Monthly Archives: May 2015

Amsterdam, Amsterdam

It is hard for me to stop thinking about our recent trip to Amsterdam since we had such a wonderful time. And it was also special because it was a first visit for my two sisters and my sister-in-law who by my observations had a great time as well. Over dinner one night, the person I teach with and who has also been to Amsterdam more than two dozen times made an interesting comment. He said that outside of his hometown, he probably knows Amsterdam better than any other city in the world. It made me take pause and then I realized that that statement was true for me as well.

For almost twenty years, Amsterdam has been an annual (and sometimes semiannual) business destination for me since it is one of the main cities we teach our course in. While each visit there has been for business first, I have always managed to squeeze in some vacation time before and after I teach. And this has allowed me to become extremely familiar with the city, a city so easy to navigate on foot.

Abandoned 20-year old map

Abandoned 20-year old map

The city center of Amsterdam is laid out into a series of ever widening, concentric canals, fanning out from Central Station where I usually arrive by train from the airport.


Because of the narrow roads that run along both sides of the canals throughout this area, very little car traffic is present which makes walking very easy—that is as long as you watch out for the multitude of bicycles zipping around you.


Prominent signage listing the name of each canal (e.g., Prinsengracht, Herengracht) is clearly visible on the side of buildings at street intersections so you can easily orient yourself whenever you come across a canal, thus making it difficult to get lost. After so many visits, I never need to leave my hotel with a map since I know the area so well.


Van Gogh Museum

Amsterdam has an overabundance of cultural sights to visit and some of the best-known museums in the world providing for any number of different choices on each trip to the city.


And when you don’t feel like walking to your next destination, frequent, reliable, and easy to figure out trams rapidly get you to your next destination.


Ethiopian Cuisine

Amsterdam also has the most diversity of ethnic food choices I’ve ever experienced in any city. In the past, I have been asked upon my return if I had any authentic Dutch food and beyond raw herring sold from the little stands along the canals (which I refuse to try), I was hard pressed to even describe what Dutch food would be. Given so many delicious ethnic choices, I’ve never even sought out Dutch food.

Indonesian Rijsttafel

Indonesian Rijsttafel

I’ve often told people I meet who have never been to Europe that they should make Amsterdam their first destination since there is so much to do, it is so easy to get around, and if you need help, everyone speaks English. Being the city I have most frequently traveled to, it just makes sense that it too, would be the city, beyond my hometown, that I would know the best—the one where I have vacationed the most. So this realization has gotten me focused on a new task, actually, a new twist to a long time goal.

Over the multitude of trips that I have made, I have always wanted to find a print suitable for framing that showed a typical Amsterdam scene—narrow canal houses serenely reflected in a calm canal with bikes and boats out front. In all my trips, I have yet to find just the right print and this past trip was no exception again with my searches proving fruitless. But then I realized, that after so many trips, my wife and I probably had some fairly decent photos we had taken that would fulfill the need.


Several years ago, we had some of our photos from a trip to Keukenhof gardens (outside Amsterdam) professionally framed and hung in our home. This now served as my new inspiration for finding four photos of Amsterdam that we can again professionally frame and hang in a grouping at our condo. I have written before that, I always feel like I am on vacation when I am at our condo. What better continual reminder of vacation than to grace our condo wall with our own photos of the city we vacation the most often, the place we know better than any other.


I’ve got the first one picked out, a scene I have photographed on more than one visit trying to get just the right shot. Now we just have to find three more, obviously with the help of my two interior design consultants who helped with our Keukenhof flower grouping.


SIBSAB 2015 – “Seriously Disordered??”

This may seem like an odd title for a post recapping our recent SIBSAB in Amsterdam but there is a reason for it. And it is not the dysfunction that may occur when middle-aged siblings who infrequently see each other get together for almost a week. As I have written before, we all love each other and get along very well together.


Actually our trip started out quite well. The plan was for me to meet my two sisters in the Atlanta airport, having arrived from different connecting cities.


