Monthly Archives: May 2016

A New Car

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am a lifelong car lover. In the past, I have written about all the Cars that I have owned, when I recognized the Magic in them for me, and the Stable of cars that I have been accumulating.

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Just last fall, I wrote about how hard it was to trade in one of those fun cars and how that launched a search for a replacement. Well that search is over now but before I give the big reveal I have a story to tell.

Not only do I love cars, I also love new cars. Of all the cars that I have purchased, I have only bought two used cars in my lifetime, one turned out to be troublesome…

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…and one turned out to be extremely reliable.

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I know all of the financial advantages of buying used cars instead of new and I have family and friends who never buy new. But as with any monetary decision that must be made by weighing the pros and cons, the intangibles of buying a new car for me have always factored more heavily in my decisions. The reliability factor, having a repair warranty, and being able to get pretty much exactly what I want tip the balance over a used car’s lower cost (in spite of the fact that with a used car, someone else is taking the hit on depreciation). This perspective has unfortunately put me at the mercy of the new car salesman and the new car sales process time and time again.

It truly amazes me that as expensive a purchase as a new car is, that closing a sale has to be dealt with such dishonest people.   Because the sales price is negotiable, every buyer always wants to get the best deal and the seller obviously wants the same thing. With two independent parties both wanting the same goal, invariably in the end there has to be a winner and a loser. Thank goodness in our modern society that buying food does not involve the same process, as the weekly shopping trip could take all day if we had to negotiate the price for every single item.

While I don’t mean to slam the entire new car industry—there must be honest dealerships and salespeople out there—I just haven’t come across many in my past.

One of my favorite experiences was when my daughter was buying her first car and witnessing how assertive she was in the negotiation process (and how she said each time the sales person left to go talk to his manager, that they were just eating donuts and shooting the breeze). It was as if she were a pro on her first outing.

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In my lifetime, I have bought 13 new cars so I have subjected myself to this process multiple times. Some sales people I’ve dealt with seemed more honest but others epitomized the sleazy salesman we often think of. A couple of years ago when my youngest son bought his 2nd new car, it was probably one of the worst buying experiences I have ever had (and one I will never repeat at that dealership).

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The only positive aspect of my buying experience is that I have always known exactly the car I wanted to buy before I arrived at the dealership so I wasn’t having to visit a multitude of dealerships and subject myself to that pain multiple times. In fact in recent years, I have started off with the sales manger first because the car I actually wanted was not on the lot (having previously viewed their inventory online) since he would be the one to have to locate it anyway.

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When my wife bought her last car, we tried a totally new process—Internet sales. Thanks to a really nice feature that all car manufacturers offer today—a new car configurator—you can use this online tool to configure just the right car.   My wife built the car exactly the way she wanted it and then submitted it for a sales quote. After getting a return e-mail response fairly quickly, we scheduled and went in for a test drive of a similarly equipped model, asked for their best price, and then left to talk about it. No pressure and in and out of the dealership in less than an hour.

A few days later, we decided to order the car that my wife had built online, called them back and that was it. No sitting in the showroom for hours and no haggling (and yes, no donuts). I knew when I bought my next car; this was the approach I wanted to use. Only problem was this time, I didn’t know what car I wanted so I was destined to have to deal with a number of dealerships.

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In January, I decided to go to our local car show to help me narrow down the choices I was considering. While this is certainly not a big auto show and some of the brands do not even participate, it still helped me to eliminate a lot of different options I was looking at. After coming home from that show, I really had it narrowed down to just two possibilities. Thankfully that meant I would only have to deal with two different dealerships.

But still it was a hard choice as it came down to a decision between a modern version of a 2-door muscle car…

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…and something more practical, a car with 4-doors to better equip me moving into my Granddaddy years.

For months I went back and forth. One complicating factor was that since I wanted a manual transmission (in my opinion, the only way to drive), one of the two dealerships didn’t even have a manual transmission car on the lot that I could test-drive. But finally one came in and after test-driving it that clinched the deal for me.

In the end, I didn’t get the less practical muscle car; I got something even better, all the fun and power of a muscle car, but with four doors—a sporty 270 horsepower Subaru WRX.

