Sunday, May 18, 2008

bruxelles, brussel, brussels

recently adam had a conference in brussels, so gracie and i came along to see the sights. i LOVE belgium -- every time i go there (i've been 4 times so far) i come back even more impressed. belgium has the coziness and quaintness of the netherlands, but with the laissez-fare attitude of the french. and the chocolate is way better.

i have been to brugge (also spelled "bruges") twice now, and once i went to ghent (also spelled "gent"), but this was my first time to brussels. adam has been bugging me forever to get to brussels, but i had never heard anything about it so i wasn't very keen on going. i can't say it's a place i've ever wanted to see (unlike rome or lhasa or san francisco), but now that i've seen it i'm REALLY glad! it's a very beautiful city, filled with amazing architecture, a few pretty parks, and of course incredible beer. i was really struck by the amount of money that brussels had, too. it seemed like every street and every building of that city was well-maintained (one morning i saw FIVE street sweepers of various designs and functions outside my hotel window at the same time, all working on the same street together).

we started out our trip by going first to amsterdam, where we attended church that day. it was a moving service, which focused on the national remembrance day holiday. people would share passages and stories about world war II, and how it affected them or someone they know. someone talked about how her grandfather still stockpiles enormous amounts of food, because during the war there was nothing to eat (i've heard stories of people actually eating tulip bulbs here because they were so hungry). another person talked about how the house she lived in in haarlem had a hiding place in it, big enough for 2 or 3 people to stand in. someone read poetry written by children. it was all very moving, and i'm glad that we had a chance to go. i had not been to my church out here since i think november, so it was good to be back.

we spent the night at valerie's house again, and this time around gracie did a much better job. she actually slept through the night and slept far more peacefully than she did last time. so we all got a good night of sleep, which allowed us to take one of the first trains of the day to brussels -- it was a short trip, only about 3 hours, so we arrived before we were able to check in to our hotel room. the hotel had a nice lobby in the basement, which was quieter and cooler than the main lobby on the ground floor, so the three of us went down there to allow gracie some quiet time from all the excitement of the day that she had already experienced. and after about 45 minutes of relaxing, nursing, and cleaning up, we were out again to see the sights!

our hotel was located right in the heart of brussels, a stone's throw away from the grand place (pronounce it all frenchy-like), where all the prettiest and most historic buildings could be found. it was the perfect location because not only was it so close to all the action, but it was really only a 5-minute walk from the train station. but the best part of all was our room: it had these floor-to-ceiling windows which opened up all the way and allowed us to practically sit outside, from inside our room! there was no screen on the window (as is typical of most places in europe), and there was a railing that went just above the height of my hips, to keep us from falling out. it was really great -- because with a baby we are basically in for the night by 7:00 pm, but by having this room in the center of the city, with windows that pretty much turned our space into a balcony, we were able to enjoy downtown brussels in the comfort of our jammies while we kept a watchful eye on our daughter. we picked up some dinner both nights (a calzone and fries the first night, and greek food the second night) which we ate in our room, and had a couple of cold belgian beers which we enjoyed with a few pieces of chocolate. it was the perfect room for a couple with a small child, i think. we had a lot of fun there.

the first day we pretty much just walked around and took a lot of pictures. we also found our way to the mannekin pis, that famous fountain of the little boy peeing. you know the one. according to wikipedia, there are a few legends surrounding the origin of this fountain:

There are several legends behind this statue, but the most famous is the one about Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. In 1142, the troops of this two-year-old lord were battling against the troops of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen, in Ransbeke (now Neder-over-Heembeek). The troops put the infant lord in a basket and hung it in a tree, to encourage them. From there, he urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle.

Another legend goes like this: In the
14th century, Brussels was under siege by a foreign power. The city had held their ground for quite some time. The attackers had thought of a plan to place explosive charges at the city walls. A little boy named Juliaanske from Brussels happened to be spying on them as they were preparing. He urinated on the burning fuse and thus saved the city.

