pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 3, part 2, aka lots of thinking in paris

[Longest title ever! I challenge any forthcoming comic book movies to take this record from me!]

On Wednesday, we walked quickly down to the river to avoid the impending rain… but were only partially successful. We chose a path that took us past the Opera again, but this time down the high-end shopping street at Rue de la Paix and Place de Vendome… we fit right in in our rolled-up pants and rain gear!

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We quickly enjoyed a stroll through the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre, and then picked up the pace for another brisk walk along the river, this time to the Pont de l’Alma, home of the Museum of the Paris Sewers! I had had this on my list since my Greece conference, where a presenter had mentioned the wonderful sewer exhibit in Paris. And since I’m a water nerd and Laura is a chemical engineer, this was right up our alley — not to mention perfect for an incredibly rainy day. The museum was full of school children — several classes’ worth on field trips. One teacher we met had lived in the Woodlands and actually knew Sugar Land when we told her where we were from! Small world.

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The sewers and sewer exhibit was fascinating. There was a mix of technical (seeing the various techniques, current and historical, used to clean and maintain the sewers), historical (learning about the development and growth of the Paris sewer and water system), hands-on (actually seeing black and greywater channels and pipes), and interdisciplinary aspects (a fascinating exhibit about the growth of Paris and the impact on the city’s sewer, waste, and environmental management development; as well as several homages to Les Miserables).

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

Valjean carries Marius through the sewer

I loved learning about Napoleon’s contributions to the wastewater system: at the beginning of his reign, one of the emperor’s ministers advised him to work on providing a stable source of clean water for Paris as a way to make a lasting impact on the city; later, in his last memoir, Napoleon acknowledged that his development of Paris’ sewer system had been his proudest accomplishment! He really knew what was up. I love learning about the pivotal role of water management to different civilizations, especially since most of us totally take it for granted. The people in power always know it’s important… it’s in the job description!

It was still raining after we’d finished our sewer tour–perfect museum weather–so we headed to the Army Museum next. We didn’t have much planned for that afternoon, so we speculated that we could afford to spend several hours there … and we did!! The museum covers a total of about 700 years, and it is all fascinating… particularly the narrative of the end of the 19th century and how European power grabs led to the First World War. That’s a time in history I don’t feel I’ve ever learned enough about.

The history of the building was also fascinating: it’s called the Hotel des Invalides, as it was built by Napoleon as a hostel/convalescent home for injured soldiers of the French army. It is absolutely gorgeous!

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[a few nerdy asides. to carry you through this part, consider watching this in honor of the sewer tour-army museum combo]

It was fascinating to read about how Bismarck, the Prussian leader who helped to unite Germany after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, worked to prevent feuding alliances in Europe: if France and Russia became strong allies, and the Balkans still struggled to maintain peace after the Ottoman Empire broke up, Germany would be surrounded by turmoil and divided between its French border and its Russian border… inevitably fighting a war on two fronts. Once Bismarck died, the other European leaders disregarded his advice and what happened several decades later? A war on two fronts for Germany. And things just went downhill from there.

We were also able to walk ourselves through the history of the French Revolution a bit more during that part of the museum; I know a good bit from history and literature classes over the years, and I tried my best to explain to Laura the Engineer 😉 but some of those classes were a while ago now, so it was interesting to read about the different stages of Revolution as we progressed through the 18th and 19th centuries in the museum. It really makes you glad to be an American and thankful that our Revolution “took,” so to speak.

As we entered the Napoleon/imperial epoch, I was also taken by the apparent parallels between Napoleon and Hitler. Both took power during a turbulent time in their country’s history and used patriotism to gain the support of the people; both sought to conquer all of Europe, causing warfare and violence along the way, and met their downfall in Russia. Yet one is regarded ambivalently, as a powerful yet possibly oppressive emperor who did lots of good things for France but maybe could have cooled it with his ambitions of expansion, while the other is the most evil figure in modern history. I don’t want to defend Hitler, and obviously there are several dimensions of “human rights violation” and “racism” that set him apart from Napoleon, but the difference in PR between the two was intriguing to me as I noticed the parallels between them.

