Sunday, August 9, 2009

We do not sell hash brownies here, we are simple Dutch bakery! Now put your clothes back on, white boy!

Well, so, Matt covered the basics, in his Matt way. I'm going to retread some of the same ground, partially to add in some shading, and partially because he totally didn't talk about some of my favorite things.

After the madness of the train mishap(s), we got to Binsfeld, a tiny "town" (no town center as far as I saw), and got to stay in a house. It was so nice to have our own space for a little while, a nice bed with good pillows, and a real shower! I really liked meeting two of Matt's old friends, and hearing some stories about their heydays, or whatever, before I was around and Matt was kind of some other guy. Of course, there was a seven-month-old baby, which added an extra element; I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jason walk around the Renaissance Faire with this babe like sprawled out in utter relaxation across his forearm... like a cat. I played more video games in those three days than I think I have in the five years before it, but it didn't matter, because I got good enough that I could have a conversation, whack Matt's digital character with my digital character, and play some sports with things seriously called a Wiimote and a wand. Whaa!?

I was very.... disconcerted, I guess, by visiting Luxembourg again. I haven't been back since I studied there in fall 2005, and a lot can change in that amount of time (duh), but it was so, so odd to see things that I had in my memory, perfectly frozen, and then come face to face with what they are today. It threw me off. For instance, Vianden, where we went to the castle, was the first place my intro-to-Lux tour went to, and we passed the very place I had my first beer (yeah, I know), a pale half-pint of Boefferding. And we were walking and I just stopped and said, "Oh my God... I was THERE before." It was just like being in an alternate reality. So that was just amazing to have the chance to do.

Then there was Amsterdam. I'm not going to have a disclaimer, because really, how many times can you go over the rules on drugs and sex in Amsterdam? I found that part fascinating, but really, I just loved the atmosphere of the city. Matt mentioned that the city's really just completely embraced tourism, and I wanted to talk more about that than how surreal the coffee shops are and the neon lights in the windows and all of the ridiculously dumb American teenagers. There are places in America where the only real money-maker is tourism, because they've put all of their effort into making their place a Destination, and that's just pretty cool. Consider, for instance, Wall-Drug. All the way out there, just for a drug store with a soda fountain? But I went, everyone I know who's been within 200 miles of it has gone. But in Amsterdam, tourism is good business--very, very good business--but it's not even close to their ONLY business. And in spite of that, they believe that business is good, and they're practical and money-oriented (or so our so-on-something Dubliner city tour guide said; I'm not 100% comfortable with such a bizarre assessment of a city's character, it's so... crass to just say that). So they have this thing where everyone knows what's going on but it's not official (like Israel having nuclear bombs), it's been ingrained into the legal system over the last decade, the locals don't really partake, they can totally overcharge and underprovide quality for tourists because they're all basically one-time customers, and I admire the practicality. All the same, there's absolutely nothing mercenary about the city or the people there; on the contrary, the city is relaxed (except for the odd rabid biker) and it was so great to just walk around and watch everyone from all over the world just going about their lives. And that pesto was just terrific!

As for culture. The Sex Museum was just a very weird idea to begin with and it didn't actually have any information in it, per se, though it did have lots of giggling girls. The Rembrandthuis museum was kind of funny, because there were only Rembrandt's etchings ibecause they were doing a special exhibit on one of his contemporaries, Lievens, who was fine. Then I went into the Rijksmuseum, the national museum, but there was a security check and Matt might not have made it, so he hung in a nearby park. I only took an hour--the damn thing's under construction, only a 1/3 still view-able--but I just super-absorbed all of it. I generally don't like Dutch / German art, finding it coolly precise and sometimes lacking a warmth or heart that I can easily sense, but this was the cream of the crop, and I just wrote and wrote the names of the artists I saw and the pieces I particularly enjoyed on the map, including, of course, three of the four Johannes Vermeer the Rijksmuseum houses. Oh, and then there was the Artis, the zoo, and a planetarium and a aquarium that ony Matt went into, a big cool place with lots of South American and African creatures I've never seen before, so many tiny cute things. Soooo sooo many pictures!

Still, by the time we were getting to the train station to leave, I was just ready. Not that I felt the need to escape Amsterdam, but it takes a lot out of you, experiencing so much and that disjointed sense of time that Matt mentioned doesn't help. We were both tired and so tired that we just admitted it to each other, too tired to worry that the other one would be disappointed. With that in mind, we headed towards Bruges to have a taste of that sweet, enchanted village. I was there before and I still dream about the hot chocolate and [Belgian--do I need to include that, since Bruges is in Belgium?] waffle with fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries and raspberry) and whipped cream. But in Antwerp, where we had to change trains, we stopped for a second. I admired the gorgeous train station and I thought, I'm tired and I've seen Bruges and I don't even care about having another of those dreamy waffles. Then I felt guilty when I mentioned to Matt that we could just stay in Antwerp for the night, then carry on to Charleroi, near the airport, the next day. I said I'd go, I told him I'd promised him the Belgian waffle and the adorable town, but I told him that I was tired. He agreed, though he's never going to let me forget that I "deprived him" of a Belgian waffle, like he'll never get the chance to have one ever again.

Antwerp was a little depressed, and it didn't feel that comfortable. That's strange because we stayed right next to the main train station on what's obviously a main city square, and that area, of all places, shouldn't feel depressed at all. So... a bit shady. But the hotel, a Radisson Blu, was so wonderful; king-sized bed, full breakfast, unlimited movies (best thing we watched: Bolt), a shower with enough room to shave your legs. Luxurious, in a word.

The next morning, we popped on a train to Charleroi, and braved a death cab--the guy kept stalling out and then just calmly turning the car back on--for five minutes to our hotel. It was lame compared to Antwerp and the town was entirely under construction, it seemed, but we had this amazing risotto dinner.

My risotto paragraph: In the middle was the risotto itself, a mushroom risotto with beef stock and some tiny parmesan flakes melted into it, and if there were onions or garlic pieces in it, I couldn't taste them or feel them individually, a great plus. There was a nice sprig of parsley on the top, a pop of color that was delightful, even though I didn't eat it. Then, like nice flower petals up on the wide rim of the bowl, the tops hanging over the edge, was triangles of parmesan, hard and looking kind of cracked like old-fashioned pottery glaze. There. Matt said my risotto deserved a paragraph, and there it is. I just have to add that it was a little salty for my taste, but I think that was just because of the mushrooms, and I'm not always the biggest lover of them.

The flight today was smooth, but whatever, it was damn early and Matt almost didn't make it through the last security check. Oh holy hell, how hard is it to streamline these things? First, mandatory online check-in. Then check-in at the gates. Then visa check. Then security check. Then a whole Duty-Free section with no warning that THERE WAS ANOTHER CHECK. So I bop over to use the WC while Matt nabbed coffee and I see there's another line. Okay, fine. I hop in it, and then like a thousand people hopped in behind me, so I had to stand on the far side looking through the glass and twist my fingers and wait for him to get through. He did, obviously, but it was IRRRITAAATING. So, fine, now we're here and that's lovely.

Tomorrow: HOME!

This is the long one...

Well, back in Dublin one more time, one more day. We're both so very tired, so very dazed and ready to be done travelling. But we're still enjoying each other's company, slap-happy as we are, still loving each other and enjoying every breath of foreign air. At the moment, I'm sitting in a hotel lobby near Dublin Airport, because its bloody early in the morning and they don't have our room ready yet. But that's alright, we'll manage. We have internets, after all.

So let's do a rundown of the last... mmm.... week. Because I think we stopped posting after Paris, and I haven't made a proper update since Glasgow. Oh, Glasgow. Zoe and I were debating the merits of driving through Glasgow on a tour of the Highlands one day only in so far as to visit a toilet and throw out some trash on the way to someplace beautiful, that is where Glasgow ranks in our minds. And then an early flight (these early morning RyanAir flights kill me) to Paris, which turned out to be more spectacular than I thought. We saw the cemetary full of dead famous people (Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein), ate gelato, ate French food, saw some of the cooler buildings in the city. And I had a terrible time understanding perfectly spoken fucking French.

But we met some interesting people at the hostel, heard some interesting stories. And then we had the train ride of fail. That should all be capitalized though. Train Ride of Fail. Let's give it the weight that it deserves, shall we. Boy Scouts imbedded in me the need to Be Prepared, and the American work ethic has instilled in me punctuality. Combine those two things with travel, and it means that I prefer to be wherever we're supposed to leave from at least 30min (to 2hrs) early, much to the chagrin of my lovely and loving wife. I take full credit/blame for ending up in Morhange (pronounced like a lispy French "orange" or possibly moron), for not getting into Trier until midnight, and for kicking the wall of a French train station in Moronjeh (that's my pronunciation guide). But Jason and Beth were good-humoured and good-natured enough to laugh with us and pick us up anyways.

And before I get onto the subject of them, let me dip back, twist back to the thoughts on French food. Mind you, we didn't eat at any glamourous restaurants, didn't drink any wine. We ate at a little sidewalk brasserie, Zoe had a brie sandwich on a full baguette, and I had the world-renowned steak frites. That's a medium-rare (glowing a delicious pink in the center) and perfect fries. These were some of the best french fries I've ever had. And they were actually French. Go figure, huh? And then later, while wandering the Latin quarter for something to nosh on, we stopped at a little creperie. So I had an actual French crepe, and it was delicious. This wasn't dessert mind you. This was egg, cheese and chicken (deli-sliced lunch meat chicken, no less), and it was delicious. I think the cheese was Gruyere, but I can't be certain through the dim fog of memory and the lack of labelling. Never the less, it was delicious. And cheap. If I had to give advice to people travelling in Europe, or any foreign land in general, if you want a clue to the good places to eat, look for a long line of locals. If locals are willing to wait in line to eat this food, it must be good.

