Germany

I couldn’t identify what it is, precisely (genau, in German), that makes Germany eerily similar to the Midwest. Perhaps it was the rolling fields of grain punctuated by forests, or the food–carbs and sausages, all of it dense and satisfying–or something more ethereal in the air or the light (perhaps, I wondered, Germany has roughly the same latitude as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa and, therefore, receives the sun at the same angle). Perhaps it was none of these things, or all of them. Perhaps the Germans who settled in the United States were drawn by their intuition, like migratory birds, to land that just felt right, land they knew how to work and that would accept their transplanted practices.

All of Germany, of course, was lovely–I want to make that clear. But every so often its loveliness was followed by a kind of deja vu. In a small town outside Munich, we walked down a gravel road along which, I was for a brief moment all but certain, a high-school friend of mine lived. We ate fried things that could’ve been–and, really, should be–served on sticks at the MN State Fair. Their dirndls and lederhosen aside (which are almost worth a post of their own; suffice to say, traditional German dress is a great uniter, bringing together young hipsters wearing it with irony and older folks for whom ornate leather shorts are as essential in the summertime as sandals), the people at biergartens making industrious progress toward the bottoms of their steins had the same faces, the same bodies, the same rhythms of nods, glances, and laughs as my neighbors when I was a kid in Southeastern MN.

Germany was a kind of parallel universe, like a lost chapter from Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which past events occurred a bit differently, resulting in a present that mirrors our own with a few jarring distortions. Picture the Midwest as you know it, with its terrain, its weather, and its people. Now tweak that vision: make the beer better, for starters. Instead of an unsustainable reliance on cars and fossil fuels, connect nearly every town and city with a reliable train network, and install solar panels on every fourth roof. Hear people speaking German and see them inch beyond the shadow of oppression and genocide–on this, the difference between our universes is only a matter of specifics–by recreating, every day, a society that respects its inhabitants. If not for a few quirks of history, we could be them, and they could be us.

Photo: a crucifix in the chapel used by members of the German Parliament in the Reichstag, Berlin

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Live and Let Live in Amsterdam

It’s a surprise to no one when I say that cities have personalities. We describe our vacation spots as sleepy, charming, vibrant, or go farther and say that an entire city reminds us of a frat boy: boundlessly enthusiastic, smelling of cologne, and consistently drinking us under the table. (Sounds like Vegas to me!)

What surprised me, however, was that despite its reputation as a party city (let’s just say it: hookers and pot), Amsterdam reminded me of a kindly grandfather.

If you’re lucky enough to know your grandparents as an adult, as I have, you find out that they’re not just the sweet folks who slip you a five-spot on your birthday and take you to petting zoos. That’s part of them, sure, and an important part, but if you know them as an adult, you actually listen to their stories. You linger in their homes after big family dinners, and what you realize is this: they’ve seen more of the world than you have, they’ve lived through major moments in history and were changed by them, they’ve got a style all their own, and, yes, they can absolutely drink you under the table. They have, after all, had lots of practice.

In a city known for its liberal policies hookers and pot, I confess I was expecting more of that hard-partying, whoop-it-up, frat boy vibe. And at one time, I’m sure the city was that way. But now, wizened up by years of practice and decades of history, the coffee shops are full of casual smokers playing Uno, lacing their weed with tobacco to keep from getting too high. The Red Light District is run by dues-paying union members who approach their jobs like small-business owners. No one but the tourists find it strange. No one but the tourists are out of control. Grandpa Amsterdam has seen it all before and now feels like having a relaxing day of low-level activity, maybe a visit to one of the world-class museums, and he’ll probably end the day with a beer and a nap. “Do what you want,” the city seems to say, “but I’m going on a walk.”

That’s the charm of Amsterdam, after all. Ogle at the vices on display or jump in with both feet, but then join Grampsterdam on a tour of his city. Listen to his stories, learn a bit more about history, and bask in these sunny days you have. For us, that meant walking along the canals and buying more frites, wandering wide-eyed through the Van Gogh Museum, and standing slack-jawed and awed in Anne Frank’s bedroom. It meant seeing where Otto Frank tracked the Allies’ progress with pins on a map, running a finger along the lines marking Anne’s height–she wasn’t much shorter than I am–and craning our necks to see the place where she got her first kiss.

It was there, in front of the blacked-out windows, that it occurred to Matt and me just how constrained her life in Amsterdam was compared to how freely people live there now. The contrast is striking, perhaps obvious, but tracking the difference of 60 years felt like clarity.

I think that’s what I mean when I say that Amsterdam reminds me of someone’s grandfather–the city has perspective and wisdom, and is careful about which battles it chooses to fight. Why worry about whether or not folks are drinking a beer in a park? Don’t you remember the Nazis? That was a real problem. Just let the hookers do what they want.

