Friday, August 3, 2012

I Want to be With You Everywhere

De Valk Windmill - Leiden

Sweet relief.  As I walked around Leiden running errands for my upcoming guests in knee high boots, jacket, and a scarf on July 18th, I ran into a friend of mine who reiterated what V’s coworkers had been telling him all week:  The weather is about to get better.  I know little about jet streams, but I’m learning.  Apparently, the typical jet stream in Europe during the summer months rests north of the UK, pushing the cold weather and accompanying depression and grumpiness into the North Pole (only Elves could maintain a cheerful demeanor all year long in this weather). Summer 2012 thus far, had the jet stream resting in France, which led to wet and cold weather amongst most of Europe which resulted in threats between husbands and wives to throw in the towel and move family back to the US where summer = warmth because said wife could just not take it anymore (hypothetically, of course).  But lucky for all of us (my husband’s employer included) the beautiful, wonderful jet stream moved and with it, clouds of doubt and frustration. 
   As we neared the ‘summer’ my daughter’s classmates’ parents started to small talk with me, asking me where I planned to ‘holiday’ during the ‘summer’ months.  I felt immense pressure to answer them accurately, but as usual, I was completely confused by the question and thus, had no correct answer.  I flashed my well-practiced “I-wish-I-knew-what-you-were-talking about-smile” while my mind processed the simple inquiry.  (What the what?  Holiday? In July? Heck no we’re not taking a month-long vacation to, well, anywhere, but especially not back to Texas right now when it has the potential to be 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but what’s that you say?  What do you mean the entire country shuts down?)   In my defense, I had expected at least a small number of people to go on vacation for a month because on previous July visits to The Netherlands, V and I were never able to see all his family, as their holiday vacation plans were staggered throughout the month.  However, in my mind, I had likened the entire summer vacation to be simply a myth, like how people don’t have to go to work on President’s Day in America:  you know those people exist but you personally have little to no experience with the seemingly fictional day off from the office.  Luckily, my husband had gotten clued into this cultural standard at work a few months back, when his co-workers were inquiring about his holiday plans for scheduling purposes.  “You mean, if I don’t take off in July or August, I will be the only one in the office?” he asked a colleague.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Yes, you will.”  So, not to be left out, we decided to play along and planned for V to take a week off, mid-July, and have a true “Staycation”. The goal was to devote an entire week traveling to different nearby locations to explore our own backyard. 
  One of the first things I purchased and have spent months appreciating is the Dutch Museumkaart (Museum Card).  For only 49.95 Euros (approximately $61.00) you can purchase a Museum Card which will give you unlimited access to nearly 400 museums all around The Netherlands for an entire year.  Considering one entry into the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh museum will cost you about 25 Euros, this is a fantastically good deal.  But beyond the accountant-budgeting-cost-benefit-analysis side of my personality, it also speaks volumes of practicality as a mama – I can just pop into say, the Natural History museum, which is only a 10 minute walk from our house, and we are met eye-to-eye with a taxidermist’s dream, complete with an abundance of previously living stuffed animals gathered together in a formation nothing more elaborate than a standing-room only concert at The House of Blues. I suppose a little fake grass, much less a few displays at least attempting to depict animals in a ‘natural habitat’ wasn’t what they had in mind, but either way, depending on the mood, hunger, sleep schedules, just general-stars-aligning-with-the-cosmos-affecting-my-children’s-moods, we can stay for an hour and a half, or 20 minutes, then try it all again the next week without additional entrance fees.  On Wednesdays when my 2-year old daughter is in school all day, my son and I will often check out the other various museums around Leiden for a few hours in the afternoon.  I once decided to be adventurous and visited the Boerhaave Museum, named after the famous Dutch botanist and physician who taught at Leiden University in the 1600s.  The further I explore Europe, the more I have encountered museums which, while extensive efforts have been made to made the ancient buildings more wheelchair/stroller accessible, the practicality of those renovations still may cause frustration in order to help preserve the originality of the place which houses the collection.  The Boerhaave museum fit nicely into this category and after half an hour of struggling with the layout of the museum and trying to find the ‘lift’ I leave, noting that science was never my favorite subject in school, anyway.  As I pushed the stroller past the friendly museum attendant who had greeted me a mere 25 minutes earlier, I did appreciate the fact that the building was older than my home country and had originally been a ‘plague hospital and madhouse’ before becoming a University hospital in 1635.  Museumkaart in hand, my baby and I rolled along the Oude Singel canal to my favorite museum in town - The Lakenhal (Cloth Hall) - where we could view Rembrandt paintings while listening to Gregorian chant music.
   We purchased my husband his own Museumkaart at the beginning of our “Staycation” week and started to map out and plan our itinerary.  It was a fun process and with the sun shining everyday and temperatures in the 80s, we couldn’t have picked a better week.  We learned a lot and here were our top adventures:
Makes-Your-Hands-Sweat-But-Best-View-Of-Leiden-Museum:  There are a few words I think my daughter would not use on a daily basis had we stayed in Texas.  #1 is Windmill (to be followed by canals, umbrella-lle-llas, raining, mittens, tunnel, fiets (the Dutch word for bikes) and Lekker! (the Dutch word for yummy?)  For the past 6 months, we’ve been passing the De Valk windmill on our way to the market and library – it was about time we’d show her the inner workings.  We strapped her to my back and parked the baby’s stroller at the base of the windmill (No elevator at all here) and my husband carried him in his arms.  We toured the kitchen and living areas of the family who operated the windmill hundreds of years ago, viewed a video explaining the different types of windmills and history (they originated in the Middle East), then climbed the steep stairs.  The museum, in and of itself, was a fabulous explanation of the history, operations, and purpose behind the windmills in The Netherlands.  We were able to grasp the big concepts and step out onto the platform waving to the boats lazily sailing down the canal below.  After smiling at the closeness of the windmill’s fans and etching the amazement of my daughter’s face in my mind, we painstakingly and nervously followed the museum’s path and carried our children down ladders similar to the ones found in homes in Texas leading into our attics, but even steeper and three times as long.  This was so not safe but yet, this is Europe and it’s how it goes. 

