Friday, April 30, 2010

A Day Fit for a Queen

After non-stop sun for well over a week, Queen's Day in the Netherlands was ushered in with a thunderstorm. Seemingly only minutes after the guide and I saw our tour members safely back to our hotel, the heavens opened. But this was Queen's Night - basically, an excuse to party on into the wee hours since the next day is the national holiday - and a little rain couldn't stop us from heading back out to the streets. Crowds packed the Amsterdam city squares, dance music blared from stages, and orange was everywhere.

This morning, too, orange was the color du jour. Alongside the red, white, and blue stripes of the national flag of the Netherlands flew orange ones in honor of the royal family. Queen's Day is, in fact, one of the only times when the royal orange can be raised with the flag. In such a tolerant country, it comes as a surprise to me that such a thing is so strictly regulated, although it lends a special flair to the bright banners.

While Queen's Day is, more or less, a celebration of Dutch independence, it's not fully clear what about this day makes it patriotic, other than the fact that Orange, in honor of the Duke of Orange, who helped liverate the country from Spanish Hapsburg rule, is everywhere. Besides the wearing of the orange, the day is celebrated by turning entire towns and cities into one gigantic flea market. On this day, anyone can sell anything (anything legal, that is), with no permit required. Little girls make cupcakes, college students mix cocktails, and a vast array of junk, ranging from orange leis to used comics to every article of clothing imaginable are on display.

Some get creative - electonic keyboards are set up on street corners for young musical geniuses to showcase their talent and maybe earn a few coins, a wishing wall becomes a place for people to write their wishes on orange post-its in exchange for a donation to help girls in need in Indonesia. "Your wish is absolutely guaranteed to come true," the woman promoting the wishing wall assured me. If that's true, we can all look forward to world peace in the near future. One young man even set himself up as a target for throwing raw eggs - for a fee, of course.

The entreprenurial spirit of the people, and that Dutch way with money, shine even when the sun doesn't. According to the local news, those who were planning on selling in the city planned to make an average of eighty Euros today. Talking with two girls who had a spread set out to raise money for orphans in Ghana, I learned that they had already raised fifty euros, all before noon. With a donation of two more from me, they were well on their way to surpassing the eight Euro mark. Further into the neighborhood, however, a man who convinced me to spring for a fifty cent cup of coffee to comlement my cupcake, noted that he had sold very little. So little, in fact, that he had slashed his prices by half.

"I'd rather sell some coffee for fifty cents than no coffee for one Euro," he told me, while his wife sat in the window of their home with the coffee maker ready for another batch. Dutch practicality wins the day.

As the rain started to clear away, streets and canals become more and more crowded with partiers on foot, bike, and boat. The party will last late into the night, I'm sure, but in the meantime I'll be on my way to Barcelona. Which is just as well, considering that another night of less than five hours of sleep would probably not be the best way to start off my next tour. Not to mention the fact that my orange shirt, purchased yesterday for the big event, probably would smell even less sweet after another night surrounded by spilled beer and various kinds of smoke wafting through the air... this is Amsterdam, after all.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy a last few hours in the Netherlands, and wish everyone, Queen included, a very happy holiday.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Light in the Low Countries

It's late April and the sun is shining in the Netherelands. In other words, right now is the perfect time to be here. North Seat beaches that are packed in August offer today offer a wided expance of windswept white sand, thee tulips are just beginning to bloom, and bicyclists are out in their shirt sleeves. Even here at the hotel computer I can feel the warmth of the sun streaming through the window, highlighting the fresh green leaves on an apple tree that is just beginning to blossom.

Considering the time of year, the weather has been amazing. Sure, it's chilly in the morning, when I bundle up in my cardigan and jacket before stepping outside for our local walking tours, but by the time noon hits the extra layers have been peeled back and first on my mind is how to take advantage of the wonderful blue skies above in my photos.

So, I think you'll understand when I sasy I can't write for long - us native Northwesterners know we always must take advantage of a sunny day. Tot ziens!

Friday, April 23, 2010

So, three Flemish sailors walk into a bar...

