Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Barcelona Days - Chapter One

Barcelona has the most beautiful people I've ever seen in a city. Even the old people here seem to have some sort of sexy/spry vibe going on. We have rented a flat here for five weeks through a guy named Gerard who we met on Couch Surfing. Gerard is spending the five weeks we are occupying his flat hitch-hiking through Iceland with pretty much just his tent. His housemates just moved out a week ago and he is happy to have help with the rent while he is gone and we are happy to have a place to nest for a bit, cook and save on expenses. Having a little space isn't a bad thing either.

The situation is better than we could have imagined. We are literally right around the corner from the awe-inspiring and sandcastle-like Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's basilica that that has been under construction since 1882 (expected completion date is 2026). Gerard has cleaned the flat to an immaculate level and actually went out and purchased food for us. With the help of his father, he researched our parking options in the city and finally recommended a garage just around the corner where he helped us negotiate a price of 200 Euros for the five weeks. It is an unexpected expense but there is virtually no free parking in the city so we are happy to have this option. He also arranged to have his sister and former flat-mate come over to meet us so that we know we have resource options, emphasizing that we should use them for recommendations and "not just in case of something bad." All three of them sweetly and affectionately tousle Vaughn's hair.

We have come hoping to improve our Spanish but Catalan is the predominant language spoken here and in some cases it is very different. Gerard warns us that the Catalan identity and pride (and disdain for the rest of Spain - remnants of the Spanish Civil War) is so strong here that some people may actually pretend not to understand us when we speak in Spanish. Nonetheless we cheerfully say 'hola' and bravely cobble together sentences when we need help.


After taking some down time and a day to explore part of the city, we decided to set out today to try and find a boogie board for Vaughn and a beach that wasn't too touristy. Jacob has wanted to get Vaughn a boogie board since France and we've not had any luck finding one for a reasonable price. Randomly, we stumbled upon the Spanish version of REI and plunked down 20 Euros for our board.

Finding a beach was a bit trickier since waves were practically non-existent. After dismissing our first few beach options we finally decided to just park and get out. We had to walk a little distance down the beach since our first stop had a pretty significant drop off. On our walk we were stopped by the lifeguard who told us that we couldn't use the boogie board for reasons we literally could not understand. Crestfallen, we made our way a little further down the beach and set down our towels. You would think we would have noticed earlier but since we were so close to the water it wasn't until we had settled in that we realized we were at a nude beach. We decided that we were too weary by the whole process (it had been maybe an hour and half since we initially left the house) to move and start over so we decided to clue Vaughn in and stay put. Vaughn took it in stride although for the life of him he could not understand why anyone would "put themselves in such an awkward position." The water was fantastic and warm and we had a great time swimming (clothed) until a second lifeguard explained to us that it wasn't just that we couldn't boogie board, we weren't allowed to swim altogether. It had rained in Barcelona the night before and I gather they close the beaches for two days each time after a good rain because the water gets dirty. Gross.

We stayed and hung out in the sun for a bit until our neighbor to the left decided that he needed to jog back and forth in front of us for the 20 yards of beach. When he stopped jogging and started doing jumping jacks (possibly to impress the woman to the right of us?) and we decided we'd had enough of our naked Richard Simmons and it was probably time to pack it up anyway.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Southern France

If I am worth anything later, I am worth something also now, for wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning. - Vincent van Gogh

France has the best clouds I've ever seen. We've had a bit of rain while in the country but when the sun does come out, as it does on our drive to Marseille, the sky is a clean and brilliant cerulean blue with chunky cumulus clouds and wispy cirrus feathers. Isabelle and Greg are taking the family to go visit Isabelle's parents in Nice for a week so we followed behind their appliqued blue VW van that reminds us of the Mystery Machine for half the drive.

After an hour we stopped at a little campground to have a snack of fruit and bread by a river and told each other national secrets. They revealed that in France a person can get a type of a massage known as "California massage" (apparently softer than Swedish) and we divulged that a person can purchase an overpriced and over-engineered dog known as the "French Bulldog". We all had a good laugh over the renaming of French Fries in the Capitol cafeteria after 9/11 and then they sent us off with a little care package of fruits for the road.

