April 26, 2013

Venice of the North

“So long as we live among men, let us cherish humanity.”  Andre Gide

Carol writes:  Might as well jump in with both feet, and that is just what we did when we decided to rent a car and drive 300 miles from Ramstein, Germany, to Amsterdam, where we eagerly anticipated meeting up with our RV later in the week.  Thankfully, our drive to Amsterdam was uneventful.  Our feeling was that the European highway system seemed to work quite well, even at very fast speeds, with only two lanes!  We tended to stay with trucks in the slower lane and marveled at the speed of BMW, Audi, and Porsche drivers that zoomed by us at speeds over 100 mph.  Every driver we observed was very courteous, only used the fast lane to pass and then quickly moved into the slower lane.  No one we saw drove recklessly, no one beeped their horn in anger, and generally all seemed to navigate quite efficiently.  However, I will not be sorry when we are required to travel in the slow lane with the trucks, with a maximum speed of 65 mph when we are traveling in the RV.  Seeing Al’s speedometer register over 140 kilometers an hour (85 mph) was a bit nerve-wracking.

We decided to rent a small apartment in Amsterdam.  We went through the website airbnb.com and met up with Katinka, our lovely Dutch hostess.  Our apartment location was a 5-minute walk to a wonderful grocery store and was only 2 tram stops from Central Station.


 Our first trip into central Amsterdam suddenly threw us into the bustling, crowded, confusing, lovely atmosphere of our first major European city.  However, after deciphering the Metro and tram system, plus a few stops at the tourist information desk, we successfully navigated our way to most of our must-see attractions.

For me, the Anne Frank House was at the top of my wish list.  When we purchased our entrance tickets earlier in the day, we were told to ring the bell at the little glass door next to the house at exactly 7:20 PM, no earlier and no later, and we would be let inside.  We did as we were told.  European efficiency at its best! 

As we moved through the steep staircases, rooms and narrow corridors of this historic and poignant multistoried house, my first reaction was a sense of reverence.  The multiethnic crowd was very quiet, very polite, and very curious.  The tour was well designed and it wasn’t hard to imagine the horror of being cooped up in those few dreary and crowded rooms, barely able to see the light of day or experience fresh air, totally dependent on the goodwill of friends to bring food, magazines, and simple creature comforts. The cruelest part of the agony the 8 people in hiding had to endure was the fact that they were betrayed and arrested after two long years.  All were deported to Nazi concentration camps, and only one, the father Otto Frank, survived the war.  Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen 9 months after she was captured—only one month short of Allied liberation in April 1945.  I was mesmerized by the actual pages from her diary that were on display.

At the tourist information booth we were told that you haven’t seen Amsterdam at all until you have taken a ride through the canals—so very true!  Our canal ride allowed us to sit back and relax so we could appreciate the marvelous architecture of Amsterdam’s buildings and get a sense of the many centuries of history that have played out there.  I was surprised at the huge number of houses/buildings that had dates on the facades from the early 1600s.   

A marvelous, unique feature of Amsterdam was the many styles of houseboats moored along the canals.


Sunny days are a treasure in Amsterdam.  It is hard to resist outdoor meals and stops for drinks in lovely pubs.  Beer was no more expensive than nonalcoholic tonics and sweet drinks—Al was in heaven.
We had been warned about Amsterdam traffic.  In fact, on the flight over, the couple in the sleeping bags behind us who were experienced European travelers warned us, “Don’t drive in Amsterdam; traffic is a nightmare and bikes rule the road.”  They were right!  I was astounded at the massive number of bicyclists.  Bikes had their own lanes set aside, but those lanes were not always readily apparent to us.  Cars had much more freedom than we were accustomed to—U-turns at will, very fast driving on streets that weren’t much wider than a walking path.  Fast little mopeds were allowed on the bike paths and the streets, so as pedestrians we quickly learned as we walked to look frequently in a 360-degree circle, and always to yield to the bicyclists! There were bicyclists of all ages...and seas of bikes parked everywhere.  Every metal railing of any substance was covered by bikes chained to them.

