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!

Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

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St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

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The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

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On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

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Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

Holy Mole (Enchiladas)*

We’re often asked what we miss about living in the U.S. Other than family and friends, our most common answers involve food. Sometimes it’s a very specific meal from a very specific restaurant, like a slice of Sicilian pizza from Gino’s in Williston Park (my hometown), or the crab cakes at Legal Seafood. At other times, it’s a more general nostalgia for breakfast cereals or unlimited soft drink refills.

The Amsterdam food scene is diverse and vibrant, and always seems to be getting better. We’ve found good Indian restaurants, great Italian, we’ve been introduced to Indonesian…in short, we eat pretty well in Amsterdam. One notable exception is Mexican. Now, I should admit up front that we’ve never actually been to Mexico. We have, however, eaten at restaurants owned by Mexicans, where we were at least led to believe that we had eaten and enjoyed “authentic” Mexican food. We’re also smart enough to recognize that American chain restaurants like On the Border or Chili’s may fit an occasional need, but should not, under any circumstances, be mistaken for Mexican food.

So we don’t have many Mexican options in Amsterdam (although we seem to be drowning in tapas places). One well-known and well-reviewed Mexican restaurant has gotten our business twice, but the service was so bad and the attitude of the staff so off-putting that I don’t want to go back, no matter how good the enchiladas were. And then a friend-in-the-know, a displaced New Yorker who has some expertise in the field of tacos, suggested we check out Mexico Boulevard.

Located in a part of town we’d never visited before, not far from the Amstel and somewhere between the IJsselbuurt and the Rijnbuurt neighborhoods, Mexico Boulevard certainly looked the part of an authentic Mexican restaurant. Steel sculptures of a mariachi band greeted us from the window, and the interior was bright and colorful and comfortable. We received a warm welcome from Jan, the Dutch half of the restaurant’s pair of owners, and we knew that behind the scenes in the kitchen was Ana, who brought her family’s authentic recipes and love of tradition with her from Mexico. (Yes, of course, we looked at the website and the menu before we visited. Doesn’t everyone?) Together, they created the best Mexican meal we’ve had in Amsterdam. Period.

We both had enchiladas; my Suizas Enchiladas had the tangy, acidic bite of fresh tomatillos, and the Enmoladas met my husband’s high standards for mole sauce. The portions were generous and the black beans – which I usually don’t give much attention – were especially good. We paired our food with a couple of glasses of sangria, naturally. No room for dessert, this time, but the lemon cream pie caught my eye. Finally, our long-standing itch for good Mexican food was scratched.

*Credit for the title of this post goes to my husband. “Holy mole” were the first words he spoke after his first bite. That’s how much he liked the mole. And yes, he can be as cheesy as the enchiladas.

Lifelong language learning

We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.

-Adam Gopnik

About 25% of non-Hispanic American adults speak a language other than English well enough to have a conversation. The figures here in the Netherlands tell a very different story: 90-93% of Dutch people speak English, 71% speak German, and 25% are conversant in French. Do the math, and you’ll realize that proficiency in a 2nd and 3rd language is as Dutch as bicycles or bitterballen. It is a reflection of the size of the country (small), its location (surrounded by Germany and Belgium), and its history (global commerce). While I can’t comment on the German skills of Dutch people, I can say that their English is quite good, something that many attribute to television. In neighboring European countries, English-language programs are dubbed in the local language. Here, TV and films have Dutch ondertitels, which means that people hear a lot of English, and that the English spoken by many Dutchies is peppered with British or American slang.

If you grow up in the U.S., a second language is an academic exercise, not a necessity. Many students stumble through high-school level French or Spanish, learning just enough to pass the required test, never really understanding the use or benefit of a second language. In contrast to the modern English spoken by the Dutch, the French I learned in school always seemed from another era: formal, stuffy, a bit archaic. The things we really needed to know – the idioms and everyday expressions that give real-world confidence – were never taught.

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Language apps only teach the most useful phrases, right?

(That said, I will never forget that during my first visit to Paris I was approached by a woman on the street who asked, “Où est la bibliothèque?” It was a text-book question, pulled from one of the endless, useless dialogues we practiced in class, right up there with, “Est-ce que vous voulez jouer au tennis avec moi?” I swear I looked around for my French teacher Madame Clines…it had to be a joke, right? Never in my life have I been so prepared to answer a question.)

For me, language learning has become a life-long pursuit. I’ve shared a lot about my experiences learning French, including the immersion program that I did several years ago. French remains both my favorite language and a constant challenge. I don’t do as much as I should to keep it up. I progress and forget, I have periods of more intense practice and study, and then I’ll go weeks or months without using it at all.

Then there’s Dutch. To be honest, I’m embarrassed that my Dutch is as poor as it is. We don’t plan to stay here forever, and we don’t technically need to speak Dutch, especially in Amsterdam. But after 2 years, I feel like I should know more, or at least try harder. My comprehension has improved a lot, in part because my co-workers often just speak Dutch in front of me. And I know enough to get by. I can introduce myself and read a menu and order a drink and probably ask for directions. But as with my early French lessons, I often feel that the little Dutch I do know is formal and not very useful. It’s the practical, every-day things I miss. Those small expressions and pleasantries that act as social and conversational lubricant. Maybe with a few of those in my pocket I’d be more likely to chat with a neighbor in Dutch, or finally agree to “Nederlands vrijdag” in the office.

In the meantime, at least I’m prepared if anyone in Amsterdam ever asks me about grandparents and farm animals…