Aug 31, 2009

No Sweat Race Report

And now, the post you have all been waiting for. Well, at least all 3 of you who read the blog. A couple of weekends ago Damon talked me into joining him, Kirk, and Dane for a 24 hour adventure race in Austin, Texas. The race was called "No Sweat" and was put on by Too Cool Racing. If the name of the race sounds familiar to you, it might be because it was during the 12 hour version of "No Sweat" last year that Damon actually wound up dehydrated and in a "No Sweat" situation (accompanied by chills, hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, you know, fun stuff like that) and ended up in an emergency room somewhere in the Texas hill country. That cautionary tale would make a normal person think that racing for 24 hours in Texas in August might not be such a great idea, but as we all know, Damon is not a normal person. So, on Thursday, August 20, we loaded up the gear and hit the long road to Austin. Since Hefner Bunny Pie was also participating in the event, Kirk opted to ride over with them. What kind of a jerk chooses his own wife over his teammates? Gosh.

Anywho, we spent Thursday night in Columbus, Texas, and picked up the kayaks in Bastrop the next morning. Damon had been longing for a tandem kayak of his own, and in a moment of weakness I agreed that he could buy one of the ones that we normally rent. We got back on the road to Austin with a new hurricane evacuation plan: when the water rises Damon and I will paddle the kayak with Stella in the middle and tow our possessions along behind us in the canoe. Who needs to wait in long lines to buy gas? Not kayak owners, that's for sure.

Back to the race...we spent most of Friday stopping for last minute supplies, hydrating, and setting up our transition area, bikes, and boats. We ate fast food that night and got in bed way too late, which is something of a tradition for the Pourciau/Welch racing team.

Saturday dawned bright and muggy. I was up much earlier than necessary, because Damon convinced me that I would feel better during the race if I at least started it off clean, so I got up in time to take a shower. We left the hotel for 6, and stopped on the way to pick up some batteries that we had forgotten. (You didn't expect us to actually be prepared, did you? I mean, we only spent an entire day staging our gear.) We drove the nauseating 30 minutes of winding hills from the hotel to the race site much faster than I wanted to, but we arrived in plenty of time for the pre-race meeting. Damon discovered that he had a flat bike tire, so he and I skipped the pre-race meeting in order to remedy that situation. We figured since it was such a short race, there wasn't any information they could possibly give us in that meeting that would be worth hearing. I am pretty sure Kirk attended the meeting, and I feel like Dane at least was there for half, so from the beginning we were already depending on our teammates for info.

Our instructions for the first leg of the race were sealed, so following a very dramatic countdown teams tore into their directions and the race was on around 8 a.m. I immediately regretted rising early to shower, since our first task was to cross Lake Travis with our bodies in the water and our bikes on our kayaks. Dang it! Wet and miserable from the beginning. When we arrived on the opposite shore, we faced a hellacious biking leg on rocky single-track littered with a multitude of cacti. I began the ride optimistic. Damon recently bought me some cycling shoes, and it was my first time to try them out on a trail. At the beginning of the ride I felt like a kid who had just graduated from training wheels. Following my third life-threatening fall off of the bike and onto the rocks, I felt like a welterweight who had just been on the wrong end of Mike Tyson's fist. I seriously thought I had fractured bones. Damon was very supportive and encouraging. I was not in the mood to hear support OR encouragement. A few tears were shed. Ugly comments were made to Damon. I changed into my tennis shoes, which were fortunately in my pack, and spent the great majority of leg 2 pushing my bike instead of riding it. So, the race was young and already I had experienced a meltdown. Meltdowns were actually the story of the day. Each member of the team had one, as you will read below, but I was the first egg to crack.

Following the bike from Hades, we set out on foot for a trek. It was uneventful and we easily found the checkpoints and an abandoned football that Dane hurled at Kirk a few times. By the end of the trek, things were heating up.

Back at Transition Area 2, we were instructed to kayak across the river for a mystery challenge. My boat buddy was Dane, and we got our first taste of paddling together during this river crossing. It was a short row, and it really seemed like things might work out. Back onshore we climbed the steep hill to the main TA and headed for the rock wall. Enter Meltdown #2. Dane volunteered to be the first to climb the wall, and with his freakish upper-body strength, scurried up like a monkey in the zoo. Kirk went next and was a little slower, but still skillful and efficient. I was not enthusiastic about going third, but figured I had to so that if I had trouble I could rest during Damon's turn and make another attempt. With coaching from my boys, I was able to conquer the wall in a pretty respectable time with no mishaps. You have probably figured out by now whose meltdown this is. Yes, Damon was our final team member to approach the obstacle. He made it about halfway with no problem, but that is where the wall becomes vertical. About a quarter of the way up the vertical portion of the wall, disaster struck. Damon's size twelves were really too big to get much traction on the teeny footholds, and his upper body strength was waning fast. He slipped, tried to save it, and ended up dangling from his safety rope and almost taking out a member of another team. This happened two or three times, but he finally made it to the top after Kirk and Dane threatened to send me up to help him. Once he was back on the ground, I noticed that his eyes were greener than they should be. This is Damon's #1 sign of severe dehydration. Kirk also saw chills on him, so we hurried him back to the TA and a big waterbottle of gatorade.

After rowing our boats back to TA 2, we faced our second biking expedition. I was praying that there would be no more single track, and God was merciful. This biking portion was on the road! Hooray! As I mentioned before, things got hotter as the day went on. At some points when we were riding the bikes on the rode during this part of the race, it felt like someone was spraying you in the face with a blow torch. We discovered later that temperatures that day were record highs, hitting 103 degrees in the shade. Enter the Zeringue Meltdown. Kirk has recurring cramping problems, and at some point during this ride, they recurred. The cramping culminated with a double-quad cramp so intense that Kirk road his bike off the road and into a thorn tree. Ouch! He persevered, though, and made it through not only that leg, but the remaining 12 plus hours of the race. Must be that marathoner spirit.

Back at TA 2, it was time to transport the bikes back across the river. This time Kirk rowed a boat with a bike strapped on top and towed a boat bearing 3 bikes while the rest of us took a refreshing dip in the lake. Back at the main TA, we received our instructions for the next leg of the race: what we had all been dreading, the paddle.

One thing that I forgot to mention before that made this race very unique was the fact that Austin has been experiencing a pretty major drought recently, and the lake was down 45 feet from its normal water level. This made navigation a challenge, because when the guys were plotting the points, many of them appeared to be in the middle of the lake on the topographical map. As luck would have it, Austin experienced relief for their parched landscape during our race. It did not rain on us, but a huge thunderstorm blew up just in time for us to be paddling down a lake while lightning struck all around and gale-force winds blasted us in the face. Enter the Welch Meltdown. I obviously lack the upper body strength to really pose much of a threat as a kayaker, so we had decided that I would paddle with Dane, who has the most upper-body strength on our team. Unfortunately for both of us, neither one of us are experts at steering a kayak. This deficiency led to a general tendency of our boat to aim to the right, and caused us to have to spend a majority of our paddle strokes on correcting course. When I say "us," I really mean "Dane" because I was just not strong enough to paddle the entire time, and often questioned whether my paddling was benefitting us at all or just making the boat go crooked. Somehow we managed to not get struck by lightning and to make it to the boat takeout. I could have kissed that sandy beach, and I think Dane could have, too. His arms were completely done.

At the boat drop, we treked again as darkness set in. This was disappointing because things become much more difficult in the dark, but we also felt a sense of accomplishment because the temperatures finally started to drop and we knew we had at least beat the heat. We had a pretty easy time on this trek and all too soon arrived back at the dumb water. Dane was not ready to abandon me yet, and struggled through the paddle back to the TA with a martyr's resign. Damon and Kirk towed when they could, but mostly we just all suffered.

