Farewell, Cassini (and other space stuff)

September is a busy month, and there’s a lot I could share. Like our recent trip to the U.S., a new educational program I’m starting soon, or the Amsterdam canal tour en francais that I won last night. But for the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about space. Not square footage – I’m talking about the universe. Fair warning: if this is of no interest to you, or if you think that space exploration is a waste, you may want to stop reading now, because there’s a lot of space stuff to follow…

I’m a bit of a space geek, which in recent years I credit to Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut and former Commander of the International Space Station. He is a true Renaissance man: a musician, an author and speaker, a fighter pilot, and a professor. (He also has an airport, two schools, and an asteroid named after him.) I started following him on Twitter when he was still at the ISS, sending photos back to earth, making science and space travel both exciting and accessible.

Then, while I was stocking up on e-books for our trip to America, I found the wonderful “Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight” by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Dean is a professional reporter and novelist, and an amateur space junkie. She made it her mission to document the last flights of the space shuttle program. She writes with a mix of wonderment and sadness, grateful for having witnessed the later stage of space travel, but mourning the loss of the national vision and individual courage that brought Americans to the moon. It was a captivating read, in part because Dean is roughly my age, and her memories of the Challenger disaster tracked so closely with mine. The book helped me understand the significance of the Challenger explosion. It shook America’s confidence in NASA and contributed to the end of the shuttle program, but it also communicated a profound message to the many students who had watched the explosion happen on television.  Writing about the report of the investigation of the explosion, Dean explains that the failures it catalogued were not surprising to young people: “We had already come to realize that the adults in charge of making the world run smoothly actually had no idea what they were doing”.

But wait! There’s more. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1 and 2, and if you have the slightest interest in this amazing project, go watch The Farthest. The PBS documentary features the women and men who have spent their careers tracking and translating the images that the Voyager satellites send back to earth. The ambitious  “Grand Tour” of the outer planets revealed moons, massive storms, plumes and craters, giving us a glimpse of our solar system and beyond. And if that’s not interesting enough for you, both Voyager satellites carry a golden record with messages in over 60 languages, music, natural sounds, and data that an advanced civilization could convert into diagrams – a global greeting card from earth.

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Jupiter Great Red Spot (Photo credit: NASA/JPL).

Just four years ago, on 12 September 2013, Voyager 1 passed into interstellar space, and became the first man-made object to do so. What I remember most about this event is the pleasure of adding the word “heliosphere” to my vocabulary. The Voyager satellites are expected to send data back to earth for another 3-7 years, and then they will continue to travel, silently, long after there is anyone left who remembers them.

Then there is Cassini. In about 15 hours from now, Cassini will end it’s 20-year journey in dramatic fashion. The NASA website says it best: “Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini

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Saturn, Approaching Northern Summer (Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

into the planet.” In anticipation of this end, Cassini began doing a series of dives several months ago, passing between Saturn and it’s rings. Tomorrow’s Grand Finale will see Cassini make a final approach to Saturn, dive into the atmosphere, and eventually burn up.

 

Now that you’ve put up with all this space talk, I have to admit that it’s not the “how” of space travel that interests me – much of the science is well beyond my understanding – but the “why” of it.  The “how” is mostly about the technical questions: Will it work? For how long? Are our calculations and assumptions correct? Will we get any data back? What can we learn? Once those are resolved, the “why” follows: What will we find? What are we hoping for? Are we prepared for what we might discover?

Many of the people working on space projects do so with the understanding that their project may not get off the ground. And if it does get into orbit, if it goes as planned, they may never see how it ends, as with Voyager. Or they may, in the case of Cassini, purposely and beautifully engineer the destruction of their spacecraft.  These possibilities – or more accurately, the acceptance of these possibilities – fascinate me. It’s the legacy of the first astronauts, those brilliant and handsome young fighter pilots who took on an impossible challenge, some later admitting that they thought the odds of survival were, at best, 50/50. They accepted risk and uncertainty because it paled in comparison to the magnitude of what they might accomplish: going to space.

