Sloos family vacation eastern Canada/USA 2012 week 3

July 24th, 2012

Sunday, July 15

Our last full day in New York, and still more to do. We start with a ferry trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Liberty Island, is of course the Island with the Statue of Liberty. As we have made some very nice photo’s when we were on the sailboat, we decide not to go off board, but stay on the ferry until the next stop, Ellis Island. It was here, where 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1954. On Ellis Island, the building, stairs and rooms are all still intact, how it was back then. We get an audio guide, that tells the story from the side of immigrants, and from the people who worked as immigrant officers. The stories are sometimes heartbreaking, as people who were sick or disabled could be refused entry into the country, and ended up separated from the rest of their families. Sometimes that meant that they were kept in the hospitals for quarantine, sometimes for weeks, or worse, were sent back to their port of origin.

Thinking back about the time and circumstances we immigrated ourselves with Tim, almost 16 years ago, it is a world of difference. We knew where we would stay, spoke enough English to find work, and had sufficient funds. The immigrants back then, arrived with all their belongings, and might not speak a word of English. How scared they must have felt, when interrogated by immigrant officers in uniforms. Now this process was only for the 3 rd class passengers, as 1st and 2nd class passengers were checked by immigrant officers on board of the steam vessels they arrived with, and were directly brought to land to start their new lives. A very impressive museum all together, we are glad we know more about New York’s history.

We take the Subway to Bloomingdales, an upscale department store with all the famous brands like Gucci and Prada. Marc and Rene take a break in the restaurant, while the rest of the team browses around the gigantic store. When we get outside it has started to rain, and we head for another subway ride to a flea market. When we arrive at the flea market they are about to clean up, as it is already getting close to 5 pm. From there, we walk to Times Square, as Eldon and Marc want to take another look in the Toys ‘R Us store. Done with their shopping, we leave the store, and all of a sudden, Eldon is gone, just nowhere to be seen! Oh boy, there are thousands of people here, he must be freaking out right now. We walk back, and luckily, find him pretty fast. A group of people had suddenly walked in front of him, blocking his way, and he had lost eye contact with us. Big sigh of relief for him and for us!

Finally we visit the store where Rene has seen the record player he wants to buy. Now this store is actually 8 stores next to each other, and Marc and I are going to check out the drum-sets. There is a man drumming, and he invites Marc to try out some really cool electronic drums. They play a bit together, and Marc is telling him, how he has drum lessons back home. Very cool experience for Marc, and we decide to buy him some new drumsticks as a souvenir. Rene has his record player, which is wrapped carefully with twine (touw) and handles, as we still have to take it back in the subway to the apartment. Outside the store is a (black) man, who starts a conversation with us, and again, we are amazed how friendly the people are, if you just take the time. Once back at the apartment, we decide to eat at the Chinese restaurant across the street. The food and service is excellent, and we take the-leftovers with us in doggy bags. Tomorrow we have to get up in time, as we will be traveling to Washington DC.

 

Monday, July 16

Since we really can’t take the leftovers from yesterdays dinner with us, we decide to have a “reversed day” and start with dinner… Mmm Chinese leftovers for “breakfast”… With a day of driving ahead of us, we get up and ready, and load the car. It fits, but it’s a bit of a puzzle, with the extra big box for the record player now in the back. It takes about an hour to make our way out of the city, even though it is past the morning rush hour. We did manage to stop by a longboard factory/shop, which was unfortunately closed. It doesn’t look that the traffic is ever slowing down here. We look back one more time, at the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan. Hopefully, we can come back one day, we have more things to see and do for sure! We have our pick nick along the way, at a rest stop, and the temperature is still very warm. We are grateful for the airco in the car. The apartment at Takoma Park, just one block away from the Washington DC state line. The area is beautiful, streets are lined with mature trees, it is lush and green and the air is much cleaner than New York,  for sure. The apartment has airco as well, and with a weather forecast for the next few days, of around a 38 C, that is very welcome. The owners of the house, live on the first floor of the house, and they have an information book in the apartment, with all kind of information. Now we know where the supermarkets are, we are heading out to get some groceries for “breakfast”. Tomorrow we’ll start discovering the city.

 

Tuesday, July 17

The days in New York were great, but we are very tired, and sleep in this morning. We head out just after lunch, and the hot humid air is falling on us once again. It is indeed 38C today, and almost too hot to go out and walk around the city. Parking is possible at the subway station, but it works only on a sort of call in system, or quarters. The car needs to be parked halfway between the apartment and the subway station, but the walk is only 10 minutes. The street we walk through is beautiful, with houses that remind us of Bellevue, where we stayed a couple of time, close to Seattle. We take the subway (yeah, airco as well) to Union station, which used to be the largest railway station in the world, and it’s beautiful. From there it’s a short walk to the Capitol, the famous parliament building that houses the US Senate. Behind the Capitol starts the National Mall, a park about one kilometer long, with trees, lined with a collection of Smithsonian museums.

Today, we just go into the Air and Space museum. Of course, there is security, but no line up at all. The Smithsonian museums are free, which is really unbelievable. We stay just an hour, we will be back tomorrow to see more. We go back outside, still unbelievably hot and clammy.  Via the Washington monument (the tall marble obelisk build to honor the nation’s founding father George Washington), we walk to the back yard of the White House, but we are ushered away by police/secret service police, as they are closing off the roads. Maybe the president has guests over for dinner tonight? Walk around, and we can see the house from the front though, and see snipers taking their spots on the roof. Something is definitely going on. From there, we walk all the way to the area called “Morgan Adams” which has all kind of little (record) stores and restaurants. We eat at a place called “Amsterdam”, a kind of snack bar, that sells fries and falafels. No one but us speaks dutch of course, but nice photo’s and posters of Amsterdam are on the walls. They even have mayonnaise and peanut sauce, which is always great on your fries! We take the subway back to the apartment, and we really need a shower! Great that there is a washer and dryer in the apartment, I got a feeling we might use it every day, as we sweat like little piggies!

 

Wednesday, July 18

The boys really want to go to the Smitsonian museum of Natural History, so that will be our first visit today. It’s absolutely the most beautiful museum we have ever been to. Exhibitions about evolution,  oceans, mammals, fossils and gemstones to name a few. We take a lunch-break in the museums cafe, and leave at about 4.00pm. We can’t believe we were in there for 5 hours already,  we haven’t even seen everything, but want to go back to the Air and Space museum once more, as we did not see everything yesterday. When we are inside, a huge thunderstorm breaks loose. Finally, maybe this will bring some cooler temperatures! The rain has stopped at 5.30pm, when the museum closes, and it is indeed a couple degrees cooler. We walk through downtown and Chinatown, have a snack and head back to the subway. We head to the supermarket and buy all ingredients for a lovely meal with a baguette with cheese and a salad with chicken, eggs and crab. The boys are very grateful for the dishwasher, after dinner!

 

Thursday, July 19

Our last full day in Washington DC, time goes fast when you are having fun, and we head out to see the Pentagon and the memorial that has been erected to honor the 184 people who died on 9/11. We can only walk around the building of course, and making photo’s is not allowed. We hear a helicopter take off, and look up, and see the letters on the side  ”United States of America”. Just then, a passerby says to us “you guys might be in for a show, that is the president’s helicopter”. Too bad, the helicopter moves on, and we don’t get a glimpse of the big man. We take the subway back from the Pentagon (which is in Arlington, Virginia) to Washington DC. Funny, it sounds far, but it is only a few stops with the subway. We haven’t seen the Lincoln Memorial yet, so that’s where we are heading. The temperature  is again 36C today, we can’t say we haven’t had any summer. It is really impressive, and busy with tourists like ourselves. From there, we walk back trough the park to the Washington monument. On the way, we pass the Vietnam and Second World War memorials as well.

I would still like to do a bit of shopping, so we are taking the subway back to the car, and drive to a store comparable to our Winners, for the shoppers under us, you guessed it, ROSS. The men take a quick stroll through the store, and then head out to go grocery shopping, while I get some more time to look around. The (afro American) lady who greeted us on the way into the store, says to the guys “have a blessed day” when they leave the store, how nice is that? When she sees me by myself in the store, she says ” he, you by yourself now?”. When I tell her that I sent them shopping for food instead, she laughs and says ” you go girl! “. Again, such nice people we encounter, you almost think you are not in the USA! The boys pick me up, and got spare ribs for dinner, yummy! We cook our last meal  in the apartment, and get busy cleaning up and packing, as tomorrow, we have a full day in the car, driving to the Niagara Falls area. Bye Washington DC, you are a beautiful city, and we hope we can return one day!

 

Friday, July 20

It’s going to be about a 10 hour trip in the car today, so we leave early. Luckily, the weather has cooled down quite a bit, and it is cloudy and rainy for a change. We even encounter periods of heavy rain, but we are progressing just fine. The cottage where we will be spending the next 2 nights, is not in Niagara itself, but in Wilson, on Lake Ontario, still in the USA. It is a 20 minutes’ drive from the really touristic Niagara Falls area. We arrive around 6.30 at night, and the owner Joe drops by to say “hi” and gives us some tips for things to do in the area. Now, we only planned to be there one full day really, so unfortunately, we don’t have time to see any of his suggestions, other than the Falls. The area is again beautiful and quiet, we have a good rest.

 

Saturday, July 21

It’s time to check out the Niagara Falls! Now, the Falls have a Canadian side and a US side, and René has been to the Canadian side before, and knows that the view is way better from that side. We park the car on the US side of the Falls and start walking around. The weather is perfect, around 27C, with a little breeze. Sooooo much better than the 38C, we had the past 2 weeks. We make photos and Tim is filming, and have our lunch in the shade. The Falls are beautiful, but very crowded and touristic, as expected. We brought our passports, as the plan is, to walk over the Rainbow bridge, to Canada and back. Getting into Canada is easy, the female customs lady is efficient and friendly, when we explain that we are just going to cross to see the Falls from the “good” side. It is a waaay better view from the Canadian side, no if-what-buts around it! We have an ice cream, walk all the way to the world famous Horseshoe bowl of falling water.

More than 6 million cubic feet (168,000 m3) of water falls over the crest line every minute in high flow, and almost 4 million cubic feet (110,000 m3) on average. Before we are going to walk back over the bridge to the US, we have a bite to eat and a drink at the Niagara Hard Rock café, always a “hit” with the boys, no pun intended. When we are waiting at the US pedestrian border crossing, we put our serious faces back on. For some reason, the US border control employees, take their jobs so serious, that you can’t help but feeling interrogated every time you want to enter the country. Anyway, our papers are good, and we are allowed entry again. We drive back to the cottage. It is not completely dark yet, so we are taking a little walk to the lakeside, from where we can see the city and suburbs of Toronto lighting up on the other site of the Lake. It’s a great view. We also see a lot of bats flying around, and some fire flies, with their little lights going on and off, really neat to see. It is late, when we finally go to bed.

 

Sunday, July 22

The big challenge this morning is to get everything packed in our flight bags, including all the records René bought this trip. They are quite heavy, and we try to distribute the weight as good as we can. The still unopened box with the record player, needs to come with us on the plane. Let’s hope WestJet is ok with that. We stop on the way in Oakville, where a Ford car show is going on, with mainly Ford Mustangs etc. but still nice to see. There is also a sign for a flea market in Mississauga, and we even stop there for a visit. When we arrive at the airport, we park the car back at the Hertz office, and drink all the left over drinks we still had, as we cannot bring them through security of course. After 3 juice boxes each, plus René and Tim a beer each (Tim actually did not drink the beer, as it wasn’t cold enough…) we check in and proceed to the bag drop off point. The WestJet attendant is very helpful and friendly, (they usually are), and allows René to bring the record player with him as an extra carry-on, with no extra charge. Plus, he advises us to pre-board, as we have kids, they are not small, but still kids, to have the best chance to store the box in the overhead compartment. A good plan, and it works! A big sigh from René here. The flight is around 4 hours, and we watch the Food Network on tv, always fun.

When we land, our bag arrive quickly, and our friend Peter is picking us up from the airport in our own car. We get home about 5.30 pm, and it’s good to be back. The guinea pigs are happy to see us too. Vienne Janssen has done a great job looking after them while we were gone. Francine has left us a note, and has bought us milk and croissants, what a sweetie. What a great feeling to be in your own bed again, no matter how good your vacation was. We sure enjoyed our road trip together with all the 3 boys, it might have been the last time. Fun vacation? absolutely! Well rested? Not at all, but that was never the objective! Another “Amazing Race” finished, without anyone getting seriously hurt or ill, no car trouble, no robbery or losing important items. It could not have been better, how blessed we are that we have been able to do this!

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Sloos family vacation eastern Canada/USA 2012 week 2

July 17th, 2012

Sunday, July 8th

We have breakfast, load up the car and hand in the hotel keys. A bag with swimsuits, towels and lunch packed for today. Calypso is only a half hour drive away, and even though we thought we were early, we are not the only ones. There is already a line-up to get tickets. Once inside, we have no problem finding a picnick table with parasol, and check out the grounds. Huge water slides, a kids pirate park, huge lazy river, and several rides that make your stomach turn upside down. The weather is a little cooler today, around 24C only, and once you get out of the water, we are actually cold. Too bad it’s not 33C today…Anyway, we slip and slide and jump in the huge wave pool until around 3.00pm, and head back to the car to drive to Montreal.

