Friday, October 29, 2010

This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

this gorgeous coffee (which is what you'll get in any cafe) qualifies as the third "must-do" in Amsterdam.


OK, seriously? I've posted all of twice this entire month when my goal is to post every 3 days? Definitely below par. Let's fix that, shall we?


Things on our escapee/transition vacation were progressing, as Mike and I could tell from our willingness to laugh at ourselves more than usual. Looking for a seat for us in a well-filled open air restaurant and bar in Amsterdam, carefully making his way through the patrons with their drinks, loud conversations and expressive gestures, Mike nearly ran into another man coming the opposite direction. Mike begged forgiveness and went one way, then the other, the other person mirroring his actions.

I had caught up behind him and was trying not to laugh too hard. Mike had apologised to his own reflection in a floor to ceiling mirror. I do believe the gentleman in the mirror was understanding. He was on vacation too, after all.

We can't leave Amsterdam quite yet without telling you about this: according to Mike, and I believe him, there are two places in Amsterdam one simply must go.

The first is the Rijksmuseum. Home to Rembrandts and Vermeers. My spousal unit is particularly enamoured with this enormous painting, the one you see when you first enter the museum:

It's called Militia Banquet and though we thought it was a Rembrandt, it turned out to be by a fellow named Bartholomeus van der Helst in the 1600's. For some reason, this painting is not as famous as similar paintings in the Rijksmuseum like Rembrandt's The Night Watch or Hals and Codde's The Meagre Company (below), but the details really sing to us. The expressions, the way your eye is directed, even the excellent sort of still life in the bottom lefthand corner, are all exquisite.

(Doesn't the main fellow, in the middle there, look an awful lot like Nicolas Cage?)

The museum is one of the best laid-out ones I have ever been in, nothing to detract from the paintings (except for the occasional similarity to quirky and very successful Hollywood actors) and, oh, thank you, thank you, thoughtful seating where one can rest, concealing jet lag as art appreciation.

The other place Mike felt was an absolute necessity was Anne Frank House. I am going to assume you know who she is, and what she came to represent for all of us, and especially Jewish and humanitarian history. I had re-read her diary, and been amazed anew at how wonderful and poignant it is. I expected to feel terribly sad at their hiding place, then...and I did. But there was something else I didn't expect. I came out of there feeling strangely hopeful.

The Secret Annex and museum at Anne Frank House has had more than a million visitors. Every time we went past there were lines around the corner of more people waiting patiently to enter. (I recommend buying your tickets ahead of time online.)

Mike was most moved by the marks on the walls measuring the children's' growth which suddenly stop, I wept quietly over the photographs of the smiling Anne, and her handwriting on pages of her diary beneath glass.

Anne's diary has been read by people from all over the world, more than 25 million copies have been sold and in nearly 60 languages.

Think of how many people that is, all thinking, even if only fleetingly, of a young girl, a girl whose life ended far, far too soon, and of the millions of others lost, like her. What Anne managed to accomplish through her honesty, depth and wisdom far beyond her 15 years, under circumstances unbearable for such a sensitive and free spirit, is nothing short of inspiring. So I leave you with a few of her words:

How wonderful to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway... And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!

Whoever is happy will make others happy too.

It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.

...look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.

- Annelies Marie Frank

12 June 1929 - early March 1945

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In the port of Amsterdam...

Amsterdam. A beautiful city that we had dashed through as a family two years ago (to the cries of "I need a POTTY!!!" when none could be found) and whose airport I knew extraordinarily well, having spent several 6 hour layovers within its admittedly pleasant but still airport-ish confines. Mike had gotten to explore Amsterdam during several of his kid-free layovers and was my turn. We would explore at leisure and go anywhere and do anything we wanted.

In honor of no kids, we started out by having some very fine beers.

Which is a good thing to do in Amsterdam. They are quite fond of beer there. They are also, of course, quite impressively permissive, what with the Red Light District and coffeeshops where patrons (mostly tourists, apparently) openly smoke marijuana and other "soft" drugs are available.

