Category Archives: 0. The Netherlands

Artie Aardvark Navigates to Noordwijk

Per tradition of this blog, my experiences last week at the Dutch astronomers conference is handed off to the mascot of my project, Artie Aardvark.  Take it away, Artie!

Last week I was very excited, as it was time to meet up with all my good friends in Dutch astronomy at the NAC, the annual Dutch astronomers conference.  Hooray!  NAC is in a different place every year, and this year it was in Noordwijk, which is near Amsterdam in the middle of the area famous for tulip fields in spring.  Because it’s not that far from Yvette’s apartment in Amsterdam- Google Maps said it would take two hours of bicycling- but a bit of a hassle to get to with public transportation, I decided to go to the conference by bicycle.  I hope the Astrobites poster is secure enough for the ride!

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During the ride I discovered this is a very pretty part of Holland, and in fact probably the area people imagine when they think of when they think of the Dutch countryside.  There were lots of bicycle trails everywhere, and canals, and even flower fields!

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There are also a lot of little roadside stands like this in this part of Holland, at the end of the driveways for the farms.  You can buy flowers directly from the farmers by putting money in the little box on the side, which I thought was really cool.

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Finally after two and a half hours of biking- I guess Google Maps doesn’t take into account the fact that aardvarks can’t pedal as fast as humans*- I made it to the conference, poster and all!  Hooray!

* or, you know, Artie’s photographer for the occasion isn’t up for Google Maps estimates when stopping often for photos… -YC

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I must say, the NAC is a very good conference to attend if you are learning all about astronomy like me and are curious about many things.  This is because it is small with about 200 scientists and students this year, and you can learn about a lot of different topics.  My favorite talks were about a young pulsar who had a companion that might be another pulsar, and the discovery of an extrasolar planet with rings over four hundred times bigger than those of Saturn.  That’s more than the distance from the Sun to Venus!  Amazing!

When the talks were done, though, it was time to have fun with all my astronomer friends!  First we found a geocache next to the hotel disguised to look like a log next to a tree…

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And then because we were near the beach, we went there to enjoy the spring sunshine!

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Afterwards, I was really hungry and decided to have a snack…

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And got up my energy for the bowling competition later that night!  My friend Dario even won a prize for having one of the best bowling scores!

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This was also my least favorite part of the conference, though, because while Yvette stopped paying attention to me for a few minutes I was aardvark-napped by some other astronomers!  Luckily I was found and safe the whole time, but it was scary!

Anyway, at the end of the conference, it was time to cycle back to Amsterdam.  This time I took a different route, along the sand dunes by the North Sea.  It’s probably the most isolated area I’ve seen in Holland… and also the hilliest!  It might not look like much, but the bike is a single speed so some of those dunes felt steep!

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I was also surprised at one point to see a lot of antennas poking out of the dunes, and discover a huge radio listening station!  Apparently it was used to receive signals when the Dutch still had colonies in the East Indies and other far away places, and also by the Germans in World War 2 to listen for their U-boats.  You can pick up all sorts of far away signals when next to the ocean due to special conditions there.20140528-113532-41732796.jpg

Finally, after the dunes I turned in towards Haarlem to catch the train home from there- you can bike all the way back to Amsterdam, of course, but that ride is not very interesting and I was getting a little tired by this point.  There was still a lot to see though, because between the North Sea and Haarlem a lot of rich Dutch merchants hundreds of years ago built country houses.  A lot of them look like palaces to me!  This was the view of Elswout, which I found when a little lost on the bicycle path.  It is very neat how in Holland even when you get lost you find the nicest, prettiest places…

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Finally, when I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf for a nice long nap.  NAC is good, but left me NACered by the end of it!

Historic Willemstad, Curacao

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One of the odd things about the Dutch is like many small nations they have slight inferiority complexes about some topics, and my experience is colonialism is one of them.  They didn’t manage to grab as big a chunk of the world as England or Spain, so the Dutch spend a surprising amount of time lamenting things like how their ancestors traded Manhattan for Suriname.  I suspect this is all a combination of slight national hubris and wishing their bitterballen were more readily available elsewhere, which they nurse by ensuring you can drink Heineken in ever-more-remote corners of the planet.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is the Dutch have still convinced a few places around the globe to fly the Dutch flag, and one of the ones they have clung to the longest is Curacao.  Curacao has been a “constituent country” for a few years now- they run their own affairs but are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when it comes to foreign policy and all those things- but more importantly the island is crammed to this very day with Dutch tourists and expats to the point where I practiced my Dutch more here than I normally do in a week in Amsterdam.  Curiously, they only got this island in the first place because no one else wanted it- the Spanish found it in the 1500s but were not impressed due to its lack of gold and much fresh water, so when the Dutch decided to claim it in the 1600s as a base for trade in the area no one really complained or made much fuss over things.  From there they proceeded to build fortifications to defend the port of Willemstad, along with a town with canal houses as only the Dutch can-

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Like many towns in Europe, there is an elaborate set of chimes to ring out the hour and half hour, complete with local wooden figures who march around the clock on the hour.  Except of course we are not in Europe, so the figures are Caribbean!

