About Carol Rolnick

Carol Rolnick

Carol Barbier Rolnick grew up in Japan and Southeast Asia, traveling extensively as a child through Asia, the Mideast and Europe on family vacations. In her so-called adult life, Carol extended her roamings to North, Central and South America and southern Africa with repeat trips to Europe. They spent the summer of 2011 in the Netherlands and Carol and her husband, Michael are aiming towards Australia and Antarctica to round off their continental travels.

Latest Posts by Carol Rolnick

Exploring the Best of Buddhist Temples in Penang Malaysia

February 13, 2015 by  


One of the most fascinating aspects of Southeast Asia travel is to experience the dazzling weave of ethnic groups, languages, religions and customs, all blended yet distinct.

The current Buddha

Penang Island, strategically poised at the head of the Straits of Malacca, has been endowed by geography and shaped by trade for centuries. Beginning with the Malays, other peoples have lent their influence (by whatever means) into the mix: Arab traders, Hindu and Chinese immigrant laborers, the European traders and colonists — Portuguese, then Dutch — and finally – British, both before and after World War II’s Japanese occupation. Sometimes it seems that only the Roman Empire has not left its genes and culture in the region.

George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia

View to the east of George Town, Penang Island, Malaysia

Still a lively port city, Penang of today shows most clearly the influence of four different cultures: Chinese, Malay, Hindu and British. However, despite being a region of Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation, Penang clearly reflects the culture, architecture and religion of its southern Chinese majority from the mid-19th century up to today.

Since its independence from Great Britain, the Malaysian government has “re-balanced” the Penang population so that the numbers of Chinese and Malays are now fairly even at 46% and 43%, respectively. Additionally, the inevitable blend of Chinese and Malays over the centuries has resulted in a unique culture, Peranakan, both in Penang and in other “Straits” cities such as Malacca and Singapore.

The Chinese influence is still quite visible in today’s Penang, especially in Chinatown and the more urban areas of the island, by the number of merchants and shops, and, not least, the number of Buddhist temples on the island. (Buddhists comprise 36% of the population, second only to Muslims at 45%.)

Tek Lok Si

Main temple at Kek Lok Si

Main temple at Kek Lok Si

Tek Lok Si is not only the largest Buddhist temple complex in Penang, but the largest in Southeast Asia. Also known as the “Chinese Buddhist Temple” and “Temple of 10,000 Buddhas,” Tek Lok Si is dazzling in size and beauty. The main temple was begun in 1890, with additional edifices constructed over the years.

The cavernous main temple is dominated by three golden statues of the Buddha in meditative pose. In a ship-board lecture series on Buddhism, I learned the symbolism of a three Buddha display: the center statue is of the current Buddha, the one who most Westerners think of as the Buddha, Sidhartha; the Buddha on the left depicts the future Buddha, while the one on the right represents the Buddha of the past.

The current Buddha

IMG_4391_(right, past) Buddha

The Past Buddha

To the left, the Past Buddha; above, the Future Buddha.

The Future Buddha.

The walls were lined with niches containing far smaller statuary of the Buddha. (We didn’t attempt to count them all!)

Kek Lok Si's walls are rows of niches containing small, gold Buddha statues

Kek Lok Si’s walls are rows of niches containing small, gold Buddha statues

IMG_4401_Wishing Tree

The Wishing Tree

Incense wafted through the cavernous hall, where various folding tables displayed offerings for purchase to lay before the Buddha of choice. A “Wishing Tree” stood in one area, festooned with colorful ribbons upon which various blessings and wishful outcomes were written.

Elsewhere within the temple complex stands the seven-story Pagoda of the 10,000 Buddhas, along with additional prayer halls and plenty of stone and painted statuary nestled into the hillside. In addition to its height, the pagoda is unique in that it combines three different cultures’ temple architecture: Chinese, Thai and Burmese.

Another interesting feature is the 30 meter (99 feet) statue of Kuan Yin, an East Asian Buddhist deity of mercy and compassion. Most often Kuan Yin, also known as “Guanyin,” is depicted as a woman, although this statue seems more androgynous.

Reclining Buddha Temple

Wat Chayamangkalaram, better known as the “Reclining Buddha Temple” or “Thai Buddhist Temple,” holds the 3rd or 4th largest statue of the Buddha in a reclining pose, depending on your source. At 33 meters (108 ft.), the statue is quite imposing, especially as the Buddha’s robe is gold-plated.

A common misconception among Westerners is that the reclining figure of the Buddha shows him at rest or asleep. The reclining pose actually depicts the Buddha in his last illness, near his death.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram. At 33 m in length, this is one of the largest Reclining Buddhas in the world.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Chayamangkalaram. At 33 m in length, this is one of the largest Reclining Buddhas in the world.

The Standing Buddha Temple

IMG_4427_Standing Buddha

Directly across the street from the Reclining Buddha is Wat Dhammikarama, or the “Burmese Buddhist Temple.” Heavily ornate in its exterior, the simpler interior hall is dominated by the serenely calm “Standing Buddha.” Built in 1803, Dhammikarama was the first Buddhist temple in Penang and reflects the Burmese influence on the island at the time. Dhammikarama is also the only Burmese Buddhist temple outside of Myanmar (Burma).

IMG_4431__Lion outside Standing Buddha;note detailed filligree on above portico & roof

Lion outside Standing Buddha;note detailed filigree on portico & roof

Gate to Burmese Temple

Gate to Burmese Temple

Selamat Tinggal, Penang*

The city of George Town and Penang Island have many more Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, and other natural and man-made wonders. Unfortunately, our port of call was only a half day, and these three temples were the only ones we managed to get to. On the more secular end of sights, we drove across both of the two bridges connecting Palau Penang (Penang Island) to the Malaysian mainland. (The newest, just opened in 2014, is the longest bridge in Asia at 27 kilometers.)

