Saturday, July 5, 2008

We Walked Off to Look for America

Hi to all! I hope everyone had a wonderful Fourth of July.

Fourth of July overseas is an odd thing. This is the first time I've spent our Independence Day away from the good old US of A and it was interesting. I definitely missed being able to be with my family and friends and watching the fireworks. The Fourth isn't quite the same without those things.

We spent the day relaxing... it was one of the first days when we didn't have classes or anything to go to and we could just sit around enjoying the day. My roommates and I went out to lunch and we ended up in a part of town close to our apartment where a lot of immigrants from African live. We ate in an African restaurant (I wish I could tell you what kind specifically, but I honestly have noe idea). It was definitely a new experience. I can't say that I have ever had any type of African food before. I ended up getting some chicken which was cooked in this lemon sauce with vegetables (carrots, peas, and onions) cooked with it. It was good and different. Not a meal that I would want everyday, but a good experience.

After lunch, we made our way over to Chaussee d'Ixelles, which is one of the main shopping streets in Brussels. Sales in European stores work differently than in America. Instead of having sales throughout the year, they have one big sale that lasts throughout the months of July and August. These are really good sales too, with most places giving at least 50% discounts. The only catch is that you have to go early (as in the first few days of July) to get any of the good stuff before it gets all picked over. We shopped for a bit and all the stores were pretty crazy. There were a bunch of people and long lines for dressing rooms, but the prices were worth it. I only got one shirt, but it was an interesting experience.

That night, we went out to celebrate the Fourth, at an English Pub (irony for you?), which was fun. We were going to go out to a club afterwards to dance, but we didn't make it that far. It was a good night despite that though, but not quite a traditional Fourth of July.

Well, that's about it for my Fourth of July. I hope your's was a bit more traditional.

Love to all,

PS - I am super excited because we found a Mexican restaurant (finally!), which is actually only a few blocks from our apartment and we are going there for dinner tonight! Hopefully it will be good. I'll keep you updated.

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Life Goes On, Brah!

Sunday, Caitlin and I woke up around 4 am, got our stuff together, and checked out of the hostel. We walked over to O'Connell Street to catch a bus out to the airport. The bus was running about 20 minutes late, but we didn't think it was a big deal since we had allotted a lot of time for getting there. When we got to the airport though, it was mass chaos around the Aer Lingus (our airline) check-in. We asked a couple of people and they told us to get in line and to listen for a plane to be called. We waited for about an hour until we got to the head of the line. When we got to the desk, the lady told us that check-in for our flight was closed. We were astounded. We had never heard them call our flight or anything. Along the way in the line, we had asked a few people if we were in the right place and they all told us we were. So we went over to the customer service desk and they said that there was nothing that they could do because they had called our flight. Our only option with them was to pay a huge amount of money to try and get on the next flight out. We decided we didn't want to pay that much, so we went from desk to desk inquiring about flights from all the other airlines. Finally, we found a Ryanair flight that was a bit cheaper (but definitely not cheap!), but the flight was full. They agreed to put us on standby and we were supposed to come back around 2:30 and check to see if they had seats available.

We spent the next nine hours sitting in the Dublin airport. Luckily they had a food court that you could access without going through security. We got a booth there and sat. We had a test the next day, and luckily, Caitlin brought her notes, so we studied a bit. It was pretty awful.

Finally, 2 came around and we decided to go down and ask about our flight. They said that they would keep us posted so we returned again at 2:30. At that point they had a few empty seats left from people who hadn't checked in yet so we lucked out and were able to get tickets. We had to rush to check-in and go through security, but we made it to our gate and onto the plane.

We finally made it back to Brussels around 6 or so. Every weekend we go away I get happier and happier to return to Brussels and our little apartment. It is just nice to be somewhere where you can relax and where things are familiar.

Although the whole day was very frustrating, I decided I didn't want it to ruin my wonderful trip to Ireland and I realized that these things happen when you travel and there's not much that you can do about it except go with the flow.

