Sunday, April 24, 2011

Europe sure is full of big old stuff.

Okay. So.

I know we promised you all this big beautiful blog full of amazing stories and pictures and wonderfulness, and then I led you on with that post about London, but...

Internet access is seriously difficult here. As in, either impossible or prohibitively expensive (we're on a budget here!) and good posts are quite time consuming even without considering the frustration that comes with a rearranged keyboard (oh QWERTY, I will never take you for granted again).

Now, this isn't to say that I'm giving up, or that you won't get the action-packed blog I'm sure you were all waiting expectantly for. It just means that you may have to wait until we get back to get it.

I will say that we're in Berlin now, having hit London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. We'll be here for about a week, then we're off to Prague.

Honestly, I'm just glad I got to shower today. I hadn't showered since Amsterdam because the ONE shower in our Copenhagen hostel broke.

And there goes my net time. Love from Europe!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Just wanted to leave a quick note to say that getting Internet access is proving more difficult than we anticipated, so it might be a while before the next post. But have no fear, we're alive and well in our travels and I promise some amazing stories and pics as soon as possible!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gay Paree

Day 5 -- April 8th

After a morning of wandering around London a bit more, we packed up our bags and trooped to the train station to take the aptly-named Chunnel (tunnel + English Channel... so clever) to Paris. The trip was amazingly fast, only about two and a half hours.

We managed to pass the time.

The plan when we got there was to stay with Rachel's friend Juliette, who has an apartment right in the middle of the city. However, when we arrived, we realized we had no way of getting into the apartment and no way of contacting Juliette, who was at work until 8.


So we walked around for a bit, lugging our big backpacks and carrying our smaller daypacks across our fronts and looking like the complete tourists that we are, trying to find an internet cafe. Did I mention it was hot?

The internet cafe we stumbled on was just a long room filled with boxes and old computers and smelling vaguely of urine, but as they say, any port in a storm. The price was exorbitant -- €1.50 for 15 minutes -- but Rachel managed to send a message off and get Juliette's phone number.

Then came the problem of finding a phone to use. All of the pay phones required a phone card, which we don't have, so we did the next best thing: we found a Starbucks and asked to use their phone. The barista was extremely kind (maybe the huge backpacks and looks of desperation provoked some sympathy) and let us use his cell phone. However, upon calling the number that Rachel had found in her gmail, she learned that it was not Juliette's number, but a different friend's with a similar name. Oops.

By this time it was getting kinda late and we were both quite hungry, so we stopped in a bakery for a baguette and a supermarket for some cheese, and sat on a bench near the apartment to eat. Despite the situation, I was in pretty high spirits, enjoying the experience and relishing the fact that we were managing without having the help of technology.

As we ate, Rachel spotted someone coming out of Juliette's building, so she ran over to see if he would let us in. Turns out it was Juliette's roommate looking for us, as she had called him to tell him to be on the lookout for us. So that was solved. Whew.

That night, we headed to a friend's apartment to hang out. Everyone was way cool and I was just happy that everyone spoke English. At about 3am, everyone wanted to go out to a bar, but Rachel and I, being used to the states where bars close down at 2, caught a cab and passed out.

Day 6 -- April 9th

This is the day that I woke up sick (and, I should mention, I was sick for all of Paris and only in the last couple of days feeling really up to snuff again). But we couldn't let this stop us, so we got a croissant and an espresso and headed to the Louvre Garden to walk around.

Then, I'll admit, we went back to the apartment so I could rest.

Day 7 -- April 10th

We'd bought an unlimited 5-day Metro pass and this was the day that we started to put it to use. The Paris Metro, by the way, is amazing. It goes everywhere and the trains come about every three minutes, no exaggeration. Best public transit system I've ever used.

The first thing we did was stop by a major station to book Eurail tickets. The bookings can only be done in person, not online, and some need to be done far in advance. This we discovered a it late, as all the trains to Madrid were booked and none of the alternatives we could come up with were feasible.

So. Change of plans. Instead of heading south and east through Spain and Italy first, we're going to go in the opposite direction, heading north and east to Brussels and Amsterdam next, then south, then west. We'll hit all the same cities we planned, just in opposite order. I have to give major credit to the woman working the ticket window, because we were there for over half an hour trying to figure all this out and she never lost patience. Props to her.

After that stressful but ultimately productive morning, we took the Metro up to Montmartre, which was packed with people as it was a weekend and unseasonably warm outside. We dodged the hordes of people trying to sell overpriced trinkets to tourists to take in the incredible view:

then dropped a euro into the collection basket and stepped inside Sacré Coeur, the huge church at the top of the hill. Inside, it was your typical grand old cathedral -- stained glass, huge arches, elaborate moldings and the like. But as we walked around, all I noticed were the many places to give offerings of money to various saints or pay €2 or €10 to light a candle, and I kept thinking about the corruption of the Catholic Church and how phony it all was until I was completely disgusted and just wanted to leave. Looking at the outside was much nicer.

