Monday, July 27, 2009

Vive Le Tour!

Out for dinner with friends on Saturday night, and my mobile rang. It was my buddy Steve, calling from Paris: “If you can get here by noon tomorrow, you’re going to have a great day,” was all he said.

It didn’t much prodding from my dinner companions to decide. I hit the road at 5am, southbound for France. As the sun rose over the Dutch and Belgian countryside, I got another reminder of Europe’s beauty.

Finding a parking garage was pretty easy, and I made my way toward Steve’s hotel near the Champs de Elysees. It was a very warm day to be wearing a suit, but since I had a few “official” duties with Steve’s firm (he manages the hospitality for the Cervelo cycling team’s supporters), it was the least I could do to (try to) look sharp. My job was to simply assist Steve and make sure that the guests were well-cared for (escorted here and there, etc.).

Exiting at the FDR metro stop, I saw that the boulevard was already humming with activity at 11am, over five hours before the riders would arrive. Lunch was a splendid affair at one of the nicest hotels in Paris, period: The Hotel de Crillon, overlooking the Place de la Concorde (the location of the Obelisk that the riders encircle during their 8 laps of the Champs. After a very leisurely lunch, we took the short walk to one of the guest pavilions near the finish line on the Champs. The location was incredible--located directly across from a massive jumbotron, the riders passed us seconds after crossing the finish line on each lap. The shade offered by the canopy above us was quite welcomed, as temps were characteristic of the hot weather that had plagued the Tour for the previous 3 weeks.

Every time the small breakaway group and the peloton crossed in front of us, I almost had to pinch myself to make sure that it wasn’t a dream. I’ve been fortunate enough to see many incredible sporting events, including some of the classic cycling events in the world. But there’s certainly something to be said about being on the Champs de Elysees for the finish of the Tour de France.

After the race, with the green points jersey firmly attached to Cervelo rider Thor Hushovd (yes!!), it was time for the awards ceremony. Remarkably, the podium was located just off to our right, and we had a clear shot of the proceedings. Andy Schleck (2nd place overall plus winner of the white best young rider’s jersey), looked ecstatic. Alberto Contador (race winner in the yellow jersey), was obviously thrilled with his second TdF victory, though I don’t care much for the finger “pistol” salute that has somehow become his trademark touchdown dance. Lance looked...I’m not sure. It was mixture of one part disappointment at not being able to win, one part contentment of making the podium after one of the greatest retirement/comebacks in modern sports history, and one part classic Lance “I told you so” to his French naysayers.

A shot I did like was one of Lance in a tent after coming down off the podium with him and his three older kids and his new baby on his lap. Very nice.

Interesting side note: Over the course of the day, I randomly saw three Americans whom I know!

Finally, the parade of teams wrapped up the amazing day. Smiles all around.

As a cherry on top of the dessert, as I walked out of the pavilion area to catch the metro back to my car, I walked past three men--one of whom was Bernard “The Badger” Hinault, one of the greatest cyclists in history. I turned toward him, smiled, gave him a bon jour and a merci, and shook his hand. Excellent.

Thanks to my buddy Steve for the invite! Thanks to Paris for...well, just being Paris. And thanks to the cyclists of the Tour de France for giving us one of the greatest displays of sport on earth. I’m so glad I was there to witness the finish in person.

A Month of Lasts

Well...we knew the day would come: The day that we would be faced with leaving our home in Amsterdam and making the journey back to America. Without going too much into details, we knew for some time that it would be this autumn, but the exact date was in question. Now, we know--after some final European travel, we’ll be landing on U.S. shores on the 1st of September.

Visiting somewhere and actually LIVING there are two completely different things. Even extended visits in a location can’t give you a complete picture of a place. Only when your mail, your garbage, your water bills, and your grocery stores are tied to a postal code can you actually get a sense of what your home is really like. And that’s exactly what we have done during our nearly two years in Amsterdam.

As an expat, you make a very big investment in attempting to gain some level of “bi-culturality” of your new location, and I feel that our investment has been large. Learning the language, navigating the cultural waters, adjusting to a different type of lifestyle all take serious time and effort.

But for us, like many expats, the return on investment has been staggering. Travel has taken us to unbelievable destinations. Digging deep into the local culture has taught us more about ourselves and our perceptions of the world than we ever thought possible. And the friends we’ve made are much more than just casual acquaintances--they’re true friends for life.

