Omafeit – Amsterdam Fietsen (Bikes)

After that hectic trip to Europe, we came back happy and content with all the marvelous experiences we had the opportunity to take in, and also intensely happy to be back to our suburban heaven in California. It was a beautiful rainy day when we landed and the day after, an even more beautiful sunny day. So, off the son & I went on a bike ride through the beautiful trails by the swollen creek that we can now call a river. It was as we were happily talking to each other and biking that we took to discussing the bikes of Amsterdam. The beautiful, haphazard bikes by the canal.

bikes

There are images, and there are special ones. The ones that you have no time to take, but remain imprinted on your brain. The whizzing fleeting ones that sear themselves in some cozy part of the brain, associating with some feeling or aroma or words. The mystical ones.

“Remember that man with his kid on his shoulders riding the bike?”

“Oh- and that lady who had a cabin baggage sized suitcase hanging from her handlebar as she biked off to catch her train or plane!”

“Oh – that grandpa with his suit and lovely grand-daughter sitting in a basket seat in the front dressed like a princess tootling off for a Christmas service or lunch somewhere!”

biking_amsterdam

While walking by the canal in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve can be an experience in itself, it doesn’t quite prepare you for the chaotic beauty that is Amsterdam. I’ve heard folks talk about Amsterdam not being like other European cities. I’ve seen pictures of bikes by the canal on social media. But I was truly taken aback by the sheer joy and the haphazard manner in which the bikes were strewn against the canal as folks went about their business. There was a hustle and bustle, a gaiety, a chaotic joy to the whole atmosphere that was wholly unique to Amsterdam. It seemed like everything was possible with a bike. What an empowering sensation that must be! 

We were besotted by the warmth and quirks of the locals, and fellow gawkers such as ourselves alike.

The markets! The open air market near LinderGracht was a charm. Nowhere had I seen such a jolly throng of folks.About the only orderly thing is the statue of Dutch writer and educator Theo Thijssen, teaching one of his pupils.  The son & I chuckled as we made our way on a cold morning walk the next day and saw a bike propped against the statue as if the student was in a rush to get to his master, and had to get there on bike and dash it by the statue.

bike_market

This was Christmas morning, and many folks seemed to be making their way to church or for a meal with friends and family on their bikes, and we wished them all a merry Christmas as they biked past. The fact that they all waved back, returned the greeting or said something clever and witty tickled us to no end.

“You know I understand now what my colleagues meant when they said they missed the biking of Amsterdam when they moved to the US!”, said the husband as he watched a father and son whiz past us to somewhere. The baby sat safe and content in the front basket, while the father biked him to where he needed to be, while the wind whipped their faces with holiday cheer. “This is a whole different level of mobility and swift action.” 

A dozen geese squawking overhead flicked me back from Christmas time in Amsterdam to a cold January day in California in a jiffy. Who said we haven’t invented time travel and wormholes?

“Isn’t it so much easier to bike here on the trail though?” said the son as another biker courteously informed us that he was approaching us on the left, and sped past us with a wave of his hand as moved out of his way.

I agreed. 

ca_bike

While it was enchanting to watch all these bikers wiggle their way through the crowds, it takes a certain debonair attitude I think to be able to bike suavely in Amsterdam, and for that they had our admiration. We amateurs were safer on a biking trail for now. 

Philhellenism – the love of Greek culture

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) , I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing.

So, it was that we boarded our flight to Athens. Athens, the weather app promised us ,would be warmer, but still cold. It was expected to be between 40F & 65F (a difference of almost 15 degrees).

It was like every mile added not just warmth, but a different tinge to the culture. We had no idea on what to expect in Greece. It was our first time. A destination chosen by popular vote since the children are great fans of greek myths and have devoured all the books by Rick Riordan multiple times over. The husband had even booked a mythological tour to surprise them. But apart from this, our idea of Greece was based on A Big Fat Greek Wedding, Greek Myths by DeLaurailes, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy: My Family and Other Animals, Farther Afield by Miss Read, and all the different tidbits we knew about Greek philosophers, and mathematicians through the ages. 

As you can see, we had no idea, which was marvelous, for we were thoroughly unprepared for what happened next. We fell in love! In love with the city of Athens, the country of Greece, and the Greeks themselves.

