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.