Tag Archives: roaming around

the girl with the ferret tattoo…a stream of consciousness from Toulouse

Toulouse reminds me of Brussels. It doesn’t feel like the France I know (but I don’t know much about France, really). Sitting by the Garonne as the sun set over the lesser known Pont Neuf, it felt more like Florence, actually.

I literally felt myself slow down today. I’ve been so wired lately, so stressed. My mind is elsewhere, and if I were being honest with myself I’d admit I’d rather be at home in Toronto taking care of the million things I need to do before I move to London.

dougswimmingI miss my dog.

The expense and trouble to take him with me to London are outrageous, but last weekend when he was away at summer camp (the dog-sitter’s cottage, I tell him it’s summer camp so he doesn’t think I’m leaving him behind when I travel) I was reminded that my life is so much better with him in it that it’s worth the trouble.

A man tried to talk to me while I sat on a terrace on the Capitol square, eating Ibérico ham and drinking Rosé. I think he was either offering me a joint or asking for food or both, but I don’t speak French and he wore too much cologne. I said no.

Recently a friend told me I am “stoic” and when I asked her if she meant “cold” she didn’t say no. She said “stoic sounds nicer.” Fair enough. This guy wasn’t someone I’d be the opposite of stoic with, but even if he was I’d probably have reacted the same way.

There’s a girl at the next table with a backpack and a book. She’s probably 24 and she smiles at me when I tell the man to go away. We smile at one another when an American couple gets into a loud argument at a nearby table. Briefly, I consider talking to her. But I don’t know if she speaks English (her book is in French but she seems to understand the conversation going on beside her – the American couple, fighting over something he said yesterday). I feel like she wants to have a conversation.

I don’t talk to her because I don’t have anything to say that will inspire her. I won’t be her Don Bowling. What could I say? Follow my advice and in 6-10 years you’ll have changed completely. You’ll be stoic and cities will start to blend together and you’ll listen to the inner voice telling you that you can wait until next year to have that adventure.

Would my 24 year old self be happy with my almost-31 year old self?


London is a city of neighbourhoods, like Toronto, like San Francisco. Unlike Amsterdam, Brussels, and Toulouse… they have a centre and build out from it. If my life were a city, it would be a city of neighbourhoods.

I’m moving to London one year to the day after I moved out of the home I owned with Mr. Butterflies and we became officially Separated. He’s taking me to the airport.

I was recently criticized for breaking up wrong. Apparently, it is confusing that we love each other but decided not to be together. This person didn’t think I should expect support in coping with my divorce, if I wasn’t even acting divorced. I don’t care. The compassion we have and continue to show for one another is something I’m proud of.

Who are these women in their high heels and cute dresses? It’s 38*C outside. Why do I feel like the only sweaty tourist sticking to her chair and worrying about whether my t-shirt will show boob sweat?

I tried on some dresses today, but felt out of place. I think my uniform of jeans and a cotton top with comfy shoes will need an upgrade if I’m going to walk on the same sidewalks as Kate Middleton.

saufSauf is not the name of the street I’m on.

This reminds me of the time Mom and I got lost in Brussels because we stayed on Rue street for miles.

How is it possible I have such a poor sense of direction? I wonder if I like wandering around and getting lost because it’s really my only option.

I saw a girl with a ferret tattoo. I think it was a ferret, anyway. I’ve only seen two ferrets, and that’s counting the one on Kindergarten Cop (it’s not a tooo-mah).

I like her maybe-a-ferret tattoo because I’m still thinking about it. It’s intriguing. I like my lace tattoo but it’s not that intriguing.

tyson-dog-tattooWhen I got my tattoo, I felt like so uncool next to the shop full of people who don’t give a fuck what you think about their knuckle tattoos and face tattoos, naked ladies and Koi fish and sugar skulls.My tattoo artist and another artist were chatting over the buzz of the tattoo guns. The other artist said that a guy came in wanting his dog’s face tattooed. She said, “I said okay but I need a photo’ and he said he didn’t have one so I said ‘okay then it will have to be pretty generic for the breed.” And then I asked, “how do you tattoo a dog’s face? Is that even legal?” and I wasn’t trying to be funny and no one laughed. Ooooh, I get it now. So uncool.

on traveling alone as a woman in India

Isn’t it dangerous for a woman to travel alone in India?

