Thursday, November 29, 2007

They think differently over there

Life is different in the Netherlands, even though a number of us are descended from them (including my Husband.) Space, for one is a factor that we tend to ignore here in the US. (out side the cities, that is.)

We are married to our cars. Everywhere I go, I hop in the car. I have to force myself to walk the half mile to Starbucks or the mile to Hastings. It almost never occurs to us to use anything but the car.

In the Netherlands, the trains and the busses were crowded. There were automated ticket machines for the trains. Utrecht, the central train station for the Netherlands, had some 30 tracks, and a couple of billboards for determining just where you go. (It helps that nearly everybody speaks English and could reassure us that we were waiting for the right train!) We were really impressed by the acre of bikes outside the train station in Leiden. (Until we got to Amsterdam -- there is a 4 story parking garage for bikes! Pictures available on google earth; the batteries on my camera were dead by this time.)

The middle picture is part of "The Maze" in Volendam. Small houses, close together, bricked over pathways, well defined gardens. In this part, there were no cars, but it is amazing just how small a space is needed! I grew up in one suburbia and moved to another; these houses are just too close for me! We are used to space in the US; in the Netherlands there is no place to go where you do not see something man made. (perhaps the beach).

The top picture is Utrecht at dusk. Street level is a whole story above canal level, which was also true in Amsterdam. Looks like a daylight basement to me! Just how far back do they go?

Those lines in the street in Leiden do not mark the lanes. They are for the bicycles -- and you better get out of their way! The cars have to figure out their own place.
At the end of the street, a friend and I wandered into a coffee shop, and it looked so seedy we decided to wander out again. It turns out that is where you buy the drugs. If you want coffee, do not ask a Dutch about a coffee shop. Ask for coffee. One of my guides (a former exchange student) told me that some shops will advertise basically "anything you could ever want...and coffee and tea." Towards the end of the week, I asked one of my Dutch hosts if there were any coffee shops that actually were better than others. She gave me a really quizzical look, and finally said "Some have better quality drugs than others." What I really meant to ask was if any sold good coffee! You don't go to a coffee shop for coffee. You go to a cafe or a bar.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not Paint By Number

Having been in the Czech Republic for a total of 4 days, I feel totally ungaulified to talk about architecture. But here is what I found:

Stone building with wonderful personalities
Painted buildings
Modern glass buildings
Modern apartments

Sometimes mixed in together....

Soviet Era Architecture consisted of cement block with windows. When the Czech Republic become free, they painted things, and they weren't held back by ideology, that is for sure! The castle at Cesky Krumlov (picture 3) had walls painted to look like stone blocks. The top picture is the square at Cesky Budejovice, and most of the details are painted. (That blue building is not Soviet era). Almost everywhere I looked (outside of Prague; where I was it was mostly stone) I saw interesting things done with paint.
I should go find the interesting buildings in my own country.

Monday, November 26, 2007


We take a brief time out from European discoveries to announce: It is snowing.

We don't get a lot of snow: Usually about the end of December we get two inches. Within 2 days, usually 1, it melts. Repeat about the end of January. Repeat at the end of February.

Once in a while we will get something larger. in 1993 we got 53 inches. In 2004, we started the new year by giving the kids an extra week of Christmas vacation, I guess the buses didn't like 2 feet of snow and 0 degrees F -- 20 degrees colder than normal! (The Korean Kid was complaining about our measly two weeks off, saying she got four weeks. Well, we tried.) That was also the year I discovered that Mommy Vans do not make good snowplows.

Sometimes the conditions are just right and it only melts a little each day, and we get some pretty decent icicles. This picture of my unicorns was taken 4 years ago.

The consequences of the normal pattern is that it takes the city forever to plow streets if we get real snow. Maybe they are repairing the equipment that they haven't used in 10 years?

So, we should get about an inch tonight. Enough to listen to the radio to see if we start school late. Most of the midwest would laugh at us.

It snowed on Christmas in 1996, the year of the Czech Kid. It snows on Christmas of 1998, the year of the Chinese Kid. Other than that, you have to go back to 1956 to get snow on Christmas.

It was fun to watch the exchange students react. Tonight I could barely understand one of the Taiwanese, she was so excited. The Hong Kong girl is excited. The Czech boy is excited, because his town doesn't get much snow. (I don't know about the others, I didn't talk to them tonight.)

Even the Korean girl is excited -- she was out taking pictures of it. I told her that she had snow in Korea. Her response: "This is American Snow!"

A Brazilian boy about 10 years ago jumped into the snow to play and jumped right back out: "IT"S COLD!"

