Travel Post – London (Part 1)

1. London Eye

London Eye

As the train pulled out of Rotterdam Centraal Station, I couldn’t calm the butterflies in my stomach. My next destination was London. London! I’d navigated my way through The Netherlands, but London? As excited as I was to finally meet the city I’d romanticized about my entire life, it was overwhelming. It was like wishing to meet your favorite celebrity and seizing up with terror at the actual opportunity. Plus, London is huge. I didn’t grow up in the country but I am no city girl. My upbringing was that of a vagabond military brat. The majority of my community life revolved around military bases and surrounding towns, which is to say, I mostly landed in comfortable populations well below the quarter million mark. Savannah, Georgia was about as close to a big city I’ve ever lived: roughly 150K. Did I really have the courage to wander such a behemoth of a city of over eight million people?
The butterflies were still aflutter with anticipation when I stepped off at the Brussels-Midi/Zuid Station in Belgium but, little by little, the fear was giving way to excitement. Making my way to the Eurostar terminal, I went through another security checkpoint and waited with passport in hand for the next available customs officer.
“Remove your hat. What’s the purpose of your visit?” he asked, with an intensity I’d only experienced from a military gate guard under a high-security alert. I slid my beanie off my head and smiled at his dreamy English accent.
“Vacation.”
“And how long will you be staying?” he continued, giving my near-empty passport a thorough inspection.
“Two days. Not long enough to see everything but I’m going to try!” I gave a little laugh, practically bouncing on my toes. (I’m actually annoying myself as I recall the encounter.)
His eyes flicked unceremoniously over my face. Yeah, I know my picture is fifteen pounds lighter but it’s me.
“Where will you be staying then?”
“A bed and breakfast. The Luna-Simone on Belgrave Rd.”
I was ready to rattle off the address, phone number, and reservation confirmation code.
“A bed and breakfast, eh?”
His expression remained hard but his tone had suddenly taken on a wistful tone. He pounded a stamp on a page and slapped my passport back onto the counter. He sighed.
“Sounds nice. Enjoy your stay.”
Poor guy. Customs officers are not in the customer service business. They’re not supposed to be friendly. They’re in the I-have-to-be-suspicious-of-you-in-order-to-do-my-job-well business. And to top it off, a large portion of the people he waves through are all going to or from holiday. Meanwhile, he’s stuck indoors, in a glass cube, under life-sucking fluorescent lighting. I hope he gets his own stay in a B&B soon.
Riding the Eurostar was one of the highlights I’d booked on this trip. I know, I’m a bit of a nerd. High-speed railway is another one of those big city novelties that I’m sure loses its shine after the ninety-second time you’ve traveled on it. But this was my first. It was smoother than I had imagined it would be. And quiet! Extra large windows allowed for scenic views and ample opportunity to play with the motion parallax of the landscape; admiring the slow promenade of buildings and roadways in the distance; trying to catch a clear glimpse of blurred blades of grass below; becoming quickly disoriented and training sight to the pale blue sky. A digital ticker over the train car doors kept a tally of our speed, edging upwards of 290 kph (about 180 mph).
We dove under the English Channel and when we emerged again, it was a sparkling, sunny, winter wonderland. Snow caked the hills and frosted the bare trees. The kids a few rows ahead even set aside their video games to ‘whoa’ over the landscape. The snowfall was a precursor to the pending “beast from the east” winter storm that would hit in the coming days, dumping more snow and serious travel delays all across the UK. But when you don’t have a job to be at or kids to juggle because of canceled school everything about an on-coming blizzard becomes charming and magical.
Even with a slow-down due to icy tracks, the trip to St. Pancras took just under two hours. I emerged from the bustling, cavernous train station and out into the stream of people. The walkways had been shoveled clear of snow but that made no difference walking through the half-melted slush that squelched around my sneakers. Damn you, sensible, middle-aged self! Boots would really have been the proper footwear now! I walked the three and a half miles from the train station to the hotel, reveling in the atmosphere. Business folk dressed for executive meetings walked with a pep and purpose in their step. Some tourists took in the skyline around them, looking to street signs and generally clogging the flow of foot traffic. Even mothers with their small children in tow made for their destinations like they had executive meetings of their own.

2. Locals Chilling

Locals Chilling

On my way, I encountered a couple of locals chilling on a table outside a local bakery. Two snowmen, one dressed in a snappy scarf and hat, enjoying what appeared to be a fine, miniature cigar, and the other…well, he was stark naked with a blank expression. I’m sure there’s a funny story there. It certainly gave me a little laugh. Even the employees inside were getting a kick out of watching people stop and take pictures of the winter art installation that had popped up outside their business.
I continued on. Black cabs rushed past on the wrong – uh, opposite side of the road. I was hyper-aware of the fact that the American elementary school proverb “look left, then right, then left again” was a liability here. At every walkway intersection in bold white letters on the asphalt were the words, “LOOK RIGHT”. If my sneakers didn’t immediately give me away as an American tourist, muttering this mantra to myself at every crosswalk surely did.
The Luna-Simone Hotel was just on the outskirts of Westminster, a short walk to Big Ben, Westminster Cathedral, and Kensington Park. Most importantly it was a ten-minute walk to Victoria Station where I’d catch the shuttle to the London-Gatwick Airport.

