Sunday, December 27, 2009

Snow, Snow, Snow

At last, the snow is finally melting. I may sound like a party pooper but by the time you're down to the last few patches of snow on the ground, very little of it is still white and I've grown very weary of trying to brush grey sludge off the kids clothes before they come inside.
Ok, snow is lovely for the first few days, even a dedicated summerphile like myself will admit that. Once it started it seemed the snow would never stop, drifting down first in tiny pin-pricks of white then developing into big fat fluffy flakes. It was so light that it was possible to scoop up a whole snow-shovel full of the stuff at a time; I know because I had to dig the car out. Several times.
We were puzzled to hear the distinct roar of a tractor motoring around the house at one stage, and looked out the windows to see a snow plough clearing the roads outside, a very rare sight for us. It returned twice more during the day to try and keep the roads clear. It failed.
One bright side was the we had fitted winter tyres on the car just 48 hours before - a brilliant bit of foresight for which I would like to claim the credit. If only it had been my idea!

The bunny bungalow has been winterised with sheets of plastic, an extra thick layer of shredded hemp on the floor and the boudoir filled with a bale of fluffy straw to keep them warm. I also had the brilliant idea of buying a large covered cat litter box, filled with an inviting pile of tasty hay (in 2 different flavours) and a snug base of hemp to keep their bottoms warm. I removed the swinging door and it looked so inviting, just like a warm little cave, that if I was small enough I would have crawled in there myself. The bunnies took one look at it, voted to completely ignore it, and prefer to sit in the cold snow instead. Typical.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Our Piano Maestro

Some time ago hubby and I decided to enrol Niels for piano lessons. At 8 he's a good age to start, and we were both keen for him to take up a musical interest. We both had piano lessons as kids; hubby for a couple of years and I had lessons from 7 to 17 years of age, and I still love to play today. In fact a few years ago I shipped over the piano I learned on from New Zealand when my Mum shifted houses; she didn't want to keep it any more and it's a nice piano, and I'm quite attached to it. This summer I had the interior mechanism fully refurbished, a costly job but one which will last it for another 25 years or so. Built in 1939, it's a Wilma, originally made in London and now having travelled from the UK to New Zealand and back again by ship before being trucked over to Holland, it's a well travelled instrument! video

I digress. While Niels had initially been reasonably open to piano lessons, the day that the teacher rang up to tell us what time to turn up he threw a huge hissy fit and we had our biggest argument EVER. And that's some record, let me tell you. He screamed, and ranted, he wailed, he jumped up and down on the spot, and every door in the house was slammed at least once. We were the worst parents in the world ever, possibly the universe, cruelly re-living our childhoods through torturing our first born son with the agony of a musical education. How Could We???

By the time lesson day rolled around Niels and I had reached an impasse. Waiting on the hard plastic chairs outside the lesson room, Niels stared stonily at the scuffed floorboards of the former church, refusing to speak to me, much less look at me. The minutes ticked by, interrupted only by the faint twanging of a kid getting guitar lessons in some back room. Suddenly the door burst open and the music teacher strode in. Niels face was a picture; having expected a grey haired old lady smelling of mothballs and cat piss, he was so stunned to see a young man with longish hair wearing a black t-shirt that his mouth literally dropped open. Mr Andro introduced himself with a big smile and swept Niels, who by this time had a goofy grin on his face, into the room. I sat through the first lesson amazed as Niels rattled off lists of questions; what do the pedals do? Why has this piano got 3 pedals instead of 2? Could he play rock music? Would he always be his teacher and was he interested in adopting an 8 year old boy?

As we walked back to the car, Niels bouncing like a squirrel that's just downed a can of Red Bull, I couldn't help but smile at the transformation and offer up a silent prayer of thanks to all the Gods that exist for Mr Andro. When Niels got home he raced up to Carl and yelled "It's so cool, my piano teacher is a DUDE!"

He's loved his lessons ever since, is more than keen to play for family and friends, and recently had his first 'recital' together with other students from the music school. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Like A Fish In Water...

Being such a water-logged place - two thirds of the country is below sea level after all - in the Netherlands kids are expected to learn to swim at an early age. There is a national system of swimming lessons in place whereby kids can gain three diplomas; A, B and C. In theory no child is allowed to swim in a public pool without some sort of floatation device unless they have achieved the minimum qualification, the A Diploma.

All well and good, after all there are canals everywhere, and in fact our neighbourhood is ringed by 3 canals, the closest of which is only about 20 metres away, so being able to swim is pretty important. Canals, you may have noticed, are not fenced, and nor are the thousands of other bodies of water in the country and you need to be able to get yourself out, or stay afloat long enough for someone to help you out. According to the statistics about 20 young children drown each year in this country, and it is in fact the leading cause of death in boys aged 2-5, although most drownings happing around the house in fish ponds. Still, swimming is an important activity to learn to be safe, have fun, and be confident around water for the rest of your life.

Having lived in Singapore's tropical climate, confidence around water is not a problem for our two little water rats, who swam literally every day unless there was a thunderstorm when we lived there. Niels had his A,B and C diploma at age six, which is pretty good. Lessons involved the Mums' gathering around a luxurious outdoor pool at the Maplewoods Condo, drinking melon juice or cappachino under the palm trees while a sun-tanned instructor taught the kids in groups of 4 or less. Not a bad way to fill an afternoon!

