Dano, Melissa, Kennedy, Ethan, Erin, Abigail, and Emily

Dano, Melissa, Kennedy, Ethan, Erin, Abigail, and Emily

19 May 2012

Long Live the Queen!

Each year the Dutch celebrate the Queen’s birthday on April 30th.   Though Queen Beatrix’s birthday is actually in January, her mother, Queen Juliana, was born on April 30th.  It also marks the day Queen Beatrix was inaugurated as Queen in 1980.  As a tribute to her mother, Queen Beatrix maintained the traditional date of April 30th.   Koninginnedeg is the largest party of the year in Holland.  Each year the Queen and the Royal Family visit one city in Holland for Queen’s Day.  We’re hoping we’ll be so lucky to have it be Wassenaar during our stay. 

Every town and city decorates everything in the national color, orange.  If you have anything orange, you wear it.  The entire country transforms into a giant garage sale because it is also vrijmarkt dag or free market day.  Everyone brings anything and everything they want to sell out on the main street of town and sets it up on a blanket for the day.  

Kids can also perform on the streets and earn money.  Amsterdam is, as we were told, a whole different story.  We were advised not to even attempt to drive to Amsterdam.  Koninginnedeg can bring out nearly one million people in Amsterdam, especially when the weather is nice, as it was on Monday.  People put their boats on canals, celebrate from their balconies.  It’s a giant party!

We headed out on our bikes (in our orange, of course) to our main street in Wassenaar to check out how our town of Wassenaar celebrates Queen’s Day.  

Abby had been very excited all weekend about the ‘big holiday.’  Clearly they had been learning about it in school.  She was quite disappointed to arrive on the Langstraat (main street through town) only to find the Queen was NOT there.  Her letdown quickly turned when we began walking down the street and began seeing friends.  Kennedy found one of her friends playing her flute.  She made forty Euros that day.  One year she made ninety Euros!  

We had friends selling baked goods.  There was a wonderful quartet from the high school jazz choir.   One of our friends was even selling awesome wallets he had made from duct tape.

We also took advantage of the beautiful weather to get some shots by our Wassenaar windmolen (windmill).  It stands as a landmark in the middle of town.
We finished the day with a relaxing BBQ.  I did wonder, though, how and what they will celebrate when the monarchy shifts to the next in line, Prince William Alexander.

26 February 2012

Belgium-A Girl’s Best Friend

While my brother, David, was visiting, we wanted to take him somewhere fun. We had thrown around ideas of driving to Germany but just couldn’t seem to make it work. After much delay, we decided on a quick trip to Belgium.We drove down on a Tuesday morning and arrived in Antwerp in time for a late lunch. I have to keep reminding myself that service in Europe is just not as fast as it is in the States. After our ninety-minute lunch, we quickly headed to the diamond museum. Unfortunately they did not allow photographs inside the museum. What I didn’t know before moving here is that ninety percent of the world’s diamonds pass through the streets of Belgium, mostly Brussels, Antwerp, and Bruges, and they have been for hundreds of years. The streets of Antwerp leading up to the Diamond Museum were sprinkled with diamond stores. I can only image the kind of security systems in those streets and streets of shops. We managed to get a quick picture of Antwerp Central Station before heading off to Bruges for the night. I'm anxious to go back as I've heard inside Antwerp's train station is beautiful.It was a wonderful drive between Antwerp and Bruges, mostly countryside. We stayed at a delightful little hotel in central Bruges.
The hotel staff was quite friendly and everything was within walking distance, which is convenient since parking in Europe is a nuisance! The next morning we headed to the grote markt. Nearly every major European city has a central market place called a grote markt. This area is used for special events, Kerst markts (Christmas markets), and general market booths set up during the week with fruits and vegetables stands, antiques, fabrics… Of the few that we have been in, I can without exception say they are beautiful and charming. Bruges was no different. The Bruges town hall (stadhuis) is located on the grote markt along with its clock tower and many picturesque shops and restaurants.Bruges even has horse-drawn carriage tours.
On warmer days, the streets are lined with tables outside the eateries (unless, of course, you're at one with a darling little girl
inside a tree decoration somewhat resembling the Eiffel Tower).
While on the subject of food, let’s talk fries. It’s been hard to find good fries since leaving the States. However, Belgium apparently has great fries, which would only be appropriate since they were the ones who invented the fries, not the French. The theory on this side of the pond is that American soldiers during World War 1 loved to eat the fried potatoes their French-speaking Belgian comrades were eating, and since they spoke French, they must be French, thus the fries must be French as well. Here they mostly refer to them as pommes frites. They serve them in this cone-shaped cup and even have French fry cup holders at your table.
So near and yet so very far...
Waffles. Mmmmm. Oh how our family loves waffles. Nearly the last week we were in Saudi our trusty waffle iron died a sudden death. It was, after all, my great grandmother’s. However, after a sad memorial and tribute, we realized we were moving the the waffle capital of the world! Of course we’d be able to find a replacement and one that was even 220. Wrong. That search has not been as easy as I thought. Luckily my friend, Camilla, has loaned us theirs on a (very) long-term basis until we find one (that does not also double as a sandwich maker). Is there anything wrong with wanting one that is simply for the purpose of making great waffles?! When we made our last minute plans to head south, our mouths began to water at the prospect of having an authentic Belgian waffle. After perusing Bruges for a good part of the morning we found a nice place that could fit all eight of us and ordered our waffles. Keeping in mind Europeans do not eat waffles or pancakes (pannenkoeks) with maple syrup, we ordered ours with Belgian chocolate sauce. Can I just say, YUM! Dano and David had theirs with strawberries and powdered sugar. Someone else was playing photographer so we didn’t get enough great shots…maybe we’ll just have to go back for more.

