05 October 2014

A Stroll to the Oosterschelde Oyster Reefs

[Nerding, not kayaking]

My first impression of tidal flats in the Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt), a major river in South Holland, was the ease with which you could walk across them. In San Francisco Bay, where the tidal flats are muddy (rather than sandy), each step sank deep into the mud. The crossing to the oyster restoration site for monthly monitoring was always an exhausting adventure. Tuesday's visit to the tidal flats of the Oosterschelde brought back fond memories of tromping through the mud in California.

The EMERGO project team: Bram, Lodewijk, Tom, and Oliver
Some background (skip if you're just here for the pretty pictures)...
This was the first field visit for the EMERGO project, a project by TU Delft and NIOZ (the Netherlands Institute of Sea Research) that I'll be working on during my time in the Netherlands. The overarching goal is to understand the morphological and ecological responses of tidal flats to different restoration measures. The project was sparked, in part, by the ongoing loss of intertidal habitats (tidal flats, oyster reefs, marshes, sea grasses) in the Oosterschelde. Between 1976 and 1986, a storm surge barrier was constructed across the mouth of the river. This barrier was the largest component of the 50 year Delta Works flood management project to protect the Netherlands from flooding after devastating floods in 1953. Stay tuned for a future post about this barrier - an epic bike trip is in the works that will involve biking across many of the storm surge barriers.

Anyways, the barrier reduced the tide range in the river (i.e. the tide does not go as high or as low as it used to). Since intertidal habitats depend on being dry and wet for a certain amount of time, this smaller tide range has lead to rapid shrinking and loss of tidal flat and marsh habitat. Many pilot projects are in the ground already to test ways to slow/stop this degradation, including artificial oyster reefs and tidal flat sand replenishments. The EMERGO project will look at how well these (and other) actions address the unraveling of intertidal habitats.

Let's go on a fieldtrip!
This week, two professors (Bram, my advisor from TU Delft and Tom, a prof from NIOZ), two new PhD students (Lodewijk and Oliver), and I visited a few artificial oyster reefs and a massive tidal flat nourishment project.

Lugworm, or "wadpier" in Dutch. The worms live under the sand and eat+poop piles of sand, which cover the entire mudflat.
Worm poop piles everywhere
In 2009, small test oyster reefs (2 of 12x4m) were constructed at the mudflats of Viane. The artificial reefs begin as metal cages filled with dead oyster shells. This is similar to the San Francisco Bay project, where bags of oyster shells were used. New oysters like to colonize on the dead oyster shells. Over time, the live oysters stick together and make the structure sturdier, removing the need for the metal casing, which disintegrates away. A year later, this project was deemed successful because the reefs were stable, some oysters had colonized, and sedimentation was occurring behind them. Larger reefs (200x10m, 2 at Viane and another at De Val) were constructed in 2010. We visited these three larger reefs, as well as some vibrant natural reefs nearby. The map below marks the artificial reef locations. Source

Artificial reef at de Val. The reef begins at the bottom of the levee and extends out into the mudflat.
At de Val. As is the case in most of the Dutch estuaries, a large levee runs along the back of the intertidal habitats.
Our walk across the mudflat at Viane was a long one - it took a couple hours and ~6 km to visit the natural and artificial reefs at this site. We first visited a natural oyster reef. 

A natural bed of oysters near the Viane artificial reefs.
Happy beds of natural oysters
Of all three reefs, the westernmost reef at Viane showed the most growth. Clumps of happy oysters pointed their shells up towards the sky. The second reef at Viane was less promising, which may be because it was built higher on the mudflat. Oysters don't like to be dry for long periods of time, so they usually don't grow past a certain elevation "ceiling," relative to the tide. Another reason may be that a bar of sand has been moving slowly across the area, filling in the gaps in the reef where oysters could otherwise grow. 

The EMERGO team checking out one of the artificial oyster reefs at Viane.
Oyster reef at Viane, the most successful of the three artificial reefs
Of course, you can find many other interesting things on the mudflat, a few of which I've shared above (worms) and in the photos below...

