Monday, May 28, 2018

Denny and Ronny

Denny Nicola, class of 1965, Champaign High School. Killed in Vietnam 1967. Information. A good friend I turned around one day and realized he was gone before I made my way "down south."

Ronny Lovellette. Class of 1966, Champaign High School. Killed in Vietnam 1969. Information.

We spent our last night together in Chicago before you headed off to the Army and I left for the Marines. The last time I saw you. But it was a wild night, eh Ronny?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Paris to Grand Rapids in 36 hours

When we woke up Sunday the weather had turned a bit foul with a chilly rain. A good day to leave France, I suppose. We had another in a long line of leisurely breakfasts and enjoyed just hanging out with the MacDonalds. They’re returning to the United States this summer so we won’t see them again in Lille.

Eventually it came time to say goodbye. We grabbed our bags and walked the five minutes or so to the parking garage. Five minutes after that we were on our way out of Lille and with the help of GPS on our way south to our hotel near Orly airport.

Since we had a Monday morning nonstop flight to Newark (where we left our Subaru for the drive back to Michigan), we thought we’d stay by the airport Sunday evening and made reservations at the Novotel Rungis (Rungis is where the food wholesalers moved when the Les Halles in central Paris was closed in 1971).

After an uneventful three hour drive we found the hotel, checked in and dropped off our bags. We then returned the car to Avis at the airport, a bare 2 kms away — finding the correct road to the rental car return was a small ordeal in and of itself since construction is in process for the 2024 Olympics. But we triumphed once again and finally made our way to the shuttle pickup point and back to the hotel.

That evening we had a quiet meal — quite a good one at that — at the hotel and went to bed early.

Monday we were up early, showered and after breakfast caught the 7:12 shuttle to Orly. Making our way to the British Airways desk we had a short wait before they started taking checkins. But we were soon through airport security with boarding passes in hand and off to our gate. Boarding was to begin at 10:15.

10:15 came and no announcement; 10:30 nothing. Finally at 10:45, 15 minutes before departure they announced our flight was cancelled due to “technical problems” and we would have to go down to baggage services, retrieve our bags and back up to check-in to rebook.

So began our odyssey to get back to the United States. After waiting for two hours in line we were rebooked on a flight from Charles de Gaulle to JFK via London Heathrow. How we were supposed to get to Newark was never explained.

Anyway, after much confusion, lack of guidance and general chaos we were bussed to the northern part of Paris, checked in, dropped off our bags and boarded the short flight to London. We had to dash from Terminal A to B at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 to our connecting flight as they were just getting ready to close the doors.Whew! - we made it.

More than seven hours later, at about 9 pm we landed at JFK and were pushed through the swarm of immigration control. We were eventually declared fit to enter the United States and retrieved our bags. We were pretty tired by this time and had decided earlier to book a room near JFK for the night and make our way to Newark the next day. We had to take the air train to a central shuttle location and call our hotel (the Crowne-Plaza JFK). They soon arrived and before long we were checked in and in bed.

Somewhere along the way we learned that the only shuttle from JFK to Newark required going to the Port Authority in Manhattan and then connecting to Newark. Nope, not going to do that. So the next morning after breakfast we had the hotel arrange a car service. Our driver, a former professional cricket star from Guyana whose heritage is Indian soon picked us up and after 45 minutes of stress-free driving as he calmly talked about his life and engaged us in casual, friendly conversation, he dropped us off at our car park near the airport.

His name is Marlon Isaac (business name) and you can reach him at 347-403-2533 or

We loaded our bags into our car, paid our bill and headed off to make our way to I-80 and Michigan. Eager to get home and tired of eating on the road, we opted to drive straight through, which we did. With both of us driving off-and-on some twelve hours after leaving the carpark in New Jersey we pulled into the parking lot at Meijer, our go-to grocery store near our home in Grand Rapids, to grab a couple of essentials for breakfast.

Fatigued and now both under the weather, since I had been thoughtful enough to give Susan my cold, we were thrilled and thankful to be home.

It had taken some 36 hours to get from Paris to Grand Rapids. We won't do that again anytime soon if ever.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Letter from Lille 12 May

Saturday was our last full day in Lille and in fact our last real day of vacation in France. Tomorrow we begin the process of returning to the United States.

But today was gorgeous, warm and steady sun and we planned to make the most of it. Even though my chest cold refused to go away I had no intention of letting some here-today, gone-tomorrow virus keep me from having fun, so when Christina and Glen suggested we all head up to Belgium to visit a most unusual park I said YEAH! (pictures below)

The plan was for us to drive separately since there wasn’t enough room in any one car for the six of us. After a leisurely breakfast Susan and I head headed off to get our car out of the garage, turned on the GPS and headed out of the city. An hour or so later, after driving around much of southern Belgium, we found the parking lot for the park Pairi Daiza (and yes, it was originally called Paradise).

