Sunday, December 01, 2019

Development of a Wedding Painting

When creating a painting, they usually seem to fall into either a "flow" or "fight" category.  By that, I mean that a painting seems to flow and develop easily, or else it wants to fight me from the very first day.  Last week, I completed a wedding painting that was definitely a fight.  Here's how it developed.  You can click on the images to see larger versions.

 This was how the painting looked at the end of the reception.  Pretty rough, huh? Most of my paintings are pretty rough at this stage.  I mean, here's a 24"x30" canvas that I've only been working on for maybe 2-3 hours, and much of that time is on trying to determine a basic composition.  This couple, two really wonderful people, wanted the painting to depict the return walk down the aisle.  One problem, for me, was that they didn't look at each other during that walk, and I wanted to show their interaction.  So I chose a good photo of them walking, then chopped off their heads and replaced them with heads from other photos.

 I developed the couple a bit and worked on the guests.  The guests were a real time sump: because of perspective, they were all different sizes, and getting them the right size ate up a lot of time.  The chairs, since they were all the same, had to be exactly the right size and position, or your eye would pick up on it immediately as something wrong.  Worst of all, the guests were all facing away, so you just saw the backs of heads.  And the parents and wedding party were partially hidden. 

 So I eliminated all the guests.  Two smoke bombs, left and right, and off they went.

 In place of the guests, I blocked in the floor and changed the position of the parents.  This composition simplified things greatly, putting more attention on the couple and allowing development of all the important people.  Now we're cooking. 

More development of the important people.  The floor was brick in a herringbone pattern, which had to be done well enough that the eye would read "brick floor", but not over-developed and pulling attention to itself.  The lines are guides to get the perspective right.  Since they're only guides, they'll soon go away.

 The brick floor was developed a bit, just enough to indicate the color and texture.  The hanging curtains along the top of the canvas bothered me because they were just a dark gray shape going straight across the image.  It needed to be broken up, so I added a couple of hanging lamps.  The foreground looked a little too empty.  There were a couple of decorations, with candles, flowers, and fabric, that were actually next to the curtain in back, so I wondered how they might look if they were in front. 

The decorations in front seemed to work pretty well.  Now we're starting to do the finishing touches.  I added a couple of hanging drapes in back, the same color as the center curtains, just to bring the color out in to a gray area.  Red, pink, and white flower petals were spread around the floor.  And I went around the whole painting, bringing everything up a notch or two.  I sent this image off to the clients for approval.

The clients loved the painting but requested a few changes.  One was to add the two flower girls.  I put them on the right, interacting with each other.  Another was to have some kind of art deco element, so I changed the yellow curtains to a more prominent shape with art deco design on it.  Then I went around the painting one more time, adding flower petals to make them more random, touching up the couple and others, touching up the decorations in front, and generally bringing things up to where they should be.  And we're done!

So that's how this particular painting worked out.  It was a struggle, but it got there.  By now, I know that I can get these paintings across the finish line, no matter how much trouble they give me.  And I know that if it's really not working, I can always grab a new canvas and start from scratch.  Yes, I've done that, and it turned out pretty well.  On the other hand, some paintings develop quickly and naturally.  But those paintings wouldn't make a good blog post, now, would they?

Monday, November 25, 2019

Italy, 1999

Since my last post, I've been busy with a training trip to Muscatatuck, two wedding paintings, and a proposal-writing project.  None of those things would make a memorable blog post.  So, instead, here's another post from our Great European Adventure in 1999.  We had just left Germany and driven down to Camp Darby, a US military base outside of Pisa, Italy.  So enjoy ...

                Thursday, November 18

We made it safely to Italy.  We're staying at a small Army base called Camp Darby, near Pisa.  The drive down from Germany was the worst of the entire trip.  It is a long drive (8 hours) from Chiemsee.  It was snowing slightly when we left and got progressively worse as we went past Innsbruck and up over the Brenner Pass.  At the top, it was coming thick and hard.  Traffic was heavy, roads were slick, and we did not have a good time.  When we got below the snow line, it turned to rain that remained heavy all the way to Pisa.  During that one trip we had snow, sleet, hail, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, and heavy winds.  Yuck! 