Once at the apartment, we have to admit that this one is the most beautiful designed apartment, that we have ever stayed in. (Fred, als je dit leest,  dit zou een huis voor jou zijn). Our host, Eric has explained where the stores are, and we are going to get ourselves some groceries. On our way to the stores, we walked by a huge public park, complete with fitness benches, jeue de boule lanes, table tennis tables, and a beautiful open air swimming pool. On a bench sits an old man playing his accordion, and it truly feels like Paris. Families with children having picnics in the park, on a beautiful Sunday night. Yep, our friend Francine was right, this is as European as it gets! Rene and Tim use the BBQ on the balcony to prepare food, and we have a lovely dinner with warm baguettes, grilled pork chops, salad and cheese. Tomorrow we will be exploring the city some more.

 

Monday, July 9th

It’s our first full day in Montreal and it is beautiful here. The weather a balmy 25C when we head out to explore the city. We walk through the coveted neighborhood of Plateau Mont Royal, to downtown, about 5 km’s. Rene has discovered another second hand store with books, cd’s and records, and we spend some time treasure hunting. Tim gets an awesome book, (already for his birthday from Eldon),  called “The way things work” from 1967. This book also describes how a juke-box works, so it might even help Rene restore our juke-box  at home! There are also a couple of “board stores” that Tim wants to check out. We eat our picnic lunch at the McGill University campus, before continuing our tour through the city. A stop at the tourist information centre provides us with maps and brochures of things we want to check out. Walking back is actually a bit longer than we anticipated, and the temperature makes my feet swell up to ‘pregnancy’ proportions. Blisters are forming,  we need to do something about those as soon as we get back to the apartment. On the way home, we stop by a cozy pizza place for dinner.  The funny thing is, they do not serve alcohol, but you are welcome to bring your own! Rene walks across the street to get himself a beer at the corner convenience store,  and joins us back at the restaurant. The guys are starving, and we finish all the pizza’s we ordered, no doggy bags this time. Tomorrow we will go to see some attractions, this was enough walking for today!

 

Tuesday, July 10th

We are going to take the subway today, and head out to the Montreal Biosphere, a sort of museum/science center, that focuses on global warming and adaptation. It is on a little island called “Ille Sainte-Helene”. Very interesting museum indeed. A funny game show throws in some competition, as we split up in teams to compete against each other.  Rene and Tim on one side of the audience, Marc, Eldon and I on the other side, and we kicked their @&tts! Haha. Another exhibition showed dresses, all made from recyclable materials, and there were some weird, some innovative, and some really beautiful ones. The ‘Dome’ that houses the buildings, is a landmark, and visible from almost everywhere in the city. It looks like the big globe, like the one in Disney’s Epcot Centre, but the construction is actually completely open, like a woven globe of steel. We climbed to the top, which has a wonderful view over the city.

Walking back to the mainland, we stop for a beer and ice-cream and walk through the Old Port of Montreal. The cities resemblance with Paris is the most noticeable right here.  Old architecture and cobblestone (kinderhoofdjes), patios, a square with portrait painters, and restaurants everywhere. Of course, we end up at more record stores, and Rene is a happy man. Even though it’s quite late, and way past dinner time, our guys enjoy themselves, and don’t complain at all, real troupers! We sit down for dinner at a Szechwan restaurant, and enjoy a wonderful dinner before going back to the apartment. The subway was great, my feet are almost back to normal, yeah!

 

Wednesday, July 11th

Our last day in Montréal, and we are heading back to The Old Port area, as this is where the Science Centre is. We know the Science Centre in Calgary and Seattle, and were hoping for a similar experience. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The first exhibition we would like to see is full, we will have to come back in a bit. Only one other exhibition is open, but there are 2 day camp groups in that same hall, with about 50 school kids running around. Now, we are no strangers to noise, but Rene and I look at each other and agree that earplugs would have been helpful. We look around the room, and do some experiments with our boys. When we want to go to the next exhibition, we hear from the staff that this presentation is in french only, and that the next one in English will be at 13.00 hours, that is 2 hours from now, are you kidding me?? Ok, let’s go back to the first room then. That is open now, and we create our own documentary, with help of video clips and our own sound recordings. Ok, let’s go to the next room! Guess what? It’s closed for the season! Really? We are not impressed at all. This is supposed to be a place you should be able to spend the day, and we are done in just over an hour, with nothing left to see or do. We go to customer service, and ask for a comments sheet, as no one had informed us beforehand about the closure. In the end, they offer to refund our money, as they admit the exhibitions are not up to par at this moment.

We leave the building, and head out to the adjacent  park, and sit down under some trees, to have our lunch. The temperature is again around 30C today, and shade is very welcome. After lunch, we take the subway to the Montreal Olympic Park, where the Olympics were held in 1976. Very nice stadium and a beautiful park, we take a stroll, and  decide to hop back on the subway. We check out the market in the Little Italy district, and walk back to the apartment. On our way, we pass yet another store that sells records and go in. About an hour later, we spend $10 on 40 records, and Rene is happy-de-peppy! For dinner, we decide to take the car and drive to Schwartz, THE place in Montreal to eat smoked meat sandwiches. This place is crazy bury, there is a line-up outside of the store… We decide to do “take-out” instead. The sandwiches are huge and very tasty indeed. Now we have to start packing again, as tomorrow morning we will leave for the Big Apple,  New York!

 

Thursday, July 12th

We get up early, to check out at 7.15am. The drive to New York is about 7 hours, plus, we have to cross the US border of course, which can take a while as well. Luckily, the stop at the border is quick this time, and we take a nice long lunch break at a restaurant along the highway, that has free Internet as well. I try to reach my brother Robert, as he had texted me before, that mom had taken another tumble, and had up hurt herself. We ‘Facetime’ for a bit, and continue our journey. When we get to New York, we stop at a Costco, which is in one of the outskirts and get groceries. We arrive at the apartment, which is in the neighborhood of Brooklyn, and settle in. It’s 33C degrees today, and it feels really clammy. This apartment has airco as well, except in one bedroom where Tim is sleeping, but he is ok with it. at least he has his own room for a couple os days. Eldon and Marc share a room with  bunk bed. We are all exited to be here in the the Big Apple!

 

Friday, July 13th

Today, we are up and running early, and head out to the subway station. Weird, but there are no  3 day or 1 day passes available, only 7 day passes. We are only here for 3 full days, but flexibility is handy, so we get the 7 day passes anyway. We purchased the New York passes online, a couple of weeks ago. These credit card format passes, give access to 70 attractions, museums and tours in the New York area. Our first stop: the Empire State building. We thought we were early, but it’s very busy already. Long line ups, and a thorough security check again. We make it to the 86th floor, but it is very crowded, and making photo’s is not an easy task. We also visit the ‘Skyride ‘ attraction, in the same building, but on the second floor. It is a flight simulator ride, similar as the ones in Disney World, and is about 20 minutes long. The footage is from 1995, which means the twin Towers of the World Trade Centre are still in it. It is nice, but not spectacular.

Our next stop: the 9/11 Memorial, a monument at the place where the old twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be, ground zero. You can see the new World Trade Centre towers being build next to it at this moment but the waterfall pools are finished and are magnificent! We are so glad that we booked tickets online in advance to see this. Later this afternoon, we have made reservations for a sailing tour on a “tall ship” at 4.30 pm.  The guys can even help the crew to get the huge sails up,  when we head out on the Hudson River, in the direction of the Statue of Liberty. The tour is 90 minutes, and we simply LOVE it! A better view of the Statue of Liberty, is not possible. Rene states that this was by far the best event of our vacation so far.

When we go off board, we visit the ‘Bodies’ exhibition, a very unusual collection of REAL preserved human bodies, that show people what’s all on the inside of our bodies. Very impressive, and now the kids have seen the difference between a healthy lung and one damaged by lung cancer, they swear they will never start smoking! Well, we have to wait to find out, but we encourage the idea for sure. We continue our sightseeing, and before we get to Times Square, we go to see the wax statues at Madame Tussaud’s, which is a blast. You are actually allowed to come up close and personal, and to make photo’s standing right next to all the famous people. Tim goes a bit overboard, and is posing with all the ladies in the museum, there are some with princess Catherine of England,  Jlo, Jessica Simpson, Marilyn Monroe, to name a few. Finally, at about 10.30pm, we arrive at Times Square, and once you have been there by night, you know why they call New York “a city that never sleeps”. There are more people on the streets, then the Calgary Stampede, 3 Oktober, and New Year’s Eve together! But it’s something we wouldn’t want to miss. Needless to say, it’s really late (or really early, depending how you look at it) when we finally get back to the apartment. My feet are swollen again, hopefully they’ll be ok after some sleep, as we have way more New York to see!

 

Saturday, July 14th

Instead of walking this morning, we are going to ride bikes, all around Central  Park. We pick up the rental bikes, and we simply love it! The park is huge, and has a bike path, combined with a special lane for the people who jog. We are finished a complete round in about an hour, and Rene and I are wondering where Tim and Eldon are, as they wanted to go fast, and are somewhere ahead of us. We don’t see them waiting anywhere, so Rene is off to go find them. Marc and I stay and wait… It takes quite some time, but Rene is able to catch up with them. We bring the rental bikes back, and take the subway again, to Rockefeller Plaza. This is the famous square, where at Christmas time, a huge Christmas tree is set up every year. There is no line-up at all to get to the viewing deck of the Rockefeller Centre, and in no time, we are admiring the amazing view over Central Park, and the rest of Manhattan, including the Empire State Building, (which is a couple of blocks away). We all agree, this view is much better!  There  is no fence, but a glass wall surrounding the viewing deck, with spaces between them, just big enough to put your hand with your camera through it, so the view is unobstructed. Our photos’s turn out way better than the one we made on top of the Empire State building. Tim is making videos of the trip, with his Go-Pro camera, and is exited with the results.

In the Rockefeller Centre, are also the NBC television studios, and with our New York Pass, we can do a tour through the studios, where programs like the Dr. Oz show, Jimmy Fallon, and Saturday Night live are recorded. Always fun, and especially Rene is impressed with the light and sound systems they use nowadays. Next item we have planned, is a search to one of the University of New York buildings, the one that has the store where sport equipment and clothing is sold (to university students). Another challenge here, Tim is not a student, and we do not have a student ID card to show security when we get there, and want to enter the building. (Tim would love to have an official sweater, not one you can buy in the souvenir stores). After explaining to the security of the NYU why Tim and I are there, they let us in without registration, and we find the store. So, 3 hoodies later, we go back outside, where Rene, Eldon and Marc are waiting for us. We feel privileged to have seen some of the  campus. Not impressive on the outside, but very nice at the inside, especially the pool is beautiful, we could see it from the store.

When we walk around the corner of the University building, a big market is about to clean up for today. It is about 5.00 pm, and all the food is sold off really cheap. We find a Mexican stall, and buy a whole collection of wraps and burritos for dinner. We pick nick as usual. Rene wants to check out yet some more record stores in Soho and Noho, which have a variety of antiques, and thrift stores as well. One store, has 2 boxes outside the store with a sign ” free” on it, and we find some really good 12″ records and albums. He purchases some records inside the store as well, but for the amount of $2.00, we have a large bag full of records, needless to say, Rene has a smile from ear to ear!

We still stand outside the store, with the boys sitting on the steps of the house next to it, when a (black) man with a beer in his hand walks up to us and says “you guys are beautiful”. Next thing he says, I know I’m black, and you might be afraid of me, and I know I am drunk, but I do speak the truth. We laugh, he is now spotting Marc, and says “hey, a child”, and looking at Eldon, “wow, another one”, at Tim now, “now you go play basketball you hear”! He is obviously pleased to see a “mixed” couple, as he says, there should be more couples like you, as you are beautiful together!  We are not intimidated at all, we are all laughing together, this is something the boys will not forget easily. So far, we have never felt unsafe in New York, no matter what people say about this huge city, with 8 million people living in it. The subway stations are incredibly hot, temperatures must be around 40C or so, no joke. This must be what menopause must feel like.  Thank goodness that all the New York subway trains have air conditioning!

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Sloos family vacation eastern Canada/USA 2012 week 1

July 7th, 2012
Another amazing race with the Sloos family
 
Sunday, July 1st
 
Up bright and early, the Sloos family gets ready to start a 3 week vacation. This time, our travels will take us to the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, followed by New York, Washington DC, and Niagara Falls (which has a Canadian and US side ). Our friend Peter is so kind to wake up early too, and drop us off at Calgary International Airport.
 
The flight to Toronto is just over 3 hours, and it’s over before we know it. Driving to Toronto would have taken about 3 days, so we decided to fly the first part, and rent a car there. This is where we face our first challenge: Rene will leave us at the terminal after we land, take a bus and subway to the Hertz office downtown, to pick up the rental car. We know you can also pick up a rental car at the airport, but a price difference of a whopping $800 to do that, is still a lot of money right? Ok, Rene hops on the bus, the kids and I wait for our bags at the luggage carousel. We have 4 bags from the 5, and the carousel stops, all luggage has been distributed. Where is Tim’s bag??
 
After asking around, we discover Tim’s bag with the ‘oversized’ stuff like golf bags etc. Ok, that’s a relief! We are going to find ourself something to eat, and wait until Rene returns a good while later with the rental car, a Ford Fusion.
All bags in the car, next stop, our apartment in Toronto! We find it with help from the GPS, that comes with the car, always handy. We have been invited to a BBQ party, at the house of Ted and Vanessa, a couple we know via work, and they live about 30 minutes outside the city. Spain has just won the Eurocup soccer, and we are stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get out of the city. Cars are honking, flags are waving, Spanish people yell and cheer at the italians. Our GPS has guided us through the’Little Italy’ neighborhood…..
 