Worse things have happened.

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Where’s Ghent?

When Matt and I aren’t traveling, we live in downtown Minneapolis. It’s the City of Lakes, a smaller metropolis with vibrant theater, dining, and music scenes, and currently topping a host of national polls: Fittest City, Most Bike Friendly City, Best Park System, etc. If Chicago is the brain of the midwest, our beloved city is its heart.

Minneapolis does not, however, rank as a national tourist destination. There are no national monuments to see, no tallest buildings to climb, no majestic vistas to look out on (if you don’t count lakes, forests, and farmland, which no one seems to). After all, who visits a state for its incredible education system or a preponderance of rooftop bars? Outside the Mall of America (a place no self-respecting local visits without children or out-of-town relatives in tow), there is no “reason” to come to Minneapolis. And have you heard how cold it gets here?

What this means is that European backpackers fly overhead and have no idea what they’re missing by going straight from LA to Chicago–but it also means that the few who do visit are surprised to love our city in a way no one is ever surprised to love New York.

So listen carefully when I tell you this: Ghent is the Minneapolis of Belgium.

If a local doesn’t tell you about it (the way our pal and native Belgian Daisy did for us), you’d zip right past Ghent on your way to Bruges or Brussels. Ghent is a smaller city than either of those two, with a population of about 250,000. It’s an entirely walkable city, though it has a logical and hassle-free public transit system, full of flower-lined canals and cobblestoned streets, imposing churches and more chocolateries than you could visit in a month. A perfect afternoon can be spent drinking potent Belgian beer in one of the many town squares, perhaps the one in the shadow of the city’s castle.

There is, of course, nothing to do in Ghent. You could, I suppose, take a boat cruise through the canals (for a fraction of the cost of doing this in Amsterdam or Bruges) or visit all six local cathedrals, but there are no “must dos” in this charming town. Unlike visiting London, no one will ask you, upon returning home, whether you visited Big Ben, rode the London Eye, or shopped at Portobello Road. Instead, people will probably ask, “Where’s Ghent?”

Helping us make the most of our brief three-day stay in Ghent were our AirBnB host Sas and one of her friends, who are some of the most generous people I believe I’ve ever met. They made sure we had everything we needed to enjoy our stay–including a map made up by local folks to tell you about their favorite hangouts. (It was on this map’s advice that we got fries from a friuttur who had been operating out of the same spot since 1858. I guarantee this place is not in any official guidebook, which is a crime.) They took us to the Lokerse Feesten music festival in a nearby town where we all had way too much champagne (complete with strawberries because that is, apparently, how they roll in this part of Belgium) and then to a local festival called Oudberg Fest the next night. This festival was held in the charmingly named “Father’s/Priest’s Butt” neighborhood.)

Sas gave us a tour of the town and taught us about the rebellious character of the Ghent people and the history that shaped them (there was a delightful story about Charlemagne). They shared with us more Belgian beer than I can, perhaps literally, account for and we got treated us to a meal at a very cool local restaurant (De Centrale), where one of Sas’s friends is chef. (In my favorite daydreams, I can still taste the vichyssoise–which is a sentence I have never had occasion to utter before. Thank you, Elias, for that particular gift.) And my dear Belgian friend Andromeda, whom I met while we were both au pairs in Ireland, came into town to visit and she and her fella pointed out precisely what to buy at Leonidas chocolate shop (white chocolate pralines–a delicious choice).

None of these things we did, not a single one, would be included on any official List of Things To Do in Belgium. To complete that list, you’d probably have to go to Disneyland Bruges with all the other tourists, where the man scooping gelato from a cart is wearing a chef’s hat (why? does scooping pre-made gelato make quite a mess?) and the line to ride a horse-drawn carriage circles the block. And all of that is fine and has its time and place; we get into line with everyone else when it’s called for, but there’s something wonderful about visiting a place that doesn’t have lines, that doesn’t come with a checklist, that doesn’t require the advance purchase of tickets. Because if your city visit isn’t pre-packaged, what choice do you have but to live as the locals do?

There’s no part of town the locals avoid due to buskers and peddlers and tourist hordes, so there’s no physical separation between the people who live in this city and the people who visit it. There’s no list of things to accomplish, no museum hours to fit into your schedule, no real obligations. And so you wander the winding streets with a beer in your hand and look up at buildings that look as they did 300 years ago. You drink the local drink, eat the local food, hear the local music, and leave your map in your bag because it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get anywhere.