Our credit cards wouldn’t work in the automatic ticket kiosks so we had to go to one of the ticket booths. It all worked fine and with a little help from our phones we met up with the MacDs at the entrance.

Part zoo, part botanical garden and theme park without the rides, for the next several hours we strolled through Asia, Africa and India, several braved the crypt beneath the 13th century ruined abbey tower to have bats fly around their heads and a few of us — Liam and I abstained — chose to have their feet nibbled on by fish whose sole goal in life was to clean dead skin away. We strolled through the original 18th century mansion that now incorporates the aquarium, walked casually by fruit bats just hanging around, ate noodles at a wonderful Asian pavilion and watched red pandas having their lunch, not to mention the giant pandas and gorillas all napping during the midday heat, took a train ride around the entire park to savor the feel of Africa and just enjoyed being out in the sun along with much of the population of northern France.

And we still didn’t see everything.

That evening, after we all returned to Lille, Christina fixed a wonderful meal for us before we finished packing up in preparation for our departure the next day.

We’ll miss Lille, but more importantly we’ll miss the MacDonalds’ hospitality and generosity and especially those two kids: Liam’s ordering a bucket of mussels for dinner and Kiera ordering for us in French were two of the many high points of an all-too-short visit.

the only remaining part of the original 13th century abbey now houses bats

storks abounded everywhere

next to where we ate lunch

that house in the background is the aquarium

fruit bats

red pandas

inside the aquarium

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Letter from Lille 11 May

Although Christina’s Nyquil helped enormously, the cold I picked up in Paris worsened and I decided to hang around home in the morning. Glen had a short day at work while the girls and kids headed off to Meert, one of the city’s preeminent pastry shops and a familiar name to Susan.

When everyone returned, the MacDs laid out a superb lunch for us consisting of a wonderful cheese and sausage board with fresh veggies and hummus.

Later in the afternoon the MacDs took us the two blocks over to a small square where we sat out and had a cold beer.

Glen and Christina had arranged for a babysitter and that evening the four of us walked over to Les Ramparts for dinner. While we thought the woman maître d’ somewhat snooty, our waiter was friendly. He took pride in his English claiming no one else spoke the language or if so, did it poorly. We had a wonderful time together, the four of us, chatting about life, travel and the adventures of keeping on the move.

Another delicious meal in Lille, a city that is rarely visited by tourists from abroad but with its close connections to Paris and Amsterdam and Brussels should be on everyone’s stopover list.

Les Ramparts

steak frites

Glen had a café gourmand

chicken with noodles

fish with a small pepper stuffed with fennel, I believe

fois gras

Friday, May 11, 2018

Letter from Lille 10 May

After all the gorgeous weather we had in recent days we awoke to a chilly rainy morning in Amsterdam. A fitting day to move on to our next adventure.

After saying goodbye to Richard and Pauline we retrieved our car and headed south to Lille and the MacDonald home in the city center.

Traffic was light, the roads smooth and with the help of our driving guide we found the underground parking garage recommended by Christina. Located in the city center — Dick and Dorothy you remember it well, I’m sure — we exited to the surface and called Christina. In a few moments she and Liam showed up and escorted us to their apartment. Fortunately the elevator was functioning and schlepping our bags up to the 3rd floor was no problem.

Glen and Kiera were there to welcome us and after we settled in we all sat around and relaxed, sharing travel adventures: the MacDs had just returned from Israel and of course us from the Netherlands.

That evening we had a delicious meal at L’estaminet de Gand on rue de Gand (Gand is the French word for Gent or Ghent, the city in Belgium). We had eaten at another place on the same street back in 2016 and the food was just as good this time.

It was a wonderful evening and we were tickled to be able to help celebrate Christina's birthday!

It can be cheaper eating in Paris than Grand Rapids, Michigan

At one point early on in our latest trip to Paris I had a revelation.  When I received the dinner bill at Iovines on rue de Bretagne I figured it came to about $72. Since the meal consisted of fairly basic components that we had eaten many times in the USA I thought it would be interesting to do a cost comparison with a place that served similar food. I chose Licari’s, a pizza place in Grand Rapids where we have eaten from time to time. This is not a scientific study and I urge you to try this for yourself.

Here’s what I learned.
  • Licari: 2 cocktails, medium pizza, bottle of pinot noir = $74
  • Iovine: 2 cocktails, similar size pizza and a bottle of Valpolicella = $72
While both meals appear to be comparable the US version doesn’t take into account the tip. And at 20% that adds another $14 to the Licari bill.

Therefore, eating a similar meal in Grand Rapids costs $88 to the Paris version of $72.

