All Articles (Page 103)

In this section, you'll find every article we've published on CheeseWeb in chronological order, starting with our most recent posts. If you're looking for articles on a specific travel destination, see our Slow Travel section.

I’d like to start the blog today by thanking everyone. I’ve tried to do this in personal e-mails but I want you all to know how great it was after my last blog that you all came forward with support at a difficult time. I also didn’t mean to worry anyone with the negativity. I tried to end on a positive note and I’m afraid that may not have come through. But thank you all so much for caring. It really made me remember that you all are there for us, despite the distance, when things are looking down. Big hugs to all!

Thursday, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and go out and do something. I settled on the Modern Art museum because it was nearby and I knew Andrew wouldn’t want to go anyway – Ever since the Pompidou Fiasco in Paris, he considers modern art to be ‘crap’ and doesn’t want to pay money to look at ‘garbage on the floor.’

The Stedilijk is in temporary digs right now as they expand the original building (there’s a lot of that going on here) and the collection is fairly small. It is presented in an interesting way though. They start in the late 1800s and have one piece from each year until 2005. I’ve posted the promotional film in the movie section. It is interesting to see the progression. Some of it I really liked some of it I didn’t ‘get.’ But it was interesting and, if nothing else, the walk did me good.

This past week was probably harder on Drew than me. The project that he, and others in the Halifax office, was working on was not coming together and he was under a lot of stress. He learned that he would have to spend yet another week in Brussels so he headed back down this morning. Living out of a hotel room for two weeks, with little sleep (and without my cooking) had taken its toll.

On Thursday he asked me to find us a weekend getaway spot that would be very relaxing, where we could just be together and not worry about all of the negative things in our lives. He told me that the cost didn’t matter because, despite our money worries, our sanity was more important.

I took my mission very seriously, especially since Drew’s birthday is coming up. I wanted to find something I knew he would love, to take his mind off work. Drew’s always had a bit of a fixation with castles and when I came across Duin & Kruidberg, I knew I found the winner. The castle dates from 1682, and was the hunting lodge of King William the III. I found an excellent last minute package on a discount travel website, which included a 4 course supper and breakfast buffet. It was perfect.

When Andrew got home on Friday night, we went out for supper with Robert and Marie-Anne and had a great meal. It was nice to finally have some time to spend with them both since our schedules had both been busy.

Saturday we got up and headed into A’dam to get my film processed. (The slides look fantastic and I will be busy scanning for most of the week. I’ll post them as soon as they’re ready.) The guy at the photo lab recommended a great lunch spot so we dined canal side in the sun. That helped me remember what I wanted to be here for in the first place. Once the slides were ready we headed out of town.

When we found the castle it was even grander than pictured on the web. The attention to detail was excellent. We strolled the grounds and generally relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. Our super began with champagne and starters in front of the fireplace in the lounge. We decided to try the wine tasting menu with our meal as well, so with each course we were served a glass of wine to compliment that particular food. The dining room was stunning. There were fresh flowers everywhere and it was very formal. (Had to remember what forks to use first and try not to totally embarrass ourselves). The food was excellent and the presentation was beautiful. After supper we retired to the bar for a while and then to bed.

The next morning after breakfast and checking out, we went for a drive and discovered some WWII bunkers in the sand dunes. Drew had a good explore around them and then we headed towards home. We decided to spend a few hours at the botanical gardens, since Andrew had never been there. They have done a lot of work on them since I was there, last August, with Jenn. We had fun in the butterfly house and wandered around for a few hours.

By the time we got home we were too tired to go out for supper but there was nothing in the house to cook. We were sick of pizza and wondered what else we could have delivered. Sometimes, technology is an amazing thing. We found a website that listed all of the take-out places in A’dam that would deliver to us… and you could order on-line! No dealing with calling and finding someone who understands English. The website did it all for you. And there were all kinds of different restaurants available. We settled on Indian and a short time later we had a fabulous curry feast… I think we may be using that service again!

So this week we will spend in separate countries again. Hopefully it will be the last and it will go by quickly. Think positive thoughts for Andrew’s project and I’ll keep myself busy by scanning.

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I’ve been debating for the past few days what to write in this blog. There is a temptation to sugar coat things and only talk about the fun or exciting experiences we’ve been having. The downside to this is being frustrated when people think that this is all a big vacation. While I don’t want to sulk about our problems, I do want this blog to be an accurate representation of what our time here is actually like, as a reminder to myself, if nothing else.

That being said, the past week has been rather hard on me and I thank my friends who have e-mailed me uplifting thoughts (you know who you are) and put up with my moping. Andrew has been in Brussels since last Tuesday, with the exception of the weekend. It has been difficult spending that long period by myself. While I am not a super social person, I’m not big on being alone. It’s one thing to be alone in Halifax, when I can pick up the phone and go out with someone, than being utterly alone here. I try to go out for walks when I can but shopping and going to do things by myself really holds no interest for me. In addition the money situation is very bleak right now. Andrew’s work advanced us the money to pay for our uber-expensive apartment and is taking it out of his paychecks very aggressively. We are also going to be shelling out a lot of our own money in fees associated with renting the Belgian house and furnishing it. Then there is the cost of shipping the dog here… the list goes on.

To make matters worse, all of the things that we shipped (mostly stuff to keep me occupied) are stuck in Rotterdam and we very well may not be able to get them until we move to Belgium. It just seemed as if with every step we took in order to make this work, someone pushed us back or put up yet another road block.

