Thelma and Louise Find Art and Red Lights

Previously, we ate our way through the streets of Amsterdam. Somethings never change.

What else doesn’t change is that we tend to stumble into some of the more interesting parts of a city.

IMG_5348Like the alley in the Red Light District where we witnessed a negotiation between a horny 30-something guy and a dark haired woman with “vast tracks of land” in a black lace corseted teddy standing in a window. She would talk to the guy and then yell down the block for someone to come and translate or handle the money or something. The other ladies, undressed in a variety of colored teddies and equally gifted in the bust area, looked on from their own patio doors with mild interest.

The Red Light District isn’t what I expected. It was a neighborhood with brown cafes, “coffee houses,” and shops punctuated with alleyways that had red lanterns lit along them. The ladies were set up behind patio doors, safely kept behind glass and away from pawing hands. Some would put on a bit of a show while others sat in their lingerie reading books and ignoring the gawking tourists.

The District does have a sense of humor though, as evidenced by the carved stone marker of a man’s hand petting his rooster.  Think about it.

Our food guide, Rudolph, had told us a bit about the Red Light District. How it was formed to control the sex trade and protect the Amsterdam women from whatever “foreign sailors” might do to them.  Amsterdammers first.  There are also a few streets with Blue Lights which he said feature women that “come with a surprise in their skirts.”  We found a street with a blue lantern, but didn’t go down that way as we had our sites set on this Irish pub where we could eat lunch and have a pint. Our loss, I think.

I also think we walked down the street with the most “coffee shops” on it. About every 3rd doorway we were hit by the clouds of marijuana rolling out as patrons entered bright-eyed and ready for adventure and exited with glassy expressions and sloppy smiles. I wasn’t sure if Shaun and I had managed an accidental contact high, but the bakery goods started to look more and more delicious as we walked along.

We finally bought some stroopwafles and smoothies at a health food store. Stroopwafles are not what I would consider “health food” since they consist of sugar wafers with caramel sandwiched between them. They are insanely good, however, even if you don’t happen to be stoned. (And Shaun informs me they can be found at a World Market store near you.)

Loaded with stroopwafles, smoothies, and heaven knows what else we started wandering around the city, taking in the views of architecture and people.

There is nothing like wandering around a beautiful city with your best friend. We talked about our previous adventures, what was happening in our lives right now, and what we were hoping for the future.  When you do this kind of extroverted introspection you enter a frame of mine ripe for appreciating art. Particularly Vincent van Gogh.

I don’t know if there are many people who haven’t heard the name “van Gogh” or who doesn’t know his painting Starry Night. Doctor Who even had an episode featuring him in season 8 that is worth a look if you want an interpretation of his personality, his quest to make his art reflect the movement he saw in the world around him, and his battle with what was probably bipolar disorder.

He didn’t start out painting things like Starry Night with its swirls of colors and light. He started out in the shoes of the Dutch Masters, painting things of extremely realistic quality like The Cottage.


IMG_5366It wasn’t until he moved to Paris and became friends with Impressionist painters like Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec that he changed his painting style dramatically. Shaun said, “It’s like he saw all the colors and whimsy and decided everything he’d done before was wrong. His mind was blown.”  After that he moved to Arles, France and began to paint the works we all know and love.

I managed to snap a shot of The Sunflowers.

It love it because it is ordinary while being extraordinary. There are flower that droop and sag and flowers that stand tall and fresh. It makes me feel like he casually chucked flowers in a crockery vase and started painting as fast as he could; as opposed to other still lifes of flowers where every petal feels conspicuously groomed and placed. Those feel stiff and cold to me while this one feels like I could sit at that table to sip some coffee and eat some muesli while having my feet up and a newspaper open. It’s real life.

Most of Vincent’s work (I feel like I can be on a first name basis with him) is like this. Ordinary life captured with extraordinary grace. His brush strokes are designed to give the painting movement. You can see the wind cutting across the tops of the haystacks and threaten to carry off bits of the straw.

But I am being overly fanciful.

The Van Gogh Museum is a wonder of a place. It has pieces from throughout his life, including the period where he was fascinated by Japanese art. And they have one piece under a microscope so you can see how deeply his brushstrokes go into the canvas.

The Museum is very popular. We bought the Amsterdam City Card which got us into a special queue that was quicker than the ordinary queue, but we still had to wait for about 15 minutes to get tickets.

IMG_5367I highly suggest getting tickets ahead of time, or getting the Amsterdam City Card. You can get it at any Amsterdam tourism info store. We got the 2-day pass and got free admission to most museums, preferential admission to the others, a free canal cruise, and free use of the tram system. We definitely got our moneys worth.