Back at the TA we got the worst news of the entire race: the next leg was another stinking paddle. This was the only point during the race that quitting seriously crossed my mind. I was sick of being in that boat. We decided that in order for Dane to survive the race we needed to switch boat buddies, so Damon took me on and Kirk and Dane teamed up. Navigating a lake at night in a kayak is challenging. It is even more challenging when the water is so low that you encounter unseen obstacles and get stuck, and it is decidedly miserable when the rain storm that just passed opens the floodgates upstream and causes a swift influx of water to turn a placid lake into a class 4 white water rapid that you have to paddle up. We struggled for at least 15 minutes against the waves before we noticed that a tree on the shore was not moving. You guessed it, we were paddling as hard as we could just to stay in one place against the rush of water. It was like a nightmare. We paddled as hard as we could and by some miracle made it to the muddy bank where Damon abandoned ship and stuck fast in hip-deep mud. I literally had to claw my way to the top of the steepest, slickest mud embankment I have ever witnessed. It was not my most graceful moment of life, but it was one of my funniest. Dane single-handedly dragged the kayak onshore by a long rope because he refused to descend into the murky pit. We treked again. More of the same uneventful orienteering. I spent a good portion of the trek sitting on the ground with my headlight off and looking at the stars while the boys searched for the checkpoints. I preferred keeping my light off to having bugs swarm my face. All too soon we were back at the cursed boats, but we at least had a little spring in our step knowing that the current would be with us and this would be our last paddle.

Back at the main TA, we received our instructions for the final leg: a trek. It was after 4 in the morning and exhaustion was setting in. I opted to leave my pack, knowing that I was plenty hydrated and not sweating anymore since the temp was now hovering somewhere in the low 80's or high 70's. There were 4 checkpoints on this leg. We got one, accidentally bypassed a second, and then ran into a bedraggled Hefner Bunny Pie who advised us to abandon one as a lost cause. We took their advice but still searched for the third checkpoint. Kirk spent some time napping on the road, Dane napped while he pace-counted, I did some sleep-walking, and Damon just kept shining his stupid laser pointer and forcing me and Dane to bushwhack through clumps of cactus and thorn trees. Eventually we abandoned the third checkpoint in the interest of making it to the finish line before the cutoff, grabbed the last checkpoint on the hike back, and turned in our passport around 7:11 a.m.

As a veteran of Too Cool Races, I knew not to expect any fanfare at the finish line. After receiving our, "Good job," from the race directors, we faced the most disappointing realization of the night: we now had to pack up all our gear before we could leave. This process took a while, especially since some team members spent portions of the packing up time napping in chairs. Once we finally had everything back on the truck (except for my cycling gloves, which appear to be the one casualty of "No Sweat") we faced the depressing prospect of driving 30 minutes back to civilization before we were able to rest our weary heads. Neither of the big, strong men were up to the task, so it fell to me. Dane slept in blissful ignorance, Damon talked to his parents via cellphone in a monotone drone, and I struggled to keep my eyelids open and the truck on the road. The drive that should have taken about 30 minutes took closer to an hour. Remember what I wrote above about the curvy road? Well, it was so bad that I thought I was going to meet my own back bumper on some of the curves. Truly the most terrifying experience of the whole ordeal.

Back at the hotel, I faced a dilemma. I wanted three things very badly: a shower, food, and sleep. The only problem was the order I would choose for procuring all three. In a perfect world I would have been able to eat while I took a bath and then fall asleep in the tub, but since we don't live in a perfect world, I let the boys shower while I ate. I feasted on a huge burger from Carl's Junior and a chocolate milkshake. When it was my turn for the shower, it was not such a great experience since I had many scrapes from thorns and cactus that stung pretty badly. I also was a little overzealous about scrubbing a few spots that I thought were dirt only to discover that they were bruises. Nice. I finally collapsed in the bed and I must say those 4 hours of sleep were the absolute best that I have ever had. We left around 4 p.m. so that Dane could make it back in time for his early shift at work, and so that we could catch a couple of hours of sleep in our own beds before we reported for duty as well.

All in all, I had fun racing, in spite of the many challenges. It is a big feeling of accomplishment to know that you have completed a 24 hour race, so I am proud of that. I could not have done it without my teammates, who each contributed in his own special way. I think that is the beauty of adventure racing, that it gives you a chance to depend on your friends and vice versa in a very unique way. Thanks, boys.

Also, a big thanks to my wonderful in-laws, without whose babysitting skills "No Sweat" would not have been possible.

Aug 24, 2009

Lost Diaries 8

Friday, June 24, 2005

Damon’s first summer school final was due today, so we did not leave Lyon until about 17:30. We had originally planned to visit Lucern and Interlaken, but since we only had 2 days, we decided to stay in Interlaken the whole time. We took the train from Lyon to Geneva, Switzerland, and went through customs there. Every time we go through customs Damon is subjected to increasingly serious scrutiny, since he sweated through his passport and it is hard to read now. We were only in Geneva for about 30 minutes and we were starving, so we followed signs out of the train station to a nearby McDonalds where we enjoyed chicken nuggets and a hamburger. I am normally not a big nugget fan, but I decided that it was better than picking onions off of my cheeseburger, since they are so small you can never get them all. Fast food joints over here have woefully never heard of “your way, right away.” To get anything unusual, like a hamburger with no pickles and onions, takes at least 10 minutes. So I choked down the nuggets and we made the train in time. The next leg was from Geneva to Bern, and the train tracks wound around Lake Geneva, which was just spectacular. You can see the mountains in the distance and from the train tracks the little Swiss houses lead all the way down to the water. The water is the most beautiful blue; it looks more like Disneyland than a real lake. Switzerland in real life looks exactly like it does in your imagination. You just expect Heidi to step out of one of the houses and offer you a Riccola at any moment. Well, as we were chugging along on this train, it stopped in the middle of the tracks and they made an announcement in several languages, none of which we spoke. Turned out the train was broken down, and they were working on it. We had a connection to catch in Bern, so the conductor came through and asked everyone about their destinations, and we told him. The man with the drink cart came by and gave us our pick off the cart for free since the train was stalled. He was from Egypt, and very nice. He spoke Arab, French and English. Damon asked him if he had ever seen the pyramids, and he looked at him like he was crazy and asked what kind of an Egyptian would he be if he had never seen the pyramids? So we were living the good life drinking free orange juice and eating free gummy bears when the train started up again. It was too late for us to make our connection, so the conductor came by and told us to check with the information booth when we got off the train for the next available train to Interlaken, and he also gave us two vouchers worth 15 francs of free rail food each. So we were totally pumped that our train had been delayed, and marveled at how wonderful the Swiss are on customer service compared to the French who have never heard of it. Also, you may have noticed that crossing the border into Switzerland marked the first time that we have been in a country that is not overly fond of the Euro. They will take paper Euros, but no coin Euros, and they always give your change in Swiss francs. The nice thing was that the Franc is weaker than the Euro, so at least we had something going for us there. When we detrained in Bern, there were booths on every train track with people in them to help passengers find their next train. It was amazing. In all the other countries we have traveled to, you are basically on your own in the train station. You can go to the main desk and wait in line forever to ask a question, but it is hit and miss if they even speak English and they are not what you would call “there to serve.” But Switzerland was refreshingly different with customer service people on every track, short lines to ask questions, and plenty of good information given in a friendly manner. Swiss trains get two thumbs up and it must just kill them to work with the rest of these unpredictable yahoos in the other parts of Europe. The Italians are late, the French are rude, the Dutch make their own schedule and don’t let anyone else know about it, but the Swiss are awesome. Too bad it is such a small country.

