It’s no secret that I have a (not-so-secret) long-distance crush on the city of Istanbul. Recently, I ran across the passenger list for my grandmother’s passage to the US on the SS Themistokles on 27 Jan 1915.
My World History is splotchy at best, so my best assumption is that they fled the wrong part of the world at the right time… Gallipoli was mere months away, WWI was still raging in Europe. The US was opening its arms to immigrants who brought innovators and craftsmen and laborers to its shores. They travelled from Jaffa, through Piraeus (and through Cleveland apparently), to eventually settle in Brooklyn. Country of origin at the time (though technically Palestine): Turkey.
So maybe it’s in my blood.
Fast-forward 100+ years and I’m making a hodge-podge breakfast sandwich with what I’ve found in my fridge and pantry shelves: Persian cucumbers, pita bread, some red pepper spread from a jar I picked up in a market somewhere, avocado, smoked herring… I have a momentary and wistful flashback to a fish sandwich under a pop-up tent by the banks of the Golden Horn, in the Eminönü neighbourhood, across from the spice market, this side of the Galata Bridge.
More than New York City, more than Boston, this place calls me.
Balık Ekmek is common street food here, it’s fresh grilled fish served on a hunk of fresh bread with lettuce and onions and lemon juice if you want it as a sauce. It’s not fancy, but it is a simple kind of wonderful. The vendors walk around touting cups of pickles with fermented cabbage and pickle juice that’s meant for drinking. Even for one who likes pickles, it’s an acquired taste.
As much as the taste and freshness of the mackerel is the destination, what completes the experience and makes one’s senses come alive are the contrasts and interminglings here: the sounds and the bustle of the waterfront, the smells of the roasting corn and chestnuts mixed with the salty-ish city air, the colours and textures of the fabrics, the redness of the Turkish flag.
I’m daydreaming this morning: an ode to a mackerel sandwich, perhaps. The spring is trying to bust through here. And as a fairly dull and dreary winter comes to a close, I feel that familiar tug to the east, a restlessness in my legs to go adventuring, a void in my spirit where spice markets and lutes and zithers and magic carpets seep into my dreams.
This summer, I finally made good on a thing I’ve been considering for much of the past decade. I schemed with my widely-distributed network of friends, examined my pandemic-induced sense of falling and failing and detachedness and isolation, considered my untethered lifestyle, consulted my supportive and completely remote team at work, and was encouraged by some enthusiastic (and possibly slightly envious) friends at home… I spent 3 months travelling (and working) elsewhere. The emphasis on elsewhere meant that the where needed to be as far away from here as possible given the circumstances.
I set out to see some places in Europe I hadn’t been, and at the same time visit the friends I hadn’t seen in ages. The trip culminated with a stay at a friend’s house and morphed into some subsequent weeks of working remotely from there. Since a large part of my immediate team is in India, the fact that I was in a much closer time zone meant we could have more meaningful meetings and collaborate earlier in their day. Since I was working a different shift, it meant I had time in the mornings to explore Aachen and its surrounds before beginning my day (on India time) and continuing as the US started theirs.
I started the adventure with two weeks off. I visited a friend in Amsterdam and explored a wee bit of Holland in a haze of pandemic-fueled anxiety. I went to Belgium, again visiting a long-time dear friend/co-adventurer to see different aspects of life and leisure there. When my time off was ending, I travelled to Berlin with the intent of meeting a friend there, and again seeing the city through her eyes. We used our yoga to minimise the disappointment that bubbled up when that visit didn’t turn out at all as expected.
As I travelled and saw those I hadn’t seen in eons, I was feeling more welcome away than I was at home, which was part of the impetus to get out of Dodge in the first place. To dodge Dodge, as it were.
From Berlin I went to Aachen, where my experiment in working remotely began in earnest; it’s here where the unintended extension of my trip unfolded. It went something like this: I simply wasn’t ready to go home yet.