And then there was the Thai boy 8 years ago who kept asking us to move him to Florida, or he was going to die of the cold -- say, -10 to 10 F. He stayed and he is still alive -- back in Thailand, and presumably much warmer.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


The Czech Republic has a lot of castles. I loved them. They are totally different than what you imagine from the movies.
The castle in Prague and Cesky Krumlov were small cities, with churches (Gothic of course, there were Gothic Cathedrals everywhere, one Romanesque in Prague Castle), shops, sleeping quarters, gardens, offices, etc. The Castle at Hluboka nad Vltavou (middle picture) was closed for the season, but I did visit it at night. It is my Czech Kid's favorite, and I'm sorry I couldn't go inside. It is white in the daytime.
The top picture is the castle in Cesky Krumlov. In the middle left, on the darker tan walls, the funny looking thing is a rock that the castle was built around. I guess they decided that it was too much work to move it! The rocks between the towers were part of the bear enclosure. Again, most the castle was closed because it was November and we couldn't go inside anything. And the bears weren't there either.
At Prague Castle, we could go inside. There were lots of tourists -- the man selling tickets said that my Czech kid was the first Czech he'd seen that day. I never did get a picture of the castle; it is too big and surrounded by buildings. Here are the parapets, what you expect in a building built for defense. The stairs and the drain were more modern. They have set up restaurants for the tourists; the national dish is mushroom soup. It is wonderful! (Don't drink the hot mulled white wine, stick with the red. Remember white wine is supposed to be chilled!)
There is only one problem with visiting castles: They are always at the top of the hill!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

water, water, everywhere

It soon became obvious that I was dealing with water. Every city was built by a river, and also on top of the river.
The difference between Europe and the US is age. In my part of the country, we've only been building cities for 150 years. Some European cities are 2000 years old; Rome has been around since 753 BC. (Granted it was a bunch of huts at this point, but so was the West Coast 150 and 200 years ago.) Reading high class literature (Murder mysteries set in ancient Rome), I recognize city names and country names that were a part of the Roman empire: London, Marseilles, Spain, Germany, Gaul...
We took the Czech kid to the Whitman mission and Fort Walla Walla. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were missionaries to the Indians, and are famous for being massacred. But the white man perservered and established a fort. We were looking at stick houses with dirt floors and primitive furniture and toys. (The jail was built more sturdily; it consisted of 1 X 6 boards nailed together on the 6 inch edge.) It was really weird to realize that when people lived in these houses 150 years ago, the Czech were living in stone houses and castles.
But I digress. I like digressing.
Cities were built on rivers because it was practical. Water is a necessity, and transportation was cheaper and easier by river. And space is a problem in Europe. In the Netherlands, everywhere you go you can see a building. So they have built over the river.
The top picture is Hamburg, somewhere near the building in the last post. (Don't ask me where I was, I was totally lost the whole time.) Fool your friends: who has more bridges, Venice or Hamburg? Since the German Kid asked me that, I knew that the answer is Hamburg. He also said it is the largest port in Europe. Whether he meant population, traffic, or area I forgot to ask. We took a harbor tour and passed by the dock that the Queen Mary occupies when it needs maintenance. There is also a large area by the port that is considered international, it makes life uncomplicated when moving cargo from boat to boat.
The middle picture is Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic. It is on the UNESCO list, so you need about a thousand approvals to change anything. All the outdoor restaurants were closed because it is November, but it would be great to just sit there next to the river!
The bottom picture is Volendam, in The Netherlands. Canals run right through the middle of the city -- it is the same in Utrecht and Leiden and Amsterdam and 's Hertogenbosh and probably every city in the Netherlands. (Except in the southeast, where there are hills as high as 322 meters!) Canals were repeatedly dug in Amsterdam to aid in sanitation; I imagine this was similar elsewhere. Sometimes driveways were bridges. Sometimes the canals were covered with algae, in which the ducks were making trails while scooping up nummies with their bills.
Notice: no railings to prevent children from falling in.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Things I had to see whether I knew it or not

I had two items (other than see my exchange students) on my list to do in Europe: Get a bunch of Niederegger Marzipan and see the Prague clock. And, once I got to the Netherlands, I discovered that I wanted to see a windmill.

I got the marzipan. I wonder why I had no other goals in Germany?

The Prague clock not only measures time, but also the movement of the sun and the moon. I first heard about this while helping in my daughter's third grade class. More information can be found here:
Every hour, tourists gather for the figures coming out of the windows above the clock, and take pictures. (The funniest thing is that they use a flash -- I was there about dusk -- and a flash is good to about 20 feet (oops, 3 meters) max.) It is a fascinating things -- and I not only saw the clock but I bought the t-shirt and the coffee mug. (Which also works for tea, I tried it.)

