22 Apr 2007

I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't even manage to work out a smile

I'm not really sure where to start, and I suppose the beginning is looking more promising than ever, so I'll give her a shot. This has been a long time planning (about 2 weeks now) and it turned out better than I'd ever expect.

Since I came to Europe, my main goal has been to see northern France--specifically Omaha Beach and the like (D-day). This last weekend I have accomplished this goal and done more than ever thought. In anticipation, I found two willing travel companions and a cheap(er) rental car.

I picked up the car early Friday morning with my Hungarian counterpart Tomas--it was a black VW Polo. We both were able to drive manual cars and this paid off. Who would think it's a long drive from Geneva to Normandy? Only 8.5 hours (or so they say). At any rate, we picked up Virginia Bain and within about...oh....a day we made it to Bayeux. This was to be our home base for the weekend.

We ventured immediately to Omaha beach. We had very poor directions, so I took back roads and asked people walking on the street which way to the beach. For once, the French weren't bad. It must be the Scandinavian influence from the 11th century left over. Within about an hour, we were standing on Nazi bunkers, gun emplacements, and, most likely, shells. It was an incredible experience and I was glad to share it with my amis. We soon found the American Cemetery. I have never seen a more immaculately kept place in my life. It is honestly my firm belief that the White House garden is not kept up as avidly as this place. We also saw the American monument erected in honor of "The Big Red".

It is, in my opinion, impossible to reflect in words the feelings one experiences while at Omaha beach. The beach itself is very serene and beautiful. If not for my former knowledge of the massacres that occurred there, I would find it a lovely place to spend a Sunday afternoon laying out. Yet at the same time, the serenity is eerie. Why would such a beautiful place not be more populous? I think you might understand where I'm heading with this.

The next day (that would be Saturday), we headed to Mont St. Michel. It's an old abbey on an island just off the coast of France. It is pretty spectacular, but we didn't feel the urge to enter the abbey, just simply see the town and the castle from afar. Instead of seeing the abbey, we chose to drive to two local towns that came highly recommended from a teacher and a set of parents. The first--Cancale--was very small and quaint. We put on swim suits and spent the next 3 hours laying out on rocky beaches. I have been informed that I have a permanent white T-Shirt.

The second town--which unfortunately had nicer beaches than the first--was St. Malo. It was a larger town with a full casino located there, but all we did was walk the beach and then head out of town. With a quick dinner, we headed back to our hotel room.

Oh! The hotel! It really was a highlight. I was fortunate enough to end up with the middle spot on a double bed. That's right. The middle spot. Most people would assume a double bed would be for a single person (I know, counterintuitive, but true). We, however, are cheap college students and piled 2 half naked guys and one uncomfortable girl into one bed. Before you go saying "poor girl", just remember I was stuck in the middle!

This morning was a lovely morning downtown Bayeux. It's a larger town in the area, and if there's two things the French do well, they are pastries and cathedrals. This held true. We also saw a very long, unfortunately artistic tapestry. We had to appease each person in their own way. This one was for my Hungarian pal.

The drive home was long. I enjoyed it though, for I drove most of the 10 hour drive through winding hills and curvy roads. At any rate, I haven't eaten in a good 12-14 hour span and I have a presentation tomorrow morning that I have yet to work on. (It's 1:30 AM here). So for now I bid adieu.

A Bientôt.

14 Apr 2007

And when you wake up, I'll be by your side

It's been a long week, that's for sure. For starters, I left last Friday morning and did not arrive home until just today, spending time in four countries and at least five cities. It's been fun, but exhausting, exasperating, and even a bit obnoxious at times.

In an effort to conserve my energies--and my stories--I will not depict everything I have done in the past week, for if I were to attempt that, it might take my entire night and the following day. So I beg forgiveness in a brief summary of the week (with certain moments dissected for your enlightenment).

