Friday, June 29, 2018

Exploring Tallinn, Estonia

Exploring Tallinn, Estonia.

Last night, Matt went to bed early as he wasn’t feeling well.  Unfortunately, that continued today.  As I explained to him this evening, most likely the problem isn’t really an illness at all.  Rather, his intestines are feeling put out by the new kinds of foods he’s been eating in northern Europe and decided to let him know how upset they are by going on strike.  I gave him two Imodium this morning (all I had), and we bought him a box in Tallinn this afternoon.

The good news is that evening he seems to be feeling much better.  His mood has improved, his energy level seems almost entirely restored, and his congestion is nearly gone.  He ordered rice and bottled water for dinner, and I brought him bananas and candied ginger from the main dining room.  Hopefully, his intestines will go back to work tomorrow and he can join us in St. Petersburg.

Shayna also wasn’t that happy this morning, but that’s mostly because she got so little sleep due to Matt’s snoring.  After breakfast, I suggested she take a nap in my room.  She got an extra hour while I did my morning “constitutional” of four laps around the promenade.  Meanwhile, I could see we had arrived in Tallinn and were being nudged into position at the pier.  Because of the heavy wind, our docking was delayed as the tugs were being used for another ship.  We eventually docked at 10:30, and people started going ashore.  I woke up Shayna and dad around 10:45, and we headed off to visit Tallinn, Estonia.

The old town was very pretty, and dad did ok on all the cobblestones.  He wasn’t thrilled at the idea of climbing up the hill to Toompea Castle, so he sat outside a church and we did a quick tour of the hill (just 30 minutes) before heading back to meet him.   

As we began to walk back towards the boat, the sky started to threaten rain. That’s when we found out that Shayna didn’t bring an umbrella on the trip.  When it started to drizzle, I suggested stopping in a café; dad reluctantly agreed, as he wanted to have lunch on the ship.  I ordered a pastry and cappuccino, while Shayna got a water and salmon sandwich.  By the time we were done, the rain had passed.

Then we made a detour into the new part of Tallinn to find a pharmacy.  Shayna was excited to see how “the common people” lived.  Dad was going to buy a new toothbrush to replace the one he lost in Amsterdam, but I told him I brought an extra (I did, really).  Then it was back to the ship.  Originally, Shayna was going to stay with me to explore other parts of Tallinn, but she decided to go back to take a nap.

I walked around the new town and the parts of the old town I hadn’t gotten to.  I had hoped to visit the Museum of the Occupations, on the Nazi and Soviet periods, but it was almost on the opposite side of the city from me, and after five hours of walking, it was just too far.  That being said, I’ve been aware of the Holocaust by simply how homogenous Estonia appears.  I’ve never seen so many blond people in one place.  I eventually concluded that if someone wasn’t blond, they must be a tourist or immigrant. 

Estonia was one of the first countries where the Nazis succeeded in murdering the entire Jewish population.  At the Wannsee conference, Estonia (or Eßland) was listed as “Judenfrei” or “free of Jews.”  The only Jews I’ve seen were Israeli tourists in the marzipan store.  It feels a bit odd to be in a place where there used to be a Jewish community and not to see any trace or memorial to them.

Back on board, I checked on dad, Matt, and Shayna.  Everyone was supposed to be on board by 5:30, but there was one couple on Deck 7 who weren’t back yet.  At 5:35, they read their names over the ship’s loudspeakers.  From the veranda, I could see them running down the deck (well, as fast as you can run when you’re in your 70s).  After they boarded, the ship removed the gangplank.

After a light dinner in the dining room, I went to the classical concert while dad napped and Shayna went to the hot tub.  They announced on the loudspeakers that due to heavy winds and four large cruise ships arriving at the same time as us, our docking may be delayed tomorrow.  I let our Russian travel agent know and she’s pushed back the meeting until 10 am.  That’s probably later than it needs to be, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Our plan is to meet around 8 or 8:15 for breakfast in the Lido buffet.  Since we now don’t have to leave the ship until 9:30-45, we can probably go to breakfast as late as 8:25.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I Can Finally Relax

I can finally relax.

After the stress of going to Brussels and getting to the ship, I can finally relax.

My first step was having the special “Nordic” cocktail (I forget its name), which was a mix of vodka, sprite, and raspberries.  It was very sweet, but did pack a punch.  They let me keep the “glass” (well, plastic really).  I’m not sure what I can do with it as it’s at least two feet high.

The stateroom is very large and comfortable, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever had.  There are plenty of closets, a nice-sized bathroom (with a shower, not a tub, as my father had feared), a couch, desk, and veranda.  After finally figuring out how to open the door, I’ve sat out there and read (though I’ve mostly used for drying laundry).