Still in the mood for art we went to Rembrandt’s House (free with the Amsterdam Card). If you are being sneaky you call him van Rijn, because that is his last name, but everyone seems to be on a first name basis with Rembrandt. While van Gogh didn’t ever receive the accolades he craved during his life, Rembrandt received all of them and ample wealth early in his life.

He lost it all though. He made bad choices with his money and his house and everything in it had to be sold. The Dutch, however, love to keep inventories and lists and the inventory of Rembrandt’s house survived so they were able to find exact replicas and replacements for everything that had been in the house.  They even dug through the trash pits to see if they could find clues as to what life was like there.

Well, they found this.


Which was used as the model for THIS!


How cool is that?!?!

His house is large and grand. The front foyer is cavernous and was also used as a gallery and sales floor for his and other artists’ work. The kitchen was also very large and kind of homey.

Most of the house, however, was taken up by his studios. He had his own, large, well-lit studio and then a smaller, equally well-lit studio for the students he took in. Teaching is actually how he made a lot of money. Art is sometime slow to sell, so you make other money by teaching and selling their art. He had three students at a time. They did sketching, painting, and etching.

Something that was really fun was the etching class they had. The Rembrandt museum has several free hands-on experiences (i.e. art classes) that you can participate in during various times of the day. I got to sit in on an etching class! They took copies of Rembrandt’s more famous etchings and we could copy it with a needle stylus onto a small squares of transparency film. Then we learned how to ink it and run it through a press! It was so fun and very, very informative. Those things are a bitch to make. There are thousands of lines in just one square inch of a etching. Thousands of cuts with a small stylus to make the texture and give shape to the picture. I was at it for about 30 minutes and then decided that there was no way I could finish the picture as Rembrandt finished it. It was crazy. I will update with a picture in August when our stuff has been shipped to us. This moving is cramping my writing style.

But some poor choices ended it all and he died poor and alone and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Westerkirk. Actually, he’s not even there anymore. After 20 years of mouldering there he and his other poor companions were taken out and disposed of. A sad end for an artistic genius.

Even after another depressing end we were still in the mood for more art. (The beer we had at lunch helped.) So we were off to the Rijksmuseum!

While the Rijksmuseum has been around since 1800 when it was founded in The Hague, it has only been in this striking building since 1885. The building, an architectural wonder, was designed by Pierre Cuypers. It holds Dutch art along with cultural and historical objects produced between the middle ages to now.

I was interested in seeing more Rembrandts and a Vermeer or two.  Shaun was interested in seeing pieces she’d heard about/seen in Monument Men.  The Rijksmuseum did not disappoint.

We got discounted entry into the Rijksmuseum with our Amsterdam City Card, so that was good. It’s also one of those places where you might want to consider buying tickets in advance, but we didn’t need to as we were going during a low-traffic period. It was an easy walk from our hotel and all the public transportation goes right past it should you be too far away to walk.

The architecture is as impressive as art. From the archives room to the stained glass pictures of the artists lined up like saints in a church.

We were greeted by 2 meter tall ships and pictures of conquest; including a picture of the victory at Waterloo that we marveled at for its detail and then marveled at again once we figured out that the doors and other openings were too small to have actually admitted the painting into the room. It took up one entire wall! Did they have to take it off it’s frame and supports and then carefully restretch it once it was in the room?  Shaun decided that it would have been one of the pictures that would have to be left behind if Nazis invaded again.

After that we started looking at the museum in terms of “how fast could we evacuate the art” and “how would we invade it and take it over with minimal damage to the art, of course.”

The boat would have to stay.

And there was so much art you’d pick the choicest pieces to run away with. Like these Rembrandts and Vermeers.

I love the cupid picture above. He looks like a little boy who got caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing and is now blaming someone else.  The Vermeers are fantastic. I love the maid with the milk. The way he used light and color was brilliant. He, like Rembrandt and then van Gogh, tried to capture everyday life and point out how extraordinary the ordinary can be.

The Dutch really loved to make the ordinary special. That was one of the reasons they loved their Delft pottery. They tried to make everything out of Delft. I wonder if the Delft violin could be played…

They loved their flowers and music, too. There is a whole section in the museum just for musical instruments. Of course all of them are beautifully carved or constructed.

