Nervous American, Abroad

I figured I might as well

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Nervous Wedding: Saying “Eh, sure” to The Dress

Note: The Nervous American is currently not Abroad. She is in Boston, planning her wedding. This is an episode in her life as a bride-to-be.

Despite years of watching “Say Yes to the Dress,” I’ve never pondered what dress I’d want for myself, much less about the process of buying it. 

But I probably didn’t expect that I’d be rolling into a David’s Bridal at age 31, a half-hour late and with a roaring hangover. 

Yet there I was! Voraciously chugging seltzer water and chowing down on crackers, bolstered by a trusty bridesmaid and trying not to fall over. The sales girl asked me questions; I struggled to organize my thoughts. What kind of dress did I want? Wha…What kind of dress? Dimly, I recalled the one idea I’d ever had about my wedding dress — something I’d thought up when I was 14 and really, really loved Romantic poetry — when I’d envisioned myself as an ethereal woman in a cobwebby white dress of delicate lace, like some spirit lady who’d flitted in from a forest glen. Otherworldly and fascinating. 

Then I remembered that I was 31, a half-hour late, and hungover. “Something with sleeves?” I offered.

This was in October, and I was back home in Nebraska for a college reunion. In my giddy excitement at seeing old friends, I’d forgotten that while old friendships might stay strong throughout the years, livers do not. Thus, the hangover. I was disappointed in myself, because shopping for one’s dress is kind of a big deal. I wanted to find a dress in Nebraska, in large part so my mom and I could do our shopping together. That meant I had two days, and I had not gotten off to a great start.

In “Say Yes to the Dress” the brides often demand to look like princesses, or they want to look “sexy.” In bridal fashion, it usually involves sheer corsets bestrung with jewels, as though you’re the fanciest hooker in all the Old West. 

Reality TV brides always also have opinionated entourages who seem to care very, very deeply about convincing the bride that her ideas are wrong and she looks terrible in 90 percent of all dresses. As for me, I brought a good-humored entourage of friends, my mom and a dear family friend. We all agreed that the dresses were lovely, that extravagant spending was foolish, and that my preferred dress was appropriately modest for a church wedding. Most boring realty TV cast ever.

The David’s Bridal people still made me say “I’m saying yes” to that dress, and to ring a bell as a little celebration thingy. I played along - you have to humor people sometimes. 

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Nervous American, Gettin’ Hitched

Note: The Nervous American is currently not abroad. She is busy planning her wedding and she wrote down some thoughts on the process.

I can think of plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t be throwing a large wedding. I don’t like to spend money. I get squirrely when a lot of people stare at me. I have no talent for decorating. Whenever I host even a small dinner party I tend to frantically worry that, dear Lord, what if no one has fun and then they stop being friends with me???

So why on earth am I having a wedding? I will be stared at; it is very costly (for my parents, mostly, but still); and I am hosting more than 100 guests — many of whom I am asking to fly across the country for, essentially, dinner and a dance. 

Yet, I really do believe in this whole ritual. I believe in community — that friends and family support each other, that exchanging our vows in front of this big group of people is a heavily symbolic act, not just an exercise in vanity. You’ve supported us throughout our lives, friends and family, and now we’ll need you to keep supporting us as we combine our lives and try to build a family of our own. We’re all in this together.

Still, though — weddings, man. There is a ridiculous level of gamesmanship about them these days. We’ve gotten really carried away with this idea of weddings as some sort of expression of selfhood. The worst embodiment of this is TLC’s gloriously terrible “Four Weddings” reality show, where four brides attend each other’s weddings and score them, rating them on dress, venue, overall experience, etc. It invites cool critiques from perfect strangers — what’s more, they’re all incentivized to tear down each other’s weddings so they’ll come out on top (The winner gets a free honeymoon). I get that the competition is just an excuse to showcase different weddings — people do love weddings — but, c’mon, did we have to turn it all into a beauty pageant?

Weddings have a lot in common with Christmas, come to think about it. Hugely overcommercialized. Stress-inducing. Expensive. But we keep celebrating weddings, like we keep celebrating Christmas, because underneath all of that is a warm, beating heart — there’s something real under there, and we don’t want to give it up.

That being said, did I need to invite dozens upon dozens of people? Well, no. But, I do love big weddings. I think I’ll really love mine, also… just as long as I can convince myself that people are having fun, and that they’ll still want to be friends with me. 