Dinner was in the main dining room last night.  I very much enjoyed my French onion soup, but the New York strip loin was a little tough and dry.  The dessert was good.  After dinner, I explored the ship, checking out the various lounges.  The layout and the options are rather different from the Holland America ship my father and I did in Alaska.  The library is much smaller and isn’t as nice (I overheard one passenger telling another that HAL did away with its cruise librarian).  

Instead of printed maps, they now have these large table-sized computer consoles, where you can pull up views of the cities we will be visiting.  Personally, I would find it much more helpful if they indicated where the ship would dock and the available public transportation.  Today, I asked the EXC guides where the ship would be in Tallinn, and somewhat reluctantly he showed me.  It’s supposed to be a 15-minute walk to the historic city center, so I’m guessing it will be more like 20.

Dad, Matt, and I went to see the magician last night (Shayna went to sleep early).  He turned out to be a British comedian who was rather funny (though I think Matt and dad laughed more than I did).  After the show, I wandered up on deck to watch the sunset and moonrise (around 10 pm).  Then I went to bed.

The beds are comfortable and the room can be made quite dark.  My only problem was something is triggering my allergies and I woke up coughing a couple of times.  I’ll take some allergy medication tonight.  I also had a nightmare about fascism that woke me up a little earlier than I wanted, but I still had nearly 8 hours of sleep.

Estonia is on Eastern European Time, so the ship’s clocks went forward an hour last night.  That meant that to be at breakfast by 9 am, we really had to be there by 8 am.  Thankfully, we all made it.  Dad had the Belgian waffles, while Shayna ordered the pan-Asian breakfast (which seemed to be mostly Japanese).  I decided to try the Swedish pancakes, which turned out to be a crepe rolled up like a blintze, but filled with custard and topped with mixed berry compote.

After breakfast, I did three laps of the boat on the Promenade, which works out to a mile.  Then I met Matt and Shayna when they finished their workouts at the fitness center.  Matt and I played some ping pong to warm him up for the big ping pong tournament, and then when Shayna finished on the exercise bike, she took over for me.

Both signed up for the tournament, along with 20 other players.  That made things complicated mathematically in going forward to the next level, but I left that for the deputy cruise director to work out.  Matt made it to the quarter finals, and we stayed through the semi-finals and the final, before going to the Lido buffet for lunch.

I rushed lunch a bit at the end to make the America’s Test Kitchen show at 1 pm, but I soon found myself nodding off.  I picked up the recipe for Spanish tortilla (an egg and potato omelet thing), but I guess I’ll have to make it myself to find out how it tastes, as I went back to the cabin to nap.  Dad was already asleep, so I closed the curtains and set the alarm for 1:30 pm (really 2:30 pm ship’s time) so we would be ready to go to afternoon tea at 3.

Dad was really looking forward to this and I think he was happy.  They brought out little tiered trays of finger sandwiches and pastries, and both Matt and Shayna said it reminded them of the Huntington.  Afterwards, I told them I planned on walking the Promenade again and all three of them said they would join me.

In fact, though, they had to start without me as I wanted to find out the answers Shayna’s questions: 1) what time would we get to Tallinn, Estonia (11 am); and 2) do we need to take our passports (no, but we need to have a photo ID). They had already done one lap.  In the end, they did six laps and I did five, giving me a total of eight for the day.  One more and I’ll have walked 3 miles (not counting all the walking back and forth from stem to stern).

After we finished, I took Shayna up to the Explorers’ Lounge, so she could see the various maps of the cities.  She looked for all the possible palaces she could visit to add to her “collection.”

In a few minutes, I’ll change into my best clothing for “gala night.”  Our dinner reservation isn’t until 7:30 pm, but I thought dad would like to hear the classical concert at 6:30 and so we should already be dressed for dinner before we go.

A Happy Story

Let me finish up yesterday by beginning with a happy story. 

At breakfast, I mentioned I had blogged about our difficulties on the pedal boat. “I bet you didn’t say what happened,” Matt said. “Yeah,” said Shayna, “you’ll need to save face.” 

“Take a look,” I told Matt.  “Just scroll down to the section with all caps.”

I watched as he found the section, started to read, and started to smile.  “Do you think I represented it fairly?” “Yes,” he admitted.

As we waited in the Brussels train station to go home, all we knew was that “due to an act of vandalism,” said the regular announcement, “train service from Brussels-Midi is disrupted.”  Checking the news today, it turns out that children throwing rocks on the tracks stopped all train traffic, and the need to divert trains threw the entire Belgian rail system out of whack.

At the time, though, we didn’t know what had happened.  “Ask information,” my father said.  Information had no information.  Our train was supposed to leave now at 7:30 (instead of 6:50), but at 7:15 it suddenly disappeared from the monitor.  By then we, and all the other people trying to get back to Amsterdam and clustered around the base of the Track 4 escalator (which was supposed to be where out train would depart).

