Thursday, May 19, 2011

Anne and Tom Save the Day

Although many of you may be thinking that my sister, Anne, and brother, Tom, only visited us to muscle in on the free birthday cake, I can assure that was not the case.  They were kind enough to come stay with Grant while Lori and I attended Kate's graduation in Nashville.  Then they stayed on for several days to see The Netherlands.  We really appreciate their generosity, plus it was great to have them visit. 

They quickly fell into the European pace....long walks with Graber, bicycling to get groceries, having coffee in the middle of the afternoon at an outdoor cafe, drinking bottled water (with gas) and driving a manual transmission.  The only hiccup occurred when the kitchen faucet sprung a leak while Lori and I were in the States.  No worries though -- Tom devised a tupperware waterfall to contain the leak overnight and the landlord sent a plumber out the next day.  Anne thoroughly spoiled Graber (as if that is possible) by taking him on 2 hour walks every morning.  Tom and I enjoyed a number of cycling trips around the area.  We also managed to see a few Holland sights. 

We rode our bikes to the Wassenaar Market

The virtuosos gave us a concert (I think they played Heart and Soul). 

Children number 1,3 and 4 in the Woodburn Clan

Tom rode to school with Grant.

Cycling the paths in the countryside

The weather was warm on the first days of their visit.  Tom and Grant relaxing after lunch at the local pannenkoeken house. 

Graber's new best friend

Anne's idea of dog training is to say "good boy" when he catches the cheese.  Like Graber would ever not catch cheese. 

The tupperware waterfall kept the leak contained until help arrived

Our new faucet.  Not much different than the old one except that it doesn't leak. 

Now that all the visitors have left I need to get back to mowing the lawn!

Leiden:  We did a self-guided walking tour of this historic city where Rembrandt was born and Holland's first university was established.  As you can see in the pictures, the warm, balmy weather that we enjoyed for Don and Joan's visit vanished and Holland returned to its normal spring climate of wind, rain and chills. 

Like all good Dutch, the weather didn't stop us.  This is the site of Rembrandt's birth, although it looks like they've updated the bricks and added siding since his time. 

This tree at the Leiden Univsersity Botanical Center reminded me of the apricot tree at our family's farm.  Both trees have some serious bracing to hold the trunks together. 

This Lutheran Church is visible from the road, but that hasn't always been the case.  The 17th century church was hidden behind houses for almost 200 years due to the Calvinist policy that prayer houses of a different faith couldn't be visible from the main road.  I guess that Dutch tolerance hadn't developed yet at that time.  The houses in front of the church were torn down in 1866. 

The Hooglandse Kerk, begun in 1366 but never finished. 

The interior courtyard of an Almshouse of which Leiden has 35.  These complexes were founded by rich people who tried to secure a spot in heaven by building homes for the elderly and poor people.  People could live in the Almhouses for free.  There would be one door leading into a courtyard such as this and the "apartments would surround the courtyard.  The residents had to follow strict rules and were expected to behave respectfully and thankfully. 

Den Haag:  We rode our bikes into Den Haag for an afternoon.  We visited the Escher Museum, the Bittenhof (government house) and had a coffee. 

At the museum

At the gate of the Bittenhof

When we came to the plien, or square, someone had taped yellow balloons all around.  It turned out to be Greenpeace holding a demonstration against nuclear power.  We didn't sign their petition. 

Our ritual afternoon coffee.

At Queen Beatrix's palace on the way home.

Cycling through the woods
 Delft:  Home and burial place of William the Silent (chronicled in earlier postings).  We had lunch at the former Weigh House, visited the two churches (Oude & Niewe) and took a canal boat tour. 

These pillows are for parishioners at the Oude Kerk.  Vanderbilt would have done well to offer these at Kate's graduation. 

One of Delft's old homes

The old towne hall in Delft is a beautiful building that is normally closed.  When Anne asked what it was used for, I didn't know.  Just then a bride and groom emerged.  Now we know what it's used for. 

Tom and Anne relaxing before our boat tour.  All that would change later on when things got a little more exciting.  We hit the side of the canal 3 or 4 times and the motor quit when a plastic bag wrapped around the propeller.

The boat tour guide told us that in olden times people were taxed according to the number of windows in their home.  Supposedly this person didn't pay their taxes so their window was bricked over.  It sounded like one of those stories that sounded great on the tour boat, but might not be the entire truth.   