A goodbye to Holland wouldn’t be complete without a huge note of thanks to our Dutch neighbors and the many Dutch people who have helped to make our short stay in this country a good one. It’s funny...some people make fun of the Dutch, calling them rude, insensitive at times, and closed to possibilities. Our experience has been to the contrary. Warmth, sensitivity, and a fun-loving sensibility have been the defining qualities that we’ve experienced with the Dutch. The world could be a better place if we could all take a little bit of The Netherlands with us.

Before we depart, we’ll visit the fjords of Norway and the sun-drenched beaches of the Greek isles. It’s a great way to wrap up our European journey. For now, it’s a few week of “lasts” in Amsterdam.

Edinburgh: Much more than tartans and bagpipes

Sorry for the delay in posting about our last international journey, a trip that dad and the kids took in May to Edinburgh, Scotland.

What a wonderful city! Edinburgh and it's beautiful streets, buildings, places, and people will remain as one of the very special destinations we have visited during our time in Europe. Three days of exploring were our agenda, and the city had plenty to keep adults and kids alike engaged and interested. Well done, Scotland!

Click HERE for a link to our photos from Edinburgh.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


After a trip to Disneyland in California a few years ago, I (Greg) swore that I'd never visit the “friendliest place on earth” ever again. But what is a parent to do when two sets of young, sad, cute eyes look up at you and plead to visit the European version of Mickey's home? Relent, I guess.

So, with a school holiday in store for the kids, we set off southward for the Parisian suburbs that house the magic kingdom. After an early departure and a 5-hour drive, we arrived as fresh as 2-week old milk, ready for spinning teacups, spacey mountains, and sightings of Pluto.

Stacey stayed with us for the first day before jumping on the train to the center of Paris to join up with some friends. We took advantage of every moment within the park, hitting the rides, watching the parades, and enjoying the experience that only Disney can deliver. One of the highlights for dad was sitting between the two kids on the “Big Thunder Mountain” roller coaster, listening in my right ear as Maya squealed and laughed with delight, then looking over at Cole with a look of sheer terror on his face. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I thought for some time about who he resembled with his face, and a few images popped into my head: Those of Chevy Chase and the teenager in the movie Fletch, when Fletch "borrows" the car to escape from the bad guys...Here are the pics:

Mickey delivered on his promise to show us a good time. I only wish he could have made the drive home (plagued with traffic jams and highway accidents near Brussels) as fun as the time within the Magic Kingdom.

Back home in Amsterdam, we cooled our jets for a full day before heading out on ANOTHER trip that would take us through the remainder of the kids' week holiday from school—but you'll have to read the next blog installment for the details.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Classics of Spring

Last April, I treated myself to a trip to northern France for the venerable Paris-Roubaix bicycle race. It was an experienced that I'll never forget...the legions of screaming (mostly Belgian Flemish) cycling fans, huddled along the brutal cobblestone roads in the middle of the countryside, screaming their collective drunk asses off as the riders streamed by. It was almost as if I went to a Flemish street party and a bicycle race broke out.

This year, I made plans to replicate the journey, adding another race or two to my schedule. The Tour of Flanders was out (holiday in Portugal). Fleche Wallone (a mid-week race) would not be too feasible. That left Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Any 2 out of 3 combo of these races would thrill me. I chose the first two...a return to P.R. and a view of the biggest pro cycling race in the Netherlands (A.G.).

Joining me for PR was a fellow British School parent, Kris, who happens to hail from Seattle. We had our own little corner of the Pacific Northwest set up alongside the cobbles of France, ready for action. Kris offered to drive (with his Washington State license plates), and the comments we had from other race fans were interesting. The plates opened up a number of conversations with interesting people who were amazed that we had driven “all the way from America” to watch the race. Funny.

The flags of Flanders flapped in the wind as the all-night/all-day party roared to life. Depending on your point of view, the weather held out, too. I say “depending” because many PR purists love the challenging weather conditions for which the race is so famous. The “Hell of the North” as it's sometimes called is notorious for rain-slickened cobbles and mud that blackens the riders' faces and clogs their brakes. But the light overnight showers ended early and would not be a factor. In dry years, the dust can be as bad (or worse) for the riders than the mud, but the light precip eliminated even that as a factor. Just the distance of the race, the brutality of the cobbled sections, and the riders' legs and lungs would determine who would arrive first on the velodrome in Roubaix.

