July 2014 archive

Back to reality

Hey all. We’ve been home for a week now — whew! The jetlag has worn off and while vacations are what I live for, it’s good to be home. Joe is already gone again –he left for Portland on Saturday. What happens in Portland? Software conferences and homework! Joe has one paper to complete for his final MBA course. He’ll be home Thursday.

I went to the Lake of the Ozarks yesterday with my dear friend Melissa. Lots of fund in the sun was just what I needed because today, I dusted off my dissertation. I’m not exaggerating — there really was dust on the literature that lives in piles on my office floor — ack! I finished about 5 pages of chapter 5.

For folks who do not have Facebook, here is the link to some of our photos from Europe: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.849859139057.1073741826.74601262&type=1&l=e030ff0623

London: Last Day!

London: Last Day!
Hello from up in the air somewhere! We are couple hours away from Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s been such a relaxing flight — after a couple really busy weeks, it’s feels great to zone out and relax.

Yesterday, we spent our final day in London. We had a great breakfast at the BnB which actually ended up lasting a for few hours — good food and fun conversation. The BnB is operated by a British woman who is a retired business executive. I would recommend her accommodations to anyone with high regard. Next, we went to tour the Tower of London, a castle which used to house Britain’s royalty and was later converted to a prison. Today, the crown jewel’s are stored there deep inside a vault which contains moving walkways for the continuous crowds who come to view these historic treasures. Yeoman wardens, also known as Beefeaters, give tours of the tower which mostly focused on executions. For me, the tour guides stories were unenjoyable — but, I have an aversion to violent stories– no matter how old or ridiculous they are!

We had a nice lunch in an Italian restaurant we later realized was a chain — oh well! It was good! Next, we took a train to the Docklands and checked out a shopping mall — this area of London felt very different. In fact, we both agreed it felt quite a bit like Des Moines, IA! Not much hustle and bustle with some nice scenic lakes.

After a little shopping, we headed back towards Central London and toured the Tate Modern museum. This gallery showcases works by Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Monet, and Picasso. We appreciated some works more than others. A few pieces didn’t look too complicated. One in particular was just regular medicine chest hanging on wall — its significance was lost on us. But overall, I think the impressive pieces outweighed those we found somewhat questionable. We stayed until the gallery closed at 6 pm.

Wanting to take in as much of the city as we could in our last day, we walked a few miles along the river Thames. After returning to the BnB, we headed back out for a late night dessert at a pub.

This morning, we got up at 5:15, bid adieu to our BnB host and took our final ride on the underground. At the airport, we did some last minute duty free souvenir shopping and now, here we are on the plane!

Tonight, we have a 4 layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. Joe’s parents dare driving up from South Carolina to meet us for supper — yay! Then, we’ll head out to St. Louis and finally, sweet home Rolla, Missouri! By the time we get home, it will be around 10 pm, which will actually feel like 3 am. Doesn’t sound too bad — we’ll see!

London : Day 12

Today began with a 5:30 am wakeup call at sea. We spent a night on the Stenaline Ferry — sort of like a mini cruise ship. The ship contained a condensed amount of amenities — private cabins for sleeping and showering, a store, restaurant, movie theatre, basketball court and a few slot machines. After boarding, we explored the areas, but then jumped into bed in preparation for an early wake-up call. I fell asleep right away, but Joe had a tougher time — the water was really choppy and ferry’s don’t really stabilize — so lots of ocean motion!

After we landed, we took a train from Harwich into London. After stowing our luggage at the train station, we headed straight for St. Paul’s Cathedral. This tour marks our sixth and final cathedral tour of the trip and it did not disappoint! Using the audio guide, we learned all about the church’s history. This church survived the Blitz of WWII, in fact a group of 40 volunteers guarded the church as a “bomb-squad” every night — extinguishing the small bombs before they detonated. The dome of the building spires above the London sky-line. We hiked up hundreds of spiraled steps to to all three dome look-outs. The first look- out, called the whispering gallery, is essentially a ledge around the interior of of the dome. The architecture is such that whispers carry astoundingly well around and across the dome. The next two look-outs required that we hike up several steep metal spiral staircases surrounded by metal fencing to provide some additional safe-guarding. These stairs scared the be-jeebers out of me — but I found some comfort in their sacred location! The bird’s eye view of London was nice — our climb paid off.

