A taste of Iberia: Lisbon, Portugal

We arrived in Lisbon by train from Porto and that part of the journey was very easy. The tricky part was getting from the train station to our Airbnb. I discovered that Uber was the fastest and easiest method of transport. This was our first Uber experience and it worked pretty well (the competition is pretty fierce so drivers want to please). Our Airbnb host was an elderly lady who lived in the apartment next door. She was by far the most talkative and informative host we’ve had! We were grateful for the lunch she left for us because we were very hungry at that point.

Our first destination was the Belém district. We needed to pick up our Lisboa cards at a kiosk there, which was not so easy to find and we quickly discovered that Lisbon is pretty spread out and not all that walkable. We finally found the cards and made good use of them for free bus fare for the rest of our stay. After seeing the sights in Belém (Belém Tower, Jerónimos Monastery and Padrão dos Descobrimentos), we headed to a lookout point closer to the city center to watch the sunset. Well, we missed the sunset and there was a big crowd at the lookout — it actually felt like a party. I had this weird sense of feeling old and out of place. I just wanted to get out of there, but that involved walking down narrow streets where people were in a party mood. It felt like late night, but it was only 9pm! We then had to wait a long time for a bus, which ended up being jammed packed. I had made a late dinner reservation in the Airbnb neighborhood and the restaurant was great, so the day ended on a happy note.

Our scheduled walking tour was cancelled on Sunday so we had a relaxing morning and some good food at the big indoor market along the river. Time Out in the Mercado da Ribeira consists of food booths from some of the best restaurants in Lisbon. There was a similar market in Copenhagen, but it was closed for renovations while we were there. We got our first look of the city center of Lisbon when we walked to the Rossio train station. We spent the rest of the day in Sintra, which I’ll write about in a separate post.

On our last day in Lisbon, we grabbed a quick breakfast at this really cute French cafe down the street, checked out of the bnb and took the bus to the train station to store our luggage. We joined a walking tour of Alfama that was guided by a young woman from Italy. There were a lot of breaks on this tour — twice for a shot of the local liquors and twice for scenic overlooks of the city. Alfama is the oldest part of the city that survived the great earthquake of 1755. The architecture isn’t all that interesting to me, but it did have some beautiful tile work and a different feel from the rest of Lisbon.

We can’t really appreciate a world capital without seeing some art (that’s because we like art, I suppose). I chose the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum because it was a personal collection and quite extensive. It’s actually pretty amazing and mind blowing that everything was acquired by Gulbenkian. We took a stroll through the Edward VII park before taking the metro back to the center. We had enough time to see the Carmo Convent and Santa Justa lift before we had to to catch our flight to Madrid.

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A taste of Iberia: Porto, Portugal

We have a big map of Europe on the wall of our office/dining room and I’ve pinned a flags on every location we’ve visited during the past two years. There are a couple of large areas of Europe that were blank on this map and we decided (okay, I strongly suggested) to visit one of these for our last trip. We considered a Baltic Sea cruise, but the cost in money and time was too much. The cheapest choice was the Iberian peninsula and I could take advantage of a time period that included two national holidays, which allowed me to use my last ration of vacation time to the best advantage. I planned an itinerary that hopped us to Porto, Lisbon, Sintra and Madrid in seven days. 😅

Our stay in Porto was short (1.5 days), but sweet. After a two hour flight and a long crowded metro ride, we checked into an Airbnb close to the city center. We dropped our stuff and headed out to see the sights and find the food. The whole trip kinda revolved around food and drink. 🤤 We found some Pasteis de Nata in a bakery just up the street and they became a daily treat during our stay in Portugal.

We went to the famous Igreja do Carmo with beautiful tile on the outside and the most depressing baroque interior I’ve ever seen. Seriously . . . it was creepy. The best sight of the day for me was the Livraria Lello, which is the most beautiful bookstore in the world (IMHO!). So many people visit the Lello that they had to start charging a voucher fee to encourage people to buy books and keep the store in business!

We tried another Porto specialty, the Francescinha, for dinner. It’s a good thing we shared it, because this thing sits in the tummy for awhile. I think we walked it off that evening, though. Walking involves a lot of hills in Portugal. We got some good views of the riverside during sunset and saw quite a bit of the old city.

Our full day in Porto was actually spent outside the city. We joined a day long wine tour in the Douro Valley. It was a beautiful sunny day and the views of the vineyards were breathtaking. We visited two small vineyards, tasted lots of port and wine and had a nice relaxing lunch at a Portuguese restaurant in a small quaint village. It was a long ride to/from the valley and the river cruise at the end of the day was a little boring, but all in all it was a great day!

We enjoyed strolling through the streets of Porto in the evening to see some more of the interesting tiled buildings. I wish we had been able to see some of the wine cellars, but we were maxed out on wine that day and off to Lisbon the next morning. I hope we can go back to Porto some day!

highlights from our family visits

We hosted family over the last few weeks and it was a blast! We love playing tour guide, experiencing something new, sharing meals and chatting about our favorite topic — the differences between Europe and America. I’m going to boil down the last three weeks into some daily highlights.

