Havana, Deventer, Apes and Cousins

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a short stint as a museum travel program assistant. Although most of my hours were spent in a tiny office doing paperwork and taking reservations, on a few occasions I actually got to travel. The most exciting of my journeys was to Cuba with two dozen wealthy clients, most between the ages of 65 and 80 years old. What soon became abundantly clear was that the attendees who had all spent thousands on the museum trip were not there to relax and gently take in the casual pace and lifestyle of Cuba; they were there to suck the marrow from the bones of Havana culture with the tenacity of western businessmen. havanaThey were there to conquer and the museum program was fully prepared to deliver. Each moment was slated with culturally inspiring activities, visits  or luxurious meals, the more unique, the better. Thus, from early in the morning until late at night, we were on the move: seeing, interacting, traveling, listening, and dining. No matter that half of the group was worn down and dragging themselves along after a few days; they continued on with an unspoken and shared vigilance, not willing to rest in fear of missing something.

The trip could be likened to a hunter on safari seeking new heads for the taxidermy collection lining the walls of the study in his or her country estate. In this case, the art, music, natural beauty and architecture of Cuba would become the prized pelts and heads to be displayed not on the wall, but in conversations at the next fundraiser or cocktail party. Why yes, I have been to the Plaza de Revolucion; isn’t the 18 century art in the Decorative Arts Museum in Havana just fabulous darling? Although I am not in these fundraising circles, I did talk about this trip for years afterward, and my experiences did impress many Americans who had always wanted to travel to Cuba.

As an American living in The Netherlands, I have that nagging conqueror voice in the back of my head urging me to approach Europe in the same manner as this group who visited Cuba so many years ago–take in as much as humanly possible, even if it wears me ragged. I have spent several vacations doing just that. After all, who knows how long we will live here, and I really don’t want to miss out.  But as time passes and I realize I am actually living here for the longer term, a local vacation also has its merits. Not only are they more affordable and less stressful,  they help you better understand the country in which you live.

deventerThus our trip to Deventer. Located along the Ijssel river in the middle of the Netherlands, Deventer is like many old Dutch cities; it boasts a picturesque center region with charming squares and old architecture, shops and restaurants surrounded by less attractive and newer buildings and neighborhoods the farther away from the center you travel. Armed with advice of Arie Jan’s cousin, we drove across the bridge away from the city to a parking lot on the far side of the Ijssel and took the ferry over the river. Approaching by water offered us a stunning and timeless view of the city, and put us in the right mind frame to relish the old town. The side streets of the old quarter were dotted with unique, locally-owned gift stores and cafes. Of course, the big retailers such as Etos, Hema and V&D common to most Dutch cities also had a presence, but there were enough small shops to keep the charm alive.

Our son entered Koning Willem, a unique toy store filled with puzzles and games, and soon became obsessed with the brain teaser puzzle section. For the rest of our stay in Deventer, we endured his plaintive cries for puzzle man, a cube that you can turn into a robot looking man, and then back into a cube, if you can figure it out. We ate in a cafe called Brood van Joop only to discover it was their opening day. The zucchini soup was so delicious that it renewed my desire to make fresh soups a more frequent part of our family meals.

imageBy the end of the afternoon, we headed to Arie Jan’s cousin’s house in a neighboring village. Perched in the middle of a small forest, their home is straight out of a fairy tale: White walls, thatched roof, large French paned windows with expansive views to lush green gardens on the outside. This beauty was  equally matched within by a French country interior with white walls and hard wood floors, the rooms graced with the design sense of an antique collector.  An antique dealer specializing in 18th century French fabrics, his cousin has a  second story room dedicated to sewing and cutting and another room dedicated as an office. Within no time at all, I was fantasizing about writing my second novel sequestered away in one of these rooms with garden views.

As the adults settled in on the high stools next to the kitchen island to chat over tasty wines from the wine cellar, our son assembled a Duplo train set and lost himself for the next few hours in play. After our son went to bed, we ate a French meal by candlelight around the dining room table and talked to the wee hours of the morning. No. I wasn’t visiting The Louvre or sipping a latte on the banks of the Seine, but I was with family, relaxed and happy, miles away from any thoughts of work, stress or to-do lists. And that is exactly the type of vacation one needs to rejuvinate the soul and recharge your battery for daily life.

imageBut a vacation with a child needs to be about more than long, meandering conversations with friends and family accompanied by fine wine and food. And thus, we came up with an equally satisfying elixir for our son: a visit to Apenheul Primate Park. Located in the town of Apeldoorn, Apenheul is an expansive nature area filled with many species of monkeys. Unlike a zoo, there were very few cages and many of the smaller monkeys could come right onto the walking trails.

