JerryJvL - Blog

Europe 2018-11-28 - 2019-01-02

January 29, 2019

You know it has been too long since you visited family when you suddenly discover your younger brother has three sons, and the eldest is already a teenager. Luckily, working a more flexible job has allowed me to go back and spend all of December in Europe to re-acquaint myself with family.

We left on a stormy wet November Wednesday to catch a 22 hour flight over Singapore. It looked a bit uncertain whether we’d actually take off with the storm cell that had decided to inundate Sydney on this particular Wednesday. But we packed like we meant it, and went to the airport hoping for the best.

To the Airport

Another upside to my new job is that I frequently travel to San Francisco with Qantas, meaning I’ve built myself up some nice healthy status over the last year and a half.

As a result, Abbey, myself and “Egeltje” (translation: “Hedgehog”) had a chance to spend some time in the First Class lounge at Sydney airport while waiting for our massive A380 double-decker plane to be ready for us. It feels like a frivolous luxury… until you have it, and you come to discover that those inflated airport prices do not matter when you have a chef-catered kitchen waiting for your order.

We didn’t have too much time in the lounge before our departure, leaving me to quickly stuff down the remainder of my delicious fries, and try not to get paged a third time for our flight.

I’ll gloss over most of the detail of the flight here. We were airborne for 8 hours, then spent 1.5 hours in Singapore getting off the plane, making our way back through a security scan into a waiting area, only to get back on the plane for another 14 hours.

Then… London!

Flight to London

Heathrow is massive. I hadn’t anticipated the distance we had to walk before we managed to make it out into daylight. Early daylight. 6am in the morning Daylight. Not my favourite, but I had slept a bit on the plane so not too terrible either.

Although I still looked pretty tired.

We got ourselves a pair of Oyster cards for the subway, with a ticket to get to central London and then a week pass for the central zones of the subway. That was enough to take care of all our transport needs for the 5 days in London.

The subway from Heathrow was a bit of an experience. Quite a long hike. Quite full with commuters, so I had to stand most of the way. The London subway has some of the most enthusiastic announcers at some of their stops. I wish I had gotten my phone out to take a recording, but at one stop the announcer was doing a running commentary of the trains arriving, next trains anticipated, to not worry about missing one, and mimicking the door sound to explain what to listen for as a sign to clear the doorways and step back.

It feels like I ought to have hallucinated that part.

We had arranged to get into our boutique hotel in Camden Town early, and notes were left in my email… but alas, I had no UK SIM yet to acquire this message. We spent quite some tired to-ing and fro-ing trying to work out how to proceed… until I managed to get onto the WiFi while drinking a coffee and discovered the email with the door access codes.

The temptation to nap was great, but having some practice with long distance air travel told me not to give in. We spent some time exploring the surrounds of our temporary home.

Where we stayed in London

Also, after having been catered for in lounges and planes for the last 30-odd hours, it was time to face the need to forage for our own food.

For “lunch”, Abbey decided to try a macaron with gelato in the middle, while I had some crepes with fruit and ice cream. In reality it was more a late-morning snack to keep us going up the road through Camden Town until we found somewhere real to eat.

For real-lunch we opted for fish-and-chips at a place that was proclaimed on banners down the street to be the best fish-and-chips shop in all of somewhere-or-other. Of course, I don’t believe banners at face value, but Google seemed to agree that “Poppies” was a very well rated place.

The decor was an eclectic mix of 50s/60s parapharnalia. The staff was friendly and enthusiastic. And the fish and chips was truly very good. Everything we could have hoped for.

London Breakfast and London Lunch

After a low-key day recovering and planning, there were some places we had to go see. But first, some breakfast at Music and Beans which Abbey had discovered the day before. They were very accommodating in serving her a breakfast stripped of foods she could not have, and deconstructed for easy sorting through the ingredients.

First stop for the day: Kings Cross Station. Because it is the subway interchange we needed to get to Harrods… but also because Platform 9 3/4 can be found there.

At first, we queued like the locals. And discovered that we were in the queue for the photo-op with the trolley halfway sticking out of the wall per Harry Potter. We weren’t really interested because we mainly wanted to see the shop.

So, then, once again, we queued like the locals. Because apparantely this Harry Potter shop is so popular that they only let people in at the same rate that people leave after having bought what they were after. When we got in it was easy to understand why… it was absolutely packed with people.