A friend who was watching my flat back home told me that it looked as though I had been kidnapped, time stopped, a used coffee mug forgotten in the sink (I wouldn’t discover this until I returned home and the seasons had turned). And maybe I had been, in a way; kidnapped that is: the thought of returning was more paralysing than the thought of staying, even without adequate outerwear, shoes, pants or (especially) a place to spend the next 8 weeks.
And so I undertook the task of finding temporary lodgings that wouldn’t a) break the bank or b) be too far from the immediate surrounds which were growing on me. I was stressed out and my options were waning as my impending departure date grew closer. My stabs in the dark of finding a place to stay somehow corroborated my poor aim and kicked me in the gut for good measure. Yet against all odds, and as I ran out of options, a personal philosophy reared its head: things work out, just not the way you expected. 48 hours before I was scheduled to fly, it was a near-stranger that came to my rescue. A friend of a friend with a house to lend, asking very little but kindness in return for his generosity. I am still beyond grateful.
These weeks, turned months, abroad meant I lived out of a suitcase and slept on a borrowed bed, cooked in a borrowed kitchen, foraged salad and berries and herbs in a borrowed garden, and woke each day on borrowed time.
I started writing this post weeks ago from the terrace of that borrowed house…in a country where I had only a smattering of friends, a handful of useful words and phrases in the local language, and a suitcase full of chocolate and other consumables that I’d intended to bring home with me weeks prior when my return ticket was supposed to return me to the States. Staying, ironically, felt a bit like I was running away.
To me, Corona-time has felt like a swirling mass of social anxiety, where the rules change by the day and any social awkwardness is put under an electron microscope: my every cell felt on-edge these past months, on the verge of Something Very Bad about to happen. Heeding that, I’d been cautious to exceedingly careful with interpersonal contact. Still, the weeks of travelling and staying with friends were more “peopling” than I’d had in nearly 2 years. I’d been awkward and amateurish with friends, near-terrified of public spaces (especially in Holland, where I’m still not convinced they think COVID is even a thing), and more reclusive than one normally would be on a semi-extended holiday abroad. All the while, I was thankful that Germany seemed much more organised against this mad bug.
And so, on the terrace as I was writing, a silly quote from my college freshman roommate swam into my mind: wherever you go, there you are. Me, in a borrowed house a few blocks from the Aachen Tierpark, where the he-wolf lost his mate and now howls at night trying to find her. Indeed. Here I am.
There’s the Tierpark and also a Bauernhof nearby, giving the air a certain je ne sais quoi when the wind shifts, and the greenery makes one feel like the heart of the city is several kilometres, not blocks, away. I’m working remotely with a laptop and a portable monitor and headset so the neighbours don’t think I’m completely mad. But dodging reality while creating something of a parallel reality is a little weird. Because at the end of the day, regardless of time zone, it’s still me at the end of the Teams meeting or email thread or WhatsApp call, avoiding dealing with the Bathroom Project and the batshit crazies where I’m from, and the local news cycles and the Physical Therapist and the Dentist and the Gynecologist and probably more ists than I’m aware exist.
Wherever you go, there you are. On a terrace, near the zoo, 1000-year-old churchbells ringing out periodically. It’s not bad, here, except that the mad ramblings in my brain are along for the ride as well.
These borrowed or stolen weeks of working and wandering were wonderful, if I’m honest: mornings before work there was time for a walk to the farmers market and chai from the coffee truck, all manner of local goods on offer: cheese and ridiculously fresh produce and local baked goods and regional specialties. Other days I’d walk in the nearby Nadelwäld, following the Eselsweig into the trees, watching the fog lift off the fields, horses grazing in their paddocks without a care.
I met additional friends of friends, coffee friends and friend-friends, the latter with whom I’d go hiking and apple picking and farmers marketing and walking in the days and weeks to come. I think I romanticized the simple-ness of it all, because much of my existence for those weeks was really just about walking and going to the market and the forest and working and making supper and crashing so I could do it all over again the net day. It didn’t suck.
