Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Walks in the wood, Reisling on the river, and...uh, pig knuckles.

I fell asleep blogging last night so when I woke at 5:20AM I opened my computer back up and picked up where I left off.

At 7:30AM I meandered downstairs to meet the tour group for breakfast. Our first stop was at a traditional windmill in Amsterdam. The bus had to gas up so we were left here for a good 30 minutes.

As opposed to the other truck stops there wasn't really a lot to see after this one monument. While others stood in place or walked in circles, I found a path through some woods. It wasn't a long walk but it was enough to take some time for solitude and reflection. It made me think of borogoves and tulgey wood and I found myself singing quietly to myself. I considered sitting by a tumtum tree but continued on the trail until it opened up to a bridge.

Those two shots show the less traveled areas (by our group specifically I mean) and marks really my favorite moments on large, fast, tour group outings that my mom likes to go on. It is, for me, really the time on my own that sells the trip.

On the other side of the windmill, there were some sheep milling around. This was picture worthy to the rest of the group, so I snapped a picture of it myself. At one point a mother sheep broke away at a fair pace from the others with her offspring running to catch up. Once she stop the child immediately tried to nurse again. The mother kicked and tried to walk away. Damn kid.

Once the bus returned we loaded up and drove to a diamond cutting factory. It's a pretty popular place for tourists. We were told they average 40 tour buses a day. When we arrived they had JUST opened and already there were two other tour groups.

The rain had started up again and the 120 or so tourist were squeezing to get out of the rain and into the lobby area. Our tour guide called for us to go through the main foyer and into an inner lobby. Unfortunately this meant we had to maneuver our way through another group. The guide of that group, who spoke with a thick French accent, started speaking loudly and with distain to our guide. "That is really rude. That is cutting our group. It is rude. I hope you don't think that you can just do that again. You better not behave like that again. So rude." Taking the higher road our guide said nothing. He was, after all, just trying to separate the groups and let the third group in out of the rain. There was really no foul play on his part.

We waited patiently in front of their group until she was done ranting and then allowed her group to continue up the stairs. I considered sticking a foot out to trip her, perhaps starting some tour group on tour group steel-cage-match-action at the diamond factory, but decided against it.

We were given a little demonstration about the steps it takes to cut and polish the diamonds and then we were shown several samples of different carats, colors, and cuts. But in the end the diamonds I find to be most beautiful (bluish, princess cut, etc) were too low class for this diamond shop. They pride themselves on the 121 cut so about 95% of their diamonds are round.

Eh... I was okay not buying anything.

We drove on to another truck stop where I again passed up the paprika and cheese&onion flavored Pringles. Interestingly, at this place (on the boarder of Germany) they were playing P!nk on their overhead speaker. I get playing imported music at a swanky clothing store or something but American music at a rest stop?

I suppose, in hindsight, they were pretty swanky. It did cost a Euro ($1.60) to use their bathroom after all.

Our next stop was a Cathedral in Cologne. It was situated nicely next to a McDonald's in a pretty skethky part of town. We were warned of pick-pocketers. Although I rarely take these warnings to heart.
This particular Cathedral our tour guide says in the tallest in the world. Wikipedia says it's the fifth tallest. It is the tallest twin tower Cathedral though... so there's that.

Sufficiently filled with a McDonald's McDouble (and not the veggie burger as advertised) and some pretzel bread from the bakery on the corner we headed down the road to our next stop... a cruise on the Rhine River.

I snapped a picture of a sign laying on the grass before boarding the boat. I am not quite sure if dogs are not allowed on the boat, the grass, or perhaps they are just not allowed to squat on the grass... either way the makers of this sign are very serious about their all caps "nein!"

Again we were given options of an indoor or outside sitting area. My parents again chose indoor and I went outdoors. It started to sprinkle a little and a majority of the people on the top deck went down below. As you can see I was quite comfortable though and stuck it out until it was shining brightly again.

Kiana soon joined me on deck. And then a guy from out group, Jason did. Shortly there after Stefanie came up and ordered a beer from one of the two bars on the boat. Two brothers, Raymond and Eric, joined us while I went to the bar and got myself a bottle of Riesling. And soon there was a small group of us enjoying some adult beverages and partaking in some good conversation.

Uh... we passed some castles and stuff. And I was the first to finish my beverage which caused an applause to erupt from our group that probably confused the other passengers who weren't exactly sure what they should be taking pictures of.
Docking the boat, it was quick five minute bus ride up to the restaurant where we ate ham hocks. The tasty meat did wonders in soaking up the alcohol in my system. The picture to the right shows what I found to be the "perfect" bite. For as good as the meat was seasoned it was still a bit thick and dry. With a bit of sauerkraut and rice, it was quite pleasant. Having said that, I ate less than half of the whole dish. That there is a LOT of meat.

