Curiosity – and Quilts!

Achtung! Germany! — June 26, 2018

Achtung! Germany!

Warnemunde is the port for Berlin, a three-hour drive away. Deciding that a six-hour return trip was not the best use of our limited time in the area, we took the train into Rostock instead, a medieval town of the Hanseatic League, only 20 minutes away. Rostock will be 800 years old this weekend, so we were only four days too early for the big celebration, but saw all the tents being put up in the main market square. So sorry to be missing that!

Main market square in Rostock, 800 year old town.

We did visit the 14th century Marienkirche, a tall, white, spacious Lutheran church with an Astronomical clock from 1472 and a copper baptismal font from 1290.

Astronomical clock in St Mary’s Church, Rostock

We arrived in time to see the 12 disciples march around the clock at noon, accompanied by clockwork music. The calendar with it had made all the calculations for finding the date of every Easter from the time the clock was built right up to 2017. So I guess that means this year they just had to google it.

Detail of the Astronomical Clock

We were also lucky enough to hear a few organ pieces played on a gorgeously imposing Baroque organ. Like my Tante Rie, I do enjoy the organ!

But we lucked into a real treat just outside the church. I just happened to spy a doorway, and a courtyard, and it seemed there was a cafe. It turned out that these were buildings belonging to the church, and a group of volunteers were operating a cafe for charity. Six of us – well seven, in a way, as they brought us one extra portion (which did not go to waste) – had excellent cups of coffee (or tea) and a very delicious almond cake, fresh out of the oven, for 20 euros, which included a two-euro donation to their charity. And use of the bathroom. Always greatly appreciated.

Coffeehouse courtyard

A walk around town led us to St. Nikolai’s church, which was partially converted to an apartment complex during the Communist period, when Rostock was in east Germany.

Condos built into the church

And we found evidence in the pavement once more of those who disappeared in the Holocaust, including this four-year-old girl and her mother.

The tourist brochures treat Warnemunde very dismissively as a cheesy seaside town, a former East German relic of the Cold War with ugly architecture and nothing to commend it, but we found it charming. There’s a long beach, constant shipping traffic, and lots of little shops in a bustling central town.

Along the canal in Warnemunde
Pirates still roam in Warnemunde

We went back in the evening to take photos in the beautiful clear light. I’d happily come back again some day!

Hyggeligt Copenhagen — June 25, 2018

Hyggeligt Copenhagen

Denmark is the birthplace of a movement – almost a religion – that the rest of the world has also recently discovered – hygge. Hygge (pronounced hooga), adj. hyggeligt (rhymes with google-it) is similar to gezelligheid in Holland and we Canadians call it homey or hominess.

St. Nicholas’ Church, which is now an art gallery. Almost as many bicycles as in Holland.

But Danes have taken it to another level by using it as a verb (“come over and hygge with us tonight”) and as the very definition of their culture. As Meik Wiking says in “The little book of Hygge,” what freedom is to the Americans, what thoroughness is to the Germans, and the stiff upper lip to the British, hygge is to Danes.

The colourful restaurants and warehouses of Nyhavn.

Candles are an absolute necessity for hygge, and Danes burn around thirteen POUNDS of candle wax EACH – every year. Comfy chairs, fireplaces, books and company are also on the hygge list, although you can also hygge all by yourself with your hygge comfy pants and hygge hot chocolate. Which is probably why the cafeteria on the top floor of the large department store Le Magasin in downtown Copenhagen looks more like a living room than a fast food restaurant.

My cup of mint tea on the top floor of Le Magasin, Copenhagen ‘s grande dame of department stores, which includes bookcases, plants and comfy leather furniture. Very hygge.
Royal Copenhagen porcelain flagship store in downtown Copenhagen.

We took a canal tour of Copenhagen, walked the main shopping street – just full of hyggeligt little stores and a central fountain which is a gathering place – and discovered Nyhavn (New Harbour). Nyhavn is the place you see on jigsaw puzzles and postcards, and dates from 1670. The Danes call it the longest bar in the world, and each one has an outdoor seating area with heaters and blankets to take away any chill. Hans Christian Andersen wrote his earliest stories here and loved the area so much that he had three separate addresses within a few houses of each other.

Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, of course we saw the Little Mermaid which has become Denmark’s iconic symbol. Den Lille Havfrue sits on a rock in the harbour, looking “far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as a cornflower, as clear as crystal, and very, very deep…” (which is how the story begins).

Cathy and the Little Mermaid bonding.

We were reminiscing that so many of Andersen’s stories are so very sad, and I have heard that Andersen himself is a character in every story – the awkward duckling that everyone made fun of, the mermaid who could not find love (a lot different from the Disney version!), the unappreciated nightingale.

Big sigh. Our day was a romantic and very hyggeligt introduction to our Baltic cruise.

Boarding the ms Rotterdam —

Boarding the ms Rotterdam

Saturday June 16, 2018, the day highlighted on my calendar, finally arrived.  We decided not to eat breakfast in the Hotel New York but to walk into the district just south of it, called the Katendracht, to forage for food.

The Hotel NEW YORK in Rotterdam, former HQ of Holland America Lines.

This part of Rotterdam, like much of south Rotterdam, has been known for being a rough neighbourhood in the past, but it is on the upswing now, with new construction projects, small bakeries, shops and – hallelujah – a funky market in an old warehouse.  There was a cheese booth, coffee, bakery, greengrocer, used bookshop, stroopwafels (a thin waffle sandwich spread with apple butter) and Tunisian spices and dishes, etc. on offer.

Breakfast in the Food Hall in the Katendracht District.

I chose a “cheese board” – literally, a board with a selection of cheese and chutney.  I saw too late that you could also choose to “buy” a board from a central agent, and then take it around to each of the boutiques to pick up a sample of their best fare.  What a great idea!

The approved way to eat a stroopwafel – syrup waffle – is to warm it up by using it as a lid for your coffee cup, as Cathy demonstrates.

We had our breakfast at the picnic tables outside, and then were fortified for the Boarding of the Ship.

The ms Rotterdam enters the port.

This went smoothly, but getting acquainted with the ship, getting organized and unpacking took longer than we thought.

Finally on board!

We are settling in, now that our first 24 hours have elapsed.  It’s a sea day.  Activities include learning how to cook salmon the gourmet way, a trivia competition (our team lost in a tie-breaker) and afternoon high tea, followed by a gala dinner, watching some very energetic singers and dancers in the theatre, and then Broadway show-tunes in the piano bar with a guy dressed like Elton John, who really gave that piano a solid workout.

Ready to board.

Tomorrow:  Copenhagen!

Hindeloopen and Harlingen — June 21, 2018

Hindeloopen and Harlingen

Today broke cloudy and cool, so we broke with all previous plans, turned off the GPS, bought a map, found some place near the sea to aim for (you just can’t have a bad day next to the sea), and headed out for the towns of Hindeloopen and Harlingen.

You knew there would be a windmill sooner or later, didn’t you?

All I ever knew of Hindeloopen is that they have colourful traditional dress.  Google “klederdracht Hindeloopen” and check the images, and you’ll see what I mean.  Of course nowadays they don’t dress that way any more, except for fun.

Pretty windy up on the dijk!

Hindeloopen is an absolutely adorable fishing village in the province of Friesland, which has its own language.  Many street signs are bilingual – Dutch and Frisian.  We had no trouble, as everyone also speaks tourist.  Except for one disgruntled German man, who confided to me that Dutch was the loveliest language – of all the animal languages!

Painted shutters and lacy “gordijntjes” so typical of the style.

Hindeloopen is surrounded by a high dijk, which is a good thing as a few quick looks around show that it sits  well below sea level.  You can walk almost all the way around the town on this dijk, but watch your step as this is also where the sheep are pastured.

Sheep may safely graze on the dijk.

Making land do double duty in this way is typical Dutch economy.  I too have been accused of thrift, but not like the man in the restaurant who scraped the bottom of his soup bowl with his spoon, and then used his finger to scoop up every last drop.  Or the woman at breakfast whom we saw furtively stuff a few slices of cheese and ham into her bra!

“Spek pannekoek” – bacon pancake, just like my mom used to make.

What an effect WWII still has on this little country, even though it is now 75 years in the past.  Streets are named after resistance fighters and other war heroes, like  this one in Vollenhove.

