Milan + Cinque Terre + Pisa

We left Switzerland a bit reluctantly to continue our trip south to Italy.  The drive was stunning. Mom and I entertained Daniel by pointing out a waterfall approximately every three seconds.

We stopped in Milan to see this massive cathedral. The largest in Italy and 5th largest in the world, it took six centuries to complete.

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We walked around a bit, took a lunch break at a sidewalk cafe for pizza, and then hit the road again, pressing on to Cinque Terre. Covering six miles of beautifully rugged coast along the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre were possibly the top of my list of places to visit in Italy–maybe even in Europe. Colorful little villages nestled into the rugged cliffs above the Mediterranean, surrounded by lush forests and vineyards and connected by scenic hiking trails? Yes, please!

I found an airbnb about a half an hour away, nestled in the hills of quaint, quiet Tivegna. This tiny medieval village (200 residents) is a walled, car-free  maze of walkways and tunnels and interconnected houses. The home we stayed in was over 700 years old and just so charmingly Italian!  Our hostess prepared a delicious dinner for us as we settled in and explained a bit about the history of the house and the area. John’s dad commented on a copy of Lord of the Rings found on her shelf and learned that she’s read it five times- three in Italian and twice in English!

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Unfortunately, the weather for our one day in Cinque Terre was less than ideal. Coming from the most gorgeous weather we could have asked for in Switzerland, it was hard to complain. After realizing that the drizzle probably wasn’t going to let up, we bundled up, packed our umbrellas and made our way to the train station, determined to enjoy the day even in the rain.

It was, as we’d heard, absolutely beautiful. However it was also surprisingly full of tourists who seemed to have the same resolve as we did, and I found myself wishing we’d been hiking first thing in the morning instead (difficult to accomplish with a tired baby). We bought some fresh focaccia and wandered the trails for a little while, eventually making our way down to a little dock area just as the rain let up.

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It just wasn’t meant to be. This was the last photo I took before a rogue wave crashed over us from behind, breaking the umbrella and drenching us completely, head to foot. We’d been watching the waves for some time before deciding to walk down to the docks, but this one took us completely by surprise. Our plan was to enjoy an Italian dinner out in one of the villages that evening, but we returned instead to return to Tivegna for hot showers and dry clothes. Disappointing as the situation was, we had to laugh about it. Our time in Cinque Terre certainly wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but we have a story to tell. I’ll never forget the look of complete shock and betrayal on Daniel’s face, dripping with sea water.

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Leaving Tivegna the next morning, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We took a little walk through the maze of old houses, admiring flowers and old doors and fountains before getting back in the car to head to Pisa.

We intended to be in Pisa for an hour or so- just long enough to see the leaning tower, snap a few photos, eat some gelato and then press on to Florence. When our bus returned an hour later than scheduled (Lunch break? Siesta? Typical Italy?), we had to cut Florence for the sake of time, but Daniel didn’t mind the extra time to pick flowers and enjoy freedom from his car seat.

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On to Rome!

Germany + Switzerland

Confession: my drafts folder is full of  travel entries  in various stages of completion, dusty and forgotten for months. Honestly, after hours of reading and planning and packing, not to mention a trip itself, then sharing our experience with local friends, uploading photos and settling back into “normal” life again, writing about it is not very high on my priority list. But I can’t leave these forever and not feel more than a little guilty– to tidy up these entries feels like closure on these trips; a chance to reflect on where we’ve been and all that we’ve had the chance to see and experience. I fully realize that travel burn-out is a serious privilege, and one day, I’ll appreciate having somewhat organized thoughts to reflect upon. Here’s a start: the rest of our epic road trip with John’s parents this spring.

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After our weekend in The Netherlands (read about that here), we enjoyed a day back home in Germany to rest and repack. We ate a leisurely breakfast, took walks, napped, did laundry, and spent a few hours in the afternoon at the Gartenshau, one of our favorite places in our local area.

The Gartenshau is possibly the coolest park we’ve ever been to, complete with life size replicas of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts. A shallow creek weaves through picnic areas and playgrounds, meant for play. On warm days, it teems with kids in their swimsuits, splashing and and catching minnows. The playground equipment itself is creative, varied and, in some cases, borderline dangerous—so all the better! There’s a rock wall, big basket swings, giant slides, a kid-sized ropes course, a water play area with pumps and fountains, castle-like forts and a sandbox with dinosaur fossils you can uncover. It’s a big place with no shortage of open green space and gorgeous flowers, lounge chairs, a mini golf course, a skate park, a soccer pit, a couple cafes, a chapel made of willows, and just in case John wasn’t already sold, an impressive LEGO exhibit.

