My Freedom, My Individuality, The Catalonia within me


img_8802When we visited Barcelona three weeks ago, my excitement was threefold: 1) I was there to celebrate my brother- and -sister-in-laws 25th wedding anniversary; 2) I was about to revisit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a magical place I have kept alive in my memory since my first visit 13 years ago and 3) I was finally going on vacation.

I remembered Barcelona as a beautiful, thriving, architecturally stimulating city of friendly people. I remembered La Sagrada Familia as a sacred space in the middle of the city that brought me such as sense of calm and well-being that I had no doubt that God was present within its walls.

Would Barcelona and La Sagrada Familia live up to my memories? Or had I blown that first visit completely out of proportion?

We arrived at night and were whisked off to the family apartment, where we stayed up late enjoying the company of half of my husband’s immediate family. It wasn’t until the next morning that we ventured out into the city. After a lovely morning exploring a local flea market, followed by a too-short visit to a national museum, we headed to La Sagrada Familia in time for our afternoon reservation.

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Sometimes expectations and built up anticipation are the perfect recipe for disappointment. But the funny thing about La Sagrada Familia is that it will never be exactly as someone remembers it, since it has been undergoing construction since 1862 with estimates of completion in 2026. Although several architects have worked on it throughout the years, it is Antonio Gaudi’s organic design that defines the building we now see. He took over the project in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926.

As we waited outside in line, I looked to the exterior, awe firmly intact. But when we finally made it inside, tears filled my eyes. Despite the crowds, the heat, clicks of cameras and cell phones all around me, its sacredness had not diminished. If anything, it had expanded.

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In my second novel The Things We Said in Venice, travel vlogger Alexi visits La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona–one of many stops on her international trip. Here is a passage from my novel about this sacred place designed by Antonio Gaudi.

As she edges inside, the hushed murmurs of the crowd convey awe and wonder that mimics her own. The building is spacious, filled with light. Off-white columns rise skyward like trees. Flower-shaped stained-glass windows bathe the walls in gold, green and orange. The vaulted nave soars forty-five meters high. She has seen this sacred church in books, read about it online, but nothing could have prepared her for this moment.
~ Chapter 3, The Things We Said in Venice

Although Alexi is a fictional character in my novel, we nonetheless have a few things in common. We both like visiting churches when we travel, and we always light a candle for someone when we’re there.

During our visit, I lit a candle for Bud Tullis, a childhood friend’s father
A silly shot of me inside La Sagrada Familia, giddy with excitement

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My brother-in-law and sister-in-law were married in La Sagrada Familia, and thus part of the festivities was to attend a Catholic mass in the lower chapel of the church with friends and family on Sunday. The priest, who said he would mention them during the service, actually seemed to shape his sermon around love and commitment and called them out time and time again during the mass. To accommodate the visitors from The Netherlands (the majority of the groom’s family), they asked my husband to do a reading from the Bible in Dutch.

This lower chapel is at the basement level, thus visitors on the ground floor can peer over the balcony at the church-goers and observe the religious as a curiosity, or perhaps experience a moment of connection with faith.

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Image courtesy https://twitter.com/noticiesCAT

Something that intrigued me about Barcelona when I visited so long ago was the idea that two languages were spoken in this city: Spanish and Catalonian. I didn’t fully get the history of this difference at the time, but seeing signs throughout the city in two languages had made an impression on me back in 2004.

When we visited last month, we saw the Catalonian flag flying from balconies and saw signs with the flag throughout the city with the word “Si” printed above it. While sipping cava at the anniversary party at a beautiful restaurant, I asked my Catalonian table mate Marta J. about the Catalonian flag hanging from so many balconies and what the “si” was all about. She explained the long standing and ever-growing tensions between the Catalonians and the Spanish government. A large section of the Catalonian population wants independence, but the Spanish government is adamantly opposed to secession. The flag was a reminder to vote “Si” or “No” during the upcoming referendum on Catalonia seceding from Spain, even though the judicial branch of the government had deemed the referendum illegal / was not giving credence to Catalonia’s right to voice its will.

I thought of the beginnings of my own country of origin, how bloody hard our ancestors fought for freedom from the crown and how that freedom formed The United States. I felt sorry for the Catalonians, trapped within a larger country that did not honor their independence and apparently didn’t value their contribution to society.  It’s not like they could sail across the world and discover a new land and set up there. They were already home.

