Category Archives: 2016 Winter Tours

‘Tis the Season

HOORN

Friday, November 11, 2016

Tika had invited us to witness a traditional holiday event:  the Feast of Sint-Maarten (Saint Martin of Tours), who, legend has it, was a Roman Soldier-turned-monk known for his kindness towards strangers (and children and the poor), in short, an all-around-good guy.

On the eve of the fasting for Advent (November 12) a former harvest festival has become a popular children’s affair. What once was an occasion for poor children to beg for alms during a winter month has been transformed into an event similar to our Halloween. Children carry lit lanterns and a sack door-to-door. When the door opens the child sings a song and receives some sweets as a reward.

We’d been looking forward to this ever since Deborah told us Tika wanted to show us a typical Dutch celebration; so, we set off on our bikes for their home where we joined Deborah, Thijs, and Tika for a delicious dinner of home-made soups (it was Thijs’ night for cooking and we had a duet of hearty pea soup and squash soup along with a smorgasbord of tasty dips). With very satisfied tummies, Tika, Deborah, Max and I set off leaving Thijs in the role of door-opener-candy-giver.

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Photos and videos don’t really provide the true wonder of hearing the sweet singing of a young child as she serenades the greeter; but, as you can see from the photo below, opening the door to such a vision is truly a gift to behold.

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And, to hear.

While Tika joined her friends for more neighborhood singing for treats, we returned to the house where we enjoyed conversation and tea.

As we hopped on our faithful two-wheeled steeds and cycled back to JUANONA, we were anticipating the next day’s tradition:  SinterKlaas’ arrival. Yet, both of us felt it would be hard to beat the magical night we’d had hearing a young girl’s voice lilting through the night bringing warmth to those who were fortunate to bask in such a gentle air.

Saturday, November 12

The previous night’s lantern-lit singing was the prelude to the loud and cheerful day of SinterKlaas. This tradition evolved from the true personage of St. Nicolaus, the Bishop of Mira from Turkey, who loved children. Somehow he popped up in Spain and then made his way to the Netherlands by boat. His assistants are called Zwarte Pieten, ‘Black Petes’, something of a controversy due to their black-face make-up, a look associated with slavery as opposed to their historical reference:  Moroccan attendants.

To avoid any connotation of racism, the Zwarte Pietnen may evolve into multiple hues. After all, the point is SinterKlaas had helpers, similar to other countries’ morphing St. Nicholas into a rosy-cheeked, white-bearded jolly man with elves. By the way, I’ve read that Coca-Cola was the catalyst for St. Nick’s current portrayal. So much for tradition.

[To follow up on SinterKlaas, children place their shoes out in hopes of receiving a gift in the night. If good:  chocolate letters and marzipan; if bad, coal. Then on December 5th, the eve of the feast of Saint Nicolas, he drops off a burlap sack of gifts before returning to Spain. The custom is for the gifts to be home-made and to be accompanied by light-hearted poems.]

The morning of November 12th dawned crisp and chilly, perfect weather as a backdrop for a winter event. Searching for a good vantage point to witness SinterKlaas and his assistants’  landing, we ended up next to the tower gate close to the marina.

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As I said it was freezing,

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but that didn’t stop the crowd from hooting and hollering a welcome as various boats escorted the barge carrying this ‘royal’ entourage.

The hordes of people, the bright colors, and the festive air reminded me of our time in Fowey, England, during our coastal hopping from Falmouth to Ipswich. And, it was just as loud…

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We followed SinterKlaas as he rode through the streets on his white horse Amerigo with his helpers handing out candy and pfefferneusse (peppernuts, which are small gingerbread-type cookies).

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Being a bit old for receiving any treats, we opted for a hot snack, one, which always brings a smile to my husband’s face: kibbeling.

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In spite of the warmth from the fried fish nuggets we needed to keep moving, so we headed to the main square, Grote Maart, then merrily returned to JUANONA and prepared for the arrival of friends and family from home.

HOORN, HAARLEM, & AMSTERAM

Wednesday-Wednesday, December 20 – January 4, 2016

Our holidays post-SinterKlass entailed a reunion of Fletchers, Bruces and Sumners. In 2014 Max and I were joined by my sister Betsy and our friends Smokey, Traci, Michelle and Danielle Sumner. Then we shared a house in Amboise, France and created our own Christmas spirits with food, wine, charades and laughter. Realizing another opportunity had arisen due to Danielle being back in France for the year, we planned another time of merriment expanding to include Max’s son Chris, and Smokey’s brother, Jeff, with his wife Lisa and daughter Nicole (son Matthew was braving frigid temps in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, juggling waiting tables and skiing slopes).

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Traci, Smokey and Danielle (since graduating from college she’d taken a job teaching English in France while studying for her LSATs) travelled down from Haarlem for the day,

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and we had a wonderful reunion aboard JUANONA with, what else, kibbeling for lunch.

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On the 23rd Deborah, Thijs and Tika joined us for dinner and provided some Christmas carols with Tika and Deborah accompanying us on the recorder while the three Americans shamefully substituted a lot of ‘tra la las’ for words. We also received some lovely, home-made gifts, including a second Dutch book created by Tika to help Max and I learn the language.

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Our guests noticed some oddly shaped items drooped over our electric radiator, and we explained they were ‘Max’s rice socks’ or, as my cousin Lynnie L. labeled them, Buddy Sox. We used them back home to warm up our bed and tried them aboard (although we have now graduated to small hot water bottles which worked a heck of a lot better). As you can see below more than beds can be warmed.IMG 0460

The next day we took the train to Haarlem where Chris, Max’s son, met us. Originally we had planned to use JUANONA as a B&B for the boys while Betsy and I shared an airbnb apartment, but the plan changed to renting two apartments due to logistics of getting JUANONA down and back within a reasonable time.

Betsy quickly spotted some holiday flowers, as we trundled our luggage around Haarlem looking for our apartment. FYI: neither of us can resist the abundance of beautiful and inexpensive flowers decorating the stalls and shops around the Netherlands. We later discovered Traci had also fallen under the spell of these botanical beauties.

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With everyone together on the 24th, Max, Betsy, Chris, Smokey, Traci, Danielle, Michelle,  Jeff, Lisa, and Nicole landed at a restaurant featuring Euro-Asian meals and lots of excellent gin and wine. After five hours we realized we’d missed the Christmas Eve service at historic St. Bavo’s churchbut could still catch the al fresco singing in the Grote Markt, where we joined our voices to the hundreds singing along.

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As Christmas week continued we enjoyed wandering around Haarlem and various day trips, including a night-time river canal trip in Amsterdam to experience the Light Festival with Deborah, Thijs and Tika.

One of the nights we managed to meet up with our brother-in-law’s niece, Katie Stover, who works for New Earth Films as a production manager. She joined us for a meal with the Sumners, which Betsy and I hosted and Max cooked (good combo!),

Another day Betsy and I toured the Frans Hals Museum. The museum was featuring a special exhibit of Dutch Masters from the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum located in Budapest, Hungary, and currently undergoing a renovation.

No matter how often I see paintings by these 17th-century artists I’m still in awe of just how they managed to create such works of beauty. The pictures below were snapped with an iPhone so not the best, but you get the idea. Just look at how the gold braid actually glitters,

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the translucent sleeve reveals the young woman’s arm,

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the metal shines as it reflects the polished light,

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and, the green goblet captures pure water. Unbelievable (to me).

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With everyone having different travel arrangements (Belgium, Ireland, and the USA) the four of us celebrated a rather subdued New Year’s Eve with sparklers spelling out “2 0 1 7” while standing in a deserted Grote Maart. Surprisingly most Netherlanders celebrate new year’s eve by staying home. Katie, Craig’s neice who lives in Amsterdam, said it’s primarily due to it being the only day of the year when the Dutch can purchase and set off firecrackers. This results in a night punctuated by loud bangs and others taking sanctuary away from potential explosive injuries.

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Our last few days were spent in Amsterdam where Max, Chris, Betsy and I rented another airbnb right on a main canal street, Prinsengracht. Betsy and I took another canal boat trip, this time during the day; and, like what happens on JUANONA, we were boarded by the police. When I asked the captain afterwards he said it was expected as the company had been given notice a month earlier by the police and the owners were still working on complying with the regulations. All of that aside, this Classical Canal Boat tour was a relaxing way to see parts of the city while hearing bits of its history.

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One of our last festive events was a post-New Year’s dinner thanks to brother Cam and Carmen; and, thanks to Betsy, we had a wonderful restaurant in which to celebrate due to her having stayed at the hotel earlier with friends.

Dinner compliments of CandC JAN2 2017

After two weeks of family-and-friend festivities we found ourselves alone and back aboard JUANONA. A rather quiet re-entry into January after such a jovial holiday.

Yet, there’s always the possibility of another two-year reunion in 2018… :)

End of Our November MDTs…

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GHENT (Gent)

Saturday – Monday (November 5-7, 2016)

We were finalizing our MDTs (Max Disaster Tours) with a non-diaster, at least not an apparent one, just the typical Middle Age bloodshed.  We were headed to Ghent, the largest city in Flanders (Belgium) during the Middle Ages thanks to cloth, where we landed for two nights and one full day.

Our hotel, which included a tiny kitchenette, sat conveniently within the historic center one block from Vrijdagsmarkt Square or “Friday Market Square”, so-called from, you guessed it, hosting Friday markets beginning in 1199. Amidst the shops and cafes a pointing statue dominated the square, which turned out to be the city’s famous citizen, Jacob van Artevelde (1290-1345).

Ghent’s ‘hero’ wasn’t a military leader, a royal personage, or religious figure but a businessman. I’ll abbreviate his place in history here because trying to explain who’s who to get to why this, why that is too convoluted for my taste…

You know this area of the world during the Middle Ages was raking in the dough from cloth. So much cash was being generated that Ghent, along with Bruges and Ypres, were floating in wealth. Those making this possible were the Guilds, specifically the Cloth Guilds. They’d import English wool, weave it, and sell it back as finished cloth. A wonderful and tidy circle of funds created a wonderful and productive income for all, well, at least for the owners and higher-ups.

But, inevitably all good things come to a close… and, it begins in 1332 with the Count of Flanders, Louis I, leaving Flanders after choosing sides in a power struggle between two kings , King Philip VI of France

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and King Edward III of England.

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Louis left a power vacuum, and in steps Jacob, a wealthy man, who now becomes a prominent business leader in the city.