So that was French food. I ate more French food later, but we were in Belgium. And that was last night. So I'll tell you about that later. Because after Paris and the Train Ride of Fail, we were in Germany (and Luxembourg). We saw Jason and Beth and Baby Joshua, did some drinking, played the Wii, Zoe consistently beat me in MarioKart, Jason beat us at any boardgame he offered to play with us (and I still think that he was a cheaterface) and a generally good time was had by all. Whew, run-on sentence. I've missed Jason and Beth since they left, even though I often pretend to be cranky about it, but I was so glad that the four of us got on so well after all this time, and Joshua is by far one of the cutest children ever born. And other than hanging out with them, the four of us took a roadtrip (1hr drive each way) to Vianden, Luxembourg, right over the German border, to visit Vianden Castle and the Medieval Festival that was going on. That's right, kids! We went to a Rennaisance Faire, but in a really real castle. It was fun. There was beer, and a falconeress that lost her hawk.

Leaving Germany was sad, because it'll be another long time before we see them again, and that damn kid will probably be even bigger (I hear that they grow a lot when they're young), but leave we had to. To Amsterdam!

And now I should put in a warning.


Well, maybe not graphic, because we didn't actually see any sex in Amsterdam. But we did see a sex museum, walked through the Red Light District and went into a few sex stores. You know, the stores that sell porn, lingerie and toys, the ones that are kind of sleazy and creepy in the States. Here's the thing though. The ones in Amsterdam are kind of creeptastic too.

And walking down the street at night, you look for the windows with the red neon lights, not just in the Red Light District, but on your average street, and you'll see women in naughty outfits offering themselves to you for an agreed upon fee depending on what exactly you want from her. There are websites, if you want the full details of legal prostitution in Amsterdam, but I don't feel like discussing them here. I will say this though, the blue neon lights in the windows? Those aren't the discount windows.

And then there's the drug thing. Its really just pot. And its not legal, its just tolerated. Coffeeshops are allowed to sell it, people are allowed to smoke it. Only about 5% of the Dutch smoke marijuana, the rest probably just tried it as teenagers. But the attitude is that there are worse things out there, and at least this way it becomes monitored and regulated, but most importantly, it brings in money. Lots and lots of money in taxes. Same with prostitution. Which is why they are both legal. See, the Dutch have embraced tourism to a degree that shames the Irish and Americans.

The Dutch love money, probably more than most, and were once prominent traders. Antwerp is still one of the centers of global industry and finances. Antwerp is also kind of dirty and a little sketchy, even in broad day light, but we could have just been tired.

But the Dutch embrace tourism, keep tight controls on it, and watch the money roll in. Amsterdam is an expensive city, no matter which way you attempt to broach it. You will not leave that city without spending slightly more than you intended on. Fortunately, we intended that, as one of our last cities, we would relax and enjoy ourselves. We got a cheap hostel (not the best plan, when you have no privacy for 4 nights in a dorm full of stoned 20-somethings), which was nice and close to the center of everything. I heard someone say that the average tourist only sees 1% of Amsterdam, and we saw maybe 2% because we took a walk over to the Artis Zoo (3rd largest in the world, oldest in mainland Europe according to the brochure). So yeah, we ate two really good meals, one at the Hard Rock Cafe, which was just fun, and had a nice view of the canals, and another at this tiny Italian restaurant that had a pesto so good that I almost cried with joy and pleasure. All I can figure out about it is that they use less garlic, less cheese and more oil. And possibly walnuts. We smoked in the coffeeshops, we didn't really drink and we didn't really spend any money there except for that, and some postcards.

Amsterdam is a beautiful city though, set over these canals that look clean and pretty, as opposed to some of the filthier cities of its ilk. The streets are wide, with dedicated bicycle and tram lanes. Bicycles rule Amsterdam, which is excellent if you like bicycles, amusing if you're a relatively quick-witted pedestrian, and highly dangerous if you're a stoned American teenager on college break. The city itself is relaxed, and the time does flow differently in some ways (and not ones that involve being stoned), and I think that I'd be more than happy to visit again when I have lots of money and can stay in a nice hotel, someplace to escape the seething masses of tourists. Also, we saw more young American tourists in Amsterdam and Paris than anywhere else in total. Go figure, huh?


This is long, rambling and somewhat disjunctive as I try and recall what amounts to nearly two weeks of travelling in one extraordinarily long-winded recap complete with ad-lib commentary. But fret not, for we're nearly done. We spend four nights in Amsterdam, which was the perfect amount of time to enjoy ourselves, go at our own pace in seeing the things we wanted, and we were ready to leave right at the time we were due to leave. Smart planning for us. So then the plan was to go to Bruges, but our packs were top-heavy, we were tired from nights and nights and nights of hostels, with early risers, loud snoring and all the other assorted things that can happen. And when it came time to change trains in Antwerp, we decided that maybe we should just stay in Antwerp instead of going anywhere else. We pampered ourselves with a nice hotel room and just lounged. We were lazy. We did nothing of note.

And then yesterday, we took a train from Antwerp directly to Charleroi, Belgium (Antwerp is still in the Netherlands, at last I recall. I looked on a map to prove myself right), where we'd already had a hotel booked in close proximity to the airport for another 7am flight. (*shakes fist at RyanAir*). So we lounged around the hotel, devoid of internet due to routine maintenance in completely replacing their wireless provider, in this town that is apparently an Industrial center, and that was proven, because it seemed like almost every place we looked in this town/city of industry was under construction. Really, streets, buildings, even the hotel restaurant was under construction. So we took a walk until we found this nice little bistro. (Okay, Zoe will call me a liar at this point. We didn't find it, we walked past it, went back to the hotel to investigate restaurant, discovered that their restaurant was being renovated, and asked at the Front Desk. The Clerk gave us this recommendation, to which we smirked and wearily trudged the three long blocks back to the place.)

The decor was unremarkable. I call it Cubist (because all the light fixtures were cube-shaped), but Zoe insists that its actually Post-Modern (which is an awful name for an art movement; you should just call it Crappy Looking Geometric Shapes with Pastels), and anyway the decor, or the lack of our decorum, isn't really the point. The point is that our food was amazing, nearly sexual in its potency. We had risotto. Zoe had risotto with mushrooms and parmesean. It was exquisitely crafted, very clearly made by hand to order, and had a delicious, rounded flavor to it. Very mild profile, aided by the addition of some black pepper and the sharpness of the slices of parmesean that adorned the sides of the dish. And then there was the risotto that I ordered, arriving in a dish formed from crisp-baked cheese (which I don't recommend eating) and looking utterly magnificent. Topped with thin shreds of prosciutto (Ham from the Parma region of Italy fed on an exquisite diet of something or other and cured just so), an egg fried over-medium and a sprig of parsley, there was this amazing risotto. Golden in color (saffron, some sort of wine that I couldn't taste, white pepper, onions minced so tiny as to be non-existent, butter and maybe just the barest hint of salt and garlic), creamy in texture, it was absolutely astonishing how good this risotto was. And then to finish it all off, a chocolate torino with a vanilla sauce and strawberries. Delicious, hot chocolate cake filled with hot chocolate fudge. I don't think I should have to describe it further than that.

We've had some good meals on the trip, at restaurants and cooked at home/hostel, but I think that this risotto was one of the finest things I've ever eaten. More importantly, I have never eaten anything like it. I've eaten saffron, I've eaten risotto. But never that specific combination of ingredients, prepared in just such a way. I'm excited, because it was new, and because its been a while since I've eaten something completely new that I've absolutely loved. So yeah, my favorite by far.

We went back to the hotel after that, tried to get some sleep for our ass-early flight, woke up, packed, caught a taxi to the airport, got to Dublin, and now at the finish of this post, I'm actually in my hotel room. Zoe is watching American Idol, rejoicing that the television speaks English, and I'm debating a nap. I'm ready to be home now, because as much fun as I've had and as wonderful the experience has been, I'm tired of sleeping in hostels, of packing and repacking, of wearing dirty clothes for the third day in a row, and I'm just done. I think we settled on the right amount of time, and I'd hate to think what I'd feel like after another month of travelling.

Chicago, I'll see you soon.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sweet Home Chicago (so soon....)

Just a quick update. We are in fact alive, and we are in fact doing wonderfully. Amsterdam was awesome, but we're both still forming thoughts on it. Bruges didn't happen because we were tired and tired of trains, so we stayed at a nice hotel in Antwerp. Now on to Brussels-Charleoi, to fly to Dublin tomorrow and home on Monday.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Me Too! I Have Pictures Too!




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Some new photos up on the album, from Edinburgh up through our daytrip to Luxembourg with Jason and Beth.  Enjoy!
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Friday, July 31, 2009

A Comedy of Errors

So it went like this. We woke up around 10am yesterday, we packed, we emailed confirmation with Jason one more time to make sure the situation was settled, and we went to Gare de l'Est (East Train Station) to get our train reservations.

