Monday, July 27, 2009

I Love Paris!

I’m getting behind again, but I have to provide an update on Paris…possibly my favorite city in the world. We got there around 8pm and, thanks to the great location of our hotel, we immediately set out for the top of the Eiffel Tower. By the time we got up there it was dark so the views weren’t necessarily spectacular, but the wait in line provided great bonding opportunities.

The next morning we (Erica, Britt, Sarah, Mira, Ainsley, Melissa, and I) went straight to Notre Dame and got in line to climb to the top. It was about an hour wait but definitely worth it, in my opinion you get the best views of Paris from there because you get great views of the river on all sides, and you can get the Eiffel Tower in your pictures, not something you can do when you’re standing on it. Other highlights of that morning include eating my first crepe (butter and sugar…I was in heaven) and going to San Chappelle – a cathedral with walls made of 80% stained glass.

We grabbed lunch on the go, I had another crepe, this time with cheese, and hopped on the train to Versailles. The inside of the palace was closed, which was just fine with me, so we headed straight into the fabulous and extensive gardens (which were free!). We slowly made our way down to the main lake and decided to rent boats…possibly my favorite thing we’ve done so far. We all had had some experience rowing so we thought we could handle the 4-person rowboats fairly easily…not so much. It didn’t start well as we apparently all sat down backwards, but the nice French dock-worker helped us out there and also pushed us out to give us a little head start. But then, we managed to row ourselves right back in somehow, and ran into several boats on our way. We continued this difficulty with mobility until we finally got the hang of it and got out into the middle of the lake. We still had some trouble with hitting other boats or scraping them with our oars, and we’re pretty sure every single other boater on that lake hated the dumb American girls incapable of rowing by the end, but it was a great way to spend the afternoon. The gardens at Versailles are enormous so we didn’t even scratch the surface, but here is one small section we saw on the way out – it’s what you might call the first level of the backyard of the very west wing of the palace. Oh and there’s the spare lake, in case the king wanted to go for a swim but didn’t want to walk the ½ mile to the main lake. The extravagance of some of these royal sites in Europe is unbelievable.

After dining at an exceptionally slow French restaurant in the Latin quarter, we met up with the rest of the group for a boat ride on the Seine. There was a recorded guide playing but we were in the front and fairly talkative so we couldn’t hear a thing. In fact, some of the group was enjoying the ride so much that they decided to break out into song, but it wasn’t quite spontaneous. Somehow they got it into their head that they wanted to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, so they planned out a little musical number. One person would start then others would join in softly, this person would stand up, then the others would raise their hands up, etc. It was a nice idea in theory, but when it came to showtime it became clear that a couple of them didn’t know the words, and two in particular were fairly tone deaf. But they got it on camera and enjoyed themselves – I think most others on the boat did not. This was definitely one of those loud, obnoxious, American moments.

It was quite a long day, but we wanted to get in as much as possible during our short time in Paris, so after the boat ride we hopped on the metro out to the Arc d’triomph.. Coming home, I was fairly tired and wanted to get home quickly so I walked out in front of the group. I had been the leader most of the day since I remembered my way around fairly well, so I thought this would be fine. This time though, I didn’t stop often to make sure everyone was with me, and it turns out they weren’t. I got to a place where the turn was tricky, and stopped to make sure everyone went the right way for the right line, but no one was there. I waited for five minutes but gave up after that, thinking they had all either gone the wrong way or somehow gotten ahead of me. So I went and hopped on the train. It was probably 11pm so not too late, but I still felt slightly iffy about being there alone so I just pulled out my phone and started to read email, looking very busy. Two men sat down across the aisle from me and soon one started trying to ask me something in French. I explained that I didn’t speak French and so he tried to mime/communicate fireworks to me. I think he was asking when the fireworks from the Eiffel Tower would be. I told him I didn’t know and thought that was that, but then he asked me if I was American. I said yes, and he pointed to his companion and said, “He’s American.” I turned to the other man out of politeness and said “oh, where are you from?” He answered and I thought that was that, but no, pretty soon I was trapped in conversation with this guy, who, I realized, was clearly drunk. Next thing I know these two are inviting me to join them on the Eiffel Tower. I, being the idiot that I am and not thinking before I spoke, said, “Oh it’s closed tonight, I don’t think you can go up because they’re setting up for Bastille Day.” They would have gotten off at the next stop, but no, I had to tell them that it was closed. So they stayed, and were apparently getting off at the stop I was supposed to take, so I got off one stop early, hoped they wouldn’t follow me, and just walked back along the track to the right place. It was dark and I passed more than a few people sleeping on the ground between cars who did not look happy to see me…but in the end I made it. After that day I was ready for bed in a big way.

