Day 11 – Dodging Bikes in Amsterdam

Each day starts with me locking my hotel room door with a key from the roll I was given when I checked in, then winding my way down six flights of steep, creaky stairs to the lobby. There, a little man who takes his duty to feed us breakfast very seriously, gives a cheery “Bon Jour!” and offers me a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. I never say no.

After that, he brings a basket of bread to the table, crowned with a soft buttery croissant. I do not know who makes them but I want to take them home with me. I can smell the freshness. He also brings a plate of meats and cheeses and will make a boiled egg if I ask. Of course, There is also a selection of fruit and muesli. Today, I had a plumb and an apricot.

I realized that I still haven’t had a waffle here in Belgium and I probably should before I leave. In fact, I definitely should.

The area around my hotel (the main square) is being set up for the Grand Start if Tour de France beginning Saturday. I have watched the set up take shape each day as I walk past.

Last group tour today; I was going to Amsterdam. Our guide today couldn’t have been more opposite of the energetic Spanish girl we had yesterday. He was tall and large and quiet. This tour was supposed to be in both English and Spanish and I don’t think either was his native tongue, so it seemed like it was often too much trouble for him to translate, so he said nothing at all.

Our first stop was a small, family owned farm near the city center where they make cheese and clogs. My first impression getting off the bus was that it was a bit quirky and unkept—not at all the type of place you would expect a tour bus to stop. My second impression—and all of them after that—was that it was VERY quirky and unkept.

Perhaps we stopped there because the owner spoke many languages. He impressed us by spouting off in English, and the languages used in the surrounding countries (French, German, Dutch), but also Chinese (says he knows three dialects), Japanese, Spanish, Russian, and maybe others; I don’t know.

He tried to do his little cheese making demonstration in English and Spanish—he really did. But I think it was more of switching back and forth—one step in English, the next in Spanish, and so on. Either way, he had a lot of personality and was fun to listen to. He started and finished with samples of their Gouda cheese in various flavors and it was delicious. He said he was an eighth generation cheese maker. That’s hard to get my head around.

We didn’t get a demonstration, but they had clogs in all stages of development and he was clacking around on the concrete floors modeling them for us and claiming they were very comfortable.

His wife and son ran the gift shop so it had some order and charm to it. I have no room in my back pack for a block of cheese, so I choose a magnet for my memory of this fun and funny little place.

After the cheese shop, they gave us a photo op with a windmill. While the technology of these old windmills has been replaced with a newer version, there are lots of the old ones still running. I learned they were meant to be (and this still is) someone’s residence. I don’t know how convenient it is, but It’s sure cute.

Another thing I never knew about that area is how many Dutch live in little houseboats along the water. There were all shapes, sizes, and price ranges. And there were cool looking bike paths all through the country. That looked like fun to me.

The guide showed us some of the highlights of Amsterdam as the bus slowly crawled through the city. While Belgians are more known For their bike riding, I quickly realized that the Belgians have nothing on Amsterdam. “Beware of bikes!” Was the guides final admonition as we got off the bus. I heard some folks talking that there are 3,000 bike/pedestrian accidents in Amsterdam a year and I realized this was, quite possibly, the most dangerous part of my trip. The bicycles often had their own lane, but one had to cross the land somehow and there was a constant stream of bikes and they did not slow down. The bike parking lots were amazing and at the train station I wondered how one would ever find their bike again.

I decided to go to Haarlem by train first. I have been there before but I was drawn to the home of Corrie ten Boom and her family. They helped Jews during WWII and consequently Corrie suffered in Ravensbruck concentration camp and her sister died there. I would recommend the stop if you are ever nearby.

Back in Amsterdam, I walked around, smelling Cannibis and attempting to get in the Anne Frank museum, but I guess you can’t even enter a gift shop unless you buy tickets months in advance.

I dodged bikes, walked along the flower market, attempted to avoid the red light district, and and eventually bought a smoothie and some Dutch chocolate. It’s a very busy city and there was lots more to see but things I was most interested such as the Bible museum and Jewish museum seemed to be closed. If I had known the bus was going to be more than 30 minutes late, I would have taken the time to go by the Jewish WWII memorial that we had driven by earlier. Oh well.

My take away from Amsterdam is that it is a beautiful town and you might enjoy it if you are quick on your feet and like the sickly sweet smells. But the highlight of my day was probably the quirky cheese man and his delicious Gouda cheese.