The violin above was made in 1692 by Hendrik Jacobs, one of the best Dutch violin makers. It is typical of the baroque period with a shorter body and smaller fingerboard.  His style is very similar to the Italian makers of the same time and it is thought that he apprenticed in Italy. The harpsichord above is a lovely example of form and function. It would have taken up a great deal of space in the typically smaller homes of the Dutch and so having something that is both beautiful when sitting there and also makes beautiful music would have been ideal.

Shaun got very excited about these two paintings below. Ironically they are situated at almost opposite sides of the museum even though they are often compared to each other by experts.

Rembrandt’s The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (on the left) and, well, I’m really sorry, but I didn’t write down the title or artist’s name on the second one. I think it’s the Burgermeisters, but no amount of Googling is confirming that notion. Sorry, folks.

Anyway, these are often compared because the subjects look and are positioned so similarly. The difference is the use of perspective and light. Rembrandt visualized the picture being high on a wall and the viewer looking up from below. The other artist visualized the picture being set much lower on the wall so that the viewer and subject would be looking at each other eye-to-eye.  Rembrandt also positioned the table so that the corner would be the focal point and then the slanting line would pull your eye back into the painting, giving it the impression of three dimensionality. The other painting has the table flat so that your eye slides across the surface of the painting. It’s doesn’t invite or pull you into the piece. I could go on, but I will spare you.

IMG_5416We also learned a little bit of the culture of the Reformation. The people strove to be pure and pious, however, they also liked their little jokes. Many of the paintings in this period have little hidden Easter Eggs in their works. Kind of like kids’ animated movies that have bits of humor just for parents.

For example, The Hunter’s Present by Metsu. In the picture a hunter is offering a bird he has shot to a young lady seated by a window with her sewing. It turns out that “to bird” or “birding” was slang for “having sex.” So any painting that featured a birds, or a hunter, or a young woman with birds had a bit of a double entendre going on. Consequently, these “hunting paintings” were extremely popular during this time.

That should make your next visit to the art museum a little more interesting.

The museum lured us onward with promises of more van Gogh to be had. It turns out these two paintings where pretty much it for the bragged about exhibit.

I was about to be really cross when I turned to find this Piet Mondrian piece behind me. It’s the Oostzijdse Mill along the Gein River in Moonlight.

IMG_5443Most people know Mondrian for his extremely modern paintings of straight black lines on a white background with blocks of primary colors, but he also did traditional landscapes. Beautifully. It was a nice surprise that made being lured in by what I felt were empty promises less annoying.

Piet Mondrian: making museums less annoying.

Another painting that stood out to me was this one. My friend, Marion, grew up in Zambia. She sometimes posts pictures from her childhood and this painting kind of reminded me of the trees in some of her photos. I loved the twilight quality of the light and the silhouetted shapes.

The museum is pretty straightforward to get through. It’s not the winding maze that some museums can be. We barely needed a map, with the exception of that moment we were trying to cross the atrium to go from one side of the museum to the other and accidentally found ourselves outside, to the amusement of the greeters.  We decided this error was due to lack of food so we stopped for a bite at the cafe inside the museum atrium. The food was delicious and overpriced, but came with a great people-watching view where we played “which country are they from.”

The farther you go into the depths of the museum the older the art gets. This art is from the Renaissance and earlier.

We left the Rijksmuseum, on purpose this time, and headed off to meet one of Shaun’s co-workers for dinner. That’s right. Shaun really does know someone everywhere she goes. Right outside the restaurant was this gem of an art piece.


We never did see who owned it, which is too bad. I wanted to shake their hand. I sent this photo to Mark and reminded him that we do need a new car when we moved back to DC. Perhaps the Wookiemobile would inspire him?IMG_5449

We also found the most awesomely named salon ever.

I mean, talk about truth in advertising.  Wimperlifting Waxen?? They must specialize in bikini waxing.

We giggled as we went on to our next appointment. We were on our way to an evening cruise through the canals. Free! Thanks to our Amsterdam City Card.

And it helps that the boats for this particular company were leaving from right outside our hotel. We’d made reservations ahead of time just to be sure. The canal cruises are popular at any time of day and I was worried that the evening cruise would be highly popular.

It turns out I needn’t have been so concerned. The boat was half empty.

The canals give you an interesting view point of Amsterdam.  The buildings are meant to be seen as much as lived in. The churches and other important buildings line the water to make it easy for people to reach them should they be traveling by boat.

In the old days, everyone had a boat or barge. It was a part of life. You saw your neighbors and participated in festivals while sitting in your boat. One popular festival activity was “eel pulling.”  It sounds horrid, but people would hang and eel from a line going across the canal and they would boat by and try to grab the eel and pull it down. To make the eel extra slippery they would coat it in soap. You know, for the challenge.

