We took a break from major travels this past weekend so Riley could work on his latest paper. We did, however, hop the train to Leeuwarden on Saturday afternoon just to check it out. We wandered around town and the canals a bit and had coffee (of course) before we headed to their leaning old church tower, from which a free guided tour by a local was due to start at noon. I was congratulating Riley, who is generally not the biggest fan of such tours, on his escape as we approached at 11:59 with no sign of a guide or other tourists. Suddenly, Peter came flying up his bike and screeched to a halt in front of the designated meeting spot, leaning over to catch his breath as I laughed unabashedly. A crowd of 20 people appeared from nowhere and soon the tour (in English) began. We saw off-the-beaten-path stuff such as the town's coat of arms, inconspicuously mounted on the side of a building that used to be on the edge of town but is now on the edge of the city center. Next was a graffiti alley, for which Peter was delighted to give the town credit for reaching a gentleman's agreement with the local graffiti artists. Several pieces were exceptionally well done. We also saw the old town square, a statue of William of Orange, a beautiful complex of homes and apartments for the elderly and infirm (with its own full-time gardener and stunning gardens), new and old municipal buildings, the Princesshof ceramics museum, the distillery of a local specialty herbed gin (similar to Jagermeister, we were told, but better), and a huge former prison complex. The prison only closed in 2008, and was subsequently converted into small offices and artists' studios where a cell (the "offices" still have a sturdy lock, solid steel door, and a small opening for food trays) can be rented for only 50 euro/month. The tour ended at a small shop selling goods from the Province of Friesland. Riley couldn't help buying (more) mustard and (more) cheese. We wandered a little more, had a snack along the main canal, and I toured the ceramics museum (beautiful and overwhelming) before we headed home. All-in-all, a wonderful visit.
We capped off the weekend with a home game for the local football club, FC Groningen, the boys in green, against Rotterdam's Excelsior. The good guys scored two goals, and the bad guys scored zero, but the game ended in a draw since the first tally was an "own goal." Womp womp. Had it been intentional, it would have been a stellar header for a goal. I can't say FCG did themselves any favors with a lot of sloppy passes and giveaways. Their few strong shots were stifled by Excelsior's goalie, who played an exceptionally good match. We were stunned to discover that you could smoke in your seats at the game, or at the very least it was overlooked by ushers, officials, and other non-smoking fans. Riley lost count of the number of cigarettes the guy next to him rolled himself and then smoked, though he probably reached the double digits by the end of the 90-minute match. Ugh. Below is a photo of bike parking at the stadium (free-for-all) and a blurry photo of post-game traffic, bicycle version. It was mayhem getting out of there.
The Green Heart
I tagged along on one of Riley's required field trips to a suburb of Amsterdam (the Bijlmer neighborhood), The Hague, and Rotterdam for an overview of planning in the Netherlands. Special attention on the tour was given to the historical changing design and architecture of neighborhoods, city growth and development, and encroachment (or lack thereof) on the Green Heart of the Netherlands. The Green Heart, an area targeted for open space preservation, is encircled by the Randstad ("rim cities") of Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. On our short stop in The Hague, the professor leading the trip (Paul van Steen) highlighted the contrast on nearly every block of the city center between historic buildings (international consulates, city and regional government) and contemporary buildings (modern shopping streets and malls, the new dance and performing arts hall, and an apartment building with the highest population density in the Netherlands). Paul was not a fan of such visual contrasts, but Riley and I both thought the town had an energetic vibe and would enjoy visiting again.
Photo notes below: the smallest house in The Hague, government ceremonial meeting "church," Riley sneaking a waffle-ice cream sandwich during the tour.
The tour of downtown Rotterdam, the final stop on the trip, highlighted the town's resurgence after the inner city was bombed into oblivion in WWII. Only four buildings in the city center survived the war. Since then the city has been completely rebuilt. The town has embraced avant garde building design and is marketing itself as the modern architecture center of the Netherlands, and possibly even of Europe. One highlight was the cube house forest, where each home is intended to look like a tree, and the collection of homes an urban forest. Each house has three floors, believe it or not. We visited Rotterdam the weekend after a new, space-age multi-function building opened with a yuppie-friendly market and sleek apartments. The difference between Den Haag and Rotterdam was striking in their balance of old and new buildings; Den Haag had many of both, whereas downtown Rotterdam's buildings were only built in the last 60+ years. We ended the day by driving along Rotterdam's very long and active port to a waterfront bar/restaurant for a festive dinner (first course: vegetarian cheeseburgers, I kid you not). Post-dinner, on we went to the train station, destination Leiden.