But, back to the power struggle… Why the King of England would claim ownership to a French throne is due to an unclear line of succession.  The French King Charles IV died in 1328 without a male heir. There happened to be a widow, but, no surprise, her title didn’t count. Philip, a cousin of Charles IV, however, became regent and was then crowned king when the widow-queen begat a daughter, not a son.

But, whoa, here comes England’s Edward III, King of England as well as a vassal of France (ever since the Norman Conquest in 1066 by William, the kings of England are also dukes of Normandy, which further adds spice to this French-English monarchy stew.) Seeing an opportunity to expand his realm, Edward states his claim to the French throne via his mom who happened to be the daughter of Philip IV, a previous French King.

Well, Philip VI and Edward III ended up sniping at one another resulting in Edward III boycotting Flemish cloth. Well, as we know, money Trumps all. Jacob, the one immortalized in the Friday Market Square statue, convinced the Federation of Guilds to back Edward III. After all, that’s where the all mighty dollar lay (and why this 19th century statue is pointing towards England).

FYI:  Historians say this is the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), a war of constant back-and-forth with England and France fighting over who’s going to sit their royal hinny on the French throne.

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Returning to our rebellious Jacob, he didn’t do so well in the end. He became unpopular among all the Cloth Guilds and ended up being hacked to death by the head of the Weavers Guild in 1345. But, hey, he still has an imposing monument in one of Ghent’s beautiful squares.

Leaving Jacob behind we continued our self-guided walking tour. Ghent is a lovely city but definitely a city with an modern, urban feel if you step foot outside the historic district. Yet, within the confines of the medieval cobblestone streets and squares magnificent buildings abound.

As we wandered around the city we passed by buildings, some easily identified, such as the 17th-century gateway to the fish house featuring Neptune with his trident…

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and some not so easily id’ed such as these frolicking figures danced their way across a roofline (it turned out to be the Mason’s Guild Hall).

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One of the most noticeable buildings is the Cloth Hall and its Belfy. In 1313 the people of Ghent decided to build a tower as a symbol of independence, and the Belfry was constructed. Approximately 600 years later the flying dragon was added to its peak. Remarkably, the civic privileges from 1180 still reside here under heavy guard.

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Another symbol of town pride is the huge brass drum in the belfry belting out tunes.

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We took a stroll around the balcony circling the tower obtaining some city views. Let me rephrase that:  Max took a stroll. I, on the other hand, stuck to the stone wall with my back never leaving it until I scurried from one portico to the next all the time thinking ‘this, too, will pass’.

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A ‘you-HAVE-to-see-this’ piece of art awaited us at the Cathedral of St. Bavo; and, it was definitely worth seeing. “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (the neck-bleeding lamb symbolizes crucified Jesus dying for mankind’s sins) was painted by two brothers, Jan and Hubert van Eyck (1420s-32).


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Jan, whose patron happened to be Philip, Duke of Burgundy, is credited with being the father of oil painting; and, if you’re like me wondering what did they paint with if not oil, it was the ‘tempera method’, pigments bound together with various liquids, the most popular one being egg (to which they would sometimes add myrrh to offset any offending odors…).

To view this momentous work we were ushered into a tiny room, which quickly filled up as more and more visitors filed into an ever-increasingly small space. But, we could still see it, and with an audio guide learned something about this piece of art composed of twelve panels painted front and back. The NEW YORK TIMES recently covered the ongoing restorations, so it was fascinating to see it in person.

With our one, must-see destination completed, we began our walk home taking a back street

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to where we spotted a small courtyard enticing my husband to perform his obligatory peep, this time into a medieval well.

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In another plaza we mingled with tourists and locals alike as the afternoon morphed into twilight.

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And, one of my favorite Belgian works of art tempted us as we slowly walked home…

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The second and last morning we had our first meal out in Ghent (all others being picnic-style in our room). Consisting of dual cups of excellent coffee and freshly baked items, our breakfast not only provided nourishment but also an opportunity for Max to snap me at my best.

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Or, worst, as the case may be. And, just so you know, I haven’t looked this bad on a passage…

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After feasting on freshly brewed java and aromatic croissants we drove back into the Netherlands with a planned stop at an engineering marvel, the Maeslantkering, a moveable storm surge barrier. As one of the 13 components comprising the North Sea Protection Works, this surge barrier is the largest in the world.

A display featured an explanatory exhibit (all in Dutch so we basically gazed at the models while scratching our heads) demonstrating why it was constructed (the devastating 1953 flood and the  potential for more) and how (for engineering brains).

Since I will never do this justice, check out this link that describes the project and this water baby in concise and non-engineering terms:  http://www.amusingplanet.com/2014/04/the-netherlands-impressive-storm-surge.html

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After the indoor explanations, we headed outside to get an overview of the site and the immense floating arms.

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all while a cold wind buffeted us, hence the shoulders clenched to the sides and hands stuffed into coat pockets.

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Back in the car we commented on how cool it’d be to actually witness the annual-test closing of the gates. Hmmm… another road trip!

Next: ’tis the season in Netherlands!

The Lion’s Tale

IEPER (Ypres)

November 2016

The sculptors stood next to a stone lion composed of two blocks forming a regal pose. The older man leaned against the immobile flank poised for the next chisel. The younger appeared in mid-stroke as he glanced up at the camera while an assistant seemed to be measuring the plinth. A second lion, serving as part of the sculpting process, completed the tableau.

A black & white photograph captured this scene, one which caught my eye as I waited for a glass in the breakfast room of our inn, Demi Lune.

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When Greet, one of the owners, returned I asked her about this large photograph, and she began to tell me a story that her husband, Peter, finished the next morning.

Most visitors know this town as a landmark of WWI, one completely destroyed and later reconstructed based on historical plans. Yet, Peter spoke of a much older history of this area beginning with the Romans raiding the Belgae people during the 1st century. By the way, the town’s name came from the Belgaes’ word “Iep”, their name for the elm trees, which grew along the banks of the river “Ipre” or “Iepere”; so, it was a natural progression to name the settlement along the river:  Iper, which was altered by the Romans to “Ypra”, the latin derivation.

Located along key transportation routes including easy access to the coast and England’s wool, Ieper began a lucrative trade in textiles. By the 13th century, it became the third largest city in Belgium after Ghent (Gent) and Bruges. Guilds formed to support the trade resulting in the construction of the magnificent Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall), a dominant feature of this medieval town (Ghent and Bruges were the only other Flemish cities featuring this symbol of prosperity).

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Built of stone, Ieper’s Lakenhalle provided a safe storage for both imported wool and the finished cloth stowed for export. However, the stone building also provided a habitat for those furry animals called rats. To help reduce the rodent population cats were introduced. This created another problem at the end of the season when no wool or cloth was stored resulting in a heavily reduced rat population and an over-abundance of felines. So, a tradition began that occurred on the last day of the annual fair (Cat Wednesday): cats, also considered evil spirits, would be bundled into burlap bags and tossed from the hall’s bell tower by the city jester.

Thankfully, this tradition stopped in 1817 only to be reinstated in 1930, but the meowing sack is now replaced with a furry, inanimate object.

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If you’re interested, you can experience this festival every three years (next one is 2018).  And, if you’re wondering about cat karma, just think of how the bubonic plague spread.

Ieper experienced an economic decline in the late 1300s due to the annihilation caused by the Bubonic Plague roaring through Europe and to the effects of a devastating siege in 1383 waged by an English bishop (yeah, really, he was a ‘holy’ man). But, I’m only mentioning this decline because of that ‘the world is a small ball’ moments:   In 2014 I saw a special door at Canterbury Cathedral for the Flemish weavers who headed over to England and started a competitive cloth trade. Due to the economic benefits of these immigrants, the rulers and religious heads allowed them to open a church in the underbelly (crypt) of the cathedral.

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Another example of how the threads of history weave together, the warping and wefting of time flow through the loom of life, lives intertwine amidst the carpet of the earth…  Okay, I’ll stop.

Ieper attracted the attention of power-hungry forces way before the Germans tried to take it in 1914. Eventually earthworks morphed into stone fortifications, some built under the direction of the famous French military engineer, Seigneur de Vauban, after King Louis XIV (1638-1715) invaded and overtook the city in 1678. Below is a mock-up commissioned by the French king in 1701.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the remaining walls but we did stand on the site where the eastern road led to the town of Menin, and, so we return to where I began this tale…

Peter, who can trace his ancestry back 16 generations, told me how the sculptors were his great-great-grandfather and his great-grandfather, Alphonse and Josef Pollee. He pointed out how the work was being done on top of the gate to avoid any difficulty placing the lion in its final position when completed. Peter also mentioned how his great-grandfather took off on a new motorbike to see the coast only to be fired upon his return. The reason? His father felt his son should have been marching in the May 1st Socialist Parade.

This lion isn’t to be confused with two carved in the 17th century holding Ieper’s coat of arms. Those stood guard at the gated, eastern entrance to the city. Eventually the gates were dismantled in the mid-1800s but the lions, placed on plinths, remained on either side of the Menin Road, the road on which thousands of WWI soldiers marched on the way to the Salient and, in many cases, towards death. (Many may know this already, but a salient is a military term for a battlefield bulging into enemy territory resulting in being surrounded on three sides by the enemy.)

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The two lions survived the shelling with some damage but intact enough to maintain a regal presence. In 1936 these limestone sculptures were donated to the Australian government in gratitude for the sacrifices that country made during WWI. They were placed in the Australian War Memorial and later repaired in the late 1980s based on historical photographs. In 2014 they were loaned to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa along with the 1927 painting of the Menin Gate Memorial by the Australian war artist, Capt. William Frederick Longstaff who served in WWI (this painting is at the top of this post). In 2017 the lions will be returned to Ieper for commemorating the 100th-anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

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I found it quite astonishing that we were meeting the grandson of sculptors who had their hand in honoring those who had fallen during WWI. Their lion sat in repose atop Menin Gate, the memorial constructed in 1927.

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Yet, Max and I discovered even more of a connection between our hosts and the war:   the photographer of the iconic photo of Peter’s sculpting ancestors was none other than Greet’s great-uncle, Daniel Pynck.

As a young boy, Daniel lived with his family in Ieper. It was here, during WWI, where he lost his leg when a shell struck their home. His brother was killed and his mother and sister, wounded.

