Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

Gables, canals, bikes, art and books

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Or, Sherry and Melle do another trip.

This time we went to the Netherlands, staying in Amsterdam, and Belgium, staying in Antwerp.

Starting in Amsterdam

The palace on The Dam

Palace on The Dam

Flight in was pretty uneventful and we managed to keep going until check-in at 2pm, which left us with no sleep for 24 hours or so. Hotel location was excellent, just off the Dam Square and walkable to the train station. The other good thing about our hotel? It was the repository for the Big Book of Amsterdam. I managed to read it from cover to cover and it was like the Delphic Oracle of all things Amsterdam – much to Melle’s chagrin, I’m sure.

On first glance, Amsterdam is a bit like Temple Bar in Dublin and not fair for the comparison–dirty, lots of garbage, and always looking like there was a crazy party the night before. Mostly this is the case around the Red Light District and they clean it up pretty quickly.

Walked past Anne Frank’s house but about the only thing you can see is big line-ups. We also saw the Old (Oude) Kerk and the New Kerk. Old Kerk had some beautiful paintings on wood that are sadly disappearing.

The church in the attic

Another interesting museum was the Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) – it’s a house that has a full Catholic church in the attic that was hidden when Catholics were no longer allowed to worship in public. The sheer logistics are boggling, and it has some nice furniture and tiles.

As one would expect, there are enough cobbles to make high heels a hazard. Wisely, most Amsterdamians (Amsterdammers?) wear sensible shoes, which also makes it easier to ride their sturdy bikes. Bikes are EVERYWHERE. We contemplated how many would be left if they had a bike clean-up day, since it’s pretty obvious that more than a few have weather a few seasons or twelve in the place they’ve come to rest.

After a 2-hour nap, we set off on the longest search evar for a restaurant to eat at, and ended up back at the first one we saw and liked. I had a great lentil soup and a decent duck, with mediocre wine (the norm, as I soon discovered – beer choice is awesome, but not so much the wine).

Then came Museum Day, or should I say part one of Museum Day, since we ended up hitting many museums during our trip. We started off in the Flower Market, which is a lovely spot of colour in the morning, then we made our way to the main museum (Rijksmuseum) – some amazing Vermeers, furniture and so on.

Dollhouses were for the Housewives of Amsterdam back in the day

Then in a park we noticed a ticket kiosk for the Van Gogh exhibit, since the Van Gogh museum was closed for repairs. So we bought some.

Turned out to be the smartest thing in vacation planning history – by the time we got to the Hermitage where the exhibit was, there was a line about 3 blocks long to get in. And like the rock stars we are, we went straight to the front and straight into the museum just by waving our little tickets around. We found out that, not only was this the first day the exhibit was open at the Hermitage, but they had a special touring exhibit of the Impressionists at the same time. Double-score.

Snarfy attendant wouldn’t let us take in our cameras, and they we got in there and everyone else seemed to have their cameras and iPads fully operational. I was not impressed.

Speaking of iPads, this is the first trip where the tablet has made an impression. I must say that people still look kind of weird walking around the streets or exhibits holding up their tablet to various things and taking pictures. Still haven’t figured out what the advantage would be, and it sure is a lot more to carry and position (besides being a nice beacon to people with less-than-welcoming intentions).

At this point we were starving for lunch, but could not get service for love or money. First place had no server, second place had stopped serving lunch… Finally found a cafe for sandwiches and beer. Thanks to the big walk among the museums, we had now seen most of the cultural areas in Amsterdam.

Had an amazing Indonesian meal that night, finished with the best decaf espresso I’ve ever tasted (I’m sure the mango-papaya sorbet didn’t hurt either). Thanks, Yelp.

Only downside to our hotel was that the back street was a thoroughfare from one bar area to another, so we were treated to intermittent catcalls and singing through the night. I swear I heard Paul Anka about 2am. I had no idea he was popular with hen parties.


Great picture of the many types of gable in the city.

Then there is morning in Amsterdam. We started to feel like we weren’t off to a good start until we had our “breakfast weed” (aroma only).  Usually it was just a wiff as we went past a coffeeshop, but sometimes it was a dude (always a dude) walking down the street. Also, they don’t like to eat early. Nowhere to eat before 9am except for one or two intrepid cafes and our hotel restaurant which had a buffet for the price of a nice pair of shoes.

