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A Very European 4th of July August 9, 2012

Posted by vcollier in Travel Log.
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This Fourth of July was my second Independence Day in a row out of the USA. I missed the cookouts, fireworks, and family time that is usually associated with this day, but this Independence Day was even stranger than celebrating in France would normally be thanks to the field trips planned for the day: a concentration camp and a visit to the European Parliament.

We left in the morning to visit Struthof, the only concentration camp in France. Located on the top of a small mountain, the locale was so beautiful that it was easy to forget thousands of men had suffered on top the surrounding hills as forced labor in the quarries. The barbed wire and slate blue guardhouses quickly reminded you. The room build with a slanted floor to facilitate draining the blood after executions, the experiment tables, crematorium, and the gas chamber reminded you. As a small plaque said, “Ceux qui admirent la beauté naturelle de ce sommet ne pourront croire que cette montagne est maudite parce qu’elle a abrité l’enfer des hommes libres. Souvenons-nous.” – Léon Bouthien
<< Those who admire the natural beauty of this sommet cannot believe that this mountain is cursed because it sheltered the hell of free men. Remember us. >>

After that somber reminder of Europe’s war-ridden history, we visited the EU in Strasbourg. We watched part of the discussion concerning the elections in Syria then we had a Q&A session with the Lorraine region’s representative, Nathalie Griesbeck. She gave her opinions on Obama’s policies (which raised some debate from the GTL students) and spoke optimisitically for the Eurozone’s future. The visit gave me a greater understanding of the cultural and political factors that Europe from WWII to the Eurozone of today, but it also made me thankful for the United States.

The field trip wrapped up with dinner at McDonalds (or MacDo as they call it in France). In an unintentional way, one promenant European stereotype was highlighted. The choice of menu was originally a Big Mac, large fries, large drink, and a dessert or a salad for the vegetarians. Apparently, it was assumed that all Americans ate large size Big Macs when they went to MacDo. All told, it was a very interesting day.

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The Italian Saga Continues in Rome July 26, 2012

Posted by vcollier in Travel Log.
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I’ll pick up the Italy narrative as we arrived in Rome. There were no train hiccups, but the situation at the hotel was a mess. After walking by the hotel a few times (there was no sign), a woman called out, “Simpson?” We stopped and she proceeded to explain that she was  the owner of our hotel and had been trying to contact us for about two days (when we were in Venice without Internet access, of course) to tell us that she didn’t have a room for us since the previous guests had broken the toilet. To make the day a bit stranger, a very tall Italian man came up beside her, made the Vulcan handsign that Spock does on Star Trek and said, “Live long and prosperity!” Apparently the Italian translation is a bit different. This was her husband, Luca, who was to put the four of us into his very small car, drive us across the city to a new hotel where a friend had agreed to host us. The couple had provided enough information about our reservation for us to trust them, so we sandwiched ourselves and our bags into the car and drove off.

The new hotel was very nice, but the owner didn’t speak any English and Luca spoke only broken English, but we got the gist of the introduction. It was only twenty minutes or so of charades to find out when check-out was, what key opened which of the four doors to get into the room, and most importantly, how to turn on the AC. We then booked it to the nearest bus stop.

As nice as the new hotel and its location was, the switch had put us behind schedule for our night visit to the Vatican City museums. We hoped that a quick bus ride would set our schedule straight, but lo and behold, Rome was having a bus strike that began at 8pm. I’ll let you guess when we arrived at the bus stop. After asking some less than happy bus drivers where the metro was and finding a newspaper stand to buy tickets, we took the metro to the Vatican City and arrived just a few minutes late. Luckily, the ticket collectors didn’t have a problem with us being late and waved us in.