“Do you know what’s happening?”


“Do you know why it’s no longer on the board?”


After being asked three times by my father to find out from information, I walked down to the Thalys desk only to find it closed.  Right then, the announcer came on and said the Amsterdam train would depart from Track 4.  Up to Track 4 we all rushed, only to find a train heading to Antwerp.  None of the conductors on the platform knew anything.

Finally, the announcer came back on to say that our train would now be departing from Track 5.  Down we rushed back into the station, and up to Track 5 we now rushed.  Finally, the train came in. Now, we had to find coach 8, which was towards the back of a very long train.  Lot of frantic, anxious, hot, and tired passengers pushing to get on.  Finally, we found our seats and I could now relax.

After about 30 minutes, I decided to head for a quiet dinner in the bar car.  I needed some alone time.  One chicken and hummus club sandwich and orangina later, I was feeling almost human.  We got back into Amsterdam at 10:15 pm, one hour and 30 minutes later.

Unfortunately, my work wasn’t done as I still needed to arrange our transfer to the airport in the morning and check in for our flights.  I finally went to bed at 11:30 pm and slept the whole night without interruption.

This morning went much smoother.  We had enough time for breakfast (it was possible we might only have 3 minutes, depending on when the driver came), and reached the airport without difficulty and with enough time. 

The only problem today was our landing in Copenhagen, which was so rough, we really landed twice.  I’m pretty sure we bounced.  It seems like it was very windy.

One taxi ride later we were on board our ship, eating a comfortable lunch.

Oops, time for the life boat drill.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A cascading series of transportation failures

A series of cascading catastrophic transportation failures.

That’s how I think of yesterday.  Not the fabulous meal at my father’s favorite restaurant; not visiting the Magritte Museum; not getting Belgian waffles; not even visiting my favorite chocolate shop in the world.  Just the overwhelming stress of transportation failures.

It began the night before when I was unable to get tickets to Brussels as the international desk had closed at 9 pm.  Apparently, no one needs to travel to other countries from Amsterdam after dark.

I woke up at 7 am Tuesday morning, and rushed to the train station fifteen minutes later.  I woke my dad up and had made arrangements with my nephew to make sure he gets to breakfast at 8 am if I wasn’t back.

When I went back to the now-open international desk, I was informed that the high speed Thalys train I wanted was sold out.  We had to take the slower, nearly three-hour train.  I bought the tickets there and for return, they still had space on the fast two-hour Thalys, so I booked those as well.

We could take either the 8:22 train or the 9:22 train.  On my way back to the hotel, I toyed with the idea of taking the earlier train, but figured that would be too rushed, and too chaotic.  As it happens, there really was no choice, because dad was still asleep and abed when I returned at 7:55. “But the clock say’s ‘6:00 am’,” he said, referring to the clock under the tv that we never turned on.  “That clock is two hours slow,” I replied.

After a leisurely breakfast we made our way to the train station. I had already changed our lunch reservation to 12:30, and I figured we’d take a taxi to the restaurant and arrive on time.  The traveled through the picturesque Dutch countryside, and we saw canals, fields, horses, and cattle, along with the occasional wind turbine generator. 

As we came into stations, I noticed that our slow train was getting slower:  there were delay notices on the platform.  First, it was just 5 minutes delay; then 10 minutes delay.  I began to start worrying about making our reservation.  As we sat in stations for minutes on end, I saw us arriving later and later and later.

“Uncle Jeff, are you singing something?  Your lips are moving.”
“Uncle Jeff, when are we going to arrive?”
“Uncle Jeff, are you upset?”
“Uncle Jeff, why are you banging your head against the window?”
“Uncle Jeff, it’s going to be alright.

Finally, they announced we were coming into the Brussels stations:  Brussels-Nord, Brussels-Central, and ending in Brussels-Midi.  My plan was to get off in Brussels-Central, but when we reached Brussels-Nord, we simply sat on the platform.  Finally, at 12:30, they came on to announce that the train would go no further and we all had to exit.  I heard a Dutch woman say something like “there’s a problem at Brussels-Midi.”

Now, I was really freaking out.  I have no idea where Brussels-Nord is in Brussels or how to get to our restaurant, in a southern suburb, from there.  We grabbed a taxi and hoped for the best.  We arrived at 12:55, and I sent them all in while I paid the driver.  That took a while, because he wasn’t expecting someone to pay with a credit card, and now had to warm up his machine.  Which was very old, and slow, and had trouble booting up, and connecting to the internet.  7 minutes later, I went into the restaurant.