Harmen Visser was the leader of the Resistance in this area during WWII, and executed one day after the Liberation of the Netherlands.

In Hindeloopen we came unexpectedly upon Canadian war graves, and were both surprised by the depth of our emotions at seeing these familiar monuments so far from home.

Rest In Peace

And in Harlingen, a large and prosperous fishing town, we found this four-inch bronze plaque embedded in the pavement, memorial to a woman who was taken from this place and murdered at Sobibor.

There are sadly many of these simple memorials embedded in the pavement throughout Holland.
Harlingen pavement covered in blossoms.
Messing About on a Whisper-boat — June 16, 2018

Messing About on a Whisper-boat

“Rummage around in the past of the Netherlands,” the tourist brochure reads. “Every reed stem, paving brick or water drop here is soaked with blood, sweat and tears.”

Well, doesn’t THAT sound like fun? Who could resist?

There are storks in that nest! Storks are symbols of good luck in Holland.

Not wanting to go anywhere near the boating chaos that is Giethoorn, the Navigator and I decided to rent a boat in The National Park Weerribben-Wieden, not far from Giethoorn geographically, but light-years away in population. This peat-bog is an uninhabited landscape of lakes, waterways, reeds, peat forests and quaking bogs. Not exactly sure what a quaking big is, but at least it sounds more like Wizard of Oz than Disneyland – just a titch less civilized.

The Navigator in his element.

We rented a so-called whisper-boat (with an electric motor) from http://www.hetrietershuijs.nl in the village of Kalenberg, and spent a very pleasant morning enjoying the park and nearby village of Ossenzijl by boat. The pamphlet said we would have a fat chance of seeing otters, roe deer, and other animals, by which I think they were translating literally from “een dikke kans” – a GOOD chance. We did see lots of dragonflies, a snake, and even swans and a stork in full flight! I adore storks.

Lots of peace and quiet and dragonflies in the bog. And no mosquitoes due to its anaerobic nature.

We had to lie flat on the seats to make it under this bridge.

We had a terrific morning, but all too soon it was time to drive to Rotterdam to meet my sister and her husband, and friends Cathy and Elisa, who are joining us on the next leg of the journey.

The Erasmus Bridge, iconic symbol of Rotterdam.
Ms Rotterdam enters the harbour.

We stayed at the Hotel New York, built in 1900, and the former office building of Holland America. Now it’s the cruise ship terminal, and it’s also the place from where my parents emigrated a week after their wedding. The hotel makes a great business out of emigration memorabilia, and we heard there will soon be a museum built here devoted to Dutch migration.

Central staircase

Wind vane on the hotel

The hotel itself has many nautical features, and I felt eerily like I was a guest on the Titanic. As our room overlooked the harbour, we could watch our ship, The Rotterdam, sail in.

The One-eyed, One-man Army —

The One-eyed, One-man Army

Zwolle has a Canadian connection from the Second World War. In April of 1945, Private Leo Major of the Regiment de la Chaudière of the Canadian Army (3rd Canadian Infantry Division), single-handedly liberated the city from the Germans.

The Sassenpoort, part of the medieval defenses of Zwolle, that Leo Major and Willie Arsenault were determined to save.

It happened like this: Zwolle was a German stronghold, so when the regiment neared the city, the commanding officer asked for two volunteers to do a reconnaissance mission. Private Leo Major and his friend Corporal Willie Aresenault accepted. Leo already had a long history of taking on the Germans ever since he first landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, losing his right eye to a phosphorus grenade, but capturing a German armored half-track by himself. He refused to be evacuated, stating that he only needed one eye to aim a gun. And besides, he figured the eyepatch made him look like a pirate, and he liked the idea of that. Seriously badass.

Old map of Zwolle (swollen), the only land that didn’t flood in the region, showing medieval defence system.

From there he went to Belgium, where, long story short, he single-handedly captured and delivered 93 German soldiers to the Canadian army. For this General Montgomery was to award him the Distinguished Conduct Medal (second only to the Victoria Cross for enlisted men), but Leo turned it down. It was his opinion that Monty was too incompetent to be handing out medals.

So maybe what happened next is not so very surprising. After a quick look around, the two friends decided between themselves to capture Zwolle on their own.

