Saturday, May 3, 2008

2008 Blog 2

Letter No. 2

We have always loved The Netherlands. People are very friendly, most speak at least a little English, the old architecture is distinctive, the cheese is delicious, flowers beautiful and inexpensive and the countryside is lovely.

As soon as you leave the very modern airport you know you are in a different country. Ron took pictures of the beautiful tulips in the huge tubs outside Schiphol Airport. Once we got to our favorite street market on Friday, we loaded up with cheese and flowers. On Saturday we debated what we would do. What we decided was that we would walk around the city, visiting several churches we seem to have missed. We walked for miles. From the Central Staation to the Dam (a square in the center of the city), past four of the most famous canals, to the Olde Kerk (church), the Nieuw Kerk, the Westerkerk and a small area known as the Begijnhof Kapel and Pastorie (chapel and closed community). This area is amazing to anyone who has read about Dutch history.

The Beguines were Catholic lay women who lived together, worshipped together and generally behaved much like nuns, except that they did not subscribe to the strict rules of order. There was also an economic basis to their choice. In a day when women had no rights at all, they were able to be on their own. Not surprising. What is surprising is that this medieval institution lasted through the 17th and 18th century when the Dutch, the most liberal people in Europe, were willing to accept Moslems and Jews, but forced Catholics to worship in secret! And here was an entire community that was avowedly Catholic. They had individual houses built in a closed community with its own Catholic Church. That’s why it is amazing! Of course by the end of the 20th century these houses needed repair and the foundation that now owns them did a big repair job and now rents the lovely houses – but only to women!

The amount of walking that this day required put Adelle’s new walking shoes to the test. We are glad to report that they passed – allowing her to walk for many miles without pain. By the time we returned to the RV we were both tired. Ron had been taking pictures all day, and he took some photos of the RV and the view from the RV.

We stayed in only one campground while we were in Amsterdam, moving only on Monday when we began a short trip to a town called Lisse whose claim to fame is that the Keukenhof Gardens are here. In 1995, with our friends Sjef van den Berg and his wife Toni Brancia, we visited Keukenhof. At that time, when we paid the entrance fee, Ron was a bit put off when he had to pay quite a lot to see flowers. An hour later he wanted to know why the entrance fee was so inexpensive! It is absolutely beautiful.

We had a campground guidebook and our new GPS to show us what to do – and we still “took the scenic route”. There was a difference between the guidebook and the GPS! Once we turned around (it took quite a few miles) we found the campground.

This new campground is small…just a part of a farm in the tulip growing area. The farmer who owns the property has a garden that is gorgeous – and as his wife said, much less expensive to see than Keukenhof! The entire area is lovely – from fields of tulips, canals and lovely plantings. We had to go grocery shopping. Our landlady gave us a ride to the local supermarket, and we walked the mile or so home afterwards, looking at all the flowers. As we walked down the private road that leads to the camp site we saw a flowering tree at the edge of a field of hyacinths just across the canal. As the picture shows, it was beautiful but even better, a field of hyacinth smells heavenly. The surroundings almost compensated for the primitive sanitary conditions—a sink for dishes that had only cold water and no counter, a toilet that doubled as the place where people in caravans dump their waste water—illegal, I think-- and a shower stall/ sink combination with inadequate number of hooks for your clothes and towel. You bought a token to use for hot water in the shower, but that did not work the first morning. Fortunately it worked the next.

Just in back of the area where the RV is parked is an old windmill, with fields, cattle and a canal in front. Not only beautiful but familiar. We bought a painting of almost the same scene many years ago!

It rained during the night but we left the campground on a lovely morning and drove to Keukenhof. We were waiting for our friends from Tilburg to join us, so we had the opportunity to see the people coming through the gates. And there were a lot of them. Many Dutch people of course, including a huge contingent of elderly folks in wheelchairs, each with a person to push. But we heard English (both from the UK and the other side of the ocean), French, German and several unidentifiable languages. Thousands of people coming to see flowers.

But what flowers! We knew how spectacular these gardens are because we’d been here. Keukenhof is in the area of The Netherlands where a lot of tulips are grown. There is nothing more beautiful than fields of tulips – except the gardens. Each tulip grower is given some land to plant displays – and since they can utilize huge numbers of bulbs, the gardens are all beautiful and different. There seemingly are hundreds of these displays. Ron took 200 pictures and even then, there was a lot more to see than that indicates! We’ve posted some pictures of drop-dead gorgeous garden scenes as well as some unusual looking tulips.

We had a lovely day with our friends, Cees and Maartje. Being Dutch, they were not quite so taken with displays as we were, having lived with their likes all their lives. We saw varieties of bulbs we’d never seen before, a building full of beautiful orchids, another filled with chrysanthemums of colors not supplied originally by nature and more. The funny thing is that the Dutch growers have perfected the growing of plants that are so oddly colored that they look fake! Adelle says that she’s seen similar flowers made of silk and thought that they looked too fake! Shows how up-to-date she is!

About 3 p.m. we all decided it was time for coffee (and apple pie) and then we should leave. Good timing. It started to sprinkle as we finished our coffee, and by the time we got into our RV, it was pouring lions and elephants. We were lucky. We could walk to our RV and get in. I felt sorry for those of the hardy Dutch who came in on bikes…and for the people who had to get onto the big tour buses – waiting their turn to get in out of that downpour. Our thoughts turned to all those pensioners who needed not only to get onto a bus, but were being wheeled about and had to get the wheel chairs into the bus too! Cold and wet! The number of vehicles leaving was mind-blowing. You’ve all been in a situation like that when everyone leaves after a concert. It can take forever. But the European system of round-abouts allowed the traffic to flow with much less of a delay than a system of traffic lights would require.

While we were having coffee, I asked Cees to listen to the message I kept getting on the European cell phone. Since the message was in Dutch, we couldn’t quite figure out what it was saying, although we had an idea that we needed to add more money. Indeed that was the case. So we asked where we add the additional minutes on the sim card. Any supermarket or gas station was the reply.

So, on our way “home”, we drove to the supermarket in the next town and asked there about upboading the minutes. First market said no but indicated that the larger market up the street a couple of blocks might do it. So we walked to the Albert Heijn supermarket and bought some more pre-paid minutes. But before going further, we must digress.

When we asked about a cell phone in Europe, the answer was to visit an Albert Heijn supermarket and buy one. Adelle protested that we didn’t know where there was one. This we were told is very odd because this is the biggest chain in The Netherlands. Perhaps the reason we didn’t know where there was one is because the stores are identified by a symbol - a stylized ah. Now that we know the name and recognize the sign, we found that such supermarkets are everywhere!

Having paid our money for more telephone minutes and bought our dinner, we returned to the campground. Then Adelle tried to notify the phone company that she had bought more minutes. The paper was quite clear. Just push the number 9 and then put in the 15-digit number on the top of your receipt. Sounds easy. Don’t ask. First of all, I do believe that there is a help desk in English. The only problem is that they tell you that in Dutch. Not likely to be understood by someone who only speaks English. Second problem was when Adelle ignored the spoken instructions and did what the book said.. Didn’t work. That turned out to be a problem solved by Ron – who found that the long number at the top of the receipt was only 14 digits – and the 15th was on a separate line. Talk about raising your blood pressure. It was a decidedly unpleasant experience – but now we both know how to do it.

That’s it for now. Adelle & Ron

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