When the weather eased up every now and then, the alpine countryside was spectacular.  The mountains are steep, rocky, and have lots of pine forests.  Every few miles there is a castle perched on a rock.  The route has been a strategic gateway between north and south for thousands of years and it was quite impressive to see the historic reminders of the past.  Particularly when the clouds would part a little bit to allow a glimpse of a sheer mountainside rising thousands of feet above the road.

Camp Darby looks like the Base That Time Forgot.  I don't know what their mission here is (might just be an ammunition storage facility) but it has two parallel main streets about a half mile long, and that's about it.  There is not much in the way of facilities.  Our room is a dump.  I've never stayed in a worse place that I've actually had to pay for.  It's an early-'70's plastic prefab unit.  They covered the plastic walls with plastic wallpaper and every sheet is peeling off.  All the plumbing and electrical wires are external to the wall.  The room has one (1) table lamp which is carefully situated so that it doesn't really shed any light on anything.  There is a TV in the corner which is all of 13" in size .... well, maybe 15" if you include the plastic casing.  We have, by actual count, one Armed Forces Network channel, one BBC channel, one Sky News channel, and 88 Italian channels.  The bathroom is particularly onerous.  The walls are covered with old tile, many of which had holes drilled in them for previous "renovations" which have since been removed.  The bathtub not only has running rust under the tap, it also has big patches of red scaly rust on the bottom.  And you have to run the tap for about five minutes to ensure the water coming out is clean.  When they have two roach motels in the bathroom, you know that's not a good sign!  Fortunately we haven't seen any creepy crawlies, at least not yet.  Of course, we can't get on the net from our room, so we're using the base library, which actually has some very nice computers.

Thursday, however, was a BEAUTIFUL day.  Absolutely crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, chilly but not too cold.  It was the first really nice day we've seen since we left Prague.  We decided to head into Florence to take advantage of the good weather.  I was here almost four years ago and said then that Florence pegged my "wow"-meter.  It's still awesome.  Mostly we just wandered around and got a feel for the city.  Janis went ape over all the fashions and jewelry and shopping. 

Florence is a city that defines "class".  The old city streets follow medieval patterns and wind in and out between buildings that are hundreds of years old.  Italian buildings are quite a bit different from German ones: they're big, square, usually some variation of gray, tan, yellow, or red stucco that's flaking off, and have green or brown shutters.  Most look a bit worn and shabby.  The exception to all this is the Duomo, which is Italian for "damn big church with a dome the size of Montana".  This church is built with black and white marble laid in intricate patterns, and covered with statues.  We didn't go inside on the first visit (we will on our next visit) but it was beautiful to see. 

Another find, for Janis at least, was the Ponte Vecchio.  This is a centuries-old bridge over the Arno River.  It is lined with jewelry stores on both sides, and has been this way for several hundred years.  Janis went into sensory overload halfway along the bridge.  I never thought I'd see the day when she couldn't look at one more jewelry store window, but friends, it happened on the Ponte Vecchio!

Transportation was easy.  We drove the Range Rover into Florence, which took about 45 minutes through the Tuscan mountains.  We parked below the train station and then walked all over the city from there.  Manned parking garages are the only way to go if you want to see your car, or the stuff in your car, again.

While wandering the city, we came across an archaeological dig in a city street.  It appears that, while digging a trench for utilities, construction workers found some old city walls.  Florence has full-time historians and archaeologists on its staff for just this sort of thing.  They swoop in, dig, take photos, measure everything, then carefully cover it up again.  This preserves the past and allows modern life to continue.  I was impressed.