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"Hey baby, how’s your mama?": Great things about New Orleans



I didn’t know this before, but Louisianans casually refer to other people as “baby.” We heard it all over town: ”Right here, baby.” “OK, baby.” “What you want, baby?”

It’s not a come-on, or even a term of endearment — it’s just a friendly way to address someone. And it’s delightful. So casual, so redolent of good-humored, easy-paced living. Also, very Louisianan; can you imagine a Bostonian calling a stranger “baby” at the Dunks or on the T? No — in Boston, you express friendliness by cheerfully insulting someone. In the Midwest, you’re warm and polite but always give people a ton of space, both physically and socially, so “baby” seems way too forward.

Yet in New Orleans, “baby” makes perfect sense. This is also a place where one may inquire about your relatives by asking, “how your mom an’ ‘em?” (to wit: “how are your mom and them?”)

Again, this is very charming. Also extremely agreeable? The food. Here’s a rundown of recommendations:

Mother’s Restaurant: Off an unremarkable stretch of Poydras, a strictly utilitarian diner. Wood-paneled walls and fluorescent lighting. Brutally efficient counter service. And the fluffiest biscuits, served with perfectly greasy eggs and possibly the best sausage I’ve ever had. If the proprietors wasted any time trying to pretty up the interior, I’d be mad at them. They are perfect as they are, and I suspect they realize it — get to Mother’s early, as the line quickly stretches out the door.

As with most places we went, the coffee is chicory, and therefore extra-bitter — not my favorite, but I respect the tradition

Beignets. A hunk of fried dough overwhelmed with powdered sugar, it can really be enjoyed any time. You should probably eat some after every meal. We all should. I want one right now. Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to get them — and it’s definitely worth waiting through the interminable line — but it doesn’t hurt to sample the beignets elsewhere (Cafe Beignet is an adorable spot, for example) But be warned; they give you like three beignets with your order, so come hungry. 

Creole: The Gumbo Shop, just off Jackson Square. Gumbo, jambalaya, etouffee,  shrimp creole — pretty much everything creole is on the menu, and it’s all rich and tasty. The place is casual, too, but with that “beautifully faded grandeur” thing that a lot of the French Quarter has going for it.  

Similarly, restaurant Napoleon House also drips with this old-time vibe, with a dark color palette and ancient-looking wooden tables. It specializes in muffaletta (Italian immigrants’ contribution to Louisiana), which is a sandwich with typical Italian cold-cuts, served on fluffy bread. 


An artist by Jackson Square


New Orleans Historic Tours are the highest-rated in terms of historic know-how, and we loved our Voodoo/Cemetery Tour with them. Guide was super friendly and really knew his stuff (curiously,he didn’t actually talk that much about the practice of voodoo, though I’d still strongly recommend this tour).

For cemeteries with the famous above-ground vaults, St. Louis No. 1 is one of the oldest (the oldest?) and it shows — you can see the alleged tomb of Marie Laveau the Voodoo Queen. Nicolas Cage also already bought a grave there, because that’s what wealthy weirdos do, I guess.

But some tombs are literally just a pile of bricks. For a newer, more elaborate cemetery, LaFayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District is fantastically gothic — and while you’re in the Garden District, you can ogle the grand homes of the neighborhood. 



Swamp tours are also mandatory: Cajun Encounters will shuttle you right over to Honey Island Swamp. And they don’t tell you this until you’re on  the boat, but the swamp in early February is far less awesome than it is in, say, full springtime. We loved our guide — again, super knowledgeable, funny and friendly — but he often mused aloud, “this place will be gorgeous in a few weeks” and it totally bummed me out. Honey Island in April might be a vision of loveliness, dude, but that won’t make it any less February at this moment.


That tree is probably way prettier right now

No gators to be seen, either, although various other wildlife (blue heron, raccoon and others) were around. They keep baby gators in a tank, however, and you can hold those as a consolation prize — so, still worth it, even if February isn’t exactly prime swamping month.

I’d also recommend the swamp tour just because it takes you outside French Quarter. As soon as you leave the tourist areas, Katrina’s legacy is still immediately visible. Still a lot of blown-out, ghostly vacants, including an abandoned Six Flags by the highway. I don’t know what else to say about it, except to remind everybody that, hey, that disaster is still very present there. Hopefully dollars from lame tourists like me are helping the city (slowly) recover.

And hey, maybe we should go back for a second visit? I hear the swamp is really gorgeous in April.



