Thursday, May 31, 2012

Cinco on Cinco

On Cinco de Mayo, Jon and I celebrated Cinco years of marriage. In some ways my life before marriage seems a distant memory, and in others, the past five years have absolutely flown by in a whirlwind of unforgettable trips and experiences no newly married couple should be lucky enough to live. After spending last year's anniversary apart, I was so thrilled that we could spend our 5th anniversary together. With our month-long rotation of visitors in April, the 5th of May completely snuck up on me. I assumed we would spend a relaxing weekend at home, relishing the opportunity to simply spend time one-on-one. To my complete surprise, Jon had planned a weekend getaway for us in the midst of his TDY to Slovakia and our non-stop company. On Friday May 4th, he came home from work saying we would be going somewhere the following day and night, but would be within two hours from home. It didn't take me long to guess where we were going, as Jon had been talking about visiting the town of Amersfoort since we moved to the NL, and we hadn't managed to get there yet. He confirmed my guess, but made no mention of the plans he had in store. 

Our wedding day, May 5, 2007

Later that evening, we kicked off our anniversary weekend with a blanket and our favorite wine in the orchard. Jon has become quite the bird-watcher and had noticed we have several Great Tits (that's an actual name) in our backyard.  We soon realized that the tree directly in front of where we were hanging in the orchard had a hole where some Great Tits lived. They had a nest down below (where we could hear the baby birds) and the mama and papa went back and forth bringing insects to the babies. We managed to get a pic of one of the proud parents entering the hole below. 

Kicking off the Anniversary Weekend in the Orchard

Our Great Tit
On Saturday morning, Jon treated me to a delicious anniversary breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes before we hopped in the car and drove to the medieval town of Amersfoort. Unfortunately, the spring-like weather had taken a turn and it was unusually cold and rainy. He warned me that I needed to dress warmly for our evening activity, which meant we would be outside doing something. As Amersfoort is surrounded by canals, my initial thought was that we would be taking a private boat ride. Boy was I off base!

After arriving at the adorable hotel Jon had booked, I found an enormous bouquet of flowers waiting for me in our room. They were absolutely gorgeous and it was so thoughtful for him to arrange that beforehand. One of many thoughtful gestures he was so sweet to plan. And just when I thought he had forgotten how to plan a trip on his own.

My beautiful anniversary flowers
We spent the afternoon walking around the town and admiring the beautiful city gates, towers and alleyways through this delightful town. Although listed in guidebooks, Amersfoort is not one of the most popular quaint Dutch towns, but that's what's so appealing about it. Unlike Delft, it wasn't oozing with tourists yet still had plenty of charm, beauty, great shopping and was authentically Dutch.
Amersfoort medieval gate

A pit stop in the Drie Ringen Brewery
That evening, I bundled up for my vague outdoor excursion and our taxi picked us up to drive us to our destination. All the while the anticipation was killing me. As we left Amersfoort and drove into the countryside, I quickly realized we would not be doing a canal cruise and soon began to see signs for hot air balloon rides. Before I knew it, we came upon a field where I saw this....

Yep, that was it, a hot air balloon ride! I was soooo excited as I'd never done this before and what a unique way to celebrate 5 years of marriage. We hopped in the basket with our pilot and up up and away we went. Soon, we were floating over Amersfoort, sailing where the wind took us. Although the pilot could take us up or down, he had no influence over which direction we went, which made it an adventure for us all. From our incredible viewpoint, we could see Utrecht, the reclaimed land area to the north and the edge of the Amsterdam harbor. We flew over wooded areas, beautiful mansions and plenty of farm fields with cows, sheep, and horses. 

An unforgettable 5th Anniversary from high above Amersfoort

Flying over fields of cows

The horses got excited as we floated by

Eventually, we were flying directly over Utrecht where we got great views of the church and old town. We noticed we were not the only aircraft in the sky and saw a Chinook helicopter coming towards us to participate in the Dutch Liberation Day festivities (also on the 5th). 


