Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Most of the time we post about life in Leiden we tell in words. For Christmas we got a camera, a nice little one I can slip in my coat pocket and carry around with me, so the number of pictures I've taken has exploded. It's also shown me just how much I love it here. This post may take a while to load (I know it did here at the library with slow internet) but we hope you enjoy.

Owen with his new bike by the park right next to our new apartment
more of the park
Called the Plantsoen
What do the Dutch have with bread and butter?
I'm not kidding.
Here it is in English, in case you thought there was some mistake. 
Working on a 1000 piece puzzle is easier with overhead lighting 
But we've got that together now thanks to Praxis
Our Dutch is improving thanks to Dutch class
We got houseplants!
And a vacuum, or "stofzuiger," literally "stuff-sucker"
When we were in Amsterdam
We had a nice time

And the Rijksmuseum was beautiful 
inside and out
As they say in the Madeline books, 
"The best part of a voyage, by plane, by ship, or train
Is when the trip is over and you are home again."
Leiden feels both like home, and like a miracle.
As homes, perhaps, always are. 

Even on rainy days.

perhaps especially then. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to have More Fun at Art Museums.

I really like going to art museums. A whole lot. Maybe it's because my dad's an art professor so I have learned a lot about art history from him. Maybe it's because I like beautiful things. And I like to learn. But along the way I've figured out a lot of things that help make trips to a museum more fun, so here are ten suggestions for having a great time.

1. Bring a friend.
Some people will feel differently about this. I have a bunch of friends who really enjoy going to restaurants and movies alone. I am not usually one of these people. However, I would much rather go alone than with a big group or with people who don't want to be there, and I do enjoy re-visiting museums solo. In London I would often stop in the National Gallery to visit a painting I'd made friends with there. But a bunch of the activities I'll suggest later are better with a friend.

2. Do some prep work. 
This is especially important if you don't really enjoy going to museums or don't feel like you know very much about art. Sometimes just looking up some famous pieces of art on the museum website and learning a bit about them before you go will make you feel lots better. Five pieces, I'd say. In different genres or eras, so that when you find them it will be like a present. Or if you don't have time for this, you could plan your visit so you can join a tour or use an audio guide. These will also help you so you don't feel like you're floundering.

3. When you get the museum map, find a place to sit down and write all over it. 
This is something I have only done once, but it was so excellent, I plan on making it part of my museum-ing routine. This past weekend Owen and I arrived at the Rijksmuseum about noon. We were thinking we would look around the museum for about an hour and then find lunch, but the line for the coatroom was SO LONG that we made a new plan and went to eat first, bringing along our museum maps so we could make a plan while we waited for our burgers. We then circled all the rooms that we wanted to visit and then made a route for ourselves (with dotted lines, treasure-map style). It was great! Usually, I'm fumbling with a map and trying to make decisions with my museum buddy along the way, and it's tiring and sometimes frustrating. This made things a lot easier, and meant that we didn't feel like we needed to visit every room.

4. Don't make the security guards nervous.
Never touch the art unless specifically requested to do so by the signage, but it's also a good idea not to get close enough that the security guards are watching you. If you're trying to point out something in the painting, you can use the shadow of your hand to point. If you want to lean in to see the details, keep your hands well away. However, when touching is allowed, go for it! The British Museum is particularly fantastic about this. They have these little "touching history" kiosks, where an attendant will let you hold coins and pieces of pottery that are CRAZY OLD, and will tell you all about them. I held a coin with Cleopatra's face on it. Yep. That Cleopatra. Amazing.

5. Take care of your body.
When there are seats available, sit in them, even if you're not desperate yet. Snack breaks or at least water breaks are a must. Our bodies aren't usually used to that much standing, so it can be surprisingly exhausting to spend some hours at a museum. If you're about to go into a ticketed exhibit, use the bathroom first.

6. If you're not liking a room or a gallery, don't try to force yourself to like it.
I sometimes feel duty-bound to enjoy art. It's okay if you don't like everything. If you're bored by the state portraits, or the weird music that goes with the contemporary exhibit is freaking you out, go to another part of the museum. Don't sweat it.

