Category Archives: travel

New Travel Blog

Now being full according to WordPress and unable to add more pictures unless I upgrade for some insane amount of money, I am continuing the travel portion of the blog with WIX for as long as I am able. So please find the next installment, Bruges, Day 12 here:http://csteeksma.wix.com/travel-blog

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Day 10 and 11 – Amsterdam (Round 2)

To my 2 or 3 readers:

My delay in continuing the blog stems from an increase in workload, a lack of discipline and also a paralysis caused by being unsure what will happen as I go over my allotted space in the free blog. Will my pictures from previous blogs disappear? Will the images for this current blog show up? Will I have to create another blog in a separate site or can I do so within WordPress? Finally I decided to bugger it and finish off Holland, and see what happens. Stay tuned!

July 9 and 10, 2015

Day 10 dawned bright and sunny yet again. We had another nice buffet breakfast  at the IBIS and hopped a bus into Amsterdam; this time stopping at Museumplein, which as the name suggests is a square full of museums (and the US embassy).

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“Which building is the Van Gogh museum?” asked MLW.

“Don’t know, but it shouldn’t be too hard, it’s Van Gogh after all.” I said with confidence.

We headed towards something that looked impressive enough, but it turned out to be the aforementioned US Embassy; where a young preppy blue suited chap was wanding some sort of detector over people lined up at the gate.

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“What’s the lineup for,” MLW wondered.

“Looks like they are trying to get passports or Visas.”

“Kinda paranoid aren’t they?”

“The US? Maybe, if your embassies had been bombed and attacked a few times in different countries you would be a little paranoid, too. Besides, I don’t see snipers on the roof, so they aren’t all that skittish.”

“Comforting.” Said MLW. “But it is not the Van Gogh Museum!”

“Maybe it’s over in the corner there.” Said I, pointing to a gaily decorated edifice across the huge park that centered the square, where crowds of people appeared to be gathering.

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As we got closer, I wondered if Disneyland had amalgamated with the Van Gogh museum, but it turned out to be sculptures, one of many scattered throughout the entrance to the Rijksmuseum.

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“Look, I see the Van Gogh museum.” The name was displayed on the side of an oval shaped modern looking building peeking out over construction fencing and scaffolding. But how to get there?

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We walked back towards the main part of the square, along the construction fence. I was looking up and around, trying to use the building as a landmark. According to the billboard, the new museum entrance way was soon to be opened. It would then have a huge modern queue area with a glassed-in entrance. Judging by the billboard, the modern circular edifice was indeed going to be part of the Van Gogh …

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But we were trying to find the old entrance.

Then, in typical unseen-forest-for-the-trees fashion, we actually looked at the construction fence…

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We followed the arrows and ended up on a busy street circumventing the square …

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… where there was a bus and trolley station, walked towards the entrance and saw the long queue beginning. The Dutch usually have terrific signage—where to go, which line to get in. This was no exception. Advanced ticket holders had one line, regular Joes in the other. As it was a timed entrance, a concierge would check to see which time you were supposed to enter, and align you accordingly. We were at first opening so were relatively near the beginning of the line.

Then I saw an understandable but disappointing sign:

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No photography. None.

So this is why there are no pictures to accompany this section of the blog.

Although I have enjoyed the very famous Van Gogh paintings such as Starry Night and his series of Sunflowers, as well as his self-portraits., I did not know much about him other than he had cut off his ear and killed himself. MLW was a big fan and not only was greatly anticipating this museum visit, but the later portion of our journey, when we planned to go to Arles, where Van Gogh and other painters of his era like Gauguin and Emile Bernard spent much time, and where his most famous paintings were finished.

So, I was impressed to discover that he had only decide to paint at age 27 in 1880. Before that he had mucked about, working for an art dealer and trying to be a lay preacher; possibly in an attempt to please his father, who was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church.

He taught himself to draw and studied art for a short time in the Hague. His brother Theo to whom Vincent wrote many letters, was also an art dealer and had many other painter’s pieces which Van Gogh was able to see, on his brother’s recommendation. Early on, Van Gogh painted the life of the common man, peasants, workers and labourers, with whom he felt a strong affinity.

After he moved to Paris, his vision expanded, but he always returned to that theme during all his different periods.

One of the most poignant (for me) pieces I saw, which I think spoke to his state of mind and his place in the world, as much as anything, was Still Life With a Bible, According to letters to his brother, Van Gogh painted this in one go, in a single day. A stock image follows:

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According to accepted interpretation, the Bible represented his father—with whom he had a turbulent relationship until his death in 1885, the year in which Van Gogh painted this piece—and blind devotion to religion and faith. To Van Gogh, the candle also represented his father as its flame was snuffed out and would no longer illuminate the Bible—a book VG described to Emile Bernard as feeling no love from.

The obviously well-thumbed other book next to the Bible is La Joie de Vivre by Emile Zola, which represented Van Gogh’s rebellion towards his father and his beliefs as well as his own embracing of the working man and life. Van Gogh was a great admirer of Zola’s literary works.

Van Gogh suffered from a mental illness, the treatment of which in those days did little to help him. Apparently, one night he had an argument with Gauguin, with whom he was living at the time. When Gauguin left, it was then that Van Gogh cut off his ear and took it to a brothel, giving it to a prostitute, at which point the police were brought in. After a few more nervous breakdowns, Van Gogh checked himself into a mental hospital, where he spent time painting copies of other artists and scenes he saw from his window, until he was given the freedom of the grounds, after which he painted outdoor scenes.

In 1890, he was still in mental turmoil, but completed 75 paintings in 70 days, before he went outside one day to paint as usual, and shot himself in the chest.

I take away two things from this tragic narrative; one, that it is never too late to begin. Van Gogh could easily have surrendered to the pressures to become a lay preacher or art dealer. He tried as well as he could to satisfy his father and the norms of his age, but one assumes in retrospect that the poor man would never have achieved satisfaction, happiness or greatness during his lifetime, anyway, had he thrown over his artistic side over for a more ‘ordinary’ life. Instead, his urges were too powerful; in the end he stayed true to his calling, sacrificing everything. It is sad that he still died in apparent misery. He eventually changed the art world, unfortunately only after his death.

The second is an observation; how close to the brink of mental illness true creative genius appears to be. In many cases we find unbelievable creativity walking hand-in-hand with a tortured soul. I think it is beholden upon the family and friends of these geniuses to keep watch over them; and not assume just because they are talented and brilliant that they are doing okay.

Another slight disappointment was for us to learn (although we could have anticipated this by a simple Google search) that Starry Night, arguably VG’s most famous work, is not here, but at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it has resided for 70 years.

After leaving the Van Gogh museum, we checked the time. Our plan had been to go through the  next, then go downtown to the Royal Palace. after which we would meet with my cousins Paula and Louis Charles for lunch. We easily decided that we would forego the Rijksmuseum until the next day, hopped a tram and headed downtown to the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace was originally built in the late 1600s as a town hall, a place where the commoner could also come.

However, after Napoleon’s brother, Louis Napoleon, became the king of Holland in 1806, he decided to make the Town Hall his residence. The entire administration was moved out of the building and a door was put in the south facade to provide direct access to the Exchange Bank, the only municipal institution that remained in the building.

Shortly after entering, and taking these photographs …

… my camera died.

The audio tour was very well done and moved us through all the different rooms, showing what they had been used for when it was a town hall, with all the attendant municipal uses but also retaining the lavish interior and furnishings from the French Empire style. The cells became wine cellars and the cold marble floors were covered with thick carpets.

The stunning collections of Empire furniture, clocks and chandeliers, almost the entirety of which from that time was left behind, is apparently one of the best preserved and most complete Empire collections in the world. The Royal Palace is still used by the Dutch Royal House.

