Monday, August 15, 2016

Home Again, Home Again

After 11 months on the road we finally returned home on July 18.

The kids were thrilled to be home in their own bedrooms and among their friends. Their joy softened the blow for Kerry and me -- especially Kerry since the return home meant an imminent return to work.

But as we were coming home I thought of some of the things that I really missed about home:
  • Friends and neighbours - While the year was fantastic, nothing really beats getting together with friends, seeing your neighbours on the street and stopping for a chat, and running into people you know when you're out and about. While I do believe a sense of community can be developed anywhere, we weren't anywhere long enough to properly develop one, and I missed mine.
  • Being closer to Dad - After Mom died I felt so very far from him. After what must have been a long and lonely winter, he had a couple of minor health issues. It helped that he came to see us in Europe and that we could all go on the cruise together (I'm so happy that he did), but he still seemed far.
  • Being in my own kitchen - Using sharp knives, having some baking staples and spices on hand, drinking from my favourite coffee mug...the list could go on.
  • Knowing how the washing machine works and being able to tell the difference between laundry detergent and fabric softener. It's hard work figuring out different styles of washing machines in different languages. And I have no clue how many times we may have confused detergent with softener. On the plus side, only one machine ever wrecked any clothes, and fortunately the part of that load that bore the brunt was entirely made up of underwear.
  • Having a junk drawer - Every home has one. That place where you find paperclips, tape, thread, envelopes, and other little bits that come in handy in everyday life.
  • Having closets for clothes. Not everywhere we stayed had closet space for us. We easily made due, but it's so much nicer having a closet and a chest of drawers.
  • Doing projects in the home: scrapbooking, sewing, making jelly, baking, gardening, painting rooms, etc. All the good and fun things to do at home.
  • Appreciating the little moments together. Being with each other all the time meant that Kerry and I let the kids watch tv at breakfast, play a computer game while we blogged or skimmed the news because we were going to be with each for the rest of today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. I felt like we got complacent about good family-building habits like eating meals together, discussing our days, or playing games together, because frankly, at the end of the day, we all knew what everybody had done all day and kind of needed some time apart.
  • The house, the yard, the space......

Of course, there are also the things that I didn't necessarily miss, but now that we are home, I'm looking forward to.

  • The return to routine - It's nice to settle home and know that routines are returning: the summer routine of knocking on neighbours' doors to see if anyone can play outside, of finding people to hang out with at playgrounds or spray parks, and soon, the return to the school routine including after school activities.
  • Letting the kids resume their lives that are independent of Kerry and me - The kids missed being away from us. Not in a long-term ready to move out sense, but just being able to do simple things on their own, such as, walking to a friend's house, walking to the park, playing outside without our direct supervision, sleeping over night at a friend's house, etc.

Of course, there are the things that I'm happy to be done with:
  • Renting our house - Our tenants were good. The house was standing and in good repair when we returned. They paid their rent on time, mostly. They were good neighbours. But when a toilet on the main floor broke (within the first three weeks they were here) releasing more water than you can imagine into our basement leading to an early morning cleanup, and then construction disruption with a basement refinish, and new flooring on the main floor, it's tough to build a warm and fuzzy relationship. I am very happy though the the relationship endured and they stuck out the tenancy.
  • Unschooling-homeschooling  - I'm relieved that the responsibility for the kids' education returns to trained professionals come September. Ecole Tricky Nag left a lot to be desired. I will likely do a blog post on this once I have gauged the extent of my failure after the kids have started school.
  • Packing - I'm thrilled that we left with a suitcase and backpack each, and returned home with only that suitcase and backpack each, but the packing of those suitcases was no easy chore. They were packed as full as they could be and everything had its spot. Shortly after Christmas, we became much bigger fans of staying in one spot for longer simply to avoid the dreaded task of hauling our gear and unpacking and packing it. It felt great to do that final unpack at home, and even find some little tucked away treasures we'd long forgotten.