Friday was spent traveling from Geneva to Brussels. It was a long ride since we were unable to secure seats on the high speed train running through Paris. Instead, we took my roundabout way and in a short 10 hours found ourself in Brussels. I will leave the city by saying that Brussels is a city for three things. First and foremost, Beer. Secondly, fries. Thirdly, mussels. To officially close the short description, I will end with a quote--after all, my english teachers always told me to open and close with a hook (usually a quote). "First God invented Brussels...then beer."

From there, we took an overnight train to Hamburg, DE. The train was hot and uncomfortable. I slept almost naked, with no covers, on a bed that was maybe large enough for my five year old brother. And when I said slept, I meant to say tossed restlessly all night. But that is not the point. The point is I ended up in Hamburg, hopping on the next train to Copenhagen. I will not delve into the details about Scandinavia. Leave it to knowing that the women really are blond, and the cities are picturesque...similar to the rest of Europe.

The part of this journey that I find most attractive or appealing is not the what, but the why. As we sat around planning the weekend--anticipating a full 3 days in Brussels--Ginn came around and said, and I quote, "Do ya'll wanna stop by Copenhagen? It's only like a 2 hour train ride from Brussels." As all her ducks lined up, she made the final kill-shot with a "Please..." and a southern accent. How could anyone resist? We were in.

As we rested our dogs after a long day in Copenhagen, we pondered how to spend our evening. It was predetermined that we would throw a fete in our hotel room, but that was for later. Once again, Ginnie pulled through for us. "Ya'll wanna head to Sweden for the night? It's only a 5 minute boat ride or so." (Again, I vow to tell my stories as my mind remembers them, for my keys are incapable of creating such falsifications.) Again, we all lined up and she delivered a perfect shot.

The next few days were spent in Berlin doing the things that normal jelly donuts do--you know, memorials for WWI, WWII, GDR, what-have-you. We saw prisons, torture chambers, concentration camps, and all sorts of exciting sites in Berlin. East Berlin is definitely the more beautiful side of the two--who would've thought? But in all honesty, it amazes me that one single solitary country (well, for a while, two) could commit so many atrocities in such short time. I am no historian, so I will not attempt to depict them to you, but suffice it to say they did. Besides the multiple nights of hanging in the hostel playing card games, I will highlight a few minor points of the trip.

First off, we visited the check point Charlie museum. This was the major check point between East and West Berlin. My tour guide happened to be a West Berliner that risked life and limb over 120 times to evacuate Easterners. Eventually he was captured and jailed in a Secret jail for 9 years. Quite a compelling story.

Secondly, I find it ironic that for the 4 days I spent in Berlin, I was able to pass freely through the Brandenburg gate at will. Each morning I would run through it (my hostel was in East Berlin) with my arm raised celebrating the downfall of communism and the victory of western democracy.

Thirdly, I spent about an hour trouncing through the holocaust memorial downtown. At first glance, it looks to be a large park in the middle of Berlin. It is a full block square with hundreds, if not thousands, of coffin sized blocks raising from the ground at varying heights in very straight lines. The ground was more disorienting than the varying size of the blocks; the ground twisted and turned with each step--at some points it would drop 4 feet in about two steps. As I walked through it I could not help but to think to myself that the ultimate movie ending to a cold war thriller would be a cat and mouse espionage game through this memorial. That notwithstanding, the most interesting thing about the memorial is that the architect does not discourage people from playing on the memorial since in all honesty, it does seem to be more a park than a memorial. Out of respect, however, I abstained and we ventured off.

Dresden, for a brief history, was a city fire-bombed by the Allied Air Forces at the end of WWII. There is a lot of heavy criticism for the bombings--they killed nearly 40,000 civilians. Many say that it was vindication for the Battle of Britain, or even D-Day. At any rate, a majority of the cultural sites were hit, many of which are still damaged today. As I sat across from the city on the bank of the Elbe while my lady friends sunned themselves in the 70 degree weather, I took in the irony that the old city across from me was actually more recent than the new city directly behind me. And off to my left was a 40 year old german man--and when I say german I mean it--in a Sean Connery-esque square cut speedo copying my friends. The city was beautiful and fun. It was nice to have good weather for a change--even if it did mean Molly fried out in the sun.