We finally arrive at the house, which has a huge back yard and an outdoor pool. The boys can’t wait to get into the water.There are lot’s of very nice people to meet, kids everywhere, and the boys have no trouble finding some new friends to play and swim with. Ted has a tradition of setting off fireworks, as it is officially Canada Day on July 1st, to entertain friends and family. Wow, what a spectacle it is, Ted is an IT guy, but a professional pyromaniac as well it seems. The fireworks remind us of the Calgary Stampede, which we are missing this year. Finally, we head back to the apartment far after midnight. What a first day, we are exhausted!
 
 
Monday, July 2nd
 
Wow, we slept in until 11.30 in the morning, it’s almost lunchtime! Remember that there is a time difference of two hours between Calgary and Toronto. We really want to get out and discover the city, so get breakfast and head out of the door. We park the car downtown, and decide to walk from there to the waterfront, (Toronto is situated at Lake Ontario), we can always take the subway back, if we would be too tired to walk. The temperature is about 29C, and the humidity makes it feel even a bit warmer. Summer is here for sure! We stroll along different neighborhoods, with a variety of little antique and curiosa shops, and enjoy the scenery. At an english pub, we decide to stop for lunch.
Rene is happy to find out, that they have his new favorite beer, Rickards White, on tap.
 
After lunch, we continue our walk through the city. We come across a store that sells all kind of stuff, and we just have to go in. A sign on the door states ‘we sell stuff you didn’t even know you needed’ and they are right. They have everything and then some, I could have dropped the guys off, and picked them up hours later, but Rene throws me a challenge to find 4 identical caps and the hunt is on. And we walk some more, and finally arrive at the waterfront, also the location of the CN Tower, and the Toronto Bluejays baseball stadium. From there, we continue to the Lawrence market (it’s closed today, for yesterday’s Canada Day). And still more walking….to the Distillery district. This is where all alcohol used to be produced, now an art and culinarily centre, very nice to see such old buildings in Canada.
 
From here, we could take the subway back, but for some reason, we end up walking back, all the way to the car. We probably walked about 15 km today, and Rene’s feet are sore with blisters from his Birkenstocks……. The grocery store we had seen in the morning, is closed early, but good old Shoppers Drug Mart sells bread, tuna and milk, and we finally head back. As feared, Rene’s feet are in bad shape, we’ll have to see tomorrow how that is going to work out for him. Bedtime for now, one more day in Toronto, before we move on to our next destination.
 
 
Tuesday, July 3rd
 
Yep, it’s a fact, Rene can’t walk anymore, as 2 large blisters have formed on the bottom of his feet. Luckily, we have a needle and antibacterial stuff, to treat it the hard way, and he bears it like a man. Ok, today we still like to go back to the Lawrence Market, but decide to park the car closer by. It is an indoor market with all kind of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and pastries. The boys find their favorite kind of ice tea, and we eat our lunch outside in the sun, where picnic tables are set up for just that. From there, we walk a bit further downtown, where Eldon likes the big square, that looks like a sort of Times Square. Lots of little specialty shops, and Rene scores two singles, original 45′s for his collection. We go back to the car and stop at the large supermarket, to pick up food for dinner, and for the next day, as we will be leaving for the capital of Canada, Ottawa. The boys and I play a new card game we had not played before, called “the Poo game” where the players are monkeys, flinging poop at each other…..no further comments necessary I think. Our last sleep in Toronto, we go to bed early.
 
 
Wednesday, July 4th
 
We have breakfast, pack our bags and load up the car for Ottawa. There is a Holland store in Toronto, and we decide to make a quick stop there. We find it, but it is a bit smaller than we expected, and only buy a few things. It’s about a 4 hour drive to Ottawa, but navigating to get out of the city is tricky, even with a GPS. Express lanes in the middle provide extra lanes going in the same direction, and make the roads extra wide. We count 8 lanes going in each direction, it’s a 16 lane highway. We stop for gas and lunch along the way, (long live the Ziploc baggies) and we are very grateful for the air conditioning and WI-fi in the building. It is again around 30C today!
 
We arrive in our hotel in Ottawa, it is a 2 bedroom suite with a kitchenette. The hotel has a nice fitness room and swimming pool. Tim is missing his biathlon training these few weeks and decides to try it out tomorrow morning, together with Rene, who is missing his daily bike ride now, and will join him for a half hour sprint to no where, as there are stationary bikes as well. Tim wants to cook his famous Seafood Linguine, and we head outside to find a supermarket again. It’s only a few streets away, and we find everything we need. Rene and Tim cook dinner, we do the dishes. Marc and Eldon want to go for a swim after dinner, Tim is going with them, very handy, a big teenager that looks like an adult, and I am typing this blog. Rene is going to bed early, his feet still not a 100% ok.
 
 
Thursday, July 5th
 
When I wake up at 8, I notice that Tim has already left for the gym. Rene goes downstairs for his workout as well, Eldon finds his bed super comfy, and has trouble getting up. When the men return, Rene cooks breakfast, and makes bread for lunch. After cleaning up, we pack our daypack and head out. Let’s go see Ottawa! Our hotel is not far from the famous Rideau Canal, and an easy walk to Parliament Hill. Lots of tourists, and we pose for a quick photo, that Rene posts on his Facebook page. There is a tour of the parliament buildings you can do, we might go back to see that, but for now, we rather stay outside. Again, very nice weather, we are getting used to the heat and the humidity, which is way higher, than what we are used to in Calgary.
 
We have a picnic lunch and walk to the ByWard Market, which is hustling and bustling with local people and tourist. Of course we need to eat a ‘Beaver tail’. It is a deep fried pastry with cinnamon, sugar and a slice of lemon, of course shaped like it’s name. (we probably burn off the calories for that one in no time!) Enough walking for today, we are going back to the hotel for a siesta. For dinner, we have been invited to David and Marie’s house, who we know again via work, and David has stayed at our house before as our guest, when there was a conference in Calgary. They live in Kanata, one of the suburbs of Ottawa with their two children, Gregory and Jessica. The kids get along great, and the BBQ salmon is really good. They have a little pool in the backyard and Marc and Jessica spend quite some time in there. It’s time to go inside when the mosquitos discover that we are still sitting outside… We have a great evening, and drive back to the hotel around 10.30 pm.
 
 
Friday, July 6th
 
We all sleep in this morning, the weather forecast predicts a temperature of 34C today, which is really more like Mexico than Canada if you ask me. After lunch, we walk back to the Parliament buildings for an inside tour this time. We pick up the (free) tickets and have about an hour before the tour starts. A long winding staircase, that starts behind the buildings, goes all the way down to the Ottawa river. We decide to take a closer look, and head down to the waterfront. This side of the river is Ontario, the province of Quebec lies on the other side. There is a nice breeze, and we take a little break here, before we have to walk back up again. Really, this brings back memories of climbing the Eiffel tower in Paris, 2 years ago……
 
The kids are like mountain goats, but Rene and I are huffing and puffing by the time we get back to street level. Before the tour starts, we have to go through security, same as at the airport. Our tour guide Alex is funny and entertaining, and we are admiring the art and architecture in the luxury of air conditioning. Marc calls out ‘this is the room you see on TV all the time’ when we enter the house of commons, ( de tweede kamer). We are allowed to make photo’s everywhere, but it’s tricky because of the light. The only place we can’t make photo’s is the library, too bad, because it is magnificent.
 
After the tour, we head back outside and feel the sweltering hear surrounding us once again. We decide to head for Rideau Centre, the downtown shopping centre, with, you guessed it, air conditioning. Rene walks a little through the main shopping streets instead, looking for another record store, he had noticed the day before. Once we meet up again, we decide to head back to the hotel and cook dinner. Tonight at 9.00 pm, we have booked a “Haunted walk tour” through Ottawa, where a guide will take us along buildings and tell the ghost stories about the creatures haunting them. Our guide Adrienne is dressed in a long black cloak (cape) and is carrying an old fashioned lantern that adds to the ambiance. The temperature is still about 30C, we wonder if it will ever cool down. Our group is small, and we enjoy listening to history and ghost stories in the dark. The tour end at 10.30pm, and we walk back to the hotel. Along the way we stop for cold drinks and ice cream. In bed again late, but no fixed plans for tomorrow, our last day in Ottawa, so that’s ok.
 
 
Saturday, July 7th
 
Today, the morning is a lazy one as we slept in a bit. We know there is a ‘Holland store’ in Ottawa, and decide to check it out. What a beautiful store it is, even better than the one we have in Calgary. They have a department with cold cuts (vleeswaren) and we decide to take Rene’s favorite, ‘rosbief’, in addition to soup and pre-fried ‘kroketten’, that we just have to warm up in the oven. Yeah! Dutch food party! Eldon is lucky today, they have a beautiful orange Holland jacket in his size, and he is admiring himself in the mirror of the store. Of course he should have it. On the other side of the street, is a large Value Village (tweede hands winkel ) and that’s always fun to look around. We go back to the hotel to put all the groceries in the fridge and freezer, and take a drive to the other side of the Ottawa river, which is the province of Quebec. A beautiful view from the bridge to the back of Parliament Hill, but the city of Gatineau itself is not impressive. We stop for drinks and take a break in the Gatineau National Park, which starts immediately behind the town. Our dinner is yummy, the kids did not have “kroketjes” since December, and truly enjoy it.
 
Tonight is the MosAika, the light and sound show on Parliament Hill, which starts at 10 o’clock pm. What a beautiful show it is, we are just blown away by quality of this (free) production, which tells the history of Canada. There is a moment that seems to be taken right out of a Harry Potter movie, where the projections look like the windows of the buildings are ‘popping out’. How do they DO that? The temperature at night is still around 27C tonight, and many people have decided to attend tonight. We are still able to make some very nice photo’s and Tim has some video shootings that are posted on Facebook. Once back at the hotel, we start packing, as tomorrow we are heading for Montreal. We want to leave early tomorrow morning, as we will be spending the day at a huge water-park, called Calypso, which is between Ottawa and Montreal.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, week 6

August 22nd, 2010

Last night we scouted the best way to the station, and with all the construction going on in Prague, we figured that the metro is our best bet. We leave the apartment at 7:00, to be at the station at 8:00 AM. Our train to Berlin will leave at 8:30. We make sure not to lock ourselves in the hallway, we need a key to get out of the apartment, and the little parade with bags is on it’s way. After taking two metro’s we get to the station about 20 minutes early. The signage doesn’t even have the assigned platform number yet. We hang for a little bit in the hall, and try to finish our Czech petoties, by buying shaving cream, three bags of Haribo Happy Cola and a few buns.

We have no reservations for this train and hope we can sit together. Luckily for us there aren’t many passengers in the first class compartments, and we have a choice where we want to sit. Later the staff advises us to move to a different section of the train, as the air-conditioning in this section isn’t working. This is not a hi-speed line, but the trip is only just shy of five hours. The boys work on their journal, and play some card games, and before we know it we are in Berlin Haubt Bahnhoff. This is the most elaborate train station I have ever seen! Tracks cross each other at the station, and are located on different levels. You can also connect to the S-bahn and the U-bahn. Lots of rail tracks come together at this location..

We get tickets for the S-bahn, which is a metro that runs above ground, and at the Alexander Platz we need to transfer to a Metro. Once we are of the S-bahn train Ellen asks me where the grocery/lunch back is, and I relize that I left it behind in the train. Bummer, damage three bags happy cola, a couple of nectarines, shaving cream, a knive, jam and Nutella, coffee, sweetener etc. Oh well, between watching my backpack, my big bag, and three kids with their luggage it is just the cost of doing business. The U-bahn stops one station before our intended destination, and we are asked to transfer to buses, as they are working on the metro lines. The weather is clouded, but luckily it is dry. We get our heavy bags in the bus and a short walk brings us to the apartment in the former East Berlin area of Prentzlauerberg, an area with the highest birth rates in all of Germany, most likely because of it’s hip vibe, lots of young people and about 30 different pubs and restaurants to try out (we did try a few of them, but not all).

Our hostess Marine, who we called when we arrived in Berlin, is already waiting for us. She says that there is no elevator, which we knew when we booked the place which is located on the fourth floor, or in North American standards it would be called the fifth floor. I can tell you that going up four floors in a building where the apartments have high ceilings is quite an undertaking! Huffing and puffing we arrive on our floor. We certainly have developed calfs  of steel, we did carry our bags upstairs quite a bit this trip! There is a large living room, with an open kitchen, and two bedrooms. One bedroom has a queen sized bed and extra bed for the boys and we have our own bedroom. All in all a well equipped and lovely apartment with a new kitchen and bathroom and beautiful wooden floors.

Marine is very helpful and has all her information together. She tells us that there is a flea market just a couple of streets away. After we get installed we head of to the flea market which is still in full swing, even though the afternoon is getting to an end. We see vinyl records repurposed as fruit bowls, Soviet/DDR style military hats, used clothes and many other items, on this really busy market. Obviously it has rained earlier in the day as the puddles prove, but it is not until we are on our way home that it really starts to rain. We take shelter in a pizza place as this is also a good time to have supper. We have some among pizzas and pasta dishes, and Ellen says that her pizza is even better than the one Rome!

Back at the apartment we have some trouble in getting the Internet to work, it does work but is unreliable. A reset of the modem does seem to fix the issue for a little while. The next morning we walk to the Berlin Wall monument. There is lots of information on panels along the street, and you get a real feel for what it must have been like to live in a divided city. Houses were dismantled and churches blown up to create the buffer zone between east and west. You can still see a double cobblestone line throughout the city, where the wall used to be, if there are no new buildings build on top of it. The boys are really patient, and let us read the explanations.