But, the things I started to dread pale in comparison to what I loved about the year:

  • Getting to see Kerry together with the kids day in and day out. I've always known he was more than capable of doing my jobs, but it was still fantastic to see just how capable he was. It also became very apparent which two people in our family are virtually the same person. I've seen bits of this similarity, but this year amplified the similarity. I won't reveal the two people because one does not view it as much of a compliment, even though it is.
  • Getting to see the kids day in and day out. School robs the best part of a kid's day. Though there were days we all could have used a bit more distance from each other, I did love seeing so much of the kids for so long. And even though I'm happy about their return to school, I'm going to miss hanging out with them all day, every day. 
  • Seeing so many different living spaces - all of which were much smaller and compact compared to our home - and finding out what we liked and didn't like. It was fun getting a glimpse into how other people live and use their space.
  • Learning about so many different places in the world, how histories of different countries are linked, seeing the impact of one nation's actions on another, and seeing the impact of colonialism through the eyes of both the colony and the conqueror. We saw how mean people can be to each other, and how incredibily kind and considerate they can be. I found the most fascinating contrast in Japan while watching the American primaries. We were surrounded by a nation of incredibly polite and considerate people who act for the common good above all else, yet watching a nation of relative libertarians where people seem to admire a loudmouth who tells people exactly what he thinks. 
  • Seeing what so many different places are like at the exact same time. I feel quite privileged to have experienced this, and it was something that never crossed my mind before leaving. With most holidays you can compare the part of the world you're seeing today, with a different part you say last year, or even years ago. It was quite fantastic comparing different places within weeks of each other.
  • Seeing how living pretty much stress free is so good for a person. Kerry noticed this result more than the rest of us. His job is hard on his system. I hope he remembers this and takes note on returning to work. And of course, I'll be here to remind him.
  • Having the distance from the drama and garbage of everyday life - the getting wound up about things that seem super important, but really aren't. Now that I think about this one, it's probably related to the less stress comment above. But I have to say, I didn't miss getting sucked into the drama surrounding a variety of things that at the end of the day, don't really matter. I've always thought I was pretty good at avoiding this type of drama, and at choosing friends who help me avoid the drama. But now that I've been away from it for a year, I've seen room for improvement.

And finally, a year away from life must have taught certain lessons about life. This is what I've learned, or at least have had proven true:

  • You can be happy anywhere when you're with the people you love.
  • You can live anywhere, you just have to spend some time to find and nurture your community.
  • It's easy to get home if you need to, and even easier to stay in touch with the help of modern technology
  • When kids don't get enough sleep, they really do look and act like they have ADHD and it's not always a obvious that it is the tired monster.
  • If your parents' 20 acres and home of over 45 years needs cleaning out, that job will still be there, waiting for you, upon your return.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

London - Our Final Stop

I have a soft spot for London. It was the first place abroad that I travelled all by myself. And I liked it so much I stayed for two years. Kerry's introduction to London is not much different than mine and he stayed for almost a year. So for both of us, when we come here it's like settling into an old pair of comfortable slippers. This visit has been no different.

London continues to be fantastic. It has changed a lot since I first came in 1989. Then there were a number of dirty, deserted and creepy streets in central London - even in the middle of a regular work day. There was also the business of the IRA attacks in London, including the first (and I think only) mortar attack, which missed its intended target of 10 Downing Street. The Docklands were just starting to be built, the Channel Tunnel was not yet a reality, and the south side of the river kind of scared me.

Today we have found a London that is clean, bustling and safe. The transformation that had barely started when I returned to Canada continues. There are modern glass buildings in the City and a lot of cranes building more. The Docklands to the east is built up and booming. 

The new behind the old. So many new buildings built and being built all within sight of the Tower of London.

The south side of the Thames is now unrecognizable. I went to that side of the river just a couple of times in two years. Every visit had a definite destination and I wasted no time getting to that destination. It was creepy over there. But now, in the last two and half weeks we've been over there more times than I was during the two years I lived here. It's completely transformed with people, condos, restaurants and green space.

The Southbank never looked this inviting 25 years ago.

There are more affordable places to eat than when I was first here. So many terrific pubs and restaurants. Also, we've become real fans of the quick sandwiches, wraps (hot or cold), finger food, and cut-up or easy-to-eat fruit that can be found at a variety of places (Pret à Manger, Marks & Spencer Foodhall, Tesco Express, Sainsbury Express). These places are everywhere. And given that you're never further than a few minutes walk from a terrific park, we've been having a lot of lunchtime picnics.

