World War weekend

Since I love history and Kathryn just finished a year of European history study, we wanted to see some battle sites of the world wars that are relatively close by. Saturday, we drove to Bastogne where one of the sieges of the Battle of the Bulge took place. There is an excellent WWII museum there that primarily follows the stories of four people: a 13 yr old boy from Bastogne, a young school teacher who worked in Bastogne, a German soldier and an American airman. We learned a lot about how the affected Belgium and the liberation of Europe. We also saw a huge memorial to the United States, a Sherman tank and monuments for Gen. McAuliffe and Gen. Patton. There is also a 101st Airborne Museum, but we just walked around it.

We continued on to Verdun, France where we spent the night. The hotel had a nice restaurant and Kathryn got to experience a three course French dinner (all in French) for the first time. We didn’t mistakenly order anything weird and the food was very good. During the month of July, there is a weekly show called DES FLAMMES A LA LUMIERE, a live performance and light show depicting the Battle of Verdun. The venue for this show is a big gravel pit and since the show has to be done in the dark, it didn’t start until 10:30pm. It was an incredible production with a large cast, live animals, light effects and fireworks at the end. We were able to get a translation into English through headphones. There were hundreds of people in the audience and we had to wait for the stadium seating to empty and then all the cars to exit through one road. We didn’t get back to our hotel until 2am!

After we slept in on Sunday and missed breakfast, we drove into Verdun. There were very few places open and navigating was kinda tricky. We decided to head to Fort Douaumont to do our sightseeing and hoped to find food along the way. The Fort is mostly underground — damp, dark and a little creepy. The top of the Fort is bumpy from shells landing during the war, but there’s a great view from up there. From there we went to the Douaumont Ossuary, which is essentially a huge mousolem for 130,000 unidentifed remains from WWI. Inside there are engraved blocks with the names of soldiers who were lost. At the ground level, there are windows through which you can see bones that were recovered from the battlefield. There is a large French cemetery in the front. I thought about all the families who never knew for sure what happened to their husbands, sons, brothers, uncles and fathers. They never came home. We saw many memorials for WWI and WWII in France, Belgium and Luxembourg during this trip. We finally found a place for lunch around 2:30pm. There’s nothing like fresh baguettes in France and the croque monsieur there was delish!

Fort Douaumont

The weekend ended on a lighter note in Dinant, Belgium. Dinant is a pretty town on the Meuse and it’s claim to fame is Adolf Sax, inventor of the saxophone. Since Kathryn plays the tenor sax (and so did I in high school jazz band), we had to make the detour to check it out. It was fun! And we found some yummy ice cream, crepes and smoothies for “dinner”.


highlights from the last few weeks

We’ve been having a fabulous summer so far. The weather has been unusually warm and sunny. We’ve been out enjoying it as much as possible — I actually have a tan this year! This post will be in a rough timeline format to catch up from my last blog post.

June 10 – Hike in the Vallee de la Hoegne, Belgium

This was a beautiful hike mostly along a stream with pretty waterfalls and through woods that were very, very green! This area is in the Eifel Nature Park on the Belgium side, about an hour from our house.

June 17 – Koningshoeven Brewery

This is the only Trappist brewery in Nederland and the first Trappist monastery located outside of France. A very entertaining guide gave us a tour of the brewery and told us all about the history of the monastery. We had lunch with our choice of La Trappe beer on a nice outdoor terrace. After lunch, we drove into Tilburg and did some shopping at the market. Tilburg is where the King celebrated his birthday this past year.

June 23 – Jasmine & Matt arrive!

They came in by train from Amsterdam in the afternoon. They were fighting jetlag, as we all do on arrival day. After they had some rest, we caught up over a dinner of croquettes (our Dutch food offering). Then we gave them the walking tour of Oirsbeek.

June 24 – Local sights

We started the day with a European breakfast, which is more like a brunch. After a little walk up to the windmill, we drove to Brunssum to see what can be seen of JFCBS from the gate and then to the big market in Eygelsoven. We had a German version of apple pancakes and Matt was brave enough to try herring (niewe haring) with me. We also stocked up on fruit and veggies. After a short nap back at the house, we biked to Hoensbroek Castle. We had to take a zigzag route because of construction and a carnival in the center of town. My co-worker Ioana joined us for dinner later and we went into town for the annual Oirsbeek music festival — Har Rock Cafe (that’s not a typo :-)). So we listened to one band and that was enough. 😀


June 25 – Maastricht

It’s always fun for us to show off “our” city, one of our favorite Dutch cities. We started with a tour of the limestone caves and I discovered that different tour guides show different parts with different stories. Nice! A 100 meter section of the tour that was in total darkness, which was kinda freaky. I held onto Jasmine’s jacket for bearing. 😬 Frites in town staved off our hunger (Jasmine later declared them the best frites during their entire trip) and then we walked to the sites in the old city. This was the first time I had a chance to see Roman ruins that are located in the basement of a hotel.

