Monday, April 16, 2012

Easterworld (AKA: Holland)

Click here to see all of our pictures from this vacation.

During Joshua's Spring Break, we took a family trip up to Holland. We were in desperate need of some vacation action.

The question was, where to go? One of the things on my personal bucket list was seeing the tulips in full bloom at Keukenhof. Keukenhof is a town that has one of the most extensive tulip gardens in the world. After I found out where this town was, and considering it's proximity to Amsterdam, we decided to go there too. That's "Amster-darn" for the kids!

Our family is on a budget and Amsterdam is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. Hotels for families here in Europe are pricey just about everywhere. After several vacations we realized that most rooms are available for a family of 3. Anything more than that and another room has to be purchased. We could have looked for an apartment to rent in Amsterdam. However, we found a hotel that fit our budget. The Hotel Schiphol A4 Van Der Valk at first glance seems far away from the action, however it's considered an Amsterdam Airport Hotel. For couples, this is a great deal but many young single people might prefer staying in the city center. However... it is a great option for families. Parking is free for guests and the hotel provides a free shuttle to and from the airport. The train station at the airport was a great starting point for getting to Amsterdam Central station, which is only a 3-stop ride.

The hotel rooms here are very spacious. The equivalent of two king-sized beds are located in the room; along with a couch, coffee table, TV, and desk. The entryway was separate and could be closed off from the living space, and included the bathroom, separate toilet room (or WC), and closet space. I always love it when hotels do this. Essentially, this means we can shut the door to the entryway and the bathroom; so we can take showers, use the toilet... whatever, without disturbing sleepers! The bathroom was large with two sinks, soap, shampoo, lotion, and shower gel available. Unfortunately there was no fridge in the room.

This statement leads me into a little side note - I'll reiterate that Amsterdam is not cheap! The breakfast available at the hotel is not included in the price of the room and was priced at a hefty 20 euro per person. I highly recommend bringing a large selection of snacks and breakfast food. This seems to very much be the "European Family Style". It was nice to have the snacks and breakfast food with us. I think we spent 100-150 Euro for food the first 2 days. If we didn't have breakfast already packed, tack on 60-100 more Euro to that price tag... YIKES! (Going by the exchange rate that would have been about $200-$300, total). Things I packed were pop-tarts, fruit snacks, nuts, juice boxes, bottled water, grapes, apples, single serve milk and a few hard boiled eggs. Something else worth packed next time for a trip like this is maybe a jar of peanut butter and jelly with a loaf of bread. I know that some of the things I packed weren't stellar in the health department, but hey, it's vacation... and, I wanted to pack stuff that my kids would actually eat and be excited about... they only get pop tarts for vacations! Don't judge!!! :)

Drive time from our place was about 4.5-5 hours without traffic. The drive was easy and scenic. Upon arrival in The Netherlands, I just could not believe how much it looked like some scene off of an Easter card. Old fashioned wind mills, wild daffodils, open fields with hopping bunnies, waddling geese and yes, even frolicking baby lambs. It is now deemed the end all, be all Easterworld. I don't think anything can compare.

We changed our initial plans at the last minute to leave early from our house. We had taken a quick glance online and realized that the Anne Frank House was sold out on all days; except for our day of our arrival. So, upon arrival at our hotel, we promptly cleaned up and went to downtown Amsterdam to take our tour. Before touring the house, it's important to take a look at the webpage, especially if planning to visit with young children. It was not recommended we bring small children and we initially planned to tour separately, so that one of us was always with Samuel, our youngest. However, with most times already sold out, we really didn't have a choice - it was either all or none. Before going to see the Ann Frank House, I read a couple of age appropriate books to Joshua about WWII and the Holocaust. I think it helped him understand more about what we were going to see. Although it was really crowded, we were happy we went.

For those planning to visit the Anne Frank House in the future, I can't urge you enough to purchase tickets online in advance. Later on our trip, we stopped at a tourist information location to inquire about Vincent Van Gogh Museum tickets. A man came in a little frantic asking if he could purchase tickets for the Anne Frank House. The lady at the information booth said that they were sold out until the 16th of April. So, he could get tickets in 3 days. That would have been pretty heart wrenching for me... for many tourist though, they are coming from other countries. There may have been no hope for this poor man. So, book those tickets online, people! Another consideration, the line at the Anne Frank House ticket window is generally at least an hour long wait, so booking online saves time and allows you entry without waiting.

After the tour, we stepped outside for some photos, when I noticed a young couple enjoying a Passover picnic matzo dinner. They were a couple of backpackers from Israel. They were generous enough to share their matzo with us... or, shall I say, Sam. He was the one who charmed the socks off of them. They were headed back home the next day so they were happy to lighten their load of matzo. Sam enjoyed feeding the ducks with it!

