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Location: Minneapolis, MN

Dempsey is a Golden Retriever puppy who is in training to become a Helping Paws service dog for an individual with a physical disability. He lives with his parents Doreen and Paul, and Bailey the cat. None has ever trained a puppy before. These are their adventures. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the blog author. The contents of this blog have not been reviewed or approved by Helping Paws, Inc.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A psychopath in Utrecht and other adventures

Doreen and I went on a trip this weekend to Belgium, Holland, and Germany. We had a $100 gift certificate from Marriott that's expiring soon, and we thought this would be a good chance to use it. Sadly, after converting the $100 to euros, we discovered that we had a discount of only €66. The exchange rate is killing us.

Our first stop was Utrecht, a cute little town with a big history. It was in 1579 that the Low Countries, then a Spanish territory, signed the Union of Utrecht, forming the United Nether- Lands. A few years later, the Peace of Utrecht was signed, ending the War of Spanish Succession and signaling the rise of English power and the decline of Spanish power.

We really liked Holland. It’s pretty, it’s much cheaper than Paris, and the people are very nice, even if Dutch sounds sometimes like Elmer Fudd. (See photos below.) Luckily, practically everyone speaks English -- albeit with an accent.

We discovered this as we were stopping to take a picture of a square in Utrecht by the cathedral. Doreen and I were looking at the little screen on our camera, when we heard an urgent warning: “Watch out! Psychopath!”

Pyschopath?!? We nearly dropped the camera as we spun around to look for the psychopath. We saw a bunch of people on bicycles, many with packages or children balanced on the handlebars, barreling towards us.

Oh… Cycle path. Everyone in Holland rides bikes, and there are special bike lanes (“cycle paths”) and traffic signals. Even though it was cold and rainy, everyone was out riding their bikes.

We stepped away from the “psychopath” and headed to Amsterdam. It was cold, rainy, and late, so we didn’t see much. We saw the floating flower market, an atavism from the days when flowers were sent on barges down the canals to be sold in Amsterdam, and now a Major Tourist Destination. We also stumbled across the red light district, which is near Chinatown. It actually looked rather wholesome, except for the scantily clad females in the windows. Maybe if the girls would lose the tattoos and cigarettes.

After Amsterdam, we did a “drive-by” tour of Haarlem, a sleepy little town just north. Even the red light district in Haarlem was deserted, which says a lot, I think.

On Sunday, we continued on our diplomatic trip by heading to Maastricht, where the Maastricht Treaty forming the European Union was signed. Our first stop in Maastricht was the charming old town. Being Sunday, everything was closed, including the tourist office. I tried asking random tourists for directions to TEFAF, the biggest art show in Europe, but nobody knew.

When we finally found TEFAF, it was obvious why none of the tourists knew: It’s a totally different crowd. If you have the means, you can buy a Renoir or Monet for your living room. Or a van Gogh, van Eyck, Rubens, Brueghel (both Older and Younger), Klimt, or King Louis Philippe’s silverware… you name it. Most of the paintings did not have prices, though there are little rooms behind curtains, where you can sip champagne and discreetly discuss the little matter of filthy lucre. I imagine. Since we weren’t dressed in suits and ties, we weren’t invited to any curtained rooms. However, we did have the opportunity to purchase champagne (€8 per glass) and use the bathroom (€0.25 each visit).

We still had some daylight after Maastricht, so we decided to hop over to Germany. We can attest that the Germans do indeed drive very quickly on the autobahn, and I tried keeping up in the passing lane with our rental car – a Ford Fiesta. Our Fiesta was no fiesta. Even at 110mph, our top speed, we kept getting passed – quickly – by the Benzes, Bimmers, and Audis that rule the road.

We visited two towns in Germany, Aachen and Bonn, and both seemed a little grim. Granted, it was raining and we arrived after dark, but every building seemed post-War. Since there are a lot of factories in the area, we’re guessing everything was bombed flat in WWII. We stopped by a sad little casino in Bonn, where Doreen put €1 in what appeared to be a slot machine, and had dinner in an Italian restaurant, which seemed to be the only place open. Then we headed back to Lille, France, an industrial city with a charming old town center.

On Monday morning, we headed back to Paris, stopping by Sommes, a big WWI battle that I believe is the setting for All Quiet on the Western Front. We also stopped at Albert, home of the International Wildlife Film Festival, and Amiens, home of the largest cathedral in France.

The cathedral was built to house the head of St. John the Baptist, which the French claim to have procured, along with Jesus' crown of thorns, during a crusade. A brochure at the church says that no one doubts the head is indeed St. John's, though there are churches in Nemours, St-Jean d'Angeli, and Capite that also claim to have the head. I get the feeling the French were often snookered by Bedouin tradesmen on their crusades.

Anyway, the head was not on display. Apparently, it's only taken out once a year to be venerated. At least we got to see the platter the alleged head sits on.