I wasn’t sure what to expect; movie merchandising has this habit of being disappointing in person, but the scarves and sweaters and art works, albeit highly priced, actually looked like something the average person might wear or hang on a wall and not be too embarrased by in the process.

Next stop; Harrods.

One thing worth noting is the sensible numbering of floors we saw throughout the subway. Rather than all this “B / G / 1 / 2 / 3” nonesense, “0” is ground floor, positive numbers are above ground, and negative numbers are progressively further under ground. Combined with the elevator connection maps throughout it is a surprise anyone manages to get lost down there.

Harrods was worth visiting. But also overwhelmingly huge, and ridiculous. It is the size of a city block. It has 6+ floors. It covers every kind of purchasable good you’d expect to find in your typical city mall. All the way from Lego sets and clothing, up to $6000 diamond encrusted pens. Because why not.

We tried some noise-cancelling headphones. Got lost in the maze of childrens clothing departments, backtracking twice to try and get to a place serving some lunch… only to find the tea room booked out solid.

Alas, time to go outside and make other plans. Getting outside itself took several tries. I swear I thought we were going to have to camp overnight in the camping department because it felt like we walked miles before encountering windows with daylight, and miles more before we found a door.

Further enhancing the “upper end of the city” vibe once we left Harrods was noticing the McLaren shop-front with a Formula 1 racing car mounted on the wall. Clearly a different class of people shops in this part of town.

Shopping in London

We found a little french patisserie instead. We had hoped to sit down inside with some food, but it turned out to be too packed to have room for two more weary travelers, so instead we gathered our food and took it into the park.

The best part of eating lunch in the park is watching the squirrels hop around in perfect geometric arcs in their quest to gather food from willing tourists.

These aren’t shy animals.

If you hold out a camera they’ll come stare straight into the lens to confirm there is no food to be had, before running and bounding away again to the next victim tourist. A pair of girls had clearly opened pandora’s box by feeding the squirrels. The little critters were getting progressively bolder to the point of jumping and climbing up one of their legs to try and get closer to where the food was coming from.

I could stand to live in a place that has a park with squirrels for lunch. To watch, not to eat. But you understood that right? (I have very pedantic friends, I have to check these things).

Also notable is how clean the pigeons look by comparison to Sydney pigeons. The examplar we saw in the park was almost beautiful in its subdued colours.

Squirrels! Everywhere!

We spent the next day marvelling at all the well-kept old buildings throughout London. I don’t know if London is unique in this, but it seems that rather than modernizing and replacing buildings to make way for new uses, the city is very good at adapting old buildings to new uses while keeping the facades unchanged. There is a historic weight to the look of the city despite its more modern (and quirky) touches.

One specific case in point is the building on the river between the London Eye and Westminster Bridge. It looks like any other courthouse or town hall, ornate columned building with forecourt. But in actual fact it houses several fast-food chains and restaurants, a haunted house, the London Aquarium and a fish store. Because, why not?

Also notable is how incredibly polite all the signs are around the city… no Australian “Offenders will be prosecuted” here… just “Please refrain from X because it may cause harm Y” in various forms.

And I do not know whether the Elevator Safety sign is updated seasonally, or whether London just has a persistent caroling problem. Either way, “No Spontaneous Carol Singing” has got to be the best prohibition I’ve ever witnessed.

Buildings of London

Walking all over London is very hungry business. I was up for a good restaurant, but we had to pick something that was unlikely to feature gratuitous Onion or Garlic for Abbey’s FODMAP wellbeing.

The Flat Iron looked promising to me, because steak is one of those options that can be done well without any/too much seasoning. But Abbey was dubious about steak in London… it’s just not a cuisine they are known for. I’m glad I insisted we try anyway.

The waiter led us from the door to a nice bench table towards the back. The space was kinda hipster-cozy with lots of shared seating, metal pipework, and coat racks in niches in the walls. Modern, but also slightly steampunk in a way.

Rather than just bringing us a menu though, the waiter sat down at the bench and started explaining the menu. We explained Abbey’s diet, and after briefly ducking into the kitchen the waiter customized her menu to exclude options she should avoid and then made suggestions for a good combination from the remainder.

We opted for a simple steak, some salad in a cup, and a healthy helping of extremely crispy fries. It probably was the best steak I’ve had in years, and I wish the Flat Iron was closer to home because I’d go there again in a heartbeat.

