The day before we hitched Sugar Magnolia to the station wagon I logged out of Facebook and deleted it from my phone, but not before sharing one of those inane “taking a break from social media” social media posts. With an intention to only share one image a day on Instagram, we set out for a 21 day camping and hiking trip around the Benelux, a swanky mash-up of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Sugar Magnolia is the name of our early 90s Eriba caravan that we bought last year from a Dutch family living about as far east in The Netherlands as you can go. Our custom for each road trip is that once safely out of the neighborhood, we pop a CD in the player (yes, the car is also old enough to have a CD player) and crank up Sugar Magnolia by the Grateful Dead.
“…She’s got everything delightful She’s got everything I need A breeze in the pines in the summer night moonlight Crazy in the sunlight yes indeed…”
On the road south headed to our first stop in Limburg, we were happily planning our first meals and hikes while watching the turbines spinning along the flat Dutch farmland. Strong was the itch to capture a video of the passing polders to post a poignant piece about natural energy sources. But I resisted and returned my attention to the conversation in the car.
A few hours and a couple of aging hippie soundtracks later, we rolled into the campground at the Maasduinen National Park and stood gawking with goosebumps under the massive Douglas Fir trees who would be our hosts for the next few days. The Maasduinen park in Limburg is a vast park of dunes, heather fields (heide in Dutch) home to an array of wildlife and quite the diversity of bees, according to the forest ranger who greeted us with a boyish grin and a large bee poster depicting the winged friends who keep the world humming.
Once settled and sufficiently lunched, we headed out for a hike in the dunes and heide, just starting to bloom in advance of the big purple show that covers the dunes for a couple weeks in late August. With the road behind us and a beautiful uncivilized horizon all around us, our conversation wandered into transcendentalist territory where we considered Emerson’s transparent eyeball and Buddhist teachings about being fully present to our direct experience. As Sookie and Louie, our two aging boxer/bulldog companions sniffed and peed and pulled us along, we started noticing that the path was lined with ripening vines of blackberries (well, to be accurate, they are European Dewberries). B bent down to pick and pop a berry onto her tongue and then I reached into the tangle of leaves and thorns to pluck a plump little treat for myself.
Zing! The tart little explosion was perfection, full of sunlight and itchy memories from childhood summers spent picking blackberries behind my elementary school in Atlanta. Fully present and at the same time welcoming wisps of the past, the urge to capture it all for social media barged in to spirit my attention away from my present experience. “Ooo, let’s get some pics, reach in again and let me take a few photos for Instagram!”
No longer was I fidgeting the seeds lodged in my molar; no more was my gaze soft and reminiscent; the taste on my tongue had faded into framing the perfect photo for thumbs ups and heart emojis from the handful of people who may or may not see my berry blip in their day of scrolling.
Gone was my direct experience of the landscape, my lover and our languid walk in Limburg. Now my mind was out here with y’all, imagining the dopamine kick it would get out of a nanosecond of…what? Affirmation, acknowledgement, ego? Ugh.
Around 180 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
I slipped my phone back in my pocket, feeling a little silly that I had so quickly stepped off the present path and onto the digital landscape in my mind. This multifaceted medium – blogging, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube – is built to be addictive, and I have been a devoted advocate for sharing a bit of love and light in the mess out here. I am also now called to put down my PDDs (person distraction devices) and take the “soft animal of body” out into the created world to experience encounters with wholeness – that awareness of being part and parcel of God – that elude me on the interwebs.
And this doing what I do not want to do, all toxic Pauline theology aside, is a real and present human condition that many of us struggle with in various degrees and domains. In this struggle we are invited to be intentional with our promises of progress. For me this means airplane mode, away messages and phones parked out of reach combined with mindful/bodyful/prayerful practices such meditation, forest bathing and lectio divina. Such intentionality, however we craft it, can lead to rich internal landscapes where we are more fully aware of and connected to the world, one another and our ideal selves.
Here are a few ideas to help us deepen our human experiences of the here and now:
Find out how and use Do Not Disturb and away messages on your phone, email or other digital connection tools.
Put your phone in airplane mode at meal times, when you are on a walk or any time you want to just think your own thoughts for a while.