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Bourbon Street, New Orleans: Drunktown USA.

Sober, I did not understand the appeal of Bourbon Street. The beads flew, the crowd staggered — and I was among them, clear-headed and annoyed. It was like being that person who arrives late to a party that has reached its boozy peak.

My drunk self? She understood. Indeed, Bourbon Street brought tears of joy to her unfocused eyes. So I am calling upon Drunk Nervous American to offer up thoughts and recollections from various points in the evening. A selection:

SHOTS! shotzzz yesssss. so many shots.

OH MY GOD I LOVE THIS SONG (dance it up! pop that shoulder! Shake that hip! yeah!)

SHOTS!! Come over here, girl selling shots! Here, take my money. What a nice girl you are! Capital! Top-drawer! (concentrate on speaking. must. ennnunn… enn… e-nun-ci-ate… clearly)

Bartender, I would like a gimlet please. (lean casually against the bar. I am totally killing it today. I am one classy gal.)

 HEY, what am I doing on stage? I should prob get down.


And so on. Earlier that evening I had sallied forth, my stomach full of jambalaya and a sazerac to start off the night. I was accompanied by my friends, a rowdy bunch of dames ready to cut loose. We were in high spirits.

Even at that early hour (about seven o’clock), the wide boulevard of Bourbon Street had an orange-red-green glow, its people beginning to stir among the French Quarter storefronts and balconies. Gangs of partiers roamed, often divided by gender (a lot of bachelor/bachelorette parties), and most had a drink in hand. The music thronged — live bands, mostly, doing a bang-up job of covering Top-40 songs for the liquored-up crowds.

Bourbon Street is named for the royal House of Bourbon, the rulers of which presided over France and Spain when Louisiana was founded. These days, “Bourbon” is a party, pure and simple. You pop into a bar, grab a drink, dance to a song or two. If you like, you can move on down the road, walking and sipping. 

It was probably my overwhelming sense of well-being (and that cohort of boisterous ladies) but Bourbon seemed friendlier than other party zones I’d witnessed. On the club streets in Kos, Greece and Marmaris, Turkey, I felt a bit like a spectator in the European crowd. They dressed better, for one, and a lot of people weren’t dancing. Here, I was wearing jeans and a hoodie and felt right at home. People were making fools of themselves on the dance floor, which I respect. It all seemed very welcoming.



Blurry, but you get a basic idea. I really was not focused on focusing at that point.

This all took place several weeks ago, well before today’s Mardi Gras celebration. As I write this, the city is no doubt awash in green, gold and purple. And probably a lot of booze and vomit as well. There are also family celebrations, events of huge cultural and historic resonance all over town… but yeah, mostly it’s famous for being a giant bacchanal. I don’t know that I would have loved Bourbon Street quite as much if it were absolutely choked with people. 

Don’t miss Frenchman Street

Bourbon Street isn’t the only game in town; the locals all recommended we hit up Frenchmen Street.

Now, Frenchman street was named for a group of executed French Louisianans who had tried to defy the newly arrived Spanish governor in the mid-18th century. (Spain got Louisiana in a trade from the French, who’d recently had a spot of trouble that we now call the French and Indian War. Spain kept it for 40 years, then the French took it back, and then pretty quickly sold it to Thomas Jefferson). A group of Frenchmen rejected Spanish rule, so an Irishman called Bloody O’Reilly, who worked for Spain, put them in front of a firing squad. This had rather a cooling effect on things. 

Anyway! Now Frenchman is where you go to hear original music (not Top-40 covers) of blues, jazz, some kind of bluegrass gypsy jazz and whatever else. We stopped in The Maison for a cocktail or two and had a listen, and caught some brass bands booming in the street as well. 

That was our last evening out. I decided to turn in early that night, but half my group went back to Bourbon Street… and showed up back at the hotel at roughly 4 a.m., giggling loudly and full of new tales to tell. Such is the magic of New Orleans. 

Happy Mardi Gras, everybody!

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New Orleans: Possibly the most interesting city in the U.S.

Nervous travels in the U.S. continue. In honor of Mardi Gras week, let’s talk about New Orleans.

I’m getting married soon, so naturally I wanted a party trip with my girlfriends. Las Vegas is the obvious choice these days — but, c’mon. Las Vegas? The soulless, glittering, gambling theme park of America? Where d-bags own the night? You know me, friends. Does Vegas sound like my jam?

