Slideshow of photos from my nighttime strolls in Bruges, Belgium: November, 2012.
Slideshow of photos from my nighttime strolls in Bruges, Belgium: November, 2012.
November 1 and 2 is the All Saints holiday in Italy, so we had off that Thursday and Friday. As with any break, it was time to travel somewhere. I chose to visit Bruges, Belgium to see one of my favorite cities in the world as well as good friends I met over 11 years ago.
This was my 9th visit to Bruges . . .10 if you count 2002 where I visited twice during one long backpacking trip. There has always been something extremely magical about this fairytale city, a step back in time and a break from reality. A place to wander and imagine.
While studying abroad in England in spring 2001, my friend Mike and I booked a mini break to Brussels, Belgium. We were looking for something different and new, and figured this would be a nice three day escape. Our travel agent in Banbury said, “Oh, you must go to Bruges. It’s very special. Canals, swans . . . you must go.” Mike and I kept that in mind. After wandering around the beautiful yet congested streets of Brussels, we returned to our hotel and saw a poster advertising a day trip to Bruges the next day. We signed up, and the next day, we arrived for a big surprise.
I knew nothing about Bruges except the swans and canals. I was not prepared for the sights that had me spinning my head in all directions like my cat when we throw too many catnip mice at her. We oohed, we ahhed, we wandered, and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures — beauty everywhere. Extremely ornate baroque architecture, with intricate details on every piece of moulding and wood, from houses to churches. The carillon bells chimed throughout the day, a live organist playing sweet melodies for us at the top of the Belfry, the centerpiece of the quaint, picturesque cobbled square. The square was lined with restaurants, horse-drawn carriages, and tourists happy to discover one of medieval Europe’s best kept secrets. Back then before the release of the movie, who knew how beautiful things were In Bruges?
Bruges is considered one of the world’s largest outdoor museums. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. How did it stay so well-preserved? Bruges used to be on the coast, an important port city, an epicenter for trade and Flemish art and architecture. But when the water receded, Bruges was no longer on the coast and the city was abandoned, almost forgotten for centuries. In the 1800s, when travel became a leisure activity, Victorian tourists “re-discovered” the beauty, putting Bruges on the map for the Grand Tour. Though filled with tourists, and tourism certainly has increased after the release of the 2008 movie, people do live here in this very special place.
During our walking tour, we wandered down a cobbled back lane, and I peered at the lace-covered windows, wondering about the lives inside. What would it be like to live here? I’d like to live here. I need to come back. I was absolutely mesmerized, and then I tried the food. Fries like I’d never had in my life . . . crispy and flavorful, served in a white bowl, mayonnaise on the side. Chicken in a delicious cream sauce. I don’t know the name, I’m not even sure what else we had — I just remember the sensational flavors. This was so early on in my world travels, just my second time in Europe — and I was overwhelmed with sensory ecstasy.
We took a cruise along the canals, dipping below low bridges, gliding past more intricate buildings and past the majestic swans, undulations trailing them. We sampled the rich chocolate truffles, watched some lacemaking, then we stopped at a convent for cloistered nuns. I sat amidst yellow tulips and imagined a life cloistered amidst all this beauty: thinking, praying, writing, reflecting . . . how peaceful. I envied the nuns a little bit.
We boarded the bus and left the magical city, the spires disappearing in the distance before we entered the highway back to chaotic Brussels. I began to regret not staying in Bruges instead. I didn’t know. But I knew I’d be back.
I had no idea it would be so soon. That was March 2001. That summer, my best friend Anna announced that she was going to be studying abroad for a month in . . . BRUGES . . . as she was working toward her culinary degree at Johnson and Wales. My heart pounded with excitement for her and a tinge of jealousy because she got to stay in that city, to experience life there like I had dreamed while wandering the streets. She invited me to visit after her studies. I had just returned from life abroad and was already dreaming of being back in Europe. My parents said, “We’ll buy you the ticket as your birthday present. You just pay for the hotel and incidentals.” I did not hesitate and booked my flight for that July, just two months after I had returned from England.
Just before my 21st birthday, in low pigtails with a bright lifeguard tan, I boarded the plane for my first international trip alone. Oh yes, I had the travel bug big time now, and this trip launched the next phase of my adventures. I met Anna at a hotel in Bruges, and we rode bikes into the countryside, discovered a beautiful park, stumbled across a festival at a beer garden, and enjoyed summer beauty. Before heading to Interlaken, Switzerland, we ventured out to her favorite bar, Bras, located in another square by the fountain. I threw on jeans and my royal blue Superman tank top, and we were out the door. I remember being a bit tired that night but knew that I’d have a good time if I could just make it out.