Well, to be more accurate, one Dutch guide, one American guide, and nine tour members walk into a bar, and meet the three Flemish sailors...

So began our optional pub crawl to a couple of traditional Belgain pubs here in Bruges for our tour members. The pub in question offers a Belgian tripel beer with 11% alcohol, and I think these sailors were already on their third by the time we met them (the third being the maximum number allowed by the pub, considering the high alcohol content). It made for a fun evening, the kind of thing that can never be planned.

So, if you should meet three Flemish sailors in a pub, invite them over. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Look at Luxembourg

Last night in Luxembourg, tonight in Belgium (and believe me, I'm really craving a beer right now, so I know where I'm headed once I finish this post): it's a whirlwind tour! But I am thankful to be here, although it sounds like our poor tour group, which is scheduled to start tomorrow, may be down to eleven members. This, combined with the fact that my lead guide still has yet to arrive in the city, does make me just a little wary.

But Luxembourg was a joy to visit, filled with turrets, twisting alleys, beautiful bridges, and the distinctive feeling of France, but in a trilingual community and service with a smile. The Luxembourgers, having long been a small nation, sandwiched between the European powerhouses of Frqnce and Germany, have no choice but to live side by side with others. In fact, "foreigners", mostly from within the European Union, make up almost half of the population of this tiny country.

This was one fact I learned on a guided tour through the city this afternoon, with a cheerful, yet highly opinionated, native Luxembourger as our guide. Among others, he rated both Regan and Obama as great American presidents, so at least it can be said that his opinions don't subscribe to one particular political ideology, at least other than democracy. Ah, democracy! That was the word of the day, as our guide insisted that everything was fair - as long as it was decided democratically, by the people, not the politicians.

We traveled up and down the city; situated as it is on top of a natural fortress of rock, it's easy to work up a sweat while traversing the town. Today, with the sun shining despite the haze on the horizon (a haze caused in part by volcqnic ash, perhaps?), it wass even easy to get an accidental sunburn.

I left Luxembourg feeling that my time there had been too short, and wondering why it doesn't even merit a mention in Rick's guidebooks. But then, it's also nice to feel like I've discovered a little piece of European charm all by myself.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Goodbyes and Hellos

Volcanic ash may be swirling in the air high above me, but here in Mainz the sun is shining, light streaming through the windows onto crisp white walls. Sara and Taylor's apartment is immaculatly decorated, starting with a palette of pure white as the backdrop. Orchids soak up the sun, nestled next to window panes that peek out from under gabled dormers, and a triangle of glass in the loft lets in light from the terrace. I've hung the sheets outside to dry in the unseasonably warm weather, hopeful that they might be dry within the hour, at which point I'll be headed out to catch another train, this time for Luxembourg, taking all my luggage with me and leaving behind the key to this lovely place.

The only thing that would have made it better, I have to concede, would be if Sara herself were here. But as fate would have it, she and her husband were off to the United States mere days before I flew into Frankfurt, with the result that I would up with a free place to stay but no company with whom to share it.

It's been a lovely week, though, and I can't even muster up the will to worry about whether or not Iseland's ongoing volcanic erruption will prove disruptive to the tour I'm scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Brussels or not. For the first time in a long while, I will be leaving this afternoon with no reservations, only a plan to stop by the hostel in Luxembourg city, hoping they have a bed available (although I can't claim to really be so adventurous and devil-may care, considering I did check their website yesterday to make sure they weren't fully booked).

I'll miss my temporary home in Mainz, but it's also time to pick up the pace and get back into the travel routine, for I don't really conside what I've been doing this past week to be travel in the true sense of the word. A break from the routine, sure, and definitely a means of getting away from it all, spending time on my own without any agenda other than to do nothing beyond what I feel like doing, something which is surprisingly difficult to accomplish at home.

Goodbye, Germany. We'll meet again soon, I hope. Maybe in this very same apartment, over one more cup of tea.

The Taste of May

"Do you know Maibolle?" Britta asked me.