An amazing place! Like all sights we had seen to this point, it was deserving of much more of our time and contemplation, but …

We were now in a race against the clock as we were meeting Paula and Louis Charles in the Dam Square just outside the Royal Palace. We rushed through the last few rooms and burst out into the Dam Square to see these characters …

We sat on the entrance steps and kept an eye out. We had only seen Paula depicted in Facebook photos, so were slightly worried we would miss her in the crowds, but soon I spotted her about 10 yards away. We introduced ourselves and Paula gave us a nice gift; a fridge magnet depicting the oldest residential house in Amsterdam, built in 1590 as a traditional merchant’s house. Paula worked there as a social worker for the Salvation Army years ago.

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Later we went and saw it for ourselves.

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As we were looking at the magnet, I saw Louis Charles sneak up quietly behind Paula and MLW to stand unnoticed, nodding in agreement with MLW and Paula’s exclamations. He gave me a little wink. I finally had to stop MLW and Paula from talking, to point him out.

Paula immediately shook her head and said. “I haven’t seen him in 20 years and he still acts the same!” Dutch kisses all around.

We found a place for lunch and sat down to get to know each other a little better.

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Louis Charles, Paula and Willem (Wil), whom we had visited with earlier, are children of three brothers, so they are cousins to each other.

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Paula’s father was also named Willem …

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and he married Paulina Rijinders,

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who was always called Lena, which is serendipitous, as one of our granddaughters is also called Lena.

Paula told us a serious story …

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… that on May 7, 1945, two days after the German surrender, the Gestapo fired on Dam Square from their then-headquarters (now Madame Tussaud’s!) into the crowd of cheering civilians, who were waiting for the Canadian troops to arrive, killing over 31 people and wounding many more – Dam Square 1945.

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Lena was in the square with Paula, who was 2 at the time. Lena ran out of the square, shielding her baby and luckily escaped unscathed.

Lena was in the Salvation Army, as is Paula, and Paula worked for years in the red light district as a social worker, so it was not surprising as Paula later nonchalantly led us through the Red Light District , as if there was no porn or drug paraphernalia in the windows, or drug deals and other goings-on around her.

Our stop after lunch was the Oude Kirk. Oude Kerk which literally means “old church”, is Amsterdam’s oldest building and oldest parish church, founded around 1213 and consecrated in 1306 by the bishop of Utrecht with Saint Nicolas as its patron saint. After the Reformation in 1578 it became a Calvinist church, which it remains today, standing in Amsterdam’s main red-light district.

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However, our main reason for going here today was to see The Garden Which is the Nearest to God, which is a temporary platform on the roof of the Oude Kerk, designed by the Japanese artist Taturo Atzu on display from June 27 to September 6, 2015.

Ascending the scaffolding assembled on the outside of the church, was not without its thrills, as you realize how high you are and how shaky the steel stairs and tubular scaffolding seem.

The view is spectacular, a unique panorama of the red light district and all of Amsterdam; as well as allowing one to see the rooftop sections of the church itself, which is an amazing structure of slate tiles and lead. Any repairs that are done use traditional techniques, so it is a terrific example of historical site that one would never see, without this artwork project.

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Writing now afterwards from home, I found out that over 30,000 people visited  the Oude Kerk rooftop terrace and over 67,000 visited the Oude Kerk itself; including a remarkable number of Dutch, according to the reports.

Afterwards, we parted with Louis Charles, looking forward to dinner the following day at his house. Paula walked us to the train station where we could catch transport back to our hotel and we bade her farewell.

It was a short visit, but once more, we felt very close to extended family that we had just met, and were encouraged to keep in touch.


 

Day 11: another glorious day in Holland!

We made our now very familiar bus ride to the Museumplein and walked back to the Rijksmuseum.

A little side note which may provide insight into your friendly neighbourhood blogger:

We had noticed that the pension/concession discounts started at age 60, at most places in Holland; however, being the ridiculous rule-following person that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for discounts when my birthday was still 2 weeks away. Later when I actually was 60, we were in the UK, which is similar to Canada, with the senior discounts kicking in only once you are over 65, for the most part! Typical …

I am going to warn anyone who read this blog, if you ever go to he Rijksmuseum (and you should if you are in Amstedam!), plan for two days, because you will be better served going through one half one day and the other half then next. There is just so much fantastic, incredible art and historical artifacts stuffed into its three (3) floors built in two squares. We got lost a number of times, trying to reach various exhibits, it is so huge.

According to Wikipedia, it reopened after a 10 year renovation in 2013 and has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200–2000, among which are masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer.

On an interesting note, they had on display what we first thought were pieces of artwork – wooden boxes with a seat inside.

Upon reading the nearby presentation document, we learned that these boxes were created to help people suffering from Stendhal Syndrome, also known as Florence Syndrome or hyperkultermia, which is brought on by seeing concentrated works of arts. The sensory overload can bring about a variety of symptoms, including increased heart rate, paranoia, anxiety, nausea, disorientation, and even hallucinations.

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I am going to let the following photographs speak for themselves.

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We left the museum, feeling like we perhaps should have spent some time in one of those Stendahl  boxes, and made the trip back downtown, trying to find the boat cruise we had originally planned to take. However, it was full, so we trekked back up the street to an affiliated company, where we had a 15 minute wait before they set out.

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There were not many people on the cruise, which suited us fine. A group of two men and a young woman boarded. I had the impression they were Roma, by their appearance and language. At least, Eastern European …

The woman was pretty and knew it only too well. During the whole trip, none of the three listened to the commentary or even looked up at any of the sights. They both talked with each other so loudly we couldn’t hear the captain, or they texted on their cells and took myriad selfies … most annoying.

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In any event, it was a well done cruise, well worth the effort. We saw a lot of sites; however, many of the photographs are obscured by the boat frame.

Some interesting less obscured ones were an old bridge built in 1600’s, still standing and being used; the NEMO Science centre, on which you can see the upper deck has a cafeteria, and a recreation area; the replica of the Amsterdam sailing vessel, and the Amstel Hotel, a favourite haunt of the rich and famous.

After the cruise , we hurried back to our hotel, rested for an hour, showered and left to visit Louis Charles and Laura.

Louis Charles, Laura and their son Michel live in a lovely little area in a town about a half hour drive from the IBIS Schiphol, which I won’t give way, for privacy sake.

We arrived to a warm welcome and sat out on their sundeck chatting, lubricated with champagne and French Chablis, and fantastic appetizers of seafood (eels, mackerel, halibut, shrimp, herring and beet salad) and a cracker assortment.

Michel is a senior business analyst for Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate (CCC) a huge privately owned corporation, and is obviously highly intelligent, as are his parents; Louis, being a retired executive with ING Bank and Laura working as (the best translation into a North American occupation on which we could agree) a legal advocate for people in the social assistance system (people on disability); often presenting cases in Den Haag. Although judging from our meal, Laura could have been a gourmet chef as well; she went to a lot of work hand peeling the tiny shrimp and organizing the whole dinner. It was beyond belief how amazing it all was.

All three are well spoken in English, erudite, charming and funny.

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Our dinner consisted of chicken cordon bleu, with green beans, mushrooms, baby potatoes accompanied with a spicy Sauvignon Blanc, followed by 3 different cheeses, a date roll with walnuts, accompanied by a French red that was to die for, but for which I did not record the name, topped off with Belgian chocolate with strawberries and a lush Spanish sherry.

Louis Charles and Laura are wine aficionados, and although MLW and I consider ourselves as just beginning to learn the ways of the grape, we certainly shared in our love of drinking it!

Not stuffed at all, we repaired to the living room and attempted several times to get a shot with the infamous time-delay setting, before we finally got it right …

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We had begun our Holland adventure with Louis Charles and Laura in a welcoming fashion, so it seemed fitting that we ended it with such a marvelous send-off.

To top off everything, Laura insisted on presenting us with a 2006 Chateauneuf de Pape, which we promised we would save for our last night in Europe.

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Full of great food and wine, and stuffed with happy memories, we took our leave  and set off, driving for the first time in the dark, we realized, as  I fumbled to figure out the headlight system!

We loved Holland, and now … were prepared to take on Bruges.