We met up without incident and had a nice long visit together while we waited for our flight to Amsterdam. As we talked, we were in contact with our brother who was flying direct from his hometown to Amsterdam. We boarded our flight and after a not so restful night in coach, landed in Amsterdam.


There the difficulties began.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I have been to Amsterdam more than two dozen times so I felt well prepared to act as tour guide for my siblings.


As soon as we got off the plane, I saw that major construction and renovation was underway in Schiphol, the Amsterdam airport. Hidden behind huge plywood panels were all of the normal landmarks that I knew so well for easily traversing the airport. Even the large, centrally located bank where I always exchanged money was gone. After asking for directions, we made our way to a small two-window bank where we had to wait in line to exchange money.

That taken care of, we queued up in a very long line to go through passport control. After standing in line for a while, I noticed that the sign overhead indicated we should have our passport and boarding card ready. Then it hit me that we were in the wrong line as this checkpoint was for people flying to non-EU countries. We stepped out of line and started to make our way back to the concourse when we were asked where we were going. Turns out with the construction, we were in the right place and so had to get back in line, losing our place in the process.

Once we made it through the checkpoint, we went to baggage claim where my sisters picked up their luggage. I don’t normally check my bags so the exit we went out was not the one I normally take. Upon leaving the baggage belt area and entering an unfamiliar part of the airport, we scanned the waiting crowd for our brother but he was nowhere to be seen. I pulled out my phone to text him when I realized for a second year in a row, my phone was not functioning properly in spite of adding an international plan before my trip (The previous year I had had to go to the local Apple store to get it working properly). As we began to wonder how we were going to find our brother, he thankfully strolled up pushing a luggage cart with his bags. It was a joyous reunion and group hug, not just because it had been more than a year since all four of us had been together, but since moments before, we had no idea how we were going to connect with each other.


Our next step was to purchase train tickets to take us to Amsterdam Central Station. I thought I had enough coins to feed the ticket machine (they don’t take paper money) but another change hit me; now instead of paper tickets, the train ticket was upgraded to a magnet card that added an extra euro to the price of each ticket. Fortunately between the four of us, we scrounged up the 20 euros in coin we needed.

With ticket in hand, we next had to find the correct spoor (track) where we would board the train to Central station. Having much experience at this from previous trips, I knew to ignore the final destination listed for the train and simply look for the one that included “Amsterdam CS” as one of the interim stops. Activating our new tickets, we descended to the track we needed. After waiting there a few minutes, all of a sudden, all of the next trains listed on the electronic board for our spoor disappeared. As typical after an unexpected event, an announcement was made over the loud speaker first in Dutch, and then in English stating:

“Due to the previous power failure, service is seriously disordered.”

After all of the unanticipated twists I had encountered, I was feeling quite seriously disordered myself and a bit discouraged that my tour guiding skills were being ineffective. We found a train agent who explained that a severe power outage had occurred—in March—and was still disrupting the normally, highly reliable train service. She then told us we needed to make our way to a different spoor.


I thought all our challenges were over once we had successfully traveled by train to Central Station and then took the correct tram and correct stop to our apartment—that is until I misinterpreted the instructions to our apartment getting us lost and having to ask someone for directions. Eventually we found our apartment only to be faced with four flights of skinny, spiraling stairs to lug our bags up to our accommodations for the week.


Having survived all of the trials of just getting from the airport to our apartment, we began our SIBSAB in earnest by lunching on a canal…


…with some traditional fare.


Followed by a visit to the Begijnhof (hidden courtyard)…


…the Amsterdam Museum, and a canal boat ride.


Over the next four days, we almost completely knocked out our brother’s aggressive itinerary getting up early and getting back late each night. The only complicating factors were the 2.5-hour wait in the cold before entering the Anne Frank House…


…and our oldest sister getting separated and lost from us, twice.


We thoroughly enjoyed the diverse ethnic foods available in Amsterdam eating Argentinian steak…


…Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), a must…


…and Ethiopian where we ate with our fingers using the traditional sponge bread.


