Vriends Voor Eeuwig (Friends Forever)

In between lost luggage and lost iPhones, I am thankful (truly, utterly, beyond words thankful) that I still have: 1. my laptop 2. the internet. Because this means I can: 1. work & pay for this trip 2. reserve a ride on the Amsterdam bike taxi to dinner.

Too scared of getting lost and wasting precious time without GPS to guide me, I Google Amsterdam bike taxis and Skype in my reservation to Voidtke. A Polish mountain biker, and while he bikes me down the most picturesque streets he can find, we talk of epic bike rides, bike-induced scars (see exhibit A: my legs) and crazy crash stories. It’s my personal slice of heaven. Bike adventures talk.

When we reach the  streets of beautiful Jordaan, he waves his hand like a magician (as he has picked up — and laughed at, but still seems pleased with– my tourist exuberance and childish delight with the way things are in Amsterdam). I give the requisite “oooohhh” and clap my hands with excitement. It’s gorgeous. He teases me but I can tell he’s happy I’ve enjoyed the trip through his adopted home. I get his number on a slip of paper, for the return trip, and the invite to join him and the guys mountain biking in Poland, if I ever make it out that way. (Who knows?!) Then he gives me two more slips of paper with his number. In case I lose the first two as I’ve lost my iPhone. (wink!)

Then I’m ringing the bell of the Amsterdam home of Marco Menato. It’s THE home-cooked dinner and conversation I’ve been waiting for since first thinking of a layover in Amsterdam the winter before.

Marco is a former colleague, a senior executive and one of those people with a resume of international achievements that should have placed him worlds away me at the time, on every possible aspect – and yet Marco is also one of those people, and former colleagues, who is completely approachable, encouraging, and inspiring with his stories and passion for life! A childhood split between Italy and Africa, continents traveled, languages spoken and adventures I could only dream of. A general “likeableness” that exceeds all other human beings I have ever known and the innate ability to transcend corporate nonsense with natural ease. (Those who know Marco know it is never possible for a dull moment or the absence of a smile to exist in Marco’s presence.) Quickly, Marco was one of those people I grew to respect and adore during my corporate tenure as a eager, work-a-holic 24 year old, finishing a full-time college degree honors program at UW while oscillating between a demanding, full time .com job. It goes without saying that I looked forward to Fridays like nothing else. Work done, Susan Littlefield and I would pull out the blender, tequila and margarita supplies  (all stashed in my cube “bar”) for happy hour in the affectionately named “Better Off Dead” conference room. When Marco arrived, the party started. Inevitably, laughter followed. And, hopefully, a story.

Eventually, Marco leaves us for a better job in Britain. I remain afloat through one after another corporate revolution. I start to rise through the ranks, but not without sacrifice. And then the moment when I make my move. (“Money isn’t everything, but it can be nice. So everyone’s watching–what are you going to do, Iverson? Snowboard the rest of your life?” The serious question about my career makes me smile, because up to that moment, I had never been so certain what I was going to do… And last year I managed to get 30 first class powder days.)

Five years evaporate in a second when I see the same, brilliant, smiling Marco standing before me. The hug of a dear friend. It’s like nothing has changed. He introduces me to Christine with words I find astounding. Like an angel-in-training, then. Now I’m pleased to see how she’s grown up to be the graduate version.

It blows my mind to hear these words, about me. Like someone showing you a photo, from years ago…and parts of it are familiar, but others are totally not at all what you’d expected or remembered. But there it is in front of you. Past and present colliding in an Amsterdam living room, miles away from the office park in Renton that brought us together, over ouzo and bongo board contests. I laugh away my watery, sentimental eyes.

A home cooked Italian meal. Fresh. Perfectly cooked. Delicious tastes of an old family recipe as the sun sets across the green canal and colorful Dutch houses and we talk, for hours, over a glass of red wine. Marco, his wife Christine and I.

I find out more about Marco’s life in those few hours than I’d known in the years we’d worked together. Starting a new life in Seattle, walking home from the London Tube the day of the bombing, finding old friends on Facebook, finding a new richness in life that exceeds all corporate achievement.