So if you’ve read this far, you should really head over to the NASA image library, or learn about the Cassini team’s tradition of Friday breakfast, or get to know the three new crew members who arrived at the International Space Station just two days ago. And I’ll sit here a little longer and marvel at the fact of space travel and the wonder of it all. That, as Margaret Lazarus Dean put it, “completely normal-looking middle-age people are currently floating in space somewhere overhead. There is simply no getting used to this.”

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The two cards I mailed today

A few hours ago, I dropped two cards in the Post NL box.

One was sent to friends of ours who live about 50 kilometers away. They are new-ish friends who we met about two years ago. We clicked immediately and since then, we’ve had one crazy adventure and a few of those fun, lazy afternoons of laughter and good conversation that stretch into dinner and drinks, and before you know it you’re running for the last bus back to the train station. Yesterday they welcomed their first child, a little boy, and my congratulations-via-whatsapp felt sort of lame and insufficient.  So…a cheerful blue card celebrating Hugo is making its way to their home – a home which, in the coming days, will be filled with family and visitors and new sounds and smells, thanks to the arrival of their son.

The second card has to make a much longer journey, and it carries no celebration. It is traveling to Seattle, to a friend and former colleague who I have known for at least eight years, maybe longer. We worked together in a challenging, fast-paced international health organization, and we got through a lot of difficult days thanks to her humor and perspective. Yesterday I learned that her sister, a vibrant and beautiful young woman, passed away from cancer. She had been diagnosed years ago and was living with the disease, seeking alternative treatments and continuing to travel and run and do yoga and work as a nurse. I met her only once, briefly, a few months ago, at brunch when she and my friend came through Amsterdam. Meg was full of life and light – you would never have known she was sick at all. Even from that quick interaction, it was clear that she was one of those special people who can both soak in and radiate love and energy to those around them. She lit up the room. It seems unspeakably unfair that her life has ended.

It is hard to know what to say to someone in the early days of their grief. No one knows what to say, really, but often the words matter less than the act of trying. So…with that in mind, there is a card making its way to my friend in Seattle, offering whatever comfort I could manage in a few words, reminding her that she is held in the circle of her sister’s love, and the love of many others.

I’m thinking a lot tonight about the gatherings of these two families, one celebrating a birth and the other grieving a loss, and how their respective gatherings may have more in common than one might think: tears, memories, laughter, fear, sadness, regret, anxiety.  As my small wishes and small wisdom make their journeys, I’ll be right here, holding my friends in my thoughts and in my heart.

The end of the experiment

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Sunrise over the sailing school just outside our apartment.

My month-long Amsterdam Instagram project has come to an end. I’m happy to say that I successfully posted a photo every day for #thewholedammonth. To be honest, it was more of challenge than I expected, but I learned a few things along the way:

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Look up! Where the A’DAM Tower meets the EYE

  1. I am not a good photographer. Even though I’m armed with only my iPhone 5S, I can’t blame the quality of the camera. I’m just not good at translating what I see in my head to something worth sharing. I don’t see angles or better perspectives, my pictures are often blurry, and the finished product never looks the way it did inside my brain.
  2. I am not a good photographer, (Part B). In addition to being technically inept, I also noticed that I wasn’t always comfortable stopping and taking (seemingly) random photos. I felt a bit self-conscious, which is ridiculous, since everyone in Amsterdam is taking pictures all the time. Some with selfie sticks. Also, taking a photo is just about the least embarrassing or showy thing one can do in this anything-goes city. I can’t explain my discomfort, but I was aware of it.
  3. Paying attention is hard. In the everyday comings-and-goings of life, you get used to the scenery around you. You can get used to anything, even if you swore at first you’d never tire of it: a peaceful ferry ride, the bike path that passes a windmill, the flower boxes on the canal houses. It’s not easy to snap yourself out of auto-pilot, and try to be more aware of what’s around you. Still…

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    At the OBA, Amsterdam’s public library.