On Friday, we went into Pisa.  This was a just a short drive from Camp Darby, but of course we got lost both going and coming.  The first thing we saw was the Leaning Tower.  I cannot believe the thing is still standing, it's over so far.  Pisa has a major effort ongoing to keep the tower upright: they're digging around and under it to solidify the base, and meanwhile they've strapped huge steel cables around the tower and anchored them to several supports.  Only the Italians would screw up a site survey, build a big tower on marshy ground, and when the building that never should have been built starts to fall over, turn it into a tourist attraction.  That's like Pennsylvania making a tourist attraction out of Three Mile Island.  Be that as it may, the Duomo, Baptistry, Memorial Cemetery, and Leaning Tower were all beautiful and interesting.  We also wandered around the rest of the town and found it to be quite charming.  Streets in the old city, of course, were narrow, cobblestone, and lined with shabby and colorful old buildings.  People are friendly and except for the Leaning Tower area, it is not a tourist trap.  It was quite lively in the early evening.  Christmas decorations are starting to appear and people packed the streets in the shopping areas.  We saw one of the most beautiful sunsets ever as we crossed the river: the thin clouds were brilliantly lit by the setting sun, with the silhouettes of ancient towers in the foreground, and it all was reflected in the river surface. 

Driving in Italy is certainly an experience.  Speed limit signs, stop signs, lane lines, and other such official proclamations are merely advisory.  It's normal to see three cars abreast on a two-lane road.  When the light turns green, you have 0.5 seconds to get moving or everybody behind you lays on the horn.  In keeping with the Italian nature, driving is an art form, not something that can be regulated.  You want the movement of the cars to flow beautifully, particularly if "beautifully" means that you can pass everything else on the road.  (Note: you don't pass a car in Italy, you surpass it, with all the emotional baggage that such a phrase entails).  In Amsterdam, most people get around on bicycles.  By contrast, Florentines use motor scooters and mopeds.  Herds of them rip along the city streets, dodging cars and buses and pedestrians (usually), and sounding like swarms of angry hornets.  You better stay alert on Italian city streets, or you’ll quickly wind up as road kill.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Wrapup of our Prague, 1999, Adventure

My last post a couple of days ago was a reprint of our travelogue of Prague during our European trip in 1999.  It included the story of Janis's billfold being stolen by pickpockets.  Here's how that adventure turned out.

                Wednesday, November 3

The day after Janis's billfold was stolen, we were discussing the event with our landlord.  She said that we should go report it to the police because sometimes the pickpockets just wanted cash, and would dump the ID cards and rest of the billfold.  Later, American Express said that they would need a copy of the police report if we were going to claim the replacement cost of the billfold (Louis Vuitton and very $$$, so we damned well were going to claim it).  So after we took care of business with American Express and other places, we hoofed it over to the polizei to do our duty.

Oh, how naive!  You must remember, these are Soviet-trained officials we're talking about.  The words "courteous, quick, friendly, and efficient customer service" do not exist in their universe.  The police station was the most run-down building on a run-down block.  The anteroom was built about 150 years ago, and evidently the last time it was painted (or even cleaned) was to welcome the Russians after WW II.  There's no reception desk, only a window cleverly placed about waist-high so that you have to bow down to them in order to carry on any kind of conversation.  Which, of course, you can't, because none of them deign to have anything to do with the English language.  They simply aren't interested in anything you have to say in English, and they aren't much more interested if you speak Czech.  Eventually, the one and only English interpreter on the entire Prague police force (no kidding) arrived and we made our report.  She made it clear that if we wanted to report Janis's billfold as "missing", why, she'd be happy to help.  However, if we wanted to report it as "stolen", oh, now that is much more complicated, and would require much filling out of forms.

By this time, we had our dander up, and forms or no forms, these police were going to have to deal with the fact that three guys had ripped off Janis's - Janis's - one and only billfold.  So the interpreter rolled her eyes and put us in the "waiting room" while she sorted out the details with the duty staff. 