Monday, May 16, 2011

Happy Birthday Tom!

Tom & Anne's visit also allowed us to celebrate another birthday (and eat another delicious cake).  Tom's birthday was Sunday so we went out to dinner then came home to eat Tuxedo Cake.  It's a chocolate cake with whipped cream frosting.  Then Lori poured bittersweet chocolate over the top.  Yum!  The recipe is from the Rather Sweet Bakery and Cafe in Fredericksburg, TX whose owner is known as the Pastry Queen.  In addition to being a great cook, the Pastry Queen also has talent for naming her recipes.  Another of our favorites from her cookbook is Texas Big Hair Lemon Meringue Tarts. 

For those of you interested in other famous events on May 15, the first McDonalds opened in 1940, Joe DiMaggio began his 51 game hitting streak in 1941 and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island aired in 1981.  A little further back but closer to home, in 1491 German soldiers killed 232 people in Alkmaar, Holland to quell the Cheese and Bread Rebellion.  Quite a day in history. 

Happy Birthday Tom!

The only one who got a present was Graber -- a big bone toy from Target.

Oh The Thinks You Can Think!

The American School Middle School Spring musical this year was "Seussical the Musical, Jr." and Grant played the role of Mr. Mayor.  He was actually promoted twice to get that role.  After try-outs in January he was a Citizen of Whoville.  Then a boy had to quit due to schedule conflicts, so Grant was promoted to Judge Yertle the Turtle.   Several weeks later another boy quit and Grant was promoted again, this time to Mr. Mayor (of Whoville).   Grant did a great job acting mayoral in the show and his yellow suit was a big hit.  We really enjoyed it. 

Mr & Mrs. Mayor with their child JoJo.  The real JoJo got sick prior to dress rehearsal and didn't recover in time for the play.  The cast didn't include understudies so this girl substituted at the last minute.  She did great. 
You may have noticed that Grant was not in any of Kate's graduation photo's.  As luck would have it, his play was the same weekend as Kate's graduation so he stayed in Holland  (I'm sure that he really missed sitting on those wooden bleachers for four hours at Kate's graduation).   That created a hectic weekend for Lori and I.  We attended Kate's graduation on Friday from 9:00 am to 1:00.  Following that we went to several receptions on campus, left for the airport at 3:00, took off at 5:00 and landed the next day at noon.  We were tired, but arrived in plenty of time to see Grant's performance that night. 

The mayor with his biggest fan.  For those of you who haven't seen him for awhile, notice that he's as tall as his Mother.  
All these logistics were possible because my sister and brother (Anne & Tom) were kind enough to come stay with Grant while Lori and I were in Nashville.  The also got to see the musical (twice) so Grant had lots of relatives in the audience.   

A happy couple lament over how to raise a child.  

The citizens of Whoville

Congratulations Kate!

Last Friday, Kate graduated from Vanderbilt University with a bachelors degree in Chemical Engineering.  Lori & I had a short, but great visit to Nashville to be with her.  It was my first visit back to the States in almost a year, so we had lots of US things on our "to do" high quality Mexican food, buy clothes for Grant since he seems to need taller sizes every month, wander the aisles of Target (where you can buy everything you need in one store) and drive an SUV that seemed as big as a tank.  It was really weird not to see one single bicycle on the road. 

While we were there, we received a sign that Kate's time in Nashville was complete and she could move on.  One of her frequent complaints has been that everyone has seen Taylor Swift out and about in Nashville (she's lives in a condo near the Vanderbilt campus).  But not Kate.  She saw Barack Obama when he was in town for the Presidential election debates, but she hadn't seen Taylor Swift.  She saw Michael Phelps in the Newark Airport, but she hadn't seen Taylor Swift.  All that changed when one day as the three of us were we enjoying our lunch at Zoe's, in walked Taylor Swift and her mother.  We thought about going up to get a refill on our limeades so we could brush shoulders with her, but decided to simply observe cooly from our table (and take her picture with our cell phone when she wasn't looking).  So with that (and her diploma), we knew that Kate's years in Nashville had been a success. 

Not exactly the picture we took with our cell phone, but close. 

One of Kate's Senior Year highlights was living in a suite with four other great girls.  Their living arrangements included a small living room/kitchen so it was closer to an apartment than a standard dorm room.  They had a lot of fun together.  As a closing finale', they (along with a friend, Mina) hosted their parents and families for dinner at a local restaurant.  Thanks Rachel, Michelle, Mina, Michelle, Kalee & Kate; it was delicious and lots of fun.  