One other interesting factoid; the street this restaurant was located in is unique in the shops it had on it. Or should I say shop? We didn’t initially notice anything odd; a guitar shop on the corner. Hey, sheet music as well! Wait… more guitars? How peculiar to have three guitar sho… no, wait… this street has nothing but guitar shops on it.

I guess it’s a way to corner the market, and if you are in need of any kind of stringed instrument, you should go to Denmark Street. I also just discovered by trying to look that up that apparently Flat Iron is a chain. I’d never have guessed from the presentation!

A Good Steak in London

Since this was our last day in London before taking an early train to Groningen, we decided to go down to the markets we had found up the road to Camden Town one last time.

Alas, we only then discovered that what we had thought of as “the markets” was only the very earliest little corner of the true markets. We crossed under a railway overpass and discovered an extensive warren of passages and stalls, which both increased the scope of the markets but at the same time decreased the appeal a little bit as well.

Up to that point it had seemed there was very little duplication of effort in the markets. You know how the longer you spend at a large market, the more times you see the same goods appear in different stalls? Yeah, that. What seemed to be little unique bits of art turned out to be much more mass-produced than I had initially thought. Some items that I had considered buying suddenly didn’t seem worth it anymore.

Still, the atmosphere was great. Between the early dark, and the cold temperatures it felt like “proper” December weather to me. And although it wasn’t cold enough for actual snow, at least one little corner had a fake snow machine going intermittently. I don’t know what the greasy pieces of fluff floating down onto my coat actually were, but I’m not going to dwell on that too much.

At the end of the evening we went back across from our hotel for a quick obligatory “must-do” drink in a proper pub. Followed by crawling into bed to watch Doctor Who broadcast on the BBC.

I think we managed to tick off all the most British things.

Last Night Markets

I looked at many options for getting from London to Groningen to visit all the family for the rest of the month. Short flights to Groningen were more expensive / less practical than anticipated. And getting a nice first class seat on the fast Eurostar was about the same cost as an Economy flight that’d include all our luggage.

So, we departed from London’s Kings Cross station early in the morning, ducking underground almost immediately after departure. About 10 minutes later we re-surfaced and we were in the middle of the English countryside with not a bit of London in sight. From an Australian perspective it is amazing to see how concentrated big European cites are with modest highrise in dense centres and then lots of medium density two-storey housing around. Sydney definitely sprawls large houses far and wide and consumes space much less efficiently by comparison.

The changes in the landscape were subtle and slow despite our almost-300-km/h speed hurtling through France, Belgium and then the Netherlands. Food service wasn’t too luxurious, but sufficient to feel full.

We did however have a great trip listening in on the fascinating business conversations of the group of four travelers seated right in front of us. Tales of high-level international banking through the 2008 crisis abounded. And some careful discussion of US politics, which initially left me fearful of where the American in the group was leading the conversation.

And then, about 6 hours later we arrived in Rotterdam ready to meet up with my parents and together get on a NS line taking us the rest of the way to Groningen.

By Train to the Continent

I’m not sure why, but I think almost every trip back I’ve ever made seems to start with visiting a large shop of some sort. I know I’m always eager to see the foods I have missed since my last trip, but that’s only part of the explanation. I think it’s a little bit of showing off by Paul and Connie as well.

What was actually most amazingly different this trip was the hand-scanners. Those weren’t used yet last time I was over. So, for non-initiates the way this works; you log in at a touch screen and you get assigned a handscanner that blinks and buzzes at you. You then take this scanner with you throughout the shop and you scan everything as you put it in your trolley. The scanner keeps your receipt up-to-date on the screen so you know exactly what you have and how much it costs so far. And most miraculously, at the end of the shop you just pay the total and walk out. So, for advanced shoppers the optimal way to use this is to pack your groceries in bags as you are scanning them and you’ll basically save all the scanning time you would otherwise spend at the time at the register.

Other weird-and-wonderfuls… huge marzepain Sinterklaas puppets, partially dismembered and packaged in pieces for your convenience. And, cheese-letters for those that do not like chocolate-letters.

At Parents and Shopping

Speaking of Sinterklaas. This was probably my first Sinterklaas in two decades; we got surprised by the drop-off of the presents earlier than expected. It gets dark by 4pm in winter, and we got a visit with presents before the light had all gone.

When I went out to the gym in the morning I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary because Sint couldn’t find my shoes… but Abbey woke up to find a chocolate letter A left in her boot overnight! I think my J had just been left somewhere around.