Okay, so we had to wait a little while to hop our Interlaken train, but we were in such a good mood from the freebies and being treated like human beings that we were not phased at all. We wandered around the train station/shopping mall for a while, but most of it was closed, so we mostly waited. We would be in Interlaken a little after midnight, and we were originally supposed to be there around 23:30. The only thing that I was a little concerned about at this point was the fact that we did not have hotel reservations. Rick Steves was disappointingly short on Switzerland info in the book that we have, basically telling you to skip Interlaken and adventure sports and head to some mountain town with one street and sleep in hay. This is decidedly not our style, so we thought we would just wing this one and see what happened. So of course, I was having a nervous breakdown thinking that I would be sleeping on a park bench in the rain or who knows what. There are 2 Interlaken train stations – West and Ost (East) – so we decided that we would get off at the first one that we came to and that way we would be able to walk through the whole town (which takes 20 minutes) looking for a hotel. When we got off the train, the first hotel was a Best Western, but they had a sign up saying, “No Vacancies,” so that made me a little tense, but the next hotel was Hotel Krebs, and when we walked into the lobby it was the cutest thing I had ever seen, so I thought of course they would want way too much to stay there. Damon asked about the price, and it was at the top of our limit, but then the man said breakfast was included, which is rare here and worth at least 20 Euros, so we were sold. The room was delightful. It had a normal sized bathroom with a shower that functioned in the American style. Plus, washcloths, which they NEVER have over here. The bed was one actual double sized mattress, no top sheet, but a lovely down comforter, and no air, but it was cool enough to open the windows and shutters and enjoy the delicious alpine breeze. We slept like babies, and got to cover up for the first time in weeks. We were happy as pigs in mud.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

We slept in Saturday morning and got downstairs in time to take advantage of our free breakfast. Then we asked a few questions at the front desk and set out to find a company to go white water rafting with. The temperature was great, warm enough for shorts and t-shirts but with a nice cool breeze blowing that gave you chills every once in a while. The sun was out when we started off, and we were so happy to not be sweating in France. We stopped at a few places and asked about their activities, schedules, and prices, and Damon basically decided that he not only wanted to white water raft, but he also wanted to go canyoning, which is strange and I will explain later. Only one company still had spots available and had trips that fit our train schedule, so we decided to go rafting Saturday at 16:00 and canyoning Sunday at 10:30. We rented some mountain bikes and did some quick postcard and souvenir shopping before it started raining, so we stopped by the hotel to pick up our raincoats, and kept peddling. When you are only in Switzerland for 2 days you can’t let the rain mess up your schedule. We asked a few people about mountain bike trails, and the basic response was, “See the mountain you want to ride up? Go to it.” Apparently mountain biking in Switzerland is not quite the same as in the U.S. By just heading toward one of the mountains that we could see, we ended up stumbling across the ruins of a medieval castle. We parked the bikes and climbed all over the castle, which had a historical marker thoughtfully displayed in English among other languages, and said the castle had been built sometime around the year 1200. It was very neat, much smaller than you would think, and very tall and steep. The steps were narrow and would wind right on the edge of the mountain. They had installed all kinds of handrails and stuff, so it was not too dangerous, so chill out, Tonie and Clara. From where we were at the castle, we could see a long way, and we saw a huge tent set up and heard music coming from it. I remembered that Interlaken was having a huge concert/festival thing and that tons of bands would be there, like Green Day and Queens of the Stone Age, and stuff like that, so we decided to go there. It took a while to figure out how to get there, and when we did it cost too much to go in when we were not sure who was playing right then and we only had about 2 hours left before rafting, so we listened for a minute at the gate and headed for another mountain. We ended up riding the bikes through a meadow of knee high grass, crossing two sets of railroad tracks, and lifting them over a fence before discovering that we would have to cross a big river to get where we were trying to go, so we had to do all of that in reverse and find a bridge. We then road up something called Bike Trail D, which was really a narrow paved road, through the mountain village to the top of the mountain. We could look out and see the castle that we had explored and even see another castle above it, and we were so high on the new mountain that we were looking down on both of them. We saw mountain goats, and it was so steep I had to get off and push if that tells you anything about the ride. Damon loved it, but I had finally had enough peddling and being rained on, so we coasted to the bottom and made our way back to the hotel in time to change into our swimsuits, return the bikes, and grab a bite before rafting.

Eating…we had seen a little café near our rafting place so we decided to try it out. This turned out to be a very bad decision. They were not serving lunch anymore, but had the proverbial sandwiches still available, so we ordered two and a large bottle of water and had a seat. The man asked us if we wanted cheese, or bacon, or both, so we asked for both, with visions of lovely tostis floating in our imaginations. Well, our first hint of trouble was when the water came out and it said mineral spring water on the outside, but was in fact the dreaded sparkling water of Europe. We were so thirsty we choked some down anyway and hoped for better things to come with the food. Wrong again. We were served sandwiches composed of 2 slices of really thick homemade wheat bread with very hard crust and slices of fatty ham in the middle with two thick rectangles of some type of pail yellow cheese with a hard white rind all around it and a white spread full of pickle bits and onion pieces. Disgusting. I nearly puked after the first bite, and eventually resorted to eating the dry piece of bread on top, giving Damon my ham, and scraping the white spread off of the remaining bread to make Damon a makeshift sandwich of ham. It was another adventure in really bad European food, so with a few minutes left we set off to find a place that had some Pringles. We found some at a nearby youth hostel, and also purchased some Swiss chocolate, since that seemed to be the thing to do, and a large “real” water. We were sitting on a bench savoring these items when a few of the girls that Damon goes to school with came by and we realized that we were on the same rafting trip. We all boarded a van together headed for the Outdoor Interlaken supply tent. When we got there, they told us to strip down to our swimsuits and use the restroom, then hit the gear room to get ready for rafting. To go rafting, you have to wear a wetsuit, wetsuit jacket, wetsuit booties, life jacket, and snazzy yellow helmet. The most delightful part of this sexy ensemble is that these are the same suits used by everyone of every nationality that comes to Outdoor Interlaken to raft, so you can imagine the smell and general concerns about communicable diseases that were now swirling through my head. Plus, everything was still wet from its previous inhabitant, so I was totally grossed out, but suited up anyway. All the helmets had different names on the front, so Damon’s said “Starfish” and mine said “Luke.” You can imagine that after putting on all this getup, we both felt dead sexy. We were herded into vans and taken to the river. On the way the guides revealed the fact that the river that we would be rafting in is fed by a glacier, and the point where we would be starting at was about 3 miles away from the aforementioned glacier. So basically, the water we would be getting into had been ice a mere 3 miles before rushing down to the boat launch. The temperature of the water? Oh, about 4 degree Celsius, or for you Americans, about 37 degrees Fahrenheit! So basically a very small step above FREEZING. Those of you who know me well probably know that I have been cold literally since birth. I once went to a water park during a tropical depression and got so cold that not only my lips, but my entire nose and lower face turned blue. Cold is not my thing, and I was not too pumped to hear these new revelations. When we got to the launching point, the guides gave us a mini tutorial, or what I like to call, the “Don’t Do This of You Could Die” talk that usually precedes any adventure activity. There was a pretty long list, and my nerves began to fray even more. One of the tips was that if you did fall out of the raft, you should assume the “white water swimming” position, which basically means curling into the fetal postion and letting the angry river wash you downstream. We were separated into groups, and we decided to go with the 3 LSU girls and these 2 other random girls; our assigned guide was Pete from South Africa. Pete had a huge scab across his nose from a recent bungee accident, so that really set my mind at ease about Pete’s level of sanity and professionalism. We had practice there in the parking lot, and learned all of Pete’s commands, which consisted of “Hard forward,” “Backward,” “Jump left,” “Jump right,” and my personal favorite, “Get down.” Practice made it apparent that this was to be a hopeless journey, and we headed for the water feeling very ill-prepared. When we approached the water, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. The water was so cold that the mist off of it was enough to take your breath away. We took our places in the raft within 10 feet of our first rapid, and they shoved us off with Pete in the back and little warning. The first thing that I did was whack myself hard in the face with my paddle to break the ice. I am not sure how I managed this, but I hit myself in the upper lip/nose area and basically busted my lip and I am pretty sure displaced my nasal cartilage for about the 5th time in my life. But the river was moving fast and there was no time to cry about it, because Pete was screaming commands at us, and we had to row and get soaked with tons of freezing water. It literally took your breath away every time the water hit you. They had cautioned us about not letting go of the T-bar ends of our paddles. This was not a problem for me, because within seconds my hands were frozen into the claw position, the left around my T-bar, and the right around the rope on the side of the raft. Basically the first rapid that they put you into is the worst one, and then you get a few breaks on the way down, including long stretches where you pose for pictures and talk to your guide about his homeland, which I rather enjoyed. Also, one of the other guides got his raft close to ours and grabbed a girl out of our boat and dragged her into his. Pete retaliated by snatching a Korean girl, almost dropping her, and dragging her in the water for about 10 seconds before pulling a very wet and terrified hostage into our raft. They switched back pretty quickly after that. There was also a point in the river where they told us we could get in if we wanted to, so Damon’s bright self bails off in the water, like any of us girls can help him back into the raft. He had to work his way around to Pete to get pulled back in. Peanut Butter (Amanda) also jumped in, and quickly saw the error of her ways and begged us to pull her back in. She is much smaller than Damon, so we were able to help her out. At the end of the river we paddled into one of the Interlaken lakes, and it was just beautiful. (Interlaken means “between the lakes”) The water was clear and blue and the lake was surrounded by snowcapped peaks and Swiss Chalets. The water was supposedly much warmer here, so close to shore I jumped out, but it was actually pretty cold there too, so I lived to regret that decision. When we were back on the shore, one of the guides took one look at my blue face and shoved me into the heated van, promising me a hot shower at the base. I think he thought I had hypothermia or something. Anyway, we went back to the base, stowed our gear, and headed back to the hotel to rest and shower before eating Mexican food with our rafting buddies. The Mexican joint was called El Azteca, and it was a 2 on the 1-10 Mexican scale, but still MUCH better than lunch, since it was edible. We were exhausted after supper, so we crashed at the Hotel Krebs and set the alarm for canyoning in the morning.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