Go outside or spend longer than usual lingering by a window in your home.
Look closely at everything (let it get a little weird).
Occasionally take a photo with the intention to print rather than post.
Breathe deeply when the urge to click or scroll tugs at your mind. Notice the sensation without judgement and let it pass.
Journal or draw – on paper – cheap notebooks are best for letting yourself fill the pages with musings, meanderings and mistakes.
Before I moved to Europe the only kind of tea that would pass these lips was iced and sweet. Tea made in my mother’s house was brewed and served according to very strict guidelines:
There was one small aluminum pot used to make the tea. No other other pot would do and NOTHING else could ever be cooked in that pot. I learned this the hard way after warming up a chef boyardee after school snack.
After the water is at a rolling boil, put in one pinch of baking soda, turn off the water, immerse, two Lipton family-size bags, cover with a thick, old saucer and wait at least 10 but not more than 20 minutes.
Add two large scoops of Dixie Crystal sugar to a large, glass pitcher
Pour hot tea over the sugar and stir until all sugar melts.
Top up with cold tap water until pitcher is full
Serve immediately over glasses filled to the brim with ice. If the ice floats, add more. Never serve first cups with floating ice.
Finish entire pitcher and never store over night, not even in ‘fridge.
It’s not often that I drink this kind of tea anymore, even if I could find it outside of Georgia. And as for hot tea, well that’s one of those things like free jazz that I really want to like, but alas my tastes are slow to mature beyond the days of sweet tea and bluegrass.
I am in the last stretch of certification as a nature therapy guide and one of my final projects is to identify with 110% certainty between 4-6 plants that I can forage and brew into a tea served on a nature therapy walk. And though I am getting to know the names of the trees and plants around me (I call the Japanese Maple in my garden Ruby), the goal of nature therapy is less a naturalists’ endeavor of classification and far more a somatic experience with the more-than-human world. I’m rightfully wary of serving folks what I pluck from the forest because what looks tasty is often poisonous and what seems dangerous can turn out to be incredibly healthy!
So, rather than relying on books and handy Youtube foraging videos, I recently reached out to the incredibly wise Lynn Shore, founder of Urban Herbology in Amsterdam, and spent a lovely morning wandering through her “River of Herbs” gardens in a city park learning about delicious plants that grow in abundance in The Netherlands.
As we walked and talked and touched the tender plants, Lynn plucked herbs and placed them in thermoses filled with piping hot water. I picked and tasted a bit of Wild Garlic, Stinging Nettle, Lemon Balm, Sweet Cicely, Garlic Mustard, Sweet Woodruff, Cleavers and Wild Geranium. Each plant I met was bursting with fragrance and flavor and my tastebuds were beyond thrilled with the invitation to experience the delights of the wild world.
We sat on a path strewn with pink blossoms and sipped the steeped tea and talked about the benefits of the plants, respectful foraging and how a love for nature inspires a genuine care for the environment.
This new way of getting to know tea, looking for the friends in the field that we can forage and share under the trees, is the tea-making tradition I hope to share with others on our journey of falling more deeply in love with creation.
At 5 a.m. the alarm interrupted my midwinter dreams and awaken me to the practically perfect day ahead. After tiptoeing through the morning to get ready while not waking my wife, I hopped on my bike to pedal through a still sleeping Leiden. Once my bike was parked in the jumbled stacks at Central station, I found my way to platform 4 to take the 6:28 train to Schipol where I would find the 7:35 Thalys train to Paris. With a warm kaasbroodje and a cold Coca Cola in hand, I jumped on the train and settled in for the three-hour ride across Holland, Belgium and France. Somewhere between Antwerp and Brussels a deep pink sunrise emerged across the frosty fields on our left. After a brief train-car change in Brussels, and little more than an hour later, I stepped off the train in rainy but ever beautiful Paris. A quick Uber ride to Notre Dame brought me to the cobbled Rue de la Bûcherie where a warm vegetarian restaurant had set a table for the surprise déjeuner with my daughter.