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Daniel was transported to a hospital on the coast to recuperate. An English nurse then took him to England while the war raged throughout his homeland.

While in England he learned the art of photography. As a young man he returned to the home of his birth, arriving on his relatives’ doorsteps speaking fluent English. He opened a shop on the main square, Photo Daniel,

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and began a successful career, being one of the few photographers in the area (we noticed his photo credit in an exhibit at the Flanders Field Museum).

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The store only recently closed but the building still stands, yet another landmark in Ieper’s history.

Peter and Greet also shared with us the historical significance of Demi Lune, the name of their B&B. Demilune, french for ‘crescent’, has several meanings:  it’s the name for a crescent-shaped island standing in the middle of water that one has to cross to enter/exit a city gate (if you look again at the 1701 mock-up of Ieper you’ll see several of these demi lunes); it’s the shape of a half-moon, a time when one is suppose to sleep well; and, it means little croissant, one of those delicate, flakey pastries offered as part of your B&B breakfast. A perfect appellation for this inn.

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Thanks to Peter and Greet, our understanding of Ieper’s history stretched way before the devastation of WWI. If anyone is planning a visit to this town, it’s definitely worth booking a room at this welcoming inn, Demi Lune (http://www.demi-lune.be). And, if you can spend some time with the owners, you, too, will feel the breath of history.

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MDT 3

French:  YPRES / Flemish:  IEPER

Thursday-Friday, November 3-4, 2016

Our final MDT (Max Disaster Tour) encompassed another key battle site, Ypres, a town destroyed or, more aptly described, obliterated during World War I.

Just a brief overview:  In spite of some advocating for peace and disarmament, such as the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Czech-Austrian pacifist and novelist Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914), European countries were marching towards war due to… world powers struggling for (a) economic power, (b) gaps between the have and have-nots were expanding, and (c) nationalist feelings were soaring due to some international confrontations. [Yikes, I just reread this. does this sound as familiar to you as it does to me?] These ingredients created a bellicose soup with the opening salvo occurring August 4,1914 when Germany invaded neutral Belgium.

And, it’s where we found ourselves preparing to be horrified and goose-pimpled awed as we walked on and around some very hallowed ground.

The chilly raw temperature seemed appropriate for a gray November day spent touring another tragic area. Following in friends’ Marcia and Steve’s footsteps, we also made reservations for a guided tour. And, boy, did that turn out to be an informative way to hear about the war here in Ypres, formerly a fortified-medieval town where wealthy Belgians escaped the city streets of Brussels.

We joined a family of three from Glasgow (the daughter happened to be working for the Scottish government in Amsterdam), two Brits composed of a son-in-law taking his father-in-law to various war sites, and a young Polish woman studying in Amsterdam, all of us being led by Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tour. Friendly and extremely knowledgeable, you immediately know you’re in the hands of someone who wants to ensure you, as guests at these sites, understand why those who fought here deserve our respect and honor. And, his manner is such that you, too, feel respected by this kind soul.

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NOTE:  Woven into the narrative below is information obtained from a visit to the Ypres’ Flanders Field Museum the next morning. 

Over the next four hours Jacques guided us to seven sites. He introduced us to this part of the world with a light-hearted anecdote:  The allied soldiers changed Belgian town names to creative nicknames:  Ypres became “Wipers”… Etaples became “Eat Apples”.  Our wry smiles quickly turned to somber faces as he told us all, and I mean all, of Ypres’ buildings and streets are only 80 to 90 years old.

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WWI had left this fortified-medieval town

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and its pastoral surroundings…

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and a muddy, cratered desert after four years of artillery shelling and trench warfare.

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The Salient (a battlefield created by one army being surrounded on three sides by the opposing troops) is a term you hear when discussing the fighting at Ypres. Similar to WWII the Allied forces needed to keep the Germans from gaining access to key seaports, such as Calais and Dunkirk. This would protect the Allies’ flow of supplies while preventing Germans access to an easy-to-defend new front, one that would include harbors.

The front lines stalled around Ypres, trenches were dug, and hundreds of thousands would lose their lives here. In some instances enemies were within shouting distances of one another as they survived (or not) fighting from these filthy and disease-ridden ditches. A soldier’s rotation of duty typically entailed four days at the front, which could include a night patrol or a stint in no-man’s land, followed by a tour as a reserve further from the front lines, and, if lucky, some time when they were billeted even further from the front.

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WWI witnessed the transition from cavalry and imprecise canon shots to tanks and accurate, rapid-fire machine guns, artillery that created shrapnel and carried a much greater range than in prior wars. WWI also led England to create a large infantry force, having previously relied on their navy; and, in the Flanders Museum we saw a vehicle used by England’s Minister of Defense, Lord Kitchener, for recruiting volunteers (aka, canon fodder).

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The Germans had a slight elevation advantage, even though higher ground might mean just a few feet, and in driving to the various sites Jacques was quick to point out when we were on an incline. Yet, the allies managed to hold Ypres during the war with the exception of one day, October 7, 2014, when the Germans made it into the town before being expelled.

The Germans managed to gather excellent intelligence on the Allies. I don’t remember any of the specific examples quoted by Jacques, but it was uncanny. I’m not sure how it was communicated, but we did see a photo of one of Britain’s ‘signal companies’, which included Radio telegraphy, telephone, and carrier pigeons (!).

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The Salient has the dubious fame of being where the first poisonous gas was used. This occurred on April 22, 1915 with the French and Algerians being its first victims followed by the Canadians two days later. Use of a chemical weapon broke two Peace Treaties signed 1899 and 1907, causing the Brits to retaliate with the same on September 25, 1915. Ironically, the creator of this chemical weapon was the German chemist Fritz Haber (the one pointing in the photo below), who happened to be Jewish.

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In 1918 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (?!). His legacy lived on with this same gas later used in the Nazis’ gas chambers. At least one of the Habers realized the Pandora’s box he had opened:  On May 2, 1915 Fritz’s wife Clara Immerwahr, a pacifist, committed suicide.

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Live gas canisters are still being found today along with all the other unexploded ordinances (about 240 tons are collected and safely detonated each and every year). Jacques and a friend of his, an archaeologist, were documenting a gravesite in 2007. The next day Jacques got a call from his friend saying he was at the doctor’s due to a huge, nasty blister appearing on his forearm. Come to find out it his friend’s forearm and hand had come into contact where the gas had seeped from its 100-year-old-container.

One of the first sites we visited was Essex Farm (again, non-local soldiers called their battle locales by names familiar to them). Here, there were bunkers serving as an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS). Here, on December 8, 1915, the Canadian Dr. John McCare (1872-1918) wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Field” just a few days after one of his good friends, Lt. Alexis Helmer, died. And, since I can’t speak of WWI without also offering his words, here they are:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Another famous doctor serving in WWI was an American professor of neurosurgery, D. Harvey Cushing (1869-2939), an eye witness to the third battle at Ypres (July 3, 1917 – November 10, 1917). It was when working at a French military hospital he experimented using magnets to extract shrapnel from brain tissue. In addition to doctors, there were nurses, many who sacrificed their lives as they treated the wounded, and the Flanders Museum shows a well-done video with actors portraying Dr. Cushing and several nurses as they speak of this war and its affects on humanity. One recollection that Max noted hearing during the video was “Can one grow used to death? Is it unsafe to think of this? For if death becomes cheap, it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.”

Jacques would mention some conversations he’s had with this war’s veterans over the years. Several of these recollections, in particular, stood out due to contradicting some general assumptions about this battle, and I paraphrase: One veteran strongly disagreed with the phrase ‘all quiet on the western front’… if anything, it was a continuous hell; and, another hated when he heard people say there were ‘five battles at Ypres’… he felt there was nonstop fighting with battles killing and maiming thousands.

While death and destruction wasn’t limited to a particular fight, one location became synonymous with the wanton wastefulness of human life on the Western Front:  “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele”, a battle fought in 1917 to capture a ridge held by the Germans.

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The last site we visited was Sanctuary Woods Hill 62. The woods still have some of the original trenches that have been reinforced to ensure they don’t deteriorate over time, and trees have grown up where once the landscape was a quagmire of filthy mud.

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Jacques told us that most veterans he’s had the honor of guiding here refused to enter the trenches. I can’t really imagine how it must have been standing in one of these trenches with shells exploding and bloodied soldiers being carted into bunkers. Especially knowing you may get an order to ‘go over the top’.

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On March 3, 1918 the war ended on the Eastern Front, but it wasn’t until eight months later on November 11, 1918 that fighting ceased on the Western Front. Soon after Winston Churchill suggested Ypres remain in ruins as a reminder of the horror of war; but, the residents, all who had to forsake their homes, proclaimed a decidedly forceful “NO”, and with that Ypres began to rebuild itself using plans drafted by an architect extremely knowledgeable about all the original town’s buildings.

It’s no surprise most of the sites we toured had either a cemetery or were right next to one. Jacques told us the entire area is one big graveyard with bodies, like unexploded shells, still being unearthed. Nineteen have been discovered this year alone.

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Fortunately there is an organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), headquartered in Maidenhead, England, whose purpose is honoring the soldiers who died during WWI and II. Working in partnership with local groups, they maintain existing cemeteries while ensuring any found body from the war is identified (if possible through a DNA match) before being buried. When a body is unearthed, a funeral is given by the CWGC. To give you an idea of just how much the residents still think of those times and those who died there, the services for these soldiers are packed by locals in spite of never being advertised.

The CWGC even cares for the German cemetery, Langemark. Over 40,000 Germans are buried here including 3,000 from a German Student Battalion. These inexperienced soldiers fought against battle-tested and professional British soldiers during the first battle of Ypres, with the Germans’ death called the “massacre of the innocents”. These young soldiers played a part in WWII’s propaganda when Hitler visited the cemetery in 1940 to promote German bravery.

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Hitler had also fought near here during WWI and a big “what if… we had seen his name on one of the gravestone?” popped into, I’m sure, a lot of our heads.

We viewed a 16th-century cross from the plague years, which had been erected near a memorial for the French soldiers killed in the first gas attack.

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We also saw other memorials such as the famous ‘Brooding Solider’ in honor of the Canadians who held a key piece of ground despite being gassed two days after the French.

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We drove by the Welsh one, which stands where their soldiers fell versus where they were buried.

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One of the largest memorials was the Menin Gate with names of 55,000 fallen soldiers carved on its wall. Later a Wall of Remembrance was placed at Tyne Cot cemetery with 35,000 more names listed.

