The Happiest Kids in the World

Last week we looked at the school system in The Netherlands, so, along those lines, let’s look at the lifestyle of children here.  There have been numerous studies in recent years proclaiming that Dutch children are some of the happiest in the world and there are some factors that might contribute to that.

 1.  Children here are given large amounts of autonomy.  Rather than being driven everywhere, they bike on their own.  Many young children (think early elementary years) are still escorted to school by their parents, but once they are in the later years of primary school and secondary school, they go alone even when it takes 30 minutes or more to get to school.  Likewise, children bike themselves to their after school and weekend sports clubs or music lessons with their gear which they were probably responsible for gathering as well.  Also, many children ride public transportation by themselves. 

Children may run errands alone.  Many kids go to appointments on their own.  For example, when I take my daughter to the orthodontist, many of the kids come alone, go into the appointment alone and get the information needed and schedule their own appointments before leaving.  Kids also take care of shopping on their own when they need to or are asked by parents.  It is very common to see groups of secondary age kids in the grocery store in the morning buying items for their lunch.  I have also seen children sent to buy a few items for the family when the store is close to their home. 

And finally, Dutch children are encouraged to just go out and play without having to stay at their home to do so or to be overly supervised.  They don’t have to check in regularly and they aren’t checked on.  During the distance learning period in the spring, some of the children in our neighborhood spent hours every day building a fort in the wooded area by the houses and no parents ever went to check on them. 

2.  Children here don’t always have much “stuff.” Rather than have large rooms in which they collect copious amounts of toys and other junk, Dutch kids have smaller rooms, less storage and hence less stuff.  And while some people may feel that having stuff leads to happiness, it is, in fact, rather freeing to have less to keep up with.  In addition, when you don’t have “things”, you are more likely to go out to play, spend time with friends or engage in physical activity.

3.  Another theory is that Dutch parents are happy which makes the household and the children happier. The Dutch place a high level of importance on a balance between work and family time.  They do not work excessive hours, and it is culturally accepted that there are times when family obligations will trump work commitments.  In addition, Dutch fathers play an active role in child rearing and care which may also lead to balance and happiness in the household.  I see many fathers in The Netherlands taking their children to school which is something I rarely saw in the US.  In addition, when I see Dutch families doing things together, it seems like the parents are more engaged in the activity and spend more time talking with the family or friends they are with rather than being on a device.  I personally feel that in the US, I saw more parents on devices even when they were participating in family time out of the home. 

4.  There are also reports that Dutch children find their peer groups to be supportive and helpful and do not deal with issues regarding bullying and social identity as much as children in other countries. Also, it seems that social media and its pressures don’t stress Dutch kids much at all (see the link to the study below). 

5.  Dutch children are seen as having a “voice.” Within the family unit, children are listened to and encouraged to have opinions.  Likewise, at school, children are given the freedom to express themselves and do not experience as much authoritativeness from administration.  In return, the students generally trust their teachers.  And, parents may not put as much pressure on children in The Netherlands because they allow them the freedom to be themselves which may lead to more feelings of happiness.

6.  Finally, overall, the Dutch consider themselves to have a good life. They are a wealthy country with a good economy, they have decent healthcare and education, and there is little worry of incidents of mass violence particularly in schools.  These factors mean less stress and more happiness.

Of course, no culture is perfect and the Dutch do receive criticism for an unhealthy diet among kids.  There are also, of course, issues of poverty and racism to deal with.  And, for better or worse, Dutch children do seem to be exposed to sex (in terms of both education, discussion and the actual act) at a much earlier age than in many other cultures. 

All in all, though, I think there are some great things about being a kid in The Netherlands and some interesting aspects of child rearing to consider and potentially adopt in order to encourage children to be happy and well-adjusted.  I hope you have enjoyed this week’s peek at life in another culture.  Until next time, I wish you all, adults and children alike, much happiness! 

**Here are a few other things to note about life for Dutch kids-drinking age is 18 and so is driving age.  Of course, many kids get a license to drive a moped (which are generally driven in bike lanes) much sooner than that.  Tons of kids here play an extracurricular sport whether it is tennis, soccer or field hockey.   There is an idea/saying in The Netherlands that is ingrained in kids early on which is “doe normaal” (be normal) basically meaning that you should not behave in a way to stand out or to be different in a negative way.  It kind of translates to “stop, that’s crazy enough.”

Finally, this is an interesting study regarding the stressors of teens in The Netherlands.

https://nltimes.nl/2020/06/23/stress-school-dutch-teens-main-problem-unicef

 

All Things Education

Moving to The Netherlands with school age children meant that school was definitely a big part of the decisions we were making when moving.  The Dutch school system can be somewhat complex to understand for an outsider and in the end we decided to select a private international school.  But understanding Dutch schools can provide some interesting comparisons and food for thought when evaluating other school systems and educational organization.

Schools in The Netherlands are run by the Ministry of Education.  The Ministry sets the learning objectives, quality standards, social objectives, etc., but the individual schools are free to decide how to allocate their budget and the details of their curriculum.  In many ways, Dutch schools are similar to American schools.  On average, school is 180 or slightly more days a year, there are both private and public schools and special needs students are provided with the support to attend mainstream school as much as possible, but, if it is not possible, find that there are special schools available based on their needs.

There are some major differences between American and Dutch schools however.  First of all, school in The Netherlands is compulsory.  This means that students must attend a school-homeschooling is not permitted.  When we first arrived, we received letters from the government requesting the information of which school our children attend which, I believe, may have then been checked for accuracy so don’t think you can just fly under the radar.  It is possible to petition the government to make an exception to this rule.  We recently had a friend whose child had been attending private school and was accepted to a prestigious online school.  They petitioned the government and waited months to learn that he would be allowed to stay at home to attend the online school.  In addition, they take attendance very seriously.  Students are expected to be in school unless they are ill.  In fact, it is possible to be fined for an unexcused absence.  But don’t worry, they still get plenty of time off.  In both primary and secondary schools, there are set holiday days and vacation periods.  The set holidays include New Years Day, Easter Monday, King’s Day, Liberation Day (every 5 years), Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day.  In addition, most students have a week off in October, two weeks around Christmas, one week in February or March, two weeks in April or May and six weeks for summer in July and August.  In order to help minimize holiday traffic though, the country is divided into three regions and specific vacation weeks and especially the end and start of summer vacation is staggered among these regions.

The second difference between Dutch and American schools is that, while there are both private and public schools in The Netherlands, both schools receive equal funding from the government.  There are a few international private schools that do not receive funding, and consequently, their tuition is much higher than the international or private schools that do receive it. What this does mean is that private school is not only reserved for the super wealthy as there are many affordable options.

A final difference is that you are not required to attend a certain school based on your residence the way that school districts works in the US.  Rather, you are free to choose a school based on their method of teaching, reputation, atmosphere, etc.  Several of our neighbors have children at a nearby school because it is well known for having more parent contribution in terms of both volunteers and finances.

These are some of the basic similarities and differences between the American and Dutch school systems, but to really understand how the Dutch school system works, you’ve got to understand the layout.  There are three main categories for schooling within The Netherlands and within each of those, there are several types of schools.  To begin, the three main types are primary, secondary and university.

