A challenging day

Day 5 presented the option of riding a metric century – 100 km, or 62 miles (more like 63 along this particular route).  Alan and Mitchell were enthusiastic about trying this.  Sharon was not.  My knees were not loving my bike so I thought I would do the medium option of 27 miles & then get back to Bruges to the Memling museum.  And Alexander was a little apprehensive about even the short option, which at 20 miles would be a personal best for him.  But there would be a van support stop at about 13 miles where he could call it a day if he were feeling tired.  So we decided at breakfast that I would stay with the slower riders, allowing Mitchell and Alan to start out at a faster pace so their 63-mile day wouldn’t be so long (we’ve all been riding together in the morning, but often have not reached lunch until well into the afternoon).

Things did not start well.  William slammed his finger in the door when we were leaving to go downstairs to the bikes, so I spent the route rap comforting a howling boy while his brother ran downstairs to get ice.  We went down and caught the tail end of the explanation of the day’s ride, got snacks and water and maps, and did one last bathroom stop, and when I came out, Sharon was gone.  She had left with the first group of riders, which meant that Alan was going to have to ride at her pace to guide her on the turns because she has never learned to use the maps or directions.  We got everything together & got on out of town, & I called Sharon and told her to stay put and wait for us so that Alan and Mitchell could go on at a century pace.  We were at most 10 minutes back.  She agreed & said she was at the 7.8 km point on the map.  Sit tight, I said.  We’ll be there soon.  I lied.

Meanwhile we were following Evan out of Bruges, but he had decided to take us across an “easier” bridge.  Once he deviated from the directions, the rest of us were at his mercy.  We rode for a while – we were with Nancy and Emma, Rob and Mary.  We rode under a bridge with mirrors to help us around the corners.  We got onto a route signed 70, meaning we were heading for knotpoint 70, as the directions said we were supposed to.  But we stayed on it for ages. “Rob, we were only supposed to be on 70 for 0.7 km!”  “Don’t worry, we’re taking a different way & meeting up with the directions up ahead.” Finally we reached knotpoint 70 and were directed to 73 or 75 as our bike path choices from there.  Neither was on the day’s agenda.  It appeared we were lost.  I called Sharon to tell her we were going to be longer than expected.  Then I tried to go into the woods to pee & ended up in a nettle patch.  We got on our bikes and headed back the way we had come.  Evan tried to access GPS but the T-Mobile network was down all over Belgium; none of the rest of us had a smart phone.  And the section maps we had were useless.  We were off the map.  We stopped at the first turn point, a couple of km back.  I thought that might have been where we missed our turn (though of course I had missed the route rap).  Evan rode up to where the next landmark should have been and didn’t find it.  We headed back into town.  We went under the mirror bridge in the opposite direction.  We went across another bridge.  We went  back across.  On a crowded footbridge Evan was swinging his leg over his bike to dismount, hit my hand and went down.  He was having a bad morning and apologized about 100 times for getting us lost. Nancy kept urging that just go back to the hotel and start again, and that’s basically what we ended up doing – after a 19 km tour of the Bruges suburbs, we found ourselves back at the 0.5 mark on our directions.  So I spent all day subtracting 19.

Meanwhile, poor Sharon has been waiting for us for ages, and we’re still 7.3 away by her reckoning.  We continue on.  William asks how far we’ve gone.  “You don’t want to know,” I said.  But he insisted, and I told him.  12 miles.  On we rode, this time finding all the markers we had missed on our first several attempts out of town.  Carmen and Evan rounded up Sharon; I had ridden right by her because she was nowhere near the 7.8 km mark.  On we rode.

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We stopped at a bathroom marked on our directions, where I flipped the page.  “Oh, we’re really close to the van support stop,” I said.  But my directions didn’t match what we were riding.  Then I realized I had turned a full page ahead.  We were 12 miles from the van support stop – not anyone’s definition of really close.  But the boys were troopers.  A few miles on, Alexander said, “Don’t tell me how many miles we’ve gone until we get to the van.”  Smart boy.  If he’d known he was already past his personal best, he would have freaked out.  But both boys biked really strongly, and when we finally reached the castle where Carmen and the van were waiting, they had ridden 24 miles.  And if it had been another 10 miles away, i suspect they would have gone on without complaining.  Sharon and the boys all got into the van to ride to lunch (it was, in fact, well after noon by this point), and I chose to ride another 7 miles to the end of the morning option – not 32 km, but just over 50.  There I waited for Rob & Mary to join me on the shuttle to lunch, and Emma and her mom rode on.

