Sunday, June 24, 2012

Week 4: Paris!!

Here comes the post where I tell you how much I love Paris over and over and over again.  AHHHHHH

Friday morning we left the house at 5am and rode on the bus for a long 4 hour trip.  It wasn't too terrible, but sitting in one place for that long is always difficult.  We got in at 10am and had to figure out the metro system to arrive in the city where we needed to get our free walking tour.  We got there early and had time to meet some people from Florida and enjoy the St. Michel Fountain.  My first thought of Paris was that it smelled (because it did around there) but was Beautiful!

The walking tour took us to Notre Dame, the famous lock bridge (where lovers fasten locks to the bridge railings to symbolize their eternal love), the Louvre, a Starbucks to use the free bathrooms, Place de Concorde, lots of parks, Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, and a great view of the Eiffel Tower.  We obviously didn't have time to go into anything, which was fine, but we got to learn some great things about Paris and it's history.  We saw lots of scammers, which the tour guide was very quick to point out and ensure no one would get pick-pocketed. Even for people not on our tour!

After the tour was over, we bought our tickets for a river cruise on the Seine, and then found lunch.  Jamie and I bought quiches and Noah bought a baguette and some cheese.  We ate our picnic on the mall/grassy area in front of the Eiffel Tower.  We had the ultimate best view with no one in front of us and the most perfect weather around us.  I have the marks to prove it was perfect weather because I got sunburned pretty well.  We haven't seen that much sun since we left Florida, so it was exciting to be able to fully bask in the beauty of Paris without using the umbrella.  We enjoyed our picnic, called our parents, and just laughed and sat talking about how much we loved Paris for at least an hour.  There were children on carousels and having go-kart races right next to us, and bike tours and other tourists enjoying the Tower, too.

We walked closer to the Tower and took lots of pictures.  At one of the souvenir shops, I bought two license plates (tourism use only, not for cars).  One is for Belgium and the other is Paris.  I loved them and it's one of the only things I've bought for myself to bring home.  We then walked right up under the tower and crossed to the other side.  The line to go up the Tower was way too long and we decided to save it for our future trip back to Paris, to leave us something to do!  Noah had a huge bag with him, so we decided to go to the hotel and drop it off before heading to the Louvre.

The hotel was not inconvenient, but we were on the other side of Paris. And maybe you are like us and think that Paris really isn't that big.  Well it is. It's HUGE.  It took at least 30 minutes to get from the Eiffel Tower to our hotel.  The front desk person was very nice and we unloaded some of our stuff.  While I'm at it I'll just tell you about it.  I had booked a double room because it was originally going to just be Jamie and I.  We ended up turning the bed sideways and pushing it against the wall so we could sleep 3 in the bed.  All of our feet were hanging off the edge, but we had plenty of room width wise!  All in all it was much better than Amsterdam's sleeping arrangements.  The shower was interesting and if you didn't hold the shower head, it flipped up and sprayed water all over the entire bathroom.  That was fun... But for a total of 60 euros for the night, it was a perfect, cheap option.

We headed to the Louvre next.  Yes it is huge, and they say you can't see everything in less than 1 day, but I think we did.  Jamie had researched online that under 26 year olds are free on Friday nights! We decided to hit the top 3 items first and then see how much time we had left.  You would have thought we were running a marathon! We saw those highlights (Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, and winged statue that I don't remember anything about) in 20 minutes.  As soon as we saw the Mona Lisa (I don't know what you're all complaining about, it was much less disappointing than everyone says it is. I thought it was perfect!), we decided we could slow down and enjoy the next hour and a half.

This is my quick summary of the rest of the Louvre: Beautiful ceilings, beautiful paintings, lots of statues, even more stairs and hallways upon hallways upon hallways.  I think we climbed as many stairs as are in the Eiffel Tower.  It was exhausting. Especially because my knee has been hurting from all the walking, and I don't have good walking shoes here. Oh well. Exercise, yay!!  But really, it was all gorgeous.  The last 25 minutes we had, we were trying to find Hammurabi's Code and had to ask directions from one of the museum attendants.  She told us to go down the hall to the left, down the stairs, to the left, past the sphinx, down two flights of stairs, across the hallway, up two flights of stairs, to the right, then it's in the third room on the left.  Or something equally as ridiculous.  We looked at her with disbelief and she said "Trust me, it's the easiest way."  So we followed the directions and ended up (after asking someone else) walking past Hammurabi's Code and not even realizing it.  With 15 minutes left, we were on our way out of the building and finally on the ground floor again when Jamie spotted chandeliers in the windows which were part of Napoleon's Apartments.  We couldn't miss that, so made our way to the 3rd floor again.  I was happy because to get there there's an escalator! But we got to the escalator and it was broken so we had to walk up the escalator's stairs.  Oh well. The apartments were really neat and exactly what I imagined them to be!  We were less than 5 minutes from when we needed to be outside though, so we left. So that's how you do the Louvre in less than 2 hours! Run up and down the stairs and just keep turning left!