Convenient, clean and tucked into a relatively quiet street, this B&B also came to feel like home in the mere two days I spent there. Some travelers might like a more spacious suite than where I stayed. The bathroom was small with just enough room for everything you need and the room is filled out with a queen bed, a small wardrobe, and a desk. There’s enough space to comfortably walk the perimeter of the room but not much else. For me, however, it was absolutely perfect. I’ve been on a mission to downsize my life and belongings so snagging a cozy, clean room such as this one for a reasonable price was exactly what I was looking for. I plan on returning and would recommend it to anyone interested in staying close to the sights without spending an arm and a leg.
https://www.lunasimonehotel.com/info/
With just enough daylight left to explore options for dinner, I found the perfect spot for amazing pad thai and people watching: Rosa’s Thai Café. This sweet eatery is right on the corner of Gilligham Street and Wilton Road, large windows overlooking the city street. Over hot jasmine tea and spring rolls, I watched business professionals, families and college students stroll by. Everyone seemed just as enamored of the cold snap as I was, dressed in their most fashionable coats, gloves, beanies, fur-lined hoods, and (sigh) boots. The vegetable pad thai arrived on my table in a swirling veil of sweet-savory steam. I clicked my bamboo chopsticks with glee and for the next forty-five minutes, nothing else existed except my dinner and the stage full of people passing just outside my window.
https://www.rosasthaicafe.com/

 

3. Rosa's Thai Cafe

Rosa’s Thai Cafe

Particularly entertaining were the antics of one little girl in a pink parka and her mother waiting at the street corner. The mother was engrossed with her phone and the three-year-old was engrossed with something other than holding her mother’s hand. The girl pulled, her mother absently following the tug on her arm until realizing she was being led off course and rerouting them back to the street corner. The spunky adventurer in pink tried a different tactic, successfully squatting down until she slipped from her mother’s grasp, sprinting down the sidewalk after who-knows-what. It only took two seconds for the mother to realize she had an escapee, dart after her daughter and herd her back. This went on for about ten minutes the whole time the mother never losing patience and the grinning daughter never losing determination. I wonder what bedtime looked like in their household.
On my way back to the hotel, I rubbed my belly through my jacket pockets, a satisfied sigh clouding up in the cold air. At the end of the street, I ran into a familiar face: the dapper snowman from the bakery. Evidently, he had given his hat away to his naked snow-mate out of pity and decided to retire to the local flower bed for the night.
I could live this kind of life very easily. Travel to new countries. Eat incredible food. Let the inspiration for stories and characters flood in at me from every angle. This was my first taste of the city, and it was invigorating.
Back in my room, settling in under the warm bed covers to shamelessly watch an episode of the local soap opera, EastEnders, the anxiety from that morning couldn’t have been further from my mind. The years of longing to travel across the pond came flooding back. I was really here and my beloved London awaited.

4. Retiring to Flower Bed

Retiring to Flower Bed 

Keep your eyes peeled for PART 2!

By: Erica Ruhe

Travel Post – Rotterdam (Part 3)

The Buttplug Gnome AKA Santa Clause_preview

The summit of happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is. – Erasmus

Since the WWII bombing that flattened the city in 1940, poor Rotterdam has been like a misunderstood wild child with a non-traditional upbringing. She’s been called ‘The City Without a Heart.’ Shaped by many different events and architects since then, Rotterdam doesn’t quite fit into the Dutch culture the way Amsterdam, The Hague, or Delft does. On more than one occasion, my enthusiasm for Rotterdam was met by locals with a lifted eyebrow and reply along the lines of,

“Really? Why Rotterdam? (Insert Dutch city) is so much more charming.”

Rotterdam is not what the Dutch would call gezellig: that warm, squishy feeling you get when all is time-honored, quaint, and cozy. No, she sticks out from traditional European cities like a sore thumb.

River Nieuwe Maas_preview

Bright yellow ‘Cube Houses’ balance on their corners atop a busy overpass like thrown dice frozen mid-roll. Blaak Station looks like a landed UFO in the market square. The angular, swan-like Erasmus Bridge poses high over the river Nieuwe Maas. There’s nothing traditional or charming about it. It’s tall, proud, sleek – just like the rest of the city. Though bruised from an unfair fight, Rotterdam’s modern and colorful. She’s survived a torrid upbringing. Amidst inner turmoil, she grew through misdiagnosed remedies and therapies and prevailed with hopes of a happier future. Formed at the hands of so many others’ desires, Rotterdam’s own identity seems ambiguous. She complicated.

Cube Houses_preview

But look closer. She is one of the most important cities of her time. The largest port in Europe, fourth largest in the world. An international haven – probably more so in the near future with the coming of Brexit. She welcomes in the world, serving as a gateway to an expanded, cohesive way of thinking. And she does it quietly, compassionately, without theatrics or fuss.