That was just day one in Paris, other highlights include my first encounter with tartare (see picture above), fireworks off the Eiffel Tower, more crepes, and lots of art. But I think I have to stop now...more on Switzerland and Austria soon to come.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Sound of Music in Salzburg

I spent the last few days in one of the most musical cities in Europe, Salzburg, Austria. On day one we did the Sound of Music tour, which means we saw the sites where Julie Andrews and co. sang those immortal well as actual sites where the real von Trapp family lived/walked/sang etc.

We spent our second day slightly differently, acting less like obnoxious American tourists and more like locals. We shopped during the day, spending way more money than we should've on fabulous items we felt we couldn't live without, and joined the Austrian aristocratic elite in an evening of sophistication. We took a funicular up to the main castle in Salzburg where we dined in a fancy restaurant with great views of the city and surrounding musical hills.

The first course was a fairly strange gelatin-with-beef dish, not our favorite. The second course was a delicious cup of soup, which somehow reminded someone of Christmas and as a result we all discussed our Christmas traditions for the rest of the meal. The third course, for me, was a salmon cooked in a white wine sauce with parsley potatoes....quite excellent. The dessert was 'a Mozart assortment' composed of some light chocolate ice cream and a small apple fritter with jam and powdered sugar in the shape of a treble clef. Great stuff, perfect to get us in the mood for the next stage of the evening.

We then adjurned to another higher room in the castle, where a string quarter played four pieces by Brahms, Hayden, Mozart and Dvorzac. It was fabulous and we all felt very posh. Then we came back to the reality that we are not wealthy aristocrats, rather we are cheap students....and ate McFlurries at McDonalds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Paragliding in Switzerland!

Ok, so I’ll have to go back and back-fill you in on Paris and Geneva, but for now let me just tell you about the here and now. Today I went paragliding….in the Swiss Alps. It was completely amazing. Let me preface this story by saying that I was heavily medicated when I set off for this little adventure. I have a pretty awful cold, congestion and coughing, the whole bit, so yesterday I went to the pharmacy and got some mystery German cold medicine. I have no idea what anything on the label says, but the woman at the Pharmacy said it was for colds so I bought it. I normally would have been hesitant to take German mystery medicine, but I haven’t been able to sleep at all since getting sick. It was either this or going back to Ambien, and I was not ready to go down that path again. I had also taken two Advil, had three cough drops, and eaten a healthy helping of scrambled eggs at breakfast. Having said that, here’s how the morning went down:

We took the train down to Interlaken and met up with the paraglider pilots who gave us our hiking boots and ushered us into a van with no instruction whatsoever. So there we were, six girls and two less-than-intimidating guys, in a van with nine Swiss men we’d just met. The guy who seemed to be in charge told us to choose our pilots, and after some hesitation, we all basically pointed to one of the guys. I chose one who looked fit, was fairly attractive, seemed like he would have a sense of humor, but also looked like he really knew what he was doing. In this case, my judgment of the book by it’s cover turned out to be very accurate. Bert (he spelled it Beat, but every time he said it, it sounded like Bert, said with a Swiss accent so it really sounds like Bear-t. Anyway, that’s what I called him.) turned out to be a great pilot, calm and happy no matter what.