Carl had only just started lessons when we left, and once we arrived back in Holland we enrolled him here and carried on.

Ask any parent what they think of swimming lessons in the Netherlands and the response is invariably a rolling of the eyes and a long groan. With one 50 minute lesson per week, in groups of at least 12 kids, supplemented by however often you go and practice, it takes around a year - usually longer - for your child to get their A diploma. A year of getting them to the (indoor) pool in rain, hail or snow, waiting around in what feels like a chlorine gas filled green house, getting them showered, dressed and ready to go back outside with however many layers of clothing the season dictates. Finally, last month, the moment had finally arrived; Carl swam his test and was awarded his diploma. Of course he also expected a silver cup just like Niels got when he got his A diploma, a little extra thing we do because after trying so hard we feel the boys deserved it.

A bonus was the Carl had managed to sit his diploma the day before he got his tonsils out, perfectly timed because he then wasn't allowed to swim for two weeks. I enrolled him in the classes for his B diploma and expected another few months of lessons before he got that. However last week, after just 3 lessons since getting his A diploma, he was told he could alreaady have a shot at the next one; and last night he passed it! So two diplomas at 5 years old, not bad at all. Now just the 'C' to go...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ryanair from Dusseldorf May Not Be What You Think

Below is an email from one of my Dutch colleagues, Mr Jan Dierperink, who suffered through something which was unfortunate for him, yet fortunate for us because the way he describes it is brilliant, and if you know Jan you can hear almost his voice as you read . Read, laugh, and if you're ever flying out of Germany, learn! Published with Jan's permission, of course.

"Dear colleagues
As u maybe know, we should've gone to Barcelona this weekend, but at the moment I am at home and typing this email, so u can feel sorry for me and pls dont laugh, ok?
Why? I will explain below.
I booked a cheap flight and cheap hotel for a weekend with my wife, without the kids and yes I really looked forward to it. So as usual we had to pack our stuff at the last minute, that means friday night and after some hours the alarm told me that it was time to wake up and get ready for the travel to Dusseldorf airport.
We were in a really good mood, me and my wife, she spoke a lot and me listening as usual haha, and in the car we checked several times, if we had passport and tickets and yes it seemed we didnt missed anything. I'd printed out the floorplan of the parking place at the airport so all looked really good, we were in time, one and half hours before boarding time and we took the monorail from parking place to airport, still in a good mood.
When we arrived in the departure hall we looked at the monitors , trying to find our flight. Bit strange that we couldnt find our flight, we should leave at 9.25 am to Barcelona but only flight on the f***king screens was Air Berlin to Munich, bit strange for us so we went to a nice old guy from the info desk and asked him very polite, dear sir can u tell us which we gate we have to go for the flight to Barcelona? He answered with : this is Dusseldorf airport, we answered, yes we also know dear sir, then he replied, you are at the wrong airport, you have to go to Dusseldorf Weeze, 100 km back, nearby Kleve.
At that moment I thought, jesus man you look very ugly, then he went on with his story and said your plane will leave in 1 hour and Ryanair is very strict so you're not gonna make it. Then we both thought, shit you become even more uglier than one minute ago. He went on talking but we ran away and took the stupid monorailback to the car and tried to find the way to Dusseldorf Weeze airport.
I drove at 180 km over highway, while Ineke sat on the seat next to me . She had a brillant idea to take some clothes out of suitcase, coz we didnt had time to check in the suitcase, people who travel with me know that I always have to open my suitcase when I am at customs.
So Ineke was sitting with her ass to the front screen and me driving like mad over the German highway, I only saw the dashboard for the speed, some German cars and the ass of my wife. After picking the clothes from our suitcase of 15 kg she had two little handluggage bags of less than one kg. For me only a shirt, beachshorts and one piece of underwear, she of course had more but ok, at the time I didnt know.
Must be a wierd view for the German drivers, a Dutch car at highspeed and a woman with her ass to the front screen but ok, I didnt care.
Almost within one hour we arrived at Dusseldorf Weeze airport. While I dropped my wife off so she could run to the check in desk I put away the car at the parking and took my little bag with all my stuff (pffff) and also ran to the departure desk.
When I arrived I saw my wife smiling; it meant she said we are just in time and then we run to the checkcontrol, imagine all passengers with suitcase only us with 2 small bags, still had to take off my belt and put all stuff in bag for the control, but all seemed good. We asked again which gate we had to go and it was gate 4. We saw still people standing there so I thought I can go to toilet quick and my wife went for quick cup of coffee. When I came back I saw , this is not gate 4 but 7 and gate 4 was all empty only two stupid Ryanair girls waiting. So I ran to my wife and shouted hurry we have to go! Of course the bankcard for paying wasnt working so took a while and then we ran to those two stupids girls and said and showed them our boarding cards.
All looked good, then one of them start to talk - I still hate her - we just took away the stairs of the plane, sir. We answered polite, well dear girl , then u put it there again, coz we want to go to Barcelona, not possible the b*tch said, I just gave the pilot the number of passengers and we took away the stair. At that moment I wanted to take away her smile of her face and to replace it with the f*king stair. But she didnt allowed us to go to the plane and all we could do was to go back.
At that moment I thought , wow why all German people in this airport look sooooo ugly. We were both in shock coz we missed the plane by just 3 minutes and Ryanair didnt help us or give us any service. All we could do was to book next flight for 100 euro per person and on the next day. We said, just put the tickest in ur a** and we drove home very sadly.
We arrived home at the same time as the flight arrived in Barcelona but the only thing it was without us.
Needless to say that our Saturday was not that good as we both expected. Of course soon we got calls from our "friends" who knew already about our stupid mistake but I couldnt laugh at that moment.
All the way back from airport to the Dutch border I thought, Germany is always raining and dark, and all people we saw were ugly too.
Anyway, now you know the reason why I am at my desk again, so if u still feel sorry but also want to laugh at me, well then you know how to find me but at least bring me a nice cup of coffee, then i will drink and you can laugh at me, deal?
I feel bit stupid when typing this but ok it was our own fault, needles to say that I still dont like the nice old guy from the Dusseldorf International airport and also will not recommend those stupid Ryanair girls to my sons.
Maybe also needless to say that , when we had coffee at that stupid airport and saw the plane leaving, I was happy that i didnt had a gun with me to blow it out of the air......
See you all in office again....................."



