Sea legs and new shoes 

Sometimes living in a new country
is like learning to walk in new shoes.
They feel great when I first try them on in the store,
but I really don’t know how they will be in the long run.
Before I know if it’s a good match, we’ll have to walk a lot
in distant places, variable weather, different speeds.
Could we hurry for trains or hike mountains together?
at the end of the day, stand softly
wait for beauty?


We’ll be a bit clumsy, unsteady.
I might spend a fair amount of time
looking down at the ground, thinking
that by watching how and where I put one foot in front of the other,
I’ll regain my “sea legs.” We’re on dry land,
but I feel watery these days,
the kind of watery that swirls, then pools.
One day a surge of enthusiasm for the new,
the next, muddied,
with a gasp
for what I’ve left behind.


I was forewarned about walking on cobblestones, although most of what is here in Maastricht is flat block, not really adhering to the 14th century definition of cobylstone. The blog at MonarchStone has this to say about them, “Cob was a rounded lump, and the word “Cobble” appeared in the 15th century adding the suffix “le” to “cob”, meaning a small stone rounded by the flow of water. It was these smooth “cobbles”, gathered from streambeds, that paved the first “cobblestone” streets. In many instances they would be worked by hand in order to fit into a pattern or lay correctly on the road…hence the meaning of being ‘cobbled’. Today cobble is a generic geological term for any stone with dimension between 2-1/2 to 10 inches.”

My own memories of walking on rounded humps of stone (now I can’t get the picture of Igor, the hunchback assistant from the movie “Young Frankenstein” out of my mind) have to do with wandering in colonial Philadelphia, field trips to the Liberty Bell or the Ritz Theater in Old City. But my favorite encounter with them was in 1969 in Marzi, my father’s hometown in Italy. I was wearing some mod strappy sandals, but I nearly twisted an ankle walking on the cobbled streets leading to the central square. Eventually I learned how to shimmy the shoe and the ball of the foot in just the right way to avoid getting the pointy heel in the crack which had half of me moving forward while the rest of me was left behind. If that’s not a metaphor for travel, I don’t what is.

In Maastricht, I regularly pass by a shoe repair store, and it brought me back to my row house neighborhood in Northeast Phillie, where Bud, the cobbler (no not the pie) had a shop around the corner from my childhood home. Walking down into his nearly pitch dark basement, I could smell the sweat and odors of the shoes on the back shelves, and it seemed that my nose was absorbing all the ethnicities and religions of the people on our street…German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. Bud always had a half finished cigarette either in his mouth or on the side of the counter. Like the shoes it always looked abandoned, forgotten, as if its owners were in a hurry, and couldn’t wait for it to finish, so they left it there to be this very long unbroken line of ash. Bud’s hands were grubby with shoe polish, and his bulging eyes pivoted. He had several teeth missing. I was a little scared and disgusted handing over my shoes wondering if they would be there when I returned, or would he hand over someone else’s shoes? Or maybe it would be so long between dropoff and repair, that my feet would’ve grown, and they wouldn’t fit anymore. Or maybe I just stopped going, caught up in the new world of wear and throw away.

Despite this ambivalent introduction, I do miss having a good shoe therapist, I mean reparist, in my life. Sometimes the tops and insides of my shoes are still in good shape, and only the sole or a heel needs to be replaced. You know that kind of worn in comfort that we take for granted in a shoe, plus all that walking and running around does gather up a lot of experience that maybe I don’t want to throw away easily, despite the sweaty stench I’ve collected over the years.

My dad saved my tiny red sneakers, my infant shoes, and my first scuffed black patent leathers. At the time, I thought it was overly sentimental, a way to hold on to the past or a simpler time. Over the years those shoes have become a kind of symbol to remind me that every time I do something new, I’m still taking those baby steps, and still need a helping hand to get from one place to another.

And the shoes that I’ve worn or this ground I’ve tread…. they’ve now become the cobblestones in my own life, markers of where I stumbled and when I got up, where I settled, or circled around; how I’ll repair what’s been trampled on or put aside what I’ve carried for so long.

