Saturday, August 31, 2019

Amsterdam on a summer day

A morning view in Amsterdam.


It's hard to believe that it's the last day of August. Didn't summer lilies do their dance just a few days back? Weren't we only beginning our summer ritual of eating breakfast outside at the farmette? And here, in Europe, weren't we just planning beach outings and collecting seashells for sand castles?

It's a warm day here, in Amsterdam. Since this is a weekend, I expect many families will be out and about, enjoying the last hours of radiant, summer-like sunshine. Some kids here have already started school. Amsterdam, for example, began its school year on August 26th. (The Netherlands are divided into three regions and each one has a different school start date.) You can be sure that on a warm day like this one, they'll be looking to do something outdoorsy, likely active, perhaps in one of the city's parks.

That's our plan as well: outdoorsy, park-based, active.

Snowdrop, who is sleeping in my room, wakes up a tiny bit earlier than I would have wanted. I suppose she'll catch up on sleep when we return home. Here, her excitement gets her up and moving when her little form is still whispering -- more rest please!

One of the pleasant hings about staying at a hotel is that someone does a lot of stuff for you: clean up the room. Prepare you a breakfast to your liking. Wash up the dishes. Smiles pleasantly and wishes you a great day. It's not trivial: You're free to think where to go and what to accomplish and thus you're out the door a lot earlier than had you been doing it all on your own.


I have two ideas for outings: the flower market and Vondelpark (Amsterdam's most central large greenspace).

The flower market here is unique in that all the bulbs and flower paraphernalia (and not a few flower type souvenirs) are sold on boats permanently stationed on the Singel Canal -- just a handful of minutes away from our hotel.

A few pictures from our morning walk there:


(each merchant house is different...)





And now the park: it's your oasis calm, away from the noise of the crowded city. We walk the length of this green space, half looking for a playground for the kids. (Snowdrop has had to make do with cramming herself into the bag compartment of the stroller; in the alternative she can choose to walk, but the distances are not small; the airlines broke off a section of the stroller that attaches the second seat. We filed a claim and now the young couple is trying to decide if they should replace all or part of this rather monstrous buggy.)

(In the park, she walks.)


We spot something toward the end of the park. Oh, it's a rather large, rather shallow, pleasantly cool kids' wading pool! Dress comes off, Snowdrop plops right in.


She is all smiles the whole time she is there. I mean, it's just too perfect: splash all you want to, dear child, it's still summer, just for this one August day!


Sparrow, too, loves the coolness of the water.


He dangles his feet, splashes gleefully, chortling now and then at the ridiculousness of it all!


It's a lovely way to end August! Such a gift from this often rainy and windswept city!

(humanity, including the young family, in the park...)


(back on city streets, where bikes come out from all directions, seemingly with the goal of running you down... or, in this case, delivering a chair to someone who needs it...)


We eat lunch at a cafe-sandwich shop just around the corner (Singel 404). Toast and various cheeses and additional accoutrements.


And now it's time rest. But not just yet for me. I stroll over toward Dam Square -- a popular counterculture gathering place in the years when smoking weed was still a bit of a no-no here (today, you cannot walk through the city without smelling the stuff, wafting from one place or another).



This is a walk I did often in the years when I came to the city by train from the airport. I'll never forget how odd it seemed to be traveling to or from Warsaw -- a city that was, in those years, rather devoid of commercial glitz -- and to be entering this rather crazy section of town, where clothing stores trip over each other and people jostle to fill their bags with stuff. I can't say I ever liked that sudden onslaught of not necessarily pretty shop displays, but it was clear that the difference between Amsterdam and Warsaw was then immense.

Today, I quickly have my fill of all the shopping chaos as well. I do pick up an item or two for a grandchild, but otherwise, I am happy to be back by the hotel's canal -- a place that is far more serene and satisfying than the craziness of the commercial heart of this city. [Ironically, I repeat this path, chaos and all, with the young family in the late afternoon. The goal is to see Dam Square. Then to get out as quickly as possible.]

In the evening we first go to a store to look for a replacement stroller. And after, we go to dinner at an Indonesian Restaurant. Amsterdam is filled with them and even in my younger years, I found the experience of sitting down to a Rijsttafel (an Indonesian string of dishes that is always surprising, often delicious, and sometimes quite spicy) to be quite fun. We're not entirely sure that the kids will be equally thrilled, but of course, exposing them to new things is part of the adventure and so we cross our fingers and head to Sampurna.