Primary school consists of groups 1-8 and is for ages 4-11 or 12.  You begin in group 1 when you are 4.  To be more specific, you begin (if you want as group 1 is not compulsory) on the day after your 4th birthday regardless of when during the year it occurs (given school is in session of course).  If you don’t do group 1, you are required to begin group 2 when you are 5.  In primary school, there are 2 types of schools-openbare which is funded and run by an independent foundation which was originally set up by the government and bijzondere which has its own board and follows either religious or pedagogical models.  About two thirds of students attend the bijzondere schools.  While most primary schools are free, many ask for a voluntary parent contribution to pay for extras.  They also rely heavily on parent volunteers.  In primary school, there are on average 24-30 students per class and students attend school from around 8:30am to 3:15pm and have around an hour for lunch.  During this break, they may go home for lunch or they may stay at the school, however, no lunch is served at school as it is the student’s responsibility to bring lunch.  On Wednesdays, primary schools get out at 12:30pm to allow for extracurricular activities, appointments and playdates.  Primary students are not given much homework, and in addition to the regular subjects you would expect to find, may expect classes on bike safety as well as having their own garden plot at the school to tend.  In addition, Dutch students generally begin learning English by group 7 (10 years of age) though many schools begin as early as group 1 or are designed as a bilingual school.  Starting around group 2 or 3, students are given a test twice a year to measure progress of the student and the teacher, however, there is no real consequence of the test other than to serve as an indicator of how the student is progressing.  Finally, during group 8 (the final year of primary school), students take a test to help determine which track they will follow, and thus which schools they might attend during secondary school.  The test is supplemented with teacher recommendation in order to best place the student.

At the secondary level, which generally begins at age 12, things get a bit more complex in terms of structure.  Based on that test in the final year of primary school and the teacher recommendation, students are placed into one of three tracks.  These tracks correspond to the type of studies the student will follow through the college years.  Track 1 (VMBO)  is vocational.  Students finish their secondary studies in four years at age 16.  Students who are placed in this track still have the opportunity to go to a university should they wish by completing extra studies after receiving their diploma.  Track 2 (HAVO) is for students who will go on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in applied sciences.  This diploma takes 5 years and is completed at age 17.  About halfway through their studies, the HAVO students choose their specific field of study.  Finally, Track 3 (VWO) is for students who will go on to a research university to receive their Bachelor’s degree in an analytical and research based field of study.  This diploma takes six years and is completed at age 18.  Secondary students attend school from about 8:30am to 4:00 or 5:00pm.  This varies each day based on the schedule of their classes.  Secondary students apply to the secondary school that they would like to attend and that is designated for the track they are on.  Students may not be accepted to their first choice, so they apply to several schools.  And lest you think it is completely unfair for students to be put on a specific track at age 12 that determines the course of their career and life, students are allowed to make adjustments and change track as they progress through secondary school.  Once all of that hard work is done, final exams are passed and a diploma is awarded, Dutch students let everyone know in a special ritual that you can read about in a previous post. https://terisacunha.com/2019/06/13/the-day-the-exam-results-came-in/

For higher education, there are three types of schools that align with the secondary tracks.  The first is an MBO school which is equivalent to an Associates degree.  Then there is the HBO which is a university of applied science and allows for the equivalent of a Bachelor’s degree.  Students from the HAVO secondary track and VMBO who received their MBO diploma along with additional studies may attend a HBO school.  Some of the types of careers for those with a HBO degree are primary school teachers, architects, journalists, nurses, management positions, artists, translators, pilots, etc.  It is possible to receive a Masters level degree from these schools if you have a HBO diploma and work experience.  Finally, there are the WO universities which are for students with VWO secondary diplomas, students working on Masters degrees or PhD degrees and for students who complete 1 year at a HBO university and receive special certification.  At WO universities, there is a greater focus on research based studies and typical careers for those with a WO degree include lawyers, psychologists, doctors, professors, engineers, scientists, etc.  In addition, from the age of 21, a person can test for WO university to prove that they possess the correct academic level even if they do not hold a secondary diploma that allows them admission.  One interesting fact to note, many university studies are conducted in English.  Another fact which will likely cause my American readers to fall off their chair, higher education in The Netherlands is government funded and thus is very affordable.  On average, students at HBO and WO universities pay about €2000 per year.  During their first year, they pay half of this and because of teacher shortages in recent years, students studying to become teachers pay only half for their first two years of study.  In addition, there are also grants available to students based on their performance and parent income.

As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, there is a teacher shortage in The Netherlands, and just like in the US, it can be attributed to overworked and underpaid teachers.  Teachers feel that they are not valued and that the pay does not reflect their skill level and the requirements of the job.  And just like in the US, this salary issue leads to shortages which then leads to more work being placed on the teacher, overcrowding of classrooms, no assistants/helpers for teachers, unqualified teachers in classrooms and school closures.  Teacher strikes are also a reality in The Netherlands.  Just last year, teachers engaged in a two day strike at government funded schools organized through their teacher union which claims that underfunding of education is the problem.  Interestingly though, many schools are not overly affected by teacher shortage.  It appears that shortages most often occur in specialized schools as well as non western migration (translation-minority) schools.  Pay is better in mainstream schools which helps to minimize shortages there.

Overall, the Dutch pride themselves on providing a quality education to all children and their rate of attainment of a university degree is just above 30 percent.  Their widespread command of a secondary language is also impressive.  But perhaps the best thing about Dutch education is that it is affordable.  And, in my opinion, while no system is without its faults, there are interesting ideas which might be gleaned from the Dutch education system that could be beneficial.

Van Harte Gefeliciteerd Met Je Verjaardag

Fijne Verjaardag!  Gefeliciteerd!   What does it mean- Happy Birthday and Congratulations!  Birthdays in The Netherlands are an interesting affair.  There are several notable differences between birthdays here and those in the US.  

  1. In The Netherlands, birthdays are a celebration for others more than they are for you.  It is not customary here to congratulate the birthday person as much as it is to congratulate their family.  On my birthday, my husband’s colleagues congratulate him.  When children have birthdays, the parents are congratulated (though I can understand this one; after all, we did keep them alive for another year!).  In general, if you are around them, you should congratulate all of the birthday person’s family on the birthday…and maybe even close friends as well.
  2. Along those same lines, no one provides the birthday person with a birthday cake or treat, but rather, it is your responsibility to provide something to allow others to celebrate you.  In offices and schools, this means you bring in a treat to share with everyone on your birthday.  And, your colleagues will get very upset if you don’t.  We moved here on my husband’s birthday, and, thus, I did not send anything into his office.  Now, I think his colleagues forgave us for that, but they made sure to let him know that the following year he needed to bring something. Same goes for your birthday party-you provide the dessert. 
  3. Birthdays are important to the Dutch.  I have never seen it personally, but rumor has it that there is a Dutch calendar kept in most homes (oddly enough, kept hanging in the bathroom) that is solely for listing the birthdays of everyone in their circle.
  4. Speaking of circles, the Dutch have a strange and often awkward tradition at birthdays of hosting what is called a circle party.  Everyone at the party sits in a circle of seats and has coffee or tea and cake.  The guest list is generally made up of both family (several generations) and friends.  And don’t forget, as a guest, it is your responsibility to greet and congratulate everyone in the circle.  Once you have done this, it is time to sit back and enjoy the potentially painful conversation and awkward silences.  As of yet, I have not attended one of these parties, but have several acquaintances that have, and they have assured me it is an interesting and generally less than desirable event.dutch-birthday
  5. Finally, in the tradition of Dutch directness, if your neighbors are planning a party that will not assume the form of the quiet circle party, they will generally let you know by dropping a note in your mailbox or by coming to your door to tell you.  And, lest you think that this is their way of making sure that you attend, think again.  They just want you to know that they are having a party, you can expect noise which, by way of them warning you in advance, you are to ignore, and, though they don’t say it directly, you are not invited.  Unlike in the US where we would typically try to avoid having someone know that they weren’t invited to a party, the Dutch are quite comfortable with being open with the fact that you didn’t make the guestlist.