We slept in again and got up in time to pack up our things, eat breakfast, check out, and wait for Outdoor Interlaken to pick us up. Kacey picked us up at 10:30, and we headed back to the base to grab some gear. Since you have an hour van ride to the canyoning location, you only pack your gear, and do not have to put it on yet, which was a relief. The gear situation was much the same as the day before, communal and wet, but the suits were thicker and there was an additional top layer. Sleeping through the night had revealed that the swelling had gone down from my paddle injury, but my nose was very sore, and apparently I had also jammed my finger somehow, so it was a little swollen. Our canyoning group consisted of us, three American guys, and 6 Frenchmen, plus 2 guides: Kacey from New Zealand and some other guy. The mountain views on the ride to the canyon were spectacular. Waterfalls cutting their way down mountains from snow-capped peaks. Breathtaking. We really wished we had brought the camera, but thought it would be safer in the lockers back at the base, so sorry about that. We arrived without incident and suited up. After we had all of our gear on, Kacey drove us to the top of the mountain, and we got ready for our first obstacle…the 200 foot repel down the side of a vertical rock wall into the canyon. Needless to say, neither of us volunteered to go first. After Damon went, there was just me and 3 Frenchies left at the top with the guides. One of the French guys asked me, “Aren’t you afraid?” I said, “Yes, a little. Are you?” He was VERY afraid. When my turn came and the guide hooked the rope to my karabiner, I told him I was kind of scared, so he went easy on me. I made it without incident, but I did NOT look down. Once we were down in the canyon the Frenchies started running around and splashing each other and jumping on rocks, which is exactly what Kacey told us NOT to do, so when the other guide came down there he chewed them out, and that made me feel better, since at least he was serious about safety while guiding us in this very unsafe activity. The first obstacle was a huge rock waterfall that you jump off of about 15 feet to the pool below. Kacey would throw a rock to show you where to land. I was a little nervous about landing in the right spot, but I did alright. The water was cold, but not nearly as cold as the rafting water, and we had so many layers on that it was not too bad. My hands weren’t even cold, because I stayed out of the water most of the time. We made our way down the canyon sliding down rocks on our backs, “rock grinding” – which is basically throwing your weight onto a slick rock surface and riding down on your life jacket like a sled, and jumping off of rocks. At the end was a zip line. They would fix a releasable rope from the pulley to your karabiner, and then when you swung out over the water Kacey would yell, “Let go!” when you needed to release. Damon tried to coach me on how to land, but the guide told me to lay back and I did, which resulted in my third injury of the adventure weekend, falling from at least 25 feet in the air and landing in the water flat on my back. It knocked the wind out of me and made me a little sore today. I kept having flashbacks to that time I jumped off of Jamie and Tres’ roof onto the trampoline and nearly killed myself the entire time we were in the canyon, because if you land wrong you are out of luck. I definitely landed wrong on this one, but I survived. The last slide we went down headfirst superman style, and I took that opportunity to bruise and scrape my hip bone on the rock. But I made it out of the canyon alive, and at the bottom after we changed all our gear they had “sandwiches” and beers for us. You all know I am a lady and though very thirsty, drank no beer I am glad to report. The sandwiches consisted of the same kind of bread we had at the worst café ever on Saturday, as well as cheese that is derived from the cows in the adjacent pasture that were roaming by when we arrived. The cows were a trip, because they all had bells on. It sounded like a high school football game. The cheese was like most cheese in Europe, dry and weird tasting. I tried a small piece, but stuck with the bread for the most part. After we made it back down to the base we changed into dry clothes and asked if there were any pictures or video that we could buy from the trip. We bought a CD of rafting photos Saturday, but for some reason there was no photographer on Sunday, so we don’t have any pictures from that adventure, but there are some random canyoning pictures on the CD we have so you can all see that when we get home. Kacey drove us back to train station and we were there in plenty of time.

The rides from Interlaken to Bern and Bern to Geneva were without incident. We spent our 30 free francs at the dining car, so that was a free meal and we were excited about that. We had about an hour and a half layover in Geneva, so we stored our luggage and set out with the camera to do Geneva freestyle – no map, no plan, no problem. Saw some cool things including Cow Parade cows, which I love and Damon photographed me with. Were back on the train in plenty of time, but that is where it got complicated. We have a first class Eurail pass, but when I booked the tickets (by myself for the first time) the lady told me there were no first class seats available and we would have to go second class. It was only one train, and we needed to be on it, so I took it. Well Damon just had a Pourciau fit over this. He had first class tickets and WOULD NOT ride in second class under any circumstances. But, the only first class car was a sleeper car. So Damon found a cabin with no one in it and a “Not Reserved” sign on the outside and we set up shop in there. This was really nice for 15 minutes until the VERY irate French conductor came in and proceeded to scream at us about being in the wrong place, and needing reservations even to get a seat on this train, and that it was not possible for us to sit in first class, regardless of our Eurail pass, and all these cabins were reserved, and we must leave NOW. So that of course really embarrassed me, because it made a huge scene, and it did not phase Damon at all, but we were banished back to second class where our reservations were for and Damon vowed that he will make the reservations next time and it is no more mister nice guy at the reservation counter. I feel sorry for the next person who waits on him there. We made it home fine though, and arrived a little before midnight, were able to catch one of the last buses back to the hot apartment, where at least the elevator was finally fixed, so we did not have to climb 6 flights of stairs to sweat, but could do it gradually after entering our apartment/sauna. Mom and Damon’s family were all on line when we got home so we both got to chat with family. That was a nice way to end the weekend. Sweaty…I mean sweet dreams.