Love to all,

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ireland, Once Visited, Is Never Forgotten

Saturday morning we woke up early and had breakfast at the hostel. They provided a breakfast of toast, jam, and coffee there with some various fruits as well. Not exactly a great breakfast, but definitely better than having to go pay for something. We left the hostel and made our way down to the main Tourism Office in Dublin. The previous day, we had called a few tour companies and inquired about availability for their trips. Most of them were full, but a couple agreed to put us on stand-by in case people didn't show up. So we went to the Tourism Office to meet up with the tours and find out if we could get on any of them. We talked with some of the bus guides and, after waiting for people to show up, we finally got onto an "Over the Top" tour, which ended up being one of the better ones. Their tours were out of vans that held about 16 people and our guide, Ed, was great. He was an elder Irish gentleman and he had the classic Irish accent. It was wonderful.

The tour started out by taking us through Dublin and out of town. We passed through a few suburb type cities and then made our way into the Wicklow mountains (which aren't really that high) outside of Dublin. Along the way, Ed would point out important things, fill us in on history, and tell us stories. As we drove into the country, we started to see beautiful green fields everywhere. The weather was not ideal (it was cloudy and misty most of the day and actually started raining at one point and it was also pretty cold and windy), but the views were incredible. The area seemed to be fairly sparsely populated. The roads we drove along were little winding country roads (which Ed drove pretty fast on) and it was interesting being in a vehicle on the left side of the road... it definitely takes some getting used to. Along the way, we would pull over and get out. A few times we stopped at some beautiful lakes and walked a bit. We drove through lands that they used to film movies like Braveheart.

We stopped for lunch in a little town called Glendalough (which in Celtic means field of two lakes). We ate at a classic Irish pub (or at least that's what the tour brochure said). I had some delicious salmon (but definitely there was no comparison to Dad's) and the meal came with lots of veggies, which was wonderful.

After lunch, we got back in the van and drove a little while. There are ancient monastic ruins outside of Glendalough that we went through. Currently, the area is a cemetery, but back in early times, there were buildings where monks lived and helped to convert the Celtic population into Catholics. During the period of the Reformation though, the majority of the monasteries in the UK and Ireland were destroyed under the orders of King Henry VIII. The area was really beautiful and it was interesting to learn about this part of Irish history. After going through these grounds, we walked down a path and saw the two lakes for which Glendalough is named. The path meandered through some wooded areas which were beautiful and finally led out to a field and the largest of the two lakes.

After this excursion, we all got back in the van and headed back towards Dublin through more countryside. We got back into Dublin around 5 or so and Caitlin and I walked over to Grafton Street, the main shopping district in Dublin, and did some souvenir shopping. Afterwards, we walked back towards the hostel and stopped in at an Italian restaurant for dinner, which was really good. We were pretty exhausted from getting up early and knew that we had to get up really early the next day so we decided to call it a night.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"When I Die Dublin Will Be Written In My Heart" - James Joyce

Hi everyone! Sorry it has take me so long to fill you all in on my Irish adventure, but I've been busy with actual school work as our six week period here in Brussels is winding down. I think I will do this entry like I did Paris and break it up by the days.

We started out very early Friday morning (we being Caitlin, my roommate, and I) even before the sun had risen. We had some minor setbacks in getting to the airport when we found out that public transportation wasn't running that early, we had to take a cab to the train station. From the train station, we took a bus to an airport that is about an hour away from Brussels. We flew on Ryanair, which is famous for its cheap flights and for crowding as many people onto a plane as humanly possible. The flight wasn't too bad. I think both of us dozed off a bit even though I was very uncomfortable in the center seat. We both woke up just in time to see us cross over the very tip of Ireland, which was an incredible sight.