A late crash very near our location on Le Carrefour de Arbe (just 20km from the finish) would have a huge outcome on the result. Two-time champion Tom Boonen took advantage of the crash by his opponents, throwing in a surge, and vaulting into the lead that he would hold to the finish. The Belgians were overcome with joy at Boonen's third win! American perennial favorite George Hincapie never got it together and would finish back in the pack.

As for us, we enjoyed the day with a few eats, a few drinks, and soaking up the unique atmosphere. The trip home and following four days weren't too pleasant for me—I had contracted a stomach flu—but the fond memories of another day on the “kinderhoofd” (Dutch for cobblestones) will linger forever.

One week later, I embarked on a 2-hour train ride for Maastricht, in the far southeast corner of the Netherlands. After perusing the maps of the Amstel Gold race, I determined that with a little fancy footwork and help from the regional train network, I might be able to see the race pass by FIVE times. I managed to catch the start in Maastricht, then jumped on the train for the first stop in Meersen, where the riders were faced with a steep, short climb about 38 km into the race. Already, a breakaway group of 5 or 6 had formed and held a 6 or 7 minute advantage on the peloton.

At the top of the climb, I met up with Kris and his family, who were catching more cycling action after a week holiday in Germany. They gave me a lift to the town of Valkenburg, a short drive away after one minor wrong turn (my navigational skills might have been compromised by the excitement of the day). We parted ways as they headed out of town to a major climb and I parked myself on the side of the legendary Cauberg hill in Valkenburg. Over the course of the afternoon, the race would pass my location three times.

The scene in Valkenburg was no less of a party than the nutty Flemish scene in northern France a week earlier. Cafes overflowed with patrons getting in their early-morning, mid-afternoon, late-afternoon, and early-evening cold adult beverages. There might have been some food served, too, but I didn't see much of that. I talked with a number of keen cycling fans from many lands: Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, England, and Luxembourg. To change the scenery a bit, I situated myself in 3 different spots on the Cauberg. On this day, I welcomed the sunshine and clear blue skies as I lounged about in the town, trying to soak up every last bit of cycling ambiance...and it felt SO good.

At the end of the day, Russian rider Sergei Ivanov would prove that previous high finishes in the race were no fluke as he sprinted away from the Dutch rider Karsten Kroon for the win with just 200 meters remaining before the line.

As the crowds screamed their support for the riders over the last kilometer, I knew that my Spring Classic experience was coming to a close for the year. But I couldn't help smiling knowing that I had been a witness to something very special on two consecutive Sundays.

(The beautiful painting above is by Gregory Allen Page...visit HERE to view this painting and his other works.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sunny Portugal

Our European adventure continued in early April with a trip to a long-anticipated destination: Sunny Portugal.

After an early-morning arrival in Lisbon, we grabbed a cab to our home for the next 3 days, a beautiful apartment in the city center. We've stayed in some hard-to-find locations before, but this one took the cake—even the cab driver, a 30-year veteran, had to consult his maps. But we were again pleasantly surprised with the digs, a beautiful 2-story flat with views of the old castle.

And the Castelo de Sao Jorge would be one of our first destinations in Lisbon, a city teeming with history, culture, and residents proud of their city's rich legacy. Everywhere we went in Lisbon, hand-painted tiles covered entire building fronts, their bold colors dancing in the sunlight. An old tram line carried us up the steep city streets...the creaking wood of the tram car a tourist sight unto itself. The castle provided great views of old rooftops, the Tagus River, and the various majestic structures of Lisbon. But the early morning travel and day of exploring Lisbon sent us back to the apartment in search of dinner.

Day #2 was another full day of Lisbon sightseeing, including the Elevador de Santa Justa (a cool old elevator), the Rossio square, the Torre de Belem (tower), the aquarium, and the Expo '98 waterfront area.

The following day, we ventured out of Lisbon to the scenic town of Sintra, where we were treated to a magical visit to the Palacio da Pena, which appeared to be a royal residence straight out of a Disney fairytale. Absolutely stunning!