We also took the incredibly steep funicular up to the top of Bukit Bandera (Penang Hill). Regrettably, afternoon rain clouds had rolled in so the spectacular view from 800 m. (2,730 ft.) was obscured by the mists. The gardens on the Hill are beautiful, though, and splashes of color made up for the lack of a view.



Choco Pies, Für Elise, and Cultural Dissonance in Korea

January 30, 2015 by  



Choco Pies, the favorite treat of both Koreas

Choco Pies, the favorite treat of both Koreas

Visiting a foreign country for the first time brings a certain amount of dissonance: new sights, unfamiliar language, different dress – certainly unusual smells and unknown dishes, even vastly different ways of eating. Even a seasoned traveler who has “prepped” for a new country can be thrown by incongruent sensory inputs. Even Choco Pies.

Much as I’d heard and read about “the two Koreas” and had lived as a child growing up in Asia, I’d never visited. So I prepped with a variety of political and cultural sources, scoured travel guides for ideas of where to go, what to see. I could even identify a few palaces or temples in the wall murals as we walked through Incheon International Airport.

Nevertheless, Korea managed to wag my tail and give me a few surprises.


Awkward Beginnings

First were the airport golf carts zipping through the terminal throngs, blaring “Fur Elise” like windup box toys converted from Swiss music boxes. What? Go-carts programmed with Beethoven?

With echoes of Für Elise around us, within about 40 minutes we’d cleared Immigration, retrieved our bags, struggled with the ATM’s questionable English version, gave up on the free shuttle and flagged a taxi to take us to our hotel in the Incheon Peninsula. Having received some recommendations upon check in, we went in search of a restaurant. We found Mama Nin’s and stood in the anteroom, staring at the dozen or so pairs of shoes line up on the floor, then peered through the lattice door at the low –very low – tables inside. Cultural awakening blossomed.

“Oh, Jeez,” I muttered. “I forgot. We’re in Korea.” (BIG “Duh.”) “We’re supposed to take off our shoes before entering. I guess that’s why there were those slippers at the door of our bedroom.”


Shoe overflow from storage bins at restaurant.

Shoe overflow from storage bins at restaurant.

At this point, I’d been awake over 22 hours, a victim of my chronic inability to sleep on airplanes. To say I was fatigued and jetlagged wasn’t an understatement. But we were both hungry so we shucked our shoes and ungracefully lowered ourselves to the floor mats at the indicated table.

We noticed right off that our table, like all the others, featured a built-in wok. Several of our dining companions were busily stir-frying their dinners from dozens of little plates. Surveying the “English” version of the menu, we decided to order beef soup (there was a menu picture) and rice wine so as not to further embarrass ourselves as cultural morons. (Besides, neither of us could figure out the menu’s translations of various dishes, much less attempt to cook them.)

Traditional Korean restaurant. Note the flat metal disks in center of table. These are covers for the unused woks. Servers bring a pail of coals to place under wok to heat the pan for food preparation.

Traditional Korean restaurant. Note the flat metal disks in center of table. These are covers for the unused woks. Servers bring a pail of coals to place under wok to heat the pan for food preparation.

Meanwhile, the restaurant’s cell phone blared Für Elise with each incoming food order – and there were a lot of calls. And, nearly every person who wasn’t stuffing himself with food was staring into a cell phone – including about 7 young men who’d just been seated in one of the banquet rooms. In South Korea, which has the highest ratio of cell phones to population in the world, that’s a lot of cell phones. The combination of the non-Western restaurant ambiance and cell phones-with-Beethoven was a bit jarring.


Upon sitting at this banquet table, every man began to use his cellphone.

Upon sitting at this banquet table, every man began to use his cellphone.

“Interesting décor,” I commented, looking up at the ceiling. “Those silver tubes extending from the ceiling look like they’re made of air duct piping.”

Michael glanced up and around and hissed, ”They are air ducts. For the cooking. They’re air vents for the woks. You pull them down – see?”

And as brain-dead as I was, I finally noticed some of the oblong smoke vents lowered over steaming woks. After futile attempts of claiming travel fatigue failed to wipe the smirk off Michael’s face, I steered my comments to a topic that wasn’t half as embarrassing.

“Did you know that North Koreans are crazy about Choco Pies?”


Choco Pies: the Weapon of the Wes

Choco pies have emerged as the most unpredictable weapon in the battle of the South (Korea) and the West (the U.S. and rest of the world) against the North (Korea). These innocuous, chocolate and marshmallow confections, a rip-off of the Moon Pie (sadly, an American invention), are revolutionizing the North. First introduced 10 years ago to North Korean workers as a form of wage compensation at a North-South joint venture factory in Kaesong, Choco Pies were sold or bartered by the workers for other necessities in the North. Hoarded then resold at exorbitant prices on the black market, fetching as much as $10 apiece – a veritable fortune in the impoverished North – Choco Pies became a dominant form of “currency,” and turned the North Korean economy on its ear.

The response of the North Korean government was predictable: Kim Jon-un, beloved, third-generation dictator, has banned Choco Pies.


Rise of the Choco Pie

The story behind the Choco Pie is so wonderfully a combination of capitalism and Korean culture and politics.

A visiting Korean businessman fell in love with Moon pies in a visit to the U.S.; this gustatory rapture spawned an “Ah ha!” moment, and by 1974 the Orion Company was manufacturing the confection in South Korea. Called “Choco Pies” in attempts to ward off yet another round of patent infringement accusations from Best Bud U.S., these chocolate covered cookies with a marshmallow filling became a huge hit among South Koreans.

Choco Pie, the brain child of Orion. Sound like "Oreo" to anyone?

Choco Pie, the brain child of Orion. Sound like “Oreo” to anyone?

Spin the dials forward to 2004: the two Koreas agreed to a joint manufacturing-industrial venture in Kaesong, NK, with the North supplying the labor and the South the facilities and managerial know-how. The Pyongyang (Northern) government selected almost exclusively women to work in these factories, with strict limitations on the amount of exposure and interchange with the South Korean managers. Moreover, the North wouldn’t allow the South to pay the workers directly, requiring the wages earned be remitted to the North to then be distributed to the workers. However, the Pyongyang government only paid their people about two-thirds of their earnings. The Southern managers began using Choco Pies as bonuses and incentives in 2005, and as the workers developed a taste for the treats, increased the number of cookies per day to as many as 20 per worker.

