Europe: First Leg

Our flight was set to takeoff from the Charlotte airport around 7:30 p.m. EST. We had to ask a German man to switch seats so that Joe and I could be beside one another, on the biggest jet I’ve ever ridden IN MY LIFE. We watched Gone Girl on the in-headrest monitors. It was basically a red eye. We slept only a little though. Too much excitement.

One hour-and-a-half layover in Munich plus another quick flight and we arrived in Dusseldorf midday CET. My brother Zack and his friend Kathrin picked us up at the airport. Many hugs and maybe a jig. We headed back to Kathrin’s home for a bit of R&R. They had prepared a stunning brunch spread – soup, salad, cheese, bread, savory stuffed pastries, orange mango juice and champagne. We also sampled a couple of Belgian beers Kathrin had snagged, a welcoming toast to the beginning of a journey. We all napped. Well, Joe and I did. Zack and friend canoodled, I imagine. Joe’s sawing logs distracted them, but I snoozed right on.

Europe First Leg 1We traveled to a charming area called Altstadt (Old Town). This is a lifeline of Dusseldorf, full of restaurants, retailers and pedestrians. We walked down a few streets with local fair, especially patio seating and “hot mushrooms,” and around a common square at dusk, where people generally amass on a bank of stairs facing the river on pretty days. We saw Hamm Hamm, a sandwich shop playing a role in the meeting of Zack and the lovely Kathrin months back. We stopped in for beers at a local brewery. (Aren’t they all local here?) We learned to cover our glasses lest the barkeep continue to bring rounds for the table and a coaster flip game only Zack had mastered. Thirteen stacked and caught!

More strolling and sightseeing and window-shopping. Talked to a waify former New Yorker who relentlessly pounded on Germans’ lack of customer service. We finally stopped to have a much-needed caffeinated beverage – a latte macchiato served with a biscuit. Then to have the best Asian meal IN MY LIFE at Böser Chinese - handmade melt-in-your-mouth noodles.

We arrived by train in Zack’s neighboring town Essen. Tired and weary, we towed our luggage several blocks and then up six flights of stairs to his apartment. Because in Germany, everyone lives on the top floor. Crashed.

The next morning we awoke and headed out in a hurry. We had to be at the bus station for a 7:30 a.m. departure. We were there 5 minutes early but somehow got left behind, even after Zack asked each of the drivers of several waiting buses if this one was the one for Amsterdam. American speaking German still not helped. We felt the pomp. Purchased three train tickets after all, leaving at 8:45 instead because the next Flix Bus (damn you!) wasn’t until 11:30. All money was lost. The German way – no consolation.

It’s early in the morning, and we mustn’t go far. The only place open is Starbucks. So yes, that incorporated coffee phenom was part of our adventure. Danke, Hund.

Europe First Leg 4To switch trains at one point we literally had to run from one platform to another. Escalators, stairs and dodging. I had to carry my bag several times, the comical beginning to a wrist over-use injury from this trip. Joe slept with his J pillow. Zack wrote out physics-to-business equations. I attempted a hundred photos of the objects out the window, having never been on a train IN MY LIFE before this trip. The full trek to Amsterdam took about four hours. We arrived at the central station there midday.

Exhausted, we finally made it to our Airbnb around 1 p.m. It was in a pleasant neighborhood outside of the city center. Zack, having started to feel under the weather, promptly laid on the couch and took a coma. Joe and I set out exploring. First food at De Bakkerswinkel. Cup of koffie, please, along with tomato basil quiche, rye bread with fresh cream, green salad topped with capers and melon and a cinnamon scone with lemon jam. I sneakily photographed the cutest small boy I’ve ever seen, a blond Harry Potter nibbling a crumpet buttered by his mum.

We wandered the streets, waterway to waterway. We saw a thousand bicycles – people riding by, rows and rows on racks, a few propped on our stoop. I bought a braided white and tan leather bracelet from a vendor. The brand was “Mi & Joe.” I couldn’t resist. We also bought groceries but forgot that Europeans are conditioned to bring their own bags. Arms loaded, we walked with it all back to the flat.

Europe First Leg 3

Zack was up just long enough to go into the Red Light District, have a couple Desperados. You know it gets an award for shittiest beer if we argue over whether it tastes more like tequila or malt liquor. Sick and pitiful, Zack went home alone, to eat bananas and chocolate for dinner, when waking from periodic coughing fits. Joe and I continued on in the RLD. Very tamely, our first stops were at a drug store to get medicine for my brother’s suspected flu and at a Western Union to exchange U.S. dollars for euro. We hopped around, had a couple beers, saw some ladies of the night posing in windows and eventually ate at an unexpectedly quiet steakhouse with fondu specialties.

The next day was the big day in Amsterdam. We ate at De Bakkerswinkel again. Zack was only too jealous that we’d done it the first time without him. And that kind of became our café, like we were regulars after two visits. We roamed a bit. But then had to shower up and catch a canal tour. It took us an extra trip because Joe forgot the museum tickets and had to return to the flat to fetch them. There was a key-toss over the street and more running. We made the landing for a boat around 2 p.m. Water surrounds the city. Naturally, the best view and best method of transportation, considering wonderful sights and relaxation, is by canal. We all enjoyed this ride very much.

Our stop was the Van Gogh Museum. There we marveled at the glorious works of the famous artist – self portraits, early peasants, abstract still life, rowdy landscapes. We saw the evolution of his work, over few years really. I was most taken by his paintings of complimentary colors. I could stare at Sunflowers for hours. Outside, the group posed for pictures with the huge IAMSTERDAM sign.

Europe First Leg 2We hung out in a nearby area called Leidseplein, grabbing a bite to eat, a koffie fill-up and a Dutch liquor lesson and smell test from a friendly bartender over Bavaria beers. Then we headed back to the Red Light District for an evening of debauchery. Yet Five Points in Columbia, SC is arguable more wild. It was really just a chill spot to be. We did sit a spell at an Irish pub, where Zack was transfixed by Rhianna music videos on the TV. We had been coveting Indonesian food all day and finally got it. Mine was a large dish of fried rice, green beans, apple slaw, baked dough, gooey egg noodles and three meats. Lamb, pork and chicken with gravy and coconut shavings. Fat and happy, we returned home.

The next morning was another early one. Our train was leaving at 6:30 a.m. To simplify, we cabbed to the station, meaning we could roll out of bed and go direct, instead of the normal European hustle between public transit that usually comes first. Farewell, Holland. All aboard a bullet train to Paris…

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