  4. It’s worth it to try. I found I approached my commute and my travels through the city with open eyes. Sometimes I felt like I was wandering around to get a photo of something – anything – to keep the month-long streak alive. (As my dear husband pointed out, by the middle of week two I had photographed every element of my daily commute – I really stretched my bike ride into a Instagram extravaganza.) But at other times, my photo project helped me to be more alert and aware of the small things.

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    Closed for repairs, but still an awesome bridge.

  5. I live in a pretty damn beautiful place. If nothing else, this month was a reminder that Amsterdam is gorgeous. It’s beauty isn’t always showy or grand (much like the Dutch themselves). Instead, there’s a philosophy about everyday objects and landmarks beautiful. Yes, we need a bridge here, and there’s no reason it can’t be a dramatic, swooping arc of red steel, conjuring up a roller coaster ride or the back of a dragon. And yes, of course we need a library, so let’s give it whole walls covered in furry, yellow-green textile, and let’s put a terrace on the 7th floor with a view over the city center. Why not? Everywhere I looked, I saw Amsterdam’s commitment to the idea that city life and civic space can and should be inspiring.

Now that I’m at the end of this effort, the challenge is to try to integrate these lessons into my everyday, even as the remainder of the year picks up speed and starts racing by. Thanks to those who cheered me on and helped me see what’s in front of me.

July: The whole dam month

It’s July 1st, and as of today, we don’t have any travel plans for the coming month. (That could, of course, change at any time. We may just hop a train to…somewhere before the month is out.)

We’ve done a lot of traveling during the past two years. Amsterdam is a great location from which to explore Europe, and we’ve covered Italy, Spain, Portugal, France (multiple times), Denmark, Malta, most of the U.K., Poland, Belgium, Germany. We’ve also seen a lot of the Netherlands, from Maastricht to the mud flats of Ameland. As a result, we have a reputation of always being on the go. Every weekend, a new city! But that’s not the case this month.

So…since we’re staying put in our adopted city, I’ve decided to give myself an assignment for July. It’s a way to make sure that I’m not taking Amsterdam for granted, that I still see the lovely things around me, even if they’ve become everyday sights. For the whole “dam” month, every “dam” day, I’ll be posting a photo from Amsterdam. The daily shots will be on Instagram (@kgkamsterdam, #thewholedammonth, if you want to follow along), and I’ll do my best to collect the photos here, once a week.

As humans, we’re adaptable. We get used to anything, whether it be deprivation and discomfort or luxury and excess. We settle in to our life and our surroundings and we often forget to lift our heads and look around. My July project is a small attempt to counter that tendency; to pay more attention to what’s around me and to share what makes Amsterdam unique and beautiful in my eyes. Enjoy!

Krakow: Now, the rest

In spite of what you might have gathered from my last post, we did actually do more in Krakow than eat. The city has a lot to offer, and we tried to see as much as we could. But truth be told, we did sometimes plan our activities around the next meal!

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St. Florian’s Gate, seen from the Barbican

The city is small, making it easy to wander and explore. There’s also a good tram/street car system for longer trips. The first thing we did on Friday was to buy the Krakow Card, giving us access to all public transport and free entrance to many museums and attractions. (It’s worth noting that the most visited sites, like the Castle, are not included in the Krakow Card.) Our first day took us to the Barbican, one of the last remaining parts of the fortified city walls. St. Florian’s Gate leads into the Old City. We decided to stop in St. Mary’s Basilica, and ended up arriving just in time for the opening of the Veit Stoss altarpiece.

As often happens when we travel, we stumbled into something that we weren’t expecting, and didn’t know anything about. When we entered St. Mary’s, I was surprised by the size of the gathered crowd, and wondered if we had arrived just before a service. But we soon realized that the opening of the altarpiece was the attraction.  Thanks to the dumb luck of timing, we were able to see the sculpture, carved between 1477 and 1484, fully open. I later learned that the altarpiece had been seized by the Nazis in 1941; it was discovered five years later in the basement ruins of Nuremburg Castle and returned to Krakow.