The women began to realize that if they loved the Choco Pies, their literally famished compatriots would as well. Thus began the illicit Coco Pie black market that nearly ruined the North Korean economy, such as it had devolved. Within five years, Pyongyang had denounced Choco Pies and closed down their “cooperative” involvement in the Kaesang experiment. By 2014, Kim Jong-un had banned Choco Pies.


The South Shall Rise Again

Not to be outdone by the North’s ban on their favorite, now politically-viral treat, South Korean activists, in response to the ban, sent airlifts of 10,000 Choco Pies to their northern brethren via helium balloons. (They also put anti-Pyongyang pamplets and other tasty goodies in the “gift” baskets.) A recent “airlift” received quite a bit of attention in the Western press. (Personally, I think the press was intrigued by these condom-shaped balloons, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s movie Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex. But maybe that’s just me.)

Photo by Ahn Young-Soon, AP

I can’t really imagine how horror-struck the retro hard-line government of Pyongyang must have been, seeing thousands of Choco Pies raining down on North Korea. If only South Korean ingenuity can be properly matched with Western dollars or euros or yen and plenty of Choco Pies as ammunition, there finally might be a downfall of the most repressive government existing today. One can only hope.

Who’d’ve thunk it? Choco Pies.


Note: The whole Choco Pie story is real. Just Google this confection and you’ll find it all. If you’re interested about how the North Korean government operates and still manages to exist, read The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha.

The coda to this tale is that once in Korea, I embarked on a quest for a Choco Pie. One disgusting bite later, I had a hard time understanding Koreans’ fanaticism for this “treat.” Michael, on the other hand, finished it off, no problem.

I think I’ll leave Choco Pies to the Koreans.



The Dutch & Their Oh So Very Happy Cows!

May 19, 2014 by  


Dairy cows in field with University of Utrecht campus in distance.

With one look my husband fell in love with Dutch…cows. “They look so happy!” Michael exclaimed on our first train trip through central Holland. I pointed out he probably meant they appeared to be well-fed and watered, and thus are probably physically “content,”  because it’s really not possible for human’s to assess an animal’s “happiness,” especially from a whizzing train. But, being Michael, he refused to budge from his anthropomorphic assessment of hundreds of bovines’ mental state.

“Cows in Holland are happy cows.”

Drawing on lessons from Psych 101, I canned logical argument and attempted to draw out his “reasoning” with an encouraging “Uh-huh?”

“The cows here are happy, because the grass is so green, there’s water everywhere, their udders are huge – and they look so happy!”

I summoned my nominal bovine knowledge and replied, “Full udders mean they need to be milked and the cows are probably wishing for nothing more right now than to get back to the barn, get out of this damn rain, and get milked so their udders won’t be so painful.” He, of course, ignored me.

And so he began calling the rain-soaked, canal-ringed-and-riddled, mostly-below-sea level Netherlands (italics are a clue, folks) “The Land of Happy Cows.”

So much for psychology.

To exacerbate my annoyance with such anthropomorphism, Michael began to “document” why Dutch cows look happy. He claims several people told him (I’ve not met one) the Dutch had passed laws years ago that restricted the amount of time cows could be kept penned within barns. In other words, lots of rain, fresh air, lush grass, and water produce healthier cows, which results (theoretically) in a higher quality of milk from which the fabulous Dutch cheese is made.  And, as Michael insists: “happy cows.”

Mind you, Michael is New York City born and bred and just because he learned to fix a tractor and ride a horse does not necessarily make him a Bovine Authority.

Being the curious sort, I finally got around to doing an internet search on Dutch laws concerning cows’ rights to stand out in the rain all day chewing their cuds. I found general laws on livestock husbandry, but nothing to indicate that the Dutch have embraced bovine grazing rights as banner legislation. In fact, I found the exact opposite: according to two 2013 reports, grazing among dairy cows is rapidly decreasing in Western Europe, including the Netherlands.

So — where’s the cow?

Cows are everywhere in Holland. You find them in the darnedest places.

The Bar Cow at Cafe Belgie

The Bar Cow at Cafe Belgie

Trust the Dutch to decorate their bikes with cow pix.

Trust the Dutch to decorate their bikes with cow pix.

And if you can't find cows in the middle of Utrecht, you can bring along your own inflatable cow.

And if you can’t find cows in the middle of Utrecht, you can bring along your own inflatable cow.

First, a bit of History of the Dutch Dairy Cow. All those cud-chewing, udderly fat cows that Michael claims are so happy are all Holstein-Friesian cows, usually called Holsteins, the hands-down best milk-producing bovines on the planet. And, of course, these cows developed in…Friesland, in northern Netherlands! Early Dutch settlers brought some Holsteins with them in the 1600’s when they settled in New Amsterdam (currently New York City) and upstate New York. As other colonists discovered the attributes of the breed in milk production, additional Holsteins were imported. By the late 19th c., the Holstein became the foundation of U.S. dairy production.

These black and white cows initially were bred to thrive on the native grasses of northern Netherlands, but on modern dairy farms, their diet is no longer exclusively grass. They are given feed supplements of both grain and dried grasses (hay), especially in the winter months.

A typical Holstein cow.

A typical Holstein cow.

The Dutch Dairy Board website is chock-full of fascinating information about the dairy industry, including their “thematic goal” of maintaining grazing “at least at its current levels.” Having cows graze 6 hours per day, 120 days per year seems to be part of the “grazing goal.” However, while they note that 73.6% of dairy cows meet this “grazing goal,” 18.8% never graze at all, and the remaining 7.7% have an unspecified, “other type” of grazing.