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And since I was able to deal with the same dealership my wife had bought from, I had a similar pleasant Internet buying experience that was made even better by the fact that I took delivery of it on my birthday—my 60th! (Interestingly, this car replaces my 2006 Mini that I took delivery on my youngest son’s birthday 10 years ago, not long before I turned 50.)

So now when I take my grandkids out for a fun drive, I won’t be straining to get them into the back seat of a 2-door car. No I’ll easily strap them into their car seat in the backseat of my sporty 4-door car and off we will zoom, celebrating not only my milestone age of 60 in a new toy, but giving a dual meaning to the phrase “going from zero to 60” very fast!

Not So Alone in Amsterdam

Continued from Still Alone in Amsterdam

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On my last vacation day before I had to start teaching, I made it a combination of old and new activities. I started off with a trip to the Rijksmuseum, one of the largest in Amsterdam and where Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is housed. Their special exhibits were an interesting display of women’s fashions over the centuries from large dresses…

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…to mini skirts…

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…and a display of Breitner’s Girl in Kimono series, the first time these 14 paintings of model Geesje Kwak have all been displayed together.

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Even though I have been to this museum many times, it pays to visit again as they always have at least one interesting special exhibit to view.

The rest of my day, I almost exclusively did new activities. I got to visit the Basilica of St. Nicholas, an Old Catholic church that my siblings and I tried to visit last year, but were unable to do so due to renovations.

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And I went up into the 10-story Bibliotheek, the Central Library in Amsterdam. Not that I planned to check out any books but it appeared that there was a great view of the city from the top floor. In fact, there was along with a top-floor restaurant where you could sit with a view of Amsterdam and enjoy your books (if you read Dutch).

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But my purpose for coming this way was actually to visit the NEMO Science Center, the children’s hands on learning museum located on an island in the Ij River.

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I was not disappointed. This facility has six floors of almost arcade-like exhibits for all age kids from about three to 15. Each floor caters to a progressively older child from enclosing oneself in a soap bubble…

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…to a ball gauntlet…

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…to even a chemistry lab where young scientists suit up and perform lab experiments.

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To me though, the highlight was the chain reaction exhibit where the tumble of a single green domino, set into motion a chain of unrelated, but interconnected events that took a full 10 minutes to ultimately work its way back to almost the starting point and launch a rocket upward by compressed air power.

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It might seem odd that someone near retirement age would go alone to a children’s museum but again I had an ulterior motive. I was checking it out to potentially bring my grandchildren one day. I already have one Holland destination for certain picked out—Madurodam.

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I just wanted to find the next one.

When I got back to my hotel that day, I realized that even though I had been by myself all day, I hadn’t really been alone as I was making mental connections with my family throughout the day.

First was the pleasant surprise upon existing the Rijksmuseum of finding a quartet performing Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, the special music that played as I walked my daughter down the aisle at her wedding.

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And then it was visiting the Basilica, namesake of my youngest son and where my siblings and I were unable to get into last year because of renovations.

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And in the library, discovering architectural models that always remind me of my oldest son.

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To picturing my three grandkids running around the science museum one day…

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…to having a beer at a microbrewery and sending the picture to my brother (something we do all the time)…

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…and finally, to toasting my wife who I missed very much even though I knew she was having fun with our grandson in California.

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As I started out writing several weeks ago, I knew this would be a different trip and indeed it was, but not in a bad way. Even though our loved ones may not physically be with us wherever we are, they are with us in mind and spirit. So we’re actually never really alone; they’re always with us.

And on my last night in Amsterdam, as I was walking back from dinner, I happened to glance up and get a new canal shot.

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One I had not gotten before despite all of my previous attempts. And a shot that captured the same moon that would also be shining down on all my family just a few hours later at the end of their day.

Still Alone in Amsterdam

Continued from All Alone in Amsterdam

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On my second day in Amsterdam (first full day), as I was walking to the next museum I planned to visit, I decided to once again try to capture that perfect canal shot; the one I always see at stores but never buy because I figure I can take it myself (well no cigar yet). It was a cold and blustery day feeling much colder than the previous day even with its rain. My destination was the Stedlijk Musuem where I planned to use my Museum Card again.

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I really like modern art museums but there are times when I have a really difficult time appreciating some of the artwork. But I continue to visit them as I almost always find an unexpected piece I really like.

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Like this Van Gogh painting of the kitchen fields behind Montmartre in Paris, a painting I had just read about in my book.