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The next morning, we drove about 4 1/2-5 hours to the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland. Because it’s the off-season, past peak ski season but still too snowy for most summer hiking and tourism, we landed an affordable chalet right in the heart of the valley. This is the view from the deck, where we pretty much spent all of our “indoor” time.

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The mountains themselves are staggering. The hills are impossibly green.  And the only sounds are birds, the bleating of new lambs, the thunder of waterfalls and rivers full with snow melt and occasionally, the rumble of an avalanche above. Basically, with the exception of some light hiking, our only agenda for our time in Switzerland was to sit on the balcony with a french press and chocolate, staring at the mountains.

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30-ish weeks and the gorgeous Swiss Alps

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In our not quite two years of living in Europe, we’ve been to Switzerland four times. We’re definitely not tired of it yet. We’ve joked about scratching the rest of our travel ambitions and just coming back here at every opportunity. It’s so tempting.

changing seasons

Having a baby in the summer is pretty wonderful. Audrey was born the week the field behind our house bloomed in beautiful purple and branches of our cherry tree hung heavy with ripe fruit.  Everywhere, growing things. Everywhere, new life. Having a baby in the summer means that even when the nights bring little sleep, the sun sets late—very late in Germany—and rises again quite early, which somehow feels a little less exhausting and a little more hopeful. The windows are open and the sun is actually shining and there are walks to be taken and nectarines to be enjoyed.

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But having a baby in the summer also means that the summer passes by really, really quickly. Late September, already? The pools are closed already? The leaves are falling already?

We are wholehearted lovers of autumn. But this year, knowing that we’ll likely be gone from this place next summer, we’re reluctant to say goodbye.
I suppose it’s high time for a little update from our home.  After a full July of visitors here to help out and hold babies, we took a little trip to Spain in August (maybe some more on that later) and John left almost immediately afterward for a month of training in the states.

The time alone with the kids was surprisingly good—a confidence builder for me in figuring out how to manage our daily routine and home and maintain some measure of sanity. I feel like Daniel took huge strides while John was away. Audrey, when she’s not crying, is developing such a sweet little personality of her own, cooing and smiling and imitating sounds. She prefers to be held always and she’s not a very good napper (of course, I’m writing this during a glorious, rare window when both kids are napping–what?!), but she’s doing really well at night.

Out of necessity, of course, we managed to actually do things while John was away- walks, the park, the pool, the grocery store, etc. The days are so much better when we get out of the house, preferably outside as much as possible. Halfway through my month of solo parenting, my life long best friend Rachel came out for a visit. Sweet, sweet relief.

A little background: Rachel was born exactly a week after me, lived about a block away for the first ten years of our childhood, and we went to the same school and church until her family moved 4-ish hours north for our church’s full time camping ministry (which is one of my most favorite places on earth, see more here).  Thanks to letters and e-mails and grandparents who carted us back and forth for visits, we maintained a close friendship despite the distance. It’s been 25 years now, and I think it’s safe to say this relationship is permanent.  She’s stuck with me for the long haul. Even so, you know your friend is a keeper when she takes two weeks of vacation and buys a ticket to Europe to hang out with you and your toddler and newborn.

When we first began talking about this hypothetical trip, I imagined escaping for a weekend kid-free to linger over coffee in quaint cafes or taking a French cooking class or perusing flea markets. We were still able to do and see a great deal during her time here, but with much greater effort and at a slower pace!  Her visit during John’s absence was a great blessing to me- the days get a little lonely when your only conversations are with a 2 year old and an extra set of hands to hold a fussy baby or push the stroller or refill a sippy cup are much, much appreciated.

We spent four days in Paris, visited the American Cemetery in Luxembourg and spent an afternoon in Trier, Germany’s oldest city. We toured Burg Elz and scenic Cochem along the Mosel, spent part of a day at a local natural swimming pool, hit up the bazaar on base, ate a German dinner downtown, enjoyed the Rodenbach culinary hike and visited the Gartenshau for life-size dinosaurs and gorgeous flowers.

One evening, we had a fire outside and made bacon s’mores. Other evenings we spent experimenting with water colors or eating gelato. We drank an incredible amount of coffee. It was a fun and fast and very full visit. We’ve also decided that for our 30th, we should take a kid-free trip to the mountains. Or perhaps to an island. Or anywhere, really.