Problem #1: There was no availability for Eurail pass users--the nifty, any 6 days of travel within 2 months in the 4 countries we picked (Benelux, aka Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; France; Germany; and Italy, which we won't use)--until the 5:40pm train! Badness: we were planning on taking the 2pm train! Okay, fine; we emailed Jason, he said no problem, we put our luggage in storage at the train station (10 euros!), and decided to walk around.

Lovely! We saw a whole lot just walking around. There was the Louvre and the whole Royal Palace, then the Tuileries Gardens (the royal palace's gardens), then the Place de la Concorde which has a genuine Egytpian monolith. From there, we could see: the Royal Palace and gardens behind us, the Eiffel Tower off to the left along with some dome that was covered in gold, and more gardens in front of us ended by the Arc de Triomph. We wandered looking for food and internet, and found the Academy of Music or something like that, and fancy schmany stuff. We ate a rather bad meal in this tacky place running "classics" on VH1 that was billed as the Great American Dream Diner--couldn't make this stuff up. We also hung out for a bit at Starbucks to use their internet, then went back to the train station and had a snack and read.

So, we took the train from Paris to Metz. We went outside and it was a gorgeous train station with this charming garden. We went back inside 15 minutes before our train was due to leave, went to the right platform, got on, and then I hopped off to double-check because the wrong departure time had been listed. Oh, my God, wrong train! I jumped back on and CHARGED Matt, but we didn't make it!

Problem #2: We were on a train to STRASBOURG! (The completely opposite direction!) Damn Matt wanting to be overprepared and being a little panicked at this, only his second day in a non-English-speaking-country. I managed to actually speak French with the conductor, who told us we could get off at the next stop (after 20 minutes) and wait an hour there for a train directly to Luxembourg. We would therefore miss our connecting train to Trier, Germany, and not arrive in Germany until midnight!

OH MY GOD. Matt had a little GAAAAARRRR moment, but it was all good. A German kid from Koln had done the same thing! So we hung out at this tiny, nothing train station in Morhange, France, where this absolutely nuts guy--French, German, Dutch, Austrian???--talked nonsense, but DID lend Matt his phone card, so that Matt could call Beth, Jason's wife, and explain. She basically laughed at him and said no problem. Phew! We talked with the very nice German kid, on his way home from a couple weeks on a quiet beach in Lisbon, and then climbed on an hour later to Luxembourg. We hit the train station, and it's all being redesigned and remodeled, so it looks almost the same as I remember, both inside and in the area just across from the station. Strange, like a dopelganger. We waited for an hour and were very, very cautious getting onto the train for Trier, because we didn't want to mess up again.

So then, we arrived and saw Jason right away waiting for us. We drove back to his house in a small town next to the air force base, we talked for a few hours and met their 7-month-old, I tried a corn dog (not bad, but pigs in a blanket are still better), and went to bed.

Hence, a comedy of errors.

Voila. Three countries in six hours, though, people. That's nice.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ahhh Paris

Well... it's been a rough couple of days, people.

I'm not playing the blame game here, but I made the first mistake when I accidentally booked us on a flight at 7am this morning from Glasgow to Paris, instead of around 4pm this afternoon. Then, irritated about that, Matt and I both failed to even so much as consider that Glasgow, for the love of Pete, had two mother-freakin' airports, when there's an airport in Edinburgh--the two towns are a 50-minute train ride apart, that's closer than Chicago and Milwaukee--until it was too late to change / cancel the hotel reservation. The Tourist Info office in Glasgow sucked; I've been in a lot, and I can say with great authority that they sucked--they didn't even have bus timetables to look at! I wouldn't have minded if the girl had said, So sorry I can show you the timetable but it's my only copy. But she didn't have one, told us we'd have to go to the bus station; the bus station said that the airport itself, not a public transportation service, offers the bus to Glasgow and we'd have to book it online; and the website for the service said you have to book more than twelve hours in advance.

So yeah. The only upside about Glasgow? We ate a Pizza Hut--yeah, yeah, yeah, but it was actually delicious, a real restaurant WITH FREE REFILLS and a nice waitress. I had mastacoli (however you spell that) with alfredo sauce that had a nice little pepper bite to it and garlic ciabbatta and Matt had a sausage and ham pizza and stuffed mushroom, plus Pepsi. Too full for the fried cookie dough dessert they had. They had a salad bar! Then we went back to the hotel, Matt read for two seconds and conked out, and I read for a while and went to bed.

We woke up at 3:30 this morning, were out of bed by 3:45, out of the hotel by 4:00, at the bus stop by 4:20, on the bus at 4:25, and at Glasgow Prestwick (not Glasgow Airport) by 5:15. We'd checked our luggage by 5:25 and then when we went through security, I was MAD GROPED impersonally by a lady security guard, including making sure the underwire of my bra wasn't a dangerous weapon and that my butt is all real, because the gate thing beeped at me. By 5:50 we were having a little breakfast, and then we were on the plane, nice flight (we napped).

And Paris! I love Paris! I was here for two days the first time I was here (June, 1999), two days the second time I was here (summer, 2000), for an hour between Luxembourg and Bordeaux (fall, 2005), for a day one weekend in Luxembourg (winter, 2005), and that was it. And Matt's kind of like, "So, Zoe--what do we do?" As if I know! I haven't bought a Metro ticket myself EVER, it's not like I have the system memorized, and I was tired, dazed and cranky as hell. And he was cranky too and I wanted to smack him and he wanted to smack me. Fine. It takes a few minutes, but we get it all sorted out, including probably way overpaying for two limitless number of ride tickets for the Metro and intracity trains. Whatever. We get to the hostel at long last--and by that, I mean like 11am local time (Paris is an hour later, so I'm now seven hours ahead), and it's STIIICKY in Paris. We stashed our luggage, walked around, saw a church, the Pantheon (the French one...), Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite, the Bastille monument in the middle of a roundabout, a long walk to Pere-Lachaise Cemetaire. Then we took a very long walked on bad cobblestones to see dead people's gravestones; for instance, Balzac, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (the best), Gertrude Stein, lots of very sad World War II and Holocaust memorials, and a couple of painters, plus other just nifty ones with art. We had our first real gelato and a lot of water, now we're at the hostel.

And so, tonight we shall walk around the biggies a bit, to the Louvre complex, the Arc de Triomphe, walk down Champs Elysees back to the Louvre and then Metro it home to sleeep. Tomorrow morning, we don't leave until around 2pm, but we need a train reservation so we'll need to get there a bit early, so we don't know what we'll do. Sit at the train station and write postards, probably.

Still, I love Scottish people and French people, even Parisians, and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why do you have three guitars?

As I write this, to be typed and posted later on, I'm sitting on the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, listening to the fife and bagpipes over electronica beats sound of the Peatbog Faeries, realizing that dozing off on the train probably won't happen. I'm also realizing, far too late, that Scotland holds as much appeal to me as Ireland did, and that we're not spending nearly enough time here. We'd need to hire a car to spend weeks exploring the Highlands and the surrounding islands. But my imagination is sparked, my curiousity piqued and so it shall stay until I make it back here.

Fields of heather roll by and I'm tired enough that my mind gives the impression that maybe the train is still, that its the world outside the window is moving by, like some old film backdrop from the 40s. The illusion is ruined by the arrival of a train station and new passengers, but the sentiment stands. And I'm truly tired, my eyes feel fuzzy, my mind functioning at half-clip - at Edinburgh Waverly I forgot how to count change while trying to pay for my coffee. I have a hard time falling asleep in a mixed dorm, alone in a twin bed, room full of strangers lending me a slightly unnerved feeling to an already frayed and care-worn psyche. To make matters worse, one of the bunkmates began snoring, ripe full of allusions to the timber industry, his gaping, cacophany-producing maw mere feet from my forlorn aural channels. I plugged in my headphones, hoping the Peatbog Faeries would help, but alas, not even the droning of bagpipes could drown out this psychological terrorism.

Sleep is something I'll only be peripherally acquainted with over the next few days, it would seem. Due to an error in online booking, our flight from Glasgow to Paris is at 6am, which hurts my brain to think about, but Ryanair charges more than our combined flight plus baggage fees to make changes to our flight, so we cowboy up, as it were. We have a full day in Paris, which will be exciting. Maybe I'll have some revelations about my relationship with the French.

Edinburgh, for the record, feels much older than London, partially because most of the places we saw in London were Georgian in era and kept sparkly clean by the wealthy and pretentious inhabitants. Edinburgh, in contrast, looks filthy, and its much easier to imagine the medieval inhabitants living in squalor when staring at its soot-stained walls. I like Edinburgh as much as I liked Derry, and maybe even a little more.

We went on a free walking tour in the morning yesterday, one that lasted for several hours, on a twisting meander through the older parts of Edinburgh. Our guide, a Scots-Irish-English girl named Elspeth, regaled us with tales of the city's more illustrious residents, places and moments, sordid stories of the lives of the commonfolk, and she was generally and genuinely charming and amusing, and immensely engaging. We saw the monuments to David Hume, Adam Smith and Sir Walter Scott, the imposing Edinburgh Castle perched high on its crag and saw the place where J.K. Rowling was supposed to have dreamed up Hogwarts and Harry Potter.