 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sint-ilating Days Indeed

To be honest I had considered just not blogging about Sinterklaas this year – it comes around every year and frankly by the time it’s finally over the relief is so overwhelming I can barely bring myself to write about it. However, no account of life in the Low Countries would be complete without mentioning the month of hysteria, mayhem, sleepless nights, over-tired whining kids, highly sugared foods and bone-achingly powerful sense of anticipation we’ve survived through.

The celebration of Sint’s birthday starts with his arrival by steamboat from Spain, accompanied by hundreds of Black Pete’s (like Santas little helpers on speed with better costumes and a healthy dose of naughtiness thrown in). For a more detailed explanation see my previous blogs on the subject, here and here. Once he officially arrives in the country during a televised day of fun, Sint then spends the next week sailing into every city, town and village in Holland on a variety of steamboats, magically appearing in many different places on the same day. How odd.
He appears at every school; the Sinterklaas Journaal news program is broadcast every night on t.v.; every event from Scouting to Market Day is brightened with a liberal scattering of Petes and a Sint.
It’s also open season for the kids; they are allowed to put a shoe by the front door every few nights, accompanied by suitable bribes such as carrots and apples for Sints’ horse, a drawing, a hand written wish list, or even beer for the lucky errant Pete who may have fallen off the wagon. It is a stressful job, after all. In the morning sweets and/or a little present will have magically have appeared, a practice which really should be stopped because it just encourages the little blighters and can you imagine how many little gifts etc have to be found throughout the ensuing three weeks and by whom???....I digress.

Finally, on December 5th, the Big Day arrives. This year, early in the evening on December 4th the phone rang and a deep voice asked to speak to Carl. Taking the phone in a hand sticky with the remnants of the chocolate Sint he’d found in his shoe that morning, Carl’s eyes grew rounder and rounder, his mouth forming a perfect ‘O’ of amazement and he turned to me and announced in a voice husky with shock “It’s…..SINTERKLAAS!!!” Indeed, the good man himself had rung to make an appointment for the next day, and would it be convenience to pop by? Barely able to squeak out a “yes”, Carl handed the phone to Niels who by this stage was literally bouncing from foot to foot, face red with excitement. He breathlessly asked Sint, in his very best Most Polite Little Boy in the World Ever voice, if he would bring a Pete or two as well please??
You can imagine how much – or how little – sleep was had that night. The next day Sint and his official entourage arrived at 4pm sharp, bearing the big red book of secrets and two large gifts. The boys were amazed at the depth of Sint’s knowledge of Scout groups, school classes, hobbies they enjoy and swimming diplomas recently gained…was there no end to this man’s wisdom?? All too soon it was over, time to open the presents. More amazement; how could Sint possibly have known that Carl LOVES Transformers more than life itself and that Niels would practically passout from joy at the WW1 model airplane kit?
Now that it’s all over, we’re looking forward to two little boys sleeping through the night once more, sugar levels lowering from pre-diabetic to something akin to normal and the ceremonial burning of wish-lists. And if you're wondering what I've been doing every evening since hubby went back to sea...just take a close look at Niels present and, I beg you, have some pity for me. At least life is returning back to its normal routine.

But wait…isn’t there something else happening towards the end of the month??....

