Monday, December 27, 2010

The Dash Between the Bling-Bling

It's my turn again at Vision and Verb, talking about this week between the bling-bling of Christmas and New Year's Eve. You'll understand more about why I chose this image there.

Since I last wrote, the 2 days of Christmas have come and gone. Did I tell you that the Dutch celebrate Feestdagen = Feast Days, plural, because both the 25th and 26th are Christmas holidays. It used to be that all stores were also closed on the 26th, no matter what day. Now some stores are open but the tradition is to have both days off. However, if they happen to fall on the weekend, like this year, tough luck. No Friday or Monday holiday off for the workers. Life goes on as happened for Astrid on both last Friday and Monday, today. No extra days off.

But I've digressed. See the church image above? On Christmas Eve, this past Friday p.m., we joined 600+ residents of our city for a communal service in our nearby Grote Kerk. It's not anything like the huge cathedrals we have entered across Holland this past year, but it's definitely European and not at all like what I grew up in. It was a sweet service with many carols, all in Dutch (of course) and many of which I did not know. There was a nice flute solo from Bach's ''Weihnachtsoratorium' as well as a homily from a female pastor.

Since we had already celebrated Christmas with Jeroen and Eva a week ago, Christmas Day came quietly and was just what the doctor ordered. The only agenda was a 4 p.m. dinner reservation at a nearby Greek restaurant. We woke up to a gloriously sunshiny day, so Astrid said she'd like to take me for a car ride out into the countryside where I could see the fresh snow. This was, after all, the 6th time in 100 years for our central part of Holland to have snow on the 2 Christmas days. We needed to whoop it up a bit.

But what Astrid didn't tell me was she had planned all along to take me to Kinderdijk, the city of 19 windmills (see my blog header above!). She wanted me to see the windmills in the snow...and we did!

Right there on the spot, I told Astrid that if I die while still in Holland, I'd love my ashes to be scattered somewhere there amongst the mills.
It's the most soulful place I can ever imagine being.

You know us, both taking pictures of each other all the time...since we are, after all, part of the landscape, right?

But kijk. Look at this.
Have you ever eaten windmill cookies...or what the Dutch call speculaas? This willow tree stump is the kind of wood from which they make the forms. Isn't that cool how it sits out there near the path so that all the tourists going by can get their education.

Kinderdijk will always be my heaven on earth. It was the best Christmas gift Astrid could possibly give me! And besides, it was our first time to try out the TomTom, our GPS gift to each other. It works!

The fun thing on top of all that was what we saw both before and after, driving back-n-forth...this time seeing the same things but surrounded by snow. Nothing quite looks the same after it's covered by the white stuff!

We saw sheep staying warm...and some acting like dogs, with snow snouts....

...and horses minding their own business....

...even at Kinderdijk! I wonder if they love the windmills as much as I do.

More weather vanes coming and going....

...another water tower, or one already collected but with glorious sun this time. See how much Granny Towanda loves the snow. Astrid bought her some snow tires this past week so that she can now drive the 2o km back-n-forth to work without worry...and so we can drive to Den Bosch on Saturday to be with The Girlfriends, no matter what the weather. Granny knows we always want to be prepared. She agrees.

We arrived back home with just enough time to get ready for our dinner reservation...after such a wonderful outing. When was the last time I told you the Dutch just have to be outside, whenever possible, especially if the sun is shining!

One last image after I remind you again of my Vision and Verb post today...about the dash between the bling-bling:

As Astrid says, more Dutch you cannot get...a typical Dutch countryside house.

And so I close by saying, from our house to yours, may you have the best of these remaining dash-days of 2010. Like last year, there will be fireworks all around us as we celebrate the new year with our neighbors here at our senior-living community.

(image taken from the internet)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gorinchem 2010 Santa Run

HO HO HO! All one thousand of us!

When Astrid told me a few weeks back about our city's Santa Run scheduled for Saturday, 18 December, and that for €10 each we could participate, with money going to charity, it didn't take me long to say YES. And am I ever glad I did. I thought Sinterklaas coming to town made me a Kid again...but this was that multiplied by 1,000.

This was Gorinchem's third Santa Run. It started in 2008 with 400 participants, last year with 800, and this year 1,000. My guess its it'll just get bigger and bigger with each new year. We totally missed it last year but will do our best to be there every year from now on.

