Of Hospitals and Other Wondrous Things haarlem, 20 june 2008

Haarlem, 20 June 2008

First, the bad news. Geoff has had another heart attack and is in hospital right now. Second, the good news. It was a small attack, he received good and fast treatment and he will most probably be home within a few days.

I suppose I’d better tell you where we are on this mystery tour so you can put this in context. We are in Haarlem, Netherlands, where we are house and cat sitting for friends while they are on a month’s holiday. It’s a lovely place ruled by the bicycle. Since we arrived two weeks ago, we have enjoyed exploring the city on two wheels. On Tuesday (gosh, is it only three days ago?) we thoroughly enjoyed cycling through the dunes, lakes and forests of the nearby Kennermerduinen National Park. It rated as one of the best days of our adventure so far.

Lunch break in the Kennermerduinen National Park, near Haarlem

The next day was not so idyllic. Geoff awoke feeling very ill and when the chest pain started, we knew what to do. The ambulance was there in minutes and he was soon in intensive care having rounds of tests. He is now being treated with medication and is feeling chirpy again. He in enjoying Dutch-style breakfasts (bread with chocolate sprinkles) and potatoes as only the Dutch can cook them. He will do a stress test on Monday. If that goes well, he’ll be home soon after and we will know if we have to modify our plans. Thanks to reciprocal medical agreements between the Netherlands and Australian governments and travel insurance, we are well cared for.

So, that’s where we are and if I try very hard, I can turn my mind back to where we have been for the last month.

We were sad to leave Edinburgh, which we had grown to love, but many delights welcomed us. We took the train to York through countryside full of may bushes, a.k.a. hawthorn, and were met by our friend, Ian, who installed us in a lovely B&B near his house. We played tourist for a few days, walking the York city walls and taking a bus trip to Whitby, famous not only because of Heartbeat but also because Captain Cook did his apprenticeship there. Friends Norna and Hannah assisted our tourism by choosing to work at two of York’s icons, namely Betty’s Teahouse and the National Railway Museum. We had dinner with them at one and had a privileged personalised tour around steaming locomotives at the other.

Talking to a guide who once advised the railways in Melbourne, National Railway Museum, York

Not all our time was spent as tourists. Ian recruited us as his research assistants (he’s doing his MEd) to ask people on the street for directions so he could find how their words matched what is in English-as-a-second-language textbooks. So we had to “pretend” to be tourists. Given our accents and my funny hat, that wasn’t difficult.

We went to church at York Minster along with a heap of sword dancers in full regalia who were in York for a festival of like-minded folk from around Europe. Morning tea after the service was in the magnificent Chapter House that church halls at home cannot quite rival.

The ceiling of the Chapter House, York Minster

Then it was time to pack again and we waited for the car we had hired to be delivered. There was a bit of a mix up and delay. When we finally got the keys, they were not for a humble Ford Focus as expected but for a very smart Saab. A serious upgrade, as the company said. So we set off in style for West Hury farm cottages in Teesdale, County Durham. Thence followed a week of walking the farmland and moors including bits of the Pennine Way. We spotted both red and black grouse and lots of sheep. The quiet remote country slowed us down in the way far east Gippsland does. Life took a gentler rhythm. One day of our week there, we drove to the Lake District. Yes, the scenery is magnificent and all those TV programs about Wainwright came into focus. We were joined by a weasel as we ate our picnic by a beck and later enjoyed our dinner in Penrith with friends Ruth and Nick and their three daughters.

Those black spots are Black Grouse engaged in a courtship display on the moors in County Durham

So we were sad to leave northern England too but we piled our luggage back into the Saab and set off in the direction of Newcastle stopping only to wander through Durham Cathedral. After a few hairy roundabouts as we negotiated Newcastle’s port area, we handed the car back safely and were chauffeured to the ferry terminal where we boarded the Princess of Norway and found our way to a cabin furnished with a double bed. There was no-one to wave to as we set off for Ijmuiden, Netherlands, but “Anchors Away” through the public address system brought some sense of occasion.

Next morning there was someone to wave to. Rosmarie, my friend of twenty-nine years was there on the pier. I met her and her now husband, Rinze Marten, at a WCC conference in Boston. Their home is by one of Haarlem’s many canals and is walking (and cycling) distance from the Grote Kerk van St Bavo, the Gothic cathedral in the centre of the city where Rinze Marten is now the minister.