Later that evening, leaving Zoe in the hostel bar, I rejoined Elspeth and about 40 others for a nightwalk around the newer (circa 1700AD) parts of Edinburgh, up through Old Carlton Cemetery and Carlton Hill on a ghost walk. It was fascinating to hear these tales of woe and despair, of suicides, cannibals and desecrated graves, to feel a palpable sense of dread, and it was a bit inspiring.


About an hour or so later, in a Starbucks, on an overpriced wireless connection:

And so now we're in Glasgow, which, for reasons unbeknownst to us, has two airports. That's right. Two. One, the one we need, is international. The other is domestic, which is where our hotel is booked. And of course there is no connectivity between the two, they're about 50 miles apart and we can't cancel our booking. Of course, our flight is at 7am and there is no way but for a 50 Pound Sterling Cab Ride to get between the hotel and the airport we actually need to fly out of at 5am. So it looks like we'll stay in Glasgow proper and catch a ridiculously early busride to the airport. Did I mention that we can't cancel our booking at the hotel we can't actually use?

We're both pissed at Glasgow, for having two airports and being needlessly confusing, pissed at the hotel for not letting us cancel, pissed at Ryanair for its ass-early flight and generally sleep-deprived and cranky. So now we're off to find someplace to stay, someplace private where we can hole up from the outside world and sulk and sleep until our 4:30am bus ride.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

Woe betide the dusty, ill-forgotten blog. Okay, maybe not forgotten. We were sick, what are you going to do? But now we're leaving London, an event I think of with both joy and remorse. There are things I've yet to seen, and I'm sure I could find some sentimental attachment to the cats if not this place. We never hung out with locals of our age, we didn't make new friends (beyond Sally and Rocky, bless them for their hospitality this long), and we missed a lot of sights. Hell, I didn't even see Big Ben or the Parliament. Well I suppose that's not completely true. I have a picture of Big Ben looming up over the top of several buildings, but I didn't stand right there and look. I waved at the Gherkin (the giant Faberge Egg-looking building that has appeared on the London skyline in any movie made in the last few years, officially known 30 St Mary Axe), I wandered the Tower of London (which was architecturally impressive, but as a whole disappointing), saw some free museums and generally enjoyed myself (except for that sick thing).

So we head to Scotland, to Paris, to Germany and Amsterdam and Belgium and then home, and I'm excited for all of those things. I've had good food and terrible food (and I'm fed up with the English habit of overusing mayo in everything. EVERYTHING!), cooked some lovely meals and even imparted a few pearls of culinary wisdom. I see now this end in sight, that everything is in planning stages, if not already planned and I feel like this has been a good trip. As my mother pointed out, 2 months of travel in Europe is more travel than some others have had in their lives.

London itself is a strange thing, something I'm not sure how to speak on. Or write on, as it were. I feel detached from the City, some visitor, some voyeur, and what I've seen is quite ugly. Cities are prone towards isolation, and the English (in comparison to the Irish, but in general) are unfriendly. But there is this feeling dwelling inside of me, this kinship with the labyrinthine sprawl that is London, that if I lived here, I'd be alright. That, I think, is something of the city-dweller in me, and the thought that I could soak up all this history through osmosis. So I will miss the city in a way, but I'm glad to be moving forward at least.

So we spend a couple nights in Edinburgh, and I'm looking forward to the train ride up there, then a night in Glasgow before an early-riser flight to Paris. I feel that same sort of excitement as Zoe, of continuing this adventure, and it feels glorious.

Friday, July 24, 2009

...And I'm back in the game!

So, we've been in London since July 8. That was seventeen days ago. Day one was mostly just a night, then there was a day of mostly parks, then our hosts left, and then we did some exploring: Oxford Circus, the West End, streets of bookstores, Piccadilly Circus, the National Gallery, the science museum. Then we did some solo exploring: I went to Notting Hill and the Portobello Market, while Matt went to Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road.

Next, we got sick. Sick! Not everyone may know this, but I've been to London several times, each time for a very little span of time, before this time, I mean. First time was two days with my parents in 2000; the third time was getting to London last summer, where I was here for less than ten hours; and the forth time was getting back to London for an evening and a morning last summer, when Laura and I had the coach bus ride from hell. But the second time was late December, 2005, and I had left Luxembourg for Frankfurt, flown to London, took the train to Victoria, the tube to Kensal Green, and gotten out, late in the evening, at my hostel, where I ate a hamburger and fries, which were delicious--and smothered with mayonnaise. I hung around with a kid from Washington State, I did this and that, I went to bed--and an hour later, I woke up and galloped down the hall like a dizzy giraffe to get to the bathroom, to puke. I was sick every half hour for I think twelve hours, I called Mom more than once from a pay phone out front of the hostel with change, and finally, I managed to hold down water. Off I went to Ireland and Scotland to Brussels, where I saw a lot, met cool people, and ate... very little.

So I'm peeved. I have a sticky note on my desktop that's the whole of the screen from top to bottom of teeny tiny letters listing all of the things I wanted to see! And I had seventeen days--well, I thought it would be more like fourteen--to get them all done. And I could have, except for this flu that just knocked the crap out of Matt and me. Lame!

On the other hand, we did get through a lot of The West Wing, as Matt pointed out, and I'm actually reading, sort of slowly and feet-dragging, a work of non-fiction, incredible for me. I managed to get to Little Venice and Matt got to the Tower, and the other day, semi-recovered, we took a lovely walk to Marble Arch. We've cooked some good meals with our hostess and we've both gotten a decent amount of writing done.

But we also had to reconfigure our plans for the trip, many times. Our hosts offered us another gig the last week of August / first week of September, and we agreed; we could do it. We wanted to! Alas, we don't have the money (on the practical side), we're homesick, and we're a little bit daunted, or concerned about, what we're doing when we get back Stateside. We're still doing another couple of weeks, mainly because we have to get a flight together and also we have our Eurail passes that we won't let go to waste. So, we're heading Sunday to Edinburgh for two nights, Glasgow for one night, then Paris for one night, then to Matt's friend's in Germany for four nights, then Amsterdam for four nights. We have nothing booked after that, though we know we want to go to Nice for a couple of days and also into Italy, definitely Rome but we haven't picked anyplace else for sure. And then to wherever we're flying out of, lastly.

For myself, I'm excited about the places I haven't been yet, happy to be retracing some of my steps, and I'm looking forward to being more rapidly mobile than we've been since the first ten days of our trip when we were on the walking tour. Coming home earlier than we'd planned was kind of a blow to think about, as though it was wrong of me to change my mind or want to come home earlier / not want to stay longer, but I'm okay with it now. It's not like I'm scared of staying, and I'm certainly not fed up with Matt or Europe or travel or adventure. And while, yes, I do have a rather neurotic tendency of being overly practical and too concerned about the more mundane aspects of life, these things can't be ignored. We do have to firm up plans for where we're moving, for how we're getting there, what we're going to do when we get there, and some of that's even fun, like daydreaming about palm-sized balls of kitten fluff to have and keep.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bad timing...

So lets see, free accommodation in one of the cultural epicenters of the world. Check. Lots of places to see and explore, check. Mostly excellent weather, check. Extremely painful headache for the last three days running, despite treatment, check. Painful, wracking cough, check.

Zoe and I are both sick, which is why there haven't been any updates. See, in such a glorious city, with all this time on our hands, we've both felt like absolute hell. So we haven't really gone anywhere. I suppose that's not completely true, I ventured out of the house to investigate bookstores yesterday, but came home early because my stomach was upset. We've been laid out, miserable and irritable, and most of all irritable because we're on vacation. In London.

Fortunately the kitties have been good company and Zoe and I have been watching The West Wing, we've got plenty of books to read and hopefully this will go away soon. The plan at the moment is to head up to Edinburgh on Wednesday, spend a few days there and move on to Amsterdam, and we're starting to hash out the final details now. Oh yeah, and I've been weaning myself off of cigarettes. So send us happy thoughts, all you loyal readers.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I saw Art!

We went to the National Gallery today, one of many fantastic museums here in London that have absolutely free admission, even to temporary exhibits. This one sits in Trafalgar Square, a great open space with fountains, a traffic circle, two lion statues almost exactly like the ones guarding the Art Institute of Chicago, and right now a set-up for some sort of event tonight. The National Gallery is a beautiful neo-classical sort of a building, lots of columns, and the entrance is clean and modern, marble and white walls. The ceilings are very high, the floors are old but don't really squeak, there's polite knee-high ropes and lots of docents and guards, and the wallpaper is incredible, each room a solid tone that's glossy but a little faded and has a raised pattern on it, so stately, and there's beautiful doorframes. The museum, all paintings, is divided up into four sections--13th to 15th Century, 16th Century, 17th Century, and 18th to 20th Century--but each specific gallery has a name and a plaque explaining the full significance of each room, as well as a plaque alongside each work describing the specific piece's significance.

Lovely. Let me list some of the most famous artists whose work I viewed today: Titian, Veronese, Caravaggio, Rubens, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer!, Goya, Turner, Degas and Monet. Those are the guys the map mentions as the highlights of each section. Some of my other personal favorites: Delacroix, Fragonard, Lord Leighton, Renoir, Gainsborough, Berthe Morisot, Elizabeth-Louise Vigee le Brun, and surprisingly a Gustave Klimt, one I've never seen before. Some new guys I haven't really noticed before: Tiepolo, J.M. Nattier and Johann Liss. Also of particular interest to me was a fabulous piece called The Finding of Moses by Orazio Gentileschi; his daughter, Artemisia, is one of the handful of female artists taught in a general art history course, and one of the first pre-20th century female artists that I studied. My favorite piece of hers is Judith Beheading Holofernes ( I had a ball, and I admit I got very sentimental and emotional when I saw the Berthe Morisot; her Femme a sa Toilette is one absolutely one of my favorite works of art.