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Or I learn something I never knew like the fact that the modern architecture and design style known as the Amsterdam School predated the 1925 International Exposition in Paris of modern design that led to what we know today as art deco. It’s discoveries like these that keep me going to modern art museums even though I simply puzzle at many of the works.

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Once I finished my tour of all the exhibits, I planned to eat lunch at their coffee shop but there was a long line and I remembered from previous experience that the service was very slow. So I changed my plans and decided to eat at the restaurant inside de Bijenkorf (translated, the beehive), the high-end retail department store that Anne Frank actually shopped in during her too-short lifetime. It might seem odd to eat lunch at a department store but I actually had an ulterior motive.

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All morning long as I had made my way to and from the museum, I had only seen one other person wearing just a sweater as their outer protection against the cold. And that person was much older than me (as my wife would say another knuckle-head like me). The garment I noticed people wearing the most frequently was a down jacket.

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I recalled one other trip to Amsterdam when the weather turned out to be much colder than we anticipated; my wife had purchased a really warm but lightweight down jacket at de Bijenkorf. Only that was in October at the beginning of winter; not mid-April when winter should have been over.

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In their limited selection, I did find one for 100 euros but it was too small, as I couldn’t even zip it. I found a few others in the store, major brand names, but I was unwilling to pay the 200 to 500 euro price for them.

I never go out to just “shop” but when there is an item I need, as my wife knows, I become very task-focused. I decided my next best option was to explore stores along the Kalverstraat, the famous shopping street exclusively for pedestrians. I first went to H&M, a store my wife had bought clothes at before. But I didn’t find any down jackets; an item likely not to be in line with the pricing of their other clothing items there.

I tried a number of other stores, some of which I just went in to get out of the rain. And in a couple of these, I actually found jackets for about 30 euros but then I realized a real down jacket would never sell for only 30 euros. I can’t imagine how many stores I entered (remember I am VERY task-focused) but by the time I had made my way to the Dam Square, I was losing hope.

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However on the square, I found a store I had never been in and one I couldn’t even recall seeing before as it is on one side of a large building that houses Madame Tussauds wax museum. Maybe the long line usually stretching out of the wax museum entrance normally blocked my view of the store. I only went in because I could see it was a store with at least three floors. When I reached the top floor where the men’s clothes were, I was amazed to see that they had a large selection of down jackets, surprisingly this late in the season. Some came in familiar sizes (S-M-L-XL) and some came in number sizes. I tried on a size 50 (I have no idea what the number meant but it was not what I thought as I wear a size 42 jacket and this 50 was way too small). I tried on a 58 and it was too big. At least I was getting somewhere.

Over in the corner, I spied some others that came in sizes I was familiar with and among them I found a perfect fit. As I expected, it was very lightweight but warm. And it was just 140 euros, a little more than I had hoped to pay but much less than the 200 euros I was unwilling to spend.

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I was anxious to get back to the hotel and get out of my sweater and into my coat so I wouldn’t stand out as an old country bumpkin coming to Amsterdam without appropriate clothing.

I also discovered the added bonus of this type of jacket is that it packs very nicely into its own small bag for travel.

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As I made my way out for dinner that night, I felt much more like I fit in with my new jacket. And when I got back to the hotel after dinner, I discovered an added bonus of all my walking that I had broken two of my Fitbit records.

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My first 25,000-step day…

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…and my first 100,000-step week; two goals I had been trying to achieve for almost 12 months, since the last time I was in Amsterdam.

To be continued…

All Alone in Amsterdam

Continued from Alone in Amsterdam

When I exited the museum, I discovered the weather had markedly improved and the sun was even trying to peek out from behind the clouds. I decided I would make my way over to the Van Gogh Museum as I had a special reason to return (and since they were open until 10 PM on Friday, it didn’t matter that I might be arriving just 20 minutes before their normal closing time).

On my sister’s recommendation, I had started reading Van Gogh’s biography written by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith; fair warning, this is a very long book (976 pages in paperback). I don’t recall when I started reading it but by the time I had arrived in Amsterdam, I still had only read a little over half the book.

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I was most pleased when I walked up the steps of the museum and found no line at all. However, when I pulled on the door to enter, it was locked. Looking through the glass, I could see people inside and then I saw a security guard wave towards a separate door that was open. As I started to walk in, I waved my Museum card to show I didn’t need a ticket. However, he said the entrance was around the side—another change to deal with—this entrance was for groups only.