Now there is nothing more depressing than a Communist-era waiting room.  It was really a short hallway that was painted a putrid institutional green, with several mysterious doorways leading off it.  One of the "doorways" was a heavy metal barred jail cell door.  One wall had a Rube Goldberg electrical contraption mounted high up featuring a transformer the size of my suitcase and wires leading into a room behind one of the mysterious doors.  Electro-shock therapy, perhaps?   The same wall had two large electrical fuse boxes tastefully decorated with pornographic ads.  There were no chairs, only one long wooden bench, on which were sitting three people who had clearly been there quite a while and were still waiting when we left.  No reading material, of course, except for the pornographic ads, and to keep ourselves entertained, we tried to figure out what the electrical contraption was, and also what was behind Doors #1, #2, and #3.  We were kept in the room for about half an hour.  Then the interpreter burst back in and gave us a police report - in Czech, of course - which she claimed was a summary of everything we'd told her and would we please sign it?  It could've said that we were the assassins of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for all we knew, but by that time we weren't at all interested in finding out what was behind Door #3, so we signed it and said goodbye to our cheerless waiting-room companions. 

As for American Express, well, they wanted a police report and that's what they're getting.  They didn't say it had to be in English.  If they want to know what it says, then they can find their own damn interpreter.

So ends our experiences in the Czech Republic.  We had a good time here, all things considered.  This is a beautiful city with superb food, great art and music, low prices, friendly people (most of 'em), and fabulous weather.  The only drawback was our run-in with the pickpockets (which the interpreter said were "all Rumanian and Bulgarian, definitely not Czech" ..... sure, lady).  Whatever.  We won't be back, but I still think it's a great place to visit.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Adventures in Prague, 1999

Time for another one of our "greatest hits from the goldie oldie '90's" ... in this case a discussion of our experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during our European trip in 1999.  So without further ado ...

                Tuesday, November 2

Our big news is that Janis had her billfold lifted by pickpockets last night.  These guys were pros.  We were in a big crowd of people getting onto a tram.  The three pickpockets got in between Janis and me and blocked her way.  When she pushed through them, they unzipped her purse and lifted the billfold.  It had all her credit cards, driver's license, military ID, checks, the whole works.  There was no cash at all in her billfold, and her passport was back in the room.  Fortunately, she noticed it pretty quickly (too late to catch the guys, who had already gotten off), and we canceled the credit cards and checks within 30 minutes of the heist.  One of the credit card people reported that the thieves had already tried to use at least one of the cards in an ATM but couldn't guess the PIN. 

True to their advertisements, American Express is issuing her a new card today.  My card and Janis’s card had different numbers, so mine is still good.  Visa and MasterCard will be more of a pain.  We now have no valid Visa/MasterCards with us, which will put a crimp on our spending ability.  Unlike American Express, they have no offices that will issue new cards on the spot.  Instead, they send new cards to our "home" address (one of Janis's friends in San Diego, who is a saint) in seven to ten days.  Then we have to get the cards express mailed from San Diego to wherever we are in Europe.  The whole process will take two to three weeks.

Our landlord told us that pickpockets are, unfortunately, very common here, but they're not too sophisticated.  Most of the time they just want the cash, and won’t mess with stolen credit cards because they’re a bit of a hassle.  So it looks like this theft may just be a pain in the ass and not a disaster.

In the spirit of "Other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”, here are the rest of our adventures before we met up with the pickpockets. 