We walk to Under Den  Linden, the tree lined road which leads to the Brandenburger Tor. On our way we rest and try out one of Berlin’s specialities curry wurst. At the Brandenburger Tor we find street performers, and the family is memorized by a guy doing a very cool dance act. When you walk from the Tor and follow Under Den Linden you walk in former East Berlin, and there are many beautiful buildings. We walk all the way to the Alexander Platz, where is also a lot of street performances going on. Once we get back to the apartment and stopped for some groceries along the way, we have dinner at a kebab place.

For Tuesday we purchased a public transit day pass, as we want to explore a little further and Berlin does not a have a compact city centre like most of the other places we visited. We take the tram and metro to the Brandenburger Tor, and see the monument from the west side. We then continue our walk to the Holocaust Memorial. Over 2700 concrete blocks are placed in a grid pattern, which can be walked through from all sides,  with a visitors centre underneath it serve as a platform for the memorial. After a short wait and a security check we get in to the visitors centre. Ellen stays with Marc, as not all stories and pictures are suited for a nine yore old. A tour around pictures and text in German and English reinforce what happened during the Holocaust. Stories from specific families deported from all over Europe really make you ask yourself the question how this could happen!

From the memorial site we continue to the Potsdamer Platz, where we find a hyper modern Sony Store, and we also wanted to check out the store at the Legoland Discovery Centre. This turns out to be a really tiny store, and the boys are heavily disappointed. Checkpoint Charlie is next. We literally follow the markings of the wall to get to it. This check point was rebuild as a tourist attraction. It is a very messy area, with all kinds of traffic trying to squeeze through. After snapping a few pictures we take the U-bahn to the Kurfurstendam, the premier shopping street of former West Berlin. Ellen ends up buying a couple of fancy boots and Eldon and Mark get slippers in the shape of dinosaur paws.       

This is also the site where you can find the Gedachtniskirche,  a church which was bombed in the second world war by the British air force and left in that state to as a reminder of the destructions of war. There is still a small part you can go in and visit, and you still see the impressive mosaic on the ceiling. A new clock tower is build right next to it and a new church is build on the other side of the monument. We continue our stroll on the Kurfurstendam and find a Hardrock Cafe. The boys really want to have dinner here and we check out if the there is a lineup. Within  a few minutes we are shown to our table and to our surprise we end up with a waiter from Toronto, Canada, named Bob. The boys love this guy, as he is obviously having a lot of fun in what he does. We have a mix of dishes like a nachos platter, BBQ Ribs, BBQ pulled pork, BBQ Chicken and pasta dishes. The boys look at all the memorabilia in the restaurant like the white leather belt of Elvis Presley, which is in a display case right on the wall at our table. A metro ride back concludes our visit to West Berlin.

It is Wednesday, August 18, and at 7 AM we have our bags downstairs, ready to get to the tram line across the street. We meet Marine for the last time to hand the keys back and receive our security deposit back and we are on our way. We arrive at the Haubtbahnhoff way to early for our last long train trip of about seven hours, so we take a seat at the platform and check out which coffee places are open for business at this hour. Once in the train, we ended up having our own private compartment which is nice, the boys work on their journals, which takes Marc almost the entire trip due to a lack of inspiration. At the end station Amsterdam Schiphol airport, we transfer to a train and at 4 PM a delegation is picking us up from the train station in Voorschoten. My parents, sister Marjolein, her husband Fred and their daughter Indy are welcoming us back.

Fred, Ellen and myself drive to the Holiday Inn hotel in Leiden to check-in and drop off our luggage, while my parents take the boys to their place. Ellen and I met each other at this hotel years ago, as she used to work there as a receptionist and I used to work at the bowling bar. So it was very funny when the receptionist asked us if we had been in the hotel before. We explained her, that we both used to work and met each other in the hotel, but that we were certain that a lot had changed over the last 15 years! We got two rooms with connecting doors on the third floor. Quickly we dumped our luggage on our rooms and went back to my parents place. Mom had cooked one of our favorite dishes: Babi Ketjap and we had dinner with the whole family.

When we got back to the hotel, later that evening,  we wanted to explore a little. The boys thought it was a  great hotel, it has a large indoor garden, an indoor swimming pool, and playrooms for the kids. One of the rooms had one of those bouncy houses, and since the boys hadn’t had a chance to release their energy today, they ran in, with a relentless energy as pinballs through the bouncy house. Ellen and I strolled to the racket centre and to our surprise we run in to one of our favorite ex-colleagues Louis Petit-Jean, who used to be my supervisor at my time at the bowling bar. It was actually at his birthday party, more than 20 years ago, where I was sitting next to Ellen and developed a crush on her. What a great coincidence to be able catch up with Louis, who was of course quite surprised to see us there!

The next morning I get up early to work out in the small fitness room and after having some sandwiches in our room we are on our way to pickup my mom and sister Marjolein. Today we are visiting Sail Amsterdam 2010, the sail in of the tall ships. Although we are expecting delays, due to the high amounts of visitors attending this event, which is held once every 5 years, we amazingly avoid the the traffic jams and are able to park for free in the northern part of Amsterdam. The little Ferry will bring us to the other side of “Het IJ”. We walk and find a spot on an abandoned dock close to the central station. We are definitely not alone, but it is not crazy busy either. The weather is sunny and pleasant, and everyone is in a good mood. The long wait of almost three hours is rewarded with an amazing view of all boats passing by in close proximity. The tall ships are enormous, there are 4 masters and 3 masters, clippers, you name it and it is there, hundreds of boats. We are all mesmerized.

After the bulk of the parade is over we get in to Amsterdam for a drink and some last minute souvenir shopping. We even manage to stop at an “automatiek”, which is a fast food place where the snacks are in little windows in the wall. You insert cash in the column of the snack of your preference and open the little window to take your snack out. The boys really wanted to experience to “eat out of the wall”, which we have not seen anywhere else in the world. We make it back to the grounds, where the tall ships in the mean time are docked and get an even closer look at these mighty ships. Ellen and myself get ourselves a Sail Amsterdam edition Gaastra shirt, which is one of the sponsors of this hugely popular event. The Dutch have centuries of sailing and exploring history, and with a little bit of imagination, you can see how they conquered all the worlds seas.  I had experienced Sail in 1980, when I ended my rowing camp with a tour along all these ships. This was really an event that was on the top of my list to show the boys. We cap of our night with a Pita Shoarma, with lots of garlic sauce, one of the other treats that was still on the wish list, before heading back to Voorschoten and Leiden.

On Friday we sleep in to 10 AM, and Eldon and Marc go for swim in the hotel pool, while I go for another workout, trying to limit the unavoidable weight increase during this vacation. Around lunch time we head to Voorschoten, to walk across the market, and we run in to my sister Marjolein, the joys of a village. We have a fishy lunch, Ellen gets a “lekkerbekje”, the boys get “kibbeling” and I stay with my favorite, salted herring. To say goodbye to my sister Astrid and her boyfriend Eelco, we head to Leidschenhage for the last time,  she owns a hair salon there. We have an opportunity to give them the souvenirs we brought from Venice for Astrid and Dewi. Then it’s back to moms place for our farewell dinner “bietjes met speklappen”! At night Ellen and I visit the jewelry store of acquaintances of my parents and I get a to pick a golden necklace from my lovely wife for my birthday, which was a few weeks ago. Back at the hotel I make another attempt to fix my bag again, if it only can last on the way back to Calgary…. We will have a ceremonial fire so that we can never use it again, what a piece of ….. 

Today is Saturday and I am typing this final piece of our travel report in the plane ride back to Calgary. We can look back on six weeks of seeing a wealth of famous landmarks, being lazy on the beach and spending time with our family back in Holland. I believe that we shown our kids how to travel in Europe without using a vehicle. All the accommodations we booked through various Internet sites worked out well, and the using the train, tram, bus, metro lines and ferries (although we will most likely not book with Superfast ferries again) also worked out as planned. We return back home satisfied from our travels and we will compile the video and photos in the next couple weeks so that we preserve the memories of trip.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, week 5

August 18th, 2010

Tonight we will travel from Venice to Vienna by night train, in an attempt to teach the kids about different ways to travel in europe. We have to check out at 10 in the morning but luckily we can leave our luggage at the foyer of the apartment, so that we can pick it before we have to board our train tonight at  nine. After having walked from the railway station to our apartment, and crossing many bridges with our luggage, it seems like a good idea to travel over the water instead.

Venice has an elaborate system of water buses, and if we buy a pass for the day, we can use it to see Venice from the waterfront during the day, and go to station at night. Although there are no discounts for children or families, we decide that it might not be a bad idea to spend the €80 anyway. After getting our bags down, which is easier then going up, we were on the 3rd floor without an elevator, we are ready for our excursion. After getting our tickets at the local souvenir shop, we hop on the water bus, which will also pass the train station, so that we have an idea how long it will take to get there. We continue our trip through the Grand Canal, and pass under the Rialto Bridge this time. Venice has some great sights, from the water.

We get off the  water bus, close to the St. Marco Square (after Ellen makes the snapshot she’s been waiting for) and quickly find our favorite gelaterie, just to find out that the grapefruit flavor is now sold out, sigh…. Of course there are many other delicious flavors, but that was the reason to go to his specific store in the first place. Venice actually consists of a number of islands. One of the is Murano, where the famous glass art is made that is sold all over Italy. A lengthy ride with the water bus takes us via the Cemetery Island to Murano. We see a demonstration of glass blowing, have our sandwich in a quiet spot, and walk along the little boulevard lined with little glass souvenir stores. It is a lovely little island, still a bit touristic, but not crowded with groups of people, like the main island.

We buy a few souvenirs, while Eldon and Tim are getting better at catching little crabs from the water edge. A water bus drops us back off again at the north side of the main island. According to our guide “Europe on a budget” there is a reasonable priced restaurant in this area that we want to try. As we have checked out from the apartment we cannot prepare our own meal anymore. After some searching we find the restaurant, but unfortunately for us, it seems to be closed on Sundays. We continue our search and find an Irish pub, and since it is getting close to beer time, we decide to have a drink, and use the washrooms. Did I mention yet that public washrooms in Venice cost € 1.50!!! This makes for some reasonable priced drinks if you take that in consideration.

We discover a McDonald’s restaurant just around the corner, and since we are spooked about the prices in restaurants in Venice, we decide that should be a safe bet. About €40 later we discover that even the Mc is expensive in Venice… We head back to our apartment to pickup our luggage and then use the water bus to go to train station. We arrive with plenty of time on our hand and checkout our sleeping cabin, also called couchette, a cabin with three bunk beds on either side. Since the train is fully booked, we have a guest in our cabin, Bettina from Austria. Ellen is excited that she has another female to talk to and she starts practicing her German right away.

Our large bags also have to be stored on our cabin as there is no additional storage space. It takes two people to get the heaviest bags at the end of the top bunks. After making our beds, which just have a double sheet and a little pillow, and based on our previous experience on the ferry, we have turned the climate control to the coldest setting possible. Later we find out that the climate control in the train is more effective than the one in a ferry. In other words, at night we freeze our behinds off, and have adjust the thermostat to a higher temperature. The night is restless, and while the boys get some sleep, Ellen and I feel that we hardly had any sleep. The train moves way more direct than the ferry did, duh, but sometimes we felt like we had to hold on for dear life, not falling out of the bunks. When we rare getting close to Vienna, our purser brings a cup of coffee with a kaiser bun and some jam, which was a nice touch.
Our cabin friend Bettina had already left the train at 5.45am, as she would drive the last part home.

Monday morning August 9, 8:25 AM we are at the Vienna West Bahnhoff. Our helpful host had told us to get a public transport card for a week. For only €14 for everyone of 15 years and older for all public transport, including U-bahn (metro), trams and busses. (To bad Tim 
just turned 15 last week…, just kidding, but he, we’re Dutch!),  We use the U-bahn to travel to our destination, and when we emerge with the elevator from the platform, we are right in front of the apartment. On the ground floor there is a cafe-restaurant,  owned by the same family. We are allowed to leave our luggage here as our apartment is not quite ready yet for check-in. We take the opportunity to have some more breakfast as prices for food seem really reasonable.

As we have a few hours to kill, we hop on the tram, which also stops close to the apartment. The tram takes us through the old city centre of Vienna, with al the beautiful parks and buildings. When we finally get to the end station, the driver is surprised that we are not getting off. These trams are quite old, and the driver needs to lift a few seats to add sand, which is used for the breaks. We get of at a location where we saw a little market, with produce and other stuff. The boys find a vendor that sells some older Yu-Gi-Oh card decks and after a lengthy process of elimination Marc and Eldon are the happy owners of deck. We continue our walk through very clean parks, before we see the impressive winter palace of the Habsbourger Royal family. As we are still tired from our lack of sleep on the train, we head back to our apartment for an afternoon nap.

We actually have two apartments with connecting doors, and looks awesome. We have a dinner table which fit all of us, a bedroom for Ellen and myself, the boys sleep in the living room of the other apartment. We even have two kitchens and two bathrooms. One of the bathrooms has a rain shower while the other one has body sprays! After our nap we raid the supermarket across the street, the Hoffer, a discount Aldi style store where we get a bag of frozen wiener schnitzels, frozen veggies and a bag of frozen potato squares. I prepare dinner, using the stove for the schnitzels, the microwave for the veggies and the oven for the potatoes. I feel like a real kitchen princess! 