Mud waves, caused by waves over shallow water covering the mudflat.
Some areas were covered in seaweed
... and shells

01 October 2014

Maeslantkering: Testing a Storm Surge Barrier

[Nerding, not kayaking]

Once a year, Rijkswaterstaat does a test closing of the Maeslantkering, a massive storm surge barrier on the waterway that connects Rotterdam to the ocean (the Nieuwe Waterweg/the Scheur). Check out the structure in Google Maps. Rijkswaterstaat is the government agency that oversees flood protection in the Netherlands by building and maintaining the complex and highly managed system of rivers, lakes, coastlines, pumps, and flood protection structures. This is necessary because more than 25% of the country is below sea level (protected by dikes). This was one of the last projects within the 50-year Delta Works, a massive flood infrastructure project triggered by the devastating 1953 floods that killed almost 2000 people.

We (Elizabeth, Toni, Sander, Maria, and I) biked the 20+ km from Delft to the Maeslantkering on Sunday afternoon to attend the annual test closure. It's quite the event, with europop music and hoards of politicians in fancy suits. Civil engineering students give guided tours every 10 minutes throughout the afternoon. We took a tour and picnicked on the adjacent hillside with the rest of the crowd.

Panorama of the partially closed barrier, and the hillside of observers. Click to see larger!
Elizabeth and Sander enjoying some good Dutch beer before the closing
Here are some fun facts that we learned during our tour of the Maeslantkering:

  • It's painted white so it doesn't expand as much in the hot sun (14-16 cm when white vs ~ 40 cm when black)
  • Dimensions: ~25 m high and ~240 m long (like laying the Eiffel tower on its side)
  • It rotates on a 10 m "joint" sphere, which is manufactured to 2mm accuracy and lubricated by a plastic polymer (after it started getting stuck on the original teflon layer).
  • Constructed between 1991 and 1997
  • It still uses same software as when it was built - very simple.
  • A computer decides when to close the barrier, and closes when water levels reach 3m above normal levels. Therefore, the closures are triggered automatically to prevent emotions/politics from interfering in its function.
  • The closure trigger level (3m) is based on an agreement between many parties, and is expected to result in a closure roughly once every 10 years. With 50 years of sea level rise, this will increase to once every 5 years. So far, the barrier has been closed due to storm surge once, in 2007.
  • Every day that the barrier is closed it costs the economy ~$15M in lost income from shipping

How does it work?

The two arms rotate from each side of the river, at a rate of 3 m/minute, until they are ~1 m apart. This small gap just considered a leak. Water is pumped into both arms to fill them with water, lowering them towards the river floor. Then, it pauses for ~1 hour before lowering completely, to allow flow to flush out the track underneath (water moves faster when most of the flow is blocked). This is part of the maintenance, to make sure the tracks don't fill up with sediment permanently. Then, more water is pumped in and the arms lower to the bottom of the river, stopping almost all flow. This animation makes it a bit clearer:

Photo credit

This structure is an improvement on many of the other storm surge barriers in the Netherlands because it lets the river be completely open most of the time. This allows tides and salt water to come in and out, which allow coastal and wetland habitats to exist. However, it still requires having a very controlled mouth of the river, rather than giving the river space to meander/evolve naturally. This works in a place like Rotterdam, which is already highly developed and engineered, but would be a detriment to more natural systems. 

Looking down the north arm, towards the ocean.
View of the closed barrier, from the back.
View of the closed barrier, from the front
We took a much longer route home, making a stop in Hoek van Holland on the coast and biking through the dunes until we reached the town of Monster (yes....) and turned inland towards Delft. Soreness ensued.

