Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Friday, October 24, 2014

three days of holland.

For my birthday I wished for a road trip.

And that's what I got. Just three hours away from home, we set off on a Friday afternoon and soon arrived in Roermond, The Netherlands. This quaint city is filled with unassuming details creating cute, like raggedy-ann's pinstriped socks you notice only in play.

Without agenda or appointment, we wander past bikes and blooms, 
both as ubiquitous as mosquitos by the lake in summer.

Roermond's city centre, a designated cultural protected site, is dominated by the incredible Munsterkerk Cathedral. The entire site, blocks wide, is pocked by leafy green trees, opulent bushels of geraniums, and an immaculately trimmed cloister garden.

 Perched in the centre of the wide-open square, spewing romance like a fountain, sits a white gazebo surely the site of a wedding or two.

The Dutch, the few whom I've met, are impeccably dressed with an air of relaxed understatement. 
They exude a refined leisure; relaxed but not lazy, friendly but not fake.

We sit by the Roer river, in an outdoor café, enjoying the last summer rays of sunshine beaming on our faces. I people watch, Dutch watch. Lovely.

 I'm not just enamoured by the people, but also the language, at least the written one. It's a wonderful mix of English and German - Deutschlish, Denglish, Dutch! I feel right at home here. The sign above our comfy B&B says 'Eten, Drinken, Slapen'. How much do I want to hang that above my front door! Come in! Eat, drink and slapen!

From Roermond, we cruise north-east in our borrowed convertible, stopping and walking whenever the mood strikes us. I was literally almost run-over by this picture perfect Dutch family as we took a walk. They looked exactly like they were in a Travel Holland photoshoot (whose slogan is surely 'travel holland cause it's so darn pretty, people and pets included!') instead of just on a carriage ride with their ponies which they were (of course, totally normal day for me too), that I had to ask for a photo.

 Then onwards to Rotterdam. 
Rotterdam is so huge that we couldn't even get close enough to get a photo of the hustle and bustle of port life. I really wanted to, but this is best I got.

So I settled for more pretty, on our way to the zee. Zeeland by the sea. The convertible top was down, no matter the weather - I with a heavy blanket wrapped around me from head to toe and great guy just smiling.

Finally we reach the beach. The wild North Sea, part of the Atlantic Ocean cupped by Great Britain, Scandanavia, The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany is beloved by tourists and historians. A lot has happened on these waters, but the sandy coastline reveals no secrets. It's impressive dunes and never-ending tall, wavy grasses only fill me with peacefulness. 

I feel thoroughly meditative here, and long for time, paper and a pen.

As much as I love people watching, great guy loves seagull watching. 
They really are peaceful birds when they're at the ocean...and not flying around garbage.

Zeeland is the western most province of the Netherlands, and is made up of a number of islands all tied together by land bridges. But, as you drive along the coast it's hardly noticeable that you've hopped from one island to the next, the sand dunes making it so difficult to see the ocean.

Remnants of busy, tourist-filled summer months lie around.

And, I can't help but reading out loud every wonderful Dutch sign. 
 I need to learn this funny language - although I think I already know it.

Every evening we eat a bucket of fresh mussels, seriously every evening. Cheap, excellent and in each place prepared just slightly different. This bucket and this location is our favourite.

On our last night, great guy and I stay on the Beachclub Zuiderduin's terrace long into the night before heading back across the dunes. I will definitely come to this ocean shore again, and even with a cool breeze and rainy days, the empty beach was perfection. Dag.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

hildi's amazing illumination...and her soup.

Described as "the feistiest woman since Boadicea" by Face magazine in 1997, Hildegard of Bingen, appeared on our house last night. In a vision fitting the many she herself had, her face, along with her powerful music, was beamed across the river - our house serving as a giant screen.

Next I saw the most lucid air, in which I heard . . . in a marvelous way many kinds of musicians praising the joys of the heavenly citizens . . . And their sound was like the voice of a multitude, making music in harmony.   -Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard was quite the remarkable woman in the 12th century. She influenced many powerful men at the time, like Pope Eugenius III, the Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and even members of the English royal family. 

Literally on top of the place I now call home, the first convent she founded sat perched high above the Rhine and Nahe rivers. She wrote here, grew herbs and created remedies here, philosophized and advised here, and became one of the earliest named composers here.  

She was “a woman of brilliant intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority,” nurturing, “an evident love of creation...learned in medicine, poetry and music,” said Pope Benedict in 2012.

For this reason I garden here. Through osmosis I hope her wise teachings will leech into me like the ground water seeps into heavy clay.

So, yesterday was the two year anniversary of St. Hildegard of Bingen's elevation to Doctor of the Church, making her only the fourth female to earn this title in the Catholic Church's 2000 year old history. She joined Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux on the list, among the total of 35 doctors. If only Oprah could invite those four to her Super Soul Sundays!