At Menin Gate there’s a ceremony that Seppe told us about; so, at 8:00pm Max and I witnessed this moving tribute, one that’s been occurring every day since 1927. It continued during WWII in England then returned to Ypres September 6,1944 the day the Polish forces liberated the town. A bugle is sounded playing two traditional tunes: , first is the “Last Post”, a final salute to the fallen, followed by “Reveille”, the wake-up call and celebration of the living. After a moment of silence, relatives of those whose names are on the walls may lay wreaths.

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In spite of this WWI guided tour and excellent exhibits at all the war sites we’ve seen these past there days, I’ve only grasped a cursory understanding of the events at Waterloo, Bastogne, and Ypres. Yet, one doesn’t have to see too much to know war is a curse on humanity.

After touring the Flanders Field Museum the next day, I believe both of us were ready for much lighter fare. We headed to Ghent for our last Belgium stop of our road trip.

But, before we left this area, there’s one more story to be told.

Until next time…

MDT 2

WATERLOO

Thursday, November 3

Once again I’m astonished at just how interesting I found another one of Max’s Disaster Tours, and this MDT 2 covering the Battle of Waterloo fell into that bucket of ‘whoa, this is well done!’.

From what others had mentioned, we thought we’d be trotting on a section of the battlefield and reading a few displays about what occurred, then we’d be out of there; but the museum captured our interest from the get-go and the expected 60-minute visit turned into a four-hour tour.

Memorial 1815, the museum site, combines a hilltop panorama (as well as a mural housed in the circular building below) with a modern, underground museum (just visible to the right of the strollers), all excellent tributes to this battle.

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Similar to the one in Bastogne, Memorial 1815 enhances a visitor’s experience by using a mix of visual and audio tools. After sitting through a ten-minute film with 3-D glasses, Max said he got a good idea of just how it might feel to be an infantryman charged by a cavalry. Based on the progression of exhibit experiences, I wouldn’t be too surprised if in the next ten years (or less) I’ll actually be able to take part in a historical event though virtual reality (NOTE:  I’d opt out of France’s Reign of Terror and chopped heads, and many more, no doubt).

For two hours we walked chronologically through rooms explaining…

the background of Napoleon’s rule (French Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, aka Age of Reason)…

some interesting aspects of his time as emperor:  he honored the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827 ) with the title of count due to Volta’s work in electricity; he championed beet sugar production in answer to the British blocking the Caribbean sugar cane trade; and, one of his most influential legacies:  he authorized the creation of the Napoleonic Code, a modern legal code with no religious content and written in language people could actually understand…

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as well as a brief primer on all the forces escalating against Napoleon:  his enemies sat on many thrones, so this Corsican’s rise to power based on merit and not on inheritance sent shivers throughout all of Europe and Great Britain. The museum Id’ed the prominent rulers opposing this upstart:

Francis II, the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1768-1835) – detested any whiff of constitutionalism and waged war against France in 1792-97, and fought in subsequent battles against Napoleon; to his family’s dismay his daughter, Marie-Louise, later became Napoleon’s second wife and mother of Napoleon’s only legitimate son.

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Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Sicily (1752-1814) – pushed out of Naples by Napoleon (whose brother Joseph was then made King of Naples, then later replaced by another Bonaparte sib, Caroline); oh, and Maria Carolina was one of Marie Antoinette’s sisters… need I say more?

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Frederick William, Prussian Duke of Brunswick and Wolfenbuttel (1781-1815) – was humiliated by Napoleon’s crushing defeat of the Prussian army in 1806 and looked forward to retaliating.

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John VI, King of Portugal (1767-1826) – his country was invaded by the French and the Spanish during Napoleon’s rule with the royal family escaping to Brazil in 1807; interestingly, Britain under the command of Arthur Wellesley (who becomes THE Duke of Wellington) restored the Portuguese throne in1808.

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Williem I, Stadholder/Governor of the Netherlands (later King when Austrian Low Lands, now Belgium, was added to the Netherlands) (1772-1843) – his country was invaded by Napoleon (Napoleon’s brother, Louis, ruled the Netherlands 1806-10).

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Ferdinand VII, King of Spain (1784-1833) – first sought out Napoleon for protection from his father, Charles IV, then was taken prisoner by Napoleon who installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king of Spain (the latter was so ineffective as King of Naples, big bro Napoleon made him King of Spain instead; go figure).

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Louis XVIII, King of France (1755-1824) – brother of the beheaded French king and hoping to take back his family’s throne.

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Quite a club, eh? Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall if all of them ever got together in one room. Actually, I’d rather be someone at the table for I can only imagine the food feast served.

With Napoleon invading so many of his neighbors, you wonder who wouldn’t rise up against him? Add the fact he made himself Emperor (so much for abolishing despots) and populated squashed countries’ thrones with his siblings, one would have to be a dummkopf (aka, blockhead) not to realize this was poking a hornet’s next with an extremely short stick. Scratch that:  change ‘poking’ to ‘whacking the hell out of’.

Actually, Napoleon was just continuing the tradition begun with the first (1792-97) of seven Coalition Wars when monarchies tried to stifle the French Revolution. During that time Napoleon was proving his military genius as he ascended from soldier to general to commander of France’s army. Six more coalition wars were fought with the seventh in 1815, ending with the vanquishing of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Oddly the museum used historical paintings to cover earlier battles fought by Napoleon. It was fascinating from an artistic perspective but not too clear regarding the chronology leading up to this auspicious battle. However, one that caught my interest depicted a ball in Brussels given by the Duchess of Richmond, the Commander of the Reserve Troops’ wife, on June 15, just three days before the fight.

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She invited top dignitaries, including Wellington and his commanders.  Although the French had already begun preparations for battle, the Duke ordered his officers to attend in order to stave off any panic their absence might have caused.

When we got to the museum’s area covering the actual battle, a timeline adorned each side of a long hallway while soldiers marched towards the battle. Here the information was so detailed you could press a button on your audio guide to hear about soldiers’ belts and other minutia. Must admit I skipped a lot of those for my eyeballs were starting to spin in my head.

Prussian officers led by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742-1819) were instrumental in winning the Battle of Waterloo;

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as were those led by Willem I, King of the Netherlands (mentioned earlier). Without the Prussian and Netherland troops, the French would have won the Battle. FYI:  I’ve seen so many conflicting numbers of troops per army I won’t even begin to try to figure it out. Suffice it to say, the French were outnumbered.

It was a singularly bloody fight with Wellington aptly saying “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.”

While the actual, June 18th squirmishes didn’t attract my attention too much some specific incidents related to this Battle did, such as…

  • a painting of the capturing and looting of Napoleon’s military carriage (we actually saw his battlefield hat in Berlin’s German History Museum);I later discovered the carriage was shipped to England’s Prince Regent (later King George IV), eventually landing in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (!) where it was destroyed by a fire in 1925;

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  • sketches by Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a surgeon and anatomist who visited the battle field 10 days later to document some of the wounds, possibly to use as part of his medical teachings;

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  • hearing Napoleon went to Mal Maison, the manor he had shared with his ex-wife, Josephine, seven days after escaping capture on the battlefield (and, which Max and I visited with Betsy just before New Year’s Eve in 2014);

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  • and, due to the heroics and victory at the Battle of Waterloo, veterans received free beer for a long time at any British pub.

With all of the information provided several categories seemed to be missing: the personal lives of the main characters; and, the period of Napoleon escaping Elba only to return to lead the French back into war. But, we were definitely ready for a break and some fresh air, so we headed to a key battle site:  Hougoumont.

A short shuttle bus landed us at the site where at 11:30 a.m. on the morning of June 18, 2015 the first shots were fired. This walled farmhouse stood equidistant between the two lines of engagement, and, for that reason Wellington positioned his troops there. Supposedly, when asked what his orders would be if he died in battle, he said “hold Hougoumont.”  And, they did,  but not without a lot of fighting as the French tried over and over to win this piece of land.

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At one point during the fight, the French caused the buildings to burn. Later, the French managed to push in the gate and storm the grounds. Several soldiers then rushed to the wall and, in a heroic moment–one of many, i’m sure–closing the gate, thus keeping their enemy out. This action is credited with ensuring Hougoumont remained in the Coalition’s possession.

Remarkably, a chapel remained intact after this horrendous fighting. What was deemed a miracle was a 16th-century Flemish crucifix in the chapel actually starting burning but mysteriously stopped at the feet. Some writers whose names I recognized visited this site:  Lady Shelley, friend and confidante of Wellington, travelled there in September 1815;  the following year Lord Byron scrawled his name on the wall (not there now); and Victor Hugo must have been there for he included the manor’s well in Les Miserables.

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Since then the crucifix has gone through a theft of a leg and several restorations.

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Both Max and I found Hougoumont particularly interesting, and moving when you consider the bravery of the few who held this vital site. Where once a woods stood three trees remain, left by the owner, Chevalier de Louville, after the battle due to the heavy damage incurred. Not only humans but nature, too, is befouled by war.

But, time to catch the shuttle back where we both walked up the numerous steps to look across the battlefield; however, I with my shuddering fear of heights climbed up step by step while talking to myself to tamp down my nervousness. Once atop I quickly scooted my backside along the base of the monument only to rush back down the numerous steps, talking to myself with catch-and-release death grips on the metal hand railings.

Do you see the dot in the middle of the picture way down below? That’s moi feeling oh so much better.

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Meanwhile Max took in the view and snapped a diagram of the lines of engagement.

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Lastly we drove to the Waterloo Inn where Wellington stayed during the nights of the 17th and 18th. Here we saw where he slept and wrote his report of the Battle. More interesting, we saw some of his handwritten field notes.

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Other than seeing his room and his orders, this Wellington Museum didn’t offer a lot of information unless you were into weapons of that time. (I had actually seen the chair in which he died, or so they say, with my friend Carol in southern England.)

And, with that our MDT 2 was over, and I was ready to head home to our Belgian Family. Yet, like I mentioned at the beginning, Museum 1815 and Hougoumont are definitely worth exploring if interested in the Battle of Waterloo.

Tomorrow, our MDT 3…

A weekend stretched into a week

AMSTERDAM

Friday, October 28

A wonderful surprise came by email in October. Some friends from Maine were heading to our neck of the world and would be visiting Amsterdam beginning October 28. Not only were we going to be in the Netherlands but also in Amsterdam for an appointment on that very day.