Only one thing dimmed it a little bit, and that is that Matt isn't as crazy about painting as I am. (And that crowds annoy him, so that with those forces combined, he didn't even last with me to the 18th century.) I'm really, really crazy about art; I grew up with artists, I went to galleries when I was in utero, I danced and tried to do art and wish fashion had more functional artistry in it. My love affair with art has never dimmed, and I never want it to, of course. Never mind that I rant against about 95% of what they call Modern or, I hate to even type this phrase, Post-Modern (ugh), art. I love art. Love it. Being in a room of all Degas made me want to cry, and seeing Van Gogh's Chair choked me up. Getting close enough to see all of the incredible detail on Vermeer's A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, backing up to see the full beauty of Turner's Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, or having to move sort of sideways to see sky details for a Constable, or the way you can stand anywhere you like and not miss a thing for any Seurat, made me so, so elated, so serene and enthusiastic all at once. And so it's just plain confounding to me that Matt--that anyone--doesn't feel the same way... To be fair, I'm sure he thinks it's insane that the most enthusiastic thing I can say about an Aston Martin V12 Vanquish is that it's very pretty and that never in my life will I be able to comprehend what is so damn exciting about rock climbing or skydiving or pocket knives.

So that made me float on a cloud.

Plus, we're going to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince tonight. In London. Oh, yeah. I think Tony will agree: 10 cool points for me, at least. Right? C'mon. And going to a cinema with assigned seating--that's right, they assign seats here, just like they queue up for everything--reminds me of the good old Utopolis in Luxembourg, which had the comfiest seats ever.

I hope all of you got to do or see or eat or read something you absolutely love today too.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Promised Photos!

As promised, perhaps prematurely since they're technically a little bit late, here are fresh pictures.  My pictures, at least; Matt's will come in a little bit once he labels them the way he wants them to be labelled; I'd never dream of guessing his organizational process.  Today was rainy in a London kind of way, which means that it was kind of cloudy, one end of the sky grayer and cloudier than the other, and the tiniest drops of rain sort of mostly-misted towards the ground.  It was irritating, not debilitating, and yet, in a city where they say it pretty much always rains, everyone was like tiptoeing around with umbrellas and raingear like it only rains twice a year--like in Chicago, when during the first snow flurry, all the drivers flip the hell out.  Anyway, we stayed in and had a lazy Saturday.  It's called a lie-in here, by the way.  We lounged and are in the process of marathoning the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a part of Sally and Rocky's collection; earlier, we ate some mac and cheese and potato croquettes and some ice cream, ran to Tesco's this time for some reasonable groceries, I almost went into crisis mode when we couldn't find my memory card for five minutes, and we've been petting the two cats.  Tomorrow, we might venture to the Burrough Market, I'm 99% sure that's the name, and then to nearby Charing Cross, famous for its bookstore after book stall after bookstore.  We're going to pick up two copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, so that we'll be fully up to speed for when the film releases within the month here.  What else?  Oh yeah, we found Jude Law doing Hamlet and As You Like It at the New Globe, so that's on the theatre menu for us!
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Friday, July 10, 2009

And the writers say...

I promise we'll put more photos up on Picasa, but only if you creepy stalker-types actually start interacting with our blog, perhaps by commenting, as opposed to just observing silently from a distance. Like creepy lurking stalkers. Creeps.

Quick Thing About Pret...

Quick thing about Pret a Manger, while I'm reading Matt's entry: I have a fierce and irrational love of my favorite You Pick Two combination at Panera, and even though I've enjoyed the freshness, the tastes and the ingeniousness of Pret every time I've been, it hasn't yet supplanted Panera in my mind. The notes on their napkins (serviettes here--napkins are cloth things you wrap around baby butts) and boxes are tongue in cheek and rival many I've read on Chipolte cups, and I do appreciate their fresh ingredients as Matt does. But, my loyalty to Panera drove me to make this tiny, rather irrelevant note...

But don't worry, I'm working on download, labeling and then uploading my next installment of pictures right now, with a break for dinner and probably a movie. You all back home will have it by the time you're done with dinner and free to lounge about, and I'll a note on today myself, a longer one than a shout-out to the shoppers today on Regent Street: ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? THIS CLOTHING IS RIDICULOUS AND MAKES YOU LOOK RIDICULOUS!!

On the viciousness of London shoppers and the downside of free...

London, or at least what I've seen of it so far, really is everything I've expected from it. Lots of gorgeous architecture, twisted streets and a far more diverse mixture of people than anything I've seen in Chicago. Granted, this is only the second full day we've been here, but we've done a bit of walking around. The flat we're sitting is in Kensington, a roughly 15 to 20 minute walk to Kensington Palace, the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall, and just a short ride down the Tube to Oxford Cross, where you too can bear witness to a commercial district so affluent and so crowded, it makes Chicago's Magnificent Mile look like a dingy, dusty flea market in the middle of nowhere. Which is where we happened to wander today, while Zoe searched for some form of cute sweater or what have you. She had no success mind you, and we were both driven to distraction by the press and swell and the masses, frenzied like sharks by the scent of sale prices.

Yesterday was far more pleasant, with a luxurious ramble through Kensington Gardens and the Serpentine Gallery, followed by a walk through the Museum of Natural History. The Serpentine Gallery has a brilliant Jeff Koons exhibition that just opened, and I found it immensely interesting, even if I'm without the words to describe it. Even still, a link should be provided: Clickage.

And the Natural History, it is by far one of the most spectacular museums I've ever had the privilege to walk through. And that's all we really had time for, just a walk through. We had already walked quite a ways that day, and while both thoroughly intrigued by everything we saw, the place was incredibly crowded and we were both sort of tired. So we walked and browsed and vowed to return to examine various places much more in depth. Some points of note though were a physical and kinetic recreation of an earthquake (from inside a Japanese convenience store), a full-size replica of a Blue whale (that thing is bloody huge) and a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons. My favorite thing about museums (or at least the majority of them) are that they are free. It enables me to point at a museum and say "That is the one I will wander aimlessly through until I am bored and disinterested." and then proceed as such without fear of spending twenty quid to do so. The downside to the free bit is that they become crowded, due to the free-ness of them. But it enables people to learn, or at least roam around and feign interest while we intellectual effete pray that some knowledge seeps into their skulls through osmosis. Point in case, I witnessed two pre-teen'd English children wandering with their mother, and from display to display they would exclaim "Awesome!" or "Wicked!" without actually paying attention to what it was they were walking past. In the States, and especially places like the Field or MSI, you'd have to pay $20 for your children to have such a valued experience.

After the Musuem and a lazy, slow walk back through the Gardens, and a shower, Zoe and I were taken to a fantastic little Chinese restaurant a few blocks away by Sally and Rocky, our delightful and in absentia hosts, where we discussed a wide range of topics not limited to Allen's capability to eat restaurants out of stock during a dinner rush. Zoe and I relaxed in our room at the flat, watched Sweeney Todd and read our books and fell asleep in our wonderfully comfortable bed.

Today we lazed around the house a bit, chatted with Sally before she left to catch her flight and the ventured off to Oxford Circus (which really is a circus, if you replace feral beasts and acrobats with rabid shoppers and dodging vicious taxis and rather large buses) where we failed to find clothing and I failed to get a free USB cable out of Apple. We ate at a cute little cafe (part of a chain that hasn't quite hit the States yet, called Pret a Manger) that serves delicious pre-made sandwiches and wraps that are actually made in-house, with bread actually baked that day, and that taste far better than anything Panera has offered us, and an incredibly reasonable price. We wandered back home, lazed about some more, reading our books and then headed out to Marks & Spencers.

For those of you who aren't familiar, M&S (or as Zoe calls it, Marks & Sparks) is a gourmet grocery store, somewhat like a less expensive but somehow more posh Whole Foods, filled with quality produce in the name of M&S. I had planned a huge long diatribe on the difference in types of grocery stores, but this post is already feeling long-winded and thinking about it is making me realize that I should probably be cooking dinner. So that is what I'll be off to do now.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

For it is we who see the deep...

Derry. It was a farewell of sorts, because I empathize more with Derry than most other places I've been. Derry, to a degree, is an outsider, existing between places. Derry is more Irish than British, more Industrial than Countryside, but none of those things all at once. As I've had this sort of self-image of myself over the course of years as straddling many lines, whether it be actualized or not, I feel kinship with Derry not just as a place but as an entity. I think I've babbled enough about my attraction to the city already though, so I'll move on.

We made some friends at the hostel, our Aussie friends Shannon and Damien, our Canadian friend Lachlan, and they were fantastic people that I'd love to travel with, or hang out with, or have visit. Ruairi is someone who'd be welcome in my home anytime, a fantastic specimen of humanity. I spent a fair amount of time with Ruairi, discussing the finer points of where to find a decent cup of coffee, the politics of humanity and the struggle of peace around the world, as well as which girls he'd have the best luck with in a particular tour group. We hung out at Pedar O'Donnells, I stole a beer coaster that had a painting of the bar front on one side as a memento, I bought a badge to show solidarity with Free Derry, and I drank more than a few pints. I talked politics, romance and philosophies of varying kinds with varying people from varying countries and it was gloriously beautiful.