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John arrived the same day Rachel left, so I spent the day in Frankfurt with the kids between their flights. After dropping Rachel off, we went to the zoo, which is so much fun with Daniel at this age, and grabbed Chipotle and coffee at the mall before heading back to the airport again. Daniel was delighted, pointing to every single plane (Taaaane! Shwoooooosh!) in the sky on the way to ask if that one was his daddy’s. He’s been running around the house all smiles since John has been back. I’m glad, too.

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Life should be refreshingly normal for the next couple of months. We plan on doing a bit of traveling as our time in Europe begins to wind down, but mostly, we’re happy to just be home. Sad as we are to say goodbye to our last German summer, we are looking forward to a warm, cozy house to enjoy, evenings sitting by our fireplace, brisk hikes in the woods, just slowing down a little. Work, kids, laundry, dishes, church, community: the ordinary, beautiful things that make up our life. Here’s to autumn and change and gratitude, which turns what we have into more than enough.

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Waiting.

This pregnancy has been relatively fast and easy and full. In between that positive test and today, we’ve traveled back to the states twice- for John’s Poppop’s funeral and for Christmas with our families. We moved and resettled in a new house in a new village. We made it to Bruges, the Black Forest, London, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Iceland. John has flown—everywhere. Even day to day life, the new “normal” of life with a toddler, is fuller and faster.

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So here we are at the end again, nearing 40 weeks with our second baby, feeling simultaneously excited and overwhelmed and anxious and ready and still grateful that it takes nine months to grow a baby because WHERE DID THOSE MONTHS GO?

Still, here at the end, there’s the waiting.

Last time around, we were so busy, so preoccupied, that I didn’t have much time to feel the wait. Our final weeks before Daniel was born were filled with moving to Germany, buying a car, finding a house, moving into said house, and figuring out the million things that come up when you PCS overseas. I think we managed to make it to IKEA to buy the crib and dresser around 38 weeks or so and I packed my bag mostly on the way out the door to St. Johannes, the German hospital where Daniel was born. It was fine. It was even good. So many prayers were answered during that hectic season of transition.

This time around, as fast as these months have been, I’m much more aware of how slowly the final weeks of a pregnancy can pass. These last few weeks (er…months) have been rainy and grey and on the chilly side, which are wonderful for the end of pregnancy, I suppose, but also a little dreary and depressing. We’ve settled into a routine of dashing outside the moment the sun peaks through the clouds, even if only for five minutes.

These days have been filled with reorganizing baby supplies and a pseudo-shared space for our children. We anticipate the baby sleeping in our room for a little while at least, and are hopeful to eventually have them room together, so there’s no separate nursery. Still, there are so many things to think about- like the whole cloth diaper operation that’s currently based in Daniel’s room, or having access to clothing even if one child is napping. We installed both car seats in the only possible figuration that allows us to all fit (John is tall!) and wondered how it’s possible to practically need a minivan with 2 children. We assembled and test drove our second hand double stroller, which is a German-made beast. It’s well designed and should fit through doorways here, but man- it’s like the stroller equivalent of driving a bus, I think. We’ve taken quite a minimal approach to the accumulation of baby/kid things, but I still feel like our parenting footprint just quadrupled. I hear the same is about to happen with our laundry…

These days, my midwife Alexa comes to the house about once a week. Lord willing, we plan to welcome this baby at home, and are praying for a smooth, calm birth that ends with a peaceful recovery in our own bed with our own food and at our own pace. I had a good experience at the German hospital when Daniel was born, but the option to not go anywhere is even more appealing! Our midwife has come to the house for all of my appointments, too, which has been wonderful in that a) I don’t have to sort out childcare for Daniel or wait with him at the hospital and b) it’s so relaxed! Instead of ten minutes with the OB at the hospital, Alexa is typically here for an hour or so for prenatal care, answering questions, and talking about all things birth and otherwise.

These days, I’m not sleeping much. There have been a lot of 3 AM baths and epsom salts and lavender and herbal tea and mountains of pillows and fans and open windows, but alas, I’m beginning to accept that I’m just not going to rest well until after the baby is born….. oh, wait….