There was already a similar statue made of stone in the middle of the
15th century, perhaps as early as 1388. The statue was stolen several times. In 1619 it was replaced by a bronze statue, created by Franco-Flemish Baroque sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy, father of the more famous Fran├žois.

we also discovered a cool part of our neighborhood which actually really reminded us of venice. it contained these very narrow streets which were jam-packed with restaurants on both sides. the eateries offered mainly seafood, italian, and belgian fare, and the waiters would stand out on the street and politely tell you what their specials were that evening as you walked past. many of them would try to strike up a conversation with you, in the hopes of making friends with you, so that you would feel guilty if you walked away from your friend who was inviting you inside for a bite to eat. one particular waiter spotted adam's obama t-shirt and asked him why he wasn't voting for hillary. ("my mom tells me who to vote for," he jokingly replied, since rae is about as hard-core for obama as anyone i've met.) interestingly, there seem to be way more people out here who are excited about obama than about hillary. i don't know if it's because we generally talk to younger people, or if there's something about obama that really appeals to the expatriate community. but these europeans, at least the ones i've come in contact with, all really want obama!

the second day, our only full day in the city, adam had his conference to attend. so gracie and i got all packed up and went on a walkabout, to see more of this pretty place. we went first to a park near the belgian palace and parliament buildings, and i was prepared to sit next to a fountain and have a little picnic with my little girl. but the park we went to was quite dull, and really worn, and there really wasn't much to do. the fountains were small and boring, and the grass was patchy and there were lots of cigarette butts everywhere, so it just didn't feel very cozy. not at all what i was looking for. there was, however, a fun police-sponsored festival there, with lots of booths set up for children to play games and have contests, and there was a little police band on a stage which played marching band tunes. we did stop and listen to the band for a while, but after we sat down to rest for just a moment we took off again. i think if she was older she would have liked playing with the little belgian children who were there with their school groups, but for a 3-month old this obviously isn't possible.

i got out my map again and saw that there was a botanical garden about 20 or 30 minutes away by foot, so i packed us up again and headed out. poor gracie was so tired and refused to lay in her stroller so i lugged her all the way there in the sling. boy, i was tired when i got there! this kid is getting heavier by the day! we did finally find the botanical gardens, but the entrance i took to get us into the park was not handicap-accessible due to a bunch of construction, so i wasn't able to get the stroller down into the park without assistance. finally i asked a group of teenage boys if someone could help me, and a nice young man jumped at the chance and helped me carry the buggy down the stairs. thank you, nice young man!

anyway, we sat by a fountain for a good long while, and she nursed and napped in the shade, and we blew bubbles and watched the koi and ducks and clouds all float by. it was worth the stress to get there because it really was a beautiful little green space in the middle of such a large cityscape.

on our last day there, adam presented his paper at the conference, which meant that he had to leave early that morning to get there in time to set up. so gracie and i took it easy in the room that morning, sitting in front of the window and nursing while we watched a juggler on a unicycle and listened to some accordion players in the square beneath us. after we lazed about for a bit, we went out to do some souvenir shopping (we brought home a half-dozen different beers from a cool place called "the beer temple" or something like that) and met up with adam, who was already finished for the day. we got a couple of ice cream cones and sat in the grand place again, and watched all the young backpackers taking naps in the middle of the sunny square.

on the way home, there was some confusion about the trains coming into and out of amersfoort (one of the cities we had to transfer in). our train was delayed by about a half an hour as it was pulling into utrecht (about half an hour from amersfoor), and we were told to get on a different train, and then that train was so crowded that i barely got a seat and adam barely fit between the cars with our big suitcase and stroller, and then that train was late taking off, and then we had to transfer again in amersfoort, and again i barely got a seat, and it was hot and stuffy and crowded and confusing... and gracie was TOTALLY CHILL the whole time! seriously amazing. she would just play and nurse and then when she pooped i asked the man next to me if he wouldn't mind please standing up so i could change her on his seat, which he kindly did. she didn't care at all that we were stuck on a hot train with too many people. as long as she got to eat and sleep and play, she was fine. it sure made travelling a lot easier and way less stressful to know that she was taken care of and was in a good mood! all in all, we were only delayed by about 90 minutes, and considering that we were still home before her bedtime we felt it was a successful journey despite the chaos! what a good traveller she is!