Well, in 1886 in Jordaan, the establishment decided that large groups of dissatisfied poor people assembling for any reason was a “bad thing.” Eel pulling really brought the people together so they decided that it should be stopped. As a result 26 people were killed by the army as they bashed their way through the canals trying to make arrests and disperse the crowd.

The canals can be romantic, too. Floating along under bridge after bridge. Sipping wine (which we didn’t have) and eating snacks (which we also didn’t have).

IMG_5402And traveling in the evening gives you an amazing vantage point of the harbor at sunset.


It was a fun day! And since we walked about 14km that day we decided to go for dessert in our hotel restaurant.

It was more than delicious. It is worth saving room for a dessert after dinner. The Dutch know their desserts, people, and it would be a shame to miss out.

We were surrounded by Gatsby ambiance, which made it even more fun. And made we want a vodka gimlet.

Amsterdam, you treated us well. I loved the food, the culture, and the people. (Even the tourists.) It is a nice place to visit and I have yet another country checked off my list. Just under the wire before we move back to the States.


Thelma and Louise take on Germany … with kids!

The kids had last week and part of this week off of school. So, what does one do when one has Shaun and the kids?? Go on vacation!!

We left on Wednesday and then got home on Saturday evening. I rented a car and actually drove in two foreign countries – up and down some very, very narrow and winding mountain roads and through crazy German Autobahn traffic. And we all survived and are still speaking to each other.

Let me lay out the itinerary.

  • Day 1 – Drive to Triberg.
The restaurant we ate at on our way to Triberg. It turns out it was Michelin rated!
The restaurant we ate at on our way to Triberg. It turns out it was Michelin rated!

Specifically we drove to Triberg im Schwarzwald. It’s about 3 hours from Basel in the middle of The Black Forest – home of Black Forest Cake, lederhosen and dirndls, and cuckoo clocks.  There is an amazing logging and wood craft industry there. I bought a really cool carved Advent Calendar tree with little tiny ornaments to put on for each day of Advent.  E wanted a sword.  There were many to choose from, but since I hadn’t taken complete leave of my senses he did not get one.  He did, however, get a huge bowl of ice cream.  We all got ice creams.  Shaun and I had intended to get Black Forest Cake. I say “intended” because there are some very important German words I do not know.  One of which translated to “sundae cake” and it meant an ice cream sundae that tasted like Black Forest cake.  It tasted exactly like Black Forest cake. Exactly. However, it was NOT a Black Forest cake.  Not even close.

There are lots of waterfalls and pretty streams in the Black Forest. This one goes right through Triberg.
There are lots of waterfalls and pretty streams in the Black Forest. This one goes right through Triberg.

I did not try on a dirndl.  So there are no pictures of me in a dirndl.  None.

I almost bought a cuckoo clock. We went to The House of 1000 Clocks! And there were at least 1000 clocks.  Available at all prices.  Some cute with quaint carvings and little Bavarian men drinking beer to the chime of the hour. Some with life-like carvings of birds and deer topping the roof line.  There were so many choices!  I had to stop and think about what I wanted. I think Mark and I will make a trip back and find one we really like in a few months.

The House! Of 1000! Clocks!
The House! Of 1000! Clocks!

The hotel that Shaun found for us was a little hidden gem.  Owned by a tiny old woman who was about 90 and her son.  Set away from the main town and up on the side of one of the higher foothills. The main building had a small restaurant in it and was a classic chalet style. There was a low building in the back with guest rooms. We got one that had a smaller room inside with two twin beds for the boys.   Dinner at the hotel was classic German fair and pizza. I had kassespatzel (fresh cheese spatzel) and the boys had pizza.

As an aside – salads in Germany are very much like the salads I grew up with in Iowa. Lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumbers and/or radishes lightly pickled in vinegar, and a warm potato salad.  I’m waiting for Jell-O with carrots or fruit cocktail to show up.

  • Day 2 – Drive to Fussen.

Fussen was about a hour and a half away in the car. Smack in the middle of Bavaria and just north of the Austrian border.  It is famous mostly for Castle Neuschwanstein built by “Mad” King Ludwig II.  Hohenschwangau Castle is there as well.  It was built by Ludwig’s father, Maximilian II. The two are practically spitting distance across the valley from each other.  Hohenschwangau is an actual home of a castle.  They lived there. They (or the nanny) raised their children there.  It is … well….  for a castle it’s cozy. King Luitpold lived there, to0.  He actually had a wheelchair elevator installed in his dotage.