The museums were amazing. We walked through room after room of ornate paintings, tapestries, and other items that must have cost billions of dollars to accumulate. My favorite sight, however, was the Sistine Chapel. The room was quite full with tourists, but not to the sardine-packed level it must have been during the day. I could have spent hours looking at all the paintings because everywhere you looked, there was some new detail to catch your eye. Saint Peter’s Basilica was also very pretty by night, but seeing as we left the Vatican around 11pm and we had a long ways back to the hotel, we left a proper visit to the Basilica for another day. The ‘long ways’ back to the hotel meant over an hour of walking through the streets of Rome, taking pictures in a square we stumbled upon, getting lost, doubling back, and finally arriving at the hotel after 1am. I was exhausted and collapsed into bed.

That late night was followed by an early morning. Owen, Katherine’s boyfriend, joined us the next day at 8am. Fortunately or not, depending on your perspective, Owen had train troubles on his way to Rome and he hadn’t gotten much sleep either. Thus, he called for a nap, to which I heartily agreed. After a quite refreshing nap, we visited the Colosseum, with a gelato stop on the way. The Colosseum was large, hot, and breathtaking. It was amazing to think that I was walking where thousands of Ancient Romans watched spectacles and games. It was also sobering to think of how many people died to the cheering of the crowds.

With the sun beating down and our throats parched, we went in search of water and some food. We ended up at a restaurant where we scarfed down some of the best pasta of our lives. My apologies to my mom, but the lasagna was even better than hers. It was about halfway through the meal that a huge gay pride parade showed up. For a solid 20+ minutes, trucks filled with people, music, and banners paraded down the street while people in all sorts of clothing walked along. It was very bizarre, but also pretty cool.

Afterwards, we continued our way to the Trevi Fountain after a stop at the ruins of a forum (not the Roman forum, that was for tomorrow) and some interesting and official looking building.

Finally, we reached the Trevi Fountain. It was packed, but we still got some good pictures and made our wishes. We followed it up by some of the best gelato of the trip at Valentino’s. Seriously, if you ever go to Rome, stop by this place. It’s down the street that’s at the bottom right if you’re facing the Trevi Fountain. We marked it on the map so we could make another stop if we were in the area. We all were pretty tired from a full day of touring, so we called it an early night and went to sleep.

We woke up early the next day to see Owen off at the train station then we visited the Roman Forum. It was very grand and dusty, but I enjoyed walking around the ruins. However, the heat had taken a toll on all of us, so we headed back for a three hour nap to avoid the hottest part of the day. When we woke up, we headed to the Castle San Angelo after a quick dinner stop, then returned to see the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon by night.

Along the way to the Trevi Fountain, we found an amazing street artist. This man created landscapes, usually with the Colosseum, with the Moon and other planets in the sky. He did the entire piece with spray paint and a few stencils but he was able to create ripples and starbursts as cleanly as if he had painted it with a brush. Josh and Ryan picked up a piece of his work and looking back, I wish I had bought one as well. Continuing on our way, we stumbled upon a stone plaza with two large fountains and another obelisk. We also discovered that our favorite spray paint artist wasn’t as unique as we thought, but we all agreed his style was still the best.

We arrived at the Trevi Fountain just as the sky was getting nice and dark so we could see the fountain beautifully illuminated. We got some more good pictures and returned to Valentino’s gelato store. With gelato in hand, we headed to the Spanish Steps but got distracted by a huge ruckus coming from a nearby square. We walked towards it and ended up watching the England-Italy Eurocup match on a huge TV in the square.

It was crazy. The Italians were so enthusiastic about every point, good or bad, but for the sake of our English-speaking selves, everyone but Ryan hoped the Italians would win. He completely supported England, and I think he was one of maybe 5 people out of the hundreds present.

In the end, Italy won on penalty kicks and the whole city went crazy. Taxis and cars were honking like mad through the streets. We beat a speedy retreat in order to avoid getting caught up in the celebrations, and stopped by the Spanish Steps to get some pictures. Finally, we felt that we had seen a fair chunk of Rome and were content to return to the hotel to sleep and catch an 8am train the next morning.