Cheese Market Auction - Alkmaar

Makes-V’s-Co-Workers-Laugh-At-Him-And-Explain-That’s-Only-For-Tourists:  Alkmaar – “It Doesn’t Get More Cheesy Than This,” my Netherlands Guidebook says, but yet. . . we packed the kids and the car for the hour-long trip to Alkmaar to witness the Cheese market re-enactment which is held every Friday morning.  I still can’t say what exactly went on, as we approached the market in the midst of the announcer asking “does anyone speak Spanish” and 10 or so tourists raised their hands.  I can honestly say (with head hung, perhaps?) that I probably understood as much of the Spanish commentary as the Dutch – Queso!  Kaas!  But there were men running around in ‘teams’ complete with heavy loads of cheese wheels (or children, if the photo-taking parents obliged) around the small square.  Afterwards, we experienced the quaint, but informative Cheese Museum adjacent to the square. (Complete with complimentary cheese sample upon arrival).  It too, was very informative and we viewed black and white 1920s footage of the process - milk from Haarlem is transported to the cheese makers in Alkmaar, and eventually, the deals are completed (with a funny slapping of hands) in the Leiden market.  I felt mildly a part of history, even if it was cheesy. 

Makes-Me-Want-To-Take-A-History-Class-to-Keep-Up-This-Information-I’m-Absorbing: Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum) – My first international experience was a visit to Berlin in 2002, when my sister was an exchange student for three months.  She had been studying German and lived in Berlin and I was fortunate enough to visit her during her stay.  She took me to the ­­­­­­­­Deutsches Historisches Museum and to this day, I feel that it is one of the best Historical museums I have ever visited, but the Dutch Resistance Museum is stiff competition.  We are all familiar with Anne Frank’s Diary and her personal story.  My husband and I went to the Museum three years ago when we visited Amsterdam (it was just a block from our hotel) and it was, as expected, overwhelmingly somber.  The energy of the building still resonates with an intensity that made my heart drop the instant we stepped behind the secret door.  The Dutch Resistance Museum was a fascinating account of the bigger picture – how World War II affected the mass population of The Netherlands.  The museum was laid-out chronologically (like the museum in Berlin) with videos, personal accounts (in both Dutch and English), interactive displays, great lighting, intriguing artifacts presented in interesting and unexpected displays, and wall-sized photographs of the Dutch rejoicing as the Allies drove their tanks into Amsterdam.  It was small enough to really come away feeling like you saw and understood most everything in one visit, which is a rarity considering we were still pushing one stroller with us.            
Royal Delft Pottery Factory - Delft

Makes-You-Walk-Slower-And-Enjoy-The-Beauty-Around-You-No-Wonder-Famous-Dutch-Painters-Are-From-Here:  Delft – A charming little town is famous for its tiny gorgeous canals, home of Vermeer, and Delft Blue pottery.  If you’ve ever read or seen the movie Girl with the Pearl Earring, this is the place.   Every corner we turned was breathtaking on that warm day.   After dining at an outdoor cafĂ© in the town center between the town hall and the Oude Kerk, we rounded off our trip with a visit to the Royal Delft (De Porceleyne Fles), the only original Delftware factory still operating since the 1650s.    

Boring-drive-gives-Dallas-to-Lubbock-a-run-for-it’s-money-but-unfortunately-no-Allsups-to-break-up-the-montony:  Venlo is about 2 hours from Leiden and near the Germany border.  My husband has a client there and had forewarned me of the uneventful trip, but the Floriade World Horticulture Expo is currently being hosted in Venlo, which is an event only held every 10 years.  We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived, but upon arrival, at least in my mind, it appeared to be a bit like Epcot, except it is for plants.  There were five themed areas: Relax and Heal (that’s where we spent the most of our time – ha!), Green Engine, Education & Innovation, Environment, and World Show Stage.  The last was quite like Epcot in that each country had a small area in which they created an informational display depicting the local horticulture of that country (whether it was a building with videos explaining olive and wine production, like Spain or a re-creation of a peaceful garden of typical architectural style, like China).   The only difference was that countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan were represented.  I don’t think these two countries are at Epcot.

Floriade Chinese Garden - Venlo

So all in all, the “staycation” was a success, despite by Day 2 at 10:00 a.m., V had already worked 8 hours.  (Unlike his Dallas office which adequately compensated for such changes in schedules, I’m sure no one even noticed.)  So while the sunshine abounded, our hopes lifted, our minds expanded and our sense of adventure enlightened.  We closed the week happy and satisfied.  On Friday afternoon, I still wore the buttercup-yellow sundress which is really only appropriate for the beach or a steamy LSU tailgate at the beginning of the season, as we walked down our street towards the train station for a cup of coffee.  On our way, we ran into a couple of my daughter’s teachers on their way home from work.  Although the sun had been shining brightly that morning at the cheese market, the clouds started to roll in and the sky darkened.  They happily greeted us on the sidewalk and we all agreed what a wonderful week it had been.  They looked up at the graying sky and exclaimed, “Well!  Wasn’t that fantastic, but now summer is over!  I hope you enjoyed it!”  With a nervous giggle and a sideways glance at my husband, I laughed along with them, not completely understanding whether they were joking or not, but my husband and I, responded with a confident, “We did!  We had a fabulous week!”    

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