There continue to be a ton of free things to do in London: The National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, The Tate Modern, and The British Museum are all free. 

The British Museum (home to many stolen significant pieces from around the world) offers quick 30-40 minute overview tours of certain rooms and themes. So fantastic that it's so easy to just pop in for a bit. Don't think the museum is losing any money though. It makes up the lost revenue for admission on the gift shop; it has some mighty fine goods for sale.

There's also just seeing things that are free: 
  • Buckingham Palace
  • The Changing of the Guard (quick tip - it's easier to see everyone go up and down the Mall rather than huddle with the throngs of people in front of the gate at Buckingham Palace)

  • Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) and Big Ben -- you can get in for free to see either the House of Commons or the House of Lords when in session. Surprisingly, there was no line up for either the day we headed in.

  • Trafalgar Square
  • Harrods
  • Kensington Palace
  • Sherlock Holmes Statue (outside Baker Street Tube) 

  • Paddington Bear Statue (at Paddington Tube)
  • Platform 9¾ (Kings' Cross Station)

  • Milleneum Bridge, from which you can easily see the famous Tower Bridge
Thanks to my pal JHJ, we found the Festival of Love at the Southbank Centre which included free crafts for kids. Who knew that Eamon would like weaving on a little loom so much! There was also a free concert featuring Gamelan (Indonesian ensemble music) in which JHJ played.

Looming at the Festival of Love

Of course, St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abby draw big crowds, but they charge big money to go in, so we have just admired them from the outside on this trip.

Kerry had some good eyes  for good shots this day. This memorial to the firefighters of the Blitz looks as though they are saving St. Paul's Cathedral from this angle.

And there's cuteness, and interesting, and weirdness everywhere you turn. And all for free!

The double decker buses remain. I still get a thrill taking the bus from one part of London to another - especially if I'm sitting in the top in the front row. And it's so much easier now that the buses have electronic signs announcing the upcoming stop.

It's also easy to spend money here. One of our favourite things to do has been to go on any of the London Walks on offer. They are two-hour walks on a variety of topics in a variety of neighbourhoods, for £10 per adult and kids are free. After your first walk, you can buy a frequent walker card for £2 and then save £2 on every other walk. We have yet to be disappointed. On every walk we have ever taken we've had a great guide, and learned so very much. This trip we've been on a walks for Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, and Mayfair (the most expensive real estate in London). We are giving the Jack the Ripper walk a miss this trip, but we will likely hit at least one more before we leave.

There's the theatre. So many theatres and so much to see! I love live performances and never miss a chance to go. Lucky for me, it turns out Meaghan is a real fan. We've separated from Kerry and Eamon a couple of times so that we could head off and see something that didn't interest them as much. We've not gone everyday, but Meaghan and I would sure like to try.

And let's not forget the Tower of London where so many treasoners have been imprisoned, and then buried beneath the chapel without their heads. A definite highlight is the tour given by one of the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters). And don't be shy of the big crowds. The Warders have big booming voices.

There are also day trips outside of London. This time we visited the Harry Potter Warner Brothers tour. Outstanding! The kids rode a broom in front of a green screen. We saw sets, and props and costumes, and learned a fair bit about the making of the movies. Such a thrilling afternoon.

Who wouldn't want the Burrow's kitchen with all that magic helping to get things done.
We also headed to  Salisbury, home of the tallest cathedral in England and the best preserved original Magna Carta (no photos allowed), 

and then onto Stonehedge -- probably the most famous hunks of rock in a circle anywhere.

We still have a couple more things to check off our list before we leave here on Monday for our final flight of our travel adventure. If all goes according to plan, by Monday afternoon, we will be back in Edmonton retaking possession of our home that has been in the hands of tenants since we left.

I can't believe that our 11 months of travel is coming to an end, but I'm so glad it's ending in London.

See you soon!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Final Thoughts on France and Why We'll be Back

We spent a fair bit of time of France: Paris, Toulouse, Avignon, Strasbourg, and then Paris again. In total, we spent about two months in the country.

By no means does that make us experts, but living day-to-day for that long in a variety of places does give one a certain sense of a place.

