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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

They sat on fraying blankets and sheets of cardboard under bridges and flanking pedestrian walkways. Women, stocking footed, crossed-legged, dozens upon dozens. Some had constructed makeshift rooms from boxes and tape. They left their shoes, respectfully, outside of the door.

Passers-by flaunted Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clacked past in Armani suits and Prada shoes. They didn’t look down, barely a glance. (more…)

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Bruges

Another early morning, another train to catch. We are less hurried and leisurely stroll through the streets of Brussels, through a winter-stunted garden, past a mob of shrieking, soccer-ball kicking children, (or I suppose it’s football), and return to Centraaal Station once again.

More countryside. Houses, horses, mud.

We arrive in Bruges — pronounced in Dutch BROO-gah — and follow a throng of tourists into town.

Magical. Wonderful. Walt Disney could not have conjured a more picturesque village. Here we stand, at the technological height of civilization, and some how, miraculously, Bruges has remained virtually untouched by ‘development.’ No towering glass skyscrapers. No throwback ’60s architecture. Instead, we find a reminder of what life was (albeit updated with, you know, electricity and plumbing and such).

I want to frolic down the cobblestone paths.

We dine on waterzooi and stumpf. (Yes, these are real foods and delicious.)

We drink rich, hearty hot chocolate.

We marvel at Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child, and how man was able to bring softness and life to cold, hard stone.

We avoid long lines at the famous bell tower. I stand in the square below and take photos, expecting the cast of “Beauty and the Beast” to romp in and begin a musical number at any minute.

We wander through surrounding neighborhoods in awe that People Actually Live Here.

The sun tucks itself behind the clouds again soon after we arrive, and as the day progresses the city throbs with tourists. We take our leave, hop on the train for a final return trip to Brussels. One last night.

And in the morning, one more chocolate croissant.

OK, fine. Maybe I ate two….

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Amsterdam

We rise early on Saturday — my 30th birthday. Chocolate croissants and sausages for breakfast, then a dash to the train station.

For three hours, we watch the countryside fly by. A group of teeny-boppers bounces onto the train at Rosenthaal (the conductor rolls the R when announcing in Dutch, a long trill that gives us a little chuckle). They, of course, are loud, giggly, and choose the seats in front of ours. They chatter endlessly in Dutch about music. We know they’re talking about music because every so often they chant “Usher, Usher, Usher.”

Some things are different and some things are the same.

They disembark at Antwerp and the car is quiet again.

We arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal station and hustle into the chilly late-morning air. The sidewalks are crowded; the people, raucous. It’s like the Las Vegas of Europe.

It’s a beautiful place, even on a dull February day. The buildings huddle together along the canals. Boats and bicycles and swans. The city looks just about as I imagine it must have centuries ago, when a single tulip bulb was valued at the cost of an entire house. (You know, with the exception of paved roads and cars and the red-light district and the drunk and stoned English teenagers stumbling down the sidewalks.)

We pass coffee shops that aren’t really coffee shops (which is a shame because I could really use a cup of coffee). We arrive at the Anne Frank House — a queue of visitors winds out the door around the corner, seemingly endless. We move on.

Overwhelmed by other tourists, famished, and in search of quiet, we eschew the city’s hotspots. We almost get run over by cars speeding down the narrow cobblestone roads as we try to avoid cars parked on sidewalks. We pose a danger to cyclists (even though we try to stay out of the way). We finally make our way to a brown bar (so called because the walls are stained brown by tobacco smoke and age), Het Molenpad.

It’s dark and quiet, and the french fries are crisp and fresh, sprinkled with seasoning salt and served with garlicky aioli. Ketchup on fries? Highly overrated. We feast on sandwiches of thinly sliced ham and rich, melty brie. We sample Dutch beers.

We visit the Van Gogh museum. We walk through Blomenmarkt. We locate a little cafe for (finally!) a cup of coffee and a pastry.

The sun finally peaks from behind the clouds as we roll south, on the train again. We speed past windmills and canals and fields, following the light, but never quite reach it. By the time we arrive in Brussels, night has fallen. Another day has passed.

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Brussels, Belgium.

As far as I can tell, everything is gray. Even the grass. The raindrops that race across the window, big drops devouring little drops in their path. The sky. The buildings. The roads. The dirt. All of it is early morning gray.

Simply wonderful. Even if it is cold and raining. Because we are in Europe.

We pull into the Centraal Station. I love how they drag out the A here. It’s not Central. It’s Centraaaaaaaaal. I hear it repeated, over again in blurry romantic French, in rolling Dutch, in the less exotic English.  I’ve had about 2 hours of sleep — airplane sleep at that, so it wasn’t really real sleep at all — and my internal clock thinks it’s 2 a.m. But really it’s 8. The train conductors here wear flat-topped caps. The ride is smooth and the train, on time. Philadelphia transit could learn a thing or two.