"Marburg? No," I replied, wondering how it was that this town was coming up in the dinner conversation.

Britta proceeded to explain, auf Deutsch (the only language spoken when I visit my relatives in this part of the world), how wine and sparkling wine are infused with herbs to create a traditional spring beverege. It sounded delicious, but -

"They call this Marburg?" I asked again, still confused.

"Oh, no. Maibolle," she repeated, and this time I got it. The word "Mai", German for the month of May, immediately brings to mind thoughts of spring, and what could go better with spring than a refreshing drink of lightly sparkling and delicately herb flavored white wine. Peter, my dad's German cousin, brought out a pitcher and poured me a sample.

"It's delicious!" I enthused.

"And it goes quickly to your head!" Monika laughed.

"Don't tell her that!" Britta countered. Now everyone held their glasses out for a taste of Maibolle. Tonight, the grill had already made it's first appearance of the year, providing us with platters of wurst and marinated meats. Now, with the Maibolle, it was official: spring is finally here. Of course, it had grown too cold in the evening for us to enjoy the meal outside, but the sun was shining nonetheless.

Little discoveries, like Maibolle, provide me with some of the most pleasure when I travel. I don't even know if I'm spelling it right, or what a "Bolle" is, but two pitchers later, I can tell you that it sure tastes great. It's flavored with Waldmeister, a popular spring herb here in Germany, whose name literally means, "forestmaster". Having never heard of such an herb in the U.S., Peter pulled out a massive tome of a German/English dictionary to find a translation. The answer? Woodruff. Yeah, that cleared things up. Even at the Herb Garden, perhaps the Seattle area's fanciest restaurant, does woodruff ever make an appearance? Would the average American even recognize woodruff as a plant, let alone an edible one?

It's a shame, really, because Waldmeister is pretty tasty. So tasty, in fact, that you can even buy Waldmeister flavored Gummi Bears in the spring at Baeren Treff, the all-Gummi, all-the-time shop located in Wiesbaden. I made a pilgrimage to Baeren Treff with Leonie, the German student who visited us in Seattle last summer, who happens to live in Wiesbaden. I left the shop with a lighter wallet but a much heavier load, weighed down by more than four kilos of Gummi Bears, a bag of Waldmeister included for good measure. It may not be Maibolle, but for friends and family back home in the Pacific Northwest, it will be a little taste of springtime in Deutschland.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Trier at a Glance

Never judge a town by its train station. By that standard, arriving in Trier is a real letdown. This is Germany's oldest city? Home of the best preserved ancient Roman building outside of Rome? From this vantage point, it looks more like the home of Germany's worst 1960s architecture, from which not even the station itself was spared.

But if you walk a little farther, you'll begin to notice some elegant 19th century town homes to your left, and before you've gone much further, something far older and far more interresting appears. The Porta Nigra, or Black Gate (named for the darkened sandstone from which it was made), marks a grand entrance into Trier's old town.

Walk through this portal, and the traffic and ugly architecture of more rececnt times are quickly put out of sight and mind. While little original is left of what was once a grand Roman city, capitol of the Western sector of ancient Rome after the Emperor Diocletian split the empire into four parts, what you'll see today features a mix of medeival and more, all centered around a pretty market square and capped with Germany's oldest Christian church, a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic, built upon an ancient Roman foundation. Even signs announcing the location of H&M and McDonald's above glassy window displays do little to detract from the scene.

Even better than the beautiful buildings, the people of Trier are what brings the town to life. It's easy to imagine that the town's inhabitants have been buying their fruit and vegetables here for hundreds of years, where today teenagers camp next to medeival monuments and practice their skateboarding moves in the square outside the fourth century Roman basilica. Around the corner, families stroll in Baroque gardens, enjoying the lack of rain despite grey skies overhead.

