A Travellerspoint blog

June 2008


Attention deficit disorder in the city of light


Do you remember the last week of the school year when you were a kid? Do you remember any of the work you were assigned or the things you accomplished? You probably don’t remember because you didn’t accomplish anything. That’s right, nothing. Your memories are probably of the warming weather and playing outside, and when you weren’t playing outside, just thinking about playing outside. Your teacher knew that your attention span was dwindling as the last day of school approached and she didn’t dare assign you anything, knowing that you would crumple in a heap if you were asked to focus for more than a half hour. That, in a nutshell was Paris. This was our last week of traveling, and the kids were so excited about getting home, that they could barely focus. Carol and I weren’t much better. The final countdown to the USA had started, and like elementary school teachers at the end of the year, we needed to tailor the curriculum.

Over the course of the week, we did our best to tote the boys to the major sites in Paris in a “cliff notes” style, that would allow them to visit the major sites, but never feel overloaded. We tried to balance visiting historical or educational sites with burning off their energy and serving their diminishing attention spans. One day we took the double decker tour bus to reacquaint ourselves with the city layout, but then walked home for more burn. Another day we walked to the Musee d’ Orsay and headed straight to the impressionists for a thorough scrubbing and then promptly left. On another day we visited the Louvre and headed straight to the Mona Lisa, prefacing that with some Leonardo, and finishing with the large format French painters from the same era. We were in and out of each museum in less than two hours, but saw a bunch of art that the kid’s recognized as we tore through them.

We took the Metro and RER everywhere, and had the boys navigate for a few days. The boys decided the itinerary one day and took us to a skate park at the end of the number 12 metro line, then after skating they took us to the Eifel Tower where we took the elevator to the top, and raced down the stairs to burn some energy. On another day we visited Notre Dame pretty quickly and took the walk (or run) to the top which was fun and tiring (400 stairs). The curriculum seemed to work.

Perhaps the oddest experience we had in Paris was at Notre Dame as we were enjoying a drink and a crepe at the café right next door. Apparently, someone called in a “bomb” as they noticed a lone and un-owned bag next to the church. The bomb squad arrived and cleared the street… and unfortunately all of the folks sitting at the café as well. We moved just a short distance away with our drinks and watched as the bomb squad carefully detonated a lethal bag of what appeared to be lettuce, fruit and milk. Actually, we didn’t stick around to see how the whole thing turned out, but the funny thing about the whole ordeal was that Carol and I were in almost the exact same place two years ago when a bomb was called in as well. A bomb scare… ooooo!! It was adventure, and perfect for the a-d-d curriculum.

A couple of random things that we noted in Paris that are worth mentioning:
The people were wonderful. You have all heard about how terrible and rude the people of Paris are. I’ve been here many times before and actually formed that opinion myself, but we found the opposite to be true on this trip. People were gracious, funny, charming, helpful and nice. I don’t know if there is a new sense of world citizenship in Paris, or maybe because we had kids in tow, but this didn’t feel like a place that is filled with Elitists. It felt more like a melting pot of nice and casual people that all spoke French, but were keen to try and speak English as well, and ready to mix it up with you, if you were willing.

Parisians love their dogs, and you will find their pooches in restaurants, subways, and even on scooters, and you know what, you didn’t see any evidence of dogs besides the dogs themselves (read no doggy doo). We had a dog (named Toto) sitting right next to Griffin in a charming little café and the owner let the dog sit right between her and Griffin. The dog eventually put his head on Griffin’s lap. The dog was so incredibly well behaved, it caused us to reflect on what Jasper (our dog back home) would be doing in the same restaurant, which would have been overturning tables, and franticly licking plates and faces. Yes, dogs and their owners are different in Paris.

Paris has a new bike program where folks can provide a credit card and pick up a bicycle at many places around town. The bikes are racked up in electronically controlled racks. You simply pick one up at one bike station and drive it to another bike station when you are done with it and put it in the rack. The system is all electronic and bikes look pretty darn nice. We’re not sure what the cost is, nor the details of the system, but it sure seemed like a super friendly solution to a tough environmental problem.

