Archive for May, 2007

Update from the Avontuur Hotel

Monday, May 21st, 2007

We took Mom to Amsterdam on Thursday and Friday. She held up well to one of our typical sightseeing whirlwind trips; we began by walking from the trian station to the hotel to drop off our bags, then headed to the Anne Frank House, which is extremely depressing (that is NOT a reason not to see it, if you’re in Amsterdam). The Westerkerk, next door, was closed for Ascension Day, but we enjoyed the wild-animal photo exhibit outside it. (The “Homo Monument’ is also there: three large marble triangles, one raised, one flat, and one set out in the canal, in honor of those lesbians and gay men who have suffered for their orientation. The name strikes me as awkward, but the memorial itself is very effective.) We stopped for a quick lunch, then walked back to the Dam Square and went through the Nieuwe Kerk, which itswelf was a lot more interesting than the exhibit inside it (clearly, because I don’t even remember the exhibit).

We were a bit worried about not having enough time to see it all but decided to head out to the Jewish Historical Museum that afternoon. It turned out to be open late on Thursdays, anyway. The museum’s changed a lot since we were there ten years go; there are a lot more interactive-computer exhibits now, probably too many for my taste. You feel like you’re missing somethign if you don’t do them all, but who wants to go to a museum and stand around at a computer the whole time? Or wait long enough to use every one, or watch every film? Still, it lets them have a lot of personal memories included, which is a good thing. There was an exhibit of Robert Capa photos on the ground floor, which was very well done. After dinner at Gaucho’s (an Argentinean steak chain which has some of the better steaks over here), we took Mom around the red light district, which in A’dam is a major tourist attraction. The local stores sell of the most tasteless postcards I’ve come across, all of course on the themes of drugs and sex. After all, you can’t have a tourist attraction without souvenirs.

On Friday morning we were able to sleep in a bit, since museums don’t open until tne there. The hotel breakfast was exorbitantly priced but there was a little nice coffeeshop on the corner (one with a barista, I mean, not a Dutch “coffeeshop”) where we grabbed breakfast. We took a cab to the Rijksmuseum on my theory that it probably wouldn’t cost much more than bus rides for three people, which turned out to be completely wrong. Ted and I had just been there a few months ago, but I enjoyed seeing the exhibits there again, though I think Mom spent more time looking to see where I was than actually looking at the paintings. (No idea why, we weren’t planning to leave without her.) Mom had wanted to see the Van Gogh Museum but to our (hopefully concealed) relief decided against it after seeing how long the line was. So we took pictures in front of the “i Amsterdam” sculpture, stopped to get something to drink at a cafe, then took the bus back to the center of town. We walked to and then through the Oude Kerk, which is much like the Nieuwe Kerk but still has all the gravestones on its floor. They were having an exhibit of photos taken for journalism purposes; Mom was a little upset at what she saw as an anti-Israeli bias in the pictures of bombings in Lebanon, but if that’s true I’d have to conclude they’re anti-leopard seal too, judging by some of the other photos.

After that we all agreed that we had for all intents and purposes seen Amsterdam (though Ted and I want to go back some weekend to see the city history museum and the science museum) and took the train home. Mom took a well-earned nap while Ted and I got our food-shopping out of the way. The next morning we took her to the local airport, then spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep, exercise, and laundry. Sunday morning we got up early and drove back up to A’dam to pick up our friend Kathy and her friend / traveling companion Laurie. We hadn’t met Laurie before, but so far she’s an easy person to be around. I suspect she’s been hearing stories about us from Kathy at least since they planned this trip and possibly for years, so she knows what to expect. They’re off to Belgium tomorrow but will be back in time to visit Paris with us this weekend, for what I’m sure will be yet another whirlwind trip. With luck, I’ll have some time to post pictures from all of our visitors after they leave, and sometime before our next spate of travel, in mid-June.

to London to see the Queen

Tuesday, May 15th, 2007

Well, that was London Visit Part II for me, part I for Mom. We saw the Changing of the Guards (actually, just the outside parades – there was too big a crowd to see whatever happened inside the gates), the Queen’s Gallery, the Royal Mews, the Tower of London, some shopping including Liberty, Hamley’s toy store, and Waterstone’s (biggest book store in Europe), the British Museum, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and Westminster Cathedral. (The latter is Catholic, not Anglican. Mom left her camera there and when we realized it, we didn’t have time to go back and get it before leaving to catch our bus to the airport, but the nice lady who answered the phone said they’d hold it for her.) We stayed in Morgan House, ten minutes’ walk from the Victoria Station toward Belgravia – the room was tiny but reasonably priced, and the bed and the breakfast both were good. (Or at least I assume the breakfast would be if you didn’t happen to dislike both eggs and the floppy stuff the English refer to as “bacon”.) I’ve concluded that as long as I’m not in a hurry and don’t mind having total strangers told where I’m from and where I live, my mom is a pretty good person to travel with. She’s not speedy, but she can walk all day and not seem to get tired.

