To begin, I'd like to mention that the title of this entry is accurate, but only to a point. I have actually loved the bricks everywhere. For all the talk I've ever heard about European architecture, the different styles and types and ages, I've never heard anyone reference the bricks. This is an outrageous oversight. Brick is beautiful, and California is sorely lacking it. I understand that this may be due to severe building requirements, earthquake standards, etc. But people, we're missing the sheer beauty of one of the most simple building mediums known to man.
Every city, town, enclave... everywhere people have congregated to live together, large and small, is graced with reddish, brownish brick. The facades of the buildings catch every ounce of sunlight and reflect it back, warm and easy on the eyes. Post offices and hardware stores appear stately. Homes stand like miniature castles. White window boxes, plain in any other environment, pop against the red backdrop.
The red walls spring up like flowers amid the green fields as we drove from Hamburg, north to the border.
We swung into Rendsburg for coffee. I hate to describe the little foreign towns as quaint. Somehow that word has become derogatory in our culture. Unfair. It's the perfect word. Synonyms include old fashioned, charming, pretty, antiquated, picturesque, appealing.
I'm behind. I know it. But we've been convalescing the last few days, hiding away at our friend's home in Klegod, Denmark, right on the coast. More about that (much more) later. First, a few words about The Netherlands...
We only drove through.
I know! Crazy! How could we not stop? How could we not wander in the rolling green pastures, visit with the milkmaids, ring a few cowbells...? The short answer is that we didn't have the time. In fact, we were lucky that Holland, as it is apparently sometimes called, was on our way to Denmark. After leaving Brussels, we spent a few hours on the road and swung our way up through that little northern country.
So, what was my impression?
I wanted so badly to love the windmills. After all, isn't that what we all think of? Holland. Hmmmm... windmills and wooden shoes and girls named Heidi. If you're Joey Tribbiani on FRIENDS, you think Netherlands is a "make believe place where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell live."
I looked for cute windmills. Mostly, though, I only saw towering, sleek ones. Red and white. Long, lean and powerful. Churning the air. Obstructing the flight paths of the birds. Occasionally we saw trucks hauling the individual pieces. Long, long trucks. And each could only take a single blade or a third of the tower. But no adorable windmills, stout and timbered. And no milkmaids, either. Bummer.
Instead, I fell in love with the cows. They were everywhere. And not the forlorn crowds of stinking Manteca cows, either. I'm talking about Holsteins. Black and white, proportioned like the perfect animated characters in books we loved as schoolchildren. They blink and sway when they walk. They are milked by hand.
They seem so happy.
We blew past most of the fields... but when we did stop to take pictures or stretch our legs, I discovered that there was nothing more peaceful than the calm calls of the cows as they ate and swayed, ate and swayed. In fact, this is what I now believe the Christmas carol "Away In the Manger" means when it references the cattle lowing. I'd never heard lowing before. It's nice.
There is a square in Brussels which boasts being one of the top tourist destinations in the country. As we had only a single morning to spend in the city, we opted to check out The Grand Place (as it is called) and its surroundings. We couldn't have made a better choice.
The square itself, centered around the Hotel de Ville, it very grand indeed. Giant old buildings with cathedral-like facades and latticed buttresses sit along the perimeter like a group of old men chatting about the weather. Hidden in the pockets of their old tweed coats, as any good grandchild knows, are sweets and treasures and even heirlooms to be found. Twisting away from the square in a thousand different directions are delightful side streets peppered with shoppes, boutiques, pubs, cafes, and of course, chocolatiers.
I am writing this entry from a desk in our hotel room in Brussels, Belgium. Today I am half a world away from the rest of my life. And I'm ready for the break. Already, the wonders of vacation have begun working their magic on me.
Yesterday began with a drive to San Francisco International Airport (thank you, Debbie!). Along the way, we picked up McDonalds. Man, that feels like a long time ago.
I was exhausted, having just returned from a three-day business trip to Chevy Chase, Maryland. The prospect of spending 10+ hours on another plane made me want to weep. However, this trip brought a special first for Jon and me. We flew Business Class, thanks to the miles Jon has earned on numerous business trips over the last two years, and on a 747, the Business Class seats are on the upper deck of the plane. This is infinitely cool. Not only is it quieter, more spacious and more private, but we're almost three stories off the ground AND we're up near the entrance to the cockpit.
This last perk may not seem like much to most, but our journey got of to a-- er-- flying start when the First Officer just happened to notice us taking giddy, ridiculous pictures of each other while waiting in our seats, and invited us to accompany him into the cockpit to meet the Captain (a chick!) and to take pictures! One of the crew members even tossed me his hat to wear. Jaunty, eh?
I wish there were always words available to me for the picking. Like an orchard of broad-limbed trees waiting in my backyard. I could ease out the screen door, relish the creak, watch my dogs run up and down the rows, stirring up dust. Perhaps in this world there are chickens. Perhaps in this world, I eat eggs. Who knows? And the words are tucked between thoughtful leaves, flushed and ready for me to pick.
Having the choice of thousands of words would be such a novelty. I pride myself on my vocabulary, but every day I find myself using the same subset of words over and over again. I'm never downright monosyllabic, or anything. But I forget the best words. Words like... specificity, inert, malcontent, repression, fortitude.
I am reminded that these words exist by good authors. Currently I am engrossed by Eat Pray Love, a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the first third of this book, the author is eating her way through Italy, learning Italian on a whim, making lifelong friends with interesting, intriguing people. She leaves me awestruck, sentence after sentence. I realize, somewhat dejectedly, that even after 5 years of college, three of them going through entirely legitimate paces at UC Davis, after obtaining my B.A. in English, my grasp on language and literature is scant. Ms. Gilbert's, on the other hand, is like steel.
Football. The way we played every Thanksgiving. Knowing the exact moment to release the oblong ball so that the final finger flick set into motion the most coveted of spirals. The hard shell of ball in my hands, stinging when the weather was cold enough. Ignoring the sting and pulling the ball into the crook of my elbow, up near my ribs, cradling it like a baby. The stretch behind my knee as I pushed for the endzone, the invisible line running the width of the parking lot in which the boys and Dad and I played a thousand games. Buttonhooks. Ted's hands, too big and soft for him the rest of the time, were in perfect sync with that ball.
Porch swings. Something we never owned. We never even really had a porch. But on real houses (distinguished in my mind from townhomes, like the one I grew up in) had wide, yawning, lazy porches. And people who could enjoy leisure time often kept porch swings. The creak of those swings, the tapping of the lounger's foot as he rocked himself back and forth in time with the fall breeze, is something I cherish.