Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Extreme Cheese-rolling?

Ok, I think we've established that the Brits love their cheese--as do we. But I was still bemused a few weeks ago when I heard about the annual cheese-rolling day in the village of Stilton. And yes, they roll Stilton. Here's a few pictures from this year's event--more at the link above.

Now I was quite sad we missed this grand event and remarked to KT we should try to attend next year. So I was even more annoyed last night when I read a paper and realized we had missed another cheese-rolling event this past bank holiday Monday: the annual cheese-roll in Gloucestershire. Making the Stilton event look rather sedate, this is apparently the granddaddy of cheese-rolls, the equivalent of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It's cheese-rolling meets the X games as hundreds of people chase a wheel of double Gloucester cheese down a steep hill.

Here's a video from this year (will launch a YouTube window)

Every year this cheese-roll produces many "cheese casualities", some quite serious. The papers remarked that this year's tally of 20 injured was remarkably low. Past winners have suffered broken arms.

Here's a winner of one of this year's races, holding his cheese, getting medical attention

Next year's roll is May 26--book your airline tickets now! (Beer festival and cheese-rolling combined?)


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Happy Bank Holiday!

It's Memorial Day in the U.S. Not here, but it is what's called a bank holiday. Why? Because the government says so, of course!

From the Wikipedia entry on bank holidays:

Prior to 1834, the Bank of England observed about thirty-three saints' days and religious festivals as holidays, but in 1834, this was reduced to just four: 1 May, 1 November, Good Friday, and Christmas Day.

In 1871, the first legislation relating to bank holidays was passed when Sir John Lubbock introduced the Bank Holidays Act 1871 which specified the days in the table set out below. Sir John was an enthusiastic supporter of cricket and was firmly of the belief that Bank Employees should have the opportunity to participate and attend matches when they were scheduled. Included in the dates of bank holidays are therefore dates when cricket games are traditionally played between the villages in the region where Sir John was raised. Scotland was treated separately because of its separate traditions; for example, New Year or Hogmanay is a more important holiday there.

This Monday, the bank holiday we're observing wasn't actually legislated until 1971. The observance is Whitsun, or the 49th day after Easter Sunday, otherwise known as Pentecost. Of course, few people actually know that this is the reason why, and everyone just calls it a "bank holiday weekend."

"Expect bad traffic this bank holiday weekend!"

"The weather may dampen your bank holiday plans."

"Bank holiday sale at Debenhams!"

"Come to the bank holiday car boot sale at the Cowley Park and Ride!"

It has taken a while to figure out that people don't really care that deeply about banking, it's just what the day off work is called.

What'd we do with our bank holiday? Rented a car and stayed home. Once again, we got a great deal on a VW Golf automatic. And once again, we got upgraded:

To a Toyota RAV-4. There was a time, when we were car shopping about 4 years ago, that we thought the RAV-4s were much too small. Now put that car in the home of the Mini Cooper, and you've got one giant vehicle. We had hoped to perhaps go to the coast or take some long drives, but constant, heavy rain altered our plans.

So, we took the opportunity to buy two hideous (yet charming) armchairs for our sunroom, one small and one large dresser, and a floorlamp, and to go to a New and Exciting grocery store that even had Skippy peanut butter. I bought about 6 plants, because I need some climby things to climb my boring brown fences. We also went to the dump (to drop off our broken cardboard boxes from the move), to Ely (for no particular reason other than we knew how to get there) and to Wimpole Hall, our closest National Trust site and where you will all be dragged when you come to visit.

I now think we're leaning much more toward just liberally renting a car when we need it rather than buying one. We're still a little traumatized by not being able to sell the Passat before we left, and JT's predecessor at his job had a hard time selling his car before he left England. Besides, there's something rather liberating about being a two-bicycle, no-car household, and being perfectly happy about it.

Mmmmm, beer.

If you like beer, mark your calendars now. You're coming to Cambridge May 19-24, 2008, for the Cambridge Beer Festival.

This past week was this year's festival, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It's a 15-minute walk from our house, includes 170 beers and scores of ciders, and even a foreign beer bar, not to mention the cheese bar, exotic meat grill, and freshly deep-fried donut stand. Here's what we've decided:

Belgian beers still rock. So do German beers, particularly dunkelweissens. Italian beers are refreshing. The City of Cambridge brewery makes some beers that are pretty tasty. Anything called "stout" or "porter" can be quite good.

But on the whole, we're still not huge fans of British real ales.

