Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Over the river and through the woods...

...to Oma's house we go! This weekend, we bit the bullet and piled into our big car for a drive to Oma's house. Although three and a half hours is nothing by US standards, the distance is a bit daunting here in Europe, particularly with a busy toddler in tow. We opted for a nighttime drive on this test run, hoping Ellie would sleep the drive away and wake up in Germany. We were not disappointed. The only thing we hadn't accounted for was the sunlight until nearly 10pm, which confused her and kept her awake (though quiet and sleepy) until dark. The woman who coordinates the baby music class made a CD of all the songs we sing, and we keep that CD in the car (and only in the car...toooooo annoying not to be limited). Of course, this makes Ellie LOVE trips in the car now. We listened to those songs more times than I can count, and Markus and I both leapt at the eject button the moment Ellie fell asleep. The drive was uneventful, though there was a lot of road construction once we crossed the border. Driving at night has its advantages in light traffic (confirmed on the early ride home, which took an extra two hours to traverse a 6km distance!).

Oma was so happy to have visitors! The weather wasn't overly cooperative, but we still played and had a nice time. Markus and I both noticed how our perspective on the village has changed. In the past, we always felt it was small and cramped. This time, it felt so open after the claustrophobia of The Hague. Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler is nestled in a wine valley, and you can see the vineyards rising up along the hills all around. The smallish Ahr river runs close to Oma's house, and we took many walks alongside it. It was nice to get out in the countryside. We even visited a wine shop for a small tasting and missed a true Kodak moment when Ellie was given a proper crystal wine glass with red grape juice to sip. Ellie certainly enjoyed eating blackberries straight from the bush in Oma's garden, and you know from previous posts that rain doesn't get her down because it means SPLASHING! We think she must have charmed just about every last stoic villager who passed her splashing and laughing in the puddles dressed in her ladybuy raincoat and boots.

Although the trip was exhausting in many ways, we are happy we went and enjoyed the visit. We're so lucky to have an easy traveler. Ellie handled the change of scene without blinking. Thank goodness for portable DVD players, though. She has a new-found obsession (I don't use this word lightly) with Baby Einstein. She wants to watch one about sign language all the time so she can practice, and she asked for it again and again while we were away. Luckily, we were able to bring it with us. It saved us in that massive traffic jam on the ride back, too. Another quirky little obsession surfaced during the visit: use of the words "Time Out!" Once, two weeks ago, in a fit of pure exasperation and desperation on my part, I gave Ellie a (pointless) time out when she wouldn't stop (unintentionally yet repeatedly) ripping fur from the cats. I sat with her and told her she had a time out, that she needed to take a minute to calm down and remember to listen to Mama's words, yadda yadda yadda blah blah blah...the last part of which being all she heard because she resumed her kitty chasing the second I moved away. Suddenly, there we were at Oma's and Ellie announced a picture in the corner had a time out. A doggie barking at her got a "Time out!" "Time out!" was a very popular command this weekend from our knee-high dictator, though where it came from I have no idea.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dutch weather

We are enjoying a rare sunny day with partly cloudy skies. There is a light breeze. The temperature is around 60 degrees. The sky is mostly blue, and the sun is warm. The conditions are close to perfect for being outdoors. Except for the fact that it is raining. Somehow, it is raining from the beautiful blue sky. Welcome to Holland.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sugar cookies and sugar baby

Today I hosted a baby shower at home for one of the moms in Ellie's baby music class. I made baby block sugar cookies as favors, and I'm proud of the results (idea from gail who recently did the same)...so I had to share.

Markus was wonderful! He helped me get the house ready, took Ellie to the zoo during the shower, cleaned up afterwards, and then told me to take a nap while he took her to the playground this afternoon. WOW! I have the most amazing hubby EVER.

Below is today's pic is of our ever growing girl. She has shot up like a weed just this week (you can see how her sleeves are no longer the correct length)! It's hard to get a good picture of her, because when she sees the camera, she just wants me to turn it around so she can see the baby (the digital image of her on the screen). For this one, she had crawled into my lap and was attempting to access the back of the camera from below. Very sneaky.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sandy Places

This afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the sunny weather by making a trip to the beach. We cycled to Scheveningen and then through the dunes a bit to avoid the main drag. The dunes are beautiful right now, covered in green and wildflowers. The cycle ride was a nice treat after all the yucky, weird weather we've been having. Although it was only around 70 degrees and lightly windy, we expected to see a crowd on the beach. However, when we arrived at a spot accessible from the dune paths, there were only scattered groups of two or three people each. Some people had brought their own sun shelters, but most people were just relaxing on towels and enjoying the sun (mostly wearing jeans and jackets to resist the cool wind). We were happy not to be crowded, so we set up right away and began playing in the sand (in Ellie's case, with gusto!). It wasn't long before we noticed something else about the scattered people in our vicinity. Some people weren't dressed to fight the wind; in fact, they weren't dressed at all. Yes, folks, we found ourselves in the naked section. Welcome to Holland!

