Sunday, June 24, 2007

All Alone

Amber went to the U.S. on Saturday June 16th, which has had the unintended effect of leaving me all by my lonesome in Hengelo, city of bright nights. While she is cavorting in the land of fastfood and all-night shopping, I am watching the moss grow on our always rain-soaked patio. Stuck in Europe, that beautiful graveyard, that tattered sleeve of ghosts. Woe is me.

But this, naturally, is not the whole truth. In fact, just five minutes after seeing Amber off at Schipol airport, I had in my hand a 3 euro trian ticket to Leiden, a twix bar, and a baguette. I spent four hours in Leiden walking along its canals, which are of varying sizes and shoot through the city at various angles. Their market was strung out along both sides of one of the main canals, and it was the largest market I have yet seen. I could not resist ordering a giant stroopwafel, but I was actually dissapointed, because the syrup was more of a molasses than a caramel. I was forced to discard over half of it in a little trashcan along the main shopping pedestrian zone, just as the sky broke into a short rain.

Particularly impressive are the 15th century Hooglandse Kerk and the 14th century Pieterskerk. The former church is now largely empty inside and very plain, but its gothic style allows for a breathtaking elevation as light pierces the emptiness in a way the generates a feeling of peace and clean. The latter church was not open due to major restoration. Its massive size is impressive and it is knotted into a neighborhood that has grown up around it, even onto it like barnacles on a hulking anchor. One could almost hear the echo of the way the community must have pulsed around this church - but even now in such a secular age it seemed yet alive and essential - if you were to pull it away, the whole sweater of Leiden would come unraveled.

Also of note in Leiden are the poems painted on the sides of buildings in all sorts of languages - Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French, Latin, and even Dutch. The city is home to a great university founded in 1575 by William the Silent (William of Orange) as a reward for the city's heroic defenses against the Catholic Spanish the year before.

Hugo de Groot lectured at Leiden University. He was a key figure in the development of modern philosophic liberalism - developing the principles that he hoped would put to rest the religious wars ravaging Europe (it is about such matters that William was said to be "silent" - a position that would come to be known as modern liberal democracy) as well as grease the cogs of a budding international commerce led by the Dutch East India Company. Hugo de Groot foreshadowed the radical Thomas Hobbes, who finally let slip the shiny blade of modernity across the throat of the old world. And it was here as well that the old world catapulted itself into the new. In the early 17th century, some of the Pilgrims congregated in Leiden prior to their crossing over to America. I was especially struck by this, because at that very moment as I was standing at a plaque commemorating the deaths of some of the Pilgrims, my Mom was in Plymouth, MA for a meeting. And Amber was in an airplane over the Atlantic.

The next day, Stu and I did an abbreviated "a bridge too far" tour, by visiting the towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem. The 1944 allied Operation Market Garden proceeded through Eindhoven up to Nijmegen and on to Arnhem in hopes of capturing the three bridges in those towns in order to secure a pathway for a final offensive into Germany. At Nijmegen it was getting hairy. Soldiers were forced to paddle frail boats in open water - many were picked off like sitting ducks. But with unimaginable bravery they prevailed and took that bridge. It was, however, taking too long, and the unmatched courage of the British first airborne could no longer hold out. At Arnhem they were eventually swallowed under by the Germans. The town was obliterated. On that bridge stands a plaque honoring their sacrifice. There is also a very small and humble monument in a patch of grass in the middle of a traffic roundabout.

If there is one thing Europe can teach an American it is that the present must live with its past. It is often so jarring to my sensibility, but I come from a place that is still biting into virgin land. Here, there is no choice but to build atop the bones, to drink, to wed, to live like almost weightless flies atop thick layers of sedimented humanity.

Friday, June 15, 2007

visitors! (gouda)

Amber and Camille wrapped up her stay with a festive three day romp in Amsterdam, city of carnal knowledge. On their way to Amsterdam, however, they were going to spend an afternoon in Gouda, which I have always wanted to see, so I decided to join them.