Possibly. Likely. Okay…yes. Given the recent highly publicized instances of gang rape and India’s long history of violence against women in general, I think it is fair to say it’s dangerous. But making generalizations about an entire country or its people is an ongoing grievance of mine. Although I’ve been asked the question a number of times, it would be impossible for me to answer, I can only share my perspective…

 Wading in the Arabian Sea

on traveling alone…

Sure, there are some risks to traveling alone…but those are also the most compelling reasons to do so. There is a very real possibility that you could become lost and no one would know where to start looking for you.  I learned many years ago that this specific type of fear/freedom is the adrenaline rush I crave, so I didn’t take any devices with me – no cell phone, computer or tablet (obviously, that’s not for everyone). I love traveling solo and it is a risk worth taking. I worry more about the risk of not ever traveling alone, missing out on the feeling that I can do anything.

That said,  a couple of things to consider when going solo in India:

  • Who is going to look after your bag when you use the bathroom? Western style toilets are a luxury, so if you’re like me you’ll devote many awkward moments to trying to secure your belongings while you hover over a hole in the floor.
  • Prepare to be pitied. When local people learned I was on my own, they always expressed deep concern and sadness for me. In Indian families, three generations live and vacation together; and upon hearing that I have parents, grandparents, siblings, and a husband they were at once confused as to why the whole gang didn’t come and sad for me that I was away from them.

as a woman…

There’s no sense ignoring that fact that women, whether we’re in India or on the couch in our living room, are more vulnerable than men. Throw different cultures into the mix and who knows what to expect.The scariest travel experience I’ve had so far is getting lost in Prague alone, late at night. I turned a corner and was delighted to see the bridge that gave me my bearings, but that quickly faded when I noticed about six men in their early twenties standing around drinking. My only other option was to try and find a detour, but I’d already been lost for about an hour and for all I knew the next street would be even worse.

At first I scolded myself for judging them – maybe they were just a group of friendly young men who would nobly help me find my way. I think that as women we too often let our perceived obligation to be polite override our intuition. That night, I did. I decided to hold my head up high and walk by them with confidence. Luckily I made it only a few steps before deciding to listen to the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I ducked into a doorway, heart pumping, trying to think about what to do next. Run? Haha, nope. I’m neither fast nor coordinated. I’m also lost. Act tough? Let’s see, do tough people wear pink satin dresses? Nope. If I only I could create a distraction at the other end of the street and sneak by while they investigated. I watch too many movies.

I’ll never know where this came from, but I placed my purse against my belly, under my dress. I arched my back and grabbed my side with one hand, holding my purse belly with the other, took a deep breath and walked slowly toward them, slightly pigeon toed and wobbly. They noticed me approaching…one need not know Czech to understand the universal language of catcalling. Two walked toward me and my heartbeat surged, but I stayed in over-exaggerated-fake-pregnant character. And an amazing thing happened when they got close enough to see me on the dimly lit street, they looked at each other disappointed, uttered what I assume was a dismissal, and let me pass. I smiled and nodded and continued to wobble by the other four who paid no more than quick passing glance.

By making myself seem even more vulnerable than a lost foreign girl, alone in a pink dress, I was safer than I know I would have been if I’d tried to assert confidence. There’s enough in that for a whole library of analysis, but I digress. Being a woman can be scary anywhere. We have to be resourceful in ways even we don’t understand, but that’s how it goes.

