and this sabbatical proved to be no different. I attribute most of this to my inability to run foreign appliances. On my first two days in Eindhoven, I discovered several things that endeared this new apartment to me: 1) The washer leaked water onto the floor 2) The fabric softener drawer of the washer was filled with water 3) the shower was leaking onto the bathroom floor each time it was used 4) there was not a single towel rod, hook or horizontal surface in the bathroom.

On Friday, I made 2 dates for Monday; one with a washer repairman and the other with a handyman. The washer repairman arrived first. He was a distinguished-looking 60 year old, dressed like a banker with little round glasses and nicely combed hair. I assumed there was no way he was going to get down and dirty with this tempermental, water-spitting machine when he was dressed like that. I walked him up our 3 story spiral staircase where our laundry room is so conveniently located. (my calf muscles now look like a speed skater's) I explained to him what my main problems were and he said he would check it out while I went downstairs. He obviously didn't want me to see his trade secrets in fixing a washer and be out of a job. After a full 15 minutes, he called me upstairs. Lucky for him, I have those speed skater's legs. Our conversation went like this:

Washer guy: "Your zof-ner dizpenzer iz flooded. Dat iz not nomal."

Me: "I thought so"
Washer guy: "Do you uze zof-ner?"

Me: "No"

Washer guy: "Den vee don't need to fix it."
Washer guy: "An' you haf vater on da floor?"

Me: "Yes"

Washer guy: "A lettle vater on da floor iz not going to hurt anyteng. Call me if you haf any more problems."

I walked him downstairs and showed him the door, hoping the rental company didn't spend a lot on this service call. About 30 minutes later, my doorbell rang again. I opened the door to see a very skinny man in black tight jeans, a black t-shirt with a matching tiny, black moustache. He held up a couple of tools in each hand and announced, "Handyman!", like it was the answer to the bonus round question on a tv quiz show. Like a true tourist, I repeat back, "Handyman?!", with the same inane enthusiasm. Having established his role in both of our minds, I took him to the second floor to show him the leaky, rod-less bathroom. It became apparent very quickly that when he was taking English classes as a child, he was caught several times daydreaming out the windows. This resulted in very few words that were familiar to both of us (other than the warm salutation of, "Handyman!") so we knew we were going to have to perform our best pantomime to get our ideas across.

He mimed  ripping all of the caulking out of my already leaking shower and then repeated the actions, leading me to believe he was next going to replace it with brand new caulk. Then it was my turn to look dumb, so I mimed shaking out an imaginary towel and then hanging it on the imaginary towel rod that was bolted to my real bathroom wall. He nodded that he understood and told me he would be back. I asked him when. He held up an index finger to the ceiling as if about to announce a great scientific discovery and said, "Friday!" (remember that this is Monday) I wasn't sure what would take so long to get back with rods and a tube of caulking but figured it must be a Dutch thing. I agreed and walked him to the door.

On Friday he returned, as promised, this time with a helper. The helper didn't know how to hold up tools on either side of his head and proclaim, "Handyman!", but he did hold up tools and make a grunting sound, so I assumed he was a legitimate stranger that I was suppose to let into my house and take charge of my bathroom. The helper ripped out and replaced the caulking while my original handyman used a noisy drill to install, I hoped, about 17 strategically -placed hooks and rods. I envisioned towels hanging all over my dry bathroom.

He called me upstairs and showed me the lone hook he had installed by our sink for a hand towel. Then, he showed me his ingenious solution to my four-person family towel problem - a shower rod, spanning from one wall to the other. While I have nothing against shower rods in general,  I was not real excited. Resuming our earlier pantomime routine, he demonstrated the way I would be hanging up four towels, making a little "dat" sound as he hung up each one. "Dat, dat, dat, dat", he said, and then turned to me, triumphantly waving his hand in front of the newly contained pretend towels. I smiled and told him that he had done a good job. After a week of towels hanging from doors, chairs and radiators, I didn't care if he had installed drywall nails to hold up our dripping towels.

That night after my shower, I hung my towel up next to my husband's on our brand new, shower/towel rod. I stood back and admired the towels, hanging up like clean laundry on a clothesline. I went to bed, contentedly thinking of dry towels and drifting off to sleep. My dreams were interrupted though by a loud crash in the bathroom - the casualties were few - a shower rod and 2 damp Dutch towels.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Netherland Appliances 101

Sabbaticals always seem to present challenges to a person trying to run a household. Most of the challenges are presented by the non-Western appliances that seem to come out of a scary Stephen King novel. The first 3 weeks of our 1996 Hong Kong sabbatical seemed to revolve around trying to use the washing machine without losing any pieces of clothing or our minds. Not to be outdone by Asia, the Netherlands also has cantankerous appliances that can only be successfully operated if you were born here, have a local birth certificate and own stock in Flockinschtok detergent.

The second evening in our flat included a lovely dinner of spaghetti covered in a very anemic tomato sauce which Katie promptly dragged her white sweatshirt sleeve through. Judging by the sauce's bland taste, this was possibly done to give it more flavor. After dinner, I decided to test out my foreign appliance skills by using the Dutch washer. I thought it would be a good idea to test the machine by washing the sweatshirt by itself. This turned out to be a good idea since the drum was only big enough to hold 3 socks so washing a sweatshirt pushed this poor washer to its absolute capacity - think stuffing the gun powder down the neck of the cannon. Wanting to increase my chances of success, I thought it wise to read the manual which luckily had a section in English. (My Dutch so far is a little sketchy) The instructions started with "Loading the Machine" - a good place to start. It explained in detail how to open the door which was about the size of a dinner plate (remember tiny capacity). The instructions then said, "put the clothes into the washer, but first make sure there are no pets in the drum." My initial 15 seconds of "Huh?" was then followed by 3 solid minutes of hysterical laughter. Since this helpful hint was included in the instructions, I figured this must give washer users some options when Fido or Fluffy are found lounging in a cold metal drum. #1: Pull the animal out. #2 Add clothes and begin the wash cycle to teach the pet a lesson. #3 Choose the extra long spin cycle since we never liked that cat anyway.

The next step was figuring out how to select a wash cycle. I knew this might be harder than pulling animals out and adding clothes. The instructions did tell me that at the end of the rinse cycle, I had 2 options: #1: (and this is a quote) Take your clothes out dripping wet, or, #2 Push the button to begin the spin cycle. I decided to not use option #1 - ever. I guessed at the cycle I wanted by looking at 12 little pictures of clothes, towels, blankets and animals. I finally decided on a picture of a cute little shirt because it was closest to the cute little sweatshirt I was about to subject to European water torture. I next guessed at the temperature since the manual didn't cover that tiny detail. (Remember, this is centigrade, not farenheit) I bravely left and went into my bedroom to say the best washing machine prayers I could think of.

Judging by the stop-start of at least 327 cycles, all of which ran at 62 miles an hour, it was a good thing I had prayed. By the time the washer stopped, 2 hours had elapsed. When I removed the unfortunate sweatshirt, I noted that, even with 124 rinse cycles, there was still soap bubbles in the drum. We also had water on the floor and I was pretty sure it was all suppose to stay in the machine. It was decided that we needed to call our rental manager for some expert Netherlandish advise. He came to our apartment, assessed the situation and told us that, yes indeed, this was not acceptable behavior for a European washing machine, even when operated by an American. The repairman comes on Monday. The spaghetti sauce is still sitting proudly on the sleeve, a memento of our trip to Eindhoven. One less souvenir to buy.

Fraulein Becky