And it gave us a chance to rest up, to get our minds in order. I caught a hot streak, finished one short story and began something entirely different. Zoe overcame literary hurdles of her own, and as always, with every breath we learned something new about ourselves, we made steps forward in passing through our own illusions, and we found that we only get deeper into sympatico with each other. I also apparently have taken to rambling, run-on sentences.

So now I'm in London, which is far beyond exciting. I knew so very little about Ireland, beyond that I loved their booze, their music and their stories. But London, this is a place that is a living thing in my mind. I have visions of London from books, from comics, from music and movies and all these things, but I've never actually been here. And now that I'm here, now that I've seen only a fraction of it, I'm giddy. I feel effervescent and alive, riding the Underground, recognizing all these names and finally able to understand them in a properly tactile fashion.

I hadn't meant to post, but I was reminded that it had been a while. I'm never sure if I'm making sense, or even whether it really matters, whether I should write for myself or aim at an audience.

A Summary & An Introduction

A Summary:

Matt pointed out that I haven't really talked about Derry itself all that much. I briefly talked about the changes in architecture and landscape and farm animals between Westport and Derry, and I wrote about Bushmills and the Causeway, and about our life. But not so much about Derry itself. That's remiss of me. I was telling our really good friend Eddie last night--standing outside, cobble stoned street lightly angling downwards, him with a Stirling cigarette and a Guinness, one in each hand, me with a Magner's Pear Cider, because you can take your drinks outside around here--about my undergraduate thesis. A lot of it involved, in a background way, how literature can help shape a mythology about a city, or give other people an idea of what the city's like, what its atmosphere is and how one might generally characterize its citizens. I would love to do that for Derry, to succinctly characterize its people, but that would just be shortchanging it all. There are so many cool facts about its construction and design, such as that its wholly intact city walls have never been breached, and there are so many sad facts about its place in the history of "the Troubles," or the fighting that took place from 1969 to 1972 in Northern Ireland, such as that more than 3,000 people died throughout it. I could point out the immediacy of that versus the length of the history that led to it; I could talk about how bizarre it is to feel such affinity towards those Irish who wanted to be independent of British rule, as a Jewish woman, while those same Irish have a very strong feeling about supporting Palestine. But in the end, to summarize as promised, all that I really want to say about Derry was that I was expecting it to be a changeover from the end of the walking tour and arriving in Belfast, and it turned out to be a perfect place. Strangers who knew I was clearly a visitor, who knew I might be a bad American or a terrible stereotypical tourist, took the chance, came up to me and just introduced themselves, asked why I'd come to Derry and did I like it--and more, asked me where I was from, what that was like, what kind of work I've done and what else I like to do in life, and what kinds of books I like and where else I've gone. Everything, they were just interested in everything! The best thing was, they talked back. More than just wanting to hear about me, they wanted to share about them, things that some at home would be shocked to hear a relative stranger tell you. I don't know if that character is Derry wholesale, or that Matt and I just happened to meet a few of the right types who helped us find the right places to have those fantastic, genuine experiences, but it was this gem of an experience. I've traveled before and made what I think of as "trip friends," people I hug and love and over share with for two, three days, and then I never see them again, though maybe we're Facebook friends. People I met in Derry, I want them to come visit me, to stay at my house and email with me until they do, I want to go visit them wherever they are, travel more with them. I have some lifelong friends I wouldn't extend an invitation like that to! So that's that, vehement and gushing.


An Introduction:

London! There's songs and movies and famous plays and novels about it, and there are billions of Americans I know who have been there or studied there who are like London fanboys and fangirls for it, as though there's a cult of Londonphiles, stranger and stronger than Anglophiles. How fascinating! There's so much enthusiasm in them that I can't help but be... intrigued--and I've been here more than once. Still, if you had asked me yesterday about it, I'd have said, because I was, that I was more interested in having our own space for a while, because all I'd been hearing recently was silly tourists who were studying in London--"Oh. My. GOD! London's THE BEST!" and travelers I've met who say, "Oh, London's shit, the people are mean, the food's only okay, but the art's good--go to Camden, go to this 'shire, go for a day and head straight to ----." And now that I'm here, and this house is so cool, and we have hosts who are American but who have been living in London for 10 years, the best of both worlds, and I'm super excited. I want to be swept up, I want to be reminded of some stories of London that I love, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pygmalion, Falling Angels, Down and Out in Paris and London. I want to try to find the Londons I've seen depicted in so many movies that I love: Shakespeare in Love, Snatch, some of Enchanted April, An Ideal Husband (adapted from a lovely Oscar Wilde play--can't forget him), About A Boy, Match Point... And the lure of art: I haven't been to the Art Institute in Chicago in more than a year, a record for me, I think; merely reading da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Van Gogh, "rooms stuffed with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman antiquities" (Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring), Blake, Bacon, Moore, even Rothko, makes me shiver! I can't wait to drag Matt around and hopefully do a not-overwhelming job of explaining to him what I love so much about painting, and how the art is connected to things he finds more interesting, like politics and history and literature. Plus... I might buy some new clothes, like a few sweet dresses or a nice belt or a cardigan, and some shoes that are good for walking but aren't hiking boots, and good for hot weather, but aren't tacky Miami U flip-flops (or, thongs, as they're called here). And used bookstores! Massive gardens! Day trips to see things that were built and no one knows how, like Stonehenge!

To top it all off: there's a roof garden patio type thing here, and a bathtub!!

You can tell how wonderful life is because of all of my exclamation points. If this were a novel and I were reading it because someone else had written it, I'd put it down and mutter, "F***in' over-usage of exclamation points--stupid moron fool idiot overexcited overenthusiastic unoriginal hack..."

Sunday, July 5, 2009



This is a sample photo of about 80 pictures I just uploaded at Picasa for all of your viewing pleasure.  It's sadly devoid of the people we've been meeting; we're taking all of those pictures now, so don't think I've forgotten or failed to notice that there's basically only Matt and the odd tourist in this batch.  These pictures were taken over the last two weeks, basically, from Westport to Derry to Bushmills and back to Derry.  The photographs of the murals on the buildings here in Derry are historical and leftovers from the war that happened here, as is the photograph of the Free Derry wall.  I'll write an actual entry a bit later in the day when my mind's not fuzzy like it is now.
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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Farewell, ye streets of sorrow...

The trials of hostel life, the hazards of meeting other travellers. We've been helping Shannon and Damien out a bit at the hostel, just some minor cleaning and whatnot, keeping an eye on the other guests, doing some cooking and what have you, and both of us are getting a feel for what is required to run such an establishment. We had a group of German university students travelling with their teachers for the last few nights, and the students spoke not a lick of English. They never seemed to settle down, always talking, playing cards, playing pool. It was rather strange, as they seemed to be unable to just settle down.

Speaking of pool, the table here is odd. No stripes and solids, only half red and half yellow, with a cue ball and an 8 ball. The thing is that the balls are a lot smaller in size, the cue sticks a lot shorter, so it completely threw off my game. Then again, I was also playing sober, which could've had a greater effect than I desired. Needless to say, I lost horribly and blamed it on being a different game than what I play back home.

We also met this girl last night at the hostel, a girl from San Jose, CA, who was surprised that I knew where her town was. We were all shocked at the vapidness of this girl who has managed to travel abroad to Europe completely on her own. She thought Chicago was close to New York (and I suppose to her credit, its closer to New York than California) and she didn't know that Washington, D.C. was its own district separate from its neighboring states. I've met travellers and locals alike here in Derry that have a better grasp on North American geography than most Americans, and that's just a sad thing for us. This, of course, spawned a lengthy discussion on the education systems of Australia, Canada and the US, comparisons, foibles and regrets.

I'm still greatly enjoying Derry, and I think Zoe is as well. Its nice to still be abroad but not travelling, not constantly gypsy-ing our way around foreign lands. Nice to stop, to build friends abroad, to rest and keep our sanity. Zoe is camped out on the couch at the moment working on a story, and I'm taking a break from the creative process after finally finishing the first draft of Sophie's story.

I briefly mentioned the political situation of Derry in an earlier post, but I don't feel versed enough in it to do more than mention its existence, so I went and found the Wiki entry for it ( ). Not quite the same as getting the story from a man who grew up during The Troubles (our friend Ruairi - pronounced "Rory"), but at least gives some details. We went to the Tower Museum the other day, which has the full story of Derry from prehistory through to the modern day, and I found that it was a little biased towards the Protestant side of the story. As a contrast, the Museum of Free Derry is biased towards the Catholic end of the conflict, though with enough of a sympathetic ear to the Protestant to be very informative. Ruairi is keen to point out that when the Irish in Derry speak of the English, a word containing more venom than one could truly understand, they don't speak of English people as a whole, or Protestant descendents of the English. They speak of the Government and the Armed Forces that perpetrated crimes against humanity, crimes which are still being committed.