We really need to get some speakers for the IPod. Reception is terrible on these drives and while we have embraced some regional music, we also find ourselves listening to really awful American music just because we appreciate being able to sing along or at least understand the words. When Smooth Criminal comes on we actually emit a little cheer.

When we get to Marseille our hearts sink a little bit. The city is jam packed and there are cars and tourists everywhere. Admittedly, we knew we were going into the second largest city in France but I think our systems were still a little shocked and we realized that we were going to have to select our locations more wisely if we aren't up for the urban experience. Jacob is a fearless city driver and pulls up on the sidewalk while I jump out to find the building. The flat we've rented is on the 6th floor of the building and the elevator is so small and rickety that I make a silent vow that if I get out of it alive I will never step into it again (and a half hour later I joyfully haul my bags up the six flights despite the fact I'm wearing heels).

Our landlord lives a few doors down and is very kind and helpful. I feel a mix a embarrassment and horror when I ask him to please show me on his map where the Belsunce area is located (the one area the guidebook says to avoid) and he laughs and says, "You're right in the heart of it!" but assures me his girlfriend never has any problems. After dinner we get out for a walk and things feel perfectly safe - just kind of crowded and dirty and hot.

Today we got up and we were all a little on edge. None of us slept well, our rental is tiny and hot and Vaughn is seriously tapped out on sight-seeing. It occurs to me that we are starting to perceive Barcelona as some sort of promised land and that makes me a little nervous. Despite poor Vaughn's protests (we've promised a quiet day tomorrow), we pack up to get the hell out of Marseille and head for Avignon.

Avignon is in the middle of their month-long Festival d' Avignon where between 35 and 40 theater productions are put on at various venues around the city. Adjacent to the primary festival is the more edgy "Festival Off" that takes place in the street. The streets are peppered with all manner of performers from buskers to performance art to guys on bikes doing potentially neck-breaking tricks. The theaters send out teams of performers who sing, chant and drum as they march up and down the streets handing out fliers publicizing their shows. Avignon would be fun and beautiful on any day but on this particular day it is overflowing with art and it lightens our moods considerably.

After Avignon we set off to Cloitre Saint-Paul, the insane asylum where van Gogh spent a year and did over 100 paintings, including the Wheat Fields painting which was the view from his room. Here we were able to actually go up into his room and look through the window onto the field, although no wheat remains. Although he hasn't done much art lately, there was a time when Vaughn was very into van Gogh and as we were admiring a statue of van Gogh I said to him that I remembered he used to want to be an artist when grew up. To this he replied, "I still plan on being an artist if that professional basketball player thing is not available."

Although it was nearly 6:00 by the time we left Saint-Paul, we made our way over to UNESCO World Heritage site, Pont du Gard. The Roman aqueduct is 31 miles long and dates back to 1 AD. Since it was so late in the day there were only a few small groups remaining and we were able to enjoy the scenery in relative solitude. While we didn't regret any of the day's activities, I think we all felt like we could have just as easily spent the day in the shade by the river. As I sat on the rocks and watched Jacob and Vaughn play in the water, I remembered why we came.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Grenoble, France

We had originally not planned on stopping in Grenoble but some months ago Jacob posted our itinerary on the "Family Welcome" message board on Couchsurfing and Greg replied with an enthusiastic invitation to come to visit. The beauty of having six full months is being able to go to places that weren't necessarily on our "must see" list so we said 'Merci! We'll be there!"

It was raining in Paris when we left and it was raining when we reached Grenoble six hours later in the rental car we're going to have for the next four months. Grenoble is a little city of just around 200,000 that sits on an alluvial plain right at the base of the French Alps.

Greg and Isabelle have three children: two girls Lina (14) and Nais (12) and a boy, Yael (9). Four years ago they also took a year off to home school their children and travel around. Greg works for HP in Grenoble where, ironically, he says he only speaks French about 10% of the time. Isabelle makes jewelry and does massage and she lets me select one of her rings as a gift. The children are very sweet and mellow and despite the fact that only Lina speaks any English, they whisk Vaughn away to play board games and Hide And Seek at a park around the corner.

