Monday, October 30, 2017

Somewhere in Amsterdam

Bike Parking at Amsterdam's Centraal Station
photo by author
Somewhere in Amsterdam
by Gregory E. Larson

          I don’t know where I lost it. It fell off the cuff of my left pant leg on the first day in Amsterdam. I had two of them, and now I have just one. “What was it?” you ask.  It was a simple little neon-yellow strap with reflector tape and a Velcro strip.
A simple strap for the pant leg
photo by author
          Before my bike trip to the Netherlands, I found the straps in Gretta’s bike accessories, and I marveled at their simplicity and functionality. In the past, when I needed a strap for my pant legs, I’d used a big rubber band or a tiny bungie cord with a ball. But those items weren’t as nice as the yellow strap. It not only keeps the pant cuff from flapping in the wind but also has reflector tape to give visibility when riding in the dark. Most importantly, it keeps the pant leg from getting caught in the chain. I looked at the colorful straps that Gretta had used and thought they would be just the ticket for riding a bike in the cool and damp spring weather in the Netherlands. Besides, I hoped I could blend in with the natives while biking amongst the crowds.
          Most recreational bike riders in the U.S. don’t wear straps because they don’t wear long pants while riding. They wear outfits similar to those worn by Tour de France racers. The clothing basically consists of padded black underwear for shorts, a bright jersey, and a Styrofoam cup strapped to the head for safety. The shorts don’t have pant cuffs that flap in the wind, but if a leg touches the chain at a stop light, it will get a greasy “chain tattoo.” The racing threads work great in warm weather, but not in the winter, especially on cold days in the Netherlands when the wind comes off the North Sea.
          European riders, and especially those in Amsterdam, wear everyday clothes but no helmet, and they ride their bikes everywhere. To them, bikes are an everyday part of life. In Amsterdam, cars are a liability, because there is nowhere to park in the concentrated area of streets and canals.

Amsterdammers ride bikes of all shapes and sizes.
photo by author
          The city is flat, which makes pedaling easy. The steepest inclines are on the bridges that cross the canals. Persons of all ages and occupations are seen biking in every direction, on contraptions of every shape and size. There are seats and boxes for parents carrying children, and there are large containers built on the front and back of bikes for painters and carpenters to haul their tools and equipment with them. Some workers are dressed in suits and carry briefcases. Many are talking on their cell phones.
          Amsterdammers on their bikes believe they can do whatever they want. Many ignore the traffic safety laws, but accidents are rare. I learned very quickly that it wasn’t a good idea to slow down and stop at an intersection when the traffic light turned yellow. The first time I did, at least fifteen bikes swerved to miss crashing into me, and I’m sure that I heard Dutch cursing being muttered as the riders sped past to get through the red light.
          Back at home, whenever I put on the single strap that lost its partner, I always wonder where the other strap might be. It probably fell off at one of the busy intersections in Amsterdam while I was in deep concentration attempting to learn all the right-of-way rules for bikes vs. pedestrians, cars, and streetcars. I hope the strap has found a new home and has been liberated to someone else’s pant leg—someone who travels frequently across Amsterdam and the countryside.
          My mind wanders to the possibilities of where the strap might be. 
The Rijksmuseum and famous bike tunnel through the building.
photo by author
          I hope it has gone to the Rijksmuseum and along the historic bike street and tunnel that passes through the middle of the building. The tunnel has a storied history and is a famous symbol of biking independence in Amsterdam. There has been a long, drawn-out struggle between the museum and the city. It seems the museum has always wanted to take back the space of the bike street/tunnel and have it become part of the gallery space. The bikers have fought many times to keep it from happening.
          As recently as 2011, the Museum director attempted to convince the public and city officials to allow the museum to eliminate the bike tunnel. He said:

Bike traffic doesn’t belong here anymore. We’ve invested [$500 million] in this building; we didn’t do that to accommodate a covered bike path . . . For too long the discussion has been dominated by—not to say, held hostage by—the cyclists.