6 – 8 April

Els & Frans (cousins) came for a weekend visit. On Saturday, we had a nice walk on one of our favorite trails in Valkenburg and took a relaxing break at a gezellig café along the way. We showed them around Valkenburg a bit and had lunch at one of the many restaurants there. It was the first warm sunny day of spring! It was nice to be able to sit in our garden at home that evening. We attended the Kom en Zie church in Schinnen Sunday morning. The people there are super friendly and the place was full. The worship was mostly in Dutch, but the songs were familiar to me so I tried to sing the Dutch words (projected on the wall). The speaker was enthusiastic and kept my attention even though I didn’t understand most of what he was saying. Els helped by giving me some translation. It was another pleasant weather day, so we had a barbecue lunch in the garden and enjoyed the sun. It was such a nice visit!

14 – 18 April

Kathryn arrived on 14 April to spend her spring break with us. On Sunday, we dragged her out of bed to go to a surprise destination in Belgium. We arrived at Pairi Daiza around 11:30. Pairi Daiza is an amazing zoo and we absolutely loved it! We stayed until closing because there was so much to see and do there. Kathryn and I ooooed and awwwed over the pandas and kualas. The pandas weren’t allowed outside because of mating season, but we saw them through glass. Dick got a kick out of the gorillas and all of the monkeys were very entertaining. The baby orangutan was super cute. There were a lot of exotic birds and unusual animals that we’ve never seen up close before — like ant eaters and hyenas. The entire landscape of this zoo seemed very natural and balanced.

Dick took Kathryn to Eindhoven University of Technology for her very first college visit. They did a campus tour with a current chemical engineering student and learned a lot about the program there. Kathryn is excited about the possibility of studying abroad, though it will likely be limited to a semester away from an American university. Lots to consider on that front! We’re happy that she loves it here. Dick and Kathryn also did a day trip to Bonn to see Drachenburg, cherry trees in bloom and Beethoven’s birthplace.

19 April – Sunny Day #1

Jared and Michelle arrived after spending a few days in London. We picked them up in Eindhoven and then headed to Gouda. I was so happy to see them and hug them! We haven’t been together since New Year 2017. We caught the end of the Gouda Cheese Market and picked up a few things at the green market. Our picnic lunch spot was along a canal. After a little shopping and browsing, we drove out to Kinderdijk where we saw the windmills backdropped by blue skies (first time we’ve been there in fair weather). I think Jared & Michelle brought some Florida weather with them!

We spent two nights at an Airbnb along the Reeuwijksche Plassen, which is a beautiful area of lakes and dikes. The cottage was just built this past year and was really nice and comfy. It was such a nice spot to hang out!

20 April – Sunny Day #2

Some old bikes were provided at the bnb so we took a scenic ride in the Plassen. The bikes were a bit clunky, but we had fun. We saw nesting swans and baby geese along the way. We made our way to the Keukenhof later in the morning. The flower gardens were jaw dropping again this year and we enjoyed sharing this wonderful place with Jared, Michelle and Kathryn. Jared took over 200 pics! After we were satisfied that we had seen everything, we drove to Zandvoort. We enjoyed some seafood at a restaurant on the beach with a nice view of the North Sea. Some of us dipped toes into the water, but Kathryn didn’t want to get sand in her shoes and I’m good with remembering past experiences. 😉

21 April – Sunny Day #3

We were ready to leave the Airbnb by 9:00 to drive to a station to catch the train into Amsterdam. This was Kathryn’s departure day, but she really wanted to see Amsterdam before she left. By the time we got into the city, however, she and Dick had to turn right around to head back to the train station and get to the airport. 😑 Jared, Michelle and I did the canal tour, had a coffee break at the Rijksmuseum garden and then walked to the Albert Cuyp Market. We had our lunch snacks there and bought a few items. Dick met up with us later and we went to the Flower Market. In the meantime, I received a message from the airbnb host that Dick had left a pair of shoes behind. We eventually decided to stay in Amsterdam a bit longer than planned so we could pick up the shoes in Utrecht on the way home. I gave the host a very good review! We had planned to go to the top of the A’DAM and do the swings, but decided the cost wasn’t worth it. We went to the top of the library instead. Jared wanted to try pizza for dinner, even though we warned him that Dutch pizza is not that great. 😌 He found a decently rated pizzeria and it was pretty good. We took the ferry across the IJ and watched the sunset behind the iamsterdam sign before catching a train back to our car. Back to Oirsbeek!