However, Mike and I are boring. Really, terribly so. I apologise for the utter lack of titillating stories. The most exciting thing we did in Amsterdam was eat some magnificent Indonesian food. I also really enjoyed a street book market, where I bought a used Dutch version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Oh, and I bought a piece of Dutch apple pie. It was pretty good, enhanced by watching the bucketfuls of rain that were puring down outside that day while we sat cosily within and had espresso.

appel taart

Honestly, I wouldn't blame you if you stopped reading this blog right now.

I did take a photo of some, ahm, shall we term them gardening pursuits:

Keep in mind that these were smack dab in the middle of the tulip bulbs and other innocuous plants for beautifying one's existence. I'll bet customs agents are not chipper when people try to take these sorts of souvenirs into their home countries.

I did not take any interesting photographs in the Red Light district. It's frowned upon, so if you're curious, I suppose you'll have to go there yourself. The ladies of the night stand or sit in their red lit windows, wearing lingerie and looking largely bored, fluffing their hair or smoking, occasionally gesturing to potential customers.

Comparing Amsterdam's Red Light district to Patapong's in Thailand (both during the day when not much is happening, the nighttime possibly being another animal entirely), Thailand is far grittier and doesn't have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Amsterdam does.

We did the obligatory walk-through one of the streets and called it good. Interestingly, the area is the oldest part of town and quite lovely; the houses are some of the most valuable and sought-after real estate, no one seeming to mind the business being conducted one bit.

If it makes you feel better that you're still reading despite our lack of crazy (even though they were entirely legal, how weird is that?) pursuits, Mike and I did have beers before the book market, and he had beer while I was browsing the book market, and then we both had a beer together after the book market.

It's possible you might see a pattern here. Can't imagine what it might be.

No, you're right, that's not terribly interesting. This next bit would be some hot gossip, but then, I would never tell you that those legs being held down by the Gollem Pub's resident feline belong to Mike, a professed cat non-enthusiast. Not I.

We did almost get taken out by a trolley. Those are really quiet, and they sneak up on you, especially if you're crossing the road looking the wrong way. The bicycles have the ultimate right-of-way, and we pathetic pedestrians learned quickly that we had best keep out of their way. The bicycles there are great, outfitted with baskets and silk flowers and even some baby seats on the handlebars for the parent on the go. Interestingly, almost no one wears helmets.

We laughed uproariously at the Beer Bike, a strange contraption of much hilarity that is pedaled by a group who are also leaning on a bar down the middle of the thing, and well-lubricated thanks to the 30L of beer that comes with a booking. It looked like a lot of fun.

The fellow who jumped into one of the canals (and then had to be hoisted out by his friends to a round of applause from both sides of the canal) also looked like he was having fun, but then, I have to tell you, that water is brown and murky and more often than not smells like horse manure.

wickedly steep stairway, Amsterdam

I would love to see the statistics as to how many have been seriously wounded after falling down the steeply pitched stairs in Amsterdam while trying to get to the bathroom. This seems like an unkind thing to do to your drinking patrons; I was wary of the stairs even when cold sober.

Around every corner was another exquisite view,

or something stand-out interesting; even the graffiti was amusing,

and sometimes whimsically delightful.

All in all, what with the fun and beauty and everyone cycling (even if I was too chicken to attempt it this time around) and with its deep sense of history and tolerance, we found Amsterdam to be a truly great, vibrant city.

Even for us boring sorts.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

You really got me, you got me so I can't sleep at night...

There is something positively delicious about beginning a trip abroad all alone. Makes a girl feel like a movie star. Katherine Hepburn, maybe. I had the trousers for it.

I'd never gone solo on a flight before, and in recent history all flights had been with the kids. Suddenly a trans-Atlantic flight seemed like the ultimate in luxury.