At the bottom of the hill is Paris's sort of Red Light District, full of sex shops and strip clubs. I of course had to see the place that inspired one of my favorite movies:

Nearby, we went into the Paris Erotic Museum, which was full of erotic artwork from throughout human history and all over the world. African wood carvings, pictures from the Kama Sutra, ancient Chinese drawings, early 20th century "porn" movies, etc. It was fascinating and sometimes hilarious.

Day 8 -- April 11th

By this time, we'd been in Paris nearly three full days and we hadn't been to the Eiffel Tower. Clearly this had to be our next stop.

Once again we avoided the many sellers with their piles of multicolored miniature Eiffel Tower statues to feast our eyes on the real thing. I have to be honest though -- the Eiffel Tower is kinda ugly up close. It's much nicer from far away, when you don't see the dun-brown color of it and you're not swarmed by other tourists on all sides.

We didn't go up because we figured it wasn't worth the long line or the price -- besides, what good is a view of all of Paris without the Eiffel Tower itself in it?

Still, the photo ops were impossible to pass up.

After this was Notre Dame, which, with its free entrance and lack of money-grubbiness (though you could still buy a candle for €4), pissed me off a lot less than the Sacré Coeur.

My distaste for Catholicism notwithstanding, the place is really very beautiful. I took some pictures, though they of course can't do it justice.

The stained glass, the archways, the moldings, the paintings, the huge extravagance of it all really made me understand why this is one of the big places to see in Paris. Very impressive.

When we left, we stood by the river for a minute while we figured out what to do next. Rachel thought she remembered the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Co. being nearby, so she pulled out her map to see if it was listed there. As she looked, I let my gaze wander across the street and spotted something.

"Is that it?" I asked, pointing directly across from where we happened to be standing. Rachel looked up and grinned. Serendipity.

I loved this bookstore, even though it was a bit too crowded for comfort. It's everything a bookstore should be: smallish, books crammed in every available space, kinda quirky. Lovely.

At dinner that night, we experienced some of that famous French hospitality -- you know, where they ignore you for long periods of time. Eventually, being impatient Americans, we forced the issue and asked if we could pay just to get out of there. I guess this is one of the reasons you don't tip here.

Day 9 -- April 12th

We wanted to go to the catacombs, but as soon as we saw the line we turned around and headed straight back.

Instead, we walked around the kinda gay neighborhood and hit up some thrift stores, which were tiny and crowded and even a bit claustrophobic. When a square meter of space is worth as much as it is here, you learn to economize.

Juliette had told us about a falafel place, not remembering the name but only that it had a green front and would have a line, which was actually perfect information to help us find it. It was delicious, though I felt sorry for the falafel place directly across the tiny street that was getting no business. Location, location, location.

Day 10 -- April 13th

[We somehow managed to lose all the pictures from this one day. So, apologies, but there are no pics for the catacombs and the Louvre.]

We went back to the catacombs, determined to see some old bones no matter how long the line. We got the youth price (yeah! under 25!) and headed down the 100+ stairs to the catacombs deep beneath the city, below the sewers and the subway.

It was creepy, even before we got to the bones. The passage was narrow and not terribly well lit, with dripping ceilings so low we nearly had to stoop to stay clear of them. Plus, there were these dark iron gates blocking off the side passages, and I kept joking that that's where they keep the monsters.

Because that's totally where they'd keep the monsters.

The part of the catacombs with the bones was incredible. I couldn't even begin to guess how many skeletons were down there, the long arm and leg bones arranged neatly to form walls of bones with skulls placed artistically in rows and crosses among them. So. Many. Bones.

It was hard not to get creeped out, I'll admit, being around so many dead people. But then I'd see a parent with a couple of kids and feel sheepish about being scared. Anyway. Cool experience, not recommended for the squeamish.

After a pizza lunch (we've eaten so much cheese here -- it's everywhere and we're both pretty sick of it by now), we went to the Louvre.

The Louvre is so big that it would take all day just to walk through all the galleries, let alone see every work of art. So we decided to hit the big ones.

First, the Venus de Milo and all the other ancient Greek sculptures.

We stopped by the Mona Lisa, of course, but it was in bulletproof glass and separated by a wooden barrier and a rope, plus it was mobbed by people. Not really that impressive, though I do appreciate that it was revolutionary for its time and all that.

The best part, I thought, were the apartments of Napoleon III, with incredible chandeliers, gold-plated EVERYTHING, plush carpets, giant paintings, and ornate furniture.