The city takes its name from the van der Goude family who built a castle along the Gouwe river. It is famous for pipes, this fifteenth century townhall in the middle of the main square, and of course for Gouda cheese. Amber had just recently purchased some of those obnoxious J-lo, hollywierd, megalo-insect sunglasses, so I thought it would be neat to get a picture of the townhall (and myself) in their reflection.

When we arrived at the trainstation, we learned that all the lockers were full and so we had no place to store Camille's luggage (which we had with us because she was going to be flying home from Amsterdam). This upset Amber, but I bought her a fanta, which seemed to calm her down. So, knowing that Gouda is quite small, we decided just to bring the bags with us. This slowed us down a bit. But I think that we saw all the main sights anyway.

We first had a cool drink at one of the cafes on the main square, where they had the market set up. Camille actually bought some cheese at the Gouda market, which I think eventually put her bags over the weight limit, but I am sure it was worth it. One memorable note is that a waitress came around with a tray of free chicken wings while Camille and Amber were in the bathroom. I took one and must say it was lekker. We also ordered a couple of tostis, which reminds me that a few days earlier we had ordered a tosti in Deventer but they were not the right kind. Here, fortunately, they were right...and unusually large for Dutch tosti standards.

We then lugged our bags over to the Grote Kerk, which is a sprawling church just off of the main square. There was a wedding in progress (or so it seemed to us) and we were not dressed very well, so we did not go inside. We did, however, have a lovely little break in a shady little park just behind the church.

After this, we walked a bit outside of the main square area to get a taste of the town. One street had cheese wheels strung across the buildings, which I thought was a little tacky but the girls seemd to like it so I took their picture.

We also got a picture of the famous waag or weighing house, which has engravings of people weighing cheese. Cheese and trade are two of the essentials of Dutch history and culture, so it was cool to see that symbolized in one place.

We then sat down at a restaurant on the other side of the main market square to eat dinner. But we decided not to eat there and instead go into Amsterdam together and catch dinner there. That way, I could help them get their bags to their hotel- which turned out to be a great little place just off of the Leidseplein. We met up with Valerie, a friend from Amber's church who lives in Amsterdam, and ate at a Wagamama, which is a trendy Japanese noodle restaurant where you can get a giant wooden spoon with your dish if you order the right thing. I was hoping to catch a red light district tour with Valerie, but time was running out for the last train home to Hengelo. So, I left them to their own devices and caught a tram back to the station. While waiting, I heard an American couple talking to each other about the Spui, which is a location in Amsterdam with its own tram stop. They were pronouncing it, as I did at first, "spoo-eee," which is way off...but what the heck, this language is tough. I got myself the usual little something from the bakery and a fruit juice at the Albert Heijn in the train station and was home by around 1:30.

visitors! (utrecht)

The next exciting adventure in store for our visitors was a daytrip to Utrecht, also called the domstad in reference to the the Dom Tower in the middle of town. The 14th century Dom is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands, and it used to be attached to the Dom Church until 1674 when a tornado destroyed the nave. This was shortly after the fervent iconoclasm, which is still apparent if you go inside the church. The two structures have never been rejoined.
In addition to Amber, Adam, Joe, J.J., and Camille, Stu (my American friend and colleague from work at the University) and Juanba were also in attendance. I met Juanba when he was working for Carl Mitcham at the Colorado School of Mines a couple of years ago. He is now back in his homeland of the Basque Country, an autonomous community within Spain. But at the time of this daytrip he was spending a month at my university as a guest researcher.

When you arrive at Utrecht Centraal train station, you are immediately ensconced in the Hoog Catharijne, an enormous indoor shopping mall. It never fails that we get lost before we even step foot outdoors. We wandered toward the Dom through Utrecht's quaint streets until somehow me and all the guys were stopped by a quasi-misogynist French Israeli ex-pat who spoke Dutch and English. We had a rambling, culturally ambivalent and altogether unproductive exchange, though it was amicable enough due to his inexplicable Americaphily.