Here's the deal: way back when in 2008, Mike and I were discussing whether to accept the offer to move to Dubai. We decided two things; first that we would make the most of the location and salary by travelling whenever we could, and second that we would take a trip to Europe at the end of our time overseas.

Just us.

Our last month in Dubai, with the "no kid" factor on the table, we kicked around a couple of other ideas...Casablanca and Marrakesh in Morocco, safari in Kenya and summit Kilimanjaro, hike to Kathmandu in Nepal?

OK, so those were mostly my ideas.

We decided to be kind to ourselves, rather than go for exotic or athletic, and went with the original plan to travel Europe. But where? it wasn't too long before everything fell into place: we would travel by train from the Netherlands, through Belgium and down into France. We each had places we'd always wanted to go, and to go together, well, what could be better?

The entire week while I was home in Seattle with the kids and Mike was wrapping up our lives in Dubai (and overseeing all the wrapping up of our stuff,) I had eshewed caffeine, rationalizing that I was going to be tired and headachy anyway. In a bold master stroke of planning, I would deny myself both buzz and wakefulness until I would want to be truly alert...on vacation.

During the week home I had done mundane but necessary tasks like renewing my expired driver's license and got another international driver's license to use in France, and generally stumbled around Walmart finding clothes warm enough for the kids to endure the Northwest summer, it being about half the temperature it was in Dubai.

At SeaTac I kissed and hugged the kids good-bye and had no trouble putting on a cheerful face. They would be happy and safe with Grandma and Grandpa, they were getting a vacation as much as we were. Thomas was unconcerned at my departure but Bethy cried at the last moment. However, I had her letter in my suitcase:

Which says: Dear Mom and Dad I love you, Me and Thomas hope you have a good time at Pairis (Paris) and all the other plaises (places) you are going love Bethy and thomas

Always good to have a signed permission slip, I say. That's like a Pass Go and Collect $200 card as far as I'm concerned.

Getting through security at SeaTac was like a dream. Seriously, bliss. Showed my boarding pass and passport, my one bag and shoes on the conveyor belt, through the scanner, then done and free as a bird to do whatever the hell I wanted.

No one to get lost, no one to feed or take to the bathroom or look after in any way, shape or form except for me.

Talk about footloose and fancy free...!

In a move that really should have solidified feelings of guilt and selfishness for such self-indulgence, but in reality was truly inspired and frankly felt great, I hit up the SeaTac massage bar and got the no-sleep flight kinks I'd acquired on the way out rubbed out of my neck and shoulders before boarding my flight.

I also browsed the stores, having a giggle over the Twilight-themed body sparkle lotion as an alternative to the more usual smoked salmon, coffee, or Sleepless in Seattle nightshirts to take home to your loved ones from the Evergreen State.

Yes, you too can shimmer like a teenage vampire. Officially.

The flight was uneventful. I had already seen all the movies on the flight out to Seattle, (well, sort of) and I wanted to save my book, but I only dozed a little bit, the body still utterly confused about what time it was. I had stayed up until 3:30 the night before, thinking that would make me sleep on the plane.


Oh well.

The good travel fairies were on duty and made it so that even though Mike was flying about 3200 miles from Dubai and I was logging 4900 from Seattle, our planes arrived 15 minutes apart at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

I do so love those good travel fairies.

Amsterdam, then.

One of the things we really like about Amsterdam is how the city is so incredibly accessible from the airport. A quick, easy train ride and you're there, with the utterly distinctive buildings, canals and houseboats and the innumerable bicycles.

Of course, even in a well laid-put town like Amsterdam we wandered, slightly lost for a little while, (this is something of an obligation) rolling our suitcases determinedly behind.

Of course we eventually found our hotel, thanks to Mike's unparalleled instinct for direction, and climbed for the first of many times up what we had been assured would be the impressively steep 37 stairs to the reception desk.

We checked in, dumped our gear and of course went on an immediate and highly motivated hunt for a cappuccino into the transparent morning light of the Netherlands.