I relate to Rotterdam. I’ve had my fair share of personal ‘bombings’ and well-meaning ‘architects’ try to build and reshape me throughout my life. It’s helped me see who I was and, now, envision who I want to become. A lot of people don’t understand the way I think or act. I’ve always stuck out like a sore thumb myself. It’s only until now that I’m finally learning to be okay with that. For me, pushing through my comfort zone and finding my true self is like coming home. Like stumbling toward the heart of a place that isn’t on a map. It’s the same reason I find Rotterdam gezellig.

On my last day in Rotterdam, it snowed. I didn’t recognize it at first, this white fluffy thing that had landed on my scarf, then another. It had been years since I’d seen an actual snowflake. But when I looked up, the flurry swirled in around me, lit up by the late afternoon sunlight. I stopped and scanned the street, wondering if I was the only one witnessing this wondrous moment. It was just me and an old man walking his Jack Russell Terrier up ahead in the distance. I was suddenly in my own private snow globe. The subdued disappointment I’d been mulling over about my final hours in the city evaporated, instantly replaced with the buzz of excitement. I gazed up into the gray clouds billowing above the high buildings, half-expecting to catch the glimmer of a glass dome in the sky. The air glittered all around me. It was like an ending from a movie; the city saying goodbye.

Is it narcissistic to see a part of myself in such a great city? Perhaps. But it’s the potential to assume her best qualities that I yearn to emulate the most: her even-keeled nature, her sensibility, her acceptance, unassuming charm and colorful personality. Many don’t understand her because she is so different. But I think Rotterdam’s beautiful. She allows room for the possibilities.

By: Erica Ruhe

 

Book Review: Dakota – A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

dakota_book

Synopsis:

In 2001 Kathleen Norris published a memoir titled Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. This rousing story illuminates what life is like in a rural town––but more than that, it begs the question of what it means to live life as fully and intimately as possible.

About the Author:

Norris is a well-known poet and essayist who lives deep in the rural Dakotas, in the little town of Lemmon. She moved here after spending much of her life in New York City, but also spends some of her time in Hawaii.

Other publications of hers include Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, The Virgin of Bennington, and The Cloister Walk.

Themes––Land, Humanity, Love, Prosperity:

The themes in Dakota are simple, yet profound. In this review I strive to provide an overview, and break down the whole of the book into four clear themes; however, the reader should note that each theme is like a lake––placid on the surface, but immeasurably deep. This review is meant to be just an introduction, not a full in-depth analysis, that will hopefully entice the reader to enjoy the book.

Our odd, tortured landscape terrifies many people. Some think it’s as barren as the moon, but others are possessed by it.
(p. 36)

Dakotans know why they like living here, where life is still lived on a human scale.
(p. 35)

Watching a storm pass from horizon to horizon fills your soul with reverence. It makes your soul expand to fill the sky.
(p. 9)

Norris muses about the wide, open plains and the lack of trees and large cities. To Norris, especially as a poet, the solitude of the land inspires her to a deeper connection with God, to the grittiness of real life, and to her creative pursuits.

Even urban monasteries run on a rural rhythm, taking notice of sunrise and sunset with morning prayer and evensong.
(p. 184)

Together, the monks and coyotes will sing the world to sleep.
(p. 217)

Norris writes that the 21st century has stripped us of all realness. She asks: What if we rose and set with the sun, just as God made us to do? She argues that humans have created their own sense of time, one that runs on hours and minutes and seconds, where we focus too much on the numbers of a clock and less on how our bodies are meant to flow with the days.

At first glance, these notions may sound strangely new-age––rhythms? Follow the sun? But Norris is not advocating for the worship of nature by any means; rather, she spends much time with the Benedictines who teach her spiritual disciplines and ground her in the teachings of Christ.

True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person.
(p. 197)

Norris often mentions the extreme love monks have for their fellow humans. She is inspired by age-old proverbs of desert monks who gain knowledge by solitude––and who find that this intense solitude, such as experienced on the Dakotas, provides immense joy when social interaction is received.

In short, Norris writes that she is becoming like a monk: She sees a trip to someplace bigger than Lemmon as a great joy, a feast.

Both monks and country people take for granted that prayer works, and that it’s worth doing. Why not relax and enjoy it? Why not make it beautiful?
(p. 211)

Why not become all flame?
(p. 123)

Norris writes of the hard times in the poor, rural Dakotas. She recognizes the blessings this area has to offer but does not sugarcoat the struggles these people have endured throughout history.

Last Statements:

She leaves the readers with a sense of aloneness––but not loneliness. This idea, to be “all flame,” to transform into one whose religion is not a rigid set of rules, but a faith that at its root seeks truth in Christ, provides hope to the poor Dakota soul. In turn, the reader can also find hope.

Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are.
(p. 121)

Guest Post by: Amy

About Amy:  Amy is a lover of lilacs, old books, and authentic community. Her work has appeared in the Southwest Metro and Plymouth magazines, and the Crow River Ink literary magazine. She runs a blog called The Writer’s Refuge.