Back to the Netherlands, we spent a rainy Saturday at Het Loo, the palace built by Stadthouder Willem III of Orange, who with his wife later ruled England as William and Mary. It’s gorgeous inside, and just about all of it is restored with period furnishings (of several different Willems) and open to visitors. Sunday was a bit nicer; we debated between the Keukenhof and Madurodam, deciding on the latter because we hadn’t been there and because we really thought Mom would like it more. I think it was a good choice: this way she got to see all the sights of the country. If she didn’t get to see the Keukenhof, at least she got to see the bulb fields next to them (in 1:25 scale) and if she doesn’t get to Utrecht to climb to the top of the Dom, she’s at least seen it – in a version not quite three times as tall as herself. We’re regretting that we didn’t see it when we first got here – Ted says the Madurodam map is the best tourist guide he’s seen here!

Before she leaves, we’ll spend a couple of days in Amsterdam, so she can see another great city. I think she’s champing at the bit to get back to London, though! I’ll post photos eventually, but might not get them up before the last of our May visitors leave.

Ringvaart

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Paula left to meet her mother in London for a few days, leaving me as a bachelor in the Netherlands. While she was gone I decided to go carousing through the Netherlands drinking and hanging out with my buddies. By the end of the day I had seen a lot of the Netherlands, drunk more than I could handle, did not eat enough, had a Dutch women undress me, and had some one else drive me home.

First, I need to provide a little insight into what a ringvaart is. As you probably know, the Dutch have converted many bodies of water into useable land. A low lying area that has been reclaimed is called a polder in Dutch. One of the keys to reclaiming an area is to build a canal around the entire area. The canal that encircles a polder is called a ringvaart in Dutch. Historically, Windmills were placed along the ringvaarts to pump water out of the Polder to keep it dry.

The Ringvaart Regatta is a 100 km race that is primarily on a large Ringvaart southwest of Amsterdam that encircled a large piece of land that includes Schiphol Airport, which is the international airport for Amsterdam. This is the 32d consecutive year the race has been run and there was a good turnout with 107 boats and well over 400 competitors. Many of the crews take the race very seriously and train specifically for the race. The race includes every type of rowing configuration possible including some that I find just unthinkable for this distance including a coxed single and coxed pair. The 8+ is the most popular and there are always a few 8x. Each crew is a required to have a pit crew and I now understand why. Martien and Monika, our pit crew, were awesome. They took pictures, videotaped sections of the race, provided coaching, added encouragement when necessary, and were always available with our essentials. This is not an easy job since they had to ride their bicycles for well over 60 km of the race with all our extra stuff.

The race starts in Leiden and for some reason the sadistic race organizers make you row 5 additional kilometers just to get to the start of the race. The start is a mass start of all the people in your heat (19 boats in our heat) with a sprint across a rough big open lake to the beginning of the 60 km Ringvaart. After you complete the circle you race an additional 40 km through Leiden on to the finish in Delft (where Delft china is made). In general you row on very nice canals that that are wide enough for about three boats. You have to share the canals with large barges that are nearly the width of the cannel, but we only had to deal with 4 or 5 of them.

My partner Eric-Jan has rowed this race at least 7 times previously including in the 1x a few times. (He was a member of the crews that hold the record in 2 categories, 8x & Mx2x). He had won his event every time he raced except for the time he had to stop due to a major medical problem. Just a few weeks before the race he asked me if I wanted to do it, and I decided to go for it to get the full Dutch rowing experience. Thus, we did not have time to train and ended up only doing two long rows together to establish our optimal pace. Two other people from our club (Beatrix) had won the last few years and had been training seriously for the race. I guess behind the scenes our entry was getting some attention within the club.

On race day I had to wake up at 4 am, to lots of wind and rain. I met Martien at 5:00 am for our 2 hour drive to Leiden. We arrived late; the weather had cleared slightly but the wind was still blowing. While we were driving Erik-Jan had been busy rigging the boat, mounting a larger splash guard on the boat, installing a pump, adding cellophane strips along the gunwales to keep the boat from being swamped in wakes or waves. To my surprise Eric-Jan had changed our entry to a composite entry Arizona/Beatrix so just before we launched I quickly changed into my Outlaw Uni that I had brought just in case (also for good luck). So I officially rowed as an Outlaw in the race.

