Thursday, July 16, 2009

We Were In Amsterdam

We were in Amsterdam, and I am not saying this like a brag. I am saying it as a confirmation, because it was such a quick, half-day visit, that it's almost surreal. Almost. As I go through all of our photographs, I am delighted to find that we really were there and we really did see some of the expected sights of Amsterdam. And we made our own paths as well. And we walked those paths. We walked a lot. We were not very well prepared, so this was one of those visits that gets figured out in the moment... which is kind of crazy and kind of cool. There were *mistakes,* but why call them "mistakes" when we can think of them as experiences or learning opportunities? One thing we learned: It is better to walk, train, cycle or tram in to Amsterdam; it is harrowing to drive in to Amsterdam.

In Amsterdam the bicycle rules. They enjoy the right of way and they outnumber cars by 42 to 1, more or less. Add pedestrians and trams and all traffic signs in Dutch, and you are presented with an interesting driving experience. There were thousands of cyclists on the road ( I never exaggerate btw) and I think there were millions of bicycles waiting for their turn on the road.

It was a huge relief to squeeze in to the public parking building near the Van Gogh Museum, to leave the Espace behind.

For the record: In all the world I have never seen a lovelier parking structure than the one for the Museumplein. "Lovely," is not even a word I have ever considered offering when describing any parking lot, but Amsterdam wins the prize. It was well ventilated and well lit. It was clean. Clean. Clean. Clean. There were restrooms and vending machines and classical music was playing at a volume that would simultaneously promote world peace and invigorate tired feet. Quite remarkable. Sure, I would rather be at the beach or in the woods, but as parking garages go... wow.

Yes. Yes, we saw the Van Gogh Museum. While this newer museum was under construction, the collection of paintings visited California. I took the boys, Max was only a toddler, to see the entire Van Gogh collection, with my Mom. It was amazing and I made a promise to myself to see it all again. Truthfully I liked Van Gogh before, but really only in a sort of obligatory way. "Interesting," I would have said in an uncommitted, barely convinced way. You have to see the real thing. I am not saying you will like his paintings any more or less, but no print comes close to capturing the energy, the dynamics, the force of his view and his art. So, that when you see the actual paintings, whether you like them or not, you will find something there to make you think or feel or wonder. His art really is interesting. I feel fortunate to have seen those paintings again.

No picture taking in the museum. It's sort of too bad, but I know photographs don't convey the depth and detail that emanate from his canvases. You cannot touch the paintings either, no surprise, but my point is that seeing the paintings is a tangible experience. His paintings have so much dimension and expression that I feel as though he is speaking, as though he could walk in the room and scream: "I love these flowers and the heat of the day made me feel anxious and impassioned!"

Maria and I looked for the paintings she liked. She decided for herself which paintings were "sad." She worried about him, about this Van Gogh person, who painted dark flowers and tired faces. She asked about him. "What made him sad?" she asked. She actually sighed with relief when she saw "Blossoming Almond Tree." "Now he's happy again," she said. In the gift shop she sat with a book of his paintings, turning it page by page she discussed the light and colors, his changing moods. It was a big book. She studied every page. "Starry Night" is not in the Van Gogh Museum, but she saw prints of it and did not like it... at first. We talked about how sometimes a painting is about how we feel, how the world makes us feel, and not only about how something looks. Her feelings about the painting have evolved from thinking it was odd and dark, and "not very good," to recognizing it and pointing it out, and now she tells me she likes "Starry Night." I like her contemplative, reflective journey.

In a four year old, art appreciation is reflected in their comments, and realistically their ability to not fall apart or faint, or whine or run around asking for treats. Maria managed to demonstrate mature and admirable traits of an art enthusiast, so did her brothers. William, Alex and Max borrowed headsets with recorded information and guides to the art, and they each at their own pace enjoyed the Van Gogh Museum. I am not expecting a lengthy, reflective essay from them, but it was a pleasure to turn a corner and see Max deep in thought, gazing. It made me glad to know that neither Geoff, nor William, nor Alex was rushed or distracted. They took it all in. William and Alex remembered their first encounter with Van Gogh, somewhat. They took their time enjoying this visit. I will take my time waiting to hear feedback.

Hunger. Hunger was a recurring theme. Maybe the last two days of the trip we managed to synchronize our stomaches, our sleep patterns and the local dining hours. Plus the summer sun was always shining brightly, so that it never felt like it could be dinner time yet. We left Rabbit Hill without breakfast, but late in the morning. We wandered and savored the museum well passed lunchtime and by the time we deciphered our Amsterdam map we were famished. Geoff picked a spot that he felt certain we could walk to from Museumplein and so we began our quest for food... We headed toward the Albert Cuypmarkt, looking for a place called Restaurant Bazaar (Albert Cuypstraat 182, Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Too bad we missed the market. All evidence suggested we would have seen something really awesome. Laura Jane proves that we really did miss a fabulous spot. I wonder if I could have been as restrained as she was in the quilting shop she found. With the stalls empty and the litter being swept away, the scene looked a bit desolate and not too promising as far as lunch/dinner was concerned, but our dedication was about to pay off...