So after ascending to almost 3,000 feet up (we’re pretty sure that’s how high the take-off point was from the ground, not sea level) on a tiny, windy road in a packed van I was starting to feel a little queasy. But as soon as we emerged and saw the view and where we would be gliding I, along with everyone in the group, could barely contain my excitement. Bert helped me get into my harness, pretty much a backpack with a wooden board underneath for a seat, and my helmet. The whole concept of needing a helmet kind of confused me…if we were to fall, the chances seemed very slim that helmets would be of much use. But I donned the helmet anyway, not feeling the great need to question Bert about what exactly would happen if we fell.

We reached the take off point, a hill with a pretty significant downhill grade, and were given our takeoff instructions, those being just to run until we couldn’t touch the ground anymore. It sounded too simple, but it worked like a charm and soon we were out soaring over the Alps! I wasn’t sure about the appropriate social protocol for such a situation, was I supposed to make conversation with Bert while in flight, or did he need to concentrate on steering? Even if I had decided to attempt to start a conversation, I think I would have failed miserably as I was pretty much overcome staring at the beautiful scenery and trying to snap whatever pictures I could.

After about twenty minutes of climbing higher and higher above the thick trees and beautiful blue lake, we made our way towards the town of Interlaken and our landing location. As we were starting to make our descent, Bert asked me if I liked roller coasters. Had I been safely on the ground, my answer would have been ‘yes’, but this didn’t seem like an offhand inquiry as to my thrill-ride preferences. I responded, “Yes, although if they’re too intense they make me sick.” He took this as a green light to do some corkscrew-like turns, but assured me that if I started to feel sick we cold stop. He did two, and I knew I was in trouble. I hadn’t been feeling completely stable stomach-wise since we’d left the ground but this had pushed me over the top. I told him we’d better stop, so he did and asked me if I was feeling sick….but as he was asking, the evidence that I was not had started to explode from my stomach all over the little town of Interlaken. I’m not sure if it was the meds or just straight-up motion sickness, but after several minutes of emptying my stomach I felt just fine, and even laughed a little at the thought of my breakfast raining down on someone below…not a very nice thought, but still amusing. Maybe I was used as a sort of pre-Sodom & Gomorrah warning, I rained down vomit, but next time the big guy is bringing fire and brimstone

Bert and I did not escape my sickness unscathed unfortunately, and I felt bad for that but he just laughed and we went over to the fountain in the park to wash up a little. I felt kind of silly washing my jacket in the a fountain in the middle of a city, and as people walked by, I wondered if they thought we were homeless and just using the fountain as some sort of washing machine. Despite this tiny hiccup at the end, it was a great experience, possibly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I highly recommend it for anyone and everyone, although I would advise you not to experiment with German mystery medicine and Swiss scrambled eggs right before takeoff.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


So we left the Netherlands and went to Belgium. My main comment about that country? Waffles. That is all anyone needs to know about Belgium. I thoroughly enjoyed them plain, with chocolate, and with strawberries.

Our first stop was in a very cool little town called Brugge. Belgium is known for it's lace and chocolate, so of course people spent what little time we had there shopping for lace and chocolate. I am not so much a shopper, so I walked and walked and walked and just explored the cool side-streets. They were little narrow cobblestone streets with old building all around, and towards the back near the river/canal (I never really know the difference) we found a lace sewing factory place and some huge windmills. In our explorations we also ran across a church with a crowd of people around it, so of course we thought there must be something cool at this church and we went up to check it out. We joined in with the crowd but then a bride and groom exited the church and everyone around us started to clap...turns out we'd ended up in the middle of a wedding party with our cameras out and backpacks on. Needless to say we did not blend in. We tried to back slowly out of the group to avoid bothering them anymore than we already had, but it turned out that they were all going the same direction we were. So there we were (one friend had her giant, digital, SLR camera hanging around her neck) walking down the street with this wedding party as they were on their way to a pub for some sort of afterparty. We felt slightly like stalkers or paparazzi but the bride didn't seem to notice us so it was alright. The rest of the group didn't seem to mind the dumb American girls too much either.