A stay at a beautiful country inn about 1.5 hours south of Lisbon near the town of Cercal would be our next destination. In this area, we basically explored the beautiful beaches and coastline, sometimes accompanied by our new friends Francisco, Emma, Zachary, and Annabelle, a lovely family from Geneva, Switzerland. Fran's Portugese heritage and command of the language helped considerably, and our kids fell immediately in line with the other two as if they had been friends for years. Two days in this countryside were filled with relaxation, sunshine, and fun times.
We pointed the rental car north of Lisbon for the final leg of our journey. Obidos, a beautiful old fortress town was our destination. If you're planning on visiting Portugal, be sure not to miss this great town. A walk on the sentry paths of the battlements gave us an incredible view of both the town and the surrounding countryside. Off and on rain in our last two days couldn't dampen our spirits, nor take the shine off of our great journey to this marvelous country.

See all the photos of our trip to Portugal HERE.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Good night, Paul Harvey

Heralded as a leading conservative voice in American Broadcasting, radio great Paul Harvey passed away this past week at the age of 90.

Anyone who has had access to an AM radio since 1951 had probably heard Harvey's distinctive voice, his unique delivery style, and his down-home way of delivering not the news, but stories about real people, both common and famous.

He might have been a champion of the right, but those of us who came to love his twice-a-day musings on life loved him more for his folksy style that reached listeners of every stripe. He made us cry...he made us think...but mostly, he made us laugh.

His catchphrase "Now you know the
REST of the story" became as well-known and well-liked as the smell of fresh apple pie cooking in mama's kitchen. But the gift he gave us each time he crafted his tale was much more satisfying than a stomach full of pie.

The voice, now silent, will be missed. Thanks, Paul Harvey. Good DAY!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Austria: A Peaceful, Easy Feeling

Just rolled back into Amsterdam after a week holiday in the gorgeous Austrian Alps. Our destination for the week was the idyllic village of Obergurgl (which is near Hochgurgl, if you must ask).

We’d been looking forward to this ski holiday for
many months, and it exceeded our expectations. Along with enjoying the time together as a family, we were blessed with ideal weather, great snow conditions, and a gorgeous ski in/ski out hotel. Sunshine soaked the slopes for our first few days, then we enjoyed a massive snowstorm that covered the mountains with 20cm of fluffy powder.We cut our skiing short on the snowfall day, opting instead to enjoy a long day poolside in our hotel's incredible spa area. With a big, warm swimming pool for the kids, 2 types of saunas, a hot tub, 2 steam rooms, an ice room, and foot baths, this spa would rank as high as any I've experienced. Stacey enjoyed a massage on our blizzard day – something she’s making a habit of every time it’s offered on our holidays.

Americans are in very short supply during holiday times in Austria. While we ran into busloads of Brits and ma
ny Germans & Austrians, the only fellow Yanks we encountered were fellow expats/friends of ours from Amsterdam whom we had recently met through mutual friends. Maya had a great time in ski school with her friend Sami, while we had a blast with Sami's parents and a few other couples. Both kids loved the ski school, and we were very impressed with their skiing abilities by the end of the week.

Another nice part of the week was meeting new friends. Dinner was included in the price of our room, so we had an assigned table for the entire week. While the view out the window didn't change much, we were lucky to be seated next to a family with two children (Frederic and Caroline) with similar ages to ours. The kids became inseparable from the moment we returned from skiing each day until bedtime. The Anderson family from Denmark were delightful, and by day #2, the kids were begging to sit together at mealtime, affording us the chance to get to know Christian and Romana better and find out more about their lives as expats in Berlin. And the food in the dining room was superb...absolutely delicious salads, soups, main courses, and off-the-charts desserts.

On the slopes, gondolas and large chair lifts took us to vantage points that took our breath away. It didn't take a genius to understand that the vistas of the valleys and peaks surrounding Obergurgl keep bringing back skiers year after year. The terrain was varied enough that we had fun discovering new runs each day, and the on-slope dining options for lunch breaks were plentiful--serving up spaetzl and other wonderful Austrian culinary delights.

The drive from Amsterdam to Austria at the beginning of the week was a bit rough (traffic, bad weather), but we split the journey into two days to lessen the impact. Maya and Cole loved the return trip...thanks to our portable DVD player!

Click HERE for all of the photos from our ski holiday.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

You Can Move a Tree

I was out and about this morning in the neighborhood on the bike, when an enormous yellow construction crane caught my eye. Funny, I thought. I hadn't seen the crane before in this particular spot. Curiosity got the best of me as I turned the bike to investigate.