Monday, December 07, 2009

Slippers

Now that it’s starting to look like winter really is about to start, I’ve started hunting for slippers. You’d think that this wouldn’t be difficult, but have you seen what’s available out there?? If you eliminate the fluffy, the impractical, the pink, the prissy, and the downright ugly, the list is very short my friends. Very short indeed.
Currently I’m swishing around in my last pair of embroidered blue silk slippers I picked up in China Town, Singapore, during the Chinese New Year celebrations, but they won’t last forever and frankly despite having a high drop-dead gorgeous factor, they aren’t exactly warm.
Today I wandered through a couple of shoe shops in Zutphen looking for something wearable. I spotted some Ug Boots – if you’re not an Antipodean you probably call them sheepskin boots – and out of sheer nostalgia picked one up and looked at the price tag. Holy shit, I kid you not; they were 149 euros!! We used to slop around in Ug boots as kids on the farm, back when they were fashionable the first time around (yes I’m that old). I’m embarrassed to admit to actually having worn these outside of the house on several occasions, apparently convinced I was making a bold fashion statement rather than looking like a Neanderthal twit.
Mind you, I was tempted to order these Play Boy slippers from Amazon, not because they would be practical or functional or even comfortable, but simply because left unattended in a corner they would remind me of several real house bunnies I’ve had in the past, trying to look inconspicuous while actually plotting to chew through the telephone cable or strip the wallpaper.
On the website they are right next to the ‘Bedroom Athletics Women’s Muffin Slipper’- now if that isn’t a name created to grab your attention, I don’t know what is!
What I really want is for the companies who make kids slippers to start turning them out in adult sizes. I mean check out these Dr Who slippers; who wouldn’t want a matching pair of Daleks on their feet??

What about these ‘Junior Dare’ slippers – I would TOTALLY answer the door wearing these!
And how about these froggy ones…how cute are these?
Come on slipper manufacturers, you're missing out on catering to a major market segment!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pointy Bit Up Please

Winter is fast approaching here in Cloggie land, although the unseasonably mild weather is giving us all a false sense of security about how bad the winter may be. One of these days we’re going to wake up to find the car is frozen to the driveway and I’ll have to chip my way in with a pickaxe, but in the meantime we’re practically basking in temperatures around 10-13 degrees C. However the short days mean it’s time to get out into the garden for a last rummage in the dirt, and in Holland, the land of tulips, that means it’s time to plant flower bulbs.
Now let me start by saying that although I enjoy gardening and getting a bit muddy, I can quite confidently say that I’m a fairly crap gardener. My plants don’t flourish; they limp along until a season changes enough for them to flop limply in relief at not having to pretend they will ever live up to the promieses on their labels. The soil around our house is awful – any topsoil was strip-mined and sold off by the developers – and the borders are characterized by either endless shade or desert-like over exposure to the sun.
However these factors haven’t deterred me from spending money on new plants like a pro, and hope, if not my garden, sprouts eternal. In this respect, bulbs are the perfect plants for me. You just chuck them in the ground, do nothing for a few months, and hey presto, you have flowers in the spring time.
I clearly remember the very first time I planted bulbs (yes really). It was back on our farm near Matamata, in the North Island of New Zealand. We had a fairly large fruit orchard next to the house, which my Dad had rigged with a lethally impressive electric fence system. Wires running along the base of the fruit trees were cunningly arranged at just the right height to allow the resident sheep to nibble the grass around the base, but not chew on the tree trunks. Over time the sheep actually learned to stand on their hind legs to reach the lower branches, and it wasn’t unusual to look out the window to the very odd sight of what appeared to be a flock of dancing sheep staggering around under the trees, snouts raised in the air. As an added bonus the electric fence also prevented possum damage. These beasties are a huge pest in New Zealand; having been imported from Australia years ago to a land with a mild climate and no predators the population has boomed to millions, and one possum will happily strip a fruit tree in a night. However if you were a wayward possum daring to cavort around our house at night, there was a very good chance the last thing you would ever see was my Dad, his Y-fronts glowing in the moonlight, squinting down the barrel of a .22 getting ready to change your mind manually.
I decided to brighten the orchard with daffodils. Having read that the best way to achieve a natural looking placement of bulbs was to literally toss them in handfuls over the area and plant them when they landed, I subsequently spent the next half hour cursing and trying to locate the bloody things again while avoiding the electric fences. Having done that, I pretty much sabotaged my chances of a bumper flower crop by planting them…upside down. For some reason it seemed logical that the pointy bit would stick downwards. With such a hopeless record of bulb planting, who could EVER have guessed I would end up with Dutch nationality??

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hail, Caesar!

A few days ago I was pottering around upstairs, pouring the kids out of their pj's and into something warm to face the cooling autumn weather, when I heard Carl making strange noises in his room. Eventually I figured out he was practising the noise of a cracking whip. He and Big Brother are into Romans and gladiators at the moment so I figured he was having an imaginary chariot race.
A few minutes later I went in to put on his socks - I know, some 5 year olds have mastered this tricky task but it takes Carl FOREVER and sometimes it's just easier to do it yourself, you know? So there he is, lying on his bed, feet in the air and as I lean forward to roll on the first sock he swings his arm to give me a lash of his pretend whip, complete with sound effects, and yells: "Come on slave, faster!!"

