Saturday, July 25, 2009

Homeward Bound

A few months before I left for Europe, I put the house on the market.  I was hoping the house would sell either before I left or after I returned, but because I would be gone during the summer months, I knew there was a strong possibility it would sell while I was gone.  And sure enough, I got an offer on the house.  Actually, I got two offers on the house, with both parties wanting to close by July 31st.  Virtually certain one of the two offers would go through to closing, I knew that I had to return to Knoxville.  All of my things - furniture, clothes, boxes, everything I own - were at the house, and I had to come back to deal with it.  

With my stay in Amsterdam drawing to a close, it seemed like the appropriate time to end the trip.  So 75 days after leaving for Europe, I returned to the States. I wondered when I left Europe if I would feel like I had fallen short of my goal, but I realized that my goal was an arbitrary one.  Originally, I had planned a 90 day trip for no other reason than by law, I could stay in the European Union for 90 days without a visa.  Because I had started my trip outside the EU, I was technically going to be traveling for roughly 100 days.  But was my goal one of time or experience? Experience, of course. And experience I got. Even with just a short time to reflect on my trip, I am astounded at all that I was able to see and do in 75 days.

It was what I learned in Europe, though, that I will take with me above anything I saw or did while I was there.  I learned lessons that may seem basic or obvious, but I needed to experience them to learn them.  I learned that if I get lost, I can eventually find my way.  I learned that if I can't speak the language and no one understands me, I can gesture enough to where they eventually figure out what I want.  I learned that I can get by on a lot less luggage than what I thought was necessary!  I learned that for the most part, people are very nice and helpful.   I learned that the best experiences are the simple ones - walking through the city or a park or sitting by the water writing, listening to music and watching the people around me - and have nothing to do with any tourist attraction.  

But I learned one lesson above all others...

If I had to do this trip over again, would I?  Absolutely. Will I do this trip over again?  No.  Not that way.  Not by myself.  I proved that I can travel by myself.  But what I learned is that I don't want to travel by myself. There were countless times that I saw or did or ate or heard something, and I desperately wanted to turn to someone I love and share in that moment.  Like when I stepped onto the Paris streets for the first time to be greeted by the Eiffel Tower's light show.  I stood there, dumbfounded, and said out loud, "I can't believe I'm really here."  But there was no one to hear me. So I sent a picture and an email to one person who I knew would instantly understand the enormity of what I was feeling, but it simply wasn't enough.  I needed someone beside me.  

Next time, there will be.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

No Agenda in Amsterdam

I was in Amsterdam for approximately eight hours in May 2008 during a very long layover (that I purposefully scheduled so I could see a bit of the city) on my way home from Greece.  I knew from that visit that when I came back I wanted to spend a lot of time there, so I rented an apartment for 12 days.

My apartment was in a building that overlooks a canal on Brouwersgracht.  It is in the Jordaan area, which is a residential area full of apartment buildings and quaint shops and restaurants.  I realized yet again in Amsterdam how important the location of where I am staying is when I am making a judgment call on a city. There were parts of Amsterdam I walked through that I did not like - streets filled with tourists and tacky gift shops and McDonald's.  If I had stayed in a hotel on one of those areas, I might not have liked Amsterdam nearly as much. But on my street there was not a tourist (other than me), a tacky gift shop or a McDonald's to be found. On the right of the cobblestone street were apartment buildings and on the left was the canal. At night, the people who lived on the ground floor of the apartment buildings, would open their doors, drag a table and chairs outside and eat along the sidewalk, greeting their neighbors as they passed by. 

Though Amsterdam has a good public transportation system, mainly consisting of trams, I never took advantage of it.  The weather was perfect while I was there (mid 70s for a high and sunny), so I had no excuse not to walk everywhere.  So I walked - sometimes knowing where I was going, sometimes not.  I had no agenda in Amsterdam.  There was nothing I wanted to tour (I had been to the Anne Frank House in May 2008), nothing in particular I wanted to see or do. It was exactly as I had written in one of the Paris blogs - I just wanted to get the feel for living in that city.  Probably the best way for me to have gotten a feel for living in Amsterdam would have been to rent a bike.  I have never seen so many bikes in my life.  There are not car parking garages - there are bike parking garages.  But the traffic in Amsterdam was crazy - the cars, the buses, the tram, the bikes, the pedestrians - and I knew if I tried it the ending would not be favorable for me, so I didn't.

