I plunge into deep observation mode when I find myself visiting a different culture and country, noticing it all–how people move, what they wear, eat, buy, and say (though often the language is lost on me but for little bits I know). You can learn a lot through body language, intonations and hand gestures. The magic is watching them savor foods, friends and the festivities wrapped up in the two. I sometimes feel as if I’ve walked onto a movie set or in on a game of jump rope, the outside observer waiting her turn to join in. Drinking the coffee in cafes, nibbling on a sliced baguette and watching a city strut by reminds me how much I want to extract that strain of community and mindfulness, practice it over and over and then take it home with me to live. I want the rich dreams too that I’ve had on this vacation, thick with activity and layers and real as can be, but which fade the second I wake.
Often when you vacation, there are the obvious things you don’t want to miss–historic sites, parks, beaches, museums, etc.–but sometimes what you most vividly remember are the small things that gave you a flavorful sliver of a place. These are some of those bits from recent travels to the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, and France. Adventures are best when you share them, so thanks for coming along.
Halfway to the Atlanta airport our Lyft driver proudly brought up his no vaccine and no Covid status, crediting his good fortune to Jujutsu and eating right for his blood type, and it was in that moment, preserving my own no Covid status, that I slid my mask back on.
AMSTERDAM: Our Amsterdam hotel had a big breakfast buffet including “cloudy apple” juice, the opaque kind with murky apple goodness settling on the bottom. The Anne Frank house tickets were sold out, but there were cafes at which to enjoy a Heineken. When the smiling server asked if we were American, I sarcastically remarked, “Please don’t hold it against us,” adding that we didn’t vote for the last guy, and he laughed. I can feel myself trying a little too hard to not land myself in the ugly American category, those travelers who get annoyed when there are no English menus and other conveniences that they believe they deserve. I further joked, “Please don’t spit in my beer,” and he said he would, his friendly smirk telling me otherwise. You could sense a slight upper hand and pity in his How’s it working out for you all? I’m sorry for you sentiment in the air especially given all the mess the US is juggling these days. Or maybe it was my imagination.
Not even a block from our hotel entrance was a small Red Light district with a succession of a half dozen or so windows of caged women on display in compromising positions and sexy underwear. Like a tantalizing Macy’s storefront with lots to consider, but here it’s simply sex they’re selling. I almost wished I could pay one of them for her time and in lieu of sex I’d rescue her with a “Let’s get you dressed and out of here” take charge encouragement, go for a coffee and have a not red, but green lightbulb drop revealing an easier path toward making a living. “On the practical side, prostitution in the Netherlands has been legalized since 2000. Also, prostitution is considered as a regular job. Sex workers have the same rights, protections and obligations as any worker in the Netherlands. Since 2011, they even pay taxes on their earnings.” See full article here: https://dutchreview.com/featured/prostitution-in-the-netherlands-what-is-really-happening-here/
GHENT: We arrived early evening at our modern hotel in the middle of old Ghent. As it turned out, our stay coincided with The Ghent Festivities, an enormous festival (https://visit.gent.be/en/calendar/ghent-festivities) attracting two million visitors to the city. From our hotel restaurant window table perch we caught a glimpse of the gigantic and growing party outside, surely a Covid super spreader event, but great music and revenue for a city elated and proud to welcome after the two-year break Covid brought. We meandered outside after dinner on the edges and soaked in great music and the happy vibe.
When in Belgium, you ought to have yourself a waffle. I tried at our breakfast buffet, but they went too fast, but a chocolate croissant, oversized Bing cherries and coffee hit the spot. (I did later in Bruges get myself a waffle and it tasted similar to a cake ice cream cone, far less sweet and rich than the States’ version, but good with just a light dusting of powdered sugar). I noticed two elderly couples at their sunny window table–regulars I sensed from their familiar banter with the maître d’–who were thoroughly enjoying themselves, their joyful laughter on display and champagne bubbles rising up in their flutes gave this morning’s breakfast a special celebratory feel.