What the Dutch do seem to regulate quite well are the limitation of unnecessary antibiotics, prohibition of hormones to increase milk production, the types of minerals (e.g. fertilizers, and other grass “enhancers”) put into the soil, veterinary “treatments,” as well as milk processing from milking to end dairy product – all good activities for consumer, bovine and environmental well-being.

So, in answer to the question heading this paragraph, nearly three-fourths of Dutch Holstein cows of today spend a lot of time standing in pastures during the months of April to November. They don’t seem to mind the rain, which is a good attribute, and despite the time of day, their udders always look full-to-bursting from all that lush, rain-soaked grass.

For a cute but short video of happy-looking cows being released from their barn in springtime, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDvnUiO-LAk.

But as noted by the Dutch Dairy Board, this picturesque pastoral scene of contentedly grazing cows is rapidly changing. The small-holder dairy farms are facing increasing economic pressures and competition from larger “franchises,” and many solo farmers have been swallowed by these milk-production conglomerates.

So, Michael, enjoy your “happy” cows. For the foreseeable future we can both continue to call the Netherlands “The Land of Happy Cows,” and toast these joyous bovines who produce such good cheese.


Some Peripheral Information on Dairy Cows

If you’re sick of reading about cows and dairy production, skip “Dairy Facts” and go straight to “Famous Cows.” The latter is amusing, I guarantee it.

Dairy Facts:

I know I get carried away in researching my blogs, but some of what I found out about the dairy industry, particularly in Holland, is interesting:

  • According to a 2013 report by the Dutch Dairy Board, “Dairy is the engine of the Dutch economy.”
  • There are 18,500 dairy farms and 1.97 million dairy cows in the Netherlands which produce 12 billion kilos of milk annually (about 26.45 billion pounds).
  • 56% of Dutch dairy products is cheese.
  • Dairy products accounts for 9% of the Dutch economy’s trade surplus.

And in the U.S.:

  • The World Dairy Expo is the international trade organization for dairy cows is held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s the largest dairy trade show in the world, but features dairy cattle from the U.S. and Canada.
  • Black and white Holsteins (there is a recessive line of red and whites) have won “Supreme Champion” honors at the World Dairy Expo 32 times in the last 42 years, far more than any other breed of dairy cow.
  • There are over 9 million dairy cows in the U.S., and 90% of them are of Holstein descent.

Famous Cows: (This is why blogs were invented….)

  • A Canadian Holstein named Missy is the most expensive cow in the world, bringing $1.2 million in after being named “Supreme Cow” at the World Dairy Expo in 2011.
  • A Holstein cow named “Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET” (no lie) won the world record for milk production in 2010 by producing over 72,000 pounds of milk in one year. The average Holstein produces 23,000 pounds of milk per year. Of note, “Ever-Green” is a Wisconsin cow.
  • President William Howard Taft had not one – but TWO – pet cows at the White House. When the first official “Presidential Cow” Mooley Wooly died, Senator Isaac Stephenson of Wisconsin donated “Miss Pauline Wayne,” a Holstein from his farm. “Miss Wayne” served as “First Cow” for three years. She became popular at dairy trade shows where her milk, in miniature bottles, was sold as a novelty for 50 cents. (Talk about a cash cow…) When Taft left office, “Miss Wayne” was returned to Stephenson’s farm.
  • “Miss Wayne” narrowly missed an ignominious death in 1911.  She was returning from an appearance at a dairy show when her private train car was accidentally attached at a rail switch to a train of cattle cars found for the Chicago slaughter houses. Telegrams were sent throughout the land and a group of cow-loving vigilantes saved Miss Wayne. Apparently, they had a tough time convincing the stockyard that they were about to slaughter the President’s pet cow.



Annual King’s Day in Utrecht Holland

May 9, 2014 by  


Revelers on the evening before King's Day, at the Utrecht vrijmarkt.

Revelers on the evening before King’s Day, at the Utrecht vrijmarkt, Friday, April 25.

If this were a sci-fi tale, it would begin with an extraterrestrial creature painting the Netherlands in a day-glow orange with magical properties that turns people inside-out, changes their personalities, and causes riots in the streets. Well, for two days this past weekend the Dutch were awash in orange, the national color, but the orange hues were self-applied, often in interesting styles. And while no one rioted in the streets (this year), the normally sensible, quiet Dutch were replaced by ecstatically happy, noisily-partying Dutch of all ages and stripes. The squares and parks were filled with musical entertainment for all ages, the streets and bars packed with party-goers, and orange-themed party boats sailed the canals, music and horns blaring.


Cute girl and father with matching hats. (Typical guy — still has the sales tag on it!)

I stopped to take a photo and in turn was toasted by these mid-day party-boaters. What fun!

I stopped to take a photo and in turn was toasted by these mid-day party-boaters. What fun!

The occasion? Koningsdag, or King’s Day, the first ever.  Hence the riotous parties and wild orange attire.  Since 1890, the Netherlands’ titular ruler has been a female member of the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch royal family. (The Dutch recognize the oldest child – not the oldest son – as the heir to the throne.) Back in the 1880’s, Princess Day was created to celebrate the birthday of the then heir apparent, Princess Wilhelmina. When Wilhelmina assumed the throne, the celebration logically became Queen’s Day. Since then, the country has usually celebrated the monarch’s birthday as Queen’s Day. (The exception was Queen Beatrix, Willem’s mother, who kept her mother’s April 30 birthdate as Queen’s Day as her own birthday was at the end of January – not exactly a great time to be having an outdoor party.)

More importantly, Queen’s Day (now King’s Day) has become the biggest national celebration in the Netherlands over the years. Sure, there are hard-core royalists who actually are honoring the monarch, but for the majority of Dutch, it’s just an opportunity to let loose and have one huge party all over the country. Flags were flown, public entertainment abounded, and the beer flowed, some of it orange…

The Dutch flag with an orange pennant at the top. The orange pennant, signifying the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch Royal Family, is attached on King's Day and on royal birthdays.

