Catchup post: Behind the former Iron Curtain


Another short post covering our time in Berlin, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Again just linking to the Instagram posts I made for these countries, which were shared previously on Instagram or Facebook.

Germany (8/25-8/28)

Poland (8/29-8/31)

Czech Republic (9/1-9/3)

Country counter after these places:

19th and 20th countries of our trip
Me: 60 countries (including 35 eating McDonald’s)
Karen: 60 countries
Henry: 33 countries
Charlie: 29 countries
James: 26 countries

Low Country low down and some German roots

July 19-July 29

The term “Low Countries” is used to describe three countries in Europe that have most of the land area below sea level: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. (When I was in school, we called them the “Benelux countries”, but I heard more people call them the low countries there.) Ironically, because all of the mountains to the east of these “low countries” make travel times longer than they looked like they should be on a map, we couldn’t figure out how to include Luxembourg in our trip without too much travel. Instead, after Belgium, we opted to go from Amsterdam to Northwest Germany where Karen spent summers as a child and where a couple of her aunts still live.

This post will be heavier on pictures and lighter on words because I’m trying to catch up a little on the blog since I’m over a month behind.


Our last couple of days in France were in the middle of a historic heat wave, and the trend continued the next day as we took a couple of trains to Bruges, Belgium. With temperatures at or above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, we didn’t feel like doing much besides hiding in the shade and catching a movie at our Airbnb. The only pictures anyone in our family took were two like this from Karen of the canal near where we ate lunch:

She’s currently planning to get a duck to go with our chickens when we get back to Chicago.

In addition to the duck pictures, James did have a few pictures on his phone for the day, but they were like this:

Everyone in the family besides me frequents this boredpanda site when they’re killing time. Because James and Charlie don’t have wireless data on their phones (only wifi), they’ll sometimes save a few articles to look at on travel days.

Charlie was looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and has requested that I now share his two favorite recent memes. He likes dogs:

Thankfully, the heat wave broke after our first night in Bruges and we were able to see the city starting the next day. Here are some pictures we took during our walking tour:

Family photo! Isn’t my family beautiful?
Same spot minus the family. Bruges is also beautiful.
Another canal, one of many.
Famous belgian waffle dough modeled by our tour guide Pascal. (He happened to be Dutch, but had been living in Bruges for about 5 years and we thought he did an excellent job.)
One thing we learned from Pascal is that this famous “Lovers Bridge”, prized place for romantic pictures, was actually made from tombstones robbed from a nearby graveyard. Bruges went from being a wealthy trading center to a dirt poor backwater when their river access to the ocean silted up. It remained that way until people realized it was spectacularly beautful and tourists might enjoy visiting.
Right behind that bridge was this opening for toll guards to raise a chain across the river in order to force boats to pay a toll. James and Charlie are wondering if they could start up the business again.
View from the Half Moon Brewery tower with famous clock tower in the middle.
Also shared by our guide: the location of the best Belgian Waffles in all of Bruges. If you’re ever there, visit “Arlecchino by John- Gelato & Waffles”
Henry likes them
So does James. If you’ve never had them before, what’s special is the extra sugar in the dough, which carmelizes on the outside, giving a sticky/sweet exterior while still staying soft on the inside.
Here we are on the second day. We went back three days in a row. John definitely recognized us and asked us how our trip to Ghent was when we came back on the third day.
Final Pascal recommendation: the Beer Museum! I got to “sample” 4 different beers for $10 and he gets a free beer for every 4 tourists who show up. I got a cherry and then a dubbel, tripel, and quad, so four samples was quite a lot by the end of it. (Percent alchohol of about 4.5%, 7.5%, 9%, and 11%.)

Our second day in Bruges, we split up a little with Karen touring a museum, Henry sitting on a bench to sketch, and me, James, and Charlie taking a tour of the Half Moon Brewery. Here are a few pictures of the day.

Even though Belgium is famous for its beers, the brewery was the only one that actually operated inside of Bruges proper. They had a lot of items on display like this with the old materials they used, but everything had since been replaced with more boring and modern vessels and pipelines.
Speaking of modern, our tour guide was exceptionally excited about the pipeline they’d constructed to bring the beer from the downtown brewery to the bottling site 3km outside of town. (That saved them from having to truck stuff through the non-truck-friendly streets.) From the graphic above, you can see it has 5 smaller pipes inside the main containing pipe. Rumors exist that some of the pipes stop at bars and private homes for tap-ready beer, but those are unfortunately untrue.
James and Charlie joined me on the tour both “to understand beer better since Dad likes it”, but also (primarily) because kids got a soda (famous Fanta!) instead of beer at the end. I got a tripel this time.
After the tour was over, the other two joined us and we ate at the brewery restaurant. Henry was initially daunted by the dimensions of this burger, but it proved to be no match for him.
Also in Bruges is this famous Madonna by Michaelangelo, which was seized by both Napoleon (returned after his Waterloo, Belgium defeat in 1815) and the Nazis (returned thanks to the work of the “Monuments Men” during World War II.)


Our third day staying in Bruges was actually spent day-tripping to the nearby city of Ghent, which we found to be equally beautiful along with less touristy, although as mentioned above we saved our waffle-dedicated stomach space for Bruges after we got back.

See? Beautiful. Here’s the clock tour and main square.
Ghent also had canals everywhere.
And cool murals!
This mural included a sculpture.
And a big castle!
The best part of the castle was that the audioguide was legitimately funny because they had a comedian do it. If you’re in Ghent, it’s highly recommended.
James liked it, even though, he doesn’t usually like audioguides. Karen captured this candid and completely non-staged smile by me, possibly of the guide discussing yogurt sell by dates.
Charlie, however, skipped the audioguide, although he did listen to this part about the toilets. Aiming for authenticity, he did so while sitting on the toilet. (He’s watching me now on a train and says it wasn’t actually authentic because he’s still wearing his pants.)
We did a canal cruise too, although no one but me could hear the guide, so everyone else was bored.
Ghent from the top of the castle.