Monday, June 27, 2005
This morning was Damon’s first day of class for the second summer term, so his schedule changed and he had to leave a little earlier and stay gone a little longer. I was so exhausted from the weekend that I did not get up with Damon but slept in. (which I never do) When I finally got up I checked email and celebrity gossip, and went downstairs to ask about moving. Today was supposed to be the day we got moved to an air conditioned apartment. You may remember that we were supposed to be in one from the beginning, and then were promised one after two weeks, and then after two weeks were told it would be today. Today when I went downstairs and inquired, they told me it might not be possible today, and might be tomorrow. I said, “Well, I would just like to warn you that my husband is at school now, but he will be back at 13:30, and if we don’t have air conditioning he will be VERY, VERY UNHAPPY.” They said they would check it out and call me. That must have done the trick, because an hour later they called and said I could come get a key to the apartment across the hall and move. When I picked up the key, our second package from the Pourciau’s had arrived, so it was indeed the best day yet in France. We got air conditioning and American foodstuffs all in one fell swoop, and the two of us could hardly contain our excitement. We are now living in a semi-civilized fashion, (there is still no dishwasher, which we all know is a required item for the truly genteel) and the prospects for the next 5 weeks away from home seem decidedly brighter. Thanks for your prayers and thoughts. More on the journey soon. We are in Germany next weekend!

Aug 17, 2009

High Steppin'

While Stella was helping me unload groceries yesterday, she decided to try my church shoes on for size. She is definitely 110% girlie-girl. Her other favorite things to do include rummaging through my limited make-up supply and pretending to put it on, and gathering as many hangbags as she can carry in the purse department at the mall. Damon better get his credit card ready.

Aug 16, 2009

Drivin' Along in Her Automobile...

After seeing how much Stella enjoyed playing in the Sharbono girls' Mustang, Grandmere and Grandpa made it their mission to make sure that Stella could enjoy the exhilaration of underage driving without making the trip to Pineville. Luckily, they were able to find a hand-me-down Jeep, so Stella is only one and my rule about non-self propelled riding toys is already out the window. Oh well, at least the Jeep stays at their house so that Stella has limited access. At home we will still have her running laps around the house, tricycling, and practicing her paddling in the neighborhood pond. Here is her face when she first saw her Jeep... "I'm so happy! It's just what I always wanted!"
Adjusting her rearview mirror...
"Bye-Bye!"
"No, Daddy! They gave the Jeep to ME! Get your own!"
"I'm outta here! Freaking backseat drivers..." she mumbled.
I guess I'll have to teach her to drive. She did not care for her daddy's instructions.
"Finally, some independence. Outta my way!"
After she ran out of gas, Stella explored nature with Grandmere. If you look closely, you can see the tiny frog that at that point had about 5 seconds of his carefree, happy life left before Stella squished him...

Stella loves her Jeep. Her favorite part is the opening and closing doors. She is still too little to push the pedals by herself, but she'll be cutting donuts in Grandpa's yard before long.

Pourciau

Now, if she can just learn to spell it...

The Disney Train Debacle

Last Friday night (and I am behind on posting, so I mean August 7th) we went to Erwinville to celebrate the most recent accomplishments of our future-CPA in the family, Chad. We spent the night with Grandpa and Grandmere, where Stella pulled diaper duty... Following the diaper change, Stella decided that her baby needed a bath. She was so dedicated that she even joined her in the tub.
I just liked this close-up of Stella's blue eyes, chubby cheeks, and rose-bud lips...
On Saturday, Grandmere, Stella, and I traveled back to New Orleans to see the Disney Train. (www.christmascaroltraintour.com) The train is doing a 40 city tour to promote Disney's upcoming remake of A Christmas Carol. It includes a behind the scenes look at the making of the film, original artifacts from the Charles Dickens Museum in London, live carolers, fake snow, and a chance to morph your face into characters from the movie. Best of all, it's free! Sounds awesome, right? Well, it would have been awesome, if it had been open. We arrived on Saturday afternoon to find that the tour had been closed for the day due to inclement weather that had passed through a couple of hours earlier. Determined to have fun, Grandmere gave Stella the opportunity to see the outside of the train up close and personal while I captured evidence that we had actually seen the train...
"Hmmm....I wonder if we could sneak in when nobody's paying attention..." plotted Grandmere and Stella.
They made it to the door, but got caught just before making a break for it.
There was a really cool hill nearby in Audubon Park that Stella LOVED running up and tumbling down. I am not posting the tumbling down pictures because they look like child abuse. I promise you, she was having a blast, even though she looked like Jill minus the pail.
Just because we had been thwarted in our first attempt to see the train did not mean we were giving up. We are Pourciaus, and when we want something, we go after it. On Sunday as soon as we were finished with church, we beat a path back to the train. This time Daddy went with us instead of Grandmere. In this picture Daddy and Stella are inspecting the fake snow. It was actually just bubbles.
I think the person behind them in that picture is holding an ice pack to his forehead. We waited in line in the scorching sun of New Orleans for 3 hours. We spent the time fighting off dehydration, sunburn, and boredom. Stella befriended all the young children around us in line. Damon and I got to know the adults and everyone pooled resources. Some shared their umbrellas; we shared our sunscreen. The wait was miserable, but it was interesting to witness so many parents totally devoted to a cause and making the best of a really, really bad situation. By the time it was finally our turn to board, we were hot, sweaty, muddy, stinky, and exhausted. I am sure you will be able to see the grime in the following pictures. The first car had costumes and artwork featuring the characters from the movie. The costumes were just used as models, since the movie is a motion capture piece. It was hard to contain Stella's enthusiasm...
Stella and friend from line Mia checking out one of the exhibits...
Stella ready to get on with it...
Note sweat stains and general flushed appearance of mother and child...
Stella checking out some character models...
"Ooooh....Look at that!"The entire family by one of the motion capture suits...In this photo, Stella had just pulled my hair. She enjoyed it, I did not.
A cheery holiday photo before our exit...

In spite of it all, we did have a good time on the Disney Train. If the Disney Train comes to your town, our advice is to visit it on a Friday morning, when there is no line.

Aug 15, 2009

Lost Diaries 7

On Stairs, French and Dutch;
Sitting in the Parking Garage;
and Walking Sticks

To me, one of the amazing things about this trip has been how different things are in Europe compared to things in the United States. For those of you who have been faithfully reading my observations, you by now know about the mysterious 2 and 4 ring binders and the half and full flush commodes. Following this past weekend’s trip to the Netherlands, a few more things have jumped out at me and I will now provide a commentary on those items.

Stairs: It seems that the French have a minor obsession with spiral staircases. In practically every building we have entered, including hotels, apartment buildings, and shopping malls, all staircases are built in the spiral style. I cannot figure out if the French have determined this to be the most efficient use of stair space, or if they just like being dizzy all the time, but I am taking the elevator (or “lift” as they call it) whenever I can. In the Netherlands, the staircases were thankfully not spiral, but they were treacherously steep. We are talking glorified ladders, here. The Dutch stairs make the murderous steps at Donald’s trailer look user-friendly. It is that bad. Mom and Grandma Crane would never make it. Neither would Grandpa, since the steps are so narrow that you can barely get your toes on the edge, much less a human-sized foot. And there is practically no overhead clearance. Damon spent the entire time stooped over like Ichabod Crane.