Then there’s the chocolate. Not only is Belgium known for their diamonds, they are perhaps better known for their chocolate, which is why I think it could very well be a girl’s best friend. Diamonds and chocolates. And while I don't fall into the cliched category, I can definitely appreciate the beauty of the diamonds and the sweetness of the chocolate. There was chocolate everywhere we turned! Since you can’t smell it or taste it, the pictures will just have to suffice until you come visit.

My brother patiently waits in a chocolate shop surrounded by the good stuff.

After satisfying our waffle craving and checking out of our hotel, we headed out to the last exhibit we wanted to see in Bruges. Along the way, we realized that Belgium has windmills, too, and had to stop to see them and climb one.

Each year Bruges holds an annual Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival. This year the theme was Disneyland Paris. For four weeks, ice artists and sculpters from China, Canada, the United States, Sweden, Netherlands, and Belgium come to Bruges and carve out amazing works of art out of snow and ice. These are a few of the pictures we took of the absolutely amazing display. Unfortunately, the camera cannot quite catch all the intricacies of the human hand. We could not think of a major Disney picture that was not represented at this festival. After walking around in a chilly 24 degree tent, the kids took part in a thrilling ice slide carved into Cinderella’s castle, followed by hot chocolate for everyone. I think that did the trick to warm us all up again.

It was a fast, fun get-away. We barely scratched the surface on these two charming cities, which only ensures a subsequent visit.

26 January 2012

To Market, To Market

If you’re ever at a loss for something to do during the holiday season in Europe, chances are you can find a Christmas market (Kerst Markt) to visit nearby. There are eight around The Netherlands. They are bright, fun, and crowded. We decided to visit one in Holland first.
We met up with our friends, the Bendis Family, at the Valkenburg Cave Markets.
The Valkenburg Caves are situated in southern Holland. They are the result of mining efforts of the Romans in the 11th century. They were mining for marl to build a castle, as seen on the hill behind us.
The secret passageways were also used by US troops when they came to liberate The Netherlands in WW2. I’ll write more about that when we go back to tour the caves. This visit was for the Christmas market and the tours were closed.
It was quite a unique setting to have booths set up inside the caves. One could definitely get lost through the five kilometers of secret passageways. We were a little disappointed with the selection of crafts as most things were ‘Made in China’. I loved this booth, but I really doubted the purses were locally produced.
However, there was one wonderful booth where a lady was carving clay and molding it right there. She let the children try their hand at it, too. She was from Lithuania and we loved her work. It was the one thing we bought at the Valkenburg Kerst Markt. We chose a rendition of Helpoort which is, as we’ve been told, the oldest standing structure in The Netherlands. Though we didn’t get a picture, one could see it in person when he/she comes to visit. Really wonderful artisanship.

The kids loved seeing Santa walking through the caves as well as seeing his sleeping quarters and room for the elves, triple bunks included.The painted murals were intriguing and I’m excited to come back and learn more about them.
We knew we wanted to visit a Christmas market in Germany also, the pride of Christmas markets. Germany boasts nearly 120 Kerst Markts! We had heard Cologne had the best. There are eight just in Cologne. We waited until my brother and his friend, Laurie, were both here then we zipped over to Cologne for the day. The part we all enjoyed best was Cologne’s cathedral. From start to finish, the building process took just over 632 years. It was amazing to walk through this beautiful cathedral.We couldn’t help but think of all the history that had taken place within these walls over the past centuries. The relics of the Magi are said to be enshrined behind the altar.The stained glass was stunning, but that seems to always be one of my favorite parts of a church or cathedral.There are also multiple sarcophagi throughout the cathedral, also dating back hundreds of years. It would have been most helpful to read German to know what was written on the descriptions. Some of our children thought it was a little creepy. I thought it was fascinating, but maybe that's the Indiana Jones-lover in me. Unfortunately the camera, as always, doesn’t quite do the setting justice. If it wasn’t so chilly (and we if didn’t have shopping to do!) I could have sat on a pew for a long time just enjoying the expansiveness of the chapel and the peacefulness of the cathedral.

We managed to make it to two of the markets. They were very cute and more crafty than the previous markets. As always, Emily rode around like the Queen of Sheba.
What better way to entice the kids to shop than to let them enjoy the rides?
The highlight of the Cologne market was adding a nativity to our collection. I love it and was so captivated by the display that (once again) I didn't even get the camera out. I am already deciding on one for next year. Perhaps next year we’ll make it to the floating Christmas market –one that’s actually on a ship.