Amsterdam Houseboat: Living Like A Local

There are sixty miles of canals in Amsterdam; 165 waterways that thread their way through the city defining its geography, its history, and your social status if you were lucky enough to live on or near one in recent history. The city’s canal system, built by draining swamps and creating canals in concentric arcs, was a model of urban planning for its time, earning the Canal District a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010.

Most visitors to Amsterdam are content to wander the canals by foot or bike, crossing over any number of the city’s 1500 bridges, snapping photos of picturesque flower boxes and historic, gabled Dutch buildings. Or, they take a canal tour on the hop-on hop-off boats and private tour boats that wind the canal network. But it’s also possible to live like an Amsterdammer by staying in a houseboat vacation rental where you have an up-close opportunity to watch the city’s watery highway system at work and play. And if traveling solo, your options for finding an affordable houseboat rental are even greater.

Read more of my article published in Solo Travel Network here.

The Saga of Vinland/Iceland

Dateline: Saga Museum. Reykjavik, Iceland. December 25, 2016

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Christmas Day, Iceland

The weather outside was a howling blizzard. To escape I ducked into the Saga Museum, one of the only tourist attractions open Christmas Day in all of Iceland. Apologizing to the two young women working the counter who assured me they were getting twice their normal wage for working the holiday, I took the proffered English interpretive headphones and stepped inside the darkened museum to the first stop on the tour.

Vinland the display’s sign said. Vinland?? That’s a road, church, school and housing development where I live in Poulsbo, Washington, USA. What’s the name doing in an obscure museum in Reykjavik? And thus began a lesson about the intersection of my community and Icelandic sagas. I should have known it was connected to Vikings whose ongoing presence in my life has been described in a past post.

 

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First page of the Saga of Eric the Red

The pleasant English voice on my headset explained that Vinland was the subject of ancient Norse sagas, oral stories that captured the family history and feuds, migrations and voyages and feats of Norse men and women. Many of the sagas can be found on the Icelandic Saga Database. The oral stories were transcribed into written form some 250 years later. The journey, to Vinland is told in the great Icelandic sagas Eric the Red and Saga of Greenland.

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Saga Museum: Tykir the Southerner 

Those two sagas detail the heroism of Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red who sailed an expeditionary force in 1000 AD to what is now North America. One of the men in his party, Tykir the Southerner, a German slave captured by the Vikings, became separated from the group. When he returned he was clearly drunk and was clutching bunches of grapes. The newly discovered land was named Vinland; vin meaning wine or vine.

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Longhouse at Newfoundland Site

In 1960 archaeological evidence was found in Newfoundland that proved the Icelandic saga about the voyage of Leif the Lucky. A recreated Norse longhouse has been built on the site commemorating the landing of Vikings in North America.  Additional evidence suggests the explorers also spent some time in New Brunswick and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Still, how did the name migrate its way to my community? There’s scant information at the local historical society where I went upon my return. Vinland was first settled in 1888 by L. Halvorson. That’s it.

I went to Iceland, stumbled upon a familiar geographic name from home and discovered its connection to an Icelandic saga but have no idea how Leif the Lucky’s expedition, a Canadian landing and wine became the namesake for a settlement cum church/school/housing development/road in my community. A saga in and of itself.

 

Pristina and Aleppo: Let Our Memories Be Long

Two posts leaped from my Facebook feed today.

This: “I imagine Eastern Aleppo will be nationalized and then given to some rich developers to turn it into a Solidere. The property will be sold on the market. 6 people will make a killing and none of the forcibly evacuated will be able to return. Of course, they will be allowed to return, they just won’t have the money to rent or buy in their own land. Tourists will come from all over the world to admire the new architecture and maybe, just maybe, give the victims and the rubble we see today 10 seconds of silence before they go out clubbing. And such is the barbarism of civilization.”

And this: A New York Times travel article entitled Five Places to Go in Pristina.

They are related.

