Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Before our trip, we contacted a private guide named Ab Walet recommended by Rick Steves.  We spent Sunday afternoon with him walking around Amsterdam, and also had a day trip outside of the city planned for Tuesday. The Kenisons and the Jackmans and flown back to the States, so there were just six of us left.  Ab recommended Leiden, a town of about 120,000 people 40 km south of Amsterdam.  We caught one of the clean, efficient trains at the station not far from our hotel:

There is a lot to enjoy in this colorful, creative city:
Leiden Train Station, interior
. . . and Leiden Train Station, exterior
The motif of two red keys is everywhere. The keys first showed up on the city seal in 1293. Peter, keeper of keys, is the patron saint of Leiden, and these are the keys to the gates of heaven.
Leiden is a wonderfully artistic city, and, for being as large as it is, it is also a great walking city, meaning that a lot of intriguing sites are found within a relatively small area.  The area where we spent most of our time was quiet and peaceful.  I don't know why, but there were very few people out and about, even though it was a Tuesday.
Everywhere we looked there were interesting things to see.  The Leideners have quite a sense of style:

I especially got a kick out of this stone and mosaic bench sitting in the middle of a sidewalk:
Leiden is definitely a City of Art:

Like the rest of the Netherlands, it is also a City of Bikes:

Along with the usual McDonald's, we noticed other signs of American infiltration:

One can't really talk about the Netherlands without mentioning the ubiquitous canals, which were just as picturesque in Leiden as they were in Kinderdijk and Amsterdam:
Leiden is also a City of Flowers:

Dutch architecture is very distinct:

Lush, well-manicured private yards were everywhere, surrounded on three sides by entrances to small apartments and on the fourth by a privacy wall:
Even the newer buildings were distinctly different from what I'm used to seeing:

We even learned a little bit about early American history while we were in Leiden. Who knew that the Pilgrims set sail from this city in 1620?  I always thought they left from England.


Thursday, March 14, 2013


Today is my mother's birthday.  If she were alive, she would be 87 years old.  It is also the birthday of one of her heroes: Albert Einstein, born 134 years ago today.
Perhaps the most fun I ever had with my mom involved Albert Einstein in a rather peripheral way. It happened on December 19-20, 2000.  Bob and I and the boys had flown to Paris to pick up Rachael from a study abroad, and then we drove a rental car to Germany to meet Mom in Pforzheim. By the 19th we had already been together five days and had grown used to each other as traveling companions.  We had spent time in Pforzheim, Stuttgart, Rosenberg, Freiberg, Salzburg, and many sites around Bavaria, and we were slowly making our way back to the French-German border.

Mom had prepared us for days for our visit to Ulm, the home of Dr. Einstein and one of her favorite cities in all of Germany. As we were driving, she told us a little about Einstein's life, lamented the fact that his Theory of Relativity was part of the basis for the atomic bomb, and pointed out that he renounced the bomb years after the war. Like Mom, Einstein had immigrated to the United States and had become an American citizen.  I can understand why she felt some connection to him.

Anyway, Mom had booked a hotel for us right across the street from the famous Ulm Cathedral, the largest Protestant Cathedral in the world with the tallest spire.  It is impossible to get a good picture, so I've included here a few scans of the postcards we purchased while there.  Our hotel was just to the left of the church.

We arrived late in the day.  It had been raining, and a wispy fog had settled in over Ulm.  The churchyard was lit up with all the festivities of a huge Weihnachtsmarkt--a tangle of garland-festooned booths, white Christmas lights, tantalizing aromas of frying bratwurst and hot sauerkraut and roasting chestnuts, and the ever-present fruity smell of gluhwein, the hot German toddy served outdoors all season long.  We wandered among the booths, and I remember the horror of one proprietress when one of our kids put mustard on his sauerkraut.  Tsk, tsk.

The market itself was magical, but the heart stopper was the illuminated cathedral spire, rising forever into the mist, obscured by the fog in places and appearing in patches here and there, a gothic Everest.  It was unbelievably breathtaking, and Mom was in her element as we ooh-ed and ah-ed.   It meant so much to her to share the magnificence of it all.

I think of what it must have been like for Mom to grow up in one culture and raise her children in another, never really sharing the same history. I'm grateful that during this week in Germany, we were able to get a glimpse of Mom's past. I wish there had been more times like that.  

The next morning we went inside the cathedral, and Mom encouraged us to pay the fee to climb the ever-turning 768 steps to the very top of the spire. It was the first time we had done this, and I have in my travel journal that it was Sam's favorite part of the trip.
Andrew and I near the top

My photo of the Danube taken from inside the spire
MY favorite part of the trip, however, came later that day.  In the early morning hours of the 20th, a farmers market had moved into the alleyway we had driven down the previous evening to get to the hotel parking lot, and we were essentially trapped. On top of that, we were driving a van with French license plates, and there is no love lost between the French and the Germans. Mom, however, had plans to take us to Speyer. She was not one to let an obstacle like a mere farmers market slow her down. With only Bob in the van, Mom directed him down the crowded alleyway. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, she scurried up and down the narrow street, gesturing and calling out and creating a path. Some of the vendors had to actually move their displays to let us through. There were more than a few Germans who shook their fists at Bob, cursing the stupidity of "French" drivers. Mom remained cheerful and friendly, and at the end of the lane, we all hopped in and sped away, hoping never to be in a situation like that again.
Mom in the white coat
That was quintessential Mom. How I miss her.

The obvious choice for Ulm is Einstein: His life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, the same author who penned the biography of Steve Jobs. I listened to the audiobook version, and while it was very long (21 hours 30 minutes) and full of discussion about math and physics principles that were way over my head, I really enjoyed learning about Einstein's time in the Swiss patent office, his family and professional relationships, his struggles as a Jew, and his very complex ties to his homeland.

Based on newly released personal correspondence, this is considered the definitive biography of Einstein.