I'm trying very hard to embrace the warm, flat beer. Really, I am. And it's at great risk that I say that I only tolerate the real ales, because I've paid for membership in the Campaign for Real Ale but have not yet received my membership card. (Hey, it got me into the festival for free, and allowed me to jump the 300-person-long queue on busy nights. And it will get us a discount into the Great British Beer Festival, too. That one is August 7-11 this year, FYI.) But when you just want a tall, cold, lager, then the distinctive taste of a British ale just won't do. The program for the festival even says, "Please don't ask if we've got 'anything like Stella.'" Gulp. I have a case of Stella in my pantry.

I did find something new at the festival that I really, really like:

the Scotch egg. That's a hard-boiled egg wrapped in spicy pork sausage, breaded, and deep-fried. Serve cold, yet still fresh. Oh my stars. This thing is worthy of the heart attack that follows.

We also enjoyed the cheese bar, where we had six kinds of cheese. One favorite was called porter -- an Irish cheddar flavored with porter. The donuts were pretty dang good, and John has a kangaroo sausage that was fine, but more a novelty than a delicacy.

I got notes on most, but not all, of the beers we tried:

City of Cambridge Hobson's Choice - Tasty!
Elgood's Winter Warmer - Two stars!
Milton brewery Mammon - Two stars!
Ufford Setting Sun - British. [That's not a compliment.]
Adnams Regatta - Not very good. [But if my boss asks, it's grrrrreat! (his favorite.)]
Six Bells Big Nev's - pretty good
Titanic Nautical Mild - Surprisingly good! [but also my fourth half-pint that night, so that may be off.]
Goachers Real Mild Ale - just OK.
Gribble Pigs Ear - just OK.
RCH Old Slug Porter - Great!
Oakleaf I Can't Believe It's Not Bitter - Great!
Cornish Orchards Cider - pretty bad.
Dupont Saison (Belgian) - Meh. Just OK.
Augustiner Helles (German) - fantastic!
Karg Dunkles Weissbier (German) - Yum!
Schlenkerla Marzen Rauch (smoked barley beer) -very interesting flavor - actually smoky!

It took three (JT) and four (KT) trips to the festival to knock back all those. Maybe next year, we'll take vacation for it. :)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Trip Report: 48 Hours in Nice

Our friend SZL, wife of JT's best man, was scheduled to be in Nice in May for a conference. We've known this for a while. What we didn't know until recently was that she was going to get to Nice a few days before our conference started. And that her friend E would also be there.

Clearly, we needed to make the sacrifice and go to the south of France to hang out with her.

We got up at 3:30 Saturday morning to catch a taxi to catch a train to get us to the airport by 5:15 for our 6:30 flight. and by 10 a.m. we were in Nice. A bus ride later, we dropped our stuff off at the airport and met up with S and E at a cafe. All at once, we remembered what we loved about France: the cafes! The boulangeries! The crepes! And here it all was, with the added bonus of the Mediterranean, and friends.

After some lunch in Old Nice, we headed off to the train station. The afternoon's adventure would be a trip to Monaco, a 19-minute train ride away. The entire area of Monaco is 485 acres, with a population around 32,000. Our rough guide to Monaco joked that they must scrub the buildings to keep everything looking so shiny. Man, they aren't kidding.

The ladies in front of the casino in Monte Carlo.

Monaco was getting itself ready for the Monaco Grand Prix, which is going on this weekend. (I didn't know anything about this; apparently it's a Formula One race through the streets of Monte Carlo. 77 times.) Also, people were getting the prime docking spots for their yachts. I thought I had seen yachts. Oh my gosh. The trunk space for the jet skis. The furniture. The perfectly fluffed and aligned pillows. Names like, "Just One More Toy." So that was entertaining.

We walked up to the casino, then stopped for a Diet Coke break in a fru-fru shopping mall, where we sat and watched well-dressed people walk by with their well-dressed purse dogs. Then it was off to the other end of the country (ha) to visit the palace and what was the original city of Monaco. We found some dinner in an Italian restaurant, accompanied by some red Sancerre. (YUM) Back to the train, back to Nice. One gelato later, we all collapsed in our respective beds.

Sunday morning, JT and I were determined to visit the famous flower market in Old Nice. It was so lovely! (More pictures here, by the way.) But it was so much more than flowers. Bread! Spices! Fruit and veg!

One of the veg stands. Just to the right of the pole is zucchini -- they sell it with the blossoms still on. We saw fried or sauteed courgette flower on the menu at quite a few places. In fact, I'm pretty sure that people who buy it like that are after the flower, not the fruit.

