Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Waffles and Waterways

I'm afraid it might sound as though I planned our vacation to the Netherlands and England around my own agenda. We did plan together, listen to each other's wishes and try to fit them all in! 

We left the visual feast of the Van Gogh Museum for a feast of a different kind. A friend had told Katherine about a waffle shop across from the museum, which we "had" to visit. She'd spotted it on our walk to the museum and we headed for it afterwards with an appetite ready to experience the waffles. However we stood before such an array of waffles (or "wafels") such as we had never seen before. We can buy "stroop wafels" in Canadian grocery stores, but these were, just made. Agonizing over having to choose, we opted to experience these--fresh--and were not disappointed. The delectable crispy parts and gooey, warm, sweet parts melted into our mouths deliciously. Katherine texted her friend to report, "Mission accomplished," only to be told, "No, those weren't the right ones."
Obediently, we tried the "right ones;" with strawberries and cream. :)
On our way to the waffle stand we had passed a sales booth for canal boat tours, and had booked one for later that afternoon, since the weather was so warm and sunny.

It was just us and a lovely family from Los Angeles, California, and our "captain," Erik, who did a great job of telling us what we were seeing.

Tori and Katherine took lots of photos, while Tippy sketched.
Paul said that this was the best part of the vacation so far. We all enjoyed the peaceful, relaxation of the boat ride through a city with centuries of history on every hand.

But getting back to my agenda, I did have one, and it unfolded over the next couple of days...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Life Force

Did you know that every year the Van Gogh Museum has 1.5 million visitors, who come to Amsterdam from all over the world? That is an average of over 4,000 visitors a day! 

On our third morning in Amsterdam, we walked from our little apartment, down pretty streets lined with tall, gabled houses; over flower lined bridges that spanned canals; all the while dodging the bikes which seemed to approach precariously from every direction. We arrived at the museum early, to find a line already well formed, of people waiting for the museum to open.  We joined and waited with them, with a sense of approaching something sacred. Well, that's my version. Paul waited impatiently because he hates to wait for anything.

As soon as we entered the doors, Paul announced wearily  that he was going to the cafe, mumbling with a pained expression, about not being able to take another museum! We have mostly figured out how to "be" quite happily, in spite of, and sometimes because of, our different tastes. So I left Mr. B. to his coffee, and prepared to enter a state of ecstasy in contemplating the work of Mr. VG. The girls went on at their own faster pace, while I lingered, to my heart's content, staring and admiring, and being overtaken with emotion as I followed the progression of Van Gogh's work as laid out chronologically in the museum, along with his copious letters and personal history. His tragic life's end came just as he seemed to be touching the finger of God himself with his art, which is so full of vibrancy and life force.
"A Vincent Van Gogh" by Vincent van Gogh - www.galeriacanvas.pl. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
It must have been an hour later that I came across Paul, not in the cafe. He was carrying a golden shopping bag with Van Gogh Sunflowers on it. Eyes alive and energized, he told me about an amazing painting he'd seen, describing the colours. 

Today I was with Tippy and I asked her what she enjoyed most on our trip. "Oh, the people," she said, "meeting them all (her uncle Bob and cousins) and putting faces to names; but the museums were pretty cool too."  I mentioned her grandfather at the Van Gogh Museum and she said, "Yes, he was pretty excited about the art there. He told me he didn't like abstract art but said this was amazing, and that I should do this." 

I almost forgot the golden shopping bag. "I bought this for  you," Paul said, pulling a book called, "Master-pieces," from within.

Epiphany? Conversion? Baptism of fire? I don't know what you 'd call it, but seeing it was so much fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


If I had imagined any granddaughter in particular as an enthusiastic partner in my epic plan to visit the Rijksmuseum, it would have been Tippy. She who eats, sleeps and breathes art! 

But at some point in our journey to the Netherlands, she said to me, "I have to let you know that I'm more interested in doing art than looking at it; I hope that doesn't disappoint you." And her gentle brown eyes peered into mine searchingly. (That talk I gave the girls on "authentic self representation" seemed to have "taken" with Tippy too.) I just smiled into the honest face I love and said, "Of course it doesn't." 

I, on the other hand had enough excitement to cover the five of us if necessary. I even loved the name: "Rijks" museum. "Rijk" is a Dutch word that means "riches," and "abundance," and I could not wait to see this place of aesthetic beauty, filled with works of the Dutch Masters, displayed in a way that allowed the public to get up close. I explained to the girls that even the colours on the walls were from the palate used by the famous painter Vermeer.