Arranging to meet at a cafe in the Rijksmuseum we managed to find one another quickly and hugs abound.

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Marcia and Steve are inveterate travelers and generally rent apartments while immersing themselves in the culture and everyday-doings of the local inhabitants. We’ve corresponded with them on several trips, exchanging information on various destinations. Since they had just hopped off the plane and checked into their airbnb accommodations mid-morning, we all decided to stretch our legs while locating a place for lunch. Which we did find while walking and talking and dodging the ubiquitous cyclists.

After lunch we strolled back towards the train station, taking them through the Beguinhof, the oasis we had visited the prior weekend. During our walk Marcia exclaimed that some bags hanging outside a shop were designed by a company from Massachusetts, one with which she was very familiar considering she owned at least three of their designs.

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And, a backdrop providing a perfect opportunity for a photo-snap.

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With some trial and error on our part (still get lost in this city) we located the Red Light District. This neighborhood surprises one because the surroundings appear like many other parts of the city until you notice what the shops are selling, and some narrow alleys that boast plate glass windows with semi-clad females posing. (Two days later they enjoyed a fabulous meal thanks to the suggestion of Deborah who used to live in Amsterdam.)

Since they’d basically been awake for 24 hours we all decided to head to our respective berths, and we parted company as they meandered their way back to their apartment and we, to the train station and Hoorn. Hoping our paths would cross again during their visit, we invited them to Hoorn; yet, with only two more days in Amsterdam (and plenty to see there) before visiting Belgium sites then ending in a favorite haunt of theirs (Paris), we at least knew we could communicate in the same time zone via email.

We bade them good-bye but not before Max took a photo documenting this reunion of Mainers.

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Seeing friends from home when we’re on JUANONA is such a gift to us. With all of their traveling we hope to see Marcia and Steve again in the not-too-distant future. It’s hard to say good-bye when we just said hello.

HOORN

Saturday-Monday, October 29-31

The Belgians are here! The Belgians are here! We obviously didn’t cry out loud with this news but we eagerly awaited a visit from our Belgian Family.  In May they had come up for a visit when our nephew Rudy was aboard, so they were familiar with Hoorn.

This family of five are quite easy to have aboard being content to while away the days with talking, laughing and just catching up on everyone’s news. Max had made a delicious chili for dinner. Actually he had made two batches, the first being too spicy due to following the recipe exactly, which called for a quarter-cup (!) of chili powder. Even when cutting the hot spices more than half, it still was on the verge of scalding one’s taste buds.  But, maybe the chili gave us the impetus to play charades, a first on JUANONA.

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With an empty aft berth we had asked if one of the kids would like to sleep aboard. Frieke opted to try it, and she adapted to our slow-morning tempo of waking, making coffee, then heading back to the berth for online newspaper perusing (a behavior our friends Ellen and Carter know well from when we’ve stayed with them).

After 48 hours they needed to head back to Belgium on Monday. We took a photograph before we let them go…

(From the left:  Koen, Frieke, Max, Seppe, Wannes, Ta)

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but, this time we knew our good-byes would quickly be followed by hellos due to our heading to Belgium the very next day.

MDT 1:  BASTOGNE

Wednesday, November 2

As I mentioned above, we took a road trip starting Tuesday. Knowing we needed to complete another step in our application for temporary residency, we decided to combine it with, what my sister has aptly termed, “Max’s Disaster Tours” (MDTs). This tour would entail visiting three battle sites, beginning with Bastogne, a key location in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge, followed by the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, and ending with Ypres (Ieper), a site of WWI trench warfare and decimation.

Fortunately, we offset the sobering realities of horrific wars with the comfort of being with our Belgian Family in the town of Bolderberg, situated between Bastogne to the east and Waterloo and Ypres to the west.

The next morning five of us bundled into Ta and Koen’s car to head to the Bastogne War Museum, opened in March of 2014. This modern museum provided a full afternoon of immersion into one of the bloodiest and most desperate battles during WWII.

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To begin your tour you’re greeted by four people who actually lived and/or fought in Bastogne:  a young boy of 13, a young woman in her early 20s, an American soldier, and a German soldier. Each subsequent event was narrated by one of the four, providing a real-life glimpse into the brutality and tragedy associated with this battle.

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A multi-media experience awaited us with videos, narrations, photographs and text capturing our attention as we slowly toured this museum with our audio guides.

For background, Belgium was invaded by the Germans in May, 1940 with the Belgian King Leopold III (1901-1983) surrendering. He is placed under house arrest and the country begins its five years of occupation by the enemy. (FYI:  Leopold’s surrender cost him his kingship and, in 1951 he abdicated, passing the throne onto his son, Baudouin (1930-1993.)

Bastogne is located in the Ardennes forest, and on December 16, 1944 this area on the western front became the site of Germany’s last major offensive. The Germans wanted to push the American front line to northwestern Belgium and, in so doing, created a bulge, hence the name “Battle of the Bulge” (aka “Battle of the Ardennes” and “Operation Mist”).

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They mounted a surprise attack but were halted by the American sector in this particular area. During three weeks of intense fighting in the fierce cold and with fewer and fewer resources, the allies defended Bastogne but not without paying a heavy price in terms of casualties (approximately 75,000). At one point Bastogne was entirely surrounded by the Germans. Which led to a famous exchange between the Germans and U.S. General McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division. When asked by the Germans if he would surrender, his delivered, typed reply was:  “To the German Commander:  Nuts!  The American Commander”. Evidently there was a lot of head scratching on the German side when trying to decipher just exactly what “Nuts!” meant…

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Fortunately, a change in the weather allowing air reinforcements and General Patton’s arrival from the south meant the 101st Airborne would hold onto Bastogne. By January 1945 the Americans had regained all of the ground they had previously lost in the fight.

With the pressure of waning supplies and manpower, this battle is actually the site of USA’s first, desegregated fighting troops as all soldiers were used to fight the Germans. Shamefully, it still took four more years for the military to formally end segregation. Even the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s county didn’t crack the ugliness of America’s racism.

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Bastogne was only one of the many towns decimated by the fighting in this area.

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Residents of other Ardennes towns (Malady, Houffalize, La Roche-en-Ardenne and Saint Vith) were also caught in the crossfire of the savage and destructive warfare.

The Battle of the Bulge was instrumental in crippling Germany’s ability to continue the war. Hitler’s orders were to push through the Allies’ line in just a few days in order to reach the deep-water port of Antwerp. To do so required moving many of Germany’s soldiers and equipment from the eastern to the western front (the weakened eastern front made it easier for the Soviets to take Berlin in April 1945). Several German commanders tried to argue against such an unreasonable plan but to no avail. Subsequently, they never really recovered from the losses of troops and gear while the Americans were able to draw on more resources.

In one of the exhibits a copy of a newspaper some of you may recognize was displayed, with a map showing the bulge:img_0220

My recollection of military battles is not the best, but anyone who’s watched HBO’s excellent “Band of Brothers” series knows how this particular military engagement played out. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s well worth the time, and, I’ve been told, an excellent re-enactment of the actual battle. Max and I saw it a few years ago and plan on doing so again having been in one of the key sites. Frankly, it’d be worth watching again just to hear General McAuliffe’s famous exclamation :)

We actually know a veteran of this battle, Dr. Philip Sumner. I believe he has visited this area where he fought; and, it would be interesting to hear what he would say if he returned to the Ardennes.

Leaving this museum you take with you the horrors of war but also the unimaginable bravery and sacrifices individuals made, all in the hopes of making the world a safer place.

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Although many died, we discovered at the end of our tour our four narrators survived.

Exiting the museum we first visited the impressive memorial, shaped in a star with the names of all 50 of the USA states carved on its pillars and walls.

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Climbing a spiral staircase to the top provides a 360º panoramic view. At several points of the star, maps indicate sites where the Battle of the Bulge took place over seventy years ago.

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The somberness of the war was lightened due to seeing the bronze statue created by American artist Seward Johnson. One of the four he sculpted depicting the famous victory kiss published in LIFE Magazine

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was on temporary exhibit at the Bastogne War Museum. This statue illustrates perfectly the exuberance we all must feel when a war ends.

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If only it had been the last one ever fought.

MDT 2 and 3 coming soon…

 

 

A Weekend in the Netherlands

HOORN

Friday, October 21, 2016

Did I say we were lucky to be here? Well, three of the reasons why are our friends Deborah, Thijs, and Tika. And, a fourth reason was our time spent with them at the beginning of the weekend. Only a 20-minute walk through the center of town landed us on their doorstep just in time for koffie and morning nibbles.

We met the new household residents, Emma and Tommy, and got a tour of their enchanting home, totally renovated when they moved in some years ago.

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Having been fortified with coffee and good nibbles we headed for Deborah’s art studio out back. Standing at the end of a lovely wild garden, the robin-egg-blue cottage with its welcoming white interior appeared to me to be the perfect spot to sit and gaze back into the greenery, while sipping another cup of coffee.

But, that wasn’t why we were here. We had offered to help with prepping the studio for Deborah to paint it while Thijs would concentrate on doing the same on roof trim and come help us afterwards.

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In just a few hours and a wonderful lunch interlude, we finished the washing and lightly sanding of the cottage. Mission accomplished.

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Not only did our friends provide us with an easy and fun day but also the use of Deborah’s old bike, including its adornment of flowers. Thanking them for such a perfect loan for spending time in Hoorn, we stopped at a used bike shop on the way back to JUANONA to see if we could find a second one.

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In spite of the owner not speaking English and our not speaking Dutch, Max pantomimed his question and the owner pantomimed back; and, before we knew it a bike was purchased and prepped for sale,

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a bike sister Judy would appreciate since it’s painted in one of her favorite colors.

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Second mission accomplished. Then, the two of us toodled back to home, feeling we blended into the local town scene a wee bit more as we navigated the cobblestone streets on our two wheels.

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And, arrived home without mishap, which was even better.

AMSTERDAM

Saturday, October 22, 2016

After a brief appointment in the morning we headed to two sites in Amsterdam, both located in Spui, a central square known as the cultural books neighborhood.

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One was Begijnhof or ‘beguine house’. Beguine refers to a Catholic lay group of single women who performed good deeds as nuns do but without being secluded in a convent and without the dictates of a religious mother-hen nun or big-papa Pope. Thus, the Beguines could live together in a compound (termed beguinage) or individually, didn’t take a vow of poverty, could own their own property, and even had the freedom to leave in order to marry or return to husbands who had gone off to war. By not belonging to any specific religious order, the Beguines made up their rules by which to practice their form of Christian spirituality. (FYI:  male counterparts were called Beghards.)