Luckily our great nation is blessed with another city that has partying in its bones, but which also has a soul — in a sense, this town helped invent soul. And if d-bags flock there, well, it attracts interesting weirdos in equal measure. 

Clearly: New Orleans.

And God bless New Orleans. A glorious town, sprung out of the muddy bogs where the Mississippi spews up a whole country’s worth of sediment. As the neglected colony of Louis XIV, it was founded by France’s adventurers — with an assist from that country’s criminals, prostitutes, and of course, African slaves. Here, French dance crazes collided with African beats and melodies. It’s always been a party city, but it has the distinction of being one with a big personality. 

(Yes, I read a history book about it before I went. A well-informed bachelorette is the very best kind).  

Without New Orleans, we wouldn’t have jazz, and here’s why:

So, Anglo-American slaveowners in most of the country made it a point to stamp out African slaves’ native languages and cultures, and they forbade large assemblies. Didn’t happen in French and Spanish New Orleans.

The rules against such things were a bit more lax, and huge gatherings converged on Sundays at Congo Square to trade, talk and make music. When the drums started, the dancing got going. The ground shook, the voices soared — the very air throbbed. It must have been something to behold, especially because it wasn’t allowed to happen anywhere else in the U.S. The sight of it shocked a lot of visitors.

In those days in New Orleans, slaves could save up to buy their own freedom, and many did. In the book I read, “The World that Made New Orleans" these meager freedoms, stewing in French New Orleans, were the ingredients for the amazing cultural genesis that gave us jazz, and all the musical offshoots thereof. 

Food, you say?

Without New Orleans, we wouldn’t have gumbo, jamabalaya, etouffee, po’boys… the place is really a culinary powerhouse, thanks to the Creoles and Cajuns. Every time you order something described as “Cajun” on dinner menus — and blackened or “Cajun-spiced” food is everywhere, if you think about it — you owe a debt to the swamp-dwelling descendants of forcibly displaced French Canadians. Many thanks, Cajuns. 

And without New Orleans, the U.S. probably wouldn’t even notice the pre-Lenten festivities that we refer to as “Mardi Gras.” In many places it’s known as “Carnival,” and it’s a big deal. In the U.S., it’s like the soccer of seasonal festivals — sure, we participate in it, but it’s a much bigger deal elsewhere. But without New Orleans to show us the way, we might not even bother to get drunk on the day before Ash Wednesday. A troubling thought, indeed.

Going There

In the French Quarter, music is always playing somewhere, whether it’s in the clubs or on the street. The iconic wrought-iron balconies are graceful and plentiful, the shops are charming, Jackson Square is full of artists (and more music). The graveyards are gothic and elegantly decayed. You can see why people keep putting their witches and vampires in this town, although its history of voodoo practice does not hurt, either.

As I said, the place still attracts weirdos in addition to the mix of bachelor parties and fratty parties happening on Bourbon; the city has a lot of faces to it. It’s too much a trip to cram it all into one blog post, so I’ll spin it out over several. First stop: The parties. Second: The tourism. 

I could talk about the town’s history all day, but I will spare you. Just pick up “The World that Made New Orleans” and read that, instead. Then go there, eat some gumbo, wander a cemetery and listen to the music. 



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Hangin’ out in Vancouver

Highlights: Lovely skyline views, fun neighborhoods, best sushi I’ve ever had.

Lowlights: If you live here, housing is mad expensive (Second highest in the world, after Hong Kong).

Our local guide was Irene, a dear friend and an intensely Canadian-seeming person. She fits her national stereotype well, in other words. Effortlessly nice. Zero sense of irony or sarcasm. Says “pardon,” and “sorry!” with the unmistakable accents of a Canuck. Much of her overall pleasantness is just Irene being Irene, but it’s always gratifying to see these things line up. I try to avoid fulfilling American stereotypes — they are often unflattering — but if your country is known for extreme likability and you happen to be extremely likable, well, it’s an easy connection to make. 

Vancouver — the parts I saw, that is — has a clean, prosperous feeling to it, with a relaxed vibe and a pleasingly multicultural streak.  



Sculpture in Stanley Park


Totem poles on an unusually sunny September day

Walks: Go check out Stanley Park, the thousand-acre peninsula just north of downtown. If you can’t do a long road trip outside the city, this park will get you totem poles, sea breezes, sculptures, landmarks, views and pine forests. 

