Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Step Back in Time

My wife Becky and I had an adventure in the French region of Alsace after the World to the Wise Cultural Tour was over and the rest of the participants had gone home. We were staying at a guest house owned by some friends in a tiny village 25 km from the beautiful city of Strasbourg. The village is surrounded by vineyards, as Alsace is widely known for its wines. High atop one of the Vosges mountains overlooking the Alsatian plain sits the convent of St. Odile, the patron saint of Alsace. Our friend Eric took us to visit this remarkable landmark built by Odile's father to commemorate her healing of blindness in the 7th century. That's 7th, not 17th. 

As Becky and I biked through the vineyards, though, we were intrigued by a dilapidated castle atop another mountain. It turns out there are multiple castles in the area, each one having been built by the medieval lords to protect their serfs from invaders.

One day we decided this castle needed to be explored from closer up. We rode our bikes to the town of Barr, as far as the road would take us. We then left the bikes chained to a tree and set out on foot on the trail whose signs pointed to the Château d'Andlau. It was one of the hottest days we've experienced yet in Europe, but the brilliant blue sky and the intrigue of castle ruins beckoned us upward. 

The forest was so dense, however, that we didn't catch so much as a glimpse of the castle until we had actually arrived at the end of a pretty demanding hike. What we found was a 1,000-year-old fortified castle ruin which was supposedly undergoing restoration; but there was not a soul anywhere around -- so we gave ourselves permission, so to speak, to do a little exploring on our own. I've seen many castles in Europe, but this was the first time that I found myself exploring one with just my wife,  as if we were the first ones to discover it.

Our entire time in Alsace was magical -- including fireworks in Strasbourg on July 14, the national holiday that also happens to be my birthday. But we'll never forget our clandestine climb to the Castle of Andlau and the journey back in time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


If you read my earlier posts on our "incident" in Amsterdam, you may be thinking we'll be reluctant to go back there again. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The city delighted us all over again with its characteristic architecture, intricate canal system and avant garde personality. The photo above is of one of the classier of the hundreds and hundreds of houseboats that line the canals. The house we stayed in, on a quiet alley but right in the city center, was built in 1740. Because space is at such a premium, the houses are built up and not out; in fact, property taxes are paid based on the width of the house's façade. The staircases in these houses are so steep, they're almost like climbing up and down a ladder. At the top of each house, a large hook can be seen. This is for hoisting furniture, which is then moved in or out of a window rather than the front door.

You would have to ask one of our tour participants as to the highlight of our week in Amsterdam; some might say the Anne Frank house, or the Ten Boom house in nearby Haarlem, others might cite the day we rented bikes and rode them through the polders north of the city, or others still may talk about taking in Van Gogh and the Dutch Masters. Whatever the case, we look forward to introducing others to this underestimated city. Will you be one of those?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Imagining Monet

I think it's safe to say all of us on the World to the Wise Cultural Tour are big fans of the Impressionists, with Claude Monet right at the top. So imagine what a treat it was to take a day trip from Paris to Monet's fabled home at Giverny, about an hour's drive from the capital.

We stood on the famous Japanese bridge he had built and took in what are probably the most famous lily pads in the world, not to mention the gardens that surround the house. Monet said he knew how to do only two things: paint and garden. Giverny married the two passions perfectly. Even after hiring seven gardeners, Monet remained the architect of the gardens, giving daily written instructions to his staff.

It was only in 1980 that the Monet house and gardens were opened to visitors, following extensive restoration funded in part by American businessmen and artists. A number of American artists who were contemporaries of Monet were inspired by his work and actually came to settle in Giverny. 

Having already taken in many of Monet's works in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay, our tour participants were inspired to do a little creative expression of their own with the watercolors we provided. It was a serene break from the busy-ness of the capital (although we thoroughly enjoyed Paris!), and a reminder not to miss the simple beauties that feed the soul.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In the Steps of Clive Staples

One of the highlights of the World to the Wise Cultural Tour was our day trip to Oxford during the London week. Even if you have no appreciation or sense of history, the city itself will charm you to the point of reluctance to leave it. But with us were a group of people who were keenly aware of    the incredible legacy emanating from this city of over 1000 years, home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

We visited many of the numerous colleges scattered throughout the compact medieval city, but the one of most import to several in our group was Magdalen College (pron. maudlin), where author C.S. Lewis was a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature. After strolling through Magdalen, Christ Church and other colleges, punting on the River Cherwell on a gorgeous day, exploring an intriguing old cemetery and browsing the well known Blackwell's Bookstore, we finished an incredible day with dinner at the Eagle and Child, a typical British pub where Lewis, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Hugo Dyson and other writers of note used to gather for a pint and discuss theirs and others' work. The group was known as the Inklings, and affectionately dubbed the pub the Bird and Baby. 

I think it's safe to say we'll repeat this experience the next time World to the Wise takes us to England!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

'T' for Tradition

You may have read that our video camera was stolen in Amsterdam. Here is a clip that survived because it had already been uploaded to one of our laptops.

Being a hard core tea drinker myself, you can imagine how at home I am drinking tea in the cradle of tea-drinking culture, Great Britain:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lost and Found

And now...the rest of the story.