This will easily become one of those places that calls to me in my dreams, that insists I return. I am going to say it was indescribable, but of course I will attempt to describe it... it's just hard you know? Outside the place looked like a warehouse, kind of... well, dumpy or non-descript. If it weren't the place we were marching to, we probably would have kept marching. Instead we stepped inside and that was a smart move.

Not a warehouse. An oasis. A two story oasis, with tiled walls and painted plates, with gorgeous lamps and a vibe. A vibe is just that thing that happens in a place that is running on creative energy and natural inspiration, and it exists miles away from factory decorated, corporate theme restaurants. You cannot package this or make it a chain. It's got funk and junk and art, it's got a vibe.

"What does Maria want to eat?"
Maria enjoyed the patience and generosity of many people in Europe, and the wait staff in Restaurant Bazar were especially considerate, obliging. Our waitress addressed Maria personally and waited for Maria to "Hmmmm" and "Uhhhh" and second guess, and elaborately, colorfully decide what to eat and drink. Maria was introduced to strawberry milk, a fruity, tangy yogurt drink served with a festive blue straw. Big hit. She also enjoyed the child's plate of chicken and rice, the frites and fresh fruit and pita bread.

The restrooms are downstairs. Maria asked me to take the picture. She was utterly enchanted. So was I. A flash would have overexposed everything, especially with all the mirrors. I hope the beauty of the tiles comes through... it was really amazing.

And our table was upstairs.

By this time the long walk and the prospect of walking back were non-issues. Behold my favorite chandelier, my favorite ceiling color, my favorite twenty foot high tiled wall...

My favorite meal? Maybe. Definitely in the top 10. Ambience, service, price and taste... all factors in a good meal, and of course good company. All categories were satisfactory and more, because, you know... the vibe!

In Europe a meal is an occasion. I never saw anyone eating in their car, not even at the rest stops. I never saw people grabbing a bite on the run. Sit down. Chat. Have a drink. Consider your options and chat some more. Ready to order? Yes. No. Relax. No hurry. Sadly, it takes getting used to. We are trained to keep life moving forward and in our familiar world there is no time for hanging out without a purpose or an agenda, or a timer set to keep us on schedule. Happily, we did get used to the easy breathing, slow chewing, relax and enjoy approach to mealtime. This is the life. It is a way to live in gratitude, by acknowledging the blessing of food, the sweetness of company, the luxury of time spent in the moment. I think in the States someone could wind up on Oprah by writing a book about this healthy approach, but at Restaurant Bazar, and most places we went, *take it easy* is just a way of being.

I will never look at funky lamps the same way. Swoon. William declared the falafel better than our local favorite... oh dear. The perils of travel... discovering something better than what you can get back home.

Amsterdam deserves more than a day, of course. We knew we were cutting it short. Maybe it was intentional and now we know absolutely that if we can, we should return. I'll dream big and imagine us staying in a barge, riding along the canals and visiting the Reik Museum, maybe borrowing some bicycles.

We sat here, by the canal, after going through the Anne Frank House-Museum. "Going through" doesn't sound quite right. Her story echoes in the rooms. It made me cry. I cried when I saw the play and read the book and saw the movie. I thought I was prepared for what we would find there, but to comprehend what they faced, what they endured, is to be profoundly moved. What the family went through is one story among millions and the museum effectively reminded me of that... that millions suffered. The other message that is alive in this museum is that we are not through with tyranny and censorship, with prejudice and judgements, that we must still be aware, sensitive, questioning. Oppression hurts everyone.

It felt so good to sit by the water, to breath freely. I am so glad we were in Amsterdam.

I have So Much More To Say!

Max leads the way through Rabbit Hill, Netherlands.

It's true what they say about a picture being a worth a thousand words, or in this case pictures are worth a thousand memories. As I download images from my memory sticks onto the Mac, I see stories and hear laughter and recall aggravation and relive awe and wonder, taste delightful flavors and smell the blooming trees out behind the Notre Dame... hundreds of instances that I forgot I remembered, or did I remember that I forgot them? I realize that I barely covered our four days in the Netherlands. While relaxing and enjoying the easier pace of our cabin in the woods, I took the time to decompress and sort out our Paris visit. After the Netherlands we drove so much and spent so little time in any one place that posts got thin and sporadic. I have more to say about Switzerland, Germany and Barcelona too, oh and Avignon! This could be like one of those slide shows where you are compelled to sit through someone else's vacation, except that I am not glancing your way to make sure you are watching, so feel free to leave the room if this gets dull or nauseating. I won't know.