The metro is awesome. They have improved the signage and maps at the Metro stations and getting around is an absolute snap. We metro’d everywhere and only used a cab once the entire time in Paris. The Metro made our a-d-d touring possible and made Paris the perfect city to be our last on the trip. The metro is super fast and convenient, and an inexpensive way to get around town. Do be careful though. The seats by the doors fold up automatically if you rise up for just a second, and if your 14 year old doesn’t hold it down for you when you sit back down, you will fall on your ass and make an extremely loud noise. (which is what just happened to me in this photo). Yes, you will catch the attention of every Parisian in earshot. And yes, I was embarrassed.

Our apartment was in the first arrondissement near the Louvre. It had to be a few hundred years old, but it had been renovated pretty well, had a serviceable kitchen and bath, comfortable beds, a TV set, and Internet. The location was awesome with the Concorde and Madelline Metro lines only two hundred or so meters from the house.

We were told by a good friend of ours, John Turner, that we absolutely must go to Normandy France to see where the allies landed during World War II. He was adamant and convincing, so we strayed from the A-D-D curriculum one day and headed to Normandy to visit the D-Day landing site. It was a long 300km drive from Paris and we hired a tour company to take us there. The guide and driver’s name was Didier, and he was a nice and quite Parisian with a quick dry wit and quite a bit of knowledge about the sites in Normandy. This was a long day to say the least, but our most rewarding in during our Paris stay.

Having visited the museums and historic sites in Berlin, as well as the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, this was a great way to tie it all together. First, let me say that the Normandy coast is a stunner. It is gorgeous, and it is hard to imagine heavy fighting and dying soldiers in the hills and on the beaches only 60 years ago. But there is proof all around you. D-day happened on the 6th of June, and we were lucky to be in Normandy on the 8th, just two days after the anniversary. Normandy was still being toured by World War II veterans and historians, wearing and driving memorabilia from the WWII era, which was very cool. We arrived at the British museum and the site of the artificial harbor that was built by the Britain. It was remarkable. Very few of us Americans know that the British actually built an artificial harbor. They built it in complete secrecy in Britain, then towed it (huge cement barriers, spans of bridges, and roads, etc..) across the sea, and then sank the cement barriers in the shape of a protective harbor on the Normandy coast. In 12 days, they created platforms for unloading troops, vehicles, tanks and supplies, and built floating roads to connect them and the mainland. It was an engineering feat I’m not so sure we could accomplish today. They unloaded 2 million men and supplies here. We all know that D-day was the start of the end for the Nazis, but few of us know that it was this harbor that allowed us to pour in the resources to win the war. We were all absolutely blown away by the scope of what was accomplished in the name of liberation. We also visited the US Memorial at Omaha beach where over 9,000 soldiers were laid to rest. This visit was beyond moving, and we all held back tears as we walked above the Omaha cliffs, among fallen soldiers. We noticed a few Jewish stars among the thousands of crosses, making the connection to Berlin and the Jewish Memorial so very real.

Finally we visited the battlefield at Pointe du Loc, where Army Rangers captured the large guns that were pummeling the Omaha and Utah beaches. Machine gun bunkers are still visible in the hills, as are big gun placements, where Canons with a range of 8 miles once menaced. The kids played in the deep craters and fractured cement bunkers that spread over the area, serving as evidence of heavy shelling from allied planes and war ships. The long drive back to Paris lead to conversations about how this visit tied up all the loose ends and unresolved feelings about what we had seen in Berlin and Amsterdam. As Griffin probably said best, we had visited the places where all the madness had started, and had finally visited the place where the free world shouted “No More!” We were apprehensive about the drive, but were so very glad we made it. What an incredible experience.

Posted by Blakei 09:29 Archived in France Tagged family_travel Comments (1)


The city of acceptance..... and bicycles


There are so many things for which Amsterdam can be uniquely remembered. Maybe you remember the lovely little canals and waterways that arc through the center of the city, or the lovely parks, or the incredible museums that exhibit Flemish masters and Dutch impressionists. Or perhaps your Amsterdam was a bit wilder and you remember the red light district which provides a business address for the world’s oldest profession, or the wide assortment of tattoos and piercings that adorn so many, or perhaps you remember the coffee shops that serve so much more than coffee. Regardless of what you remember about Amsterdam, you will sense that this is a city of tolerance. Amsterdam residents seem to embrace an “it’s all good” attitude with casual indifference shown by businessmen toward a man with tattoos covering his entire face and body or a woman smoking marijuana, while all stand in the same queue at the ATM or the Rijksmuseum. Even a man and his closest companion sharing a beer at a café… We’ll it’s just unremarkable.

