Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
My favorite Sinterklaas song (click on the lyrics for the tune):
Thursday, November 20, 2008
We had a blast, enjoying the incredible scenery, great food, and beautiful castles. Cole kept wondering where the actual prince and princess were located, so I had to explain that HE was the real prince.
Here's a link to all of the photos from the journey.
Dutch stars Van Persie, Sneijder, and Kuyt all saw action, with the former scoring two of three goals and the latter with an impressive header late in the match. MATCH REPORT
The atmosphere at the match was as interesting as the action on the field. Notably absent from this massive stadium: Cheerleaders, continuous sound effects/music, and roving beer/food vendors. Matter of fact, it was an "alcoholvrij" event, meaning that there was NO beer served whatsoever. Oh, the HUMANITY!
Halftime featured a competition sponsored by a local radio station where 3 individuals had to kick a ball from midfield and try to hit the goal crossbar on the fly. Nobody got close! But a guy sitting next to us said that he's seen it happen, and the winner pockets a cool €50,000!
A great time...thanks to my host Mr. Hamilton of Swooshworld International for the gratis tix. By the way, 6453 was well branded throughout the stadium!
Sunday, November 9, 2008
For a week-long holiday last week, we found the ideal remedy to the cold-weather blues: A trip to the sunny southern coast of Turkey.
Our destination was Lykia World, an all-inclusive resort about 1.5 hours south of Dalaman. No cooking, no cleaning, no errands, no work. Just relaxing in the sunshine by the pool and on the Mediterranean beach next to the clear, refreshing waters of the sea.
We couldn't have asked for better weather. Every day we had high temps around 27 degrees (80 F), and it even hit 30 on occasion. Perfect for sunbathing and feeling great.
Maya & Cole enjoyed the great kids' club at the resort, while Mom & Dad caught up on some pleasure reading and had plenty of sunshine therapy. We ventured out of the resort once to visit some ruins and a remarkable beach at Patara, but otherwise stayed mostly within the confines of the resort. A half-day boat ride was another excursion, complete with swims in clear lagoons, a visit from an old woman selling pancakes from a boat!
Looking for a remarkable holiday with a few of your favorite British, German, and Russian tourists? Check out Turkey. The warmth of the sun is matched only by the warmth of the Turkish people.Click HERE to view all of our photos from Turkey.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
-Barack Obama, Victory Speech, Chicago, November 4, 2008
It was these words that moved me to tears as I heard them in Amsterdam's early morning hours. Although the sun had not yet risen over the Amstel River, a new day--and a new era--had indeed dawned on America, and to some extent, the entire world, regardless of time zone.
It's rather difficult to summarize my emotions on this November 5th. As the wind swirls and the cold penetrates through the streets of Amsterdam, I feel as warmly optimistic about my home country's future as I have in a long time.
I've always been what I consider a "patriot," but perhaps in a way that doesn't fall under the traditional definition. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of democracy, the strength of a free-market economy, and the industrialism and ingenuity of Americans. I applaud our nation's creativity, work ethic, friendliness, and incredible generosity (both domestically and internationally). I'm in awe of our forefathers, honor the courage of those who have walked the land before us and who died to protect our freedoms, and love the plenty and gifts that we enjoy today. Our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are brilliant documents, written by forward-thinking, intelligent men who were ahead of their time.
And there are plenty of things to dislike and to be ashamed of. We have abused our privileges and soiled our land, water, and air. We have taken advantage of others, forgotten the helpless, punished the innocent, and profited out of greed and lust for power. We have hated those who look different than us or believed and behaved differently than us. We have made decisions out of haste and ignorance instead of logic and careful consideration. These black marks on America's report card don't extend just eight years into the past, but have existed for generations.
Yet, we march on in pursuit of better lives for our children and subsequent generations. Whom among us doesn't aspire to do better, feel better, and make better decisions?
That's what a great leader--in business, politics, education, or sports--can help us do. They can help inspire, affect change, and see the greatness that lies in our nation and its people. Through things as simple as a speech or a little action, they help make us feel that we can do better, feel better, make better decisions, and be a positive force in this world.
I'm not a big fan of Ronald Regan. But regardless what you think about the man's politics, there's a reason why he was dubbed "The Great Communicator." He had a way, through his words and demeanor, of helping the American people feel better about themselves and believing in their ability to do better things in this world. Some felt that he went too far, instilling a confidence, fueled by a cowboy mentality, that eventually developed into an "international arrogance." Still, he was a leader who lifted us up.
This is what President-elect Obama can do for our country. His calm, studied, intellectual approach lies in stark contrast to what we've become accustomed to in the last eight years. His words, the delivery of those words, coupled with his actions, can affect change at a time when we need it the most.
The immense power that Barack Obama has been granted by the electorate must be quite the weighty burden right now. The eyes of the entire world are upon him, and the world expects change swiftly. Mr. Obama's easel is not blank--every color of paint has been splashed upon the canvas, which must be carefully scraped away and painted over with a fresh base-coat before we (working together) can start to create a masterpiece that we all can stand back and admire. Sacrifices must be made by ALL of us so that we can improve America and stand again as a nation that is respected around the world.
