Monday, 1 October 2007

This was a big travel day for us, and as we drove, I made some notes in my journal of the interesting things we passed. We saw a rock garden, consisting of cleared flower beds and large rocks of interesting shapes “planted” in the ground, spaced at intervals like well-trimmed bushes. Giant white cows grazed along a fence line, I have never seen such big cows and I’ve seen a lot of cows. We passed a row of tires hanging from trees in long rows like an obstacle course, our kids would have loved to pull over and have a go at them. As we got back on the main highway, we passed Rotterdam. Huge stacks of containers, the kinds that trains pull, were stacked like a giant’s building blocks. All different colors, some stacked ten containers high. Shipping is still a huge industry in Rotterdam. I wondered what in the world could be in all those different containers, and where in the world they were all going.

I’m sure you would all be fascinated to know what I carry in my purse these days. It’s mostly forms of entertainment, for restaurants and long car rides and other places where the kids could get restless. I carry a pad of good, heavy, blank paper for drawing. A baggie with colored pencils, regular pencils, erasers (thanks for re-stocking us, Peggy!), and a pencil sharpener. I carry cards (we usually play hearts), five dice (for Farkle), the Pig game, Kleenex, fingernail clippers, a brush that’s getting black with pencil lead, usually a Rick Steve’s for wherever we are, and the brochures we’ve picked up to cut later and glue into the kids’ journals. I’ve got two pads of paper for me, one for journaling and one for grocery lists and score sheets for our games. Oh yeah, and some money. I’ve been carrying around a US quarter since we left (I keep forgetting about it until I’m searching for change at a register, and up it pops), and a Starbucks card that still has $10 on it, but so far foreign Starbucks won’t take it.

Before arriving in Edam, we stopped off at Clay’s old house, the one he lived in when he lived in Holland as a kid. The neighborhood is really nice, old but well maintained, lots of kids and adults biking around with their groceries or backpacks. It was a peaceful place, and I can see why Peggy and Maurice liked it so much. I noticed a little old lady watching us from her drapes a few doors down, making sure we weren’t bad guys. Those are good neighborhoods, where the neighbors watch out for each other. It was cool, seeing a place where people really live, and imagined Clay’s little blonde head peeking from an upstairs window.

Our hotel in Edam, a small town half an hour north of Amsterdam, was perfect. My parents had a little room right beside a canal, where ducks and geese swam by, a small boatyard across the canal worked on refurbishing some beautiful boats, and the kids could run around and play. Our rooms were upstairs in a different building close by, and their size made me certain we have way too much luggage. We’re always trying to figure out how we can unload some of our stuff. The kids would be happy to ship the homeschool stuff home . . .

The kids immediately made friends with the fowl, fed them the bread we had hanging out in the car, and named some of the spiders. Alayna studied a small bug on a leaf, and the boys ran around and around Mamaw and Papa’s building, shouting code words and “gotcha” and “wingardem leviosa” (a Harry Potter spell that will make things float). Alayna decided to teach one of the ducks to come to its name, she dubbed it “Darling” and it eats from her hand.

Our hotel is decorated with old pictures of Dutch scenes, men smoking long, thin pipes and women walking over canals in their wooden shoes, their white hats with pointed corners flapping in the breeze. The picture across from our room is of two boys about Nate’s age. One is smoking a big, fat cigar, and the other boy is lighting up his own. It’s weird to say it was cute, but somehow it was. Those little Dutch kids with their wooden shoes, little scamps!

The only negative is my parents’ room smells like smoke. The hotel supplied them with some Oust deodorizing spray, but my mom used the bottle up the first night and we found a store with a new supply. We take a deep breath before we enter their room, or we’re likely to get a mouthful of Oust that lingers in the air before settling on offending smoke particles and neutralizing them. She even sprays in the middle of the night if she wakes up, and Dad wakes up with Oust breath if he happens to sleep with his mouth open.

The only thing we did that day, after letting the kids play around, was eat dinner. Sounds simple, but our meal turned into a three hour production at the hotel restaurant, and while it was good, it was too pricey and too long for our sleepy heads. We vowed to find new restaurants in town, and fell asleep with very full bellies.