India was nowhere as scary as that night in Prague. In the rural villages I visited, the people were lovely and the men looked after me in a paternal way. They were very respectful, never invading my space or making me feel threatened. They stare relentlessly, which is a little bit alarming; but I soon realized they were intrigued by my pale skin, or the fact that I was alone, or were trying to figure out if I was from Germany or Australia. I would smile at them and receive the famous Indian head wag and sometimes a friendly conversation.

in India…

I only visited a handful of cities, with most of my time being spent in Rishikesh (Uttarakhand), Padne (Kerala), and Mandrem (Goa); as such, I’m far from qualified to share my experience on what India is like. I was born and raised in the United States and am far from qualified to comment on that country, either. I can tell you what San Francisco was like in the mid 2000’s, or Eastern Oregon in the 1990’s; but only from my own limited perspective. In India, just like any other country in the world, your safety depends on who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, and when.

My first stop was in Rishikesh, nestled in the Himalayan foothills along the Ganges river.  Rishikesh is known as the yoga capital of the world, and was also made famous to the West by The Beatles, who wrote much of the White Album at the Maharishi Mahesh ashram. My first morning there I woke at 6am to catch a class at Yoga Vini at the base of the Lakshman Jhula bridge. At that hour I found the city so peaceful I was inclined to tip toe.  But that particular day was the Holi Festival, so by 10am there was chaos in the streets. Huge crowds gathered in the squares and on the bridge to dance and throw colours and drink Bhang, a cannabis based drink that leaves them feeling rather happy and a little bit fuzzy. I quickly noticed that the only women in the main squares are tourists, most Indian girls are sensible enough to steer clear of the melee.

I’m glad I went and experienced it, but by early afternoon I’d had enough. A few times I was surrounded by groups of boys who would grab me and push themselves against me under the guise of ‘playing Holi’ which normally includes (lingering and sincere, non-sexual) hugs. I had to stay alert and aware of my surroundings, and found that if I pushed them away and they’d set their sights on the next tourist woman.  I was lucky to be there with two male friends and suspect it was the reason the boys weren’t persistent. Experiencing Rishikesh on Holi is like experiencing Amsterdam on King’s Day: one of the best celebrations in the world but a far cry from what the city is like the other 364 days of the year.

With Friends at Holi FestivalHoli was the only time I didn’t feel safe on this trip.  The next leg of my trip was a week in Kasaragod, in the South.  Kerala is known as “God’s Own Country” in part for it’s natural beauty, but also for the religious diversity. Muslims, Hindus, and Christians live side by side peacefully. I stayed in an amazing resort called Oyster Opera, and was looked after by my wonderful host Mr. Gul. Is it safe? Without a doubt.  My entire second week was in Mandrem, Goa, which could have been any other tourist beach town. In Goa I was with a group of about 20 and staying at a nice resort, doing organized activities. Is it safe? Yes – however I think you have to be more wary of people who will take advantage of you. In Kerala I was treated as a guest, whereas in Goa I was, on more than one occasion, a sucker.

I’ve been asked the question many times: is it safe for a woman to travel alone in India? The answer, like most things, depends. For me, it mainly depends on the subtext which is always evident in the person’s tone. Some people ask with curiosity, wondering if they should or could or would. My answer for them is, “maybe not always, but safety should only be one of the factors you consider when choosing an adventure – think about what you have to gain.” Some people ask with a tone of skepticism, they can’t believe anyone would want to, let alone do it.  My answer to them is, “no, probably not. You should really stay home.” An answer I see a lot in travel blogs and articles is that “you just have to be smart about it.” But I disagree. Women do have to be extra alert when we travel in India, but unfortunately being smart doesn’t protect women from men – in India, or anywhere else. My answer, to my loved ones, “totally safe! Don’t worry about me!”

learning to surrender

I’ve determined that the reason India is one of the world’s most spiritual places is that the only way to survive is to completely surrender. You must have blind faith that everything will work out – particularly when it comes to getting around.