When the time comes for me to head back to Mainz, I walk straight through the Porta Nigra, exchanging the sound of children laughing for that of city traffic. But it only takes a quick turn of the head to see that the Porta Nigra still stands, no longer a necessary protector of the city, but a welcome into another world.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Spa Day the German Way

Wrapped in a warm, clean sheet enveloped in a soft woolen blanket, I realize that it has been a long time since I've been swaddled. In fact, I can't even remember back that far, although I'm sure that at some point in my infancy my mother must have bundled me in such a way, my arms tucked next to my body for comfort, safe in my own cocoon. Now, as an adult, I relax and enjoy the warmth and gentle silencec around me.

Getting to the swadling took some doing. It is the second to last step in a seventeen step process at Baden Baden's Roman baths. Considering that the seventeenth step is hanging out wrapped in another clean sheet on a lounge chair with a lackluster German magazine collection in the "reading room", I'd say that it's the last step that really counts. So, step 16: spend half an hour in the resting room, swaddled.

I admit I found the steps a little confusing at times. And reading the full step-by-step desscription out on the landing before I entered the spa probably wouldn't have helped much considering that seventeen steps is a lot to remember, and part of the confusion lies in the fact that the individual rooms for each part of the process are not laid out in a simple straight line. This confusion is compounded by the fact that without my glasses, the signs, written in soothing pale green and taupe, are rathere difficult to spot, and impossible to read from any distance. But who wants to weear glasses in a spa?

When it comes down to it, who wants to wear anything in a spa? These aren't called Baths for nothing - people come here to relax, recuperate, and get super squeaky clean, which means a dress code of nothing beyond your locker wristband is always enforced. I knew this ahead of time, but I also knew that most of the rooms, with the excecption of a couple of pools, were segregated by sex, with the exception of Sundays, Tuesday, and holidays, when bathing is mixed. But I had come on a Wednesday. Perfect timing, I thought.

But apparrently mixed bathing is pretty popular in Baden Baden, for when I walked up to the entrance of the elegant Friedrichsbad building, I saw someething that did not correlate with the information in my Rick Steves' guidebook: Mittwoch gemischt. Wednesdays mixed.

Now I had a decision to make, and ultimately, I decided that Friedrichsbad is a classy place and if the Germans themselves feel comfortable enough to do this three days out of seven, plus holidays (and believe me, they have more holidays than we do), then I hadn't come all this way just to turn around in false shame. It was no big deal, right?

And... it wasn't. A big deal, that is. Nobody pays much attention to anyone else, as everyone is there to enjoy their own personal experience, alone or together with their partner, friends, or family. Guests and staff (who are professionally clothed all in white) are curteous, quiet, and help the space maintain a sense of utter relaxation, cleanliness, and even elegance.

Starting with a shower that warms you to your bones, you'll move to the sauna rooms before returning for another soothing shower. You next visit the steam rooms, after experiencing the optional ten minute brush massage (if you paid for it). The steam rooms lead you to a series of mineral pools, starting with a wonderfully warm one. Throughout this experience you can close your eyes and drift into a half sleep, or stare at the beatifully tiled ceilings and glass domes. The culmination is the grand dome in the center over a pool of clear, cool blue water. Completely alone when I entered this space, I swam silently across the circular pool, gazing up at the amazing surroundings. It felt like a taste of heaven.

After a soak in the warm water whirlpool, followed by a final shower, drying off with a fresh warm towel, and applying "creme", or lotion, I found myself finally in the quiet room. Beds formed an inner and outer circle under yet another dome, and I could make out figures bundled in blankets atop some of the beds across the room. Charmed by the idea, I lay down on one of the beds and folded the blanket over me.

Some minutes had passed when I felt a gentle nudge near my feet. A woman in white whispered for me to rise. Had I done something wrong? Yes, as it turns out, you are supposed to let them wrap you, and I'd skipped protocol. You don't just lie down on a plain old blanket. But the woman was very nice about it as she laid a clean warm sheet on a new blanket for me, then wrapped me just snugly enough to be supremely cozy.

Somestimes, a good swaddling is exactly what we need.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Planes, Train, but no Automobiles

German trains are not always on time; that is a myth. Granted, a German train might only be late by five minutes, as compared with a five hour delay on Amtrak, but clockwork timeliness is not always acheived. That award would go to the Swiss.