We decided on some croissants and a focaccia covered in ham for breakfast. After a break for some coffee (and a Diet Coke that cost 3.60 euro), we went in for another round. We caught up with S and E, and started gathering provisions for later consumption. We finally left the market, heading to the water. We then climbed (213 steps, I'm told) a big hill up to Le Chateau, which is really just the remains of a cathedral and some Roman ruins. But there's also a lovely park, where we decided to relax for a while and have the best spread in the universe:

Clockwise, from bottom left: Goat cheese covered in chives, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh cherries, mini chorizo sausages, olives (nicoise, even). Not pictured: The most fabulous crusty baguette. Actually, two of them.

We then wandered over to the cemeteries (still on top of the big hill). They're divided into Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. I'm not one to visit cemeteries, but this one was absolutely amazing.

By now, we were ready for the beach. So, we meandered back to our hotel(s), changed, and hit the water. In Nice, you have the option of going it on your own, or going to one of the private beaches (which is just a cordoned off area of the same beach) and paying an exorbitant amount of money to sit in a chair. Considering this:

is the surface of the beach, we opted for the exorbitant fee. (10 euro. Each. But by golly, that chair was darn comfy. And it came with an umbrella. And it would have come with a man to bring us fru-fru drinks, except that we smuggled in our own, so we wanted the man to not notice us.) And let me tell ya, after 3 weeks of rain in the UK, the time on the beach was really, really wonderful. All of us even went for a dip, despite the water being a couple of degrees on the wrong side of comfortable, and despite the rocks making it a little tough to walk on.

Random body parts of random people, and also JT in the water.

We stayed on the beach for a little over two hours, then headed back to clean up for dinner. We met up with one of S's colleagues in town for the conference, and headed out to another Italian restaurant. More wine, some salami pizza, linguini, uber-spicy arrabiata, and tiramisu later, we were strolling home talking about how soon we could come back. Or how maybe next year when S comes for her conference, we should just get an apartment and stay for a week.

We left early Monday morning, stopping first a corner boulangerie to load up on croissants and pastries. We got back to Cambridge around 1. Both of us had to leap into work, frantically finishing stories to meet deadlines. I dashed off to class; JT dashed off to London (his adventure is here). Already, it seems so far away. We've talked about how many places there are to go so we probably won't visit many more than once. I think Nice is on the list of places we definitely must go to again.

All of us, near the palace in Monaco. The camera is sitting on top of a cannon, of course.

(The full photo album is here. If the pictures don't have captions, try back again later. I'll get them done eventually.)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Midnight Train To Cambridge

One of cultural shifts I've found so interesting is how quickly we have become use to taking the train. I don't mean the subway, though London's Tube system is impressive (I still miss DC's Metro, particulary the Red line). I mean real trains that go from town to town. We regualrly take the train into London, a trip that takes about 45 minutes on an express train (no stops) or as much as an 75 minutes on one that makes many stops on the way. The express train runs every 30 minutes during most of the day and the trains go from Cambridge to two different stops on the Tube network, King's Cross or Liverpool St.

The UK rail system use to be run by the government but it was privatized in 1994. Since then prices have risen considerably, much to the dismay of commuters. Without discount cards, a roundtrip to London can cost nearly 30 pounds ($60)! But the trains are remarkably good at being on time and one can eat and drink on them (even beer) unlike on DC's Metro.

This is all a long-winded intro to the events of Monday when I went into London to visit my Canadian cousin Millicent (center of picture), her husband Jim (next to me) and the two friends, Eric and Margaret, they were staying with. Jim and Millicent were doing a London-Paris jaunt on the way to a meeting in Copenhagen and it was their first trip to Europe. Though I had just flown in from Nice (that post is coming!) that morning, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to say hi. The only problem was we didn't start dinner til after 9pm and I didn't pay attention to the train schedule.
After a nice but very slow dinner (at the Wolseley), I hopped on the Tube for a short ride to King's Cross. It was about 11:30pm when I got there but I still expected to see several trains to Cambridge on the departure board. Nope. I quickly used my phone to check whether Liverpool St station had any--none until the 3:30am morning training. Uh-oh. Finding it hard to believe there were no trains home, I looked again at the King's Cross board and noted that there was a 12:07am train to Stevenage with a note "Bus to Cambridge" in small print. Apparently my normal train stopped half-way so work could be done on the tracks and people had to bus the remaining distance. No one besides me seemed surprised by all this so I reluctantly got on the train. After a 45 minute ride on the train, another hour ride on the bus with about 15 people, and a short taxi ride, I finally arrived home at 2am in the chilly drizzle. Hard to believe I had woken up 20 hours earlier in Nice and ate freshly-baked croissants looking at the blue Mediterranean waters. Long day.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Prayers for strangers

Tonight, thoughts and prayers go out to Mr. and Mrs. Crab over at 2Crabs. Mr. C's dad passed away yesterday, after living with Alzheimer's for 4 years then suffering a stroke a little over 2 weeks ago. Who are these folks? Complete strangers, in fact. But there are a few reasons why our hearts go out to them.