But of course you want to come here, it's France

We knew long before we arrived in France that there is a general belief among the French that everyone wants to come to France - and it's probably true. 

They are one of the few countries that have a long stay visitor visa that permits you to stay in the country for up to a year provided you can show sufficient assets and funds to live for the year without working. Normally, visitor visas are only good for three months. The French make this visa easy to find, and presumably it's possible to actually get since we know people who have done it.

Then we started looking on AirBnb for places to stay in France. Generally, we found some decent postings outside of Paris, but some did not have very good descriptions or photos. Then we started looking in Paris. The descriptions and photos of many, many places left lots to be desired, and gave no real idea at all what the place was like. Reviews help, but I like lots of good photos. It was almost as if the homeowner was saying, "But it's Paris. Of course you want to stay here. Why do you need to see photos?"

We've rented through AirBnb in every country we've been in except Vietnam and United Arab Emirates. Nowhere else have we seen so many listings with so few photos.

The Unions and The Strikes

I think the biggest thing we noticed were the strikes: how crazy they were, how much they impacted the country, and how everyone accepted them because it was after all, spring in France.

The left-wing government is trying to pass some legislation they say will help the economy (1/4 young people are unemployed, and 1/10 nationally) by making it easier for employers to lay off people when times are tough, thereby encouraging them to hire more people when times are good. It also gives employers and employees the ability to negotiate different benefits (such as leave) than what the heavily regulated rules already provide. It also permits employees (or perhaps permits employers to demand that employees) work more than 35 hours a week. As one guide summarized the proposed changes, "The government wants France to work on Sundays."

The unions have not been happy with the changes. They first held a variety of demonstrations, some of which turned nasty and violent. Then one union shut down the refineries. The threat of gas shortages led to gas shortages because people flocked to the pumps to fill up. We noticed one day in Avignon that the line to the pumps was long and backed up traffic. Once we learned what was going on, we were careful with our driving to make sure we didn't run out of gas somewhere far from home.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that you must keep in mind as you read this, the union was not without an agreement. It was not negotiating with the government over a new agreement. It just didn't like the new law.

Then the train strikes came. Not all the national trains, but about 1/3 or so were affected. We headed to Amsterdam the day before the strikes started. Crisis averted. But the strike persisted. Our train to Strasbourg was cancelled. At least we had some warning. And as luck would have it, we were headed to Strasbourg which is on the border with Germany. We found a train we could take through Germany.

Euro Cup started. The trains were on strike, including the regional trains in Paris that head out to Stade de France. The garbage collectors in Paris went on strike leading to some areas having heaping piles of garbage on the sidewalks - together with the odours and the rats. And then the pilots of Air France went on strike affecting flights for fans trying to get to France to see their teams play.

Of course, the union decided to have another protest/day of action in Paris, and there was more violence.

When the union decided to have another day of action, the police union asked if they would just hold a little protest and not move through the streets because the police were quite exhausted from doing their jobs of: keeping France safe since November's terrorist attack, dealing with already violent protests, keeping France safe during the Euro Cup, and dealing with the football hooligans. In a surprising-to-me move, the protesting union said they have a right to protest and to march, and that the state has a responsibility to keep people safe. So they were going to protest and march. Eventually, they gave a little bit and restricted the protest to one small area. There was no violence that I heard about that day.

Everything seems to have died down. The government has weakened its legislation, and the strikes and protests seem to have come to an end. Someone suggested that the law would be passed, but be very weak and have nothing the employers would like, and the unions will continue to be upset that the law, however weak, was passed.

Yet no one complains!! 

Everywhere we went we heard, "Oh, that's just France." Or, "This happens every spring." Or, "It will end soon enough."

So very different from our ways. Canada Post announcing in advance it will take action because they've reached a standstill with contract negotiations seems petty by comparison.

The Work-Life Balance

The French are pretty good at this work-life balance thing. When the work week is only 35 hours, it's pretty easy to get some living in.

Sundays are for families. Outside of Paris most shops are closed. In some places a boulangerie or grocery store might be open, but only until noon. The afternoon is family time with a good meal, or a picnic in a park. We were caught more than one Sunday night making due with what was in our fridge because we forgot to stock up on Saturday.

