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!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Münster and Münsterland

Was it really two weekends ago that we drove 547 km (340 m) roundtrip from our home in Zuid Holland province to Münster and Münsterland (area around Münster), Germany! Dear blogger friend, Philine, from several years now, had invited us for a Saturday-Sunday rendezvous. I had met her previously in Amsterdam a few years back but it was a first for Astrid. To all be together at one time was a treat we cherished.

As I think about it, I'm still blown away by how close these European countries are (click on map to enlarge). It seems far to Astrid but for me, this trip was nothing. In less than 3 hours on a Saturday morning, we were there, in Germany, getting situated into our hotel room and then walking over to Philine's house for lunch.

What a sweetheart! Philine is 3 years my senior, a retired school teacher, who has no blog of her own but who has become the Mother of All Commenters on the blogs of those of us who know her, mainly on Shutterchance. She has also met some of our same blogger friends in England, there. So you could say we all get around!
We were thrilled to be her guests for lunch on Saturday and breakfast on Sunday.

[As always, click on collages to enlarge and then click again on an individual image.]

True to her teacherliness, Philine had a plan for our two days together: on Saturday we would see the city center itself, Münster, on foot, and on Sunday we would drive out into the Münsterland area, known for its moated castles.

So first, MÜNSTER, the city center, in Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalia), Germany:

Lucky for us, Philine is as interested in archecture as we are, if not more so. The top-left old tower gate is just a block away from her apartment's front door. The bottom right-hand tower was taken outside our hotel window.

It's not my intention to tell you what everything is but rather to give you a feel for the city and what we saw architecturally as we walked around. However, because we are gluttons for old city halls, look at Münster's (top center image) and how it is juxtaposed not far away from the new, modern library (bottom right-hand image).

It was an overcast day with a bit of rain here-n-there, except for when we were actually touring the city. By mid-afternoon it was starting to get dark, but then, that's what it's like here in northern Europe at this time of the year. A couple things of note above: the second image down on the right-hand side is an outdoor free book-exchange kiosk where books are left for others to pick up, whatever you want to take. How fun is that! The image second down on the left side is a chandelier that hangs in a public toilet off the market square. And the bottom center image has a Woolworth store that Philine says almost no one can pronounce. LOL.

But as you'd guess, it's the churches that captivated us the most, true to form. There were four of them we entered:

The first was just the wee St. Johannes kapelle (St. John's chapel) at the beginning of our walk to whet our appetite. Philine is the consummate tour Dutch, German or English. Take your pick. Sometimes she spoke all three languages in the same sentence...and no one blinked an eye!

The second church was the Überwasserkirche from 1340 (the original 1040 church was destroyed by fire). We first accessed the more modern building adjacent to it which is a library with the courtyard you see on the bottom row (above). The statue is called the Angel of Death. It was in that courtyard where I did the following "Body Language" collage for my Hart & Soul post last week:

That was fun! Philine was such a good sport.

From there we walked to the St. Paulus Dom, Münster's big Roman Catholic cathedral from the early 13th century (1225-64) on the market square.

Wiki says "The most famous feature of Münster Cathedral's interior is the magnificent astronomical clock, made in 1540-43." See it there in the top left-hand corner above.

When we entered the cathedral, I heard immediately the sound of chanting in the distance and wondered if it was something in preparation for Sunday services. No, it was Vespers for the resident priests.

I'm a glutton for the little details I find in these huge cathedrals, like this little prayer box that was so easy to miss if I hadn't been in the right place at the right time. Philine helps to give scale to the size of it. And yes, I opened the little door, where there were indeed folded pieces of paper...with prayers, I presume. I did not disturb them further.

From the market square we walked a bit further to the fourth church, St. Lamberti, the market and citizen's church built in 1375 to "counter the over-powering St. Paul's Cathedral" nearby (St. Paulus Dom above).

What this church is most famous for is the Anabaptist Rebellion (notice the 3 cages on the steeple in the top right-hand image):

To this day, there are three cages attached to the tower of the church above the clock. In these cages, the dead bodies of the leaders of the Anabaptist movement (Jan van Leyden, Krechting, Knipperdollinck) were put on display by the Archbishop after their execution on the 22nd January, 1536, as an example to all. The cages were not taken down until the tower was demolished between 1881 and 1898. They were put up again on the new tower which is still in place.

And that was that...a tour of Münster's city center before we headed back to the hotel for a wee nap, followed by dinner at the lovely home of Philine's friend, Mechtild, where we spent a delightful evening getting to know a new friend around delicious food in her kitchen:

Don't you love how tickled-pink Philine is (lower left-hand above) to watch the connections!

Then it was nighty-night before embarking on MÜNSTERLAND the next day, known for it's moated castles (about 100 of them!). It was a must for us, so Philine and Mechtild both obliged. Since we were headed in the general direction of Holland, it made sense to take both cars so that we didn't have to backtrack to Münster before heading home. I rode with Mechtild and Philine rode with Astrid. It was perfect.