At Bras, I had my first Belgian beer. I usually involuntarily made “bitter beer face” every time I tried to have a beer when out, and instead opted for mixed drinks like vodka and cranberry. Anna ordered me a Duvel, and it glided right down with a pleasant aftertaste. Smooth. No headache. Nice buzz. We sampled different beers that night, including Hoegarden and Stella, enjoyed the music, talked to the bartenders that Anna knew well, and then . . . magic.
A guy came up to me and said, “What do you think of that guy over there?” He pointed to a very attractive, tanned, athletic Belgian. “He’s cute,” I said. Shortly afterward, he came over and in his good but not practiced English, we began talking. And then . . . kissing. We kissed so long that the bartenders sprayed us with tap beers. We barely noticed. Anna said she had to make new friends.
His name was Jasper and he had a fun, cute friend named Dave. I found out he had lied about his age when his mother kept texting him to come home. They were only 18, just having graduated from high school — about to enter college. I was about to turn 21 in a couple of weeks, about to enter my senior year of college. Oh well. Jasper scrawled his email on a bar coaster and the next day Anna and I woke up without hangovers and were off for an amazing adventure in another one of my favorite places, the Swiss Alps.
At the end of that trip, Anna headed to Greece and I was back in Bruges for just a few days by myself. I emailed Jasper, he met me at Bras again with Dave, and a long friendship was born. Dave said, ‘We noticed you because of your Superman shirt . . . we thought that was so cool.” And then when they found out I was a lifeguard, I had to explain that, no, I did not know Yasmin Bleethe.
We emailed throughout the year, and I visited the following summer while backpacking throughout Europe on my own for 3 weeks. This was my two visits in 2002 . . . and well, I guess you could also say I had two visits in 2001. Maybe 11 visits to Belgium depending on how you count it. 🙂 Bruges was the 2002 Culture Capital of Europe, so there were even more museum exhibits and cultural activities than usual. I explored Van Eyck paintings, I learned more about the history, I shopped on the quaint streets, and I ate well. Of course, I met up with Jasper and Dave at Bras and met some of their new friends and introduced them to some friends from Fordham that I ran into serendipitously on a back lane on the outskirts of town. I also visited Ghent University, where they were now studying in another beautiful canal-laden city with grand architecture. And then life happened. Emails changed and we lost touch. But we never lost the fun memories.
In 2005, I received an email from my friend Charlie. The guys had posted a comment on his blog because he had mentioned my full name. I guess they were searching for me and they said, “this may be the Kristin we met in Belgium some years ago.” He asked if I knew them and said yes, and then we were back in touch.
We kept in touch with emails, but I did not get back until 2006 when I was in Belgium with my entire family . I had to show them how beautiful it was.
I’ll never forget the family’s faces as we walked to the market square at night on my birthday, August 11, 2006. Sweet 26. All lit up and a surprise feast for the eyes. Then an absolutely amazing meal at one of the restaurants, facing the belfry. Cheese croquettes. Delicious meal in various sauces. A special beer called Kwak that required it’s own wooden holder to keep the hourglass shape from tipping over. Bubbles and a bubbly mood. Have I ever been this happy? It was the only time our whole family traveled in Europe together, and we were in one of my favorite places. On a whim, I emailed the guys, and then we met at the fountain, just like old times. My brother met them and we were all fast friends, enjoying the music festival in town, talking in the bars until 4 am each evening, and just savoring the moment. They told my brother, “You are our hero.” Did I ever laugh so much? Good Times and Amazing Memories.
Life got in the way again, but I was able to return in the summer of 2009 on a grand tour with my father to Switzerland and Belgium. Dave took me to a friend’s birthday party, then we met Jasper in Ghent for some beers and fun. I was back that winter to experience New Years’ 2010 in Bruges with my friend Krista. Partying till dawn and making new friends, it was another of my favorite experiences. I really enjoyed wandering the Christmas markets, sipping mulled wine, and peering at all the lights and Christmas decorations — one of my photos made it to the cover of my Christmas cards the following year.
Summer 2010, Dad and I were once again traveling through Europe, and once again returned to our favorite city to wander the streets and savor the food. This time, I didn’t get to see Dave who was out of town, but Jasper and I met up a few times for good meals and good conversation. I also met up with Kai,Tobi, and Simone, friends I met at New Years. And my friend from NY, Josh, was backpacking in town that weekend, so we all had drinks together.