Set to music that Hildegard composed, the town of Bingen honoured her life by holding an illumination event last night. Great guy and I wandered across the river in the pouring rain, to watch and listen and learn more about this incredible woman who we (okay, I) feel somehow close to. 

Hildegard's letters sit in the museum, her herbal-inspired potions adorn store shelves, and her cookbook lives in my kitchen. Since I love making soups as summer turns into fall, below I have included three of my favourite recipes. 

Enjoy! As Thanksgiving rolls around, I am thankful of everything that I have to throw into my soup pot, and all who will eat from it.

Love abounds in all things,
excels from the depths to beyond the stars,
is lovingly disposed to all things…the kiss of peace.
-Hildegard of Bingen’s Caritas abundant

Suppengrün source:

Hildi’s Pumpkin Soup (Kürbissuppe)*

½ soup green bundle (Suppengrün, mirepoix)
  - consisting of 2 carrots, 1 leek, parsley, ¼ celery root
100 g Cinderella or Cheese pumpkin cubed (or other type of winter squash)
1 small onion
1 T butter
1 T whole spelt flour
½ l vegetable broth
2 tomatoes
salt and black pepper to taste

Wash and cube all vegetables. Sauté onions in butter and add the flour. Add the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Blanche the tomatoes, peel and remove the stem. Add all the vegetables to the broth mixture and bring to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes. Purée the soup and add salt and pepper to taste.

Hildi’s Borschtsch* 

(Isn’t it funny that ‘borscht’ is spelled 'Borschtsch' in German? I have no idea how one pronounces that! Borschtschschsch)

salt, peppercorns
1 garlic clove (garlic ‘toe’ in German)
250 g lean beef
3 potatoes
3 red beets
1 onion
2 carrots
1 head of cabbage
2 T butter
black pepper
1 bundle of parsley
125 g sour cream

Bring 1 litre of water to a boil. Add salt, peppercorns and the chopped garlic. Add cubed beef and boil for 30 minutes. Peel and cube potatoes and beets (Hildi recommends wearing gloves for this). Dice onions and slice carrots. Chop cabbage until you have one cup. Sauté vegetables in butter and add to the beef broth. Let simmer adding salt and pepper to taste. Wash and finely chop the parsley and add to the finished soup. When serving, drop a teaspoon of sour cream in each steaming bowl of soup.

My favourite. The Station Arts Centre, located in Rosthern, Saskatchewan makes the most savory comfort soups, in my opinion, and I make some version of their Bacon and Potato Chowder almost every week throughout the winter months.

Here is their recipe (or ask for their cookbook at

The Station Arts' Bacon and Potato Chowder

Fry and remove fat from 6 slices of bacon, crumble and set aside.
Sauté 1 cup of chopped onion in 2 T of the bacon fat.

In a soup pot, add:
sauteéd onions
3 cups diced potatoes
3 cups cold water
3 chicken bouillon cubes
½ t salt
Cook until tender and reduce heat.

Into a small bowl, stir together until smooth:
3 T flour
1 can of evaporated milk
Add to soup stirring constantly.

Continue stirring while bringing soup to a boil again.
Reduce heat, stir until thickened.
Add crumbled bacon.

Garnish with finely chopped green onion. like the columns that sustain the four corners of a house. For it was that same Love which planted a glorious garden redolent with precious herbs and noble flowers--roses and lilies--which breathed forth a wondrous fragrance, that garden on which the true Solomon was accustomed to feast his eyes.
-Hildegard of Bingen in a letter to the Monk Guibert, 1176

* recipes taken from Heilen und kochen mit Hildegard von Bingen, a TRIAS Book, 2011 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

a moroccan day.

Africa. We spent the day in Africa, and sadly it was only one day. The Phoenicians were here, almost every European power has been here, Jews, Muslims and Christians live here, and even the Beat poets made their home here - here is Tangier, Morocco.

In Europe, it seems to me, the past is largely fictitious; to be aware of it one must have previous knowledge of it. In Tangier the past is a physical reality as perceptible as the sunlight. 
– Paul Bowles

We had attached ourselves to a tour group so we wouldn't get lost, led by a witty Moroccan named Rashid. He effortlessly switched his comical monologues between English, German and Spanish, which was impressive to watch. It felt like we were experiencing a whimsical live version of Frommer's Guide to Tangier, but in three languages. 

Tangier's location brings with it a host of complication and intrigue as it sits at the strategically important point where the Strait of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic Ocean. Only 17 kms from mainland Europe, it also lies at the entrance to all of the ancient civilizations along the Mediterranean. It has been fought over more viciously than that all important seat in the White House. Design influences, such as ornate balustrades looking like neglected theatre sets, bring touches of forgotten elegance to buildings housing innumerable families trying to eke out a living here. I was mesmerized.