We met up with the ladies in front of the Dom Church and thought briefly about a tour of the Dom, but decided against it. Instead, we decided to wander along the central canal, which used to carry water from the Rhine river, but does not anymore.

We stopped at one point along the canal at a little cafe to have a drink, in this photo of me below, you can see the Dom.

After walking some more and taking pictures here and there, we decided to eat at an Italian joint and it was lekker. (at least I think it was Italian, but it has been a while ago now and Amber will remember better).
To wrap up the evening, we went to the other side of the canal and found a very tiny bar with just some chairs lined up in a row waiting for us to sit and admire the canal. There was a nice bartender who stood in the doorway behind us and brought us our beer, cassis, wine, spa rood, etc. Amber thought it would be a good idea to play telephone, which was fun until Joe ruined it all by censoring Camille's dirty joke about miss piggy and kermit. Even after his studies in the big east-coast cities he is still a decent midwesterner.

Amber took some lovely photos of us having our drinks. I especially like the bicycles in the foreground - it does not get anymore typically Dutch.

Joe and J.J. ordered some fries at the trainstation while I noticed the next train left in three minutes. We ran frantically in the wrong direction at first, but just barely made it. Amber had to hold the door open so that it would not close before Joe, bearer of the all important french fries, could get on board. We met a nice woman on board thanks to Camille's outgoing nature and so we taught her how to play go fish.
At the end of the night, back on our little patio under the stars in Hengelo, we shared one of our Bordeaux wine bottles with the whole gang and sat around for a while telling stories and singing songs. We especially enjoyed Juanba's great sense of humor and his attempts to tell us jokes that really do not translate well at all outside of his local culture and language. But they were funny nonetheless, because he could not stop laughing at his own jokes, which none of us could understand. Then the party broke up and sadly we had to say goodbye to Joe, J.J., and Juanba, who all left over the coming days for their various destinations elsewhere in Europe.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

visitors! (kasteel twickel)

Joe, J.J, and Camille came out to Twente not just to see the amazing Briggles but also to swim around in some authentic Dutch rural culture. No place finer suited for that than one of our favorite local dives, castle Twickel, which has been the subject of previous posts. We lounged a bit in the morning, and if my memory serves me well (which it usually does not) we had a little breakfast complete with Hagel Slag. These fun little buddies are basically donut sprinkles that you can use to adorn toast or bagels. Just spread on some butter and then sprinkle on the Slag, and viola! (as they say way too often in Bordeaux). Camille said I put too much Slag on my bagel but I told her "shmer," which got the point across well enough.

We then packed up a picnic basket (that Amber bought in Bordeaux) with some fruit, cheese, bread, and tasty beverages. The train runs direct to Delden for less than 2 euros. From the Delden station, we strolled through a bit of that quaint little village, still flush with old money from the days of textiles and trade. We picked up cold sodas at a little corner store as it was warming up. Then, we dropped into a bakery that Amber and I had visited once before when my folks were in town. J.J. picked out some monstrously decadent dessert, which prompted Amber and Camille to up the anty with a towering strawberry cream sugar bomb. I ordered us a lekker loaf of brood.

The castle was closely guarded by about a dozen cows wearing bells and chewing cud. I thought the bull looked like Luke, our old bull out at the Villa farm. We went into the gardens and first ate our picnic in a shady spot by the pond that overlooked the castle and the more formal gardens. Joe's camera kept running out of batteries but he was able to fool it by turning it on and snapping a picture real quick before it could remember that it was supposed to be out of juice.

Sated, we then strolled the manicured gardens, which were now complete with the fruit trees in giant pots, which spend the winter in the greenhouse. Some workers were there doing something with the moat (perhaps filtering it?) that was only mildly irritating to the otherwise nonplussed waterfowl. I think I saw black swans, but J.J. said they were just geese. I decided not to believe her. We saw the non-existence of frogs as is usual with these elusive animals. You hear a quick "skwooop" and see the water ripple, but you rarely see them, only their signs. My allergies, anyway, were beginning to fog my eyes as well as my mind. It seems that these northern latitude areas (as with Minnesota and Alaska) explode in a promiscuous profusion of pollen and leaves when the sun finally returns from a winter of lurking at the margins of the horizon.