Next stop was the Eiffel Tower for the river cruise and dinner on the way.  We started walking along the river, but 10 minutes into our walk realized we were stuck on one side of the road that was leading into the highway tunnel and we wouldn't be able to cross the street where we needed to.  So what do we do? Well Jamie, athlete that she is, said "who wants to play some Frogger!?" and hopped the barricade and ran across the road.  This was a problem because a) Wearing my knee brace, I wouldn't be able to hop the barricade. b) there was no sidewalk on the other side of the fence, so as soon as you hopped over you had to run, couldn't stand there and wait.  c) there was SO much traffic.  The traffic didn't let up at all except when Jamie had crossed.  So Noah and I stood on the other side, still walking the wrong direction trying to figure out how to cross.  We were passed by Segway tours, bicyclists, and one of those guys on the bikes with the little cab thing behind him to pull you around.  He slowed down and asked if we needed help, but I said no and he moved on. Looking back, that would have been a great idea.  We ended up turning around and walking back to where we started walking.  We stopped a family that was going the wrong way, but they didn't speak English and were really confused.  Eventually they turned around and followed us off the bridge.

Now that we were together and on the right side of the road, we decided we didn't want to walk and should just use our metro passes.  But we were hungry and were trying to find food.  We walked around for 15 more minutes looking for food and the metro, and found the metro first.  We got to the Eiffel Tower area with still no food and less than 10 minutes until the boat tour left.  Noah got a croissant, but Jamie and I just ate my trail mix while we waited for the boat to leave.

The ship was already full on the inside and sides, where you would normally want to sit.  We were going to sit in the middle, but Jamie convinced us to sit outside on the right side of the boat.  They turned out to be the perfect seats!  We listened to the history of the city, repeating much of the information we had already heard, and had lots of awesome Parisian accordion music in between the stories. So great!  When we passed through the Latin Quarter (which is the students' district of Paris), there were tons of students just hanging out on the river.  They were drinking wine, just talking, dancing, and even jumping into the river! It was lots of fun to see and made us wish we were students in Paris to join them.  On the way back, we saw thousands of people rollerblading across a bridge. It was so cool! And as the boat turned around to reveal the Eiffel Tower at night, it immediately started sparkling! It sparkles for the first five minutes of every hour starting at dark, and the cruise had timed it perfectly! The seats we were in were front row for the perfect view, and truly made the day one of the best days of our lives. I can't even explain to you the beauty of that moment.

We got off the boat, walked around for a bit, but decided we really needed some food.  We ended up at an awesome French restaurant where Jamie ordered "Nuggets of Poultry" (which she thought for some reason was going to be something other than chicken nuggets. It was hilarious. She enjoyed them, but made us promise never to let her order something American at a French restaurant in Paris again!), Noah got a delicious goat cheese salad, and I ordered my first ever creme brulee (skip straight to the sweets, obviously).  We all shared some wine, which was the first wine I've ever actually enjoyed. Leave it to Paris to provide that for me!  It was a rose' wine and was just fantastic.  We went back to the hotel and slept sideways on our bed and had fantastic Parisian dreams.

Jamie and I went to breakfast across the street at a little pastry place where she got a croissant and coffee for 1.50euro and I got a quiche and chocolate croissant for 3 something.  It was so great!!  We went next door to the pharmacy so I could get some aloe.  I didn't know what to ask for so I just moved my shirt so the pharmacist could see and she immediately went "ooooooh" like "that must hurt!".  She was going to give me this HUGE tube of cream that could only be applied at night, but I told her I needed something more like aloe for quick relief. She was so nice and readily complied, and for less than 4 dollars, my sunburn found relief. (It currently hurts right now because I haven't had a chance to put any on yet. Need to do that soon.)

We walked to see the Bastille and then walked to Notre Dame.  It was of course very busy, but we got to go in for free and it was beautiful! The stained glass especially.  It wasn't the prettiest church I've ever seen, so I was okay just breezing through it.  The gargoyles on the outside were cool!

Next, Jamie and I went to the Musee d'Orsay, the impressionist art museum which used to be a train station, so even the building is a work of art!  We were waiting in line to pay for tickets and a woman came up and asked us if we were less than 25 and told us we could go in for free with our European student IDs.  AWESOME!  We spent a long time in there admiring the Degas Dancers, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Gougin, and all those other awesome painters.  It was so beautiful, but again, lots and lots of stairs.

Noah met up with us and we walked to Champs-Elysees and enjoyed a fabulous French lunch.  Jamie ordered a Croque Provence (grilled cheese, chicken, ham, and fried egg?), and Noah and I split a chocolate crepe.  We all shared a plate of... escargot! When in Paris! We all tried the escargot at the exact same time and we all really liked it! I would order it again.  It was basically the texture of a mussel, but tasted delicious (mostly because of the garlic pesto-like sauce on it).  So good.  And of course we all had some more wine.

We explored the high class shopping district on the Champs-Elysees and went into a famous Macaron shop and the main Louis Vuitton store.  It was lots of fun!  We then enjoyed the view of the Arc de Triomphe and headed to the metro to get to Montmatre.  It was a different side of Paris with more night life and tourism shops.  We saw the outside of the Sacre Coeur, but it was way up high and had too many stairs for me to climb. Noah and Jamie ventured higher, but still didn't get to the top.  It was beautiful from the outside at least! We also went to see Moulin Rouge and passed through the cemetery nearby as well.  By this time we were all exhausted of walking and Noah had a 3 hour walking tour of Montmatre to do, so we parted ways. (Noah stayed an extra night).  Jamie and I went to the grocery store so I could get my... dun dun dunn.... LEMONADE!!! I had found some in a metro station earlier in the day! I bought a 1.5L bottle to bring home with me.  I'm so happy!  As I was writing this blog post, Melody came in and said she just went to a restaurant half a block away from our apartment that has lemonade you can mix yourself! Can't believe it's been so close the whole time.  Oh well, now I have it! YAY!