People in Amsterdam and other places across Europe are incredibly curious about the American political process and have been watching this campaign with great interest. Not a day goes by that I don't discuss the topic with a non-American citizen. Each one of these discussions, whether casual comments or deep philosophical talks, renews (1.) my interest in our nation's wellbeing and international perception; and (2.) my sense of pride in our country. Today, I have another reason to be re-energized: The election of a man whom I believe can be the catalyst for great things.
Yes We Can. The challenge now will be for us to transform that saying slightly and believe in our ability to create our own realities. It's not grammatically correct, but I'd like to offer the Obama slogan 2.0: Yes ME Can. It's up to each one of us as individual citizens of a great nation to summon that new spirit of patriotism, service, and responsibility that Mr. Obama spoke of in his speech in Grant Park.
I hope that you share my optimism as we celebrate this new page in American history--a truly historic day on so many different levels. And I invite you to join your neighbor in taking up President-elect Obama's offer to "work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."
Monday, October 13, 2008
The short (15 minute) show was really cute, and we're so proud of our boy and all of the kids who did a great job memorizing their lines, songs, and bringing their "A" game to the British School of Amsterdam Infant/Nursery School stage.
Here's a short video clip of Elmer...errr, Cole in action. He's telling the other elephants a joke.
A small photo album can be found HERE.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Training on the pancake-flat streets of Amsterdam for even a moderately hilly race is not an optimal situation. A friend remarked that it was kind of like training for the Tour de France in Holland. Now, 4 days after the Hardmoors, I know that it's actually like training on a skating rink to climb Mt. Everest. Other than a few various holiday trips to the Alps, I hadn't run much of a hill in almost one full year. For this, the Hardmoors race would make me pay, and pay dearly.
Despite preparation that was sorely lacking, I found myself on the starting line on Friday, 26 September. One of the unique aspects of this race is an evening start time of 5 p.m. This would mean that most competitors, yours truly included, would face the daunting task of running through two evenings.
With me at the start was my incredible crew: Mr. Masters, Mr. Masters, and Mr. Masters! My good buddy Steve, a former RAAM crew chief (his RAF cycling team won the race a few times), is one of the best on the planet when it comes to managing and organizing a race effort. Accompanying Steve were his father, Mick, and his brother (and my pacer/running companion) Richard. Not only are these three some of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, but their attention to detail and selflessness would ensure that I'd make it to the finish line. All I would have to do was put one foot in front of the other.
For a lover of history—especially British history (and literature)--such as myself, this would be a race of superlatives. Along the route, medieval abbeys, ancient bridges, stone cross ruins, and historic literary references dotted the landscape. In one section, I would run down a centuries-old roadway once used by Scottish drovers as they herded cattle and sheep to markets in England. Old stone walls lined the route in many spots. The feet that had passed this way dated back to a time when modern running shoes were as futuristic sounding as men from Mars. There are over 3000 Bronze Age (2,000 B.C.) burial mounds in the moors. Going further back to around 5,000 B.C., the Neolithic people farmed the land here. And when you crank up the way-back machine to its highest setting, there is evidence that around 8,000 B.C. in the Mesolithic period, people hunted, gathered, and fished here.
Our first cultural scenery was adjacent to the starting line...the (relatively NEW--circa early 13th century) Norman castle ruins in Helmsley. With this magnificent castle in the background, we took off just minutes after 5 p.m. Early going, I felt the effects of a stomach bug that had plagued me earlier in the week. I had never fully recovered, and my overall energy level lagged considerably. For much of the first section, I ran with a French guy named Julian—one of the three other non-Brits running the race. After just 10 miles into the race, I had an inkling that it was going to be a long race. My initial goals were for a 28-hour finish, but by the 20-mile mark I knew that I would have to adjust. However, it's a 100+ mile race...ANYTHING can happen!
Richard ran with me from about mile 10 to 20 (Julian had run on ahead), and we enjoyed some of the most spectacular views as the sun set. As we ran to the north along a series of cliffs, we enjoyed the red evening sky, the frequent chattering of grouse and pheasant (saw a lot of the latter), and enjoyed the variety of trees, running through deciduous and evergreen forests alike. When darkness draped its blanket over us, the headlamp became our best friend as grassy pathways alternated with rocky trails. Descending the cliffs and running into the next checkpoint in Osmotherly at mile 20, I was feeling fair. To repeat: Anything can happen.
And anything did happen shortly after the checkpoint. Now on a short road segment, my stomach and energy levels took a turn for the worse. I tried to tell myself that it was a temporary thing, but it was a tough sell. Now on my own for a stretch, the darkness seemed to get darker. With no moonlight whatsoever, I relied only upon my headlamp and the series of maps that I had printed and laminated for the race (a set of almost 40 individual cards). Each segment was accompanied by a written course description that at times would prove very helpful. Navigation was a serious challenge in this race, with a number of competitors going off course at various points. I'm not sure whether it was dumb luck, experience, or a good sense of direction, but I only strayed off course for one very short (50 meter) segment. At one point, I had only sheep and a fenceline to guide me along the route.