Hot….heat…sizzling…sweltering….sweat….I think I see a mirage of a snowcone out of my apartment window. We were promised that we would be able to move on the 20th to an air-conditioned apartment, but were told last Friday that it would be an additional week until one was available. So now France and perhaps the rest of the known world is in the middle of a heat wave, and we are stuck on the 5th floor of the apartment building (which would be counted as the sixth in the U.S.; Europeans count the ground floor as 0…how dumb…0 means nothing and therefore floor 0 cannot exist) facing the relentless sun with no AC. The temperature is 90, and I am not even sure what the heat index is, but we have the supreme misfortune of being on the side of the building where the sun goes down, so in the hottest part of the day the sun in beaming right into our room, and you can either leave the windows and curtains open to get a breeze and a sunburn, or close the curtains, protecting yourself from the sun but also from the breeze. I am always so cold that I never thought I could get too hot, but France has introduced me to new levels of temperature induced misery. Yesterday when Damon left for school he left me an assignment…search out a cool place where we could hang out and he could study without the distraction of sweat dripping onto his books. I left the apartment soon after that to try to find a restaurant with “le climatization,” and on the way I stopped by the parking garage to take out the trash. When I arrived in the underground concrete garage, I had a brilliant idea. Being underground and composed of concrete, the garage is a veritable wonderland of coolness. I think cellars are what people used for refrigeration in olden times, and I can see why. I decided that if push came to shove we would go underground. Well, my survey of the mall produced the results that very few places are air conditioned, and the places that are would not really welcome two random people hanging out studying the law for 4 hours. So, when Damon got home, I told him my plan, and we took our chairs from our room and smuggled them down to the garage for Study Fest 2005. We both cooled off for the first time in days, and it was great. The only problem is that the garage lights are on a timer, so every 2 and a half minutes we had to turn the lights on again. Then, when we tried to go back after eating dinner, the lights would not come on at all, so we had to switch garages. What have I become? A subterranean heat refugee, that’s what. Please don’t judge me until you live with no air. I hope you never reach such dark days.

Okay, following that confession, the last thing that I would like to comment on is the way that French people use canes. We have seen many people, old and young alike, who are getting around with the aid of walking sticks, but they do not use traditional walking sticks like Grandma’s. No, their sticks have a handle, but also an additional plastic thing that comes up and provides a support for the elbow as well. We see people with one of these to help them walk, or using 2 like crutches. I have not seen even one traditional cane. Damon says that he thinks that might be a better idea, actually, since instead of putting all your weight on your hand you are distributing it to the rest of your lower arm. Please let me know if you would like me to bring back a French walking stick for you.

That is all for now, but I will continue to observe the strange happenings in this foreign land and report them to you.

Aug 7, 2009

Pips!

I am super late in posting these pictures, but the first weekend in August we went to Dubberly for our last chance summertime visit with Grandpa Crane and Grandma Tonie. While we were there, we had the chance to meet up for a Mexican-themed farewell to Tabitha with 4/5 of the Wilson family. In a few days Tab is heading off to Finlandia University (http://www.finlandia.edu) in northern Michigan, less than 90 miles south of Canada, if you can believe that. I am already shopping online for warm socks to put in her care packages. She's gonna freeze! In this picture, Tab is mesmerizing Stella with her bubble blowing abilities, as Spencer looks on... Stella and Nana enjoying some pips (chips) together, while Zach enjoys his favorite activity: texting...
Stella having some lap time with Zach. Does he not have the most beautiful head of hair you have ever seen?
I love this face...
Once we were back at Grandpa's, Stella decided she would help him out by cooking a few things...she also helped him out by spreading her crumbs all over his house.
Damon also completed his first "real" triathlon while we were in North Louisiana, the River Cities Triathlon. There are no pictures of that because spandex was worn and we try to keep that off the internet. He had a rough swim, but I was very proud of him for being brave enough to try it. I was too chicken.

School started back yesterday, so our summer of fun is finally over. I am overwhelmed when I think back over all the wonderful memories we made this summer. We were able to spend so much time with family and friends, we were blessed with safe and easy travel, we had a great time exploring the world together, and I cannot wait until next summer to do it all again!

The start of a new school year is bittersweet for me. I know that I will miss being able to spend all my time with Stella, but it is also exciting and rewarding to meet my new students and imagine all the ways that we will learn and grow together over the coming year. Thank-you, Jesus, for blessing me with my own child and for giving me the opportunity to be your hands and feet as I work with the children of others.

Lost Diaries 6

Thursday, 6/16/2005

We are now in Belgium, and Damon just spent 3 Euros on water when we had 2 bottles in our bags. The beverage cart came by, and Damon thought it was complimentary, since it always was before. He ordered 1 regular and 1 sparkling and we are drinking the sparkling now, and it is disgusting. Lots of people over here drink this stuff but we have no idea why. It’s nasty. We are also a little concerned, because the train crew made an announcement in 4 languages to be careful of pickpockets on the train. This is the first time we have heard an announcement like this. An interesting thing that we learned was that “pickpockets” sounds the same in 4 different languages. Also, when we arrived in Belgium no one checked our passports. Apparently, they don’t care who comes into their country. We’ll have to wait and see if they care who comes out.

Friday, 6/17/2005

Greetings from the land of tulips, wooden shoes, and legalized prostitution. Amsterdam…where to begin? I’ve been through so much in the last 24 hours. I guess I’ll start at the very beginning, which, after all, is a very good place to start. We somehow managed to escape last night’s train without being pickpocketed, and we set out on foot in search of our Amsterdam home away from Lyon – the Botel. The Botel is something I read about in the Rick Steves book. It is a floating hotel with 175 rooms, 400 yards from the train station in Amsterdam. Rick says it is neat and clean, omitting that it is also shabby, has a cruise ship style bathroom, and a location that skirts the red light district just a little too close for comfort. We wondered why we encountered so many drug dealers in 400 yards last night, but today we discovered the answer to our ponderings. Okay, so we arrived at the Botel around midnight, and Damon of course was starving because we only ate a small dinner on the train. We went to the Botel bar in search of food, but the barmaid told us that they were no longer serving sandwiches, but she would be glad to make Damon a tosti. Turns out a tosti is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, and Damon knocked down two, and lamented the fact that no one in France had seen fit to share the magic of the tosti with us. We then retired for the evening, but were back up and at ‘em for 7:30. We started the day with a visit to the train station to buy metro tickets. When we entered the train station, we immediately knew something was wrong. It was totally abandoned. Then an announcement came on the loud speaker that due to a rail strike, there would be no trains today. WHAT??!! My first words were, “Kelly warned me this would happen.” After a few frenzied minutes of “what if’s?” we decided there was really nothing that we could do about it right at that moment, so we found out about the metro tickets and took off for the Anne Frank House. We were able to go in with no wait, and the museum truly is one of the best that I’ve been to. It tells the story through several multimedia presentations and gives you access to the hiding place of Anne and her family. It was very moving. Did you know that after 2 years of hiding Anne died in a concentration camp just one month before it was liberated? A particularly touching display was on the wallpaper of Anne’s parents’ room. There were a series of pencil marks and notes made on the wall to track the children’s growth while they were in hiding. It reminded me of Grandma’s closet door on Packwood. A little trivia for you: What famous building in Europe features floors decorated with both the Star of David and the swastika? Answer later in this entry.