Checking out, we used our expiring drink vouchers for a post brunch champagne and beer over which the bartender, all of 18, told us about his family and education. In Belgian schools you choose a route of study around age 12 and that choice affects the classes you’ll take through high school. Good for churning out career ideas, but this structure sure boxes you in should you later want to move in another direction. As with several other European countries, healthcare and education are covered in your taxes, so it’s wonderful that everyone gets the same chances.
BRUGES: Our hotel in elegant Bruges was on a lively canal with popular tour boats loading up outside. Checking in on a Sunday meant few open restaurants for dinner, but our hotel found us one. The occasional horse drawn carriage clopped past our outside table where we feasted on beautiful homemade foods that a friendly husband/wife team churned out. Simple, attractive decor inside included sweet photos of their children on the wall. As with Ghent, Bruges is a stunning medieval city by night and charmer by day.
CAMBRIDGE: Arriving late to this bustling college town, we found downtown dinner places full so walked back to our hotel for dinner. A generous portion of pea risotto with roast chicken I ordered arrived piping hot and was divine, and the staff were attentive and friendly, almost uncomfortably so. Our waitress thanked us profusely as she went about tending to our every need, setting out additional forks and knives each time we used one. It was to such an extreme, I actually wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d knelt into a curtsy before us. All this fuss made me want to hop up and help clear the table as I’m unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with this level of royal treatment. I began thanking her as well, grouping plates for clearing which began to make her uncomfortable–surely not my intent. It turned into one big thank you fest, the politeness easing up by dessert when she became relaxed enough to realize it was okay for her to chat with us. She told us she was from Latvia but wasn’t sure if we’d heard of it and was delighted to learn Joe’s mother is also Latvian, a reminder of this small world we all share and how connected we actually are. A little walking around the next day around an enormous campus field with a Ferris wheel and we were on the road again.
STRATFORD: Stratford-Upon-Avon as it’s called here or Stratford-On-Avon as it’s referred to in the US is a lovely small village on the banks of the river Avon. Swans flutter by and theatrical playhouses dot the town, and you can almost imagine Shakespeare walking these very streets so many years ago (he was born here and died in 1616 at just 52). Surely with paper and pen in hand, he sat on these very riverbanks watching swans and churning out sonnets. We walked past his old schoolhouse and childhood home, which you could tour, but with less than 12 hours here, our stay was of the check in to hotel, wander around, find dinner and press on the next day variety.
OXFORD: Oxford is another bustling college town which was bigger and busier than Cambridge and where we came to see our studying abroad son, Evan. Oxford and Cambridge are the Yale and Harvard of the UK, or is that the Harvard and Yale? I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to explain these rivalries, because I feel certain none of these places would have admitted me. Evan toured us around his dorm and academic building and dining hall, which appeared straight out of a Harry Potter novel. In fact, I’ve read the inspiration for Hogwarts’s dining hall came from nearby Oxford’s Christ Church College Great Hall.
Leaving hotels, we tend to empty our room of the soaps, coffees, creamers and biscuits, but unlike the Grinch we do stop ourselves short of the lightbulbs. In our defense, they all get used along the way and back home, the soaps find their way into shelters. For some reason on this last day, I took some extra Walker’s cookies (you know, the shortbread folks?) from the unattended housekeeping cart in the hall.
With our England travels wrapping up, France was up next, and we drove toward Kent, UK moving through the backed-up queue for the Eurotunnel. Ever reminded from pavement signs on the road before us to keep apart the length of two chevrons, we began to notice evil looking thick red lined roads on our iPhone maps route ahead, which felt like one of those miserable contractions you see coming, but don’t yet feel. (I speak from experience having naturally birthed an 8 lb. 12 oz-er.) In England, and definitely France too, people don’t let you in in traffic, but when you open up space for them to cut in, they seem super grateful and pleasantly surprised.
Stoplights in England are interesting, too. You can be waiting at a red light (stop) and instead of the nothing before the light suddenly turns green (go) and you’re free to go, you may get a red and amber light (prepare to pull away) or flashing amber (give way to pedestrians; go if it’s safe to do so). It’s sort of a courteous, “Here’s a little preview of what’s to come, you’re out of the red do-nothing zone and your light is about to turn green. We just thought you’d want to know.”