We expected to arrive in Metz around 6pm, but of course the trains screwed us over again. There was a rockslide in Switzerland so we missed the train from Zürich to Metz. This would have been fine but the train from Strasbourg to Metz stopped two stops away from Metz around 8pm when we were told that we had to take a bus from Sarrebourg to Metz. Almost four hours later, we finally arrived in Metz near midnight. It was a long journey, but Italy was definitely an adventure!

The Italian Saga: Venice July 26, 2012

Posted by vcollier in Travel Log.
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Ah, Italy. The land of blazing sun, pasta, and most importantly the home of gelato. I think I’m going to break this post up-one for each city- because so much happened and who really wants to sit through that much text? (I promise, pictures are coming at some point…) Without further ado, let me dive into the narrative of how we battled our way to Venice.

Now, at GTL, it is a common assumption that Italian trains are never on time, the French trains are only a minute or two off, and the German trains are never late. Italy conclusively threw that assumption out the wind. The problem started on the train to Sarrebrucken from Forbach. These cities are 9 minutes apart by train, but it took us over 25 minutes to arrive due to ‘train complications’ on Sarrebrucken’s end. This would not have been a big deal, but we had an ICE to Manheim that we *had* to catch and only a 7 minute layover. The second the doors opened, we sprinted for the platform in hopes that the ICE was (gasp!) late. As it turned out, the ICE was late so we caught that train but it was 10 minutes too late to catch the final train to München for the night. At least we had some company as we picked up another Ryan from GTL for the trip.

[So for a quick recap, that’s one French train that was very late and one German train that was very, very late.]

After a mildly unproductive discussion with the Deuchebahn representative, we resigned ourselves to taking the last train into München and sleeping in the train station. Again. We consoled ourselves with the fact that we were pros at ‘urban camping’ and it wasn’t 50F. After a quick Burger King midnight meal, we settled down for some shut eye when the police began their rounds. I watched them wake up two other groups, ask for ID, and tell them to leave. I figured that our fate was going to be along the same lines, so I roused everyone to get ready to stake out another spot outside. So imagine my surprise when they told us we should be in the waiting room, with benches and heating. We thanked them profusely and dozed in our new waiting spot until our 7:31am train arrived.

We had two stops: Verona then a transfer to Venice. The journey to Verona was uneventful; we did meet a nice German girl about our age traveling to meet her boyfriend. Between swapping stories, napping, and staring slack-jawed at the beautiful scenery, the time passed quickly. Once we arrived in Verona we hopped on the first train we could find to Venice in hopes of arriving as soon as possible. Not only was the train over 100F due to a broken AC unit (even the Italians bolted for another car) but in our haste to arrive, we didn’t check how long the ride would actually take. Turns out, we would arrive 1 hour later than if we had waited 20 more minutes. Once again, we dipped into Katherine’s emergency data, found out we could still switch trains, and did so. After a hold-up I still don’t understand and no seats for half the trip, we finally made it to Venice. It was a sight for sore eyes; we arrived at 2:40pm whereas we had planned to arrive at 8:30am.

As we walked along the canals-which were only slightly darker than the azure of the waters surrounding the island-we made our first stop as a cafe for some lunch. I had my first Italian pizza and it was very different. The crust was thin but not too crispy -the best analogy I can think of is American crust on a diet. Sufficiently refueled, we walked around the city in an attempt to find Saint Marco Square. Our map wasn’t detailed enough for the plethora of narrow alleys (those weren’t streets) so we followed the occasional street sign and the general flow of tourist traffic. Sure enough, we finally found the square and its basilica.