These days, I’m learning to balance productivity (read: distractions) during the day with the need to rest in hopes of not going into labor already exhausted. I’m trying to plan out things to do to avoid sitting at home thinking about being pregnant. We’ve gone strawberry picking. We’ve been frequenting a new coffee shop downtown Kaiserslautern for their excellent scones. We took one last trip into France to do some grocery shopping and pastry eating. John and I made it to Frankfurt twice- once for an overnight, many thanks to Cassi who stayed with Daniel, and again to meet up with the Christ Community Church South Africa team on their way to the field. We went to the zoo. We went to the pool. We’ve taken walks on the trails behind our house, collecting wildflowers and pointing out airplanes. I’ve tried to put a significant dent in Daniel’s baby book, but waiting for photos to arrive from the states (pictures are printed in different sizes here) means that it’s not going to be done before the baby arrives.

These days, I’m eating a lot of dates and drinking raspberry leaf tea and thinking about how this birth will compare to my first. Shorter at least, I hope.

These days, I’ve been filling our freezer, which doesn’t take much because we live in Germany where built in freezers are approximately the size of shoe boxes.

These days, I’m admiring the couple fresh sleepers I’ve gathered in creams and greys, but I’m also so, so ready to know whether we have another son or a daughter!  Not knowing the sex is, in many ways, extra motivating. It was incredible to reach the end of a long, exhausting labor and to experience not only the sweet relief of holding our baby for the first time, but to discover “a son!” We’ve talked about names, but not too much, because we did most of that talking before Daniel was born and we’ll still wait to meet the baby before we make an absolute decision.

These days, I’m trying to soak up time with just Daniel, increasingly aware of how grown up he is now, and how big he will seem next to a newborn. We continue to ask him about the new brother or sister he’s about to get, and he’s still pretty adamant that this isn’t happening. He’s a tender, sweet little boy though (most of the time!), and I’m hopeful that the adjustment to big brotherhood will go well. At the very least, he won’t even remember what it was like to be the only child. We bought him a little doll to practice being gentle with and he carries it everywhere…sometimes by the head or a single limb, but always with great love.

These days, I’m tired and mostly uncomfortable and physically ready to not be pregnant, but also, if I’m honest, not quite ready for the emotional transition to two children. In so many ways, one child to two seems like a much greater transition to me than zero to one. After this, we should be able to handle anything, right?! It’s the simple things that seem most overwhelming- like picking up packages at the post office or a simple grocery run while pushing a stroller/wearing a baby/chasing a toddler. I only have so many hands. Two children feels like the next bracket of parenthood, one that is much more all-consuming. To lose yourself for a bit in the waves of newborn life is to be expected, I think, but this time I’m a little more concerned about the resurfacing.

These days, I’m humbled by the privilege of parenthood. To be entrusted with these children is such an incredible gift and responsibility, one that should shake us. We see parenthood as perhaps the most spiritually formative experience of our lives so far. We are being stretched and challenged and convicted and shaped– this is messy, holy work. Our confidence as we approach this new season comes not in our own ability or preparedness, but in knowing that God’s grace covers all of our insufficiencies. We’re not having children for our own sake, but for His glory.

In his book  Sacred Parenting, Gary Thomas explains, “Let’s accept that both marriage and parenting provide many good moments while also challenging us to the very root of our being. Let’s admit that family life tries us as perhaps nothing else does; but let’s also accept that, for most of us, this is God’s call and part of his plan to perfect us. Once we realize that we are sinners, that the children God has given us are sinners, and that together, as a family, we are to grow toward God, then family life takes on an entirely new purpose and context. It becomes a sacred enterprise when we finally understand that God can baptize dirty diapers, toddlers’ tantrums, and teenagers’ silence in order to transform us into people who more closely resemble Jesus Christ.

May it be true of us!

The Netherlands

In April, we had the great privilege of taking an extended trip with John’s parents, who somehow agreed to spend 8 hours on a plane in order to spend 2 weeks in the car with us. We are incredibly grateful that they were able to take the time, and so glad to have had the opportunity to experience so many new things together. The quickest version is this: it was a pretty epic trip. As in, deserving of multiple installments, which I hope to write on the sooner side while the details are still fresh in my mind and I’m not yet busy with a newborn!

The first full day of their visit, Friday, was a rest day. We mostly hung out at home, enjoyed a leisurely brunch, took walks, and visited Ramstein Air Base for a little tour and to see John’s plane. Then we packed up the car for the first leg of our trip and hit the road first thing the next morning.