Soon, the intense climbing began. The moors, not to be confused with the Muslims from North Africa who reigned in Spain centuries ago, feature a series of very steep and challenging hills. As a veteran of many mountain runs in the American West, it's easy to think that these mere “hills” are nothing tough. WRONG. These babies have incredibly steep paths carved into them. Upon climbing the first hill, I was thankful that the trail builders had placed stone steps to make the climbing easier. That thankfulness quickly turned to dread with each successive stone step up, and rapidly deteriorated to disgust at the entire world when I had to navigate the tricky stone paths that descended from each hilltop. To rub more salt in the wounds, ankle-width drainage gulleys cut diagonally across the path at 10 meter intervals, offering yet more leg-breaking treachery to the brutal path. For nearly 20 miles as I traversed across this section, there was very little runable terrain. Add the intense wind (whipping my jacket so hard at one point that I couldn't hear myself think), the foggy mist that had moved in, and the pitch black conditions...well, you get the point. At least there were no reports of werewolf attacks.
Into the next checkpoint, my stomach had recovered somewhat, but now I faced what would be the toughest part of the course from a navigational standpoint. Providence shined on me again in the form of a fellow runner and his pacer, the latter of whom was an exceptional navigator. The three of us managed to find our way without much trouble through the toughest hours of the night that included an ascent up the brutal steps of Roseberry Topping, a vista which during daylight must have offered exceptional views of the surrounding countryside. But in the darkness, there was nothing but black. Heads down, we moved forward.
As the morning sun peeked over the horizon, the next checkpoint came, and I again picked up Richard.The quiet of the dawn soothed my soul, but my legs still felt like lead. My saving grace was that the town of Saltburn-By-Sea was close, which meant that my race was nearly halfway done. Entering the checkpoint at the coast, 55 miles was in the bag...and just 55 remained.
Now, route finding would be “easy.” Simply head southward along the coast, and eventually I'd run into the finish line in the town of Filey. But along the way, there would be grueling ups and downs and more flagging energy levels. From Saltburn until the town of Robin Hood's Bay, I simply tried to enjoy the magnificent coastal scenery and focus on running whenever possible. At one point, Richard pointed out a Peregrine Falcon. Nice. At Robin Hood, I managed to pass another runner (who would eventually finish around 30 or 45 minutes behind me). I kept moving forward, trying desperately not to let the brutal climbing and descents mess with my mind. Whenever I thought there couldn't be more climbing, I'd be faced with another set of steps.
The beautiful weather conditions helped my mood considerably. Sunshine, paired with the gentle crash of the waves far below the clifftops, made for quite the serene setting. It was only in my legs that the boisterous revolt was taking place. My knees were staging a violent coup against my quadriceps, and my shins ached for a regime change.
Entering the beautiful town of Whitby, I read and re-read the course description, failing to see the bridge described. Certainly I wasn't supposed to descend into the bowels of this tourist town and run through the masses who were strolling the streets...or was I? Yes, the most direct path to the checkpoint at the medieval abbey was via the packed streets, so I ventured forth, fighting for real estate amidst baby carriages, tipsy holiday-makers, and rowdy teens. More than a few people gawked in amazement/curiosity/pity at this guy with crazy hair, knee-high black compression socks, and a double-bottle lumbar pack running through the streets. When I reached the base of the 199 steps leading to the abbey, the crowds let up and I continued unimpeded to the checkpoint at mile 76. The picturesque abbey was the inspiration/setting for Bram Stoker's famous novel “Dracula,” and it's not a stretch to see why. The gothic spires look haunting enough in the bright sunlight, to say nothing of how they might appear at night.
The next 11 miles to the next checkpoint went by in a rather uneventful way. At mile 87, Richard joined me again, where I made the dumb, dumb, dumb mistake of not checking for my headlamp. This would bite me in the ass as darkness soon fell again upon reaching the godforsaken town of Scarborough. Where I once was a fan of the popular Simon & Garfunkel song, I have vowed never to sing the song again after suffering the mental anguish of trying to find the Scarborough checkpoint, and suffering the catcalls and laughs of the town's tourists. All I could think to myself was, “Don't mess with me! I've just run almost 100 miles and I don't deserve your shit!” All the while, the going was made more challenging by the fact that Richard and I had no flashlights!
But...anything can happen. Rejoining Julian at the checkpoint, we continued on, passing the 100-mile point in the darkness along the coast—but this time with the advantage of headlamps! One out-and-back section along a rock promontory known as Filey Brig (outside of the finish town of Filey), and we would be “home free.” Finding the route past this out-and-back proved a bit challenging, but I could smell the barn, so to speak. Nothing would stop me now.
Since Julian and I were most likely going to reach the finish line together, I offered him that he should cross the line in front of me, as I had no pride attached to my finishing place. Showing his grace and gentlemanly nature, he suggested that we join hands and finish in a tie. And thus, the Hardmoors 110 came to a close for me, tied for 5th place with Julian in almost precisely 31 hours.
In the wake of the race, I'm humbled once again by my generous crew led by my good friend Steve Masters. Steve, Mick, and Richard's assistance was invaluable, and runners who crew for themselves (such as Julian!) have my never-ending respect for taking on the challenge in a true solo fashion. And the course itself was supremely challenging, eclipsing my expectations for how difficult I thought it would be. In a word, it was absolutely brutal.
Runners who might be considering an extremely tough 100+ mile race would do themselves a favor by considering this amazing event in a most amazing location. Additional kudos go out to the two-man race organizing duo of Jon Steele and Martin Hall for pulling off a logistical miracle, given the terrain and scope of the event.