Les Brasserie Georges is just as lovely as I remember.  I needn’t have worried about losing our reservation, as it was only sparsely populated at lunch.  After much discussion, dad and I both ordered the millefeuille (puff pastry) filled with goat cheese and apple, while Matt had some shrimp croquettes, and Shayna passed on an appetizer.  The food was excellent.  I also ordered a glass of a nice Sancerre to go with the meal.

For the main course, dad had the glazed salmon, which he loved (though he worried if he could finish it given how big the appetizer was).  I had the onglet, with an onion relish and vegetables, that was fantastic.  Shayna had the bouillabaisse, which she enjoyed very much; and Matt had the spider-cut steak, which was great.  I could tell that the stress and exhaustion were getting to me when I broke my wine glass.  Luckily, it was empty when I put it down on the table and accidentally set the edge of it on top of the edge of Shayna’s knife.  It tipped over and broke.  Needless to say, I apologized profusely.

Then, we walked over to see my parents’ old apartment building, which had been completely renovated and redone since they lived there in 1994-95.  I couldn’t figure out how to buy a metro card, so we took a taxi to the Magritte Museum.  We enjoyed it (though dad sat it out), but I have to say, the collection was smaller than I expected.  They had one or two very famous pieces, and a lot of his lesser-known work.

Shayna very much wanted to see the royal palace, as she’s into all things royal and monarchical these days.  I’ve told here that dad and I are very much republicans (that is, anti-monarchy).  Afterwards, we strolled down past the Old England Building (a wonderful art nouveau edifice) and saw the concert hall where my parents enjoyed classical music.  Soon enough, we found our way to the Grand Place, and found the Belgian waffle place my nephew wanted to visit.  I have to say, I found them ok, but more hype than substance. 

The Grand Place was full of people, many of whom were lined up for free Belgian French fries (some company’s anniversary).  I went to Neuhaus to introduce Matt and Shayna to my favorite chocolate, and buy some for myself.  Then it was time for the long walk to Brussels-Midi.

It was a hot and sunny day, and while the walk should have taken 20 minutes, it worked out to about 40, with lots of questions of where is the station, why is it taking this long, and my worrying about how to keep my father from falling as he weaved about the cobble stones.

When we arrived at the station, we found our train delayed 40 minutes.  At first there was no explanation, then that there was a problem on the tracks, then that there had been an act of vandalism.  Finally we found that it was a combination of electrical delays in France, people on the tracks near Brussels-Nord, and some delay involving a train in the Netherlands.

By the time we left we were 90 minutes behind schedule and I was down to my last nerve, hanging on a thread.  I just checked out for a while. 

Ok, we’re about to board our flight to Copenhagen.  More later.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Why One Shouldn't Rent a Pedal Boat in Amsterdam

I slept relatively well last night: over eight hours. However, I did take a sleeping pill when I woke up at 12:40 am, after which I slept another 6 and a half hours.  Shayna was rather tired this morning; Matt’s snoring woke her up and she had a lot of trouble falling back asleep. 

After breakfast, we headed out to the Amsterdam Free Food Tour.  It’s not really free; you don’t pay anything in advance, but the guides work for tips. Our guide, Marius, was a lot of fun, and was very patient and helpful in answering all our questions.  We started out with a chocolate shop where we tried poffertjes, which are usually called dutch minipancakes, but sort of resemble madeleines.  They have a “pancakey” taste.  We also got to try some raw chocolate beans, which are very, very bitter (I passed).  Finally, we were offered some of their homemade ice cream: mandarin orange and mango.  The orange had a delicate, floral taste, while the mango was refreshing.

Our next stop was a short distance away: a store specializing in tradition and non-traditional Dutch cheese. After seeing the process by which gouda is made we were offered a variety of samples, including young gouda (very tasty), very aged gouda (dry, crumbly, and more intense), and numerous flavored goudas, including chili pepper (sort of a pepper jack taste), fenugreek (nutty), lavender (the only blue – colored – cheese I’ve ever liked), and the guide’s favorite: asparagus.  It did have an asparagus smell and grassy taste, but I think I liked the plain gouda best.

We visited a very old gin distillery, but didn’t get any samples.  Afterwards, we walked to a seventeenth-century Catholic church, which was hidden in an attic. The Dutch Republic was one of the first governments to grant freedom of conscience, but that did not include the right to public worship.  Catholics were not arrested, but if they wished to pray, they could only meet in private.

Since we had one ten-year old and one infant, he couldn’t bring us into the Bulldog, the oldest pot coffee shop in Amsterdam, but we learned about its history.  I couldn’t help but notice how many locations they had on this block, so I asked him if they owned the whole street.  “They might,” he replied; “it certainly seems like it.”  Pot is a $1 billion+ a year business in Amsterdam, and the Bulldog has made a significant portion of it.  “I once saw a man with dreadlocks,” he told me, “walking a dog on a golden chain.”  “Was he the owner of the coffee shop?” I asked.  “I think so,” he answered.