The tension between Catalonia and the Spanish government is nothing new, and somehow, in my short visit years ago, I picked up on that tension. In fact, it playfully made a cameo in my 2017 novel. In this passage, travel vlogger Alexi is filming a vlog post for her followers, and imparts a bit of cultural knowledge, while providing insight into her own character with Catalonia as metaphor.

“This city is beautiful, the people friendly, but there is a strange duality here. The signs are both in Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is a unique language quite similar to Spanish that is only spoken in four provinces known as the Catalonia region of Spain. The history of Catalonia and the reason for a separate language within Spain is a bit complicated, but just Google it and you can get the scoop.

“So I’m like Barcelona. I have two languages within me; two cultures coming together. I’m not talking about actual languages, but rather a duality of personalities. Although friendly and comfortable in one-on-one situations, I’m actually quite shy in my day-to-day life. I work in counseling, and my clients value me. But now I’m on a one-year sabbatical, discovering another me — my freedom, my individuality, the Catalonia within me.”
~ Alexi during a vlog post in The Things We Said in Venice

Our five-day trip to Barcelona ended the first week of September, but Barcelona was definitely in my thoughts as October 1st approached. This is the day Catalonians would attempt to vote for their independence from Spain.

This video from The Guardian gives a quick impression of how that turned out.

I, like many people throughout the world, was shocked to witness the violence in Barcelona captured on the news and social media. Just a few weeks earlier I had only witnessed sunshine, peacefulness and beauty. The police brutality and denial of the right for Catalonians to hold a referendum recalls harsher chapters in Spain’s history. Is this the face the Spanish government wants to show the world?

To add a little background, consider these words from the website Armstrong Economics: In the Spanish Civil War, General Francisco Franco abolished Catalan autonomy in 1938. Following Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan political parties concentrated on autonomy rather than independence.

A bit more research reveals that in 2006, this statute of autonomy was challenged by Spain’s high court of justice, and there have been growing protests throughout Catalonia ever since.

Will the international community come to Catalonia’s defense? Unless there are rich natural resources to usurp or threats of mass genocide, it seems the international community is rather reluctant to get involved in civil debates–though civil hardly seems like the proper term here.

Just as I was about to publish my post, a friend who had just had a romantic weekend getaway in Barcelona, sent me pictures from her trip. Based on the smiling faces, the gorgeous Mediterranean sea, the lovely touristic shots, life in Barcelona continues despite the protests on both sides.

One of the last shots she sent me seemed to be the perfect way to end this post.

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If you are interested in knowing more about my travel romance The Things We Said in Venice, please visit my other blog: www.authorkristinanderson.com. Or, visit Amazon to download a free sample, or what the heck, purchase one.

Signing off.

Kristin in Holland

 

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Family Night in Prison


If I were to tell you one of the highlights of our summer vacation was spending a night in prison, would you think I’d completely lost it?

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our vacation started out well enough. We arranged to stay at a house in Haarlem for five days and had done the preliminary work of picking up the keys and security codes. We packed the night before to make our morning departure easier. We slept in anyway, and still caught a train on time and easily made the transfer to the second train.

As we rolled our suitcases toward the Haarlem house, I could feel the idea of vacation settling into my shoulders. We were four blocks away when my husband suddenly stopped walking.

“I don’t have my bag!”

His suitcase was in his hand, our bag of snacks over his shoulder. My son and I both had our suitcases and backpacks, so there was a moment of confusion until I noticed that his black shoulder bag was not strapped to his body.

“How’s that possible?” I asked. Misplacing or forgetting items was my specialty, not his. He’s the one we entrust with all important things.

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The keys to the vacation house? OH CRAP!

“The keys to the vacation house are in that bag. Besides that, nothing of monetary value,” he claimed.

We called NS, the service that runs the Dutch train system and he precisely described where he had left his shoulder bag and provided a detailed list of its contents down to the red ball point pen in the outer pocket. They promised to call us if they found it.

If the bag was lost or stolen, we were in trouble. If they found the bag, it would take five days to mail it to us–either way, our vacation was looking like a bust.