Daddy's Castle
Hohenschwangau Castle

As for Neuschwasanstein, well, it is something else.

The front of Neuschawnstein.  It means New Swan Place.
The front of Neuschawnstein. It means New Swan Place.  For the record, the absolutely gorgeous clouds have not been retouched.

Neuschwanstein is the castle every prince and princess dreams about. No wonder that it was used by Walt Disney as inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland.  (The Nazi’s also used it to store a whole bunch of art they stole in WWII – watch Monument Men for that story.)  King Ludwig was a HUGE fan of Richard Wagner and his operas.  Wagner stayed in Hohenschwangau several times and actually had his own room there.   Ludwig was a lover of art and poetry as well as opera. He was a romantic and being such he designed the castle in the Romantic style. The interior is full of murals depicting the operas Tristan and Isolde, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, and part of the Ring Cycle operas.  Wagner died before the castle was completed so he never got to see his biggest fan’s homage to his operas. Ludwig himself only stayed their 172 days before his mysterious death.  The castle was open for tours 6 weeks later.

The boys outside H
The boys messing around outside Hohenschwangau Castle


Shaun by one of many fountains outside Ho
Shaun by one of many fountains outside Hohenschwangau

Let me digress for a moment to talk about King Ludwig II.  It was reported he was insane.  He was examined by a certain Doctor Bernhard von Gudden who was a leading psychiatrist of the day and declare incompetent and too volatile to rule.  Ludwig, unmarried and childless, was dethroned and just three days later both he and Doctor Gudden were found drowned in Lake Starnberg which is just south of Munich.  However!  Historical documents and letters from Ludwig or from others talking about Ludwig indicate that instead of being insane, he was gay. He was as out as a gay man could be at that point.  He wasn’t about to be married to a queen who could help bring his country out of the debt he had created by building his beautiful castles and he was surely not going to supply an heir to the throne.  He just wanted to rule his country and bring art and beauty into the world. That is an inconvenient goal for a monarch in the 1880s.

Neuschawnstein is a thing of beauty and Ludwig should be proud.

We took a horse-drawn carriage up to the castles.
We took a horse-drawn carriage up to the castles.

Our hotel that night was NOT a thing of beauty.  We thought we were staying in a Gasthaus – a little, independent hotel. It was actually a youth hostel.  We had to call the owner and ask him to come to the house to check us in. By the time he got to the house there were 6 other people waiting to check in.  We told him these accommodations were represented differently to us online and given that we had 2 little kids we could not stay there. “No, no!” he says, “I have another place!”  15 minutes later we were introduced to Gunther the 20 year old pothead in charge of this 3 floor guest house in a part of Fussen I can only describe as “gritty” and “real.”  The room was surprisingly clean and comfortable. Once we had assured ourselves we would not catch anything from the beds we paid our little friend waaaay too much money (i.e. *any* money) and settled in.  After a little dinner at an Italian place called “Chili’s” where Shaun ordered a pasta dish that contained no less than 3 habanero peppers, had a passable night’s sleep; taking turns listening for potential thieves and murderers.

  • Day 3 – Drive to Ulm and LEGOLAND!!!

For weeks I’ve been fielding my children’s questions about Legoland.

“When are we going to Legoland?”

“Is Auntie Shaun here yet for Legoland?”

“Why isn’t Auntie Shaun here yet?”

“Is she coming to visit soon?”

“How soon after she gets here are we going to Legoland?”

“Is today Legoland day?”

And so on…

For weeks.

And so on this day, at the crack of dawn, the children’s eyes popped open and their first words were, “Legoland!”

Our first words were “Coffee.”

After a wild goose chase through Neuschawnstein we managed to find coffee, croissants, and other child-approved pastries on our way to Legoland. The car ride conversation when something like this….




And, lo, we arrived at Legoland.

The Land of Legos.
The Land of Legos.

And much fun was had.

A scale model of Venice built entirely out of Legos.
A scale model of Neuschawnstein!
A scale model of Neuschawnstein!

Mark arrived on Day 2 of Legoland, because one cannot possibly see all of Legoland in just one day. Especially when there are huge play grounds all over the park along with rides and Lego worlds.

The Millennium Falcon as Mos Eisley.
The Millennium Falcon as Mos Eisley.

But it was gloriously fun and Mark was like a little kid again.




Fine, we were all little kids again.

Don't judge. Lightsabers will always be cool.
Don’t judge. Lightsabers will always be cool.

Another great Adventure with Shaun. And my family!