We watched monkeys swing from the trees, play with each other, cling to their mother’s backs and climb onto the arms of  innocent passersby. After three hours, we were not even half way through the park and the temperature was slowly dropping. Unlike the monkeys, we were not wearing thick fur coats. At the end of the day, we asked our son which was his favorite exhibit and his answer was far from suprising: the guerilla exhibit. We, and the hundred plus other visitors sitting in the stadium seating during snack time, were grateful for the small waterfront separating us from these strong apes not a carrot’s throw away.




5 Museums in 6 Days Poopoo Head!

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.

Staying in the Embassy (Repeat)

(I accidentally deleted this post. It should precede the previous two posts. Anyway, this is a repeat if you are following my blog. If not, read this, then “Dutch Flat”, then “Penthouse” if you like chronology and are up for the read.)

Back in my college days, I thought couch surfing was cool. When I moved to the college town of Moscow, Idaho, I spent the first few weeks sleeping on the floor in a corner nook of a friend’s one bedroom apartment. Traveling light; just me, my sleeping bag and a suitcase of belongings. I stayed with another friend named Skott for a short period, setting up camp on her living room floor. I felt adventurous and free, like I could roll with whatever the universe provided, surrounded by friends with the same happy-go-lucky outlook on our young lives.
Couch surfing with the nuclear family is adventurous in its own right, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t make many people’s bucket lists.  Children need routine and a stable environment. Forty-something year olds need routine and a stable environment. Yet, when you relocate to your husband’s homeland, it is only natural to stay with family for the “transition” period. The only thing we knew for sure, was that we had been granted six weeks to stay at the former Ecuadorian Embassy. Wait. My husband is Dutch, not Ecuadorian. Why would the Ecuadorian’s host us? 


A few year’s ago, my brother-n-law and his wife purchased a building that formerly housed the Ecuadorian Embassy of Den Haag on the first two floors, and a private residence on the top two floors. He and his wife transformed all four levels into a modern residence with regal proportions and detailing. The ceilings stretch skyward capped by crown molding with fleur-de-lis that subtly decorate the white ceilings.  Traditional crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings while modern cubed lamps made of onyx light up the recesses of the dining room and living room. The regal living room and dining room are connected with sliding doors, that when opened, create a space large enough for a sizeable international gathering.
Each night, save three or four in a six-week period, the six of us ate by candlelight in the formal dining room with chafing dishes offering up three course meals that I helped cook during the majority of our stay.
Although my brother and sister-n-law are an international couple who have lived all over the world, the house is decorated sparingly. Where art does exist, it does so boldly. Four large wooden panels from Mexico hang on the wall of the dining room, each displaying an angel painted in bright colors. The panels are weather-worn window shutters, re-purposed as canvases with the knots and nails left in place. In the master bedroom, two built-in art nooks are home to carved statues illuminated by spotlights.
The ground floor, which is half below ground, accommodates a home office, yoga studio, laundry room, storage room, half kitchen and bath, tool room and bicycle storage.
The bedrooms and studies are located on the third and fourth floors. My little family was easily tucked into a fourth floor bedroom large enough for two beds, chairs, our multiple suitcases, Ezra’s toys and room for morning yoga stretches. It was only half as big as our nephew’s bedroom down the hall. We were living in the lap of luxury.
Yet, amidst all this luxury, this family lives simply and works hard. They rarely eat out, and although generous, have the Dutch mentality–frugal with daily expenses, always turning off the lights and conserving whenever possible. They only have one car, and ride their bikes to most events.
Their 13-year-old son is an articulate, well-educated young man who speaks four languages fluently and is studying a fifth in school. He excels in all of his courses at the international school, studies guitar and is in a striker position on a league soccer team that practices twice a week. Despite this rigorous schedule, multilingualism and intelligence, not to mention that he has traveled in his young life to far more countries than I, he is not arrogant. He is kind and friendly. In fact, he and Ezra have become fast friends, and Ezra likes to go for play dates with him whenever he can.

Our stay was just long enough for Ezra to consider this palatial residence as his home away from home, and he feels comfortable being dropped off for the afternoon with his cousin, aunt and uncle. When I come to pick him up after half a day, instead of running into my arms and screaming “mommy! You’re here!” he asks me to come back later.

We are so thankful to have such a wonderful connection with our family and this extended stay was key to creating that bond. If you think you can take it and life circumstances allow, I suggest such an experiment with your adult brothers or sisters if the relationship allows. Keys to success: set a pre-determined end date so everyone can see the horizon of returning to normal and regaining their privacy; respect the rules of the house; chip in on household stuff whenever possible so that your stay is a benefit to everyone; make sure to have parties and fun events in the mix.