After leaving Brugge, which we LOVED, we arrived in Brussels. Our bus driver had to take the back way in for some reason, so we drove through what felt like murder city and when we arrived at our hotel there was a fight going on near the entrance. It was not the best welcome and that definitely tainted our view of the place. The hotel was nice but had a strange style of of moldy food adorned the halls and the lobby. Seeing a giant picture of a moldy orange (see left) is not exactly what you want to look at as you're on your way to breakfast.

Despite our first impressions of the city, we did decide to explore the next day. So, after meeting with panel of expatriots working in Brussels, we went down to the main square and changed our minds, at least slightly, about Brussels. A big group of us started at the main plaza and then made our way to what is apparently Brussels' most famous tourist attraction.

It's title sort of speaks for's called Manneken-pis. We heard two different stories explaining the title: One was that some important building caught on fire, so this little boy tried to do his part to put it out by relieving himself on it. The second story is that relieving yourself in public is illegal in Brussels, but one little boy disobeyed and was found making designs on a wall. Well, a witch came up to him, and as punishment, turned him into stone. Whatever the story...there is a statue of a little boy creating a fountain of water. Strange thing to have as the main tourist attraction in your city, very strange. Kind of typical of my experience in Brussels though...something's a little off. We heard there was a girl version of the statue somewhere too but didn't look to hard for it.

Beyond eating waffles probably the funnest thing we did in Brussels was laundry. About ten of us walked around the corner to the laundromat, struggled mightily trying to figure out the system and which detergent to use, received assistance from the non-English speaking owner, and just sat and talked in there until we had nice clean laundry. It was a fun hangout and it was wonderful to have clean clothes again.

That was a long summary of Belgium...but I will say again, all you need to know is waffles. Next up, the best city in the world, Paris!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

London & Amsterdam

We've been in London and then Amsterdam for the past few days, here's an update on what's happened:

Here I am taking two embarrassingly touristy photos in London, one with Big Ben and the other in one of the many phone booths (kind of cool that those haven't gone away in London yet). What can I say, I got caught up in the moment, gave into peer pressure, swallowed my pride...and I liked it.

That's me at the Tower of London. I have no idea why they call it the Tower because it's practically a village in there. We saw the crown jewels which was amazing but also disgusting in a way. The extravagance was shocking, there was a Grand Punch Bowl made of solid gold and big enough to hold more than 100 bottles of wine! I cannot imagine needing a bowl that large unless you planned to bathe in it! We also saw the many suits of armor which belonged to Henry VIII. He was either extremely well-endowed or....he had his armor made to over-compensate for an area in which he was lacking. Either way, I've never seen anything quite like it.

We ate Indian Food (chicken tiki masala and naan bread... mmmmm) and all 31 of us saw Les Miserables together. It was pretty incredible and we still have the songs stuck in our heads.

Here Bitt, Ainsley and I are standing on the dock in a little village in the Netherlands. We have no idea what the village was called, our bus driver is Dutch and he kept saying it but we couldn't ever quite catch it. I do know it has 'dam' on the end of it, but what city in the Netherlands doesn't?We missed out on taking a picture with one of the Buckingham Palace guards but this was definitely the next best thing. When Brits refer to 'beefeaters' they're referring to these, not consumers of beef.After arriving in Amsterdam we stopped at a little Dutch shop called Cheese and Clogs where they made just that, cheese and clogs. We watched a demonstration on cheese-making, complete with delicious samples of seven kinds of cheeses including Gouda (apparently correctly pronounced 'how-duh'), Stinging Nettle Cheese, and Garlic & Onion cheese. I of course couldn't resist and bought myself a wheel of Gouda. We also got to watch a demonstration of how wooden shoes are made, Hans made it very entertaining. Then we were left to explore the shop and the many different sizes of wooden shoes laying around.