We're staying three nights with them and like our other hosts, they give us housing, homemade meals, laundry and shower access and vibrant conversation. And like our other hosts, they are genuinely interested in spending time with us - a whole other level of hospitality. We eat dinner on the roof of their flat five stories up, sample their homemade fruit alcohol and wines and drink giant bowls of coffee.

Despite the on-again/off-again rain yesterday, we packed up a picnic and drove up into the mountains to visit a monastery that has been there since the 12th century. Only about 10 monks still reside there and visitors aren't allowed to enter but the setting is peaceful and it is fun to just walk around up in the hills surrounding the perimeters and contemplate just how long I might last with a vow of silence (I generously give myself one month).

On the way back down the mountain we stopped off at the Church Saint-Hugues-de-Chartreuse where the artist Arcabas has renovated the church as his personal gallery, filling the walls and even the stained glass windows with his "contemporary sacred art." Just outside the church is a small, ancient graveyard and I'm temporarily confused by all the plaques on the graves that say "souvenir" (I went to the afterlife and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!) until Greg explains it is actually the French word for "remember."

Today we took the sky tram up to La Bastille high above the city and wandered around for hours enjoying the sunshine and the view below. We descended down into the adjacent passage tunnels known as the "Mandrin caves" (after Louis Mandrin despite the fact that the French Robin Hood-type figure, died 90 years prior to their construction) which were dark and wet and kind of precarious.

Tonight we take them all out to dinner as a thank you for their hospitality. Isabelle speaks perfect English but accents and my propensity to hear things incorrectly don't mix well and when she asks me if I think her daughter looks like a "cool girl" in her funky sleeveless top, I have to ask her to repeat herself twice before confessing I thought she was asking me to confirm that her 14 year old looked like a "call girl." At dinner they humble us further by presenting us with parting gifts of a coffee table book of Grenoble and a bottle of Chartreuse, a green alcohol made by the monks they had told us about while visiting the monastery.

Tomorrow we head to Marseille for three nights and then it is off to Barcelona.

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Quick to Get to Paris....

...Unless you miss your train and then you are pretty much stuck in purgatory. We missed our 10:15 train to Paris and are trying to figure out how to change the tickets. The International Train Station Office which seems to be quickly solving problems for dirty, backpacking hippies left and right can do nothing for us because our tickets were bought online. So we go to a cafe where with a small purchase we get free WiFi but cannot get through to the train company and need to go buy a phone card. When Jacob returns he tells me that we missed the window for a full refund – by ten minutes. We will have to be satisfied with a 50% refund on the old tickets and buy new ones that are more expensive than the original ones, despite being second class while the others were first. All told- a $200 mistake and some serious wear on poor Jacob's psyche.

The bright spot is that Vaughn is the most patient, easy-going traveler. Also, we are on our way to Paris to stay with Oliver and Chloe, a 24 year old couple who are putting us up for a couple of days. Even their names make me happy as they are reminiscent of Bernard and Miss Bianca from the Rescuers. When we finally get on the the train, the conductor's name is Jean Jacques – which I also find pretty awesome.


Oliver and Chloe greeted us warmly with juice and chips and kisses on either side of the cheek (I mistakenly plant my kiss on her cheek before realizing we're only supposed to kiss the air). Oliver is finishing up studying law and talks passionately about governments in both Europe and the US. I dredged up literally every story I've heard about French politics (which is brief) stopping just short at, “Isn't your First Lady pregnant?” Chloe just finished up film school and is interning with a company that makes documentaries. Their families both still live in Normandy, where they met. They made us heaping plates of spaghetti and brought out their guidebooks to help us figure out just how we're going to see all of Paris in one day. As we've done in other places, we enjoy regaling them with horrifying tales of out of control student loans and uninsured medical bills in the U.S. - just doing our part to make everyone feel a little bit better about their systems. I crashed into bed thinking about how no one in Europe eats Mexican food or has tattoos and if someone could import both these addictive habits – they'd make a fortune.