Sunday, July 15, 2007


A week ago, we took a drive to the north of Holland to visit the Dolfinarium and we invited our friend Chris and her daughter Amelia to join us on this adventure. The car ride was an adventure in itself for the wee ones, who were each fascinated to sit next to someone her own size. They watched each other, played, held hands, and clapped along to the music (too bad the camera wasn't accessible!). The Dolfinarium was great fun! It was very well laid-out with multiple playgrounds so kids wouldn't all bunch on top of each other. One of the playgrounds was on an open beach, so you could really make a day of it there if you'd like. Watching the dolphins with the girls was a lot of fun! They didn't seem to know what to make of them, but they couldn't take their eyes away.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Vacation in Italy

Warning: This post is going to be a long one. If you really don’t want to carry on, just know that we had a wonderful vacation and are very happy about it. You may even want to scroll down and glance at a pic or two. For those of you who can’t get enough (or simply have nothing better to do or are in work avoidance mode), read on and then follow up with the photo link.

Cinque Terre translates to “five lands” and is comprised of five small villages on the coast of Italy—Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso—where the mountains plunge headlong into the sea. Each of the villages seems to have its own distinct personality. Vernazza, where we stayed and where the wedding took place, only has one main street. The rest of the town is up up up stairs (to get into houses, hotel rooms, anything…there will be stairs and plenty of them). There is no real car traffic in the villages, because cars just don’t fit. Everyone is on foot, and there are beautiful hiking trails in the mountains and along the sea that connect the villages (they are also connected by train). Most of the tourists visit for the walks, though we were unprepared for the sheer amount of American tourists in this relatively isolated place. We hadn’t heard of Cinque Terre before Andrea and Fiammetta disclosed the wedding location, but we also don’t read Rick Steves’ guidebooks. Apparently, he has written a highly favorable segment about Cinque Terre in his Italy guide, which brought just about every American we spotted to that location. It was insane. I’ve seen more nationalities represented in Colonial Williamsburg on the 4th of July, but I digress.

The closest airport to Cinque Terre is Pisa. Since I hadn’t been there before, we decided to fly in Friday and stay two nights before heading to the coast. The ordeal that air travel has become was bad enough on our trip out that we were almost ready to abort the whole holiday and go home. As we finally boarded the plane from Amsterdam to Pisa, I smiled weakly at Markus and said, “Maybe we’re just getting all of the potentially negative mess out of the way now so we will have a fantastic trip.” He looked skeptical (rightfully so), but thank goodness it turned out to be TRUE.

We arrived in Pisa on a warm sunny afternoon. As we waited for our shuttle, Markus wondered aloud what I would make of the famous tower. In every picture I’d seen of it in recent years, it has been propped with steel cables and retention wires, so I wasn’t expecting much. Given that, I was unprepared for the beauty and the marvel of it. In most Italian cities I’ve seen, the glorious cathedrals have become enclosed by traffic and other buildings, everything being built close together in the race for space; this is not so in Pisa. The cathedral complex (the tower, the cathedral, and the baptistery) is surrounded by a huge, lovely grassy area (upon which are many sprawled and sleepy tourists).

Pisa itself is a fairly small, peaceful university town, so we had the cathedral area mostly to ourselves during off-peak times. No longer supported by cables and actually open to the public, the tower is really amazing. It’s hard to capture the lean in a photo because of perspective, but you can really see it at the base. I was surprised to learn that it already had subsided significantly after only three tiers were built. They stopped construction for many years, and then they added more layers to an already leaning structure. The top was added many years after that, using special construction techniques to try to correct the angle so the bells could be hung.

During our second day, we took a day trip by train to Florence. It is so incredible to walk around that city with its great history of art and culture. We strolled past the Duomo, the Palazzo Uffici with the numerous famous sculptures in the piazza outside, over the Ponte Vecchio, and then on to Boboli Gardens so Ellie could run around and have a play before lunch (which, by the way, was not nearly as fabulous as what we had in Pisa).

On Sunday, we took the train to Vernazza. Getting our luggage up to the hotel room was quite an ordeal (I am not joking about the stairs, people), but once we were settled, we were happy! The hotel Andrea and Fiammetta had directed us to (La Mala) was gorgeous! We’re convinced it must be the nicest in all of Cinque Terre (all white interior, Carrera marble in the bathrooms, flat screen satellite TV, included mini-bar and in-room coffee and tea). It is a beautifully renovated house, so it only has four rooms. Ours was actually a two-room combo, so Ellie had her own room for sleeping—ideal for us to actually have a vacation too! They also provided a crib for her, so she was all set. Breakfast each morning consisted of fresh pastry, juice and delicious Italian coffee in the bar down at street level. We’re not big coffee drinkers, but we drank huge mugs of cafĂ© latte each morning and enjoyed it!

