Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Two Christmases

Christmas this year was very nice.  I drove to Delaware to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Rachel and her family.  She has a huge family, and it was a lot of fun, though the first time I've been away from my parents on Christmas Day itself.  On the 26th, we drove to my parents' house and had a "second" Christmas with my family.  It was fun and the two holidays were lovely. I'm glad to be home with Rachel and my family, and glad to have so many loving and supportive people in my life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Feeling Strange

Culture shock is a term used to describe coming back home and feeling very out-of-place.  When I came back to my room, I hardly recognized it.  It felt like a new hotel, or like visiting a childhood house I haven't been to in years.  Things continue to feel surreal, but are gradually returning to normal.  I spent the weekend with Rachel, which was absolutely wonderful, and whether it feels like home or not, it definitely feels like I belong.  Now, with Christmas less than a week away, and work tomorrow, it's time to finish adjusting quickly.  Again, these past three and half months have been the best of my life.  I am so glad I did them, and they will be a part of me for the rest of my life.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Flights Home and Recap

Yesterday, I flew from Brussels to London, then after a 6 and half hour layover, left Europe and headed back to the US.  On the flight to London, we circled over the city four times, each time flying lower.  The final flight we were so low that I could see people walking, the London Eye, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, St Paul's, and many other notable sights in London.  The first movie I watched on the way to the States was then X-Men First Class, much of which takes place in (and was filmed in) Oxford.  Returning home was odd, it honestly felt like yet another hotel, but I am slowly adapting back.

This has been the greatest trip of my life.  Here is the recap video- click to watch (it's a little long, but is excellent at showing all of the highlights of my amazing adventure):

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bruges, Chocolate, and the Final Day


Today was my last day in Europe, as I fly home tomorrow.  I spent the day in Bruges, which is only an hour away by train.  Bruges is a beautiful city, sort of similar to Ghent, though with a bit more to see, and honestly more touristy as well.  The center was filled with Christmas Markets and all of the streets played music.  I did a self-guided walking tour (bought a little guide book at the tourist shop), although it was bitterly cold and sleeting/raining most of the time I was there.  I had to keep ducking in stores until I could feel my fingers again.  I climbed the belltower after a delicious lunch, which was croquettes and my first of three hot chocolates.  I had another hot chocolate at a small shop, just to warm up, then at the end of my walk I went to a tea room and had a waffle and the best cup of hot chocolate ever.  They brought a giant bowl (more like a tub) of warm milk, along with a bowl made of dark chocolate (I had chosen dark), filled with small dark chocolate pieces.  I put all of the pieces and the chocolate bowl itself into the milk, added sugar, and whisked (they served it with a whisk)- it was phenomenal.  I ended the day by walking to the edge of town to look at the Flemish windmills at sunset, the one time it stopped raining/sleeting.  I came back to Brussels, and my final night here is in a gorgeous suite.  My tiny cramped, uncomfortable room had problems, when the bathroom ceiling turned into a permanent shower (leaking massive amounts of rainwater from the ceiling), so they've moved me to one of the deluxe suites just for the night.

best hot chocolate ever

Belgium was fun, Flanders feels very Dutch, but Brussels feels almost exclusively French.  It's also interesting to compare Belgium to the Netherlands.  On the tour to Zaanse Schans I had learned that the Netherlands has a surplus of water, and the country is constantly finding ways to control and get rid of it.  I think Belgium has a similar issue, not with water but with delicious chocolate.  In nearly all of the chocolate shops (there is literally a chocolate shop every way you turn- even more common than gelato shops in Rome) they give you free samples.  On the train today they walked down the aisles handing out free chocolate.  Even on my pillow in the hotel, it's not mints, it's chocolate.  This is a very tasty country.

