Sunday, April 29, 2007

A harried start

For some reason, the parking situation at Newark was nuts -- I guess everyone in NJ and NY decided to take a trip at the same time. That was true for take-off, too; see how the planes were stacked up:

I always take a photo of Continental welcoming us:
and a photo of Marc on the plane before we leave:

The sunset over Canada was really beautiful. By this time, we were relaxed and on our way. Marnie had made her long journey and connected with us, we were all together and on our way.

Unusually, we were unable to post while we were on vacation. Not only didn't our rented house have Internet access, the small town we stayed in didn't have an Internet cafe. When we visited cities, we were busy the whole time, so instead of a chronological story, we decided to describe our trip in segments.

Many of the pictures are really great -- double click them so you can see them full-sized. The smaller view in this blog doesn't do them justice. If you want to see them all at once (including lots that aren't posted in this blog), click here for the flickr album.

Photo credits to all of us!

Our home base

Since there were 4 of us, we wanted something more comfortable than a pair of hotel rooms. Marc found this really lovely house in Enkhuisen. Unlike most things, the place was at least as good and perfect as the advertisements. No overhype; if you ever want to go to Holland, get the info from us and you'll be very pleased.

It's a 2-story with an attic room, and from the narrow street we couldn't get a photo of the entire building at once:

the top -- Marnie's room was in the attic space

our front door and windows.

It's very historic -- it began as a bakers' guild house in 1644. Whatever else the sign by the front door says, we are clueless. People kept stopping to read the sign, which was sometimes startling to see them standing outside our windows.

The back courtyard was wonderful, although we never used it except as a view out the large kitchen window:

In the little building in the back were 2 bikes that came with the house for "doing grocery shopping."

Here's the back of the house:

And the flowering vine crept up this evergreen tree, cascading its
pink flowers down the tree like Christmas tree garland:

The only strange thing about the house is that the single toilet was on the 1st floor, off the kitchen, and the bathroom (without toilet) was on the 2nd floor -- shower, huge bathtub, and sink. I guess the other strange thing was that the stairs were so steep and narrow, with minimal handrailing, and painted with high gloss enamel paint. I was sure someone was going to fall, but we only had minor slips. We each had our own large bedrooms with huge windows, and the beds were soft and comfortable.

I guess I can't leave out the couple of things that drove us all to distraction: #1 - the bells. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, bells chimed every 15 minutes. On the 15-minute mark, crazy discordant songs. On the hour, the songs plus one bong for each hour. And a couple of times each day, nonstop bell ringing -- very loudly -- for a good 15 minutes. It was crazy. It was a bigger problem for our daughters, since their bedroom windows were oriented a bit more toward the bell tower. And #2: Marc and I suffered with very early morning (say, 5am) busy men. A couple of days, a fisherman was loudly hurling his nets and gear into a truck in the street right below our windows. And a couple of other days, demolition in the building 2 doors down meant wheelbarrow loads of old bricks being smashed into a truck. It sounded like glass breaking, to me. At 5am, seriously.

But the house was really wonderful. The host, Mr. Klaver, was perfect -- friendly and helpful, gracious about our needs and mistakes, but never intrusive, even though his little frame shop was right next door. He'd lived in the house for 50 years before turning it into a rental home. And the other perfect thing about the house was that it's in Enkhuisen.


Enkhuisen (pronounced Eenk'-house-en) is a relatively small town right on the coast, in the north of Holland. We stayed in the most charming part, circling the harbor, where we suspect the rich people live. Check out the bay and the boats:

Like every other town in the northern part of Holland,
it's veined with beautiful little canals:

There's an incredible park (Snouck van Loosen Park)
that seems to be a place people live, too:

This round building to the left is the source of the incessant bells.
Marnie drew a wonderful sketch of it.