And as the weeks unfolded, I revelled in the quality of life, the simplicity and wholeness: I didn’t drive, I barely even rode a bicycle. Rather, walking the cobbled streets daily, I passed centuries-old city walls and the even-older cathedral. I rinsed my hands in the city’s warm and sulfuric mineral spring fountains, bought yogurt in glass jars and Eier by the half-dozen from a guy with a cart at the farmers market. I picked lettuce and herbs from the garden, made applesauce from the apples we picked on the weekend, and brewed tea with the sage and rosemary and mint.
One morning, a few days before I was to fly out, I was walking through the pine forest with a heavy heart. The morning was also heavy with what felt like change in the air. In an instant, a low fog materialised and weaved its way through the pines, momentarily grabbing my ankles and stopping me in my tracks. The birdsong, the horses whinnying in the distance, the needle-muffled footsteps… it occurred to me not for the first time in recent days, that these small moments are precious. These Nadelwälder would never be the same as in this precise moment. Me either.
Being a guest in others’ lives made me think deep about the long-lost art of hosting. In French, the verb accueillir (to host) also means to receive or greet or welcome. In German, it might be Gastfreundschaft zeigen…the word freund rings clear. Of all the things I learnt on this trip, the strongest lesson was how to receive and be humbled by an outpouring of graciousness by so many who really didn’t have to do a thing. It was a profound contrast to the 18 months of compounded inquiet and trepidation I had escaped, no idea if traces of that would remain when I returned.
So that was the middle part of the story. I took one more sojourn at the end of my stay: I went back to Turkey, unexpectedly solo, and experienced more warmth (human and atmospheric) than I could ever imagine. With that, I left Europe with a renewed faith in the goodness of strangers, realising at the same time how much I needed the independence of that last adventure…Aachen’s hot springs somehow still pulsing in my veins.
My yoga practice has taught me about balance, and the eternal tug-of-war with the concept of enough. This trip taught me lessons in receiving rather than always giving, in letting the Universe set a trajectory rather than charting a course, in seeing what transpires rather than injecting will into an outcome…
Lessons learnt from 3 months in limbo:
Bring the warm coat…it will come in handy!
Friends come out of the woodwork and surprise you when you least expect it (and need it most)
Don’t get attached to an expectation; we are part of a machine that is in continuous motion
Make the most of, and work with, what you’ve got…
…You can make do with much less than you think you need
Friendship is neither transactional nor always balanced, but it is reciprocal
Being an introvert in a pandemic comes with its own echelons of social anxiety that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get (and you’re not required to explain)
There are more strangers with warm hearts than with ill intentions
Show up: physically and intentionally
Be deliberate: with words, integrity, intention, respect, vulnerability, action, generosity
Accept acts of kindness and pay it forward
Thank you, Germany (and Holland and Belgium and Turkey)… I will be back.
This entry comes at the end of a larger story, the middle bits of which I’m still not entirely sure how to convey. I’ve just finished a long stretch in Europe, totalling roughly 3 months away from home which was both an experiment in working remotely and an escape from home to learn more about the meaning of the concept of “home”. The working part was bookended by holiday weeks (for which I am very grateful); the days off helped me explore, recharge, reconnect (with humans), disconnect (from the blaring news cycles), re-evaluate (humans and news and all manner of things), and mostly begin to contemplate what comes next (the answer to which is still a mystery).
But I digress. That is a much bigger nut to crack and, consequently, summarily summarise.
I wanted to end my days in Europe on a sunny note, with toes in warm Mediterranean sand, appendages dangling in bright blue water. Due to circumstances beyond my control, plans for a Mediterranean escape didn’t unfold the way I had anticipated, so I aimed for a semi-familiar place with new and unexplored adventures to be had…
This trip kicked off much the same as my other trips to Istanbul: a ride from the airport, a crowded highway, a wending through shop-choked streets, and a first glimpse of the Galata Tower, the iconic sight that brings me back, as I cross a modern bridge over the Golden Horn, to one of my favourite views in this old-meets-new city. I’ll sit and watch this old landmark in the days to come, listening to the ferry horns and the corn- and mackerel- and mussel-hawkers at the waterfront that make up the soundtrack to this bustling section of Istanbul.