Tuesday, 2 October 2007

We set out to explore the town after breakfast. Our first stop was the Edam museum, where we encountered a man with a very long beard staring at us from a larger than life canvas. This man, Mr. “Langebaard”, would travel around as an attraction and gave the money he earned to the town orphanage. A man on the opposite wall was said to weigh over 450 pounds. The town also boasts, in their history, a woman who was over 9 feet tall. We arrived the same day a local author was doing a book signing. She had written a historical fiction book about this girl and what it might have been like for her when she was living. As part of her presentation to a group of local school kids, she had a girl dress up like the tall woman, wearing a long dress to hide the stilts she balanced on to make her over 9 feet tall. It was pretty cool, she was just enormous, and ducked to get through the doorways.

The kids who came to the museum that day arrived on bikes. Bikes are a way of life in Edam, throughout the Netherlands, actually. You really have to watch out for them, they zoom up from behind and stepping off a curb can be quite dangerous. The order of right of way seems to be bikes, then people, then cars. When we got to the museum that morning, there were over a hundred bikes parked in front of the building. Later we saw all the kids, about Alayna’s age, hop on their bikes as a class and sail away, back to class. How cool is that, going to a field trip on your bike!

The museum was housed in an old, leaning house, the oldest one in Edam, and it had a floating basement. The entire room floated on the canal water, the walls were nailed to the floor, but not to the ceiling, so it could rise and fall with the tides. The kids thought it was pretty cool, running from corner to corner and rocking the room. I wonder if kids long ago did the same thing. The house also had cupboard beds that folded into the walls, and beds that reminded us of Alayna’s back home, like deep window boxes with drapes you could pull for privacy. It was a cozy place.

After the museum, we wandered around and found a church with a really cool cemetery. What made it so interesting were the gravesites. Each one was unique, decorated by people who loved the one they had lost. You know those plastic bead things kids make, where you iron them after the kids make their design and then they stick together? One grave had several of these on them, I imagine from the man’s grandchildren. It had flowers and pretty rocks, and shells, a few little statues, and other personal things that made you feel like you got to know the person who left this earth. Some graves had figurines of fairies or dogs or cats, some had bushes trimmed neatly in designs, one had a glass plate that had been broken and then stuck into the ground in a pattern. It was a good place to wander.

We decided to get bikes that afternoon, and rode them all over Edam and the neighboring town of Volendam. We found one area that was a dock with boats moored up and down in long rows. During the summer it must have been really busy, but while we were there it was deserted and the perfect place for the kids to do some bike tricks. Benji, who was riding tandem with Clay again, this time in front on a lower seat, would turn around and ride backwards on his handlebars while Clay steered. Nate rode around with his belly on his seat and his legs hanging off the back, and Alayna rode with her feet on the frame. Mamaw and Papa did not do any tricks, but they enjoyed watching their grandkids clown around.

We drove past schools that were just letting out, and mothers with one child riding in a little seat in front of her handlebars, and another on a seat on the back. I remembered Peggy telling me she used to do the same thing with Craig and Clay. We rode through neighborhoods where little kids parked their bikes against the house and cats scampered across the roads, bike savvy. Bikers are everywhere, the adults riding very genteel, their backs straight and dignified. Even if they are holding a bouquet of flowers with one hand or balancing a box on the back they manage to look perfectly natural. It was a great day, the kids loved riding the bikes and so did we, though we didn’t always look dignified as we braked too quick or tried to pass each other and toppled over.

We found a, Italian restaurant that night for dinner, getting done in just under two hours instead of three. As we made our way down the dark cobbled streets back to our hotel, we passed by the windows of homes where people were cleaning their dinner dishes, talking on the couch by candlelight, reading books. It was like walking past little dioramas, they kept their curtains open and the warm lights bathed the street with soft spotlights. Edam strikes me as a town in miniature, the houses are tiny and tidy like little dollhouses, but people actually live in these places, right off the cobbled roads we’re walking on.

That night in bed I noticed a spider hanging on the lamp above Clay’s head on his side of the bed. He was comfortable and said he didn’t care about the spider, he wasn’t getting up. Well, I wasn’t getting up, either, I told him. If that spider chose to come on down, it would come get him first. I won’t tell you who finally got out of bed, swiped the spider on a Kleenex and deposited it in the hall. You decide. (We’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels, lately . . .)


Wednesday, 3 October 2007

We woke up the next day to rain, and were very thankful we had rented the bikes the day before. The weather here changes so quickly, more quickly than Texas, even.  One day it’s warm and sunny, short sleeve weather. The next day it’s cold and rainy in the morning, you’ll need a long sleeve shirt and jacket. Then that afternoon the sun comes out and you want your short sleeves again. We had planned to drive to Harlem this day and visit some museums, so we weren’t bothered by the rain. We actually planned quite an ambitious day. Okay, okay. I planned an ambitious day. Drive to Haarlem, see a polder museum, then visit Corrie ten Boom’s house, then find the train station and take a short train ride to Amsterdam, go, go, go to the Van Gogh museum, then eat lunch. Finish the day with the Rijksmuseum and a trip to the Anne Frank house, tour the Jordaan neighborhood, eat dinner, take the train back to Harlem, get in our car and drive back to Edam.