Not a wise thing to say in a city of bike riders. In July 2012, the city council voted to keep the bike path and tunnel. In the museum’s recent renovation, they made a feature of the bike by using big plate-glass windows in the lobby and galleries to allow the museum-goers to see the cyclists pedaling through the museum. I viewed it as true kinetic sculpture.
          I wonder if the strap will find its way down Prinsengracht, past the townhome where Anne Frank hid during the German occupation of World War II. In her diary, she recalls the happier days of riding her bike home from school, and of her concern that when a boy would ride alongside he would almost always become enamored and want to spend every moment with her.
          Before she went into hiding, her bike was stolen, and her parents gave their bike away to a Christian family to prevent it from being confiscated by the Germans. In one of the most memorable lines of her writing, she expressed her wish: I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I'm free, and yet I can't let it show.
          Now, in 2017, I see the strap as a small symbol of freedom. Sadly, freedom and life was taken away from so many people in the Netherlands during the German occupation.
          I can picture the strap in heavy commuter traffic, weaving and turning on the web-like network of canals and streets, negotiating the bumpy cobblestone pavers and rail lines, giving the streetcars the right-of-way and plenty of space.
          Maybe the strap is worn by a commuter who lives in a small townhome in northern Amsterdam, and it takes a daily ferry ride with its owner in the cool, morning darkness to cross the harbor waters where the Amstel River and the North Sea merge. Once the rider disembarks onto de Ruyterkade, the strap would reflect the light of the early morning traffic of cars, pedestrians, and public transportation around the Centraal Station.
                If someone in a family has the strap, I hope they use it on their weekend outings, to go on a picnic or just to enjoy the big green spaces and children’s activities in the huge Vondelpark.
          Following a long-time tradition in Amsterdam in the Spring, the family might take an all-day ride out west of the city to enjoy the tulip fields. Couples in love could take the strap with them and ride all the way to the Keukenhof Gardens in April and May, where thousands of people from all over the world flock to see the explosion of tulip color.
Keukenhof Gardens in spring.
photo by author
          Who knows, it might be on a rider that travels all the way to Rotterdam, passing the swans and windmills along the canals beside green fields of sheep and cattle.
Dutch countryside
photo by author
          I’ll never know what happened to it, but I’m beginning to think this is one lucky little strap, even though I don’t possess it anymore. I can only hope it is out there on some cyclist’s leg, crisscrossing the countryside. Gretta would be happy, too, knowing that the strap is somewhere in Amsterdam, free to roam a continent that always had a piece of her heart.

Information source:

Jordan, Pete, In the City of Bikes (The story of the Amsterdam Cyclist), New York, Harper Collins, 2013.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)

View of Kansas City skyline from Penn Valley Park
watercolor painting by author
The Colorful Landscape (seen and unseen)
by Gregory E. Larson