Our first stop was The American Military Cemetery in Margraten. John and I have been to a few American military cemeteries in Europe, but it was especially moving to see it with fresh eyes through Mom and Dad’s first experience. As you enter the memorial, you first pass through a courtyard with the names of 1, 722 missing servicemen. It’s an overwhelming number of names, which makes walking up the steps into the main cemetery even more staggering. 8,301 more lie buried here. Each has a story-  a family, parents, a hometown. There are 36 American military cemeteries throughout Europe, honoring thousands more who sacrificed everything for freedom.

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Our next stop was Moordrecht, the birthplace of John’s great grandfather. We spent a few hours with two historical society guides, who were so generous with their time and genuinely thrilled to have Americans visit their little town. Our guides have continued to research the genealogy of the Bier family since our visit, and it’s been fascinating to follow along.

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That night, we settled into our cozy airbnb, put Daniel to bed, and enjoyed a dinner that I’d prepared in advance. John, Mom and I  took an evening walk along the dike before falling into bed.

On Sunday morning, our host brought us a generous breakfast spread, which we enjoyed before biking over to Zaanse Schans, an (albeit touristy) little community full of wooden windmills, barns, old Dutch houses, a cheese factory, a wooden clog shop and museums. We saw newborn lambs and ducklings, sampled a ridiculous amount of cheese, watched a wooden clog demonstration, and ducked in to one of the windmills to learn about how a traditional sawmill operates while waiting out a brief shower.

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After lunch and naps all around, we went to Keukenhof- the Garden of Europe. One of Daniel’s most favorite things at present is smelling flowers. Allllll the flowers. So naturally, a park with millions of daffodils and hyacinths and tulips and a gazillion others I can’t even name could keep him busy for a very, very long time. Thank goodness for the stroller and Grandpop’s shoulders!

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It’s hard to capture the beauty in a photograph- or hundreds, as is tempting to take in a place like this. We have an amazing God,  and I’m so glad He made us with the ability to create, cultivate and appreciate this kind of beauty.

While Keukenhof is certainly impressive, one of our most favorite parts of Holland this time of year are the vast fields of blooms- carpets of brilliant color. We were there probably a week before the peak of the season, but we can hardly complain! Many times over the course of this weekend, Mom would exclaim something like, “I’m in Holland!” “I’m on a dike!” “I’m riding a bike in Holland!” “I’m walking in a field of tulips….in HOLLAND!”

We capped this day with a delicious dinner, compliments of a generous gift from friends at our home church so that we could enjoy something extra special together.

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Before our drive back on Monday, we took a little detour to visit the North Sea, which I imagine is quite lovely (and busy!) in the summer, and wandered around quaint, historic Haarlem admiring the architecture and canals and croissants. It’s a charming little country, The Netherlands. We’ve never been to Amsterdam or Rotterdam or The Hague, but the slower, quieter countryside of farmland and birds and sheep and biking–it’s worth a visit.

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farewell, flachsäcker

4 years, 4 moves.

We weren’t planning to keep this pace, but here we are again. We’ve lived at our little rowhouse on Flachsäcker for 16 months now- the longest we’ve been anywhere together- and we’re feeling the itch. It’s time to move.

At this point, we can’t actually imagine what it’s like to be in one place for more than a little over a year. In each place, that amount of time has been enough to feel quite settled- furniture arranged, boxes unpacked, photos hung, cabinets organized. When you know that your time is limited, you have a greater incentive to create home as quickly as possible– to have a place of comfort, stability and hospitality.
10557571_10154503225665162_6887307244175156546_oWe saw this house literally the day we arrived in Germany, super jet-lagged, super pregnant and in the peak of PCS (that’s permanent change of station for the non-military folks, the term for whenever we move to a new base) season when it can be tough to find a good place. We were feeling the pressure to settle down quickly, strongly preferring not to bring our newborn back to our tiny temporary living space on base. For the most part, it’s been good to us and there are many things we’ve loved. It’s in a quiet, friendly neighborhood, conveniently close to the autobahn we take to base and also to the main city, Kaiserslautern. We have a beautiful network of trails out our front door, a lovely park with a pond, the zoo and a playground behind our house. A five minute walk brings us to a metzgerei (butcher), a bäckerei (bakery), a nice little German restaurant for our schnitzel cravings,  and possibly the best döner joint. We have great neighbors, a small fenced yard for Kaia, and a surprising lack of weird European house features (like chartreuse bathtubs or bright pink fireplaces).