The extraordinary traffic pile up and 9+ hour wait in the car to inch along the less than two miles to the Eurotunnel was quite a thing to behold and be in. We’d prepaid these Eurotunnel tickets and now caught up in the line, it wasn’t an option for us to simply turn around and hope the ferry fifteen miles away in Dover could accommodate us. And so we sat in the standstill, unable to properly enjoy the spectacularly gorgeous day and scenery outside. Rumor was the cause was Brexit or workers on strike, but the net effect was a traffic pileup of a magnitude we’d never seen, and one that was all over the news in the UK. As our dwindling luck would have it, we’d skipped breakfast knowing we’d grab something later, but there was never a “later,” except those cookies from the housekeeping cart. Several hours in, I had to pee so badly so I found some trees to duck under and go behind. A lady was walking her dog by these same trees and I hoped she’d sense my urgency and get her dog to take his/her crap by the side of the road instead giving me a little privacy. Surely the dog wasn’t self-conscious like me? However, I waited it out for my turn. Out of the woods now, I jogged to catch up to our car which had advanced ahead by ten or so cars.
Hours later, having consumed more water (thank god we brought along three enormous full water bottles) but without the benefit of trees to go behind, we had to get creative. Weren’t those nail clippers we brought in our luggage in the trunk? These clippers would begin the tear into the plastic water bottle I needed to carve out a W/C. I ripped the rest by hand, freeing the torn top from the base.
It’s not so easy, this dropping your self-consciousness and jeans in the backseat while people, bored from hours of sitting in their cars, walk by yours with dogs and strollers, as headlights and streetlamps illuminate the 8-lane queue we find ourselves in as midnight approaches. Somehow, I perfectly aligned with the jaggedy edged bottle opening and got my relief, then dressed and walked across four lanes, cradling the sawed-off bottle in my sweater, before emptying its contents onto the grass. The day improved considerably after this and also since Joe soon after successfully got a bag of chips and a Twix to release from a nearby vending machine, salty sticky empty calories we inhaled in seconds.
Speaking of calories, the colonel seems to pop up everywhere in Europe, particularly where we were in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. I read Dutchies, as they are called, in particular enjoy their fried food and it seems, their KFC. In Paris, it was an especially sad sight to pass a homeless man and his dog with a large chicken-less KFC bucket at their feet accepting coins.
PARIS: The couple of Old Navy and H&M fast fashions I bought for the trip rolled up small and served me reasonably well in this, the city of the well-dressed. On Parisian women, fluttery tops skimmed wide leg trousers worn over Chuck Taylors or generic white tennis shoes, and expensive short-strapped leather handbags completed their look. Slim brown flat strappy sandals were everywhere and worn with pencil skirts and mid drift tops in this, the land of the tiny waist. I never once saw any of these women eating a pastry. Older women well into their 80s also looked sharp, with their tanned bony knees on display below the hem of their mini-skirts and modern stylish frames on their faces. Surprisingly, cigarettes in Paris are still all the rage especially between young women’s pale pinkish nude polished fingers. French men glide along, tieless, in form fitting suits and leather dress shoes with slim toe boxes. Ten euros cash will get you a cute blouse on the streets in Paris, but it won’t get you that blouse if you want to pay with a card or try it on– you’ve got to spend fifteen for that.
Our Paris hotel’s lit makeup mirror extended off the wall, the rectangular illuminated magnifier it seems I’ve been waiting for. This common hotel convenience I took particular notice of as if seeing one for the first time. For years I’ve stretched my torso over a sink at home and occasionaly at hotels too to apply unsharpened eye liner in poor light, but for a few mornings in Paris I invested the ten minutes with newfound precision. Enlisting the usual players in my makeup bag, I took great care to paint the canvas, with nothing but time to get it right. There’s always the someday idea that when everything is done, every dust bunny swept up, clapboard painted, and any and all decluttering complete that once and for all, I will enjoy some of these conveniences. What am I waiting for?
On our last full day in Paris we walked 22,000 steps (or 9.7 miles) up and down stairs, across tree lined boulevards, past cafes with people enjoying a simple cup of coffee or glass of wine at day’s end as they watched the city walk, bike and drive by. Every time I move this much, I’m impressed I’m permanently attached to legs that can get me this far and thrilled with the magic eraser effects all that movement brings, shifting my mind into neutral with little time for annoyances and disappointments, self-criticism or boredom.