 

Previous installment: go here                   Next installment, go here [under construction]

 

Remembrance Day Special Part 3 – Vimy Ridge and 2 Canadian War Cemeteries

One more jump in days to July 18, 2015; we are still in North of France, staying in the pretty seaside resort village of Honfleur. We had meant to go to Vimy while we were in Belgium as it is not as far as it was from Honfleur, but it hadn’t worked out that way, so we had to leave very early to arrive in good time. And as it turns out,  I was very glad we did.

The amazing monument towering over the landscape once you clear the forested area, is very, very impressive.

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We had some serendipitous events happen to us while traveling, but I think none more wonderful than this.

As we approached the monument I spied some armed forces uniforms; wondering what was going on, I asked an officer who was striding fiercely by.

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He told me that it just so happened that a contingent of Canadian Armed Forces personnel which had been seconded to the Nijmegen Contingent for the annual International Four Days Marches and were encamped on the nearby base. They were about to head to Nijmegen, but first decided to visit the monument and hold a Remembrance Ceremony, including laying of wreathe and the Last Post with a bugler and bagpipes!

So here we were on July 18 and able to observe and take part in a Remembrance ceremony at Vimy Ridge: the piece of Canadian soil in France, in front of this amazing monument.

Not only that but I noticed some different uniforms …

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“Those are cop uniforms,” I said to MLW.

Sure enough, they were Vancouver Police Department members tagging along with the Armed Forces Personnel to go to the walk. Plus 2 RCMP officers! They also came to support the ceremony in Vimy with the Nijmegen contingent.

So here are some views of the monument and some highlights of the ceremony …

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I recommend to every Canadian to go to Vimy and see what happened there in 1915 in the miles and miles of tunnels and trenches. They have left the landscape as is (now grown in with grass and stuff but all the bomb craters and trench remains are there.

The electric wired fence all along the battlefields is actually to keep the sheep  in, which the local French  farmers are allowed to graze there. it is a good agreement as Canada doesn’t have to mow the grass and it is better if a sheep gets blown up then a human, as they believe there to be still unexploded ordnance there. Of course, the Monty Python sketch comes immediately to mind …

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The visitor centre is small but will soon be rebuilt bigger and better  …

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and the visitor centre has refurbished tunnels for tours. pretty much as they were except for granite roof and lighting.

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The tunnels actually connected up as far back as the town of Arras 12.9 kilometres away so troops and supplies could be brought under mask until the assault.  Tunnel network was dug by Welsh miners because of the chalk content of the stone. They connected up to medieval tunnels made by the locals to store wine cheese etc.

Only runners, officers, medical people, engineers and technicians were allowed in the tunnels. Soldiers slogged on out on the front lines and rotated back to the 2nd and 3rd lines every week – 2 km back each line.

Front line tunnels were built 30 metres down so as to go under the German tunnels and have the potential to listen in on what they were doing or planning; also to be able to come up and lay explosive charges close to the enemy which they could set off in advance of an attack.

Pictures below are of the front line trench (there were three trench lines dug 2 km back from each other back (on both sides German and Allies) which extended in a line from The North sea at Belgium all the way to Switzerland.

The trenches didn’t look like this of course at the time, they were sandbags and mud, and wood planks for floors.

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Sniper viewpoint. The first photo is from the Canadian front line trench looking across no mans land to the German front line trench – both are sniper positions. Yes, at that next hill is the German position

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Below is No Mans land:  Germans on the right , Canadians on the left. A huge mine crater in the middle from where the Canadians tunneled under up to the enemy line and set 14 explosive mines which preceded their assault. Try to imagine it not grassed but with slick mud, razor wire,and  bodies (some as old as 2 months because no one could get in to retrieve them). What awful horror…

 

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One of the methods that the Canadians used to successfully take Vimy Ridge was called the Creeping barrage. Most of the time prior to this, allies would barrage the enemy with shells and mortars until an assault was planned, then suddenly the barrage would stop as they didn’t want to kill their own troops. Well the Germans knew they could just start firing; no need to hunker down.  The Canadians devised a coordinated attack where the barrage would be raised in degrees and distance in front of them so they could continuously move behind the barrage. Another device was allowing the front line soldier and NCOs to know the battle orders and plans, so if the Officers were killed or the base was incommunicado, the troops could carry out the plan anyway.

So much to learn here.

After we left the visitor centre we went to two nearby Canadian cemeteries.

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We will remember them

 

 

Part 2

Remembrance Day Special Part 2 – Juno Beach and Canadian War Cemetary at Beny Sur mer

We must jump forward yet again to July 17, 2015 when we are in North of France, staying in the pretty seaside resort village of Honfleur.

We had been eager to see Juno Beach, the place where so many Canadians helped spearhead the victory against Hitler, and where so many Canadians died for freedom. We had another very special reason, to see how a member of MLW’s family was being honoured, because he also landed there … and lived.

It was a cloudy and windy day, but not raining yet, so as our thoughts continued to echo with versions of ‘How dare we complain’ from the visit to Ypres, we found the Juno Beach visitor centre (with some parking consternation that will be discussed at the appropriate juncture in the blog proper) and made or way to the entrance.

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MLW’s uncle by marriage, Armand Denicola –  now 92,- found himself on June 6, 1944 as a young private in the Canadian Scottish regiment just eight days before his 22nd birthday, in one of the landing craft, speeding towards a beach of an unimaginable Hell.

When asked how he survived, he calmly says, “Luck. You keep your head down and keep going and hope you might be one of the lucky ones who makes it.”

But in reality it is we who are the truly lucky ones.

We as a nation are lucky because we can live free from tyranny in our own country today. Our family are also lucky because had Armand not made it out, we would not have had the benefit of his influence on MLW’s family, with the subsequent cousins who have enriched and continue to enrich our lives, as does Armand himself.

Over the years, the dead have been rightly honoured, and lately as Canadians watched the ranks of the old veterans dwindle each passing Remembrance Day, I think we grew uncomfortable with the fact that the names of those who also fought but lived, had no plaque or engraving in stone to mark their deeds on that day and many others.

These humble veterans did not ask for the honour, it was others who bestowed it.

And so we were very happy to see the diamond-shaped kiosks erected outside the centre …  DSC_0005

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upon which we found this plaque.

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Canadians should feel pride; their centre is extremely well done, with movies and slide shows, presentations of individual stories and narratives of various themes which are added or changed each year. This year one added theme pertained to the lives of the ordinary citizens of Normandy and Canadians, from occupation to liberation. Some stories are told in letters which are read out in audio clips. Others are told in pictures and text.

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My father was in the merchant marine and faced many harrowing days aboard ship, not the least of which was the evacuation of British troops after the so-called Phony War, the Battle of Dunkirk, in which 861 vessels including freighters and fishing boats participated and of which 243 were sunk during the operation. The merchant marine played a vital role with little compensation or subsequently bestowed honours.

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Many people are not aware of the major role Canada played in early days of the modern Intelligence community.

Opened by Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a close confidante of Winston Churchill and FDR and dubbed Intrepid, a little place called Camp X in Whitby, Ontario trained not only Canadian but many British  agents from the Special Operations Executive,as well as agents from the FBI and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) the forerunner of the CIA. Most notable was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, war-time head of the OSS, who credited Stephenson with teaching Americans about foreign intelligence gathering.

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The man called Intrepid

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And there are the pictures that tell it all.

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The face of this poor man on the bottom left of this photograph is worth a million words.

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As you go into the final presentation room … DSC_0143

You must go and experience it

Outside the centre …

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They have guided tours of the beach and a German bunker which was uncovered when they cleared the park for access in 2004.

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Guided tours as of 2014 also include the tunnels that lead to the underground Command Post of the 6th Company, 736th Infantry Regiment of Hauptmann Grote, which controlled the site in 1944. The German Command Post was originally connected to the observation bunker by a covered tunnel

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According to our guide, the bunker had been known to be there in the 50;’s, but gradually got covered by the sand (the actually placement of the bunker would have been on the edge of the cliff in 1944; that is how far and fast the sands have moved) and so was forgotten, until some young people drinking there uncovered an access hole, and it was re-discovered.