June 26 – Eltz Castle and Rhine boat ride

We did a little road trip to Germany to do some sightseeing. First up was Eltz Castle. It’s impressive! We had to wait for a tour initially and then a second time because we weren’t given tickets when we paid to get in. This delayed our timeline a bit, but we had a coffee break and then finally a nice tour of the castle. There was a group of nuns ahead of us and we realized later that the owner of the castle was their tour guide. Our plan was to drive to Koblenz, have lunch, and then pick up a 2pm boat for a ride on the Rhine River. We were a bit pressed for time, but we made it there in time to get on the boat and ended up having a relaxing lunch on board the boat. The weather was perfect and we had an awesome 4.5 hr ride on the river. We passed by lots of castles, vineyards and picturesque German towns. We disembarked at Bacharach, which is looks like something out of a storybook. Jasmine remarked that it was like being at Disneyland instead of real town. We strolled around the streets of half-timbered houses and walked a path along a vineyard before finding our restaurant for dinner. The restaurant had a scenic courtyard, great Riesling and yummy German food. We had to wait awhile for the next train back to Koblenz, so it ended up being a late drive home — so worth it though. What a perfect day!

June 27 – Chill day and so long for now

We all slept in to recover from the Germany trip and had a late breakfast. Jasmine & Matt did some prep and packing for the next leg of their trip. We drove them to Liege in the afternoon to catch a train to Bruges. It was good to know that we would see them again at the end of their trip in Amsterdam!

July 1 – Family Party

We were invited to a birthday/anniversary party by Dick’s cousin Frank and wife Ans. It was a 60th birthday for Ans and their 30th wedding anniversary. The party was in Zeewolde, a 2 hr drive away, so we made a day of it and stopped at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek on the way. I was a little nervous about being at a party where I didn’t know anyone (except Frans!), but we had a really nice time. The venue was at a marina and it was a nice evening to be outside. Everyone we talked to accommodated me by speaking in English. 🙂 Dick was able to reconnect with several cousins and meet their adult children. They are all very educated and interesting people! I hope we are able to spend more time with them before we leave NL.

July 2 – Tour de France

Dick got very excited when he learned that this year’s Tour de France was starting in Düsseldorf and the route of the second stage was through Aachen, just 28 km away.  He has watched the tour on TV for years and the chance to see even a glimpse of it in person was irresistible! We made plans to take the bus into Aachen (to avoid traffic closures) and find a spot near the main square to see the riders. We ended up just off the square where we had a good view on the street after a sharp turn. After about a hour of waiting, the mood became festive as the sponsors paraded through, honking horns, blaring music and throwing out swag and free samples. Shortly after that, the team’s lead cars came through. It started to rain about then and we knew it was going to be a wet view of the riders. Even with the rain, sharp turn and slight uphill, they were fast! I’m glad I caught it on video so we could relive the moment. When we watched the stage later on TV, there was no footage of the Aachen stretch.

July 6 – hello, Zaanse Schans, goodbye

We picked up Kathryn at Schiphol in the morning and then met Jasmine and Matt in Zaanse Schans. This was the final full day of their European vacation; they flew back to Amsterdam after spending five days in Paris. It was great to spend more time with them and see an old Dutch village. We went through the clog shop, cheese shop, bakery, chocolate shop, first Dutch grocery store, walked by the windmills and got a interesting education about barrel making. We wrapped up our visit with lunch at the pannekoeken restaurant. The ferry port was on our way back, so we dropped Jasmine and Matt off there to catch a ride back to Amsterdam. It was a bittersweet goodbye. I’m so glad that Jasmine loves The Netherlands and we had such an awesome visit with her and Matt. But it will be another six months before we see them again and a lot can change in that amount of time! 😉 Kathryn is with us until August 2nd and we have lots planned. Stay tuned!


I can now chime in with the rave reviews of Prague; the visuals of the city up close and from afar are equally amazing. Dick and I think it is one of the most beautiful cities we’ve seen. The attractions of Prague are well known and the city attracts A LOT of visitors. Since tourism is such a big deal, it’s in your face everywhere. There were many times when I wished I could wipe away the people standing in front of my view of the awesome architecture or remove the souvenir shops blocking the way to my destination. Alas, we could not have Prague to ourselves, so we made the best of it navigating through crowds of tour groups and a bazillion refrigerator magnets.

