Friday, December 24, 2010

April 27th, 2010

We drove to the coast of Normandy to see where D-Day happened.  First we went to the World War II museum in Cane France and spent a lot of time watching movies and looking at displays regarding the Allied invasion and liberation of Normandy.  We went through Bayeux, though I didn't have time to see the famed tapestry there.

We didn't have much time before the American National cemetary at Omaha beach closed, so we drove straight there.  It was a grim reminder of how much blood we left in Europe during World War II, seeing countless rows of white crosses across the beach.  After paying our respects at the graves, we walked down the beach and and stood in the sand that once was an Axis butcher field.

When we were finished, we returned to Paris, parking the rental car in the basement of the hotel and then for dinner we went back to the Italian restaurant that we first ate at near the hotel.  We wanted to have some of that delicious ice cream once more before my parents flew home.   The hotel staff even left chocolates on our pillows that night!

The next day we drove the rental to the airport, returned it, and then I saw my parents to the gate for their return flight.  It was another three days in Paris for me, and then a week in Athens before I'd rejoin them. 

All in all it was a great trip and definitely a fun way for me to wrap up my 9 months abroad working in France.    I loved showing my parents around the continent that I fell in love with when I was 19, and getting the rare occassion to put my European Studies and French degrees to good use.

April 26th, 2010

Today we were dedicated tourists.  We started off with the Louvre, a former palace turned museum.  From there we walked all over Paris, visiting the famed shopping district on the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower.  The Eiffel Tower might be my favorite place in Paris, especially when they light it up at night.

We ate lunch at a creperie.  I had a crepe with ham and cheese.  They were huge, like giant quesadillas, and quite filling.  For dinner we opted for a classic French meal at a French restaurant.  Onion soup, a really good filet of salmon...The meals are mom's favorite part, I think, and so far France has been a big success on that front.

We also made arrangements at the local Avis for a car rental for the next day, though Mom wasn't thrilled about that.  Driving through Brussels was harrowing enough that she wasn't looking forward to trying it again, but we were determined.

April 25th, 2010

Sunday brought us to downtown Paris again, this time in search of the Sunday morning meeting of the local Parisian ward.  We found it in time for sacrament meeting, and they had translation in English for the folks.  From church we hopped a train to Versailles, where we took a tour of the luxurious extravagance of the court of the Sun King.

Murals, paintings, mirrors, chandeliers, it was the seat of power of the world's headquarters of culture in the 17th century.  You could almost see the musketeers patrolling the halls.  We didn't explore the gardens, they were big enough to go hunting stag if we wanted and we were still a little exhausted from the previous day.  We took the train back to Paris and ended up in a little area behind the Notre Dame cathedral.

The funny thing about Notre Dame is that its an incredibly famous landmark now, but in the 1800's it was fairly unknown.  The post-revolutionary French government was in debt and was planning on dismantling the building and selling it for construction parts.  The poet and writer, Victor Hugo heard about this and rightly thought it was a travesty.  He wrote the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame to raise awareness of the building. Sure enough, the national attention caught fire and now it is one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.

We ate dinner in the area behind the cathedral and then returned to the hotel for another night's rest.

April 24th, 2010

This morning we took the train from Amsterdam back down to Paris.

The hardest part was getting from the train to our hotel.  It involved navigating the Parisian metro system with all of our luggage.  They are crowded enough without the piles of suitcases, but somehow we managed to haul everything back above ground.  Then it was a long walk from the metro to our hotel, and we nearly lost our will to move several times.  We were exhausted but we eventually came to the light at the end of the tunnel: The Marriott Hotel!  (insert picture)  Mom and Dad were glad to have a little slice of America and our room was great.  I even had my own bed this time, in the form of a fold-out couch.

This was my fourth time in Paris so I pretty much had the tour down pat at this point.   I like to start with the Montmartre district, a neighborhood of Paris immortalized in crime films from the 40's and 50's, and more recently in Moulin Rouge.  The tour begins at the bottom of a hill, in a pretty sleazy area filled with cabarets, kebab shops, and sex shops.  You then ascend the winding hill through communities of artists and bohemians until you arrive at the top of the hill, the magnificent Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  I had a professor who compared it to ascending from hell to heaven.  The Basilique overlooks the hill and provides a wonderful panoramic view of the city.  Its a great way to start the Paris portion of the trip, although mom's feet did not appreciate the climb.  She was already run pretty ragged by the ordeal of getting our luggage to the hotel.