So the day after we arrived in Amsterdam we set out on foot for the Museum Quarter in search of a dream about to come true.

Early birds, we arrived at the exquisite building just as it was about to open for the day. 

We started in the elegant cafe, with delicious, strong, black, Dutch coffee for Paul and I, and tea and hot chocolate for the girls; with a selection of Dutch cookies that Katherine declared, "Fancy."

And then began a feast of another kind in which we were drenched in the finest Dutch art of the past 500 years or so.

On the top floor, to the rapid click, click, click, sound of an old movie projector, a film was playing. It was by film maker Andor von Barsy, and was called, "De Stadt die Nooit Rust," which means, "The City that Never Rests." It was made in Rotterdam in 1928. I sat down on one of the plain wooden benches in the room and watched the evocative and historic footage, as my eyes filled with tears. I thought about the fact that somewhere in that busy city on the day Andor von Barsy made the film, there was a little girl of two years old, named Pieternella, who would one day have a daughter named Belinda! You can watch the film by clicking here (note: it has been uploaded to You Tube in two separate clips. ) 

In the same room that the film was showing was a beautiful propellor plane, which I found Tippy sketching.

A curator peered over her shoulder to look, and with a nod, said approvingly, "Good."

Tori and Katherine explored the museum together, taking photographs. All of us were absorbing the riches of the Rijksmuseum  in our own way.

We left at midday for lunch, but Katherine and I came back to tour the special exhibition on the history of fashion magazines. 

Beneath the arches of the museum, there is a bike path. Nothing, not even a revered museum can stop the Dutch from riding their bikes!
And as well as bikers, there were buskers. We saw three of them that day, taking turns: a young violinist, a saxaphonist, and an an accordianist with a haunting and beautiful voice. 
The acoustics were outstanding and all of us were captivated by the music.

When the young singer looked into a distant place in her imagination and sang, La Vie en Rose, that beautiful and haunting song, originally by Edith Piaf, the tears were back, and by now the girls were getting used to it. :)

There was much, much, more, but this is a blog and not a book. Let me just say, my heart was full when Tippy turned to me, and meaningfully said..."Thank you."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

H.Q. Amsterdam

Renting an urban apartment in Amsterdam was based on reading online reviews and economy. We would be able to cook some meals and our money would go further, and as well, we would really be "in" the city. The location was listed as very close to the Museum Quarter and since the idea that originally prompted this trip was to see the great Rijksmuseum, that seemed perfect. Other than that I really had no idea how it would work out for us. 

Having our base in Amsterdam on a street within walking distance of some of the places we wanted to see, restaurants, and a grocery store, turned out to be great. Our apartment on Gerard Dou Straat was equipped with a washing machine, convection oven, fridge and small appliances; everything we needed. On the street corner there was an artsy music store with a glittering glass mosaic in the style of Picasso on the wall.

On our first evening Tori and I tried to capture the beauty of the place in photographs--just an ordinary street in Amsterdam, yet so many interesting things to see: bikes everywhere; beautiful flowers growing beside every front door it seemed; interesting windows, doors, people. So much to take in.

It was "cosy" but no one minded!

Tori needs her personal space, so she volunteered to sleep on the couch. After a few days she became quite firm about the curfew for anyone who might be watching TV in her "bedroom." At 10 p.m. she decreed "lights out," and we obeyed. Years ago I talked to my granddaughters about "authentic self representation," in other words, straight forwardly saying what you really feel, not saying what you think will please the listener; which we women often have trouble with. Tori is the one with whom it seems to have stuck best, and she still quotes that phrase, saying, "You told us..." :) 

Looking out into the courtyard garden and at the buildings facing our bedrooms, reminded me of the back of my grandmother's flat in Rotterdam. The second floor back bedroom window looked down onto a courtyard of gravel and greenery edged by doors and windows from which small bits of other people's lives could be  glimpsed. One of the neighbours had gymnastic hoops hanging from the door to the courtyard and although I never saw anyone using them, I was sometimes the invisible audience to someone practicing the piano; the notes reverberating in the enclosed space.