At first it seemed like the present haul this year was relatively modest. Just a single bag. But there was a new trick I had never seen before; Sinterklaas had included a letter to be opened last, which contained a clue to the next bag of presents hidden somewhere around the house.

Bit by bit, the presents started to stack up to outrageous levels. Two bags, three bags of presents, and still no end in sight.

The last clue was a bit interesting; it led to our guest room, but the room was locked. Sander and the kids had to get into the room through the garage, but I guess Sint’s helper wasn’t quite ready yet and had been left behind in the room, because just as they made their way into our room he unlocked the door and escaped out the front leaving a trail of presents behind all tied together all over the room and through the kitchen.

Paul and Connie each got an impressive set of Lego, pieces of a toy-house style street. Connie had a bistro full of wonderful little details, and Paul a shopping square full of shops. More on these towards the end of this post.

Sinterklaas

The weekend after Sinterklaas had been set aside for family visiting. We didn’t want to spend our month in the Netherlands running around to see everyone, so everyone had been invited to come for lunch and coffee and snacks to my parents’ place.

Everyone was surprisingly unchanged from what I remembered. Sure, a little more grey in places, but otherwise not really changed. I had a great time catching up with everyone, and that’s when I decided I should write this post so that by the end of my holiday everyone could read about our adventures in Europe.

Everyone had brought presents along, which was entirely unnecessary and unexpected, but nevertheless greatly appreciated. Some nice snacks and foods for us to try, and some envelopes with entreaties to do something fun… and we definitely did.

Family Visitors

My parents used to live in the south of the Netherlands, but a while ago they moved near Groningen. At first it was a little strange to go to a different house. But it was nice being so much closer to a lot of the family.

It also meant that I had a whole new city to explore.

We spotted a burnt-out Aussie pub near where we parked. Something about a BBQ accident burning out the top floor and being closed for repairs. They suggested their Irish neighbouring pub as a suitable alternative for any stray Australians needing a drink.

I had also never seen anything as cloyingly decadent and creamy as the peanutbutter fountain in one shop window. Basically, think a normal chocolate fountain, but instead filled with a gloopy runny peanutbutter liquid. I didn’t go inside. My brother is deathly allergic to peanuts. I think I might be allergic to this particular form too.

Towards the end of the browsing my brother and I sat down in a little cafe hoping for something hot and grilled, but it turned out the kitchen wasn’t available for the options I wanted most. Instead we both had a great burger and talked about software development methodology. It was nice. And the dessert menu had a wonderful entry for “Rabarbarabarbabarara-Brownie”, which I immediately recognized as a play on the video about ”Rhabarber Barbara” that I like torturing/baffling my friends with.

Going to Groningen

Now. If you know me…

You know I have a specific kind of mean streak about me.

My dad had been looking at puzzles online and had mentioned this 3000-piece puzzle that he was considering. So while we were in Groningen, I bought him 3x 1000-piece puzzles instead.

What’s so mean about that?

Well, he wanted a 3000-piece puzzle, so I had to make some modifications. I opened all three boxes and shuffled about 2/3 of each box’ contents into two halves into the other boxes. Shake a little. Close lid. Gift puzzles!

An early birthday present for my dad.

The next day he started doing one of the puzzles. I had tried to hint by saying I had given him really ONE puzzle of THREE THOUSAND PIECES, but I don’t think he caught on that I was emphasizing with intent.

I think he figured it out when while doing the Dutch landscape he found it to have 5 corners. Which, if you know puzzles, is an odd configuration.

In the end multiple tables had to be set up, pieces put everywhere, and a concerted effort made together to complete all three together over the next week or-so. It worked out pretty well. And I enjoyed working on the puzzle together by bits and pieces.

I’m not sure if I’m forgiven yet.

Paul Present Puzzle Prank

One day scouting around Abbey and I came upon a deer park as well. Just settled inbetween normal homes. Community maintained it seems.

As we were wandering up to have a look at all the animals the community centre cat decided we looked friendly and sauntered along with us. Rubbing up against our legs, but also looking at animals with us. I’m not sure if it was ready to pounce or just leisurly enjoying “family”. It felt like everyone was completely comfortable with the arrangement.

It was awesome getting up this close. Male deer didn’t like us getting close as much as the other deer and the chickens. I guess our proximity made him realize he should be protecting his herd, or something.

I had wanted to bring bread to feed the animals. But there was a sign telling us not to, so I guess it was all for the better I didn’t carry temptation with me.