Finally, it was interesting and amusing to learn about the World Wars from a French perspective. There were several funny little quips that seemed to over-inflate the importance/adequacy of the French war effort… but maybe that was just our American bias 😉

[Nerdiness over]

Of course, the Army Museum is also the home of Napoleon’s tomb, so that was cool.

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Once we finished at the museum, we were intellectually and physically exhausted – and our feet HURT. So we found a little café near the museum and treated ourselves to coffee and creme brulee… just the perfect indulgence for a rainy and museum-filled day!

Our second indulgence was an extra Metro ride. We had found a restaurant in the 13th Arr. that got rave reviews: it was supposed to have amazing food typical of the Basque region (near Spain) at a student-friendly budget. So we splurged and were rewarded for our risk, because the restaurant was amazing. We both had duck, because we figured we’d go for the option that isn’t typically found in the US. Mine was served with a Rocquefort cheese sauce, which I had had in Spain when I was there and really loved. It was delightful in France, as well! 🙂 My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We also enjoyed some delicious wine. The restaurant got really busy shortly after we arrived, so they seated another guest at our table, and it was really interesting talking to him. He was from Israel, an animation student a bit older than us, and it was cool to talk to him about his travels and his opinions about animated movies. He listed Sleeping Beauty as one of his favorites, which made me proud of my taste in Disney, since that is one of the best in my opinion!

Back at the hostel, we enjoyed more chocolates and Friends episodes after planning our excursion for the next day… a trip to Versailles!!

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When I went to Versailles with my family in 2001, the biggest story of the trip was me getting lost on the Metro on the way back. All I wanted from this trip was for it to be less eventful and I think we accomplished that! It was raining — of course — when we arrived, but my free entry to the palace made me feel better about the terrible weather! The palace is magnificent of course… we paced ourselves a bit oddly, spending a lot of time in the exhibit at the beginning talking about the history of the palace, which kings built which parts, when different renovations were done, etc etc. Which is interesting and all, but… you will never find a museum talking about my landscaping decisions at my vacation house. And that’s all I’m saying.

So maybe I was a bit tired out from that, but nevertheless the furnished parts of the palace are gorgeous! I guess I was surprised at how heavily Greek and Roman mythology themes figured into the decor, but the idea of decorating one’s home allegorically is fascinating! It was interesting that the audio guide didn’t mention the Treaty of Versailles at all in the Hall of Mirrors, but I knew about it anyway so I suppose I win. Do I sound jaded? I’m sorry. I sound totally jaded. I would use the excuse of “but I’ve just been to SOOO many royal palaces in Europe… Munich, Würzburg, Vienna… how is one supposed to have energy for them all?” but come on. Worst problem ever. 😉 Maybe I just had museum fatigue at the end of a jam-packed week in Paris!

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The good news is that by the time we had finished with our tour of the palace, the sun had come out!! So we were able to walk through the gardens with blue skies overhead. That was just wonderful. The gardens are just massive!! And the mythology tropes persist in the decor (the fountains and the naming of things and such). It was so nice to celebrate the return of the sun in such a gorgeous location.

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We took a little walk through the town of Versailles after leaving the gardens… we got a coffee at a little café and I went to buy stamps for my postcards and we even saw the architecture school where my Aunt Mary Beth, blog commenter extraordinaire, spent a year during college! I hadn’t really thought of Versailles being a “town” outside of the palace (though I knew that it was) but it seemed like a cute little place. I’m sure the locals are tired of palace tourists, though!

On our way back to the hostel, we grabbed some pastries we’d had our eyes on all week, which we then ate during a quick siesta. Our plan was to spend the evening in Montmartre, which we hadn’t seen much of outside of our hostel and the Metro station. So after a little rest, we headed up to Sacre Coeur, which is up a deceptively high hill!! It is absolutely gorgeous. Just totally striking.

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We decided on a whim to climb up to the top of the Dome, which was incredible. You already have a great view of the city (sans the Eiffel Tower) from the overlook at the foot of the church, and from the Dome you can see EVERYTHING! It was just gorgeous.

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We descended just in time for Mass, which was beautiful. There are (Augustinian? Benedictine? I think Benedictine) sisters who live at the convent next door and they sang Evening prayer and at Mass. It’s interesting to go to Mass in a language you don’t understand… on the one hand, you could use it as an excuse to zone out, but on the other hand, it can be an opportunity to deepen your prayer because you have to really concentrate on what is going on, and in the end it’s your belief in what actually happens at the Mass that determines your experience… that doesn’t depend on the language at all!