22 April – Sunny Day #4

Sunday was a more relaxed day. We slept in, scrounged up some breakfast and hung out. In the afternoon, we took a long drive into Maastricht via Belgium because of road works detours. We started our tour at the park, walking along the old wall. I wanted to see the D’Artagnan monument in a park we haven’t seen before, but the park was all dug up and fenced off. We found some yummy gelato along the way, so all was good. We ticked off some of our favorite places on the tour and we decided to have a barbecue dinner back at home.

23 April – Sunny Day #5

It was a little cooler on Monday, but still sunny! Dick had some work to do, so Michelle, Jared and I drove to Antwerp. We hit some traffic going in, but had just enough time to make it to the 11:30 free walking tour. I took a wrong turn on our walk in and we happened upon a neighborhood of Hasidic Jews — which happened to be very close to the long row of diamond jewelry shops. The tour guide provided us with some interesting stories about the history of Antwerp, though her sense of humor kinda fell flat due to her awkward English. We went searching for frites and waffles after the tour and a visit to the cathedral (I wanted to see the Ruben altarpieces). A swing by the gorgeous train station completed our trip and we got out of town before the worst of rush hour traffic hit.

24 April – partially sunny day

Today was Germany day. We drove to Monshau first because I wanted our guests to see one of the many quaint German towns full of half-timber houses. They were also interested in seeing the glass shop there. We watched some glass making and Dick volunteered to do some glass blowing. Yay! We strolled through town and had lunch on the square even though it was a little chilly for the Floridians. Michelle and I bought some bags at a really reasonable hand bag store. From there, we travelled on to Cologne. Our first stop was the Lindt Chocolate Museum, which is a lot of fun. Since we weren’t going to make it for the walking tour, Dick and I pointed out some of the sights we knew. The Dom is the highlight and never ceases to amaze. Michelle was in awe. After we spent some time there, we backtracked to a restaurant we selected on the way in and enjoyed some authentic German food and Kölsch. Yum!

25 April

Alas, the weather was more like normal with a bit of rain and cooler temps. Let’s be thankful for that streak of summer weather! We had another relaxed morning and Dick made crepes for our late breakfast. He had to run to a meeting, so the rest of us did a bit of shopping at Jumbo and a bike ride around Oirsbeek. In the afternoon, we went to Hoensbroek Castle. Since I’ve been through the castle multiple times, I let Jared & Michelle do the tour while I did some reading in the courtyard. The English guide was unfortunately sold out, so they had to make do with French. 😬 I was kicking myself for not bringing the English guide that we had at home. 😝 I gave them the ‘what you can see from here’ tour of JFCBS and then we circled back home. Our dinner was barbecue spare ribs and raclette. Yes, we mixed American and Swiss cuisine and it was delicious! We tried a raclette melter for the first time and it works really well. Wonder if we can get the nicely sized slices Swiss cheese in the states? Dick insisted that we have vlaai for dessert, but we had also promised to go to our local gelato place . . . so we had both!

26 April

Early morning goodbye at the airport. 😢 We loved our time with son and daughter-in-law! It was a bit easier to say goodbye to them and Kathryn because we plan to see them all soon. It’s bittersweet for us, though. It’s all going by so fast and I just want to slow down these last weeks!

Easter in Copenhagen

The “holy days” of Easter — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday are national holidays in much of Europe including Denmark. I had Good Friday and Easter Monday as holidays, which gave me a four day weekend. Since a small percentage of Danes attend church services (estimate of 10%), this holiday period is observed as family time. Most retail shops are closed, but museum, entertainment venues and many restaurants remain open.

It’s another short plane ride to Copenhagen (1.5 hrs) and this time the best flight deal was out of Brussels (we have 7 airport options within a two hour radius). We left Thursday after work and arrived around 8pm. We stayed at an economy hotel in Vesterbro, which was a great location close to the train station and an easy walk into the heart of the city.

It was cold all weekend with temps in the low 30s, but Friday was sunny and a good day to be outside. We took the high speed train across the Oresundbron bridge to Malmo, Sweden in the morning and spent a few hours there. We explored two nice squares, St. Peter’s Church and Malmo Castle. The castle is not very pretty on the outside, but the museum inside had some interesting exhibits. One of the exhibits was a private perfume collection on loan. We found lunch at a funky cafe that was also a music store.

When we got back to Copenhagen, our plan to visit the Botanical Garden struck out because it was closed. We hit a couple of other sites on our list instead. I had scored a half-off dinner at a restaurant via TripAdvisor/The Fork and we had a really nice meal there. Copenhagen is a pricey city and we tried to make our euros stretch!

On Saturday morning we picked up Copenhagen Cards that would pay our way into all the attractions we would visit and also cover public transport cost for 48 hrs. First up was a canal tour. It was 0/32 degrees, but thankfully the boat was covered and heated. Well, I was thankful. Dick decided to sit outside for “a better view”. The windows were kinda dirty, so maybe he was right. Like Amsterdam, the canal tour was a great way to see a lot of Copenhagen. I love how the old and new architecture blend in this city.