The guide was able to tell us what rooms were which, as the plans for the most part followed the plans laid out for all the coastal bunkers forming part of the Atlantic Wall defense system which consisted of 9,671 Tobruk pits, 5976 bunkers 1, 591 other edifices

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10 million four hundred thousand tons of concrete!

1,350,000 workers!

In 1944, it contained radio equipment that allowed its occupants to communicate with other bunkers and coordinate the defense of the beach. A machine gun post was positioned on the top of the bunker.

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Going down into the command post …

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As the guide said “Imagine yourself as a villager being forced or coerced by resultant favours to build these bunkers. They did everything they could think of to sabotage the efforts, such as concreting in the hollow bricks sideways so they would collapse under an assault, or conveniently forgetting iron rebar reinforcements.

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The guide supposed that if you were an enemy solider taking the bunker, you would spy these air vents and think a great place to throw your grenade.

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She got someone to toss a rock in the top hole and it came right back out the bottom … BOOM! DSC_0055

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Back out on the beach, a pill box can be seen blown up and half-collapsed from the assault. This is Cosy’s pill box:

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This man in the Tank Corps, Leo Gariepy fought to liberate the beach and the town he would later return to and become an honoured citizen. DSC_0168

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It is so hard to imagine what it was like there,

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when you see the scene today …

DSC_0069   DSC_0157 DSC_0170 A part of me wishes more could have been left to show the next generations the landing craft, burnt out tanks, the barriers set up by the Germans, but …

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After all, this is what they fought for, the ability fo families to live and to enjoy a nice day at a beach without fear…

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These were the Canadians, and Armand’s regiment among them.

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This was the order of the day.

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Armand might add… and be lucky.

If you think it can’t happen again, consider the PM Mackenzie King, the PM of the day’s position

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We need to remember

They thought it would be easy

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It wasn’t … Victory was not assured.

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But  we got the job done, horrible and difficult as it was.

And Canada needs to be ready if called again.

* * *

We left Juno and traveled to Canadian War Cemetery at Beny Sur mer. We overheard a man talking to a visitor there. He said the French have great respect for their fallen, and the dead of other countries who helped liberate them. All war cemeteries in their country are immaculately kept. I will let the pictures do the talking.

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We Will Remember Them

Part 1: go here                                                                                                             Part 3: go here

Remembrance Day Special Part 1 Ypres

We interrupt your regular travel blog (not so regular I’m afraid) to bring you highlights of our European trip that pertain to the upcoming Remembrance Day ceremony on November 11.

We first must jump forward a few days to Day 14, July 13, 2015 when we are in Bruges.

We had always planned to visit Ypres, and when we told our Bruges B&B host, Nicole, that we were going to leave early, she said we had to see the Last Post ceremony, which is held at the Menin Gate Memorial.

Nicole said that as in many places in Europe, Ypres is commemorating the hundred year anniversary mark for each year of the Great War 1914-1918 therefore, at the Memorial, special choirs are singing nearly every night. So it is a special time to go.

So we decided to leave a little later than planned so that we could still see Ypres other sites and be there for the ceremony.

Words cannot express, pictures cannot do justice to the experience of seeing all the names at the Menin gate, and the Tyne Cot cemetery. I will let  the pictures do most of the talking but I will say this: for us at home in Canada, whenever we find it hard to rouse ourselves from the comfort of our homes to go to a local cenotaph on November 11, please think on this, as I will.

From November 11, 1929 onward, the Last Post has sounded at the Menin Gate Memorial, every night and in all weathers.

Every, single night at 8.00pm! Not just once per year. Every night. The only exception to this was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 1940 to 1944.

Nicole told us that the 4 buglers are from the town’s volunteer fire brigade. Apparently there are 6 or 8 of them that rotate duties in order to provide the 7 day a week coverage. One of the bugler volunteers is 90 years old and has been doing it for 60 years. A name and story is read out for one of the names on the walls (those that have no known grave). On July 9, 2015 they celebrated their 30,000 performance. There are well over 100,000 names of soldiers who died with no known grave to be honoured, so even with doing this every night, they are less than a third the way through.

As we set out it was rainy and stayed that way for most of first part of morning, and was windy and cold the whole day.

We arrived at Ypres and first parked just outside the gate and explored  the memorial itself.

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A seemingly never-ending proclamation of Canadians ..,

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And a fitting reminder to not forget those whom we sometimes don’t think about as having stood and died along with our fathers, who perhaps were not of British, European, Canadian or American heritage…

DSC_0033  And we strolled on the ramparts and the park along the river …

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We headed back into town for breakfast …  DSC_0145

As we walked about in the damp and drizzle, MLW and I both expressed to each other our similar thoughts, which we summed up something like:

I think we can handle a little cold and wet to honour those who slogged it out scared to death, in the cold winters beneath the shrieking mortars, shelling bombardments, and gas attacks, often only to die in mud, blood, vomit and excrement among the trench rats and bodies of comrades and enemies alike.

One can never fully imagine the horror of it all, but going through the museum at Ypres, visiting the nearby sites and seeing the Menin Gate memorial itself forces one to at least make the attempt.

We made a quick trip to the Essex Farm cemetery, near the Advanced Dressing station bunker where John McRae had written In Flanders Fields.DSC_0153

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This is what the cemetery looked like immediately following the battle …

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Canadian John McCrae is well remembered here.

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And indeed a field of wild poppies grows nearby.

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This memorial is not Canadian, but as my father was from Yorkshire (although the East Riding), I felt I could pay tribute.

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Next we went to see the 10 metre high statue of the Brooding Soldier  or ‘De Canadien’ as it is known locally. It was sculpted by F.C. Clemeshaw, the runner-up in the competition to design the Vimy Ridge monument, and erected at Vancouver Corner in Sint Juliaan.

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The Brooding Soldier’s bowed head is looking in the direction from which a cloud of chlorine gas approached on April 22, 1915; the first large-scale chemical attack in the history of warfare.

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The front of the monument is engraved simply: CANADA. DSC_0199 The stone plateau has directions to other nearby memorial sites, such as Passchendaele.

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We signed the register book, an unexpected pleasure.

DSC_0202 DSC_0203 DSC_0206Then we journeyed (not without blog-worthy trials and tribulations to be iterated elsewhere) to Tyne Cot Cemetery on Passchendaele Ridge, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.

As you walk through the introductory visitor centre, you can’t help compare the picture you see of what the area looked like during the war, and the conditions the men endured … (A must watch is the movie by Paul Gross: Paschendael, if only for the stark realism he portrayed.)

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with the view today …

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The Canadians were a big part of this battlefield; being gassed and then trying to capture the church, losing more than 4,000 men …

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A girl’s voice reads out a name that echoes through the building. Pictures, if available, of the man who died flash on the wall.

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Walking out of the visitor centre, the girl’s voice mournfully accompanies you as you make the seemingly long walk to the cemetery.

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The cemetery itself stuns one into silence.

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Back to Ypres (after a few more adventures with Jeeps that shall be recounted in the travel blog proper), we had to unfortunately hurry through the marvelous In Flanders Field Museum, so as to be able to catch the Last Post ceremony …

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You are greeted shortly in the entranceway by this incredible painting of the ghost soldiers streaming out the Menin Gate into the battlefields beyond moving through fields of poppies. Menin Gate at Midnight (also known as Ghosts of Menin Gate) is a 1927 painting by Australian artist Will Longstaff and I believe this was at the time we saw it on loan from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.DSC_0263

The museum is fascinating, full of movies and slide shows and all manner of artifacts from many countries.

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DSC_0296   Items found on the battlefields, these are balls of lead shot placed in mines and mortars

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Belt buckles ….

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Outside, a commemoration on a nearby building honouring the many Belgian citizens who assisted downed allied airmen, many of whom secretly passed through the Hotel Regina.

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We got back to the gate to find the crowds queuing up already…

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Among them a thinly disguised John Cleese ?