I decided long ago that things advertised for tourists do not always represent what the country is now. I came to that conclusion when I hosted my Chinese kid. She came from a city of 2 million people, with high rise buildings, modern parks, and shopping all night long. Some well-meaning friends showed her a book about China: quaint villages without electricity or running water, people wearing traditional clothes and cooking over open fires in the front of the house. Which is true in rural China, but there was nothing about the big cities. So, I have resisted touristy things ever since.

I also learned this from my German kid. He had brought us books about Germany: the castles, the town squares with wonderful architecture, quaint villages nestled in bends of rivers -- and not a car or a MacDonalds in sight. The third of fourth book was about German technology, and I asked the dumbest questions I have ever asked: "Oh, there is industry in Germany?" There was a long silence, after which the German Kid said: "Who do you think makes Porsche, Volkswagon, and Audi?"

It is at this point that I should probably mention that my first two cars were Volkswagon Rabbits.

Nobody wears lederhosen in Germany, nobody wears wooden shoes in the Netherlands, nobody lives in all those castles, so I wasn't that excited about windmills.

Until I toured the one in Leiden. I learned all sorts of things: The technology was brought to Holland from the Arabian peninsula during the crusades. Necessity being the mother of invention, the Dutch changed things. They are used for grinding grain, power and draining land. (really important in a country that is mostly below sea level) This particular one is 8 stories tall and is still used occasionally, but most of their money comes from the tourists. The cap rotates so that they can efficiently use the wind no matter what direction it comes from. They can put canvas sails on, so that even low velocity wind can get some work done. And the traditional windmills turn in the opposite direction from the modern windmills. (Is that chance? Or does that have something to do with the direction that modern motors turn?)

I asked one of my Dutch hosts if the emphasis on windmills and wooden shoes and traditional clothing bothered her, and she just shrugged. But I'm sure some people mind.

I also discovered why the Netherlands has so many windmills.

I learn a lot from my exchange students. I have developed this list:

French fries are not French
German chocolate cake is not German.
Chinese food isn't Chinese.
Danishes aren't.
Arabic numerals are not Arabic.
And just last week, I learned that Swiss cheese is not Swiss.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The solid country

I could be very comfortable in Germany. They have rules. I like rules. Rules keep me safe. It is very hard for me to break rules, even in quilting. (The autobahn notwithstanding; Germany has one of the lowest rate of traffic deaths in Western Europe -- lower than the US. There are rules for the autobahn. You can't always go 200km/hr, and you can't pull out and pass on the right. I wish they would enforce the second here in Washington.)
There is also a sense of solidness and permanence to Germany, probably because everything is made with brick or stone. Of course, a lot of it has been rebuilt since World War II. But there is a comfort to brick: this is permanent, this is solid, this is reliable. Even the barns are made of brick -- those cows are safe!
And the place is clean. I didn't notice this until we walked down a street in Hamburg with garbage -- The German Kid said he always wondered why this streeet was always so dirty. Normally there is a pride of ownership. Out in the country we didn't see run down houses and junk in the yard like you tend to see here in the US. But even then, this is Germany: the garbage on the street was in boxes and the junk in the (one) yard was tidy.
The top picture is of the town hall (I believe) in Hamburg; the second is building in Hamburg. Aside from the word Hamburger (which is the reason I took the picture), there is also the massive stone. We are big. Someone planned us. We took a long time to build. Someone cared about how we look. We are solid, we have been here a while, we will be here.
The last picture is the only wooden building I saw. It was built in the 1700s, Presumably it was not bombed during the war, there would be no reason to rebuild it. Oh, and we visited a log cabin that his parents have on the Baltic. It is made of wood, but that is only a cabin. It is not meant for real occupancy.
Of course, I didn't go to see the modern concrete buildings. Who would want to? They are just there. They look just like our apartment buildings. They were put up on a schedule. They can be taken down and no one would care. They are not so much ugly as bland.
They could at least put brick over them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


I normally don't like to have people drive me around, but in this case I was perfectly happy to do so. The signs were are different -- except STOP signs. This one is my favorite. It means no parking (and occasionally has white arrows telling you where to go.) I interpret it as "DON'T DO ANYTHING!"

Germany seemed to have the best drivers. That may have something to do with some pretty serious fines -- some of them have points, and when you accumulate enough points (12 or 16, I forgot) you lose your license, and then you get to apply for it all over again, including the $2000+ fee. Depending on the infraction (like drunk driving) you may not get your license back, even if you take the psychological test and pay all the fees and fines. So the system enforces good behavior.