So anyway, Astrid went to a nearby participating store to pick up our Santa suits and race numbers. Since my age ends in a 5 and hers in a 6, it was easy to decide who got which number.
One size fits all! HA! One size, that is for the adults and one size for the kids.

Once Saturday arrived, we were off to the races! I took pictures of Astrid and she took pictures of me.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself, I see. Warm-up started at 10:30 a.m. near the Grote Kerk just 2 blocks away, with the race beginning at 11 a.m. Before we even got inside the Start entrance, a lady from the newspaper stopped us and took our picture (similar to the one above at the top of the post) and info, with Astrid's motto for 2011, "Stay Positive!" We'll see later this week if we're published. HA.

But then, almost at the same time, we bumped into Dries, our neighbor friend who, too, is a city paper photographer (he took the picture of us above). So as we now do, by habit, we take and send each other pictures of each other. Dries says that since he's met us, he'll now have to get a photo album for himself! You know how it is...who takes pictures of the photographer?? Astrid and I do:

Isn't life just grand! What would we do without our friends.

Speaking of which....
Last winter I bumped into Ernie while on a walk around our citadel wall. Ernie also is a photographer, so already there's a big-bridge connection. Since that first bump-into, we have bumped into each other several times while he walks his gorgeous dog, Laika. I fell in love with her at first sight.
How fun, then, to bump into them again at the Santa Run. Ernie had no clue what was going on. All he was doing was his normal walk-about with Laika, minding his own business. Maybe he and Laika will be Santas next year?
And all this happened before the race started!

Speaking of dogs, aren't these the cat's meow!

NOW the race can start....

The funny thing is, several minutes before the race, the Start line was full of all those girls on the top row (above). But at the very beginning of the Run, these 7 boys on the bottom row were on the line and they were the ones that started the race. I couldn't help but think of grandson Nicholas. He would have been in his element since HE's the King of all runners.

What I neglected to say is this was only a 3K run, just halfway around our citadel loop...using 'run' and 'race' loosely, since most of us did not run. Astrid started out running and then came back to walk with me the rest of the way, to take pictures.

We were so very lucky weather-wise!
As you can see, the sun actually came out for part of the time. The temps hovered around 28F the entire time but because we were all so excited, and had the Santa suits on, we were actually almost too warm. I got hit at least once by a snowball from behind. HAHA! If we can't take a joke, right?!

In fact, there was enough tom-foolery to last the entire day.

The Finish line came way too soon, especially once I discovered we would NOT be passing either of our two citadel windmills. I had been fantasizing for days about getting pictures of 1,000 Santas passing by one of the windmills. WRONG. But once I realized it just wasn't gonna happen, no matter how much I protested, I got over it and did in fact cross the Finish line, right in front of one of our favorite Greek restaurants.

I took a picture of Astrid getting her medal and she took a picture of me. How's that for being glad we're both photographers!

At the end of the race, servers were set up to give us hot glühwein, erwtensoep (pea soup...a big-time Dutch specialty) and rookworst...all part of our entrance fee. Tell me this isn't fun!
[You may remember a close-up picture of Astrid and another lady way up at the top of this post. That's Annamiek, who is an old friend of Astrid's, one of the servers in the line-up above.]

You know me. Give me a camera and suddenly I see all kinds of photo-ops. You photographers know this, of course. I am always attracted to the children, especially, wondering what they're thinking during these events.

The ones who stole my heart were these two sisters (I assume). I couldn't get enough of them.

The race was done, the food was eaten, and it was time to go home...but not before the real way-too-skinny Santa made his appearance. Talk about the frosting on the cake.

And thanks to Dries, here's a YouTube of the day.
€25,000 was raised from this event, with €10K going to a hospital for children and €10K going to war orphans. Totally worth the experience!

We were back home by 1 p.m., riding a 'high' that wasn't from the glühwein. I really am a kid at heart. I've decided I'm making up for all the lost time in my own childhood, much of which I don't remember. Someone clearly knew I'd need my chance all over again, which thrills me to no end.

But...we had to segue from the Santa Run to our Christmas dinner celebration with Jeroen and Eva that evening. They arrived at 4 p.m. and everything was not only ready, I even had time to upload and look at all the pictures I took (287). Did I mention I made the main meal the day before, making all the difference in the world?

For the last many years in Atlanta, the Christmas meal had always been one of my kids' favorites from when we ate at G'ma Tiffan's eons ago: chicken paprikash. It's a Hungarian poor-man's meal but has become a celebration meal for my family. Jeroen and Eva (Astrid, too) had their first taste and all agreed we could continue the tradition. I don't want to forget it. It brings me so many happy memories.