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Lunch was on a canal boat in the town of Dijksmuide, which is primarily noted for having been on the front lines during World War I. There is now an enormous peace monument there which houses a WWI museum.  Since Sharon and the boys had already eaten by the time I arrived, they visited the  memorial while I had green vegetable soup and goat cheese salad for lunch.  At 3:15 we got into a taxi to head back to Bruges, but first it stopped at the Trench of Death, as the trench along the IJsmuide canal was nicknamed.  The sandbags have been recreated in cement, and the site is haunting, but it doesn’t come near evoking the mud and stench and fear of the trenches in action.  An unbelievably stupid war – as Skip always says, it does not bolster one’s faith in humanity.

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Again, we were back in Bruges too late to hit a museum.  I went to the Begijnhof, which used to be a religious community of law women devoted to good works.  Now apparently Dominican nuns live there. It’s very peaceful, organized around a tree-filled courtyard.  I went into the church where the nuns were singing mass.  About a dozen voices but they sounded almost professional.  Then one of them went to the lectern and began saying the service in Flemish.  I had never seen a woman say mass.  I tried to sketch the nuns in their habits against the gigantic baroque altarpiece with its twisted columns, but it was not my finest attempt.

I made of point of getting back in time for the beer tasting at 6.  We sampled five Belgian brews out of the thousand or so beers brewed in the country.  And they take their beer seriously.  Apparently if you order a certain brand and they don’t have the glass specific to it, the bartender will suggest you choose something else.  We tasted a kriek (cherry beer), a blond, a dubbel blond, a trippel (dark), and an ale-like brew, the latter two crafted by Trappist monks, who make the most exclusive beers in the land.  All were delicious after a long day of cycling, and many of those partaking, including the 13-year-old boy from New York, had biked all 63 miles.  I think the lad deserves a beer after that.  Max’s little brother Sammy also biked the whole way.  Impressive kids.  Mitchell, Alan and Peter, a patent attorney from DC, were in the first group to finish the century; in fact, they got back so early they didn’t know where to put the bikes.  They had a tailwind back into Bruges and really flew.  Dinner was at the restaurant right next door to our hotel; the food was so fresh we had to order in the morning so they could buy the ingredients.  When the waitress asked if I wanted beer or wine, I asked what she suggested, and she said, “We are a beer restaurant; we select beers to accompany the food.”  So I went with beer.  The main course beer was 8.5% alcohol – practically wine anyway!  It was a long meal; I should have looked to see if they had the Slow Food snail of approval.  They ought to, if not.  The boys were tired and went off to bed early, so we spent a little time after dinner chatting with our fabulous guides.  Evan kept apologizing.  Evidently it’s the first time he’s ever gotten anyone lost on a Backroads trip.  I’m guessing he’ll never live it down.  But despite the frustrating beginning, it turned into a marvelous day.


Biking into Belgium

ImageOn day 4 we biked from Zeeland, a southern region of the Netherlands, into Belgium.  The boys did a very respectable 18 miles before lunch then called it a day; the afternoon activity was chocolate tasting, and you can be sure they did not want to miss that. Mitchell, Alan and I went on because we wanted to bike from Holland into Belgium.  It was a beautiful ride, much of it following a tree-lined canal path frequented by every kind of rider, from grandmothers with lapdogs in their bicycle baskets to families with paniers stuffed with touring gear.  As in Holland, you can generally tell the Americans by their helmets.   