Still, the train system is a marvel. Bold yellow placards display the daily arrivals at each station, and locals start to peer down the tracks with just a hint of angst in their stolid expressions when a train does not appear precisely when expected. Waiting by the tracks, I practice my own look of nonchalance, hoping to seem nothing more than the average daily commuter.

Inside, however, I am not always so suave. Despite the thoroughness of the German rail system, I have already managed, since my arrival Tuesday evening, to make more than one blunder. First: choosing the wrong train at the Frankfurt Airport station. What can I say, the train I was supposed to take followed almost the same route as the one I mistakenly boarded while neglecting to check the number posted clearly on the side of each car. I point the blame squarely on having just completed around 13 ours of flight time, not including my layover in Heathrow. It was to be expected that I wouldn't be quite with the program, right? Fortunately, being familiar with the region (and, more importantly, being familiar with how to read the transportation system maps clearly posted in the local trains featuring clearly labeled routes in clearly defined lines, not to mention the clearly visible digital updates and occassionally clear verbal announcements prior to each station) I realized my mistake as soon as the train headed back across the Main River. I waited to disembark until the appropriate station where the two train lines converged again, then caught the train I should have taken in the first place heading in the opposite direction.

But then there was yesterday. Without having first checked the schedules online, I headed to Mainz Hauptbahnhof, certain I would find a direct connection leaving for Baden Baden sometime soon. As a matter of fact there was one leaving... right this minute! I turned and ran to the stairs, only to see said train pull out of the station a mere two seconds before my feet landed on the platform. This train was definitely on time. But no problem: I only had 50 minutes to wait before another one. To pass the time, I headed out to take a few photos with the sun almost shining through he whiteness overhead. I was back at the station with time to spare.

Just how much time I had to spare wasn't immediately discernable, but I began to feel suspicious when, with only five minutes left before the scheduled arrival, the sign on platform four still remained blank, rather than listing the oncoming train information. I hopped nimbly up the stairs to the main hall to check the supersized arrivals board, only to find that my train wasn't even mentioned. Huh?

Too proud to ask for help when I figured I still had few minutes to remaining and could spare myself the embarassment, I scrutinized the yellow departures sign back down by the tracks. It was then that I noticed the tiny asterisk below the train number. Whatever this meant, it couldn't be good. There, below the full listing of stops the train would make once leaving Mainz, small italics noted: 29, 30 Dez. This train, apparantly, only ran on December 29th and 30th. How convenient. Every other day of the year, I realized when I scrolled further down the listing searching for my next option, it left Mainz one hour later. I had another 60 minutes to wait.

Still, the train showed up on time, and I had a wonderful afternoon in Baden Baden, with time to addmire the wonderfully efficient German city bus system, where each stop has a name, all routes are cleaerly outlined at every stop, automatic machines issue tickets and provide change, and LCD screens even illustrate where the bus is headed once you are on board. Seattle, you have a long, long way to go.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Fish Story

"It's on the house," Toyoda's sushi chef slid a plate heaped with albacore sashimi towards us. My eyes widened.

"Wow, that's a lot of fish," I murmured, chopsticks paused in mid-air already grasping a slice of maguro tuna. The tiny dish of maguro and scallop had seemed, to me, to be the perfect size for one. Now I'd been presented with an unexpectedly large gift, increasing my fish supper three-fold.

Not that I could complain; the albacore was soft and delicately flavored, fresh and cold on my tongue. But I couldn't eat it all on my own - I needed to bring Michael over to the sashimi side of sushi.

There is very little in the way of seafood that Michael will eat. But a tuna sandwich, especially one featuring albacore, is one thing that doesn't elicit a grimace, and with the discovery about a year ago that he outright loves spicy tuna rolls (which, let it be known, contain tuna in the raw), I saw an opportunity.

"Michael, you really should try a piece," I offered. "The flavor is just like albacore from the can, and it's much milder than the maguro, which is what you ate in your spicy tuna rolls."

