Friends & Family Tour or How to Gain 5# in 5 weeks

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Maryland
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hi everybody!
We spent 5 weeks in June/July in the United States catching up with friends and family. We really wanted to take advantage of Melanie's unemployment to spend time with our families and visit a few towns that looked interesting to us. Before we left we were doubting if we'd really need 5 weeks, but by midway through it was clear that we could have spent even longer there. We were amazed at how many people we were able to see and some very lucky coincidences in travel schedules. However, we also wish we could have seen more people. Especially in Chicago where we have so many friends we simply ran out of time and couldn't see everybody. Nevertheless it was a great vacation.

Another goal of the trip was to test our tolerance to American culture now that we've been away from it for 5 years. The culture in the U.S. is truly different than that of Europe and we were a bit scared that we might not enjoy it in the U.S. anymore because we've become use to something different. However, we actually had the opposite reaction. We found everything in the U.S. to simply be easier. The service mentality is much stronger there and also we are just used to how things work there. It's all familiar, all in our native language, and almost all available 24x7. We were really happy to learn that we really do like the U.S. just as much as we like Europe - although we like each for very different reasons.

1) We flew to Baltimore, Maryland, about 45 minutes drive from Chris' parents and spent several days there. Chris' dad loaned us a car for the remainder of our trip and we drove to
2) Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where we spent a few days with Melanie's friend Rachel and her husband and 2+ dogs.
3) From Pittsburgh we drove to Mansfield, Ohio to visit Melanie's family. Then on to
4) Chicago to visit friends and take care of some business.
5) July 4 was spent with our friend, David, in Madison, Wisconsin and
6) we ended that weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where we had our only night in 5 weeks in a hotel. Then it was
7) back to Chicago then
8) Chris flew to NYC while Melanie stayed in Chicago then
9) back to Mansfield, Ohio then
10) back to Maryland before
11) flying home to Amsterdam

In all we covered about 4000 miles in 5 weeks and didn't have a single day without visiting at least one friend or family member. We were (mostly) lucky with the weather and also with the general atmosphere everywhere we went. Oh, and we ate too much. Big American portions of hamburgers and steak and mashed potatoes and Maryland blue crabs and pies and other goodies. It tasted good going down, but we are wearing it around our middles now!


At Chris' parents's house we enjoyed just relaxing, recovering from jetlag, and visiting with family. Chris' sister and her children spent time at the house and it was nice catching up with them. Chris had brought home a lot of stuff so he spent a good deal of time unpacking and organizing while Melanie took advantage of the quite to create our Portugal entry and start reading the Harry Potter series (finally!).

We hadn't seen Rachel and Zee (her husband) in years so it was a real treat to spend time in their beautiful Victorian house and get caught up. Chris enjoyed playing with the 3 dogs (2 are Rachel's and one comes for doggie daycare during the day) and Melanie LOVED drinking margaritas and playing Guitar Hero until 2AM. Melanie had spent 2 college years in Pittsburg, but it was completely different to be back as an adult and being in a neighborhood rather than on campus. Rachel and Zee live in the Highland Park neighborhood where there is beautiful housing stock and a huge green park close by where we went walking/running every day.

Pittsburgh itself has a vibrant downtown. We grabbed submarine sandwiches and took them to Point Park where 2 rivers meet to form the Ohio River. There were lots of people there on their lunch hour - many running, eating, meeting friends, reading a book or just enjoying being outside. We also went to the Strip District, which is a warehouse district where you can find all sorts of food. There was an Italian market that reminded us of Chris' Italian Grandmother's favorite market in Baltimore. Also a big fish market and several produce markets.

We had stopped in Pittsburgh, not only to catch up with friends, but also to consider whether it was a place to which we'd like to move. We decided that we really do like Pittsburgh (Chris was especially pleasantly surprised) but decided that the airport really isn't sufficient for our travel ambitions. We'll just have to make a point to go back and visit more often!

OHIO (Part 1)
Visiting Melanie's family in Ohio is always more active than the Hooper household, but this time we had some terrific timing coincidences that spurred that activity too. We arrived just in time to see Dillon, our 7 year old nephew, compete in a swim meet. That was a really nice relaxing way to sit out and get caught up between races.