We checked into the hotel in Frankfurt around 8:30 PM where I proceeded to plop down on the bed before even removing my shoes. Stefanie at one point mentioned checking out the pub across from the hotel and I may or may not have grunted about doing it after a little nap. I *thought* it, but I don't believe words came out. When I woke at midnight, Stefanie too had crashed out on her bed in her day clothes as well. By 12:30AM we were both in pjs and down 'till morning.

Side note... by morning... Sponge Bob and then Ren and Stimpy were playing on our TV in German. "It's Log" is a great catchy song in English (it's log, log, it's big it's heavy it's wood. It's log, log, it's better than bad, it's good.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bullies at security, Boys peeing, and Bikes

Day three began at 5:30AM with a wake-up call. Bags were required to be in the lobby by 6:15 and the bus to catch the morning train departed at 7:00.

There was a Starbucks in the hotel parking lot, which helped me to honor the times assigned to us. Unfortunately, this particular Starbucks, while open at 10:45PM (when walking past the night before) was not open at 6:10AM. Crestfallen, I met up with my group for a buffet breakfast that would have cost 21-pounds had we not been in the group. I did my best to eat 21-pounds worth of food, but I failed.

We loaded up into the bus and drove down to the train station where we passed another Starbucks. After dropping luggage with our tour guide (who gave us 30 minutes to use the bathroom and whatnot before entering security) I walked speedily back to the Starbucks to drink the nectar of the gods (or "a soy white mocha" as other people refer to it).

Stefanie had found that the train station provides free wifi which I took advantage of sitting down next to my luggage. It's hard to know which obsession I was more excited to have at that point.

Unfortunately my glee was short lived, as my tour guide, and my mother, decided it would be best to go through security immediately, rather than wait the time he had originally given us. Despite the scheduled departure for the train being 50 minutes away, and the announcement saying it was delayed, I ended up throwing away 3/4 of my beverage to get through security.

The train though was spacious and I was able to play a little on my computer, so my mood bounced back pretty quickly. Once my computer ran out of battery power, and I read of how Mr. Darcy's first proposal to Miss Bennett was met with a girl-powered-ass-whooping (thanks for the book loan Erin), we arrived in Brussels, Belgium.

Essentially, we had about an hour to kill in Belgium before driving on to Amsterdam. We visited the Grand Palace and City Hall and what our tour guide referred to as the famous "peeing boy statue boy who is peeing". It is an added special treat to see Europe with a Chinese tour guide. He speaks as if we were all Limited English Proficient (LEP) students. Occasionally though, I find it laughable. For example, he explained today, "Brussels, not capital city. But big city, not capital of Belgium, but only Brussels. Not capital of Belgium is Brussels." Everyone seemed to comprehend him well enough. Later laughter erupted (confirming that he was being listen to) when he announced, "population of Belgium not that much. Compare to other country in Europe. Belgium only take two hours to drive through. Not so big only population in Belgium is only eleven. Only eleven population in Belgium. (pauses for bus to stop its mockery and then corrects) Eleven million people. Population eleven million." Additionally, his pronunciation of "restroom" is the same as "restaurant" and "New York" sounds suspiciously like "New Year."

But I digress... Brussels was, as Stefanie remarked, "a city I could do some damage in." We walked passed storefronts that all alternatively advertised Belgium chocolates, Belgium beer, and Belgium waffles.

Unfortunately we passed the stores quickly to see the Mannenkin Pis Statue which our tour guide explained depicts a significant moment in history when a Dutch boy climbed a tree and pissed upon invading French soldiers. I was willing to buy the story until it was further explained that the statuted boy is small because he was only three years old. A three year old who could climb a tree and urinate on passing soldiers? Maybe someone truly gifted like Issac, but... nah.
Our guide released us for a few minutes here and I went looking for a money exchange that would turn my American dollars into Euros. Unfortunately, I was unable to find more than some dressed and trained dogs and a whole lot of rain.

Ducking into a store that sold Smurf and Hello Kitty knickknacks, to purchase an umbrella I had the following conversation with the clerk.

Me: Do you take cards?
Clerk: Of course. Just the one umbrella?
Me: Yes please. This rain came on quick.
Clerk: Yes, but we need it.
Me: Oh yeah?
Clerk: Yes. It is good for the culture. And it doesn't happen much.
Me: No? These flash storms don't happen too often?
Clerk: No. It's pretty kooky, huh?