So maybe it was a leeeettle too ambitious.

We got out the door a little later than scheduled, took a wrong turn to Haarlem or three, and realized we had left with no navigational aids. No driving atlas, no GPS doohickey, just some directions Clay had saved on the computer the night before and his vague memories of how to get to Haarlem. We found it after passing through a tiny rural community, munching cows and quiet homes. The Polder Museum. Now I had pictured an old museum with one display case, demonstrating how the old steam pumps were used to drain the marshy wet lands of the Netherlands to create the dry land, the polders. Twenty minutes, max.

What we got was something far bigger and far more interesting. We got a tour guide who loved what he did, who was so proud of the steam engine he showed off that he practically beamed as he showed us all about it. A tour guide who carried a red laser pointer so we’d see just what he was talking about on the huge display of the Netherlands that showed how 30% of it would be underwater without the pumps and windmills that funnel the water away from the dry lakes and reclaimed land and into the ocean.

We learned so much about the land we were visiting, the kids did, too. We learned that Dutch call it “wet feet” when the ground is soggy. They must avoid having “wet feet” by building dikes and windmills and pumps. Polders are the dry land that remains when water is artificially moved out of a lake. And the biggest threat to the Netherlands isn’t the sea water, but the rivers that are getting bigger and bigger as more snow melts, contributing to the runoff. The machine we saw is no longer in operation because they have more efficient systems now, but because it was such a cool engineering feat it was saved from the scrap heap and is used as a museum.

The Dutch had the English build some of the huge pieces they needed for their giant steam engine, because while the Dutch knew a lot about pumping, they didn’t have the technology to build the huge steam engines needed to drain the lake they planned to drain. England was going through the Industrial Revolution and could build what they needed (gotta love these history lessons! We also learned that after WWII, Holland didn’t spend the money it needed to spend on the upkeep of the dikes, and one of them burst and flooded lower Netherlands. Our kids are learning about WWII from all different angles). Our guide turned on the machine so we could watch this giant iron thing rise up, fall down, and pump water using a vacuum to pull it up and then flush it out to sea. An amazing machine. The guide loved that Clay and my dad, two engineer-minded people, were there for him to explain things to.

So, you know more than you ever thought you would about polders. It was noon, and we weren’t even in Haarlem yet. At this point, I let my plan slip a little bit from my tightly grasped fingers. But that was okay. I loved that polder museum. The woman at the counter gave the kids a poster as we left. It was a comic strip in Dutch, and all we could tell is that there is a king peeing into a cup, and somehow he gets the idea for building the dikes and pumps from this. We’ll have to get a translation, although it’s kind of fun to make up the words for the pictures ourselves.

The Corrie ten Boom House. I didn’t even know this was here until I happened to see it in a guide book back in Brugge. I was so excited. I loved the book The Hiding Place, so did my parents, and I couldn’t wait to see the house where the Jews had been hidden and Corrie had lived so courageously with her dad and sister. The museum was a real treat. A guide sat us down in the Ten Boom’s living room, where they held their Bible study each Monday night, and we along with about twenty others, heard their story, while accordion music drifted through an open window. What a cool way to witness to people, telling them about this faithful family and their devotion to God, and how this devotion led them to care for the Jews around them.

A jewelry shop that sells watches is the storefront of the building, just as it was when Corrie’s father was a watchmaker (it’s owned by someone else now). Corrie sold the house when she needed money for her travels, she was traveling the world telling people her story. A Messianic Jew really wanted the home to be in her hands, and available for later generations, and he bought it and gave it to Corrie later in her life.

After the guide’s stories, we were allowed to walk up the steps to Corrie’s room, on the top floor. Our kids climbed through the false back of the cupboard, and stood in the hiding place that once held seven scared people for two days. The hiding place behind Corrie’s bed, where the Nazi soldiers found her and beat her (she was 51 years old!) when she wouldn’t tell where the Jews were hidden just a few feet away. They stayed hidden for two days, kicking over their bathroom pan accidentally after the first day (the kids found this fact very interesting). They had only a tiny corridor, two feet deep and about six feet long, to stand in. Scared to death. The Nazis stayed in the house, thinking they’d starve the Jews out, but a sympathetic Dutch police officer knew about them and set them free one night, moving them to new hiding places in the city. They all escaped.