We’ve learned to be quite creative with the lack of storage common to homes here in Europe. When we first arrived, I wondered if Germans just had less stuff and therefore didn’t need the closets and cabinets we’re accustomed to finding in American homes. In truth, we discovered that German homes are full of added shranks (large cabinets or wardrobes) sometimes from wall to wall.

Challenge taken. Our linens are being stored in an unused wicker hamper in our room. We hung IKEA shelves and hooks in our kitchen for spices and coffee supplies and mugs to free up more cabinet space. DSC00524We put our loaner microwave and American fridge in the garage and learned to live out of the dorm-size fridge in our kitchen, which allowed us to add a little island for additional work space.We each have a small basket for toiletries in the bathroom. Without bathroom cabinets or the ability to hang anything on tiles walls, we bought a cheap piece of counter to put on top of our washer and dryer  for a space to stack towels and laundry supplies.

We’ve purged, consolidated, donated, and sold items. I appreciate that we’ve been able to pare down our possessions and be more mindful about what comes into our house. Because everything is out in the open, I care much more about the aesthetics of, say, our dustpan and our dish brush. More than ever before, I’ve repeated to myself “have nothing in your home that you do not consider to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”DSC00525

10608324_10154535450655162_626612913786827682_oThis house, and really, the reality of frequent moves, as taught us to value having less, and I hope we can keep this mindset forever and maybe never get to a point where we have an attic or garage full of mysterious boxes. But right now, honestly, I’m really excited about having a place to store our vacuum when it’s not in use. The thought of a laundry room, a pantry, an office space and a better layout for Daniel to play makes me downright giddy. And mostly, decent landlords, but we won’t get into that.

For a number of reasons, we’ve come to realize that while there are many things we’ve enjoyed about this place, it’s not the best for our family for the rest of our time here in Germany. For once, we’re not moving terribly far- our new village is about the same distance from base, just in the opposite direction. Over the last couple weeks, we’ve been busy sorting out a hundred details- hiring a local moving company, taking care of utility accounts, transferring services, organizing, packing. It’s a hassle, no doubt, but worthwhile in the end. We can’t wait to settle into our new place this weekend!

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10 Things We Learned in Holland

We went to Holland…..in April. So I’ve had six months to think about this post in my drafts folder, and the fact that I’m falling further and further behind in documenting our travels. One of the best things about living in the middle of Europe is the opportunity to see so much. But it turns out our capacity to absorb awesome places and incredible historical sites and unique meals and interesting culture is limited. Very quickly, you can end up feeling stuffed. By writing about our experiences, we hope to better remember and savor them.

With that said, 10 things we learned during our weekend in Holland:

1. Where is Holland anyway?

North and South Holland are two provinces in The Netherlands. This clever video explains it well. Seriously, check out that link- it’s quite interesting.

We stayed in Edam, a little city in the Northwest corner of The Netherlands in North Holland. While we didn’t make it into Amsterdam on this trip, the area where we stayed was so quiet and lovely. We woke up each morning to cows and sheep and brand new lambs out our bedroom window, a home cooked breakfast, and helpful advice from our homeaway hosts on what to see and do.

Side note- we’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences staying in peoples’ homes or guest houses through sites like airbnb and homeaway. We read reviews thoroughly and do our research because it’s worth it to us for more of a personal home base from which to see a new place (also, it’s often much cheaper, especially when you have a kitchen to work with). Hotels can look the same all over the world, but the hospitality of locals can make for a truly unique, memorable experience.

2. Hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and a million other flowers I didn’t know existed.

Today, the Netherlands is still the world’s main producer of commercially sold tulips, producing as many as 3 billion bulbs annually, mostly for export.

We learned that tulips are actually originally from Turkey, brought to Holland in the 16th century. Also, it takes a full five years for a tulip bulb to form from seed!

While the gardens at Keukenhof are beautiful, we were much more impressed by the endless fields of flowers. On a smaller scale, you can see beautiful floral arrangements just about anywhere, but the fields are quintessentially Holland.

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3. We really, really don’t like crowds. Or selfie sticks.
Unknowingly, we went to the famous Keukenhof gardens on their biggest weekend of the year, the day of the flower parade. Maybe for other people this would be a happy mistake, and maybe we just need to be a bit more patient, but shuffling through thousands of people, pressed on all sides, battling to get a view of the gardens unobstructed by selfie sticks just isn’t our thing. The amazingly sweet smell of the flowers mixed with cigarette smoke is disappointing. Forty minute waits to use the bathroom are problematic.

