Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Very Full Year

So much has happened in 2009. So much that was good and memorable. I would be remiss to leave out a special day in July when us Chickens were Abroad, enjoying our first family European travels. Some years Chickenblog has done a retrospective, highlighting the special events that made up an entire year. Today I will recall just one special day, as a favor promised to a favorite aunt... this one is for you Carol.

Before we resume our Chickens Abroad travelogue, please be advised: This post is a doozy. Get a snack. Brew some coffee, find the lumbar pillow, stretch. Don't hesitate to schedule an intermission.


We were in the Netherlands and thoroughly enjoying the restful and full days after the big city days in London, Paris and Bruxelles. Even our one day braving Amsterdam traffic was lovely and worthwhile. Leaving Rabbit Hill was hard. We had had a lot of fun there. From this very central part of Holland we were heading south, to an area that is a narrow slip of country nestled snugly between Germany and Belgium. Our GPS, flakey yet indispensable, was aiming for the little town of Valkenburg and a certain castle.

It turns out this is not the Kasteel we were looking for.

Not the moat.

Not the cows.

I suppose if we had brought guide books with us, or if we had bothered to learn to read and speak Dutch, then finding the ancient Kasteelruin Valkenburg would not have been so challenging, but then we might not have discovered this beautiful spot. That would have been a shame.

We aimed for town again and realized that the elusive castle was actually right in front of us, or more accurately: Right above us.

Of course. One of the highest points in Holland would be up.

But first, before any more climbs, we stopped for some local brew.

Then we climbed. The most sacked castle in Europe on the right and the entrance ahead of us...

Or so we thought. Even without our GPS, we managed to find the longest route to our destination, so our walking tour of the town was extended as we circled the base of the castle.

If Alex were writing this you would be enjoying fascinating details about castle construction and history, the lives and means of castle dwellers. He was an ideal companion on our self guided tour. His enthusiasm was infectious and his knowledge extensive.

Up we went.

I am not going to provide detailed analysis of the the layout, the features, the history. No time. Besides, it's been done.

Alex was making sense of all of it. He understood that cut stones and crumbled walls were once whole walls and actual rooms. He painted a picture for us, told us stories that filled the space with voices and possibilities. I could imagine dark, cold winters, long sieges, daily life, order and labor.

Narrow passages and medieval justice, made me grateful to have been born in the twentieth century.

There is something stirring and indescribable about standing in ancient places, seeing the hills and trees that were seen hundreds of years before and sensing that somehow there is still a connection between then and now, us and them.

We felt reverent. We were surprised and engaged. It's not a polished site, with everything reconstructed and served up for simple consumption, but I think we preferred it this way. We were on our own to detect the quieted, yet real history all around us.

It was beautiful.

It was neglected and old and messy and interesting. It was great to be there and not have a guide telling us what to think and which direction to look. We touched the walls, and deciphered the purpose of rooms and corridors. We saw the flowers growing between ancient floor tiles.

Looking up or looking down, our eyes met stories told and untold.

It's good to know history, to feel familiar with local culture and language, but there is a pleasure in wondering too. I do not mind mystery, quietly reflecting and enjoying my own experience. A lot of places and sights that we found in Europe were new to me and I have since been inspired to learn more, to read and research, but I am happy to have made my own first impressions as well.

Kasteelruin Valkenburg inspired reflection.
I think this was a baptismal font. The stone was very different from the walls. It was in the chapel.

Here is a chapel arch.

We sat in the chapel for a family portrait.

This is an embarrassing admission: There were plenty of markers and signs that detailed specific aspects of the architecture and some history, and the castle is being restored, but I rarely read plaques and history markers. Isn't that wrong... wasteful or something? I don't know. Maybe I am too absorbed in being there. Facts and dates don't last as long for me as feeling and experiencing. For me reading info can come later, when the real place is far away.

So, if you go there and want to know how many times the castle was under siege and sacked, or when the Wolf's tower was constructed, it's there. You can read all about it. You can study the detailed models too. This one shows an earliest version of the castle. (Very Monty Python, I thought. Peasants packing mud etc.)