Next, we headed to the West End, London’s theatre district, for a matinee showing of Stomp. I loved it and Joe fell asleep! This is actually pretty typical for Joe at theatrical performances, but I was somewhat impressed on this particular occasion — Stomp is not a quiet show — it’s basically two hours of garbage can percussion. There were a few times when it got so loud, I kind of wanted to cover my ears. I am tempted to share a list of other mildly entertaining occasions when Joe has fallen asleep, but I shall refrain.

After the play, we picked up our bags and headed to check into our final accommodations — the Pooters BnB. This particular BnB is quite small with two guest rooms. It’s owned by a lovely British woman named Allyson who has been a nice host so far. There is an Italian man staying here too. We haven’t caught a glimpse of him yet, but we should all meet tomorrow at breakfast!

Amsterdam: Day 10 and 11

Amsterdam: Day 10 and 11
Hello from the train tracks! We just wrapped up our final 2 days in Amsterdam. Tonight, we’re headed out to sea on an overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich (England). We are spending 2 more days in London before we fly out of Heathrow on Saturday morning.

We throughly enjoyed our time in Amsterdam. Yesterday, we toured the church where Rembrandt is buried. We actually stumbled upon the building on our way to the Anne Frank House. It was a Protestant church, which (perhaps under the power of suggestion) made it feel more familiar than the other catholic cathedrals we’ve visited on this trip.

Touring the Anne Frank House was one thing I was most looking forward to on our trip. When I was in third grade, my Mom started reading parts of Anne’s diary out loud and then convinced me to finish reading it myself. The majority of the story came flooding back as we toured the rooms of the secret annex. The house is now a museum and a large and persistent crowd tours the space every day. The bookcase that hid the entry to the secret annex is completely in tact. The magazine pictures that Anne glued to her bedroom wall were also preserved, along with a map where Otto Frank had tracked the progress of the Ally invasion. At Otto’s request, the rooms were left empty of props or furniture to signify the mass extinction of Jewish life and culture that occurred. Certainly the horrors of the holocaust are not lost on many, but what is difficult for me to wrap my mind around is how recent the events actually were to my lifetime. Did you know that (if all were still alive today) Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr. and Barbara Walters would all be the same age?

After the tour we grabbed some pizza for a late lunch (we eat meals at the oddest hours, and rarely make 3 meals a day — eating in restaurants takes a lot more time in Europe — their service is purposely slow and relaxed. It’s nice, but sometimes it’s a little stressful, when you’re hoping to make it to the next site before it closes. On this particular occasion, we didn’t make it to our next site — the Gassan diamond polishing demonstration. Oh well! We took a detour through the red light district instead. This particular neighborhood is quite small — in fact we checked our map a few times to locate it. The district hosts prostitutes, who rent out store windows and solicit business — one of the world’s oldest professions. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this neighborhood. I ended up feeling a little startled by the women knocking on the glass as we walked by. It was awkward and neither of us were really sure where to look. Curiosity brought us there and after 3 blocks, I think, I was glad I could check this item off my list as done, saw it, won’t need to see it again.

Today, we booked a day trick to see the Holland contryside. We boarded a double-decker motorcoach at 9 am and headed towards our first stop in , Zaanse Schans, a small town that still operates windmills from the 1600’s. We were able to tour the interior of one of the windmills where peanut oil is still produced today. The windmills were beautiful and the town had a real storybook quality with cute little houses, dutchman riding bikes, and the cleanest looking farm animals I’ve ever seen — sheep and goats — happily chomping on grass.

Our next stop was Voldedam, a fisherman’s village with sevearl sea-side eateries and a cheesefactory. We toured the factory and sampled several different varieties of fresh cheese. We had lunch in gorgeous little cafe and we had the place completly to ourselves. I had a salad with fresh goat cheese which was made right in town — delicious!

After lunch, we boarded a boat to Marken, another small sea-side village. Here, we toured a clog-making facotry. I thought this activity looked kind of hokey in the tour brochure, but our tour guide was very engaging. She demonstrated a pair of clogs being made from a block of poplar wood. She also told a story about how clogs used to be used for marriage propoals in Marken. When a man went out to sea, he would bring some wood along with him on the boat. He’d carve the clogs by hand and then put his name on one foot and the name of his sweetheart on the other. Months later, upon his return to the village, he would leave the clogs on his sweetheart’s doorstep. In the morning, if the clogs were taken inside, the proposal was accepted. If not, the proposal was declined. The tourguide shared that her father proposed to her mother 3 times with clogs before she accepted (the third proposal included a diamond ring from Amsterdam:)) The tour guide admitted that she wears clogs every day with a pair of thick woolen socks. Suddenly, I wanted a pair of these ridiculous wooden shoes too! Luckily, i held strong and the moment has officially passed!