Gastown is the city’s oldest neighborhood — quite pricey and touristy today, but worth a pass through. Bonus amusement: you can joke to your Canadian hosts that you “passed Gas…town” and see how long it takes for their friendly natures to crack under the relentless onslaught of this terrible joke. 

Gastown is named after “Gassy Jack” Deighton, a 19th-century saloon owner in the area. He was called “gassy” because of his voluble speaking style and long conversations — records of his flatulence levels have been lost to history, but we can probably assume Jack’s gas was in word form only. Also, let’s marvel at what a big personality this guy must have had… I’ve known some chatty cathies in my time, but nobody has a neighborhood named after them.


Gassy Jack, memorialized

Main Street is a fine stretch if you’re hungry/thirsty — we recommend beers and food at The Whip. If you walk a few blocks off Main, you’ll find Black Lodge, which is a Twin Peaks-themed joint. We can attest that the decor is quite fun, but it was packed so we moved on without stopping for refreshment.

Beer! We loved Parallel 49 Brewing Company off Victoria Drive. Offers reasonably priced pints or flights and growler refills, and that is all. The interior is utilitarian, but the place doesn’t need gimmicks. Why bother, when your beer is so good? This is the perfect spot to stop after a day of touring around.

SushiShiro Japanese Restaurant. Best sushi I’ve ever had. I don’t know why — possibly because it was so fresh? It’s in a strip mall-type place off Cambie, and its unassuming character make me suspect that this kind of quality is probably fairly common in this town? Clearly should have eaten more sushi. Bonus amusement: the women’s bathroom has a high-tech Japanese toilet in it. Push some buttons and see what happens!

For Canadian history, visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site, a short drive from the city. A preserved shipyard and row of cannery workers’ residences show you an approximation of life working for the fish canneries back in the early 20th century. You can wander through and read about individual workers’ lives and see restorations of their old houses. The canneries were a magnet for all types of ethnicities (housing was segregated back then, however), and it’s fascinating to wander. It’s also near an open-air fish market, so you can swing through and pick up some very, very fresh fish, if you’re so inclined.


Part of the old shipyard

Additional notes: Vancouver is an easy bus or train ride from Seattle — Quick Shuttle can bus you from downtown to downtown in about four hours.

We had the benefit of our local guide to show us the hidden gems, but Vancouver is fairly easy to navigate and has a solid mass-transit system for inter-neighborhood travel. Thumbs up and hooray! 

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Seattle in September!


Hello, Seattle!

For you U.S. domestic travelers out there, may I suggest Seattle?

Highlights: Coffee, beer, natural beauty, relaxed vibe.

Lowlights: Surprisingly bad public transit. Aren’t you guys supposed to be a bunch of eco-liberal types?

After simmering in Boston all last summer, my fiance and I took ourselves a little break and went to visit friends out West.

Seattle immediately felt more spacious and mellow than our East Coast abode. It’s also a bit more playful, I dare say:


Anybody know what this is? I liked it.

However, its sartorial stereotypes appear to be very true. I got off the plane in a coral dress; my fiance was in a bright-blue button-down. As soon as we hit the streets, a roving band of black-clad youths, armed with sarcasm, yelled some vaguely heckling things at us. I gather that they weren’t making fun of our clothes, but I suspect it was our clothes that drew their attention in the first place.

It was also amusing to realize that my Boston look was actually too sunny for these people. Strange.

Stuff to do

Best: Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour

Early Seattelites engaged in a terrible struggle with the ocean tides that surged in and out of their low-lying town. Seattle wanted to flush its waste to the sea; the sea had other ideas. Poop-related issues weighed heavily on the minds of the city’s founding fathers. Finally, after a fire conveniently destroyed much of the town, they engaged in a massive engineering project to elevate and level off the ground. 

The remnants are underground passageways of the old city, and one hell of a foundational tale. You get to wander around the original streets and hear the whole shebang.

Civil engineering projects; economics lessons related to the Yukon gold rush; poop; prostitutes; prostitutes who made sub-prime loans and were actually quite good at it; historical preservation — this tour has it all.


Very, very important

For a stroll: Walk down and up Seattle’s 4th, 2nd and 1st avenues downtown, where you’ll its prettiest buildings and public areas, and eventually come upon the cheerful hub of Pike Place Market. A festive outdoor market, it’s also packed to the gills (heh). It’s fun to pass through and check out the scene, although I’m not much for buying trinkets, sidewalk art, or fresh fish, regardless of whether those fish were flung through the air in a manner pleasing to tourists. 


