One day we figured out we had traveled by Lancia rental car, plane, bus, train and metro, not to mention our blistered feet, all before our afternoon panini.
But the journey wasn’t all rush-rush.
There were the hours spent luxuriating at sidewalk cafés, sipping latte macchiato (warm milk “stained” with coffee), Prosecco or Mort Subite Kriek Lambic, and watching the world saunter by.
|Marina and her au pair family, Denise, Emelie and little Jeanne|
Our student-turned-graduate spent much of her time coaching Mom on the finer points of living in the center of the European universe. Marina was on constant pickpocket alert, reminding me to zip my purse completely closed and to tuck it tightly under my arm. Yet those moments of mistrust dissipated completely each time Marina stepped into a crosswalk, fearless in her confidence that motorists would indeed brake in time.
Others continued the instruction. When Ziggy, Marina’s significant, took Richard and I to our first Brussels café, he discreetly slid the 15% euro tip I placed on the pewter-covered table back to me, explaining that our wait person was a professional, and the large tip would be considered an insult. Upon meeting his mother Thea for the first time, as we leaned in for welcoming bisous, she whispered in her shy English, “In Belgium, we do it three times,” and so we switched cheeks from right to left to right again.
With Marina’s French and Flemish, and Richard’s Portuguese and Italian, I was in good company. Marina gave me a Flemish cheat-sheet to study on the train to dinner with Ziggy’s family in Antwerp, with please (alstublieft) and thank you (danku) and a few other essential words. Richard interpreted stories and translated directions from my father’s 86-year-old Italian cousin as we navigated seven sharp turns up the mountainside beyond Fregona.
I could handle a “bonjour” to greet a ticket-taker in a Brussels museum, but after a while, the revolving doors of languages totally befuddled me. As I was leaving a shop in Venice where the personable young women told me in perfect English that I looked like a Northern Italian (talk about Brownie points!), I was so flustered and giddy that when I opened my mouth to say good-bye, out came “muy bien’’ (very well) from high school Spanish class. Both of my kids rolled their eyes on that one. And, in the fog of too many tongues that settled on me, I know at least one time I intended to go to the women’s (vrouwen or donne) restroom but ended up in the men’s (mensen or uomini). Oops!
Faux pas aside, as we traveled around Belgium I was truly inspired by the women who bicycle to work each day. I decided their example would be my take-home souvenir. I don’t have their native panache, the way they knot their scarves and wear their business clothes astride a bicycle. I can’t walk in high heels let alone pedal in them. But I could just do it–ride to work as often as possible—even if it meant wearing sweats and carrying a change of clothes in a knapsack.
So, first workday back, I did just that.
The ride was exhilarating. My Northern Italian face flushed. I paced the office, cooling down. Then I went into the women’s room to towel off and change. I slid on my sophisticated black-and-white dress, stepped into a sandal. And froze. In my haste to pack for the ride, I brought two different sandals.
I spent my jet-lagged return to reality in mismatched shoes. At least luck was on my side. I brought a right and a left. Bisous, three times. Laurie Lynch