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Sorry, I could not resist. I noticed him in the crowd and to this day I wonder.

<Ahem>

The buglers arrived …

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They began the Last Post …

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This night there was a girl’s choir and band who sang two hauntingly beautiful songs, one was View Me Lord, the name of the other unfortunately escapes me.

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The buglers finished Last Post to a hushed crowd …

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Wreaths were laid and a lad read the Exhortation, the famous excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen”.

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Standing in the centre of the road under the arch of the Hall of Memory, the words echoed briefly off the walls as the crowd and city remained silent:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.”

The crowd, we all answer: “We will remember them”

Then it is Reveille, the soldier’s time to rest has come …

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“We will remember them.”

Go to Part 2

Day 9 – Amsterdam (Round 2) – Den Haag: no funny stuff, all Art and Beauty

July 8, 2015

Then came the attempt to exit the city of Utrecht.

We only did four laps around the apartment, actually coming right back to where we left twice, before we figured it out ourselves. Jeeps had given up and lapsed into a sullen silence after asking us to ‘turn around when possible’ dozens of times as the bridge closure and construction foiled her again and again.

Poor Jeeps.

Eventually we figured it out ourselves and got on the road back to the IBIS Hotel near Schiphol Airport Amsterdam.

As we drove, the sky opened up and buckets of rain sluiced over the car. It didn’t matter to us, we were on a mission.

We checked into the hotel, chucked our luggage on the floor and left for Den Haag (The Hague) in our unshaven and unwashed glory.

As we drove, we braced ourselves for the inevitable parking fiasco. However, we had done our homework well this time, having plugged in the coordinates for one of the larger parking garages near the city centre and Jeeps, having eventually recovered from her failures in Utrecht—which were not her fault—delivered us smoothly to a car garage, with plenty of room for parking.

Our enthusiasm was only momentarily dampened—literally—by the prospect of walking a few blocks in the sheeting rain, but we donned jackets and made the trek, vowing to buy a brolly very soon.

First we went to the Mauritshuis …

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Which is at the end of a series of courtyards or a square (plein) which includes the Ridderzaal  (Hall of Knights), the main building of the 13th century Binnenhof used for the state opening of Parliament, official royal receptions, and inter-parliamentary conferences.

And also leads to the Prince William V Gallery…

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The courtyard is built in the middle of a canal  seen just over the walls.

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It appeared there was to be a concert of some kind  held there later. I could not find what concert or event it was.

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Then, you enter rooms with wall upon wall of paintings, and all thoughts of the outside world vanish. The photographs I took can never, ever do justice to seeing the real item. To truly appreciate them, you must go and stand before them. Having now been, I would encourage everyone who has any interest in beauty and art to go at least once in their lifetime. It will enrich your soul.

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This was our first up-close encounter with the masters. Speaking for myself I was blown away. I am not one who likes a lot of impressionistic work, although it is beginning to grow on me at a late age; however, I have always loved the masterpieces of works in light and realism from artists like Reubens:

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Old woman and boy with candles by Reubens

An artist I had not heard of (showing my blatant ignorance) is Jan Steen, whom I have now come to enjoy greatly, as I saw many of his paintings in Holland. He always has a humourous bent to his paintings, which sometimes are also allegories or morality pieces.

Like this one: ‘As the Old sing, So Pipe the Young…’
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Here is the famous, now made more famous due to the bestselling book of the same name:

Gold Finch

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The stunning Vermeer: Girl with Pearl Earring, which I was surprised to discover (me being an art illiterate) is a tronie; a painting of an imaginary figure and not an actual portrait.

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Plus this Vermeer: View of Delft

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Note the detail of the people …

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Oh, to see all the Rembrandts. I love his work. Another tronie: Man with a Feathered Beret

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp; 1632

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Portrait of Rembrandt with a Gorget; circa 1629

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Self-portrait 1669, the year Rembrandt died, so this may be the last self-portrait he did. Rembrandt made more self-portraits than any other 17th century painter.

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Some detail

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A rare painting by any master of the day: two men who at the time were called ‘ Moors’.

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For me, The Old Lacemaker is another stunning work of colour, light and expression.

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The Bull or The Young Bull, a painting by Paulus Potter, is perhaps the most famous painting here:

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To give you an idea of its size …

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And the detail …

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So much more artwork, sculptures, furniture ….

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We left the Mauritshuis after a couple of hours, taking some more photos of the outside and canal area.

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We wandered through the Ridderzall and Binnenhof, heading towards the Prince William V gallery.

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I noticed an open door to my right. I sauntered in, all touristy-like, expecting to find a nifty little art gallery or exhibition.

Instead, inside was a glassed-in security area and a very startled guy sitting behind it, who after recovering his composure, said grimly through a little round hole: “Yes! We can help you?”

He did not look helpful.

“Oh hi,” cue the patented sheepish Canadian smile.

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Stock Photo of Mike Meyers

“Just wondering what this is … ?”

He drew himself up, squaring his shoulders. I half-expected a salute.

“This … this is the Prime Minister of Holland’s office …”

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Stock Photo PM of Holland Mark Rutte

I almost said, “Oh, can we have a cup of coffee with him?”

But of course I didn’t. I thanked the man very politely and backed out, very gingerly, keeping my hands clearly visible.

Well, it did explain the security…

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On we went without being arrested.

Outside the Prince William Gallery …

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… there were some food kiosks.

At one, was a Heron, patiently waiting for something to eat. He appeared to be a familiar figure to the locals.

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We entered the gallery …

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… to see some more amazing paintings.

Here is one, painted in the 1700’s, stationed near a window, out of which you can see an almost matching view.

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This huge painting greets you as you enter the main hall. It is a beautiful study in perspective and shadow.

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Oh, Art everywhere …

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One can get overwhelmed.

Later on in our trip, in Amsterdam, we find out that this overwhelming feeling is a common occurrence; an actual condition of sorts. DSC_0124 DSC_0125 DSC_0126 DSC_0127DSC_0129 DSC_0128

After a couple of hours of art saturation we made our way out.

Den Haag ,seen in the clearing daylight outside, is another lovely Dutch city  set within the framework of a modern metropolis.

Statues and sculptures everywhere …

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… even on newer buildings, almost as a casual afterthought.

DSC_0135   DSC_0136 DSC_0137It is a city to which we want to return someday, as we missed the supposedly spectacular Scheveningen beach resort and some other museums and locations on this trip.

Now … at some point during this fray into the world of art appreciation, MLW received an email from Friedrich, advising he was not going to refund any money because he had told us of the expensive parking issue.

“True enough,” said MLW. “He did warn us about that, but I guess I am going to have to let AirBnB know all the rest of what is wrong with the place.”

She felt bad about it, because she had planned to take the other matters up in a personal email to Friedrich, so that AirBnB wouldn’t give him a black mark and our eventual review might be slanted more favourably.

But now the gloves were off.

As Daffy Duck would say “ Of courth you realithe … thith meanth war!”

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We returned to our vehicle in the now-dry weather and drove back to the IBIS, with MLW madly thumbing a reply to AirBnB on her phone.

At the hotel, we had an excellent supper and (big Bonus here) an actual martini  and fell into bed exhausted. No dreams of spiders or serial killers invaded our sleep.

Previous installment: go here                   Next installment, go here

Day 8 – The Retreat from Utrecht

Warning: May not be suitable for all ages. Graphic photographs.

July 7, 2015

It was time to leave our wonderful B&B De Hedera Bed and Breakfast.

As our very first experience with a B&B, it had been a warm and wonderful seven days. We fell in love with Leeuwarden and the people we had met, and especially Mia, our bright energetic host.

I had been looking forward to going to Utrecht; it is a city of great historical significance and every image I had seen portrayed a beautiful city with the requisite canals and beautiful walks and promenades, as well as the by-now familiar narrow streets winding amidst ancient buildings.

But beforehand we also wanted to return to the Old Hove tower (de Oldehove), hopefully to climb   it and get a photo of the view, and go into the Tresoar to see what we could find, in an admittedly short period of time in the archives of Friesland.