I’m here this time for a significant amount of time: I have 10 days to more calmly explore Istanbul’s nooks and crannies, and I’ve booked a room in a cave house in Cappadocia, that rocky, other-worldly place I’ve long longed to explore.
The Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds just before dawn and at 4 other times during the day, adding a musical backdrop that is at times soothing or jarring, depending on one’s proximity to a mosque; the Imam’s voice projects across the bustling cobbled streets and resounds in the alleyways, bumping into the other nearby calls. The chant is my wake-up call, as this soundscape adds to the ways the city mesmerises me every time I’m here: it is a mystical mélange of old and new, of East and West, of saffron and silk, of wood (and tobacco) smoke, magic lamps and flying carpets…
I spend a couple of days in the city, exploring old haunts: the Mısır Çarşısı, the Eminönü neighbourhood, the cobbled, graffiti-flecked, narrow streets around the Galata tower, and of course the bustle around the waterfront. I also have time to wander into and around things I’ve missed the other times I’ve been here: an evocative staircase built in the mid 1800s called the Camondo Stairs; the Süleymaniye Mosque, perched atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul, its minarets overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, facing South-ish towards the Asia Minor portion of Turkey (and, farther-flung, Mecca), street food! Lunch one day was a balik ekmek from the food vendors on the waterfront (and a side of pickled cabbage and pickles, swimming in a beet-y pickle juice that is meant as a drink), and I managed to survive the gauntlet of the spice market without buying all of it.
As if my castle fetish wasn’t entirely satisfied in Germany, I set out on my second day to visit the Yedikule Castle and its seven dungeons. It turns out, however, that the government’s efforts to paint a pretty face on a country that is facing some dark socio-economic times have launched so many restoration projects that nearly every city wall and ancient mosque and historical building is surrounded by scaffolding and/or is closed to visitors due to renovations. I’ll reserve my political tirades for dinner over raki and just say that my exploration of old stone walls, turrets and dungeons will need to wait for another day.
The saving grace of the afternoon was a wander around the outskirts of the castle into a (very small) town square, where the local fruit seller invited me into his garden that abutted the old castle wall. Here, I was able to see some of the old stonework up close, and from him bought some of the most delectable fresh figs I’ve ever had. I ended up sharing part of my taxi ride back to the hotel with a young local Architect woman who offered to show me some of the city when I returned to Istanbul. I love seeing places through the eyes of locals, and I was excited to get her perspective on not only the city’s buildings but the political situation from someone of her generation. Google Translate for the win!
After a lovely Turkish breakfast, I embarked on the next phase of the adventure: the moon. Or something…
If Dr. Seuss hooked up with Dr. Ruth and Rumi and Akbar the Great, and they were asked to design something to rival Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon (but make it pigeon-friendly and not worry so much about how weird it gets), we’d end up with something akin to the rock formations in the Cappadocia region.
From the 6th Century BC, people populated the region encompassing what is now Göerme, Çavuşin, Ügrüp, Üchisar, Üzengi, Gomeda, and their surrounds. They built cave homes and underground cities and pigeon houses and churches and monasteries in the fairy chimneys and limestone formations created by the volcanoes and wind and water that sculpted the landscape here millions of years ago. I can’t do justice to a retelling of the long history, but this is a semi-concise recap of the main events, from ancient Hittites to Persian satraps and Zoroastrian cults to ancient Christians and Byzantines and, later, Turkish clans. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder!
I did the requisite balloon ride over the fairy chimneys, as one does here. And as I tried not to be sucked in by the Insta-Selfieism of it all, I watched the sun rise over Love Valley and was dumbstruck by the colours and the clear air and most of all the topography, which may be, quite literally, a geologist’s wet dream.