22 September 2014

Rotte River: 20 km Bike, 20 km Kayak, 20 km Bike

A couple months ago, while searching for Dutch kayaking info, I discovered Johan's Kano Route website, which describes kayaking routes in the Netherlands and a few in other countries. I clicked around for the routes within biking distance of Delft, and there are quite a few. He always lists the nearest kayak rental shops, which is helpful for a car-less boat-less person like me. Elizabeth and I decided to embark on the Rotterdam route (which only takes you to the center of Rotterdam if you paddle > 16 miles).  
Greenhouses, canals, and bike paths. So far, that sums up the suburban scenery within biking distance of Delft.
Early Sunday morning we departed the sleepy streets of Delft and biked east, towards Berkel en Rodenrijs - a small town approximately half way to our destination. We were sorely disappointed when every single business was still closed, even the coffee shops, at 9am. The scenery gradually transitioned to more agricultural, and around 10am we arrived at the Rottemeren ("lakes of the Rotte river"), where we rented two little kayaks from Botenverhuur Van Vliet. While we were happy with the affordable rentals (€5/hour or €25/day), we were a bit miffed to hear that PFD rentals were at additional cost, especially when we were given extra large PFDs that contained very little flotation material. I suppose kayaking on highly regulated canals is a bit safer than other settings, but still! The boats were a small step up from the whitewater boats that Stijn, Bridget, and I rented in Ghent a few weeks earlier.

Along the canals you find rowing clubs every few miles!
The rental shop is on the west side of the Rotte River, the namesake of nearby Rotterdam. The river is constrained on either side by high levees - the surrounding areas lie well below sea level. We were surprised by the narrow freeboard (vertical space between water level and top of levee) along much of the river. This may be due to the small watershed area of the Rotte - it originates just a few kilometers north of where we started kayaking.

Historically, the Rotte River drained the Zuidplas Lake, before it was turned into the Zuidplaspolder in 1840. A polder is a low-lying area that used to be marsh/wetland/water and was drained and diked by humans for development. At 7m (24 ft) below sea level, the Zuidplaspolder is tied with the Lammefjorden in Denmark for the lowest ("dry") point in Western Europe. I wish I'd known this before our trip!

Thousands of fundraising bikers passing the Cafe Oud Verlaat
Dark clouds released a 10 minute rainstorm while we changed into our kayaking outfits. Luckily, 5 minutes into the trip the rain stopped and didn't bother us again all day. The first portion of the route goes through the Rottemeren, where the Rotte widens into a gusty lake where sailing is popular. Soon, the river narrowed again. Our motivation level was at a bit of a low, so we landed on the dock at Cafe Oud Verlaat (see photo above) and paused for some hot drinks and typical Dutch apple cake. The cafe was packed with Sunday morning biker groups, who were having the same fare.

So happy to have found coffee and apple cake, 2 miles into our paddle :)
Filled with apple cake energy
Back on the water a half hour later, we were revived and excited to continue on our journey. We passed an artificial ski hill, where people seemed to be skiing and snowboarding (no snow, mind you). At this point the river became more developed, and we had a chance to see into the lives of many canal side families enjoying a relaxed Sunday brunch (no one closes their curtains here). 

Massive canal houses
Can't forget the windmill photo
Crew shells and many large boats sped past us, and we joked about hitching a ride on the way back (well, it was serious until it came down to putting our thumbs out - then my shyness overtook the situation!). We often caught up to the large boats at low bridges, which we zipped under while the larger boats waited for the scheduled bridge openings. 

We paddled until ~1pm, when we looked at the map and realized that downtown Rotterdam and the Kralingse Plas (two potential destinations) were still many kilometers away. Instead, we aimed for the Bergse Voorplas, a lake on the right side of the river. The map showed a narrow blue strip connecting the river to the south end of the lake. To our disappointment (or maybe relief?), the narrow canal was actually a manually-operated lock connecting the high river to the low lake. Instead, we unloaded at a small dock and walked across the levee to the lake with our afternoon veggie snacks. The lake was incredibly windy, so we turned around after a short walk to the marina, where a sailing race was beginning. We watched a small motor boat passing through the lock, which was manually operated by a woman sitting in the adjacent booth. 