This trip required two early morning flights in/out of Brussels. We left home on Friday at 5:30 am, which gave us most of the day to spend in Prague. After we dropped off our luggage, we headed into the town center to find some lunch. A Czech sausage and pilsner at an outdoor café did the trick. We opted to do a free walking tour first, which lasted three hours. Our tour guide was an American woman from York, PA, who is teaching English in Prague . . . and loves to talk about the history of the city. This is the third tour we’ve done with expats and I think it comes off pretty well because they are so enthusiastic about their adopted city. We covered the major sites of Old Town and the Jewish Quarter. About two-thirds of the way into the tour, we took a break at a café for drinks and we chatted with our tour guide about being expats in Europe. We also talked about stag parties, since the one in progress at this location was a group we encountered on our flight. The quantity of cheap beer in Prague makes it a favorite destination for bachelor parties. Anyway, the tour gave us a great introduction to the history of the city and a good lay of the land. We walked back to our hotel via the Charles Bridge, did our check in and decided to eat somewhere closeby for dinner. That turned out to be a basic Italian restaurant. The gnocchi there was subpar compared to Florence, but it was filling.

We’ve had some amazing breakfast spreads along our travels, but the Czechs take breakfast to whole other level. They had the typical breakfast food on one buffet and then the second buffet looked more like lunch. There were salads and veggies and deli meats and pickles and olives and other stuff that my North American stomach rebelled against at 9am. It was all very generous, though! Saturday was warm and sunny and we packed in as much outdoor sightseeing as we could. We did the uphill climb to the castle and got in line behind many tour groups to get our tickets. We chose the short circuit which included St. Vitus Cathedral, Old Royal Palace, St. George’s Basilica, and the Golden Lane. This took three hours to accomplish; I’m glad we didn’t go with the long circuit! St. Vitus was the most impressive stop and we fortunately saved it for last when the crowds were a little thinner. The stained glass windows there are very unique and beautiful. The palace was not so spectacular, but the rooms where the city government did business were interesting. The walls are covered in paintings of coats of arms.

After the castle tour, we walked to Strahov Monastery and then Petrin Park. I really wanted to see the Theology and Philosophy libraries at Strahov. The libraries are incredible, but the regular entrance fee only gets you a view from a doorway. You have to be part of a reserved group, scheduled in advance, to get inside the Theology Library. Such a group was there when we stopped by, which was one of those moments when I wanted to erase them from my view. 🙂 We waited long enough to get a picture without a bunch of guys standing in the room. There is a tower modeled after the Eifel Tower in Petrin Park, which provides an awesome view of Prague from the top. Since we had already done a ton of walking, we took the lift up. We had a quick break at our hotel next and then did a little shopping in the Mala Strana.

Classical concerts are a popular tourist draw in Prague. I was only vaguely aware of this when I booked a dinner at Cafe Mozart, which consisted of a four course dinner and a performance by a string quartet at the Hotel Praha. The hotel is located on Old Town Square and was a little hard to find because the awning was covering the sign. The hotel interior looked nice, but the dining room or “Cafe Mozart” was a little kitsch with a lot of clocks on the walls and glass cabinets filled with ceramic figurines and other curiosities. The quartet entered after the appetizers and were dressed in “period” costumes complete with ill fitting wigs. We were given a music programme, but the ensemble didn’t stick to it (which was fine with us). The musicians were good, though like the concert we heard in Paris, it was all a little too canned for tourists. The food was just okay and tasted like it had been prepared well in advance. I left there feeling like I had ‘sucker’ stamped on my forehead. 😝 Oh well, at least it wasn’t expensive! We had a nice walk back seeing the city in lights.

s wet, but we knew it would be and planned accordingly. We did a little exploring and shopping in New Town first and then went to the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Museum consists of several sites; we visited four synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery. It was a lot of information about Jewish history and culture to digest in a short period of time. I liked the Spanish Synagogue the most for it's art and architecture. The Pinkas Synagogue contains 80,000 names of Jews taken from Bohemia and Moravia during the holocaust. The names are written on the walls according to neighborhood and then alphabetically within. We looked for the surname of my sister-in-law. Her grandfather was originally from the Czech Republic, though he moved to Vienna and was able to flee to England during the war. We found several Eisinger families and took pictures of their names. This synagogue also contains an exhibit of drawings done by children sent to the Terezin ghetto. It’s very moving to see how these children coped with their circumstances.

out with our restaurant choices during our stay, even though I did extensive research beforehand. The restaurants I had chosen were either too far away or booked solid. Our best meal was a burger at an American/British like pub for lunch on Sunday. Our attempt at Czech food was ordering goulash at a pub near our hotel and it was so-so. The Trdelnik from a street vendor was also disappointing. We sampled several different Czech beers along the way, which were more satisfying.

ting flight left at 6:15 am on Monday. I didn't get much sleep before my alarm went off at 3:45. Ugh! I expect to be a little tired after three days of a city trip, but not like this. It's so worth it, though! 😀

one down and one to go

We’re at the one year mark! 🗓 On May 20, 2016, we arrived in Brunssum, NL to begin this expat adventure. We knew the time would go by quickly, but dang that was fast! As we look at the year ahead, we just want it to last. When I started talking about the transition to life back in the US, Dick made me stop. He said he just couldn’t think about it right now. We will have to address the challenge at some point, but I think he’s right — let’s not think about it just yet. 🙂 I’m planning some more travel and more visitors are coming, so there’s a lot to look forward to in the near future!