And like the wonderful, curious mentor & teacher that he is, Marco listens to my story. How it is that I’ve ended up traveling for 5 months, the why, the where, the how…interspersed with the utterly unknown. Marco and Christine provide both advice and encouragement. Astounding, much-needed, heart-warming encouragement. And for the tenth time that night, I’ll raise my hands to my face (Are you kidding? You’ve read that book too? You’ve heard of her too? You know about that project, too?) when it turns out not only does Christine have a graduate degree in global food policies (making her one fantastically interesting person to talk to about food, coffee,  and trade as I’m diving into the details of these topics with new interest) but has also read or is planning on reading all the books on my list, of late. This whole time, this entire winter when I was traveling down my little rabbit hole of books — in between early morning powder runs and late nights of work at the cabin — how funny to travel half the globe and find out another was doing exactly the same. Even when you think you are alone, you are never alone. It’s amazing to share ideas, books, sources, thoughts, laughter…

Over a shot of anise flavored raki, I try not to think how much I admire and adore my friend more than ever because of the way it makes my eyes water. Instead I think of how we promise to meet again in Greece.

Walking to the tram, together, in the quiet Amsterdam night, is like heaven. Laughing and talking. I don’t want it to end. And I know, already, that when I try to write about what this dinner and these personal conversations meant to me, I’ll butcher it, horribly. Sometimes there really are no words.

And I know I will never be able to describe the happiness I felt. To see my friend, Marco, again. But this time, in love. The happiness that lights his face and eyes, is brighter than anything I remember. It’s not the sickening love. But teasing and humor and adoration. It’s the kind of love that is fun to be a part of. The love of friends and partners. It’s the kind that I adore. I never knew until that night that it took a massive heartbreak for Marco to get there. For all the encouragement and advice and kindness, what I will remember most of that visit is the light, happiness of his face, as they stood together, waving to me, (and cheering me on), as the tram pulled away.

I sit quietly, listening to the wheels turning. A mechanical ghost, rattling through the dark to familiar streets and sights I can name (Tropenmuseum! Oosterpark!). So strange to be somewhere completely new, yet feel so at home.

I wish the conductor good evening and good bye in Dutch, crossing streets without need of a map, down lightly graffitied corridor, to my home, in the light of a bright Amsterdam midnight.

Een Wonder (A Miracle)

I think a miracle has happened. You are one very lucky girl. The taxi driver found your phone will return it to me this afternoon.

Jumping up and down. Henrie! Henrie! Henrie! I knew he’d come through, I knew it! I mean, I’d hoped. I mean, I wasn’t sure—but I just had this feeling that he’d come through!

Henrie laughs. At first I say it will take a miracle. Then I see this driver…I have his number so you can thank him. (wink)

HENRIE! But thanks, I should thank him, he didn’t have to do any of this. I can’t believe it!! I had hoped. He seemed like a good man…but…

I text a heartfelt, overjoyed “thank you” to the number I’m given on the way to the Van Gogh museum, there’s just enough time before dark to make. I’d promised myself that was the one thing I absolutely had to do on this trip and thankfully the place is open until 11 on Fridays.

It’s Friday and I leave tomorrow. When the last of my stuff is re-packed, I head out. I never did dig out the big camera for some good Amsterdam shots, something about it is wearing to me right now. So I don’t force it. I tell myself I’ll come back someday, and maybe I will…for now, I pull out my iPhone and have at it.

Finally an hour to tourist, I skip through the entrance, only to be met by a stone-faced guard. The museum is open until 11…but she points to the ticket office, that closed 5 hours ago, a minor detail not mentioned in any of the online “Friday night with Van Gough” promotional material. (Because, yes, I had to double-check if I had set myself up for my own rejection.)

Can I just give you the money?

No. You need a ticket.

I snap a bitter shot of the exterior—I suppose I got to see the museum, just not the inside…this time…

It’s onto Perpignon, France, by way of a cheap little flight that puts me back in the UK for two more hours, tomorrow.

When Henrie comes to pick me up, as excited as I am for what comes next, I’m still a surprising mix of sad. As time has flown so fast, it feels like we’re merely rewinding back to the airport after only a day or two: I realize it’s been a comical trip of things I didn’t get to: from Van Gogh and Anne Frank to dinner at Pato Negro to renting bikes….and on top of that, there is just some bit of sorrow about leaving a familiar place (and my now dear friend Henrie–with all his own real estate investments, construction, and school projects–who still patiently helped me through plane delays, lost luggage, lost phones….when he could have just as easily shrugged his shoulders at my sorrow).

So I drown myself in deliberate denial. I refuse to say “Dag” (goodbye) but just see you later! Instead, we hug and joke about what I will do when the next “disaster” strikes…and how I will expect him to “save the day” in the Sahara or Pyrenees or wherever I run into problems requiring a miracle, next…

And, as I settle into the most uneventful plane ride of the trip: I thank god that life, despite all our best efforts, does not work out the way we think it will…or should…or I doubt I would have ever found my way to London, to meet a coffee fairy, for lunch. Or an Italian dinner in beautiful Jordaan. Or be here right now, flying to France, watching clouds swim beneath me, wondering how all these things, people, lives intersect.

There are so many things I didn’t do. But thinking back, I think I did the things that were most important. I pick up my pen and start to draft the bit about my Amsterdam dinner with Marco & Christine…and the clouds continue to swim beneath me.

American Girl

I drop the money for the fancy hotel within walking distance to the airport so I take no chances with my freshly re-scheduled 7 AM flight.

Knowing I’ll be traveling in the morning, I work through the night (between over-priced snack-bar raids) as a gold-orange UK sun sets and reflects over the massive, metallic airplanes that sit, grounded, outside my window. Up early, I still end up running to catch my next flight after getting caught up in security, nearly losing my passport (so on…) but of course, it all works out, and gives me time to trade stories with the two bearded, trash-talking Brits in ripped t-shirts and tight jeans, who are on their way to Poland for a Metallica show. To my surprise, they’re in awe of the “office” in my backpack and after answering all their questions and underscoring how hard I do work to make this kind of travel happen, they still love it. When it’s slow through customs, they bust out with made-up songs to the “American girl” that make me (and those in earshot) laugh. The customs agent, however, asks who my friends are. I reply that I just met them.

But they are singing songs about you?

Yes. [I look back. They both wave.]

Shakes her head as the stamp clinks down on the page, 24 hours after leaving Amsterdam.

I leave my friends to wait through the longest taxi queue ever. I’m too exhausted to risk a train ride and an incorrect transfer or any further delay. I just want 3 Reinwardstraat, alstublief.

45 minutes in the hot sun later, in line with Italian and German business men who agree to speak English and I listen to intimate details of technology business discussed by representatives from opposite ends of the continent, I’m starting to wonder if I made the right call. Finally, it’s my turn for a black Mercedes. I walk towards my car to the totally attractive blond haired, blue-eyed man in a full-on suit and blue-green tie. A perfectly timed gust of warm whips at my shirt, and blows my hair and scarf into movie-perfect swirls. He towers over me, which is an unusual–but not unpleasant–travel experience for me, firmly takes my bag from me, steers my hand to the open door where I collapse into the air-conditioned leather of the backseat. In the instant the door closes–heat disappears, business talk and jet plane noise evaporate. And, like the perfect accomplice, he hops into the front seat and speeds from the airport onto the highway, listening to trashy hip hop (my international weakness): Katy Perry’s California Girls.

My head feels too foggy to make polite conversation, my mouth too tired to do more than smile. But this is what people do. They don’t force themselves to speak another language. Make polite conversation. They just sit. So I just sit, take a deep breath, and slowly close my eyes. Exhausted. Devastatingly tired. Unsure. On all fronts….except for this car ride. This right now. His well-practiced hands steer us, speeding gloriously faster, racing through traffic and sunshine, at 150km per hour. I feel perfectly safe. Protected… Taken care of.

It’s a strange feeling.

I don’t want to talk, but he’s full of questions now: where was I going? why did I come back so soon? how long do I stay, what do I do? Have I been to California?

The day trip to London, the missed flight, the missing luggage, the bumpy start….somewhere in there is a photo show, a hope, a desire to do something different–something good, I was born in California but I could never live there again….my head spins with tired aches. He listens through his rearview mirror, compassionately. We agree it’s just the adventure of travel. And sometimes it’s tiring.

He teaches me the words for “left” and “right”. I confidently tell him where to turn to turn next, to get me to Reinwardstraat…only to get it wrong, time after time as he laughs and speeds through the next intersection.

Finally home. I fumble through my purse for Euros as he parks the car.

He helps me with my bag and wishes me luck and good travel. It is a good thing you are doing, he assures me. I can see he means it. Sun flits through trees. Blue-green eyes sparkle. Bicycles ting as they whiz by this little road in Amsterdam.

I keep thinking if this were a movie, this is where the dashing taxi driver would take me in his arms and kiss me. And tell me everything is going to be alright. Just because it’s one of those kinds of moments. When you’re broken and someone comes along adores you anyway. And makes you feel so safe and warm and happy. For no logical reason.

But logic does kick in. How many fantastic men have I met in the last year, back home…how would this ever…sigh…

So instead of impulsiveness, it’s a heartfelt thanks. I assure him I’ve enjoyed just being in Amsterdam and best part of these ups and downs is how many kind and amazing people I’m meeting. It’s actually been really good. But yes, a little less drama would be nice…

I climb the stairs and watch him drive off.

It takes about 5 minutes before I pat my pockets, then my purse, then, I’m tearing up the apartment. S#$%.

iPhone.

I must have left it in the backseat when I was looking for money. I shouldn’t, but I feel deflated. Feels like I trade one piece of security for the surprising loss of another. There goes my alarm clock, my gps, my dictionary, pictures of my only day in London.

And once again, I am emailing Amsterdam savior:

Henrie, you will not believe what I just did….

 

What?! It will take a miracle to get that phone back. But we will try…

A Pint (or Two), with UK’s Coffee Fairy

Exhausted. I fall back into the cushioned seat as the airport train speeds through the light to sink back underground. Iceland, Amsterdam, London. A whirlwind, but I’m doing it.

A Guinness with Martina, most naturally, turned into two. We talked like old friends, about travel, karma, experiences, the people you meet along the way, the good times, the not so good…but mostly how it all ends up good, even the bad. Especially the bad.

And that’s what I suspected (and proved to myself, that overcast London afternoon, in a pub in Soho) is what I’d admire most about Martina. Her life is not one charmed with perfection, of things coming to her easy. It has truly been lived. And to get here, now, the stylish, smart–utterly charming–entrepreneur, appreciatively sipping Guinness, can talk in equal and honest measure about her successes and her disappointments. She’s fluent in both.

She has no idea how refreshing it is to hear.

And, when I’d thought I’d forgotten all my English major-y baubles, with each brief pause in the conversation, with each cool sip of chocolaty Guinness, a few of the lines he wrote at the turn of the previous century make their way back to me…

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Rudyard Kipling. If. If you can watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

So many warn out tools.

martinaI think of petite Martina, finding her resolve, when life took her on an unexpected turn, and threatened to break her. So she grabbed what was left, traded the known for utter uncertainty. With a backpack and little else, she sets off on a crazy bus ride, deep into the Nicaraguan jungle. The tin hut, no electricity, a flimsy pad for a bed, she would make her home for the next year.

Both amazing and so overwhelming. I think big changes, the utterly monstrous ones that scare the bejeezus out of you, are like that. It’s good. You know it. But at the same time, because they truly are momentous, because you have no idea which way you’re going, how it will work out–it’s like feeling your way around in the dark. Sometimes it can feel like drowning. Tossed through the washing machine. Over and over. It’s not the little things that do this. It’s the utterly overpowering things that force you to stoop down and gather what’s left of yourself. Yet, I think until it happens (and it will happen), you don’t really know your own weaknesses…or your own strengths. Or those of the people around you.

So she goes. Bit by bit, Martina creates a brilliant new life in Nicaragua. And now that life creates new, little ripples of difference in the lives of others. As her and her friends set up and fund new schools for long-ignored communities.

Besides the fact that I adore her for being willing to just drop her busy schedule and meet me (the total stranger, whose only connection is the house she’s renting in France), I love her honesty. It would be easy to talk, after the fact, about how easy it all was. But she never does. She is never fake. It wasn’t easy, often it was hard. There were times when she wanted to stop. Give up. And that’s where her story sparkles before my eyes! In the darkness of utter uncertainty, she found her way through it. Equally amazing people come forward to support her. Slowly and surely, they climb. Upward.

Sometimes you have to go to new places in order to find pieces of yourself, she says.

In the jungles, that first felt immense, Martina finds her bearing, gets to know the people, her new surroundings, a whole new side of herself. One thing leads to another. She introduces backpackers to the people and the coffee of Miraflor farmers. She starts bringing it home, giving a part of the profit back to the farmers to improve the educational resources of the village kids. Just as amazing friends join her on trips to repaint walls and stock up school supplies. When a Swedish surfer jokes to her, “What are you the coffee fairy, or something?” The name sticks.

DSC_0703Two years later (yeah, just two years), it’s a business: The Coffee Fairy. Now she flits from food fairs to schools to interviews, in a dizzying schedule, talking tirelessly to anyone and everyone about her business that’s helping to fund education through the coffee of Miraflor. And, from the coffee she sells, they’re improving education for those living in the same Nicaraguan jungle she’d arrived at, alone, years before.

It’s good work, of course she loves it. Loves the independence and the travel. She cannot believe she’s doing it. Though it comes with times of unimaginably hard work, tight budgets, working solo. But she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a business that makes a profit and makes a difference. It has changed her life as much as it’s changes others.

We talk of many things that afternoon. I’ll always remember how I didn’t want the day to end….

Alone, again. The blast of air and click-click-click of the metal slideshow, as another train speeds past my little window-seat. Brick buildings, giant monuments faded to green, pastoral countryside long ago. The delicious, richness from the bag of coffee, grown in Nicaraguan jungles, now in my day pack to Amsterdam confirms it really wasn’t a daydream.

No, you really did meet someone that amazing.

And it happened on accident. On a last minute change to a trip you’ve been planning for months.

Who knows what or who the next months will bring….or won’t. I’m both excited and calm. Just letting the trip unfold, as it pleases. And, for the hundredth time, I try to remember not to hold my hopes too tightly. But enjoy the ride. For what it is. Not be too hard on myself about what I’m not doing or being. Just doing this (whatever it is?!), now, as best as I can. Martina’s story in my head. Reassurance that there’s more around the corner, even yet, to discover. Struggle, battle, fun, laughs. God knows. But I’m dying of curiosity.

After so many months of truly falling, tumbling and stumbling only to fall more, through so many moments, riding the train from London to Stansted, I finally feel the peace of knowing I’m headed in a the right direction, wherever that may be…

I check my clock again, yup. Missed my flight checkin. I missed my flight back to Amsterdam.

I laugh: shoot, guess I’ll have to stay one more day in London!

By the time I get home to Amsterdam, Martina’s little business gets the most amazing news: UK’s specialty chain, Harvey Nichols, will start selling her coffee as a holiday exclusive.

That’s one more (huge!) point for Nicaraguan school kids, with love, from The Coffee Fairy.

Riding Trains & Standing Still

DSC_0544As quickly as my day in London sprang into sudden existence hours earlier, it’s just as suddenly time to go. A rush of goodbyes, laughs, running through more rain to the Tube station and getting sucked below ground with the throngs of corporate types, heading home for the evening.

DSC_0657Through the tunnels of turnstyles and escalators, hopping aboard a packed carriage (“mind the gap!”), mechanical sighs, a whoosh of closing doors, the shifts and adjustments of 100 people simultaneously trying to achieve some level of mobile comfort in cramped quarters, the scraping of metal on metal in the unlit, claustrophobic caverns, the blast of stale air pressed suddenly closer with the passing of machines traveling in the opposite directions, then it stops. Bright lights. Movement slows and stops. People get on and off.

Time to takeoff inching steadily near. Heart pounds, my phone is dead–I can’t check-in online. I immediately hop to the left side to speed up escalators now with the professionals, while others stand dutifully out of the way on the right. Stepping up, up, up, with light little steps. Swinging through corners, carried along with the flow of commuters. I feel every bit an experienced cog in the London transportation system and it’s lovely. The efficiency which which I can travel, rapidly, along with so many other people. I burst through the dark tunnels into the open, bright air of Liverpool plaza.

DSC_0670Silver-gray light of an over-cast afternoon streams through glassed ceilings, and pools on the shoulders of thousands of people, standing perfectly still. In the chaos, they are quiet. They are all looking up. They stare at the giant board, slowly flitting through hundreds of departures. One by one, they catch what they were looking for and dart to a platform.

I stop. For a moment, just to watch. To stand perfectly still. Before, I, myself, dart through the silver pools of light and columns of people, off to the Stansted train on Platform 7.

Telling (Little) White Lies in London

Hoards of soccer fans, draped in orange, taunt crowds of Brits and tourists as double-decker red buses and quaint black cabs speed through busy streets. Each corner, each road sits some giant, old thing. A monument. A building. A fountain with some inscription that speaks from centuries past.

It all seems familiar. I could see the horses and carriages, the full skirts and gentlemen of my childhood dreams. The backdrop of the movies, now my present surroundings. History and literature, converging, as I walk suddenly remembering the steady diet of Jane Austin novels, as a teen, which set me firmly on a path to one day study the birth of the novel, the implications, Eyre, Burney…Marvel, Pope, who else? Why are their names so fuzzy now… The poetry of John Donne…all this, in between working for a small Seattle .com, learning HTML, finer points of segmentation & data analysis and (my favorite) writing copy for a brilliant, chartreuse-adoring boss (who once uttered these words: “Just do what you love–English majors can do anything.” and “If I don’t see your plane ticket to Bamberg, Germany on my desk, before the end of the day, you are fired.).

And thus, an English major was born, plucked from the study of economics and marketing…only to set aside books and become a data-obsessed marketer, only to use those years of marketing to spend the last years, to my surprise, writing. I have no idea how it works. But it did, it does. And I’m happy.

I think of The Flea, of St. Lucy’s Day (the B&W copy that had graced each corporate lodging, and now tucked away in my attic, until I return home…) and how thankful I am for the influence of an editorial manager, turned dear friend, in my life. I think of other things I’ve forgotten. Then start to the present. Wondering what will this be….

Before I have more than a few moments to worry if this will crumble too. Or if it’ll be an formal and cool reception, Martina swings around the corner. Bright eyes, gorgeous and the pixie smile of her photo, wrap me in the most heart-felt hug. It’s exactly like our emails from across the Atlantic: just comfortable, just like old friends.

We catch up, laughing, talking, trade stories, walking down the cute, cobbled streets of Soho. Lunch, a light glass of white wine, a double-shot of espresso.

Now why Villeseque des Corbieres, how did you find me? If you don’t mind me asking?

I tell her how I can work & travel, how Indonesia was amazing, how the photos sold, how it turned into another possible show, how joking about coffee got me serious about it, what I hope to do in Ethiopia…the last minute change to France to learn French, the nights of disappointing searching and then, Voila! Martina!!!

You see it was just meant to be. How could I not go there?

She agrees, she confides in me more details about the house that I will love, she tells me she’s already mentioned me to her friends there. (I already have friends there! How could this be wrong?!) Too quickly lunch is up. She’s off to a meeting. She looks at me, curiously, now what business did you say you have to do in London?

I pause. Am I forgetting something. Nope. Oh, nothing. I just thought I’d come out here for the day

What? But you said you had business of some sort in London.

I have to think for a minute. What business did I have in…Oh…Ohhhh! Yes, I lied.

WHAT?!

Yeah, I just lied. Haha, sorry! I’m laughing but she’s staring at me incredulously.

You just bought a ticket for the day and came out to London….just for lunch…with me?!

Yes. Absolutely.

She’s a still stunned. I suppose it’s not very Jane Austin of me to lie like that. So I come to my own defense:

Now that you know the story – I had to at least try to do everything within my power to meet this woman who’s doing so many amazing things! That, and, if I’d told the truth, I didn’t think your good conscious would agree to lunch if you knew I had no other reason for being here…

She’s laughing, shaking her head. Eyes, glittering. She gets it. And, I know I’ve had the time of my life on my day to London. She heads off to her meeting. I explore London. We meet back at the pub for one more pint…maybe two…

London for The Day

The train pulls from tiny Stansted Airport. Under a blue-sky, green fields divided by greener trees and brush, flit by. Ancient brick homes give way to crowds of bigger buildings. Work set aside for this day. I’m riding a train. To London. I couldn’t be happier. Or in more shock. Since when did I get to hop a train to London, for the day, on a Monday. But (train heaves to a shuddering stop), here I sit, riding a train. To London. For the day.

Come again? The customs agent, stops mid-stamping to interrogate me in a inquisitive, dry Brit accent that makes me feel like I’m on a specimen on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”, as the rest of my flight looks on in amusement. You came to London. 10AM. Today. To meet a friend. For lunch? Then you fly back tonight.

Yes. Final answer. We’re meeting at Picadilly Circus in 1 hour.

You flew in from America, to Amsterdam, less than a week. Now you’re in London. For the day?

Yes.

Why?

Well, I’d booked the flight to Amsterdam first. Before we had made lunch plans.

That’s a lot of travel. If you’re such good friends, why did she not come to you?

Because I wanted to meet her. We’ve actually never met before, she just works on a project I think is amazing. Have you heard of the Coffee Fairy? I have to meet her. That’s all! Flash a big cheezy grin that sings “I-assure-you-I’m-really-not-a-terrorist….just-let-me-through-your-bloody-station-so-I’m-not-late-for-the-single-thing-I-came-here-for!”. And, look, I said “bloody” — already a friend of the Brits. Even bigger smile.

You’ve never met her before? But you’re flying for lunch?

Yes, that is correct.

Must be some woman. The solid clink of inked metal to watermarked paper. She cracks a bit of a smile as she hands it back to me. I laugh, I run to the train platform stuffing the pile of tourist brochures they handed me with my train tickets, into my pack–don’t think I didn’t see that, lady! You don’t think I’m crazy at all!

I check my watch again. 20 more minutes to Liverpool, then transfer to Picadilly. Right on time.

I watch the stops carefully. No time for mistakes. I check my email. No cancellation note. That means we’re still on. Tissue in my pocket and inhaler in my purse: I feel invincible!

The train chugs. My head churns. No matter what happens, I’m glad I’m doing this. She must think I’m absolutely crazy, traveling one day for lunch with someone I’ve never met–but I’m genuinely glad to be doing this, plus I’ve never been to London! There’s no down side. Even if we have a horrid time, I’m still in London for the day!

Then daylight disappears as we dive through dark, ancient tunnels. Momentum slows. Then stops. After moving so quickly all morning, I stumble to my feet. Sling my little pack to my back. And step out, into the streaming silver-light of the expansive, glassed ceiling of the Liverpool Train Station platform. Massive trains line each side. People move with purpose.

A transfer. Passage through a series of dark tunnels. Followed by a series of escalators. Then I emerge. In the middle of London, where I wait to meet UK’s Coffee Fairy, Martina.

When putting together the trip I’d planned to go to Eastern Europe. Hopping from Hungary to Croatia to god-knows-where sounded idyllic, until the logistics and languages overwhelmed me. Four weeks before flying out I spontaneously trade out Bosnia for France. South of France. Someplace old and quiet, where the pace of things is slow enough for wine and learning French.

I scour sites, I send 30 emails for three nights, through every rental site I know. To my surprise, my inquiry of a month’s rent brings complete and utter silence.

Hmmm…maybe France just isn’t the right decision….or maybe there’s something REALLY good out there and I’m supposed to keep searching…

With a little help from Facebook referrals, I end up on VRBO and I find a listing in a tiny town. But it’s the photos that grab me: white-washed, rough stone walls of a centuries old house, simple charm of both antique and modern.

Then it’s the bit in her bio that stops me: woman my age, with bright eyes and pixie face, traded her office job for the jungles of Nicaragua and teaching English to the children of remote coffee farmers, which led her to setting up a business which sells the coffee of these farmers in the UK. Coffee sales then help fund schooling for the children. A summer home in south of France. Whatever she’s done, it works. It actually can work!

It was 12:30 AM, and I was sitting in my Seattle home office, when I emailed her about her house, hoping, praying, she’ll email me back and trying not to sound too desperate by saying, I want to help people do just THAT. (They laugh at these ideas…. But, yet, look at you! You are doing it!)

It was 4:30 AM when I wake up from a dead sleep. Grabbed my phone. One email from Martina – the house was available, she would love for me to stay there. I have a hard time going back to sleep I’m so excited.

The next day, to my utter shock, email responses from ALL across the south of France start to POUR into my inbox, Toulouse, Perpignan, Narbonne…I reply to 70 emails in one day, with my sincerest apologies. I know I’ve found the one I want.

After an email exchange, across seas, that confirm I’m dealing with something amazing….Good or bad, or just crazy–how do you not book a day trip to London when in Amsterdam?

It’s a small price to pay, for something that just feels like “it’s meant to be”, as cheezy as that sounds…

Oranje (Orange)

I sit at home the entire day waiting for my backpack arrive. I do not want to miss this. And when it arrives, it’s gl-or-i-ous! One massive check off the list. I’m so short on time these days (working, researching one trip in tandem with another, as one is unfolding right in front of me each day, barely keeping ahead of my itinerary, Skyping with Ethiopia contacts after one fortuitous meeting puts me in touch with some really amazing people…but must save the story for later!) It feels like it’s all hitting me at once, it’s not bad–just busy, surreal, captivating…and utterly exhausting. While I begin to formulate backup plans to get clothes and the techie stuff I’d spend months in the states locating, I couldn’t imagine I’m starting this trip without the giant gold earrings my little sister gave me my last night at home…

But when all hope is gone. My prodical bag (after a week in Denmark, without me), returns! Seeing bits of things familiar to me, around Henrie’s apartment, feels like bits of familiar sunshine on an otherwise drab week. That night I fall asleep, with dreams of wrapping up work early tomorrow and heading out with my new friends to explore Amsterdam, finally! Sniffle. Cough. Then, sleep.

Sometime, in the middle of the night, I wake up, head pounding, throat aching, feverish and wrecked. Maybe it will go away.

In the morning, I stumble to the kitchen for water and ibprofin, the 15 foot walk leaves me gasping at the air. Oh, hello, asthma! It’s the sure sign that I’m sick, my physically-induced asthma (which generally hides on most of my mountain bike rides and cold, back-country hikes!) just appears from nowhere when I’m sick. Temporarily triggered for utterly silly things, like climbing a flight of stairs….or talking… It’s not been a huge deal….except the whole part about not breathing. When they caught it in the 6th grade, I described it as blocks of cement, or a giant elephant sitting on my chest.

And…on cue, somewhere in the distance, there’s a off-tune, repulsive honnnnk…silence…honnnnnnnnnnk. What is that?! It sounds like an elephant, trying to sing…on the second honnnnnnnnnk, I decide it’s really just dying. Pillow over the head. I decide that it’s horrid. This is how I’m going to go down, wheezing and listening to a tuba die a horrible death, in the pastoral Holland countryside. I groan, cough, laugh. More asthma. Wheeze. I can hear Loren voice commanding, “Stop laughing, Hoya! HOYA!!!” But the tuba keeps honking–unfortunate, unmelodic moments–I keep wheeze-laughing. What did he say in New Orleans: It is what it be! And THIS will be my memory of Amsterdam, bad tuba, asthma, being hopped up on cold meds and vitamin C (crunch. crunch, crunch. wheeeeze.) Despite all my good intentions, I traveled around the world to get sick. Honest disappointment. Then acceptance. Bring on the vitamin C! (Crunch, crunch, crunch. Sniffle. Cough.). This is the trip that will forever be affectionately referred to by what my dear friend Molly accurately termed: “Amsterdam, by window seat.”

Then, I’m staring at the results for quick flights to London, for a day-trip, now departing in less than 48 hours. For a second I think about not going, as I crunch more vitamin C like bitter-orange candy from a little brown and yellow bottle. (What was the recommended dosage on these things anyway? Drie per dag? Pffft. That’s silly. Silly Dutch! What do they know — they built their country below sea level. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Now’s no time to be all conservative about vitamins in the land of recreational drug use–let’s get on with this getting better. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Sniffle. Cough.)

I must get better by Monday, at least enough to get on that plane. I must get to London.

“Confirm Reservation”. Click. Done. Back to lay down, dragging laptop behind me…

In a daze, I send a few long, quasi-coherent emails trying to answer what I think I’m doing on this trip. All that comes out is a jumbled mess of dreams and half-formed ideas. I go back and delete any blatant encouragement to visit. They’ll have to find own reasons to pack and leave. I don’t want it to be because they feel me pulling them. I don’t want the reason to be me. Besides, I have work on this trip that I have to do, who would be crazy enough to find that intriguing?! But good god, I sound half-crazy. Or just bored. Trying to find ways to make travel, more than travel, post photos, post words, repeat. Are you really going to send that?

Hit “Send”. Click. Done.

And I’m really done for the day. I rest, enjoying what I can of my first real day of hot, summer sun, pouring through the window, I try not to think of the luxury of wandering Amsterdam, exploring its museums and scandalous corners, with the masses, as stately hollyhocks and arching mock-orange bloom for the first time this year, on such a beautiful day. These will be plenty of time for that later.

And, instead, I lay in my bit of lingering fever that makes the warm day warmer still, wondering what will happen next as I listen to Reinwardstraat outside my room, the trains sighing to stops, the people dining at Pato Negro, the ding-ding of bicycle bells, until I pass out in a vitamin C induced coma.