We took the train up to Utrecht on a Monday, and discovered the second rule of Netherlands – which is the Netherlands is closed on Mondays. And the third rule, which is that Utrecht doesn’t open until noon, unless it opens at 1pm. Nevertheless, we did manage to get to see the cathedral there, and it is a pretty little university town.

Very interesting story with it – there’s a tower and the cathedral, and a kind of square in between. Turns out there was more cathedral there, …until a tornado whipped through there in 1674. Though the history of this church is more complicated than that – it was fought over, half-completed, Catholic, Protestant. In fact, many of the statues and religious decorations are defaced – thanks to some hooligans in the Reformation who wanted to take vengeance on idolatry.

The cloister at the cathedral in Utrecht

Seeing as everything else was closed, we settled in for some tea on the canal, literally. There was a cafe built on a bridge. I had my usual – “fresh mint tea”. This is something I found in Amsterdam, but it’s all over the Netherlands. Basically, you pick some mint from the garden, shove a fistful in a glass, then pour hot water over it. It’s usually served with honey and a biscuit. I keep meaning to see if mint in large quantities turns into something other than “medicinal”. We were also offered mayo only with our fries whenever they were ordered – when I asked for ketchup the one time, they thought I was nuts.

During our late tea back at the Dam, Melle discovered that the pigeons of Amsterdam don’t have all their toes. Them are some mean streets. After a nap, we went off to a neat restaurant on a canal that is built into the cellar and had lots of meat and a few vegetables. we were into the swing of things by then – not finishing dinner until close to 10pm.

Tour to the islands

The next day we went on a tour to Marken, Volendam and a UNESCO heritage site that has some of the original traditional windmills (there aren’t that many left compared to the heyday).

We had brief demos of cheese-making and clog-making at Marken. The village has a lot of traditional houses – many of which were originally built on stilts back when it used to flood all of the time until the Dutch built a dam (as they are wont to do). So now the lower areas are all closed in – no doubt for the rec room and mod cons.

Traditional windmills on a rainy day

From there, we hopped on a ferry to the island of Volendam. Mostly a tourist kind of place, but we had amazing fish & chips for lunch – like, fish right off the boat fish, and since it was a bit blustery and rainy, it was hot and perfect. By the time we got to the windmills, it was pouring, but it was quite neat to see the saltbox houses and windmills along the small canals. Felt very Vermeer. Thankfully, we didn’t have any complete douchebags on this tour, though we did have one lady who talked on her phone through most of it.

Big pet peeve of the modern age – a tour guide is NOT TELEVISION. Why pay money to take a tour if you aren’t going to listen to it??

Off to Antwerp

I was very thankful to have the tablet along for the trip – while planning the train trip to Antwerp the night before, I stumbled on the fact that the train union in Belgium was staging a one-day strike on the day we wanted to travel. I was able to book bus tickets instead, but seriously – random train strikes are not cool.

View of the cathedral at Antwerp

Again, we lucked out with hotel location, though we couldn’t find it for the one-way streets on the way in. It was a short walk to the Grot Markt and not far from the tain station for the ride home – and blissfully quiet.

If The Netherlands doesn’t open until noon, Belgium closes at 7pm. Also, lots of pizza places.

Cathedral was impressive as cathedrals go. Bonus art exhibit while were there – not that we needed more art, but it became the them of the trip. We also walked out to the harbour front and saw a plaque for Canadian soldiers who liberated it in WWII. Back at the square I had an excellent beef stew, and the night’s entertainment was watching a young Japanese business man trying to keep his senior happy – they ended up ordering most of the dishes on the menu and half the beers and hardly touched any of it.Also noted: Belgians really like pop music, especially from the 80s.


It’s everything you heard. Definitely a must-see. We were there for a full day. Square was cool. Tons of great architecture and museums. Took a boat ride on the canals. Saw still more art. I still pick Carcasonne for pure “holy shit, history!”, but it was a great day. The beautifully preserved medieval town hall would do nicely as a library, if a bit ostentatious. Had a great mussel soup for lunch and the first real salad of the trip.