So we got up fairly early, packed up and said goodbye to Mia

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We arrived at the Old Hove tower again, to find it was not open until 1pm, which was too late for us, so I had to be  satisfied with taking a few more snaps of the angle of incline of the old structure.

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We went into the Tresoar and began looking at record books. I was able to cotton on to the system for the registration of our surname of <redacted for security reasons> in 1811 by decree of Napoleon and found a copy of the original document signed by an ancestor named Klaas Klaases <redacted for security reasons> taking the last name <redacted for security reasons> as his family name.  Well, an X was marked as his name and witnessed by the oath taker. DSC_0143black

I asked for a translation and was led to an amiable man who supposedly spoke English and could translate it, which he did. His English was actually not as good as had been most of the customer service people in corner stores and restaurants, but he was extremely amiable and helpful and as he said, “Well, at least my English is better than your Dutch.”

No argument there.

Basically the translation is that on December 31 1811, Klaas Klaases <redacted for security reasons>  certified that the name <redacted for security reasons> is his family name. Thus began the official record of our surname. It had existed prior to that, but as there had been no need for surnames it was often changed and misspelled, so after Nappy had his way, it had to be officially declared as the name the family took on … but apparently, according to the fellow who helped us, only the family of Klaas Klaases <redacted for security reasons>, not his brothers or anyone else had registered the name. Which left me puzzled, but with enough information to work on another day (not while on holidays).

So, not as fulfilled as I would have liked to have been, we headed out on the next leg of our adventure.

Jeeps was fantastic, she led us to Utrecht with no problems at all.

Until we rounded a corner and saw some confusing signs. Jeeps wanted us to go right, but there were construction cones and signs and a helpful placard reading: “Bridge Closed.”

Hmmmn.

“Jeeps, the bridge is closed. “ I said hopefully.

No answer.

We went left, as guided by the arrows and traffic cones, but could see no directional detour arrows that may help us reach our destination.

Jeeps kicked in and led us on a path that eventually led us—you guessed it—back to where the signs said the bridge was out.

But this time, there was a harried and sturdy-looking man directing traffic, dressed in a reflector vest and hard helmet. His chest looked as hard as his helmet.

We stopped and MLW rolled the window down.

“Please, can you help us?” MLW flashed her winning smile.

Of course, the gruff looking man melted into a Lego version of himself.

“Yes?” He leaned his head in the car window, with an equally endearing grin, directed towards MLW only.

“We have to go to Bilderstraat (name changed to protect us from lawsuit), and our GPS keeps leading us back here.” MLW purred.

“Yes,” the man said, apologetically. “The bridge is closed. It is out. To get to Bilderstraat you have to take the “C” roads.”

C roads?” We both said at the same time. Reflector Vest studiously ignored me and answered MLW.

“Yes, you see the big yellow square markers on the poles down the road. Across the railroad tracks?” He pointed vaguely into the distance.

“No.” I said

“Yes” said MLW.

“Follow the ones marked ‘C’ and they will take you around the canal and back into town. You will see Bilderstraat.”

“What signs marked ‘C’?” I asked.

MLW ignored me. She may have slipped her telephone number to the Reflector Vest, I am not sure, but in any case he smiled even wider than before and said: “So sorry for the inconvenience.”

And waved us on.

MLW pointed left. Finally, I saw the (rather embarrassingly large) yellow square sign mounted on a pole with the huge black letter C emblazoned on it.

I headed for the sign.

As we did so, as if energized by secret C waves, Jeeps chimed in with a newly programmed route, which we then dutifully followed.

“You have reached your destination!” Jeeps finally sang out in her triumphant we-just-won-the Battle-of-Britain-announcer voice.

We found ourselves in a narrow (of course) very busy (of course)cobbled (of course) lane (of course) with no place to park, with bikes whizzing around us (of course).

In front of us was an alley.

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“That’s it!” yelled MLW. “Friedrich (name changed-you know why) said the entrance to his place was in an alley”

MLW had been carrying on secret conversations with Friedrich, the landlord of our next lodging place, for weeks now and was wise in the ways of Utrecht alleys.

Now, I must stop here, to mention that I had originally booked this place, largely because it was the first one that popped up when I searched Air B’n’B for lodging in Utrecht and also because it was an apartment with stove, fridge and spacious rooms, where we could cook for ourselves and buy groceries, instead of eating out with all the expense that entailed,plus the banner name was: Stop searching, this is the one!  (I always do as I am told) .

It didn’t hurt that it looked like this:

utrecht We had, in fact bought groceries on our way out of Leeuwarden for just that reason and were looking forward to cooking for ourselves for a few days.

At some point, MLW had taken over the correspondence with Friedrich. Our first hint of anything amiss was when she asked how, when and where we could exchange keys.

Friedrich’s answer was to send her a photo of a green gate in an alley and to tell MLW that he would leave the keys under a rock at the bottom of this gate.

I kid you not. Here are his explicit instructions:

_______________________________________

From: “Friedrich On Airbnb”
Date: Jun 25, 2015 11:10 AM
Subject: Fwd: key instructions
To: “MLW” <MLW@mlw.com >
Cc:

Hi MLW,

the address is Bilderstraat XXXX, Utrecht [name changed]  and, here is the promised key finding guide 🙂

this is the front door :), if you stand with your back to the door

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and look to you right you see ‘de bilderstraat’. in this picture you see the small houses on the left,

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if you walk into this street, at the end of the houses you will find is a green metal gate. apprx. 20 meter. 

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at the gate, you see the stones on the left of the gate, connected to the water drainage hole.

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under the small stone you will find the keys 🙂

 you will find the apartment when you enter the house, straight ahead, at the top of the staircase. it’s the one with the lion head knocker on the door 🙂

________________________________

In my head: This guy is probably either a serial killer or a con artist that has people steal your stuff while you are out sightseeing and thus claims no responsibility because the key is in a public place and we weren’t careful to hide the location.

To MLW: “Well, maybe it is such a safe area and he does it all the time so there is no problem with that.”

Still, we had naturally assumed that a landlord would want to meet his tenants, show a face, give the keys and any tips or quirks as to the residence. After all, there are always things one needs to know about non-standard lodging. But, Friedrich was apparently, supremely, nonchalant. We in turn became moderately concerned.

Later, MLW had asked about parking, to which Friedrich said it was expensive and gave us a residence code for the areas near his apartment that gave us parking at half price, but also said there was a free parking place ‘in the church down the next street’ and another area about a 15 minute walk away. He helpfully sent a map which we never could make sense of, as he had written: ‘Fee parking area’ and not ‘Free parking area’ in what we thought should be the designated areas.

So here we sat in front of this alley …

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A huge truck lumbered up behind us and forced us to move ahead before we could get our bags out, which was okay in the end because we got a spot that took us marginally off the main road.

Someone, it could have been Jeeps, wisely said, “Let’s just get our stuff into the apartment, then we can go look for parking.”

Parking.

Equals.

Fiasco.

In my mind, forever linked with the word ‘parking’ will be the word ‘fiasco’, already having suffered through Terrified Chinese Lady and Well-Muscled Blonde Oberleutnant. I was fully prepared for some sort of upset with regard to stationary vehicle storage.

But, we ventured into the alley after putting our four-way flashers on in the middle of the street (lane) and found the keys, just as described.

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Grabbed some of our luggage and opened the main door …

To see nine flights of stairs.

At least they weren’t narrow like De Hedera had been.

At the top of the stairs, I turned to MLW, who was one flight behind, and said as much.

She was not amused by my forced youthful optimism.

MLW had the keys, so I deferred the first unlocking to her.

She could not get the lock open.

I tried and at first I could not get it to open, either. Then, by fluke or genius I was able to pop it open (I prefer the genius explanation). I examined the lock and noticed that it was some sort of dual-purpose contraption. It appeared that turning it a certain way unlocked the dead bolt and turning yet again another way (this was the lucky part which I could not recall exactly what I had done) opened the main lock.