At a store specializing in pot products, we learned which ones work (the brownies), and which ones are just for show (the lollypops). After that was one of the highlights of the tour:  the young herring.  In other parts of the Netherlands, they eat it whole, but in Amsterdam, they cut it up and serve with pickles and chopped onions. At first Shayna wasn’t interested, but she was convinced after I told her that it was really Dutch sushi.

I asked the guide where we could get nordzeetong (aka Dover sole).  He pointed at the rather art nouveau restaurant behind the herring stand:  the Seafood Bar.  I had seen it recommended online.  I checked and they did have sole.  We also stopped for stroopwaffel, while learning about their history.  Oddly enough, the ten-year old was the only one who refused to try any.

After passing by one of the most popular chips stands in Amsterdam (all of which is topped with mayonnaise sauce <>), we ended our two-plus hours’ tour at a pool hall where the served “bitterballen.” These are balls of dough that have beef and beef broth mixed with flour, coated with breadcrumbs and fried.  They were tasty, but I found the soggy interior off putting.  After tipping the guide, we hurried back to the hotel to meet dad.

We decided to get our lunch by the museum, so we took the tram and again got off at the Concert-Gebouw.  “Why don’t we try the museum café?” I suggested.  We did.  Dad again skipped having anything solid, preferring to have a large orange juice and water.  Matt and I both ordered the smoked salmon sandwich, while Shayna had the goat cheese salad with quinoa, walnuts, beets, and watercress.

Yesterday afternoon was cool and breezy; today was warm and sunny.  We started our tour of the Rijksmuseum on the second floor with the Dutch masters wing, culminating in Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch.  While everyone enjoyed the paintings, dad was a little disappointed not to see Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, but that turns out to be in a museum in The Hague.  It was pretty clear to me that I had a lot more energy than anyone else in our group for touring the museum. 

Going through the first floor of the museum, my dad pointed out various objects that he really liked, such as some elaborate porcelain and glassware.  Shayna was very excited to find the print by Toulouse-Lautrec that she absolutely loves.  The last room is dedicated to an enormous painting of the Battle of Waterloo.  Shayna announced that she hates Napoleon as he was setting up dictatorships.  “But why root for the tsar and for the Prussians?” I asked her.  After all, Napoleon liberated the Jews of Europe from ghettoes and spread the values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

It was now 4:30 pm and we’d been in the museum for 1.5 hours.  We still hadn’t seen the post-post-impressionist wing on the 3rd floor, and Shayna, despite being more than a little tired wanted to see their Mondrian.  At that point they announced over the loudspeakers that the museum would be closing in half an hour.  Shayna and I ran up four flights of stairs to see their one Mondrian.  I really enjoyed some of the expressionist works they had up there, as well as, for some reason, an airplane.  After about 15 minutes we went back downstairs to meet Matt and dad, and I picked up my bag while they visited the gift shop. There, I found some napkins in a Delft pattern my mom requested.

Dad was tired, so we took him back to the hotel after which Matt and Shayna and I returned to the museum area to rent pedal boats.  This was probably not the best travel decision I’ve ever made.  I had thought that there would be pedals for all of us, but it turns out only for the two in front.  Furthermore, because it was late in the day (5:40 pm), most of the boats were blocked by other now idle boats, so the only one we could take out turned out to have some water on the floor (about 1-2”).  I got in first, followed by Shayna, and then Matt, who sat in the back.  The rudder was a bar in the middle.  We started pedaling while I also tried to steer.  I didn’t want to get my feet wet, and I thought my nephew could use the exercise, so I suggested he and I trade places.  Matt and Shayna would peddle while I would steer. 

The first problem was that in order to steer, the boat needed to be going faster than the current.  If they paused pedaling, the boat would drift into the main traffic lanes or into moored boats. At the same time, pedaling was pretty strenuous activity, and I could hear Matt and Shayna huffing and puffing.  Even when the boat was moving, though, the rudder was very sluggish and non-responsive. 

This is what it sounded like in the boat.

“I need you to pedal.”
“I NEED you to pedal faster.”
“Pedal faster!”
“Uncle Jeff, we’re going to hit the wall! Steer left”
“I’M TRYING! But unless we’re moving the rudder won’t work.”
<> as we bump into the canal wall.

Did I mention that people in other boats watching us were laughing and filming?