We drove up to the town of Terezin to visit Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp.  The camp is inside an old brick fortification built in the mid-1700's that was pretty much abandoned by the time the Nazis rolled in.  The place is largely unchanged since the end of the war.  It has not been restored and there has not been much money for upkeep, either.  Consequently, what you see is what was there during the war: the original wooden sleeping racks (no mattresses, of course), original sinks, original toilets (one each to serve 100 people), original barbed wire hanging from dilapidated posts ... "Chilling" is the best word to describe it.  I walked around a corner and saw the entry gate with the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Makes You Free") painted over it, and my blood ran cold.  They have a museum and quite a number of displays such as prison clothes, drawings, tools, utensils, and other everyday items (all original of course), as well as photos of camp officials and many prisoners, which put a very human face to it all.  Theresienstadt was primarily a transportation waystation and not an extermination camp like Dachau or Auschwitz; still, over 150,000 people went through there in four years and several thousand died.  The town of Terezin is a very short walk away from the fortress grounds.  During the war, the Nazis emptied the town of its regular inhabitants, crammed it full of Jewish prisoners, threw a quick coat of paint on everything, and fooled the Red Cross into thinking that Theresienstadt was a model "retirement" community.  Once the Red Cross left, the Nazis went right back to loading the prisoners onto trains bound for the gas chambers.  We left Theresienstadt with a new appreciation of what people can do to people.  (I wrote this before the pickpockets, so now we've got still another new appreciation of what people can do to people).

Eating out in Prague is bliss.  The other night we each had a salmon steak, with salad, delicate potato croquettes, fresh bread, wine (Janis) and beer (me), and two crepes the size of dinner plates with ice cream, fruit, thick whipped cream (the real stuff, not Cool Whip), and chocolate topping.  Total cost for everything, including tip: $15.  Eating here is cheap and almost all the restaurants we've found are excellent.

Janis wrote some observations prior to the pickpockets:

Okay, so I know I have to live with some inconveniences like no TV, no radio, and no phone in the room, but these towels are ridiculous.  What this penzion gives us for bath towels, I would call “kitchen” towels, and very old, worn-out ones at that.  I guess you could say they have a two-fold purpose: they dry you (sort of), and they exfoliate your skin. 

I’ve gotten used to having to pay to use the toilet (however, better have the right change or you're "piss" out of luck), but I hate paying for recycled toilet paper that also exfoliates!  Thanks but no thanks.  Prague’s buses are relics but, hey, they work and they are pretty much on time.  Trams, for the most part, have single rows of seats; after that you stand and you best hold tight as they aren't known for a smooth ride.  The BEST thing about the tram is that the seats are heated.  It helps heal the raw skin on your bottom from all that exfoliating, and I ask you, could you want anything more for thirty cents than to ride for an hour and a half to anywhere the bus, tram, or underground goes to?  (Skip's note: Well, you might want to have your own bodyguard).

The Czechs have discovered hair coloring in a big way, and the women dress and use makeup in a very up to date way.  I mean, in ten years they go from Communism to Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, and Hermes.  Really, they’ve grown leaps and bounds in a very short period of time.  The guy that owns the internet place we've been using was born here in Prague and then lived in South Africa.  After the fall of communism he returned (as according to him SoAfrica is "going down the tubes"; well, he's white so you can figure why he feels that way) to open this business.  He says most of the changes in the Czech Republic are cosmetic only and the bureaucracy is as bad as ever, but who knows.

Hey, they even have ice here, unlike some of the other "first world" places we've visited.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Studio Update

For the past month, two things have been going on in the studio.  One, I've been working on a wedding painting of a really lovely couple.  And two, I've been struggling through a non-productive patch with my life sessions.  Spoiler alert: both of these things have come to a good conclusion, but getting there wasn't easy.

The painting, for some reason, has wanted to fight me since Day 1.  The couple wanted the painting to be of the walk back down the aisle as a newly-married couple.  That means a balanced, almost T-shaped composition, with the couple in the middle foreground, the key members of the groom's family and friends on the right, and the key members of the bride's family on the left.  And then there's the decision of what to do with the audience.  In this case, I initially started painting them in.  But that gives some undesirable results.  They're sitting with their backs to the viewer, so you see the backs of their heads.  There's no clear pattern to the figures, so it's just a mishmash of colors and shapes.  And they cover up the parents and much of the wedding party.  So, after wrestling with them, I pulled out my #10 brush and (virtually) assassinated them all.  That let me simplify the composition, develop the wedding party and parents, and really focus attention on the couple.