I hired a driver to take me from the airport in Mangalore to Padne, Kerala…it was like a 3 hour carnival ride. There is no infrastructure to speak of, just a steady stream of cars, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, pedestrians, dogs, and more, all going about their way on what could be called a road if you’re feeling generous. Drivers weave back and forth like a Maypole dance set to a soundtrack of continuous beeping. They honk their horns in Morse code as if to say “watch out, here I come” just before they squeeze between two buses coming head-on, and then they beep “look, we made it” and turn their attention back to the “road” and keep going. Unless there is a cow – everything stops for a cow. The drive was exhausting, and I wasn’t even the one driving; but I made it safely to my destination in time for dinner and decided I was done with that mode of transport.

When it was time to leave Kerala for Goa, I decided to take the train. Trains can’t weave, right? I had read a lot and talked to others about the rail network in India, and was given the advice to go for it – as long as I could get first or second class AC. I was told to never go lower than 2AC and I should be fine. My driver (not the same driver from Mangalore, a new guy who, instead of an SUV, drove an auto-rickshaw) took me to the train station to buy the ticket. Unfortunately, the train I wanted to take was sold out, so I asked him to take me back to my resort so I could book a flight instead. He pulled out of the train station and turned a different direction than we had come from, but when I asked him why he would only say “is okay, Madam.” Breathe…have faith…surrender…

He took me to a travel agency, where I could get a ticket for a different train: the overnight. My driver explained to the agents when and where I wanted to go, and they told me the price would be just under 500 rupees ($10) for a 9 hour overnight journey. “Really, in 1AC?” “No, Madam, full.” “Okay, 2AC…” “Sleeper Class, Madam.” I was just about to decline, but my driver, ever helpful, interrupted, “Sleeper Class very nice, Madam. My family go as way.” This man had been so kind to me over the last few days, how could I possibly say that this ticket which was good enough for his family was not good enough for me? Have faith…obviously I bought it. Sensing my hesitation he said, “not worry, Madam, I help you ride train.” I had no idea what that meant but somehow it made me feel more at ease.

(Note: this is a photo from user Yann F on Flickr which is pretty much the scene I woke up to in Goa. I don't have any photos of my own, as it was night time and I was trying to avoid drawing extra attention to myself.
This is a photo from Flickr user Yann F which is pretty much the scene I woke up to in Goa. I don’t have any photos of my own, as it was night time and I was trying to avoid drawing even more attention to myself.

Two nights later he picked me up and took me to the “train station” which is more like a platform in the middle of a field. He sat with me until the train arrived, and by “arrived” I mean slowed down long enough that we could jump on, not even coming to a full stop. He helped me find my car and seat, shooed a man out of my berth (a shelf about 2′ wide and 6′ long that folds down from the wall), and ran to jump off the train before it picked up speed, waving at me from the side of the tracks as I left.

I had to climb over people sleeping on the floor and squeeze past people sitting two to a spot to find my cabin. I was on the top berth, and had to put my backpack under another seat – out of my sight. Surrender… I crawled up onto my shelf, offending one young man for failing to remove my shoes, and waking up my neighbour when I accidentally stepped on him. I tried to settle in, but as I looked around the train I realized the other passengers were more confused than I was. Everyone stared, and two people tried to shoo me toward the door. They didn’t speak English, but eventually I realized they thought I was lost, and were trying to help me find the 1st/2nd Class cars. The porter checked my ticket, shrugged, and let me stay.

Indian people can convey more with a smile than most people can with a song. A woman about my mother’s age was sitting nearby and gave me a smile that said, “don’t worry, I’m here” and the teenage girl across from me said with her eyes “I’m surprised to see you here, but I approve.” There is a very special connection between women that is almost tangible – even silly foreigners like me. I lay awake for a few minutes soaking it all in, but it wasn’t long before the gentle rocking of the train and the rhythmic snoring of my fellow passengers put me into the deepest sleep I’d had in days.  I woke up a few times during the trip to find even more passengers crowded in, and the ones who were still awake had been staring at me as I slept. They didn’t look away when I woke up and saw them, only smiled. I smiled back, as my train adventure in India is my favourite travel memory so far.

travel fix: Portugal

After Amsterdam and Belgium, our European adventure took us to Portugal. I was especially excited for this part of the trip because unlike our previous stops it was new to me. It scratched my travel itch – for now.