After 4 nights in Bruges, we took a couple of trains to Amsterdam, staying there for 5 nights. We had a great Airbnb a little bit west of the central city and really enjoyed our time there. Here are some pictures from our first day:

The highlight of the day was the lakeside beach about 25 minutes walk from our place. We like Airbnbs for lots of reasons, but in this case, the host was extra helpful about suggesting where we should go (including here!)
Side view, courtesy of Karen
As we walked home around the lake, we found a place to feed birds. Definitely a recurring theme.
Downtown Amsterdam around 8pm, in search of stroopwafels. As I think I’ve mentioned, James is on a mission to have a pancake or waffle in every country we visit.
The verdict: OK? More like an OK cookie and not in the same league as Belgian waffles. James, Charlie, and I got McDonald’s later because we were still hungry. (County 32!)
Even though the waffles disappointed, we definitely enjoyed the views.
I started the day with a nice run across some canals and through Vondelpark. More on Vondelpark in a bit.

For our second day, we thought it was important to rent bikes since bike riding is iconically Dutch (I’m 1/8th Dutch!) and Amsterdam is maybe the best city in the world for biking. Our destination was “Waterland”, which took us back in time to farming canals and fishing villages just a few miles north of downtown Amsterdam:

After spending 25 minutes or so biking through the city to the central train station, we caught this free ferry across to the north side. James had a seat behind me, but everyone else biked the 26 or so miles round trip.

Here’s a better view of the bike James and I shared. His main problem was the wind made him cold, so he stole Karen’s sweater.
A brief stop to take pictures of the swans (next). Note James’s overlong sweater.
Swans! This is just a few miles outside of a major city.
Our lunch stop had, of course, a playground opposite it.
Fewer pictures of the ride home because there were brutal headwinds. The 13 miles took us over 2 hours to finish. We were exhausted and very glad to return the bikes to the rental shop and walk again, although overall it was a great day.

At the end of the very long bike ride, we had a bit of a respite from city street bike lanes meandering through Vondelpark, a wonderful example of a big city park which included a playground with attached beergarden. Here are a few more pictures from our time in the park over the next few days.

One of many bridges and water features
The same bridge, but fancy
Don’t worry, it was only a few inches deep
We fed a lot of ducks here
James happened to be wearing his “hexagons are the bestagons” shirt for this visit to the hexagonally tiled garden.
Part of the booze-enabling playground. (Squint to see the slide tower through the trees.)

And of course we visited a few museums in Amsterdam as well, although we realized too late that the Anne Frank House has a one-month-plus waiting list:

The Rijksmuseum was very cool and definitely worth a visit, but the highlight for James and Charlie was this interactive exploration game they gave to kids, where they gave them missions to find answers based on the guide. Occasionally, Karen and I were annoyed with their need to rush on to the next place before we had a chance to see the art. (Henry went off on his own and read every single exhibit caption with lightning speed, which is his normal MO.)
Here they are at Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, immediately after which they bolted off in search of the next site in their game and I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out where my family disappeared to in the crowded museum.
If I have to know that this painting of a creepy, muscular Jesus exists, so do you. The Holy Family by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, c. 1528 – c. 1530
The following day, we went to the Van Gogh museum, which had this paper-based exploration guide for kids. Similarly engaging, though. (Tickets were sparse here too, but we were able to snag the last time 4 days after we looked.)
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.
Bedroom in Arles

Germany: Heusenstamm, Betzdorf, and Siegen

The final places we’ll visit in this post aren’t really tourist attractions, but rather places (and people) from Karen’s childhood when she spent much of her summers visiting family in Germany. We started by leaving Amsterdam around 6:30am in order to catch a few trains for the Frankfurt suburb of Heusenstamm where we met her Tante Marienne for lunch. Marienne is Jorg’s mother, so maybe you’ll again note the familial resemblance to James? (Jorg was also instrumental in helping us set up this meeting–thanks, Jorg!)

She and Tante Edith were leaving the next day from Heusenstamm for a Danube river cruise and we were hoping to catch Edith for lunch as well, but she wasn’t able to make it south from Betzdorf in time to see us. (Edith didn’t have a cell phone, so we couldn’t coordinate anything complicated.) Instead, we crossed paths and stayed at her home in Betzdorf for a couple of nights after picking up a key from her friend at the jewelry store. (In German, “dorf” means village, and the boys and I definitely found it to be a cute little village.)

Karen’s Oma’s old house. Her bedroom had that top window.
There was a VERY big hill to get up to Tante Edith’s house.
We stretched out once we got there and very much appreciated the hospitality! Karen and I had visited with Henry in 2010 and the house was exactly as I remembered it.
View of Betzdorf from Tante Edith’s living room.
Downtown Betzdorf. That cool structure is just a bike ramp to the second level of the shopping structure.
We made a little trip to the nearby town of Siegen. Here we are after tiring ourselves out climbing to the top of the hill there.

The next day, we continued on to Switzerland, which will be another post. Here’s our country count up to this point:

  • 8th, 9th, and 10th countries of our trip
  • Me: 57 countries (including 32 eating McDonald’s) (no new countries, but added Belgium and Netherlands to the McDonald’s list!)
  • Karen: 54 countries (no change)
  • Henry: 24 countries (he’d been to Germany in 2010, so only +2)
  • Charlie: 19 countries
  • James: 16 countries