We chose to skip out on this weekend in Prague. I'm not sure why, but I was not up for more traveling. So in its stead, we hopped on a train for home and 10 hours later, we arrived. Overall, it was an excellent, contemplative week.

A Bientôt

Post Script: I have added two new albums of photos to the left hand side. They are labeled Amsterdam and Lisbon. I will add the ones from this last week sometime soon.

2 Apr 2007

Your thoughts are like the ocean

Goede Morgen, or so they say.

Barcelona here I come. ALAS—the trains aren’t working? What will I ever do? I suppose the beaches in the Netherlands could take the stead of the beach in Barcelona, no? Well, Ginnie and Kate were able to convince me of that, at any rate, so I packed my bag (no swim suit, just clothes for warm weather) and caught the next train out to Strasbourg. The winding path we chose was actually an interesting one, starting in Strasbourg, continuing on to Luxembourg City—just two hours, thanks to Ginnie’s lovely idea—and ending up in Den Haag with two day trips to Amsterdam.

Strasbourg was a charming little city full of life and college students. The city center is a bit reminiscent of every other French/Swiss/Austrian city that I’ve seen, only this one claims France’s tallest Church Tower. Whew, what a site. Anyway, we never really developed a Plan of Action for the city besides a few notes I had previously prepared, so the day was mostly spent wandering. Did you know the Council of Europe is headquartered in Strasbourg? Now Ginnie does. At any rate, we worked our way through the city center—which is situated on an island on the Danube—multiple times and even ventured to the outskirts of town to see the International buildings. Dinner was a cinch with the obvious tarte flambée, and dessert is implicit.

The hotel we stayed in was a cozy little Best Western—so cozy, in fact, that we only managed to finagle one queen bed for the three of us. Either way, sleep is sleep and the next day was another adventure in the waiting.

Early mornings are the norm here, at least for me. I woke and showered, followed snail-like by the other two. We managed to get some croissants and coffee before our train departed, and then it was off to Luxembourg. I suppose you might ask yourself—if not versed in the geography of Europe—where exactly is Luxembourg. And say, perchance, you are schooled in that subject, why Luxembourg? Well I suppose that due to my recent time spent in Europe, I fall into the second category; why would I spend a day there? I suppose it is because I am a sucker for sweet-talking, and that is one thing these girls do well. So off to Luxembourg.

The city itself, at first sight, is not a sight to behold. It’s like any other city, just less impressive. But in short time, we found signs towards the city center—low and behold, the city is a real city, old town and all. In fact, they even have a park-esque area that they used in the Middle Ages as a defensive barrier from accessing the old town. We walked about a bit, indulged in pizza and gelato, and caught the next train two hours after arrival.

I am always one to say that to experience a city, you need more than a day. Really, I believe at least two are necessary, but it was a pleasant stop. On to Den Haag (the Hague).

We made quick time on the train—and everything else is not important enough, in my opinion, to be noted; but Den Haag, after arriving at our hostel, is where the fun began. Ginnie was in search of a 24-hour store, so we took a right, a left, and another left. Much to our surprise, we note a reddish hue coming from around the next corner. Well ladies and gents, I feel privileged to tell you that Amsterdam is not the only city in the Netherlands where a red light district prevails. We made good time out of there, but due to mans innate curiosity, we found ourselves venturing back through it yet again on the way to the bar—the bar at which we would drink away our shock.

Amsterdam was more shocking than previously thought, but that is most likely due to us renting bikes and making our first experience there (unbeknownst to us) in the Red Light district as well. Whew. At least I’ve seen it now. We rode away at an accelerated pace, stopping and swerving between cars as if it were our job—at least Kate and I could be responsibly employed in such a fashion, Ginnie, on the other hand, nearly hit everything from signs to people to cars. The Anne Frank house was an interesting stop—it’s actually much bigger than one would assume after reading the book. There’s also some other interesting things to do in that ‘museum’, but as I politely reminded the girls, there’s more to do in Amsterdam than sit inside Anne Frank’s house.