We arrived in Dublin at around 7:30 local time (we gained an hour on our flight). At the airport, we stopped in at the tourism office and bought a Dublin Pass, which we paid a flat rate for to get into a bunch of attractions in Dublin instead of just paying for each individually. I highly recommend this if you ever go and are not going at a leisurely pace. I think we saved a bunch of money. But I digress... we used our Dublin Pass to get a free bus ride into the city. We ended up missing our stop, but we got off at the next one and made our way over to our hostel. We checked in and left our bags in the lockers at the hostel. From the hostel we walked over to O'Connell Street (one of the big streets in Dublin) and walked up towards Parnell Square. We stopped and had some breakfast and from there, we walked over to the Writers Museum. The Museum was fairly small, but there was a lot condensed into such a small space. There was an audio tour which came with your admission into the museum, which was great. The museum went through the whole history of Irish literature and covered all the literary greats, including Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and, of course, James Joyce. There were also some other lesser known authors thrown in there, which was interesting as well. They had a bunch of things from the different authors and first edition books and things of that nature, which was pretty neat. I really enjoyed the museum.

After the Writers Museum, we made our way down towards the older part of the city (or attempted to at least). We ended up getting a little lost, but we ended up in some sort of legal district, which was pretty neat because there were a bunch of men walking around in their robes and wigs.... quite a sight! We asked directions from a really nice Irish businessman who pointed us in not only the right direction, but towards the best walk. We walked across a bridge over the River Liffey, which cuts through the city and past Christchurch (which I later learned is one of the oldest buildings in Dublin) and we ended up at our destination, Dublin Castle, with no further directional problems. We walked around Dublin Castle, but didn't go inside because you had to go on a tour and we decided we had too much to do to waste time on a tour.

At this point, we were hungry again so we found a little hole in the wall restaurant, which was great. I got some tomato, pepper soup and bread. The soup was extremely spicy, but delicious. It was nice to have such a hearty meal with such large portions again.

After lunch, we started out again and headed across town to the Irish Modern Art Museum. Again we got a little lost, but not too much and after a really long walk we eventually found it. I wasn't too impressed with the museum, but I suppose that's probably because I have been spoiled with seeing the works at the Pompidou and the Tate. They didn't really have any famous works and the museum was badly organized and things were difficult to find.

Once we got done with the Modern Art Museum, we headed over to Guinness. Everything I had read told me that this was pretty much a must see for tourists. So we went and it was a little disappointing. I thought it was going to be an actual brewery and would be similar to the vineyard tours I had been on in Oregon a few summers ago. This wasn't what Guinness was like. It was more like a museum, with a little tour you go through telling you all about how Guinness is made, the ingredients that they use, etc. It was interesting, but not quite what I had expected.

After Guinness, we walked over the St. Patrick's, a church in Dublin. It was very beautiful and we just wandered around the church for a while. Afterwards, we walked over to Trinity College, which is in the center of the city, but once you get inside the walls feels like a college campus. All the buildings are really old and beautiful and there are wonderful green lawns. We went to the College to see the Book of Kells, but unfortunately, the building was closed. I was pretty disappointed, but I guess it will just give me something to go back for.

After Trinity College, we walked around and found a pub to have dinner at. We were exhausted so we just headed back to the hostel. The hostel was an interesting experience. It was my first stay in a hostel and we were staying in one of the dorm like rooms. There were eight sets of bunk beds in the room and Caitlin thought that it was pretty nice for a hostel. It was pretty much what I had expected except neither of us realized that the room was co-ed. It was basically like being at summer camp again. The bathrooms were the standard communal bathroom just like any dorm or summer camp.

We went to bed pretty much immediately even though it was still light outside (it was about 10 or so) and I slept well despite people coming in and out of the room all night.

That's it for day one... more later. Also, I posted my pictures from the trip if you get some time and want to check them out.

Love to all,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Paris, Je T'Aime

And now, for the exciting conclusion to "A Weekend in Paris."

Sunday we woke up and got ready to go back into the city. We were all a little worse for the wear from the busy two days we had combined with the lack of sleep which had accumulated over the past few days.

Once we arrived in the city, we started out at Pere Lachaise, which is an old cemetery in Paris, which is also huge. It is absolutely beautiful and it was neat just to walk through cemetery looking at the old tombs. There are a number of famous people buried here, including Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf (one of the most famous French singers ever who they recently made a movie about - "La Vie en Rose"), Moliere, and Jim Morrison. This is also the site of the infamous Paris Commune, where hundreds of people were shot by the French government, who was trying to take back control over Paris, which had been run by the people of Paris for over two months. (It's an interesting story if you want to look it up for yourself.) Anyways, we walked around the cemetery and looked at some of the famous graves. We found out later that Chopin is also buried there and I was pretty disappointed that we had missed that, but overall it was great.