After lounging for a bit on the grass, short as a golfcourse green, we needed to head home in time for Amber's massages that evening. Joe, J.J., Camille and I spent a couple of hours walking through Hengelo and sitting at a bar outside on their "plicker" (plastic wicker) furniture. Camille ordered a screwdriver and got screwed instead (no alcohol was detectable). There was some running race in town and runners were just finishing up in the Marktplein as we walked toward dinner. We ate at my favorite Italian joint, outside, and by good fortune Amber was able to join us as one of her clients had to cancel at the last minute. This was followed by some icecream for the girls and some philosophical chatting for the guys. Oh, but there was more to come for our visitors in the near future...

visitors! (koog-zanddijk molen)

hooray! more visitors!

back in march, my girl camille bought tickets to come out to visit, in order to not only see us, but also to celebrate her 30th birthday. she was calling it her "tiptoe through the tulips trip." i hated to ruin the excitement, but by the time she was going to be here, she would miss all the tulips. so she changed the name to "utter chaos tour '07." MUCH more appropriate, given how much we like to party together. (and, as an inside joke, referring to the movie superstar.)

shortly after camille announced the dates of her trip, some old college friends, joe and jj (dunn) tinguely, said that they wanted to stop by too! as it turns out, they were planning on being in europe for the EXACT dates that camille was going to be here! how convenient! unfortunately they were not planning on spending their entire vacation with us because they had "other friends" that they wanted to see (a likely excuse) in cologne and barcelona.

fortunately, our house is ginormous, so there was more than enough beds, room, food, and love to go around. we gave camille the spare guest room up in the attic since she would be here the longest, and then picked up an air mattress at a camping store for jj and joe. they slept in the spare bedroom that will eventually be the baby's room when we have one. i got vases for both rooms so that guests could have flowers: roses in camille's room, peonies in joe and jj's room.

(by the way, we know joe and jj from college. joe and adam were in the same freshman symposium class, as well as took part in a men's spirituality group together. joe and jj started dating their freshman year, and i started dating adam his freshman year, and so we've all known each other for about 10 years if you can believe it. as for camille, i know her because right after i graduated from the college of st. benedict, i joined the lutheran volunteer corps in milwaukee, working as a full time volunteer at a nature center, teaching inner city kids about trees and bugs and the water cycle and stuff. camille also did LVC the same year as me -- she was the science teacher at an alternative high school for primarily hispanic students -- and we lived in the same house together along with 4 other LVC volunteers. and we've been best friends ever since.)

so since camille was sadly going to miss out on the magnificent tulips, i decided to show her something else that was echt nederlands ("completely/genuinely dutch"): windmills! her flight was arriving in amsterdam in the morning, so jj, joe, and i all took the train out to meet her and along the way i gave them a list of things to do in amsterdam, and let them take along a travel guide that we had of holland. we all met camille at schiphol airport and after stashing her bags in the lockers there, we got on a train to see the windmills which were only about 20 minutes northwest of amsterdam. the mills at koog-zanddijk are quite famous in holland and there are all these cool exhibits/shops there that show you how to make cheese and how the mills grind pigment for paint and apparently there was supposed to be a clog making booth but we never found it. it seemed like the perfect activity to do on a sunny day when everyone is all jet lagged. standing inside an old museum, having to be quiet while you absorb all the culture, seemed like an activity that would only make someone even MORE tired after getting off an international flight. but being outside in the sun and wind, with dutch molen turning in the breeze, eating cheese and mustard and bread, and being able to climb up things and walk through pastures and past canals seemed like a much more energizing activity. so that's what we did!

joe and jj took off before camille and i did, because it was their only opportunity to see amsterdam while they were out here. so they saw the mills for about an hour or so and then caught the train back to centraal station. i'm not quite sure what they did out there (maybe they'd be willing to be guest-bloggers sometime and they can tell us all about their adventures) but they couldn't have rocked the party too hard because they were back by dinner time. i think they had a good time, though. amsterdam really is much more than coffee shops and prostitutes. it's a really beautiful, historic, cultural city, and it's always fun just to walk around and sit at the cafes.