Absolutely priceless was look on her face as she realized that the woman standing in the doorway who looked like her mom was in fact her mom! We dined with delight surrounded by hugs and tears and laughter and champagne and friends and falafel. When we could linger no longer around the sumptuously set table, we made our way to the rented flat where Z was staying with the family who loves and looks out for her back home in the States. After a bit of truffle cheese generosity smeared on a baguette, a crisp glass of white wine and off again we went to enjoy a walking history lesson that revealed and reveled in both the opulence and downfall of French nobility.
Soaked to the bone with cold rain, we made one last pub stop, sipped a beer or two more, shared sweet hugs and kisses and said our goodbyes. Off again I went to catch the 17:35 train back to Amsterdam. Because parting was practically impossible, the rather late return Uber ride was a mad blur through the rain drenched, rush hour streets to Gare du Nord. With a slippery dash along platform six, lungs near to collapsing, I plopped down in carriage 15 for the ride back home surrounded by delicate French children ranging in ages from eight to fourteen, all possessing the sweet understanding of the etiquette and electricity of whispering among adults sipping wine and pouring over maps of Amsterdam.
Three hours later I was extracting my bike from the tangle of handlebars and spokes that is a Dutch parking lot. A city that was sleeping when I left was now wide awake and sparkling with the remaining nights of the holidays. The fragrance of sweet and savory food trucks wrapped around me as I coasted along the bustling streets of little Leiden. And what to my wandering eyes did appear as home drew near? The most beautiful, drafty 100-year-old home, warmly lit with candlelight and Christmas tree, my partner puttering in the kitchen, presently plating her homemade chicken paprikash.
With stories shared, dishes done, pups cuddled and a heart overflowing with the unmerited blessings that are mine, dreams of my practically perfect day welcomed me to sleep once more on a cold winter’s night in The Netherlands.
When thinking about what to do for Thanksgiving as a couple of broads living abroad, of course the first thing to come to mind was to hop a plane and head to the Emerald Isle. Thanks to RyanAir’s recent kerfuffle, the tickets were ridiculously cheap, so…
After the staff meeting on Wednesday afternoon, our wonderful Scottish colleague drove us to the airport where we waited in a little airport pub and tipped back a couple of practice pints while chatting with the pimply-faced bartender.
Within a couple of hours we boarded, took off and landed in Dublin in the pouring rain. We quickly hopped the 747 bus that drove us to the College Green/Temple Bar stop, sloshed our way to the quaint Fleet Street Hotel (yep, I am a Sweeney Todd fan), dropped our bags and headed out for a brief, single-street pub crawl.
First we wandered just down stairs and sat for a spell in the hotel pub, O’Malley’s for a couple of pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s Pale. From there we found our way to The Quay where the music was thumping and the patrons were jumping. Betsy got a little ribbing from the bartender for ordering a mere 1/2 pint, but I made up the difference by waiting patiently for my perfectly poured pint of Guinness. With intentions to keep crawling, we figured a stop for dinner would be in order.
Not more than a block away we found The Old Mill, a second story restaurant where we indulged in matching baskets of fish and chips. And wow, these fish and chips were the absolute best, most mouth-watering fish and chips I’ve ever tasted. The batter was crispy and seasoned to perfection, the fish was flaky and the chips were both plump and crunchy. As you might imagine, after all that our bellies were full and our pub crawl ran aground as our eyelids began drooping.
Thursday we awoke with hearts full of gratitude for all that this life is giving us. After a great breakfast in the hotel canteen, we made our way to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and visit the old library. There was no line, the Book was on display and the library was breathtaking! Happy Thanksgiving indeed!
By noon, we checked out and made our way to the Enterprise car rental at city center where we were taken care of by just the friendliest and most helpful Irishmen. Not only did we come away with a great car but a full list of places to visit in Galway. So away we went, continuing to marvel at the constant warmth of the Irish.
With Bets at the wheel and Siri+Kim navigating, we coasted across Ireland. Before long we saw signs for the Tullamore Dew Distillery and, with no set agenda, we decided a detour was in order. Hint: the actually distillery does not give tours, but the old distillery in town does – yes please! As we entered the small town of Tullamore, the glorious, sticky-sweet smell of peat fires filled the air. We enjoyed the truly creative tour, sipped some damn fine whiskey and wound up buying a 12-year-old bottle of The Dew.