The boss of the household is Wolletje. Like Jerry, of beloved memory, he is an old grey cat but that is where the resemblance stops. Not long haired, but short haired; not reserved, but literally in your face (he likes rubbing noses); not a morning cat but sleeps through breakfast.

Wolletje and Geoff rubbing noses and beard

Two days later, we waved Rosmarie and Rinze Marten goodbye as they set off on their holiday. The next day we went to their church where we heard the magnificent Müller organ once played by Handel and Mozart and followed the service as best we could in Dutch. The following Sunday we decided to worship in English and we walked 100 m to our neighbourhood Old Catholic church which hosts the local expatriate Church of England congregation. There we met an Australian man, Stephen, who works in Amsterdam, and his Paris-born friend, Lilian. It turned out that we know Stephen’s uncle who attends St Margaret’s church in Hackett, that Stephen knows my second cousin from his church in Epping, and to crown it all that Lilian’s aunt was my administrative assistant in Geneva twenty years ago. We decided it is a small world.

As we ate cakes after church with Lilian and Stephen, little did we know that a few days later Geoff would be eating hospital food and our new-found friends would be extending a helping hand. But there we are. It is indeed a small world.

Geoff's current residence

I hope all is well where you are. As always, we enjoy hearing your news.

Topklinish Ziekenhuis

Haarlem, 24 June 2008

I recently spent six nights at the imposing multi-storey Kennemer Gasthuis in Haarlem in the Netherlands, where I was treated extremely well. The Kennemer website describes their guesthouse as a “topklinish ziekenhuis”. Travelling around the world I know good accomodation when I see it. Here is a review:

First impressions of the Kennemer are quite favourable. There is a huge entrance lobby, with more than adequate reception and information staff. The individual rooms are clean, spacious and tidy, if a little spartan. They are, however, bright and functional, with all facilities, including TV, telephone, an ensuite and a bedside table (on wheels, a useful touch). Many rooms are decorated with flowers, fruit and cards. A special note must be made of the beds, which have a useful remote device to adjust for comfort in a number of ways. For example, with one press of a button the end of the bed can be made to rise, which enables guests to sit up and read in bed. Indeed, the whole bed can be raised or lowered, which makes it easy to get in and out of.

I should at the this point mention the unique transfer available to take you to the guesthouse. I was picked up at my own residence by no less than three men in green uniforms, who drove me to the Kennemer in a specially adapted vehicle, built in such a way that guests can lie down. The vehicle can drive the wrong way down one-way streets and through red traffic lights to get to the Kennemer quickly. If necessary, lights can be flashed and an audible signal given to drive other vehicles off the road for even faster transfers.

The Kennemer prides itself on its catering. Interestingly a dining room has been dispensed with, as each guest is provided with room service. The meals themselves are a little repetitive, usually meat, potatoes and vegetables, followed by custard, but are no doubt nutritious and healthy.

If I have a criticism it is that very little in the way of leisure activities are offered, except sightseeing from the windows and walks (assisted if necessary by a member of staff) up and down the corridor. Going outdoors is discouraged, but this means you have an excellent opportunity to catch up on your reading. Guests are permitted to loll around in night attire all day and watch as much TV as they wish.

Bathroom facilities are excellent. Towels are available in abundance, so you may have new one every time. Chairs are available to have showers sitting down. If you would prefer not to go to the bathroom at all, this can be arranged. Guests can be bathed in bed. New bed linen is also supplied continuously.

This calls for a very high staff to guest ratio at the Kennemer, and highly trained personnel are on hand twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to meet your every need, often without it even being asked for, in the middle of the night if necessary. There is no set check-in time.

There are some innovative social arrangements at the Kenneemer. Guests of the opposite or same sex may share a room (but spouses are not permitted to stay overnight).

The welfare of guests is paramount. For example if you take drugs these can be brought to you on a tray at the appropriate time, so you never need miss a pill again.

All this comes at a price, which means this has been without a doubt the most expensive place I have stayed in so far. Fortunately government assistance, levies on your income and insurance can be taken out to make a stay very affordable indeed.

All in all, highly recommended.

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