Monday, July 30, 2012

Mind the Gap

Well, It’s been over a month since I was in London. And I STILL haven’t blogged about it. In my defense, it’s been a crazy month, trying to finish up all of my schoolwork. But I am happy to say that I am completely DONE with ALL of my classes and am set to graduate in just two weeks! I am now enjoying my free time by watching the Olympics. The Olympics are the BEST. Can I get an Amen? But I’m sitting here in my dorm room right now, watching the gymnastic competition take place in London, and I thought, “I just love London.” And then I felt the need to tell you all why.

Soooo, let me tell you.

I went to London in in June with Chelsea, Matt, and Merritt. They were all so fun to travel with and wanted to see/do as much as we could, so that made the trip much more enjoyable. 

On Thursday night we arrived at the London Stansted airport, where we immediately had to withdraw pounds. Changing currency is always initially really exciting, but then you realize the exchange rate… Yeah. Not so cool.

The London Stansted airport is about a two-hour bus ride from the London city center. So we caught the first bus to our hostel, which was located right on the edge of Hyde Park. I didn’t read or do anything productive during the long bus ride because I was just busy staring out the front windshield. WE WERE DRIVING ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD. Well, I mean, it was the right side. Err, left side. It was just really weird to be on the other side of the road.

(This is why when you're crossing the road in the UK, you have to remember to look RIGHT. I'm glad they have reminders, because I kept forgetting and almost got hit by a double-decker bus....oops)

We arrived at our hostel pretty late so we went straight to bed.
Sidenote: there were three other people in our room, and old Irish man and two girls who went to Auburn and knew some Baylor girls that we also knew. It really is a small world after all.

The next morning it was raining. Normal. So decided to do all the indoor sights that day. After stopping for hot chocolate and coffee...

...we took the Tube (and, yes, we had to “mind the gap”) to the British Museum. We got to see the Rosetta Stone (the actual rock, not the computer software)!

Then we went over to the British Library. I would HIGHLY recommend the British Library to anyone who ever goes to London. I got to see some incredible artifacts there, including the Magna Carta, a Guttenburg Bible, original Jane Austen manuscripts, handwritten Beatle’s lyrics, and pages from DaVinci’s notebooks! It was so humbling to be in the presence of some incredible pieces of history.

After our time at the library, Merritt and I wandered over toward the poet John Keat’s house, which was in THE most adorable part of town. Quaint little houses with roses in their garden. Adorable. Oh, and it was raining while the sun was still shining. Sooo that was incredible.

Keat’s house.

After that, we headed toward Queen’s Theatre where we got to see (drum roll, please….) LES MISERABLES. Yes, it was a dream come true for me. Les Mis is my all-time favorite musical, and to see it London just made it even better. It was Merritt’s first time to see that musical and so I tried not to sing too loudly, but sometimes I just couldn’t restrain myself.

Waiting for the performance to begin. Eeeeee!!!!

The next morning, we woke and grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel (you guessed it, Nutella and bread) and took the Tube to Buckingham Palace, where we got to watch the changing o the guard. There were a LOT of people there, but we were able to get a good view underneath the Victoria Memorial.

We then went over to Portabella Road, which is in Nodding Hill. I did not see any portabella mushrooms OR Hugh Grant, which was a little upsetting. But there was some excellent shopping to be done there, so that made it a little better.

We then headed over to Westminster Abbey for Evensong. We got there early enough that we were able to get a good seat right by boys’ choir. Walking in to the Abbey was incredible. We had to file in silently and upon entering, you immediately pass the tombs of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin (who I was surprised to see buried there). It was pretty incredible. Evensong only lasted about an hour but I really enjoyed it. The choir sounded beautiful. And the minister’s message was encouraging. And we were even led in a prayer for the royal family and the Queen.
This summer I’ve probably toured over a dozen churches and cathedrals but it was so good to finally be in a church that was actually doing what the Church is meant to do.

Then we got to meet Ben. He really is big.

Afterwards, we got a traditional meal of Fish n’ Chips at this adorable little restaurant that had couches for chairs.

Then Merritt and I took the Tube over to the river Thames, walked across Waterloo Bridge and along the river. That area of town is POPPIN’! It it was SO fun! We saw tightrope walkers, carnivals, Christmas lights, oversized couches, and trees that had been wrapped in yarn.

(photo cred: Merritt Denman)

Our third and final day in London, we were all exhausted but we used every ounce of energy to see everything that we still wanted to see.  Merritt unfortunately had to leave early that morning because she had class Monday morning, but Chelsea and I didn’t have class until Monday night, so we were able to stay.

