"And you know I'll be where my heart feels free, and my thoughts are free to fly.
Oh mama, please don't make me lie, I need my freedom, need my open sky." ~Railroad Earth

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.

Windmills at Kinderdijk (Friday, Aug 22nd)

Guest blog post by Bridget! My comments in [italics], as usual :)

On Friday we woke up early to do my favorite activity – looking at windmills! We decided to go to Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where a complex of windmills were built to prevent the flood-prone region from flooding. I don't want to bore you with all the history here [THIS IS NOT BORING! People have lived in this region for a long time, and until the 13th century it was dewatered (by humans) using gravity. Since it is naturally a peat bog, dewatering led to decomposition of the peat (when peat is exposed to oxygen it breaks down and releases carbon into the atmosphere), which makes the ground sink over time. Now lower, the region flooded more often. The inhabitants built levees and water storage ponds, where they could store flood water. The 19 windmills at Kinderdijk (built in the mid 1700s) served to pump water from low-lying areas into these storage ponds. Today, the windmills have long been replaced by electrical pump stations and the mills remain for tourist enjoyment.] If you are interested to learn more, you can find a good description on this website: www.kinderdijk.com. 

When we first arrived, we saw a beautiful Dutch couple taking wedding photos in the mill – it was ridiculously picture-perfect scenery. Nena thought she saw the husbands tooth sparkling. At the visitor center, the docent was providing a history of the region. We eavesdropped on the tour (it took me a while to realize that it was in English and not Dutch…), where the man was explaining about the 1953 flood which devastated the entire country. We desperately needed coffee, so we attempted to use the complicated coffee machine, which required carnival tokens. Nena managed to spill all the coffee out of her cup, resulting in only foamy milk and making quite a ruckus.

We signed up for a boat tour (€4.50), which allowed us to float along the canal, boarding and disembarking throughout the day. We boarded the boat (on the wrong side of the canal, but it all worked out) and crossed to the other side of the channel, where we picked up an Asian family. From there, we floated past windmill after windmill. I was in heaven. We spent the rest of the time trying to avoid the masses of tourists [fairly successfully].

It looked like people live in these windmills, which seemed sketchy in terms of the imminent floods, but I suppose they are tall enough that if they lived on the top story they might be able to survive. I told Nena she should move into a windmill if she stays for a PhD, and just kayak to her neighbor windmill friends' houses. She said she would.

I was so excited that I took over a hundred photos (while Nena rolled her eyes). It was really hard for me to choose which ones to include, but here are a few that are representative of the day:

Panorama of Nena walking along the levee path

Left: classic Holland (I can call it Holland because we are in the Zuid Holland province).  Right: interesting windmill that looks slightly different from the rest.

Left: Nena in a giant wooden dutch shoe wheelbarrow, obviously. Right: Our picnic spot. We ate at 10:45am. Thus began our massive binge that is continuing to this day. 

After our long journey back, we made some delicious mac’n’cheese with arugula and pepper – which we (or at least I) had been craving the whole time. We rested for 20 minutes before departing for TU Delft to get Nena's ID card and have another appointment about insurance. It was pouring outside, so we geared up, and arrived completely drenched. [It's like raincoats are designed to drain onto your jeans and soak them instantaneously.] I waited on the couch for Nena to finish her appointment, and promptly fell asleep after reading a few pages about the dos and don’ts of networking. Nena woke me up so we could trudge back to her apartment. This time we were not only deluged, but we had a close encounter with nearby lightning that was immediately followed by a load explosion of thunder. That quickened our pace, but somehow we made it back without getting struck.

We were supposed to go get pictures of ourselves dressed up as the Vermeer girl and as other traditional Dutch characters, but lost the motivation due to the rain and our exhausting, damp day. Plus, we had already done such a good job of dressing Nena up last night, that it no longer seemed worth the 15. So instead we stayed in an “worked”, meaning that Nena worked while I perused the internet, checked my facebook, chatted with Elizabeth, and generally did what I do best: procrastinate.

23 August 2014

De Zandmotor, Herring, and the Girl with the Pearl Earring

Last Wednesday was a day of all-things-Dutch. Again, no kayaking. But there is kayaking on the horizon, so stay tuned!

8am arrival in Den Hague, the next big city north of Delft and the official seat of government in the Netherlands (but not the capitol - that's Amsterdam). I obtained my official residence and work permit documents before we commenced the day's fun. We hopped on bus #24 towards Kijkduin (which literally means "Look Dune") - a small coastal town which seemed to be driven primarily by beach tourism. We hid in a postcard shop from a brief rain shower, during which Bridget purchased a variety of slightly inappropriate postcards: friends of Bridget: watch out.