And what’s the final thing that you should know about Dutch birthdays-the song, of course.  

Lang zal ze/hij leven,
Lang zal ze/hij leven,
Lang zal ze/hij leven,
In de gloria,
In de gloria,
In de gloria,
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!
Hip, hip, hip, hoera!

It translates to long shall she or he live (3 times), in the gloria (3 times) and hip hip hooray (3 times). It’s a boisterous and fun song to sing. To get a feel for the tune and energy, think swinging mug of beer in one hand as you tipsily sing in a pub!

So there you have it-birthdays in The Netherlands. They seemingly celebrate and benefit everyone except the birthday person, but they are fun and important celebrations none the less!

Food, Glorious Food!

Food is one of those subjects that everyone is curious about in other countries. We can’t (and don’t like) to go long without it so it’s always on our minds and we romanticize the idea of eating exotic and novel foods. However, as our world is often a melting pot of mixed cultures and ethnicities, food tends to become a blend as well. Here in The Netherlands, we can find the influences of several cultures in the food and there are plenty of choices of foods from around the world to select from. You can find the presence of Italian, Greek, Turkish, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, North African, Spanish, Surinamese, Brazilian, Mexican (and I mean really authentic Mexican), Afghanie and more here in The Netherlands. Many of these foods, such as Turkish food, have made their way into Dutch food culture by way of a large immigrant population in the country or through past colonization connections such as with Indonesian and Surinamese food. But while there is a plethora of cultural foods to choose from, if you venture into any non ethnic restaurant, you can be sure to find a few things.
  1. Many restaurants do not serve breakfast. They may be open for coffee and other drinks but often food is not served until noon. Of the ones that do serve breakfast, don’t think you will find pancake, bacon and egg platters, my American friends. You are more likely to find some sort of bread-maybe sweet, maybe with jam and butter, maybe with some ham and cheese, but whatever it is, it will likely be simple.
  2. Like many places in Europe, you are choosing between sparkling and still water, and it most likely is not free. A few places will do tap water but they may still charge you for the glass.
  3. Lunch is usually a simple affair. The Dutch love broodje-an open face sandwich with a topping such as carpaccio, cheese or salmon. They also love a tosti which is just a sandwich with meat, cheese, tuna or salmon salad or maybe a combination of the above in it. Another lunch favorite on a menu are kroketten (usually two) which are fried and often filled with a meat ragout. You can count on it coming with a slice of bread and maybe some fries. Finally, you have the uitsmijter which is a piece of bread topped with ham or bacon, a fried egg and cheese.
  4. You can always find beer, wine, tea and coffee on the menu.
  5. Finally, you can expect to find a few small bites or snacks to go with drinks often including bread with a spread of some sort, bitterballen (much like the krokets listed above but smaller and round), and olives (typically green).english-dutch-menu-with
Now, you may be wondering what we eat at home. For the most part, we tend to continue making the same foods that we ate in the US. With the absence of some products here, a few of our old favorites are not able to be made, but, surprisingly, you can almost always find a way to either make substitutions or make homemade versions of items that can’t be found in the store here. We have incorporated a few Dutch foods into our meal repertoire though. We really enjoy erwtensoep in the winter-essentially pea soup that is eaten pretty thick and with Dutch rookworst (smoked sausage) cut up in it. Also, we eat stamppot which consists of potatoes and other vegetables such as carrot, onion and kale mashed up. This is then served with some kind of meat, typically sausage such as the rookworst mentioned above.

So where do we go to get the groceries for these meals? Most Dutch people will divide their shopping between small specialized shops, grocery stores and markets (open air stalls). While we mainly stick to the grocery stores, there are small stores for bakery items and cheese as well as butchers. You can also find small produce, organic and ethnic stores. Markets most often have produce, fish, cheese, flowers and other non consumable goods. You also often find stalls for spices and nuts.

nut stall

A wide variety of cheese can be found everywhere, even at the grocery stores, but for a larger selection of meat and fish, it is best to go to specialty stores or the market. While there are definitely pork items, it can be harder to find pork products because there are many halal butchers who cannot carry pork items due to the large number of Muslim immigrant and refugee groups here. Also, the Dutch do not consume a lot of turkey so ground turkey, turkey hot dogs or turkey bacon are not available. And yes, this means they do not carry turkey at the holidays. If you want one, you need to go to the American expat store or to a poulier (a poultry shop) and order it. As far as fish goes, the most commonly found would be salmon and cod. Shrimp and mussels are also highly available as is herring. If you go to a fish market stall, you can find many different kinds of fish as well as other items from the sea such as octopus. And if fish is your thing, you can always stop at the stalls and order some kibbling which is breaded, fried fish (usually cod) that comes in a small basket and is eaten with a toothpick and maybe dipped in a sauce. It’s usually very fresh and quite good.

In the stores, you can find most of the produce that you need, but the markets definitely have a wider selection and more exotic items. While there is a good variety of produce to be found, you generally hear one of two things about Dutch produce-either people say it is tasteless or they say it tastes fresher than produce they have had in the States. I haven’t noticed things being tasteless myself. Of course, much of the food in The Netherlands is grown in greenhouses. In fact, The Netherlands is actually the world’s second largest exporter of food. The Netherlands takes a possible shortage of food due to increasing demand very seriously and are actively working to find new ways to grow more food in less space. Also, chemical pesticides are not used on the produce in the greenhouses. Likewise, less antibiotic hormones are used on the poultry and livestock here. Actually, in general less synthetics used to prolong shelf life are used here. What this means is that things will go bad pretty fast, especially in the heat of summer with no air conditioning, but they have less artificial additives. You may also find interesting that eggs do not need to be refrigerated here. This is because they are not sprayed with the chemical spray used in the US to clean the eggs. That chemical spray likely damages the outer shell of the egg which makes bacteria growth more likely unless the egg is refrigerated.

So there you have it-hopefully everything you ever wanted to know about food in The Netherlands. For more details on foods that you can find here that are unique to The Netherlands or originated here, you can read my past blog post at https://terisacunha.com/2019/04/04/bon-appetit-or-eet-smakelijk/. And if you still have burning questions about something food related, be sure to just ask in the comments. I’m sure I can be persuaded to do a little food research if you need me too!

Dutch Town Hopping

During the past several weeks, we have done a little town hopping around the Zuid Holland and Noord Brabant provinces of The Netherlands.  We only spent about an hour or so in each of these locations, but they all had interesting and charming things to see and proved to be nice, quick and pandemic approved excursions.

We began our hopping in Willemstad, a small fortified city laid out in the shape of a 7 point star and surrounded by a 125-foot wide moat as designed by Willem the Silent (you’ll have to revisit some of my earlier posts to remember your history on him).  Willemstad only has a few thousand residents, and it was very quaint.  We enjoyed walking the almost empty streets (a perk of heading to the town early on a Sunday) and checking out the church and its graveyard boasting some really old stones as well as the Mauritshuis which was built as the hunting castle of Prince Maurits in 1587.

The weather was also perfect for strolling through the arsenal area, which showcased hut-like structures from the 1800s that were used in storing ammunition, and along part of the fortified city wall, eventually passing the harbor and then walking through the town center.

The town was very clean and quiet and had an upbeat charm which was evident in the quirky little dolls we saw in a canal as well as some little fairy doors affixed to a couple of trees featuring homes for owls and spiders.