In Amsterdam we visited the Van Gogh museum, as evidenced by my bag, and the Anne Frank House. Both were well worth it, and seeing the secret annex where the Franks and four others hid was very interesting and made me want to right out and read the Anne Frank diaries. We also walked through much of the city and were surprised at all of the canals, they were everywhere! We heard that there are more canals in Amsterdam than in Venice and after being there we believe it.

Our last visit in the Netherlands was to a flower auction. Apparently every day at 4am buyers gather to bid on flowers from around the world. The sheer volume of flowers was amazing, and the efficiency with which they are bought and shipped is incredible. Apparently the flowers can be bought and arrive at the nursery within 24 hours. We walked through this flower warehouse, probably a mile long, and it was just packed with pallets and pallets of flowers like these.

Next up: Belgium!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Update from Europe

Ok so I've been a negligent blogger...but I'm keeping up on email so if you want to ask anything or give any advice on what to see while here shoot me an email! I can answer them on long bus rides and when there is no internet access.

So after the hiccup with the arrival in Spain, we've just been going, going, going. Rather than attempting to describe everything that's happened since then, here are some highlights:

So we spent two of our evenings in Madrid sitting in the Plaza Mayor, a sort of town square where people come to eat or drink and enjoy the fabulous ambiance of Spanish Summer evenings. Here we are having drinks in the plaza, I ordered a chocolate shake which turned out to be chocolate milk, Ainsley ordered water, as she has done the entire trip...not the adventurous type. Other highlights in Spain include the Prado, visiting the little town of Toledo, and just walking the streets of Madrid.

We went from Madrid to Edinburgh, Scotland which was a dramatic climate change - from hot and dry to cool and humid. Our first evening there we hiked up an extinct volcano where we had great views of Edinburgh (see picture at right with Edinburgh castle in the background on the left) and also met three new friends who invited us to stay, drink, smoke, and sing with them. I was tempted...but my companions were not so we declined.

Other highlights from Scotland include touring the highlands and running into a bagpiper in the middle of nowhere, seeing Loch Lomond, the cute and fabulous bed & breakfast we stayed in, and walking up and down the Royal Mile (the central street in old-town Edinburgh. In this picture I am spitting on a heart in the street. It is apparently the only place in Edinburgh where spitting is legal and it is supposed to bring good luck. However, we spend a good ten minutes standing there while waiting for everyone to get a good picture, and after seeing/hearing all the various wads of spittle fly onto the sidewalk, or in one case, splash up onto me, I was ready to forfeit my spitting rights and vacate the area.

We spent two days in Preston, England, going to the temple on Saturday and church in the morning on Sunday. It was a fairly relaxing stop but we were all ready to get to London.

Monday morning we started the long drive to London, taking detours to the Wedgewood factory, a famous pottery company, and Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. We loved visiting the Wedgewood factory, the boys were less impressed, but even they had to admit that seeing the way it was made and painted was interesting. I think almost every girl bought at least one thing, I was proud of myself for buying only two items, a cup and saucer, that were very inexpensive. Here Ainsley, Sarah and I are eating at the Wedgewood cafe, which was delicious, off of Wedgewood dishes. All-in-all a fun little sidetrip that helped break up the drive.

When we arrived in London the first night we were all starving so we set out for Picadilly Circus and found a great little Italian restaurant. We were all thrilled to finally have a good solid meal, where we actually felt full. Plus the waiter was great...he told us the nights he's on while we're here so some of us may be going back :)

We decided to do a little bit of walking around aftet dinner, so, guided by my trusty Rick Steves book, I lead the group towards Trafalgar Square. We ended up in a few dark alleys, and at the end it took us a half hour in the rain to find a Tube station, but we were not lost at any point, despite what some may have said or thought. It was a fun way to spend our first night and at the very least we'll have great memories of being soaked in dark London pictures and a description of today's edition of 'Lost in London' all coming soon so stay tuned!