With legs that haven't quite stopped aching, I thank all of you for your words of support in advance of the race, and humbly thank you for the plaudits that I've received since finishing.
PHOTOS are HERE.
Monday, September 29, 2008
After we returned from Normandy, we tried to jam as much action into the last few weeks of the summer holiday as possible. As soon as school was back in session in early September, our schedule ramped up even more.
A nice trip to a local apple orchard with some friends --- the British School summer fair --- a great showing by Stacey at the Dam to Dam 10-mile race -- and a nice afternoon spent at a Jordaan neighborhood street fair --- all have made the last few weeks a lot of fun.
Click HERE for a few photos from our latest adventures.
Monday, September 8, 2008
It's been a few weeks since we've been back from Normandy, France, a marvelous region with great scenery, quaint towns, quiet country roads, and lots of relaxation.
We weren't just a family of four this time around...our numbers doubled to 8 with the delightful addition of Stacey's mom, brother, and his two kids. The four kids had a blast together, making up for lost time since we last saw them almost a year ago.
The first half of our holiday was spent inland in Normandy near the village of Coutances. Our residence was the guesthouse of a chateau that was built in 1632. "Extraordinary" doesn't come close to describing this incredible place. Our hosts, an American couple and their children, were the best we could have asked for.
What would one of our holidays be without some antics from our resident monkey boy? Here's a clip of Cole herding sheep--one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time:
For the second half of our holiday, we ventured to the west coast of Normandy and the town of Agon-Coutainville. For some geographical and historical perspective, the D-Day landing beaches are on the north coast of the province. At the close of our holiday, we drove to Omaha beach and visited the American cemetery.
Like most of our vacations, I could go on and on with details about the adventure. This time around, I invite you to let the photographs tell the story...
Click HERE for a link to all of the vacation photos. Enjoy!
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Tonight, however, I just can't think about hitting the pillow. Beside the usual myriad of thoughts pulsing through my brain, something happened this weekend to an acquaintance of mine that has given me pause and made me shudder.
For details on the woman, Barbara Warren, I'll direct you to the homepage of Competitor Magazine at www.competitorsocal.com. Please read Bob Babbitt's brief biography of Barbara there.
I had only met her a few times during my stint as the start and finish line announcer for the Race Across America (RAAM). But something about this special lady has always stuck with me. Along with her twin sister Angelika, Barbara tackled the supreme endurance contest of RAAM just as she had the other athletic challenges in life: With full force. A veteran of many Ironman triathlons, ultrarunning races, adventure races, a fitness model, a public speaker, and much more, Barbara had a spark that is ignited by the passion of a person who grabs life by the tail and swings with all her might.
Unfortunately, I'm writing about Barbara in the past tense. The details of her death are horrible: Last Sunday during a triathlon in Southern California, she crashed on the bike and was paralyzed from the neck down, and lived her last few days in a hospital bed on a ventilator. Her husband, Tom Warren, the winner of the SECOND Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, was by her side.
When we get on our bike for a training ride, a race, or a trip across town for groceries, an accident as tragic as this one is usually the furthest thing from our mind. But a few pounds of metal and rubber are the only thing between us, the road, cars, trucks, buses, and trams.
Somewhere in Barbara's tragic story there lies a message. For the bike riders reading this, it's painfully obvious: Be safe. Be aware. Be thankful that you're healthy and fit enough to enjoy one of the finer pleasures in life, that of riding on two wheels and feeling the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. For those of us that operate a motor vehicle (even though none was involved in Barbara's accident), it's just another reminder of the exposure that cyclists have to the environment around them. Give them space. Slow down. Pass when, and only when, the coast is clear.
But an even more important message, I believe, is simply to remember to love the ones you love. Hug them. Tell them how much they mean to you. And thank them for being a part of your life. I would expect that this is what Barbara would have wanted us all to do.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
Like most of our adventures, our recent trip to Switzerland held a bit of unknown, promise, and adventure. And just like all of our European adventures to date, Switzerland--and it's indescribable beauty--vastly exceeded our expectations as a magical land of mountains, cows, and family fun.
The trip wasn't originally in our travel plans, but when Stacey realized that she would be attending a work function in southern Germany, the seed was planted. Europe's big outdoor retail trade show would be held in Friedrichshafen, which lies at Germany's southernmost border. The plan looked like this: The kids and daddy would travel via overnight train from Amsterdam to Zurich, meeting Stacey the next day. Perfect!
And perfect it was. Zurich is a marvelous city that sits on a lake with water so clear that it's been deemed safe to drink. While we passed on this method for quenching our thirst, we did marvel at the incredible clarity of the water, where even in the middle of the city one can see the river bottom as it flows swiftly by. "Hey, isn't that a bicycle down there?!?" (We can only imagine if Amsterdam's canals were as clear...imagine being able to see the thousands of bikes that line the canal bottoms!
Our time in Zurich was not long, as we set our sights on an even more beautiful location, the storied mountain town of Grindelwald, which sits below the famed Eiger mountain (elev. 13,026 ft.). The mountain looms over the town, and the scenery looks as if it is a painted backdrop hung around the village by a master artist. But truth/fact is more remarkable than fiction, and these vistas were as real as they get. One can be (incredibly and forever) moved by paintings in a gallery, but there's simply no substitute for landscapes that you can see and touch in person.