After a much better sleep, we decided to take it easy for a bit, before heading to the Vienna zoo. We have heard from a number people how nice the zoo is and they even have panda’s! When Ellen asks me where the public transport tickets are, I draw a blank. What was I wearing yesterday again? I was so tired yesterday! Ellen retrieves the tickets out of my washed shirt… Are they still readable I ask? Once ironed out the tickets are in a reasonable shape, and we figure that we can still use them. The U-Bahn brings us to the Schoenbrunn Tiergarten, the oldest zoo in the world, opened to the public in 1752, after the reigning kaiser had received a giraffe, a present from Egypt.

It is indeed a beautiful zoo, but the Panda’s are sleeping and just show us their furry behind. We have more luck seeing the lions eat parts of sheep, having a close encounter with a black panther and enjoying the sea lions making noise and splashing around. They also have a great collection of penguins and the tropical hall and aquariums are very impressive. To my joy there is also a bier garden right opposite of the lion enclosure. We try the pizza bread that everyone seems to be eating in the zoo, but are not very fond of it. On our way our we walk past the summer palace Shoenbrunn, this is the summer residence to the famous royals, the Habsburgers, who reigned in Austria and Hungary in the last century ( including kaiserin Sissi and her beloved Franz Jozef). The buildings and gardens are truly exquisite, and we find lots of other tourists wandering around. 

A tram brings us to the West Bahnhoff, where we walk through one of the shopping streets. We stop at an Apple reseller, who has a special going on for brightly colored head phones. Tim likes the design and want to see some reviews on line before deciding to purchase them. Back at the apartment we visit the spar supermarket because Tim wants make nacho’s for dinner. We hope that creme fraiche will substitute for sour cream. At night we watch a few DVD’s from my camcorder to see the stuff we did in Brussels and Paris.

The next morning we walk to the city centre, stopping at an Italian Gelateria along the way and roam the down town shopping area of Vienna. It is another nice and sunny day, we have been so lucky with the weather during this trip. Tim and Eldon find a store that carries English Magic cards, which will keep them busy for the next little while. We also visit the the Stephansdom, a beautiful church, which is under renevations. We see the hause of Sacher, the disputed birthplace of the famous Sacher Torte, and Ellen admires all the crystal objects in the windows.  We stop at another bier garden, a beautiful secluded square with big trees for shade, they have plenty of those in Vienna, where they do not carry cola… That’s kind of weird, but the beer is excellent!

Tim has done his homework on researching the brand of the headphones, and we make our way to the Apple reseller, to buy the headphones he saw yesterday. Tim becomes the proud owner of the turquoise edition of the foldable Urbanears, Plattan manufactured in Sweden. The sky is getting darker and it definitely looks like we are going to get some rain. We use the U-bahn to get to Prater where you can find the famous ferris wheel of Vienna. This ferris wheel was even used in a James Bond movie, I believe “the living Daylights” with Timothy Dalton. While we are getting in line for the attraction it really starts to rain heavily, and the loudest thunder bang I ever heard scares the hebi jebis out of everyone. Is it a wise idea to go up a (metal) ferris wheel while there is a thunder storm going on? This ferris wheel is over one hundred years old, it should probably survive another couple of days…

By the time we get on the attraction, the rain has eased off and we get a wonderful view of Vienna. Back at home we eat at the restaurant under our apartment. Ellen and I have a mixed grill which is absolutely awesome, Eldon and Tim enjoy another Wiener schnitzel and Marc has some sort of sausage. During our dinner Marc gets a nosebleed. The waitress is very helpful with providing a napkin with some ice, to stop the bleeding. So we have a dinner and a show! A great way to conclude our stay in Vienna. Now just pack our stuff to be ready to leave early tomorrow morning for Prague.  

As of today we have no more reservations for the train, so we are a little flexible in selecting our trains. We decide to take a later train then originally planned. We have to leave the Vienna  Simmering station at 9:45 AM. We use our (washed) public transport tickets for the last time and use the U-bahn to get to Simmering. When we get to the station, it seems really small compared to the other stations, but everything seems to be according to plan. When the train arrives we need to run to get to opposite side where the first class is located.the train is busier than expected, and we cannot find enough space to sit together. Ellen sits with the boys in one compartment while I sit with some other folks in the next compartment. This is a good time for me to work on my journal. After a few hours of work, I try to separate the story in to the different weeks, and for reasons still unclear to me, I touch the wrong part on my iPad screen and lose a few hours of typing…. Sigh!

We get in to Prague Hlava Nadrazi station early in the afternoon, Ellen stops at the Change office, where they again charge a ridiculous rate to exchange some Euros to Czech Korunas (we call them petoties, like any other foreign currencies). I need to make a quick adjustment to the wooden support brace in my bag, as the right wheel starts to malfunction again. It is more difficult to read the signs here, as Czech is a Slavic language, and the seem to use the Russian alphabet. We get a few tram tickets and hop on the tram. We have just got new travel instructions emailed to us, because there is construction going on in town, and some tram lines are rerouted. After transferring to another tram we finally get to our apartment. Since we are a little later than anticipated we have to call our host Zeki. After we call him, he shows up within a few minutes. The apartment is absolutely huge, Eldon has his own queen sized bed, Marc and Tim share a room, but both have their owned and Ellen and I have the master bedroom with a king sized bed.

The weather is clouded and we have some rain while stocking up at the supermarket. To get the Prague feeling we walk to and over the Charles Bridge, a medieval bridge from the 14th century, one of the big attractions. There are street performers, cartoonists and there is a beautiful, view of the castle, on the other side of the river. We walk back via the town square with the ridiculous big clock tower, which turns out to be the famous astronomical clocks.  Lots of medieval towers, churches and other sights are still in tact and give a very distinct character to the city. We check every souvenir store as we have promised our friend Robbie to look for a rhinestone necklace. Earlier in the supermarket we found prepared red beets, one of my favorite vegetables, combined with potatoes and a pork chop creates an easy and a healthy meal.      

On Friday morning we start by checking out some of the stores, but once we figure out how to calculate from Kroner to Euros (25 Kroner equals roughly 1 Euro) we are disappointed to discover that Prague is not as cheap as we thought it would be. The only thing that is really cheap is beer! The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world, now we know why! We enjoy the summer market on the central square, and have a sjaslick (a meat skewer) from the wood burning barbecue, it doesn’t get any better then that! As the weather deteriorates further we decide to take the metro to the new “mega mall” just north east of the city in Letnany. It might be a large mall in their books, but if you have visited the malls in Calgary and Edmonton, you would agree that Cinook Centre and Market Mall are probably bigger!

As my bag has now a tear in it where the handle attaches to the bag, we go on a quest to find safety pins and duct tape in the Tesco, in the mall. But how do you ask for safety pins in Czech? We finally find some hairpins which are hold together by safety pins, that’s a good starting point! We have dinner at the food court, a huge pile of tasty noodles, almost a meal and a half. Back at home I practice my do-it-yourself skills again by patching my bag with safety pins and duct tape.

Our second and last full day in Prague use the bridge to get to the other side of the river (which is the primary purpose of a bridge Tim!) and make our way to the castle. On our way we stop for coffee and the famous apfelstrudel. The castle is actually a whole set of very interesting buildings. Our walk up the hill is also rewarded with a beautiful view of Prague. We walk back again through the old town to if there are any stores we missed on our previous strolls.

The “Europe on a budget” book recommended a nice restaurant, on the river, a stone throw away from our apartment, called “Kavarna Slavia”. Although the boys complain about the fact that people smoke there, it is indeed a beautiful location. It is even mentioned that President Havel frequently vistas the place swell,and there is a photo with Hillary Clinton visiting the place on the wall. Tim has the roasted duck, while Eldon had pasta with salmon, Marc selected a Wiener Schnitzel and we had an unbelievable goulash. Eldon has an amazing pear ice-cream that almost rivals my grapefruit ice-cream. A great way to end our experience in Prague. Back home we get ready for our trip to Berlin tomorrow.

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Sloos family Vacation Europe 2010, week 4

August 15th, 2010

It is Sunday, the beginning of a new month, and the beginning of few days of R&R, rest and relaxation. After a few weeks of having to go here, and having to see this and that, we will have a few days of nothing, a nice change of pace.

The boys hang out on the beach, doing some snorkeling, with the snorkels we picked up yesterday, catching hermit crabs, finding little pieces of colored ceramic and little shells. I am finally starting to work on my blogs, while Ellen reads some books and magazines. At night we have dinner at the restaurant “the Greek Way”, which has a fantastic view over the bay. Here we introduce the boys to Pitta Gyros, pita bread with roasted lambs meat, tatziki, onions, tomato, cucumber and fries all wrapped together. The rest of the week there is no more discussion on what to eat tonight, as the boys go to the restaurant every night to pickup these delicious Greek treats. When I ask Tim if it doesn’t bore him to eat the same thing every night he replies that you need to focus on another item within the sandwich every time…

On Monday we catch the bus to Kerkyra, also called Corfu town. We stroll over a little local market, before we get in to the narrow streets of the old city centre. There are two fords which you can visit, but the boys are tired of viewing old stuff again. We just look at the different shops, with boat loads of other tourists. There are about three large cruise ships in the harbor that afternoon. We have lunch at a small place and order a plate with a mix of items, as we are not all that hungry. The waiter tries to convince that it will not be enough for the five of us, but we want to try it anyway. As it turns out it was plenty of food for all of us. Prices in Kerkyra are definitely higher then in Paleokastritsa.

On Tuesday we just take it easy, pick the lemons from the lemon tree, and make our own lemonade. Wednesday we rent a boat, a little dingy with a 15 horsepower motor. The boys really enjoy the boat ride, especially when they get an opportunity to steer the boat. Tim looks like a real captain with his white polo shirt, and his new white sun glasses. He has a smile from ear to ear. We anchor at one of the paradise beaches, and have lunch under the umbrella. The anchor gets stuck, and I have a heck of time to try to get the anchor back out again. When we are ready to head back, the wind has picked up and we are riding the waves, which throws the guys in the front up and down, which occasionally proving a refreshing splash of water! After a while though, we are all soaking wet! Ellen has swallowed quite a bit of salt water by now (it reminds her of the times we go catamaran sailing whenever we are in Mexico) and we back to the harbor. That night we go back to our favorite restaurant for our last chance to enjoy a pita Gyros, greek salad, calamari and watermelon, and to celebrate Tim’s birthday, which will be the next day.

August 5th today, Tim’s  birthday! We almost forget to congratulate him, as we are busy packing our bags. The bus we need to take leaves just after 11:45, so we have some time to have breakfast pack and cleanup. The bus ride seems almost familiar, and we are lucky that the bus driver wants to stop right in front of the ferry terminal. This saves us a 10 minute walk over sometimes non existing sidewalks. It seems that the ticket window, with a sign that says 3 PM,  is still closed. No problem as we still have plenty of time. We find a nearby patio, so that we can keep an eye on the ticket window. Tim get an ice cream that practically dissolves in his hand, we have the photos to prove it!

After keeping an eye on the ticket window and the clock, it is now 2:45 PM and the window still, seems to be closed, we decide just to go to the ferry instead. While we try to rush over there, Tim almost get hit by a car! The cop regulating traffic stops the driver in the car, as he had obviously ignored the officer, and has some words with him. When we make it to the ferry with a few minutes to spare, we are told that we need to pickup our boarding pass at the ticket office, apparently one window beside the one we have been watching… I run to the office while Ellen waits with the boys, get the boarding cards, and return just in time to the ferry, phew that was close!

Two hours later we are in Igoumenitsa, and yes, the boys are still chuckling. While walking from the domestic ferry terminal to the international ferry terminal, we stop at a nice looking patio, park the family while Tim and I will check us in to the Superfast ferry to Ancona. While this check-in was very stressful last time, there is hardly anybody at the ticket counter now. The lady needs to see all passwords, oh shi.., these are still on the patio. Tim runs back and forth to collect everyones passport. Cool, that worked out fine, we are all set to go to Ancona, and still have some time for dinner on the patio! Tim and I walk back to the rest of the family, and we grab our last chance to get some real authentic Greek food. Although it is not busy at all, the service is pretty lousy. Ellen’s food appears when the rest of us are done (really, they have took COOK the salad?) we are lucky that we are not in a hurry.

We are on the exact same Superfast ferry as the one we took to Igoumentisa. Even some of staff is the same. This time we share our dorm with two French guys. As we cannot find a spot on deck we spend some time in the lounge, playing cards, eating chips and drinking a few beverages. I ask the reception desk what time we are supposed to be in Ancona, and we seem to be an hour behind schedule, arriving at 11:30, instead of 10:30 AM. Our train will be leaving at 12:30, which does not give us a lot of transfer time. We start to get worried if will be able to make it. I buy access to the Internet, €3 is pretty cheap, considering the fact that you can be connected to the Internet, while sailing on the Adriatic sea! I start looking at the different options to get from the ferry terminal to the train station.

After a restless night, we get up, I get the boys in the shower and after have located mom, we decide to wait at the exit door, to be one of the first passengers to get of the ship. We grab our luggage and around 10:30 we start waiting close to the reception area. Around 11:30 we do feel that the ship is starting to turn around, but it is almost noon before we get of the boat, which means our train will be leaving in exactly 25 minutes! Luckily a few taxis are waiting outside, and we are able to grab the first two after confirming the price. A few minutes later we are at the station, we made it… I can honestly say that most stress during vacation has been caused by Superfast Ferries, and I will try to avoid this company in the future.