Land of the giant penis rocks
After the balloon ride, I wanted to see Love Valley from the valley floor. From above it was spectacular, but I wanted to feel the scale of the place. If I tried to explain the rock formations, I’d say it’s like Stonehenge or Easter Island, but instead of manmade stone carvings, the result of the lava and erosion and water somehow resulted in 50-metre-tall penises, lined up in a row, dotted throughout a carved-out limestone valley. Even I would think I was making it up if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It really looks surreal. So I hiked around the rim, cheered on some of the racers in the Salomon Ultra Trail Race that was taking place that day, and dropped into the valley to gawk as I walked through this other-planetary place.
Facing one’s fears in Rose Valley
Someone decided fifteen hundred years ago that they would build a church in a giant rock, in the middle of a lot of other giant rocks, in the middle of nowhere! I had hiked from somewhere at the edge of Sword Valley into Red Valley and then Rose Valley, looking for this church carved into a fairy chimney amongst thousands of other fairy chimneys and found, after a meandering semi-trek, the Ayvali Kilise.
Here, the hike took a turn…
The trails were vaguely marked but fairly obvious. And I had a map and knew the general direction towards which I needed to head. Feeling semi-confident, I followed the trail and the map and the GPS arrow. Then, the problem: although the map’s dotted line pointed me along a trail in the correct direction, what the dotted line did notdo, was stop when it was time. But the trail did, and quite abruptly at that. At a cliff (with a gorgeous view, but that didn’t help much when I realised I needed to go down the same way I had gone up…)
So in an attempt to double-back and get back to the main trail, I encountered the most frightening 2 metres I’ve ever hiked: a narrow, eroded limestone arch bridge I needed to cross in order to make it out of there. It had a 10-metre drop on one side and a limestone cliff on the other, so my margin of error was approximately 30cm (or one foot, literally). I held my breath (also quite literally), stepped gingerly, and did not look anywhere but where I needed to go in order to live. As my foot cleared the last of the harrowing sandy and loose stone, I breathed, walked two steps, and saw the sign with the ⚠ and some equally nebulous arrows.
Because Turkey: a toothless farmer appeared moments later, proffered lunch (I graciously declined), tea (ditto), and directions (accepted, gladly). In hindsight, lunch and tea in his tractor cart might have made for an interesting twist to the story.
The rest of the hike from Rose Valley to Çavuşin was wonderfully uneventful, if you don’t count the vistas and the kind locals offering grapes from the vine and the street pups and the looming stone castle that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a small, dusty bazaar (and bizarre) street… I slept well that night in my cave room.
Step away from the tour bus
On offer here are tours: Red, Blue, Silver, Green, Gold… each offering a glimpse of the sights, and an Exit Through the Gift Shop approach to seeing a place. Since I had the luxury of several days in Cappadocia and I generally try to avoid crowds and tourist traps, I declined the canned tours and worked out a series of hikes and an itinerary of “must-see” places with the gracious and story-full owner of the cave hotel where I was staying. He grew up here, so was thrilled to craft a list of places for me to see. The first day, we headed out after breakfast and took a cursory look out over Pigeon Valley, where he gave me the scoop on the pigeon houses that dot the fairy chimneys throughout Cappadocia. Pigeons are held in high regard in Turkey, and throughout history have been used here as a means of communication (carrier pigeons) and as a source of fertilizer (poop). I’d also suspect, as today, there was a status element to one’s pigeon collection. To think that these pigeon coops were carved so skillfully into the rock centuries ago only adds wonder to the scene.
From Pigeon Valley we drove to the underground city of Kaymakli, inhabited in the 6th century (and beyond) to protect the villagers from invaders. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at a local street market and picnicked by the side of the road, just next to centuries-old stone carvings. The warmth of the Turkish spirit really shined as bright as the brilliant day: my host and his stories of the area, and a neighbour to the place we were lunching who invited us into his home, gave us apples and quince from his trees, and offered tea. It was a recurring theme: chestnuts or walnuts or apples or tea or grapes, offered by complete strangers in warm greeting, looking for nothing but a smile in return. In retrospect, I realise that the people who wanted to sell me something offered much less of this gracious hospitality.