It turns out to be a wonderful meal. We like our spicy foods. Snowdrop falls in love with one dish and eats all of it. Sparrow? Well, he gets hooked on shrimp bread.


(hey, I like it too!)


(leave some for me!)


The walk home: it had showered while we were eating. With that rain came a shift in temperatures.


Amsterdam is getting ready for September.

Friday, August 30, 2019

to Amsterdam

How can it be hard to say goodbye to an ocean? Nothing more than a body of water, right? I do think though that there are two groups of people out there: those who live by the sea and those who do not. I belong to the latter category. My focus is on what grows in the earth, not what swims in the waters. And so it's been healthy to forget for a while about gardens and about growing things and to focus instead on cities (Paris) and now, in the last few days, on ocean waters.

These waters, reflecting the color of the sky, joining forces to create a beautiful tableau. (Sunrise...)

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But now it's time to move away.

We're not exactly returning home yet. We're traveling back, but stopping first at a city -- Amsterdam.

I have a slight nostalgia toward that place. The Netherlands was the first foreign country that I visited alone. I was 18 and traveling from Poland, on my way to my au paire job in New York. I had no money. I had to borrow some from my uncle for travel expenses. And I had to stop in Amsterdam, because my flights demanded an overnight there. I had an older copy of "Europe on $5 a day" with me (this was from the 60s, so it theoretically was possible to travel on $5 a day, though I think the book was overly optimistic about keeping it pleasant and at the same time cheap) and I looked up the hotels listed there. One of them was the Ambassade. [It was the last time the hotel appeared in that book. For many years after, the authors would lament  -- "the hotel Ambassade has sadly departed from our listings, though we still like it and wish that it was a little bit cheaper." A wistful longing for the impossible: to keep that special little place affordable to even the most frugal traveler.]

In all the years I returned to Amsterdam with my own young family, we'd stay at the Ambassade. And it was always very proper, and very nice, if somewhat climbing in price above the (single digit) dollar a day level.

And so it is no surprise that today, we're heading for the Ambassade.

*   *   *

But first, a rush to clean up our AirBnB in Brittany, a quick trip to the bakery for breakfast treats (the kids keep me company!)...

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For a last breakfast in our beachfront apartment...

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... and then a cab ride to the Brest airport...

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... from where a plane takes us to Paris...

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... and then, from there to  Amsterdam.

It sounds so deceptively simple, doesn't it? Breakfast, good bye ocean, cab ride, one flight, next flight and boom! We're there. But as you know it's never linear with a young child. Snowdrop by now is easy to move through the travel steps. Sparrow is just one and therefore less predictable. There are the leaky diaper issues, the refusals to nap or even sit still. Hungry or, for no reason, not hungry at all, only to be hungry ten minutes later.  He's a sweet boy, if only people didn't keep strapping him to a seat for who knows how long. We all breathe a sigh of relief when he decides to close his eyes on the final leg of today's journey and snuggle into a lap, mommy's lap, and fall asleep.

*   *   *   

Amsterdam's temperatures are climbing again. This typically cooler city is going to be toasty tomorrow. How many waves of hot air are going to pass through Europe this year?

For now, things are pleasant. We arrive at our canal-facing hotel in the early evening to a delicate light of this northern city.

Snowdrop is sharing a room with me, while Sparrow is sleeping with his parents. Here's the view out my (more accurately, "our") window:


You can't see? Let's try again:


*   *   *

How  would I describe Amsterdam... Hmm... I used to think of it as being chock full of canals, great art, and as a cherry on top -- it has a fabulous orchestra. (As a young person, I loved classical music concerts.) These days, I think of it as a place for young people. The crowds, the relaxed vibe -- it seems to define the city. It never quite lost its place in the free spirit line up. Acceptance appears to come easy for the people here. You can't be surprised that gay marriage was first made legal in the Netherlands.

We have only a few minutes at the hotel. Snowdrop is radiant -- the canals enchant her. The lovely rooms overlooking them are storybook material! But we must head out for dinner. The kids have not been sleeping enough. And we have a dinner reservation to pay attention to.

We eat at Eatmosfera. It struck me that while the grownups were looking for something exciting and unusual, the kids surely are wanting something comforting and easy.  Snowdrop loves her pasta, Sparrow loves his pizza and us big guys revel in our carpaccios and fishes and who knows what else. Eatmosfera I think satisfies both.


(mutual adoration...)