Amsterdam residents also embrace the bicycle. Amsterdam could be the only city in the world where the bicycle is used as a structural element. The city seems to be held together by them. Bicycles lean with rusted locks on buildings, fences, bridges, trees, posts, railings, stop signs, and each other, not to mention the thousands of bicycles stacked one on top of the other by the thousands in official parking lots. I swear that if all the bicycles were removed, buildings, bridges, fences and trees would simply fall over. Almost all bikes are black and nondescript, ride on thin tires, have one or three speeds, and are adorned with hardware for carrying groceries; children or both, and of course a “bell”. The streets are full of moving bicycles, with their riders peddling quickly and with purpose, knowing exactly where they are going and when they need to arrive. And unlike the “it’s all good” attitude that radiates this friendly city, “its all good” disappears when the locals straddle a bike. There are strict rules for riding bikes in Amsterdam and all the locals know ‘em and follow ‘em. Do not get in their way.

We rented four bicycles for the duration of our stay and learned the rules as we went – the hard way. We learned that the bike lanes are like freeways with strict laws and hefty fines if you don’t follow the laws. For instance, if you are cycling in the wrong direction in a bike lane, it could cost you 80 euro if you’re caught. We biked just about everywhere and got better by the day, but we all had close calls and narrowly missed being hit by locals’ bikes or fines. Still, the only real way to experience Amsterdam is on bike, and I wouldn’t change a thing. In the end we loved it, in spite of the look of apprehension (and sometimes terror) on our faces as we rode. Our bikes were bright red instead of the usual black, and I think it helped locals identify us as a moving and dangerous obstacle. When you blend in as best you can on a bicycle that says “RENTAL” and enjoy yourself.

We stayed in a great little flat on a street known as P.C. Hoofstraat. We were surprised when we arrived, because it seemed from a brand perspective to be the Rodeo Drive of Amsterdam. It is. The street is all designer brands, with the Chopard and Roberto Boticelli stores under our flat. Out flat was on the fourth and fifth floors of the building and the stairs were the steepest we had ever encountered. I swear the treads were more like a ladder than a stair, and getting our rather large luggage up (and down) this thing was no picnic. The flat was very nice and we really enjoyed it, with a great living area, and two bedrooms. As it turned out, the location was fantastic as well, being only 5 minutes walk, and two minute ride, from the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the craziness of the Leidseplein. Of course going or coming we would window shop.

We did visit the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum and both were very good. The Van Gogh was quite something if you like either Van Gogh or Gauguin’s work. Paul and Vincent were very close friends and they do a great job of educating viewers of the closeness of their relationship. For instance, one thing you may not know: Vincent cut off his ear after an argument with Paul. He didn’t cut it off as a gift to his girlfriend as folklore suggests. There are significant pieces of work at the Museum that you already have etched in your mind. Whether your favorite is the sunflowers or a Van Gogh self portrait, it is worth spending a few hours here. The Rijksmuseum was undergoing a significant renovation so most of the 230 rooms weren’t open, but they had moved most of the significant pieces to a small annex that took about two hours to go through, and it was perfect. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Steen, and so many other incredible Flemish painters who make light seem like a surreal element in realist paintings that depict objects so perfectly and naturally. We spent about an hour in the Rijksmuseum before a fire alarm went off and we all had to leave. We returned after lunch and spent another hour. I could have spent days there (the kids not so much). I was surprised to see that Griffin really got into it. The realism is incredible, and the stories on the audio track are wonderful making it easy for adults and kids to dive deep into the paintings.