By Thursday, I was feeling pretty down and then Andrew informed me he would have to spend this week in Brussels as well. Well, that just sent me into a deep, dark funk. Friday I had decided to take the train down to meet him and we were going to look for houses. It was Friday the 13th, naturally, and when I was a half hour outside of Brussels, we were informed that there was a train workers strike and the trains would not be running for 2 hours. I called Andrew and he came to get me. But the time he got there I lost it. Everything that had been building before and since our move came crashing down. I started to regret our decision and blame myself for pushing ahead with it.

Andrew dropped me off at the hotel and had to go back to work for a few hours. I had a long bubble bath and tried to cheer myself up. That evening we met our real estate agent and looked at a couple of houses. As you know, I was not looking forward to the Belgian move. Up to that point, I hadn’t seen anything in the Brussels area that really appealed to me, in terms of a place to live. The areas that our agent took us to started to change my mind. While several of the houses we looked at were too big for us there was one that had an odd charm and by the end of the night I was feeling a bit better about the situation.

Saturday morning we went to view more properties. The first was in a very nice area but the house reeked of smoke and the bathroom was dismal. Then the agent talked us into viewing a semi-detached house. I had insisted that we needed a detached house with the animals. I had pre-conceived ideas about semis based on what I had seen in North America. We went anyway and I totally changed my mind. It ended up being the house we were most interested in. It was the perfect size, very open and light, great yard, garage and big rooms. It was everything we wanted and the area was absolutely perfect.

It’s 30 mins from Drew’s work but it’s in a totally rural setting. There are hills and fields (it reminds me a bit of PEI) and lots of horses. It’s a small village but very close to Leuven which is a big university town, and also within 30 mins of Brussels. All in all, it made me feel a lot better about the move and a little more positive about life in general (as long as I don’t think of everything we’ll have to buy…)

So now we begin the next struggle. We have to put a rental offer on the house, get a bank account with 3 months rent available and do all the associated paperwork… without our visas. Should be interesting. At least we have enlisted the services of Linda, our agent, who also freelances as a relocation agent. Her prices are much more reasonable than an agency and it will be good for us to have someone who understands everything we need to do. So, cross your fingers for us that maybe this one thing will go smoothly. If these are all growing experiences, I’m going to be a very big girl…

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Our last four days here have been some of the most interesting, fun and emotional times that we have ever had in this country. I was ‘hailed,’ adopted and bitten… but I’m getting ahead of myself …

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I can’t even believe that a month has gone by already. I’ve been very slack with the blog so I’ll do my best to catch up. Andrew is in Brussels for the next couple of days so after a busy weekend I’m enjoying the quiet. Spring is in full swing here in the Netherlands and we’ve had some fabulous weather. On Sunday the temperature hit 28 but now we’re back to a more normal 13 degrees. So, as I mentioned in the previous blog, a few weekends ago was our Keukenhof trip. It started off on the wrong foot when we were stuck in traffic for 2 hours. The main road was detoured, we assume because of an accident, and the tour buses were lined up for miles. You may recall that when we visited the gardens last year, it was on the first weekend that they were open. While there seemed to be quite a few people there then, it hardly prepared us for this time. When we finally arrived, we saw that the parking lot we used last year, the only one that was open at that time, was totally full of tour buses. Then we passed a second lot… also tour buses. We were directed to the overflow parking and drove past a lot full of caravans and finally to a huge field filled with cars. Despite this, the line at the gate was quite quick, as we were entering from the back of the park. But as soon as we stepped into the gardens, we were overwhelmed by crowds. While normally I get frustrated and anxious in crowds, even the swarms of people didn’t deter from the beauty that surrounded us.

Our first trip to Keukenhof did not prepare us for the colour and beauty that greeted us inside the gates. The tulips were in full bloom, compared to just the early bloomers we saw last year. The colour and displays were breathtaking. When you see photos of the tulips, what you don’t see are the nuances in size and shape and colour. Some of the tulips were knee high, with blooms as big as your hand; while others were tiny and hugged the ground. Words are almost as inadequate as the photos to describe the gardens. All I can say is that even if you aren’t a gardener, if you enjoy nature, it is a must see.

We spent close to a full day at the gardens, when we finally reached our crowd tolerance limit. Then we headed out to drive through the fields again. While the gardens are breathtaking in their patterns and designs, the fields are breathtaking for sheer size. Huge stripes of colour greeted us around hidden corners. There was nothing more spectacular than to be driving along and suddenly turn a bend and be confronted with the most brilliant sheet of red that you can imagine. Some of the oranges and yellows were so bright that they seemed to be lit from within. I can’t imagine how wonderful it would be to wake up to that view every morning for 2 months of the year.

This weekend was our truly Dutch weekend. Andrew’s friend and co-worker, Tom, was in town for work and arrived to stay with us on Saturday. It was also Queen’s Day and there were huge celebrations planned in the city. Robert had taken us out for supper the night before and we walked through the area of A’dam called the Jordaan. Usually it is a quiet neighborhood filled with quiet pubs and little shops. Already we could see the preparations for Saturday. There were orange decorations everywhere… orange being the national colour, and all over the sidewalks was tape and chalk reading ‘bezet.’ Robert explained that this meant taken.

Every year on Queen’s Day, the city turns in to a giant flea market, because it is the only day that you can sell things on the street without a permit. While there is a lot of typical flea market stuff, there are also lots of people cashing in on the huge crowds in the city. They sell drinks and food and there are lots of games and quirky ways of taking your money. Kids perform for change and there is loads of outdoor entertainment.

Even though Robert warned us of the crowds, we still weren’t really prepared for what awaited us. As we neared the city on Saturday, with Tom, we were confronted with a sea of orange. We waded in, and as far as you could see, were people. Everywhere. For miles. The city centre was completely shut down to traffic and trams. We walked from the Jordaan to Vondelpark and it took us all morning.