The train journey from Zurich to Grindelwald is one of the most picturesque railway rides I've ever experienced. As the train snakes past Interlaken and heads toward Grindelwald, every bend in the tracks offered us another great vista or interesting house/building/river/forest to see.
When pressed for comment, I think that each member of the family might have a distinct highlights of our stay in Grindelwald. No doubt that the kids will remember the great community pool that we visited daily. Stacey might remember the mountain runs and hikes most fondly, which is difficult for me to argue! I would add that our trip to the "Top of Europe," Jungfraujoch (elev. 11,782 ft.), the highest railroad/railway station on the continent, was certainly a most remarkable journey. Note that the peak of the actual Jungfrau mountain sits a bit higher at 13,642 ft. above sea level.
We took one major hike with the entire family. From Grindelwald (3393 ft.), we rode a gondola to First (pronounced "Feerst", a collective of buildings that I hesitate to call a town, elev. 7113 ft.). After a casual lunch, we set out on a 1 hour, 45 minute hike that rolled over some beautiful mountain scenery, past grazing cows, and along ridges that took our breath away, ending at Grosse Scheidegg for a bus ride back to Grindelwald.
A note on the omnipresent Swiss cows: We hadn't given it much thought, but all of that milk for the fondues and chocolates has to come from somewhere. One of our fondest memories might just be of the echoing of the cowbells across the valleys, with each herd wearing a different size/shape/sounding bell, perhaps to help the farmers distinguish one herd from another. The next time you stop by Albert Hein or Fred Meyer to pick yourself up some Toblerone, tip your hat in the direction of Switzerland and thank those magnificent cows who have given so much for so little in return. That said, when I'm reincarnated as a cow, please, oh please Buddha, may I live in the Swiss Alps? Talk about the good life!
Get a feel for yourself...play this movie:
By the way, a chocolate factoid: If you laid the daily production of 100g TOBLERONE bars end to end, it would stretch over a distance of 283 km, the distance from Detroit to Cleveland.
One part of Switzerland that we hadn't adequately prepared for (mentally) was the cost of goods and services. Holy Swiss Franc, Batman! Lunch: 55 Francs! (1 Swiss Franc = approx. 1 US Peso...err, dollar). Dinner: 110 Francs! Postcard: 3 Francs! But, as the commercial says, the Swiss mountain experience: Priceless.
So, after four days and with not a small audible sigh, we checked out of our comfortable apartment hotel and boarded the return train for Zurich to retrace our steps back to Amsterdam. With each feet in elevation lost, it felt as if we were leaving part of ourselves behind, too. But the soul-charging experience that was given to us by the Swiss mountains and the affable Swiss people were just what we needed to kick off the "official" summer break, and we returned to our home better for the entire experience.
Journey along with us and click HERE for photos from our time in Switzerland.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Cole has been loving his "free ride" around Amsterdam...that is, a seat on the back of Daddy's bike instead of having to ride a bike of his own.
But we knew that he was plenty big enough to be riding his own two-wheeler--we had just been procrastinating on the "practice" sessions.
After we arrived home from a holiday in Switzerland, we took Cole's bike out into the street to see what would happen without training wheels.
Here's what transpired:
For whatever reason, I'm a bit fascinated with klompen--perhaps it's my general fascination with unique cultural icons. Whatever the source, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I bought myself a pair.
During my mom's visit, we returned to the farm and watched a pair of wooden shoes being turned out on some ancient machinery.
In this first movie, the shoes are taking their shape:
In this next movie, you can see how the inner parts of the shoe are carved out:
And here is the (partially) finished product.
Mine are customized with the three Amsterdam X's (found in the ubiquitous city crest), with my name etched into the side of one shoe.
Click HERE for all of the pics from the big party.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Highlights for their trip included a trip to Brugges, Belgium, as well as exploring Amsterdam's sights.
For us, it was just great to spend some time together. Maya and Cole really loved having Grandma and Grandpa with us for the week!
That's my best excuse for not updating the blog earlier. It seems like the past month + has been jammed with activities, so I'll blame it on that.
But let's rewind to late May when we took a great weekend trip to Prague in the Czech Republic. As we've done in other cities, we had booked a small apartment in the center of the city. Upon our arrival, things were a bit amiss: A broken bed, cleaning still not completed from previous guests, and a refrigerator that was inoperable. But these were our biggest inconveniences of the entire trip, which was mostly filled with some great sightseeing and activities. The weather cooperated famously. Warm temps and sunshine greeted us every day.
The chronology of our days is a bit fuzzy, so let's just run down the list. Exploring the city square was great, and the fact that it was a 1-minute walk from our apartment made it even better. The small winding streets of the center of Prague were magical. Communist-era architecture is still evident, but the old buildings of the city pre-date Marx and Lenin by centuries. On one day, we were lucky to catch a folk dance/music/singing festival in the square that featured performers from across all of Eastern Europe. At times, it was hillarious, and at other times, exceptional.
One of Prague's biggest tourist traps, the big glockenspiel clock, was a big disappointment (if you're ever there, don't waste your time waiting for the song or the little dancing figurines to appear), but we didn't invest much time there.