Yesterday, our trip to the Port of Amsterdam came off without a hitch.  I cannot express how much our nerves were on edge until we met up with our RV and found everything intact—with the exception of the absence of a few saucepans and my favorite large upholstery-type bag that I use to go back and forth to campground showers.  All can be replaced easily, so we got off lightly, but it still stings to know that someone went on a snooping/stealing spree in our unlocked RV, either at one of the ports or while on the ‘roll on-roll off’ Hoegh Beijing vehicle transporter ship.  When you think about it, what happened makes sense; our pots and pans thief needed a large bag in which to transport the stolen saucepans!
Reunited at last!

April 30 will mark a very historic event in the Netherlands.  Beloved Queen Beatrix will be abdicating her throne and her oldest son Willem-Alexander will become King.  Since the last three heads of the monarchy were queens, most people we spoke to were excited at the idea of a king as the head of their monarchy.  During my first day in the apartment, while Al was dropping off the rental car, I watched some historic nostalgia films on the life of Queen Beatrix.  Although the TV program was in Dutch, it was obvious to me that Queen Beatrix was a very lovely and popular queen, was very regal in her bearing, yet very approachable to her people.  In casual conversation while showing me our apartment, our hostess, Katinka, reiterated this feeling about the queen.  We could see the April 30 celebration building every day—orange streamers appeared on buildings, orange scarves on the women, and pride in the voices of all who talked with us about this.  So, it is a little fun to be at a moment in time and place that will go down in the history books.
Royal palace

For all who are curious and want to know if we saw the Red Light District, the answer is, OF COURSE.  On our evening stroll through the main streets of the Red Light District, my first impression was this was ‘much ado about nothing’.  I saw nothing unusual.  Then, along with many other casual strollers brimming with curiosity, we detoured into the very narrow side alleys.  Oh my goodness…there we saw rows and rows of little cubicles with glass doors with red light bars above the door, and behind each door was every variety of female dressed in limited articles of clothing, in seductive poses with body styles to suit every customer’s desire.  Al and I just looked at each other, and I recall myself saying over and over, “I can’t believe this.”  This area was very close to a large church, and as we were passing by, the church bells loudly tolled 10 o’clock in the evening.  By now we had fulfilled the cultural experience we had wondered about and so we increased the pace of our walk toward the church, only to be shocked by another string of glass doors of ladies of the night located only a few yards from the church walls! 

As far as the free-drug culture of Amsterdam, this was evident to us only in subtle ways—a few shops with drug paraphernalia and an occasional whiff of pot smoke.

During one of our last strolls through lovely Amsterdam, we went through the floating flower stalls where we experienced a delight of colors, a prequel to our next week on the road.

We will begin our first official day of travel in the RV tomorrow.  Because of the nightmare of everyday vehicle traffic in Amsterdam, we have decided not to press our luck in the huge crowds here to celebrate the abdication and to head out of town along the Flower Route, where we hope to enjoy the abdication celebration in a smaller venue, in addition to viewing miles and miles of fields of famous Dutch flowers.

Al writes:  I will give a few more observations to add to Carol's description of Amsterdam.  This is the land of rusty bikes.  You do not use a nice 25-speed expensive bike.  The typical bike looks like the same design from WWII with a bell, hand brakes, fenders to block the moisture, and something to carry packages, dogs or kids.  It is very heavy.  And all bikers can text on their phone while weaving through the traffic and pedestrians.  I am totally impressed.
This is the most secular country in Europe.  We noticed that all the very large cathedrals in the city center had a look of disrepair and abandonment. We could not go into a single one.  I checked some stats and only about 20% of the population goes to church on a regular basis, and the younger generation seems to be turning its back on religion.

The only comment I will make on the Red Light District is that Carol asked me if I saw anything I liked and, of course, the required response was, "No, dear!"

I was in the checkout line at our local supermarket and was asked if I had a “bonus.”  I did not know that a bonus is a card like we have in our supermarkets that knocks down the price on items.  The middle-aged lady behind me said, "Oh, use mine…"  Before I could respond, she passed her bonus card through a reader and saved me 2.5 Euros, and this was just fine with the cashier.  I told her when she comes to the US, I will send her my cards.