Back on the road and we soon found ourselves in Galway for another bit of a pub crawl. This was really special for me since I had fallen in love with Galway years ago. We popped into my favorite places, Tig Coilis, The Quays and then stumbled into our first Christmas market of the season. In a twinkly light and mulled wine haze, we sauntered from stall to stall gazing at the glittering tchotchkes and paper stars. We ended the evening at Tigh Neachtain, packed to the gills with ebullient locals, expats and of course, tourists.
Next morning, up and at ’em for a beautiful drive along the coast to have visit Spiddal. After a warm breakfast in the tiny town, we walked to the little church and crawled through the age-old graveyard, along the shore rocks and eventually into the sanctuary where we lit three candles under a beautiful stained glass window full of fish and boats…one for Betsy’s dad’s 75th birthday that was on that very day. The other two flames we left flickering were for me, tiny prayers for sanity and peace to find it’s way back home.
While in Spiddal, we visited the town’s craft village, which is an outcropping of small colorful shops, each dedicated to a local artisan selling their local wares. We found gifts for family and friends and even a few treats for ourselves from a gifted glass artist, a friendly basket artist famous for his “royal rattle” and a very clever Celtic Coin Jeweler. We also came away with another helping of what money cannot buy, the joy of spending even a few moments talking with Irish folk. We even received an invitation to a house party for a CD release party happening later that weekend. Unfortunately we could not make that gig because we would already be on a plane headed back to Holland.
So we made our way back to Galway where we had an amazing day, picked up a few more nice things then walked around town where we “discovered” the only LGBT pub in town – Nova.
There was a single bartender behind the tiny bar and not another soul in the place. As we shook the cold off and stepped up to the bar we found smiling, young Sharon to take our order. Sharon began to “warn us” that a regular patron of the pub would be coming in soon. She told us that they were the only pub in town who would serve the elderly man because he was dying, dying of cancer and coughed so violently, coughing up the death that was in him, that most people found his presence repulsive. She told us that three months ago he had been given one month to live. We thanked her for her gentle warning, but ordered our pints and took a seat by the window to work on our stack of postcards.
Before long, the old man came into the bar, and as she promised, was coughing that cough I recall so well from when my own father was dying. My throat clenched, my heart ached, but we continued sipping and chatting and in a few moments witnessed a truly holy and tender moment in that little gay bar. Sharon greeted the man with a genuine smile, chatted with him a moment and then briefly came to our table to check on us. Then back to the shuddering man, sitting alone in the pub corner. After a few more minutes she seemed to be escorting him out. Instead, she stood with him in the damp vestibule, lit a cigarette, took a draw and then held it to his slack mouth so he could inhale tendrils of one of his last comforts.
His cough subsided briefly and Sharon came back to our table to check on us once again. With tears in our eyes, we told her we’d seen how tenderly she cared for her friend and she shared with us bits about her own life, snippets from her journey and plans for her future. Sharon – barmaid, pub-hospice chaplain, nurse and friend – may the road indeed rise to meet you, sister.
We spent the rest of our Galway evening wandering back to the Christmas market, picking up a nice bottle of Writer’s Tears along the way. And we ended the evening back in the warmth of Tigh Neachtain where we enjoyed sharing a flight of fine whiskey and chatting with locals who assured us that Galway is as special as it seems.
The next morning we packed up early and headed back to the east coast of Ireland for our flight back to Schiphol. We dropped off our rental car (where the attendant insisted on giving us a courtesy ride to our penultimate stop – the Guinness Storehouse tour). Though a bit overpriced and a lot over commercial, the panoramic view of Dublin from the top is stunning. If you go, buy your tickets online and skip the crazy long line. We recommend going straight to the restaurants a few floors up then visit the top-floor and then, if you really must, take the tour. We didn’t spring for the extra €€ to partake in the pouring class, but we did enjoy a couple of decently poured pints along the way. Try to avoid the gift shops if you can, or you’ll drop a pretty penny taking back swag for your friends.