I find myself sympathizing more with the Irish in the Bogside than with anyone else. Not that I support the violence committed by the IRA, just that I can understand why they felt the need. A people oppressed and persecuted for hundreds of years, treated as lesser, as inferior, just because of their religion. English Protestants who rallied the Scottish Presbyterians to support them against the Catholics, then turned around and betrayed them as well (actions that led to the Siege of Derry in 1649). Even now, Derry is a segregated city, with the majority of the City Proper (including the area of the Bogside referred to as Free Derry) on the west side of the River Foyle populated by Catholics and the east side of the River Foyle by the Protestants. A small section of Derry, known as the West Bank, just outside of the City Walls, is gated off, with lampposts painted in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack, and the 500 Protestants that live within this section claim to still be under siege (referring again to the Siege of Derry in 1649).

And yet while Belfast is still sectioned and separated by the Peace walls and tensions still run high, here in Derry there is an feeling of peace settling in the city. The history, however recent, doesn't stain or taint the air of the city, but encourages its inhabitants to be more conscientous of each other. I'm not sure if any of the above makes sense, but check out the Wiki entry for a few more details in a more sensible presentation. Needless to say, I'm enjoying my time in the city and I feel more of a connection here than any place in the States with the exception of Chicago.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's Been Ages

So, it was pointed out to me that Matt has made three posts since I made my last. Well, fine, easy enough to remedy that. When last I left you, we were in our first days here in Derry. Matt was at first unnerved at the immediacy of the history here and how easy it is to feel it all, the violence and the ongoing tensions (to use a state department phrase), but I've been to other places with that same feeling, so I'm more used to it. Of course, every city is... its own city; each city has its own combination of current culture, lingering tensions, rich history, etc. But I've enjoyed taking in Derry, one sip at a time. Our first few days were so fun, just pure fun; watching Matt learn the perks of staying at a hostel with a great atmosphere, trading jokes and all of that, was just lovely. Don't get the impression, though, that I just lazed around thinking, "Crap, doesn't he know this is a waste of his time, making friends? We'll be out of here in two days!" No, no. For the first night, all the girlies were inside but me. That's how cool I am, oh yeah.

We ducked away for like a weekend trip, haha, to Bushmills. This town I agreed to go to so that Matt could rock the distillery. Even when he kept saying--and everyone kept repeating--that the Giant's Causeway was up there, I was just like, Yeah, yeah. I didn't look it up, and I almost psyched myself into not going. Pssht, would that have SUCKED! The distillery was excellent, they don't let you do tours like that at home, with all their rules and worries about lawsuits, and I sipped my free drink of whiskey and then gave the rest to Matt. It was really good, but it makes me queasy... Anyway, then we went to the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, and at first I was disappointed because you walk through this grass and then you see... not a really old, really dangerous rope bridge like something out of Indiana Jones. And I was thinking, That's kind of lame--£4 each for this? But then I crossed it and there's perfect sand below and there's no fences of any sort on this little island, and there were these birds like penguins (I believe Matt covered this) and it was lovely. We power-walked back (sweaty!) to make the bus over to the Giant's Causeway. Not knowing what it was, as we went down to it, I had Matt tell me the basic story about it--do look it up on Wikipedia, both the mythology and the science are fascinating. It's this thing like straight out of a video game and you can clamber all over it and just run right out to the edge, where the tide was already lapping at the stones; there are barnacles and tidepools on this thing. So cool. SO cool. It was a good little getaway, even though the hostel was more like an empty dormitory with a common room that no one used, though Matt did make a nice little dinner of grilled sandwiches with garlic bread and some microwaved mashed potatoes and cheese on the side.

Since then, on Saturday, we've been back in Derry. This feels like our home base, like this is now our home away from home. We've been here long enough to give advice to people coming through and I feel absolutely comfortable greeting all the new people and asking them where they're from originally, where they've been, where they're going, why they're here, all that. It's been hard adjusting to this idea that we don't have to go-go-go while we're here; we can slowly take in "the sights" and do a museum this day or that day if we like, or stay in and do nothing. I've enjoyed that, and talking movies, politics, cooking, everything with the people. The other night we even went to a movie with a few other people, two of whom have been dating each other 8 months and have never gone to a movie together! Milestone; if they stay together a while, we'll be a part of their story together, their first job at a hostel, their first movie date, and that's just wondrous to think of because they'll be a part of our story of our first trip abroad forever too. (It was Year One, and it was thoroughly silly and enjoyable.) We went back to Peadar O'Donnells last night and if possible had a night where we connected even more with locals, a lot of whom have worked in the States, visited more than once, and/or have some family living there. It's fascinating and I'm learning new bits of history and ties amongst us every day.

So we're planning on staying here until the 4th. Now we're trying to decide if we want to spend a night in Belfast, or just stop there on the way to Edinburgh. Now, I know, it's a capital, and everyone we've met says we have to take what they call the Black Taxi Tour, which is a ride through both 'sides' of Belfast and the drivers matter-of-factly tell what happened there in recent history, and include personal stories seriously. I think it sounds fascinating, but I feel like I want to learn more about it before I do that so that it will mean more. Also, it's never been a city that I feel drawn to, but I'm sure I'd enjoy it. So we're thinking. Definitely we're still going to Edinburgh for a couple of days before London, but we've pushed out Cardiff to stay here because we REALLY don't know a thing about it and what to see and how to enjoy it.

Oh, and we'll put some more pictures up tomorrow, I think.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

More photos...


Some more photos are up on Picasa from our last few days.  Zoe and I are back in Derry now and I'm sure one of us will make a post later.
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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lamb chops with mint pesto...

Food. Everyone knows how much I love food, well, how much both of us love food. But its so rare, especially for us travelling at the moment, that we take the time to go out for a nice meal. And yet here we are in Bushmills wandering down the main drag (one street, three blocks, appropriately titled Main St) with pub, chip shop, chip shop (chip shop=fast food joint), cafe (cafes close in the late afternoon), pub, gift shop, and the one nice restaurant. So Zoe and I splurge and head into 1608, named after the year in which the Bushmills Distillery first opened, the first ones in for dinner service.

The decor is sleek, chic and very classy nouveau, completely unexpected in this sleepy little town known for its excellent whiskey and its proximity to several major landmarks. The service, lets just say that I've been less than impressed by the service in the whole of Ireland, Northern or Republic. But the food, the food was absolute heaven. We started with the soup of the day, a brocoli (pardon me, food drunk and I can't spell) brocolli and Cashel Bleu cheese soup that tasted like pure heaven, served with lightly garlicked croutons. Zoe, for entree, had a Chicken Chilli wrap with rice noodles, vegetables and a caesar salad. It was tasty, with little chicken pieces that were lightly breaded. I was brave and ordered the special, a trio of lamb cutlets (aka chops) served with a mint pesto, vegetable stew provencal and roast potato spheres.

Good lamb is easy to come by in a country so populated by sheep, but this just purely melted in my mouth. As we were sitting and digesting, the chef smiled at me from the open kitchen and asked me how the meal was. So she and I had a brief yet pleasant chat about her fantastic food and I attempted, with no avail, to persuade her to share that soup recipe. Alas, I'll just have to figure it out on my own. Now I need to determine how to import good Irish cheese.

From Bantry Bay to Derry Quay, from Galway to Dublin Town...

I'm ending radio silence after our few days in Derry. Its been a strange experience for me, both good and bad. Well, not bad, just strange, weird. Derry is a city steeped in history, most of which was violent, and especially recently. The murals of Free Derry, the walls that date back to the 1600's, the war memorials to WW1&2, the Apprentice Boy's, the Bloody Sunday Memorial, even just the graffiti on the walls from both sides of The Troubles is a constant reminder that All Is Not Well and that even though wounds are healing, they are still slow and infected. Beyond that, if you listen, you can hear the whispers and echoes of the ghosts, and you can still almost smell the blood in the cobblestones and the walls. It makes you truly consider the rifts in humanity, here in Ireland where it is still brother against brother in so many ways.

The hostel we've been staying in has been excellent though, warm and friendly, full of interesting characters and numerous stories. People who we know could be excellent friends given half a chance, people you're glad to have met that once but never need to see again. Tuesday night we found ourselves in the heart of the craic, in a pub called Peadar O'Donnell's, where the beer flows right along with the gorgeous traditional music, the sounds of fiddle and fife mingling with laughter as they drift out into the streets and everybody is one whole seething being in that glorious moment. Its what I'd been looking for, what we hadn't found until we tagged along with a load of drunken Aussies and Canadian tramps so that we had at least some familiar faces.

Yesterday Zoe and I walked the Walls of Derry, a mile circuit around the center of the city, complete with cannons placed every so often, churches and old graveyards, and magnificent views of the city surrounding you. You walk these places, this mix of old and new architecture, 500 year old churches next to shopping malls and restaurants, and you find yourself wondering what our own ancestors will make of us in 100 or 200 or 1,000 years.

Shortly, Zoe and I will be heading up to the town of Bushmills on the northern coast, home of the oldest whiskey distillery in the country, and we'll spend a couple nights there to take in the distillery and see the Giant's Causeway, until Saturday we find ourselves coming back to Derry to hang out at the hostel for just a little while longer. After that, who knows? Maybe Belfast and on to Scotland.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Two In A Row

Two posts in a row for me, mwhaha!