Chinook Helicopter

Utrecht Canal

Utrecht canal leading to Amsterdam
After 2.5 hours in the air, our pilot looked for a place to land and decided to use a small spit of land between a lake and clump of trees. I wasn't sure of his skill as it seemed we were headed straight for the water, but he was obviously quite experienced as we landed on dry land. We were instructed to hold on to the side of the basket facing up. Though it was a pretty tough, bumpy landing and we got a bit jostled, it was SO MUCH FUN! It's crazy to think that one minute you're suspended high in the air by mere fabric and hot air in nothing more than a wicker basket, and the next you're on the ground again. After the "flight" we toasted with bubbles and made our way back to Amersfoort for a night out on the town.

About to land, floating dangerously close to this lake

Our landing site

The following morning, we drove home and straight to church where we heard a sermon about the roles of husbands and wives. It couldn't have been a more appropriate message to hear on a weekend all about celebrating our marriage. The message was about submission and specifically how we should "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" - Ephesians 5:21. Paul writes that this is not a one-sided submission, but a reciprocal relationship. In reflecting upon my own marriage during church, I felt so blessed to have a husband who devotes himself to my well-being and that couldn't have been more apparent than his wonderful gestures to celebrate our marriage that weekend. But, it's not only in his gallant surprises, but also his everyday actions and love he shows in the smallest details. I joke about how we've had a five-year honeymoon living in Europe. Although I do feel we've lived in a fairy-tale bubble over here, I pray that no matter where we live, our marriage will continue to be a reciprocal relationship, striving to always put the Lord first. Feliz Cinco, mi amor!

Dutch Days with the Catlins: Part Twee

After returning from Prague, Jon and I enjoyed five days with my parents at home in the NL. This is the third time my parents have visited us in Sittard (fifith for my mom) and it's wonderful to share a sample of our lives here. We visited the Thursday morning market, took my Dad on our favorite runs around the area, did some bike-riding and enjoyed the beautiful spring weather. That Saturday, we took a day trip to Leuven, Belgium, for the Zythos Beer Festival. Beforehand, we toured the city and had lunch. I had not heard very much of this small city near Brussels, but was surprised by how beautiful the old town was and all the great shopping. 

Leuven Market Square


That afternoon, we arrived at the Zythos Beer Festival, where we met up with friends and enjoyed tasting beers from throughout Belgium. We knew this was going to be a fairly serious event when we walked in and were given a beer guide and tasting chart where you can rate your favorite beers. There were so many to choose from, and we ended up getting recommendations from locals as there were simply too many to try. Although we didn't intend to stay too long, after chatting with our friends, and with the locals (Lar found a great table of young Belgians to converse with), before we knew it the hours flew by! It was definitely a unique experience and one that Belgian beer lovers should not miss. 

Enjoying a Halve Maan brew and reminiscing about when they toured this brewery in Bruges together two years ago.

Charm and I chose to sip on the delicious fruity Belgian beers.
On Sunday, my parents attended church with us and as it was my Sunday to teach the kids in Children's Church, I recruited a special helper. My dad taught 4th grade Sunday school for many years and I knew it would be a treat for these kids to have him lead the lesson. They were absolutely enamored by him and were listening better than they ever have before. I am so proud to have a father who has made teaching children about God a priority. Both my parents have been such godly role models for me and I feel blessed that Jon and I both grew up in Christian homes where church involvement was part of our lives.

Back at the house after church

On Sunday night, Jon and I wanted to treat my parents to a unique evening of medieval bowling and tapas at the nearby Kasteel Limbricht. A mere five minutes from our house, Kasteel Limbricht is now used as an events venue with several restaurants and yep.... a bowling alley. Although none of us had bowled in years, we had the best time together showing off our slick moves. Afterwards, we enjoyed a tapas feast. It was definitely not your average evening in the Netherlands!

Posing in front of the Kasteel Limbricht inner moat

Medieval bowling anyone?

Between bowls, we lounged in these thrown-like chairs

"We're gonna rock, we're gonna roll, we're gonna bop, we're gonna bowl"

Tapas Dinner

My parents' last day in Sittard, April 30th, was Queen's Day, and I was so happy they got to experience this uniquely Dutch tradition. We began the festivities with a bike ride downtown to visit the historic market. Afterward, we continued to the park where we set out a blanket and watched bands perform and plenty of Dutch families enjoying the beautiful day.