The highlight of the outing came late in the day… we ventured on to Soğanlı, another magical village with cave houses, a 6th century church, and a sort-of ghost town: the rock houses are now all abandoned because the government moved the residents to alternate housing (almost ironically) due to rockslides.
Between the apple tea and the warmth of the day (the sunshine and the big hearts I encountered), I left with the feeling I need to come back here to explore the secrets this place holds.
Wrapping up the trip with some raki.
I’ve mixed up my itinerary in this retelling, but suffice to say it was a fairy chimney-full adventure, making me again grateful for the opportunity to experience such a remote-feeling but altogether available spot, replete with history and fresh air and warm smiles and gracious hearts.
I extended my stay in Cappadocia for 2 days because I felt I couldn’t leave quite yet, but still managed to reconnect with the new Architect friend for a walk around the Fener neighbourhood and a dinner which included probably too much raki in relation to the hour of my trip to the airport the next morning.
The time flew, and I left Turkey feeling lighter but also like I’ve got unfinished business in the heart of the country…like I have more adventuring to do and so much more to learn about a place so steeped, like its tea, in history and culture.
Once again, I’m leaving a place feeling as though I’m leaving a part of me there and bringing a part of there back to be with me while I’m gone…
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
Throughout Germany, and many other countries in Europe, there are small brass cobblestones marking the threshold of homes and businesses. Stumbling stones, they’re called. Stolpersteine. Here lived… Here worked… a soul whose days were cut short. I had read about these stones but hadn’t seen any until one morning I (almost literally) stumbled across some at Rungestraße 5, two families’ plights in the stones at my feet.
Here lived Günter, Leo and Ella Brauner…murdered in Auschwitz. Here Lived the Abrahamsohns: Grete…escaped and resettled; David…deported, murdered in Theresienstadt; Walter…escaped, caught, deported, murdered in Auschwitz; Rudolf…Escaped, ran, hid, ran again, resettled.
I spent a week in Berlin, walking kms and kms (>50km if add up all the daily steps) seeing where history (and infamy) were made, where brave hearts broke, and where madmen walked. I am here as an experiment in working remotely, so I walked when I wasn’t working, trying to take in as much of the city as I could, in-between time zones, before and after Teams meetings.
I can’t say I fell in love with the city. In fact, a small part of me detested it. But the other part of me started to consider the great lengths this city, this country, has taken not to bury its past, but to exhibit its ugliness in full view and make policy to make certain the atrocities that led to and pervaded during the Nazi rule don’t ever happen again here. Coming from a place whose brief history has been so whitewashed, this approach is morbidly refreshing.
I visited the requisite monuments: Brandenberg Gate, where black and white photos of Nazi parades dance in your head as you gaze in half-awe/half-disgust. Checkpoint Charlie, a now innocuous-looking guardhouse that once made or broke the lives of German citizens, and now commemorates not only the former divide between East and West Berlin, but is a symbol of the different levels of conflict wrapped up in that madness.
I saw the Berliner Dom, the imposing cathedral that looms large on the edge of the Spree. I walked around the hulk of the Reichstag building and I wandered around World Heritage Site, Museumisinsel, gaping at the brilliant architecture of the museum buildings, tucked amongst the modern and brutalist mayhem that is modern-day Berlin. I don’t know what I expected architecture-wise, but since most of Berlin was bombed to smithereens during WWII, there really is no old city left. What emerged from the rubble was spartan at best, gray on even a brilliant summer’s day. I made efforts to find interesting buildings and bridges and monuments each time I set out on foot.
I saw the East Side Gallery, its vivid and evocative murals adorning some of the last intact sections of the Wall. There was the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum of sorts, bringing the timeline of the Reich and its downfall into the daylight.
I saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (aka, the Holocaust Memorial), a strange visit because I was expecting a solemn place, where one could get lost in sadness for those lost lives. Instead, it was a microcosm of chaos, small children running and shouting amongst the columns, the reverberating chatter making me anxious and uncomfortable. Or was it just the place?