Eating lunch on the rooftop of a central hotel, with resplendent views of the city was one of the highlights. The Karlov Most (Charles Bridge) was another highlight. The bridge has been closed to auto traffic for decades, and is now for pedestrians only. Yes, it's certainly touristy, but still unique enough to visit, whether you're taking in the artist stalls, the elaborate statues that line the bridge, street musicians, or staring at the never-ending parade of tourists from around the globe.
We didn't get the memo before we arrived in Prague: The mullet hairstyle is still quite en vogue at Eastern Europe's finest hair salons and barbershops. Business in the front, party in the back, baby.
The Prague Palace was another jewel. During the first of our two excursions there, we just enjoyed the views of the city from the south walls. But our second trip was much more interesting. We watched the changing of the palace guard at noon (an extra-heavy dose of pomp and circumstance), and Cole in particular was enthralled with the stoic sentries posted at all of the gates.
Another remarkable sight was the old Jewish cemetery. Since space was scarce in the Jewish section of the city, the dead were buried in layers (up to 12 layers in some sections), and an estimated total of about 200,000 are buried here. Today, a maze of 12,000 tombstones remain.
Prague's public transportation system still needs a bit of work, as the trams can be unreliable and don't service all of the city. But generally, we had no problems getting around. One way we explored was renting a pedal boat on the river, which the kids really enjoyed.
We enjoyed a marvelous birthday lunch for Stacey on the banks of the river one day, and also were able to take a cable car to one of the city's peaks and explore a large park and a fun "house of mirrors" there.
Overall, we were struck by the beauty of the city and the architecture, along with the friendly attitudes and good service we encountered. Another great adventure for the Pressler family!
Click HERE for a look at all of our photos from Prague.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Cole's Spring school production was a rousing success. With an animal theme to guide the kids, we were treated to his class performing the classic kids' book "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" It was a riot, and Cole performed his role as the "Stomping Elephant" with pizazz and professionalism beyond his years. Plus, he's so damn cute!
Click HERE for a link to a few pics from the performance.
And here's a short video clip from Cole's part of the play:
Monday, May 19, 2008
Stockholm is a grand city, and was a recent stop on our European travels. It's absolutely exquisite in its beauty. But make no mistake about it—for all of the lovely buildings, palaces, and parks, Stockholm's soul is the water that surrounds the city.
On our archipeligo boat tour, we experience the water up close and personal as we gazed over the inlets at a handful of the over 30,000 islands (150 of which are inhabited) that dot the waterways around Stockholm.An overriding impression of Stockholm is that it is a “lovely” city. I tried on other adjectives, but non seemed to fit as well. The contrasting colors of the buildings, contrasted further against the black tin/lead rooftops, is visually striking. In the oldest parts of the city, the grand castles and palaces that sit on the water's edge look out over harbors that house boats of every imaginable size and use, ranging from personal kayaks to gigantic cruise ships. In the middle of that spectrum, a large selection of fishing, pleasure, and ferry boats would titilate a fan of all things nautical. Study up on your knot tying skills and book your SAS flight now.
In addition to the archipeligo boat tour, our 4 days in Stockholm were filled with fun activities. Highlights included a tour of the Vasa Museum, which houses a huge 17th century boat that was raised from the bottom of the sea in the 1950s. It's considered the world's most well-preserved ship of its age. Junibacken, a children's museum/playhouse based on the story of Pipi Longstocking, was a fun few hours for the kids. We followed that with a visit to Skansen, a collection of old buildings, animals, an aquarium, and working farms. We saw an amazing glass-blowing demonstration here and some great views of the city. Maya, who had been studying vikings recently in school, enjoyed seeing one of the over 2500 rune stones left by vikings as memorials to a friend or family member. A short walking tour of Stockholm's old city cemented why the city is so wonderful. Winding, narrow streets lined with shops (including plenty of gelato stands) took us back in time to old Scandinavia, when tourists came onshore only on sailing ships, perhaps to trade or conduct other business.
The general cleanliness, friendliness, bright sunshine, and general Scandanavian hospitality made Stockholm, Sweden a wonderful place for us to spend a 4-day weekend.
HERE is a link to all of our pictures from Stockholm.
Monday, May 12, 2008
It's the world's largest sidewalk sale and Amsterdam's biggest party all rolled into one: Queen's Day, held every year on April 30th, which fell on a Wednesday this year.
We made furtive preparations: Assembling an entire wardrobe of orange clothes (the national color), setting aside various household goods to sell (including the beautiful black artificial Christmas tree that Mrs. Pressler refused to display beyond its inaugural season), and planning social outings for the day with friends.
Mr. Pressler started the party with a night out on Queen's Day eve, a night that could be a holiday in and of itself. But the late night didn't prevent him from joining the Mrs. on an early morning Queen's Day run, where we saw the city getting ready for the onslaught of visitors. The weather would prove to be a bit cool, but the rain held off.
Later in the morning, we strolled through Vondelpark for a couple of hours with friends. Every road and path was packed to the hilt with people selling everything you could imagine...mostly household stuff that you'd find at a garage sale. The kids wanted to buy other kids old toys (translation: junk), but luckily we made it through the park only buying snacks and playing games.