Visiting a Deer Park

Another thing I had forgotten about the Netherlands is the space… as I said before about London, once you get outside the city there is so much open space; something unfamiliar to the typical Sydney-sider. Groningen was exactly the same.

Just outside the city were these amazing stretching vistas over lakes and farm fields. We even saw a windmill in the wild! And Abbey had a pleasant surprise meeting a real life Holly bush. It had never occurred to me that it just growing about would be a prompt for wonder and amazement.

Broad Open Landscapes of Groningen

I’m sorry this post is so long; we’re only about halfway into December so far, and I’m letting my rambling stream-of-consciousness doing the mental driving; otherwise it’d take me forever to finish writing.

Robert (my brother) had somewhere special to show us. He has a membership with a catering industry mega-store. If everyday shops are a delight whenever I manage to get back to the Netherlands, this was that times a thousand.

To give a sampling I’ll talk quickly through the pictures below. But there is too much more insanity of this nature for me to cover it all.

Top-left; there was one of those refrigerated-goods-style-islands which had just one thing in it. Every flavour, colour and consistency of melting chocolate pellets imaginable. All the one brand. Callebaut. It goes up to oh-my-god-bulk-catfood-size at 10kb bags of chocolate pellets. We almost gave up on our luggage for the way home and stuffed our suitcases with just these.

Top-middle; when we thought we were done seeing everyting, it turns out that there was a nested series of increasingly-cold-storage areas at the side of the shop. First stage: cheeses, preserved meats, all kinds of wild fowl and game, and so on and so forth. Second stage: refrigerated vegetables, in and out of season, and chilled flowers (see later). Third stage: fish, live lobsters, salmon, trout, packaged in more ways than I thought existed. It was seriously cold in there btw.

Top-right; Abbey finds the Callebaut cooking chocolate bars. In a convenient 5kg bar of white, for immediate consumption(?)

Bottom-left; Abbey marvelling at the sight of this shop as we enter.

Bottom-middle; containers of chilled-fresh flower heads, violets, and various other edible flowers. Remember that this is the middle of winter. Nothing says luxury and decadence like fresh flowers in the middle of winter for the purpose of eating.

Bottom-right; a sampling of dutch cheeses, cut and diced for the purposes of sampling. Yes, lots of places around the shop present samples to help you figure out what you need for your kitchen.

This shop was kinda wonderful, especially because it requires an attachment to the catering industry to even get a pass to access the shop. I would have never imagined a place like this existing, nor it looking like this on the inside.

Visiting Hanos

One thing worth noting at this point is the weather. The forecast for December in the netherlands was around 5-7 degrees Centigrade (41-44 Farenheit). This is not what I remember December being like. Sure, it’s not always freezing, but in my memory it was never this consistently this warm.

Which is what made December 16th a bit of a surprise. The evening before the forecast was for some snow in the morning that’d melt again by noon.

Instead we got 2-3 centimeters that lasted throughout the day and only melted over the next night. It was magical waking up in the morning to an unusually bright light peeking around the corner of the curtains. Bleary eyed I opened the curtain to be greeted by a completely blanketed back yard.

It didn’t really sink in how much snow there was till I looked out the front window as well and saw that everything was under a solid white blanket.

Still believing it was going to melt by noon, we rushed into warm clothing to explore outside. Have snow fall on us. Take gratuitous snow-selfies. And standing at the edge of a farm field, solid white meeting the slate of the sky feels surreal and serene.

And the sound is different. Everything it muted, making it seem like the world is stuffed with cotton wool.

It was exciting to glance out the window over the course of the day noting that the snow wasn’t really going anywhere. I wish it had stayed around longer, but one day was a great treat.

And Then it Snowed

A few days later we decided to take another trip into the city. This time with my mother instead of my brother. She lives here after all and might be able to show us a few more corners we had missed before.

But first, I had to stop in “De Frietwinkel” (the fry shop). I really felt like fries. I had fries with curried pulled chicken. Abbey had fries in a pointy bag with mayonnaise in a separate pointy receptacle at the top.

We walked past canals with boats and old houses; Groningen was never bombed in WW-2, meaning that lots of very old architecture has survived there. Some of the older buildings have sagged to the point of leaning 5-10 degrees out over the street. But even the few new buildings have been done in keeping with the look of the city. Even though bricks placed vertically still look very peculiar to me. But also beautiful.