We enjoyed a pizza dinner ourselves at one of the many restaurants in the town square. I have to confess that I didn't stick to the all-matzo diet. It was pretty difficult to do while on vacation. Before vacation, I really did try. I even cleaned out my whole pantry and fridge! I hope I'm forgiven and that next year will be the year I stick to it!

After the 5 hour drive, tour of Anne Frank house, and more public transportation than we had dealt with in a long time (all the while through the rain)... it was time to go back to the hotel and sleep.

The next day was spent at Keukenhof. Keukenhof is about 25 minutes from our hotel, or about a 40 minute drive from Amsterdam. This park has one of the most extensive tulip gardens in the world. It is rather hard to put into words just how pretty it was; even pictures probably don't suffice. We truly lucked out as this was the only day on our vacation that it didn't rain. It was such a refreshing break from the city of Amsterdam. Very wheelchair and stroller friendly. Although it was busy, it didn't feel crowded and we were able to get a lot of photo opportunities. Along with tulips, there were ponds, small water ways, a Japanese garden, windmill, boat rides, bike rentals, small farm animals for kids to pet, and several playgrounds. If I were to do it over again, we were have packed a lunch (A small plate of Dutch mini pancakes were 7 Euro... ouch. Some of the best pancakes I ever had... but still!). Food prices were comparable to Disneyland prices! I also would have booked the boat ride first. The boat ride takes tourists around a large plot of land that is filled with tulips. Truly breathtaking. However, by the time we reached the area, it was a 2 hour wait until the next available tour. Our family was just bushed... so, we didn't wait it out. We had driven to the gardens. When we finished our time in Keukenhof in the early evening, we returned to enjoy the hotel pool before dinner time.

On the third day, we went back to Amsterdam. We took the Canal Bus through the city to the Vincent Van Gogh museum. A note for families, we were able to purchase tickets at the information building across the street and bypass the long line outside. It saved us about an hour of waiting. The Van Gogh museum was interesting and well laid out, but was not one of the better options for our children of 8 and 3 years. We were allowed to bring the stroller in with us, which was helpful, but still difficult with limited access to elevators. (I think Mike is putting this very nicely....however, a note to people who can take stairs: TAKE THEM. Don't cut off people who are handicapped and have strollers to hoard elevator space. It's incredibly rude. I think we waiting for 15 minutes and after being cut off twice, we decided to just carry the stroller down the stairs. It would be a good idea for the museum to have an attendant by each elevator entrance delegating and playing "moral police").

The canals through Amsterdam are spectacular. Several date back to the 17th century and are now listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The Canal Bus tickets that we purchased were "Hop on, Hop off" tickets, meaning that we could ride for 24 hours unlimited. The Canal Bus offers various routes through the city's canals, and was a great alternative to walking through the small, but densely populated (and busy traffic filled) city. At the very least, it provided a perspective of this unique city that we would have missed by walking alone, or by taking a taxi cab. It's important to note that these canal buses have tables it's a good idea to bring a snack/lunch and a couple pocket games for the kids if families decide to take the long tour around the whole city. Also, if it's raining, the boat itself is covered so we stayed dry!

The rest of the day was spent enjoying the large park by the museum, followed by another Canal Bus back to the central station, where we embarked on the train back to the airport, to catch the shuttle back to the hotel (yes... in one journey we rode a boat, a train, and a shuttle bus). We enjoyed our second dinner across from the hotel at a small strip mall. Located there were several eateries: a cafeteria style restaurant, Burger King, KFC, Asian Restaurant and Grill place. Again, nothing fancy but for a family on a budget this was perfect.

For some readers, there may be questions...

Yes, Amsterdam has a lot to offer families, and;
No, it doesn't need to involve smoking anything funny, and;
No, it doesn't need to involve the Red Light District.

The people of Amsterdam are incredibly nice and EVERYONE that we ran into spoke English. Amsterdam is a wonderful city, rich with cultural charm.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Climate, Wildlife, Pests and Other Things

Just recently I was getting some information together for a German neighbor and friend of mine who is moving for the first time to the US. She's visited but, this will be her first time moving completely away to another country. Away from her family and friends. For me, this brought back memories of my first move OCONUS. As I boarded that plane and said goodbye to my family I was crying for sure. The finality of it all just hit me at that moment. It was scarey and sad. While a part of me was screaming, 'Don't get on that plane' another part of me was saying, 'Suck it up, you're gonna be OK' and I was......... but I had always wished I had someone near by to explain to me some of the "ins and outs" of my new home.

In the information I got together I put in some information about the local wildlife and pests for her area. This made me think....."Hey silly, you should really blog about German wildlife and pests!" so, here I go.