We returned to Amsterdam on the motor-coach and decided to check out The Art of the Brick exhibition right next door to our hotel. This exhibition actually highlights a New York artist’s work with lego blocks. I think these pieces speak for themselves! The exhibit was so fun and it was nice to be inside — it has been in the 50s and raining throughout these past 2 days. Isn’t it July? Brrr!!!

Amsterdam: Day 9

Hello from Holland! Our day began bright and early with a 5 am wake-up call. We showered and ran out the door of the the Hotel Metropole. The running continued at the train station as we jumped on the Thalys training without a minute to spare. Once the train started moving, we both fell asleep as we traveled through Antwerp and Rotterdam. When we arrived in Amsterdam, we got oriented and checked into our next hotel — Citizen M Amsterdam City. This particular hotel has a modern Ikea vibe. Half of the room is taken up by a square extra-long King size bed. The other half has two glass capsules — one with a shower and the other with a commode. You can adjust the light color for both the capsules using the room’s mood-pad. I am calling this our spaceship room.

After checking in, we got some breakfast at a cafe and decided to hop on a canal cruise to start exploring the city. Joe’s first impression of Amsterdam was that it reminded him of Minneapolis. It’s not too hot and not too cold. The city feels very clean and new. I was pretty surprised — I was really expecting something with more of a New Orleans vibe, but I haven’t felt that way so far. There are bicycles and canal boats everywhere you turn. There’s modern architecture in some neighborhoods while others contain long lines of tall, skinny historic homes with gabled roofs.

The city natives speak Dutch to one another, but it seems like everyone also speaks flawless English to out-of-towners. The canal tour included a narration that looped in 4 different languages.

After the tour, we did a little more exploring on foot. We wandered the flower market, which offers every variety of flower bulb. I wish I had some room in my suitcase for the “Queen of the Night’ black tulip bulbs! We also toured some cheese shops, sampling all the locally made varieties — again, more room in the suitcase would be great!

After shopping, we headed in to tour the Van Gogh museum. Vincent is one of my favorite artists, so I was really looking forward to touring all 4 floors of his work. The curators of this particular museum did an amazing job of creating exhibits that draw you in to he story of Van Gogh’s life. While I think a lot of his life story is common knowledge, I felt I was hearing about it all for the first time, sort of like when you read a good novel or see a good movie about a historical event. One thing I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh wasn’t actually a self-taught prodigy. He actually struggled to develop his artistic talent and often relied on artistic tools that were frowned upon by other artists. He also engaged a number of meticulous processes to develop his masterpiece, often creating multiple practice paintings on site before even starting the version inside his studio. His style swung like a pendulum, starting out exclusively with dull, almost black earth tones before swiftly transitioning into the century’s first modern colorist. I was thrilled with this particular museum!

Next, we hit of the Hard Rock Cafe for supper. The restaurant is located right on the canal and we got a table with a great view of the water. We are back at the hotel now and getting ready to watch a movie and rest up for tomorrow. Good night all!

Brussels: Day 8

Hello from Belgium! I’m typing this post in a huge puffy bed in the Hotel Metropole — our one and only 5 star accommodation on this trip. Joe and I are both pretty thrifty people, but since Brussels is the EU capital city, hotel prices are slashed in July and August when their government is out of session. I was excited about the birdcage elevator and the lavender crystal chandelier above our bed.

We packed up this morning and headed for the train station. The morning was pretty uneventful until we sat breakfast in the train station. We were chomping away at our final french pastries, when suddenly I heard a plop and Joe’s doughnut was covered with something. I was so confused, for a second I thought he had thrown up. But, Joe set me straight — a pigeon had flown into the station and pooped right over our table. How’s that for keeping it real?

After the train ride and checking into our hotel, we set out to stroll the streets of Brussels. This is by far the smallest city we’ve visited so far with a population of about 1 million people. While Brussels doesn’t have many well-known ticketed attractions, it’s high on ambiance. Our first destination was the Grand Place, which is known as the most beautiful square in Europe. We ate a late lunch — ordering many belgian specialties including waffles, beer, and frittes (french fries, cooked twice and served with mayonnaise). Joe also ordered some lasagna and we shared everything. It was all amazingly delicious.