Dinner and a movie: "The Family Stone," another favorite...and one that is also connected to my own family. My niece is married to a man who happens to be the cousin of the director (or some such big-whig). So much fun to know this kind of trivia, right?!

With that, Christmas will now come, the day. First, we'll celebrate our Christmas meal here at our senior-living complex tomorrow evening. Then Astrid and I plan to attend a Christmas Eve service at the Grote Kerk on Friday, followed by a quiet day here at home on Saturday, with dinner reservations at 4p nearby. It'll be just what the doctor ordered.

For you, may you, too, celebrate in a way that is just what you need. It comes around only once a year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

My Heart, My Castle, My Home

Remember my post a month ago on when we drove to Münster and Münsterland in Germany? This was one of the castles we saw, Burg Hülshoff.

Today is my turn again at Vision and Verb where I talk about how our homes need to be our castles at this hectic time of the year, protecting us from the outside forces that would love to do us in.

In the meantime, once we saw Sinterklaas day come and go on the 5th (and my one-year anniversary of arriving here in Holland)...last post...I got busy on decorating the apartment for the season. Astrid says traditionally 'they' do NOT want to see holiday decorations or hear Christmas music until after the 5th. Some American commercialism has seeped into Holland, of course, in that storefronts have been decorated for several weeks now, but the Christmas music started in force on the 6th, this past Monday...the day I started trimming the tree. What a lovely serenade.

But first, just last evening Astrid looked and found these images (below) of that first 'real' Christmas tree from last year. Before my truckpacks (and Christmas decorations!) had arrived from Atlanta, we opted for a cut tree from the market square down the street. You might remember that post. O Christmas Tree, O Dennenboom! All €30 of it dragged up to the apartment, thanks to Astrid. We'll never forget that tree, our first!

Then 2 days before Christmas last year, one of the local stores had their artificial trees on sale and after asking Astrid about going that route for next year, we both agreed to buy this one below...for €10. It seemed like a no-brainer, even for someone (Astrid) who wouldn't be caught dead with an artificial tree. Just store it in the basement and bring it up each year. Easy as pie.

The tree. That tree. Once again Astrid got out her camera, knowing this is what I love to do. For some reason, she is perfectly happy leaving the tree decorating to me...and even doesn't mind that this one is very 'American' compared to last year's. Actually, every day she makes a comment about how beautiful it is.
Even without icicles!

The tree goes on when we get up in the morning and stays on all day till we go to bed at night.
While the "Let it Snow" ornament is one of my favorites, Woody and Buzz Lightyear still remain my favorites, especially after seeing Toy Story 3 a few weeks back.

Christmas trees are so quiet. They do not intrude or bother or disrupt the day.
They just BE. They ARE.


Since I'm talking about the homefront in this post, Astrid now has a week and a half under her belt at SystemFarma, where she now works. Lucky for her, it's six of one half a dozen of the other as to whether she drives the 20km or takes the train. Both take almost the exact amount of time, and with her €6/day travel allowance (do companies do that anymore in the States???), she's actually making money to use on car upkeep. Thus far, however, she's only taken the train because the weather and roads have been so iffy this winter.

Now, check this out!
Astrid will learn several different jobs in time but for right now, she's learning all the ins and outs of this incredible machine...mainly how to keep it running all day long.

What amazes me most about this job is that back in my assisted-living work years, our residents received their meds packaged exactly like this. In fact, after I received my Med-Tech certification for dispensing meds, I was in one emergency situation where I had to be the Med-Tech for a day when the scheduled lady couldn't come in. I still remember these packages and how even back then I was astonished by this kind of automation.
Now Astrid can tell me how it's done!

Talk about responsibility! To think many lives depend on technicians like Astrid getting it right.
I am so very proud of her.

It's at this time of year, especially in the context of Astrid's new job and schedule, that I'm reminded how much our home really does need to be our quiet, peaceful castle, protecting us from the "tyranny of the urgent" and the outside forces that seek to suck the life out of us. But more on that at Vision and Verb....

Monday, December 06, 2010


First of all, yesterday was Sinkerklaasdag (= Santa Claus Day), 5 December. It happened to be MY ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SINCE ARRIVING HERE IN THE NETHERLANDS! Can you believe it? I will always love this special date and always, always will say "Yes, Virginia, there is a [Sinterklaas]!"