A side note, the blog will NOT end here, although the trip is over, I will continue to use this (probably a little less frequently) as a normal blog.  Please continue to read...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

From Comics to Ghent

Comics to Ghent

The first thing I did this morning was return to the Comic Strip museum.  I went and enjoyed it a great deal.  It was primarily European comic strip artists such as Herge (maker of Tintin) and Peyo (maker of Smurfs), though there were others mentioned as well.  It was fun.  Afterwards I had considered leaving the country, and possibly taking a train to Luxembourg or Paris, but the cheapest trains were 200 euros or more.  So instead, I went to Ghent.  Ghent is a city I knew nothing about, except that there was a treaty signed here (ended the War of 1812).  It was a very beautiful place, and a lot of fun, also a very friendly town.  It took almost an hour to walk from the train station to the center of town (took the tram back when leaving), but once there it was nice.  I climbed the Bell Tower, went to the gorgeous cathedral, then to Gravensteen Castle.  I grabbed some take-away, then took the train back for a slightly early and more relaxed evening.  Tomorrow is my final day in Europe, as I fly back to the States on Thursday.  I have mixed feelings about the end of this amazing adventure, both very sad (that it's all ending far too soon) and very happy (to be going back to Rachel and my family).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Brussels to Antwerp

Brussels to Antwerp

This morning, I walked through Brussels going to one of the things in the city I wanted to see the most- the comic museum.  This city is renowned for comic strip art, and there are many wall paintings throughout the city, as you will see in the pics.  However I learned that the museum is closed on Mondays.  I walked through some of the city, looking at the painted walls and going to a church, then took a city sightseeing bus tour, getting off at the Atomium, a massive replica of a molecule that is left over from the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.  I went to the top, finished the bus tour, then took a train to Antwerp.  Antwerp is a fun city, and much more Dutch feeling than the very French Brussels.  It is of course the capital of Flanders.  I walked around and visited the cathedral, which was filled with paintings by artists such as Rubens (who is from there).  I walked through their Christmas Market, then had dinner.  Continuing my attempts to try new local dishes I had roast wild boar with goat cheese- it was delicious.  Came back to Brussels and enjoyed my first cup of Belgian hot chocolate at Winter Pret- I honestly don't know what it is about chocolate here, but it tastes better than any chocolate I've had.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Today I woke fairly early and took the three-train ride (through Utrecht and Breda) to Brussels, Belgium.  The train rides were fine, though lugging all of my stuff was annoying.  I got to Brussels, and emerged from the Metro in the middle of Winter Pret- the massive Christmas Market that is centered less than a minute from the hotel.  I went to the hotel and they gave me a suite with two bedrooms, a living room, two bathrooms, and a full kitchen.  They told me to come back later when the room was made.  I came back at night, and it had been a mistake- my actual room is about the size of a large cupboard, and the entrance is actually the bathroom.

I had lunch at the Market, then spent the rest of the day wandering around the city.  It's a very pretty city, and I especially liked it at night.  The winter markets all came alive.  The stores were all open very late, and in the central square there was a light and music show.  I had a traditional Belge dinner in one of the restaurant-filled alleys that surround the central square.  It was a three-course meal of croquettes, waterzooi (a buttery stew with chicken), dessert (caramel flan) and a beer- all for about the same price as a typical one-course meal with smaller portions in Amsterdam.  I watched the light show and went through the Christmas markets before heading back to the hotel.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dutch Countryside

What better way to spend my final day in the Netherlands than to go out to the Dutch Countryside.  I spent the morning walking Amsterdam again.  The city was much busier today, probably because it's now a weekend.  I took a few pictures, then got on a bus filled with people.  They ran out of seats, so I ended up in the front with our guide.  I had booked a five hour excursion into North Holland.  The bus tour had an audio guide as we went, and there were three stops.  I learned that there is no country called "Holland".  The IJ separates two Dutch provinces, North Holland to the north and South Holland to the south of the waterway, but there are ten other provinces in the country of the Netherlands.  Most of the country lies well below sea-level, which is why there's so much water everywhere.  It was a beautiful day today, clear skies, though bitterly cold.  Still, a good day to drive out of the city.