Because Philine knows I'm a sucker for windmills, at the start of our day, even before they were officially open, we stopped at the Mühlenhof Open-Air Museum to see their windmill. A German windmill, mind you. But as Astrid says, remember this is very near The Netherlands! We were there several minutes early but Philine used my "big-lens-American-lady" ticket to get us inside for about 5 minutes, long enough to capture the windmill. As fast as you could say 'Sam's scratch,' we were on our way again....

...but not before we got a preview of the organ grinder in the parking lot, getting ready to go inside to set up his little 'shop.' See how Lady Luck follows us everywhere we go!

So, we were on our way to see castles. Decisions, decisions. With over 100 to choose from, and only limited time, we leaned on Philine and Mechtild to choose for us.

It ended up that we visited two castles well. How's that for putting it.
The first was Haus Rüschhaus, a country estate built in 1745-48 that we had the privilege of touring. It's where Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, one of Germany's most important poets (January 10, 1797 – May 25, 1848), lived with her mother and sister after the death of her father.

Did you see our Granny Towanda above? Yup. She was there all along the way. And as Lady Luck would have it, Philine bumped into one of her teacher colleagues there (bottom right-hand image).

No photos were allowed inside but I cheated big time to take the one picture I couldn't resist...and then got my hand slapped afterwards (in German). But but could I say NO to this:

From Haus Rüschhaus we drove 5 miles away to the Burg Hülshoff, Annette's birthplace. That made total sense, of course, especially since it's one of the most famous of all of the moated castles in Münsterland. We were not disappointed!

Notice the bronze bust of Annette on the bottom row (above). Actually, better said, notice the yellow tree behind her. That one lone, yellow tree became the focal point of the outside landscape the rest of the visit.

Did you know that many castles have their own private chapel (we saw that in England as well)? And can you imagine eating lunch inside such a place! We'll never forget it.

After lunch we took one last walk all around the castle and in the process met up with this fella, Mark Ivo, a 'crazy guy' from Germany who rides his bike all over the world. Interesting trivia: the distance around Germany is longer than the distance from Florida to California across the States. Who would have believed it!

There was one last castle Mechtild wanted us to visit just to see it, since it was a private residence....

...but on the way there, we saw another castle, Haus Havixbeck, which we could view only from the front gate (above left). Also, we passed Gerleve Abbey, (center image above), "a Benedictine monastery and education centre for persons who are interested in religion," per Philine. She adds that it is possible to enjoy there "inner recreation days" which is "rather beloved in Germany among stressed managers and burn-out persons." The right-hand image just caught my eye from the car.

The last castle of the day was Haus Stapel, first mentioned in 1211 and formerly owned by one of Annette's uncles. Because it's a private residence that takes tours by appointment, we were only able to walk around it outside. But it was enough to make us feel that we had come full circle on the day.

Then, as the day was winding down, Mechtild needed to stop and pick up a painting she had purchased from a recently deceased artist who wanted his wife to sell all his paintings for dirt cheap (relatively speaking) to the common person who could afford them.

That was a sweet moment near the end of our day.

And then we really wound down, as the late afternoon became evening, first at one last church, followed by Good-Byes at the café across the street....

This is the St. Ludgerus Roman Catholic church in Billerbeek. It was appropriate to see one last church after all the castles, to somehow bring both days together into one big circle. To then say Thank You and Good Bye to each other in this context was the frosting on the cake. We had been so well taken care of by our two new friends, Philine and Mechtild!

Once back home, Philine herself then sent me photos she had taken of us throughout the weekend. And with this I close a long rendering of a weekend we will never forget:

One last point of trivia:
Münster is twinned with the following places:
to those of you who celebrate it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

On Sense and Sensibility

It's my turn again today at Vision and Verb where I spend a few minutes talking about being sensible. Have you noticed how easy it is to see how others should be sensible but...when it comes to ourselves, it's another story altogether.

In our household these days, both of us are being sensible, after hitting each other over the head with a baseball bat! First, Astrid:

ASTRID: After 2 years working at JEWE, the area's wood factory that makes cabinets and doors, Astrid has had enough. It's hot in the summer, cold in the winter. They wear earplugs all day because the machinery is LOUD. And while she has great camaraderie with the guys, the work is too darn heavy for her body and age. If she only did the controling, which is her job, she'd be fine. But as a team player, she's always willing and ready to pick up the slack whenever someone is off...which is often.

The good news is that the 7-day job she had before JEWE, 2 years ago, was at SystemFarma, a pharmaceutical company that packages medications for patients...the only one of its kind here in The Netherlands. Her manager told her to contact him if her new job at JEWE didn't work out. Astrid never forgot that and wrote him when she got to the end of her rope a couple weeks ago. They basically hired her on the spot! The longer story is quite amazing...and the fact that she got a 6-month contract starting 1 December is even more so. In today's economy here, you're lucky if you get a 3-month contract. So we are top-of-the-world excited. She'll be controling again but in an environment that is totally the opposite of JEWE. I am soooo happy and excited for her.