           Sit in one spot, for three hours or more, within the confines of the city (and with your cell phone turned off). Find a park or a good vantage point where you can observe man and nature. “Are you crazy?” some would ask. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems totally contrary to everyday life.
          But that is just what my friend, Kirk, and I have been doing. We’ve started painting outdoors on a regular basis. It’s called plein air watercolor. We’ve taken our chairs, palettes and supplies outdoors a couple of times in the cool of the morning as the sun comes up in Kansas City.
The Scout in Penn Valley Park
photo by author
          Our first time out was in Penn Valley Park on a spot near the sculpture of The Scout. We found a gap in the trees that provided a hillside view of greenery, with the city skyline beyond – a view where the colors in the foliage and the buildings mixed with the morning air, and the dreamy landscape was filled with the sound of bustling, rush-hour traffic.
          Thankful of the luxury of a gorgeous view on a pleasant morning while the world rushed around us, I said to Kirk, “Heck, I just want to sit here and have my bagel and drink coffee for a little bit. What a great day!”
          The sunlight touched the trees on the hilltops, reflecting a golden green, and the dark-blue shadows of the skyline began to brighten. As we sat and observed, more and more detail began to strike at our senses – a shadow here, a reflection there. The sky above the buildings was a collection of pale streaks of blues, pinks, and yellows. The change in light was slow-paced, but fun to observe. I began to think how different the skyline must have looked fifty years ago, and of all the life, business, and work that has transpired over the landscape. It made me think of a Beatle’s song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Life goes on, braaah!”
          Having brushed and daubed the paint onto the thick watercolor paper long enough, we abandoned our vantage point. It was late morning, and the city looked totally different. I’m sure a lot of business had transpired in front of us that morning inside the man-made edifices, and the trucks and cars were noisily going about their everyday routine.
          I thought about what happens through the course of time on one spot on the landscape. What looks peaceful one moment can totally change in an instant or a day or a year – a sort of now you see it, now you don’t syndrome. The river of time prevents us from seeing all that transpires.
          The next trip, a couple of weeks later was a visit to Loose Park, one of the jewels of the Kansas City Parks system. It’s a large swath of ground steeped in history, a place which has been the site of a civil war battle, a farm, a golf course, and now a park. Being in an urban area, it is a popular spot at all times of the day. I’m sure the list of activities and events (both legal and illegal) that have transpired in Loose Park would boggle the mind.
          Kirk and I decided the peaceful setting of the scenic pond with an arched bridge and willow tree had good possibilities for a watercolor. We selected our vantage points and began sketching and painting. While we worked, a slow but steady stream of people walked by us. Some stopped to look at what we were doing. Some talked. We discovered that’s one of the benefits or hazards of plein air painting. There were a couple of peculiar happenings while we were there. A woman asked Kirk if he had seen a cell phone she lost there on Sunday. She said she was with a “wedding party.” We also noticed two park employees floating in a small aluminum boat, criss-crossing the area around the arched wooden bridge. Kirk and I commented to each other about the two men and how they didn’t look like they were doing much work. At times, it was hard for me to see the calm reflection of the pond because they were stirring up the water. It made me think of when I played along creeks and ponds as a kid. We walked away from the morning session not knowing what had transpired there over the last two days.
Loose Park pond and bridge
watercolor painting by author
          That night I lay in bed, listening to the news, and my ears perked up when I heard a story about a local couple who went to Loose Park on Saturday afternoon.  The guy (Seth Dixon of Warrensburg) had planned to propose to his girlfriend (Ruth Salas of Liberty) out on the bridge. But once he bent down on his knee and looked to his sweetheart, things went awry. He opened the lid on the box, the ring popped out and dropped onto the bridge planks, fell through a crack and plopped into the pond faster than you can say, “bye-bye bling.” Once the shock hit him, all he could say was, “Oh . . . my . . . God.”
          They spent all evening wading in the pond, reaching and fishing for the engagement band, but came up empty-handed. The next day at church, they shared their sad story, and a whole group of church folk volunteered to help search for the lost ring. There were so many people wading in the pond at Loose Park that Sunday afternoon, they could have had a mass baptism.  But the ring remained elusive.
          On Monday, while Kirk and I were sitting at the bridge all morning, the story got on the news. A cell phone video, which their photographer friend had taken when the mishap occurred – well, it went viral – a hundred thousand hits in two days. Social media at its finest. The peaceful setting in Loose Park began to take on a life of its own.
          The couple was invited to be on national TV and share their story on ABC’s 20/20 show (or so they thought). The network had them flown to California and tricked them on the night before the interview by giving them tickets to go see Jimmy Kimmel Live. Before they knew it, they were invited up on stage, not knowing the surprise that was hidden behind the stage curtain. Jimmy showed the video of their bad fortune on the bridge in Loose Park, and he had them share their story.
          Voila, the curtain opened and revealed a stage set with a wooden bridge and a photomural of the weeping willow tree. Jimmy and a jeweler gave the couple a huge engagement ring set with a medley of diamonds. He talked them into recreating the proposal in front of a cheering studio audience and national TV.
          But wait, there’s more.
          Several divers had attempted to find the ring to no avail, but while the couple was in California, a Missouri truck driver (on his own time) felt sorry for the couple, and brought his metal detector to Loose Park. He searched in the pond for four hours, and found the ring! Now the couple has two rings, one small and one large.
          It appears the park is peaceful again and life goes on in Kansas City.
          Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Solar/Lunar Event

Beginning of August 2017 Solar Eclipse in Beatrice, Nebraska
photo by Michael Farley

Solar/Lunar “Event”
by Gregory E. Larson

           In today’s cycle of internet and cable news, the 2017 solar eclipse of August 21st is now ancient history. I’m sure that millions of the protective glasses have been thrown into the trash. How sad. I can only hope the eclipse caused most of us to pause and contemplate the magnitude, the precision and the beauty of the cosmic display.
Crowd awaits solar eclipse at Homestead National Monument
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Thinking the odds of it being clearer and drier in Beatrice, Nebraska, than in Kansas City, I jumped at the chance to go there, but in the end we barely saw it through the skin of the raggedy clouds which hung above the Homestead National Monument west of Beatrice. Everything seems to be considered an event these days, including the weather, and the gathering of over 10,000 people on the edge of the Great Plains to witness the eclipse was definitely an event.
James inspects Michael's camera
photo by Linda Anneberg
          Our group of relatives included an astronomer (Richard Henry and spouse Judy), a photographer (Michael Farley and spouse Linda), myself, and my Grandson, James. Richard answered the scientific questions. Michael set up his Nikon camera and big lens to record the eclipse.
          Every cloud listed in meteorology textbooks was visible that morning. We nervously watched a stalled front float ever so slowly towards us from the south. An hour before the beginning of the eclipse, a low, dark, ceiling of clouds parked above us and blotted out the sun. Totality of clouds is what I called it. After inspecting the horizon to the south and west, I predicted the viewing would get better as the moon began to slide in front of the sun.

