Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's in her (industrial sized Swiss Army) bag?

I thought I'd give everyone a glimpse into the process of packing for my upcoming trip to Paris/Disneyland Paris.

Step 1 is to panic about how you will manage to appease the discerning French fashionistas while still fitting all of your belongings into a backpack. Oh, and you have to leave room for your purchases, too...

Step 2 is, rejoice! You're taking a bus and not RyanAir, so you can carry home all the bags you want. But still, better keep it to a backpack on the way there so you don't break your back/get mugged.

Step 3 is to try on a million different outfits and keep running back and forth to the full length mirror upstairs. What I wouldn't give to have one in the quad...

And step 4 is to lay it all out!

#1 - Outfit for the bus/Disneyland Paris. Red jeans from Amsterdam and a Mickey Mouse raglan. Comfy enough to sleep in for 7 hours on a bus? Well...is anything that comfy?
#2 - Ann Taylor blouse for my diva outfit change post-Disneyland.
#3 - Blazer. My best accessorizing friend/what will probably serve as my coat for most of the weekend.
#4 - Natural Soul boots. The greatest investment of this trip. I can walk for days in these suckers (and I have).
#5 - PJs. Kind of need these.
#6 - Dresses from AE, the Gap, and Italy, and fun necklaces. Grandma's elephant is a personal favorite, and it's probably the one piece of jewelry that I get complimented on the most.
#7 - Brita water bottle with built-in filter. If you are ever travelling for a long period of time, you owe it to yourself to invest in this. Suddenly, every bathroom has drinkable water. Like magic. (This is extra important because Europe only believes in water in a conceptual way. There is no such thing as free water, anywhere. I think everybody here is dehydrated all the time.)
#8 - Socks n' tights. Bonus fleece-lined leggings: they look like tights, but they're super warm.
#9 - Big purse (camera bag/day bag) and little purse (wallet storage/night bag)
#10 - Banana. (Did I mention the 7 hour bus ride?)
#11 - Makeup bag. I am going to the city of judgmental citizens, oui?
#12 - Flats for nighttime outings
#13 - Diesel Swiss Army backpack courtesy of my mother. This thing fits all of this stuff plus my big honking DSLR into one compartment. C'est magnifique!

Our bus leaves at midnight tomorrow, so wish me luck. Bon voyage!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Welcome to Toverland

(All images borrowed, because who wants to lug a DSLR around Toverland?!)

This weekend, I opted to "SAC it" (what Kasteel students affectionately dub sleeping in the castle). It's a lovely refuge for when you feel so overwhelmed with travelling plans you could explode. For me, this is all the time. So a weekend at the castle was just what the doctor ordered.

Andrew, Caitlyn, David, Sam and I decided to hit what was touted as "Holland's #1 Day Trip Destination!" - the illustrious Toverland. What could very easily be described as a children's theme park turned out to be a wonderful journey into the culture of the Netherlands (and a fun day, to boot).

In the Netherlands, Halloween traditions only started seeping in around the mid-1990's, and they were very heavily borrowed from America. And apparently, every Dutch citizen has major Halloween fever, because Toverland was packed on this (granted, unusually warm) October day for the Halloween festivities. At one point, at least 3/4 of the park gathered around to watch a man in a vampire costume stalk around and occasionally stop to glare menacingly at a passerby. This is entertainment.

The park included "the tallest, fastest wooden roller coaster in the Benelux!" (Des)Troy

We were unfazed looking at this coaster from the ground, but speaking as a serious coaster junkie, this thing packed a punch. It was a steel/wooden hybrid with an alarmingly steep drop and a top speed that didn't let up for the entirety of the ride. We hit this twice, and would have kept riding it all night if we didn't have a bus to catch.

And this crazy contraption

Booster Bike, the strangest roller coaster ever imagined by anyone. Only the Dutch would insist that their amusement park rides include bikes. The method of securing you into this ride can only be likened to placing a clip on top of a potato chip bag to seal in the freshness. It was an experience. A bonus treat was the Backstroke, a flume ride that inexplicably turned around and went down the hill backwards.