The Dutch flag with an orange pennant at the top. The orange pennant, signifying the House of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch Royal Family, is attached on King’s Day and on royal birthdays.

And why is this King’s Day so important? Last April 30, Queen Beatrix abdicated in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander, and there was neither a Queen’s or King’s Day, but a coronation. So, King’s Day 2014 was the highly anticipated blow-out of a party all over the country.

King’s Day in Utrecht

Even the Dom Toren was decked out in orange.

Even the Dom Toren was decked out in orange.

The major cities of the Netherlands are known for their unique spin on this annual celebration. Den Haag is known for its many musical venues at night, Utrecht for having the largest open air flea market, and Amsterdam, well, of course Amsterdam just has the biggest block party in the entire country.

Utrecht’s King’s Day celebrations begin at 6 p.m. the night before with the opening of the Vrijmarkt, literally “free market,” or flea market. Dutch throughout the country spread out blankets and set up stalls or card tables, to display for sale whatever trinkets, clothing, records, appliances or unwanted birthday gifts that have been collecting dust over the years. However, Utrecht simply has the biggest vrijmarkt in the country. Streets throughout the old part of the city were packed with gewgaws and people poring over them for something they just had to have.


Because we didn’t get started walking through the vrijmarkt until after 10 Friday night, the streets were packed with bargain hunters and revelers were in full swing. Nonetheless, there were still many bargains to be had, often for € 1 or less, and the entire city was in party mode.


What was remarkable was how neat the partiers were that first night….

Only the Dutch would neatly line up their trash. (It didn't last.)

Only the Dutch would neatly line up their trash. (It didn’t last.)

Saturday, April 26, was the main celebration of King’s Day. Michael and I donned our orange – sunglasses for him, an orange scarf & tee for me – and started out fairly early, shortly after noon, in search of the festivities. We walked a circular route through the binnestad (inner city) of old Utrecht, which is bisected by two canals, the Oudegracht (Old Canal) and Nieuwegracht (New Canal – which is over 500 years old!).

This being Holland, canals abound – everywhere – providing the perfect opportunity to get your friends together and take to the water for your party. Some boats brought their own DJ, other boats brought their own band. It’s a good thing these boats are fairly flat-bottomed: everyone was singing, dancing and tooting horns or whirling noise-makers.

Check out the various costumes and accessories on this party boat. Note the people sitting on the bridge above -- best seats in the house.

Check out the various costumes and accessories on this party boat. Note the people sitting on the bridge above — best seats in the house.

Happy party boat on the Oudergracht (Old Canal). Note the police patrol boat to the right and how amused they are!

Happy party boat on the Oudegracht (Old Canal). Note the police patrol boat to the right and how amused they are!

Party boats at a narrow section of the Oudegracht. The old Fish Market was held over the bridge; the small square is an outdoor cafe now.

Party boats at a narrow section of the Oudegracht. The old Fish Market was held over the bridge; the small square is an outdoor cafe now.

We stopped at several locales to quaff our thirst and take in the merriment. Part of the fun was checking out the various costumes. Unfortunately, I too often wasn’t quick enough or at the right angle to get a pic of some of the more entertaining, like a guy dressed in an orange “ermine” cloak and a huge crown on his head.



Check out those checkered pants on the cyclist whizzing by.

Check out those checkered pants on the cyclist whizzing by.








Check out that handsome dude with the orange zonnebrils (sunglasses).

Check out that handsome dude with the orange zonnebrils (sunglasses).

And walking through several streets converted to flea markets:

Hardbollen Street - the Ladies in Windows are no more. (The city relocated the prostitutes of Hardbollen St. to another party of Utrecht.)

Hardbollen Street – the Ladies in Windows are no more. (The city relocated the prostitutes of Hardbollen St. to another party of Utrecht.)

Breedstraat, around the corner from where we lived the first year, is normally a quiet interlude -- not during King's Day!

Breedstraat, around the corner from where we lived the first year, is normally a quiet interlude — not during King’s Day!

And of course, checking out the entertainment, from DJs on café sidewalks and in the smaller squares to bands galore.


Willie and the Billies

Willie and the Billies

Our absolute favorite that day was a rockin’ band of guys in pink called Willie and the Billies. Their rousing, bouncy music was a combination of big band, jazz and polka along with on-stage antics. They were hysterically funny doing their schtick.

Ironically, Willie et al. were playing  in a little courtyard across from the apartment we had the first year in Utrecht. If we were still in that apartment, we could have sat on our balcony and enjoyed the band from there!

By about 4 in the afternoon, the inner city was packed. Some spots on our agenda we had to give up on because literally you could not push your way through the crowds. Sardines in a cannery have more wiggle room. Beer cans (almost exclusively Heineken – it’s like the Dutch version of Budweiser) and wine bottles rolled underfoot on all the streets – all attempts at tidiness had disappeared.

We threaded our way through the crowds to a popular corner on the Oudegracht with four or five watering holes, didn’t see any of our friends (they’d given up too, it turned out) so we finally headed back home for a rest. Eventually we wandered back out for dinner and another short walk along the canals to round out our first King’s Day. And what an experience it was!

King’s Day Trivia:

  • April 26, 2014 was the first King’s Day EVER in the Netherlands. There has been no male monarch since 1890.
  • Utrecht had a major role in the origins of the celebration of the reigning monarch’s birthday. A Utrecht newspaper editor proposed a “Princess’s Day” in honor of the Crown Princess Wilhelmina upon her 5th birthday in 1885. When she became Queen in 1890, the holiday became Queen’s Day.
  • King Willem-Alexander’s actual birthday is April 27. However, the Dutch do not celebrate Queen’s or King’s Day on a Sunday, which is why the official holiday was the day before — a Saturday.
  • King Willem-Alexander was born here in Utrecht, at the Utrecht University Medical Center (where Michael teaches). He was born April 27, 1967.
  • He was the first Dutch male royal baby born since 1851.
  • King Willem-Alexander is the youngest monarch in Europe.
  • In his youth, the king was called “Prince Pils” because of his partying life at university. He’s been trying to repackage and restore his image ever since. (Oh those rollickin’ Royals! Who’d have ever thunk it?)