The Basilica is also the site of the hourly Hejnał Mariacki, the St. Mary’s Trumpet Call. The trumpeter is in the Basilica’s tower, and from there plays the piece four times, in the direction of the four old city gates (with a wave to the cheering crowd below). The noon performance is broadcast worldwide by radio. If you listen to the piece, it seems to end very abruptly. The legend is that sometime in the 1200s, a trumpeter was sounding the alarm against an invading force, and was shot in the throat by an arrow, putting a quick end to the tune.

St. Mary’s is on the edge of Market Square, which is crowded with cafes, vendors, and horse-drawn carriages. Cloth Hall, once a center of international trade, is now a good place to buy amber, football jerseys, and other souvenirs. Our friend-turned-tour guide had tipped us off to the rooftop cafe at Cloth Hall, which was a great place to spend an hour or so in the sun.

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The view from the Cloth Hall roof cafe…

(You have to earn your way in, as the entrance is not easy to find…it’s located inside a museum that happened to be closed when we were there, though the cafe was still open.)

One of Krakow’s most popular attractions is not in Krakow at all: the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Although it’s only about 10km from Krakow, it was almost a day-long activity. You can only tour the mine with a guide. Tours are offered in at least seven languages, but if you speak anything other than English you should check the tour schedule before you go. The English tours were offered every half hour, but the Italian tour, for example, was only three times per day.

We went on a Saturday and as a result had to deal with huge crowds. Rookie mistake, I know. It was also a slightly confusing system, with an initial queue for tickets and then separate lines for each of the different language tours. Our 11:30 English tour was so large that they split us into three groups, making the tour feel a bit rushed, since there was always another group on our heels.

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A (salt) statue of Copernicus

We spent close to 3 hours in the mines, exploring the third level, about 135 meters underground. For some perspective, the mine has nine levels.  Since the 13th Century, men (and later, horses) worked the mine, extracting salt through dangerous and intense labor. Somehow, in the middle of this work, they also found time to carve sculptures and religious chapels, including the remarkable St. Kinga’s Chapel, an enormous underground church. All carved out of salt. And available for events, special masses, and concerts. Weddings, too.

I wasn’t able to figure out why these chapels and monuments existed. I would assume that either the miners were mining, or they were making their way back up to the surface of the earth. When would there be time for prayer, let alone sculpting?


IMG_3092One morning we traveled across the Wisla river to visit Ghetto Heroes Square, located in what was the center of the Krakow Ghetto. The Square has a haunting memorial of 33 empty chairs representing the Polish Jews who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during World War II. Over 20.000 people were locked up in an area where only 3.000 had lived previously. The Square was a place of assembly from which inhabitants of the Ghetto were sent to Nazi death camps. Across from the Square is the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, which has been restored to its 1940s condition. The pharmacist was the only non-Jewish inhabitant of the Ghetto, and he and his staff provided care and help to the Jews, including smuggling food and information, and sheltering those who were going to be deported. The small, interactive museum shares the stories of the Ghetto’s residents and provides powerful, humanizing testimonies to their lives and deaths.


Our friend’s list of suggestions had one major omission: Krakow is home to a Pinball Museum. I’ve never been one for video games, and I won’t pretend I’m great at pinball, but I really love it. It’s hard to find pinball machines – most arcades don’t have them anymore. So to discover 300 m2 of pure pinball was a dream come true. IMG_3100Some machines dated back to the 1970s, others were more modern. You’re not going to learn much about the history of pinball, but that’s not what you came for. The entrance fee lets you play all day or come and go, and all the machines are set to free play. It’s also a bar, and while you can’t put your beer on the machines, you can take a break for a sip now and then. Heaven.

The sites on the usual tourist route – the Castle, the Cathedral – were nice, but very busy, especially with school groups on spring field trips. Tickets to the Castle rooms were sold out, so we only saw the outside. We were able to visit the Cathedral, but soon discovered we had hit our limit on the number of Gothic churches we could absorb in one weekend. By the time our Monday evening flight came around, we were churched-out, walked-out, and ready to head back to Amsterdam. But Krakow more than met our expectations. With its rich history – both medieval and modern – excellent food, relaxed pace, perfect weather, and unique attractions, Krakow earned a place on our list of great European cities.