We started in Porto, which was entirely disappointing: it was miserably hot and our scooter-renting vineyard-touring river-cruising plans didn’t work out. We did get a chance to tour a port cellar and visit a tasting room – where we “sampled” so much that we stumbled home early and felt sluggish the next day. There are very few things, however, that can’t be cured by food and spa treatments. Mr. bought me a one hour massage and a tasty brunch at our hotel, the Sheraton Porto Hotel and Spa.  The rest of the details are (even more) boring, so I’ll summarize by saying that I highly recommend the Calem wine cellar tour and C.N. Kopke tasting room – and if anyone tries to convince you to take a 10 euro river cruise you should punch them in the face and run the other way.  We weren’t exactly disappointed to leave the next morning and after three hours on slow moving, bumpy train we reached Lisbon.

I loved everything about Lisbon. We stayed in a tiny apartment in the historic Alfama area – it was humid and smelled of sewage but we weren’t there much and the charm of the neighbourhood by day cancelled out the suffering by night.  There was an old woman with three teeth and a goatee who walked up and down the hilly streets each day and spat on the ground every time I smiled at her.  The door of the house next to ours was open and we watched two stray dogs wander in. The woman who lived there liked to eat plums and throw the pits out the window onto our doorstep. I was amazed by how much laundry everyone seemed to do – every morning, at every house, the amount of clothes hung out to dry indicated these people were either changing underwear four times a day or the houses were more crowded than we’d realized. I’m glad we opted for a local apartment rather than a hotel, luxury travel was great but this was authentic.

We were extremely fortunate to have locals to show us around the city. A university friend of Mr.’s and her husband (a Lisbon native) were in town and met up with us. He happens to be a PhD student in Portuguese history and gave us an amazing personalized tour. They took us to non-touristy restaurants and helped us navigate so that we were able to check most of our must-see sights off the list in a couple of days. Long days, with lots of walking up and down hills – but perfect given our short timeframe (and the amount of beer consumed during the first part of our trip). We saw the Chiado and Bairro Alto neighbourhoods by night and by day, as well as the site of the 1998 World’s Fair. It was all amazing, and to describe it here wouldn’t do it justice.

The most notable thing about Lisbon (for me) was its similarity to San Francisco. The steep hills and historic street cars were just the start. The bridge across the Douro looks like a replica of the Golden Gate and the poorest neighbourhoods exist right across the street from the nicest.

Our third day in Lisbon we were on our own. We took the train to Sintra but got back on it after less than an hour. It was a beautiful historic town but overrun with obnoxious tourists (I hate to say it, but they were mostly Americans), boring food, and overpriced souvenirs.

We went back to Lisbon and took the tram to Belém where we saw the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a spectacular palace that had graced my computer’s desktop background for months. Seeing it from somewhere other than my desk felt like a real accomplishment.

Belém is famous for a few things, but none so much as the Pastéis de Belém.  These custard tarts draw hundreds of people each day to stand in line and battle aggressive crowds just for a taste. Hundreds, including us. Rumour has it only three people in the world know the recipe – as with Coca Cola’s secret formula, I just don’t understand how this is possible. I’m not too worried about it, and for my health’s sake it’s probably good that no one in Toronto has it.

Aside from walking up and down the hills, most of our time in Lisbon was spent eating. I had the best meal I’ve ever had in my life (which deserves its own post, so stay tuned) – and we didn’t eat a bad one in our three days.  We thought we’d use the kitchen in our apartment, but we didn’t cook a single meal there.

