Posts Tagged ‘Europe


ANOTHER little engine that couldn’t

Thalys.. deceiving, isn't it?

Ah, Europe! The land of convenient and affordable train travel! Where you can hop on any locomotive and ride that rail from country to country and see everything you’ve ever dreamed of with total ease, freedom and, of course, speed.

This, at least, is what they tell you.

Those of you who have read my previous post about train travel know that even the European rail can let us down sometimes, but everyone says it almost never happens. And since lightning doesn’t strike twice, as they say, I was more than a little surprised – not to mention bitter – when the trains let me down again. And when I say let me down, this is what I mean:

Saturday 13 June 2009, times are approximate

9:00 am: I ride my bike to Amsterdam Centraal.

9:26 am: I am seated comfortably on a Thalys train as it pulls away from Amsterdam right on time, due to arrive in Paris Nord at 1:35 pm that afternoon. I am going to Paris to spend the weekend with my brother, sister, and brother-in-law before they come to Amsterdam. I haven’t seen them in almost 6 months.

11:30 am: The train makes a routine stop at a little station in a town on the Netherlands/Belgium border.

12:30 pm: The train is still sitting at the station. No one has given us any information.

1:30 pm: They finally make an announcement. The train cannot continue on this track and is turning back to Amsterdam. We are instructed to go outside the station, where buses will pick us up and take us to the central station in Antwerp, where we can catch another Thalys train to Paris. We herd outside, where we join a crowd of about 300 people from other trains that faced similar fates. There are no employees or officials, no buses, it’s not clear where or when they’ll be stopping at the station, and it’s very, very hot. I debate getting on a train back to Amsterdam and calling the whole thing off. If it’s anything like the last time this happened to me, it could take all day.

2:00 pm: An unmarked bus pulls up to the curb, and the crowd surges toward it. I wrestle my way through the mob and manage to get one of the last seats. There are people packed into the aisles and fighting each other as the bus pulls off toward Antwerp.

3:00 pm: The bus arrives in Antwerp. No one has told us where to go or when the train would be leaving for Paris, so I wait in a long line at the international travel desk. Once at the front, an employee tells me that the Thayls train from Antwerp will probably also be delayed for an indeterminate length of time, so we have to go to Brussels and take a Thalys from there. She gives me a new ticket.

4:00 pm: Train leaves from Antwerp to Brussels.

4:45 pm: Train arrives in Brussels, but I realize the woman at the info desk didn’t tell me which station the Thalys would be leaving from. I assume it’s Brussels Centraal, so I get off there. I can’t find the train on the departure screens, so I wait in line again at the international travel desk. I ask to confirm the Thalys train going to Paris at said time. “Yes, that train is on time,” the employee said, “but it’s not leaving from this station.” Momentary panic. Fortunately I have enough time to get to Brussels Midi before the Thalys leaves.

5:15 pm: I wait with a crowd on the platform designated for the train that will finally take us to Paris. There is already a train sitting there but no one is let on. People are confused. They make an announcement in French that our train is actually leaving from another platform, so a mad luggage-toting race down the escalator and through some corridors ensues. They let us on the correct train – people who had actually reserved this train and many who, like me, were on the final leg of a relentless chain of delays. I sit down but am soon approached by a spry French gentleman in his 60s; he insists that I stay in his seat, that he’ll stand and let me know when his legs get tired so we can switch. Things are starting to look up.

5:30 pm: The train departs. The people sitting on the aisle floor next to me – a man from Colorado with a few missing teeth, a gold chain necklace and a Loony Toons tattoo (a walking definition of white trash) and his overweight 9-year-old daughter – won’t stop talking to me.

6:15 pm: I give the seat back to the French gentleman. He lets me sit on his suitcase in the aisle. I make myself comfortable and immediately notice that the people I am sitting behind (trash from Belgium this time) are watching a movie on their laptop. I then notice that it is amateur porn. Hardcore amateur porn. In such a crowded train, with people looming over them in the aisles, they must realize they’re not the only ones who can see this woman’s elastic orifices. I mean, who does that? After the glorious grand finale, they turn off the movie and start playing solitaire.