Jamie and I got back to the bus station with plenty of time and met an older man from Portland to talk to.  As we were getting on the bus, an old woman in front of me fell complete backwards off the stairs and landed on the pavement. Her bags were so heavy, the bus was really tall, and she was so small that in combination she couldn't hold on.  What a cutie, though, and her English was pretty good! I asked if she was okay and she said "Yes, it was very tall, and... I am VERY old."  We arrived in Brussels about 11pm and had to make our way back home.  It took a while. It was almost midnight by the time we got back to the apartment.

Here's the final analysis of Paris:
Best city in the world
Absolutely beautiful
 People SO NICE - contrary to what we've heard from others, the Parisians were so sweet! We didn't meet anyone that was rude.  Our hotel desk guy actually walked us from the lobby, down the street to get us going the right direction so we wouldn't get lost. How nice is that!? Many other examples, but just know they were nice.
And almost everyone spoke English! As long as you said "Bonjour" to them, they knew you were American and spoke in English.  I was amazed.  I felt a little sad that we didn't blend in as much there and everyone knew we were tourists, but I still get talked to in French in Brussels, so that's okay.
It's so Clean!!! I had heard that Paris was one of the dirtiest cities in the world, but aside from some cigarette butts and bottle caps, it was spotless! Much better than Brussels.
The public transportation was good (we got to try the RER commuter train system, too!), but it is slower to get places and very crowded. Especially because everything is so far. In the future, I would rather rent a bike and ride that around.
The food was fantastic and nothing disappointed.
It also wasn't as expensive as I was expecting. None of our meals cost over 10 euros and I spent less than 80 euros including the hotel and souvenirs.  I'm proud of myself for that!

I LOVE PARIS.  Part of my heart has been left there.  One day I will return and do it all again at a slower pace and get to see Versailles. One day.

Now... Paper due Wednesday. So need to do that. Au Revoir!

Week 4: Cemetery Exploration

Now that I'm writing this post after going to Paris, I can't remember anything else that happened last week.  We went to the European Commission for a field trip on Monday, had a midterm exam on Tuesday (rocked it!), and went out to eat to celebrate.  Marianne and I went to a little Italian restaurant near our apartment and ordered lasagna.  It was so good and practically bathing in cheese. I ordered "limonade" on the menu but it was not lemonade, but actually Sprite. I had this whole blog planned out to rant about it, but it seems unnecessary now. :)

Thursday, Jamie and I met our school mates Cory and Paige for a day exploring a cemetery.  Cory lives near there with his host family and found it last week.  The cemetery was absolutely BEAUTIFUL!  It looked like the cemetery in Phantom of the Opera without the snow, to give you imagery. Just gorgeous.  Anyways, we were walking around just enjoying each others' company and we found a staircase going down, with barricades in front.  The gate lead to the crypts underneath the cemetery! We couldn't get in there, so spent the next 15 minutes looking for another way down.  We found one, snuck behind the barricade and got into the crypts!  It smelled like mildew, was cold, and had water dripping everywhere, forming stalactites and stalagmites. So cool! We had to whisper because we weren't supposed to be down there, and every sound sounded like other people walking around.  It was so suspenseful! We got out without being arrested, though, so that's great!  I'm not expressing this like I should.  It was so pretty much creepy and the illegal activity gave us a rush of excitement and danger that made looking at old stones so much more entertaining!

After the cemetery, we went to a cool part of Brussels with second hand shops and antique stores and things of the like.  We grabbed some lunch, went into some of the stores and just window shopped at the rest of them.  Then it got cold and rainy and my legs hurt, so took a very long time to get home while I tried a new tram route.  All in all it was a great day.  Next post: Paris!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Week 3: Amsterdam

Well, this week I had a midterm in Islam, so I was up until 4am Tuesday night finishing that (it was a take-home). Wednesday was pretty much a blur until dinner time when I met up with a friend from home for dinner.  She has been studying in England all Spring semester (which just ended for them) and stopped by Brussels on her way to Amsterdam.  We went to a Chinese restaurant and loved it! Got to meet one of her friends from England, too.  We then walked around and found the touristy famous bar that everyone loves.  She got the house beer, called Delirium, and we just enjoyed the atmosphere.  We were all tired, so retired pretty early.

Thursday, Jamie and I went to the Botanical Garden park and ate lunch, then moseyed our way to a baby park I found last week on the way home from church that is pretty close to our house.  We just enjoyed it and the family atmosphere for a while, went to the grocery and then home for the night.  Just kidding, I just remembered that Lissette and I went to the Grand Place area to go souvenir shopping.  I was the only one who bought anything, but I bought quite a lot! Think I'm finished with Brussels souvenirs. YAY!

Now for the good stuff.  Thursday I was up by 4am to get ready for the 6am bus to Amsterdam.  The metro doesn't start until 5:30 (when we had to be at the bus), so we had to get up extra early to make sure we didn't miss the first bus of the day.  The bus left 30 minutes late and ended up in Amsterdam 45 minutes early.  Don't know how they did that, but it was nice! Except a) it was raining when we got to Amsterdam and b) pretty cold and c) the bus dropped us in the middle of nowhere, not in the city center where it was supposed to (so we thought).  After wandering around, we asked for directions and were told to just get on the metro because it was too far to walk. Woo. 10 euros gone in first 20 minutes. Oh well.