Chop wood, carry water, do laundry  

There’s nothing like going to a new country where you are unfamiliar with the language, its customs and food to remind you how little you really do know, or for that matter, what you really care about… especially if you’re tired and it requires effort.

We spend most of our years developing habits and routines that help us in our daily lives, and we engage in them over and over to the point where we don’t even think about it. We just want it done. Understandable, but I wonder how much we miss when we get bogged down in a particular way of doing things. Sometimes a little thing called inconvenience is all we need to give us a fresh perspective on life.

For example, I thought I knew how to walk through an intersection, although one could argue that I’m out of practice considering how much time
I spend driving in my car. Like many things Dutch, a pedestrian walkway signal is not silent, and the tic tick ticking sound it makes is a warning that the halted traffic, which includes a deluge of bicycles (many without brakes and driven by students who are also new to the city, and are trying to balance themselves on it with a cell phone in one ear, and a crate full of laundry on the back of a broken fender) … are all about to run me over.
It’s like being in the middle of an episode from 24 wondering whether or not Jack Bauer can disable the bomb in 3 seconds. Can I make it to the other side without hesitation? or will I once again freeze in the middle of the street and do this awkward dance of go forward go back, cha cha cha, then run quickly from embarrassment, just as the traffic flow is about to mow me down.

As for washing up, while it’s not the same as going down to the local swimhole and slamming my sweaters and dirty jeans on river rock, I’ve taken up handwashing these days. It’s a lot easier than trying to use the one washer and dryer located in the tiny damp crawlspace below street level in our apt building. To get there, I walk down the skinny spiral staircase (3 floors, worn wood, and marble) descend or shimmy down five steps, then angle my short body to avoid coming in contact with the low ceiling while going down three more narrow steps, all for the pleasure of possibly pulling my back out or bonking my forehead. It’s a little like doing the limbo at your third cousin’s wedding. The person who wins is either the most limber, a dancing with the stars wannabe or the only one left not passed out on the floor. Once in the laundry area, i dodge the wet floors which are paved with cobble stones so water always collects in the elegant but never dry grooves.

By the time I get to the actual washer, I am so exhausted that I have little patience for decoding Dutch dials, so I finally ask the nice man in the office next door to come help me interpret the machine so that I won’t shrink everything and end up with Barbiedoll size clothing. He patiently explains to me that you put the soap in a tiny plastic cup that you then put in with the wash so the soap and the cup spin around with your clothes. Forget about wringing or softening…too many steps, and well, there’s already enough of those. Because there’s no sitting down here like you do in a Laundromat back home, I trudge back to our apt on the top floor ( no elevator). Because it’s difficult to predict how long the cycles take or how dry clothing will get in all the dampness, I’ve been up and down these spiral stairs at least four times a load. All that enthusiasm for walking and getting exercise quickly pales when it’s uphill. By this time I’m thinking, disposable clothing is a good idea.

Lest you think all I do is complain about laundry, let me move on.

I’ve always felt comfortable in the kitchen, but it is true that the duller the knife, the worse the cut, and not just to the vegetable. There are four knives in the drawer and none of them are sharp. There’s a colander, a pot for boiling water, and a fry pan. There’s a coffee pot but no MUGS.
No mugs….so just for fun, I bought a cheap glass mug, sold in the same section as the very large expensive ceramic mugs, and I was sooo looking forward to a hot cup of tea. Once the water boiled in the electric kettle, I poured it…then the entire mug separated in about 10 pieces…I must admit it was awesome to watch it crack. But Walter White, everyone’s favorite television chemistry teacher and top crystal meth dealer would not be proud of my limited knowledge of what happens when you put boiling water into glass. I knew it but in the excitement of having a cup larger than dollhouse size, I forgot. There’s no oven, my friend Martha informs me that Dutch folks like to cook on top of the stove. There is a combo microwave convection appliance but even Ralph, the rental agent, acknowledges he doesn’t know how to use. So I’ve never had my stove speak to me before, but when I tried to “touchscreen” the correct setting for cooking my stir-fry, my fingers must have exerted just a little too much pressure on the stovetop, and suddenly the LED display was flashing “Error, error.” What ever happened to just plain old gas cooking? Can”t you just hear the ancestors whining? “If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.”

