Laon, France

One day, we rode 72 kms (our longest at the time). The very next day we rode 50 km with a handful of hills, the last [800 meters] of which was uphill. A true hilltown climb---up and up---to the cathedral and fortified city on top: Laon.

Riding TO Laon included the utter disbelief that when a map says 'signed, paved biking roads' indeed they may not be (see photo of James on the 'cycling path'). Then the flies. Oh the flies. Better call them larvae because they are miniscule and stick all over you while you cycle (on another day, I relinquished myself to the fact that I was a human size piece of flypaper, peddling between open wheat fields---it was an attempt at good humor). Oh, and it was Bastille Day in France so everything was closed and it felt like we were cycling from one ghost town to another (where do they all go to celebrate Bastille Day? Especially when you need a croissant or a toilet?). For the record: the ride to Laon was great, but the last 10 kms---not so great. And being super tired from two longish days of riding plus flies and hills and no scooby snacks... not good ingredients for the pudding (so to speak).

But we made it. And the best is, well making it. The pride you allow yourself [with definitive gusto], that indeed you did climb that darn hill. You made it to the gorgeous cathedral, and when it was time for dinner you found an outdoor seat that was a couch, which was some such slice of heaven.

One more worst of Laon, before I bring out the bests: the hotel. Yucko. Hey when you are on a budget you have to even out the curve. The average doesn't just create itself. So on the low side was a budget hotel in Laon (granted we have been in a few budget hotels that were shockingly impressive, in which we would have parked our bikes for a week... Pierrefonds, France, comes to mind). And it was dusky and dark and dank, with carpeted walls and peeling paint, flickering lights, a dark spiral staircase with long really old dark velvet green curtains whose only job was to collect decades of dust... it all felt... haunted if not entombed. And the glaring streetlight out the window didn't help. But sleepless nights didn't deter us. There was good to be found in Laon.

And the best part was that the best finds were happenstance. The cathedral was gorgeous, the doorframe alone caused us to pause and stare, and stammer out loud about all the apostles, the statues and the animals at their feet. Which was which and who was who and how amazing this cathedral was centuries ago when it stood high and proud and ornate above the valley below. (Apparently cathedrals were built at great heights---specifically for better communications with heaven).

And we walked the parameter of the hilltop, viewing a monestary that finally stood ramshackled, from its most recent war-time blows. Beautiful, but currently deserted. We found leaning towers and cools walls, and ran across one of the official temples of the Knights of Templars. And we found butterflies, gazillions of butterflies. We now recognize a 'butterfly bush' when we see one. And last but most certainly not least: the best chocolate croissant. It may not mean much to you, but we have had our share of chocolate croissants on this trip. Now that I think about it, they pretty much replaced our stroopwafels (not by intention, we miss our stroopwafels---but as soon as we crossed from Netherlands to Belgium, stroopwafels were no where to be found). So once we started cycling in Belgium we started having chocolate croissants as our mid-cycle snack.

So you can be sure when we sunk our teeth into the best-ever chocolate croissants from a tiny little bakery tucked along a thickly cobbled street in Laon, we were delighted... that we were close enough to turn around and buy a second. They were perfectly memorable. As was Laon, with all of its bests and worsts---because average wouldn't be average without the bests and worsts. It would just be boring.

And the next day, we started by cycling down hill!


Eating, Sleeping and Pooping

Nothing can prepare you for having your first child. No matter how much advice you receive, or books that you read, there is really no preparation for the real thing. Then, your newborn child arrives and everything changes: your orientation, desires and, of course, the patterns of daily life. I recall that when our first child arrived, I was amazed how much our lives were regulated by 3 simple activities: eating, sleeping and pooping. I don’t mean to sound crude, but that is reality with a baby. Any failure to address these matters at the time of a baby’s immediate need (and I mean any), was met with urgent crying, whining and/or unimaginable odors which would infiltrate your environs. But, of course, your kids eventually grow up.