As our embassy stay came to an end, my in-laws, worried about where we would stay next, spontaneously decided to go on a three-week vacation in rural Belgium. Thus, their worry subsided and we had a place to stay.

Dutch Flat

Dutch Flat

After spending the first six weeks in the Netherlands with my husband’s brother’s family (see last post), we moved to my in-laws’ traditional Dutch flat while they went on vacation to the Belgian countryside.

Located on the ground floor of a four-story brick apartment building, their flat has the absolute luxury of a back yard. Not one for a patch of grass, my mother-n-law created a beautifully sculpted garden–best described as what a miniature Versailles might look like if conceived by the Dutch– pathways and circles of brick surrounded by thoughtful plantings that bloom in a cyclical pattern, a “forest” area with a trellised entry, a bench at one side for contemplation.

On the street side, semi-transparent curtains in the tall windows cordon off the outside world, while letting passersby catch a glimpse of the bright tulips on the dining room table. Each kamer has something elegant and something quaint–a post modern couch in the same room as a painting of a Dutch city, sculpted glass tables next to a floral couch. 

The neighborhood is sparkling clean, well organized and decidedly old Dutch. Men and women are dressed in semi-fashionable suits, dresses and overcoats on their way to the bakery. Within a three minute walk one can go to the local baker, butcher, florist or cheese store. The shop owners are professionally curt and smile sparingly. A small, vocal child in their midst evokes not one smile, but a downward crinkling at the edges of their mouths. The upscale boutiques in the neighborhood speak to a much older demographic with price tags and styles in the windows informing me there is no need to even enter the store.

On the other hand, the neighbors are friendly and very in tune with what everyone else is doing. A few days after Arie Jan got his job, the doorbell rang, and a nice woman handed us a bouquet of flowers, offering congratulations all around. It became abundantly clear that although my in-laws were on vacation, they were still posting regular emails on our progress from the Belgian countryside to their extended network.

There is this sense, when you stay in someone’s home in their absence, that you are getting to know them better. You are interacting with their space, sitting in their chairs, sleeping in their beds. But what it really comes down to is when you cook in someone’s home. There, you get a sense of what life must be like. This house has the kitchen of a ship’s cabin–a very tiny, extremely – space that is more of a half butt kitchen, then a one butt kitchen. Yet, instead of looking out of a porthole onto the choppy sea, you are looking into Henny’s divinely sculpted garden through a glass door. I found myself lingering there on more than one occasion, taking the garden into my senses. In the bleak and cold of morning, the garden appeared serious and well ordered. When the sun shone into the garden on a windy day, it displayed it’s wild side. Ezra was also intrigued by the garden and more than once, we ran along its tiny paths and through the “forest,” playing a variety of games that usually involved running from monsters, shooting monsters with bows and arrows, or feeding baby monsters lots of cookies before gently returning them to their mommy monsters.

Despite the tiny size, Ezra was drawn to the kitchen. Perhaps it was the view of the garden. Or, perhaps he was tapping into that universal desire to hang out in the kitchen while someone is cooking. A small white table against the wall has a folding panel that is usually down to maximize space. Yet, whenever I started cooking, Ezra would pull the wooden support levers into position and extend the table, minimizing my work space to cut, chop, stir and season.

Ezra is now extremely comfortable in grandma and grandpa’s house. Perhaps too comfortable. Barriers that naturally exist when you visit grandparents, no running and screaming in the house, for instance, had been broken down during our stay. Ezra had developed his own relationship with the house that was independent of its true owners. A Lego set, 720 pieces strong, had been a regular fixture strewn across the living room floor while they were away.  On the other hand, grandma and grandpa now have a standing afternoon playdate with Ezra once a week after school. This might not have worked for our little man if we hadn’t stayed there.

When it was nearing time for my in-laws to return, we were uncertain of where we would stay next. The housing that comes with my new job is not available until April 1st, and we had already stayed with all the family members who live in Den Haag. It is also hard to find a place to rent for three weeks, unless it is a vacation rental, which might set us back close to $2,000–a high price to pay when you are just starting new jobs.

Our network of friends and family came up with different ideas. A neighboring church had an unfurnished space we could rent. We went and looked at it, and it felt like a temporary office building, the toilet and shower shared with others who used a neighboring office, an uninviting kitchen. At the same time, we got an email from a family friend who lives in Scheveningen, a beautiful ocean town 10 minutes away by car, or a half hour by bike.

We went the next day to see his flat. Flat is not the right word for it. He lives on the top floor of a tall, modern building next to the sea with 360 degree views over the ocean and city. Light hard wood floors, glass walls, contemporary art on the walls, and a few functional, well designed pieces of furniture create a look of contemporary living in an expansive penthouse. Um, yes. Please. Thank you.

Coming up next: Penthouse in Schevingingen