Main square in Bruges (Brugge)

That night’s meal back in Antwerp was our favourite–at Het Elfte Gebod–a bar/restaurant across from the cathedral that is famous for its collection of religious statues. Great meal – duck confit with orange jus and veg, followed by lemon tart and an Oban. When I specified “no ice”, the server said “but of course”. He was a good man. Melle had a huge St Bernardus beer (10% alcohol) and was a little tipsy by the time we got home.

Hardware for the 1600s.

For our final day in Antwerp, we picked out a few more museums. Went to Rubenshuis first. He was a very wealthy man in his time, that’s for sure, but if you have a royal patronage, that’s the way it goes. Unbelievable how much they have preserved, and painted leather wallpaper was the decorator’s tip for the day. Also saw way more Jesii (Jesuses?) than strictly necessary for one day. After a bit of shopping and a coffee in the main square, we went to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Plantin was a well-known and successful printer and publisher in the early 1600s and his son-in-law Moretus took over the business after him. The place is like it was 440 years ago – with working presses (2 from 1604), print machinery, stamps and an impressive collection of early books, including a Gutenberg.  Melle was well pleased she got me out of there, and without my trying to stuff anything in my bra.

After another pizza lunch, we hit our last museum.  A modest one where there used to be an “orphanage” – where women used to drop off their girl babies to be raised by nuns. The twist is that they would often leave a half a playing card with the baby, in case they wanted to have a reunion sometime later in life (one assumes poverty or lack of a husband drove them to do this). The building once had a purpose-built “shelf” on the outside where people could deposit their babies. There was one for boys as well.

And that was pretty much it – one final nice meal and then a looong and interesting day of travel home.

Going home

Ended up taking a taxi to the train station instead of walking because it was pouring rain, and as if to mark our departure, the cabbie had 80s pop blasting – we were entertained by a particularly campy, talk-singing earnest song about “Geanie”, made all the more delightful when Melle figured out it is by Falco and has a video almost equal to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.

Anyway, we printed out our boarding passes only to find out that we were on standby, and could not know if we actually had seats on the plane until about 45 minutes before final boarding. After lunch we made our way to the gate, got through a full bodyscan at security, only to be told that we were, in fact, in line for a flight to Mexico City. Hoofed it to another gate, waited. Then heard the announcement that our flight was delayed 2 hours. Waiting at the front of the line. Lovely man at the counter could not find tickets with our names on it, but after some exchange in Dutch with his supervisor, we had tickets! Upgraded to comfort class! From there, the flight was A-Okay, if late.

Very tired when we got home, though, since it was about 4am as far as our body clocks were concerned.




SKA isn’t just music anymore

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Made it to another PI lecture last week. This one was Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO (Commenwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization) who was here, presumably, celebrating Canada’s recent entry into the supporter’s ring for the Square Kilometer Array.

The whole project is a pretty interesting world cup of who’s gonna get the array. It’s a series of several types of radio receivers that comprise what will be the most sensitive radio telescope we’ve ever created. The idea is that they will be able to look “back” at the early universe and get a much better understanding of how things came to be, and maybe get a handle on just what the hell black energy and black matter really is. Essentially looking at the smooth universe from much earlier after the big bang and before it got all clumpy (if, indeed, that is how it happened).

Harvey-Smith was an engaging speaker who made liberal use of video and humour (to better effect, I thought, when she wasn’t discussing her primary research and the array – almost as if it’s too hard to be irreverent with the thing you most care about).

What’s more interesting is that every aspect of this project is pretty much open market competition, including the ultimate site for the array (thanks to @Melle for the link). It may be a defining moment for Africa if they get the bid. There’s some pretty mind-boggling innovation required, including how to cool facilities in a desert in a way that is environmentally sound, and get enough computing power together to process the equivalent of the Internet every day. But they’ve got the guy who has a copyright on wifi working on the project, so they may have a shot at it.

I came out of there with one essential question though: if the actual space needed is thousands of kilometers, why the hell is it the Square Kilometer Array?