Who do u think u are? Ich bin ein Neuroth

My brother Alan is the family genealogist and has done extensive research on our family tree, mostly the lineage of our grandfathers. I’ve always been curious about the Neuroth line, not only because that is our surname, but because information about the family was so vague. Grandpa Neuroth told us many stories, but I don’t remember him ever talking about his childhood. We grew up knowing some of his siblings, but I don’t remember them talking about their parents. I suspect this is because their parents divorced when they were young. Anyway, Alan has been able to fill in the Neuroth family tree back to the 17th century. He’s been able to determine where the family lived in Germany and when they emigrated to the America. Our great, great grandfather, Heinrich Neuroth, made the long journey via Amsterdam to New York in 1882. He followed his brother Johann who arrived earlier and several aunts and uncles who emigrated in the 1850s. Alan and Natasha arrived here Friday and the primary purpose of their vacation to Europe is to follow some family roots. First the Neuroth family in Germany and then the Eisinger family (Natasha’s maiden name) in Austria.

Saturday, we took them with us do some shopping at the green market and try some kibbeling. When we got back to Oirsbeek, the windmill was turning so we stopped in to see the grist in action and buy some flour.

​After that, we went to Maastricht to see the limestone mine tunnels and walk around the city (with stops to sample frites and waffles). We ended the day with a pannekoeken dinner in Valkenburg. I think we provided them with a good day of Dutch culture!

On Sunday, we travelled with Alan and Natasha to Gross-Zimmern, Hessen, Germany. This is where great, great grandfather Heinrich and his brother Johann lived with their mother and father before they went to America. Alan made a serendipitous connection with a woman named Christel who has just published a two volume book on the families of Gross-Zimmern. She is a fount of information and generously offered to give us a guided tour of our ancestral land.

We had a brief get acquainted meeting with Christel on Sunday night, and then met up with her Monday morning to begin our tour. We walked to the Evangelical Kirchengemeinde (church) in the center of the old part of town. The last residence of our ancestors was a house located right next to this church. After my 3x great grandfather died in 1892, the house was inhabited by two brothers for a few years and then Christel’s grandfather bought the house. What a coindidence that she also has a connection to this place! So cool. The house was purchased by the church in 1985 and torn down to make room for an office/classroom building.


The little green house is where they lived. This painting hangs in the church.

The pastor was kind enough to show us around the church and tell us about the history. The original part of the church was built in 1407! Heinrich was christened in this church and the baptismal font from that period is still used today. I started to get a little emotional realizing that I was standing in the very place where my great, great grandfather was baptized and where he attended church until he was a young adult. I didn’t really expect that it would mean so much to me. 

There are two other houses in Gross-Zimmern where the Neuroth family lived for periods of time. They both still exist today on the same street and we were able to take pictures of them.

Following the family back another two generations, we went with Christel a short distance by car to Spachbrucken. We stopped at a cemetery where there were several Neuroth gravestones. There was a concentration of Neuroth families in this town and likely distant cousins of ours still live there. We didn’t make contact with any of them, though. Going back another century to the 1600s, our family lived in Gundernhausen. This village was also close by and we drove there to look at the church, which unfortunately was closed. This is as far as the family has been traced so far. It’s possible that they migrated from another area of Germany before that.

It was so exciting to make these connections and very special to share this experience with Alan. It’s so much fun to have family visit and share a part of our adventure with them!

documenting an eventful week+

I need to jot down the events of the last two weeks to document the memories! Jenna arrived on the 20th of April and we toured sights in three countries in six days! We started with Brugge, one of our favorite places. I think it became one of her favorite places, too. We did the brewery tour at Halve Maan, which Dick and I missed on our last visit. Jenna and I took the train into Maastricht the next day after she caught up on sleep. The Friday market was in full swing and we were able to get some kibbling. Next up was Aachen to get a taste of Roman history and German. In Cologne, we did the walking tour and the chocolate museum (highly recommend!). Jenna got to experience delicious bratwurst and saurkraut at a German restaurant. I had sauerbraten for the first time and Dick had liver (ick!). We had an amazing day on Monday: Kinderdijk, Keukenhof and Sushi! The windmills at Kinderdijk are a lot of fun to see and we managed to stay dry the entire time. Keukenhof! What can I say in words that are befitting? It’s glorious and you really must experience it in person. I’m so happy that Jenna was able to do that with us! I know it’s something we will never forget. After we saw every flower, we drove to Haarlem. We found a great sushi place and gorged ourselves (it was all you can eat). Jenna and I stayed at a barely adequate hotel in Haarlem that night and took the train into Amsterdam the next morning. We had another great day: canal tour, Heineken tour, Albert Cuyp market, Musuemplein, Vondel park and more. Whew! It was so sad to see her leave and for the first time I felt very homesick. 