Happy King’s Day!

Dutch Holiday Celebrations in May: Day of Liberation & Day of Remembrance

May 8, 2014 by  


As far back as 1945, the Dutch have held a national day of remembrance honoring those civilians and military who died during WWII, and all wars or peace-keeping missions thereafter. At 8:00 p.m. on May 4 all over the country a two-minute period of absolute silence is observed. Cars, buses, bicycles, trains and trams stop where they are. People come quietly together in public squares, waiting for the traditional bugle call for silence. People still making their way home stop on the sidewalks, doff their hats and bow their heads to acknowledge those who died in defense of freedom and liberty.

The commemoration is solemn and sobering, intended so every citizen, no matter how young or aged, whether recent citizen or WWII survivor, will never forget that freedom can be costly to win – and to hold onto – and to silently thank as well as remember those who died. There are no firecrackers, no block parties and barbecues, no brash brass bands; the festivities will come the next day when Dutch across the country will celebrate liberation on May 5, 1945 from Nazi occupation.

By far, the largest May 4 public commemoration takes place in Amsterdam at the National Memorial on the Dam, the main square of Amsterdam, in front of the Royal Palace, and the nearby Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Members of the royal family and various dignitaries lead the crowds and nation in the tributes. However every city and village plans its own version of Remembrance Day, all activity stops for those long two minutes at 8 p.m. for silent commemoration.

For me, one of the most touching features of the Day of Remembrance is not just how the Dutch still honor and remember their own dead. They also honor and swear never to forget how so many non-Dutch fought and died in order to liberate Holland from Nazi occupation — the thousands of British, Canadian, American and Polish soldiers who also gave their lives in World War II.


The Netherlands American Cemetery in Margratan, southeast Netherlands. The cemetery is the only one in the Netherlands for Americans who died during the months of military operations leading to the May,1945 liberation. Over 8,000 American soldiers are buried here; an additional 1.723 are listed as missing in action and whose remains were never found.

Source: http://www.awon.org/memorials/netherlands/

This lesson in history and appreciation of freedom was brought home to me soon after our arrival in the Netherlands, three years ago. We met by chance at a medical conference a young (mid-30s) physician from Maastricht, in southeastern Holland. Upon hearing we were Americans, he asked if we knew about the U.S. WWII cemetery in Margratan, just outside of Maastricht. We did not, much to our subsequent embarrassment.

He told us how thousands of Dutch have “adopted” a dead U.S. or Canadian soldier, as the majority of the liberating forces in southern Holland were either Canadian or American. As part of the remembrances observances, the people go every May 4 – if not more often – to tend “their” soldier’s graveside, to lay flowers, and to just remember why that man is buried there. He said he takes his young children, then about 5-7 years old, every year to honor “their soldier,” because “I never want them to forget.”

Yesterday was our first Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. We had been invited to dinner by our next door neighbors, John and Leduine. As we rang their bell, I noticed John had the Dutch flag at half mast, so we asked what is their form of observance of the two minutes of silence.

“Why, of course, we observe the two minutes of silence,” said John. “We will start our first course of dinner, then about 7:40 I will turn on the television, and we will watch the ceremonies in the Dam Square in Amsterdam. The King and Queen will come out of the Royal Palace just before 8 p.m. to lay the first wreath, and then the whole country goes silent.”

And, so we did. Thousands of people crowded into Dam Square, with trails of observers standing in the many side streets leading to the square and the national monument. Comprising these hundreds of thousands were multi-generational Dutch families, WWII veterans, former Resistance members, Jewish Holocaust survivors, recent immigrants, military representatives from around the world — yet hardly a person spoke, and those who did, whispered. It was truly amazing to see how quiet thousands of people could be.

Right before 8 King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima walked solemnly from the palace to the monument, and laid an immense wreath for all the Dutch war dead. Still without saying a word, they stepped back and waited for the bugle’s call for silence, followed by eight peals of the church bells exactly at 8 p.m. The ensuing silence was moving as well as astonishing. Not a sound, nor whisper, hardly a clearing of throats. I couldn’t imagine having so many people in one place in the U.S. staying silent and respectful as the Dam crowd did.

It was truly a moment that brought home how powerful silence can be, not just in rendering respect for those who died, but bringing together those alive and present in acknowledging those people’s sacrifices, and most importantly, standing as one, a disparate crowd of people — with all their differences — finding unity and purpose in giving silent thanks.


The Liberty Statue, also known as the liberation Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht.  On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.

The Liberty Statue, also known as the Resistance Monument, stands outside the Dom (cathedral) of Utrecht. On Sunday, May 4 ceremonies were held here in front of the cathedral, much like the one on the Dam Square in Amsterdam, just smaller. Many wreaths of remembrance were laid here at the foot of the statue.

May 5 was Liberation Day when the Dutch celebrate the surrender of the occupying Nazi Army and the liberation of the Netherlands. 

Top photo is of crowds honoring WWII and other Dutch dead in Dam Square, Amsterdam. Source: http://www.rnw.nl/.

Turkey’s Sumela Monastery High in the Pontic Mountains

May 7, 2014 by  


Sumela Monastery

Overlooking Turkey’s north coast, the Sumela Monastery sits up in the Pontic Mountains. They seem to be suspended in air, as if it’s about to float off over the deep chasm below. The 1600 year old monastery, now a national museum, was founded by two Greek missionaries in 386 A.D.

Remarkably, it continued to function as a Greek Orthodox monastery for most of the centuries until being abandoned in 1923. Several kilometers outside of Trabzon, a popular resort on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Sumela remains the major tourist draw in this northern region. Driving up into the mountains in our mini-bus was to experience a rapid change in altitude, vegetation and clime. Parts of the roadway were incredibly steep, with waterfalls cascading down the near-vertical slopes on both sides.