But the day was still young and I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. If the keys were lost, we could still get a hotel for at least one night and explore Haarlem or maybe move onto another, less familiar city or village and have a mini-vacation. Or we could go home.

Remarkably, NS called us back within the hour and the bag had been found! Yippee! They could mail it to us within five days or we could pick it up . . . in Leeuwarden, way the hell up north.

Leeuwarden or Bust!

As the capital of the Dutch province Friesland, Leeuwarden is a historical city dating back to the 8th century. A percentage of the population doesn’t even speak Dutch, but Friesian. Ljouwert is how you say Leewarden in Friesian. Onward with my tale.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 5:30pm and retrieved the missing bag without problem. The next challenge was finding last-minute lodging on a Saturday night.

I had called multiple Bed & Breakfasts and they were either fully booked or had a max of two people per room–thus no room for the kid. I found a decent, yet uninspiring hotel on the edge of town that still had rooms as back up, but I hoped to find something in the center.

Google maps reported there was a hostel 400 meters from where we stood. I had read about the Alibi Hostel earlier, but to tell you the truth, I’m not a hostel girl. I’m most peaceful and comfortable in a private hotel room that has its own bathroom and shower. With a hostel, you run the risk of sharing your sleeping quarters with a total stranger and having to leave your room in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom.

I ended my internal debate by calling the hostel to discover they had one private room left.  The man on the phone agreed to hold it for us until we had a chance to look at it.

We walked the four hundred meters and arrived at Blokhuispoort, our final destination.

We entered through the main portal of this massive building complex and followed the signage to Alibi Hostel through several construction zones. When we arrived, we were surprised to discover Alibi Hostel was a converted prison. Instead of downplaying this gruesome fact, they actually turn it into a selling point. Book a cell now!

The first prison at this location was built in 1580. The current building was constructed in the mid-1800s and renovated multiple times over the years. It stopped serving as an official prison in 2007 because it was no longer up to penitentiary code, but bad guys and gals had stayed in these cells up until just a decade ago.

img_7920We were led to our cell. It had one of those big iron doors, thick walls, black beds, bars on the windows–you know–like right out of a movie. But unlike the movie version, there was something hip and modern about these renovated cells.

It definitely said “prison,” but the smooth walls, new beds and fresh minimalism spoke of proper investment in turning this old penitentiary into something cool. I checked out the shower room and the women’s restroom. Both were immaculate. And did I mention that it was affordable?

“We’ll take it!”

 The beds were incredibly comfortable and even though there were bars in front of the window, you could still open them for fresh air. Room secured, we headed into Leeuwarden for dinner and a stroll through the city center.

We returned to Blokhuispoort around 10:00pm and ran into two men who showed us a more direct route to the hostel. Like the owners of the hostel, they were upbeat and friendly. In no time at all they were telling us about the restaurant they were opening in the next few weeks within the Blokhuispoort.

Young people hung out in the courtyard chatting, while a few other families were also returning to the hostel for the evening.

What was going on here? I learned over the course of the evening and following morning that the municipality had designated Blokhuispoort as a site for a cultural center, including a youth hostel.

I soon discovered that our hosts Peter and Jurrien (pictured below) were two of the four owners of the Alibi Hostel. Sjors and Marieke, who weren’t on duty that day, round out the team.

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The four friends had been talking one night at the pub and came up with the idea of opening a youth hostel in Leeuwarden. The idea stuck and they began doing research and trying to find a location, but weren’t having any luck. Then they saw an advertisement in the paper.

If I have my facts right, a national development company called BOEi purchased the entire Blokhuispoort complex from the municipality for one euro. You can’t even get a bottle of Cola for that price. Of course the developer has to meet the city’s vision of a cultural center, including ateliers, restaurants and a youth hostel. The renovation would cost millions and millions.

Because of the size and scope of the project, it is being finished in sections and the developer rents to different entrepreneurs, such as the four young friends who started the Alibi Hostel.

The hostel only opened 8 months ago, and a variety of businesses are slowly filling the other spaces, turning this old prison into a cultural hub, just as the municipality had hoped.

Hard to say why this is so appealing, but Alibi Hostel has style. The ground floor comprises a series of ateliers from tattoo shops to cheese shops and the stone, metal and glass create a hip, modern atmosphere.