Finally we come to eating food. I’m no stranger to foreign grocery stores…in Philadelphia there are Korean and Russian and Spanish ones and my heart does rush a bit when I go for the gusto and purchase something I hope is really what I think it is ….but that’s a temporary fling. I always go back to my regular haunts…the Acmes, the Weis, the Wegmans where my brain doesn’t have to work so hard. But here in the Netherlands, I want to catch on pretty quickly. So at the local grocery store, I thought I could recognize beef, or ham but in my stupored state I feel really uncertain…so I just keep asking sympathetic people who speak English (and yes everyone does speak English and I can hear the exasperation in their voices when I do ask …do you speak English? as if there is a cartoon bubble caption over their head.. yes you idiot, we all speak English, and French, and Dutch). At least in a store it’s easy to recognize a tomato or a head of lettuce….. But in a restaurant…all those years of romance languages, and I cannot read a damn thing on the menu except for kaffee, bier or cappuccino.

While I don’t consider myself a foodie, I do try to keep an open mind. Over my 55 years, I’ve eaten rabbit, and pigeon, cow brains and stomach, even testicles, mutton and octopus…god compared to others who despise anything resembling a vegeatable, I’ve even had the elusive sunchoke, or white asparagus or exotic microgreen. By the way if any of you out there want to get together and buy me a 60th birthday present, I would love to have a genuine truffle with tagliattelle in a Piedmontese retaurant high in the French-Italian alps. I hear they go for $3600 pound, and that’s not including airfare.

But I do think asking for a translation of what is on the menu is different that asking what it really is. In my first 24 hours here and still high from lack of sleep, we went to a winbar café.. At first it seemed empty, but once past the red velvet curtains at the entrance, it was packed, very trendy and fun, even though we waited a long time for our food, or more accurately our table…you choose what you want to eat, then they cook it to time it just as a table is free. Meanwhile everyone is drinking quite a bit of beer and wine. I flirted with the young waiter Tarz and asked his opinion of trying something local. He said the meat stew is very nice, a kind of sour sweet meat, and so I said sure., what the heck.

About an hour later, they escorted us through the kitchen around to the other side of the bar, and sat us at a table under the stairs going up to the 2nd floor. We shared it with another couple, American,from all places, morristown nj. He was complaining loudly that they hadn’t gotten their food yet when our plates appeared. Michael had ordered his usual go-to meal, pasta, and his penne arrabiata, came with some nice bread…my stew smelled very sweet, accompanied with the famed French fries with mayo that I read about. The stew ‘zoervleisj’ which literally means sour meat looked like it was brewed with jam, and in fact contains vinegar, ginger and syrup. I took a bite and it was okay nothing spectacular but heck it was local, I was doing it, and it reminded me of sauerbraten and I’ve had that beef many times. When our companions finally got their meals, a diminutive tomato salad with mozzarella and fresh basil, and a ham bone the size of a town square, we talked a little about travelling. After about five minutes or so, They asked me what I thought of the stew, and before I had a chance to respond, they told me it was made from horse. I was perplexed. Surely the waiter would have told me when I asked about its ingredients. When he reappeared, he confirmed that it was horsemeat, and I gently told him that I just couldn’t eat it. Despite all the other animals I had eaten, I just couldn’t cross the threshold. So I munched on the French fries..after all, a potato is still a potato. Rule number one in restaurants…ask ask ask. It may look like Swiss cheese, but it will taste like Gouda.

So the truth is… the Netherlands has everything we could possibly want….laundry service, great restaurants, fresh bread, even sharp knives, and mugs that won’t shatter.

Travelling is about many things to many people, and each of us embarks on our individual journeys for different reasons. For me, it isn’t just about seeing new things because I’m bored and want a break from familiar responsibilities. Nor is it because I want to learn a new language or move to a foreign country.