6:45 pm: With my in-car entertainment over, I resort to my iPod and with Yann Tiersen soothing my nerves I look out and realize the beauty of the countryside between Belgium and Paris. The sun is warm and low over the hills and everything is glowing.

7:30 pm: The train arrives in Paris Nord. I take a deep breath and head for the metro.

8:00 pm: I walk up to the hostel where I am meeting my siblings and see them through the window. I jump up and down, waving wildly, and I know immediately that 11 hours of delayed train travel was worth it just to see them 2 days before I would have anyway.

But seriously, what the hell?



Prague Castle across the river

Well, I can now check Prague off my list (get it???) and I am so happy to be able to say so. It is a fabulous city. I spent a fabulous weekend there in fabulous company and my heart broke when I had to leave after only a few short days. I stayed with Tiffany, an acquaintance from college and fellow Literature major who is now living in the city center’s Jewish Quarter and teaching English as a foreign language. We barely knew each other when I arrived at her gorgeous, old, high-ceilinged flat on Friday, but by the end of the weekend it felt as though I were visiting an old friend.

The city is full of Euro-posh restaurants, cafes and clubs, all blended seamlessly with its layers of colorful history. We started with lunch on Friday at a vegetarian-chic place called Lheka Hlava (Clear Head), where we sat in our own private room feeling healthy and oh so trendy. Then it was off to see Charles Bridge – completed in the early 15th century by Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV – and the Prague castle, which dates back to the 13th century. They’re the kind of monumental, stunning sights that you dream of seeing in Europe and the sort of history, magic and romance that can only be found here.

That evening we got dressed up and saw the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra at the Rudolfinum, a lovely Neo-Renaissance building that provides the perfect stage for striking and beautifully overwhelming music. After the concert we ate a late dinner at a stylish and serene French-Asian fusion restaurant called Nostress, sitting and talking for hours over rose, salmon and steak.

Saturday was spent strolling through the gorgeous Prague streets, admiring one fabulous building after another. I’ve now hardly written anything and find myself running out of adequate adjectives, so please bear with me. Tiffany introduced me to famous Czech Art Nouveau artist, Alphonse Mucha, whom I can’t get enough of. The women in his paintings are reminiscent of Greek and Roman figures and framed by the kind of rich, elaborate detail and color that was popular in the early 20th century. Each one is gorgeous, sumptuous and endlessly evocative.

Next, we spent a little time in the Museum of Communism to learn about the city’s tumultuous past; it provided a somber insight on the darkness and dictatorship from which Prague has only recently emerged and begun to rebuild into the jewel it is today. The revolution was in 1989; violence in the fight against communism erupted in the streets of Prague as (Tiffany pointed out) we were probably sitting at home watching Disney movies, worlds away from the oppression the Czech people survived.

The image we left with was of the huge Wenceslas Square, every inch packed with people in protest of the Communist occupation. We left the museum – housed in an old castle that is also now home to a casino and a McDonald’s – and headed for Wenceslas, turning the corner into the square and walking down the crowded boulevard that now thrives with shops, hotels and restaurants. At the head of the square, outside the National Museum, lies a subtle and graceful memorial to Jan Palach, the student (not even twenty-one) who set fire to himself in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion of Prague. The area is now alive with peaceful commerce and expression, and he is remembered by a mound under the brick on the ground, a black cross and a few roses that lay over it.

Old Town Square was also buzzing that evening with the opening of the Christmas Market and the lighting of the big tree – the tree is smaller than it used to be because allegedly the larger one that was once used fell on an unassuming British tourist and paralyzed him. The square was packed to an almost impossible degree with locals and tourists enjoying the holiday music, treats and lights. After coffee at the Globe, we braved the crowd for as long as we could before taking shelter in a traditional Czech restaurant where we warmed up with some local fare: cheese soaked in beer, fried cheese, potatoes galore, and some sort of pot roast, all washed down with some dark Czech beer. I mean, I couldn’t eat trendy food all weekend.