I had sort of envisioned getting fancied up for our day in Paris but I'm make-upless with unwashed hair and, perhaps most tragically, socks that are close but don't quite match. I don't really care though, it's cool and rainy out and if you're serious about seeing Paris in a day you need to dress for comfort. By the end of the day we've ridden the Metro a dozen times, toured the Basilique du Sacre Coeur (Church of the Sacred Heart), chilled in parks, taken pictures of the Eiffel Tower and eaten our weight in bread. By the end of the day we're looking so confident that a French speaking person asks us for directions.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Central Wallonia, Belgium

I'm realizing that a huge benefit of couch surfing is having access to someone who speaks English. We are on our second day in southeastern Belgium and no one speaks a lick of English. Right now I'm hanging out at a laundry mat in Rochefort while Jacob and Vaughn play basketball at a park - both of which were found through lots of gesturing to locals.

Today we went and toured the caves at Grottes de Han, the primary reason we came to the area. It was kind of sad to me that such a national treasure got turned into such a private racket. It cost us $60 just to tour the caves and then parakeet wielding staff boarded the tram as we were waiting to depart to force us all to take pictures with the bird (conveniently available for purchase after exiting the caves). In addition to the books, candy and rocks and minerals, the gift shop was full of cheap, carnival-quality stuffed Smurfs (although we think of them as a product of the '80's, Smurfs were actually created by the Belgian artist Peyo in the 1950's) for $15.

The formations in the caves date back half a million years and are amazing to behold. We walked in between the French and Dutch speaking tours reading our English language tour pamphlet they provided. My favorite excerpt from the pamphlet being an enthusiastic suggestion to visit the cafe at the exit of the caves where we'd be sure to find "prices that are very democratic."

Jacob and I had just sworn to stop saying that things in Europe reminded us of Disneyland when all of a sudden we heard the lulling voice of Enya being piped through the speakers 80 meters underground. We were lead up to a semi-circle of benches where a light show started up on the cave walls. At the end of the tour they set off a cannon so that you could marvel at the acoustics in the cave and by that point we were pretty ready to be out of there.

We're trying to hook up a couch surfing arrangement for our last night in Belgium in Brussels. The hotel in Anhee we are staying at currently wasn't able to get our room open so they put us across the street in the "new hotel"that appears to have no other inhabitants and quite honestly seems to only be half completed. It also has to be the worst construction job I've ever seen - like the owners bought a "Build Your Own Hotel" kit at Home Depot or something. Jacob keeps saying that he feels like he is in Barton Fink.

I'm also hoping that a larger city might offer us more food options. Last night we paid $50 to split two plates of terrible spaghetti ($10 of the bill was just water since, for whatever reason, you can't get tap water) and we are tired of living off of peanut butter and jelly. I'm not going to lie- the last 48 hours have been a little touch and go with a bit of bickering (not totally surprising if you consider we are not usually together 24/7). Jacob does a good job of reminding us that sometimes traveling is hard and that we knew that it would be. I keep myself sane by working with my budgeting spreadsheet to remind myself that we are on track and doing just fine. Like any good Program Manager, I can tell you that we are 49.62% through our July food budget but I might be willing to go over a bit for a decent vegan meal in Brussels.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bruges - The Belgium Days

As anticipated, Belgium got off to a bit of a rough start. We got the keys to the rental car at the train station in Brussels and were told to take the elevator to the third floor of the underground parking garage and then proceed down to the fourth floor. At the third floor we nervously stepped into the stairwell and as soon as the door closed behind me, I had a sinking feeling that one of us should have held it open just in case this wasn't the correct way. The stairwell was strewn with newspapers, feces and cigarette butts- a real human guinea pig cage of sorts. Down one level the door was locked and Jacob instinctively began pounding on it. My heart raced as I thought I heard stirring on a level below as though perhaps we had woken the Dutch Stair People who would come and try and get us. Luckily it took only a few seconds to regain composure and walk back up to try the door we had come in through, which was open.

Once on the road it didn't take long to figure out the GPS wasn't working. It would have been one thing if it just wasn't working, but it mocked us by continuing to call out directions every few minutes. You would think we would have just turned it off but we were so frustrated and hopeful that maybe it would change its mind and start to work that we just let it keep chattering away to “turn left at the round-about” as we drove down the freeway.