Anyway, we finally got our crepe fix after Mass when I spotted a little creperie on our descent from Sacre Coeur. It was really delicious… especially the very simple lemon crepe we had for dessert.

Afterwards, we went on a little stroll through the neighborhood looking at souvenirs and ended up at Moulin Rouge, our last sight of the week. We didn’t see a show or anything; we just wanted to see what all the fuss was about from the outside. We spotted some mini horses being brought in, ostensibly for that evening’s show! Then, after an awkward walk through the red light/sketchy district full of sex shops and burlesque clubs, we made it back home and called it an early night…. since we both had very early trains/flights in the morning!

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It’s already been 2 weeks since I got back from Paris and I am really nostalgic for the time Laura and I spent there. It was such a lovely week seeing lovely sights in the best company… the city is so full of life, there’s so much to discover, and everything is so pretty… even when it’s kind of ugly. I really do think I could live in Paris (but maybe just short-term), a distinction I’ve only awarded to a few cities I’ve visited. I do hope I get to return someday 🙂

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pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 3

Laura’s and my last stop on our trip together was Paris. I insisted on this once I realized how close Bruges and Paris are. I had been there when I was 10 with my family, but somehow that was 13 years ago (!) and what could beat a trip to Paris in May with your best friend? It turns out, not much. Laura was unsure how she would like the city, saying that it seemed to her most people either love or hate it… and she didn’t know which category she’d fall into. But by the end of the week, we were both hooked!

The start of our stay, however, was less than auspicious. Laura had a Eurail pass for her 3 weeks in Europe, and she learned early on that the pass isn’t quite as easy and foolproof as they make it out to be, and she would need to reserve a seat in many cases (and pay extra for the reservation in most cases, blah). So we checked on a train out of Paris once we arrived, only to find that there weren’t any Eurail options!! Nightmare. I convinced her to forget about it for the time being (promising to dedicate our evening internet time to figuring out a solution, of course) in order to enjoy our first afternoon in Paris.

Then we got to our hostel and the lock to our room was broken, which was also just wonderful but thankfully got resolved relatively quickly…. and we were off!!! Eventually. We also had issues with the Metro system, because the machine wouldn’t accept my debit card to buy tickets, and Laura’s Eurail pass would clearly not suffice as a ticket as she had hoped. SO we were forced into the best decision of the week: forget the Metro and just walk everywhere!! We were staying in/near Montmartre in the 9th Arrondissement (my favorite French word btw), a few blocks south of Sacre Coeur, aka really far north, but the walk to the river and all the good stuff only took about 35 minutes… plus we got to see some really great stuff along the way! We took a different route every time.

I think this may come in handy for orientation...

I think this may come in handy for orientation…

This first walk took us straight to the Louvre!! It was such a rush to be there–honestly it felt surreal. I remembered going to the Louvre in 2001, and it was crazy to be somewhere “familiar” but feel like I’m living a different life now, on my second visit. How different I am now at 23 than I was at 10! And of course actually seeing the big, gorgeous palace-turned-museum and the famous pyramids and arch and gardens and our first view of the Eiffel Tower! It was all surreal and thrilling. So, it’s good to know that my 9 months (!) in Europe haven’t turned me into a jaded asshole, at least 🙂

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From the Louvre we walked to Notre Dame–our goal had been to make it there by the time it closed and we did, by an hour! Just enough time to make the full rounds of all the side chapels and pray Evening Prayer there at the church — of course all in French, but absolutely beautiful nonetheless. In a different, less-rushed world, we would have stayed for Mass afterwards, but we had more to accomplish, so we bowed out. After a walk around the church to check out the Flying Buttresses, we made our way to the Parthenon and Sorbonne/Latin Quarter area.

It was awesome having a lot of little prayerful experiences throughout the trip. Later on Monday, after Evening Prayer at Notre Dame, we stopped in at St. Germaine on our way to the Eiffel Tower where they were having Adoration... attended by a surprising/inspiring number of young people!

It was awesome having a lot of little prayerful experiences throughout the trip. Later on Monday, after Evening Prayer at Notre Dame, we stopped in at St. Germaine on our way to the Eiffel Tower where they were having Adoration… attended by a surprising/inspiring number of young people!