A variety of shops also close for a day during the week. Sometimes it's Monday to make up for a Saturday opening. Sometimes it's Wednesday because kids either don't go to school that day, or go for just a 1/2 day.

In Alsace (Strasbourg area) many museums or other tourist sites close over lunch from 12:30 to 2. Because I suppose, those workers need to eat a civilized lunch too.

And of course, the French are famous for taking the month of August off for holidays. Fortunately, we missed this. I say fortunately only because it would have inconvenienced us, but really, we could learn something from them.

The Food

The French have done a great job of having the world believe their food is the best. And it is mighty fine. But some of their super expensive food is really just a cunning and traditional use of left overs. For example bouillabaisse. You can pay a lot for what started as a fisherman's stew where he threw the leftover bits of unsold fish into a pot. 

They've also been clever in using the food that's close to home. The north cooks with butter. The west cooks with duck fat. The south cooks with olive oil. The east with pork and goose fat. And they use local good to make their traditional dishes. Of course, with it being so easy to transport goods these days, these are merely rough guidelines for the traditional foods.

The food is good: baguettes, croissants, pastries, cheese, sauces, sausage, wine, desserts - so very much. Yes, there are vegetables too, but they really pale in comparison, and are not that much different from home.

All this good food has led to day-long cooking classes popping up all over. I splurged and went to one. A fabulous day! A classically trained French chef, who taught for years in Lyon, moved off to Provence to open a cooking school for amateurs in his kitchen. I thought the cooking channel taught me a lot, but he taught so much more. We made such fancy, yet simple-to-make food. It got me excited to get home and start cooking in a kitchen that is stocked with some basic provisions.

Our best find of all though was the discovery of Café Gourmand for dessert. It's a coffee (the wee French espresso) together with 3-5 little dessert samplers. So freaking fantastic. We don't want huge expensive desserts, but these little samplers were so perfect! 

The Myths

Not everyone in France is well dressed. Some of those outside of Paris would give some of the lesser People of Walmart a run for their money.

As for another myth -- remember that book that came out a couple years ago written by an American who is raising her kids in France. She talked about how French kids sit so nicely when they eat out, and then she explained why that happens in France and not America. Well, I'm here to tell you that not all French children behave or sit nicely in French restaurants. In one the kids were running all over like crazy children. In another café we were in that had some room between the tables, a kid was doing cartwheels! Yes, cartwheels. Granted, the place wasn't busy, but still, cartwheels?

The Language

I can get by, almost, in French. There are not big conversations happening, but I can order, find the toilets, mostly understand directions and instructions. But I was surprised this time by the number of English speakers we came across. There were a lot - even in Paris. I don't remember that many from any of our other times here, though the last time was 15 years ago.

Maybe, too, it seemed easier because we had Meaghan with us. More than once as I was taking a moment to digest what had just been said and then thinking of what to reply, Meaghan had replied already. 

But here's a beef I have with certain people who think France French is so superior to Quebecois. They do actually speak French in Quebec. It's the same language. But this year we've come across so many people who put their noses up in the air and say they just don't understand people from Quebec, it's just not the same language.

Well, it is the same language - albeit with a different accent and lots of different slang. It's no different than me struggling to understand someone from Glasgow, Newfoundland, or the deep south of the U.S. They're all speaking English, I just don't quite understand the accent. Or, as we may find with Australians and Brits, they may use different words than we do for some things. 

The Scents

So many places at home are scent free now, that it's rare to find someone wearing gads of cologne or perfume. There are still some, but they are few and far between. 

Colognes and perfumes are everywhere in France! And the men's colognes were heavily advertised during the Euro Cup telecasts. No fun, party beer commercials for the French men; just some crazy avant-garde cologne ads convincing men that life will be even more awesome if they just wore this particular cologne.

But cologne is not the only scent you will find. Personal hygeine products are also heavily scented, including feminine hygiene products. I know some items at home are scented, but we generally have an easy time finding whatever we need unscented. Not so in France.

The Courtesies

Regardless of the type of shop you enter, you will hear and should say, "Bonjour Madame" or "Bonjour Monsieur" without fail. I quite like that this bit of polite courtesy remains. We just don't have the equivalent in English. "Sir" sounds very military and overly formal to bordering on facetious. And "ma'am"? Please don't ma'am me. Ever.