Maria, intrepid Kasteel explorer, Limburg, Netherlands.

I do stop and wonder if revisiting Chickens Abroad for the next 4 months is really such a good idea, but then I am thankful. After blogging for seven years I am aware that discussing the waxing and waning of the laundry pile and reports on the health of our one hen can quickly lose its charm and allure. Fresh material is most welcome. And sitting here in Garage Mahal, in our suburban rental palace, everything about our time in Europe seems fresh and charming and alluring. Time passes and memory failure does its part, so that vacation memories are lovely and good... I barely recall that we forgot a critical piece of luggage at home, that I was thoroughly searched in the Calgary airport security, or that our credit card would not work anywhere en España. While I may, I will record all the good stuff about Chickens Abroad.

But where to begin?

The Salad. Avignon, France.

By topic... a foodie post with great meals and awesome snacks and unique discoveries?

Outrageous cafeteria at a Swiss truck stop. I could have vacationed here.

Ballenberg. Oh dear. It's a poem. Why did we ever leave?

A scenic wonders post full of landscapes and loveliness?

This was pure loveliness.

Family stuff. Our time in Barcelona. Seeing the Tour De France. Hiking the ruins of a castle. Mass in the Notre Dame.

Too many choices. It's like a banquet of treasures and goodness, all these memories. Happy sigh.

I think I will tell you about the Netherlands. Later today. This will take a bit of time.

By the way, how is Your summer going?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

UNWelcome Guests

Actually, the spider is welcome at Garage Mahal, but the SPAM showing up in our mailbox is definitely not welcome. Please know that some of the creepy and inappropriate links and comments that have found their way to Chickenblog are not in any way solicited or invited by me or my associates family. I suppose a consequence of being "Noted" by Blogger, is also being noted by yucky individuals with poo-poo head ideas about how to make a dime. I am trying to figure out how to delete the riff-raff and I may have to resort to more comment filters, which is a nuisance, but obviously a necessity. I apologize if you have come across anything creepy here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Youngest Scholar

She's my baby.
But she's got wings and she wants to fly.
So, now she is going to preschool.

We were all in the car riding home and she talked a mile a minute about pretend camping and tricycles, about painting and story time and snack
and about the girl who is her friend and then suddenly it was quiet. Total silence. Alex giggled and I glanced in my handy Mom Sees-All Mirror... she was asleep. Her hands were still poised to punctuate her last statement, but they were stopped in place. Her body was limp, her jaw slack. Even her braids looked exhausted. By my calculations, and accounting for post Europe-jet lag time, she was going to night school and we were bringing her home at 10:00 PM.

Well, whatever time it was... Maria loves school and her new friend. This three days a week introduction will give her a lot of confidence and prepare her for bonus room... the old school kind of kindergarten she will start in September. Maybe it will prepare me too. Two in high school and a fifth grader, now a kindy-girl too.

Is there a support group for this sort of thing? *All your children are in school and now you have to figure out why the house is still a mess how to manage your "free" time.* Free time. I don't know. I am taking four children to four different schools... four drop-off times and four pick-up times. Four packets of registration forms and solicitations for volunteers and four open house nights and four different fundraising harassments. And I have not even fully recovered from robotics, which is like a fifth child.

I can't help this: Thinking about domestic perils and the logistics of raising four children always brings me to my least favorite, yet recurring subject... getting a home of our own. I am not going to dwell on this or assume the fetal position, but just for the sake of record keeping... the Blue House deal has not entirely fallen apart. Like other offers before it, we find that the Blue House is on life support. I am obtuse. Sorry.

When Maria woke up we went out to visit the garden. A while back we decided to take over that front part of the yard that was meant to be kind of formal and tropicalish and convert it in to our suburban rental farm, with barrel garden beds and a picnic table converted into a chicken's coop. The rabbit is there and so is the laundry sink that I planted near the faucet. It was daring and silly, but we even planted pumpkin seeds. Pumpkins in a barrel? It could get totally out of hand, but I could not go one more year telling the the children "No pumpkins this year. We have to wait." The seeds sprouted before we left to London and were we blown away when we came home to see the vine taking over and growing ten feet to the north and ten feet southward. Even our volunteer tomatoes found enough heat to ripen on their vines.

We may actually get a homegrown pumpkin. It's been too long.

Maria watered flowers and washed this and that. She discussed all the possible ways we could enjoy the second tomato. She ate the first one! Alex helped me move the spray nozzle to the temporary hose, since the old one sprang a leak geyser.