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When I rounded the building, I found a new queue line that hadn’t been there last year. Thankfully, the line for cardholders was not as long as those buying tickets, as they had to weave back and forth before reaching the ticket counter. As I stood in line occasionally glancing at the clouds overhead, I recalled how nice it was last year to wait on the covered front porch while the rain poured down that morning. This line was not covered; how miserable that would have been to stand in the rain trying to stay dry under an umbrella.

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After about 20 minutes, I had my admission ticket (again free) but rather than entering through a side door, was directed to enter the separate addition to the building that was added almost 20 years ago. It felt like I was coming in the backdoor but as I descended the stairs to the cloakroom, I had a wonderful perspective view through the glass of the new Van Gogh building with the centuries old Rijksmuseum a short distance away.

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Coming up the escalator to the first floor of the museum, I noticed the name of the café’. While I have been to this museum many times over the last 20+ years I have been coming to Amsterdam, the name never registered but thanks to reading this Van Gogh book, I recognized it as the name of the café’ in Paris that first publically displayed Van Gogh’s work—Le Tambourin—operated by Vincent’s one-time lover Agostina Segatori.

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On the ground floor of the museum where many of his self-portraits are displayed (many not because he was vain but because he often couldn’t afford models to paint), there was a timeline of his life.

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Thanks to having read much of the book, I was pleased to recognize the name of his birthplace and the other towns where his father was a minister. The places where he lived in Paris were also familiar to me thanks to the book. But when I reached the part of his timeline that I had not gotten to in the book, I had to step away as to not spoil the ending of the book.

On the first floor of the museum (in Europe the ground floor is zero (0)), I was pleased to see the now familiar artists paintings but when I read the little card next to each, there was new recognition that these were either paintings by artists that Theo (Van Gogh’s brother) had encouraged Vincent to emulate or they were artist friends of Vincent’s that he tried to mimic. And with each familiar Van Gogh painting I passed, it was with incredible new insight that many of these masterpieces had been considered unworthy and unsalable at the time they were created. It was also with a whole new appreciation that I viewed some of the pencil drawings and letters since drawing was how Vincent got his artistic start and it is through these letters, mostly to Theo, that we have such insight into the sad and troubled life that Vincent lived.

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As the night wore on, I experienced for the first time, their Friday evening program as they rolled out the bar for cocktails and began to project Van Gogh images on the walls of the museum.

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Feeling hungry, I left before the DJ started to play but it was a visit that was much enhanced by the knowledge gleaned from reading this book. So much more than just the little blurb printed next to the paintings or even the brief audio tour, it was with a vast amount of details about the current events in Vincent’s life that enriched my experience. And it was with a whole new appreciation that were it not for the long-term financial support that Theo had provided, I probably would not have been standing where I was that day.

Without a doubt, if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, read the book before you go. You will be absolutely amazed how Vincent could work through the sorrows and self-doubts at the time to create the beautiful, now over 100 year-old masterpieces you would be witnessing for the first time.

Existing the museum, the weather unfortunately had again worsened and so rather than walk in the rain back to the hotel, I hopped on the crowded tram for a welcome ride back. On the way, I decided I didn’t want to be out in the rain to eat dinner and so before heading back to the hotel, I stopped at the little grocery store to get a picnic dinner to have in my room.

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When I opened my door, I found that the hotel manager had left me a welcome package of wine, water, and desserts.

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To this I added my picnic items for a delightful in room dinner as I anxiously picked up in my Van Gogh book where I had left off earlier in the day.

To be continued…

Alone in Amsterdam

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I knew it would be a different trip to Amsterdam for the annual teaching of my course there this year. Last year’s trip, had been an extraordinary visit as it was where my siblings and I had celebrated SIBSAB 2015. And just before my siblings left to tour Belgium while I taught, my wife and her sister joined me for a continued special time. But the more I thought about my upcoming excursion across the pond to the low country, the one theme that kept coming up was that I would be all alone on this trip.

While it would have been nice to have a repeat of the trip last year, it just wasn’t destined to work out for a number of different reasons. And even when family doesn’t travel with me, I typically take in some sightseeing with the person that I teach with. But this year, his entire family would be joining him for a European vacation so I knew he would be busy doing things with his family, just as I was busy with my family last year.

