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.

DISCLAIMER: WHAT FOLLOWS CONTAINS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF SEX AND DRUGS.

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?

END DISCLAIMER

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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Looksee!

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