Eight years ago, I spent ten days backpacking-without-a-backpack in Europe. I sent juicy newsy emails to a list of family and friends every few days. I am very glad to have those, and the replies, in the archives. It reminds me of a simpler time, before social media became the filter through which we experience life.
I started in Amsterdam, where I stayed in a Christian women's hostel and met a group of four girls from York. I visited museums and strolled the canals during the day, and ventured out at night with my new friends to gawk at the red light district and drink warm Heineken. I almost fainted in public after spending too long watching from the sidelines at a coffee shop. I visited the Anne Frank Huis and was very moved, most of all at the display of international editions of her diary. I ate at a vegetarian restaurant one night and felt really self-righteous, even then. I remember the moment of realization that serving fries in a paper cone with a dollop of mayo made more sense to me than bloody ketchup ever would.
The train to Belgium was fast and clean. Antwerp was underwhelming, but I chalked it up to the miserable weather. I feigned great interest in Belgian beers when my hostel-mate, Anders, asked me to find a bar called the Kulminator with him. He was from Idaho and I remember finding each other on Myspace before we said our goodbyes. He is probably the first guy I ever drank a beer with who grew a beard for fun. We went to another bar called The Eleventh Commandment, decorated almost completely with religious statues. The bar was an altar and the booths were old pews. I shopped in H&M and ate a waffle every day. The waffles were amazing.
In Bruges (before the movie came out), I stayed at a hostel where beers cost 1 euro at happy hour and the smell of cigarette smoke wafted into my dorm room all night long. I celebrated Fourth of July with two Americans from Tennessee, one of whom, according to social media, has since put on weight and become a father. I climbed the belltower in the main square and far below, an orchestra played near the square's fountain. I remember calling my mum that afternoon with the music in the background. The sky was very blue. Also, more waffles.
My last stop on the solo tour was Brussels. I hung out with some Californians and developed a weirdly intense two-day crush on one of them who had a tattoo across his chest that said BLESSED, like Lil Wayne. I didn't know who Lil Wayne was but went with it. He kind of looked like Russell Brand (??) We drank premade sangria that we bought at a corner shop and the guys rolled their own cigarettes. The next day, I ate moules frites at a table outside a restaurant in a little alley, where tourists walking by looked at the empty seat across from me with confusion and pity. It was great. The main square of the city was impressive even though the rest of it, at times, felt like Philadelphia.
When my ten days came to an end, I boarded a train from Brussels across the border to Lille in France, and then onward to Angers. My family met me at the train station and I felt strangely relieved to be reunited with them. It felt like longer than ten days.
In two weeks, I'll be back in France with my sisters and my parents. It will be the first time I have been back there with my entire family since that summer. This time around, instead of eating fries with mayo and drinking with strangers in the preceding days, I'll be tying up loose ends at the office in preparation for a new job and making arrangements for our plants to get watered and the cat to be fed while we are away. Those ten days in 2007 feel like just yesterday, so I guess I've done a lot of growing up in the meantime... but I could definitely still go for a waffle.