We dutifully visited one of the few landmarks in the city marked as notable in the research Abbey did up front. A glass public toilet that feels uncomfortably exposed to the surroundings… but sadly out of commission while we were there so not something we could investigate more closely.

We had a nice cup of coffee to rest our legs, and at the end we went to a cheese shop my mother recommended to check out some cheeses. Too many flavours to choose from with the limited fridge space available. It was really cruel. We picked 3 bits of cheese, but there were hundreds on display. I still wonder what all the kinds I didn’t choose might taste like.

Going to Groningen Again

It was also starting to head towards Christmas. In the Netherlands Christmas doesn’t start at the beginning of November like in Sydney. At the earliest it might appear after Sinterklaas on the 5th of December, but in our case we got around to preparing by the 19th… and that was still plenty early.

I built a tree from base materials, and had to go out to get some nice coordinated decorations. I assumed my mum would prefer a simpler tree of red and silver rather than a cacophony of colours. When she saw it she asked what had happened to all the other colourful ornaments available. Face-palm.

Robert set up little randomly lit houses on top of the cupboard. Between tree and houses it immediately added a very Christmassy atmosphere to the room.

Somewhere around this time Sander (my other brother) brought Paul, Robert and me some of those twisty-metal puzzles to solve. Ten in total. Robert and I took them all apart in an hour and tried to send Sander a showing-off picture, but alas, he doesn’t use Facebook and never received it. Showing him several days later was far less impressive than an hour, but we know what we did.

Preparing for Christmas

One of Sander and Jozefiens’ three kids stayed over with us in the lead-up to Christmas as well, and one day we decided to finally go to the blown-glass exhibition my mother had pointed out at Groningen museum when we first arrived.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

The scope of the glass constructions was overwhelming.

The art spans a lifetime of Chihuly’s work, and the exhibition came with encouragement to take and share pictures, so here is my contribution to sharing the magic.

A lot of the pieces have an organic feel to them. There is a very maritime feel to most of his work. Pieces that look like underwater plants, corals. Magical watery sculptures. Boatloads of glass spheres with marbling and spotty patterns throughout.

And everything is brightly lit and brightly coloured.

There were even some pieces for sale at the shop. But I wasn’t quite in the market for a $1000 glass piece of art. Tempting, but not quite there yet. Maybe sometime in the future?

Visiting the Glass Art Exhibition

Christmas itself is not as eventful as you might imagine. Sinterklaas is the pulling-out-all-the-stops celebration in the Netherlands. Christmas is about family and food.

We had a small gathering with my parents, my brothers, Jozefien, the kids and her brother. We had good food and conversation. We built part of my dad’s Lego building.

The kids played violin and saxophone for us. They are all very much into music, and it’s amazing to see how well they are doing.

They also are very prone to wild fighting, all three, which made for some great impromptu gym exercise for my arms and legs. Lifting three not-too-small kids at the same time is not as easy as I had expected. But they couldn’t stop me from moving regardless.

In various ways there are all very much like me and my brothers. Personality and behaviour both.

Christmas in the Netherlands

We did so many other things that I didn’t adequately capture to talk about separately. We saw fireworks in many shops far before New Years Eve; I hadn’t considered Dutch laws could get any laxer than they were in my memory.

Abbey got to see many animals she liked; stuffed and real. I caught horses on the bike path crossing the street. We walked in town only to pass a mother and daughter walking their two ponies along the street. Horses were everywhere.

Even without all the wonderful things we saw and did, it was very relaxing for me to just be back in the Netherlands. To soak up the atmosphere of Groningen. The atmosphere of family. The chill of not doing anything and not thinking about anything important.

I watched many fun episodes of british shows with Robert. I probably need to video-conference with him sometime to watch more. It’s just more fun watching these things together. And distance doesn’t matter as much as it used to.

Various Odds and Ends

And then there was New Years Eve. Which has always meant lighting fireworks to me. But the scale of personal fireworks has definitely changed a bit as well.

When Robert and I went out to shop for fireworks, I was amazed at the “Cake Boxes” on sale. In some cases these packages consist of multiple cardboard boxes filled with tubes filled with gunpowder. “You just light it here, and then it goes for 5-10 minutes of firework show.” Boxes of 10kg+ with 5kg+ gunpowder in them. Incredible.

We prefer the personal touch and slightly smaller scale.

We lit many crackling, sparkling, colourful, majestic, grandiose fireworks. Rockets and fountains and 15-30 blast smaller displays.