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Bodiam Castle

You're probably thinking that there isn't much more we could pack into our short UK break, but you'd be wrong. As they say in advertising; but wait - there's more! Wednesday dawned grey and drizzly but even this couldn't put us off our mission to visit Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. My friend Anna had recommended this castle and it was magnificent; a quintessentially medieval fortification, square in shape with round towers at each corner, and a large picturesque moat.
Before I carry on, a quick confession; I didn't take these photos. It basically peed down with rain the whole time we were there, Niels threw a hissy fit when I growled at him about not pushing his brother down a stone stairway and refused to face the camera, and I had cold water dripping down my neck most of the time. So my photos suck. These ones however, from the National Trust, are lovely so I'm stealing them instead.
The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge in the days of Richard 11 in order to defend the surrounding area from the mauranding French. Touted as one of Britains most famous castle it was only after we returned home that we realised how often it appears in the kids history books.
While the walls, ramparts and towering gate houses of the castle are all intact, the once grand inner structure of the castle was deliberately destroyed, possibly by Cromwells men during the Britsh Civil War to avoid it being used as a defensive outpost.

Now owned by the National Trust, the castle is well maintained and several people dressed in medieval costume braved the weather with us to lend an air of authenticity.
By mid afternoon we squelched our way back to the car and headed 'home', the sun helpfully breaking through the clouds just as we drove out of the carpark.




Sunday, November 01, 2009

Make Haste to Hastings!

One of the great things about Kent is that there is so much to do in a fairly compact area. Having sated our appetite for planes and cathedrals, it was time to immerse ourselves in even more history. Perhaps I should point out that we all enjoy our history, although hubby and Niels are real fans. Top of Niels lists of favourite historial events is now the Battle of Hastings, as a result of our day spent exploring the area and delving into the story of the Battle of 1066.
First stop however was Smugglers Adventure, a series of caves dug into the sandstone cliffs of Hastings itself. Nobody knows who dug the first caves, but British smugglers enlarged them to hide their booty to avoid paying the high taxes imposed on most goods to finance the 100 Year War with France. Based on this period the Smugglers Adventure invites visitors to walk through the dimly lit caves, learning about the smugglers, their booty, and what happened to them if they got caught. It wasn't too grisly and the boys had a blast.
Nearby are the ruins of Hastings Castle, which must have been an incredibly impressive sight before most of it tumbled into the sea a few hundred years ago. The film 'The Story of 1066' explained the history of the battle, who was fighting and who won, and prevented me from asking embarresing questions like"King Harold?? Are you sure that was his name? Wasn't he the one in Shrek?"
The fact that poor old Harold was apparently killed after being shot in the right eye by an arrow was the icing on the cake for the boys. They have been re-enacting that particular moment non-stop ever since, complete with squelchy eye popping sound effects and blood curdling death cries. Lovely.
After riding on the cute little West Cliff Victorian railway down to the seaside again, we enjoyed an excellent lunch of traditional fish & chips at a nice little restaurant before wandering back to the car. Fired up by the history oozing from the ground around us we stopped at the imaginatively named town of Battle, site of....you guessed it...the Battle of Hastings. A huge Abbey was built beside the battle field by William the Conqueror and Holger was keen to take a look, as was Niels. I bowed out - one cathedral a week is enough for me - and instead took Carl to visit Yesteryear, a museum andshop full of nostalgic things from days gone by. I bought the guys a very retro-looking gam of Tiddlywinks and a couple of traditional pop-guns (the kind with a cork on a string which pops out when you pump the handle), perhaps subconsciously hoping to distract them from the whole arrow-in-the-eye obessession.

When he emerged from the Abbey hubby was having a chuckle at something he'd seen. A concrete tile marked the spot where King Harold had died, and some patriotic Brit had placed flowers there with a note saying "In remembrance of the last true English King". Who would have thought it possible to hold a grudge for 950 years??

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

RAF Manston Spitfire Museum; Take Aim and Fire!!!

Our first port of call after arriving in Kent was of couse the RAF Manston Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane Memorial Museum in Ramsgate. I say of course because anyone who has met my children will realise that few things in life will ever top the moment they walked through the doors and came face to face with one of their favourite objects on the planet. Of course I may have slightly ruined the moment by squealing "Oh look Niels, a real Spitfire!!!" whereupon he turned to me with a withering look and grumbled "That's a Hawker Hurricane, not a Spitfire!"
Ok, so I'm not such a big fan but even I enjoyed the museum. It's fairly small by most standards, with just the two planes, and tonnes of memorabilia, but it was the perfect size for two little boys. Each one had actually flown in combat and been lovingly restored. After lunch in the quintessially British cafe next door we strolled around the Battle of Britain memorial - still strewn with wreaths commemorating the 65th anniversary the weekend before - then wandered across the lawn to the collection of more modern aircraft which is displayed in a much larger hanger-like facility next door. Jet fighters, rescue helicopters, and all kinds of other aircraft are collected here. When they ran out of room they simply started chopping the cockpits off the planes and displaying those instead, which seems like quite a sensible solution to me.