We made another trip with our luggage and then locked the door, and left to find parking. We came out of the alley to find another delivery van had arrived and boxed us in so we could not move out for another 10 minutes.

We were getting hungry by this time. Neither I nor MLW deal well with hunger.

Finally, the van moved and we headed out. Firstly, we found the church parking lot and entered, following in behind another vehicle. We had to maneuver around a huge Land Rover that had parked with his rear end jutting out and then between a tree and a drunken, apparently homeless man sitting on the church steps with his feet splayed out in front of him like Charlie Chaplin after a pratfall.

Meanwhile, the car ahead went down to the end of the lot and put on his backup lights.

“There is no parking … and he wants out!” MLW exclaimed.

“Turn around when possible!” Jeeps piped up helpfully.

“Shut up, Jeeps!” We both snapped in unison.

Poor Jeeps.

The Clio’s backup camera and MLWs careful guidance led us backwards out of the church lot, past the Rover and narrowly missing the vagrant’s feet.

After his near-paedal death experience, the man promptly leaped up from his perch and staggered towards MLW’s window, burping and blurting something unintelligible.

“Sorry, I have no Dutch.” Yelled MLW through the glass. The man appeared confused but lurched away towards the other car who was backing up in front of us, apparently wanting money or the name of a good foot-injury lawyer.

Eventually, we got clear and began the attempt to follow the map that Friedrich had sent.

After a time of driving around, over canals and under bridges, through lanes and alleys and roundabouts, I looked up and notice that we were back at the same spot in front of the lodging’s alley entrance.

DSC_0010 “All without Jeeps, too.” I said to MLW, in awe of my prowess—for Jeeps was sulking from our previous joint outburst.

You know the glare by now …

We set off again: round and round, over and under, through and between.

Finally, after probably 45 minutes of wandering, we found a spot on a street somewhere north of our lodging and after some gentle persuasion from MLW, I grabbed it.

According to MLW’s phone (which we decided to use part of the data roaming package we had purchased for emergencies like this), we were about a 15 minute walk or five blocks away from Friedrich’s apartment.

I looked around.

“Where is the pay station?”

“I think it is back there.” MLW waved to a lone pylon with what appeared to be a machine-like object set atop it, at the end of the block about 50 metres behind us.

We got out and walked over to it. I was checking out the area to see if I could suss out whether it was comparable to East LA …

Los Angeles Times MONTEBELLO, CA - MAY 15, 2013:

or hopefully, downtown Mayberry.

The-Mayberry-Cast

If I was going to leave the car overnight, I wanted to be comfortable that it would be there in the morning or whether it would be on blocks and stripped or vanished and in a container on its way to Saudi Arabia (although I discounted that option immediately, since it was a Renault and not a Mercedes Benz or BMW).

The contraption was indeed a parking meter, but unlike any other one we had seen (of course).

The instructions on it seemed to contradict what was written on a nearby sign on a pole, in that the meter said something about parking from Monday to Friday evening, and the sign on the pole had obviously had something similar written in better days, but was now scratched out.

We accosted a nice young blonde lady who was walking her bulldog and asked her if she could unravel the discrepancy.

“Hmmn, no I never noticed that before,” she said—in perfect English (of course)—after getting over her fright at being spoken to by two disheveled and red-faced foreigners. “I think it is okay to park here, but you must to pay, naturally.”

“Naturally.” We nodded in unison.

“Is it safe?” I asked, as the bulldog drooled on my shoelaces.

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“I think so …” she said hesitantly. “I have not had trouble at least.”

Not the ringing endorsement I was looking for, but good enough for us in our desperate state.

We thanked her for her information and time. I leveled a scowl at the bulldog. This did not affect him, as he walked away haughtily with his mistress, leaving a slimy trail behind him leading to my shoes.

“Look, the paystation takes credit cards.” MLW said.

And so it did, however as we soon found out, not Mastercard, which was the card I wanted to use on our trip to accumulate points.

I located my spare Visa, inserted it with a prayer and as I did so, I realized that the keypad was only in numbers, and it had been so long since I used my Visa card that I had forgotten what my personal code—a name—was in numbers … and no, the name is not MLW, for those who are about to hack.

“Quick, your phone.” I said to MLW.

Now, luckily MLW’s phone has an app or a feature that allows her to mimic the neolithic-style telephone dial sequence of numbers with accompanying letters, so this portion of the evening’s entertainment went relatively smoothly and the PIN was accepted.

Only then did it request our license plate number.

“Why is it,” MLW said in exasperation, “that every place we park has a different system of collection. You’d think it would be standardized.”

Our car, of course was a block away and we had not written down our license plate in our personal effects.

MLW walked back to the car, took a photo of the plate and brought it back to me. The genius of the Android phones.

But by now the paystation had timed out and we had to start all over again.

We got nearly to the end of the sequence and it asked for the residence code. Now, this was important because it gave us the spot at half the regular price.

MLW had to find the email from Friedrich in which he had provided the code.

By that time, the meter had timed out and we had to start over again.

After this last time, everything worked and it spit out a ticket that allowed us to park there for 24 hours.

At a cost of 38 Euros.

Which was half the regular price.

“My god.” MLW breathed.

“Yes,” I agreed. “I am never complaining about Easypark in Vancouver again.””

In the waning light, as it was well after 700pm by this time, we made the trek back to the alley and up the nine flights of stairs to the apartment.

I unlocked the door with no problem and we sort of slithered into the apartment, breathing heavily and sighing thankfully, all at the same time.

We started looking around at where to set things up, computers, clothes, toiletries and so on.

The apartment looked pretty much as advertised, except on close inspection the walls, floors table and windows were smutty, as if no one had come in to clean up after the previous renters. The furniture was old, so although the place did retain a sort of bohemian charm, it was not as stunning as the photographs made it out to be.

MLW had been happy that there was a kitchen and a fridge with a freezer, as we had purchased freezer packs and a bag cooler which we thought to put lunch items in and transport fresh food with  in order to save some money. She wrinkled her nose up at the stove, as there were crumbs and other food remains in the burner pots.

Then she peered into the freezer.

“Ewyuck!” She said.

“What?”

“I don’t know what the congealed mass is that oozed out and froze in this freezer, but it is taking up the whole thing and obviously has not been cleaned since Christ rode a bicycle.” (MLW is prone to interesting vernacular at times, gleaned from a mixture of British, Scottish and Manitoba-farmer colloquialisms.)

But here is the first thing I imagined:

Freezer-304x171

The second thing:

ugh

And sliding down the scale of horror (for me):

freezer-coated-in-ice

stock photo

In any event, I didn’t bother to look.

“So,not using the freezer, I’m guessing?”

“No.”

I went into the bathroom: no extra toilet paper and the towels smelled musty. I decided not to inform MLW, as I was interested to hear what epithets would spring from her horrified lips when she discovered it for herself. About the towels I mean, not the toilet paper.

MLW doesn’t care about toilet paper. But I do.

At which point, I have to interrupt the narrative now to give a helpful tip for travelers and B&B keepers.

Please have high quality extra soft toilet paper on hand for your guests!

Yes, it costs a little more. But for those people who have <ahem> certain issues in that area, it is a nightmare, if using the cheap and rough stuff, or can be a godsend if the good stuff is dangling from the holder. It would bring my estimation of the lodgings up immeasurably. I mean, so much effort is spent on soaps and chocolates and other homey extras, when simply throwing in quality toilet paper would increase your good reviews tenfold. I am sure of it.

Look, even for people without the afore-ahem-ed issues, it makes a difference; they just don’t know it.

It is like having a stereo system.

Buy the cheap one if you want. Listen to it and you think it sounds okay, maybe even great. Then, you by chance go to another person’s house who has spent more on their system. Man, are you ruined for your own system from that moment on!

It sounds like two tin cans on a string reaching between adjacent houses. In short, it sounds like crap. Which brings me back to the toilet paper. Once you try the super soft stuff, you can’t go back. And you are ruined for anything else forever after.