Ironically, we have re-entered this stage in our lives with our current 'trip of a lifetime' cycling across Europe. Albeit, our children are now older, 12 and 13 years, but the patterns of our daily life on the road have, again, become consumed by these 3 simple life activities: eating, sleeping and pooping. In lieu of crying, we now get flares of anger (completely normal for our adolescent boys, not acceptable for a parent), occasional whining and yes, the odors still persist.

Compound these daily activities with foreign cultural norms, which we sometimes don't realize and other times forget. For instance, nothing is open on a Sunday, which creates a serious problem when we forget to buy food ahead of time (hey kids, we’re going to practice ‘fasting’ ahead of Lent this year…). And, of course, the concept of ‘paying’ to use the bathroom is literally a foreign concept (anyone have 2 quarters for 5 dollars? I mean 5 euros).

While cycling across the European country-side our kids have come to appreciate these “basic needs”. Good to plan for, important to meet, and without which people may turn crabby, hungry, tired, or constipated. But sometimes we miss a beat, and as every parent would say, it is a “character-building” opportunity. And really, that is why we are doing this trip: to build character---even if it means we (aka parents) might have to run into the bushes on the side of the road too.


Tour de France... kindof

Here I sit, in France. We are just a few days into this country; with a few castles, a handful of croissants and miles of stone walls under our belts. Today we arrived at a bed and breakfast---our first one with a pool. The weather, despite it being mid July, has been sketchy at best. Looming charcoal clouds, quick but torrential downpours, and a few hefty headwinds while we cycle to our next destination. But then again, if you have been watching the Tour de France, you would see some of that same said weather. (And quite frankly, it might be better cycling weather than boiling hot sun? No complaints, really. We figure the sun will come when it comes).

And actually, if you have been watching The Tour, you have seen much of what we have seen while cycling across this northeast quadrant of France: quaint little towns, buzzing by patisseries, gorgeous green countryside and field upon field of corn, green leaf lettuce, or wheat (either just cut or dry and waving and waiting). Though unlike the tour, we have no car to rapidly change our flat, adjust our seat or provide us with water when we are empty. There are no cheers other than those from our own team of four. But that is enough: if we learn to cheer adequately and increasingly for one another... this whole amazing---and sometimes trying---trip will be worth the risk of leaving jobs and spending our savings.

And we all agree: there is something SO COOL about cycling across France at the SAME TIME as the Tour de France. And we hope to catch a genuine, bare-eyed visual of the Tour de France itself, in Paris just days from now.

It has become our habit to cycle, land at our destination, rest and regroup or grab a snack and shower then [if TV is provided in our residence-of-the-day] watch The Tour. It is on right now, in fact. They have 106 kms to go; and today we only cycled 28. All hills, up and down, up and down from Coucy le Chateau Auffrique to Ambleny (FR). Our longest was a few days ago, we reached a [leg-roaring, attitude stretching] 72 kms. The last 800 meters were uphill to the fortress on the top of the hill in Laon, France. (Makes me think of your tshirt, Jim, that James adores, a take off from the usual "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but rather straight to the point: "I am not dead yet.")

Quick recap: our tiny tour de la France has been from Vervins to Laon, from Coucy le Chateau Auffrique to Ambleny (where we are today), then we will go Pierrefonds and to Senlis and finally to Paris.

(p.s. sorry no photos, cannot upload recent France photos due to the awful internet connection; will add them in a few days).



Goodness, we are about to leave Belgium and I haven't even told you a lick about our time here.

That seems to happen, we cycle and explore and eat and slip into bed... pack our panniers, cycle and explore some more, catch up on email and upload photos---then dash off again. And we do journal and blog, but it doesn't even begin to cover all the days and cities and castles and cycle rides...

We trickled out of the bottom of Netherlands into Leige, Belgium (over a week ago). Our first impressions were markedly poor. It was industrial, dirty, train-station ugly. [No offense, Belgium, but I had been in my home-land and was impressed up to my eyebrows.] The city had an unkempt park running through it, the bike paths were hardly marked, if even existent, and the streets were dirty.