So off to the airport we went with swift cab ride and dash through the terminals. Sitting in different rows, we met and chatted with more lovely people until an hour and a half later we were back on Dutch soil.
We are incredibly thankful for the beautiful whirlwind this trip was! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Ireland for your multitude of gifts.
Stay tuned for the next grilled cheese-off, a peek at a couple of Dutch Christmas markets and eventually, a post about going back to the States for Christmas.
In the second week of the grilled cheese competition between Betsy and Kim, we’ll see cheers, we’ll see tears and someone will win the highest honor, “Winner winner, chicken dinner!” as proclaimed by the right honorable judge, 3 year old Liam.
Betsy and Kim began the competition in the Leiden market, each choosing a cheese and agreeing on a single loaf of bread. Betsy settled on a hunk of Groene Hart Oud cheese after just a few samples and Kim was also a bit quick on the draw when she selected Trots Pikant. Both cheeses came from the abundant supply found in the friendly stall that can be found in the market on Saturdays and Wednesdays.
From the baker, a local sourdough was chosen, though much to the dismay of our competitors, it neither looked, nor ultimately performed like a San Fran. sourdough.
The judges, Louke, Dani and their son Liam arrived at the appointed grilling hour and settled in for what promised to be a delicious evening. Our judges came prepared with a highly technical rating system as seen below in the construction paper signs.
Betsy and Kim got to work, slicing and grating cheese, slathering butter and pouring a flight of three randomly selected beers to pair with the sandwiches (and chocolate milk for judge 3, of course). Beer 1 – a nice seasonal Bok from La Chouffe. Beer 2 – an IPA from The Flying Dutchman. Beer 3 – a white from Ginette Beer.
After a rather frantic grilling where both chefs shared a tiny Dutch kitchen, the sandwiches were quartered and served to the judges.
Within moments, the decision was in…
For Kim, who presented a less than stellar grill with somewhat gooey cheese on the dense bread…
For Betsy who plated the superior grill, using a salted mayonnaise to catapult over the competition…
And the highest honor went to Betsy when Liam exclaimed “winner winner chicken dinner!”
Tune in next week as both chefs are allowed to add one veggie to their grilled cheese creation.
PS – Three out of four lesbians preferred Ginette, beer that is.
In one sense, I should be over the moon about the fact that I haven’t written a post in over three months. As I look back over the span of my work, I see vast portions that were fueled by pain, fear and, truth be told, 32 flavors of frustration. Now I find myself in the fortunate conundrum of re-learning how and what to write as a deeply content woman living a life beyond my dreams with the woman who is my soul mate.
It’s true that while settling in over here I’ve done my dead level best to ignore the swirling shit-storm that is The US at this point in time. I’ve seriously curtailed my consumption and engagement of social media, but more than that, in the past 90 days I’ve seen little more than about an hour total of news from any corner of the earth other than what is going on within a 10 mile radius around me. Yep, this is negligent and must soon come to an end, but it has been life giving to step back and live, really live, in the here and now.
So before I start blogging regularly again, I thought I’d catch y’all up on what we’ve been up to the last little while…
Walking and Riding
Everywhere. We get everywhere a gal’s gotta go on foot, bike or public transportation.We ride our bikes about 9 miles two and from work most days, unless it’s piss-pouring rain, which as it turns out happens far less than the expat guides scared us into believing. Of course Betsy still splashes into work, poncho a’flyin.
Early on, I had a nasty little splat when I misjudged the physics between bicycle tire and concrete curb. But over weeks and months of getting back on the horse what threw me, I have come to adore sailing all over town on my trusty blue bicycle. Now we are learning how to be really Dutch by trying to carry far more than is reasonable as I peddle through town. Five bags of groceries, sure! Dog food bag the size of a love-seat, no problem! Modest haul of produce from the market + new broom + fire pit (some assembly required) – you got this, babe!
Working and Playing
Betsy and I spend our weeks fully immersed in the life of the school where we both work – Betsy as a 9th and 12th grade teacher and I happily splitting my days as an admin in the athletics and communications/marketing departments. The work is wonderful and the culture is fantastic. We’re making good and true friends and find affirmation anew each day that we have indeed chosen wisely.
