Adieu, Adieu (Day 16)

Gate E19 is relatively empty an hour and a half before departure.  Kristy is off buying a magazine for the flight.  There are a few couples talking about forty feet from me, but otherwise I’m alone.

We’ve been in Europe for just over two weeks, although it feels longer.  In some ways, it seems like we’ve been here forever, like we are the sort of wealthy folks for whom travel is a lifestyle and home is a hotel room.  I could get used to that, although we don’t have anywhere near enough money to make it work.  As such, I’ll have to accept that our trip is over, and who knows when we’ll be back to Europe, if ever.

Peering into the past here is very different from doing so in the United States.  Going two millennia back through history is not an active possibility in the U.S.  If studying American history is like looking at the river of time, examining European history is like standing at the edge of the ocean–deep and overwhelming.  We learned a lot on this trip and will hopefully retain a small portion of it.

One of the things I noticed is the general redundancy of travel.  Every site is a castle, church, or museum.  By my count, we saw: 4 castles, 5 churches, 11 museums, 3 cruises, 2 monuments, 3 walking tours, 1 musical, 1 battleship, countless subway stations, and the Happiest Cat in the World.  

In the end, Kristy and I agreed that Amsterdam was our favorite of the cities visited.  The relaxing atmosphere, temperate weather, English speakers, and charming canals make it a perfect location for our retirement.

Finally, we want to thank our families, who contributed to the cost of the trip and who watched our children and the dog.  Also, thanks to our friends who kept our cat company.  

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The Importance of Tolerance (Day 14)

Amsterdam exists where no city should.  Over centuries, Dutch engineers have dried out marshy land, built a series of canals and dikes, and developed architectural innovations to enable construction in the area.  Today’s tour guide tells us that a full 60% of the Netherlands sits on land reclaimed from swamps and marshes.  The most important company in the country is the water company, he said, and they are paid accordingly.

We did a seven hour tour through the city today.  That sounded daunting, like some sort of endurance test, but the guide offered numerous stops and various breaks to keep things relaxed.  We saw a few churches, a synagogue, a half-dozen canals, and a coffeeshop called the Dampkring.

While we did not enter the coffeeshop–and please note that this is the local term for “place to buy and consume weed and hash”–we did see Harry, the Happiest Cat in the World, who lives there and is, by our guide’s account, “very chill.”  Harry is a very old cat, so old that no one knows his real age.  The guide noted that the medical benefits of marijuana could be the reason.  

It’s a misconception that drugs are legal here. Soft drugs–weed and hash–are “tolerated,” meaning that you can smoke them in certain places and no one will bother you, but they are not legal.  Sort of like jaywalking, which is a crime that no police officer will ever ticket you for.  “Hard drugs,” like heroin or cocaine, pose far graver societal consequences and are therefore not given the same exemptions.  Also, hard drugs, unlike their softer counterparts, cause cats to do terrible things.  Give your cat PCP if you don’t believe me.

We finished our tour at the Anne Frank House, which has been converted to a museum.  It presents the Holocaust in microcosm, on a very personal level.  I have not read Diary of a Young Girl, but I am obviously familiar with its general outlines.  It was haunting to walk through the annex where her family (and others) hid for so long.  

Prior to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the Jewish community had gotten along fairly well in Amsterdam.  Unfortunately, Dutch Jews were removed and exterminated at much higher rates than in neighboring countries, because the Dutch royal family fled to England, leaving a power vacuum eagerly filled by the Nazis.   Anne and her family were sent to Auschwitz six months before liberation, which did not come soon enough.  Only her father survived.

Even in a city of tolerance and openness, there are reminders of the foul bitterness that divides people.  This can be found anywhere, if you’re looking for it, of course, but the juxtaposition with the modern city, where a majority are non-Dutch natives, is stark.  The city seems to have the right idea, though, preserving symbols of the past’s shortcomings as a guide for creating a better future.  Here’s hoping it works.

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Stairway to Heaven (Day 13)

Before we left for Europe, I asked a friend of mine–a co-worker from Italy–what nice things I could do with my wife in Amsterdam.

He shook his head.  “Your wife?  Already you have ruined Amsterdam.”

And I can kind of see what he means.  Kristy is an excellent guide to places like the Rijksmuseum.  She takes me safely through crowded streets, up and down stairs, in and out of alleyways, and around piles of dog shit. But I’ve noticed a certain selectivity in what she points out to me as we travel.  She mentions bakeries, souvenir shops, and old churches.  So far, in Amsterdam, we have passed no coffee shops, sex shops, or gentlemen’s clubs.  Perhaps the city, once home to many English Puritans, has retained a heritage of restraint and temperance?

Either way, the city is adorable, with its canals and tall, narrow buildings.  Kristy wonders about the possibility of moving here.  I am open to the possibility, even if my Italian friend’s words suggest that it might be a bad idea.

Our hotel–Hotel Clemens–is lovely, and it’s staffed with the friendliest people we’ve met on the trip.  These are the steps just inside the door to the hotel.  (There is no elevator.)

Notice how the stairs curve sharply at the top and grow steeper?  Good times!  The concierge carried both our suitcases up these stairs, plus another (similar) set to the second floor, where we have our room.  He refused a tip, saying, “You will be here three days.  We [the hotel staff] must take care of you.”

Almost everyone here speaks impeccable English–better, in fact, than many people from the United States.  We asked our waiter about it after dinner, and he credited American pop culture, noting that you pick up a lot by listening to American music and watching American movies.  Cultural imperialism at work!

Tomorrow, we have a seven hour walking tour, which includes a canal trip and the Anne Frank House.