The plan was to find a place to stay in the city of Ghent but the rain combined with the fact that we kept turning down the same wrong way streets had us cursing the town within minutes of arrival. Vaughn woke up from a nap as we were back on the freeway to Bruges and began cursing us for setting out with no reservations.

You really can't overstate the charm of Bruges, a 9th century fortress developed to protect the coast from the Vikings (you'll pardon me if I occasionally lift from our guidebooks). The city is walled and you have to pass over a stone bridge to enter. It is chock full of medieval charm and feels like you are stepping into a fairy tale with cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages and swans swimming though the canals. Despite the rain and our fatigue, we couldn't help feeling tickled by this last minute decision. I was also pretty tickled by the $4 carafe of wine Jacob had grabbed me at the last gas station we stopped at.

The next day we set out and walked back to the center of the city where there was a Farmer's Market in progress. Smoking vendors shouted out descriptions of their products and handed us samples. We walked over to the 272 ft Belfort bell tower and decided to pay the 20 Euros to walk the 366 steps to the top. There are 47 bells at the top of the tower controlled by a person using a keyboard and the chiming is heard throughout the city on a regular basis. The steps wind in a tight winding spiral and are only about three feet long and between one and a half feet to a few inches deep, depending on your spot on the stair. There are no windows and you must pull tightly to the wall to allow a person to pass. A near constant stream of people walking up and down the steps makes for the most claustrophobic situation imaginable and about two-thirds of the way up I was overcome by a horrible panic and had to let the boys continue on without me.

The veganism and strict budgeting means that really only Vaughn is sampling the culinary treats such as Belgian waffles and chocolates and it all starts to feel like that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the grandparents gather 'round to vicariously enjoy the single chocolate bar that Charlie gets for his birthday.

As you might imagine, Jacob is the consummate friendly traveler, asking everyone we encounter where they are from (the most amusing encounter thus far being an older couple from London who said they had been to the States three times but only to Las Vegas and it was “lovely, just lovely”). I also appreciate his boldness in doing things that I'm too shy to do, such as fill up our water bottle from the machine at breakfast since the hotel has said it is “not advisable” to drink the tap water (which I read after pounding three large glasses to get rid of a dehydration headache).

Tomorrow we set off for the Ardennes in the Central Wallonia region and this time we're going to try to have reservations.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Woerden Days - Pt. 2

Yesterday Rembrand had to work so the rest of us took the train about 10 minutes to neighboring Utrecht which had many of the charms of Amsterdam in a smaller, more sanitized version. All along the canals are restaurants where people were sitting out on patios drinking. We sprung for a boat tour through one of the canals and visited a monastery that later went on to be a place for the locals to drink beer and eventually became a site for gunpowder storage – sort of the ultimate fall from grace.

The church contained many replicas of art dedicated to Martin Luther so I decided to try and enlighten Vaughn a little bit. I present this dialogue as a cautionary tale as to what can happen when children are raised by parents with no religious upbringing AND are too cheap to buy the self-guided tour:

Me: So Vaughn, there was this guy – Martin Luther – and he had some problems with the Catholic Church so he nailed ummm...I think 13 of these 'demands' to a door and voila! That's how we got Protestants!

Jacob: Aren't they Lutherans?

Me: Oh right- yes, that would make more sense.

Vaughn: Can we go back outside now?

(After reading the Wikipedia article on Martin Luther I can see the multiple levels where this fell apart).

That night Monique and Rembrand spent close to two hours with us trying to figure out how we were going get to Belgium and what we would do when we got there – including where we would stay. We went to bed feeling a little less adventurous about the prospect of rolling into some of these areas at the height of tourist season with no reservations and I began to see how my dad has turned planning for his two weeks in Italy into practically a full-time job.

Today's plan centered around taking bikes and visiting Monique's home village of Wilnis (est. pop. 7,000). The trip was about 18 miles round trip and this was a pretty hefty trek for all the Mestmans. Monique showed us a place where the dike broke some years ago and flooded the town and we spent some time at the local playground. I know I keep harping on how much I like the cows/sheep/goats but this place is seriously like the domestic farm animal version of Yellowstone (sans geysers). It is my Little House rural fantasy without all the religion and hard work.