 

The Parthenon is unfortunately under construction, but we enjoyed walking around and imagining actually being a university student in Paris–inconceivable! We bought a cheap bottle of wine (we both prefer white but the only twist-top bottle was red, so we made do), some fruit and cheese, and set out for our next destination: Luxembourg Gardens, another of the very few places I have memories of from my last trip to Paris. It was really hot by this point so we sat in the shade to enjoy our nectarines and views of the park.

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We had ambitions of making it to the Eiffel Tower by sunset to sit on the lawn and enjoy the evening view while drinking wine, so at this point (probably about 7:30?) we decided we should start walking. We lamented that the walk would probably take “another 30 minutes” (soooo long). We were at Jardin du Luxembourg and wanted to make it to Tour Eiffel (see map) by walking along the Seine… and we were in for an epic journey, because in the end the walk took probably an hour and 15 minutes at least. Now, looking at the map, we could have made a really quick trip of it by taking a direct route through 6 and 7,  but we did get to see a remarkable number of sights from the outside, including the Louvre (again), the Musee d’Orsay, Alexander Bridge, and Hotel des Invalides/Army Museum, before making it to the Eiffel Tower… right at sunset! It was a long walk but we timed it so perfectly.

At the Alexander Bridge

At the Alexander Bridge. This day was the “test run” for my chambray + dress outfit and I think it’s a keeper

After taking a gratuitous number of photos, we settled in on the lawn, poured ourselves some wine in plastic cups (always classy) and watched the sky get darker and the Tower eventually light up! There was a bit of excitement near us when a man snatched an (American) girl’s phone, another lady saw him do it, and all the guys selling wine and champagne and whatever dropped their wares and chased the thief down, and then apparently proceeded to beat up on him. Then they carried him out and the girl got her phone back… it was a very interesting study of human behavior… but anyway, the sun set, the tower lit up beautifully, and were treated to a bit of a light show because they made the tower sparkle with flashing lights!! It was beautiful and perfect. I think if I had only 1 day in Paris (really only half a day) and I spent it like this, I would be totally content with my life. We took the Metro back to our hostel after committing ourselves to riding only once per day–a savings of about 5 euro per day!

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Day 2 started at the train station buying Laura a ticket to Bacharach by way of Cologne for Friday (screw you, Eurail, why are you so complicated and expensive??), but after that little nuisance, we once again walked to the river, this time by way of the Opera, La Madeleine (the original! Aka a gorgeous church dedicated to Mary Magdelene), and the Place de Concorde.

I thought the Opera was gorgeous... one of the many benefits of not relying on the Metro was finding hidden gems we wouldn't have otherwise seen!

I thought the Opera was gorgeous… one of the many benefits of not relying on the Metro was finding hidden gems we wouldn’t have otherwise seen!

[I wish I could show you everything but my data storage is reaching its limit and I only have so much time!! Plus I took over 300 pictures in Paris alone… how to choose!]

At this point, we took a little detour at the Petit Palais, which we had read we could get into for free. It was nice, but I didn’t have much patience for art museums… plus, the most interesting-sounding exhibit (a display of Paris in 1900!) had an entrance fee and a long line. But the building was gorgeous, and after a short stop we were on our way down Champs d’Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe.

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About halfway, it started POURING!! right as we got hungry, so we opened my umbrella, sat on a bench, and chowed down on baguettes, hummus, and nectarines. When it finally stopped, we kept walking to the Arc, finally figured out how to cross the street to get to it (underground of course!), and escaped from more rain under its protection while eating eclairs. It was a very Parisian experience, albeit a bit stereotypical 🙂

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Besides our partial Metro boycott, our other saving grace budget-wise in Paris was buying grocery store food to eat on the go… baguettes, cheese, hummus, fruit… occasionally we treated ourselves to pastries as a reward for our frugality!!

The next object on our agenda was a visit to the Musee d’Orsay, which is located in an old train station and houses art from the 19th and 20th centuries. We picked it, at the recommendation of a few trustworthy people, over the Louvre for our Paris art museum experience… and it paid off! It was also a score that I, as an EU resident under 26, could get in for free! [On this basis, we also resolved to see the Army Museum, which we passed on the way, the next day. It was free for me and a good enough value for Laura that, especially because of the rain, we thought it would be worth it.]