Friday, May 16, 2008


we got a couple of more videos uploaded onto youtube today.

this first one is a clip of me and gracie singing the abc's today. she loves it when i kick her legs around for her, so i was doing that and singing at the same time, and she was just grinning and giggling away. too cute!

but this next video is way cuter! adam took her upstairs to get her ready for bed, and i snuck up on them with the camera and got this video of her laughing up a storm. here she is, buck naked and laughing so hard she can hardly catch her breath! it's hilarious! i challenge you to watch it without smiling so big that your face hurts -- it's impossible!

the video quality is a little poorer than usual because we were using our regular digital camera instead of our camcorder, so the picture is fuzzier than usual. and also, there is no zoom function on this particular camera when we're recording videos on it, so it's hard to get a close up of gracie's face. we've found that if she sees us with a camera, she gets all distracted and stops doing the thing that made us get the camera out in the first place.

oh! it's so much fun having a baby! she's just the happiest little girl in the world!

(case in point: last night she woke up at 4:30 a.m., and even though her room was pitch black and there were no toys in her crib, we walked in there and saw that she was just kicking and laughing anyway. and there wasn't a single thing in her room that was even remotely entertaining, or at least not with all the lights out! but she was just so happy to be awake, and to have legs that can kick and arms that can wave, she didn't care that it was the middle of the night and that there was nothing going on. she was just HAPPY!!)

Monday, May 12, 2008

happy mother's day!

they actually celebrate mother's day in holland on the same day that it is celebrated in america. but even if they DIDN'T celebrate here, you can be sure that WE would have celebrated anyway! because it was my first mother's day ever! hooray!

we've been travelling a lot lately, to cologne, to brussels, to amsterdam, and soon enough we'll be going to greece, so i really wanted to just take it easy. and since the weather was nice, i wanted to do something outside. so we decided on going on a picnic in the volkspark in enschede.

we woke up around 7:00 in the morning, to lovely sunshine and an even lovelier girl. after nursing, snuggling, and changing her diaper, all three of us came downstairs to relax together. on sundays we treat ourselves to a cup of coffee, and while i was enjoying my big mug, adam and gracie gave me my mother's day present: one of those picture frames with two frames joined together. on one side there was a fingerpainted picture that said "gelukkig moederdag" (happy mother's day) and gracie's squashed green handprint right in the middle of it. and on the other side was this picture of her in her green hat. but typical of adam, the frame went vertical, but the picture is supposed to be horizontal. so the picture is sitting on its side, like this. we had to laugh at it because it's so typical of him to think of this whole present, and do all the prep work like getting the digital picture printed up, and getting the fingerpaint, and cleaning up gracie after they painted it together, and buying a nice frame... but then the frame is the wrong direction for the picture, and now it's sunday morning and the stores are closed so he can't get a different one, so "um... here you go, happy mother's day, honey!" i LOVE it!

after coffee and breakfast, we all got dressed and packed up for our picnic. we took the bus to enschede and for some reason the bus was free that day, so that was a nice present too. we got to the park by about 1:30 pm and found a nice spot in the shade by a duck pond. the park wasn't too busy that day, and the people who were there were primarily students out sunbathing and playing soccer together. we were actually surprised that there weren't more families out celebrating mother's day together, but we realized that as family-centric as the dutch are (especially here in twente), most people were probably celebrating with their grandmothers at some brunch or something.

we just relaxed in the shade, and gracie kicked in the grass and on the giant sheet that we packed. omg, she LOVED the trees! it was like a giant mobile for her (and she LOVES her mobile!). the fluttering leaves, the swaying branches, the glittering sunshine, all set against the blue sky... she was definitely entertained! we watched some ducks float past in the pond, and then studied them carefully as they walked past us to take a nap in the shade. we played a lot, and looked at the flowers, and took about a MILLION pictures of her in her pretty dress. this will almost certainly always and forever remain my favorite picture EVER in the whole universe: my beautiful daughter, laying in a field of tiny daisies, in a sunny park in holland on mother's day. it's divine. there is nothing greater than this in all the world!

we only stayed for a few hours, as the day was warm and we had our own mothers to call before they too headed out for their mother's day celebrations. gracie napped in the sling on the way home, and we ate leftovers for dinner (because i ain't cooking on mother's day!). :-)

it was the most wonderful, glorious, special day ever. happy happy mother's day!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

twickel picnic

the last couple of weeks have just been GORGEOUS, so the three of us have been on a lot of picnics and walks lately. recently we went to twickel castle in the nearby village of delden, to enjoy the sunshiney warmth of springtime. it was one of the first really nice days of the year, so the castle grounds were a popular place for a lot of families to go on their sunday strolls.

