R.L. SAUNDERS

writer attempting real life in the middle of everybody else's vacation

“Europe” part 4 in a sometimes redundant 4-part series of 4

I’m sort-of an idiot, so before I went to Rome, I’d see pictures of Roman ruins and envision tourists, chickens, and beggar children on a four-hour bus ride down a bumpy dirt road on their way to a site. It’s not that way at all, though. You’re walking through the middle of the city and BAM, ruins. It’s some kind of perfect mix of ancient and modern that I can’t explain.

Quitter.

Quitter.

For me, at least in February (excluding excellent shopping and getting to see a dear friend), Rome kicked Paris’ ass. And I’m shocked about that. I was really just going along with the Rome thing because I knew my mom would dig Vatican City. I was planning to roll my eyes a few times when nobody was looking, drink a lot of wine and a little bit of coffee (because that’s all you can get is a little bit), and just generally get it over with. But Rome was probably my favorite city on our whirlwind European tour. No, not probably. It was.

This is my daughter and sister in Nice. It has nothing to do with this post. I just like it.

This is my daughter and sister in Nice. It has nothing to do with this post. I just like it.

Then there was Monaco. My daughter saw a picture of Princess Grace on the wall in a chocolate shop and loved the story about the American actress and Prince Rainier. She positively beamed when I revealed to her that we gave her the middle name “Grace” because of Grace Kelly. This was a lie, of course, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s just the kind of thing that happens when you’re powerlessly caught up in the fairy tale that is Monaco.

Monaco is perfect. Too perfect. Air-brushed, lip injections perfect. I’m talking about the people, the landscape, the food, the wi-fi availability. Everything. I don’t really know what else to say about that, except look at this picture.

Monaco is not ugly

A final straggling thought that didn’t fit neatly anywhere else: Europeans are thin because they eat healthy food? No, that wasn’t my impression, although I went in with that preconception. But they do practice portion control. And they walk a lot. And they smoke. Jesus do they smoke. Refer to disclaimer in Post 1 regarding gross generalities.

The trip was fantastic, what else can I say? I’m so grateful to my sister for the experience, especially for my daughter’s sake. It’s what I want my kids to want from life—experiences, not stuff.

This.

This.

And Key West isn’t a bad place to have to come home to, either.

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“Europe” part 3 in a series of 3 or 4, but definitely not 5

. . .Speaking of killing the pain, the rate of suicide in the Netherlands is about a third lower than in the U.S. and about half what it is in France (where, as you may recall from my last post, the City of Paris can get the trains up and running again five minutes after a subway suicide). Enter our visit to Amsterdam, where we only passed four people who weren’t smoking marijuana cigarettes. And those four were in strollers.

My sister is worried she’ll test positive for THC in a random drug test for work because we got approximately 12,000 lungsfull of happy smoke just by walking down the sidewalk. I thought people were kidding about that. But no.

Amsterdam is beautiful and funky in a special way—so different from other European cities we visited. I felt dreamy the whole time, but my daughter was edgy and horrified to learn that, if marijuana is ever legalized on a widespread basis in the U.S., I’d rather her smoke a marijuana cigarette than a nicotine and synthetic chemical-laden cigarette. I mean, I’d rather her not smoke anything at all (OBVS, I haven’t smoked anything in my entire life, and that’s the prudish truth). But, all things legal, if one decides one must manage one’s pain, stress, or social pressure by smoking something, it seems clear that marijuana is the healthier alternative. Holland agrees.

I redeemed myself as a parent in her eyes by bringing her to the Anne Frank house. She narrated our tour because she read Anne’s diary earlier this year and she’s fascinated by the Frank family story. If you’re not fascinated going in, you will be, going out. There’s something cathartic about touching the actual bookcase and walking the same stairway and seeing the walls Anne attempted to make cheery by pasting cutouts on them. I don’t care how many millions of people have gone through the place—it will alter you on a personal level, if you’re any kind of human being at all.