Most surprising of all to me where how polite and helpful people were on the Paris Metro. This Metro is old and has a lot of stairs. We do manage our bags wherever we have travelled, but if there are a lot of steps we will help out the kids with their bags. Just about every single time we were on the stairs with our bags, someone helped us with the bags. The one time when Kerry's back was sore, he took Eamon's bag down separate from his own leaving his bag at the top of the stairs. Someone grabbed his bag and carried it down. That bag is our heaviest, yet this fellow didn't hesitate to help. So fantastic!

The Pressure to be French

There's no cultural mosaic in France. The goal is to be French, not Algerian-French, not Syrian-French, not anything-French. Just French.

The law forbids the wearing of any conspicuous religious symbols in public schools or in the civil service workplaces on the grounds that the church is separate from the state. Despite the government's assertion that it applies to all - and it does - the most heavily affected are Islamic women who choose to cover their heads. So girls who want to wear a headscarf cannot attend public school - they need find an Islamic school, take distance learning classes, or leave France for school. Additionally, all women are banned from wearing the niqab (that leaves only the eyes exposed) in public. It's not surprising that this law, and the debate around it, has been divisive in France.

Let's just say, I prefer Canada's approach. Actually, I will say just one more thing: if you so desperately want people to conform then perhaps you would want to encourage them to attend public school, rather than drive them away....

The Security

The level of security really depended on where we were. 

Paris had the most obvious signs. We saw a whole lot of armed military and police in Paris, wherever we went. After the Eurocup started, there were even more military and police on the streets. 

After three weeks in Provence, we'd seen police only one time at the train station as we were leaving. It was like a different world there and seemingly unaffected by everyday woes elsewhere in France. 

We went through a proper border patrol landing in Marseille from Rome. Yet crossing the border by car from Germany we moved down to just one lane of traffic and passed about 1/2 dozen officers who would sometimes pull people over.

Most surprising of all was leaving France. We took the Eurostar train through the Chunnel. I hadn't been paying much attention to whether or not the track was fenced, but I assume it is because the TGV (high-speed trains) are all fenced to keep animals and people off the track. As we approached the tunnel it looked like we were in a prison. There wasn't just one high fence, there was the high fence with barbed wire on top, and then another fence! I'm certain too, that just as we entered the tunnel, there were rolls of barbed wire on top of one of the fences. That may not be totally right, but that's certainly how it felt.

The Miscellaneous

You can buy pink toilet paper! And people do buy it, because we had it in most of our places. I guess the threat of skin irritation or the damage the dye might do to the environment doesn't matter if the pink rolls look better in your bathroom.

Many women change their surname when they get married. I had always thought that the Quebec law making women keep their maiden names on marriage was a French thing. Nope. It's a Quebec thing.

According to one guide, the French don't have middle names! I had assumed that since it was mostly a Catholic country that many would have the same few religious middle names. Nope.

They still continue to smoke up a storm. One Parisian guide said it was because they all have the downer view of life that you're going to die why not smoke.

The Return

Oh yes, we'll be back. It's just too wonderful a place to not return. It's got great history with Roman ruins, medieval castles, WWI trenches, other war memorials. It has great art and architecture throughout the country. The food is fantastic. It's easy to get around. I really do believe that you could stay anywhere in France and have a terrific time, surrounded by beauty and great food. By the time we left Paris the end of June, we were all a little sad that it was time to say good-bye. Perhaps we'll have to start dreaming of our next trip to France. Where should we go? Any suggestions?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Amsterdam - Surprisingly Kid Friendly

In my last post you heard about our time with The Travelling Shus. They were just one part of what made Amsterdam so much fun for us. The fact is, Amsterdam is really fantastic. Though it's infamous for it's red light district and relaxed drug laws, there are a lot of family-friendly activities, and it's mostly easy to avoid the notorious bits.

I say mostly easy because the red light district has creeped out into the mainstream. Fortunately for us, kids see what they know. When Eamon saw the woman hanging out in her window spot wearing her bra he was firstly glad she wasn't naked. Then he began to wonder why she was in her bathing suit. His train of thought ended by announcing there must be a swimming pool in her building somewhere. How lucky is she.