Zaanse Schans

Our first stop was my favorite.  We went to Zaanse Schans, a small town filled with actual Dutch windmills. There is also a massive cocoa factory on the edge of town, so the entire place smells like chocolate (smell was very strong and very good).  We had a demonstration at a local cheese farm on how they make cheese.  Dutch cheese is famous, from Gouda and Edam (both towns I've passed) to everything in between, it's one of the country's biggest exports.  We had free samples of many delicious cheeses, then some free time.  I went inside one of the windmills, climbing to the top and watching it grind chalk.

Dutch Countryside

Our next stop was Maarken, a small village built on an island on the IJsselmeer, the largest lake in Western Europe, and one of the largest artificial lakes in the world.  Maarken was a fishing village in the North Sea, until the creation of the IJsselmeer, so the town was forced to change a lot.  While there, we went to a clog-maker's and were given a demonstration in how they make clogs, before having free time in the village.  Our final stop was just after sunset in the small town of Volendam, also on the lake.  Volendam is supposed to be where people wear traditional Dutch clothes, although no one was out in any today, possibly because of the cold.  We had a dinner break, and I had weiner schnitzel, something I had heard of but never tried.  A nice Italian couple from the same tour ate dinner with me, but did not speak much English.  Back in Amsterdam, I watched a street performer for a while, then took some last photos before heading back to the hotel.  I've had a fun time in the Netherlands.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Rotterdam, Travel, and Delft

Rotterdam to Delft

Today was interesting.  I left Amsterdam at 10 am and took a train to Rotterdam.  The train ride was fine, and I got out and spent about two and half hours walking the city.  I had lunch at a pancake house, went in one of the weird cube houses, and looked in the church, going back once the hail and wind picked up.  (Sunny one minute, hail the next).  I then tried to take a train to Delft.  My original ticket was a return for Delft but the woman told me to get off at Rotterdam or wherever I wanted (the tickets aren't checked).  The train station at Rotterdam was a nightmare- no information desk, hordes of people, and everything only written in Dutch, while half the station was under construction.  I got on what I thought was the right train, and it was a train with no stops that went all the way back to Amsterdam.  At Amsterdam I then spent about 40 minutes trying to find a train to Delft.  I finally found one, but there was a technical issue and the train stopped in the Hague, forcing everyone to disembark (luckily a woman next to me told me what was going on, no English announcements or anything).  I found a train from the Hague to Delft, but didn't arrive until just after 5, when it was already dark.  I walked around, taking pictures.  Despite the dark, I still got a bit of a feel for the city, which is similar to Amsterdam with its canals, bridges, and gabled houses.  I went to a few stores, then went to the first open restaurant I could find, desperately seeking a bathroom.  It turned out to be a gourmet "tasting" restaurant- but they allowed me to get a single dish (rather than the twenty expensive tasting ones), a delicious rarebit, which is a type of rabbit served with cheese and veggies on toast.  Finally made it back to Amsterdam, quite tired.  I should note that despite the train issues, it was a good day, saw some good stuff, and I got a lot of reading done on the trains.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Canals and Cuisine