Ellen quickly grabs a few sandwiches for lunch, orders 5, but when we are in the train to Bologna, we find only 4… Anyway, we are too happy that we made the train, this won’t break our day. In Bologna we have almost an hour before we need to board our train to Venice. As we like to grab an ice-cream, we want to go to the main station hall. Unfortunately there is construction going on, and if you want to use the elevator someone needs to escort you. Before we know it we stand with an unfriendly Italian lady with a burning cigarette dangling down the corner of her mouth in the elevator. The boys look in disgust as they have tried to avoid cigarette smoke where ever possible… After getting our ice-cream, we luckily we have a friendlier non-smoking host this time.

Riding in to the city of Venice by train is a great experience, first you go across a long bridge, before getting to the station, and when you get out of the staton building, the water ways are right there. Beautiful water taxis, water buses, gondolas and other boats crowd the narrow canals. The downside of this picturesque setting is that there are also a lot of bridges. Bridges with stairs that is,  and we didn’t really count on this with our luggage on “useless” wheels. When we get to our apartment, Ai Carmini, we learn that our suite is on the third floor, the current floor is zero and unfortunately for us, no elevator… Another one of those moments where I wished that I brought less luggage, but he, good exercise to burn off some calories!

We park our stuff, check on the Internet for supermarket locations and are off to find one. Although we don find one on the pinpointed location, we do find one after asking one of the locals. We get some ingredients for a simple macaroni supper, and Marc and mister Peroni helps me with the preparation. Still tired from our travel adventures over the last two days we decide to hit the sack early.

It is Saturday August 7 and we are ready to decipher the labyrinth of cris cross alleys and bridges in Venice! After some trial and error we find one of the bridges across the Grand Canal, that we lead us to one of the main attractions, the famous St. Marco Square. On our way we buy a sandwich at one of the takeout windows, and eat on one of the stone stair cases at the water front. The boys are fascinated by the fishes and crabs they can see moving around. When we finally reach the St. Marco Square Ellen asks herself where the water is, as she remembers photos taken from the water. We find it just around the corner where there are also pillars with lions with wings, which line the aforementioned photos.
(A few days later, while riding the water bus ourselves, Ellen manages to snap the photo she was waiting to make, of the square, seen from the water, postcard worthy!)

There are plenty of pigeons on the square, trying to compete for the food distributed by the many tourists. A number of patios line the edge of the square. One patio has a small group of musicians playing classical music, attributing to the overall relaxed atmosphere. We have been told to avoid these patios as the cost of drinks tends to be super expensive. We wander on along the water and cris crossing different alleys. We find an ice-cream store that carries grapefruit flavored ice cream, definitely my favorite flavor!

We decide to head back in time so that we can have some dinner and a nap at the apartment and see the world famous square by night. Although my expectations were quite low about Venice, I imagined a tourist trap with smelling water, it is actually really pretty and reasonably clean. Yes there are definitely many tourists, but we didn’t experience any crazy lineups anywhere. The square looks even more beautiful at night and the pigeons must be sleeping as they are nowhere to be found. We were so impressed with the ice creams today that we decide to try to find the same place again. When we get there, after some trial and error, the shop just closed 5 minutes ago! Disappointed we head back to our apartment and call it a day.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, week 3

August 5th, 2010

It is Sunday July 25, it is hard to believe that we are already traveling for two full weeks. We get up early as we need to catch the TGV to Basel leaving at 8:30 am, from Gare de l’Est. We use the freaky elevator one more time to get our bags down. We check the apartment one more time, as we do not want to leave new slippers behind again, as Ellen did in Brussels. In the mean time we contacted the landlord and they have shipped them back to my parents place, talking about great service!  Funny anecdote here, Ellen forgot that Rene’s mom has the same shoe-size as her, and thought we had sent her a present! Anyway, they are back and we had a good laugh about the whole incident.  It is quiet on the streets of Paris this early on a Sunday morning, only the street cleaners are up spraying the sidewalks clean. The French are not very clean, and leave a lot of rubbish in the streets. We arrive 45 minutes before our scheduled departure, so there is still some time to hit the washroom in the station. When entering the facilities, we are called back as apparently you need pay before you go in, we completely forgot. It makes me laugh, as I frequently hear from other Canadians, that they are amazed that they have to pay to do their thing in Europe! I guess we have taken the clean and free bathrooms in Canada for granted.

The TGV will take us across France to Basel, where we only have 5 minutes to transfer to a train to Bern. We pray that the train will be on time and that 5 minutes will be enough to catch our next train. Luckily for us the train arrives according to schedule and the connecting train is just on the other side of the same  platform. As the train arrives we find out that our coach number is at the other side of the train. We rush with our luggage across the platform, dodging other passengers, to get to our coach, and get the whole family in before the train departs. An hour later we are in Bern!

The youth hostel is just a short walk away, although there is a steep descent to the river. Since we are only staying one night, we have not opted for an apartment but also want to show our boys what it like to stay at a hostel. The reception is closed until 2 PM and we hang out on the patio until it opens. We have our own room with two bunk beds and a single bed. The room is quite small but it will suit our purpose. As a family, we have access to our own private bathroom too, which is right next door. As Bern is trying to promote green initiatives, it is possible to rent a bike, and get the first couple of hours free, my favorite price to pay! We explore the small historic city centre of Bern and go across a few bridges. This is probably the first time that the guys bike without a helmet. We run in to an area that is crowded with tourists, and find out that there are a few Grizzly bears with cubs, in a display close to the river Aare. A nearby snack car sells fries and fried fish. A portion of fries is 6 Swiss Francs, which equates to approximate 6 Canadian Dollars. Switzerland must be a very expensive place to live!

Back at the Hostel we join for the what we were told was going to be a Pasta dinner. However the dinner consists of mashed potato’s and your choice of meat or sausages, a salad, a cup of soup and a choice deserts. At least the meal was reasonably priced and filling. We are lucky that our guys are not very picky eaters. After dinner we play cards and try out the ping pong table. Eldon and Tim obviously need more practice as we spend more time looking for our ping pong balls then hitting them across the table. We also hook up with a few traveling teens around the piano, we talk about their travels and Eldon tries his best to play some piano. Since we have to get up early to catch our train to Milano we will be leaving the hostel before breakfast. The staff offers to prepare a packed breakfast for us, which will do great for now.

The next morning we quickly wash up and get dressed to get on to our way to the station. We now use the little gondola that carries you up the hill, as it would be quite a hassle to lug our bags up this steep incline. At the train station we get rid of our spare franks by being a few extra buns, and in the train we use these combined with the pre packed food to have our breakfast. In Milano we transfer to a train to Rome. In the train they distribute complementary drinks, this almost feels like a plane ride! Before we know it we arrive in station Rome Termini. In our ongoing effort to teach the kids how to travel we make Tim go to the Tourist Information to get a map, and directions to our apartment. A short walks brings us to the apartment where Vadim, our representative, is already waiting for us. This is also a very old apartment building with a little elevator, which looks like a cage, but is helpful to get our stuff to the second floor. The inside of the apartment is very nice with some African decor. Marc will be sleeping on the hide a bed in the living room while Eldon and Tim share the only room with a working air conditioner, and a computer which is connected to the Internet.
The guys are quite happy to be able to check in to their Facebook accounts, on a regular basis here.

Although it is already later in the afternoon we decide to stroll to the Colosseum to get right away in the Rome mindset. During our walk we stop at a Gelateria for some world famous ice cream, and we are not disappointed. Tim even expresses his pleasure for Italian ice-cream later that night in his Facebook status. The  Colosseum is exactly what you imagine it to be, a massive building surrounded by lots and lots of history. On our way back we stop by the supermarket and get some ingredients for macaroni. Since the boys missed the promised pasta meal yesterday in Berne, this might make up for it. Beer comes in large bottles, just over 600 ml, from a local brand called Peroni, and is very reasonably priced. The boys are still hooked on the Orangina.

The next day we take it easy, just to recover from the last two days of travel. Once we get ready to move, we walk to the Spanish steps which offers some pretty views and is a place where a lot of tourists hang out. At the bottom of the stairs, you find the stores from the designer labels. We continue our way to the central park of Rome, Villa Borghese. This is the place where people hang out to chill at the fountains. The boys find a nice pond where people are feeding the ducks and turtles.  You can even see large fish in the pond. A gentlemen is so kind to share his bread with the boys, so that they can engage as well.

On our way back to our apartment we walk past the Trevi fountain, which is another tourist hangout. The story goes that if you throw a coin over your left shoulder in the fountain you will come back to this spot. Ellen has been here before and threw a coin, so it is obviously working! Another gellato puts a crown on this day, with melon being the flavor of the day, and mango and lemon being a close second.

During our first glimpse of the Colosseum, we noticed the huge line up to enter the monument. After our research on the Internet we decide to visit early. We get there the next morning at 8:35 AM, and there is hardly any line up. Again, the kids are free as long as they are residents of the European Union. We just have to show one of our Dutch passports and we are ready to go. There is a great exposition with replica costumes of the gladiators, this gives you a really good impression on what things must have looked like almost 2000 years ago. It is getting busier, and warmer, by the minute and we praise ourselves lucky for getting up early and getting some great views of this impressive monument. Next we visit Palentine Hill which is included with the same ticket to take a look at the remains of the home of Emperor Augustus.      

We have had our dose of cultural buildings and do some some more strolling through Rome. It is unfortunate that Rome does not really have a shopping area, al the shops are sprinkled through town and everywhere you go you need to be aware for the traffic. The traffic is even more scary than Paris, people drive like absolute maniacs here! We walk past the Trevi Fountain again, which makes the boys believe that the coin is actually working and eventually end up at Villa Borghese again where we are looking for tram line number 3, as this line is supposed to take scenic route through the city. Unfortunately we conclude that the tram line now has been replace by a bus, which is a far less romantic ride, we end up at different parts of the bus and fail to get of at the right stop. Darn, now we need to walk back. At the supermarket Tim, with mam’s help, selects the ingredients for Tortelinni Seafood Alfredo, and although I am not a big fan of Pasta, it ends up to be a very tasty meal.

It is Thursday July 27, our last day in Rome, before we move on to Corfu in Greece. We decided to get up early to visit Vatican city. At this point everyone gets a little bit moody, for having to get up early again. When we get to the metro station close to the apartment there are lots of people getting out of the station. We get and stamp our tickets to find out that for some reason the metro is not going. We decide to walk to the next station at the main train station, but also there metro line A is not going anywhere. A quick look at the bus stops reveals that lots of people are making alternate arrangements to get to their destination, and trying to get on a bus with five people seems next to impossible. We walk, again (sigh), to the Vatican. Along the way we buy a quick drink and finally arrive at the bridge in front of castel ‘d Angelo, which provides a beautiful sight. From there it is a short walk to the impressive Saint Peter’s Square where the famous Saint Peter’s Cathedral is located.

We join the relatively short lineup, and see signs that pocket knives are not allowed. I have my Leathermen multi tool in my backpack, and have no way to put it elsewhere. Fortunately the security scanner does not raise an issue about it and we are on our way to the Cathedral. One more checkpoint for appropriate attire, shorts and tank tops are not allowed, and they are pretty serious about that. Our first tour is in the basement of the cathedral where the former popes are laid to rest. Then we have an opportunity to see the cathedral on the inside, there are really no words to describe the interior of the building. One jaw dropping piece of art after the other. Paintings, statues, altars and so on. It is very crowded with tourists, but the short wait was certainly worth it!

We enjoy our sandwich on the square, which looks like an ants nest with all the people crawling around. Luckily the weather gets a little clouded, which allows the temperature to cool down a little. We stroll through Rome for the last time, passing the Trevi Fountain again (the coin thing is really working), to get to the next metro station. I talk to the staff to explain that we have not been able to use our stamped tickets this morning, and after some convincing, they let us go in for free. Back in the apartment we take an afternoon nap. We call our rep Vadim, to arrange a time to retrieve our deposit as we are scheduled to leave early the next morning. To cap off our Rome experience we go to the little restaurant on the corner of our street and enjoy a simple menu, with bruchetta, a fried rice and cheese roll and the best thin crust pizza we have ever had!

Friday July 30, 5:45 AM, the alarm clock wakes after a short and restless night of sleep. We need to leave our apartment at 6:30, to be at the station at 7. Our train to Ancona is scheduled to leave at 7:35… We use the antique lift for the last time and pray that nobody gets stuck. We board our train on time, and experience some rain while we are traveling from the west coast of Italy to the east cost. We almost get out at the wrong station, as the train is running a few minutes behind, but finally get of a Ancona. A bus takes us to the ferry check-in office which has some huge line-ups, that just will not move very fast. People are budging in line and when someone tries to say something about it some verbal fights break out. I must admit that this is our worst experience so far. The staff of “Superfast Ferries” is definitely not fast at checking in their passengers. They could have easily  prevented the disorganization at the ticket counters, but when the departure time of the boat is getting close, they all of a sudden open the ticket sale counters for check-in, which creates more confusion and aggravation.

After a few hours, a little bus and a passport control, where we didn’t even have to open our passports (security check the Italian way), we are on a huge escalator that brings us to deck number 7 of this huge ferry. A little lift brings us to deck 9, where the dormitories are. Ellen will sleep in the female dormitory, while the boys will sleep on the male side. Our beds are so tiny, that a coffin probably has more room. I am not sure as I have never tried to sleep in one. The small room has three bunk beds on each side, you better not have a bad dream and want to sit up straight as you are certain to whack your head! All other passengers on the boat, without a cabin or dormitory spot, are trying to find a place to sleep. Small tents are pitched on the decks, air mattresses pop up every where, from the decks to the hallways. We do manage to find a table on deck that is not been occupied yet, next to some very loud people from Limburg in the Netherlands. We have make our lunch, enjoy a few drinks, play some cards, explore the different decks and the boys enjoy their Gameboys.