The shopping in Amsterdam is the best I've found in Europe, which surprised me after being in cities like London and Paris.  I spent time wandering through the De Negen Straatjes, or Nine Streets, area, which is just that - nine streets full of unique boutiques - mostly clothing (some new, some vintage), jewelry, books, gifts, wine.  I also went to the Noordermarkt flea market, which was fun (though this is where London has the edge - Notting Hill's flea market was awesome and the best I've seen), and I bought a dress for 7.50 Euros (about $11).  I window shopped on P.C. Hooftstraat, Amsterdam's designer boutique street (Chanel, Louis Vuitton, etc.), thus why I used the term "window shopped."  A few streets over, though, I then stumbled upon a shoe store filled with last season's designer shoes marked between 50 and 75% off. Unfortunately the pair of Yves Saint Laurent heels I was on the lookout for (they had several YSL styles) were nowhere to be found, which is probably a good thing because they would have been well beyond my daily budget.  I also visited the floating flower market, which is situated on one of the canals. While there were some tulips (they would have bloomed a couple of months ago), there were plenty of bulbs to be bought as well as Cannabis in a Can, as you can see pictured below. 


My days were spent simply walking along the canals, stopping at a bench to rest and watch the boats move through the water, or sitting at an outdoor cafe beside the canal drinking tea and eating a croissant (I thought I had kicked that habit in Paris but no such luck) or wandering through one of Amsterdam's many parks like Vondelpark.  It was quiet and peaceful and exactly what I had envisioned when I was planning the Amsterdam portion of my trip.

On Thursday morning my dad arrived in Amsterdam, and I took the train from the city to the airport to pick him up.  He had decided to join me in Amsterdam for four days before traveling by himself to London, north to his old Air Force base, then to Glasgow, over to Belfast (to visit the family I visited) and south to Dublin before heading home today.  In Amsterdam, my dad stayed at the Hotel Pulitzer, where the movie Ocean's 12 was filmed.  The hotel was in a great location, overlooking a canal and only about a 10 minute walk from my apartment.  We spent the day on Thursday just walking around near the hotel so he could get a feel for the city. Like me, he couldn't get over the amount of bikes.  

On Friday morning, Dad and I visited the Anne Frank House.  We bought online tickets that allowed us to go to the front of the line, which turned out to be a great idea considering the length of the line when we arrived.  The rooms where Anne Frank's family lived are bare - her father, Otto Frank, requesting that they not be furnished as they had been.  Instead, many of the walls are filled with her words, and they are powerful.  There are videos of the two women who helped to hide the Frank family, describing Anne, the family, their experience.  That afternoon, we took a one-hour canal ride just to get a feel for the city, and the boat captain was a great tour guide.   

That night we had 7:30 dinner reservations at Marius, a small restaurant that had received a great review from the New York Times.  The entire restaurant was run by a staff of three - the chef/owner, the sous chef and the server - which I found to be really impressive considering the quality of the service.  

On Saturday, my dad and I went to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Both of us preferred the Van Gogh, so we spent much more time there than at the Rijksmuseum.  We also walked through the back of Vondelpark before going back to the hotel.  I had concert tickets to see Lenny Kravitz at an outdoor amphitheatre at Westerpark that night, and my dad was happy to have a quiet night in to rest before leaving for London the next day.

The Lenny Kravitz concert started at 8 pm, so I arrived at Westerpark about 7 pm. It was packed, and I didn't hear any American voices.  Some people were sitting down, some were standing, and I found a place among the standing part of the crowd.  I have no idea what the opening act was, but they were good, and Lenny Kravitz took the stage at 9 pm.  He is an amazing performer - very interactive with the crowd, played all the songs I wanted to hear except for one, and even gave a brief MJ tribute with the crowd singing along to "Billie Jean".



Saturday, June 27, 2009

An American in Prague

I've started becoming a bit homesick for all things American, even American things I don't particularly care for, like Wal-Mart.  Little did I know that I would find enough America in a place like Prague to cure that part of my homesickness.