Tonight Monique requested that in lieu of taking them out to dinner I cook them a meal. Naturally the meal I made was - wait for it - burritos! I don't think Mexican food is very common here but I was able to round up most of the ingredients I wanted except cilantro. I bought what I thought was cilantro but it was encased in plastic and so I couldn't smell it and it ended up being some other random herb.

Tomorrow we leave for Belgium and poor Jacob has spent the last hour trying to get a car rented. We decided that we weren't going to worry about making reservations so I'll let you know how that goes. We're taking the train to Brussels in the morning and then we're going to head south to Wallonia (the French speaking half of Belgium) to try and stay in the town of Rochefort and tour the caves in the famous Ardennes region. I wish I could say that I was more excited about going to Belgium but at this point we're not feeling super adventurous. I may pick up a copy of Heart of Darkness for the journey.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Woerden Days Pt. 1 - She Bikes!

(Saturday) Vaughn and I are hanging with the bags in Grand Central Station in Amsterdam while Jacob goes from machine to machine trying to figure to why we can't buy train tickets with either our credit or debit card. I'm a little worried that now that we've left Todd and Reinhold and their vegan cooking I may starve to death (watch for this blog to start sounding increasingly like a passage from Into the Wild). As we sit on the floor with our bags tucked behind us, Vaughn starts singing, "Weeee loook homelessss" to a cheery tune. Jacob finally breaks down and pulls out more cash and fetches us some juice and a couple hearty salads while we wait to board a train to Woerden for our first real couch surfing experience.

Woerden is a little city about 40 minutes by train south of Amsterdam. The population is just under 50,000. When we get off the train I can hear a band off in the distance with a female lead doing a really nice cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It turns out to be some sort of Harley Davidson festival but we don't get a chance to stop by. We are staying with Monique and Rembrand and their three children, Leandra (9), Quinn (6) and Mica (3). Monique and Rembrand have hosted many couch surfers and they have generously given up their room for us to stay in while we are with them for the three nights. Monique has also taken our dietary needs quite seriously and put a lot of thought into the food they've gotten for us and we are especially grateful since all the stores are closed on Sunday. The children don't speak English but they easily adapt to playing together despite the language barrier, a common unifier being video games.

After dinner Monique borrows a bike for me and we set off with Leandra to bike to a park about three miles in an adjacent town where Monique has located a basketball court. She has a tandem bike where Vaughn sits on a lower seat in front and he peddles but does not break or steer (but he does make good use of the bell). Like Amsterdam, no one here wears a helmet and I'm sure most of you reading this will be shocked to hear I even got on a bike. Thankfully, the bike lanes here are wide and well-paved and for most of the journey we rode through the countryside. I realize it may seem obvious with all the water here, but I'm still amazed by the number of storks, herons, swans and ducks we encounter. I also doubt I'll ever stop being charmed by the sheep and cows that are everywhere.

(Sunday) Monique and Rembrand are selling their house and are in the process of looking at a few different places where people are building cob houses with the intention of living in a yurt on the property while they build their own. Today the plan was to take the train about an hour and a half south where some people are building a cob community center structure as a sort of test project but now Jacob has come up to tell me that we may just go to nearby Utrecht instead. Monique ran next door to borrow a neighbor's guitar and she and Jacob are doing a little guitar lesson for now.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Hallo from the Fertilizer People - Amsterdam Pt. 2

Yesterday Todd took his whole day off to accompany us back into the central part of Amsterdam. We wanted to see more of the city but we were also on the important mission of trying to find out why Vaughn's Nintendo DS had stopped working and to see if we could perhaps pick up a cheap phone.

The area Todd took us to was nicer than where we'd been the day before and we window shopped in antique stores and along the block-long flower market where there were hundreds of boxes containing different tulip varietals. The indoor mall used to be one of Amsterdam's two prisons and there is a fantastic statute still above the entrance of a couple guys in chains. Todd patiently escorted us from electronic to game store explaining our situation until we were able to get a 220 power appropriate charger and save the DS. There was a DVD of an episode of Little House on the Prairie in Dutch and I squealed with delight when Todd told me that in this magical land they still play Little House on TV.