It was along this canal that we crossed into Belgium with no fanfare whatsoever.  Had it not been for a note in our directions, we would have been unaware that we had traversed an international border.  I stopped at one point to check out the adorable town of Damme, which evidently produced the family of the action star, Jean-Claude from Damme, and Mitchell & Alan rode ahead.  I did the last stretch into Bruges by myself, which was kind of fun.  The entire city is a world heritage site, and although somewhat Disneyfied it is also seriously gorgeous.  Our hotel is where the cast of In Bruges stayed for six months during filming.  I think the boys probably had Ralph Fiennes’ room – they had the incredible canal view & the nicest room of all of us. Hmm, their room in The Hague was nicer than ours, too.  I hope they don’t get used to this level of accommodations.  A local guide gave us a walking tour of the city center, then we had dinner at a fun restaurant in a 17th-century building. 

The internet isn’t letting me post pictures at the moment, so I’ll try again in the morning.


Through flower fields and dunes

I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to post for a couple of days.  This is partly because the boys have commandeered my computer (we really should have brought two computers, William told me) though they haven’t really had time to use it either.  We have all been kept very busy.  Monday we rode through a national park in the morning.  (Well, before we even got there, I missed almost the very first turn while taking a photograph of some cows, and we had to call one of the guides to bail us out.)  Very forested, mildly rolling terrain.  There was apparently a lot of wildlife there – we saw signs for deer and, I think, for foxes, and our guide saw a tiny frog about the size of a beetle.

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There were no cars in this park, only foot traffic and bicycles.  Can you imagine Yellowstone or Yosemite without cars?  A fleet of rental bikes at each of the entrances?  Maybe electric bikes, which are gaining in popularity here – Sharon and Alan spoke with an 80-something year-old man on the ferry who praised his electric for helping him with the “Dutch hills,” or what we would call wind.  Electric bikes with trailers for your camping gear.  We’ve seen people pulling and carrying all sorts of things on their bikes: big coolers and beach stuff, pets, large musical instruments, canvases, etc.  It’s tempting to think how much American civilization might be improved by gravitating towards the bicycle instead of the car.

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We stopped for coffee at 12 miles or so, and Alexander decided he was done for the day.  But William chose to keep going.  Now we were biking through flower fields: agapanthus was the main thing in bloom, but by looking at the foliage I could see we were passing big fields of peonies, dahlias, and the like.  A hugely fragrant field of golden lobelia had almost bloomed out.  Lunch was a picnic, prepared by Carmen, at an organic farm that specializes in edible flowers for fancy restaurants.  We wandered into the greenhouse and the owner, Han, met us with the query, “Would you like to taste a flower?” The first one we tried was unfamiliar, an almost black bloom with silvery foliage; he had us pull it out and taste the nectar like honeysuckle.  There was a ceiling-high row of runner beans with purple pods and lavender blossoms that tasted rather like fresh raw beans, and an allium-type plant with star-shaped pale lilac flowers that tasted strongly of garlic.