We got to the main station where we made it just in time to catch the free walking tour leaving from the area.  The tour was wonderful! We learned all about the city's history, the reasons for the buildings slanting (built on swamp ground. Most of the buildings lean to the side now), the abundance of canals in the city and the number of bikes in the canals (1/3 of the water is filled with bikes), and of course all about the legalization of prostitution and decriminalization of marijuana.  Basically, if it's good for the economy and doesn't hurt anyone, then it is allowed by the police. They simply look the other way.  This idea was applied a longgg time ago when the Catholic church had to become secret in the city. Lots of drama about stuff, but for almost 200 years, Catholics couldn't practice in public.  But they police were happy to help conceal them because the Catholics brought good money to Amsterdam.  See how this all works? And pot isn't technically legal, you just won't get arrested for it.  They found that putting the potheads in jail with the hardcore junkies, they came out with much bigger drug problems.  By decriminalizing marijuana, the number of hard drug users went down some insane drastic number. Like from 200,000 to 200.  So... I'd say it's pretty successful. Plus most of the people doing drugs are tourists, so it definitely boosts the economy.  Just so you know.

During the walking tour, I made two new friends, one from Texas and one from Nottingham, UK.  We went to a cafe after the tour and had Stamppot which was carrots inside mashed potatoes with gravy and either sausage or a meatball. It was delicious!!  Then the three of us went to the Anne Frank Huis (House) where the Franks and their friends hid out from the Nazis during WWII.  It was very interesting and very sad.  The house was much larger than I expected, but when you got to the annex where they hid, it got much smaller.  We got to see the entire building, including the warehouse parts of the business (Mr. Otto Frank did something with canning/jams and such) and the secret bookcase entrance to the Annex.  The windows had blackout curtains on them and there was just a single light bulb in the rooms.  It was so dark and hard to imagine having to stay in there for two years for your safety.  The girls had their heights measured on the wall in pencil and had pictures pasted on the walls of the bedroom, both of which were still there and visible.  It was just amazing to see and kind of experience it.  There were a lot of people and not a lot of time to read everything, but it was definitely an awesome visit. Highly recommended.  The three of us left the huis and headed to the main square for some souvenir shopping. Lots of wooden shoes.

The highlight of the trip (for me at least) was the Van Gogh museum.  It came at a hefty price of 14 euros for entry, but on Fridays welcomes you with live music and cool things going on.  We got to experience a live piano performance that was synced with an original film both of which were based on a piece of art in the exhibit.  It was fantastic and made me feel so cultured! The paintings were just exquisite and I really enjoyed it.  We spent almost 3 hours in the museum and then headed back to the hotel and I called it a night.

The hotel. What an experience that was! It was an amazing downtown/central location which was great, but loud.  And we had 6 people in a 4 person room to save money.  Well the beds were single sized, not twin, and were very uncomfortable to share with someone. Just so you know.  Plus, with 6 people in an unairconditioned room, you can imagine the discomfort.  Hence the window being open all night and the noise keeping us up. Not to mention the sheets all smelled like smoke. Lovely. I can tell you that I really appreciated my shower in the morning.

Jamie, a classmate Dylan, and myself searched for breakfast and then took a canal tour of Amsterdam.  It repeated much of the information of the walking tour, but was from a boat so that was pretty awesome!  Oh, Amsterdam pretty much only speaks English.  I don't think anyone talked to me in Dutch first. It was nice, but I really like that I feel more in a foreign country in Brussels where they speak French to you first.

We walked around for a while trying to find the Rembrandt museum, and once we found it decided to pass it up.  Amsterdam was pretty expensive and was my first time traveling far, so I received a bit of a shock to the wallet.  We headed back to the bus station area to wait to go home.  At least it was sunny on Saturday!  I was so happy to get back to Brussels. I just really like it here, knowing my way around and where the grocery stores are, and especially knowing I have a bed to myself that smells clean. Not to mention being able to read the signs since I know absolutely zero Dutch. Except I learned nooduitgang is emergency exit.  And huis = house.

Anyways. Home now. Today went to the grocery and to church and walked the long way home and had fun.  And I've just been chilling at home since.

Friday Jamie and I are heading to Paris, spending the night and coming back Saturday night.  Then Sunday we might go to another city in Belgium. Woo long travel weekends!!

Tomorrow (Monday) we have a field trip to the European Commission and an exam in the EU class on Tuesday. So lots of studying to do in between! Hopefully I can crack down and learn a ton tomorrow after class.

OH also, this week is Sustainable Energy in the EU week!! YAY! We'll be in the area tomorrow for the field trip, so hopefully I'll be able to check out some of the exhibits and such.  Have a great week! Adios!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Week 3: Halfway Point

Today marks the halfway point of our trip (I believe).  We technically have about 4 weeks left, but there are only 3 weekends left. So it's about halfway.  I'm going to write about my week later, but here's my update on the trip.

(Note, these lists are in no particular order. Only as thoughts popped into my head.  Except for #1 on the American list. That's definitely my most missed item.)