This is the land of tall women.  Geez, I feel height disadvantaged.  Our host, Katinka, is an example, coming in about 6' 3".  There is so much in her apartment that I cannot reach, and poor Carol is definitely out of luck.  
“When I write I can shake off all my cares.  My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived!”  Anne Frank, 5 April 1944

April 21, 2013

Crossing the Pond

"You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."  Yogi Berra

Al writes:  After Washington, DC, it was time to get to Dover Air Force Base where we hoped to fly "Space-Available" to Germany.  We got to Dover by public transportation on Sunday afternoon because a Ramstein flight was scheduled for Monday evening.  Let me digress a little and explain the process.  Retirees are Cat VI, which is the lowest category for Space-A.  Each military passenger terminal has a Facebook page that posts the known 3-day schedule for flights out with tentative information on how many seats may be released. It is a little more complicated than I have explained, but nothing is firm, and the Air Force can change anything, anytime, anywhere. So, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, "Do I feel lucky today?"  There is a roll call 3-4 hours before each flight, which is the moment of truth.  If your name is called at roll call, you are on the flight.  For retirees, chances are based on if the number of seats released gets down to Cat VI and if the date you requested your name to be put on the Space-A list beats everyone else.  Carol put us on lists about 37 days ago. 

Monday afternoon as we were getting ready to go to the terminal for roll call, we checked Facebook and found roll call had been canceled--no seats available.  Tuesday morning, two new flights to Germany popped up on the schedule, so we got to the terminal by 11:00 for roll call at 2:00.  However, we were informed roll call had been moved up to 1:00.  Then at 12:55, roll call was moved to 5:30.  At 4:30, lights were turned on in the baggage area, a platoon of Air Force guys appeared, and our name was called first.  By now, I do not believe anything, but the platoon of Air Force guys checked ID's and passports, and grabbed our luggage.  I was asked what box supper I desired--turkey, ham, or peanut butter & jelly sandwich.  Hmmm, I am now thinking I will get to Germany. 

An hour later, the security screening machines were turned on and the platoon of Air Force guys moved to this area, where we went through the same routine you would go through at a civilian airport.  After passing through security screening, I was issued my box supper; Megan calls them "box nasties".  Then a bus pulled up to the little room we had been squirreled in and it was time to go out onto the tarmac.  Just as we started through the door, one of the platoon leaders stopped us and told the rest of the platoon not to load these old people.  Hmmm, our eyes got wide, expecting that the plane has had a change of status, like a wing falling off.  Nope, the pilot was trying to get everybody on board to leave early and someone higher up than the platoon leader said no.  So we waited another 45 minutes, boarded our bus and then headed out to our plane.  As we headed out the door to the bus, we were highly encouraged to help ourselves to a little box of earplugs to protect our ears during the flight.  Now you have a little idea why we find gambling to be a little exciting.

Our aircraft was a C-5 Galaxy, which is the largest plane in the Air Force inventory.  We do not build them anymore and they are starting to show their age.  On the upper deck, there is seating for 75.  The massive cargo area (200,000 lbs) is on the lower deck.  We chose the first row of seating near the door, and soon an Air Force crew member prepared to close a large door that runs on tracks into the overhead.  As he was closing the door, it jumped the tracks and jammed in the open position.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  We were only a few feet from this action and could hear the crew member talking on his headset about how he thought he fixed this that morning, that this is not good, send up the crew chief and how it is going to be pretty windy in the passenger section.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  Two other crew members appeared and they were all looking at the tracks, shaking and banging on the door and saying how this is not good.  Now, I am not easily alarmed, but there were also miscellaneous wires and insulation dangling from the overhead around this door.  Carol and I just looked at each other.  Finally, the tall one gave the door a really good whack and it got back into the tracks and was pushed closed with only some pinched fingers as casualties.  Carol and I just looked at each other and then looked at the door to make sure we could not see outside. 

Next it was time for the safety brief.  The airman read from a script at mach speed in a mumbling manner at the same time that we all had earplugs in and the jets were whining. I never heard a word. He demonstrated what I think was an emergency breathing mask with compressed oxygen that is a backup to the masks that come out of the overhead…if you can figure out how to make them come out of the overhead.  These emergency masks were some sort of neoprene bag that fits over your entire head.  I did read that if the oxygen does not work, quickly pull off the bag or you will suffocate quickly.  Then there was the brief life vest demonstration.  I think some words were said about the straps, but there was all this other stuff hanging down.  He said we did not have to worry about that stuff (I think).  Carol and I just looked at each other.

