Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Well that didn't go as expected

Not the scene at our house this morning
This morning did not go as I had planned. Normally on Tuesday mornings, I get up a bit later than I do on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (when I go to the gym to be tortured by my trainer), and I walk the dog. Sometimes I also do something else, like tai chi or gardening.  This morning, I did a little of all three, but not how I expected to do them.  

First off, the bird feed can (a medium-sized galvanized bucket with a tight fitting lid) was lying on its side, open, with bird seed spilling out. A sure sign that raccoons have been around in the night. Miikka was incredibly barky and fixated on the deck and the gate.  He gets that way sometimes when the raccoons have been around, so I just chalked it up to him being a pill/defending the homestead after the marauders have left, managed to get the leash on him, and headed out the opposite gate.  I went out that way because I wanted to turn on the sprinkler in the front yard, to keep my Rose of Sharon, day lilies, hostas and azaleas from dying in the heat we are having. That done, we set out on our normal walk. I had a moment of attempting to get him to go up the hill - so as to do the walk in the opposite direction for once - but that didn't last long. Down the hill it would be. Except that half way down the hill Miikka decided that he didn't want to walk. At all. With some coaxing and coercing I managed to get him to the bottom, in the hopes that he would get excited about the walk again once he was in the interesting areas. No dice. Still no go. So, back up the hill, which he did at a nice trot. Argh!

Once back at the house we headed for the gate, and who should meet us there but Creamsicle.  Now, of the three cats, she is the one who is allowed outside unchaperoned, and is the only one who will tolerate Miikka. That being said, however, I would prefer she not leave the backyard. And until today, I didn't think that she did. I don't know if I left the gate open enough for her to slip out (it didn't appear to be open when we got there, but I wasn't paying close attention, since I was trying to keep Miikka from chasing her off), or if she climbed over the gate (she used to do that with the chain link fence at the house in Brockport, but I haven't seen her do anything that athletic in a while.) Anyway, I had to herd a cat for a little while, until I could get close enough to grab her and get her back in the yard.

Was my wacky morning over yet? Oh no.  After the aborted walk, I still wanted to get some exercise, so I decided to do tai chi. My attempts at this were constantly disturbed by Miikka's incessant barking on the deck. I brought him back in, but then he just barked out the window.  After a bit he finally quieted down, but was under my feet. Sigh.  Anyway, I am in the middle of a single whip or something, when I see a raccoon. Descending the crape myrtle bush next to the deck. No wonder Miikka was having fits. Sorry for yelling. I took a couple of pictures (still on camera, sorry, maybe later) of the poor thing, which appeared to be rather young (probably why it was stuck in the tree instead of fighting back), but as soon as Miikka spotted it and started barking, it climbed back up to its rather tenuous perch (I mean, crape myrtles have a lot of branches, but they aren't particularly sturdy or anything). 

The only thing to do was to keep Miikka in the house and give the raccoon time to escape, when it felt up to it.  I guess that worked, because the raccoon was gone by the time I left for work. 

So, morning recap: 1 aborted walk, 1 almost escaped cat, 1 crazy dog, 2 watered flower/vegetable gardens. 1 treed raccoon. All before 7 AM.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Covered shopping street...expensive!
After several days in Brugge, it was time to return to Amsterdam for the remainder of our trip. But first, a stop in Brussels. Right off the bat, I have to confess that I didn't really take to Brussels all that much. It seemed a bit too big and gritty, and touristy, especially after Brugge and Delft. Now, I will say that this is probably mostly a symptom of the fact that we only spent a few hours there, between trains. And it was rather warm, almost hot, and we got lost (not badly, just enough to make us miss our planned train).  But we did get some really good chocolate there, and saw some notable sights. So, while it wasn't my favorite stop on the trip, it wasn't that bad.

We followed two Rick Steves suggested walking paths, to quickly hit all the main sights in the center of town (which is probably why it felt too touristy!), including the Grand Place.  It is a large square, surrounded by very ornate buildings, and filled with tourists, gawking (like we did) and eating lunch, and wandering around looking up.

Very ornate, after the medieval austerity of Delft and Brugge. And no canals.

We did stop to see the Manneken Pis, a strange little statue that people all over the world come to see. Some days he is dressed up in costumes which are kept in the Brussels city museum. You can buy tacky tchochkes of all kinds with him on it, or mini-replicas. Heck, in the Sky Mall on the plane you could buy your very own life-sized working replica. Huh. It is supposed to be representative of the great Brussels sense of humor. I don't really get it.

After the peeing boy, we headed up-hill to the more governmental part of town. This is the Royal Palace, although no-one actually lives there. The royal home is in another part of town; the king does have his office here, however.

We stopped in at the Church of Notre Dame, where there were many neat statues of women saints (for once), and a statue that was stolen from Antwerp in the middle ages and supposedly protected Brussels from plague.