Wherein I got to do a scotch tasting

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

At our latest Straightup KW, I was the taste host for “The Isles Have It”.

We came full circle this time – back to the KW Art Gallery and back to scotch. MamaPapa Catering provided fantastic food that was well-matched to my final selections:

  • Tasting #1: Tobermory 10, served with maple roasted walnuts with black pepper and orange salt. The nuts and salt brought out the nutty and spring mint taste of the scotch, with a bit of the sea creeping in on the finish.
  • Tasting #2: Ardbeg 10, served with panko crusted sea scallop with bacon shallot relish. Seriously, these two things are a culinary delight. The Ardbeg is fantastically balanced even though it’s the biggest peat going, and the scallops gave it a mellow sea salt, leather wonderful finish. There were also trout rillettes alongside. Taken all together, one of the best pairings ever.
  • Tasting #3: Highland Park 15, served with slow roasted pork belly with honey gastrique and cranberry fry bread with triple cream brie and apricot ginger chutney. Highland Park is famous for its heather honey smoke and the pork served it really well. Highland Park 12 is many a person’s standard scotch, so the 15 was an interesting step up on the palette – very alike, just more so.
  • Tasting #4: Bowmore Darkest 15, served with a dark chocolate ganoche wifth sea salt and a sprig of candied orange. And let me tell you, that orange/salt/choco combo send the Bowmore to new fruity depths. Especially the orange.

Alongside the tasting notes, I had a chance to tell a few tales about the Isles of Scotland where these whiskies came from. I think everyone enjoyed the legend of the Selkies (from the Orknies, where Highland Park is) – most likely cuz it’s about seduction, of course.

The gallery exhibit that we toured comprised of some interesting installations on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Since many of the installations are to do with sound and light, the gallery itself was dark. I think the interrogation glass cube was the favourite, but there was also a cool lightbox presentation of bugs that caught my eye.

This was a great experience for me – I like scotch a lot, but I’m no professional, so the research and taste pairings were a lot of fun. I enjoyed the process of finding out more about the whiskies and the isles and the legends that go with them.


This is a picture I did not take

Monday, December 26th, 2011

of two men, in Russian mafia tracksuits, walking goats on leashes through the grounds of the local hospital.

Christmas content, stories

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

So I gave you a few Christmas songs to enjoy, and have one to add (courtesy of Cathy at Cultureguru): Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”.

And I also have some stories to go with the holiday season….

1. Now a holiday classic, I give you David Sedaris and “Six to Eight Black Men”. I dare you not to laugh.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

2. A little fun from Mr Gaiman with “Hanukkah with bells on“. Trees are pagan, and therefore for all of us.

We were not jealous of friends who got Christmas presents. We were jealous of the friends with Christmas trees.

It’s science!

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Had the pleasure of attending some of the Stephen Hawking Center events at Perimeter Institute today. The new building is very Escheresque–up and down stairs and multiple hallways and little courtyards where you least expect them. Good thing they put in lifts; otherwise, Mr Hawking himself would have a hard time getting there.

We attended a public lecture by George Dyson, who, when faced with the spectre of his father, Freeman (awesome little  man), and his sister, Esther, buggered off to Vancouver at the age of 16 to build canoes. Of course, he came back into the fold as a science historian, especially of digital science.

Dyson presented a very accessible history of digital science at his lecture, enhanced with wonderfully human artifacts from his research, including logs from ENIAC  (computer error, not human!!; I give up!) and memos about people stealing sugar for their tea. He revealed the direct links between what was designed in the early days of computers and what we have today–we haven’t changed the blueprints, so to speak, we’ve just made things smaller and faster. And my geek-type friends appreciated that he focused on operations and the “how” we did it, not just the “thinking” about it.