 

Next up was Brielle.  Brielle is also a fortified city.  Brielle’s claim to fame is that, in 1572, it was the first town to be liberated from Spanish occupation thus leading the way for The Kingdom of The Netherlands to emerge (for those that didn’t know, The Netherlands was once under Spanish rule but Willem the Silent led a campaign to overthrow them and take back the land).  They currently have cheeky signs around town asking residents to keep a 1.572 meter (pandemic request is 1.5 meter) distance from one another.

There were many charming buildings, homes and streets to see in Brielle and quite a few ornamental features including ancient-looking, square carvings on many of the buildings.

We enjoyed walking past this row of homes that I swear had to be converted from an old stable because of the half doors and shuttered windows, a gate to an ancient monastery and the church where Willem the Silent (that guy is everywhere!) married his third wife with its tower where Mary Stuart (a descendent of Mary Queen of Scots) would watch her husband (the great grandson of Willem the Silent) sail off to claim the British throne.  That’s right-in the late 1600s, the king of The Netherlands was also the king of England.

And apparently, no trip to a small fortified city would be complete without strange little dolls.

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Next up, we traveled to a much bigger city- ‘s Hertogenbosch.  The highlight of this city has got to be the massive gothic cathedral in the town square.  It is really unlike any other cathedral we have seen in The Netherlands as they mostly tend to be a lot simpler in style.  There is quite a bit of sculptural work on the cathedral and of special note are the figures climbing the buttresses on either side.

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After viewing the cathedral, we made our way to the market square where we found an old well house, a caged saint and a statue of painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Here one can also find the old town hall and the oldest house in town, De Moriaan, which dates from the 13th century.

After seeing the historic sites, we wandered through the city on our way to the citadel and the Oranje, a preserved bastion alongside a huge cannon (couldn’t get a picture of the cannon as it was housed in a glass-walled building and was just too long to get from an angle on the outside).

 

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Near the Oranje, we also found another church, St. Catherine’s, and a view of the vast, flat fields outside the city.

While the city was much larger than the others we had visited, it still had a lot of unique and interesting features.

We also especially enjoyed walking through the Uilenburg Quarter.  It was really lovely with its canals and quiet streets.

And finally, no trip seems to be complete without some quirky dolls or decorative features so here are a few from ‘s Hertogenbosch.

Our final stop on our town hopping tour was Breda.  Breda was probably the largest of all of the towns and it was fairly busy while we were there.  Squares with outdoor restaurant seating abounded and were quite full.  We made our way to the Grote Kerk (large church) which is where many members of the royal family are buried and features a Prince’s Pew which is always reserved for members of the royal family.  We were unable to go inside due to a special exhibit that was underway, but we enjoyed seeing the ornate tower from the outside.

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We also took a route past the Town Hall and Breda Castle.  We walked through Valkenberg Park which was formerly part of the castle grounds where falcons were trained and where ornamental gardens were located.

Near the park is the Beguinage which is a walled-in area with an ancient church and medieval dwellings.  The area was formerly inhabited by religious women and is now home to elderly women.

And finally, in homage to the weird dolls and figures we found in all of these places, here is the strange decoration from Breda.

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All in all, we enjoyed our town hopping.  We had been feeling like we were missing out on exploring The Netherlands thanks to the restrictions and precautions of the pandemic, but these little excursions allowed us to feel like we were still getting an opportunity to take advantage of our time here to learn more about the country.  The main tourist locations are great, but there are some really beautiful and interesting things that can be found in these lesser-known locations and, hopefully, you enjoyed exploring a few of them with us!

Happy Anniversary-Year 2

It’s that time of year again.  It’s the 2nd anniversary of our move to The Netherlands!  In preparation for celebrating this second anniversary, I had a look back at the one year anniversary post from last year and found that while year one was an up and down rollercoaster of emotions and trying to settle in, year two proved to be a little calmer, although it had its own set of challenges.

We kicked off our second year with an awesome trip to Iceland, and, while that was a lot of fun, we were also a bit apprehensive about how the coming year would go.  As we wound down on year one, almost every single one of my close friends was leaving the area.  I wasn’t really sure how it would feel to “start over” again.  In addition, we were nervous about the teacher that our youngest had as she was pretty tough.  And, our oldest had struggled a lot with letting go of the life we had in The States and accepting the life we currently had in The Netherlands.  On top of that, we were going through the process of buying our house in The Netherlands and making decisions about what to do with our house in The States.  There was a lot to be uncertain about.

As we started back to school, I was a bit down without my friends, though I did still have one close friend that I did several things with.  Having her around really helped a lot, and, as I was now heading up the PTSA group at the school, I tried to really force myself to get to know several other parents, both new and returning.  While most of the friendships were not quite as close this year as the ones the year before, I did find that I enjoyed many of the people, and we were able to do things together.  I also found ways to be in touch with some of my friends from the year before, which was nice as well.  We even began working on planning a trip to London to spend a weekend together which was one of the goals that I had for our second year here (spoiler alert-Covid ruined that). I was also working on the goal of doing a regular biking activity with a few of the moms at the school and had a schedule of excursions planned (spoiler alert-the weather ruined that).  So, as we moved into the Fall, I felt pretty good about our social life.  I was in a Bunco group, weekly tennis lessons, a bookclub, and had coffee and lunches regularly with other moms.  We also had another family or two that we enjoyed doing things with regularly.  We had even socialized with our neighbors a couple of times.  By the start of 2020, I had rejoined a choir and a yoga class.  Those old feelings from year one of being out of place and uncomfortable were there sometimes, but for the most part, we felt like we had found a niche, and we felt more connected to the customs and celebrations here and more prepared in how to handle the ins and outs of our daily lives here.

At school, the kids were facing a few struggles.  Socially, there were some tough situations facing both of them, but nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary for their ages.  Our oldest was also facing struggles with the Student Council that she was heading up and our youngest was having some issues with the classroom environment.  Overall, though, they were doing well.  The oldest seemed to have finally let go of the hangups regarding old life versus new life and was enjoying one of her friendships here in particular.  She was enjoying several of her classes and her music and she even had a weekly dog walking job.  The youngest was enjoying extracurricular activities. learning a new instrument and socializing with friends.  Overall, there seemed to be a more positive outlook on things.

In the first half of the second year, we were able to take several trips which were a lot of fun.  We also did several things around The Netherlands.  We were able to have my mom for a visit at Christmas time.  We were looking forward to several upcoming trips and activities.  And then, the second half of our second year arrived and with it came Covid.  It seemed like everything changed overnight.  The kids were no longer in school and hence their social lives came to a screeching halt.  Our youngest struggled with this tremendously.  Our oldest felt glued to the computer for classes and assignments and missed being able to be in person with her friend.  My social life also came to a halt.  There were no more activities, no more seeing friends and because everyone was spending so much time assisting and monitoring their kids’ distance learning, there was little communication with anyone.  In addition, all of our trips that we had been looking forward to were canceled, the visit from my mom was canceled and several special school activities were canceled.  We were not very happy.

At the same time though, we were getting to spend a little more time together.  We were taking a lot of walks, eating lunch together, our oldest and I were working on a daily music challenge which required spending many hours a week together, and I was able to give some real attention to helping our youngest improve school and organizational skills.  On a personal note, I was working out and meeting some fitness goals and I was exploring a new interest in art and card making.  It was far from an ideal situation, but we were trying to make the best of it.