Summer 2011, yup, I was back in Europe again. I spent a week in Italy with mom and Aunt Minnie, then flew to Brussels. At Dave’s new apartment in Ghent, he popped some champagne for the three of us to celebrate 10 years since we first met in Bruges. Anna said, “I wish I could have been there. And who’d have thought that you’d still be in touch all these years later?” We were grateful for the friendship, and I said, ‘Here’s to the next 10 years. Hopefully I’ll come with my family one day and our kids can all play together.” .
This year, as always, it was great to see my friends. Thanks to facebook, I know everything that’s going on in their lives, and it’s so easy to just pick up where we left off, chatting, laughing, wandering. We had some good beers in Ghent. We ate delicious fries and bitterballen. We watched Dave’s soccer game and met his teammates and their friends and girlfriends. Everyday Belgium.
The trip was quick, but there was plenty of time for a visit to Ghent and plenty of wandering around Bruges, beautiful even in the cold November rain. I was heartbroken and upset after all of Superstorm Sandy’s destruction in New York. I was feeling far away and alone, and this trip ended up being at the perfect time. The beauty and magic of the city soothed me as always. The long walks cleared my head while I traveled back in time. The conversations with my old friends were special as always, and I enjoyed meeting more of their friends. I ate well, laughed much, and soaked my soul in beauty. I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving as always, and I am very thankful for the many, many happy memories I’ve had in Europe over the years with friends, family and new friends. More about this particular trip in the photo essay.
A few weeks ago, I planned a lazy, cozy PJ weekend spent dozing and catching up on movies. But when a couple of friends invited me to Verona, I couldn’t say no. A new city! Yay! Unlike Shakespeare, I was actually going to see Verona. Yup, he set his star crossed lovers in this quaint medieval city without ever setting foot in Italy at all. When I announced my departure on a Girls Night Out skype chat in NY (well, they were still up, and I was about to hop into the shower), they said “Have fun looking for Romeo.”
“Where do I find him?”
“Check under some balconies.”
Sleepy yet excited, I met my friends at that train station and we headed on over for our adventure. We were greeted with torrential rain upon our arrival – bummer. We walked to our quaint hotel, which was midway between the city center and the train station, and began exploring. Knowing nothing at all about Verona and having not even seen a guidebook, the city was a complete surprise. Quaint castle. Cool bridge from that castle with views over the river and the panorama of the city. Various lookouts filled with tourists and necking teens. This was definitely THE makeout spot for the Vernoese – wannabe Romeos charming the pants off their girls in that old fashioned lip lock we so often forget as we grow older and . . .anyway.
My friend kept saying, “I love my life! Seriously, I love my life.”
This was just a simple weekend trip for us. Yes, I love my life. We are so lucky. Even in the rain, we were blissfully happy, wandering, exploring, just being.
Strolling through town, it was apparent that not just the locals were inspired by Romeo. Many couples made it a kind of romantic pilgrimage to walk hand in hand in the streets that inspired the tragic love story. People do love this story. It came up in my 10th grade class, and all the girls swooned about how romantic and sweet the story is, and my snarky, sarcastic Korean student said “They die. It’s tragic. It’s horrible. Nobody wins.”
And I said, “Would you rather have that amazing love and then die or would you rather live a long life and never know love?”
The girls said “love and die,” the guys said “life!” hmmm.
After the bridge, we wandered in search of good food. We heard that the people are really nice here and that the food is splendid. We followed an amazing scent to a local restaurant where we learned that both rumors were true. Our waiter was nice, sweet, funny, and spoke English! Coming from non-touristy Genoa where almost nobody speaks it, this was a welcome treat. I ordered macronicini with pumpkin and pork. My friend ordered tortellini filled with a mix of meats. That sounded amazing and I went to switch and the waiter shouted an alarmed, “NO!”
Startled, I said, “Huh?”
“The macaronicini is amazing. You must have it. It’s my favorite.”
One friend switched her order and we were absolutely not disappointed. Apparently the tortellini was delicious too, but that pumpkin … mmmm, such hearty flavor. In Northern Italy, near the Sud Tirol, the food shows an interesting alpine influence. Italian cooking — so regional. Travel a hundred miles in any direction, and you’ve hit an entirely different style of cooking. Living in Genoa, all the restaurants (and even the shops) feature ligurian cuisine, food from the land — simple compositions that let the ingredients shine. But I get sick of the same thing over and over, and therefore love trying new cuisine! YUM!