Saturday was the only day that the shops were open, so I insisted on some shopping! Dick was less than thrilled. One of my must stops was A.C. Perch’s tea shop. I waited in line for about a half hour to get in (while Dick wandered around). The shop is tiny and quaint! It was worth the wait. After that, we climbed the Round Tower and got some good views of the city. I was hoping for smorrebrod for lunch, but the restaurant I selected was closed. We settled for a Danish hotdog from a street vendor. We caught an English tour of the Queen’s reception rooms at Christianborg in the afternoon and had time to browse through the royal stables there as well. My work colleagues recommended a southwestern restaurant called Llama and that’s where we had dinner. I was a little annoyed that we had to sit at the bar, but the food was really good.

We went to an Easter service at St. Albans Church. It’s an English Anglican Church that was built with the patronage of the Prince and Princess of Wales (the Prince was the future King Edward VII of England). Princess Alexandra was the daughter of King Christian IX. The church is pretty and looks like it belongs in an English countryside. The service was a little too high for my taste, but I guess it was a cultural experience.

The Danish Design museum was a short walk from St. Albans, but then we had to wait 40 min outside to get in. May I remind you that it was cold! This was a pretty cool museum and there was a whole room dedicated to Danish chairs. I noticed that they served smorrebrod at the cafe and that took care of our mid-afternoon hunger. We went to Amalienborg, the royal residence, after that and did the “Easter” tour. There really wasn’t much about Easter in the tour, but it was a good overview of the royal family and how they ended up living at this castle. We had enough time left to take a look at Frederiks church, which is Lutheran and the Queen’s church. After a break at our hotel and some dinner, we went to Tivoli. It’s an old amusement park and garden right in the city. I guess it has a certain charm, but we found it to be overpriced and not that interesting — and it was a little too cold to do any rides.

So we really liked Copenhagen and maybe we’ll go back sometime when the weather is warm and we can explore more of Denmark. It wasn’t an entirely peaceful trip, however. I think there were some underlying stuff that didn’t allow us to completely relax and go with the flow. Dick and I have a different pace and way of experiencing things, which it requires patience and understanding in the best of circumstances. We had a lot on our minds this time. Dick’s father was very ill in the hospital and this was worrying us (he’s much better now and back home). It’s also been difficult to be in the moment when can’t help but think about what’s ahead. I’ve been applying for jobs, nailing down temporary housing and keeping tabs on the real estate market. We’ve been thinking A LOT about everything that needs to get done in the next two months. Our next period will be hosting family and we’re really looking forward to that!

train trip to Hamburg

I found out a couple of weeks ago that I would have an unexpected day off on March 26th. The base would be on stand down to take a breather from a recent exercise. A long weekend to fill! What to do? What to do?

How about a train trip? Since we are doing a lot of flying and driving over the next two months, this seemed like the way to go. I plotted out a course on Google maps to a couple of locations and Hamburg won for the easiest and least expensive location to get to by rail. Along this route we could make stops at Münster (to) and Bremen (from).

We began the journey on Friday night from Sittard and stopped at Münster for the night. We had a yummy dinner at an old German pub in town. I had browsed the English menu online so I knew exactly what I was going to order — bratwurst with fried potatoes. I may have mentioned before that I love German food. 🙂 The German name for this dish translated to Münster Rosary (no idea why). I was a bit disappointed that the waitress got the order wrong and brought chicken instead of sausage, but it looked and tasted delicious so all was well. The waitress, who didn’t speak English, indicated that I got a little extra beer in my stein and there was no way I was going to complain anyway.

Münster is a charming city and we really enjoyed being there. The main attraction is the Peace Hall in the Rathaus where the Peace of Westphalia was signed to end the Thirty Years War. Unfortunately, the city hall was closed for renovations when we were there. Bummer. Oh well, nice architecture, good food, beer, pastries and coffee were enough for this visit. We had to catch a 1pm train to Hamburg.

After a 40 minute delay, we were on our way in a crowded intercity train. We had to stand for the first hour and then we hung out in the dining car for the rest of the trip. (Note to self: reserve seats next time.) Our hotel in Hamburg had a funky decor, which was a fun change from the norm. It was kinda in an inconvenient location, though. We did A LOT of walking in Hamburg! We walked about an hour and a half before we got to our dinner location. I didn’t think a reservation would be necessary for a 6pm dinner at an Indian restaurant, but I was wrong. Luckily, there was another Indian restaurant just down the street, which was much bigger and had tables available. We had a great meal there and my craving for Indian food was satisfied.

I tried to get tickets for a concert at the new Elbphilharmonie, but they were all sold out (in fact, all a scheduled concerts for the entire year are sold out). We decided to go to a classical guitar concert at Laishalle, the old concert hall, instead. The music was excellent and we assume that the musicians were engaging because the audience was really into what they were saying; they spoke in German and we didn’t get it. 😑 The concert was a bit too long for my stamina, but Dick loved it.