After lunch we took in some of the action in the square. We checked out a few of the shops which host other Belgian trademarks — chocolate and hand-made lace. Due to pouring rain and neither of us feeling the best (Joe has a cold and I ate too many waffles) we decided to call it an early night. We have both been enjoying some R&R — I took a bubble bath and Joe has been watching Wimbelton. Tomorrow, we head out on the early train to Amsterdam — good night!

Paris: Day 7

Good evening from Paris! Today was our final day in the city of light — sad! I really loved the time we spent here. Last night after I finished my post, we decided to do a little laundry in the bathroom sink. We packed some travel packets of Tide that are intended for hand-laudering. Joe strung up a make-shift clothes line and we took turns washing, rinsing, and wringing. At first it was kind of fun, but the process lost it’s luster quickly and by the end of it all — we sort of missed the washing machine. In the morning, Joe woke up before me and brought all the clothes to a laundromat to finish drying them. On his way out, he actually stumbled upon a laundromat that was a lot closer than we had thought — like, you could see it out the hotel window. So the whole laundry situation was kind of humorous.

For breakfast, we both enjoyed some treats from the boulangerie across the street — Joe had a chocolate chip baguette and I had a broccoli and ham quiche. Next, we set out to tour St. Chapelle. This particular church is quite small, with two sanctuaries stacked atop one another. It’s know for its immaculate stained glass windows, which tell stories from the first several books of the Old Testament. It is quite amazing that these windows still exist as much of church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Back then, the church housed relics of the Passion of Christ including His crown of thorns, which was purchased by the church for more than the value of the entire building itself.

Next, we took a walk across the Pont des Arts bridge near the Louvre. This bridge is known for undying love as demonstrated by the thousands of locks, inscribed with 2 names and a date, clamped on by its visitors. Once the lock is clamped, the lovers throw the keys over into the river. Joe was somewhat hesitant to join in this tradition, as recent news stories have shared concern about the added weight of the locks on this particular bridge. But! I have confidence the civil engineers of France are dealing with the matter. Don’tja know wives can be much more convincing than news stories? It’s true, for those with nice husbands anyway:)

Our next stop was the Opera Garnier — Paris’s opera house. The interior decor drew me towards this particular sight. The ceiling in the auditorium was re-painted by Marc Chagall in the late 60’s — his paintings of ballet dancers are his most well-known work. This site was truly beautiful — I’ll post pictures when we get home!

Next, we ate lunch at Pomme de Pain, which is like a European equivalent of Panera. I had a vegetarian baguette sandwich and Joe had the lasagna. Both orders came with a bottle of water and a raisin croissant — very good, very filling!

Next, we decided it was time to do some shoppingI We are not much for souvenirs, but Paris is the fashion capital of the world so I decided some shoes would make a great souvenier! The Galleries Lafayette, Paris’s largest department store, has an entire floor of shoes, so we went there first. I found exactly what I was looking for — kelly green pumps. The photo in the link is not the right color, but it’s close enough. Next, we hopped back on the metro and headed towards the Arc de Triumphe and the Champs Elysees. After taking a few pictures near the monument, we continued shopping on the most famous street in Paris. This boulevard has 6 lanes of traffic and many high end stores — Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, etc. I got a dress from Zara. We also checked out all 3 car stores — Toyota, Renault, and Mercedez Benz. I love the Renaults! Joe loved them all — he is a car guy, after all! I can’t really imagine ordering a car from a store with 5 showroom models you can’t take out the building, but hey, whatever works for Paris — it was fun to look.

It was a great day — tomorrow we leave for Brussels on the high-speed Thalys train. Our internet was out yesterday, but it’s back now (obviously); click back here for Day 6 and Joe’s food commentary.

French Food

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The food here is pretty good. I am actually surprised. I purchased a baguette with chocolate chips this morning from the bakery across from the hotel. It is amazing. Super light and fluffy. The Fanta here is amazing too. I remember hearing that it is different but it is great. Not knowing any French, it looks like there is 10% juice in it. There is actually pieces of orange floating inside of it.

We went to McDonald’s yesterday for the first time over here. That was different in a very good way. The McNuggets were smaller than in the states, but they tasted fresher. They weren’t as salty and fatty. It seems consistent that portions are about a third smaller than at home. Not a bad thing when you keep trying different things.

Paris — Day 6

Late post from yesterday — the internet was down in our hotel!