The steep hillsides turned out to be as difficult to maneuver as they looked. The last half mile or so we had to hoof it up the mountainside to the monastery, at about 3,900 feet (1200 meters). The government had purportedly widened the pathway to better accommodate tourists, but I think they missed some spots.


Despite surviving some true pitfalls, arriving at the monastery made the trek worthwhile. The original buildings of the monastery have largely been repaired and restored, thus helping us envision what this monastic village looked like by the 13th century. The Rock Church is built into a cave in the rock face.


Legend has it that the two Greek priests discovered a “miraculous” icon of the Virgin Mary in a cave on this mountain. Supposedly, the icon was made by St. Luke and transported to this site by angels. The two priests decided to build a monastery around the cave — hence the Rock Church — and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary. One additional legend holds that the icon showed a black or dark-skinned Mary, hence the word “mela” in the name, which means “black” in Greek.

Main plaza at Sumela

The original icon itself is no longer at Sumela. When a forced “population exchange” took place in 1923 between Greece and the newly formed Turkey, the priests were not allowed to take the icon with them. One enterprising priest buried the icon under the floor of another of the monastery’s chapels before fleeing. In 1930, another priest returned to Sumela and secretly spirited the icon to the “new” Sumela monastery in Greece.

The interior walls and ceiling of the chapel were covered in beautiful frescoes that were created at three separate periods. The earliest of these date to the early 17th c., although archaeologists suspect that there are even earlier frescoes underneath the existing ones. Nevertheless, almost all have sustained damage, many severely so, from anti-Christian vandals and ignorant tourists. My favorite fresco, after the singing angels is one depicting the biblical story of Jonah and the whale:

Jonah being swallowed by the whale.

Jonah being swallowed by the whale. Below, another relatively undamaged fresco is of the Madonna and baby Jesus:

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

Extremely isolated as it was, Sumela Monastery’s inhabitants could not live completely sealed off from the outside world. For starters, the steep, rocky terrain was not conducive to crops. While water aplenty cascaded down the mountains surrounding the enclave, the water didn’t obligingly straight into the wells.

The monks solved both problems by building both an aqueduct to direct the abundant water to them as well as a pulley system that allowed them to haul food and other supplies up the mountain.

The Sumela aqueduct

The Sumela aqueduct

A sled on a pulley allowed the monks to more easily haul supplies up the mountain.

A sled on a pulley allowed the monks to more easily haul supplies up the mountain. Below is a final look at Sumela from the roadway:



Some History at Ataturk Mansion Museum in Trabzon Turkey

May 3, 2014 by  


Bust of Ataturk silhouetted against the Turkish flag

Bust of Ataturk silhouetted against the Turkish flag – Ataturk Mansion Museum in Trabzon Turkey.

Modern Turkey owes its very existence to their first great leader Mustafa Kemal, better known as Attaturk to millions of Turks and others around the world. “Ataturk,” which means “father of the Turks,” was an honorific name bestowed upon him in 1934. As a young army officer in the Ottoman Empire, he served with distinction and rose rapidly through the ranks. His successes did not stop him from being critical of the oppressive Ottoman political and social policies.

When the Ottoman Empire fell apart at the end of World War I, he led the  nationalist movement in the Turkish War of Independence, which eventually resulted in the founding of the modern Turkish state.

As Turkey’s president, Ataturk instituted a number of wide-sweeping reforms that brought the country squarely into the 20th century as a secular nation with political and social equality for all. Education of all men and women became a priority, as did granting both political and civil rights to all individuals, regardless of gender, religion or ethnic origins. Trabzon’s claim to fame vis a vis Ataturk is the Ataturk Mansion Museum, a lovely early 20th century villa on a hilltop overlooking the city.

Ataturk's mansion, given to him by the city of Trabzon

Ataturk’s mansion, given to him by the city of Trabzon

As we were to discover, claiming a house as belonging to Ataturk is somewhat akin to all the historical plaques in the U.S. that claim, “George Washington slept here.” In the case of the house we visited in Trabzon, the true story is even fuzzier.

According to whichever source you believe, Ataturk slept here only one night or two or three. Regardless, the city of Trabzon in the 1930′s gave the mansion to him in appreciation for his leadership; decades later the local government turned it into a museum in his honor. Photography was forbidden in the house, which I discovered only after taking the opening photo of Ataturk’s bust silhouetted against a sunlit Turkish flag.

In contrast to Ataturk’s modernized nation — which has continued and prospered throughout the 20th c. — Turkey today has a vocal minority faction that wishes to de-secularize Turkey and return it to an Islamic state.

Almost all of the demonstrations the last two years have been, at the root, about the increasing conservative direction of the current national leadership, be it secular or religious. Younger, urbanized, Westernized Turks want a change in government leaders and a return to a fully democratic state.

More conservative people, especially recent immigrants from former republics of the Soviet Union, Syria and Iran, as well as less urbanized populations, approve of the increasingly autocratic, right-wing faction lead by the current prime minister,and egged on by religious leaders. Obviously, this is an over simplification of a complex, multi-ethnic society and the myriad of issues facing Turkey. Nevertheless, the rise of increasingly right-wing, conservative Islam leaders, laws and actions indicate the changing political landscape in Turkey. Unfortunately for us, as tourists, one result of this growing trend came to the fore during our day in Trabzon.

The Hagia Sophia of Trabzon


The Hagia Sophia (above) in Trabzon is a mid-13th c., late Byzantine-style church. For over 200 years this architectural gem remained in use as a Greek Orthodox church. When Sultan Mehmet II conquered the Trabzon region in 1461, he ordered the church converted to a mosque.

In 1964, the government turned the building into a museum that acknowledged the heritage of both Christianity and Islam. In 2013 local Islamic leaders won a suit to convert the museum back into a mosque, with the intention that it can only be entered by Muslims.