But the Netherlands was so cycle friendly and flat, the clogs would have been too big to fill no matter what country followed (oh by the way, I found out Holland only refers to the upper two districts/North part of the country---some southern Dutch man explained to me).

We landed in Leige midday and were able to stack our cycles in our hotel room (a plus, since we have a constant worry they might be snagged, a worry we have been told is merited) and take off to find food (we were RAVENOUS). We were a bit off of city center, so picked one of four cafes---none with big promises. And proceeded to have the nastiest meal of our trip. No blame on the country or city, of course, but it had to happen at some point. (Hey, the beer alone in this country cover a multitude of culinary sins, not to mention the waffles and chocolate...).

I always feel the need (ouch bad timing in this case) to try what is local, and white asparagus is a big part of this area of Europe, SO I ordered it. And I swear it was just 6 sticks of asparagus, plucked just-then from a can and wrapped in one slice of over-processed deli ham. Throw a few leaves of iceberg on the left and dinner is served. Despite my horror, I ate it because I was starved. And it was bad. So I downed it with two [good] beers and we went back to the hotel and took our first, long nap. Well, James and I napped anyway. The boys wrote in journals and sketched, caught up with reading and email.

But all is not lost. After our nap, we showered, grabbed pizza from nearby (also hardly edible, but oh well). Then we downloaded a movie---Inkheart---from itunes and watched it as a family (hurray for wifi and the beds were really comfortable, huge pluses in our book). The next day we wondered into town to explore Leige and stumbled upon a few highlights: a french boulangerie for breakfast complete with over sized coffees and amazing pastries, our first run-in with nutella snack packs, and a 400 plus staircase that led to a big view of the city.

The staircase in particular was a good memory, because we---for better or for worse---couldn't resist climbing it. And we climbed and counted and climbed and counted and finally reached the top, just in time for the dark clouds to part and dump rain on us. Torrential. By the time we reached the bottom we were as wet as if we had fallen in a lake, and laughing and running to the nearest open door... which ended up being a big sport store! Which was no problem because that is the kind of store we all love. The boys picked out sunglasses, ironically, and we squeaked around in our shoes and waited a good 20 minutes for the rain to subside.

After that adventure we walked a few more blocks, ducked for cover again for yet another 15 minute down pour---this time for the parent set to check the city map and the boys to indulge in a nutella snack box (better than carrots and ranch, or those crackers with a square of processed cheese). Then we trudged back toward city center and landed for lunch. Indoors---just to be safe.

And we always get a tickle when we find lunch for a good deal (often it is meat, cheese and rolls from the grocer that we put together while cycling), especially when it is a 'sit down' meal in a city. We ordered sandwiches which were the length of half a baguette. So two halves fed all four of our mouths and 12 euros later (including drinks!), we were full and on our way. Oh, and since the menu was in French, James and I ordered by pointing at a sandwich... and it was filled with ham and cheese and sliced hard-boiled egg. They do that here in Belgium: layer hard-boiled egg on sandwiches sometimes. (And yesterday we ordered sandwiches at a shop, a build-your-own like Subway in concept but unlike Subway because we are in Belgium and it is huge baguettes...) Anyway, Caleb added hard-boiled egg slices with his mozzarella and cured ham and loved every bite.

So there are a few highlights and lowlights of Leige, Belgium. Our first impression but most certainly not our last. Belgium has been full of hills, a novelty to our cycling experience and a bit of a shock to our thighs. We have seen piles of chateaus and castles and mini-looking castles people affectionately refer to as homes. It is very green and full of old stone walls and stone houses, and houses made from old stone walls. We have stayed in some of our most beautiful accommodations, even a chateau once or twice with large glorious baths. So no, it hasn't been all bad, in fact lots of it has been lovely and ALL of it downright memorable.

And today we shove off to France: and how timely since it is Bastille Day!

15 things we miss about Netherlands

Now that we have been cycling in Belgium for over a week, we have started the inevitable list of things we miss about the Netherlands.