After Pere Lachaise, we made our way over to Montmartre and Sacre Coeur. Montmartre is the highest point in Paris and was once the artist quarter and Sacre Coeur is a church at the top of Montmartre. We wandered around the area and ate lunch. Some of the group decided to go for a sit down lunch, but the food in the area was really over priced, so some of us just went and got some sandwiches and ate on the street, which was just as good or better I think.

Once we finished lunch, we had to head over to the train station and return back to Brussels. We were all so tired, every single one of us took a nap on the train and I felt much better after that. Once we got back to Brussels we discovered a festival going on right on our street, Chaussee d'Ixelles. I would have loved to check out the festival more in depth, but I was ready to be home. Paris was wonderful, but it was great to be back in familiar territory and to be able to sit down and relax.

And that concludes my weekend adventures in Paris. Tune in next week for the details of my weekend adventure to Dublin.

Love to all,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Paris When It Sizzles

Here is my continuation of what happened while we were in Paris last weekend.

Saturday we woke up fairly early for how late we got in and got ready and left to catch the train back into Paris. The first thing we did when we got into Paris was go to the Louvre. We split up and those of us who had already gone to Louvre or didn't want to go walked over to the Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum in Paris. The building itself is really cool because it is designed inside out, with all the pipes and escalators and such on the outside of the building (check out my pictures if you want to see it). The museum was wonderful and was definitely up there with the Tate Modern in Britain in my opinion. They had a great Kandinsky, which is one of my favorites of his. There were about three whole rooms full of Picassos (which you would have loved Dad), which were amazing (and I found a new painting of his that I fell in love with, but I can't remember the title at the moment). Others that I loved were the Matisses, the Duchamps, the Man Rays, and the Pollack that they had there. Overall it was a pretty great museum with a lot of famous stuff that I had learned about in my AP Art History class in high school.

After the museum, we all met up and grabbed some lunch to go. We took our lunches to the Jardin du Luxembourg, which was absolutely beautiful. The garden is a large park area with a large fountain in the middle and a large building, which apparently used to be the house of Catherine de Medici (remember the Medicis from Florence, Mom and Dad?). Lunch was lovely. We sat on a nice grassy area and soaked up the Parisian sun. It was a little warmer than I would have liked, but the blue skies were worth the heat. After eating I walked down to the fountain/ pond thing. They have a place where kids can rent little sailboats to sail across the pond. It was really neat to just sit there and people watch and look at all the cute sail boats.

After lunch, we got back on the metro and rode over to the Latin Quarter area. Notre Dame is around this area so some of the group went in there. I had already been, so I decided to go to Saint Chapelle, which is a tiny little chapel that I had heard from my previous trip was really beautiful. It did not disappoint. The chapel is really tiny, but the stained glass was amazing. Basically all of the walls on the second floor of the chapel are made out of stained glass and the effect is completely breathtaking (literally... it took my breath away!). It was probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Once we met back up, we wandered through the Latin Quarter, which used to be (and still kind of is) an area where a lot of the students in Paris hang out. During this time, La Fete de la Musique, an annual music festival that Paris has where they have bands playing on street corners all over Paris, was starting to heat up. Audrey have some friends who are in a band that was playing on one such street corner so we made our way over there and spent the night watching them (there were two different bands with her friends in them).

Getting home after the bands had stopped proved to be fairly difficult. We had to go through some really crowded streets, trying to keep 12 people together. I've never really seen this many people before in such a crowd, so I don't really know what to compare it to, but it was mass chaos. We all just wanted to make sure we got to the train station all together before the last train left for the night. The metro was incredibly crowded so we had to jam ourselves in and luckily we only had to go one stop because it was incredibly claustrophobic. We did make the last train out (cutting a little close for my taste, but what can you do) and we made it back to Audrey's safe, sound, and utterly exhausted.