Apparently new to the sensation of actors dressed in spooky costumes meandering around amusement parks, the Dutch children (and adults) were having a serious breakdown when they found bloody ghosts and skeletal Trojan soldiers in their gift shops and fun houses. Equally new to me was the fact that the actors could touch you (!) and the way they interacted with children. A ghoul wielding a chainsaw with the chain pulled out let a child rev it up for him, then turned and pretended to hold it up to his neck. Chalk that up on the list of most frightening things I have ever seen, ever. Other fun cultural differences included giant bonfires in the middle of the park, rafts that children could take out on shallow man-made ponds (?), and amusement park pizza places that have their own basil growing next to the cash registers (!!), the latter being the most exciting, of course.

My favorite moment of the night was my encounter with a little Dutch boy wearing a red Scream mask. I gave him an exaggerated gasp when he turned around, and he lost his mind. He tugged on his mother's coat and pointed at me, then jumped back again. I tried to look even more scared for his benefit. He turned the mask around to the back of his head (presumably so I would be perma-scared), and then, when he thought he might have broken me, he took off the mask and pointed at his face, assuring me it was only him under there. It was among the most adorable things that have ever happened to me.

Naturally, with the good comes the bad, and as we headed off to go home later that night, our bus never came. We figured out that you have to call Dutch buses to come for you on off-peak hours (naturally?) and we had missed our window of opportunity. Thankfully, we made it home safely with the help of a taxi driver from Indonesia with a fondness for American music (the highlight of the ride was the great "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred).

It is fascinating to see what traditions are adopted by other cultures to appropriate their own, personalized version of Halloween. No matter how many tiny Justin Biebers we saw, Toverland remained stubbornly, incredibly Dutch, and we loved it for that.

Monday, October 15, 2012

"This is problem for you": Adventures in Italian train strikes.

Cinque Terre is actually the most beautiful, romantic place I’ve ever been to in my life. You couldn’t dream up a place this pretty. I was actively planning my future honeymoon the entire time I was there. I was absolutely in my element. Coming here with no expectations, I fell in love with this place.

If you’ve ever read the children’s book series Strega Nona, I’m 99% sure she lives in Manarola (the 5th town comprising Cinque Terre where our hostel was located).

(Pictured: Strega Nona’s street. IT EVEN SMELLED LIKE SOUP!)

Z and I landed at Pisa Aerporto and enlisted the help of some friendly employees and locals to find our way to Manarola. Except for the last of 3 transfers, where the train ticket was decidedly unhelpful and we threw caution to the wind and hopped a train we were pretty sure was the right one. If you asked me to get on a train and cross my fingers 2 weeks ago, I would have told you you were crazy. This is growing up and becoming a seasoned traveller, guys. We decided that travelling is 30% planning, 60% intuition, and 10% blind luck.

We met friendly couples from Ohio and California who were adopting the same “here goes nothing!” attitude and stood with them in front of the train door, shrugging haplessly at every person who came up and asked us if this was the train going to Cinque Terre. Fortunately, we were dropped off at a picturesque train station in Manarola, and we were absolutely blown away.

Everything was the bluest blue, forever ruining the questionable navy of the Atlantic for me. Between the mountains, the rocks, and the Mediterranean, the entire area was a postcard waiting to happen. We trekked up to the hostel, situated behind the giant church, with our giant bags on our backs. Cinque Terre is a hiking destination, but no one warned us that we would need to hike just to get up the street. It was a system of impossibly steep hills, and I think I got an amazing calf workout just walking back and forth through the town. Which is nice, because I ate roughly half my body weight in food.

We were starving upon arrival, so we hit a charming little cafe outside of the train station. They were selling bruschetta for 6 euro and, expecting Olive Garden-esque tiny toast rounds, we were a little bummed out. But for authentic Italian bruschetta, we were willing to pay the price. I ordered pesto, Z ordered peppers, and we got a Margherita pizza to split. Then, it came to the table.

And it was the size of our heads. The waitress was laughing at us because she couldn’t fit the pizza next to our ginormous tomatoey treats. I think there was an entire garden on there. And I’m pleased to tell you, we finished all of it. It was shockingly fresh. I’ve never tasted anything like it in my life.

The view from our hostel, which was at the very top of the complex series of hills, was breathtaking.