Interior of St Michael’s with pulpit and organ. Prior to the reformation, the seats faced the altar, which is where I’m taking the photo from. After the reformation, all the seats were arranged to face the pulpit, as the Preaching of the Word of the Lord became more important than the “superstitious repetition of ritual” represented by the altar. Today the chairs face the organ for an upcoming concert.

St. Michael’s church in the centre. Is it a coincidence that the warrior angel is Zwolle’s patron saint?

Building dates from 1571.

At first, this didn’t go so well, and around midnight, Arsenault was killed by an enemy machine gun emplacement.

This made Leo mad.

Very, very mad.

Leo picked up his friend’s weapon and killed two of the enemy while the rest ran off. And that’s how he got three submachine guns (his own plus two of theirs slung over his back), a big bag full of grenades, and plenty of ammunition. But the rest of the city was still occupied by Gestapo, SS and regular German armed forces.

Evidence of some rare pre-reformation painted decoration in a hidden chapel at the front of the church. All catholic style statues and art were destroyed during the “iconoclastic fury” of the reformation in the 1500’s.

This fact did not bother Leo one bit. That night he stormed in and out of the city repeatedly, guns a-blazing and grenades exploding. He entered SS Headquarters, killing four of the eight officers who put up a fight there (saying later he wished he could have killed them all), captured and delivered several groups of German POWs and, for good measure, burned down Gestapo headquarters. The Germans believed they were under attack by a large Canadian force. By 4:00 a.m., the city was quiet – Leo couldn’t find any more Germans to fight.

I can only wonder about the history and interior layout of this narrow little house.

This time, the “One-Eyed One-Man Army” did accept the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the only Canadian ever so awarded. And went on to be awarded yet one more for action in Korea – the only person ever to be awarded two DCMs for action in two separate wars.

But that’s another story.

Small Towns, Zwolle and Open Countryside —

Small Towns, Zwolle and Open Countryside

What a beautiful start to the day! We took off fo Giethoorn, a small town which consists of more water than land. In fact, they call it “The Venice of the North” – a nickname I’ve also heard applied to Bruges, but we’ll let them fight that out between them.

The bridges and waterways of Giethoorn. The bridges are high so punters – the gondolas of Giethoorn – can pass underneath. Photo taken just before a tourist banged into the boats, starting one motor and loosing another from its mooring entirely.

Piet-Jan, our host here, warned us against going there – he said it was terribly touristic, and a lady we met at breakfast told us Chinese tourists come in by the bus loads.

The “streets” of Giethoorn.

This is true, on both counts. Never mind Venice – this was more like Disneyland of the north!

Say cheese! You can have any cheese you like – as long as it’s Gouda!

But it was still beautiful. And entertaining! Although we chose to walk, there were plenty of boats for rent, with or without guides and tours. And it was those boats without guides that were the entertainment, weaving and wobbling like drunken sailors through the canals, bumper-car style. The Navigator was not impressed!

Ready to rent!

Next stop was the village of Staphorst, where about 1500 people of the 15,000 population – all women – still wear traditional clothing. The men stopped wearing their traditional gear in the 1950’s. We saw two of the women speeding by on bicycles. For more information, we stopped at the local museum. We learned of the local tradition of building a stone with a hole in it into their homes. They believed only lightning striking a stone could create the hole in the first place, and since lightning never strikes twice in the same place, this would protect them from that peril.

Some homes have racks on the outside to hold the shoes; these are conveniently lined up at the door. Wooden shoes are still the best way to garden.

Me and a couple of the ladies in “modern” Staphorst dress.
Staphorst headdresses, all painted with a stippled design.
Typical farmhouse of Staphorst. And a bicycle. Always a bicycle.

Last stop of the day was Zwolle, a stately old fortified city, where I bought some “Zwolse balletjes” – handmade boiled candy made in the basement of a historic house. We took a self-guided walking tour, and stopped for a pub break when it started to rain.

Window of the sweet shop, where they make their traditional candies in the basement. And the symbol of the hand with blue fingers.

The sweet shop.
Optometrist’s shop in Zwolle, with icon-like portraits of soccer players in honour of the World Cup.