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Our plan was to row at 23 to 24 strokes per minute, with a pressure similar to what I applied during my previous marathons, and we would take a short liquid break every 30 minutes. Erik-Jan showed his experience by steering a nearly perfect race. It became obvious he had all 100km memorized including all of the bridges and canal intersections. I was able to keep up the marathon pressure and still feel good until about 50 km. At that point my body was in reasonable shape except it was very painful to come up the slide. I mentally struggled with this for the next 10 km fighting not to rush the slide and continue on. People told me that everyone has a mental break at some point during the race and if you can make it through it the pain would reduce. At around the 57 km mark we took our first quick break outside of the boat where I was able to stretch my legs. This break made all the difference – my legs were back in action. However, the pain in your hands when you start rowing after you stop is excruciating. I am glad that people warned me about this and convinced me the pain would go away, otherwise I probably would have immediately jumped back out of the boat when I tried to take that first stroke after the rest. I found the pain of a million pins puncturing your hands only lasts for about 5 minutes once you start up rowing again. Unfortunately I had to endure this every 30 minutes after each water break. Another factor is that rowing 11,150 strokes can get very boring, even when it is across the very beautiful Netherlands.

At the 90 km mark everyone has to stop to portage around a lock. This is the only place where the clock actually stops for the competitors during the race, and they allow a 30 minute break. During the break volunteers & your pit crew portage the boats while the rowers get fueled up and seek medical attention. They also have masseuses there to provide messages. At this point all your coordination is gone so the masseuses had to help me get undressed, then she provide a great massage, and then help me get into a new set of dry rowing gear. After this I felt great and the last 10 km was a relative piece of cake.

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I was very proud of completing the race and extremely happy to learn later that we were the 3rd fastest boat out of all 107 entries with a time of 8 hours 3 minutes and 19 seconds (split including rests of 2:24 /500m). An 8x and unfortunately a 2x from another club beat us, so we ended up second in our category (no age divisions). It is amazing that we were faster than all the 8+ and 4x boats that should be much faster than our 2x.

So in summary my buddy Erik-Jan and I rowed a 100k race across the Netherlands, chugging energy drinks, and pushing our bodies until we could barely function while my wife was away, instead of doing the normal bachelor things in Amsterdam.

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Mulberry Street has nothin’ on us

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Man I love where we live.

I think I just saw the victorious PSV football team, on a parade going down the street across a small plaza from our flat. Either that or it was a random collection of people in PSV jerseys – too far away to tell. But it was a very nice sort of elevated parade trailer, high enough to keep celebrities safe from grabby fans, with “KAMPIONSHIP” painted on it in big letters, and someone told me there was an official ceremony for them tonight in front of the City Hall, which is all of a block away.

Flanders fields … and cities and windmills and churches and…

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Last Friday my uncle arrived, the first of our three sets of visitors. He’s been to the Netherlands before, but not to Belgium (barring a few railway stations). Saturday morning, we drove out to Brugge. It’s in the northern part of Belgium, Flanders, where Dutch is spoken, only they call it Flemish. (There’s an old saying that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Still, it’s the same language, with only a slight difference of accent.) The French speakers in the southern part of Belgium call it Bruge. Under either name, it used to be an important trading town, until its port silted up. The trade went to Antwerp, which helped Brugge preserve its medieval buildings – then once the residents realized what they had, they continued to preserve it with strict building codes and so on, so that it looks much as it always did. It’s still sized for walking around.
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We began by checking into Ter Duinen. I’d picked it just based on information from an online bookings site, but it turned out to be a wonderful place to stay: boh charming and comfortable, reasonably priced, close enough to walk to the center of town and far enough outside it to be quiet. The family that runs it obviously cares about making their guests happy and were able to give us excellent recommendations for a restaurant that evening.

We began by walking toward the edge of town. We stopped first at Jeruzalemkerk, Built in the 15th century according to the plans of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem:
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After a brief stop back at our hotel because it was the chilliest weather we had all week (though not very) and I was regretting not bringing a jacket, we headed for the center of town. In compliance with Standard Ted Protocol, we climbed up to the top of the Belfry:
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Next we took a canal tour, probably the best way to see the city, I was impressed with the guide, who repeated everything in Dutch, German, English, French, and Spanish.
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When we went to Mechlen a few months ago, I was disappointed to find no trace of the lace it was famous for. Brugge does have not only a Lace Museum but also a plethora of shops selling lace items for tourists (mostly machine made and probably made in China, but the guidebooks say there are a few places where you can get real handmade lace – if you can pay for it). There are also lots of chocolate shops, and the kilogram of mixed chocolates we bought at one turned out to be even better than the chocolates we can get in the Netherlands.