Michael wasn't so sure, but with a little more sake, he felt ready to take the plunge. First, though, the albacore must be marinated in soy sauce and wasabi. And oshinko maki (pickled radish roll) was on hand to act as a chaser. Gingerly, he picked up the piece of tuna, practically dripping with soy sauce, pausing to examine it with a worried look before popping it into his mouth.

He chewed. I waited silently, breathless with anticipation. I still remember the putrid look he gave me when I convince him to try calamari in Greece, and I was hoping this wouldn't be a repeat. He swallowed, then turned to face me.

"You know, it wasn't bad," he mused. "If I can just get over the idea of eating raw fish."

Victory was at hand! Over the course of the evening, Michael managed to eat two more pieces, and even tried a tiny sliver of scallop, my personal favorite. Of that, he wasn't sure what to think.

"It's not fishy," he agreed, "but it's slimy and weird." He reached for another piece of albacore, and I happily polished off the rest of the scallop by myself.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Spinning Round

Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! The balance has shifted in the load of towels, bedsheets, and denim, and the machine wobbles slightly under the strain. It's hardly a reassuring sound, but I've learned to ignore it as long as the knocking doesn't reach a fever pitch. The sound gradually decrescendos to a comfortable, even whirr.

In less than a week I'll be heading out on the road (or, perhaps more aptly, on the plane), and tonight is the last night I'll have to completely to myself before that trip. What better way to spend it than doing laundry? In go crimson sheets and towels to restock the guest room for my family's arrival tomorrow, and I make sure to include the brand new pair of black jeans I've bought for my travels. With any luck, this will be the last load of laundry I'll do before I leave. But who am I kidding? I can already see another one, this time a pile of dingy whites, forming in my near future.

The time comes to move on to the second step in laundry care: the dryer. Pulling out sodden balls of terrycloth and dripping cotton, I'm a little wary. Isn't the washer supposed to wring out the excess water? An armful of only a couple of towels feels crushingly heavy, but I transfer them to the dryer anyway. I have the Rick Steves' DVD cued up for Granada and Morocco, not to mention a mug of hot tea calling my name.

But when the final scenes of Tangier fade from the screen, I find the laundry room suspiciously silent. Our dryer is not all powerful, and stubbornly refuses to put any more effort into the Herculean task of drying such a soppy mess. Back in the washer they go, while I utilize all my brainpower to trying to determine where precisely to set the washer dial to achieve maximum spin with minimal time and no more water. After an initial rush of water comes streaming in (I said spin, not rinse!), I realize that five minutes is all it takes to wring out the excess, and the dryer now hums happily with a more manageable load.

It makes me wonder, how many times do we cut corners only to find ourselves right back where we started, losing any time we thought we'd saved and more? How long does it take to learn such a simple lesson? Frankly, I'm too tired for such thoughts at the moment. Any life lessons found in a load of laundry will have to wait until tomorrow morning, along with the freshly cleaned sheets.

Monday, April 5, 2010

To Blog or Not to Blog

Happy Easter! Now that Lent is over, I'm back online. That's right - I gave up the Internet for Lent - at least, inasmuch as that was reasonable, meaning I was still online at work (technically all of our work systems are online, without even counting the times I go to the web for work-related information) and I used my lunch half-hour to respond to email, pay bills, and check my accounts online. But that was it: no Internet usage at home, no blogging, no random surfing, no news, no comics, nada. Plus, no TV, DVDs, or movies, period. The idea was to go as free from electronic visual media as possible.

In a way, I'm sad it's over. Lent has a way of forcing me into self-control that I might otherwise lack. However, the idea that this self-imposed media fast would bring about reflection on relationships and spiritual needs over material over-consumption may not have exactly panned out.

As for the blog... I'm not sure what step to take next. I enjoy the writing, but sometimes the banal, "hey, look what I did today, come read all about it!" aspect of blogging can be wearing. It was good to take a break. Maybe it's time for something a little different.

But first - Rutabagastories goes on tour again. I'll be flying into Frankfurt next Monday, and spending five weeks in Europe. Where will I go? Follow along, if you're curious. I know I am.