One of the things that you have to consider when you move an additional 3,500 miles from friends and family is what happens when something ... happens. You've got to accept that you can't be there for every event, both good and bad; there will be graduations, baby showers, family reunions, etc. things that you simply can't attend. And that there may be a time when you do need to get home quickly. This was in every book, every website, every online forum we consulted, and all of them noted to seriously consider this when deciding whether to move overseas.

On a completely different note, the author of 2Crabs is a journalist. From DC. Who moved to London with his wife about 2 years ago. I learned of his blog because his nickname on one of the expat sites I studied before moving here is apstyle. (If you don't get that, don't worry -- journalism thing.) He also posts almost daily and is an amusing writer. And, frankly, his site is what motivated me to do ours. Mr. C and I have exchanged a few e-mails, but I don't know him and I just check his blog every once in a while to see what they're up to.

So, those two things collided last week when we checked in on 2Crabs to find that Mr. C had flown home to Manassas. He had gotten "the phone call." Mr. C writes that he knew that call was coming, given his father's illness, but when it comes, you're never ready for it. His subsequent posts beautifully document his father's last days, both in words and in pictures.

It doesn't matter that they're strangers; they are like us -- a couple close to family in spirit but not in geography having a grand adventure in another country. And in far too many ways, it hits close to home. So tonight, thoughts and prayers to the Soriano family.

And also tonight, we're thinking of our own families and friends. We love you all very much and send you big rockin' hugs. And now that I've made my own self cry writing this, let me encourage all of you to please go take some vitamins, get a little exercise, and eat your 5 a day. Please wear protective gear at all times and don't engage in dangerous activities. Maybe don't leave the house, just in case. Also, children must stop getting older and doing things like walking and graduating from college. Thank you.

Much love,

Friday, May 18, 2007

Random sightings

What's weirder than running into a herd of cows in a public park?

Coming across a man twirling a flaming baton among the herd of cows.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Weather

(I started this post days ago. This morning, Blue Sky! Sunshine! I went for an hour-long bike ride and it was glorious. I thought, rats, that weather post is going to be a bit of a lie now. By 6 p.m. the sky was black and it was pouring rain. Then it went away and now the night is lovely.)

We spent a fair bit of March and April saying, "The weather here is fantastic, neener neener neener." Well, for the last two weeks, we've gotten the true British weather -- definitely jacket weather, and don't you dare leave the house without your umbrella. And also your sunglasses.

Most of the time, the rain is very light; the university measures rainfall in millimeters. But then suddenly it will pour. Then it stops and is sunny for a spell. ("Spell" is a regular weather term here. Spells tend to be clear or sunny. Or a number of other things.)

I don't mind it, really: It suits me. And it makes for some pretty dramatic skies:

(I hope that rainbow shows up. Suppose I should have photoshopped it.)

If you ever want to know what the weather in Cambridge is, check here. And then check back again 10 minutes later. And again ...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Are All Rock Singers British?

I mean, even Madonna is these days.

(This one's for the music fans. All others: as you were.)

Although the airwaves are largely devoid of American Idol contestants, there are plenty of US singers on the charts here (I'm so over Justin Timberlake, and maybe even Gwen Stephani, although when no one is around, I do tend to sing WOOOOOO WHOOOOO, WHEEEEEEE WHOOO really loud.) But we all know that great rock comes from the UK. Here's what's getting airtime here:

-Our favorite is probably Amy Winehouse. I understand that she, her beehive, and her antics have hit the US rock scene. (should that be her, her beehive ...? I don't think so, but my apologies to my friends who will lose sleep over that.)

-And of course, there's the other foul-mouthed rocker, Lilly Allen.

-The Fratellis -- Chelsea Dagger and Whistle for the Choir are the songs that gets played constantly, but it's all good.

-Mika -- Love Today is the current single.

-Mark Ronson -- OK, so he moved the US when he was 8. Still, the sound (on Stop Me, at least) is a bit British.