We rode on for two more hours and, as if she were a toddler asking for a candy, Ginnie constantly requested a break from the bustling streets for a substitution with the Dutch countryside. Unfortunately for her, we did not succumb to her unabated requests, but instead replaced the countryside with a large park and some riding along the harbor. We soon retired the bikes and ventured off on foot—it was actually welcomed since it is hard to grasp a intimate picture of one’s surroundings when that person is constantly aware of all other things (usually deadly) going on about them.

After all was said and done, we ended up in a large park with a sign that says “I Amsterdam” and I, in my infinite wisdom, decided it would be a splendid idea to place myself atop each letter in of the sign and get a photograph. With a bit of acrobatic work, I finagled myself on each one and in no time had the whole progression completed. In succession, the girls opted to repeat my success—yet to no avail. After minutes of painful looking body contortion and manipulation, neither of them were able to mount the ‘I’, and Ginnie even ended up on her rear end ten-to-twelve feet below where she had her hands on. Maybe another time.

I must also add, of course, that I was the absolute gentleman and offered my help occasion upon occasion. But Ginnie and Kate are a bit ‘bullheaded’ and could not be convinced to accept my kind gestures. Serves them right.

We ate some pancakes, since that is the thing to do in Amsterdam (besides smoking weed). And that brings me to my most interesting story of all. Pancakes, cappuccinos, and sidewalk cafes sounded great to me. “I’ll have the number 10 (pancake with Bacon and Cheddar) and a large cappuccino, please.” Seems like a normal order, no? I thought so.

Within a few minutes, the gentleman server brought us our orders and placed our pancakes in the proper place. “A cappuccino for the lady, and a special cappuccino for you (me).” Hmm. I don’t do drugs. I didn’t order drugs. And I definitely cannot have drugs in my system come this summer. What to do? I smelled it a bit, and even poked around to see if it was ‘special’, but eventually decided that it was not worth wasting 3 euros on perfectly good cappuccino, so I gulped it down quickly. An hour later, I felt just fine. What an asshole of a waiter.

We soon retired to our ‘stayeasy hostel’ and caught a few hours of rest before we took off Sunday. We wandered a while through Den Haag, seeing nothing but run down buildings and poop on the paths. As it turns out, a young British fellow offered us a bit of assistance in finding our way to the International Criminal Tribunals and even the beach! Who would know that Den Haag would have a beach, let alone one worth visiting? To make a long story short, we caught the next tram straight to the seashore.

The sea was a beautiful, lovely, brown, with the rocky bottom visible for at least a full 2 feet. In all honesty, it was great. The sand was lovely, though a bit shell infested—apparently the ‘thing to do’ when along a beach is to collect a few shells here and there—and overall it made for an impressive sight, considering I expected no beaches to begin with. We drank more cappuccinos; these were credibly not laced, and lounged around in general for about three hours. Eventually we wore out our welcome and traveled onwards back towards the International Criminal Tribunals, or Peace Palace. The building was large and overdone, but it made for a spectacle.

Once back in Amsterdam, planless and hungry, we found some quick food and, of course, more ice cream. I suppose that is why traveling with Ginnie is so fun, she doesn’t criticize my constant indulgence in ice cream. With nothing better to do than sit around a park—or maybe just no motivation to tour—we played truth or dare and in general bonded.

I must diverge and tell another entertaining story now, for we found ourselves back in the “I Amsterdam park” and the ladies, again, with stout resolution to conquer the ‘I’, found themselves stacked one on top of the other. With a bit of luck, a deal of strength, and a healthy dose of will power, Ginnie found herself atop the ‘I’. We were all beaming with laughter, even though I had voiced my opinion that it was a futile effort. Congrats to the ladies.

The ride back is worth little of note, and, beyond a restless neighbor who found every possible excuse to wake me up, I slept quite well all the way home.

See you in one month—give or take a few days.

A Bientôt