I told a friend that I was leaving for my first trip to Europe. She told me to have fun “standing on old sidewalks”. I smiled at the statement. It was the type of response I expect from her and why I love her so. I didn’t think about the meaning until I walked out of the train station and into Brussels. After a few steps the asphalt and concrete of the station transformed into old cobblestone roads and stone sidewalks.
I stopped and looked down at my feet standing on smooth, cut stone. What I saw was history – time and events, even everyday ones. I was thrilled, excited and awed and then I had to learn to walk on them.
The hotel was a long walk from the train station. That happens to us a lot, we are on-the-ground, feet first, travelers. So I cinched up my backpack, took a quick look at the map and started walking. I should have been tired. We left from Syracuse, NY, drove to Washington, DC through a blizzard to fly to Brussels. I was too excited to be tired. I was finally standing in Europe, in Brussels and I needed to explore.
The thing about walking around a new place, the reason we do it, is to be immersed into the daily lives of the people around you – those familiar strangers who likely feel about who and where they are as much as we do when we go through our morning routines. Walking through a place, new or familiar, subjects you to its design, its layout and how it controls the flow and purpose of its residents and visitors.
I peek into the shop windows we pass along the way and see pottery, groceries, flowers and pastries. Oh the pastries. An abundance of delight luring you closer and tempting you with possibility.
We find our hotel and learn that our room wasn’t ready yet. We had a few hours to kill so we dropped our backpacks at the front desk and wandered back out into the street. Where to go? Where to go? We were meeting friends later that morning, a wonderful trio we had met at a conference. They had traveled to the United States, to Minnesota no less, to accept an award for an audio drama they had created. Anyone willing to travel from Antwerp to Bloomington for a plaque were just the kind of people we loved.
But for now we had time to kill. Unburdened from our packs we took off in a general direction, looking for coffee. Actually, Matthew took off in a general direction looking for coffee. I just followed along blissfully babbling about the architecture, the street cleaners and the murals6. I looked at the windows over the sidewalks and wondered who lived behind them and what their day was going to be like. I didn’t know what my day was going to be like, anything was possible.
For us travel is about the experiences, good and bad. We don’t stay in hotels with spas, room service and swimming pools. A hotel is a place to sleep and shower, I don’t want to spend any more time in it than I have to. I want to be out there – learning something new. We don’t ride in taxis or guided tour buses. Okay, we did once, just to see what all the fuss was about. We walk. We’ve walked across entire cities swept up by the pulse of movement, noise, smells and interactions. We do it without noticing how much our feet and legs hurt. Ignoring the sensation long enough to see what’s around the next corner and the corner after that.
By the time we met up with our friends we had not slept in over 24-hours. After another quick coffee, they pulled us onto the train to Antwerp where we spent the rest of the day gawking at one of the most captivating cities I’d ever seen and we did it on old sidewalks.