Yes. Kooky. One minute Denise and I pose for a picture together in the sky-is-so-bright-you-gotta-wear-shades moment and in the next I am buying an umbrella to try and salvage some body heat coming from my sandles-and-tanktop-wearing body.
Returning to the bus we traveled another couple of hours to find our planned stop for lunch closed due to road construction. It was 3:00PM and it was here that I officially decided to carry my own supply of food for the rest of this trip.

We arrived at our next point, an Amsterdam canal cruise, at 6:00PM. All that bus travel and lack of food brought out the travel-grouch in a few of us again, and we were generally pleased to be in the fresh, albeit chilled, air.

There were two seating choices while on the canal cruise. Either you could sit inside (as you can see from the photo above) and look through windows covered in raindrops and generally sun-worn windows or you could move out to the back of the boat that was uncovered. Unfortunately, once outside you could no longer hear the narrative of what buildings we were passing.
So... here on the left is some building with the name "Nemo" on it. It sort of reminds me of the "bird's nest" building that was built for the Olympics in China a few years back. The picture on the right was snapped after the guy second on the left waved to our passing boat. I smiled and waved back. I can't say for that these guys are responsible for the chalk "victim on love" drawing there beside them... but with smiles like that, they looks like they could be.

Our guide informed us that there are far more bikes in Amsterdam than actual people. Checking out the bicycle-parking garage near where our cruise docked, I tend to believe this statistic. Even the streetlights reflect the popularity of this form of transportation.

We sat down for a Chinese dinner around 7:30 making it a full 12 hours (with the adjustment for the time change) between meals.

We checked into the hotel around 9:00 where I watched the Marriage Ref (with guest judge Ginger Spice) and paid the 22 Euros (approx. $31.47) for Internet for the evening.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Europe: Day One/Two--the 34.5 hour day

I'd say my trip to Europe began with the Thursday, 4:30am shuttle bus pick up from our Best Western in Milbrae, CA. It ends with our hotel check-in for the night Friday, 11:00PM in London, England.

Admittedly, there's really not a lot to remark on with that first several hours though. My parents and I flew to Charlotte, NC. Met up with my coworker, Stefanie Masten, and her mother, Teresa. And then hopped on another plane to head out to Europe--first stop, London.

It was a 7.5 hour flight and I *knew* we would have to get some solid sleep in. Unfortunately, the smaller than AK Air seats, the anticipation of London, and the availability of eh-quality movies left me sleep deprived when we landed at 7:30AM (local time) ready to start a full day of touristy-joy. As it was, Stefanie, who was a bit under the weather, was the only one to really get any substantial sleep.

Upon receiving praise for her good choice, she admitted this particular position didn't really allow for any sort of neck movement in the following hours.

Customs in London, while previously a generally pleasant experience was hampered by an Immigration Desk Clerk who questioned my Kuskokwim River-loved passport.

After being told that falsified passports look exactly like mine, he asked to see another form of identification. I pulled out my AK driver's license. He told me he would accept my passage this one time only if I promised to replace my passport once I returned to the States. I pointed out my passport expires in 2013 and I didn't have problems before now (having checked with several agencies in the US before traveling) but this information only seemed to further to perturb the agent. He then asked a series of questions that I couldn't answer (I see you are leaving to Brussels tomorrow, what time are you traveling? How are you traveling? How long will you be there in Belgium? What hotel are you staying in while in London? What is the postal code for that hotel? What is the name of the Immigration officer in CA that said you could travel with this passport?) and some questions I could answer (Are you traveling alone? How long have you worked in schools? What is the name of the school where you are a vice principal? Where is it located? What are the ages of the students you have at your school?).

I appreciate the need for security... but dude... I am visiting your country for the third time. I'm gonna pay exuberant prices to take in a musical and check out the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and the sort. I'm not going to sell others into the slave industry. I promise.

As it was, I didn't have to make such a promise to the clerk out loud, he eventually allowed me to enter the UK. I made my way quickly to baggage claim and retrieved my bag along with my parents' luggage. My sister, Denise, and her eldest daughter, Kiana, had arrived a good 30 minutes before us, and I was eager to meet up with them.

Unfortunately, as soon as our tour group had gathered with all bags, someone discovered that they had left his/her money on the plane. The plane on the other size of Customs. I'll let you, blog-reader, connect the dots on how we ended up not meeting up with Denise and Kiana until a good 2.5 hours after we landed.

An uneventful bus ride later, and we arrived at the Tower of London. My first stop was the loo. I took a picture of the wall above my toilet.

I was strangely fascinated with the idea of a raven standing perched above me... behind me... while I did my business. Ravens are kept clipped and caged at the Tower of London because rumor has it when the ravens leave the king will fall. My experience with raven-lore is quite different with them being the Creator and all, but whateves.