The symbol of Zwolle is a blue hand, how that came about is an insight to how Dutch people think. Apparently the tower of the church of Saint Michael fell down, or burnt down, or was struck by lightning, and whatever happened, the town didn’t have enough money to repair it. So the city council decided to sell the church bells – for a good price, of course, because we are talking about Dutchmen – to the nearby city of Kampen and raise a tidy amount of cash in the process. Well, who knows exactly what happened, as accusations later flew on all sides, but the long and the short of it is that when the bells arrived in Kampen, they were damaged and wouldn’t ring. Zwolle insisted Kampen had to pay their bill nevertheless, because a deal’s a deal, especially when you’re Dutch and it involves money, and grudgingly, the people of Kampen did – but they decided to pay them back (get it? Pay them back!!) in copper pennies and half-pennies.

The people of Zwolle, now suspicious that this was a trick and they weren’t getting full value, counted every single last coin – and hence, the blue fingers!

Searching for Roots —

Searching for Roots

On our first full day in Holland, we went hunting for the place where my father was born.

We found it only with the help of the GPS. There was a teensy little traffic glitch along the way. Somehow we managed to turn onto a road that was not really a road; more like a single lane with a bike path on either side. Quite a while later, after the Navigator and I had entertained a lively discussion as to the nature of this road and our chances of getting off it (there being no cross streets and nowhere to turn around), we were stymied by a road barrier which halted all conversation. Hmmmmm.

A house in Vollenhove, showing painted doors and shutters typical of the region.

Behind us, a commercial van drove up and stopped, obviously expecting us to do something. I, being the one who speaks Dutch, took a deep breath, got out and explained our predicament to the woman driving the van, who was very pleasant. She did say that “officieel” we were not supposed to be there, but if we would drive right up to the barrier, she would drive up behind us and use her transponder to open the barrier. And that’s what we did. Phew.

House in Vollenhove

It made us much more alert to the roads in general, and by the way, we quickly tuned in to the Terrorist Killer bicycles which have right of way – ALWAYS. I was nearly creamed by a predatory eight-year-old, and barely managed to pull the Navigator out of the way of a housewife similarly mounted on a Terrorist Killer bicycle. And then there was the woman travelling at just under the speed of sound who called me a name for being on the same planet as her. There are no innocent pedestrians in Holland – merely obstacles to bicycle navigation. And the Navigator would like me to warn you all that “fietspad” dos not mean “footpath”!

Many houses in Vollenhove had these black boxes as decoration, set off by red geraniums and a pair of wooden shoes.

Back to the place my father was born. The rural town of Frankhuis which my father described has been taken over by the suburbs of the city of Zwolle, with a school, housing development and warehouse crowding alongside, although cows and sheep still live in close proximity with their human neighbours. I must say I was a little disappointed. I hoped for some connection to my father’s fond memories, but didn’t find it.

The “Tien Geboden” in Frankhuis.

My father was born in one of these ten little row houses in 1925. Which one I don’t know, although I recall visiting Oom Herman and Tante Jennie Samson (now long gone)here briefly with my parents around 1971. Tante Jennie was my father’s favourite aunt, who was very kind to him after his mother’s early death. Known locally as “De Tien Geboden” (The Ten Commandments) these houses originally consisted of just one room, with closets on either side containing the beds.

Passageway through the Tien Geboden, with Bossy the cow taking a nap in the back yard.

These are photos of similar beds, taken a few days from now (ah, the magic of technology) at the Cultural Museum in nearby Staphorst:

The bed cupboard at the Staphorst cultural museum, with the doors open to show the bed.

A closer peek at the inside of the “bed cupboard.” The beds were very short as it was the custom to sleep sitting up, propped by pillows.

I remember Tante Jennie’s house being just like that, with most of the interior furnishings consisting of a round table covered with a round Persian rug and surrounded by chairs, in the Dutch tradition, but I think now they have all been renovated to modern standards, like this one in a realtor’s video:


These houses are built along a dijk, and beyond the dijk is the “Zwarte Water” (black water) river. Family lore is that his mother dressed my father for church, right down to his only pair of leather shoes (because of course he wore wooden shoes the rest of the time) and told him not to move even an inch while the rest of the family got ready. Well, those little leather shoes took little Klaas down to the Zwarte Water, and brought him back again, late for church and soaking wet, to face the spanking of his young life!