Originating in the aristocratic ranks of women in the late 12th century then embraced by the middle-class, this group supported themselves through nursing, lace- and cloth-making, farming, and other commercial activities; and, here in Amsterdam, they formed this elegant and tranquil beguinage.

Sadly, the Catholic Church with capital “Cs” felt threatened (oh, Quel surpris), and these independent-minded women were persecuted, with one even burned at the stake in Paris in the year 1310.

Although persecution by the Catholic authority forced many Beguines to become nuns and monks in France and Germany, the lowlands continued to protect them. Even when the country converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and no public praying by Catholics was allowed from 1578 to 1795, this enclave remained and carried on its traditions. Part of this protection derived from the Beguines owning their own homes and, technically, their homes weren’t part of a religious order.

The current buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries with one of the old wooden houses from the mid-15th century restored after the two horrific fires in Amsterdam in 1421 and 1452. in the midst of the courtyard is a Gothic Church (consecrated on October 7, 1419) and later given to the English in 1607.

In the church is a stained glass window over the altar. It documents the fact that Puritans worshipped in this church and depicts pilgrims boarding a ship. Evidently a sister window exists in Massachusetts showing the Pilgrims landing.

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Vincent Van Gogh worshipped here on Sundays when living in Amsterdam documented by his writing: “Tomorrow morning I am going to the English church; it lies there so peaceful in the evening in that silent Beghijnhof among the thorn hedges, and seems to say: In logo its dabo pacem: In this place I shall give peace, says the Lord. Amen, so be it.”

Here, in Amsterdam the last beguine died in 1971; yet, the tradition of single women living in this lovely oasis remains.

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And, while penning this I just read off the photograph of the sign I took that taking pictures in the courtyard was prohibited. Yikes, talk about an UAA (ugly american act). I’ll do some penance. I promise.

Just through another courtyard door we entered an alley leading to our second destination of the day:  Amsterdam Museum.

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Here we looked forward to gathering an overview of the city’s history, adding to the little knowledge we have of this city named for damming of the River Amstel.

Housed where the city’s orphanage operated for 400 years, the museum greets you with a large hallway dotted with portraits both old and new and paved with a diversity carpet created by artist Barbara Broekman. To celebrate the multi-ethnicity of this city she created 184 carpet squares, each one representing a specific identity associated with a particular country.

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Mesmerized, I stood and stared at the floor wanting to soak up the bright hues swirling at my feet, only to look down the hall and spot a huge statue dwarfing Max. This gigantic wooden statue of Goliath used to entertain 17th-centrury strollers in a pleasure garden.

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Uncannily, his eyes move (!) thanks to mechanical engineering.

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I made my way past familiar portraits from the 17th centuries, familiar only because we’d viewed lots of these civic paintings in other museums during our Netherlands explorations, this one featuring the governors of the Coopers and Wine Rackers Guild

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juxtaposed against startling modern ones, such as the 2001 “Amsterdam Civic Guards”, with the Maid of Amsterdam, holding a joint in one hand and carrying a tattoo of Rembrandt on her breast, surrounded by prominent historical figures, such as Anne Frank and Alfred Heineken. (FYI:  “Mokum” is a nickname for Amsterdam. Derived via Yiddish from the Hebrew ‘makom’ meaning ‘place’, the nickname was bestowed by the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe in the 17th century.)

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These two paintings really sum up the country’s, as well as this city’s, history. Commerce has been the underlying force since the founding of the city with just a few hiccups along the way due to foreign rule:  Hapsburg’s Philip II of Spain, which led to the 80-year war of Independence (1568-1648); France’s Napoleon and bro Louis Bonaparte (1795-1813); and, the Nazis (1940-1945).

With no sovereign or religious head posing as an absolute authority, Amsterdam and the Netherlands focused their energy on trade. By doing so, they developed a more tolerant view of others since any and everyone could be a potential customer. And, as we walked through rooms describing the life and times of the city’s residents, we realized just how much this city was built on civic dreams.

The overwhelming sense of the importance of commerce is inherent in:

the portraits of wealthy merchants and their families versus none of any king or queen… the painting of the ‘new’ city hall, constructed during the country’s golden age (below) and capturing the moment when Louis Bonaparte is given the keys to the city in 1808…

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the accruements of daily living, such as a plate displaying the initials (VOC) of the Dutch East Indies Company…

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and a painting showing Amsterdam in 1600 with the surrounding countryside composed of polders (reclaimed land).

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As population grew, city inhabitants took over more and more land. Urban planning helped direct the expansion with one of the major developments being the ring of canals, construction of which began in 1613. The methodical layout makes for a wonderful stroll throughout this city. (Although, I have to say, everytime I see this photo, the colors remind me of rare roast beef. Not appealing when out of the context of sitting on a plate with roasted veggies and salad.)

We discovered some surprises in this city’s history, one being the Miracle of Amsterdam. I tell you, this is bizarre and pretty unbelievable to even think this a miracle but, for the sake of history, here’s the story, and I quote:  “In 1345, in a house on Kalverstraat… a priest had given a man the last rites. The patient was so ill that he coughed up the sacramental wafer. The nurse threw the vomit onto the fire, but – a miracle! – the wafer remained unscathed. After the Pope recognized the miracle, Amsterdam became a pilgrim city.”

Yes, really.

And, of course, where there’s a way to do a goofy pose, I’m there. As is my husband who, as I’ve said often, puts up with me.

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Our visit was relatively short (just a few hours) but well-worth obtaining an overview of the city, one reminding us of how wonderfully liberal Amsterdam can be (the first gay marriage in the world occurred here on April 1, 2001) and just how steeped in civic leadership (history of the guilds and lack of a dominating ruler or religious head).

Back to Hoorn where, alas, no roast beast dinner awaited us. But, another wonderful weekend does!

Stay tuned… :)

 

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

BROEKE OP LANGEDIJK

Sunday, October 16

Well, punt is more like it, which is how farmers in Broeke op Dijk tended their fields (actually islands) using boats to navigate the manmade waterways to their manmade islands ; Prior to the 17th century residents lived next to a boggy marsh and raised cattle. However, the land for grazing was constantly under the threat of flooding, which, combined with a cattle plague, created an unpredictable return on their investment. Somehow, someone or two thought to dredge the marsh to build islands for growing crops. In a relatively short time over 15,000 of these islands appeared and a more stable livelihood evolved thanks to the raising and selling of potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage. LOTS and lots of cabbage. I mean TONS:  at one point over six million heads of cabbage were harvested and sold here.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me explain how we even got to Broeke op Langedijk. To quickly retrace our steps:  on October 10 we flew from Maine back to Enkhuizen, Netherlands where JUANONA had been patiently awaiting our arrival since we left August 7. Two days later we did our final sail to Hoorn

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espying the 1532 tower, which we first saw back in May with our nephew Rudy, and which now welcomed us back. Or, at least, it didn’t shudder and collapse at seeing two Mainiacs turning into its harbor.

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Tieing up to one of the guest pontoons we felt we had reached home, one we hoped would be our place of residence for awhile.

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The following Saturday, October 15, our friends Thijs, Deborah, their daughter Tika, and Thijs’ father Jan joined us for lunch, which included kibbeling, a delicious meal of delicately fried cod.

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We had last seen them late July when the five of us met up in Hindeloopen on the east side of the IJselmeer, the manmade lake created by the building of the Zuiderzee Dyke.

And, just a quick mention of one of our favorite Netherlanders who is Tika :)  She has taken on the thankless task of trying to help me learn some Dutch. Being an excellent teacher she had created a beautifully illustrated book presented to us when coming aboard. I now can practice the various sounds while, no doubt, making very unusual facial contortions. And, yes, she’s a dear one!

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Okay, back to Broek op Langedijk, which we visited the next day (Sunday) via train to Alkmaar and then bus to the waterways with a short walk to the Museum Broeker Veiling.

Looking around the area as we strolled the half-mile to the museum from the bus stop, Broek op Langedijk seemed pretty nondescript. I wondered just how interesting it would be to tour. But, hey, it was a beautiful day to be outside enjoying the blue sky and sun while stretching our legs.

Yet, like many of the destinations we’ve explored in the Netherlands, this country has the knack of expanding the history of a place into a fascinating tale of living, the Museum Broeker Veiling being no exception. Comprised of several buildings (a new one, housing an overview via an 8-minute film and some artifact, and the original 1887 auction house and storage sheds), an outdoor display of how farming families lived, and a boat tour of the waterways through the remaining islands.

With audio guides we began our tour learning how these ingenious folk had turned a lemon (boggy land) and converted it into lemonade (productive, arable acreage). Not only was the land fertile but also generally protected from freezing with the surrounding water (one to two degrees warmer than the land) providing some insulation from night frosts. This set-up allowed farmers two crops a year leading to a competition on who could harvest the first potatoes (called ‘the Langedijker first’). During radio days the winner even received recognition over the airwaves.

With the dredging of the marsh, the landscape evolved into what is called “The Realm of a Thousand Islands” with over 15,000 islands (each island and canal named by the various owners) separated by numerous waterways or canals. Approximately 75 of these islands were inhabited with steep, short bridges tall enough to allow water traffic through. We walked one of those bridges in the open area display next to the museum (followed by two chickens!).

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The farming families lived on the Langedijk (Long Dyke). As the population grew, residences were built on the opposite side of the dam. With so many houses clustered around this watery community one can only imagine the quality of the water. With one source (the canals) used for drinking, washing dishes, laundering clothes, making bread, and sewage outlet, I’m sure there was a distinct flavor added to the water.

Although it’s rare to see today, farmers punted to and from their crops in wooden flatboats. These were engine-less until the 1920s and were all wood until the 1930s.

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Another common form of transportation was the tjalk, a sailing barge used to by the farmer to take his produce to the market.

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However, by marketing their produce themselves, farmers typically sold their harvest in bits and pieces versus in one lump, which meant one wouldn’t necessarily sell all of his crops and/or at decent prices. This form of commerce created a lot of uncertainty regarding the amount of income each farmer would derive from his produce. In 1887 this changed when a local trader came up with the idea of an auction. With an auctioneer setting an initial, agreed-upon price then offering it to bidders, the farmer was able to not only get a fair price but also sell all of his produce in one fell swoop.