Our time in Lisbon ended way too soon. We didn’t feel like we ran out of time or missed a specific experience – but it felt like a place we could stay for months. My usual travel M.O. is to squeeze as many cities into each trip that the train schedule permits. Lisbon, like Florence, is somewhere I would like to return and stay for a while.    On our last night in town we saw a Fado performance in a courtyard and shared a bottle of wine, toasting a wonderful vacation.

beer hunting

Fast forward several months and we’re arriving in Brussels. Days before, I’d taken Mr. to my original favourite beer place: Cafe Belgique in Amsterdam – naturally I defaulted to La Chouffe because I love it and you can’t get it in Ontario. But in Belgium it was time to get serious about trying new ones. Our first night we attempted to visit Le Bier Circus but they were closed. Disappointing, but it turns out literally every bar in Brussels has an excellent selection, so we managed.  We took it easy because the next morning we had a bike tour and a beer tour planned. The beer tour was excellent – we visited the Delirium Café known for having the biggest beer selection in the world; the Cantillon Brewery, the only brewery in Brussels, one of few which make Lambic beers, and one of very very few using equipment that is over 100 years old and spontaneous fermentation (wild yeast instead of cultivated); and the Moeder Lambic beer bar. I highly recommend both tours.

Next stop: Bruges. The real reason we went to Bruges was that Mr. enjoyed the movie and wanted to check it out. It is still in Belgium and therefore consistent with our beer theme, but our expectations weren’t very high. Yet again we visited one of the pubs recommended in The Good Beer Guide to Belgium (‘t Poatersgat), and yet again it was closed during hours it was said to have been open. We can probably chalk that up to Europe’s propensity to take vacation seriously. We gave up and wandered over to the Burg, where a free outdoor concert was taking place. It hadn’t started yet so we ducked into a shop called De Struise Brouwers.
There we met Urbain, one of the brew masters of the small but well known (among those in the know) brewery in West Flanders. Over samples of a few of their 30+ types of beer (many of them award winning), he told us the story of how he came to be a successful brew master: it involved 10 years in Africa, a few entrepreneurial ventures in IT and retail, and finally a realization that he wanted to do something he loved: make beer. The guy was fascinating.

We told Urbain about our plans to visit trappist breweries over the next few days. Turns out they were crap. The route we planned would not have worked out, our maps were not correct and we’d chosen some un-interesting places. He grabbed a pen and re-drew our map, even making a few phone calls to see if his friends could host us. After a day trip to Ghent and one more night in Bruges we took the train to Poperinge. Urbain had recommended we use it as our base for exploring the various nearby breweries.

Arriving in Poperinge felt like I imagine it feels like for an outsider to arrive in my home town – it is very small and very remote. I’m pretty sure we were the only tourists in town, but they did have an information booth in the main square. The helpful attendant informed us it was too late to rent bikes and the local bus service requires that you call 2 hours in advance – but the walk to St. Sixtus Abbey, home of Westvleteren 12, which has been rated the World’s Best Beer and certainly one of the rarest – was only 2km. She gave us a map and pointed us toward Brouwerij Westvleteren. It sounded like a nice walk, and we weren’t about to abandon our resolve to see this particular brewery.

Westvleteren beers can only be tried at the café In de Vrede next door to the abbey. The monks do not want their beer to become commercialized, and therefore take extreme measures to limit the sale. To buy it, you must make a reservation by calling the hotline, you can only call during specified 2 hour time slots on certain days of the week. The scheduling website mentions that even during those times you can only “probably” reserve the beer. Then you have to register your license plate and phone number, which they will verify before giving you your monthly limit of one case. And that is only if it is available. So far all intents and purposes, this was our one chance to try the world’s best beer.

It was early afternoon when we left Poperinge, the weather looked a little intimidating but we took our chances. We walked through a wealthy neighbourhood on the outskirts of town and eventually along a two lane highway with a generous shoulder for walkers and cyclists. We passed a couple of farms, and as they became fewer and farther between we stopped to ponder whether we’d come the right direction. The road sign reconciled with the map, but a quick calculation told us that if we’d been walking an average of 5km/hour we should have already gone 3km. The brewery was nowhere in sight, but we shrugged our shoulders and trudged on. Pretty soon the two lanes narrowed into one, and eventually to a dirt road. According to the map we were still going the right way. To make a very long story short: the rest of our journey involved a trek through a two foot wide space mowed through a corn field, being passed by a tractor, and finally, arriving at the abbey.