I think the daily routines of our lives can lull us to sleep, and we risk becoming numb to what’s happening all around us. For me, travelling helps me to learn where my discomfort lives, and how long I might be willing to sit with it….This edge of where the discomfort seeps into my slackered self, affords me the opportunity to fully wake up, and engage in my life… I have to, precisely because it’s so uncomfortable, so inconvenient.
The world is strikingly beautiful including the despair that inevitably comes from being open to each other’s suffering and pain.

That’s why doing the simplest of tasks in a new way can show us that it is in these ordinary ways --
how we cross a street, or cook a meal, or wash our clothes, care for parents, or bury the dead….

that give us the best chance to know what we care about, what matters. It gets our full attention, and from that place, anything is possible.

We may even become …. extraordinary.

September 25, 2012


I’ve been having a bout of jet lag insomnia.

That’s what I learned from the Google searches I conducted in the middle of the night while trying to fall asleep. Some of them warn me, and I swear it’s almost gleefully written, (yes there are subliminal emoticons underneath all that text) that I might struggle with this condition for several weeks. I feel a bit scolded by these experts. If I had only done my homework, and adjusted my biorhythms before travelling, by the time I got here,
I would be ahead of the game…no, wait…I’m already ahead in this time zone! Trouble is, after so much preparation so that I could have this time away, I was tired all the time, and in the week before leaving, in a cockeyed effort to console myself, I started watching Ally McBeal on my new Ipad,
(I never saw it back in the 90s) staying up until nearly 2 am. It didn’t make me sleepy or comforted. Instead, the sound of Calista Flockhart’s whining only served to wind me up. But I digress.

Here in Maastricht, it’s 10 pm, the night is dark, and the sounds of this charming town begin to shut down, no car doors slamming, no bicycle chains cranking, no wind propelling the wheels, no steps echoing on Belgian block stones. Everyone’s eyelids (except mine apparently) go heavy from a full day living a life out loud. And I do mean out loud. This past weekend, the Bruis fest was held in the park along the river, and from our apartment windows on our quiet street, I could nearly make out the lyrics, it was that loud…but since I don’t understand Dutch, well then it sounded mostly like happy people having a good time. To give you a sense of how civilized it really was, the fest website had a whole page devoted to dealing with neighborhood complaints urging residents with a peppy message to volunteer with festival preparations, so as not to feel put upon. It promised that it would end at 11 pm….and it did.

They’re all asleep but I’m not.

Crossing over different time zones requires a leap of faith, and a leaving behind of what you knew to be comfortable, what you took for granted. You miss your old life, the people, the easy understanding of gesture, or menus, your favorite tv shows, cuddling with your cat, those comfy pjs you might’ve packed, your own bed, the way you fall asleep at night.

But I’ve not really crossed over. I’m in a kind of jet lag insomnia, a little like purgatory, an in-between place, where things get sorted out, where you’ve left one life and you are not sure of the next. There may be an accounting of your regrets, sorrows, passions, and joys. That last conversation that didn’t go well, or the career you wish you paid more attention to, the book you still want to write, or that new country you’re hoping to visit. There may even be disorientation, confusion, euphoria, and a relentless teasing towards sleep, but no real way to get there now. It’s a vast open sea of treading water, life jacket yes, shoreline, no.

It’s nearly 1 am and I’m still awake or shall I say not asleep because what I am is so not awake…and it is so quiet, so still, I begin to think that maybe I have died, and just don’t know it yet. This kind of emptiness is unsettling, not even a sound from the electricity nothing whirring in the idle of night, no cat meowing, no birds winging, no cicada thunder…just emptiness. In meditation, I observe what is happening, maybe the mind quiets for a second, but this, this insomnia in absolute and enormous silence is…well...lonely.

I remember a Star Trek Voyager episode where Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg, is severed from the hive mind, has only her individual thoughts to contend with, and grieves for the comfort of the collective. The sound of her self is more deafening than the millions of thoughts emanating from assimilated civilizations. I am definitely grieving for the comfort of community.

But maybe this silence is the new collective, and I am finding my way to what company there might be in stillness, in emptiness…nothingness floating…in me, and all around. Maybe jet leg insomnia is the place for rebirthing new souls.

If so, I wonder who I might become?

September 11, 2012