Displaying Category: Travel

Day 7 - Leaving Belgium

After everyone was up and moving around like reasonable people, we gathered on the back balcony to play a fun little card game called something like Turn the Tide maybe? It featured sheep and lighthouses. Interesting game, though I did terribly, I think I had a pretty good grasp of it by the end, but that wasn't enough to, ahem, turrn the tide. After the game, we put some sandwiches together and piled into the car to drive a short distance to where we could start a hike. It was a nice hike on a well trod trail along the Orthe river. The first section was very hilly, but I wasn't really troubled by it. All that climbing and descending was kind of fun (though I do wish I had my hiking boots). We eventually came to a sort of touristy tavern where we crossed to the other side of the river and looped back, this time following a paved walk that followed closely along the river. We spent a lot of that time watching kayakers (these are families who were clearly inexperienced) getting stuck in shallow water and people fishing, who were probably annoyed by the kayakers.

Once back at the house we packed everything up and squished it all into the car and headed out. I'm told the trip took a little over four hours, but we did stop for maybe 45 minutes to get dinner at a place called "La Place." We unsquished things from the car and got the relevant things inside the house. We said our goodbyes to Tracy and Jochem and went inside to take care of some things before heading out again on a short stroll around the neighborhood. It was pretty close to dark or dark and it felt like a warm October evening. I tried to savor that, but I couldn't stop thinking about the trip back tomorrow and all the things I have to think about and plan for. Once we got back to the house, Sander got me the time I need to meet the bus and some basic instructions for that. It's nearly 22:00 now, I should probably get ready for bed soonish so I can be out on time.

Day 6 - Adventures in Durbuy

Castle in DurbuyBy the time everyone was awake and collected downstairs, we decided it was too wet to move about outdoors. Instead, we played a game of Endeavor, which I really enjoyed for the strategy one needs to employ and the complete lack of any random factors except for the initial placement of some of the tokens. I did not win, so, moving on... Once we decided it likely wasn't going to rain anymore, we collected our things and piled into the car for the reasonably short drive to Durbuy. We parked and went about exploring this very medieval feeling town. It's essentially built around a castle, though the castle that's there now (the one pictured) was built around 1890, so not really a castle, but the town itself, with the narrow cobblestone streets and close buildings feels very authentic... except perhaps that nearly all the buildings are occupied by either hotels and their conjoined restaurants, or small shops selling fancy clothes or crafty wares or kitsch or meats and cheeses and chocolates and so on. Clearly, a completely tourist centered town. There was even a mini-golf course attached to the former monastery.

Toward the evening, after checking the menu of nearly every restaurant in the town, we decided on one (mostly because it served chocolate mousse) and sat down for the two or three hours it took to get through dinner. I think everyone agreed that the food was only mediocre while also being kind of expensive. After dinner we took a bit of a walk along the river and then went back to the car and returned to the house.

Once home we settled in for a game of Power Grid in which I also didn't win (Verena got that one) and then we packed that up and people dispersed for bed or catching up on the computer and so on. Personally, I really enjoyed the trip to Durbuy and just walking around an old town. I know this is going to sound terrible, but it kind of made me feel like the Germany section of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, except authentic.

Other photos in this set.

Day 5 - Welcome to Belgium

Right now, sitting in the living room of the vacation house with Tracy, Jochem, Verena and Sander. Everyone is either reading or gaming or messing around on a laptop... so, quiet except for my annoying typing. I don't have a lot to say about today as we spent six hours traveling to this tiny little town in Belgium from Leiden (with a detour to Delft). It's supposed to be a three hour drive, but there was traffic and a couple missed turn-offs... Still, we made it in one piece and all is well.

Once we found the place and got a brief tour and relative instructions, we got our things inside and then headed out in search of dinner. We were told about a restaurant down the road, so we walked down this dim, single lane road along forest and river till we could see the restaurant on the other side of the river. Getting there required traversing a scary pedestrian bridge with a grated floor, which means you an see straight down into the water below. I actually thought it was pretty cool, but I think we could all identify people who would absolutely not cross under those circumstances.Scary metal pedestrian bridge

The restaurant was quite fancy and the waitstaff spoke mostly French with a little Dutch and no English. Still, with a bit of explanation and my own reasoning I could make out a few things. I ended up getting a tasty steak in a peppercorn sauce. The only potential complaint (which I hear is just how things are in these parts) was the time it took to be served. By the time the food came out, it was past dark and all we had for illumination were a couple dim candles on the table. If it wasn't clear, we asked for seating outside, basically just above the river bank. While waiting for food we talked, of course, and watched fish jumping out of the river to dine on bugs and a cat who was exploring the other side of the river.