The suite-mates on the morning of the big day.

With their official graduation attire.

The dinner hosts

The visit was not all fun and games though.  If I was the sentimental type, I would write that we boxed up four years of memories that Kate will take with her for the next stage of her life.  In reality we spent the time packing up four years of clothes, textbooks, shoes, plastic cups, etc. that Kate has to haul home.   It is always amazing how much stuff kids fit into their tiny dorm room.  Despite packing her car to a world record density, we had two boxes left over that had to be shipped.  To me it was still a major victory.  As we were lugging boxes down the elevator and out to the car in the Nashville heat, Lori and I were wondering the same thing -- how are we going to do this in 8 years when Grant graduates and we're really old.    

One thing we did bring from The Netherlands was rain; consequently the graduation ceremony had to be held inside. Vanderbilt is small enough that the undergradutates all walk across the stage to shake the Dean's hand, shake the Chancellor's hand and receive their diploma.  All 1734 of them.  So we sat on hard wooden bleachers in the unair-conditioned Memorial Gymnasium for close to four hours.  It actually wasn't that bad.  They wisely opened the concession stands so we could get snacks.  And our view was much better than if we had been sitting on lawn chairs far away from the outdoor stage.  I will commend the Chancellor.  Even though he had to be tired, he shook everyone's hand with great enthusiasm.  I'm sure that he washed his hands several times when it was all over. 

Vanderbilt's Class of 2011

Thanks to the wonder of an optical zoom camera, I could take this photo of Kate and the Chancellor from the uppper balcony of the gym.  Check back on the blog later when I'll have the official (and better) University photo.  With all the banner, robes, hats, scarves, etc. the ceremony reminded me of Harry Potter at Hogwarts. 

So now Kate has begun her summer of fun.  Then next fall it's off to medical school at Robert Wood Johnson in New Jersey.  Congratulations Kate!  We're proud of you. 

Kate and Grant when we dropped her off as a Freshman.  The four years went fast.  Grant's a little bigger now.  

Vanderbilt must own a lot of plastic chairs.  Here they are set up for a Freshman welcome session four years ago. 
This is the same lawn, same chairs four years later set up for graduation.  And this would have been our view of the ceremony if it hadn't rained and transferred events inside. 

Kate in front of the Chi-O house.

Even the hotel got into the graduation act.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Say It With Flowers

Tulips at The Keukenhof near Lisse, Holland

As Mother's Day approaches it seems appropriate to talk about flowers in the Netherlands.  When you think of Holland you probably think of windmills, Hans Brinker and tulips.  Although not native to Holland, once the first tulips arrived here in the late 1500's their popularity soared.  In the early 1600's tulips became so expensive that a speculators' market developed.  Prices for tulips exceeded those for a small home; traders made enormous profits.  Tulipmania gripped Holland for two years.  Then, as always seems to happen with these markets, the winds changed -- quickly.  Everyone now had tulips so why pay a high price for something that even the commoners owned. The market crashed, lots of people lost money and everyone wondered how it all happened.   The only difference from today is that it didn't spawn a bunch of books and congressional investigations. 

As an aside, if you look up tulip in Wikipedia, one of the pictures is of the Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon.  Evidently the town has a Dutch heritage, which of course obligates it to have a tulip festival just like every other US town with a Dutch heritage.  In case you are wondering whether the author's ancestors were involved with the town's naming, that is not the case.  Years ago, in response to a letter from my older sister, the town fathers informed us that in the 1800's a fire got out of control and burned down a wooded lot.  Being very pragmatic (i.e. Dutch) people, they conjured up the name Woodburn for their new settlement.  This story is also told on Wikipedia so it must be true. 

Anyway, back to flowers.  Holland supplies 10 billion flower bulbs every year, 70% of the world's total.  If you want to see them at their best, visit the Keukenhof near Lisse.  This 70 acre park contains 6 to 7 million flower bulbs that are planted each fall and then removed in the summer by 60 full time gardeners.   The next year they do it all again with different bulbs and differnt garden designs.  It's kind of like a Farm Progress Show for tulips --the bulbs are all donated by over 90 different growers so that they can showcase their latest hybrids.

My brother, Tom, has a variety named after him.