 

 

Krakow: First, the food

What do you do when a Thursday/Friday one-two punch of Dutch holidays collides with Memorial Day in the US? You plan a weekend city break. Destination: Krakow.

The city had long been on our list of places to visit, thanks to a well-traveled family friend who had lived in Krakow on-and-off for some time. He named it among his top three favorite European destinations, and, in advance of our trip, provided an exhaustive list of things to do and see (and eat), complete with a pronunciation guide.

A late flight and a further delay got us to the airport after 11pm on Thursday night. We took a taxi to the hotel – a rare luxury for us, but worth it due to the late hour. Our return trip on Monday would be via the comfortable, reliable, and very cheap train. On Friday morning, we explored the city before meeting up for our afternoon food tour with Delicious Poland.

Food tours have become a standard part of our travels. They are a great way to learn about the local cuisine, find lesser-known eateries, and meet fellow travelers. Plus, any guide worth their salt will give you recommendations to help plan the rest of your visit.

We met our guides, Kamila and Göksel, at a market in the Kazimierz district. They are a couple both personally and professionally, working together to build their tour company around their love of travel and food. They greeted us with bread and salt, a traditional Polish welcome. We were surprised that we were the only people signed up for the tour that afternoon, so we got the VIP treatment!

While Göksel went ahead to prepare things at the first stop, Kamila toured us through the market, which was filled with local farmers selling fresh vegetables and fruits. Then it was off to the first of seven stops on the tour: Przystanek Pierogarnia, to sample Poland’s famous dumplings. We tried four different pierogi, including dessert pierogi, filled with strawberry and drizzled with sweet cream. Yum!

Over the next three hours, we sampled the best of Polish cuisine, most of which I can’t spell or pronounce. The tour was a great combination of strolling around the neighborhood and sitting down for soup or a selection of main courses. Everything was arranged well, thanks to Göksel’s advance work. Throughout the tour, Kamila gave us

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Barszcz (beet soup) with dumplings, for Christmas Eve

some history of the Kazimierz district, and background on the different foods and when they are traditionally enjoyed. We learned a lot about how the privations of Communism impacted Polish cuisine. Chronic meat shortages required Polish cooks to be inventive – they found other flavors and other ways to make filling and satisfying meals.

 

Our favorite stop was Kuchnia u Doroty, a very traditional restaurant where we tried six dishes and a drink, and found the best dish of the day: placki ziemniaczane, potato pancakes “Hungarian” style, with pork and a goulash sauce that was just delicious. (We went back to Doroty later in the weekend and I ordered it again.)

Even though we were starting to fill up, we had several stops to go, including a bakery for a rose-hip jelly filled donut, then a craft brewery for some beer.  A visit to Plac Nowy (New Square) let us try zapiekanki, a sort of French-bread pizza with the toppings of your choice. Zapiekanki is only found in Krakow, and the traditional version is with mushrooms, melted cheese and chives.  It’s sold from small kiosks and shops; that it is both cheap and delicious makes it a favorite late-night snack, especially for students and anyone heading home after a few hours of drinking.

Speaking of drinking…our final stop was a vodka bar where we sampled four different vodkas, one traditional and three flavored, all delicious. We toasted our tour guides with a final Na zdrowie! Kamila shared a map and a list of some of her favorite stops in Krakow, so we were well-prepared for the rest of our weekend. We said our goodbyes and headed back into the neighborhood, full and happy and more than satisfied. If you find yourself in Krakow, check out Delicious Poland – in addition to food tours, they also do vodka and craft beer tours, so there’s something for everyone!

Next time: the Salt Mines, castles and cathedrals, and a visit to one of Krakow’s hidden treasures: the Pinball Museum!

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Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

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So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

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Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

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This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.