Our guide told us that there are plans to remove or plaster over the beautiful interior frescoes and mosaic tiled floors; at this time, the interior art is mostly covered with sheets or rugs. Local architects and historians, supported by various international groups, have filed a counter suit against the Ministry of Religion to return the mosque/church to a secular museum. (Go to www.facebook.com/TheHagiaSophiaInTrabzonMustRemainAMuseum for several pictures of the former church’s interior as well as updates on the suit.)

Some particularly beautiful frescoes are sheltered under one of the porticoes. A few had sustained irreparable damage, but others had been restored quite nicely.


Portico of former Hagia Sophia of Trabzon.

Portico of former Hagia Sophia of Trabzon.

Fresco possibly depicting the Last Supper.

Fresco possibly depicting the Last Supper.

Fresco of Jesus.

Fresco of Jesus.

Sculptural detail on portico column

Sculptural detail on portico column

It seems to me a shame that such an historically and architecturally important site as the Hagia Sophia church, now mosque, should be forbidden to all but one group. More difficult to grapple with is that there is a real chance that much if not all of the beautiful Christian-inspired artwork could be removed or plastered over.

One doesn’t have to be of either the Christian or Muslim faith to appreciate the fresco art and mosaic floors of the former church. Is religion truly a sufficient reason to keep interested art lovers from seeing these treasures — or worse — destroying them for all time? Would it not make more sense to keep the Hagia Sophia as a secular museum, open to all?



Behind the Scenes of the Winter Olympics In Russia

February 12, 2014 by  


Workers stand atop the cauldron ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Olympic Park on Sunday.

Workers on top of the Olympic Cauldron, Sochi, Russia, with Caucasus Mountains in the background.

The final countdown to the Winter Olympics is on, but all is not well in Sochi. A few weeks ago I wrote about the why and wherefores of Sochi being chosen as the site for the 2014 Winter Games, and the multiple problems plaguing Russia’s preparations for the events. Here’s an update:

  • Hundreds of people have arrived in Sochi to find their paid-for accommodations unfinished or non-existent. Not to worry, President Vladimir Putin himself has swept in to take the situation in hand, even if the majority of the disaffected visitors (thus far) have been reporters. (Putin holds the free press in deep disregard.)
  • Angry journalists are tweeting pics of their unfinished hotel rooms, and relating their Sochi horror stories on line. One New York Times reporter was woken in the middle of the night by a strange man in his bedroom, key in hand, sputtering with indignation. The hotel staff had assigned both men the same room.
  • Amidst all the protests of Russia’s homophobia, the mayor of Sochi declared quite emphatically that there are no homosexuals among Sochi’s citizenry. Drag queen Madame Zhu-Zha contradicted the mayor, saying there is a gay community in Sochi, and s/he was living proof. (Don’t believe me? Check out BBC World News.) And the BBC reporter who procured that mayoral nugget had gone to a Sochi gay bar the night before interviewing the mayor. Another local official called the mayor’s claims “laughable.”
  • Nevertheless, the mayor offered that warm and fuzzy Russian hospitality we know so well – and love – and said gays were “welcome” at the Games, as long as they “respect Russian law.” (Oh yeah, those anti-gay laws ….)
  • And, the Georgian prime minister is concerned about Russia expanding the Sochi security zone into neighboring provinces that used to be part of Georgia. Most recently the PM threatened to take unspecified actions if Russia supports these breakaway provinces. (This is in addition to earlier terrorist threats to “disrupt” the Winter Games in Sochi.)
  • Meanwhile, President Obama has sent two U.S. Navy warships which are hovering outside of Sochi in the Black Sea, on standby. Exactly what the Navy will do and under what circumstances is unclear.

The Times’ February 3 article reported, with restraint, that Sochi is “a work in progress,” which seemed facetiously optimistic. The Times and other on-line news organizations have described Sochi as looking like a giant construction lot, noting that this is on-going building, not punch-list activities, in the days before the Winter Games begin. Some of the unresolved problems:

  • Uncompleted hotels and shortage of rooms (check – got that!
  • Power outages that interfere with construction as well as security efforts.
  • In the “finished” hotel rooms, exploding electrical outlets, handles that come off doors, lack of hot water
  • Olympic housing and dining facilities unnamed and unnumbered, with temporary, numbered paper signs taped to building fronts
  • Elevators that don’t work

BUT, the new $8.7 billion road and rail system from the coastal Olympic area to the mountain venue seems complete and functional. The athletes’ facilities and sporting venues are more or less ready for business, even if much of the public areas are still under construction. The Olympic Committee and Sochi authorities have arranged for cruise ships to dock in both Sochi and Adler, site of the Coastal Cluster of Olympic venues, to provide additional and very much needed “hotel” facilities. And there IS snow! So if nothing else, the views of the Caucasus Mountains will be gorgeous.

But, what to do about all those pesky stray dogs?!

Like any construction sites, the Sochi area’s frenetic building activity has attracted thousands of stray dogs. Orders came recently from City Hall that the strays will be rounded up and exterminated, as the dogs have become a bit of a nuisance. The “director general” of pest control for the company given the extermination contract bemoaned the wily strays after a dog managed to crash an opening ceremony rehearsal and join the participants. “God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country.” Oh, horrors!

Last year, Sochi’s city hall shelved similar canine extermination plans after wide-spread protest from animal activists. The authorities subsequently back-pedaled and vowed to build a shelter instead of annihilating the dogs, but activists claim these promises have not been fulfilled. City Hall also hasn’t explained how their contract killers will “dispose” of the dogs, although shooting strays is a common practice in Russia.

So, Sochi is turning out to be a bigger story than just the actual athletic events. The public in general and interest groups in particular will have plenty to crow about: Will there be enough hotel rooms and will they have hot water? Will there be a terrorist attack? Will Georgia and Russia go to war — again? And – last but not least – will Sochi actually follow through on shooting gays – BIG whoops! – I meant, strays?

Stay tuned…and let the Games begin! And as the irrepressible Effie Trinket always tells the competitors, “May the odds ever be in your favor!” Unfortunately, I fear, everyone in Sochi will need them.

Paul Gilham, Getty Images

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