Right after that, we did the tour, the Escher stairs, and so on. Lots of minimalism, and I think we agreed the only thing we didn’t like were some odd, scratchy-looking rug tiles in the common areas. The community outreach was very well done. Random Hawking videos in meeting rooms, facts  & figures on chalkboards, and “ask a physicist” opportunities in the sitting areas. You could even talk to the architects (and maybe ask them about the ugly rugs…)

We also got in for the Julie Payette presentation. She has a good sense of humour, and the videos & images she brought with her were pretty impressive. Some “day in the life” of living on the space station, and lots about what Earth looks like from space. The ones that stayed with me are spacewalkers stuck by the feet on the end of the Canadarm (you have to lock them in so they don’t wander off into the dark). And the “little blue planet” ones–which Julie used to deliver her main message: “Borders are imaginary and you can’t see them from space.”

When asked whether she worried about the risks of being an astronaut, she said she saw the lunar landing when she was young, and despite the fact that she was a girl, in Montreal, who couldn’t speak English, she knew she wanted to do that, and her parent didn’t laugh. They told her to start working on it.

I sat back and pondered once again what the dignitaries and visiting speakers must think when they come to Waterloo. What kind of freakish place is this? That thousands of people flock to a center for theoretical physics…

View from the back porch last night

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Rolling lightning bright as day in the sky, throwing tall clouds into sinister relief. Big bolts forking down not too far away. And thunder so grand it shook the windows.



Saturday, July 16th, 2011

Our second Straightup KW event – the Great Canadian Whiskey Tasting was a most excellent night. We had it at the Clay & Glass Gallery this time around and the theme was Canadian Whiskey (duh).

Gord Tanner was our tasting host, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter was evident. He opened with a kind of “shout it out” poll on our favs – quite a few 40 Creek fans, one or two Chivas guys, but no one with the guts to mention CC (though we did refer jauntily to our collective experience with replacing pilfered CC with tea during the teen years). Gord talked about mashes and coopers and oaks and such. He was entertaining and passionate about his subject.

Of the four whiskeys, my favourite was the 40 Creek Confederation Oak (one of a very few whiskeys done with Canadian Oak), but the Alberta Premium 30 year-old was probably the darling of the night — my second choice, but first for many of the people there. The Alberta Premium is a 100% rye mash, which is actually very unusual, for a drink that is regularly called “rye”.

Wiser’s Legacy was the first one we had, and it really set the tone for “old school Canadian whiskey”. Gord says it’s made from an original recipe. It definitely was voted “most likely to go well with mix”, not because it was bad, but because it had that mixy kinda taste.

The last whiskey we tasted was the Crown Royal Cask 16, which is a special release from the new master blender over there. The Cask 16 has a cognac finish on it, and though it was the most expensive one of the bunch, it definitely wasn’t the most popular one. …Until people got hold of the apricot puff pastries with whiskey glaze that Steph from Little Mushroom Catering served as an accompaniment.  Then all of a sudden the world made sense.

In fact, the food was delicious. Splendid cheese selection, cheese-wrapped meatballs in a 40 Creek glaze, really yummy-spicy chicken skewers with avocado puree, this smoked salmon & wasabi cream thing that people attacked AND grilled asparagus with proscuitto & mango. Bonus points awarded for Steph’s inspired choice to put some Hickory Sticks out, cuz, really, could it be more Canadian rec room?

The gallery exhibit was a look at Mother Nature, and her complete disinterest in the arc of human existence. Seems a weighty subject to approach with glass art, but there were some interesting pieces. Several of us got a bit mesmerized by the changing rings of colour and fire in the “round room” (and it wasn’t the drink).

Plans are afoot for another event in the Fall. Bourbon, anyone?

40 Creek Confederation Oak

40 Creek Confederation Oak

This is a picture I did not take…

Sunday, July 10th, 2011

of a grey-haired grandma in her Sunday best, trying to convince her husband to join her in a bit of booty-shaking to Turkish folk music in Uptown Square.


Monday, June 13th, 2011

The Ebstorf Map was created at the Ebstorf Abbey in the mid 13th Century, then a convent. It’s not a map as we know them, but rather a representation of the world in Christ’s hands, with Jerusalem at its center, and scary things like manticores and cannibals around the edges of what’s known (and no North America at all).

Adam and Eve on the Ebstorf Map

Adam and Eve on the Ebstorf Map

When asked about this close-up of Adam and Eve, the current Abbess says each has an apple to represent equality. And she loves that the serpent is a man, as evidenced by his beard.