Downtown Den Hague
We then began walking along the beach boardwalk toward the Zandmotor (known in English as the Sand Engine), an incredibly wide beach that protrudes from the adjacent shorelines. This was constructed in 2011 by placing a massive amount of sand along this 2 km stretch of coast. While beaches are often "nourished" by placing sand to widen the beach, this is unsual in the shear volume of sand that was placed. The beach erodes over time as breaking waves push sand downstream, widening beaches further down the coast. The idea was to place a lot of sand instantaneously and infrequently rather than more typical annual/frequent beach nourishment schemes, which have pretty big impacts on the dune, beach, and subtidal ecosystems. The Dutch believe this is better for the ecology and environmental impacts, and it's a pretty creative idea. You also don't have to manually place sand on all the beaches downstream since the sand eroded from this extra-wide beach will keep those wider. Since this is really the first of it's kind, there are extensive monitoring programs in place, with wave buoys, camera systems, and survey crews. I almost accepted a PhD position to study the waves and rip currents around this nourishment a couple years ago, so I was excited to visit it soon after arriving!

Map of our 5 mile walk around the Zandmotor. You can see how much wider the beach is at this location. There are two lagoon-ish ponded areas in the back of the dune, which apparently serve some function to protect groundwater quality, which isn't entirely clear to me...
The entire beach was strewn with small shells. I'm not sure whether these came with the sand that was placed on the beach (most likely?) or whether they were deposited there later on.

There were researchers out this morning measuring something in the surf zone.
The Argusmast. This tower holds multiple cameras, which are used for monitoring waves, shoreline erosion, number of beach visitors, and even for predicting where rip currents might occur, to keep swimmers safe.

Side view of the sand engine
When we returned to Den Hague, we tried out the local fare: raw herring fillet on white roll, smothered in onions. Never has anything smelled so fishy. Can't really endorse this one with much enthusiasm, though we did finish the entire sandwich.

Fast forward, and we're back in Delft for the evening. We've seen advertisements all around the city for $15 Girl with the Pearl Earring portraits (the painting by Vermeer, who lived in Delft). Bridget, Elizabeth, and I decided that we could do this ourselves, so with the help of some white wine, we managed to pull together this portrait in ~15 minutes. Thanks to Elizabeth for setting the black background *sheet*, Bridget for being an excellent photographer who held the camera still between excessive giggling, and both of you for getting that ridiculous head wrap to stay on my head :)

21 August 2014

Bike Touring on Texel Island

I'm in Delft! This post is not about kayaking...

Bridget spontaneously decided to come visit for 2 weeks after her work cruise in Romania was cancelled. The Netherlands is close to Romania, right? She arrived a day after me and we've been exploring the city of Delft together. Of course, our first inclination was to get out of the city, so we made plans to visit Texel Island, which is one in a string of barrier islands (the Frisian Islands) along the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. The map below shows the West Frisian Islands, along the Dutch coast. Texel island is the furthest west, and connects to the mainland (city of Den Helder) by ferry.

From the Delft train station (~1 mile from my apartment), we took two trains to reach Den Helder. From there, we wandered along the levee in Den Helder until we found the ferry terminal (vaarhaven).

The levee/seawall along the coast in Den Helder. No beach left here...
Almost at the ferry terminal
Texel Island is best seen by bike, so we rented bikes next to the ferry terminal when we arrived. We rented the cheap bikes (no gears) for 12 euros/person for 2 days. It took some finagling to attach my backpack to the back of the bike. This was my first overnight bike trip, so it was all new to me. Bridget informed me that this was NOT how bike gear is normally organized. We rode 12 km to Den Koog, which is on the northern coast of the island. On either side we were greeted with picturesque fields of sheep, cows, and horses.

Happy Bridget, moments before her backpack fell off the bike.
Massive backpack strapped to bike.
The rest of the afternoon was a combination of (covered) patio drinks, window shopping, beach wandering, biking, and admiring the Dutch style of camping (Monster tents with wifi, front porches, fully equipped kitchens, and multiple rooms). We scouted out a lunch spot behind a beach bar which was in a wind shadow, only to have sand dumping on our heads and picnic from above. Mmmmm crunchy cheese. We spent a few hours huddling in the tent during the afternoon thunderstorms, after which we went on a much less gear-laden bike ride to the neighboring Dunes of Texel National Park and watched the sunset from the beach.

One example of a massive Dutch-style encampment
Hiding in our mini tent during one of many afternoon thunderstorms
Sunset walk at the Dunes of Texel National Park

The next morning we woke to a reasonably dry tent and a glint of sunlight. However, by the time we had packed up our bags, the rain was pummeling the tent once again. We conducted the worlds fastest tent take-down and ate our last bread and cheese in the campground bathrooms (less gross than you're imagining). We returned to our bikes and unlocked the super fancy Dutch locks (which lock across the spokes of the back wheel, simply preventing it from rotating. This allows you to leave the bike standing anywhere). On the trip back to the ferry terminal we encountered a massive deluge of rain and hail. After a few minutes of the intensity, we took shelter behind a small shed, huddling next to a French couple. We saw some of our biking acquaintances (other bikers who passed/we passed intermittently) battling the storm and waved from our happy dry spot. Back at the ferry terminal we shared grins of mutual understanding: we survived the storm together.

Huddling behind a shed, hiding from the hail and torrential downpour.