On Sunday, we did a free walking tour of the old part of Hamburg. Our tour guide was from Croatia. Expats can be very passionate about their adopted city! The tour ended at the harbor, which gave us the opportunity to see the Elbphilharmonie up close and then go up to its observation deck for a great view of the harbor. It’s an amazing building, but hard to believe that it cost 800 million euros to complete. 🤑

We had planned to see the miniature railroad museum after that. Who knew it was so popular and requires advance timed tickets?! Oh well, it was just a curiosity thing anyway. We’re not exactly railroad enthusiasts. We had some time to kill so we headed back to the city center. The weather was milder than it had been in months and lots of people were out enjoying the city.

We caught an evening train to Bremen. The Bremen Ratskeller was my choice for dinner because of its history and it did have an interesting ambience. They have an extensive wine list and I chose a nice Riesling from the Rhine valley. We were able to buy a bottle of it the next day. Bremen looks and feels very old and we loved that. We did a tour of the city hall on Monday and wow, that building is pretty impressive inside and out! The tour guide started the tour in German only, but after Dick told him we were English speakers he kindly started speaking in both languages. He also picked up on the fact that we had Nederland connections and made a couple of jokes about that. There was a lot to see in this small city, including a couple of very cute shopping streets. It was fun to just browse around. I had a windmill cafe spec’d out for lunch, but the menu was limited and expensive. On our way back to our hotel, we were offered a free sample of falafel from a small restaurant and it was pretty tasty. We decided to lunch there instead and the food was delicious! We made a stop at Hachez chocolate shop to pick up some Easter goodies and I detoured for a shopping fix at Galleria Kaufhof (my fave).

It was a long train ride back home, but relaxing with just a couple of easy transfers to navigate. Successful trip!

birthday weekend in Vienna

How crazy is it that we can just pop over to Vienna for the WEEKEND! I found a cheap flight that left Friday night and returned Sunday night. That’s not always possible with low fare airlines. Then consider that it’s only an hour and a half flight and that makes it doable. We had two full days to explore and enjoy this amazing city. We just had to set reasonable expectations and accept that we were going to miss a lot.

We got on the wrong train out of the airport, which at first seemed like no problem because we could get off at the next stop to get a train in the right direction. Problem. The next train didn’t come for 45 minutes! So we had to scratch the Prater Ferris wheel from our to-do list. We did get to see it from the train station and it didn’t look like it was running anyway.

Saturday was snowy and cold so we took the metro or tram everywhere. Schönbrunn Palace was our first destination. This palace was very interesting because of the range of decor and craftsmanship in each room. One of the rooms was covered in Japanese rice paper, another was covered with ebony inlay. The tour covered a lot of the history of the Habsburg reign and it was difficult to keep all the family members straight. I was happy that there was an Easter market on the grounds to see after our tour.

We saw the Klimt exhibit at the Belvedere Palace in the afternoon. The palace has been an art museum for over a hundred years. After that we were really thirsty and found a brew pub nearby. Score! We had some time to walk around and do a bit of shopping, though the weather wasn’t very pleasant. My birthday wish list included Sacher torte at Café Sacher, which involved a short wait outside, but it was worth it!

The highlight of my birthday was the opera. We’ve never been to an opera before and I decided that Vienna was the place to do it. I was hoping for a Mozart opera, but I was able to get super cheap tickets (14 euro each) for a performance of La Boheme. I don’t like listening to opera on the radio, but hearing/seeing it in person was an amazing experience! We loved it. We were in a box that seated seven people — three, two, two and we were in the middle row. Only the front row had translation monitors, but fortunately the Italian woman seated in front of me chose English (for our benefit?) and I could see her monitor throughout the performance. Score again!

On Sunday the snow had stopped, but the temperature dropped. We had breakfast at another Viennese café (Café Eiles) that was very chic. I wish we could have lingered over breakfast, but we had to get to the Spanish Riding School for the Lipizzaner show. I didn’t realize that this really is a riding school where the riders and horses are both being trained in dressage and jumping. The show is a display of this training from novices to experts. We bought standing room tickets and I’m glad we did because standing was a good vantage point and I don’t think it was worth it to pay more for this show.

Next on our itinerary was the State Hall at the National Library. I was awestruck! First there is the magnificent architecture, then there are the shelves of nicely arranged old books and the library ladders to get to the top rows, and then the exhibits. The current exhibit consists of the history and treasures of the library as it celebrates 650 years of existence. 650! I found it interesting that the first head librarians were Dutch. I guess they were more organized than the Austrians? 🙂

The Globe Museum seemed like a quirky, but interesting place to see. And it was! There is actually a globe society and they hold annual meetings. There are more types of globes than I every imagined and all sizes (the shapes are pretty similar ;-)) The drawback for me was that they were all behind glass. I really wanted to spin one. That could only be done virtually on a computer screen — not the same effect.