Historic market in Sittard

It was yet another fantastic visit with my parents, and I only hope they can squeeze in one more trip during our last year here. I love you so much, Lar and Charm, and thank you for being such fun, incredible travel partners, once again!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Praha with my Parents

Prague, the city of 100 spires, is considered one of Europe's most beautiful cities. It truly does take your breath away, especially when standing on castle hill and looking over the city with the Vltava River snaking through it. For these reasons, my parents were eager to visit Prague on their upcoming trip to Europe, and although I had visited once before, I was happy to oblige and tag along. Unfortunately, Jon would not be able to join us as he was on a TDY to Slovakia.

One day after Judy, Claudia, Lisa and Neil departed, my mom and I flew to Prague where my dad would meet us the following day. As we would be there for five nights, we stayed in a lovely apartment in the old town. After a full week of moving and grooving with my mom and friends, we were we eager to take it easy in Prague and enjoy wandering the old town streets with no real schedule. However, we quickly realized that Prague has a lot more must-see sites than we thought and we kept fairly busy most days, with still plenty of time for long lunches and shop browsing.

Lar and Charm on Charles Bridge with St. Vitus looming over the Castle quarter in the distance
I absolutely adore traveling with my parents and cherish the one-on-one time I get to spend with them. I feel so blessed to have parents that I can call my friends, and these five days in Prague allowed us lots of catching up on quality time spent together that is lacking by living overseas. 

One of the things I wanted to do in Prague that I didn't do before was to visit an "old world" cafe. We had a lovely Sunday brunch at Cafe Imperial surrounded by mosaic tiled walls and a ceiling dripping with ambience. It was the perfect relaxing start to a busy day ahead visiting the Jewish quarter (Josefov) of Prague.

Brunch at Cafe Imperial
Since the 10th century, Jews have been living in Prague and eventually became one of the biggest ghettos in Europe. Many Jews from other countries flocked here to escape religious intolerance during the Crusades and live in a more tolerable society. For that reason, the small Jewish quarter is packed with synagogues (including the oldest in Europe, built in 1270), a ceremonial hall, and a cemetery. We spent the afternoon touring the various sites learning about Jewish religious practices and saw more Torah pointers than we thought possible. 

The most moving and evocative site for me was to walk through the Jewish cemetery. As Jews could not be buried with non-Jews from the period of 1439 to 1787, this was their only burial ground with over 12,000 tombstones. Because of the small space, tombs were piled on top of each other eventually creating a plateau, and when the ground settled, the tombstones got crooked. 

After a Jewish-filled afternoon, we exited Josefov (Jewish Quarter) near the Vltava River where we had great views of the Charles Bridge as the sun was peeking out of the clouds. Although we walked over Charles Bridge many times, it is always packed with tourists and tourist traps, and is best enjoyed at a distance from one of the other many bridges in Prague. From here, you can truly appreciate its unique architecture, built in 1357.  Until the 19th century, this was the only bridge crossing the river in Prague, leading from the Old Town (on left) to the Little Quarter and Castle Quarter (on right). 

Charles Bridge

Lar and me with Charles Bridge in distance
That evening, we enjoyed a drink on the old town square, which we made a daily tradition. Although the square is always packed with tourists, there's always great people-watching. The beautiful mix of Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Rococo architecture surrounding the square is a perfect setting to enjoy a delicious Czech brew. Afterward, Lar and I visited the top of the Old City Hall for fairy-tale views of Prague at sunset. Although Prague is beautiful during the day, it is surreal at night, transporting you into a different era altogether. Being one of the only European cities to escape the bombs of the last century's wars, most of the city was untouched and still has its Bohemian fairytale charm. It's no wonder this city is nick-named, the city of 100 spires.

