Bingo! It's 4pm and almost dark on our third and last night in town. As we wander the byways of the Sablon district—lots of galleries, clever little restaurants, and boutique shops—we keep an eye out for a place for dinner later on. A tiny storefront is Toscana 21. We enter and a bearded man waves us away, no food. "Ah, that's different" he says, when he learns we only want to make a 9pm reservation. The deal is set and we return at the agreed upon time. Two tables are offered, at the smaller one near the serving bar we can watch the activity. The main players seem to be the bearded man we met earlier (the father), his tall son Lorenzo, Lorenzo's wife or girlfriend, a sister who works the kitchen, and mother Janine (Jeanine?), who is the chief cook. Italians all.

This all happens in less than 30 seconds. Just off the Eurostar and seeking an ATM to obtain euros, we are examining a wall map near a street exit of the Brussels-Midi Rail Station. A young man approaches and asks a question in French. As I turn away from the map to respond, there is a flicker in the corner of my right eye; someone has passed very close behind me and I sense has brushed my rolling suitcase and the briefcase attached to it by a strap and clip. Looking down I see that the case with my laptop, camera, portable GPS, mobile phone, and noise-canceling headphones, is gone. Thirty feet away I spot it in the right hand of a tall man walking rapidly toward the exit. I run after him yelling, "Stop, you stole my briefcase." Without breaking stride, he dips his right shoulder and sets the case gently down. By the time I cover the remaining 15 feet to retrieve it, both guys have melted away. Alerted by my shout, a few people have witnessed this little scene, but they all keep waking too. It is only then that we begin to notice the posted "Watch out for pickpockets" signs. From now on the briefcase strap is over my shoulder and the hanging bag, with just clothes, is attached to the rolling suitcase. It happens fast, and you simply aren't ready for it—especially when, all in the same day you've flown 10 hours from San Francisco to London, taken a train from Heathrow to Paddington Station, a taxi from there to St. Pancras Station and then waited three hours to make the two-hour Eurostar run to Brussels.

Brussels Pickpockets, Part II

Fast forward to a busy street in Brussels, the morning after our pickpocket experience in the rail station. Trying to figure out something on my new mobile phone, I stop for a couple of minutes in the middle of the sidewalk. Liz waits patiently. From here on, it's her story as I am totally engrossed in the phone. A young man walks by, stops about 15 feet away, then pauses to look back at us. His gaze, says Liz, is concentrated on the back pockets of my blue jeans (had to be my wallet). He lifts his eyes, they meet hers and he hurries on. Throughout the remainder of day and evening we walk the city's streets, wide and narrow; everywhere we see hundreds of young men with that same "lean and hungry" look. All items of value are now kept in zipped pockets.

A Final Brussels Street Scene

Two night later, as we turn down a rather dimly-lit, rather narrow street—no more than a block from our hotel, the Marriot—on our way to dinner at about 8:45pm, we hear shouts. Ahead about 25 yards two men are squared off to fight in the middle of street. Strung out along the sidewalks are perhaps a dozen others; bystanders or participants, we can't tell. Seconds later a police car, blue lights flashing, pulls up. A lone officer emerges quickly, shouts at the fighters and emphatically gestures them to face the wall of a building. They respond verbally and with gestures but do not move. Instantly the policeman turns to the rear of his vehicle and uncages a big dog. There is more shouting, and soon more sirens. In the meantime, we have crossed the street and passed the fracas. As we do, we can see the anger on the faces of those not directly involved (at the cops? at the fighters?). Less than a minute after the first police car arrives, there are more sirens, more blue lights, more shouts, and a dog barks. Just then we turn into our destination street where all is calm. In the 24 hours since our arrival we have had more excitement than in all our previous visits to Europe.

When it first became a regular feature of our subscription newsletter, Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria & Switzerland, in August of 1990, we vaguely envisioned our monthly Dear Subscriber column as a place to expound a sort of "Gemütlichkeit philosophy" where lofty ideas about the more cerebral and spiritual aspects of travel could be explored. Though a conscious decision was never made not to do so, the notion never became reality. The result of this aimless policy is that we left the deep stuff to those who beat the drum for politically correct travel; the ones who sometimes question whether ordinary Americans are even culturally advanced enough to travel abroad. The 60 Minutes reporter, Morley Safer, once suggested too many American visitors are partly resonsible for an accelerated decay of Europe's ancient treasures. His solution? Stay home.