After lunch, Maya & Cole set up their stand in the park to sell a few of their paintings (space opened because some people seemed to leave after around noon). Maya had a bunch of paintings she had created on canvas, and Cole didn’t want to be left out, so he threw some paint onto paper. They put prices onto each piece ranging from 1 to 3 Euro. We told them their prices might be a bit high, but the young entrepreneur spirit ruled the day. People were very sweet, asking the price, and after the first shocked reaction Maya received to the 3 Euro price tag, she immediately dropped the price to 20 cents and made her first sale. After a couple hours hanging out in the park and selling the art, they each had enough money to buy gelato.
Later in the day, we decided to venture closer to the center of the city, wandering the area near Museumplein with friends to take in the action...err, human spectacle. Crushing crowds turned us around pretty quickly so we could escape the chaos. We wandered past a fire station that was giving the public rides up to the top of their fire truck ladder on a hydraulic lift – no joke, higher than ANY building in Amsterdam. So of course, we paid our one Euro/person for a ride. We told the fireman that you would never see something like this in the US due to the liability and safety concerns. He laughed and told us they aren’t actually allowed to do it here either – some years the police shut them down, and some years they allow it…. Depending upon who is working. NICE. Needless to say, my kids loved it and the view was spectacular.
We ended the day in front of our house, relaxing and sharing some wine with friends. Our corner was packed with people who had come to enjoy live musical entertainment provided by one of the restaurants. Kids played in the streets, people were dancing and drinking, and it was very festive and fun. When the band shut down around 7pm, with enough wine granting some courage, Mr. Pressler decided to go up to our balcony and plug in his guitar in a (very sad) attempt to entertain the crowd. Unfortunately the amp wasn’t working very well, and after capturing their attention with the first few cords, they lost interest since they couldn’t really hear him. But it was very entertaining and offered many laughs to our friends and family. The crowd cleared out by 8pm since the music entertainment was done, which was also great since we had an early flight to catch to Stockholm.
HERE is a link to our Queen's Day photos.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
With the arrival of Nancy (Stacey's mom), the biggest holiday in the country looming (Queen's Day), and an upcoming trip to Stockhom, it was shaping up to be a very busy few weeks.
On Sunday, April 27th, we took advantage of some very nice weather and made the 25-minute drive to the world-famous (in the eyes of the Dutch) Keukenhof, a place that has to be seen to be believed. On this multi-acre square of land that sits southwest of Amsterdam, the worlds most astounding display of flowers—especially tulips—can be seen up close. Although you can see the straight rows of flowers growing in nearby fields, ready for harvest, Keukenhof takes floral display many steps further, with meticulously landscaped grounds that feature a stunning display of colors and flower types. The layout alone should qualify for the Academy Award of landscape design (if there were such an award), and then the assault of colors delivers the knockout blow.
Keukenhof is, without a doubt, a little old lady's flower garden on steroids. You can't help but come away impressed with the magnitude and variety that you'll see there. If you ever get the chance to visit, don't pass it up (www.keukenhof.nl).
HERE is a link to all of the photos we took at Keukenhof.
Friday, April 18, 2008
There are times in your life, when everything goes very smoothly during a holiday. Our recent 10-day Italian extravaganza journey set a new standard for our future vacations.
Dreams of sunshine warming our white Holland faces were put on hold upon our arrival to our first destination, an agriturismo (old farmhouse converted to a guesthouse), located just south of the city of Siena. The rain fell like sheets from the sky, forcing us to spend our first day (Thursday) exploring the region by car. The beautiful hillside towns, most covered with the vines that Tuscan winemakers have made so famous, were beautifully washed in a deep green of Springtime.
Friday dawned beautifully, and Stacey thoroughly enjoyed her morning run down winding roads that see almost no auto traffic. We headed for Siena later in the morning, a small city that is very special for Stacey since she lived there for over 3 months when she was in college.
We sat in the wonderful city piazza, staring up at the huge clock tower that stands as the city’s most recognizable landmark. Of course, the kids were very excited to climb the tower, see the bell(s), and take in the bi
rd’s eye view of Tuscany. Naturally, the kids subsisted on a steady diet of gelato (Italian ice cream), which can be found in as many flavors as you can imagine.
For the curious, Dad liked the cantaloupe flavor, Mom loved banana or hazelnut, while Maya settled on a mixture of “cream” and strawberry. Cole insisted on the (horrific) flavor train-wreck of chocolate and lemon. When we let the kids add a 3rd flavor, they both chose mint chocolate chip, which we cannot get in Holland. Whatever rocks your boat!
Saturday found us in the wonderful little town of Volterra, where we walked most of the day, enjoying gelato several times, trying a number of pieces of pizza, and drinking more wine than good judgment might advise.
A culinary note: We were as excited to eat great food and drink great wine as the kids were to eat gelato. And typically, we were not disappointed one bit in either. Space here is far too short to list each of the culinary delights we discovered or to log the numerous bottles of wine that fell in service to Mr. & Mrs. Pressler. Suffice to say that our taste buds were very well catered to throughout the journey!
On Sunday, we drove south to Rome, opting for the car instead of the train so we could enjoy some of the sights along the way. We chose the scenic coastal route and stopped for lunch in the town of Porto Santo Stefano (nothing too special, in our opinion), and then stopped 30 minutes outside of Rome and grabbed a local train the rest of the way to avoid Rome’s parking nightmare.