San Marco’s basilica was pretty, but also partially covered by scaffolding. The other notable sight was the absurd quantity of pigeons and their brashness. One woman was feeding the birds but she wasn’t dropping the bread fast enough for the birds; they simply hopped up on her arms and shoulders for easier access. I hope she took a through shower when she got home…

After gawking at some beautiful Murano glass (and buying some) and our first gelato (count: 1) we made our way to the water taxi that took us to the nearby island of Lido. Our hotel was located on this island, as was a public beach. We quickly checked-in and made our way to the beach to catch the last of the suns rays in the water. It was so much fun to splash around and there was only one man in a blue speedo to make Katherine blush. Watching the sun set over the island from the water was an amazing sight and I’m glad I shared it with some good company.

We left the water, got cleaned up, and tried to find some dinner. Unlike most other cities I’ve visited, Venice stayed open late. We sat down at a restaurant around 11pm, and while they only had some sandwiches, they had food. And of course, some gelato to finish the day on a good note (count: 2)

We slept in according to Josh (which means 9am) then got ready to leave. Everything would have been fine if there hadn’t been a water taxi (vaperetto, if you want to be all Italian) strike. Luckily for our weekend, the minimum service was guaranteed so we finally made it off the island. Even if it was the opposite direction. And not anywhere close to San Marco’s Square. But after another adventure of tracing our way back to San Marco’s Square, we found the Tourist Information Office, got directions to the da Vinci exhibit and were on our way. Despite the difficulties getting there (you can’t walk in a straight line without walking into a canal) the da Vinci exhibit was wonderful. There were over 25 working models of some of his inventions. I learned a lot about da Vinci as an inventor as well as an artist, but I had the most fun playing with all the different models. I think my favorite part of the exhibit was when a family with two younger children came in and the kids made a beeline for the pulley demonstration. It was awesome to watch them about pulleys and mechanical advantage and even enjoy it. Maybe they’re future Techies in the making.

All too soon, we had to leave in order to catch the train to Rome. We traveled through the western part of the island and made our way to the station in time to grab some lunch for the train. I had the most delicious apple chips from that train station and I finally got my Venetian mask. Sadly, I forgot to get a postcard, but that’s just an excuse to go back, right?

And with us safely making the train to Rome, I’ll wrap up this post. We spent almost exactly 24 hours in Venice and I only hoped our time in Rome would be as much fun. I’ll definitely say it was an adventure, but that’s for next post.

Tulips, Canals, and Anne Frank – A Weekend in Amsterdam July 24, 2012

Posted by vcollier in Travel Log.
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May 25-May 28

At first, I didn’t want to go to Amsterdam. Thoughts of a city that thrived on drugs, promiscuity, and way too much alcohol colored my opinion in a most unflattering way, but I was wrong. Those vices were evident in the signs and window fronts of many shops, but throughout the weekend, Amsterdam showed off its better sides.

In fact, the trip to Amsterdam was the worst part. It was the first time we used our Eurail passed and we were confident in our youthful ability to bounce back after a long night, especially since it would save us some money on couchettes, or beds on the train. Seven trains, 3 and a half hours in the freezing Monchenglodbach train station, and 2 ticket collectors later, we arrived cranky, tired, and hungry in Amsterdam. Lesson #1 of the trip: take longer trains to get more sleep along the way.

Nonetheless, time was limited and we didn’t waste it. We all bought ‘I amsterdam’ passed that gave us entry to a ton of museums in addition to discounts throughout the city. On Saturday, we visited:

  •  a Saturday market near de Waag, where we got some brunch and found possibly the only muffins in Europe and an amazing burger for only 5 €.
  • The Oude Kerk, but we didn’t go inside since there was an extra fee due to a special photography exhibition inside. This was where Amsterdam’s policy of acceptance really hit home. Behind the church, there were many… ‘houses of ill-repute’ shall we say, whose local was surprising enough, but the preschool placed snuggly in the middle of all that really took the cake. The relatively early hour of the morning also didn’t seem to matter as the ladies were already at work, even trying to entice some of our group members to come inside.
  • Museum Amstelkring, which was also in the Red Light District. This museum, however, was home to a secret church where Catholics worshiped in the 17th and 18th centuries during Protestant rule. The interior was beautiful and the church itself was beautifully furnished and huge- it spanned the attics of three canal houses.
  • Verzetsmuseum, or the Museum of the Dutch Resistance. This museum was one of my favorite stops as it displayed the heroic actions of Dutch citizens during Nazi occupation as well as the changes in everyday life. It was an amazing blend of survival, suffering, courage, and hope that made the visitor actually think about the display. We savored this food for thought and spent nearly three hours here.
  • the canals. We took an hour long boat ride through the canals of Amsterdam, but I confess that I was so tired at that point that I intermittently dozed off in the warm sun and looked at all the different types of buildings along the canals. I did get some good photos, though.