Vondelpark, while usually busy in the summer, was absolutely swarming with people. We grabbed a patch of grass and rested our tired feet and watched as a sea of over a million people flowed by. I have never seen anything like it. When we couldn’t handle the drunken masses anymore, we walked to the outskirts of central and grabbed a cab home. We then popped next door to our wonderful Italian restaurant and had a cozy supper, which was a welcome respite to our crazy day.

On Sunday, we needed to take Tom for Panekoeken and Profertjes so we went to the Pancake Bakery and stuffed ourselves. Then we headed out to the country-side where we rented some bikes and cycled through the fields. It was lovely. We had gorgeous weather and nice scenery. We stopped at an Inn for water and beer and the cycled back. The town where we had rented the bikes was on the seaside, so we checked out the beach and had some gelato.

With sore butts and sweaty backs from biking, we headed home. Then we wandered to the other end of Java Island to a nice little cafe and spent the evening eating supper on the patio. It was a truly super weekend.

So that about sums up the excitement since the last blog. We’ve had a couple shopping days in there as well, including the purchase of our Senseo coffee machine and a trip to the Albert cuype markt. Other than that we basically have been trying to settle in to the routine of a new life. Hopefully this week our house hunting will begin and soon we’ll hear about our Visas. Hope everyone is well!

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Observation of the day – Canadians have this great reputation for being warm and friendly. While I don’t dispute this, I have to say that Nederlanders have been pretty great. It’s not just the ones we know either. Every time we get in the elevator at our apt. and someone is in there, they strike up a conversation. When we ask if they speak Engels, they always humor us and chatter away in English. In all of the apartments I’ve lived in, in Halifax, rarely did anyone ever talk to me in the elevator, halls, laundry room, whatever.

Anyway, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. It’s hard to keep up the momentum when I haven’t been able to post but hopefully this will be up soon.

Inge has been e-mailing me in Nederlands, with English subtitles, so I’ll try to slip a few Dutch words in here and there. We have a contact who may be able to give us lessons so that will be great.

Last weekend was all about plants. On Saturday we went to the giant Intratuin in Hilversum. This is an ENORMOUS garden centre. For the first time, I was able to buy plants here and I was so excited. When I got there, though, I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to choose. There were so many plants and they were so cheap compared to home. Eventually I settled on some herbs for cooking, which I planted all in a big pot together; 3 flowering plants that I will set outside when it’s warmer; 2 flowering shrubs; an Ivy and a mini palm-tree like thing.

Sunday we went for a drive through the bulb fields near Keukenhof. It was more amazing than I imagined. I have no words to describe it and I doubt pictures will do it justice. The colours were so vibrant and I wish I could have bottled the smell and taken it with me. The stripes of colour looked like an enormous patchwork quilt. I can’t wait to go back this weekend. We plan to go to Keukenhof and I am eager to see how it compares to our visit there last year. Last time we were there on opening weekend and many of the flowers had not yet bloomed. This time we should be there at the peak. However, it will also be flooded with bus-tours so I doubt it will be the tranquil experience that it was last time.

Thursday was shopping day and we went out and bought some new clothes. (We need to try and keep up with the Van Jones after all). Afterwards we ate at Green Planet (One of our favorites) and had our favorite dish, Spatzle.

Drew is working hard again today and I’m having a quiet day in the apt. with the kids’ ok, really I’m having a quiet day and they are all sleeping. They have settled in and have been spoiled rotten (mostly out of guilt). They have a new scratching post, 2 state of the art litter boxes and an automatic water fountain…Yup, we’re crazy. Oh yes, and a hammock that hangs over the side of the couch… of course they still prefer to sleep in a pile of my clothes on the floor, or curled up on the bed.

Anyway, that’s it for me. Hopefully I will have a more entertaining update after Keukenhof.

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On Saturday, April 2nd 2005, Andrew and I were winging our way back to the Netherlands. It was a year ago, to the day, that I wrote my last blog entry and stated that we would return to Amsterdam. I never expected that we would make that statement a reality so quickly … but here we are.

We’ve been in A’dam just over a week now. I have to say that it’s a much different feeling than our first week last year. At that time, we were so excited but also nervous. We didn’t know what to expect from this huge, bustling city. We had so many questions about communication, transportation, where and how would we find everything we needed. Our arrival this time was different. On our first drive through the city, Drew and I both commented on a feeling of coming home. It was that familiar feeling that I experience driving into Halifax or Saint John after spending time away; that relaxed, ‘ah, here we are… everything just as I left it,’ feeling.

But there are still some questions nagging at our brains about this journey as well; mainly about what our European future has in store for us and will we be able to handle it. Gone is the safety net of bailing out and going home to Stillwater Lake (the house closed successfully yesterday). Our accommodations in A’dam are only temporary and after 3 months here we will have to move again. Although we would love to stay here in the Netherlands, it looks as though we will have to move to Belgium, at least for the time being. We have left everything we know behind and arrived only with 4 unhappy cats (who are finally settling in), 4 (which became 5) huge suitcases, and 4 pieces of carry-on (airport drama story to follow). Somewhere on the Atlantic right now are 3 large trunks and 5 small containers of books… all that is left of our past life. Where we will be a year from now is anyone’s guess…

Many of you have asked about our flight over. Let me say that it was a saga and if anything could make us stay in Europe, the thought of reliving that flight could do it. While I would never, ever give up my animals to do this (would you give up your children?) I have no desire to fly with them again any time soon (nor, I am certain, do they ever want to fly again).