Sunday afternoon and a very full Monday were spent in the magnificent (if dusty) city of Rome. On Sunday, we explored many of Rome’s great fountains (hubs of activity), including the Trevisi Fountain made famous by the movie “Roman Holiday.” We waited until the nighttime, so we could see it gorgeously illuminated by lights. To insure our return to Rome, we all pitched in coins over our shoulder. Maya and Cole were fascinated as they watched a street artist create landscapes with spray paint, the tourists lined up waiting for a chance to buy one.The Spanish Steps were also included in our Sunday tour.
Monday morning, we headed to Vatican City, taking in the incredible architecture and church history. St. Peter’s Basilica is astounding. We took the lift half way to the top of the dome, but climbed the winding and curved stairs to the viewing platforms on the peak to enjoy the stunning views of Rome. The adjoining Sistine Chapel is beyond words, and the magnitude of the Vatican is one that is very difficult to properly describe.
Later in the day, we explored the incredible Colosseum, where Cole in particular was kept interested with tales of battles and fighting. Both kids were kept interested with gelato bribes along the way, and amazed us with how much fun they had.
On Tuesday, we bid ciao to Rome and headed back north to Tuscany. On the way to our agriturismo west of Florence, we took a detour off the highway to the wine lover’s paradise of Montepulciano. The town itself is very sleepy and not at all overrun by tourists, which appealed to us greatly. Wine shops dot every street, and we took the opportunity to pick up a few bottles that we would carefully tote back with us to Amsterdam.
Our arrival near Empoli at the guesthouse that would be our home for the next 4 nights took a little bit of expert navigational skills, but once we found it...it was like stepping into another world, nestled into hills whose beauty defy description. Stacey and I enjoyed the most amazing runs through the hills each morning, every vista more beautiful than the last. It was surreal--we just couldn’t believe we were enjoying a run in Tuscany...simply magical.
The “neighbor’s place” (Fattoria di Piazzano) was a wonderful vineyard, accessed via a 10 minute walk down a gravel road, onto a grass path that wove through vines, up a dirt driveway, and finally terminating at a showroom around the back of the wine processing building. Mrs. Bettarini gladly poured a glass of wine for tasting, which was exceptional. One of the Sangiovese varietals produced at this vineyard is called Ventoso (“wind”), due to the strong winter winds that blow from the Mediterranean coast. One fall a few years ago after a particularly good storm, the winemaker discovered sea salt deposits on the grape leaves, despite the fact that Empoli sits 71 kilometers (44 miles) inland! Unfortunately, we were unable to taste or purchase any of the olive oil produced on the farms due to a poor harvest of olives the previous season.
The iconic image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is familiar to everyone, but on Wednesday, we were to get an up-close-and-personal look at the marble tower whose construction--and leaning--began in 1173.
Over the next 820 years, visitors have been captivated by this architectural oddity, including us. At the foot of the tower is the most impressive and largest manicured “lawn” that I’ve seen in all
Here's a short video of the kids having a blast in Pisa:
After leaving Pisa (and buying the obligatory small tower statues for the kids), we continued west to the coastal town of Viareggio, which in the summer is overrun with Italians vacationers. There wasn’t much happening during our visit, but the kids did enjoy the sand and small seaside carnival rides.
The granddaddy of all art cities in the world must certainly by Florence, Italy, which was our destination for Thursday. The day began with sunshine and temperatures that were as high as we had experienced on the entire trip. We arrived via a train from Empoli and eagerly boarded a double-decker bus for our tour of the magnificent city. Almost immediately upon departing, black clouds moved into the city, blocking the sun and foreshadowing heavy rain that followed soon after. The cloudbursts held off long enough for us to see many of the major sights including the beautiful Ponte Vecchio covered bridge, the Uffizi gallery’s exterior, and the enormous Florence Duomo. Then...the rains came with a vengeance, putting a challenging end to our day in “art central.”
Since we had the common sense not to drag the kids into any art galleries, we didn’t fall prey to the affliction known as Stendhal syndrome. More info HERE. Scary stuff! ;-)
Fortunately for our moods, Friday was a gorgeous day, and we headed out to the beautiful town of Lucca, which certainly knows how to treat its visitors well but isn’t overrun by tourists and spoiled by endless boutique stores. The town is encircled by huge ancient city walls that effectively protected its citizens for centuries from every attack. Today, these walls make for a perfect family bike tour, which we all enjoyed in the warm sunshine, followed by a delicious lunch at a tiny trattoria in the city center.
Back on the road, we stopped at Pinocchio Park in the town where the story was written, but decided not to pay the obscene entry charges for that tourist trap. Instead we detoured through the town of Montecatini Terme, well-known in the region for its high mineral content waters and healing spas. After the long vacation, we all could have used a bit of a warm soak. Fortunately, we found an inexpensive mineral pool facility that welcomed families with children. The hour-long soak felt fine, indeed.
All good things must come to an end, including our incredible vacation. Tuscany, drenched in sunshine, bathed in verdant green, and lifted up into the clouds by the interminable spirit of her people, will occupy a special place in our memories and hearts forever.
Check out ALL of the photos from our Tuscan holiday HERE.