Willemstad has been a bustling outpost of the Dutch kingdom ever since (excepting a few inevitable fights with the British here and there), first as a center of the slave trade which made them rather wealthy and then when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 1900s and a refinery was built over the old slave pens, making the Dutch in Curacao very wealthy again.  The local government now owns the refinery which is in turn leased to the Venezuelans, but what makes Willemstad interesting compared to many other Caribbean towns overrun by tourism is how they still have big ships devoted to industry passing through-

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Whenever the big ships come through, half the town is divided from the other half because it necessitates opening the Swinging Lady bridge, a pontoon bridge that pedestrians use to cross the channel.  It really is something else lit up at night!

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photo (17)Anyway, after mulling it over I decided the Dutch really ought to forgive their ancestors for trading Manhattan for Suriname already- it’s clear they were tired of the weather and decided if they were going to cross the ocean to a colony there’d best be beaches and cocktails waiting there.  And my experience with Dutch is they also love to complain how they just traveled to a new exotic location only to run into fellow Dutchmen there, so this surely would be a greater issue if they’d done colonialism a little more successfully.

That said, to be clear Willemstad is a lovely little town, and a nice break to explore from the beaches of Curacao.  It really is no exaggeration that if you’d told me to imagine a Dutch town in the Caribbean this is pretty much exactly what I would picture it like!

 

How to Plan the Perfect Weekend Trip

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The view over Salzburg, Austria

So far this year I haven’t had time to cover them, but I’ve been on a few weekend trips both in the Netherlands and abroad.  One of the main reasons I wanted to move to Europe back in the day was the allure of the weekend trip- I knew I wanted to do my astronomy PhD which is definitely more than a full time job if you look at the hours (or how often one posts to her blog), but I also wanted to spend a decent fraction of my weekends exploring and that is a lot easier to do here.  It’s part the scale of things- it was a 2.5 hour drive from Cleveland to Pittsburgh with nothing in between, here that amount of time puts you in Cologne or Brussels- and part the infrastructure of public transport and budget flights is so much better.  And gee, having to pick a weekend in London versus Barcelona is much more interesting than Columbus or Buffalo!

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands

Valkenburg Castle- the only castle built on a hill in the Netherlands (pretty much on the border in the south with Belgium and Germany)

That said, I have a slight reputation now amongst my friends on my weekend trip planning, so I promised to write down a few tips.  Mind, a lot of these points and websites work outside of Europe too, but how well really varies depending where you are- one nice thing in Europe for example is I have never had to think about transportation at a given destination (as I have yet to be proven wrong in my assumption that there will be excellent public transportation), but you certainly can’t always make that assumption in much of the USA.

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

Climbing the city walls in gorgeous York, England

1) Planning ahead. I have many hobbies, and I like to joke that one of them is planning trips I might not necessarily take because I can only be in once place at a time.  And this is in many ways true, because unlike the many reasons people travel if you’re just going for a weekend you likely don’t care where you are going specifically on a particular weekend.  Sure, I have my list of places to visit, but I don’t usually care if I visit a particular place in a particular month within reason.

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

Maastricht, Netherlands- about as far south as you can get and still be in the country, with definite French influences!

To take advantage of this I know of two good websites to see what’s good on a given weekend.  The first is Google Flights, where you enter your given dates, starting airport, and all parameters you want (time, price, connections), and it generates a map of all the flights that meet your criteria and the prices that match.  The second is Zap Travel, a site where you enter your details from a starting destination (“weekend skiing in March” or “long weekend Germany 3 star hotels” or what have you- you can do longer trips as well) and it returns to you a list of places that fit your criteria with flights and hotels.  Both are quite useful but in different ways.

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

Beer Hall in Salzburg- you grabbed a stein off the shelf, washed it and then got beer poured straight from the barrel!

2) Try to get in by dinner on Friday night if at all possible, even if it’s a late dinner.  This is because a weekend is a really short time- you often barely show up before it’s time to leave again- but somehow psychologically there is a world of difference between showing up near midnight and collapsing into bed and waking up early Saturday and briefly going out and trying a local dish (and then collapsing into bed).  It just somehow makes the entire weekend seem that much longer.