None of it as large as the fireworks you get in Sydney in the harbour at NYE, but also much less high meaning they look just as grandiose in person. We just had to crane our necks a lot more than back home.

My brother also got some water buckets and we did the uber-responsible thing. Everything that had finished burning was doused in enough water to make sure nothing further was going to happen to it. You have to be wary of kids who might scour the streets in the morning looking for partially exploded fireworks to burn at great risk of injury. It happens.

And the scale around the neighbourhood was amazing too. Everyone is doing the same. Everyone starts at midnight. Most people don’t finish lighting things till 1am. It is intense and drawn-out. It is fantastic.

NYE and Fireworks

And then it was 2019.

Time to say our goodbyes to everyone. Prepare for out flight to London on January 2nd at 11am.

Sander, Jozefien and the kids came by for one last visit. And in the evening Paul, Connie, Abbey and I played a gifted game of Hanabi (more fireworks!) together to show them how it works.

And then Robert drove us to Schiphol airport where we were going to stay overnight in an airport hotel so we didn’t have to rush in the morning.

Saying Goodbyes

But first, Lego!

Connie got a Parisien Bistro. Three layers of Lego building. Bottom floor has internal seating, curtains, a fully stocked kitchen with cupboards and drawers, turkey on the bench, oven and fridge. Middle floor is an apartment with a fold-up bed, fireplace and seating area. And the top floor has a painters studio.

Paul got a more elaborate square of shops. Fountain out front in the middle, coffee shop to the left, and bakery to the right complete with wedding cake display in the window. Middle floor has a music store, a dentists’ office, and an appartment with a mother, kid, and trainset. Top floor has a dance studio, and I think the photography studio.

The attention to detail in these Expert Creator sets is just amazing. The clever use of small pieces to create elaborate repeated decorations in the roofline and windows is absolutely amazing. Everything connects properly, including drain down-pipes, stairways to doors on every level. Everything is internally consistent and makes sense.

I suspect there are more of these in my parents’ future, because they really enjoy this kind of detailed doll-house.

The Lego We Built

Back to our airport hotel stay.

Citizen-M is apparently a chain across Europe. It has a really neat self-check-in desk where you bring up your reservation on the computer and then program your own door keys.

Everything is a little quirky.

Everything is a little bright and neon.

We watched Ferdinand on the complimentary movie channel.

We set the room alarm to “gentle” for the morning. It wasn’t. It turned the lights up pretty abruptly and started playing plinky music on the television.

But we were awake, and ready to shower and get going.

Overnight at Citizen-M

We had a British Airways flight to London which I had tacked onto the booking relatively last-minute back in Sydney. We couldn’t get a very tight connection so we had 7-8 hours to kill in the Qantas lounge in London.

And this business lounge took it to the next level. FODMAP makes Abbey’s food options tricky at the best of times, and it didn’t look like the lounge menu had anything really suitable. But then, magic happened… we got seated in the complimentary restaurant section at 6pm, and the waiter called over the chef to talk to Abbey about what she could have. She really liked the idea of the battered calamari, but there was garlic and various other things on the menu. The chef assured her that he could make her the best plain crumbed calamari she’d ever had, and he wasn’t lying.

I had a nice shower at the lounge. I tried some gin mixes at the extensive gin bar. And spent a lot of time relaxing before the flight.

And then, we got onto our upgraded flight back home. Business class is an amazing experience. Expensive if you pay full fare, but do yourself a favour… collect points… or look for specials… and see if you can make it work.

The breakfast and dinner menus are amazing. The staff is incredibly helpful. And stretching out on a lie-flat bed with complimentary pyjamas for a good 7 hour sleep heading into Sydney is the only way to arrive home.

Abbey remarked that she actually felt better after the flight than before we left Amsterdam. Which is kinda amazing in its own right.

And our Flight Back to Sydney

It both felt like time flew by, and like it lasted forever at the same time. I’m very happy to have been back, and I plan to try and swing by a bit more regularly for shorter trips going forward.

I cannot believe it’s already been almost a month back in Sydney as well — it feels like I was there just yesterday. Thanks to everyone for making it an amazing unforgettable trip.

Hint: click on pictures to see more detail, and click again to zoom in even further.


Jerry van Leeuwen

Written by Jerry van Leeuwen who lives in Sydney, Australia and remote-works for a San Francisco company.

You should follow him on twitter, or check out his portal site.