The meal gave us energy for a fantastic night on the town that lasted until morning and made me appreciate the city on a whole new level. (A side note for those of my generation: we went to a club called Radost FX that was the location for Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” video.) With only 2 hours of sleep, I floated through the following day in a lazy and I’m-so-tired-I’m-delirious kind of happiness. We ate at more fabulous places, visited the Kampa Museum to see some inspiring modern art set against the river and Prague’s skyline, and overall just enjoyed the beauty of travel with wonderful people.

My weekend ended that evening atop the steps of Letna Park – at the base of what used to be a 30-meter statue of Stalin. The sun set and we gazed peacefully over the whole of Prague and I tried to ignore the sad fact that I was soon to leave it. The city was more beautiful than I had imagined and my company was more fun. And in this lies one enormous reason that I travel: the chance of a little weekend exceeding my expectations, and the guarantee of at least having my expectations – whatever they may be – always answered by something I could never have imagined myself.


What I Found in London Town

poetry on st. paul's domeI’m happy to say that I can now cross London off my list. To be honest, the only reason it was high on the list to begin with was that everyone told me it should be. I never felt the powerful draw to it that I’ve felt to, say, Paris or Ireland. I went because it’s London and it’s important – and because I have a cousin who is studying there and offered me a place to stay and a guided weekend tour.

And what a tour it was. I decided that with all the history and hype, London would be a great place for the ultimate tourist extravaganza. With a list of projected activities and some careful strategizing, Jessie and I did our best to see as much as possible in 3 days. While I’m happy with what we saw, I am also glad that there remains plenty yet to be seen – because after 3 days in London, there is now something deep within me saying, ‘Go back. Go back. Go back.’

We fit in most of the standard touristy stuff, though some we had to skip going inside, and if I give you my impressions on everything this would be a guidebook-length post, so here’s a brief list in no particular order with some thoughts thrown in: Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards (drowning in crowds and clouds of coffee breath), St. James’s Park (golden fall colors), Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square (woo theatre!), Parliament and Big Ben (I couldn’t stop singing “You Can Fly” from Peter Pan the whole time, also it’s gorgeous), Westminster Abbey (Poppy Appeal), Millenium Bridge (walking over the Thames was magical), Tower Bridge, the London Eye (20 euros to go up, no thanks), the British Museum (Rosetta Stone and mummies, check!), Tate Modern (Francis Bacon in a converted power plant is creepy), the Tower of London, British Library (best collection of Western literary treasures in the world – incredible), Shakespeare’s Globe (covered in scaffolding), Borough Market (delicious lemon tart), St. Paul’s Cathedral (attended a somber service in Remembrance of WWI), Piccadilly Circus, Charles Dickens’s House/Museum, ride in a double-decker bus, beer with fish and chips in a pub, and of course a quick stop by Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station.

Whew! Oh, and let’s not forget the theatre! First we got half-price tickets at TKTS in Leicester Square for 6 Characters in Search of an Author. It blew my mind. Read the review and please see it if it comes your way. The following day we saw a matinee of Spamalot in a successful attempt to balance out the heavy drama with a relentlessly silly musical. I would see a show every day if I could, but since these two have to hold me for now, I’m glad they were good ones.

Some art that I did not need to pay for – but that had the greatest impact on me – appeared in the form of giant words projected on the blue-lit dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral against the heavy charcoal night sky. We emerged from (I think) the Blackfriars tube station with another destination in mind, but immediately looked up to see “HANDS” looming over us in bright white letters. Each word faded to make room for a new one every minute or so, in seemingly total random order. Here are the ones my camera caught:


Some of these flashed across the dome more than once, and some words appeared in French, Spanish, and what I think was Arabic and maybe Hebrew. I can think of nothing else to call what I saw than a poem; at least that’s what it was to me. I stood there mesmerized, watching this enormous living public poem on a historical city landmark that at one point symbolized London’s survival, perhaps even the survival of good everywhere. Following my travel companion, I tore myself away but continued to stare up at the dome as we walked along the Thames. Every towering word dominated the city scape and, no matter how random, seemed to have some special, calculated meaning while at the same time subject to any interpretation. Quite like a poem; just huge and flashing in the sky over one of the world’s greatest cities.