Enjoying a delicious Czech Krusovice beer with the Old Town Hall behind

View of Old Town square and Tyn Church from clock tower 

View of St. Vitus Cathedral and Castle from clock tower
The next day we decided to tackle the Castle Quarter, and began our tour from the Strahov Monastery, with beautiful views of Prague. From there, we walked down to Castle Square before entering the castle gate and courtyards. For more than a thousand years, Czech leaders have ruled from here and the area is more of a complex of sites rather than one castle. The most impressive site is the Roman Catholic national church, St. Vitus Cathedral. It contains the tombs and relics of the most important local saints and kings. The most striking aspect of this church is the brilliantly colored stained glass windows. The richly decorated Wenceslas Chapel, which also houses the tomb of St. Wenceslas, was unique in that the wallpaper is encrusted with precious stones. We also toured the sparse and Gothic Old Royal Palace, Basilica of St. George and exited the complex by walking down the Golden Lane. This street of old buildings, which originally housed goldsmiths, also housed Franz Kafka for a brief period.

View of Prague from Strahov Monastery

St. Vitus Cathedral

Strolling the narrow Golden Lane
We wandered out of the castle complex towards the river to the charming and quiet Little Quarter. We ate at the Hergetova Cihelna along the Vltava with an excellent view of the Charles Bridge. It was the perfect and peaceful afternoon break needed after the tourist-packed sites of the Castle Quarter. 

Lunch at Hergetova Cihelna
In addition to its well-preserved architecture, Bohemian crystal and delicious beer, Prague is also known for its love of classical music. There are concerts abounding day and night throughout the old town halls and churches. We thought this would be a fun way to spend an evening and attended the Gershwin concert in the Spanish Synagogue. The musicians were from various orchestras in Prague and the only thing that could top the beautiful music was the beautiful setting we had the pleasure of experiencing. Afterward, we walked through the old town square to enjoy the brilliant evening glow reflected off the cobblestones.

Gershwin Concert at the Spanish Synagogue

Our last day in Prague, we decided to take a day trip to the Terezin Concentration Camp, located about an hour outside the city. I had visited both Dachau and Auschwitz before, but my parents had never visited a concentration camp, and they wanted an opportunity to explore this history. Terezin was actually a town that was taken over by the gestapo as a Jewish ghetto. They chose this location due to the town's excellent 18th century fortress. More than 150,000 Jews were sent there from all over Europe, and although it was not an extermination camp about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density. About 88,000 inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The most horrific site was viewing the walls of names that included all the Terezin children who died. Although it was a sombering experience to tour the museum with pictures of the victims and see the barracks where they lived, it was also an inspiration to see how the Jewish people there never gave up hope and worked together to maintain their dignity and further their culture. Some of the continent's best artists were sent here and made a priority to play concerts, direct plays and continue educating the children. However, only a handful of them would ever make it out of the ghetto alive. 

Terezin Prisoner Camp with the famous Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" -  Work Brings Freedom
We spent our final afternoon in the old town picking up last minute souvenirs and enjoying the Prague-tastic architecture one last time. That evening, we stumbled upon a charming and rustic restaurant down a side street that turned out to be our favorite meal in Prague. Lar and I shared a pork shoulder that was delicious and of course, had to enjoy some Czech beers one last time. It was the perfect end to a perfect trip to Prague with my parents!

Old Town Square

Final Dinner in Prague

Ahoj (bye) from our Prague apartment

My Week with Judy and Claudia

Some people are fortunate in life to have friends that span generational differences and extend from mother to daughter. That's my friendship with Judy and Claudia, two of the most fun, generous and caring people I know. Though they were first my mother's friends, I feel so blessed that I can call them my friends too.

After 4.5 years of living in Europe, they finally made a trip to come visit us in the Netherlands. We were so happy to host them for one week and we toured around Holland to visit the tulips, cheese and canals, Germany to visit the Rhine River and sample Riesling wine and even made a stop in Belgium for their famous chocolate.

Two days after we returned from Easter in Viennislava; Judy, Claudia, their two friends, Lisa and Neil, and my mom arrived. It was a full house with lots of laughter, stories, and new memories shared. Because Judy, Neil and Lisa took hundreds of photos, I have no photos of my own and hope to finish this blog by adding some of their photos as I receive them. Until then, I can only express my deepest gratitude to them for being the best house guests and "tour group" I've ever had. I truly do hope you'll come again.... the countdown for our last year has begun!

At Keukenhof with Judy, Charm, Claudia and Lisa (thanks for taking the pic, Neil!)