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I can’t remember the first time I saw a painting from Samantha French, but I knew from the moment I saw them that their incandescence and mood were unique.

In her paintings, she transmits a human experience via paint: she focuses on and expands that sense of wonder that we have all noticed if not fixated upon in our experiences with water.

Even when you know about water’s chemical composition and why it aggregates and reflects the way it does, the effect is still incredible when witnessed. Samantha French studies water in its immediate, human context, making humans appear magical in the wake of the spotted light patterns that disperse themselves within vast blue arenas.

It reminds me of my state of mind as a child; French’s sensibilities happily rejoice in the visual wonders that familiarity can drain from us with age.

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One of my favorite things about visiting a new city is that moment in which you know that you have crossed the divide between commerce and life–in some cities, there is none: the infrastructure is too big, and the flash that the city maintains is actually where the typical resident makes his home. In some, however (and I can think of two specific cases on opposite parts of the globe) the edges of life are more well-defined.

In both Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Bruges, Belgium, there is a long entrance from the highway to the inner city, well-decorated with indicators that you are, in fact, on your way to the heart of the city. Grocery stores, smaller antiques shops, restaurants line the proverbial yellow brick road. Then, excitement hits as you set your sights on the heart of the city and see what was once described to you via the internet or Fodor’s. Famous bathhouses, clock towers, lavish shopping pacify visitors who don’t realize that what you’re exposed to is in some ways a shell of a city: the majority of people who call the city their home live in less crowded, more elemental surroundings.

The moment when you understand the break is always refreshing after days of crowded markets and unregulated rush.

The break in Bruges.

The Netherlands are truly incredible. It’s hard to write with all these thoughts spinning in my head and finals at my tail, but something was truly great about that place, its art, and its people.

France is fast-paced, ludicrous, high tension, ever-running, competitive, ancient, steeped in history and in blood, passionate about everything and sensitive to it at the same time, where nothing is isolated and conserved by one emotion but complicated, always complicated. In France you are beholden to everything and everyone, and as a foreigner or a Frenchman you are a part of the social fabric, you have a role in society no matter what role it is, and everyone around you is intensely aware of the point in space that you occupy. There are free times, of climbing trees and seeing films, yet they are built into the structure of everyday life, planned for but embraced with the heart and soul of the people living those experiences. Two lovers in a park will completely disentangle themselves from their daily lives for an afternoon in the park, enjoying each other and the sun exclusively before resuming their wonderfully hectic schedule, allowing the meaning to seep into their infinitely productive states of being.

It’s amazing how different a society three hours north by train can be so completely different.

The language knocked me off balance at first. For someone who is moderately well-traveled, I have never been in a place where I could not speak bits and pieces of the language before. Then the people knocked me off balance. They were kind but never relinquished, well-spoken and intensely aware of the culture that they have created for themselves–it is no accident that the Netherlands ended up the way that they did. The people have a sure and open acceptance for those who come to the Netherlands looking to embrace it, not overpower it. There was very little illusion, but there was magic sewn into its architectural and artistic being. To my knowledge, there was no modern controversy over the Iamsterdam sign in front of the Rijksmuseum as there was for the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre–the sign is, and will be, and has integrated itself seamlessly into what the Netherlands represent–carefree love, bound by intelligence and common sense, bordered by quiet pride.

The first day we spent in rolling through parks, stopping to glance in the Van Gogh museum (uncluttered; conscious of its own strengths; flawlessly curated) and taking a dip in a shallow fountain that became a spontaneous public pool in the middle of the spring. The gait was always fast but people walked for the joy of walking.

The red light district was dark and full of contradictions, contorted into a shadowed playground for the lost. Even in the fast-food restaurants, shopkeepers dangled sweet donuts in front of your face, eat this in place of going there, doing that. Amsterdam was electric and alive, and for once I felt not like I was walking through a ghost town populated by the descendants of history past, but as if I was in the here and now, living as history was being written.

The rest of the Netherlands thrived off of that same sense of self cultivated in Holland. I spent Sunday sailing near Zwolle in a sailboat without a motor, tied to the air and the sun and the water below me as I helped adjust the sails and direct our path, like learning to walk again after being reborn. I spent the day in quiet, sunburnt bliss.

If you’re reading this, Robert and Indira, thanks for one of the best weekends I’ve ever had.

I need to start practicing my cycling.