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Orsay was a bit of an overwhelming experience, and I can’t even imagine how crazy the Louvre would be in terms of wanting to see everything but not having enough time! I loved seeing the Impressionists’ and Post-Impressionists’ work, and also tracking societal change through the decades as styles and subjects evolved. We spent a good 2-2.5 hours there, and stayed until closing, and still felt we’d had to rush at some parts!! Definitely worth it but plan on spending a LONG time there!

We’d found a creperie we wanted to try between the Army Museum and Eiffel Tower, but when we got there it was closed between lunch and dinner and given that it was still raining…. we settled for a little cafe/brewery-type place nearby and enjoyed some French food (quiche for me, duck for Laura) and a bit of respite from the rain. It was a really good thing we’d pushed through to make it to the Eiffel Tower that first night, as it would rain for basically the rest of our stay. After our daily metro ride back to Montmartre, we dried off, got in our pajamas, and drank wine and ate chocolate while watching Friends episodes which I am eternally grateful that I have on my computer! They have served me well during my travels.

[This post got really long really quickly. Part 2 of Part 3 to follow!]

pancakes, waffles, and crepes (oh my): part 2

Well, this installment of my travel updates is about 2 weeks late because I snuck the Amsterdam post in just hours before coming down with some weird 24-hour bug that Laura and I both seem to have gotten. While I recovered, I had to plan a class presentation in German, and then the next day I took the bus to meet Daniel at the Berlin airport! Then he spent the next week here with me in Germany (plus a weekend in Poland)… So I’ll do my best to play catch-up now! While diligently working on my research, of course. I only have about 7 weeks left here in Dresden 😦 and I have to make up for lost time on my writing!! I’ll try to make writing travel posts a nice reward for a hard day’s work. Anyway, here is part 2!

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The “waffles” portion of the week: Bruges, Belgium! Going from Amsterdam to Bruges was an interesting transition. You maybe wouldn’t foresee this, but Bruges is much more touristy than Amsterdam, just by virtue of being much smaller and almost solely dependent on tourism. So it was a strange change of pace. As it would happen, we once again had to walk almost all the way through town to get to our hostel, but we rushed through under the weight of our backpacks.

After checking in and depositing our stuff, our first objective was to go on a tour of Bruges’ only remaining brewery within city limits.We wanted to get a spot in a tour group but knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on, given that it was a Saturday. So we got our tickets for the next hour’s tour and went on a leisurely stroll around that area of town as we waited.

The Begijnhof complete with the famous swans:DSC05316

And the famous Church of Our Lady:

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The brewery tour itself was such a fantastic decision. Our tour guide was hilarious (she seemed to be a Bruges native). Learning about the history of the brewery, a family operation, as well as the process of brewing beer and the Belgian outlook on the whole thing was fascinating.

A few snippets:

“We are very careful not to burn the malt while drying it. If some does end up burnt, don’t worry, we use those only for exports to France.”

“The daily amount brewed at the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam is equivalent to how much we brew annually. The only difference is that we brew beer.”

We also got a great view of the whole town! A great budget option for anyone who wants to go to Bruges in the future: don’t pay 8 euros to climb to the top of the tower; go on the 6.25-euro brewery tour which already includes the cost of one beer (delicious, by the way)!

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For our walk back to the main square, we grabbed a famous Belgian waffle from a street stand. The locals eat them plain or just with powdered sugar (we got some chocolate, as well, but we saw some tourists going crazy with the toppings) and always as a mid-afternoon treat as opposed to for breakfast.

Then we made the rounds of the main Bruges sights: the Burg square (I think… it’s been so long now!!) with the gorgeous, medieval town hall (and a much newer hotel, which was built on the historic site on the condition that the public would be free to descend to the basement to see ruins of Bruges’ first cathedral). Following the advice of our favorite travel guide Rick Steves, we did a 360-degree turn in the square and witnessed 5 different architectural styles all at once! During the month of May, Bruges was also hosting an accordion festival, so they had a big stage set up, as well.

