Whenever European friends came to visit us in the U.S., our provincial town of Santa Barbara seemed like a little hiccup on their tour de force itinerary: Hiking Half Dome in Yosemite, photographing the bubbling mudspots and geysers of Yellowstone, craning their necks skyward under General Sherman in Sequoia National Park, The Getty Museum, San Francisco’s De Young Museum, Hollywood and so forth.
I got the impression they had seen more of America’s natural wonders and cultural offerings in four to six weeks than I had in 14 to 16 years. Was I really such a cultural buffoon? Why wasn’t I out there taking in our national treasures with such resolve? Getting philosophical with a Picasso? Seeing Old Faithful blow?
Well, for starters, six weeks. Europeans usually get four to six weeks of vacation. In a row. Second, if something is in your own backyard, so to speak, you tend to think it will always be there and thus indefinitely postpone your visit.
This train of thought is amusingly common place. I have traveled a fair bit, and when I visit friends in other areas or venture abroad, I’m suddenly all about taking in the sites. Why? Because I’ll probably never get back to Barcelona or Portland, Luxembourg or Seattle, Mexico City or Havana. And, it’s not just a European thing; when we are outside our home digs, we open our eyes and guidebooks. And the further away we are from home, the more we want to see and experience.
So when my art loving brother and his family arrived last week in Den Haag, 5,577 miles from their hometown, I knew we were in for a whirlwind. I thought it would be slowed down a bit, considering we have a 4-year-old and they a 5-year-old. Boys, no less, that require lots of outdoor playtime, screaming and giggling and endless arguments over who’s turn it is, who’s faster, smarter, etc.
In fact, it did start out calmly enough with a walk through our local forest on a rainy day, jumping over puddles and screaming the ducks away. But they’re smart travelers, and they stayed up as late as they possibly could to adjust to the local time. The next morning they arose before 6am. As soon as their hosts were finally out of bed and the breakfast dishes cleared, we hopped on a tram to the city center to visit Mauritshuis.
Located at the edge of Binnenhof and Het Plein, Mauritshuis is home to Rembrandts, Breughels and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. In an effort to let my brother and sister-in-law take in this world-famous collection that I could visit again any time–because it was in my own back yard–I took charge of the boys. First, I entertained them with a spontaneous game of I-spy-with-my-little-eye with the paintings. I spy a winged baby, I spy an old woman holding a candle, I spy a lion. But after the 20 minute mark, my charges crossed the entertainment threshold and entered ennui. Arms started flopping and swinging around paintings worth 198 years of salary. Museum whisper voices turned into full conversational decibals of I’m boreds.
Thus we headed to Binnenhof, a large brick lined square surrounded by the buildings of the Dutch parliament and the Knight’s hall–a castle like building from the middle ages. After the promised ice cream cones, the boys chased pigeons for half an hour while tourists gathered in this famous square ignored their high-pitched squeals of excitement.
The Netherlands is packed with incredible museums in just about every medium to large city. And since my American family doesn’t have a four to six-week vacation, their tour de force itinerary is compressed into 12 days.
Therefore the next day, we biked to the coastal town of Scheveningen to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday (happy birthday Janneman!) and then continued on a bike tour of Meijendel, lead by my authentic Dutch husband. An hour stopover at a playground next to a country restaurant gave the boys a chance to play space rangers and dig in the sand and the adults time to rest their legs while contemplating the white and gray clouds floating overhead.
Due to the Christian generosity of friends from church, we were loaned an automobile. This provided us with the means to visit the Boijmans van Beuningen, a Rotterdam museum covering everything from religious paintings from the 1400s to Magritte, a 1960s space pod to interactive sculpture. We also traipsed over the largest moving bridge in the world to eat at Hotel New York.
Friday, we drove all the way to Arnhem to the world-famous Kroller Muller Museum. By now, we were a fine tuned machine of families visiting famous museums with young children, and massaged a potentially explosive situation into a fantastic day that will go down in the history books. Kroller Muller is surrounded by a forest. You can pay the 8 euro to drive through the forest and park in the parking lot, or you can pick up a bicycle and pedal through nature and to the museum for free. We pulled Ezra’s small orange bike from the trunk and the boys took turns riding the 3 kilometers to the museum, while the adults each hopped on a white bike to go the distance.
We spent four hours at the museum without incident. No flailing arms. No bumble pants dumbheads screamed through the corridors. Half was spent indoors seeing everything from contemporary art including cloaks made out of iridescent beetles, a very realistic wax figure man with an erection lying in a pile of tombstones, an impressive collection of Van Goghs and other splendid art from across the millenia.
The other half was spent wandering through the incredible sculpture park. To be honest, I had very low expectations for the sculpture experience. I’ve seen pictures of sculpture parks and figured it would be kind of boring. Oh, there’s another big hunk of metal. Oh, there’s another statue. Oh look, a white blob. But as I started walking along the gravel path, away from my husband and son who had just fallen into a nap on a sunny bench, I was pleasantly surprised.
The park headed out in multiple directions. I could see hints of sculpture around every bend and entered different grassy knolls with another collection of sculpture. I stopped and contemplated this art form with new eyes. I was inspired by sheets of rust colored metal shaped into organic curves that reminded me of tree trunks and the red clay earth of plateaus.
With the introduction of each new piece, the mood and feel changed. A marble amphitheatre covered in a creme tarp appeared in a small clearing and I could picture being there, watching a performance unfold, even if it was just a play of light and shadow. Buddha statues were among the ferns following a downward descent of rail road tie steps in the forest.
The boys also visited the sculpture park, and when they weren’t fighting or screaming, they engaged with the sculpture as primal beings, exploring its crevices and shapes, running around the edges, glancing skyward.
But that’s not all. We then cycled all the way back to the exit, and then decided to stay on and cycle to Sint Hubertus, the hunting lodge for the owners of this expansive land trust in the 1920s. Berlage, a famous Dutch architect, designed everything from the building to each piece of furniture and cup. Our boys biked all the way. Excited. Exhausted. Excited again.
Saturday we toured the Grote Kerk in Haarlem before visiting family who lived nearby. Sunday we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast waiting for the rain, which had fallen all night, to stop. It didn’t.
So we did what everyone else in Den Haag decided to do in the early afternoon; we went to the museum. And not just one, but two. The Gemeente Museum and Museon–a science museum very appropriate for the kids. We closed the place down and then dropped by Arie Jan’s brother’s house for late afternoon tea and cookies. We packed it all in.
Five museums in six days and their visit is only half way through. My mind is a wealth of culture, art, sculpture, great architecture, cafes, picturesque city centers. But the richest part of my newfound wealth is the presence of my family. Having them in our home. Seeing the two little cousins playing together. Talking, for as long as I want with Todd and Annie before being interrupted by the boys. Waking up and knowing that I am on vacation, and my family is making this home away from home complete by tying our two worlds together.