After we dropped Jenna off on Wednesday, we headed to Friesland to spend a few days with Els and Frans (Dick’s cousin and husband). It ended up being a long drive because traffic was backed up in several places along the highway. We arrived in time for a delicious dinner and settled into their gezellig huis. Thursday was Koiningsdag or King’s Day, which is a national holiday in NL. April 27th is King Willem Alexander’s birthday and this year he is 50, which made it even more of a big deal. The King visits a different city each year to celebrate and this year it was Tilburg in Brabant. The celebration was televised and we watched some of it to get a sense of what King’s day is all about. The main event in almost every city and town in NL is a rommelmarkt or vlooiemarkt (flea market). Yes, the Dutch celebrate the King’s birthday by selling and buying unwanted stuff! We went to Leeuwarden where there was a huge flea market. I bought an Oswald Chambers devotional in Dutch and Dick just had to have an upside down light bulb lamp thingy. Frans is very familiar with the city and gave us a little tour. There are some beautiful old buildings there. We had a nice lunch at the old weighing house in the square. The drive back was a scenic tour of the Friesland countryside. It’s so beautiful!

On Friday we had a relaxing day eating, chatting and walking around the environs of Oldeholtpade. We learned so much from Els and Frans. Later in the day we travelled to a nature preserve for an evening canoe tour. There were two tour guides, each in a boat with us and another couple in a third boat. The guide with Dick and I graciously spoke English during the tour thanks to a tip off from Els! It was such a lovely outing with beautiful sights of birds, water and sky. The guides were very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna. Much of this area is sort of being reclaimed and restored with birds and animal species coming back to the habitat. At one point, we canoed down an little inlet and floated in silence for awhile listening to the birds. So peaceful and soothing! We were out on the water for over two hours and the time flew by. We left Els and Frans Saturday morning feeling rested and encouraged by our visit with them. Dick had to work a little while we were there, so I probably felt a little more rested than he did!

On our way home Saturday, we stopped at the Hoge Velluwe National Park. Inside this park is the Kröller-Müller Museum, which has a large collection of Van Gogh paintings and a huge outdoor sculpture garden. Just inside the entrance to the park, there are free bikes available to ride throughout the park. We rode the bikes first to the information center, where we stopped to eat our packed lunch, and then on to the museum. The park was a lot of bush and not as picturesque as we though it would be. The museum was nice and the sculpture garden was cool, though we didn’t leave enough time to see it all. We decided to travel further towards home and stopped in Roermond for dinner. A tasty dinner at an Irish pub was gratefully consumed and then we did a short walk around the market square. We need to go back and spend more time in Roermond some time. 

Sunday was Dick’s birthday and we agreed that it would be a quiet day of relaxation. It was a beautiful weather day and we enjoyed being home!

the thorns among the roses

I’ve written a lot about our travels and how much we love The Netherlands. We feel so blessed to experience this adventure and we’ve learned so much. We are very thankful and content! But I feel like I’m not being entirely honest if I don’t share the downsides. It’s not all so wonderfully rosey, you see.

My job, the whole reason we’re here, has not lived up to my expectations. I don’t feel comfortable saying much about it in print, just suffice it to say that it hasn’t exactly been professionally enriching. The saving grace of it is that I have good co-workers and I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve also learned a lot about how NATO and the military function. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from all over North America and Europe and my understanding of the world has expanded immensely. This is going to have a lasting impact on me.

When we made the decision to relocate, we hoped that Dick would be able to find work here. That has not been the case so far. Freelance work is difficult to come by and networking takes a lot of time to develop (he was having the same problem in the States). He interviewed for a NATO related job last month, but for a puzzling reason was not selected. It was a graphic design job that he was more than qualified for, so it was a big disappointment for us. Our prayer is that he will be able to connect with some work in the coming year. In the meantime, he’s keeping up with his current US clients.