There were only 17 old people that boarded the plane, so we had all the room we wanted.  Everyone spread out so that each of us could lie down on three seats to sleep. As we taxied Carol's eyes got very big as she pointed up to the vents above her.  There appeared to be smoke coming out.  I looked back and all the vents had “smoke” coming out.  However, I realized that the "smokey" icy blast that was hitting me was not the door flying open but the ventilation system kicking in.  What we were seeing was moist cold vapor!  I yelled this information into Carol's ear just before she was going to raise her hand to tell the airman that we were on fire and we were all going to die.  I would have been so embarrassed…

Finally, we were in the air!  Then it got cold, really cold.  I knew I was in trouble when the experienced travelers behind us pulled out sleeping bags and crawled in and went to sleep.  I put on my sweatshirt, hood and coat, pulled the paper-thin Air Force blanket around me and hunkered down for a restful night knowing that I just saved $1500 dollars because the Air Force was so kind to take me to Germany in style.  Carol did not even mind the frost bitten toes.  Seriously, thank you, Air Force; we appreciate what you do.

I know I am rambling but every experience was new and not quite what I expected.  Going through customs was another one of those things that we sort of worried about--not because we were bringing in contraband, but because we have almost a year’s worth of prescriptions.  After the passports were inspected, we were directed to the customs official, who did not look like a customs official.  He really looked like a German army sergeant getting ready to take a run.  No official logos on his clothes, just some nondescript work pants and an olive green t-shirt.  So we walked up to him, ready to put our luggage on the long table for inspection.  He said, "no no...", smiled, and asked, "Do you have anything to declare?"  Carol and I just looked at each other.  I was thinking to myself, "Can you give me an example?"  We must have both looked sort of dumbfounded because he smiled again and asked, "Cigarettes?”  I said no and he replied, "Have a nice stay in Germany.”  That was it.

Our first 5 days in Germany were spent in the Ramstein area.  We stayed in a friendly, convenient hotel outside Ramstein Air Force Base.  It was a good place for us to get used to life outside the US.  We did not want to get to Amsterdam too early because lodging there would be more expensive.  The area we are in is in the southwest corner of Germany, not far from the Rhine River and Luxembourg.  It has traditionally been an area of heavy U.S. military presence with Ramstein AFB, Landstuhl military hospital complex and Kaiserslautern (K-town) Army base.  I lived in K-town in the  early 50's when my dad was stationed there after the war.

Some of Nanstein Castle's walls are constructed on thick layers of sandstone

A huge underground room in Nanstein castle--damp walls from water seepage, a wet dirt floor
Castle walls built on layers of sandstone
 Entrance to Nanstein castle with eye holes through walls several feet thick

Here are a few tidbits of information we have learned during our first few days in Germany:

        1.  When you get a local SIM card for a cell phone, it changes your number.

        2.  Bring your own bags to the supermarket--none are provided.

        3.  You have to pay to use a grocery shopping cart.

        4.  Beer is cheaper than soft drinks (yippee).

        5.  Some toilets have two flush choices...high and low...You can figure it out.

        6.  A popular drink in the pubs is beer and Coca Cola mixed.
Poignant WW II cemetery in Landstuhl--no matter what side you are on, war is terrible

We have explored some of the local area using the regional train system, which is as wonderful, timely, and convenient as expected.  Ramstein is not a big tourist area but still has its interesting history and culture.  We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. We visited Landstuhl (5 minutes on the train) and walked through the ruins of Nanstein Castle, which was built in 1162 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.  Later in 1518, it was fortified by German knight Franz von Sickingen to make the castle suitable for firearms.  Yesterday we visited K-Town during a big soccer match and had a meal in a pub with the rest of the Germans watching their team.  The train coming back to Landstuhl/Ramstein was full of soccer fans doing some singing because their team won.  I am proud to report that I am blending in as long as I keep my mouth shut.  I have had several Germans asking me for directions, commenting on the game and other comments of which I have no idea of the subject matter.  Must be my hat.


Carol writes:  It's the hat.

The journey continues Monday because I have rented a car to drive to Amsterdam (cheaper than the train) and it will be easier to transport our luggage.  I went on a new site called airbnb.com that has rentals for staying in private rooms or apartments and found an apartment several minutes from Amsterdam city center.  This will be interesting.  We will let you know how it goes. 