We walked into the café to find that our visit coincided with a seniors’ classic car tour and there were no seats available. We shared a picnic table with a local guy who informed us it was in fact 7km that we had walked. At long last, we ordered one of each beer: Westvleteren 8, Westvleteren 12, and Westvleteren Blond. All three were amazing, the journey was definitely worth it. Urbain had told us that the Westvleteren 12 was almost identical to the St. Bernardus Abt 12 and he was right – I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the two in a blind test. I wonder if the reason Westvleteren tops the list of world’s best beers while St. Bernardus doesn’t even appear on the list has to do with the exclusivity or the allure of trappist beers.

We met a Korean guy who quit his job as a tank engineer to take a 4 week beer tour of Belgium followed by 2 weeks of whiskey in the UK. He drank 3 beers while telling us he had walked over 10km each day for the last 2 weeks and had no idea where he was staying that night. I salute that guy. We thought about taking a taxi back to our hotel but found out they don’t really have taxis out there. The Belgian guy we sat with offered a ride, but after he gave us reason to believe he might be trying to kidnap and/or murder me and/or us, we decided to walk. The walk home seemed much shorter, as things tend to do after several beers. We took a seat at the first restaurant we found which turned out to be incredible. I had the best snails I’ve ever tasted and some cheese croquettes that make me question whether those things I had been eating in the Netherlands were in fact croquettes at all.

The next day we rented bikes and set out in the opposite direction, toward the city of Watou. Our destination: St. Bernardus. Their Abt 12 happened to be the beer we were drinking when we made the decision to come to Belgium, so it was only fitting. The bike ride was lovely – perfect weather and much more efficient than walking. We got to the brewery to find out that we had missed the daily tour and our experience was limited to a shop of overpriced monk emblazoned merchandise. The picture of the monk is misleading anyway – St. Bernardus is actually a commercial brewery and that monk doesn’t even exist.

We came all the way to Belgium to see a monk that doesn’t exist, but turned out to be an amazing experience anyway.

a tourist in my former home

Being in Amsterdam was entirely different from the last time, and even more so from the first time.  The first time, I had already committed to moving there, it my first trip outside North America, and the biggest decision I’d ever made.

Last time I visited was in November 2009. I had said “tot ziens” to my friends in July and spent a few weeks at home in Oregon before moving to Toronto in September. I hadn’t met anyone here, the weather was cold and gloomy, my new job was off to a slow start…I spent much of my time looking at facebook photos and updates from my friends whose lives went on without me, and questioning why I left.  I went back for a visit over the Thanksgiving weekend (American Thanksgiving, that is – which is not even a holiday here – Canadians celebrate on a Monday in October and there is no football or shopping). I think it was too soon, everything about being there made me question my decision to move. I had a great time and enjoyed seeing my friends, but was generally sad about leaving.

Now it has been two years since I left Amsterdam. I’ve settled in and made friends in Toronto, and realized my  friendships with the expats are life-long and will continue to grow despite living on different continents. This time, my visit was about going to Amsterdam – not about getting out of Toronto. It was about spending time with important people – not about alleviating loneliness. And it was about introducing Mr. to the city as part of my past – not about holding on to it. I was visiting Amsterdam as a tourist for the first time ever.

I was able to see the Dutch in a new light and appreciate the culture and the quirky things they do. Being on vacation meant not actually needing to do anything. I didn’t have to make friends with co-workers, deal with said coworkers, get a driver’s license, shop for groceries, or battle crowds of tourists to get around – I was one of them.  The frustrations of being an expat were gone, there was nothing to struggle with, there was no culture shock. It seemed like people were more helpful and friendly in those 3 days than in the year and a half I spent there.