I asked my family and here is a quick brainstorm of things we miss:

1. The liveliness, the bustle of the cities (always cycles, boats, cars, people out and about)
2. the multitude of outdoor cafes and eating---visiting among friends
3. canals, canals, canals
4. chocolate sprinkles (aka Hagelslag)
5. FLAT bike paths
6. MARKED bike paths
7. ... actual bike paths
8. Vrienden op di fiets (means 'friends on cycles' and where we rented rooms in people's homes)
9. organic games of soccer in piazza's. Large empty piazza's beckoning soccer and kids joining in.
10. friendliness of people in Netherlands; offering directions, help, conversation; warmth of the people.
11. camaraderie of cyclists; everyone is into cyclists, thought has gone into every route/path/way a cyclist would want to go.
12. COLOR. Vibrant dress, buildings, gardens, etc.
13. every bit of land was used: sheep, chicken, cows, gardens, fields of corn, potatoes, garlic, lined trees, goats, beautifully manicured yards and gardens, well-painted everything... fastidious was the word we often used...
14. no smoking in cafes/restaurants until after 10pm. Yes---really.

Holland Drawbacks

In my last post I mentioned all these great things about Holland, being out and about, markets running all of the time, a healthy lifestyle overall. The same ['great things'] can be said for nearly every country... For example: America has great medical research, incredibly progressed technology, a stable government, a police force who works for the people.

But countries also have things that aren't so great about them. For example, the US also has a rising obesity rate, a rather non-social lifestyle, and uncontrolled crime in places. Each and every country has its pros and cons.

For Holland the cons are not bad (it's even illegal to own a gun outside of the police force), but they can be a little inconvenient to spoiled Americans such as ourselves. Of course we have not necessarily been soaked in the Holland culture a lot, but we have an idea.

In my last post I talked about interesting things I had noticed at breakfast. As far as shortcomings, I have most noticed them in restaurants, not at homes. First of all, in contrast to an American restaurant, a glass of complimentary tap water is not served when you sit down. Typically you have to pay to get water---usually at a ridiculous price. Another ideal that is virtually non-existent here is the concept of a bread plate. So you will be served an appetizer to share, but you have no place to set down your goodies (I usually have need of this as I am definitely the slowest eater in the family).

Generally the quality of service seems to be a shade lower too, as after the meal the waiter may not show their face for at least 20 minutes, which could be somewhat annoying when you need to go somewhere (and they never seem to clear empty plates!). Quality of food is generally good however, and we are usually satisfied with our meal. One other thing that comes to mind is that sometimes people here must pay to go to the bathroom!

Many things I have mentioned are actually only inconveniences, but seeing as we are eating out for nearly all of our lunches and dinners we have become attuned to those differences. There are many other minor inconveniences such as poorly gridded streets, lots of smoking (at least more so than the US), and the lack of picking up dog poop.

To be fair, America probably has many shortcomings in the eyes of the Dutch.

I still think that the Dutch are an amazing people: they just know how to live. And yes, I still love the US, but this could be a second home... almost. I think that I have hit a point in my life where I have began to get connected to my position back at home, I have friends, I love our cabin in Montana (as seen in my moms post before this one), along with other things that my life in Seattle has to offer.

Still... so far in Holland it appears 'work' closes early, and opens late, is closed on Sundays, and vacation is vacation---no computers, no cellphones, no nothing. I, along with many others, wish we could take the best of them both and smoosh them together into a 'best of both worlds', enviable place to live.


a city tributes Van Gogh: Neunen

We have said it before and will say it again: read Lust for Life, the biographical tale of Van Gogh (Irving Stone).

Because of it, we stopped in Neunen, a place where Van Gogh lived for some time with his parents. His father was a pastor of a small Protestant church (dwarfed in this city, by the large catholic cathedral). We saw the parsonage where his parents and sisters lived, and the little studio in its yard, where Van Gogh slept and painted.