7. In rooms full of portraits: compare them. 
Which of the subjects looks friendliest? Least approachable? Who is the happiest with his clothes? Who is least happy to be sitting for a portrait? Are any of the portraits making eye contact with each other? Which ones would be friends with each other? What nicknames did this lady get called?

8. Treat big paintings full of characters like a comic books with blank speech bubbles.
Abigail, Owen and I encountered this gem in the Philadelphia Art Museum. There are so many little stories going on it's fantastic to make up dialogue for all the groups of people. The cupid in the bottom left never really learned to fly, the two over on the right hand edge half way up the painting look like the man is telling the lady, "you get in that water!" "but Dad! it's so nice sunbathing here with my friend." And Europa! She doesn't look particularly ravished, but she does seem happier about the flowers than the wind-god spitting at her. Don't worry too hard, though there's a cupid on the right hand side aiming at him.

9. Play I Spy.
A similar idea to the previous game, this one works best with giant still lifes and with street scenes where people's facial expressions are less prominent, but there's a lot of stuff to look at. This Avercamp painting is a great one for this sort of thing. I spy a bird dive-bombing. I spy a couple where the girl's not that excited about her date. I spy someone with a GIANT yellow feather in is hat. It's a lot of fun.

10. Bring crayons.

This is my favorite way of visiting art museums. I stole this idea from an awesome mom taking her two little kids through the modern section of the Met. They were really into it, and I was jealous. Pick a room that's mostly empty or an unpopular time of day, and set yourself up with a little box of crayons. I'm partial to the 24 color box, as it's small and light and gives you a decent variety. You need to have a lot of time because trying to copy a work of art is not easy. I've had a lots of people mistake me for an art student, and some people offer suggestions, but the kids get the most excited of all. One time in the Richmond art museum I was copying a giant Monet onto a little folded-over 8 1/2 by 11, and a mom and two kids came upon me. The kids were so excited to see someone copying the picture and they were in total awe when their mom asked "is she using fancy art materials?" and they just chirped back, "She's using crayons!" and they walked off making plans to bring their own next time. I had been a little anxious that time because the map for the museum said that no one was allowed to bring in paints and easels. When a security guard wandered by I was all about to make excuses and apologize, only to find he was just stopping in to ask if I wanted a little folding chair.

I hope you visit museums, and I hope you have a great time.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Holidays in Cambridge and Leiden

It has been a long time since we’ve posted anything but it will be an understatement to say that we've been busy. There have been adventures with a mouse caught in our new extractor fan over the stove, a stomach bug on Christmas Day, the experience of moving via bike, removing the rust stains from our former landlady’s floor only to remove the finish on the floor as well, spending a night on the frigid tile floor in an airport and making a Christmas tree out of cardboard, and a lot of walking cold and wet attempting to transfer utilities and accomplish errands in a country that treats holiday vacations with the utmost of seriousness. From this description you could think that we are not all that happy, or that our time has been more trial than joy. If so, you would be mistaken. To tell the stories, I will employ a fictional grandchild, Ted.

OWEN: Our first Christmas after we were married, we had just moved by bike.
CLARA: That’s right, oh goodness. You were a saint trekking back and forth.
TED: No way! Grandma, they had cars back then.
CLARA: Yes, and at that point our only car was back in the U.S.
OWEN: Yes, in old country. But the Dutch love their bikes, and we still had the use of our landlady’s at the time.
TED: So you moved, like, a couch, on the back of a bike?
OWEN: We didn’t have a couch yet.  Or any large furniture.  So it was a lot of trips, some of them on foot, but it was doable.

We went to the thrift store, did a lot of searching on Marktplaats (the Dutch version of Craig’s list) and ikea.nl to find furnishing for our apartment, so before long we had a used fridge, a used washing machine (which we installed ourselves complete with cutting and reconnecting wires and it doesn’t leak and hasn’t electrocuted us, but washes our clothes beautifully), a used bookshelf, a used couch, and after a well-researched trip to Ikea we emerged victorious, and the pile of boxes came to our new doorstep that night. Many of our new friends have been so kind and helpful, we don’t know how we could have got the fridge home without some of our friends and their car. People say that constructing Ikea furniture with a significant other is a real test of a relationship, but if that is the case, Owen and I have nothing to fear. We have had a blast putting everything together, the crowning achievement being the STORA bed (lofted to make the most use of our little studio), which was quite the challenge and is now pretty impressive. Constructing the furniture has brought back memories of getting legos for Christmas. Except in the end we get furniture! It’s really starting to feel like home.