It wasn't a short meal and toward the end, I'm thinking that the kids might enjoy a break from being on good behavior and so I take them out for a short stroll to the nearby Rembrandt monument. I think even Snowdrop is a bit young for a museum visit to see the great Dutch masters, so consider this her (and Sparrow's!) introduction to the golden age of Dutch art.


Fountains help set the mood.


We walk back to our rooms at our hotel tired but deeply satisfied. And of course, there is that last view onto the canal, in the evening light.


What child, what grownup would not be enchanted!


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Brittany beaches

In my view, Brittany has some of the prettiest beaches in Europe. Often hidden, or at least protected by slabs of rock, they emerge unexpectedly as you walk coastal trails. I remember thinking back in 2008 when I first came to the Finistere district and stayed for a week with Ed in the tiny village of Aber Wrac'h  (just 25 miles north of where we are now, but it would take you 45 mins or longer to get there, because the roads that cut through Brittany are narrow and impossible to follow), we hiked along the Channel coast and I would repeatedly say -- how can any beach be this lovely? (You can glance at some of the photos from that time in an Ocean post here.) Oh, they're not pristine -- you'll find the occasional washed up seaweed and there aren't always easy access roads to them, but they are my idea of what a small lip of sand should look like. On a sunny day, they never fail to make you smile.

Today, our last full day in Brittany, that glorious sunshine is with us! It's a day for the beach, for sure.

(Looking out, I see that the trucks are clearing the beach before us of seaweed...)

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But first, breakfast. No more distant bakery -- the one underneath us is just fine. I add to my bakery shopping list several baguettes -- we have some cheese, we have some tomatoes. We'll picnic by the sea.

(breakfast plates)

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(the kids, because the grownups aren't necessarily up for photos at this hour of the day...)

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We want to go to the "secret cove" we had discovered on our evening "adventure" our first day here. It looked so inviting! It does require an uphill walk and then a steep descent, but we're up for it!

(at the cove, a handful of grownups are taking maybe 8 or 10 kids out on a raft. The little guys can't be older than Snowdrop. They each have a paddle and they help push the boat along...)

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The stairs help you get down to the beach part of the way, but the last bit of the descent requires a scramble over rocks and boulders.

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Finally, we're on the lovely sands...

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(while the group of kids paddles away, who knows where... we never see them again.)

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Today, Snowdrop wants to hit the water. It's not without its challenges. The depth changes and even the gentle waves feel powerful as they sway a little body one way, then the other. Snowdrop starts out being audacious, but learns quickly to be more restrained. You don't mess with the ocean.

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(on the retreat...)

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As for Sparrow?  Well, he's fine with staying to the sidelines for a while...

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But there is, I think, the realization that he can't fully participate in the funner activities. Swimming? Not yet. Sand castle building? Still not quite the age for it...

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I take him for a little walk and we mess with taking selfies.

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Climbing over a parent is amusing as well. For a while.

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Lunchtime. It's a challenge to keep the sand out of the sandwich, but still, the baguettes taste so good by the sea!

(Finished off by a Breton cake...)

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Young family photo!

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We head home. Showers, rest, refresh.

While Sparrow naps, I take Snowdrop out for a promised last ride on the merry-go-round. What a disappointment! It has packed up and moved on. If ever you feel like summer has really slipped past you, it's when you see an empty space where the merry-go-round once stood. Snowdrop is crushed!

What can one offer to make up for it? Well, there happens to be a stand that's still selling freshly spun cotton candy...

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Oh, the stickiness of it! The oozing sugar attracts yellow jackets (one gets trapped in the spun threads of sugar) and I'm somewhat relieved when the girl hands over the remains of the sugary mess. I promptly throw it away.

Gogs, what did you do?? I wasn't done yet! I just was taking a pause!

Oh dear. I tell her that maybe after a brief period of play (there  is a playground by the beach) we can get another, hoping that she'll forget.

In fact, she does get caught up in the swing...

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... and in the climbing the ropes.

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But she does not forget about the cotton candy.

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(Back home again... )

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In the evening, we return to Sans Souci for supper. The pizza-moules frites place across the street. Just because, it's close, the kids like the food and the grownups don't mind it either.

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I'll end with that photo -- the two travelers, still happy, still willing to put up with the craziness of it all, just for the experience, the surprise, the joy of being in it together, with the whole family. Good times and tough times.

Tomorrow, we fly to Amsterdam.