We each saw our number one or number two attractions—the Anne Frank house, the Van Gogh museum, the Rijks museum, and the Stedelijk modern art museum—but I think the real highlight for all of us was the day we went to Keukenhof gardens, the main reason for scheduling our trip when we did.


This was the latest in their brief two-month opening that I had ever been but the gardens were still spectacular.


Sadly, before we knew it, we realized our time together was coming to a close. But not before getting one of our traditional family shots.


Prior to me parting ways with my siblings who would be travelling to Belgium while I taught my course, we met up with my wife and her sister, who had just arrived that day and whom I would continue to explore Amsterdam with when I wasn’t teaching.


All in all, I must say it was the best SIBSAB ever. As usual, before we said our goodbyes,


…we began discussing where we might go in 2016. We knew it would be hard to out do this trip; without doubt, the grand slam family get-together so far. But even though it was sad for us to separate early that Sunday morning, we all knew we would be getting together again next year to enjoy each other’s company and to create new memories in our tenth annual SIBSAB. On our first night in Amsterdam, I had toasted to our loving but deceased parents for bringing the four of us into this world. Standing on that sidewalk and watching my siblings drive away, I knew Mom and Dad were smiling down on us.

SIBSAB IX – Amsterdam!

If all goes according to plan, by the time you read this, we will have just completed our annual sibling sabbatical—SIBSAB—in Amsterdam! I have previously written on these get-aways that my brother and two sisters do every year. But this one has actually been years in the planning, years in the making, and even postponed once.


Our brother graciously agreed to create a travel itinerary that would allow us to get to do all of the things we each wanted to do. My brother and I have been to Amsterdam multiple times and so we knew of a lot of “must see” sights that we wanted to include. For our two sisters, this was to be their first visit so we wanted to make sure that they got to see all of their number one, number two, and number three attractions. And even though I have been to Amsterdam more than two dozen times and would be seeing many of my favorites, my brother included activities that I hadn’t gotten to do in my past visits as well.


Hidden Church (Our Lord in the Attic)

One of the factors that made this a multiyear planning event was just figuring out the time of year to go. Even planning as far as a year in advance, coordinating four working adult’s schedules along with the family members they would be leaving behind is never easy but then one of the more challenging aspects was coordinating the timing to coincide with the brief two month opening of Keukenhof, (usually March 15th to May 15th), one of everyone’s top choice.


Keukenhof Garden

Admittedly we would be touring Keukenhof on the tail end of the season.   But it is almost impossible to pick the peak time to go since when the flowers are blooming quite literally depends on how cold the winter is. Holland typically has a fairly moderate winter but there are the occasional hard winters every decade or so when due to the length of the cold, the canals freeze over allowing their 120-mile Elfstedentocht (eleven cities tour) ice skating event along the frozen canals.



Less dependent on the weather but more on the time of year for tourist traffic are all the wonderful museums Amsterdam has to offer. And obviously these were high on our itinerary.


Van Gogh Museum



Anne Frank House



Stedelijk Museum (Modern Art)



Rembrandt House Museum

And visits to other museums of historical significance as well.


Hermitage (Russian) Museum

No first trip to Amsterdam would be complete without a canal boat ride in the long boats that offer a water level’s eye view of many of the sights in Amsterdam.


But we also wanted to allow time for just sitting on a canal and having a beer.


Typically on Saturday night, the locals hop in their boats and “cruise” the canals much like we did as teenagers in the US growing up cruising from one fast food restaurant to another to see everyone.


These were just a few of the things we planned for our trip. How it actually went will have to wait for a time when I am over my jet lag and can coherently put down my thoughts.


International Travel


It is really thanks to my teaching a professional development course that I have been able to take so many international trips. When I look back over the journeys aboard I have taken since I first taught over 20 years ago, I count that I have been to Europe 40 times—including five times in a single year when I started teaching a new course.