But no, you can't see it right now, because it's still out to the couple for their initial comments and approval.  Once they give it the thumbs-up, I'll post it here.

The other issue was getting something decent to come out of my weekly life drawing and painting sessions.  My efforts were almost totally unsatisfactory to me.  One was an oil sketch that I wiped out at the end of the night, while the next was a charcoal and pastel portrait that I reworked quite a bit the next day before giving up and tearing it to pieces.  A third was an oil sketch that I didn't really care for, but the model liked it, so I gave it to her.  But that's life as an artist: sometimes you go through a stretch where you can't get the mojo going.  The only way to get through it is to keep plugging away, because sooner or later, things will start happening again.

And that happened last night.  We had a male model who was a great portrait subject.  I worked in charcoal and pastel.  After the first half hour, I wasn't happy with the way it was going, so wiped it out and started over again.  This time, I had the faint structure left over from the first effort, so I took a slightly different approach to developing the image, and it immediately worked pretty well.  So here's the final image:

George #1

I didn't mean to decapitate the poor guy, but  every time I tried to draw in his shoulders, it just seemed wrong.  So I erased everything except the head.  But it's a good likeness of him, so I'm happy.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Studio Slog and a Travelogue

I've been having a hard time in the studio for the past several weeks.  I've got a wedding painting on the easel that's been kicking my butt.  It took two weeks of try/fail, try/fail, try/fail, before things started happening in a positive way.  I think one more week and I'll be ready to send an image to the clients, but for now, working on this painting is a wrestling match.

My regular life sessions haven't been any better.  The last four in a row haven't been up to snuff.  Don't know what the issue is, but it's annoying.  It will pass, though. Soon, please.

Since there's not a lot to report from the studio, here's another post from our European trip.  Twenty years ago today, here's what we were doing:

                Monday, October 25, 1999

On Sunday, we took a trip down to Heidelberg.  It was a gray, drizzly day.  We drove down and parked near the city center, then just went wandering.  Heidelberg is another typically beautiful old German city.  Many of the buildings in the center are centuries old.  Some are very baroque, others simpler, some are painted stucco and others brick or stone.  Many, if not most, buildings have iron railings outside the windows, and/or window boxes with tons of flowers.  We saw one apothecary that's been in the same building since 1783.  A long stretch of the city center is closed to vehicular traffic (we've seen that in a number of places and it appears to be quite common).  Heidelberg has a wonderful old castle ruin on the hill above the town.  It was quite a formidable presence until the French blew it up about two hundred years ago. Now parts have been rebuilt/restored and other parts are still ruined.  Incredibly spectacular.

There were thousands of people in downtown Heidelberg along with us.  We were all walking along, watching each other, and window-shopping.  That's all we could do.  It was Sunday, and everything in Heidelberg was closed.  I mean EVERYthing!  Well, okay, so I exaggerate.  Pizza Hut, a noodle shop, a couple of cafes, and two Christmas stores were open.  That was it.  Which raises two questions:
1.  Why were all the people wandering around if there was nothing to do?
2.  Since all the people were there anyway, why were all the stores closed??
Boggles the mind.

Driving on the autobahn is an experience.  They really observe the rules here.  You stay to the right unless (a) you want to pass, in which case you do it as quickly as possible, or unless (b) you're in a BMW/Mercedes/Porsche/equivalent and really romping, in which case you turn your lights on to warn everyone ahead of you.  No matter what, you watch your mirror about as much as you watch the road in front, because somebody could easily be doing 100 miles an hour more than you and on your rear bumper in no time at all.  Janis has christened our Range Rover the "QE3", because it feels about as big and stately as an ocean liner.  And you just don't see ocean liners in the left lane of the autobahn.