Ruins of St. Mary's Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Monastery in York- once the wealthiest monastery in northern England, it was shuttered by Henry VIII during his dissolution of the monasteries.

3) Don’t take the Monday morning flight.  I think everyone learns this the hard way- when you first start the weekend trips you see that 6am Monday morning flight home, and think how much nicer two full days in a location would be instead of rushing to the airport on Sunday.  But it’s a trap!  A 6am flight means you have to be at the airport at 5am, meaning in many cities you have to leave where you’re staying at 4am, meaning you’re not enjoying your Sunday night cause you’re trying to sleep so you can pay for an outrageously expensive taxi cause public transport isn’t running that early. (Plus, honestly, even if you stay up Sunday night is rarely interesting anywhere if you’ve just lived through Friday and Saturday nights.) You still get into work on time- heck often earlier than anyone else if you’re an astronomer like me and no one shows up before 10am anyway- but heaven help you if your job requires thinking and you woke up at 4am that day.

This isn’t to say I don’t take Monday morning flights still- I will if visiting a place with friends or family for example, as time with loved once is precious, or if there is an absurd price difference that is over the cost of an extra night.  But if I’m just going on my own I now get home by Sunday.

"Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!"

“Are you telling me that my children have been running around Salzburg dressed in nothing but some old DRAPES?!”

4) In a city, stay at a place near the train station.  Or metro line that brought you from the airport, or wherever.  I normally wouldn’t, as train stations are rarely located in super interesting areas in themselves, but they are central and a big place requires navigating public transport instead of walking anyway.  Much better to dump your bag and hop onto one of many options from the station to see something you want to see then spend an a long time getting somewhere with your bag just to dump it… and then do the same thing Sunday in reverse.

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

The Bridges of Valkenburg in the southern Netherlands

5) Beware the budget airport.  Now this depends how much disposable income you have to devote to your traveling habit, and often going is better than not going at all even if you are spending an extra two hours traveling each direction, but things that are worth schlepping out for a week away make rapidly less sense when we’re just talking about a few days.

Hellbrunn Castle near Salzburg, Austria

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for now… and I will now post this before I have even more weekend trips’ pictures to post!  But don’t worry, I’m jetting off yet again tomorrow on a bit of an adventure that I’m sure to post many things about.

Maps from Parts Unknown

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that a geek who loves to travel also has a fondness for maps. I’ve had them on my walls for years and years, first to mark all the shortwave radio stations I’d heard and contacted and then to mark where I’ve been once I started visiting them.  I think being a map person is one of those things you either are or you aren’t- upon renting a car you either study the random free map they give you in great interest at some point during the journey, or only bother to grab it when vainly trying to figure out where you got lost.

Anyway, last June I happened to be in London the same weekend as the London Map Fair held for a weekend at the Royal Geographical Society.  It is the largest antique map fair in Europe (I knew- who thought there’d be competition for a thing like that?) and while I usually hate shopping the idea of pawing over various maps throughout history sounded like a really fun thing to do.  Throw in the fact that it was held in the building of the same society where Charles Darwin and David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton would discuss their explorations over cigars and brandy and I was sold!

It turns out the Royal Geographical Society building itself wasn’t that interesting- it was rebuilt as one of those boring modern places, so Shackleton certainly never visited it- but the map festival itself was wonderful with prints and sketches and globes of all corners of the world stretching back hundreds of years.  You certainly wouldn’t be allowed to handle centuries-old art and take a few home for a reasonable price to boot, but apparently this does not apply for maps.

Now if I am anything I am a geek first and a romantic second, so after looking around I knew what sort I wanted- a map where eventually the borders end, and a cartographer filled in the blank space with an intriguing “parts unknown.”  I know we lucky to live in an era where seeing the entire world is possible in a way unimaginable to previous generations, but I still feel a slight twinge at being a few centuries too late to be a proper explorer.

Anyway, the reason you’re hearing all this now is while I visited the fair many moons ago is I finally got around to framing what I bought there!  To start with the pièce de résistance, this is a map of North America from 1759-

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On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…

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2013 in Review

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I found a neat website that lets you map out your travels as you can see above, and I put in everywhere I have spent a night in the past year to see how it looked.  Ye gods, I am tired just looking at it, but you don’t exactly know how things will turn out when they start…

A few notes:

- Most of my farthest-flung travels to the US were dictated in some part by my sister’s wedding this past summer.  Presumably she will only ever do this once, so I was more than happy to earn an elite airline status for this!