Our social life is kinda nonexistent since we haven’t really made any friends. Military families are well connected and as civilians we fall outside their networks. We haven’t found inroads with the Dutch living around us either. This is somewhat hampered by my inability to speak the language, but it’s also an aspect of the Dutch culture. They are generally very friendly, but have close inner circles socially. I’ve heard expats remark that they haven’t been invited to Dutch homes even after years of acquaintance. We go to chapel (though somewhat irregularly), take language classes and try to attend the JFC social events. Dick attends a weekly men’s group and is slowly making connections there. It’s been a good outlet for him since he’s home alone a lot. I keep having scheduling conflicts with a monthly women’s meeting and have yet to attend one. There’s been an attempt to gather together women on the base during the work day, but it’s not been terribly successful so far.

Dick and I have both experienced a spiritual lull (I’m rebelling against Christian lingo these days). It’s something we discuss often and we pray about it together. There are some things that I need to think through and sort out. I will probably write an entire post on this topic at some point.

We continue to have conflict with Kathryn’s mother and it can be very stressful. We invited Kathryn to spend her spring vacation with us, but her mother refused to let her come. We had encouraged Kathryn to do a missions trip in Rhode Island during this break, but she passed on the opportunity. Since she evidently had no other plans (and still doesn’t as far as we know), we thought it would be great for her to come and enjoy springtime abloom in NL. The time would have also overlapped with a visit from Jenna. Oh well. Our summer time with her last year was shortened from 30 to 25 days because her mother insisted they wouldn’t have enough vacation time with her. Kathryn isn’t attending bible camp this year, which freed up a week, so Dick asked that she come for 30 days this year. This also was declined with no other reason than 30 days is too long. So noted. This is still being hashed out and it’s a sensitive issue, so enough said.

There is also an ongoing communication issue with Kathryn. I’ve been asked to delete this part of my story. 

Given what we’ve both been through in the past, the ‘downsides’ of our life here are minor. I’m not complaining; I’m just trying to keep it real!

Paris – my favorite moments

I’ve dreamed of visiting Paris for a long time – since I first started learning French in high school. I’m not one to get overly infatuated with a place or an concept, but I’ve always felt that reading about Paris or seeing pictures/video of the city was not enough. It was something that I needed to experience in person. A few months ago, I decided that traveling to Paris in March would be a good time to avoid huge crowds and hot/cold weather. And since my birthday is in March, why not celebrate it in the City of Lights?! I spent many hours reading travel blogs and reviewing a bazillion top this and top that lists on Pinterest. I came up with an itinerary for four full days and two travel days.

We arrived in Paris by train (love taking the train especially when it’s fast) late afternoon on Wednesday and then switched over to a Metro line. When we came out of the Metro, our first sight was Notre Dame. Wow! We had some time to kill before meeting the person with the apartment keys, so we sat on a bench outside the cathedral for awhile. I took a long look at those flying buttresses and tried to soak in the fact that I was really in PARIS!

The Ile St. Louis was our place of residence for five days and we loved it. It’s a tiny slice of Paris charm and contained everything we needed — close to the metro, market across the street, bakery next door, plenty of restaurants and Bertillion was just down the street. We decided to give Airbnb a try for this trip and rented studio apartment in a 17th century building just off an enclosed courtyard. Some of the interior walls were stone, which gave it an old world feel. The most important features were present: a comfy bed, quiet at night and a great modern shower.

When Dick heard that Chris Thile from the Punch Brothers was giving a solo concert in Paris on the 15th, we decided to get tickets. Chris sings and plays a mean mandolin. We enjoyed a really fun, entertaining concert at Alhambra on our first night out in Paris. Many of the people there seemed to know each other (lots of cheek kissing going on!) and even though we were outsiders, it made the crowd feel very social and engaging. Chris definitely picked up on that and clearly had a great time performing — he gave three encores. Part of the concert consisted of movements from Bach’s Sonatas and Partidas (written for violin) woven through other music selections. It was brilliant. What a memory this will be for us!

My first breakfast was pain au chocolat consumed on the way to the metro. I might have had a couple more — maybe daily. If only every day could start with chocolate and flaky pastry!

On Thursday after a lot of sight-seeing and A LOT of walking, we trudged to the top of the Arc de Triumph. We arrived at the top just in time to see a procession form and then parade down the Champs-Élysées to place flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A short ceremony (a choir sang this time) is conducted by veterans and the flame is rekindled every day at 6:30 pm. We just happened to be there at the right time to see this meaningful daily ritual.

Have you ever had a soufflé? I don’t remember ever having one before this trip. Le Soufflé is all about them and they are delicious! We each had two as part of a three course meal. The third course was a delicious dessert — creme brûlée for me and ice cream with Grand Marnier for Dick. If we’re ever in Paris again, we will definitely go back to this spot.

Friday was my birthday and I planned a couple of special things to do. My favorite was lunch at Benoit, a Michelin rated restaurant. Even the lunch menu was a splurge, but if you’ve seen Burnt or The Hundred Foot Journey, you’ll know why I wanted to do this. I’ve been to a few fine restaurants, but nothing compared to this. It was quite an experience! The food was divine and the service was beyond my expectations. Excellent!

