Archive | June, 2012

Pickles and Onions on Herring – Oh my!

27 Jun

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Amsterdam for the first time.  My son, who is 19 talked me into making the trek from London to Holland so he could visit a friend.  His friend was a girl who had come to live in Mebane, NC (our hometown) as an exchange student.  Initially, the thought of being in Amsterdam with my teen-aged son and other young folks made me apprehensive to say the least.  When I was last in Europe in 1989, Amsterdam was known only for the hash and the red light district.  I’m writing this post to document the error of my prejudices about the city.  From now on, when I think of Amsterdam, I will think of water and houseboats and pickled herring, and bicycles.

The red light district is still there, don’t get me wrong.  And of course, we took a stroll through it just to say we had.  It was dirty and weird and not all like the part of the city we spent the majority of our time in.  But to have the impression that Amsterdam is the red light district is like thinking that South Carolina is Myrtle Beach. As a native of the Carolinas, I can tell you, there are vast and beautiful places that bear no resemblance to the touristy craziness of Myrtle, and so is the case in Amsterdam. We toured all around the city on rented bicycles and enjoyed gorgeous views of renovated buildings, quaint sidewalk cafes, flower markets, and of course, canals lined with houseboats.

My new, informed take on the Venice of the Netherlands is that it is the most quiet and polite city I have traveled in.  I did not hear a single car horn in the whole four days – only the ping of bicycle bells.  My biggest and favorite surprise was the amazing cycling culture.  Women in heels, men in suits, fathers toting up to three kids on a single bike, people with their pets in baskets, all chugging along the cobble stone streets and extensive network of bike lanes.  There were bikes in all shapes with a number of ingenious ways to carry things from here to there.  My favorite was the one with the integrated box on the front.  I saw this style of bike used to shuttle dogs, school aged children, lumber, furniture, and groceries.  It is the minivan of the Netherlands.

My second favorite surprise was how much I enjoyed the food.  I’m guessing fresh produce is good just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere in late June, but I had forgotten about Dutch apple pie.  Other staples like bread, cheese and beer were also delicious. Finally, the pickled herring.  Topped with chopped onions and pickles, it is a flavor explosion of a very pleasing combination.

Finally, while Holland is famous for tulips, in June it’s the Hollyhocks that steal the show.  They pushed up between the cracks of the sidewalk next to buildings where they were not purposefully planted.  Hydrangeas and trailing roses were also featured foliage providing a soft and delicate edge to the sharpness of all the brick and pavement.  All in all, I have to say, Amsterdam will be high on the list of places to re-visit.

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Storming Provence

7 Jun

A couple of months ago, I went to Paris for the first time since 1989.  While I was there, I kept thinking about the fact that Paris was spared during the Blitzkrieg and is thus physically unmarred by battle scars.  I am no history buff, so mostly my imagination wandered in and out of bits of movies I had seen about the deals made to save Paris, the Resistance, the Germans, the ugliness of WWII. Somehow, I projected a sense of defeat onto Paris of today – as her looks fade, the ghosts of her occupation haunt.

Dad was not quite a teen-ager when D-Day happened.  He was a history buff and so his affection for France, I believe in part, came from his indelible memories of triumphant American and Allied forces. His early impressions were shaped by listening to broadcasts on the radio, and it was these memories of WWII and the pressing urgency of the Korean War that sent him to join up as soon as he legally able.  His deep sense of patriotism and his commitment to never let a tyrant dictator rule his country or any other, fueled his passion to serve.  After 23 years in the Navy he retired and enjoyed a second career, still in government service. This second career afforded him the opportunity to travel for pleasure.  So in the spring of 1989, he  and my mother (along with my youngest brother who was 16 and my oldest sister who was 33) flew to Paris and boarded a train south.  I met them at the station in Montpellier where Steve and I were spending a year abroad. Mom and half their luggage rode with me in my Renault 4. Dad rented a Citroen sedan and followed me back to Domain de Lussac, an 18th century chateau on the outskirts of Montpellier in Languedoc Roussilon, just adjacent to Provence in Southern France. We had rented the one bedroom apartment in the North Tower.

So when I recently was able to return to Montpellier for the first time since I left 23 years ago, I was flooded with memories of my family’s visit, and especially Dad.  My favorite is of the afternoon we heard some kids playing in the courtyard inside this gate.  The kids had a bat and were arranging themselves in a game of cricket, I think.  I was busy preparing dinner for six and not paying much attention.  The next thing I knew, Dad was in the courtyard using hand gestures and broken French and English to organize the kids in a game of baseball.  I looked out just in time to see him get a hit and run the bases.  We hung out the window and cheered loudly.

On our recent trip, we nearly replicated my family’s tour  from 1989. We explored central Montpellier: La Place de la Comedie, Le Perou, a cafe or two.  We walked around with baguettes under our arms, and ate olives at every chance.  We toured the region: St. Gilheim le Desert, and Pont Diablo.  We did not make it to Avignon, and Nimes; nor did we attempt to drive to Spain.  Yes, on one of the days my dad was in Montpellier, he talked me into riding with him to Spain.  He said he wanted to drive really fast.  Who can say no to that?  We got on the tollway early, and I learned Dad was not kidding.  In no time, we were going 110 mph.  At first I was terrified, then I remember feeling really Zen about it.  How poetically tragic it would be to die on a highway in a foreign country while my own father was driving.  I leaned back into the seat and thought how lucky I would be to die so happy.

And that is exactly how I felt during this trip. I could not stop smiling, just like my dad smiled while he was there. Being in Southern France brings me a kind of inexplicable happiness and peaceful feeling.  I love the abundance of sun, the bounty of fresh food, the natural beauty everywhere, the slow pace.  And I love that the place holds such happy memories of my dad.  I am one of the truly lucky ones to have these memories of my dad happily vacationing in France, and not dying there as part of an invasion. For that, I am thankful.