So, B&B keepers, heed the hint. Travelers, take the tip, maybe buy your own for the road, if you can find it.

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Now that I have done my little rant, I will return you to the action in progress …

From the main bedroom, MLW suddenly began quoting lines from any crime/cop drama you have seen on TV:

“Colin, I think you’ll want to see this …”

Then when I didn’t immediately answer: “Colin, quick! Come here … what the Hell are these things!? Bedbugs???”

“Not if you can see them and they are moving.” I said as I hurried out of the bathroom, to find her standing at the foot of the bed.

MLW didn’t reply or even marvel at my bed-bug lore. She only pointed to the duvet cover near the bottom of the bed, where hundreds of tiny bugs were indeed visible and certainly moving.

In my head: ‘Aaa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-aa-ah!!!!!!’

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outer limits photo

To MLW, as I bent over to examine the little black creatures: “Hmmn,”

Over six legs.

“Baby spiders.” I pronounced, thankfully, but with absolutely no conviction. I looked up. There was an open skylight above the bed. “Probably came in from there.”

Without a word, MLW frantically brushed off all the bugs she could see, stamping about as she did so, an action in which I fervently joined her. Then she climbed on top of the bed and closed the skylight.

“Ugh.” She shivered. “Will I sleep tonight?”

“We could sleep in the car if you want.” I offered.

Glare.

“Colin, we can’t stay here after tonight. “ She said. And thus our next course of action was set.

As MLW began cooking our own food we had purchased in Leeuwarden, I booked a room back at the Ibis at Schiphol airport Amsterdam. We could easily go to the Hague and Amsterdam city from there.

“Thank God they have a room at the Ibis.” I said.

“WTF?” Said MLW.

I began to repeat: “Thank Go…”

“No, no, I mean this stuff we bought that we thought was a mixture of chicken and rice for quick cooking … there is no rice. Just seasoning.”

“Huh.” I said, ever helpful.

“Never mind, are you okay with chicken and vegetable stir fry?” MLW can make something out of nothing easier than anyone I have ever met.

“Sure.” I replied, “If that’s all you have.”

“We have wine, too.”

“Even better.”

We downed the bottle of wine.

Then we ate, but not before MLW scrubbed the plates and utensils, which were also less than clean.

After dinner, I recalled that Friedrich had sent a jocular email saying we could use the seating area on the deck on the roof and that although the chairs were old, he didn’t mind if we broke them as he was planning to replace them anyway; so I searched for roof access.

I found a little door we had thought was a closet and peeked up. Sure enough there were stairs up to the roof … and the roof door was slightly ajar.

In my head, again: This guy is probably either a serial killer or a con artist that has people steal your stuff while you are out sightseeing and thus claims no responsibility because the key is in a public place and we weren’t careful to hide the location and the roof door is left ajar.

To MLW: “Cool, let’s check it out.”

MLW gave me the you-are-bat-shit-crazy-but-you-are-also-the-closest-thing-to-a-male-I-have-around-me-so-I-will-humour-you-and-go-with-you look.

It’s a long look.

I grabbed the camera and climbed up the stairs.

The so-called deck sported decking planks that were moldy, dirty and falling apart. The furniture was silvered and splintery. Unappealing and uninviting.

The view was spectacular, however.

So unfortunately and no doubt to our cultural detriment, all we saw of Utrecht was its narrow streets and this:

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We climbed back down from the roof. I firmly closed and locked the door behind us.

MLW emailed Air BnB to advise them that we were quitting this place after one day and requested the procedure to obtain a refund for the nights not spent.

We packed up everything and crawled into bed with our clothes on.

MLW told me later she hardly slept a wink, thinking about spiders crawling all over her.

spider-hell

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I did not tell her that I hardly slept a wink because every creak and thump and knock to me depicted Friedrich or bulky friend creeping through the apartment wielding axes or scratchy toilet paper tubes or steely knives glinting in the moonlight intent on serializing us.

14Freddy-Krueger

In the morning I offered to go get the car while she stayed at the apartment. Just being chivalrous and gentlemanly, was all.

MLW started off a sentence with: “If you think …”

Which I won’t repeat all of, as you can no doubt get the gist.

We walked—with our fingers crossed—to where we had left the car. As we rounded the last corner we saw that …. Yes! The car was where we had parked it and there was no damage at all to it.

Thank you, blonde lady with drooling bulldog, you were right. But you still owe me a pair of shoes.

Jeeps faithfully led us back to the alley. Well, she had been there at least a dozen times the night before, so she should have known the way.

We left the car with 4-way flashers on in the near-empty street and hurried up the stairs. We reached the top. I inserted the key and twisted it.

The door did not open.

I tried again.

Still bolted firmly shut.

“You have got to be frikkin’ kidding me!” said MLW from over my shoulder.

“I’ll get it.” I said.

I twisted it both ways, looped around once and back, twice and back, held the door to, pushed it outward as I twisted. Again and yet again.

Nothing worked.

My thumb and forefinger were cramping.

Ten minutes went by.

Skin was being scraped from the outside of my forefinger as I twisted and turned the key to no avail.

MLW had to go downstairs; she was red with anxiety and couldn’t bear to watch my efforts.

Echoing from nine floors below, I heard: “That’s it, Colin, I am calling the locksmith.”

“I can get it!” I shouted back, not caring about the neighbours who may be still sleeping at 8:00am.

I paused and tried to picture the inside of the lock system and imagine how the dual assembly worked. I breathed in and out. I was the lock. I was the key. I was …

“Our. frikkin’. luggage. is. in. there,” said MLW, suddenly only two stairs down behind me. (She has mad ninja skills sometimes.) “We need to get in.”

“We will, just give me a bit more time.”

“I’m looking up a locksmith.” I could hear her punching up her phone.

“Maybe call Friedrich first.” I suggested, as I wrestled with the stubborn demon key, fingers cramping and chafing. “Maybe he has a solution, a trick to it.”

I flapped my hand in the air to get rid of the cramp. MLW alerted to the movement like a deer in a meadow.

“Let me try. Give you a break.” She grabbed the key and wrestled with the mechanism a couple of times. I stood back and waited for her inevitable success.

“Maybe …” she grunted as she turned the key one way.

“If you pull the door …” She grabbed the door handle.

“It will allow the lock to … uh …” She began to pull the handle.

“No, wait, I already tri …” I couldn’t speak fast enough.

The doorknob came off in her hand.

“…ied that.” I finished.

MLW handed me the doorknob, spun on her heel and headed at some speed back down the stairs.

“I am calling Friedrich and if he has no solution, you have ten more minutes and I am getting a locksmith to come and punch the damn thing out so we can get the Hell outta here!” She fumed, her voice receding as she neared the ground floor.

Now I was under a deadline.

I was sweating.

I hated the idea of a locksmith. It would probably take hours anyway, especially with a possible language barrier. But MLW was determined and a determined MLW is not someone you want to cross or stand in the way of.

So I frantically jimmied and jammied, wiggled and wangled, cursed and cajoled the lock apparatus. As far as I could tell I was simply repeating steps I had done 100 times before. A red scaly blister was appearing on my finger.

Snap! … Clik!

The latch gave way and the door opened, as smooth as silk.

I could hear MLW talking to someone, so I yelled down, in fear she had already collared a locksmith.

“MLW, I’ve got it! I’ve got it. It’s open!”

MLW yelled back. “OK!” then apparently into the phone: “Yes, Friedrich, we got in now. Thanks. I will let you know what we decide.”

She appeared on the landing, shaking her head in incredulity.

“How on Earth did you get it open?”

“I have no idea.” It was the truth.

I was more worried about the fallout from an MLW bombing run … “What did Friedrich say?”

“He said maybe the heat has jammed the door and to try pulling on the handle …”

We couldn’t help it; we both burst into laughter.

We grabbed our suitcases and fled Utrecht as if it was 1672 and the army of Louis XIV was at the gates.

Louis_XIV_of_France

Goodbye Utrecht, we hardly knew ye!

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