Between the historical sites and the city-cum-history lesson were a smattering of parks, and one of the biggest surprises was the Volkspark Friedrichschain, where fountains and monuments and ponds and even a manmade waterfall in an Asian garden make you feel like you’ve stepped out of the grayness of the city for a while. There is art everywhere here, murals and sculptures and brightly-graffiti’d entryways, flashing light into the stone.
The constant reminder that these are not normal times was in the air: the friend I had gone to Berlin to see in the first place ended up being sent to the dungeons of quarantine due to a COVID exposure at work and we missed our opportunity to meet. Par for the course in these strange days…we vowed to meet again soon.
I left Berlin on a DB train, heading towards a stay with another friend and perhaps some greener pastures. The severity and starkness of the city clung to me as I sat on the train and thought about how I’d describe Berlin. It is an imposing city, both in history and in stature. It’s immense and sprawling, a wide city, interconnected with trams and metros and buses, Mitte being the middle of a multi-spoked carriage wheel whose trajectory might have been thrown off a bit by all the cobbles. I’m not a city mouse, I found myself thinking as the train headed south and east, one of its passengers trying to shake the grayness and correlate that with the visceral pulse of the city: there was street music everywhere, a bass-y urban thrum that gave the wide avenues a lifeline. I stumbled across a pot parade which turned into a rave in a park near Alexaderplatz. Electric scooters zoomed down every street. Art. Graffiti. Gelato. For me, the evening lights of the old domes reflecting in the river were one highlight. And I had some fantastic falafel. And I learnt that you must confront, then learn from, your history if you are to move on.
And onward we go… to where the journey caught an unexpected thermal in the ethers and went from a sojourn to a much more substantial experience.
When I think about Europe, what arises is the semi-fascination I have with castles and old brick. I gravitate towards cobblestone pavements and the shells of old architecture as much as, perhaps, to the stories and secrets and folklore these contain. And so, rather than sites and landmarks and tourist hotspots, I wanted to experience the essence of Belgium in its culture and villages and the warmth of its red brick. All credit is due to my adventure-spirited Calvin, who (as he does) interpreted my indecisiveness and planned us a route through Belgium that Lonely Planet couldn’t have possibly outdone.
But first, the Ancestors.
Our ancestors are totally essential to our every waking moment, although most of us don’t even have the faintest idea about their lives, their trials, their hardships or challenges. –Annie Lennox.
My grandfather arrived on Ellis Island from Russia, via Poland and then Antwerp, on a ship called the SS Kroonland. The Red Star Line had a fleet of these ships; immigrant ferries, really, that transported fleeing Europeans to a land of new opportunities. On 12 December, 1921, Josel Widra travelled with his mother and siblings on a 10-day transatlantic journey that would seed my New York roots.
So when I was deciding where I’d go from Holland, I set my sights on Antwerp as a starting point, as this is where my travelling genes were pollinated. Maybe.
It turns out that the Red Star Line had a helping hand in the processing of emigrants as well as the shipping. There were lodging houses and disinfection stations and days, if not weeks, of waiting and cleaning and more waiting and more disinfecting. This, after many days’ journey in crowded trains, all the while the passengers were inspected (for lice and disease and of course proper paperwork) at each step of the way.
While I unfortunately didn’t learn any specifics of my grandfather’s emigration (the museum’s research room was closed due to COVID), I did learn about the collective journey, and thus emerged from the experience with more questions than answers about the lengths that a solo mother (my great-grandmother, Tillie), went through to ensure a safe passage from Eastern Europe to a new life on the other side of the ocean.
The hardest of my hardships pale in comparison.
As is our bent, C and I explored Antwerp on foot, basing ourselves in the center of the old city by the Cathedral of Our Lady, a brilliant and towering Gothic church which served both as home base and a lighthouse of sorts when our (read: my) navigational skills failed. We sampled local beers (thumbs up) and local sweets (ditto), perused local art (Rubenshuis), learnt about local legends (Brabo), and experienced a unique sort of local hospitality that I have not yet categorized in a Soup-Nazi-meets-Falafel-King experience that we’re not soon to forget (yet resulted in some of the best falafel I’ve ever had!).