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Nearby is the main square, which is home to rows of multicolored buildings, an elaborate post office building, and the famous lookout tower (name? Is this town hall? Who can remember….). We also got lost and made it down to the Cathedral, one of the other defining towers of the city, along with the “town hall” tower and Church of Our Lady.

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By the time we made it to a lot of the sights we wanted to see, besides the ruins in the hotel basement, they had closed for the day, so we made a plan for the following day to hit everything we wanted to see and headed to dinner at an off-the-beaten-path type place near our hostel… I had some delicious pork and mashed potatoes, my favorite 🙂

On Sunday, we made our way first thing to the town hall, where we were the first visitors of the day. The interior was truly stunning: a medieval meeting room adorned with murals telling the story of the city, with almost too much detail to take in! It was definitely worth the price. Highly recommended.

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We headed next door for Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which does indeed house a relic of the Holy Blood, which we were able to venerate after a [liturgically questionable] “International Mass” in the gorgeous basilica. Gotta love Europe 😉

Venerating the Holy Blood, brought to Bruges during the Crusades

Venerating the Holy Blood, brought to Bruges during the Crusades. “Blood of Christ, inebriate me”

Next on our lists: obtaining some Belgian chocolates! We went to a little mom-and-pop place which seems to have maintained its quality and originality even after being recommended by a bunch of travel guides… we bought a small box and proceeded to ration the chocolates for the remainder of our trip! Between these and our Dutch stroopwaffels, we were never low on sweets!

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Our main event for the day was a short excursion to the outlying town of Damme, so we quickly returned to our hostel to change into bike-appropriate outfits before making a quick stop at the nearby grocery store to get the picnic essentials: bread, cheese, fruit, and a few Trappist beers! We rented two bikes for the day and set out on our merry way in pursuit of windmills–which we found about 5 kilometers down the road (or, more accurately, down the canal).

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We got to go inside this working windmill just outside Damme, which was awesome! Laura tried to bond with the operator about the soccer game he was listening to on the radio, but he didn’t speak any English.

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Then we made our way to our picnic location: Damme’s cathedral! We had a little adventure trying to open our beers. I thought I had acquired enough German knowhow to be able to open a beer bottle with my keys, but apparently not, since we created enough of a ruckus with our failed efforts to attract the attention of some nearby folks, including (luckily) one guy with a bottle opener as a keychain. I really should get one of those. But it was worth it because the beers (one Doppel and one Trippel) were delicious!

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After a quick look inside the cathedral and a fast cruise through the town center, we headed back to Amsterdam, this way by a more scenic path: we saw sheep, cows, and 3 more windmills! I wouldn’t be surprised if these weren’t operational but they were still pretty… and very close to our hostel, surprisingly! So we stopped by our room quickly to eat a few chocolates and make a plan for the afternoon.

We still had our bikes until the shop closed at 8, so we decided to make use of them. We biked into town, watched a few accordion performances at the festival, and then went on a haphazard bike tour of Bruges, just going wherever we felt like, orienting ourselves based on the towers, and getting a new perspective on the city. We even saw a Texas flag, a little taste of home!

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After one last drive-by of the windmills, we turned in our bikes and headed for another delicious Belgian dinner. I enjoyed pork again (I didn’t realize the pattern until afterwards but it was delicious regardless), and we ended up talking to the guy at the next table, who was German (from Munich/Bavaria). We had met some Germans at our brewery tour, as well; I suppose Belgium is a popular “nearby” destination?

With our stomachs full, we turned in for the night, looking forward to our journey to Paris the next day. When we booked our [expensive, ugh] tickets to Paris, the cheaper [kind of] option had been to depart later in the morning rather than earlier, so the next day we lounged around in a park nearby the train station, reflecting on our trip thus far, before catching our train.

Bruges was certainly a change of pace from Amsterdam–and couldn’t be more different from Paris, as we would find out–but it is really a lovely town once you get past the incredible touristy-ness of it. It is all GORGEOUS because of the town’s giant efforts several decades ago to focus on restoring its gorgeous architecture in anticipation of a tourism boom… and what a gift those restorations have been! It’s nice to get a little blast from the past, to imagine how life would have been in a different time and place.

pancakes and waffles and crepes (oh my): part 1

pancakes

And yes, while in Amsterdam we did eat pancakes… every morning for breakfast! Dutch pancakes are delicious with Nutella.