Even though it was 22 years ago this month, I can still picture in my mind’s eye looking out the window of the 747 as we descended into Amsterdam for my first time and thinking that in just a few moments, I would be stepping out onto the ground on another continent. I know that may not seem like much of a significant milestone but for me, it was most exciting. I was in my mid-thirties at the time with not a lot of air travel under my belt; little did I know that this would be the beginning of so many international trips for me.


Exchanging money for my first time, Dollars to Guilders, proved easy enough in Schiphol and fortunately the hotel where I was teaching was an easy walk from the train station.


I know for the first few days, I was almost in a daze as I walked around seeing things no one else in my family had ever seen. I tried to take in as much as I could—even snapping a prohibited photo inside the famous Concertgebouw orchestra hall during a lunchtime concert—to share with my family upon my return.


Since that first visit, I have returned to Amsterdam many times—a city founded in 1275—and had many wonderful opportunities to explore the many fascinating sites of their small country. There is a saying that in the US, we consider a 100 years a long time and in Europe, they can consider 100 miles a long way. Given our country was founded 500 years after Amsterdam; all of my European travels have exposed me to sights amazingly old.

The first full year of me teaching this new course, I traveled to Europe five times starting out with a trip in January to Amsterdam. For three of these European trips that year, I was fortunate that my wife was able to accompany me.


Together, we ventured outside Amsterdam for the first time and visited a site that I would return to multiple times, Madurodam (Holland in miniature).


In April, we travelled to Copenhagen, Denmark where we found it was a bit more difficult to use mass transit. I remember seeing signage in the train station in two different languages, neither of which was in English. In spite of the challenges, we had two memorable experiences, visiting the Louisiana museum overlooking Sweden and Tivoli Gardens in the center of Copenhagen.


Nyhavn (New Haven) Denmark

In May, I was in Turku, Finland. Since it was such a long trip and time was limited, my wife did not accompany me, as there was only one day for sightseeing. But on that one day, I had my first experience touring a castle that was over 700 years old. I remember thinking it was more than three times as old as the United States, a milestone I considered significant when the US turned 200 years old in 1976.


Castle in Turku

In June, my wife and youngest son accompanied me to Lugano, Switzerland, which is close to the Italian border. It was absolutely beautiful! On this trip, we did have some extra time for sightseeing and took a train through the Swiss Alps to Lucerne, a city over 1200 years old. We also got to tour a chocolate factory that we literally found by following our noses from the train station.


Delicious Chocolate!

For my fifth trip to Europe that year, I returned to Holland but this time went to Rotterdam. The highlight of this visit was finding a museum that had a special exhibit celebrating the 100th birthday of M.C. Escher, the most famous graphic artist known for his impossible drawings.


In January the following year, I found myself teaching in Lisbon Portugal, actually a side trip following another Amsterdam trip. For this visit, we actually had someone serve as our chauffeur and tour guide. Again, I was amazed at seeing structures so old, one a church from the 4th century.


Church in Lisbon

In November of that year, we were teaching in Caesarea, Israel. Again, I only had one day for sightseeing but we made the most of it. We took a bus to Bethlehem to see the church of the Nativity, built on the sight of where Jesus was born.


Manger Today

Here also I was amazed at how old the structure was. There was one section of the mosaic flooring that dated to the original building from 384 AD.

We also got to tour old Jerusalem and as we walked the old street, I was overwhelmed when I realized that the roman numerals on the sides of some of the buildings marked the actual “stations of the cross” that Jesus walked on that first Good Friday over 2000 years ago, a journey that many Catholics make in their own church each year during Lent. The culmination of this walk was a chance to place our hand into the hole where stood the cross that Jesus was crucified on and to see the tomb where he was laid. It was an extremely moving and emotional experience, one I will never forget.


Not long after that trip, we were actually asked to come back to teach but we declined due to the increased violence in the country. We were glad we did as we found out shortly after the request that the bus we had caught to ride to Bethlehem had been bombed.