I stayed at the Andel's Hotel, which was nice, reasonably priced and centrally located to take the Metro and trams.  I also later learned that it was located right by a large mall.  A real American'esque mall (something I had yet to see in Europe), complete with Sephora and H&M and a food court and movie theatre. I'm a little ashamed to admit the rush of excitement I had upon learning this, but instead of denying myself, I jumped right in and headed over.  There wasn't anything magical about it, but it was somehow comforting and familiar.  Just in case you are wondering, I didn't buy anything while I was there.

At the mall was Tesco, their version of Wal-Mart.  As I went down the aisles, which were marked overhead with what was on each one, just like at Wal-Mart, one thing I noticed was that many Czech words were English words with a "y" on the end, which I found funny.  For example, chips are chipsy, crackers are crackery and liquor is likery (spelled different but phonetically the same).

I also discovered that I could watch NBC News at the hotel.  I mentioned in a previous blog that I hadn't been following the news or watching a lot of TV, but I did both in Prague.  The news started at 6:30 Eastern, so 12:30 am in Prague, and I would stay up to watch.  One night I caught a bit of Conan.  I understand he officially took over Leno's spot since I've been gone, and I could tell a difference.  I usually like Conan, but what I saw (part of his monologue) seemed different - awkward and almost forced.  

Yes, I tore myself away from the mall long enough to see the major sites to see in Prague - Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge, the Mala Strana neighborhood, Old Town Square and the astronomical clock.  I tried to go to Prague Castle one day, but as I was walking toward it from the Metro it started storming, so I had to go back.  The storm didn't let up for several hours, and that was my last day there.  Thankfully that was the only day it stormed, though it did rain everyday.  It was also chilly, and I was wishing I had my Ireland clothes with me again that I had shipped back from London in my first wave of clothes shipments.  The people in Prague were so nice, and everyone I met spoke English.  I loved Prague - it was a beautiful city and is definitely in the top five places I've been so far in Europe.     

A random fact about Prague: The escalators in the Metro are TALL.  One of the tallest escalators in the world is said to be in Prague.  They are also super fast, which is a little scary considering how tall they are and how far you would have to fall. 

I went to the Depeche Mode concert on Thursday, my last night in Prague.  The concert was at Eden Stadium, the city's new soccer stadium.  Everything on the ground was general admission, and the stands where I was sitting were almost all covered with an awning, which turned out to be great because it rained off and on all night.  The rain didn't stop what seemed like half the crowd from going down to the general admission area - it was packed.  Depeche Mode played for a little over two hours, nearly all the songs I wanted to hear and put on an awesome show.  I included a short video excerpt below of "Enjoy the Silence" - enjoy! 

Earlier in the day, Honey had emailed me that Farrah Fawcett had passed away. Considering I had heard about Ed McMahon the night before (NBC News), I emailed her back and said:  "Bad things happen in threes.  Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett.  I bet there will be another big name celebrity in the next week or so." So sure enough, when I got back to the hotel that night I had an email from Honey that said: "#3 - Michael Jackson."  I couldn't believe it and turned on NBC News and sure enough they were just reporting it.  After NBC news ended, I flipped over to the BBC, and I couldn't believe how shoddy the reporting was.  It was such a train wreck, though, that I couldn't stop watching for fear I might miss something highly entertaining such as one of these snippets:

BBC Anchor to President of Michael Jackson fan club: "He was known to be a very tall man and have a firm handshake."  (Really, is this the best you've got?)

President of Michael Jackson fan club:  "No actually he was quite short.  I'm 5'10", and when we met I noticed he was quite a bit shorter than me."  (And while he didn't comment on it, who thinks MJ had a firm handshake?  Not me!)

* * *

BBC:  "He liked to play with monkeys and climb trees." (Hmmm... maybe so, but he just passed away.  Give the guy some dignity!  Ok, yeah, never mind, it's Michael Jackson...)

* * *

BBC:  "What the Spice Girls were to the 90s, Michael Jackson was to the 80s."  (Oh now, come on.  That is just ludicrous.)

Other than the reporting, I haven't heard too much about his death over here, though I did hear someone blaring "Wanna Be Starting Something" today and I saw a record shop window hanging a Michael Jackson display. Personally, I was a bit shaken up by his death, which sounds funny even for me to say considering that as a person I think he was creepy.  But Thriller was the first album I really took an interest in when I was 8 years old.  The first concert I ever saw was Michael Jackson in 1984 at Neyland Stadium.  And of course any time I hear Billie Jean I have to get up and dance!