(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
We all have our own way of traveling. Some want to hop on a bus and then hop off at the next big attraction. Others like to explore on their own. Some prefer to watch the world at every new place from the comfort of a sidewalk cafe, cappuccino on the table in front of them.
I go for all of the above. But one way I visit any new place is to try to keep one eye open for a secondhand store. A place the locals go for odds and ends. And it always surprises me how often those quirky little places are right in the middle of things.
I was just in Belgium, spending a few days in Brussels, and one afternoon as I was making my way back to the hotel after having walked through the Gallery and across the Grand-Place, I noticed a little shop at the end of one of the narrow streets. It was full of students and young adults.
I walked in and discovered it was a vintage clothing store. There were the usual racks of 70s sweaters and glittery evening gowns but I spotted several wool jackets hanging near the front door. They were vintage military jackets made of heavy wool and they were beautifully tailored, nipped in at the waist and subtly ornamented with red-trimmed epaulets, looking more like a designer piece than surplus. I tried one on and it fit as though it had been made for me. Sold.
At the back of the store there was a big pile of luggage, duffles and carry-on bags. Just what a student would need to get home after a long semester. Most were vinyl or fabric, but tucked under a big plaid bag I could see the edge of what turned out to be a buttery leather satchel. I pulled it out and took a closer look. It had obviously been used but it was in good condition. There were a few marks but no scratches or tears. There was a luggage tag and in it was the name and address of the physician who’d carried it. Sold again.
Treasure hunters know that there is a vibe that goes out when you find something really good. Suddenly, people were coming over to look over my shoulder, admiring the bag. A few followed me, waiting to see if I would put it down, ready to grab it if I did.
My last find was a beautiful silk scarf, my favorite travel souvenir. I have dozens of them and wear one every day.
I paid for my finds, 60 euros for a vintage wool jacket, gorgeous leather satchel and beautiful silk scarf, and walked back to the hotel.
I filled the satchel with all the Belgian chocolate I was bringing home to my family and carried it aboard each plane. It was heavier and not as easy to maneuver as my usual Swiss Gear rolling bag, but it had a certain style. And every time I look at it I’ll be reminded of one happy hour in a funky little shop in a grand old European city.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review and is a contributing editor at Spokane Metro Magazine. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org