We visited Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and Sacré-Coeur and during our visits we were able to experience more than the architecture, art and relics. While we were at Notre Dame and Sacré-Coeur, there was a mass in progress. I love this because it’s a great reminder that they are active places of worship — not just tourist attractions. At Sacré-Coeur, nuns were singing and it was very sweet. We attended a classical concert at Sainte Chapelle on Friday night and experienced the romance of this beautiful chapel quite differently than when we wandered through it during the day.

The Louvre is amazing, but it wasn’t my favorite museum. The Musee d’Orsay contains an astounding collection of French Impressionism, which is my favorite art period. I loved the seeing the breadth of work for artists such as Monet, Renoir, Degas and Sisley. Just as we were finishing our tour of the Impressionism gallery, we were told to stay back and step over to one side. A bunch of museum guards appeared and held back the people who were in the gallery. I could see cameras flashing on the other side of the room and thought that someone important must be coming through. In a few minutes, I could see who it was — William and Kate! I grabbed my iPhone to take pics of the royal couple. Dick was able to get the best shots.

I think the best way to get the feel of a city is to walk it. We had some really nice walks in the Latin Quarter, through the Luxembourg Gardens, along the Seine (day and night), browsing shops in Ile de St. Louis and in a quaint quarter of Montmartre.

Saturday night we went to a restaurant that got good reviews for their moules frites. When we saw escargot on the menu, we had to order it because I really wanted to try them. They were delicious! Out of an order of six, one of them was a dud. Either it didn’t have any meat or we just couldn’t extract it. When the waiter heard that, he wisked out another three for us. Bonus! We also had some tasty mussels and fries.

We spent most of Sunday at Versailles. My favorite moment at Versailles? I don’t know. It was just okay for me. Obviously the scale and opulence of the palace is incredible. The Hall of Mirrors is less impressive in person than in pictures I’ve seen. The gardens are not at their full splendor in March. The trees were brown, the fountains were not running and the statues were covered up. Boo. It was also a cloudy, windy day, so strolling the gardens was not that pleasant.

I was nervous about going to Paris. I guess it was because I’ve forgotten most of the French I’ve learned and I was afraid we would be in situations where I would need to speak and understand it. That actually only happened a couple of times and I was able to understand enough to communicate. I had also read a lot about rude service, but we didn’t experience that. In fact, friendly and pleasant Parisians were apart of all of my favorite moments.

Dream come true. A bientôt Paris!

The mystique of Carnaval

Alaaf! It (Carnaval) is on! Around mid-January we started to see red, yellow and green flags appear and then a larger than life picture of the “Prins” on the side of a house. Window decorations came soon after and every weekend there was some sort of party in town. People dressed in red, yellow or green were about and guys with funny looking hats seemed to preside over it all. When we walked through a neighboring town, we saw pictures of princes and princesses in almost every window. 

We guessed that all of this had something to do with Carnaval, but it was mostly a mystery. We knew that red, yellow and green are the colors of the Limburg flag and that Carnaval is a big celebration here. We were clueless about all the rituals involved. 

We’ve learned that each town has one or more carnival associations. Those are the guys with the funny hats. They plan the activities and elect the prince and/or princess. The activities can include pageants, parodies, comedies, music parties and parades. When there is a music event in Oirsbeek, we can hear it from our house and there were several nights when we had to use white noise to get to sleep. 

The climax of Carnaval is the week before Ash Wednesday. Our landlady gave us a bit of information and said that on Thursday night the ladies go out. They cut off men’s ties and shoelaces (I guess to show their rebellion?) if any men are out. The husbands eventually come to get their wives in the wee hours of the morning and take them home. I heard that one nearby town has a cow race on Friday night. People dress up like cows and run a race through the town center. No idea what that’s about! We went to Sittard Friday night for dinner and saw many teenagers in costumes (mostly one piece furry animals or cartoon characters) around market square. There was a youth dance party going on in the square. 

The parades begin on Saturday. There are youth or children parades and then the big parades. It seemed like most of the parades on Saturday were the former and the big parades were either Sunday or Monday. Nearly every village and city in Limburg hosts at least one parade. We decided that we had to experience Carnaval in Maastricht — the biggest celebration in NL. This meant we had to miss the parade in Oirsbeek since it was also on Sunday afternoon. We met up with my work colleague Ioana, who was also experiencing it for the first time. The parade in Maastricht was even bigger than I imagined it would be! It lasted almost three hours — so many colorful people, music and floats. It’s a joyous spectacle and, from our point of view, it was very family and community oriented. It’s not like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

A lot of creativity and planning goes into this parade. From what we understand, many of the groups are carnival associations or neighbor groups. The costumes are very elaborate and beautifully coordinated. There’s so much color, sparkle and flair! One of the major themes of carnaval is role reversal so the peasants become royalty, men become women, employees become bosses, etc. It’s also a celebration of the end of winter and pending spring — I think that’s why there is so much color.