An untimely low ceiling of clouds arrives
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          The crowds cheered each time the sun became visible. The edge of clouds snaked above us, and there were several ten-minute periods of viewing while the countryside reflected a dim translucence. Just prior to the total eclipse, a portion of the cloud blocked our view, and the waiting became unbearable.

        I listened to a couple from Beaumont, Texas, who sat near us. With a pronounced drawl, the wife said, “Sweetheart, we drove all the way from Texas to see this and what do we get? CLOUDS! Was it worth it to come here? I don’t think so.”
          The husband responded, “Hon, it is what it is. Just enjoy the outdoors and relax. I can’t do nothin’ about the weather.”
          Just two minutes prior to the total eclipse the clouds parted, the crowd cheered, and then we all started acting a bit crazy. Everyone experienced the darkening and the aurora in their own way. We looked like we were in a drug-induced stupor, turning every which way and saying, “Wow!” and, “Unbelievable!” It seemed as if God used a giant dimmer to turn off the sunlight and throw a sixty-mile diameter pancake of darkness on top of us. We were able to see bits of brightened sky on the horizon.
A pancake of darkness slides over us during the total eclipse
photo by Gregory E. Larson
          Crickets chirped. Birds became quiet. Headlights shone on the highway.           We removed our protective glasses and were able to safely look directly at the full eclipse and the corona. James and I stood in awe, while he referenced his mom, dad, brothers and sisters who were at a different location and said, “I hope my family gets to see this.”
Total eclipse viewed from Beatrice, Nebraska
photo by Michael Farley
          Then came the spark of the diamond ring, at the point in which the first part of the sun peeks around the edge of the moon. It was a white-hot light of utter clarity — something akin to the spark of an arc welder. We clearly saw our shadow outlines on the ground, and the light continued to grow in its intensity.
White-hot spark at the end of totality called "the diamond ring"
photo by Michael Farley
          The crowds cheered again, and the birds in the Osage orange trees chirped their morning songs. The mellow softness of the light on the countryside continued to brighten and passers-by talked excitedly. The Texas wife was elated and shared with all of us, “I am SO glad we came! It is indescribable. You have to see it to believe it.”
          That summed up the importance of seeing the totality of the eclipse. My limited words don’t do it justice. All I know is that anyone who has stood and looked at the corona will never forget it.
The light returns to the Nebraska countryside
photo by Gregory E. Larson

Monday, August 14, 2017

Sicilian Fishermen

Harbor in Siracusa, Sicilia
photo by Gretta Larson
          Preface: The best times during travels are when you discover something unexpected. That was the case in the city of Siracusa, in the summer of 2012 at the far southeast tip of Sicily. All of the elements came together for a great moment on a trip: quiet time with the one you love, anticipation of a big day, good food, and discovery of the unfamiliar. It was a brief point in time I'll never forget.

Sicilian Fisherman
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson
Accordion player in Siracusa
photo by Gretta Larson

           I sat up in bed after the short night of sleep, running fingers through my hair and rubbing my eyes. The vivid memory of the last evening returned in the sights and sounds of the seafood restaurant. Wine, laughter, and clapping to the accordion music of Sicilian folk songs  was combined with visions of endless plates of steaming pasta and seafood — everything imaginable from tender calamari the size of onion rings, to scallops and a variety of fish from anchovies to swordfish.
          But there was no time to waste, as Gretta and I packed our bags and prepared for an epic day ahead on the bicycles. It was necessary to begin a mental focus on the proposed route that would put us in morning rush-hour traffic and eventually take us to the countryside where we would traverse over mountainous ridges along the eastern coast of Italy’s largest island.
          As the sunrise was breaking, we were the first to arrive at the breakfast buffet on the rooftop of the Grand Hotel Ortigia in Siracusa, at the harbor’s edge.  We ordered our cappuccinos and filled our plates with powdered pastry, fruit, and cheese, then sat out on the rooftop deck of the hotel to appreciate the cool, quiet moment before the long hot day began. I put the scene in my memory to recall it later in the day when it was hot and the climbing was difficult.
          The town was barely waking and the pastel colors of the sunrise on the sea at the city’s edge painted a serene picture from the rooftop deck. That’s when I noticed a fishing boat entering the harbor. It was but a speck about a half-mile away. Other boats of various shapes and sizes were lined up behind the first boat, all spaced about a quarter-mile apart. It made me think of the airliners cueing up to land at an airport. What’s going on? My interest was sparked and I stood up at the railing to get a better view.