Also flowers

Nature in the city: Discovery Park.

Discovery Park, situated on bluffs by the sea, is a curiosity. There you can walk through deciduous forest, then round a corner to encounter unexpected sea vistas, and grassy hills that look strangely…. prairielike. We also saw an owl. It had its head on backwards, Exorcist-style, and it was watching us. Owls are intimidating.

Hard to get to if you haven’t rented a car — we cabbed it there, but to get home we ended up walking all the way to the neighborhood of Ballard. So, warning: have an exit strategy.


Beer!: The Stumbling Monk

Our favorite bar experience, by far. Up on Capitol Hill, it’s an unadorned corner spot with some battered booths and tables. I was tipsy at that point in our evening, so maybe I’m biased, but this place seemed excellent to me. I couldn’t tell if it was trying too hard not to try very hard, or whether it was genuinely hitting just the right level of not-trying. But who cares? There was a chalkboard menu of delicious Belgian beers, the slouchy midweek crowd was enjoying itself, and so did we. 

Also hit up:

The 5-Point Cafe. Motto “Alcoholics Serving Alcoholics Since 1929.” Good pub grub, good beers, and a bargain-priced boilermaker. The staff wears the Seattle uniform of zero colors and greets you brusquely. I was still wearing my girly coral dress and felt out of place, but, unbowed, boldly ordered a dainty little salad anyway. Might as well own it, right? Salad was actually good, too.

Thai food. Like, anywhere. Seattle has tasty Thai food, so just eat it, OK?

Coffee. I actually liked the Cherry Street Coffee House. It’s a local chain and it offered rest and caffeine for me while I was weary, so it has won a place in my heart.

Ballard. A neighborhood in the northwest, where colorful bars and restaurants line the street. A person could spend a happy evening hopping from watering hole to watering hole. 

Also also maybe hit up:

Head north from the Pike Place Market for a solid 15-ish minutes, and you’ll reach the Olympic Sculpture Park, which has nice ocean views and some rando sculptures hangin out.

The Museum of History and Industry is the sanitized version of the stuff from the underground tour — it also covers a broader range of stuff, and is therefore less detailed and interesting. Still, the building is indeed impressive (it’s set on the shore of Lake Union) and the eye-catching visual displays fill in any lingering gaps in your knowledge of this city’s past. 

And, hm… is there something I’m forgetting? Oh yeah:


That guy! It just sort of peeks out at you randomly as you walk along the street. We didn’t bother going up — we figured it wasn’t worth the cash/effort — but it’s nice to be able to look up and go, “yep, guess I’m in Seattle.” In case you forgot.



imageDirty old Seattle, in the underground tour

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Belgian Beer

Belgium has three tourist highlights in radiant abundance: City squares so charming that you get sort of exasperated just looking at them; snacks designed to violently clog your arteries; and beer.

It was this last one that we emphasized — although we did spend a lot of time wandering around with paper bags full of fries, catching sight of adorable town squares and exclaiming about the quaintness of it all, before taking another bite of our fries.

About Belgian beer: I realize Stella Artois has come to be known as the dominant Belgian offering around these parts, but please, do not rave about Stella Artois at me. I do not care for it; further, I do not understand its popularity. So while it is Belgian beer, I find it insipid (you heard me! Insipid!) and don’t drink it. 

(at this point I should add, “but hey man, if you love Stella, sure. I will not judge you for it, as long as you guys don’t judge me for listening to Fall Out Boy and genuinely loving Domino’s pizza. We all like what we like.)

I prefer my Belgian beers in the proper forms: dobbels and tripels, or strong, malty blonds, spicy pale ales, and the occasional interesting sour. The best-known brands in America are Chimay, Delirium and Leffe, and these are all delicious, but only the beginning of this national bounty of beers. You can get a lot of these brews stateside these days — blessedly so — but there’s something much, much more satisfying about walking into some little hole-in-the-wall bar (where the wall is actually Medieval), selecting from dozens of local beers, and having it served up in its individualized glass (uniquely shaped to best convey the beer’s flavor).

Or, drinking it outside on a mild summer’s day while looking out at the old town, which will slay you with its quaintness. I mean, it’s just silly:



Both images from Bruges


This one’s from Ghent.

I should admit that, while I’m coming off like an enormous beer snob here, I am actually a pretty ignorant one. In Boston, beer snobbery is a game among the local gents, where they can tell you all about brewing processes, and why the glass must be shaped this way, and why you’re wrong for not liking cask ales, and why anyone who expresses a love of Narragansett beer is an appalling person who is not worth your time.