We left our house, for the last time, at 8am. We sedated the cats and piled them and all that was left of our belongings in 2 taxis. When we arrived at the airport 3 of our bags were over weight. We had to shuffle stuff around. The man who checked us in looked like he was going to be a stickler but he must have taken pity on us. He let our bags on and only charged us for two overweight. He did however, advise us that on international flights the cost would be much more and we should consider buying another suitcase in Toronto.

The flight to TO was fine, but our arrival at the airport began the stress. We had to get our huge bags and 4 cat carriers to another terminal by bus. You can imagine the picture we made. I had a trolley with 4 cat carriers and 2 carry-on bags and Drew had 2 trolleys with 4 suitcases and the remaining carry-on. This we had to man-handle on and off of a bus and to the KLM gate.

When we got there, we decided to take the Air Canada clerk’s advice and buy another suitcase. I was left in charge of cat sitting and Drew went off to see what he could find. Well, I guess a woman with 4 cats is not a common sight at the airport, because I attracted all kinds of attention. The cats were too drugged out to enjoy the attention and I was honestly to stressed and tired to repeat the story of our travels for the 30th time.

Drew returned with a suitcase and we shuffled stuff into it, thinking we were pretty smart. Only to find out, when we arrived at the counter, KLM’s baggage restrictions are much stricter than Air Canada’s and we were still overweight on 2 bags. More shuffling and lots of pathetic, pleading looks later, our bags were chugging down the conveyer belt. Then they had to tag our carry-on.

Well, KLM generally allows only 1 carry-on bag each as opposed to Air Canada’s 2. We had 2 laptops, my camera backpack and a roll-on bag with my slides and negative scanner. There was no way I was checking any of it and I was ready to fight. However as soon as I said ‘photographer’ it was like the seas parted and they tagged all of our bags for carry-on. They even double-checked the roll-on bag with the supervisor and he had no problem with it so we were feeling pretty good about that at least.

We had to keep the cats until the plane arrived so we had 2 hours to kill. Surprisingly enough, there is not much to do in an airport with a trolley full of cats, except sit and wait.

When the time came to drop off the cats, there seemed to be a problem. Someone was supposed to come and pick them up from us and take them on board, but no one was there. The supervisor had no idea what was going on. We waited, and waited and watched the security line we would have to go through to make our flight get longer and longer. Finally a guy arrived and zoomed off with the cats (zooming with the unbalanced load of 4 shaken up cats on a tiny trolley did not seem like a good idea to me…). We watched him head down a hallway and stop. Then he turned around and zoomed back, unloaded the cats and loaded them on to a different but identical trolley and zoom back down the hall, where he stopped again. We watched, we waited but he didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Finally he zoomed back and deposited the cats where he first picked them up… and then he left!! We rushed back over to ask the supervisor what was going on and was there a problem. He distractedly waved us on and said no, no we will look after it. Go get on the plane. Needless to say we were concerned, but we had no choice but to go as our flight was boarding.

The security line was all but gone when we got there (oddly enough they were all now boarding the plane). When we arrived at the gate Drew went to stand by the windows to make sure the cats got loaded on. I waited in line with our stuff to board. I handed over my boarding pass and waited on the walkway for Drew. I had 3 of the 4 bags and a stewardess (the same one who checked in my carry-on) came over to tell me I had too much stuff. I explained that I also had my husband’s bag and that they were laptops and camera gear. ‘Oh, didn’t I check you in?’ ‘Yes you did,’ I said thinking it would all be cleared up. But she had suddenly decided that my roll-on bag was too big. ‘Well, it was fine when you checked me in downstairs and it was fine when your supervisor approved it!’ (Suddenly I was wishing I was wearing my Bitch shirt) Luckily she got distracted by someone else and Drew arrived so we boarded the plane.

The plane itself was the biggest I had ever been on. It had an upper level for first class and the economy class was enormous. The lady that was sitting in our row was in the window seat but asked if I would trade my isle seat (score, I love the window). I spotted 2 of the carriers on the baggage cart outside. Thank goodness, 2 of them made it but where were the others. Then I saw them, on the tarmac, in the rain!! I was irate. But at least they were getting on the plane. I thought that would be the worst of it. However, after our seemingly endless flight I went to pick them up while Drew got our bags. They were alive and in one piece, or so I thought. It wasn’t until later that we noticed 2 of the carriers were damaged. The door to Dea’s carrier had popped a hinge. I was able to pop it back together but it is missing one of the plastic screw-thingies that hold it together. Then Drew noticed that Buddy’s carrier had a huge crack down one side, like something had fallen against it. For the amount of money KLM charged us to ship our pets, I would have thought they would be treated with first class care. As it was I am thankful they are alive. The only casualty was Orange and her wounds were self-inflicted.

Apparently she tried to escape her cage by clawing at the metal bars. In doing so, she managed to pull out 4 of her claws. Her feet were sore for days and we kept a close watch to make sure they didn’t get infected. She seems to be doing better although I doubt those claws will ever grow back.

We didn’t have much trouble getting through customs. In fact we tried to declare our things that are being shipped over and they didn’t care. One female agent started to inspect the cats’ health documents but a supervisor walked over and shooed us through. (Glad we paid all that extra money for micro-chipping). We had the usual money kafuffle at the rental car stand (I don’t know why that always happens) but eventually got our rental (hey, a Ford Focus wagon… what a new and different vehicle). With some help from Robert, we transported everything to our new, temporary home at the Sumatrakaade on Java Island.