So on Sunday morning we we walked through Hyde Park.... Hillsong Church, which was actually located in the Dominion Theater (where the show “We Will Rock You” is performed at night).  We were kindly greeted by the people there (which I’m pretty sure was the first time a European had introduced themselves to us. So that just felt good).
It was SOOOO refreshing to be at a church. This was the first time Chelsea and I had been to an actual church service in over two months. I’m pretty sure both of us cried within the first ten minutes. We both had just really missed worshipping with other Christians; there’s just something special about the Church. I’ve definitely gained a new appreciation for the Church now, having been away from it for three months now. It really is the hope of the world.

Afterwards, we ate our packed lunches along the river. Not a bad view, eh?

We passed by Shakespeare's Globe Theater…

….and then walked across the Tower Bridge.

This London Bridge is NOT falling down, don't worry.

Look familiar....?

We then arrived at the Tower of London. This summer I had been doing an independent study of women in British royalty, and had to write a report on my experiences in London and at the Tower. So I was actually really excited to tour through Tower (which is actually made up of several different towers and buildings). However, we had arrived at the Tower much later than we expected and so I had less than an hour to get through it all. So I bought my student ticket and practically ran through the gates to the tower.

Once inside, I got to see things that I had been reading about all summer! It was like I didn’t even need a tour guide because I knew what I was looking at. I think that was the smartest I felt the entire summer.

The Tower is also home to the Crown Jewels, which are spectacular. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures (or try them on), so you’re just gonna have to go there and see them yourselves!

Our final stop of the day was at Abbey Road. Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I love the Beatles. And so this was definitely a highlight of my trip. Abbey Road is really just a road. Cars drive on it, people live on it. There’s nothing that special about it otherwise. So I can’t imagine how annoying it would be to live there and have to deal with all the annoying tourists who stop in the middle of the road for a photo-op. And, yes, we got to be those annoying tourists for a day. Love iiiiit.

All in all, London was SO much fun! It was the longest weekend trip I’d taken yet, and so I probably enjoyed it so much because we were able to do a lot more. But there really is so much to see because there is so much history there. And the fact that we were finally in a country that spoke the same language as us didn’t hurt either.  

It’s been fun to watch the Olympics in London now, having been there. So I hope you all get to go there sometime! London that is, not the Olympics…. But, hey, if you get to go the Olympics, that’s cool too. Congratulations.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bonjour, Paris!

"This is what you do on your first day in Paris: you get yourself... some honest-to-goodness rain."  -Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn could not have predicted a more accurate first day for me in Paris, France. Yet even rain could not stop me from enjoying my weekend in Paris.

I traveled to Paris with Lindsay, Sarah, Bethany, Merritt, Chelsea, and Matt (Chelsea's boyfriend who has been visiting for the past 4 weeks). We took a two-hour train ride from Maastricht and arrived in Paris on Friday around noon. We checked into our hostel, which might actually have been my favorite hostel thus far. It's not really located near any major landmark BUT it had free breakfast, wifi, nice bathrooms, plugs by the bed and curtains around each bed. This might not sound too exciting to you, but when you stay in cheap hostels every weekend, you start to appreciate the little things in the location of plugs. Anyway, while Chelsea checked us into the hostel, I introduced myself to the girls waiting in line behind us who were obviously from America (my Ameri-radar is pretty good at this point). And they were studying abroad in London, so it was interesting to talk to them because I was going to be in London the following week....but more on that later.

We had hoped to go on a bike tour with a company called "Fat Tire Bike Tours" that afternoon, but we had to postpone it until the following day due to timing. So, instead, we decided to just explore the city a bit. In Paris, you pretty much have to take the Metro everywhere you go, which is such a foreign concept to the me. Probably because I am foreign. So we hopped on the Metro and made our way toward the Eiffel Tower. We walk up out of the Metro, turn the corner and BOOM there it is:
It was way bigger than I had expected it to be. We walked around the base of it and took probably WAY too many pictures of it. But it's just SO crazy to see something that you've only seen pictures of throughout your entire life. To actually be standing there, in front of the Eiffel Tower is a very surreal experience. 
This is my "This is so surreal!" face. Obvi.

 Just tryin' to pose like all the other Europeans....they seriously do the most ridiculous poses for pictures.

We wandered through the streets a little bit, looking around.  Like I mentioned in my last post, I really don't enjoy walking around a city when I don't always know what I'm looking at. Fortunately, Paris is a famous enough city that I was able to recognize some of the parts of town. However, a lot of my knowledge of the sites came from movies like "The Devil Wears Prada." 

We ended up at the Louvre Museum because it's FREE on Friday nights! That was really exciting. Like the Eiffel Tower, it was a lot bigger than I expected. And it can be really overwhelming if you're expecting to see it all. And you simply can't expect to see it all. You have to just pick a hallway or pick a few works of art and go see those.