I am not on that level. But my boyfriend is, so he viewed Belgium’s beers with a more practiced eye. We drank well, while eating many, many paper bags filled with fries, and waffles, and chocolates, and candy … if you are dieting, Belgium is a rough scene.

We went to Bruges — setting of the amazing movie "In Bruges," which you should watch — and Ghent, before heading onto a last day in Brussels. These towns are all easily seen in a day, and all connected to one another via rail, so we were able to town-hop as we pleased. 

Bruges and Ghent are both terribly romantic places, full of canals and fine old houses, stonework with pretty flourishes everywhere. Both became wealthy as trade and shipping centers, and both have fun little museums and convents and interesting corners. You can take a canal tour in either of them, which we found worthwhile.

Bruges had windmills, which ring the old town:


But Ghent is, if anything, even more picturesque — with a castle, and a more open, stunning view along its central waterway, and its people have a knack for kickass street art:


 Ghent also has the "Ghent nose" candy, which is a purple jelly confection of more subtle, complex sweetness than our spazzed-out candies in the U.S. Sour Patch Kids, these are not. 

After the little towns, we made our way to Brussels — we’d heard it didn’t have much to offer casual tourist types like us, and that turned out to be largely true. Its central square is quite a sight, though, with soaring steeples and fantastically intricate statues and scrollwork on buildings (both church and state), and its main cafe drag is fun but packed. We were tired…. so I snapped some pictures and then we had another beer. Cheers to that.


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Amsterdam: “Whoa! Hookers!”

I was oddly fascinated with the ladies standing in the red-curtained “window brothels” of Amsterdam’s red-light district. Not like I haven’t seen prostitutes before — Madrid’s crudely nicknamed “Calle de las Putas” was within walking distance from my apartment, after all. But these women looked like they should be in lad mags, they were so glossily done-up in their crazy underwear and big hair and boobs. Standing behind the glass, they also oddly recalled the Barbie dolls I opened on Christmas morning as a child, except these ladies were life-sized and they moved around and had sex for money. Barbie had many professions, but never went in for sex work, as far as I knew.

As a polite Midwesterner, I felt that staring would be rude, so I just kept sneaking glances as I walked down the street. My boyfriend, walking at my side, sensed it would be bad form to check out hookers whilst strolling with his lady, and so gallantly kept his eyes on the sidewalk.

I understand Amsterdam is a wild place; I really wouldn’t know. Being with a significant other is lovely, but it also makes you a much more boring person. With my girlfriends I’m sure I’d have partied all hours. But with my boyfriend, the two of us became fairly lame. Going to clubs in the red-light district seemed like a rather silly thing to do. A pair of monogamous nerds, nervously wandering about the town in their sensible shoes and eyeglasses? Eh… 

Instead, we ate stroopwafels (little caramel-waffle treats, the best things ever), drank lots of good beer, had some hearty, stick-to-your-ribs Dutch foods, among other things. Another fantastic free walking tour, where we learned about the city’s outdoor urinals, its history as a freewheeling place, its mysterious, mammarian artworks:


In case you can’t tell: that’s a disembodied hand, rounding second base. 

If you DO want to do some lame tourist things in Amsterdam when you go, prepare for long lines. We waited about 90 minutes for the (very good) Van Gogh Museum, and never did make it to the Anne Frank House — the lines were easily two hours long, which I understand is quite typical. If you go, I would recommend purchasing the Amsterdam card, in which you pay a flat fee and get a ton of freebies and reduced-price offers — including free admission to many museums - but, more importantly, you get to line-jump ahead of all the schmucks who aren’t carrying one. We had opted not to, figuring we wouldn’t use it very much, but if you’ve got the time, it’s probably a good idea.

Amsterdam has an amazing assortment of weird museums, none of which I managed to go see: The sex museum, obviously, and the marijuana & hemp museum, a fluorescent art museum, a smoking pipe museum, and museums of spectacles, of purses, of watches & clocks, of medical oddities…. too bad, really, because I adore museums. Guess I need to go back?


A canal at night.

Amsterdam is called “the Venice of the north,” but our tour guide said it actually has more canals than Venice. Fun fact.