When we passed by the bondage shop with a partially-clad male mannequin, Eamon thought the thing covering the mannequin's penis was quite interesting. He did express some concern about the tiny bit of leather holding the thing up, because you sure wouldn't want that falling off.

Meaghan never heard Eamon's comments, and she remained quite expressionless and quiet. I'm going to continue to think it's because she didn't notice anything amiss.

But, as for the rest of Amsterdam, it did not disappoint.

The Art

We visited two art museums: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

For the Rijksmuseum we booked a tour. It was pricey, but we thought it would be a good way to get through some of the museum while maintaining the kids' interest. We were all a bit disappointed in the tour, though everything we heard about the Night Watch made the visit enjoyable. The kids soaked up everything the guide said about the painting and in the few weeks since our visit, I've heard both of the kids mention different bits about what the guide said about the Night Watch.

The Van Gogh Museum was so kid-friendly. They had a scavenger hunt (Eamon's choice activity) where you had to follow the clues to find certain paintings. He was all over it, and seemed to actually enjoy looking for the paintings.

The other option was Vincent's Suitcase (Meaghan's choice). You get a suitcase full of activities that relate to art appreciation, the use of colour, thinking about why you like a certain painting and then articulating why, etc. It didn't get Meaghan looking as closely as Eamon did to as many paintings, but she did spend time looking at the art and deciding what she liked and then talking about why she liked it.

Meaghan with Vincent's Suitcase

I'm happy to say that both kids left the museum with a favourite painting or two.

The Second World War

We decided to visit the Anne Frank House while Meaghan was reading Anne's diary. The museum complex has grown since I was first there in 1989, and the number of visitors is crazy. But it was worth the stop, and the wait. It still astounds me that two families lived in such secrecy in such a tight space for so long. It's one thing to imagine the tight quarters. It's quite another to cram into it with dozens of other tourists.

Meaghan with Anne Frank

There were also some good displays beyond the rooms about Anne, the diary, and the deportation of the Jews.

However, probably the best museum we've seen this year is The Dutch Resistance Museum. There's a special area for kids that was so terrific and easy to spend a lot of time in, that we never did see much of the main part of the museum.

The kids area focuses on four real children during the war: the resister, the collaborator, the adapter, and the Jew. There is a little house for each kid's family with a bunch of interactive displays in each one. We saw the spy and code-breaking tools in the resister's house, the hiding spot for the Jewish family, all the cool war bits and bobs the adapter had picked up and collected, and the propaganda from the house of the collaborator. We learned how each child was affected during the war, and what life held for each of them after war.

Each of the four is still alive today and the exhibit ended with videos of them reflecting on the war, it's impact, and lessons learned.

Eamon enjoyed it, but Meaghan soaked up every little thing she could. She was utterly transfixed by it all. She went into every little house, played most of the interactive games, read most of the exhibits and thoroughly enjoyed it all. She was most taken with the collaborator who saw the end of the war as something sad and who never celebrates the Dutch liberation because for her, there's nothing to celebrate. Her message was most powerful and was a warning to not blindly follow leaders.

The Food

The food wasn't the healthiest, but it sure was delicious.

Just one bit of goodness.

The stroopwafels were a favourite of the kids. They are cookies with a waffle top and bottom and sugary syrup in the middle. So sweet. Apparently at markets they make them fresh by slicing a waffle in half and adding the syrup. While it would have been great to find these fresh things, I'm not certain our systems could have handled even more sugar!

Four yummy stroopwafels.

But by far the best, twice fried fries with mayonnaise that is spectacular. I'm definitely going to start making my own mayonnaise; so much better than store bought.

The kid that's not a big fan of fries.

The Bikes

Yes, there are a lot.

The House

We found a house in North Amsterdam that had a small playground across the street. And it was a quiet street so the kids could just head on out and play! And there were other kids!! I don't think any further explanation of the awesomeness of this is needed.

The view from our living room window.