We also timed it (accidentally) to arrive during Mansfield's bicentennial. Many of the fire hydrants were painted red, white and blue, there was a parade downtown and activities on the square. We attended a special concert of the Mansfield Symphony where the guest soloists were all people Melanie had known from her childhood.

Another lucky coincidence was that Melanie's Great-Aunt Dory, who now lives in Costa Rica, was in town for a visit. We went to lunch with her and her daughter and son-in-law then spent the afternoon visiting with them and Melanie's Grandmother (Aunt Dory's sister). Melanie's Aunt Betty and Uncle Dan also drove several hours from where they live for the visit.

Finally, another one of Melanie's high school friends, Lisa, happened to be in town and Melanie and Lisa were able to spend a morning having coffee and getting caught up. We hadn't seen each other since we moved to Amsterdam and we both have a lot going on right now so having that time to just sit and talk was really nice.

CHICAGO (Part 1)
What can we say about Chicago? Chicago continues to be our front-runner in terms of the place we're most likely to move to in the U.S. Summer in Chicago is just the best. There's endless outdoor activity along the lakefront, the city is relatively clean, there's great shopping, great museums (although we didn't actually go to the museums), great restaurants and it was just a spectacular time. We stayed with our friends Bob and Lisa and their three very active and inquisitive kids. We continued our tradition of going downtown for July 3rd fireworks along the lakefront. We saw so many longtime friends (too many to mention here) and still missed several as well.

We also did some business things in Chicago. Melanie met with the outplacement agency several times and got an understanding of their services and an agreement on how to use them from Amsterdam. We visited the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Career Services and learned what assistance they can provide. We also met with several financial planners and managers in an effort to get a bit more consolidation and organization around our finances and investments. We also investigated the real estate market and were a bit surprised to learn that all the doom and gloom we hear on the news has not yet really had an impact on Chicago. It seems that house prices are not rising there, but the big bargains and huge drops in prices that make headlines also seem to have skipped Chicago (at least so far).

On July 4 (U.S. Independence Day), after a nice bike ride along Chicago's lakefront, we drove to Madison, Wisconsin, for a weekend visit with our friend David. We had never been to Madison and we had heard many good things about it, so we decided to go check it out. Madison or it's "suburbs" consistently rank highly in the best places to live, best places to retire surveys, so we were considering it as a possible place to move to. One of David's friends loaned us bikes and we spent the weekend riding around this beautiful town. Madison definitely has a lot of the things we like. The university provides an intellectual atmosphere (although we'd like to test that theory during football season!). It's eco-friendly with lots of alternative food stores, independent restaurants, bike paths and green space. Madison is situated between 2 lakes and has some lovely neighborhoods as well. However, it has the same problem (for us) as's just not a transportation hub. It might still be a good place to retire, when our travels are more leisurely and we can spend the time to get to Chicago to go somewhere, but for business travel it just isn't going to work. We had a great time in Madison, though - including visiting their terrific farmer's market with one of Melanie's friends, Linda.

At the end of the weekend we drove to Milwaukee and were lucky to arrive for the last night of Summerfest. We had lived in Milwaukee for a summer during our college years and remembered it as a great place because they have fun music and ethnic festivals all summer long. Summerfest is an 11 day music festival with 11 stages hosting music of many styles all day every day. In all, over 700 bands, including many big names, participate. We were able to get tickets for $7 and saw Earth, Wind and Fire (still really fun after all these years) followed by Derek Trucks (amazing blues guitarist) - as well as a few other bands we didn't know in between. The next day we drove along the lakefront and tried to remember where we had lived 25 years ago. We saw some beautiful neighborhoods and remembered weekends spent at the beach, but it wasn't sufficiently familiar to find the neighborhood. Although we enjoyed our day in Milwaukee, we were surprised by how small it really feels now. It's definitely a fun city, but it's not big enough to have the Chicago draws and not small enough to have Madison's charm.

So, back we went to Chicago - again intruding on Bob and Lisa and their kids. We visited with more friends and did more business and really just continued to enjoy being there. Our visits to Chicago confirmed that we made a good choice moving there in the early 1990s. Of all the cities we were considering as possible places to move back to, Chicago definitely came out the winner from this trip.