That same morning, I had a croissant from a Paris boulangerie, my first on this trip. On afternoon walks I’d passed windows with cases of croissant and other glorious gluten, but by then, the bees had begun noticing them too and were hovering. I’d determined I’d hold out for a morning one, freshly made and for when I was hungry and could focus completely on it alone. This particular croissant I bought looked tasty enough and I began of course at one of the pointy twisted ends. Instead of shattered flakes releasing from layers and raining down onto the wax paper sleeve or even worse, the pavement below, with each bite, this roll held firm. It had the soft layered pillow texture of a popover, but without dark crisp edges or hollowed out insides. Bite after bite, the magnificence was simply butter soft but stable, holding its shape until the very end. Each morsel quietly melted in my mouth–rich, flavorful and lovely–and true to true Parisian croissant form, it left no butter residue on my fingers. Pausing after that last bite to process the loveliness I’d just devoured, I knew I’d never duplicate that particular moment, standing on the sidewalk, cars rushing by and me, tasting a simple croissant and changing my life with each bite.
We passed a “Periph Fluide” sign on the road to the airport as we motored along pre-sunrise at zero dark hundred. A fluid periphery (similar to the UK’s term, “Ring Road,” a city’s perimeter roadway) is a lovely thing especially when you are up at that magic sunrise hour and hoping to reach the airport in plenty of time. In France, the street signs look similar yet slightly different. For instance the speed limit sign, in lieu of being rectangular with the words “Speed Limit” floating above the numeral and both inside the sign, France’s are a red ringed circle surrounding the numeral, and there’s a second sign below it, somewhat of an afterthought, “Rappel,” French for reminder, which comes across as a gentler, “Excuse me, but we’re just suggesting this as a speed limit, a little reminder for you to consider as you move along” friendly little nudge.
In flight back to Atlanta, I was abruptly awakened by a Delta flight attendant’s announcement which began: Ladies and Gentlemen, I have bad news. The announcement it turned out was about an IT glitch, which resulted in no screens, no TV, no flight tracker, nada, and no seat adjustments either. Even though the verbiage bad news brought with it an initial jolt, I rather liked no tv, not knowing the progress, and instead experiencing other ways to fill the time and adopting the blind trust that we’re moving in the right direction. I’ll take practically any disappointment or inconvenience over a nose dive into our collective ruin, which still groggy from sleep I only assumed that “bad news “announcement would detail.
The Delta jet bathroom sign stated: “A wipe of the counter goes a long way for the next guest. Thanks for keeping the counter area clean and dry.” Of course, I had to now wipe the counter and by the looks of things when I walked in, the previous passenger had done the same. My mother had the same idea years ago during her girls’ bath time when she’d consistently provide my sister and me with little sponges and a can of Ajax to wipe away the tub ring when we were done. Brilliant! Imagine if these little signs were posted everywhere pushing us along to each and collectively clean up and be better for it. They’d go a long way.
Obviously, I don’t live in Europe nor do I have hours to while away at a cafe table, but neither do the people living there. Yet when they share a table with someone, it seems they do that and only that. Electronics don’t join them or newspapers either; it’s just the cup, the company and street for entertainment. Like us all, they have their own frustrations and bad days, but then the simple sweetness of a summer day returns.
Coming out of this trip where good quality coffee is poured into small cups with saucers to be enjoyed now versus reheated throughout the morning, I hope to rethink my oversized mug stirred with healthier “milk” slurped hastily as tv news drones in the background. Here, back home in this country even with all its many challenges, there are tables to sit at and silence to listen to.
The Delta croissant wasn’t even close to that other one, which in my mind I can still taste, so it only took one bite for me to decide to leave it on the plate. I did, however, keep the mini Bonne Maman Fraises preserves that came with it, mostly for that iconic sweet miniature red and white checked lid. Maybe it will sit on the kitchen counter for a few days and I’ll pass by it and remember, or it’ll join the other jams in the cupboard. Or maybe I’ll break its seal and spread it over some crusty bread and make myself a moment.