The downtown shopping area was sweet, with bakeries and
cheese shops and dress shops and all the other kind of local shops
you find outside the megashopping US:

Our girls, doing various things:

Lovely Marnie, in the park
And lovely Anna buying an adorable shirt

Unsurprisingly, there were lots of old churches, including this one
with a beautiful mosaic above the door, of fish.
The emblem of Enkhuisen is 3 fishes:

Surprisingly, there was also a small zoo-like place, with wallabies and llamas:

The girls were on a bike ride by themselves, and one took a little tumble off her bike here by the zoo. The other girl pulled her out of the brambles, and at the end, both had arms covered in red bumps. Stinging nettle, I guess. The man tending the wallabies was frantically signing to them, like "you're ok?" When they got home, they said they'd had an adventure, which every trip needs.

Nothing in Enkhuisen is open on Sundays, much to our unprepared surprise, and everything except a few restaurants closes at 5 or 6 pm on the other days of the week. People sit in chairs just outside their front doors, talk with each other, read books, drink a glass of something, or just watch. Curtains are open and doors are open.

We thoroughly loved Enkhuisen. Early morning walks to the harbor, or the bay, or around neighborhoods and canals, or to the bakery. Evening walks to the same places. It was really a perfect place to stay, especially since there's a train every 30 minutes to all the major cities. I miss it already.

The people

The Dutch people we encountered fit the general stereotype I had before I arrived: friendly (but not too much), frank, pragmatic, strong. They ride bikes everywhere, just as I thought. I think they must be born (practical) inventors: every small touch is a simple design solution to a design problem.

One thing that was very notable was the public presence of quite elderly people. This was an extreme example: an elderly man on a gurney (see him in the lower right of the photo) had been brought out to a cafe, and the woman with him was feeding him. He lay in the sun, among people. Adult women were frequently pushing very old people in wheelchairs in the market streets, giving them pastries, gently tending to them. The wheelchair-bound people greeted friends and seemed to be enjoying the sun and their friends. And the people pushing the wheelchairs, or tending the man on the gurney, seemed to be simply living their lives, not doing the old people a favor, or acting irritated or resentful. This is one of the biggest differences I noted between Holland and the US.

Schoolgirls on their way somewhere:

Like everywhere else, there's an enormous variety in the way people look. But there are a couple of frequently recurring Dutch 'looks.' This man looked characteristically Dutch to me. I see why people often use the adjectives 'sturdy' and 'hardy' to describe Dutch people:

And this young girl was just so beautiful, extremely self-possessed. I could hardly take my eyes off her, and shot this photo on the train without lifting the camera off my lap so she wouldn't know I was taking her picture:

This boy was on the same train with us. He had black leather wrist bands with wicca symbols, this backpack ("Six Feet Under") studded with enormous spikes, and heavy metal coming from his iPod. But his face was that of a young accountant, with silver-framed glasses, very square, and short, trimmed hair with mousse. He was impossible to put into any one category.

I'd bet my bottom dollar this guy is NOT Dutch:
Sloppy (which the Dutch don't seem to be), and slovenly.

The level of friendliness was interesting. People don't smile at you when you pass them (even if you smile), they don't nod or say hello, they will speak to you if you speak to them, and there's nothing unfriendly about it, but nothing more. I fell off my bike once (what a faux pas!) and the Dutch man right next to me simply stood there looking at me -- not a move to help. The proper response to nearly everything is pronounced "dahnk oo vell" which is thank you very much. In the US, transactions are ended with "thank you" but in the Netherlands, they say goodbye afterwards, which always took me off guard.

However, Marc's experience was different. Marnie and I would smile and nod at people and no one responded in any way. But Marc said that people frequently said hello to him in passing, even without his doing anything. Perhaps it's something about men vs women.

One really funny thing that happened a couple of times involved language. Someone would say something to us in Dutch, we'd smile and shake our heads and say "English", and they'd just carry on speaking to us in Dutch. They didn't talk louder, as dumb Americans sometimes do to people who don't speak English, they just continued the conversation as if we understood them. It made me happy.