Every square inch of 'real estate' in the city's ancient medina is used to display wares for tourists, neighbours and families to buy. The air is musty and hot, alternating smells greeting or assaulting us as we meander through the crowded passages. Like literally walking into a time machine, Tangier's old city grabs hold of you and pulls you in.

We inhale the aroma of sweet dates, cheap leather, pungent cumin, fresh baked rounds of flatbread, sweat, and tobacco. The market creeps along the street, in the hallways and onto doorsteps while the noise of children and the loud calls to prayer intermingle with the sellers persuading us to buy.

Olives, oils, perfumes, textiles, goat cheese, fruit, bread, bulgar, couscous, nuts, and seeds tempt us in the medina as friendly, but tired-looking men and women sit and wait. There is a lot of hard work behind the picture we see.

We make our way to the highest point of the old city, to the Kasbah, and tour the Sultan's palace built at the time of concubines and harems in the 17th century . We walk through low wooden doors into rooms covered floor to ceiling with intricately coloured tiles.

Mosaic arches, benches, and floors in turquoise, rose, and lilac grace each frame of my camera lens. The palace was empty but for us, and two thoroughly bored-looking security guards. Ghosts of seductive dancers to the taps of tambourines and drums floated through each room.We whispered, not sure why.

After the Kasbah, we went in search of refreshment. I had heard about the local specialty: mint tea, and knew that I had to try it. We walked into a disorganized café and immediately noticed that every man was looking at me (and not in a 'hey, she's cute' way). We had been told that this area is not separated along gender lines anymore, though it is still predominantly Muslim. Even so, I could feel the weight of long-held traditions, and suggested to great guy that we sit outside. 

I can't pretend that it wasn't an uncomfortable feeling, but the people were all friendly and the mint tea was the most delicious sweetness I'd ever tasted.

Before we left the medina, Rashid brought us to his friend's fabric store. Deep inside, two employees were busy creating colourful, silky, cottony, scarves, rugs and bags on volkswagen-sized looms. The pressure to buy was friendly but intense, and so great guy and I gently made our exit and went exploring on our own.

Tangier has always had quite the full dance card - whether it wanted to dance or not. It was already a thriving Phoenician trading center when in 81 B.C. the Romans captured it. The Byzantine Empire took control in the 6th century, the Arabs in the 7th, and in the 9th it came under Muslim Spanish rule. Then the Moroccans moved in, followed by the Portuguese, until it was transferred to Britain in 1662 as part of Catherine De Braganza’s dowry. The party was just getting started.

Ancient Phoenician graves carved into the stone, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar
At the beginning of the 20th century things really became a mash-up for Tangier when the French and Spanish agreed to share the city. This preceded an even more interesting time, when in 1923 Great Britain, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Sweden and Italy made Tangier an international zone. 

After WWII, the United States came in on this deal, thus resulting in a wave of hip American writers and socialites to occupy Tangier in a smoky haze of freedom and debauchery (if the stories are all true). In 1956 Morocco finally gained independence and took back control of its northern-most hot spot.

The African, European and Arabic footprints that have been left behind in Tangier are evident in the architecture and the street names; but most noticeably in the peaceful intersection of cultures, traditions and religions here. The largest communities, Muslims, Jews and Christians, live together in this city seemingly without major conflict. 

Rashid tells us that the older women here wear various types of headdress based on their religious tradition, unless they have come to Tangier from another place. While some younger locals are pushing the boundaries and experimenting with looser forms of attire. We turn a corner and are met with the fullest aroma of orchids standing at attention on the far side of a beautiful, but ramshackle door. 

There is an eclectic, exotic purée of charm here bearing the facade of a grimy opera production. I'm aware of my romantic, rose-coloured glasses and long for more time to get to know this place and its people. But the ferry back to Spain is waiting for us.

On our way down to the port, we walk through the historic Hotel Continental. This has been the location of countless films due to its unique design inside and out, and home to many prominent figures. The American writer, William S. Burroughs, wrote his masterpiece, Naked Lunch in room 9.

There is an explosion of pattern on almost every interior surface of the hotel; the most intricate mosaic designs I've ever seen. It is an overwhelming amount of colour - an ode to incredible craftsmanship.

For a time Tangier was a weird writers workshop, with the likes of Tennessee Williams, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Ian Flemming, Allan Ginsburg, Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Peter Orlovsky spending time here. Inspired by the raw, lawless, but magical colour of Tangier great novels have been written here, including Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky

For much of our time we were followed by a super sweet boy, who I would've taken home if I had been able to ask his parents' permission. He was pure, annoying charm, even winking at me when I said goodbye. I didn't take his picture, instead I took this one...a baby camel who was just as cute. 

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