The cornerstone of that church apparently dates back to 1338, making this the oldest part of Cinque Terre. We traipsed down to the “beach” (a series of rocks) in our swimsuits and shorts. In October.

(Cute couples EVERYWHERE. Z and I started to joke that it was our honeymoon because the ratio of couples to non-couples was like 99:1. It’s where adventurers go to swim in the Mediterranean and rock jump and hike and be adorable.)

We got gelato,

(This is actually me with sorbet, but rest assured I also tried 4 flavors of gelato. We ate a lot this weekend.)

Visited the love lock bridge (I had a minor mental breakdown from how cute this was. I’ve always wanted to visit the one in Paris, and this one was a completely welcome surprise)

And watched the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.

We ended the night with a glass of local wine on the patio of our hostel with a lovely stray cat who we dubbed Ingrid. It was actually the perfect day, easily the best I’ve had while I’ve been here.

We set the alarm for 8 AM on Saturday in the hopes of taking the “easy” (read: not at a 90 degree angle to the ground) hiking trail around to the other towns. To our chagrin, it was closed, so we headed up to the information center to find alternatives. Little did we know, this would be the least of our problems.

A tiny sign in Times New Roman delivered the bad news.


We figured this had to be a mistake. This area of Italy is literally only reachable by train. How could we have been through 3 train stations and not have heard a word about this until now?

Easily, apparently, according to the woman at the information desk who had a painfully calm attitude about the whole ordeal. She didn’t understand the gravity of our situation until we repeated for the 3rd time that our flight was at 5:30 PM on Sunday.

“Oh…” she said. “This is problem for you.”

She eventually gave us a dubious time of “5:30…15:30…I mean, 17:30” for a train out of La Spezia and into Pisa. Z and I dealt with this major setback like champions, booking a hotel of questionable quality whose display picture was a dingy bed with a bold stamp over it proclaiming “LITERALLY 1 MINUTE FROM THE AIRPORT!” This was all the convincing we needed. Our hostel in Cinque Terre refused us a refund (although they were very aware that there was a train strike and neglected to tell us, despite the fact that we were checking out on Sunday at 10 with literally no way to get anywhere else in Italy. Can you tell I’m still burned by it?) But we decided to make the best of it.

We spent the rest of the day dipping our feet in the Mediterranean (rock jumping and swimming were sadly not an option, as the water was too rough),

And walking around the amazing trails

(This is my favorite picture ever).

And generally lamenting having to leave.

(I was crying on the inside).

We made our way to Pisa Aerporto and the hotel was, as promised, one minute away. Under the highway overpass. The doors were barred shut, the lobby was locked, and the hotel owner wanted nothing to do with us until he was done with his phone call…so he left us outside in the cold with our giant bags. Now that’s service.

At least we were in a private room with one of roughly 3 full length mirrors I’ve seen in all of Europe.

(It was a little squiggly).

The owner lead us to the room, and Z asked him about the sign in his lobby referencing luggage storage. He paused, then said, “Leave your bags in your room and your room unlocked. Leave a note with time you be back. I take into back office.”

Needless to say, our bags never left our sight. It was one of the more frightening places I’ve ever stayed (when one of us went to the bathroom, we locked the other one into the room). We abandoned all hopes of late-night pasta and barricaded ourselves in our twin room to watch Italian Teen Wolf and wonder what in the world was happening outside of our boarded-up windows.

Outer Pisa was even a bit disconcerting in the day time. We did manage to find some delicious pastries, and eventually made our way into the nicer part of town, where we scored fresh pasta with pesto sauce for a paltry 6 euro. Everything we ate was amazing, but we were pleasantly surprised by the abundance of inexpensive fresh fruit juice in every flavor imaginable. ACE was a personal favorite (stands for vitamins A, C, and E, I later learned), which was a mixture of orange, carrot, and lime juice. I will be dreaming about it forever. We found some cute shops, an adorable flea market, and had a grand old time. Hey, worse things have happened than a day in Pisa, and since we kept our wits about us (and put on our best “seasoned traveler” hats) we lived to tell the tale without any major mental breakdowns! Italy, you were great, and I hope you got all the rights you wanted from your strike…but next time, make it on a Tuesday, would you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Amsterdam Reflection

            Tonight, Rembrandt is green. The gaudy neon light from “SMOKEY’S” casts an eerie alien glow over the statue of the somber Dutch artist. In his namesake square, musicians playing melancholy 90’s ballads and larger than life interpretations of inebriated cartoon characters battle for your attention. The dewy grass and granite benches serve as a makeshift concert hall with better acoustics than any given American club, and the audience leans in and hangs on every note. There is hardly any chatter, only the palpable feeling of rapt attention.