But not in other countries. As a German passed us on a blind curve in the Czech Republic, my Czech Kid said "Germans are the worst drivers!" So I guess the point system only works in Germany.

My Japanese kid said the Dutch are the worst drivers, and then said she was not a very good driver.

All three of them drove me around safely, which is all I ask in a driver. Of course, 160 km/hr (100 mph) on the autobahn is pushing my comfort zone. My German kid says that is all his wife will let him do, sometimes he does 200 km/hr (125 mph) by himself.

My German kid has a Volkswagon Minivan, which had some really cool features that I want on my next one. (Don't groan! I like Mommy vans!) But VW doesn't export their minivans. They export medium priced cars. Mercedes Benz and BMW and Porsche export their high end cars. Some of the Semis in Germany were Mercedes Benz'. In Bellevue, a rich suburb of Seattle where I grew up, at the grocery store you you can see rows of high end cars: BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Mercedes...dirty blue Chrysler minivan (That was ours). You see the same thing in German grocery stores, except they are not all luxury cars. (At my home, there are lots of dirty blue minvans at the grocery store. And other colors, and pickup trucks and the occasional car decorated with primer, as well as luxury cars. Diversity rules!)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Bathroom humor

OK, lets get this topic out of the way.
Thankfully, I did not encounter any hole in the ground toilets like I did in Taiwan. I did encounter violent toilets -- when you flushed the water rushed into the toilet from the front, instead of sedately coming into the toilet from the back like it is supposed to. (In once case it did leave drops on the toilet seat. Oh Well.) To me it was loud enough to wake everybody in the house or my roommate at the hotel!
And, of course, finding the flush button was a trick. We nearly always have handles here in the States, and I had to get over that idea before I could successfully finish the job. It would have been just too embarrassing, as a 52 year old woman, to go to my German Kid and ask how to flush the toilet.
(Dealing with them as adults is a little mind bending. I'm used to them as teenagers, but now they've grown up! They drove me around, (My husband taught the German how to drive a stick), the German and the Japanese are married with kids, and I can drink with them!)
Occasionally you had to know the word for women in the language of the country, which was really only a problem in the Czech Republic. I found this image of a woman in a hotel in Utrecht -- she has no skirt at all! There was one public bathroom in Germany in which the woman had a miniskirt.
But no holes in the ground, and well stocked with toilet paper in the stall.
In Taiwan, I bought Taiwanese sanitary napkins. This time, I bought Czech napkins. Does anybody sense a pattern here? And this may be of interest to a few of you: One of the Czech napkins brands is "Pamela."

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I like to say that I have two German grandkids and three Japanese grandkids. These are kids of two of my exchange students -- and I know I am not really a grandmother, but it was fun to pretend!

Lara, 4, when told that I did not speak German, did not understand it. How can someone not talk? So her parents started teaching her English. She thinks she is a great English speaker because she can tell me all the colors! I can speak a little German, so when I said something she would respond with several German sentences that I couldn't follow. I got to read her a German book -- but she gave up after a page. I suspect my pronunciation was terrible. She took my picture with my own camera.

She was a little shy at first, but a present (a large fuzzy poster to color) and a pink (her favorite color) dress with a hood solved that. The poster, a unicorn, is 16 by 20 inches (oops, 41 by 51 centimeters) and was completed in record time and now adorns her wall.

Timo, 17 months, had one word -- da -- which I interpreted as "daddy", but is not. It is nonsense. (Daddy is German is Papa.) He is an active kid who doesn't stop for much!

My Japanese grandkids live in Amsterdam and speak English and Japanese. They too were a little shy at first, until Sumi told them that I was their American Grandmother -- then I got lots of hugs and attention! As Sumi put it, grandmothers are OK. They had to show me the neighborhood, the windmill ("Do you have one too?"), the neighbor who was outside smoking, their rooms and their books and everything. And the best part -- they asked me to come back and visit!


Saturday, November 17, 2007


The top picture is my first view of Europe. We are flying just over the south part of England. Off to the northeast you can see Belgium and The Netherlands, and possibly parts of Germany. I am sitting on the north side of the airplane, so I'm sorry I can't show you southern France or Spain.