While wandering around Wiesbaden, I noticed that there was evidently one long street that wound its way all over the city.  I kept seeing its name everywhere.  Then I found out that "Einbahnstrasse" wasn't the name of a road, it meant "one-way street"!  Yeah, buddy .... "I live at 17 Einbahnstrasse". 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Traveling Around Europe Like It's 1999

As I noted in an earlier post, exactly 20 years ago, Janis and I were traveling around Europe on our Grand Adventure.  In this pre-blogosphere, pre-Facebook era, we sent emails back to our friends and family with stories of our shenanigans.  I'm occasionally sharing some of those stories, and here's what we were doing 20 years ago today ...

                Monday, October 18

We made it to Holland and are now safely settled into our newest temporary home.  It's a "vacation park", which is a property with a bunch of small bungalows, a restaurant and bar, laundromat, and small store.  We're in the woods near a couple of small villages.  In all, it’s a pretty nice place to stay for a while.

We left London early last Wednesday and drove to Dover.  We took a ferry across to Ostend, Belgium.  The ferry was pretty neat.  It's a catamaran with two vehicle decks and two people decks.  It moved out pretty good, too.  The trip took three hours and the seas were flat calm.  Immediately upon arrival, they dumped us off the boat and onto Ostend’s streets.  Ostend's signs leave a lot to be desired, both in quantity and it accuracy.  At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.  We first took a rather creative way out of town but quickly found the right road .... at least, we found one that went in the direction we wanted to go.  Unfortunately, we wound up traversing Antwerp right at rush hour.  Somehow we got back onto the freeway (don't know what they call it here yet), then the last 50 km (36 miles) to our park took us two hours because traffic was awful.  There weren’t any accidents, there were just too dang many cars on the roads.  We now hear that's true all over the Netherlands.

Our bungalow is small and cute.  The whole thing is about 20 feet square.  It has a small kitchen, living room, and bathroom.  There isn't a bedroom per se.  You open up what looks like a cabinet in the wall (with little heart-shaped holes cut into the doors, no less) and find a queen-size bed tucked away in there, along with a window looking outside.  The whole thing is comfortably furnished.  It has Dutch TV, which means a bunch of stuff in a language we can't understand, but it also means CNN.  Yes!  Real news!!  No more BBC!!!  On the outside, our bungalow has stucco walls painted white and a real thatched roof.  It's set in a wooded area and cars are parked in an area out near the front of the facility.  It’s very quiet and very nice.  We have enjoyed our stay here.

The only drawbacks are that there was no phone in the bungalow and we've not been able to find any internet access.  This has been a bit frustrating, but I guess that's life.

We have explored a couple of towns near here.  The Netherlands is very different from England.  The Dutch go to great extremes to make sure that their houses, streets, villages, yards, and towns are attractively designed, clean, neat, and well presented.  Things here are immaculate.  Houses are usually brick and have flower boxes in the windows.  Most yards are small but extremely well landscaped.  We've seen a number of people out washing their windows ... now how often do you see that in the States?  Stores are very attractive and look well stocked.  There is little, if any, outdoor advertising.  Most streets in the villages and towns are brick, and the bricks are laid in attractive patterns.  Roads are often bordered with trees set equidistant apart (many with their bark ripped off by errant automobiles).  The Dutch are big into plants: we've seen tree farms everywhere, and there were more nurseries and garden shops in the village than there were grocery stores. 

Village life seems to be a bit slower than in England.  Everybody rides bicycles, much like in Japan, only here they ride a variety of different types of bikes.  We had a wonderful lunch in a restaurant in Oss, and I noticed that there was a group of businessmen in there spending the afternoon playing cards, while another group was having a very loooonng lunch.  We even found a good art gallery in Oss, which surprised the heck out of me since finding a good gallery in London (a major art market) was so difficult.  Nobody seems to be in a hurry unless they're driving, at which time they're all trying out for the Ferrari Formula 1 team.  (Our Range Rover is outclassed: it has all the responsive handling and acceleration of a Chevy Suburban, so we can often be found leading a long train of impatient cars).  Drivers aside, the Netherlands is a classy, civilized, and friendly country.  All this comes with a price: land and houses are expensive, apparently starting at around $200,000 and going up. 