A few years later, we went to Dublin, Ireland for the first of five trips to that country. We found that it too, was not as easy to get around as it always was in Amsterdam and they drive on the wrong side of the road. But in spite of the more difficult mass transit, there are a number of wonderful museums in Ireland, many of them free. But one of the most impressive things to see was the Book of Kells at Trinity College. For those unfamiliar with this artifact, it is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels written in Latin circa 800 AD. The colorful pages are beautiful and it is a marvel to stare at a book that was written over 1200 years ago.


And most recently, I was asked to teach in Istanbul, Turkey, ironically a destination my daughter and son-in-law had just visited a few months before. While the establishment of modern Turkey is fairly new (October 1923), Istanbul is multiple centuries old having been founded in 660 BC as Byzantium (later to become Constantinople in 330 AD). Fortunately for this trip, my wife traveled with me and we were pleased at the many sites we were able to visit in our too short trip.


Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

And interspersed throughout these wonderful European excursions, were a total of 26 trips to Amsterdam, a city I now venture out without a map since I know it so well.


While all of these trips were “working vacations” for me, were it not for the work purpose of the trip, we would not have been able to visit so many European locations.

And there is still, literally a world of other international destinations we would love to travel to. Hopefully in the years ahead, my wife and I will be able to make many of those trips. But I feel most fortunate that I have gotten to travel to as many European destinations as I have in just a little over 20 years. And speaking of travelling, I need to get packing for my 27th visit to Amsterdam, this time being accompanied by my three siblings for our first ever SIBSAB-Amsterdam!

Family Vacations

Since my fondest memories growing up were from our summer family vacations, I wanted to make sure our own kids had happy vacation memories as well. And obviously, Montreat was one of the vacation spots we frequented.


Here, I introduced our kids to many of the fun activities I did growing up.


But beyond Montreat, we wanted to give our kids other fun adventures as well.

When our kids were young, we took many family vacations with my wife’s parents (Grandmother and Granddaddy). Since Granddaddy was retired from Holiday Inns, we would often get great deals on hotel rooms as we traveled (a real plus for a young family with not a lot of extra cash). It gave my wife’s parents a chance to spend more time with their grandchildren and gave us an extra set of adults to watch after the kids.

Along with their grandparents, we visited many sites of historical significance…

Old Salem, NC

Old Salem, NC

Shiloh National Military Park

Shiloh National Military Park

U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL

U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL

…and it was at Grandfather mountain that I let our son get too far away from me for a photo opportunity, an act for which my wife will probably never forgive me.

Grandfather Mountain, NC

Grandfather Mountain, NC

We also wanted to expose our kids to American cultural locations and so took them to Washington, DC, Williamsburg (referred to by our kids as Williamsburger), and Monticello.




And interspersed among these trips would be an occasional stop in Montreat and the Asheville area.


Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC

When our kids were older, we took them to Six Flags both in Atlanta and in St. Louis.


We researched taking them to Disney World but from all we read, it seemed like we would be on a tight schedule to get in all the activities we wanted to do and when you are on vacation, you are not supposed to be on a tight schedule.


At Six Flags, there were always plenty of fun rides to take in, so much so that even as young adults, they wanted to go to the Six Flags north of San Francisco when our daughter was in graduate school at Berkeley.


When our kids were in high school, we were able to take vacations by plane to far off places like San Francisco.


And we managed to get to Hawaii one year, a beautiful place that everyone should go to.


Our last trip before our kids started heading off to college was a European vacation to Amsterdam. This trip coincided with me teaching there (a working vacation for me).


It gave us our first chance to expose all our kids to foreign cultures and was the start of other international travel our kids took once they entered college.


Even as an adult, our daughter joined my wife and me for a vacation in Seattle one year. My daughter and I planned all of the daily activities so for my wife, it was almost like she was the child with no responsibility, just along for all of the fun.


With all of these trips, my hope is that all three of our children have fond memories of these vacations, just as I have fond memories of my own family vacations growing up. By looking at many of the smiles captured in these vacation photos, I can assume they will.


But now that our kids are starting their own families, my hope is that my wife and I, as grandparents, will be able to tag along on some of their vacations as our grandchildren begin to create their own fond vacation memories.