After about ten minutes, I decided we better turn around and head back to the dock.  The final problem was mooring the boat as there was now only one narrow space between the dock and a larger boat and I was worried about hitting boats trying to back it in.  Finally, a worker bee came out and told us we should back in. I refused. Eventually, we went in nose first and he tied us up. How to get out?  He suggested we make our way across the wet, sloping front of the boat, but that didn’t seem like a good idea.  I said “why can’t we just step over into the next boat.” “Ok” he answered.  In less than 30 seconds we were back on dry land.

I was afraid they might hold our deposit after that, but they did return it.  We then went back to the hotel.

At the front desk, I asked the clerk if he would make reservations for us for dinner, but it turns out that they only reserve half their tables.  They suggested walking over there and trying in person.  On the way, I had a “hit and walk” incident.  Trying to avoid a pedestrian, I bumped into a parked bike.  Five seconds later I heard a crash.  I turned around and saw that the bike I bumped and fallen over and taken a second bike with it.  I looked up and a group of twenty tourists were pointing at me and laughing.  I sheepishly walked away.

After all that it turned out that they don’t take walk up reservations and suggested that if I came back at 7:30 pm with everyone, we might have to wait.  I scampered back to the hotel (via a different route) and woke everyone up to come to dinner.

Matt was delighted with the way the white walls and the fish smells reminded him of the restaurant run by the family in Granada with whom he stayed.  They had a very nice display of fish and shellfish, and dad was suitably impressed.  He started with the lobster bisque, which was very nice and rich.  He and I both ordered the dover sole, while Matt and Shayna both had the fritto misto, a selection of fried squid, shrimp, and salmon.  Our sole came sautéed but whole, with bones in place.  This led to a very quiet meal.  Dad enjoyed the sole, but would have preferred fillets. 

Since the meal was relatively light, we headed over for pancakes by the flowermarket.  Most of the shops had closed for the “night” (it is only now, at 10:55 pm, getting dark), but the Old Dutch Pancake House was still open. For some reason, it’s decorated with murals of Venice. Dad got a slice of apple pie, Matt and I each ordered the poffertjes with Nutella sauce, while Shayna had the sugar pancake.  We then watched part of the Iran-Portugal match, and saw Portugal make the first goal of the game.  Dad then argued with Matt and Shayna about who just had to pay a multi-million dollar fine for tax evasion.  Dad said it was Renaldo, while Matt and Shayna insisted on Messi.  I just looked it up:  dad was right.

When Shayna went souvenir shopping, I headed up to the train station to pick up our tickets for tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the international desk closed at 9 pm, just 20 minutes earlier.  I’ll have to get up a little early tomorrow to buy them before breakfast.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Canals of Amsterdam

Following up on yesterday, when I was so tired I couldn’t type straight, I had no difficulties picking my nephew up from the airport.  It was a clear, warm, and sunny day, so I decided to walk to the central train station rather than take a tram.  Not only would it help me with getting to know the neighborhood, it would also help me adjust to the time zone change by being in sunlight.

The train ride to the airport is very fast, faster, than the airport hotel shuttle.  The difference is that with the shuttle, you don’t have the added time and hassle of getting to the train station.  While I waited at the airport I bought some bread with nuts and raisins; it was sort of a cross between a pretzel and a hard roll.  Very tasty.

No trouble at all finding my nephew and we made our way easily back to the hotel.  My nephew was impressed by how scenic Amsterdam was.  Lots and lots of college-age students and bicycles.  So many bicycles that my niece told me that if she moved her, she would have to learn how to ride one.

After getting everyone set up in their room, I searched for someplace close by for us to eat.  The hotel gave us a list of recommended places, and this one, the Sluizer, had five stars.  It was a fish restaurant specializing in Dutch seafood dishes, and was a lovely five block walk.  I varied our walk to and from the restaurant so we could see the neighborhood better.  We crossed over a canal bridge and walked through two shopping streets. 

The restaurant was small and lovely.  At first I thought we might be underdressed, but the host seated us in the window.  “The advertising spot,” my father said.  The host presented us with the special asparagus menu, and told us that this was the last week they will be having it as the season is almost over.  I almost got the asparagus soup, but my father and I split the stuff Portobello mushroom, which came with a salad of rocket, shaved parmesan, tomatoes, and walnuts (lightly dressed).  Dad and I both got the grilled salmon over a bed of white Beelitz asparagus, Shayna had the grilled salmon with a light green sauce, while Matt had the whole grilled Turbot.  We all immensely enjoyed our meals.

Afterwards, we made our way back to our hotel through Rembrandt Square, and took photos with the life-sized version of the Nightwatchmen.  It started to drizzle slightly so we headed home to bed.

I showered this morning, and I was surprised by the complimentary toiletries provided by the hotel:  peppermint shampoo, cilantro conditioner, and rum body wash. It’s just kind of an odd mix of smells.  The hotel’s breakfast buffet was nice, with a typical northern European emphasis on meats and cheeses and breads. The bread was excellent, of course. 