Unlike auctions where the bidding starts low then increases as buyers vie for the item, the Dutch auction system starts at a set price named by the auctioneer then decreases until a buyer bites. In other words, instead of going from low to high, the bidding goes from high to low.

In 1903 a clock numbered 99 to 1 was used as part of the process with the auctioneer naming the initial price and setting the clock on that price. As the clock ticked clockwise and the auctioneer yelled out the decreasing price a bidder would press a button at his chair that would stop the clock on the price he was willing to pay. A number in front of the buyer would light up indicating clearly who was the buyer and what price (by kilo or piece) he was paying. The farmer, therefore, could offload all of his produce at once versus in straggling lumps.

The original mooring halls housing the produce

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and the auction house

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still stand and are incorporated into the museum, which the then monarch, Queen Beatrix, helped preserve in 1979.

Auction day would begin at 6:00 a.m. with merchants inspecting the individual harvests by walking through the mooring halls. At 8:00 a.m. the excitement would start and for 2-1/2 hours two to three hundred lots were auctioned off.

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A unique feature of this auction house was how the auctioned items were conveyed:  the auction house featured a small canal right through its center. The boats were steered  between the buyers while the bidding on that lot took place.

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Sold merchandise was loaded onto barges, later via trains and trucks, for transporting to various destinations.

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The MS Westfries, seen below, was used for over 50 years as part of this conveyance of sold produce to greengrocers.

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What makes this tour really interesting is visitors participate in a live auction held in the same building where this occurred until the auction relocated in 1973.

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Of course we had to bid on some of the items being offered up by the auctioneer, and my husband, endowed with a generous competitive spirit, managed to win a bag of local apples for 1.30 euros :)

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A 30-minute boat ride took us through this watery world of canals and one of the two small dels or lakes (initially formed when low parts of the landscape were flooded by the sea). Nowadays many of the canals have been filled in creating larger plots of land. The area is in conservation under the control of a government agency; yet, roughly 80% of the islands are still being farmed, primarily as a hobby with two being professionally managed by market gardeners.

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One rule applies, though:  cultivation must be purely biological, i.e., organic. Thanks to this requirement medicinal herbs are grown here by the manufacturer VSM and waterfowl enjoy a wonderful habitat for breeding.

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And, remember when I said cabbage was a bounteous crop?

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Well, evidently it created a rather odiferous aura due to rotting, outer cabbage leaves, which found their way into the canals. Of course, I would think eating lots and lots of cabbage would also contribute its own unique smell to the air…

To maintain the water level (3.3to 4 feet in the canals and 5 to 6.6 feet in the dels) the locals built 14 windmills.  Two remain, which we spotted in the distance on our boat tour. (You can just make out the spear of one of the blades in the top right corner of the photo below).

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Disembarking, we finished wandering through the various buildings and outdoor exhibits listening to our audio guides explain how the occupants of this Realm of a Thousand Islands creatively found a way to create a healthy, sustainable community.

Retracing our route we landed back in Hoorn and enjoyed some of the local cheese (no, we didn’t eat all of this at once, nor did we eat any cabbage)

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and, once again, looked at one another and said how fortunate we are to be doing what we’re doing.

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Flashback to our Road Trip with Shirley

Chatsworth House

Wednesday-Friday, March 9-11

Knowing how much we enjoyed history, our friends Anne and Peter had planned an early spring road trip for us. The adventure would be a combination of visiting Anne’s mum, Shirley, and touring one of Britain’s most imposing homes, Chatsworth House.

Off we zipped with Peter, a former motorcycle racer, at the wheel to Derbyshire where both Shirley and the the Duke of Devonshire resided.

In spite of a gray day of chilly drizzle we couldn’t help but be impressed by the size and magnificence of the ‘house’ of 297 rooms and a mere 35,000 acres as we neared our destination. Anne had grown up in this area, so she and her mum were well-versed in the history of the Chatsworth House; and, they filled us in a bit as we began our long winding drive up to the parking lot.

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But, first things first, which meant a spot of tea and some coffee to warm ourselves.

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The cafeteria and shop were located in the former stables;

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and, if were a horse, I’d want to live here. Even if I weren’t a horse, I’d still want to live here. There not too many ‘stables’ with views like this out their front gate where one pretty much owns everything as far as the eye can easily see.

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Fortified with our British libations we decided to begin our drive of the estate. We were fortunate in that we were ahead of the usual crowds because the main house was closed; yet, it didn’t matter. Just seeing the exterior fueled our imagination. Plus, there’s an excellent documentary on the BBC with the current Duke serving as the tour guide. Quite an endearing chap, I might add.

The history of this house began in the 16th century when Bess of Hardwick (1527-1608)

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married her second husband, Sir William Cavendish (1505-1557). Cavendish became wealthy due to the lands he had acquired helping King Henry VIII dissolve (read plunder) all of England’s monasteries in the mid-1500s. With Bess’ urging her husband sold the monks’  lands and stockpiled a ton of money. In 1549 they purchased the Chatsworth manor for £600, and the fun begins.

Thanks to Bess’ business acumen and excellent husband-picking (she married twice more after Cavendish bit the dust), she amassed a fortune, which subsequent generations used to generate even more wealth.

But, it’s not just fortune that defines Chatsworth House. Which brings us to another influential woman, Lady Georgiana Spencer (1737-1806).

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You may recognize her name from the bio-pic THE DUCHESS starring Kiera Knightley. The beautiful socialite Lady Spencer married William Cavendish, now the 5th Duke of Devonshire (1748-1811). The marriage was a disaster with Spencer running up huge gambling debts and Cavendish making one of his wife’s best friends his mistress. (To this day people compare this 18th-century marriage to that of the 20th-century one between Prince Charles and Lady Diana, whose ancestor was Georgiana. At least Camilla wasn’t Di’s confidante.)

By the 20th century Chatsworth House was becoming more of a burden than a luxury due to some poor business decisions by earlier dukes and the instituting of England’s death duties.

Once again Chatsworth House becomes associated with yet another famous woman, the Honorable Deborah Mitford (1920-2014).

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Some years ago I had read a biography about the glamorous Mitford sisters known for their beauty and outlandish behavior.

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Growing up in the rarefied air of England’s aristocracy, these six sisters captivated and entertained the world with their antics and relationships, some of the latter falling into the seriously ugly type. You may recall the life of Diana Mitford who married Britain’s leader of the fascist party, Sir Oswald Mosley? Their wedding was in Joseph Goebbels’ house with the couple’s friend, Adolf Hitler, in attendance.

Yet, Deborah seemed the most normal of them all. Maybe most of the quirkiness had been depleted by the time she came along. Whatever the reason, it’s due to Deborah’s vision and hard work that enabled the Cavendish family to retain their family home.

Another famous female was associated with Chatsworth:  Kathleen Kennedy who married the oldest son who was heir apparent. Tragically, he died in WWII soon after their marriage and she, in a plane crash in 1948. So, back to the second son who now had Chatsworth with his Mitford wife.

Over the years Deborah, or Debo as she was known to family, converted the aging property into a successful entrepreneurial venture with a farm shop, historical tours, and event rentals. Operating as a charitable trust since 1981, Chatsworth House now welcomes over half-a-million visitors a year, five of whom were us as we looked in awe at the expansive fields and gardens and buildings, all of this possible  because of one determined woman who refused to stand by and let a piece of Britain’s history crumble into oblivion.

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Ending our tour with a stop at the farm shop, we purchased some goodies then headed for a delicious lunch at an old pub Anne and her mum use to frequent.

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The next morning brought a promise of spring as we said our farewells to Anne’s mum and started the trek back to the marina.

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On the way home we made a bit of a detour to another estate located in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham. I’m not kidding. There is such a place only I didn’t see any men running around in green tights and a feather in their hats. Although, that would have been nice.

Welbeck dates from the 12th century when it was a Premonstratensian monastery (a Catholic religious order which combined the contemplative life with a more socializing one–I had to look that up) to a Cavalier residence in the 17th century to a working farm in the 21st century. This registered historic park (originally designed in 1748) is chock-a-block full of ventures:  organic food items, a tasty cafe menu (where we ate lunch), small craft shops, artist studios, offices, a School of Artisan Food, and residences both for sale and rent.

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And, it’s mesmerizingly lovely, just like Chatsworth, only on a more manageable scale.

As we drove around the various buildings, including the stables and natatorium complex, Anne shared her childhood memories. Her parents had rented one of the homes on these forested grounds, and Anne pointed out where she waited for the school bus and how she would take off on her bike to meet up with her friend Jane in the next village over. To have grown up in these surroundings would have been like living in a wonderful storybook setting.

 

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I have to say JUANONA felt a bit smaller after our road trip with Anne and Peter. And, the history! I loved how the unfamiliar sites touched on the familiar knowledge of what little I had known about Lady Georgiana Spencer and Deborah Mitford.

Best of all we a brilliant road trip with Shirlee and our good friends off of SACRE BLEU :)

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A future reunion is a must! But, now back to Norway…

SE Asia: FINALE

Ho Chi Minh City

Thursday, February 25

Back on the road again, this time to Da Nang for our short flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the ending of our five-week sojourn through SE Asia. In case you’re wondering, we did try to train it to several places but we couldn’t find seats or, at least not the seats everyone told us to reserve (soft sleepers with A/C). Not wanting to discover the joys of traveling in the ‘hard seat’ class coupled with the advice to get a berth as far from the toilets as possible, we decided to fly on the extremely inexpensive and efficient Vietnam Airlines. Plus, the shorter travel time allowed us more hours for exploring.

Similar to Bangkok, Hanoi, and Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was modern and easy to navigate and soon we were on our way to our airbnb.com studio apartment. Recommended by Joe and Kim whom we met on the Living Farm rice tour in Laos, we were eager to try “The Mothership”, the complex’s nickname.

Owned and operated by an entrepreneur who lived in the U.S. as a youngster and studied at Boston College, Thu worked on Wall Street only to return to his home country to take advantage of growing tourism. He and his partner Christina have opened several airbnb accommodations in Vietnam. They promote connectivity with other guests as well as interacting with the hosts, such as Giang (on the right, 1st photo) and Duc (2nd photo) whom we often found working in the greeting lounge equipped with an honesty bar and fridge.