We finally made it back to school for a few weeks just before the end of the year.  Though we were a little nervous, the kids were glad to be back and got to have a few of the regular end of school activities which was nice.  But life was pretty quiet, and I could feel a small negative aspect to all the staying distant.  That feeling of being a little out of place and uncomfortable was growing.  Now, going to the store or having to interact with Dutch people felt a little worse than it previously did.  Driving, biking or having to take transport somewhere felt a little overwhelming.  It was like a little backslide thanks to all the months of isolating in our English speaking, Americanized home and school environment where we were not forced to be a part of Dutch society at all.  And, it also made very clear that I had failed miserably at one of my goals for year two which was learning more Dutch.  It has been a bit of an unsettling realization.

But, as we finish year two, we are trying to remain positive.  We just got to take our first real trip since Covid began, and it was a lot of fun.  We also have recently been able to get together with the other family that we like to do things with, and it was really nice to be social again.  We are still really enjoying living in The Netherlands, and we like the area that we live in a lot.  There are a lot of nature areas near us, and we really enjoyed walking in and photographing those areas in the spring.  There are also still a lot of things to do in the area and in nearby European locations.  And we still really love the international nature of our life here and getting to know people from so many different places.

But, as with every year it seems, with those positives come the struggles.  Again this year, we had to say goodbye to some friends at the end of this year, we just found out that our closest friends will no longer be at our school next year, Covid is still wreaking havoc making everything for this year (school, socializing, travel, etc. an uncertainty and at times a fear), and we are not sure where we will be at the end of year three and with that uncertainty comes a lot of decisions and potential stress.  It seems the only thing we can do is hang on and try to make the most of year three, whatever that looks like.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to take a look back at the goals we had for year two and set some goals for our third year.  Of course, as we learned from Covid, and at times from the expat life in general, life may just come along and make all of these goals impossible.  In which case, it will be time to make some new goals.

Year Two Goals

  1. Learn more Dutch -oops…socializing, PTSA work and watching TV took precedence.
  2. Visit more places (we’ve got some really great vacations and day trips on the horizon that we are really looking forward to)-we tried, we really did but Covid just messed this one up.
  3. Take some biking excursions and/or work up a biking group with some friends-I did one with friends and we did one as a family.  Dutch weather is hard, you guys!
  4. Take a small ladies trip or do some other exploring locally with friends-I went to some Christmas markets downtown with some friends and to a friend’s store opening in another city, does that count?  Again, Covid reared its ugly head and blocked my ladies’ weekend away plans.

What I learned from these goals this year- reaching goals can be hard especially when things outside of your control interfere or when you just really don’t commit to something.  But you can always adjust your goals and explore goals you didn’t know you really had.  I added some goals this year after setting these original goals-

  1. Complete the Kiliminjaro Climb challenge with my oldest-did it
  2. Push for and join a parent/teacher choir at school-did it (though it was short-lived thanks again to Covid)
  3. Lose weight and get in better shape-did it

And now….Year Three Goals

  1. Take some family bike excursions to work up to a several hour biking trip in the spring/summer.
  2. Visit more places-I’m not giving up on this one; I just need Covid to cooperate!
  3. Complete a couple of artistic projects that I have worked up as well as a cross-stitch that I have been doing on and off for about 20 years (mostly off which is probably the problem).
  4. Walk for an hour at least 3 times a week.
  5. Play tennis weekly with another couple and with moms at school (again I need Covid to cooperate)

And so, with some reflection on this past year, a positive outlook and fresh goals in mind, we are ready to jump into year three of our overseas journey.  Thank you for coming along with me on this journey for another year.  Happy anniversary and away we go!!

 

Trekking Through the Alps

While our travels in 2020 have not turned out as planned, we decided to go ahead and take a vacation this summer.  While we contemplated several possible scenarios based on the current pandemic situation, we finally settled on a trip that we had planned to take back in June with some modifications.  Thus, we rented an RV and hit the road for two weeks to trek around Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany.

Day 1

Our first day was mainly spent driving through Belgium, Luxembourg and France on our way to Switzerland.  IMG-20200725-WA0000Once in Switzerland, we made our way to Bern.  We saw some nice scenery as we made our way in including some huge and dense fields of sunflowers.  I could not get any decent pictures of those but snapped a few of some less dense fields later.

We had a slight mishap (think small, steep mountain road and an RV with nowhere to turn around and no way to continue up), but some nice folks helped us through it.  However, we got into Bern pretty late due to that, so we only had time to get some dinner.  There was a pizzeria near our campsite so we opted for that but went for a Swiss feel by trying Rivella, a popular soda drink there, and some Swiss beer.

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Day 2

Our day began in the capital city of Bern.  We took the morning to walk along the Aare River (it’s a very fast-moving river and people were floating/swimming down it) into the city.

The city was a sort of old-style that was very attractive even among modern amenities.  We saw the parliament building, cathedral and shop-lined streets with fountains running down the center of the street.

One interesting feature in Bern that I have not seen anywhere else was what appeared to be cellar doors lining the street in front of shops.  Most of the doors were closed, but they are actually entrances to shops, restaurants and clubs that are underneath the street-level shops.

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After walking around for a bit, we climbed above the city to the Rose Garden.  There were some nice views of the city from there.

We headed back down to watch the clock tower which was supposed to have moving figures on the hour.  It did, though they were not too exciting.  We did enjoy some nice pastries while waiting, though, which helped assuage the disappointment.

After a return walk along the river to our campground, we loaded up and drove on to Montreux which is situated on Lake Geneva.

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We drove through the Laveux Vineyard area where we had a lot of great views.

We drove around part of Montreux on our way to Chillon Chateau, a castle situated on the water.

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We walked around the outside of the castle and along a lakeside path to a terrace restaurant for a drink (local wine and beer).

Then, we walked back to the castle area where we had a sausage and cheese plate for dinner along with a little Swiss chocolate.  We decided to leave the area and head on toward Zermatt, our next stop.  There were lots of mountain views and step farming style vineyards on the way as well as a castle on a hill.

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Day 3

Our day began with a drive into the resort-style village of Zermatt.  The village is comprised of tons of chalet-style homes, hotels, restaurants and shops as well as a church with a cemetery.

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It is also home to the famed Matterhorn.

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We stopped for a Swiss specialty on the way to a trail leading toward the Matterhorn, zopf-a soft braided bread.

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It was very good and gave us a little boost for our climb up the trail.  The views on the trail were very nice with lots of wildflowers and, of course, the mountains.

After walking up for a while, we headed down to Gorner Gorge to get a view of the glacial water flow.

We walked back into Zermatt for lunch.  We tried Rosti for the first, but definitely not last, time (it is on every menu in a multitude of variations).  It is basically a plate of hash browns and this particular version had cheese and tomatoes.  We also had some schnitzel and sausage and Zurcher Geschnetzeltes-veal with a mushroom and cream sauce along with some local beers.

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We walked around the village a little and went into the church and cemetery before stopping to buy some nusstorte (nut tort), Zermatt Birnenbrot (basically a pastry stuffed with a dried pear and other fruits spread) and some Swiss chocolate.  The nusstorte was okay, the Birnenbrot was not appreciated at all and the chocolate was delicious!

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After leaving Zermatt, we drove through many mountain roads with waterfalls and little villages at the base of the Alps each filled with little chalets and churches.  We also saw deer, mountain goats and sheep along the way.

At the top of a huge mountain climb, we found a glacial lake and stopped for a few pictures before heading down the other side of the mountain to the Interlaken/Jungfrau area and more specifically, Wilderswil.