We felt comfortable there, our presence was unexceptional, but we were easily able to get any assistance we needed. People were nice but not overly so, and they were never intrusive. They greet each other in passing but there doesn't seem to be an obligation to stop for a chat. I really liked it, a lot, and came home feeling kindly and positive about people from the Netherlands.

The food

Cheese, and a lot of it. Cheese sandwiches, cheese this and cheese that. Hearty food. It was often quite good (and sometimes very expensive!). This big ball of cheese was $30US in Amsterdam; of course the exchange rate killed us:

But it really was awfully good.
This is our bakery in Enkhuisen, where we bought morning pastries and evening desserts:
In Haarlem we ate these wonderful pancakes --
the one in the lower left is apple,
and in the upper right, banana:

And in Brussels, we ate waffles. OH MY. This waffle was topped with strawberries and whipped cream. Another one we got was topped with bananas and chocolate. The bottoms were caramelized, and just so delicious. Every bit was made before our eyes, the fruit peeled and sliced, the cream whipped, the thick batter/dough scooped and waffled:

We mainly ate at home, since we had a full kitchen. There was a great street market in Enkhuisen:
Fruits and veg
Snacks, nuts and seeds
Roasted chicken -- looks like it's glowing with goodness
and -- of course -- the kaashuis. The cheese house.

Anna and Marc were daring and ate the warme kibbeling before they really knew what it was. Turned out, it was small chunks of fish, battered and deep-fried, served with a couple kinds of sauce. They said it was really delicious; it must be common, because we frequently saw it in little snack stands.

We got in the habit of having tea and snacks a couple of times each day, and found some great biscuits to go with lemon tea. I'll miss that.

This trip wasn't really a culinary trip, like our Vietnam vacation was. The food was not the thing, at all. But we did have some wonderful treats, the waffles and pancakes, the fresh fish. Like other European countries, it's a sidewalk cafe culture, so if you like to sit and have a coffee or a beer and watch people, you'll have a great time, even in the small towns like Enkhuisen.

The scenery

We couldn't have gone at a more perfect time. The tulip fields were all in bloom, the skies were clear (blue mostly, but hazy sometimes), and we only had a tiny bit of rain once, in an early evening. Tulip fields were ubiquitous, as were windmills, new (frequent) and old (relatively rare). And fields of sheep and cows everywhere, in green lush fields of grass surrounded by canals. The Dutch landscape (at least as much as we saw of it, primarily in the north) is flat and verdant -- at this time of year, anyway -- carpeted with green grass and laced with canals.

Anna fell in love with sheep:

In a brilliant use of their natural resource, these new
windmills are everywhere -- and really beautiful, too.

Not as common as the new windmills, you can still spot
the old ones now and then. I always thought of Don Quixote.

Anna and Marnie both took this shot -- they loved the yellow
wheels in the tractor echoing the yellow tulips.
Red tulips along a canal
Pink and white
Loads of color
Deep orange

We never tired of seeing the stripes of color in the fields; I wonder if the Dutch people see them, or if they're just there every year, and no longer anything of note.

In a flat landscape, laced with bike paths, biking is so much fun. Even though none of us were all that good at riding bikes (let's say it's been awhile for most of us), we had so much fun. Two separate days we went out for a couple of hours on our rented bikes:

Here's why it's so easy and such fun to bike in the Netherlands -- flat flat flat!

We're off, starting at the harbor in Enkhuisen. My little secret:
I sang "Doe a deer" from Sound of Music as I pedaled, or
"The Happy Wanderer", out loud but to myself. It made me giggle.
The point was the journey, not the destination, so we stopped
whenever we wanted, for whatever reason. The girls:
and the boy.

Since we had a rental car, we also drove into the countryside to see the landscape off the highways. Marnie spent part of this day in Amsterdam alone, sketching, so it was just three of us. We also wanted to see if we could get into a tulip field, which we did:

The Netherlands really is a beautiful country, even if you just focus on the landscape. It's a particular landscape, flat and windy, unique and memorable.