After dinner, we walked back to the house in the chilly darkness. Sander and Verena stayed inside to turn the wood stove on and read while Tracy, Jochem and I went out on the back balcony to lie down on the couches there and stare up at the stars which were wonderful to gaze on thanks to the diminished light pollution in these parts. We talked and watched the sky and drank in the sweet clean air.

Like yesterday's bike ride, this is what vacation is, it's being present in the moment and savoring it for exactly what it is and nothing more or less. It's tough to remember when I last did anything like this. Maybe fifteen years ago at Craig and Mike's when I could lean back in the hot tub and stare at the stars through the steam coming off the water. How did I let life get so complicated? Of course life is complicated, and that won't change when I return on Monday... but for now, it's clear and clean and free.

Other photos taken tonight.

Day 4

Today was pretty wonderful in its simplicity. I slept in (by my standards) till 10:00 and joined the others as we all messed around on our respective computers for a couple hours. We had a light lunch and then hopped on some bikes and headed out in search of the country. I should probably note that I haven't been on a bike in 15 or so years, so I wasn't really sure how this whole endeavor would go. (Spoiler, it went pretty well.)

I will say that the way cars and bikes and mopeds and motorcycles mix here really makes me nervous. I realize it's safe, but it also takes a certain level of confidence and an aggressive approach to biking to make it through. I think I adapted fairly well. I can't really describe where we went (I don't know names or anything), but we rode through some residential areas and along a canal and over to a large wild field that I took a few pictures in.Field

We rode past that and went through a pretty little village or two. At one point we biked along this path:Another field

Which looked out over this field:Same big field

We also biked through a bunch of farm land, which reminded me exactly what farms smell like. In some ways it's a really not pleasant smell, but it's also really earthy and... How can I explain this. Biking around outside on a bright day with a perfect temperature and a perfect cool breeze blowing and amazing (and flat) country all around... it's what makes perfect vacations. The only stress was fear of being run over and from what I'm told, that doesn't happen (and a little adrenaline now and then is good anyway). In the end, the trip was approximately 14.7 miles which is about double the trip we had planned to make, but I didn't care. I wasn't tired at all, though my butt and hands hurt and it was all just so wonderful. (Is that enough gushing?)

Once we got home I dozed a little while Sander was on the computer and Verena was reading. Then we all got our computers and did that for a bit. Then Sander and Verena presented a wonderful dinner of homemade tacos and guacamole and conversation that frequently involved teasing me. After dinner, Sander and I played a board game in which he beat me, but I think I put up a decent fight, at least.

Tomorrow begins our adventure into Belgium. I have no idea whether I will have any sort of Internet access, so my posts may stop until Sunday night or possibly not anything until I return home.

Other photos taken today.

Day 3

The day started out simple enough with the plan to "sleep in." This would be an unfamiliar concept for me, so I got up around 08:00 and got cleaned up and then went downstairs for breakfast. Oddly, Verena was already downstairs, huddled over a mug. As we ate breakfast and talked with Sander, we began to think that perhaps I had brought a plague upon the house, as at least two of us were beginning to feel the suggestion of a cold setting in. I did not want this to be something that was actually happening, after all, I did not travel 3800 miles to catch a cold (or did I?). My suggestion, therefore, was that instead of sitting around the house all day thinking about how sick I'm feeling, we get out and stay active. That way, I only have time to feel tired and sick can happen some other time.

While we did have a plan to go into downtown Leiden around noon, we postponed for about an hour and a half so we could play a game of Metropolys, which I eventually picked up the strategy to and enjoyed. Sander won, but Verena and I came in a real close second and third and I suspect we would have had it were it not for those meddling kids. (There were no meddling kids.) We left and took the bus into the city center where we got lunch at Catwalk (a place I had been to the last time I was here some years ago) and now that I think about it, I'm getting hungry again. Tracy met us there about half-way through my lunch (I say that because I think everyone else was long done by then) and after some visiting, Verena had to run off for work stuff. The remaining three of us headed out in the direction of the train station where I bought my ticket and some shampoo (short story, not worth telling) and after talking outside the station for a few minutes, Tracy and I said farewells to Sander and got on our train to Utrecht.

After working our way back and forth in the under-construction Utrecht station where we purchased some sandwiches for later, we made our way into a mall (that was attached to the station) and then outside into the city. I have to say, Utrecht is a pretty amazing city in how old it feels. The only thing that really gets in the way of that are all the hip fashion shops... which reminds me, there were an awful lot of extremely pretty boys around... like, guys who could easily pass for models. It's the clustering that seemed unusual to me. The reason I'm not mentioning the attractive women is because their presence should be assumed by now... come on, haven't you been paying attention? We found a book store and wandered over to the English section where we talked about books we liked or didn't like and why and so on. That was a fun little conversation, the likes of which I don't think I've had in some years.