Yes, Amsterdam is so much more than weed. There are also prostitutes. And the thickest, most delectable Dutch split pea soup. With sausage, not ham, because the Dutch do it right.

My dad was 100 percent Dutch and my grandparents had a big sign in the house that said, “You aint much if you aint Dutch.” I felt so Dutch growing up that I gave my kids vowely names nobody has ever heard of (including the Dutch, I’ve learned). And the last kid? His name is DUTCH.

But after visiting Amsterdam, I’m skeptical of my (Vander)Kooi side’s genuine commitment to our heritage. I mean, I’ve never seen any of them eat split pea soup with sausage, which our Dutch bartender assured us was a Dutch winter staple long before Philip the Bold was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. Thick pea soup with sausage is allegedly as Dutch as windmills, tulips, dykes, and wooden elf shoes. Come to think of it, though, we didn’t see any of those things outside the airport.

We did see a lot of bikes, however. It’s stoopid bike-friendly in Amsterdam. In fact, cyclists apparently have the right of way in all situations and will mow you over like a weed. So don’t linger in the cute stone street trying to get the right picture of a row of boats and houses across the canal, like this:

Amsterdam

Amsterdam is boat-friendly, too. There seem to be as many canals as streets. I’m not sure how clean the water is, but it makes for a charming experience, what with the quaint bridges and houseboats everywhere.  It’s like the original Charter Boat Row here in Key West, but better. Or at least bigger.

If I had to live in a big city (which I will never do on purpose, ever, because I’m a big fish, small town type) it would be someplace like Amsterdam. Only warmer.

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“Europe” part 2 in a series of who-knows-how-many

On to vital topics. Like coffee and language. Starbucks aside, I couldn’t find anywhere to get a simple mug of coffee. Mug. Big American mug. Supersize Me, Joe.

I always thought Europeans were coffee people. But no. They grab a newspaper, do a quick shot of espresso mud, smile, and leave. That’s not Coffee Love. That’s like doing a quick line of coke before work because you have to, to get through the day.

I’d ask for café Americano, and these people, these Europeans (see disclaimer in part 1 of this series), would tease me by holding their palms about nine inches apart, and they’d say, “Long? Long American coffee?” And I’d salivate and say, “Yes! Long! Please! Long coffee!” thinking I was finally about to get a bigass mug of magic. But each time they brought the same thimble of (delicious, but who cares if I can’t have SO MUCH MORE) coffee.

My “long American coffee” is on the left. My daughter’s hot chocoloate, 3x bigger, is on the right. That pot? Also full of hot chocoloate. Because all of Europe hates me.

My “long American coffee” is on the left. My daughter’s hot chocoloate, 3x bigger, is on the right. That pot? Also full of hot chocoloate. Because all of Europe hates me.

Okay, here’s the stereotypical language observation by a stupid American. French and Italian are beautiful. Dutch, not so much—it’s hard on the ears. Like German. And maybe American English.

My friend, Sharon, has been living in Paris for six years and is raising her adorable and bilingual sons there. When we first got to her place it was late and the boys were supposed to be going to sleep, but we could hear them through their door, speaking to each other in French. Gorgeous words being strung together like a sweet lullaby by tiny French angels.

“What are they saying?” I asked. It sounded so lovely. Surely they were bidding each other fond dreams as all children who speak romance languages must.

“They’re fighting,” she said. “Ethan just called Josh a drooling slug.”

Oh.

Quick aside on other language funnies. A guy in Paris told me, “Your English is very good!” I thanked him very much, in perfect English. And then in Rome, my mom wanted water. “May I have some hot water for tea?” she asked. “Yes, I will bring you water that is very hot and very watery,” the server replied in English. On his way back, he sang “Gangnam Style” for us then handed my mom the very hot, very watery water. Both dudes were mocking us, I’m pretty sure. And who cares. It was funny.