After breakfast, we headed for the Anne Frank House by way of the flower market and Dam Square.  It was a little chilly, so my father went back in for his jacket, while we headed on our way (he never planned on seeing the Secret Annex with us – besides, it would have been very difficult to navigate some of the steep, narrow Dutch stairs).  The flower market was not as robust as I remember.  Maybe because today is Sunday; maybe because the last time I saw it was in springtime.  Shayna loved seeing the royal palace in Dam Square. 

I hadn’t seen the Anne Frank house in probably 23 years, but I was impressed with how accessible it is now.  There’s a lot of information and context for the story of the Franks, and the use of timed tickets keeps it from being unbearably crowded (though it is still crowded).  Shayna was particularly moved by the exhibits and asked me if I could forgive the Germans for what they did.  I told her that only those who were hurt directly have the power to forgive; I can’t forgive on behalf of those who are dead.  That being said, I don’t have trouble being in Germany, and I would love to live in Berlin.

Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel the long way; I’m trying to see as much of the neighborhood as I can.  I’m glad I did because we found the café we went to for lunch.  I asked the hotel staff about two of the cafés we passed, and they immediately recommended Café de Bazel, located on the ground floor of the State Archive building.  Dad wasn’t hungry so only ordered an apple cider.  Matt and I both got the lunch special:  soup of the day (a spicy sweet potato soup) and a “toasty.”  His was the tuna melt; mine was a grilled cheese sandwich using a mild Dutch cheese.  I thought about getting the Elderberry juice to drink, but the waitress said many people find it too strong.  I ended up getting the pomegranate, but I asked if I could try some of the other on the side just to taste.  The smell was quite unpleasant, though the taste was simply acerbic.  Then I realized I was confusing elderberry with elderflower.  Now, finally, the insults screamed by the French soldiers in Monty Python’s Holy Grail finally made sense: “your mother is a hamster and your father smells of elderberries!”

After lunch we caught the tram to the Concert-Gebouw, which is the stop nearest the Van Gogh Museum.  I asked if they had any concerts tonight, but no, they didn’t.  They were having an early afternoon concert of young talent, but we had no time to stay (they had a red carpet out).  I asked if I could see the elaborate chandelier in the lobby of the box office and they let me.  From there, we strolled through the park to the Van Gogh museum.  The sky clouded over and it was a little breezy. Shayna and my dad were a little chilly. 

Our tickets were for 2:30 and it was only 2:10, but thankfully they let us in early.  We started with the special exhibit on Van Gogh and Japanese art, as this was the last day of that exhibit. Shayna was very excited by some of the nineteenth-century prints Van Gogh had acquired as models for study.  They had one video showing different aspects of Japanese prints that Van Gogh had adopted and used computer animation to highlight those aspects in various paintings on display.  It was quite fascinating.

From there we headed over to the main wing of the Van Gogh exhibit, but it seemed like everyone other than me was getting kind of winded.  Dad was very happy that they had The Potato Eaters on display, as he had spoken earlier about how much that piece had moved him the first time he saw it.  Shayna used the exhibit on draughtsmanship and Van Gogh to make a sketch.  Eventually, we headed down to the museum café to refresh ourselves.

I had had to check my bags, so I told everyone to wait while I retrieved it.  Unfortunately, I found that they wouldn’t let me go back into the area of the museum with my now unchecked bag!  I wasn’t sure how long this stand off would last, but the guard agreed to temporarily watch my bag as I raced up to the café to tell everyone to follow me down.

We had originally planned to rent paddle boats, but as the weather was chillier than we expected (the high was 65 today), we took a canal tour instead.  Shayna and dad sat in the enclosed area, while Matt and I sat in the outdoor section.  I enjoyed the fresh air and wanted to take pictures without obstructing glass.  She and dad napped for a bit and then later, Shayna came back to sit with us. I asked her if she wasn’t cold, but she said no.  That left dad sitting all by himself. 

The canal tour is a great way to see the city and we all enjoyed it.  Shayna chatted for a while with some recent graduates of Notre Dame who joined our boat (it was a Hop On, Hop Off tour boat).  At Amsterdam Centraal Station, the bike parking lot is four stories high.  Later, we headed out into the harbor for a view of the city I had never had before. 

Back at the hotel, we took a 45-minute break while I located an Indonesian restaurant for us for dinner.  The desk clerk asked if I had ever been to Indonesia and I said no.  Because, he explained, if I had been, I might be disappointed in the food.  I said that was alright and we ended up going to Indrapura, a restaurant only 3 blocks or so from the hotel. 