Abi! Leiden and Delft
My good friend Abi from Ireland is living and working in Leiden, so when we saw how close it is to Rotterdam we invited ourselves to visit. It was a bonus visit because her boyfriend, Enda, was also visiting. We got an extra surprise when we arrived to find out they are recently engaged! I had met Enda when working in Ireland but never got to know him very well, so we enjoyed the time we spent with the two of them together and see how happy they are. We finished off Saturday night with wine and a few beers, chatting until everyone's eyelids were drooping.
On Sunday we hopped the train to Delft and spent a beautiful afternoon wandering around town and chatting over beers on the main square. We looked at some blue-and-white pottery but didn't officially visit any of the local ceramics factories. Abi suggested a stop at the seaside suburb of Schveningen. They had the closest thing I've seen to a boardwalk in Europe, though a little nicer and less commercial than your average NJ version, with broad walkways linking the waterfront road and the wide (man-made) beach, snack shops dotting the route, posh bars/restaurants down on the beach, and a cluster of surf shops at the far end. We even got to take a new mode of transportation for us, the tram, from Delft through The Hague and out to Schveningen. Couldn't have been a prettier day and a great call by Abi. Back in Leiden, Abi walked us around a few highlights in town before we settled in for a delicious Indonesian dinner. We were all worn out at that point and getting up early the next day, so we said our good nights and counted on the upcoming American Thanksgiving weekend to see each other again.
I got to spend a fabulous and eye-opening week in Morocco with Rose and Karen (two co-workers and Baking Club members from Ireland) sampling foods, trying to pick up a few Moroccan words, and experiencing the holy day of Eid nearly first-hand. It started with a travel nightmare: all three of us were meeting in Brussels from our various locations and flying to Fez together. I got to the airport about 6 hours early, but only about 2.5 hours before the flight was due to take off and I hadn't seen either Rose or Karen did I finally ask and found out I was at the wrong Brussels airport. I think I lost a few months of my life from the sustained panic that accompanied me as I traveled as fast as I could to Charleroi and in the end I made it, by the skin of my teeth. Whew.
We spent our first few days in Fez, staying in the heart of the old city medina and eating our way through the various treats on offer. It is something that has to be seen to be believed: the narrow, winding alley-streets with who-knows-what sloshed over the cobbles and stray cats everywhere, vendors trying to show you their wares, even if all they are selling is cigarettes (by the pack or single cigarettes) and small packs of tissues. Beautiful historic mosques and universities are hidden behind hand-carved doorways, and you need only duck around a corner to find yourself in the middle of artisans' workshops where they still work tirelessly - and without any benefits from health and safety regulations (saw a man picking up raw ammonia powder with his BARE HAND and throwing it into a copper pot to clean it and prepare it for tinning) - on hand-crafted scarves, copper pots, engraved trays, and leather goods. The style of market - cow halves hanging in the fronts of teeny "shops," teeming with flies; live chickens to be selected and killed/de-feathered/cut up on order; carts with a bounty of just one type of fruit; all of the stands and carts overflowing into the alleys through which you are constantly pushed aside to make way for donkeys and carts moving goods all day - is completely different from the brightly-lit, clean, sanitized, neatly-packaged grocery stores in the US. Part of me was horrified at the chickens being slaughtered at the kiosk next door to where we ate lunch one day; another part of me kind of wanted to try one myself. We never bought meat while we were in Morocco, but we did buy all kinds of produce and olives at the markets and cook a few meals (new favorite: Berber eggs!). And all of it is at about 10% of the price you'd pay in Europe or the US.
From Fez we went on to the holy city of Moulay Idriss, where the main who brought Islam to Morocco was murdered and is buried. The town has been open to non-Muslims only since the mid-19th century (and non-Muslims couldn't stay overnight until 2005). Karen and I planned the trip around being able to help Rose manage her guest house and guests over the Eid holiday weekend so that Rose could give her staff the time off to spend with their families. We helped re-make beds, move laundry around, and even helped cook breakfasts in the morning and dinner one night (my favorite part of course ... even piloted my version of Berber eggs on the guests, successfully Hamdoulah), but mostly we got to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of Moulay Idriss in the company of some really interesting people. Rose hosted two guests exclusively for Eid, and they had arranged to join the family of Rose's staff (two women who are aunt/niece) for the day of Eid. They witnessed the full splendor of Eid while Karen and I stayed back at the guest house to prepare our vegetarian feast in deliberate contrast to everything going on around us.