The wedding was on Thursday, so we had the whole week to explore. We took the train to the other villages (we made sure to visit all five) and hiked some of the gorgeous trails. The 4km mainly uphill walk from Vernazza to Corniglia was particularly gratifying, but we missed the Monterosso trail which several of our friends claimed was the best. Cinque Terre is a place we’d like to visit again in the fall or winter. Although the locals assured us that it was actually calmer than usual, it was way too touristy for us in the summertime and a bit too hot for hiking as well.

Although Monterosso is the beach town, Vernazza does have a small beach at the harbor that was perfect for Ellie. She loves getting in the water and playing in the sand. Two of our six days had rough seas, but we played hard the other afternoons (you can see Ellie and Markus below taking a stroll along the shoreline; she's clad in pink from head to toe).

Vernazza also has a small playground near the train station with a slide, one swing, and a climbing frame (there’s a bigger playground in Monterosso, for those of you using this blog as a travel guide), but this was more than enough for Ellie. Since the village is so small, we could walk from the harbor (close to our hotel) to the train station (the other end of town) in about three minutes. Italy itself is a great destination for holidays with kids, because every place is so family-oriented! Ellie was saying “Ciao!” and “Grazie!” by the time left Pisa, and this won her so many hearts! There was one old Italian nonna every morning at the bar who wanted so badly to pet and squeeze Ellie that she seemed ready to burst; she even gave her a 2 Euro coin and insisted we buy her a gelato with it. We felt welcome everywhere, and I love how gracious, patient and enthusiastic Italians are with my pathetic grasp of the language (if I try, they are wonderful to me, no matter how badly I butcher things).

Thursday was the wedding day, and we were excited from the start. I paparazzi-ed the bride at the hair salon and the groom at breakfast before we all got dressed. Andrea and Fiammetta had a civil ceremony in a non-religious church at the top of the village. Fiammetta looked absolutely beautiful in a gown she’d designed herself, and her father was the happiest, proudest Father of the Bride I’ve ever seen. After the wedding, Andrea and Fiammetta made their way to a prepared balcony in the center of town for the “blessing”, a wedding tradition particular to Vernazza. It’s customary for the bride and groom to toss chocolates and sweets to the villagers (and tourists) after the ceremony. They were advised to purchase hefty amounts of sweets for this event, and it drew quite a crowd! One of the locals who takes it upon himself to rate weddings gave Andrea and Fiammetta 4.5 stars based on guests’ appearance, formality of the ceremony, restaurant choice and set up, and the blessing (which actually caused the missing half star because some of the sweets apparently weren’t up to snuff).

If you’ve ever been to an Italian wedding, you know it is all about the food. The wedding lunch lasted for five hours, after which many of the guests ended up at the beach trying to remember their own names and imagine how they might ever eat again. This experience was repeated the next day with a five-hour “brunch”. Unfortunately, Ellie woke up with a cold the morning of the wedding, so we missed out on quite a bit of the festivities, taking turns being in the room with her so she could nap and trying to give her space away from the other guests with small children. This also prevented us from having a good family photo of us all dressed up, because she was having none of it. At least the cold was relatively minor and short-lived. We’re sure the gorgeous climate and the fresh sea air did her good. Regardless, we were happy to see whatever we could of the wedding. Andrea and Fiammetta put a tremendous amount of effort into planning it (even arranged accommodations for all guests since little is online), and they looked so happy on their big day!

Saturday morning, we took the train back to Pisa and began the trip home again. Due to delays and the waiting game that is plane travel, the total journey lasted around 12 hours. Ellie was a trooper as usual and didn't complain, but we could tell how happy she was to be home!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Rainy Days

We returned from a beautiful sunny week in the Meditteranean to a grey, rainy autumnal Holland. This is the same weather (temperature and all) that we experienced when we moved here in October...only it's JULY! I've been wanting to update the blog with stories and pictures from our wonderful holiday, but this weather has been wearing us out! The three of us are perpetually sleepy. Ellie is taking marathon naps and going to bed early each night. It must be the readjustment to low pressure after all that warmth and sun (can't we go back?!). Be looking for that update soon, because the holiday was too good not to share! In the meantime, I thought I'd share the latest from Holland. The best part about rain is the puddles! At least someone is enjoying the mucky weather.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Happy Anniversary to us!

Having freshly returned from a wedding in Italy, it's time to reflect on our own three years ago today. Happy Anniversary to us!