We got a quick look at the Rathaus (City Hall), which is an impressive gothic structure. Time was short so we went to the churches before an early dinner and browsed another Easter market along the way. St. Stephen’s cathedral is rather dreary and didn’t take much time to view. St. Peter’s is baroque, which is not my favorite but there was an organ concert in progress so we stayed for awhile to listen.

Easter Market

I had read about the schnitzel at Figlmüller and we had to check it out. There was a bit of a wait to get a table at the second location after being turned away from the first one. The schnitzel there is HUGE and yes, we should have shared one . . . but we didn’t. Hey, we skipped lunch for this! It wasn’t the best we’ve had, but it was pretty tasty.

We had to make our way home after our early dinner. It was a long train ride and then a long walk to get to our flight. We arrived home at 1am, which made getting up for work unpleasant the next day. Sooooo worth it though!

January

January is a month to endure in my opinion. It’s the dead of winter and, for me, four straight weeks of work with no break. In Nederland, the weather has been very grey, very windy and very wet. I think there was only one day of full sun and just a hand full of days when the sun appeared at all. The temps were a bit milder this year, but with the intermittent rain and strong winds at times it’s still not pleasant to be outside very much. My work days are an endurance of either frustration or boredom or both. Blah. 😝

<<<<<<
e would not be traveling or attending any events, I decided that January would be the perfect time to do a food reset and focus on healthy eating. I read It Starts with Food just before the holidays and began mentally preparing for a Whole30 program. I convinced Dick to do it with me and he read up on it as we went along. And . . . WE DID IT! We successfully completed the first 30 days of the program on January 31. It was quite an experience and we’re both happy with the results so far. Our eating habits have greatly improved, we feel the benefits and yes, we lost some lbs. I did A LOT of cooking to cover three meals a day every day, but it was good to have things planned out, food shopped and prepped more efficiently and fun to try new recipes. We have the benefit of a big outdoor Saturday market close by (and almost every town has one during the week) and a friendly butcher in our town with locally sourced meat. We were also able to locate organic and sugar-free products in our local supermarkets. I prepped veggies on the weekends and made soups or chilis that stretched over one evening meal and two to three lunches. With just a few exceptions, the recipes I tried were really good and we ate really well. We’ll bring back some of the foods we missed (grains, dairy, wine, etc), but we’re committed to our new eating habits. Dick and I both like to get our exercise outside and it’s been challenging to be consistent with that in yucky weather. We’ve been able to get in some long walks during dry periods. Dick was on the bike a couple of times and I started doing a circuit of indoor exercises a couple of times a week.


It’s not like we only had good food to look forward to this month. The arrival of a grand baby 👶 was much anticipated! All that blah stuff went to the background on January 22 when Jasmine sent me a text saying that she was having contractions. The 6 hr time difference made monitoring the progress interesting, but I had the pleasure of getting the birth announcement just as I was waking up at 6am! Emma Catherine Singer made her debut just before the clock struck midnight EST on January 22 (funny to think it was the 23rd here). January suddenly got very exciting! I’m very happy to be an Oma. Pictures and videos of this sweetie are holding me over until I can cuddle her on Feb 10th. I can’t wait!!! I think there will be less enduring and more savoring (or attempting to) from here forward. There are just four months remaining in this expat adventure and we want to make the most of it. We have lots left to do! 😀

Christmas markets — last chance

I fully expect we will travel to Europe in the future, but I don’t expect we would travel in December. So, this is our last chance to experience the Christmas markets! We chose different ones this year starting with Strasbourg, France then Düsseldorf, Germany and finally Leuven, Belgium. A weekend in Amsterdam to see the lights and a performance of Handel’s Messiah was thrown in the mix.

We were in Strasbourg on the opening day of the market and saw it gradually come to life as the crowds got thicker. This Christmas market is the oldest in Europe and one of the biggest. There were 11 markets spread across the city and each had a different theme. For instance, one of the markets was dedicated to traditional Christmas foods and another had booths for charities with items for sale to raise money. During the day, we did our own walking tour of the city and browsed some of the markets along the way. Many of the store fronts were decorated and lights were strung across the streets. It’s a beautiful city looking even better in holiday flair. We had a short break at our Airbnb (super cute apartment in the old city!) and then went back out to see ALL of the markets under lights. Other than the festive atmosphere, the food and wine is what we love most about the Christmas markets. There was vin chaud (mulled wine) everywhere and a cup here and there helped keep us warm. The wonderful thing about Alcasian food is that it’s basically German food with a French twist. Bretzels, wurst, sauerkraut, spaetzel . . . yummmm. Security was evident everywhere. The old city of Strasbourg is completely surrounded by water and all traffic was closed off at the bridges. Security guards were posted at each bridge to check bags and soldiers were patrolling the markets. We really enjoyed this market and now it’s our favorite of all the markets we’ve seen.