The main tradition for Eid is that every family purchases a sheep (or goat, or cow, or two sheep depending on how many family members they are feeding and what they can afford ... even if you are only feeding 3 people but can afford a big sheep, the social norm is to buy a big sheep) to be sacrificed on Eid. Sheep are purchased and kept (alive) at the family's home no more than 10 days before Eid. The sheep souk (market) alone is a sight to behold, and for the days leading up to Eid there are sheep everywhere: being prodded, dragged by their horns, carried on shoulders, transported in the trunks of cars, but most commonly packed into either the side bags or on top of the local donkeys for delivery to your home, after which they spend all day and night bleating to remind you that they're there. Most people keep their sheep either in their inner courtyards (if they have one) or, more commonly, on their rooftop terraces. We could look out from Rose's terrace and see at least 3-4 sheep on various neighboring terraces.
On the day of Eid, your family first goes to the mosque to pray (this is one of two times per year that there are so many people that they pray outside, kind of like the Catholics' Christmas and Easter I guess), then you have a small breakfast at home, and then you begin slaughtering and preparing the sheep. Note: the next part is not for the squeamish, though I don't have any photos, so it's not as bad as it could be.
On Day 1, the sheep is killed, skinned, gutted, and de-headed. The head is roasted slowly over a prepared wood fire until it is consumed the next day (possibly in soup though I can't remember for sure, and we didn't stick around to see). The heart, liver, spleen, and other unusual goodies are what's eaten on Eid. Two or three days later, each family gives one-third of their sheep to charity. When we asked about the logistics of giving to charity (do you take it to a local donation center, who then distributes it, or is it more personal and direct?) we were told that, at least for Rose's staff's family, they have a family in their personal acquaintance to whom they would give their 1/3 sheep. Note that it is strictly understood you don't skimp on what you give to charity or give only the dregs; you give 1/3 of the sheep including the more desired parts. All day we were surrounded by the dwindling sounds of sheep bleating, followed by the smell of all the wood fires and roasting meat, and at one point we could see a few sheep skins being laid out to dry. Trying not to be too nosy on what is a very holy day and solemn experience for the neighbors, we snuck only a few peeks and mostly kept to ourselves and prepared our vegetarian food. The day before we had prepared some of our food and taken it to the local oven to be cooked. Most homes in Morocco do not have an oven. You prepare your food (bread dough, sweets) and then take them to the local community oven, hand them to the man who works it (always a man - in Morocco women do not do the hard/hot jobs), and go back a little later to pick up your baked goods. Mornings are for the daily bread; afternoons are for everything else, when the oven is usually maintained at a lower temperature. When we went, we took several different vegetable dishes to be roasted plus a cheesecake with the local version of typical ingredients. All the veggies were a success; the cheesecake not so much. I think it just scorched the top and never even had a chance to rise; I think it actually contracted. Ah well, a fascinating experience nonetheless.
One other highlight during our stay in Moulay Idriss was borrowing mountain bikes from Rose and biking, via the high road (for the views), in the early morning to the local Roman ruins, and UNESCO World Heritage Site, at Volubilis. I have to admit I was skeptical about what we'd find when squinting at their outline from 2 miles away, but WOW they are incredible. They are said to have been built in the 3rd century BC and grew over ~500 years into a bustling metropolis in the fertile valley until overtaken by local tribes, not defended by the Romans as they marked the most remote southwestern outpost of their massive empire. Of the portion that has been excavated (thank you, France!), there are meticulously tiled mosaic floors, still well-preserved, and acres of the surviving city complete with giant arch, walkways, columns, baths, and even ovens. We should have taken a guide book with us to better appreciate the site, but we can fully understand Rose's love of taking a picnic down to the ruins and spending an afternoon wandering or just sitting among the beautiful relics. It's incredible just to think of the Roman Empire stretching that far and maintaining rule for so long.
P.S. The last photo below is the beef kefta + lightly pickled cucumber + zucchini I made for Riley (let's be honest, I made it for myself and thought he might also like it) as soon as I got home because I JUST CANNOT GET ENOUGH OF BEEF KEFTA.