Things I love about Europe:
  1. Public transportation ROCKS. Except when they hit people, motorcycles, or inanimate objects (each of which has happened in the last few days).
  2. Tax is included in everything! When you get the cash register, if the shoes said "12.99" they are "12.99!!!" So amazing.
  3. Bread. Seriously. I'm living off of the baguettes here.
  4. Food in general. So good. Sweetest strawberries I've ever had.
  5. Cool weather. While the rain is inconvenient 90% of the time, I'm loving being able to cuddle under blankets and want to bring a jacket everywhere.  Need to buy a scarf soon.
  6. Old buildings and history
  7. French language
  8. Culture!
  9. New friends from all over (Met a pair of Gators while we were in Amsterdam!)
  10. Tax is included in everything.  Did I mention that already? Woops! It really is like my favorite thing. Prices might be higher, but I don't have to think as much, which counts as a WIN in my book.

Things I miss about America:
  1. Lemonade
  2. Friends and family
  3. UF campus/Gainesville
  4. American summertime stuffs like barbecue. And lemonade.
  5. The 4th of July (even though it's not here yet, I know I'm going to miss it!)
  6. Other people wearing shorts. I feel like I'm the only one here. Loving the weather, but all the locals are in jeans and jackets! Crazy!
  7. Target and Publix and being able to buy things all at one place
  8. Free public bathrooms
  9. Water fountains and free water at restaurants. 6 euros for a liter of water at restaurants. Just crazy to keep having to order and pay for it. I was expecting to, but I miss the free-ness. It'd be okay if there was lemonade for me to buy instead.
  10. Lemonade. I know I repeat myself a lot, but if you were living with me here you would be hearing it even more. Trust me.
  11. Oh, and air conditioning. I don't really need it here most of the time, but the first few days were SO hot indoors.  And if it's raining and you can't sit outside... that's bad. 
  12. And smooth sidewalks. The cobblestones were pretty for the first 5 minutes. Unfortunately, most of the roads we walk on are all torn up. I have to look at my feet instead of at the buildings at all times. Which is why every day I find something new on our walk home.
Well that about wraps up my lists. I'm off to bed to rest up so I can write a nice long post about my week when I arouse from my slumber.  Enjoy your weekend! And as always, if you are traveling abroad, let me know where you will be so we can meet up! Check in soon! <3

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Week 2: Small Town Struggles

Allo Allo!  Ready for today's adventure? It's a good one. But might be a little long. I'll try to keep it brief but thorough!

(OH, yesterday went to the National Sciences Institute museum with Noah and saw dinosaurs! It was great! Met the nicest woman working the cafe counter and had a lot of fun. Then 3 minutes after we left, intending to go to a park to relax, it started pouring. By the time we got home it was sunny again, but with lots of puddles. I just stayed home rest of night. Now on to today!)

Marianne and I came up with a Plan A and a Plan B for today.  Plan A was to go to a small town called the "smallest town in the world" where there is a "confiturie" (jam/marmalade making place) and overall cuteness and charm.  Because it's so small, there are no trains there, and on the weekends the city is even car-less! It makes access "Expert Difficulty" (like playing a video game. We decided that today. Rating all travel by that system from now on.).  Our plan was to take a train to the closest town and take a shuttle from that town to Durbuy.
Plan B was to take a train to a still-small-but-not-miniscule-like-Durbuy-city called Dinant.  And then we'd be there. (Thorough plan, huh?)

Actual results: 8:30am We went to the ticket counter to confirm with them that Durbuy actually exists and is able to be reached and that we won't be stranded there.  First, we had no idea how to pronounce the city name.  We said "Dur-bye".  Just so you know, it's actually "Durh-bwee," like we would have been able to figure that out... So the lady was confused for a while where we wanted to go.  Once she figured it out, she told us she couldn't help us so we had to go to the information desk and ask them.  Mind you, we are in the largest train station in the area (probably the country). No clue where the information desk was. We looked for a moment and decided to be risk takers and just get on the train and figure it out when we arrived. YAY adventure!  We went to the machine that tells you where your train picks up and what direction and times and such.  We entered our information and the screen says *error error I hate you* (it has been doing this to us on the website at home too. We're a little fed up.). But for other cities it worked just fine.  From what I had read online, the train we needed left at 8:58, but we didn't know where to go! We tried reading the paper schedules but our town wasn't listed on them. We decided to head up to the platform we predicted it would be on and read the electronic sign there.  Got up and it was going in the correct direction/region, but didn't stop at the little station.

8:59am So now to Plan B, saving Plan A for another time when we have the time to figure out what's going on.  While looking at the schedule before, we saw that there was a train to Dinant right next to where we were.  The sign said something different, but the time was correct and the direction was correct and we couldn't see all the stops in between yet, so figured we were correct and Dinant was just somewhere in between.  Got on the train and got two stations before we realized this train was not going to Dinant.  We contemplated staying on and going to a different city we knew nothing about, or getting off and starting over again. So at the risk of getting in trouble for getting off before we were supposed to, we hopped off the last stop in Brussels and used the metro to get back to the main station. (It might be important to note that the rail pass we have is a "write-in the name of where you are going and where you came from once you get on the train" type thing, so didn't have to actually buy a ticket for a specific train. Hence the confusions.)

