Many years ago, while a grade 7 student at Dorothea Walker Elementary, we were given free reign to do a research project on anything we wanted to study. My project was titled “The Perfect Two Weeks in Europe” and I spent hours researching the places and sights I would see in Europe, as well as the logistics of European travel (pre-internet days!). For years following, I begged my parents to take me to Europe. Alas, the hard-done by kid that I was, I had to wait until I a semester abroad in Paris my senior (4th) year of University before I set foot into the epic world that has now become part of my annual routine.
I have always been intrigued by Europe and feel very grateful that I have a “job” where I actually live in Europe for part of every year. It was once my dream to live in Europe and although I still aspire to doing a sabbatical abroad as in Peter Mayle ‘s “Year in Provence”, I realized today that my 4-8 weeks spent in Europe every summer are really adding up to some real everyday living experience. I have had the opportunity to race in countries and cities around the world, and although many of these trips are focused on running with my sights mostly limited to airports, hotels and tracks, I do try my best to have at least one or two non track experiences everywhere I visit. In the case of the European race season, I typically choose a “base” camp and do my traveling from meets from one location.
Over the years, I have spent several weeks every summer in Leuven, Belgium; a vibrant city where at night the main square buzzes with live music and fun loving people enjoying the good life of food, coffee and beer. Home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, Leuven is a perfect base camp – think of any great US college town and add the liberal, beer-loving, and architecture-design rich heritage of Europe and it is a recipe for a great time. The medieval city is best explored on bikes, which will whip you along the narrow cobblestone alleys to the perfect gelateria in next to no time. With a school-time population of 40,000 students, there are tons of cheap dorms and studio apartments and is therefore very appealing to shoe string budget runners. Which means while you may arrive in Leuven wary and conversationally-deprived from a transatlantic flight, it is not long before you start noticing runners decked out in their matching kits tearing along the bike paths planning day trips, races and meals – you are never alone for long before you meet old friends and make new ones. At the peak of the race season there may be over 50 American/Canadian/foreign runners camping out in Leuven creating a very welcome community of transplanted runners.
I really love getting to know a city and to feel like I am not just a tourist. We even rent old upright, creeky bikes with lots of personality to get us around, although sometimes riding up hills is tougher than walking. I love cruising around on my old beater with its cheerful bell (ring ring, coming through!) and wonder why we do not enjoy bike commuting in North America the way Europeans do. So pleasant, and easy and fun. In The Netherlands and Belgium you see more bike commuters than cars in the cities, including elderly people, business people, and entire families assembled on one bike train.
Another high point of my trip to a new city is to find my favourite “local” coffee shop (NOT Starbucks!) and to make a daily habit of a couple small but delicious cups of coffee. In Leuven, my favourite spot is Koffie Onan – great locally roasted coffee, artsy atmosphere and run by a hip young couple. By staying in dorms with kitchen facilities, I am able live like a local and shop Euro style. There’s not too much to do in a day, so stopping by the bakery, butchery and groente-shop (produce) makes for an eventful morning – and then gives the evenings a focus too. Although given the number of restaurants in the square, I am not sure real Belgians actually ever cook at home so maybe it would be more authentic to eat out more nights.
Although I spent the first four days of my trip in my main squeeze Leuven, I am currently in a new “base” camp located in a tidy neighbourhood in the village of Hulst, The Netherlands, not far from the Belgian city of Antwerp. I am currently sharing a house with Americans Erin Donohue, Evan Jager, Delilah DiCrescenzo and Lopez Lomong, as we all share the same manager and he happens to keep a house for visiting athletes. We had a very special event to celebrate the other night as Lopez Lamong, a Sudanese refugee who was one of the Lost Boys, was filled with joy and optimism as South Sudan had finally declared independence from North Sudan. His story is very inspiring and makes major international events take on a different meaning when you see the personal impact they have on a person and his family.
Occasionally, I feel homesick for normal summer activities with friends and family – BBQs, camping, boating, hiking etc but then I remember how fortunate I am to have these opportunities to become friends with people I would otherwise have never met and to travel/live in countries around the world. It is a life I never imagined in grade 7 – although I am pretty sure I have deviated big time from my original itinerary!
Quick running re-cap
I arrived in Europe almost a week ago and ran a low key 800m two days ago in Kortrijk, Belgium. I was third behind two excellent 800m runners and ahead of a couple other girls faster than me so I was happy with the competitive effort. It was a very windy day so the times were quite slow overall, however, it was a really hard effort and a good post-travel rust buster. I am eagerly waiting for confirmation for my next couple races and really want to run a couple fast 1500ms to get my World standard but unfortunately since there are so few races (economy, etc has reduced the number of meets offered) it is proving to be difficult to make concrete plans right now. So I am sitting tight hoping that I get the good word soon that I will be racing in two days (July 16th) in Liege, Belgium. Since it is out of my control – and has the potential to really stress me out – I am doing a good job of staying positive and mellow. I know I am ready to run fast but it is tough sitting around not knowing how to plan my workouts / running and racing!