On the 2nd weekend in July, Melanie had a reunion with 11 other ladies that she knows from Weight Watchers. These women came from all over the U.S. and the world: Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, California, Idaho, Delaware, New Zealand, Italy, Ohio, Illinois and, of course, the Netherlands. Although we've known each other for at least 5 years (some longer) and many had met previously this was the first time that all 12 were together face to face. We rented a house in the Old Town neighborhood and did all sorts of fun activities including a cooking class making Indian food, a walking tour of the neighborhood, a gift exchange, and various shopping, museum and beach excursions. During this time Chris thought it best to make himself scarce and went to New York to visit our friend Dave.

Dave introduced Chris and Melanie in 1983 when we were in college which makes him our oldest mutual friend. Dave lives in the center of NYC right off 5th Avenue near Washington Square - between downtown and midtown Manhatten. While there Dave and Chris saw an exhibit of manmade waterfalls by various artists in the East River as well as an unusual musical installation that avante guarde musician David Byrne had installed in an abandoned ferry terminal at the southern tip of Manhatten.

David Byrne's installation utilized a pipe organ that activated various pipes through air as well as pipes through selenoid valves located around a large hall in the ferry terminal. Visitors were allowed to play the instrument for other visitors.

They also visited the Musuem of the Native Indian takes up several rooms in the former customs building in lower manhatten and is worth the visit.

While in NY, Chris also saw Julian and Margo who live in mid-town. Chris has known Julian since the 1980s when he worked for an insurance company in Rockefellar Center. Juian was Chris' best man at our wedding in 1988 so it was really nice to spend an afternoon catching up.

Part 2 of the Ohio visit was filled with more fun activities. We went to a water park with Melanie's sister and her family where we spent lots of time in the wave pool, zipping down really tall slides, and being thrown into a giant funnel on a big inner tube.

We also spent a day in Cleveland where we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This museum is far bigger and far more interesting than we imagined. There are listening kiosks that explore the influencers of various musicians, they were showing the Beatles' HELP! movie, and there's just a ton of memorabilia including stage costumes, postcards sent home from the road, famous guitars, and handwritten music lyrics.

We also had some time to just relax and get caught up on email, physical mail, and the like. Melanie's Mom had found a box of pamphlets that Melanie's Dad had saved from his time in Europe in the early 1950s and we had fun looking through those. We found pamphlets, booklets and leaflets for many of the places we'd been as well as a few we hadn't.

One of the reasons that we were in the U.S. for such a long time is that we had planned the itinerary around 2 events: July 3 in Chicago and July 19 in Maryland. Why? Well, we love the Chicago fireworks on July 3 and our friend, Rick, has a giant crabfest the 3rd Saturday in July. We have been hearing about crabfest for years now and had never attended. Since we had the time, we just had to make it part of our itinerary this year - and, boy, was it worth it! In 25 years of knowing Chris and visiting Maryland Melanie had never had a steamed Maryland blue crab! She really enjoyed learning how to dissect the crab and hammer the meat out of it's various body parts. Rick and Ed (Rick's housemate) put on a great party with tons of food (including some amazing beef prepared by Ed), live bands, tents to protect people from the sun and heat, and plenty of good beer.

We also spent a day visiting our niece, Jessica, in Baltimore. Chris' Mom came with us and we explored some of Baltimore's neighborhoods, ending in a trendy area where we had a really good pub dinner. We also learned that Baltimore has a Washington Monument too - a much earlier one than the famous Washington, DC, monument.

Again, we spent quality time with the family and did our last minute shopping in preparation to return to Amsterdam.

Five weeks sounds like such a long time to be away and just visiting people, but we really filled every minute and the time just flew. Now that we're back, we realize that we didn't take many pictures of our friends and family. On one hand it's embarrassing that we spent so much time with people like Bob and Lisa (and others who invited us to their houses or out to dinner) and we don't have any pictures of them. On the other hand, it's a testament to the fact that we really were at home and focused on catching up with people rather than being tourists and focused on documenting the trip. We had a terrific time, did the research we had wanted to get done, made some new work and other contacts, and, most importantly, got to spend more quality time with friends and family than has been possible since our move overseas.

Happy travels,
Melanie and Chris

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