-Snow Patrol -- Grey's Anatomy music.

-Kaiser Chiefs -- Good stuff, but I'm already sick of Ruby.

-Travis -- great name!

I'll put a link to Natasha Bedingfield just because, hey! she's British! and because Unwritten is my Theme Song. However, I Wanna Have Your Babies is the most annoying song I ever heard.

I have no idea if all these bands' songs are being played with equal fervor in the US, so apologies if this is a dumb idea. But now I have MySpace links for when I gotta have me some Fratellis.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Give (Chick)Peas a Chance

Yesterday morning I read a Wall St Journal story about the latest fast food trend--gourmet hot dogs. Sadly, just a few days after we left DC, a place selling such dogs opened up in Adams Morgan. The WSJ story intrigued me with details of a hot dog whose meat is mixed with peanut butter--supposedly grilling it carameizes the peanut butter's sugar to give a crispy texture. Yummy--someone ship me a case please!

I think Katie and I may have spotted the next new fast food trend--a hummus bar.

Let me explain. While I didn't meet a Nigerian princess, I too was in London yesterday at a press briefing (I had a "Sir John Doe" but those are a dime a dozen around the UK). After our conferences, Katie and I met up to search for dinner. Someone had told Katie where to go for Italian restaurants so we headed that way only to find ourselves in a slightly seedy area where I saw a strip joint, a S&M club, an adult video store and a hair salon called "Take it all off". Hmm, we're not in Cambridge any more.

We finally stumbled upon a fun avenue (Wardour St) that had lots of interesting restaurants, inluding several Italian ones we discovered after eating at a nice Asia place. But the spot that most caught my eye was Hummus Bro, a hole in the wall that serves little more than hummus and a few toppings at a cheap price for London. Anyone want to open up a U.S. franchise?

And how do you eat your hummus?--take the hummusychology test.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Royalty, Part Deux

Remember how at one of the first press conferences I went to featured Princess Anne?

Today I interviewed a Nigerian princess. :)

She's done a lot of good work lobbying the government for health care reform in Nigeria, not to mention she's an eloquent lady who's passionate about what she does. It's interesting -- a lot of patient advocate groups are started by people who had cancer. She was actually misdiagnosed with cancer and started her foundation to make sure it doesn't happen to others.

I met her at a meeting in London on cancer in Africa, which kicked off this morning with a press conference. We got a last-minute e-mail from the press coordinators yesterday noting that, due to the rules of the location, men should wear a jacket and tie and women should dress accordingly. It's not too often that press conferences come with dress codes!

Slightly worried because I left my best suits in DC, I checked the website of the venue, the Reform Club (whose history is actually pretty interesting), to see the dress code:

Dress Code For Members And Their Guests

Members and their guests are required to conform to standards of dress and conduct which are normal in the Club. In exercising their judgement in this respect members and their guests shall give full consideration to the feelings of others.

Members are responsible for ensuring that their guests comply with the dress regulation. (This also applies to functions sponsored by members even when they are not directly responsible for the organisational details).

Porters at the door are authorised to deny admission to anyone considered to be in breach of the dress code.

Gentlemen are required to wear closed collar, jacket and tie. Ladies are required to dress with similar formality. Jacket (but not tie) may be removed:
in the Study, Billiards and Card Rooms
during breakfast in the Coffee Room
in the Garden

Recognised national and religious dress and service dress uniform may be worn at any time.

The following are unacceptable
Denim and other jeans
Track suits, leisure wear, shorts, leggings, jodhpur-style trousers and other similar attire
T shirts, sweat shirts, bodice/cropped tops and similar attire
Training shoes, hiking boots, deck shoes. Plimsolls, flip-flop sandals and other similar sports style footwear

The dress code is relaxed at the weekend after breakfast on Saturday.

So, just so you know, you can't go everywhere in your Other Jeans and Plimsolls.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I've finally updated the Trip Report on Lindau, Germany, such as it is. I've also fixed the videos in the Brugge post. Enjoy!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Thanks Bill

Not every building in Cambridge is old obviously. This modern edifice is the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, better known as the William Gates building. William is the father of Bill Gates and Microsoft just happens to have a research campus next door to this building--hmm, I suspect a small donation from Bill got his pop's name on the computer lab, don't you.