Please forgive me for that terrible title, but once I thought of it, I had to.

A for Annie and Amsterdam!

A for Annie and Amsterdam!

Part 1 of Annie and Laura’s Excellent Adventure found us in Amsterdam for just about 2 days. I took a night train (my first ever) to meet Laura at the Amsterdam train station at about 10 AM on Thursday morning. The train left at about 9 from Dresden, and while it was perfect timing to arrive shortly after Laura’s transatlantic flight, I was too cheap to book a bed reservation so I endured several painful hours of sleeping in odd positions, and I have vowed to never do a night train again before I have the necessary $$$ to get an actual bed!

We started our trip auspiciously, kicking off our pattern of being very ambitious on our first day in every city; just doing as much as humanly possible! The walk to our hostel was long but it took us through the heart of Amsterdam and gave us a taste of what was to come. We had to wait a few hours to check into our hostel, so we ate a long-awaited “breakfast” after not having eaten for way too long on both of our parts. Then we explored the nearby Vondelpark, home of one of several “I Amsterdam” signs:

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After checking in, we hit the streets hard! We followed Rick Steves’ walking tour — but backwards, because it ended at the Rijksmuseum, which was very nearby to our hostel. This led to some fun “wait, left or right? Did we already pass it??” moments, but overall we were able to see so much.

The Rijksmuseum itself is striking; there we saw the “more famous” I Amsterdam as well as our only Holland tulips sighting!

 

Of course the canals are striking and unique. There are several large, bustling squares full of shops, restaurants, and “coffee shops” interspersed, and as you wind your way through the streets you are just as likely to stumble upon a flower stand as you are a marijuana-dispersing shop or a 500-year-old church.  One of the defining features of the landscape, besides the canals, are the old towers which used to be parts of the city walls, but which now stand out as the tallest structures in the city for the most part.

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One interesting concept we first encountered in Amsterdam and also later in Bruges was a “Begijnhof,” living communities which used to house groups consecrated Catholic women who weren’t members of religious orders. The Amsterdam Begijnhof was very hidden, and on our way to finding it we stumbled into probably the most beautiful or my favorite church I’ve ever seen in Europe. It was built in a Gothic style but was lighter inside than most Gothic churches because of the bright colors of its decor. Eventually we did find the Begijnhof and we were able to go to Adoration for a little bit in the church there.

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After we finished half of Rick Steves’ tour, we caught a boat tour through the canals which was really great. It was by no means a comprehensive view of the city, but it offered a very unique perspective to the city and allowed us to hear about the transformation of Amsterdam’s layout throughout the centuries: which canal houses the richest residents (and the mayor), which bridges are the oldest, how to distinguish between gables shapes, etc.

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We had a goal of getting to the Anne Frank House 1.5-2 hours before it closed, so we headed in that direction with the idea of eating dinner along the way, which proved…. challenging. We eventually found an affordable Indonesian option, which was really delicious, surprisingly! And we made it to the Anne Frank House in time to make the full rounds.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the House, which is definitely one of the more famous attractions in Amsterdam and one that I have been aware of since I was very small and my dad visited it (and brought back souvenirs for us). On the one hand, I find Anne Frank’s story incredibly inspiring and intriguing, and I’ve read her diary several times. On the other hand, what could really  be conveyed about her story and the history of the Holocaust just through an ordinary house? Also, through my experiences seeing concentration camps and other WWII/Holocaust sites, I was familiar with the odd sensation of viewing something historically tragic yet being unable to process, or indeed access, the “appropriate” emotions to go along with them. But anyway, the Anne Frank House was really interesting and, in an odd way, moving.

The bottom levels of the warehouse, Mr. Frank’s place of business, are furnished in approximations of how they would have been, and you can see displays detailing the history of the family and the business: when the Franks emigrated to the Netherlands from Germany, how the different colleagues came to work there and befriend each other, how the German invasion impacted the daily lives of Dutch Jews, and how the Franks’ and Van Pels’ hiding was coordinated years in advance. There are also several videos, accounts years later from the different non-Jewish coworkers who helped to hide the Franks about what happened in those years. One of the most chilling things on the lower levels was hearing the ceiling above squeak under the footfalls of the other museum visitors; how easy it must have been for the hide-outs in the Annex to slip up and alert a warehouse worker!