Pristina, in the event you haven’t heard of the city, is in The Republic of Kosovo, a partially recognized country that declared independence from Serbia. It’s had a long and bloody history that includes Roman and Ottoman conquerors; being split into Albanian, Bulgarian and German controlled territories during WWII;  becoming part of Communist Yugoslavia; becoming part of Serbia when Yugoslavia disintegrated and in the late 1990’s deteriorating into the ethnic and political conflict known as the Kosovo War.  In 1998-99 after months of media coverage showing the carnage, NATO intervened and bombed to force Serbian forces to withdraw. Kosovo was placed under United Nations administration and NATO peacekeeping forces were deployed to provide military and policing.

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In November 2001, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe supervised elections in Kosovo. I was assigned as an election supervisor that year and the following year. The evidence of NATO’s bombing was everywhere in Pristina. The telecommunications building was a shell and the site of a former military installation on the outskirts of Pristina that I visited was flattened. Since many bridges had been destroyed in the bombing, getting around the country was difficult. The infrastructure, feeble before the bombing because Kosovo was the poorest of the Yugoslavian republics, was damaged during it. Electricity was sporadic. Coal fueled the remaining energy plants and the air was thick with a grayish-brownish fog. The remnants of war were omnipresent. Our election briefing included warnings and graphic photos about the damage of hidden unexploded ordinances.

That was only fifteen years ago. So imagine my surprise in reading the gushing opening paragraph of a recent NYT article: Pristina swims in superlatives… Radiating from the promenade named for the recently canonized Albanian nun and book ended by the Yugoslavian era Grand Hotel and National Theatre, is a tangle of streets crowded with cafes, boutiques, fashionable locals and in the know internationals and the case for another superlative: coolest neighborhood in the Balkans.  

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The article highlights the exposed brick walls and collections found in a hip new book store, raves about a vegetarian restaurant that buys its ingredients at a green market down the road and the velvet jackets found in a clothing atelier owned by a young French trained Kosovar. About Kosovo and Pristina’s history? Nada.

I’m ecstatic to read of the country’s emerging reputation for hip destination tourism. The economy can use it. Kosovars deserve it. However, its ironic that the front page of the NYT covers the current heart wrenching bombing, destruction and refugee crisis of Aleppo, Syria while its travel section promotes the coolness vibe of a country impacted by bombing, destruction and a refugee crisis less than twenty years old.

Kismit that my Facebook feed today includes this observation about Aleppo’s future:  Tourists will come from all over the world to admire the new architecture and maybe, just maybe, give the victims and the rubble we see today 10 seconds of silence before they go out clubbing. And such is the barbarism of civilization.”

My photos of Kosovo are how I choose to remember the country. Someday I plan on returning to see the progress and sample a tartine at one of its noveau bistros. I can appreciate the changes, but giving short shrift to its history causing selective amnesia about the ravages of war? No.

 

 

Gluhwein for a German Christmas

There’s nothing quite like the magic of a German Christmas Market. At night. In the cold and snow. With a cup of steaming gluhwein.

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I tried the Christmas Market in Vancouver, Canada and while it was delightful, it wasn’t the same as my experiences in Weisbaden and Cologne, Germany where the tradition of Christkindlemarkts go back to the Late Middle Ages. Originally a place for villagers to meet and craftsmen and farmers to sell goods, today’s outdoor German Christmas Markets still serve their original function. There’s been an update with the addition of electricity – twinkling lights.

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And rides. While there are still the charming traditional carved wooden Christmas toys and sweets in many of the stalls, there are also modern updates of machine made handicrafts and Christmas carols piped through loudspeakers when the choirs aren’t singing.

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Every Christmas Market serves Gluhwein, a traditional Christmas mulled wine served in a special ceramic cup intended to warm your hands and insides on cold December nights while strolling the Market.

Gluhwein, which literally translated means “glowing wine”, is thought to have originated as a solution for red wine that was going bad. Adding honey and spices and cooking them in the wine with hot irons made it drinkable. Today it’s sold mit Schuss (with a shot) of brandy or another liquor for an extra dose of warmth.