At its best, when the paint was fresh and all the light bulbs were working, it must have been amazing.

And when I was thinking of the castle walls tall and intact, the gardens tended, the wells full, I marveled at what people accomplish, what nature erases, what time takes away. And I am still trying to understand why, after all this time, I still felt something living there, something from then, when it was a working home, a real place. What is that intangible, elusive sense that history is present and its voices are still around us?

So much to ponder.

Even when historians can fill in the gaps and I can read all about it in a book, there is a tremendous privilege in seeing it and exploring it for myself.

Alex believes this must have been the great hall.

And Max knew these were the arrow loops. He took aim. He was there.

She was there.

We were all there.

And we are looking forward to this new year and the new places we will go.

Happy New Year dear friends.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Older and Wiser?

Nothing confuses, frustrates and distresses me more than my birthday. Except taxes. And the wrapping on a DVD. Oh, and choosing paint color. I digress.

Nothing confuses, frustrates and distresses me more than my birthday. My birthdate falls in the void between Christmas and New Year's Eve. People are tired, shopped and partied out, out of town... etc. It's too soon after the big build up of the holidays to imagine one more party-celebration-cause for gift wrapping. We have gifted all we can. We need time and space to replenish our stores of good will and party stamina. Who can bear to look at another cheese platter? I know. I understand. This is why it's been eleven years since I last offered myself a party in my honor.

I was going to say more, but at this point confusion and distress are seeping in to my thoughts. Do I really want a party? How about just a take out container of sauce slathered ribs, some onion rings and one of Geoff's Margaritas? I could invite my most tolerant friends over to alternately cry and laugh over a ridiculously rich chocolate cake.

I am confussed. I cannot spell. Oh dear. I really am getting old. All my girlfriends have been warning me about reading glasses... how in your forties everyone needs reading glasses. I still hadn't noticed, until recently when I realized that I have no idea what I am shaving under my arms. I am armpit blind. Seriously. It probably looks like some cattywampus mow job, or like I have mange.

This is the year I am going to start lying about my age.

My name is Natalie.
How old am I?
Why, I am fifty years old tomorrow.
What's that?
I don't look a day over 43?
You're so sweet.
Have a Margarita.

****Uh... evidently lying about my age was not such a hot idea... I am getting sympathy and encouragement. I must actually look closer to 50 than I thought.****

Monday, December 28, 2009

*Dancing on clouds with Ponies and Sliding Down a Rainbow Into The Bathtub

*Not a song title.
Not our New Year's Eve plans.
Not remotely close to anything we have ever nurtured or ingrained or stimulated or suggested, and yet there it is... twirling and flitting from the active and highly colorful imagination of our daughter, Self Rescuing Princess-Ballerina-Cowgirl Maria.

She asked for two things for Christmas.
1. A fez, just like my Max and Alex.
2. A horse puppet and the horse has all the colors, like a rainbow.

Every time she described the horse puppet, sometimes pony puppet, and its rainbow colors, the boys and I would exchange glances. My expression was one of distress-amusement and the boys' expressions were of amusement-sympathy. No one had any idea where she got the notion that such a thing could be procured. No one had any idea what such a thing could even be. So, I kept my eyes open where ever I shopped, and the day I got to visit my favorite independent toy shop I began to narrow my search. I found a rainbow tattooed unicorn that definitely would have struck a chord with her love of all things fancy. But other than being garish, pricey, tacky and very commercial (gee, Natalie, why not tell them how you really felt about it?) I did not see any play appeal, any lasting value, and it wasn't even a puppet. Then I remembered all the times she admired and pined for a hobby horse. A head on a stick, I reasoned, could be a kind of puppet. As for the rainbow factor, she never was too specific about whether the horse was a rainbow, had a rainbow, or just adorned itself in rainbowiness.

I stitched rainbow ribbons to the bridle and let Santa himself make a special delivery on Christmas Eve. We have wonderful friends, and one in particular with a very jolly laugh. And now Maria has a rainbow horse puppet that she rides all over the yard, and through the house. She loves her horse. She loves her fez too. By the way, a fez is a much easier gift to procure.