9:45am Plan B part 2:  Arrived at the main station, went back to the trip planning machine (which is now working) and found our new train to Dinant (confirmed with other signs) is supposed to leave at 10:03. Perfect timing! But wait... what's this? Train is delayed for 30 minutes.  We used the time to go to the cafe and get a croissant and smoothie.  Then we planned our return trip while we still had technology, and headed up to the platform.  The train had been there the whole time. It was such a nice feeling to see our stop name on the itinerary for the train. So nice I took a picture. And then we relaxed for the next 2 hours.

12:00ishpm Arrived in Dinant.  Pretty cold and windy. I'm not even going to write about the view, you can just see for yourself.

So this is the Meuse River, town of Dinant, Collegiate Church of Notre Dame, and the Citadel (old castle turned into military institution of some sort).
Beautiful, right? We just stared at it for a while, enjoying the view. actually that's what we did most of today...  Went to the top of the citadel via cable car.  There was some sort of Disneyland gimmick exhibit at the top that we obviously didn't pay for, but now is a great time to mention how commercialized Disneyland is here in Belgium. And it's several hours away in Paris... Don't understand. Anyways. More really pretty views, really small, boring museum. Quick cable car ride. Oh well. Great views. Cold air too.

We then moved on to lunch on the river.  Being that this is a teeny town, no one speaks much English.  We had to order in French, which was fun! We pointed to stuff on the menu and everything seemed dandy.  We both ordered prosciutto paninis on ciabatta bread.  A waitress came outside to our table carrying two pizzas. She started placing them down and we said "no, not us" because we ordered paninis.  She was looking all over the place for the table, and after crossing the street twice, comes back to our table.  I pointed on the menu and asked if that's what she was holding and she said yes.  So we ended up with two ham and cheese pizzas.  When we ordered paninis.  Something was definitely lost in translation because we pointed to panini section both times and were told that's what they were. So... weird. There was an entire other page for pizza. But whatever! It was delicious! And we finally learned the word for "bill" or "check", which we have been needing desperately since we've been here.

Lunch down, we head to the city's defining moment of awesomeness.  It is the birthplace of Adolph Sax who, can you guess it, invented the saxophone!  There are saxophone statues and lights and images all over town, it was crazy! We went to "La Maison de Monsieur Sax" for the museum... It was one room of no history and a few pictures with a really cool artistic rendering of a saxophone on the floor. Took about 1 minute to walk through. We passed a few stores and stopped into a candy store for a moment where Marianne got some cookies that we snacked on the rest of the day.

Next stop was the highlight of the trip, the boat tour of the river.  The captain was nice and gave us papers in English so we could follow along with what he was saying.  The city was even more beautiful from the boat/river.  By the time we turned around and started to head the opposite direction, I was falling asleep from the tranquility.  It was just so nice to have a calm moment.

By now, we had kind of run out of things to do.  It was after 5pm, so things were closing and all tours had stopped.  We decided to walk up the hill to the "caves" anyway.  It was a pretty far, semi-steep walk and we got there and couldn't see anything at all. No mouths of the caves. So we walked back down and along the river again. We ended up just leaning against a building (after looking at the listings in the local real estate office) and admiring the river while talking.  It started to sprinkle a little bit and was almost time for our train anyway, so we headed back to the train station.

Got our seats all picked out on the train, and off we went! The conductor came by and punched our tickets.  About 10 minutes later, he came back and made an announcement to our cabin about something. In French.  I heard some of it, but was listening to my iPod so wasn't sure what I had missed.  He announced it again over the intercom and it turns out that we were stopping and changing trains to a faster train.  We got off and headed to the train, struggling to find a place to sit with all of the people already on their train and all of our train trying to merge.  After a few stops though, it cleared and Marianne and I were able to sit together again.  Next thing we know, we're back in Brussels.  The return trip took about an hour and 5 minutes. That's a whole hour shorter than the first train there! No idea how that happened.  On the walk home, we passed a great fruit stand/store and bought some petite strawberries. The berries here are so yummy! Prime season for them, and pretty sure they are grown in Belgium. So good!

Got home, uploaded pictures, Skyped with my family, and now finishing the blog so I can go to sleep. It's 1am, so think I'm ready for sleep...

I have a take-home midterm exam for Islam class due Wednesday. Need to work on that soon! Goody!

Have a fantastic Sunday!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Week 2: Do-As-Much-As-You-Can-Before-It-Rains

