Our favorite thing about Amsterdam was Vondelpark, a sprawling green oasis where doggies and their owners run and be free. Locals flock to sun bathe, picnic, roller blade and enjoy the many fountains, creeks, and winding paths. There we interviewed Martina a 58 year old who loved swimming, her two dogs and eight cats, and Erisvaldo, a young Brazilian import and street performer who dazzled us with flips, jumps and an electric smile.
We discovered that the Red Light District and legal highs of Amsterdam were like the drunk uncle of the Holland family tree, tolerated but not celebrated. The Dutch value freedom above all else, and it was clear to us that the highs you could buy were limited to dodgy offices in random cafes through the Red Light District. Our peak experience here was dancing to "It's Raining Men," and enjoying the patrons’ enthusiastic belting of iconic Dutch songs at Café ’t Mandje the oldest gay bar in Europe. The bar is owned by Diana, the niece of leather jacket wearing rebel Bet van Beeren. “Auntie Bet” bought the bar in 1927 and is said to be the first woman in Holland to be openly gay and have a motorcycle license! The warm-heartedness of this place is uplifting, welcoming young and old, men and women, intelligentsia and sailors for decades. Their mantra: "Fun and respect. We don't know any better".
We jumped on the train to Brussels and a few hours and A-framed houses later we arrived. Our B&B was literally a stone’s throw from Mannekin Pis – although you don’t want to throw anything at the Mannekin (a) because he’s incredibly cute and (b) because it’s rude to interrupt nature’s call. When you step into the Grand Place the architecture subsumes you. Surely this must be the grandest square in all of Europe. With so much to take in there was only one thing to do – sit down, order a Belgian beer and stare up incredulously. It was good to be back here – I felt I know this place from previous visits, but I tell you, sipping Belgian beers with Mons made it even more fabulous than I remember. Monica is like a smorgasbord of spices. She just makes every experience more flavorful.
Brussels is grungier than Amsterdam but less clichéd – although you do feel like yet another visitor being shuttled through the conveyor belt of beer, chocolate and lace. The excessive tourism of the city (with identical plastic menus printed in seven languages) wore on us quickly. But our interviews were – again – insightful. Brussels being a place of migrants, both interviewees were from elsewhere, but living in Belgium. Mathias, our B&B host is a French stage actor and he gave us our first unapologetically hedonic quotes of the study. For Mathias food is “orgasmic” and sharing a meal with friends an “intimate” experience. With many of our interviewees being eudaemonic in orientation, Mathias provided a pleasurable (sic) balance. Hannah is a 21-year old accordian player from Seattle, hitchhiking through Europe. She was animated and wise as a result of her travels, wise enough to acknowledge that she “doesn’t know anything”. Hannah reminded us that humility is the soil for awe, and in awe we see the whole of the moon.