- If this year had a travel theme, it is somehow this year evolved into a year of exploring the Mediterranean.  I wasn’t planning on it, but I can pinpoint exactly when this happened: back in February I went to Lisbon on a cheap weekend fare after a breakup, and it turned out despite the dreary northern winter in the Netherlands it was sunny and 15C (~50s F) in Portugal.  Sunshine and scenery is good medicine for a soul trying to sort itself out, and it occurred to me then that southern Europe is a rather nice place to get to know. A combination of a godawful spring and work commitments finally ensured I kept going back to the Mare Nostrum.  Can’t complain!

- Similarly, as the Artie Aardvark posts show, it turns out astronomers travel a fair bit and this year work sent me to Belgium, Greece, the Canary Islands, and within the Netherlands.  It’s really hard to complain when your job decides to give you essentially a tour of European vacation spots for a decent part of the fall, but not all locations were equally exciting and it starts to get tiring when you’re away for the third week within two months (for a slog to the northern Netherlands in November, no less- vacation tours only last so long).

To writ, travel for work is almost always more interesting than working where you normally do, but it should not be confused with an actual holiday because you tend to arrive home exhausted.  Especially when your schedule is suddenly on a 7am-4pm sleep cycle during an observing run!

- Also, I should mention that back in the very first days of 2013 I went for a wonderful few days down to Moab, where I began collecting US National Park stamps (because this is clearly a good hobby to start when you no longer live in the US).  Despite a locational handicap I managed to get 29 stamps in four regions of the US this year, which sounds really impressive until you visit Washington DC and realize 16 of those stamps are from all the various memorials (and 6 from the various Boston National Historical sites).  Still, on the list of “incredibly geeky travel hobbies” I’d say I’m doing pretty well there!

So, what’s next?  Well I took the liberty of filling out the rest of the year’s route back to the US for Christmas (NPS stamp #30 should be picked up within the week at Cape Canaveral!)- a country that I’ve noticed somehow slid into more “a place I used to live” status than “home” when I wasn’t paying attention, but that sentiment is complex and outside the realm of this post.  Beyond that, well, nothing’s booked yet.  I have some checks from recent writing that I’m determined to spend on a nice spring break scuba diving because it’s really awesome to realize you made enough money writing to go on a diving trip.  I have realized that the summer after next will not exist for me because my thesis will be due, so I really need to spend some time on a good adventure during this one to someplace and am looking at my options.  And I know a large reason I wanted to live in Europe in the first place is how the list of nice places to visit is never-ending (Krakow! Norway! Porto! Nuremberg!), so no reason to assume that list will not be tackled.

Wishing a wonderful Merry Christmas and Happy 2014 to all who stumble across this corner of cyberspace.  Adventures are never as fun when you keep them to yourself, and it has been wonderful to share mine with you!

An Impromptu Dinner Party

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So.  Earlier tonight I was working rather late- I typically meet with my adviser Tuesday mornings, so Mondays never seem to end when I want them to- so by the time I cycled home via the grocery store it was 8:45pm.  As I was gathering my things a young Dutchman approached me and said something I didn’t catch, I responded with my best “sorry, mijn Nederlands is niet goot,” and he switched to English with one of the more unusual things I’ve been asked lately.

“Sorry, but my friends and I are at the restaurant next door, and we’ve ordered too much food.  So we were looking for someone to join us for dinner to share it- might you be interested in joining us?”

Now when getting home from work near 9pm on Monday night things in my world are often more uninteresting than I’d prefer, and the following came to my mind:

1) Said Dutchman did not appear, at first glance, to be a serial killer,

2) I know the restaurant in question- it’s a few doors down, so nothing crazy is going to happen there, and

3) Most important, it is 8:45pm and I have yet to start making dinner and have nothing else going on besides catching up on TV shows, so why not say yes anyway?

“Give me ten minutes,” I promised- I had ice cream to put in the freezer and flowers to put into water first- and then headed down to the cafe to meet Stijn, Liz, and Mihkel for the first time and have dinner with them.  They were students who worked in the cafe part-time, and what a dinner it was: samples of the kitchen’s best, from venison steak to salmon quiche to horsemeat brisket, with several matching beers to each little sample, all while discussing our various travels and studies and adventures.  They were delighted because they had someone new to hear their stories and had always wanted to try randomly inviting someone to dinner, I was delighted because a lonely late night had turned into something extraordinary, and we all parted with exchanged hugs and phone numbers and promises to do it again in the future. (It’s funny, I think, how this will be a good memory even if it ends with an “and then we never met again” or an “and then we stayed friends for decades in the future.”)

Cheers to ordinary nights becoming extraordinary ones- and may I never become a woman whose first reaction to such an invitation is to turn it down.

So, tell me: would you have said yes to an impromptu dinner party like I did?  Or invited someone like this yourself?