We went on the walking tour early in the morning, and saw the little church, and a windmill (flour mill) that appear in a handful of his paintings. We saw the famous lime tree, some 400 years old, that boasts its existence during his time. And of course, we stood by his token statue for photo sake. But easily my favorite visual icon was that of the cottage where Van Gogh painted 'The Potato Eaters,' one of his most famous paintings... [easily] the one I stood in front of longest (while visiting the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam).

Part of his story transpired in this town, the proof is abundant. Our story there was just one night. Well, it was supposed to be two. And I will not forget this single day/night because it was one of my most 'thin' days---strained, on edge, tired, don't mess with me type of thin.

Don't get me wrong: we had had a long, gorgeous ride through the woods, passed reams of tree-lined pastures and eaten a lovely picnic lunch en route to Neunen (from Den Bosch). The underlying story is this: we exited Den Bosch in a scurry, because we had stayed the night in a home where 3 out of the 4 family members had whooping cough and were hacking all night. If Caleb and Anthony thought we were germ freaks before, the bar has been raised, as we shared a bathroom with all the 'sickies.' And I made them use a towel to open the doors and used a sanitary wipe on our door knob. (My excuse? Better safe than sorry and personal hospital experiences due to the same such cough). And so we fled.

And while the woods were beautiful---they added to our bug bite count (are there different kind of bugs here?). The pastures were gorgeous... but endless and all freshly cut (enter Janelle's grass allergies and respective ITCHY eyes).

All which would have been water under the bridge (a fitting phrase for this fine country, full of both bridges and canals), EXCEPT that when we finally landed, tired, allergies on edge and bug-bitten, we parked our bikes for an overnight at an op de fiets. In general, we adore renting rooms and enjoying breakfast---and sometimes diner---at people's homes in the Netherlands. It provides insight into how people live, invites rich conversation, and crafts our own experience.

But in the is case, on this particular day, it was a sweet old lady who smoked cigarettes end to end, all day long, indoors. And she had a companion dog who she affectionately referred to as a circus dog because it jumped on you---on each of us---constantly while in our presence. Tirelessly, and with impressive height. Like a dog on its own personal trampoline right in front of you, aiming for lofty paw-prints. My shoulders were so adorned.

Which by itself, would be again, water under the bridge. BUT after escaping certain germ-inspired death, to cycle through miles of freshly cut grass fields (plus head winds) and hungry bugs... it was ICING on the cake to enter a sea of smoke with a galloping dog. Be proud, though: I only shed 3 tears. And James only made me stay one night, not two. We escaped the second night to Eindhoven (in contrast, one of our best experiences so far!), a last minute change, to stay in a hotel. Thank you James!

These cities have their stories, their history, their iconic members. And we are just passing through, making a few minor memories of our own. For better or for worse, escaping sickness and pursuing health, even poor experiences make us richer: dogs, grass, bugs, smoke and all. Nope, we wouldn't trade this trip for anything.


what is in my panniers?

If you could only have 2 panniers…

I have shared with you on multiple occasions, the challenge of filling just two small panniers for a 90 day trip. And you may have sensed the enthusiasm we feel, when we leave behind extras---and lighten our load.

Perhaps you have caught wind of our excitement when we are able to wash a load of clothes; because having more clean clothes in our panniers than dirty is no small accomplishment.

Perhaps you will find it silly... but for fun sake, here is a list of my pannier contents:

• 1 short sleeve all purpose tshirt

• 3 long sleeve shirts: white v-neck, gray workout, black v-neck

• 3 tank tops: white, black, brown

• 1 short sleeve cycle shirt

• 1 long sleeve cold weather cycling shirt (layering)
• 2 dresses (one black, one summery black/white/gray paisley)

• I black skirt

• 1 gray jersey skirt

• 1 brown cycle skirt with bike shorts attached

• 1 black bike shorts, well-padded

• 1 black workout shorts (often goes over the cycle shorts)