After the boat tour, we visited the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, which contains the only sculture by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime, and the Sint Salvador Cathedral, with its Gobelin tapestries. However, a service was going on in the latter and so we couldn’t see its treasury. After a brief rest, we went to dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel. The outwide was unprepossessing and we would never have chosen it on our own, but the inside was beautiful (wood floors and ceiling, brick fireplace) and the food was excellent.

We hadn’t see all there was to see in Brugge, but we decided we’d seen enough to get the full flavor of the city. Ghent is supposed to be much the same sort of thing, so we decided to leave Sunday morning and spend the day in Antwerp, halfway home from Brugge. First, though, we took another recommendation from our hotelier and detoured north to the town of Damme, which was the port for Brugge in the 13th century. It’s a picturesque place, with restaurants and bookstores that were open even on a Sunday morning (I suspect this is where a lot of Brugee residents spend their Sunday mornings). I bought a knitting book – most of it is a pattern dictionary, so the fact that it’s all in Dutch isn’t much of an issue. We also enjoyed the walk from the parking lot south of town along the canal, with its reflections of the local windmill.

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My previous impression that Antwerp is an easy city to get lost in was not altered by this trip. Even on foot we kept getting turned around and having a hard time figuring out directions. Also, there was a marathon going on so there were extra crowds and some streets were closed. It’s one of those cities that was heavily damaged by wars and so has a lot of newer buildings, but we did see their Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal. (It means Church of Our Lady – same as Notre Dame – hence the many churches and cathedrals with the same name.) It’s got three Rubens paintings, as well as many others of similar vintage:
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The square in front of the hurch was very crowded, with a couple of street entertainers including a mediocre magician and an excellent living statue – who sat among a group of real statues, painted and costumed to blend in – who would sing for a coin. We found our way to the waterfront, where we enjoyed the Maritime Museum, whihc is in a medieval fortress. After lunch on the waterfront, we made our way back to the street we’d parked on. Unfortunately, finding parking had been so difficult that none of us were all that careful about noticing exactly where we’d parks, and we came back to the steet at a different point than we’d left it. Normally I defer to Ted in all matters of direction, but in Antwerp he was getting turned around as much as I was. ted and Uncle Larry agreed that the car was in one direction; I though it was the other way. Since they were in agreement, I didn’t argue, which was fortunate – the car was the way they’d guessed, but so far away that we came very near giving up and going the other way before we got to it. We did managed to get out of the city and on the road home with no further confusion.

We’d both taken Monday off to sped with our guest and we all took the train to Rotterdam. This was a bad idea: as I noted in a previous entry, almost all tourist attractions in Rotterdam are closed on Mondays. (Tourist sites are likely to be closed on Mondays here in general, but in most places the closing is not quite so universal.) We’d hoped to see the Maritime Museum there, which sounds even better than the one in Antwerp, but had to give up on that and all other museums in town. We walked out to the Euromast, the one thing we’d wanted to see which was open. It’s got a ring-shaped elevator that rises along the outside of the tower, spinning slowly, and gives a great view of the city and the harbor.

They sold us a package ticket that also included a boat trip to the Kinderdijk, so after going to the top of the Euromast we walked out trought a pretty park to the boat docks, stopping for lunch along the way. When we got to the docks, though, the boat we were supposed to take was being washed off, and the guys cleaning it told us that they never went out on Mondays! They didn’t have any useful suggestions beyond “Well, maybe you can use the ticket tomorrow”, and we were only in town for the day. Fortunately the harbor-tour boats do operate on Mondays so we did that instead.

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When we walked back to the Euromast, they were very apologetic and made no problems giving us our money back at least. Then we walked back to the station just in time to catch a train home – with all that walking at least we got a good look at the city of Rotterdam, even if we couldn’t visit most of its attractions.

That night we took my uncle (or rather, he took us) to one ouf our favorite local restaurants. He approved. (He’s much more of a foodie than we are, and this place is really excellent.) The next day, Ted had to work, so we just hung around town, walking through the weekly market and biking to the Open-Air Historic Museum. Since it was a weekday, they were more focused on the groups of schoolkids there, but it was a nice day and we enjoyed riding through the park.