It was cold and wet, so we met up with friends at a bar. They used to work with my colleague in China and are now at an international school in Albania. We traded teaching stories, planned a visit, enjoyed lots of vino, then strolled through town, down cobbled lanes, into an old church with a funky pendulum, past a market, and then into another bar next to the coliseum, where I had 4 more glasses of delicious vino and aperitivos. Chatting, enjoying, and relishing the evening. Afterwards, we were hungry for more food and ducked into what we thought was a chill restaurant. In our fleeces, with soggy hair, we didn’t exactly fit in with the packed crowd dolled up for date night, but we enjoyed our snug table by the open fire where the chefs cooked veggies and bread. I had a simple onion soup, thick and tasty, while gnoshing on bread. Then back to the hotel and to bed.
The weather got even colder the next day as the rain came down even heavier, so we decided to grab an earlier train home. But first, we grabbed a nice heated outdoor breakfast, featuring hot chocolate that was like melted candy bar … mmm… then we figured, hey why not . . . let’s go look for “Juliet’s House.” Of course Juliet is fictional, but they set up a balcony and a bronze statue of Juliet. Tourists rub her right breast for good luck in love and sex. That breast was worn shiny by all the . . . love? I touched it quickly for a photo with silent apologies to the bard for the huge disgrace that must have him turning in his grave . . . but I couldn’t help it. When in Verona . . .
The whole area, a little cove off a side street, has turned into a shrine for love. Couples attach locks to a grate, engraved with their names. Locks of Love. I wonder how many of those relationships outlasted the lock. I wonder how often someone comes over with clippers to ditch the locks. And in the archway leading to the whole scene, couples doodled their names, initials, and love messages to each other within hearts. The urge to mark, whether it’s a tree, a bathroom stall, or “Juliet’s” balcony. The urge to preserve when everything is ultimately transient.
It’s hard to think of Romeo and Juliet without thinking of this song:
Here are some pictures from our trip:
I have to blog about my weekend trip to Verona and my long weekend to Bruges, one of my favorite cities. Lots of beautiful photos and some nice stories. Today was my first day back at work after being very sick, so I wasn’t able to get much of anything done. More soon. But first, I will begin 30 days of gratitude . . . because I am so very lucky and want to make sure I appreciate every beautiful moment.
Nov. 1: Grateful that my friends and family survived Superstorm Sandy.
Nov. 2: Grateful for a long 4 day weekend in Bruges, Belgium. (And for French fries!)
Nov. 3: Grateful for the friends I met in Bruges over 11 years ago while backpacking. They are now lifelong confidantes – we’ve shared many fun times and memories.
Nov. 4: Grateful for the 250 euro voucher from Lufthansa when I volunteered to fly to Nice instead of Genoa. They gave me a cab to my door and 250 euros, which I can use for another trip! It was like getting this trip for free.
Nov. 5: Grateful for gorgeous spring-like weather in the Italian Riviera in November.
Nov. 6: Grateful to have such wonderful and caring coworkers and friends who helped me out while I was extremely sick with an inner ear infection/vertigo. I couldn’t sit or stand up — my boss said don’t worry about work, he and the HR rep helped me find and English-speaking specialist, and everyone checked in on me. One friend even came over to make me dinner. An angel.
Nov. 7: Grateful to wake up for the first day without vertigo. I was able to take a walk in the fresh air and feel normal again. Life is so special and beautiful when you are healthy again.
Nov. 8: Grateful for my sweet and caring students who make class an absolute pleasure. Today, one of my students said, “My mom really likes you. She says you’re a good teacher.” Some students thank me at the end of every lesson. No, dear students, thank you!
to be continued . . . I really am lucky to be living here in Genoa. Sometimes I feel like I gave up more than my heart can handle, but good friends and family have reminded me that they are always going to be there and to enjoy this absolutely amazing experience.
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die discover that I had not lived.”- Thoreau
A friend told me that when he found out his girlfriend was in the hospital, he jumped into a state of panic and would do anything to help, to ease her suffering. But he was far away at the time, and explained it was one of the most awful and terrifying feelings. He said, “You never went through that, so you don’t know how it was.” Well, I do now. The love of my life is the NYC metro area. But here in Genoa, there’s nothing I can really do but read and show my support.
It was a difficult decision to leave all my friends and family, and one of the greatest cities in the world with one of the nicest stretch of sandy beaches — the CT sound, Long Island, Queens, and my beloved Jersey shore. In the months leading up to my departure, I embarked on a “Grand Farewell Tour,” where I road-tripped to favorite spots — hiking in the mountains, visiting friends, and heading downtown to enjoy all the beautiful and wonderful things in my city. And my favorite part of the Grand Farewell Tour were all my weekend visits to beaches with one of my best friends. We went everywhere.