Our area of Germany is considered "foothills" or, at least that's what it feels like around here. "Foothills" is right before travelers hit mountains. There is still farmland but also lots of forest as well. This means that we have some forest critters to contend with. One of the more regular pests is ticks. If readers have pets that go outside regularly or adventurous children, they need to be checked when they come inside. Especially during the Summer. It's advisable to be sure and have children take baths when they come in from playing. Especially check around the bottom of the legs, behind the ears, and any other "crevices". For adults, hairy regions of the the body are important to check. For animals, it seems ticks love to latch on around the neck and head. However, give them a good rubdown everywhere. Most tick bites are painless therefore can go unnoticed. The local pet stores have an array of collars and other treatments available to fight ticks. For more information about ticks in Germany this thread can help!

Another precaution to take is against spiders. Although I haven't seen any poisonous spiders yet, (Knock on wood) venomous spiders in this region can be a threat. The majority of venomous/poisonous spiders here in Germany are the same as ours in the states. Most common is the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. Both of these types of spiders can be dangerous but the Black Widow is not aggressive and the Brown Recluse usually lives up to it's name. When "discovered" black widows will most likely try to flee or run away. Brown Recluse will act aggressively if it's discovered. During the seasons take care to pack away garden gloves and shoes and take caution around wood piles or other outdoor things that have been sitting for a while. For more information about German Spiders click here.

There are several poisonous snakes in Europe. Most of them are the viper variety. These include the Common Adder, Long Nosed Adder, Pallas Viper, and Ursini's Viper. All of the names I've listed also have wiki links attached to them. However, for a "cliff notes" version, click on this link.

There are many many wild birds and predatory birds located here as well. I very much recommend having a bird house and a couple of feeders out. It's nice to have the birds singing during the Spring time. The colors and markings on these small birds is beautiful. Every time spring comes, all I can think about is Disney's Snow White singing with the birds. A precaution to move your window shades (ruladins) up and down periodically. If a shade is left untouched for a while it creates a perfect habitat for a nesting bird. If one wants to get up close and personal with predatory birds and local wildlife, there is a wild animal park in this area call Waldpark in Potzberg. This park also has non-local wild life like Bison and wolves but it's a fun day trip.

One more pest that is rare but, deserves some recognition. There is a type of German Weasel called a Steinmarder or Beech Marten in English. This species will nest in the car in the evening. (Since it's a nice warm spot to sleep) It will leave in the early morning hours so, not to fear. However, if the car is used for commuting to work and back one should be aware. If they go back and forth between to "male territories", this animal can cause considerable damage under the hood. The best precaution to take is to place chicken wire on the driveway. This creature does not enjoy walking on it and it will prevent them from making your car their little territory. There is however, another theory from Wikipedia that gives another explanation as to why these creatures enjoy destroying cars:

'Since the mid 1970s, the beech marten has been known to occasionally cause damage to cars. Cars attacked by martens typically have cut tubes and cables. A beech marten can slice through the cables of a starter motor with just one bite. The reason for this is not fully known, as the damaged items are not eaten. There is however a seasonal peak in marten attacks on cars in spring, when young martens explore their surroundings more often and have yet to learn which items in their habitat are edible or not.[26] The fishoil, often contained in the cables of cars of Japanese origin, may contribute to this.'

For more on this little creature, click here.

Also, for more information on wildlife in Germany click here.

On to the next subject! For German standards, the climate here is fairly mild. However, for me it took a lot of getting used to. My first winter here, it felt like the sunshine just forgot about Germany. We are far north which means we don't get a lot of light during the winter. The sun starts going down at around 3:00-4:00 in the afternoon. If we were lucky enough to have the sun come out from the clouds, we would literally drop everything bundle up and go outside. Snowfall here is usually minimal. There are strange years like of late where snowfall is generous. Just 2 years ago, the store ran out of salt for the roads. The Summers are very mild. It gets warm here for about a week. I would use the word "hot" cautiously as, it hits the 90's maybe. The reason why a lot of folks find it very hot is because there is no air conditioning. The majority of household don't have screens either. Most Summers we will have lots of flies, gnats, and sometimes the occasional bee or wasp will find their way in. It's important to keep things very clean during the Summer. If there is so much as a cut open onion on the counter top the gnats will attack! For some who are highly sensitive to heat and bugs there are portable AC units that are sold on Ramstein Yardsales or, out in town. Also, screens are sold out in town as well. There is a good amount of rain year round. Coming from California I was amazed that the farmland didn't have irrigation systems.....they don't need to. It just rains enough. According to some charts the driest time of year is April & September.

Well, there's my report for the day. I hope I helped. If anyone out there has anything to add, please let me know and I can include it in the post. Happy Trails!