Amsterdam also has a lot of bikes, as you might have heard - many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, end up in the canals. The city employs boats to trawl the waters, dredging up tons of submerged bikes every year. They also haul up tiny cars, which bikers sometimes toss into the canals under cover of night - these micro-cars, no bigger than golf carts, are legally allowed to occupy bike lanes. They go quite slowly. Bikers do not approve of this. Thus, into the canals they go. Not sure how often it happens, but, apparently it’s a thing.

The Dutch, although generally a very nice people, do seem to be quite brusque. Bicyclists in Amsterdam will indeed run you over; so will the trams. That’s something to be aware of, if you’re super high and not paying attention. Or if you’re nerdily snapping photos. Whatever, really. 




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Chapter 3: Everybody takes off their clothes, but they feel kinda weird about it.

Sometimes in life, you find yourself in a Turkish bathhouse, yelping and skittering away as a Turkish woman tries to disrobe you in front of your friends. It happens to the best of us.

And in retrospect, I really should have seen it coming. To explain: We three travelers obviously wanted to experience a real Turkish bath — it’s a huge part of the culture, as these bathhouses have been around for centuries. Also, weeks on the road had left us with a feeling of persistent griminess. We all felt the need for a good wash.

These bathhouses work a bit like a spa. First you go for some sauna time, then an attendant scrubs you from head to toe with soft soap, and then you go for a soak in the bathhouse’s tubs. The bathhouses are large tiled rooms dotted with faucets and pools, and ours was mostly underground, so it had a coolly sheltered feel to it (photos were generally not allowed, which I understand).

My friends and I knew we’d be unclothed for our scrub, but for some reason we figured we’d have, I don’t know, a bit more privacy? Like we’d be alone with our designated scrubber, behind some partition or something. Clearly, we’d forgotten where we were.

It happens sometimes on the road, where you catch yourself thinking things like: "Why is there no safety railing here? Or, Why is there no sign marking the bus stop? Why is this shop closed? Why are all these people naked?

The answer to all those questions is the same: Because you’re in Southern Europe. 

After we checked in, we stashed our clothes in our individual little changing rooms and emerged in our towels. We next went to hang out in our sauna, guided by a cheery Turkish woman who spoke no English and wore a bikini (she did work in a bathhouse, remember, so the bikini made sense. On the street the women often wore multiple layers of long clothes, even in the heat, but here they all hung out in swimsuits.)

After we marinated in the sauna for awhile, the lady beckoned us out, and she immediately went for my towel and tried to whip it right off me. Right there, in front of my friends! I was greatly alarmed. 

I hate to wreck anybody’s image of typical girls’ locker room behavior, but, in the U.S. at least, most girls don’t just hang out naked in front of their friends. We all casually saunter behind stalls or just try to keep it as modest as possible. So the idea of just like, hangin’ out and whatnot, all unclothed, in front of my friends, was an idea I was not ready for.

On pure reflex, I darted away. In her bikini, the Turkish lady gave chase, shouting “Wait!” at me in Spanish (they get a lot of Spanish tourists there; she had apparently never bothered to learn the English). 

I danced around, clutching at my towel, while my friends were similarly being accosted by an unsmiling middle-aged woman in a one-piece swimsuit who had very little patience for our (my) foolishness. My friends weren’t crazy about the situation either, but they handled their disrobing with much better grace — trying to maintain some modesty, but also staring and laughing at me as I batted the Turkish woman away. They told me that they would have averted their eyes, except I was making such a spectacle of myself that it was impossible not to watch. 

So here’s a lesson: When a Turkish bath-house employee wants you to get naked in front of people, just play it cool, man.


It must have seemed very strange to these local women, when you consider it. Here we Western-type chicks think nothing of strolling around on the streets in what must seem to be outrageously skimpy summer dresses, but there, in the privacy of the bathhouse, surrounded by female attendants, we were squawking and protesting.

Eventually we did just get over it. I surrendered my towel, got doused with giant puffs of soap, and the lady put on these gloves that look like giant oven mitts and got to scrubbing, taking off loopy strings of dead skin in the process. It’s oddly fascinating and sort of gross, seeing all these lumps as they get sloughed off. It didn’t hurt, either, just felt like a sort of pleasant massage. I felt like a dog, getting a highly efficient wash from an impatient owner. And I emerged feeling, indeed, far softer and cleaner than I’d started out.

And then my friends and I rendezvoused in one of the big tubs and all had a good laugh. Totally worthwhile experience. But yeah, I was pretty quick to grab that towel and put it on again.