Fishing boat in Siracusa Harbor
photo by author
          I looked down at the stone quay at harbor’s edge and noticed two men standing by a white van, peering out to the horizon. My guess was the boats were arriving at the prescribed time to sell their overnight catch to the men in the van, who would then distribute the seafood to the restaurants in town. It was a simple scenario that I’m sure had continued in some fashion for as long as man inhabited the island.
          Being a Kansas man, I wondered what it was like to go fishing on the ocean at night and complete the day’s work at dawn. Did the men swap stories and a bottle of grappa while the stars shone overhead? What kind of fish did they catch? Were their wives happy or sad when they returned home after sunrise? These were a few of the questions that popped into my mind. I assumed the small boats were collecting mussels or other creatures from traps, because there wasn’t much space or equipment on board. The larger boats probably brought in the bigger fish.
Sicilian fishermen in small boat - June 2012
watercolor painting by author
          From the railing, I was able to photograph a few of the boats as they approached the inner harbor. My favorite boat was the tiny, three-man craft with the bright yellow and black stripes. The scene was so simple and worthy of a painting: three men in a boat. One man steered the motor in the glassy harbor, the second man wrote on a note pad (probably calculating the money they would receive), and the third man leaned over a tank, checking the ‘take’ for the night to make sure it was still fresh. It was a scene from the Hemingway era, one that was played out day after day, year after year. 
          For a few brief moments, Gretta and I stood at the railing to watch the discussion between the fishermen and the market men — then it was back to thinking about the big day ahead.
          With words unspoken, we sipped our cappuccino and enjoyed the quiet of the morning, happy to have witnessed a simple ending to the fishermen’s workday, and wanting to savor the moment just a bit longer before our journey continued.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem.

