Netherlands - Rome

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Luctor et Emergio

The motto of Zeeuse Vlanderen is "luctor et emergio" - I struggle and emerge. Today no one struggles very much and there's very little swamp left to emmerge from.

The ideal Belgian waffle consists of hot waffle-scented air contained by a crust. This example was captured in Antwerp. Sadly, it did not do well in captivity.

Summer

While the introduction of the Euro has vastly simplified life in the low countries where one used to have to juggle three currencies, there are still interesting differences.

Thus, in Belgium one finds a number of brothels which suggests a level of reproductive fervour oddly incomensurate with the shrinking Belgian population. Meanwhile, just across the border, you find dozens of porno shops which suggests a certain level of non-reproductive fervour. There are no obvious porno shops in Belgium and no obvious brothels in The Netherlands. Of course, the Dutch do have brothels, but they tend to be carefully segregated near train stations. I assume a complementary arrangement on the part of the Belgians vis-a-vis their porno shops but have yet to stumble across a proof.

While in Belgium we set up a bank account from which our Belgian health insurance payments could be be automatically deducted. We have Belgian health insurance because we couldn't find any American insurance that would be either affordable or worth having while cruising. The whole business was typically Belgian: we got the insurance through a friend of Karin's parents who was in the insurance business, the bank was recommended by my brother-in-law who knew the director. To top it off, the lady who helped us set up the account noted that accounts of foreign nationals were usually subject to tax withholding on the interest but we that could fill in a form and evade the withholding. This made so little sense in Flemish that I asked her to repeat it in English. Bartelby is alive and well in Antwerp.

Fietsen (Bicycling)

The Bicycle

The Bicycle weighs about 45 lbs in fighting trim and comes complete with fenders, dynamo powered head and tail lights, a kickstand, a built-in lock and a sturdy luggage rack quite capable of carrying a sack of potatos or an inebriated friend, or, in interesting times, both.

The Bicycle is ridden upright in a dignified posture. Slouching forward, sweating and slobbering is considered excessive - like you're really in the Tour de France or something. The objective is to move forward with grace and dignity, and to arrive at one's destination without sweating. Dutch couples can still be seen cycling hand in hand.

If you are fortunate, The Bicycle, may come with gears. Mine alleged to have seven but I never succeeded in finding more than three. However, three is quite satisfactory given that there are exactly three gear-dependent situations that one may encounter: no wind, riding with the wind, and riding into the wind. Occasionally one may have to ascend a dike but it is quite acceptable to get off the bike and walk.

Aside from dikes, the landscape has a pervasive flatness that will be difficult for Californians to grasp. While the Dutch have many unique words for flat surfaces (for example, polder, "a flat surface below sea-level which has been protected by dikes"), they have only 3 or so for non-flat surfaces and in our experience even that seems like overkill.

The plan was to ride from Hulst to a "Boeren Camping" (a farm with a few campsites not a farmers' camping trip) near Terneuzen, spend a day exploring the surrounding country, and then move on "to the other side" as the locals ominously say, and explore the island of Walcheren across the Westerschelde. Fortunately, there is a ferry service from Breskens to Vlissingen which, unlike Morpheus, makes round trips - plausibly skippered by Cafine (ka-fee-nay for those lingering on the horns of the old cantelope-caliope pronunciation conundrum) on the return trip. I imagine her as a sort of voluptuous version of Katie Couric clad in diaphanous... but I digress. That brothel-porno shop stream of subconscious must have must have burst a pre-frontal dike turning an otherwise productive expanse of gray matter into seething laschivious ooze.

Anyway.

On Walcheren, we'd stay in a hotel in the town of Vrouwenpolder for a couple of days and then come back the way we went.

Now, without wounding any national pride, one can reasonably say that summer weather in The Netherlands is somewhat variable. In their own modest way, the Dutch are fond of noting that they have some of the best "cloud landscapes" in the world. We packed our raingear, but for the duration of the trip it stayed scrunched in the bottom of the paniers. On the very last day, we raced a thunderstorm back to the campground.

Flamingos on the Westerschelde

Oddly enough, we couldn't get any of the passing Dutch to even glance in the direction of the Flamingos.

We'd say something like:

"Look, flamingos!"

And the passing cyclist would wisecrack:

"Sure, right next to the zebras"

over his shoulder without even slowing down.

I'm now considering the possibility that flamingos have always lived in the Westerschelde and that the ever practical Dutch have simply refused to acknowledge even the possibility of their existence. This view was born out when my mother-in-law asked about the (alleged) flamingos at a nearby national park and was treated like an idiot.

But it is true.

Tilting at Windmills

While I've been in dozens of windmills over the years, I'd never seen one actually operating. So, labouring under a entomological misapprehension which was entirely forgivable on a hot afternoon, I was doubly delighted to see the windmill turning as we approached the town of Biervliet. I had assumed "Biervliet" meant something like "colosal free beer brewing navy" but was chagrined to find that in middle high Dutch (sort of a triple oxymoron) bier originally meant "mud" and vliet meant "stream". The muddy stream had long since been poldered away leaving Biervliet with a fisherman's memorial in a main square 10km from the nearest navigable water.