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After lunch William, Alexander, and the three girls on the trip chose to accompany our UW grad Minnesotan guide Evan to the north sea aquarium in The Hague.  Mitchell and I biked on, passing a seaside resort full of spectacular homes from the 1920s.  I hadn’t realized thatched roofs were still being used well into the 20th century.  We rode along the waterfront promenade, then our bike path entered another protected area, this time of harsh, wind-swept dunes.  Apparently the dune ecosystem is quite fragile, and wandering off the path was severely prohibited.  But there were many people hiking and biking and enjoying the blustery landscape. Between the wind and the rolling dunes, this was more challenging riding than I had expected to find in the Netherlands. 
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Finally we left the dunes and entered the outskirts of The Hague, riding through prosperous neighborhoods and parks before Molly found us and led us the rest of the way to our hotel, so I could space out and stop navigating.  Dinner was at a delicious Mediterranean-inspired restaurant called Les Ombrelles; they formed a kids’ table for the youngster, and we ate with Rob and Mary from Cleveland Heights.  Rob is a retired chemistry professor, and Mary regaled us with her stories of teaching chemistry while in the Peace Corps in Cameroon.  She is now a city councilmember, having run for election after her retirement.  And she took up bicycle racing at 70.  Go, Mary!
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Yesterday morning we shuttled to Kinderdijk, a historical site of 18th-century windmills, one of which we were able to go inside of to see how it functioned as both a mill and a residence.  The rest are still inhabited, but only by Netherlanders who can claim descent from a miller.  It’s probably not that uncommon here; Rembrandt’s father was a miller.  Did Rembrandt grow up in a windmill?  I’ll have to ask Suzanne.
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On leaving Kinderdijk, we biked through a Paulus Potter painting, right past the young bull and other prize specimens of Dutch farm animals.  Still no pigs, though.  We passed a lot of waterfowl:  some exotic-looking ducks and geese and quite a few swans, including families with big grey cygnets, literally ugly ducklings.  And there are herons everywhere, and magpies, ring-necked doves, swoopy swallows, and many other species I can’t identify.  It was raining when we reached the van support stop at about 8 miles, and Alexander was ready to get in the van, but I persuaded him to push on, and sure enough the sun came back out and he had no trouble doing another 6.5 miles to reach the adorable town of Gouda.  Yes, we ate cheese.
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After lunch the boys packed it in and accompanied Evan and the girls to Madurodam, Holland in miniature, which I have fond memories of from when I was seven.  We biked on with Sharon, Alan, Rob & Mary.  I did a lot of the navigating, which I truly enjoy.  It seems to feed the same pleasure center of my brain as putting together a piece of IKEA furniture.  This stretch was more residential than agricultural, still on the inimitable FNS, or knotpoint system of Dutch bike paths.  Sharon, Alan, Rob & I biked as far as Boskoop, about 24.5 miles, because we wanted to shuttle back to The Hague to see the Escher museum, practically next door to our hotel, which was closing at 5.  We ended up having only 45 minutes there, which was not nearly enough time, but it gave us an intriguing glimpse of the artist and introduced me to a lot of works I was unfamiliar with.  And I had not previously appreciated what a Dutch artist Escher was.  He did a series of views of Delft, which inevitably evoked Vermeer, and the town in his Day and Night, over which fly the black birds on the left and the white birds on the right, contains a windmill.

Our first day biking

After last night’s adventure, today is bound to seem a little tame.  And it was.  No one got particularly lost.  No miraculous rescues were effected.  But despite the lack of drama it was wholly fantastic.  We met our group at Centraal Station – the six of us & 15 others, including another 3-generation bunch celebrating their patriarch’s 70th birthday.  We took a bus out into the countryside.  Our guide Evan explained the Dutch system of bike paths, which he described as like a net thrown over the country, and every place the fibers of the net meet has a number called a knotpoint.  So we will spend our time here in Holland riding from knotpoint to knotpoint.  He also said we would certainly get lost but not terribly lost, and that was all part of the fun.  We were fitted to our bikes & loaded up with snacks and water, and we set out. 


So here we are, biking through the Dutch countryside on the most superb network of bike paths imaginable.  We were usually in the middle of farmland; for a while we passed through an area that seemed made up entirely of organic farms, with little help-yourself farm stands along the path.Image

Yeah, that picture’s for my sister.  We biked 7 miles then had lunch at an adorable pannekoekhuis (pancake house, only kind of like a thick crepe with the ingredients incorporated). Image 

Alexander wanted to end his biking day there, but William wanted to bike until he saw highland cows, which our guide said were often visible in the nature preserve we would be biking through next.  So we persuaded Alexander to join us on the route for a while as well.  The challenge is that since most of our biking was on paths, the van could not roll up alongside us when we got tired.  But they said there was a pickup point about 6.3 miles away.  They miscalculated.  It was definitely 9. Image

We rode through windswept dunes, passing sheep and goats and even a labradoodle, but there was no sign of any highland cattle – the only  people who reported seeing any had done so while lost.  We went six miles, seven, eight, and then…Hurray!Image Shortly after the shaggy cows, we crossed the residential section where the van was waiting to spirit Alexander and William to the hotel.  The rest of us biked on.  Within a few minutes I had managed to break a pedal, but fortunately the van drove by  not a minute later, and Molly hopped out & replaced it almost instantly.  The rest of the ride was uneventful.  It took us across a ferry and through a fabulous residential neighborhood from the 1920s which was so cool that I asked at dinner if it was famous or architecturally significant, & our guides said no, just nice.  And finally we arrived at our hotel, a former hunting lodge, had a wonderful dinner at which our guides Evan & Carmen joined us (Alexander was fighting to stay awake, but he did not want to miss dessert), and can’t wait for more of the same tomorrow. 