As a school assignment, Carol had the boys read Anne Frank. There is a new edition out that is much longer, (350 pages) but it gives a much clearer picture of who she was as a person. (She was mad at her Mom a lot and was interested in boys). If you’ve read Anne Frank, you would know that she and her family hid in a house in Amsterdam for two years during Nazi rule. Ironically, the Franks fled Germany to escape the Nazis, only to be found in Amsterdam by the same regime. All were killed in Auschwitz, excepting Anne’s father, who survived and then discovered her diary, eventually publishing it. It is now required reading in many schools. The Frank’s hidden house is now a museum and through it, you can share the experience of the family through those last two years of Nazi rule. It was very moving, especially after visiting Berlin and having the context of Hitler’s regime made clear to us. It’s incredible that a family could withstand being shut in for two years in this environment without ever leaving. Their only contact was with a few close friends who ensured they had food, books, newspapers and clothing. This museum is a must see.

As we were biking to the Anne Frank house, Carol saw an advertisement for an exhibit of the World Press Photography Award Winners. After we visited the Anne Frank House, we cruised around neighborhoods, had lunch and eventually found the exhibit. The exhibit was being held in the Oude Kerk Church dating from the 1200s. To experience the church among the modern day photographs of front line journalists was a surreal contrast. We were walking over the crypts of Dutch history while viewing photographs of atrocities in the Congo, wars in Afghanistan, fighting in Kenya, and a shocking portrait of Vladimir Putin from Time’s man of the year cover. Incredible. Also incredible: This church is in the heart of the red light district, but we managed to weave our way in and out with only “alley entrance” glimpses of this infamous district.

Parker had his fourteenth birthday in Amsterdam. Of course what did he want for his Birthday? He wanted to be 18 years old, because it seems much of Amsterdam is geared for adults, which is pretty apparent even to an 11 year old. But he settled for a visit to a skate park. We found a skate park that was in North Amsterdam, which we had seen on the web and been tracking since Ghana and now we just had to find our way. We rode our bikes to the central train station, locked them up with the thousands of other bikes, and then took a free ferry to Northern Amsterdam where there were no tourists, and when someone speaks English they sound like Gold Member from Austin Powers II. “You are the boys Fasha?” It seems that everyone in Amsterdam speaks great English, accent or not, even out in the suburbs. Even the five year olds at the skate park could make me feel semi-shameful for speaking only one language. The ferry trip was pretty cool and we were greeted by a submarine breakwater when we arrived in North Amsterdam. The skate park was a nice indoor park, and Parker had a very nice birthday skate session. Later that night, we celebrated at the flat with a few small gifts and a few rain checks for some stuff from home. He is now 14. God help us.

Posted by Blakei 00:24 Archived in Netherlands Tagged family_travel Comments (2)


A different kind of history lesson

Berlin was on our short list of cities to visit in Europe. It was on this list for an entirely different reason than other European cities. Istanbul, Rome, Paris, and even Zurich surround you with art and architecture from many centuries ago telling stories of roman empires, wealthy kings or ancient wars. These cities usually are home to two or more instantly recognizable buildings or paintings you’ve seen in a movie scene or book like the Louvre or the Sistine Chapel. Well, Berlin is different. The movie scenes etched in most people’s memories about Berlin are either A) shot at 20 thousand feet, from a B17 as its’ arsenal descended to the city, B) feature Hitler presiding over a parade of goose stepping Nazis or C) showing street combat in a city on fire, or D) an American president tangentially speaking to a crowd of West Berliners, while selling freedom and democracy to Berliners just east of the wall. Yes, the history we came to see in Berlin is different.

The entire city, if you have a proper guide book is a museum dedicated to World War II and the Cold War. Many monuments and buildings in town have been repaired or rebuilt to match what existed before the bombs fell. Buildings that were somehow spared from destruction are clearly covered with bullet holes and patches to bring them back to life as a government center, museum or office building. Other parts of the city are brand new in a way that feels almost surreal. Potzdamer platz for instance stood as an empty and ruined area around the Berlin Wall only 15 years ago. Now it features stunning modern architecture, the likes of which don’t exist anywhere else in the world in quantity and quality. In fact, what used to be East Germany, spreading from where the old wall stood, seems to be all new. The buildings are modern and beautiful, made of glass and steel, in modern style, and it looks and feels like a brand new city. I guess it is. While the city is renovating older building, they drape a life size façade of the building as it will be when it is completed. Quite a few times you are fooled into thinking it is the real building. I have a shot or two of this wicked and cool trickery.