In the hour and a half I’ve been here, I haven’t heard a single song that wasn’t in English. While the canals and narrow staircases serve as a constant reminder that you aren’t in Kansas anymore, Amsterdam’s culture appears to be in danger of slipping away. From the McDonalds dotted along every street to the signs touting “English subtitles!” outside of the movie theaters, it’s hard to ignore how much America has outright invaded this city.

            The talent du jour has peppery gray hair that whips around his face in the harsh wind. He plays with eyes shut, head bowed, completely immersed in the music. As he wraps up another soft rock hit, a gaggle of 20-somethings rushes up to him. They shove a member of their party forward, who whispers something in his ear after throwing back an exaggerated glare at the group. He nods; they clap and giggle. He dedicates the next song to Alicia (this elicits a squeal from a tall blonde wearing a headband adorned with two bouncing plastic penises). It’s her hen night, says the musician. I recognize the opening chords to Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and lean back on my bench, inhaling the smoky-sweet scent that wafts through Amsterdam.

            The girls keep their arms around each other and sway to the beat, belting out the lines they know, and grumbling when they don’t. As the musician hits the chorus, a man emerges from Smokey’s carrying a water bottle with a fabric flower inside of it. He stumbles to the middle of the pavilion and splays out on the ground, enduring the harsh stony stare of Rembrandt. The new centerpiece extracts a hat and places it on the ground, ready to ask the pre-assembled audience for their patronage. He then takes the makeshift flower vase and balances it on his head. He isn’t in it for comedy, far from it. His intent expression informs the crowd that this is his modern performance art. He lies still, awaiting the judgment of these critics and philosophers who have so freely given their approval to the musicians of the Square.

            A quick burst of light illuminates the square. Alicia has taken a photo of the vase-balancer. He leaps up and races towards her, hat extended, demanding she pay her dues. She shrugs and makes an exaggerated empty-pockets gesture. Apparently the last of her euros tipped the guitar player, still faithfully strumming amidst the chaos.

            The performance artist isn’t satisfied with Alicia’s excuses, and raises his voice. She recoils, and a few people make motions to rise from their benches. The musician hits an odd note and stops abruptly. A bouncer from a nearby club materializes in the square and pulls the penniless artist aside.

            They have an animated discussion involving a lot of exaggerated hand gestures. It culminates in the vase-balancer screaming, “If you don’t speak English then don’t TALK to me!”

            I feel a pit in my stomach. It’s the distinctively unpleasant feeling of being ashamed of one’s own country when abroad. I flash back to the co-eds in Ohio State sweatshirts discussing last night’s club at Anne Frank’s house; the Hawaiian-shirt clad couple snapping pictures in the red light district. Perhaps the man was from Texas? I remember hearing a twang in his voice. I briefly wonder if I can play it off as if I am from Canada. My horrified expression must betray me, as the man next to me leans over and makes a comment in Dutch that sounds sarcastic.

            “Spreekt u Engels?” I have butchered the simple Dutch phrase, I gather from his smirk.

            “Sorry,” he laughs. “I said, I wonder why they haven’t jailed him already. That crazy guy comes around here all the time.”

            “Oh, God,” I breathe a sigh of relief. “I thought it was another American tourist giving all of us a bad name.”

            The man gives me a world-weary smile. “Americans don’t need him to do that,” he says. “You already have it.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Bruges

(Alternate spellings: Brugse, Brugge, Brugs, anything else you could possibly think of)

Bruges is a magical gingerbread fairytale village. This is the absolute and definite truth.