That said, the gardens would be so, so lovely on a less insanely busy day and we’d love to go and enjoy them again with better planning! 

4. The Dutch are serious about their cheese.

We enjoyed some of the very famous (and in our case, very local) Edam cheese each morning with our breakfast. In retrospect, we should’ve bought a lot more cheese. It was so, so good.

The Dutch produce 650 million kilos of cheese annually, exporting 2/3 of that, which makes Holland the largest cheese exporter in the world. I read that the average person in The Netherlands eats about 7 lbs of cheese per year, but given how much we consumed in a weekend, that figure almost seems low.

We ordered a cheese plate with our dinner one evening which, apart from the exceptionally stinky, very blue cheeses, we enjoyed. Daniel’s palette is a little less limited, I guess, because he devoured those we couldn’t stomach.

10 Things We Learned in Holland

5. The Dutch are also serious about biking.

Everyone bikes, everywhere. We saw several bikers with a child in a front seat, a child in a rear seat, a trailer with an additional kid or two, and sometimes another child riding alongside. So impressive. We might’ve seen all of these awesome family bikes over the course of our two day trip.

6. SO MUCH WATER! 

It’s been said that “God made the earth, but the Dutch made Holland”. The Dutch first began battling the sea about 800 years ago and today, over 1, 491 miles of dikes keep North Sea from flooding, oh, 65% of the country below sea level.  The amount of infrastructure required to keep this country in existence is really quite incredible- bridges, dikes, dams, canals. We noticed these shells in a parking lot- proof that this used to be the ocean floor.
All the water allows for amazing bird life – swans nesting, ducklings swimming, cranes and pheasants and geese and probably hundreds of other birds I couldn’t identify. 

7. How windmills actually work.

They’re big. And impressive. They have sails. They can rotate 360 degrees. Who knew?

It makes sense that The Netherlands- totally flat and very windy- has so many, many (1000+) windmills. They were (and are, in a few places) used to mill, saw, pump and press–everything from bread and mustard to oil, paint and paper. Today, the working windmills are primarily used for drainage to keep all the reclaimed land from flooding again.

8. Wooden clogs are a real thing. 

As in, we didn’t realize before that people really wore these shoes in real life for hundreds of years. Historically, there were many varieties and styles for different classes, vocations and occasions. These below are traditional wedding clogs.

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Today wooden clogs are really only worn by some rural farm workers and tourists, but in a number of places, you can still watch them being made, carved from a single piece of wood. We watched a demonstration on the craft, fought our way through hoards of people buying these not terribly comfortable shoes, and purchased a tiny key chain clog for our token Christmas ornament from The Netherlands. We decided that a single Christmas ornament from each country we visit will be our “thing”- no souvenirs to collect dust around the house, no worries about where to put stuff all year long. DSC00902

9. Chocolate sprinkles are a legitimate breakfast food. 

Our hosts brought us a bottle of chocolate sprinkles with our breakfast each morning, alongside an assortment of delicious breads, cheeses, jams, butter, coffee, tea, smoked meats and eggs. Each morning, we ate everything else and puzzled over the purpose of the sprinkles.  I didn’t realize until much later that the “hagelslad” (the Dutch word for sprinkles, meaning “hailstorm”) are eaten on buttered bread for breakfast. Or a snack. Or lunch. Or whenever you, respectable grown- up, want to eat chocolate sprinkles for a meal.

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10. The little dutch boy is an American fable.

It’s a classic children’s story we grew up with- a little boy sticks his finger in a hole in the dike and saves his village from flooding.  It seems the only thing we really knew about Holland before our trip turned out to be a story imported by American tourists.

The tale originates from American author Mary Mapes Dodge, who published the story in her book “Hans Brinker” or “The Silver Skates” in 1865. We’re a little disappointed.

Daniel, on the other hand, is angry about the car. Teething, tired, screaming for the entire four hour drive there and back again, this was not Daniel’s best trip. Real life traveling with a baby, folks. After this weekend, frazzled and exhausted, we wondered if our road tripping days were over for a while. But thankfully, Daniel is quite a good traveler and this particular weekend proved to be the exception, not the rule. Thanks, kid- we still have a lot to see! In fact, we’d love to make it back to The Netherlands again, perhaps with a visit to Amsterdam, a canal tour, the Anne Frank house, and the sea.