the last several times we have been to twickel, we have stayed close to the castle or explored the beautiful manicured gardens adjacent to it. but this time we wandered through the woods, over creeks, across green pastures, and along gravel roads. it was just lovely.

we found a bench to sit on in the sunshine, that gave us a good view of the castle in the distance. couples would walk by with their dogs, their grandparents, their children, and everyone would stop and take a good look at gracie. (and who can blame them, really?)

we ate bruschetta, strawberries, and wine, and gently cuddled with miss gracie as she tried to sleep. she was having a difficult time napping in the stroller and pretty much cried the entire way from the delden train station all the way out to the castle before we decided to put her in the sling. we very recently discovered that sometimes that is the only way she will nap, especially when she's out and about. she really just wants to LOOK all the time! (she was born with her eyes wide open, after all.) if we're out of the house, she refuses to sleep, because she's afraid that she's going to miss something important. but then she gets cranky because she wants to sleep, but she doesn't want to close her eyes and stop looking. even when she sleeps sometimes, you can see the tiniest little sliver of her eye open, as if she's still trying to look even when asleep. when we went on this picnic a few weeks ago, we hadn't yet discovered the beauty and magic of the sling, but once we threw her in there on this picnic, she fell immediately asleep. thank goodness we brought it along! so ever since then, we have taken the sling with us everywhere... it's been a lifesaver on some of these recent trips we've taken to cologne and brussels! we can't go anywhere without it now!

Friday, May 09, 2008

keulen, koeln, cologne

april 30 is queen's day here in holland, the biggest party day of the year. last year for queen's day we spent it with friends in both utrecht and den bosch. (to learn more about how the tradition began and how people spend the holiday, click here.) so, being the experienced expats that we are, we remembered that the holiday usually involves lots of heavy drinking, loud music, and partying outside in the beautiful weather. and since we live in the middle of town (you can't get much more downtown than our house), we knew gracie probably wouldn't get much sleep if we stuck around. so, we did what a lot of dutch people actually do on queen's day, and we went to germany to get some peace and quiet!

ever since we found out that we were moving to the eastern part of the netherlands, adam has been nagging me to get to cologne, germany, which is only a few short hours by train. (aka "keulen" in dutch and "koeln" in german.) so what better time to see the city than in late april, before the big tourism season hits here in europe, and while gracie is still small enough for us to tote around easily?

we had to catch three trains to get there, but the best train of all was the deutschebahn from arnhem to cologne. because it was a long-distance train (running from amsterdam to frankfurt), you needed reservations for the train, or somehow find an empty seat, which wouldn't be easy. nearly everyone on the train had giant bags, and everyone was trying to get to their assigned seat, and the aisles are small and people are crawling over each other and pushing past each other and it was just crowded and annoying. we didn't have a reservation (we didn't know that it was recommended), so i stayed back in an open section on the train and stood with the stroller while gracie chilled out (thank goodness she was in a good mood!) and adam maneuvered his way through to find us a couple of seats for the 2-hour ride. but while he was away, a deutschebahn employee came by, saw me with my stroller, and asked me if i had a reservation for a seat. when i replied no, she said, "then you may sit in here," and magically opened a door to a PRIVATE CABIN that is just special for mothers with small children! i was all, "wow! really?!" i couldn't believe our good luck! the room was big enough for all three of us, plus our stroller and all our bags, so we spread out and fed her and burped her and napped her all in peace and quiet and privacy! obviously a great feature for us, but also for the other passengers on the train because then they don't have to listen to a crying baby during their trip! the room didn't cost us anything extra, which was a bonus. we knew to ask for it for our return trip, and again we were graciously ushered into our special fancy schmancy room. this kid is our first-class ticket anywhere! sweet!

so we got to cologne in the early afternoon and went straight to our hotel, a 4-star place that we totally splurged on with a gorgeous breakfast and a swimming pool! (a rare find in europe.) since this was gracie's first time in a hotel, we thought it would be best for us to spend an hour or so just unwinding, letting her play with some of the toys we brought along, and taking it easy for a bit. after we relaxed for a while we repacked a few things and headed out to see the city. first stop, koelner dom, a massive cathedral that took over 600 years to build. it all began in the 12th century when the church somehow got their hands on the relics of the three wise men (that's what that picture is, with the gold reliquary behind the bars), and realized that such an acquisition would attract christian pilgrims from around the world, so a big church building would need to be built. and it just kinda went from there. i think for a while construction would stop, sometimes for decades at a time, because of lack of funding or lack of interest. or maybe they were just tired, cuz this thing is HUGE. no matter where we stood in the city, it was impossible to get the entire building in the camera's viewfinder. seriously impressive.

