Well, we finally managed to tear ourselves away from dear old Paris for a few days. It all started with Karl's treasure-trove discovery of free train tickets to Brussels and Amsterdam. Free, for real? Yep. Some guy had to cancel his fabulous European trip, and didn't want to go through the headache of scalping an entire stack of non-refundable tickets. So he gave them away, first-come, first-serve-style. And we were the grateful recipients of a couple of them. God is so good. And some guy in Maine deserves some decent Belgian chocolate.
So, what's Brussels all about? For your average tourist who is just blowin' through, mainly beer, chocolate, mussels and fries. Also, their main monument, which is a statue of a little boy relieving himself in a fountain, named (to the delight of all backpacking frat boys) the Manneken Pis. Seriously, everybody makes just a little too much of this, even going so far as to dress the ugly little thing up in different costumes every week. (Really, if you don't have an Eiffel Tower or a Coliseum, just say so. We'll understand.)
Still, just around the corner from this awkward moment, we stumbled upon booksellers housed in beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, lovely artisan chocolate shops, twisty streets, antique shops, and waffle trucks. This last item was especially appreciated when we first arrived, as the cold of winter had finally descended on Northern Europe at large. These little yellow vans putter around town, happily handing you gauffres (french for warm, sticky goodness) for 1,50 E. Once coated with sugar inside and out, we wove our way through the streets to the beautiful central square (Grote Markt), where we toured the Brewer's Guild. It was okay as far as self-guided tours go, but the beer they served afterwards was (sorry to say!) underwhelming. As far as both museums and beer went, the best was yet to come.
Namely, the Museum of Musical Instruments. Thank goodness we are so nerdy about the musical arts, or we might not have embarked on this fascinating venture. It was really a state-of-the-art setup, with wireless headphones, so if you stood in front of a cornemuse, a portative organ, or a theremin, it would switch automatically to a track playing music on that particular object. We were like two kids in a candy store, running one exhibit to the other. It was tasty.
Speaking of taste, let's return to the topic of Belgian food and drink. Now, even those of you who are not beer fans might just find yourselves converted in this country. In fact, they are so into proselytizing, they put their religious people to work in this department. And they're quite happy about the job security, as you can see below. This is a place where fine ales take on the qualities of fine wines, a place where you might find yourself holding a frothy goblet and saying silly things like "I really can taste the bitter orange peel and star anise against the backdrop of the hops." This is wine country for beer-drinkers, and we lived it up. In addition, the various selections were welcome thirst-quenchers next to the piles of steamed mussels and crispy fries that we mowed down on later that evening.
The next morning, we hopped the train again and continue on to discover our newly-beloved, the city of Amsterdam. Strange, lucid, planned, buffeted by cold winds, yet welcoming and warm. We explored first on foot, until we wised up and rented bikes, which of course, is the only way to go. They have bike lanes that go everywhere, and even special traffic lights just for the two-wheelers.
Our most hilarious experience probably was getting kicked out of a coffee-shop for not smoking pot. Yup. There are some places where you've got to order something off the menu of the fragrant and flagrant variety - and I don't mean tea. The attendant was quite polite about it, but firmly informed us that this was indeed the case. He invited us to make our way across the alleyway to a bar if we just wanted a coffee. (This was even funnier in retrospect, since we had gotten ejected from a bar in Brussels for not ordering a drink right away. We just wanted to listen to the music, then order something later. Nope, no dice. So, how to be rebellious in Europe these days? Well, don't drink and don't smoke for starters.)
But wasn't I just singing the praises of the welcoming residents? Yes, indeed. While we were pedaling, wide-eyed tourists by day (taking in the Anne Frank museum, windmills, and such), by night, we tried to find places where locals seemed to be hanging out. The first night led us to a cosy spot where we shared more belgian beer and some pretty deep conversation with two Amsterdamers. The second night dropped us into the clutches of a fabulous trio playing at the one jazz club in town, headlined by a piano player whose style was incredibly reflective of one of Karl's heroes, Ahmad Jamal. This older Dutch gentleman is a true maestro, and we have visions of carting him over to Minneapolis to play the Dakota one happy day. (And we didn't get asked to leave simply because we didn't hail the bartender for an Amstel the instant we darkened the door. Amazing!)
Our final morning in Amsterdam is worth going into. We still had our bikes, and a couple more hours to kill before heading home to Paris. So, Karl proposed a windmill-sighting. (What else does one do in Holland?) So, we steamed along and across canals to the east side of town, and found this lovely contraption, which now houses a brewery. There was a little red restaurant, where we parked our little red bikes. So very gezellig. As are so many Dutch things. We took a coffee to warm up, and as we were sitting there, we suddenly realized that delightful little puffs of white were floating down in the half-sunshine. We totally flipped out. This was the first snowfall these winter-starved Minnesota kids have seen since moving across the Atlantic. It was a magical moment, and so simple. Just a brief bit of time when these miniature miracles (like little works of grace) became millions of signs, accumulating in minuscule to the glorious conclusion that our dear Lord loves us.
Just when we think we can't take any more beauty, He surprises us with His grace. Just when we think we can't take any more pain, He's likely to do the same. This entire trip was a gift from Him who holds all things, from start to finish. And what can you say in the face of that, but...