Given year after year of record travel numbers to Europe, we North Americans have obviously rejected Morley's silly suggestion. Nonetheless, I suppose keeping we clueless, shorts-clad tourists on our best behavior overseas is a job somebody has to do. (Don't misunderstand, is all for good manners abroad: please don't take pictures in the cathedral when the sign says "please don't take pictures;" wear appropriate clothing; don't use the hotel's buffet breakfast to build your picnic lunch; do try to speak a little of the language; be observant of local customs, and so on.)

Though there are times I've cringed in the presence of fellow Americans acting foolishly, I wish I could say I was without sin. As an invited dinner guest to private homes, I took gifts of wine until I discovered that some European hosts interpret this gesture of goodwill as sending a message that the hosts' own wine isn't good enough. In my ignorance I have no doubt committed many similar gaffes of which I was totally unaware.

Others have been quickly brought to my attention. Once driving between Munich and Salzburg on the Autobahn, I passed a man in a $100,000 Mercedes sports coupe going at precisely the 80 kph speed limit marked for that section. As I eased by him at about 100 kph, he chastised my disregard for the law by flashing at me from his car's window a small replica of the 80 kph speed limit sign. No doubt he had more signs at the ready for other scofflaws. (By now you've spotted the cultural difference; Teutonic advance planning vs. the New World's cruide spur-of-the-moment single middle digit.)

A Navy friend told me this story: On a Christmas Day sometime in the '70s he and his family drove from his base in Italy to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. During the trip they ran into snowstorms and passed through highway construction zones. At the end of the trip, his car was a muddy mess. In Garmisch, however, roads were covered in fresh, packed snow and the sky was a deep, cloudless blue; in other words a glorious day. Pausing at a red light in the center of town he looked over at the car stopped in the lane next to him, a gleaming BMW, obviously washed that very morning. Its driver, a 60ish woman, passed her steely eyes slowly over the length of my friend's filthy car. After a few seconds she looked directly at him and, while slowly shaking her head, waved one long index finger from side to side like a metronome. Message delivered: get that hog washed.

My greatest travel humiliation came on our first trip to Germany many years ago in a restaurant where no English was spoken...whatsoever. To someone with zero German, the menu item Matjesfilet "Hamburger Art" might sound vaguely like meat. Wrong. It is several small whole, cold herring; heads, eyes, tails, fins, gills, scales, skin, the works. As appetizing as those dead fish were lying there on that bed of lettuce, they just weren't going to work as my dinner. I would pay for them, of course, willingly, but I needed something else, something hot, something, say, in a pig or a heifer or a duck or maybe a sheep. I would even take vital organs, but no cold fish, thank you. My attempt to communicate an apology to our most pleasant waitress for being an ignorant American, happy to consume one dinner but pay for two (I figured since I never touched the fish they could be re-sold as low-mileage, pre-owned Matjes), failed miserably.

The good woman naturally assumed it was all her fault for not speaking English. The cook, a broad-shouldered, NFL linebacker-sized woman, saw it differently. As the waitress related the sad story to our cook at the kitchen entrance, Frau Butkus' face darkened and her eyes blazed across the room at me. Thinking perhaps she spoke a little English, and that this could still be amicably worked out, I left my chair and approached her with my best pasted-on smile. She took a couple of steps toward me and we both stopped, facing each other about 15 feet apart. By now, of course, we had the full attention of the entire dining room. I've never seen an angrier German. She pointed a bratwurst of a finger at me and in German said, "When in Germany, speak German." At that she turned and marched back to the kitchen, leaving me like Ralph Kramden, mouth moving but no sound.

I slunk back to our table and rejoined Liz. The waitress brought us some perfectly good lamb chops, we ate quickly, paid and left. There was no charge for the fish.

So we'll leave the travel preachments to others and just keep pumping out the usual, where to sleep, eat, sightsee, and how to get around info—all the while trying to stay on our best behavior. — RHB

The following cryptic conversation between my wife, Liz, and me took place around 9:30pm on a chilly Friday night a couple of Decembers ago in front of a seedy but vaguely familiar bar and restaurant whose sign read simply, “Heuriger.” We had just arrived in town and were trolling for restaurants in the streets near our hotel.

"Isn't this the neighborhood...?"

"I think so." She doesn't have to mention names or places, we both know what she's referring to.

"Isn't this the...???"

"Could be."