we also explored the old city ("alte stadt"), which was beautifully and deliberately reconstructed to look like how it looked before WWII. (much of the city of cologne was bombed, but the cathedral was left unscathed.) the brightly-colored buildings really attracted gracie's attention. she liked the fountains, seeing the big, wide, river rhine, and especially all the bumps we'd go over in her stroller as we rolled over the uneven cobbled streets. we liked to spend our time here, drinking the local "koelsch" beer (pronounced kinda like "kultch") in the alter markt (old market), eating turkish food and people watching. on the last day we were in town, it was a national holiday. 1 may is labor day, so a lot of people had the day off. there was a little marching band that would wander through the city, playing songs that a lot of the germans knew and would sing along to. lots of people were out also in the alter markt, also drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine. it was a lot of fun to feel like a part of this party, and to be in the midst of all these gregarious germans, swilling their local brew and listening to live music.

and of course, one can't go to cologne without visiting the chocolate museum! (or, as it's alternatively called, "the mmmmmmmmmuseum.") the building was constructed on a peninsula sticking out into the river rhine, and offered pretty views of the river and barges floating past. we weren't able to stay long because it was towards the end of the day and gracie was starting to fade on us, but while we were there we got to see a chocolate factory in the works and sample the chocolate they were making, and also saw a little tropical rainforest garden within the museum, where we saw a mango tree and a cocoa tree.

in the evenings, we would go back to our hotel and relax, and let gracie sprawl out on the floor to play and kick and laugh. after enough of this, we would all put on our swimsuits and head down to the pool. actually, we hung out in the jacuzzi. the water was about as warm as a warm bathtub (not hot, just warm), and was a small enough space that we could easily pass her back and forth between us. the pool was cooler in temperature, and the first night we went down there there was actually a water aerobics class full of old german ladies exercising in the pool. (the pool was part of a fitness center that the hotel shared with another hotel in the same building.) gracie had never been swimming before, and wasn't quite sure what to think of it, but like most things she does, she did great! at first she kinda' got all wide-eyed and started breathing a little faster, but after a while she calmed down. mostly she just looked. just noticed, took it all in with all of her senses, and took a lot of mental notes about this experience, trying to decide if she liked it or not. we were so proud of her. after swimming, we ordered room service (i don't think i've ever ordered room service before!) and let her sleep in her hotel crib while we watched german game shows. it was so fun!

one day we went on a bus tour through the city. it was just us and another german family, and the driver who spoke very little english but was very friendly and helpful. the tour was recorded on a tape, and was in various languages so we could understand what was going on. mostly we tooled around the cathedral for about 30 minutes at least (a significant amount of time because it was only a 90 minute tour), since that's really where most of the pretty architecture and history of the city was located. we did see some old roman towers that were about 2000 years old, and we also stopped at a botanical garden by the zoo. the bus driver said that it was his break time now, so that we should all get off for a few minutes and look at the pretty flowers while he had a cigarette. so we crossed the street and took a couple of pictures of this pretty park. gracie wasn't happy with it, though, because the sound and movement of the bus had lulled her to sleep, so when we got off and started quietly walking around, she woke up. you can see her screaming in this picture :-) . we also saw a cool building which survived the war. it was the old armory or something, and was from the 16th century.

on our last day there, adam climbed to the top of the cathedral to get a better look of the city, which was disappointingly modern and sprawling. i guess that's what happens when so much of it is destroyed in a war. gracie and i sat outside the train station and drank tea, and looked at the cathedral and people watched, while we waited for her daddy to descend. then we went to the alter markt for some beer and food, and then we hit the road to come home again.

a few hours later, we're back at home, with just enough time to put gracie in her pajamas and put her to bed. it's so cool that we can just go to germany -- you know, just cuz it's THERE. it's like taking a road trip up to fort collins or going to vail for a couple of days. it's just so EASY! i'm so grateful for these experiences that we have, and i'm really glad that i'm able to get out and TRAVEL again after spending so much time either being pregnant or having a fragile little newborn on my hands!