After the professional intellectualism of Paris, Athens was like walking into a theme park – here you can have philosophy, art, literature and all the little marvels of the mind, but only if you agree to lighten up, have fun, and stay curious. The gentle humor and warmth with which the Greeks speak to each other and to the tourists is to be seen to be believed. They are a fun-loving, smart, and kind people. It is no wonder that this small country tucked away in the Mediterranean Sea gave us so much of the foundations of Western philosophy and culture. If Democracy had not been chanced upon here, I doubt it would’ve survived or chanced upon at all. As it is, it has so many assaults on it, it is fragile enough that we protect it. Greece is like the Disneyland of Europe. It reminds you of life as it should be: ambitious and lofty in our goals, but reminding us at every turn with their jolly, vivacious myths, of our humanity, our sense of community, and the importance of humility. 

I hung out of the window in the chill morning peering at the Acropolis. Those buildings were from the 5th century BC. Athens (the Greek call their beloved city, Athina after the goddess Athena) has been continuously populated over the past 6000 years. This showed up in little things such as drainage systems, rebuilding efforts and such (we found to our surprise that toilet paper cannot be flushed in Greece, and water bidets are not installed everywhere either).

It is hard to not get up in the morning and think that you are but a butterfly in the passage of time. On the mythological tour, Denai (our mythological tour guide) was informative and thoroughly impressed with the son’s knowledge of the Greek myths. I strutted along ( a proud parent) and learning so much of the mythologies that helped shape our way of the world, that I must say the cold forgot to bother me.

Who cannot be awed by the story of the Temple of Zeus being destroyed multiple times in history and the latest one by lightning? If that was not a sign from Zeus – the god of lightning himself, the Greeks did not know what was.

Or that wonderful story about how the city of Athens got its name. Apparently, it was such a popular place that even the Gods fought for the place. So Zeus tired of this bickering asked Poseidon & Athena to decide via a popular vote. Each had to give a gift to the populace and the people could decide.

  1. Poseidon – the god of the oceans, gave them water, signifying naval power and thus prosperity as a port city. This gift appealed to the men of the land.
  • Athena – the goddess of wisdom and strategy, gave them the olive tree, signifying the change from hunter-gatherer mode to prosperity from the land. The women liked all the different uses from the olive tree (olives, light from the lamps lit using olive oil, the wood etc).

The citizens chose Athena’s gifts – for  according to myth, women outnumbered men at the time of the vote and Athena won. This made Poseidon angry and to mollify him, the temple of Poseidon overlooks the city of Athens, while Athena’s temple overlooks the oceans. It was also why women were not allowed to vote from then on (again a myth, since it was never obvious that women had the vote in Greece. According to wikipedia – women gained the vote in Greece as late as 1952. But it was a crafty way to deny women their voting rights and have a story around it.

In the parliament square, the temple of Athena stood alongside that of Hephaestus, signifying that intellectual work was just as important as physical work. This was the place the philosophers gathered alongside the farmers to decide, debate and vote on the important matters of the day. Both types of people had to be in harmony for a prosperous society.

Thus it went in Greece. Wherever you went, there was a little story, involving the mighty gods, and their follies, all narrated by the populace with gentle humor.

And yet. While the myths are everywhere, there is a surprising and thoroughly lovable lack of reverence to these gods. They are gods – sure. But they have flaws – big ones. Much bigger than our own flaws since they are so much more popular and powerful.

I think it has to do with the complete dissociation of religion from the mythology. Indian mythology is just as broad, diverse and intricate – but since it is intertwined with Hinduism, good luck trying to be flippant about any aspect of it no matter how justified.

“Next time we come to Europe, we must stay longer in Greece, so we can go to the countryside and visit the little villages that dot Greece, maybe visit the island of Crete and Corfu.”, I said at the end of the glorious day in which we had eaten far too much delicious food, enjoyed far too many myths, and been far too enamored by the music and language of the greeks.

“Twenty-four hours!”, said the husband exchanging knowing winks with the children. They all guffawed.

“Amma – you said – No more Europe! Africa calls, and Australia sings and all that, 24 hours ago!”

What was there to say?  That’s how people fall in love with a country. It is no wonder they have a word for it. Philhellenism – a love of Greek culture!