A very small crowd had gathered to watch the crane lift a huge, old tree (poplar? oak? elm? sorry to arborists everywhere for my lack of city-tree knowledge). It seems as if the school from which the tree was being moved is soon to undergo an expansion and building phase, necessitating the move of the tree from its current location to one 20 meters south. The tree's roots had been carefully trimmed and its root ball dug out--and the tree now hung a meter or so above the ground, awaiting its final (?) resting place. A woman and I estimated its age at no less than 80 years and no more than 160 years.

Impossible, right? You can't move a tree!

Perhaps it's the rain today and accompanying gray skies that turned my thoughts toward the philosophical, but I couldn't help find the metaphor that this grand old tree represents.

As children, we sprout roots, growing from seedlings to young pliable trees. The roots make their inevitable spread, cementing us more firmly in place. We suck nutrients (knowledge, experience, view of our surroundings) only from our immediate surroundings. Our view of the sun doesn't change much--only our perspective differs slightly as the seasons change and we gain height. We never see what's just around the corner. We grow and shed new leaves each year, but the cycle is repeated time and time again. Our bark grows thicker. Storms come and go, and we weather them as best we can, riding out the toughest times and hoping for calmer weather. Sometimes, we lose a limb. People climb on us, carve their initials in our trunk, and try to cut us down.

In this tree's case, man has intervened to (hopefully) give a condenmed plant a new lease on life. It might not be an easy journey--the list of perils are long. It's roots might never take to the new soil. It's structural integrity is suspect, at best, until years have passed and it stands as strongly as it has for a century. The stress of the move might be too great for it to survive.

But consider the optimistic possibilities: What if the tree catches a break, its roots take hold, and it thrives for another 100 years (or more)? A neighbor across the street will have a new view of the magnificient tree. New flowers or other plants might thrive in its shadow in a place that didn't previously enjoy vegetation. Birds, bugs, and small animals may nest and play in a spot more conducive to their health. Children in the adjoining playground will have a close-up encounter with one of Amsterdam's magnificent old inhabitants.

It turns out, that, just maybe, you can move a tree. And just the same, we can make positive changes in our lives. It's not easy, and if your motivation isn't high enough, you probably won't do the things you need to do to change. But if a 100-year-old tree can be moved, why can't we start exercising, cut out unhealthy habits, open our minds to a new idea, make a difference in someone else's life, or simply, remember to really love the ones we love.

To quote a well-worn phrase, old habits die hard. Gettin' a "round tuit" is tough to find. But with the right motivation, and an unending belief in yourself, anything is possible.

Even moving an old tree from one place to another.

(photo shown is NOT the tree from this story and used only for illustrative purposes)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

In the Land of the Pyramids

From lush tropical forests to grand old cities to sun-swept beaches...we've been very fortunate to experience an amazing variety of travel destinations.

But very few journeys around the globe could prepare us for our recent whirlwind 8-hour tour of Cairo, Egypt. During our delightful time in South Africa, we examined our travel schedule closely and realized that with a bit of rearranging, we could delay our return to Amsterdam by a us a day in Cairo to visit the pyramids, see some ancient tombs, and perhaps tour the National Museum for a peek at some King Tut artifacts.

An important note: Thanks to a book that he had recently received, Cole was absolutely OBSESSED with the story of King Tut and the discovery of his tomb, regularly quoting facts that an eighth-grader would be hard pressed to remember! So the prospect of seeing Tut's "stuff" had him nearly shaking with excitement.

Our tour began in the morning with a drive through the city, enjoying the gorgeous early morning sun (more on WHY later) and getting a glimpse of the ancient burial areas, a collection of low-rising "houses" that entomb many generations-worth of Egyptian families. After a brief stop to photograph the (horridly polluted and crowded banks of) Nile River, our driver pulled over at the "Papyrus Museum."
I use quotation marks on purpose, because there was nothing "museum" about the place. The Egyptian economy at its best, the driver had some sort of collusive arrangement with the owners of this Papyrus Tourist Trap. Although a brief demonstration of the papyrus-making process was interesting, the hard sell of the papyrus products was less than desirable for these tired tourists. Caveat emptor, right?