My second full day in Amsterdam began fairly early. I tried the breakfast in the hotel, which was a mistake because it was ridiculously overpriced, although I did get to try a Dutch pancake. Countries are funny about food. In England, what they call "pancakes" is a cross between a crepe and a plain flour tortilla- and frankly they're pretty gross. Here there are tons of pannekoek houses, which serve nothing but Dutch pancakes all day long. The hotel offered some as part of the continental breakfast and they are delicious- mine had apples and cheese, though they come in many sorts and are sort of like thin slices of fried dough.
Amsterdam Two
After breakfast I walked from Waterlooplein to the house of Rembrandt. Rembrandthuis is a neat museum with reconstructed living spaces, painting studios and so on. I then went to a canal cruise which left from in front of the Heineken Brewery (I did not go to the Brewery). The canal cruise was about an hour and half, and was definitey one of the highlights of my time here- the tour guide was very funny. For example, while learning about the gabled canal houses he mentioned the famous gables: stepped, bell, pediment, and Clark. We went all around the city. I learned that my hotel is not on a canal, but on the Amstel River, the only natural river in the city, and that the city is named for a dam built on the Amstel. The beautiful city does feel like Venice, there are so many canals and houseboats. It was also nice to look at the city from inside a warm boat, as the weather has been very, very cold. I had a late lunch, then walked through Chinatown and St Nikolasskerk to the Maritime Museum. It was only open for an hour when I got there, but I went, and got a quick look. I then walked by Artis at night, which is a zoo, planetarium, botanic garden, and paleontology site. Walking by a zoo a night is a little weird. I then continued to feel weird as I walked through the Red Light district again, before heading to Rembrandtplein to have a fancy dinner at IndiaPura- an Indonesian restaurant. Rachel had strongly suggested trying Indonesian food in Amsterdam, and it was without a doubt the best meal I've had since Italy. Since my last best meal was with Rachel, and this one suggested by her, I now associate Rachel with excellent food. :-)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Around Amsterdam

Around Amsterdam

I spent all of today in Amsterdam, taking in the city.
It has so many canals, I've never been to Venice, but I imagine Venice must be like this- they are literally everywhere.  You cross a bridge about every two minutes.  There are also tons and tons of bicycles- they have their own bicycle streets parallel to the automobile streets.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city with its canal houses, tall churches, and many squares (pleins).  I walked first to Anne Frank's house, where she wrote her famous diary and where she hid from the Nazis until being taken to the camps and murdered.  The experience there was very moving, and very well done.  I left and made my way to the Amsterdam Museum, where I had lunch.  The museum was fun- it's extremely high-tech, you use your program to activate displays (so they know what language to do them) and it presents a history of the city from settlement through the modern day.  I enjoyed it.  I then walked through the flower market and Leidseplein on my way to the museum district.  I visited the Rijksmuseum, which was ok- mostly Rembrandt and some other Dutch masters.  I then went to the Van Gogh museum, which was very good.  I had Argentian steak (they have a million of the Argentian places around the city) for dinner, and then headed back to the hotel.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

From Oxford to Amsterdam

Yesterday was my final day in Oxford. It felt surreal. I gave in my phone, signed out, got my final grades (two A minuses and an A in Mythology), and then felt weird. I did some shopping and headed home. We had a Farewell Party for OPUS, which was good but again bittersweet, and then I stayed up until after midnight saying goodbye and hanging out with my good friends Rachel and Jacob.

This morning, I woke early and drove out of Oxford for the final time.  I took a flight (shortest flight I've ever been on- whole thing was under an hour) to Amsterdam.  The Netherlands were strange to fly over, there's just as much water as land- even "inland".  Everywhere seemed to be canals and rivers.  My hotel is beautiful, though was difficult to get to initially with all of my luggage.  After checking in I walked around the city a bit.  It is definitely a frat boy's paradise- tons of pot, sex, and booze.  But it is still a fun city.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Welsh Wonders

For my final trip within the UK, I went to Northern Wales, a land filled with mountains, lakes and natural beauty.  A land where you hear almost no one conversing in English, Welsh is the daily language.  A land of castles and history.  And yes, a land of sheep.

At Castell Conwy
On Friday, I took a delayed train ("waiting for a crew member"- the train was 30 minutes late and I missed my connection) to Conwy, which took over 6 hours.  Conwy was beautiful, a castle built by Edward I, on the northern coast of Wales, in a medieval walled city.  I only stayed in the city for about 2 hours, just time to see the castle and a tiny bit of the town.  I then took the over 2 hour bus trip along the coast.  I could see Angelsey (Ynys Mon), a massive island, just across the water to my right, and the immense mountains of Snowdonia National Park (Eryri) to my left.  At least I could see them until we got near Bangor, at which point I could mostly just see rain.  I went to Caernarfon, but by the time I got there it was dark.  I spent over 30 minutes wandering the town trying to find the hostel, and ended up just going to sleep after dinner at a pub.  This was actually the first time I've ever stayed at a hostel.  It was nice, and there were only two other guests while I was there, one of whom ended up being a new friend.