Froide a Paris avec Gezellig

The husband planned a meticulous trip to 3 different countries in Europe for the nourish—n-cherish household. Left with all the rest of the work, I stood in front of my bookshelf dilly-dallying on the reading material. Finally, I chose Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which was an excellent read.

Neither here nor there: Travels in Europe by [Bill Bryson]

Bill Bryson started off his travels with catching the Northern lights in Norway. We chose France. But believe me, by the time we landed and made our way to the Airbnb , I felt like I was at the North Pole. The high temperatures of the day were 32F or OC. One night while standing by the Seine river watching the Eiffel Tower from a distance, I was so cold, I may have seen the aurora borealis over Jupiter. The daughter’s eyelashes froze, the son with no extra fat reserves froze too. The Seine miraculously flowed on.

Luckily, T’was the most wonderful time of the year!

This feels the time when overuse of the word , “T’was” is a requirement. Europe in Christmas time is a joy. The store fronts in tourist locations have marvelous decorations put up for Christmas and we couldn’t stop admiring the many ways in which people think to spread cheer. It was irresistible to stop and take a few pictures, very well knowing that I may never look at them again.

xmas_decor

Cities in Europe have a charm to Christmas time that is hard to capture. There is music in the air, there are musicians in subway stations, lights strung up everywhere in artistic and beautiful garlands like little bubbles of joy through the cold winter scene outside. Finally, there is a purposeful stride to people as they walk swiftly in their heavy coats looking sprightly, even though we seemed to feel lumberous with all the layers of thermal wear.

Our warm flight attendant on the KLM flight told us that the Dutch have a word similar to Hygge for this particular feeling:

It is called Gezellig.

She said the word was not easily translated, as it encompasses all warm feelings associated with the yuletide spirit (but is not restricted to Christmas or winter imagery) – just read the link above, will ya?

Every now and then, we would encounter a quiet fascinating residential street with plenty of trees. On one such charming street that windy day, the last few leaves from the trees above floated down and I went chasing after them in glee. No surer way to lift one’s spirits or body temperatures in my books!

The ones who impressed us the most though , were the relentless joggers of Paris. In case, any of you missed the gist thus far – Paris – beautiful but biting cold in winter. Yet, here they were, zipping through the streets in shorts and light jackets. I ain’t going to lie : that takes a special sort of determination and dedication and I would’ve taken my hat off to them if I didn’t think my brain would freeze.

Walking past a little pond that had frozen over, we stopped to watch the ducks standing on the frozen waters. Had their other duck friends flown onto warmer climes in Africa or Argentina, while these poor ducks were stuck here? I thought of that passage by Bill Bryson on his winter trip to Oslo to see the aurora borealis: I suppose this was one of those times when I truly felt grateful to be a visitor and not have to live there. I could already feel my feet freeze through the thick boots, and woollen socks, and couldn’t wait to get back to the room to take a warm shower. How were these poor birds standing on frozen water without socks, coats or caps? Yet, they seemed peaceful enough. They did not seem to be anticipating the World Cup Football Finals match later that evening, they did not seem to think anything of the rain forecast later that night.

frozen_ducks

“Are you coming or not? Freezing here – let’s get to a warm restaurant for the match!” , said the husband and I hurried along tucking away my little interlude with the ducks of France. It was time to cheer with the people of France for the football World Cup. France Vs Argentina.

After the freezing days of Paris, as we were bundling ourselves up in layers (yet again) for our small foray to find food, I said somewhat severely to the husband. “I think I’ve had enough of European vacations. Next time, we explore other places – Africa, South America, Australia: so many continents to explore! After a few museums, a half a dozen cathedrals, and a few hundred pieces of art, I am done.”

The husband smiled one of his crafty smiles and agreed, for he knew that I will be the one craving a European vacation first. He just had to sit by, observe, and make bets with the children on the timing. Much like watching a football game.

The Artists at Paris

The husband planned a meticulous trip to Europe for the nourish-n-cherish household. Trips to Europe are rarely complete without museums and so, off we went with our admiring hats on. I do not know the different periods in European art, and after several trips find that I am astounded by how much there is to learn and appreciate.