Snow is predicted for my area again this week – a perfect time to pull out my gluhwein mugs, stock up on brandy and spices and make my favorite recipe (mit Schuss of course):

  • 2 medium lemons
  • 2 medium oranges
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
  • 2 (750-milliliter) bottles dry red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Beaujolais Nouveau
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • Cheesecloth
  1. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemons and oranges in wide strips, avoiding the white pith; place the zest in a large saucepan. Juice the lemons and oranges and add the juice to the pan. Place the cloves and cardamom in a small piece of cheesecloth, tie it tightly with butcher’s twine, and add the bundle to the saucepan.
  2. Add the sugar, water, and cinnamon sticks, place the pan over high heat, and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced by about one-third, about 20 minutes.
  3. Add the red wine and brandy, stir to combine, and bring just to a simmer (don’t let it boil). Remove from the heat and remove and discard the spice bundle before serving.

Salamanca Spain’s Art Deco/Nouveau Museum

I’ve become a regular contributor to the regional magazine, WestSound Home and Garden. For me, travel is anything that takes me to new places or forces me to see the familiar with fresh eyes, no matter how small my travel distance. The magazine’s editor recently assigned me an article on art deco buildings in a nearby community. Often kismet plays a role in my travel experiences as it did with this assignment. It just so happened that I spent a day at the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco in Salamanca Spain when I was there this spring immersing myself in art, fashion, jewelry, dolls, fans, furniture and architecture of those two influential styles.

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The museum is located in the Casa Lis, a building originally designed as a mansion for Don Miguel Lis, a wealthy Salamanca merchant fond of Art Nouveau. Restored in 1992, the building’s exterior stained glass windows are worthy of a few hours of inspired awe.

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You can begin your tour in the museum’s artfully decorated tearoom next to a stained glass window contemplating the guide pamphlet while lingering over a cappuccino.

I began with the doll collection first, not so much because I’m a fan of dolls, but because I never realized that Art Deco and Art Nouveau had any influence on children’s toys. There is an entire section of display cases filled with elaborately dressed bisque headed French dolls used to showcase miniature Parisian fashions to the aristocracy and German dolls called character babies because of their realistic facial expressions.

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Collections range from decorative cloisonne embedded with precious stones such as this egg with rubies to elaborately painted bronzes like the Nativity scene figure below:

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While many European museums can be pricey, the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco is free on Thursday mornings and at other times costs 4 Euros for adults and 2 Euros for students. It’s a beautiful gem inside and out – worthy of an entire day of contemplating two influential styles that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and World War II.

Canada for the Holidays (because they won’t let me live there)

In the wake of the U.S. election, I’ve been thinking about Canada, the compassionate, progressive northern neighboring country only a three hour drive away. For a few days I considered moving north for the next four years until I logged onto their immigration site and using the Canadian Immigration Points Calculator, discovered I wasn’t qualified to obtain a work permit. It turns out I’m too old (over age 47 = zero points on the calculator) and my last ten years of employment isn’t listed on National Occupation Classification list of Skills 0, A or B. Canada’s progressive values apparently don’t include encouraging union organizers to come rabble rouse. Zero points on the calculator again.

And so I’m reduced to admiring my northern neighbor from my southern vantage point making an occasional foray past its borders to pretend I live there. One of my favorite Canadian cities is Vancouver and one of my favorite haunts there is Granville Island, particularly over the December holiday season. If you’re lucky enough to visit then you can also take in the outdoor German Christmas Market and support indigenous tourism, both subjects of previous blog posts.

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Granville Island was a former industrial manufacturing center. Today it’s home to more than 275 businesses including theatre venues, galleries, brewpubs, shops and restaurants. What remains of its industrial history has embraced the thriving Granville arts community.

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I like arriving to Granville Island by Aquabus, the city’s maritime transportation system with multiple waterfront docks. Commuting by Aquabus gives you a bonus – a waterfront tour of Vancouver.

My first stop is always the Granville Island Public Market, a farmers market of permanent retailers and over 100 day vendors selling artisan foods and handmade crafts.

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Sri Lanka Warning Signs

You’ve likely seen them in your travels. Those warning signs literally translated from the country’s native language into awkward English. I’m always glad to see them (particularly when it involves my safety).  I discovered these travelling in Sri Lanka:

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