Dinner was wiener schnitzel holstein, which as far as I can tell translates to fried pork with a fried egg on top, and some amazing fries. The fries in Europe are delicious because they somehow have half the grease but keep all of the tastiness of American fries. (I’m also slowly coming around to their idea of putting Ranch dressing on fries instead of ketchup, but that’s another discussion.) After dinner, we found our hostel, a tad out the way but very accessible by tram, and went to sleep.

The next morning, fortified by a good breakfast at the hostel, we ventured out for another day filled with sight-seeing. On Sunday, we visited:

  • the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, where we learned about how tulips came to the Netherlands and how the  Dutch became so associated with the beautiful flower.
  • the Nieuwe Kerk. Unlike most churches I’ve seen in Europe, the New Church (which wasn’t so new) didn’t seem to hold services anymore, so there were no pews but the other elements, such as beautifully carved pulpits and a huge blue pipe organ were still present.
  • the Amsterdam Museum, which walked us through the ‘DNA’ of Amsterdam. The basis of Amsterdam’s longevity, according to the museum, is a combination of civic virtue, creativity, spirit of enterprise, and freedom of thought. This museum shed light on how Amsterdam had developed its tolerant stance on certain activities and substances by giving the religious and historical background that made it possible. When viewed together, the past and present of Amsterdam complement each other in ways that I never would have guessed.
  • the Van Gogh Museum was packed, but with the I amsterdam card, we got to skip the line to buy tickets. Even with that headstart, we had to leave the museum before we had truly finished looking at all of the artwork. It was fascinating to see van Gogh’s style progress through the years and places as he distilled many styles and techniques into his own unique style. This transformation was highlighted by the chronological arrangement of the works. Sadly, Starry Night and some of his other more famous works were not present, but I found some new favorites in the Flowering Orchard triptych-Pink Orchard, Pink Peach Tree, and White Orchard- and Irises.
  • Rembrant square, where we sat on possibly the only patch of grass in Amsterdam proper, and watched some street performers.
  • Albert Heijn. You won’t find this stop in any guide book, but we went to the grocery store in Amsterdam with one purpose: peanut butter. It’s difficult to find in France, but for 1,19 € you can get 600g of peanut butter in Amsterdam. Josh and Ryan both bought two or three jars of the stuff, in anticipation of the remaining two months.
Back at the hostel, I crashed while Josh, Ryan, and Katherine made sculptures and pictures with our peanut butter and Nutella-knock off bounty.
Monday was primarily a travel day, but we had one more stop: the Anne Frank House. My words can do no justice to the impact of the stark black house. The rooms were tiny and once you entered the rooms where the Frank and van Pell families lived, there was no furniture. The windows were blacked out-just as Anne would have experienced- and there were still pictures of movie stars pasted to the wall, just as Anne had left them. If you ever find yourself in Amsterdam with an hour or so to spare, I suggest you visit this museum and think about how intolerance and prejudice can steer our world. It’s a sobering thought.

With weary feet and full minds, we returned to Metz. This time, the trains were longer and barring some construction work in Luxembourg, returning home went smoothly. Amsterdam is a unique city, but I throughly enjoyed my stay as it challenged my perceptions, and yes, my prejudices on a different culture. I can only hope this sort of enlightenment continues throughout my stay.