I do not know why Claude Monet spent 30 years in his garden in France painting the lily pond. I am even less capable of recognizing a Monet from a Chagall. But I am glad that Monet’s masterpiece with the lily ponds in his estate in France have a home designed specifically to appreciate the art like he intended it to be (The Orangerie Museum: Musée de l’Orangerie). How many artists get to have that particular claim to fame?

lily_pond

After the Louvre, the Orangerie museum was a treat. The Orangerie museum was a beautiful little museum tucked away near the most historically magnificent palace grounds in Paris. (Fun fact: apparently,  the word orangery refers to a protected ground in large palaces in Europe :   a greenhouse for growing oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits in cool climates.)

IMG_1701

We each went our ways and did not have to worry about getting lost. It was a small, compact museum with works of a few artists, and it was all very done. Really – the way Europe reveres its artists and preserves its art history is admirable. In about 3 hours, we were done and ready to explore the rest of Paris by foot. As we walked on, we fell to discussing Art – the Renaissance, the rise of cubism, and all the rest of it. 

How some artists chose lighter subjects such as Auguste Renoir in these paintings of the girls bonding over music, or whispering a secret together.

Or the beautiful nature filled works of Sam Szafran where the human is but a tiny part of the intricate patterns of nature

IMG_1730-COLLAGE

As we trundled away from the Orangerie museum towards the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it was irresistible to stop and take a few pictures, very well knowing that I may never look at them again.

We ended up in due course, after our glacial progress through the streets of Paris, at the foothills of the Eiffel Tower. It was there that the many perspectives of Art we’d just learned about became apparent. The son tried taking pictures using the vertical panorama technique that I had shown him.

eiffel-1

He showed us cubism.

eiffel_cubism

We even have a picture of me pulling off the invisibility cloak after apparating to the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I wonder why these art forms do not deserve their place in museums of modern art.

eiffel-invisbility

How better for our artists to capture the true magic of a European vacation?

Magique Français

There is a charm to traveling at this time of the year. We had decided on an Europe trip with 3 countries thrown in to the mix. Which is to say that the rest of the nourish-n-cherish household of spoilt folks enjoyed a trip planned meticulously by the husband. Left with all the rest of the work, I stood in front of my bookshelf dilly-dallying on the reading material. Finally, I chose Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which was an excellent read. 

The whole way to the Airbnb from the Paris airport, the radio was on and the hosts chattered on in French. Considering that I was the only passenger in the car who had ‘learnt’ French, I must say I was aghast that I remembered almost nothing of the beautiful language (except for tidbits such as – one mustn’t pronounce the last consonant, unless the next word starts with a vowel, or the river is feminine while the museum is masculine) I have always been little lost with languages that attribute a gender to everything. 

Is a croissant masculine or feminine? I don’t know. 

Both Le Croissant and La croissant sound right to me, but DuoLingo assures me that croissants are masculine and therefore Le Croissant is correct. Sigh.

I must say languages and brains are curious things. I was sincere, if not successful, in my attempts to learn French in 11th and 12th grade. I would’ve thought that some things would surface through the foggy decades as I heard the spoken language, or saw the words written in the menu cards in the little French cafes. But nothing happened. I recognized ‘avec’, ‘le’, ‘la’, ‘and words that had a passing semblance to the English language and could thus be fathomed. As I stumbled my way through the language  I realized that I had never really spoken French, though I seemed confident enough to butcher the pronunciations. For instance, I confidently addressed the Louvre as the ‘Loo-v-rrrr’. 

Apparently, I had it all wrong. 

Humbled by this revelation of my poor French, one day on the metro, I was trying my best to listen to the announcements and map the name of the stations to the pronunciation. I can understand my not getting a name like Champs-Élysées – Clemenceau or Maisons-Alfort – Les Juilliottes, but I didn’t get Grands Boulevard. That hurt. Now see, I pronounce it is Grand-ss Boo-lay-vard (so no letter is offended or feels less important). But the French pronounce it as Gron Boolevaar. With the overhead crackling that is a requirement for most metro systems,  I heard it as ‘groan bole’, and was looking around at people before the husband said it was time for us to get out and hustled us out.  I leaped out before the doors closed behind me and was rattled till the sortie (exit).

The French trip you up in more ways than one. I trust it is their way of having fun with us poor sods who haven’t a clue about the language. For instance, there were so many names that sounded like food, it was astonishing. Who wouldn’t like to get out at Madeleine station? I found myself drooling a bit about the buttery m-s and missed Grands Boulevard. 