After the shopping we returned home to meet Reinhold and drove out to a sweet little area where a half-dozen windmills lined the water. At the first windmill there was a painting of a serious looking skeleton sitting upon a stone. Todd translated the inscription which basically said that if you were ready to commit to yourself wholly to him, your reward would be that they would never run out of work for you. It didn't seem like the best proposition.

Like the day before, we spent the early part of the evening chatting and looking out over the grasses and water with Todd identifying local birds for me and all of us trying unsuccessfully to keep Joey from going swimming. Todd asked where the name Mestman was from and he explained that in Dutch, it meant "Fertilizer People" or "People of the Fertilizer" or something that made Jacob's complete lack of interest in gardening funny.

We took Todd and Reinhold out to dinner as a thank you for letting us stay with them and then went back home and stayed up until 1:30 drinking wine and talking. Sadly, at 4:30 am Jacob and I discovered that we both had terrible insomnia and hadn't slept at all. It is extra unfortunate since today we leave and travel to our next home, a woman named Monique and her husband and three children just south of Utrict that we met on Couchsurfing.

I'm sad to leave Todd and Reinhold not only because I will miss them both terribly but also because they've pretty much kept us afloat these first few days. Out of the nest we go.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


The flight to Amsterdam (via Zurich) was smooth and I have to say we all stayed fairly sane. Once we landed however, I think mild panic set in and we were easily overwhelmed trying to get a train ticket to get to Todd's house. Not having a phone combined with not really understanding the directions or the machine made this relatively simple exercise daunting. Mild panic can lead to expensive choices and in our case this translated into taking a cab that cost three times as much as public transportation. All the same, after 14 hours of flying it felt like a justifiable if not necessary expense.

We're staying with Todd and his husband Reinhold, a connection through our friend Tom in Portland. They've been spoiling us like crazy with elaborate vegan meals cooked from their garden vegetables and bags of vegan candy for Vaughn. Today Todd took public transportation with us into central Amsterdam to make sure we made it okay. This involved a bus, a ferry and a tram and I can say with a fair amount of certainty we would not have made it on our own.

Our primary goal for the day was to visit the Anne Frank House and we were thankful for the pre-purchased tickets (thanks Sarah and Lindsay!) with their specific entry time that allowed us to bypass the massive line winding around the block. On the way to the Anne Frank House, Todd showed us a “piss wall” which is a public, semi-enclosed, three-walled outdoor urinal available to men in need (the convenience of this would hit me later when I was digging out 50 cents to pay to use a bathroom at Grand Central Station). The walls are made out of a metal design and while discrete, they are certainly not solid.

When we arrived at the Anne Frank House it was pointed out to us by the admissions clerk that our entry time was actually for tomorrow. The museum sells out way in advance and despite the fact that apparently this is a well known scam (buying tickets for another day when the day you want to go is sold out), we must have looked really authentically pathetic because after conferring with management they let us in.

The Anne Frank House is as you might imagine - small, sad, haunting. There is no furniture in the House because it was seized by the Nazi's and after the war Anne's father, Otto, decreed that it should stay empty. It was a little hard to be properly reverent due to the gaggle of obnoxious tweens racing around lost in their own conversations.

After the Anne Frank house, we wandered around to get a sense of the city and try and find something to eat. There are bicycles EVERYWHERE in Amsterdam zipping along at break-neck speed and avoiding a collision requires staying alert and focused. The weather seemed to change every 10 minutes (Todd pointed out that it was very akin to San Francisco's weather) but we luckily avoided the major downpour that had happened the day before. The particular area we were in was primarily blocks of shops of tacky souvenirs and the renowned pot-filled “coffee shops” (Todd told me that if I wanted actual coffee I should look for koffee with a 'k' and avoid the word “shop”) interspersed with higher end retail shops. Having spent almost $6 on two cans of strawberry soda that neither Jacob nor Vaughn even drank, we were starting to think that we'd better get a better grip on our spending. Jacob managed to land a falafel but I finally broke down and got a juice (strawberry with basil) a bagels and a jar of peanut butter for Vaughn and myself.