Typical bar in North Holland, Netherlands
photo by the author

I Met the Beauty and the Devil in Haarlem
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           From the inside of the dimly-lit bar on the narrow, cobbled side-street in Haarlem, Netherlands, I watched through the windows as the lithe, Dutch woman spoke to a few of the bar owners in the neighborhood. The sunlight danced on her short, blonde hair, and the male barmen seemed to hang on her every word, hand gesture and smile. I had the sense that the thirty-something woman had the ability to put every bar owner in Haarlem into a trance and walk them into the North Sea. I think they would have gladly followed.
           A fortuitous fate had brought me face-to-face with this Dutch beauty and her sparkling blue-green eyes. Now I was trying to make sense of it all while I stuffed my face with mixed nuts and sipped on my fourth beer (two beers past my normal limit).
          I thought back to how we came to meet. After a day of biking across the countryside of North Holland, I decided to wander from the barge on which I was staying to find a small bar or café, connect my iPhone to the wi-fi (pronounced wee-fee in Europe), and check on the status of the junk emails which had floated through the cyberspace and landed in my inbox. I didn’t want the sheer number of them to become unwieldly. Who knows? Maybe the house had burned down back home and the neighbors were desperately trying to get in touch.
           I wanted a cool brew to ease the sore muscles. It was to be an innocent, relaxing afternoon, before returning to the four-course meal awaiting me that evening aboard the barge.
          After finding the out-of-the-way bar with the round Amstel Bier sign above the door, I sat at the empty counter and listened to the young owner tell me about his twenty Dutch and Belgian beers on tap.
          He helped with my selection by stating, “I think you’d like Affligem. It’s a nice blonde pale ale.”
          “Affligem it is!”
          I watched as he selected the proper glass from one of the shelves. One of the joys of drinking beer in Europe is getting a specially-designed and branded glass to showcase the beer. He poured the beer, then set it on a coaster in front of me and said, “So tell me about American beers.”
          “Well, craft beers and brew pubs are all the rage. The old standbys like Budweiser and Coors are just commodity beers now.”
          We had a long conversation about beer and sports, and I ordered a second Affligem. He talked about the upcoming weekend that was going to be his busiest time, but he said, “I’ve not put any televisions in my bar, and I’m not going to. The football (soccer) crowd is too rowdy.” Then he asked, “What’s so special about the American craft beers?”
          “To some extent, we are copying the beer you have here in Northern Europe. Americans are learning to enjoy different hops and flavors in the taste. I come from Kansas City and there is a brewery there called Boulevard Beer. They have tried to create Belgian-like beers with lots of flavor and alcohol content, and they’ve been successful. Boulevard Beer was bought a few years ago by Duvel, the Belgian beer company.
          At that very moment, the beautiful blonde Dutch woman walked into the bar. As if on cue, the bar owner pointed to her and said, “She works for Duvel!” I almost fell off my bar stool, but was too awestruck by her eyes and smile. I reached out, shook her delicate hand and said, “Hello.”
          In a cute, European accent she replied, “My pleasure.”
          The bar owner explained to her, “This man is from Kansas City in the U.S. and he’s telling me all about the Boulevard Beer Company.”
          I turned to her and asked, “What do you do for Duvel?                  
          “Oh, I’m a beer rep for them. My territory is all of North Holland, except for Amsterdam proper. I visit about twenty bars a day. Some of them are out on the north islands and I have to take a ferry to get there. I promote our brands, including the Boulevard Beer from Kansas City.” She put a finger to her lips and then pointed outside. “I have something to show you. I’ll be back.” She disappeared for five minutes and returned with two bottles of Boulevard beer. One was a bottle of Tank 7, a Boulevard Beer of which I was familiar. The other bottle was Boulevard’s The Calling, which I hadn’t tried.
          She said, “These are two of the three Boulevard beers we are promoting in Belgium and Holland.” She looked at the bar owner and said, “I think the three of us should give them a try. I usually don’t drink much beer during the day, but . . .” She turned to me and winked, “every so often I like to do some tastings.”
          The bar owner grabbed three glasses and opened the bottle of Tank 7.
          She turned to me and said, “So tell me what you know about beer in America, and about the Boulevard Brewery, too.”
          “Craft beers and home-made beers are becoming very popular. In fact, my neighbor had a big brewing party in his garage the other day. He and his buddies gave their wives the day off, and the dads brought their kids with them. They rented a big bounce house in the driveway to let the kids jump and play while the men brewed their batches of beer. It looked like fun.”
          We continued to sip the Tank 7.
          I asked her, “Do you know how Tank 7 was named?”
          “I little bit. Tell me what you know.”
          “The story I heard was that Tank No. 7 at the brewery was considered cursed. Every time they used it, hoses would break, valves would stick, and the batches were nasty. Then one day they brewed a beautiful batch with a unique flavor, and they knew it was a good one. When they named it, Tank 7 was the obvious favorite. The label was designed using the font from the Ouija board to compliment the strange happenings around the cursed tank.”
          She smiled and said, “I didn’t know about the label design. I’ll have to tell that one to my superiors!” We laughed and I realized I was starting to get a little giddy from all the beer.
          I added, “I have a friend whose softball team nicknamed the beer Tanked by 7 because of the high alcohol content." Then I explain that tanked was an English slang term for being drunk.
          We finished the Tank 7 (8.5% alcohol) and the bar tender opened The Calling (also 8.5% alcohol). I wondered, was The Calling named for a siren call from the Duvel? Duvel, which is Belgian for devil, was a centuries-old family beer made in Belgium. Supposedly, in the old days, one of the neighbors couldn’t stop drinking it, so he called it the devil. Now the company has become a world-wide beer conglomerate.
          I realized I’d had too much to drink, but decided to tell her another story about homemade beer. “One of the guys in our bicycling group made some beer in his basement.”
          “Oh?” she asked. “Tell me about it.”
          “He brewed up a good batch and realized he didn’t have any filters to strain it, so he used some of his wife’s panty hose. He called it Panty Hose IPA. The label he designed had a pair of legs on it.”
          The beautiful woman stared at her beer glass. She laughed and made reference to the panty hose, “I hope they were clean.”
          We laughed some more.
          I was getting a bit woozy, so I looked at the bar owner and asked, “Do you have something to eat? I’d take some chips or nuts if you have some.”
          “Sure.” He reached under the counter and a small bowl of mixed nuts appeared.
          All of a sudden, the woman and the bar owner were on their cellphones, speaking in Dutch. The bar owner looked at me and said, “She’s going to visit with some of the other bar owners in the neighborhood.” That’s when they went outside into the sun-filled street and I watched her through the windows. She kept them in rapt attention while I sipped on the remnants of The Calling. After about fifteen minutes she returned inside with the bar owner.
          I decided it was way past time for me to go back to the barge for supper. If I had another beer, I might not be able to find my way. We said our good-byes and she disappeared out the door. I thanked the bar owner and walked out onto the cobblestone sidewalk, being careful to walk slowly and stay close to the building walls in case I needed something for balance.
          I didn’t know what her name was, but that didn’t matter. I’ll always remember those blue-green eyes. What a story, I thought. How would it begin? Let’s see . . . “There was this man who walked into a bar . . . that would be me.”
          I began to laugh as I gingerly walked down towards the canal.
Early morning view of the canal at Haarlem, Netherlands
photo by the author