When the self service restaurant opens for service, we are the first customers, and get Spaghetti for Eldon and Marc, Salmon for Tim and chicken for Ellen and myself. Although it is still early we head for our sleeping quarters, have a quick shower and go of to bed. Since the beds close off with little curtains, it gets pretty warm, and we all have a very restless night of sleep. The next morning the intercom announces that we are getting close to our destination, and shortly there after a steward comes through the dormitories shouting with a sharp voice Igoumenitsa, Igoumenitsa! The guys keep imitating the steward over the next couple of days as it sounded so funny to them. We get our stuff together and catch up with Ellen and wait to get off the ship. Luckily for us they have reversed the escalator so that we don’t have to haul our heavy bags down the stairs.

Back on shore we we find out that we have to walk for about 1500 meters to get to the ferry to Kerkyra, also called Corfoe city. Luckily no lineup for the ferry this time, and we find out that the next ferry will leave in an hour. Ellen and the boys visit the bakery across the street to get some breakfast, while I watch our bags. This is a much smaller ferry, we can leave our bags in a little compartment at the front, and go to the deck. Soon the boys find out that they can feed the little fish by throwing some old bread in the water. This keeps them busy until it is time to sail. A short boat ride of only an hour and a half brings us to Kerkyra, where we have to find the green bus line, which will bring us to Paleokastritsa. Although we originally walk slightly in the wrong direction we still manage to find the bus station although we just missed the 11 AM bus. Next one at noon… No problem as there is little patio right outside the bus station. A bus ride of 30 minutes brings us across the the island, and Ellen recognizes where we need to get off, based on the 360 degree view on the Internet, very impressive! We are welcomed by our host Kostas, who shows us the beautiful apartment, with two sleeping rooms, a kitchen and two bathrooms. There is even a small semi private beach, just 90 meters away! The rest of the afternoon is spend on this little beach, and at night we just open a cowpoke of cans of soup, with bread. We get to bed early as we are tired from our trip. Over the next couple of days we are definitely going to take it easy.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, week 2

August 3rd, 2010

It is Sunday morning and we are up early so that we can finish cleaning Irma’s place and get on the train for our roundtrip of Europe. My parents pick us up and drop us off at station Laan van Nieuw Oost Indie, because that is easier to reach then the Leiden train station, which almost impossible to reach by car.

We hop on to the first train to den Haag Holland Spoor to wait for the intercity to Brussels. When the intercity arrives it will be the first time we quickly have to board the train with five heavy bags. While I still try to shoot some video of the train that has just arrived, Ellen tries to open a door that is apparently broken, a little panic sets in, as we scramble for another door. It is not too handy that I have one hand occupied with with my camcorder! We manage to get in ok and head for our first class seats.

Five is definitely an awkward number as the seats are arranged by two or foursomes. I end up sitting across the aisle from the family. Straight across from me sits a guy, by the looks of it somewhere from the Arab Emirates, who is singing while listing to his MP3 player… He asks me if I know if this train also goes to Paris. After showing me a piece of paper with a scribbled itinerary I explain to him that he needs to change trains in Antwerp. He also wants to know if you can buy a puppy in Paris, which he want to bring home for kids. Although that seems a weird question to me, I say that they probably sell dogs in Paris… Why would you want to buy a dog in Paris, and then take back on an airplane? The boys start working on their journal, so that they will have some lasting memories about this extraordinary trip.

I sincerely enjoy traveling by train, it brings back memories when I was a teenager, and travelled the Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) by train with my buddy, with nothing more then a backpack and a little tent! Good times when we had to learn how to cook. I vividly remember how my plastic fork melted right in to the frying pan, while trying to flip my burger! That is how you learn how to not to cook! Although the train is running late, it does not effect us, as we have no connecting train that day. We arrive in Brussels central station, which is an underground station. Once manage to find our way out we realize that we have no instructions on how to get to the accommodations rental office to pick up the key. We have the address,  but where is it? We make our way to  the tourist office, near the central market. It is Sunday and it is crowded with Tourists in downtown Brussels, and we seem slightly out of place, five people pulling big bags on wheels behind them on the cobble stone streets.

The tourist office explains where to go and we continue our walk. We look like Walt Disney’s duck family with Huey, Dewey and Louie in the middle. My bag reveals it’s true quality, as the wheels are giving way, and I end up trying to repack my bag three times. After a while I give up, and Ellen takes Tim’s bag, while Tim and I carry mine. We get the key and have to get back to the other side of the station to get to our apartment. We decide to take the bus, so that we don’t have to carry my bag all the way.

The apartment is a very old building near the Royal Palace,  and it is on the third floor without an elevator. This provides a good workout to carry our heavy bags up three flights of stairs, sigh… The interior is very nice, and it has all the amenities we need, to serve as a base to explore Brussels. Eldon will sleep on the hide bed in the living room, while Marc and Tim share a bedroom. After dropping off our stuff we head back in to the city centre. The Central Place, or Grote Markt, is still as breath taking as I remember it to be, with all the old buildings. History radiates from every corner of this place. There is some sort of game going on, and it is extremely busy. We make our way to one of the local attractions Manneke Pis, a bronze statue of a pissing dude. The boys cannot believe it, he is even dressed up with a little cape.
He became famous, as the story goes, by peeing out a fire that was burning in the old city hall, ending up saving the building!

Since it is Sunday, most shops are closed, and we have a hard time finding a supermarket to buy some stuff. We end up finding a convenience store, where we buy some waffles and drinks to get us started. For dinner we have a traditional bag of Flemish fries, of course with mayonnaise! After this it is back to our apartment to get some well deserved rest.   

On Monday Ellen heads first to the supermarket, to get some breakfast. It is great to have all the facilities in the apartment to prepare your own meals. This way we don’t have to eat out three times a day! We use the metro to go to the Atomium, a structure build in 1958 for the world expo in Brussels. It looks like an unit cell of an iron atom,  magnified 165 billion times. It is a gorgeous day with a blue sky and the structure looks very impressive against this backdrop. After a short wait in line an elevator takes us to the top of the structure, for some amazing views of Brussels. After the same elevator takes you back down again, you can use the escalators to visit some of the other spheres, where there are a number of different expositions. One is about the multi cultural society in Belgium and being tolerant in a society of multiple ethnic backgrounds. The metro takes us back to the city core where we stroll around the shopping area, where Eldon buys a yoyo for Tim’s upcoming birthday and we have a drink on the patio on the “plein der Martelaren”.

It is Tuesday, time flies when you are having fun, we head to the flea market. We use a little lift to get to the lower part of town and look around to all the neatly displayed junk. Tim finds an old fashioned lighter and asks “How much?” Five Euros answers the guy. Then he asks “How much do you want to give for it?” Three Euros Tim replies… How about four? Tim nods no… Ok, three it is! Tim just got his first lesson in market place bargaining! We stroll through a street lined with antique shops, they have everything from medieval swords and harnesses to statues and large old station clocks. The boys are very interested in the weaponry. We pass Manneken Pis again, who is now dressed in a Scout uniform. Now that we think about it, we have seen a ton of different Scouts today. It turns out that there is a European Scout conference going on in Brussels!

We make our way over to the Comic Book museum, which is housed in an old fabric selling place. It is a very interesting building from an architectural perspective, with lots of glass. But since it is really warm, the temperature inside the building is at least to say bloody hot! It is great to learn that there is much more to creating a comic book, then first meets the eye, but because some of the examples are in French, it is only modestly interesting for the boys. On our way home, we walk past a dumpster of a home under reconstruction. I manage to find a small peace of wood, with a couple of screws and nails still in it. This piece will be perfect to repair my malfunctioning bag, to provide the sturdiness to keep the wheels straight. Back at the apartment we have a simple meal with soup and bread, i manage to fix my bag using my Leatherman multi tool, before we hit the sack for the day. If the women don’t find you handsome they should at least find you handy!           

Wednesday is travel day to Paris, we get up on time, pack, clean up and are on our way to the metro station, which will bring us to the Brussels Midi station. This is our first reserved train trip on a TGV, Train Grand Vitesse, or in other words high speed train.  One thing about train travel is that you want to be on time, or the train will leave without you! We find our reserved seats and are in for a real treat. Let me tell you, this is the way to travel Europe!!! The chairs are comfortable, can be reclined like an airplane seat, and there is even a power outlet! The boys work on their journals again while the train transports us with speeds reaching over 200 KM per hour! It doesn’t take long before we arrive in Gare Charles de Gaule, where we need to get on local train to Gare du Nord. In order to get on the platform for the local train, we need tickets. After a long wait in a lineup, and flashing our Eurail pass we get free tickets so that we can continue our journey.

In Gare du Nord, we check the cost to store our bags at the station, but find that it really adds up with five bags, as the big lockers are 9.50 euros each. We decide instead, to go to the rental office, which is about a twenty minute walk. Now that I have repaired my bag, it should work fine. This rental office is run by a bunch of collective owners, and has an interesting concept. We have a secret code to get in to the office that has no staff. Inside are a bunch of lockers that have the names of the various apartments on it. We use our secret code for our apartment locker and leave the money for the rent. Now we have a few hours to explore Paris. We leave our luggage in the assigned area in the office, which is monitored by a camera. During our stay in Paris, we will never meet anyone from the office.

We walk to the Seine, Ellen and I have been in Paris on multiple locations and it is one of our favorite destinations. The sight of the Seine brings back memories of a distant life before kids. We continue to give the boys a quick glimpse of the Notre Dame, perhaps we can find a way to transfer our love for Paris to them. When we get back to the office, we find the key to the apartment in our locker. We get our luggage and are on our way again, single file, dad in front and mom in the back. It must be a funny sight to us walk like this, with our bags on wheels. The apartment is a very old building, and probably a good representation on how thousands of people still live in Paris every day.

There is a really creepy old elevator, the ones you see in old movies. To our surprise we learn that these things still exist and are being used. You better do not have a claustrophobic nature, if you want to use the elevator. It is great to be able to get our bags to the second floor without having to use the stairs. The inside of the apartment is small but nice, it really gives you the feeling that you are living like the locals. There is a small (Ikea) kitchen, which is so small, that we keep bumping in to the the button that turns on the oven. Tim has own room while Eldon and Marc sleep on the pull out bed in the living room. The shower has no curtain and you stand in the bad tub. When Ellen takes a shower and by accident takes a step back, we hear a big scream while she lands on her behind. That will be black and blue, we all have to laugh. The washer also functions as a dryer, I guess when you are housed this small you need to become creative with your space. The supermarket across the street provides us with a frozen Paella, and Tim suggest to add some large shrimps to the mix. This provides an easy and tasty dinner, eating Spanish food in Paris.  

Our apartment is very noisy, and we can hear the other inhabitants of the building go to work in the morning, doors slam, conversations take place, a child yells for her mom… We try to sleep in a little as much as possible ignoring the noises. The nice thing about Paris is, that there are small supermarkets and bakeries everywhere. I walk to the bakery around the corner to pickup some fresh baquettes, which are wrapped in a small piece of paper, just large enough to hold them. Nothing beats the taste of fresh bread straight from the bakery.

The apartment is close to the Sacre Coeur, so that we be our first destination. The moment we walk in to the park at the bottom of the Basilique, we walk straight in to a tourist trap. Three guys walk up to our boys, say Hakuna Matata and start  wrapping bracelets around their wrists. Of course they have no idea what happens to them, and I decide to let it go, it will be a great learning opportunity. Of course the guys now want to be rewarded for their bracelets, and decide to give them €1 each. One of tries to raise the price to €2 each, but I think what we offering is probably already to much for a few pieces of string, that we didn’t ask for. Our guys are stunned on how quickly this happened, and in subsequent events they will now certainly decline any such approaches.

After admiring the inside of the basilique, and strolling over the Mont Martre, where painters try are creating caricatures, we take the metro to the Place de la Concorde. This square has an obelisk which was given to France by Egypt and is a great start to walk across the most famous road in Paris, the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. The bleacher seats are being constructed for the final day of the Tour de France, this upcoming Sunday. We walk past the stores of famous brands like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, an impressive structure, honoring the French soldiers, fallen in different wars. Twelve roads connect to a roundabout around the Arc, traffic is crazy!

After a short rest we continue our walk to the Trocadero, as this is the most magnificent route to approach the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately the fountains are not working, but is still an impressive sight. We ignore the sales people trying to sell Eiffel Tower trinkets, and enjoy the sight of the tower with the river the Seine in front. We decide that after all this walking we deserve a refreshment and walk back to the Trocadero, and select patio with a view of the tower. €37 later we have to conclude that having a drink in Paris can be a pricey proposition!  We continue our walk and head to the Louvre where we find an Apple store in the underground shopping centre. This allows us to connect to their free WiFi, to quickly check our email. We cap off the day with a meal at McDonalds as we are recovering from the drinks price earlier in the day. A meal for five including drinks, €21.50! We take the metro back and pickup a few bottles of Orangina, the new favorite drink of the boys, on our way. Today we walked more than 10 KM and our guys didn’t complain at all, we are very impressed.

It is Friday morning July 23, and we take it easy this morning, as we want to get on the Eiffel Tower when it turns dark, which will be around 9 PM at night. We leave after lunch and first head to the Louvre, the place where we ended our tour last night. Kids under 18 have free entry, so we only need 2 tickets for Ellen and myself. We first he’d down to see the Mona Lisa, and to say that we are not the only visitors who want to see this masterpiece, is an understatement. Well, at least we can now all say that we have seen this work by Leonardo da Vinci. The Louvre has a large collection of Greek and Egyptian artifacts, and lots of rooms have beautiful fresco’s. After a while it just becomes too much, I think you can be lost in the Louvre for weeks, and still discover new stuff.