Day 11 -- April 14th

We visited Paris's modern art museum, the Pompidou, which has some pretty great views of the city:

plus, you know, some really cool artwork.

Then we walked down Champs-Elyssés to the Arc de Triomphe. Huge and impressive.

Brussels is next!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Hello! Yes, we're still alive, and ready to share of our travels with you!

Day 1

We slept fitfully at best on our night flight over the ocean, what with turbulence, people kicking the backs of our seats, and the general uncomfortableness (totally a word. because I said so.) of airplane seats.

Rachel sailed through customs with relative ease, while the woman who checked me through grilled me on everything from how I was paying for the trip and how much money I had to how many countries I was visiting and what flight I would be taking back to the states.

We navigated the Underground easily enough (five quid from the airport to King's Cross!) and emerged from the station to see our first view of Europe:


At least when we looked to the right, we saw this:

which was impressive enough for first impressions.

We dropped our bags off at the hostel and headed for the British Library first thing. (Why yes, I am studying to be a librarian, how did you guess?)

You guys. My mind was BLOWN.

They had Shakespeare's First Folio, two copies of the Magna Carta, a full Bible from the third century, a first edition of the Canterbury Tales, handwritten notes by Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Freud, Darwin... I could go on. It was incredible.

Speaking of Darwin, this is the back of the ten-pound bill:

which I found noteworthy (and kind of hilarious, in a sad sort of way) considering the number of states in the U.S. that won't even teach evolution and the percentage of adults who maintain that the world was created 6,000 years ago based on some priest's study of "begats".


We hit the British Museum next, where I'll admit the most exciting thing for me was the display of authentic pieces of eight.

Rachel liked the lion statue.

Being completely exhausted from both jetlag and getting very little sleep during the "night," we sat in a Starbucks (I know, I know, but we figured they'd be the cheapest and they'd let us sit there for as long as we liked) for a while, listening to music and doing crosswords to keep ourselves awake.

By the way, this is what a typical London intersection looks like:

We never did figure out what those zig-zaggy lines meant.

Day 2

We were in the girls' section of the hostel, which was pink. Very pink.

The showers were, well, frustrating. You know those faucets you get sometimes in public restrooms where you push down the button and the water runs for a little while, then stops on its own? The showers had nozzles like that. Eco-friendly and cost-efficient, I'm sure, but that isn't really what's on your mind when your hair is full of soap and your eyes are closed and the water stops.

After our (free! yay!) breakfast, we headed out into the gray London day. Being tourists, we did touristy things.

Piccadilly Square:

We went to Leicester Square (pronounced less-ter, who knew?) but it was completely blocked off, being set up for the 2012 Olympics. Sadpants.

But we did find this, which we thought was way cool:

Trafalgar Square:

The church in the square, St Martin in the Fields, was beautiful and, when we wandered in, had a free concert going on with people playing a piano, a cello, and two violins. It was wonderful to just sit and listen for a while.

Out in front, there was a big block of stone with the baby Jesus sculpted out of it:

The umbilical cord is what makes it especially creepy.

This little piggy got crucified...
(Is that in bad taste? Too soon?)

Day 3

As we were walking through the park, looking for Buckingham Palace, an old man asked us if we needed help getting anywhere. We told him we were trying to find the palace, and he told us to follow him. As we walked, he just talked and talked about the different types of Royal Guard, the process of changing the guard, how it's different when the Queen is in town, different things to do in London, etc etc. He also mentioned, a few times, that he was 81 years old. All in all, he was very kind and informative, and we were glad to have a bit of a free tour (though we were also glad to escape him later as he seemed inclined to talk forever).

We wanted to see St James's Palace because, well, because it's old and it was there, but we walked all the way around it before we realized what it was because to be honest, it wasn't terribly impressive:

After that, we went to the always-iconic Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

That night, we met up with a friend of Rachel's in the East End for a drink and some hookah:

and called it a day.

Day 4

We'd walked quite a bit on Day 3 so this was a day to take it easy. Our hostel had deals on most shows in London, so we picked up a couple of half-price tickets to STOMP and went to the show. If you know of STOMP, then I don't have to tell you how cool it was. If you don't, head over to YouTube right now and find some videos of them. The show rocked.

This one's for Joe.

Up next -- Paris!

(By the way, I feel obligated to mention the fact that I am typing this on a French keyboard, which is just different enough to make this difficult. The A and the Q are swapped, the M is where the ; should be, and the Z and the W are swapped, just to give a few examples.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It begins.

So... we leave today.

Flight leaves at 7:45p Boston time, lands around 7am London time. Overseas flights rock -- free bag check, free wine, and we were even able to request a VEGAN meal. Sweet.