Onward we went to a camel-back tour of the incredible pyramids, the Sphinx, and some ancient tombs. Cole loved the camels, while Maya simply tolerated them. But we all loved the views of these remarkable structures and felt privileged to be in their presence. The camel tour operator did a bit softer sell than the papyrus dudes, but still--a word to the wise: Caveat emptor. It was beginning to be a theme. It seemed that I had learned nothing from previous experiences in the souks and markets of Africa and other places in the Middle East!The Egyptian Museum was next...a virtual treasure trove of antiquities. Highlights were the Tut collection (overwhelming in its richness and size), and the MUMMY room!

Next up was a wandering journey through Khan el-Khalili, one of Cairo's major markets. Lots of fun and JAMMED with people looking for bargains or trying to avoid the hawkers. We escaped with most of our money preserved, minus a few Egyptian Pounds for some scarves and trinkets. But the crush of people started to overwhelm us, so we hailed a cab and headed back to the hotel.

That's when we realized the extent of the air pollution in Cairo. That beautiful early-morning sun was now a gorgeous late-afternoon sun, and had turned the sky a marvelous shade of red and orange. But the reasons for this spectacular light show were rather nefarious...the intense haze in the sky wasn't just "high up there" in the clouds. Brownish-gray clouds hung low, and afternoon traffic sputtered choking clouds of diesel fumes that forced us to cover our noses and mouths with scarves. Not a pretty sight.

But the overall experience of Cairo is certainly one that we won't soon forget...and one that you should take yourself if you ever get the chance.

HERE is a link to all of our photos from Cairo. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Speech Text

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again, these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West: Know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment -- a moment that will define a generation -- it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Lions and Zebras and Elephants...oh my!

It's hard to find the best words to describe our recent holiday trip to the wondrous country of South Africa. Remarkable; trip-of-a-lifetime; spectacular; marvelous...they are all candidates. But any of these superlatives fall a bit short in explaining the things we saw and experienced.

A much better way of telling the story is simply by directing you to our online collection of photographs that chronicle the trip. Click HERE to view the album.

If you want a brief rundown of our itinerary, here you go: We departed Amsterdam on December 21, made a connection in Cairo, then continued on to Johannesburg. From there, we grabbed a shuttle for the 4-hour drive to the Madikwe Game Reserve for 3 days & nights at the lovely Jaci's Safari Lodge. Each morning (at 5:30) and afternoon (at 4:30) we were taken into the bush by our own game ranger for a 2.5 to 3-hour "hunt" for the most famous residents of the African wilderness. While the kids certainly liked the trip, it was the adults who really savored the experience of seeing lions, giraffe, zebras, elephants, hippos, rhinos, etc. in their natural environment. Watching a young male lion stalk a herd of water buffalo; being threatened by a black rhinoceros just a meter away; seeing a bull elephant charge our jeep; these experiences and many, many more are things that we'll never forget anytime soon.

From Jaci's, we continued our journey with a short flight to Cape Town, located near the southwest tip of the country (and continent). Two days in this delightful city were very nice, with excursions to the city's aquarium, enjoying views from atop Table Mountain, and a visit to Boulders Beach to swim with penguins. A poignant reminder of the sub-standard living conditions (an understatement) for the majority of South Africans was driven home with a tour of one of the city's townships, a collection of shacks and shantys--constructed of wood, corrugated metal, and scraps of plastic--crammed together into large villages where it looks as if sanitation trucks haven't visited in years. But the cleanliness (we're told) inside many of the shacks are surprisingly immaculate.

Next, we headed east on South Africa's famed Garden Route, with stops near Oudtdshoorn and Knysna. At our first stop, we visited an incredible ostrich farm where the kids were able to sit on the back of an ostrich and see an ostrich race. Outside of Knysna, after a day of enjoying the sunshine on the beautiful Indian Ocean beaches, we hopped aboard a boat for a morning tour of Plettenberg Bay to try to spot some bottlenose dolphins...which we did, albeit very briefly.

Our final destination was outside of Port Elizabeth at the incomparable Hitgeheim Lodge, located near Addo Elephant Park. Although we had seen plenty of elephants earlier in the trip, the massive numbers of the big guys who gathered at one of Addo's watering holes was certainly a sight to behold. And an elephant back safari, complete with rides atop two of the mammoth animals, was a fitting end to a holiday that was bigger than life.
Our journey back to Holland was long, but we broke it up with a one-day stay in Cairo to see the pyramids, etc. More on this journey in a subsequent blog post.

Again, all the photos of this holiday are HERE.