Our visit to the Düsseldorf market was kind of short, but it was fun to see the city dressed up for Christmas. I read that there were seven markets, but we didn’t have a map so we came across just five of them. They were relatively small and located within a few blocks of each other. The wooden huts were very cute and slightly different at each market. The German markets look like little mini villages. I expected to see a big market in the area along the Rhine, but that one was actually the smallest with the Ferris wheel being the main feature. The Ferris wheel had enclosed gondolas, but it was still too cold for my interest! We found some good bratwurst, gluhwein and bretzels. Again, it’s really all about the food!

Dick surprised me with tickets to see Handel’s Messiah at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 😲 Seeing a performance there has been on our to-do list. We decided to make a weekend of it and visit the Rembrandt House and see the light festival along the canals on Saturday. The weather was cold and damp with some rain and sleet, but we managed to be inside during the worst of it. On Sunday before the concert, we visited the English Reformed Church. There was quite a mix of Dutch and expats at this church and we enjoyed seeing the children’s nativity play. When we came out, it was snowing! ❄️ The snow continued the rest of the say and accumulated enough for kids to make snowmen on the Museumplein and sled down the ramps. We had slow travel home on the tram and train, but it was worth it to see Amsterdam covered in snow. This is the first real snowfall that we’ve experienced in NL.

Our last Christmas market selection was Leuven, Belgium. Leuven has a beautiful city hall that is completely lit up for Christmas. That was my favorite part! Most of the market wound through a big park and it felt very festive (Dick said it was gezellig) with all the lights in what was otherwise a dark place (i.e. no street lights). There were a lot of interesting vendors and enclosed seating areas for dining. It was nice to be able to sit while we ate some wurst. We bought some fudge that had lots of unique flavors and a different consistency than the fudge we’ve had in the States. We hope to go back to Leuven to see more of it when it’s warmer.

THE END for our European Christmas market experiences. I’ll miss it. I read that Boston now has a holiday market at City Hall Plaza and perhaps that will satisfy my nostalgia. 😌

my view from over here

Eighteen months into this adventure and I have longings for home — a bit of homesickness, I suppose. I mostly miss my children and close friends, then the rest can be summed up in one word — familiar. I miss the familiar language, common memory, faces, places and really just the sense of belonging that familiarity brings.

These feelings are mixed with my feelings of disillusionment with America. Yes, I’m disillusioned with America and I should just put it out there. I’ll write this as a way for me to process the thoughts in my head. So if you want to follow my process, read on and perhaps consider if there is any sense to my thinking. If not, I don’t expect agreement and there’s probably something on Facebook that’s way more interesting! 😋

The opportunity for a change of perspective is the most valuable and persistent thing that I’ve gained during my time in Europe. I’ve been able to see my home country through a different lens and it’s been enlightening. Good questions are asked of me and topics are debated with curiosity and a desire to learn and understand. I’ve learned so much about world history, culture, economics and social justice in a much broader scope outside of the American view of the world. This view, by the way, is the indoctrinated belief that America is the best. The greatest nation on earth . . . 🤔

Events in the US this past year have been incredible, even surreal. To witness them from afar with a changing perspective, has been interesting to say the least. I’m often shaking my head over the behavior of Americans and the American president. 😧 I’m incredulous over the protracted arguments and defensiveness of opinions that are at best marginally based on facts. I’m not getting this impression just from the news (let’s leave fake news out of this). I’m mostly getting this impression from social media and straight from words, actions and fully transcribed accounts. I read the shared fb posts, Twitter feeds and transcripts of interviews and speeches. I don’t see enough reasoned discourse and intelligent debate over politics and national issues. Instead, there are strident defenses, flaming accusations, ignorant comments and knee jerk reactions. What I see is a willingness to bargain away character, respect, decency and intellect for the promise of easy wins, comfort zones, independence and the good ol’ American way.

This started before I left the country and before the 2016 presidential election; I get that. The decisiveness and decline has been in progress for years. The thing is, my point of view has changed since I’ve been in an international environment. I admit that before I moved abroad, I didn’t think hard about many national issues. And I didn’t think too hard about the lack of reasoned discourse. I eschewed CNN, FoxNews and media sound bites (still do). I spent a lot less time on social media and let’s face it, the spot light on national politics was a bit smaller.