Step count: 19,000

Cumulative step count: 203,000

Day 10 – Luxembourg and Dinant

Up until now, the group tours I have taken have had max a dozen people. Today, we were 50 people strong all on one big bus. The common tie between all of us: English.

That definitely doesn’t mean American. In fact, I’ve been surprised at how few Americans I’ve met on this trip. Far more have been Canadian, Australian, from the UK, or even India. Many times, I’ve looked at someone and thought they were from the US until they opened their mouths.

Anyway, our perky Spanish guide held a large purple sign over her head and hearded us toward the bus. There were a half dozen other tours leaving from the same time and place so it was a bit of a zoo. Thank goodness for her purple paper taped on a wood stick which she held triumphantly above the crowd.

It is a long ride to Luxembourg. But Marium taught us a lot about both Belgium and Luxembourg on the way. Belgium is a country of about 11 million (roughly the population of Georgia); Luxembourg has about 600,000 residents. Both are effectively governed by Parliament although Belgium has a king and Luxembourg has a duke.

Luxembourg, the city, is as old as the ninth century—having originally been settled by the Vikings. Luxembourg, the country, only dates to the nineteenth century. The name Luxembourg means “little fortress” and the city was apparently a very good one. When we got there, we saw some of the old city walls and it was easy to see why the location above the river was formidable.

The main industry in Luxembourg is banking and finance and it is a wealthy country considering its size. Minimum wage is roughly ~$13,50/hr and they have more Porsches per capita than anywhere in the world.

I didn’t really feel like paying 25 Euro for lunch, so another girl and I walked around a bit and then got a wrap at a small corner cafe. I haven’t said this (or thought it) about any food I’ve had so far this trip, but there is only one word to describe it: disgusting. (Mostly mayonnaise with wisps of lettuce, tomato, and prosciutto). I noticed my friend threw hers in the trash can too as we walked as well.

The guide showed us Parliament and the Duke’s residence. There were a number of churches, squares, an outdoor farmer’s market, and all the typical retail offerings of a small, high end town. She also talked a good about the EU, which had its beginnings here and cracked me up with some of her English phrases such as her frequent references to “sky scrappers.”

Leann and I walked across the bridge to the new part of town and back…There is a pedestrian/bike bridge suspended below the car bridge which made for a nice shady place to walk and take some pictures.

By the time we were back, we pretty well felt like we’d seen Luxembourg. There were some nice parks, and overall, I got the feeling that it would be a pretty nice place to live if you’re in the banking and finance world and you really like mayonnaise.

On our return trip, we stopped in Dinant, a very picturesque Belgian village where the inventor of the saxophone is from. We then wound our way up the river; it was a very beautiful drive. The area had had a coal boom in the 60s and 70s but has since lost most of its industry and is now mostly summer homes and strawberry growers.

I felt a little yuk by the time we got back. I wasn’t sure it is was from the long ride or the mayonnaise lunch that I had tried to chase away with gummy bears.

Overall, it had been a good day, but I felt the boxes had sufficiently been checked and I likely won’t be returning to Luxembourg.

Step count: 16,000

Cumulative count: 184,000

Top 10 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling

It’s that time when I add up mileage from the previous year. Here are a few thoughts from a weary traveler…

– Salad is meant to be eaten at a table.

– You can never have too many cell phone chargers.  (They are cheapest at Big Lots and will probably last till you lose them).

– There are two kinds of gas stations; neither have nice restrooms.

– There is nothing like endless miles in a car that brings out the side of me that eats gummy bears and sour patch kids alternately.

– There is a Golden Corral in Johnson City.  The Sunday afternoon staff knows us by name.

– Hotel work out rooms are never what they look like in the photos.

– If you are going to pack your curling iron while it’s still hot, you have to live with the consequences.

– Always pack your unmentionables first.  It is really a bummer to get where you were going without them.

– Rented books on CD from Cracker Barrel are a great way to pass the time.  And losing one CD from each book is a great way to waste money.

– You don’t get to keep the rental car.  That’s okay.  You probably won’t want to.  You know…by the time you wreck it and all…

Visibility is Terrible (Part I)

I ran up to the kiosk and popped in my debit card. I was running later than I should have; and even later than that.

Enter the first three letters of your final destination, the machine said.

L-A-N I typed hurriedly.

It pulled up options from Lansing to foreign destinations I could only hope to go. Lancaster was not among them. I typed in the full destination. “We’re sorry, United does not fly to Lancaster.” The machine read. I looked at my confirmation again, but everything seemed to be in order.