In case you were wondering, yes there is also drunken revelry. Beer is the beverage of choice everywhere here and it’s probably consumed in greater quantities during Carnaval than any other time of the year. Many of the groups in the parade had their own beer cart so they could keep their glasses full. We didn’t experience much of this side of the celebration. It was too crowded to go into the center of Maastricht and in Sittard the set up was designed for frequent drinkers. When we went to the square in Oirsbeek on Saturday afternoon, there was a small crowd of people in costume standing around drinking beer and listening to silly carnaval music. It didn’t entice us. It’s not much fun to have a social drink when everyone else around you just wants to get drunk!

Almost every business is closed for the three day weekend. Carnaval Monday is a holiday in Limburg and a lot of the parades are held that day. On Sunday, the only restaurants that we found open were Subway and McDonalds (it’s the American way!). Monday night we decided to take a drive and find a restaurant where we could use coupons that were about expire. NOTHING in southern NL was open. We drove over into Belgium thinking that businesses there wouldn’t be observing carnaval — we were wrong. We managed to find an open Italian pizzeria in a small Belgian town and were surprised to get some delicious pizza served by a very nice couple. We will definitely go back there!

It all winds down on Tuesday with some sort of closing ceremony. There is still much about Carnaval that remains a mystery to us, but we’ve been doing some research and found lots of interesting information on this wikipedia page: Maybe by next year we’ll know more locals and learn more about the nuances of this celebration.

catching up

It’s been about a month since my last blog post, because January was not terribly eventful. A streak of cold weather kept us mostly inside, though we did at least one long walk on the weekends. Some snow covered the ground a couple of times, but it didn’t stay for more than a day. I’ve gone with the auto option to get to work rather than biking or waiting for buses. 

We find ourselves in discussions about American politics on a daily basis now. I avoid American news outlets, but since President Trump also dominates European news we can’t escape it. It’s also difficult to avoid political Facebook posts, though I usually scroll though most of it. I’ve thought about taking a break from fb, but it’s how I stay connected to many friends and family and I find it difficult to give that up. I have strong reactions to the current events, but I don’t comment in print because I don’t think I have anything novel to say. Let me just say that my predominant feelings these days are embarrassment and concern. I don’t know if we have a different perspective here in Europe than we would have had at home. Most (if not all?) the people we know here are also shaking their heads over all of this. 

A trip to Düsseldorf last weekend broke us out of the winter doldrums. There was very little sun, but the temperature was warmer and it didn’t rain. The city sits along the Rheine River and the Rheinuferpromenade allows you to walk along the whole river front. It’s an interesting mix of new and old with some very cool architecture. There’s great shopping with a 7 story mall and a shopping street similar to 5th Ave in NY. We did a lot of browsing, but didn’t buy a thing! A historic German pub provided us some good meat and potatoes (bratwurst, mash and kraut for me) at the end of the day. 

We’ve been battling some illness this past week. I had a spell of vertigo (happens once in a while), Dick had a chest cold with a bad cough and now I have a nasty cold. We had planned to spend the weekend in Brussels, but decided to cut it to a day trip on the driest day, Sunday. It’s only a 1.4 hr trip by car to Liege and then by train the rest of the way. My first impression of Brussels last year was meh; I didn’t see much of the old part. This time we explored the Grand Place and some of the other well known sites. It was a wet dreary day and my visual impression of the city didn’t improve much. We had brunch at a popular cafe that serves breakfast all day. There was a line out the door and while we waited, we realized we were the oldest people around. Later in the day, we stopped into a pub to get a drink and get warm. As we walked to the back, we saw people dancing. We eventually figured out that a swing dancing club was there to do their thing. It was very entertaining! Our main reason for going to Brussels was to see a lights festival; it was pretty cool and made the trip worthwhile.

So we had a dilemma on Feb. 5th — it’s the Superbowl and the Patriots could make history. Do we stay up to watch it live (with ads and Lady Gaga) or do we shut ourselves off from the outside world until we can watch it on demand (without ads or halftime show) on Monday? To watch it all live, we would have had to pull an all nighter and go to bed at 4 am. We decided to split the difference and watch it live until after the halftime show (2:30 am). After sleeping in on Monday morning, we avoided social media and the news and went right to the second half on demand. Wow, what an epic game! Congratulations NE Patriots! 😀 It was kind of a bummer not being able to share the experience with other Patriots fans and we definitely missed the party food!