If you’re lucky, you’ll make a new friend or two. If you’re luckier, you’ll feel complete in a way you hadn’t expected, and it’ll feel, maybe just a little bit, like a home away from home.

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Paris, I guess.

Okay, so, we’ve been remiss at updating the blog. I confess there have been times when I thought about writing, and then decided that I would rather go explore the city or drink wine with our hosts or, you know, nap. But most of the delay has been because I need to write about Paris next–and well, Matt and I both have very complicated feelings about our time there. Paris was, really, something of a mixed bag.

Matt and I had both visited Paris before, but this time, neither of us found it quite as magical as it had been in the past. Sure, we enjoyed drinking wine under the Eiffel Tower at night and eating tasty bread as we walked down charming, winding streets in Montmartre, but mostly, the Parisians themselves did a splendid job of robbing Paris of its charms. (To put it bluntly, Parisiens sont bitches.)

That said, I’m going to take the easy way out and provide our summary of Paris in list form. Given the fragmented experience we had in that city, it feels pretty appropriate. So, in no particular order and without further adieu, the lists!

OUR TOP FIVE TOURISTY PLACES
— Versailles
— Luxembourg Gardens
— Cafes of Montmartre
— Pantheon
— Guided tour of Omaha Beach

OUR TOP FIVE TASTY STREET FOODS
— Pain au chocolat
— Crepes (Matt’s fave combo was banana / Nutella)
— Baguette sandwiches with tasty meats and cheese and tomatoes
— Fries
— Croque Monsieur (but go easy on the b├ęchamel)

FIVE TIMES FRANCE WAS AWESOME
— Walking around the grounds at Versailles, including stops at Marie Antoinette’s hilarious little hamlet and Petit Trianon (you know, her smaller castle on the grounds of her larger castle–nearby her husband’s second castle. I can’t imagine why the French commonfolk turned on them…)
— When we walked over the Pont d’Art, which glittered with the locks secured to the railings. (Lovers write their names on a lock, secure it to the bridge, and throw the key into the River Seine. Makes for gorgeous, and heavy!, art)
— While out walking in Paris, we came across an entire park full of people drinking wine and playing boules, which is essentially French bocce ball.
— The entire day we spent in Normandy, visiting Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc, and the American Cemetery. Beautiful country, amazing history, and a knowledgable guide. While this was a rare day where we were proud to be Americans, we would also have been proud to be British or Canadian that day.
— At the weirdly fabulous movie theater at Les Halles where we took a break from a long day to watch World War Z in English.

FIVE TIMES FRANCE WAS TERRIBLE
— At the weirdly fabulous movie theater, we learned the French do not put butter on their popcorn. No butter was available for Americans either.
— Sunday mornings are times for the French to sit and eat brunch for six hours straight. I imagine this was not at all terrible for them, but we were unable to find a cafe with space for us to join them. We ate cheese sandwiches on a bench.
— Every time the Metro smelled like a combination of eggs, sewage, and horses.
— Every time we had to pay to use a toilet, which was most of the time. This is a privilege you should pay for, apparently.
— Every time we heard an American greet a shop owner by saying “Bonjer.”

FIVE FRENCH PEOPLE WE LOVED
— Our guide at Normandy and the other lady at the Tourist Information office. I know these are technically two separate people, but it is their job to be nice to tourists, so it feels like it falls into the same bucket.
— The guy who sold us wine and ice cream at Versailles
— The cafe owner who enjoyed my efforts at speaking French and helped me by pantomiming everything back to us to make sure we were on the same page
— The wine shop owner who chilled and opened our wine for us before we took it out to the Luxembourg Gardens for a picnic
— Marc, our AirBnB host for the first night we were in town. He waited an extra 45 minutes after our train was delayed and, perhaps more importantly, laughed at all our jokes.

FIVE FRENCH PEOPLE WE LOVED A LOT LESS
— Yvan, our other AirBnB host. Every time I asked him a question, he would respond to Matt instead. Apparently women should be seen and not heard, speak only when spoken to, etc.
— The waiter at a cafe who overcharged us for our wine because he didn’t think we’d notice
— The teenagers on the metro who filled the entire train car with French rap music blaring from their speakers. Admittedly, we were not the only people who did not enjoy them.
— The ticket agent at St. Lazare who kept rolling her eyes and sighing
— Pretty much all other Parisians

As you can see, Paris was a bit of a mixed bag. But stay tuned for a post about our adventures in Belgium. Gent is perhaps my new favorite city, and we had quite the carousing time with our AirBnB hosts. Get jazzed, ladies and germs, for music festivals, reunions with old friends, and gourmet food for $7.50. And if you have to choose between Gent and Bruges during your time in Belgium, I have a very strong opinion to share with you.

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