Rain began falling while we were touring the Tower of London, so we didn't spend too much time meandering but, rather, headed fairly quickly to the Jewel House. I did snap two pictures of a remaining stockade and a memorial for the ten (then seen as traitors) executed persons within the Tower. Including , of course, famously Anne Boleyn and her sister-in-law Jane (who played both sides of the fence when it came to squealing to the king about infidelities).
We left the Jewel House (no pictures were allowed) a while later as the rain was just beginning to lighten. It should be noted that it was a good seven hours since a danish was served on the plane and about thirteen hours (not a fan of just a sugary treat in the morning) since I had eaten the pasta-dinner that was offered on the plane. In other words, I was not the only one in our tour group who found themselves resembling the Royal Beasts of the Tower.

We had, at that point, failed to exchange dollars for pounds and were thus taunted by the snack and gift shops we passed until my dad was able to swap out a little dough with our tour guide allowing for medicine (in the form of caramel fudge) to fix his low-blood-sugar-induced headache to subside.

And off we went...

Driving off we had the London Eye pointed out to us several times. I have previously been on the London Eye and... look... it's a nice view... but wow are the British proud of this merry-go-round of theirs.
Don't they know that their phone booths are just as cool to the average American tourist? As a side note when Stefanie and I took turns snapping photos inside the time and space traveling portals made famous by Dr. Who and Harry Potter, we caught a conversation between two others from our tour group:

Young Man #1: (looking at us) It's almost cliche, huh?
Young Man #2: Yeah, I mean who doesn't get their picture taken in the booths?
Young Man #1: So... want to go next?
Young Man #2: Yeah.

Following the theme of expected shots... here's the obligatory family photo in front of Buckingham Palace for those of you want to see that sort of thing. It is set beside a dragon marking one of the entrances of Chinatown (where we had a late lunch/early dinner/only meal of the day).

After eating, we were given thirty minutes of freetime wherein our group madly dashed to purchase tickets for that evening's showing of Wicked. At the start of the meal only Stefanie and I were confirmed to attend the show. But due to the persuasive nature of my mom (shoutout to all those who have traveled with my mom and can attest to this) we ended up getting five tickets.

Buying tickets to a London musical three hours before a Friday night, nearly sold out showing, didn't really score us any great deals. But it's London! And it's Wicked! So all we felt pretty comfortable splurging even though it was just "day one".

Unfortunately getting our money exchanged and getting the actual tickets in our hands took more than 30 minutes so Stefanie and I had the tour go ahead without us. Our next stop was to check into our hotel for a free evening... so we volunteered to just take The Tube and meet up with them shortly.
An understandably cautious Teresa and Stefanie questioned my ability to find the hotel (near the Tower of London) as well as the theater for that matter, but I assured them that navigating oneself in London is a breeze. Everyone speaks English after all.

This assurance I gave proved to be true. Although, I probably shouldn't have been so convincing as we didn't actually, at that point, know where the closest Underground Station was... nor did we know the actual name of our hotel. We knew it started with a "G". That's enough, right?

As it turns out, finding the Piccadilly Circus station, purchasing tickets with an agent, navigating the two needed lines, and locating the first "G" hotel we could see from the Tower of London station got Stefanie and I meeting up with our group before hotel room keys were shelled out.

A quick shower for all five of the attendees and we were off to the theater.

Those who either were privy to my notes from London six years ago, or who frequent my Facebook page, know of my affinity for men in suits *swoon*. And just in case there was any doubt at all, London, Friday night, on The Tube, does not disappoint.

At one point a dapper looking stylish bloke addressed my sister with, "'scuse me gorgeous" before reaching behind her head to place a newspaper behind her on the window sill (for travelers in the future who might be interested in a free read). I did my best to conceal my consideration of getting off at the Temple Station (as he and his four male friends did) and continue on to the Victoria Station.

We did, though have pretty great plans for the evening.

Wicked was... amazing. As I expected it to be. The show really is just that well crafted. And yes, credit is due to the actual actors on stage. The talent was that more impressive to me after purchasing a program and learning both of the leads as well as Madame Morrible were all played by understudies that evening.

When purchasing my coffee before the start of the show, the attendant asked if I had seen the show before, and I confirmed that I had. He then asked, "American?" And I nodded. He sort of shrugged defeated and said, "I do hope you like the show, I heard the production in Broadway is tops." I smiled and told him, that I saw the show in San Fransisco, so I am sure I will love it, here.

I wasn't wrong.

We arrived back at the hotel around 11:00PM... and confirmed the 5:30AM wake up call.

I assure you posts in the future will NOT be as long as this one. Surely, we can't have many more 34.5 hour days, right?