and that's basically it. stay tuned for more great adventures!

ps -- i posted two videos of the mills moving: one of the outside with the sails, and one of the inside with the cogs. here are the links:

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

bordeaux (2 weeks later!)

we both meant to write about this a couple of weeks ago, but shortly after we returned from this trip we had several guests come and stay with us. needless to say, we were busy playing with old friends from back home, so we haven't gotten around to blogging until just now. apologies for the delay, but better late than never, as they say!

it all started like this: back in january, carl (one of adam's professors from his grad school days), and his wife, marylee, came to the netherlands for a conference. while they were here, carl and marylee stayed with us for a short time. it was during that visit, when we were all having dinner together, that conversation turned to the next time they were planning on coming to europe. they told us that they were coming back in may for another conference and that while they were here they would like to see their long-time friends in bordeaux. "oh, you guys should come down there too! i'm sure they'd love to meet you, and then we could see each other again!" they said. of course, carl and marylee asked their friends if we could join them for their holiday, and of course, their friends said yes.

fast forward several months, and we're on a plane to paris, to meet carl and marylee there. when we arrived at the airport, we found out that marylee had fallen off a bicycle in copehagen just the day before, and was needing crutches and a wheelchair to get around! ouch! fortunately nothing was broken, but she was bruised up pretty bad and sore all over. so rather than taking the train from the aiport as planned, and arriving in bordeaux that same evening, we ended up all getting a hotel near the airport and spent the night in paris. just getting out of the airport took about 2 hours because the signs were not clear and we had all our bags plus marylee piled onto a baggage cart which we were pushing around the terminal. we finally found the place where the free hotel shuttle was supposed to pick us up. supposed to. it never came. after another 40 minutes of waiting, we got a cab. and then, when we got to our hotel, the meter said something like 15 euros. and the driver said, "45 euros please." and we were all "uh, no." he was trying to explain to us that oh, there are 4 passengers, and all our bags, and blah blah blah. and i'm all, dude, if you work at an airport you're going to have a sign in your cab saying that bags are an extra charge, which he didn't. marylee refused to get out of the cab, and adam ran inside to get a hotel employee (who didn't want to get involved and refused to come outside to help us until adam practically dragged him out there). so i forget how much we actually paid him -- maybe like 20 euros or something. grrrr. welcome to paris, suckers.

but we were finally at the hotel, which was wonderful and good, and we ate and slept and generally felt much better afterwards.

the next day, adam and i got up early and headed into paris so we could see the eiffel tower before we left town. we stashed our bags at the train station and walked a couple of miles to the tower, stopping off at a couple of bakeries and a grocery store along the way, to get picnic supplies. (you guessed it: bread, cheese, wine, and chocolate! you know us so well!) we also took a quick picture of adam with napoleon's tomb in the background, and spent the rest of the time picnicking in the park beneath the eiffel tower, people watching and sunbathing and relaxing. it was sooooo neat to see the eiffel tower again (we were there about 3 years ago too).

we met carl and marylee at the train station in paris and got the last couple of seats on the next train to bordeaux. marylee got the last seat on the train, and the rest of us got to play musical chairs in the hallways of the train. funny! we actually got a seat during the first leg of the trip because there were lots of empty seats right away. but after we made a couple of stops, people sat in their reserved spaces and we were exiled to the wings. but it was kinda fun to sit in the hallway because we got to be noisier and saw lots more people moving about. it was one of those super-fast french trains, too, that felt like it was going to lift off the tracks every time it made the slightest turn. fun!