Betty came out for a bit and let us hold her, but she started making her way to the wall, so we had to lure her back home. All the neighbors have met her by now, and it's funny to hear them ask about her, because they doubt what they saw when they tell me... "Uh, did you know we saw something... it looked like a chicken? In your yard." Maybe I can get a bell for Betty to wear, like the kind we saw on the cows in Switzerland. I need to find the size that doesn't pin her to the ground, but definitely weighs down her escape flight.

Everything is doing well. I sat and surveyed our bounty, our lush little farm corner. I sighed contentedly. And I pondered. What if by some miracle the Blue House is destined to be our home? What if A follows B and the stars align and goodness prevails and we get to stop our search and move in to our own place? Then I tried to imagine moving a pumpkin in a barrel. How heavy is that thing? How much heavier will it be after escrow closes? Could we leave it behind? Would that be a small price to pay for getting a real yard with room for dozens of pumpkins? No. We should do our level best to move the pumpkin with us... somehow. Then I felt sad thinking the Blue House will probably not be ours. Then I felt grateful that at least we have our own pumpkin growing. Then I wondered if it's too late to plant more pumpkin seeds and I seriously considered sneaking over to the Blue House and sticking a few seeds in the ground... just in case.

Ah, the mind does wander.
Sometimes I think I should refrain from writing when I am sick.

Sometimes I think it's a very good idea to say what I want to say. To stick my foot in it. To step up and move forward, take a stand.

Jennifer, this last picture is for you. We always seem to be *in step!*

Monday, July 13, 2009

Uh... Where was I?

My favorite church in Barcelona, Santa Maria Del Mar

So, it was....
London to Paris.
Paris to Bruxelles.
Drive to Germany or through Germany.
Then the Alps.
Then France.
Security in Toronto... that was something.
Drive home.
Back to normal.

Really? "Back to normal?" I don't think that's possible. For one thing we are still on Barcelona time, so that means we don't know what time it is. For another thing we've seen stuff and been places and we are not the same. We are affected. We miss Speculoos in a jar. We've grown accustomed to baked beans for breakfast and saying "Aloha, parlez vous Español, danke?" Last night I woke up and stared at our room. Stared. I said declaratively, "We are not in France." I could not say for sure where we were, but I was certain it was not France.

I do not miss second hand smoke. By the time we were in Barcelona I was fighting what I thought was second hand emphysema, lots of late night coughing. The coughing kept me up all four nights we were there and in the day I was cranky and bitter. I do not know how I managed to maintain my cool, because my compulsion was to walk up to every smoker and cough in their face, stomp out their fiery little smog sticks and instill them with the obvious wisdom that their cigarettes smelled awful and made life on this planet less sweet. How did I find the strength? Or was it strength that I lacked?

Maybe it was the smoke and city exhaust or maybe it was the pig wrestling in Ballenburg, but I am definitely not well. The cough is subsiding somewhat, but now I have a mild fever, sore throat, and also throat gunk, which is, you know... not pleasant to read about, so I apologize.

Anyway, we are home and there is a lot to reflect on and share about our time in Europe, and then there is the present... the here and now. We have children in summer schools, and Max wants to plan his birthday party. Our family doctor is no longer practicing, so I need to find a new one and obviously none of this is in any particular order, but we need to change light bulbs and figure out why the hose is leaking. Naturally there is laundry to do. Today is Maria's first day of school and I cannot believe I didn't bring my camera, or get her there on time for that matter. My headache is huge.

It could be a while before all of my photographs are transferred to my regular computer. These last images were still on the camera. I cannot believe how fast it all happened. Of course sometimes, like driving in the south of France through Tour Du France traffic, it lasted FOREVER. I look forward to sorting through the pictures and taking it all in again, reliving the things we saw and did. In the meantime it's all a whirr and waking up and wondering "where am I?"

We came home and found a beautiful lasagna in our refrigerator. My sweet mother in law. Wasn't that dear? She knew we'd need sustenance when we got home, so besides watching our psycho cats and runaway chicken for three weeks, she baked us a luscious veggie lasagna.

We did so much in the last three weeks and I have this anxious, passionate desire to keep up the pace, to walk as much and eat as well, and do things and see things and be super productive. I ask Geoff, the kids, "What do you want to keep or adapt from our trip? What new thing have you discovered that you want to retain now that we are home?"

I want to walk everywhere.
I want to hang my clean wash out in the sun to dry.
I want more flowers growing around the house.
I want Belgian beer and Swiss style.
I want to learn French and Catalan.
I want less stuff and more time.
I want to feel at home, to be connected. Here. Anywhere.
I want to wear a dirndl, a sari, and wooden shoes. Not all at once.
I want to cook shawarma.
I want to go back... to visit all those amazing, beautiful, vexing, ridiculous, busy, quiet, breathtaking, peaceful, frenetic, artful, inspiring, dizzying places again and I want to bring my friends and family so we can share the adventure together.

I also think we should have siestas.

It is good to be home.