Fifteen years before, a search for Gypsy music had taken us to a Hungarian restaurant in this same sketchy Vienna neighborhood. As it turned out there was no music, we had been misinformed. But the night being warm, we headed back to the old town on foot. Music floated through the open door of a decrepit little bar on Rennweg. Venturing within, we found a clientèle one might charitably describe as "working class" (later in the evening a fight broke out). But at the Stammtisch, strapped to an accordion, a pudgy little man's sweet tenor voice filled this small cave of a restaurant. Grabbing a couple of seats, we ordered a beer and settled in for the duration as Walter Meda sang Wienermusik —Strauss, Lehar, Lanner, et al—the songs of old Vienna that, even if you don't know the words, may have you blinking away a tear or two; especially along about the second or third beer. (I became hooked on this music via a pair of weekend San Francisco radio shows hosted by the longtime Bay Area broadcast personality, Doug Pledger: Pledger Plays the Classics and Pledger at the Opera.)

After a while, we were invited to join Walter and the rest of the Stammtisch regulars. Nobody spoke English except one grizzled denizen of the streets who had been a prisoner of war in Georgia. Fried to a crisp on tumblers of white wine, the old guy's total repertoire consisted of eight or 10 American slang phrases from the '40s, which he used on us as conversation starters. Language, though, was unnecessary; everyone at the table understood we were all there for the music. Who knows what direction the evening might have taken had we been able to communicate beyond gestures and sing-alongs. But this way was pure, just Walter's songs, no chance to discuss politics or religion. Liz and I stood the table to a couple of rounds—my recollection is that the price of drinks was measured in pennies, not dollars—and stayed until closing. An extraordinary evening. We left with hugs and handshakes from the table and with the best intentions to return. But Walter only sang one day a week, and we never seemed to be in Vienna on that day. Over the year we wondered about the little beisl and especially about Walter Meda.

We now fast forward to that recent December evening when, by pure chance, we found ourselves in front of the place of our amazing night with Walter Meda. A chalkboard at the entry said, "Musik Donnerstag" (Music Thursday). Inside, the little Heuriger on Rennweg was shabbier, darker, and smaller than we remembered, and this time the old Wienermusik came from speakers. It was clear nothing had changed in the 15 years; not even a new chair or table, no paint, nothing. Behind the bar a tall, distinguished 60-ish man wearing a sleeveless sweater over a clean, white dress shirt offered a friendly "Grüss Gott." There was only one patron, a tiny, toothless, old woman at the Stammtisch who noisily cackled at us. She was very, very loud, and apparently very, very drunk. We politely ignored her. Sweater-behind-the-bar glanced at the old lady then back to us and rolled his eyes.

We were looking for something to eat but this wasn't going to work. We did, however, order a beer. Maybe if we hung around for a while, some of the old magic might happen. Except for the woman, Sweater was obviously alone. From where we chose to sit we could see him and the bar but only part of the Stammtisch and nothing of its loud occupant. Did I say loud? She was just getting started. As Sweater brought our beer, the woman let loose, at thunderous volume, a combination of shouting and singing, "Jawohl, die besten lokale, die besten lokale, jawohl." The strength of the voice coming from such a tiny woman, five-feet tall or perhaps a bit less, was amazing. Despite numerous entreaties from Sweater, whom we soon realized from looking at pictures on the walls, was the owner, she launched one of her arias about every two minutes—at ear-splitting volume. "Jawohl, die besten local" and a couple of other words we didn't get. Sometimes she gave the "Jawhol" a melodic, multi-syllabic treatment, trilling up and down the scale to demonstrate that indeed she once had a singing voice to be reckoned with. All this at excruciating decibels. She was also a bit ornery. Once, when Sweater ducked into the back room for a couple of minutes, she pitched the entire contents of her beer (or wine) mug onto the floor. Finally, three or four new customers straggled in. They stood drinking by the low bar, exchanging pleasantries with Sweater. Every few minutes, Little Voice would cut loose. Each time Sweater motioned her to tone it down and then apologized to his customers. After about 30 minutes, in preparation for departure as it turns out, the old lady rose from the table and gave Sweater a few euros. We saw that the seat of her dress was wet, she had either been sitting in spilled drink or...? Sweater kissed her on both cheeks and she swept out the door after one final "besten locale" rendition. He had shown remarkable restraint.

When it came our turn to go I told Sweater I liked his music selection (referring to the canned stuff we're hearing). He gave a ghost of a smile and shrugged, "Wienermusik.” In my limited, crude German, accompanied by gestures miming an accordion, I inquired about Walter Meda. At first he said, "Donnerstag, musik ist Donnerstag." But suddenly he realized what I asked and put both hands to one cheek, closed his eyes, and tilted his head to one side. "Todt?," (dead) I asked. "Yeah, todt," he said. But I could see Sweater didn't care that we cared. He was playing out the string, “Heuriger” was on its last legs. Maybe, though, he wished as we did that Walter could come back just one more time and bring some light and cheer — and Wienernusik— to his crummy little joint.