"One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."  Andre Gide








April 15, 2013

The Shining City Upon a Hill

"…in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…"  President Ronald Reagan

Carol writes:  After almost a week spent visiting some of the most well-known sites in Washington, D.C., I found myself recalling the words used frequently by President Ronald Reagan to describe his feelings about our country—a “shining city upon a hill.”  Our nation’s capital is a city without  equal in terms of American history, American values, architectural beauty, and world power. 

By chance, our first day coincided with the peak of the cherry blossoms, so we chose that day to take a walk on the mall along the reflecting pool, starting with a visit to a memorial that we had never seen before--the WW II memorial to honor “the greatest generation.”

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall--so many names, so many families changed forever.  We will never forget the sacrifice made by our generation.  So many of our high school classmates made the ultimate sacrifice, and some still suffer mentally and physically as veterans of that war.

I cannot add anything original to more than 15,000 books that have been written about Abraham Lincoln except to reiterate that he was God’s most valuable gift to America in one of its darkest hours.  An incredibly moving experience for me was the opportunity to visit Ford’s Theater, sit in the audience seats and look up to the presidential box where Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.  After President Lincoln was mortally wounded, he was carried across the street to a second floor bedroom in the Petersen boarding house, where an all-night vigil was kept at his bedside until he died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, 148 years ago today.

   The majestic Lincoln Memorial

    Presidential box where Lincoln was shot

 Room where Lincoln died

For us, the most noticeable change to Washington, D.C. was the security presence--everywhere.  Our last visit was some time in the 80s with my brother, his wife and family.  In more carefree times, our most vivid memory of that visit was the free access we had to the Capitol Rotunda, followed by a memorable adventure on a Senate elevator that we took by accident.  Somehow that elevator delivered us to the bowels of the Capitol.  As the elevator door opened, we saw Senator Edward Kennedy and his entourage pass right in front of our eyes.  Then, Senator Howard Metzenbaum (Senator from Ohio for almost 20 years) got on the elevator, whereupon my brother (never one to be shy) took the opportunity to shake the Senator’s hand, tell him he was from Ohio, then proceeded to chat with him until a security guard kindly pointed out to us that we were not supposed to be in that part of the building.  How times have changed! Today access for tourists to most buildings is limited and is by ticket only, except for the Smithsonian museums, and visits there are still free and are the best deal in the city.

The White House, sparkling in all its majesty

The Natural History Museum—as in the film Night at the Museum, I kept waiting for the skeletons to come alive.  This was the ‘best of the best’ of all natural history museums I have ever visited.


Michelle Obama's inauguration dress

 The Hope Diamond
Chairs and desk used by Grant and Lee at Appomattox Courthouse
The National Gallery of Art became a primer for future visits to many art museums in Europe:

    Ginevra de' Benci by Leonardo da Vinci

 The Sacrament of the Last Supper by Salvador Dali

Main atrium of the National Gallery of Art

Napoleon by Jacques Louis David
Washington, D.C. was our first real test getting around on our own solely by means of public transportation in a big, bustling city.  We quickly learned how to obtain a senior discount metro card (just show picture ID and Medicare card, thank you), and used that, in addition to various free shuttles from our inn on Bolling AFB, to get wherever we wanted to go each day.  Al’s first learning curve was discovering he couldn’t enter a metro station gate by tapping the appropriate electronic hotspot with his room key card—that was nicely pointed out to him by a young teenage girl!  He used his metro card after that and had no problems.  LOL
I couldn’t think of a more appropriate city to visit than Washington, D.C. before we hop on a Space-Available flight out of Dover AFB to Germany.  Yesterday we took a short Amtrak ride from Washington’s magnificent Union Station to Wilmington, Delaware, then walked across the street for a last-leg Greyhound bus ride to Dover.  In the Greyhound terminal we were suddenly and graphically made aware that sadly, even in the "shining city upon a hill," there are still so many who have not even begun to experience the American dream. 
We sure felt proud to be an American after our brief visits to so many Washington venues that represent our nation’s core values and symbolize all that has been sacrificed for us in defense of our freedom.  It is no exaggeration to say we had goose bumps in the National Archives when it was our turn to view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  Mindful and proud of all that it means to be an American, the words of Ralph Crawshaw best represent what we hope to accomplish on our RV adventure:
“Travel has a way of stretching the mind.  The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way.”  Ralph Crawshaw