Going down, we took a new trolley/lift that saved us a downward climb, and then we headed back towards our hotel.  There was a cozy little Italian restaurant in the neighborhood where our hotel was (Neuilly-sur-Seine). The food was great but it was the ice cream that made us decide we needed to come back before the trip was over.  After that we returned to our hotel room and called it a day.

Our hotel is Point A.

Our metro stop was Anatole France.  It doesn't seem that far but its a bit of a walk with luggage.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

April 23rd, 2010

We took the bus to Keukenhof and saw the tulip expo.  Its an enormous garden where tulip growers show off their flowers.  I had been there twice before, once as a missionary and again with Matthew Lanoy during our trip to Holland.  There was a windmill, a hedge maze, and thousands and thousands of tulips.  Mom and dad enjoyed looking over the various options for what flowers they'd someday want to plant, but I think the highlight of the visit for mom was the petting zoo.  There was a pony in there that she just had to go in and pet.

After Keukenhof, we became Harlem globetrotters by touring the city of Haarlem.  We stopped off at a nice department store and then spent some time wandering the riverside.  We saw a really cool windmill but by the time we arrived it had closed for the day.  Dinner was Indian food, something mom had been craving.  I got the spicy south Indian style dish and heartily enjoyed it.  I learned some Dutch words from our waitress, and then we returned to Amsterdam on the train, exhausted from an entire day of walking.

Tomorrow: Paris!

April 22nd, 2010

I AMsterdam, or so the T-Shirts declare.

We took a canal tour of the city, which was pretty interesting.  We got to see a lot of classic Dutch architecture. We opted out of the Van Gogh museum and instead visited the Anne Frank house.  It was a sobering experience to be sure, and it made me think about how much things have changed in Europe in the past seventy years.

The food wasn't as good as in Brussels, but we did find a pretty decent Italian place for dinner.

We spent the rest of the day walking around Amsterdam, looking at the carnival that was going on downtown and getting ready for a travel day the next day.  We bought tickets for the bus to Keukenhoff and Haarlem and returned to our hip hotel where I slept on the floor of our swanky little room.

April 21st, 2010

We took a train to Amsterdam, a trip that was blessedly uneventful, with nothing stolen.  I sat amongst the baggage to keep an eye on our things just to be safe.  We got to Holland and managed to navigate through its subway system with all of our luggage.  Not an easy feat, the subways come a bit slower than what I'm used to and I don't speak any Dutch so it was an interesting experience.  In Belgium and France I at least knew how to read the street signs and whatnot, here I felt like a genuine tourist.

We arrived at a very hip hotel, the QBic. Outside of our hotel was a tiny car that Mom and I found quite hillarious.

 The hotel itself was classic Amsterdam, complete with neon strobe lights that for may be beneficial in adding a 'psychedelic' ambiance that many guests are seeking.  Mom, however, was not a fan of the fact that the bathroom didn't have a door on it.  She didn't like that one bit.

We left the hotel room to walk around downtown Amsterdam, where we found a store called Drake's! At first we thought it was a video store and we were mostly right.  But it was....a very adult video store.  Ah, Amsterdam.

We did Japanese for dinner and then, to add something authentically Dutch to the experience, we got Vla (drinkable pudding) and stroopwaffels, which are little waffle snacks with caramel in them that you can heat up and dip in your hot chocolate.

Having spent a great deal of the day in travel, we called it a night.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

April 20th, 2010

Tuesday was our road trip day.  Brussels is fairly centrally located in Belgium, and made a great staging point for our trips to Waterloo and Bastogne.  Our first stop was to Midi Station to get breakfast and buy train tickets to Holland.  We then rented a car from the Avis outlet and began our pilgrimage.

"I like the car, but this budget GPS seems like it might be broken..."

We made our way to Waterloo and watched a movie about Napoleon's defeat, which changed the course of European history and also set a precedent to calling anything that threatens to destroy someone's career as 'so-and-so's Waterloo.  Seriously, watch the news for an hour and count how many times the words 'Obama'a Waterloo' are spoken when they're talking about health care reform or tax cuts expiring.

We climbed the Butte du Lion, a huge hill erected over the field where Napoleon was ganged up on by the rest of Europe and lost.  Mom made it up all 262 steps (a Belgian family counted them as they climbed ahead of us), which may have been a bit over ambitious, but Mom never backs down from a challenge.
The view from the top...Mom wanted to show how many stairs she tackled

Proof that we made it to the top
The view from the bottom.