As I considered different activities that I could undertake while in Amsterdam, I had a wealth of prior experience to draw from having previously visited Amsterdam more than 25 times.

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We had arranged the dates of the course to fall right in the middle of the tulip season so his family could enjoy the beauty of Keukenhof. As I ran down a list of the things I could do, this was certainly one, which is typically an all-day excursion to explore their seven million bulbs in bloom. But I was just there last year with my siblings so there wasn’t a strong reason to return so soon.

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I checked online to see what special exhibits were on at the major museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Amsterdam Historical Museum, The Stedelijk Modern Art Museum, and the Van Gogh Museum. Each one held some possibilities.

I also considered taking in one of the things my wife had done on her own while I was teaching in years past, or possibly taking a side trip from Amsterdam to visit another part of Holland, which we had done before. Having been to Amsterdam so many times and having taken in many of the top tourists sites, I further considered doing something totally new and different. But in the end, I decided to just wait until I got there to see what I felt like doing at the time.

My trip over went very well. In fact for my flight from Detroit to Amsterdam, I had a window seat and the seat next to me was vacant.   I had considered spending the extra $150 to get their economy comfort seat—you know the ones that used to fill the plane—but I’m glad I didn’t as I had more room with two seats at no cost to me. But in spite of the extra room, trying to sleep in coach on an overnight flight is never easy. I think I might have gotten about three hours of sleep.

By the time I got off the plane, I was wide-awake which was a good thing because the airport had changed again. Last year, I was all set to be a knowledgeable tour guide for my siblings but was immediately met with construction in the airport that hid all my familiar landmarks behind wooden panels. This year, the panels were all down but the revealed new construction was so different, that I was once more disoriented. And when I went to the usual passport control I knew so well, it was closed for renovations. I did manage to find the alternate route out of the airport but when I exited the secured area, everything looked different. I decided to at least try to orient myself in the airport with one of my favorite stores, the model airplane store. After some diligent searching, I managed to find it but then realized the reason everything looked so different was because I had come out a way I had never taken before.

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Undaunted, I decided to try to take the train to Centraal Station using my ChipCard—the card you use to ride the tram—since I was told you could use it on the train as well. It didn’t work. I had to then stand in line to get a train ticket agent to help me. She scanned it, showed it had a 22-euro balance on it, typed some keys and then said it would work. It did but I don’t know what she did to make it work. Oh well.

Once I got off the train and walked the short distance—in the rain—to the hotel, I was pleased to find that I could check into the room even though it was only 11:45 AM. Often I cannot get into my hotel room until 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon so it was a welcome site to open the door to my converted canal-house room.

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Since it was about 5 in the morning to my body, it was nice to be able to get a cup of strong coffee, a shower and shave and clean clothes on before I ventured out.

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First stop was lunch. I decided I wanted to go to the same Turkish restaurant where I had eaten with my wife and sister-in-law the day I met them last year.

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I couldn’t find it, no doubt because I was sleep deprived. I did remember how we got to it from our hotel last year (I am actually very good at remembering how to get somewhere once I have been there once) so I made my way to our hotel last year. Following our tracks from last year, I easily found the restaurant, appropriately named Istanbul, but was pretty embarrassed when I realized that it was actually right next door to my hotel this year.

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I enjoyed one of their lunch specials as I gazed up at the same mural on the wall of the Galata Tower with the Bosphorus and historical Blue Mosque in the background, but missing my companions from the prior year. While I was eating lunch, the weather helped me decide what to do next. Since it rained off and on quite hard several times, I decided I would quickly walk to the Amsterdam Museum (previously the Amsterdam Historical Museum) since it was very close by. I was still able to use my Museum Card from last year (it was good for 12 months) so my admission was free. While the permanent exhibits were familiar since I had just seen those last year, there was a special exhibit of 100 years of art in Amsterdam that was new.

Before I left the museum, I decided to take advantage of the free facilities since these are not common in the city.

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I learned that their bathrooms had been converted to “Gender Neutral” (Amsterdam is very liberal and progressive). When I came out, I realized that I had actually gone into what was previously the women’s bathroom by mistake as a glance through the door of the other bathroom revealed urinals on the wall. Oh well…

To be continued…