 Author’s note: Duvel Moortgat USA, a subsidiary of the Duvel Brewing Company of Belgium announced the purchase of Boulevard Brewing Co. in October of 2013. The price was not disclosed, but industry publications estimated the cost exceeded $100 million U.S. dollars.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Strangers on a Paris Night

Paris, with its tree-lined boulevards and over-sized monuments.
2017 photo by Gregory E. Larson

Strangers on a Paris Night
travel memoir
Gregory E. Larson


We all meet strangers. They are everywhere. Most of the time we don’t know their history, their past, or their psyche. We don’t know who they are or where they are going. When we do meet and learn about them, we find that our first impressions can be wrong. I’ve always said the truth is stranger than fiction, and on this encounter in Paris, I still believe it.

           Ah, Paris! Big. Bold. Beautiful. It was good to be there again. The grand, tree-lined Boulevards, the wide sidewalks, the oversized buildings and monuments — they all embraced me. And it was springtime, with sun, rain, crowds and traffic.
          There’s a quieter side of Paris that I like, too. It’s where the less notable places exist, off the main thoroughfares, down narrow streets and tucked around corners – boutique hotels and shops, little restaurants and neighborhood parks.
          On my way to dinner one evening, I rode the subway to The Bastille, one of the larger monuments and traffic roundabouts in Paris. Before going to the restaurant, Gaspard de la Nuit (Treasures of the Night), I walked to Place des Vosges, one of the first neighborhood parks built in Paris. It is so hidden among the buildings that you have to purposely go there to find it.
          Near sundown, the park was full of people. It was all a park should be — a place to enjoy the day. Parents with strollers, elderly on benches, children bouncing soccer balls, lovers and friends picnicking on blankets – it all pulled me in, and I sat there for a few minutes, soaking up the dwindling sunlight and the jovial atmosphere.
Place des Vosges - one of the first parks in Paris
photo by Gregory E. Larson
           It was time for dinner, so I left the park and walked the two blocks, down the narrow Rue des Tournelles, and stepped into the restaurant.
          “Bonsoir, Monsieur!”
          “Bonsoir, Madame!”
          After we exchanged greetings, the smiling woman offered me two options for sitting by myself. I noticed a man sitting alone in the corner of the restaurant, and I chose the table next to his. A small leather cap adorned the top of his head of dark curly hair. The thirtyish-year-old also had a neatly-trimmed black beard. I pictured a Parisian who rode a motorcycle through the busy streets.
          He was reading a technical paper while eating his dinner, so I gave him some space and purposely didn’t bother him. I counted twenty-four seats in the small restaurant, and eventually all of them were filled. I made my dinner selection and was pleased with the starter course of salmon salad, and the main course of roast duck with sauce.
Gaspard de la Nuit on the Rue des Tournelles
Google street view
          The man in the corner folded his papers and took a sip of wine.
          That’s when I introduced myself. Assuming he was French I said, “Bonsoir! Je suis Americain (Good evening. I am American). Est-ce que vous Parisien (Are you from Paris?).
          “No, I live in Asia. I assume you speak English?”
          I detected some type of European accent in his voice, and I responded, “Yes. Isn’t this food great? I always say if you can taste three or four flavors in one bite, it’s a good place.”
          “I’ve been in Paris for a month and a half. The food is so good here, I keep coming back.”
          “Are you originally from France?”
          “No, I was born in Italy.”
          My curiosity was raised. “What took you to Asia?”
          “I was unhappy in Italy. I had a tough childhood and when I turned eighteen, I disowned my family and left the country. My family was immoral.”
          “What do you mean - immoral?”
          “They were immoral business people.”
          Immoral business people in Italy!?  I wouldn’t pry much further. I did wonder where in Italy. I assumed Sicily. I asked, “Where did your family come from?”
          “Northern Italy. My dad was from Milan and my Mom’s family was from Turin. I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to leave. The family believed that if you tried to be honest, you were stupid, and if you learned how to lie and cheat, you were smart. I saw corruption and immorality in the church, too. I had to leave. I went to Asia got interested in Buddhism, but I realized I needed a job to survive, so I began working on computers. That’s what I do now. Every so often I have to come back to see Europe.”
          I didn’t know how to respond, but I said, “You really had a tough decision to make at an early age. I can tell you didn’t make it lightly.”
          He shook his head. “I had to do it. I felt I had no choice.”