We recently participated in progressive dinner that had us traipsing all over Leiden to a few homes of our colleagues. Creepy Cocktails and simple snacks began at 5:30 at our house then we moved on to sample delicious dishes in some truly covet-inducing apartments around the city. Since it was the weekend before Halloween, I may or may not have been donned costumery for our roving affair (and I may or may not have been the only one sporting a costume).
We’ve also introduced a handful of new friends to a bit of American culture with our NFL Sunday nights (complete with wings, sliders, chips and buckets of beer) and an evening of pumpkin carving with a neighboring couple and their little boy.
But we’re not just social butterflies flitting about the local environs…
Nesting and Traveling
We spend a lot of time making this house, street, town and country our new home, just the two of us, ever astonished that this is the life we get to live. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t turn to one another and say, “Wow, I love this life.”
The house is our pride and joy and the time we spend together continues to be sacred and central to our happiness. Many an evening approaches where we’ve planned to go visit a new pub or take in a sliver of Dutch life, when the urge to snuggle up in our home, light a few candles and fire up a bit of Netflix wins out over traipsing about our beautiful city.
Nearly every Saturday we take a couple of hours to stroll through the Leiden Market to shop for yummies for tummies. Holding hands, talking about all the things and taking in the sites, sounds and smells of a bustling Dutch market, is our chance to start the weekend right – fully present to one another and the gifts we’ve been given. And one of my favorite moments has been sitting in the park on our little wooden beach chairs, enjoying a snack of local cheeses and a sip or two or local beer on a warm Sunday afternoon. Sabbath indeed! How odd (and satisfying) it was to be the leisurely locals spied by the flotilla of tourists gliding past on “our” canal.
But wait, there’s more! We’ve also had a chance to travel beyond the borders of Holland since jumping across the pond! We flew to Budapest over fall break and stayed with friends (and former colleagues) of Betsy’s. We rode busses, trams and trains all over the city, saw beautiful sites, ate amazing Hungarian food, soaked in the warm waters of the Széchenyi Bathhouse with hearty locals and sleek tourists and were utterly gob-smacked by the beauty of the magnificently lit parliament house as we floated by on our candle lit dinner cruise.
We have another fun trip planned for Thanksgiving break, so watch our Facebook page for posts. First to guess where we are wins a postcard sent from our destination!
Missing and Not Missing
Y’all, for real, I miss very little from The States apart from family and friends. I do not miss:
The near constant presence of visceral and aggressive homophobia
The perverted marriage of capitalism and health care
The celebration of unhinged materialism
The glorification of busy
Fear based everything – religion, politics, commerce, relationships, eating…
The religious industrial complex that commodifies our relationship to God, self and others
I DO miss my daughter with an increasingly physical ache that sometimes wakes me in the night. I know she is thriving in her own life and that this is the season where she’d naturally be living into her own trajectory, but I still wake some mornings wishing I could make her breakfast or snuggle under piles of quilts while sipping hot beverages and reading important thoughts to one another. Betsy too misses her parents and siblings with whom she is very close. She’s a tender soul and being an ocean away from her folks can bring tears to her eyes, especially when there is so much of this chapter of her life she’s bursting to share and so much happening back home that she only hears about through phone calls.
I can safely say we all miss a yard for the pups. Though beautiful Plantsoen Park is little more than 20 feet from our front door, we miss the lazy days of Sookie and Louie lolling about on the back deck with the freedom to muck about, off-leash, around the sizable old Florida landscape.
Southern fried food. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fried food here, but it’s just not what my mama made. I was raised in a family that friend anything that stood still long enough – brined, dredged and cast-iron fried is what I’m talking about! The fried bits and nibbles of the Netherlands don’t quite cut it for this southern gal with a tad too much buttermilk running through her veins. And don’t even get me started on the great biscuit fiasco of naught 17!
Whew! Now that we got that out of the way…stay tuned for our regularly scheduled programming of posts.
Next up – the great double Dutch grilled cheese cook-off where Kim and Betsy go head to head fusing an American classic with the cheeses of Holland! Do you know how to pronounce Gouda?