Friday, 20 November 2015

An overseas investiture!

Griffeen Valley Senior Branchers were planning their official investiture for over a year. The trip was planned, budgeted for and a number of fundraising events were organised so that preparations could continue.* However, there was one hiccup in the plan; the group of seven girls could not decide exactly where to go.  Out of Dublin, away for at least one night, a memorable location for the ceremony and a BIG ADVENTURE – but where?

With all the ground work done and no agreement on a destination, our Unit Leader decided that the way to make this event a bigger adventure was to decide on the location herself and keep these details as a secret from us.

We received some clues along the weeks of preparation; a kit list which specified that all our belongings should be brought in a day bag and a trolley-bag (cabin baggage size) and, for weight purposes, that our toiletries be brought only in small travel-size containers, allergies to cats, dairy intolerances, ability to ride a bike, travel sickness - particularly on water. We were asked about our competency in spoken Irish (however, this proved to be an interesting red herring, which led us to believe that we were heading to the Aran Islands.) Some days before, it was confirmed that we would NOT be travelling to London, and EuroDisney was also not a contender. We asked about our passports but were told that we would not need them. This was true in so far as our Leader had already obtained our passports from parents and hence we did not NEED to bring them.

First thing on the Monday morning of mid-term we received a message that the group was to meet at Dublin Airport first thing in the morning where our location would be revealed. However, before the big reveal, we had to write down where we thought we were going.  No one guessed correctly! The Aran Islands was the obviously pre-discussed consensus of the group. The final reveal was a folder which contained our travel journals, a list of 40 challenges for the trip and a picture clue of the destination. The final reveal after some incredulous exclamations of Amsterdam! … We were off to HOLLAND!!!

The group flew to Eindhoven, an industrial satellite city full of offices, manufacturing and service facilities, populated by a young and bustly workforce. On arrival, we met our guide for the trip - an Irishman married and living in, and working from, Holland. He works with cycling groups throughout Europe and especially from Ireland, and the brother of our Leader, which was very handy! Used to working with groups of young men, he was highly amused by the excitement and banter of these lively new visitors.

On the bus through Eindhoven, we travelled to the railway station and took a train to the very beautiful university city of Utrecht. It was magical to walk around the city at night and especially to view the Gothic Dom tower, which is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. After sampling some street food, a challenge from our list, of patatjes (Dutch chips) with mayonnaise, we took a short train ride to Woerden where our accommodation (with a resident cat, several fish in the pond and three swans in the canal at the bottom of the garden) awaited with hot soup, warm beds and hot tea with Stroopwaffles (another Dutch gastronomic delighted that awaited our taste buds - it is basically a caramel sandwich made with either shortbread or wafer). Leaving it on top of your cup of tea for a few minutes enables the caramel to melt and be even more delicious! 

The following morning, after a typical Dutch breakfast of cooked meats and cheese, and bread or crackers with sugar sprinkles, we headed off to Utrecht again, in the beautiful sunshine. After several selfies, group photos and pictures of canals framed with bicycles, we embarked on a canal tour where we renewed our Guiding Promise.

We ate some Dutch ice-cream from a street vendor as we walked around the bustling city looking at some amazing architecture. Then a bus ride to another new town: Oudewater. This sleepy Dutch town is home to the famous Heksenwaag (witches’ weighing scales). The weighing house has now been turned into a museum and became famous during the 1500s when people (primarily women,) who were accused of witchcraft, were given the chance to prove their innocence. The idea being if you were too light and skinny you were a witch as you obviously had no soul and would have been light enough to fly on a broom.

Those accused of being a witch in those times would save up their money to make the trip to Oudewater to obtain a certificate to prove their innocence. At the time, the witch hunts were sanctioned by the church to break the power of the local herb doctors (especially women) and midwives. We went to a presentation in the museum in Dutch, which was hilarious. We had our photo taken on the scales with our witch host. She said that she was delighted to meet us - as champions of girls and women. For our part, we experienced an alternative FREE BEING ME presentation. What a difference 600 years make with public opinion. Back then it was a bad thing to be too skinny!

That night, it was barbeque for dinner, followed by the movie Dirty Dancing, with Dutch snacks – peppernoten – delicious tiny spiced biscuits (some of which were covered in chocolate!)
The following day, bags were packed and farewells said to our hostess, the cat and the many fish.  The group headed to the weekly food market in the centre of Woerden.  The locals were so friendly and helpful to us all. We tasted cheese and freshly made stroopwaffles, we chatted with the locals and one very friendly lady bought us a large packet of fresh peppernoten as a gift. 

We also purchased chocolate letters, which are typical gifts at this time of the year.  Santa comes to Holland on the 5th of December.  In the Netherlands he is called Sinterklaas and although dressed in red, his costume is like a bishop’s tunic and mitre.  He arrives on a boat from Spain in Novemberand when he lands in each town, he rides to all the houses on a white horse.  He does not have elves to help him but men called Zwarte Piet (Black Peters) who have black faces and very colourful costumes and hats with feathers.  They give chocolate coins and chocolate letters to all the children.  Sinterklaas leaves his gifts in the children’s shoes (or clogs).

With our suitcases bursting with our newly purchased Dutch delicacies, we boarded the train bound for Amsterdam.  Suitcases safely stowed in the left luggage, we headed out to locate our guide for the afternoon who would take us on a cycling tour of the city.  If we found the cyclists in the other towns and cities we visited a bit difficult to dodge, we were not prepared for the crazy noise and activity of Amsterdam.  There were cars and trams; bicycles, bicycles with baby’s prams, DHL bicycles, bicycles with flowers, bicycles with food, bicycles selling coffee, nannies riding bikes with two children in front and a baby in a carrier on her chest; there were bikes with old ladies, bikes with businessmen, ladies in high heels, students with books……..and then there was a line of Irish Girl Guides with navy jumpers, pink neckers and helmets (Yes! We were the only ones in the city wearing helmets!)  Cycling through the city was by far one of the highlights of the whole trip.  Everyone agreed it was the best way to see a city and we decided to try it again the next time we visit a new city.

The first stop of the tour – the most important – we located the bench from the movie “The Fault in Our Stars”.  This was where the seven Senior Branchers renewed their Guide Promise and added the special addendum, which was particularly relevant as we stood on the banks of a canal in Amsterdam beside our bikes.

The day was completed with a visit to the Anne Frank Museum – another example of a strong and influential girl.  Although a sad reminder of the tragedies of war and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, it was a visit that will remain with us all.

As we headed back through the bustling streets to the central station and on to Schipol airport, we calculated our walking mileage for the few days at 38km.  We saw, tasted, visited and experienced as much as we could in our few short days.  We began a love affair with a strange but wonderful country.  We hope to return in the future and visit more cities. 

We think we ticked all the boxes in our Senior Branch adventure! Onwards to the next adventure!

* They did take a break at one point to organise a TY ball in Lucan and, in so doing, raised €1,500 for Temple Street hospital

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