We left with a new collection of model planes which have been lovingly played with every day since, and a resolution to recommend this place to whoever we can. So there you go - if you like planes, history, or running around the lawn withyour arms outstretched yelling "budda-budda-budda YOU'RE DEAD" at your brother, you should visit this very worthy museum. It's staffed by volunteers (many of whom are former pilots) and survives on donations.
On the way back to our cottage we couldn't drive past Canterbury without calling in for a visit. I've heard about this place all my life and finally this was a chance to see it. Since the days when I studied Chaucer I've wondered what Canterbury is like; and after passing through the high stone gates into the cathedral grounds, I imagine that little has changed since he himself was last here. The cathedral is simply magnificent, as you would expect it to be, although we were a little stunned at the entrance fee of GBP 21.50 for a family ticket. However we weren't going to come this way again so in we went. We found the statues of Thomas Beckett and The Black Prince, strolled through the Quoir and along the endless nave.
Having developed a slight case of ABC Syndrome since moving to Europe (that's 'Another Bloody Cathedral Syndrome' to those of you who aren't in the know) I'm not usually a big fan, but it was an impressive place, dripping with history. We quickly breezed through the very, very large souvenir shop - religion has obviously been commercialised since my last visit to a cathedral - to exit into the bright sunlight again and headed on our way. This was shaping up to be a great holiday.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blue Skies Over the White Cliffs of Dover

Last week we headed off for much-anticipated mid-term break to the UK. Journeying to a holiday destination by car still holds a certain thrill for me; firstly I love the fact that no-one is going to weigh my luggage so if I decide to completely over-pack, it's my business and won't involve handing over a credit card. Secondly, it brings back fond memories of being a kid, huddled together with my sisters in the enormous back seat of our big V8 Holden, roaring off in the early misty morning for Te Kaha or Paihia for a week of living on crayfish, paua, butterfish and all sorts of other goodies Dad would bring home and Mum would cook to perfection with just one pot and a rusty spatula. Days spent playing on the beach, crunching sand with all our food and not really caring, and hair so full of sea salt it would take three shampoo washes before it would even move again. Ten cents pocket money each day - a real treat since we never had pocket money as growing up on a farm meant there wasn't anywhere to spend it anyway - and hours spent hanging upside down on the monkey bars at the local park or building huts under the Pohutukawa trees at the beach, in the days before parents started looking sideways at every potential child snatcher walking past. I also vividly remember being pretty ill on some hoildays, with bronchitis and chest infections necessitating trips to strange doctors we didn't know. I particularly have very crystal clear memories of being prescribed a cough medicine by an elderly witch doctor in Paihia which was dark blue in colour and so vile tasting it actually made me vomit and stained my tongue and teeth. Aah, the fond recollections of our youth!

I digress. Just before we headed off our new toy arrived; a Tom Tom. Ok, we must be the last people on the planet to get one but hey, we've survived with maps up until now. After reading the instruction book cover to cover (I admit it's an obsession but it's one I can live with), I programmed in our destination - to Dunkirke then from Dover to near Tunbridge Wells - and off we set. Ah, the bliss of not having to track our progress kilometre by kilometre, one finger pressed firmly into the map book so as not to lose our place. I even downloaded - get this - a female NEW ZEALAND voice for the Tom Tom - my squeals of "honey I found a voice without ANY ACCENT AT ALL!!!! probably audible across half of Lochem. Can't imagine why hubby was rolling his eyes and mumbling, but I swear it took less than 24 hours for him to start ignoring that machine, so maybe an accent like mine was asking for trouble.

All was well until we got close to Antwerp, and then Moana (that's what I christened) her died. No more power. At all. Turns out there was a faulty fuse in that little hole you shove the power cable into (and yes I do believe that is the technical name thank you very much) so it wasn't charging. However we still had our trusty maps, so off we sped to the ferry terminal.

Ferries are so much more relaxing than planes. We simply drove up to customs point where the cheerful officials briefly squinted at our passports to make sure they were the right colour (yes that's why I married him darling) before being waved onto the vessel. We lounged about a bit and then, get this, I had a MASSAGE on the boat before we docked in Dover. Let's see that happen on a plane. Plus the return trip cost just 60 euros for all of us, the car, and Moana (on Norfolk Line). Unblievable.

Arriving at our converted stable cum cottage in Shipbourne, the sun was still shining, the golden autumn leaves were sighing in the breeze, and it was the perfect time to crack open the bottle of Tanquery I'd picked up on board for half the price we pay at home, ready for a pre-dinner G&T. We were officially in holiday mode.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Father & Son


There's not much I wanted to add to the picture (taken on the Dragon Ride at Legoland, on perhaps the 452nd time Niels rode it), except have you ever seen a boy and his Dad having more fun together?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Aaaaaaarrrrgggghhhhhhhhh!

I defy anybody to look at the photo above and not crack up laughing. Taken during our summer holiday at Legoland, this is our first ride on the Lego Canoe...the first of about 15 times we did this. The looks on the kids faces are classic; Niels is old enough to realise that if this was truly dangerous, that (a) Mum and Dad wouldn't let him do it, and (b) or in any case would not be sitting in the canoe with him!
Carl however, with less life experience to draw on is clearly thinking: "We're all going to die!!!". Those popping eyes, muscles clenched in terror and hair standing on end all show that he fully expects the smiling young teenagers who work at Legoland to be seiving bodyparts from the foaming pool at the bottom of this slope for the next two hours. D-Day has arrived.
Now let's examine that emotion a little more closely...


...and then marvel at the fact that the very first thing he said when we reached the bottom - once he resumed breathing - was "AGAIN!!!"




