A Lesson in Dutch Philosophy

Fabien and I rarely exchange gifts for Christmas and usually opt for a trip together. Since we were already on the east side of the pond, it was the perfect opportunity to check Amsterdam off the bucket list. And since the Chevriers are pack animals, the immediate “beautiful family” members joined.

I could bore you with details of our three days of bopping around the city, but I’ll spare you because we did all the touristy stuff you have to do while in Amsterdam – Walk around center city, Anne Frank House, Red Light District, Heineken Experience, canal cruise, etc.

Instead of the play by play, let’s chat about what makes the city what it is…bikes, canals and adult indulgences.

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Risking our lives in Vondelpark

There are over 300,000 bikes in the city, which means there are just as many fearless Dutch men and women. Most of the cycles are donned with baskets and child seats, but these accessories don’t mean the rider won’t gun you down if you get in their way. A nice Dutch person will ring their bell or shout, “Hello” at you. Translation – “get the f#@k out of the way or become tourist roadkill.” While the city seems to have more bike lanes than sidewalks, every hour, I almost got taken out by a cycle whizzing by at 50 mph. We did rent some for a few hours one afternoon and retreated after a loop in, Vondelpark.  It was just too cold and there was too much bike, pedestrian and car traffic for cycling to be enjoyable.

img_2572The canals are incredible and the reason the city is called the Venice of the north.  However, they’re not just there for beauty, but functionally they keep the city from flooding since most of Holland is a marshland. The levels are regulated and water is everywhere, even on the outskirts of the city where we rented an apartment. Every year, a few cars are fished out by someone who is terrible at parallel parking. Also, approximately ten men are usually pulled out annually – most of which fell in while drunk and attempting to relieve themselves in a canal. And the locals will tell you there’s a meter of bikes in the canals.  Once a year, a big crane comes into the city to clean them out. On this day, residents can be found sitting at an outdoor pub watching the claw reach into the canal and come out with a handful of bikes.

And last, and most notably, Amsterdam is probably best known for being a playground for adults. There’s a rumor that drugs are legal and that is not true. The Dutch have just decided to look the other way when soft drugs are present. That is why if you go to Amsterdam, the shops selling marijuana are called “coffee shops” and not marijuana dispensaries. Yes, you can get coffee there, but it sucks and most people go there to buy marijuana, hash and/or mushrooms to consume there or at home. If you buy something, you need to conceal it as you leave. You can’t smoke openly in public, but it wasn’t too unusual to smell it in the streets. Hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, crack, etc. are not tolerated. However, what is legal is prostitution. After dinner one night, we walked through some of the tiny corridors in the city where you can find brothels and barely dressed girls in little rooms waiting for customers. I didn’t learn much about this side of the Red Light District, but I’m guessing it’s highly regulated since the Netherlands have one of the lowest incidence rates of STDs and human trafficking.

So, why are they looking the other way? The Dutch are big fans of tolerance. Their philosophy is that if your not hurting anyone and it makes you happy, then they will look the other way. They also believe that if you don’t agree with someone’s lifestyle choices, you can still live next to them in harmony. For this philosophy, I am completely in love with Amsterdam and the Dutch and I really just don’t understand why the rest of the world can’t live with the same mindset.

Most of these facts we’re derived from a free tour lead by Sandemans. Check out their website as they offer free tours in many European cities. 

To read more about Amsterdam coffee shops, click here

Christmas in the French Countryside

The last two holidays, I wasn’t able to travel and the two before that we ditched our families for the Bahamas and Hawaii. Fortunately, the family openly accepted us back into the fold and we decided to spend Christmas with Fabien’s family in France.