Ellen and I want to head to lesser known treasure in Paris, the rooftop patio of the department store, la Samaritaine, with a beautiful view of Paris and the river Seine from their restaurant patio on the 9th floor. However, unfortunately we find out that the store is out of business. We head on to Les Halles instead, and look at some of the shops. As it is getting close to diner time, we go to Quartier Latin, an area with little restaurants where we find a place with a special deal on mussels. We manage to have dinner for only €50, not bad considering our drink adventure yesterday. It is a little clouded and a few drops of rain fall, but we manage to walk all the way to the Eiffel Tower without getting wet.

Ellen and I have been on the Eiffel Tower a few times, never been on it during nighttime, and we have always used the elevator. We find out that it is also possible to climb the structure using the stairs. This seems like a good challenge to tire the boys out and after a short wait we are up on our way using the stairs! The parents are getting pretty tired treading all these steps, but the boys seem like Energizer bunnies, and keep going. As we are going up the flashlights start going off and a big cheer erupts from the crowd below, what an experience! The views are amazing as it quickly turning dark. Paris is definitely THE city of lights. The metro takes us back and we get home past midnight, this means that it is my birthday, and the boys sing the “Turtle Crush Dude” version of happy birthday for me. This day we also walked more then 10 KM without any complaints from the boys!

It is our last day in Paris, and since we came home after midnight, everyone stays in bed a little longer. Because it is Saturday it is pretty quiet in the building as well, which is a nice. When we get ourselves together we walk (again) to Les Puces, the largest flea market in Paris, just on the other side of the Peripherique, the Paris ring road. There are lots of antique dealers and also some a colorful market of all kinds of stuff. We find a shop with a few old pinball machines, and the boys are allowed to try them out. When we get back to the metro station Porte de Clignancourt, Tim figures out which metro we need to take to get to the Notre Dame. The lineup is huge to get inside this beautiful church, but it is moving quite fast. Inside we see amazing works of art and stunning windows. Marc gets to light a candle. On our way back we stop at some of the souvenir shops to buy some postcards and have a last look at the Place Georges Pompidou, the weird looking building with all the ducts on the outside. We have a few crepes with Nutella before we take the Metro to pickup a grilled chicken for dinner. Now we need to get ready for our departure tomorrow to  the capital of Switzerland, Berne.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, week 1

August 1st, 2010

It is Friday july 9, parade day in Calgary, and we are finishing packing as our plane will leave later that afternoon. In the mean time we are also still wrapping up the latest items for work. The guy who came to view our trailer last night has decided to buy it, but can’t get the money as the banks are closed because of parade day until noon! Luckily we can arrange for a credit card payment facilitated by our company. This does mean that we have to fill the gas tanks and find a time slot to hand over the keys, during this hectic day!

We manage to leave in time for the airport. After going through security we are asking ourselves where Marc is. He is just admiring the flying dinosaurs which are hung from the ceiling. We impress upon him that he needs to stay with program this vacation, as we do not have eyes in the back of our heads. Our flight is on time and fairly uneventful, which is a good thing. Everyone has some trouble to get to sleep. Marc falls asleep an hour before we have to land. His gameboy has kept him busy for the entire flight, and he is quite cranky when we try to wake him for breakfast.

My mom and sister Marjolein with her daughter Indy, pick us up at Schiphol. We take the train to Voorschoten where my dad and brother in law Fred help us to transport is and our luggage to my parents home. After we were served a lunch we are dropped of in Leiden, where we have the luxury of using a house of an old friend of mine, Irma. She has a townhouse, right in the city centre of Leiden. When we drop of our luggage we even have an opportunity to quickly stroll across the local a market, before they wrap up for the day. This is the best time for good deals, as the market folks do not want to take their stuff back home. We pickup 2 boxes of strawberries for only €1!

Dinner is provided by some local favorite snack food, “frikandel speciaal”and fries with peanut sauce. When Tim makes a trip to the toilet (WC), he comes back all upset, this toilet is freaky he exclaims, first “your dump” gets on a sort of platform , and looks like a doggie do, and then when you flush, the whole thing is taken away by a big wave! He has obviously never seen something we call an old-fashioned “schotel toilet”. At night I am sitting on the patio listening to my favorite Dutch radio show, with a beer in my hand. When Eldon comes to say goodnight, he finds me asleep, with the beer bottle tightly held in my hand! I guess I didn’t get much sleep on the plane either…

This is Sunday where the Dutch soccer team will play in finals against Spain for the world cup in South Africa, and finally can give us a first place, as we have lost the finals twice, and never won the world cup. We are lucky to be able to use my dad’s car, although it is small, my family does (barely) fit in it. Once we see the price of the gasoline, we understand why people are driving small cars in Europe! On our way to a Feline’s birthday party, a daughter of Ellen’s longtime friend Patricia, we stop at a local mall, to visit a flea market. It is great to see the people from all different nationalities, within a whole bunch of junk. But as the saying goes “One persons junk is someone else’s treasure”. We find a guy selling shoes from the back of his car, orange with red, white and blue stripes. As the final soccer match is that night, the guy obviously wants to rid of them. We find a pair that fits Eldon, and for only €8 you cannot walk bare foot.

Before we get to the birthday party we also manage to stop by the house where Ellen used to live as a child and where we spend a few years as well early in our relationship. We walk across the main street of Rijswijk and have some memories of our youth percolate in our brain. FInally we get to the De Vries residence where it is great to reconnect with old friends. It is also good to hear that Ivy, Feline’s sister is doing better after being submitted to hospital last week for head pains. We talk about their plans to visit Canada next year, and have a lovely afternoon in a sunny backyard.

At dinnertime my mom got the entire family together to her favorite restaurant to eat spare ribs. We are sitting outside in the Dorpsstraat and witness the neighboring cafe prepare for the soccer final. After dinner the entire party moves to Marjolein’s backyard where her husband Fred has created an outdoor movie theater. Everyone and everything is dolled up in orange, and we are all ready to cheer our team to the world cup. The play of the Dutch team is uncoordinated and disappointing. Spain wins the match and gets the title, leaving the Dutch team in second place for the third time!

On Monday we have plans to rent a little boat to cruise around Leiden, but a weather warning spoils these plans. We decide to drive to the sea shore at Katwijk, but by the time we get there it starts to rain.  Disappointed we head back home and decide to catch up on some sleep working away our jet lag. At night we are invited for dinner at Astrid’s place, we are enjoying sate from the BBQ. Marc also enjoys the backyard jacuzzi, with his nieces Dewi and Indy. 

Marc continues to have trouble breathing, and after monitoring it for a few days, we decide that it might be better to see a doctor. On Tuesday morning we contact Astrid’s doctor and are able to make an appointment right away. We hurry to the car, which is parked just outside the city core, about a 10 minute walk, and are on our way to see the doctor. As we are navigating through the little streets Eldon says “I think that I need to throw up!”. The mother instinct of Ellen does not fail, and she rips the last sandwich out of a zip lock back (how do people survive without those?) and passes it back to Eldon. This all happens so fast that Tim is not even aware that it happens!

Doctor Geels prescribes a puffer for Marc, which helps him to breathe more easily in the humid climate. Since we are up early anyway, we visit aunt Astrid’s hair salon, where Tim and Eldon get a quick trim. We take Dewi and Nino to go to Scheveningen by tram, and we walk on the promenade and beach. Although the weather is so so, kids are having a blast collecting shells and poking washed up jelly fishes with a stick. In the distance we see a number of helicopters which are transporting the Dutch soccer team from the Hague to Amsterdam, for their appreciation tour to reach the second place in the world cup finals.

When we have walked all the way to the south end of Scheveningen, we take another tram to the city centre of the Hague, and are able to show the working palace of the Dutch queen, the working place of the Dutch parliament, “het Binnenhof”, and the place where prisoners were tortured in the middle ages, “de gevangenpoort”. After some fries with “frikandellen” we head back home with a bunch of tired kids! At one point we need to wait for an open bridge, and the guys are asking themselves “how did the road got in an upright position?” It is hard to believe that they have never seen an opened bridge, but we don’t have those back home in Calgary. When we get back to our place we hear that my dad is submitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties. He has lung emphyzema, and carries an oxygen tank with him. I offer to drive mom to the hospital in the Hague so that she does not have to take public transport. On our way back we stop by Fred for a quick drink as it is his birthday today. All in all it ends up to be a long and tiring day.

Wednesday we chill, still tired from our travels and consequent activities. We sleep in, watch a little bit tv on the animal planet channel, and the boys play their gameboys. In the afternoon we visit the “Museum van Oudheden” in Leiden, and even walking over there we enjoy the sight of old buildings and churches. The museum has areas from ancient Egypt and Greece, which speaks to the imagination of the boys. One of my uncles, Jan Sloos who used to work in the museum, appears in one of the video’s. At night we a have a simple meal, bread with ragout, and in the evening Irma and her friend Peter come over to meet our family. It is funny that Irma is a guest in her own house! Of course we are very grateful for the opportunity to use her house. It is a perfect place for our stay, exept for the loud loud neighbors across the yard, who have no consideration for anyone else.

Back in Calgary I had purchased a copy of Anne Frank’s diary for both Eldon and Tim. While Eldon has finished the book and Tim is still working on it, we head off to Amsterdam. We park on the north side of “het IJ” and as per Peter’s recommendation we take the free ferry to the central station. From here it is a short walk to the Anne Frank house. It is already busy, and have to stand in line for about 45 minutes, but it certainly worth it to see such a historic place. Even when we lived in Holland we had never taken an opportunity to go there. After our visit we stroll through the Kalverstraat, and do some shopping. The ferry shuttles us conveniently back to the car. Ellen recognizes the neighborhood as the place where she was born, and where her grandparents used to live. After a little bit of driving around we find the place and take a picture, to show to her mom.

Thursday night we are told that my brother in law Fred is submitted to the hospital with a collapsed lung. This prompts us to walk to the hospital on Friday to pay him a visit. Considering the circumstances he is doing ok, and is even considering quitting smoking, go figure! In the hospital we run in to his Fred’s dad, and his wife Ria, which are also the folks who used to look after Tim, when he was a baby, and Ellen was still working part time. That night I also assisted my mom picking up my dad from the other hospital, I have had my portion of hospitals for the day.

On Saturday my mom is hosting a get together, with Ellen’s family from Assen. Ellen’s mom, brother Robert-Jan with wife Marjan and daughter Ilse arrive in the morning. We have a full house with  Marjolein and Indy joining us as well and we spend some time walking in the park and strolling through the main street of Voorschoten. Late in the day we hear that Fred is allowed to leave the hospital which is great news! Back at our place we start to pack, and clean up, for our departure the next day to Brussels.

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Sloos family vacation Europe 2010, preparation

August 1st, 2010

This summer I am privileged to be able to take 6 weeks off, to take my family on a round trip to Europe. I feel that because of my hectic schedule over the last almost 14 years in Canadaa, my family did not always get the attention they deserved. It is very difficult to manage a proper work life balance if you are leading a growing successful company. Since the merger of CompuConsult with Bulletproof, I feel blessed to be part of a great team of people. This has allowed me to take this extended vacation, knowing that the team will take care of business.

The plan is to fly in to Amsterdam, spend a week with the family and then go on a Eurail tour visiting the capitals of Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Czech Republic and Germany. We will also visit the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, the Vatican in Rome and make a quick hop to Corfu in Greece. One of the purposes of the trip is to show the boys how to travel Europe using only public transport.

Six weeks before the planned departure date we firm up our airline reservations, the price has come down to an acceptable level, and since we need 5 seats, we cannot risk a last minute fare. Now we need to firm up our accommodations. We have decided to use apartments for rent by owners, to live like the locals, this way we won’t need 2 hotel rooms and are able to prepare our own food, to keep everything within our budget.

Ellen does a wonderful job researching and selecting the accommodations, while Rene focusses on the logistics of the trip. After some creative manipulation to line up the accommodations with the trips, the following itinerary is set:

July 9 – fly from Calgary to Amsterdam
July 10 – arrive in Amsterdam
July 18 – train from the Hague to Brussels
July 21 – train from Brussels to Paris
July 25 – train from Paris to Bern, via Basel
July 24 – train from Bern to Rome, via Milan and Bologna
July 30 – train from Rome to Ancona, overnight ferry from Ancona to Igoumenitsa 
July 31 – arrive in IIgoumenitsa, ferry from Igoumenitsa to Kerkyra (Corfu town), bus from Kerkyra to Paleokastritsa
August 5 – bus from Paleokastritsa to Kerkyra, ferry from Kerkyra to Igoumenitsa, overnight ferry from Igoumenitsa to Ancona
August 6 – arrive in Ancona, train from Ancona to Venice via Bologna
August 8 – overnight train from Venice to Vienna
August 12 – train from Vienna to Prague
August 15 – train from Prague to Berlin
August 18 – train from Berlin to Leiden
August 21 – fly from Amsterdam to Calgary

We are happy to have found a friend to use our house while we are traveling. Rene determines which electronic devices have to accompany us during our trip, a video camera, an iPad and iPhone for Rene, an iPod Touch and camera for Ellen, an iPod Touch for Eldon, an iPod Nano for Tim, MP3 player for Marc and 3 Gameboys! (No, we do not own any Apple stocks!!!) Of course we also need ensure we have the right plug-in’s to charge all these devices. It feels like running an electronics store…

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