We left Waterloo and drove to Bastogne, site of a more recent battle: The Battle of the Bulge.

Those of you who saw Band of Brothers, this was the wintery snow-covered Ardennes forest that was one of the most excrutiating parts of the series.

A relic from a more dangerous page of Bastogne's past

Inside the museum, mom and dad stand beside one of the supply jeeps from the battle

Outside the museum was a monument dedicated to all the American soldiers who died protecting the town of Bastogne.

Each state had a section of the monument

A welcome sight for strangers in a strange land

We finished out the Bastogne trip at a friterie, where my parents had their first mitraillettes.  

A friterie in Bastogne

A mitraillette (French for Sub-Machine gun) is a Belgian dish that I primarily subsisted on as a missionary. 
It consists of a baguette, sliced in half, stuffed with your choice of various fried meats, salted french fries, a sauce of choice (I prefer Samurai), and various vegetables (carrots, lettuce, sliced tomatoes are all common).

They're very delicious
We then returned to Brussels, nearly getting lost on the way back to Midi Station but eventually navigating the tight, twisting roads downtown.  We celebrated our victory with more food.  Our last night in Belgium ended with one last trip to the Grand Place to eat ice cream and waffles.

Thus concluded the Belgian chapter of our journey.

April 19th, 2010

Monday was a bit cold, more winter than spring, as we walked to the American Embassy.  The entire process was actually pretty fast, and the Consul General spent a few minutes trying to convince me to work for the state department instead of going into academia.  Probably pretty wise counsel..

The American Embassy in Brussels.
Now that my parents could legally leave the country, we went to replace one more vital item that was stolen with my mom's purse: her blood pressure medicine.  Luckily pharmacies in Brussels are as ubiquitous as friteries, and we found one very close to the other.  Nothing like double-fried Belgian french fries to help cancel out the blood pressure meds.

Fun fact: The French Fry is actually a Belgian invention.  Eating fries in Belgium is like eating pizza in Italy: Completely unlike what you find in the states, and incredibly delicious.

After the snack, we had lunch with a man named Marco, a convert from my mission who was all hospitality.  He fed us lunch and showed us around his apartment, which he had being renovating for years.

Marco, the man, the legend
After lunch we returned to the hotel for some well-deserved naps.  We were on vacation, after all.

That evening took us to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, an enormous church built on an hill overlooking Brussels.  

We walked about in the park beneath it, admiring it for awhile before turning our sights on the next Brussels attraction: The Atomium.

On my mission, I told Sarah that the Atomium was where the King of Belgium resided, ruling over his kingdom from the top ball of the atom.  The true origin story is slightly less exciting.

It was built by AndrĂ© Waterkeyn for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. One of the original ideas for Expo '58 was to build an upside-down version of the Eiffel tower; however, Waterkeyn felt that an atomic structure would be more symbolic of the era. The monument was originally planned to remain standing only six months. However, it soon became a symbol not only of the World's Fair, but of modern architecture and Brussels. The monument stayed the same for almost 50 years. The structure is now one of the Brussels main attractions.

You can totally see a king living here, right?

There is a little mini-amusement park expo near the atomium, where my parents satisfied a craving for Chinese food at Asia Garden while I indulged in a cheap and delicious durum kebab.

Kebab shop complete with random Belgian guy standing in front of it

April 18th, 2010

Sunday took us to one of my old wards in Brussels, located near the Hotel de Ville and Louise metro stops.  Happily enough, the ward still remembered me, six years after my return.  My parents went to the English speaking Sunday School class, where they happened to meet the Consul General of the American embassy in Brussels.  This proved to be very fortunate, as he was able to arrange for them to have temporary visas issued to them on Monday.

After church we visited the Cinquantenaire, a park dedicated to Belgium's independence and a museum of war history.

Nothing more romantic than Belgian independence. 

After this we visited the European Union headquarters downtown.  Brussels is the capitol of the European Union so there's plenty infrastructure to see.

Educational duties taken care of, we went to the Grand Place once again for Italian food.  Though we never visited Italy, Italian restaurants were a common theme on our trip, and it was inevitably delicious. It also gave us a chance to see the Grand Place during the day.

A little local color to help digestion

Grand Place