Part of that may have been that we stayed at the Hotel Pulitzer, which is stunning. It is also expensive (thank you Starwood points – we stayed free), so the staff was very nice to us. Part of it may have been that we were visiting my favourite places: Café Belgique, Balti House, The Tara Pub, Albert Cuypmarkt…they were are favourites for a reason.

As tourists, we did a few typical Amsterdam tourist things: a canal boat, the Begijnhof, a tasting room (the Café In ‘t Aepjen which also happens to be the oldest café in Amsterdam), an original brown cafe, the Bloemenmarkt, the Vondelpark, the red light district (which has changed drastically in the past two years, thanks to a (ridiculous) initiative to “clean up” the neighbourhood).  Unfortunately no museums (unless you count the Heineken Experience – cheesy but fun), and no sight-seeing to speak of (unless you count the iamsterdam sign in Museumplein).

I introduced Mr. to some Dutch delicacies: Stroopwafels, Bitterballen, Poffertjes, Hagelslag, and Indonesian food (at Sampurna). No herring or Filet American – but we did find my favourite cheese (Stolwijker farmer cheese). And most importantly: Wall Food (a.k.a. FEBO).  The rest of our meals were other international cuisine: Portuguese tapas at Sal Gorda, Indian/Pakistani food at Balti House, Thai/Vietnamese at Bird Thai. If I learned one thing living in Amsterdam it is that you can’t shouldn’t survive on Dutch food alone.

I’m glad we decided to include Amsterdam in our plans. Seeing my friends always re-charges me – and I’m glad I got to introduce them to Mr. and vice-versa. I’m nostalgic for the time I spent there and wondering: what if I went back? Could it ever be the same? I still question, but am no longer regretting my decision to leave.

The Great Liver Destruction Tour of 2011

After a bit of a hiatus from writing – one post in almost a year to the day – I’m back. Try not to read into that based on my last entry.

Mr. and I just got back from a much needed vacation that we’d been planning for months. In 15 days we visited the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal. Not a typical itinerary, but it sort of chose itself. At first we were going to Southeast Asia but decided on Europe instead for a few reasons: I miss my friends, and we didn’t have enough time to see everything on our list in Asia (so we’re postponing that trip).

Of course Amsterdam was on the list – I miss my friends terribly and Mr. hadn’t met most of them. He’d never been to the Dam and wanted to see where I had lived. The rest of the trip fell together after that: we were enjoying a pint at Bar Volo one evening when a couple told us about visiting Trappist breweries in Belgium. We drank to that, and put Belgium on the list.

Where else? Italy? Too hot and crowded. Greece? Too far from Amsterdam. Switzerland? Too expensive. We bounced ideas back and forth trying to find a balance between Mr.’s bucket list and my desire to see something new. Fate chose for us: the only decent flight available using air miles was from Lisbon. Done.

We booked the flights in March and spent the next several months gradually working out the details. Sometimes before a trip I get in countdown mode, where time is dragging until I get to leave. This time it snuck up on me. A week before we left I realized I’d be in Europe the following one, and realized how much I needed to do. As always, I stressed about getting everything done; and as always, everything worked out fine.

We got the airport extra early – Mr.’s parents dropped us off in plenty of time to check our bags and get to the lounge for some snacks and (more importantly) free wine. We’d started referring to our trip The Great Liver Destruction Tour of 2011 because it was planned entirely around enjoying the world’s best beer and port. So we properly kicked it off in the lounge with some Canadian wines while we waited for the flight. And waited. And waited.

Our flight to Heathrow was delayed over an hour, which meant we missed our connection to Amsterdam via Munich (booking with miles = crappy flights). Air Canada representatives are much more cheerful in London than here, the woman who told us we wouldn’t be arriving in Amsterdam until the following evening was quite chipper. I wasn’t. I was sad that we’d be missing an entire day of our vacation that was supposed to be spent with friends. There was nothing they could do to help us – we were stuck.

So my generous, kind and thoughtful boyfriend bought us flights out of Gatwick first thing in the morning and we were in Amsterdam by 11am. Finally, the vacation started…