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God, That’s Good! (Day 12)

The best meal in Paris is at Ave Maria.  Yes, we’ve only been here six days; no, we haven’t eaten everywhere.  But–all hyperbole aside–the meal we ate there on Saturday night may be the best meal I’ve eaten in my life.

I’m a picky eater, and I don’t like to try new things, so when I saw the menu, with its limited selection of chef’s options, I was prepared to be displeased.  I ordered an African-accented chicken meal that came with rice and a tropical salad.  (My wife ordered a vegetarian meal, pictured above.)  The meat was tender, juicy, perfectly seasoned, and nicely complimented by a salad with orange and pineapple slices in it.  I found myself scraping the plate with my fork, looking for every last morsel.  Dessert was a delicious tart, made with mousse and wonderfully fresh raspberries.  The portions were large, and the prices were reasonable.  Otis Redding and the Temptations played from the speakers.

This was not, in the strict sense, French food, but that doesn’t matter.  Being in Paris does not require one to eat escargot.  I had some crepes, okay?  I drank wine and ate a baguette.  I think I covered the essentials.  

Still, I’m telling you, Ave Maria is essential.  If I ever come back to Paris, I’ll be back here for sure.

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Paris, je t’aime (Day 11)

One of the guards at the Louvre inquired politely about the itinerary for our trip, and we told him: London, Paris, Amsterdam.  “Ah,” he said, “please tell me that you like Paris better than London.”  We laughed. 

It’s an interesting debate, weighing the merits of two of the world’s great cities.

Kristy prefers London.  She cites the lack of graffiti, the trash-free streets, the well-dressed people.  Some of this might be related to the fact that we stayed in the business district, not the Bohemian quarter, but even under the Eiffel Tower the grass is littered with beer bottle caps and cigarette butts.  You wouldn’t see that outside of Buckingham Palace.  London is inviting.

Personally, I prefer Paris, rough edges and all. London is clean and orderly, maybe too much so.  It feels like it’s On Display, as if you shouldn’t touch it.  It’s a lovely city, but Paris…  Paris is passionate.  The clutter and graffiti and the cigarette smoke feel less like urban decay and more like the side effects of drinking too much wine on a warm summer evening and throwing caution out the window.  This is a place where your inhibitions are lower, where dinners are longer, where the metros have musicians playing “Let It Go” on accordions.  It’s more feral than London, more bizarre.  It’s not a surprise that the great American novelists of the 20th century–Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald–all spent significant time here.  Every corner brings some new sensation, a sight or smell or sound that changes your perception of the city, of life.  

Do we have to come back?

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If You’ll Be My Bodyguard… (Day 10)

Paris is beautiful.  Look at the picture above, taken at Les Invalides, a monument to French military men erected by King Louis XIV.  Gorgeous, isn’t it?  And here’s the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe:

Wow, right?

Maybe you’re excited to plan a trip to Paris.  You have the money.  You can drop the kids off with relatives.  No, it’s time that’s stopping you.  You have some vacation days saved, but you’re worried it isn’t enough.  Before you call your travel agent, you want to know:  Is a week in the City of Lights enough to do everything?  

Well, no.  

But I can help you.  It won’t be free, but I can save you time.  All you have to do is cover my travel expenses (airfare, hotel, meals, admissions) and you’ll be able to move to the front of the line at major attractions!  Am I magical?  Am I politically connected?  No–I’m blind!  

With Friend-with-Benefits, you’ll receive the following exclusive perks:

  • Skip the line at Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Seine river cruise!
  • Use a lift (elevator) instead of climbing all those pesky stairs!
  • Descriptive audio tour handsets!
  • Personal attention from museum employees!
  • Touch priceless artifacts!

All that, and you only have to pay for my part of the trip!  No additional fees!

With all your extra time, you’ll be able to see me, do more, and be more!  And look, I eat cheap:

Why wait? Friend-with-Benefits is available for travel as early as Christmas!  Enjoy winter in Paris with your significant other and your visually impaired faux best friend.  Yes, I have to sit at your table; no, I don’t have to sleep in your hotel room.  I probably do have to hold onto your arm as we go place to place, but once we skip the line feel free to sit me in a corner to wait for your return.  

This is going to be the vacation of your life, the one you’ve been dreaming of, only with me there, gazing in the wrong direction and asking if I’m looking at The Thinker.  

Great fun awaits!

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Almost Speechless (Day 9)

It looks like a postcard, but it isn’t.  My wife took this picture during our walking tour of the Eiffel Tower.  There are some places so beautiful, so iconic, that almost any picture you take looks frameable , and this is one.

Our tour met at 9:30 PM so we could see the illumination of the Tower and look at the city at night.  It doesn’t get dark here until 10.  (Everything seems to be later in France–even natural phenomena.)  It was breathtaking to arrive at the foot of the Tower just as the lights came on.  Every hour, a set of 16,000 lights blink on and off, giving the structure a sparkling look, which is quite impressive.

We went to the second floor–which is higher up than it sounds–and surveyed the City of Lights.  This was the moment I’ve dreamed of since I saw that National Geographic cover in 1989.  It was better than I had imagined.

The evening was so amazing that I’ve almost forgotten to mention Versailles, which is the most impressive palace we’ve visited on our trip.  In fact, it’s so beautiful that even the French Revolutionaries who turned Notre Dame into a warehouse didn’t abuse it.  (They did sell off the furniture, though.)  Kristy wants to live there, although the last queen who had the place fared poorly.

Tomorrow:  The Arc de Triomphe and more.

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