At the end of the Upper Town walk is the Hall of Justice (scaffolded, like many buildings we saw on the trip), and a great view over the lower part of the city. Lots of apartment blocks in the distance.  By that point, we were too pooped to do any more sight-seeing, apart from chocolate shops... When we finally made our way back to the train station, it was time to head back to Amsterdam.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brugge Boat Tour

With all the canals we encountered on our trip, we were bound to take at least one boat trip.  On past trips, we have had limited success with boat trips - in Bath, the water cooled motor on our boat stalled out after sucking in a plastic bag; on an attempted trip to Victoria B.C., the weather was too rough for the Victoria Clipper to sail. Anyway, this time, we had no such problems. The entire tour was very well-run, and we had a good tour guide.

He was very British, sort of Prince Charles in a boating cap, but he easily spoke German and French on the tour as well, and I am sure he could have done at least Dutch/Flemish, and probably Italian and Spanish, if required to do so. Every anecdote was given first in German, then French, then English.  It was sort of funny, because he would tell a story or joke, and one group of passengers would laugh, then he would repeat it in German, and the German passengers would laugh, then finally in English, and the rest of us would laugh. So you could prepare yourself for something humorous.

The canals and the now silted-up harbor are what helped to make Brugge a big trading center back in the Middle Ages.  They circle the old part of town, and give you a great view of the various architectural styles, as well as the ducks, swans, and trees that live on and around the canals.

In some areas, the doors that traders and merchants would have used to bring in cargo and move goods are still doors, and not bricked over.  Here, a duck uses the ledge as a napping spot.

This is my favorite image from our boat ride.  The dog in the window clearly had it made - an open window, sun, and a soft cushion on the window sill from which to watch the passing boat traffic. And a glorious cascade of flowers on the vine next to him, if he cared about such things. Now I want a house on a canal...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

More Brugge

Brugge was full of these lovely little views, ones that would surprise you as you looked down a canal or an alleyway.  Centuries-old houses and canals, still lived in, still used. Living in the United States, we don't really have a good perspective on "old."  Here, something is old if it is 100 years old, if it was here during the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War. Brugge was old during the Revolutionary War; its heyday was long gone.

This brightly colored dock is where we caught a boat for a canal tour, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Next up for us is the brewery tour.

On Monday, after we finished our bike ride, we took a tour of the Halve Maan (half moon) Brewery. On the tour you get to see the workings of the old parts of the brewery, most of which are only used for tours these days.  Lots of narrow stairs and dusty bottles.

But the view from the roof of the brewery was pretty good - that church in the distance is where the Michaelangelo Madonna lives. 

Each of these large holding tanks had to be cleaned at the end of each aging cycle - by hand. The person who was sent inside was instructed to whistle continuously while he was in there - if he stopped, the workers outside the tank would know that he had been overcome by fumes and would then pull him out.

At the end of the tour, everyone was given a glass of beer to enjoy in the cafe. Benjamin enjoyed it. I still haven't come around to beer - lambic (fruity beer) is OK, and I really like cider, but not so much the beer. But it was fairly good, for being beer. *smile*

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Funny (not intentionally) Poetry

We are evaluating our collection at work, hence the uber-saccharine poem on Friday.  Today I ran across Health and Safety Plays and Programs by Aileen Fisher from 1953.  It contains such gems as "Robots to the Rescue," a play about how hard it is to build a robot that is as efficient and wonderful as the human body, "The King's Toothache," in which two children from "the present" go back to Once Upon a Time and tell a king how to take care of his teeth, and the following poem (for recitation purposes, of course):

A Big Little Word

Plenty of sleep and
Plenty of food and play -
that spells PEP,
and the one who's wise
gets plenty of each, each day.

Isn't it lovely? There is also the ABC of Safety, a few of which I present for your pleasure:

C for clearing - clearing junk
from stairs before you go kerplunk!

K for keeping - keeping fit
by running to the first aid kit.

X for X-ing - Xing out
all the hazards roundabout.

Z for zigging and zagging
when a climb is steep and fagging.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Madonna and Bicycles

So, I promised pictures of the Madonna in Brugge.  She's a Michaelangelo - reputed to be the only one that left Italy during his lifetime - and she's lovely. Not very big though.

 You can't get all that close to her, and I couldn't use a flash, so she isn't as well photographed as I would have liked, but you can still get an idea of her beauty. Seeing the works of great artists in person really makes you appreciate them more - especially when you have been surrounded with their contemporaries who are not so great. Vermeer was like that. Before we went on the trip I knew the name Vermeer, and I had seen pictures of his paintings, but by the end of our museum going on the trip, I could really appreciate his use of light, his colors, his settings. So much better than endless pictures of men in ruffs...

We arrived in Brugge on Sunday afternoon. On Mondays, all the museums in town are shut. So, we took a bike ride to Damme, and then tried to find the North Sea. The ride to Damme was easy, once we found the right street and got out of town proper. It was like riding on the Erie Canal path.