Coming tomorrow to a blog near you, the exciting conclusion to "A Weekend in Paris."

Love to all!

Monday, June 23, 2008

An American in Paris

Hi everyone! I hope you all had a wonderful weekend. I had a great trip to Paris, full of lots of exciting adventures. In the interest of giving you all as many details as possible, I think I will divide my trip up by the days to make it a little easier to read (and to make it easier for me as well).

We started out early Friday morning and went to the train station. The train ride was somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half and we went through some beautiful country sides. We arrived at the train station and left our bags with Audrey's father, who was nice enough to meet us at the train station. (Audrey is from Paris and is a girl on our trip. Her parents were nice enough to let us stay in their apartment outside of Paris for the weekend and Audrey acted as our tour guide for the trip, which was wonderful.) From the train station we immediately got on the metro, transferring a couple of times (at one stop I actually recognized the metro stop from when I was in Paris four years ago, which I thought was crazy). Finally, we arrived and rode the escalator back up to ground level and immediately we saw the Arc du Triomphe, which was much bigger than I remembered. After taking numerous pictures there, we strolled down the Champs-Elysees, which is one of the main streets in Paris and is famous for its wide, tree-lined sidewalks and high end stores. We stopped and had lunch along the road. I had a chicken sandwich, which was delicious. For some reason, sandwiches in France are just better... it must be the bread. After lunch, we continued our stroll down to the Place de la Concorde, which is where heads rolled back during the French Revolution and now the Place has an obelisk which Napoleon brought back from Egypt.

From there, we walked to the Musee d'Orsay, which is a museum devoted to the works of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The museum is in a renovated train station, which is absolutely beautiful and huge. I had been to the Orsay the first time I went to Paris, but I decided to go again because we had been rushed through that time because the museum was closed. I was glad I went back. Even though I remembered most of the works there, I still enjoyed seeing them again and actually getting to spend some time looking at some of the intricacies of the works. My favorites were the Monets, Renoirs, and Degas. There was also a whole room devoted to van Gogh, which I absolutely loved (as you probably know from my previous post on the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam).

After the Musee d'Orsay, we reconvened and headed over to the Eiffel Tower. Even though I had been there before, I was again shocked at how large the Eiffel Tower really is. We split off into groups and those who wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower did. I decided to go even though I had already been and it was just as great this time. Last time I was there it was fairly cloudy and it actually started raining while we were up the Eiffel Tower and this time it was cloudy again. I guess I just bring bad weather with me. Anyways, we spent lots of time walking around all the different floors of the Tower (there are three floors), taking pictures, and enjoying the view of Paris sprawled out before us.

Once we had descended from the Eiffel Tower, we had dinner at a restaurant around the area. We eat out pretty sparingly when we are in Brussels so a meal out is a wonderful occurrence. I had a wonderful dish of chicken and French fries. I also tried an escargot, which was surprisingly delicious. I had some problems getting it out of the shell, but once I figured it out, it was great. They cook them in some delicious garlic sauce so they basically just taste like garlic.

After dinner, we walked back over to the Eiffel Tower and sat down on the Champs du Mars. There were a bunch of people there, but we found a spot and sat down in the grass. From there, we had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower and we watched the sunset.

Then, we walked down to the Seine and got on one of the boat tours. The boat took us down the Seine past many of the Paris landmarks, which were all lit up for the night. It was beautiful. There were a lot of people walking along the banks of the Seine or just sitting and relaxing and enjoying the Paris night. It was wonderful and beautiful.

Once the boat ride was over, we had to catch the train out of Paris to Audrey's town and apartment. The train ride was about 45 minutes and we were all exhausted from a day full of adventure and walking all around Paris. Once we got there, we had to walk about another mile to Audrey's apartment. The apartment was a typical European apartment, very small. All of the girls slept in the living room on mattresses. We all passed out because we were so exhausted.

Well, that's all for day one of our Paris adventure. I will post more later about the rest of the trip. In the meantime, I've posted the pictures from Paris online if you want to take a look.

Love to all,