We had big plans for more touring, but jet lag fatigue demanded a nap, and I listened. This evening we explored Vollenhove on foot, including its medieval walled garden, the bishop’s ruins, the old church (couldn’t get in) and oh, yes, the local pub.

The 1423 Mariakerk, with its walled garden dating from the Middle Ages.
Downtown Vollenhove, with the pub (umbrellas closed as it was windy), community water pump, and to the right, a small part of the very large Protestant church.

Fatigue, some disappointment, some traffic troubles, but still a very good day. It’s just wonderful to be here taking it all in.

Our Palace in Vollenhove — June 14, 2018

Our Palace in Vollenhove

We arrived in Holland, bright-eyed but bone-weary, picked up our rental car, and headed for our hotel in Vollenhove, a small town northeast of Amsterdam. Until 1932, Vollenhove was on the coast of the Zuiderzee. That’s when the Dam was built and most of the Zuiderzee was reclaimed for polderland. Water still connects Vollenhove to the rest of Holland, though, and there’s a very cute (everything here is cute!) little harbour to prove it.

Vollenhove‘s Harbour, mostly home to recreational boats now.

The first thing I noticed after opening the car door, after the park-like setting, was the birdsong filling the air. Hotel Stadtspalais Seidel, partly dating from the 14th century, is the former home of some kind of nobleman. He was the friend – and next-door neighbour – of the Bishop of Utrecht, or at least his summer “cottage”, which was a moated castle. This bishop seems to have been a trendsetter, as a number of his friends also built palaces here. Hence the beautiful lawns, gardens and buildings.

Stadtspalais Seidel, a nobleman’s house, parts of which date from the 14th century.

But the bishop’s castle itself only survives as ruins. It was never kept up very well, and eventually its stones went to build the Great Church near the harbour, and to improve Oldruytenborgh Manor. Only a few romantic ruins remain. Romantic ruins were very fashionable.

We had supper (fresh fish and deep-yellow fleshed French Fries, served with mayonnaise, for me) in the tiny town of Blokzijl, only 5 km down the road.

Tiny Blokzijl, pop.1200, is known as “little Amsterdam” because of its architecture and restaurants.

And so to bed in our coach house, where, if the weather is nice, Piet-Jan will bring our breakfast to our own private terrace. I wonder what the rich people are doing today?

Our little castle, formerly the Coach House.
The New Adventure Begins — June 12, 2018

The New Adventure Begins

I am the world’s least consistent blogger, and haven’t posted in ages, but the Navigator and I are on a pretty special trip, so I thought I’d try again. We start with a few days in Holland, then a Baltic Cruise, then a transatlantic cruise to Boston via Iceland and Greenland. It will start the way it always does, with good intentions and properly cropped photos. And things will go downhill from there, but let’s try anyways.

Happy as two clams in first class

We decided to take Icelandair this time because a premium economy seat was cheaper than Air Canada’s regular economy. We didn’t realize this would mean an upgrade into business class, with free wi-fi, a comfort kit, a “library selection” of gins (wasted on me, but never mind), noise-cancelling headphones, and a three-course meal starting with salmon and ending with chocolate, which means they can chuck just about whatever else they want in the middle, and it will be just fine!

They gave us this bottle of 5,000 year old glacial spring water just in time. I don’t know if you can make it out, but the “best before” date is only two years off.

The only downside was, we had a stopover in Iceland on our way to Amsterdam. So, 3 am, Canadian time (6 am Iceland time), in the airport at Keflavik, Iceland.

The first stamp in my brand new passport.

I only had one hour of napping on the flight, to the soothing sounds of “ambient Icelandic” music. And then I had to go to the bathroom, and that’s when I had a thinking attack. Hmmmmm, we left Canada at sunset and we are traveling away from the sunset and the sky has had these beautiful sunset colours throughout our flight without night ever actually falling.

And as we approach Iceland, it’s light out, so obviously the sun has risen, but how could it have risen if it hasn’t even set yet? And the earth is spinning in my mind, a tiny airplane circling it and a sun casting shadows upon it, in an effort to solve this puzzle. And moreover, if we fly for five hours and catch up 3 time zones, is this a form of time travel and if so, have our hours technically expanded?

It isn’t always easy to be me.