Views across the Bergse Voorplas (small lake with many sailboats)
Not too much happened on the return trip, except a gradual draining of our energy levels and increase in wind. We paid for our kayak rentals and made it 0.5 km down the bike path before veering into a lakeside cafe, where we feasted on tomato soup, french fries, croquet (fried gravy stick), and two massive bottles of water, which I promptly poured into my nalgene bottle (much to the server's amusement).

Typical canal scenery
We took a more scenic and slightly longer bike route back to Delft, consisting of mostly independent bike paths (no adjacent street). At ~7pm we arrived home and I promptly fell asleep before I could even taste the delicious deviled eggs that Elizabeth made for dinner. 

Date: Sunday, Sep 21st, 2014
Distance: 12.2 miles (19.6 km) kayaking + 24 miles (39 km) of biking
Duration: 6 hrs kayaking + 2.5 hrs biking (includes 2 cafe stops!)

30 August 2014

Leie River in Ghent, Belgium: from Pastures to Centrum

Blog post by Nena, Bridget’s comments in [italics]. This post is too long... you might want to look at the photos and skip to the part about the canal swim incident. Also, Stijn has some additional photos here!

On Friday morning we awoke to the hamster wheel (a common occurrence in Belgium) at Nonkle Jan’s and Tante Els’s house in Bierbeek (Beertown).  The day prior we had gone for a long walk through the fields and orchards with Els, Ona, and Ides. Ides decided to bike, but the past weeks’ rain had saturated the trails. The back wheel whipped up mud on his shirt, and he spent the next hour whining about doing the laundry (quite a responsible whine for an 11 year old). We passed orchard after orchard of pears and apples, eating a piece of fruit at each until we were nearly sick. Delicious! Two weeks ago, Russia stopped buying pears from the Belgians due to the Ukraine conflict, so the trees were still lush with ripe pears. The Belgian government is trying to convince the citizens to eat a pear-a-day to help the farmers.

After a huge pasta-veggie dinner, Bridget and I sipped wine while we watched my first Design of Coastal Structures lecture online. [Nena’s aunt cut me off after I missed my mouth while trying to drink sparkling water]. Ok, back to Friday.

Els dropped us off at the Leuven train station, with 30 minutes to spare before our train to Ghent. We cleverly decided to catch the earlier train. We soon realized that this was the local train, which takes approximately twice as long, resulting in a 30-minute late arrival in Ghent. We met my Bay Area kayaking friend, Stijn, who was patiently waiting at the station. Stijn and I are both members of the Bay Area Sea Kayakers and met at Berkeley Kayak Polo. He’s from Belgium and still spends a portion of his time working on art installations here. [He gets paid to design tree houses in Italy.]

With Bridget hidden stealthily in the back of the cargo van [stuffing my face with an Italian sandwich I was supposed to save for lunch], Stijn drove us to a launch site south of the city, in Drongen, where the kayak rental company (PONAS) had parked the trailer near the Leie River. Three yellow river-running white water boats (Taifuns) were perched on the top of the otherwise empty trailer. We waterproofed our cell phones (plastic bags with no ziplock), loaded up a plastic drum that served as a dry box, and launched before a massive group of kids on tiny sit-on-tops had a chance to take over the canal. The white-water flair of these kayaks immediately manifested itself as we struggled to maintain a straight course up the channel [major understatement]. While awesomely purple, our paddles weighed at least 100 lbs and the task ahead was daunting.

There was no obvious flow in the channel. Stijn informed us that it connects a river to another channel, and while it experiences some tidal influence (this surprised me – I had forgotten how close we were to the coast), it was not large enough to notice in our paddling. We headed north, towards the city. Initially, the channel was lined with perfectly manicured lawns [mowed by automatic drone lawnmowers] and well-windowed mansions. Stijn remarked that he felt a twinge of claustrophobia in this overly-developed narrow channel, and we agreed that grassy lawns are terrible things.