Saturday was a busy day.  I awoke early (unintentionally) and wandered the town of Caernarfon.  I crossed the river and climbed to a tower which turned out to be a power station, either built to look medieval, or built into a medieval structure.  I returned and went to Caernarfon Castle itself.  It was very similar to Conwy, but still beautiful, in many ways more complete than Conwy.  The sun broke through the clouds, lighting Snowdonia behind the castle, and the water in front.  I climbed most of the towers and looked at the exhibits.  Caernarfon is where the Prince of Wales is given his title, it is the capital of Gwynedd, and it is another of Edward I's castles.  It is also unusual in its use of angular towers and colored stone.  It was a very impressive castle.  I ate lunch looking at the city walls, which circle the central town and passed right by my hostel, then took a bus to Llamberis.  LLamberis is a small Welsh town in Snowdonia Park, right at the base of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in England and Wales.  There is a train that goes to the top in the summer months, but it was closed.  I decided to walk the LLamberis path towards the summit.  To reach the summit would have taken 3 hours (and another 3 hours return), so I only went to Halfway House, which took just over an hour and a half and was a very strenuous hike.  The area was stunningly beautiful, Llamberis lake behind me growing smaller, mountains all around me, dropping into grassy, sheep-filled valleys, ruins of castles and manor homes all across the landscape.  I returned and went to Dolbadarn Castle, a ruin of a keep between the lake and the mountains.  Then I walked around a bit before returning to the same pub in Caernarfon and the hostel.  I finished my eBook (Terry Pratchett's "Reaper Man") and started "The Hunger Games".

Dolbadarn Castle

Today (Sunday), I took the train to Birmingham.  I met my friends Gemma and Rob, two of Kelly's friends from the wedding.  Gemma is very pregnant, and both are excited about the upcoming baby.  We had planned to do the Birmingham Christmas Market, which was much more of what I had expected a Christmas market to be like than Hyde Park.  Instead of lots of crazy rides, it was just shops and food.  However, the bad thing was it was raining!  We went to a pub for lunch, then walked through the market and to a mall.  It was good to see them, and then I took the train home.  When I got back to Oxford, a full fireworks display went off, literally just outside the window.  I think it was Oxford Castle, which had a Christmas Lighting ceremony.  It was a nice welcome back for my second-to-last night in the UK.

Though very sad to go, I spoke to Rachel tonight, and I am looking forward to seeing her and everyone at home a great deal.  The adventure of a lifetime is drawing to a close, but the memories will live on forever...  And before they're done, I still have a day left in Oxford, and 10 days to party on the Continent...

Last Days in Oxford

 Eighth Week was a much more relaxed week than any weeks previous.  After my day in London ending in Matilda (Tuesday), I signed in for the final time at the OPUS office.  I learned that my grade from my Mythology Tutorial was an A and his comments were glowing.  On Wednesday I went to a rugby game- the first I've ever seen- that Rachel Young was playing in.  The game was great- Oxford beat Bath by over 50 points, it was a slaughter.  The game is really fun too, now that I finally understand it, or at least the basics.  My friends and I shared snacks over mulled wine at Chequers, then I had choir practice with the Oxford Singers.  I also worked on my novel, which is definitely progressing.  On Thursday, I had my concert with the Singers- which was great fun.  I spent a lot of the day with my friends Shire and Holly, the other two OPUS students in the Singers.  All of the choir went for drinks afterwards, and it was sad saying goodbye.  This past few days have been really mixed- on the one hand I'm miserable that all of this is coming to an end: my incredible adventure, my time on my own, my time with so many wonderful new friends- many  of whom I really hope I see again.  On the other hand, part of me misses Rachel, my family, even the US.  I've been away a long time, and there's a part of me that's definitely ready to head back.  So, very mixed feelings...