Despite our rough starts, we did get all the way back to the house on our own with relative ease. Todd and Reinhold packed us into the car with their cocker spaniel, Joey and we took off to go see Todd's plot at the community garden and then walk along the water in search of a basketball hoop. This was by far the most relaxed and peaceful part of the day and the area was beautiful and serene with swans, ducks and even a heron wading off the shore. Todd has been awesome about patiently explaining the differences in holidays, squatting laws, workers' rights and even listening to me make inane comments about how the long words here take me back to my homeland of IKEA.

The sun rises here at about 4:30 am and doesn't set until after 11:00. We've slipped into a wonderfully lazy schedule of eating dinner after 8:30 and this morning we got up at 9:30 – managing to avoid all symptoms of jet lag. The only real rough patch has been that our little traveling companion is not really acclimated to the late nights and they have been throwing him off a bit and making bedtime hard and teary. We've heard that he is “homesick” a couple times – not exactly the best sign this early on.

Tomorrow Todd has the day off and has said he'll wander around and show us some sights. And we did manage to find a basketball hoop that Jacob and Vaughn can take the bus to in the morning so that should help somewhat.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

San Juan Batista, CA

Yesterday we went to the 200 year old San Juan Batista Mission, the 15th of 21 Missions built along the California coast and a personal favorite destination of mine. With its antique stores, neat rows of tiny Spanish-style houses and the near constant crowing of roosters, I don't understand why everyone doesn't see the charm in this little town. Besides the Mission, the only thing that seems to keep the town on the map at all is a biker bar that on this day had at least 50 bikes parked out front with a few leathery men and their old ladies milling about.

My relatives were hard-pressed to understand why I'd want to go to the Mission but luckily Jacob and Vaughn were excited to get swept up in Mission enthusiasm. On the way down we spotted a man walking along the highway carrying his own replica of a life-size cross over his shoulder. He wasn't really close to the Mission so it was possible he was either heading home for the day or maybe making the full 21 Mission tour.

I did remember touring the Mission in elementary school and apparently Missions are drilled into California kids in the same way Oregon kids start to loathe Lewis and Clarke; a visit to the San Juan Batista Mission being a required field trip in fourth grade. In the gift shop a man said to Vaughn, “You must be in fourth grade.” “Why yes!” I replied, “How did you know?” to which he drolly replied, “Because I see about 500 of them a day.”

Today, however, it was mostly just us. The rooms were a little smaller than I remembered and the few artifacts that were labeled were pretty hard to read as they were written in fading cursive. I will say that while it is a little heavy on the grinding stone and hand forged nail side, there are also fantastically creepy Catholic relics like the porcelain statue of a little girl stepping on skull. Even more macabre is the tiny graveyard adjacent to the Mission that holds the bodies of 4,300 settlers and natives (who, according to the Mission pamphlet, were “so friendly” that they helped bust out a good chunk of Mission building by Christmas of that first year). The Mission is built adjacent to the San Andres fault line and I remembered that you could look out onto the fields to the West and actually see a fissure in the earth but gave up on trying to locate it because my traveling companions were losing interest.

We made our way over to the barns past a small camp of history re-enactors lazily chatting amongst themselves under the the shade of their lean-to tents. As we got to the barn that held all the old wagons, a state park employee cheerfully called out, “Would you like to hear some history?” Oh boy did we! This was exactly how I imagined the natural ease of home-schooling would fall into place! Out of the classroom and into the magic of the real world. I have to say, Vaughn was a real sport. He put on the heavy leather vest she gave him to wear while she explained the whole history of the Spanish attempts to “not colonize – populate” California. This probably took three times as long since I made an earnest attempt to get down all the facts I obviously didn't learn in fourth grade. He was so polite that I was disappointed to hear Vaughn whisper as we walked away, “That was interesting?” Jacob gently reminded me that this was probably like any number of the tourist destinations that parents drag their kids to and are shocked that they don't find it as interesting as they do. I got that, but this wasn't Fisherman's Wharf (or really any of the tourist spots in San Francisco), this was the freakin' San Juan Batista Mission! Nonetheless, I had to concede that we had been there an hour and so we passed on looking at the old hotel and fire trucks and headed on to Santa Cruz. (July 2,2011)