This comparison doesn’t take into account those attributes that can’t be quantified:
  • location (Paris vs Grand Rapids), eating in a bistro-like setting versus a large, loud room with TV monitors everywhere;
  • the quality of the service; the wait staff at Iovines spoke Italian and were clearly professional while the manager at Licari’s didn’t even know what a digestivo was.
Of course there are many places in Paris where it would cost several body parts to eat a meal. And there are many other restaurants where the service is lousy and the food mediocre.

But it is has been our great, good fortune over the years to have successfully steered away from such dens of culinary iniquity. In fact, we have found many other places like Iovines which simply reaffirms our belief that American food is no cheaper than eating in Paris and often more so since you’re often getting a lower quality of service.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Letter from Amsterdam 9 May

Our last full day in Amsterdam began as usual with queuing for coffee during breakfast. we all thought the food actually quite good, even the mini-croissants were nicely done, but the absence of supervision for cleaning the tables, which filled up and emptied with equal velocity, not to mention the whole coffee thing had us stumped.

After breakfast we walked the few short blocks to the Van Gogh Museum and close to the Rijksmuseum and Concertgebouw. Our tickets were assigned a 1030 entry time and once inside we spent the next 1-2 hours learning the life and work of a man who couldn’t sell art to save his soul or his life.

After leaving the museum we walked a bit on the Museumplein, a fantastic green space bordered by Concertgebouw, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh; the Rijksmuseum is just a bit further north a block or so and the Diamond Museum is nearby as well.

As I was starting to feel a bit under the weather, I headed back to the room for a nap.

our hotel looks nicer from the outside than it really is
Later that afternoon Susan and I met up with one of her mother’s Dutch cousins, Dick Van Halsema and his wife. We enjoyed not only their company but they treated us to our first taste of a Dutch specialty: bitterballen.

Dick Van Halsema and Susan

Later that evening we met up with Richard and Pauline and the four of us once again strolled along the canals, finding a place to sit in the dying sun and enjoy an aperitif before dinner.

Our final night together found us at a place named Van Puffelen for dinner and as usual a good time was had by all. I know it sounds like a cliché but truer words have never been spoken. We’re going to regret having to say goodbye but for the moment we’re enjoying the casual conversation, the sharing of life’s experiences and just laughing about the foibles of the world around us.

statues dedicated to some of Amsterdam's favorite musicians

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Letter from Amsterdam 8 May

Today was our big road trip around the Netherlands, or part of it anyway. Ostensibly we were off in search of the Van Halsema heritage sites which tended to lay north and east of Amsterdam.

After breakfast we had our car brought round and the four of us were soon off with GPS leading us out of the city and north. Our first stop was Edam. For me one of my first recollections as a child of cheese was either Edam or Gouda, that red waxy wrapped cheese that filled every grocery store in the midwest. Anyway, Edam was a lovely little town and we enjoyed a stroll through it and yes we did buy some cheese.

somewhere between Volendam and Edam looking out onto Markermeer Lake

From Edam we returned to the highway and continued north eventually crossing the Afsluitdijk. Running for some 30kms and separating the Ijsselmeer from the Waddeneilanden and the North Sea this dike has been keeping  a large part of the Netherlands free from flooding since the 1930s. We stopped briefly -- very briefly since every Mayfly on the planet had just hatched nearby -- at the observation tower along the causeway to appreciate the scope of this incredible structure.

Once across the causeway we turned north once again and stopped for lunch in the picturesque harbor town of Harlingen. Strolling the small streets of this lovely town (lovely seems to be the word of the day) we found the perfect place for lunch: De Tjotter where we all had the fish-and-chips. Scrumptious.

After lunch we walked down to the harbor before returning to the car. Once back on the highway we made our way to Nijeveen, the birthplace of Emo Van Halsema, Susan’s maternal grandfather.

Our search was focused on the gravesite of Emo’s parents and two of his siblings and while we were frustrated at first by the simple fact we began in the wrong cemetery, our subsequent search of a second church and graveyard panned out. As we walked through the small cemetery Susan observed how many family names are commonplace in western Michigan.

From Nijeveen we continued south to Loosdrecht and the home of Susan’s relatives, Sofia and Marcel Stel. They had kindly invited us all to their house for aperitifs and dinner.

aperitif time in Loosdrecht!

Sofia and Marcel's daughter and Sofie's brother Jap

Marcel and Sofia
Following a delicious dinner of nasi goreng (another Indonesian specialty) the evening seemed to fly by and before long we had to bid our hosts adieu — our car had to be back to the valet service by 10pm or otherwise we’d have to look for street parking or worse.

Our GPS again came through and we had the car back in front of the hotel by 2145 with time to spare.