Scott claims that the hotel is just a short walk from the train station. (Centraaaaaaaal, I laugh in my head, I’m a bit punchy and not very well caffeinated). We drag our luggage up the biggest hill in Brussels. The rest of the city is flat, but apparently our hotel is at the top of Everest. We maneuver cobblestone streets, and weave between commuters on bicycles and on foot, they at once ignore us and shoot us dirty looks as they dart past on their way to the subway. We circle and weave and walk and walk and walk. We pass a palace, and vow to return to take pictures later. (We will forget.) About forty minutes later, Scott leaves me alone in a square with the bags. I stand and wait as he seeks the hotel on his own. We are lost.

A shopkeeper watches me from his window — I stand out, taller than the pigeons, a shockingly green carry-on bag and a big suitcase in the middle of a square, standing next to a lone tree. I am the only person not in a rush to get somewhere else. I try to pretend that I know where I am, that I know where I’m going, where my husband is. I really don’t. It’s a thought that sends a thrill down the back of my spine. That’s part of the adventure.

We finally make it to the hotel. Drop off our luggage. Locate caffeine. Coffee cups here are tiny and the brew is very bitter. I down three cups in as many minutes. I grab a latte to go. We head back into the gray mist.

Our day is filled with subways, trams, walking, walking, walking. Scott speaks fondly of his five months living here. We visit his school. We take pictures of the house in which he resided. We visit the supermarket he frequented. Life was different then, 10 years ago. He seems amazed by how things have changed — how he has changed, too.

We walk to the Grand Place. Admire the remnants of old Brussels, ancient, ornate buildings. Rub a statue for good luck. Eat mussels and pomme frites, drink beer.

We seek Manneken Pis. At almost 400 years old, he wears a red tracksuit. Comfort before couture, I suppose.

I buy a waffle drizzled in dark chocolate. They give me a fork smaller than my ring finger. Scott holds my bright pink umbrella while I unbecomingly try to devour the entire thing in one bite.

It’s only 2 p.m., but words are blurred, eyes are glazed. We return to the hotel and crawl into bed, a wake-up call set for 6 p.m. We leave again at 7. Off we go to Pita Street — we enjoy soft pockets stuffed with savory lamb and giant, salty, fresh hunks of feta. More pomme frites. A box chocolate for later. Calories don’t count on vacation. (I’ll remind my scale when I get home.)

We fall into dark, blissful sleep — it is the last night of my 20s. Well done, 29. Well done.

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Wise Words

(As written in flight and with very little sleep.)

There comes a point when you’ve been strapped into a seat stationed in the depths of a metal tube, hurtling across the sky at hundreds of miles an hour for around 200 minutes that you realize: you did this to yourself. You chose to be trapped in an altogether too tiny compartment with dozens of other people – some with questionable bathing habits – and to witness for a while their idiosyncrasies and foibles. And there are still another couple of hundred minutes to go.

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I like to imagine myself as an explorer. A culture-seeker. A pseudo-jetsetter. A person who people look at and think “I wonder what Susan is going to do next? Where is she going? What is she planning?”

I roll the idea around in my mind over and over, especially on Sunday mornings, as I sit on the couch with my coffee, delighting in the imagery of it all. Then, finally, I rouse myself into a standing position around noon to brush my hair and change from my bathrobe into a sweatshirt.

I call this side of myself Aspirational Susan. I really like her. She’s kind of awesome. She’s who I want to be when I grow up. She inspires me to say things to Scott like: “You know what would be really fun? If we we drove to Atlantic City. Just because!” And then we all hop into the car and go. Scott has to come along because he helps rein Aspirational Susan in (she can get carried away sometimes), and also because he’s funny and has an excellent sense of direction.

For my soon-to-come birthday, Aspirational Susan had everything figured out: a trip to New York, a Broadway Show, a semi-fancy dinner, and cupcakes. Scott, it turned out, had other plans.

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There are a few things I require for calm and happy travel:

A pashmina-style wrap: Ideal for a) a blanket substitute, b) a pillow substitute, c) a mouth and nose guard if the person sitting next to me is either sick or smelly (trust me, this is how I survive on my daily train commutes, too).

Gum and trail mix: Because those $5 snack packs they sell on planes are unpredictable and not terribly satisfying.

A good book: Requirements for which are…a) portability (no hard-covers if possible) b) it’s engaging enough to occupy three to five hours of otherwise empty flight time now that many airplanes don’t show free films or TV shows anymore (whattup with that, airlines? That’s just being mean to your passengers) and c) not too emotionally draining (I prefer not to openly sob in public – an example of this kind of book is What is the What by Dave Eggers. That is a special Susan alone time book).

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