So, on December 22nd, we packed our bags full of fun, American presents and hopped on a flight for the longest journey ever. Living in a smaller city like Nashville guarantees stopovers when traveling internationally, adding hours to an already long voyage. What is a 7.5 flight from Detroit to Paris, is now a minimum of 10.5 hours since we try to fly through Atlanta in the winter to avoid weather delays. Then, normally it’s 1.5 hours to Fabien’s village of St. Cyr en Val, but this time was 3.5 hours due to epic Parisian holiday traffic. Oh and I only slept one hour and 18 minutes on the plane. And my tv screen and headphones didn’t work. Awesome. File all these complaints under first world problems.

My lack of sleep and chronic jet lag has not been so conducive to the marathon we sprint when vacationing in France. Our days are filled with non-stop visit with friends and family, gluttony and speaking nothing but French, which officially turns my brain to mush after an hour or two.

BUT, this year, I had a saving grace, named Lara. We’ve been friends since she moved across the street from me when we were nine. Our births were only separated by two days. In our roaring twenties, we still liked each other so much that we lived together. Basically, we communicate telepathically after 27 years. AND, she came to St. Cyr en Val from Geneva to spend Christmas with us after her trip to Michigan got canceled. I’m bummed for her because I know she wanted to go home, but selfishly, I’m grateful she was there for me to make eyes at and talk under my breath about the crazy frenchies we’ve come to know and love.

After an additional, insufficient night of sleep, Christmas Eve day, was spent walking around the village, venturing to Orleans Christmas market and visiting the cathedral. It was the first time I’ve been inside after coming to Orleans countless times and living here for six months. Shameful.

Inside the cathedral

For the family’s Christmas Eve festivities, you have two choices to kick off the evening. The first option is to make the grandparents happy by going to mass and the second option is to stay at the house and get drunk with the guiltless majority. Having a bum liver, I chose option one (for the first time ever) and Lara joined by proxy. We only lasted a few minutes because the church was cold and we weren’t able to understand the priest’s accent. So, we snuck out the back after tossung 5€ in the offering basket.

The others, including cousin Julien’s dog, stayed. Yes, you read that correctly, he brought his dog to church. Did I mention “my beautiful family” pretty much runs the town?

Milo’s 1st Christmas Mass

My escape was short lived when Fabien called me 30 minutes later because the priest was asking for me. Thinking I was in trouble for leaving, I returned and was surprised that the priest wanted to tell me that he prays for my health everyday. Then he performed a priestly blessing. I don’t know much about this, but it seemed like a great honor and I was very touched. Between that and completing a pilgrimage in a holy year, I’m hoping God will give me a little break for a while.

We returned to Aunt Vero’s to start dinner which consists of several courses. Oysters, smoked salmon, stuffed chicken, green beans, chestnuts, cheese, dessert and fruit, all washed down with copious amounts of champagne and wine.

The beautiful decorated tables

Near the end of the meal, Uncle Gilles and I came prepared with games and songs which lasted until 3:00. This is six hours past my bedtime, jet lag came in handy.

Lara singing “Silent Night” in German with Papie

But, every positive has a negative. The 10:00 a.m. wake up call came quick. I required intravenous coffee to cope with gift opening, the world’s longest lunch, a walk, followed by more visiting, French speaking and rolling my eyes at Lara.

The next couple days were pretty much repeats of uninterrupted streams of visitors, gluttony and googley eyes at my American compadre.

This came to a halt Wednesday when the “beautiful family” and I road tripped to Amsterdam to enjoy what Amsterdam has to enjoy. #spacecakes

Not the End of the World

Eek! I’m so excited – I put an obsessive amount of time and emotional energy into this essay.

 

 

This was published in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Momentum Magazine and tells the story of my four year journey to and on the Camino de Santiago.

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Kevin & I at the end of the world

I went to the Camino with a map and a plan to walk alone, but the universe conspired for something better. That something better goes by the name of Kevin Keystone. So, I’ll dedicate this to him and the universe for bringing me the medicine I needed most. My thank yous will be forever immeasurable.

Not the End of the World

To watch Kevin’s take on our voyage together, check out this YouTube video.