The windmill was indeed open and the resident crusty old geezer was more than happy to show us around which made up for the sting of the "beer fleet" business. Now, a windmill is a powerful piece of machinery, and, as it is difficult to stop a moving mill rapidly it is quite dangerous if you get anything stuck in any of the moving pieces.

In America, you would not be allowed into a windmill because too many Americans have gestured carelessly in the direction of of large whirling pieces of machinery and said something like:

"Hey, does this work?"

immediately before discovering first hand (so to speak) that it did in fact work. At best, you could hope to see an inoperative scale model safely behind glass. However, in the Netherlands, the crusty old geezer only grumbles:

"Careful of that"

before leading us up a series of seriously antique ladders to the very top of the mill where the giant pinion with lignum vitae teeth engaged the main drive shaft.

Nautical Content

On the last day of the trip, we watched a really big move through the locks on the "Canal between Terneuzen and Gent". I will never complain about squeezing Endless Summer into a slip again. I think this freighter had less clearance in the lock than ES has in the tightest slip we'v ever been in.

Rome

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Karin found us rooms in the Hotel San Francesco in Trastevere. Trastevere is one of the more authentic (ie. grubbier) parts of Rome, just across the Tiber from the Forum.

Unlike, say, New York which advertises every feature of possible interest and many which are quite repellant, Rome, is quiet and secretive. So, for example, you're walking along some crooked little alley and you look into a grubby little doorway and see that the entire block has been hollowed out into a fabulous showroom for designer kitchens. No signs. No parking. Nothing to indicate what is inside the grubby exterior.

All the buildings look like they were last painted sometime in the late 15th century, but look inside some and you catch a glimpse of a spectacular courtyard garden.

Or, you're walking back to the hotel one night and you seen an unmarked doorway. The door stands open and a flight of stairs, lit in red, leads downward. Do you go in? How far?

Of note: Many "Pace" (that's "peace" kemosabe) rainbow flags around the city.

Boca de la Verite

We'd explained several times about the "Boca de la Verite". How the stone jaws snapped shut grinding through bone and gristle. How the Italian red cross maintained a special ambulance unit just to deal with maimed tourists. How careful they were to clean up an unsightly blood. And, how the left over hands were donated to the needy.

Nicoline knows the drill ("Papa!," roll eyes in disgust) but she was still a little rattled. On the way to it she pulled Karin aside.

"Does that thing really work?" she said.

At last, she decided that, given a certain flexibility with the truth which characterized some of her past dealings, it might perhaps be better if Karin went with.

Catacombs

With an eye toward beating the heat, we planned an afternoon trip to the catacombs of St. Cecilia. ... Without explanation (not that we would have understood one if given) the bus dropped us off on Via Appia Antigua about a kilometer from the indicated bus stop.

So great was the disappointment at the lack of human remains that I have decided that the next time I return to the catacombs, I shall come equipped with a halloween skull which I will leave behind for future tour groups. I also came up with a nice Halloween story about a girl who goes on a tour of the catacombs. Does she pay attention and stay with her family? No. Instead, when one group runs into another, she follows the other even though the guide, oddly robed, speaks a funny language that she can't quite place. Deeper and deeper they go. Etc.

Hercules.

Leaving

We were flying with "SN Brussles Airlines," the remains of Sabena. At the check-in counter, the agent directed us to gate B2. Arriving at B2 we saw the monitors indicating that this gate was for an Air France flight to Paris. I figured we'd wait until 10 minutes before boarding before panicking. Soon after we'd settled in, the gate monitors changed indicating that we were now going to Lisbon. A few minutes later there was an announcement that the flight to Brussels had moved to gate B6. We gathered up our stuff and trouped off to B6 where we were delighted to see the now familiar Air France flight to Paris on the monitors. At least the general direction was correct.

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Luck of the Meyers

Call it "positive energy" or just plain old "good luck" but we seem to have it in spades. I'm writing this from the business class cabin of Northwest flight 55 to Minneapolis. We had economy tickets direct to San Francisco but we arrived only two hours ahead of schedule to find some sort of class 2 security alert in progress at the KLM counters in Schipol. The check-in line consumed all the available space in the terminal and snaked several hundred meters back into a hallway. To make things worse, my father-in-law locked the keys (along with our luggage) into the van in front of the terminal. The old fiddle-with-one-of-500-buttons-to-open-the-back-and-then-close-door two-step. So, while I stood in line and computed my progress in meters per 10 minutes against probable gate closure times a siginificant portion the entire Dutch national security force did battle (or refused to on various technical grounds) with the locks on the van which was parked, engine running, in the triple red zone in front of the terminal.

"Second time today"

Quipped the fellow that finally opened the door.

We missed the flight. The line was so bad that locking the keys in the car was irrelevant.

Evidently, KLM had let a bunch of the rank and file go while retaining some of the less competent management. At any rate, the nice lady at the ticket counter was delighted to book us business class on the next flight to SF. Furthermore, since the new flight left at 4:30 instead of noon, we could treat Karin's parents to a leisurely lunch and say a proper goodbye instead of some hasty and tearful farewell at the security barrier.

And just this morning I was wondering how well I'd be able to work in the crampted confines of an economy class seat.