we got to bordeaux in the late afternoon, and daniel and anita (carl and marylee's friends) were there to greet us. their house is a beautiful 17th century building with lovely antique furniture, brightly colored walls, comfortable beds, and a cozy, lived-in feeling. i felt at home immediately. daniel cooked for us every night -- pasta with breadcrumbs and anchovies, tuna steaks and potatoes, asparagus, chicken, fancy cheeses, and of course, lots and lots of wine from bordeaux. anita made a transcendental lemon tart that made me involuntarily and loudly interrupt a philosophical discussion after dinner our last night. it had this inspiring merengue (sp?) that had this layer of sugar that almost dissolved in your mouth, all crumbly and sweet, and ... i digress. seriously. amazing. their son, benoit, joined us for dinner a couple of nights, and we would all spend literally hours eating, talking, lounging, drinking, eating some more, all in their dining room with the house filled with good sounds and good smells. (seriously, their house smelled delicious even when no one was cooking -- like melted butter and boiled potatoes. how do they do that?) we slept great every night we were there, with the windows wide open and the rain on the roof and the church bells chiming. i went to sleep every night thinking "this house is older than america." seriously cool.

since marylee was all banged up from her accident, we didn't get much of a chance to visit with her. she would stay in the house with anita, reading and talking and drinking scotch by the fireplace, while the rest of us would be out exploring the city. daniel took us to the market, which was held in a couple of different places that day. one place was in a large building that was sort of like a parking garage, but nicer. some of the stands are there every day but mostly it stays empty until saturday when the market is open. it was mostly like our market in hengelo, with different stands really specializing in different things: seafood, bread, cheese, fruits or vegetables, flowers, etc. the biggest difference i noticed was that they had wine for sale at many of the stands, including a stand that was just wine. and they also had these small barrels of wine where you could buy it in bulk, by the liter. isn't that cool?

the other market was outside in the shadow of st. michael's church. it is this towering gothic cathedral in the middle of the city. quite a contrast to have this scattered, brightly colored, chaotic market juxtaposed with this ornate, organized, quiet behemoth of a church.

on one of the days we were there, daniel drove adam, carl, and myself around the countryside, telling stories about bordeaux and his childhood along the way. he took us to a large chateau that makes a lot of wine, and we walked through their vineyard enjoying the day. he explained to us the difference in the names of wines (wines are either named after the type of grape, such as "chardonnay" or "pinot noir", or they are named after a region such as "bordeaux" or "champagne" and will often be wines made of different blends of grapes) and told us that one vine produces enough grape for one glass of wine. that sure doesn't seem like that much to me! i'm surprised by that! i thought a grapevine would yield like a bottle or something but nope, it only makes about a glass on average. afterwards, he drove us to a much smaller vineyard, one owned by his friend, jacques. jacques has a very small vineyard which produces about 1000 bottles of wine a year. he asks his friends to come out some weekend during harvest time and they all go crazy for a couple of days picking the grapes, and then he makes wine in his cellar/shed/garage thing. he gave us a "tour" of his "facility", which basically consisted of two rooms in this old barn-type structure that was half underground, to keep the temperature more constant. he let us sample the wines right out of the barrels, trying different vintages. it is a sweet, white wine that he makes, which is not necessarily typical of the region. it was really delicious. we bought several bottles to share with friends.

another day we went to mass in the gothic cathedral nearby and afterwards went down to the river where we ate a pizza (there was another market down there that day but was selling mostly food to eat, not food to prepare) and watched the skyline. and somewhere in there daniel guided us through his town, pointing out an old roman ruin that used to be a giant colosseum (sp?) and taking us down to the main cathedral in town, whose name i forget. adam and daniel climbed to the top of the bell tower next to the church while i sat in a cafe down below drinking a glass of wine and journaling.

our last night was my favorite night because not only did we get to eat anita's transcendental lemon tart, but she also got out her accordion and played us a couple of songs! then daniel came in the room and started singing along with her! all these beautiful french songs which i had never heard before, which sounded lovely and exotic and bittersweet. it was so wonderful.

i think that's about it. we took the train to paris, took the plane to amsterdam, and took the train again to hengelo. got home on monday night, late, and then on tuesday i was up again early to get ready for our houseguests, joe and jj. more on them later, though!