After that, we set off for Damon’s Amsterdam must-see – the Van Gogh Museum. We sprung for the audio guide, and really enjoyed the extra information we were able to get from that. Vincente was one crazy dude. A prime example of his lunacy was the un-hetero affection he had for one of his painter friends. An argument with this fellow is what led to the famous “ear cutting off” incident and the subsequent year in the loony bin. A feature of our audio guide was an “In His Own Words” menu, which allowed you to hear Vincente describe his paintings from his point of view. The quotes were taken from letters he had written to his younger brother, who doubled as his personal First National Bank. Some of his better known paintings were actually completed during his year at the asylum. Another interesting thing is that he could not paint from his imagination, but had to have a model. When money was tight he would paint himself, or objects, like sunflowers. He would also reuse old canvases to save money, and x-rays of his paintings often reveal earlier works underneath. He also modeled some of his paintings on earlier works by other artists, including his “Resurrection of Lazarus” which is simply a painting of a small portion of a Rembrandt etching. Van Gogh cut out Jesus and painted Lazarus as a self-portrait. Okay, enough Van Gogh trivia.

Next stop was lunch. We found a neat neighborhood with lots of sidewalk cafes and street performers. Damon asked the waitress if she only had one day in Amsterdam what local food she would eat. She replied, “A club sandwich.” It seems the Dutch take very little pride in their local cuisine, because 2 other Dutch people we met on the train told us that the food in Belgium was much better. Damon opted to skip the club sandwich and instead ordered an authentic Dutch dish that we cannot remember the name of. I’ll describe it for you. You know how a fried cheese stick looks? It looked like that, but a little bigger and the batter was darker. The inside was grey and mushy, but with hints of ground beef. The inside tasted a lot like cornbread dressing. It was served with 2 slices of white bread, so Damon made a sandwich out of it. He liked it, but said he might not have had he known the ingredients. I ordered eggs and bacon and it came out all cooked together and super greasy. The bacon looked like ham, tasted like bacon, and was not crispy. It was not that good. We enjoyed watching some guy do a comedy routine in the street that basically consisted of harassing everyone who passed by. The people were extremely tolerant of him. After lunch we picked up a few souvenirs, including postcards that some of you will soon be enjoying, and dropped them off at the Botel before moving on to the “Red Light District.” As I mentioned earlier, the Botel sits on the outskirts of this famous neighborhood. We popped into a coffee shop first and Damon told the man we wanted to see some weed. He happily opened a wooden box and displayed an assortment of hash, in bags about the size of a bag of pop rocks for 12.50 euros, and double that size for 25 euros. The stench of people smoking pot pervades the entire city, and gave Damon a headache. It just gave me the munchies…just kidding. Our next stop was the PIC, or Prostitution Information Center. We read in the Rick Steves guide that they had a free pamphlet that would answer all your touristy questions about the red light district. The PIC is in the shadow of the old church, which is basically surrounded by brothels. Girls sit in their underwear in windows with red lights and perform sexual favors for a minimum of 35 euros, all the while listening to the church bells chime the hour. The “free” pamphlet actually cost almost 3 Euros, but it does have a lot of neat information and we’re bringing it home to share. We wandered the district and noted that most of the women for sale looked very drugged out, very young, or very fat, but very few were very attractive. Damon was obsessed with seeing someone actually go inside, so we staked out one of the rare good looking girls and waited until a group of Spanish or Italian guys came by and one went in. I timed him. Six minutes later he was back on the street bragging to his buddies about what he had done, and in 8 minutes the girl was 50 euros richer and back in her window reapplying lipstick and waiting for her next customer. We knew her rate was 50 euros because of the kindly cocaine dealer who told us that "she" used to be a "he," and charged 50 euros. Cocaine dealers run rampant in the streets of Amsterdam. We were offered it at least 3 times in broad daylight, and a deal went down about 5 inches from me. We were just walking down the street and a dealer used me as a shield for his handoff. Besides the drugs and window hookers, the district is also crawling with live theaters featuring people having sex. There are also theaters showing porn to people in “private boxes.” I had to explain to Damon why a private box would be preferred for this activity. There are also countless porn stores, I’m assuming similar to the one on Grandpa and Grandma’s exit, and one was advertising Paris Hilton’s One Night in Paris video, as well as Traci Lords videos. I saw on E! that Traci Lords videos are hard to come by in the U.S., but readily available in Europe because she was underage when she made all of her flicks. The whole place was truly disgusting and demeaning. There was a channel in the Botel devoted to porn, and just walking down the streets some businesses had TVs outside playing flicks. Some parents were walking with their children through this area, which infuriated me. If you even think of taking your children to Amsterdam, you are a BAD PARENT. Never, ever let your children go there, no matter how old they are, or you are a BAD PARENT. (No offense, Ray, Clara, and Tonie. You did the best you could.) Anyway, another site suggested by Rick Steves was the Damrak Sex Museum, which supposedly featured the history of pornography from Roman times to the 1960’s. If it is recommended by Rick it can’t be all bad, right? WRONG. All this museum taught us was that people have been depraved since ancient times, and are perhaps so evil now that it is high time for another flood. There were a few noteworthy displays, such as a collection of chastity belts, which Damon and I will be using on all of our children, but overall this place was just an extension of the red light district posing as a museum.

All that sex made us hungry, so we stopped by a street vendor and bought huge slices of pepperoni pizza which we enjoyed in Dam Square – the main square of Amsterdam and the place which helped name the city. Dam Square on the Amstel River – Amsterdam. I had seen people eating ice cream and I had to see if theirs was as good as the Italians, so we stopped for a cone. It was gross. It is basically soft serve vanilla that they swirl a flavor into, like a thin slimy ribbon of chocolate syrup is supposed to make it chocolate. If you want good ice cream, skip the Netherlands. After the ice cream, we bought tickets for a canal cruise, and waited for the last cruise boat, since the cruise is supposed to be better at dark because the bridges are lighted. It did not actually get dark while we were on the boat, so we missed that, but we did see a building that Brad Pitt owns the top floor of and visits twice a year, and we floated down a canal used in the filming of Ocean’s 12. After this Damon went a little more native and used the bathroom in a street stall. All over Amsterdam there are these green metal booths, and sometimes you see men standing in them. They are crude urinals. Men go in and pee into a concrete hole in the ground. You can imagine how delightful they smell. I’ll put it this way – they make you wish for the weed smell to come back. We were back at the Botel in time for Damon to enjoy 2 more tostis and us to collapse into bed.

Saturday, 6/18/2005

This morning we slept in a little (until 9) and checked out of the Botel. We already had our train tickets for Haarlem, the trains were running again, and the ride only took 15 minutes. We rented bikes at the train station, stored our luggage, and rolled out. Our first stop was the post office to send off our postcards. Next we were famished, so we found a restaurant selling poffertjes, a traditional Dutch dish, and placed our order. The restaurant was on the side of a lovely street market, and we enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle and listening to a polka band play cover songs. Poffertjes are like little donuts with no holes, drowning in butter and dusted with powdered sugar. They were wonderful, but not nearly enough, so we hit one of the food stands in the market for 2 large stroopwafels. Those are thin, crispy, wafer-like waffles with some sort of thick syrup spread between them – very tasty. We got back on our bikes and headed for the Corrie Ten Boom House, but it was an hour until the next English tour, so we rode around the city for a while. According to Rick Steves, 40% of traffic in the Netherlands is bicycles. Damon and I think that another 40% must be public transit, because you see very few cars, but tons of bikes. In Amsterdam there was a bike garage with thousands lined up. Both cities have bike roads and stop lights. People ring their bell when they want to pass you. Lots of people have saddlebags on their rear tires to carry things, seats on top of their rear tires to cart their friends, or baby seats in front or behind their regular seat, and sometimes in both places. The tour of the Ten Boom House was very intimate and cozy. The clock shop is still in operation, and the home is decorated with family photos and memorabilia. The hiding place was extremely small but very cleverly designed to avoid detection. We learned how the architect had to cut out wooden floorboards to construct a brick wall beneath the floor level so if the Nazis pulled up the carpet they would not be able to tell that the floor was extended in that place. While the Ten Boom family was arrested, the 6 people in the hiding place escaped. After the family’s arrest, 24 hour Nazi surveillance was set up at the house, since the Nazis suspected people were hiding inside. A Dutch policeman working as a double agent was able to switch the guard assignments and put two sympathetic Dutch policemen on the assignment for the night shift 2 days after the raid so the people could escape. They had been without water the entire time, because the person whose job it was to put water in the hiding place forgot that day. The Ten Boom House, like the Anne Frank House, was very touching and inspirational. It was neat to see the story from a different perspective –that of a non-Jew aiding Jews in hiding.