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Despite the comfortable beds and almost soundproof rooms, we all had a bad night’s sleep. Could that have something to do with sleeping in a prison cell? Did the developer forget to call in a pranic healer to cleanse the energy in the rooms? Or did we just eat too much the night before?

In the morning, I ran into another guest who was visiting from just outside Utrecht. He and his family of four had nabbed two private rooms with double beds. He found the whole concept great and was impressed with the renovation. He’s pictured here relaxing in a small lounge next to a wall of barred windows. They slept just fine, by the way.

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In fact, everyone I saw seemed completely fine with being locked into a former prison cell and leisurely hanging around a facility with bars wherever you gaze.

So if you’re a die hard Orange is the New Black fan, or just want to know what it’s like to spend a night in prison without breaking the law, I highly recommend Alibi Hostel. It means a trip way the hell up north, but I must say, we quite enjoyed our cell and this Friesian city.

 

 

Versailles in the Summertime


DSC_6820Versailles in the summertime–almost sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Visiting the Palace of King Louis the XIV and the world-famous gardens surrounding this majestic estate. In many ways, it was romantic. Strolling through the gardens that seem to stretch endlessly gives you a sense of royalty.
DSC_6792 You forget your sandals, striped sun dress and broad straw hat, and envision yourself in yards of silk with a jewel-encrusted parasol in your gloved hand. White marble statues of Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses line the gravel paths; you are in good company. Fountains abound, each out doing the other.

But then I'm only painting half the picture; Versailles in the summertime means that you have more for company than the Gods and stately grounds–the gardens and palace are besieged and overflowing with tourists, and you are but a raindrop in the downpour of tourism, together creating a wave so thick that there is barely enough oxygen within the regal rooms of the palace to stand.

Although the garden allows for throngs of people, the palace, with its walls, closed windows and roped-off areas, despite it's grandeur and high ceilings, breeds claustrophobia. I wanted to pause and take in the beauty all around me, but I couldn't take it. Perhaps those who ride the Paris or New York subway on a regular basis could handle it better than me.
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I love architecture and museums, but crowds don’t give you the space for a contemplative mind. You are all elbows, one hand holding fast to your purse or wallet, the other pulling your little one close by to protect him from being squashed. It wasn’t that bad the entire time, but some of the smaller rooms, lined with velvety wall paper, high columns bedecked with lion heads, each and every space ornately decorated, felt like collaborative tourniquets on my nature-loving mind–I just had to get out as quickly as possible. I believe that if there had only been a mere 50 people in the room instead of 150, I could have taken in all of this opulence with more grace and appreciation.
DSC_6859 wallpaper in Versailles

The Veluwe and other things that make my son run


The Dutch are a hardy stock not easily deterred by harsh weather. They can tolerate high winds, freezing cold and overcast skies for days on end without complaint. But there comes a time, such as the beginning of May, when they feel entitled to better weather for having endured the long, harsh winter. If by mid-May the weather hasn’t improved, they begin the downward transition from Dutch indifference to mild frustration, their countenances gripped by a look that says enough is enough. By late May, if the weather is still not cooperating, meaning the sun isn’t out, it’s still cold, wet, windy and gray, they begin to act like Americans–profusely complaining about the Dutch weather.

And no wonder; they haven’t had a spring this cold since 1900. Thus not a single Dutch person now living has ever experienced a spring this cold. (If you are a 113-plusser of Dutch descent and you remember how cold it was the first few years of your life, my apologies for getting this fact wrong. And thanks for reading my blog).

It was in such forlorn May weather that we were given the gift of lodging in a vacation house in the Veluwe, an expanse of forests, heath and sand drifts in the center of the Netherlands. We were on the freeway for an hour and a half before we pulled into a rural area surrounded by open space, forests and lush green pastures dotted with picturesque sheep and cows. My son sat in a child seat in the back, offering a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. It was from this throne-like position that he offered up a running commentary of everything outside with an enthusiasm that had us deeply immersed in vacation mode despite only being on the road for a relatively short time. His anticipation grew as we got closer to our destination.

I had no idea what our temporary home would look like, but unbeknownst to me, my mind had been quite busy constructing it in my head: a seventies style wooden structure with a rough-hewn floor and compact rooms, a series of matching Delft blue plates and cups in the wooden cupboards,  a gnome statue in the front yard. As we followed the instructions of the female voiced GPS unit into a vacation home park, we passed a number of homes that fit my expectations. But when we reached the home where we would be staying, all bets were off.