No sooner had we had three nights in our apartment than we got on a plane and flew off to England to be with one of my college friends for Christmas!

CLARA: Oh that was just such an adventure.
TED: For you guys, “adventure” is code for “things going terribly wrong.”
CLARA: We went to England to visit a lovely friend of mine from college. She was studying at Cambridge. And she set us up so nicely in a flat all to ourselves, just around the corner from her place. It was really lovely. Except that your grandpa got a stomach bug.
OWEN: The night before Christmas. Or the morning of, depending how you count.
TED: Yuck! So you didn’t do anything on Christmas just sat around in someone ELSE’s empty apartment?
CLARA: Well. We took care of each other. And we relaxed, and watched a movie. And Erin, my friend, was such a dear. I had Christmas Breakfast with her, and Owen—Your grandpa—slept, and we skyped with our families. It was actually really lovely.
OWEN: But the rest of the week was also lovely.
CLARA: Yes! We started out taking the Stansted Express into London! Words cannot express what a joy it was to be back in England: you could see that it was England just by looking out the window.  There’s something so lovely about the rolling landscape and the blue painted trim...
OWEN: And the English language everywhere.
CLARA: Yes! It was so odd to be back in a place where English was the primary language!
OWEN: It didn’t stop our Dutch-learning brains from working in “translate” mode, though. I kept trying to put together Dutch sentences in my mind before I said anything, and your grandmother even said “Bedankt” when the conductor handed her back her ticket.
OWEN: We walked around the city and got lunch at a pub on the South Bank.
CLARA: It wasn’t the pub we were aiming for, that one was closed, but it was so lovely.  All decorated for Christmas, it was cheery and warm and balm to our souls on a wet windy day.
OWEN: Fortified with lunch, your grandmother showed me Shakespeare’s window in Southwark Cathedral, and visited her friends at the Tate Modern.
TED: I thought your friends were in Cambridge?
CLARA: No, dear, he means the paintings I had known there when I had studied in London.  We met my real friend at King’s Cross station and took the train together into Cambridge.
OWEN: Do you remember the Indian take-out?
CLARA: So delicious!

Other adventures in our week with Erin involved a Boxing day barrel race in Grantchester, long, happy conversations, board games, picture telephone (adapted for three players), visiting Churchill college (where Owen studied in Cambridge) and taking pictures with all the sculptures. Also Erin introduced us to some magnificent British comedy, and I will never look at Chummy from Call the Midwife the same way again.

After leaving England we returned to a new apartment still full of unconstructed furniture, without curtains on its giant storefront windows, and a great many problems still to fix, but we have been working happily and faithfully and it is nice to be able to see the progress.

New Years was amazing in Leiden. We went to a really lovely Oud and Nieuw party, and had a really great time getting to know some of the people from our own church and friends of friends. When we got down to midnight we all chanted together counting backwards (in Dutch of course) and the whole group toasted with champagne and then formed a couple of circles so everyone could go around and wish every other person a happy new year, complete with kisses to the cheeks. Perhaps they knew we didn’t know? But they provided the cue “three kisses” in case we got confused. No hugs though, as “Hugging is much more intimate.” But the reason that new year's here is amazing is the fireworks. It may be a little old brick city, but EVERYONE buys and sets off fireworks. It’s only legal for the one day so starting at 10 am there were bangs going off, but at midnight? There is no official city display, and there doesn’t need to be, because everywhere you look there are intoxicated Dutch setting off colorful explosives. We walked back soon after the hour hit and there were rockets shooting up on every side, glittering over the canals, illuminating the old city. Random strangers shook our hands and wished us a healthy, happy, or lucky new year.

We wish you one as well.