Hello from France — it’s almost 8 PM here and I’m probably the only person in the whole country not watching the World Cup right now — France v. Germany — poor France is behind!

Today we traveled to the Versailles, a suburb of Paris and the home a historical french palace. The trip took about 45 minutes, using a combination of metro and RER (suburbs) trains.

King Louis and Marie-Antoinette were the last royals to inhabit the palace before they were driven out by peasants during the French Revolution. Louis and M-A weren’t exactly in touch with French society. As the people of France complained of not having any bread for their families, M-A responded with the infamous retort “Let them eat cake.” Their lavishness is shown throughout their sprawling estate.

We began by touring the Chateau — the main palace. The decor was immaculate; in fact, one might say that “fancy” threw up all over the place. The restoration and preservation of the palace is impeccable — I could not tell that the place was old — it truly felt like we had been transported back in time to view the everything as it appeared in the 18th century.

We finished the palace tour around 2 pm and got a late lunch at McDonald’s. I was really curious about the European McDonalds and Versailles really doesn’t have too many restuarant options. We entered our order on a touch screen computer that offered menus in 8 different languages. The menu options themselves were much different than those we have at home. I ordered ordered a Pomme de Terre Salade pour onions (Potato Salad with onions). This entree included a layer of seasoned boiled potatoes with skins on, followed my a layer of lettuce, followed by a few red onions and some deli turkey and onion dressing on top –very tasty. I also ordered a Eropean version of French fries which came with a sauce made from cream, garlic and herbs. To top it off, I also got a 4 piece McNugget which seemed pretty similar to the US nuggets (clearly, I was hungry!) Joe got nuggets and European fries too, sans salad. Our bill came to about 20 Euros (about 30 dollars) — a little pricey for fast food, but we wanted to try it!

After lunch, we headed back towards the palace to tour the gardens as well as the additional properties. In addition to being out of touch with society, M-A didn’t keep a firm grip on reality either. To get away from her stressful palace life of being waited on, she created a second palace to get away from it all. After getting settled in there, she still wasn’t satisfied so, she had a small town built as well, where she would go and pretend to be a peasant. This town included a vegetable garden and some livestock, which are both still there today. Vey odd — but, beautiful and fascinating to see.

The estate gardens were probably my favorite part of Versailles. They had fountains, fancy hedges pruned into shapes, mazes of tall hedges, gardens planted in geometrical patterns and a lake where we rented a row-boat. Joe rowed most of the time, but I tried it too. While the motion of rowing looks simple enough, I’d say it’s something that takes a little getting used to. Joe had some rowing experience though so we went around the lake with no problem at all. Storybook moment, for sure!

I got some gelato on our way back to the train — nom nom! We stopped a grocery store on our way back too and now we are back at the hotel, both a little sore from a LOT of walking. If I were to guess, we probably covered 10-12 miles. There are some petit trains (little trains) that shuttle folks around Versailles, but Joe Jackson is too cool for a petit train. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em — I’m officially rising above any need or affinity for petit trains as well.

Paris: Day 5

Bonjour! I am re-writing this post after losing it all when my iPad battery died — whoops.

We slept in until 10 today (9am London time). We purchased Paris Museum passes at the Jewish museum (strategy: Paris isn’t really known for this particular museum and as such, the line to purchase the museum passes was non-existent). Since we were there and we both have an above average amount of curiosity, we checked it all out, quickly. On our way out, the door man asked “Did you go in yet?’ After we we said “Yes;” he asked “Did you run?” Hardy har har!

Next we went to the Louvre, which was big and impressive. Did you know the Louvre was once the largest building in the world? It has 12 miles of master pieces including the mother of all masterpieces — the Mona Lisa. I was surprised how close we were able to get to the painting despite a large crowd of other eager admirers!

After a late lunch-early supper at a cafe, we toured Notre-Dame cathedral. The exterior is massive and ornate and the interior was covered in stained glass windows. We had planned to climb the steps to the tower, but it was unexpectedly closed today and tomorrow. Hiking plans quelled again — oh well! Guess we’ll take it easy, we’re on vacation!

Next, we hopped on Paris city bus #69 as recommended by the author of our guidebook — Rick Steves. The bus traveled by many of city’s main sites and the book provided a commentary we read along the way. I’m glad we did this, but the bus was really HOT. We were moving slow through the traffic and there wasn’t any air conditioning — c’st la vie!

That’s all for now — bonsoir!

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