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After settling into a campground there, which would be our home for the next 4 days, we walked to a nearby restaurant for a dinner of (you guessed it) Rosti, this time with a fried egg, Schnitzel, Cordon Bleu made of local veal stuffed with mountain cheese (did you know cordon bleu originated in Switzerland) and lamb Emmenschtel (a sort of lamb stew in a cream curry sauce).  We also added some local beer to the meal for a nice end to the day.

Day 4

Today, we decided to check out the towns around the Interlaken area-specifically Unterseen, Thun, Oberhofen and Wilderswil.

We started in Unterseen.  It was a really cute town with lots of chalets and the river running through the city in two places, but there was nothing too exciting to actually do or see there.  We tried a few pastries and walked around for a bit before heading on to Thun.

We intended to walk around Thun, but, after driving for a bit without being able to find anywhere to park the RV, we gave up, drove around the town, saw a castle and a cute bridge over the river studded with flowers and then headed to Oberhofen.

Oberhofen was not originally on our list to see, but it was actually a nice little stop.  It had a really cool looking castle on the lake and we found a nice place to stop for lunch.

Today we had (I’ll give you one guess) Rosti with bacon and onion, Schnitzel, Cordon Bleu (are you sensing a pattern here?) and two new dishes-a sausage and cheese salad and Alplermagronen-essentially macaroni, cubed potatoes and bacon in a white cream sauce served with a small pot of applesauce for putting over the pasta (don’t worry, you’ll see this one again).  Of course, we also had to try some local beer.

We drove back on some fun roads along the lake, before having a little downtime in the afternoon.

In the evening we walked around Wilderswil, the town where our campsite was located.  There were a lot of chalets and flower gardens on the way to the train station.  Behind the train station, there was an old bridge over the river which led to a church and cemetery.

The cemetery was really nicely maintained so we walked around it for a bit before heading back to our RV to have our dinner which consisted of cheese from the cow belonging to the owner of the campground and some lamb sausage from a farm in the town.  We also got some bread baked by the campground owner.  We ended the meal with a couple of liqueur-filled Swiss chocolates (one filled with a pear liqueur and the other with Kirsch)-pretty good!!

Day 5

Today we went to Beatus Cave.  We had to climb up the mountain to the mouth of the cave.

Once inside, you could hear the rushing water that flows through the cave.

The best thing in the cave was a really cool mirror pool which gave the impression that the ceiling was repeated one level below.  It was slightly disorienting.

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After the caves, we ate at a small restaurant near our campground.  We had (say it with me) Rosti and Alplermagronen, some of the best we had, and cheese fondue with forest mushrooms.  The fondue was served with bread, gherkins, pearl onions and little potatoes that came out in a small burlap sack.  We also tried a Riesling from a town 20 minutes away on the lake.  We ended the meal with a meringue dessert.  It was all very good.

After our lunch, we drove to Trummelbach Falls.  It was a really interesting waterfall because it was running in and out of the rocks/cave.  We took an elevator up inside the rock and then walked all through the rock and carved out spaces to view different parts of the falls as it made its way down to the river below.  It was a cool example of erosion.

Day 6

Today, was the day I had been most looking forward to- hiking in the Alps with all of the wildflowers and mountain views.  But instead, it decided to rain.  The flowers and views were not at all what we were hoping for, but we decided to make the best of it and tell ourselves that we were getting to view the trails in a different light with hopes that the day after would be sunny.  So, while we had expected beautiful bright flowers and skies, we got a more eerie, misty looking experience.

We began by walking toward a waterfall on a small trail near the cable car station.

Then we took the cable car up to Mürren.  Even with the cloud cover, we had some nice views going up.

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At Mürren, we started the Bluemental trail where we were treated to pretty scenery comprised of wildflowers, waterfalls, streams and cows with melodious bells.

We hiked up to the flower garden where they had information about the flowers of the region and we saw some Edelweiss.

We had lunch at a terrace near the garden.  We had Raclette, a special Swiss cheese that is melted and eaten on top of potatoes, pearl onions and gherkins, as well as some mountain cheese and sausage and regional beers.  We would have never known that there were amazing views of the mountains at this terrace except for a very brief clearing that revealed part of the mountains.

After lunch, we walked the mountain view trail.  We had no mountain views, but we were treated to a lot of wildflowers and cows.  The cows all had different shaped and sized bells which really made the jangling sound very melodic.  As my husband said, “we were treated to an orchestra of cows.”

We came out of the trail through a forest and onto a hill of tons of sleeping cows.  It was a little eerie with the foggy mist and all the cows just laying around staring at us!

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Finally, we walked through Mürren past some pretty flower gardens before heading back down the mountain in the cable car.

We went to the same restaurant from a few days before where everyone got the same thing they previously ate (yes-Rosti, Schnitzel and Cordon Bleu) except for me-I tried the vegetable cream soup which was very nice.

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Day 7

After 3 days of rain and overcast conditions, today was our last chance to see the scenery of the Alps, so we were hoping for a nice day.  It did not disappoint!  Though it was not completely clear, we had sun and views, so we were very happy.  We took a historic train (it has been running for over 100 years) up the mountain to Schynige Platte.  There, we hiked a trail around the rim of the mountain where we had views of the lake below, snowy peaks and a glacier and lots of wildflowers.  We even saw a badger from a distance!  And, of course, there was the music of cows!

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After the trail, we walked around the Alpine Botanical Garden which had a really nice display including more Edelweiss.

We listened to the Alpenhorn players and sat on the terrace to eat Aplermagronen and Shnitzel with regional beer.  It was freezing, so we ate fast and then walked around the botanical garden some more to warm back up.

Before heading back down the mountain, we sat on another terrace and had some apricot kuchen and wildberry cake.  The apricot was only politely received, but the wildberry cake was delicious.

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After returning to the valley, we walked to Interlaken for dinner.  We had Rosti (again!) with bacon and egg, Zurcher Geshnetzeltes (the veal in mushroom sauce) and some regional bratwurst with Rosti.  It was not our best meal.

Day 8

Today, we moved on to Lucerne for a few hours before entering Liechtenstein.  Before leaving our campground though, we had a breakfast of bread baked by the campground owner and cheese from her cow as we did every day that we were there.

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In Lucerne, we began by walking to the Lion Monument which is situated in a park area.  It commemorates the Swiss guard killed in the French Revolution.

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Then we made our way to Hofkirch and the Jesuit Church.  They were fairly plain on the inside but were large.

We walked along Lake Lucerne which was filled with boats and the fast-moving Reuss River and saw a couple of wooden footbridges including Chapel Bridge.  The bridges had triangular paintings running along the rafters.

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We wandered around several of the streets and strolled the Weinmarkt area.  The buildings were really neat, and many had elaborate drawings or paintings on them.  There were also a number of fountains throughout the city.

Finally, we walked up to the Musegg Wall, the old fortification wall, for a quick look before heading for lunch.

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While we, of course, had Rosti (with tomato, bacon, egg and cheese) and Schnitzel, we also tried a Lucerne specialty, Chogel Lipaschteli, which was a puff pastry stuffed with veal.  We tried a wine from Lucerne as well.

Then, it was on to Liechtenstein where our first stop was Balzers and Burg Gutenburg, an old castle.  We could see the castle on the hill as we drove in.  After parking, we first stopped at a really pretty church with a cemetery.  It was a quaint, stone church and it was probably one of the prettiest small churches we have seen.  To the side of the church, there was a vineyard at the base of the castle that we walked around.