The second picture is Charles De Gaulle airport. This is possibly the worst airport in the civilized world. (But I don't fly much, and one of my friends says that Heathrow is worse.) The terminal is two straight lines. (This is something the French do not understand, see below.) This means that you have to walk past every single gate before you find yours. Sensible airports like Sea-Tac and Salt Lake City have concourses where you can just walk past the entrance to, say, 30 gates in one fell swoop. Atlanta Hartsfield is also sensible like this, but it takes longer to get anywhere.

Plus it is under construction. So, I got on the bus at 8:20, drove around the airport, went through customs, and proceeded to walk the entire airport (following signs) to my gate. Arrival at gate: 9:35. I kid you not, and I only got lost once for about 5 minutes. (But I made up for that by cutting to the front of the line at customs.) Plus there was a security incident, and men in camoflage were directing us around one of the terminals, but I don't think that made much difference. Fortunately I had a 3 hour layover. My bags made the 9:00 flight to Hamburg and were merrily getting dizzy on the carousel for two hours. Fortunately I had not packed any wine, so they recovered well.

Schilpol in Amsterdam is one of those sensible airports. Time from getting off the flight, finding a bathroom, going through customs, getting my luggage and going to the arrivals area: perhaps a half an hour. JFK does not appear to be a sensible airport at all, but the signs are marked well. Less than 10 minutes going to Europe, perhaps a half an hour coming back. And that includes two computer shutdowns at customs. (So my luggage beat me to the claim area, but the employess had to make room for all the others and they took mine off. So they couldn't ride the carousel again.)

I decided early on that the French were rude, because they kept pushing ahead of me in the crowd (I certainly couldn't call it a line) at the security screening. The only recourse was to act French and push ahead myself. Three days later I realized that this had worked to my benefit: I had assumed that I didn't have to go through customs in France because I was going to Germany, and bypassed that line entirely. The helpful employee told me to go to the next customs agent, NOT to the back of the line. So, are the French rude?

One more incident to consider: In Prague, squeezed into the subway with a tour group of about 40 French, Aja (my former exchange student and personal tour guide extrodinaire) said we needed to get off at the next stop if we could. At that stop I simply said "Excusez-mos, s'il vous plait," (with an obvious US accent) and this crowd of people parted just like the Red Sea.

No, the French are not rude. They just live by different rules.

Oh, that shuttle bus ride back to the airplane for Hamburg? It let us off next to the plane we came in on. I could have caught that 9:00 flight instead of the 11:00 I was scheduled for. If I didn't have to go through customs and there had been room on the flight and if I didn't have to go through security and...if the rules were completely re-written and the terminal set up for me. But that is an American attitude and that's rude.


At JFK on the way to Europe, the plane left the gate at 7:00. At say, 7:55, the pilot announced "There are 17 planes ahead of us, so it should be another 25 minutes." We took off at 8:20 and had an on-time arrival at CDG. One the return trip, the announcement was: "There are only 8 planes ahead of us, but they are also using this runway for landings, so it will be another half hour." Based on the statistically insignificant 2 observations, it takes 1 1/2 hours to take off from JFK.

At my airport, there are 5 gates. They use only 3, and most of the time need only 1. I woke up at 5:42 and made a 6:35 flight. That 1 1/2 hour wait time at JFK is the entire flight time between my airport and Salf Lake City.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Money in Europe

After spending two weeks in Europe, I have decided that I like US money better. I don't have to get out my reading glasses to pay for something!
The top picture has Czech crowns. The 50 heller (one half crown), the 1 and the 2 are actually the same color. The half crown is aluminum with 1% magnesium and feels more like plastic, so that is easy. But I have to get out my glasses to figure out which is which for everything else.
In the Netherlands, I discovered that I couldn't determine the difference between the 1 and 2 Euro without my glasses. After a while (like when I took the picture at home) I found out that one is gold surrounded by silver and the other is silver surrounded by gold. But I am the type to mix things up. (I got on the wrong seat on the airplane because I can't tell the difference between row 5 and row 6. Here is my excuse: it was 3:00 in the morning body time, and I can't sleep on airplanes.) And the penny coins: Yes they are all different sizes, but if I only have 1 or 2 different ones, I still have to find my reading glasses!
It was so nice to spend 3 hours (insert sarcasm here) in JFK and buy a latte, some snacks and a water and be able to pay and determine I had the right change without looking for my glasses! (Even if the water was $3.40.)
I left home with $1000. I came home with 17 Czech Crowns (77 cents) and 33 Euros ($22) and $27. Not bad? I will wait and see if the dollar improves against the Euro before changing them.
In the meantime, it is 3:40 pacific time. My body thinks it is 12:40 in the afternoon. I'm wide awake, just had breakfast (late) and in order to find the chocolate I have to wake my husband up. Drat.