The city is equally charming and confusing, its architecture is an ad-hoc mélange of step-gabled beauties and 1970’s mishaps, with a surprisingly large red light district that cuts a swath across the gray concrete near the harbour. Leaving, I was relieved that the Belgians seem to be taking this pandemic thing more seriously than the Dutch, and I looked forward to exploring both the Belgian countryside and its fairytale villages. Also pralines.
Napoleon was here.
My personal guided tour of Brussels and its surrounds began in the municipality of Rixensart and had us trapising through the lovely trails on the grounds and surrounds of the Château de La Hulpe (trees! flowers! gardens! ponds! and a castle! 5⭐) and then the magnificent remnants of the 1000-year old Villers Abbey.
A short ride away, we explored the battlegrounds at Waterloo, my American education’s rendition of European History glaring in its unenlightenment, and then Brussels proper, where I was as equally stymied by the arbitrary architecture as I was in Antwerp. Even more strange was the reenactment of some obscure tradition we stumbled into at the Grand-Place, involving giant puppets, a speech, a parade, and some ceremonial carrying of cheese (or an egg or something) to Greece. I may have some of these details slightly wrong.
We perused the fantastic Cook & Book, saw Mannekin Pis (because, Brussels), and ate gaufres (ditto). After 1/2 a day, a torrential downpour and not enough castles, we were headed to Bruges.
Des pralines et les rues pavées.
The quintessential image of Belgium (in my head at least) is of the medieval cobbled streets and picturesque canals of Bruges. Apparently, after its main waterways silted up (500 or so years ago), Bruges lost out to Antwerp as a major trading/shipping city and this setback ended up preserving the area: its medieval façades remained virtually intact as other Belgian cities gentrified, and Bruges was spared most of the damage from WW1 and WW2 that other cities faced. Today, to say that Bruges’ centuries-old architecture delights and enchants is an understatement.
So we wandered, delighted and enchanted and content, through the rues pavées, over canals, along the river, and in and out of praline shops (n.b., we managed to find the absolute BEST pralines in Belgium)…my only regret of the trip was not buying an entire kilo, as we also managed to consume the lot by the end of the week.
And into the hills…
Fairytale villages, eclectic architecture, historical battlegrounds and loads of chocolate behind us, I had no idea what to expect for hiking in the Ardennes, except that it was to begin with a kayak trip “on that river by the castle”. I had seen pictures, and wanted to experience it for myself.
Fast forward, and we’re kayaking down a semi-bloated river which only weeks before had been the scene of horrific flash floods and unfortunate casualties (life and property). And while the cranky shoulder did complain, the sight of a castle as I’m kayaking down a tree-lined river in the heart of the Ardennes with one of my favourite people on the planet really put into perspective what’s important: the best things in life aren’t tangible, but instead are stitched together from these feelings of warmth and belonging, of peace and ok-ness even whilst floating on a river with a throbbing shoulder thousands of kilometres from home.
The day continued with another castle (la roche en Ardenne), some of the best strawberries I’ve had this season, local beer, Dutch cheese, some borrowed butter, and deep sleep in fresh country air. More kudos to my tour guide for finding us the most precious and absolutely picture-perfect maison d’hôtes in a former farmhouse situated in the heart of rolling farmlands and quaint country villages.
We rounded out this leg of the adventure with a hike: it should be mostly flat…it’s just the perimeter of a lake, after all. Famous last words, but a quite enjoyable 15km trek around the lake/river, its ups and downs testing our wander-weary limbs. The climbs were technical, the views were lovely, and at the end of the day, its two adventurers were sweaty, muddy, hungry, but nonetheless sated…
So I said au revoir to Belgium, leaving things on a to-do list for next time: more hikes, a 1-month sojourn in said guest house to hunker down and study French, more storybook towns and ditto castles.
Next stop, Berlin: Unexpected detours and an experiment in remote work.