Yes, we lost our passports, credit cards, driver’s licenses, cameras, journals, a sweater, etc. I had gone directly to the police station to file a report, while Becky had headed straight back to the house where we were staying to cancel all our credit cards. While at the station, I called the American consulate there in Amsterdam. It was about 5:30 pm on a Friday, and they had just closed for the weekend thirty minutes earlier. I was able to dial an emergency number, where I reached a kind gentleman who told me we would need to come apply for temporary passports in person. Not on Saturday, of course not on Sunday, not even on Monday, as they would be closed for the July 4th weekend; this meant we had three full days before we could even stand in line for new passports. What complicated the situation is that our son, Timothy, was scheduled to fly back to the States with the other tour participants the next morning. We weren’t exactly hopeful about those prospects, but we were going to the airport anyway to see the others off.
That night at the hotel near the airport, I got a phone call from the Amsterdam police. My passport and credit cards had been found and turned in by an anonymous person. Although this was extremely encouraging, it really didn’t change the present circumstances much at all. We would still have to go the consulate on Tuesday, and it was still anybody’s guess as to whether Timothy would be able to get on the plane the next morning. With mixed emotions we fell asleep that night, aided by simple exhaustion.
At Schiphol airport the next morning, we were surprised to find an INS agent who OK’d Timothy to travel with just a photocopy of his passport and a copy of the police report. After a bit of an emotional goodbye, we waved the kids through passport control and sat down to consider the next steps. My cell phone rang, and it was our good friend Celeste in Amsterdam. “Dave!” she said, “I am holding Becky’s and Timothy’s passports and several other things of yours.” I had sent her an emergency e-mail from the hotel the night before, but she hadn’t read it yet. But she HAD received a text message from a total stranger, saying, “I have the stuff you lost.” To try to summarize the story, he had found the items while looking through a TRASH CAN in a different part of town from where we had been robbed, looking for stolen belongings of a woman he had met. Among the items was my journal, in which he found Celeste’s phone number. She told him, however, that she had no idea what he was talking about. A couple of hours later, she read my e-mail and everything made sense. She immediately called the man back (an Amsterdam photographer), hopped on her bike and picked up the things. Not only that, she arranged a place for us to stay with a wonderful Dutch couple while we got our affairs sorted out – even though we no longer needed to apply for emergency passports, we still had to work out how to access funds and other details, since we had cancelled all our credit cards.
The cameras, you ask? Of course they were not returned. The biggest loss we feel is the irreplaceable footage on the video camera. But there were more than one angel at work in these circumstances, and even the police were amazed that any of our belongings at all had been returned. Amsterdam is known for the kind of ordeal we went through – none of that was a surprise. We’re choosing to focus on that handful of people who did the right thing, counter to the city’s reputation, and yes, we will be back.

Friday, July 9, 2010

At a Loss

I told you to expect lots of blog posts and even videos from the inaugural World to the Wise Cultural Tour. Two things have retarded that process: first, leading the tour proved much more time- and labor-intensive, preventing me from taking the time to write meaningful posts. Here I readily admit to being enough of a perfectionist that I won’t settle for whipping out a mundane blog post like, “We visited the Eiffel Tower today. The weather was perfect.” (Although, if you’re my Facebook friend, you would have seen occasional posts almost that mundane.) I like not only to report on things, but to make observations and commentary – I suppose I’m saying I want you to be glad you read my blog.

The reason you haven’t seen any videos yet is twofold: it was virtually impossible to find the time to upload the ones we shot; and, more sobering, our video camera AND still camera were stolen in Amsterdam.

For those who like the gory details, here’s how it all went down: we were near the end of a wonderful week in Amsterdam, having savored its old world charm and culture, and taken a couple of great day trips. You are hopefully aware that the World Cup was going on while we were there, and that the Netherlands had made it all the way to the quarter finals. (We had enjoyed watching various matches throughout the tournament, starting with US v. England on the first day of our arrival in the UK.) We had determined to watch the quarter finals pitting the Dutch against the formidable Brazilians, and chose a convivial corner café right in the heart of the city and no more than a five-minute walk from where we were staying. We picked out a round bistro table just inside, elevated about three feet above the entrance level where there were outdoor tables, and separated by a wrought iron rail.

It was a great atmosphere, complete with a handful of Brazilian fans and a very international crowd. I had gotten up to use the restroom, and just as I was walking back to the table, the Dutch team scored the first goal of the match. Needless to say, the place erupted – everyone was on their feet celebrating. When we sat back down, my wife, Becky, looked at her feet where we had both placed our shoulder bags. Both bags were gone. All that remained was a black umbrella that had not been there earlier. My first thought was that someone else in our group was holding our bags for us. Reality soon made itself known, though, as the blank faces of everyone around us told the story: while we were all on our feet in the midst of the pandemonium, someone had deftly reached through the railing behind our table with the umbrella and used its handle to hook both bags in one fell swoop. The redundant proof was Becky’s water bottle and toothbrush leaving a trail from our table to the street.

If you’ve ever been robbed, you’re familiar with the feelings of anger mixed with remorse, in this case. The fact is, I should have known better. I’m a seasoned traveler. I should have noticed the gaps in the railing behind our table, opening to the wide open doors to the busy street. In Becky’s bag were our brand new video camera and still camera, her passport, credit cards, driver’s license, journal, and a brand new sweater she had bought for the trip. Oh, and a Ziploc bag with watercolors and brushes, which we had used on occasion to relax and respond to some of the beauty around us in various places. In my bag, just the essentials – passport, credit cards, driver’s license, journal, and a few sundries.

We decided Becky would go back to our Amsterdam house immediately, get on the phone and cancel all our credit cards, while I filed a police report at the station less than five minutes’ walk down the same street. While I waited for them to process my report, I heard numerous other similar stories. Every person who came and went while I was there had been robbed.

Now you know why you’re just now hearing from me – but you’ll have to read the next post to find out that this is not the end of the story.