Sunday, October 04, 2009

Looking For A New Job

Life as a parent can be so frustrating at times, and I often seem to be moaning to hubby about how little the kids listen to me. At times it feels like I'm talking to myself. Take today, for instance. Both of the boys had been so difficult at different times, and I found myself telling them to do simple things like put on their shoes or get in the car ten times. By the time bedtime rolled round I was feeling so frazzled, I decided enough was enough. After a serious talking to I made them tidy their rooms and put away the ten thousand toys strewn around the house before I'd read them a story. Then when they were in bed I spent ten minutes with each one individually talking about how they needed to listen to me more, not just ignore me when I asked them to do something or talked to them and generally pull their fingers out and behave.
Niels listened quietly and we ended with a hug and a promise to try harder. When it was Carls turn he also listened intently, nodded his head that he understood then gave me a quick goodnight kiss before demanding: "how long until Papa comes home?" Obviously he's given up on me and has decided the other parent show more promise.
Actually it's the second time this week he's made me feel like that. He loves to kick around a football after dininer, devising elaborate rules that only he can understand to explain why when he kicks the ball in my goal (the entire garden fence) he gets 3 points, yet when I kick it into his goal (a 20 cm wide zone of the fence which moves at random) I either get 1 point, or -1 point. It's always a laugh and its hard to keep a straight face when he takes it so seriously. A couple of nights ago he was getting increasingly pissed off because I didn't understand his ever-changing rules, and when I finally gave up and just kicked the ball towards him glared at me, thrust out his arm with an indignant finger pointing straight at me and yelled "that's it, YOU'RE FIRED!"
Time to find a new job.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Airborne Museum 'Hartenstein' in Arnhem

Last week the Airborne Museum in Arnhem was officially reopened after having been cosed for extensive renovations and extensions for the past year. it's the sort of place we tend to visit; lots of history and interesting info, plus of course the endless appeal of soldiers and battle stories for the kids. The museum is located in Hartenstein, which before WWII was the rather posh Hotel Hartenstein. It played a key role the famous battle of Arnhem, Operation Market Garden, which was immortalised in history for the exceptional courage of the soldiers involved, the enormous bloodshed that resulted, and for more recent generations in numerous books and films, most notably A Bridge To Far by Cornelius Ryan.
As part of a major advance the Allies landed across Holland and moved North and East into Germany. Many troops were landed behind enemy lines, and about 35,000 men were deployed in the operation. Those unfortunate souls who were sent in to take and defend the bridge in Arnhem were landed about 8 miles away, and were expected to regroup then advance through the town of Oosterbeek to Arnhem. Sadly those 8 miles may as well have been 100. Intense fighting around Oosterbeek saw the British dig in and fight fiercely, bun faced with heavy bombardment by the German artillery the Allies were forced to withdraw. The Hotel Hartenstein was used as the command post and hospital for the Allied troops and was itself the scene of fierce and bloody fighting.
Today it's hard to imagine the bombs landing and men killing each other in the peaceful woods and manicured lawns around this stately old building. Yet just last year more unexploded ordinance was found in the front lawn which had to be blown up and removed for public safety.

During the rebuild a new entrance was built and more display area created, and what a good job they've made of this rebuild. Inside the displys are well thought out, interesting, and presented in Dutch, German, and English. There were crowds of people enjoying a day out in the sun when we called in this afternoon, and the film room was full. We wandered through the elegant rooms, still adorned with flowery murals and delicately plastered ceilings, trying to reconcile the photos and films of the battle around the building with the sun-filled rooms we passed through. In the basement a whole new level has been created where you walk thorough trenches and it really does feel like you're under enemy fire; real jeeps and demolished cars and buildings, the smell of smoke and flicking films on the walls create an eerily realistic effect. It was a bit to realistic for Carl so I whizzed him through this part, but Niels found it fascinating, as did we. If you visit you should allow about an hour to walk through the museum, and the small gift shop at the end is worth a visit. The boys found model airplanes and military Lego (well it looks like Lego but is actually a copy) to take home, and hubby enjoyed poking about among the books and DVDs about the history of the battle and the area.
The museum is well worth a visit, especially if like me you're from abroad and are interested in learning more about the local history. Mind you the excellent displays and great location make this a good place for anyone to visit, especially military history buffs. Entrance costs 8 euros per adult, 5 euros for children.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bird of Prey Show, Silkeborg

There's something about birds of prey that is captivating, and the sport of falconry has always struck me as particularly cool. I can imagine that in medieval times it would have been handy to be able to hunt with a falcon or buzzard, and even now as a sport it has a noble association. Plus it must take a huge amount of dedication to train a bird of prey, and no small amount of courage to let it loose every day and hope like hell that it chooses to return rather than disappear into the wild blue yonder.


When we were in Denmark we passed a sign for a bird of prey show several times on our trips to Silkeborg where we seemed to spend most of our time looking for, or hanging around, a laundromat. Eventually we couldn't resist the temptation and called it to investigate. As luck would have it we had arrived only ten minutes before the daily show - perfect timing!

If you're ever in the Silkeborg area you have to check out this show. The host was a young guy who obviously was passionate about his sport. What looked like brand-new, purpose built facilities housed a wide variety of birds, and his presentation was funny, quirky and really interesting. At different times volunteers could have a go at putting on a falconry glove and feeling what it was like to have a bird on their hand; once Niels had tried it there was no stopping Carl, despite the fact that the owl was almost bigger than he was!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Egeskov Castle - A True Danish Delight

About eight years ago hubby and I visited a beautiful castle south of Odense, on the island of Funen, in Denmark. Niels was only about six weeks old at the time so it was a very different trip to the one we did last month when we headed off to re-visit the place during our holiday. We weren't the only ones to have changed: the grounds around Egeskov Castle have been developed into a well designed park with loads of stuff to keep us and the boys interested.
The castle itself was built around 450 years ago in 1554 and claims to be the best preserved moat castle in all of Europe. Approached over a stone bridge and through an impressive portcullis and gate house, most of the castle is not only open to the public but also still fully furnished with furniture dating back to the first inhabitants. The castle was built in the middle of a lake on a foundation of oak pilings in such quantities that it was said that "it took an oak forest to build it". Lucky there was no Greenpeace back then!
In 1784, Egeskov was sold to Henrik Bille whose descendants have owned the castle ever since. In 1883, Julius Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Bille moved into Egeskov and, during his time at the castle, it was restored by Helgo Zettervall, a Swedish architect. During this period, the castle was developed into an up-to-date model farm with its own dairy, power station and railway track to Kværndrup, and this formed the economic basis for the large, modern farm that Egeskov is to this day.
Now the fun part. In the 1960s a vintage car/motorbike museum was created which eventually spread to fill several of the huge barns on the estate. There is a Falck museum filled with fire engines and other rescue equipment from throughout history which Niels hasn't stopped talking about since. There are planes hanging from the ceiling, London buses parked in the corners, motorbikes dating from the 1920s gathered from every corner of the earth including one used in a James Bond movie. Once you finally mange to get through that huge collection, you can go through the horse-drawn carriage museum, where we spotted the same type of carriage as the one we rode in when we got married (a Landauer). There's also an agricultural museum, and no less than FIVE mazes on the property to get happily lost in.
A tree-top walk has recently been constructed; not for the faint hearted it wobbles its way between trees, suspended several metres above the ground. And surrounding that is an expansive playground, which has been constructed as lots of small play stations spread through the trees, perfect for playing hide and seek.
If you're in this part of Denmark it's well worth stopping of for a long visit. You can get your entry tickets converted into season passes at no extra charge which means you'll be keen to come back for a second visit to do all the things you didn't get around to the first time, as we did.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Legoland 2 - Still Can't Get Enough!

Our holiday to Denmark (and Legoland) was just too much fun to limit to one posting, so I'm going to start raving about it again.
After all, we are still in serious Lego mode here; the boys have had me putting together all their Lego toys in a non-stop marathon since we arrived home, resulting in me re-discovering many rarely used muscles I had forgotten I actually possessed since the last Lego marathon which I described here. Now that the creidt card bills have rolled in we've also been able to confirm our suspicions - Denmark is a pretty expensive place. It didn't help that it isn't part of the Euro zone, a small detail which had completely escaped me until the day before we were to leave when hubby suggested we go through the Money Drawer to see if we had any Danish Kroners. Any what? You mean we have to change money? Inside Europe?? Bugger.
After rummaging through our money drawer, I happily found a small stock of Kronies to take with us. The Money Drawer used to get a lot more use, but since we all became part of Euro land, the number of envelopes stuffed with currencies have diminished somewhat. There is always a handful of British pounds, since hubby travels back and forth between Aberdeen and Amsterdam every month, and a stack of Swedish Kroner for the annual visits to his sister in Uppsala. Then there is of course a wad of Kiwi dollars, some Norwegian thingies (Kroner again? How unoriginal) for business trips to Stavanger, and a pile of Singaporean dollars which is sadly depleted after my last stopover. Other that that there are what we call the orphan currencies; bits and bobs from Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, the US and a couple of other places we'll probably not get back to for a long time. However I digress - we at least had some Danish Krondongs.
Now I don't know about any of you, but doing currency exchanges in my head is not a natural talent. Euro to New Zealand or Singaporean dollar? No problem, the rate is always about 1:2. But Danish Kring-alings? Those suckers trade at 7.3 to the euro, and who the hell can work that out?? Let's just suffice to say I would suck 2,500 of them out of an ATM every second day and they seemed to disappear at an alarming rate. It didn't help that our new credit cards which we hadn't requested didn't work (thanks ING bank!). Our Postbank was recently taken over by the ING bank and our perfectly working pale blue credit cards were prematurely swapped for hideous bright orange ones which only work with a pin number. Nice move guys, just when we're about to go on holiday, too! Feeling like complete dinosaurs, neither of us knew our pin number, having always just signed for purchases in the past. Hence the 10,000 Koronas-a-week habit we developed on holiday.
On the bright side, having only a vague idea as to how rapidly we were depleting our daily account did help to curb any leanings towards holiday splurges, with the exception of boxes of Lego of course. At the end of the day, the chance to get away from reality for two weeks made it all worth while. And we still have some Kro-magnons left in the Money Drawer.