But back to Sharon. It was just too much fun catching up with an American friend in Paris. And there’s no better way to pick up interesting tidbits about a place than to speak to a local in English. For example, I learned that in France, workers have a set number of guaranteed paid strike days. Like sick days, but for striking. People usually feel most maltreated and angry around Christmastime, and burn their use -‘em-or-lose-‘em strike days then.

In addition to lighter, more hilarious stories I cannot repeat, Sharon also told us that people throw themselves in front of trains in the subway to commit suicide. And the City of Paris brags that they can clean the mess and have things up and running again in five minutes. Fantastic.

She said depression seems more culturally pervasive there. To demonstrate, she translated for me an example sentence from her son’s French grammar book. “How is he doing?” it says. “He’s not doing very well because he’s depressed,” is the reply. Her son is six.

Naturally, when I got home, I looked for the numbers. As it happens, the rate of suicide in France is about 50 percent higher than in the U.S. Maybe they should use more pain pills? The United States makes up about five percent of the world’s population but consumes about 80 percent of the world’s pain pills (prescription and OTC, as I recall). I saw the pain pill bit on BBC, so it’s true.

Oh yeah, in Paris we also did a grotesque amount of shopping and went to landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower. My mom’s family name—CAUCHY–is one of the 72 names of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians engraved in huge letters on the tower because of Augustin Cauchy’s contributions to mathematics. We’re kind of a big deal over there. Although nobody seemed to recognize us. Thank God.

Join me tomorrow (or whenever I get to it), when we’ll continue exploring the killing of pain, Amsterdam style. If you’re reading this series as a travel guide, you’re sorely disappointed by now, and I’m sorry.

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“Europe”

I just got back from a trip to Western Europe with my mom, sister, and daughter. Using “Europe” and “European” in my updates to friends and family just kept things simple. I do realize, however, that Europe is a huge continent and that we only saw a few cities in a few countries. I wouldn’t like it much if somebody wrote with any authority about North America based on their brief experiences in New York City, Ottawa, and Orlando. Or drew conclusions about all Americans based on their impressions of Snooki or a disgruntled server at the Disney Characters Breakfast. I’m writing here without authority. My lazy observations are just that.

My sister organized and paid for the trip. Jill could do this because she is not a writer and because she is a kind, selfless person. She’s been all over Europe on business so she had some idea about places we might like, and places we might not like as much. For example, we skipped Ukraine this time. Mostly because she spent several weeks in a hospital there a few years ago, eating some kind of slimy gruel and battling multiple life-threatening blood clots.

So the stops on our tour included Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo, Rome, and Amsterdam. We meant to visit Sorrento and Pompeii, but missed our plane by six minutes. Instead, we ended up taking an expensive and gorgeous last-minute ride on a train through part of the French and Swiss Alps and beautiful French and Italian countryside. When I go back to that part of the world, I want to spend time in those sorts of places. This will happen right after I sell a book or two, then sell the film rights to Disney for 7.5 zillion dollars (that’s about 5.7 zillion Euros).

It’s the wintry off-season in most places we visited, which was cold but cool. Fewer people and fewer green and flowery things means you can see a city. I mean like really see what the people have done with the place, without things blooming all over and causing your brain to read beauty where it otherwise might not.

Speaking of green things. I found “Europe” to be very green. I’m talking about public transportation, bike lanes, and recycling bins everywhere. And they’re always full because people take them seriously and use them regularly.

There’s not a lot of plastic packaging, either. Mostly glass and cardboard containers. And forget plastic bags. In fact, if you want a bag of any sort, you’d probably better bring your own reusables or plan to pay for them upon checkout.

But there is something the U.S. does right, or at least better than what I experienced in Europe. Accessibility for handicapped people. Maybe there’s no ADA equivalent over there, I have no idea. But if you’re physically handicapped, I’d say the United States is a decent place to live, comparatively. Unless we factor in affordable health care, which we are not, because it would destroy my argument here.

Okay, I’m going to piece this up into two or three posts in case you suffer blog attention span issues, like me. Stay tuned for next time(s), when we’ll explore important things like coffee and language and depression and weed.

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