From there Tracy guided us to some big church (or kerk, in Dutch), which has a huge tower next to it, but not attached.Church in UtrechtTower in Urecht

Finally, we walked down to the Tivoli where the concert was being held. I think we waited outside for maybe an hour and a half talking over a variety of interesting topics while watching the concert goers arrive in costume. I expect that few acts have fans that dress as well as these. One fun note while we waited right outside the door to the backstage (which we were standing in front of completely coincidentally), Maggie (Captain Maggot) and Veronica (Varlow) walked through us to the door, I guess they were out shopping/exploring before the show. That gave me a little rush while Tracy looked at me funny and asked if they were people from the show.

Once we got into the venue we had another hour long wait before the show started, but it did start and it was a wonderful show, slightly different from versions I've seen in the past, but still very familiar. Here are a couple photos from the show, but you can seek out the complete set if you're interested.Emilie, Captain Maggot, Veronica VarlowEmilie, Captain Maggot, Veronica Varlow

After the show, Jochem picked Tracy and I up and drove me back to Sander's and, I assume, they continued on home.

Day 2

I finally did get back to sleep early this morning and slept till 08:00. Once out of the room I got something loosely resembling a breakfast and then collected my things and checked out. There was a time constraint today, but still a lot of time to kill. The first thing I did was set off in search of the Groninger Museum, which I found easily enough (it's in the canal and is unmistakable in appearance). It seemed way too early to be going to the museum, though, so I wandered off into the city. I didn't have any solid plan at that point, I was just walking. Then I turned right and walked in that direction for a while. There were some other nice old (looking) church buildings to see and I wanted to find the eastern canal, which wasn't hard (walk east till you hit it). Then I turned back toward the city center and the crowds increased in density. Lots of school-age people (I guess classes haven't started yet?) at cafes or hanging out. There was a sort of carnival set up, but not currently in operation (probably opens toward the evening) with classic carni rides and games. It was mostly just odd to see that right in the city. Then I found a T-Mobile store and went in to ask if they sell pre-paid SIMs, which they do, of course. I purchased one for $10 Euros, dropped it in my phone and off I went. I have never investigated getting a pre-paid SIM in the States, but I suspect it would not be nearly that easy.

I walked around feeling awful proud of myself, but again, no set mission at the time. When I got to the Grote Markt I found a farmer's market in full swing. I've never been to an open air market before, so my first visit to one was in a distant country. New experiences all the time! I didn't get anything, just walked through and then headed south back toward the museum. I did go in this time, paid my 13 Euros and checked my daypack (they don't let any bags in, I guess) and went to look at the exhibits. There were a few exhibits, but I think the one I liked most is called "Fuck Off 2" which focuses on the state of life for the average citizens of China. It's a really interesting look into many aspects of Chinese life seen from several different perspectives and often presented in challenging ways. One exhibit in particular was a video of a Chinese woman explaining the hardships she has encountered since contracting HIV from a blood transfusion. Most of all, I think the isolation struck me. She talked about how her only family are her brothers, but her sisters-in-law won't let her see her brothers or their children for fear they might catch the disease. Because she can't work (I guess no one will hire her) she's dependent on the state, who basically just forced her to live in a back room in a hospital. The only company she gets is from her cats because they don't run away from her disease like humans do. There was a lot more to it, but that's what stung me so hard.

After getting my fill of the museum I went upstairs to the restaurant and got lunch. I don't know the name of the food (I probably wouldn't be able to pronounce it anyway) but it was basically croquettes filled with beef stuff on dark bread with a side of mustard. It wasn't too bad, I think. After lunch I walked back toward the hotel, but I still had maybe 45 minutes to kill, so I parked on a bench and watched the various car and bicycle traffic go by. When the time came, I went back to the hotel and picked up my bag and then walked over to the rail station to get a ticket and jump on the train toward Leiden. The ride over was roughly 2.5 hours, but not as bad as the train ride out to Groningen, I thought. Perhaps because I actually fell asleep this time (unintentionally). As I walked out of the station I realized I recognized where I was and (internally) lit up with excitement. I met Sander out front and chatted for a few minutes until our bus got there. Once it did we hopped on and took that to near Sander's house. Once we got in I dropped my stuff off and I met Verena and then we left almost immediately for dinner. We went to a place that I think is called the Pancake Farm? It's Dutch pancakes and we all got savory dishes that look like pizzas. My pancake had onions, mushrooms, green peppers, bacon, ham, and cheese and tasted like a cross between a quiche and an omelette, which is a good thing. While Sander ate all of his and I think Verena may have as well, I only managed to get about 2/3 through mine. There may have been a little shame, but mostly I was happy to not be stuffed and sick feeling. Then I ordered a hot chocolate, which was delicious and even better was the real whipped dream it came with. I could have eaten the whole dish easily, but limited myself to several (tiny) spoon fulls.