There, we ordered the rice table for four. We thought about getting two different ones, but the waiter discouraged us on the grounds that the table was small and tilted, and that number of dishes simply wouldn’t fit. What number?  Here’s what we ordered by getting just one:

Starter:  shrimp and crab fritter with peanut sauce.

Main course:
Fried corn fritters
Shrimp krupuk
Deep-fried spicy potato sticks
Roasted peanuts with salted fish (more like fish powder)
Mixed pickles
Tofu and soybeans with red chillies
Stir-fried vegetables
Green beans with shrimp
Braised chicken in light curry sauce
Beef tenderloin with chillies
Beef in soy sauce
Chicken satay in peanut sauce
Beef satay
Sweet and sour cucumber
Fried shrimps in coconut sauce
White steamed rice
Yellow rice cooked in coconut broth

The food was good, though a little on the mild side.  Nothing was particularly hot or spicy.  Still everyone enjoyed the meal and we were very careful not to let the multiple dishes slip off the table on to the floor (as happened to the couple sitting at the table next to us).

Afterwards, we went for ice cream at a place near Rembrandtplein.  It was just across from a spectacular art deco movie house.

Tomorrow’s plan is for the free (except for tip) food tour in the morning, and the Rijksmuseum and paddle boating in the afternoon.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Like a Virgin

Like a Virgin

The trip out here started well, but became increasingly difficult as the day(s) went on.  I began by losing my Uber virginity and ordering a cab through the service.  Only a few hiccups, entirely on my end, over the confusion of how tipping worked.  Still, despite screwing up the time of our departure by three hours, we arrived early enough to visit the Priority Pass Lounge in Terminal 2.  There are two such lounges in Terminal 2, but the one that’s like a traditional lounge can only be used by Priority Pass members in the morning; the other, in Barney’s Beaner can be used all day, but it’s essentially a restaurant. Still, I could order up to $28 per person complimentary.  We all got desserts.

In order to make our extremely complicated travel plans work, we had to fly Virgin Atlantic via London Heathrow.  The only plus of the flight turned out being the chance to catch sight of the actor Martin Freeman (who boarded early and went to whatever the elie level first class is.  The seats in coach were a little on the narrow side, but what airline seat isn’t these days. I decided to catch up on movies that I had thought of seeing in the theater but the sounded weak after reading the reviews.  Unfortunately, it was clear that each of these movies deserved the bad-to-poor reviews it had received.  Eventually, I decided to go to sleep, and that’s when things got really uncomfortable.  Even on seats that poorly recline, I can manage 1-2 hours of sleep; not last night.  No matter how I turned there was something jamming into an arm or a foot or a hip.  And then there the couples who felt the need for conversation despite the dimmed lights.  I eventually found a forest noises tape on the sound system, which I listened to with my earplugs on.

My niece slept very poorly; she complained that my father kicked her seat (in fact, he was simply resting his head against it. The real shock was that my father also slept poorly since he can sleep almost anywhere and through anything.  He also complained about how narrow the seats were.

Needless to say, we weren’t happy campers by the time we reached London Heathrow.  Heathrow is one of the worst airports in the world, perhaps only second worst in comparison to JFK in New York. We landed early, but that was the last good news we got.  We couldn’t park at the gate, but rather they deplaned us on the tarmac onto buses.  It took over 30 minutes for us just to get off the plane.  The buses took us to Terminal 3.  Now we wandered the labyrinth looking for connecting flights to our British Air flight to Amsterdam.  We eventually ended up in a really long line, and I noticed that one of the guards was telling some people to change lanes.  I asked and she looked at my boarding pass.

“You’re in Terminal 5, so take the Terminal 5 lane.”  When I got back to my niece and father, however, they told me that they had looked on the board and that our flight was in Terminal 4, so we could take the shorter Terminal 2 and 4 lane.  To get to terminal 4 we had to take an inter-terminal bus, stopping first at Terminal 2 and then and Terminal 4. When we reached Terminal 4, however, we were told that our flight was departing Terminal 5. Now we had to race over there, which added another 20 minutes to our process. 

Going through security again, we kept ended up in lines with problematic people and the guards kept changing our lane in the hope that we could make it through.   I refused on the third “helpful suggestion.”

The bottom line:  despite having a 2 hour and 45 minute layover, they were just about to start preboarding when we reached the gate.  By the time we reached Amsterdam, were all just wiped.

As am I know.  I’m having difficulty keeping my eyes open, so I’ll save a description of the hotel and the nice rooms for tomorrow.  I’m definitely wearing ear plugs tonight as I can hear the people at a bar four floors down and half a block away celebrating the World Cup.

All I’ll say is we had a very nice seafood dinner at a place a 15 minute stroll away.  Lots of asparagus, too.