Speaking of which, remember a few posts back when Sinterklaas came to town? He did, indeed, and two weeks later was yesterday. No matter what day of the week 5 December is, it is not a holiday. People still go to work and maybe get off an hour or two early. But the actual celebration is the evening of the 5th...not Sinterklaas Eve, the night before (like our Christmas Eve) or Sinterklaas morning. For kids who still believe, it's always Sinterklaas night. There may be a few exceptions to the rule, when schedules need to be worked around the adults, but this is the tradition.

Synonymous with Sinterklaasdag, once a child crosses the line from believing to not believing in Sinterklaas anymore, is the concept of making a SurPRISe (pronounced like the French sur-PREEZ-a). At that point, a surprise gift is made by one person for another person in the person, one gift...and part of the SurPRISe is that no one else knows who will be surprising whom. Along with the gift a humorous but very specific poem is written for that person, who has to read it aloud before opening his gift.

This year, Astrid and I were not part of Sinterklaas festivities because her son was with his girlfriend Eva at her family's celebration. Lucky for you because here's a rendering of his SurPRISe for the name he picked: Alex, the father of Eva. Because not even Eva could know whom Jeroen picked, he had to come over here to our house to make the SurPRISe.

FIRST, gifts from a wish-list with a €25 maximum total value were wrapped.

You'll understand something about Astrid when I tell you she was in heaven doing this with Jeroen. She has so many memories of making and doing things with her son over the years. It was like old times for her and she reveled in it. I was the lucky one watching and taking the pictures.

Because Alex and his wife enjoy traveling, Jeroen decided to make a paper-mache globe, inside which he put his gifts. This particular family has rules about not using tools to open their surPRISes, so Jeroen made sure it would not be easy to open this one. Alex would have to work hard for what he got.

The finishing touches were done inside our storage closet where the globe could dry. You should have seen the two of them looking up maps on the internet to figure out the shapes and positioning of continents. They did it all free-hand. So fun to watch.

That was two weeks ago. And because it was a surPRISe, it stayed with us till Jeroen came back to pick it up before the family Sinterklaas party. He's one happy camper. But of course! He should be. And on a very snowy day here at our senior-living complex.

He left with very strict instructions from me to take pictures of Alex opening the globe and taking the presents out (since I had neglected to take pictures of putting them in).

KIJK eens! (Look!) This is what he came up with....

First, Alex had to break claw through the paper mache...

...then through the wire mesh that held everything together... the presents inside. Mission accomplished!
Look at the mess afterwards...from only 6 people.
This is what Sinterklaas is all about, Folks.


Now...speaking of my first-year anniversary here in Holland, I was looking at my first post from a year ago, 8 December, where I talked about the Small Pleasures of this country. The grote speculaas cookies, the dates, the brussels sprouts...still the small pleasures I so much enjoy. Nothing has changed in that department, except to add mandarin oranges, which we eat all year 'round but which are much cheaper and more plentiful during these winter months.

And MY SurPRISe of this Christmas season, received and opened on Saturday, in time for Sinterklaasdag yesterday (drum roll please):
All I have to do now is go to pick up my card within the next two months.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a Santa Claus! Yes, Virginia, there's a God in Heaven above....a reason for the season and myriad angels singing Hallelujah!

I bawled like a baby when I saw this YouTube (racing around the world).
This, I told Astrid, is what Sinterklaas and Christmas and this season is all about for me.
Talk about a SurPRISe.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Blowing in the Wind...and Den Bosch

Yup, it's my turn again at Vision and Verb and I'm there to talk about the weather. Seriously.

Lucky for me, it so happens I had already chosen this V&V topic long before we had our first snow this past Saturday. What a koinky-dink! We had also already planned to drive to nearby Den Bosch, 45 km south, to see the city and visit friends, but when we woke up to the falling snow, we second-guessed going. Astrid isn't keen on driving on snowy roads, especially if they might turn to ice! But once we heard temps would remain just above freezing the rest of the day, we decided to go. And we're so glad we did.

's-Hertogenbosch ("the Duke's Forest") is still hard for me to wrap my tongue around, so I'm glad it's been reduced over time to simply Den Bosch. And it's in the Hart (!) of Holland's North Brabant province. To enter the city while the snow was still falling was heaven for me. I made sure I started snapping right away because I knew it could all be gone in an hour or so...which it was. But not before I had a chance to document our first snow of the season.

