Ten ounce Contemplation


A charcoal-powered coffee roaster sat perched on a tabletop crammed into the corner of Aksum, an Ethiopian café in the heart of Brussels. Bags of coffee beans leaned precariously against the legs of the table, perfuming the steamy air with their pungent, fruity aroma. A bearded man sat smashed between the roaster and the large spotless windows that overlooked the Belgian stone side street. Ethiopian Orthodox religious faces, plastered to the ceiling, watched over us patrons as we huddled over our warm coffees. We were elbow-to-elbow, a fiesty mass of French, Korean and English amongst the Amharic newspapers covering our tables.

As I sat in this cozy, warmly-lit Belgian franchise sipping the crèma on my cappuccino, I pondered the cyclicality of this miniscule yet global experience.

The earliest exportation of coffee came from Ethiopia, the cradle of caffeinated history, in the 15th century. The beans were brought to Yemen for cultivation where the dark black liquid was then drunk during religious devotions. During the next century, coffee drinking spread to Egypt, Syria, Persia and Turkey and then throughout the Near East. Coffee houses sprang up as the lay person began to indulge in the mysteriously invigorating drink. The coffee houses themselves were epicenters of social engagment. Anything from chess games to music to stimulating conversations could be found in amongst the steaming cups o’ joe and the hands that clutched them tightly.

By the early 1600s, the first coffee houses opened in Venice, Italy, having basically received the papal “seal of approval” from Pope Celement VIII as a non-satanic beverage. Coffee and all of the brilliant and wonderfully mundane conversations that came with it had arrived in Europe. And it was only a few decades – and a boatride – away from being introduced into the West (shout out to Gabriel de Clieu and Francisco de Mello Palheta for kickstarting the billion dollar coffee industry in America).

So to be a coffee-loving American drinking an Italian-style cappuccino made from Ethiopian coffee beans in a European coffee house made me feel like I was a part of a centuries’ old journey. I sat there in my straight-backed wooden chair appreciating each tiny single origin bean that made up my 10 ounce drink. I reveled in the thought that every coffee I had ever indulged in had come, in an extremely round about way, from the same single origin: Ethiopia. This cup, though, the pure “coffee-ness” of it, was perfection in a steaming glass adorned with a creamy white heart and accompanied by a side of speculoos cheesecake. What I was drinking was exactly the tagline Aksum had scrawled on a chalkboard behind the counter:

Ethiopia in your cup!


Me outside of Aksum Coffee House in Brussels, Belgium

In case you, too, want to get absorbed in learning for the next three hours: More coffee info (and where I learned specific details about it), can be found here. And about Aksum, Ethiopia here. Also, the coffee house “Aksum” here.

Soupe du jour


And so begins what my sister has deemed my “extended short trip” to Europe, that is, longer than my typical two week excursions, but shorter than my study abroad experience in Spain. This time around, I find myself living in Belgium for the next eleven weeks. My roommate is a spirited young girl with lustrous black hair and heart melting brown eyes. She’s highly intelligent, although she doesn’t say very much, and leads a pretty active lifestyle comprised mainly of long walks and running, balancing it out with bouts of naps near the pellet furnace. I anticipate practicing a bit of French with her, although so far I can only write things like “soup of the day” as long as I confirm the spelling on Google.

The crucial commonality my companion and I share is that we both love eating, and we both love eating just about anything. Thus far her food of choice seems to be raw potatoes. I’ve certainly snacked on my fair share of them, having picked it up from my dad as a kid while peeling taters together at home, but not nearly to her extreme. She eats them with such relish and enthusiasm, she has me doubting why I ever cooked them in the first place or why I don’t pack them in my lunch like I do raw carrots and apples. While she supped on raw potatoes last night, I opted for multiple homemade pork and veal meatballs and what started out as one glass of red wine. Being perhaps a bit more health-conscious than myself, at least when it comes to drinks, my friend went with water.

Oh, my friend’s name is Pretzel.

And she’s a not-quite-two year old German Shepherd. If my first full day in Belgium is any indication, there will be many lenghty – slightly one-sided – conversations between the two of us. There will also be plenty of snacks.

Airports: The Space Between Spaces, Part IV


BUD: Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport final arrival time 8:40

I stand near the tiny but crowded baggage claim, waiting for my blue Tumi to rise up out of the mass of generically packaged belongings. You’d think that these suitcases, containing the most necessary items passengers could think of accompanying them throughout their travels, might warrant more creative expression when it came to their size, shape, and color.

Everything from customs to the small WizzAir jet that brought me to Hungary is a blur. I just know I made it, the last passenger to board the plane.

My blue bag slides down the belt along with ten other generic bags. A small skirmish breaks out between my Tumi and me as seven or eight passengers jostle one another so he or she can be the first to claim his or her valuable belongings.

A bearded man is looking up at me from beside the scuffle. I make eye contact with him, and he points to my bag and then to me. I bob my head in what I think is a noncommittal shrug, but he takes it as a yes. Pushing past the squabbling passengers, he dives forward. The next thing I know, my luggage is sitting beside me. We trade this blue bag for a modest smile.

Pulling my suitcase, I pass the other passengers and make my way to the arrival gate. The security guard at the gate gives me a pleasant nod as I walk towards the sliding glass doors.

I’m reminded of another airport when I think back to these Hungarian doors, the Aeropuerto de General Heriberto Jara, better known as the Veracruz International Airport (VER). I had just arrived, fresh off the plane from the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) airport to Mexico. Being one of only two Americans on the flight, it had taken the custom’s officer about 5 times as long to interrogate me in Spanish. Why are you here? Where are you staying? When will you leave? Stamp in the passport and I was shuffled inside to the baggage claim.

It was in this glassed in enclosure surrounded by chatting Mexicans and one American in a suit where I came to terms with the fact that, honestly,

Traveling is an excuse to put your awkwardness out for the entire world to see, and airports mark the grand entrance for this to begin.

Like I mentioned before, I tend to travel light. My carry-on blue Tumi and my small black crushable backpack are carrying my life for the five months I will be traveling around Europe. But I’m embarrassed to say I packed an equal amount for my two-week trip to Mexico. Time and luggage do not directly correlate.

It was with these bags that I passed through the luggage security screening in the Veracruz baggage claim. The wheels squealed and clicked across the scuffed floor as I turned to face the glass behind me. Like every other airport I had ever been to, I waited patiently for the glass door to slide open, allowing me access to the hallway where a man in a TSA uniform sat guarding the arrivals gate. He sat there, hunched over, eyes half closed, pretending to read what I imagined was an official-looking document on the wooden podium he was leaning against. I glanced up to the top of the door, wondering why it hadn’t opened yet. I waved my arm to the left in front of what must have been the door sensor. Nothing. I waved my arm again, higher and more frantically.

“Señorita! ‘Left!’” the customs officer cried.

He was gesturing wildly to my left. To the already open doorway I had neglected to notice.

Wow you’re an idiot. The tune seemed to play over and over in my head as I swiveled my luggage to my left and walked through the doorway, shoes clicking loudly on the hard flood. The TSA officer smirked as I walked briskly past. Obviously the glass had been extremely clean.

This door at the Budapest airport is equally as clean, but this time I am prepared for it. I watch the passengers in front of me walk through the doorway and I follow suit.

I’m immediately engulfed in a hoard of people, all of them awaiting someone they had left at this very place days, months, perhaps years before. They are patiently or impatiently tapping car keys on thighs or readjusting small paper signs.

I imagine them wondering if they will be picking up the same passengers they dropped off before.

It has been twenty hours since I left my home in Holland, MI, USA to come meet Flóra in Budapest, Hungary, and it is only 9:00 in the morning. Most passengers might complain about the jetlag. I just enjoy the feeling of leaving today so I can arrive yesterday.

Airports: The Space Between Spaces, Part III


FRA: Frankfurt Airport arrival time 6:10 / departure time 6:40

Seven and a half hours later, I stand on the gangway of the American Airlines flight in the Frankfurt airport. I compare the Carbon-Regular text on my boarding pass to the handwritten “Budapest” scrawled on one of the airport porter’s signs. A small group of us, mostly older men and one young guy with a green Osprey pack make our way to the porter who motions us silently towards the stairwell. After descending the dingy, tight stairway we emerge onto the tarmac in the cool dawn air. The sun is barely peaking over the runways that extend as far as I can see to my left. A few rays of sun reflect off the tiny windows of the Lufthansas, LOT Airlines, TAM Linhas Aéreas, US Airways, Condors, and Qatar Airways trundling by. I imagine not many people get this view of an airport’s underbelly.

Steamy air rises from the drains as delivery truck backup lights bleed across the ground. We turn down a dark alley and into another cramped stairwell. Cutting through hallways and roped off corridors, we pant and heave our way across the airport to a waiting shuttle bus. Without a word we squish our way onto the bus just as it begins to pull away. Looking back I see our porter disappear quietly back into the bowels of the Frankfurt airport.

Packed onto this shuttle, our porter gone, I feel completely lost, alone with my thoughts and the sounds of German and Hungarian floating up around me.

I contemplate how it is we got onto this crowded shuttle, us Budapest-bound foreigners.

The reasoning seems to be that we just follow, no questions asked. If a person is wearing a suit and holding up a sign that reads “Budapest,” we just assume we can trust the person.

The screeching of the bus’ brakes coming to a halt in front of two huge brown doors interrupts my thoughts. Immediately, everyone on the bus streams out and through the entrance back into the airport. Unsure where I’m supposed to go now, I do what I’ve been doing since I arrived: follow. Keeping an eye on the green Osprey pack, I dash up the stairs and out into a huge atrium. Signs reading “Customs” and what I imagine to be the word “customs” in German litter the walls around me. Forgetting that I have no clue where to go, I take my eyes off the Osprey guy and examine the people pouring into the room.

There are dozens of us. No, hundreds of us perhaps even thousands swarming like ants in this open space. Airports seem to be the place where you feel the most secluded around the most people. The mob some how divides itself into orderly lines, filling in the gaps between the ropes that line the hall. I follow the sign that reads “Non-EU citizens” and rummage through my purse in search of my American passport. Clutching it to my chest, I look up at the giant clock at the far end of the room, just as the man in front of me does the same. It reads 6:24. My heart begins to pound, as I consider for the first time what will happen if I miss this connection. With what money will I purchase a new connecting flight to Budapest? Where will I stay if I have to wait for the next flight? How will I get a hold of my friend to let her know I won’t make it this morning?

On a whim, I mutter “excuse me” to the clock-reader in front of me, positive he won’t understand me but wanting him to know I am not trying to be rude. I push past him and through the next group of passengers. I slide past the next set, and the next, while my action is greeted with various tones and various words in various languages around me. When I reach the front, I breathe, avoiding eye contact with the woman behind me who is picking up her suitcase from the ground where I accidently punted it.

The customs officer calls for the next passenger in line, and I rapidly go to meet him at the glass window. My overzealousness is greeted with a look of suspicion as the officer holds out his hand demandingly for my passport. I shove it into his hand, receiving a new bout of distrusting eyes. I also lift up my boarding pass and waggle my finger towards the “6:40” printed under the “departure” time. He looks at my passport, to my face, back to my passport, to my ticket, to the clock, back to my passport. I don’t know how long this went on, but I could have sworn it was 10 o’clock by the time he handed the passport back, this time adorned with a green “Frankfort International Airport” stamp on the middle page.

Airports: The Space Between Spaces, Part II


PHL: Philadelphia International Airport arrival time 15:00 / departure time 16:20

It is now 15:30, and I’m running through the Philadelphia airport. After all, I need to utilize my time well. My shoes slap the off-white concrete, echoing through the terminal and ringing through the “Philadelphia Marketplace” on my right. My Northface backpack, jammed full of folders, extra layers of clothes, and a quart-sized bag of liquids, bounces excitedly on my back. My carry-on blue Tumi bag rattles noisily behind me, hopping the lips onto the moving sidewalks that run in spurts past the various gates.

My other arm is free to swing through the air in time with a woman’s mellifluous voice as it floats through the terminal:

The Transportation Security Administration has limited the size and quantity of items that may be carried through the security checkpoint. Please contact your air carrier or a TSA representative for further information.

The mantra plays every six minutes or so and I find myself speeding up to be in time with the words. I dart between different colors and shapes and fabrics, listening to the sounds that fill the space around me.

We are all here, transient passengers, heading to different moments in our various lives, brought together for a brief moment amidst this hustle and bustle.

I see a large Mexican family clamoring in Spanish while a middle-aged, stylishly mustached man loudly strums a guitar. A four or five year old boy runs around his mother’s legs while she tries to balance her two-year-old in her left arm and three raspberry slushies in her right. Three women glide past, their eyes matching the swift motion of their long black burkas, analyzing the various gates that surround them. Men in business suits and coffee-colored oxfords squeak by, briefcases brushing past my black pants. I notice boarding passes sticking out of jacket pockets, tiny purses, and closed fists, a scene of uniformity within this organized chaos.

I guess you could say airports bring people together in a way no employment discrimination or civil rights act could ever do.

I notice a couple, probably in their early thirties, standing in line in front of my gate for flight AA248 to Frankfurt. They wait, shifting their weight from foot to foot while fiddling with the zippers on their huge suitcases. He keeps adjusting the luggage tags, while she absentmindedly twists her gum wrapper into a disintegrating tube. All while glancing again and again at their boarding passes to make sure the flight number hasn’t changed since they got in line.

Taking my place behind them, I glance to the front of the line. I’m the fourth or fifth person and the seats surrounding the gate are empty. I breathe heavily, my shoulder and neck muscles relaxing under the weight of my backpack.

The family at the front of the line seems completely oblivious to the fact that there is a line behind them. The wife rummages through her purse while criticizing her husband for “probably leaving the boarding passes in the food court.” The silent husband looks straight ahead, ignoring his wife’s accusations, bouncing their crying infant up and down in his arms.

The man behind them keeps looking back towards the rest of us in line, rolling his eyes and sighing exaggeratedly. He taps the toe of his faux leather dress shoe as he swivels from front to back, from the issue’s “source” to his mutually annoyed “back up.” He must think we are all in agreement with his displeasure.

Some passengers seem to be better with airports than others.

Airports: The Space Between Spaces, Part I


DTW: Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County arrival time 10:30 / departure time 13:30

The scarlet Northwest Airlines tram whizzes above the terminal gates. I glance upwards and see people peering downwards towards me. As I walk briskly to Terminal C, I notice their clothes, a clash of bright aquas and subtle beiges. They drape or cling to lanky and flabby bodies. Flip flops and black stilettos peak out from the low glass windows, giving way to shaven and hairy calves. Suitcases and shoulder bags in blacks, browns, and the occasional pink, lean precariously against the legs. Legs lead upwards to black skirts or denim shirts, holey or intact. Some legs are completely covered in perhaps what some consider to be more modest taste. Some of the waists are slender and petite, while others showcase stomachs bulging slightly over the tops of belted slacks. Plunging necklines contrast with high collars and fluffy scarves, reaching various heights along the inside of the moving tram.

Specific faces do not draw such vivid recollection. They are all a blur of washed out colors, serious and stamped, the better to match the photos hidden inside the passports they are clutching.

I continue walking, increasing my pace slightly. It would be a shame to miss my flight to Philadelphia. If I miss this one, I certainly won’t make my 16:20 connection to Frankfurt, whisking all hope away from making my forty-minute connection to Budapest and landing in time to meet my Hungarian friend at the arrivals gate of the Budapest Ferenc Liszt International Airport at 8:40 tomorrow morning.

My head spins, contemplating my pending travels in Europe over the course of the next three weeks. There will be a total of nine airport visits in the next twenty-one days. If you add up the advisable three hours I will be waiting in each airport for my international flights, plus the additional one-hour averaged for flights with a layover, that will give me over one days worth of my twenty-one inside the various concourses. It’s 30 hours, to be exact. You need to be precise when it comes to airports and travel.

Despite the plethora of hours spent in these airports, traveling is something I have always wanted to experience: to explore the world, discover new ways of thinking, exchange ideas with others. Less abstractly, I want to see Mount Ararat from Armenia’s capitol city of Yerevan, sail a ship into the sunset in the West Philippine Sea, drink cachaça under the warm Brazilian sun, and walk in a religious procession to the steps of a great Spanish cathedral.

But for this particular trip, the latter is the most probable, as is roaming the streets of the small Hungarian village of Kisvárda, savoring French crêpes at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, exploring the gritty pubs of Wales, putting my feet in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, attempting to stomach haggis in Scotland (you could call that stomach-ception), ride the train up the Portuguese coast, photograph a food cart selling Kangaroo sausage in Belgium, observe the people around me at airports all over Europe.

Airports are like the commas in that list, a space in between, a sort of limbo amid more memorable experiences. They give you the chance to reflect on what you truly want; they are a break in the action, sprinkled with layovers and jetlag and waiting.

The time spent waiting will be time well spent.

Slurping the head juice


The slippery sardine slides off the platter towards the giant metal grill. I gulp the smoky, Portuguese air as I prepare to try the very food my palate has been avoiding for the last twenty years of my life: seafood.

Traveling in a foreign country makes your taste buds irrationally brave.

Plummeting to its inevitable demise, the sardine squirms and gasps in an attempt to free itself from the restaurant’s famous open-air grill. The embers glow red, reflecting off the blank eyes of my soon-to-be lunch. Torrents of heat shoot upwards to the sweltering sardine. The scales adhere to the grate while the eyeball does its best not to explode. The opposite-facing eye slips through the metal grate and lands amidst the glowing charcoals. I blink twice. I have never been this aware of my own sense of sight. I thank God for the two eyes I have still attached to my head.

I finally tear myself aware from the horror movie that’s unfolding before me. Really I don’t enjoy seeing my food alive moments before I’m going to attempt to ingest it. Walking to a nearby bench, I plop down, knees shaking, slightly light-headed.

You can do this, Hayley. Stop being a baby. You traveled to five countries on your own, but you decide to freak out because you’re gonna eat a stupid fish.

The moment I think “fish,” my mind races back to my grandparents’ cottage. I’m seven years old, dangling my feet and a fishing pole off the end of the wooden dock. The line goes taut and I jump up in excitement and anxious hesitation. This is my first fish! Mom leans over and instructs me on how to real in the line, keeping a tight grip on the rod as I do so. The tiny blue gill shoots out of the water; at least that’s how I remember it anyway. The fins glisten in the late afternoon sun while the gills expand and contract in rapid succession.

“Now you have to take it off the hook,” Mom declares. “So we can eat it.”

I look up at her, revolted. I have to touch it? And then eat it? I shudder at the very thought.

Gulping, I reach towards the ugly creature, closing my fingers firmly over its slimy, smelly body. My hand flies backwards, releasing the stupid fish as blood drips from my hand. How I managed to cut myself on the paper-thin fins I’ll absolutely never know. But I did. I wouldn’t even try a single bite of that wretched blue gill after watching my grandpa gut it on the backyard stump and toss it on the Weber. For some reason my bandaged hand just wouldn’t grab its smoky body from grandpa’s plate.

Commence hatred off all things seafood.

Pull yourself together. That was years ago.

I pull myself back to the Portuguese restaurant, shaking my head as if the physical movement will permanently erase this horrific memory from my brain. But it’s to no avail.

The waiter walks over to my bench, lowering a white platter filled with charred sardines to the table. The crispy scales flake off as he deposits the load irreverently in front of my plate.

Be brave. Be brave.

The mantra plays on repeat as my friend and her acquaintances (who happen to be the owners of the restaurant) appear out of nowhere and sit beside me. A pile of hands engulfs the platter. As they retreat, I notice one lonely sardine left on the plate.

“All to you,” the restaurant owner says smiling in her broken English.

I assess my predicament one final time. Firstly, it would be completely rude and inconsiderate of me to not try the food my new friends are freely giving to me. Secondly, who wants to leave Portugal saying they were too afraid to try her famous seafood? And thirdly, what’s the point of traveling if one isn’t even going to branch out and experience the edible staples of a new community?

My mind made up, I catapult my arm to the single sardine grinning toothlessly up at me. The warm flesh singes my fingers as the oily juices run down my arm.

I stare down at the innocent sardine. It stares blankly back.

Picking up my fork and knife, I peal back the flaky scales, revealing the plump flesh below. I slice beneath the neck and carefully lift the piece of seafood to my quivering mouth. My lips unwillingly part and my fork slides in to fill the void. I clench my teeth, awaiting the stinky fish taste I am sure is coming.

An explosion of flavor emanates from the soft meat. Shocked, I stare down at the beautiful creature I have naively avoided for the past two decades. Its juicy flesh leaves a salty film on my salivating tongue. Ditching the fork and knife, I rip apart the rest of the heavenly fish with my greasy fingers, shoving each morsel disrespectfully into my greedy mouth.

“Don’t forget slurping of the head juice,” the owner reminds me.

Smiling, I happily oblige.