The 2016 presidential election was a watershed for the reputation of America, from my point of view. If you don’t think so, come on over to Europe and have coffee with a native. They will ask you what you think about Trump, how could a guy like this get elected, how unpredictable or unstable he is and how long do you think he will last. Some Europeans are familiar with crooks and corrupt governments, but that doesn’t happen in the USA where the presidents have been respected world leaders (albeit tarnished by the occasional scandal). There is legitimate concern about the global economy, commitment to alliances and nuclear war. There is a perception that Americans not only don’t understand world politics and history, they don’t even understand their own. The election of Donald Trump and reactions to recent national events prove the point. Many Americans do not have a good grasp of civics, the constitution and American history. One of my friends used the phrase “vortex of stupidity” and I think he was on to something. People are easily duped because they don’t know the facts. I don’t like to get into comment battles on social media 🤐, but sometimes it’s difficult to hold my tongue when historical facts are completely distorted or misrepresented to make a point about current events. 😖

Guess what, America is not the best in many, many ways. I won’t get into an in-depth comparison of Europe and the United States; there is no best country and every nation has it’s challenges and flaws. But it’s difficult to resist the temptation to compare. We have enjoyed a lot of the differences and will miss them very much in the future. The Netherlands is more advanced in agriculture, civil engineering, clean energy, affordable health care and public transportation to name a few. It’s SAFE here. Crime is so low prisons have been closed and repurposed. Much of Western Europe has a high standard of life. Did you know there is mandatory paid family leave in Europe? I could go on . . . But yes, the taxes are much higher and one could argue that the government controls too much. Yes, there are ongoing issues about immigration and how to assimilate new immigrants. Yes, there are also nationalists movements here. Yes, there is terrorism here, too.

I don’t have any magic solutions to Americas ills, but I do think that part of solution is altruism — a willingness to make sacrifices for the common good and concern for the welfare of ALL people. This isn’t socialism people; this is citizenship and in my opinion (based on my understanding of the facts), it’s a biblical mandate. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I guess that’s enough of a mind dump for now. I’m really looking forward to being with family in the US for Christmas celebrations! 🎄 I think we will be forced to think and talk about our transition back to American life in six months. Gulp! 😲

our Schwarzwald hiking adventure

We talked about visiting the Black Forest in the winter for a ski trip, but we didn’t accomplish it last year and traveling this winter is uncertain. I suggested we combine a hiking trip with a visit to the Strasbourg Christmas market instead. We could accomplish this during Thanksgiving weekend without having to use a vacation day – bonus!

When the weather forecast showed mild temps and sunshine for Thursday, we decided to drive half way Wednesday night so we could hike the next day in good weather. This worked out fine except the drive on Thursday took over 3 hours and we got a later start on the hike than we wanted. We had to keep up a good pace to hike 13 km to our destination in time to catch a bus back to the starting point.

The trail we chose was the Wutachschlucht, a section of a longer trail that lies between two sawmills along the Wutach Gorge in the southern part of the Black Forest. It’s a very scenic trail along the Wutach river varying from high above to along side and zigzagging across over several bridges. The trees are wrapped in bright green moss and the trail is covered with rust colored leaves, creating a colorful tableau. There are also waterfalls and granite cliffs along the way. The temperature fluctuated quite a bit during our hike from areas where the air temperature was in the 50s to pockets of frost covered vegetation. I absolutely loved this trail and I savored every moment. Until . . .

We arrived at the Schattenmühle (the second sawmill) bus stop in plenty of time to catch the 3:16 bus. I knew that there was a bus that only ran from April to October, but I thought that was a direct bus from one trail parking lot to the other. It looked like a ‘regular’ bus made a bunch of stops in between and took about 45 minutes. We waited about a half hour and studied the bus timetable several times before we concluded that this bus was not coming. It was 3:45pm and the sun would set at 4:10pm. We looked the trail map again and saw that an adjoining trail ended at another bus stop (different bus) about 3 km away. We decided to hike there and hoped to arrive at the road before we lost light. Ohhhh, and did I mention that we had NO CELL SERVICE? Yeah, so we couldn’t check any of our handy dandy transit apps. 😫

Along the next trail section we were treated to some beautiful waterfalls, but we didn’t have time to stop and stare. I was afraid the daylight would fade and since the trails were so dark and slippery, it would have been scary to walk in dim light. When we got to the next bus stop and looked at the sign, we saw that we just missed the HOURLY bus. It was doubtful that this bus would have even made the stop since there was a big pile of dirt in the turnoff.

We could see a sign down the road that indicated 4 km to the nearest town. Okay, that’s not so far – except for a couple minor details like already having walked 17 km, fading daylight and no shoulder/breakdown lane on the side of the busy main road. We had to walk on the bumpy uneven grass along the side of the road (good thing we were wearing hiking boots!) until we finally came to a sidewalk about 1K from town. We prayed that there would be a bus back to our parking place. When we got into town (with enough light to see the way), we had cell service and Dick checked the bus schedule. Thank God we had time to catch the LAST bus to Wutchmühle! We had to wait about a half hour, but that gave us a chance to sit and relax a bit. We were the only two people that got on the bus and we had an nice chat with the driver during the 20 minute trip. 🙂

We were exhausted when we arrived at the guest house, but we had to head back out to find dinner. This was easier said than done because very few restaurants were open in this off season. We had to settle for a pizzeria, which served good enough food to satisfy our hunger. We were in bed early and slept very well that night! 😌