Corrie’s father and sister died in concentration camps, but she survived and lived to tell her story. I can’t tell you how cool it is, to learn about WWII and the concentration camps first in Normandy, talking about the D-Day invasion. Then coming here and hearing how the Americans liberated the concentration camps. Those soldier’s stories that we heard, so many of them died. Others lived and were there to free those who had been so oppressed.

I let the rest of our plans slip through my fingers as we walked out of the Ten Boom house at 4 o’clock. We saw some amazing things that day. Tomorrow we’ll take a bus to Amsterdam and see the rest of what we planned to do. It should be really cool, to see Anne Frank’s house, after seeing the Ten Boom’s today. The same story told from two very different people, one a Christian hiding Jews, the other, a young Jewish girl who was being hidden.

We sang to American pop tunes and old blues songs on the radio as we made our way back home. We got back to Edam tired and hungry. We stopped at a grocery store, where we got this ‘n that, some wine and beer to take the edge off of our hairy drive back from Haarlem through Amsterdam rush hour traffic, and then picnicked on my mom and dad’s floor. It was good to sit and think and talk about what we’d seen that day. It was good to share bites of chicken on a stick and crackers with cheese. I am thankful to be where I am today. I cannot imagine living during WWII and experiencing some of the atrocities they faced. It made doing the laundry in the sink for two hours that night a little less traumatic. In fact, it made it a downright blessing.


Thursday, 4 October 2007

Today we hopped on a bus to Amsterdam, bypassing lines of traffic. The Netherlands have great bus lanes, and great bike lanes. Our bus was crowded full of kids who looked like they were around seventeen or so, maybe early college students, and it was interesting to listen to them chattering and wonder what they were saying.

When we got to Amsterdam we started with the Van Gogh museum. Benji’s first reaction? “This one’s not that good, really. But I guess it’s one of his first . . .” I liked seeing his works up close, seeing the oil paints all blobbed on. I read sometimes he just squirted the paint straight from the tube onto the canvas. He had a really sad life, and it’s evident from many of his paintings. Though some are just brilliant with color, like Sunflowers, others are dark and violent. He really did master the art of portraying movement, one of my favorites was of a boy trying to pull a bunch of hay together into a sheaf. It kept slipping between his legs and out of his arms, I could just see it. I didn’t know that Van Gogh was raised in a very religious home, and before he was a painter he was an evangelist! His goal was to give people something of his own, something uniquely his. While he only sold one canvas in his lifetime, one of his paintings today sells for 40 million dollars.

Next we visited the Rijksmuseum, a totally different experience. This museum is filled with Dutch Masters, lots of different painters, and many of the scenes are happy ones, with family doing everyday things. There were portraits and still life’s as well, all realistically painted. We got everyone audio guides, and we punched our way through the museum, listening to the things that interested us. A picture of a Spanish boat being rammed by a Dutch one, a huge explosion sends men flying into the air. A giant doll house owned by a rich Dutch woman that cost as much as a real house along the canal and included real china from Asia. She loved her doll house so much she had a picture painted of it so she could take the picture with her when they went to their summer house!

We learned that the fancy lace collars they wore around their necks, all curled and ruffled, were sometimes thirty feet long and had to be starched and folded. To starch them, they used wheat, and when there was a famine and they couldn’t use the wheat for their collars they were very disgruntled. There was painting of a Christmas scene with a boy who received a stick in his shoe and all the children laugh while his grandmother beckons for him to come find his real gift. We marveled at the many Rembrandt paintings until everyone had just about enough of art for one day, and then we headed out for lunch.

We found a little pancake place and ordered from a woman who rolled her eyes each time we added to our order. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and I think she wasn’t expecting a group of seven to come waltzing in wanting ham and cheese pancakes. We didn’t dare order dessert, though she seemed friendly enough underneath her crustiness. The kids quietly drew while we waited for our food (the woman who took our orders also cooked our food and bussed the tables, I think she was tired). There was a table of college art students behind us, all girls, and they each had a sketchpad as well, all drawing quietly. Of the fourteen people in the restaurant, ten of them were drawing pictures, and it was a peaceful lunch.

After eating, we found an English bookstore and got ourselves a good European Road Atlas in English. We also got a dinosaur book for Benji, which he’s been studying ever since. That boy loves his dinosaurs! We made our way by tram to the Anne Frank house, where once again we were blown away by the reality of stepping into the home where Jews had once hid. There was no tour guide this time, just a small map/guide that included excerpts from Anne’s journal, and some video from survivors who either knew Anne or her family.