We moved on to the campground where we had dinner of bratwurst with Rosti (nope, food in Liechtenstein is not too different from Swiss food), veal with mushroom sauce and Flammkuchen (the thin-crust pizzas) as well as some local beer and wine.  They also gave us a gazpacho type starter to try.

Day 9

Today, we went to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein.  We first walked to the outskirts of the city where there is a wooden bridge spanning the Rhine River which connects Liechtenstein and Switzerland.  We, of course, walked from one country to the other and back again.

Then, with Vaduz Castle where the royal family lives looming over us on the hill, we walked into the center of Vaduz where we saw St. Florin Cathedral.  It was pretty inside and out but mostly was simple.

We walked through the downtown area past several government buildings before finding a spot for lunch.

We had a starter of Vaduzer soup (a white wine cream soup) and then tried a stroganoff pasta, a beef fillet with Ribel (a sort of polenta) and a vegetable ratatouille with Ribel as well as a local and a Swiss beer and some local red and white wine.

After lunch, we walked up the hill to the Red House, a historic landmark, and the vineyards next to it.

We had a light dinner, but as it was our anniversary, we finished the night with a Rosé Spumante from Liechtenstein and some Swiss chocolate that we found in Vaduz.

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Day 10

Today, we hiked the Allspitz/Furstensteig trail.  We started early with an ascent over the valley.  It started to rain on us, but as a result, some animals came out of hiding and we saw marmots, a bunny and some chamois (goat antelopes).  We hiked up a huge mountainside to a foresty area where we reached a summit.

After this, we headed through a rocky area to the Furstensteig (Prince’s Way) trailhead.  The trail itself was very narrow and rocky and kind of fun but for those with a fear of heights, it was less enjoyable.  The trail provided some really nice views of the valley and mountains surrounding the area as well as Switzerland.  Then, it was back down through the forest to the car.

After resting a while, we went to get some dinner.  We had a melon and white wine starter and seafood and vegetable risottos as well as pork medallions.  We decided to try a white wine from the Prince’s vineyards in Vaduz.

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Day 11

We ended our time in Liechtenstein this morning with a hike on the Eschnerberg Trail in Schellenberg.  The trail was not overly exciting, but we did walk to the ruins of a castle from the 1300s and through forested and meadow areas with some nice views.

After the trail, we walked to the ruins of another castle from the 1300s that was a little more intact than the first.

Then, we drove into Germany to Rothenburg.  It is an adorable walled-in city with numerous clock towers, churches, old-style homes with colorful window boxes and fountains which is said to be Walt Disney’s inspiration for the village in Pinnochio.  It does feel like a fairy tale town.  However, while it is cute, it is quite touristy.  It would be amazing at Christmas, though, my friend that lives in Germany tells me that they may cancel all Christmas markets this year.

We had dinner on a terrace where we tried a local cheese platter, some Weizen beers, 3 local sausages with potatoes and sauerkraut and Schnitzel.  It was a nice meal.

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After dinner, we wandered the streets and did some window shopping.

We also stopped in a bakery to get some Scheebollen, kind of like a ball made of fried wontons which is then coated in either sugar or melted chocolate.  It is a Rothenburg specialty.  We tried powdered sugar, chocolate with Nutella filling, vanilla/amaretto with an almond paste filling and a plain chocolate coating.  We didn’t love them, but, spoiler alert, the next day we got a powdered sugar one from a different bakery, and it was very good.

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Day 12

We went back into Rothenburg briefly in the early morning.  It was much quieter then.

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Then we moved on to Otterberg to visit a friend.  They showed us around the town, and we hiked a ravine which was very pretty with a stream, lots of big rocks and trees (including many fallen ones which were perfect for climbing).

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Day 13

On our final day, we went to Cochem in Germany.  There was a lot of nice architecture in the city, but it was much dirtier and dingier looking than Rothenburg, though it was also, obviously, a tourist destination.  There was a cool main square with a fountain and a castle up on the hill that we walked to.  We tried a plum and streusel pastry which was okay, and then we bought some Riesling to take home as Cochem is in wine country.

Finally, we were on the road home.

Now, if you are thinking “this was a long post,” you would be right.  It was a long vacation!  But, I hope reading all of this didn’t wear you out.  Of course, in these uncertain times, this will likely be the last travel post for some time.  So, I hope you enjoyed coming along for the journey, and we’ll see you on the other side when we can explore some more!

First Pandemic Getaway

While I wish that I was posting about the adventure that I was supposed to be having in Switzerland at this moment, the pandemic has made that an impossible dream.  But, we decided that there were still a few things that were 1). allowed by various countries as far as travel and quarantine restrictions go and 2). safe enough for us to get a small getaway in.  With that in mind, we headed to Luxembourg City this past Friday and then to a campground in Malmedy, Belgium for a little hiking for the rest of the weekend, and thus, after months without, I am finally able to post something about our travels in Europe again!

During our couple of hours in Luxembourg, we walked around the upper level or old town of the city and the lower level referred to as the Grund.  Many people in Luxembourg were wearing masks, unlike in The Netherlands, and masks were required to go into the cathedral there.  The cathedral was the only building we were planning to go in, but as we did not have any masks with us, we were unable to.  Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable walk around the city.

The old town and The Grund are very compact areas so we could easily and quickly see many things.  We saw the cathedral, the Place d’arms, Place Guillame II, and the Passarelle Viaduc.

We walked to Place de Constitution and the Palais Grand-Ducal where we watched the guards marching out front before making our way to the Casemates du Bock.

 

There are tunnels under the casemates that were used in WWII but the casemates themselves were closed so they were not accessible.  We did, however, enjoy some great views from the casemates and a nice walk down the Chemin du Corniche on our way to The Grund.

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While in that lower level of the city, we had a short picnic lunch and walked along some gardens and orchards before heading back up to the old town.

On our way out of the city, we stopped at the American Cemetery of Luxembourg where General Patton is buried.

After arriving at our campground and setting up our tent, we took a short walk about the mountain trail that was accessible from the grounds.  There were some nice panoramic views of the area.

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On Saturday and Sunday, we hiked about 25 miles worth of trail both near Malmedy and near Spa.  Worth mentioning, between our campground and the trails, was a small town with some cute little churches and this beautiful gazebo in the center roundabout.

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Our hike on Saturday morning included trail along the river which looked almost like blood because of the red mineral running out of the earth, through a pine forest and some open meadows.

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Roots of a massive, long tree that had fallen over.

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Tree roots covering the ground.

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Mushrooms and moss growing on this tree.

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Our afternoon hike began from our campground so we decided to have an outdoor lunch at the campground restaurant which featured 44 Belgian beers.  We tried a couple of different ones including one that is brewed by the campground itself.

The afternoon trail was bit tough as it had a lot of uphill sections and sections that were a little overgrown and required sure footing to pick your way over all of the rocks.  Nonetheless, we made it through and were rewarded with views of the forest, pastureland, a small castle or manor estate and the largest waterfall in Belgium.  We even walked through a deforested area and a rock quarry before ending up hiking along the river where we saw the backside of a deer retreating into the forest.

Finally, on Sunday morning, we did our final trail which required that we climb along the riverbed crossing it many times over bridges or shallow areas and even walking in a very narrow path along the side of the hills running along the river.  The path also crossed through several forested areas and passed homes on large pastures before ending up running along a larger, fast-moving river.

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All in all, it wasn’t the trip we had planned on taking but it was fun (and tiring) and it felt good (and safe) to finally get out away from home.