The humble exterior

The humble exterior

Upstairs, in the secret annex (stepping through the secret bookcase, the original, was a surreal moment), there are no furnishings, though before entering we were able to see a scale model of how the rooms would have looked in the 40s. Being physically in the spaces was another experience of that surreal detachment. I could appreciate that a young Anne had taken it upon herself to decorate her walls, and I noticed how tiny Peter’s staircase room seemed (but noted that he was the only one with his very own room), and it was obvious how oppressive it must have been to spend two whole years in this tiny space with no sunlight and minimal connections to the outside world.

But it wasn’t until the very end of the exhibit, reading about Otto Frank’s survival of the concentration camp and his single-minded determination to get Anne’s diary published, that it hit me: this man sacrificed everything, his whole life, to protect his family, to get them into hiding, to save them from the inevitable. And he was the only one who survived. What a heartbreaking thought. But what an amazing testament to the impact of a single person’s life on the world! He did what was at his disposal: finding a publisher and an audience for his young daughter’s diaries. What a small task, but one unique to him, that only he had the power to accomplish! And see how he changed the world through that act of love.

On Friday, we got going bright and early thanks to a somewhat unwelcome wakeup call in our hostel room. We resumed the Rick Steves tour where we had left off: we saw the National Monument which recognizes victims of the Holocaust / WWII, as well as the New Church (not gonna try the Dutch spelling… I can almost understand spoken Dutch and reading it is fine but spelling is just a totally different animal), an old, ornate pedestrian market turned shopping center, and one of the most intriguing finds of the day, a “hidden church” from the times of Protestant oppression of Catholic practices, still in operation, right across from a McDonalds!

 

A selection of Amsterdam's gorgeous history: this is the pedestrian shopping center

A selection of Amsterdam’s gorgeous history: this is the pedestrian shopping center

And the frankly odd National Monument

And the frankly odd National Monument

We made our way back to the central station to check out trains to Bruges the next day and accidentally wandered into the Red Light District on the way back before realizing where we were, but I guess that’s something we can check off the list!

At this point, we had barreled through so many of the Amsterdam “musts” that we had a bit more freedom to follow our whims. And you know this was the ultimate “girls’ week(end)” when our first “whim” was to go on a free tour of a diamond workshop!!!

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It really was incredible. Laura listed it as one of her favorite things of the whole week, and I’m not one to complain about spending an hour looking at beautiful, shiny things! We learned all about the 4 C’s of diamonds and got to see sample gems cut at the workshop there in Amsterdam, some of which were worth thousands of Euros! Then we saw some “finished” jewelry pieces and even got to try some of them on.

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Then we wandered to the southeast portion of town, which is now considered the “green museum quarter” (because of the many parks and museums) and was also historically a predominantly Jewish area. We enjoyed delicious sandwiches right near the Dutch Theater, which is a gorgeous building with a chilling past, as it was used as a mass deportation site during the German occupation. After exploring the surrounding area, we took a little rest in a nearby park along a canal.

The Dutch Theater

The Dutch Theater

 

We stocked up on grocery store bread, cheese, fruit, and several discounted packages of Stroopwafels, which are as far as I’m concerned the Netherlands’ greatest contribution to humanity, and ended our second amazing day in Amsterdam in the Vondelpark with a picnic.

Two days seemed short to me, and I could have spent more time in Amsterdam, I think. It seems like such a small town — and really, it is… I think I remember hearing that fewer than a million people actually live in the city? Some things about it… the ever-present weed smell, for one… are not my favorite, but what a charming, eclectic, and beautiful city Amsterdam is! I am certainly glad to have experienced it.

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And with one of my best friends, no less!

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Next… Bruges!

epic May trips part 2

About this time last year I was getting ready to graduate from the University of Texas

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and go on an epic road trip to Colorado with 8 of my very best friends

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and about this time this year, I am getting ready to go on an epic trip through northwestern Europe with one of my very best friends

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and it’s going to be the best trip ever or at least since since 2013!

The timing of this trip is the result of a huge fail on my part since I referred to last year’s academic calendar instead of this year’s and thought that I would have next week off… when in fact our Pentecost break isn’t for a few more weeks because Easter was late this year!!

But it’s too late to turn back now!!!