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The modern and airy Mothership was a perfect spot for us to drop our bags. Although, I must admit I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland as I stepped into this oasis of a New Age salon as I entered the wifi password “joy factory”.

 

Friday, February 26

The War Remnants Museum qualifies as a must-see in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon when serving as the capital of the French Protectorate (1862-1954) and South Vietnam (1954-75). This museum provides an in-depth view of of war brutality and atrocities, beginning with the Vietnamese struggle for independence led by Ho Chi Minh in 1946 against the French then bleeding into the American War or what we call the Vietnam War.

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In spite of changing the initial name from ‘The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government’ to the tamer ‘War Remnants Museum’, a visitor understands you’re peering at history through the eyes of the victors. And, the U.S. was definitely not a victor.

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Photographs accompanied by explanatory text and billboard-size charts chronicle the battles between opposing forces as well as the horrific acts against civilians.

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Two exhibits feature photographs which compelled our attention. As much as we wanted to turn away we felt trapped by the same pull that causes one to slow down and stare at gruesome traffic accidents.

The Requiem Exhibit, several rooms filled with both foreign and Vietnamese journalists’ and photographers’ war coverage (a collection published in 1997)

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and an Agent Orange Display, walls telling the history of how this containment not only defoliated the land but killed and maimed those in its path.

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I won’t show the photographs. You can probably find them on line; but, what I hadn’t known was the effects of Agent Orange continues today with children still being born with deformities. We were shocked to discover that Agent Orange is a gene toxin, which affects the DNA of its victims. The mutant DNA is passed on through childbirth and mother’s milk and has been passed down through multiple generations.

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As many foreigners state, yes, it is one-sided and full of propaganda; but, yet crimes committed by US troops did occur including one I wasn’t aware of:

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Yet, I wouldn’t doubt similar acts by the Viet Cong could be considered crimes as well. Individuals who are law-abiding in one situation can be brainwashed and indoctrinated with hate in another.

Even with its bias what the War Remnants Museum does invoke with its presence is the universal call to peace, something the world sorely lacks today.

The museum also reminds us that the US doesn’t always support other countries’ own fight for independence as ironically stated by Ho Chi Minh:  In a 1967 meeting with two American editors… ‘At one point Ho reminded Mr. Ashmore and Mr. Baggs that he had once been in the United States. “I think I know the American people,” Ho said, “and I don’t understand how they can support their involvement in this war. Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?”

This was a rhetorical question that Ho also posed to other Americans in an effort to point up what to his mind was an inconsistency: a colonial people who had gained independence in a revolution were fighting to suppress the independence of another colonial people.’ (Sept 4, 1969, Ho Chi Minh NYT obituary)

The museum closed for lunch, so we accomplished our touring of all the exhibits in two parts. In between we enjoyed a great lunch recommended by the every-helpful Duc from Christina’s.

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but we skipped one delicacy…

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then walked to the Reunification Palace (formerly the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace).  Anyone who saw the footage in 1975 of a communist tank bashing through the main gate on April 30 would recall the desperate fleeing of U.S. diplomats, advisors, and residents and the surrendering of the South to the North.

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HCMC boasts of a new prosperity seen in its gleaming skyscrapers
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and flowery parks free of debris.

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Like Hanoi, leafy boulevards invited lazy strolls as the day became hotter under the noon-day sun, but unlike Hanoi I felt the humming of a city oiled by foreign investments and dressed with high-end stores selling luxury goods found in Paris and London.

On our way back to our room we booked a Saturday tour for the other must-see:  the Cu Chi Tunnel located 70km NW of the city. Having grown-up during the Vietnam War our travels couldn’t help but include sites from that era.

 

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Being told to arrive by 8:00 am sharp we ended up at the tour group office ahead of schedule clutching a breakfast bag from the local bakery and keeping liquid intake to a minimum in fear of what lay ahead with regards to facilities. Spotting only three other individuals we thought it would end up being a small group for the day; however, as we were led down Backpackers’ Ghetto on a main street just up from our place, our leader kept stopping at other establishments along the way with the end result being a busload of tourists and a departure time of roughly 9:30am by the time we made it to the bus stop and then patiently waited for our transportation.

 

Glad I hadn’t drunk too much of that coffee, we set off for our drive through the typical maze of scooters (note the little boy’s helmet :)…

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and a stop at a laquer factory, which employs disabled Vietnamese similar to the set-up at the rest stop when heading to and from Halong Bay.

Unfortunately, we were rushed through the manufacturing process to ensure we spent time in the store; but, we did glimpse one of the artists applying pieces of egg shells to one of the items.

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Once at Cu Chi Tunnel we met our guide for the next few hours. In spite of the  crowds and the site’s transformation to a tourist attraction, I still felt the stillness and eeriness of standing where once a small village lived, worked and fought below ground.

The tunnel actually originated in 1948 when the locals used it to hide from the French. The Viet Cong later expanded upon this idea resulting in over 200km of tunnels through six villages and connecting to a river… all dug by hand.

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As the guide demonstrated certain booby traps

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and Max volunteered to squeeze into one of the tunnel’s hiding spots,

IMG_6189I realized this day would fall under what my sister has aptly labeled one of my husband’s “Disaster Tours”.

I couldn’t help but be amazed at the clever methods the Viet Cong used to minimize detection or confuse pursuers, such as sandals fashioned out of tires with the soles crafted to leave tracks in reverse

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… fake termite hills used for ventilation (they disguised the openings with American soap and other U.S. products to confuse any sniffing dog patrols used the the U.S.)

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… and disguised mounds, connected by underground chimneys far from the cooking fire, for dispersing cooking fires’ smoke as wisps mingling with morning mists.

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The opportunity to shoot a military-grade weapon (an AK-47) meant Max donned ear muffs to do just that. Having fired a rifle only once before in his life, he was amazed and a bit daunted by the power, range and accuracy of the weapon.

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The tunnels have three levels:  the first is 3 meters (roughly 10 ft); second, 4-6 meters (13-20 ft); and, the third, 8-10 meters (26-33 ft) deep.

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Fortunately, we only went down to the first level. Even that was claustraphobic with quite a few of our group opting out of the experience.

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In addition to the historical significance of these tunnels I also made the discovery of why one never hands one’s camera to one’s husband if said one is bent over and in front of him.

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At least you get an idea of the size and how these people lived for many years – people who happened to be a heck of a lot smaller than I am.

There was an exit point that some used, which I might have done had I known part of the crouching was through darkness. And, yes, it was a relief to see light at the end of the tunnel (couldn’t resist).

At the end of our tour a film was shown that portrayed the victors as celebrated heroes (no surprise).

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As we travel I’m constantly reminded of the joys of meeting new folk, and this tour didn’t disappoint. One of our fellow travelers was studying at Boston College with a year abroad in Singapore. Hailing from Italy (but with absolutely no accent) he also was on the school’s water polo team. We mentioned our Kiwi friends’ daughters who once played that game and commented on how we’d heard how brutal it was (they’d exit the pool covered in bruises and pinches from the opposing team). He laughed and agreed. Voyagers such as this are fascinating to me. I’m curious about their lives no matter where they’re from or where they live. I mean to be discussing Boston College water polo while touring the Cu Chi Tunnel in Vietnam. Who would have thought it? Got to love it.

 

Sunday, February 28

With tourism booming many Vietnamese are eager to participate. In addition to lodging, Christina’s also offers tours, one being a free city tour. The reason it’s free is so university students wanting to become guides can practice their English.

Our guide for the morning was Linh, a junior at the local university. We really wanted to just share a meal and conversation with her; but, because guiding visitors, as well as using English, was more helpful to her we selected some sites we hadn’t seen and headed off to the heart of HCMC government quarter.

Both buildings had been built under the French colonial rule. Notre Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883, was the first stop.

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The next site was its neighbor, the Central Post Office, constructed 1886-91. At first I was thinking why visit a post office? But, then I read it had been designed by Gustave Eiffel. With its innovative skylight, ceiling vents, and maps of Vietnam and Saigon, I found this building much more interesting.

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Our formal walking tour ended in front of the People’s Committee Building (built 1902-08) and HCMC’s first pedestrian mall. This vehicle-free plaza opened a year earlier in time for Reunification Day April 30. We posed amidst the playful spouting water for a portrait until chased out by a chastising guard.

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At a coffee shop along the plaza Linh provided an impromptu lesson in chopsticks

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then we headed back stopping at one of the exercise stations where all three of us practiced our swinging prowess.

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Occasional conversations with locals we’ve met along our walks provided interesting perspectives on North vs. South Vietnam, such as the the man pictured below with Max and Linh. He served as a soldier in the South Vietnamese army.

IMG_6278After speaking with him he agreed to pose with this napping truck driver while promising not to wake him.

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Returning to the Mothership we asked to take photos of Linh, our lovely young guide, and Huong, a beautiful staffer at Christina’s. With gracious hosts such as these it seems a no-brainer to travel in this country.

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For dinner we had arranged to meet up with some friends, Sharon and Dave White, who happened to be in HCMC. It’s always wonderful seeing familiar faces from home, and the four of us walked, talked, ate, and walked some more.

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Monday, Leap Day February 29

Our last full day we simply took in more of HCMC on foot. We did end up taking a photo of our alleyway and its outdoor cafes.

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Earlier in our strolls we had noticed some grilling. Looking closely I saw the tail wasn’t curly, which I had expected thinking it was pig.

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We subsequently discovered our street was one of the few in HCMC that served grilled dog since it had lost some of its popularity in recent years. No, this, along with chicken feet, was another delicacy we weren’t tempted to try.

 

Homeward-Bound (March 1-2)

We left early the next morning for Ipswich.

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Thinking back on our five weeks in SE Asia I realize, once again, how fortunate Max and I are to travel to a country, mingle with its people, see its sites, and savor their culture. To then read about that region in various publications immediately places it in a richer context. Case in point, a recent article referenced upcoming Vietnamese elections with more independents applying for candidacy:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/world/asia/vietnam-election-mai-khoi.html?_r=0

And, a lengthy interview with Obama included a specific mention of Vietnam: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/

We can’t take our traveling for granted. It’s too much of a privilege, and we’d be spoiled brats to do so. So, here’s to curiosity about the world and satisfying it however one can… whether by reading, viewing film and TV programs, conversing with others, or traveling. Interesting folk surround us wherever we are–at home or far away. Just by asking a question of a fellow human being it’s amazing what one can learn.

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