There is no furniture in the rooms where they once stayed. Anne’s family of four, plus four others, lived for two years in a space less than 1000 square feet. Otto (Anne’s dad) was the only one to survive, and he wanted their hiding place to be left the way it was found after the Germans ransacked it. On the walls of Anne’s room there still remained a few picture postcards and magazine pictures she had pasted there, I think for me this was the most poignant. To see what pictures she had chosen to look at all those boring days inside while she hid. It is such a sad story, and one that was happening all over the city, all over the continent, in those dark days.

After leaving the museum, where we imagined Jews being herded up and down the small streets that bordered the canals, we found a small restaurant with a buffet dinner filled with steamy hot veggies and good meat. It was a good meal, the last dinner we’d have with my parents before we parted ways the next day. We lingered over dessert, then caught a bus back to Edam. It was late when we got back, and we gratefully fell into our beds, thankful for our freedoms and counting our blessings.


Friday, 5 October 2007

Our hotel has cool bread at breakfast time. The loaf was oddly shaped before it was cut, so each slice has a knobby little curve on two of the sides, like two little ears. The kids loved this, they painted faces on them with chocolate spread, and Alayna painted a monkey on hers this last morning before we packed up to leave.

We’ve found a way to inspire our boys to move forward, whether it’s taking showers or putting on their shoes. We time them. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to us sooner. Clay came up with the idea the other night when he was overseeing that showers and pj’s were applied to the boys. He told them they had sixty seconds to get their pajamas on, said “go”, and lo and behold, they moved! There is no threat involved, it’s not like something terrible will happen if they don’t make it. But making it a race against the clock gets them moving like no amount of nagging can.

We lingered after packing up, spending our last hour next to the canal visiting with my parents and feeding the ducks, who now expect food when they see us. My parent’s plane didn’t leave Amsterdam until that evening, so we decided we had time for a cheese museum before we parted ways. It was right down the road, and we arrived to an empty parking lot and a store full of plates with little tastes of different kinds of cheese. We were informed that a tour was on its way, and got an abbreviated, five minute talk on how cheese is made, from a woman that had her speech down to perfection. Curd separates from the milk with a few drops of an enzyme procured from the stomach of a calf, after soaking in salt water it is set out to harden. After three weeks it’s ready for consumption, it naturally forms a hard skin, and the longer it sits out the smaller the round gets, and the harder. The hard cheese takes about a year to age. Whew.

She finished her cheese spiel just as a bus pulled up and unloaded at least fifty people. We hurried into the cheese shop and stocked up on some great cheese before it was mobbed by the masses. As we were leaving we noticed a man splitting logs with an axe, cutting them into neat little chunks. We stopped to watch, and met Ben, maker of Dutch wooden shoes. He was a funny little man who educated us on the making of wooden shoes, peppered with goofy jokes and a little disco dance in his own wooden clogs. He cracked us all up, we got to see the cool machines they use to shape the shoes and hollow them out, and we got it all to ourselves. The tour bus pulled off after its inhabitants made some frantic cheese purchases and then zoomed off to their next destination. How could they pass up Ben and his wooden shoe presentation? Sheesh. Some people have such crazy itineraries. I’ll be removing the plank from my eye, now.

Ben told us about the cool custom of the wedding shoes. When a Dutch boy wants to ask a girl to marry him, he buys a pair of plain wooden shoes, takes them home and carves them with an elaborate pattern. When he’s done, he leaves them on his sweetheart’s doorstep. If she wears them the next day, she accepts his proposal. Isn’t that sweet? Nate asked, “But what if there are two girls living in that house, how do they know who the shoes are for? And how does the girl know which boy gave them to her?” He sure was asking a lot of questions, we’ll start getting nervous if he asks for a pair of plain wooden shoes to carve!

We finally left the cheese and wooden shoe place, and bid our farewells in the parking lot while a donkey brayed at us across a wooden fence, hee-hawing louder than I’ve ever heard a donkey hee-haw. We exchanged big hugs with my parents, still smiling from our donkey serenade, then sent them on their way to the Amsterdam airport. We will miss our families, it was wonderful having Clay’s parents and then mine join us. I had read in one of my books before we left, to “never let your family join you on your trip, they’ll mess up the rhythm your family has developed of traveling together.” That’s a bunch of baloney. We made some fabulous memories with them and hope they can find another place to meet us along the way.