Bridget taking her 4th nap of the day, and Stijn stressing about the manicured lawns.
The next stretch was rural, with pastures, corn, and other crops. Every ten minutes a massive yacht passed by, leaving little room for us to fit our boats. Bridget set the tone for the day by placing herself in the middle of the channel every time a massive tour boat or yacht came around the bend [I swear they were trying to hit me]. After a couple pee breaks (Stijn found a scenic grove of trees and Bridget and I chose a highway underpass), we arrived at a sign pointing to Ghent Centrum. We also asked a canal-side pedestrian for directions, but he pointed repeatedly in both directions, resulting in more confusion than assistance.

We soon tired of our overly-responsive kayaks and heavy paddles, happily arriving in Gent Centrum at 1:30pm. Our pace slowed a bit as we stopped to take photos of the churches, bridges [Nena accidentally wrote Bridgets, but I had to correct this], and other scenic architecture. As we approached, the tourist boats multiplied and we found ourselves weaving between crowds of tourists who photographed us rather than the gorgeous old buildings that define the city.  We saw only one other kayaker in a racing boat (with admittedly terrible form). Narrow stone staircases punctuated the rock walls that lead up to the adjacent sidewalks. Since the stairways are inset and are not as wide as our kayaks, it took a bit of maneuvering to get out of the boats [It was not that hard].

Entering Gent Centrum, under Jakobijenstraat 
Stijn explaining something emphatically
Bridget admiring Sint-Niklaaskerk
Disembarking kayaks: a great success!
First order of business: fries and beers. Stijn directed us to a narrow alleyway where Bridget and I found a little “frietkot” (fry shack) while he stayed to watch the kayaks (you’re not really supposed to unload your kayaks in the middle of the city center…). We ordered 3 portions of fries, 3 sauces, and 3 beers, which generated quite the ruckus from the impatient locals behind us.  We spent an hour or so snacking on fries, people watching, and napping (on Bridget’s part, of course).

Little yellow kayaks in front of some of the oldest buildings in Ghent
Pommes frites! Photo by Stijn S.
Next order of business: loosen our PFD straps to accommodate fry/beer-bellies, launch without falling in front of hundreds of curious tourists, and kayak towards the CASTLE. Yes, we kayaked to an ancient castle [and played kayak polo with a green floaty ball that Stijn found in the moat of the castle]. It's called Gravensteen (the Count's Castle), was built in 1180, and later served as a courthouse and prison. There wasn’t too much to be seen, other than Rapunzel’s hair, an overgrown moat, and some Dutch lovers sitting romantically in a grassy patch.

Conquering the castle. Photo by Stijn S.
WiFi in the canal. Onlookers amused/confused/angry? Photo by Stijn S.
We continued on a side channel until we arrived at an all-too-common impasse: the lock. The water level on the other side was significantly lower, and signs warned us from getting too close to the overspill. Exhausted, we turned around and paddled towards the agreed-upon take-out, where the kayak dude was supposed to meet us an hour later. Stijn’s friend’s house is on the same channel [and he happened to have the key to it], so Stijn suggested we spend our spare hour having some tea/coffee. Stijn got out of his kayak into the nearest stairwell, and Bridget was up next. She turned to push herself up onto the narrow rock surface when we heard a “PLOP” and “SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT” from Bridget [I’m pretty sure I said F**k]. Her brand new iPhone was sinking to the bottom of the channel. She got that look in her eye, and we knew she was going in. SPLASH – Bridget was in the channel. A long minute later she emerged, dripping cell phone in hand, to a crowd of 25 concerned tourists, who collectively groaned when they saw the wet cell phone. Unsure of whether to laugh at the ridiculous situation or make sympathetic statements, I kept my mouth shut. We dragged the boats up and quickly hid ourselves in Stijn’s friend’s apartment, just across the channel.