When we were at Point Pleasant, we gorged on greasy shore food from fried oysters to jalepeno poppers, washed it down with a cherry ice water, followed it up with an ice cream, then worked it all off in the waves for hours, bodysurfing and boogie boarding and feeling childlike bliss. Lying in the sand at the end of the day, salty and sun-kissed, we knew we had to hit the road for the traffic back home — otherwise, we would have stayed until the sun sank into the horizon and the stars appeared.
The day after my birthday in August, we went to Belmar, with a smaller more residential boardwalk and a more intimate beach setting. The waves were rough, tumbling us around like clothes in a washing machine, tossing me into the sandshell-strewn beach several times: the power of the ocean, of nature. It was another one of the best days of summer, followed by ice cream at what was probably the best place in Jersey. Chocolate peanut butter in a sugar cone. We were surrounded by kids and families and friends and everyone with that Jersey Shore smile. A day of beauty, of simple pleasures– holding on to the summer that was slipping away.
That was my last beach day this year. The next time I hit the salt water, it was on a pebbly “beach” here in Genoa, with calm blue waters, surrounded by dramatic cliffs and Italian bars. Different. I am so happy to live by the sea now; it’s always been a dream. Yet I miss the sandy beaches and quaint seaside neighborhoods of the Jersey Shore. I was looking forward to another beachy summer next year, visiting my favorite places and exploring new ones. Braving hours of traffic along with other beach-goers and only half minding because it’s so special and everyone’s so happy. It is the playground for the NY / NJ metro area.
Well, here are scenes from the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy hit. 25 heartbreaking pictures. The shore was pummeled, with images that reminded me of Hurricane Katrina. I was so moved and horrified by the scenes of Katrina that I signed up for a Global Outreach alumni volunteer trip with Fordham University. I wrote the following article about my experience — even 6 months later, it was so devastated and heartbreaking. I open, saying: “I was expecting tears. Instead, I was numb.” That’s how I feel right now — always on the verge of tears, but just in shock. Bearing Witness in New Orleans The tears will surface soon, I’m sure . . . once I can fully absorb and comprehend what has happened.
So much of NYC area was damaged as well. My brother has a music studio in Jersey City that was flooded with a few feet of water mixed with sewage and diesel. It took years to build everything and now they must rebuild. But they are ok. Those same guys also are part owners of a Brooklyn Liquor Company (Jack from Brooklyn) located in Red Hook. They produce Sorel, an awesome liqueur infused with hibiscus, Brazilian clove, Nigerian ginger among other special flavors. I crave it here in Genoa and can’t wait for a sip when I return at Christmas. Red Hook was severely flooded, and I don’t know how bad the headquarters was hit, but the guys tried to prep it as much as possible. 2012 was the Summer of Sorel, as this small company released their delicious hand-crafted product. I went to so many Sorel events, and spent so many lazy backyard days, sipping Sorel on ice and enjoying the Good Life. Savor every moment because things can change in a flash.
Without a TV in Genoa or access to the news reports, I get so much of my news from facebook statuses and links. Each revelation turns my stomach: Breezy Point, Queens – flooded then burned to the ground. Body count rising everywhere. People all over killed in their sleep by fallen trees. People dying from carbon monoxide poisoning due to their generators. Survivors who have lost their homes, their cars, their communities. Families cold and in the dark without power. My parents in the leafy suburbs might not get power back for 10 more days or so. Dad has to keep going to work in Secaucus, with a view of the broken crane in midtown. Mom tries to stay warm. Everyone must wait in line for hours to get gas — pumps at most stations not working due to electricity. It sounds like it’s from some kind of disaster or horror movie. But it’s real. “You don’t want to be here,” said Dad. “Be glad you are in Europe now. It’s terrible here.” He’s at work, panicked with stress — distanced. “Enjoy Belgium.”
I am. There is a magic, peaceful beauty here — a timeless fairytale break from reality. Bruges has a special power to soothe. It’s raining today — and I really need a break. As it’s my 9th visit to this gorgeous city, I’ve seen much of it. I’m here to enjoy and rest. Food, relaxation, contemplation. Perhaps some Flemish art.
Tonight, I stay in Ghent with a great friend I met here in Bruges over 11 years ago. Tomorrow we will meet up with the other friend before heading back to Bruges. Two guys I ran into all those years ago who have become lifelong friends and confidantes. The wonder of travel and the wonder of modern communication, first via email, scrawled on a bar coaster. And now facebook. The world is small. And I am looking forward to good conversations, laughter, and connection. Just as E.M. Forester says in Howard’s End “Only Connect.” And while I enjoy traveling on my own quite frequently, I just want to reach out and connect. We get through tragedies through the triumph of the human spirit. My dear New York area, I can’t be with you physically but I am there in spirit, loving you and thinking about you and wishing you well.