• 1 casual beige shorts

• charcoal jacket

• white cycle windproof, water resistant jacket (yep, thought it was water proof, but found out the hard way that it is just resistant)

• 1 white cycling zip pullover/my only ‘sweatshirt’

• 1 pair jeans

• 1 flip-flops

• 1 tennis shoes (walking/cycling)

• 1 pair black/gray flats

• 4 pair socks

• 1 handkerchief (red/blue bought in Alkmaar)

• 1 fanciful scarf (light gray with floral print) bought at outdoor market in Hilversum

• 3 bras (2 ‘workout’), 4 pr undies

• 1 black bikini swimsuit

In my purse (little front pannier):

• Hand wipes (remember, sanitizing freaks)

• Small sun screen (recent addition, looks like summer is on its way)

• Small hand lotion (habit)

• Sunglasses (also seen frequently on top of head)

• 1 pen

• 1 deck cards (from Holland; very cool their King is an ‘H,’ Queen is a ‘V’ and Jack a ‘B’)

• Broken rear light (just from today, it fell off my bike, so it will either land in the garbage or meet its fate of zip-ties for re-attachment).

• Digital camera

• Eye drops (got this contact, dry eye thing going on)

• City postcards (the boys all buy postcards, my purse is their temporary pit-stop), to be pasted in journals

• Wallet

• Small pouch with: 1 round of allergy pills, nail clippers, dental floss, band aids, 1 pony tail holder and blistex.

• 2 water bottles. Either for water or the occasional leftover wine… complete with carribeaner(s).

• Computer plus cord

• Book: MFK Fisher’s Art of Eating

• Bag: the little one that carries groceries, or lunch or extras and lands in my rear basket.

• Toiletry kit

• Ziploc bags with extras: matches, teeny sewing kit (used once to fix Anthony’s jacket and a button on James’ shirt), burn cream and itch cream (the latter already used numerous times for bug bites… but the trails through all the woods? worth it, no question), Neosporin, earphones, ipod, sporks (yes, we use them), spare bottle eye drops/Flonase, wine key, spare contact lenses, small packets of Woolite, extra round of shampoo/gel from last hotel…
• Small [dwindling] container of TUMS

• 1 candle for ambiance

• 1 small inflatable neck pillow

• 1 [brace yourselves] hypoallergenic pillow case cover (yep, bonafide germaphobe)


a tribute to Montana (USA)

My boys are cycling, side by side, day after day, discussing their next trip to Montana. That isn't to say they aren't enjoying Holland's trails and cathedrals, cobblestone and cheese. It is just that some of their best memories are from their cumulative visits to the state of Montana (grandpa and grandma's cabin in the woods).

And cycling through woods and smelling diesel (in Montana: tractors, four-wheelers, snowmobiles) causes their brains to jump to their favorite pile of memories.
And this week, their cousins are going there without them: to the greatest place on earth.

Every summer, our extended family (Janelle's side) gathers for a week in the woods. There is a tiny lake, a river full of fish, kayaks, a fort, bike trails and a barn full of tools and knick-knacks to build anything and everything. Aunts and uncles are always filling you with yummy snacks and treats. You can swim, paddle, eat, light fireworks, build go-carts and boats, experiment with fire-flaming arrows and tree-size sling shots. What is not to love?

So while we are on the vacation of our LIVES---cycling from Amsterdam to Paris, landing in London then Florence---we are still missing this ever-important, most memorable, cousin-filled week of family, fun and freedom.

And in missing this year, the boys are already beginning plans for next year. Which I think might include building go-karts. But their latest idea to add to the nostalgia and general coolness of this magical place is to build a ropes course. Or in the very least, a zip line.

On our cycle rides, we have passed a few quite cool playgrounds. Not the kiddie stuff necessarily, but structures that are fun and interesting for all ages. Rope bridges, a pile of tire swings all meeting like spokes in a wheel, and a rope bridge that seemed to spiral upward. Which, if you are a boy with Montana in your back pocket---a place to make outdoor dreams come true---these playgrounds unleash the imagination.


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