Continuing on from the last post...
The last few days have been very rainy, so when I woke up this morning because the sun was shining in my room, I knew I had to take advantage of it.  I quickly ate and got ready, said goodbye to my roommates that are traveling to London this weekend (they already left), and headed out.  I took the Metro, intending to stop at the Botanical Gardens and walk back.  But I decided to first go to the end of the route because that stop is called Elisabeth, which is my friend's name, so I obviously had to take a picture.  Well, I'm really good with figuring out Metro directions and bus routes and such. But this stop is the end for both directions of the loop Metro route. And a ton of trams.  So I got off the Metro and followed signs to where I thought I needed to go. Got on a Metro and realized it was the wrong one. Got off the next stop and turned around. Stumbled around for a while trying to not look lost and eventually figured it out. Although, I still wasn't convinced until we got to the stop before the one I was getting off at. *Phew* 40 minutes on the Metro to get to a place that was originally about 7 minutes from my home stop. Woops!  Did give me time to people watch! Here are some characters I observed on the Metro today:
  • Guy trying to sell newspapers (I think. He was talking in French. I just took a cue from the people around me to ignore him)
  • Guy asking directions/which stop to get off at (In French. But note, he only asked me and another young girl. Not the wise middle age woman sitting next to me. Weird. I lied and told him "I don't speak French." He got directions from the next characters, so I didn't feel too bad.)
  • Group of five high schoolish aged boys (why weren't they in school!?!? at 11am!) who were having a great time slapping each other. And pulling the runt of the group into the middle of the four of them and practically beating him up. In a friendly, jovial manner. It was disturbing. But seeing as how I don't know how to say "Stop being stupid idiots and leave him alone. Also you are loud and obnoxious. And go back to school." in French, I just stared out the window.
  • Middle age guy and his girl friend who couldn't have been much older than me.  They needed to get a room. Sitting all over each other. I really thought at first that the girl was there unwillingly because of the age difference. But whatever. He was greasy and balding. Creepy.
    And my personal favorite:
  • Old guy with crazy hair (like electrified Einstein) PICKING HIS NOSE. Full on finger in nose digging around for more than just a quick poke. No. Like at least a full minute of nose picking.  Greasy guy watched in amusement while I stared out the opposite window so I didn't have to see. Luckily that was my stop, so I didn't have to see what else Einstein would do.
See why the Metro trip was such an exciting part of the day!?!? There have been other great characters while we've been here but I can't remember most.

Finally got off at the "Botanique" stop where the... Botanical Gardens was located. Could you have guessed!?  The gardens were beautiful. And just as I thought I was leaving the park, I crossed over a bridge and found an even better part.  Lots of business men reading the paper and enjoying the sunshine like me. I watched 4 ducklings wander around and follow their mama.  It was so cute! Then I got out my map and worked my way over many cobble stones back to where I needed to go, finding the comic book museum on the way, but I didn't go in so we can all go together some day.  I ended up at the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral (go take a look!) and was enjoying myself looking when I realized that Mass started in 15 minutes. So I stuck around.  The chairs were very strange and there were no pamphlets, so I didn't understand most of the French, but the great thing about Catholicism is I still knew what was going on! Yay! There weren't many people there, which was actually quite nice.  Started to get hungry during Mass and knew I needed to break into my sandwich after.

I headed to the Parc Bruxelles (Brussels Park) which I've heard is beautiful.  And it is in a Central Park sort of way. Which is what it is to Brussels.  Again, lots of businessmen eating lunch and reading the paper (and sleeping!) and many joggers taking advantage of the sunshine while it lasted.  By now I was very hot. I found an empty bench, which was hard to do, and ate my delicious sandwich I had bought from the grocery store before I left.  It had chicken, ham, salami, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo (of course), and BRIE! The brie made the whole sandwich so much better. Even though it was great to begin with.  I left after lunch to head across the street to the Palace.  Yes, the Royal Palace.  Which is not open to visitors because the King is currently in Belgium (you can tell because the flag was flying).  He doesn't even live there, though, he has beautiful grounds (and I'm sure a magnificent house) further from the city center on the way to the Atomium.  There were lots of middle schoolers on field trips around this area.  I stopped in to look at the museum, but didn't want to pay the 5 euros today. Maybe another time when it's raining and I desperately need to get out of the rain...

I went around the corner and found an historic street that the bus takes us by and that we saw on the tour. I went into the beautiful court looking building and found out it was a church! Crazy! Didn't look like one at all.  Kept going, trying to find my road to go home. But of course, it has a different name at that point so I missed it.  I ended up at ANOTHER church, Notre Dame au Sablon. That one had a list of the Mass times for all of the churches in the city, yay! I then walked to the little park across the street, which is lined with statues of famous men. Not that I remember any of them from the tour. And a pretty fountain/pond.  Then I knew how to get back, thanks to my fabulous pocket map (thanks mom!) and I headed home.  Right as I got back to the metro station which is about an 8 minute walk from home, it started to sprinkle.  I ducked inside one of the grocery stores so I could get some fruit and ice cream and got home before the rain.  It's not raining any more, but it was when I started writing the previous post! I think I'm good for going out for the rest of the day, though.  I'm tired! Probably going to go shower and change and do laundry before my skype dates tonight.  Hope you are having a fantastic week!

P.S. If you are visiting North Western Europe any time before July 13, let me know! I'd love to meet up, or show you around Brussels if you come here! :)

Week 2: Brussels Tour, Parliament, School

Howdy folks!
I have finished my first full week of school! Yay! But let's start where I left off. Sunday I woke up before my alarm went off to the sound of pouring rain on the skylight/windows in my room. It was loud.  Of course we were all exhausted from two busy traveling days, so no one was really that excited to get moving.  Eventually we got packed up and left (in the rain) for our Tour of Brussels through our school.  Being Sunday, the public transportation runs less often than normal. We waited almost 20 minutes for our bus.  Then we got to our tram transfer stop and it was going to be another 20 minutes until that tram came. So we walked the rest of the way to school. Got there before the tram did, but again, it was raining. And COLD. And for me to say it was cold, it was cold! I love the rain and I love the cold, but when I'm forced to walk on cobblestones on an unfamiliar street before getting to school? Not so much. Oh well! Got to the tour start late, but there were only 3 people ahead of us.  We got on the bus and a total of 10-12 people disembarked on the journey.