An eventful rijstaffel

Our last night in Amsterdam Alan had planned to treat us all to a magnificent rijstaffel dinner, a kind of Indonesian feast with lots of little dishes.  This was something he was really looking forward to, and “Eat rijstaffel” is one of the activities on the game sheet for the boys (thanks, Julie!!)  Now that Sharon and Mitchell had joined us in Holland, Alan asked the concierge to make a reservation at an Indonesian restaurant that offered vegetarian rijstaffel. It was an easy walk from the hotel, and we set off.  We needed to get to Spui, which is not actually “Spooey” but “Spow,” follow the tram lines as they doglegged left and then take a smaller street for half a block. 

The boys were walking with each other, talking about D&D, I was walking with Alan, and Sharon and Mitchell were walking together.  At one point we realized Mitchell & Sharon were not with us, so we waited until they appeared.  Then we walked a bit farther, to Spui where we needed to turn, looked back, and saw Mitchell but not Sharon.  This was mystifying.  Where had she gone?  Alan and the boys stopped and waited.  I went ahead on the possibility she had gone straight instead of following the curve  of the main road, but it quickly hit a dead end, a canal, & I had no way of guessing if she might have gone left or right.  Mitchell went to the drugstore about 20 yards back where he’d paused to see if they had earplugs to see if she was waiting for him there.  We didn’t imagine she had continued on Spui because she would have had to walk right past us.  She didn’t have her phone.  We weren’t sure if she knew any of our cell phone #s or the name of the hotel.  We didn’t know what to do. 

Finally Alan told us to just go into the restaurant; he would keep looking & then proceed to the hotel in the hope she could get back there.  The manager was miffed that we four were taking up six seats in his busy restaurant, but Mitchell, with uncharacteristic optimism, insisted we needed our reserved table for six.  And we sat down and ordered vegetarian rijstaffel.  Here was the view from our table across out the back window of the restaurant:


And after we had been there 10 or 15 minutes, Mitchell made an inarticulate noise, jumped up, and raced out of the restaurant at full speed.  The boys and I sat with bated breath.  Could Mitchell actually have seen Sharon walk by the back of the restaurant, through the bamboo & potted plant-occluded window?  Was it possible?  Let me repeat:  This was the view we had of the canal street behind the restaurant:


We didn’t have long to wait.  A few minutes later Mitchell returned with Sharon in tow.   He had reached Alan by cell phone, and he was on his way; he told us to order some rijstaffel for them.  And shortly thereafter we were all reunited.  Alan looked out the window and shook his head.  “It is absolutely amazing that you saw her,” he told Mitchell.  I had already said much the same thing.  “Thanks a LOT,” Sharon said, adding, “Why did you walk so darned fast?”  The moral of the story is:  If you are traveling in a strange city, take your cell phone, know the name of your hotel, don’t leave the hotel without cab fare, and do your level best to stay with your companions.    


Rijksmuseum rules!


This morning we had tickets for the world’s greatest museum of Dutch art, the recently renovated Rijksmuseum.  Now I have to say the boys were not all that excited about this, but we asked them to try to be present, i.e. in Amsterdam rather than deep in the forgotten realms of the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and they did their best.  And I told William to look for pigs.  Sadly, there is a surprising dearth of pigs in the Rijksmuseum hall of honor, the main display of 17th century masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and their peers.  Vermeer certainly never painted a pig.  I can just imagine one running around his studio rooting in his paintbox.  He would have apoplexy.  But there were some good dogs and one really pissed off swan.

Jan Asselijn, The Threatened Swan, c 1650

Alan and I parked the boys near the Night Watch – I teach that painting all the time, but there is nothing like the impact of being right in front of it.  It is so beautiful, so rich, so full of the kind of nuance a slide just cannot create.  And Rembrandt as the Apostle Paul – he really seems to know we’re still there, seeing him seeing right through us.  And the Milkmaid is seriously beautiful post-restoration – there were other works I would quibble with, but the colors, the light passing through the broken window pane – suffice it to say I spent much of the day in ecstasy.  And we went through the 1600-1650 wing, which has been completely and brilliantly overhauled.  There is a greater concentration on decorative arts, now integrated into the galleries, reminding us that as luxury goods in Golden Age Holland, paintings were really small potatoes.  The big ticket items were the silver (like Adam van Vianen’s weirdly wonderful proto-Art Nouveau ewers), the china (some on view from a 1613 shipwreck), the cabinets covered with tortoise shell veneer. Partway through we went back to check on the boys, who were still sitting near the Night Watch and talking about D&D, and who should appear but (drum roll, please) Mitchell and Sharon!!!!!  They made it!