The Keukenhof gets about 900,000 visitors every year, which doesn't seem like that many until you realize that it's only open in April & May.  There are only three 2 lane roads accessing the park so traffic is horrendous.  And it is tour bus mecca so once you get to the park you have to compete with roving packs of tour groups from around the world.  Luckily, the locals had advised us to go early.  So we rousted Don and Joan out of bed at 6:00 am, ate a quick breakfast and got to the front gate just before the opening at 8:00.  What a difference that made; there was no traffic and we had the park almost to ourselves for an hour. 

This is what the Keukenhof entrance looks like at 7:55 am.  It is much busier at 11:00 am. 

As expected, John Deere was the offical tractor of the Keukenhof


They look pretty happy for having gotten up at 5:30 am. 

The latest way to carry your dog in comfort.  We want one of these for Graber. 

Grant taking a break from flower watching to play on the zip line while eating a chocolate covered waffle.

As you might expect, the Keukenhof is right in the middle of prime tulip growing farms.  We drove around the area and saw field after field of tulips in bloom. 

This machine was planting some type of bulb.

One of the tulip fields near Lisse

More tulip fields. 

A hyacinth field near Wassenaar

Our second flower expedition was to the FloraHolland flower auction in Aalsmeer, near Amsterdam.  FloraHolland is a cooperative owned by over 6000 flower growers.  They have six auction houses that sell 48 million flowers and plants every day.  The Aalsmeer auction is their largest handling over 17 million flowers every day.  If you bought a day's worth of flowers at Aalsmeer, that would be enough to give your Mother almost 4000 dozen flowers every day for a year!  That would easily top Harry & David's Fruit of the Month Club.

Millionsof flowers on carts ready for auction

The Aalsmeer Auction is in a warehouse about the size of Rhode Island.  Visitors walk on catwalks above the floor where dozens of tractors pull thousands of carts loaded with millions of flowers.  The auction rooms hold several hundred buyers sitting in tiered rows with computer screens and headsets.  The flower carts come through on an automated rail system.  As the cart goes buy, a lady pulls out a sample to show the buyers (somewhat like Vanna White on the Price is Right). 

One of the five auction rooms at Aalsmeer.  Note the flowers coming through on the track.  It never stops moving.  The auction screen is at the front of the room. 

Meanwhile, the auction is happening on a huge computer screen at the front of the room.  The Dutch use a "clock" for an auction.  The price starts at around one Euro per stem.  Then the ball goes around the clock counting down the price until someone buys.  There is no bidding against one another; the first one to bid as the price falls gets it.  The longer you wait, the lower the price.  But someone could beat you to it.  And you don't have much time to think; it takes about three seconds for the clock to count down.  Once you are the successful buyer you can decide how many containers of that particular flower to take at that price.  Then it's on to the next lot.  It's not quite as exciting as watching the Stenzel Brothers but it's the only way they can auction that much inventory every day.

Flowers that have been sold.  They are lined up ready to be loaded on trucks for delivery. 

The logistics of this business are amazing.  The flowers are picked at the growers on the afternoon before, shipped that evening to the auction house.  They spend the night in refrigerated storage.  Inspection begins at 4:00 am, the auction begins at 6:00, all the flowers are sold by 9 or 10, then shipped out to arrive all across Europe by that afternoon.  Of course others are shipped by plane to arrive the next morning.  Amazing. 

One more thing.  Since the auction begins early and ends when they run out of flowers, the locals' advice was to go early.  So once again, Don and Joan were up at 5:30 to get to the visitors center by 7:00 am.   Who knew that visiting Holland would be so exhausting. 

These carts are on the automated track. 

Tulips and roses are the big volume flowers.  We also saw some African Violets.

Some flowers are moved in boxes.
 One of the advantages of living in the midst of all these flowers is that they are relatively inexpensive to buy.  There are two or three flower stands in Wassenaar.  I usually buy a nice arrangement for about 15 euro.  If I was clever enough to arrange my own I could get the cut flowers for half that price.  During tulip season the going price seems to be 50 cut tulips for 5 euro.  What a bargain. 

Many of the medians in Wassenaar are covered in Daffodils in the Spring. 

The sign says it Dutch, of course.  They're even open on Sunday!

So many colors to chose from.

Some of the author's tulips in full bloom.  Those of you that watched World Cup Soccer last summer will know that Orange is the official color of The Netherlands