Ginnie: My story is similar, in that I quit one am hoping now for a more productive Dutch-learning situation. It's a longer story than this but after a good foundational first half of the course, learning a lot of Dutch, the curriculum started veering into a different direction altogether: how to do job interviews, preparing for the workplace, learning about Dutch culture (e.g. how and where to register a newborn baby, filing a police report), politics, etc., etc. The more restless I became, the more unhappy I was...especially as we started entering the cold and rainy months of the year (on my bike!). I was too often saying "I'm too old for this!" Whenever that happens, stop and listen, Ginnie.

So I did. I stopped. My advisor told me the direction wasn't right for me and my age but they had nothing else to offer me. It quickly became a no-brainer. Just quit, Ginnie, and stop spinning your wheels. What I have here at De Lindeborg where we live is a community of men and women who will LOVE to teach me Dutch while joining them in their activities. Conversational Dutch. THAT'S what I've wanted all along.

So as you see, this part of the post is simply informative, telling you about two big changes in our lives that will hopefully bring some "easy listening" in the days to come.


Now switch gears. Can you believe I've been here almost a year? I arrived here 5 December last year...on Sinterklaas day, the Dutch traditional day for the giving and receiving of gifts, NOT on Christmas day, which is one of the most sensible things I've ever heard. Separation of Santa Claus and BabyJesus!

Add to that another sensibility: Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat in The Netherlands 2 Saturdays before Sinterklaas day so that the kids will see him and know he's here and is watching and not forgetting them. That was this past Saturday this year! And because Gorinchem is a harbor city, I got to see it with mine own eyes.

This is the drill: Sinterklaas has been coming by steamboat from Spain to The Netherlands for the past 600 years. Sinterklaas is Saint Nicholas, a bishop of Myra in present-day Turkey. Thus the garb that looks a bit different from our Santa Claus.

He was scheduled to arrive at our Gorinchem locks at 10 a.m. from our Merwede River. So Astrid and I high-tailed it to the river first to catch the steamboat coming in before it entered the locks. At both places we had prime spots for viewing and taking pictures. In fact, at the locks, in between the opening and closing of the gates, we stood dead center to get some of these up-close-and-personal images.
Astrid said we'd never get better pictures ever again. That's how close we were.

Once Sinterklaas hits land, he then proceeds on horseback to greet all the children (big and small) who are waiting impatiently, cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs. Traditionally, the white horse named Amerigo comes with Sinterklaas on the steamboat. But since the littlest kids ask no questions, we bigger kids notice when one of the Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters) rides the horse into town to meet up with Sinterklaas at the harbor. In this case, the Black Peter (above top left) attending Amerigo all day happened to be a female version, which I quite enjoyed. :)

Speaking of the Zwarte Pieten, the Black Peters, who are the Moorish equivalent of Santa's helpers/elves in the States, here they are in all their festive glory. All along the route, as Sinterklaas walks through the crowds from the harbor to City Hall, they greet the kids, blow up balloons for them and hand out pepernoten. How can you not LOVE anything that tastes just like windmill cookies (same ingredients for speculaas)!

As Black Peters go, there's one for just about any duty you can imagine from being mischievious, fat and lazy, to climbing the chimneys, scooping up the bad kids into dufflebags, or being the right-hand helper of Sinterklaas himself. But the one I had the good fortune to see up close was Professor Piet. How 'bout that! My mom would have been tickled to death.

Sinterklaas, like Santa Clause, is all about children, of course. But here in The Netherlands it's also a bit like Halloween to the Sinterklaas sense. Look at all the Zwarte Pieten and the bishops.

And because one of you liked seeing me in some of my recent collages, here's one of Yours Truly (below), thanks to Astrid. This time I have no pics of her because she was behind me all the way, taking pictures of me while I snuck in with the other photographers for the paper...because of my big lens. Astrid told me no one would question why I was there...and that's the truth! There's even one little image where I'm taking a picture of our city photographer, Dries, who happens to live here at our senior community, De Lindeborg.

[Remeber to click on any image to enlarge...and then click again.]

So now what happens that Sinterklaas has arrived...and the kids know he's on Dutch soil?! NOW is when they are allowed to put out their shoes for little presents until the Big Day on 5 December. Some kids will even put a carrot and hay in their shoes for Amerigo. Gotta keep the horse happy and well-fed for Sinterklaas, of course.

Guess what was in my shoes this morning after I got up: that would be a hazelnut milk-chocolate Sinterklaas letter 'G.' HA! G is for good! Yes, I've been a very good girl this year. So has Astrid. QUEEN just happens to be her favorite music group. She deserves Freddie Mercury's story "Under Review 1946 - 1991."

What a way to celebrate for both of us...being sensible about our quality of life. As Astrid says, "Just hit me over the head with a baseball bat." And as I mention on Vision and Verb, if the shoe fits, wear it!

ADDENDUM: Remember Dries, our city's photographer who happens to live here at our De Lindeborg senior complex? I sent him the following collage yesterday because we kept bumping into each other on Saturday....

A few minutes ago, just after I published this post, he e-mailed me his own version:

And guess what he titled this collage: "Like a little kid!"
That just about says it all, folks.