We walked back to the house and then fiddled with the network for half an hour to try and get my machine online and eventually did. Once we were satisfied there, we played a board game that I cannot immediately remember the name of. Sander won, though. That was it for the night.

Flash Update...

Wow, I slept SO well last... wait, what do you mean it's six hours till morning?!

God damnit...

Flash Update...

The Chinese food here is SOOO much better than back home!

Exploration, check!

Hotel ViewHotel ViewAfter checking in I took a couple shots out the window of my room. Not a bad view at all. I then left the hotel with an initial mission to find and consume food, and a secondary mission to explore.

At first, food options are difficult to come by till you move in toward the city center. The first food place I saw was a Subway, and walked right past that and across the street to a pleasant little cafe called Lobo where I got some tomato basil soup and a delicious Mediterranean chicken panini. The soup was different from what I was expecting, much more tomato not at all creamy. The panini was tasty, but best of all, the bread was amazing. The soup also came with a large roll sliced up that was a hearty and rich brown bread. I only had one piece of that (full from all the other stuff I just ate) but still noteworthy. From there I walked off in the direction of the Grote Markt, which is basically a large square with shops and food trucks and such.

Just to the west of the square is the church who's steeple you can see in my first picture out of my room window. Here's a better shot. Sort of.Aa kerk

From there I walked on in search of a park I had seen on a map called (I think)
Noorderplantsoen. I found it.NoorderplantsoenI realize as I came upon the park that I can't remember the last time I saw a willow tree, and this park had several of them, hanging casually over the water, dripping their branches down to the surface... there's something inherently calming about that visual. I walked around the park as best I could, often impeded by a tear down of a festival that, I assume, just ended recently. There were stages and tents coming down, trucks parked on the paths, it was chaotic, but also not that overwhelming as there wasn't actually all that much activity. I eventually walked back to the area of the park I originally entered from and parked my butt on a slight hill so I could watch the water and the people lying out in front of me or just walking and biking by. I should say that there are a lot of young and attractive people here. That might have something to do with the multiple universities in this town. There were young women sun bathing and/or reading. There were guys who would come by with drinks (beers?) and take off their shirts and smoke and talk loudly. There were a couple of girls sitting off to my left who were speaking English, but I couldn't sort their conversation out of everything else that was going on. I think I was there for a little over an hour. Part of the reason I was there so long was the trouble I was having trying to decide on the next plan. The problem is, I am incredibly tired and pretty much just want to find my bed and crash... except I can't do that if I want to overcome the jetlag. I also have to think about what I'm going to do for dinner. These missions are incongruous. While I can just walk around and kill time, there isn't a lot to actually DO here, and because I'm here alone, there's no one to talk to but myself and the only thing the voices in my head are saying are things like "SLEEP NOW" and "oooh... she's pretty!" The voices are no help.

So, while walking around I accidentally ended up back at the hotel and decided to take the opportunity to kill some time writing this up. Still don't know what I'll be doing next.

Monday, August 26 - Arrival

The flight went smoothly enough and I managed to doze for a bit during lights out. We actually arrived about 20 minutes ahead of schedule, but I'm not sure that made much difference to my plans. After getting through passport control and picking up my checked bag, I tried using the train ticketing kiosk only to discover that my credit card won't work there. Apparently they only take chipped (smart) cards. Pay in cash it is. I am now on the the train to Groningen, struggling to stay awake. My only other note is how beautiful it is outside. I haven't actually experienced the outside for myself yet, but the sky is clear and it should be in the low 60s. I'll take it. My next concern is that I will likely arrive in Groningen long before I can check in to the hotel. I might have to find some way to occupy myself. If I can't check in, I am hoping the hotel might at least hold my bags until I can.

I wrote that first paragraph on the train. I did manage to successfully make it off the train and transform my bag into a backpack, which really screwed up my balance, but helped a lot in walking to the hotel. It really is amazing outside. The last time I was in The Netherlands, it was cold and rainy (it was February, though), so this is a pretty wonderful improvement. When I got to the hotel I was told the room had been cleaned, so I would be able to check in. I got up to my room, dropped my bag, used the bathroom, and broke out the laptop. It's about noon local time, but of course, 6am for my jetlagged body. I probably need to find food. That doesn't even seem like a plan, more a notion. I don't know what I'm going to do once I have food.