I attended a meeting at the computer lab a few weeks ago and was reminded that Cambridge is a high-tech oasis in England. In fact, to highlight the comparison to California's Silicon Valley, people call the Cambridge area Silicon Fens (Fens being the name for the wetlands area we live in) because of all the computer startups in the area.
The tentlike structure in the picture is to protect bikes from the rain--the building is on the edge of town and though there is good bus service, many people still bike to it and the Microsoft research campus. I snapped this picture with my new cell phone which is a PocketPC running Windows Mobile and then I emailed it wirelessly using Microsoft Outlook--so I've obviously added a few pennies to Bill's overflowing coffers.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Trip Report: Brugge, Belgium

One of the local papers here was running a special: Two tickets on the Eurostar to any of six cities for £90. We hadn't heard of Brugge, and I'm not sure we even knew where Brugge is, but the description promised Venice-like canals with good beer and chocolate. Sign us up!


The trip itself. Alright, I'm sure a 6-plus-hour journey over four trains doesn't sound like fun to you, but it's really not that bad. We left last Thursday, taking the train from Cambridge to London (1 hour). Took the tube to London Waterloo (20 minutes) to arrive nearly two hours early for the Eurostar. No matter; plenty to do in Waterloo station. Then, 2 hours, 35 minutes from London to Brussels. Then another hour from Brussels to Brugge. We each had a backpack full of magazines and books. License to do nothing but read? Excellent! (Here are interesting factoids about the Eurostar trains themselves.)

Brugge: Brugge is an adorable town that was originally (like, from the 12th to the 15th century) a major trading town. Canals run throughout the city, and up until the 15th century, a canal connected the city with the sea. When that canal silted up, the town lost its prestige. Today, it's a well-preserved mideval town whose primary business is tourism. They speak Flemish there, which, I'm told, is the same as Dutch without the spitty hard Gs.

Beer. Before we went, I would have said, "oh, yeah, Belgian beer. Light wheat beers, good stuff." I had no idea.

The cream of the crop among Belgian beers are the Trappist ales, brewed by Trappist monks. Five of the six remaining Trappist monastaries are in Belgium. The beer is typically strong -- 6% or higher -- and the taste is soooo smooth. (I also found out that it has triple the calories of other beers, but I'm pretending not to know that.)

Also, see what else is in that picture? (Besides John, of course.) Big bowl of cheese. Gouda, specifically, of which there are also many more kinds than I knew about. Served with beer. Sooo good.

Waffles. There is an alarming lack of waffles in England. And also fluffy flapjacks. Trust me, we're stocked up on waffles now, and then some. The waffle we had from this stand was just sprinked with powdered sugar, and it was easily the best one we had all weekend.

A bicycle trip. Having our bikes in Cambridge has convinced us that cycling rocks. Conveniently, we live in a very flat place, and Brugge is very flat as well. Someday we'll be fit enough to cycle in hilly places, but if we never go to hilly places, it won't be a problem! (See previous notes re: beer and waffles.) Nevermind, though: We had a great time. The trip took us about 10 km north to the village of Damme. We rode along the canal most of the way. We could have kept going another 10 km and gone to Holland. Our cutie patootie tour guide says, "How do you know when you've reached Holland? They'll be a Dutch guy standing there in wooden shoes smoking a joint with his arm around a prostitute."

The Begijnhof. This is a convent of sorts, home to Benedictine nuns and 50 or so Beguine women -- women who have devoted their lives to God and taken the vows of fidelity and celibacy, but outside the formal order of nuns. The Beguinage was founded in 1249. We walked into the church in the complex, to find 10 or so nuns singing their recitations. (Anyone know what they would have been singing?) The combination of the peace of the Beguinage and the chants of the nuns made it a memorable place.

The Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk). When you visit old European cities, you see a lot of churches. This one happens to have Michelangelo's Madonna and Child in it. The statue is lovely. But that probably wasn't The Thing. The Thing with this church was that as soon as I walked into it, it wasn't so much that it took my breath away as it filled me with it. I felt a peace in this church like I've rarely experienced. I found the TripAdvisor entry while googling it to get the Flemish name, and one reviewer said something similar: He's been to grander churches -- Sacre Couer, Notre Dame -- but God so clearly lives in this church and touches those who enter. I agree.

'Sweet Caroline.' We were walking back to our B&B when we could hear music from the courtyard and the base of the bell tower. We stuck our heads in to discover this flag team performing to 'Sweet Caroline.' We were amused. At the end, they ran off the stage, and a bunch of kids in wooden shoes ran on and performed. Wouldn't be a trip to Flanders without some wooden shoe action!

It was a great weekend getaway. As per usual, there are dozens of photos here, including more detailed commentary. And look, we actually had someone else take a picture of us for once: