My sister and I spent our formative travel experiences together, most of which involved long family RV trips around the western U.S. But while I got bit by the travel bug, even becoming the lucky editor of this magazine, Molly never traveled much. She found plenty of excitement in getting married, moving across the country (and back), having two kids, and starting a teaching career.
For her 40th birthday, I thought it'd be fun to take her somewhere. After all, the only times she had left the U.S. were on a graduation cruise to Ensenada and a family drive to Vancouver. "Think about where you'd like to go!" I e-mailed her. "London? Iceland? Tokyo?" I was feeling like Brother of the Year. A few days later, she e-mailed her choice. I took a few deep breaths, and pointed out that while, yes, it was her birthday, and yes, I'd said she could choose the destination, the idea was to go somewhere she'd never been--basically, anywhere but Las Vegas.
Molly thought about it some more and realized she was intimidated by the unknown: different languages, passport bureaucracy, foreign currency, and so on. She said she needed to get over her fear, and that we could go to Europe. She'd let me decide exactly where.
I chose Amsterdam because it's so easy to navigate, making it the perfect place to dip a toe in--besides, it's where I went on my first trip to Europe. And then we'd go to Paris, because it's Paris.
If you were to ask her about the experience now, a few months after the trip, she'd probably say that it was discombobulating being the student, not the teacher--let alone having her little brother be the one in charge. For six days, I was a cross between George Patton and Napoleon Bonaparte. We didn't just see Amsterdam and Paris: We conquered them.
Any little brother worth his salt torments his sister long after he should've stopped. In that spirit, here, for her review, are my 11 lessons on how to explore a city.
Do what you want to do, not what everyone says you should do. The more I travel, the less interesting I find the official attractions, preferring spots that feel more alive. But I knew Molly's friends would think me a heretic if we didn't go to the Van Gogh Museum and the Red Light District, Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. And anyway, I like some of that stuff--I'm a total sucker for the Eiffel Tower light show that happens nightly on the hour. I just don't want to spend my whole trip checking things off someone else's list.
My sister and I, happily, share a gene that makes us enjoy a museum in half the time others do. (We were probably the only people at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum who were relieved that the collection had been condensed so the building can be renovated; it'll be back to full size in 2011.) If we're interested, we dawdle; if not, we bail. We also spent little time at the Van Gogh Museum, the Louvre, and the Centre Pompidou, where the exhibits couldn't compete with the escalators.
Instead, focus on what you like. After leaving the hot, crowded Louvre, we found the Tuileries gardens to be a relief. As was the Musée de l'Orangerie, where the fact that we could see everything in one visit--including Monet's Water Lilies--somehow made us want to. My favorite Paris museums, though, were devoted to a single artist: the Picasso Museum; the Rodin Museum, where I suffered acute real-estate envy, and where one sculpture, Eternal Idol, was so sexy I blushed; and the Atelier Brancusi, in a building right outside the Pompidou. All I want for Christmas is a mini Brancusi to use as a paperweight.
Molly, it turns out, is more engaged by attractions that show how people used to live--such as Amsterdam's Museum Van Loon. Willem van Loon cofounded the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and grew very rich; the Van Loon family now opens its canal house to visitors who want a glimpse of 18th- and 19th-century life. We both were moved by the Anne Frank House; it helped that we went at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, when there was no line and few visitors (it's open until at least 9 p.m. from mid-March to mid-September).
Molly liked the Museum of Bags and Purses much more than I did. It had previously been in the suburbs, but just reopened in a 1664 canal mansion. One purse on display--and available in the gift shop--had a trompe l'oeil impression of a revolver on it. We agreed it wasn't ideal for a teacher.
Wander! I love not having a clue where I'm going; if I stumble on something good, I feel like I discovered it. When we rented bikes from Bike City and rode to the Eastern Docklands and beyond, we really got off the guidebook grid. It was refreshing to reach areas we'd never have walked to, even when there wasn't much there, and also to move at a different pace.
Pay attention to how things are different. Embracing cultural differences--while they still exist--is what sets travelers apart from tourists. We got a kick out of how Dutch street sweepers use brooms made with twigs (in Paris, the twigs are neon-green plastic). In Amsterdam, we had mayonnaise on the superb fries at Vlaams Frites Huis, and at a supermarket, we bought chocolate sprinkles for Molly's kids to put on their toast. At our hotel, 't Hotel, we ate cold cuts and cheese for breakfast, commiserated about those half-panels of glass Europeans use in showers, and thought of Anne Frank every time we walked up the canal house's staircase--it was a "leg breaker," to use Frank's phrase.
Indulge in some familiarity when you need it. In Paris, when Molly said she wanted to go to a Starbucks, I blanched--but I gave in. Being in an unfamiliar culture for a week can be taxing, and sometimes we all need a break. In fact, that may be why many of us who don't follow art in our daily lives troop to museums when we travel. Museums are comfortable; you know more or less the experience you're going to get. That may also be why we went twice to the slick new Amsterdam wine bar Vyne--it felt like a place back home in the States. (Both times, the waitress made a point of explaining that the bar is not for beer lovers.)
Do lots of advance research. I ask friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and anyone else I know for recommendations; in Amsterdam, that's how we came to eat croquette sandwiches at Eetsalon Van Dobben, a retro lunch counter, and to devour the caramely stroopwafels warm from a griddle at the Albert Cuypmarkt, a street market in De Pijp.
And whenever I read about someplace that sounds appealing, I rip (or print) the page out and save it. My Paris file turned up some good stuff. Food blogger Clotilde Dusoulier raved about Rose Bakery, in Montmartre. It's delightfully casual, with Brita water pitchers on each table and an old fridge in the dining room. I still regret not buying a carrot cake on the way out. The U.K. version of Condé Nast Traveller, meanwhile, praised the rustic charms of Les Vivres, a little café and shop about a 10-minute walk from Rose Bakery. The strawberry jam has ruined American jam for me. (Editor's note: Les Vivres has since closed.) And we were right to follow the lead of The New York Times' Mark Bittman, who wrote that he has a falafel sandwich at L'As du Fallafel whenever he's in town.
If you don't obsessively collect travel info, you can get by with Pudlo Paris, a guide that only became available in English in June. I knew that Gilles Pudlowski and I would get along when he had good things to say about Chez Michel, out near the Gare du Nord. It has delicious seafood and an easygoing atmosphere: When Molly ordered the cheese, the waitress set a tray on the table and let her eat as much as she pleased. Among the new spots that Pudlo steered us to was Les Papilles, a wine shop in the Latin Quarter that doubles as a restaurant. The €31 prix fixe dinner included a tureen of velvety cold leek soup; veal with spring vegetables; goat cheese with a tapenade crouton; and a parfait of strawberries, mascarpone, and pistachios. For wine, you buy a bottle off the shelves and pay a €7 corkage fee.
Learn to recognize a winner. When in doubt, I follow the locals--especially if they seem like people I'd want to hang out with. While having a beer outside Café Brandon, we noticed the line growing at Da Portare Via next door. People were buying pizzas and either eating them at Café Brandon or sitting next to the canal. We did the same, and though you'd never go to Amsterdam for the pizza, it was a perfect evening.
For fancier meals, I look for certain signs. We were walking around the Jordaan when the neighborhood turned a little bourgeois. At Bordewijk, there was one good omen after another: no English menu posted outside; a stylish room; staffers working in the kitchen at 2 p.m.; someone's name (it turned out to be chef/owner Wil Demandt) on the business card. We justified the cost by celebrating Molly's birthday there. We had an extraordinary dinner. Demandt personally translated the entire menu for us--it was early in the season, so he hadn't written the English version yet. Molly got to taste all sorts of new things, including caviar, truffles, and at least one food she had never wanted to try (an amuse bouche of herring with jenever cream).
Don't stress out when you look like an idiot. At Hôtel de la Bretonnerie, in the Marais, our safe was broken, and we had to ask the snotty hotel clerk to send someone to fix it. So when we couldn't turn the shower on, we were convinced it was broken, too. We bugged the clerk again, and two workers came up. One flipped a little lever, and water streamed out of the shower. He looked very sad for me, in that way that only French people know how to do.
When it comes to food, buy local. But when it comes to souvenirs, buy what you love. One morning, walking around the Left Bank, we picked up a baguette at Gérard Mulot, cheese at Barthélemy (I managed to communicate that we needed cheeses that wouldn't require a knife), some of the heavenly macaroons from Ladurée, and apples and Evian from La Grande Epicerie at Le Bon Marché. We picnicked at Jardin du Luxembourg, a deeply satisfying lunch.
Our souvenirs, however, were from everywhere but Paris and Amsterdam: trifles from Japan-based Muji; Syrian soap from Semo, for our mom; a silver dog figurine that was probably cast in China; a South Korean pop-up birthday card from the Marais outpost of Bonton. In Amsterdam, we purchased Victorian paper masks from London at Mechanisch Speelgoed, a toy store, and, at some shop in Amsterdam's Nine Streets area, paper cups with noses printed on the sides--so when you drink, you appear to have a different nose. The cups were made in Rhode Island. It might be years before I get to Rhode Island.
Take time to just relax. I ran us hard; we moved like a presidential candidate in primary season. And looking back, I think that was a mistake. Some of our best times were when we just sat for a while--in our room at 't Hotel, listening to the birds chirp in the trees or a horse clip-clop down the street; at a canal-side table at Spanjer & Van Twist, watching a woman with long red hair drive off in a tiny car with a red rose in the antenna's spot; in Le Flore en L'Ile, on Île St.-Louis, waiting out a thunderstorm over espresso and Berthillon chocolate ice cream. When you have a job and a husband and two kids, maybe you don't want to run, run, run around a foreign city.
Accept your mistakes and move on. Every now and then I convinced myself that Molly needed to do things travelers are supposed to do, like eat pancakes in Holland. We should've turned around as soon as we heard "Hotel California" coming from the speakers. I wish we'd skipped Amsterdam's flower market, also a tourist trap. We should've eaten at one of the many Surinamese restaurants near Albert Cuypmarkt instead of the Indonesian place we ended up at. (I don't know what they eat in Suriname, but I'm curious.) I'm still not sure why we didn't take boat tours of both cities, and I wish I'd handed Molly a map and told her to spend a few hours exploring Paris on her own--because the best way to grow comfortable as a traveler is to go solo.
All you can do is promise yourself that you won't screw up the same way next time. When I asked Molly if there'd be a next time, she said, "Oh, yes. But it won't be as much fun without you." And then she laughed--in that way that only big sisters know how to do.