I never did any research to find out what exactly the point was of the dome words and who was responsible. I think it had something to do with Remembrance weekend, but I actually prefer to be left in the dark, left standing on Millenium Bridge at night over the black water of the Thames gazing up in a trance at the lighted words, the lighted poetry in the sky.

And here is why I now love London and aim to return someday – it’s full of surprises. I wore my red poppy in honor of those who serve, said goodnight to Big Ben as a I made my way down the steps of a tube station for the last – and what seemed like the 100th – time that weekend, and took a train to the airport on Sunday night. Unfortunately, my flight was not until 7 am Monday morning out of Standsted, so I had to sleep at the airport as there was no way to get there from Hampton (where I stayed) early enough in the morning.

After so many tube rides and a hellish night spent in an airport with only linoleum floors and only plastic chairs, I was ready to be out of the hugeness that is London and back in the little Dutch city that I now call home. I’ll go back to London someday, but for now I’l search for love in the sky over Amsterdam.


The New President of Europe…I mean, America.


As an American in Europe, I have been subject to countless inquiries and discussions about the recent election, both leading up to it and now that the results are in. The majority of foreign people I meet bring up the issue of the US presidency in one way or another, and usually investigate my views before deciding whether I’m passable for further conversation and association. When I walked into my Dutch class after the election, my teacher said, “So, Shannon, are you happy?” The room was silent. I said, “I am so happy,” and everyone chuckled approvingly, folded their arms and leaned back in their chairs.

I most certainly did not talk about politics this much while I was in the States. This is probably a combined result of the desire of people here to ask my opinion specifically as I am often the only American present, the ubiquitous hate for Bush in Europe, and their love for Obama. Whatever the cause, though, Europeans (and non-Americans in general, for that matter) seem just as invested as I am in the outcome of the election – the only difference being they didn’t put an absentee ballot in the mail.

For this reason, when my friend Charlotte from Paris asked me if I was disappointed that I couldn’t be in the States during the election, I told her no, that in a way it’s more exciting to watch it all happening from across the ocean. The results were announced somewhere around 5:00 am in Amsterdam, and not wanting to merely be lying in bed when the historical moment arrived, I went to an all-night election party. The event (one of many in the city) was at the Hilton and saw around 700 attendees throughout the night. There was American food – hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, ribs, and some very dry corn on the cob. For snacks they had pizza, popcorn, tortilla chips and french fries. I ate as much as I could to feel better about the 20 euro entry price.

I went to the party with my Dutch friend Eva and we chatted with a rather random selection of other Obama fans: a few other Dutch people, a German, another American, a guy from Suriname, and a few excitable Nigerians. As the night wore on, we watched Obama’s promising lead with each CNN update in between listening to the scheduled panel discussions. There was also a comedy performance by two American guys and some live music by a woman whom you might see in a cheap club in a sketchy Vegas hotel. I felt jittery and wide awake until my nerves settled, the wine started getting to me, and the clock neared 5:00.

The room was still full of eager onlookers, and though I did my best to keep my head from nodding and my eyelids from weighing down, the “experts” on CNN just weren’t holding my interest. But suddenly the numbers spoke and the official announcement flashed on the big screen – and I joined everyone around me in an eruption of cheers and applause. Eva and I hugged as though we hadn’t just met 2 weeks before, but rather had been waiting for years to share this with each other. The Nigerian men we’d been talking to started bringing us drinks, and we all watched with tears in our eyes as Obama accepted his victory and stood with his lovely famiy on the verge of history. It was a powerful moment – and of course the cinematic music added to the emotion.

After the American buffet breakfast, I bid farewell to my foreign friends, walked out to the dark street and rode my bike off in the thin rain. I didn’t make it home until 7:00 on Wednesday morning and had to get the boys out of bed at 7:30. For a minute I regretted going or at least staying so late, but I quickly remembered that I can sleep any night, but this – likely one of the most important historical moments that will occur in my lifetime – this was worth staying up for.

I lay on the floor of the play room that morning dozing as the kids played and jumped on top of me with squeals of delight. They were as excited about the election as the rest of us. I have seen first-hand the extent to which the rest of the Western world cares about US politics; it often seems as though they take personal offense to much of what goes wrong – on the way to the boys’ daycare, “Fuck Bush” is spray-painted on one of the building fronts. Every time I see it I wonder what kind of person who vandalizes property in Amsterdam felt so personally offended by Bush that they were compelled to deface these bricks? How did it come to this?