Our first week was relatively quiet. Drew was thrown into work right away on Monday and I spent the first couple of days unpacking and getting the apt. in order. We made a couple of trips to Ikea for furniture. Our ‘furnished’ apt. was pretty basic and we needed some more storage space. I spent most of an entire day putting together 2 night tables, a dresser and a cabinet for the bathroom. Thankfully Paul had lent me some power tools… (Whatever happened to just needing an Allen key?) By the end of the day I was feeling pretty Girl-Powerish but I think I’ll lay off the Ikea stuff for a while.

Last Thursday was our first shopping day (stores are open until 9pm) so Andrew took me out on the town. We couldn’t buy because of the shortage of funds until the house closed but I cased a few shops for future reference… (Very cute little skirt at Zara I may have to go back for… Jenn I miss your shopping advice already). We had our first supper out at Los Pilones. This is our symbolic restaurant that we try to eat at on each of our last nights in A’dam so it was fitting to begin there too. Our only other meal out, so far, was at a little Italian place on our block, a few nights ago. It’s a fabulous little place and I can see it becoming a regular haunt.

Saturday was a fun, and ‘educational day… Drew’s co-worker Paul was having a birthday so he and his lovely wife, Inge, invited us to come for the afternoon and stay for a bit of the festivities. We had visited Paul and Inge at their camping place, in Den Helder, in August and had a great afternoon. So we accepted their offer to visit them, at home, in Arnhem (site of ‘A bridge too far’ for all you history buffs).

We made it after taking ‘the scenic route’ (i.e. lost) through Arnhem. They have a lovely house, in a quiet neighborhood and a beautiful little fish pond. They also have two very pleasant sons, Tim and Jeroen. Tim is taking English immersion and did an excellent job of translating for his Grand-Mother who was also present. We had a yummy supper of chicken Tikka and then the other guests started to arrive. We fumbled our way through with lots of help and patients from Paul’s friends and family. Hopefully we didn’t drive them too crazy. But all in all it was a fun time. The following day, Sunday, we went to the Food and Wine show, put on by one of the Expat groups. It was called S’makelijk! And the guest star was Ainsley Harriet. I doubt any of you have ever heard of Ainsley but I think he’s great. As you know, I end up watching a lot of BBC programs here and he is the host of one of my favorites, called ‘Ready, Steady, Cook.’ It’s kind of a cooking game-show (A bit like Iron Chef without the wacky Asian guys). Ainsley is also a fabulous chef in his own right and cooked up a storm at the show. I have to say that the Food and Wine show itself was very badly organized, but I’ll chock it up to growing pains, as this was the first one they have done. All said and done however, we did have a fun time. We learned how to make Sushi and subsequently bought a Sushi making kit. We went to a cocktail making seminar (which Drew volunteered at) and then saw Ainsley do his thing, which in itself was worth the wait. You’ll find pictures and Videos of our day in the photo section.

This week has been rather uneventful so far. Drew has been in Madrid for 3 days, training some customers. He’ll be back Friday night. We plan to take it a bit easy this weekend and maybe do a bit of plant shopping. Now that we are staying here for a while, we can be Dutch and load our patio up with plants. I did already purchase an orchid which I am quite ecstatic about, as I’ve wanted one for a long time. Let’s hope it survives. I miss you all!

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I’m titling this blog “Things I’ve learned while living in a foreign country.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as there are just two weeks remaining to our time here. It now seems like such a short amount of time, when in reality, it’s longer than most vacations we’ve had in the past. But I guess that’s the point of this blog; coming to terms with the differences between vacationing somewhere, and living somewhere. In no particular order, here are some of the thoughts that I’ve been mulling over:

After being here for 3 months, we look at people wandering around Amsterdam, staring at maps while trying to find the red light district, and shake our heads and sigh …”tourists.” The biggest irony is not just that we did that when we first got here but that we were doing that last weekend while trying to find Sacre Coeur in Paris. I guess my whole point to these musings is there is a fine, yet very distinct line between tourists and visitors. Tourists hop off the bus (boat, plane, train) and start looking for the sights … museums, churches, towers, souvenir shops. Once they tick the five or six things they needed to see off of their list, they can say that they’ve “done” Amsterdam (Holland, Europe, whatever). I’m certainly not looking down on this way of thinking. Until this point in my life I had only been a tourist and I will continue to be a tourist in many places and I have no problem with that. When you first visit a new place, you should see the important sights. After all, they are famous for a reason. If you went to Paris for the first time without seeing the Eiffel Tower, people would think you were crazy. But once you’ve seen those things, you can look beyond them to the people who see them everyday. Robert has commented several times about how we are visiting things here that he has never seen. I think about Canada and how little I have seen of my own homeland. I had an interesting conversation with Marie-ann about perspective. She commented on some of the pictures I had taken of what I considered to be ironic sights around A’dam. One in particular was of a police station next door to a coffee shop. She remarked that she had walked by there countless times and never would have thought it odd. Looking at it through my eyes, she could see how funny it was. I had commented on a similar phenomenon that I had noticed. We (or I at least) rarely photograph the sights around our home town. As a photographer, when I think about shooting Peggy’s Cove or the Citadel, I think “that’s been done so many times before.” But yet I take a picture of the Eiffel tower … like no one’s ever done that before. I guess that’s why travel is so wonderful; you get to see things through new eyes. My time here has definitely made me want to see more of my own country.This brings me to my next thought. Travel always seems to inspire more travel, at least for me. When I get the itch to travel and I finally get to go somewhere new, I’ll think “well, that should hold off the travel bug for a while.” But in reality it just makes me want to travel more. After three months here, I’m not thinking of all the things I’ve seen and done, I’m thinking of all of the things I didn’t have enough time to see and do, thereby planning my next trip here already. Seeing the highlights of Europe by bus did not make me feel that I had “done” Europe; it makes me think “wow, there are so many more places I would love to see and I would love to spend time in those places I’ve only seen briefly.” In fact, I can think of very few places I’ve visited in my life that I would not love to return to (Pisa and New Jersey come to mind and even those I think maybe I just need to see them with someone who knows where the nice parts are). I can also think of few places I would not like to travel to (I’ll skip the war zones for now as that sort of “adventure travel” is not my thing). Of course there are some places I would rather go before others, the “top ten list” you could say (but could I really narrow it down to ten?) But if anything, I’ve learned to take the travel opportunities when they arise. When there was a possibility of moving here back when we were buying our house, I didn’t really want to do it. I didn’t know much about this country (it was never in my top ten) and frankly, I was sacred. When it all fell through, I was relieved. Given that same chance today, I would jump at it, (not just the Netherlands specifically, although I do feel like I’ve found a second home here.) Not that there wouldn’t be difficulties and things that I would miss about home; family and friends being the biggest. But I guess the thought of living the rest of my life wondering “what if I had done that,” would be too difficult. If I had been too afraid to leave Saint John, I never would have met my soul mate, not to mention some wonderful friends who I can not imagine not being a part of my life. I strongly believe that everything in life happens for a reason. Specifically related to travel, I believe that every journey can make you a better person. Which leads me to another thought…Travel and specifically living in a different country can make you more open minded, but only if you first open your mind (Ah ha, a catch 22). For example, you could easily come here and think to yourself … The Netherlands is different from home. They allow drugs and prostitution and dog shit on the streets … it’s crime ridden and dirty. Or you could come here and look at why these things are so and try to understand them. Well, really only pot is not illegal here and we’ve already seen in Canada a move to decriminalize it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to regulate and tax it if it’s going to happen anyway? Similar situation with prostitution, we’re not going to stop the world’s oldest profession, so lets at least make it a bit safer for everyone involved and for those who don’t want to do it, as with pot, just don’t do it. The dog shit, well it would be nice if people would learn to pick up after their pooches here, but having a dog friendly society is very nice. Imagine being able to walk to the grocery store with your dog and taking him inside while you pick up a few things, instead of tying him up outside or not taking him at all. Or owning a shop where your dog or cat is free to greet the patrons (this happens at home from time to time, but not very often and certainly there are not restaurant cats). I guess my point is that being open to the way things are done in different places, makes you more open to change and new things in your own life. It makes you understand that different is not always wrong, or right for that matter … just different. There can be more than one correct way to solve a problem.My final thought is that despite our differences, people are fundamentally the same everywhere (cliche, I know, but still very true). Everywhere you go, there are nice people and mean people; open minded people and closed minded people; people who love peace and people who would rather fight about everything; rich people and poor people. With our world the way it is lately, with the fighting and killing on the news at all times, it’s easy to forget this. Generally, people just want peace, happiness and safety. It’s the minority of people that want the wars and killings to continue, not the majority. If more people could open themselves up to see these similarities instead of always looking at our differences I think the world would be a more peaceful place (that, and if women ruled the world…)

I didn’t mean for this to end up being so preachy, and I guess it was more to sort it all out for myself than to share, but I’d be interested to hear anybody’s thoughts on anything I’ve said here (as long as you agree with me … just kidding). These are also not specifically things that I’ve only discovered while being here. I’ve believed most of it for a long time, but they certainly have become more clear during our stay. 10:25:48 AM Ok, now for what everyone was really hoping to read about, rather than my diatribe about “what I learned on my summer (winter) vacation…” Paris. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Paris has this reputation of snobbishness and rude people. On my two brief visits there I have found nothing but wonderfully warm, helpful people. Paris also has a reputation for being dirty that I would also refute. Sure, I wouldn’t eat off the sidewalks but we’re talking about a city with millions of people, so there’s bound to be a bit of dirt. There are beautiful areas and seedy areas, just like any other city. Without trying to be too melodramatic, I would compare Paris to a handsome older woman; someone you see and think “she will be regal and beautiful until the day she dies.” Sure there may be winkles and grey hair but they are hard earned and tell the story of a long and tumultuous life. On many of the streets in Paris (the side streets away from the main tourist areas anyway) I felt that if I blocked out the cars and power lines, in my mind, I could be existing in any time period. The wrought iron, pealing paint and flower draped balconies seem to be the same as they were a hundred years ago or more.

As we had been to Paris on our bus tour, and “done” the major sites (see bitter tirade above) we wanted to do some things that were a bit different. We did do some typical touristy things as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We go first to a seedy hotel on the outskirts of La Defense…

The disadvantage of booking hotels on-line (or any other way but in person I suppose) is that you can pretty much take a picture of any building in the right light, slap it on the net and make it look not too bad. Note to self … if a hotel is significantly cheaper than other hotels in the area, there is probably a reason… Ok, so it wasn’t that bad, but it was no Park Plaza that’s for sure. We stayed at the Comfort Inn near La Defense, a new, skyscraper filled side of Paris. Aside from the carpet containing a complete microcosm of lower life forms and the door not having a lock on the inside of any kind it was relatively clean, and cheap. It could be worse. I’ll leave it at that.

We arrived late Friday night so we ventured in to Paris early Saturday morning. We had to take a bus to La Defense which in itself was rather uneventful except that it made us realize how very “white” we are. At La Defense we took a quick look at the Grand Arch. This was built as the modern sister to the Arch de Triumph on the Champs. If you go to the top of one of the arches, you can clearly see the other, directly in front of you. After a quick photo, we hopped on the metro (yes I said I wasn’t going to do this after the recent events in Madrid, but you really can’t get anywhere in Paris without taking the metro and frankly, you can’t live your life in fear of what could happen or you’d never leave your house.)