          I replied, “As I get older, I realize what an idyllic childhood I had. I am a baby boomer, and families around me were happy raising their kids in the U.S. The dads were glad they were still alive after serving in the war.”
          It was time for dessert, and I noticed that he was obviously interested in talking to me, because he had not ordered his dessert for quite some time. We both decided to get the chocolate crumble cake and some espresso.
          He paused and took another sip of wine. “What brings you to Paris?”
          “I ride bicycles. I went on a bike and barge trip in the Netherlands, and now I am visiting Paris before I return to the Kansas City area. My wife showed me how to travel in Europe, and on this trip I’m using everything she taught me. She passed away last July from cancer.”
          He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure it’s a big loss.”
          "I miss her and I’m sad, but I’m not angry. I’m really grateful for the fifteen years we had together. We went on several bike trips in Italy and France, and we had a tandem bike that we rode all over Kansas City. Life was good.”
          He pointed to my hand. “I notice you are still wearing a ring.”
          “Yeah, I just don’t feel like I want to take it off yet. I loved her that much. Things were so good when we were together.”
          We ate the crumble cake and savored the espresso while we continued to talk.
          He changed the subject, “Are you a member of the Catholic Church?”
          “No, I’ve attended many different protestant churches during my life and now I attend an Episcopal Church.”
          He said, “I’m an agnostic. I believe there’s something out there . . . some big plan, but that’s about it. I just got fed up with people in the church. What do you think about Christianity?”
          I sensed that he was still making important decisions in his life, and he wanted to hear different viewpoints. I thought of the advice that my dad gave me when I was a teenager. He told me to choose words carefully when talking about sex, politics, or religion. Otherwise, the thoughts might get misconstrued. I also thought of an Ingrid Bergman quote I read in her biography. She said, “It’s presumptuous to offer unsolicited advice, and I am no oracle of wisdom.”
          But it was obvious this man was searching out opinions.
          “Well,” I said, “My faith and the Word have been much more important to me than the denomination of the church I attend. My faith is what keeps me going each day. It helps me deal with both the good and the bad that I encounter, whether it is people or situations.”
          He asked another question. “What do you think about luck?
          “Fate . . . luck . . . whatever it is, it happens to all of us. I also believe in answered prayer, and I think there’s a type of luck that should be defined as knowing when to seize an opportunity.”
          He laughed and said, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to know the right opportunities to seize.”
          “Oh, I think you are smarter than you realize.”
          He turned and looked at me with a smile, then paid his bill to the woman.
          As he stood to leave, I reached out both hands and shook his hand warmly. Our eyes locked and I said, “Fate, good luck, answered prayer — I wish them all for you.”
          The patrons had become noisier from all the wine that had been consumed.
          He had to practically shout his response, “Thanks, and good luck to you, too.” He turned and walked to the front of the restaurant, then vanished in the night.
          I tried to process all the conversation I’d had with the young man, but I didn’t linger much longer, and paid the bill. As I walked to the door I said, “Au Revoir” to the woman serving all the restaurant guests.
          “Sir, did you know it’s raining?”
          “Thanks . . . no problem.”
          I pulled out the pocket umbrella, popped it open, and walked out the door. As I turned the corner to find the subway at the Bastille, the lights and street reflections lit up the night. The dampness had not diluted the party atmosphere under the awnings at the big cafés. The wine was flowing and the laughter was loud.
          I hurried down the steps and into the subway tunnel where a saxophonist fondled the keys and wailed a tune to all the strangers passing by. Boarding the subway, I wondered . . . where did all the people come from? Where were they going? Each of them has stories of their own.
          At the subway stop near my hotel, I stepped out of the car and onto the platform. In a screech, rumble, and blur of the lights, the train pulled away. A cold rush of air filled the vacuum and ruffled my collar. I turned and watched the last car disappear into the dark tunnel.
Paris Metro
youtube image
          A violinist’s tune echoed off the white tiles in the exit way. I dropped a coin in her violin case and kept walking. I thought about the man I’d met at Gaspard de la Nuit. We were total strangers, yet, in that tiny restaurant we had bared our souls to each other. Then, on our separate ways, we vanished like subway cars in the night.