Bridget sipping vodka at the sliding glass window, overlooking the kayaks. Don't fall out!
Stijn provided Bridget with a few shots of vodka: one to pour on her bleeding foot, which had picked up a shard of glass in the ruckus, one for warmth, and one to forget. One hot shower later [On my part, after Stijn made a comment to his friend in Dutch that he though I was gross for not taking one], we enjoyed the view from a massive window, which opened the entire wall. We sat, legs dangling over the canal below.  [Not really sure if it was supposed to support that much weight, but we survived. Also, there were more stuffed birds in the architect friend’s house, but Nena did not think it worthy of taking a picture, and I could not due to my saturated phone, which we stuffed in a bag of open rice we found in the house]. Stijn said “It used to be much colder here,” and I (naturally) responded, “oh, because of global warming.” Bridget and Stijn responded with faces aghast/rolling eyes. “No nena, because he installed insulation in his house.” Ok, so we did just discuss that a moment earlier…

The end of the day, at Rabot
Rabot towers, in older times. We paddled under the bridge and disembarked our kayaks there (see photo above). Photo thanks to NL wikipedia
Arno and Miyako (who is studying in Ghent) came to meet us, and we went for a drink at a cafĂ© near the train station. We drank a variety of Dutch drinks, like apple beer, fresh mint tea, coffee, and fruit soda. 

Date: Friday, August 29th, 2014
Duration: ~ 5 hrs
Distance: ~ 11 miles (!)

Part 1: Baarledorp to the inner ring of Ghent
Part 2: Inner ring to Centrum Ghent (where the castles and churches are)

25 August 2014

Finally in Belgium: Antwerpen! (Saturday, Aug 23rd)

Another guest post by Bridget! Nena's comments in [italics].

We woke up early to pack (again) and walk to the train (again) [Oh Bridget, stop whining]. This time the destination was Belgium, where we are currently spending a week with Nena’s extended family! After groggily getting out of bed and showering, we braced ourselves for rain and headed to the station. Halfway to the station it began thundering, and we increased our pace to reach cover before the downpour [mostly successfully]. I commented, "It's no wonder Europeans wrote such depressing novels, with such weather!" and Nena reminded me that I had already made a similar remark three times. Whoops.

Dark skies over Delft
We tentatively scaled the tall sketchy metal stairway to the other side of the tracks [3 steps at a time!]. We somehow made it safely to the awning before deluge. We caught our train, accidentally got off at the wrong stop (Rotterdam and Rosendaal -- both start with R, so it was an easy mistake), and eventually made it to Antwerpen. We waited for Nena’s Belgian friend, Cosme, to meet us.  Without a working phone, and no wifi in de trein station, we had just arranged a time and place to meet, which somehow worked…

Nena in her natural environment - the Antwerpen train station 
Cosme is a well-traveled, international character. He was born in Brazil, is from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and has U.S. citizenship because his father lives in New York. He and Nena know each other from their M. Eng. program at Cornell. He lives in Brussels and was our tour-guide of Antwerp (even though it is not his city) and Belgian culture for the day.

Buildings in old Antwerpen
We briefly looked at the entrance to the Antwerpen zoo, one of the oldest zoos in Europe, but then proceeded to the Grote Markt, where they had amazing selections of waffles, cheese, olives, fruit, and other delicious food. Apparently eating is the thing to do in Belgium. After stuffing our faces with 8 different kinds of Belgian waffles (they were small, and we shared them between 3 people, so really it was only 2 1/3 mini-waffles each, although Nena and I kept stealing more while Cosme was not looking…), a Turkish feta-cheese-filled crepe, and a million samples of cheese and olives, we decided to walk to the old part of town. Here we stumbled upon the annual Bollekesfeest, which showcases local products including the amber beer Bolleke and Antwerpse Handjes (a pastry meaning “Antwerp Hands” made of almonds, which symbolizes the Antwerp folklore).