(Pictured: my future home). This is the first thing you see when you walk into the city center. I kid you not. The most commonly used phrase this weekend was “this place cannot be real.” If you get lost, you end up in a park with a fountain surrounded by swans. If you’re hungry, someone will always serve you friets. And oh god, the waffles! So cheap, so delicious.

(Pictured: Harry Potter-esque alleyway. Every alleyway looks this nice, FYI). We spent the first day wandering aimlessly and saying “ooh, ahh” at everything. The people here are really into landscaping and having impeccable taste in architecture.

Bruges is very easy to navigate as there are really distinctive, tall monuments every 100 feet. The first one we found was this windmill.

(Pictured: me 2 seconds before I smacked my head on the underside of said windmill).

We consulted the hostel’s youth map, which recommended that we check out a little restaurant that was way off the beaten path for dinner. Essentially, we ate in a Belgian woman’s kitchen. There’s no real menu: you get what she wants to give you that day, you pay 10 euro, and you don’t regret it at all. Let me tell you, it was the best vegetarian lasagna I’ve ever had.

We ended the day at the mecca of Bruges nightlife, a large circle of bars arranged around a giant shared patio serving roughly 55 varieties of fruit beer - some of which have been steeped with fruit for 6 months (!!) and some of which have fruit-flavored extract arbitrarily dumped into them. You can tell which are which. Immediately. Regretfully, I don’t have a picture of this place as it was super dark and I was not into lugging my DSLR around at night. Rest assured, it was a lovely spot to spend a relaxing evening.

The next day, John and Lexie convinced me to buy a CityPass that got you into literally every cultural center in Bruges. I swallowed the 31 euro fee, and I was so glad I did. We got to do a boat tour,

(Note: even the lines for boat tours are more impeccably landscaped than anything you can find in any part of America)

Go to a lovely outdoor vintage market (this wasn’t part of the card but was a super lovely and unexpected surprise. I belong here, guys.)

See some original sketches by Picasso and go to a Salvador Dali exhibit in the most beautiful exhibit hall there ever was,


Go to a horrifying Medieval hospital/church museum (not pictured: everything. It was 99% horrifying, so count yourself lucky).

And climb the Belfry you can see in most of these pictures! It was almost 400 steps. Bit of a challenge…but so worth it. It was probably the best view I’ve ever experienced.

We were really proud of ourselves.

And ended the day with the world’s best hazlenut burger and frites with American Sauce (the name is deceptive, as it tastes 20x better than anything America could ever make. It’s a little bit spicy, a little bit creamy, a little bit tomato-ey. The recipe is mysteriously missing from Google, and I’m a little bit heartbroken).

We did Bruges right that day.

The next day, our CityPasses gave us a lovely experience in a different sort of way. We started off the day at the world’s most terrifying Folklore Museum (something like a replica colonial village with scary soulless mannequins and no mention of even a little bit of folklore. Also, the exit was sealed shut), then attended the Chocolate Museum (a secret advertisement for a chocolate brand called Belcolade which included off-brand Lego structures as exhibits. Seriously), and the Friet Museum,

But that’s all you need to know about that. The highlight was the illustrious Lamp Museum, which is everything you could dream it would be and more. The museum’s centerpiece was a 15-minute video of a man’s hand lighting different light fixtures in slow motion. Actually. We were laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe - someone, somewhere, decided this museum would be a good idea and then built it.

We used up the last of our cards on a tour of the Half Moon Brewery, which was actually lovely and informative.

(Even their breweries are 100x prettier than ours could ever dream to be.)

The day culminated in a realization that we wrote down the wrong train information and a mad dash for the last bus back to Well, but all in all, it was excellent.

And god, the chocolate. I was trying to save it, but I just ate the last piece as I was writing this down. It’s so amazing, and it’s so damn cheap! I was selling truffles at my old job for literally four times as much.

(Pictured: Heaven, open till midnight because they know their target audience).

I sincerely fell in love with Bruges. It was incredibly beautiful, steeped in culture, and really, really, tasty. The “vibe,” as I love to prattle on about, was so chill and so perfect. It is quite literally as if you have stepped into a storybook. I can’t wait to go back. And future Castle-dwellers, if you’re reading this, Bruges should be your first trip. Trust me!