Instead of wooden walls and gnomes, we were met by an elegant residence with a white exterior, steeply pitched roofs and ample windows. The landscaping surrounding the home–pleasant and inviting instead of cropped and contained–was a reverse shock to my system. The lush vegetation flowed into itself, presenting delicate layers of trees, ferns, flowers and grass that breathed ease and grace. It was this master crafted garden that spoke its silent words; you can relax now, you have reached your vacation residence.

My husband must have had similar seventies wood cabin expectations, because he too stared in pleasant surprise at this white house reminiscent of the French Countryside. If we had let logic guide our expectations, we would have pictured nothing less from the owners, a couple who offer a complex blend of Dutch pragmatism and understated elegance.

As we brought in our bags, our son asked if we had the place all to ourselves. When we answered yes, he did a little happy dance. Now truth be told, our son prefers sitting around and playing with legos or watching dad play chess online over playing soccer or running around outside. But that was before we got to the Veluwe.

Ignoring the inclement weather, we walked down the gravel road to a path that entered the forest and our son was out in front, leading the charge. Apparently emboldened by the natural surroundings, he began to announce which direction we would be taking at every fork in the path. A long road between two stretches of forest led to a low hill that beckoned us forward. Clearly, there was something of interest beyond that rise. Ezra ran ahead with dad, and low and behold, a desert! It wasn’t actually a desert, but a wide expanse of sand dotted with little tree-lined rises. Forest surrounded the desert hill landscape on all sides. Within a few minutes of exploration, we came to a group consensus that this was perhaps the most exciting hide-and-seek area ever. And thus began a marathon of hide-and-seek adventure.

Despite just having recovered from a minor surgery, I found myself walking as quickly as possible to hide among bushes and sand, my heart pounding as my son and I waited for my husband to find us. We took turns peering through the brush to see if he was getting close. I observed the mix of terror and joy on my son’s face as he played hide and seek in nature, not a building in sight; his screams and fits of laughter did not bounce off the walls of an urban dwelling to hurt my ears, but were as much a part of nature’s soundtrack in this windblown expanse of desert as a bird’s call or the hum of wind through the surrounding trees.

When our hiding place was on the verge of being discovered, he fully exercised his newfound ability to keep on running and hiding. Every morning, he couldn’t wait to go outside and run, explore and play some more–even though it was cold out there, and raining. Where was the boy who isn’t willing to walk for more than 10 minutes in the city? Where was the boy that refuses to go outside on weekends to get some exercise and fresh air? Not here. And the air quality in the moss lined forest was clearly different. As we breathed in the air, it felt like our lungs could take in more oxygen, causing us to feel more awake and invigorated.

This got me to thinking about the correlation between open space and physical activity. I grew up in the countryside and my life was full of active verbs like run, climb, dig, build, spring. I only had time for the more passive activities of reading, drawing and watching television after I had burned through my child energy with the aforementioned set of verbs. Could it be that the reason we have a “let’s stay inside” guy is that a cityscape of tall apartment complexes, skyscrapers, and a cross-hatch of roads, tram lines, biking paths and brick sidewalks are not doing it for him? There are trees in the city. Parks. An urban forest with small lake within 10 minutes of our house. But it can’t replace uninterrupted nature, stretching off into the distance, calling you to explore its hiding places.

Home way from home away from home


When we flew into Schiphol airport outside Amsterdam, I had a great sense of relief: Relief that the long plane ride was over, excitement to see my husband again, and the shoulder-relaxing sensation of being back home. And there I’ve said it. Home. Usually, that’s a term I reserve solely for central California, the place where I grew up and where I just spent the last five and a half weeks staying with family and friends. That is the place where people speak my language. Not only the English language, but Central-California-Coast English.

In this particular liberal leaning dialect, all know that the Monsanto Corporation, with their genetically modified crops, is evil; that gay rights are inalienable rights; that tomatoes and blackberries are things to be picked fresh off the vine and eaten immediately; that open space is a valuable commodity that should be preserved; live music a treasure to the soul, humor a form of religion, and speaking wittily, yet openly and kindly with others a way of life.