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Alan and I continued with 1600-1650 and really dug the heck out of those galleries – special props to whoever thought up the Drinking Games room – then at long last we finished, having finally seen some pigs in a van Ostade or something, and decided it was time for lunch.  The boys were, yes, still sitting by the Night Watch and talking about D&D.  We found Mitchell easily & Sharon after some effort, and we went for lunch in the chic new cafe.  After lunch Alan, Sharon & I went through the 1650-1700 galleries while Mitchell took the boys to look at ship models and weapons in the special collections area.  Around 3:30 they all met up & went for a canal boat ride; I stayed in the museum until it closed, going down to the medieval and Renaissance section.  I tried to draw a bit, but as the Durer prints convinced me – or the Schongauer censer – holy cow! – I am no Durer.  I do, however, pronounce the protracted Rijksmuseum renovation a stunning success.  It made me very happy.  And it is evidently a great place to sit and talk about D&D.

Museum Double Shot Day

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We had tickets for the Van Gogh Museum this morning, so we had breakfast at an outdoor cafe near the reflecting pool between it and the Rijksmuseum (visible behind the I Amsterdam sign).  It was cooler this morning, a big relief to the boys after the unbearable heat of Seattle.  It was 83 degrees yesterday!  Joshua trees were sprouting up in Fremont!

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We were actually early to the museum, but Alan’s internet tickets allowed us to leapfrog right over the long lines.  We got our audio guides and headed for the galleries.  The entire museum has been rehung as an exhibition on  Van Gogh’s working processes.  It’s still roughly chronological, but work by his colleagues is interspersed among his own paintings.  So van Goghs next to Seurats, Gauguins, Bernards, and the like.  We saw him teaching himself draw and then paint in the early 1880s, his clumsiness giving hope to amateur artists everywhere.  We saw the Potato Eaters, his first major composition, depicting William’s ideal dinner:  potatoes and coffee! The boys learned that if they push 9-8-7 on their kids’ audio guides, they short circuit and have to be taken downstairs to be reset.  Twice!

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Of course the real stars of the show are Vincent’s radiant paintings from the last few years of his life.  The wall texts informed us that the colors have in places altered substantially over the last century and a quarter.  For instance, the walls of his bedroom were originally lilac, not blue.  But it’s still a heartbreakingly beautiful painting.  After finishing the exhibition, we watched the short film on Vincent’s life, then had lunch at Wagamama.  After lunch we split up:  Alan took the kids to Science Center NEMO, which they thoroughly enjoyed, while I went to the Peter the Great exhibition at Hermitage Amsterdam where I saw Peter the Great’s favorite wood saw and Peter the Great’s bullet-extracting forceps.  And Peter the Great’s trepanning drill – no wonder none of his courtiers ever complained of a headache.  And one Rembrandt.  You’d think the Hermitage could spare more than one Rembrandt, honestly.

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I had forgotten how green Amsterdam is, especially compared to Venice or Rome or Florence.  The canals are lined with trees, and planters brimming with geraniums adorn some of the bridges.  Almost every building has a patch of soil or a tubful of dirt in which they are growing no puny annuals, but roses and hydrangeas and oleander and hollyhocks and ginkgo trees – seriously ambitious green for container gardening.  It’s utterly charming.

The science center had a feature on civilization-changing technologies, and at dinner we had a good conversation about which ones were most important.  I won’t be able to remember all ten of them, but they included fire, the wheel, rope, written language, the printing press, electricity, penicillin, and the computer.  Some of them build on each other; as the boys pointed out, the printing press would be useless without written language.  But which one would you want to forego in modern life?