The canal is to the left, hidden by the blooming plants. It was an easy ride, mostly flat, on our own path. The bike seats were a little bit too hard, but otherwise, they were in good shape.

We even saw a windmill.  Then, after we ate our picnic lunch in the shadow of the windmill, we decided to follow the signs along the Nord Zee route. A route we figured would take us to the sea, since we had seen a sign in Brugge saying it was only a 40 minute bike ride away. The path seemed promising - heading in the right direction, and passing through farms and country lanes... But it never did get us to the sea. After biking for quite a while, getting very sore, er, delicate areas, we gave up and followed the signs back to Brugge. Ah well. It was a lovely day, and the countryside was worth the trip.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bad poetry interlude

From "The Value of a Smile," in Verses I Like, by Major Edward Bowes, 1939:
The thing that goes the farthest towards making life worth while,
That costs the least and does the most, is just a pleasant smile.
The smile that bubbles from a heart that loves its fellow-men
Will drive away the cloud of gloom and coax the sun again.
It's full of worth and goodness, too, with manly kindness blent -
It's worth a million dollars, and it doesn't cost a cent.
That is just verse one - it goes on for several more verses. If you English major-types wish, you can discuss why this is bad poetry in the comments. Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

To Brugge

After a couple of days in Delft, it was time to move on to Brugge (or Bruges, if you are a Frankophone - they speak both French and Flemish in that part of Belgium. I am going with Flemish today.) Here is one of the many trains we rode. Some were more comfortable, some were older, but all in all, I heartily approve of train travel as a way to get between cities. Much better than driving, for certain. If only we had good train service from Little Rock to Conway, with a stop in Maumelle, and then to Texas and Memphis and New Orleans...Sigh.

Anyway, we journeyed to Brugge by train.  Brugge is a medieval city that sort of got forgotten when its harbor silted up, in the 16th century. As a result, most of the buildings got left alone, and despite being a rather big city (around 117,000 overall), it doesn't feel that large;  more like a bustling town.  It was "rediscovered" by tourists at the end of the 18th century, and let me tell you, they haven't left. The place was jammed with tourists of all stripes and nationalities.

I can see why. It has canals, it has medieval buildings, it has a Michaelangelo sculpture (more on that tomorrow, or the next day) and a great art museum. It has chocolate and beer (again, later). The first afternoon we mostly just walked around, absorbing the town. This corner of the canal is possibly the most photographed spot in Brugge.

The thing about walking around Brugge, and later Amsterdam, is that you have to watch out or you might just get run over. In Brugge, it was mostly for the horse carriages that took their loads of tourists around the city. Here you can see Benjamin about to get run over (not really, but it certainly looks that way, doesn't it?) And you have to look out for the other tourists who are all wandering around, like you, with their eyes on the sights, with chocolate or a cone of crispy frites (Flemish Fries - they are not French - they were invented in Flanders, so they are Flemish) in one hand and a camera in the other.

Here, in the central square of Brugge, you also had to look out for the cars and buses that zipped around, because there really wasn't a clearly defined street - to my eye, they just drove wherever would get them to their destination quickest. Well, maybe not right down the center, but you get my meaning.

Coming up next, bicycling to Damme and (not) to the sea, and a Madonna.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Back to Delft

Delft was maybe my favorite town on the trip. I can't say that with any amount of certainty, since the whole trip was wonderful, and I enjoyed things about every place we stayed, but I will go out on a limb and say Delft was my favorite. Ask me tomorrow, and I may have a different answer.

Anyway, one activity we did a couple of times on the trip was climb towers. Every town has a town hall or at least one church with a tall steeple. If they are open to tourists, it is a great idea to climb them, if not for the exercise, then at least for the view.  In Delft, it was the Nieuwe Kerk tower that was open, so up we climbed; all 378 steps. As you can see, the view was stupendous.

The Tower was not the only selling point for a visit to the church - it also has the tomb of William I of Orange, the leader who helped to drive out the Spanish from the Netherlands in the 16th century.  He is buried there almost on accident - he was assassinated in Delft, and since the country was at war and his family's traditional burial place was out of reach, he was buried in the church.  Since then, all of the members of House of Orange has been buried in Delft (except William and Mary, since they were also the monarchs of Britain, and are buried in Westminster Abbey). Doesn't his chair and ruff look uncomfortable?

For such a (relatively) small town, Delft sure had some interesting residents.  Johannes Vermeer lived his entire life in Delft, and although none of his paintings are currently housed in Delft, there is a very interesting interpretive center dedicated to his life and work. They have displays of how his workroom may have looked, and interpretations of some of the symbolism in his images, using reproductions of his paintings.  They also have this lovely set-up where you can pose for a picture as a Vermeer painting. You can see a copy of the original here.

To my immense regret, we never stopped at this store for an appelflappen, a sort of apple fritter/filled donut/all around yummy pastry. We walked by it many times, and I managed to remember to take a picture of it, but we never stopped. Sigh. Guess we have to go back.