I was in Leiden, the Netherlands, in line at the supermarket. My mother and I were staying in an apartment a few blocks away, and after a few days I knew where things were and how many euros I'd need at checkout.
Then it happened. The lady in front of me smiled while she sorted through her large pocketbook, and she said something in Dutch. I smiled back, nodding in a friendly way. Then she started a conversation in Dutch, and I was in trouble. I had no idea what she was saying, although I had committed myself to the conversation.
Red-faced, I smiled weakly and said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Do you speak English?"
Without skipping a beat, she changed to English and explained that she was searching for change. After a three-minute conversation, you would have thought us old friends.
Moments like this happened often in our exploration of her country.
One day, my mother and I set out for the Hortus Botanicus with map in hand. The first botanical garden in the Netherlands and one of the oldest in Europe, it is said to be home to a descendant of the original tulip bulb.
We headed down the street, watching out for bikes, crossed a canal, looked at a poem written on a wall, took a picture, noticed a church, crossed another canal, reached Leiden University, rounded the next corner - and realized we were lost. The beauty of this city had drawn us off course.
Standing on the bridge over yet another canal, we approached a man walking his bike the way we had come. He told us that as a child and young man he often went to the Hortus Botanicus, sneaking clippings that he nurtured at home.
Learning that we were Americans, he was curious about our country. We talked about Longwood Gardens and compared our countries. When it came time to get the directions we needed, he said, "You should find it up a block on the left." We parted with many thanks.
On Mother's Day, we ventured to Middleburg to see the grand churches, cloisters, winding streets and old-town Europe. We stopped for lunch in a cafe on the town square and took seats in the front window. Families wandered by in the mist - children chasing pigeons and parents laughing.
Our early-20s waitress excitedly explained that in the Netherlands, families spend Mother's Day together, eat a great meal, and stroll afterward. When I told her that I was celebrating the day with my mother, she said she had thought Mother's Day was unique to her country.
She also was surprised that Americans would want to see her country. "It is our dream to see America," she said.
In the town of Maastricht, we found ourselves in a church close to the train station. The stained-glass windows were unusual - collages of modern pictures, with words in English, German and Dutch. A white-haired gentleman told us that the Americans bombed the city during World War II, thinking it was a German town. The explosions blew out all the stained-glass windows in the church. When the American soldiers discovered what had happened and that the church members could not afford to replace the windows, they raised the money and provided the windows.
The man translated the words, "black/white" and "war/hunger," and we saw his pain.