Sunday, August 9, 2009

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.

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