The house was also very close to a bus that took us to Centraal Station, but even better, there was a wonderful walk to the free ferry that took us to Centraal Station. The ferry runs nonstop back and forth from Centraal Station. It's for pedestrians, cyclists, and the wee cars intended for handicapped drivers (the red car below). Such a fantastic service!

The ferry with pedestrians, cyclists, and wee cars.

And I have to mention the house itself. Ever watched House Hunters International? Every time they have a house in the Netherlands, the couple complains/comments upon the steep staircase. We had two of them!! They were space saving wonders. By the end of our five days, they barely seemed steep at all.

Stairs to the attic room.

The Trams

The trams are fun and make it so easy to get around. They run fairly frequently, and you just hop on right from the street. There are also buses which we used to get home, but frankly, the trams are more fun. A day pass for the trams and buses for adults is €7.50, but for kids it's only €2.50. The only problem is that you can't buy the kids' passes at machines, you need to find a ticket seller. Fortunately, it's easy to find one at Centraal Station.

The Return

Everyone had a great time and we were all disappointed we didn't stay longer. I have no doubt that many of our fond memories are thanks to Brian and Erica, The Travelling Shus. Two days of seeing other people giving us different things to talk about was a good break for us from us.

But whatever it was, we all left Amsterdam wishing we could have stayed longer, and hoping to return someday.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Amsterdam and the Travelling Shus

Amsterdam is such a unique city. It has the famed red light district, the relaxed drug laws, the bikes, so many bikes, great artists, such fun food, and a long and interesting history. It also has The Travelling Shus. (Technically they are in Harlaam, but that's a minor detail I shall just choose to ignore.)

The Travelling Shus are Brian and Erica, an Edmonton couple who moved to the Netherlands just over a year ago. Though born in Canada, Erika also has Dutch citizenship. In a bold move, they decided to leave friends, families, and jobs in Edmonton to go Dutch.

With The Travelling Shus, ready to chow down on pancakes

Kerry knows Brian from the Edmonton cycling community, the #yegbike group on Twitter. We've been following along with their blog (check it out here) as they discover what it's like for Canadians to move to the Netherlands and figure the place out - to learn the language, to live life, and to travel to the many and varied nearby destinations. We thought it would be fun to meet up with them.

I'm so glad we did. We had such a fantastic time. We felt a bit like we had our own personal tour guides. They happily talked about life in the Netherlands, pointed out differences from home, and answered our questions. We learned so much, such as:
  • How Dutch people continue to bike in their everyday clothes even if it's raining. You get caught in a downpour, oh well, you go around wet because you'll dry off eventually;
  • How the Dutch like sweet things, such as extra syrup or icing sugar on an already sweet pancake;

  • How if you're liked at your job you're doing something wrong (or so someone in Erica's family believes);
  • How Saint Nicholas doesn't have elves, but rather Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). Those who portray this character put on blackface make-up and red lipstick, and wear colourful Renaissance clothes. Not surprisingly, this tradition has become somewhat controversial; and,
  • How people bike around with clunkers because so many bikes get stolen.

Kerry and Brian discussed biking, a lot: the everyday clothes people wear, the lack of helmets, the infrastructure, the parking lots for bikes, the fact that motorcycles are allowed to use bike lanes(!!), and quite likely much more than this.

Brian and Erica were generous with their time. We met for lunch at The Pancake Bakery. All sorts of pancakes, both sweet and savoury. So many options. The savoury options were more like a pizza menu, but using a pancake base rather than pizza crust.  

Stroopwafel cookies in the pancake with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate flakes. And of course, one had the option of adding more syrup if needed.

The next day they took us to Zaanse Schans, an area that shows the traditional way of life with windmills, cheese making, wooden shoes, and baking.

Despite the deluge of rain, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We entered one windmill used for cutting logs. Only 12 logs a day go through this windmill, but it provides the wood for other windmills (construction, refurbishment and upkeep) to help keep them going.

We ate cheese and speculaas (a yummy spice cookie), saw wooden shoes being made, and shopped a wee bit.

It was great meeting up with the Travelling Shus. The weird thing about blogging, I felt like I knew them quite well even though we'd never met - all thanks to reading their blog. Fortunately, in person they are just like, perhaps even better than, their blog.

So if you're looking to read a great travel blog, look them up!