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April 11, 2002
If this is Thursday... (Gail)

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Bruges, Belgium: basking under the windmills

At the end of each day Russell sits down to make notes and to write our next Web letter to everyone. The boys also take time to write when they have enough to fill the space. I have not been very good about keeping up with my side. Originally we were going to take turns writing but Russell is so fast and covers things so completely that it often seems my additions are not needed.

That said here's my recent update. The last few weeks have been wonderful and crazy. Frankly we are currently in an "if this is Tuesday this must be Belgium" situation. The fact is this is Thursday and we are in Belgium. We are using this city along with the last few stops (Denmark, Netherlands) to regroup, relax and reconnect. We had a whirlwind tour of Central and Eastern Europe and enjoyed all of it completely. I loved Budapest and Prague, two very approachable cities with friendly people, great sights and very easy to walk around in. Having done no research before going into Hungary we had no idea what to expect there. It's hard to explain but I had an image of darkness. I guess that's a left over from my iron curtain days upbringing. We were amazed at the beauty of both cities. Salzburg was lovely and relaxing, we enjoyed just walking along the river. Vienna was cold but beautiful but a bit more aloof than I care for. Berlin was educational and modern. It is so nice that all these places are no longer dots on a map.

Something we notice as we weave our way through Europe are the cars. In France and Italy they were small and newer, Renault, Peugeot, CitroŽn, Fiat (very few USA cars mainly Ford). They easily fit down the very narrow roadways. In Hungary and the Czech Republic they were small but older with names like Swift and Jumper made by former Eastern Block companies we had never heard of. As we moved north the cars became larger. We saw many more minivans and station wagons in Denmark, Netherlands and Belgium and again newer. Bikes were abundant in every country but the northern countries have it down to a science. In Netherlands there are dedicated bike roadways complete with traffic signals. Bike racks are everywhere, they are allowed on the trains and there are ramps in the train stations (grooves along side the stairway) to help with your bike. Even on the small island of RÝmÝ, Denmark there are bike lanes along side the narrow road and in the freezing weather people were out in force.

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Amsterdam, the Netherlands: a three-story garage just for bicycles

Cameron and Joss have been troopers through all the walking, cold, different foods and travel days. We have received many compliments. The innkeepers and guests comment on how quiet the boys are. They don't know that we cringe every time Joss decides to gallop through our room or leap off the third rung of the ladder. Cameron and Joss seem to be absorbing a lot of what we are experiencing. Two of the most rewarding days were Berlin and the fishing village, Enkhuizen, Amsterdam. In Berlin they had a long discussion about Democracy and Communism, walking down the street holding hands, heads near each other. Cameron really trying to explain and Joss really wanting to understand. They seemed oblivious to everything around them. In the fishing village they discussed whaling and extinction, both boys wanting to understand how people could be so mean and so stupid to use up all the fish and whales. They were both amazed at the uses people had for whales. It's very hard for kids raised completely in the Internet/computer age to understand that people used whales for oil to light lamps (among other things). Why didn't they just use electricity?

Of course it's not all lofty conversation. Berlin is also the city where Joss spent a lot of time spinning in circles to make himself dizzy and Cameron snapped many pictures of the Berlin bears. And they have taken up stick collecting in earnest. They do have toys to play with, honestly they do, but sticks are the new thing. Our car currently has to accommodate two stick-and-string grappling hooks, multiple short sticks and a couple of long walking stick/bow-length staffs. Sticks take on personalities and therefore cannot be left behind, but we try, we try. Joss also likes to collect stuff like grass, rocks, seedpods and other things and keep them in his pockets. Doing laundry is fun.

At the Keukenhof Gardens in Holland I was especially pleased with the boys. They took their time, smelled flowers, collected petals (Joss), and remarked on names they liked. Cameron said the gardens gave him ideas for our yard and for building a fountain when we get home. Joss kept calling me over to look at one more beautiful flower or planting bed; neither of them complained about being there. Now both boys have rope they made at the fishing village. These have been used for lassoing everything in sight. Joss is dangerous swinging it around in the courtyards. Cameron delights in catching Joss and Joss ties Cam up and "walks" him. They also use their ropes safely like jump ropes; which is safe and sane; except Joss is still learning how to jump and catches his feet sending him tripping along.

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Delft, the Netherlands: lassoing everything in sight

Today we climbed Bruges' Belfry bell tower at just about noon. This tower has 362 steps up (and down), Cameron counted them, just a few less than Notre Dame. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this climb was compared to some we did earlier in the trip. I guess we are a lot stronger than we realize. I still have to be convinced that going that high is "fun." When we arrived at the top the bells had just started to strike noon. Feeling the whole top vibrating with the bells was unnerving enough to keep me cowering on the floor and Joss and Cam kept their ears covered to the end.

We are also experiencing the "how do you say?" problem. This is mainly because we have changed countries so often so quickly. We no sooner learn how to say "yes," "no" and "thank you" than we change countries and have to file away the "old" way and use the "new" way. In Prague we discovered that it is not a good idea to hesitate when answering a question.  Stopping for a moment, then answering "ah no" will actually translate to "yes".  "Ano" is "yes" in Czech!  Just for your future reference "thank you" in German, Dutch and Danish are all very close and if you mumble no one knows the difference. I find myself saying in German "entschuldigung" (excuse me) then trying "excusez-moi" or "pardon" in French and finally trying good old comfortable English if all else fails. Today I was able to go into a shop, and using my limited French ask what types of quiche they had, how much and order three. I'm sure the shopkeeper spoke English but it was just fun to try. Of course I was worried the whole time she would ask me something I wouldn't understand, but everything went smoothly including the "would you like a plastic bag too?" question.

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Bruges, Belgium: shall we buy some "ontbijt," or does the "snoepgoed" look better?

Sometimes command of the language is not a requirement to accomplish what is needed. This was proved in Salsburg. We had parked our car in the parking garage and on our return I heard shouting from the public restroom. Who ever it was sounded in trouble so I went in to find out if I could help. There was a woman stuck in the stall and the stall door went floor to ceiling, she had no way out. I told her I would be right back (she did not speak English and I speak no emergency situation German so I hoped she would understand). Russell had not noticed I had stopped so I found him at the car. We returned and both tried to get the door unlocked. Finally we determined that it was stuck not locked. Russell pushed, lifted and finally muscled the door open and out came a little old lady, very grateful to us. We have no idea how long she had been in there but she was very glad we helped. Russell the hero once again.

The nicest thing to happen over these last few days is the ability to slow down and really take an easier pace. I again realized how we are traveling differently from the norm. We are very happy that we have the opportunity to travel the way we are and not with a tour group. We watch the travel-tired people get off the tours buses, rushing through their itinerary and getting back on the bus with the bags of treasures. We do not need to rush out each morning and see as much as we can. We are able to stop when we want and go back to our room to rest if we need to. With two children in tow there is no other way to travel. We've seen so much these past few months that it is a pleasure to just walk along the streets and canals just soaking up the atmosphere.

We found a quote that is perfect as our motto: "A traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see" (Gilbert Chesterton). Let others do all the tourist stops; we will buy our ice cream and just wander around.

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Berlin, Germany: ice cream and sticks


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