I fought with the machine while the clock ticked. Finally, the machine gave up and told me to consult a service representative. I had to wait my turn.

The agent who finally helped me looked at the clock and gave me a disapproving look. I know. I know. Just please, please get me on this flight!

She handed me only one boarding pass–to Dulles–but I took it and ran. I would have three hours in Dulles to work it out. For now, my goal was to get through security and on this flight before it left me.

So far, not an unusual trip. Not unusual to fly. Not unusual to fight machines or be scolded by cranky customer service reps. Not unusual to stand in a long security line. Not unusual to be the last person to board a flight.

Since my first flight when I was 14, I’ve spent thousands of hours in air travel. I estimated that I’ve spent at least the equivalent of 83 24-hr days on nothing but air travel. I’m still basically cattle car status with the major airlines, but I recently achieved elite status on Bostic airlines. Which, incidentally, has the best food at the best prices.

Among my experiences is being stranded for about 24 hours in the airport in Beijing only to be placed on a connecting flight operated by “Lucky” airlines. (Who named that and who taught him English?). I’ve fallen asleep in front of my gate only to be woken up by “final boarding call. Passenger Danielle Walker please report to gate A3.” Seems the gate attendants were watching me and taking bets on whether I would wake up or not. One plane we were on crashed into a random set of stairs while taxiing and we all had to deplane and find some other way home. And, of course, there was the unfortunate day when I left my new computer at a security check point–never to recover it on this earth.

I remember as a kid being absolutely fascinated by airports and the whole business of travel–the coming, the going, the adventure. Slowly, the infatuation has worn off and while it remains a utility, air travel is a largely inconvenient one. Necessary, just not terribly exciting.

Following the lost computer incident, I’ve had two other “after shocks.” During my trip to NH this summer, our delay caused me to miss a connection. I spent about an hour and a half at the O’Hare haggling with machines and customer service reps live and on the phone before giving up and booking a room. It was about 11:30 pm and I wasn’t going to be able to get out until sometime the next morning.

I trudged with my bags down the escalator, through their “was-cool-in-the-80s” moving walkway, out through baggage claim, across 5 lanes of traffic and almost to the shuttle. Then I realized I was missing my computer bag. It had mysteriously escaped. And I wanted to cry.

I retraced my steps down the walk, back across the traffic, and back to baggage claim. But of course the TSA official would not let me back in. I tried to explain to him my problem with what little sanity I had left. “Go to the lost baggage counter.” He instructed me.

“You don’t understand.” I was choking back tears by now in what I knew was a futile effort. “This was not a checked bag.”

“Don’t cry.” He ordered.

That did it. I cried.

“Go to baggage claim.” He said again. He would not budge.

I stood in another line at baggage claim. Recounting to myself all the reasons why I was wasting my time and should instead at least be at the hotel trying to rest. And regain sanity. What could they possibly do for me at baggage claim? It was not a checked bag. I had carried it until…until whatever happened, happened. I didn’t recall ever putting it down.

Finally, it was my turn. I explained my plight.

“We don’t have anything to do with bags you carry on with you. Why are you here?” The lady asked me.

Good question. I didn’t know why I was there. Insanity taking over, I guess.

She made a few calls to make me feel like she was trying to help. A few other agents came over and she explained to them my dilemma and they all said the same thing. “Why is she here?”

I felt like a 10 year old trying to convince a teacher that I should get grace because my dog ate my homework. I was the one who lost the computer. I didn’t know where or when. And it wasn’t their problem.

Then, she appeared with it. My computer bag. It was all in tact. I don’t know how she did it and I was in such shock, I didn’t thank her adequately before she moved on to the next customer.

It was my very next trip that I lost my computer again. Yes, again. Curtis and I were working away on our laptops when the plane came in to land. As instructed, I turned my computer off and set it under the seat in front of me. We were in the first row of economy but the barrier between economy and First Class didn’t go all the way to the floor. So when was taxied to a stop, the computer slid out of sight and into the wild blue yonder of First Class.

Since we would be deplaning in just a minute and since no one in First Class would care about my old computer, I wasn’t too worried and while Curtis crawled on the floor and eye-balled it, I didn’t bother to inconvenience the passengers who were trying to gather their things and get off the plane. We would get it soon enough.

Unless, of course, someone stole it.

To be continued…