(Photo Cred: Sarah Hammerle)

Because I'm taking an art history class in Maastricht, my visit to the Louvre was much more interesting.  There's something about seeing a painting or a work of a certain artist that you know and have studied; it just makes you appreciate the art a lot more.

As you might expect, I was excited to see the Mona Lisa. Once again, that was a very surreal experience. We've all probably seen thousands of pictures of her in our lifetime, and so you really have to take a moment while you're standing there in front of it and remind yourself, "This is the real deal. DaVinci actually stood in front of THIS painting and painted this." It's just crazy to be in the presence of something so well-known.

Also....there is always a massive flock of tourists always around her...i'm pretty convinced that's why she's got a smirk on her face. 

After touring the Louvre, you pretty much feel like you just walked about 50 miles. So obviously we were all HUNGRY. We stopped at a little restaurant and watched the France vs. Ukraine game while we enjoyed some much needed FOOD. And, yes, I ordered French fries IN France. And, yes, they pretty much tasted the same...other than the fact that Europeans like to drown their french fries in mayonnaise. So if you ever want fries in Europe, ask for them withOUT mayo.... or bring your goggles because you will have to practically swim through the mayo to get to your fries.

After dinner, a few of us went back to Eiffel Tower to watch it light up. The Tower itself isn't really that pretty if you look at it long enough...but put some twinkly lights on there and it is BEAUTIFUL.  At this point it was raining quite a bit but seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle was totally worth it.

Saturday morning, we grabbed some breakfast, which was obviously was bread and Nutella. Standard European breakfast.... and I'm ok with that. Then we headed to the Metro. Our first stop? Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This cemetery is the largest cemetery in Paris and home to some of the most famous graves in the world. I was able to pay a visit to the graves of....

Oscar Wilde

...Jim Morrison
 ...and Chopin!

Then we made a quick stop outside the Moulin Rouge.
...And, yes, Bethany and I sang the ENTIRE Elephant Love Melody duet to one another. 

After grabbing some crepes near the Moulin Rouge (France loves their crepes), we headed over toward Notre Dame. I had to transition from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack to the Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dama soundtrack pretty quickly. But that as no problem with me. Side note: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I've decided, is an extremely underrated Disney movie. If you need proof, just take a look here at my favorite scene from that movie. What a classic.  Unfortunately, there were no singing gargoyles or compassionate hunchbacks in the bell tower.
But it was still incredible. The church itself was absolutely beautiful and powerful. And I love that, because that exactly describes the character of God.

After our time at Notre Dame, we hurried back to the Eiffel Tower, where we were supposed to meet our Fat Tire Bike Tour guide. Because we had missed the tour the day before, we were eager to find our guide. Unfortunately, we weren't exactly sure where we were supposed to meet him. All we could remember was that the website said to meet at the Eiffel Tower. So we figured it wouldn't be too hard to find it. However, we soon found ourselves wandering around the base of the tower, searching for anyone who looked like a bike toure guide (whatever that looks like). And that's a lot harder than it sounds. We ended up splitting up and wandering aimlessly around the tower. I was convinced we weren't going to get our much-anticipated bike tour. Feeling defeated, Sarah and I wandered toward a cement bench underneath the tower and stood on top of it, looking around for the other girls. They walked up behind us with smiles on their faces, "You found it!" Confused, I looked to my left and, lo and behold, there was a man standing no more than five feet away from me, next to a sign that said "Fat Tire Bike Tours." WE FOUND IT.

More people gathered for the tour and we soon realized that we had found ourselves with about two dozen Australians. They must've had that tour time reserved or something. But we didn't want to not get to go on the bike tour that we had been looking forward to for so long, so we did our best to blend in...which lasted about five seconds.  I'm tellin' ya, Europeans must have a sixth sense for Americans.

Our tour guide's name was Karl, a 19-year-old French man with hair that matched the color of our red bikes. After a quick introduction and a short bike lesson, we began our tour.

Biking is SUCH a fun way to see the city, especially a large city like Paris. Karl would lead us to a location, we'd dismount from our bikes and he would give us a brief history of the site.  Then we'd move on to the next location.  Here are some of the locations we were able to see:

Ecole Militaire
Napoleon attended this school. And there were still had bullet holes from the French Revolution on the side of the building!

Hotel des Invalides (home to Napoleon's tomb)

Tuileries Gardens

Pont Alexandre (my personal favorite part of all of Paris)

...along with some other places along the way!

I don't think I can conclude this portion of this blog post without describing what it was like to cross the one of the busy streets in Paris on a bike. I could probably write an entire book about this terrifying experience, but I'll do my best to be brief.