Surely you've heard about people who lurk at blogs on the Internet. Maybe you have some of them yourself. You know they're there but you've no clue who they are. Believe it or not, we recently discovered I have had a couple of lurkers since my Hannover, Germany, days, which is from at least 4 years ago. Suddenly they popped out of cyberspace woodwork and made themselves known in order for us to connect, since we live so close. But true to lurkerdom, they do not want their names or faces known. So for the purposes of this blog, they will henceforth be known as The Girlfriends! Are you following me?

The plan was to meet at the Jeroen Bosch statue on the market square, one of the city's landmarks. He happens to be one of Holland's early painters (c.1450 - 1516) but I wonder if he ever used snow as one of his mediums?

This is the second time in a row, now, that we've had our own special tour guides for a city. Like Philine in Münster, Germany (last post), The Girlfriends knew exactly where to take us. Again, I don't intend to tell you what everything is but to only give you a feeling for the place. The one building to definitely point out, however, is the one with the pointy tower in the top right-hand corner (above): it's Holland's (not just Den Bosch's) oldest brick house called the Moriaan, from the 13th century.

And because you know the city halls are also important to me, that's Den Bosch's in the lower left-hand corner (above), right on the market square. As is typical all over Holland, there is almost always an outdoor market on the market square every Saturday, regardless of the weather. They're all used to it!

Another thing of note, as you see in the top left-hand corner (above), is how so many churches have been turned into museums, apartments, clothing stores or whatever. Church attendance is that low here in Holland, yes. But at least the buildings are not left empty to be vandalized.

You knew I'd get my water tower in, right?! There was an art exhibition going on when we walked by. We could have have gone up the tower but didn't...not this time. But look at that fancy artwork over the front door.

If there was a windmill, BTW, we never saw it. Saved for another day.

One of the fun things about Den Bosch, city center, is all the poetry everywhere...on the sidewalks and on the sides of buildings. For instance, the bottom right-hand corner (above) says:
"Ow. You're walking on me."

Most of you know by now that I 'collect' gevelstenen everywhere I go, since Amsterdam days. Den Bosch did not disappoint. In the old days, these house stones/markers took the place of house numbers and typically told you what the business was there.

The Girlfriends mentioned early on that there was a lot of whimsical art like this around the city... now I want to know more about it, of course. Is it the same artist, I wonder?
[Addendum: The Girlfriends have told me these characters are Jeroen Bosch sculptures, based on his paintings, I presume? Check out these here.]

But this was my favorite of all the art sculptures near the end of the afternoon at a busy intersection. Can you imagine driving by this every day!

Astrid's face (bottom right above) tells it all, doesn't it. We were having such a great time walking around at near-freezing temps. There were so many wonderful pedestrian-only streets with myriad cafés and restaurants. It still boggles my mind that people eat outside at these places even in the wintertime. See the throws in the bottom left-hand image (above)? We actually had our late morning koffie and appeltaart outside another café, under the overhead heaters.

And now, saving the best for the last, here's Den Bosch's Roman Catholic Sint-Janskathedraal (Saint John's Cathedral):

No, my lens is not dirty. Those are snowflakes.

We parked just after 10 a.m. off the church square while it was still snowing. I knew instintively that I needed to take pictures right then and there, even though we were on our way to meet up with The Girlfriends. Some of these pictures are from the end of the day, after all the snow melted. So thank God I paid attention!

You'd need a hawk's eye to see these little munchkins statuettes that sit high up on the flying buttresses. My 300mm lens caught their backsides. One day we hope to climb up somewhere to see them from the front...if that's possible for the public?

How can you not be impressed by a cathedral like this!
We're trying to figure out how the four of us can attend their Christmas concert together. We're working on it. Can you imagine the sound in a place like that.

Speaking of which, the organ alone would be worth the entire concert...

...with its over-watching topper... say nothing of the stained glass windows.

I haven't even told you how much fun we had getting to know The Girlfriends and how we're already planning to get together over and over again...even to play Spades. HA! Astrid will learn how to play here for when we go back to Atlanta to play with my kids the next time.

Oh, and did I tell you one of The Girlfriends is German, the other American, so we're all in a learning-Dutch mode, with Astrid willing and ready to answer all our questions. You wouldn't believe all the links I now have for Dutch-learning courses online. I feel like we've hit the mother lode in more ways than one.

Please don't forget this all started with the weather barometer and my Vision and Verb post today. IT SNOWED! And it's not even December yet. YES, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!