 

A Time for Remembrance, A Time for Celebration

While WWII was an important war for many countries, including the USA, little is done to continue commemorating the war in those places.  That is not the case for many European countries, including The Netherlands.  I find their commemoration quite interesting and thought that perhaps some of you might as well.  So as Remembrance Day and Liberation Day are upon us, I am sharing a little about the events.

On May 4th, the Dutch begin the commemoration with Remembrance Day.  This day began as a day to remember those who lost their lives in WWII.  Since the 1960s, this day has also been designated for remembering those who lost their lives in other wars and peacekeeping missions, much like Memorial Day in the United States.  The difference, though, is that Remembrance Day is meant to remember all victims whether military or civilian whereas Memorial Day is generally reserved for remembering military personnel who lost their lives in military service or combat.

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On Remembrance Day, a national ceremony is held in Dam Square in Amsterdam following a service in the church there.  The King and Queen and other dignitaries proceed from the church service to the square and lay wreaths at the foot of the national war memorial in the square.  Church bells ring for 15 minutes followed by two minutes of silence at 8:00pm which is observed by the entire country (traffic and public transport, flight takeoffs and activity in restaurants even come to a stop).  Following the moments of silence, more wreaths are laid for:

  • people who were murdered because they were in the resistance
  • Jews, Roma and Sinti who were persecuted and murdered
  • civilians who were casualties of war
  • civilians in Asia who died as a result of the Japanese occupation
  • soldiers and merchant seaman who have died in service

In addition, school children (one for each year of liberation in The Netherlands) and people from organizations representing the different groups affected by the war lay flowers.  All of this plus somber and poignant music, speeches, and performances are broadcast on national television.   It is very important to the Dutch that these people and events are not forgotten.

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The end of the Remembrance Day ceremony marks the beginning of Liberation Day which is a bank holiday every five years.  On May 5th, The Netherlands commemorates the day the Nazi occupation ended in the country, and it is a day for celebration.  A Liberation flame is lit shortly before midnight on May 4th in Wageningen, where the historic documents of Nazi surrender were signed.  Torches are then taken by runners, cyclists, and inline skaters to other Libration fires all over the country.  During the day, there are military parades and music festivals and concerts around the country.  The Dutch flag is displayed at many homes and businesses and the Dutch are encouraged to think about their freedom and its importance.

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But don’t think that the Dutch have forgotten that they were not wholly responsible for their liberation.  The country has the utmost respect for the countries that assisted them in ending the Nazi occupation.  The nation was liberated by Canadian forces, British infantry divisions, the British I Corps, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, American, Belgian, Dutch, and Czechoslovak troops, and the flags of these nations and groups are flown on vehicles in the parades around the country.  In addition, throughout the year, in the town of Margraten, where one of the US WWII cemeteries is located, local citizens tend the graves.  Many American soldiers stopped in Margraten before crossing into Germany during the war, and they often stayed in the homes of Margraten families.  Their sacrifices have never been forgotten, and the amount of respect and gratitude felt for them is so great that the people of Margraten do more than just tend the graves.  Families adopt specific graves, take flowers and other mementos throughout the year, and, in some cases, are in communication with the surviving family members of those soldiers.  The adoptive families take it so seriously that they pass down the tending from generation to generation.  In addition, thousands of Margraten citizens fill the cemetery and place Dutch and American flags at the graves for a large Memorial Day celebration each year.

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And while WWII involved many non-European nations, the war seems much less removed in Europe.  The evidence of the war can be seen more readily here, the effects are more apparent in everyday life and the memories and lessons of the war years and liberation are never far from Dutch minds.  These yearly commemorations are very important days for the Dutch and serve to remind us not only of the atrocities so that they are not repeated, but also of perseverance, gratitude, hope, joy, and the celebration of freedom.

 

My So Called Pandemic Life (Expat Edition)

At this point, we are all at least ankle-deep in our self quarantined, pandemic lifestyle.  I, like most everyone, have experienced difficulties and disappointments.

For one, travel that we have been planning and looking forward to has been disrupted.  First, a mom’s trip to see some very good friends that I have not seen in nearly 9 months came to a halt less than 24 hours before leaving, and then, our upcoming family spring vacation, which I have actually been looking forward to for many years as it was to a country that I have wanted to visit for some time, was decidedly canceled as that country’s borders are closed.  At the moment, we also have some long-awaited trips to 3 other countries that are all in danger of being canceled.  These are disappointing times.

Another issue that we are all experiencing is the fear of what the economic picture will look like when the pandemic dust has settled.  Not one of us is immune to this.  How will we be able to support our existing lifestyles, will we be able to pay bills, what jobs and businesses will still exist and how will their lack of existence affect all of us, will we be able to sell and acquire properties and assets, will we be able to send our kids to school or retire?  These questions weigh heavily on all of us.

Another difficulty that many are experiencing, including myself, is this strange scarcity of resources.  There are no times available for grocery delivery meaning that you have to trek to a store and risk virus spread.  And yet, when you go to the store, you can’t find the things that you need.  It is one more frustration in an already frustrating time.

There is social isolation.  The lack of communication and connection with friends at a time when you need connection and support the most is indeed trying.  It is hard for adults and children alike.

Finally, there is the fear of being sick and needing medical care.  You worry about yourself, your family and your friends.  And there is no definitive, trustworthy source from which you can find reassurance or answers as information varies greatly and changes daily.

Just like all of you, I have faced these difficulties.  But, there are a few added difficulties for Expats that many of you may not realize.  First off, some times that travel that is getting canceled is not just a desired and planned trip that you are disappointed about, but a lifeline to those you care about and rarely get to see.  It may also be a source of getting products and supplies that you can’t find in the country that you are currently living in.  Finally, for us, it’s also a chance to do some medical visits that are outside of the medical services that we utilize in the country we live in.  And now, we have no way of knowing when we might be able to make that trip.

Second, while you may find it difficult to quarantine away from family, for an Expat, we now no longer have a choice.  If your family member gets sick and needs care or hospitalization, you can most likely visit them (even if it has to be in a protected environment); we cannot.  If our family becomes ill, we have to watch that play out from a large distance and we can be of no assistance as we are no longer allowed to travel.  We have to worry about not being there and how we will arrange for the care of a loved one.

Thirdly, there can be added fear and frustration when you do not wholly understand the language of the country that you live in.  Emergency press briefings and warnings are issued in a foreign language, signage informing patrons of safety procedures are in a foreign language, neighborhood chats for assistance and isolation relief are in a foreign language and you have to rely on translator services which are not always accurate or up to the task.  This leads to further feelings of isolation and fear.

Finally, you are isolated from country camaraderie.  What is that?  You know the sentiments that express the belief that all the citizens of a country can overcome a problem together because you are living it together and together you are strong?  That’s country camaraderie.  As an Expat, you are not a part of the camaraderie of the country you live in, because you are an outsider there and won’t stay for long.  You are also not a part of the camaraderie of your native country because you aren’t there.  I can’t tell you how many posts I saw in the past week claiming “we are the greatest country and we will get through this together” or “our great nation has endured things before and we will survive this because we can do this together.”  As an Expat who isn’t present, that kind of support just doesn’t include you.  In fact, it feels like it excludes you; like you don’t deserve support because you are not currently a part of that nation.  It’s a little frustrating and sad to see because, in reality, this is a world problem, not a nation or community-specific problem and for Expats, that point is especially clear.

So, here we are-each with our own set of challenges and each with a similar set of challenges.  I, by no means, am trying to say that it is worse for Expats in this situation.  I’m simply trying to share my perspective and maybe share with everyone some things that you otherwise wouldn’t think of as we all face this reality together.  Safety and health to everyone!

 

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