We got off the metro at the top of the Champs, surrounded by Japanese tourists all trying to take pictures of each other in front of the Arch de Triumph (what is it about Asian tourists that makes them feel compelled to stand in front of every monument ever created and have someone take a picture?) Then we did what every girl must do at some point in her life … walked down the Champs d’Elysee. Honestly, there are much better places to shop in Paris, places where you aren’t surrounded by other tourists and eyed suspiciously by hundreds of security guards (the street has more security that fort Knox I’m sure). But we walked it (the shopping district of the street is really much smaller than you would imagine) and then had lunch at a cafe. Sure a cafe on the Champs is probably twice as expensive as a cafe one street away, but there are some things in life you just have to do).

There was one store in Paris that I had to go to…Boys, skip this paragraph… It’s called Sephora, and girls, I’m getting the catalogue shipped home as we speak. Sephora is the largest make-up and perfume store in Paris and has outlets all over Europe and the States. It is huge… and the best part is you can test everything. Scratch that, that’s the second best thing … the very best thing is all of the free stuff they give you. If you go to a make-up counter at home, your lucky if they give you one of those little scratch and sniff perfume cards. At Sephora, I walked out with more free stuff than purchases. There is just about any line of make-up here you can think of, from the very expensive (Chanel, Gaultier, Dior), to the very inexpensive (Maybeline, and the cheapest which is Sephora’s own label). Just about every brand has it’s own consultant who will do your entire make-up (get this) for free! Oh sure, they hope you will buy the stuff if you like it, but you don’t have to. And they are so nice. I had my make up done by the Make Up Forever consultant (French company with nice, professional stuff). She was very sweet and when I was done gave me free trial sizes of lip stick, concealer and cleanser. Then I went to find some nail product. The woman who worked in that department was an absolutely gorgeous African-Parisian woman named Gala. They were offering French manicures for 18 euro (can you imagine what you’d pay for that at home?) I asked if I could have one and she was VERY apologetic that she was just about to go for her lunch. I said it was no problem and that I could come back later. Well, she was so sorry she started filling my basket with more samples (hand cream, Chanel perfumes …) I made an appointment for later and left with my purchases (and samples).

We then went to the Pompidou Centre. This is the museum of modern art. This was my idea and I take full responsibility for the disaster that ensued. To be honest, the main reason I wanted to go there was because the building itself is extremely cool and has a great view of Paris from the top. Also, I feel like I really should appreciate modern art more and was hoping to gain more understanding of it there. Well, the lines were rather insane. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer. The building was cool and the view was good … then we went in to the gallery. Well, maybe if I had of planned it out better and we went through it chronologically from the oldest to newest works, we would have got more out of it. As it was I didn’t get it and I think Andrew was bored out of his mind when he wasn’t laughing out loud. Sure there were some things I liked, although I was never really sure why, but most of it we lumped into the “my kid can draw better than your artist” category. When we did get to the older stuff, that I actually knew stuff about (Picasso, kandinsky, Matisse, Dali) we were tired and our brains hurt from trying to figure out the newer stuff. We laughed at our uncultured-ness on the way out (I, with the resolve to learn more about modern art before I do this again)

Then it was time to head back to Sephora for my manicure but not before buying and eating a crepe from a street vender (a definite must). Gala was a delightful manicurist. Once she realized we understood French, there was no stopping her. She was hilarious and did a great job on my nails, although it did take a lot longer than advertised and I think there was some reluctance to go back to work on her part, which was fine by us. She had a particular affinity for Andrew because he was so patient during the whole procedure, unlike some of the other husbands she had encountered. He got his share of sample products when we were finished (and I got even more…see the picture). By this time we were starved so we had some supper and caught the metro back to La Defense. From there it was back to the hotel and early to bed to prepare for a long Sunday.

Andrew decided Sunday morning that since we had to drive in Paris that day, he wanted to drive around the Arch de Triumph. For anyone unfamiliar with this, it is a round-about with the Arch in the centre and 11 (could be wrong on that) streets that enter into it. Most notably, it is cobble stone with no lane markings whatsoever. We drove around it completely (there is video evidence) and then down the Champs. There was also an incident with a one-way street and a very frightened taxi driver that we won’t get into. We managed to find our destination, Sacre Coeur, and get a great parking spot (thanks to Andrew’s Zen-like parallel parking skills). The church sits atop a hill in the Montmartre district (famous as an artist hang-out throughout the ages). It is huge and the view of the city is stunning … and the hordes of people swarming it are unbelievable. But even the hordes of tourists here don’t detract from the beauty of the church. We happened to be there as a mass was starting and we sat and watched the nuns singing in awe. The acoustics inside the church are unbelievable. All I can say is it is a very powerful experience, religious or not, that must be seen to be understood. You will see no pictures of the inside of the church on my website as they were not permitted. This didn’t stop most people from flashing away but I felt this was not only disrespectful for the people worshiping there, but that there was no way I could accurately capture the beauty of this building on film.

After our experience at the church we had lunch at a nice little cafe around the corner and then went in search of our final destination. Le Buttes de Chamont Parc. This was an interesting park built on the site of an old quarry. Most of the rock formations you will see in the pictures are man made but it is a beautiful park nonetheless. You will have to see the photos to get a sense of what it is like. We had an enjoyable walk all the way around and through the park and then we settled in for the long drive home.