After the Ten Boom House, we stopped by Pannekoekhuis de Smikkel, recommended by Rick for their pancakes, which Dutch people eat for lunch or dinner rather than breakfast. Damon ordered the “Romantique” and I had the simple powdered sugar pancakes. The Romantique was a huge pancake the size of a serving platter but very thin, and topped with raisins, cherries, peaches, whipped cream, bananas, strawberries, and ice cream. Mine was the same size but with only powdered sugar on top. They were delicious, but Damon could only finish about half of his and then thought he would be sick because of so much sweetness. We waddled out of the restaurant and back to the train station to turn in our bikes and hop a 10 minute train for the beach. Yesterday in Amsterdam it was overcast and about 60 degrees all day. Today was unseasonably warm for Holland, with temperatures in the sun of about 75 degrees and about 60 degrees with a chilly breeze in the shade. From the train station you can be walking on the sand within 5 minutes. Upon our arrival at the beach, one of the first things that we witnessed was a butt naked 6-year-old boy covered in sand rolling down a hill. Turns out the Europeans allow their children, male and female, to prance around the beach in nothing but their birthday suits until at least age 10. We also witnessed many topless women sunbathers. There apparently are no age restrictions on going topless, because we saw several women’s boobs who were approaching 80 at least. It was ghastly. After seeing so much nudity and sex peddled like a fast food sandwich, you just become totally grossed out by the human form. At this point I think I would throw up if I saw myself naked in a mirror, because I am so sick of seeing naked people. The streets and beaches of the Netherlands have made me long for Puritanical, wholesome New Orleans. As Dorothy said, there really is “no place like home.”

We tramped the beach a while and eventually set up shop on a couple of lounge chairs. Soon it was time to begin our commute back to Amsterdam. When we arrived at the Amsterdam train station 20 minutes early for our 19:00 train, we found that once again the people in France had given us erroneous scheduling information. The train we needed to be on did not leave until 19:23, putting us almost 30 minutes later than planned and making us fear that we would miss our connection to Bruges. When we were finally on the train, Damon asked the conductor about the schedule and changing trains. The conductor basically told him that each country runs their rail system independently, so you can never get good info in France about a train in another country. His advice to us was to wait until the Belgian conductor came on board at the border and ask him how to get to Bruges. This is just part of the insanity that is Europe. They have this great rail system to take you all over the continent, but no organization whatsoever. You never know from day to day, country to country, what train will be going where, at what time, if they will be on strike, how much it will cost, etc. Much of the time they don’t even check your ticket. This is our 6th day of travel on our Eurail passes and the first day they were checked. When we make train reservations they ask us if our pass is good for all countries. Shouldn’t they be telling us that? It seems as if they really don’t know what our pass is, so they just look at it and move on. We have enjoyed riding the rails for the gorgeous countryside views, but hated the suspense of not knowing whether you will make it to the correct destination, and perhaps more uncertain, whether you will be on time. We are now on a train we think is bound for Bruges, and tonight we have reservations at a 3 star Expedia hotel, so we are expecting great things. More tomorrow.

Hair update: Crappy. Didn’t wash it yesterday and put it in a wet ponytail today.

Allergy update: Horrible. Snotted and sneezed all over Haarlem. Think it is a combination of ganga smoke and tulips.

Amsterdam Fun Fact: Since all the homes in Amsterdam are multistoried but narrow, they use large hooks on the tops of their houses to haul furniture up and through the windows when they move.

Rome Fun Fact: In Rome there are no high rise buildings because it is illegal to build anything taller than the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Answer to earlier trivia question regarding the Star of David and the swastika: both symbols are featured on the floors of the Vatican Museum.

Sunday, 6/19/2005

Happy Father’s Day! It is Sunday the 19th and we are once again on a train, this time bound for Lyon (eventually…we have to change trains twice.) Last night when we arrived in Bruges, we took a taxi to our hotel. The check in process was delightful, and included complimentary orange juice just the way I like it with no bits. Our taxi driver told us to walk around after we checked into the hotel, since things were lighted and the city was beautiful at night. We were dog tired, but we decided that it was a once in a lifetime chance, so we went. The city truly was beautiful, with many gothic buildings and an impressive modern fountain. The hotel was very cute, clean, and tastefully decorated if you don’t take into account one velvet painting of a topless girl, but lacked one essential that would have made the Belgian heat wave easier to handle – air conditioning. There was a fan in the room, so we slept on top of the covers and sweated a lot. Oh, and this was our first experience with two twin beds that did not even attempt to pose as a double. If Damon had fallen into that crack he would have ended up on the floor. This morning we ate breakfast around 9:15 and walked back to the train station to store our luggage and rent bikes. While storing our luggage, Damon accidentally hit his head on the locker door – hard – I thought there was going to be blood, but he was okay. We set off on the bikes and made a stop at one of the lace shops for a souvenir. Bruges is famous for their lace, and I saw a woman at one shop making lace. Next we visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, and as Providence would have it, we arrived just as they were beginning a mass that culminated in the showing of the relic. Damon bought a booklet on the basilica, so we can all learn more about it later, but the idea is that they have a vial containing the blood of Christ. The story of how they came by such an object is very sketchy. This turned out to be a long stop, and afterwards we were running out of time, so we hopped the bikes and rode like we were on the Tour de France as fast as we could to Bruges’ three windmills. We then peddled furiously back into town to Dumon’s Chocolate Shop, which is world famous for fine chocolates. As we were riding up, Damon tried to jump a curb on his bike, nearly taking a tumble and providing a nearby family with a hearty laugh at his expense. We bought a box of assorted chocolates (can be ordered online at http://www.chocolatierdumon.be/) and went to retrieve the bikes with only a few moments to spare. Unfortunately, when Damon jumped the curb his chain had come off, so he had to fix that and then his hands were filthy with grease, so he had to go into a restaurant to wash them while I waited in the shade and hoped the chocolates did not melt. We had to ride back to the station hard to make our train, and were huffing and puffing as we turned the bikes in and found the right track. Now we are on the train, and Damon just hit his head for the second time today, this time on the overhead luggage rack. I think he is just so tired he is clumsy. Overall ratings: Amsterdam – two thumbs way down for the red light district which makes New Orleans look like the home of real saints. One thumb up for the two legit museums we visited, Anne Frank and Van Gogh. Haarlem: two thumbs up for relaxed Dutch life at its finest, two thumbs down for the disturbing displays of beach nudity. Bruges: two thumbs way up for the fine chocolates, beautiful scenery, and lovely places to stroll or bike. A great place to relax and bring the family.