I am happy for the opportunity to view my home from an outsider’s perspective, and even happier to see that perspective begin to change. There is little to do now but wait and see if Obama pulls through – but I can confidently say that in this time of failed policies, closed minds and youthful apathy I am more proud than I may ever be to say that I voted.

And it only cost me a few minutes and one postage stamp – a 92 euro cent stamp with a picture of the earth in the shape of heart.


Just a Nice Day

by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd

Yesterday was a great day. It was the kind of day that makes me feel nothing but contentment—no, bliss—with my decision to come to Europe. Nothing really special happened, it was just a nice day in my new life abroad. After taking the boys to daycare I came home and got dressed to meet my new friend Eva for lunch. She works in restoration and conservation of ceramics and glass for the Rijksmuseum (national museum) in Amsterdam, and I got to have lunch in the fancy building where she makes her magic – she, and dozens of other creative individuals who spend their time making beautiful, centuries-old art even more beautiful than it was when they found it.

After lunch I used my museumkaart (an annual pass that allows entry into about 20 museums year-round) to pop into the Rijksmuseum and see the new and very hyped-up exhibit by Damien Hirst. It’s basically a platinum mold of a human skull that is completely covered in diamonds. It’s called “For the Love of God” because that’s what his mother said when he told her what he was going to do. The skull is dazzling, to be sure, but it’s more a business venture than a work of art—and a successful one at that.

Once I checked that off my list, I rode over to the American Book Center to buy a birthday gift for Marijke – the mother at the house and now like a cherished big sister to me—and peruse the used books. Happy with selecting a good gift, I then treated myself to a kopje koffie and an amazing date tart in one of my favorite cafes on Utrechtsestraat. Settled in by the window—the taste of grainy brown sugar in my mouth—it was all so pleasant that I couldn’t even concentrate on my book, but instead just sat there and melted into my delicious, colorful and oh-so-European surroundings.

On the way home I stopped at the flower stand on the corner to buy some birthday bloemen, then went to get the boys. We got home and made a lovely construction-paper card for Mama with markers, crayons and stickers before eating leftover lasagna for dinner. After this it was off to my Dutch language class. There’d been spatters of rain in the afternoon, but now the night was clear and cool. I coasted over the little bridge on the Amstel river—lit with white lights as it is every night—and looking at the many city lights reflected on the black, peaceful surface of the water, I couldn’t really believe that this is my routine. This is now the everyday.

I rode home from class under the black, empty and sparkling sky with Charlotte, a French girl I sit next to. We had a few laughs and made plans to go out for dinner the next night where her boyfriend works as a chef. I got to the house and heaved myself up the 5 flights of stairs to my bedroom, stopping on the way to have one of those nice talks with Marijke that always lasts longer than we both plan and always keeps us up past our bedtimes.

Up too late but for once not really concerned about it, I flopped into bed and took a deep breath. I was just about to open up my book when I noticed—out the top window of the pointy, angular roof of the house, the only window in my room that always remains uncovered—the moon, almost round and commanding the sky. It was as though it had placed itself there, in my window, on purpose.

Perhaps it was the rhythmic pumping of blood through my body, or maybe the rise and fall, rise and fall of my lungs as I lay in bed and let my breathing slow, but I could have sworn that the moon itself was pulsing, throbbing, breathing. The white glow on which it floated swelled and shrunk and swelled again, offering in complete and pure loyalty to light the sky with every incandescent fleck of its being. Here was promise of the most fundamental kind.

Then, out of nowhere, a single thick cloud moved mechanically across the rectangular window—like a stagehand was holding it out of sight and dragging it through the set for a special lighting effect. The moon’s light dimmed, shrunk off, choked, and I thought “Oh my god, this is a sign.”

But the cloud moved on as quickly as it had come, and the block of sky I saw out my window was once again still and clear, and the moon once again bright. And I realized—as I’ve been learning more and more—that with many things in life, luckily for us, this is just how it happens.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
February 2019
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