You must understand that riding a bike really isn't a skill that you never forget. You can forget. And many of the Baylor students realized this after arriving in Maastricht. All of us Baylor students have bikes and are able to bike to class every day. It's awesome to ride a bike in Maastricht because, in Holland, the bikes always get the right-of-way. So I basically never have to stop or even slow down on my way to class. It's crazy. You can get pretty confident because you gain so much speed and all the cars have to stop for you. You think you're about to go all "E.T." and just start riding up toward to moon.
All in all, riding in Maastricht is da bomb.

But THAT's in Maastricht. In Paris, however, it's a different story. I don't know what the rules of the road are in Paris. But it became pretty obvious pretty quickly that they don't really like bikers. Especially two dozen bikers, many of whom (mostly the Australians, I'd like to add) are struggling to maintain balance. This is understandable, but, come on, have a little compassion, people!

So there were are. A long line of red bikes, led by a teenage red-head, waiting to cross the road. The light is red, which should've given us enough time to mentally prepare for what was about to occur. But, nothing, no, NOTHING could have prepared us for what was about to happen. The light flashed green and Karl yelled, "Let's gooooo!" which sounded a lot like a battle cry. And off we went, bikes teetering and horns honking. I don't even remember if the road had lanes, but, I wasn't really focused on that. I was focused on simply getting to the other side of the road. I tried to keep my eyes locked on Karl, who was skillfully maneuvering between the tiny black cars, with one hand on his handlebars and one hand firmly extended toward the honking cars. He glared through every windshield as he whizzed past them, as if he was channeling his inner Gandalf and telepathically telling them, "YOU SHALL NOT PAAAASSSS." He eventually reached the other side and so I knew we were close. I pedaled faster and faster, behind stopped cars, in front of moving cars and passing any Australian tourist that was in my way. At last, we reached the other side, much to our relief... but not the relief of the native Parisian bikers on the other side, who had no problem making it clear that we were not welcomed on their road. But even the frustrated French bikers did not discourage me from breathing a sigh of relief. I was just thankful to be alive.

We concluded our bike tour at the Eiffel Tower and snapped this picture, before we had to say goodbye to our fabulous red bikes and to our new favorite red-head.

We were pretty worn out and hungry after our bike tour so we stopped at a little French cafe near the Eiffel Tower for dinner. While we were waiting for our food, we watched a little bird fly in through the front door, land on the counter where the chef, whose back was turned, had been preparing our food, then fly out the window. It all happened so fast and we were unable to decide if what had just occurred was cute or disgusting... so we ate our dinner anyway.

Then it was time to climb the Eiffel Tower. Now, you must understand, this task is not for the faint of heart or weak of knees. But when the workers at the Eiffel Tower have GREAT idea of repairing 3 of the 4 elevators at the same time, you are basically left with no choice but to hike your way to the second platform, where you then must take an elevator the rest of the way. After biking around all of Paris, we were up for the challenge of 674 steps. We purposefully paced ourselves, and so it really wasn't too bad.
However, when we made it to the second level and saw men in jumpsuits repelling down the side of the tower! Somewhat concerned and confused, we looked down... police had closed off the tower, and there were over a dozen of police and ambulances lined up on the street! Uhhhhh.... obviously, I was freaked out and pretty convinced that the Tower was probably about to collapse or something. But, not wanting to worry or miss the opportunity to get to the top, we took the next elevator to the top. We found out later that some crazy guy had got into a restricted area at the top and was drinking and smoking and threatening to jump off the tower. Don't worry, he was quickly apprehended....and the tower did not collapse. So, ya know, as if climbing te Eiffel Tower wasn't exciting enough, I'm glad that guy made the trek a little more exciting for me, i guess....

We made it to the top just as the sun was setting and it was BEAUTIFUL. And windy.

Needless to say, it was well worth the time and the climb.

After (finally) getting my feet back on solid ground, we watched the tower light up again. It was still just as beautiful as it had been the night before.

We still had a couple of hours left before we wanted to go back to the hostel, so we took the Metro over to the Champs Elysees, which is the famous avenue in Paris that ends with the Arc de Triomphe.

It's a really fun part of town, if you want to do some shopping. But, just be warned, it's really expensive. Really, really. Even the ice cream. We'd all been craving ice cream (story of my life) and so we thought we'd check out Haagen Dazs... Ummm, unless you're willing to drop 7 euros on a milkshake, I'd recommend just going across the street and getting a McFlurry from McDonald's.... which is exactly what we did. And that was a great way to the end our LONG and LAST day in Paris. We were totally exhausted and practically sleptwalked back to our hostel, crawled into bed and got some sleep!

I would've loved to have more time in Paris. I would definitely love to go back some day and see the things that we just didn't have time to see during our short visit. But I love the history that Paris has and it truly is a beautiful city. It's classy and fast-paced. So, while, for now, it's "Au Revoir, Paris!" for now....I'm hoping that, someday, I'll be able to say "Bonjour" to Paris again!