I remember the husband telling me for an entire hour that we had to go to Rue Ravioli. I thought to myself and smiled that I had never seen this many streets named after food in any other country. I mean how often have we seen a Hamburger boulevard, or a Tomato-Bisque Road? Even in countries that enjoy their foods so much like India, I had never seen a Roti Street or Dosa Boulevard.  As I was feeling cleverer and cleverer with the inspired line of thought, I found that the husband was truly hungry was all. It was Rue-de-Ravoli, not Rue-de-Ravioli (the cheese filled pasta).

Nevertheless, the names had a marvelous ring to them. 

Liberte

Bonne Nouvelle

Strasbourg – Saint-Denis (a big hyphen followed by a small hyphen)

I found myself nodding vigorously and agreeing vociferously (making the French doubt my capabilities even more) as I read Bill Bryson’s Neither here nor there: Travels in Europe.

Bill Bryson on French:

I took 3 years of French in school, but learned next to nothing. The problem was that the textbooks were so amazingly useless. 

They never told you any of the things you would need to know in France. They were always tediously occupied with classroom activities : hanging up coats, cleaning the blackboard, opening the window, setting out the day’s lessons. Even in seventh grade I could see that this sort of thing would be of limited utility in the years ahead. How often on a visit to France do you need to tell someone you want to clean a blackboard? How frequently do you wish to say: “It is winter. Soon it was will be spring. “

In my experience, people know this already.

Bill Bryson

But language has a way of morphing and conjoining, and by the end of the day, the daughter was speaking in lilting French accents, and I was very impressed with her, and unimpressed with myself for I understood next to nothing. Then, she chuckled and told me that she was just spinning her Spanish in French accents. I tell you! The nourish-n-cherish household really knows how to capture the magique francais.

The Anthropological Note – Bonjourna

Traveling from the US to any other continent is different. Continents with older civilizations hold an anthropological charm, and a cry to learn from History. Setting foot in the first city on our Italian holiday, Rome, I could palpably feel everything we have heard about Rome ringing in my years.

All roads lead to Rome
When in Rome, be a Roman
Rome was not built in a day

The Great Roman empire, Remus and Romulus fed by a wolf. An Italian Sojourn was unfolding, and I was filled with the milk of human kindness as we made our way to the first place of stay.

roman_ruins
Ruins in the middle of the city – Roman Forum. A pathway over 2000 years old!

Rattling along in the taxi from Rome airport to our place of stay nearer to the tourist spots, our driver was helpful. He gave us tips on places to see, and warned us about staying away from the railway stations at night. “Many people gather there, poor people, people from other countries, it can sometimes be , eh, dangerous for tourists.” he said in his thick Italian accent. I grew to love the tune with which Italians spoke English. “Italy now, there are no jobs enough for Italians, where will these other people find jobs? But they have no place to go, no work to do also.” he said sadly.

It was a sentiment that is commonly heard across Europe these days. Across Italy and Ireland, I heard variants of the same thing: The human heart that wants to share and welcome has to work hard to find the resources to aid all. It is easier for people to take to cynicism, nationalism and protectionism.  The refugee crises has peaked because of religious tensions, economic collapse, tyrannical governments – Rohingya, Syria. Millions are being displaced (Source UNHCR) without any shot at livelihood, and this will have consequences to a planet already stretched to its limits.

Do We Belong On Earth Blog Series

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves is a good book to read in this context. It is a book of short essays based on his travels to the countries of turmoil. Israel-Palestine border, Serbia-Herzegovina, Syria, Iran, Honduras.

You can watch the video here

travel_as_a_political_act

Traveling makes me think of Mark Twain’s quote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

A broad, wholesome, charitable view of men is all well when things are going well, and when one as a traveler or tourist is sublimely soaking in another culture, being helped by strangers and so on. I have to admit though, that I had difficulty summoning up charitable views of men when I had my purse stolen a few days later. I was sore at the end of a weeklong journey, and I swore at the pickpocket who stole my purse. Charitable view forsooth!

But, it too taught me something. I had ignored the pater’s teaching about splitting your assets and had stupidly taken all my credit cards together. That learning came with a cold lesson( a painful 6 hour wait in the whipping winds outside the DMV.) Another post for another day.

 

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