We spent 5 full days in Berlin and were able to take-in heaps of information about Hitler, World War II and the cold war. The government and citizens of Berlin have done a magnificent job of documenting the recent history of the city and the atrocities that were either committed here, or planned from here. Many of the areas feature chronologically serialized story boards that walk you through the history of the city.

The Topography of Terror documents Hitler’s rise to power and the escalation of the atrocities his government committed, including the war. The Check Point Charlie area and museum documents the closing of the borders between East and West Berlin, the heated cold war between east and west, and the eventual collapse of the wall. The Jewish Museum documents Jewish Life and history in Germany including 1,000s of years of pendulum swinging from apparent integration, to misunderstanding and persecution. The Jewish Memorial documents the atrocities of the holocaust that were planned and ordered from Hitler’s headquarters, just a block away. This museum was probably the most impactful, making the holocaust highly personal, with detailed stories of individuals killed and entire families lost. You can’t help but be deeply affected. This history is so recent and so real, and so impossible, it just drops your jaw. A few people had to leave, because of the intensity of this memorial and children under 14 were advised not to go. As we reflected on the memorial, and walked to the underground to catch a train to the hotel, we walked past Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide. Today it is a gravel parking lot – and he deserves no more. Apparently, the German government didn’t want to mark the spot prominently for fear of creating a modern-day neo-Nazi house of worship.

We have found that the best way to get acclimated to a city is to take one of those double decker tour buses from the top deck. We did this in Rome, and thought it would be smart here as well. After a visit to the Berlin TV tower where we could stare down at the city, we took the bus for a two hour loop around Berlin. After our bus ride, we strolled toward the Brandenburg gate, and walked through the Museum Island area, and noticed they were displaying their incredible collection of Egyptian Art. It turns out that the Altes Museum has owned this collection since the early 1900s, and hid it away during Nazi rule. The bust of Nefertiti is included, which is one of the most recognizable pieces of Egyptian art on the planet.

During this same stroll, we ran into another museum of sorts. It was actually a Bugatti dealership just down the street. This museum was displaying a Bugatti Veyron. Passersby stood at the window gawking, while the more brave, walked into the dealership. We all drooled. This piece of artwork has 1001 hp and a top speed of over 250mph, and was until recently the fastest production car on earth. You can own it for a mere $1.25 million, which is much less expensive than Nefertiti. After four days of touring the city, the museums and strolling the streets, the kids had their fill and they just needed to burn some energy. We found a great indoor skate park (the Berlin Skate Halle) on the fifth day and spent a few hours there.

The people of Berlin seemed young and alive, even the people that were clearly old enough to have weathered the storm of a communist regime. Older Berliners had an almost exaggerated youth about them, dressing with style and hipness belying their age. It was a striking difference to Prague where fashion appeared to be something that took a back seat to more basic things. The younger people of Berlin could have been from anywhere along the coast lines of the US. Techno hipsters, skaters, goth punks, preppies, and dreads could be found all over town, though most appeared to stay within the confines of their neighborhoods, mixing in some of the busier train stations and squares. The people of Berlin also ALL seem to have taken English as a second language. Their English speaking was extraordinary, and I was once again embarrassed by speaking only it, and only marginally better than the locals. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” One of us would ask a Berliner as we pondered directions. The Berliner would first apologize for their poor English, and then put us to shame by providing detailed directions in perfect English. We goofed around every so often to break up the museums and lighten the seriousness of the subject.

By the way, if you’re staying in Berlin with your family, or just for business, we found our hotel to be excellent and quite reasonable. After feeling a weak dollar in Rome and Zurich, we were prepared for the worst. The hotel (Großer Kurfürst) rocked and was set up really well for a family of four with a kitchenette and two separate rooms. It was even next to a subway station (U4 Märkisches Museum) that shuttled us all over the city when places were simply too far to walk.

Posted by Blakei 01:51 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

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