After spending five and a half weeks in California, I almost felt like I’d moved back home. Almost. The problem was, my sweet husband hadn’t come with us. He was back in The Hague, holding down the fort, working on the house, skyping and calling us every other day, and reminding my son and I by his mere absence, that we had another home on the other side of the ocean. The incredible sunshine, cultural familiarity, friends, family and all the charms that “my California” offers are far more compelling than the most creatively designed sales brochure or million dollar ad campaign. Nothing can sell you more than being understood, comfortable and wanted. And a big part of me wanted to stay.

Yet, now that I’m back in The Netherlands, I want to be here too. Not only because my husband is here and my job is here, but because our three-level apartment in The Hague has become our home away from home, the school Ezra attends his school and the people we’ve met our other community. Perhaps I’m a much simpler creature than I want to believe, and one of those hand crocheted little wall hangers that says “home is where the heart is” sums up my ability to transition so easily from one culture to the other. Or, maybe I’m just culturally slutty in that seventies, free loving, Crosby, Stills and Nash “Love the One Your With” way.

In either case, neither world is perfect. Here in The Hague I can ride public transport, walk or bicycle to just about anywhere I need to be, providing me the rare ability to avoid car culture altogether–a virtual impossibility should I live back in California. If I want the European experience, I only need step outside my door. If I want a European vacation, I need only a free weekend to venture by train to another city, or country, for that matter, and gaze upon breathtaking town squares from the 1600s, something I can also do in my “home away from home” town.

On the other hand, although Arie Jan picked up quite a bit of CCC English during his six years with me in California, I haven’t met anyone else who truly speaks my dialect. On top of that, I communicate most of the day in a foreign language I haven’t yet mastered, meaning that I feel held back, and unable to fully express myself. Yet there is something exciting about the daily challenge of language acquisition. It is as if my every waking day is a treasure hunt, and every person I interact with potentially the one to offer up a new Dutch word, that upon that day transitions from a word I keep forgetting, to one given over to my permanent collection. How would you weigh being understood immediately compared to a daily treasure hunt?

And more importantly, where is home? Where is my home away from home? And which city becomes my home away from home away from home? I would never want to be described as two-faced, because of course that expression holds only a very negative connotation. But I do have two worlds in which I reside. And when it comes down to it, I’m leaning much more heavily toward the promiscuous approach to my two cultures of Love the One your With.

Travel and the stress/chill ratio


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As I prepare for my first solo trip with my son to the U.S. for a month long visit, lessons learned from our last vacation pop into mind. Below is the beginning of a blog I started after our five day May vacation: a low budget, whirlwind trip to Luxembourg, France and Belgium.

Luxembourg

An unscientific yet plausible way to measure your stress/chill ratio is to go on vacation– with a small child. The number of days it takes to let go of work and other stresses is the exponent of your stress. I discovered one dimension of the stress/chill ratio while sitting in a canopied restaurant deep in the valley of old Luxembourg.  The moment I completely enjoyed the Estaminet Premium Pils passing over my lips, while being not in the least annoyed that my son was filling my shoes with tiny pebbles, I had reached chill.

I’d like to say that on our May vacation I stumbled into chill and stayed, sucking up the foreign landscapes with the voraciousness of a crisp piece of bread descending into French Onion soup. But I didn’t. I vacillated between relaxed and mildly anxious about some nameless, yet poignant stress residue.

Oh Grasshopper, you might say, it is one of life’s great challenges to stay in the moment. Or if you were feeling wise but less sarcastic, life will always present stressful situations. It is how you react to these situations that will determine your stress/chill ratio.

And I would answer with my own scrap of truthful triteness: knowing these truths and acting upon them are two very different things.

The first morning when I awoke in Bertrange, Luxembourg in our friend’s guest room, I felt the relaxation percolating through my cells.  Not one wayward client plodded through my mind.

I must attribute part of this relaxed state to our host, Wim. When we arrived at 1:15am the evening before, he waved to us from his balcony. He welcomed us warmly and showed us to our quarters, making no fuss of our ridiculous arrival time. In the morning, he was gracious and relaxed as if he too were on vacation, not headed out the door for a long day’s work. His calm demeanor not only made my son feel at ease in an unfamiliar house, but set the tone for the day.