Hello from Matt's first parliamentary democracy / constitutional monarchy! Otherwise known as Country #2, that being, of course, Northern Ireland. At this moment, we're in Derry, at our very first hostel. It is just what I've always experienced and come to expect out of hostels. It's rag-tag and the staff are not locals (Aussies and a South African, currently), they have a main building with crowded rooms and an annex for those fortunate enough to have private rooms or smaller rooms versus staying in the dorms, there's a tiny kitchen filled with the odds and ends of many a buying trip to the N. Irish version of Wal-Mart, I'd guess, and everyone likes talking to everyone.

Last night we big firsties for us all around. We hung out with this big group, mostly younger than us and silly, but nice, here at the hostel in their little patio, and then a whole lot of us went to a pub--typical bar construction, door at the front, toilets at the back, bar on one wall, tables on the left, people crammed everywhere--with live music of (what else?) traditional Irish music: the best addition to it, versus the lamer pub-style bars in Chciago. Oh it was glorious. We danced a little, drank, manfully tried to understand the rather mangled N. Irish accent, and came back to the hostel around 1:30am, ooooh.

Yes, all lovely. I could go on and on about how cool it is meeting youngsters of other nationalities and discovering that 95% of our experiences are identical--well, parallel at any rate--and that the 5% that aren't identical/parallel are completely random. We talked about what wild animals we have, people who travel and only go 1 place in an entire country, the fights we saw or got into when we were teenagers, what sports we played, what work we do and how crazy some of our friends are and what drinks we've had where and how they were awful.

Yes, all lovely, but you can imagine it. It's just what you imagine it would be like, it's no mystery what sitting around a hostel patio and chatting with a mixture of Americans, Australians, South Africans, Englishmen and Canadians is like. It's kind of like the first days at college, where everyone's comparing notes of growing up in Chicago versus Cleveland versus the tiniest town in Kentucky... only without the school spirit and with people who are independent people who are determining their own lives.

Instead, I'm going to make some observations about the 6-hour bus ride from Westport to Derry yesterday. We drove from Westport to Sligo Town, Co Sligo, first, maybe an hour or so, and then changed buses at a dash. That first chunk I nodded off during. But around Sligo, I started noticing that while there were still palm trees, now too there's evergreens, more farmland divided by hedgerows or a line of trees in irregular rectangles (a toddler's rectangle), far less sheep, more horses and cows, and towns that seemed fancier, or at least they seemed more propserpous. Or, more prosperous in a way I could measure, with new housing developments being built or freshly inhabited. Then I started noticing the architecture was changing in the houses, that they had what we'd call a more Mediterranean influence, but also these sort of decorative flourishes that seem more like Minnesota cottage than anything else. It was a delicious transition. Things semed to get "richer" as we went north, but as we came into Derry, it felt more industrial somehow. Not like Detroit industrial, depressed and kind of scary, just like this is a less la-la-leprachauns-la-la-charming-lilt sort of place, more solid Irish workingman's business-y sort of place. But the people we met at the bar were so nice, willing to talk and cracking jokes, just making fun of you right away, asking where you're from and just saying they're glad you're here.

On a hilarious note--well, hilarious considering Matt and me--we woke up naturally this morning around 7:30am and tried to go back to sleep, but it didn't work. We're now on a morning schedule, thanks to being too polite to blow off our breakfasts at the B&Bs, where they served at 8 or 8:30.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Quick Moment

Last night and today have been thoughtful days for Matt and me. We've been talking a lot about what we're doing here, in the bigger sense, and how people think we're crazy to travel (aka waste all our money) and then move (and never, ever find work EVER!), but we think it's the perfect time for all of this. We're young and it's all fresh, and there's no better time to do something a bit daft than when we don't have a mortgage and our jobs are the sort of jobs we can honestly do anyplace. More, this is an awesome opportunity for us to expand our worlds, to just see everything, anything, in a slightly or vastly different light, or to consider some small or gigantic aspect of something that's never crossed our minds before. For example, today we saw a movie and then afterwards, I went to the toilets (not a sort of rude phrase here, a little hard to get used to actually) and of course it was full and there was a line, but it was SILENT. A line of women, lots of them young, mostly clearly together, and there was no yelling or giggling or whatnot. That's never happened to me stateside. So, tiny stuff, and then bigger things, such as how hard it is, we feel, for us to be brave and step into someplace new and potentially exclusive and try to talk to people and meet them and find out about them, without being seen as... weird. We tried tonight, to go hear some local music, but the place was hot--and a little BO-ish--and packed and we thought, Ok, well, we tried, but we're claustrophobic, there's nowhere to sit, and everyone's all in their knitted community unit thingies. We're trying in a bigger city: Tomorrow, it's Derry!

Pictures! Real pictures!


And at last, a photo!  Or several, as our photos are being uploaded to Picasa as we speak.  This photo was taken our first night at Lough Inagh after one of the many fleeting rain showers, and the next night we saw another rainbow as well.  In fact, we've seen several.  So, more photos up on the web at, so please, do enjoy!
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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hello. (No one says "Hi" here, by the way.)

Not to be melodramatic, but Thursday when I posted last, seems like AGES ago. When I list what we did in the last several days, you all will be thinking, "Okay, that's not too much." Fine, maybe. But it feels like so much has happened. Or, so much has happened, but it hasn't been so much about movement or activity, it's been more... internal. (Yes, I love words from AP English. My other unwilling favorite, if you're curious, is juxtaposition.)

Thursday: After the internet cafe, we bought groceries and went back to Lough Inagh, ate in (mini-baguettes with Nutella and strawberry jam, and real Fanta, with fruit juice and real sugar) and slept.

Friday: We walked to Leenane. There were bogs that were less boggy than they might have been. What's a bog? It's squishy ground, basically. Like walking on a sponge that you used and half-heartedly wrang out, say, forty minutes earlier. Your feet sink in and when you lift your shoe you leave an impression that literally bounces back into its original place. It sounds kind of nasty, but honestly, it was enchanting. The woods around us were really old and the trees that had fallen over were mossy and ancient. Peaceful, and we saw nobody. We tried to detour to a ruin, but we just kept rounding a bend in the road and seeing another stupid bend, so we gave up. Ah, well. The last bit was the worst, kind of, because I was like, "Oh please just let us get there!" Your feet really kill from the downhill bit. I thought my Achilles tendons were going to snap. The name of our B&B that night was The emocleW--Welcome spelled backwards: Laaaame!--and the woman was standoffish, but I think because she thought we'd want to be left alone. We went for an excellent dinner: I had local cheese that tasted like Brie deep fried in batter and a little salad, and some Bailey's cheesecake. Oh my God, it was delicious. I thought it could never fill me up, but it did, easily.

Saturday: Our tour planner arranged a taxi to take us back to the Western Way, which we were walking, and take our luggage on to the next B&B, but we were so bushwacked that we rode with him all the way to Liscarney, also in the middle of nowhere. We woke the poor proprietress up--her son had left at dawn or something for golf, trying to get into an amateur tour, cool--but our room was ready. We relaxed, then Matt went for a hike to see a ruin while I wrote, we took lunch across the street at a picnic bench next to an inlet thingy for a big lake, I read Stephen Fry's memoir (fantastically hilarious and ridiculously... British), we wrote more and then we ate at the B&B. She made potatoes--my first potatoes so far, actually. She gave us each a drink and we had them while watching hurling on the TV with her and her husband and son. Hurling is like field hockey, American soccer and lacross rolled into one. Late night, we watched British TV, Comedy Roadhouse where they go to different towns and semi-famous comics perform, and then a Russell Brand stand up (Doing Life) that slayed us at 11pm.

Sunday: That would be today. We had a light breakfast (we quickly got picky about the full Irish, because it's damned heavy in your stomach and unless you really want two strips of bacon, two little sausage links, one egg, a cooked half-tiny-tomato, coffee/tea, toast and jam and possibly cereal or yogurt...). Our nice lady dropped us off at the Pilgrim's Way at the foot of Crough Padraig, St Patrick's mountain, where they have a pilgrimage of 30,000 people every year who hike this crazy ROCKY and STEEP MOUNTAIN BAREFOOT. BAREFOOT. Not to bring up religion, but... that's crazy to me. Not that the Hebrew God is undemanding--He liked His floods and plagues, don't get me wrong--but I don't think people should walk barefoot if they have the option of footwear. The hike was enough of a gift to God. Anyway, we hiked it, it was tough and misty so there was zero view to be seen, the walk down was treacherous and yet there were idiots running downhill. I was indignant at all the dogs people took walking because those !$%&ers were skipping here and there the way I skip around my freakin' kitchen! Lucky dogs. Then we took a taxi ten minutes to tonight and tomorrow night's B&B in Westport, three times bigger than any town we've seen in days, quite charming, and tonight, we're finally going to hear some traditional music!

So, maybe a little bit of literal activity.

The hiking has been a challenge for me and some moments I thought that I was mad to do it just so that I could be there with Matt for one of his favorite things, especially today which was challenging even for him. But at the end of it, your muscles bounce back better than ever, you've had this singular thing happen to you that you won't forget, and you saw incredible, hopefully unique landscapes that you took lots of pictures of that don't really get it right. Was all the moaning and sniffling (because I never could manage to bring enough tissues with, not because I was crying) and the windburn worth it? Of course, without a doubt. Just seeing Matt all goat-like and running with his arms flapping out like a deranged penguin made it worth it.

Besides, I told him he could never complain about a single museum after today. Mwahaha.