Dutch is an interesting language.  It sounds like a cross between German and Swedish, and you'd be surprised at how much you can understand once you get the hang of it.  "Huis" means house, for example; and "eet huis" is .... well, you figure it out.  Most Dutch speak excellent English, and we have had no problem with language barriers.

If people in the Netherlands speak Dutch, and people in France speak French, does that mean that the people in Belgium speak Belch?  Just a thought.

We spent two days wandering around Amsterdam.  We took the train there and back.  Trains run on time and are pretty well equipped.  Amsterdam itself is a great city.  The old town and city center are easy to get around in.  It's laid out in a rough semicircular fashion with roads and canals running everywhere.  Many buildings are old, up to 400 years, and there are ancient buildings side by side with new ones ... which more or less are in harmony with their older brethren.  There are no skyscrapers in downtown as there seems to be an upper limit of about five or six stories in height (more for church towers and domes).  Amsterdam is essentially built on landfill and over the years many of the old buildings have settled in rather odd ways, so many of them lean forwards or backwards, and there are even whole blocks where they all lean sideways.  Maybe that's why Amsterdam is so lenient on drugs: their whole city is a bit wonky, so maybe the drugs help straighten it up? 

Streets in the old section are narrow.  Many are in use by trams.  There were surprisingly few cars in town; most people get around by public transportation or by bicycle.  (Trivia: there are 700,00 people living in Amsterdam and there are 600,000 registered bicycles).  Tour boats make up most of the traffic in the canals, but canals are also used by regular people for daily comings and goings.  Houseboats are everywhere.  These got their start after WWII when there was a shortage of housing.  Now people live on everything from old canal boats to modern-style houses built on barges to what looks like a West Virginia tar shack on floats. 

We spent one day just wandering around sightseeing, and another day visiting the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums.  The Van Gogh museum was outstanding: well laid out, well lit, with over 200 of his paintings on display at any one time.  I could've spent all day there.  The Rembrandt museum wasn't as good.  They had restored his house to the way it might have looked when he lived there.  They didn't have very many of his paintings, etchings, or drawings there, and the displays were poorly lit and difficult to look at.  Janis visited the diamond museum while I was looking at Van Gogh's - she said it was pretty good.

Amsterdam's tourist industry is huge, and two big draws are drugs and sex.  Marijuana and associated cannabis drugs are legally available in cafes and other places.  We wandered into a number of places where the smoke raised our blood THC levels a couple of notches just by breathing the air.  We don't know whether this "let it be" approach is keeping other drug problems under control.

But the most interesting thing about Amsterdam was the people.  You could spend all day sitting on a bench watching the people go by, and it would be a day well spent.  The most entertaining ones were the druggies. 
- We walked by a cafe/cannabis bar where a couple of wasted dopeheads were having great difficulty rolling another joint.  Right then an even more wasted waitress stumbled out and said something like "yeeaahooomogalaaaagumdum" to them (they didn't appear to understand it, either) and then she turned around and stumbled back into the cafe.
- We found a nice little place with a deck on a canal to have lunch in.  The waitress was a very pretty girl who's smoked one too many funny cigarettes.  Nice girl, just a few fries short of a Happy Meal.  The name of the place was the Grasshopper .... duh, don't you think we should've had a clue?
- Our tour boat guide was multi-lingual.  He had to say everything four times: once each in Dutch, English, French, and German.  He couldn't really pass along too much information since it took forever to say it!
- We walked through part of the red-light district and it really does have red lights.  It also has some hideous practitioners.  They might be attractive if you (a) hadn't had any in the past six years and (b) were blind.  Woof!
- Amsterdam has the same street mimes that Edinburgh and London had.  Come to think of it, they have the same Peruvian bands on the street, too.

Tomorrow we’re going to take the train in to Brussels.  Then on Wednesday, we’re going to leave for Germany.  We’ll stay at an American military hotel in Wiesbaden for a week. After that, we'll head to Prague in the Czech Republic.