As we headed into the City of Luxembourg, the corset of stress I didn’t realize I had been wearing slowly unlaced, string by string. By the time we parked the car in the deep valley of Luxembourg filled with old buildings and warm sunshine, I thought I had cast the corset aside. We walked along an old stone wall, an ancient city river below us and a high train bridge above. Sections of the old city topped by cornflower blue sky were elegantly framed in its arches.

“This would make a wonderful picture, don’t you think?” I said as I retrieved my camera. I’m on vacation. It’s sunny. Life is good.

“Yeah. If you want to take a shot that’s been done a million times before. It’s hardly original,” commented my husband. I’d like to say I responded calmly, saying how I thought his comment was inappropriate. But no. Anger rippled through me and the imaginary corset, far from cast aside, constricted my ribcage, causing me to cough.

I can’t tell you exactly what words I spewed at him, but they were far from a shining example of the Non Violent Communication skills we’ve been trying to incorporate into our communication. This one little incident might have put a damper on our day had it not been for our son who snapped us back into the present with his glee and ability to be completely in the moment.

At other times, he was the little winged creature setting flame to my fuse. But both situations give you a chance to assess your stress. The deeper we settled into our vacation, the fewer times I found myself being reactionary.

France

When we opted for the low-budget motel in Nancy, France, rather than the architecturally refined lodging adjacent to a central monument, I experienced no longing. Instead, I followed my son’s lead.

“This is our new home! Look at the bath tub! Let’s take a bath and you can tell me a Scooby Doo Emmet and Ezra Ninja story in the bath tub.”

Cheap plastic drinking cups transformed into submarines and we taught orphan baby sharks how to hunt. After a leisurely bath and a stint at watching French adventure cartoons, we walked to the center and passed through the golden edged entry gates of Stanislas square. http://www.ot-nancy.fr/uk/centre_historique/place_stanislas.php

The Netherlands has beautiful squares with brick buildings and inviting terraces, but Stanislas square, built in the 1700s, presents an intentionally royal atmosphere. Designed to honor Louis the XV of France, the three-story white classical buildings with golden detailing exude nobility. Lavish fountains and golden gates catch the light of the street lamps throughout the square. It is a place to not only fall in love, but to fall in love with France.

As we dined in the square under the stars with hundreds of other tourists, the sun slowly set, washing the square in the deep magenta hues of a romantic evening. My son had his french fries, I, a large salad, and my husband ordered something called “steak tartare.”

As we waited for our food to arrive, sipping on chocolate milk, white wine and beer, the locals entertained us. No street musicians, but drunk university kids rushing fraternities. They ran around awkwardly, some smeared with paint on their faces, others arm in arm, escorting young men who should have stopped drinking a few flasks ago.

And then dinner arrived. French fries: check. Scrumptious salad: check. Steak tartare: what the hell? I stared at my husband’s plate and started to laugh.

“That looks like chopped up raw steak!” I gasped.

“It is,” he said calmly.

“And what’s that ocher yellow sauce next to it?” I asked.

“Raw egg yolk,” he mustered with less sarcasm. My husband likes his eggs over hard. Not sunny side up. Not easy. Hard. Not a single wiggle from the egg yolk.

“It’s very French,” he said. “And you have to get that look off your face if I’m going to be able to eat my dinner.”

I’m not sure what my look was, but I’m sure had he taken the shot, it would have been captioned “gastronomic horror.”

I did take a shot of his dinner (see slide show).

We rounded the evening off by standing in line with the other tourists from around the world for a scoop of ice cream, and then chasing Ezra around the regal square. The walk back to the hotel took us past flowing fountains, down stone lined streets, and then into the more modern, car lined area of our hotel. I’m guessing my sound night’s sleep in our cheap hotel was only somewhat attributable to a decent mattress.  The rest?  I was with my beautiful family, relaxed, and at peace after our glorious evening in Nancy, with more travel adventures on the horizon.

And Belgium still lay ahead! (I had written a long portion on visiting castles in Luxembourg and on Metz, France, but somehow, wordpress didn’t save it! The gothic cathedral and beautiful candles in the slideshow above were taken in Metz. If I have the heart, I’ll recreate that entry at another time. It is a stunning city worth writing about.)