Antwerpen town hall, with a statue of the giant Antigoon throwing a hand into the river.
Cosme (and Wikipedia) explained that Antwerpen was named after a mythical giant named Antigoon who lived near the Scheldt river, and required those crossing the river to pay a toll. If they refused, he would cut off their hands and throw it into the river. Eventually, Antigoon was slain by the hero Brabo, who cut of the giant’s hand and threw it into the river. The name Antwerpen literally means “hand throw”. Apparently hand-cutting used to be a normal practice in Europe, where the right hands of men who died were cut off and sent to the feudal lord as proof of death. Weird.

Cosme and Bridget snoozing by the pond
Next we ran into the Snorrenclub (Mustache Club) of Antwerpen, which was the highlight of my trip. A bunch of Belgian men spend their time grooming their mustaches and drinking Belgian beers. I was so impressed – they all wore matching straw hats and club jackets, had mustache necklaces, and, of course, extremely impressive mustaches. Cosme chatted with them for a bit and asked if they were affiliated with the Brussels Snorrenclub. Their webpage has more amazing photos of the group, and their calendar of activities. Check it out!! http://snorrenclubantwerpen.be/bestuur.htm

Bridget with two impressively-mustached gents
After meeting the Snorrenclub, we walked to the Scheldt river, where we saw a castle, and interesting statue of two men looking up at another giant man, and there were more festivities going on.

Left: lady with parachute pants looking over the Scheldt River. Right: statue of two little men looking up at the crotch of a giant man, with a hello-kitty purse in the foreground.

Castle on the Scheldt River
Next, we went to the newer part of town, where there was a Red-Bull promotion event going on, and competitors were wake-boarding along the river using a zip line to pull them across. We also saw some pretty impressive slack-liners. We then walked to a park [the Stadspark], where I took a nap in the sun, and Nena and Cosme chatted. I tried my first Belgian Beer at a nearby bar. It was pretty good, but not quite as good as Pacific NW IPAs [beer snob]. Lastly, we ordered some Belgian fries, with two delicious sauces that Cosme recommended. Mmmm fatty foods.

Fast forward and we are with Nena’s family, staying with her aunt An, and cousins Marie-Anne (21), Matteo (17), Nathaniel (younger), and Emilia (10, almost 11). Emilia is my new best friend even though we don't speak the same language. We ate some delicious Vogelnest (bird-nest, or Scotch-eggs on Wikipedia), which consists of a hard-boiled egg surrounded by ground meat. Mmmm. Sadly I didn't take a picture, but Wiki has a pretty good one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotch_egg.

After dinner, we went for a walk around the block, drew pictures on the sidewalk with chalk, played hop-scotch, and saw who could throw rocks the furthest into an algae-filled pond [hmm... roadside ditch]. Nena’s cousin Nathaniel won, and Nena was second (thanks to her softball background).  Before heading home, we jump-roped to the Dutch ditty: “Beertje-beertje draai je om. Beertje beertje tik de grond”, which translates to “Little bear, little bear turn around. Little bear, little bear, touch the ground”.

Bridget, Emilia, and Tante An playing jump rope
Their family has the best collection of pets, including an adorable Portuguese water dog (hond) named Noa, which An explained is bred for helping fisherman, and has webbed feet and special water-resistant blue skin. They also have two cats (poezen) named Rosemarijn (Rosemary) and Rosjefluffy (Fluffy Rose), a hamster (hamster) named Marte Filomein, a fish (vis) named Freddy, three birds (vogels), and two chickens (kippen). Emilie is making up new names for the birds (they were previously named after of the significant-others of her siblings), and candy bars: Snicker, Mars, and M&M or Twix. They also have a lot of stacked wood and a wood-stove, which made me really happy.

Emilia has a hard time pronouncing my name, calls me Beer-shit, and spells it Britgit. We have been braiding each others hair, dancing, and doing other fun pre-teen activities that fit my mental age perfectly. At night, we watched a bit of Harry Potter (in English, with Dutch subtitles), then shortly thereafter passed out, only to wake up and eat some more.