We learned about the history of Belgium, different neighborhoods, dynastic history, architecture, statues, parks, "Brusselization" (keeping the facade of a building original, but gutting the inside of the building and modernizing it), and food and other such tour-ish stuff.  Got to see the Atomium, which was created for the World Fair in 1958.  It was built to give Belgium it's own symbol, much like the Eiffel Tower is to France/Paris.  It is a structure of an atom of iron, with 9 electrons representing the 9 different regions of Belgium.  Pretty cool! But as I said, it was cold and rainy and there was a Spanish Festival/Fair going on, so we didn't get to go that close.  Some time in the next few weeks I'll head back out there and go up to the top and look out at Brussels!

We enjoyed the comfort of the coach for the next 3 hours, with a brief stop at the Grand Place, Mannekin Pis, and the Gallery.  The Gallery is a long enclosed hallway like thing with shops on either side. It was created to connect the North and South train stations so the elite members of society wouldn't have to walk through the "slums".  So all of the stores in there are ritzy. It was the place to see and be seen and even featured its own dance hall.  Pretty neat! Not that I could afford anything there... But then again, there are lots of ritzy shops all over Brussels/Belgium. So yeah.  After the tour, I came back home to eat lunch and dry off/warm up.  I ended up staying in my warm pajamas under a blanket for the rest of the night. Yay relaxing!

Monday was our first field trip in the EU class.  We went to the European Parliament.  We had to dress up, but the only thing I brought besides jeans was a dress. So off I went in the windy, rainy, 50ish degree weather to learn about some legislation.  After a 15 minute walk and navigating outside with the group, I decided that the dress was a really bad idea. Mostly because of the wind. Oh well. No other option!  We listened to a presentation by a staff member and got to see the "plenary" (floor) of the parliament (EP).  Fun fact that I bet you didn't know. The European Union conducts all of its business in 23 different languages to accommodate members of all 27 member states.  Obviously, you can't require legislators to speak 23 languages, so there are translation booths all throughout the room for live translation.  Even visitors can pick up a set of headphones and find their language! Pretty awesome! Parliament wasn't in session, but we are allowed to sit in on a session when they come back. Probably won't as it's just like legislature in America that I've seen, just in 23 languages.

So that's it for Monday.  Tuesday and Wednesday were full days of school.  Class 11-1 and then 2-6.  Tuesday was my first time in Islam and Politics in Europe.  I like it a lot, the teacher is great.  But we came home with a major assignment due the next day.  And we all thought it was due the next week.  So stayed up late Tuesday night doing homework. And that's about it.  Assignment is finished, though!  Also sometime during those days, Marianne (one of the Gators on the trip) and I stopped in a bakery (boulangerie) on the way home from school and got an eclair and a "tartlette" (mini pie).  They were really good. And had been/keep taunting us every time we walk to our bus stop.

Today deserves it's own post. Keep reading!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Week 1: Antwerp, and Luxembourg

So sorry I haven't kept up to date! It's been a very busy week getting settled in. Visited all the supermarkets in the neighborhood, worked out the quickest way to all the usual places, feet are getting adjusted to the cobblestones, and learning where to get what food. Week 1 is barely over and we already have a favorite go-to eatery. Got an unlimited public transportation pass and we are all getting our money's worth.  School was fast paced and I ended up switching classes. Now taking Islam and Politics in the EU because a) the teacher is said to be very good and b) the rest of the group is in that class and c) no class on Thursdays or Fridays. 4 day weekend. WHATTT!?!?!? Thursday has been dubbed "Museum Thursday" so we can get some culture.

It's taken me a while to warm up to speaking French again, but I'm understanding more and more of people's conversations. And not as intimidated as I was the first day with ordering or talking to vendors and such.

Friday went to Antwerp, Belgium on our 10 trip, 50 euro train pass. 5euros each way. Good deal! There are many good deals out there for less than 26 years old, students, or group travel. We saved 15 euros each on our train tickets to Luxembourg today! But back to Antwerp. It was much cleaner, smaller, and calmer than Brussels and French is not spoken, so that was a little frustrating. We found a great cafe for lunch, then walked around the river, went to a museum for 2 euros and spent a while there enjoying the randomness it had in store. (it was very random) Then we were plum tuckered out and rested at a restaurant for a good hour and a half. We all decided we were okay with leaving the city early and headed home. 6 hours of activeness was enough to wear us all out!

Today we woke up early and were at the train station at 7:50 to buy our (cheaper) tickets to Luxembourg. Got right on the train and napped for most of the 3 hour ride.  It was cold when we got there (weather was hot and sunny first few days of the trip, now it is overcast and cool, my favorite!!) but warmed up throughout the afternoon.  We ate a delicious lunch of awesome pizza with different toppings (mine had an egg on it. very different, but good!) and headed out to a bus tour. It wasn't very informative and was quite silly, but at least we got to sit down for a bit and see the city from the bottom of the valley. We went to a museum (for freeeee!) and learned about Luxembourg's history. Then we divided and conquered the town. My group walked around and saw the most beautiful man-made views I've ever seen. I didn't want to leave! We walked around some more, grabbed a special Magnum McFlurry from McDonald's and got back on the train for the ride home.

The group of students is awesome. We all get along really well and love traveling together.  Don't know how great this trip would have been with a different group. Shout out to Luxembourg walking buddies Jamie and Marianne! We definitely had the best time today. Check out pictures on Facebook!

Busy days until Thursday, so probably talk to you next weekend. <3 Au Revoir!