We decided on one last detour on the way. We went back to the memorial at Vimy, which we had visited briefly on the bus tour. This time we visited the small museum as well. Most interesting though, was the recreation of the trenches of the front line. It was amazing to see the actual craters left by the bombing and how close the Canadian front line was to the German front line. I’ve tried to demonstrate this in the pictures but I don’t think it really does justice to the site. The Vimy memorial in general is a place where you feel very proud and lucky to be Canadian.

Our journey was topped off by a third and final trip to the Sate Hut in Breda, a town we have never actually visited except as a supper spot on the way from other destinations. The food was great and we just kept going back. Mmmm…sate. Mmmmm…Paris.

8:36:56 PM Quick update … if you have the chance go see Cirque de Soleil it is fabulous. These people are the best of the best in the world. The costumes, choreography and music, in addition to the actual acts, is amazing. All I can say is see it and then see it again.

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Germany turned out to be a fun weekend but it did not turn out as we had planned. We did manage to haul ourselves out of bed early on Saturday morning and get on the road, but that may have lead to our downfall.

We drove across the Netherlands and entered Germany near Arnhem with little fanfare. Since we were traveling the back roads the only thing that announced our arrival in Germany was a small sign. The country side we drove through was rural and similar to the Netherlands, although slightly lumpier. As we traveled south we did begin to notice differences in the architecture as well. We arrived in Cologne (Koln) around 1 and it took us quite some time to find our hotel. I had found a very good last minute deal on-line at the Park Plaza. Normally this would have been way out of our price range and it was quite a difference in quality to most of the hotels we have stayed in.

When we finally found it, we were hungry and tired and the weather was rainy and bleak. We decided to eat lunch at the hotel rather than wander around in the rain. Over lunch we admitted reluctantly that we were both exhausted and didn’t feel like exploring Koln in the rain. We were pathetic and went up to our room and had a nap. It ended up being a rather long nap and when we awoke it was starting to get dark. The weather had still not improved but we felt much better. We decided that since we had the opportunity to stay in a posh hotel, we would enjoy the experience to the fullest. We used the very nice gym and followed our workout with a very long sauna. We then had a late supper that was rather swanky. The afternoon / evening turned out to be just what we needed.

The next morning we were well rested but the weather was still not on our side. I made a snap decision to skip sight-seeing in Koln and drive the romantic highway to see the castles on the Rhine. We had done part of this drive on our bus tour of Europe and it was breathtaking. We agreed that this would be much nicer than wandering around in the rain. We were right. The drive was spectacular and the sun even peaked through a few times. The towns along the Rhine look like fairy-tale villages. It is impossible to describe in words or pictures how incredible this area is. Without exaggeration I would say it is easily one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Along side the town and castles, there are vineyards that scale the hillsides. I’ve tried to show this in pictures but I don’t think they do justice to how steep the vineyards are. Like all beautiful areas, there are definite signs of tourism and I’m sure that in the dead of summer, it would be a dreadful place to live. We drove as far as St. Goar, which was the town we visited on our bus tour, and then took a ferry across the Rhine and drove back up the other side. You can really only see the towns on the opposite side of the river when you are driving as everything is so steep. We had a nice lunch of sausage and German potato salad with apple strudel for dessert (how much more touristy could we be…). During our travels we decided that if the opportunity ever arose for us to come back to Europe, we would love to explore Bonn, Koblenz and of course Koln.

After completing our Rhine tour it was time to hit the highway and head home to the Praterlaan. One little over-sight on my navigational skills … German highway = Autobahn. I have two words to describe driving the Autobahn … “WHAAAAAAAAAAAA!” … “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” (a la What would Jarred do Subway commercial). Generally on the Autobahn, if there is a posted speed limit it is 130 and in many places there is NO speed limit. My knuckles remained a ghostly shade of white during this drive. When I dared look at our speedometer it was around 160 and endless BMWs and Mercedes were blowing past us like we were standing still. It was … an experience. I was relieved to return to the Netherlands, and the reasonable 110 limits.

On Wednesday, Andrew’s trip to Prague was unfortunately a disaster. He was up and gone to the airport at the crack of dawn. At 8:30 AM my phone rang. It was Drew. He had learned a valuable lesson … Canadian’s need a visa to visit the Czech Republic. He wasn’t allowed on the flight and he was coming home. About 15 mins later my phone rang again … they were trying to arrange a visa for him and maybe he could make the next flight. 15 mins after that, the third and final call … Visas take 5 working days to arrange. A few hours later a disappointed Drew was home.

Because the boys were supposed to be away, I had arranged to go out with Marie-Anne for the evening. We kept our original plans as Drew had loads of work to catch up on anyway. We met at Centraal and she took me to a place called The Movies. It is an old, Art Nouveau theatre that has been converted into a restaurant and theatre. You eat your supper and then go next door to a movie. It is a great idea and I think it would be a wonderful way to save some of our old theatres at home. We had a delicious supper and then went to see “Lost in Translation.” (No, the irony was not lost on me) It was a good film, but definitely not mainstream Hollywood fare. After the movie we had a killer dessert of 3 kinds of chocolate. It was nice to have some “girl talk” and we discovered that there are definitely universal themes. After supper, Marie-Anne kindly drove me home in her Mini (Drew was jealous).

Today I am planning our Paris trip. We purchased a map and guide book (we have a steadily growing collection if anyone plans to come to Europe anytime soon) yesterday. We have seen many of the must-do sights already, when we were on the bus tour. We’re planning to visit some of the lesser known spots and of course I will try to squeeze in a bit of shopping. Love to All! Al

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