 I was so happy that the girls were experiencing something close to my happy memories. I think the "Thank you's," started soon after we arrived. The excitement at coming had been great, but now we were "here," and it was all so "different," and (mostly) wonderful. Many times over the days together one or other of the girls would turn to me, look into my eyes and say, "Thank you." My thank you was being 
here, with them.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sentimental Journey

The happiest place in my English childhood was The Netherlands, where our perennially homesick Dutch mum took my brother Rob and me whenever she could scrimp together enough money for the journey, often helped financially by one of our large flock of Dutch relatives.

The journey there began with a "lift" to Birmingham from one of our neighbours who owned a car (Dad rode a motorbike.) At the station we waved goodbye to Dad and caught a train for the long journey to London. In the late afternoon we got a taxi to a different station in London and boarded the "boat train" to Harwich, the port on the east coast, from which we would travel overnight by boat to the Hook of Holland, (or Hoek van Holland,) a short car ride from Rotterdam, our final destination.

We would wake up at dawn and peer out at a land so different to England that our young senses absorbed the many different sights, sounds and smells and they were imprinted on our psyches forever. For me these became ever after associated with deep happiness. A whiff of cigar smoke, the sound of a ship's horn in the distance, or a couple conversing in Dutch is enough to stir my heart. 

En route to Rotterdam we stared from the back seat of an uncle's car at flat, clean, cobbled streets and throngs of people riding bikes to work; as synchronized as flocks of birds in the sky.

These memories lay behind my dream to share my roots in the Netherlands and England with my grandchildren. And so, after much saving, planning and excitement, in August this year, Paul and I left for Europe with Tippy and Katherine; both 17; and 16 year old Tori. We just left from an airport, not a sea port, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, not the North Sea.

Both sets of parents were excited, a little apprehensive, and wished they could come too. The girls were just excited, or so I thought. It was only as the plane rumbled and shook with engines roaring, at take off, that I turned to Tori, sitting next to me (because I knew that she preferred not to sit beside a stranger,) and saw something else. One immaculately manicured hand was under the armrest and the other over it; gripping it as though her life depended on it. Her knuckles were as white as her cool nail polish! I realized that she was bravely and silently working through a fear of flying, and having inherited the same way of coping as her Omie, she wasn't talking about it. :)

In the morning we landed in Heathrow and caught a connecting flight to Amsterdam for the first leg of our vacation. The first thing we did before anything else was have breakfast at Schiphol airport--"poffertjes" , or mini Dutch pancakes. They were declared delicious!

In no time we were at our urban apartment in Amsterdam, and surrounded, as Rob and I once were, by what seemed like millions of bikes. Not the sleek, sports bikes of Canada, but old work horses with personality. We heard the whir of wheels; the squeak and creak of saddles; and the whoosh of air parted. And I felt again that old deep and abiding happiness.

Monday, September 07, 2015

New Season, New Day

This Labour Day was as hot and sultry as high summer. But a row of yellow school buses, shiny and clean, with numbers prominently displayed on their front windows; stood on a nearby parking lot; their seats waiting to welcome a whole new season's batch of young students. They signaled the reality that no summer lasts forever.

In the shade of a magnolia tree, I sat on our small north easterly deck, listening to the chatter of leaves in the soft breeze, and smiling at the irony that Labour Day, being a holiday, gave me permission to do nothing at all. 

This morning I did it--nothing, that is. I simply leaned back into my bright blue resin Adirondack chair and thought for a while, as the cars on the nearby highway zoomed by as in another world.

For me, this Labour Day is the first in 41 years that doesn't precede a paid work day. I have the freedom to choose how I spend my time and haven't stopped thanking God for that privilege several times each day.

The past year has been intense and busy. So much so that I found I couldn't write, even though there was so much to write about. I had little energy, let alone time, so I surrendered and focused instead on surviving with Paul the stress of his heart attack; trying to "end well," at a career I loved; and fulfilling a dream to travel to Europe with three teenage granddaughters.

And here I am at last, having caught my breath, embarking on a whole new adventure that feels like "school let out" and "back to school" all at once!

I have time for investing in relationships in a deeper way; to develop the craft of writing and greater skill in photography; time for building spiritual muscle; to pray; to exercise my physical body; to read; to have space for God's agenda.

None of us knows just how much time we have, but it feels like the greatest of riches to have more as I start this new life chapter. And I am so grateful to have broken the writing ice at last!